The house lights were on in the converted barn of a theater and a lone spotlight lit the edge of the stage. A young man from the restaurant and bar that was connected to the theater struggled with a case of heavy glass bottles. As he lugged his load to the high store room up in the rafters, he tried not to think about how creepy the empty theater felt between shows,
“‘Put the extra booze in the stage storage’ he says. Like that’s nothing at all.” The young man mumbled to himself. “I bet he couldn’t even get up here hauling his own fat butt, much less a case of high grade hangover.” He got to the top of the stairs and walked along the tenuous catwalk to the storage area for things that hung from the trusses that hid in the shadows above the stage. Adding a case of Jim Beam to the rusted can lights and discarded sets, the young bar back sat down for a break.
From his vantage point just outside the storage room, he could see it all. The stage was raised, but an orchestra pit sank into the floor just in front of it. Two wide stairways angled out on either side just in front of the left and right curtains that hid the small backstage wings. He could see the scuff on the worn floorboards where the curtain hit, separating the bit that was always visible from the bit that could be hidden.
At his level, there were decades of ropes, trusses, and cables among the catwalks. Up here were all the things that made the stage actually work. He’d helped with a few production set ups and knew that the real work happened up here and that the actors, for all their top billing, were just the outer most coat of paint, the finishing touch on lots of grubby work.
As he watched, the theater’s manager came through the back door, trailing two others across the stage. “So, Mr. Crabtree, do you think you can help us?”
“It’s Raymond, please,” the man said. “I’ll certainly try.”
A soft, Swedish-accented voice added, “This really is a lovely theater.”
“Yes, but performers are a superstitious lot.” The group walked down the stage steps and made their way to the side door. The fading voice added, “There are a number of people who simply refuse to work here. It’s getting hard to stage a play. We just wound down our summer ‘Experimental Experience Theater’ for the students from Penn State. Without the kids, any thoughts of a fall season are right out the window. Professionals avoid this place because of the haunting, you see.”
The indifferent bar back shrugged and dropped off his case. Turning to go back down stairs, he felt a rope going around his head.
“Jesus!” He jumped back, startled. The end of the rope was tied in a noose and left at just the right height. “Who puts something like this here? Almost walked into it ‘n killed myself!” He swatted the rope and made it swing.
From below, the overly artsy stage manager continued talking. “The strange occurrences were one thing, but they’ve lately gotten downright dangerous. A theater is no place for things to be … well … out of place.
Suddenly, it stopped swinging, as if in the grip of an invisible person. He stared, mesmerized. As he watched, the knot of the noose slid up and the loop widened. Another rope snaked over and pushed a bend through the noose.
Frozen by the strange sight, the young man didn’t notice a third rope snaking across the floor, positioning itself in a circle behind his feet. The rope tied itself into a slip knot. Lost in the shadows, the ballast at the rope’s other end teetered on a section of the lighting rig.
“Professionals like myself, you see, will tolerate much, but safe working conditions are simply a given. Without that the show cannot go on.”
The bend of rope began to take shape in the noose. The scene mesmerized the startled bar back. It looked like the outline of a person’s head and moved in the same halting motion as a man condemned. The knot slammed down. The noose squeezed around the rope head with deadly violence and the figure struggled in its grip. As the astonished young man watched, the head outline flailed and went limp.
Too stunned to think, he stepped back from the sight, putting his foot in the rope trap. The ballast bag fell down toward the stage. The rope pulled, tightening around the young man’s ankle. The force continued to pull, yanking the scared young man off balance and wrenching him into space above the stage.
When it was over, he was upside down, dangling in the air, and white as a ghost.
“I quit!” The well-built Swede’s nostrils flared as she screamed in Raymond’s face. While middle age had not robbed the blonde of her exceptional looks, her angry face certainly did. She wheeled around on one heel, swinging her stuffed luggage around the oak-paneled front hall. All the while, muttered Swedish curses fell from the makeup mask of her face.
Raymond gave chase. “Hey, uh, you can’t quit now Ines, we’ve got an investigation!”
“Like hell I can’t.” Her English halted but her anger pressed on. “I caught your pervert brother peeking on me in the shower.” She turned to Billy and pointed a finger. “AGAIN!”
Billy tucked his greasy blonde locks behind his ear. “It’s not my fault you didn’t lock the door.”
“Yeah. Lock the door. Funny. Raymond, tell him to shut up.”
“Billy, shut up.” Raymond rubbed his temples. With a sigh, he summoned all his patience and persuasiveness. “Now come on. Think about your professionalism. You can’t back out now just when things were getting good. You can’t just…” His summoning ran out and his lost words gave way to a fluttering mass of hands.
“No. I can just…” Her hands mocked him, flying around. “… and I will. Find yourself another psychic.” Looking at Billy she said, “I’ve had it with this child.” She threw open the door and pulled her bags out behind her. With furious grace, she walked down the stone steps to a waiting cab.
Billy yelled. “Yeah, well it’s not like we need you!” He turned to Raymond. “Is it?”
Inside the stately manor house, Raymond scratched his graying temple and rubbed his shallow chin. He watched the Taxi disappear. “Hm. We’re going to need to find a new medium.” Raymond retreated from the wide stone archway and shut the massive wood and wrought iron door behind him.
The two men looked at the resume before them and down the table at the mid-fifties white woman with the grey and caramel afro.
“So,” he glanced at the sheet through his reading glasses. “Professor Nastria, um…what are you a professor of again?”
“I hold two PHD’s. One in Numerology and another in Parapsycology.”
“Ah, very good.”
Billy leaned over and said into his ear, “Good? That’s got quack written all over it. She couldn’t be more of a quack if she got up on the table right now and shot out an egg.”
“Wait,” she said. “There is a presence.”
“What kind of presence?”
“I sense… a little girl.” She searched Raymond’s eyes. “Yes. She’s angry.”
The blonde young man threw his hands up. “I’d be angry too, if I didn’t exist. Come on, Ray, she’s a scammer.”
“Hm,” Raymond said, half way between an actual sound and clearing his throat. “So… Professor, can I ask what made you interested in our enterprise?”
“You don’t want to know of this girl?”
Raymond gave a patient smile. “In a bit. The dead have plenty of time on their hands. We’re here to talk about you.” The woman abandoned her far-off stare and Raymond continued. “You see, our investigations into the paranormal, while we take them very seriously, are a sideline to the primary business here. This is a working farm and though you won’t be asked to pick fruit, squash grapes, or bake pies, I will need someone to help me keep the books straight and handle the guests we receive for the various wine making retreats we sponsor through the summer. In short, you’d be dealing with the living more than the dead on a day to day basis.”
She looked around at the dining room. “That’s … I had assumed that there would be more call for my… unique skillset in this position.”
“Hm. While the highlands region is steeped in spirits, they are notoriously light on funds. The people we assist with their encounters are likewise not always rolling in dough. We sometimes are otherwise compensated, I’m never short of hands at harvest times, but for room, board, healthcare and additional monetary compensation, I will need someone who will participate in all aspects of our concern.”
Billy leaned in and said, “Forget spooks, this lady is afraid of anything that sound like work.”
“Yes,” the woman said from across the table. “I suppose I can see the boundaries of the position a little more clearly. I suppose I can help with the books and such, though the girl in your house may require soothing before I feel comfortable welcoming people into this environment.”
“Of course. We can make that a priority if you like. And while we’re on the topic, do you sense anything else?”
“Book keeping? I sense a con artist. Here, gimmie.” Billy grabbed the resume and the pen.
“Billy, this is hardly helpful,” Raymond whispered, trying to grab back his pen. The two fought, but Billy could still write.
Billy fended off Raymond’s tug at the pen and wrote under experience, “Con Artist” and under other abilities, “Being an ugly cow to boot.”
From across the table, The Professor’s jaw dropped. “I don’t know what you are playing at, but I’m not going to sit here and let you interrogate me while simultaneously insulting me.” She got up, raised her nose and trotted away. From the dining room, they could both hear the front door slam.
“Damn, she’s one hell of a grifter. She was able to read that all the way over there, and upside down! I bet numerology is a euphemism for bank fraud.”
“Hm. We are no closer to finding a medium and the professor there was the last of the bunch. All charlatans. You being a jackass didn’t help. We’ll have to find someone.”
“Yeah, well… Maybe we should hit the bars?”
“I got one last idea, Billy. You hold down the fort.”
A small bell rang as the door opened. The curio shop was stuffed and stuffy. Light didn’t get to travel far before getting swallowed by the many things that lined the many shelves in the expansive space. Raymond stepped in from a cool, early fall afternoon and let the shadows take him in.
“Ah, Mr. Crabtree-how-good-it-is-to-see-you.”
The voice was unmistakable and Raymond relaxed. “Hi Marta. How is business?”
“Better-I-dare-say, than yours. Ines was such a talented and lovely girl. You should have tried harder to keep her.” Following the voice, Raymond found her body in the left most isle, inspecting the goods. “Good help is hard to find-you-know.”
“Hm. That is why I’m here,” he said, walking to her, a box now clearly visible in his hands.
A swift turn brought her ashen face up to his. “Trying to cherry pick the talent eh?” Her face saddened as she returned to rummaging through the stuff. “Thought you had at least a small sense of decorum.” She found what she was looking for and walked away from him.
“I did, or actually, I do. Look, I’m really in a bit of a bind here.” Raymond stammered and struggled to keep up with the tiny old lady dashing through the narrow spaces of the curio shop. His package making him juggle in spots. “Do you know of any talent that I could, I don’t know, borrow? I’m working on a case, a total milk run for a pro. I’ve got most of it, I think, but I need a sensitive medium to help me crack it open and seal the deal. You know… rather than just going in and being…” He rounded the corner and found himself face to face with the snarling face of a stuffed bear head. “…spooked.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know, Raymond. I try to keep my network away from prying eyes.”
“Hm,” he said, backing up from the taxidermy. “Shame. The orchard has been pretty good to us this year. The apples, especially.”
“Really?” Her tone changed, just slightly. “So, what are you getting at here?”
“Just that for a valued customer who just happens to be looking for a home for a freshly baked apple pie, you might bend the rules a tad?” He looked at her with a smile and opened the box he was carrying. Immediately, the smell of cinnamon and apples wafted through the dust and leather smell of the store. He snapped the lid closed, still grinning.
She froze. “This is bribery-you-know.”
“As naked as it gets.” He broke into pleading. “Come on Marta. I just need some help. Maybe an up-and-comer looking to make a name for themselves.”
Trying to look disinterested, she passed by the middle aged man. “I might have someone. I’ll make some phone calls.”
“Thanks Marta, you are a sweetheart.”
“Yes, well…” She shot a glance over her shoulder. “leave the pie on your way out-would-you-young-man?”
A tiny blue hatchback turned off the sleepy state road just past the ornate sign that read “Crabtree Farm” in big red letters. It crunched down the pea gravel lane, past the rows and rows of chrysanthemums that made an orange front lawn for the multi-roofed main house. The gravel widened out in front of the house, forming a large flat reception area. Benches hid among the low hedges while a whitewashed gazebo sat at the edge of the curve. The car stopped and
Raymond put down his book. Leaving it on the gazebo’s bench, he walked out to greet his visitor. “Hi. You must be Lisa.”
The woman shut her door and smiled. “I must be. Yeah. Raymond Crabtree?”
“In the flesh.” He smiled. Faced with the young girl, he found himself with nothing to say. For an uncomfortable moment, his sweater vest became a straight-jacket.
The young lady was looking around and didn’t seem to notice. “You have quite a house here, Mr. Crabtree. What do you do out here?”
“Raymond, please.” He smiled. “The farm does a variety of things. Flowers, apples… Hm. I give classes on winemaking, weekends. The hipsters who take the wine class do most of the work for their own vanity vintage.”
“That’s quite the racket.” She smiled.
“Well, everyone’s happy. For me, I get to keep the house and left over grapes. Would you like a sample of this years’ jelly?”
The young brunette walked towards the left at Raymond’s direction. “If you could take a seat in the study, tea service will be right out.”
Billy sat on the kitchen’s old stone counter as his brother busied himself making a tray. “Tea service? Is this an interview or a social call?”
“I’d like you to hear me, Billy,” Raymond sighed. “Please just listen outside the study and be quiet. I’m conducting the interview, ok?” He took the tray, with its homemade jam and hot tea, through the kitchen door.
Billy called after him, “Fine, but I saw her. Bright, young. Are you interviewing for a medium or a girlfriend?”