“The house is kinda of different,” the real estate agent said. She sounded nervous, like maybe I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Renovating this house wouldn’t be easy, she’d told me while she took me through the warren of rooms.”The old man that lived here was forever cementing over parts of the yard.”
“Nothing else. College professor since after WWII, did all the repairs himself, and died at over 100.”
“Long time for a man to live,” I noted, more to myself than to her.
I walked from one white paved section of backyard to another. The only grass on the lot was a skinny strip on each side of an old fashioned swimming pool, but dozens of house plants filled ledges and counter tops.
“It’s weird but I’ll take it.”
I verified the house was haunted after the second week. There was a cat I always saw out of the corner of my eye, then a little girl, about three, with long dark hair. There for a second and then gone. The way they do.
The professor who owned the house turned the side yard into an office. I found the sewing machine after I knew about the haunting, neatly stored in an original wooden box. A gift from the 1950s, packaged up with everything but a bow. Strange that I’ve worked with antiques for years and never found this one. Until, just after I realized the house was haunted, it shows up here, like the day was my very own private Christmas.
The detective showed up the next morning.
“Evelyn,” she smiled but didn’t hold out a badge. “With the Pinkerton agency.”
“The professor, the man who lived here, he had a secret, didn’t he?” I didn’t bother to let my surprise show.
“A lot of them probably, but I only need to know one.” She walked through the house like she knew her way, from room to room past all the cheap white walls he’d put in by himself. I was ripping them down one by one, but so far no bodies. “You’re doing a lot of work on the place.”
“Haven’t found anything though.” Except the sewing machine I’d always tried to find, sitting there like a present. Maybe the house was giving it to me to say thanks for looking or maybe it was a bribe to stop. I hadn’t touched it. I’m the type who insists on looking a gift horse in the mouth.
“Too bad. Maybe when you do, the ghosts in this place can rest.”
She turned and blinked at me, a vision in her crisp suit seventy years out of date.
“Rest easy with the others I mean.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re surprisingly perceptive.”
“Don’t want to be, I just am.”
“How long have you known about me? Long enough that I’ve been making a fool of myself, you and your damn perceptive nature.”
“Don’t want to be, I just am.” But that didn’t satisfy her. I cleaned out ghosts but I didn’t like angry ones. “You look like a college girl, only a little out of date. And there haven’t been Pinkertons in this century.”
“I was a college girl,” she explained. “Then my sister disappeared.”
“’Bout yeah high?” I held my hand up. She nodded, not sure she wanted to talk to me anymore. “Out by the pool.”
We went that way and the pump started to seize, hissing spit and dirty water. “Can you fix it?”
“Don’t think I should.” And I didn’t, because now that I thought about it, pouring concrete over a piece of ground was a good way to hide a grave, maybe a good way to quiet a ghost.
“You do this a lot, don’t you?”
“It’s a living. Find a house, clean it up, break down some walls, new paint. Ghosts drive the price way down, it’s easier to flip it when it’s clean.”
“You don’t mean sanitary.”
I shook my head. “It’s not hard. All you have to do is find out their secret, speak it out loud, and they’re gone. It’s the power of the secret that binds them here, all of them.”
“And the professor? What’s his secret?” She challenged me with it, like there was no way I could’ve figured that out. “That he’s a murderer?”
“No, I mean, he is, sure, but it’ll be more than that for him. There’s you, the girl, the cat, not enough bodies for pure murderer.”
“There could be more, you should dig up the yard.”
“I’ll bring in a thumper.” She cocked her head at me confused. “It’s a device that thumps the ground, then sends out an ultra sound wave so you can see where the bones are. But you don’t need the bones only the secret.”
“And you’re going to guess his? Just like that? Like it’s easy?” She was getting angry again.
“It’s never easy. There aren’t a lot of clues left behind but secrets will out.” The pump started to rattle in her anger, shaking like it was ready to break itself apart. That might not be a bad thing. “Besides there aren’t many secrets worth killing for.”
“Then name me one.”
“Oh that he was black, maybe, passing for white, or a woman, passing for a man. You could do that back then, as long as nobody found out. Someone always finds out.”
“I did.” Anger washed away by the smugness. “It’s the sewing machine that proves it.”
“A woman passing for a man then?”
Her smile turned sour.
“Don’t be cross, I do this all the time.” The pump exploded with a burst of steam loud enough that, as the only living person in the yard, I jumped. The ground split underneath it, and I saw the edges of a tin box. “This is the big reveal,” I told her, not bothering to look. The paper inside was a little damp and little moldy, a birth certificate. Huh. “Passing for a white and a man. The sewing machine should’ve tipped me off.”
“That’s how I got it,” she said but when I turned around she was already fading, washed away like dirt from bones. I looked down in the hole, and saw the hands first. The professor had killed her with the evidence she found, and then put the pump over top of her. Not a bad plan, worked for nearly six decades, but things like that don’t hold up against me, I’m a ghost cleaner. Don’t want to be, but I am.