[Story – WIP] The Haunting at 29th and Q


Synopsis/Background
Jump to Story

One of my goals for my first semester was to write a short story. Not a novel chapter, not a novella that I’d crammed into a tiny space, but a standalone narrative with a beginning, middle and end. That said, this Tess mystery is still part of something larger—think of it as something like the Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple short stories—but I feel it accomplishes that goal of having a narrative singularity.

As a note, the setting is a bit Sci-Fi/Alternate Reality, with primates not being the sole recipients of the “sapience gene.” Though I’ve not quite hammered down all the details, the history does stay pretty close to our own as most of the exceptions are pre-history and end up ironed out by the natural course of events. Yes, I realize that beast people would have greatly altered the course of history, but I’m fairly confident that the major high points would have still happened thanks to the nature of sapience. There would still be leaders, empires, and wars. Conflicts over religion, race, and everything else would still persist. In essence, the names might be different, but the moves and their effects are fairly inevitable.

Anyway, sticking with the Sherlock context, this is after Tess’ Sign of Four and Study In Scarlet cases and is about halfway through Adventures. The principles have already been established and the groundwork for the their relationships laid. The two mains, Kao and Tess, are roommates in Gilligan Hall at River City University.

Tess is at RCU because it is the premiere university for undergraduate creative writing. She has spider in her ancestry which is shown most prominently by her pointed ears and six extra eyes, two in the center of her forehead, one on either temple, and one on either cheekbone; the irises are red and the sclera is black. She is slender, pensive, and styles her hair to hide most of her eyes. She likes playing MMOs.

Kao on the other hand, is going to RCU on a Track and Field scholarship and is a psychology major. Her parents are from Australia and she carries the accent with pride. Kao has ‘roo in her ancestry and as such has their characteristic feet and ears, along with a tail that comes down to the back of her knees. Kao dresses casually, preferring printed t-shirts and loose pants. She is a hardcore PC gamer and does Maui Thai.

The story starts in February, six months into freshman year. People know that Tess solves mysteries about ghosts and the occult, her blog about the cases gets around a thousand hits a day. Their last case was stopping a cult from stealing the silver plates used by President Jefferson for communion. We open as the pair of them walk through historic Citadel Hill towards one of the city’s recent hauntings.


Story Jump to Top

Tangora Del’Tessa—just Tess, please—and Kao Folsmith stood on the corner opposite of a mansion whose grounds occupied the entire block of 29th and Q in Citadel Hill. The sky was cloudless and the winter evening was tinged with a subtle chill.

“And you’re sure that place isn’t haunted?” Kao asked in a wavering tone. She was bundled up in a heavy black zipper hoodie that bore the letters RCU and came down to her hips. Her long speckled ears were down and back against her scarf. “I saw the news last night. A woman got attacked by the ghost while walking near here.” Her blue eyes darted around the abandoned intersection, looking for any sign of the specter they had come to disprove.

Tess blew her bangs out of her face and shifted in her patch-covered canvas coat. She stared across the street, taking in the huge house for a moment before responding. “Yeah, that place is totally haunted.”

Kao glanced at her roommate, eyebrow quirked and eyes widening. It was so hard to tell when the spider-girl was being serious with her deadpan tone; even now, after six months of living together.

Tess grinned at the expression, “If bad taste could be counted as a haunting, that is. My room is more haunted than this place.”

“How do you explain the ghost’s first appearance, then?” Kao jabbed back. Her ears had started to twitch, betraying a growing annoyance. “The phantom soldier appeared from within a sealed room just as the excavation team pulled up that chest.”

“I have my suspicions.” Tess said simply, before starting to cross the street with flashlight in hand.

“Pft. Writer’s intuition again?” Kao huffed under her breath before following. “I wonder sometimes if she knows life isn’t another hackneyed plot.” Kao considered heading home, but even with Tess’ assurances, she couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was. Even the breeze was making no sound. The thought of walking back to the dorm alone pushed her off the sidewalk and into the street after Tess.

The gate on the wrought iron fence was ajar and the cobblestone path up the hill to the house was strewn with tools and dig sites; both no doubt abandoned when those working on the excavation had fled. Where the grass hadn’t been cut down to make sites, it had grown taller than both girls’ shoulders. The effect contributed to the image of an unruly hedge maze, one filled with holes and traps, watched over by the steady gaze of the house’s dark and empty windows.

Kao started to hum, hoping to put the feeling of grass pressing in from all sides out of her mind. There is nothing here, there is nothing here.

Even so, the feeling of dread grew with each step towards the house. More than once, she caught motion out of the corner of her eye, only to turn her flashlight on it and see canvas flapping in the breeze. Yet, with each sigh of relief, the tension instead tightened until she couldn’t hum anymore.

“I get why we’re coming,” Kao said, picking up the conversation to keep herself calm, “but why’d it had to be at night? We usually case places during the day.”

“Part of my suspicions,” Tess responded, her voice just as deadpan as usual. “If we don’t act now, the ghost will just disappear on its own.”

“Wouldn’t that be a, y’know, good thing?”

“Not really. People are trapped by their senses. They saw a ghost here and, until shown otherwise, will keep seeing one. Only by revealing the truth can we resolve the illusion.”

“You’re convinced this is some man-behind-the-curtain thing, aren’t you?”

“I am.” Tess turned to look at Kao, her eyes seeming to glow in the half light. “I did some research on the internet. Aside from this incident, the mansion and grounds have no history of haunting even though it was a Confederate outpost during the war. I’m fairly certain this is a hoax. One designed to steal the artifacts that the excavation recently stumbled upon.”

“So certain are you, little lady?” asked a voice tinged with a southern drawl. “How’bouts now?”

As one, Tess and Kao both looked left to the glowing face that leered down at them from the brush. At a glance it was obvious he was a confederate soldier. He also had to be floating a good two feet off the ground.

“Well, this saves us some trouble,” Tess said as she flashed a grin.

“What?” The ghost and Kao said at once.

Tess swung the flashlight through the bush, Kao fully expected her to hit a stool or ladder. Only she didn’t hit anything. The spider-girl’s gaze flicked back up to the specter above them, her red eyes slowly widened.

“Um…” she began, but Kao didn’t stick around to find out what was going to happen. She was already rushing back to the gate, her flashlight lying on the ground next to Tess’ feet.

“Hey, you!”

It was the next morning and Tess was walking to class, her mind still on the previous night’s events. It wasn’t until a hand landed on her shoulder that she realized someone had been trying to get her attention specifically.

“Aren’t you the one who chases ghosts?”

“Yup. There goes one now,” she responded without turning around, pointing at the building her class was in. “I shouldn’t let it get out of sight.”

“No wait, I read your blog and wanted to ask you about something.”

Tess turned to look at who was talking. The human attached to the hand had a vacant kind of expression, like he was perpetually on the verge of laughter. His face was framed by long black hair that was a mass of curls, same as the beard that clung to his weak chin, both were unkempt.

Tess shifted her bag over her back, annoyed at how he kept trying to look under her bangs. “Well?”

He shook his head and looked her in the eyes. “Oh! Right. I work for the school paper and I thought I’d ask about the haunting up on Citadel Hil–”

“–It’s a hoax.” Tess cut in. “Someone, though I’m not sure who, is trying to steal artifacts. Just like the cult last week over at St. Augustine’s Church was trying to steal Jefferson’s communion plates. But you’re not interested in that, are you?”

It was clear from the way his silly half grin had vanished in an instant, this guy had been hoping for a much less factual conversation and one of a more sensational nature.

“Look,” Tess said with a roll of her eyes. “I can tell you were expecting me to be some crazy. Sorry to disappoint but that’s just not who I am. Then again I am a writer, so there is that mark against my claim of not being crazy.”

The guy’s eyes narrowed further and he sucked air through his teeth before responding. “I didn’t know you were so toxic in person. Your blog is very civil.”

“Might be because my blog doesn’t judge me.”

“I see,” he said shortly before leaning forward. “So you don’t get any thrill out of these investigations?”

“Oh yes, it’s the only way I can get off,” Tess replied with deadpan sincerity. “If I don’t go look for ghosts, I’m just so—what’s the word? Dead? Yeah, so dead inside.” With that, she turned and stalked to class.

When Tess got to class a few moments later, Kao was already there. She was draped over the lab table they shared, lying on her bag with her ears down and eyes staring straight ahead.

“Last night get to you that bad?” Tess asked, as she set her stuff down and draped her coat of the back of her seat. Kao mumbled something non-committal, but class started before Tess got a chance to say anything more. The day’s lab was a practical experiment, one dealing with light refractions through a prism. Tess listened to the bored-sounding grad student’s lecture with half a mind as she rolled the triangular crystal in her fingers and watched rainbows dance over her pale skin.

“At any rate,” the grad student said, starting to wrap up. “The experiment is pretty straightforward. Just follow the directions and get it done. If you have questions, ask now or rely on your lab partner, as I’ll probably be asleep in ten minutes.”

“I’ve got one,” chimed a voice from the back.

Glancing over her shoulder, Tess realized it was the star point guard of the university’s basketball team. Though his name escaped her, it was hard to forget his apish face since it leered out from at least one poster on every bulletin board.

“Aren’t these the things that tell your fortune when you ask them a question?”

Tess went to put her hand to her forehead, only for her name to be called.

“Ms. Del’Tessa, you’re into that kind of stuff. Maybe you can answer the question.”

“What he’s thinking of is a pendulum,” Tess said, covering her sigh. “While they’re also usually made of crystal or glass, they are not prisms.”

“Oh,” the point guard mumbled from behind her. “Too bad, I wanted to ask it the answers to the lab report…”

Tess shook her head. “Even the divine couldn’t help him,” she said under her breath.

Kao grinned and sat back, though she didn’t meet Tess’ eyes. “Guess I bailed pretty hard last night,” she said, looking down at the desk.

“It wasn’t like I was straight with you, either,” Tess replied.

“So what’s the story then?” Kao said, starting to set up the experiment as the lights in the lab went down.

Tess puffed at her bangs and passed Kao the tripod mounted flashlight they were using. “Two days ago, I got an E-mail from Professor Amos Patel. He’s in charge of the dig and was the one who first thought the ghost might be a hoax.”

Kao looked over the top of the flashlight, making sure it was level. “Why’s that?”

“Well,” Tess started, setting the prism on a stand in front of a small whiteboard on the other end of the table. “They had been excavating for nearly two weeks by time the ghost appeared. In fact, the ghost only showed up after the team uncovered a chest full of gold coins pressed by the confederacy, which you knew ’cause that was on the news.”

“Knowing the whole story though, yeah, it does seem pretty suspicious now.”

“On top of that, over the two weeks on the site, tools that had been logged in the night before were missing the next day, only turn up in the house or on the grounds a few days later. I think that was what gave the haunting some credibility in the first place. People start getting jumpy when stuff starts moving on its own.”
Kao flipped the light on, sending a beam of light towards the prism. In the brief moment after the flashlight clicked on, the light had already diffused into a rainbow on the whiteboard. “So then, Patel must have someone he suspects. Why else would he contact you?”

“There are a only a few people with unlimited access to the site’s logs,” Tess said, making notations about wavelength beside the spectrum. “The foreman, Mr. Potters; Patel’s assistant, A.P. Gains; and Patel himself. Everyone else is a student volunteer.”

“Personally, I suspect Potters,” Kao said with a nod.

Tess tilted her head, “Why?”

“He used to be a professor here, but was canned over something a couple of months before we got here. The whole school was buzzing about it during welcome wekk. It was all over the rumor mill.”

Tess crossed her arms. “Then why did Patel hire him to lead the dig?”

“Maybe he’s just that good,” Kao said with a shrug.

They worked silently for a few minutes, both staring at the rainbow plastered to the white board.

Eventually, Kao spoke up again. “Hey, what’s the answer for number eight? Tess, what’s the answer?” Kao called.

“What?” Tess shook her head and looked away from the white board. “Sorry, didn’t hear you.”

Kao grinned, “You just had one of your ideas didn’t you?”

Tess ran her fingers down her chin before glancing at Kao. “Would you say a pocket projector was strong enough to show us what we saw last night?”

“Maybe, why?”

“I think I just solved this–”

“–and let me guess,” Kao said, her hand on her hip. “You need me to come along.”

Tess puffed at her bangs. “No, I’ll just ask one of my hundreds of other friends to tag along to a place everyone is convinced is haunted. Then the university will give the two of us a medal for catching someone who is trying to steal historic artifacts.”

“You’ve got a point.” Kao looked down at the lab report and then back up at Tess. “D’ya think a medal from the History department would get me out of Physics next semester?”

“So we’re clear on the plan then?” Tess asked as she and Kao approached the corner of 29th and Q and the haunted house that stood upon it.

“Crystal.” Kao said with a giggle, passing Tess the prism.

Tess rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything. “Let’s get this show on the road, then.”

The pair slipped between the gate and made directly for the house. In the waning twilight, the once foreboding front yard looked more like a worksite closed up for the day than a sinister hedge maze.

“You know, this house is kind of pretty, in an old kind of way.” Kao said as they approached. “I really like how the porch wraps around. It looks, you know, homey.”

As Tess stepped onto the large, winding porch there was a thud and the sound of a musket being fired, causing her to jump, but there was no sign of the ghost. She slinked to the door and pressed her side to the wood paneling.

When nothing happened, Kao strode towards the door. She was reaching for the handle when, with a flash, the ghost appeared. He stood on the path, garbed in a tattered jacket and slacks, his musket trained on Tess.

“I’d thought you ladies had learned your lesson last night.” The ghost leered at them, clicking the hammer back on the gun.

“Yeah. Then I learned a better one in class.” With that, Tess pulled the prism out of her coat pocket and flung it at the ghost. At the apex of the toss, the apparition’s form wavered and then split in two as the crystal sailed through the air towards it.

“Kao, he’s in the room right above on the second floor.”

The ghost vanished with a much more modern oath and Kao pushed the door open then rushed up the stairs out of view. Tess walked with clicking steps back to pick up the triangle of crystal that had proved this case’s linch pin. The sounds of a scuffle spilled out from the window above the entryway and then someone asking for help. Tucking the crystal away, Tess slipped into the abandoned house. As she crossed the threshold, there was a loud grunt and then hurried footsteps.

“Dammit!” Kao yelled as she came out onto the second floor landing. “He hit me with a sucker punch and then dashed off towards the back of the house.”

Tess nodded and then skittered down the first floor hallway, following her roommates footfalls. The hallway ran along the front of the house, past door after locked door towards the house’s right corner. Ahead, just before the corner, a flight of narrow stairs descended from the ceiling.

Above, Kao’s footsteps stopped abruptly followed shortly by yet another heavy thud. There was a muffled sound of exclamation and then a man who resembled the ghost tumbled down the stairs to land at Tess’ feet. Kao was right behind him, coming to a stop with her long foot on her chest.

“I think that’s far enough Mr. Potters.” Tess said before keeling down. She gripped the false apparition’s beard and tugged, fully expecting the face of the suspected foreman to reveal itself. Except the beard didn’t budge.

“Ow! That hurts,” whimpered a voice with a British accent.

“Assistant Professor Gains?” Kao exclaimed. “But I thought…”

“Yeah, me too,” Tess said, her brow furrowed.

“Though, if you think about it, the clues do add up,” Kao said after a moment. “Gains would have known about the coins that were found–and what they were worth. He also would have had access to the site before the excavation team arrived, allowing him to set up the ghost’s appearance.”

“But, why steal the coins?”

“Do you two natter on like this all the time?” Gains said from the floor. “This isn’t Scooby Doo, I don’t need to have my motivation explained to me. Just call the police and get this over with.”

“Oh, right.” The pair said.

One phone call and a few minutes later, Gains was in the back of a RCPD patrol car. The girls both gave their statements and once again, yet another ghost was unmasked.

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About Trevor Gulley

Trevor Gulley is a writer, cartoonist, and gamer. He works full time in the IT industry and judges Magic most weekends.

Posted on 04/17/2012, in Anthromorphic, Fantasy, Mystery, School Work, Story, Work In Progress and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. For the past few months, I have been trying to learn how to do creative writing better. It’s trickier for me in the sense that I am a technical writer by nature (clean, straightforward writing that you would see in an instruction manual or something). Nonetheless, creative writing can be a lot of fun once the ball gets rolling.

    • I enjoy the challenges creative writing poses, it requires certain levels of a number of things. You have to be creative, but willing to adjust. To be diligent, but aware of your limits.

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