The man who answered my knock was a twitchy, weaselly-looking fellow. His eyes darted around nervously as he cracked open his front door and demanded, “You him?”
“I’m him,” I agreed, holding up my briefcase. “I have the contract, right here.”
“Fantastic.” The man opened the door just wide enough for me to slip in. “Let’s get this baby signed. The tax assessors will be here in an hour.”
“Scheduling things a little tight, are we?” I asked, as I trailed him into the kitchen. Not that I was surprised; there always seemed to be the most demand for my services during tax season.
“That is enough time to summon a ghost, isn’t it?”
I laid my briefcase down on his rickety old table, popped the latch, and pulled out a thick stack of paper. “As I explained over the phone, the further afield I have to search for a ghost willing to haunt your house, the longer it will take.”
“But there’s a graveyard two blocks away!”
“A graveyard surrounded by some of the most prime real estate in the city.”
“Which means what?”
“The good ghosts have already been taken.”
The man frowned. “So I’m not the first one to think of this?”
I managed not to laugh. Did he think I’d written up seventy-three pages of legalese just for one customer? “Not hardly.”
“But the tax assessors — ”
“Don’t care how the ghost got in here. To them, a haunted home is a valueless home. End of story.”
“Oh. Man. You had me worried there for a second.”
In the interests of full disclosure — a.k.a. not getting sued — I warned him, “Now, the insurance companies, on the other hand — ”
“Most insurance companies specifically exclude damage committed by summoned ghosts.” Not that the man had much property worth insuring in the first place. There were a few fading touches that a woman had lived there, once, but the only thing of value remaining in the house seemed to be an expensive flat screen TV.
“Oh.” The man seemed taken aback. “Um, you aren’t going to summon a violent ghost, are you?”
“I can assure you it won’t be a poltergeist, but anything else is at your own risk.”
The man stared at me, blankly. “Say what?”
“The ghost will be in full possession of its mental and emotional faculties. It’s all in the contract. Speaking of which…” I held out the contract towards him.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and stared at the contract. “Oh. Right.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d had to talk a client out of cold feet at the last minute. “Would you like to sit down and read the whole thing through from the beginning? I’d be happy to wait.” I carefully didn’t mention his upcoming appointment with the tax assessors.
The man’s eyes flickered towards the front door, but he still hesitated. “No. No, that’s not necessary.”
“Really, if you need to think about this longer, we could always reschedule — ”
The man snatched the contract out of my hands and signed it with a flourish. Greed gets them every time.
“Payment up front,” I reminded him.
He groused a little, then handed over the cash. “Do you need a ritual space, or candles, or anything?”
“No, I came prepared.” I pulled a brazier out of my briefcase, placed it on the table, and filled it with ghostweed. The man dug a cigarette lighter out of his jeans pockets, offering it to me. A nice gesture, but it wasn’t about to get him a discount. I lit the brazier and handed the lighter back to him.
The ghostweed promptly burst into flames, pouring out smoke in an instant response to my summons — which was surprising, to say the least. Last month, I’d done a summons just five houses down and had to search for half an hour to find a willing ghost.
“Is that the ghost? Already?” The man pointed to the smoke, which was beginning to take on a distinctly humanoid shape.
“Apparently one was close.” Too close?
“Um.” The man went very pale and began to sweat as he backed away from the table.
“Is there something the matter?” I kept my voice casual as I slid the contract and cash into my briefcase, then latched it shut. Just in case.
“That… that’s starting to look an awful lot like my ex-wife…”
I grabbed my briefcase. “Why don’t I get out of your way before the tax assessors show up?”
“Hi, honey,” the ghost said, as it solidified into the form of a middle-aged woman. A butcher’s knife was stuck in her chest. “I’m home.”
I barely made it out of the house before the screaming started.
Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she’s not writing, she’s an historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. She lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science, Fiction and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI.
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