Modern Hauntings, Old Charlatanism
rating: +23+x

Soft-ly, softl-y, hear the rus-tle
Of the Spirits' Airy wings;
They are com-ing down to min-gle
Once again with earthly things…

Spirit Rappings, 1853.

A Foster the People song was playing on the radio when the aging grey sedan pulled up to the apartment block. A far cry from the decrepit, moaning mansions that were once investigated by the Center, it was still suspected of being haunted nonetheless. And, unfortunately, Daniel Fox hadn't been the first to get here.

Daniel stepped out of the car, his dark skin making him stand out against the pale snow falling around him. Through the blizzard, he could see the purple and yellow design printed on the van for Modern Haunted, a ghost-hunting show that prided itself on covering hauntings that had only started popping up in the last seventy years. All fake, of course, but Daniel had been hired as a consultant more times than he could count, and it was a good supplement to his paycheck.

He entered the building, and wrinkled his nose. The lobby smelled strongly of urine and rot, and there appeared to be an assortment of flowers in the corner as some make-shift memorial. Bullet holes riddled the wall above this memorial, and the landlord was either too cheap to remove or cover them up, or else they'd happened recently.

Fox stepped towards the flowers, feeling at the leaves of one of them. It was cloth, perhaps nylon. The petals themselves were some sort of silk. The same was true of all the flowers, and as he stepped in to look at the bullet holes, he noted that they had been drawn over with some form of marker, in order to accentuate their presence. He sighed. "Idiots."

"Dan the Man with the Ghost-Plan!"

Fox turned to face the host of Modern Haunted, Robin McGuire. He looked just as he did last time they had met— same shirt and jeans tailored to look just rugged enough that it brought in the 18 to 35 female demographic, glasses with fake lenses to draw in the 18 to 35 male 'esoteric interest' demographic, teeth that you could hardly tell were covered by a clear retainer, and a neatly-groomed beard of stubble that, combined with his posture, screamed 'I'm gay, but in an approachable and family-friendly way'. What was new was the network-approved pride flag pin— Daniel could practically see the paperwork behind it.

"Robin." Daniel nodded. "Still artificial as ever."

"C'mon, don't be like that." Robin laughed. "Glad you could make it."

Daniel looked down at the floral arrangements. "Prop department outdid themselves this time. Almost thought they were real."

"You can actually remove the petals, and there'll be an appropriate amount of resistance to it. There are little magnets at the end. Try it."

"No thank you." He looked at Robin. "Chasing a death this recent? I thought you had some shame left."

"'Recent' is a strong word." Robin shrugged in a network-approved manner. "Six months. We don't do anything more recent than that. Not since the incident."

"Which one?"

"You know which one, Dan." Robin crossed his arms defensively. "And anyway, we have permission from the subject's family to try to conduct a seance here."

"A seance which I will be overseeing as a representative of the Carnacki Center for Occult Research, in order to assure no tomfuckery is underway." Daniel was half a foot shorter than Robin, but he had a talent for looming. "You can fool the cameras, but you can't fool an actual medium."

Robin whistled, and shook his head. "Right, yeah, okay. I tell you this every time, but… Thomas Carnacki? He wasn't freakin' real. He was made up by someone who thought that it would be cool if Sherlock Holmes hunted ghosts. If you want to fuck around with your electric pentacle on your own time, go for it. But you're a consultant, and you're on the clock. So, you're going to go out there and smile for the camera, and we'll ADR out any criticism. Comprende?"

Daniel sighed. He needed to make rent this month. "Comprende."

"Good." Robin looked up the stairs. "We're set up in an apartment above the door. Go back outside, and come back in the door when you see Jaz waving at you from the window."

Fox nodded, and headed back into the cold. As he did, he drew a phone from his pocket, and connected the pattern lock screen into a five-pointed star. This opened up certain functions on the phone that were otherwise inaccessible.

The symbol of a pentacle appeared on the screen, glowing bright blue. He plucked it from the screen, and a construct of light appeared in his hand, morphing into a bracelet around his right wrist. He touched the brickwork of the building's exterior, and grimaced— despite the rough outer surface, the Digital Pentacle allowed him to feel a slimy, sticky substance upon it. Ectoplasm, enough that it had saturated the brickwork.

A raven cawed as it alighted on a lamp pole overhead. "Going to be that cliche, are we?" Daniel muttered.

The window above opened, and a woman called down, "Come on in, the camera's waiting for you."

Daniel sighed, and opened the door, shaking his wrist and dismissing the Pentacle back into the phone.

"I've explained this half a dozen times," Daniel half-sighed, half-shivered. The crew had turned off all sources of heat in the room, and expected him to work in just a dress shirt and his khakis, no coat, except in between shots.

"We're changing networks. Hopping from the History Channel to Travel." Robin once again proffered Daniel some Chinese food the crew had gotten from a takeaway down the street, and Daniel again declined. "So, new channel, new audience, new explanation."

"Right." Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay, yeah. And I presume you want me to tone down what I explained about our founder?"

"Same as always," Robin replied, turning to his camerawoman. "He in a good light?"

Jasmine El-Mofty— 'Jaz' to the rest of the crew— focused the lens on him. "As good as I can get him. We want it to be a bit moody."

"Right. From the top." Robin cleared his throat, and stood up as a gofer took the stool out from under him and he went to face Daniel. "So, Daniel, tell us a bit about the Carnacki Center."

Daniel put on his best fake smile. "The Carnacki Center was founded in the early 1900s, at the tail end of the spiritualist movement. It's a result of several benefactors who believed in spiritualism coming together to create an organization that could investigate and either verify or debunk occult events such as, of course, mediums and ghost sightings."

"And- and the name?" Robin managed to sound like he was actually interested. "Carnacki, isn't he some kind of detective?"

"The center is named after Thomas Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes. Fictional." The last word hurt Daniel to say. "But the founder of the Center was a friend of the author of the Carnacki stories, so they named it in their honor."

"Cut." Robin stepped forward. "Wonderful. You looked like you almost believed it."

Daniel felt like he was going to vomit from the amount of shit he was eating with his grin. "For you? Anything."

They both looked awkwardly at each other. Robin broke the awkwardness first, turning to leave. Jaz accosted him with a paper cup of coffee. "Here."

"No heater?" Daniel took the cup. "Is he insane?"

"Cold means visible breath means credibility." She looked him over. "You're his ex?"

He nodded. "I went to the Center, he went to Cable Television. I honestly think I got the better deal. I'm not as pompous of an ass."

Jaz nodded. "Daniel Fox? Like, the Fox Sisters?"

"Coincidence." Daniel shook his head and took a sip of the coffee. "But the Center does have actual descendants of the Fox sisters in their employ. Apparently they were told to confess themselves as charlatans to further the narrative of some… organization."

"What, like the 1800s version of MK-ULTRA?"

"I don't know." Daniel shook his head. "Do you believe any of this?"

"Do you?" She asked.

Daniel hid his smile behind his coffee. Dodging the question almost always meant 'yes'. "Then why do you put up with his shit?"

"Turns out, film degrees don't pay as well as they used to." She picked up her own coffee and sipped at it. "I used to be a fan of this kind of shit. Binged Ghost Hunters in college, I can recite the first season of Supernatural by heart, but…" Her nose wrinkled. "I didn't expect this to all be so… fake."

"Every television show is fake. Some just try to put on a thin veneer of reality to draw in the gullible." He knocked back his cup of coffee. "But to answer your question, yes, I do believe in the world beyond."

"I thought I did. But…" Jaz chewed her lip. "I don't know. I just don't."

"Have faith. They are there." His nose wrinkled. "Though I do not imagine they take kindly to being preyed upon by Robin and his ilk."

"Preyed upon?"

Daniel waved his hand. "You need not concern yourself. Who is this poor soul we are trying to contact?"

"Not sure. I'd ask Robin about it."

"I will. Thank you for the coffee." He gave Jasmine a genuine smile. "For now, I need to call my supervisor."

Five minutes later, Daniel had his phone out, and was talking to his supervisor in England.

"This is Britten."

"Mina, this is Daniel Fox."

A frown entered her voice. "Need another exception?"

"Afraid so." Shame was coating Daniel's own words.

"I thought you despised that man. Why do you continue to let him rub his charlatanism in your face?" There was a click of keys on the other end. "I know our kind of work doesn't pay much outside of Backdoors, but have you considered doing psychic readings?"

"You know I'm no good with actually calling up the dead, Mina." Daniel sighed. "I can talk to them just fine, but I'm rubbish at pulling the veil aside."

"Well, in any case, the form should be delivered to you shortly. Do you still have the printer in your car, or would you prefer the Pentacle?"

"Pentacle, please." He looked back down the hallway— the sound of heavy equipment, no doubt the hydrauilcs that would be used to lift the table, sounded through the cold, empty corridors. "The thing is, I think there might be something here— the place is saturated with ectoplasm."

The vocal frown deepened. "Go into Pentacle mode and take a few photos with Filter 5. I want to see what's going on here."

Once again, a star was drawn on the lock screen, and the Digital Pentacle appeared. He spun the star clockwise on the screen, and the center spun outwards, transfiguring into the image of a camera shutter. He spun it counter-clockwise once, and the picture of the dark hallway was suddenly filled with dozens of hands, sprouting from the walls— all immaterial, all grasping at him, all without bodies. "Shit." He tapped the center of the screen, taking the picture.

"…Class-3, at least." There was a creak of springs as Mina Britten sank back in her chair. "Put your Pentacle on, and do not dismiss it under any circumstances. We have a specialist in Yonkers who can be there before midnight. I'll send the forms through first…"

The screen returned to the default position of a blue, glowing pentacle. It sprang out of the screen and onto Daniel's left wrist, and he found himself holding a signed affidavit that stated that after an examination, he could not report any evidence showing that the seance had been faked. Not that he couldn't find it. Just that he couldn't report it. The Carnacki Center's lawyers were majestic beasts.

Of course, signing this exception meant rescinding of his membership as a member of the Carnacki Center for a twenty-four hour period. The Digital Pentacle would still function, but any official support would be cut off, and he wouldn't receive reimbursement for travel expenses.

"Came all the way up from Chelsea for this, forty-minute drive in New York traffic…" Daniel shook his head and put away his phone. "I'm going to throw that man out a window one of these days."

"The name of the spirit we're attempting to summon is Darryl Smith." Robin sat at one end of the table, the camera pointed directly at his face. "He died here, tragically, from gang-related violence."

"The name of the person." Daniel corrected.

Robin turned to face him. "What?"

"When you're not summoning them, it's polite to call the dearly departed people." Daniel shrugged. "Common courtesy."

"Can we get the Jim Butcher reject out of here?" Nathan, who was operating the boom mic, took off his headphones."He's killing the mood."

Robin chewed his lip and said "Cut" before turning to face Daniel. "Legally, I can't call him a person."

"Why n—" Daniel's eyes widened, and he realized what the answer was before the question left his lips. "…you created a fake person."

"Last time we tried having a seance with the recently deceased, we got in mundo legal trouble. You know, the Stoddard case?"

"I remember." Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. "The Parawatch forums tried to crucify you for exploiting the family of a child who had died of cancer." He left out how entertaining it was to watch the backlash. "That's why most people fulfill the Make-a-Wish Foundation request before the wisher dies."

Robin flushed. Embarrassment and regret didn't suit his manufactured stubble. "Yeah, well. Like I said, this is going to be the pilot on Travel Channel, so we needed to make it something big and topical. Seance with the victim of gang violence in Brooklyn fulfills that." He rubbed his face. "I'm off my groove, take ten."

Jasmine put the camera down and came up to Daniel. He could see the steam coming from her ears. "That asshole. I interviewed Darryl's family for the show's first act."

"Actors." Daniel sighed. "Pretty much every ghost-hunting show does it. It's gotten easier in recent years, with deep-faking. He wouldn't have said if I hadn't pressed him."

"Didn't press very hard." Jasmine frowned. "What, can you Jedi Mind-Trick or something?"

"We don't completely despise each other. Only mostly." He snorted and breathed into his hands. "He shows me some facade of respect, at times. Knows I can see past his bullshit."

"Is it dangerous?" Jaz asked. "Calling forth a spirit that doesn't exist?"

A laugh escaped Daniel's frozen lips. "It'd be like sending a letter to 221B Baker Street. You'd get no reply beyond a 'return to sender'. Which, in this metaphor, means 'a minor headache'." He shook his head. "If anything, his reaction might work for the cameras."

"Asshole," Jasmine re-affirmed. "Fucking asshole."

"At least he pays well."

The seance began an hour after sundown— the script said that it was happening around midnight, but it was dark enough outside that nobody would know the difference, and they needed the extra time in case equipment malfunctioned or a line was flubbed in an unrealistic manner.

"What I have here is a signed affidavit from a professional medium." Robin nodded at Daniel. "It says that this seance has been inspected, and no evidence of tampering has been found. Is this correct, Dan?"

"It is." Daniel nodded as the camera turned to him, and Jasmine carefully left the two-gallon jug of corn starch, luminous dye and water that would pass for ectoplasm out of the shot. "As certified by a member of the Carnacki Center."

The camera swung back to Robin. "It is 11:45, we are preparing for the seance. Darryl's mother is waiting downstairs for us to begin, why don't we go greet her?" Robin rose, and called for Cut as he did so. "She here yet?"

Jasmine looked at her phone and frowned. "Got a text. Says she's stuck in traffic."

Daniel looked over her shoulder and frowned— the picture of the actress who played Darryl's mother was visible in an icon at the top. "Wasn't she an extra in Warehouse 13?"

"Oh, like you don't do any fucking acting." Robin snapped. "Stop it with the holier-than-thou 'my bullshit is better than your bullshit', Dan. Ghosts. Aren't. Fucking. Real. We're both hucksters, at least I'm fucking honest about it off-camera."

As he said this, the shop lights they had set up to illuminate the seance flickered. Daniel felt his heart drop.

Robin blinked, momentarily stunned. "Someone step on the cord?"

Nathan, Jasmine, and Daniel all looked at their feet. The cord was plugged into a wall underneath a window, far away from where any of them were.

"Fuck. Kind of wish we'd gotten it on camera, would have made a great mood setting. Could've ADRed out all the nasty shit."

Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose hard enough that he saw stars. He looked at the Pentacle still on his left wrist, and concealed it beneath his sleeve, taking out his phone. A tendril snaked out of the bracelet, and up into the data port.

The readout displayed was not promising— a two-degree drop in temperature and an electromagnetic fluctuation at the end of Robin's rant. Proximity heat sensors detected seven different people in the room— three more than Daniel could see.

He put the phone away. "As long as you don't use that asinine, broken scanning radio you call a ghost box for this seance, I'm not going to say anything more against it." He had bigger things to worry about.

"It's Ghost Adventures's gimmick now," Robin shook his head. "We're sharing the same channel with them, so no more ghost box."

"Hmm." Daniel looked at his bracelet. "I'm going to head outside to smoke."

Daniel switched his Digital Pentacle to his right wrist, and had his hand on the wall all the way down the stairs. It collected data that would normally be sent to the Carnacki Center for analysis, but since he was temporarily not a member, he had to interpret it himself.

His phone was in his other hand, a cold blue cord running from the bracelet, under his shirt, and into the phone's port. He didn't like what he was seeing— the ectoplasm was almost dense enough to physically manifest, and there were random spikes of hot and cold along the hallways of the building.

On the landing of the first floor, his Pentacle pulsed and tightened around his wrist, causing him to involuntarily knock on the wall to relieve the pressure. Doing so released the sound of screams, and a pair of gunshots. He knocked in the same place, and the gunshots and screams repeated.

"Stone tape." Daniel frowned. Psychic trauma, recorded by architecture. Typically wasn't found in buildings made after the 1960s, as fiberglass insulation tended to, for lack of a better term, muffle the sound. Daniel had a feeling the landlords that had owned this building since it was constructed didn't much care about insulation for their tenants.

He made his way back up the stairs, knocking on the wall in several places. One spot on the first floor emitted the sound of a child crying, another an argument between two women. The second floor had three separate instances of a single gunshot, one of which was located underneath a framed picture on an otherwise bare wall— Daniel was sure that if he moved it, he'd see a bullet hole going clean through the wall.

A section of floor on the third story sounded like a dog yapping in pain when Daniel stepped on it. Eventually, he made his way to the fourth floor, where they were set up, and knocked on the door to the room.

As he did, the sound of screaming and a flurry of gunshots, far too many to be necessary. He dropped his phone, and attempted to count the screams as he did so— three voices. Three people had died tragically in the apartment they had set up as a base.

If they had tried a seance anywhere else in the building, it would have been like trying to send mail to 221B Baker Street. If they tried it in here, it would be like sending mail to Baker Street and getting a letter bomb in return.

Jasmine opened the door, and looked at him, frowning. "You… okay?"

Daniel rubbed his face. He'd find an exit to this, say he needed to use a bathroom, start a fire. It would be safer than whatever they were planning. "F-fine. Just ran up the stairs."

She shook her head. "All right. Actress still isn't here, and we just made a fresh pot. Make yourself at home."

Daniel stepped into the room, and from the darkness in one corner, saw a pair of eyes staring at him. Then, they closed, and the darkness faded with it.

"By those that wait beyond," Daniel prayed, "Give me strength to protect these people."

Part 2»

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