Ghost of a Smile
The Ghost Finders answer a distress call from the private research center of one of the biggest drug companies in the world, where a team of police enforcement agents have vanished. They have no idea what they're facing-except a deadline that threatens to remove the entire building from existence if they fail to get to the bottom of the mystery.
It's a sad fact that these days, there are more places that used to be factories than there are working factories. And many of these old deserted buildings, left to rot and ruin, have become bad places. Haunted by a past they can't forget and men who can't forgive.
There are lots of ways a building can turn bad. Something terrible happens, staining the environs with enough horror and suffering to poison the psychic wells forever, or just the long years' accumulations of all the petty evils and moral crimes that man is heir to. People make places bad, and bad places make horror shows, to haunt the living with the sins of the dead. People do more than work in factories, and they always leave something of themselves behind.
Which is why a battered old mini-van, with rusting panels and balding tyres, came crashing to a halt in an overgrown and weed-infested car park, outside the factory building once owned and operated by Winter Industries. The van's engine fell silent with a series of relieved coughs, and the slow, sullen quiet of evening returned. The huge old building stood open and exposed to the elements, a stark minimalist structure of steel and concrete, looking somehow lost and ill at ease now that it no longer had a function or a purpose. Broken glass in the windows, overlapping graffiti on the walls… most of it faded into incoherence, like disappearing voices from the past. The huge open doors at the front had been sealed off with yards of yellow police-incident tapes, their ragged ends whipping mournfully back and forth in the gusting wind.
From out of the clapped-out old mini-van stepped JC Chance, Melody Chambers, and Happy Jack Palmer.
The Ghost Finders of the Carnacki Institute.
It was late evening, heading into night. There were bloody stains on the heavy clouds in the lowering sky, while the sun hung low above the horizon, giving up on the day. There were shadows everywhere, long and deep and dark. The evening light looked stained and damaged, bruised. The gusting wind made a few half-hearted attempts to kick some leaves around the abandoned car park but couldn't really be bothered. The factory stood still and solid, holding darkness within.
JC strode out across the car park, heading for the deserted factory like a general with a battle hymn in his heart. He was never happier than when he was throwing himself headlong into life-and-death action, with the world at stake and all to play for, best foot forward and damn the consequences. Which was why he'd had such a hard time finding partners who would put up with him. Most people had more sense. He stopped before the building and looked it over, his fists on his hips and a broad cocky grin on his face. JC loved a mystery, and a challenge, and a chance to kick the unearthly where it hurt.
JC was tall and lean, loud and confident, full of energy and far too handsome for his own good. In his late twenties, he had a rock star's mane of long dark hair, and a rich ice-cream three-piece suit of quite startling style and elegance. He also wore the heaviest, darkest sunglasses he could find, with good reason. Simply standing there in the wide-open car park, he looked like a sheriff come to clean up Tombstone.
Melody Chambers trudged across the cracked concrete, pulling a trolley heaped high with her own very special equipment. Melody was the science geek of the team, and proud of it. She used technology as a weapon to beat the supernatural into making sense. She knew everything there was to know about fringe science and paranormal activity, and what she didn't know she made up as she went along. She firmly believed in the iron hand in the iron glove approach, and only settled for poking ghosts with a stick when she didn't have a better weapon to hand.
Melody was pushing the edge of her late twenties, and pretty enough in a conventional sort of way. Short and gamine thin, she wore her auburn hair in a severe bun at the back of her head, so it wouldn't get in the way. Melody was a very practical sort, first and always. She never bothered with make-up, and wore serious, no-nonsense glasses. Her jeans, sweater, and jacket were dark, practical, and anonymous. She kept several sets in her wardrobe, all exactly the same, so she didn't have to waste time wondering what to wear. But even standing still beside her trolley, scowling impartially at JC and the factory, she blazed with repressed nervous energy waiting to be unleashed upon some poor unfortunate spirit.
And, finally, there was Happy Jack Palmer, taking his time locking up the van and even more time slouching across the car park, to make it very clear to one and all that he didn't want to be there. Happy had just turned thirty and was still bitter about it. He was the team telepath, borderline head-case and dark cheerless pain in the arse. Because, as he was fond of saying, if you could see the world as clearly as he did, and all the weird and strange things we shared it with, you'd be clinically depressed, too. Happy could Gloom for England, and still take a Bronze in Dire Mutterings.
He might have been good-looking if he ever stopped scowling, and he might have been tall if he ever stopped slouching, but the odds were against it. Prematurely balding and defiantly pot-bellied, he wore a faded T-shirt with the legend Go On. Ask Me About My Day. I Dare You, over a pair of distressed jeans that clearly hadn't been threatened with a washing machine in recent memory. He wore slip-on shoes because he couldn't be bothered with laces, and a battered leather jacket that looked like the animal who bequeathed its skin had known a really rough time even while it was still alive. Happy was a Class Eleven Telepath, and would cheerfully have lobotomised himself with a blunt ice-pick if he'd thought for one moment it would keep the voices out of his head.
JC turned to Melody and beamed at her. "Have you got all your toys, Melody? I'm sure you could pack that trolley a little higher if you really tried."
"Eat shit and die, Chance," said Melody. "You couldn't do this job without me and my equipment, and you know it."
"And Happy, Happy, Happy!" said JC, ignoring Melody with the ease of long practice. "Have you locked up the Mystery Machine properly?"
"I wish you'd stop calling it that," said Melody. "It wasn't that funny when we picked the bloody thing up from the rental place, and it's grown exponentially less funny all the way here."
"I can think of worse things to call it," said Happy. "It isn't so much a mini-van as a nearly van. Only the extensive corrosion is holding the bodywork together, and the engine makes more noise than a banshee with bleeding haemorrhoids. The van's about as much use as… a thing that's no damned use at all. Oh God, I'm so tired I can't even manage a decent metaphor. I hate long train journeys and I hate car rentals. I swear the Institute goes out of its way to choose something desperate they know will put my back out. Just once, couldn't we have a nice stretch limo? With a chauffeur, and a built-in bar?"
"Dream on," JC said kindly. "Such vehicles tend to attract attention."
"It's budget-review time, that's what it is," said Melody. "We're not even allowed to travel first class on the train any more. I'm going to complain to the union."
"We're not in a union," said JC, staring thoughtfully at the factory.
"I can't believe I volunteered for this job," said Melody.
JC produced a local tourist guide from a jacket pocket with a grand flourish and flipped it open to a relevant page. "Hush, children, and pay attention. Here is useful knowledge, for those who have the wisdom to consult it. The strikingly ugly structure before us was once the pride and joy of Winter Industries. Very successful, from the fifties on into the eighties, at which point all the wheels came off the economy, and a great many once-solid industries hit the dirt. The factory shut its doors for the very last time in 1983, and the whole work-force was made redundant. Thousands of men and women, all laid off in an afternoon. The local economy never really recovered."
"What did they do here?" said Melody, practical as always. "What did the factory make?"
"Apparently, machine parts for other factories," said JC. "And when the orders dried up, the jobs disappeared. Lot of that about, in the eighties."
"Maggie bloody Thatcher," growled Happy. "When that woman is dead, I will piss on her grave. I don't care how long I have to queue."
"Get to the local legends," Melody said to JC. "You know you're dying to get to the local legends."
"Yeah," said Happy. "All the weird shit that no-one believes but everyone talks about."
"Know thine enemy," murmured JC. He flipped through the pages. "Ah yes, here we are. Ghosts, strange animal sightings, UFOs and Men In Black, all the usual… Ah! This is more like it. There are local legends of Big Black Dogges, going back centuries, chasing people down deserted lanes, hunting people at night. And that's Dogges spelled the demon way, in case you wondered."
"Big?" sad Happy. "How big?"
"Says here, twice the size of a man," JC said cheerfully. "Always black, appearing and disappearing, and some of them have no head. Definitely not your average Rottweiler."
Happy sniggered suddenly. "No head? How do they smell?"
"Don't even go there," said Melody. "Exactly how dangerous are these Dogges, JC?"
"Reading between the lines, very," said JC. "A lot of local disappearances have been put down to the Dogges, down the years. Apparently it's bad luck even to see one. There's also mention of big cats, attacking sheep at night."
"Cats and dogs? Wonderful," said Happy. "Maybe we can set them on each other."
"Enough talk; time for action!" said JC. He tossed the guide-book carelessly over his shoulder and strode determinedly towards the open doors to the factory. "Time to stare Evil in the face and pull its nose! Give me danger and excitement, Lord, that I might smite the ungodly and send them crying home to their mothers!"
"There's something seriously wrong with you, JC," said Happy, trudging sullenly after him.
"And don't anybody feel they have to help me shift all this equipment!" said Melody, bringing up the rear with her weighed-down trolley.
"It's good healthy exercise," Happy said callously. "And you know you don't like us touching your stuff."
"That's because you always break it!" snapped Melody. "You could break an anvil just by looking at it."
Happy smirked. "It's a gift."
"I'm glad you didn't pay for it," said Melody.
"Children, children," murmured JC. "If we could please all concentrate on the very dangerous and possibly horribly haunted deserted factory before us…"
Melody snorted loudly and made a point of striding ahead of JC and Happy, hauling her trolley behind her. JC let her get a fair distance ahead, so he could talk quietly with Happy.
"So," he said brightly. "You and Melody are an item now. How's that working out?"
"I don't know whether we're an item, or friends with benefits, or ships that have crashed into each other in the night," said Happy. "We're having lots and lots of sex, if that means anything. I used to take all kinds of useful little pills, to help make sure the only voice inside my head was mine, and to give me a more positive outlook on things, but these days I seem to be living mostly on bathtub speed and multi-vitamins, just to keep up with her. God, that woman's got an appetite."
"Are you still scared of her?" said JC.
"Hell yes," said Happy.
Melody had almost reached the yellow police tapes when JC called out sharply for her to stop. She did so immediately, looking quickly about her, while JC and Happy hurried to catch up. The three of them stood together, the huge open doors of the factory holding secrets within. Looking into the gloom inside was like looking into a bottomless pit, where the dark fell away forever and ever. JC abruptly turned his back on the dark and looked back over the empty car park.
"Notice anything, oh my children?" he said. "Listen. Listen to the quiet… No birds singing, or even flying anywhere near. No insects buzzing, even in this dying dog day of summer. The air is heavy, like a storm that's right on the edge of breaking but never does. This… is an unnatural quiet because Nature has withdrawn from this place. This bad place. And what do we know about bad places, my esteemed colleagues?"
"Bad places make ghosts," said Melody. "Hauntings are as much an expression of places as people."
"Genius loci," said Happy. "The spirit of the place because some places are more alive than some people. Did I pass? Please tell me I didn't, and I can go home."
"Gold stars for everyone!" said JC. "And honey for tea. It's quiet here because all the natural things are afraid of the factory."
"If they've got the good sense to stay out of there, maybe we should, too," said Happy. "No? I'm sure I used to have survival instincts, before I joined this team. Can't we start a nice accidental fire and burn the whole building down?"
JC ignored Happy, launched himself at the police tapes, and broke through them with a series of ostentatious karate chops. He strode into the factory, and the others followed him. The temperature plummeted the moment they stepped out of the sunlight and into the gloom. JC shuddered briefly. Walking into the factory felt like diving into a cool dark sea. The only light fell in through the high windows, illuminating the long, dark interior with a series of bright shafts of sunlight, stabbing down from on high. JC and Happy and Melody moved slowly forward, trying to look everywhere at once, their footsteps echoing strangely hollow on the concrete floor. The trolley's wheels creaked loudly. The huge interior of the factory seemed to swallow up the sounds immediately, making them seem small and insignificant.
The long interior stretched away before them, a massive open space, like a museum wing with no exhibits. Everything of value, everything that mattered, had been removed long ago, and the factory was an empty shell. JC looked interestedly about him. Despite the heavy gloom, he still hadn't taken off his sunglasses. Melody stopped abruptly, slamming to a halt, and Happy jumped despite himself. He glared about him while JC looked at Melody and raised a single elegant eyebrow.
"This is where the body was found," said Melody.
They all looked down. There was a dark stain on the rough grey floor that might have been human-shaped if seriously horrid things had been done to a human body. Melody set about assembling her own specially designed workstation, supporting various usual items of scientific equipment. Some of it so up-to-date that so far no-one had even realised she'd stolen it from the Institute's research laboratories. JC and Happy didn't have a clue what half of it was, or what it was for, but they trusted Melody's high tech to come up with answers to questions they wouldn't even have considered. Melody ran through the details of the murder as she worked, confident that, as usual, she'd been the only one to pay proper attention during the original briefing.
JC always said details got in the way of seeing the Big Picture, and Happy's attention tended to wander a lot.
"The victim," said Melody, "was one Albert Winter, main shareholder of the very successful and influential Winter Group of companies. Interestingly, no-one seems to know what he was doing here; though given that this factory was once a part of Winter Industries, we could probably take that as a clue. If you like that sort of thing. Anyway, the rest of the Winter Group's board were not at all happy with the results of the original police investigation. Mainly because there weren't any. They couldn't explain why Albert Winter had come here, or how he died, or what killed him. Except that it must have been a really nasty death. The state of the body was so bad, even hardened policemen had to run outside to puke up things they hadn't even eaten yet. Anyway, the Winter Group made its displeasure known and put the pressure on, which eventually filtered down to us. The Carnacki Institute does so love a mystery. Particularly when there's a chance to get in the good books of a rich and powerful company. I did mention this is a Budget Review Year, didn't I?"
"Your cynicism wounds me," murmured JC, kneeling down beside the large dark stain. "All that matters is that this is our first case since we were officially declared an A team, after our proud and glorious success against Fenris Tenebrae, down in Oxford Circus Tube Station. Nothing like saving the world to up your pay grade. But it is incumbent on us to do well on this very important case, or we will be busted back down to a B team so fast it will make our heads spin."
"Or, we could all be horribly killed," said Happy, blinking miserably about him. "By evil forces as yet undetected. Just thought I'd remind you since that part is always mysteriously overlooked in the briefings. I don't like it here. If it were up to me, I'd say we nuke the whole place from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."
"Danger comes with the job," JC said happily. "And the territory. It's what gives our calling its spice! I love the smell of ectoplasm in the evening!"
"You're weird," said Happy.
"Why don't you boys go take a look around this dump," said Melody. "On the grounds that you're getting on my nerves big-time. I have to calibrate my equipment and do a whole bunch of other technical things that you wouldn't understand even if I did explain them to you."
JC and Happy set off in different directions, wandering across the great open expanse of concrete. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, marked here and there with overlapping footprints. Some attempt had been made to keep them away from where the body fell, but it was clear a great many people had taken a keen interest in the murder. There were cobwebs, thick and dusty, but no sign of mice or rats, not even a dropping. The air was deathly cool, without even a breath of movement, despite the many broken windows. Dust motes swirled lazily in the long shafts of sunlight, dropping down from the high windows like so many dimming spotlights. The only sounds in the great open factory were their footsteps, and the occasional electronic chirps from Melody's station. Small sounds, quickly swallowed up and smothered by the heavy quiet. The atmosphere was tense and still, as though something was waiting to happen. As though something had been waiting to happen for some time…
JC stopped abruptly and looked thoughtfully about him. He pursed his lips, as though considering an idea he didn't like. "Melody, who is authorised to come in here these days?"
"A couple of night-watchmen, and a local security firm that takes a quick look round, twice a week," said Melody, her hands flying across her keyboard as her various instruments woke up and came on line. "But none of them ever actually enter the building. Apparently, it disturbs them. Disturbs them so much they have it written into their contracts that they don't have to come inside. And how do I know this? Because I'm the only member of this team that ever bothers to do their homework."
"You logged on to the files, on the train coming down," said Happy. "God bless laptops for those of us who are slaves to The Man."
"Is he saying I'm a swot?" said Melody.
"Teacher's pet," said JC, not unkindly. "From your extensive research, do you know if anyone has actually seen anything? Any named or identified thing?"
"Not seen, as such," said Melody. "More heard, or sensed. Everyone says this place has a bad feeling, even if they can't agree why. One night-watchmen said he was followed by something as he made his round outside the factory. But he couldn't, or wouldn't, say by what. But he quit his job the next day and moved to another county. They get through a lot of night-watchmen. No-one stays long."
JC frowned. "If things have got that bad, why hasn't the Institute been called in before this?"
"Because no-one's actually seen anything," Melody said patiently.
"Isn't that always how it is?" said Kim Sterling, stepping daintily out of the shadows to join JC. "It's always hard to pin down a ghost."
She smiled brightly on all of them, and they all smiled back, in their own ways. Kim walked a few inches above the dusty floor. She tried her best, but she still rose and fell a few inches in the air as she approached JC. Gravity has no attraction for the dead. Kim was a ghost and had a hard enough time concentrating on the important things, like looking solid and substantial when she wasn't, without worrying about the little things. Like gravity, and consistency. She was a beautiful young woman in her late twenties, now and forever. A great mane of glorious red hair tumbled down about her shoulders, framing a high-boned, classically shaped face. Her eyes were a vivid green, her mouth a dark red dream, and she had the kind of figure that makes men's fingers tingle. Because she was dead, her appearance was an illusion based on memory, which meant that not only did it tend to vary in the details as her attention wandered, but that she could dress in whatever fashion she chose. Today, she was a 1920s flapper, complete with cute little hat and a long string of beads round her neck. She twirled them artlessly round one finger as she stood before JC. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.
JC and Kim were an item, the living and the dead. Everyone knew it wasn't going to have a happy ending, including JC and Kim. But while love is blind, it is also always eternally hopeful.
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