TITLE: Ghost on the Wire
LENGTH: ~6000 words approx
SUMMARY: Paul hears a click on the line, and a rasp, and a shiver travels down his spine. He knows he's connected to something else and other even before the hissing, desperate female voice slides through, crackling with the interference of the unimaginable spaces it had to cross to get to him: "Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying..."
NOTES: written for Tanaqui in My Old Fandom Exchange 2016. See the end for notes on the source of the paranormal tale.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Ghost on a Wire
It isn't a busy day at Sodalitas Quaerito. When Paul sidles in, a lot late and a little dishevelled and sweaty for the odd jobs he got persuaded to carry out during his theoretically brief stop on route, Evie seems to be going over accountancy papers and Alva's head is in some unidentified research. Paul makes his greetings, gaining a smile and a cheerful acknowledgement from Evie, and with a degree of apprehension asks Alva, "Can I use the office phone? My battery's flat and talking to Father Lucas just reminded me of a few people I should really let know I'm not working in my old jurisdiction anymore."
Alva doesn't look up from his paper or offer any particular benevolence, merely points out, "There's a coin box for non-SQ phone use."
"Alva," Evie berates, and tells Paul, "Just use the phone." It's not even certain that Alva notices, but then he hasn't noticed Paul's lateness either.
Paul has been at SQ a matter of weeks and there are times he thinks about walking out, just as he did from his last job; most of them centred around times when Alva has his head in a research project and can't be bothered with polite human interaction. If Evie were not there, there's a distinct possibility he wouldn't have lasted this long.
Paul rolls his eyes and rubs his neck, massaging stiff aches still holding out from the car crash. He sits at the corner of the desk not occupied by Alva's paperwork and picks up the phone in one hand while flicking the pages of his pocket diary-address book with the other. He hooks the phone between his shoulder and his ear.
Instead of Father Devon Oswald's smooth voice, he hears a click, and a rasp, and a shiver travels down his spine. He knows he's connected to something else and other even before the hissing, desperate female voice slides through, crackling with the interference of the unimaginable spaces it had to cross to get to him:
"Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying..."
"Hello?" Paul's heart rate shoots up and his voice whips out in alarm. Evie is staring at him. Even Alva has looked up from his work. "What's-"
"Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying..."
The same phrase, the same tone, the same clicks and crunches on the line. It sounds more like a recording, running over and over, than a person repeating their words.
"Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying..."
"Where are you?" Paul tries anyway. "Tell me! Who are you? What happened?" The message starts to run again; he talks over it. "I can help. Please, tell me where to find you so that I can help!"
The line clicks dead and he's left holding a phone sounding the shrill drone of a lost call.
He stares at his two startled colleagues, who are staring back at him; looks down at the number on the white page of the book in front of him and numbly realises his mistake. "I called a wrong number..." he says slowly, eyes flicking between Alva and Evie. "I forgot... he's outside of the 617 area code, but... I don't know what happened. Someone was calling for help."
He stirs himself, grabbing for the body of the telephone again. Alva slaps a hand over it. "Wait."
"We need to call the police!" Paul objects.
Alva's face is severe. "Tell me what was said, first."
"It was a voice..." As Paul relates it what just happened, and re-digests the oddness of the experience, he thinks less and less that it's anything the police can help with. He knew while he was listening to the hissing, distorted words. "It was a woman's voice, repeating the same words again and again: 'Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying...' It sounded..." He swallows. "Far away. No, more than that. Old. Interference, static, and... something else..." There's ice between his shoulder blades, the inescapable feeling that something genuinely supernatural just happened to him.
"Ah..." Alva's indrawn breath is like a sigh, but contains a disturbing amount of fascinated appreciation.
"They still needed help," Paul musters. "Whoever it was."
"And it was a wrong number?" Evie questions him, her natural concerns running more in the same initial direction as Paul's own. "Pure chance? Do you think... do you think that it was a living person in distress, now, on the other end of that line?" She flicks a judging glower at Alva, who's oblivious.
But now he's had chance to think about it, Paul's seldom been surer of anything than, "No."
He grabs the phone off Alva anyhow. They still have to make sure.
"What are you doing?!" Alva protests.
The phone doesn't ring. The line clicks and the same message repeats in his ear. He offers the receiver out to Alva, chilled by the quiet, monotonous desperation in the repeating voice, wanting someone else to be able to verify what he hears.
"-Ah," Alva says awkwardly, the phone against his ear. "Do excuse me."
Paul can't hear the words, exactly, but he can hear the tone, enough to realise that, bafflingly, Alva is talking to someone on the other end of the line who isn't the owner of the monotone voice.
"I'm truly sorry to trouble you," Alva continues, "but my friend spoke to someone on this line, just a moment ago, who sounded like they were in distress."
Paul can hear the silence on the other end quite clearly.
"Is that... something that you get a lot?" Alva tentatively presses. "My dear lady, I am something of an expert on unusual events, and if you should like me to investigate the matter, it may be that I can help shed light..."
"How can you help?" Paul hears, a woman's voice, loud enough and distressed enough to reach him clearly, before the droning tone of a disconnected call returns.
"Well," says Alva slowly.
"We need to inform the police anyway," Evie says, purposefully dragging the phone from Alva. "If there is any chance that someone was being harmed at this address, and whoever you just spoke to is using the assumption of a supernatural cause to cover that up..."
"I assure you, that's not the case." Alva heaves a shuddering breath and reaches out, but Evie keeps the phone from him.
"Indulge me," she says, with steel in her voice. "I'll go through my old contacts, and not 911."
The phone rings before she can pick up and dial. She lifts the receiver to her ear hesitantly. "Hello...?"
A moment later, she hands it across to Alva, her mouth a grim straight line. "They've decided they want to talk to you after all."
"I'm sure I have heard of something very like this before," Alva says. His mind is buzzing with the tantalizing chase of the mysterious. How strange that Paul should dial that particular wrong number. He no longer believes in any such thing as coincidence. "I need to tap my contacts. I believe that one of them had an area of study that..."
They have an appointment with the lady who owns the house with the haunted phone number in two hours. It isn't enough time to reach his academic contacts and have a proper discussion over this, unless he delegates some part of the equation. "Are you up to driving, Paul?"
"Your car?" Paul responded flatly. Paul had had a rather dramatic head injury, but he had also received supernatural healing, and Alva does not think this any impediment to him being able to drive, weeks later. "You do know I put the last one I drove under a train?"
Alva waves a hand unconcernedly. Evie, as is her wont, has other plans and priorities. It is refreshing to have Paul, who is far more amenable.
"He's just not learned how to handle you yet," was Evie's whiplash opinion when Alva had dared comment upon it.
So they set off, Alva on his cellphone as they drive out of the city of Boston, off into the mystical styx of the somewhat wandering 555 local area code.
Alderley doesn't know but it still takes half an hour to escape that discussion, and Benedict corrects that, no, it was Simpson who had the collection of peculiar phone message urban legends, and of course, how could Alva forget? It still takes a little while, again, to escape Benedict.
Simpson's findings are fascinating. This case sounds like the one pertaining to three phone booths in the greater Boston area, and of course geographically, they are very close. There are similar cases - not the same - in Lancashire, England and Tokyo, Japan.
Alva doesn't have time to fully relay his findings to Paul, sitting next to him, or to Evie back in the city, because by then, they're pulling up outside the old, gabled house standing on its own amid overgrowing gardens. He has to make an apologetic retreat from his phone call with Simpson, standing on the lawn under Paul's judging eyes. He mournfully pulls the cellphone from his ear and regards his depleted battery reading.
"Well done. You got us here in one piece after all." Alva pats Paul on the shoulder in congratulation and briskly heads for the door, where a thin, dignified woman in her forties has seen them arrive in her driveway and is waiting.
She looks a lot like the woman Alva spoke to on the phone sounded. "Mrs Abigail Shore?" he calls before he's within ten feet of her. "I'm Alva Keel..." By now he's close enough to shake her hand carefully. He nods to Paul. "This is Paul, my colleague who heard the unusual message on your telephone line."
Mrs Shore looks Paul up and down. She says, "It's usually children."
Alva nods seriously. "The phone boxes downtown."
Paul frowns at him, but Alva doesn't explain. Mrs Shore invites them both inside.
She fortifies them - and herself, which Alva suspects to be the primary purpose of the exercise - with tea in the kitchen, before she takes them to the back parlour room and stands with her arms folded and her neck stiff and stretched, her face all but frozen as the seconds tick by loudly on a big wall clock for almost a minute before she can bring herself to say, hoarsely, "In here. My mother died in here, almost twenty-five years ago."
She goes to a small, ornate occasional table and places her hand on it. There isn't a phone there now, but there's an old socket in the wall, half painted over. "She was found lying stretched out just here. She'd been-" Mrs Shore chokes. "-Stabbed with a kitchen knife. The phone was off the cradle but had fallen out of reach of her hand. The police had the call records checked. She never called for help."
She notices the direction of Alva's gaze and explains, "I moved the phone out of here... There are others, upstairs and in the dining room... I never could bring myself to change the number, and eventually people stopped calling and claiming that they'd heard. Until recently, I'd allowed myself to forget it had happened at all."
After a wistful silent contemplation on all their parts, Alva says slowly, "So no call was made, and the phone it would have been made on... is no longer even here." He raises his eyebrows at Paul.
Paul asks, his voice a fraction gruff, "Did they ever find who killed your mother, Mrs Shore?"
No, they had not.
"Your house..." Alva gestures around with both hands. "Apart from the phone calls, have you ever experienced any other phenomena here in this house?"
"I have not," Mrs Shore says, with an edge to her voice that suggests she's far from happy with the question.
"Perhaps we can stop the phone calls from happening," Paul offers, gently, "and then you'll have assurance she's at rest. If you would allow us to investigate further..."
Mrs Shore gulps back emotion. Thank you, Paul, thinks Alva. "Yes... I think... Of course, that would be best."
Evie goes to the police station anyway. She has a hunch - maybe not one of Paul's kind of hunches, but her perfectly normal investigative intuition held her in good stead for enough years on the force.
Her old contacts pass her down to Sergeant March, whom she doesn't know. "Those prank phone calls" are their words; "He's the one dealing with those prank phone calls," dismissive and cool. Evie is sure she knows better.
Sergeant March talks to her first at his desk, looking hassled and overloaded with work, the case that she's chasing hardly his highest prioritised among it. After about half an hour, when they're down to the dregs of their bad police station coffee, they move the discussion out onto the streets.
"There are three phone booths," March says, "all within a few blocks of each other. They're gonna pull 'em out later this year. They've been there since the seventies, and that's when this started. 1979. I found it, way back in our records. The neighbourhood kids dug it up again themselves somehow, a few years ago. Some parent who was around back then must have told them."
"And it's the same message?" Evie asks, almost breathlessly, almost afraid. At least it isn't someone in trouble in the here and now, who they're failing to help, but there's something very chilling about the idea of a phone call from beyond the grave. "Why those booths?"
"I don't know..." He speeds his steps along the sidewalk, jabs his finger at the street corner ahead. "But here we are. All three are just one digit's difference - 3125, 3127, 3121. It's one connection, other than the place they're all at. But there's a 3124 box around the corner that so far as I know it's never seemed to work on."
Evie stands in front of the booth. 3125: she touches the printed number. She shouldn't, she supposes, be looking at it like she expects it to do something extraordinary and paranormal. It's only a phone booth. She bites her bottom lip and under March's watchful eye - and raised eyebrows - take out a coin to feed into the slot as she dials Paul's wrong number.
A woman answers.
"I am sorry," Evie says. "I work with Alva Keel. I'm just investigating a lead. You might hear from me again. You don't have to pick up; I'll hang up if I hear the call start to ring." She can hear Paul and Alva in the background. Alva is vehemently saying something about EVPs. She decides she'll leave talking to them until later.
She sets the receiver down.
"It doesn't work every time," March says. "I'll show you the other two."
"Just a moment." Evie scribbles the location and the booth's number on the city map from her pocket.
3124 is opposite a grocery store and she takes note of that one, too, as they pass.
3127 she dials the number from once again to no avail. She wonders if it's something to do with the person calling, as well as the number of origin. She would think that a bullet in her brain and the experience she'd had receiving it would be enough to mark her as straddling that unfathomable boundary, to bring out the unseen and unusual around her when she acts, like Paul... But she's never had that. Most of the time she isn't remotely sorry.
3121 is opposite a series of curved metal bars sunk into the ground, a cross between street art and a park for bicycles. Under the scrutiny of several kids hanging out there with skateboards, she dials the number again.
Ice slides down her spine as she hears the line click.
"Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying..."
It's an awful message. Paul's description didn't do it justice. The pain and desperation in the woman's voice move her deeply. Even if it's decades old, even if she's a ghost or only an echo. Evie listens to it repeat once more, then offers the phone to March. "Have you ever...?"
"No," he says sharply, backing off. "The one time was enough."
She can understand that. She sets the phone down. "Somebody's interested..." she murmurs under her breath. The local children are watching them still, all the more intently.
"Kids make a game of it," March says, sharp and judging. "Think it's funny, cool, scary. Creep themselves out with a creepy phone message."
Evie crosses the street to them, holding a hand up with a ten dollar bill between her fingers so they won't be tempted to run first. She can feel March's disapproval on her back. "Any of you make phone calls on this phone? You ever call this number?" She holds out the scrap of paper with Paul's scrawled handwriting on it.
There's a short silence. Their eyes flicker mostly back to March, warily.
Then: "Is she really dying? The lady on the other end. Is she dead?"
Evie says, "I think she may have died a long time ago."
Maybe she should have sugar coated it more. For all their bluster, they're only children.
"How did you know the number to ring?" she asks, more gently. "How did you know the message would be there?"
"Nate Fitzgerald," one of them says. "He said he got it from his uncle. But it's not doing anything wrong, to ring a phone number."
"The lady gets pissed off when it doesn't work," another counters.
"Yeah, but we want it to work. We're not trying to call and bother her."
"Do we get that money?" the first one asks.
"If you'll spend it on something to share." Evie hands the bill over and hopes they buy candy and not cigarettes, but it's out of her hands.
"The message and the method sounded too familiar. It is an urban legend. There are cases around the world of phantom phone calls, and only steadily more reports and new areas of strangeness since the advent of cellphones... A small number of cases are very like this one, tales of a repeating otherworldly message, reachable only on a certain line or lines." Alva leans over the table and sinks his chin deeper into his hands. "Who knows what haunts our airwaves? All the signals and messages we send out there, what do they travel through? What else might occupy that space?"
Paul shivers, and even more so at Evie's quiet attempt at a joke: "A whole new definition of a dead phone line."
Paul understands that children are always morbidly interested in the unknown - in scaring each other with the unknown more often than not. Still, it bothers him that this has become a plaything; the disrespect implied in that.
As Evie says, they're only children.
Alva merely raises his eyebrow and a hand with one finger extended, allocating her a point for the amusement.
"Do we really believe," Paul says, slowly, trying to kill any trace of impatience from his tone, "that this dead woman has been trying to complete her final call for help for over twenty years?"
"I don't believe," Alva says, too precisely, "I investigate. We have no means to tell, and we need to determine, whether this haunted line is the result of a spirit with a real intelligent consciousness, or simply the emotional charge of someone's unanswered need echoing down the years."
"She never made the phone call, or I'd suspect some kind of accidental recording." Paul frowns. "Even the phone doesn't exist any more."
"We need to investigate this house more thoroughly. I'm going to request that Mrs Shore allow us to stay overnight - preferably while she is not there also, if she has anywhere else to go and stay. Meanwhile, I've another... concern."
Paul looks up, keyed by something in his voice, but it's Evie who asks, "What?"
Alva answers Paul. "This one came to you. There is no link between our office phone and these phone booths. The numbers aren't similar. I suppose I have to entertain the wild possibility that it would have worked always, had anybody ever dialled that line before, yet... I don't entertain that. The instant I was given the telephone, the line connected normally."
"It... didn't work every time from the phone booths, either," Evie corrects, with a hint of apology.
Paul doesn't really credit it any more than Alva does. "I didn't mean it to come to me," he murmurs, "but since it did... Do you think that there's anything we can do to help?"
"Oh, I think they know you can help," Alva says, very seriously. "And I think they will keep coming so long as you are willing... perhaps even otherwise. This may not be the best of situations for you."
Paul shakes his head, biting down on the inside of his cheek. He's thinking about Tommy, a dead boy who's dead because he gave his life for Paul. If the dead really do need his help... He's not unwilling.
Alva looks at him like he can read his mind.
Evie clears her throat. "Something else. Two things. There is an unsolved murder caught up in this. Somewhere out there is the person who killed Rosalind Shore. We may not be able to send help that matters in response to that call, but if the guilty can still be held accountable, maybe that's what she needs to put her spirit to rest."
Paul isn't sure he believes that justice or vengeance are really so essential to those who've passed on, but Alva nods. "And?"
"Who was she trying to call? The phone call she never made, who would it have connected to?"
"All the numbers are similar," Paul says reluctantly. "That indicates it would likely be a variation on the handful of numbers we have."
"And that should be a connection we can make," Evie says. "I'm going to talk to Boston PD again and see if they're willing to re-examine the original files from the murder case."
Paul rings the number from the SQ telephone again; from the phone booths - the ones known to receive the message and the ones that aren't - and the public telephone in the library; from his own and Alva's cellphones.
He gets Rosalind's final message every single time. The dead always want to talk to him.
Alva repeats the experiment, but never gets it even once.
It's three days before it's convenient for SQ to investigate overnight at Mrs Abigail Shore's house: Mrs Shore has to stay with her daughter, thirty miles away, and the daughter is inconveniently busy. In the meantime, Alva shoots halfway across the country to investigate reports of werewolves in Kentucky, which turn out to be once-domestic dogs gone wild who happen to be associating with a half-feral teenager who managed to befriend the pack. Which while remarkable, Alva will admit freely, is not extraordinary in the SQ sense.
It's a relief to come home to some real ghosts.
"I don't know if you should... enthuse... about it so much," Paul comments to him, low-key, when he remarks as much on the journey back across country.
"I am not a tourist," Alva states. "This is serious business to me. And I am careful I don't 'enthuse', as you so charmingly put it, in front of the people connected with it."
"Yes, you do." Paul turns his face away as he speaks. A certain passive-aggressive streak, Alva detects in him. He purses his lips crossly. But he doesn't push it to an argument, because Paul was willing to go chase false werewolves across Kentucky. Evie was not. The next werewolves may not be false, and it would be useful to keep his back-up friendly. Still, something resembling enthusiasm from someone else Alva brought on board to SQ wouldn't go amiss, one of these days.
They return to SQ first to regroup, and arrive at Mrs Shore's house after 8pm, collecting the keys from a neighbour. She is already gone, not due to return until noon the following day. The back of Alva's car is full of equipment for paranormal detection, not the least item of which is Paul Callan, now snoring in the back seat behind Evie.
"Rise and shine," Alva says as he gets out, briefly pounding the back window with his palm.
Paul groans. "You're the one who dragged me across the country looking for nonexistent werewolves."
"Well, now we have a night of much more likely ghosts to keep awake for." Alva is aware of missing some no-doubt sarcastic non-verbal exchange that takes place between Paul and Evie as he goes around to collect equipment from the back. He ignores it and reels off to them a list of what they should bring out in which order.
The hoped-for goal of tonight is communication, but this is a truly unusual manifestation, and Alva will certainly content himself with establishing whether something is here: whether the ghost on the phone line has an origin in the physical location of the poor woman's death or if this haunting is more ethereal than even that, tied to signals and wires and numbers.
He loads cameras of differing types into the house, instructing Evie and Paul in the operation - more carefully the former, who lacks Evie's experience.
"I don't altogether see the point in this," Paul remarks. "If the ghost is in the telephone lines-"
"There is a very limited amount of investigative options we can employ upon a telephone line," Alva counters. "Therefore I do cling to some hope that the origin of the line may still tell us something."
He ticks off the locations where he placed the cameras from his ready-drawn diagrams. Most of his attention focuses upon the empty socket where the phone in the house once was, the line she would have used had she ever made that call, in the room where Rosalind Shore died. But he places some to cover where the phones are now, in case this haunting follows the means to make the call in the real world. He has three digital recorders and an EMF meter, and a regular camera that one of his research friends rigged up to take pictures outside of the regular spectrum. He doles out the spare digital recorders to Paul and Evie. "We'll rotate. One each to each phone point, current and former, throughout the night. Please remember to clearly verbally mark any noise you make, coughs and sneezes and stumbles and suchlike. But do try to restrict your noise to attempts to talk out this spirit. That, after all, is our goal tonight."
"Can I have the backpack and the boiler suit, now?" Paul asks, revealing a hitherto-unsuspected ability to reference popular culture. Apart from that interesting note, Alva's heard it all before.
"Droll," he comments, handing out spare batteries. "Energy drain in equipment is also a possible signifier of the paranormal."
Paul's eyebrows by now are firmly in his hairline. The Church sent him to investigate many things, but perhaps common-garden variety hauntings were not considered sufficiently miraculous.
"Come on, Dr. Venkman," Evie says in good humour, tweaking Paul's elbow with her fingers. "Don't wind up Egon while he's in work mode."
They head into the kitchen, where Alva hears them decide to ring for pizza, lest they begin the ghost hunt on an empty stomach. He hears the pause when Evie hands Paul the menu; hears, "No - you'd better call," and the shuffle of paper as Paul hands it back. The mere telephone has become the enemy, or at least something to approach with caution.
The night is quiet, much to Alva's obvious disappointment. They don't talk much - since they take separate shifts in separate rooms, there isn't a lot of opportunity for talk. Paul has spent a good deal of time in the lounge where the old phone socket it painted over, mostly at Alva's urging, by the time Alva takes a shift in there and Paul and Evie grab an illicit break in the kitchen.
"I don't know," Paul says, keeping his voice low. "I don't get... anything... from this place. I've been in houses - and public buildings - where people have died, where they say there's activity of some kind, and this-"
Evie is nodding even as he speaks. "It really isn't the house that's haunted."
"I don't have that feeling. I may not have used all of this-" Paul gestures vaguely, to the lounge by proxy but targeting Alva's gear "-but I've been at a few haunted places in my time, too. Mostly with the mission goal of disproving them. Not forgetting I also had a knack for that," he adds.
They fall silent, and in the silence they can hear Alva's voice droning low from the lounge, asking questions in pleasant, encouraging tones to a ghost that isn't there.
"Do you know how often we actually find anything?" Evie asks, even quieter than they have been talking, with a note in her voice that tells him everything he needs to know of the answer. He huffs out a breath of muted laughter.
Ghost hunting - hunting the indefinable - should be more exciting than this.
"Well," Evie continues, her teeth sinking into her lip in the moment's pause before she pushes on, "it's more often since you've come along."
Suddenly it's less funny. "I'm 'like a magnet for the unexplained'," Paul says with irony, and a lousy stab at an Oxbridge accent.
"Alva says some people are." She tips her head and moves one shoulder in an uneasy shrug. "You... don't have to listen to Alva." She smiles and waves at the closed door of the lounge. "The ghosts don't."
"There's no ghost here." Paul toys with the leftover slice of pizza she hands to him before abandoning it on the plate. "There is one thing I haven't tried."
Evie follows his gaze to the phone on the kitchen wall.
"I'll use the one upstairs." He starts walking. The room with a phone upstairs isn't directly above Alva and he has more chance of making this an experiment he does off his own back.
Upstairs in an overly feminine bedroom that almost makes him shudder all on its own account, he picks up the phone and hears the click and hiss.
He hasn't even dialled. The line connects... to nothing. A direct line to the other side. This is the source of the signal, after all.
Evie's head is craned up next to his and he feels her flinch as the voice replays, the same as always: "Help me... Help me... I think I'm dying..."
"Mrs Rosalind Shore?" Paul tries, his voice emerging anxious and breathy.
The phone line resets back to "Help me..." then clicks again, and stops. Still echoing, still sounding every bit of its distance and years away, the female voice on the line whispers, "Is that you, Paul?"
Paul's spine has turned to ice, but he makes his lips move. He has talked to the dead before. He owes Tommy. Fear is natural, but the dead don't deserve that, they deserve compassion, for they were people once and are yet still... "It's me. Paul Callan."
"Thank goodness I finally found you," the dead Mrs Shore whispers in his ear.
"You contacted me," Paul says slowly. "You must have thought I could do something to help. Tell me. Tell me how to help you."
The voice on the line returns to that repeating "Help me..." like it's back on its familiar track. Paul thinks for a second he's lost her. Then Evie drives an elbow into his side and hisses, "Who killed her? Who was she trying to call? Ask!"
"Madeleine..." the line grates one last time. "Madeleine killed me..." The voice fades and then is gone, and the line is silent, not even an unconnected ring tone coming through.
"Who is Madeleine?" Evie asks.
"I don't know." Paul's lips feel numb. "She didn't answer the question. Who was she trying to call?" His head pounds. He's so tired he can barely see. Maybe they'll never have any of the answers now, because something in him is insisting that was the last of the ghost, that that was the message it had been trying for twenty years to get through.
There is no Madeleine in the police files, but Abigail Shore remembers a Madeleine from the neighbourhood back then. They have to go back over twenty years and scour old housing records to find her. She moved away soon after Rosalind Shore's death. She's still alive, living in a different area of Boston. Evie passes the information on to March, though not their means of coming by it, and March agrees to investigate despite making noncommittal noises about a lack of physical evidence.
But he calls later to tell her how Madeleine Verney caved and confessed the moment he said he'd come to ask her about the murder all those years ago. She's old and near-incoherent, and still no-one really knows why she took a kitchen knife and murdered her neighbour. Just one of those things - Evie can hear the shrug in March's voice on the phone. "You get jealousies, rivalries, over nothing. Their daughters played together, they were both involved in the school's PTA board. Who knows what imagined slight caused Verney to lose it?"
"I know what it's like," Evie says, and thanks him and says goodbye.
Alva takes the time out of his day to be the one to pass on to Abigail Shore about the police's new developments in the investigation, for all that the police will do that themselves in good time. Evie goes, on his advice, around all of the telephone boxes in the downtown area. She spends several dollars of change and two hours connecting to the 'busy' tone of Mrs Shore's off-the-hook phone. Not once does the number connect to the other side and the dead woman's phantom voice.
It would mean more if Paul did it, but Paul won't. Drawing a line, he says, under ever hearing that message again. Under the incident as a whole. Still, Evie has heard the message before and she tries enough that it should cover things, under the law of averages.
She returns to the SQ office to find Paul sitting at the desk, staring at a scrap of paper with something brief written on it. The expression on his face is enough to alarm her.
"What's the matter?"
"I called Poppi," Paul says, his eyes still on the paper. "Looking for data from back when I was... from before the adoption. I can't access the records, but I thought he might have a contact. The number is disconnected, the records purged... has been for twenty years. So he let me have it. The number." He pushes the scrap of paper over the table top toward her. What's written on it is a telephone number.
Evie's stomach swoops unpleasantly in recognition.
"That's the contact number for the house where I was born," Paul says roughly. 617 555 3129... Evie's chills develop chills of their own. "Maybe the disconnect... maybe that was why her calls kept... bouncing... to all those other numbers. The phone booths." His voice dries up a moment. He looks paler than she's ever seen him, and she's seen him almost dead. "Maybe that's why they - if this call ever connected, kept connecting, if she was looking for me-"
"Oh, no, Paul. No. I'm sure that's not why you were given up for adoption."
Who knows who she'd have dialled for help while she was still alive, Evie thinks, but the ghost was always trying to call Paul Callan. The dead have been waiting for him, searching for him, since he was a baby.
"Now, how do you explain that?" Paul demands, and lifts his hands in disgust - despair? - and turns his head away from her. He kicks something, hard, under the table.
Of course, they can't explain it. No-one can.
"Back around 1975 when I was 9, some of the kids I knocked around with insisted we all pile into the nearest phone box to hear a spooky message. By dialling a number - I think made up of zeroes, ones and twos - and without needing to insert two pence, a woman, speaking in a curiously monotone voice, could be heard saying "Help me, help me, Susie's dying," over and over. Some of the lads said she sometimes said, "Help me, help me, Susie's drowning." Was it some weird engineer's test signal (hence no money needed)?" - Rob Dickinson, Lancashire 2000
"I can remember cramming into a phone box in the Stoneyholme area of Burnley with various other kids to hear the strange message related by Rob Dickinson. I cannot remember the number dialled. Could this be an early example of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) or just explicable interference on the telephone system, filtered through the active imagination of young witnesses?" - Christopher McDermot, London 2000
"I remember the spooky message when I was a child playing with the old red phone boxes in Burnley. Two phone boxes in particular were prone to mysterious scary voice messages - one at the top of Dalton Street on the Planetree Estate and the other at the end of Harold Street on Stoops Estate. As I remember, you put 2p in the slot and pressed 20202020 and the voice on the other end would be crackly but audible: "Help me, Susie's dying", which would send us kids running in all directions." - AG Russell-Dallamore, by email, 2003
"I am from Burnley and have a vivid memory of the said phone message. In either 1980 or 1981, three other girls and myself were loitering with the intent not to go back to school after lunch. We were messing around in a phone box near the school, calling random numbers and talking rubbish if anyone answered. (Well, we thought it was funny!)
One of the girls said she knew a number you could call to hear a 'spooky message' - I think there were 3s and 2s in it. When she called this number, we all heard the message as quoted in the previous correspondence. I have no doubts as to the phrasing of what I heard. It was a clear voice with no audible distortion. Needless to say, we were all a bit freaked out by this and when a British Telecom van pulled up nearby we made a hasty retreat and returned to school." - Tracey Maclean, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, 2003
[from the Fortean Times publication 'It Happened to Me! Real life tales of the paranormal' vol 1.]
Interestingly, while I was editing this fic I discovered the usage of 555 in US convention by both the telephone company and the television industry, as that code in fact remains unassigned to public numbers. I've followed convention in this fic, and feel a little bit weirdly meta about this as a play upon the ambiguity in the original tale...