In this piece of flash fiction, the second Paramusicology story, Nikki begins to explore the paranormal world in her own neck of the woods.
I shouldn’t have come here, but I couldn’t help myself. The stories were too good and too many to ignore. After three weeks of trying to talk myself out of it, I finally succumbed to curiosity. I slipped a barista some money and he let me in after he’d closed up for the night.
The tiny place was now an upscale coffee shop. The smell of dark roast and blueberry muffins permeated the space. Faux vintage travel posters of European capitals adorned the beige walls. Generic bistro tables crowded the floor. The price of a latte made the place upscale, not the lousy décor. It was comforting to the type of people who went in for gentrification, so it was a popular spot for the area. Nobody who bought their free trade mocha venti and organic lemon poppy seed muffin on their morning commute had any idea about what this place used to be.
I used my teeth to hold my flashlight while I opened my messenger bag and took out a slim stack of photos. All of them had either been downloaded or photocopied out of books. Carefully I arranged them on tables so that I was soon surrounded by images from the Fifties. Black and white shots of local jazz clubs, their neon signs eye-catching despite the lack of color, with classic cars parked out front. Interior shots so packed full of people, the décor was impossible to make out. Portraits of the big names of the day caught in the full glory of performing, their instruments an extension of their very selves. Once I’d distributed all of my photos, I sat at a table and took a fat pillar candle out of my bag, followed by a lighter.
I had no idea what I was doing. I’d come across the stories about this place having been a hot jazz spot in the fifties, and that some nights you could still hear the music. Not a haunting, exactly. More like an echo of the past, the music so deeply imprinted into the cells of this chunk of real estate that it never really left. The photos and the candle were my own ideas, not the result of any research into communing with the paranormal. It just…felt right.
My first encounter with the supernatural was pretty intense: a vampire hunting Elvis impersonator on the trail of the monsters who’d killed his mother. Not that I’d been able to write about that for Turntable Magazine. Turntable was strictly a music rag, no ghost stories and creature features welcome. The lack of a paycheck never stopped me from writing in the past, though. I’d written about my experience meeting Elvis Jones, Vampire Hunter, and the story was currently passed off as fiction and getting about three page views a week on an anonymous blog I’d set up. I’d write about this night, too.
The candle cast a pale yellow light on the old photos. I stared into the flame and tried not to think about anything. Minutes passed; how many, I had no idea. My eyes slipped in and out of focus and the muffled noise from the street gradually fell away.
The atmosphere shifted from one second to the next. Cigarette smoke. Not heavy, just enough to scent the air and tease at the back of my throat. Next came a susurrus of voices, conversations ebbing and flowing around me, spiking in volume then dropping to barely audible in the space of a syllable. The clink of glasses and the cha-ching of a cash register. Chair legs scraping across the floor. Heavy footfalls and the lighter tat-tat-tat of high heels. And then somewhere in all that crowd noise, a trumpet began to blow.
The flame danced as something passed close by. A mere suggestion of a shape, with a hint of watery color, gone in a blink. Feminine laughter rang out and for a moment the scent of tobacco was overtaken by floral perfume. Careful not to move too much, I looked around the room. At best I could make out flickering, out of focus images. Like an old movie reel shown on a fluttering sheet in the rain. Not much to look at, really, but it didn’t matter.
The music grew stronger. I found that if I let the rest fall away and focused on the music, just the music, it came through better. As if I’d fine-tuned the signal. Hella weird, yeah, but for the time being, I was just going to go with it.
At one time or another, the titans of West Coast jazz all played this little dive bar. Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Curtis Counce, Stan Getz, Shelly Manne, Dave Brubeck, Art Pepper. So many talented musicians, and they’d all left an echo of themselves here. Central Avenue hard bop and Hermosa Beach cool blended and overlapped for a while, until the music finally sorted itself into a single song. A guitar driven version of the classic Round Midnight filled the shop. I sat back and let it wrap around me, fill me with its relaxed late night at the beach mood. The music soothed like gentle waves lapping at the sand. Soft horns complimented the guitar, the two twining around each other in a casual dance.
What the hell was I doing here, looking for things that go bump in the night? I wasn’t a believer in the paranormal, at least, not until I’d had a set of vampire fangs coming at me. Night after night, fangs came for me again in my nightmares. I didn’t want to think about it, but at the same time, it was all I could think about. Once my eyes were opened to the possibility of what else might be out there, I couldn’t ignore that knowledge no matter how hard I tried. So I researched. I collected anecdotes. And now, for the first time, I was searching for confirmation.
Confirmation I’d found in the echoes of long-ago music, imprinted like a brand in the atoms that made up this little plot of space. DNA etched into the brick and mortar of the building itself. I sat in my chair and breathed in the telltale hints of smoke and gin. Watched the blurry, watercolor shapes suggestive of people dancing and talking and playing instruments. Mostly I listened to the music because that’s what drew me here in the first place. A chance to hear historic West Coast jazz live, even if it was only a kind of haunting? Come on. No way could I pass that up.
The search for spook would get me in trouble. Of that, I had no doubt. The dark was a dangerous place and I didn’t have a map to guide me through it. Hell, I barely had a flashlight. I didn’t care about generic ghosts or demons in the PTA or cursed paintings of dogs playing poker. It wouldn’t be the random stuff that got me in trouble – I knew that instinctively. No, what would get me in trouble with the paranormal was the same thing that always got me in trouble: music.
But right then, as I enjoyed my private concert, I didn’t worry about what might be over the horizon. I let that jazz slide into my veins until I forgot to worry about the likely dangers of chasing the spook. Just this one time wouldn’t hurt. There was nothing dangerous in this musical echo, or in being a little curious.
Just this once, and then I’d stay away from the spooky stuff for good.