Gravel crunched under-tire as Katters and Zebra neared the end of their road-trip. It had taken ten hours of almost constant driving, but they’d made it to Bayhedge.
They were not in the quaint, seaside town they’d envisioned. Instead, Zebra drove them through a dense, uninhabited wood, over a side-road that twisted dangerously through the fog. His new property did not coexist with the rest of Bayhedge so much as sit above it, looking down on the city like a gargoyle.
He could not tell at what point, exactly, the gravel road turned into a gravel driveway. The trees, which could sometimes be spotted looming in through the fog, dwindled in frequency until the car was left alone with the road and a flat wall of grey. Here, all sound seemed to disappear — even the tires sounded distant, as though the entire world had been swallowed up by the fog and digested into nothing.
Katters lit a cigarette. Her scales and snout were illuminated orange for a moment, then faded back to their normal, brownish colours. “Yeah,” she said, rolling her window down. “This looks like a real fun place to live.”
“I’m just looking,” Zebra said.
The woods smelled of pine, dirt, and — faintly — of salt. It was an unusual combination, and vaguely off-putting for it. Until it was masked by the burning tobacco Katters was blowing into the car.
“Pictures are for looking,” she said. “You don’t drive five hundred miles to look at a place.”
He glanced over at her, his eyebrows raised and a benign smile on his thin lips. “I’m curious. Aren’t you curious?”
“Curious of what?” She tapped ashes into an empty soda can. “Curious of how we’re going to die horrific deaths at the ethereal hands of your inherited poltergeist? No. I’m not curious. I’m suspicious.”
She bared her teeth at him in a sarcastic smile, too wide, too sharp.
“It’s not haunted,” he said. He kept his tone light, but frustration leaked into it anyway, and his pale hands turned even whiter from his grip on the wheel. He was tired of hearing about how haunted his house was. Ten hours of it was more than enough.
A distant porchlight bloomed into existence, a yellow-white dot piercing the murk like the lure on a deep-sea fish. He slowed the car as the rest of the house faded into view.
It had a bloated look to it, much wider than it was tall. Despite this, it carried a Victorian air, with peaked roofs and matching overhangs over the slender windows. The trim looked black in the fog, and the paint was a dingy yellow-grey that could have been intentional or could have been neglect.
He parked in front of the porch. They peered out the windshield, up at the house.
“Whether or not it’s haunted,” she said, “and it is — it looks like a death trap. And not the fun kind.”
He climbed out of the car.
“Seriously, Zeebs!” she called out the window. “Let sleeping ghosts lie!”
He ignored her, making his way up the porch steps. They felt soft, and didn’t creak — swollen and bloated from the moisture in the air. He would have to check the house for mould, later.
The car’s passenger door slammed open and shut. Zebra pulled the key from his jacket and when he looked down, his shaggy, black hair fell over his shoulders and face. He brushed the curls back into place — or close enough — and Katters caught up with him. She was treading carefully, probably keeping an eye out for trap doors.
“Isn’t there supposed to be someone here to meet us?” she asked. “A probate attorney, or an estate attorney, or…? Vincent Price, maybe?”
“No. We’re all alone out here.”
“Well, that’s great.”
He grinned. Not as sharp as hers, but sharp, for a human. “No one even knows where we are.”
“Also great.” She peered out over the driveway at nothing, and the flippancy in her tone could have meant she’d stopped paying attention to the conversation, if it had been someone else. But she was planning an escape route, or calculating how far they were from civilisation, or just regretting the trip.
Zebra unlocked the door and stepped into the house.
The foyer seemed enormous. Its walls stretched out and away, into the shadows.
“So, this uncle of yours,” Katters said, keeping close behind him while he hunted for the lightswitch.
“Great-uncle. This great uncle of yours. He did what, exactly?”
She didn’t give off any body-heat, or at least none that could be noticed, and she had a soft, easy step. So it was difficult to tell how close she was, except by the sound of her voice.
“Pushed papers,” he said, distracted. “I’m not sure.”
It made him uncomfortable. Having someone that close and not being able to tell. It was like she didn’t exist, physically. It was weird. Unnatural. But he pretended to not have noticed.
“He wasn’t a serial murderer or anything?”
“Not as far as I know.”
He found a lightswitch and flipped it. The foyer was bathed in light and its dimensions became both solid and reasonable.
A web-like skylight decorated the domed ceiling. A mural was painted around it, but the chandelier below — a gaudy thing made of antlers and faux-candles — aimed all its light downward, casting heavy shadows on the ceiling.
Katters wandered out of his personal space, closer to the middle of the room. “How did he die?”
Chairs and loveseats dotted the ground floor, made of dark wood and thin cushions. Those could stay, Zebra thought, but the chandelier would have to go. First impressions are everything, and he couldn’t have the first thing prospective buyers see be that.
“It’s furnished,” Katters said.
“He left me everything. The house, and everything in it.”
“Everything the light touches.”
There were a pair of curved staircases in front of them, dominating the foyer. They joined together at the second floor, which wrapped around the room like a balcony and framed the skylight from below.
Zebra straightened his already-straight tie and dusted his fingers against his vest. “I guess we should find the bedrooms, and bring the luggage in.”
“We’re staying here?” Katters balked, pale-blue ears pinned flat against her neck. “Overnight?”
“Yes. That would be why we brought our luggage.”
He started up the stairs and she followed him, apparently more concerned with being alone than being led deeper into the house. “This is my house,” he said airily. “For now, anyway. Why not put it to some use?”
“Because it is definitely haunted.”
At the top of the stairs, beyond the balcony, a hallway ran the width of the house. Several dark, somber doors interrupted its dark, somber wallpaper. Paintings of ships sailed between them.
“How come the lights work?” Katters asked.
“Competent electricians.” He tried a door, and behind it was a furnished but clearly not oft-used bedroom.
She tried one, and he could see a small library over her shoulder before she closed it again. “No,” she said. “I mean, why haven’t they turned the power off?”
“Executor arranged to have it left on for me.”
The bedroom was small, and decorated in warm colours and a lot of velvet. More paintings hung on the walls, this time of grassy hills and clear skies. The far wall was taken up by a double bed, and there was an enormous elk’s head hanging above it. Its antlers spanned the entire wall and grazed the ceiling at several points. It stared blankly down at him.
“Good enough,” he said.
She tried another door and closed it again a moment later.
The house had a comfortable, lived-in feel. The colours, while dark in theme, were also inviting, and there was just enough contrast in the blues and whites of the decorations to keep the eye from getting bored.
“Not bad,” he mused. Louder, he said, “I don’t know, I kind of like it. It’s cosy.”
“It’s haunted,” she repeated, but her words sounded rote and he could tell her heart wasn’t in it. She was getting used to the place and would stop putting up a fuss about staying there, soon. She opened a third door, further down the hallway. “Score!”
He followed her.
She’d found the master bedroom, decorated with much the same sensibilities as the guest bedroom — though lacking in any extra heads. “Got the big bed,” she said, with perked ears and a smug grin.
“Great-Uncle Anthony died in that bed.”
She shrugged. “Then it’s to die for.”
“So comfortable, you never want to get out of it.”
He left the room. “You’re the one going on and on about this place being haunted.”
“Who ever heard of a haunted bed? Ain’t no one ever heard of a haunted bed — that’s just silly.”
“The Bed That Eats.”
“See?” she said. “Silly.”
He poked his head into the other rooms as they passed through the hall. Bathroom: white tile, white porcelain, a tiny shower. Library: leather chairs, leather books, dust and vanilla. Bedroom: decapitated megafauna. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that needed more than a passing glance that night.
“We can bring our things in later,” he said, pulling his head back out of the bedroom and closing the door. “Let’s look at the rest of the house.”
“Do you think there’s still food in the kitchen?”
“First you sleep in a dead man’s bed, now you want to eat his food?”
“It’s not like he’s going to eat it.”
“You are the most sensitive person I know.”
She leaned against a wall while he looked into the rest of the rooms. Study. Game room. Another bathroom.
“Zebra,” she said, patronising. “We kill people for a living. Hell, not even — we do it for fun. It’s really just a happy coincidence that killing people also makes us money.”
“And yet,” he said, closing the last door. “You’re worried this place is haunted.”
From the second floor, he could see the mural painted around the skylight. Silhouettes of hunters on horseback chased deer and foxes in a never-ending circle.
“Hey,” she said. “Hey. A ghost haunts TIMPS, that’s different. I’ll kick that ghost’s ass, I don’t even care. That’s my house, you know? That’s my property.”
They started down the stairs and she continued. “A ghost haunts some house five hundred miles away that’s recently become the property of some guy I know? Fuck that. That ghost can have that house.”
“This house,” he corrected.
“It’s not five hundred miles away,” he said, his tone flat. “It’s right here, all around you.”
“You’re not following.”
“I mean, okay, yes,” she said. “I absolutely care whether or not a building I’m currently in is haunted. But I’m incapable of doing anything if—” She sighed. “Like, see, it’s not that I don’t care, or don’t want to, it’s that I can’t dehaunt a place if I don’t have the emotional connection that exists between a person and the place they live. It’s much easier to just leave.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs and stood in the foyer for a moment.
“You’re not making any sense,” he said.
“Dehaunting, it’s a word. It’s the process of removing a haunt.”
“And you need an—” he made finger quotes, “emotional connection, with a house in order to—” more finger quotes, “dehaunt it.”
“Yeah, man. You ever tried to dehaunt a house you didn’t care about?”
“No,” he said, leading them to the door on the right. “Have you?”
“No, but I bet it’s really hard.”
The door opened onto a kitchen, which had a jarring country aesthetic, at odds with the heavily Gothic décor of the rest of the house. Floral curtains, black-and-white checkered tile, blue countertops. It probably wasn’t worth redecorating, but he made a mental note to look into it, anyway.
Katters made a beeline for the fridge and her disappointed groan must have meant it was empty. Zebra continued on to the dining room, and back into the land of dark, polished wood and warm velvet.
“You know ghosts don’t exist, right?” he asked. “Haunted houses aren’t a thing.”
“You can’t prove that.”
“No, but the lack of any actual ghost sightings at all is very compelling evidence, in my opinion.”
All the rooms on the ground floor were connected in a ring around the foyer, making the house an easy one to inspect. Along with the kitchen and dining room, they passed through a washroom and a lounge. The last door, for the room across from the kitchen, was locked.
“So, you still think this house needs dehaunting?” Zebra asked, pulling the key back out of his jacket.
“Definitely.” Katters had picked up a trinket somewhere along the way. A ceramic pig, that she ran her fingers over absent-mindedly. Her claws kept scraping against it and making an awful noise that she didn’t seem to notice.
“Even though ghosts don’t exist.”
“This place is very haunted. Super haunted. Have you decided what you’re going to do with it?”
Still rote. Unable to change her stance, even if she could no longer put any weight behind it.
“Sell it. I’ll have to stay here over the weekend and take inventory of all the furniture and sundry. Maybe arrange an auction. You can take the car back to Snowtown in the morning, though.”
“It probably would be a bad idea to leave the shops closed an entire weekend,” she said, leaning against the doorjamb. “I’m not sure who I pity more — me for having to work the register the entire time or you for having to sort through an entire house’s worth of knick-knacks.”
“It’ll be like looting the corpses, without the fun part,” he said wistfully, and opened the door.
Their conversation died suddenly, words curling up in their throats, lodging in them as the corpses of idle chatter. Zebra took an unconscious step back. Katters stood up, dropping the figurine, her ears folded down.
A chill leaked out of the room and brushed against Zebra’s face and neck with a clamminess that clung to his skin. Things lurked in the shadows — tall, angular shapes and squat, hunched figures.
He reached through the doorway and flinched when his hand hit what seemed like a solid wall of cold. But he pressed on, feeling along the wall next to the jamb, and his fingers soon stumbled onto a lightswitch.
A lamp next to the door flashed on — first too bright, then too dim. The angular shapes resolved into floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the hunched figures became plush chairs and a desk. An old personal computer sat on that, grey and dusty, and accompanied by a matching line printer.
Katters’ ears flipped forward. “Holy shit, is that an Atari ST?”
“What?” Zebra asked, bewildered. She shoved him out of the way, walking into the room and straight to the desk. He stood at the door, feeling left behind in more ways than one.
“It is!” she said, sitting down. “It’s a five-twenty, holy shit.”
He hesitated, then followed after her, taking in the books that surrounded them. He was tense, and blamed the cold for it. “Is that good?” he asked. “Is it rare?”
“Well,” she said, turning in the cheap, plastic office chair to face him. “I mean, you got to remember, this thing’s older than you are. There’s a good chance it’s older than I am.”
“But is it worth anything?”
“Nah, you’d be lucky to get fifty for it.”
He lost what little interest he had in the computer.
The bookshelves were full to bursting of leatherbound volumes, what looked to be primarily — if not entirely — nonfiction works. Shelves near the floor broke the pattern with thick, plastic binders. Some had labels pasted to the spines — B.E.S.T. Business Management, Timeworks Personal Computer Software, MichTron HiSoft BASIC — but most were blank.
Katters pulled a rack of floppy disks from a desk drawer and started browsing them. “What the hell was your uncle doing with this fossil?”
“Great-uncle,” he said, automatically. “I don’t know, what does he have on it?”
“For it. The only thing on it would be the operating system — called, get this, The Operating System.” She grinned at him, but the expression died when he refused to react to the trivia. “He’s got some games.” She turned back to the disks and flipped through them. “Suspended, Gauntlet, Captain Blood. Barbarian, which is kind of appropriate if you think about it. There’s a lot of floppies just labelled with numbers — maybe he was a hobbyist codemonkey.”
Zebra crossed his arms. “Well. I suppose that’s the house.”
“I guess so,” she said, still rifling through the disks. She selected one and stuck it into the side of the computer — it slotted in with a ch-k noise.
“It’s smaller than I’d expected. The house. Or hoped, really. I’ll do a more thorough look tomorrow, after some rest.”
“Yeah-huh,” she said, sliding a hand across the back of the computer’s keyboard.
He started meandering toward the door. The cold had not relented, and he made a mental note to check the window in the morning for drafts. “Hey,” he said. “You want to go do something a little more proactive?”
She looked up, ears twitching. “Yeah,” she said, after a moment, and pulled her hand back. “That sounds like fun.”