It should be noted, before events get underway, that Hester Crane didn’t die on the ceiling in a cheap white nightgown. Neither Frasier nor Niles would ever have gotten over the humiliation of knowing that she’d willingly worn polyester.
No harbingers of doom made themselves known to the brothers as they met at Café Nervosa. “Dad’s been more than usually irritable since his reunion,” Frasier remarked over sweet, sanity-preserving caffeine.
Niles continued to wipe down the chair he intended to sit in with his perfectly pressed handkerchief, but asked, “Are you sure you have the timing of this latest mood swing correct? If I recall, Daphne looked a touch less than radiant before Dad’s police academy reunion.” It was to Niles’s credit that he made infinitesimal changes in an eccentric Englishwoman’s demeanor sound like a perfectly reasonable warning sign of his father’s temperament; his voice was soothing enough to let him charge hourly prices that were frankly outrageous.
“Which one of us actually lives with the man?” Frasier rebutted. “Yes, I’m sure. And if it helps to convince you, Daphne mentioned something about his absent-mindedness over breakfast this morning.” He tore into his blueberry bran muffin with gusto; Daphne’s cooking suffered when she was anxious, and English cooking was odd even at its best.
“Is he anxious about anything in particular? Perhaps one of his chums from the force was looking less than hale?” Niles ventured, patting his lips with a napkin to rid them of latte foam.
“Perhaps,” Frasier allowed, as his own thoughts had traveled along much the same lines. “Why don’t you stop by for dinner tonight and we’ll see if we can get to the bottom of this?”
Martin looked from one to the other of his sons and sighed, scooped up the crime-scene photographs Rufus had sent him, and prepared to lay them out once more. Eddie, who heaved a similar sigh, received a baleful look from Frasier for his troubles.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Daphne burst out. “Your father’s told you the whole story three times now! You can’t need more than that!”
Niles turned, automatically, to face her, like a sunflower ceaselessly searching for its sole source of light and heat. Daphne took in his wide, bewildered eyes and saw that his brother was in much the same condition, only with him it was more a matter of a dropped jaw. “You- you believe him?” Niles stuttered out.
“Course I do. Grammy Moon never let me out of the house after dark without salt in my pocket and a knife in my boot,” Daphne said cheerfully. “But since I’m a bit psychic, I knew what spots to avoid, mostly.” She peered into the four bone-china cups on the table and rose to fetch the coffeepot from the kitchen. Martin patted her on the arm as she went by.
“Look, it was a shock to me, too,” he told his sons, who were still gaping unattractively, and reached down to bury his fingers in Eddie’s warm fur. Eddie, knowing him to be in need of comfort, licked his fingers. “But I felt I had to tell you there’s more evil in the world than we ever knew.”
Niles looked at Frasier. Frasier looked at Niles.
It wasn’t until Daphne returned and poured a fresh round of coffee, leaning one slender hand familiarly on Niles’s shoulder as she leaned across the table to reach Frasier’s cup that the silence was broken. Niles swallowed convulsively, then managed to gird his loins to say, “I think we should do something about it.”
“There’s no fundraising gala for demon awareness, Niles!” Frasier said, unwilling to credit his little brother’s sincerity or to question why his blood was pounding in his veins.
“Frasier,” Niles said, sounding ludicrously calm as he brandished the goriest of Martin’s photographs. “We could make a difference - saving people, learning things.”
Frasier gave in to the adrenaline coursing through his system. “With great intelligence comes great responsibility,” he said, letting his voice roll out dramatically. “This calls for sherry!”
“We are both doctors,” Frasier reminded his father frostily, cutting off a lecture on how to disable an attacker by going for his - or its, Frasier supposed - weak spots. “We understand anatomical principles.” The thought that some of his future foes might not be human-shaped, or perhaps even corporeal, had not yet troubled him.
“This car doesn’t even have seat belts!” Niles protested when Martin turned away to whip the cover off his old Impala. “Not to mention how environmentally unsound it is!”
“This thing’s built like a tank. She’ll keep you boys safe,” Martin said with a fond pat of the roof of the car. “And the trunk’ll hold all the supplies you need.”
“I fail to see the necessity of driving at all,” Frasier said, and Niles nodded fervently behind him. None of them noticed Eddie christening the right rear tire. “It would be much more efficient to fly.”
“How’re you gonna get your weapons past security, genius?” Martin snapped.
That put an entirely different spin on the matter, and soon enough, Martin saw his boys in his old car, Frasier adjusting the rearview mirror and Niles in the passenger seat, sitting on a pristine, unfolded handkerchief.
Cassette number thirteen of The Ring Cycle was turned all the way up, and they sang along as they drove the backstreets of America.
The backstreets lost much of their charm when it became apparent that haute cuisine was not readily available along them. “Frasier,” Niles protested, horror coloring his voice, “you cannot possibly intend to eat at . . . Big Momma’s Burgers.”
Frasier ignored the tone more easily than he did his stomach’s pathetic growling; he was ravenous, and hunger made it possible for him to forgive the logo, which featured a grinning blonde woman whose ample bosom was made of two hamburgers. It was almost elegant in its crudity, he thought, the promise of nourishment as simple and wholesome as mother’s milk.
Niles trotted unhappily after Frasier, trailing him into the establishment. Thirty minutes later, he smugly led his green-faced sibling back to the car, tucked a few more empty Big Momma’s brown-paper takeout bags in his hands, and slid into the driver’s seat.
If there was one aspect of the job that the Crane brothers had down to a science, it was the maintenance of the necessary tools; after all, they had seasoned crêpe pans season after season. And caring for a knife, they reasoned, accurately, was not so very different from keeping an épée in good working order.
Niles pulled the cheap spread off his bed with a look of intense distaste upon his face, revealing stark white sheets perfumed with an abundance of bleach. Frasier repeated the ritual on his own bed a moment later when he came into the motel room with the last of the guns.
Niles seemed to accept that there was no handkerchief big enough to keep his skin from coming into contact with those sheets as he slept, and so, acting on the principle of exposure that allowed vaccines to work, he settled determinedly down on his bed and reached for the whetstone. He’d found a rather soothing rhythm when he heard Frasier set aside a rifle to turn on the room’s rather small television set.
He glanced up, hoping to catch a Nova rerun, or perhaps a Discovery Channel special. He was not expecting to see two young women, naked as jaybirds, twining themselves over each other. “Good Lord!” he burst out, feeling the heat rising in his cheeks, watching Frasier scrambling to change the channel. “What on earth was that?”
“Casa Erotica VII,” Frasier said, reading from the helpful card placed atop the set. “Didn’t you catch it at the arthouse theater last month?”
“I thought I recognized Eisenstein’s use of shadow,” Niles said, making an effort to match his brother’s levity. Humor was an important coping mechanism; he made a mental note to purchase a copy of 101 Freud Jokes Your Mother Never Wanted You To Hear for Frasier the next time they stopped in a town that was home to a bookstore.
Frasier’s satin eye-mask had slipped halfway off during the night, as he couldn’t get comfortable on the scratchy sheets, no white noise machine by the bedside to drown out the sounds of the nearby highway. The harsh red glare of the cheap alarm clock informed him that it was already seven a.m., but Niles, huddled in his silk pajamas and silk robe, was still snoring as if he hadn’t had a standing appointment with Dr. Bremmer to play squash at that hour for years.
A glance outside told him that the weather was foul enough to make driving a rather dangerous proposition, so he called the front desk to keep the room for another day and crawled across his bed to pull one of the texts Rufus had sent them out of his bag. He settled back against the cracked-mirror headboard of the bed and started to read.
Soon enough, Niles’s nose started twitching in his sleep, a sure sign that the alluring aroma of old books had wended its way into his subconscious, and within minutes, he had a text of his own across his lap.
“What do you have?” Niles asked.
“Vampires,” Frasier said; he’d been thinking of Lilith when he’d seen the heading and flipped to it. He felt a welcome jolt of smugness at the confirmation that popular culture was completely wrong about the bloodsucking fiends; Byronic or romantic they were not. “You?”
“The Four Horsemen,” Niles responded, leaving off the part where thoughts of Maris had led him to read about Famine in particular.
The brothers were as wrong as they were uncharitable; Maris was simply an unpleasant human being, raised by unpleasant parents along with her unpleasant sisters. And Lilith was closer to divine than either of them had guessed, though Niles had glimpsed the truth on that fateful night they had spent together. He later attributed the thrilling, breathless sensations he’d felt to the overwhelming pleasures of uninhibited sex and Eggs Benedict, in which he indulged no more than once a year.
“A haunting!” Frasier said again, excitement evident in his tone, as he and Niles squinted over the map of Wyoming that they’d spread out on the Impala’s hood. At that moment, each of them would have thrown out all the salon-brand haircare products in the trunk in favor of a working GPS.
“Our first actual case!” Niles responded, reaching out a hand to clasp his brother’s shoulder.
“What could be better than that?” Frasier asked rhetorically, then hollered in triumph as he located the dirt road they needed.
At the end of the gravel-covered dirt road stood a house. The woman waiting on the front porch, wrapped in a man’s overcoat but still shivering, was young and buxom and pretty. It cannot be denied that Frasier allowed his thoughts to linger on the rewards a grateful client might choose to bestow on a virile hunter of the supernatural. Fortunately for the young woman, who was a lesbian and too smart to tumble into bed with a stranger twice her age besides, no specimens of particular virility showed up on her doorstep.
She led them inside, introducing herself as Rosalie and explaining that she’d inherited the house from her estranged father, who had died recently in an accident involving farming equipment. For the past few weeks, ever since she’d cleaned out the house and made it habitable for herself, problems had occurred each night between sunset and sunrise: cabinets and doors opening and closing on their own, faucets turning on and off, lights flickering, and creaking floorboards. “Please,” she said simply. “Can you help me?”
Niles checked his Rolex - dusk was still an hour away - while Frasier used his mellifluous voice and impressive vocabulary to assure Rosalie that they would not rest until she felt safe in her house. Perhaps a twinkle in his eye betrayed his earlier lascivious thoughts, because Rosalie lost no time in excusing herself, saying she would stay out of their way, and headed to the nearest movie theater.
Precisely on cue, the ghost began making a nuisance of itself, flinging cheap stainless steel cutlery to the floor and opening and closing one swinging door so often that a constant breeze ruffled the pages of the newspaper sitting on the living room coffee table. Frasier, adrenaline pumping through his system, called out, “Mr. Bell! You have our attention! Your daughter has not forgotten you!”
“What?” hissed Niles.
“Oh, yes,” Frasier continued, his voice becoming much more conversational and intimate, “you enjoyed her Elektra Complex, didn’t you? All of these cheap tricks -”
“Freudians,” Niles said disgustedly. “This has nothing to do with sex! Mr. Bell, you are experiencing some natural uncertainty as you shift from one archetype to another -”
“This is not the first day of the rest of his life, Niles! If you would allow me to proceed, bringing Mr. Bell’s unconscious desires to the level of his conscious mind, we could get somewhere!”
“Pardon me for trying to address the actual problem at hand instead of applying an outdated, discredited theory!”
Niles had scarcely closed his mouth after declaiming that stinging retort, and Frasier had just opened his to deliver another salvo, when each felt a strange sensation in his chest. A moment later, they were gasping from the force of the blows that had landed them against a wall. Wide-eyed, they sought each other’s hands, forgetting their squabble in the face of this suddenly looming danger.
“Frasier?” Niles whispered. “Did you know they could touch us?”
“Oh, God,” Frasier said once the pressure let up, which seemed to answer the question rather well.
“What was it Daphne said?” Niles asked hoarsely, after several seconds that he and Frasier had occupied by choking, the spectral Mr. Bell having returned from making the overhead light flicker in order to establish a firm grip around each of their throats.
Under the cover of the sounds of Mr. Bell toppling the living room furniture, Frasier whispered indignantly, “Now is not the time to remember Daphne’s insipid utterances or the ravings of that undoubted lunatic, Grammy Moon -” He stopped when he saw his own jolt of memory mirrored on his brother’s bug-eyed face.
“Salt!” they chorused, suddenly as comfortable as two light baritones who know the libretto backwards and forwards, and before Mr. Bell could reacquaint himself with their larynxes, they peeled themselves from the wall and headed for the kitchen.
Niles shook the container of Morton’s wherever the noise was loudest while Frasier got directions on how to finish off an angry spirit from Daphne, whose calm voice alternated between instructing him and scolding his father for trying to cheat on his deep-knee bends.
Frasier set Mr. Bell’s favorite bandanna, still stained with his blood from its recent use as a makeshift bandage, alight in the kitchen sink, and listened gratefully as all of the noises disappeared, leaving only the sounds of his and Niles’s heaving breaths.
They smiled at each other, relishing the feeling of having conquered something. Frasier wanted to say something suitably heroic - quote Henry V or something along those lines - but all that came out of his mouth was, “Still, better this than another round with Bebe.”
Niles laughed, and they toasted each other with the last bottle of champagne in the trunk.
That isn’t to say that they were entirely wrong about Bebe Glazer. But that’s a different story.