Not a Halloween story, per se, but appropriate for the time of year. At least it was when I started writing it. Be afraid, be very afraid: I actually wrote an E! story that doesn’t have Hank in it! J
Do You Believe?
It was 7:45 am, nearing the end of yet another twenty-four hour stint for Station 51’s “A” shift. Members of the “B” shift were straggling into the kitchen area, hoping to grab a quick cup of java before their duties officially started.
Leaning against the counter, paramedic/firefighter Charlie Dwyer sipped his coffee as he regarded several members of the earlier shift. His brown eyes fell on Mike Stoker, who was reading the front page of the day’s newspaper. He fought to keep from smiling. Dwyer and his partner-on-the-squad had an ongoing challenge to see who could get the silent engineer to speak the most words. “So, what’s shakin’ for today, Stoker?”
Mike folded the paper, gently tossed it back on the table. “Not much. Gonna help Mark Harris from 86’s fix up that place he bought.”
“Hey, that’s right,” Marco Lopez commented, gesturing slightly with his nearly empty coffee mug, “he bought that old inn, the one they say is haunted.”
“Haunted?” Chet Kelly and John Gage repeated simultaneously. Chet sat up straighter from his position under Henry the Basset on the couch while Johnny paused in taking a sip of his coffee.
“That’s what they say.” Marco nodded. “Some woman was murdered there in the 1940’s. Apparently shot to death by her lover. People see her looking out a window on the second floor. The old owners supposedly heard footsteps after closing and had some weird encounters.” By the time the Latino had finished, he had the rapt attention of every man in the room.
“Come off it, Marco, there’s no such things as ghosts,” Mike reproached.
“Don’t tell my Aunt Rosita that.”
Chet carefully dislodged himself from Henry’s bulk, then walked over to join his fellow firefighters at the table. “What’s Mark want with a haunted inn, anyway?”
“It’s not haunted,” Mike stated firmly.
“Oh? You know this for a fact?”
“Yes. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“You say that only because you’ve never seen one.”
“Have you?” Mike challenged with both voice and stare.
The Irishman appeared a little flustered. “Well, no—“
“But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist!” Chet added hastily. “I mean, you can’t see germs, but they’re there, aren’t they?”
Several of the others nodded in agreement.
Chet grinned in triumph. “You should be all right, Mikey, as long as you don’t stay there after dark.”
Stoker stood, his handsome face wearing a look of irritation. “I’ve got nothing to worry about because there’s no ghost.” He started for the door, pausing beside his shiftmate. “You call me ‘Mikey’ one more time and my hand is going to slip on the pressure gauge when you have the nozzle and blow you on your ass. Comprende?”
“Why, Michael, you’d let a little thing like a grudge affect your work?” Chet grinned, not in the least perturbed at the threat in his shiftmate’s eyes. “Have a nice day and don’t let the ghost get ya.”
Sometimes, it just wasn’t worth getting into it with the Phantom’s alter-ego. This being one of those times, Mike just shook his head as he left the dayroom.
Chet watched him go, then scooted over to the phone. “Hey, anybody know the number for 86’s? Harris works “A” shift, right?” He picked up the receiver, muttering loudly, “No such thing as ghosts, huh? Well, our know-it-all engineer is going to find out differently.”
Johnny glanced askance at the others, then asked, “Chet, what are you up to?”
The stocky firefighter smiled devilishly. “The Phantom has been issued a challenge. Anybody want in?”
Dwyer grinned. “Man, I wish I didn’t have to work tonight. Sounds like you’re planning on getting Stoker good.”
“Well, I’m in,” Johnny agreed, catching the others’ excitement. He glanced at Marco, who nodded acquiescence. When Roy just gave him That Look, Johnny waved him off as hopeless before asking, “What have you got in mind?”
“I’ll tell you, after I talk to Mark Harris,” Chet promised.
What the others didn’t realize was their ‘victim’ had forgotten his jacket in the dayroom and had returned to retrieve it. He now stood in the apparatus bay next to the doorway, out of sight, and heard every word of their plan.
Mark Harris stood up and stretched. A tall, easygoing man who had gone to the Fire Academy with Stoker and was the driver of his own engine, he blamed his thinning hair on the constant sporting of his fire helmet. He glanced at his watch, towards one of the front windows to see it was dark outside, then down at his companion. The others that had come to help had long since left, leaving the two engineers to continue working. “Hey, Mike.”
Mike looked up from the floor he was repairing.
“Listen, man, I promised Brenda I wouldn’t be here ‘til morning. I’m gonna call it a night. How about it?”
Mike glanced at the floor, then back up. “I’m nearly done. I’d like to finish, if you don’t mind.”
“Hell, no! I don’t mind!” Mark grinned inwardly. He knew his friend didn’t like to leave a job half-finished and would stay until it was done. He’d been counting on it. He wished he could be around to see the ‘show,’ but other plans prevented that. “I appreciate your help! Don’t kill yourself on my account.”
Stoker smiled. “I won’t. Your sorry butt isn’t worth it.”
“Hey, now,” the other shot back good-naturedly, “remember who saved your sorry butt at the Calvin Warehouse Fire.”
“Funny, I seem to remember it was me who saved your butt.”
“Dream on.” Picking up his light jacket, Mark said, “Thanks again for the help! See you later, all right?”
“Sure.” Mike watched his fellow engineer leave, then grinned. He’d decided to play along with their little prank. Try and scare ole Stoke, now, would they? He’d show The Phantom a thing or three.
Mike wasn’t sure how much time passed when he felt an odd sensation. It was almost as if he was being watched. He wondered if the Phantom and friends had arrived and were scoping him out. Casually, he laid down the tool he’d been using, then stretched, using the exaggerated movements of his body as a cover to look about the room. He didn’t see anything suspicious, nor did he hear anything that would indicate he had visitors.
An involuntary shudder passed through him when he felt an inexplicable waft of cold air. Another quick survey of the room revealed no open windows or doors. He mentally shrugged. Who knew? The place had been empty for years, there could be any manner of cracks and crevices around, or perhaps even a window open upstairs.
That’s got to be it. The guys probably opened a window somewhere to sneak in.
Mike reached for his hammer. He was nearly done, then he could leave. If his expected company couldn’t be bothered to “haunt” him before he left, then they were simply S.O.L. Better luck the next time.
The squeak of floorboards caught his attention. Sitting back on his heels, he tilted his head, as a cat would incline its head to better hear a mouse scurrying in a cupboard. The creaking came from the second level of the house, in the room above him. Along with the creaks came what sounded suspiciously like footsteps.
The engineer looked at the ceiling. He remembered Mark making a point of telling him that it was in the corridor above the main hall—where Mike was currently working—where that woman had been murdered. He smiled. So, they were trying to scare him with “ghostly” footsteps, were they?
You can do better than that, Phantom! he challenged his visitors. The footfalls sounded as if they were made by somebody with a light step or not very heavy in build, like a woman or—Johnny. He’s definitely lighter than either Chet or Marco. It’s probably him walking around up there.
Mike briefly wondered if he should make a show of investigating the sounds. After a moment’s debate with himself, he shook his head. Nah. It’ll drive ‘em more crazy if I don’t react. Let’s see what their next step is.
A few more minutes passed, during which he heard some more footfalls as he put away the tools he’d been using. If his shiftmates couldn’t come up with anything better than sneaking around upstairs, then the game was going to end. Right now. I expected better from The Phantom. Of course, if Johnny’s with him, they’re probably arguing over the next phase-- Then, as suddenly as they had started, the creaks stopped. This gave Mike momentary pause, the hammer held poised above the open toolbox beside him. His eyes automatically scanned the ceiling.
A feminine scream ripped through the ensuing silence. Mike automatically dropped the tool, pushed himself off the floor, raced across the room and up the ornate staircase, taking the steps two at a time. At the top, he flipped the light switch as he darted past. When the overhead lights didn’t come on, Mike halted in his tracks. He quickly backtracked and flicked the toggle a couple more times.
That’s odd, it worked earlier when Mark was up here. That thought led to another. Mark. I wonder if he messed around with something? The main box is downstairs, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t fiddle with a circuit up here. And that scream could have been faked, a recording.
But the rescuer in Stoker wouldn’t let him leave without giving the upstairs a quick once-over. As he moved to go back downstairs to get a flashlight, he found he didn’t have time to dwell on what his friend may have done to the switch or if the scream was, indeed, real. At first, he felt more than saw that something more was occurring. A peculiar sense of trepidation washed over him, giving him momentary pause. He shook off the weird feeling as he turned back to face the second floor.
An eerie glow, coming from down the hallway, caught his attention. Mike took a few hesitant steps forward. For some odd reason, the air had grown more chilly; nevertheless, the firefighter continued forward, curious to see what his shiftmates had further concocted.
There, at the end of the hallway, was a woman, dressed in a dark, knee-length skirt and a white blouse. From old photographs Mike had seen, the outfit looked like something worn by women in the 1940’s. Her back was to Mike as she stood gazing out the large picture window that overlooked the front door. What surprised the engineer most was not that she was there at all, but that he could make out the window through her torso. In fact, though distinct enough that he could make out details to her clothes and features, her entire body had an ethereal appearance to it.
Mike swallowed as the apparition turned to face him. He could easily make out the delicate features of her face, framed by thick, dark hair. She smiled; he felt that she was smiling at him, but that couldn’t be, could it?
“Hello? Miss?” The firefighter was pleased when his voice held no sign of tremor. “May I help you?”
The woman didn’t answer; instead, her smile widened for a few moments then, just as suddenly, fell into a look of fear. The look was so real, so terrified, Mike found himself turning around to see if anybody was behind him. There wasn’t; when he returned his gaze to the mystic figure, he watched as she jerked as if given a blow to the stomach. Two more times she shuddered, clutching at her abdomen, her upturned face a mask of pain, betrayal and terror. Then she dropped unceremoniously to the floor and lay still. A dark liquid—blood?-- began to pool on the floor beside her motionless body.
Shaking off the shock of what he’d just seen, Mike raced forward. As he approached, the lady’s body unexpectedly disappeared. Vanished, into thin air. Mike almost stumbled in his attempt to stop, his sneakers squeaking on the hardwood floor. He glanced around rapidly, his heart racing. The only thing he could see was a discolored mark on the floor, visible only because of the moonlight shining through the uncurtained window.
Mike knelt, lightly touching the stained area. A strange feeling coursed through him, but he quickly tamped it down. Mark had shown him the spot earlier in the day, while giving him a tour of the place. The balding engineer said that it was blood from the murdered woman. Many people had tried several times over to scrub the discoloration from the floor but, for some strange and unknown reason, it refused to wash out or fade. Figuring it was a build-up for the night’s “games,” Mike hadn’t said anything while his friend talked about how it was a permanent reminder in memory of the woman who had been so brutally gunned down.
Adrenal rush easing up, Station 51’s second-in-command snorted lightly. Okay, Phantom, joke’s over, now it’s time for you to pop from the walls and yell “Got ya!”
Mike glanced over his shoulder. Nothing. No sign of movement, no snickers, no guffaws at his expense, no moans that Mike hadn’t performed up to expectation...
After another silent minute ticked by, Mike shrugged. Well, Chet was intent on showing me a “real” ghost. His coming out of the woodwork would ruin that, wouldn’t it? I needn’t worry, I’m sure I’ll hear all about it come next shift. This is one prank Chet won’t be able to keep to himself.
Mike stood. He stared at the stain for a little while longer, thinking about what he’d seen. It had to have been a projection of some kind. Where his friends could have hidden any kind of projector, he had no idea and really didn’t feel like searching for it now. He was too tired. He just wanted to go home, take a hot shower and watch a late movie on the tube.
As he turned to leave, he couldn’t help admiring the “ghostly” projection. They’d done an excellent job with that! Mike was no expert in photography and filmmaking, but it had been pretty good. If he hadn’t known better, he would have almost sworn he’d seen a real ghost reliving her final moments in life. If Chet’s gonna sulk because I didn’t go screaming into the night, the least I can do is throw him a bone and tell him that. Hard work shouldn’t go unnoticed, even if it did backfire in its intentions.
Without a backward glance, Mike trotted lightly down the staircase, preparing to get out of there.
“So, Mike, how was your night in the haunted inn?” Johnny asked the engineer the morning of their next shift.
Mike had already decided he wasn’t going to give his shiftmates the satisfaction of knowing they made him sweat, even if he had reacted a little to their practical joke. “Fine,” he answered as if he was responding to a polite question concerning his health.
“Fine?” Chet challenged. “You mean, you didn’t see or hear anything?”
Mike picked up his cup of coffee. “Oh, you mean that lame attempt of yours to scare me out of my wits?” He gave Johnny, Chet and Marco looks of mock-disgust. “You guys have got to do better than that. Though I admit, the special effects were pretty good and you managed to get the period costumes right.” He gestured with the mug. “I think you overdid the footstep bit, though.”
“What do you mean ‘lame attempt?’” Chet asked, total confusion written across his face.
“’Footstep bit?’” Marco stared at his friend in bewilderment.
“Period costumes?” Johnny questioned. “Mike, what are you talking about?”
Mike set down the mug with an irritated click. “Oh, come on, I know that was you guys there the other night!”
Marco shook his head. “We weren’t there.”
“Don’t give me that. I overheard all your plans to pull one over on me.”
Johnny glanced at his partner before returning his puzzled attention to Engine 51’s driver. “Mike, man, we didn’t even make it there! Chet’s van broke down on the way and we spent half the night waiting for a tow truck!”
“Yeah,” Marco agreed less sarcastically, “that’s right. We had planned on scaring you, but ‘technical difficulties’ prevented us from doing otherwise.” He gave his partner-on-the-hose a pointed look.
Chet ignored the glance. “Yeah, man, go out back and check the parking lot.” He gestured to the side door. “I had to get a ride in this morning, so my van’s not even here.”
Mike hesitated, his blue eyes taking in the mystified expressions on his friends’ faces. When he glanced at Roy, the paramedic said, “It’s true, Mike. Johnny called and told me all about it yesterday morning. He was disappointed they didn’t get to play the prank on you.”
The engineer sat back. He knew Roy was as prone as the rest of them to the occasional practical joke, but Mike prided himself on being able to read their expressions even when they were playing a hoax. Right now, their faces told him they were as perplexed about the “ghost” situation as he.
After a few moments of stunned silence, Chet queried nervously, “So, just what did you see, Mike?”
Marco muttered something in Spanish that sounded suspiciously like a ward against evil.
The tones sounded, cutting off whatever Mike had planned to say. As the others scrambled out into the apparatus bay, he hesitated, the full implication of what the others were alleging hit him. So startled by the realization, he uncharacteristically dallied in leaving the kitchen.
“Let’s move, Stoker!” Hank Stanley’s voice boomed from the bay.
Shaken back to the present, Mike hollered, “Coming, Cap!” as he hustled after his superior. As he climbed into position on Big Red, he couldn’t help but wonder if his shiftmates were just playing a colossal joke on him or had he actually had a supernatural experience? Was Mark’s inn really haunted? Had he seen the past replaying itself the other night?
But, he firmly told himself as he pulled the big, shining rig out of the bay, there was no such things as ghosts.
Thanks again to Crystal and Audrey for their suggestions.
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