Hardboiled Magic · The Children of Loki

Surveillance From Beyond the Veil

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Mister Lewis stared at the pear. It wasn’t the first time he’d ever seen a pear hanging from a branch, but it was the first time he’d done so in a building’s lobby. Technology companies could be a little flashy, but an orchard in the reception area was a bit much. He moved closer to the orchard’s edge and examined a peach tree.

“It’s symbolic,” said the receptionist, who’d left the front desk and approached.

“I’m not sure I see what symbolism you’re going for with the fruit,” replied Mister Lewis.

“But there aren’t any apples in our orchard. It’s a little joke about the competition.”

The receptionist led Mister Lewis to the elevator and then to the office of the CEO who had summoned him.

“I hope you live up to your references,” said the CEO. “I need to find out what this thing is that’s lifting our trade secrets and get rid of it.”

“Your description of the anomaly brought to mind some possibilities,” Mister Lewis paused as he stepped over a small disc-shaped robot vacuum that was circling the room. “But it’s best not to jump to conclusions too quickly.”

“Our security is tight and development is compartmentalized,” the CEO reddened a bit. “There’s something weird going on here and you’re supposed to be the expert on weird.”

Indeed, Mister Lewis was just such an expert. While his business card read “Physics Consultant,” that was merely his sense of humor at work while he established a more publicly palatable front for the true nature of his consulting. Mister Lewis solved problems that defied the laws of physics and were paranormal in nature.

“Is that a custom model,” Mister Lewis gestured to the vacuuming robot.

“I don’t think so,” said the CEO. “Why?”

“Because I don’t think those are supposed to have a camera,” Mister Lewis picked up the robot and pointed to the telltale glassed off section on its outer curve. “As I understand it, these things have sonar for mapping out the building, too.”

The CEO said nothing, but reddened a little more.

“Anything important in that closet,” asked Mister Lewis.

“No,” said the CEO.

Mister Lewis picked up a trashcan from beside the CEO’s desk with his free hand and walked over to the closet. He set the robot down, then turned the trash can upside down over the robot and shut the door.

“That should mess with any microphone a little bit,” offered Mister Lewis, “but you’ll want to have somebody take that apart. You mentioned you had some video evidence that’s not related to spy robots?”

The CEO gestured to a television monitor at the far end of the office and they approached it.

“We’ve had several witnesses report seeing a strange man with a deformed face,” began the CEO. “The man has a very small mouth. Perhaps the size of a penny or a dime. When approached, the man disappears in a flash of light. We have some reports that occurred in front of security cameras.”

“Let me guess,” interrupted Mister Lewis. “The man doesn’t photograph, but the light does?”

“Two days ago,” the CEO hit the play button.

The screen showed a mildly crowded hallway. Suddenly all eyes converged on an empty space, then a light flashed in that empty space, almost like a strobe.

“Yesterday,” the CEO hit a button on the remote.

A different hallway with only one person in it appeared on the screen. The person’s head jerked around in surprise, followed by a burst of light. This time the light didn’t blink out right away, rather it faded out as it floated away in the opposite direction of the startled worker.

“And this happened before you arrived today,” the CEO hit another button. “That’s Mandy Lane, our Chief Information Security Officer.

The screen showed a woman climbing stairs in a stairwell. She stopped in mid-step, eyes widening. The now familiar flash of light hit and she fell over backwards, tumbling down the stairs and out of the camera’s focus.

“She OK,” asked Mister Lewis.

“Fell down four flights of stairs and got up,” said the CEO. “We’ll need to talk to her next, but we’re not doing it here with that… spybot… in the closet.”

“It’s actually here for security,” said the CEO, who plucked a peach from a tree and took a bite. “Because this orchard has no electricity inside it, it’s easier to sweep for listening devices. At least that’s what they told me in the budget meeting.”

Mister Lewis and the CEO had retreated to the lobby to meet the Chief Information Security Officer and get her input on the leaks and impressions of the flashes of light.

“And here to make a statement about Apple,” said Mister Lewis.

“We’ll never let them in here,” the CEO nodded and took another bite of the peach.

“You all can come out of there,” said the Chief Information Security Officer, who was standing in the lobby outside the orchard, chewing on a stick of beef jerky. “I’m on a no fruit diet, so I’m not going in there.”

“Before you fell down the stairs,” asked Mister Lewis, “did you see the same man with a tiny mouth everyone else has reported seeing around the bursts of light?”

“No,” said the Chief Information Security Officer. “I just had that light blow up in my face and I fell over. I didn’t see anything else.”

“We found a camera on a modified vacuuming robot before we came down here,” Mister Lewis changed his line of questioning. “It appears that someone in the physical world is definitely trying to spy on you.”

“That happens all the time,” said the Chief Information Security Officer. “I’ll have to look at it.”

“What kind of electronic tampering have you seen,” asked Mister Lewis. “Process of elimination first.”

“You mean intrusions,” queried the Chief Information Security Officer. “Nothing that’s gotten through. I know my business. There’s two places our data sits: on the network and on the screen. It hasn’t left either place.”

“But information can be observed onscreen, right?”

“We’ve been sweeping for cameras every day since this all started,” growled the Chief Information Security Officer. “There aren’t any. And I don’t think one of those vacuums could get behind a desk with the right angle to photograph the screen with any consistency. And it would be really obvious if they were trying.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about cameras,” said Mister Lewis. “It’s much more likely you’re haunted and there are ghosts reading over your shoulder.”

“We’re looking for someone with a rice bowl,” said Mister Lewis as he, the CEO and the Chief Information Security Officer entered the company cafeteria. “Specifically somebody with a rice bowl who’s sitting there and not eating it.”

“I’m also on a no rice diet,” said the Chief Information Security Officer.

“Is this dangerous,” asked the CEO.

“It depends,” replied Mister Lewis. “That flash of light your employees are describing is usually indicative of a sort of servant ghost in the East Asian tradition. China, Taiwan. Maybe Japan. Maybe Korea. The type of spirit associated with manifesting those lights was usually obsessed with the corporate ladder before death. They really don’t do much except make light. And that small mouthed man, makes it sound like it’s also a hungry ghost. What they call a “needle mouth.”  That’s a ghost cursed with a mouth that’s too small to eat and is essentially starving, or at least feeling like its starving, while roaming the spirit world. It can’t eat you – not with that mouth – so it’s mostly harmless. It can, however, be just as annoying in death as the person that came before it likely was in life. The real question is whether this ghost is being directed by a simple spirit medium or we’re dealing with a full-on necromancer.”

“You mean like Zombies,” asked the Chief Information Security Officer, who had traded the beef jerky in for a bag of pork rinds.

“Potentially,” said Mister Lewis.

“Zombies are weird,” said the Chief Information Security Officer, who then inhaled a handful of pork rinds.

“Could it be the ghost of Steve Jobs,” asked the CEO. “Steve Jobs returned from the grave to terrorize the competition?”

“It’s too early to rule anything out,” replied Mister Lewis. “It seems unlikely, but it depends on what kind of alternative medicine he was into towards the end. Some of those people don’t completely understand the forces they’re dealing with and there can be… complications. Besides, if it were the ghost of Steve Jobs, there would likely be more shouting and objects flying across the room.”

The three of them wandered through the cafeteria, but there were no bowls of rice to be seen.

“Does it have to be a bowl of rice,” asked the CEO.

“Not necessarily,” replied Mister Lewis. “It needs to be something from the deceased’s kitchen, or ancestral kitchen if it’s been dead long enough. Something that was commonly eaten. Theoretically, it could be a burrito or a hamburger, if that’s what it normally ate when it was human. But a rice bowl is the tradition.”

Mister Lewis slowly pivoted in a circle. It did look like everyone in the cafeteria was eating. It didn’t mean the medium wasn’t there, but the medium didn’t have to be hiding in plain sight, either.

“He’s eating out of the toilet,” came a scream from the edge of the cafeteria.

Mister Lewis and the CEO gave each other puzzled glances and the Chief Information Security Officer kept eating.

A commotion followed the scream as employees exited the bathroom door in a bit of hurry, with looks of disgust setting the tone. Before the door closed, something else exited the bathroom. It looked like a man, but its color was faded like photograph that had been exposed to sunlight for too long. And if you looked closely, its feet didn’t quite touch the ground.

The room got very quiet as the crowd took in the thing that looked like a faded man, and it was a truly strange thing to behold. Its legs shuffled as though it was slowly staggering forward, but floated forward at rapid clip. The contrast between the motion of the legs and the speed of movement made it even more surreal to watch.

“Where is my cousin,” said the faded man in something between a shout and rasp. It then floated over to a trash can and stuck its head in the can. The sounds of chewing were audible all the way in the opposite corner of the cafeteria.

The Chief Information Security Officer took off running in the opposite direction.

“That’s about enough of that,” a security guard approached the faded man. “What department do you work in?  Where’s your company ID?”

“Back away from it,” yelled Mister Lewis.

The guard ignored him and went to place a hand on the faded man’s shoulder. His hand passed straight through it, like trying to grab a rainbow.

The faded man stood up and turned to face the guard. Its jaw lowered, and then kept lowering, stretching out around six inches lower than it should have been able to.

The color drained from the guard’s face and a splotch of pulsating light flew from the guard’s head into the faded man’s mouth. Then the guard collapsed and the faded man clamped its jaw shut.

“Everyone back away,” yelled Mister Lewis as he slowly walked over to the faded man.

The faded man re-oriented itself to face Mister Lewis.

“Where is my cousin,” it repeated in a howling rasp.

“Yes,” replied Mister Lewis. “I’d like to know that, too. It would help if I knew who your cousin was, first.”

The faded man scowled at Mister Lewis and again opened its mouth wide. Nothing happened.

“What’s the matter,” asked Mister Lewis. “My life force is a little harder to eat?  I wonder why that is?”

Mister Lewis reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and produced a small red disc at the end of a thin chain.

“Ever seen one of these before,” Mister Lewis asked the faded man.

The faded man stared back blankly.

“Not that one, eh,” said Mister Lewis, who then fished a blue triangle on a chain out of his left pocket.

The faded man stared blankly.

“Then If I’m still alive,” continued Mister Lewis, who reached into his right pocket and produced a green oval on a chain, “it must be this one.”

The faded man backed up.

“That’s good,” said Mister Lewis. “I have extras of that one and I bet they can touch you.”

He pulled two more just like it out of his right pocket, clutched the ends of the chains in his hand and swung at the faded man like he was holding a cat o’ nine tails.

The faded man screamed.

“Back,” Mister Lewis said as he swung again.

The faded man screamed again, but did back up. Mister Lewis kept swinging the chains at it and the faded man kept backing up, letting out a cry of pain anytime one of the green ovals made contact. Mister Lewis backed it down the hallway, into the lobby.

When the faded man got to the orchard in the lobby, it stopped moving. Its head swiveled back and forth between the orchard and Mister Lewis. It looked panicked.

“Yes,” said Mister Lewis. “That’s what you think it is. Thanks for confirming.”

Mister Lewis swung the chains harder and more rapidly, beating the faded man back into the orchard until it backed into the branch of a peach tree. When the branch passed through the faded man’s torso, the faded man shimmered and disappeared.

“What was that thing,” whispered the CEO, who followed Mister Lewis into the orchard.

“That was a different kind of hungry ghost,” replied Mister Lewis. “That was a ghost of excessive means. One of the nastier kinds you can meet. It consumes anything cast off by the living. It can also eat the life right out of you if it has a mind to.”

“Was that Steve Jobs,” asked the CEO. “It was all shout-y.”

“Seems unlikely,” said Mister Lewis. “But you might want to put this on. Wear it like a necklace.”

Mister Lewis handed the CEO one of the green ovals on a chain.

“What is it,” asked the CEO.

“That’s an amulet,” replied Mister Lewis. “Fortunately, you gave me enough detail on the situation before I came over, that I was able to make an educated guess at what was going on. Eliminate some possibilities and bring some toys that might work. That’s one of the ones that worked.”

The CEO donned the amulet.

“It’s something that was used by shamans and priests during exorcisms,” continued Mister Lewis. “Keeps the ghost from being able to harm you. Doesn’t work on every type of ghost, but it should work on what we’ve seen so far.”

Mister Lewis turned to a peach tree and pulled on a branch until it snapped off.

“Hey,” admonished the CEO, “those trees are expensive.”

“And worth the money,” said Mister Lewis. “Having Steve Jobs on the brain is going to end up making our lives easier. Peach wood is an exorcism tool for this category of ghost. Disrupts their form and dissipates them. You might say your little joke has grown some teeth.”

“So Steve Jobs is the cousin it was asking about,” asked the CEO.

“Probably not,” replied Mister Lewis. “Ancestor worship was common centuries ago and this category of ghost is associated with it. It’s unusual for there to be two ghosts in one place unless there was some kind of mass slaughter, though. So far it’s looking like both manifestations were subcategories of the hungry ghost class, so it could be related and they could be relatives. Theoretically. This is unnatural, even for a haunting. We need to find out who’s summoning them and what the summoner’s relationship is to the ghosts and to your corporate secrets. Do you think it more likely it’s a rival company or a state actor?”

“Sometimes a government will act on behalf of a company if they think there’s enough revenue in it,” said the CEO. “There’s not always a lot of difference anymore. That robot vacuum with the camera?  That’s more likely to be a government’s resources. These ghosts?  I can’t even guess if they’re related. When you’ve got something good, everyone tries to get it.”

And then someone screamed.

“Do you think your child of light is back,” Mister Lewis asked the CEO as he pulled leaves off the peach tree branch and stepped out of the orchard.

The CEO didn’t reply, but followed a few steps behind. The two of them entered the hallway connecting the lobby to the rest of the building and found a body with greyish skin lying on the ground, not unlike the security guard in the cafeteria.

“Where is my cousin,” came a familiar raspy howl and another faded man turned the corner and floated towards them.

Mister Lewis jabbed at the faded man’s face with the peach tree branch. As it happened with the first one, when the branch passed through the faded man, it shimmered and faded into the air.

“It came back,” whispered the CEO.

“Worse,” said Mister Lewis. “That was another one. Three ghosts in one building. This place isn’t built on a cemetery is it?”

“Not that anyone’s told me,” replied the CEO.

“Either way, that’s really not good,” said Mister Lewis. “I’d better do a sweep of the building first. Make sure nobody else gets eaten. Just so you know, I start charging extra after the fifth ghost is dispatched.”

The Chief Information Security Officer stopped in mid-chew, froze in her tracks and slowly turned around. Sure enough, there was a faded man floating behind her. It startled her enough she dropped the bag of pork rinds.

“Our cousin,” rasped the faded man.

The Chief Information Security Officer backed up a step. The faded man floated forward.

“Our cousin,” the faded man repeated.

The faded man’s jaw started to lower, only to have the tip of a peach tree branch poke through it. The faded man shimmered and faded out, revealing Mister Lewis holding the branch and the CEO standing behind him.

“Are you alright,” asked Mister Lewis.

“Yes,” stammered the Chief Information Security Officer.

“You might want to put this on,” Mister Lewis reached into his pocket and produced his last amulet. “It’s an amulet that will keep these ghosts off you.”

Mister Lewis tossed it to the Chief Information Security Officer, but she let it fall to the floor. The Chief Information Security Officer stared at the amulet for a moment and started running in the opposite direction.

“The supernatural does bring out a fight or flight reaction in a lot of people,” Mister Lewis said to the CEO. “And really, flight’s usually the safer bet.”

“That one said ‘our cousin’ instead of ‘where is my cousin,’ didn’t it,” asked the CEO.

“Correct,” said Mister Lewis. “The plural makes it rife with possibilities.”

“How many does that make,” asked the CEO.

“Eight.”

“Is that bad?”

“Nothing about this is good,” said Mister Lewis as he picked the amulet off the floor. “We’d better go find her before something else does. That one seemed like it was taking an interest in her.”

It took about fifteen minutes to find her. The Chief Information Security Officer had fled to the server room and was folding what looked like origami figures and placing them on a cafeteria tray on top of a desk.

“Paper dolls,” asked the CEO.

“Not dolls,” said the Chief Information Security Officer, “soldiers.”

And the origami did look like men with swords. The Chief Information Security Officer arranged them in a tight circle, as though the paper soldiers were holding hands. Then she dropped a match on the tray the paper soldiers lit up.

“You can’t have a fire in the server room,” said the exasperated CEO.

The Chief Information Security Officer stared impassively and started to eat a candy bar.

“I should probably handle this,” Mister Lewis told the CEO as he pulled him back to the doorway.

The CEO shot him a look, but backed off.

“That chocolate looks good,” Mister Lewis said to the Chief Information Security Officer. “You never know how long it will be until the next time you eat.”

“Indeed,” replied the Chief Information Security Officer, “it could be an eternity before your next meal.”

“Isn’t it more customary to burn joss money in offering to your ancestors,” asked Mister Lewis.

“Joss money takes more time to make,” said the Chief Information Security Officer. “I… my ancestors might have more need of soldiers in the afterlife than money. And the need might be urgent.”

“She died when she fell down the stairs,” asked Mister Lewis.

“It was not my intention,” said the Chief Information Security Officer. “It was convenient, however.”

“Why do you need an army of soldiers in the afterlife?”

“We are not accustomed to being… directed… as we have been.”

“We?”

“My ancestors. My descendants. There are many of us here and the behavior is degrading.”

“I can help you with that,” Mister Lewis said as he set the peach tree branch on the table. “We’re interested in who’s making you do this.”

“Alas,” said the Chief Information Security Officer, “that is a family matter. It should be dealt with from within the family.”

“I can’t let you stay in there,” said Mister Lewis.

“I am not done eating,” said the Chief Information Security Officer, who took another bite of the candy bar.

“Too bad,” said Mister Lewis as he retrieved the peach tree branch and tossed it into the Chief Information Security Officer’s lap.

There was blinding flash of light. The Chief Information Security Officer’s head fell sideways to her shoulder, a broken neck no longer being animated. Then her body fell forward onto the desk. Above it floated another sun-faded man, this time bearing a distorted face and the tiniest of mouths.

The needle mouthed faded man glared at Mister Lewis for several seconds. Then it turned and half-walked, half-floated out of the room. Following behind it marched two columns of tiny soldiers, swords aloft, which closely resembled the origami that had been burnt in offering.

“Was that,” began the CEO.

“An exorcism,” confirmed Mister Lewis. “It couldn’t have lasted much longer. Decay would’ve set in and it would have been obvious. So the bad news is you’re down another employee.”

“There’s good news,” asked the CEO.

“As good as you can hope for in a situation like this,” replied Mister Lewis. “The original ghost took advantage of the situation to reanimate a corpse and make a ritual sacrifice to itself, according to the old customs. It sent soldiers to itself in the afterlife. It’s been controlled and it’s rebelling against whoever was doing the controlling. We just need to follow it and it will lead us right to whoever is responsible for all this.

The faded man left the building, its procession of soldiers trailing behind it. It went down the building’s front steps, took a left at the sidewalk and floated over to a food truck with “Rice After Death” written on its side in bold red letters.

“Finally,” yelled the food truck’s counter attendant upon looking up. “Where have you been? Do you have any idea how many of our ancestors I’ve had to summon up and send looking for you?”

Mister Lewis and the CEO left the building’s front door and cautiously approached the steps.

“Hiding in plain sight after all,” Mister Lewis said to the CEO.

The faded man stared at the counter attendant. It would’ve frowned, but its needle mouth wasn’t wide enough for frowning.

“Come here and report,” growled the counter attending, pulling out an order pad and pen.

The faded man did not move.

“What did you see on their screens,” the counter attendant growled louder. “I am ready to transcribe.”

 Mister Lewis reached the sidewalk.

“Hang back and let me handle this,” he said to the CEO.

The counter attendant glared at the faded man and the faded man glared back with eyes that somehow managed to be empty and angry at the same time.

“You want to do this in the traditional manner,” the counter attendant reached under the counter and slammed a not very fresh looking bowl of rice on the counter. “There. Rice from our family kitchen. It binds you and I summon you to me.”

The faded man struggled to stand still, but floated forward at a slow and jagged pace.

“Report,” growled the counter attendant.

The faded man suddenly brought his arm forward and pointed at the counter attendant. The tiny ghost soldiers trailing him surged forward and overran the counter, flipping and pinning the attendants’ head to the counter, exposing the throat and pinning the arms down.

The faded man pantomimed a slapping hand and one of the ghost soldiers knocked the rice bowl off the counter. The bowl shattered as it hit cement and the rice spilled all over the sidewalk. The faded man stopped moving towards the food truck.

The faded man repeated the slapping hand motion. A ghost soldier disappeared under the counter and more rice bowls were flung out the counter window. Each time a bowl hit the ground and shattered, another faded man appeared. The faded men all stared at the counter attendant in disgusted judgement.

“You are my ancestors,” cried the counter attendant. “You cannot do this to family.”

The faded man laughed and it was not a pleasant sound. Then it made a fist and pointed a thumb at its throat.

The ghost soldiers acknowledged the gesture. Two ghost soldiers pulled back on the attendant’s chin to better expose the throat and the one that had disposed of the rice bowls raised its tiny sword above its head.

“Hold up a minute,” said Mister Lewis, standing two arms’ length behind the faded man. “We need to know who your descendent is working with.”

The faded man turned its head to face Mister Lewis.

“No,” it rasped. “No more.”

The ghost soldier brought its blade down on the counter attendant’s throat and a flash of light blinded Mister Lewis.

When his vision cleared, the faded men and ghost soldiers had vanished. All that was left was the counter attendant’s dead eyes and half severed head hanging out of the food truck’s ordering window above an ample amount of blood.

“Where did they go,” asked the CEO.

“Back to where they came from,” replied Mister Lewis. “Your regular security will have to identify the body. That was the medium we were looking for. Hopefully they’ll be able to trace who the actual client was. Looks like a freelancer to me.”

“The ghost turned on the medium,” asked the CEO.

“You run a business,” said Mister Lewis. “Think of as it a metaphor for mistreating a captive contractor. The worse you mistreat them, the more trouble there is on their way out. It would be best if neither of us were here when the police arrive. I’ll send you an invoice for the extra exorcisms.”

And then Mister Lewis was gone.

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