Entering the home was like stepping into another world. An archaic chandelier meant to hold candles hung several feet above his head. Stone archways stretched towards impossibly high ceilings leading down a short distance to the main living area of the house. If not for various modern art depicting the dichotomy of life and death, and the framed anime and movie posters, hanging along the walls, Echo would have believed he had stepped into a whole different time altogether.
The stone walls and flooring, along with the massive log support beams and thatched roof, reminded him of ancient castles and Viking holds. Ivan proceeded into the interior of the house, passed the living room, and down another hall leading to where Echo believed bedrooms and bathrooms should be.
There was a scent of old books and tobacco hanging in the air. Bookshelves lined nearly every wall. Papers, journals, pens, pencils, rested on every table and counter he could see. An energy of creation and discovery hummed around him.
Sliding, bolting, and solid clicking of half a dozen locks sounded behind him. He turned to watch Jack meticulously secure every lock on the door. Jack hadn’t changed much in appearance over the years. His metabolism never caught up to him. Without trying he maintained a lean build. The close stubble on his head hinted that he, unlike Echo, could still grow a full head of hair. Lovecraftian imagery and arcane symbols formed beautiful works of macabre art down his arms. The small tattooed line work of a tentacle curling along his neck revealed more works of art lay hidden.
He admitted to himself he was a little jealous of Jack’s build. Before his nightmarish transformation, Echo had always been on the heavy side. He started losing his hair when he was nineteen. By age thirty-three he looked more like a man in his late thirties. Now, however, he could at least take solace in that he had exceeded his own personal weight loss goals with his transformation.
Jack turning to find he had an audience intrigued by the number of locks and bolts on his door feigned innocence.
“What? Lot of crazies out there.”
“You live in an upscale part of town.” Echo eyed Jack suspiciously, convinced the locks had more to do with his hermit tendencies than fear of criminal intrusion.
“Exactly. Statistically the next Jeffrey Dahmer, Unibomber, or Michael Bolton lives in one these houses.”
“Yeah! Music murdering bastard. AND THOSE GIRL SCOUTS! Persistent! Devious! Peddlers of those devilishly delicious baked delights!”
“Mmmm! Thin Mints!” Ivan had returned and claimed a spot on the couch in the living room.
“See! Poor Ivan’s girlish figure is at stake!”
“Hey Fucker!” Ivan’s protest broke a triumphant grin across Jack’s sarcastic face.
“Okay! Okay!” Echo couldn’t contain his laughter at the ridiculous defense. Struggling to contain himself he added, “Well, they’re lovely.”
“Thank you.” Jack turned towards the door once more stroking a lock affectionately. “You hear that children? He thinks you’re lovely.”
Echo rolled his eyes and walked towards the living room. Ivan motioned to a place next to him on the couch. He plopped down next to Ivan allowing himself to sink into the thick leather padding of the sofa. His body still ached and the pain in his head was only just fading away. He pressed his hands into tired eyes massaging the tension from a face that felt entirely foreign to him.
“So,” Exhaustion was catching up to Echo; evident in the raspy notes breaking the timber of his voice. “how did you know I was here? How did you find me?”
Ivan looked to Jack as he enter the living room and relaxed into a well worn leather recliner which matched the sofa. Jack nodded an acceptance to Ivan’s unspoken deferment of the question.
“Michelle saw you leaving that church you used to go to. Drove right passed you and called us to see if you were back in town. She said she thought she saw you. Why didn’t you call us, man?”
“I don’t know. I meant to. I went to the church to make arrangements for Mark’s funeral. I was going to try to catch up with you guys when things settled down, but shit got really weird really fast. The pastor was trying to get me to sign over the house.”
“Mark’s funeral? Yeah. His death was in the news. Sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. He lived the life he wanted. Died alone as a result.”
“So why did they want you to give them your house?”
“He wouldn’t say. Just said it was Mark’s wishes. Even offered fifty grand for me to sign it over.”
“Should’ve taken the money. Let them keep that shit hole.” Ivan offered his thoughts.
“The guy’s a con artist. Shifty bastard who’d do whatever it takes to get what he wants. I liked the idea of keeping something from him. And I felt like he was hiding something, especially when he refused to give me the key. So I made plans to stop by my old house…in the middle of the night. I needed to see what was up for myself, and I didn’t want to drag anyone else into it.”
Echo recounted the entire event of the past evening. As much as he could remember. The journal, Officer Wednesday, the vision of the woman in the mask, the missing body, the burning house, his quick escape, and the spirit he encountered.
“You talked to a ghost?” Ivan was more enthused than disbelieving.
“Spirit.” Echo corrected “I’m not sure what it was exactly.”
Jack rose making his way into the kitchen. He pulled out three tumbler glasses and a bottle filled with an amber liquid. He poured the liquid into each tumbler, filling each nearly to the top. Setting the glasses onto a tray he brought them out and placed them on a table between the sofa and the recliner. He selected a glass for himself and motioned to the others to do the same.
Echo reached out selecting the glass closest to himself. He inhaled the sweet caramel aroma of the bourbon before taking a sip. The liquid burned a trail over his tongue and down his throat. Powerful fumes scorched his nostrils as he breathed out. It had been a long time since he enjoyed a glass of bourbon.
“How did you talk to it? The spirit.” Jack set down his glass, lit up a cigarette, and offered one to Ivan who accepted with a smile. He fumbled around in the cargo pocket of his pants before pulling out a cigar and cutter and offering it to Echo. “Still smoke these, right?”
“God yes! Thank you.” Echo took the cigar and cutter. He clipped the cap, accepted a lighter from Ivan, and after a few moments was puffing away on the fine cigar. The peppery notes and earth tones in the flavor of the smoke were distinct. “Cuban?”
“Of course. Now, the spirit?”
“Right. You guys remember when I used to tell you about the weird things I’d experience when I was younger?”
Ivan and Jack nodded.
“When I left here I found myself in Portland. I went to school, studied religion, converted to Catholicism, and then started working for the local Catholic parish. Mostly I work reception and perform janitorial duties.
“But after my conversion, the weird stuff starting happening again. Amped up. I’d feel spirits…ghost…things around me. I’d hear voices. See things. I talked to my priest. Told him everything I’d been experiencing and the things I experienced when I was younger.
“He believed I had what he called ‘the gift of discernment.’ He hooked me up with a group in the church that investigated claims of demonic and paranormal infestations. We basically went out to confirm or debunk claims. Confirmed cases were sent up for Church response. Debunked cases were referred out as appropriate.
“The group taught me the tools of the trade. I was good at it. Eventually I was given permission to perform cleansings in cases not involving possessed persons.
“Last night in a field, I heard footsteps. I couldn’t see anything, but I felt it. I felt something close by. I grabbed a speaker, ran an app on my phone, and tried to make contact. I’ve never received such clear relevant responses!” Echo grew excited. Ever since learning how to hone his gifts he got a high when engaged in paranormal investigation and discussion.
Ivan was the first to ask the obvious question.
“What did it tell you?”
“Something about me being ‘Deathtouched,’ and that soon I would be able to see and understand.”
Jack looked to Ivan and for a moment it seemed as if they were holding a silent conversation only they could understand. In unison both spoke,
“Downstairs? You have a downstairs?”
“Follow us.” Ivan stood and stepped behind the couch.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to tell me how you found me?”
“Yeah, but you need to come downstairs.” Jack took a final drag off his cigarette and downed the remaining bourbon in his half-full tumbler in one gulp. He snuffed out his cigarette and followed after Ivan.
“Can I at least bring my cigar?”
“Sure. C’mon!” Jack and Ivan called again in unison.
Echo struggled to his feet and followed closely behind. The two lead him through the hallway Ivan had disappeared down when they first arrived. Two doors were on either side of the hall.
“Bathroom. Ivan’s room. My room. And your room.” Jack very quickly rambled off pointing to each door as he listed them off.
“And behind door number 5!” Ivan stood at the end of the hallway gesturing like a hostess on a game show modeling before an expensive shiny prize.
“Is a wall?” Echo looked at Ivan confused.
“Ah, but it only looks like a wall.” Jack chimed in lighting up another cigarette.
Ivan reached over and pressed a stone which pushed in slightly with an audible click. A portion of the wall swung in revealing a set of stairs spiraling down towards the bowels of the house.
“You have a secret stairway?”
“Of course man. You think Ivan and I would build a house without at least one secret room?”
“Onward! Into the depths of el Diablo!” Ivan marched proudly down the spiraling staircase.
“Well Echo? You want answers, don’t you? Plus it’s cool as hell down there.” Jack urged.
“I feel like I’m making a deal with the devil.” Echo replied as he began the descent.
“Nah, I’m out of that business.”