The brownstone on Martin Street was pretty much the way the letter from the property owner had described. Made of rusty red bricks and bordered on the front walk with tall, blooming cherry blossoms, a tenant couldn’t ask for a better spot in New York. Even so, there was an air of nervousness drifting from beneath the shutters in the windows. There was a shiftiness from inside that Joey could sense, even while he drifted beside Rosa as she spoke with John Jorge, the property owner.
Joey passed his eyes briefly to “Jorgie,” a man in his fifties who insisted on dressing like a college dropout. Khaki-colored pants that didn’t make it to the ankles, heavy-duty sandals, a flannel shirt over a graphic t-shirt, and a ponytail with a receding hairline just made him…uncomfortable.
“Come on, let’s hurry it up,” he grumbled to Rosa. He hated how she always insisted on getting as much information from the “sideshow” as possible.
Rosa only acknowledged Joey by shifting her feet and lifting her chin, feigning more interest as Jorgie discussed his purchasing the brownstones in his thirties, wanting to make it big by owning big. “I got a pretty penny in the bank; let me tell you,” he said, and hiked up his pants, causing his slight potbelly to hang over the edge of his fly.
“Yech. Even you can do better, Red,” Joey said; Rosa chewed her lip but otherwise said nothing. It was probably for the best. The fewer people who saw Red talking to herself, the less likely she was to be dragged off to the looney bin.
For a minute—as it always happened when Joey let his ethereal mind wander—he thought back on Lauren in that hospital bed, thrashing, the medics struggling to hold her down as she stared right through them…and right into his eyes.
Throughout the few years that Lauren had cared for Rosa, Joey had begged her to take one case a week, then one case a month, just to prolong the amount of time before the fits would start. “Please, Lauren,” he had said after Rosa was put to bed for the night, and Lauren would stand on the balcony smoking her cigarette. She had cut back dramatically to only three a night, striving ultimately to zero. “Please. You say it won’t happen, but I know. I saw it with your mother; I know the warning signs. Please, just talk to me. Do something—anything—before it’s too late.” But Lauren wouldn’t glance at him, even when there was no chance of anyone seeing. She acted like he didn’t exist.
It hurt him more than he ever wanted to admit.
And when the fits finally did begin, he couldn’t even call an ambulance for her. It took her banging and shrieking through the floor for the downstairs neighbor to look into what was going on.
Little Rosangela had been found under the kitchen table by one of the paramedics, holding her teddy bear Griff and staring where Lauren had been lying. From what Joey could tell, she hadn’t retained the memory.
“Well, here’s the key.” Joey blinked as Jorgie dropped the item into Rosa’s hand. “You’re just about good to go. You got about five minutes till the smell hits, and whatever is causing it to, well, happen again.”
“You’re not coming in?” asked Rosa in surprise.
Jorgie’s pathetic shrug and whining, “Well, here’s the thing,” was answer enough, and Joey rolled his eyes and flew on ahead through the front door.
The interior of the brownstone was as nice as its exterior. Spacious with hardwood floors leading from the entryway towards the kitchen and the living room, it had all the feelings of a classic single-family home, with rounded moldings and clean, spacious walls. Joey squinted through the unlit rooms, keeping an eye out for that familiar whisper of movement, that strange lighting that hinted at a spiritual happening.
“Hello?” He sifted towards the kitchen, mindful of the strengthening tug that anchored him to Red from outside. “Anybody home?” It only took a minute for spiritual vibrations to attune to each other; calling out helped to speed up the process. “Don’t worry; I’m not out to hurt you.”
“Shhh!” a voice hissed, and Joey jumped and flew back. Squatting in front of the oven door only a few inches where he had just been roaming, a plump woman with thick, bushy hair squatted in heavy concentration. Had she been alive, she most likely would have been an African American in her sixties with salted hair. Reading glasses dangled from her neck and knocked against her knees.
Joey drifted near her, observing her actions carefully. “Um, hello?”
“I said, shhh!” The woman squinted into the oven doors and whispered, “You know better than that.”
“Know better than what?” said Joey in a regular voice, to which he received another vicious hush.
The woman rose to her invisible feet, shoving her glasses onto her nose. “When my brownies are rising, you know I don’t like to talk. It disturbs the taste.”
Inwardly, Joey sighed. Another classic case. Well, at least it wouldn’t be any tougher than usual. He and Red could fulfill their quota early for the week and get a head start on the next incident.
From the entryway, the sound of a key twisted in a lock, and the front door creaked open. “Joey?” called Rosa.
He called back, “In the kitchen,” and received yet another hiss. “Just keep your voice down in here,” he murmured. “You don’t wanna disturb the taste of the brownies.”
Rose started to say what brownies, he was sure. Then she stopped and took a deep breath. The expression that passed over her face gave him pause, reminding him of the euphoria that had once moved through Lauren as they passed a group of smokers one crisp fall morning.
He took a sniff himself. The rich, chocolate scent of freshly baked goods was undeniable. He wondered with an internal shock that he could smell them at all, when he remembered that the scent most likely permeated from the ghost, not from the oven. Somehow, it had transcended into the physical world, too.
The woman herself was nodding at their faces. “There it is. That’s how you know they’re just about ready to come out of the oven. Now, ya’ll be good and get out of the kitchen while I finish this up, and we’ll all have a hot bite and a glass of milk once Cookie Tree gets home.”
“Cookie Tree?” Joey and Rosa repeated.
But the woman was already fluttering at them, waving her hands and urging them out of the room. “Go on, now. Don’t be troubling me with your little nagging. Go watch some Sugar’s Adventures while I finish up in here.”
Joey tried desperately to bypass the woman’s persistent voice but, like any maternal figure in the later years of her life, it was absolutely futile and he soon found himself in the hallway with Rosa.
“She seems pretty strong-willed,” observed Rosa.
Leave it to her to state the obvious. Joey would have said this out loud, had he not gotten himself hung up on the last statement the woman had said.
“ ‘Sugar’s Adventures.’ “ He had never heard of it, not in any medium. Glancing back as the woman drifted around in front of the oven, he said, “Can’t say that rings a bell. That some kind of puppet show, or a thing on that cable box of yours?”
“You mean a TV show? Probably. I’ve never heard of it before, either.” Rosa blew out a breath in frustration. “If I had a smartphone, I could look it up now.”
What a dumb-sounding name. “What the heck is a ‘smart’ phone?”
“Never mind.” Shaking the wistfulness away, Rosa adjusted her glasses and gazed around her. “What else did she say? That weird name.”
“You mean ‘Cookie Tree’? Yeah, I got that. Sounds like a nickname.”
“Well, that’s two clues already,” Rosa said, wandering towards the mouth of the living room. “Maybe if we can figure out when this ‘Sugar’s Adventure’ show played and who this ‘Cookie Tree’ is, we can narrow down who this woman is.”
Like Joey said—classic and quick. They’d be done by the end of the week. “Sounds good to me. Let’s get home to your electronic computer box and get to researching.”
Rosa glanced back, raised a sarcastic, smirking eyebrow. “Oh, suddenly it’s not that useless, huh?”
“Look, if it makes you feel better to ping away at that thing, who am I to deny you your little pleasures?”
“Hmm.” Rosa turned back around. “Well, that’s not the only resource we’ll be using. We’ll have to meet with the property owner again to get a list of occupants from whenever the ghost was living here.”
“No problem.” Joey floated backwards towards the front door. “Let’s get to it.” Rosa didn’t move, and Joey slowed. “Well? Shake some feeling into those legs, Red.” She said nothing, didn’t turn around. “Red?”
Finally Rosa spoke, her voice slow and careful. “Joey. The ghost we saw in the kitchen. She was an elderly woman, wasn’t she?”
Joey was annoyed. Again, Red was asking the dumb, obvious questions that he shouldn’t have been bothered to answer. He drifted towards her back, stating, “Uh, yeah. Any spook without a veil over their eyes could see that.”
When he approached, Rosa spoke again, this time with a little more control. “Okay. Well, if that was her, than who is that?”
Joey followed Rosa’s nod into the center of the living room until he saw what she saw, and pure, staggering alarm filled his floating form.
A young black woman stared back at them, her own face flooded with utter shock and fright. That wouldn’t have been so bad had she been fully transparent and floating with no visible feet—as was the standard look for a ghost. As spectres were a part of another level of existence, feet really served no purpose. So, they weren’t there. It made perfect sense.
This girl broke those rules. She was transparent. But she had feet. And she was staring right at them like she was the one seeing the ghosts.
Joey was the first one to break the awkward silence. He drifted forward a bit, watching to see if the girl’s eyes followed him. Sure enough, she jerked back, twisting to keep him in her vision. “Hey. It’s alright. We’re not gonna hurt you. We just wanna talk.”
That must have been the wrong thing to say. The girl hugged herself, hovered a bit with her feet off the floor, and vanished.
“Hey!” said Joey, but he had no chance to think long before something caused him to plug his nose and whip around towards Rosa in horror. A stench—the horrifying, bittersweet smell of brownies neglected in an overheated oven—billowed into the room. Only, it was as if the stench had a volume knob, and the knob had been twisted all the way up to ear-splitting—or rather, nose-splitting—maximum.
Rosa groaned and ran down the hall towards the front door. Joey followed her, but not without peering good and hard into the kitchen. The original ghost—the plump, headstrong elderly woman—was gone, too.
Rosa stood at the base of the brownstone stairs when Joey finally exited, waving a hand in front of her face. “What happened?” she demanded. “Was the first ghost there?” There was no one on the street; otherwise, she wouldn’t have been so open with her dialogue.
Joey shook his head, slipping his hands into his jacket pockets. “I’m afraid not, sweetheart. Looks like she either flew the coop with that other…spirit, or the smell triggered her vanishing act.” Joey tried to act cool, but that was near impossible with his nose and the inner corners of his eyes burning. “Whatever happened, looks like we missed our window of opportunity for the day.”
“Window?” Rosa stared at Joey in surprise. “I thought ghosts didn’t operate on normal time.”
“Ghosts don’t even operate on time. You should know that by now.”
A car slowed down on the street behind them. Rosa glared at it over her shoulder until it passed, then stepped closer to Joey and muttered, “Don’t act you know what’s going on. I saw your face with the second ghost. She didn’t look the same as the other ghosts we’ve seen. And she was wearing jeans.”
“Ghosts can’t die in casual wear?”
“Something’s off.” Rosa’s voice went flat in that way when she was trying to get her point across without being cruel. It always amused Joey, and today was no different. “The first ghost might be normal, but that second one’s different.”
“And? What do you expect us to do? I don’t exactly have a research lab to access. And the second ghost didn’t give us any clues besides the fact that she wears jeans.” Joey shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, darling. We’ll handle the ghost we can understand and then come back and see what we can do about the other. Capisce?”
Rosa leaned back, and her shoulders slumped. She said, somewhat flippantly, “Joey, that’s French.”
Joey stared, dumbfounded at her level of stupidity. “No, it’s not; it’s Italian.”
And Rosa, unbeknownst to Joey, felt exactly the same way. “Never mind! Let’s just go.”