Ghost of a Job
by Spencer Dew
We stand, sometime after three am, at the point of absolute urban zero, the intersectional center of the city's grid. "Energy vortex, psychic vertigo." Tammy lists terms and conditions. She practices a variety of word-based occult crafts, once used her cell phone to render a former lover impotent, cross-continent, but for all of San Francisco's charms, she assures me, nothing beats Chicago when it comes to warps and imprints, fuzzy phantasms, ley lines, orbs, frenetic and telekinetic entities. "Where we are," she says, "Is like the Bermuda Triangle, only with snow." This is our first week of paranormal work, though we have yet to see a paycheck. I'm here because of an accidental combination of my temper, native impatience, and a temp job database's "delete" function. Tammy, as I mentioned, is some kind of witch or magician; she's here because the vocation actually matches her qualifications, her résumé. Our business in the gray cruciform zone where State meets Madison consists primarily of reconnaissance, the rigging of some automatic cameras, manual photo work, temperature monitors, EMF meters, and, in Tammy's case, some underhanded invocation. "Come on," she says, spilling sea salt crystals in a rough circle around our feet. "It'll increase the chances, and you know we won't get fired if we get a picture of a ghost." I think to say something about how skilled I am at getting fired, maybe even reference a few of the twelve jobs I've lost in the past three months. But I just stand there, silent, some duct-taped technical apparatus in each hand.
Our boss, president and founder of the Ghost League, is creepy, but not creepy in any atmospheric, spectral sort of way. He has the mustache of a pedophile and the hands of a bathroom attendant. On the back shelf of his office is a jar of something he says is ectoplasm, stolen from a Puerto Rican spiritualist church, but other than that, our so-called headquarters looks like a con insurance office, or maybe a private investigator's place, only not the glossy, bullet-spitting detectives of television, just some unshaven slouch who pisses in old juice cartons, sitting low in a late model sedan all day as stock broker's wives strut from boutique to boutique, never quite flitting off to any of their suspected lesbian affairs. Our boss leaves a bad taste in my mouth, a texture like chalk, a smell like sanitary pad perfume. On his orders we're spending our first week sleepless, shooting roll after roll of expired film. He only buys equipment second-hand, fairly transparent to the fact that any blurs or light streaks or developmental twitches, rather than ruining, make our photographs proof positive, genuine. But still he lectures on scientific method, defining for us, on pocket-size laminated cards, the difference between "objective" and "subjective." So Tammy's chanting, and the way she rolls her eyes back into her skull and pleads in a variety of real or invented languages for the dead souls of this place to manifest themselves – this strikes me as the sort of thing our boss would not approve.
The next night finds us in some scabby, abandoned bar. Residential gunshots pop behind the walls, the window boards. Tammy, who hadn't raised anything at State and Madison except a Sun-Times delivery truck, studies the webbed fractures in the mirror, head-high. The boss doesn't like us to know about the history of the locations to which we are sent, but I used to know a girl who dated a guy near here, and the narrative of the murders is familiar enough, how they found the bodies, that the bar then closed. What I can't understand is the state of it now, dusty and more or less intact, with bottles still full of liquor, bills in the cash register. The stools are stacked on the counter, chairs on their tables, and the three big trophy fish have been taken down, their mountings propped against the wall. The sword is broken on one, and the cardboard fin of another has worm tracks in it, an egg sac or two. I tell Tammy not to try anything, suggest that maybe we could just snap our photos and be home before dawn. I'm tired and getting nostalgic for telemarketing, where at least I could sit in a semi-comfortable chair and, on my one fifteen minute break per shift, drink free coffee laced with excessive sugar, non-dairy creamer. But she starts up with some rhyming routine, shaking a feathery contraption she claims is "an authentic Native American communication device." She spins in a circle and as I'm about to ask why we're not using any salt this time, all five of the murdered folks appear.
As evidence, I'd call the photographs inconclusive, with no way to rule out dark room tampering. The finger-shaped burn marks on my arm could, as well, have been self-inflicted, an elaborate and painful addition to the hoax. Somewhat harder to fake would be the feathers imbedded in the wood of the bar, but the boss, who claims to have studied physics, says it could have been done in a laboratory, with a wind tunnel. In any case, we don't get fired; we get paid. And all week we eat for free, from a cooler of sandwiches the boss delivers to the bar, where, of course, we're camping, twenty four hours a day, never mind the runny stuff that glistens on my untreated wounds, or that Tammy has taken to rocking in the corner, her chin on her knees, humming snippets of nursery tunes. A job is a job is a job. I rig up the cameras to take their requisite pictures, work the audio enhancer, temperature gauges, and electrostat generator from the military surplus sleeping bag the boss was kind enough to provide. I scribble what notes need to get scribbled, passing the first night with bourbon, the second with rum. Four days on I'm down to tequila, for which after a disastrous spring break, back in college, involving a bad dare, my then-girlfriend, and a floorshow starring a mule, I hold a marked aversion. But then it is five days on and I'm draining the last of the pepper-flavored vodka, moving next to extra dry sherry and the finger-thick remnants of a syrupy orange liqueur. I snuggle deeper, using Tammy's pillows, too, as she's still occupied with swaying, holding the smaller, shellacked marlin in her arms. From my bed, I snap a few zoom shots of the barmaid's face, of the patron as he smiles at her, telling the same silent joke for all eternity. I don't repeat my mistake of going near them, and after the first few times I don't watch the actual shooting scene, or any of the disembowelments. I empty another bottle and think, as jobs go, this one's not so bad.
About the author:
Spencer Dew's work has appeared in the Diagram, Hobart Pulp, Opium, Rumble, Word Riot, and others. He lives in Chicago and is currently at work on a novel.