The floor of our minivan was covered in sheets of paper, a sea of black stars and pentagrams. I smoothed the creases of my black crepe dress, waiting for Laura to read the script again. The air above the road shimmered in the heat like a mirage. I looked to her t-shirt and shorts with envy. She held the stapled sheet of paper in one hand, while the other clutched an invisible skull.
‘Wandering spirits! I implore thee!’ She bellowed, gesticulating wildly. I repeated the line back to her, with as much gravitas as I could muster. We went back and forth like this a few times, and the sides of my mouth twitched as I desperately fought off a smirk. We couldn’t afford to look anything less than genuine.
I’d met everyone a few years back, at the Cat’s Eye Bookstore. My career prospects were as tangible as a phantom, so I decided to try my luck. I turned up for the interview in all the black clothes I could find, but had to settle for bright-blue trainers. They were my only pair of shoes. I tried to scuff them a bit beforehand, hoping they wouldn’t ruin my vampiric aesthetic. The shopfront could double for a Gothic mansion, twisting floral patterns carved into its decaying brickwork. A small porthole window looked out over the awning, like the eye of some reptilian creature, as dream-catchers and metallic charms circled above the doorway.
George Fitzgerald’s office was cramped, wedged into a small room in the corner of the upper floor. His face was coated, toad-like, in a film of grease, and he scratched at the base of his ponytail as he spoke.
‘Don’t worry, we don’t have a dress code.’ I tugged at the hem of my black shirt.
‘Oh, this? This is…normal for me.’ I contorted my mouth into what I hoped was a convincing smile. He snorted.
‘Sure. Anyway, you’ve arrived at the perfect time. We need some more people for our little project.
Laura tossed the script onto the van floor, digging the mobile out of her jacket pocket.
‘George, I implore thee! Are you and Frances ready up there?’ She turned to me. ‘Are you ready, Fiona?’
‘I…uh…’ She patted me on the shoulder.
‘Yeah, she’s ready. We’re heading over.’
The house stood alone on a patch of wilted grass, adrift in a sea of tarmac. The surrounding neighbourhood was long gone, demolished but never replaced. It was a building brought to its knees by disrepair, two crooked stories of chipped wooden panelling. The pointed gables looked like the serrated teeth of a sawblade. Two figures stood in front of the top-story window, their features indistinct in the darkness. George and Frances. I waved as I made my way towards the front porch.
They met us in the dining room, cloaked in black, their faces beneath balaclavas. The circular mahogany table had been pushed into the centre, beneath the groaning chandelier. I motioned towards the ceiling.
‘You sure this is safe? We want to rob them, not murder them.’ George lifted his balaclava, beads of sweat dripping into his open mouth.
‘It’s held up for the last twenty years, so by this point it’s basically invincible.’
I cried out as I took my seat at the head of the table – the chairs were uneven and low, creating an unexpected drop.
Laura riffled through her rucksack, pulling out an ornate silver candelabra. A series of runes were carved into the surface: spirals, waves and all-seeing eyes. They were completely meaningless. They’d been scribbled in the margins of my notebook, on the ten-minute drive to the jewellers.
‘Show me how it works again,’ I said. She pulled a book of matches from her pocket and lit a few of the candles.
‘When everyone’s distracted, step on this,’ she said. An almost imperceptible wire ran from the base to a small plastic button. She laid it down on the floor. ‘Give it a shot.’
I pressed it down with my foot, gasping as tiny metal arms sprang out from the side of the sconces, snuffing out the wicks.
We were in darkness by the time we heard the rumble of engines outside. I fumbled with the book of matches as everyone else ran upstairs to hide. A small group meandered into the dining room: a middle-aged woman, clutching a beaded necklace; a red-faced businessman, his eyes locked firmly on the floor; a couple of bemused college students. These were our marks. I rose from my chair to greet them.
‘Welcome. I knew you’d be here – the spirits can sense true believe—’ I hesitated. Someone else had slunk in behind them: a spindly man in faded overalls, thin as the tall grass outside. His eyes were deep-set in his hollow face, jagged cheekbones outlined in stubble. I shivered, motioning towards the corner of the room.
‘Leave your belongings over by the coat rack. They stifle the flow of spiritual energy.’ They took off their jackets and scarves without question. All except the man. He silently took the seat next to mine. I stifled a cough – the air around him was thick with the smell of mildew and dead leaves. I avoided his gaze, focusing on the other sitters. ‘Take each other hand in hand! Feel your connection to the other world!’ The man offered a hand. It was cold and limp, as if I was holding hands with a corpse. I inhaled deeply. ‘Wandering spirits, I implore thee!’
The flames died out, just as my foot hovered over the button. I stammered through the next part of the ritual, my palms slick with sweat. A shuffling sound was growing in the background, and I raised my voice to cover it. Our operation was usually more professional than this. The previous seances had been much quieter. Suddenly, the room exploded with the sound of footsteps. I could sense movement all around me, the room vibrating, and the floorboards overhead creaking. There was too much noise for just three people. The woman to the right of me shrieked, her hand falling away. I could hear nothing else beneath the cacophony of footsteps. I felt the man’s grip tighten around my hand, and my wrist began to ache. I cried out.
The candles flickered back to life, and my voice rang out to a near-empty room. There was no one left at the table, except for the man. He stared at me, unblinking. I squirmed free of his grip, and sprinted towards the staircase. He sat motionless, but his eyes followed me like a painting. I screamed the names of George, Laura and Frances as I ran, but there was no response. The top floor was abandoned. The man was still in the same position as I left for the van.
I threw myself into the driver’s seat, back arched against the steering wheel. I sat for hours, staring at the open door. There was nothing beyond the threshold but the formless dark.