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God Damn PC's! Blue screens! Viruses! Hackers! Phishers! And now this!!!

ECTOBYTES

by

Michael Merriam

 

††††††††††† Charles Johnston downloaded the ghost by accident.

††††††††††† When the smoky image of the woman had appeared on the webcam feed from the abandoned hospital's emergency room, Charles had excitedly placed his cursor over the image.His brain barely registered the unfamiliar file extension of ".ght" before he clicked to save it.When he browsed to the file and placed the pointer over it, he had hesitated for a moment before clicking to open it.When the image of the empty room appeared after nearly a minute of his laptop hard drive grinding away, he sighed in disappointment.The refresh from the website must have triggered before he could save the image.Charles shook his head.Too bad, he thought, it had looked like a great shot.He stood and, deciding to walk down to the corner convenience shop, pushed the button to turn off the monitor on the laptop's docking station.

††††††††††† The hazy woman from the image in the hospital filled the screen.

††††††††††† Charles scrambled away from the monitor and tripped over his old office chair.He sat up and watched as the woman seemed to travel away from him, deeper into the monitor.

††††††††††† Frightened, he reached out toward the monitor to turn it back on.As his finger neared the switch, the image rushed forward.Charles jabbed at the button.The monitor obediently flared to life and the visage of the smoky woman vanished.Charles stood and righted his chair.By the time he was finished, he had almost convinced himself it had been his imagination.

††††††††††† Almost.

††††††††††† Charles sat in his desk chair.He crossed his arms and frowned.It was silly to be afraid of his computer.He had consumed a lot of caffeine and sugar.Maybe it was a trick of his over-stimulated mind.

††††††††††† He pushed the button to turn off the monitor before he allowed himself to think too much about it.

††††††††††† The woman's angry, translucent face glared at him.The apparition seemed more solid, less like the haziness of breath on a cold winter morning and more like steam coming off a heating vent in that same winter chill.Except this steam was shaped like a woman, with features distinct enough that Charles could pick out the style and era of her clothing, guessing it to be something from the 1950s or the early '60s.

††††††††††† Charles turned the monitor back on and brought up his desktop display.He shut the computer down and leaned back in his chair, trying to decide what to do.He should call Cindy, but he could hear the conversation in his head:"Yeah, Cindy, it's Chuck.I seemed to have downloaded a ghost onto my hard drive.Hello?Hello?"

††††††††††† It did not matter how ludicrous he might sound, he needed to tell Cindy.Sighing, Charles reached for his cell phone.

#

††††††††††† "I don't understand how he can expect me to just stop!"Cindy McNair paced around Charles' small living room.

††††††††††† "So what brought on the latest dispute?" Charles asked cautiously.He did not want to get himself caught between Cindy and Greg, Cindy's on-again, off-again and currently live-in boyfriend, while they were fighting.

††††††††††† "I bought a night vision camera," Cindy said.

††††††††††† "Okay.And?" Charles prompted, settling back on his sofa.

††††††††††† "And I kind of forgot to discuss it with him.Apparently he was planning on buying a high-definition television with the money."

††††††††††† Charles made a clucking sound."So how much damage?"

††††††††††† Cindy sat down on the sofa beside Charles and ran a nervous hand through her brown hair."He's gone to stay with his brother for a few days.He said I should use this time to 'sort out my priorities' and to consider where our relationship is going."

††††††††††† "Ouch."Charles made an exaggerated wince of pain.

††††††††††† "I messed up again, didnít I?"

††††††††††† "I'm thinking so."

††††††††††† "Shit.What am I going do?"

††††††††††† Charles reached out and patted Cindy on the knee."First, you're going to let him cool down a bit.Then you're going to allow him time to think about what he's missing.Give him a few weeks, then when he comes back, do something extra nice for him."

††††††††††† Cindy narrowed her eyes at Charles."Extra nice?Like what?"

††††††††††† Charles kept his expression neutral and shrugged."I'm sure you can think of something.In the meantime, I'd like to discuss my little problem."

††††††††††† Cindy scowled at him again."'Me, me, me.'Okay, what's the problem, Chuck?"

††††††††††† "I have a little thing with my computer."

††††††††††† "Chuck, you're the tech guy."

†††††††††† Charles nodded."Yes, I am.What I need is a paranormal expert."

††††††††††† "For your computer?"

††††††††††† "Yeah, well," he shrugged."Just watch."

††††††††††† Charles walked over to his computer, Cindy following behind him.He reached out and pressed the power button on the monitor.The screen went dark.

††††††††††† "I don't see any--" Cindy started to say.

††††††††††† The apparition materialized on the screen, looking out at them.It seemed more substantial today, still translucent, but less smoky.

††††††††††† "Shit!" Cindy whispered.She leaned close to the monitor and reached out to it.The ghost watched her carefully, then stepped backward and raised a hand.Cindy touched the screen at the same time the ghost reached out.There was a static discharge and Cindy jumped back, clutching her hand.

††††††††††† "Damn, Chuck."

††††††††††† "I know."

††††††††††† Cindy sat down at the monitor and watched the apparition watch her."You'd better start at the beginning."

††††††††††† Charles spent the next five minutes explaining to Cindy exactly how he had managed to download a ghost onto his hard drive.Once he finished his tale, he sat with his hands folded in his lap.

††††††††††† "So, what do I do about it?" he asked.

††††††††††† Cindy blinked and looked away from the apparition."I honestly don't know what to tell you.I've never encountered a haunted computer before.I wonder if there's any way to communicate with her."

††††††††††† "Like what?I open up a blank document and type a question?"

†††††††††† Cindy shrugged.

††††††††††† Charles turned the monitor on and did as Cindy suggested, typing out: "Who are you?" in the document.Nothing happened in return.

††††††††††† "What about trying it at the c-prompt?" Cindy asked.

††††††††††† "What? Is this 1990?"

††††††††††† "Just do it."

††††††††††† Charles shrugged and tried it.Again, no response.

††††††††††† "Well, it was worth a shot," Cindy whispered.

††††††††††† Charles turned the monitor off, allowing the image of the woman to appear.

††††††††††† Cindy stared at the ghost on the screen, cocking her head to one side and frowning."She looks familiar."Cindy looked to Charles."I think I've seen her before."

††††††††††† Charles opened his mouth to reply, and then closed it.

††††††††††† "What?" Cindy asked.

††††††††††† Charles pointed at the monitor.

††††††††††† The ghost of the woman was gone.In her place, floating milky-white on the screen where the words "Come to me."

††††††††††† Cindy turned and looked at him."Are you up for a road trip?"

††††††††††† "You want to go out to the site?"

††††††††††† "Yeah, and I want to talk to mom about something."

††††††††††† "Greg?"

††††††††††† Cindy smiled up at him."That too."

#

††††††††††† Charles kept his eyes on the highway, keeping watch for the occasional errant cow or one of the local gravel trucks that would periodically come careening along, threatening to flatten anything between it and the next load.In the passenger seat, Cindy kept up a running monologue of the latest in ghost hunting technologies, photos, videos, and her opinion on various pieces of evidence.Periodically she would ask about the cameras, recorders and other pieces of technology they had left in the building they were currently researching.

††††††††††† They had chosen the location because Cindy once lived in the sleepy little town where the old hospital was located.All the local kids knew the tales of ghosts haunting the old building, which had closed forty years ago after a fire broke out on the third floor of the then fifty-year-old structure, killing four people.One of those four people was a distant relative of Cindy's, which made it personal.Then there was Cindy's own experiences in the building.She swore that on one eventful night she and several of her high school friends had entered the building only to flee after having several pieces of debris, including the remains of a sink, rise up from the floor and fly at them.

††††††††††† Cindy had later procured permission to monitor the building.

††††††††††† The small town had sealed the place up but not demolished it, preferring to keep their haunted structure intact for the occasional curious ghost hunters or the odd tourists who might have heard about the hospital's reputation.When Cindy approached the mayor and explained that she wanted to monitor the building for paranormal activity twenty-four hours a day, and that the entire world would be able to watch along over the internet, the elderly gentleman was at first dubious.Cindy pointed out that it might attract tourist who would sleep in the little town's two motels, eat at the four restaurants, and generally spend their money in its stores.The Mayor relented and granted them permission to set up their cameras.The fact that Cindy was a hometown girl helped seal the deal.

††††††††††† She traded in on her local-girl standing again in order to convince a construction company to run temporary electricity to the site to power the webcams and other gear.

††††††††††† Once a month, Cindy and Greg drove down from the city to do general maintenance on the gear.It gave Cindy a good excuse to visit her family.On those occasions when Cindy and Greg's relationship was not doing well, Charles got invited along for the ride instead of Greg.Charles was grateful that this did not happen often.†††

††††††††††† "She won't bite, you know," Cindy said, startling Charles out of his thoughts.

††††††††††† "I'm sorry?"Charles turned the car off the highway and down one of the outlying streets that appeared before the town's center.

††††††††††† "Teresa.She--"

††††††††††† "She's over-eager is what she is," Charles said.

††††††††††† Cindy's younger sister practically threw herself at Charles every time he came to visit.Charles thought her attractive enough, but he refused to get involved with her.He suspected that she only saw him as her ticket out of the sleepy little town.

††††††††††† "Iíll need to call Bryson," said Cindy, apparently deciding to change the subject."I want to make sure he knows we're going out to the hospital tonight.I wouldn't want to get arrested by accident."

††††††††††† Charles guided the car into the driveway leading to Cindy's childhood home."Good idea."

††††††††††† "I know you don't usually do field work, but I'm sure you'll be fine for one night."

††††††††††† Charles parked the car in front of the garage door."Who else is coming with us?"

††††††††††† "Just Teresa, for sure.I thought I might try to talk Bryson into coming along."

††††††††††† Charles followed Cindy into the house, so she didn't see the frown on his face.He did not know that Teresa was involved in Cindy's ghost-hunting hobby, and he was quite sure that the local police chief, Eric Bryson, would never be remotely interested in joining them.Bryson found Cindy's passion for the paranormal amusing at the best of times and annoying at others.

††††††††††† Charles followed Cindy through the kitchen door.They were greeted by Cindy's mother.

††††††††††† Roberta McNair had buried two husbands in her fifty years.She had also raised two daughters.Now she worked for the county assessor's office, answering questions over the phone and processing paperwork.

††††††††††† "Welcome home, honey,"Cindy's mother greeted her daughter warmly, hugging her close.Roberta released Cindy and glanced up at Charles."Charles, how are you?"

††††††††††† "I'm fine, Mrs. McNair."

††††††††††† The older woman nodded then turned back to her daughter."I take it things with Greg are on the rocks again?"

††††††††††† Cindy smiled at her mother."I need to talk to you about something.Privately."

††††††††††† Roberta gave her daughter a serious look, and then glanced sharply at Charles."Off with you then.Go have a cup of coffee at Stoney's.You can drive Teresa home after her shift."

††††††††††† "And could you leave the laptop here?" Cindy asked.

††††††††††† As Charles backed his little car down the driveway, the thought occurred to him that this was a set-up.

††††††††††† Sighing in resignation, Charles headed to the restaurant where Teresa McNair waited tables.

#

††††††††††† Charles finished his third cup of coffee and checked his watch.He idly played with his cell phone, noting that the coverage was spotty at best, and the phone slipped in and out of roam every couple of minutes.

††††††††††† He looked around the shabby little country restaurant.It was mostly deserted, the lunch rush having ended two hours ago and the dinner rush still a good two hours away.The only other customers were four wrinkled old men sitting at a table at the front of the restaurant near the coffee pots and another elderly gentleman sitting alone at a table by the restrooms.When Charles would glance up, he would catch the old gent staring balefully at him from under shaggy silver eyebrows.He was familiar to Charles: This man had once entered the old hospital and tried to destroy the cameras.Charles had seen him over the live feed and called the local police.

††††††††††† Charles looked up at Teresa, who was rolling silverware into napkins and chatting with the other waitress, a middle-aged woman who clung to her fading beauty with the best cosmetics she could afford.

††††††††††† Charles wondered if this was the fate Teresa was trying so hard to avoid.For a moment he felt some sympathy with her plight.

††††††††††† Teresa glanced up and grinned at him, which made the other waitress look up as well.The older woman gave Charles a coolly professional once-over and turned back to Teresa with a smile.Apparently she approved of Teresa's choice of men to pursue.

††††††††††† Charles scowled, which only made Teresa laugh lightly, the sound clear and delicate across the room.

††††††††††† Charles turned back to the cold dregs at the bottom of his cup.He just wanted to pick up Cindy and get on with the investigation.

††††††††††† "Hey."

††††††††††† He looked up to find Teresa standing in front of the table, her apron in her hand and her pale blue uniform blouse untucked.

††††††††††† "Are you off?" Charles asked, wanting to be sure.

††††††††††† Teresa smiled and nodded."Yeah.Let's get out of here."

††††††††††† Charles stood, dropped a couple of bills on the table, and turned to followed Teresa out the door.

††††††††††† "You're McNair's friend."

††††††††††† Charles turned and found the old man with the silver eyebrows standing next to him, as if conjured from thin air.

††††††††††† "I'm Cindy's friend from college, yeah."

††††††††††† "I've seen you before, poking around the hospital."

††††††††††† "We're conducting an investigation."

††††††††††† Charles thought he saw the old man pale."There are things better left in the past," the man said.

††††††††††† Charles cocked his head in confusion."We're looking for the supposed ghosts."

††††††††††† The man straightened his shoulders and leaned dangerously close to Charles, so close Charles could smell the coffee on his breath."You're playing with the Devil's work.You and that McNair girl are stirring up forces you've no notion how to handle.Satanic forces, things that will rip your soul--"

††††††††††† "That's nice Pastor Emerson, but we really need to be going," Teresa interrupted.

††††††††††† The old man turned his eyes on Teresa, giving her a look of near loathing."You'd do well to stay shut of this man, Teresa McNair.He has the stench of sin and evil about him."

††††††††††† Teresa gave the old man a grave look."Actually, I think it's Old Spice."Teresa smiled and pulled Charles out the door before the old man could answer.

††††††††††† They were silent until Charles pulled out of the restaurant's parking lot and turned the nose of the car back toward the McNair's home.

††††††††††† "Who the hell was that?" Charles asked.

††††††††††† "Reverend William Jefferson Emerson, recently retired pastor of the First Baptist Church.He's a fire and brimstone type."

††††††††††† "I see," Charles replied, still a bit shaken from the encounter."You know, I caught him once in the hospital trying to trash the cameras."

††††††††††† "Yeah, Cindy told me.Look, he's a nut-job supreme, is all."

††††††††††† Charles nodded, agreeing with her assessment.He decided to change the subject.

††††††††††† "So you walk to work?"

††††††††††† "Yeah.It saves me a little bit of money on gas."

††††††††††† "I'd think after working on your feet all day, the last thing you'd want to do is walk home."

††††††††††† Teresa laughed and touched his knee."It is.But I'm trying to save up enough money to move to Lawton, or Weatherford, or even the city, and maybe go back to school."

††††††††††† Charles nodded."Good for you."

††††††††††† "I'm just tired of coming home smelling like old grease and stale coffee every day, you know?"

††††††††††† Charles could not stop the smile from spreading across his face.The fact was, she did have the aromas of the restaurant clinging to her, and it was not entirely pleasant.

††††††††††† "I can understand," Charles said, trying hard to hold back a laugh.

††††††††††† Teresa glared at him in mock indignation."What?You don't find the smell of greasy eggs and bacon drop-dead sexy?"

††††††††††† "No, not really."

††††††††††† Silence fell over them again as Charles turned onto the street Teresa and her mother lived on.He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Teresa seemed to be fidgeting in her seat.

††††††††††† "What?" Charles asked.

††††††††††† "I just--I just want to apologize."

††††††††††† Charles blinked in surprise."For what?"

††††††††††† "For being an idiot whenever you're around.I had a talk with Cindy last week, and she pointed out that whenever you come home with her, I act all--" Teresa paused and licked her lips.

††††††††††† "Flirty?" Charles supplied, turning up the driveway.

††††††††††† "More like slutty," Teresa replied."Chuck, I want to be honest with you: Cindy talks about what a great guy you are all the time and--well--I'm more than a little interested in you.The problem is, I don't really know you that well, and so I've been trying to get you to notice me the only way I know how."

††††††††††† Charles parked the car and cut the engine."Look, Teresa, you seem nice enough, but up until this moment, you haven't given me any reason to think of you as anything other than Cindy's oversexed little sister who sees me as a way out of Caddo County.Understand?"

††††††††††† Teresa nodded and bit her lip, her eyes going moist.

††††††††††† Charles blew out a long breath."Now, I take it from this conversation that's not who you really are.It sounds like you've got dreams and plans for your life beyond trapping some poor schmuck into marrying you. Am I right?"

††††††††††† Teresa nodded again.Charles could not tell if she was going to cry or start yelling at him.He swallowed and plunged ahead.

††††††††††† "So what I'm trying to say to you is: If you really want to be happy, and you really want a decent guy to notice you, you need to be yourself.The only guys who are going to go for what you've been projecting to me are the wrong ones."

††††††††††† Charles watched as Teresa's lips thinned into a slight frown and her forehead crinkled up in thought.She gave a quiet sniff and nodded a third time before looking up at him.

††††††††††† "Thanks for being honest," she said.

††††††††††† "Yeah, well, let's go inside and see what your crazy sister has planned for tonight's little adventure."

††††††††††† "Cool."Teresa suddenly stuck out her hand."Hi.I'm Teresa McNair, Cindy's younger sister."

††††††††††† Charles smiled and took her hand."I'm Charles Johnson, Cindy's best friend from college and the guy who helps make her passion for ghost hunting easier by handling all of her tech gear.It's a pleasure to meet you."

††††††††††† They shook hands, then both laughed aloud.They continued to laugh as they exited the car and walked in through the kitchen door.

††††††††††† Cindy looked up from where she sat at the kitchen table, a small pile of old photographs scattered in front of her.She raised a bemused eyebrow at them.

††††††††††† "What's so funny?" Cindy asked.

††††††††††† Teresa walked past her sister and smiled at Charles over her shoulder."You tell her.I need to wash off the food stink."

††††††††††† Charles smiled down at his best friend as she looked at him, the question in her eyes obvious.

††††††††††† "We've...reached an understanding, I guess.We both decided to start from scratch and get to know each other for real."

††††††††††† Cindy smiled."Good!She's a good person, Chuck."

††††††††††† Charles nodded."We'll see what happens.So what have you been up to for the last hour and a half?"

††††††††††† Cindy picked up one of the photos and handed it over to him.

††††††††††† "Does the woman in the picture look familiar?"

††††††††††† Charles scrutinized the fading photo."That's our ghost."He looked back to Cindy."Who is she?"

††††††††††† "My great-aunt.You know, the one who died in the fire.Our ghost is my Great-Aunt Martha."

#

††††††††††† Charles reached out and adjusted the contrast on the screen, bringing the four images on the monitor into clearer focus.

††††††††††† "That looks good, ladies," he said into the two-way radio.

††††††††††† "Copy," Cindy's voice crackled through the radio's speaker."How much longer until dark?"

††††††††††† "About a half an hour," Charles told her.He watched as Cindy and Teresa entered the picture from camera three on their way back to the group's makeshift command center.He saw Cindy raise her radio to her mouth.

††††††††††† "Why don't we cut the power and save some fuel."

††††††††††† "Got it," Charles answered.

††††††††††† He powered down the older laptop they used to monitor the cameras and turned off the digital video recorder.His personal laptop, the one with the strange .ght file of the ghost, was hooked up to a regular monitor and turned off.Once the electronics were powered down, he dashed outside and killed the portable generator.The old hospital, damaged and abandoned as it was, boasted no electricity of its own.The power provided by the construction company was just enough to keep their normal investigative gear running.For nights like this one, where they ran five extra cameras and a brace of digital recording gear, the portable generator supplied the power.

††††††††††† Charles returned to the command center.It was a simple affair, consisting of all of their electronics on two folding tables they had borrowed--along with the generator sitting outside--from Roberta McNair's garage.They had set up station near the first floor information desk.Cindy and Teresa were waiting for him.

††††††††††† Cindy looked up at his approach."Tell me we're ready."

††††††††††† "It's all go, assuming everything powers back on properly."

††††††††††† Teresa glanced between them."How soon should we start?"

††††††††††† Cindy pulled a note pad from her jeans pocket."I'd say an hour after sundown.We can rotate teams, each of us taking a turn manning the equipment while the other two conduct the investigation."Cindy glanced up."I'm thinking about five to seven hours."

††††††††††† Teresa blinked in surprise, but Charles just nodded.He knew that sometimes Cindy kept her teams working from sundown to sunrise, determined to maximize every bit of investigation time.

††††††††††† It made Charles wonder exactly why it seemed that hauntings typically happened after sundown.

††††††††††† "Do we want to go get some coffee or something to get us through the night?"Teresa asked.

††††††††††† Charles shrugged."I'll stay here with the gear if you two want--"

††††††††††† Headlights approaching the hospital, reflecting through the window, made them all turn.Charles expected it to be Chief Bryson, come to check on them, but the vehicle had no obvious lights on top.Charles thought he recognized the car, but it was dark and he was unsure.

††††††††††† "I hope that's not a carload of kids looking to party," Teresa whispered.

††††††††††† "Or looking for trouble," Charles added.

††††††††††† Chief Bryson had warned them that normal human activity around the old hospital had increased lately, something Charles knew from watching the camera feeds.Bryson had heard that some of the high school boys planned to try and scare Cindy and whoever she brought with her the next time they were on site.

††††††††††† "No, it's Greg," Cindy said with a resigned expression.

††††††††††† Greg pulled up next to Cindy's car, cut his engine, turned off his lights, and unfolded his long frame from the interior of his four-door and came inside the building.

††††††††††† "Hey," he said, running a hand through his curly brown hair."You're mom said you'd come up for the night."

††††††††††† Charles watched Cindy bite her lower lip as she approached her currently off-again boyfriend."We're doing an overnight investigation.So what are you doing here?"

††††††††††† "I just wanted to see you, tell you I'm sorry for walking out.I should have stayed so we can talk this over.I've just never gotten this hobby of yours, you know?"

††††††††††† "It's not just a hobby."

††††††††††† Greg smiled, all boyish and lopsided."I'm starting to get that.I'm here to help."

††††††††††† Cindy gave him a disbelieving look."Here to help for real or here to help like the government?"

††††††††††† Greg laughed."For real."

††††††††††† "Fine, let's head into town to pick up some coffee and other snacks for the night.We can talk in the car."Cindy turned to Charles and Teresa."Are you guys cool with hanging out here for awhile?"

††††††††††† Charles glanced over at Teresa, who gave the gathering darkness a look of trepidation before she agreed with a quick nod of her head.

††††††††††† "We'll hold the fort," Charles said."You two go have your talk."

††††††††††† "Donít start without us!" Cindy called as she climbed into the car.

††††††††††† Charles watched the taillights of Greg's car turn at the end of the drive and vanished into the night.He smiled at Teresa.

††††††††††† "Well, here we are."

#

††††††††††† "So?" Charles asked.

††††††††††† Cindy and Greg had been gone for over an hour.Charles and Teresa had begun to worry and Teresa decided to call her sister.

††††††††††† "They're having 'a serious talk.'She said to go ahead and power the equipment back on and get the recorders going.If she's not back in half an hour, itís our call what to do from there."

††††††††††† Teresa tucked the phone back into its holster on her belt and looked expectantly at him.

††††††††††† "I see."Charles did not really see, but he did not know what else to say.Charles stepped outside to the portable generator with Teresa following in his wake.He tugged on the pull cord and the little machine rumbled to life, ready to supply independent power to the extra gear they had set up for the night.

††††††††††† Inside the derelict building, Charles powered on the old laptop and DVR.He was pleasantly surprised to discover all five cameras had turned back on and were sending video to the DVR.

††††††††††† Charles reached for the power button on his personal laptop, pausing to glance at Teresa.

††††††††††† "You haven't seen her yet, have you?"

††††††††††† Teresa swallowed. "No, I haven't.Go ahead."

††††††††††† Charles pushed the power button and the laptop obediently began to whirl to life.Charles left its monitor turned off.He knew it would only be a matter of a few seconds.

††††††††††† To her credit, Teresa gave only a tiny gasp when the translucent image of her great-aunt appeared on the monitor.She carefully picked up the faded color photo of the woman and held it next to the screen.

††††††††††† "That's--it's too freaky."

††††††††††† Charles gave her a sympathetic smile."The first time I saw her, I tipped over my chair trying to get away.It was all I could do not to scream like a little girl."

††††††††††† He watched Teresa study the image in obvious fascination.His estimation of Teresa had risen over the day, and her calm demeanor in the face of the supernatural impressed him even more.

††††††††††† "Why hasn't Cindy gone to the TV stations or the newspapers with this?"

††††††††††† Charles shrugged."I don't know.I suspect because she wants to solve whatever puzzle this is, and its family, so she wants more evidence first."

††††††††††† Teresa looked him square in the eyes."Why didnít you go to the media?"

††††††††††† "I don't know that either, really.It never occurred to me.My first thought was to call your sister.This is her area of expertise.

††††††††††† As the last word left his mouth, the hard drive on his laptop began to grind.Both Charles and Teresa turned back to the screen.

††††††††††† The spirit of Teresa's Great-Aunt Martha seemed to be looking out of the monitor at her surroundings.There was a glint of recognition in her pale eyes.Before either of them realized what was about to happen, the hard drive screamed like an injured animal and the ghost vanished from the screen.

††††††††††† "What the hell?"Charles leaned across Teresa, reaching for the keyboard.

††††††††††† "Chuck!"

††††††††††† Charles looked to where Teresa was pointing.On the screen of the other laptop, coming from the feed on camera two, was the ghostly image of the woman moving steadily down the corridor toward the secondĖfloor operating room.

††††††††††† "Is there a camera in there?" Teresa asked.

††††††††††† "Yeah, camera four." Charles moved to switch to full screen mode for camera four.

††††††††††† "Come to me."

††††††††††† The voice seemed little more than a whisper, yet it filled up the empty space of the hospital, echoing softly down the deserted halls.

††††††††††† "I should call Cindy!"Teresa reached for her phone."It's dead."

††††††††††† Charles kept his eyes trained on the screen."It happens sometimes in situations like this.Batteries just seem to drain."

††††††††††† "Come to me."

††††††††††† The voice was louder, more insistent.The hairs along Charles' arms rose up in alarm, and he felt an electrical build up.†††† The bank of electronics flashed and died.

††††††††††† Charles stared at the dark, silent equipment for an instant and came to a decision.He grabbed one of the hand-held video recorders and a flashlight.Both seemed to be working.

††††††††††† "What are you doing?"Teresa's voice held the barest hint of panic.

††††††††††† "She wants us to come to her.I'm going to give her what she wants."Charles hefted the recorder."I have to try."

††††††††††† "You're not leaving me here alone."

††††††††††† Teresa picked up another flashlight and took a firm hold onto Charles' elbow.

††††††††††† Flush with excitement and terror, the two struck out into the interior of the old hospital in search of a ghost who desired their attention.

††††††††††† Charles felt the pressure of Teresa's grip increase as they raced up the creaky stairs and started down the dark corridor toward the operating room.Charles kept the hand-held video camera pointed in front of him, trying to capture a steady image while moving at a quick jaunt.

††††††††††† The image streaked across the camera screen at the same time Teresa let out a shrill scream.Charles looked up from the camera and aimed his flashlight in the direction he had seen the dark form run.There was nothing at the far end of the hallway.

††††††††††† "It looked like it dived into Radiology." He turned toward Teresa."Should we follow or head into the Operating Room?"

††††††††††† "I don't suppose go home is an option?"

††††††††††† Charles smiled at her."If you want to."

††††††††††† For an instant Teresa looked as if she was going to tell him that was exactly what she wanted to do, then she gave him a weak smile."I think we should chase the ghost."

††††††††††† Charles offered her his arm, and they turned toward their destination.Teresa reached out and pushed open the door.

††††††††††† They found themselves in a gutted room, electrical fixtures stripped and all the equipment and furnishings removed.

††††††††††† "Do you see anything?" Teresa asked.

††††††††††† "No," Charles said, raising the camera.He turned slowly around the room, trying to film every part of it."I know she came in here."

††††††††††† Teresa walked cautiously around the room, shining her light into every corner."Well, she's not here now."

††††††††††† Charles slowly brought Teresa into the frame.She stood only a few feet away, the flashlight pointed toward the floor, her arms wrapped around herself.She gave a shiver.Charles brought the camera into sharp focus as mist rose behind her.

††††††††††† Charles kept his voice calm and even."Teresa, I want you to hold very still.Just stand right there."

††††††††††† "Chuck?"

††††††††††† Charles stepped toward her, keeping the camera level.

††††††††††† "Chuck, what's going on?"

††††††††††† "I think your aunt is about to manifest right behind you.I'm coming to you; just stay still."

††††††††††† Teresa's eyes widened at Charles' words.Charles expected her to bolt toward him, but instead she turned and looked over her shoulder.

††††††††††† A face was forming in the mist, taking on shape and definition.Teresa turned fully to face it, taking two steps backward toward Charles.

††††††††††† "Teresa.Teresa, I think you should step away," Charles said.

††††††††††† "Yeah."

††††††††††† Teresa took another step backward.Charles dropped his own flashlight and reached out to take her by the arm, all the while keeping the slowly manifesting spirit in his viewfinder.

††††††††††† The door behind them opened with a bang that echoed off the walls of the empty room.Startled, Charles spun around.

††††††††††† Pastor Emerson stood in the doorway, clutching his chest, his white hair standing on end.In his hand was a mason jar half-full of liquid.The smell of gasoline and smoke clung to him.

††††††††††† "What the hell are you--" Charles moved the camera way from his face.

††††††††††† The old man did not seem to notice him.Instead he focused all of his attention over Charles' shoulder, looking toward Teresa.

††††††††††† "Hello, William."

††††††††††† The voice behind Charles was Teresa's, but also something more.There was a hollow, breathy quality.Charles looked over his shoulder.

††††††††††† Teresa stood stiff and straight, enclosed in a white nimbus of floating, wavering mist.Her eyes were unblinking, washed out, and focused on Pastor Emerson.She smiled at the old man, an unpleasant sight that made Charles shiver.

††††††††††† "Teresa?Teresa are you okay?"

††††††††††† Teresa looked at Charles.The eyes changed, took on Teresa's clear, dark blue hue for a moment."Chuck, I think she's--"The eyes lost their color and Teresa, or at least Teresa's body, turned back toward Emerson.

††††††††††† "It's so nice of you to come, William."

††††††††††† The old man stepped forward."Leave the girl's body and go back to Satan's den where you belong!"

††††††††††† Teresa stepped toward the old man."Why, William, a girl could think you weren't happy to see her."She took another step toward the preacher and smiled."Don't you like this body, William?The face might be different, but the rest is almost identical to my old one, and you seemed to like it well enough."

††††††††††† "Leave her!In the name of the Father, I command you."

††††††††††† Charles stepped toward Teresa."Teresa!Teresa you've got to force her out."

††††††††††† Anguished eyes turned toward Charles."I can't!"

††††††††††† Teresa's body stiffened again, and then turned back to the Pastor.She moved forward, suddenly seeming more like a large cat stalking her prey than a ghost inhabiting a human body.

††††††††††† "You lost your right to command anything in the name of your deity a long time ago, William."

††††††††††† Charles looked to the old preacher."What's going on here?"

††††††††††† "The past, boy.The past."

††††††††††† Teresa-as-Martha laughed, a brittle sound in the empty room."Tell the truth, lover.Tell the boy how you seduced me, impregnated me, took me to have the child removed, and when I got sick and came here a few days later, you strangled me and set fire to an entire hospital to cover up your sins."

††††††††††† The old man stood stilled, pale and gasping."I know what I did."

††††††††††† Charles turned toward the preacher.The smell of burning wood become stronger."What?"

††††††††††† "You need to get out of here," the old man said to Charles as smoke started to fill the room.

††††††††††† "I'm not leaving without Teresa."Charles stepped toward Teresa."Look, I'm sorry about what happened to you, but you need to let Teresa go.I've got everything on this," Charles patted the camera."He'll pay for his crimes.Now please, let Teresa go."

††††††††††† Teresa reached out a white enshrouded hand and touched Charles on the cheek.It was cold, and Charles felt himself having a difficult time drawing a breath."I can see why she finds you attractive.You have an aura of kindness and honesty surrounding you."She smiled at him, hungry and fierce."We can make you very happy, Teresa and I."

††††††††††† Charles pulled away from her touch."Get out of Teresa!"

††††††††††† Teresa's lips frowned at him."No.I've floated unattached to a body for too long.I plan on keeping this one.The girl has never done anything except allow her life to be wasted.I doubt she would do any better in the future.No, Charles Johnson, I have been given a second chance, and I plan to take it."

††††††††††† "Then it ends here," Pastor Emerson whispered.He threw the jar on the floor, where the glass shattered.The stench of gasoline filled the room."You must get her out of that body.Once the building is destroyed, Martha will have no anchor in this world and will go on."

††††††††††† "Wait!"Charles cried.He moved to stop the preacher, but was too late.The man produced a lighter from his pocket and struck it.

††††††††††† There was a loud whooshing as bright flames exploded across the floor and up the minister's body, engulfing him.

††††††††††† Charles tried to ignore the stench of burning flesh and the high pitched screams of the preacher.Teresa stepped around the flaming body as it fell to the floor and started to crawl toward her.Charles stepped into her path.

††††††††††† "Let her go!"

††††††††††† The woman smiled and brought her flashlight up, smashing Charles across the face with it.

††††††††††† Charles fell to the floor, tasting blood.It took him only a moment to recover and follow Teresa.He saw her running toward the staircase leading down.Coughing through the thick smoke, Charles gave chase, closing the gap between them halfway down the stairwell.She tried to strike him again with the flashlight, but Charles was ready and blocked her swing.

††††††††††† Teresa snarled and clawed his face before he could gain control of her wrists.She pulled backward to get away and they both over-balanced, tumbling down the stairs in a tangle of arms and legs.

††††††††††† Charles landed on top of Teresa.Her head hit the floor with a dull thud.As he pushed himself off of her limp body, the white translucent form of Martha disengaged from Teresa with a frustrated shriek.Charles watched the apparition move off, then checked Teresa.She was not breathing.He felt her neck.No pulse.

††††††††††† "No!No, damn it!"

††††††††††† Charles looked up to see a form in the smoke, waving at him.Beyond he saw flashing lights, red and blue, through the thick haze.

††††††††††† Charles scooped up the limp body of Teresa McNair and dashed for the door.Behind him came the frantic scream of a woman.The air around him chilled despite the flames starting to spread from the upper floors downstairs through the walls.Charles was six feet from the door when he saw the ghostly image of Pastor Emerson in the doorway.He stopped.

††††††††††† "Run, fool boy!I'll hold her inside."

††††††††††† The door outside slammed shut as Charles started his headlong plunge through the smoke.Wood and broken bits of old furniture sprang up from the floor and swirled around him, striking his face, arms, and legs.Charles pushed onward.He turned at the last second and hit the door with his back.It gave under the pressure and he spilled into the cracked concrete outside the building, Teresa's still body clutched in his arms.

††††††††††† "Are you all right?" a voice cried out.

††††††††††† Charles looked up into the eyes of Chief Bryson.

††††††††††† "Teresa, she's not breathing, her heart's not beating!"

††††††††††† "Can you walk?"

††††††††††† Charles stood, still clutching Teresa.

††††††††††† Chief Bryson led him away from the fire, toward his patrol cruiser.Charles knelt and lay Teresa on the ground, Bryson rushed to the trunk of the cruiser and pulled out a portable defibrillator.

††††††††††† "What the hell happened in their?" the chief asked, ripping Teresa's blouse.

††††††††††† "Not now!"

††††††††††† "Okay, stay calm," Bryson said as he cut away Teresa's bra with a pair of shears from the emergency kit.He set the pads on her skin as the machine's automated voice calmly talked him through the process.The machine gave the okay to administer a shock.Bryson pushed the button.

††††††††††† Teresa jerked and gasped.A blue light blinked on the defibrillator's panel as she opened her eyes and looked directly at Charles.

††††††††††† "Hey you," she whispered, then closed her eyes and passed out.

#

††††††††††† Cindy McNair sighed."So you lost the camera in the fire?"

††††††††††† "Along with everything else, yeah," Charles said.

††††††††††† "At least we all got out alive," Teresa said from her hospital bed.

††††††††††† Cindy nodded."True."

††††††††††† "It's a good thing you sent Bryson to check on us," Teresa added.

††††††††††† When Cindy realized she had not heard from either Charles or Teresa during the two hours it took her and Greg to end their relationship permanently, she tried to call them.When neither one answered, she panicked and called Chief Bryson to go check on them.The building was completely ablaze when he arrived.By the time Cindy reached the scene, the ambulance had arrived to take Teresa to the hospital in the Anadarko for medical treatment.

††††††††††† "So what now?"Charles asked."I mean we literally lost all of our gear in that fire."

††††††††††† Cindy shrugged."I'll buy you a new laptop, Chuck.'

††††††††††† Charles waved her off."Don't worry about it.I'm just sorry we lost all the evidence."

††††††††††† Cindy sighed."I think I'm going to take a break from ghost hunting."

††††††††††† Teresa and Charles shared a glance.They both knew that Cindy was sincere, but they also knew that sincerity would not last more than three months.

††††††††††† Teresa smiled at her sister."Well, I'm looking forward to moving in with you."

††††††††††† "Sisters inseparable," Cindy said.

††††††††††† The two young women had decided to throw in together.Teresa had a significant amount of money saved, and Cindy needed a new place to live, since she would be moving out of Greg's apartment.It seemed the most reasonable solution.

††††††††††† Cindy sighed and stood.She reached out and took her sister's hand."I need to drive back to the city and pack.Will you be all right with just you and mom for a couple of days while I find us a place?"

††††††††††† Teresa smiled and patted her sister's hand."Get out of here.All this hovering is driving me nuts."

††††††††††† Cindy laughed and turned to Charles."Are you ready to head back?"

††††††††††† Charles looked up and gave his friend a smile."Yeah, whenever you are.I was thinking, you can have my couch to sleep on until you find something."

††††††††††† "Deal!"

††††††††††† Charles stood to leave, then turned back to Teresa.

††††††††††† "So, um, when you get moved up to the city, would you like to, maybe, get together and do something?"

††††††††††† Teresa laughed, a lively, bright sound."I'd like that, Chuck.As long as it doesnít involve ghosts or hauntings, I'd like that very much."

††††††††††† Charles turned to Cindy."Are you okay with that idea?"

††††††††††† "Chuck, you say the silliest things," Cindy said, rolling her eyes.She turned to her sister."When you get to the city we'll discuss the care and feeding of Charles Johnston."

††††††††††† "I'm right here!" Charles said.

††††††††††† Cindy and Teresa laughed.