“The first time it happened,” said Deirdre, the mother of the family, “the first time I was sure about it, I was here by myself. Before, you know, I’d always put the noises down to one of the kids, or Arthur in the garage or whatever. But the boys were at school and Arthur was at work. I stayed home because I had a cold.”
As Deirdre spoke, Crowley could see her pupils dilate a little, her breaths come a bit more sharply. The window was mostly closed behind her, but occasionally a breeze caught the edge of the curtain and slivers of the backyard became visible, trees on the edge between fall and winter, grass ready to curl up and brown.
It made for a good tape, Deirdre looking scared. Michael was in charge of video, and she’d set Deirdre there on the sofa in the living room of the farmhouse. Gabriel was directing, which as far as Crowley could see meant he stood about being useless and got paid the highest salary for it. Uriel, the psychic, was wandering through the room putting her hands on various surfaces. Sometimes she looked distracted, sometimes sad. Every once in a while, she yanked her hand back from what she’d touched. It was an odd, jerky motion, moving unpredictably through Crowley’s peripheral vision. He was used to it, though. All part of the show.
Bee, the one who’d convinced Crowley to join this group, was out front taking photos to put on their website: Centertown Ghost Investigations. Discreet, professional help when you need it most. Crowley had no idea how a website that posted splashy write-ups and teary videos of their cases could be called discreet, but Gabriel said the claim would attract business, and he was the boss.
Crowley was probably the one who seemed the most professional to their clients, moving through people’s houses with various electronic gizmos that made beeping noises. In real life, Crowley was a car mechanic. He was good with vehicles, like his beloved 1933 Bentley, which was parked outside on the gravel drive. (This house was old enough to have seen Bentleys in their heyday. If the house were sentient, Crowley thought, perhaps it would be gripped by nostalgia seeing the car there.)
Crowley was a member of the team because he knew how to set up motion-sensitive cameras, measure temperature differences, and record sounds, and he was capable of making all of that look Very Serious on a computer screen. And because he liked spooky. Big spooky fan, him. He also liked getting paid.
The last member of the group was Aziraphale, and he was sitting on the couch beside Deirdre, the client. Aziraphale held the position of historian, which meant that he was responsible for digging up all the stories about the property: paranormal experiences of previous owners, the names of anybody who might have kicked the bucket while inside property lines, the occasional famous person who’d once caught a nap on the couch, and who might supposedly be drawn to haunt a place they’d spent all of two hours in while alive. Famous ghosts were always popular with viewers.
Aziraphale also was the one who interviewed the current inhabitants of the house. He was good at that. He had a soft voice, and a genuine air about him. People liked Aziraphale.
Crowley hated him.
It wasn't Crowley’s fault, really. Aziraphale was frumpy and fussy. Crowley hated his dusty books and microfilm print-outs of old newspapers, hated his blond curls and blue eyes, his ridiculously outdated clothes. Aziraphale was an English teacher (naturally), and he had a sense of superiority about him, always prizing books and research over what anyone else might bring to the project. As far as Crowley was concerned, Aziraphale was barely one step above Uriel the psychic, and only because the history Aziraphale provided them with was probably true.
Crowley had been with this group of ghost-hunters for two years, Aziraphale for three. They’d never had a conversation that didn’t end in an argument. If they weren’t both essential (read: would work this as a side job on the weekends for low pay), Gabriel would have fired one or both of them a long time ago.
So now, as Aziraphale conducted his interview, Crowley was sure to scowl at him when he looked up. Because Aziraphale was on camera and couldn’t scowl back.
Aziraphale returned his focus to Deirdre with an irritated huff of breath that Crowley did not miss. “What happened that day you stayed home?” he asked her.
Deirdre talked with her hands, shaping out her thoughts in a vague, fluttery way. “I started hearing things, like scraping noises. From upstairs.” She pointed, as if they’d need direction, maybe thinking they might not be able to imagine what had happened that day, not in this warm and well-lit room with the open window and the front door in sight.
“I got out of bed,” Deirdre said. “As best as I could tell, the noises were coming from the attic. I thought maybe an animal had got in or something. Squirrel, you know. Though it sounded bigger. And then, just as I got to the attic stairs, there was this enormous crash. I could even hear glass shattering. I mean, the house shook with the impact.” Deirdre gave Aziraphale a pleading look, clearly willing him to believe her. Aziraphale gave her a comforting smile, which calmed her a bit. Most people did trust Aziraphale very easily.
“The thing was,” Deirdre said, “we’ve put nothing in the attic. No furniture, no glass. And when I went to look, it was still empty. Have you heard of that before?”
“It is a commonly reported phenomenon,” Aziraphale answered smoothly. “You see, a house often has a bit of residual energy in it from all the people who have lived here before. And that energy can sometimes record and then replay an episode that happened in the past. Perhaps at one point before you moved in, a large chest of drawers with a mirror fell over in the attic.”
Deirdre considered that for a moment. “Why would it do that, though?”
Aziraphale shrugged. “Oh, maybe it was an animal, like you suggested. A farm dog might’ve sneaked in and caused some mischief. Or—” His voice fell a little lower. “It could have been a person.”
Deirdre’s eyes flicked up to the ceiling again, and her mouth worked a little.
“Have you heard other sounds? Knocking, perhaps?” Aziraphale prompted.
“Oh.” Deirdre looked toward the front door. “Yes, we hear knocking all the time, but no one is ever there. That’s not so awful, really. I mean, it’s a mile to the nearest neighbor, but people do come through. Hunters, or you know, hikers. Um— whoever wouldn’t have a car, because there’s never a car—” She drew back her wavering hands, ensconcing them in her lap, one covered by the other. “But, um— sometimes there’s knocking from upstairs, too. There’s a closet. The knocks— they come from the inside. And then there’s the rain. When you’re inside, you can hear it raining, but there’s sunshine through the windows. And of course, there’s the screaming.”
Deirdre was chattering now, the way clients did when they realized they’d found an opportunity to unburden themselves to someone who would listen and not scoff. That wasn’t a good thing, though, because she was edging a little too close to frantic.
“When you’re out in the yard, it sounds like someone inside the house is screaming. But we never hear it in here.” Deirdre’s eyes grew wet. “It’s horrible. I keep thinking maybe it’s my boys screaming. Or that maybe it will be someday. If we can hear the past— then can we hear the future?”
And there it was. A bit of panic. They’d have to cut the video short if she kept it up. But Aziraphale was practiced at this. He took a comforting pose on the couch, open, unworried, approachable, and added one of his gentle smiles. “You know, my dear, while you’ve certainly experienced some very intriguing phenomena here, we find that it is still the case that old houses like this can be very confusing in the sounds they make. Pipes can cause quite a ruckus, for example. It can sound just like screaming, especially out there, with all the trees. Your drive is probably a bit of an echo chamber, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Deirdre sighed. She looked relieved, sitting back, less ready to jump off of the couch. “Well, that’s good.”
“Was there anything else? Noises or smells? Music?”
“No, not really,” Deirdre said. “Just the man.”
Aziraphale, to his credit, didn’t blink an eye. “What man?”
Deirdre pointed toward Crowley, who was standing by a doorway to the stairs. “He sometimes comes from there.” Crowley stubbornly resisted the urge to turn around and look into the darkened stairway. He was a professional, damn it.
Deirdre swung her arm from one side of the room to the other, slicing through the air. “He walks right through here, where the camera is, and goes to the front door before he vanishes. Usually.”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, relaxing a bit. “Well, he may be another recording, like the furniture falling in the attic, only a visual one this time. Happens all the time—”
“If he’s a recording, then how does he follow me?”
Everyone paused for a moment, the house falling silent. The curtain moved a little, trailing across the back of the sofa.
“I’m sorry, he follows you?” Aziraphale said.
“Well, he used to just keep to his route, you know, stairs, living room, front door. But then one night, I saw him in the den, down the hall there.”
“What does he look like?” Aziraphale asked. “Gray, white, misty, shadowy? Old clothes like mine?”
Despite himself, Crowley smiled at that.
“The clothes a bit,” Deirdre said. “But he’s quite real-looking. I would have called the police if he didn’t disappear like he does. And, you know, his face. If you don’t see that, he looks more like a person.”
Aziraphale put a hand on his bow tie, straightening it. It was a nervous tell. Crowley had always wondered how on earth Aziraphale had come to have this job, because honestly, he did not seem to like spooky very much at all. “What happened after you saw him in the den?” Aziraphale asked.
Deirdre shrugged. “Started seeing him everywhere. The kids’ rooms, sometimes when the kids were in there. Right in the corner, you know. You have to pretend you don’t see him if the kids are around, because if they see him—” She gave a shaky sigh. “And he’s been in my room. Laundry room. Outside on the lawn. It seemed random for a while, but then one day I was cleaning the place, and every time I backtracked to grab the trash or find my dustrag, he was there. He was always in the room I had just been in.”
“What does he do?”
“He looks,” Deirdre said. “I think he’d look longer if he could. If he could stop disappearing. I keep thinking maybe he’ll learn. Guess we’ll know then what he’s trying to look at.” She met Aziraphale’s gaze. “I don’t think I want to know.”
After the interview, Crowley went about the house setting up his sensors, little bits of tech perched in corners like spies. If he could register a cold spot, and then rustle up some dust to show up as orbs in photos, then when Michael edited the video together, you would be able to see Something There.
“Had a friend,” Crowley was saying to Bee, who wasn’t really listening, “who knew a guy whose dad told this story. One night—”
“Well, that sounds like a very reliable source,” Aziraphale cut in sharply.
Crowley whipped his head around to glare at him. He hadn’t noticed Aziraphale walk into this spare bedroom. It was carpeted, old half-fuzzy stuff of an out-of-fashion blue, but Aziraphale was also the mild-mannered sort who didn’t tend to make a lot of noise. “Wasn’t talking to you,” Crowley snapped. “What are you even doing in here?”
“My job,” Aziraphale returned, in that stupid posh accent.
“Oh, yeah? And what is that, exactly?”
Aziraphale gave him a withering look. “I’m examining this door, obviously.”
Crowley had his hands full of gadgets and batteries. Aziraphale was staring into a closet.
“Good job,” Crowley said. “Yep, it’s a door. Glad we have you here to tell us these things.”
“This is the closet they hear the knocking from,” Aziraphale reminded him, in a patronizing tone. “I was just thinking— oh, what’s this?”
Crowley was across the room to Aziraphale’s side before he realized it, and he made himself take a step back. Aziraphale didn’t seem to notice. “There are holes in the door,” Aziraphale said, trailing a finger across it, closing and then reopening little spaces of nothing inside the heavy wood. “As if they were drilled for a different set of hinges.” Aziraphale swung the door open and it creaked. “And look how weathered it is on this side. Not at all like the other side.”
“It was an outside door,” Crowley said.
“The front door, perhaps. I did notice the door down there seems newer than a lot of the house.”
“I noticed that too,” Crowley said, and when Aziraphale looked at him, with those stupid blue eyes, Crowley sneered at him. “Bloody obvious, of course.”
Aziraphale huffed, turning his head and peering at the door even more closely. Crowley backed off, but he felt a little uneasy somehow about leaving Aziraphale standing there, with the bedroom behind him and an empty closet in front of him. As if maybe Aziraphale might take another step forward, his back foot on that blue carpet and his front foot— who knew where.
Crowley tried to shake the feeling off. “Anyhow,” he said loudly, “my friend, who is an impeccable source, said that the family had a guest for dinner one night, right? Some traveler who came by.” Bee still didn’t look up, engrossed in their phone, making edits to photos they’d taken outside.
Crowley went on anyway. “And the traveler couldn’t figure out why, but the family looked terrified during the whole meal. So the traveler went to sleep and when he woke up, he found that the man of the house had died during the night. Turned out the family was scared the night before because—”
“Because also at the table that night was the man’s father who’d been dead twenty years,” Aziraphale interrupted, sounding bored. “Come to take his son home. It’s an urban legend, Crowley. And you don’t tell it very well.”
Crowley threw his last sensor onto a dusty desk. “Now, you listen—” He stalked across the room to Aziraphale. “I don’t need your rude comments—”
“Well, I don’t need your constant stupid chattering! Why can’t you do your job quietly?” Aziraphale held his ground even though Crowley was close enough to point a finger into his face.
“Oh, you think you’re so much better than I am, don’t you? You’re an angel who flits about the school yard in your ridiculous clothes, and I’m some sort of demon. A lowly mechanic—”
Bee’s sudden shouting overtook them both. “Shut up! The both of you! Either kill each other or finally fuck each other, I don’t care, but don’t do it on the job. For fuck’s sake.”
Crowley was very aware just then of how close he was standing to Aziraphale, and how red the man had flushed. Crowley grabbed the rest of his equipment and strode out of the room.