March 1, 2023
The Phantom Detective
by Michael Fowler
What would happen if people with phantom limbs could put the ghostly appendages to work? Can they be used to change the past?
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I returned from the war minus an arm (the left) and three consecutive toes (pinky through middle, right foot). Otherwise unscathed, I soon realized that my losses were a gift, since phantom appendages quickly filled in for the fleshy ones, and these ethereal parts were dexterous and sensitive to the nth degree. On my flight back to the States, I eased my new left arm out through the cabin wall and into the clouds at 30,000 feet going 500 mph and felt the rush of the air and heat of the engines particularly in my hand and biceps. My three toes formed an adventurous trio, arcing from my orthopedic shoe and argyle sock into the baggage storage overhead, and tiptoed rather perversely through the silky underthings of a pair of pretty female Army captains seated behind me. Back aboard, my arm gave a brief hug to the pilot, brushing his waxed mustache with a forefinger. In all this, not the least harm came to me, my fellow travelers, or the plane, and my ghostly touch wasn’t even noticed, as far as I could tell. This was a gift, all right, and I decided to bestow it on the city of Los Angeles, where I was going home to stay.
Since I seemed made for secretive investigation, I set myself up on the Internet as the Phantom Detective, Investigating All Realms. I wasn’t sure what I meant by “all realms,” but since I was part physical and part phantom, and other odd traits might blossom forth later owing to my battlefield experiences, the claim seemed justified. If someone wanted their money back because I couldn’t locate dead souls, I’d be glad to give them a refund.
My first client texted me well in advance of my obtaining an investigator’s license, but I couldn’t wait to get started. The message read: “Need to contact Charlie Chaplin. Respond to Thad Twa.”
This was Los Angeles and I should have known someone did want to contact the dead. Or did Thad Twa mean something other than the great silent motion picture star? Chaplin’s estate or family, maybe, or some other Charlie Chaplin unrelated to the Little Tramp?
Before I called him to find out, he sent a follow-up text: “Meet me at the rear entrance to my place tonight. Good compensation.” He gave the address.
The sun was setting when I parked my rental car outside Thad Twa’s bungalow on Cheshire Terrace. The front of the place looked dark, and I strolled along a paved path through trimmed shrubs and low trees to a circular stone patio in the rear. A large TV was set up on the circumference, the screen glowing but playing nothing, and six unoccupied lawn chairs formed a semi-circle around it. A light was on over the rear door, and before I knocked to announce my presence I heard a loud whirring noise. The door cranked open of its own accord.
As I watched, a bed supported by mechanical arms projected out through the doorway and landed on the patio before the TV like a UFO. The occupant of the bed, a thin elderly man in white pajamas, missing an arm and the lower segments of both legs, steered his flying bed with his remaining hand at a control panel fixed to a bedrail.
With the bed powered down and settled in place, this apparition nodded to me from his recumbent position. “I knew you had arrived, Mr. Phantom, by my own phantom feelings,” he said in a high, quavering voice. “As you can see, there isn’t much of me–I’m basically down to an arm and a head–but my missing sections are constantly on duty patrolling the house and grounds. I’m sure you know how that works. Welcome, and take a seat if you wish. I’m Thad Twa, and other guests are due shortly.”
We shook hands–real ones, not phantom ones–and I decided to go on standing until his company arrived. As Thad Twa fiddled with the control pad on his bed, I watched as the sun continued its decline and small lights came up along the circumference of the patio. The TV came on also, and began running a film of Charlie Chaplin’s, a silent black-and-white one, of course, lacking even musical accompaniment. The feature started somewhere after the lead-in and showed the great comic forking up and eating his shoelaces as if they were pasta.
Just as Chaplin was about to devour the top of his boiled shoe, Thad Twa’s additional guests came along the now darkened path between shrubs and joined Twa and me on the eerily lit patio. They stood around or sat in the chairs before the screen as Twa introduced them in his trebly voice.
“Everyone, let me begin by introducing to you all a special visitor, the Phantom Detective, a private investigator who works in all realms,” said Thad Twa.
“Phantom,” Thad Twa fixed me with a stare, “please meet Madame Fedoroba, medium and seance leader; also Shirley Thoole, ectoplasmic specialist on the astral plane; Richard Dunke, remote viewer; Timber Carlsen, master of telekinesis; and fortune teller and future prognosticator Cindy Minge.”
Each nodded to me coolly, except Cindy Minge the fortune teller. “Glad to meet you,” she said, guiding me by my standard arm to sit down beside her. She was a chick still under thirty with spiral earrings and tattooed stars on her neck who gave off a hippie vibe: attractive but not my type, even though she and I looked to be the youngest present by decades. “I foresee we’ll be spending a lot of time together,” she said with a smile. I gave her my best noncommittal grin and turned to Thad Twa, who sat up in his bed and demanded everyone’s attention.
“We’re all here, so let’s get started,” he intoned in his soprano voice as, pressing a button on his bed’s console, the silent movie on his big TV flashed back and rolled from the first frame: “Charlie Chaplin etc. in The Gold Rush.” Everyone took a seat in what seemed like hushed reverence.
“Do you really work in all realms?” Cindy Minge again turned to me, whispering hoarsely. I assured her I did my best though I plodded in the ineffable. That shut her down at least for the moment.
“For the benefit of the Phantom Detective, let me state our identity and our common purpose here this evening, since I’m sure he is familiar with neither of these,” Thad Twa announced. “We are, Mr. Phantom, the Los Angels branch of the Charlie Chaplin fan club, and I, Thad Twa, am its thrice-elected president.”
I straightened my shoulders in an attempt to look impressed.
“What we are attempting to do this evening is change the course of comic history,” stated Thad Twa. He pressed his in-bed console, and the movie skipped to the scene where Chaplin, a starving gold prospector who dreams he is treating a pretty girl and her friends to dinner, sticks a couple of forks in two bread rolls and makes them dance as if they are feet at the ends of spindly legs. Before Chaplin wakes up to his actual poverty, the dream Tramp enthralls the girl and her tablemates. The dance is so cleverly performed I couldn’t help but chuckle, though none of my viewing companions so much as pursed a lip: perhaps they’d seen it too many times already.
In fact I’d seen it once or twice before myself: when I was a kid my grandfather used to take me to cinemas in the university area where we lived in Cincinnati to catch revivals of old silent comedies. As a boy I’d found Laurel and Hardy funnier than Chaplin, but that would be my little secret tonight.
“Using our various gifts and talents, Mr. Phantom, we will communicate with Charlie Chaplin himself, bringing him right here to our meeting, if possible, and show him a new trick to use in this classic film, The Gold Rush, thereby altering it for all time.” Thad Twa grinned as if he were a divine creator and already assured of Chaplin’s arrival and cooperation in this otherworldly scheme. “Now,” he concluded, “who would like to show the Phantom Detective the trick?”
“We actually have two tricks we are considering,” piped up Timber Carlsen, master of telekinesis, if I remembered right. And he held up an ordinary kitchen spoon: not very impressive, it seemed to me. But before the master of telekinesis could bend it a la Uri Geller, or conjure up a cup of coffee with it, one of which I thought must have been his intention, Thad Twa shut him down.
“No, no, Carlsen, we agreed on the coin trick; I don’t want to hear any more about your spoons. Now show Phantom the coin trick. I’d do it myself except I need my console hand, and you’re better at it than I am.”
Carlsen, with a look that proclaimed he no longer cared, took a silver dollar from his pocket with one hand, placing it over the pinky finger of the other that lay palm down on his knee. He then made a little wave with his fingers so the coin tumbled across them; when the dollar had traversed his knuckles to the thumb, another little wave sent it tumbling back to the pinky. He sent the coin back and forth across the back of his hand several times, to general admiration. I had seen this trick in some fairly recent movie or other, but never in the old silent films I had watched as a boy. Frankly, I didn’t see what the big deal was about it. I was no master of telekinesis, but likely any practiced prestidigitator could perform the trick.
“Excellent,” said Thad Twa, bringing the demonstration to a close. Timber Carlsen, reluctantly it appeared to me, pocketed his coin. “When Chaplin arrives, Mr. Phantom, we will offer this trick to him as an homage,” Thad Twa elaborated. “It is our belief that it has never been done in silent films, and will be both new and pleasing to him, on a par with his dancing bread rolls.” With a touch of his finger on the console, he brought the bread roll sequence back to the TV screen. “It will fit quite well in this very scene, we think. Just picture it: after the rolls are finished dancing and, as it were, take their bow, the Little Prospector borrows a gold coin from a fellow diner and wows the table once more, winning the beautiful girl in the process. Brilliant cinema, wouldn’t you say?”
“I don’t disagree,” I said vaguely, the fear building in me that these folks had all tumbled off their toboggans and landed hard on their heads. But Thad Twa wasn’t done raving.
“Once Chaplin arrives and sees his opportunity to change film history with this unprecedented legerdemain, he will undoubtedly incorporate it into The Gold Rush. We his modern fans will know this had taken place when we play the DVD or stream the film and see him do the trick. Comic history will be transformed yet again by the great Charlie Chaplin.”
“But what about the Law of Unintended Consequences or whatever it’s called?” I blurted out. I felt I had held my tongue long enough. “They say if you go back in time and swat a fly, the entire course of world events may be altered. And that’s what your plan comes down to, isn’t it, going back in time and changing things?”
Cindy Minge was already smiling at me. “Don’t put much stock in that fear,” she leaned toward me to say. “I foresee that only Chaplin’s film will be altered, and what a thrill that would be.”
“It remains only to bring Chaplin here to show him the trick,” said Thad Twa. “And that is where you come in, Phantom.”
“But,” I began, loosened now in my objections, despite the hand of Cindy Minge that had found its way to my thigh to offer a comforting pat, “but what if it’s the retired Charlie Chaplin who comes here, his feeble old ghost or something, who no longer performs in films? Isn’t that the form of Chaplin most likely to still be around, if any is?”
Madame Fedoroba, leader of seances, her head tightly turbaned in white and her silvery gown twinkling in the lights of the outdoor theater, closed that loophole. “I will send a summons via the Spirit World directly to the Chaplin of 1925, aged 36 and filming on location at a mountain pass in Truckee, California for United Artists where he was working on The Gold Rush with Max Swain and femme fatale Georgia Hale. The Chaplin of that time and place will respond to me, I am sure of it.” Her firm demeanor left no doubt that Chaplin’s spirit of that era would have little say in the matter.
Shirley Thoole the ectoplasmic specialist, whose own ectoplasm was loosely bound in a floral muumuu and whose pudgy bare feet oozed over her flip-flops, seconded Madame Fedoroba’s optimism. “If the Spirit World proves occluded tonight at Madame Fedoroba’s level, I will offer Chaplin a second avenue to come calling via the Astral Plane, for there are many channels the spirit may travel in. I too will visit him while he is filming The Gold Rush, join ectoplasmic hands with him, and lead his astral projection here to confer with us. I happen to know that Charlie has made many such visits already, as he doesn’t like to miss our fan club meetings, so he shouldn’t need much persuasion. In fact he may already be hovering close by.” At that I glanced upward; I saw a night sky dotted by stars, but Chaplin wasn’t one of them.
“Meanwhile the Phantom Detective and I,” put in Thad Twa, clearly anxious to get started, “will elongate our numinous extremities all the way to Switzerland, where Chaplin’s former home and gravesite are located and where his spirit may linger. Are you up to that, Phantom? I confess that there is less of me than there is of you, ever since my freeway accident seventeen years ago, and consequently much more of me is phantom, but until I read your advertisement it never occurred to me to extend my phantom parts to any purpose. I’ve got a lot of them, an arm and two legs and whatnot, and I’ve been trying to project them all afternoon, but I can’t seem to get beyond my driveway. I’m afraid you’ll have to do the long-distance travel solo.”
Cindy Minge leaned into me and whispered,” Poor Thad Twa. I hear his male part is intact, but can’t even make it across his bed.”
I smiled at Cindy and the others and took a breath of night air. “In fact,” I said, “I’ve already sent my left arm down to the street beyond Thad Twa’s drive to be sure I locked my car. It’s secure, I’m glad to say, and I believe I brushed by Thad Twa at the curb line. Unfortunately, my arm has gone on from there to somewhere in Sacramento, I think, and my three toes are in the air and bound for overseas. But since I lack a phantom eye to accompany them, I can’t exactly pinpoint my arm or my toes.”
“You’re right on both counts,” Richard Dunke the remote viewer said to me. To emphasize his powers, he wore dark glasses even at night. “Your invisible arm is trying in vain to hitch a ride out of downtown Sacramento, while your trio of toes, streamlined and sockless, is zeroing in on the former Chaplin estate in Switzerland, though I’m not sure if Chaplin’s spirit is there to greet them.”
“We mustn’t work at cross purposes,” said Madame Fedoroba. “Wherever Chaplin’s spirit is now, we must summon it here, remote toes or no remote toes. All join hands while I bring Charlie before us.”
“Yes, let’s all concentrate on that,” said Thad Twa. “Perhaps Chaplin is here already, as Shirley suggests, and is waiting to be invoked.”
With The Gold Rush playing before us on the big TV, we joined hands in a circle, Cindy Minge and Madame Fedoroba reaching up from their chairs to take the hands, both fleshy and phantom, of Thad Twa. Before Madame Fedoroba said a word of invocation, though, images from The Gold Rush–the Little Tramp sporting his famous bowler in the cold, twirling his bent cane in the snow, toting his prospector’s backpack along the street, stamping his bootless foot bound in a blanket–leapt from the TV screen. They swirled and flickered around us in a glowing, rotating montage. The images soon coalesced into a single one: the smiling face of Charlie Chaplin that flashed across our tenebrous surroundings and even our own torsos.
“He’s here!” cried Thad Twa, jerking upright in his bed. My three toes snapped back into my sock collectively like a turtle pulling its head back into its shell, and I began reeling in my arm like a freeway-long fishing line. “Quickly, Carlsen, show him the trick!” Thad Twa cried once more.
But all eyes, including Carlsen’s, were on the vortex formed by the Little Prospector’s rotating face. This funneled back onto the TV, and a still image of Chaplin’s playful and victorious smirk now filled the screen.
Then the image spoke aloud: “Thank you my friends, but show your trick to Keaton or Laurel.” And then the face vanished, leaving behind a glowing but blank TV.
“He’s gone!” said Thad Twa, and all agreed that their chance to show Chaplin a new trick and change comedic history had passed, at least for tonight. Timber Carlsen, master of telekinesis, hadn’t so much as gotten his coin out of his pocket and was particularly distraught, but no more than Thad Twa, whose careful plans had come to nothing.
“That’s the way it is in this business sometimes,” Cindy Minge informed me in her low voice. I supposed she referred to the business of foretelling the future, but I wasn’t sure. Nor was I certain who, if anyone of this group, had caused the visions we had all just witnessed. It was a good trick, whoever managed it. Was it Thad Twa on his console pad?
“I smell a rat,” I confided to Cindy Minge. I didn’t mention that Thad Twa had slipped me two crisp hundred-dollar bills when no one was looking, for my services or to buy my silence.
“Lighten up, Phantom,” she replied. “Let the old boy have his fun, he has so little–so little body and so little fun. Meanwhile you and I are fated to meet at my place. It’s not far as the toe flies.”
We went there, and why not? Sure, Cindy was a tad quirkier than my usual heartthrob, but who knew what the future held? Besides, I was the Phantom Detective now, and I needed to bond with my fellow superheroes.
Michael Fowler is a humor and science fiction writer living in Ohio.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.