Of all the spirits to summon, did it have to be the grisly one carrying her severed head against her hip?
Queasiness pooled in Elenora’s stomach as she anticipated seeing Mary Gallagher’s ghost. Even in broad daylight, the prospect was daunting. Beheaded in 1879, Headless Mary was a local legend. The murdered prostitute was rumored to reappear every seven years. The location of her scandalous demise, once a scuzzy tenement, had become a vacant gravelly lot lined with wild shrubs and cinder blocks in the Griffintown neighborhood of Montréal.
“Tell me if you feel a warm chill,” said Yukiko, a laid-back woman in a flowing summer dress. Her long, straight black hair swayed as her hands moved fluidly over a circle of five lit candles. As the resident medium at the Off-Path Office—a clandestine organization dealing with supernatural threats—she’d been tasked with helping Elenora decipher her newfound psychic abilities to get better control over them.
Yukiko had chosen Mary Gallagher as a test subject since Elenora had felt puzzling “warm chills” months earlier while walking by Mary’s turf. No one at the OPO knew what the incongruous chills were, but the medium thought the spirit was trying to get Elenora’s attention. She suggested they try to connect with the notorious ghost to get answers.
“The warm breeze and Aubrey’s heat are confusing my senses,” Elenora replied.
She’d felt the mysterious warm chills for the first time on a frigid April day. The contrast between the unexpected warmth and the chilly weather had been jarring and impossible to miss. Whereas now, the same chills would be harder to detect, considering the balmy breeze blowing through the lot and her eight-month-old daughter asleep against her chest in the baby carrier—a little furnace on this hot July evening.
Elenora focused harder on her senses to catch any sign Mary Gallagher’s ghost might give her. A distracting aroma of fried chicken wafted by. They’d been attempting to coax the specter into the open for over an hour, and Elenora was getting hungry. And despite her sitting on a cushy picnic blanket, her legs were numb, and sharp bits of gravel dug into her backside through the layers of fabric. She couldn’t wait for the unfruitful séance to end.
Maybe they would have a better chance of success after nightfall, but the lot was located across a university campus in a populated area. The sight of two middle-aged women meditating with candles in a spot famous for its haunting would easily attract the attention of campus security and lookie-loos eager for content to share on social media. Yukiko had thought their séance would be more discreet on a quiet Tuesday night before sunset, and she’d been right. A few people had walked by, but no one had given them a second look.
“One last try.” Yukiko also looked ready to call it a night. “Mary Gallagher, I respectfully summon you. Please show yourself.”
The flames on the five candles flickered lightly. That was new. Hope surged in Elenora, and she held her breath.
Another wave of fried chicken scent floated past, followed by a group of students boisterously debating an engineering lecture. Elenora willed them to pick up the pace and disappear. Not that it did anything—she wasn’t a telepath. Though she briefly wished she were so she could make them leave faster. If Mary Gallagher was finally considering showing herself, they couldn’t afford to spook her.
Thankfully, the kids took their loud argument elsewhere, and the flames kept fluttering.
Come on, Mary.
After a few long minutes, Mary was still a no-show.
“What if it’s not Mary Gallagher who’s trying to get my attention?” Elenora mused.
“You think we’re barking up the wrong tree?”
Sudden shimmering above the candles caught their attention. A light fog materialized. Elenora gasped.
“You can see that?” Yukiko’s voice held a hint of surprise.
Elenora gave her a distracted nod. “Is that her?”
The fog wavered, faint against the setting sunlight.
“Let’s see…” the medium muttered to herself.
She moved her hand in a random pattern over the flames, and the fog further solidified. It took shape, unveiling a dim apparition.
It was impossible to mistake the local legend for anyone else. The specter held her severed head at waist level, and her dress sported generous blotches of blood. Chills, both warm and cold, ran through Elenora. The sight was both frightening and fascinating. It didn’t help that the departed’s attention had snapped to her. Mary’s haunting stare bored right into Elenora’s eyes, searching and intense.
“She’s staring at me,” Elenora whispered, unsure of what to do. She certainly didn’t want to piss off the scary lady.
“You can see her?”
“Yes.” Elenora glanced sideways at Yukiko.
The medium stared at her with a baffled expression. “You can see her eyes? Her face?”
“Yes. Am I not supposed to see her?”
“Should I take that as a no?”
“Yes, you should take that as a no.” Yukiko scrambled for an explanation. “Usually, a non-medium needs a revealing spell to see a ghost. Maybe your abilities—”
A guy wearing a backward baseball cap drove by in a convertible blaring “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” sending the skittish specter back into hiding. The car’s tires squealed as it turned a corner, and the frantic tune waned as fast as it had scared Mary off.
Elenora let out a frustrated groan, startling Aubrey awake.
“Shhh, it’s okay,” Elenora comforted her little girl before the abrupt awakening made her grumpy.
Surprisingly, neither the yahoo’s musical ruckus nor the explosive backfiring of a motorcycle earlier had interrupted her sleep. No, it had taken a quiet groan of frustration to wake her up.
“Well. That’s that,” Yukiko said with the resigned wisdom of someone used to dealing with finicky ethereal beings.
The medium blew her candles out and started packing while Elenora struggled to process what had just happened. She had seen Mary Gallagher’s ghost, confirming the rumors of her presence in the lot. But more importantly, Yukiko seemed baffled that she’d seen the woman without a revealing spell. After all, their plan had been for the medium to translate any interaction between Elenora and Mary. They hadn’t expected Elenora to see Mary.
“Did I see Barlow’s spirit because of a revealing spell?” Elenora asked.
Months earlier, while discovering her psychic abilities and working on her first paranormal case, Elenora had witnessed an exorcism when her friend Rolland had been possessed by the evil spirit of a killer named Oliver Barlow. She’d seen the murderer’s spectral form come out of Rolland’s body.
“Yes. The girls always cast a revealing spell during an exorcism to see what they’re dealing with. But possessions are special cases because the spirit entwines with a living body, grounding them to our plane of existence. With ghosts, if no medium is present to summon them, to coax them into our realm, most witches are blind to them—regardless of spells. There are exceptions, of course.”
“Today…” Yukiko fussed with the contents of her backpack, as if buying time. She finally zipped it and met Elenora’s expectant gaze. “I should have been the only one able to see her. Unless…”
“Unless?” Did Elenora even want to know?
“Unless you have channeling abilities too.”