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“Ms. Barnes?” Christ did that make me want to wince. The only people I knew that enjoyed being called that were old, and furthermore…Ms? Since when did I stop being age appropriate to be assumed a Miss? I flatted the spine of my notebook against the table and cleared my throat before I offered to shake his hand. “Please, call me Odette.” He nodded eagerly, and without waiting for me to invite him, dropped into the seat opposite mine. “Odette. Great. Call me Pelton then.” I raised an eyebrow. He looked like someone who would be named Pelton; all messy blond hair done up in hasty spikes and wide blue eyes. Just looking at his bug eyed stare made my own contacts start to dry out in sympathy. How could anyone possibly look so perpetually freaked out naturally? Unless this was just a temporary thing and he was actually currently freaked. Either way, I didn’t really like it. “Cool…” I looked around the diner, making a note of the easiest way to escape should Pelton turn out to be a wacko. “Pelton what?” “James. Pelton James.” In a spare corner of my notebook I wrote this down. Should I end up stabbed to death in an alley following the meeting, let it be a cryptic clue for the police to follow. I was slightly concerned (and by that I mean I thought about it for a second and then stopped caring) that he would be offended that I wrote down his name, but Mr. Pelton James didn’t seem to care. “Nice to meet you, Pelton. Do you want a coffee or something?” My earlier ambivalence towards the waitress might have backfired; she was nowhere to be seen. Naturally, when I wanted a witness or a fresh cup of coffee, there was none to be found. “My waitress is…somewhere.” “No, no,” he waved away my offer with a dopey grin. “I really don’t need it. I mean, I’ve had plenty today. Like five cups.” That much was obvious. He had the look of a chameleon about him; his eyes were everywhere. “Okay, well, great.” I wasted a few seconds shuffling my papers around and hoped he wouldn’t notice the shopping list mixed in among them. “So your ad said you were looking for a ghost writer?” He hesitated. “I’m actually looking for someone to write my book for me.” “That’s what a ghost writer does.”
“Oh,” he looked down at my notebook with embarrassment. “All I know about ghost writers is that old PBS show.” The tidbit of nostalgia was endearing. How many people remembered that old show? I tried, hopefully successfully, to not look too eager. “So what kind of book are you looking to write? A memoir?” Pelton glanced up, suddenly looking alarmingly grave and businesslike. “My life isn’t interesting enough for that. I want you to write about something that happened to me. It will be a ghost story.” My heart sank. Trying to find work on the internet was a crap shoot, and it was starting to look like I’d scored a miss. Never mind that Pelton didn’t seem as stable as I would have liked; the real problem was that a ghost story was out of my expertise. I don’t write fiction. Discreetly, I glanced around for my waitress. I could have used a little more coffee. Or the check. “A ghost story? Well, that’s going to be a problem,” I explained, as professionally as I could manage. “I don’t write fiction. Only non-fiction and technical writing.” He rested his arms on the table and lowered his voice. “It’s not fiction. It’s a true story.” “Excuse me?” He leaned back and gestured, speaking with his hands as he grew more and more excited. “That’s right. It’s about this ghost in the hospital where I work. I don’t think the ghost has been there long, but it’s really bad, because this ghost kills people.” I pushed my hair back behind my ear and thought before I spoke. My initial reaction was to call him crazy or an idiot, but let’s face it. Laughing at the insane is a bad idea. “How do you know it kills people? I mean, you work in a hospital. People die there all the time for any number of reasons.” But it’s not killing sick people,” he insisted. “It’s killing healthy ones.” “Healthy people? In the hospital? Then why are they there?” “I mean like, visitors and stuff.” “Oh,” I scribbled a note that could more politely signed up as What? “How many people has this…ghost killed?” Pelton hesitated and shifted. I could hear his legs unsticking from the seat. “Only one, I think.” I stared. “One?” “That I know of,” he quickly amended, lest he lose my interest. “There could be more.” “Right.” Beyond that I didn’t know what to say. His story reeked of delusion. “So what do you want me to do? Shouldn’t you be talking to one of those paranormal investigation team things?” “They’d never believe me.” It took a lot to not admit out loud that I didn’t believe him either. “I still don’t know how I’m supposed to help.”
He straightened. “I want you to write the story of what happened. Then maybe people will believe it.” I wanted to be flattered, like my personally writing the story somehow made it legit, but I had my doubts about whether I was right. I wouldn’t be sniffing through Craig’s list for work if I had made it big, after all. “Why would they believe me?” He looked confused. “Because you write non-fiction.” As though that was the most obvious answer in the world. The little non-fiction tag on the back of a book made it one-hundred percent credible. “But I’m not famous. I’m not even published,” I protested. Modestly, I might add, and not because I was trying to put him off easily. “Very few people would even read the book if I wrote it.” I could actually see his shoulders slump with disappointment, and I started to feel a little bad that I’d let him down. It was an insane request with an even more insane story behind it, but he had just seemed so genuinely excited. At least he didn’t look like he wanted to murder me out of disappointment. “Then do you know how I can get it written and read? Because people are dying and people need to know.” “But only one person’s died so far.” He looked glum. “So far.” It was hard to know what to do with him. In my entire life I had never actually seen a person look like a kicked puppy, but there is was. All of the pathetic you could imagine, slumped in the booth and pouting. What little maternal instinct I possessed kicked in like an engine starting. Pelton had to be nuts, but I actually felt bad for having to tell him that. While he pouted, I avoided his eyes by staring down into my coffee cup. A milky film had settled over the surface, and though it repulsed me, I really wanted to down the rest of it just so I could get a completely fresh cup. This meeting was not turning out the way I had hoped. I had been all for business, and if I was lucky, a totally lucrative writing gig. With a sigh I laid my pen in the spine of my notebook. “Look, do you have any proof that there’s a ghost in the hospital?” He started and stopped speaking a few times before answering. “Well that depends. What kind of proof are you looking for? Like, photos? EVPs?” He sounded hopeful, and that was both reassuring and frightening. Not that I had any idea what he was talking about. My experience with ghost hunting was woefully limited to say the least. “I don’t even know what those are.” “Photographs?” God help me. “No. EVP.”
“Oh.” Pelton grinned. Apparently I had hit upon a passion or interest of his. “Electronic voice phenomenon. It’s when you record ghosts speaking on a digital voice recorder.” I sipped my cold coffee and tried to look intrigued. “That’s pretty interesting.” And it was. “Do you actually have one of those things?” Having a recording of a ghost speaking would possibly be the coolest thing ever, and so worth my time to look into. Not to mention that it would push his story back into my preferred genre. “No, I wish I did. But,” he quickly added, because he must have seen my expression of disappointment. “I could have. The only reason I don’t is that I didn’t have my tape recorder out when I heard it.” Now I was intrigued. “You heard the ghost speak?” “Actually I heard the victim speak.” I shook my head, totally bewildered. Every time he got me amped up for something amazing, he just let me down. This story was becoming less of a tale of paranormal intrigue and more of the kind of thing that should probably have been reported to the police and not a craig’s list recruited writer. Another sip of cold coffee for me. “The victim. You heard him talking right before he died? Like, right before?” “Maybe ten minutes. Or as long as it takes me to take an elevator down one floor and then back up.” He paused. “It was a slow elevator though, so it might have been a minute or two longer than that.” A story for the police indeed. “Did you tell the cops?” Pelton looked confused. “Why would I?” He was starting to test my patience. “Uh, possibly because you said a guy had been murdered?” “Oh yeah,” he grinned. “Well that’s because the doctor’s said it was a stroke.” “Then, its not really murder is it?” “But that’s the thing,” Pelton leaned in and whispered conspiratially, as if, for all we knew, the old lady sitting in the booth behind us was in on the while thing. “the guy was only thirty-two years old. How many thirty-two year olds do you know have strokes? Especially ones that were in perfect health?” Very few, but I didn’t want to admit that to Pelton. No matter how bad I did or didn’t feel, I refused to feed the beast. I still wasn’t sure that he was sane, but his story was starting to sound a bit more interesting with every detail. “Okay, let me put this in order. A thirty-two year old hospital visitor just dropped dead of a stroke and you think he was killed by a ghost? What did he say before he died?” Pelton took a deep breath and toyed with the handle of his empty mug. “I heard him saying that since it didn’t matter who died, that whoever should take him instead and leave his son alone.”
“That’s…curious,” I admitted. Dying people probably said a lot of strange things, but that was particularly weird. My note taking, sparse as it was, turned into absentminded doodling. Pelton had unknowingly put me into a precarious situation. On one hand, his unstableness and the flimsy premise of his story was everything but a screaming sign telling me to cut the meeting short and turn tail, but at the same time, it was very, very hard to ignore how intriguing and mysterious the tale was. I was a sucker for ghost stories and horror movies of all kinds, and it was hard to deny that sometimes the more outlandish the idea was, the better and more entertaining the movie turned out to be. And besides, if it turned out that dear Mr. Pelton was on the up and up and the story about the killer hospital ghost was true…holy crap. I could have the non-fiction tale of a lifetime. In the event of a real ghost, I would be kicking myself for the next sixty years of my life if some other shmuck got a hold of the book rights and I didn’t. I penciled a confused little face into the corner of my page and looked up. Pelton was still grinning. “How about this. I’ll listen to your story, in full detail, but I won’t make any guarantees about whether or not I’ll do anything with it until after I’ve heard the whole thing.” The offer was a softball, but I might as well have promised Pelton success and riches for how excited he was with the idea. I was certain that if he and I was in a cartoon, there would be little hearts and sparkles wafting up from his head. Christ. I regretted the offer a little already. “Perfect! I don’t even care I you steal the idea and use it for yourself and don’t give me any credit! Just as long as people hear it.” I stuffed down my immediate reaction; that there was no way I was going to put my name to any crazy story that didn’t have substantial proof behind it, and instead opted for the more cautionary reply. “Hold on, I didn’t say for sure that I would write it, just that I would listen to it.” “That’s more than anyone else has done so far for me,” he admitted sheepishly, and I actually started to feel a little bad for him. Maybe it wasn’t true, but for Pelton at least, it was, and it was clearly eating him up, despite how much he tried to play it off. “Okay.” I closed the notebook so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the doodles and the shopping list that the opened pages contained. Truthfully, I just wanted to look professional, and thus, a dozen notebooks and other official looking writer’s tools. Luckily for me, I didn’t think Pelton would know the difference even if someone pointed it out to him. “Here’s what we’ll do. Why don’t you and I take a tour of your hospital, and you can show me where everything happened while you tell me the story?” With a nod, Pelton thrust his hand across the table at me, and I jumped and almost reacted in a very unprofessional way, until I realized that all he wanted was to shake on the idea. “It’s a deal.”