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the blackwood tapes

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He doesn’t think much about the Blackwood tapes when he first finds them.

They’re just one more box among the absolute nightmare that Gertrude left behind for him when she went off and died, leaving the Head Archivist’s office like an attic full of detritus to be picked over by the grandchildren. Jon almost cried when he first opened the door, a moth fluttering out with a sad puff of dust. Gertrude’s legacy was teetering stacks of cardboard boxes and dented filing cabinets filled with loose leaf paper and cassette tapes labeled with meaningless numbers. It must have made some sort of sense to someone once, but not anymore. Now Gertrude is dead and it’s all his.

Some people have all the luck.

At least he can walk in it now, after an entire day spent hauling boxes out of the office and into the archives, where he, Tim, and Sasha blew the dust off and organized them into something vaguely sensical. They’ll still have to go through each and every one of them to try to suss out some kind of organizational system, but now they sit in tidy rows on the metal shelving lining the Head Archivist’s office, each bearing an increasingly creative name in Tim’s handwriting. Jon’s already worked through the Cobweb Disaster and the A Bit Nasty But Not Too Bad boxes, which more than lived up to their names.

Now he stops, one hand reaching for the box that stares back at him. It’s late in the day, the tipping point where he has to decide if he’s going to leave on time or stay just a bit longer in the name of putting a dent in the mess. Jon was only going to take a glance at the box for tomorrow, but the name catches his eye.

The Blackwood Tapes. The corners of his mouth twist. Tim must have been feeling particularly dramatic when he found this one, but if it’s at all related to its contents, he can’t complain. Whoever Blackwood is, he hopes that he was tidier than Gertrude Robinson.

Jon pulls it off the shelf and sets it on the desk, working off the cardboard lid. Black cassette tapes sit in neat rows, their labels edged with dust where Tim or Sasha must have wiped them clean to see what’s written underneath. It’s a sea of the same neat handwriting in black ink. Some have long strings of numbers similar to the other tapes they’ve found. Others only have dates. All have initials written in the far right corner, small and smudged like they’re trying not to be noticed--MKB.

“Hm,” Jon hums to himself, tapping one finger against the initials. Blackwood’s, he has to presume. An archivist before Gertrude? Certainly not--Gertrude was no spring chicken and the tapes are old but not ancient. One of her archival assistants? Curious. Jon doesn’t know much about them, except for the fact that there were none of them left for him to inherit. He was curious as to why until he saw her office. He’d have gone searching for greener pastures too.

Well. One statement before the end of the day won’t hurt.

He intends to record the statements that haven’t been already, but considering that none of the written statements are paired with their recorded counterparts, that means he has to go through all of them before he even knows which have already been done. No point digitizing the lot of them either, considering, despite Sasha’s best efforts, every attempt ends in meaningless static. Cassette tapes, it is.

The ancient tape player accepts the first tape with an eager click-whirl-click.

“Case 4590464 -- um, Linda Softhollow. Who--I mean, regarding the haunting of a farmhouse belonging to her father, Richard Softhollow. Statement given February 24th, 1986. Recorded by Martin Blackwood on January 4th, 2013. Okay, here we go then--

My father and I have never seen eye to eye, but he didn’t deserve what he got…”

The statement itself is the same drivel as the rest of them--spooky farmhouse, monster in the darkness, dead father. It’s obvious enough that Linda Softhollow is projecting her own guilt for her tumultuous relationship with her father onto shadows. If her geriatric father died trying to single-handedly run a farm, then she might have to feel bad about it. Nothing that could have been done about vicious shadow monsters though. Jon scoffs and moves to rewind the tape.

”Let’s see. Final comments…”

Jon hesitates, his finger over the button. He’s gotten into the habit of stopping the tapes after the statement is concluded--Gertrude often leaves notes like this at the end of her recordings, but the few he listened to were largely pointless and just as nonsensical as her filing system. But something about Martin Blackwood’s voice makes him pause. He wasn’t nearly as straightforward as Gertrude, brutally efficient in a way her other work habits decidedly were not. He was soft-spoken and a little bumbling, tripping over words until his voice finally fell into a gentle storytelling cadence. He was…

He was unexpected enough that Jon lets the final comments play, his finger still hovering over the pause button.

“...According to the police report, Richard Softhollow died of a broken neck after a fall from the upper level of his barn. I went out there, looked at the barn. It is a long fall, wouldn’t be hard to break your neck, that’s for certain.” He laughs a little nervously. “Gertrude seems to think it’s all mundane. I suppose she’s probably right. She’s the boss.” Another soft huff of laughter.

Jon finds himself nodding. Yes, obviously. It’s good to know that Gertrude maintained at least some spark of sense, even in her old age.

“...but I don’t know,” Blackwood continues. “Linda Softhollow hated her father. I mean, just the way she talks about him. So why would she go to the trouble of coming to the Institute and giving a statement if she didn’t truly believe something happened? I know, I know--mental illness, or maybe she just wanted a laugh--but...I don’t know. The way she described the darkness...it felt real.” He pauses for a long moment, almost long enough that Jon thinks the tape has run out. Then Blackwood exhales, his breath a puff of static in the speakers. “But really I guess I can’t figure out why Richard Softhollow was on the upper level of his barn at that time of night. Why would he be up there? Unless...he was chased.”

The tape clicks off. Jon stares at it, his finger still hovering uselessly over the stop button.

He blinks, coming back to himself with a little shake. A waste of time, just like Gertrude’s final comments. He should have known. The only difference is that Blackwood provides unnecessary personal commentary in addition. How very professional.

Jon clears his throat and picks up the digital voice recorder waiting next to the tape player. Statements may refuse to record digitally, but his personal notes don’t. Thank God. He’s always found focus in being able to say things aloud, or organize his tangled thoughts into words. That, and there needs to be some recorded evidence that he tried his best after he’s found tragically killed under an avalanche of disorganized cassette tapes.

He clicks record. “March 3rd, 2016. Began work on box number three, labeled the Blackwood Tapes. Note: remind Tim again that boxes should be organized by number, not whimsical titles of his choosing. Tapes appear to be recorded by one Martin Blackwood, suspected to be an archival assistant of the late Gertrude Robinson, circa 2013. Further investigation may be necessary--if Mr. Blackwood can be found, he might be able to provide further insight on the…” He looks around the office. “...puzzle of Gertrude’s organizational system. In the meantime, the tapes, while labeled, have been filed separately from their original statements. Each will have to be gone through to ensure the quality of the recording, as well as matched up with the original statement file. Meaning…”

Jon’s mouth turns down at the corners and his voice goes flat. “I’m afraid I am going to be getting very familiar with Mr. Blackwood.”

 

*

“We need a third archival assistant,” Tim announces, balancing a pen on one finger. It spins on his fingertip, wobbling dangerously. The archive is littered with the latest round of boxes, unearthed from a storage closet they hadn’t noticed before. Jon usually isn’t one much for breaks, but they need a minute just to clear the dust from their lungs. “Preferably one who’s very strong and loves to lift big, dusty boxes.”

Jon looks up over his glasses. “And who would you suggest?” He says dryly.

The pen tips over and Tim snatches it out of the air as it falls. He hums thoughtfully, tapping the pen against his nose. “Daniela from Research,” he says. “She likes tedious, boring things. I bet you anything she has a thing for you too.”

Jon scowls, ignoring the way his ears warm up. “Try again.”

“Marcus from Artefact Storage,” Sasha chimes in. “I saw him lift this big sea chest over his head once. Covered in barnacles and everything. Very impressive.”

‘Why was he lifting a sea chest?” Jon says incredulously. Nevermind the fact was there was a sea chest lying around in the first place--anything is possible in Artefacts Storage.

“Henry from Library,” Tim adds. “Or Sarah. You know, the secretary.”

Sasha scoffs. “Now you’re just listing people you want to ogle.”

“How do you think you got the job?” Tim laughs and ducks sideways as Sasha lobs a balled up wad of paper in his direction. He nearly tips off the chair.

“You can ogle on your own time,” Jon says with a scoff. “Or at least after we’ve gotten this place into a semi-decent state.” Still, something scratches at the back of his mind. He pulls the closest box toward him and begins to pick at the file folders inside without really looking at the labels. “Are either of you familiar with a Martin Blackwood?” He enunciates Blackwood a little sharper than necessary.

Tim hums thoughtfully. “I don’t think so,” he says. “Why? Is he particularly beefy?”

“Martin...Oh, that sounds familiar.” Sasha snaps her fingers. “I think I met him at an office party once.” She turns to Tim. “I wouldn’t use the word beefy, I don’t think. But it’s been a few years, he could have been working out in the meantime.”

“I don’t care if he’s--” Jon sighs and rubs at the place his glasses rests on his nose. “There’s a box of statements that he recorded in my office. See what you can find out about him. If he can be found, he might be convinced to tell us the method to Gertrude Robinson’s madness.”

“On it!” Tim squawks, moving so fast that he almost tips out of his chair all over again. He rolls with the movement and jumps to his feet. “Better go ask HR about employment records. No time to lose.”

“Tim!” Sasha calls after him. “This does not get you out of box duty!”

*

“...unfortunately Steven Braddock died three months ago, in a work-related incidence on a construction site. From what I was able to find in my research, he fell out of a tenth story window. I have to agree that this one does seem rather...Vast-flavored.” Blackwood sighs softly. “I hope he found a little bit of happiness, you know? In the months before. It’s silly, I know. But...still. I hope that he did.” Click.

Jon leans back in his chair and holds his digital recorder up to his mouth. “Mr. Blackwood continues to prove to be needlessly sentimental and directionless. His audio recordings are theatrical at best, in the way of a community theater production of Hamlet might be. Heartfelt, to be sure, but ultimately amateur,” he drawls. His free hand drums against his desk softly, so as not to let the sound carry to the digital recorder. “Tim is pursuing information on the current whereabouts of Mr. Blackwood, but with each progressive tape, I lose confidence that anything of use will come from finding him.”

He pauses, resting the recorder against his chin. This is the fifth of the Blackwood Tapes, and he has growing confidence that they’ll all conform to a similar pattern. A stuttering introduction, like there’s a format he’s meant to adhere to but he keeps forgetting the details, followed by the statement itself, before ending with Blackwood’s final comments. He’s started playing the tapes while he does paperwork in order to work through them more efficiently. What he doesn’t say is that the statement part is actually a bit nice to listen to, at least in a way that Gertrude’s are decidedly not. If he stopped the tapes there, he could probably listen to them in relative peace. But the problem is--

Well, the problem is that he’s Jon, really. The problem is that Blackwood’s final comments bother him and some terrible, pointless part of him likes to be bothered. So he lets the tapes play until they click off, and his voice recorder hears all about it.

“In addition to pointless sympathies, Mr. Blackwood continues to waste time entertaining the validity of the events described in these statements, including, but not limited to, a man walking on thin air as if it were glass.” He snorts softly. “Note: ask Sasha to look into the numbers on how many past statements still need to be committed to audio. Time permitting, we may have to re-record the Blackwood tapes.” Jon sighs. “As if we don’t have enough to do.”

There’s a gentle knock at his office door and Jon looks up, letting his hand and the voice recorder drop back down. “Come in.”

Tim pokes his head through the door and immediately Jon’s nerves prickle. There are many different shades of Timothy Stoker--office casual Tim and professional Tim and the Tim that keeps trying to wheedle Jon into getting drinks with him and Sasha after work on Fridays. This is serious Tim, a shade quieter than the professional Tim that usually comes out when he’s talking about whatever follow-up work he’s done. He’s holding a file folder in one hand.

“Did that research you wanted, boss,” he says, holding up the folder. “Afraid it might not be what you were looking for though.”

Jon sets the recorder on the desk. “What is it?”

“This is what I could find on Martin Blackwood.” Tim sets into the offer to set the folder down on Jon’s desk. “Not too much to find. Lived with his sick mum, got a job working up in Library a few years back before transferring down to the Archives under Gertrude. Not sure how--his CV reads a bit more like creative writing if you really look at it, but something must have worked because he stuck around. Not many details available about his time down here though. Surprising to no one, Gertrude didn’t really keep up with performance reviews.”

Jon picks up the folder but doesn’t open it, frowning down at the stiff manilla paper. “Lived,” he says, looking up. “You said he lived with his sick mother. Where does he live now?”

“Nowhere, as far as the police know,” Tim says. He nods at the folder. “Police report’s inside. Martin Blackwood went missing in January of 2015. Little over a year ago now. No one’s seen him since.”

“Oh.”

The Blackwood Tapes box seems to take up more of his desk now, a silent constant on the periphery of his vision, filled with tapes carrying the voice of a dead man. He must be. Dead, that is. People don’t go missing for that long and come back from it, especially not those with sick mothers. And only a few months before Gertrude would meet her end. He should make a note of that, but suddenly his mouth feels rather dry.

“Right, Thank you, Tim,” Jon says, collecting himself. He’s been listening to Gertrude’s tapes, hasn’t he? He should be used to hearing ghosts.

“No problem.” Tim shoots him a half-hearted salute before taking his leave, leaving the tragedy of Martin Blackwood for Jon to deal with. Fair enough. Jon did ask for it.

Jon belatedly remembers to hit stop on the voice recorder. He stares down at the file, his hand spread over the top of it. Shockingly thin, to hold a man’s life in it. Granted, a relatively short life. Blackwood sounds fairly young in the tapes, and he disappeared, what--a year? Year and a half after the first tapes were recorded?

He sets the file aside and pulls a tape out of the box instead. Martin Blackwood isn’t going to be found, there’s no confusion about that now, but there’s still work to be done.

The sixth tape doesn’t have a case number written on the label, only a ??? followed by the same spikey initials in the corner, MKB. He wonders idly what the K stands for as the tape whirls to life.

“Case number...well, there isn’t one. Yet. Maybe.” Blackwood exhales gustily. “Statement recorded March 1st, 2013, directly from subject. Statement of Martin Blackwood, regarding the mysterious appearance of cassette tapes around the archives.”

Jon’s nerves prickle again and his finger rests against the stop button, but doesn’t press down. Blackwood’s voice fills the room, soft but pervasive. It holds him there as sure as any grip.

”Two months ago, Gertrude asked me to help record statements. The less important ones, I think--the less interesting ones, or the ones she thinks are fake. Things she thinks I can’t mess up, basically.” A self-deprecating laugh. “Fair enough. I enjoy doing them. Even the real nasty ones aren’t so bad if you try to just...lose yourself in the story of it. Forget that they’re real people. I think Gertrude does that a lot. Forgets.

“But something’s changed. The last few weeks I’ve been finding tapes around the archives. In the strangest places too--on top of filing cabinets and behind potted plants. No label, no anything. So I listen to them. That’s what we do, isn’t it? Listen and record and...well, that’s when things got strange.

“Someone is listening to these tapes. To the statements I’ve recorded. I don’t know who he is, but the way he talks…” Blackwood pauses. “It doesn't make any sense. He makes it sound like he’s the one working in the archives, but I’ve never heard his voice before. And I would remember. He--” A soft huff, not quite a laugh. “He makes it very clear what he thinks about me.

Jon’s heart skips a beat and he almost presses the stop button. Almost.

“He makes it sound like Gertrude is--is dead. He makes it sound like…” Blackwood hesitates. “I found another one yesterday, under my desk. There’s someone else in this one, at the end. Someone named Tim.

“He said I went missing. He said I went missing almost a year from now.”