“We have a problem, people,” the major said to those gathered in the front parlor.
If given a choice, he would not have chosen a single one of them to work with, but the choice hadn’t been his. Some well-meaning soul had dragged him into the front hall in 1862, away from the battle in progress, and there he’d died. And in doing so had been confined, not only to the building but to the company of the other not-so-dearly-departed now facing him.
“Not in regard to the October Event, I trust,” the White Lady moaned before turning aside to cough, although since her demise of consumption during Jefferson’s presidency, she really had no reason to clear her throat.
“I’m afraid so, my dear,” he answered.
“Please tell me they cancelled it,” Cletus demanded tossing his tricorn hat on the piano. He’d bit the dust, literally, in a fall from a horse back in 1786. “It’s such a bother having crowds traipse about the place at All Hallows hoping to catch a glimpse of one of us.”
“True, it is disconcerting,” the major conceded. “But, no, the tours haven’t been cancelled. The historical society has simply added a new wrinkle this year.”
The matron, gowned in severe black and floating just above the seat of a straight-backed chair, glowered. “I do wish the rest of you would cease picking up the vulgar expressions the caretakers use.”
“Oh, give it a rest, Aramantha,” the bent old man seated next to the White Lady on the settee growled. Though he appeared to be the eldest, he was the most recent arrival to their coterie having tripped over his cane back in 1934 and done a far from perfect double-gainer down the grand staircase. “What’s the wrinkle?”
Knowing how at least one member of his audience would react, the major held back a sigh. “Something called reality TV.”
The youngish gent with the frayed noose dangling about his neck, straightened from where he had been lounging carefully in the archway. Carefully because he was inclined to disappear into it occasionally. But then they all knew Thaddeus had been drunk as a lord when he’d hung himself in 1859.
“Television? A program to be filmed here on the premises?” he demanded, straightening the cravat partially hidden beneath the rope. “I shall give my finest performance.”
“Doubtful, old boy,” Cletus drawled. “Weren’t you a failure on the boards?”
“I was the delight of audiences everywhere,” Thaddeus insisted. “It was theatre managers with whom I had problems.”
“From what I overheard in the site manager’s office, this isn’t the type of show they hold auditions for,” the major explained. “Someone with the unfortunate and unlikely name of Tiari Rome is coming to—”
A squeal of delight came from their seemingly youngest member, a girl who had fallen to her death from an upper window at age ten well over a hundred years earlier. With long curls bounding about her shoulders, the child leaped to her feet, dumping the startled ghostly cat she’d been stroking to the floor. “Tiari Rome? Oh, I could just die!” she exclaimed, parroting the shrill tones young living visitors to the house had used in recent years.
“You already have,” the dowager said in damping tones. “Do use some decorum, girl.”
The girl stuck her tongue out at the spoilsport, then her expression turned rapturous once more. “I adore Tiari Rome. She’s so beautiful, so famous, so—”
“Lacking in talent or intelligence?” Cletus offered. “Get a grip, Pip.”
Pip, for so the child was called, turned indignant. “You thought she was wonderful when we saw her on that program about celebrities,” she reminded.
“And she was wonderful,” Thaddeus chimed in. “Until she opened her mouth. I hadn’t quite understood what the term airhead meant until that moment.”
“Brainless twit though she might be,” the major said, “Miss Rome and a camera crew will be moving in with us to record what goes on nightly in this, the most haunted house in the state.”
“She would,” the major reiterated. “I did mention this would be nightly?”
“What a common young woman she must be not to think of our privacy,” the White Lady said. But then, confined as she was to wearing the flowing night wear in which she’d died, the White Lady tended to be overly concerned with privacy, the major felt.
“I would like to know what you men plan to do about it,” the dowager demanded. For a woman who had taken the vengeance of the Lord into her own hands and stirred poison into her philandering husband’s dinner back in 1901, she was oddly reluctant to take matters into her own hands any longer. But that could be because her mister had recovered from the meal’s deadly seasoning while she had not.
The major squared his shoulders, knowing he was preparing for battle once more. The shadowy gray of his Confederate uniform was the worst for wear, showing as it did the marks where his life’s blood had drained away and each intricate contour of the breakfront cabinet behind his transparent form, but his jaw was set for the coming contest.
“I propose,” he said, “that we stop them the evening they arrive.”
“And how are we to do that?” the old man on the settee asked.
“By augmenting our usual bag of tricks in gathering information on how to foul their equipment,” the major answered. “And we shall do it the modern way.”
“Ohh,” the child breathed in awe. “You mean we’re going to…”
“That’s right,” the major said. “Learn to use the Internet.”
~ ~ ~
Although the historical society was aware that odd things were occurring in the site manager’s office in the old butler’s living quarters off the kitchen, they kept mum about it when the producer of Tiari Rome’s Life Among the Dead series arrived with his star and crew.
“Welcome to the Smith-Jones-Winklestein House,” the site manager gushed, his arms spread graciously wide.
Because there was already an autumnal chill in the air, he had lit a cozy fire in the carefully reconstructed fireplace in the front parlor. If anyone cared to glance aside into the room, they would probably have taken the odd bit of haze in the corners or hovering near the upholstery for smoke from an antiquated flue.
“He’ll have a mock historical marker made to set near the gate,” Cletus murmured from where the vapor of his form lingered near the grand piano. “It will read ‘Tiari Rome slept here.’”
“If she manages to sleep at all considering what we have planned,” the major said.
“Quite so,” the White Lady agreed.
The evenings had been full of lively discussion as the ghostly team Googled and Yahooed their way through cyberspace learning of things that would have been considered truly ghostly phenomenon during their own lives. Words like “cross modulation”, “instrument transcommunication”, “electromagnetic field meter”, “radio frequency contamination”, and “electronic voice phenomena” had flown around the old mansion whether they had huddled as a group around the PC monitor or discussed things, as the ladies did, over a pot of phantom tea. But that night…ah, that night all their plotting and planning would come to fruition. The excitement resulted in a surge of spirit energy so great the air fairly sparked with it.
The manager of the historical site was immune to the sensation. Though not a skeptic when it came to their existence – for managing a documented “haunted” house put money in the bank – the poor man was sadly lacking in paranormal sensitivity and had never noticed when he walked through one of them.
No, his enthusiasm was all for the living. And was he ever enthused!
“We’re quite honored to have been chosen as the location for your program, Ms. Rome,” the site manager said, nearly fawning at her stiletto heeled feet.
The blond tressed star tossed said blond tresses back over her shoulder and giggled. “Well, it was so convenient being right here in my hometown.”
“Really?” The site manager’s smile faded, confusion taking its place. “But I was under the impression that you were from—”
Tiari’s blue eyes narrowed to slits. Her lips thinned. “My hometown is where I say my hometown is,” she snapped.
“Oh, of course,” the now cowed historian hastened to agree. He backed away quickly. “You are welcome to choose whichever bedroom you would like, however, we suggest that the—”
“Peachy,” Tiari said, cutting him off, and swept up the grand staircase. “Are we filming yet?” she asked, peeking flirtatiously over her shoulder at the camera crew milling in the foyer below her.
“Why would we be?” the director answered, his hands forming a square through which he looked, considering various shots. “We just got here, and the sun isn’t entirely down yet.”
“Oh,” the star said and dropped her coquettish act. The swish in her walk disappeared as she clumped noisily up the stairs. “Call me when you’re ready.”
“Right,” the producer yelled after her. “And don’t wear anything too revealing tonight, will you, darling? We’ll be shooting you from the bottom of the steps and don’t want a shot of your underwear.”
“If she wears any,” the cameraman at his elbow murmured.
“It’s okay either way,” the director said, sighting on her hips as Tiari reached the top of the stairs. “We’re shooting for cable, not a network.”
“Oh, gawd!” the producer whispered, his complexion blanching slightly. He fumbled in the pocket of his jacket and then popped a couple pills into his mouth.
The house’s invisible inhabitants exchanged knowing smiles and settled down to await events in the front parlor.
~ ~ ~
Moments before the strike of midnight, the film crew was ready to begin the shoot. They had stretched cords, set up cameras, sound systems, and Tiari Rome had been talked out of dressing like an intimate of Count Dracula in black spandex. Not that the scarlet silk straining to encompass her shapely form was much of an improvement, for it left no doubt that she had neglected, once again, to don lingerie.
“Darling,” the producer murmured and kissed her brow. “Are you ready to enter into a new phrase of your career?”
She frowned. “I thought the idea was to get me back on Hollywood’s A-list. To have the public voting me back into the spotlight at the Golden Globe awards. To give me an edge.”
“And so this will, darling,” he assured, though his voice lacked conviction. As if aware of it, he took a step back. Then, as a horrendous screech echoed through the house, leaped in the air to a height frequently applauded by Olympic judges.
“What in the blazes was that?” the director demanded.
The sound technician had hastily removed his earphones and was checking the condition of his hearing. “Twinkle toes stepped on the cat.”
“What cat?” Tiari snapped. “I don’t see one.”
“That… Well, there was a cat here a minute ago,” the tech said. “An orange one.”
“Naw, it was gray with white tipped ears,” the cameraman insisted.
“Black,” another of the crew countered. “The one I saw was black. Where did it go?”
In the parlor, Pip stoked transparent fingers through the ghostly white fur of the cat in her arms. “Poor kitty,” she soothed as she exchanged a grin with the other members of the house committee.
“Well done, tyke,” the major said and patted her shoulder. “Cletus, Thaddeus? Let’s give them some EVP.”
The two saluted -- Thaddeus sloppily, Cletus smartly -- and vanished.
Seemingly recovered from the cat’s screech, the sound tech tapped the dials of his monitor. “Do you hear that?” he asked loudly and bravely donned his earphones once more. “Sounds like someone is talking, but I can’t make out what it is.”
Tiari’s interest picked up. “Are they whispering?”
“No, no. It’s a conversation. Two distinct voices but the words are indistinct,” he said, twitching the knobs on his console.
“It’s ESPN,” Cletus informed his ghostly cohorts as he strolled back into the room through the wall.
The director was leaning toward the equipment in the foyer now. “I thought I heard laughter.”
Thaddeus slipped back among them. “The Tonight Show,” he said. “We’re lucky the staff keeps a variety of devices available for our use. If only I could have found the I-pod, we’d have further distortion.”
In the hallway, the cameraman had cocked his head to the side. “Is that music?”
Tiari sighed theatrically and rolled her heavily made up eyes. “It’s a beer commercial! One of you imbeciles forgot to turn off whatever program you were watching!”
“Whoops!” Cletus melted back through the wall. The EVP – electronic voice phenomena -- noises evaporated nearly as quickly as he did.
The major turned to the White Lady and offered his hand. “Your turn, my dear.”
She rose gracefully and curtseyed to her companions.
“It’s gone,” the soundman said, adjusting his dials once more, as if searching for the murmuring voices.
Tiari thrust a hip out, one hand resting on it in irritation. “Are we ready to begin then?”
“Nearly, dearest,” the producer assured her, then turned so that she couldn’t see the deer in the headlights look he exchanged with the director.
“All right let’s try this again,” the director said and indicated that both film and sound should be rolling. Then he pointed at Tiari. “Whenever you’re ready.”
The petulant expression vanished from her face, replaced by a vapid grin. “Good evening, all,” she said to the camera. “We’re here in the most haunted house in the state of… What state are we in?”
“Suspense,” the cameraman murmured softly.
“But not for long,” the White Lady said as she wafted past his lens.
The man stiffened. “Did you hear that?” he demanded.
“Hear what?” The sound tech pulled his earphones off once more. “My dials never moved.”
“I’ll help them,” Thaddeus offered, and began a sonorous soliloquy from Shakespeare near one of the sound booms. He needed to float two foot above the floor to reach it, but the needles on the dials performed wondrous feats, swinging erratically left and right, in response.
“Who the hell is muttering that?” the director snapped.
“It’s not mmmEEE!” Tiari’s voice rose as the White Lady’s partially materialized form passed through her and continued up the stairs, her filmy night clothes floating around her as she moved with stately steps to the upper level before vanishing entirely.
“Do you know, I’ve never cared for this particular vase,” the dowager said, and sent a container and the fresh flower arrangement in it spilling to the floor in the foyer.
The producer nearly jumped into the director’s arms at the crash.
Tiari pressed back against the wall, hands flat against it. Next to her, a large portrait began to wobble on its suspension wire. Then it lifted free and landed with a clamor at the actress’s feet.
The dowager dusted her hands daintily as she returned to her place in the parlor just as the White Lady floated back among them through the ceiling.
“Don’t fret,” the dowager told the others. “It wasn’t a painting of any of our relatives, just a stranger the society foisted on us.”
“Oh, well, in that case, it’s perfectly all right,” Thaddeus said, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
Tiari pushed away from her crouching position, her posture straightening as she shook off the momentary bout of cowardness. “I thought you said we didn’t have a budget for special effects?”
The producer still clung to the director, the whites of his eyes very prominent. “We don’t,” he whispered. “It’s real, it’s all real.”
His star wasn’t as easily convinced. “I think I know special effects when I see special effects,” she spat, then turned back to face the camera. “Are we still rolling?”
The director pushed the producer away. “We better still be,” he said.
“We never stopped,” the cameraman said. “Some of us have better nerves than others.”
The sound tech glared at him, obviously believing the comment had been directed at him.
“Time to show that boy he’s wrong,” the old man declared, pushing to his feet. “Can’t let you young fellas have all the fun now, can I?”
“I’ll help,” Pip told him.
A bare second later, the cameraman jerked back from his eyepiece as a distorted wizened face stared back at him through the lens. “Geez!” he gasped. “Did the monitor show that…OWW!” He staggered back, doubling over as if from a sharp blow, then stumbled over something crouched just behind his legs. When he tried to scramble to his feet, he found various electrical cords had tangled around his ankles, holding him temporarily captive.
The sound of a child crying softly ebbed and flowed through the night, then the thump and drag as if someone with a wooden leg was stomping down the hall dragging something heavy put enough dread in the crew’s hearts that if a gauge were attached it would have pegged out at “full.”
“Does anyone know how these particular spirits met their end?” the producer asked faintly.
“Was there a mass murderer? A cult killing?”
Tiari huffed in disgust. “Men!” she said with loathing. “Haven’t you ever been to one of those haunted house places people build at this time of year? Haunted corn fields, haunted barns, haunted junk yards, haunted this and haunted that.” She took a step down the staircase, one long scarlet painted finger outstretched toward the producer. “You’ve been suckered, Sidney. The ghosts here are fakes, just things rigged by the guys who duped you into signing a contract with them.”
“What a thoroughly disgusting creature she is,” the dowager murmured, “to think that we are nothing more than a carnival illusionist’s trick.”
The major nodded in agreement. “Not the sort we are used to at all, my dear.”
“How do they bear her?” the White Lady asked.
“Money,” Thaddeus said. “And a name in the credits.”
“I don’t like her at all anymore,” Pip contributed.
“Good for you, kitten. She’s a true viper,” Cletus said, then dropped his voice to a whisper.
“Worse than our own Aramantha, wouldn’t you say?”
The ghostly girl giggled.
On the staircase, Tiari took another step down. Lying as he was in her path, the cameraman struggled to free himself from the electrical bounds rather than be impaled by a carelessly placed stiletto heel.
Water from the broken vase had done more than merely puddle on the hardwood planks, it had begun following the slight dip in elevation created as the house settled on its foundation so that it riled toward the bottom step.
“Major!” the White Lady gasped, pointing toward disaster in the making.
The webpage detailing the leading causes of accidents – particularly fatal ones – involving electric current scrolled in the phantom officer’s mind. “Halt!” he ordered, drawing his sword and materializing in a flash before Tiari Rome.
“Oh, for heaven sakes!” the star snarled and brushed through him, stepping into the puddled water just as the cameraman’s struggles jerked two live cables apart. The spectacular shower of sparks was far from special effects quality, but the darkness that followed was complete as that in a cavern. The sudden silence was just as chilling.
“Flashlights!” someone shouted, breaking the spell.
The major swore, something none of the others had ever heard him do in well over a dozen decades.
“Is she…?” the White Lady whispered.
As if in answer, a bright light appeared at the top of the staircase.
“Is who what?” Tiari Rome’s voice demanded sharply.
Unaware that the foyer was already alight with the glow from above, the living flicked their flashlights to life. The swinging arcs settled quickly on the form lying motionless at the foot of the stairs. A figure gowned in slightly damp and smoking scarlet.
“NO!” a multitude of voices shouted in unison. But it wasn’t the living that gave throat to the prayer.
“Is that me?” Tiari asked, staring down at the body that lay at her now transparent feet. “Whoa!”
The dowager seemed to be gasping for breath, as she might have done in her final moments of life. “I refuse to spend eternity trapped with…with THAT!” she declared, gesturing to the recently departed actress, and dashed for the stairs and the light above.
“Yes,” the White Lady murmured. “I certainly can’t think of any unfinished business I have here any longer. Can any of you?”
“Not a thing,” Cletus said. “Can’t think why I ever lingered.”
“Me either,” Thaddeus announced.
“Ditto,” the old man said.
“I think I near my mother calling me,” Pip declared.
“Suddenly the idea of staying here is akin to a fate far worse than death,” the major said.
“Behind you all the way,” the others agreed, and in a mad dash, the remaining phantoms rushed up the staircase, nearly trampling the startled transparent form of Tiari Rome. A moment later they were through the glowing gate and into the suddenly welcome unknown.
Tiari looked after them petulantly. “Audiences,” she snarled in disgust, then turned back to her crew. “Somebody find the circuit box, will you? And call 911, for Pete’s sake! I might be dead now, but I need all the publicity I can get. Can’t you see the headlines? Talk about luck! This is the edge that will put me above those backstabbing divas in Hollywood. Just think, no more dieting, no fretting about wrinkles in the future. I’ll stay as perfect as I am right now! That’s something we can pump for all it’s worth. I need to call my agent. Oh, I think we need a better name for my show now too, don’t you, guys? What do you think of…”
The Committee © 2009 Beth Daniels / J.B. Dane
Cover and Interior format: Beth Daniels
Cover graphic: Dreamstime
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, recording, or file sharing, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission from the author. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.