by Rick Kennett and Paul Collins
Paul Collins is an Australian writer and editor who specializes in science fiction and fantasy, best known now for his many books for younger readers. In addition to his novels, Paul has written over a hundred chapter books, around thirty non-fiction hardcovers for the education market (published both in Australia and the USA), and 150 short stories. He also has a black belt in both Taekwondo and jujitsu and has had experience as a kickboxer,
Rick Kennett is a life-long resident of Melbourne, Australia where he worked for 42 years in the transport industry. Now retired, he lives the life of an idler and a ne’er-do-well. He has had many stories published in magazines, anthologies and podcasts and has five books up on Amazon. Next year Cathaven Press in the UK will be republishing 472 Cheyne Walk: Carnacki, the Untold Stories, a collection of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories written with Chico Kidd and originally published in 2002.
Rusty Bryant swung his Mercedes Sports into the driveway of his home where the dead spoke to his wife. An instant later he had to brake heavily to avoid the Volkswagen parked askew and blocking his double garage. He glared at its ancient paint work and the stupid bumper-sticker: “Do Volkswagens go to an Old Volks’ Home?” It belonged to Susan Coltson, one of Sylvia’s culty cronies, and accordingly its sticker should’ve read, “My other car’s a broom.”
The house was deathly quiet. He knew what that meant. They were in the living room, huddled around the open microphone of that old reel-to-reel tape recorder that had seemingly manifested itself on the table around the same time as Sylvia gathered about herself this coven of audio witches.
Bryant contemplated driving off again. But running away wasn’t going to help. Besides, his wife held the purse strings. Everything was in her name after his recording business went belly-up.
Climbing the front steps he had to sidestep a bit of recording tape scratched across the veranda in the wind like a glittering viper.
“Weirdoes,” he muttered; not just because of the occult activities of his wife and her friends but because magnetic recording tape was so obsolete.
As he reached the front door it flew open. There stood Mrs Coltson in her white caftan, looking like a galleon in full sail about to go into battle.
“Sylvia is a marvel, Rusty,” she gushed in that scratchy violin voice that irritated him so much. “You’re such a lucky man to be married to her. I mean, whoever heard of EVPs running longer than five seconds!” Her deep-set eyes shone with lunacy.
Without commenting on his luck, which he would’ve disputed, or long-running EVPs about which he was blissfully ignorant, Bryant squeezed past her, escaping into the entrance hall. Sounds issued from the open door of the living room: excited whispers, the clacking of the tape recorder in rewind, the whish of its spinning spools.
He retreated to his den and shut the door, giving him a measure of privacy. Two recording industry awards hung on the wall, reminders of the far off days of wine and song. Surrounded by his autographed photos of music industry celebrities whose careers he’d inspired, he tried to relax. But the silence felt fragile. Even the smiling faces gazing from the photos — nobodies he’d fashioned into international stars when he himself had been a Somebody — did nothing to lift his spirits. Most of them actively avoided him now.
A muffled explosion of excited babble rose across the hallway. He guessed they had accomplished god knew what with that damned reel-to-reel and their ‘spirit’ voices.
“Sylvia the sicko,” he said, but not too loud.
He tried to push away his troubled thoughts. Despite past accusations of cheating and double-dealing, of embezzlement and dubious practises – none of which had been legally proved — he still had some influence with musicians and their agents. In fact, it was because of these agents that he kept a landline as some of them were processed with such imagined self-importance that they deemed it an insult to communicate to a mere mobile. Temperamental twots, sure, but he couldn’t afford to lose their clientele.
He lifted the hand piece of his landline and pushed the 1 button. Through its speaker message bank said in bright faux female tones, “There are four missed calls.”
Bryant prayed to any deity that might listen that one of these four calls would be theatrical agent Gary Tracy. Tracy himself was small potatoes, but his client Steve Zelta was potentially hot – had been hot before trouble of some kind – he only vaguely knew what kind — had knocked his blossoming career askew. But Zelta could be hot again if his considerable talents were handled right. He saw the young singer as a golden stepping stone back to success and an escape from Sylvia and her occult insanity.
He crossed to his bar fridge to fix himself a scotch on the rocks, ready to either celebrate a potential come-back or drown his sorrows.
The artificial voice of message bank dutifully listed each call and its time, and each was followed by silence humming from the speaker.
Glass in hand, Bryant stepped back and pressed Replay. Leaning closer to the speaker he thought he could hear something, but it was faint. He replayed it again, and yes, he could discern words now, his own name, “Rusty” followed by “You’re just the same.” Or had it been “Ford play the game”? – which made no sense. On the second missed call something was said — two syllables spoken too fast, too low to catch. The third was “Willy is here.” The fourth was a long silence, followed by one word: “Murder.”
“What have they been saying today?”
Sylvia Bryant gave her husband a bland look across the dining room table. “Who, darling?”
“All your dead friends.”
She stuck her fork idly into something on her plate that squelched and steamed. On the other side of the table, her husband was eating Thai food he’d sent out for. No way was he touching his wife’s cooking. Possibly poisoned, likely inedible. “Why the sudden interest? I thought you hated what I do.”
“Hate is such a strong word, Sylvia,” he said with an insincere hurt expression.
“You don’t understand what we do so you hate it.”
“We’ve gone through all this. No need to rehash. So what have you been chatting about?”
“My dead friends and I? Why are you so suddenly interested?”
“Have you opened a new front?”
“A new front what?”
“A new front against me.”
Sylvia put down her fork. “Rusty, you’re more paranoid than a goldfish in a cattery. You really do need to see someone about your … fixation.”
“You are, aren’t you?” he continued.
“I `are’ what?” Sylvia frowned at her husband’s hardened stare. “Do you feel threatened by what we do?”
“You’re expanding your influence. With the help of that bitch.”
Sylvia let the insult pass, though clearly flung against Susan Coltson – let it pass as she’d let such insults pass many times before. “I haven’t a clue what you mean by expanding my influence, Rusty. Ever since Susan started helping me with the recordings you’ve done nothing but malign her. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t accused us of having a lesbian relationship — or is that because sex is an alien concept to you, now?”
”Is there a point to this argument?”
“I’d like to know what they said today. I ran over your friend …” He stopped, realizing his Freudian slip and said, “I ran into Mrs Coltson at the front door. She was very excited about something.”
Sylvia laughed a light incredulous laugh. “You think we’re plotting with the dead, don’t you. For some Satanic purpose, no doubt.”
Rusty shrugged. “You’re my wife. I like to take an interest in what you’re doing.”
She pulled a face at this. “All right, Rusty. They said, `How are you, today, Sylv?'”
“`Sylv’? Who calls you `Sylv’?”
“They do. The dead do.”
“Do they talk about me?”
“Of course they do, seeing we’re all plotting against you.” She laughed again and added, “No, Rusty, don’t flatter yourself. You’re not that interesting.”
“What did they say?” he persisted.
“They said, `How are you today, Sylv?’ and `What’s happening?’ and `I’m a refugee’ and things that refer to the other ladies conducting the recordings. Family matters. Nothing concerning yourself.”
“Do they say `murder’?”
Caught off guard, Sylvia stared at him a moment before recovering.”We get drifters past the mike. Some are angry. Some are ugly, yes. Some … some are just lost. There are those who don’t even know they’re dead, and yes, they can get very negative. But what’s all this about?”
Bryant brought out his phone and switched on audio. “I dubbed this from message bank. Listen.”
Amplified static droned for twenty, thirty, forty seconds.
“Darling, you really are a loser.” Sylvia pushed her plate away, stood up and left her husband sitting staring angrily at the silent phone.
Rapid. That was it. Rusty Bryant replayed message bank again and again to make sure. “Rapid” was the two syllable word, too faint, too quick, he’d been unable to catch earlier. All the other voices were still there, including murder..
The phone rang.
He stared at it with suspicion, waiting for message bank to kick in, waiting for the voices, the little voices, to whisper their meaningless words.
Instead, a loud and human voice said, “This is Gary Tracy, Steve Zelta’s agent –“
Bryant snapped up the phone.
Tracy and Zelta were spot on time the next morning. Immediately Bryant was impressed with the singer’s relaxed attitude and the business-like reactions Tracy made to his proposals. Both we bright and breezy individuals, and it occurred to Bryant that this agent wouldn’t have cared had he talked to him on a landline or two tin cans on a piece of string. In fact he sensed in Tracy’s buoyant personality a note of desperation, a human quality he was well acquainted with. Steve Zelta was struggling along the come-back trail after his earlier rise to fame had been stalled by some scandal involving disputed copyright, dead bodies and possible underworld connections. Bryant didn’t know exactly, didn’t want to know. Just that he didn’t want to face the uncomfortable fact that he and Zelta and Tracy were all clinging like castaways to the lower rungs of a very high ladder they desperately needed to climb.
Filing through the house, heading for the recording studio in the backyard, Zelta caught sight of the reel-to-reel on the living room table. A cabinet of walnut, big as a suitcase. Metal seven-inch reels spooled with brown magnetic tape. Bakelite knobs for volume and playback/record, central lever for play and rewind only..
“Jesus H Hendrix!” Zelta exclaimed. “Haven’t seen one of those since forever.”
Before the singer could go inspect the antique machine Bryant put a hand on his shoulder and steered him out the back door.
Recording and playback levels checked and double checked, Zelta stood beneath the mike in the recording booth, hands cupped to earphones. With Tracy grinning encouragement from behind the digital mixing panel, Bryant gave the singer an enthusiastic thumbs up and pressed Recond.
Steve Zelta cleared his throat and launched into thirty second snatches of several songs from his repertoire.
Bryant found himself singing softly along. The boy had a great voice. Certainly better than many others he’d heard in his time in the music indrusty, boosted by clever publicity and electronic studio voodoo. Zelta wouldn’t need any of that. He was a natural. His rich Mediterranean tones alone gave his voice that extra punch Bryant knew today’s music punters were hungry for. The qualities that had got Zelta to the top before his misfortunes would get him to the top again.
“How was that?” asked Zelta cheerily at the end of the session. By his expression it was clear he could smell success in the air. The last ringing notes of his most famous song “Be!” still seemed to echo about the studio.
Exchanging grins with Tracy, Bryant hit Playback. Visions of fame, fortune, fawning young women and independence from Sylvia and her reel-to-reel weirdoes danced in his head. They had something here, all three of them could sense it. Something rare, something golden.
The speakers hummed, then someone whispered harshly, “Rapid” and “Thief” and something like a growled “You very willing” or maybe “You buried William.”
Steve Zelta ‘s hands dropped from the headphones. He stared out of the recording booth, his mouth a silent O.
Tracy stared at the speakers, at Zelta, at Bryant. Without a word he wrenched open the booth door and bundled Zelta out as if he was a child. They were out the studio door before Bryant found his voice.
He followed them through the house and out into driveway, protesting all the way. Tracy pushed Zelta into his car like an upset parent, then turned to confront Bryant. “Was that your idea of a joke?”
“Joke?” said Bryant, confused.
“Those accusations against Steve weren’t true! Those songs were his and William Long’s death was a suicide!”
Bryant’s mind floundered. “Who?” The name William Long seemed vaguely familiar but he struggled to place it.
By now Tracy’s car was already down the driveway and on the road. Within seconds Bryant was mutely watching his last chance for any meaningful future dwindle into the distance. He stood there with the morning sunshine shining down him and feeling bleak desolation settling in.
He shambled back to the recording studio out the back where Zelta’s melodious voice belted out from the speakers, sounding to Bryant’s ears like the mocking echoes of success.
The song finished. Zelta’s voice said, “How was that?” and someone whispered, “Mine. Rapid.”
“Rusty, please keep it down,” said a voice from behind. He turned to see Mrs Coltson’s head poking through the studio door. “Your noise is disturbing our recordings.”
“My … noise?” Black despair was suddenly displaced by red rage. He screamed at her incoherently, but she was already returning to the house, oblivious. Right there and then, more than ever, he wanted to kill that woman. There’d been numerous such moments, but right now he could have throttled her with much more joy and justification. But then, he reflected, anger subsiding, she’d probably come back, crawling like a dripping ghoul out of her shallow grave, and that would spoil all the fun.
Bryant switched off Zelta’s recording. He slumped back to the house, coming in just as Mrs Coltson was regaining her seat next to Sylvia at the long table. He knew none of the other women gathered around it. They were just ’the coven’ as far as he was concerned — youngish, stylish, doubtless moneyed. They sat poised with pens and notebooks, looking like a gaggle of secretaries awaiting dictation. The tape recorder turned its reels at the antiquated speed of 1 and 3/4 inches per second. A small volume light flickering in response to the odd growl and whisper issuing from its speaker.
“Any luck?” said Bryant as if he gave a damn.
Sylvia looked up from her notepad. “Do you know anyone by the name of Steve Zelta?”
Rusty winced. “I used to. Why?”
She stopped the tape and rewound it. “We’ve had a very strange sitting today, haven’t we?”
The others nodded in unison. All except Mrs Coltson, watching the spinning spools like hypnotic discs.
“Hardly any of our regulars came through,” Sylvia continued, “and those who did seemed to be getting shoved aside by a newcomer.” She clacked the lever over to play. “Listen.”
“Hello, folks,” said a whisper. “Hello, Sy –“
“We believe that was supposed to be `Hello Sylv’,” said Mrs Coltson, “but the speaker was cut off.”
“Look out …” A grunt. “Go to hell.” Pause, then “Zelta … Back. … Buried me … Rapid …bangcrashbang … Zelta. Rapid. Mine. Rapid.” Pause, then, “Willy is here.”
Sylvia checked her notebook. “The rest is blank.”
But it wasn’t. As she moved to switch off the machine, the tape said slowly and clearly, “Wrap. It.”
Bryant recognized it unmistakably as Steve Zelta’s voice.
“How odd,” said Mrs Coltson. “We must have missed that last bit. And it was clearer than the rest. Deliberately so, wouldn’t you say?” She glanced at Sylvia. “Really, Rusty,” she continued and raised her eyes to the door, “your wife –“
But Rusty Bryant was gone.
Gone out the front door, into his car, down the street, racing in pursuit of Zelta and Tracy and whatever he might salvage of his future.
“Willy is here,” the tape had said. He gripped hard on the wheel, refusing to ponder what it might mean. “Rapid” … or had it been “Wrap it” the studio expression for finishing a session? Had Sylvia’s audio dead set him up? Were they telling him to finish it? A long chance, but at least he had the shadow of something that might explain Tracy and Zelta’s reactions.
Tiny roadside lights flashed as he sped along. He ignored them at first, but it happened again further on and then again, little flashes in the passing medium strip. Strands of brown magnetic tape, hung up in the grass, reflecting sunshine at him in their plastic creases and twists. Flash. Flash. Flash.
“They’re talking to me in Morse,” said Bryant to himself, unsure who he meant by ’they’ and unable to think where all this stray tape was coming from because recording tape was so obsolete.
Though they’d had a head start, Tracy’s twenty year old stock standard Ford was no match for Bryant’s Mercedes Sports, and within minutes he’d caught up to them at the last lights before the freeway. He tried to wave Tracy over, tried to make him understand he needed to talk. But Tracy planted his foot and raced through the lights and down the entrance ramp. But in those seconds Bryant had caught a glimpse of Zelta in the passenger seat. He looked frightened and sick.
Bryant floored the accelerator, likewise jumping the lights, the Mercedes blurring after them in a basso roar of engine power.
Down the freeway, Tracy gunning the Ford to its limits, Brayant directly behind, practically tailgating.
Too quickly, they came up on a low moving truck. Tracy swerved, clipped it, hit the freeway guard rail, spun and somersaulted gymnastically, nosing into the bitumen, shrugging to a halt on its tyres, all bursting on impact, sounding like a four-gun salute.
Rusty Bryant wrenching the wheel around, powered past the truck and the now inert lump of metal with its mangled red cargo.
The front door stood open exactly as it had when he’d rushed out.
Somewhere inside something was making a noise, a combination of soft whirring and sharp, fast flapping.
He peered into the living room. It was unoccupied, the chairs all pushed neatly against the table. And on the table the old reel-to-reel sat, its full take-up spool spinning in rewind, whipping the tag end around and around, flap flap flap…
Sylvia was nowhere in the house, which was something to be thankful for. Entering the imaginary sanctuary of his den he found message bank and mobile phone gabbling to each other in mad dialogue.
“Noise ….” said message bank.
“Where’s Willy …” said the phone.
“Go to hell …”
“Go to hell …”
He picked up a paperweight from his desk and silenced both instruments.
The framed photographs on the wall, the celebrities and musicians who had once called him their friend, stared, aghast.
He fled his den, no longer a haven. Where to go? His recording studio? No telling what horrors awaited him there. But as he stood indecisive in the hallway he noticed the reel-to-reel in the living room now spinning its spools at playback speed. Faintly at first but with growing volume Steve Zelta began singing “Hate is blue … buried lies … bangcrash-bangcrash … we all … no you … murder …” Throughout it, like a macabre backbeat, a voice recognizable as Tracy’s rhythmically repeated “Rapid.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Bryant covered his ears, then sank to his knees by the table and whimpered. ”Please … shut up …” He looked about for something to silence this machine too. He grabbed at the sliding tape, pulling. It looped around his hands and arms like a thin, brown python. Itslid and sli along, its edge razoring into his palms, drawing a line of crimson. Zelta sang sweetly on.
“Life lies … buried … here comes Willy …”
“Rapid … Rapid … Rapid.”
Tangled about his fingers, his wrists and arms, the tape slimed with blood humped up and caught around his head. The reels rolled on. Zelta’s song sped up, slewing into a high pitched eeeeeeee. The entangling tape crackled around him like the cackling of crones and sparkled with reflected light like flashing signal lamps …
Sylvia Bryant looked down at her husband dead on the living room floor, magnetic tape wrapped tightly around his hands and neck, head and torso. A glittering mummy. Gently, almost tenderly, she and the other ladies disentangled him, gathering up the tape and spooling it onto the empty reel.
Mrs Coltson clicked the lever to Playback. The ladies took their places about the table, sitting ready poised with notepad and pencil.
“… the hated dead … buried … crashbang … Be!” A pause. “Rusty’s here …” followed by prolonged outbursts of laughter.
Flash Flash, Flash went the volume light on the reel-to-reel. Flash Flash Flash.