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A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
So apparently, there's some big sporting event on TV tonight. Whatever. I'm staying in my dorm to avoid drunk football fans and blogging to avoid the history paper I should be writing.
Here's a twenty-question meme by way of needlenose:
1) What do people call you?
Katy, Kate, Katydid, Red, Katherine Anne (okay, just my parents on that last one!)
2) What was your dream growing up?
A. Become an FBI agent. Marry Fox Mulder. Bring the Truth IN HERE, damn it.
3) What talent do you wish you had?
Height. Shut up.
4) If I bought you a drink what would it be?
Hot tea, likely. Alcohol does not mix well with the Katy. See the Care & Feeding Guide.
5) What was the last book you read?
A. The Red Dragon by Richard Harris
6) Any Tattoos and/or Piercings? Explain where/what.
A. Tattoos and piercings, yes. Explanations, no.
7) Worst Habit?
A. Saving damsels in distress.
8) What would you do if you were stuck in an elevator with me?
A. Climb out the trap door and crawl through a maze of ventilator shafts until I finally made my escape and then return with a rescue crew.
9) Worst thing to ever happen to you?
A. Sorry. Not going there. It was bad, okay.
10) Tell me one weird fact about you.
A. I see dead people. :)
11) Do you have any pets?
A. No. This is not a kitten you see in my dorm room. Having a kitten in my dorm room would be a violation of the UNH housing code and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the administration here at our esteemed institute of learning. *scritches unnamed object under desk*. So, no. No pets.
12) What if I showed up at your house unexpectedly?
A. Show up as in knock on my door? You get *tacklehugs*. Show up as in sneak in my room? Just don't, okay?
13) Would you be my crime partner or my conscience?
A. Those are not mutually exclusive.
14) Ever been arrested?
A. Sorta. Wasn't charged.
15) Bottle or can soda?
A. Cup o' tea!
16) Do you believe in ghosts?
A. Oh, yes.
17) Do you believe in/appreciate romance?
A. I'm hopeful.
18) Do you believe in God?
A. Hopeful about that too.
19) How would you like to be remembered?
A. As one of the good guys.
20) Will you repost this so I can fill it out and do the same for you?
"A haunted podcast? You're kidding, right?"
Greg wasn't kidding. He flipped open his laptop and brought up the files he'd recovered from the flash drive we'd found a couple of weeks back.
"This file." He took a seat on Steph's bean bag chair, scooting over close enough for me to look down see the icons neatly arranged on the screen.
He'd highlighted an audio file called tuckerman13.
"This thing is infamous, Katy. You listen to it and bad shit happens."
I closed the spreadsheet I was working on for my stats class, intending to give Greg my full attention. The kitten had other ideas. She'd finally woken up from her latest nap under my desk and there was a new source of scritches in the room. She pounced on Greg's ankle.
"Hey, Leroy! Good kitty! Nice kitty! Hey, enough with the claws!"
"We are not naming the cat Leroy Jenkins," I reminded Greg. "For one thing, she's a girl."
I picked her up by the scruff and deposited her on my lap.
"And for another thing, people would think we're total dorks." I directed my attention to the purring ball of fuzz. "Isn't that right, Hermione?"
Greg started to say something, but I pointed at the screen and asked him, "Okay, what's the story behind that anyway?"
"It's like I said. It's haunted. Listen to it and, well, bad stuff."
"What kind of bad stuff?"
"And how do you know about this?"
"My shift supervisor at the lab. He mentioned it. Oh, and I heard about it on U-Nerd-H."
"Podcast?" The name sounded familiar to me, but I wasn't sure where I'd heard it mentioned.
"Yeah, they cover all things geeky on campus. They were interviewing people at the zombie movie marathon in October."
I rolled my eyes and the kitten gave a concerned meow.
"Hey, you enjoyed Zombie Night! When are you gonna admit it?"
"Let me put it this way. Most of the individuals with a real need for brains were in the audience." I tickled the tip of the kitten's ear and she went back to purring. "Greg, this is nice, but you asked me for help investigating this secret society your brother tangled with. Did you find anything useful on that flash drive?"
"Yes. Well, probably. Maybe."
"Which, Greg?" I might have asked that a bit more sharply than I'd intended, but I'd learned that Greg could go on for hours without getting to the point if left on his own.
"There are a bunch of files. They're all encrypted. Other than that, some jpegs. Pictures taken around campus. They look recent. There's snow on the ground. Maybe during that storm at the beginning of January. And the tuckerman13 file."
"Did you listen to it?"
"Hell no!" Greg grinned like it was the most amusing thing he'd said all day.
"Fine. Let me copy it into my Ipod and I'll check it out tonight after I get my stats homework done. You online tonight?"
I leaned over to get a closer look at his laptop, but he pulled it away. "Katy, what part of cursed did you not understand?"
"The fuck, Greg! What do you think is gonna happen? Some dead girl crawls out of my Ipod and kills me?"
"Could happen. But no, I just wanna save it for a decent audience. This thing is a legend, Katy. I'm planning a little listening party in my apartment Saturday. I don't want to spoil it."
I stood up and deposited the kitten on Greg's lap here she immediately went back to sharpening her claws.
"Fine, what do you want me to do?"
"Background research. Get me the dirt on whoever this Tuckerman guy was. It's the only name we've got so far. And you're good at digging up dirt on people, right?"
I smiled. Greg had no idea.
There's a little strip mall on a two-lane state route in Bedford about an hour or so from the UNH campus. In high school, I had some friends who would ride their bikes to the comic book store there and buy back issues of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Lenore. I worked after school in an office above the comic shop, and every so often I'd see some of my classmates smoking in the parking lot or talking on their cell phones.
I never went down to talk to them. It wasn't that I was embarrassed by the work I did in the little upstairs office. It's just that discretion was one of the expectations of my job.
So for a year and a half I discreetly worked in the office of a private investigations business called the Lumination Agency, until the day I was discreetly fired for some bad shit that wasn't my fault, and I took a none-too-discreet exit.
A couple of weeks later, Chester Hall, the owner and now sole employee of the Lumination Agency pulled a disappearing act. I guess you could debate whether he exercised discretion in doing so. The answer might vary depending which branch of law enforcement you were talking to.
What I do know was that I'd very discreetly failed to turn in the keys to the office when I left Mr. Hall's employment.
I may only be playing at being a detective, but it is easier to play when you've got the right set of toys. I sat at my former boss' desk and booted up the laptop and started playing around with some of the subscription databases that were apparently still being paid for, just like the cleaning service that vacuumed and dusted every Friday. It had been over a year since Chess Hall had gone underground, but the lights were still on and the place was still spotless and I wasn't going to question that. The resources had already come in handy a few times.
The name Tuckerman is well known to New Hampshirites. Tuckerman's Ravine on the southeast slope of Mount Washington is a popular spring destination for skiing and ice climbing, and it is considerably more hazardous in the winter months. A check of Wikipedia confirmed ten avalanche deaths over the past 60 years, so I guess the place has something of a bad reputation. No links to any haunted podcast, though. I kept looking.
The tuckerman13 audio file did get mentioned in a couple of blog entries by students at UNH and over at Dartmouth, but most of those referred back to the podcast segment that Greg had mentioned: U-Nerd-H, an anonymous bit of geek culture reporting that showed up on student blogs and messageboards every now and then.
I put some of Chester Hall's IP logging and database software to work, and it didn't take me too long before U-Nerd-H was a lot less anonymous. Most people are not all that good at hiding their identities on the internet. It takes too much work. Sooner or later you're going to want to use that connection to buy something on a credit card or register for some service that involves something getting mailed to your house, and nobody ever really protects your identity. If you read the small print, they don't even pretend they're going to.
So the voice behind the U-Nerd-H podcast was a Durham resident named Tim Prescott. I uploaded the address into my cell and got a digital voice recorder out of the desk drawer. Chester Hall had several of them. He'd taught me how to use the recorders. He'd also taught me that however many hours you put in behind a computer screen, the detective sooner or later comes down to knocking on people's doors.
Tim Prescott was too old to be a student, even though his apartment was decorated in classic college dorm clutter.
I could see the conflict in his eyes when he answered the door and I explained why I was calling. Tim Prescott valued his privacy and he had no interest in stepping outside the wall of anonymity he'd built around his project. He'd also probably not talked to a real live woman in a very long time. I smiled. He invited me in.
"You need to understand," He explained. "I did not include tuckerman13 in my podcast. I sent it out to a few regular subscribers for giggles. When the stories came back to me I deleted it, and sent around a message saying the file contained a Trojan. Hopefully most of the people who got it deleted it too."
I gently removed a Cthulhu plushie to make a small bit of space available on the couch and sat down.
"So you believe in this curse?" I asked.
"I know people. I trust them. There's a girl at UVM. Her friend listened to it. He jumped out of a 10th story dorm window a week later."
"Wait, I know the rest of this story. His roommate gets a 4.0 for the semester, right?"
Tim smiled. "Urban myth. That's not a real policy. At UVM or any other school."
"Well, your story has all the earmarks of an urban myth too. It's second hand, for one thing. Go on Snopes.com and you'll see a million stories that all start with 'I know someone who knows someone.'"
He stood and walked over to one of the little dirty windows that looked down on Durham center from his living room.
He didn't say anything, so I asked, "Got names for me?"
He shook his head, still looking out. "Not at UVM. And you won't find it in the papers. They don't publicize suicides on campus."
That might be true, but deaths are a matter of public record. I could probably find out what I needed to know with some digging.
I realized I hadn’t been paying attention. "Wait. You said not at UVM. Someone else, then?"
"I can ask. She might not want to talk to you."
"What's her name?"
He finally turned to look at me. "No. Sorry. I'll ask. Leave me your contact information. If she's willing to talk, she'll call you."
It was all I was going to get. I stood up, carefully restoring the Great Old One to his appointed place on the couch.
"Wait. I don't suppose… Would you be willing to do an interview on my show sometime?" He looked like he'd been waiting the whole conversation to ask that.
"I don't really know anything about podcasting. I mean, I know it's audio files and you're distributing them online, but other than that…"
He smiled. "Old time radio."
"When radio first started, before the corporations bought it all up, there was real programming. There was creativity. Individuality. That's what we're bringing back. Anyone can be a recording studio now. We do interviews, news. I know some people who are bringing back radio drama."
And that mention finally brought a smile to my face. "When I was a kid, my dad bought these tapes of The Shadow. You know, the old radio shows. With the old commercials and everything. I think his father listened to it. Or maybe his grandfather. He used to turn out the lights and we'd listen to them."
I walked back over and shook Tim's hand. "Okay, Tim. I don't know if I'll have anything interesting to say, but I'll give it a try."
When I got in my car, I was figuring I might hear from Tim about the podcast interview, and I doubted very much that his anonymous friend would ever get in touch.
She called me that same night.
Abby Owens is a senior at UNH, and she's got a tired and wide-eyed look that hints of a hundred morning-afters.
When I was in high school, Mom and Dad drove me up to Durham and we took the campus tour. Toward the end, the parents get separated from the tour group supposedly to talk to the financial aid people, but really for the tour guides to get in a couple of minutes of honesty with the parents.
"We work hard here. We party hard too." That's how my tour guide had introduced the little discussion, which ended up covering underage drinking and pot smoking, hookups, and parties.
I could see that Abby had partied pretty hard in her three and a half years here. Now she was staring down graduation, about to start life in that mythical "real world" that we hear about occasionally, and she was full of fear and sadness.
We met at a coffee shop on campus and we talked for an hour before she got to the story she needed to tell me.
"People change, Katy. You understand that, right?"
I nodded and sipped my Earl Grey.
"I know I've changed. It just happens. But there's a difference between a person changing and something changing a person. My friend George listened to that thing and it changed him."
"How?" No, that wasn't exactly the right question. I corrected myself. "In what way?"
"George was a character around campus. Rode this beat up old bike everywhere. He used to write poetry and he'd stand up on this milk crate in front of the library and recite his poems. He taped cardboard to the milk crate and wrote 'soap' on it. He never cared whether people listened or not."
"I know some people like that. What happened?"
"He listened to that thing, and the next week he transferred out of UNH. He left everything. His bike is still chained outside the library, rusting there. Nobody's ever bothered to take it away."
"Did you ever try to find him?"
She shook her head. "You don't understand. I know where he is. He's at UMass Amherst. But he's different. He's not the person he was."
"I know that!" Abby was in near-panic, searching for a way to convey what she knew. "This wasn't someone changing. This was something changing someone. He left the bike behind! He hasn't written anything since he left!"
She gave up trying to explain. Then she gave in to the tears. I reached over and held her hand until she reached for a napkin to wipe her eyes.
"Tim told me that someone listened to it and killed themselves. I think I wouldn't be so afraid if it just killed people." She stood up and grabbed her jacket and hurried out the door.
Greg's party was in full swing when I arrived. This wasn't a loud music and drinking kind of party, although there were some six-packs in the fridge and a couple of bottles out on a table in the living room of Greg's apartment. Most of the dozen or so people who were there were eating pizza and chatting. Four people played cards at the kitchen table, and I saw Greg and Kelsie putting a batch of cookies in the oven. Kelsie probably wasn't comfortable with the party. She doesn't like crowds, but Greg is really good about keeping his attention on her, and she keeps him out of trouble.
I smiled. They're really great for each other. I hated to pull Greg aside even for a moment.
We stepped into his little laundry room.
"The haunted videotape kills you when you watch it," I said. "You know, like in The Ring. You watch it and you die."
Greg started to laugh about it, but then he saw that I was being serious.
"Wait a minute, Katy. You believe this shit now? We're gonna die if we listen to that file?"
"No, of course not. That's silly. It doesn't kill people."
"It changes people."
"How?" he asked.
I didn't know. I had no idea, really. No idea if any of it was true. But Abby was right. There was something that scared me to the core about the concept of being made inexplicably different. Maybe dying would be better.
On the way over to Greg's apartment I'd stood outside the library where the frame of a bicycle with the front wheel missing was half buried in snow and I didn't understand how someone could have given that up.
Greg wanted evidence. All I had was an instinct and an alternative that I'd brought with me on my Ipod.
In the end, I let him make the choice.
I slipped out the door as he was setting up his speakers, his friends gathered around for the listening portion of the evening's festivities, and I knew I should have gotten out of earshot as I saw the apartment lights go dark through the crack under the door.
But I hadn't walked out for my own sake, only to free Greg to decide for himself. The risk was mine to share. I put my ear to the door.
Greg's familiar voice was hushing the group. And then it was the voice of Frank Readick, Jr., and it was 1937 on the radio, and it was me as a little girl holding my Dad's hand in our darkened living room.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
I went down the stairs and out into the night.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2008