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Uncle Harry-Fiction by Michael S. Stewart
Run, Robby, Run, Part 3-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Hunting Ghosts-Fiction by J.M.Taylor
SkitzoFreniC-Fiction by Michael Bauman
Candy Man-Fiction by Frank Quinn
A Dog of War-Fiction by Robb T. White
The Retiree's Epiphany-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Reckoning-Fiction by Edward Francisco
Sarcasm's Dream-Fiction by Erin J, Jones
Dishes, Dishes, Dishes-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Angels in Vegas-Flash Fiction by Tom Darin Liskey
An Alto for the Choir-Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
A Splash of Red-Flash Fiction by Daniel Clausen
A Slight Disposition-Flash Fiction by James Coffey
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Phantom Voices Floating...Poem by Dr. Mel Waldman
Dirty White Girl-Poem by Ian Mullins
Don't Do It, It Ain't Worth It-Poem by Ian Mullins
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Regarding the Coming of Man-Poem by John Grey
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Word Salad With Ranch-Poem by Kenneth P. Gurney
Turnabout-Poem by Kenneth P. Gurney
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No Place Like Home
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

hunting2.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2017

Hunting Ghosts

 

by

 

JM Taylor

 

Shari checked the equipment in her satchel: camera, notebook, pen. She had a hand mirror, too, and a compass. Tape. Aluminum foil. An array of make-up brushes. It was just after eleven when she hopped the low cemetery wall. No one saw her.

          It was the perfect time for hunting ghosts.

          The ground was uneven, and ancient trees thrust their roots upwards, so she had to be careful. This graveyard had no paths, no paved roads. Just tufts of unmown grass and row after row of slate and marble jutting out of the dirt. She relished the meditative quiet, even half a decade after she’d left the detention center where she’d spent her teens.

          She roamed the grounds in the late morning sun, taking note of names, dates, anything she could find on the stones. She found the usual family plots, single stones with multiple names, nothing from after 1888. Here and there a small stone marked a baby, some not even named: “Infant daughter,” “Baby MacIsaac.”

          Once, someone had cared enough to choose a peaceful site for his or her loved one, had hired a mason to chisel in a name and date. Maybe an epitaph, too, if there was money for extra letters: “Forever in Our Memory.” But a generation or two later, “forever” dropped into oblivion.

          In the back corner of the cemetery, a tree had engulfed a stone so that it stuck out like a tooth. She knelt in front of the grave and peered closely. Not wanting to touch the decaying stone, her first attempt was to use the mirror to angle a sunbeam to raise some shadows among the letters, but it was no good. She put the mirror away, and took out the aluminum foil.

          She held one end of the foil to the back of the stone and unrolled it around the front. Pulling it tight, she taped the ends together, careful not to touch the stone. Not that anyone would complain—she’d already checked at the Town Hall and the DPW, and no one gave the place more than rudimentary care. The teenage girl at the Maintenance desk didn’t even know the place existed. “Sounds creepy,” she said.

          Once the foil was secure, Shari took a brush and gently pressed it against the engraving. Eventually, some disjointed lines and curves resolved into letters, then a name: Augustin Levesque. Another half hour of careful work brought to light the dates: Born Aug. 6, 1802. Died December 30, 1886. A good long life. She brushed over the whole stone, finding barely perceptible willow branches across the top. Nothing else. She entered the details into her notebook. It was enough for her to do some research in the archives. Augustin Levesque would find life again on her blog once she got back to her tent.

          She stowed her gear and stood up on stiff knees. The rest of his life, with any luck, she’d get in the library, which was still open for a few hours. Then it would be a lonely night in her tent. She wished she could afford a hotel, even one of those old “motor courts,” but tuition and air fare were expensive. She’d be lucky to avoid the rental agency’s gas penalty.

          She meandered back to the car. Before Shari climbed the wall, she noticed a scrap of paper on the ground, like a page torn from a notebook. She glanced at the writing, and found several names and a list of bank account numbers. The first name she saw was Michael Whitby. Like the ache of a phantom limb, the old temptations crept back, but she pushed them into the cell she’d built in her mind. She was a different person now. Mr. Whitby probably wouldn’t want that fluttering around, so she stuffed it in her pocket. “Leave a place better than you found it,” she thought, one of the daily aphorisms that kept her at peace. Then she got in the car and headed towards the library.

          It was a sleepy little place, opened only twice a week. It had a lovingly-dusted card catalogue, a massive dictionary on its own stand, and a globe that still showed the Soviet Union. Not a computer in sight. And when Shari opened her laptop, she got no WiFi signal, either. At least there was an electric outlet, which was more than she could say about her camp site.

          Working through lunch, Shari set to mining the old directories and town records. By cross-referencing old maps, newspapers bound in giant folios, and birth and death records, she learned that M. Levesque was a stone mason himself, and had seen two sons die in the Civil War. His daughter, Camille, had married her father’s assistant, who had carved the stone. Working through the list of names she’d collected, Shari also uncovered the town doctor, who ironically died of an abscess. A murderer had been hanged the same day Lincoln had been shot. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to Shari that his family had buried him surreptitiously on the edge of the forest, not quite in the cemetery, and years later had snuck a stone there, too. She liked their style.

          She didn’t realize until her belly started growling that she’d stayed more than hour past closing time. When Shari emerged from the Reference room, she found the librarian snoozing in her chair. “Thank you,” she said gently.

          The old woman’s eyes snapped open. Without missing a beat, she said, “You’re quite welcome. See you the day after tomorrow?”

          Maybe,” Shari told her. “We’ll see how things go tomorrow. Bye now.”

          She ordered a lobster roll and onion rings at a roadside lobster shack. When she went to pay, she found the scrap of paper with the names and numbers. While she ate, she considered what to do. The boy at the counter had never heard of a phone book, so she spread her map on the picnic table, and called information. She threw five guesses at the computer voice before she found a Michael Whitby. She agreed to the dial fee, and counted ten rings before it disconnected without an answer or voice mail.

          She could have stopped there. After all, it was just an account number, and if she threw it away with the ketchup-smeared remains of her dinner, no one would ever know. But this was a chance to help living people, something she hadn’t done much of since pre-school. So she studied the list again, and found that one of the numbers started with the local area code. “Maybe,” she muttered, and dialed.

          She was mildly surprised to hear ringing on the other end, more so when a voice said suspiciously, “Hello?”

          Shari put on her most charming voice, the one she had once used to wheedle free meals out of unsuspecting waitresses, the one she used now to wrestle records out the hands of over-protective archivists. “Hi,” she said. “I’m looking for Michael Whitby?”

          Who?”

          Or maybe Frank Travers. Is this him?”

          Uh, yeah. Why?”

          Oh, good,” she said. “Were you at the cemetery on Old Farm Road recently? I found something that might be yours.”

          Yes,” Travers said, seeming to calm a little. “My, uh, parents are buried there. Did you find that piece of paper? I’ve been looking for it all morning.”

          Exactly!” Shari said. “Can we meet somewhere, and I’ll give it to you?”

          That would be very helpful,” Travers said. “But I don’t get around much. If you came here, I’d make it worth your while.” He gave her his address and directions, then added, “Is anyone with you?”

          Just me.”

          Travers said it would only take twenty minutes from where she was, but it was more like forty-five. She was worrying about the gas needle by the time she had navigated the landmarks Travers had given her in lieu of signs. His house turned out to be a propane-heated trailer on a lot that had more dirt than grass. Debris had piled up around the wheels, and the metal supports by the hitch had the sad look of permanence. Two of the three windows had air conditioners in them, and both were running full blast.

          Shielding her eyes against the setting sun, she knocked on the door. Almost immediately, it opened a crack, and she met a red-faced man who could have been anywhere from forty to sixty. He was in dirty jeans and a threadbare black T-shirt. A blast of cold air hit her and raised goosebumps on her arms.

          You the girl with the paper?” he asked. He looked her up and down. “You’re younger than I thought. What are you, twenty?”

          Shari stepped back from his breath, but kept her smile on. “Here it is, Mr. Travers.”

          He narrowed his eyes, and thrust out his hand to take the paper. She handed it over, and he made to close the door. Hoping to remind him of his promise of a reward, Shari tried to keep the conversation going. “Who were you visiting?” she asked.

          What’s that?”

          At the cemetery. I don’t remember seeing any stones marked Travers.”

          What are you, the census?”

          No, I’m an historian. My graduate project has me looking up the histories behind old gravestones.”

          That’s a stupid waste of time.” He started to close the door again.

          I only ask,” Shari said to the narrowing opening, “because I thought you might be able to tell me a little about whoever it is you know there. I’ll put it on my blog.”

          Travers stopped. “You do computer work? Like research and shit?”

          Shari bobbed her head. “I can find just about anything.” She looked beyond him and saw a bank of computers crammed onto a small table. That explained the need for two air conditioners. “You looking for something?”

          Don’t go poking your nose into trouble, little girl.” A line she’d ignored most of her life.

          I’m guessing you’re not Mr. Travers. Those aren’t your account numbers, either, are they?”

          Suddenly the man, whatever his name was, grabbed her by the wrist and wrenched her inside the trailer. Shari stumbled as she fell through the door. He twisted her arm against her back. She heard a clump, and saw that he was leaning on a crutch instead of his right leg. She tried to kick it out from under him, but he was too strong for her.

          Bent over as she was, she saw half a dozen monitors running in the close space of the living area. Where there wasn’t computer equipment, there were bags of chips, crumbled beer and soda cans, notebooks with lists of names and numbers. A box held a bunch of cheap phones. The cold air did nothing to cover the stench of cigarettes.

          This is not your lucky day,” he said. He squeezed her wrist even harder. “You tried to do something nice, and now I can’t let you leave.” With his other hand, he slid her phone and keys out of her back pocket, putting them in his own. She flailed at him with her free arm, but despite the crutch, he danced out of range.

          Every horror movie she’d ever seen flitted through her head. Of course he’d have a shotgun somewhere, and a set of knives for gutting deer or moose. If she could just break free of him, it wasn’t like he could follow her in the car. But he was too strong for that. Then she remembered the reward, and thought maybe she could make a buck. What the hell, she had the experience. She stopped struggling.“What do you need?” she said through gritted teeth. “This is your phishing cabin, isn’t it?”

          And it’s all alone. So when you disappear, no one’s gonna know.”

          Shari noted the edge in his voice, but decided to play it out. “What about my car?”

          That’s easy to get rid of. Little girl, this’ll teach you not to do any more good deeds.” He frog-marched her deeper into the trailer, towards the sleeping area. Her fingers found the walls, the edge of the table, but nothing she could get a purchase on. A bottle of rum stood in front of the computers, just out of reach of her free arm. She tried to pull them both toward it, but he stood firm and just laughed.

          I can help you,” she gasped. “What’s the set-up here?”

          You’re not for real, are you, little girl?” He cocked his head, trying to figure her game. His breath was a hot blast on her neck.

          I told you, I’m really good at getting information. And I need the money. You said there’d be a reward. And… and… the lady at the hotel does know I’m here.”

          I know that ain’t true,” he said. “I seen you got a camp-site number hanging from your mirror.” But he let off some of the pressure on her arm.          

          Let me guess,” she said. She ticked off some of the scams she’d heard of, posing as an official at a bank or credit card company, checking on security breaches.

          That’s right,” he said proudly. “I just ask to confirm their information and write it down. I got a network of crews who pay big bucks for that kind of intel.”

          Even from her cramped position, she rolled her eyes at his self-importance. He couldn’t possibly be bringing in that much, if he chose to live here. Judging from the huge, old-fashioned CPUs, she guessed his “network” was a bunch of kids out to score a TV or a new set of snow tires. Strictly small time.

          Listen,” she said. “I mean it, I could help. Let me go, and I’ll show you. You can hold on to my phone and keys. Just promise you’ll actually pay.”

          He didn’t let go, but he said thoughtfully, “I like your voice. You sound older than you look, and you’re friendly. I bet you could get someone to trust you in no time flat.”

          Well, it’s not working on you. Let me go.”

          He hesitated a few seconds, but then he released her. He sighed with the exertion, and leaned against the wall. He still blocked the door, and it was too cramped for her to rush him.

          Panting, Shari shuffled forward, nodded at him, and sat down on the bench that surrounded the table. “What’s your name?” she asked, taking a phone from the box. She tied to sound natural, but knew she was failing.

          Might as well stick to Travers,” he said. “What’s yours?”

          Belinda,” she said automatically. She had been Belinda once or twice, in another time.

          You from around here?” Travers asked.

          No, just on break from school.”

          An’ you spent it at the graveyard? Tell ya the truth, that paper flew out the taxi window coming back from the store.”

          She laughed. “I should’ve known. Anyhow, the graveyard thing is part of my graduate work. I find out the names and stories of forgotten people. I call it ghost hunting.” She opened a notebook and skimmed the names and numbers. She picked one with an unfamiliar area code and dialed. A woman, maybe in her fifties, answered.

          Hello, may I speak to Ms. Hillary Galbraith?” she said in a bored voice. She continued, “Ma’am, I’m calling about your credit card. It seems there’s been some unusual purchases lately. We just wanted to check that you’re the only one using your account…Well, for example, is that you, who spent $49.72 at Exxxtasy Lingerie? That’s with three x’s, ma’am…And $267.50 at Banger’s Rims and Wheels?…What about $1389.15 at Crazy J’s Electronics Emporium?” Ms. Galbraith was spluttering. Shari added, “Ma’am, are you in possession of your card, or have you recently lost it?”

          She put her hand over the phone and whispered to Travers, “She’s going to check.” He struggled to stifle his laughter. Then she turned back to the phone. “Oh good, you do have it. Well, in that case, I’d say someone has definitely hacked your account. And they seem to be escalating their purchases. I know, what’s this world coming to, right? It’s terrible. So, what we’re going to do is put a hold on your account. Could you just read me the card number and expiration date to confirm it?”

          Frightened, the woman read it all out, and even gave her security code before Shari could ask for it. “Thank you, Ms. Galbraith. We’re going to start an investigation right away… No, you won’t be held liable for any of the unauthorized purchases. We’ll send you the paperwork to make a claim. Can you just confirm your address, including the ZIP code, please, and we’ll send it right out.” When she’d collected everything, Shari said, “Don’t you worry, Ms. Galbraith, we’ll take care of everything. Don’t try to use the card until we send you a replacement. Is there anything else I can do for you tonight? Ok, thank you.” She hung up.

          What the hell!” Travers said through his giggles. “You just thought all that up as you went! How’d you do that shit?”

          I deal with a lot of bureaucrats,” she said, oddly proud of her work. “You learn their mannerisms pretty quick. Want me to try another?”

          She made five more calls, three of them yielding usable account information.

          I have to go now,” she said after the last one. She stood up and stretched. “It’s getting late. I can come back tomorrow, if you want.”

          What makes you think you can leave?” he asked.

          The fact that I just made too much money for you to want it be a one-time deal. But you do need to pay me. We never fixed on a price, but I’m thinking I made you at least ten grand from that first call alone. Thirty percent seems reasonable.”

          Tell you what,” he said, taking a credit card from a plastic folder. He used it to point to a small swipe machine attached to computer. “I’ll clone the first woman’s card for you. Like you said, it’s might be close to ten grand.”

          Shari waved him off. “No, I’m strictly a cash and carry girl. You must have some cash squirreled away here.”

          Travers hesitated. “I really think you should go with a card, max it out, and shred it. It’s a better deal than the alternative.”

          Shari knew she was getting into dangerous waters. And Travers was right, she was alone in a strange place, and no one knew she was here. Still, she stuck to her guns. In a flirty voice, she said, “Just a couple thousand. We can work out something better tomorrow. But if you don’t make good, I don’t come back.”

          Travers chewed his lip. She could smell his indecision, mixed with his need for a shower.

          I’m waiting,” she said, with more courage than she felt.

          His shoulders slumped. “Fine,” he muttered. Travers hopped across the room, and sat in a bench built into the wall. He slid open a door beneath it and pulled out a lock box. Unlocking it with a key on a chain around his neck, he tossed her a small stack. “That’s all twenties,” he said. “Two grand.”

          Judging by the size of the box, she thought it held at least another dozen such bundles. “You can afford a bit more,” she said.

          Travers dropped the box on the cushion next to him. The question is, can you afford to get out of here?” He pulled himself up, standing between Shari and the door. Slipping the crutch into place, he moved his hand to the back of his belt. When it reappeared, he showed her a nasty-looking knife. It snapped open. “Every step you take towards the door will cost you. I judge you could do it in three or four. Let’s call it five hundred a step. If you’re willing to try.”

          Don’t be stupid, Mr. Travers. I did you a favor, and I earned that money. Just give me my phone and keys, and I promise I’ll be back tomorrow.”

          Bullshit. You’d be on the phone to the police in ten seconds flat.”

          You are stupid, Travers. I just made a bunch of fraudulent calls on what I bet are stolen cell phones. I’d be in trouble, too.”

          He waved the knife like the conductor of an orchestra. “Well, in that case, maybe you can earn it all over again. What are you willing to do?” He let his tongue loll over his lip.

          Not that, I can promise you. Put down the knife, and we’ll think it over.”

          I’d really like to, ma’am, but I don’t think that’s possible, given the current situation.” His smile almost looked friendly. “See, I can sound sincere, too.”

          Shari eyed the door, but there was no getting past him and his knife. She thought maybe she could use a cushion as a shield, but they were all sewn on to the seats. The closest thing to a weapon was the box of phones. She edged toward it.

          That’s one step,” he said. “You owe me five hundred. And too bad for you, it wasn’t in the direction of the door.”

          Before she had a chance to do anything else, he leapt forward, grabbing her around the waist. The crutch fell to the floor. He sat heavily, pulling her into his lap. The knife was at her side. It reminded her of a particularly nasty fight she’d witnessed in the youth detention center mess hall. Reflexively, she threw up her elbow into his chin. His teeth clicked shut, and a spurt of blood covered his lips. He yelped and the knife fell to the floor. Shari was wedged against the unmoving table, and they both scrabbled at each other. The bottle of rum fell over, and amidst the shouting, she heard the sizzle of a keyboard shorting out.

          In the confusion, she reached for the lock box. He batted at her arms, but she had better leverage. She twisted, and brought the box against the side of his head. It wasn’t enough to knock him out, but it did raise a huge bloody lump on his temple.

          Enraged, Travers flung his hands to her neck. But he’d made the mistake of moving in beneath her arms, and so she was able to lift the box up. This time she brought it down with enough force to shock his hands from her throat. Blood pumped out of the top of his head, but he caught her shirt at the collar and tried to tear it off. She pulled away, arching her back until she was lying on the sliver of table not holding computers. Her right fist flew out and found his throat. He gurgled once, then collapsed into the chair, too still to be foxing. She extricated herself from his lap, heaving with fear and exultation.

          His body slumped against the window. Would he call the cops if he woke up? He just might be stupid enough to try to explain that he was just some computer enthusiast. But from his awkward position, and his silence, Shari realized it would never be an issue. The suddenness of how she’d become a killer shocked her, but she didn’t have time to waste on regret.

          Luckily, he had fallen in such a way that she could retrieve her keys and phone from his pocket. She picked up the burner phone, too, and wiped off her prints with her shirt. But she’d also touched the keyboard, the table, everything. She couldn’t erase it all. She decided to make sure prints didn’t matter.

          Careful not to lock it, she pulled the lock box from under Travers’s body and put it aside. Then she sat him up, and lit one of his cigarettes. She put it between his yellowed fingers, then found an ashtray and positioned it near his hand. The spilled bottle of rum had some liquor left in it, so she tipped the rest into the ashtray. Making sure the lit cigarette was close enough to the puddle, she scooped up the cash box and ran to her car.

          It was dark outside, and when Shari got behind the wheel, she could already see the flickering light of the rum catching fire. She turned around, and in her rear view mirror, saw the flames suddenly grow brighter. Everything else was pitch dark: not even a streetlight to guide her back to the road. There wasn’t another house nearby. No one would hear the propane tank blow.

          None of the day had gone the way she planned. After all, she’d only wanted to get some guy his account information. But at least poor Ms. Galbraith wouldn’t have any scandalous charges on her card, and maybe Shari’s scam would be a wake-up call for her.

          As for the real Mr. Travers, and Michael Whitby, and the other names on the paper, they’d be saved from identity theft, too. So, it wasn’t all that bad when you got down to it.

          It just bothered her that she’d become the most influential person in the life and death of whoever she’d met tonight, but he was still a ghost to her. Someone would know him, his “network,” whoever they were. Certainly, the cops would have a record, at least enough to put a name to his body. But no one would ever suspect her. Like him, Shari had become a ghost, one whose name would never be carved over the dead man’s grave.





J. M. Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. Under his real name, he has appeared in Crime Factory, Dark Valentine, and Morpheus Tales, among others. His novel, Night of the Furies, was listed by Spinetingler as one of the best crime novels of 2013. His second novel, Dark Heat, will appear in 2017. You can find him on Twitter at @taylorjm7.




In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2017