Fiction – “Protected Entity” by Daniel José Older
Short, sullen-faced child ghosts are hovering around my legs. They don’t speak, just stare through wide, horrified eyes at the misty warehouse around us. I don’t like kids that much, especially not dead ones, but I still have to force back the urge to just wrap my living arms around them and tell ’em it’s gonna be alright. It’s not. They’re dead; prematurely, horrifically dead, murdered probably. What do you say to a murdered child? I just stay quiet; try to ignore those questioning eyes.
“Carlos,” Bartholomew Arsten floats towards me from one of the offices. Bart’s one of the Council’s more reconciliatory ghosts upstairs, always trying to make like he’s doing his best to work things out for us soulcatchers in the field. I don’t trust him. “Thanks so much for coming down, we really appreciate it.” He looks nervous, skirting carefully through the crowd of young’uns like he might catch something if he touches one.
“Whassup?” I say as if the answer weren’t hovering all around me. It’s more fun to make him explain.
“Well,” says Bart, “it seems there’s been some kind of incident, er, spiritual incident, you know, of some kind, in the African American community.”
“What makes you think so?”
You’d think we were playing tennis, the way those wide eyes bounce back and froth between me and Bart.
“Well, all these…” he gestures helplessly at the air, “children. These bla-African American…children.”
“Looks like someone having a damn celebrity adoption auction down here.”
Bart laughs, but only for show. He’s too busy being uncomfortable to really pay mind to what I’m saying. “Of course, yes. Yes. Anyway, Agent Delacruz, that’s why we brought you in, as you can see. And Agent Washington, of course, is on this too, he’s just otherwise occupied right now, but he’ll meet you at the scene.”
“Buncha black kids get offed so you bring in the only two minorities you got, huh?”
“Yes! No! Well, of course I mean, because…no. No.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Bart.”
“We don’t know what to do, Carlos, they won’t even speak! And they keep showing up, there’s what, seven, eight now? It’s crazy. We just want to help them, but you can see how the situation’s getting, er, unbearable…It’s horrible really, whatever’s going on. And we don’t know their names, where they’re from…Nothing.”
I wrap my hands around on of those little cloudy waists and lift up the child to my eye level. He squirms, tiny arms waving in the air, and lets out a few pathetic chirps. The others get quiet and watch to see what I’ll do. “What’s your name, kid?”
The boy lets out a heartbreaking sob, his little icy body trembling in my hands. I close my eyes, blocking everything but the gentle vibrations radiating back from my hands. It’s mostly emotion coming through, all that brand-new fear, but there’s relief there too. Seems like all the boys know each other somehow, besides having died together.
“God, I just want to do something for them, you know, like start a program or something, you know?”
I put the kid down and grab another, ignoring Bart so as not to encourage him. This one’s a little more together. Perfectly twisted ghost locks dangle from his round head. He doesn’t cry, just glares back at me like I had something to do with this mess. But when I close my eyes, it’s like looking through a slightly smudged window into him. It’s a block, a pretty damn fancy one; gorgeous brownstones stand proudly on either side. BMWs, SUVs and Mercedes are parked along the grassy, tree-lined curbs.
“I mean like a program for the underprivileged, you know? Like for ghosts who were poverty-stricken in life? A way to like help them to help themselves.” Bart’s words flutter around me like a stupid moth – one I can ignore for now. Might be in Harlem, this block, maybe up by 125th, on the west side. I squinch up my closed eyes, trying to clear up the image enough to make out a street sign, but it’s still pretty murky.
“They’re not poor, Bart.”
“Here.” I extend the little man to Bart. He looks pleadingly at me for a second and then grudgingly reaches for the child. “I gotta go. Tell Riley to meet me uptown.”
“Come back soon,” Bart says, trying to keep the desperation from his voice.
This part of Harlem’s mostly white now. Homeless black guys wander aimlessly, pretending they didn’t get the memo to clear the fuck out. Cops wear vindicated grins as they stroll triumphantly up and down the quiet, sunshiny blocks. Comfortable young white people flutter around in sandals and shorts, doing little chores, heading to outdoor cafes, staying casually but carefully within the clearly designated borders of their territory. The rest of Harlem’s still Black enough to earn these kids street cred, long as they stay alive long enough to claim it.
“Malcolm X Towers?” Riley scoffs. “Luxury apartments? Are you serious?” We’re standing at the foot of a monstrous glass fortress on Fifth Ave.
“You know ghost Malcolm’s ready to fuck a tower up,” I say.
“Well, at least they had the decency to put in an exercise room, Riley. And a spa.”
“Let’s go, man. I’m ’bout to have a Nat Turner moment.”
We wind westward through the side streets. I’m blending with the bums, a limping weirdo in a long leather jacket, talking and joking like there’s some dude next to me. No one pays me much mind; strolling madmen are an endangered species in this part of town.
“Black people live here?” Riley says as we approach the first spiraling mansion. It’s a holdout: several of the richest black families got together and bought up all the property on this one block as a last ditch effort to hold on to the old spirit of West Harlem. “Shit, if I’d known that when I was alive I would’ve found a reason to come over and marry their daughter. This place is made outta money.”
“Maybe you did,” I say. “Hell, maybe you lived here.”
“Carlos, I don’t have to remember my past to know that this brother was broke, OK? Don’t press me on it.”
“I don’t really see how…” I start, but then the door swings open and a tuxedoed white man appears.
“No…fucking…way!” Riley yells at the top of his lungs.
The butler can only see and hear me though, and he doesn’t look amused. “How may I help you, sir?”
“These negroes went ahead and got a white man to serve them hand and foot!” Riley gasps, doubled over with laughter. “Son!”
“I’m Agent Delacruz with the NYPD’s Special Crimes Division.” I flash a fake badge that Council Of The Dead secured through one of their nefarious, untalked-about connections with the cops. “Just want to ask Mister and Misses Ballantine a few questions about the disappearance of their son.” It’s utter nonsense of course but usually gets us in the door.
“The Ballantines have already spoken to the police,” the butler says in a severe monotone. “They don’t wish to be further disturbed.”
Riley stops laughing. “Oh really, motherfucker?”
“I understand, sir,” I say, “however, I’m afraid I have to insist. Given the recent media coverage about the number of kids gone missing on this block, it’s crucial that we rule them out once and for all as suspects in the investigation.”
The butler raises an eyebrow. I really haven’t said anything, just laced the words “media” and “suspects” into a sentence together so Jeeves’ll know I mean business. He chortles unintelligibly, opens the door and stands to the side. I walk in, exaggerating my hobble. I don’t feel any imminent danger, but I’ve fallen into the habit of giving anyone I meet plenty of reasons to underestimate me.
A few minutes later, Riley and I are waiting in an eerily immaculate sitting room. Nothing around us looks like it’s supposed to be touched. The air’s so full of cleaning solution and perfume it’s creepy, so I light a cigar and blow some smoke towards Riley.
“This place is icky,” my partner says, flowing over a pristine forest of crystal tchotchkes. “Let’s do what we gotta do and blow on to the next one.” I nod slightly instead of answering, because I know someone somewhere is monitoring our every sniff and tremble on little black and white screens.
Mr. John R. Ballantine looks rather ghostlike himself when he shows up. His thin face creases into a perma-frown that radiates over his entire body. “I’ve already said all I need to say to the police,” he says without leaving the doorway. “All I’ve gotten in return is stupidity and bureaucracy, none of which will bring back my boy. You can show yourself out.”
“Sir,” I say, but he simply walks away. Riley and I exchange a look and then I walk out and he floats to the corridor that Mr. Ballantine disappears into.
Outside, the block is completely still. Even the breeze is keeping its distance out of respect to the grieving. It’s the end of summer, and the late afternoon sun plays a dazzling light show across the Hudson River. If I’d been able to touch Ballantine, I would’ve had a chance to penetrate his wall of grief and find something out, but the man was unapproachable. I close my eyes and take a long pull of smoke. The sorrow must be seeping from house to house like a biohazard, making families keep their children locked up in crisp air-conditioned bedrooms, throwing silence over dinner tables, reeking havoc on fragile, middle-aged sex lives. Or was that how things were even without a spate of child-killings?
“It’s the third house on the left,” Riley says, breaking my reverie. “Some dude named Calhoun. New on the block.”
“What about him?”
“I dunno, but sounds like everyone thinks he’s to blame for all this. Let’s take a look.”
The Calhoun estate is every bit as magnificent as the rest of the block. Spiraling towers poke out above a terrace garden. This time we’re ready when a white man comes to the door. “Could you tell Mr. Calhoun that the NYPD would like a word with him?” I say in my formal let’s-get-this-done voice.
“You’re talking to him,” the white guy says with a grin. Yes, the Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts should’ve tipped me off that he wasn’t the butler, but the whole day has thrown me for a loop. John Calhoun’s in his mid-forties and sports a quickly retreating flop of light brown hair.
“Right, Mr. Calhoun.”
“John,” the guy says.
“John,” I say. “You’re…”
“Can I help you?” A touch of menace flickers around Mr. Calhoun. Riley catches it too. I get my game together and give him my cop spiel. He sizes me up for a moment and then flashes a cheesy smile and beckons me inside.
“Really horrible stuff, all this business with the young black kids dying and all,” our host says as he leads us through an expansive foyer towards some glass paneled sliding doors. I believe him – that is, there’s no anxiousness or guilt radiating out, and his voice is slightly detached but not forced.
My eyes dart across the room and Riley does a flash fly around. It’s hard to describe what we look for in situations like this. Something that’s not right, is the best way I can put it; something that may be harboring a malicious spirit or used to commit mass murder. But that could be anything. I’ve extracted some vengeful afterlifers from an old boot and executed a whole nest of errant house ghosts that were infesting a microwave. You have to learn to pick up on the little clues that things are not as they should be; tiny cries for help. Then there’s the obvious ones: like the dried up animal parts that some bored traveler dragged home from wherever thinking they’d look cute on the mantle, or the blatantly haunted grandfather clock that shows whoever’s near how they’re going to die. Those are the ones that make you roll your eyes and try not to think about how the fool deserves whatever supernatural ass whupping he ends up getting.
John Calhoun has none of that stuff though, at least not in the first two floors of his house. He leads me up a winding stairwell, all the while chatting on and on about the different families and how welcoming they were when he moved into the neighborhood and what a terrible shame it is about those black kids. We pause on a landing and I say: “Mr. Calhoun.”
“Please,” throwing his hands up, “just John.”
“John, you are white, correct?”
Calhoun lets out a laugh like I’d just told a dirty joke. He squinches up his face and raises his eyebrows. I half-chuckle, more out of discomfort than anything else. From somewhere above us, I hear Riley squirming and clattering around. “I mean,” Calhoun says, acting like he’s still reeling from the preposterousness of the question. He makes a show of checking the skin on his arm. “I am!” he says, still yukking away. “By golly!”
“Is this guy for real?” Riley says, floating down next to me. I shake my head back and forth, at a loss for words.
“How is it you came to live on the last remaining all black block in West Harlem, Mr. Calhoun?” I say. I really am curious.
“What is this, the 1960’s?” Calhoun laughs. “Did I break a zoning law? Are you going to charge me with desegregation? Guilty as charged.” I just stare at him. “Okay, look, in all seriousness,” he says, wiping the big grin off his face and waxing professorial, “I have a great respect for African and African-American culture. I teach Pan-African history at Berkley. I’ve written several books on Nigerian culture and the Caribbean Diaspora. I’ve spent three of the past seven years doing fieldwork on one end of the continent or the other. I wasn’t about to move into some hood, but I feel comfortable around black people. So here I am. I asked permission from the block council before buying the place, and frankly they were quite impressed with my extensive knowledge of pre-Colombian civilizations.”
“Let’s kill him,” Riley says in my ear.
“Now, Detective,” Calhoun finishes triumphantly, “if you will kindly step into my office, we can further discuss the tragedy at hand.”
Riley and I both stop and let our jaws hang open as soon as we walk in the room. An entire army of sacred African masks and statues clutter around us from every corner and crevice. I recognize a few from the Afrofantastic table stores on 125th, but most of it’s clearly some collector shit. A small cadre of cowry-shell eyed stone heads gape up at me from the floor around Calhoun’s writing desk. Wooden Masai warriors guard either side of his file cabinets. Elaborate masks glare from the walls. Any number of these items could be covertly housing some irritable, child-killing demon. The air’s thick with old wood musk, Calhoun’s self-satisfaction and a chaotic mix of colliding spiritual energies. None of them jump out at me as being particularly malevolent, but there’s still plenty to sort through.
“What’s the matter?” Calhoun jibes. “Never been in a room with so many sacred objects at once? It is a little overwhelming at first, but you get used to it.” Somewhere in the clutter of masks, digital fish float lazily across a screensaver.
“Did any of the kids from the neighborhood ever come up here?” I ask.
“Do you have any idea how valuable just one of these items is, Detective?”
“That’s not an answer.”
John Calhoun smiles. “No, Detective, none of the children ever came up to this room. I have had a couple of the families over for dinner in the past few months since I moved in, the Robinsons, the Eltons and the Ballantines, and I suppose I showed the adults my collection – I’m a bit of a show off – but none of the kids came up that I recall.”
Riley’s milling in and out of the statues, trying to untangle all the spiritual data colliding around us. Judging from his cursing, he’s not having much luck. “The last officers I spoke to told me I wasn’t a suspect,” Calhoun says as he walks past me and holds the door open. Then I feel it: a wash of brittle frustration and rage. The suddenness of it almost knocks me into a battalion of statues. “Whoa there, guy!” Calhoun says, reaching out good naturedly as I right myself. “Told you it was a little overwhelming at first. Why don’t you have a seat in my thinking chair?”
I don’t like the sound of that at all, but the nausea’s so intense I don’t have much choice. I slump into an antique wooden chair with ornate pink cushions. Of course Calhoun would be one of these doufy intellectuals that needs his special chair to get anything done. If anything though, sitting makes the spiritual cringing even more fierce, like two giant sets of teeth grating somewhere at the core of my being. I leap up out of the chair and walk unsteadily to the door.
“Detective!” Calhoun calls after me, but I’m already making my way back out into the fresh early evening air.
“What you think?” I ask Riley as we stroll the Hudson River walkway.
“I think we have a problem.” Shadows grow long around us. The water turns a murky purple beneath the graying sky. “There’s definitely something up there but there’s too many statues and masks to sort through.”
“You felt it, right?”
“Yeah,” Riley says. “Powerful shit. Like a caged animal or something. I know one thing: I never seen your ass move out of a room that fast.” We both had a good laugh. “What’d you get from Calhoun?”
“The guy’s all kindsa trapped in his head. He’s got this lingering discomfort though- ”
“Another shocking discovery by Carlos.”
“No, I mean there’s something else. When that festering rage passed through the room, it didn’t come from him, but it knew him. Or he knew it. Something. There was a familiarity between them.”
“Maybe,” Riley says, “he paid some charlatan to spiritually bind him to one of those masks and the shit worked.”
“There’s definitely something he’s not being straight about.”
Riley’s nebular glowing body straightens suddenly. He’s getting a message from the Council Of the Dead.
“Those telepathic motherfuckers want an update and an answer ASAP,” he reports.
“We need some time in that room without Dr. Africa’s prying ass around,” I say.
Riley nods. “Tonight.”
We hole up in one of those 24 hour spots under the tracks eating eggs and sausages and drinking bottomless cups of coffee as the night drifts past. I’ve gotten used to being the crazy guy that orders two of everything and sits there talking to himself. Riley’s gotten used to taking little tiny bites and sipping his coffee with the cup on the table. At three, we trudge through the humid Manhattan night into West Harlem. Once again, even the trees refuse to rustle on the mourning block. All the houses are dark, but inside restless limbs wrestle against too hot bed sheets and anxious heads play out horrific fantasies in never-ending cycles.
I can be as quiet as any ghost when I have to. Patience is really all it takes. Move like you’re made of molasses. Sound just falls away from you. You catch your rhythm and eventually, you’re wherever you need to be and no one’s the wiser. Riley pops the door and we slow-mo it up the winding stairs to Calhoun’s office. I turn the knob ever so gently and soft foot in, Riley at my side. It’s completely dark save the little blinking-light city of the computer terminal and modem.
Riley’s mingling with the statues again and I’m about to start in on the masks when I feel it. Riley stiffens and readies for combat. A wave of revulsion sweeps over me. I close my eyes, investigating the churning ripple of rage that has suddenly become a presence in the room. We both turn around and there, in the easy chair, sits a very old, dimly glowing man.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, death isn’t the great equalizer they make it out to be. Layers of hierarchy remain, interlaced by the tangled webs of power and privilege. The dead, after all, are human, and what could be more human than an unnecessarily oppressive bureaucracy at the end all be all of existence? Anyway, through whatever combination of sinister string-pulling and luck, this particular departed old-timer is obviously immensely powerful. If nothing else, you can tell because he’s completely unfazed by the presence of two no-nonsense COD soulcatchers in his living quarters. The guy’s from way-back-when, judging by his threads. He has on an elegant 18th century type jacket, complete with pouffy nonsense at the collar and doily cuffs.
The wretched feeling only grows stronger as he sits there, smiling and looking off into nothing. I like to do things cleanly, gather what information I can before slicing an afterlifer into oblivion, but wave after wave of nauseating bitterness is fouling up my flow. I notice Riley’s glow flicker wearily. This’ll have to be quick.
“What’s up with the dead kids?” I say, pulling a shiny spirit-killing blade out of my cane. He doesn’t speak, but I get his attention. Without moving his eyes, the old ghost focuses all his energy and concentration on my weapon.
“Listen,” Riley says, producing his own glowing saber and directing it at the easy chair, “we being nice by talking to you right now instead of just getting this over with, but we could certainly-”
You dare address Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, boy?
The voice is a sharp slither inside our heads. The old man just sits there smiling.
“Excuse me?” Riley demands.
“What do you want?” I say.
The Calhouns were once a well-respected family. It feels like a knife is cutting away parts of my brain with each word. Kept New York harbor a central point in the transatlantic slave trade. Ran a de-facto empire from our estates in the Hudson Valley. A name known all over the civilized world. Three generations later, my fop of a great-great grandson has further disgraced his noble lineage.
“Is he talking to us?” Riley whispers.
“I don’t know,” I say.
My knees are starting to give out. I’m not sure if I’m holding off ending him from fascination or fear, but the no-turning back point’s fast approaching.
And now: here I am in this faggotine city of corpulence, cross-breeding and cowardice, shackled to a worthless, slave loving progeny. Still: I manage to have my fun, wreak my vengeance in a manner fit for pharaohs.
“The first born sons,” I say. “The tenth plague. You’re a dipshit just like your great-grandson.”
The old man turns his shaggy sneering face towards me for the first time and I almost double over with nausea. The extinction of the black race has to begin somewhere. Why not in the uppermost echelons?
I’m done finding shit out. Time to endgame the situation. As I step forward to engage the ghost, the office door swings open and John Calhoun bursts in. He’s wearing tighty-whiteys and a stained, too small for him wife-beater. He looks pissed. Gone is the forced smile he had flashed again and again that afternoon. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my office, Detective?”
He stands directly between my blade and his slave-trading, child-killing ancestor. A cruel laughter erupts in my brain like a bomb going off. “Get out of the way,” I say. I’m trying to put on a calm front but a shiver has found its way into my voice. Both Calhouns hear it. The laughter in my head gets louder. “I have to destroy that chair.”
“That chair is an heirloom!” John Calhoun screams.
“I bet,” Riley says under his breath.
“I’m calling the police,” Calhoun announces, as if that settles the matter. He produces a cell phone and I swat it out of his hand with my cane. He glares at me in total disbelief. I swat him again, higher this time and he falls out of the way and cowers in a corner.
“Let’s get this over with, man,” Riley says. He’s beside me now, weak but ready to move. “Hold off Captain Underpants and I’ll deal with Grampa.” I feel his icy hand on my shoulder, steadying me.
The transmission comes in blaring and staticky: Councilman Arsten to agents Washington and Delacruz. We both straightened to attention at the sound of Bart’s nasally voice. Be advised, the entity known as Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, deceased 1846 of New York State, is a confirmed protected entity. He is not to be touched, harmed, or insulted. I try to concentrate on holding my blade steady, keeping both Calhouns at bay. Riley starts breathing heavily. Under no circumstances is he to be dispatched into non-existence. This concludes Emergency Executive Order 203-14 of the New York Council Of the Dead. Failure to comply will result in banishment and termination.
When the transmission ends, all I hear is the ghost Calhoun’s piercing laughter. I lower my blade slightly and then bring it back up. I feel Riley bristling and burning like a fireball beside me. There’s a pause. Then Riley lurches forward. I see the blade flash and the old man’s face suddenly looks frail and desperate. You ever notice how old people do that? Act all powerful until things don’t go their way. This was that. The ancient phantom moans, gurgles and then shrivels out of existence. On the floor lies the crumpled pile of wood and fabric that had once been a Calhoun family heirloom. I feel suddenly light on my feet. The whole room takes a breath, like the steam had been let out of the pressure cooker.
John Calhoun, still cowering in the corner, stammers nonsensically. Riley and I look at each other. I can’t decide if that’s disappointment in his frown or just the sullen satisfaction of a grim job well done. I had hesitated. When he moved, the whole world had moved with him to deliver that divine justice; I could feel the sacred pantheon reveling in his victory around us. But the repercussions of defying the Council are devastating. We don’t have much time. Death’s angry bull’s eye is already swirling towards Riley.
Calhoun screams and I realize that Riley has made himself visible. I guess once you’ve tossed the rulebook out, you might as well go all the way.
“You’ve caused a lot of problems,” Riley says.
“Jesus, what are you?”
“It’s not about me. Maybe if you’d spent more time studying your own people and less time studying mine, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“I-I don’t understand!”
“I think you do, but I’ll let it slide. But I’mna need you to do me a favor, Mr. Calhoun.”
“Put some of the degree’d up intellect of yours into dealing with your shit,” Riley says, “and move out.”
“What are you going to do?” I ask. We’re strolling slowly back down towards the darkened river.
“I don’t know yet,” Riley says. “Get the hell outta here, for starters.” We both laugh weakly. I light a cigar.
“About what happened back there…”
“I did what I had to do,” Riley cuts in.
I know those words are gonna haunt me. We walk a little further in silence. I try to ignore the image of that great warehouse with all its misty apparitions flickering into a frenzy as word of Riley’s disobedience spreads. Icy fingers will twitch anxiously. A flurry of messages will broadcast out. The gears of supernatural war were about to begin thundering towards the ghost beside me.
“They’re gonna send me after you,” I say.
“I imagine so.”
“Things will get messy between us.”
“They don’t have to.”
I nod. We shake hands and walk in separate directions, drifting off into the New York night.
About the Author
Daniel José Older’s spiritually driven, urban storytelling takes root at the crossroads of myth and history. With sardonic, uplifting and often hilarious prose, Older draws from his work as an overnight 911 paramedic, a teaching artist and an antiracist/antisexist organizer to weave fast-moving, emotionally engaging plots that speak whispers and shouts about power and privilege in modern day New York City.
His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, The Tide Pool, The Innsmouth Free Press, Crossed Genres and the anthology Sunshine/Noir, and is featured in Sheree Renee Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and The New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series.
When he’s not writing, teaching or riding around in an ambulance, Daniel can be found performing with his Brooklyn-based soul quartet Ghost Star (www.reverbnation.com/ghoststar).
You can read about his paramedic adventures at www.raval911.blogspot.com.