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 too small and truck-drivers leering over the counter- only worth it because I Knew I would see Keris afterwards. Balancing a tray of drinks, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. They told me what she'd done.

I only ever got glimpses of the full picture- I would see her with a black eye, a cigarette-burn before she rolled down her sleeve- her father's doing. I could infer her mother's indifference from the way Keris spoke of her, or when I caught glimpses of her glassy eyes peaking from behind net curtains. Her brother growing up the mirror image of their father, I also guessed at. 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.

I wanted her to move out desperately. Whenever I broached the subject, she was quick to turn on the radio, smile and change the subject. I loved her, and the thought of her in that home life where neighbours reported a 'domestic disturbance' quick to be overlooked because her father was friends with the sheriff broke my heart. She never told me how bad it actually was, never cried to me at night on the roof of the car. I could tell it was rotting her from the inside out. She crashed at my place sporadically, always to be called home in the end. I was saving up. A place in the city 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. She had killed them, then herself. She was the local legend of the crazy blonde that had murdered her family. Teenagers knew her name and face, kids threatened each other with the idea of her. Teachers came out and said they had always known she was 'troubled'. My Keris. It made me want to scream; everything I knew about how fair she was, kind, strong. All that money, those plans, and I could not stop her from becoming a ghoul. They cremated her soon after, and all I had left was a lock of her hair.

That lock was enough for me 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 been a member for years, cut from the same cloth as me, or so he said- some spectres of the past clinging to him, he might as well make a living off it.

He had approached me at Gooney's one day shortly after the incident, went up to the counter and asked for me by name. I was on autopilot, sitting down and listening to him. "What a cruel trick," I had thought. And then when he asked about Keris's belongings- "what a creep."

While the kids in my hometown warned of Keris's house being haunted, 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- all I had to do was register. Besides, he claimed, other society members would soon be after Keris's souvenir. News travelled fast; the crime was grisly. He offered to help. I thought I could protect her memory.

Murderers, people notorious in life, now dead and compressed into objects carried around in the pockets of my co-workers. Members of the Hauntological Society traded, killed for, stole 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 op, set the ghosts loose, make them bend to their will. Would they turn these demons on me just to claim Keris as another trophy?

I was attacked shortly after. Heeding Kirkpatrick's warning, positive that another member was behind it. Who else could take responsibility for that long-missing wraith? The press had called him the Westbrook Vampire for his bizarre methods, victims found with their throats torn out. A cold-case now, he hadn’t been active for years- yet there he was, murky, lunging toward me from the shadows and all I could see was the gleam off something metal- his teeth. He bit me bad. It was only until I was five blocks away, still running, and touched my face did I realise how bad the wound was. A crescent bite-mark on my cheek. Seven stitches. The scar is still my most prominent feature.

"They'll come after you." Kirkpatrick had said. "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."

I registered with the Society, Keris as my first employee. A records room at the old library building. Floors that creaked and old people shuffling about, the silence broken only by coughing. I had maybe been there on a school trip once, who knows; it was only one town over. There were other society offices around the country, hidden down corridors, nondescript office buildings, basements amongst pipes: but all with cases and cases of ghosts. I had to give Keris a moniker, all ghosts had one. I named her for Mayhem, her favourite band. Her 'class-type' was a different matter. There are three class-types of 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. An adjudicator was called. Too this day I don't know where from. Kirkpatrick said that The Board were 'anonymites' (the exact word he used; I was too baffled by my newfound beneath-surface knowledge to tell him it wasn't real). 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 operation syndicate into abandoning the squat they were operating out of. She cleared house- killed them all. The adjudicator remarked it as impressive, especially for my first ghost. "A-Classes are a rarity," he told me as he signed off the form then filed under my name; membership granted.

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

Loathe to find out that infighting amongst co-workers wasn't disallowed; I had probably painted a 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 protect myself. I refused to use Keris, to see that demon again, so he gave me one from his own cohort of employees. 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, now carried in my breast pocket. Slit-Whack killed again when a Society member ambushed me in a carpark in Delaware, vying for the lock of Mayhem's hair. No one bothered me after that.

I accompanied Kirkpatrick on jobs. Our careers blossomed side by side, and really, he was my only friend. Still, I think I secretly resented him for not being Elizabeth, and he resented me for... Whatever. He was never fully open with me, and I was left to wonder what had led him to work for the Society. I saw once, his shirtsleeve 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'.

He was given all sorts of jobs, and at first, I watched from the side-lines. Back to the old library building: "Ah yes, we do have something that you could do, how about..." and then "I'll call ahead, let them know you're coming." A dossier, and then, two weeks after completion, cash in a white envelope, all over the administrator's counter. Very zero-hours.

Kirkpatrick set loose a C-Class on 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 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- unavoidable. It was a contract kill that required an A-Class, and the money was too alluring to refuse. I accompanied Kirkpatrick to Canada 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.

At first, I thought about any ghosts I had seen prior to my Society induction. In my hometown, there was a woman who swore that every night, at the same time, she saw a black-clad figure in her front room, motionless. But with what aim? Probably not a society job. Kirkpatrick and I sat once in a diner in Michigan, and he motioned to the TV: a news report 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 for an insurance check; but, hey, work's work."

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. The administrator was in a hurry, asked if I could file it myself because she had to catch a train. I had never been back there before. Cabinets and cabinets. Most contained only a single file registered under a name. How many only had one ghost, had joined, like me, simply to keep a memory alive. How many, put off after seeing a violent spectre transmuted from their loved one, had never worked again. Even more disturbing was the number of drawers with hundreds of files; 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 glanced over at Kirkpatrick's drawer. With no purpose- it's not as if I was trying to dredge up some ill-fated truth. Sure, he was mysterious, and part of his secrecy annoyed me to no end, but when I opened it briefly, it was more idle than malicious. I knew we weren't friends in the traditional sense, knew that there was nothing real to betray, but still, the Westbrook Vampire's file in that drawer stung, sent me reeling home with my head fogged. I had never found out who had sent it after me 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. I 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 fogging up 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 to picture her barely bricked-over sadness when she knew she had 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, 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, 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. 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 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. 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. 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. He 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. Still hyperventilating from his near-miss, he 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, Manic, whoever, reared forth. He'd beaten Rezna, he could overpower this woman too. But hadn't Rezna let herself be killed?

He remembered the alleyway, his near brush with death. His fear that night had solidified 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. A blunder 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.