Dolores and I used to be colleagues. A few years ago she decided to get into short-term rentals, and so she quit. I spent one Christmas with my partner at a property of hers, and we caught up with her over a big charcuterie board and fine rosé. She told me she enjoyed no longer selling mental labor in exchange for a meager compensation (compared to what she was making), but the biggest thrill came from the cat-and-mouse game with the municipalities. Many vacation towns didn’t welcome investors like Dolores, and she relished the process of finding loopholes in local rules. She was pretty successful with that, and at one point she did not need to rely on the rental platforms to get enough recurring tenants. She became our favorite topic at work. We were the ones that held onto our meager office jobs, and we envied her.
Her fortune, though, was precarious. As she expanded her business, she started to rely on the income from her big earners to buy more. Banks were happy to sell her loans, with which she used to acquire new properties. Once those were set up, listed, and started to have tenants, she went back to the banks with the statements to borrow more. She thought this could go on for a while. A virtuous cycle, or, as she used to snicker, a flywheel. But a bad summer brought heat waves to one vacation town. First came the cancellations, then there were refunds and damages. The banks got nervous (some of those got in the same trouble as selling too many loans to people like Dolores), and while she believed that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, pragmatism dictated that she cull her portfolio fast.
But there was this particular seashore property that she ran into difficulties selling. It was a haunted house. Tenants complained about murmurs in the night. At first Dolores thought it was the palm trees, and she had them trimmed. When that didn’t work she pulled some strings at the city hall to remove some of those around her property, but the murmurs continued. After she decided to put the thing back on the market at a significant loss, the real estate agent told her that the situation was grave. There were enough Instagram posts and whatnot about the place being haunted, and there was only that much scrubbing he could do. Potential buyers came and turned away. She kept the place listed on some minor short-term rental platforms, crossing her fingers that people simply wouldn’t notice the problem, or at least wouldn’t mind.
At the same time, she started looking for an exorcist.
She was hoping that someone would make the problem go away. Then she could put the place back on major platforms, and, with luck, her guests would leave enough good and newer posts for the bad reputation to fade. She found it ridiculous to look for an exorcist. She did not believe in those things growing up, but it was the engineer in her that made her pay too much attention to the palm trees. When I told her about the Chinese saying that money could make a devil push the millstone, she shrugged, saying that financial distress could convert an atheist to the most faithful.
She was at her wit’s end, and the people she could get hold of in the area all told her, politely, that “we simply don’t do this these days.” One of them was more explicit, telling her that she must have got the idea from the movies, and it was not something to be performed to a thing (that is, a property). Plus, commented the person in passing, some locals had been waiting for such a fate to befall investors like her, as a punishment for the gentrification (a code word for rowdy tourists) they brought to the town.
One day, Dolores issued another partial refund to an old couple. They sent her a private message and suggested she get in touch with a Taiwanese daoshi.
“What did a Taoist priest have to do with your property in the South?” I asked.
“The couple must have come from Asia,” she said. “Their tone was earnest when they told me I had a problem. I was incredulous about their proposed person, but it was not that everyday you would come upon two dissatisfied guests who, after you refunded them, actually offered to help you. I told them I appreciated their suggestion and was open to ideas, and a few hours later, they sent an email to this person and cc’ed me.”
Dolores was doubly incredulous when she picked up the daoshi at the nearest airport. He looked young, most likely in his late teens, at most an early twenty-something. Jeans, hoodie, backpack, and thick black hair with a lock in light purple. Sunglasses. And a black, humongous case from the baggage carousel. And when she tried to lighten up the mood (her own) by carefully dropping a casual question about the attire, the daoshi—who introduced himself as Kolin, or, more accurately, Khik-lîm, after a singer he admired—he smiled and said he didn’t wear any of those, and he wasn’t really a Taoist priest, but he didn’t mind that it became what he was known as.
Inside the big, black case was a pair of speakers, a console, and a foldable stand. His only other piece of luggage was his backpack, in which he carried a laptop. You would not be faulted for mistaking him as a DJ.
Apparently, Kolin had already been in the state and just wrapped up some work at a ranch. He told Dolores she was lucky, because otherwise she would have to pay him for his international travel. She frowned, and asked whether she had to pay for his return trip, to which he said he wouldn’t worry about that, as he had friends in this country he had always wanted to visit.
“If your problem hadn’t gone away you wouldn’t be telling us about this,” I said, “but this makes me so curious. What did this guy really do?”
“He used his laptop to come up with ways to talk to whatever was there,” said Dolores.
“No way,” my partner protested.
“I was already regretting putting down the money when I saw this guy at the airport, but then I guess in the end it all worked out.”
On their way to the property, Kolin asked her if she wanted to know how he worked. Kolin spoke English with a heavy accent, which made Dolores uncomfortable. But she was surprised that he did not try to start a conversation with pleasantries (which Dolores didn’t believe he would be capable of anyway, given his English), but went straight to the crux. She suspected Kolin must have sensed her discomfort, and decided to hear what he had to say.
Kolin told her that people in his business got it wrong. When they come to a site, they survey the place, and then go ahead to confront whatever is troubling the place, with rituals and spells as their arsenal. It’s so adversarial (Dolores was surprised hearing that word), and Kolin didn’t like that. He brought up the concept of yuan, the grievance or injustices whatever is out there has suffered. The yuan would take the form of a lingering energy, which is in reality more akin to something embedded in the collective unconscious, although such an unconscious is usually spatially confined.
“Ahem, psychoanalysis terms,” my partner cleared throat.
“Right? I was rolling my eyes when I heard this. My dad read a lot of that kind of philosophy stuff, and I tried very hard to run away from that in my youth.”
“Isn’t all this just a fancy way of saying he worked like a therapist for ghosts?” I asked.
“I grew impatient and asked him just that, and he said I wasn’t wrong.”
“But how come a Taiwanese daoshi was able to talk to whatever in this country?”
“That’s where his rig came in.”
Kolin set up his laptop, console, and speakers in the living room of the house. By then Kolin really looked like a DJ and one would think there was going to be a party. Kolin asked Dolores to stay with him as he would need her help. It was a meticulously clean laptop, and there was only one big sticker on its cover, white letters on black background, that had these simple words: “Ghost in the New Machine.”
According to Kolin, the key to a successful session is to identify the yuan, and that involves trying a lot of different phrases and words. Since whatever is there only transmits partial and often broken, fragmented information, any input helps: a place’s history, ownership records, names of the previous owners, local almanacs, old newspaper clips (especially if there were crimes or disputes involved). Kolin asked Dolores to provide him with as much data as she could, and, lastly, since her guests were troubled by the murmuring, he wanted Dolores to help him listen to the sounds.
In all this, Kolin was aiming for the right hallucination. You hear it correctly. Hallucination. Kolin’s laptop was custom-made to pack a server rack’s computing power into a 17-inch metal box, and he was there to feed all the inputs into a model he hired some company to train to see where it would lead him.
Hallucination, or making things up that cannot be justified by a model’s base data, is a huge problem if you are after facts, but Kolin dealt with supernatural phenomena. And besides, “hallucination is what collective unconscious is really about” (now it was my partner’s turn rolling eyes upon hearing this). Kolin was a former programming whiz and probably would have led a spectacular career in either academia or industry, but he was bored in his last year in high school. He was drawn to shamanism, and whereas all his older friends were trying to solve the problem of hallucination (or to distract customers and regulators from looking at the hard numbers), he embraced it. With traditional kits like poe objects—one throws two such crescent-shaped wood pieces to seek divine guidance in the form of yes/no/try-again answers—Kolin quickly established his name in dealing with complicated cases where his fellow priests threw up their hands.
Best of all? “Kolin didn’t even need to speak much English to find work here.” And that’s how Dolores got referred to him.
Kolin stayed up late and requested Dolores to come back with food. Dolores offered wine, which Kolin declined. He told her that it was a very clean job. The hallucination was done by the computer, and there was no need to induce any trance-like state on his part. To maximize hallucination, Kolin had instructed the company he hired to remove as many safety measures as possible, which was getting harder these days. When the company’s founders told him that there was only that much they could do, Kolin asked them to focus on training on customer data, and Kolin scoured many obscure corners of the internet to find questionable data dumps. “So that you could ask the computer to hallucinate with the darkest human secrets possible.”
An hour past midnight, Kolin spoke. “I think I heard something,” Kolin said, lying on the couch. He told Dolores that he wanted to hear the murmurs, and that’s why he was lying there. Dolores tried hard to stay awake and regretted having both coffee and alcohol in her system.
“So it isn’t the palm trees,” Dolores sighed.
“Do palm trees talk?”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me what this sounds like to you. Pay-her… or bay-her,” Kolin started to relay what he heard.
“You hear words?”
“Just tell me what the sounds may mean to you.”
“I heard something like this: pay-her… loo sah ki’-teh.”
“Now that sounds like French.”
“Do you know the language?”
“Let’s see. I think I still remember some from high school. How does père nous a quittés sound to you?”
“That sounds like what I’m hearing.”
“It means ‘father left us.’“
“Um-hmm. What about this, bongk, gongt.”
“Did you hear ‘bong’ or ‘bongk’?”
“With a ‘k’ sound at the end, I think.”
“It’s bank. What’s the second word again?”
“Sounds like that.”
“That means account, that is, bank account.”
With the information at hand, Kolin asked Dolores to think of the scenarios where a ghost—or some ghosts, whatever it or they could be—complained about a father that left them while mentioning a bank account. The leaving part was ambiguous. Did it mean that a father passed away, or could it be that a father abandoned them? Dolores conceded that, even though the latter sounded more like a plausible family drama, it was really beyond her capacity of imagination. Plus, “those are simply not the genres of books I read.”
Then Kolin said they would have to rely on his model to see what it could come up with. With the keywords and what Dolores knew about the history of the property, Kolin asked the model to generate a few dozens of likely yuan’s. He then asked Dolores to read them, one by one, and after each passage, he threw the wooden pieces to see which one would be the most plausible story. In the first round, none of them matched. Then Dolores wondered whether they should “ask” the ghost (or ghosts) in the language that Kolin heard. And so in the second round they used machine-translated snippets. Dolores was embarrassed that she didn’t practice French for a long time, but in the end she powered through. Snippets about death in the family all came back with a resounding no. Ditto those that involved crimes. But two hours later, this one snippet fetched three affirmative divinations: “a patriarch broke off with the family, taking a large sum of money in the bank account with him.”
Dolores was exhausted at that point. She made an impatient comment to Kolin. “If this is all you do, I could also have used a chatbot to come up with plots of family drama.”
“True,” Kolin replied, “but although your guests heard murmurs, it was I who could describe the sound for you to decide it was French. Imagine your guests leaving a review comment saying their host wanted to ghostbust with them.”
Dolores made the second payment to Kolin at dawn.
In the afternoon, Dolores went to the local history society to ask about the property. They were suspicious of her sudden interest, knowing she was one of those newcomers. She changed the topic to pledging, and that’s how she learned about a certain tenant of the place between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A belle, they said, whose father left for the North after she married the scion of a family that dominated the regional textile industry. The people at the local history museum hinted at some political disagreement between her father and her new family, and the patriarch transferred all his wealth to the North.
The woman thought she would inherit the property at least, only to find, when the executor of her father’s estate visited her, that she was only granted tenancy. The title was transferred to a holding company long ago. She must have been irate, but the executor vowed strict non-disclosure, and no amount of legal threat or cajoling would lead to any information about the company. She was told that she and her immediate family were welcome to stay there as long as they wish, but the property would be sold upon her death, and the proceeds would be converted to certain bonds that would in turn be given to an educational institution.
Dolores told Kolin what she learned, and Kolin said she would need to track down the bonds. At first she was not sure what to do with the knowledge. To her surprise, Kolin pointed her to a few online databases. He said he had been working with enough clients in this country to know whom to ask, plus he knew some “questionable people” who trolled online history forums.
As it turned out, the patriarch instructed his executor to convert the assets into British and Dutch perpetual bonds, which were then given to an Ivy League school in the early 1920s. His daughter, though, didn’t die in the house. She moved with her husband and her remaining son to the West Coast before that. Her husband’s family was an early investor in the Western Pacific Railroad, built largely by a Chinese labor force, and one family member later became a prominent supporter of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The woman, then, must have not been what haunted the house. Digging through the local archives further, Dolores found that the woman had cousins, and one of them lived in the house with the woman’s permission (while flouting the tenancy she was granted, which was restricted to her and her immediate family). That cousin was severely wounded from an incident, which the newspaper suggested was from a duel to settle some business dispute. He was close to her, and an obituary described that they shared the same blue eyes and they were fond of each other, as if they had been siblings. She sued on his family’s behalf a prominent surgeon for tort, but a judge dismissed it as baseless.
The Ivy League school still held the bonds to this day. Because of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the ensuing inflation, now the bonds only paid a couple dozens of dollars each year. Kolin instructed Dolores to produce the facsimiles of the bonds. It was a daunting task, but it turned out that by posing as a financial journalist, she was able to interview the school archive, and the people there happily showed her the original documents, which she then carefully took pictures from.
Kolin told Dolores to make two sets of facsimile. Dolores then burned one set in the fireplace. Kolin framed the other set, which was then hung on the wall facing the fireplace. “One set is burned to comfort whatever there is; the other is there to tell it never to come back,” Kolin explained.
Dolores asked Kolin why he insisted to frame the other set himself, and Kolin told her that he wrote something on the back, based on what his model suggested. Kolin requested that Dolores never take down the frame and never take the facsimiles out as long as she remained the owner of the property.
That night, Kolin told her that he no longer heard the murmurs.
Kolin agreed to receive the last installment only after Dolores had made sure that her guests no longer heard anything, and after a month, Dolores gladly made the payment. The next day, Kolin called Dolores, and suggested she sell the place. Dolores was dismayed. Yes, she would have to sell the place eventually, but she was hoping to recuperate the expense of hiring Kolin as well as milking more good reviews.
“I didn’t want to tell you this because you just made a big problem go away,” Kolin told her, “but the feng shui of the place changed.”
“You mean the feng shui of that place was not good?” asked Dolores.
“No, I didn’t say it was not good. I said it changed, just like everything in life. That’s all I can tell you. ‘The secrets of heaven are not to be divulged’ is the golden rule of the business I’m in. If I were you, I would sell the place ASAP.”
Although Dolores wanted to hold on to the place for a little longer, she wondered what it was that Kolin knew that she shouldn’t. Dolores told her agent to put the place on market again. She still had to disclose that she hired some “specialist” to address the bad reviews she received before and that she now had some good reviews to prove that the problem went away. Many bids fell through, probably because of the disclosure. One buyer bargained hard, arguing that the place wasn’t well-maintained, and that she was Dolores’s only option. In the end, the property was sold to the person at cost, which means Dolores actually lost money. A few weeks after they closed the deal, her contact at the local history society told Dolores that the bond facsimiles were donated to them, as the new owner thought little of them and commented that they were of “bad taste.” They thanked Dolores for having made the copies, as it meant an interesting closure to the wealth a colorful family had built up there.
Before Dolores hung up, the person asked her if the facsimiles were some kind of family gift.
“Probably. Why?” she asked.
“We took them out of the frame and were somewhat disappointed that they were only facsimiles, but on their back there were words in a beautiful cursive that a pupil in the late nineteenth century would write.”
“Interesting. May I ask what the words are?”
“They are in French. De mon père, à ma sœur.”
“Hmm. I see.”
Dolores and I caught up again long after that Christmas. She told me she was doing great. She no longer had as many properties as she used to and as she would like, but it was much less stressful.
I was curious about that haunted house, and she told me that it was destroyed last summer. A hurricane came, and the area was flooded. The new owner skimped on insurance, as there were no requirements in that area to buy any. Dolores was surprised, given the geography and the climate there. Dolores’s attorney told her that the new owner blamed a lot of people for the loss, and at one point was about to sue her. Her attorney pointed out that they did everything by the book and had disclosed everything (“we even included the haunting part”), and that’s when Dolores first learned that she had overpaid the insurance for the time she owned the place. She called her contact she made at the local history society, and the contact told her that the owner also attempted to sue the local government and was entertaining the idea of suing the state, but probably stopped due to the financial strains—the owner had other damaged properties, all bought with leverage.
Dolores told me she was so glad that she listened to Kolin, but she could sympathize with the owner. That’s how you lose your family wealth, she said, by overextending and by thinking that rules don’t apply to you.
Knowing how she sounded like a few years ago when things were going strong for her, I didn’t comment. Dolores mentioned that she started missing the old days working with us. She said she missed the nature of the work, which was to push things forward and not to look back. I told her that I had just been promoted to manager, and I was hiring. If she was willing to commit to it, she knew whom to call. She didn’t say a word. I asked her if she was alright, she said she never thought I would switch tracks to manage people. She thanked me and said she would think about it.
Before we left, I asked her whether she had heard anything from Kolin.
She said she emailed Kolin about the destruction of the property as a way to thank him for his advice. Kolin asked her if she knew Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral.” Dolores was puzzled, but replied that her father used to enjoy the piece a lot. Kolin said he just learned about the story that inspired the piece, which was about how the City of Ys sank into the sea, and Paris (“par Ys”, or “like Ys”) took over its glory, and how, when Paris got engulfed one day, the City of Ys would surface again. Kolin just thought it interesting to share the story with her.
Dolores asked him how things were, and he told her that he moved to California. That the woman’s husband came from a family that profited from the railroads built by Chinese labor intrigued him a lot, and he couldn’t imagine there were no unburied ghosts in the old gold mountains. Besides, what better tribute could one make than to perform his work with the gadgets in the place where they were first conceived?