Professor Jonathon Holzer held up the rusted knife for all to see. There wasn't anything special about it from its appearance. The only clue that the antique had any kind of significance was in the fact that there were two armed security guards in the room, watching Holzer like a hawk. He was allowed to use the knife in his presentation, but for insurance purposes the guards had to stay.
"According to the theory of psychometry, objects absorb the emotions of their owners and those around them and remain a repository of those emotions indefinitely." Holzer paused. "For example, this knife here. A historical icon, if you like."
All eyes focused on the knife.
The knife was surgical in nature-a nineteenth-century post-mortem knife: long-bladed, slim, with a sleek wooden handle meant to be used lightly in the palm of the hand. Located at the base of the blade near the handle, was a thumb rest for sudden upward cuts. This feature alone made the medical instrument ideal for cutting open bodies.
"If we are to take the definition of psychometry at its word, this little fellow that I'm holding should tell us quite a story. You see, I'm holding in my hands the knife reported to have been used by none other than Jack the Ripper himself."
A hush filled the room.
Jonathon Holzer planned his college courses with the same level of preparedness which a general would use in detailing his soldiers for battle. Indeed, he looked at what he did as a kind of war-the most important kind. Holzer taught the science of parapsychology, and to make one believe in the unexplainable in these cynical times was a battle all its own. Passion was at the heart of everything Holzer presented to his "kids", as he liked to call them. Nothing was more rewarding than to make a logical mind stop and consider the possibility that two plus two could, if given the right circumstances, equate to three. The possibility of the absurd-the means and willingness to accept that there was more to this world than science had to provide, the opening up of one's mind; that was more important than anything Holzer could think of. That was why he became a teacher.
"I have brought to this class a psychic who will help us test this theory. His subject will be this knife." Holzer held back a smile. "So, class, are we ready to see if Jack the Ripper has a name?"
The college amphitheater filled with a controlled hum. Students from almost every tax bracket, age, and intelligence level filled the seats. Most professors would never be given the permission to stage such a class, but Holzer kept the seats in his classes filled. People would sign up years in advance to take his courses. Most paid full price in advance in order to guarantee them a seat.
In truth, the psychic was just there to get their attention. And, as far as Holzer was concerned, so was the knife.
"I would like you all to put your hands together and help me welcome Hans Peters to our class."
Applause filled the room.
Hans Peters entered. He was an ineffective little man. Quite ordinary. Holzer had come across this individual while on vacation in Germany. The psychic had the ability to zone in on answers that would cause an FBI agent to gloat with jealousy.
"Mr. Peters," Holzer said, motioning the man to take his seat. A simple stage had been set up in advance, consisting of a chair, table, and one lone glass of water in case it was needed. "Please, take your seat. Explain to my students if you will that you have no idea of what I'm trying to accomplish here today. And, most important, that you are not being paid for this action, sir."
At the last, Hans Peters gave Holzer a stern look. "Sir! I would never use my powers for the gaining of money. I am a servant of God." The psychic's face exploded in a spastic look of utter disgust at the idea of being such a mercenary. "If you wish to know your fortune, I can recommend a phone psychic."
Holzer held up a hand with the greatest academic respect. "Sir, I do not mean to judge," Holzer finally stated, again offering the psychic a seat.
"I hope so, sir," Peters said. "My powers are a manifestation of God in man. I'm here to show that to you all."
"And we are here to witness." Holzer reached for the knife, showing it to Peters. "Now, if you please."
The amphitheater fell silent. All eyes became fixed on Holzer, the psychic, and the knife.
Peters took three huge breaths, challenging his body to exhale more than the ordinary man. In trying to accomplish this exercise, Peters seemed to be pushing his body into a trance. Convulsively, he reached out for the knife. His eyes rolling, he started to force up words.
"I am ready," he stated.
Awkwardly, Holzer placed the valuable knife into Peters' hands. The college professor was mildly amused when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the security guards move forward, as if to size up the change in situation. Do not fear, man. If that knife gets damaged, my reputation goes with it. I wouldn't even be able to check out a library book after such an event.
"I sense hate," Peters barked, his eyes rolling white. His hands explored the knife. "A hatred of women. Of being forced to love an older woman. Of motherly love gone terribly bad. I see…"
Peters froze. His pallor took on that of a corpse. All color left his face and it seemed as if he couldn't wake himself up. He shook, appearing to be in some unknown danger.
"Mr. Peters?" Holzer inquired.
There was no response.
"Mr. Peters?" Holzer repeated. "Are you well?"
The psychic forced himself out of trance, blinking his eyes open. On his face was the look of terror which Holzer had only seen once before in his life: veterans from the Vietnam War who had volunteered to be subjects in a dream test he had conducted over twenty years ago. The horror in their eyes when they awoke, the terrifying results of that case still gave him the shivers. Peters' eyes matched the rage, surprise, disgust, and utter fear of those poor subjects. For one second of doubt, Holzer believed he had gone too far to prove a point.
"No!" Peters shouted, casting the knife aside.
The long knife bounced to the floor, making a hollow metallic sound. All eyes stayed glued to the weapon. No one said a word. It was as if time had stopped, respecting the importance of the knife.
"I will read no more, Professor," Peters cried, obviously shaken. The psychic wiped a layer of sweat off his forehead. "I am sorry, but I must leave now. I thank you all." With that, Peters left.
Holzer cleared his throat, picking up the knife. He noticed the concerned looks he was getting from his students and thought it time to explain. After all, this was the effect he had wanted. This was the state of mind he wished to place his students in.
"Mr. Peters will not be back, ladies and gentlemen." Holzer reached for a remote control, turning on a large projection screen behind him and in full view of all of his students. "Still, what he provided will be reviewed by us all at a later date. Thanks should be given to him and Scotland Yard for the prologue leading up to our current lessons."
Holzer started a slide show, which seemed to flash calculated pictures of an old Victorian house of some kind. The projection screen showed all the students several quick and beautiful pictures of the house-a mansion. The students could see that it was an old house, quite distinguished, having within it a certain negative feeling which the shots of the house seemed to magnify. This was not a house to be taken lightly.
"Fear," Holzer said, "is the most valuable motivation that mankind has at its disposal. It is the most primal force at an instinctive level. Man can move mountains with fear."
Holzer paused for effect.
"Things that go bump in the night," he stated, holding back a smile, noticing the hard looks he was getting from the security guards, packing up the knife. "A cold chill that catches your attention at three in the morning. The feeling of being watched. Or the need to leave a room for reasons you cannot explain, with the feeling of supreme terror. These are the things that make up a haunting."
The students' voices started to rise amongst themselves. Professor Holzer was going to talk about hauntings! A subject that he had been forbidden to discuss ever since the Sallie Hauntings, which cost him the souls of half his team five years before. Holzer himself was amazed that the Dean allowed such a venture. In truth, enrollment was low and the campus was in need of funds.
Those, Holzer could raise.
"Let us take as a prime example the knife we have just examined," Holzer continued. "Totally against science but always beckoning for us to prove them wrong, ghosts, demons, and inanimate objects have defied us from time immemorial. That is why you are here, and that is why I teach."
Holzer studied the faces of his students. He saw that they ranged in ages from teenaged to elderly. All were listening to him with bated breath. Some, as with all classes, were writing notes, and others were simply lost in thought. Holzer did, however, get the impression that most were delighted to be there with him and not at all wasting their time. That was good. That was what mattered.
"Haunted houses…" Holzer allowed the words to echo throughout the room and rattle in the mind of each student. "Those two words have held the human imagination captive since mankind started to think. Leap Castle in Ireland. The Tower of London. Even the White House has had its episodes of the unknown."
Holzer noticed a young girl, no older than twenty, glancing up at him with a curiosity best aimed at a twenty-year-old boy. Dear God! There was one in every class.
Holzer was in his late forties, intelligent but not cocky. He wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses which gave him a fatherly image of a man who seemed to know all about the subjects he taught. Not fat but a bit on the heavy side, he walked with a rhythm that allowed him to associate with the young. He was a man who never really lost his youth.
He continued, trying his best not to notice the female student's lovely legs.
"Leap Castle is particularly impressive. In her walls is said to reside the elemental spirit referred to as 'It'. 'It' is said to appear in the form of a half-man, half-lamb entity, always accompanied by a god-forsaken stench and an overwhelming feeling of deep terror."
The female student raised her hand.
"Yes, young lady. A question?"
"Ah, Leslie Guthrie, Professor," The student volunteered. "Has anyone ever taken a picture of this thing? I mean, is this more than folklore…a tourist trap?"
Holzer beamed. The sheer skepticism made him proud.
Several students started to react towards Leslie's question with sarcastic laughs. Holzer soon waved the laughs away, welcoming the questions from his student. Again he smiled, noticing her. Holzer walked behind his podium and started to tap his finger on the wooden platform.
"Miss Guthrie is not amused," he joked. "What to do. What to do…"
"I'm sorry if my question has offended you, Professor," Leslie said, her eyes giving Holzer a longing look.
"No, no," Holzer insisted, "an open mind is what we want in this class. The young lady has a right to be curious." Holzer paused, thinking. He knew he had to be on his toes with this one. "To answer your question, Miss Guthrie… No. Why? Because it is said that looking at the spirit known as 'It' will cause the victim to go insane. So, my dear, avoid an elemental at all costs. Understand?"
Professor Holzer paused for a long moment, wishing to gain all of Leslie Guthrie's attention. And, frankly, he liked keeping his students on the edge of their seats. After all, half the art of telling a story was drama. Holzer started clicking new slides on the projection screen, continuing.
"So you see haunted houses have left their mark. Take for example…Manchester House."
"Manchester House!" someone blurted out.
A hush filled the room. An excited hush.
Seeing that Holzer's discussion had mentioned Manchester House, all the students opened their notebooks and started taking information down like hungry men at a buffet. Holzer took off his glasses. His face turned very serious. He was reading from several sheets of yellow business papers. One could get the impression that he had just written up the papers at the last minute. In any case, Holzer was an expert on the subject of this particular "haunted house."
"Located in the town of Atchison, Kansas, this rather quaint home appears to be the ideal habitat to fall in love, raise a family, and in time retire to one's quiet reward. However, looks, as Edgar Allan Poe once observed, can be quite deceiving."
Holzer drew all their attention toward the slide show which, for most of the talk, had only been used for background. Now came the meat of the matter.
As the students paid close attention to the images on the projection screen, they saw that they were looking at pictures from the Civil War era. The black and white images of ages past seemed to tantalize the words Holzer was saying with a firm seriousness that would have been lost if the pictorial material had never been implemented.
"Built just after the Civil War, the house started out as having a bad history. Local Indians for centuries avoided the land that the house now resides on. Chiefs and Medicine Men alike warned Whites that the land was full of sorrow. It was the Indians' belief that a bird would die if it flew across this place." Holzer paused, clicking another slide. "The Pawnee tribe, upon their forced trek to Oklahoma, left one legacy in particular. They raided a settlement of natives, located almost on top of where the current house now sits, killed the women of the tribe while the men were out hunting, and decapitated all the women, placing their heads in the camp's cooking pot."
Several of the women students gasped in disgust.
"History has no record of the tribesmen's response," Holzer concluded. "Still, the land was considered…bad."
"No shit," one of the female students asserted under her breath.
A small grumble was heard going through the audience. Each was left to form conclusions on their own.
No one spoke up. All eyes remained focused on the presentation.
"Let us continue, then."
As the pictures flipped by on the projection screen, the students saw several Civil War pictures involving Union soldiers: one in particular centered on General Grant, who was leaning against a door post showing a very melancholy stare.
"During the Civil War, a regiment of soldiers complete with a Gatling gun, six wagons, and a medical doctor vanished without a trace."
With a push of a button, Holzer activated the zoom feature on the projection machine, closing in on the figure of General Grant. As the projector closed in on the picture, all the students could clearly make out the famous Civil War general's worried features. All got the impression that this story, and the disappearance of his men, forever changed this future president.
"No military inquest or historical reason was ever obtained. Upon further research, I discovered that Grant had been stationed in Atchison, perhaps had even camped near the future Manchester House site.
"I discovered that an order came from General Grant about his missing men. Grant's personal words on the subject: 'Leave this one alone. Bad business.' This was all the future president would say."
Holzer stopped the projector on a close-up of General Grant's eyes. There was a hidden pain in them. Holzer wanted to give all his students the impression that once, and only once, something had scared the hell out of the Union general.
The students waited-watching.
"Some state that these things just happen," Holzer said. "Some would go a step further and try to explain that you cannot have the good without the bad.
"Evil, for lack of a better word, can be studied. I believe that there is a way to explain its origins. And I will soon do that from Manchester House. I have already assembled a team, and from the data we collect you and I will explore this phenomenon together."
The students started to talk amongst themselves. Holzer put his glasses back on, looking over them at his students. Clearing his throat, he continued.
"So…class…I ask you the question set by Edgar Allan Poe: Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"
"This is so cool!" a student cried out.
"I can't wait to tell my friends."
"I have a sweet tooth for this shit."
Holzer was getting the overall effect that he had anticipated.
"Are there any questions before we start this project?" Holzer asked, closing up his notebook papers. From the corner of his eye, he could spot Leslie Guthrie looking at him with curious, if not hungry, eyes. She raised her legs, as if hoping that he would be bold enough to look her way. Holzer was an old war-horse at these student-teacher games: he did not look.
A student raised his hand. He was a young man in his thirties and was wearing a business suit; he did not appear the "type" to take this kind of a class.
"How have you made all this possible? I mean, it sounds as if you will have to spend a lot of time at the mansion."
Holzer jumped at the question, almost welcoming it.
"Not really, my young lad." Holzer walked from behind his podium, explaining. "By a connection with the local authorities of the area, I have obtained the right to visit Manchester House, and also…" The professor directed everyone's attention toward the projection screen. "Something new for this kind of study. In keeping with the times, we have installed a webcam."
Holzer took the remote control and pointed it toward the huge screen. He pressed a few buttons and the screen clicked over to a video feed from inside the Manchester House mansion.
"I'll be damned," Holzer heard the student say as he sat back down.
The projection screen clicked to life, showing static at first, but slowly, all started to see inside Manchester House. Nothing fancy could be seen at first: Just an empty room, old sofa, and an innocent-looking sheet of hanging plastic. It appeared as if the room had once been prepared for a paint job. However, time and neglect had taken their toll. A small trickle of water could be seen dripping into the picture frame, indicating that there was a leak in the mansion's roof. As the webcam started to focus in on the invading trickle of water, everyone noticed rot and mildew on the nearby walls. It had been some time since the mansion had been prepared for an honest paint job. The video feed caused a rise in excitement throughout the class.
"Ladies and gentlemen…Manchester House."
In the room, as projected on the huge screen, a wind started to pick up the sheet of hanging plastic. A heavy sound was heard, as if someone were breathing too hard into a microphone. The picture rippled, turning to static. Holzer, surprised at such a quick loss of picture, tried his best to retrieve it. Embarrassed, he could not.
"Well, we will try to perfect that."
A laugh was heard through the classroom.
"I would like to thank you all for coming, and look forward to your future attendance," Holzer stated. "Class dismissed."
All the students left. Holzer walked to his podium, picked up his papers, and started to exit. Before he could do so, however, he ran face to face into the hungry eyes of Leslie Guthrie.
"Oh, Miss Guthrie. You gave me quite a start." Holzer started to fidget. "What can I do for you?"
"I thought your class rather interesting."
"Well, I thank you. That's what I try for. I like a student who is entertained as well as enlightened."
Leslie moved closer to Holzer, her breasts clearly visible for the old man to see. It was obvious that the young lady wished to make a move, hoping that Holzer would invite advancement. Holzer did not see life in that way. To him, his passions were found in a book. He was a man, and as a man he felt the need for companionship, but dear God! Not with a child.
"Miss Guthrie," Holzer said, his voice filled with a soft finality, "no."
"No?" Leslie repeated, with false doe-eyed surprise.
"No." Holzer stated, "I do not involve myself with my students. You will have to seek…enlightenment elsewhere in those matters. However, if it be your own mind you wish to focus on in the future, dear child, I would welcome you. You show promise in your disbelief. That is all that I ask: a way of challenging you to question your perceptions."
Leslie Guthrie's frame sank with disappointment. She started to tread back to her seat, putting her books away. "I will stay in your class, Professor. I had hoped, however…" She looked back, questioning.
"Hope can move mountains, Miss Guthrie, but will not move me in the matters on which you need to be moved. I would suggest an object for your attentions a little…younger, and perhaps a little more hungry for the feast." On the last comment, Holzer had to laugh.
"Thank you, Professor."
"No, my child," Holzer said. There was no malice in his voice. "Thank you for giving me the chance to know that I can still turn a head or two. I do not have the chance to do such things, and fear that my days in that activity are behind me. Thank you for allowing me to feel young once more. I look forward to seeing you in my class, child. Take care."
Holzer waved a confident hand in the air and left Leslie to her humility and embarrassment.
The girl was alone in the room. "Well, that went great," Leslie huffed, putting her books into her bag.
She was going to fail if she didn't get above an A in this class, and now she knew that she had to do it the hard way. Her parents would stop sending money if she didn't start to produce and she knew it. "I'm not going to be forty-two years old and the manager of a hamburger joint. I'm going to make something out of my life, God damn it!"
The room echoed with the sound of rustling plastic. There was the faint sound of heavy breathing. The effect confused and frightened Leslie.
"What the hell was that?"
Leslie picked up her bags and started to head toward the door. The lights of the room went dark, clicked off by a timer. The effect caused the young student to drop her bag.
"Oh, crap." The bag opened upon hitting the ground, allowing her books to fall out, scattering on the floor.
As Leslie bent down to fumble and find her books, placing them back into her bag, she saw the large projection screen click on, showing the interior of Manchester House.
"The professor would be glad to know that his camera is working again."
Shallow breathing echoed through the empty classroom.
Leslie got the uneasy feeling that she was no longer alone. For reasons she could not explain, she stopped picking up her books and focused all her attention onto the projection screen. The young woman started to shake with fear.
She saw the same dirty room, couch, and hanging piece of plastic. She heard the same dripping sound caused by the leaking roof and could just make out the rot forming on the background walls. It was a house of neglect, just like the slums she had been forced to live in as a child. How many nights had she promised herself that she would do anything not to end up in one of those nightmares ever again. Even sleep with her teacher if she had to.
Something moved in the picture. All looked as it did when the class had first gazed upon the interior of the house, however this time the projection slightly changed.
"What the hell?" Leslie said, rubbing her eyes. Was she seeing things? Was the guilt of trying to use a good man such as Professor Holzer finally getting to her, or was she just going mad?
A black shape started to move into the picture frame. It started to take on form. Substance. Identity. It started to look like a young girl no older than twelve.
The Shape weaved closer to the camera. Her image started to dominate the entire projection screen. The heavy breathing sound began to intensify and the beating of a human heart could be heard. In horror, Leslie muffled her ears.
"Stop it!" she cried, tripping, hitting the floor. She had tripped over one of her schoolbooks.
The Shape on the screen moved closer, its face or head starting to dominate the screen, turning the whole picture black. It was as if the Shape had moved only inches away from the camera lens located inside Manchester House. What was going on here? Professor Holzer had said nothing about any of this!
"Go away!" Leslie cried, throwing a book at the screen in desperation.
The Shape opened its eyes, glaring down at her. The eyes were filled with a hatred and level of disgust that tore at the heart of Leslie's being. The eyes moved as she moved, and were aware of her actions.
The breathing intensified.
Leslie grabbed all her books and fled the room.