The body that hung before the window was clearly dead. The angle of the neck was one no living person’s spine could support. Also, and perhaps more tellingly, the body was transparent.
“That’s not an illusion is it?” Val asked, each word slower than the last as denial crumbled away despite how tightly she clutched it.
“No, it’s not,” Tam said. She stepped into the room with calm and measured footsteps.
Outside, every door in the hallway slammed open.
There was a rush of children’s laughter and then the lights were blown out like candle flames.
In the ensuing darkness, only the beam from Val’s flashlight remained to illuminate their surroundings. It cast a flickering circle of light on a room that had been long emptied of its contents.
The wind outside gave one last calamitous moan, the voices in it screaming for release audibly human and yet strangled and despairing.
Bring them back to me.
The words blossomed in pulsing red light on the room’s wall, and oozed downwards like they’d been cut into living tissue.
Anna flipped the switch on the wall and the room’s normal lights came back on, dispelling the writing on the wall and the last of the moaning wind.
“So we have a ghost to lay to rest?” she said. “Why did it manifest here?”
“This is probably the room where they died,” Tam said.
“Think JB can find out who died here?” Val asked.
“Probably,” Tam said. “Let’s hope it was only one person though.”
“JB may have trouble turning up the victim’s identity,” Anna said, She was searching around the room, inspecting the walls and the edge of the old carpeting in the room.
“Victim?” Tam asked.
“Yes, his hands were tied together,” Anna said. “What we saw was how he looked when he died, not how he was found.”
“Wow, I didn’t even notice that,” Tam said. “I wasn’t even sure if he was a guy. He was wearing was a nursing uniform.”
“You two were doing better than I was,” Val said. “I only noticed that he was see through and that someone had killed him before they hung him up there.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked.
“You saw how his neck was broken right? That takes a lot of force. The ceiling in here isn’t that high. There’s not enough room for a fall to a snap a neck like that. Someone broke it first and then strung him up.”
“There’s also the fact that he left a ghost behind I guess,” Tam said. “That’s generally only the result of malice or a grievous accident.”
“So he’s hanging around for revenge then?” Val asked.
“I do not think so,” Anna said. “He spoke to us again, and for the second time he asked for something to be brought back to him.”
“Something or someone,” Tam said.
“His killers?” Val asked. “Does he want us to bring them here so that he can devour their souls or something?”
“It doesn’t work like that exactly,” Tam said. “A part of him would want justice, but I don’t think that’s the part we’re seeing here. He’s not saying ‘Bring me them’, or even ‘Bring them to me’. He’s asking us to bring someone back to him. Rage can fuel a spirit but so can compassion and love. I think he wants to bring someone who was important to him in life here.”
“Hmm, maybe we know who that is? The ghost was calling out to Derrick before right?” Val asked. “Should we have Jimmy B arrange for transportation to get him over here?”
“Not until we understand what the ghost wants with him,” Anna said. “And what happened to his friend Kyle and Rakeem.”
The voices of two men, out of synch with one another, and far distant, echoed up the stairs. They sounded bewildered. Each was asking questions. What was going on? Who had invited them here? What were they supposed to do? What did the house want with them? Both tracks of spectral dialog ended with the same words though, the two voices coming together in perfect harmony.
“Ok. I’ll go.” they said in unison.
“Wait, the ghost is bringing them back so they can go?” Val asked. “What kind of sense does that make?”
The house’s foundations groaned.
“Go where I wonder?” Anna asked.
“They sounded pretty happy to be going, so I’m going to guess it was anywhere but here,” Val said.
“Were they happy, or were they unafraid?” Tam asked.
“They sounded relieved to me,” Anna said. “Like they’d received an instruction or an answer.”
“Answers would be nice to get about now,” Val said.
“Kyle, Rakeem, and Derrick were all a part of the same trial group,” Anna said. “Perhaps it was related to that?”
“Our next step is to find them then,” Tam said. “And I think I know where to start looking.”
It was midnight on the following night when people once again gathered in the empty house at 32 Willow St. This time however, Anna, Tam, and Val were not alone.
“This seems like a weird place to meet Ms. Le,” Derrick said. He had a plate of food and a glass of ice tea from the refreshments Jimmy B had arranged for a catering company to bring in.
“You don’t recognize it, do you?” Tam asked. “Do any of you?”
The dozen young men who’d gathered at the house looked every bit as mystified as Derrick.
“I don’t blame you,” Tam said. “The last time you were here, the layout was a bit different and the decorations were a bit more kid friendly.”
“Also, the psychoactive cocktail they fed you here wasn’t that great for long term memory retention,” Val said.
“The what now?” Angelo Garcia, one of the other men, asked.
“You were all a part of a pharmacology study fifteen years ago,” Anna said. “The study lasted for almost two years, but your participation in it varied. Some of you only came once a month, others were here on a weekly basis.”
“Yeah, that’s how I know a lot of the guys here,” Derrick said. “What do you mean about our memory though?”
“The study was focused on finding a ‘cure’ for ADHD,” Tam said. “Or at least that was the reported goal of the study.”
“The real experiment they were running was whether the hyper-focusing aspect of ADHD could be weaponized,” Val said.
“They gave you tests that were a cover for the treatments and exercises they had you perform,” Anna said.
“What kind of treatments?” Derrick asked. “I don’t remember much of what we did, just that I’d get these great raspberry truffles when I did well on a test.”
“Oh yeah! Those were the best!” Angelo said. The rest were nodding their heads in agreement.
“They were also laced with a chemical cousin to LCD,” Tam said. “The idea wasn’t to get you tripping, it was to open your mind up to certain suggestable states. The plan was to build some trigger keys into your psyches they could use whenever they wanted to make you obey their commands without question.”
“Think of it like getting a song stuck in your head, except this one is stuck in your subconscious and because you can hyper focus and it’s stuck in there so deep, it never goes away,” Val said. “Somebody who knows the song can sing a verse and then you can’t hear anything but them, and you’re basically hypnotized at the same time.”
“So what does that mean?” Derrick asked.
“The procedure wasn’t reliable in most of you,” Anna said. “Even for the subjects who didn’t retain the suggestions though, the procedure intensified their attention deficit issues.”
“Great, I’m a space case because the doctors messed me up?” Angelo asked.
“No,” Tam said. “Your ADHD is a natural part of you, but any struggles you’ve had because of your neuropsychology have been exacerbated needlessly for years now. You’ve been working with both the ADHD and a constant subconscious loop that you’ve had to build extra coping mechanisms around, and that’s slowed you down, tired you out, and made you more susceptible to illness and other disorders.”
“And it’s not the doctors who did it,” Val said. “It’s one doctor in particular. Neil Cartman. He was in charge of the hidden part of the research project. The nurses who were part of the program weren’t brought in on the fact that psychotropics were being used, or what Cartman’s personal evaluation sessions entailed.”
“Why would they do that though?” Derrick asked. “I mean, we were just a bunch of kids. What’s the point of weaponizing kids?”
“You were step one in their plan,” Anna said. “If the treatments had worked on you, they would have moved on to developing variations that worked on people with other neuropsychological profiles.”
“Also, children grow up,” Tam said.
“Why’d they stop?” Angelo asked.
“Because one of the nurses, a man named Gary Barts, found out the truth of what was happening and threatened to blow the whistle on them,” Tam said.
“So they just stopped everything?” Derrick asked.
“Only after they killed me,” the ghost of Gary Barts said.
“Oh! What?” Angelo was the first one to speak but not the first out of his chair. Twelve young men leaped up and scrambled backwards, pausing only when they saw the three women who were with them were standing calm and still.
“Hi boys,” Gary said. “Sorry to scare you.”
He was still translucent, but the pale of death was absent. And his neck was straightened out, appearing like it did when he was still using it to breathe.
“Nurse G?” Derrick asked, blinking in shock.
“Derrick, it’s good to see you again slugger,” Gary said.
He held out a closed hand for Derrick to fistbump against but when Derrick tried he passed right through Gary’s fist.
“Oh damn, you really are dead?” Derrick said.
“Yeah, but a bit less so thanks to Ms. Le over there,” Gary said.
“How can you be a bit less dead?” Angelo asked.
“I was kind of scattered,” Gary said. “She helped me pull myself together.”
“Why? Derrick asked.
“So I could talk to you boys,” Gary said. “I had to tell you how sorry I was. I didn’t know what we were really doing to you. And I had to make sure you would get the real help that you needed.”
“That’s where Kyle and Rakeem are by the way,” Val said. “They’re both checked into an in-patient health care facility, where they are doing great, at least from what they said earlier today. Gary managed to get them to come here and then talked them into seeking out some real treatment.”
“I wish I could apologize to them too,” Gary said. “I wasn’t quite as…clear with them as I am now.”
“So does this mean we’ve got our own Casper now?” Angelo asked. “Cause that would be kind of cool.”
“Yeah Nurse G,” Derrick said. “You were always pretty awesome. I don’t remember much of what all happened, but I remember you sitting with me while we waited for some test or other and you read me a book on the birth of Hollywood. I think that’s why I’m a set designer now.”
“I’m sorry boys,” Gary said. “I can’t stay though. I can feel myself drifting away already.”
“Why do you gotta go?” Angelo asked.
“His purpose,” Tam said. “The reason he hung on here, it’s being fulfilled right now.”
“I just had to know you were going to be okay,” Gary said, his voice growing distant as his outline became fuzzy and indistinct.
“What about you though?” Derrick asked, tears freely filling his eyes.
“Me?”Gary asked, his voice almost a whisper. “I’m going to be fine.”
And then he was gone.
It was a much later that night before Anna, Tam, and Val were back in the Second Chance Club.
“Jimmy B will arrange for their medical appointments and make arrangements for any in-patient stays which they need,” Charlene said. She was calling in from an aid station in the Middle East, but the connection was remarkably clear.
“Gary’s life insurance spent the last fifteen years in an account gathering interest for those guys,” Val said. “Why didn’t anyone reach out to them sooner?”
“Bureaucratic snafus,” Anna said.
“Yes, very intentional ones,” Tam said. “I poked around a bit and found some familiar faces waiting for us. Or maybe I should say a familiar logo.”
She tapped a button on her laptop and brought up the deed to the research building that JB had uncovered. The original owner was a shell company whose parent company bore the unmistakable logo of PrimaLux.
“These guys again?” Val asked.
“Yep,” Tam said. “They were the ones who were conducting the trials, and they were the ones who put out the hit on Gary when he uncovered what they were doing.”
“We should perhaps make them something of a priority,” Anna said, her eyes narrowing.
“No,” Charlene said. “Let me worry about PrimaLux for now. This year isn’t the first time I’ve encountered their work. I have another project I need you to work on. One that’s a little bigger than what I’ve given you so far.”
Anna, Tam, and Val settled into their seats, wondering what Charlene could possibly have in mind.