Chapter OneMature

They say that bad things happen in threes. Maybe this was the reason why the night they found the body behind Club Lotte, Frieda's key snapped in the lock of her mailbox, moments before she discovered the poltergeist had been up to its old tricks again.

She picked up the crucifix from the spot behind the front door where it had been flung. The perpetrator was getting more and more insistent. She had nailed the cross firmly to the wall this time, but it had clearly been removed as easily as if she had merely secured it with sticking tape, leaving three neat round holes in the white wall. The nails were coated with a light dusting of plaster. But more disturbing were the droplets of what looked like blood oozing from the brazen Christ figure itself. That was if she could trust her senses. Seeing, even feeling, touching, tasting meant nothing in terms of proving an objective reality. She had learned this all too well the last few weeks. Hallucinations and the solid security of the here and now overlapped and deceived each other. That was the truth of it.

She blinked. The bleeding had disappeared, confirming the nonsense that had been made of her life by her uninvited and unseen guest.

Frieda laid the crucifix down on a cupboard in the hallway. Several pots and pans cluttered the doorway to the kitchen, and a glance into the living room told her that her sofa had shifted around a metre or so out from the wall.

Her visitor was certainly becoming demonstrably more physical. At the beginning, it had been content simply to slide a piece of cutlery a few centimetres across her kitchen worktop. But in the last few days, the activity had intensified. She could only hazard a guess as to why.

Frieda stacked the saucepans into the cupboard where they belonged and shoved the sofa back into place before wearily collapsing onto it with a yawn, grinding the heels of her palms into her gritty eyes. She thought how the poltergeist's antics were more annoying than they were eerie. Certainly not eerie enough to rob her of sleep.

Or so she thought. As she opened her eyes and blinked them back into focus, the unexpected script scrawled on the ceiling in spidery trails of what looked like black marker pen floated into clarity, like the bottom of a pond once the ripples have cleared.

Three words. Only three, and seemingly random, arbitrary, but enough to chill her bones:

"Eins, Zwei, Drei.'

She had only herself to blame, of course. Or rather, the 'gift' that she possessed. But if it were a gift, then it was in the German sense of that word - 'poison.' It certainly felt less like a present than a pollutant, an infection for which there was no cure.

Her parish priest, confessor and friend, Father Carsten Derrick had insisted that God had bestowed her particular ability upon her, although he had failed to explain why the Almighty would do so in contravention of Church teaching. Maybe God was a God of surprises after all, just as the current Pope had claimed.

Either way, Frieda was at least grateful for Father Derrick's quiet support. She could seek sanctuary with him and share his confidence without fear of recrimination or rebuke.

What Frieda's reality boiled down to had already been snapped up by Hollywood and become a cliche. She saw dead people. Well, no, she didn't. Not exactly. It was less overt than that. Maybe that was why Father Derrick had been prepared to bend the rules in her favour. It was necromancy by proxy. Not so much an ability to see or communicate with phantoms, as it was to pick up on the echo of a life that had been shot into eternity. She was cursed to hear the legacy of the report. A reverberation that might be infused with a sense of pain or peril that Frieda could empathise with, tune into. She did not so much see dead people as hear their last pitiful Auf Wiedersehen.

And it was this same ability that had resulted in her current domestic crisis. After vowing to keep her private and professional life separate, and succeeding for several years, a few weeks ago she had in a very real way brought her work home with her.

Frieda could still recall the sense of loneliness she had felt at the murder scene. Feel it so deeply that it left her lachrymose and overwhelmed her with melancholy. The cellar lit by cold fluorescence that revealed the colder intent of a sadist who had chained and tortured his victim over a period of several days and daubed the walls in their bodily fluids. That night she had not only heard the sickening echo of a soul rent prematurely from life, she had somehow acted as a conductor for it to earth through her and follow her back to her small Muenster apartment.

That night she had sensed an emptiness so intolerable in its totality that it drained her. Maybe that is how the unfortunate soul had become attached to her. An empathy that had created a vacuum so great that the restless spirit had been irresistibly sucked into it. And now it was desperately seeking to communicate with her, like an autistic child incapable of forming its thoughts and feelings coherently, and so having to resort to clumsy actions in its frustration.

Frieda reconsidered as she lay staring upwards at the scrawl on her ceiling. The attempts to communicate, however annoying, however unsettling, were fundamentally pitiable. The Catholic church deemed that those human souls who lingered on the mortal plane were trapped in a purgatorial state, paying their dues but bound to the earth by some unfinished business. In the case of the unfortunate victim in the cellar, that business might be nothing more or less than a quest for justice. The perpetrator was still at large. The police had sought Frieda's help in the hope of her interpreting some psychic remnant at the scene to aid their search. But all that had prevailed upon her senses had been that gaping maw of loss and emptiness. As if it had so consumed the victim that he could entertain no other notion. Like a radio turned up at full volume that drowns out any other sound.

Almost randomly, Frieda recalled a tree from her childhood. The six metre monstrosity that had stood in a neighbouring garden, just across the street from her parents' house in the small Westfalian village of Ottmarsbocholt. To this day she had seen no other tree like it. It's boughs had drooped, but with none of the grace of a willow. They just hung without any sense of form or symmetry, their covering of strange deep purple leaves suggesting a disturbing air of despair and hopelessness. It represented in physical form just what Frieda had felt in that cellar. And to some degree the roots were now a part of her. She had unwittingly established some kind of organic connection, and as much as Frieda pitied the entity - she could not allow herself to call it a soul, to personify it - it troubled her.

Emotional and physical exhaustion finally overwhelmed her thoughts, and Frieda fell into a deep and, mercifully, dreamless sleep.

The End

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