Voices in the Dark
by Aline Boucher Kaplan
Published in Manifest West’s anthology, “Western Weird.”
Edited by Mark Todd, Western Press Books, October 2015.
I could tell from the sound of her footsteps on the stairs that the Duchess was in a bad way.
The steps were light, as she was a small woman, but slow. She took a while to reach the hotel lobby, and by the time her feet hit the last step, I was in place and ready. Offering the Duchess my arm, I supported her on the short walk to one of the stiff horsehair sofas. Tears streaked her face and she wore an air of resignation, almost defeat, that I had never seen before. The Duchess—Annabella McGarrick by name—was a strong woman and one who handled the rough men and demanding customers of a frontier town with aplomb.
That meant the voices had been particularly bad.
I went to the kitchen door, glad to have something solid to do instead of just holding her hand while she cried. Sing Lee was stirring a huge pottery bowl of sourdough starter. He looked up when I came in, a question in his narrow black eyes.
“Tea,” I said shortly. “And make it strong.” Sing Lee nodded sadly, chunked some pine kindling into the wood stove, and moved the kettle over it. He knew the routine as well as I did. Sing Lee muttered in Chinee as he spooned fragrant oolong into the teapot and I heard the word “gwai-lo.” I knew that “white ghost’ was what a Chinaman called white people but I think he meant the real kind, the spirit kind, instead. Sing Lee filled the pot with hot water and set it on a tray along with two mugs and some sugar.
He checked the icebox and said, “No milk. Come in morning.”
“That’s fine,” I said, taking the tray. “She won’t notice.”
I backed through the door into the lobby and carried the tray over to the little marble-topped table in front of the sofa. By this time the Duchess was sitting upright as a piano, clutching something in her lap as though it was the crown jewels. She was wearing a wool wrapper and her hair, braided for the night, made a streak of gold on her left shoulder.
The Duchess was not a beautiful woman. Her face was too round, her brows too heavy, her mouth just a little too wide, but I always enjoyed looking at her, even when she was in a state she called “dishabille.” She had an education and the graces of a lady for all this was the ragged edge of the frontier. I poured tea into both mugs, leaving an inch of mine empty. Going to the bar, I added a splash of whiskey from the moderately good bottle to fill it up. Dealing with a weeping woman required sustenance stronger than a tea leaf could offer.
I sat beside her on the sofa and waited. The nights had turned cool in the mountains and the warm crockery felt good in my hands. Slowly, the Duchess let go of a small notebook with a brown leather cover and put it nearby on the sofa. She picked up her mug of tea and looked at me through the steam. Over the past two years I had learned to hold my piece and wait until she was of a mind to speak. So we sat in silence for a while until she said, “The voices came again. You understand, Jake?”
“They were strong, loud. At first I just lay in bed and listened, hoping that I would finally understand who the ghosts are and what they want.”
She sipped her tea. I wished that I could have put some whiskey in hers too, but the Duchess had no truck with liquor of any kind. She said it stole one’s wits and she needed hers about her at all times. Given what I knew of her life, I couldn’t disagree.
“But what I heard was not usual,” she continued, “Just—more so. There were strange words that didn’t make sense and letters put together that sounded like words but could not be so.”
“What was different?” I asked. We had had these talks before, and I tried not to show my opinion of ghosts. My demons were all of the flesh-and-blood kind, but spirits that talked at night were real to her.
The Duchess sniffed and sat a little straighter, if that were possible. “On a normal night—if I can describe any of them as normal—the voices are more like murmurs or whispers in the dark. I can’t rightly make out what they’re saying, you understand.”
“Have you tried speakin’ with ‘em?” I asked. “To find out what they want?”
She nodded and took a sip of tea. Those deep blue eyes looked at me over the rim of the cup. “I have tried everything, Jake. I have asked them questions, quoted scripture, even threatened them with my scattergun once or twice, although I’m not proud to admit it, but nothing has had any effect. They are just spirits, after all. I have come to understand that the voices don’t talk to me, only to one another. I tell them to go away and to leave me alone, and sometimes they do seem to hear me, but they never listen. They never do what I ask.”
Her hands clutched the mug so tightly I feared that she would break the sturdy Palace Hotel crockery in two. “It’s like eavesdropping but frightening. Sometimes I rise and turn up the lamp to try and scare the ghosts away.”
“I have heard that ghosts don’t like light,” I said, as though I was talking about a real threat, like wolves.
She nodded. “I leave a lamp on low in my sitting room all night like a mother would for a child who is afraid of the dark. She set her cup down and clasped her hands in her lap. “My rooms are haunted. I am a grown woman, a widow, a person of means and importance in this town, but tonight I was as frightened as a little girl.”
“That sounds right sensible to me,” I said. “No one can see your lamp and I surely won’t tell.”
She smiled at that, just a small lift of those soft lips. One day I would . . . I took a slug of tea and shook off those thoughts. Mrs. McGarrick was my employer and that was all. If she knew of my past, she would not welcome my advances and certainly reject any tender of affection. Hellfire, she might just throw me out in the street. I pulled myself back to what she was saying.
“Usually the voices are indistinct. They fade in and out as though the speaker were going to and fro in the room—or leaving it and coming back. Tonight, well, they were stronger, as though the men were closer or more powerful.”
“Men? Are they always men?” My attitude improved right away; I know how to deal with men.
She shook her head. “The ghosts can be either men or women. Most times, I can’t tell at all—they’re just whispers. But tonight they were definitely men.”
“What did they say?”
The Duchess set down her cup and took the notebook. “I have been writing the voices down for a while,” she said. “At least, what I could hear or understand well enough. Tonight I filled pages until, not to put too fine a point on it, I fled.” She offered the book to me. “Read it, Jake. You’ll see what I mean.” I accepted the notebook, and with a small sigh, as though she had let go of a great burden, she lifted the teapot and filled our cups again.
The notebook was ordinary enough, lined paper bound in tan calfskin with the words ‘McGarrick Company’ stamped in gold on the front. I had seen one like it often enough in Frank McGarrick’s office next door to the hotel. He had used them to record transactions, noting the size and weight of gold nuggets given as payment along with silver, U.S. and Canadian Dollars, Spanish Reals, Mexican pesos, and bartered goods. This one bore none of Frank’s bold scrawl so I knew the Duchess must have taken it straight from the shipping box.
I had not liked Frank “Duke” McGarrick above half when he was alive. Not because he was a strong man who had taken what he wanted (that’s what’s required to survive out here), nor because he used his sharp mind to outwit other men who were slow of thought, frantic to get out to the gold fields, swallowed by debt, or desperate for any of the reasons that landed one in a mining town. It was because he liked it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no angel, but I did the things I have done because I had to, while Frank had seemed to enjoy getting the better of others—and squashing them flat when he could. I destroyed bodies with my guns but he ruined lives with his power. That joy in the destruction of human souls is what I objected to. Still, to give him his due, he had taken good care of the Duchess and never stepped out on her that I or any other man knew of. He hadn’t even touched the whores he ran out of the Golden Stake saloon on the other end of Main Street.
Now a widow, the Duchess still lived at the hotel—for the noise and the company she said, although I suspected that memories were more important—and listened to voices in the dark while the rest of the town was sleeping.
I could almost smell Frank McGarrick’s cigar smoke when I opened the book and set myself to parse it. Reading does not come easy to me but I did not want to display that lack to Annabella. Entries on the first pages were brief and somewhat of a kind. The Duchess wrote in a delicate feminine hand. The script was clear and I found it easy enough to get the sense of her words. She had used a bold letter M or W to indicate, I reckoned, whether the speaker was a man or a woman. Most of the voices sounded almost like hotel guests who were looking for something, exclaiming in surprise or calling to someone to show herself. I didn’t like the sound of that one bit above half.
There was no real sense to the fragments, especially as some of the words were, as the Duchess had said, unrecognizable. They were surely not American. In my youth I picked up some Spanish and added a few phrases of Apache when I was on the run. I even got some Chinee words from Sing Lee, although I would not let any white man know that. But these sounded nothing like any of those languages; there were letters I understood, but they were put together in ways that made no sense at all.
I turned to the last pages she had written, the ones from tonight, and saw with some relief that the words were clearer and the sentences were more complete. Two men were talking about a task they had set themselves to do and it seemed to involve putting up equipment — except that the machinery they were using was not something I had ever heard of. I was reminded of Shorty Phelan, the telegraph man, when he talked about how they ran the lines out alongside the railroad tracks and how the dots and dashes worked. Shorty was smarter than I am and had studied. He understood the thinking behind telegraphy and the description of it made sense to him but damned if I could grasp how it all worked.
I turned to the last page and my hair stood on end. The words were unmistakable with that bold ‘M’ in front of them: “Duchess, are you there?” My mouth went dry. These weren’t just conversations overheard in another room,, they were talking directly to Mrs. McGarrick. The tea in my cup was cold, but hell, most of it wasn’t tea anyway. I slugged it down, welcoming the whiskey’s sharp bite in my throat. The liquor was hard and strong and it steadied me. I kept reading.
M: “Can you hear us?”
A bold letter ‘A’ appeared as my Duchess talked back to them. I felt a burst of pride. She might make herself out to be timid but she was as brave as any cavalryman.
“What do you want?” she asked back.
M: “Did you hear that?”
M: “Yes, yes, I’ve got it.”
A: “Who are you?”
M: “My name . . . Gary.”
M: “. . . I’m Josh.”
A: “Well you can just get out of my room.”
M: “I couldn’t hear . . .”
M: “No dude . . . on the . . . ee vee pee . . . clear.”
M:“. . . talk to us . . . Duchess. Why . . . here?
I looked up at her. “They’re not just voices anymore, are they?”
She shook her head. “No, they used my name. They want me. That’s what it signifies. It’s what has rendered me so frightened. I tried to speak with them—you can see that.”
“I thought perhaps, if I knew what they wanted, I could persuade them to leave me alone. But then, it all overwhelmed me. I was talking to ghosts in the middle of the night in the dark. Even with the lamp on, I was frightened. I had to leave.”
“I can understand why you would,” I said.
“Yes.” Her voice was bleak. “Who might these spirits be, Jake? The Palace is not very old and Mr. McGarrick and I have always lived in the top suite. I can assure you that no one has ever died in it.”
I shrugged. Such speculation was beyond my experience. While death and I are well acquainted, any spirits that might visit this world have left me alone.
“Do you think it might be . . .” she began cautiously and stopped.
“No, I do not,” I said firmly. “Your husband is at peace and, at any rate, would not do such a thing.” By all accounts—and there were more than a few—Duke had died surprised and before his time out on a claim he had just taken from its starving owner. Word had it from those present that he had turned red and clutched his chest. With a strangled “Ooof” he had dropped to his knees like a pole-axed steer and then toppled onto a stream bank. His body had been cold and stiff by the time they got him back to town where the doc told us what was already clear to be seen.
Many a man had felt cheated of his revenge the day Duke McGarrick died facedown in the mud, but I wasn’t one of them. He had left Mrs. McGarrick well provided for. She was a rich woman and I had no doubt that he lay quiet in his grave—at least in regard to Annabella.
She nodded in agreement. “I just don’t know what to do, Jake.”
I said nothing. I wanted to help but I had no idea how to go about it.
“Would . . . you go up there?” she said in a small voice. “I know it’s a terrible imposition to ask this of you. I hope that you will excuse my presumption but I am at my wit’s end.”
“Go to your room? Ma’am, I would never be so bold . . .”
She waved her hand to silence me. “I understand your reluctance. But no one need know. After all, we’re not in Boston or Philadelphia. I thought maybe you could hear them, too. And if you could, it might even be possible to, well, scare them away.”
“Me frighten them? How?”
Her eyes, huge and blue and serious, locked on mine. For a moment I stopped breathing.
“You’ve done things in your life, Jake. I don’t know what those things were and I don’t want to know but I have observed how other men behave around you. They do not stand close to you or trifle with you and they are careful of their words. That tells me a great deal.” She shook her head and the tears welled up again. “I know it’s a lot to ask and it may not accomplish anything but would you do it? For me?? Please?”
I cannot say whether it was the tears or the pleading, but there was no way I could refuse her. I nodded. Rising from the sofa, I stepped behind the hotel desk and took up my holster and gun from the shelf where I kept them in easy reach. Hotels have money and Black Rock, Colorado, was still a raw town. Strapping on the belt, I went to the bottom of the stairs and started up.
The gun felt heavy and friendly on my hip, like an old dog that had come to my side as I went out to fight. I liked the heft of it and the way it made me feel young again and strong. With each step I waited for my danger sense to kick in and warn me, but nothing happened. Still, when I strode down the hall and opened the door at the end, my heart hammered as though I was going up against a real opponent. That was nonsense. The word ‘‘dude’ had been written clearly in Annabella’s book, which meant they came from some city back east and weren’t likely to be a real threat. Closing the door behind me, I looked around to see if anything suspicious might make itself known. Mrs. McGarrick’s two-room suite was large, and the parlor was lit by a gas light, turned down low, on the back.
“Is anyone here?” I asked. A buzzing noise came as my only answer. It was like the low hum of a beehive but one that was far away. It set my teeth on edge.
I moved cautiously through the parlor to the bedroom. It smelled of her scent, something flowery. The buzzing sound was louder here, harsh, and my danger sense lifted the hair on my arms. I didn’t know what that feeling was but it had kept me alive in times and places where I could have—and maybe should have—died, and I trusted it. The gun was out of its holster and in my hand before I could think about it.
In the next room, I saw the lamp on a table near the large bed that, rumor said, had been shipped out from back East at great cost. Its dark, carved wood headboard loomed against the wall. Swallowing, I looked away from the rumpled sheets that were probably still warm from her body. In such a feminine place, I felt like a longhorn bull in a millinery shop.
Dismissing that thought, I ordered myself to get down to business. I drew breath. “Who’s here? Step out where I can see you.”
There was no response. I took up the lamp and went from corner to corner in the room, looking for God knows what. I saw a spider web in one corner, women’s clothing on the long chair, and fripperies on the dresser, but that was all. Despite what my sense told me, the room was empty. I pivoted slowly, looking at every detail, waiting for something to move in the edge of my eye. I felt like a damn fool waving a loaded Colt around an empty room . . . and a lady’s bedroom at that. That’s no way to handle either a gun or a lady. Besides, how do you aim at a ghost?
Well, I had to do something, didn’t I? Finding nothing, I pondered what to do next. If I couldn’t hear the voices, I could not remove whoever made them, but I could at least warn them off.
Drawing in a deep breath, I stopped my gabbling thoughts, made myself still and spoke. “My name is Jake Ranscomb. Men who have reason to know that name know to tread lightly around me.” I stopped and waited. “You may not fear me but hear me out.”
Silence. A breeze stirred my hair even though the windows were shut tight;; the air shifted around me as though someone invisible was moving in the room. My mouth went dry and I wanted another slug of that whiskey but I had told Annabella I would do my best, and I could not be less brave than she was. Besides, the night was cool and windows are drafty things.
“I know you’re just ghosts,” I said. “I know you can’t touch her or hurt her, but you can frighten Mrs. McGarrick, and you have done so. I cannot allow it. You must go away. Now. Go and leave Annabella alone.”
Only the hum replied. It was unnerving and I am not a man whose nerves rattle easily. “Talk to me, damn you,” I said, my voice rising. “If Mrs. McGarrick can hear you, so can I. Say something!”
But the ghosts would not talk to me. Perhaps they knew something about me that rendered them mute. Perhaps it was something I did not know about myself, although that seemed unlikely. I had spent too many nights thinking about who I was and what I had done in my life to have any false ideas. Holstering my Colt, I waited awhile, standing still as a marble statue and listening to that infernal hum. Finally, conceding defeat, I walked out and closed the door behind me. I could protect my Annabella from any man living and would consider myself lucky to give my life for hers, but I was helpless against the dead, at least for now. It made me feel less of a man to know that and I did not like that feeling one little bit. Someday I would join those spirits and then I would find the ones who had frightened the only person in the world who meant anything to me.
Then we would have us a time.
“Did you get all that?” Gary asked. “What a great session!” He snapped on the lights and the nineteenth century hotel room appeared in all its renovated and refurbished glory. When people were asked to pay extra to stay in a haunted room, they wanted atmosphere, and The Palace Hotel’s new owners in Macau had spared no cost to provide it.
“You bet,” Josh said.“ “It’s the best recording we’ve ever done, and I think we’ll get even more on the EVP when we play it back in the studio.”
“The Duchess herself. Wow. I mean, I thought we might get some good readings, but I never thought that we would actually, like, hear her speaking.”
Josh shrugged. “Well, dude, it is the haunted suite after all. I guess that Ghosts of the Old West had it right when they called it the most haunted place in Colorado.
Gary did a little victory jig as he rolled up the cable, his double chin jiggling. “When we put this up on YouTube it’s going to, like, go viral. Thousands of views, man. Maybe hundreds of thousands. This can put us in the big time.” Smile beaming in a round rosy face, he moved faster than people seeing him for the first time expected.
“Weelll,” Josh drawled, “I don’t know about that. Let’s not go overboard.” He paused and then shrugged. “But it sure beats anything any of the ghost-hunting programs have broadcasted all year.” Josh lined up the mics and started putting them away. His lank pony tail swung as he swiveled from table to case.
“We got the Duchess on tape, and in HD, too. And it wasn’t just a random message playing back. We got a response. She was talking to us.”
“That’s what the guests who have heard her all say, though, even if she is just telling them to get out.” Gary laid down the last coil of cable and snapped the case shut.
“Maybe not, but we do have a solid recording.” Gary turned and surveyed the room. “Cameras next?”
“Sure,” Josh replied. “I’ll get the ones in the corners.”
“And that other voice,” Gary said. “What did you think of that?”
Josh stretched his tall frame, pulled down a night-vision camera and handed it carefully to Gary, who laid it in its case and closed the lid. They moved to the next corner. Josh did not reply until he had that camera in hand. “I don’t know,” he said. “It was definitely a man, though.”
“It might have been old Duke McGarrick himself,” said Gary as he stowed the second camera away. With all the equipment shut off, the room was still and silent.
“Anything’s possible, dude,” said Josh, hands on hips. “But we won’t know for sure until we listen to the EVP.”
“No,” Gary conceded. “But he sure sounded threatening.”
Josh smiled. “Maybe so. You should know by now, though, that ghosts are just energy manifesting from the other side. Duke McGarrick, the Duchess, all of them died over a hundred and twenty years ago. We can hear them and sometimes they can hear us. But they can’t hurt us. Now let’s pack this all up and get out of here. I’m tired.”
“Yeah, and I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat.”
“Tomorrow we’ll put it up on YouTube. Then we’ll just stand back and wait for the views to start rolling in.
“It’s going to be good, dude. Real good.”
The two men picked up their cases and left the Duchess’ room, closing the door carefully behind them.