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A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
What's it like to not have to worry about death?
What do you mean?
Well, some folks probably have enough religious faith that they don't worry about what happens after they die. They're sure about it. Go to heaven, go to hell. But I think most of us wonder. The uncertainty terrifies us. Is this all we get? What if there really isn’t anything after we die? But you know. You're dead, and you're not gone.
Sorry, Chester, but it isn't like that. What I'm experiencing isn’t life after death. It's not life at all. I know it's not forever, and I don’t know what happens when it's over. Maybe nothing.
Is that how you see it? A temporary reprieve?
A prolonging of the end. I think that maybe I'm an echo. I screamed at the right moment and in the right place and now I'm just waiting to fade. The dirty piles of snow at the sides of the parking lot. Gone by springtime, back to dirt, where dead things belong.
You're mixing your metaphors.
And you're looking in the wrong place for your assurances, Chester. When I'm gone, death will be just as much a mystery as it always was. And you'll be left wondering if I was just one of the voices of your imagination.
I have a bad habit of letting my curiosity get the better of my common sense. Curiosity results in dead felines, not to mention tired clichés, but there are days when I just can't help myself.
So instead of punching Ronald Dietrich in the nose and throwing him the hell out of my office like common sense told me I should do, I invited him to have a seat and tell me why he'd paid me a visit.
"And without a lawyer in sight, no less. What happened, Dietrich? You grow a set of balls, or is the ghostbusting just not paying what it used to?"
Dietrich set his fedora down on the desk, followed by his briefcase. He wasn't taking the bait. He probably figured he was in for a bit of abuse after what happened last time we did business.
"Are you familiar with my television program, Mr. Hall?"
"Sorry, Ronald. Maybe it's on during Battlestar? Or maybe I just tend to skip the Shark Channel."
He laid a folder down on my desk. It was a press package for the upcoming second season of something called Paranormal 911. Starring someone named Hector Mendes.
I skimmed it and handed it back.
"What's the problem?"
"The first season starred me."
I laughed out loud.
Professionalism at its finest, I see.
Shut up. He deserves this.
Dietrich took it in stride.
"I want to hire you. I'll pay whatever it takes."
"You know what, Dietrich? I've been waiting my whole life for the chance to tell someone this: I don't need your money."
"For your sense of satisfaction, then. This man, Mendes, he's a fraud. I need your help to prove it."
I laughed again. "Pot calling the kettle black? Just a little bit, maybe?"
He wasn't fazed. He came in knowing it was going to be a hard sell, and he wasn't ready to give up.
"There won't be any gag order when this is all said and done. I'm putting the contract together. You nail this son of a bitch, and you get the satisfaction of putting one charlatan out of work. Come on, Chess, I know it won't be as satisfying as putting me out of business, but you have to admit you'd enjoy a shot at this."
"You really expect me to trust you? Do I need to remind you of what happened last time I…?"
You found me.
I called for help, Chester, and you were the only one who heard. If you hadn't been with Dietrich on his haunted house investigation, then you would never have heard.
I turned to my laptop to buy myself a few seconds. Clicked open Wikipedia and searched Dietrich's show. I barely skimmed the entry. I made my decision.
"I want you to rescind the gag order."
Dietrich started to protest, but I cut him off before he got going with the legalese. "Write a new one. I'll agree not to mention anything that would be potentially damaging to your reputation. I just want to be free to discuss the other details of the case."
"All right, Mr. Hall." It was his turn to be curious. He didn't know what game I was playing.
"I'm going to want to review your contracts with a fine-toothed comb. I want input on the team. I get to bring up to two people of my choosing if I decide I need backup. And you're gonna be paying double my usual rate just because I don't like you."
"I'll need to clear the personnel issues with the producers, but I don't expect it to be a problem. They like having a bunch of local experts. The more colorful the better."
"Reality television. An oxymoron if ever I heard one."
"Actually, the term they prefer is 'unscripted'."
"I'm sure." I opened a new document to take notes. "Okay, so you want the dirt on this Hector Mendes; paranormal investigator and possible fraud."
"Not an investigator." Dietrich corrected. "Mendes is an exorcist."
The house was located up in the White Mountains. I drove through North Conway and down a winding back road where the snow was still piled over the stone walls that marked old pastureland grown into woods now that the farms had all moved west.
I was sipping Mountain Dew out of a one-liter bottle with the wrapper from a fast food breakfast sandwich in the passenger seat leaving a lingering smell of fried egg that went with the lingering feeling of nausea in my gut.
I'd left Bedford at five in the morning after spending most of the night sending out requests for background checks and wishing I had someone to handle the legwork for me back at the office. At three in the morning, I'd sat at my desk with Katy's number on the cell phone and I'd been seriously considering hitting the call button before I talked myself out of it. I worked for another hour then got an hour of sleep at my desk.
The old farmhouse had cars and trucks parked in the front lawn. A couple of vans, a camper. There was a black Hummer with the Paranormal 911 logo on it. The show's on-camera wheels, no doubt.
I'd done the paranormal investigation thing once before. This was different. There were a couple of people setting up thermal imaging and audio equipment, but it was spotty. A different device in each room. And three camera crews moving through the house filming.
A young blonde production assistant gave me an initial interrogation. When she figured out that I was with the "Dietrich Team", I was pointed toward the second floor and warned to keep out of the way of filming.
The house itself was an old farmhouse, probably mid-nineteenth century, painted in peeling white, with a big porch that went around three sides of the house and was outfitted with Adirondack chairs that had a nice view of the Presidential Range to the southwest. There was hard-crusted snow on the ground and rows if dripping icicles hung from the porch roof and window frames.
A retired couple, Jack and Eva Delessio, bought the place a year ago and they started noticing the poltergeist activity the night after they moved in.
I eavesdropped a bit while a camera crew interviewed Mrs. Delessio. She was talking about demons.
Are there such things as demons?
How would I know?
I don't know. A demon is different than a ghost, right? Not just the spirit of a human who died. It's from somewhere else. An alien intelligence. Could you tell the difference if you met one?
I guess so. Why?
Might be important later.
I found Dietrich upstairs.
"Where's the star?"
"He'll be here tonight. Right now I'm directing the investigative team. We gather some evidence. Give the editors enough footage to fill about twenty minutes of us basically saying 'yes this house is haunted'. Then Mendes takes over. He gives the evil spirits their little eviction notice. They do twenty minutes of footage of him doing his ritual. Then a couple of follow-up interviews with the owners being thrilled that their house is now certified demon-free."
"What if it's not?"
"Hasn't happened yet. We have a one hundred percent success rate."
"Probably." Dietrich agreed.
"So what's the plan?"
I spent the day helping Dietrich install hidden wires and springs right under the noses of the investigation team. Nobody was paying attention to anything except for whether or not they were on camera.
I was following Dietrich's plan, but I had some concerns.
"You're thinking too much like an investigator." I told him when I had a chance to talk to him alone out on the porch.
I gestured back toward the house. "These people are entertainers. Sure, setting things up to make it look like Mendes is hoaxing might get him kicked off some community college parapsychology department. To these people it just makes for interesting television. And this unscripted crap is all an editor's game anyway. They'll edit it into whatever they think will get the best ratings."
He shook his head. "I know a stage magician when I see one, Chess. Here, I'll say it so you don't have to. It takes a charlatan to know one. I want him exposed."
"Yeah, but these people don't care. They're gonna film hundreds of hours and then pick out whatever tells the story they want, tricks or no tricks and ghost or no ghost."
Ghost, Chester. There is a ghost in this house. I can hear him.
Not a demon?
No. Like me.
"You got a better idea?" Dietrich was asking.
"I'm working on it."
Alyson Majere arrived twenty minutes before the real show got started. The little blonde production assistant was following her around holding a clipboard with a waiver for her to sign while the director was yelling for everyone to clear out of the front hall where they were gonna do the ritual.
Alyson signed and initialed and finally made her way over to me.
"Sorry I'm late," she whispered, "Got stuck at the Big Dig. What's going on?"
"Resident spirit is about to be told to hit the highway. I'm gonna need a play-by-play, and possibly some expert advice."
She took a deep breath and backed herself into a corner of the room. She closed her eyes a moment and then shook her head.
"I'm sorry, Chess. I can't concentrate in here."
I wasn't surprised.
"Wait until the show starts. That might be a better opportunity."
Dietrich crossed the room and gave me a nod. His little show was ready to go too.
Apparently, when you're filming an "unscripted" show, you're supposed to be filming all the time. There are no re-takes, no breaks. And there is no one to yell "Action!" to start a scene.
But Mendes' entrance was a lot like the beginning of a new scene. He had everyone's attention instantly. Every camera turned toward the kitchen doorway where he stood.
Mendes was dressed in blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt. He was tall, thin but muscular. A good looking guy, a guy who was comfortable with the camera. You could almost hear the voices from the production meeting talking about how this guy was gonna play to the 20-30 Latina demographic. He had a goatee, and a crucifix on a gold chain. Nothing too excessive, but noticeable.
"I need quiet." He said.
He got it.
He crossed the room and picked up a leather shoulder bag. It was old, weathered. He brought the bag to the center of the room, where a small end table had been moved from the living room.
From the bag, he withdrew two candles, and a small velvet pouch. He laid them out, lit the candles with a lighter he got from his jeans pocket, and then took a Rosary out of the pouch.
"Now, I ain't no preacher, Ma'am. Not ordained in the church," It was a set speech, directed at Mrs. Delessio, who was watching the proceedings from the entrance to the living room.
He went on. "But I do believe that I was called by God to be a warrior of the faith, and that is what I'm here to do, Ma'am, if you'll allow it."
She nodded. "Yes, please."
"Then, those among us who would take a stand in the Lord's name, could we pray together?"
He led us in a recital of the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary.
"Amen. Now I am going to call on this spirit. And I am going to confront this spirit with the truth and the light of God."
He switched to Latin. The Rosary.
What you're seeing is not what's happening. He doesn't believe the words that he is saying. He's… Stalling. No. He's covering.
"Chess, something is happening." Alyson whispered, leaning close.
People were watching, focused on Mendes as his prayers found a rhythm, became a chant that filled the room.
It hit Alyson and Mattie at the same time.
The spirit. Chester, it's just a little boy.
"Chess, this is wrong. He's not trying to drive the spirit off. He's trying to cut it off."
"Wait. What?" I was trying to keep my voice low, but no one was paying attention. Everyone in the room but Alyson and me were focused on Mendes.
"Cutting it off." There was fear in Alyson's voice. And confusion. Whatever was going on was new to her. "Not send it away, just cut its connections to the mortal world."
The way we are, it's like being paralyzed, Chester. We can barely interact with the world. He's taking the last of that away. Oh God, it's like he's tearing out that poor boy's eyes!
"Stop him." I whispered to Alyson.
She winced. "He's too strong."
I can help her.
No, Mattie. Time for plan B.
I moved over to Dietrich.
"Now." I whispered. "Everything. Now."
He gave me a confused look, but the look that I shot back at him must have convinced him.
What happened was not what we'd planned. What we'd planned was a series of poltergeist events that would occur at regular intervals during the ritual. We'd planned to enhance the events of the evening with some displays that would later prove to be hoaxes when Dietrich conveniently "discovered" his own devices on camera later in the evening. I never really liked the plan, but it was worth a try while some of my contacts worked on an alternative solution.
Instead, what we got was the "most shocking display of poltergeist phenomena ever filmed". That was how it would be advertised, anyway.
Dietrich slipped a small device from his pocket: the remote control for a garage door opener. Three channels. He clicked one button, switched to the second channel and waited.
"The first one has a delay." He whispered.
I went back to Alyson, held her hand in mine. She was trembling, stiff, sweating.
"You don't have to win," I whispered. "Just slow him down."
She nodded, all the response she could manage.
Let me help.
No. He can't know you’re here. This guy's an energy vampire like Christina. He just prefers to feed on the dead.
I can't just…
Ice came crashing down outside the windows. One window after another, all of those pretty icicles dropping in rapid succession. There were some cries and gasps of alarm in the room, and the camera guys were on it in an instant.
I was wondering how many volts it took to heat up a wire enough to melt ice. Probably not that many. I saw Dietrich hit the button on his control twice more.
All hell broke loose. A vase crashed down from the living room mantel. Then the light bulb in the living room exploded, followed by the one right above us in the front hall. And then every light in the place went out.
People panicked. Someone ran into me in the dark. Perfect. I used a little Aikido technique to put them on a collision course with Mendes' table. That snuffed the candles, the last light source in the house.
I found out later that Dietrich managed to pull all the evidence of his gadgetry while everyone was yelling at each other in the dark.
While he was doing that, I got Alyson out the back door.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah. I don't even know if he realized what I was trying to do. I'm just… This guy doesn't whisper to ghosts, Chess. He mugs them. I feel like I've been kicked in the gut and I could barely stall him."
"No, you did great. We did stop it, right?"
"But what now?" She asked. "He'll just start over as soon as they get the lights back on."
I pulled out my phone and checked the text message I'd just received.
"Maybe not." I said.
I passed the information on to Dietrich. He needed to be the one to handle it. And he handled it like the master of public relations he'd always been.
It all unfolded in front of the cameras, of course.
When it was all over, I called up Nancy Mateo in Worcester to thank her for the last-minute research she'd done. She hinted that it wasn't entirely her doing, but I got the impression from her tone that she wasn't going to answer any questions along those lines.
One thing that I learned from my previous experience with paranormal investigation is that people sometimes forget to do their research. Maybe they just get caught up in the moment. Maybe they don't care. Why bother dredging up depressing old news stories when you can film a real live exorcism, right?
So no one had checked the history of the place. It wasn't easy to find. The local newspapers practiced more discretion back then. It wasn't considered proper to call too much attention to a tragedy.
But it was there if you knew what to look for, digitized conveniently by the State Library of New Hampshire.
In 1948, William Wren, age six, broke his neck in a fall from the top of the front hall stairs in a big white farmhouse on a back road somewhere past North Conway.
Dietrich, the calm old storyteller who writes all those local ghost yarns, told the tragic tale to Mr. and Mrs. Delessio with the kind of fervor and conviction that he usually saves for pitching new projects to producers.
By the time he was done, the Delessios were convinced that their malevolent demon was nothing more than a very frightened little boy.
The exorcism was called off, the editors manipulated the whole thing into the perfect happy ending, and at least for this episode, Dietrich was back to being a star.
I congratulated him on his performance at a little bar in North Conway.
"I guess it's the best I could have hoped for." Dietrich said. "I'll get more camera time, and I should be in a good position to renegotiate when we get renewed. Which is all but assured after that episode."
I raised my glass. "Here's to good television."
"Cheers." Alyson joined in. She was feeling better after a couple of beers.
"Hey, Dietrich? You're still involved in choosing the sites, right?"
He nodded. "I'm the one with the connections to the local paranormal community. I pick most of the locations for filming."
"You know some ghosts there?"
"No. But a little bird told me that Hector Mendes has an outstanding warrant in Massachusetts for nonpayment of child support. And it's an election year. The Attorney General's office likes to get tough on those kinds of things when it's an election year."
Dietrich smiled. "Now that you mention it, there is a fisherman's widow in Gloucester who reports mysterious lights in the fog. Could be worth a look. Thanks for the suggestion."
Dietrich finished his drink and headed on his way, though not before I reminded him that my invoice would be in the mail.
Alyson was exhausted, and I'd booked her a hotel room so she wouldn't have to drive back to Brockton. She offered me the second bed, but I wanted to get on the road.
I wanted to time to think about life. And death. And whatever came after.
Image and story by Rick Silva, Copyright 2009