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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"Real funny, kid. Everyone's a comedian."
Katy, the high school kid who answered the phones in my office clearly had too much time on her hands. I'd arrived to find her grinning over a re-designed version of my business card that she'd just printed out. My office is located in a strip mall on a country road in rural New Hampshire, and you can find my business cards on bulletin boards at the local diners and coffee shops. They say "Chester Hall, Licensed Private Investigator", and under that the name of my company, "Lumination Agency". There's also a cute little logo that Katy designed.
The new version read "Chester Hall, Licensed Paranormal Investigator" with a cut-and-pasted logo from Ghostbusters.
Katy was enjoying every minute of this. I wasn't. Sure, I have a reputation for handling the occasional oddball case, but a man's gotta have some degree of pride, right? The problem is that a man's also gotta pay the rent. It was late July and the summer had been mild. The real heat and humidity were probably holding back to cook us in August. The other thing that wasn't heating up was my caseload. Sure, I'd gotten a decent paycheck from that mess with the runaway daughter back in June, but after that the well had pretty much run dry. A couple of jealous spouses had cropped up, and there had been a research gig looking into an internet scammer, but the money from that one ended up split with a couple of the consultants I use when the tech stuff gets over my head. Basically, the summer had been lousy and I blamed the weather. Heat and humidity fuels grudges, breaks up marriages, and gets people contemplating lawsuits.
If things had been busier I would have turned down the haunted house job. Technically, it wasn't my line of work. I'm pretty skeptical of most psychic phenomena, and I'm even more skeptical of the kind of people you have to deal with when you investigate that stuff. And there's the matter of balance to consider. Sure, I'd carved a niche by handling some cases that were a little bit out there. But go too far in that direction and the jealous spouses and people ripped off on Ebay, the clients with the money in other words, start to look elsewhere for help with their nice normal problems.
"Lumination agency... Who ya gonna call?"
I glared at Katy, who giggled and put down the phone.
"Look, just send the client in when he gets here, okay?"
I retreated into my office and got out the files that had arrived in the mail. The client's name was Ronald Dietrich, something of a local celebrity. He was the author of at least a dozen books with titles like Haunted Farmhouses of New Hampshire, Ghostly Graveyards of the Berkshires, Haunted Logging Camps of the White Mountains, and (no, I'm not making this up) Haunted Covered Bridges of Vermont. They're sold in the local interest sections of every bookstore in northern New England, not to mention dozens of souvenir shops in the ski resorts up in the mountains and the tourist towns around Lake Winnipesaukee and Hampton Beach.
Dietrich has a bad reputation with the local amateur ghost-chasers and new-agers, but even they admit the guy's a genius when it comes to self-promotion. The folks who run the New Hampshire Paranormal Society might be pissed that Dietrich won't cut them a deal on his appearance fee so they can afford to get him to show up for their annual convention, but I've got a feeling that just about every member of that group wishes they had Dietrich's talent when it comes to raking in the cash. Hell, I wish I had it.
I'd only been looking over the file for a few minutes when Katy messaged me that Mr. Dietrich had arrived. I usually have Katy keep the client waiting for a few minutes, but in this case she'd been instructed to skip the games and send him right in. I got up from behind my desk and greeted Dietrich at the door. He was looking fit and trim for a man of 65, with a full head of grey hair and a thick beard. He was dressed in a sharp business suit and gave a firm handshake as I invited him in.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hall. You come highly recommended."
Bullshit. The man was a smooth talker, but I'd done my homework. Dietrich needed someone who qualified as a skeptic on his team, and his original choice had been a professor at UNH who did freelance writing for the Skeptical Enquirer. The professor had backed out when he'd discovered some rather unkind things Dietrich had posted regarding one of his colleagues on a blog. I was a last minute replacement. I guess in Dietrich's readership a P.I. counts as a qualified skeptic.
Dietrich took a seat and got right down to business.
"I have the contracts here. The terms of payment are spelled out on the second page. The amount is what we agreed on when we spoke last week."
I looked the contract over.
"I forfeit my fee if I leave the house within the twenty-four hours? Sorry Mr. Dietrich, but that's not how things are done in my profession."
He gave a smile that I think was intended to be reassuring, "Oh, that's really more for the benefit of my readers than anything else. You don't expect anything to scare you out of the house, do you?"
I shook my head, "No, but I also don't want to lose every dime that's coming to me if I get a call in the middle of the night that my father's gone into the hospital or there's been a terrorist attack on Manchester or something. Have your lawyer add an exception for legitimate emergencies."
"Fair enough. I'll have a revision faxed over by tomorrow. I'll need your signed copy back by Thursday."
We discussed some of the other details. I was free to bring whatever investigative equipment I wanted, but the group of investigators would have to decide collectively what techniques were used during the twenty-four hours that we'd spend in the house. Dietrich himself would have no say in these decisions. He was to be there in the capacity of an observer only. Once the twenty-four hour investigation had been completed, Dietrich would conduct follow-up interviews with each team member, and presumably incorporate the collected material into his next book.
Dietrich assured me that this would be a worthwhile endeavor for everyone involved, thanked me for agreeing to come on board on short notice, and gave me one more reminder that I needed to sign the revised contract and get it back to him by Thursday. We shook hands and I walked him to the door. He hadn't said a thing about the house itself, or what exactly was supposed to be haunting it.
Thirty-Five Orchard Lane was a late nineteenth century farmhouse that sat on forty acres of land that was mostly woods. It had been cleared farmland up until the thirties, and the foundation of a large dairy barn was located somewhere on the property. It had belonged to three generations of the Harrington family starting in the late 1950's up to the present.
The current Harringtons were a middle-aged couple with three teenage daughters. At the time I pulled into the driveway on Orchard Lane, the Harringtons were probably waiting in the airport security line at Logan en route to Palm Springs for a week of lounging on the beach. They'd agreed to allow Dietrich to bring in his investigative team while they were out of town. I didn't know much else about the details of the arrangement, except that we were expected to leave the place like we found it.
The house was big. It was three stories with a porch that extended onto both sides and a screened-in patio out back. There was a BMW parked beside a beat-up Chevy van in the driveway, and I recognized Dietrich talking to another man on the porch. It was a little before eight on Saturday morning, and our twenty-four hours in the house were scheduled to start at nine. I hauled my overnight bag out of the trunk. That, and the briefcase with my laptop, were the extent of my gear. I'd packed a few gadgets, but for the most part I figured I'd let the professionals handle bringing whatever passed for a spectre-detector these days. I was just planning on watching, asking questions, and taking lots of notes.
Dietrich introduced me to the guy with the van. He was a self-described amateur investigator named Nick West. He told me his specialty was EVP, and we got chatting about micro recording devices. Now personally I figure electronic voice phenomena to be the world's biggest example of wishful thinking. At least, I certainly did when I met Nick West. But he and I hit it off pretty well as we chatted and waited for the rest of the team to arrive. I did steer the conversation in the direction of electronics rather than communication with the dead, but I was happy that Nick didn't try to convert me. Paranormal investigators can be a lot like born-agains in that regard sometimes.
Our camera guy arrived next. I actually knew him from the local gaming scene. Greg Liani was in his late twenties, worked at a camera shop in the Mall of New Hampshire, and played miniatures on the weekends at a couple of different game shops around Manchester. His photos of armies of painted miniatures had appeared in game magazines and websites, but his real passion when it came to photography was orbs. The guy could speculate for hours on something that I secretly figured had a lot more to do with dirty lenses than restless spirits.
Dietrich had the key to the front door, but he was playing things strictly by the numbers. We'd enter at nine sharp. We were supposed to get there by eight-thirty, and I can't say I was terribly surprised to find that it was the psychic who was late. Predicting the future apparently didn't extend to pinpointing the times and locations of traffic jams in the construction north of Nashua.
Ellen Hayes arrived at eight fifty-four, and we hurriedly exchanged greetings as Dietrich flourished the key and ushered us into the house at the stroke of nine. Ellen was close to Dietrich's age, plump with curly salt-and-pepper hair. She wore too much makeup and clothes that were too tight for a woman her age, although she had a kind of sultry enthusiasm that made those things easy to overlook. I knew Ellen by reputation. She did readings on Wednesday night in the back room of a shop in Bedford that sold candles and incense burners. They also sold weed, if you knew which person behind the counter to ask. I guess their operation was pretty small time, which is why the cops hadn't bothered to shut it down.
Ellen wanted to walk through the house immediately. Nick and Greg had equipment to haul in, so I volunteered to help them out. I figured my skeptical vibes would probably get between Ellen and the spirits anyway. Dietrich, meanwhile, just plopped himself down on the living room couch and started getting his own laptop set up. The house had a wireless network running and the family had left the login information so that we could get online if we needed to.
Greg Liani had the most equipment. We carried in three big plastic containers loaded with cameras, motion sensors, microphones, and temperature probes.
"I can rig a camera to respond to motion, changes in temperature or pressure, sound, the whole works. I'm even working on something that would detect chemical changes in the air. Some of these houses have reports of phantom smells, so it might pick that up. The cameras trigger for long and short exposures to catch things that change at speeds our eyes are unable to pick up. Hey, remind me when we get some time tonight, we can go online and I'll show you my scrapbook."
By comparison, Nick West's gear was pretty straightforward. He used the same model electronic voice recorder that I used for interviewing clients and witnesses. He had almost two dozen of the things, modified with high-capacity flash media that would allow them to record eight hours of sound before he needed to change the memory stick. They'd be rigged to mics in each unoccupied room of the house, and he was also planning on plugging them into the TV set and the stereo, which would be tuned to blank channels to search for EVP.
While Nick and Dietrich were working in the living room and Ellen was upstairs getting a feel for the place, I located a few strategic spots in hallways and stairs and quietly rigged up my own cameras. These were micro-sized digital video cameras, what they call nanny-cams these days. They're small and they're hard to spot. I didn't set them up to spy on any ghosts. They were positioned to spy on my fellow investigators.
We had a couple of hours to get the feel of the place and then Dietrich called us together and briefed us on some of the background of the house. The current residents had been experiencing cold areas in the halls, and especially in the upstairs den. There had been unexplained noises, and a few instances of poltergeist activity.
"How do we know it's not originating from one of the girls?" Greg asked.
"Yeah, good point. Poltergeist stuff tends to focus on children and adolescents. Some people figure it's just an unconscious TK manifestation," Nick chimed in.
"We don't," said Dietrich. "But the family would only agree to the investigation with them out of the house. If we encounter nothing from our stay here, we can return to that hypothesis. There are stories of disturbances going back at least to the previous generation, however."
"There's definitely a presence here," Ellen said, "There is anger, resentment, a sort of yearning."
I held my tongue. There's a basic problem with psychics, which is that even if they really are clairvoyant or telepathic, nothing is ever stopping them from just making shit up. It took the Salem Witch Trials for people to finally realize that particular flaw in the concept of psychic evidence.
We made some basic plans for a duty schedule, divided the night into watches, and decided that we'd sleep in the living room while the person on watch would be stationed in the kitchen. That was near enough to wake the others pretty quickly. The afternoon would be spent doing a search of the house and grounds while we took baseline measurements of temperature, air pressure, and background noise.
I spent a while in the basement and the attic looking for signs of mice or anything else that might explain strange noises. I have a cousin who's an exterminator and I did some work for him back when I was still getting the P.I. license, so I've got some idea what to look for. The place wasn't infested, but there were some signs that they at least had a few mice. Not unexpected in an old house like this.
We'd brought bag lunches and we got Chinese delivered around dinner time, finishing up our meal well before sundown. By this time, I'd run out of things to do, so I was basically walking around the house keeping an eye on what everyone else was doing. I started to think about what I'd do if I was a ghost and my house was full of paranormal investigators, but it was too slippery an idea to grasp. I had an easier time speculating on what I'd do if I had a house full of paranormal investigators and I was a flesh-and-blood human being who wanted to fool them.
All hell broke loose at around two in the morning. I know because I stopped to check my watch while everyone was scrambling around. It was Ellen's shift, and by the time my eyes were open, people were on the move. That was when I realized the flaw in our plans, the one I should have seen at the beginning. We'd spent hours planning how we would watch and listen for something to happen, and had done not a bit of planning what our response would be if something did happen.
There was no communication. Ellen was on her way up the stairs, Dietrich was tripping over Nick in an effort to follow her, Greg was on his laptop trying to determine if his sensors had triggered. Of course they were now being triggered by Ellen and Dietrich in the hall upstairs. And no one had told me what the hell was going on.
I rubbed my eyes and walked to the foot of the stairs.
"Hey! Settle it down!" I yelled, just once. More than once would have added to the confusion. Miraculously, they did settle down.
"I heard something upstairs," Ellen explained, her voice dropping into a kind of amplified stage whisper as she poked her head into the stairwell.
Nick and Greg had joined me at the foot of the stairs by now.
"All right," I said as calmly as I could, "Let's head upstairs and do a search room by room for anything that's been disturb..."
I was interrupted by a loud and distinctive crash. Something smashing, shattering. It was followed by a long silence. I scanned the eyes of the two investigators standing with me. Wide eyes. Surprise. This was new to them.
"It was in the den," Ellen called, dropping the whisper as she headed that way. The rest of us followed.
There was a teacup on the desk in the den. More accurately, there had been a teacup there when we'd searched the house earlier that afternoon. It was in pieces all over the floor, completely smashed. We just stood there in the doorway for a minute, then Greg and Nick both turned and looked at Ellen. She looked confused.
"I'm not sensing anything clear."
I smiled. It was nice to know Ellen was making an effort at honesty.
"I should have that on video," Greg announced and hurried back down the stairs to his equipment.
Nick started to follow, muttering something about checking his recordings. As he turned to go, I asked if anyone minded if I took the pieces of the broken teacup home with me. No one had expressed any problem with it, so I went back to my briefcase and got out one of the plastic ziplock bags that I use for collecting physical evidence. I must have spent at least an hour and a half in that den. I did an extremely thorough job of collecting the pieces of that broken teacup. But before I even started, I took pictures of the pattern of the debris and the features of the room. I was beginning to get suspicious.
Back downstairs the guys were pretty excited. Dietrich was typing away on his laptop while the others were going back and forth between Greg's computer and some of Nick's audio equipment. The camera angle barely caught the teacup and the lighting wasn't particularly good on that side of the room, but the movement was sudden and unmistakable. Without warning it simply flew straight up and out of the picture, presumably to smash against the ceiling.
"I'm pretty sure this is some of the strongest poltergeist activity ever recorded," Greg told me, "And Nick has something too."
"It's from earlier tonight, maybe nine or so. Some class B EVP. Hard to make out, but with amplification there's definitely words there. Sounds like 'Mad Hives'. Mean anything to you?"
I listened to the playback a couple of times, then I lied and told Nick that it didn't mean anything to me.
When I left the house I drove straight out to Portsmouth. I had a suspicion that I was working on limited time, and I wanted to make sure I had the evidence I needed.
I spent all of Sunday morning and well into the afternoon canvassing every bait and tackle shop from Portsmouth to Hampton Beach. Hit the jackpot around two o'clock and called Katy's cell to ask if I could drop off some work for her to do. She met me at the door of her place and I presented her with the baggie of shards from the broken teacup and a tube of super glue.
"You have got to be kidding me."
"Nope. No kidding. You, Katy, are the answer to the one question that comes to mind when faced with a task of this nature."
"Yeah? What question is that?"
I laughed and handed her the stuff. "Who ya gonna call?"
Two days later Dietrich and his lawyer were in my office ready to sue me for everything I had and then some.
"Breach of contract? That's certainly creative, Mr. Dietrich."
"You signed a contract stating that you would assist my client in collecting evidence in support of the discovery of paranormal phenomena..."
"I was hired on as a skeptical witness!"
"Look, Dietrich, I'm not the one who decided to hoax the team. And rather crudely, I might add. I mean, come on. There's an open heating duct from the old hot air system. One grate is directly above the location of the teacup, another one in the third floor hall. I've got you on video going up those stairs right before we heard the cup break, I reassembled the cup and there's a piece missing from the handle. That would be the piece that got pulled into the vent when you yanked on the string from the third floor, and I've got a witness who sold you the fishing line."
"I hardly see what my interest in fishing has to do with any of this."
I was beginning to get pissed off. "You are so full of shit. The only reason the guy remembers you is that you obviously didn't know a damn thing about fishing. If you'd just bought the stuff at Wal Mart I'd never have been able to track the guy down who sold it. But I guess you wanted a wide selection so you could see which would be most concealable."
"None of this matters," the lawyer spoke up again, "We are prepared to take action for breach of contract, and we'll take our chances in court. Our guess is the legal fees will leave you broke long before any of this goes before a judge."
The son of a bitch had a point, and he knew it. They'd probably done some research into my finances before showing up.
"What do you want from me?"
"Nondisclosure agreement." The lawyer slid a paper across the desk to me.
Katy came in after they'd left. She'd been eavesdropping, of course.
"I'm sorry, Chess."
I looked up from the copy of the agreement they'd left me. I'd been going over the details. Since I was signing in the name of the Lumination Agency, the thing didn't stop me from talking about the case in-house.
"It's okay, kid. In the end I got paid, which means you get paid. This was never about our investigation. This was about a crew out in Hollywood that wants to come out here for one of those ghost-hunting shows, and Dietrich wanting to show them that he could deliver the kind of action they were looking for. He couldn't have me ruining that. Oh, and nice job on the teacup, kid."
"What made the first noise, Chess?"
"Yeah. Dietrich was sleeping when Ellen heard something. He did the teacup trick in all the confusion, but what started the confusion?"
"Oh. Way I figure it; old house like that is gonna have noises in the night. We were all wired, expecting something. I think he just guessed that sometime that night he was gonna get his chance."
"I guess so. Case closed, then. They just get away with it?"
"Well, there is one little detail," I said, "The EVP."
"Oh yeah. Just random noise and wishful thinking?"
"Mad hives? What do you think?"
She shrugged. "Random noise and wishful thinking."
"The problem with these paranormal people is they're so caught up in their gadgets these days that they don't do research. Not even Dietrich. If they had they'd know there was a missing person case about twenty-five years back involving a young woman rumored to be having an affair with a certain Mr. Harrington who resided in an old farmhouse on Orchard Lane. Case was never solved. Girl's name was Mattie Ives."
"Oh my God."
"Yeah. Would make one hell of a story for one of Dietrich's books. Too bad about that nondisclosure agreement I just signed."
Katy grinned, "Yeah, too bad. But, Chess, what're you gonna do about it?"
"Me? I think I'll do a little investigating."
Story and Photo by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006