“Do you want to see a ghost?”
Nice contralto voice, with but a hint of a French accent. She was tall, slim, her hair a black bob, wearing an angular cheongsam, shiny black silk with blue embroidery. Bangles jangled on her wrist when she lifted her glass to her dark red lips.
“A ghost?” I echoed her.
My voice was lost in the din. She was staring at me.
Her name was Zi Chao. Some associate of mister Liang, I remembered, who was acting liaison with the Ministry of Antiquities. Her boss lost somewhere on the dance-floor, she had drifted by my side at the bar.
“Shanghai is a haunted city,” she said. “And Xuhui District is more haunted than any other. Would you go there with me?”
I put down my glass on the counter. Anywhere would be better than the press, the heat, the noise. Anywhere with her.
“Come,” she said, and she put her arm in mine. Old fashioned. She smelled of tobacco and mimosa. I cast a last glance to our friends and colleagues, each one of them lost in the crowd, each one of them alone. Faceless strangers milling around to the sound of synthetic music. I collected my raincoat and hers, and she led me outside.
It was cold, and the air was clear. She opened her umbrella and pulled me closer, warm in the cold rain, suddenly physical. Fat raindrops drummed on the taut fabric. From the pocket in her black plastic mac she pulled a cigarette box. She eyed me, and I shook my head. She shrugged and lit up. Holding the cigarette between her first and second finger, she pointed. “This way. It’s not far.”
She took two turns into narrow side roads, and suddenly we were on a wide boulevard, the cars rushing by, tires turning the rain into a thin persistent mist. The old French Quarter. Low villas surrounded by white walls, and the occasional commercial glass building.
We passed the Saint Ignatius Cathedral, incongruously Gothic like something out of an old Dracula movie. A bus huffed as it closed its doors and left a deserted stop behind.
“There used to be a market,” my guide said, again pointing with her cigarette. “Xiangyang Crafts and Gifts. The authorities closed it down fifteen years ago.”
She nodded at the bright lights blinking in tempo with some secret music over the face of a distant building, peeking over the rooftops of the houses we were passing by. “Now there’s only shopping malls.”
The ghost of a plane roared above us, clouds masking its lights, all sound and no substance.
“Is your ghost haunting a shopping mall?”
She glanced sideways at me. “No, a library.” Serious, almost stern. “But it’s more complicated than that.”
Complicated suited her, it matched and complimented her beauty. She walked purposefully, long strides, heels clicking on the wet pavement.
“Will the library be open this late?” I asked.
The rhythm of her steps made it hard to hold a conversation.
“It’s always open,” Zi Chao said.
“Do you often invite strangers on ghost-hunting adventures?”
“Sometimes,” she said, and smiled.
Then she was silent. Lost in the sound of the rain and traffic, I huddled against her side, enjoying her warmth, and tried to keep apace. We passed a few people. A man in a black hoodie bumped into me, shoulder against shoulder. He did not say a word, but marched on, head low, face hidden. I shivered. Two tipsy businessmen leaned on one another, umbrellas and briefcases brandished like swords and shields. An old man pushing a cart loaded with cardboard boxes sang a sad song as he pushed along the curb.
“It was strange,” she suddenly said. Without slackening, she dropped her spent cigarette butt in the dustbin. “That story you told during dinner. About the nomads. The, how you called them? Utz–?”
“Uzegdel. It means specter, or so they told me.”
Over our meal, I had tried to entertain the other guests with some stories about my stay in Outer Mongolia, digging for fossils. I had hoped to catch her eye, attract her attention. Strange stories and legends are more fascinating than dead dinosaurs and dust. And yet I was surprised she had heard what I was saying, she had listened to me talking.
“The steppe,” I said. “It’s so empty and windswept, a man’s mind conjures up ghosts to fill the blank spaces.”
She turned to look at me. “And what does a woman’s mind conjure?”
I felt my cheeks burn.
“Here we are,” she said.
I looked around, suddenly lost. Dark buildings, private homes by their look, the good citizens fast asleep. A silent procession of street-lamps, and the amber pool of light of an old-fashioned telephone booth. I turned to her, and widened my eyes in a silent question.
Zi Chao walked up to the phone booth. Red, like its old London counterpart, and topped by a squat pyramid roof, a string of white ideograms along the eaves. She pulled the door open, and nodded me in. Bemused, I walked in. She folded the umbrella and placed it standing on the side of the booth. Then she followed me. The door shut behind her and we bumped into each other. The glass misted over, turning the outside world into a blur.
A blue dial-up phone on the wall. A rack with phone-booth-shaped bookmarks. A stack of notebooks, a bunch of pencils. And books, three shelves packed with paperbacks. I ran my fingers over the backs. I could not read the titles. I pulled one out. Agatha Christie’s face stared at me from the cover, wreathed in ideograms.
“The administration turned the booths into micro-libraries,” she said. She placed her smartphone on one of the shelves, and plugged it into a USB charger in the wall. She tapped the screen, and checked the time. “A few also serve as book-crossing hubs.”
We were real close. The scent of mimosa hung in the air like a mist, layered over her aura of smoke. I leaned on the glass wall, cold seeping through my clothes. She was looking into my eyes.
“Did you really see them?” she asked. Her voice was low, husky. “The faceless spirits of the grasslands?”
I tried to shrug. “It was probably only our guide pulling our leg.”
She frowned. “You do not believe it. You are lying to yourself. You saw something.”
“It was strange,” I admitted.
I remembered the solitary man, standing at the edge of the camp. I remembered the chill, the weight of his stare, the black emptiness inside of his hood. He was there, and then he was gone.
Gone from the camp, at least, but not from my dreams.
My arm was numb where the man in the hoodie had bumped into me.
“You are wrong, you know,” she said.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and leaned closer still.
“It is not the emptiness,” she said, “that calls to them. It is solitude. That’s the reason why a big city can be as haunted as a stretch of wild grassland.”
Zi Chao’s breath congealed into thin clouds of mist. I shivered. She placed her hand on my chest, and pressed gently. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispered. “It’s all right.”.
It was behind her. I watched as it placed its long, skeletal hands over her shoulders. It had long, black fingernails. My eyes would not shut. I could not look away.
It peeked from behind her head, its face gaunt, famished. Eyes like black pools and a mouth like a gash. The skin gray, lined.
I opened my mouth but Zi Chao placed her finger on my lips. “Hush,” she said. “She won’t hurt you.”
My heart roaring in my ears, I spied the dull, mottled silk of the thing’s red and blue dress, hanging from her shoulders like from a clothespin. A string of dull pearls on her sere neck. A gold ring on her finger, she stretched her hand towards my face. A strand of black hair fell across her ruined cheek.
A desperate rattle escaped my lips, and still my companion pressed with her finger. “Hush,” she repeated. “She won’t hurt either of us.”
An earthy smell had flooded the booth, overwhelming the flowers and tobacco. The lights in the booth blinked, once, twice, and went out. Only the screen of the smartphone was giving off a faint glow. There was no car traffic outside, no people on the pedewalk. We were alone, suspended in nothingness, trapped in the glass and metal box. Trapped with that hungry thing. A thing that was solid, physical. Real.
Her fingers touched my cheek, feeling like old paper. Zi Chao’s lithe frame was pressed against me, pinched between my body and the apparition. The plastic of her raincoat crackled. “It’s all right,” she whispered.
A deep sigh escaped the lacerated lips of the ghost, a sound so deep the glass walls of the booth rattled, and so heartbroken, so desperate, my vision blurred with tears. She pushed her face forward, her tan ruined cheek brushing the pale glowing cheek of Zi Chao. She was wearing dangling silver earrings. Penciled eyebrows, and a beauty mark on her cheekbone.
The movement of her jaw caused her skin to crack, exposing a row of yellowed teeth through a tear in her flesh. She straightened, and retreated. She pulled her hand back, and touched briefly the back of my companion’s hand. “Merci,” she whispered again.
She shifted back, and disappeared behind my companion’s shoulders.
The smartphone chirped, and the lights blinked back on. A truck rolled by, shaking the ground.
Zi Chao looked into my eyes. “It’s over,” she whispered. She ran the tip of her thumb across my cheekbone, from left to right. She sucked on the thumb, tasting my tears. The pressure of her body on mine was gone. She stepped back, leaned against the glass wall, and rummaged in her pocket for her cigarettes.
“Loneliness can be a terrible thing,” she said. She took a deep pull, filling her lungs with blue smoke.
“Who’s she?” I croaked. My mouth was dry, my tongue thick.
Zi Chao shrugged. “She’s been with my family for–“ she waved with her hand. “A very long time.”
She tapped some ash on the floor. “My father knew her better. He used to burn ghost money for her. But I found out company counts more than money, ghostly or otherwise.”
We were silent for a long moment.
She ran her fingers on the creased backs of the paperbacks. “She loved to read,” she whispered. “She loved–stories.”
From somewhere outside came the voice of the old man, singing as he pushed his cart.
“Why did you bring me here?” I asked finally.
Zi Chao gave me a long, sad look. Her hand dropped to her side.
Her lips brushed my cheek, like a fluttering butterfly.
“She can be grateful,” she whispered in my ear. “Your grassland ghosts will not follow you anymore.”
Davide Mana was born and raised in Turin, Italy, with brief stints in London, Bonn and Urbino, where he studied paleontology (with a specialization in marine plankton) and geology. He currently lives in the wine hills of southern Piedmont, where he is a writer, translator and game designer. In his spare time, he cooks and listens to music (mostly jazz, these days), takes photographs of the local feral cats, and collects old books. He has a blog called Karavansara, and co-hosts a podcast (in Italian) about horror movies, called Paura & Delirio.