My office wasn’t haunted, but it was quirky. The furniture and décor were leftover from the previous tenant, a private investigator named Angelo. He was murdered in this very office over sixty years ago. The landlady had been unable or unwilling to remove the contents since then, to the point that my lease prevented me from getting new furniture or changing the layout.
The arrangement didn’t bother me, as long as I could move in a few small comforts: a coffee maker, more bookshelves, a cot, and other similar conveniences.
The microwave dinged the sad chime of an appliance on its last legs. I tested my dinner of noodles right from the Styrofoam cup. No matter how much cheap seasoning they put in these meals I could still taste the plastic. After cooking for five minutes, the noodles still weren’t hot. If we hadn’t been in the middle of an unseasonably late cold snap this spring, I would have eaten it. Not enjoyed it, mind you. But I was wearing two sweaters and needed to warm up a bit more.
So, I put the cup back in the sickly microwave and punched in another five minutes, during which I contemplated why paranormal investigators don’t make more money. Considering how many people believe they have had a paranormal encounter, paranormal investigators should all be living in the suburbs with boat trailers parked in our driveways. Turns out, most people are unwilling to compensate a stranger offering insight into their paranormal experience. And it’s far less often to have a client who accepts the expert opinion. Denial is easier and less expensive.
The phone rang while the noodles were still cooking. I left the waiting area, passing the permanently vacant receptionist desk, and entered the suite’s single office, the only other room besides the waiting area. I didn’t recognize the caller’s number, and if I weren’t in desperate need of a kitchen appliance, I would have let it go to voicemail.
There was silence on the other line. Not the telemarketer or recorded sales pitch I had expected. Being a paranormal investigator gets your name on some pretty weird marketing lists.
“Hello,” I said.
A voice full of proper dictation but zero politeness asked, “Is this Mr. Krelig’s office?”
“Ya, who’s calling?”
“Is that any way to greet a potential customer?”
“Clearly you’re not familiar with my customers,” I fired back. The microwave dinged, and I shot it a dirty look.
“I’ll be honest. I was hoping I could leave a message.”
I responded with a lighthearted, “There is nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“No, you misunderstand. I am not the least bit embarrassed. I just think you’re a scam artist and not worth the trouble.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I think scam artists are in a higher tax bracket than me.”
He sighed. “My name is Bernard Perry, and I am calling on behalf of Marguerite Camelot. I assume you are familiar?”
The old heiress of the Camelot fortune? Everyone in New Carissimi for the past three generations knew about the Camelot family. Their faces grace the cover of the local tabloids a couple of times a year. Sometimes for weeks at a time, if the scandal was hot enough.
Since the question had an obvious answer, it wasn’t a question. It was a message. Possibly a warning. Well, I had a message I wanted to send as well. I have standards and neither power nor wealth could influence them. In fact, my standards are so high that I was broke.
“Never heard of her.” A lie is a message when all parties know the truth.
“You insult my employer.”
“No, just you. Now…” I regained my composure. “How may I assist Mrs. Camelot?”
“My employer wants to hire you to look into a matter.”
“Then, why are you calling?”
“I am the caretaker of the Camelot Estate and handle several important matters for Mrs. Camelot.”
“So, you’re the one who will be writing the check?”
Perfect. My best-paying cases are ones where the person is skeptical and there is no paranormal activity. They pay promptly to have their beliefs reinforced and suspicions confirmed.
Not everyone in my field has figured this out. Probably because almost no one in my field has firsthand experience with the paranormal. Snake oil salesmen outnumber legitimate professionals like myself.
“Well, now we’re getting somewhere. What does Mrs. Camelot need me to look into?”
“She…” he resisted the words, “is convinced the estate is haunted.”
A haunting. My specialty. I mean, I take other jobs: monsters, unexplained curiosities, and occasionally dark magic (those are the least profitable). But hauntings are my strong suit.
“Did this ghost appear recently? Does she recognize who it is?”
“She isn’t certain, but she thinks it is the ghost of her late husband.” The lack of certainty was an immediate red flag.
“And now why would her late husband want to haunt the estate?”
“This isn’t a joke, Mr. Krelig!”
“I wasn’t making one.”
“Very well, then. The usual things. She thinks he is trying to ruin her social life.”
“And I’m going to guess that, since you think I’m a scam artist, you don’t share her opinions?”
“My, aren’t you the detective.”
“I assume there is a household staff?”
“Indeed, fifteen full-time employees.”
The number made me lose my train of thought. What do fifteen people do all day at a mansion with only one resident?
“Sorry. I’m in the middle of dinner,” I lied.
“I’d be more than happy to call back,” he said eagerly.
“No, no, no. Um, do any of the staff think the house is haunted?”
“Of course not.”
A second red flag. Only one person was saying there was a ghost.
“Is the ghost in a room or does it roam freely?” The question was a roundabout way of asking if other people had a chance to confirm the haunting.
Bernard took a moment before saying “I suppose the latter. She didn’t specify.”
As much as I didn’t like the idea of agreeing with Bernard, the case had enough red flags for me to doubt Mrs. Camelot’s claim. This felt like a setup.
“So, to sum up, she’s certain the place is haunted, and suspects it is her husband. Are there any additional details you would like to share with me?”
“Yes, you are to assist Mrs. Camelot in determining who is haunting the mansion. Report to the Camelot estate at precisely 9 a.m. tomorrow.”
Most clients hire me to make the ghost go away. Could this be a third red flag? Did I really care?
My caseload was so light I knew should probably take the case regardless of whether or not I thought something supernatural was involved. Or even if I suspected that I was being set up.
“You should know I bill a minimum of ten hours for this sort of work.” A bill for ten hours of a consultant’s time is usually enough to last them a week. The rest of their week is spent fishing for new clients. But I can make that sum of money last at least a month. Life is considerably more affordable when you’re not trying to impress anyone.
Bernard’s pompous voice replied, “Mrs. Camelot will have no difficulty compensating you for your time.”
“I charge the ten hours even if there isn’t a ghost. Even if this is a prank.”
The formality and confidence in his voice were gone, even though the snottiness was still there.
“I assure you Mrs. Camelot has no interest in anything so common as a prank.”
He knew, alright, but if I pestered him anymore, I’d risk losing the case, and the month of peace it would buy me. A paying client was always my favorite kind of client even when I didn’t like them.
Bernard gave me the directions to the Camelot mansion. He also provided parking instructions, which struck me as odd. Who needs instruction when there is a valet to park the car for you? He then provided a brief summary of the proper etiquette expected at the residence, which I ignored. When it comes to telling someone they haven’t seen a ghost, I’m the authority on the proper way to deliver the message.
In a strange way Bernard reminded me of my ornery mechanic, and it went beyond the fact that they shared the same name. They were both pains, just in different ways. Bernie was more of the silent pain in the neck, and Bernard was the out loud pain in the ass.
Bernard told me one more time to be punctual before hanging up.
I walked over to my dinner and put it back in the microwave for another five minutes. When it was done, I concluded the machine just didn’t have enough gumption to get the noodles hotter than lukewarm.