Hauntology or The Two of Swords

It had been almost six years since I had the call. Back then, I was still working in Gooney's. I had just clocked in for my shift. My starched uniform had been too small and truck-drivers constantly leered over the counter at me. It was only worth it because I Knew I would see Keris afterwards. Balancing a tray of drinks, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I took the call at the back of the kitchen, and they told me what she'd done.

I only ever got glimpses of the full picture- I would see her with a black eye, or a red cheek. Her father's doing, but something she never explicitly told me about. I only saw these things through tinted glass, really. I could only infer her mother's indifference from the way Keris spoke of her. I also hazarded a guess that her brother was growing up the mirror image of their father, always with a hand in the cruelty she faced. I recall how her father screamed at her as she ran, head down, toward my car from their porch. She tripped and her brother, also present, had laughed cruelly. The rest only existed in my imagination like a permanently unscratched itch.

And so, I desperatley willed her to move out, to get away from her family. Whenever I broached the subject, she was quick to turn on the radio in my car, or to smile and change the subject. I loved her. My nightmare was of a home life where her neighbours reported a 'domestic disturbance' quick to be overlooked, where screams were ignored. She crashed at my place sporadically, always to be called home in the end. I wanted to prise her free from all that, but, tragically, she never let me in. She never told me how bad it actually was, never cried to me over the phone. Secretly, I could tell it was rotting her from the inside out, but I never made the final push when I should have. So, what I did instead was start saving up. I pictured a place in the city, just for us, where no one could hurt her.

When they called, I knew all the money in the world would be worthless now that she was dead. They told me she had killed them; killed her family, then herself. After that, she slowly became just a local legend, always creeping round the collective unconscious of our home town. Teenagers didn't know her by name or face, but by reputation; they threatened each other with the very idea of her. Our old teachers came out in cheap news segments and said they had always known she was 'troubled'. People avoided her old house, and it never re-sold. That was what became of my Keris, the one I had been saving up for. It made me want to howl; everything I knew about how fair she was, how kind, how strong, all corroded in her last heated moments. Obscured by the smog that came from a hose duct-taped to the exhaust of the family car, snaking room to room. Ruined by the coverage that followed were all those plans, all my savings. I was powerless to stop her from becoming a ghoul. They cremated her soon after, and all I had left was a lock of her hair.

As it transpired, that tiny wisp of a braid was all I needed to be accepted into the Hauntological Society. Kirkpatrick told me: "It's haunting with an aim, with a goal. There are some jobs only ghosts can do- and the money's not bad, hours're good..." He had already been a member for years when we met, cut from the same cloth as me, or so he said. I really should have learned from my mistakes and begged concrete answers instead of guessing, but, again, I pictured who he was instead of really knowing him. I envisioned some spectres of the past clinging to him, and him making a living off it.

He had approached me at Gooney's one evening shortly after the funeral, went right up to the counter and asked for me by name. I was on autopilot at the time, and had been going through the motions since the news broke. When I sat down and half-listened to him, his talk of ghosts, secret societies, invites, and souvenirs didn't reach a part of my brain that registered. I suppose I was just staring at him blankly until he brought up Keris, then I snapped to attention. He was asking about her belongings, and I thought he was some newspaper creep like the kind who had approached me on the street out of nowhere ealier that week, trying to get a quote.

The going rumour in my hometown was that Keris's house was haunted, but I knew where her ghost really was. It was under my employ. The lock of hair, Kirkpatrick had explained, allowed me to call on and control her ghost. The Society assigned jobs where an apparition was needed, and all I had to do was register. Besides, he claimed, other society members would soon be after Keris's souvenir. The crime was notable enough that news would travel fast. He offered to help, and I thought I could protect her memory.

Murderers, people notorious in life, in death had found new infamy; their very souls were compressed into trinkets and carried around in the pockets of my co-workers. Members of the Hauntological Society would trade, kill for, and steal these dreadful 'souvenirs' to get control of the ghosts tied to them. Haunting jobs were assigned based on specifications, and members would bring their trinkets to the operations to set the ghosts loose, making them bend to their will, the will of the job. Kirkpatrick claimed that if I didn't make these people my colleagues, they would turn these demons on me just to claim Keris as another trophy.

When I was attacked shortly after, I heeded Kirkpatrick's warning, positive that another member of the Hauntological society was behind it. Who else could take responsibility for that long-missing wraith? I remember that the press had called him the Westbrook Vampire for his bizarre methods, victims found with their throats torn out. I might have heard of him in a documentary or something. I knew enough to know that the whole thing was a cold-case now. But if he hadn’t been active for years, then why was he here, murky and lunging toward me from the shadows so fast that all I could see was the gleam of something metal- his teeth. He bit me bad. It was only until I was five blocks away, still running, willing myself not to turn around, did I touch my face and realise how bad the wound was. A crescent bite-mark on my cheek that needed seventeen stitches. Even now, the scar is still my most prominent feature.

"They'll come after you." Kirkpatrick had warned. "That's how I found out about you. Getting a souvenir like your friend's... They won't care if they have to kill you. They'll call it a promotion."

So I called Kirkpatrick at the number he had left me, and he brought me to register with the Society. Keris was to be my first employee. We went to a records room at the old library building; think many floors that creak with age, lots of old scholars shuffling about, the silence broken only by coughing, and pages rustling. Maybe I had been there on a school trip once, who knows; it was only one town over from mine. I found out later on that there were other society offices dotted around the country, similarly hidden down corridors or in nondescript office buildings and basements amongst pipes. All of them had one thing in common; cabinets and cabinets of ghosts. I had to give Keris a moniker, all ghosts have one. I named her for Mayhem, her favourite band. Her 'class-type' was a different matter.

There are three classifications for ghosts; A, B, and C. "A." Kirkpatrick had said flippantly to the administrator, an older woman who sat behind a desk, more security guard than receptionist, her bulky frame blocking the rows of cabinets behind her. She hadn't believed him, so an adjudicator was called. To this day I still don't know where from. Kirkpatrick said that people who sat on the board of the Hauntological Society, those who sent out job forms, were 'anonymites' (that was exact word he used, and I was too baffled by my newfound knowledge of hidden supernatural worlds to tell him it wasn't a real one). No one knew where the, uh, 'head offices' were, so to speak. Everything went through the administrator, but she seemed to know the adjudicator well.

We had a trial haunting. My job was to will Keris's ghost- Mayhem- to pester (for want of a better word) a drug syndicate into abandoning the squat they were operating out of. She cleared house, literally. Killed them all. The adjudicator remarked that it was impressive, especially for my first ghost. "A-Classes are a rarity," he told me as he signed off the form that they then filed under my name. My membership was granted.

The flash I'd seen of Keris in that squat was ruthless, her last violent moments immortalised. Blackened skull, the stench of smoke clinging to her scalp. That image burned me. That was what my lover had become. Monstrous.

I loathed to find out that infighting amongst co-workers wasn't disallowed. The appearance of Mayhem had ruined any plans I had to preserve Keris's memory with my membership, so all I had left was to try and keep myself safe from other spooks like the Westbrook Vampire and whoever controlled him. Fat chance; I had probably painted an even bigger target on my back by making a name for myself within the society. The newbie with the A-Class. Kirkpatrick said I would have to use Mayhem to protect myself, but I refused to see that demon again. He gave me a souvenir from his own collection. "Call it a confirmation gift," he had said. The employee was called Slit-Whack. A man with a box-cutter and a dream who had, in life, killed two police officers and started flaying one before being shot. B-Class, captured in a box-cutter shard which I now carried in my breast pocket. Slit-Whack killed again when a Society member ambushed me in a carpark a week or so later, vying for the lock of Keris's hair. No one really bothered me after that.

At first, I accompanied Kirkpatrick on jobs. We travelled all over the country together, and our careers blossomed side by side. Really, he was my only friend. Still, I think I secretly resented him for not being Keris, and he resented me for... Whatever. He too was never fully open with me, and I was left to wonder what had led him to work for the Society. I saw once, when he had his shirtsleeves rolled up (he always wore two-piece suits), that he had a number of colourful tattoos on his arms. I never saw them again until the very end. We were in each other's shadows, playfully competitive and yet clinging to each other because, honestly, who else could we talk to? 'Back-to-back we faced each other, drew our swords and shot each other'. I think me and Keris learned that in school.

Kirkpatrick took all sorts of jobs, it was all the same to him. At first, I only watched from the side-lines. Every week, a one trip or more, and then back to the old library building: "Ah yes, we do have something that you could do, how about..." and "I'll call ahead, let them know you're coming." He was given a dossier, and then, two weeks after completion, cash in a white envelope, all over the administrator's counter. Very zero-hours.

Kirkpatrick sent a C-Class to torment a woman whose husband wanted her declared insane. He cleared whole apartment blocks for seedy landlords with only a B-Class apparition controlled by a cigarette lighter. I even saw him carry out an assassination with an awful piece of work: Juggernaut, a giant who in life had worked in a carnival freakshow before crushing the skull of his boss and absconding. Kirkpatrick had one of his bones dangling from a key chain. He joked to me about how much it had cost him, but I had been appalled. Still, the money he earned spoke for itself.

So, for the money, only the money (I was desperate), I used Slit-Whack to help a camera crew capture poltergeist footage. "An easy job for a beginner," the administrator said when she passed on the dossier. "An overkill to use a B-Class for something like that," Kirkpatrick had said.

My next assignment, and my next. I used Mayhem for one, reasoning that it was unavoidable. It was a contract kill that required an A-Class, and A-Class jobs paid the best. The money had been too alluring to refuse. After that, I accompanied Kirkpatrick cross-country to help him recover a souvenir belonging to a woman who had poisoned her children. Along the way I paid a small sum to a retired society member for a B-Class not worth naming, and my collection took off from there.

I found myself thinking more and more of ghosts. Not just the ones I had in my employment, but ones I'd heard about as a kid. Another rumour from my hometown, started by a woman known within the community to be a bit of an attention-seeker, was that every night, at the same time, a shadow figure appeared in her front room and stood motionless. But with what aim? It probably wasn't a society job. Kirkpatrick and I had once sat in a diner, and he motioned for me to look at the TV. A news report was playing about a gallery fire. "That's one of ours," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "A bit tasteless in my opinion, all those paintings burned up for an insurance check; but, hey, work's work."

It all changed when I was in the records room, registering another B-Class years later. I had gained such a name for myself by now that they didn't even bother to send an adjudicator, like they had in the first few years. They just took my word for it. It was nearly Christmas, and the administrator was in a hurry. She asked if I could file it myself because she had to catch a train. I had never been back there amongst the cabinets before. Cabinets and cabinets. Most contained files with only a single registration form. How many only had one ghost? How many had joined, like me, simply with the intention of keeping a memory alive? How many, put off after seeing a violent spectre transmuted from their recently deceased loved one, had never worked again? Even more disturbing was the number of files with hundreds of forms; these were people I'd never even heard of but so prolific that they must have had to keep whole boxes full of employee souvenirs at home.

I stopped at the drawer containing Kirkpatrick's file. I had no ill-intetntion whatsoever. It's not as if I was trying to dredge up some ill-fated truth. It was Christmas, and I was bored and nosy. Part of Kirkpatrick's secrecy had always annoyed me to no end, but, still, when I opened the drawer to take a quick look, it was more idle than malicious. I knew we weren't friends in the traditional sense; what we had was a work relationship, and an unconventional one at that. I knew that there was nothing real to betray, but still, seeing the Westbrook Vampire's form in that drawer stung, and sent me reeling home with my head fogged. I had never found out who had sent it after me all those years back.

He had told me the only way to protect Keris's memory was to work as a Hauntologist, a society member. Before that, a buried memory now resurfaces: I recall he had offered to take the souvenir off my hands. At the time, I had thought he was being kind. I think of the things I had Mayhem- Keris's ghost- do. A rabbit-hole I could not climb out of. What memory was I protecting?

Before Kirkpatrick, before Mayhem, before the Westbrook Vampire, me and Keris would drive for hours, black-metal blaring, ash on the dashboard and the smell of cigarettes in the car. I can never pick out special memories, ones that make for good stories. In reality, a lot of what we did was nothing. Lying on my bed and looking up at the ceiling, our conversation looping round and round. Being with her was indescribable, like having a second skin. I've never been that close with anyone, and it still tears me up inside when I picture her concealed sadness, knowing it was almost time for her to go home.

Keris. Mayhem. Every time I saw that ghoul, I was taken aback by how a violent death can change someone, but now I'm not sure that's the truth. Keris isn't Mayhem, and I think perhaps she never was. I became aware that ghosts were no more than their reputation. Facades. The rumours and memories and grief that flood to fill the empty space in the world left over when someone dies. Figures built on imagination and exaggeration.

My Keris had always been dead, in the sense that dead means gone. What stood in her place was my- and now I can admit it- anger at her for leaving me alone, for never letting me close enough to truly help her. My anger at myself. Mayhem is what I fear she ended up as; violent, sick, and afraid, lashing out. Every frightened comment I heard from kids in my hometown adding to that flickering image, an altar of make-believe. I was keeping it all alive. By my power, that was what remained. But how could I move on? My career with the Hauntological Society had been far from normal, in part because I refused to live any semblance of an average life without her. A self-created stalemate.

When I confronted Kirkpatrick, he removed a pair of steel fangs from his trouser pocket, the Westbrook Vampire materialising from the shadows behind him. I told him it all. Burn the scrapbook, I had said. Some rumours never die, but these things have no power over us if we give them none. I admit, I wasn't very concise, rambling almost. He sneered at me, his sleeves rolled up so I could see those full-length tattoos in so much detail, and the utter blankness behind his eyes. Expecting a fight, I reflexively grasped the lock of Keris's hair. Though Mayhem appeared, she looked nothing like the horror I had grown accustomed to averting my gaze from. Instead, it was Keris, school-picture day, with her hair braided. She turned to me and smiled. Knowing I was right, her image flickered, and the Vampire descended.


Kirkpatrick could never get Mayhem to work for him. Exasperated, he burned the hair, and then rifled through Rezna's pockets, taking back Slit-Whack, for one, and helping himself to the rest of her employees. He re-registered them under his name, earning an eyebrow raise from the administrator, but nothing more. After all, it wasn't illegal to kill your co-workers. It happened quite often in the Hauntological Society.

Kirkpatrick wasn't too fond of using the Westbrook Vampire, even though he knew it was his most powerful asset, an A-Class. He remembered being seventeen, chased down an alley by that madman. Seeing the gleam of steel veneers, Kirkpatrick had quickly reached for the closest weapon- a wooden board- and swung. The board had had a nail stuck through it, now embedded in the killer's temple. The Westbrook Vampire had dropped. Kirkpatrick had heard the news; he'd read the papers. He had seen those awful headlines and hastily blurred crime-scene photos of bite marks. He knew that people were being murdered, he just never thought it would happen to him.

A sophomore society member, with only a few C-Classes to his name, he still hyperventilated from his near-miss, but worked on instinct and used a shard of glass to pry out the man's steel canines. Nasty things, clearly custom made. How many lives had they ended at that time? How many would they go on to end post-mortem? He had gotten rid of the body and made haste to the nearest Society office- the old library building- to register his newest pet.

And yet years later, when approached in a condemned farmhouse by a fellow society member, still he clung to those fangs to defend himself. The last time he'd squared off against someone ghost-to-ghost had been Rezna. The other member pulled a brooch from her pocket, and the armed beast, Axeman, Maniac, whoever, reared forth. He'd beaten Rezna, he could overpower this woman too. But hadn't Rezna let herself be killed?

He remembered being seventeen, his near brush with death. His fear that night would solidify, for years to come, the image of the Vampire into a weapon strong enough to take anyone. Surely the more feared they were, the more powerful the ghost? He could take on any society member head-to-head. Some echo of what Rezna had said blundered him into confusion; without the fear, what would be left? Was that all there was keeping the husk of this killer alive. An urban-myth made solid. All smoke, no fire. An altar to his fear, a stalemate.

The Vampire appeared. A thought flashed through Kirkpatrick's mind, something new, something different for the first time since he'd been a scared kid running from a serial killer. The Vampire had seemed so much scarier at night. The Westbrook Vampire flickered, just for a moment, wavering on inexistence, and Kirkpatrick almost laughed to realise that Rezna had been right. Then the axe swung down.