/ A TALE OF GHOSTS AND GUARDIANS /
New York City terrified Kara, and it had filled her with fear long before this last New Year’s Eve. But her fear when she was alive had always been of the unknown. What would it be like? Where would she visit? What would she do? What would she miss? Her first trip to the city was during high school for the Model U.N. conference. She planned the trip for a week, carefully choosing what she would wear and making her friends swear to accompany her to Central Park, Times Square, and 30 Rock. Her father repeatedly told her to not get her hopes up, that she was setting difficult expectations to be met. She didn’t listen, and the trip did not even come close to going as she had hoped. Kara promised herself that when she returned to the city, she would have more reasonable expectations.
Of course, she hadn’t expected to die.
Now, Kara had to remind herself before each visit to have no expectations at all. She still believed she would do that some day.
On this particular visit the first twist arrived after she had assumed Beth to be at her apartment at three in the morning. The second twist came when Kara and Hardy pulled up to The Wetstone.; there were no spots on the street to park.
"I’ll go inside to let her know we are here," Kara volunteered, feeling a pang of guilt for being wrong again. "We should be outside before you can circle the block."
"She will ask where we are going. What are you going to say to her?"
Kara thought of the finale of The Wild Bunch, when Angel, a member of the outlaw gang, is being tortured by the Mexican Army. The leader of the gang, Pike, walks up to the Gorch brothers and employs two simple words to convince them to save their friend: "Let’s go." The brothers look to each other, both uncertain, but quickly recognizing the right choice, Lyle says, "Why not?"
Kara shook the scene and the expectation from her mind.
"What were you going to say when we were at her apartment?" she asked her brother.
"I was going to remind her that she promised to pay us back, then assure her that doing this would make us square."
More complex than Let’s go, but lacking compassion.
"I can’t say that."
"Kara, we don’t have time to ease her in to this. She has a debt to us and we finally have a price worth that debt."
"Beth is not a mercenary. We are asking her to risk her life for someone she doesn’t even know. She needs to know we care about her as much as we care about Sam."
"Figure something out. If I have to circle twice, I’m double parking and coming in."
A year ago, Hardy would never have so blatantly broken the law for something so insignificant. His self-assurance had grown beyond comfortable, bordering on reckless, and despite the abilities Kara had developed after her death, Hardy’s trust in her seemed to be rapidly diminishing.
The living world became fluid to the dead. Objects had dimension and volume, but Kara could not hold them in her hand. Smaller objects could be influenced, swayed like water by an arm stroke. She floated abstractly, with no bottom which to sink and no surface which to rise. Doors, walls, and all other barriers when she was alive had shed their solidity for her passing. People were bubbles in the slough, separate and defined, pliable with gentle force and brittle under significant pressure.
Under the surface, where shadows are reflected, that is where the dead reside.
Hardy even described her new appearance as if she were underwater. From a distance, her image was vague and unrecognizable, and close up she was clearer, with sharply reflected light and translucent shadows. For weeks after her return, Hardy could not keep himself from giving her a double take each time she was just out of his sight, his mind in a battle over whether she was really there or not. He often started conversations with peripheral images and shadows in mirrors, believing her to be in that direction, and his words and thoughts slowed as he readjusted his point of contact. Kara trained herself to stay in his eye line while Hardy trained himself to speak to an area rather than a person. When they were in the car together his eyes were always focused on the world outside.
Kara waved to the fluid that was the car door, releasing the latch and causing it to swing open. She felt it was important to keep up the appearance of corporeality, even during the early morning hours in the city. Hardy drove down the street as she mimed walking to the entrance of The Wetstone.
When she and Hardy had gone in search of answers to her condition, and met with a paranormal researcher, Kara had been labeled a Presence. Not a ghost. Not a spirit, specter, or phantom. A Presence. As if such a clinical term would make the news easier to hear. The researcher said a Presence was a person who had died but remained tied to this world without their body by some significance. A Presence had an anchor; a location, object, or person who they must stay within a certain radius of.
According to the researcher, a Presence had three aspects: emotional, spiritual, and mental. The emotional aspect was based on how she died, and it could affect the atmosphere around her anchor. This was why haunted houses have cold spots. The image of the Presence was allowed through the spiritual aspect, a reflection of how she lived. Many Presences could not manifest their image because they were weak in life and remain so in death. The last aspect, the mental aspect, was based on the strength of the Presence’s connection to her anchor. With an incredibly powerful connection she would retain the memories of her life and find her voice.
Hardy was Kara’s anchor. She could travel with him, but she could not travel far from him. Five miles had been the furthest she had gone before the world became too murky and her memories began to fade.
As she tested and stretched her intangible limits, Hardy had been straining his own to their physical brink. After a combustive fight with their dad in the middle of March made worse by Hardy’s refusal to tell their parents the truth of who he and Kara had become, she followed him from their childhood home and all along the east coast hunting for monsters and other creatures that go bump in the night. In her condition, she had no need for food or rest, but more frequently she was having to remind Hardy that he did. Combined with his undertaking more dangerous missions, she felt he foolishly trusted his bandages to keep him safe from all harm, and Sam’s disappearance had only thrown him into overdrive.
Kara would tell Beth exactly why they needed her: because Hardy needed Sam. Hardy was iron and Sam was his forge, without which he had turned brittle, capable of cracking at any moment. Sam would hit the exact pressure points on Hardy to turn him to steel. To save Hardy, she needed Sam, and to rescue Sam, she needed Beth.
"Sorry, you just missed her," the bartender answered to the mentioning of Beth by the ethereal girl. "She headed out of here with some of Deirdre Hansard’s buddies about twenty minutes ago."
"Do you know where I can find Deirdre Hansard?"
"She’s got a place in Chelsea. One of those renovated warehouse art galleries. I don’t remember which one. Real exclusive, though. Invite only, y’know?"
One of the things Kara found most fascinating about Beth was her high class style and taste for low class culture and behavior. She would be the best dressed patron at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And, apparently, she would get drunk before going to a private art gallery.
It was after four o’clock. They could spend all night looking for Beth. The sun would rise on another day. Another day without Sam. Another day for Hardy to slip further away. Another day for Kara to feel as lost as ever.
Kara was waiting on the curbside when Hardy pulled around. She mimed getting in the car again.
"Where is she?"
"She said she would be here."
"She was. Now she’s in Chelsea."
They drove through the streets of Manhattan towards Chelsea, stopping to ask a few cab drivers where Deirdre Hansard’s gallery was located. The fifth driver knew the exact address.
Hardy’s rashness and distrust was losing the battle with exhaustion. He needed to rest before they went after Sam. He had grown quite suggestible by the time they arrived outside the gallery, and Kara only had to say "I’ll bring her out," to convince Hardy to park and stay with the truck.
Kara did not bother to mime movements this time, choosing instead to deconstruct her appearance and become invisible to human eyes. She passed through the front door and came upon a front desk attended by a large, sleepy man sipping a cup of coffee the size of his head. Moving forward, she entered a much larger space full of white walls and colorful paintings. The sleek concrete floors were dotted with contemporary sculptures of colors, waves, and angles that used precisely placed lights to create secondary artwork of shadows.
The entire collection seemed to have the theme of primary and secondary. The form and the shadow. Positive space and negative space. Outside and inside.
One piece stood out to Kara more than the others. Two panes of glass contained an average thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with every other piece reversed to display the dull gray cardboard underneath. The checkered assembly showed the opposite on the other side of the case, producing the stunning result of two completely different images from one perfectly put together puzzle.
Kara loved putting puzzles together. She and Sam had enjoyed many evenings leaning over a good puzzle. They both found the construction to be very calming. When Kara needed to train her focus, she would piece them together with the picture facing down. The added challenge gave her mind a tremendous workout. Sam would start the upside-down puzzles with her, but the missing picture would soon frustrate him and he would explode in anger, leaving her to complete it by herself. She always did.
When she was first learning to use her new abilities, Kara had practiced by assembling those jigsaw puzzles. It took her two days with no breaks to put one together right-side-up. After a few weeks she was back to assembling them upside-down within an hour.
The puzzle sculpture was lost innocence and earned discipline. It was childishness and precociousness. It was Hardy and Kara.
She moved through the gallery, passing one more large man as he emerged from a long hallway. In a small office off the hallway, she found Beth all alone. The office held framed black and white photography, two wooden shelves of various art books and small sculptures, and a singular desk with a closed, silver laptop and a bowl of red apples. Beth sat in a chair in front of the desk tossing an apple from hand to hand.
Aiming for a subtle introduction, Kara reached out with her command over small objects and stopped the apple in mid-air. Beth jerked her hand down and out to catch the apple that she suddenly felt was off trajectory. When she realized it had been halted mid-flight, Beth nervously reached up to grip it. She gave a slight tug. Kara tugged back. Beth swiveled her head to scan the room.
"Release the apple if you are a friend," Beth said.
Kara did, and Beth pulled the apple close to her chest. Then she placed it gently back in the bowl.
Kara restored her image. Beth stared directly at her. Kara revisited the idea of saying "Let’s go," if only to see if it would work. She held it back, and kept all other words from escaping too.
"That is you, right?" Beth said. "Tell me something only you would know."
Sensing Beth’s heightened anxiety, Kara tried to think of the most secret of secrets. Something that would prove to Beth that no one else could be standing before her other than Kara Reynolds.
"I was twelve years old when I had my first kiss. It was with Shelby Gustin. I’ve never had a better kiss."
Beth’s nervousness gave way as she broke in to laughter.
"How am I supposed to know if that’s true?"
"You said something only I would know. I never told anyone about that until now."
"Only you could be so ridiculous."
"Well, next time be more specific."
Beth rubbed the laughter from her face.
"What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. Are you okay?"
"I’ve been worse. Where’s Hardy?"
"Waiting outside. He has a gift for attracting unwanted attention."
"That makes two of us. You must be in real trouble if you’ve gone through this much to find me."
"It’s not us, it’s our friend, Sam. He’s been abducted by a monster and we need to rescue him."
"That doesn’t sound too out of the ordinary for you. What do you need from me?"
"To break him out."
"Isn’t that job better suited for the invisible girl who can walk through walls?"
"I can get in without being seen but I can’t get him out unnoticed."
And Sam excelled at being noticed. Whatever took him, no matter how deadly, he would want payback.
"So you want me to teleport in, grab him, and teleport out?"
"This friend you need to rescue, he’s important to you."
Kara noticed a glimmer of interest in Beth’s eyes while her face remained placid.
"So what sort of monster is holding your friend?"
"Do you know what an ördög is?" Kara asked.
"Does it like to chase örcäts?"
"No. It collects souls."
"Like the Grim Reaper?"
"Sort of. Except an ördög doesn’t collect souls that have died. It collects living souls, keeps them in its underground lair, and drains them for sustenance over a long, long time. The thing is, we don’t know exactly how to kill it."
And the only person she knew who could figure out how to kill it was currently its captive.
"A sharp object to a soft area would be my suggestion," Beth said.
"That doesn’t always work. I’ve looked through every resource that I know. No one has fought against an ördög and lived."
"Then how would anyone know anything about it?"
"Because an ördög does have at least one weakness: it loves to make a wager."
Suddenly Beth’s thoughts became as clear as her face. "You want me to face this thing?"
"No! Not at all. I mean, yes, but only as a last resort. If things go bad. The few people that have gambled and won say an ördög has to grant one request. But none of that will matter as long as we can get in and out again without incident."
Suddenly, there was a short knock before the door to the office swung open. The knock was a courtesy given to announce the entrance and to keep Beth from being startled, and it was just enough to give Kara the warning she needed to turn invisible. A woman dressed in a light gray jogging suit strolled in carrying a tablet computer in her hand. Her long hair twists were kept back with a crimson headband that matched her sneakers. Sweat had been wiped away from most of her dark skin, but her breath and heart rate were still elevated from an early morning run.
"How is my favorite little gambler during this wonderful hour of the wolf?" Deirdre Hansard said, heading behind the desk. Her voice was airy, high on endorphins.
"Half past exhaustion," Beth responded. "If you really want to know."
"I hear you, honey. But we wouldn’t keep these ungodly hours if we didn’t love what we do, now would we?" Deirdre set down her tablet, flipped open her laptop, and gave a few keystrokes. "I apologize for the wait. When I asked Thomas and Victor to bring you here, I thought there would be enough time to get my run in. I hope you don’t mind if I stretch while we chat. Have an apple, if you like."
Kara moved so that she could see the device screens, wondering if there was information about Beth. The devices only showed numbers and a steadily growing upload bar.
Deirdre stepped out from behind the desk and used the space in the room to stretch out her legs. Her movements kept her in a circular pattern around Beth.
"Were you able to see the new pieces on display since our last meeting?"
"What do you think of them?"
"I’m not really an art critic."
"Honey, everyone is an art critic. Feeling nothing for a piece is just as valid as feeling everything for a piece."
"Then I feel they look too easy. Someone went dumpster diving and pasted together the things they found. There is no emotion or style. Not very impressive."
"The artist has earned a lot of success. One of those pieces sold last night. Do you feel the buyer wasted her money?"
"I don’t know. If she likes it, she can spend whatever she wants on it."
"It wasn’t just about whether she liked it. She felt it was a good investment. A good investment has the potential to make you a lot more money than doing the work yourself. I did not create any of the art in my collection. But simply by spending a little of my money, I possess an object that may one day sell for thousands more than what I paid. And all I did was hold it.
"You came to me for a little of my money, and I gave it to you because you have a reputation for a good return. It is not up to me to say what you use the money for as long as I receive the agreed upon amount."
"By next Friday. That’s what we agreed."
Deirdre acknowledged her statement with a brief nod.
"There is a great amount of risk in being a collector of contemporary art. No matter how a piece makes me feel, there is no guarantee that it will increase in value. I have collected several pieces that have turned out to be a bad investment. What am I supposed to do with a piece that is worthless? It cannot be sold. Museums will not want it. It will be laughed at and spit on by every art lover in the country. No, the world. All because it failed to make me money."
Deirdre stopped in front of her desk. She stood tall and stone-faced over Beth.
"Do not confuse me for a monster. I will gain no pleasure from your physical harm. Death has a way of allowing my enemies to vanish from public view. If you fail to earn me money, I will make it my purpose to destroy you economically, socially, and politically. There will be a stain on you for everyone to see. No one will lend you money. No gambling parlor will seat you. No job will interview you. You will not be able to walk a street in this city without someone looking down on you with pity and disgust."
Beth parted her lips to speak, left them open for a moment, then sealed them again when the words didn’t come.
"You have something to say? A question, perhaps?"
Beth looked over to where Kara had been before Deirdre had entered the room. Her face showed no sign of worry. To Kara’s surprise, Beth looked almost thrilled. She turned back to Deirdre.
"How do you feel about Sunday night?"
Deirdre showed a slight twitch from the unexpected question.
"What do you mean?"
"We agreed that I would pay you back by next Friday. You doubt that I am able to deliver. So, why don’t we agree that I will pay you thirty-thousand dollars by midnight this Sunday?"
That was three days away. Had Kara been visible, Beth would have seen her cringe.
"That’s the only change in terms?" Deirdre asked.
"After I pay you back, it will not be the last time I need a loan. When I come to you again, seeking whatever price I choose, you will be happy to invest in me again. And you will spread the word that Beth Winter is a worthwhile investment."
"Someone is wearing her big-girl pants tonight. We are dealing in thousands, not millions. If you meet your end, you may, in the future, request six-figures. No more, but also no less. And I expect a fifty percent return."
"Thirty. You are getting twenty now."
"That’s true. But I am agreeing to quadruple your loan. The least you can do is double my return."
"Fine. Forty it is."
Deirdre studied Beth for another moment. She looked as if she was gauging whether she could get more from Beth. The new deal may have been Beth’s idea, but she had never gained control of the conversation. Deirdre revealed a smile and skipped around her desk, where she began collecting the tablet.
"Thank you, Beth, for starting my day off wonderfully. And I thought I was going to be upset all day after reading that email."
"Some anonymous person warning me against trusting you. Said you had gotten in over your head and wouldn’t have a single dime to pay me by next week. You’ll have to forgive me for taking it to heart."
Beth sat in silence, aghast at the revelation.
Deirdre crossed the room with the tablet in hand and opened the door for Beth. Kara, still invisible, followed Beth as she shuffled out of the room.
"Have a safe trip home. Get some rest," Deirdre said. "Oh, and Happy Friday."
Deirdre closed the door behind them and then strolled down the other end of the hallway. When Deirdre had turned the corner, Kara reappeared.
"What just happened?"
Beth lifted her eyes to Kara, still processing the encounter.
"I think I just convinced that woman to let me earn her a minimum of forty thousand dollars when I don’t even have the thirty to give her in the first place."
Kara instinctively reached her hand out to Beth’s shoulder. They never connected.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Just the offer seemed to return color to Beth’s face.
"When the time comes, you can help me and nine other women rob a Las Vegas casino."
"You got it. And in the meantime?"
"Only a few people have faced this ördög and won?"
Kara was caught off guard by the change in subject. She had already forgotten why she had come for Beth.
"You’d be in an elite group, for sure."
Beth’s mind chewed on the idea, savoring the sweet taste and weighing it against the bitter.
"Do they deal in more than souls?"
"If I up the ante--your friend’s soul and thirty-thousand dollars in cash--will the ördög accept?"
"I--I don’t know. Our plan is for it to not even know we were there."
"Yeah, but how often do things go according to plan for you two?"
Of all the times she and Hardy--and she and Sam--and she and Hardy and Sam--had faced a monster, Kara narrowed down the ones when everything happened just as she anticipated. Without any complications. Without the need to improvise.
"There’s always a first time."