Anastasia Brown stepped down from the bus, narrowly avoiding a puddle with one foot but straight into it with the left. She was wearing her black, sparkly pumps she had bought for an evening medical school party. She knew they were inappropriate for an interview. Groceries or new shoes–such were her choices these days.
With an extra determined push, Anastasia jumped to the curb. She examined the damage. The dark color of the pumps hid the sodden nature of the left one. After walking a few steps, she decided that she was not squishing though it was impossible to tell if she was leaving damp footprints; the sidewalk was still darkened from the night’s rain.
Her destination was two blocks back from the main thoroughfare. Maples, elms, and sycamores shaded well-kept sidewalks. Chrysanthemums, marigolds, pumpkins, and collections of gourds adorned yards and front porches. As she entered the second block, Anastasia noted less attention paid to maintenance. Weeds grew here and there between sidewalk cracks; leaves piled up in fence corners; paint peeled from porch banisters. In a row of four homes, second from the end of the block, was the address she sought.
289 Oak Street was a brownstone house with bow windows on each of three stories. Anastasia was glad to see that this house was at least weeded and swept. Up concrete steps ahead of her was a double red door. As Anastasia started to climb, one side of the door swung open and out rushed a middle-aged woman with a bouffant hairdo. She hurried down the steps and brushed past Anastasia without seeming to realize she was there. The door behind her gaped open. Anastasia’s progress up the steps was again halted when a young man, younger than Anastasia, came to the door.
“Yoohoo!” the young man called, waving a piece of paper. When the woman did not stop, he shook his head. “Not again,” he said. He ran down the steps and along the sidewalk until he had gotten in front of the woman.
Anastasia watched the young man give the paper to the woman. She heard ‘your copy’ and ‘this is what you agreed to’. The woman dodged around him and kept on her way with the paper crumpled in her fist.
As the young man returned to the house, Anastasia studied him. He was maybe twenty years old, 5’ 9” or 10”, short brown hair shaved back around his ears, and dressed in skinny blue pants, pointy brown shoes, and a cream-colored cowl neck sweater. He stopped when he reached the steps.
“Are you the two o’clock?” he asked. She was momentarily caught up in his gaze. His eyes were an amazing amber color.
“Why, yes,” she stuttered. “Anastasia Brown.”
“Randall Sparks,” he said. “Follow me.” Taking the steps two at a time, he entered the house and waited for her at the other side of the open door. Shuting the door behind her, he went to a desk diminished by the size the expansive foyer.
Randall Sparks gestured to a bench opposite his desk. Grateful for the opportunity to rest her feet, Anastasia sank into a plaid cushion.
The young man handed her a clipboard holding a few pieces of official paperwork.
“The first you will want to read carefully. It is a non-disclosure statement concerning the event of your interview. If you choose not to sign, then good day to you. The interview is over. The second is your contact information, and the third is your salary requirements. Bring them over to me when you are finished.”
It was a day for decisions. Anastasia did read carefully through the non-disclosure as prompted. The document appeared to be straightforward. Her signature was an agreement not to disclose the nature of the interview, the identity of the interviewer, or any details with regard to the requirements of the work or the peculiarities of the employer. Peculiarities? Thinking that it was either this or go back to Atlanta, Anastasia signed.
When it came to writing in a salary amount, Anastasia recalled the investigator’s salary she had been paid by the city of New Valencia and added twenty percent. Boston was expensive. She had better ask for a wage that could keep her here.
Randall Sparks barely glanced up when she returned the clipboard, but he did take it and cursorily check it for information and signatures. He stood and rapped on the white folding door behind his desk. A few seconds later a light above the door turned green.
“My uncle will see you now,” the young man said. He slid back the door and motioned to Anastasia to go through.
She hesitated on the threshold of a large space. The room was dark. Her eyes sought out the light from two sources, a crack in the ceiling to floor drapes and a monitor showing a mountain scene. When she stepped forward, Randall Sparks slid the door shut.
From beyond the monitor came a man’s voice at low volume, projected and crackly. “Take a seat, Miss Brown.”
Anastasia moved towards the outline of a chair and felt her way into it. Meanwhile, the image on the monitor flickered and showed her resume. On display were her full name, Anastasia Maxwell Brown, and her education, Criminal Justice at Atlanta Technical College.
“You are a long way from home, Miss Brown,” the voice said.
Anastasia was becoming more accustomed to the darkness. The light from the monitor allowed her to see a shadow sitting behind a heavy desk. The monitor itself was perched on the edge of that desk. It was angled in her direction but also visible to the shadow person. The monitor blinked and changed again to the questions Anastasia had answered online.
“I can’t see any reason for it,” said the unidentified voice.
“For my move to Boston? My friend is in medical school here. We were considering getting married.”
“Were? No, that’s all right. You need not explain. You graduated nine months ago and yet there is no record of employment. How do you live?”
“Excuse me, sir, what is your name?”
“Ah yes, I often forget formalities. I am Jared Sparks. This is my establishment. And as the advertisement stated, I am hiring an investigator. Now, concerning the matter of your previous employment, please explain.”
Anastasia shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I did have a job with a private firm. The work was fine at first and then I discovered that the firm was unscrupulous in some of its dealings. I was fired.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Three weeks.” She was on the verge of blurting out the whole story–how she had come to Boston for a job and had kept it as a surprise for her fiancé; how she was the one surprised when her fiancé was not keen on her being in Boston; how he had reluctantly allowed her to crash on his couch while she searched unsuccessfully for her own apartment; how her new employer had accused her of misconduct and fired her making it impossible for her to collect unemployment; how, unable to find affordable housing, she was now couch surfing with strangers. If she didn’t get this job, she would either have to go back to Atlanta or drastically reduce her standards on acceptable employment.
She heard a whirring sound, the monitor went blank, and a ceiling projector blinked on. The whir continued until a screen had fully unrolled from the ceiling in front of the windows.
“Your employer did not hire you to investigate internally,” Sparks said.
Was that a question?
“I saw a thread, and I pulled it.”
As Sparks moved from behind his desk and passed in front of the screen, he ought to have been illuminated. In fact, he disappeared.
“What trick is that?” Anastasia asked. “Where are you?”
“Look down,” he said.
Below the screen were trouser bottoms and two feet in men’s shoes of an odd style, ankle high with buttons on the sides and squared off toes.
“Watch my feet,” Sparks said.
As Anastasia watched, the feet stepped in front of the screen. There was an absence of sound, no swishing of fabric against the screen, no heel thump upon the thin rug. Her eyes traveled up the trousers and found space. The white space flickered and a slide appeared. It was an old brown and white photograph of a man who was wearing the same shoes and trousers, a dark coat, white shirt, and a flamboyant bow tie.
Anastasia understood why the woman with the bouffant had left in such a hurry. “You’re a ghost,” she said.
“You are not frightened,” Sparks observed.
“My grandparents’ house was haunted,” Anastasia explained. “I would sometimes wake up at night and see a woman at the foot of the bed. She didn’t bother me.”
“That makes you one out of many.” Sparks cleared his throat with an ahem. “As I said, I am Jared Sparks, former Harvard president. I do prefer to be known as a professor of history. The young man you have met is too many greats of a family relation. I call him my nephew.”
The slide changed again to a graveyard scene and a headstone carved for Jared Sparks, 1789-1866.
“Why are you here? Why don’t you rest?” Anastasia asked.
“Rest, yes, I would like that. Miss Brown, even the dead can have a bad day. I was resting, enjoying a beautiful dream, when I was raised up. In 1926 a group of coeds came to the graveyard and set up their seance. They were hoping to contact the gentleman next to me who was a recently deceased Pinkerton detective. Well, they succeeded all too well. That gentleman brought me along.” He paused seemingly lost in his thoughts.
“Why did the seance people want him?”
“I do not remember if I knew. He and I were angry and expressed it. Those coeds ran for their lives. Rid of them we were, but there was no going back. After a few nights of cemetery, ahem–”
“Hovering?” Anastasia offered.
“Loitering,” Sparks supplied. “We decided to, ahem, take up residence. Formerly, I had had a house. We sought it out only to discover my house was inhabited by Harvard’s Pusey Minister. O’Brien thought nothing of staying there. I had to convince him that there were greener pastures.
“That’s when we began our search for living relatives. O’Brien had none but a sister who had returned to Ireland. He turned his detective skills to the investigation of my family and discovered Randall’s grandfather. I do suspect that Buster Sparks was a distant relation several branches removed, conveniently possessing my surname. I never said so to O’Brien. Death has made me pragmatic.
“As Buster Sparks was down on his luck, as they say, he didn’t mind renting us a few particles of air in his house on a promise. Without Buster, our navigation of the material world would have been problematic. Buster provided us with headquarters and then was persuaded to assist us further. Together the three of us solved our first case.”
While Jared Sparks was talking, Anastasia’s sight had adjusted to the darker places in the room, the bookcases crammed full of weighty volumes, a bust of George Washington, and the numerous papers strewn across and around his desk.
“Are you someone important?” she asked.
“The dead are only as important as a memory,” Sparks replied. “Will you come on board with us?”
“Will I be working with O’Brien?”
“Sadly, no,” Sparks sighed. “I do not know how a ghost can disappear, or I should stay, I do not possess that ability. Yet, that is what has happened. O’Brien has gone missing. I am in great need of an investigator.”
“To find him?”
“How does one track a ghost? No. This firm has a backlog of cases and bills to pay. Shall I add your salary to what is owed?”
“If O’Brien comes back–”
“Will I fire you? Certainly not, and I won’t demote you either.”
“I have one issue,” she said. “Transportation. I don’t have a car.”
“Did I forget to mention the perquisites?”
The green light appeared over the door. In seconds Randall Sparks appeared.
“Randall, please inform Miss Brown of her salary and benefits.”
“Of course,” Randall said. He came further into the room so as to face Anastasia. “We accept your salary requirement. In addition, we offer medical insurance, life insurance, disability, room and board if required, and a company car.”
“Room and board?”
“The board is more like access to the kitchen,” Randall modified.
Anastasia took the papers Randall offered her and followed him out to the foyer. There he answered many of her questions.
How was Jared Sparks able to speak? His office was rigged with paranormal sound equipment to amplify his voice.
Room? There was one available on the second floor.
Did others stay there? Randall lived on the third floor. She would soon meet the others who lived there.
Company car? There were two vehicles in the garage out back. One was a black SUV. The other was a hatchback Subaru.
Randall would not answer her questions about cases. He gave her the keys to the Subaru so she could collect her things and be back for their evening collaboration.
As Anastasia drove, she was occupied in theorizing how a ghost could disappear. She was certain the O’Brien case was top priority despite how Sparks had dismissed it. She had goosebumps in the most agreeable of ways.
Author’s Note: Jared Sparks is the name of a nineteenth century Harvard president. He is not a ghost as far as I know. R.I.P. Jared Sparks.
by Ann H. Myers ©2020