The witching hour

PART ONE

COME

TOGETHER

One

THE DOCTOR WOKE up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He’d seen the man with the brown eyes.

And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City he felt the old alarming disorientation. He’d been talking again with the brown-eyed man. Yes, help her. No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.

The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room in the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn’t shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman again—her bent head, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screens of the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life—

No. Stop it.

He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete facade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.

Gradually his head cleared.

He thought of the Englishman at the bar in the lobby again. That’s what had brought it all back—the Englishman remarking to the bartender that he’d just come from New Orleans, and that certainly was a haunted city. The Englishman, an affable man, a true Old World gentleman it seemed, in a narrow seersucker suit with a gold watch chain fixed to his vest pocket. Where did one see that kind of man these days?—a man with the sharp melodious inflection of a British stage actor, and brilliant, ageless blue eyes.

The doctor had turned to him and said: “Yes, you’re right about New Orleans, you certainly are. I saw a ghost myself in New Orleans, and not very long ago—” Then he had stopped, embarrassed. He had stared at the melted bourbon before him, the sharp refraction of light in the base of the crystal glass.

Hum of flies in summer; smell of medicine. That much Thorazine? Could there be some mistake?

But the Englishman had been respectfully curious. He’d invited the doctor to join him for dinner, said he collected such tales. For a moment, the doctor had been tempted. There was a lull in the convention, and he liked this man, felt an immediate trust in him. And the lobby of the Parker Meridien was a nice cheerful place, full of light, movement, people. So far away from that gloomy New Orleans corner, from the sad old city festering with secrets in its perpetual Caribbean heat.

But the doctor could not tell that story.

“If ever you change your mind, do call me,” the Englishman had said. “My name is Aaron Lightner.” He’d given the doctor a card with the name of an organization inscribed on it: “You might say we collect ghost stories—true ones, that is.”

THE TALAMASCA

We watch

And we are always here.

It was a curious motto.

Yes, that was what had brought it all back. The Englishman and that peculiar calling card with the European phone numbers, the Englishman who was leaving for the Coast tomorrow to see a California man who had lately drowned and been brought back to life. The doctor had read of that case in the New York papers—one of those characters who suffers clinical death and returns after having seen “the light.”

They had talked about