Our Sparrow & Crowe series features stories about Dr. Xander Crowe and his faithful assistant Sparrow before, around, and after our main tale. These stories may contain clues as to our central mystery. Or they may not. We’ll never tell.
We hope you enjoy.
Sparrow & Crowe: Casting Fear
By David Accampo
When the phone rings, it’s the intercom from the lobby.“Hello?” says Tracy.
“Crowe,” says the voice from the other end.
“Please come up.”
Tracy Caldecott waits, pacing nervously in her living room. The dusty white light of Los Angeles creeps through the blinds on the windows. She wants to throw them open, let the daylight spill in, but she doesn’t dare. Henry doesn’t like the light. Tracy shivers at the thought.
The knock on the door startles her.
Tracy’s not sure what she expects when she opens the door, but it isn’t this. The man is tall and thin and impossibly rumpled, dressed in a big black overcoat, even though it’s only October in Los Angeles—still an arid 89 degrees. His hair, unwashed, erupts in wild tufts that intersect and tangle in an improbable explosion. His face is put together wrong—all odd angles, uneven… even the reedy hair on his chin seems like it might be affixed with spirit gum, a school play that never ended.
“Ms. Caldecott,” he says, coughing as though it’s the first time he’s spoken all day. His voice is strained, “You contacted my associate.”
“Yes. Ms. Sparrow.”
“Just Sparrow. Her Christian name is something altogether routine and not worthwhile. Sparrow’s the moniker upon which she insists, and who am I to judge? Poke fun at, yes, but that’s another story altogether. Ask her about the Michaelson affair—”
“Um, Mr. Crowe—“
“Doctor. She didn’t give you my credentials?”
“Oh, no, I’m sure she did, I’m sorry I just—”
He silences Tracy with a wave of his hand. It is at this point she notices he is wearing a single black glove on his other hand. He seems to favor it, holding it close to his body. She thinks it must be prosthetic. His voice, this time, is sharp. “Where is it?”
His question returns her focus. “Ah, well…it’s…he’s…”
“Yes, didn’t Sparrow tell you?”
“That you called it Henry? Yes, yes, she did. And that’s your first folly. You see, Ms. Caldecott, giving this entity a gender, a name, that’s the first mistake. Bonds it to you, you see, in your eyes it becomes a person, lost, misplaced, unable to move on…something you relate to, no?”
“You’re wearing an engagement ring.”
The doctor’s bloodshot eyes seem suddenly dazzlingly blue as they fix on her, scanning up and down. It feels worse than the objectification that comes from men at the night clubs. They see only what she wants them to see: push-up bra, careful eyeshadow, slimming red dress. This man, this rumpled black streak of a man, stares at her and she begins to unravel. She feels her atomic structure flinch under his gaze.
“And yet… this apartment. I give you points for allowing yourself to be a slob— lord knows I hate these fastidious neat freaks who need to scrub everything with bleach and ammonia—but his is not an apartment in which you entertain a man. Two bags of rubbish by the door. Dishes in the sink, but not enough to prepare supper for two. And I’ll hazard a guess that were one to open the freezer, one would find a stack of microwave dinners, perhaps next to a pint of ice cream for the particularly lonely days. I hesitate to ask, Ms. Caldecott, but is it customary for members of ‘Generation Y’ to use the sofa as a hamper…? I’ll have to remember to ask Sparrow about that.”
And then, as if this has brought his thoughts full circle, he puts one finger to his lips, turns to Tracy and asks, “How long ago did he break off the engagement?” As he speaks, Crowe walks across the small rectangle of her living room and throws the blinds open, letting in the light. Tracy flinches at the action. Her voice catches in her throat. She wants to be defiant, shove his smug attitude down his throat, but what comes out is: “A year ago.”
“Ms. Caldecott, if I may…” he says, and she thinks, no it’s not, but that doesn’t stop him, “You don’t need a specialist like me. What you need is a good shag. Do you mind if I smoke?”
The man flicks his lighter on, and Tracy isn’t quite sure when the cigarette went into his mouth. Perhaps it was always there.
“I’d really rather you didn’t,” she says, thinking, finally, it’s about time you said something you meant.
“Henry, you say,” says Crowe exhaling the smoke, “And where does Henry usually appear?”
“Sometimes in the living room, sometimes in the-the—”
“Oh lord, I truly hesitate to see the state of your bedroom. Let’s see if we can avoid it, shall we?”
Crowe stops talking then, thankfully, and steps into the center of the living room. The living room is small and messy, she has to admit, but she likes it here. This is her home. Or at least, it was until a week ago, when things started to happen.
Tracy had just returned home from a night at the restaurant. It had been a particularly long and grueling night. She hadn’t tipped out the host enough last time and he was giving her all the families, four-tops that stayed long enough for the toddler to finish mashing spaghetti into the table cloth, and tipping a couple of dollars before hastily making a retreat, avoiding any eye contact.
At home, there were no messages. Not her agent, with any kind of indication about the “flirtatious sorority sister” role on the sitcom that she was sure she had nailed. Not Tom, the man she had slept with after three dates and the promise of a fourth. It had been a long night, and while she would have liked the good news, she settled for the quiet and a glass of the shiraz she had picked up at the market last week.
She plopped down onto the sofa and clicked on the remote. A rerun of an old sitcom blared into familiar life, and it was just her speed. She leaned back against the sofa, tilted her head back, and then suddenly tensed.
There was a pressure on the sofa, as if someone’s weight had shifted. She was sure of it. She could feel the subtle rise. Her angle had changed. As if someone had settled down on the sofa, displacing her weight on the lumpy cushions.
Tracy had tensed, a shiver snaking down to the small of her back. She stopped breathing, listening for something. Movement. A shape. After a moment she stood in the center of the living room, eyes darting to each corner. Was it the wine? The sudden relaxation after a hard night? Yes, that was it, she thought, just a twist in perception. A kink in her sanity. She had never really felt uneasy since she had arrived in Hollywood. She liked her small apartment, liked living alone. She considered it a sign of her independence. Only once, when she had first moved into the apartment and the police had picked that particular night for a manhunt, completely with helicopters and spotlights shining into her apartment had she felt for a moment unsafe. But after a few minutes of kneeling against her front door, ear pressed against the cold wood, she began to feel some assurance by the raspy squawk of the police officers’ radios as they passed down the hall. Since then, she had never really felt uneasy in this city.
Until that moment, that simple shift of weight, that first sign she was not alone.
Nothing else happened that night, but that was only the first night.
On the second or third night, Tracy could no longer hide behind the illusion that it was only her mind playing tricks. Feeling uncomfortable, she paced around the small apartment living room. While it was small, she had never felt confined. Now, she did. She moved over to the tall bay window and slid open the vertical blinds. Her view was mostly other apartment buildings, but if she leaned one way and tilted her head just right, there was almost a view of the Hollywood hills. She leaned her forehead against the cool window glass, her eyes losing focus amidst the distant yellow lights from other apartments, from the streets below. She closed her eyes, listening to the rush of cars, the barking of dogs, the shattering of glass on asphalt somewhere in the distance. She opened her eyes slowly, leaning back to take in the picture of Hollywood. Before she could focus on the oily night, a flicker of movement caught her attention. The image of a man was reflected in the pane of glass. He was barely there, more shadow than light, but the round shape of his skull, the blackened sockets of his eyes were clearly visible.
Tracy spun on her heels, falling back against the glass window, she thought to force herself against the glass as the only escape route, despite the fact that she was three stories from the ground.
But there was no one there. Surely, another trick of the light, she thought. She was tired and she was not focusing. No matter how many lamps she turned on her small apartment never seemed well lit. Shadows clung to corners.
And that’s all it was.
Until she leaned forward, stepping away from the window. Behind her, the blinds suddenly slammed back in across the face of the window, pivoting in unison and slapping against the glass window, sealing her from the night.
Tracy didn’t scream. She would have thought she would in such a case. She had actually told herself that if anything like this actually happened, she would shriek loudly, bringing the nosy hippie couple from across the hall to her front door. These things never seemed to happen in groups of people, and she felt there must be a reason for that.
Still, the scream never happened. She stared back at the window, and then watched as the photographs on the shelf along the wall began to fall, one by one. She couldn’t exactly see it, but she could sense the movement, like an invisible current. She felt the chill creep over her, and she knew it was close.
“What…” she could hear own voice, but it didn’t sound like her at all. It sounded like a recording played back. “What do you want?”
A cold breeze pushed her hair from her shoulders.
“Who are you?”
She could feel the cold air sliding downward along her bare arm. Every muscle was tensed. She couldn’t seem to move.
In the air, a faint rasp, dusty and distant: “Henry.”
“Henry. What do you want?”
The cold stream suddenly left her. She turned her head slowly, scanning her living room very, very carefully. The presence appeared to be gone. Still, she waited.
“Henry?” She croaked timidly. “Henry?”
She chanced a first, tentative step. The apartment seemed to be empty again. The plastic strips of the window blinds, no longer glued to the pane, swayed slightly from the recent activity.
Tracy let out a long sigh. Whatever it was, it was over. She thought about who she should call, who to visit, to get out of this room. As she walked over to the phone, the stack of scripts she had sitting on the small dining table began to flap lightly as if the window was open. She froze again, stopped dead in her tracks, and she watches as the bound scripts began to spin and jump from the table. Papers came loose, whirling about, rectangular butterflies flitting around her.
And then as suddenly as it had began, it stopped. She felt one last blast of icy cold. She heard one last rasp, almost too faint to hear. But she was pretty sure that it had said, “Read.”
Tracy picked up the scripts slowly. She wasn’t sure what Henry had meant. Was she supposed to read the scripts or not read them? Was she supposed to read old newspapers and track down his ghost, similar to actions of the lead character in the horror script she had auditioned for last month? Everything she knew about ghosts was from the Discovery Channel and the stack of scripts that her agent had sent her. And most of those involved her character taking a shower.
One thing Tracy knew for certain was that answers were usually found in dusty old bookstores. But the closest match was probably Book Soup on Sunset blvd, and while she had seen several famous actors there at various times, she had never seen a “dusty, old” section, preferably one monitored by a gaunt librarian with a severe frown and piercing, bespectacled gaze.
She figured she’d have better luck on the Internet, and she was right. That was how she met Sparrow, and that was how this man, Dr. Crowe, had come into her life.
“Hardwood floors,” muses Crowe. “Hard to come by.”
“Yes, it was one of the reasons I really wanted this place…” as Tracy speaks, Crowe rummages in his coat and pulls out a large black marker. He pushes the coffee table over with his foot and kneels down. He begins to write on the floor. “What are you doing?” she asks, her voice rising.
“This works much better than it does on carpet,” he says smiling, then noticing her glare, adds, “Should come out with a bit of soap and scrubbing.” He returns to his drawing.
Crowe draws a wide circle around himself, punctuating points with strange symbols and what appear to be hastily scrawled words in a language she can’t identify. The occasional letters of the alphabet she recognizes do not fall into any sort of readable pattern. When he finishes, he caps the pen and stands up.
“There,” he says. “Now…we’ll need five candles and a whiskey. Neat.”
“I have red wine. Will that work?”
Crowe scowls, “Bring the bottle.”
Tracy rummages through several drawer and retrieved five candles of different sized and shapes.
“Is that papaya scented?” asks Crowe, sniffing.
“Sorry. Yes. Is that OK?”
“Quite. I rather prefer it. Now. The wine?”
Tracy fetches him the shiraz. He looks at the label, grimaces, then pops the cork and begins to drink directly from the bottle.
“Is that part of the…um…ritual?” asks Tracy as Crowe pops the bottle from his mouth and wipes his lips and mustache with one black sleeve.
“Oh yes. Personal ritual. Never hurts to get a bit faced before rousing a ghost, now does it?” he smiles.
“I really wouldn’t know,” mutters Tracy, but Crowe doesn’t notice. He’s begun shouting. Like the markings on the floor, Tracy doesn’t understand what the man is saying. She couldn’t repeat them even if she tried. She wonders how long before the nosy hippie couple will knock on her door.
And then Crowe stops.
He steps back from the circle on her floor, and Tracy begins to feel familiar cold air. A light breeze, colder than it should be, seems to slip past her. Papers rustle. Something seems to be converging in the air above the circle.
The air smells like burnt plastic, like electricity.
“What’s that smell?” she says, her voice getting lost on the wind that has begun to funnel and spin around them.
Crowe’s wild hair whips around his face. He turns back to her and grins. “It’s working!” he says.
And with that, Henry appears.
He’s faint at first, like a smudge, like a shadow caught suspended in the air. Tracy blinks, once, twice, and now she can see his face. Henry, at least as much of him as she can see, is a small man, balding, jowled, and wearing a suit. He seems far less sinister than he seemed in his brief appearance in the window.
“So this is it? This is the thing that’s bothering you? Why it’s hardly a ghost at all.” Crowe snickers at the shape held in the circle.
Henry seems sad, doe-eyed and pleading.
“Henry, what do you want?” asks Tracy, finding her voice.
Crowe hisses at her. “I told you not to humanize it. This is just a little echo that thinks it’s a man.”
Henry’s eyes change from sad and doe-eyed to angry black slits. The wind howls and they can both here the shriek, not the wind but not human either. The wind builds, spinning erratically until the force knocks Crowe off of his feet. He slides back into Tracy’s dining table. And Henry himself is gone. No, not gone. Spinning wildly around the room. Books and compact discs fly from her shelves. Collectible figurines shatter. The small coffee table flips over. And the blinds fly shut.
“Well, that’s done it,” mutters Crowe, rising slowly to his feet. “I told you not to give your pet a name.”
“He was fine until you pissed him off!” shouted Tracy, finally getting the courage to be angry with this ridiculous man.
“You failed to see the entire point of the exercise.”
“What are you talking about? You’re crazy!”
“Well, it’s acting just like a man now, isn’t it?” says Crowe.
“That’s got nothing to do with me!” shouts Tracy.
“Doesn’t it?” asks Crowe.
Tracy looks around the room, the tumult of laundry, books, papers, rubble. The ghost howls and shrieks, flipping pictures off of walls.
Crowe’s cell phone rings. He rummages in his pocket as he says to her, “It’s all bollixed up now…we’ve got to strip the thing of it’s—hang on a tick…Sparrow? Yes. Hmm-mmm. I see. Wonderful. Right. Got to run now. Yes.”
He slaps the phone shut and looks at Tracy. “New plan.”
Crowe turns away from Tracy. He shouts at the air, but this time, she understands him. “Oi! Henry! Pack it up and go! The studio caught you diddling little girls on the casting couch, and one of them is filing a lawsuit!”
He turns to Tracy then, his mouth a Cheshire grin, and says quietly, “I’ve always wanted to do this.” He turns back and shouts one last line, “You’ll never work in this town again!”
Then a final howl and Tracy’s framed poster of “Kiss of the Spider-woman” falls from its hook and shatters on the ground.
And then nothing. The entire apartment feels different. She can’t quite put a finger on it, but she feels alone.
Until Crowe begins to cough, a hacking cough that bends him over. He waves his hand in the air to suggest that everything is fine. He motions with one finger as if to say, “Just a minute.”
She watches him as the spasms die down. He straightens himself up, then smiles. “Well,” he says with a sigh, “That went well.”
“What happened to not treating him like a person?” asks Tracy.
“Oh, that. Right. Well, then Sparrow called. Turns out there was a casting agent lived here some years prior. Henry Beaumont. Bit of an odd duck, some possible indiscretions.”
“I don’t get it.”
“The only thing better than dehumanizing them is to find their human weaknesses.”
“I’m not sure that makes any sense at all.”
“Too right,” he says, nodding as if that had settled it. “On the other hand, this is Hollywood.”
Outside, down in the street, tires screech. A horn blares. Someone shouts.
Crowe picks up the wine bottle and takes another swig. “Awful stuff,” says, coughing again, then adding with a tip of the bottle, “you don’t mind if I take this, do you?”