I’ve decided to break this down into six parts for easier reading.
There had to be a better place to hold a memorial service.
A less slippery place, where every other step wouldn’t send me sliding into clumps of frostbitten grass. The sound it made, crunching like shards of broken glass, set my teeth on edge.
Head bowed, more to shield against the keen April wind than to camouflage signs of actual mourning, I slowed my pace and dropped behind the crowd. I’d felt out of place among their somber processional from the start, so bringing up the rear made me feel more comfortable. Let them claim front row seats to the coming spectacle. I preferred to watch it unfold from a safe distance (preferably one by the nearest exit), and through a thick curtain of long, windblown hair.
Spectacle: the only word for it, I’d decided, somewhere between cursing myself for coming in the first place and wondering how long I’d have to stand around in the cold. The interminable slog of the procession, coupled with the hushed tones and muted colors of the attendees, had done little to dispel my dour opinion (as did having to attend a funeral with a bunch of people I didn’t know, and frankly, didn’t care to).
It was, to be honest, an imposition. One that came with a hefty side order of suspicion. Not for the first time, I wondered why Jules had been so insistent that I attend this curious function. Its “guest of honor” and I weren’t what you’d call fast friends. All I knew about Andrew Woodman was that his brief affiliation with the Afterlifers resulted in death. He died in the wrong place at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons.
A shiver rippled through me, forcing me to skid to a stop on the old cemetery’s uneven stone path. I cinched my belt tighter, hoping to draw more warmth from my flimsy overcoat. While wrestling with futility, my gaze fell upon a group of gravestones that resembled tiny, crooked teeth. All were weather-worn. Only those bearing recent dates—2015, 2018, and 2021—were readable.
Memorial Grove was one of the last old burial plots in Unity. The others, bulldozed to make room for low-income housing, sometimes brought in business when their displaced occupants took up spectral residence with the living. There’d been rumors about this section of the cemetery meeting a similar fate. If those were true, there might indeed be a flurry of work for us in the near future. Still, the whole idea of networking at a funeral struck me as crass. Was that really Jules’ idea?
A gust of wind battered my side, threatening to push me into a row of tombstones. I pushed back, cursing under my breath. Why hadn’t Andrew’s family opted for a virtual ceremony? The mortuary, Memorial Mall, had its own TV channel and several drive-through viewing queues, as well as a large interior space. Inside: that’s where I thought we’d be gathering for Andrew’s interment. Yet here we were, freezing our asses off!
Why did death have to be so damned inconvenient?
I blamed my sour disposition on social anxiety. Until this afternoon, I’d never attended a funeral. In my field of expertise, client complaints centered on the current misdeeds of the deceased. Misdeeds that would end, not with exorcism or ritual purification, but irreversible spectral extermination. In other words, I killed ghosts for a living, and I was good at my job.
Up ahead, a floating marquee pointed the way to the Woodman family site. My heart sank when I saw it. The unfortunate direction, through an iron arch bordered by soaring cedar hedges, was leading us even further away from Memorial Mall!
Once inside that wall of dense evergreen, a glimpse of the so-called burial site told me that this funeral would be unlike anything I’d seen before.
Or ever wanted to see again.
God, why did I let Jules talk me into this?
I peered over the throng of mourners, but in the gloaming’s murky light, could not count him among them. Typical! Jules, never on time for anything, would probably be late for his own—
The first of three long blasts silenced my thoughts. Startled by the mournful klaxon, I stumbled back into the hedges. As I clung to their rough branches, waiting for my heartbeat to resume a rhythm I couldn’t feel in my throat, the sledge bearing Andrew’s coffin rumbled past over the still-frozen ground.
They’d preserved the sixteen-year-old boy in a clear glass casket, and, from the look of it, spared no expense for its rose gold joints and fittings. As the remote-controlled conveyance made its way to its destination, the uneven ground jostled the body inside the casket’s fragile glass walls, making Andrew look like he was caught in the throes of a nightmare. As if his death hadn’t been nightmarish enough! My stomach did a little flip-flop. I turned away, one hand over my mouth.
“Think he’ll get there in one piece?”
Startled again—my overdeveloped surprise reflex, a continual source of embarrassment—I whirled to find Jules Madigan snickering behind his long-fingered, gloved hand.
“You know, you can kill someone like that,” I snapped, perturbed as much by my best friend’s tardiness as by his choice of burgundy flowered dress and grey faux fur jacket. Both accentuated his statuesque, bird-boned frame. As usual, his makeup was perfect, from the kohl lining his hypnotic hazel eyes to his deep maroon lipstick. While his decision to dress like a woman didn’t concern me—he’d been doing it since we were kids—always looking like the before to his after never failed to get on my last nerve. Next to him, I, in my oversized tunic and simple trousers, looked like a drab caterpillar beside an exotic butterfly.
“Parasympathetic overload is a rare phenomenon, Lex,” he soothed, the musical lilt of his voice a welcome counterbalance to the forced solemnity of the occasion.
“Rare or not, I heard that’s what killed Andrew. Something frightened him to death.”
“Well, we should be able to ask him soon enough. Provided our timing is on point, of course.” He stared out across the swath of brittle, brown grass, searching for familiar faces in the crowd.
I clenched my teeth and swallowed hard, forcing back a bitter retort. Was I here just because he needed a diversion? And, while he whispered in the virtual equivalent of a dead man’s ear, what the heck was I supposed to do? “Timing, right,” I murmured, a hint of bile flavoring each word.
“Can you believe this crowd, Lex? There must be over a hundred people here! I never knew he had so many friends.”
I glanced over at the burial site and gasped when the sledge stopped before an ornamental pool instead of the usual hole in the ground. A pool! It halted, then tilted at one end, allowing the casket to slip slowly into its placid depths. I watched the procedure with equal parts horror and fascination. Once submerged, Andrew would take his place beside all the Woodmans who’d preceded him to the last great frontier: the dark place without stars. From our vantage point, I was thankful that I couldn’t see the faces of those other drowned dead. The stories I’d read about their surgically enhanced postures and facial expressions had been enough to give me nightmares!
“Are you sure it’s legal to do this in Vermont?” My question ended with an uncontrollable shudder. “If I ever die on the job, promise you won’t put me down for ritual submersion. These Catholics are barbarians.”
“It’s a Unified Pagan Immersion. If this were a Catholic ceremony, he’d be a pile of sterilized cremains and there’d be no virtual presence. Can you believe the Vatican still forbids consciousness uploading? They think it fractures the soul or something. To each his own, I guess. Can’t meet our Maker in pieces, can we?” He gave my frozen ribs a playful nudge.
“Whatever…” I flipped my collar up, hoping to shut out the knife-like wind, “I think it’s ghoulish.”
“Well, I think the founder of Spectral Extermination Limited should affect an air of open-mindedness for decorum’s sake.”
Was he for real? “Why? His family doesn’t believe in what we do. Did you hear the statement his mother released on the local news? If she had her way, she’d disband every paranormal group from here to Massachusetts!”
He started to say something, but a burst of chanting from the burial pond drowned him out.
The casket slipped beneath the waves. Twisted shadows fell across the faces of the robed ceremonial officiant and members of Andrew’s family. All stood at the intersection of two, narrow metal bridges that arced low over the pool. By the entrance to one, a bank of monitor screens mounted on a plinth raised blank faces to the impending night. Nearby, a handful of Afterlifers, swaddled in thick scarves and woolen cowls, huddled together in a tight group.
The sight of them raised heat in my cheeks. “I can’t believe they have the audacity to show their faces here—Jesse, in particular. What was he thinking, allowing Andrew to investigate the Foyle Foundation? He was just a kid!”
“Kid or not, he was a gifted Intuitive.”
“A psychic?” I rolled my eyes. “That’s a little old school, even for Jesse. As if going in without the proper equipment wasn’t bad enough!”
Unity was a town of less than 18,000, so it hadn’t taken long for news of how Andrew Woodman gave up his ghost to spread like the latest Smart Flu epidemic. No matter how outlandish some of those stories were, they all agreed on one essential point: the person responsible for the debacle was none other than Jesse Winthrop, founder of the Afterlifers Society.
Winthrop, ugh! The thought of his name made my skin crawl.
“What kind of idiot does that to a kid, Jules? Foyle’s been rattling around that old asylum for 120 years. He’s killed before, and Jesse knew that, yet he still went in without protection! Jeez, why didn’t he just hang a sign on Andrew that said Fresh Meat and push him straight into Foyle’s path?”
“He thought a vintage method would be the best way to engage with Unity’s oldest ghost. It made sense at the time; I suppose.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Engage with him? For what?”
“Consciousness uploading didn’t exist when Foyle died. Jesse’s into the psychology of haunting that was popular during the last century. Unfinished business binding a spirit to the material plane and all that. He believes that engaging with the spirit on a personal level helps uncover the binding force. Once that’s done, you can guide the spirit—”
“Right, because it’s so important to consider the feelings of a sociopath like Foyle.”
“He wasn’t born a murderer, Lex. Hayden Foyle was a pioneer in consciousness projection, a brilliant man in his time. The guy had a doctorate in parapsychology, along with a medical degree.”
“Which he used to terrorize those with mental disorders, using them as test subjects for illegal experiments. Hayden Foyle was a sadistic lunatic when he was alive, and death hasn’t improved his personality. Any ten-year-old in town can tell you that! Screw the questioning. He should have vaporized the bastard!”
“That’s not the way he works. You of all people should know that.”
“I’m the one who lived to tell about it, you mean.”
Andrew was the latest victim of Jesse’s paranormal obsession, collateral damage in yet another of his botched investigations. He hadn’t learned a damned thing from the Glastonbury incident, our investigation of a lost village in the Bennington Triangle. Of the two investigations, which was worse, one dead teenager or five team members who vanished without a trace? My stomach knotted when I realized the Glastonbury tragedy was five years ago. Five, almost to the day.
“Look, Lex, I’ll admit, his approach is a little different…” Jules, never comfortable with silences, shifted his weight from one high-heeled boot to another.
“Different, yeah. That’s one way of describing it. Once someone’s dead, they should move on, period. If they insist on harming the living, then extermination is the only option.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Lex. There’s something nostalgic about Jesse’s approach. I think it’s kind of elegant.” He twisted a hank hair around his fingers and stared, dreamy-eyed, into the distance.
“I think the boy in the water would beg to differ.”
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