Entering the house was like stepping into another world. Intricate stone work, high archways, and wrought iron sconces protruding from the walls transformed the home into a castle. If not for the modern art depicting the dichotomy between life and death, and the framed anime posters, hanging along the walls, Echo would have believed he had stepped into a whole different time altogether.
The scent of old books and sweet tobacco hung in the air. Papers, journals, writing implements, and books lay scattered across every surface he could see. Creativity and discovery hummed all around him. The place felt charged with energy; almost magical.
Ivan proceeded down the short hallway into the living room. Echo’s attention turned towards Jack sliding and bolting half a dozen locks on the reinforced door. Jack had not changed much in appearance over the years. His metabolism never caught up to him, and without much effort he maintained a lean frame. Lovecraftian imagery and arcane symbols formed beautiful macabre works of art down his arms. The small tattooed line work of a tentacle slithering along his neck toward the stubble of his skull hinted that more artwork remained hidden.
Jack, turning to find he had an audience intrigued by the number of locks and bolts on his door, feigned an 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 devilishly delicious baked delights!”
“Mmmm! Thin Mints!” Ivan 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 laughed at the ridiculous defense. “Well, they’re lovely.”
“Thank you.” Jack turned towards the door stroking affectionately at the locks. “You hear that children? He thinks you’re lovely.”
Echo rolled his eyes and walked into the living room. Ivan motioned to a place beside him on the couch. He plopped down allowing himself to sink into the thick leather padding. His body still ached, and the pain in his head was only just beginning to fade.
For a moment they sat in silence. Echo wondered if they could see what he had become. If they couldn’t, he worried what they might think if he told them.
“So,” Echo said, breaking the awkward silence, “how did you find me? How did you know I was in town?”
Ivan looked to Jack as he relaxed into an old leather recliner. Jack nodded to Ivan’s deferment.
“Hmm…well someone might have seen you leaving that church you used to go to, and asked if we knew if you were back in town or not. Why didn’t you call us? Let us know you were back?”
“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.”
“Weird? Dude. C’mon, we love weird. Also sorry about your dad. We heard about his death.”
“Don’t be. He lived the life he wanted. Died alone as a result. Also, I didn’t want to drag you guys into something I didn’t even understand. I mean, it’s been a long time. I didn’t want to show up and be like, ‘hey guys! I know we haven’t seen each other in a while, but I think the pastor is trying to steal my dad’s house.’ That church and my home have been an issue for years. I didn’t want to put that on you.”
“Please, Echo. That’s the best kind of reunion! Intrigue. Corruption. Wait, steal your house?”
“Yeah. He wanted me to sign it over. Said it was Mark’s final wish. Even offered fifty grand for it.”
“Should’ve taken the money. Let them deal with the baggage of that shit hole.” Ivan said.
“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 it felt like he was hiding something, especially when he refused to give me the key. So I made plans to stop by the house…in the middle of the night. I needed to see what was up for myself. I didn’t want to drag anyone else, especially you guys, into it.”
Echo recounted the events of the past evening, omitting the vision of the woman in the mask.
“You talked to a ghost?” Ivan was more enthused than disbelieving.
“Spirit.” Echo corrected “I’m not sure what it was exactly.”
Jack rose and walked into the kitchen. He pulled out three tumbler glasses and a bottle filled with an amber liquid from a cabinet. He then filled each glass and placed them onto a tray. Echo and Ivan watched as he set the tray on the table between them and invited each to take a glass.
Echo reached for the glass closest to him. He savored the burning caramel aroma before taking a sip. The liquid burned a trail over his tongue and down his throat warming his belly. It had been a while since he enjoyed a glass of bourbon, and after the events of the past few days, he needed it.
“How did you talk to it? The spirit.” Jack set down his glass, lit up a cigarette, and offered one to Ivan who accepted. He fumbled around in the cargo pocket of his pants pulling out a cigar and cutter which he offered to Echo. “Still smoke these?”
“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. The combination of the bourbon and the cigar ushered in a comforting calmness. A sort of reassurance that he was safe.
“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 ended up in Portland. I went to school, studied religion, converted to Catholicism, and then started working for the local Catholic parish. Mostly I worked reception and performed janitorial duties.
“But after my conversion, that weird stuff starting happening again. Amped up. I’d feel spirits…ghosts…things…around me. I’d hear voices. See things. I talked to my priest. Told him what I’d been experiencing and the things I experienced when I was younger.
“He believed I had ‘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 anyone, but I felt something close by. I grabbed my ghostbox, 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 secret, silent, conversation. In unison both spoke,
“Downstairs? You have a downstairs?”
“C’mon.” 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 a single gulp. He snuffed out his cigarette and followed after Ivan.
“Can I at least bring my cigar?”
“Sure. C’mon!” Ivan said.
Echo struggled to his feet and followed closely behind his two friends. They lead him through a narrow hallway where there were two doors on either side before dead ending at a wall.
“Bathroom. Ivan’s room. My room. And your room.” Jack rambled off pointing to each door as he listed them.
“And behind door number 5!” Ivan, ignoring Echo’s question, stood at the end of the hallway and gestured like a game show hostess.
“Is a wall?” Echo said.
“Ah, but it only looks like a wall.” Jack said as he lit up another cigarette.
Ivan pressed a stone on the wall which depressed with an audible click. A portion of the wall swung inward revealing a set of stairs spiraling down into the floor.
“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, man? 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 said before he began the descent.
“Nah, I’m out of that business.”