Shannon Harper pulled out her pen and notebook. “What happens to the ghost?” she asked the small crowd of construction workers.
“Ghost?” replied the foreman, Frank Gretz. “I don’t know anything about a ghost.”
Harper shook her head. “You’re tearing something down, and you haven’t even considered what might happen? The place is haunted.”
They both looked at the structure in question. One of the town’s original buildings, the general store was being bulldozed to make way for a new shopping center.
“Look, I understand you need to write your story for the paper, but we’ve got a job to do, too. I can’t spend all day talking about nonsense,” said Gretz.
“It’s not nonsense,” countered Harper. “It’s our history. So, again, what happens to the ghost?”
Gretz spat on the ground. “I reckon he’ll get the hint when the walls come down.”
The ghost watched the proceedings from a second-floor window. She set her head down on the sill and tried to think of a way to stop the demolition of her home. In retrospect, perhaps she’d been too keen on haunting the former owners of her shop. Maybe if she’d let them alone they wouldn’t have sold out to ValuMart.
Until now, she’d been relatively benign. Her haunting hadn’t been malevolent. She’d done it primarily to keep busy. There was only so much that a spirit trapped in a single building could do with their time. She’d made the walls bleed, once, but that had been an accident. When she was younger, she hadn’t yet realized the extent of her powers.
She’d always had bad luck, too, dating back to before the day, ninety-seven years ago, that she’d been killed during a botched robbery.
She saw the fat man spit. She could barely hear his voice.
“He called me a ‘he’,” she muttered to herself. “If only he stepped inside, I could convince him to step right back out. And to take his machinery with him.”
Her words had a touch of fear to them. So far as she understood, if the building was razed, she’d cease to exist. She’d made it through one death, but she wasn’t going to roll over and let it happen a second time.
She placed her head back on her neck and floated downstairs. There wasn’t much time to prepare.
Harper realized that the foreman wasn’t going to be cooperative. She changed her approach. “Can I go inside?” she asked Gretz. “Maybe I can get some color for my story.”
Gretz waved her on dismissively. “Be my guest,” he told her. “We start the tear-down in twenty minutes. You’ll hear a siren go once with five minutes left, and then twice with one minute left.”
Harper nodded, then adjusted her glasses and marched up to the front door of the store.
The ghost saw Harper enter the building. She waited until the reporter was fully inside to trigger her trap. To start, the door swung shut and locked tight. Then the ghost chilled the air in the room and projected a knife at Harper’s head. The woman managed to dodge the blade. She dove to the floor, where she was left curled up in a shivering heap.
“It’s ok,” the woman called out from the ground. “I know you exist. I’m trying to help you.”
The ghost was startled. She hadn’t counted on an ally.
“What’s your name?” Harper asked the apparently empty room. “Mine’s Shannon.” Gathering her courage, she stood up slowly. “Hello?”
The ghost considered her options. When was the last time somebody had tried to talk to her? Was this person telling the truth? The ghost decided that there was no harm in responding. If need be, she could always murder the human later. She gathered herself, and tried to remember how to speak to the living, again.
“I was called Ruby Florence,” said the ghost.
Harper’s jaw dropped. “Ruby, you’re real!” She paused, and frowned. “I can’t see you.” Then her reporter’s instincts kicked in and she fished in her pocket for her notebook and pen. If she could break this story, she’d be set for life. She took a deep breath to begin asking questions.
A wailing scream interrupted the thought. It was the warning siren. Harper checked her watch and cursed. “He was supposed to give me fifteen minutes!”
Harper ran to the door. “I’m not coming out!” she yelled at the construction workers.
Two of them started to come towards her, but Gretz waved them off. “I want everyone ready to go,” he told them. “I’ll deal with the crazy lady.”
He picked up a bullhorn and aimed it at the store. “The demolition starts in five minutes, ghost or no ghosts. You need to evacuate the building or I’m calling the police.”
Harper turned to where she thought Ruby Florence might be. “I guess I’m all-in on your side, now. And they’re not going to come in to confirm you’re here. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could prove your existence to somebody who’s not actually on the premises, is there?”
The ghost didn’t respond immediately, and Harper began to wonder if she was making the right choice by staying. Had she really been speaking to an undead spirit? Then she saw the knife that was still embedded in the wall, confirming the events of the last few minutes. “Hey,” she called. “Remember how you just tried to kill me for trying to help you? You owe me a reply, at least.”
Ruby Florence floated back down to where Harper was standing. The ghost concentrated hard and a shimmering outline of her form began to appear.
“You’ve got no head!” was the first thing Harper said.
The ghost laughed. It had been so long. “That is true,” she told her new human friend.
Gretz hailed them again on the bullhorn. “Last chance, lady.”
The ghost ignored the hail, and answered Harper’s question. “I can’t leave. They will need to come to us.”
Harper’s eyes narrowed. She was thinking hard. “Is that for sure? I mean, you must have tried to escape before, but is there a rulebook or something? Can we talk to anybody?”
“I’m sorry,” said Ruby Florence. “Everything I know, I learned from a ghost next door. We would speak through the walls. When the hotel burned, he disappeared. I haven’t had contact with anything since. It’s been almost fifty years.”
Harper bit her lip. She stole a glance out of the window. “I understand,” she allowed. “Maybe it was too much for me to hope for that we’d stumble across some magic bullet.”
“If we can delay the crew until five, they’ll go home for the night. That’ll buy us some time,” said Harper as she turned away from the window.
But movement outside caught her eye. She ducked back towards the blinds and peered through. “It’s the police,” she told the ghost. “Gretz wasn’t kidding.”
“They’ll come in,” said the ghost. “They’ll come in and drag you out.”
It appeared that the ghost’s words were correct. Soon there were several cruisers parked outside the store, and Harper watched as a line of officers approached the building.
“I need to hide,” Harper told Ruby Florence.
“We can do that,” the ghost confirmed with a grim smile. “Follow me.”
Harper was led upstairs to a small room that had been used as an office. A large cabinet dominated the space.
“In here,” Ruby Florence directed, pointing with the same hand that held her head. “There is a secret compartment.”
Harper ran to the cabinet, but the ghost moved to block her path.
“No,” said Ruby Florence. “Tap twice on the floorboard in the far corner.”
Harper followed the instructions and a section of the floor dropped down and slid aside. There was a space underneath, just big enough for a person. Harper wasted no time climbing down and replacing the hatch. She looked up through a small knothole and saw the ghost’s face directly above her.
“They won’t find you there,” said the ghost. “But I intend for them to find me.”
Then she disappeared.
“Wait!” Harper called. “I thought we were in this together!”
There was no reply from the ghost, and Harper heard the police break through the downstairs door.
The police moved through the first floor of the building quickly, checking all the places somebody could hide. They were wary, but not nervous. They knew who their target was and that she was unarmed. They didn’t know that she had a supernatural partner.
The ghost let the officers get to the middle of the building before she made her move. As when Harper had entered, the ghost slammed all the doors shut, trapping the squad. This time, however, Ruby Florence did not bother with knives.
The lead policeman turned around to face his team and leveled his gun at them. “You are not wanted here,” he told them.
Ruby Florence had possessed him. She watched through his eyes as the other members tried to make sense of their leader’s disturbing behavior. Slowly, they all placed their weapons on the floor. “This is my home,” said the ghost, with the officer’s voice. “You will not let the fat man destroy it.”
“Captain,” said one of the hostages. “You need help.”
The ghost pointed the gun at the speaker. “Your captain isn’t here right now. My name is Ruby Florence. And you will be silent.”
Another officer spoke. “Sir, what are you talking about?”
Ruby Florence did not hesitate. A chair flew at the officer’s head, striking him squarely and opening a large gash. He fell to the ground, unconscious. At the same time, everything in the room began to levitate. The wooden walls began to vibrate alarmingly, sending small splinters flying toward the cowering police.
The man under Ruby Florence’s control stood quietly in the middle of the maelstrom, calm, and untouched by the dangerous debris.
As quickly as the assault began, it ended. Everything in the air collapsed back to earth and clattered to a stop. The room was deathly quiet.
There was no fight left in the prisoners.
“Now,” said Ruby Florence. “You will take my message to the fat man. This will serve you as a sign that I am serious.”
She pointed the Captain’s gun at his own head. Her spectral fingers helped his to slowly squeeze the trigger.
Harper was cowering in her hideaway. She hadn’t seen any of the confrontation downstairs. She was holding her breath when she heard the gunshot.
The Captain’s body crumpled to the ground. Ruby Florence was left standing in his place. She chose to show herself to the remaining police officers. They all saw her holding her severed head in her hand and pointing at them.
“Go,” she said.
And they did, dragging the wounded man with them but leaving the corpse behind.
Harper stayed quiet as long as she could, but she lay in a cold sweat. Had the ghost really murdered a man? Harper had to know, so she chanced being caught by anybody still searching, and left her hiding place.
She went downstairs and peered around the corner, afraid of what she might see. The sight of the dead body caused her to throw up.
When she was finished, she screamed for the ghost. “What did you do? You’re a monster!”
Ruby Florence floated serenely into the room. “Only what I had to,” she said casually.
“You killed him,” said Harper. “How could you? I was trying to help you.”
The ghost shrugged her shoulders, a gesture made obscene by her lack of a head. “Now he’s motivated,” she explained.
Harper was confused. She felt something on her shoulder. She spun around to see the Captain’s ghost. The gunshot wound made her vomit, again.
Ruby Florence came closer to Harper. “Walk to the window and tell them my demands,” she whispered.
The deceased Captain, now linked to the soon-to-be demolished building, was on Harper’s other side, and was not going to let her get away, either. He tried to speak, but his shattered jaw couldn’t form words that Harper could make out. She understood what he wanted, though.
She went to the window to deliver her message. “Mr. Gretz,” she called to the line-up of police and spectators who were huddled behind a makeshift barricade. “You need to come in, or they’ll kill me, too.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Harper,” replied Gretz over a loudspeaker. “The police have instructed me not to enter the building.”
Harper was in trouble. She knew that Ruby Florence was growing desperate. The murder of the captain proved that the spirits were no longer content with a simple haunting. They would fight to keep their residence intact. And they were only likely to leave Harper alive if she was useful to them.
Gretz’s refusal meant that Harper’s usefulness was quickly running out.
The police appeared to be busy preparing something. Harper knew, too, that if they tried to assault the house again that her life would be in great danger. She was shivering as she stood, exposed, waiting for a response from either of the parties locked in the standoff.
Suddenly, Harper broke into a run and dashed toward the door. If the ghosts were trapped in the building, they couldn’t follow her outside. Their plan to put her between themselves and the police had been a mistake. She was so close to freedom.
The police marksman was watching the house through his rifle scope. He studied the woman at the window as she made demands. She was remarkably unafraid for somebody who’d reportedly just killed a cop. The marksman was friends with many of the men on the team that had entered the general store and was waiting for his chance to avenge the Captain. The marksman was a little sad, though. He’d read Shannon Harper’s column for years. He pushed that feeling aside. It would be easy enough to replace that part of his day.
When Harper made her break for the door, his readied himself to shoot. His earpiece buzzed with instructions. If she made it to the doorway, he was to take the shot.
Ruby Florence saw Harper dash toward the border of the ghosts’ influence. The ghost had to move quickly to counter the escape attempt.
She attempted to gain control of Harpers consciousness. Within a moment, she’d succeeded.
Harper felt the foreign presence in her mind. Her body and will were suddenly not under her control any longer. The only sensation that she recognized was fear. Harper’s footsteps slowed, and Ruby Florence began to force her away from the exit.
Harper was close enough to the boundary, though, that the ghost’s power was not as strong as it was in the middle of the building. Harper fought the possession, and was able to break free for an instant. She lunged toward the fading daylight on the porch.
She stumbled and fell as she felt a burning pain. She came to rest against the doorframe, wavering precariously between two worlds.
Harper was cold. She opened her eyes to a bright light. Forcing her eyes to focus, she could make out the source. It was coming from a florescent tube, surrounded by the same kind of ceiling she remembered from her dentist’s office.
“Stay still,” somebody told her sternly. “We’ve got quite a few things hooked into you.”
Harper turned towards the voice. It was coming from a nurse. Harper tried to sit up, but found her left arm in a sling, and her right handcuffed to the bed frame.
“The police,” croaked Harper. “They shot me, didn’t they?”
The nurse was busy adjusting the monitors at the foot of the bed and didn’t reply.
“They did this to me,” Harper repeated.
The nurse looked up. “You deserve it,” she said.
Harper tried to remember what had happened. “I don’t,” she said.
The nurse moved closer to Harper’s head. “What do you think happens when you kill a cop and then charge the rest of the officers?” she said. “It’s all over the news.” Then she jerked on something that Harper couldn’t see.
Pain radiated up Harper’s arm. She fought the urge to scream.
Ruby Florence was waiting.
After Harper was shot, the police had pulled her body away. Then they’d stormed the building again, looking for accomplices. The ghost made sure that not all of them made it back out, and the rest had called for a retreat to assess the situation. Now they were just watching, probably preparing for another assault.
The ghost was alone in the upstairs room where Harper had sheltered. The other, new ghosts were downstairs, adjusting to their new existence. Ruby Florence was angry that Harper was not one of them. She had heard the police telling each other that Harper had been the one that killed the Captain. Nobody seemed to remember that the murderer had been seen with a missing head.
The demolition crew had gone home. Even the repellent fat man had been sent on his way. The ghost would have one more night, at least.
The nurse had gone, and Harper was alone. She watched the news on the TV that the nurse had left on. The only story being reported was the one that Harper had initiated that afternoon. Then, it had been an interesting piece of local history. Now, it was a tragedy.
With a dramatic musical sting, the news anchor began to speak. “We’ve just received word that possible accomplices of the alleged murderer, Shannon Harper, have killed again. Four more officers are dead following an attempt to search the premises of the former 80th Avenue General Store. With Harper currently in custody at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, it is unclear at this time who is responsible for the most recent attacks.”
Harper stiffened. Ruby Florence wasn’t finished. And the police would keep sending men in, to their deaths, not realizing the true nature of the thing that was inside the building.
For several hours, Harper wrestled with her options.
She could do nothing, and hope the police realized that they were being attacked by a vengeful spirit.
That would clear her name, but the chances of it happening were almost nonexistent, and it was unlikely to occur before the ghost used lethal force again.
She could tell the truth. But she was sure that nobody would listen. They would discount the explanation that same way that the fat man had.
Or, being the only person who knew the true story, she could do something to stop Ruby Florence.
The only problem with that plan was that, by taking that path, Harper would still be the only person linked to murders.
It was almost sunrise when she made up her mind.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she disconnected the IVs and wires that were taped to her body. Using a needle she’d just removed, she managed to pick the lock on the handcuffs. The same needle served as an improvised weapon when she threatened the guard outside the door. She ordered the guard back into the room, then locked him in and escaped down the hall.
Gretz woke up to the doorbell. He threw on his robe and padded down the stairs to answer.
“You’re coming with me,” said the person on his porch. It took him a second to place the strange visitor. Disheveled and bandaged, it was Harper. She had something in her hands. It looked like it could be a gun.
“Don’t hurt me,” Gretz pleaded. “They told me what to do.”
“Shut up,” said Harper. “I’m not here about that. But we need to go. There’s not a lot of time.”
They arrived at the general store at first light. Gretz flashed his ID at the officer posted at perimeter of the site, now a crime scene. “I have to secure my equipment,” he told the guard. He was waved through.
“Pull up as close as you can,” whispered Harper from the back seat. “Get ready to jump out.”
Gretz did as he was told and parked just behind the police line. Then, with slight hesitation, he followed Harper’s orders as they both leapt from the car and ran toward the storefront.
The police were too surprised to see somebody going toward the building that they were too late to stop the trespassing pair.
The ghost smiled as she watched the scene unfold.
“Florence,” called Harper. “I’ve got somebody here who I think you’d like to talk to.”
Ruby Florence floated down the stairs and materialized by the door. She noticed that Harper was careful not to cross the threshold.
“It’s real,” said the fat man.
“Of course I am,” she told him. She turned her attention to Harper. “I’m glad you were able to do as I asked.”
“Oh,” said Harper casually. “He’s not here to talk to you. I just needed a credible witness to see you and clear my name.”
“What?” said the ghost, confused.
Ruby Florence watched in horror as Harper pulled the trigger on the gun she was holding. The ghost noticed, too late, that it was attached with a hose to something on Harper’s back.
Gasoline streamed from the gun’s plastic barrel. Harper made sure to cover the whole front of the building and to get some inside. Then she dipped her shoulders to shuck the tank from her back, and threw the entire apparatus through the door.
“Go,” she told Gretz. “Tell them what you saw.”
He didn’t need any more prompting and sprinted away, back toward the police.
Harper locked eyes with Ruby Florence. “You shouldn’t have killed. I could have helped you.”
“You didn’t,” replied the ghost.
“Maybe you didn’t deserve it,” said Harper. She flicked a lighter and tossed it into the building. Fueled by the gasoline, the structure was engulfed in seconds.
Harper sat on the stool and picked up the phone. On the other side of the glass was Frank Gretz.
“In a way, it’s good to see you,” he said through his handset.
“I’m surprised you had it in you to come,” she said to him. “After what you told them at the trial.”
Gretz shrugged. “It all happened so quickly. You know how things go. We can never be too sure about what we’ve seen.” Then he paused before speaking again. “Especially after you tried to kill me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Harper. “I never tried to kill you.” Then she realized. Her head jerked up. “It’s not him in there, is it?” she asked the ghost.
Gretz glanced at the officer standing behind him and asked to be let out of the visitor’s area.
Harper screamed and pounded on the partition. “It’s you! I know it’s you!” she yelled, until two prison guards reached her to drag her back to her cell.
“Keep quiet, Cop Killer,” one said as she rammed her nightstick into Harper’s belly. “If you keep this up for the rest of your life sentence, we’re going to get really tired of it.”
Shannon Harper spent a long time piecing together what must have happened. She learned from her former newspaper’s reports that her attempt at arson hadn’t burned down the entire structure. With the police and emergency crews already on the scene, they’d apparently been able to save enough of the building for the ghost to survive inside.
Gretz, who had been on the site every day during the rest of the demolition and construction, would have been a prime candidate for the ghost to inhabit in a desperate measure when the last parts of the store were taken down.
ValuMart’s grand opening was a huge success. Hundreds of people showed up to see the new store.
Among the shoppers was Frank Gretz.
He broke off from the crowd, and slipped past a door marked “Staff Only” to climb the stairs to the manager’s office. Once inside, he closed the door and fell immediately to the floor, dead.
Ruby Florence stood in the middle of the room, having shed the vessel that had carried her for the last year and a half. She placed her head on the window sill, like old times.
“It’s good to be home,” she said with a wicked smile.