The blonde woman at the front desk gave me a weird look as I stepped out of the elevator. I guess I stood out: everything about the office space screamed “class,” from the modern art paintings on the wall, to the automated water-cooler, to the huge windows opening out onto the city below. Potted plants, stone sculptures, office drones in suits and ties, wearing stress on them like cheap aftershave. And then there’s me, some Yank urchin rolls in, with her jeans and her hoodie and her dyed hair. It gets noticed. The blonde woman was arguing on a phone while another pair of phones lit up in front of her. Her smile spasmed when she saw me: I could almost see the fight going on her head, like she couldn’t decide whether she should help the scruffy intruder or call security. Poor thing. You’d think she ‘d never seen a necromancer before.
‘Ummm…’ The receptionist covered the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand. ‘Can I help you?’ Faint accent, northern English. She was trying to hide it, and failing
‘Yeah. Hi.’ I tossed a business card onto the counter. Hey, free advertising. ‘I’m here to fix the computers?’
The receptionist went for a half-smile. ‘Oh. Hang on a moment.’ She hung up the phone, picked up another, dialled a number.
‘Mr Roberts? It’s Sarah. Hi. There’s a… young woman here to see you. Yes. Yes, a woman. Really. Yes. I see. Thanks, I’ll tell her.’ She put the phone down. ‘Mr Roberts is busy at the moment, He’ll be with you as soon as he’s available. Please take a seat.’ She gestured towards the chairs on the opposite wall.
‘Nah, that’s alright.’ I leaned on the desk. The receptionist smiled a smile that she must have learned from TV, then turned away and started dialling another number.
‘Busy today?’ I asked, but she was already talking to someone else.
I waited. Drummed my fingers on the desk. Looked around the office. It was a wide-open space, separated by cubicle dividers, filled with the sounds of phones going off and the frantic rhythm of typing. Someone had spent a lot of money here: the monitors were knife-thin, sporting glossy, high-def displays. Each of the desktop towers could have paid for my college tuition for a semester. Someone took this stuff seriously. On any other day the staff might have been working peacefully at their desks, waiting out the clock until lunch or the end of the world, whichever came first. Not today: the staff were scurrying around like ants at a picnic, red-faced and flustered, filling the air with desperate shouting and the acid stench of frustration. Something was wrong.
A middle-aged man with a red t-shirt stained with sweat wandered over to me, offered his hand. I took it. It felt like week-old fish in my palm.
‘Hello. Ken Roberts, head of Information Services.’ He spoke with a lisp and couldn’t quite close one side of his mouth. ‘You’re Liz?’
‘Yeah. Liz Brink.’ I hadn’t given my real name over the phone. “Jennifer Bromley” is on too many watch lists, but “Lizzy Brink”? She’s everyone’s friend. ‘I hear you got a problem.’
‘A problem.’ He snorted, shook his head, spraying sweat onto the floor. ‘We don’t have a problem. Management thinks we have a problem, but I can assure you, we don’t’
‘Sure. Do you mind if I take a look anyway? Since you guys are paying me.’
He scratched the spot on his head where his hair used to be, scowled. ‘Follow me.’
I followed him past rows of cubicles, full of people fighting with machines. One guy picked up his mug and threw it through the monitor. Another shook his laptop to try and stop the theme to NYPD Blue plying over the speakers. I watched as one guy tried and failed to close a window on the screen, filled with the pulsating skin. I hoped the picture was meant to be upside down.
‘Really, we don’t need your help,’ Roberts said, walking so fast that I had to take strides to keep up. ‘The issue is being sorted.’
‘Uh huh.’ I nodded. ‘Any idea what it could be?’
Roberts shrugged. ‘We believe it might be a cyber-attack. Initially we thought it might be the Evenstar trojan, but…‘ He pointed at screen playing a five second clip from The Wizard of Oz ‘—Some of the symptoms are a little… peculiar.’
‘What are you doing to fix it?’
‘Everything we can. Rebooting the system. Running anti-virus. Verifying the symptoms online.’
I nodded. Of course. Switching it off and on again. Asking Doctor Google. Checking for bugs. All pretty routine. If you were reading from a checklist.
‘So we don’t need your help,’ Roberts continued ‘But Management has decided we might need a fresh perspective from an outside source.’
‘And here I am.’
‘Yes,’ he sneered. ‘Here you are. Didn’t think a professional IT consultant would be quite so… young’
‘Young?’ I rolled my eyes. What he meant to say was female. I watched his expression, saw the way his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. He thought I was on his turf. Just some punk chick, treading on his toes. Great. ‘I’ll do what I can.’
Roberts grunted something. He led me past a door marked “IT Services”, into a little room with a computer cluster in the center, servers towering against the walls. It was like stepping back in time: dank and dirty after the shiny lights and glass surfaces of the office. Old legacy hardware yellowed by age, a few old floppy disks strewn about the Sinclair keyboards. Would have made a nice late-80s themed retro bar. But as IT hubs went, it was only a few steps beyond a blackboard and smoke signals.
‘Okay.’ I ran my finger along the top of a monitor, tracing a line in the dust. ‘Your… situation. What are the symptoms?’
‘Well.’ Roberts coughed, cleared his throat. ‘There’s the network disruption, obviously: we’re down to kilobits per second, at best. Then there’s the bug checks, the fatal errors, the security failures, the nuisance calls, the phone disruption, the–’
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘That would be consistent with an outside attack. But that’s not why you called me, is it?’
Roberts tilted his head from side to side. His lips were tightly pursed. ‘No. There are… a few other problems.’
‘Yeah?’ I folded my arms. ‘Like what?’
He didn’t have time to answer. I felt something shoot past my face, fast as a bullet. Heard it shatter on the far wall. Saw the ruined innards of a laptop that had been sitting on the desk next to me fall to the floor.
‘Like that,’ Roberts said.
A moment later something else whizzed past me. A hole-puncher. Bang. A Printer. Crash. A phone: I watched as an invisible force ripped it from the wall, trailing cables.
‘Get down,’ Roberts yelled. I fell to the floor, scrambled under the nearest desk. Roberts followed after me. We watched as the hurricane of stationary and IT equipment gathered pace in the air above us.
‘Aww, nuts.’ I said. ‘You’ve got a geist.’
‘A what?’ Roberts’ face was blank.
‘A poltergeist. Your network is haunted.’
‘What? Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘Look, has anything else weird been happening? And I mean really weird, not just buggy computers.’
Robert made a click with his tongue. ‘Well, there’s the servers. They’re… leaking.’
Roberts cocked his head towards the tower in the corner of the room. I crawled towards it, ducked behind it to hide from the whirlwind around me. Checked the fan: saw the residue encrusted underneath it, like ketchup around the ring of a bottle. I sniffed, got the tang of copper. Oh. Great. ‘Anything else I should know?’
‘The printout.’ Roberts pointed at the printer beside me. The mechanism was still buzzing, the light was still on, but it wasn’t printing anything. ‘It’s been like that all day! Even when it ran out of paper, it wouldn’t stop!’
I picked up a page from the floor. Two columns of text, smeared from the printer. Most of it was gibberish: some of it wasn’t even alphanumeric. The only pattern I could see was one word, repeated every couple of lines.
‘That’s why we called you.’ Roberts yelled. ‘Your website says you deal with this sort of thing. Freelance IT consultancy and–’
‘Necromancy, right.’ I’d designed the website myself. ‘Okay. Here’s what we need to do. First, shut down the network, now.’
‘Shut it off? All of it?’
‘Yeah. This thing is in your system. We have to stop it spreading.’ I slung the bag on my shoulder onto the ground, reached in and pulled out my tablet—the Trinodia with the cracked screen, with the skull engraved on the back. ‘I’m gonna start an adjuration program.’ I unrolled a USB cable, and connected the tablet to the server. ‘It’ll clear out the most common bugs. If it doesn’t stop this thing, at least it’ll slow it down.’
I started the program. Part antivirus, part exorcism ritual. I watched as the sigils danced and whirled on the screen, cleansing the system of any malicious code.
Something flashed on the screen, red and loud. The program had stopped. Behind me, I heard Roberts grunt as a user manual slammed him in the gut and knocked him into the wall.
I swore. ‘It’s not working. We need to get out of here.’
I dragged Roberts out of the room, slammed the door shut and sealed it with my weight.
‘Okay,’ I said, between breaths. ‘So. You’ve got a geist.’
Roberts leaned forwards, looking like he might hurl. ‘What?’
‘A geist. .gst. A digital ghost. The remnants of some dead guy clogging up your network. Majorly unhappy, and throwing itself around to make sure we know it.’
Roberts shook his head. ‘Look, love, I don’t know what sort of scam you’re trying to pull, but–’
‘Has the temperature dropped lately? Has anyone being hearing stuff at night? Strange voices, stuff moving around when they’re not looking? A feeling that they’re being watched?
He gave me a blank look, but said nothing.
‘Anyone been off sick lately? Suddenly coming down with something that the doctors couldn’t explain?’
‘Steve in Statistics was a bit off-colour, but that doesn’t mean…’ He trailed off, sighed, looked at me. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
‘It’s a ghost?’
‘How did it get here?’
I bit my lip. ‘Dunno. You receive any suspicious emails?’
‘There was one with just a URL in the text box. But it was so obvious! I warned everyone not to open it.’
‘Someone didn’t get the memo. But we still need to figure out who it is. Or was.’ I pinched the bridge of my nose, tried to concentrate. ‘Are there any other employees who’ve been absent lately?’
‘Absent?’ Roberts stammered. ‘What do you mean by “absent”?’
‘Permanently absent?’ I saw the empty look, sighed. ‘Has anyone died recently?’
‘Oh. Like Phil? He works… he used to work in HR, I think. I didn’t know him that well.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘He was in an accident a month ago. A bus crash.’
‘Untimely death.’ I made a clicking sound with my tongue ‘Probably unfinished business. Can you show me where he used to work?
Phil’s desk had been cleared, but not cleaned: there were still rings on the wood where someone had left a mug of coffee. I opened the drawer, checked the collection of knick-knacks rattling inside. I sat at the chair at the computer, brought up the login page.
‘Alrighty. Do you know his password?’
Roberts snorted. ‘Why would I know his password?’ Anyway, we wiped the hard drive.’
I gave him a grin. ‘Well, we can work with that.’ I plugged my tablet in with the USB cable, tapped on the screen a few times. The login details flashed on the screen, then it changed to the home screen. ‘There we go.’
Roberts blinked as I started to type. ‘How did you do that?’
‘Information daimon. Includes a function to search through his keystroke history.’
‘That’s impossible! The memory’s been wiped clean!’
‘Only in this plane of reality.’ I opened a web browser. ‘There’s still an Akashic signature in the Acheron Network. Look, here’s his Friendlog page.’
‘That should be locked! What are you doing, going through a dead man’s Friendlog page?’
‘Ghosts don’t just rattle their chains and make the walls bleed for the fun of it. They scream for attention. He wants something. We need to find out what it is.’ I scanned the page for data on Phil. Thirty-one years old. Educated at Northumbria University. Libra. Liked spy novels, chicken korma and post-grunge. He’d worked in HR for six years. There was a memorial wall. Shorter than I’d have thought. I searched through the friend list, the condolences, searching for a name, for—aha!
‘There.’ I pointed at the screen.
‘I don’t see anything,’ said Roberts.
‘There she is. Abigail Rene. Abby.’
Roberts squinted at the screen. ‘Hang on. I’ve seen her. She works in accounts.’
‘Hmm.’ I smiled. It was starting to make sense. I clicked on an icon on the desktop, searched for something that used to be there. Brought up dozens of image files, taken from Friendlog. All of the same face. The same woman. At a table with relatives, out with friends, on the couch with a cat on her lap. Big brown eyes, auburn curls. A smile like a cocker spaniel puppy, asking for a treat. Easy to love. Easy to obsess over.
I logged out, stood up. ‘I think we should talk to her.’
Abby was pretty in the photos. In the flesh, she could break hearts.
She was short: maybe an inch or two taller than me in her heels. A little thinner, too. Well-shaped: the expensive business suit made the most of what she had. Her skin was like polished amber: her hair bounced like a shampoo commercial when she tilted her head. Her eyes shone like dark marble. Some people have all the luck.
‘Sorry,’ she said, wrinkling her button-nose. ‘I don’t think I quite understand.’
I sighed. ‘Well, the short version is there’s a ghost in the company network causing trouble, and I think it’s ‘cause he has a crush on you.’
Abby blinked, twice, and stared at me. ‘And who are you again, Miss Brink?’
‘She’s helping me,’ Roberts said. ‘There’s a… bug in the system. I’m sure you’ve noticed.’
‘I have, actually. My computer froze, and there’s an odd hiss coming from the speakers. It sounds like someone’s trying to say my name.’
‘Did you know Phil?’ I asked.
‘Phillip Barber,’ Roberts added. ‘From HR.’
‘Oh. He was the one in that accident, wasn’t he? I was at the service. Gosh, it was a shame. I wish I’d got to know him better.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘ ’Cause he liked every one of your Friendlog posts.’
Abby gave a dainty shrug. ‘Lots of people like my posts. If someone sends a friend request, I don’t think too much about it.’
Maybe you should, I thought. ‘How many of your friends comment on your photos?’ I handed her my tablet, let her take a look. ‘ “Looking good lol”,’ I read. ‘ “Red suits you” smiley face. “Looking forward to seeing you”.’
Abby screwed up her face. ‘He was just someone I saw at work. Why would he do something like that.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘I can see a couple of reasons. Look, could you just come with us, please? I think you can help us fix it.’
Roberts opened the door to IT Services. I ducked to avoid a router as it flew through the air towards me.
The room was a wreck. Every surface was coated in debris. The wind ripped through the air like a gale in a teacup, flinging anything light enough at the walls.
‘I don’t see how I can help.’ Abby yelled over the wind. ‘If Phil left a virus, I don’t think there’s much I can do about it.’
I gestured for both of them to stay back, and dashed to the nearest table. I pulled it towards me, until it fell on its side and scattered the contents across the floor. I crouched behind the table to take shelter from the maelstrom of flying electrical equipment. Then I gave the signal, and Roberts and Abby rushed into the room and ducked beside me.
‘Alrighty,’ I yelled, fighting to make myself heard above the roar of the wind. ‘Here.’ I shoved the tablet into Abby’s hands. ‘Log into Friendlog.’
‘You’ve gotta talk to him. Try to get him to calm down.’
She sat back behind the desk, tapped on the screen. ‘This is ridiculous. If he was a ghost, couldn’t I just… speak to him?’
‘He’s passed beyond the analogue world. He’s a digital entity now. Just code. You can’t just sit him down for a chat: you need a medium he’ll understand. Send him an instant message.’
She sighed, but she typed something into the chat window:
The roar behind us stopped. The room went quiet. I peeked out of the side of the desk. The debris of the room had stopped moving, and just floated in the air like decorations hanging from a Christmas tree.
‘What did I do?’ Abby asked.
‘What you had to,’ I said. ‘Look.’
Something beeped on the screen. A new message appeared in the chat window.
I smiled. Now we were getting somewhere.
‘What now?’ Abby whispered to me.
I bit my lip. ‘Say something nice.’
How are you?
A moment later, there was a beep, and a reply:
I could be better.
Abby looked at me. I shrugged. She typed.
Sorry to hear that.
How are you?
Oh, you know. Busy with work.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So we’re talking. Now you have to ask him out.’
Abby made a face like something was choking her. ‘I have to what?’
‘That’s why he’s hanging around, causing a nuisance. That’s his unfinished business: he was hung up on you but he never had the guts to act on it. We have to fix that. Ask him out on a date.’
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. ‘Are you sure?’
‘But I have a boyfriend!’ She whispered the last word like it was a secret.
‘So? Phil’s dead: It’s not like you’re gonna go through with it! Just… make him happy, and he’ll go away. Probably.’
‘Urgh!’ Abby’s mouth twisted like she’d swallowed a lemon whole. Started to type.
Phil, I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you better.
I’d like to fix that, if I could.
There was a long pause. I watched the fragments of equipment hanging the air, threatening to fall at any time.
Yes. You seem like a really nice guy. I’d like to find out more about you.
Another long pause.
You want to go on a date?
Pause. The only sound I could hear was my own pulse, pounding in my head.
Abby looked at me, confused. Then something struck the wall opposite us and shattered. The clutter in the air started whizzing around. Damn. Maybe the smiley face was a bit too much.
You lying cow. You’re just like all the others. “You’re a really nice guy, but… I don’t want to ruin our friendship… you’re like a brother to me.” I wanted to talk to you for so long, and you had to wait until after I died?
‘You’ve made it worse!’ Roberts whined. ‘What do we do now?’
I closed my eyes, tried to shut out the racket all around me. I needed to think.
It’s not fair. I am a nice guy, but you never bothered to find out!
I felt the next thud in my back when it hit the table. And the next thud. And the next. Phil was done just throwing his toys about: now he was aiming at us.
I treat people well. I deserve someone who’ll love me!
The edges of the table were starting to fray. Every impact sent splinters flying into the air. I had to do something. I had to get out. I had to—
Abby started to type.
No. You don’t.
The thudding stopped. The room went quiet.
Abby focused on the screen in front of her.
Phil, maybe you were a nice guy. Maybe you weren’t. I wouldn’t know, because I never got to know you. You had a whole lifetime to let me get to know you. You could have just asked. Now it’s too late.
I waited for a moment, forgot to breath. But Phil said nothing.
I hope you find someone who you can love, and who’ll love you back. But it won’t be me. And so long as you keep acting like a spoiled baby, then it won’t be anyone else, either.
She hit enter, sent the message, and we waited to see what would happen.
Phil didn’t respond.
A moment later, the junk in the air crashed to the ground.
For a moment I didn’t move. I needed to make sure it was safe. Then I stood, walked over to the nearest terminal, typed something. No frozen screen, no bugs. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. I took the tablet from Abby’s limp fingers, and ran a diagnostic.
‘Nope,’ I said. ‘It’s clean. He’s gone.’
Abby peered over the top of the upturned table. ‘Really?’
‘Looks like.’ I reached into my bad, picked out a jar of salt, unscrewed the lid. I started to sprinkle it around the room to purify the air. Just in case. ‘Guess he just needed to hear the truth, so he could move on. Good work, Abby.’
She blushed. She looked good when she blushed. Of course she did. ‘Thank you.’
I put the salt back in my bag, and slung it over my shoulder. I turned to Roberts, and offered him my hand.
‘Well, dude, looks like I’m done here. Problem solved.’
He stared at my palm, with a face like a thundercloud. ‘ “Solved”? Have you seen this mess?’ He looked around at the devastated room. ‘How am I supposed to explain to my manager that a poltergeist caused this?’
I shrugged. ‘Tell him whatever you want. Tell him there was a break in. Or a power outage. Or a pack of wild monkeys escaped from the zoo.’
He shook his head. ‘He won’t pay, you know. He’ll just say there’s no such thing as ghosts, and that you’re just running some sort of con.’
I frowned. ‘Well, then we’ve got a problem, haven’t we? ‘Cause the way I see it, I just saved all your butts!’
‘I doubt he’ll see it that way.’
‘Huh. In that case–’ I pulled out my tablet, did a quick search. ‘Tell him I know all about the Bermuda accounts. And while you’re at it, tell him I know about the overflow site at Kielder. And the missing Oslo portfolio. Oh, and the list of user emails that got leaked. Tell him that I’m sending him my invoice, and if I don’t get paid by Monday morning, then…’ I scrolled down the screen. ‘Ah, then I’m gonna start telling a whole bunch of people about what happened in Dundee. Starting with his wife. Okay?’
Roberts had gone pale. ‘I understand.’
I smiled as nicely as I could. ‘Great. Here’s my card. Tell your friends about me. Let me know if you have any more problems.’ I pushed the door open. ‘See you around, Abby. Have a nice day.’
Then I walked out of the room, and headed towards the elevator
I took the Metro home. It was pricier than the bus, but it got there faster, and I wasn’t in the mood for playing musical chairs at the bus stop.
I wish I hadn’t lost my temper. The guy was just doing his job. Can’t blame him for finding it hard to believe when some strange chick waltzes in and tells you ghosts are real.
I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket: I’d had a cantrip installed on it so it worked underground. Useful thing to have when you dig up graves for a living. I fished it out, pressed “accept,” spoke into the headphone mike. “Yo, Catrina.”
‘Good afternoon, Shayde.’ Catrina’s voice was musical, like the strings of a harp, slightly out of tune, fuzzing in my ears. ‘I trust everything went well with the client?’
That was Catrina: all business. Good thing to have in a secretary. Or a familiar ‘Pretty much. They tried to stiff me on payment, but I got them to reconsider. Make sure they get the invoice, okay?’
‘Certainly. Then they did not suspect anything?’
I bristled, felt a pang of guilt uncoil in my stomach. ‘No. They’re just your usual, everyday IT types. They’d never seen a real haunting before.’
‘When can we expect payment?’
‘I said Monday. Don’t worry, they’ll pay.’
‘And if your assessment is incorrect?’
I chewed on the nail of my thumb. ‘They’ll pay.’ I repeated. ‘I made it real clear what would happen if they didn’t.’
‘Hmm.’ I could almost hear Catrina frown on the other end of the phone. If she was actually on the other end. ‘One of these days, Shayde, you may have to back up the threats that you make.’
‘Yeah. But not today. I’ll see you at the office.’ I hung up, and stared out the window. The train was underground: there was nothing outside but darkness.
It wasn’t like I was proud of myself. But there wasn’t as much money in the Black Arts as people thought. It’s the twenty-first century: when people want advice, they call into reality TV shows, or read a self-help blog. They don’t pay the chick with the tarot cards and Ouija boards to solve their problems. And a girl’s gotta eat.
Besides, I was doing them a favor by sending them that email. If anyone was dumb enough to click on a URL that contained an evocation that woke up any geists on the local network, then hey: they needed to be taught a lesson. Security systems are no good if no one tests them. They were lucky it was just me, trying to drum up work, and not one of the really nasty hackers. The ones take “Human Resources” very literally. The way I saw it, the ghost was gone, the problem was solved, and I got to pay the rent this month. Everyone was happy.
I sat back in the seat, turned up the volume on the headphones, and waited for the train to stop.