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City of Masks

Daniel Hecht

1

Cree – an unusual name. An Indian tribe, isn't it – up in Manitoba or someplace? Your parents named you after them?'

'No. A nickname. Short for Lucretia, which by the time I was five years old struck me as too old-fashioned to live with. You're welcome to call me Ms. Black, Mr. Beauforte.' Cree smiled but put enough of a point on the comment to suggest that more personal inquiries were unwelcome. So far, Mr. Beauforte's smug and insinuating manner had not exactly endeared him, or commended the Beaufortes as prospective clients, whatever Edgar said about cash flow.

'No, 'Cree' – I like it. Very charming. Unusual.' Ronald Beauforte nodded with satisfaction, as if pleased to find something to irritate her with. He was a handsome man with a brush of gray at his temples, dressed in a well- tailored charcoal business suit, top two shirt buttons undone, no tie. Now he sat back in his chair, legs crossed, pants cuffs tugged to reveal just so much of his argyles and no more, the steeple of his tanned fingers making a fine display of several fat gold rings. The Louisiana accent was not so deep: Clearly, he'd spent a good amount of time outside his home state, Cree decided, maybe an Ivy League education. When he'd first come in, Cree had noticed the appraising flick of his eyes over her body, the glimmer of appreciation. She was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt, but already the excess of relaxed confidence had begun to bother her.

'Now, Cree, please explain just what it is you do. I confess I have never before had dealings with a… what would you call yourself? A ghost buster?'

'I suppose that's one way of putting it – '

'So, what, you're going to come to Beauforte House with those, what do they call it, ectoplasm tanks on your back, the space suits and what all? Like the movie?' He smiled a skeptical crescent of white with glints of gold at the back.

Cree paused, trying to think of a way to take control of this conversation with any grace. And failing. Finally, she opted for the candid approach: 'Listen, Mr. Beauforte, you're skeptical. You've made it clear that you've come to me only to honor your sister's request and that you consider her concerns foolish. That's fine, and, truly, I can understand why. But this is what I do for a living, you have my references and therefore know I am well regarded in my field. And you are here. So if you'd like to proceed, we'll need to discuss this on a serious and professional level. Do you think we can back up and try to get off to a better start?'

It was a risky approach to an arrogant bastard. Edgar would be stinking furious if Beauforte stomped out of here. As he'd reminded her before he left: 'Yes, Cree, our priority is research, but we are trying to fund our work through client fees, and right now we could use some revenue!'

And, yes, the Beauforte family did look like a good candidate for the role of cash cow.

But what the hell, Cree decided, you can't let people push you around. She took a breath and let her tone stiffen: 'We can begin with your calling me Ms. Black.'

Beauforte's face twitched through an instant of indignation, but in the end the gambit seemed to work. One of the benefits of studying psychology: You could apply it to the living as well as the dead. Ronald Beauforte was, after all, the son of a powerful Southern matriarch, on some level still reflexively obedient to female authority and heir to some residual Southern custom of gallantry in dealing with the gentler sex. He straightened in his chair, dipped his gaze briefly, and nodded his acquiescence.

'Ms. Black, my apologies. I have been told that I speak condescendingly at times, especially when I'm feeling a tad out of my depth. Thank you for reminding me of this failing, and do forgive me. Please proceed.'

A trace of the supercilious smile remained, Cree saw, showing he was humoring her – Ah do so like a little gal with spunk. But she nodded. It would have to do.

'Thank you. As I told Lila, it's not an easy process to describe. Part of the problem is all the traditional folklore about ghosts, haunted houses, the 'undead,' and so on, which gets in the way because it colors people's perceptions of what they experience. My colleagues and I take a more systematic and scientific approach. We don't claim an objective understanding of human consciousness, or… the spirit, or life after death. But we do apply in- depth historical research, psychological analysis, empathic techniques, and, whenever possible, technological means to verify and identify what most people call 'ghosts.' Our goal is paranormal research, but we usually have access to the… the object of our interest… only when someone calls us in to get rid of it, so – '

'Something of an irony in that, isn't there?'

Cree liked him a little better for having noticed. 'Definitely. The majority of our clients are people like your sister – troubled by inexplicable and frightening presences and wanting to be shut of them. So, yes, on one level, I suppose we are 'ghost busters.' We prefer to think we alleviate hauntings. Hopefully for the benefit of the haunting entity as well as the living.'

'And 'we' are -?'

'Myself and two associates. You met Joyce Wu, my assistant, in the outer office. My partner, Edgar Mayfield, is in Massachusetts conducting a preliminary review of a case. Sometimes we bring in consultants or network with various research institutes. But we're a small firm.'

''Partner' as in business partner only or – '

'That's correct.'

'Mm.' Beauforte sorted that away. 'And just what are 'empathic techniques'?'

Except for the near foray into Cree's marital status, these were all reasonable questions for a prospective client to ask, and Beauforte's inquiring about the empathic issue spoke well of his intelligence. But his tone irritated Cree. Every word seemed honed to show her he felt above all this, was going through it for form's sake only.

'Again, it's difficult to explain. One thing we've learned is that hauntings are not experienced by everyone – there needs to be some particular psychological vulnerability, sometimes a special connection to the situation, on the part of the person experiencing the haunting. That's why one person can experience something and another person, in the same room, experience nothing. It's very, very subjective, a matter of each individual's psychological and neurological states. So one of our goals is to share our clients' emotional state, which increases the likelihood we'll experience what they do and allows us to learn more about the nature of the haunting. We want to know what that special link or vulnerability is and why it's troubling. And if there is another entity involved, we try to share its experience, too – to learn what happened to that person, why his or her revenant is compelled to do what it does. We try to learn what it wants.'

' 'Revenant'?'

'Just another word for 'ghost.' Someone lingering in some form after death.'

It was all getting to be a bit much for Beauforte, and he shook his head, openly incredulous. 'So you are, in effect, what… something of a psychotherapist for ghosts?'

Cree just gave him a bright smile. 'Yes. That's a fine way to think of it, yes.

'I had heard, of course, about this New Age thing in Seattle, but – '

'I'm originally from back east.'

Beauforte seemed to need a moment to digest what he'd heard. Tapping his fingers together, he looked around the office, then gazed through the windows that took up most of the southwest wall.

Cree gave him time, tried to see things through his eyes. Outside, the rooftops of Seattle sloped away to a terrific view of water and mountains. Elliott Bay and the Sound were a somber deep blue today, and beyond them the Olympic range was majestic and aloof, but the sky was an exuberant, playful blue scattered with clouds that seemed sculpted with sheer whimsy.

Beauforte was frowning slightly, as if engaged in some internal calculus that gave him difficulty, but perhaps he wasn't really such a smug bastard. His skepticism was understandable; likewise his unfamiliarity with Psi Research Associates' methods. He had every right to vet what he considered a wacky Seattle outfit before handing over money – there were plenty of idiots and con artists in the field. And however dubious, he was going through

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