Two digital ghosts screaming near a grave stone.
Two digital ghosts screaming near a grave stone.
Source image by Tim Evanson

Midnight Seance

Ghost in the Phone

A quantological mystery

Phillip T Stephens
Jan 20, 2020 · 10 min read

Nick’s client leaned against a seven-foot stele carved from black granite and crowned like a chess queen. Dated 1877. Older by decades than the surrounding headstones. None of the cemetery headstones were dated later than 1925. The peak of the Jazz Age.

He leaned shoulder to stone, right foot planted in decaying leaves to shift the weight from the left. A man the British would call ginger. His rumpled hair provided the only color on a morning painted with the gray hues of Twenties cinema. A cruel scar bisected his jaw.

Hung loosely on his shoulders was a First War bombardier’s jacket. Nick spotted a switchblade dragging the pocket. The butt end of a Red 9 Mauser pushed his jacket open.

“St. Bohr?”

Nick showed his license and waved off the rumpled packet of Lucky Strikes offered in return. “How d’you find me?”

“Yellow Pages. None of the other dicks took my calls.”

The client’s right index finger was a stump, cut off at the first knuckle. Nick reckoned he used his middle finger to shoot.

Nick wore a gray flannel double-breasted suit, narrow stripes, club tie and trifold handkerchief. A wide-brimmed black Fedora. Like a Dashiell Hammett gumshoe.

He suspected an unpredicted quantum event had generated a digital doppelgänger. A human and avatar paired. The scenario’s Twenties motif confirmed Nick’s suspicion that observer expectations dictate the outcomes of quantum events. But the expectations were his client’s.

The Fermion Bay Ferry bell tolled the morning run. A dozen ravens settled in the trees and studied the men with disinterest.

The ginger uncorked a pewter flask. He straddled a gravestone, his prosthetic leg angled forward. “Treech Corbin. I need a dick to dig up the ghost that haunts this gravestone.” He pointed to the weatherworn queen.

“Shouldn’t you hire a medium?”

“Dicks solve murders.” Corbin hobbled toward the queen dragging his left leg. “I know my onions. That’s three bullet holes. Pickaxe splintered the granite. Whole thing’s covered in blood.” He ran his hand across the surface.

“His killers braced the bastard then aired him out.” Corbin pointed his middle finger and squeezed. Bam. Bam. Bam. “Lammed before the heat showed up.” Corbin spoke as though he’d witnessed the crime in real time.

“What’s the victim’s name?”

Corbin twirled a Lucky between his fingers. Shredded tobacco tumbled from the ends. “They lashed him with piano wire and tightened the screws. Bastard never sang.”

The sun cast shadows through the trees — a flash of Komeribi. “Sang what?”

“How’d I know? The egg never cracked. So they iced him. One shot from each mug, right through his stiff and into the stone. Trapped his ghost right here.” Corbin shivered and closed his jacket. “You don’t carry heat.”

Nick froze, a glitch in the data stream. “Heat?”

“Roscoe? Gat? A gun? What kinda detective are you?”

“Quantological. I never needed a gun.”

“What the fuck kinda detective’s that?”

“The kind that took your case.”

Rain clouds pushed away the sun, streaking the sky with swashes of charcoal, iron and graphite. Leaves stirred as though caught in a stream of current, but the surrounding air remained still.

Corbin flicked his lighter lid. Click and snap. Click and snap. “Damn ghost haunts the plugs that drop in. Kids canoodling with their kittens on a gravestone. Dames weeping over their dead Johns. Rubes shelling out for the San Noema history tour.”

Corbin opened his switchblade, flipped it into the dirt between Nick’s shoes. “Mostly the bastard haunts me. Gets my trigger finger twitching day and night.” He raised the stump of his finger. “Hear a buzz, I drop and draw. Leaf blows by, my hand’s on my knife.”

Nick scanned the cemetery for a signifying flaw. A dead pixel or undersampled tree. Boughs that didn’t bend beneath the ravens’ weight. Imperfect simulacra, but convincing to most observers.

Here was the hint: His awareness of Nick. The real Nick who loomed in the recesses of consciousness like a third-man paradox. The dry leaves crumbled between his fingers. “You’re looking at this wrong.”

Nick grabbed Corbin’s fingers and guided them across the surface. “Look again. No blood. No bullet holes.”

Corbin slapped Nick’s hand, stepped backwards. “Impossible.” He leaned toward the grains, traced them with his finger. “Three slugs got planted.” He tapped three spots. “Right here. Blood as thick as molasses. Brains everywhere.” He touched a finger to his skull and whispered, “pow, pow.”

Nick St. Bohr toggled the flash on his iPhone 11 Pro. “Check this out, Serenda. Bullet holes.” The beam highlighted century old scars in the cemetery landmark — filled, polished, barely visible even in bright light.

Serenda leaned her chin across Nick’s shoulder. “You’ll get more hits with a selfie and the stone behind you.” She cradled a bouquet of silk flowers for her grandfather’s grave.

Nick turned to face her, their lips inches apart. “Mob-style cross fire. Three bullets. Blows from a pickaxe, bats, hammers.” His finger lingered at a reddish shade. “That’s blood. Soaked into the granite before they made repairs.”

The sun cast a diffuse glow through Serenda’s hair. Rain clouds gathered on the shore. The ferry bell sounded in the distance. “You’re Mr. Buzzkill. I’ll leave the flowers and we can grab breakfast.”

He sent the snaps to his phone’s image tagging app. When the link returned, he browsed the article. Then the next link. Serenda shrugged and skipped ahead.

“What the hell’s that thing?”

Nick ignored Corbin to read the linked article. “My iPhone. I take pictures and….”

Corbin broke in. “Is it a phone, or a camera? Never set my eyes on either one that small. Looks like a grifter’s stage prop.”

Nick thumbed through the windows. “I, I mean Nick wrote an app to analyze images and search the Internet for pertinent information. It just now forwarded the links.”

Corbin scratched the back of his scalp, a piece of which fell away at the touch of his finger. “All I hear is static. Good thing I kept my kale cause you’re a real hayburner.” Clots of hair stuck to the blood on his fingertips.

Nick thumbed through his apps. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but you, sir, are the puzzle sprouting from the conundrum.”

Corbin let his hand fall across his pistol grip. “There you go again. I want the payoff and you’re taking me for a mark.”

Nick raised his palm. “You asked what kind of detective I am. Other detectives look for connections between bodies, weapons and money. I look in the space between atoms, but there’s a catch. Imagination and expectation affect outcomes. I explore the real and imagined for the most probable solution.”

Corbin coughed a wad of phlegm. “Flimflam.”

“You’re a hundred years out of the loop.” Nick traced the scrubbed and faded blood stain, lost in the morning gray. “Imagine particles of the victim’s blood entangled with particles of the monument at a quantum level.”

Corbin scratched the back of his hand, not noticing the peeled skin under his nails.

“Entanglement would explain your ghost being bound to this location.”

The wind died. Nick wished he could simplify his explanation, but he struggled to understand it too. “You’re one answer to a phenomenological quandary. For years, scientists argued thought is nothing more than the brain’s wiring. No brain, no thought. But wireless computing undermined that metaphor.”

Corbin posted a cigarette between his middle and ring finger. “Sorry I called you.” He struck his lighter, but it failed.

Nick fished a box of matches from his pocket. “But if consciousness isn’t the brain, what happens to it when the brain dies? Will we broadcast our thoughts until they find a receiver?”

Nick draped a leg across a headstone. “If a mind/soul became entangled with one place, he might broadcast for years, but — without a receiver sensitive enough to detect it — his signal would be background noise. In your ghost’s case, after a hundred years, his broadcast finally found a receiver. Nick St. Bohr’s phone.”

Corbin ground his cigarette into the leaves and wrapped his fingers into a sledgehammer.

Nick ignored him. “Our ghost would imagine he called St. Bohr with his own telephone. I stress the word ‘imagine’ because the next payphone is miles away. The next 1920s payphone.”

Corbin reached for Nick’s collar. “I oughta shoot you and end my misery.”

Nick put his phone in Corbin’s hand, the search result open in the browser.

“In 1925 Trigger Finger Red and three accomplices stole two hundred thousand from San Noema Savings. We’re talking Roaring Twenties. Speakeasies and mob law. Police caught Red’s accomplices in New Orleans. That’s the story you’re looking at on my screen. They confessed to killing him in this cemetery. Exactly as you described. Red never gave up the money’s location.”

“Trigger Finger Red’s my ghost?” Corbin rested his hand against the queen to balance. “All those words to tell me that?”

“I’d wager he buried the money in this cemetery. Behind his father’s headstone.” Nick pointed to a small stone three graves down. “A father who died in the Spanish Flu pandemic.”

Corbin backed away. He lost his grip on Nick’s phone, let it tumble into the leaves.

Nick kneeled at Corbin Senior’s grave. “Notice your leg stopped bothering you?”

Corbin walked in circles, pounding his forehead with the palm of his free hand.

Nick retrieved his phone. “What year it, Treech? Or should I say, ‘Red?’”

“1925.”

“Off by a century. Try 2020. Here’s the twist. I’m not Nick St. Bohr. I’m his avatar, a character projected onto an invisible movie screen.”

Corbin dropped to his knees. “Christ Jesus.”

“You created me when Nick’s iPhone intercepted your broadcast. I emerged from the software. I suspect Nick’s in the cemetery now. Probably standing beside us.”

“I’m no ghost.” Corbin’s shout drove the ravens from the trees and into a circle which twisted into a black funnel of feathers. He clasped his forehead. “I buried it behind the headstone. Wrapped in wax in a steel lockbox. Lazy mugs never looked.”

Nick knelt behind the stone and lifted the lockbox from pixilated dirt. As he suspected, Corbin recognized it instantly. “We solved your case, broke the entanglement. You’re free to go.”

Corbin flickered. “I can’t leave without my dough.” He dissolved into a pixel swarm and scattered with a phantom wind.

Nick addressed an empty sky. “Ghost thief, ghost money.”

Serenda packed the dirt around her flowers, a cascade of silk gladiolas, hyacinth and jonquils. She spoke over her shoulder. “Did you get your photos?” Frost coated her words.

“Sorry, I know this was important to you.”

She swept the dirt from her fingers and punched him in the shoulder. “You have voicemail.”

“It can wait.” The day was silent except for a black throated warbler singing from a century oak.

Nick let Serenda drive his Tesla to the diner. He hated I-80 traffic. He hated traffic. Opening his phone, he tapped the number for Detective Butall.

“Remember the San Noema Savings robbery? 1925? The money’s buried in the San Noema Cemetery. Behind a headstone marked Treech Corbin Sr. Spoiler Alert: In 1926, the bank put a ten-thousand-dollar reward into an interest-bearing trust.”

He winced and removed his ear bud until the rant faded. “I know the interest is ten times what they stole. Let the bank work out the details with Serenda.”

A jaguar cut them off. Serenda flashed her finger. “You were treasure hunting while I left flowers for my grandfather?”

“I took a photo. The rest fell into my lap.”

She punched the .mp3 player. “Know Your Rights” battered the speakers. Serenda played The Clash when angry.

With him.

“Call it Lady Luck; a ghost in my phone.”

She shifted gears and veered into the half car length between the Jag and a semi. The driver skidded and slammed his horn. “Isn’t the phrase ‘ghost in the machine?’”

“One metaphor’s as good as another.” Nick blew on the window and traced her picture in the fog. Traffic buzzed past, driver’s faces blurred. Ghosts haunting the empty spaces of the highway.

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Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.

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