Coffee flew and Melissa Speedwell shrieked as the radio
blared to life behind her. Trembling with surprise, she slapped
the power button; the radio did not turn off. Rather than music,
static filled the room, making Melissa's teeth ache. Then her
blood ran cold as she identified the distorted clamor: tormented
"What's wrong with this thing?" she cried. Her
hair was a mess, and the coffee stained her Ralph Lauren slacks.
" she said, rubbing it with her fingertips,
and of course only making it worse.
"Oh, honey, I'm afraid I forgot to tell you."
Adrienne Vaughan produced a tiny crucifix from her pocket and
pressed it to the radio. "Exeunt omnes! Deus vult!"
she whispered, and the radio blinked off. "I got so caught
up in talking about cotillion that it completely slipped my mind."
Adrienne, that consummate domestic, already had a bottle of Shout
in hand. She sprayed a little on Melissa's slacks. "Now you
let that sit."
"What was that?" Melissa was still shrieking.
Adrienne's evident calm began to soothe her. They had been Pi
Phi together at SMU; Melissa admitted to knowing no one quite
so cool and collected as Adrienne. Or anyone quite so tasteful,
or decorous. Adrienne did everything with perfect taste, which
filled Melissa with equal parts admiration and burning envy. So
when the kitchen radio suddenly burst forth with the wailing of
the damned, she trusted to Adrienne's evident mastery of the situation.
Adrienne poured her another cup of coffee and Melissa sipped.
It was good, and she knew for a fact that it cost seventy dollars
a pound. Adrienne settled in her chair, brushed one stray lock
exactly back into place, and said, "I meant to tell
youyou can rub that nowbut it's just our poltergeist,
our noisy little ghost." A tiny frown creased her porcelain
face. "Don't you have one?"
"They're all the rage in LA this fall. Gustav
told me they were the coming thing, and I just had to have
one." Behind her, a wine glass wobbled on a shelf.
"Uh. Huh." Melissa warmed up. She cleared her
throat and crossed her legs confidently.
"Well, no, I'm afraid we don't have oneyet.
I must speak to Don. Uh, coincidentally, where did you
"I don't know exactly. Scott took care of it. You
won't find them at Neiman Marcus, though." Adrienne winked
conspiratorially. "Now don't let the cat out of the bag.
We were thinking we might have a party, nothing too big, just
a little dinner party to show it off. Gustav told me he'd be sure
to put it in his column."
Melissa frowned. Why hadn't Gustav told her about
this new trend? She was just as good a friend of his as Adrienne.
But Adrienne always got there first; when Audis superceded Mercedes,
Adrienne had the first Q7 in Highland Park. When Hockaday Girls'
School had gained supremacy over St. Sebastian's, Adrienne's children
were already enrolled. How did she do it? Just once Melissa
wanted to be there first. Don had just as much money as Scott,
if not more. They just weren't in the loop. They weren'tdare
she think it? They weren't as fashionable as Adrienne.
The Vaughans changed social laws at whim, and the Speedwells fell
into place. Melissa would have found the situation intolerable
if Adrienne weren't her best friend.
The wine glass rocketed from the shelf and shattered on
the opposite wall. "I tell you, Melissa, there hasn't been
a dull moment since we got it!" Adrienne said brightly.
"Doesdoes it have a name?"
"Lost to the saaands of tiiime, I'm sure."
Adrienne gestured dramatically. She giggled. "I call it 'Chester'."
Another wine glass, and another, a whole salvo of wine glasses,
smashed against the wall. Melissa shielded her eyes against the
rain of shards.
"It's not dangerous, is it?"
"I shouldn't think so." Adrienne sipped her coffee.
"Your coffee's getting cold, honey."
* * *
"Don!" Melissa cried. Annoyed, he tore his attention
from his laptop.
"Yes, my sweet?"
"Don! They've done it again!" She pursed her
lips in a frenzy of emotion; she almost wrung her hands.
"I don't have the least idea what you're talking about,
"Adrienne! Remember when she wore white to the Columbus
Day pageant and I said it was the most ghastly thing and
then next year everyone wore white? After Labor Day?"
no," he said. He was thinking of certain
passages from Age of Innocence.
"Well, she did, and now she's done it again!"
Melissa stamped her little foot, but not too hard, hardwood floors
being expensive. She threw herself into a chair.
"Hmm," Don said. "What is it this time?"
He wondered if they would have to buy a new car.
"You won't believe this," Melissa said in a tone
which told him that he had better believe it. "She's gone
and bought a poltergeist."
"A damned soul? Why? Nohow?"
"I don't know." Melissa shrugged. "She's
sure it's the coming thing, though."
"How's she know?"
"Gustav told her."
"Gustav." He spat the name, showing just
what he thought of Gustav.
"Say what you will, dear, he's usually right about
Don leaned back in his chair and chewed his lip pensively.
Always one thing or another, he thought. "So how do we get
one?" Melissa shrugged again. "Should I slay one of
my mistresses and brick her corpse up in the walls?" This
idea came to him directly from Johnny Quest, and he smiled
with fond remembrance.
"Call your assistant. That's what he's for."
"I don't think this quite falls within Jeff's job
"Then fire him and get another assistant!" She
ignored his eye-rolling. "Everyone will want one of these
things soon. I want to be the first. The second. I'm sure Jeff
can do the job. We can't be left out in the cold again."
"I'm calling, I'm calling."
* * *
Within a month, almost all the quality families of Highland
Park had some kind of specter. At the Griffin house, an ethereal
weeping widow rocked in a chair from eleven o'clock to midnight
every night, waiting for her husband, killed at Gettysburg, to
return; the Jaspers had an honest-to-goodness oni drifting,
bodiless, through their halls; even the Landaus had a tiny homunculus
preparing potion after vile potion that they poured down the drain,
vaguely hoping no harm would come of it.
But not the Speedwells. Whether through Jeff's mismanagement
of the task, or sheer bad luck, they were unable to acquire a
suitable revenant. The few they did consider all proved impractical
or disagreeable for one reason or another: too noisy, too
ethereal, too damned. Melissa grumbled in frustration,
and Don grumbled in annoyance, but no ghosts were forthcoming.
One Saturday night in August, warm and humid, without a
breath of breeze. Don was on the phone, haranguing Jeff (who had
promised "something big" soon) for his failure, and
Melissa was curled up with The Da Vinci Code on the couch.
Mason and Sawyer slept snugly in their race car-shaped beds upstairs.
A knock on the door.
Startled, Melissa peeped, as one does, through the peepholeno
one. She cracked the door open. "Hello?"
"Hello, miss, name's Julius, and I understand you
got a problem." She gasped at the character in the doorway.
He was short, with flashing eyes and permanent stubble, a bulbous
nose reddened with burst capillaries; he was a sprite, a carnival
runaway in all but his clothes. Rather than the tattered clown
suit or hobo outfit that one may reasonably expect, he wore sensible
tweed and polished Rockports. "Julius Ginch, and I am here
to solve your problem."
Melissa, being a Texas woman, was not exactly timid,
nor entirely rational. This strange figure intrigued her and inflamed
her curiosity. "And what problem do you mean?"
"Madam," he said, leaning forward and shielding
his words with a gloved hand, "I speak of your ghost problem.
Namely, how you don't have any."
Melissa was skeptical. "How do you know about that?"
Here the little man extended his palm to the heavens and
rocked back on his heels. "Madam, whenever words are whispered
on the wind, I know. Whenever a desire goes unfulfilled, I can
do naught but attend." He waved his hand, and a rose appeared
in his fingers. She didn't see where it came from; he must have
drawn it from his sleeve without her notice. She giggled in spite
of herself and took the proffered bloom. "Also, Jeff called
me. Your husband called Jeff and he called me."
"Is that the guy?" Don called from the other
"Maybe," she replied. She stood aside. "Come
"Thank ye, miss." Julius entered, dragging a
tremendous carpetbag. It was massive, of the style brought down
from the North during Reconstruction. A promising start,
"Thank ye kindly, but no, miss. I subsist on more
esoteric draughts." His glittering eyes darkened momentarily.
Freak, Melissa decided. But possibly one who could provide
her with a ghost. Don finished his phone call and shook hands
with the little man. Julius opened his bag and extracted various
antiques: an obviously broken mantle clock, the hands askew and
the glass cracked, but with some very pretty woodcarvings portraying
the nine muses at work; a stuffed cat, less one eye and much fur;
a weather vane featuring a demonic cast iron gargoyle; a yellow,
shriveled monkey's paw; and the piece de resistance, three
shrunken heads, grimacing in permanent discomfort, strung together
Melissa handled the heads and returned them to the coffee
table. "These aren't real, are they?"
"Oh, of course not, miss, of course not! Merely extremely
convincing fakes. No less haunted for that, though."
"Good." Melissa peered into the bag, wondering
what else he had in there. Julius snapped it shut quickly, a look
of hostility on his comical face; this quickly broke into an apologetic
grin. Don went to the kitchen and returned with a beer.
"Hmm. Very well. These objects are fociany one
of them has a powerful supernatural attraction, a link to the
netherworld. This first piece here, this mantle clock, working,
no, but haunted, yes. It belonged to the Duke of Heidelberg,
in the ghost-tormented depths of the Black Forest."
Don stirred on the couch. "Is Heidelberg in the Black
Julius continued. "Legend ishe bludgeoned his
second and fifth wives with it. Their tortured spirits reside
"Well, I'm very intrigued an' all," Melissa
said. "But what else do you have?"
"This catworshipped by a virgin-sacrificing
Egyptian cult! The blood of maidens stains the fur!"
"So it's stained?" Melissa said, examining
the object. "Good for a discount, then?"
"The weather vane! Quite spooky indeed! On stormy
nights, the hellish visage you behold leaves its roost to spread
terror abroad!" Julius shook the object; it rattled. "The
monkey's paw! Pursued by its former owner, across Stygian gaps
of space and time! Andthese magnificent trophies,"
he said, indicating the heads, "were once righteous missionaries,
their souls consigned to unending hell in diabolic rites."
"D'you hear that, honey?" Melissa cooed. Don
shrugged. "Diabolical rites!" She thought of
the Vaughans' poltergeistcertainly nothing so dramatic as
these selections. "What do you think?"
"It's your decision." Don studied the label of
his beer bottle. "I just write the checks." He winked
at Julius. Melissa considered the objects for a moment. The Vaughans
and their stupid new fad! She'd beat them, all right!
"We'll take all of them."
* * *
A week later, an invitation circulated among the better
homes of Highland Park. It was printed on tasteful cream-colored
paper, with a tasteful art-deco rendition of a classic Halloween
ghost on the letterhead. It read:
You are invited to the début of the most recent
additions to the Speedwell household: a collection of exotic spirits
from around the world! Come for a night of refreshments, chills,
This is a black tie event. Catering by the French Room.
Reactions varied. Adrienne Vaughan smiled pleasantly, thinking,
Good for her. She wanted a ghost of her own so badly, even
while she thought, That little bitch. Ken Tooms, bishop
of Dallas Methodist, frowned: It cannot come to good, this
traffic in damned souls. Free hors d'ouevres, though, and maybe
that minx Sharon will come. Then there was Gustav Valparaiso's
The Speedwells of Highland Park are throwing a terrifyingly
exciting bash this coming Friday! Those lucky enough to be on
the guest list can expect to see the Vaughans and Griffins,
also of Highland Park, as well as some other interesting guests:
Miguel Armendariz, the ardent Argentinean archon of the Dallas
Symphony Orchestra, for one. The stated intent of the Speedwell
soirée is to show off their recently acquired collection
of spectacular specters, which this humble journalist
long ago declared the coming thing in haute couture
All Highland Park was a-quiver as the date drew near. Melissa,
however, was less excited; the relics had failed to stir any supernatural
activity of any kind. She flailed about the house, tearing from
room to room, shaking them, cursing them, but nothing happened.
The house remained adamantly un-haunted. Don followed her.
"Honey, it sucks, I know, I'm sorry. Calm down, please,
baby." Melissa shrieked as she knocked the stuffed cat from
its perch and stomped on it. Her heels removed its extant eye.
Cotton wool unspooled from the socket.
"Ripped us off! They aren't haunted at all!"
She stomped again, then sprang back in alarm. The cotton was suddenly
red; blood poured from the missing eye, spilling out, soaking
the mangy old fur, pooling, the pool growing bigger and bigger,
covering half the room. Melissa backed away; the blood spread.
Melissa and Don backed out of the room and Melissa, wordlessly,
hands shaking, closed the door. After a moment blood seeped under
the door. "Don
" she said. The hands
on the clock were spinning, round and round, faster and faster;
the nine muses twisted their wooden heads, grimacing at them.
Then they sang, in a wordless tormented dissonance, a horrid
caterwaul that scraped the soul as talons scrape a chalkboard.
Don covered his ears. Melissa took his hands and he looked at
her. But this wasn't terror on her face, oh, no
"Oh, Don, they work, they work, we're haunted! Oh,
this party's going to be great, I know it!"
* * *
The help mopped up the cat's blood and muffled the screaming
with some heavy insulation; Melissa and Don put on their evening
best, and all was ready. The house was decorated in ghoulish style,
with fake cobwebs everywhere, a fake tombstone or two, and dry
ice in the punchall very tasteful. The five haunted relics
occupied places of honor; each had its own pedestal about the
house, ready to be adored.
The guests arrived in Mercedes and Jags, in Audis and Caddies.
"Melissa! Don't you look nice! Vera Wang?"
"My dearOscar de la Renta."
More guests, greeted in the colloquial fashion:
"Oh, honeyhow nice to see yeewwww!"
"Look at yeeewwww!" And so on, until all had
arrived and were munching on fried quail bonbons and morel risotto
and drinking champagne or (in a nod to the proletariat) Shiner
Bock. The bishop was there, chatting with Sharon Griswell, a divorcée-in-waiting,
and Gustav Valparaiso, the columnist avec goatee formidable,
examining the weather vane with Leslie Landau. Miguel Armendariz
explained the difficulties of conducting ("More than waving
a stick," he said) to a pliable and half-tipsy lioness of
the Griffin clan; Don eavesdropped while making jokes about the
missionary heads with Scott Vaughan. But none of these little
rendezvous were quite so momentous as that of Adrienne and Melissa;
after all, Melissa would never have thrown this party if not for
Adrienne's noisy little ghost. Melissa hovered on a knife edge;
she prepared all her powers of supercilious scorn if Adrienne
showed disapproval. Simultaneously, she prepared to wilt (inwardly)
with gratitude and clasp Adrienne once more to her bosom should
her friend bestow the slightest smile (the slightest smile signaling
the most complete acquiescence).
Adrienne, champagne in hand, met Melissa before the stuffed
cat. She tossed her head (hair by Paul Neinast) and considered
the grotesquerie. She drank; Melissa waited, all a-tingle. "Well,
my dear," Adrienne said, and paused briefly, wherein Melissa
withered a dozen times, "congratulations." And there
it wasthe slightest smile.
"Oh, this little thing?" Melissa said, almost
exploding with joy.
"You've done it," Adrienne said. "Good joblook!"
Blood trickled from the cat's eye; blood leaked, then poured,
then gushed in a raging torrent from the cat's eye.
"It's doing it! Look!" The partygoers gathered
'round, sipping champagne and eating Moroccan shrimp with sugar
cane and tomato jam. Blood soaked the pedestal and formed a widening
pool, spreading in all directions. Nervous laughter broke out
and the guests stepped back to avoid staining their shoes. Then,
like a jet engine, the damned wailing of the muses burst forth
from the clock, and the guests covered their ears. Someone dropped
a glass. Melissa smiled, but a frown tugged at the corners of
her mouth; the wailing was so loud, and it wasn't going
away. The muses on the clock writhed, their little wooden hands
outstretched in piteous supplication. Sharon backed away from
the hideous blood-pond and the muses grabbed her by the hair.
She yelped in surprise, laughed when she realized the cause of
her entanglement, then cried as she pulled and pulled and the
muses refused to release her, her surprise quickly changing to
panic. A scream like a knife cut through the wind-tunnel roar
of the monstrous figurines; a gargantuan monkey, a beast nine
or ten feet tall, gripped Scott in its right paw (its left arm
ended in a raw stump). Scott bellowed and pounded on the hairy
fingers. The monkey dropped him and howled, pounding on its chest.
The reverberations shook the chandelier.
"That reminds me of when the kodo drummers
came to the Meyerson last summer
Miguel Armendariz said, beating on his own chest in imitation.
"Quelle gauche!" Gustav Valparaiso said,
seconds before a cast iron gremlin leapt onto his scalp and raked
wicked claws across his forehead. Screaming, he flailed and ran,
swatting at the monster.
Glasses dropped all over the place. Melissa shook her head;
she wrung her hands. "No, no!" She clapped. "Everyone
please be calm! They're quite harmless, really, just wait a second
while I fetch a mop"
Adrienne squeezed her hand. "Honey, I'm gone. A for
effort, really, butmaybe this isn't quite the thing
for you." Melissa withered.
"No, no, wait
it's fine, everyone, please, please
" Melissa realized she was talking to herself.
Everyone was preoccupied by something or other. Sharon's scalp
was bloody now where the muses tore at her hair; she sobbed as
the gibbering manikins dragged her closer and closer. The bishop
floundered on the floor in the inch-deep blood. Scott rolled beside
him, clutching his broken ribs. Miguel Armendariz seized a poker
from the fireplace and engaged the monstrous monkey in a duel;
he was disarmed and fled. The amuse-bouches were in disarray,
scattered in an ectoplasmic whirlwind; Don's face was a mask of
horror as he tugged on her arm.
"Let's go! Let's go!" Guests stampeded. Don and
Melissa quailed as three spectral forms emerged from the opposite
wall. They wore tattered clothing; they clutched Bibles to their
chests; they truncated in headless stumps, blood dripping from
the three open wounds
Blood drenched Melissa and Don. Bodies lay everywhere.
"Where is it?"
"Where is it?"
"Where is it?"
The three ghosts lurched blindly. One found the bishop
and cupped his head in its hands. Another found Don and gripped
his skull; finally, the last one wrapped its ethereal hands around
"Here it is!"
"Here it is!"
"Here it is!"
* * *
Gustav Valparaiso's next column read:
Most embarrassing for all was the Speedwell soirée of
Friday last. A regrettable turn of events led to this humble
journalist fleeing in panic from what was lately the household
of friends, most recently a charnel nightmare. However, a quick
sigh of relief is in order; all who suffered injury have made
speedy recoveries. Suffice it to say, ghosts are officially
passé, and we all look forward to the next coming
thing. What it is, no one knows, but yours truly will keep
his ear to the ground. But we can all assume that the venerable
Vaughans of Highland Park will be there first. Even now, they
erect some new excitement for the neighborhood behind high fences
* * *
All the neighborhood was there. The Griffins sat on their
front porch, conversing idly with the Landaus, but really watching
the construction workers in the Vaughans' yard. They had been
working for several days now behind high privacy fences. Whatever
they were installing, it involved a helicopter. Don and Melissa
approached with their Pekinese. They both wore neck braces; the
ghosts' attempts to pull their heads off had given them serious
"Hey, guys!" Melissa waved.
"Hello!" They were greeted warmly by the clans.
"Beer?" Leslie Landau said.
"Mm. Thanks, honey, but can't, not with the pain medication."
Melissa rested her hand on her neck and winced.
"How long you got to wear those?"
"Coupla weeks," Don said. A ruckus from the Vaughan
yard diverted their attention; workmen scrambled clear and a second
later the panels of the privacy fence crashed down, kicking up
a dust cloud. The dust dispersed, revealing by degrees a colossal
silhouette. A massive nose, a prognathous profilean Easter
Island moai, sixteen feet tall, majestic as you please.
Melissa gaped. Silence reigned. Don shifted uncomfortably,
wondering what this could mean. Leslie finally broke the silence:
there's something else, indeed."
" Melissa tugged his sleeve. "Don
what can we do?"
"Nothing, baby," he said. "They win, that's
"No, Don. We can beat that. You gotta think of something.
We can do better than that. We can't let those stuck-up Vaughans
"You can't be serious, baby." But her desperate
look, her gentle squeezing of his hand told him that she was quite
serious. He sighed, then took out his cell phone.
"Jeff. It's Don. Call England. See how much they want