Eden’s End: Deception’s Truth
by J. H. Zech
In my line of work, the truth is absolutely essential or, I should say, the truth is the essence of the job itself. So, I will tell this story exactly as it happened.
* * *
The shutters were in pieces, and shards of wood lay scattered on the floor. Only tatters remained of the black curtains. The bedsheets looked as though a dog had decided to avenge its master.
“You’re saying a ghost did all this?” I asked.
“We hired an exorcist, not a shrink. We know what we saw.” Councilman Edmunds’s pale face turned red.
Embarrassment at showing a stranger the sorry state of his bedroom? Angry at the ghost? Possibly both. “And, pray tell, what did you see?”
“It was awful. Dressed in a ragged black cloak. It had this faceless mask, too.” Mrs. Edmunds covered her face with her hands, crying.
“What did the mask look like?” I carried on without a hint of emotion in my voice. Some would say that it was heartless, but getting emotionally involved with a case never ends well.
“It was divided straight down the middle, black and white, dark and light, and it had two circular holes for the eyes, but when I saw it, it had no eyes inside,” Mrs. Edmunds said.
“From the description, it sounds like a wraith. I’ve never seen a wraith do so much physical damage before. Most ghosts give people scares, knock a book off the shelf, whisper to people in their dreams.”
Truth be told, this wasn’t the strangest ghost I’d encountered. In my hometown, there was a rumor of a ghost that could pass as a flesh and blood person, talking, eating, and doing his business after eating. My neighbor — whose name I could no longer remember — swore that the ghost wasn’t just pretending to go to the bathroom. How he knew this, I refrained from asking.
Mr. Edmunds stared at me with his deep-set eyes and placed his rugged hand on my shoulder. “You’ll help us? Right, Mr. Ouroboros?”
I dusted off the shoulder of my black trench coat. “Of course. It’s what I’m here to do. Now, I’ll ask a few questions.”
“Go right ahead,” Mr. Edmunds said.
“Are there any other places this wraith has shown up?”
“Ms. Walton’s house and the furniture store.”
“Has it appeared here more than once?”
“Twice. Once last month and once two days ago.”
“Did you start doing anything different a month ago?”
“No, we didn’t do anything. It was the same routine as the day before and the day before that.”
“I see. If you can just give the addresses for the other two places, I’ll be doing some investigating.” Edmunds was lying, or at the very least, he wasn’t telling the truth. In these cases, someone was almost always lying. Those who weren’t lying had simply forgotten something or just neglected to mention something they didn’t consider important. Pressing people for the truth in that state never worked, so I proceeded to gather more information first.
Mr. Edmunds wrote down two addresses on a sticky note and handed it to me. I took my black top hat off the rack and adjusted it on my head, covering my porcupine bedhead.
* * *
Outside, the wind swept away a diverse gathering of leaves. Red, orange, and brown leaves danced in a circle before flying away. I stuffed my hands in my pockets. I didn’t like winter, and fall was just the warm-up for winter.
Cars zoomed by as I made my way down the sidewalk. From the outside, Thanatree just looked like any normal city. Children slid down slides, swung on the swings and played tag. The cleaner waved his leaf blower around the ground, scattering twigs and leaves.
A thin woman with long black hair was swinging with a huge grin on her face.
“Lady, it’s my turn,” a little boy said.
With a push forward, she jumped off the swing and landed on her feet. Either everyone around here knew her, or the police had neglected their duty to protect children. I approached her, for I didn’t like to leave mysteries unsolved in my head.
“Having fun?” I asked.
“Yes, indeed.” She looked at me curiously then leaned in close to my face.
Her large brown eyes and thin lips presented themselves to me up close. She was quite beautiful, but I leaned back. I liked to believe personal space still existed in the physical world even if such notions had disappeared online.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” she asked.
“That’s right, but what made you think so in the first place?” I said.
“I mean, who wears a top hat and a trench coat nowadays? You’re like some villain out of movies about old-school Britannia.”
While I did admire Britannian fashion, I had the feeling that she had casually said something very insulting without much meaning. I had never met someone like her. I couldn’t decide whether to get angry. I sighed. It would be foolish to intentionally decide to get angry. “I will assure you that I’m not a villain.”
“I sure hope not. We don’t need another one around here,” she said.
“Ah, it’s just a silly story going around town about a ghost.”
“Do you know anything about this, Ms...?”
“I’m Cherry. The ghost supposedly showed up a few times in town and broke things. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know for sure. But talking about it is one of those silly taboos.”
“Taboos?” Taboos usually had something to do with apparitions, especially in rural towns.
“Yeah, people around here don’t like talking about the ghost. Bad luck, bad publicity, or whatever reason they feel like.” She put her hands on her hips. “Hold on. I told you my name. Shouldn’t you tell me yours?”
I took off my hat. “Ah, apologies. It slipped my mind. I’m Henry Ouroboros.” I liked her. Everything became easier when people disregarded social conventions and told the truth.
“Ouroboros...” She had a knowing look on her face, but I had no idea what was going through her head. “So, what brings you here? Did you hear the story of the ghost and rush over?”
“In a sense, yes. Mr. Edmunds asked me to investigate this case.”
“Edmunds, huh? He always seems to be wrapped up in some incident.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s quite the controversial council member. Business around here has definitely gotten better, but a little less than a year ago, he had some scandalous affair.”
I noticed the time on my watch. “I have to go to the furniture store and talk to the manager there before it closes. Could I get your contact information so we can continue this conversation later?”
“I don’t have anything else to do, so why I don’t I tag along and tell you the rest along the way?” Cherry said.
It was my experience that people who offered to help investigate without demanding anything in return often took something secretly in return instead. To hide in plain sight, to obstruct from the inside. Of course, I had met her by pure coincidence, and she wasn’t on the list the Edmunds gave me, so maybe my detective’s paranoia had gotten the better of me. Playing in the park on a weekday and poking her nose in an investigation without a care in the world, maybe she was an airheaded trust fund kid. I had no idea, but it would certainly amuse me if that turned out to be the case. Either way, having a local’s help would be useful, so I decided to take her up on her offer for the time being. “It would be my pleasure.”
We meandered to the bus stop and waited. I began to wonder if she really was a local. Surely, she could have shown me the way to the stop so we wouldn’t waste time. There was no point in thinking about it anymore, however. I decided to ask about something that had piqued my interest.
“What were you saying about Mr. Edmunds’ scandal?”
“He had a maid, Malia X. I kid you not, her last name was X. He cheated on his wife with his maid, and she was fired after he got caught. I don’t know about their private life, but he’s made up with his wife in public. I kind of feel sorry for the maid though.”
“Politicians do have their share of interesting stories.” I couldn’t comment much about the scandal itself. I hadn’t been there, so I couldn’t judge anyone. I vaguely recalled some similar scandal involving the mayor and chief of police of my hometown. Were they having an affair with each other, or had it just been two simultaneous scandals? I couldn’t remember any of the details. All I remembered was that some unimportant policeman had died as a result of the two trying to hide their scandals, and the town had been in an uproar for a while.
The bus rolled to a halt and hissed and groaned as its doors opened. Aside from us, only an old lady was on the bus. The doors closed, and we sat back for the ride.
* * *
It was only a block from our stop to the furniture store. A fine layer of dust on the window obscured the inside of the store. My reflection was so hazy I couldn’t see my face clearly. When was the last time I looked in the mirror? Maybe I’d forgotten to shave again. Cherry looked at the chair beyond the window intensely. Or was she staring at my reflection for some reason? I couldn’t read her expression. Elrich’s Furniture, the cracked sign above the door read. We entered, and the bell on the door jingled.
“Welcome!” a young man in a polo shirt said.
I hadn’t expected someone so young in a place this run-down. Perhaps he was a part-timer, but then again, looks could easily deceive.
“Hello. Sorry, I’m not here to look at the furniture. I’m here to ask about the ghost that you saw.”
His face darkened. I realized another reason why he had stood out to me. The lights were dim and orange, like dying embers. The sofas, the cabinets, the tables, and the chairs all looked untouched, or I should say, unloved. Just like the window, a fine layer of white dust coated them, and they had no scratches, cracks, or even visible smudges of fingerprints. I doubted anyone had bought anything from this store in a while. The fact that he greeted us warmly was in fact what had stood out, a contrast in personality to where he worked.
“The ghost... It destroyed several of my mirrors and make-up dressers. That’s at least thirty-five years of bad luck. But why are you asking now? It’s old history already.”
Cherry looked around and came back. I hadn’t seen any broken mirrors either.
“Your mirrors? So, you’re the owner of this place?”
“I am now. Grandfather passed away.”
No doubt he had his own circumstances, but I wasn’t interested. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your personal life. The Edmunds asked me to investigate this ghost, and I’m hoping you can shed some light on what happened.”
“Don’t tell me the Edmunds finally did something scandalous enough to wake the dead. The mirrors and make-up dressers just broke when I wasn’t looking. I had locked up too, and I checked that the door was still locked after it happened.”
“Did you see the ghost?”
“Why did you think it was a ghost?”
“I didn’t, at least not particularly. The Edmunds heard my story, and they said a ghost did something similar to them. I don’t have any answers, so a ghost is as good as any. If only it had destroyed the entire store instead.”
Cherry and I glanced at each other and then at him.
“Ah, sorry. That’s rude to my grandfather.” He didn’t sound the least bit sincere.
“When did this happen?”
“About a week ago.”
“Thank you very much for your help. We’ll be leaving now,” I said.
As we walked out of the furniture store, the young man said, “And tell the Edmunds to lower the inheritance tax too!”
The door closed with a jingle.
“Come to think of it, we didn’t get his name,” Cherry said.
“His name doesn’t matter.”
“That’s kind of rude.”
“Let me clarify. I don’t think he matters at all in this case.”
“Meaning?” Cherry leaned in with an expectant look.
Was this what they called charisma? I wanted to explain things to her, even though I had met her only an hour ago. No, she hadn’t done anything particularly charismatic. I felt I was forgetting something important but couldn’t resist the urge to tell her the truth. “He’s lying. Apparitions have objectives just like people. The wraith attacked at the Edmunds’ and Ms. Walton’s home. Why did it attack Elrich’s Furniture? Why not at his house? There must be a reason, if indeed it was the wraith.”
“He didn’t see the wraith, is that it?”
“That’s part of it. He was very quick to accept the wraith as an explanation after the Edmunds talked to him. In other words, he didn’t initially think that a wraith attacked his store. He retroactively made the incident in his store a haunting. What person in this day and age would do that? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“So did the wraith really visit the store or not?”
“I’m not sure, but what’s clear is that the story of the wraith is convenient for him. Now, I have one more interview to do, and I don’t want to bore you, so I’ll contact you later.”
As I turned to leave, Cherry grabbed my sleeve. “No, I want to stay with you.”
That was an odd way to phrase things. “Why? I appreciate your help, but as you’ve seen, interviews aren’t very interesting.”
“Occult stuff is my hobby! There’s no way it’s not interesting.” Her voice overflowed with enthusiasm.
I didn’t think she was lying. At the same time, my detective’s instinct once again kicked in with an unsettling feeling that she wasn’t telling the truth. I felt torn and wanted to get away from it all for a bit. I was about to decline, but she didn’t give me the chance.
“Please?” she asked, her voice dripping with sweetness. Puppy dog eyes would not be the right way to describe the look on her face. She was too old for that, yet the sensation I felt from the look was the same, only even more inescapable. Some ghosts could hypnotize people, and I wondered for a moment whether she was a ghost.
I had enough to deal with right now, so I decided to stop thinking about it. “Fine.” The moment’s thoughts faded like the memories of my car keys, and soon I couldn’t remember exactly why I felt so agitated.
* * *
We took a taxi to Ms. Walton’s house. A white two-story house with trimmed bushes and tended lawn greeted us. I passed over the walkway and knocked on the door, for there was no doorbell.
An elderly lady in a black dress opened the door. “Hello?”
“Greetings. I’m Henry Ouroboros.” I motioned to Cherry. “This is Cherry. I’m here to investigate the ghost on behalf of the Edmunds. I’ve heard you had an encounter with it?”
She poked her head out the door and surveyed the surroundings. “Come in. We’ll discuss this inside.”
The sky was grey and darkening. I shivered and noticed no one else, not even a single car, was around us. We stepped in and closed the door behind us. I hung my top hat on the hat rack. Ms. Walton disappeared into the kitchen.
“Please have a seat in the living room. I’ll be right out with some tea,” she said.
We obeyed, and I found the velvet sofa very comfortable. There was an old Yurazanian-style tea table between the sofas and couches. An intricate chandelier hung above us. I spied a glass cabinet full of expensive-looking silverware and china. She seemed fairly wealthy. What was her connection to the Edmunds and the wraith? A financial backer? An opponent?
Cherry giggled. “You look so confused.”
“I don’t know how Ms. Walton is connected to this. She’s very well-off. Who exactly is she?”
“Ms. Walton is fairly well-known around here. She’s the owner and editor of The Swamp.”
“What kind of publication is it?”
“It’s hardcore muckraking. She’s always digging up scandals, corruption, unethical practices and making them known. I hear she’s been doing it since before I was born.”
A politician, a furniture store heir, and a journalist. What did these three have in common?
A plate clattered on the table. White tea cups decorated with golden ivy patterns were filled with a yellowish tea. “Please, have some. I’ll tell you the whole story, then I’ll take questions.”
As expected of a journalist, she knew how to get right to the point. I sipped some tea. It was warm and a little sweet.
“First off, let me say that I don’t believe in ghosts. The Edmunds probably told you the ghost attacked me or something of that nature. I never once claimed that.”
“Then what did happen, and what did you think of it?” It was a surprising turn of events but, in retrospect, the motives lined up. The Edmunds were politicians, and Walton was a journalist. Their stories probably contradicted each other very often.
Cherry didn’t say anything but leaned in, her eyes twinkling.
“It was four days ago. I was in my bedroom at night when I heard some kind of bump downstairs.”
That was how a lot of ghost stories started, and also burglaries gone wrong.
Copyright © 2019 by J. H. Zech