by Sandy Hausler
Buddy Carter woke up in his bed. This was a problem, because the last thing he remembered was being at his job at the station. When he realized where he was, Buddy jumped out of the bed and switched on the lights. There was a sign on the door of his bedroom reading Don’t Panic. Of course, this made Buddy panic all the more.
Storming out of his room toward the kitchen, he glanced at the kitchen clock and saw that it was 9:30 A.M. On any weekday, he would be at the station. His alarm would have gone off at 7:00 A.M. What the hell was going on?
On the kitchen table there was a tape recorder with another sign, this one reading Play Me. With trepidation, Buddy pushed the play button.
“Good morning, Buddy. This is the Gray Ghost. We’ve never met, but I feel like I know you. In fact, I’ve been you for the past nine days.” Buddy recognized the voice as his own. The intonation was slightly different, but it was his voice, no doubt about it. How could that be? Who was this Gray Ghost? Buddy saw a newspaper and noted that it was dated November 7. But it was only October 29, wasn’t it?
“I’m sure you’re wondering who I am and what I want. As to the first question, I’ve told you my name, and that’s all you get to know. As to what I want, I want — well, I’m cleaning up the Rockville Police Force, and I’m doing it with your help.” Buddy’s heart was pounding so hard, he couldn’t stand. He sat down at the table.
“Your ledgers were very helpful. I broke the code and gave a copy to the district attorney.” Buddy jumped out of his seat and ran to the basement. The safe was locked, but when he opened it, he found that it was empty. He was ruined.
His legs were shaking as he climbed the stairs. He could still hear the tape playing. “Don’t panic, Buddy. You’re a lucky guy. I’ve negotiated a sweet deal for you. You won’t be doing any time, though I have to tell you, you deserve it. You’ve been a bad boy. But I know about Grace. I know what that did to you. That’s why I’m offering you a chance for redemption.”
Buddy’s mind raced. What is this bastard talking about? Even if he’s right, and I don’t go to jail, my life won’t be worth a plugged nickel. The people I work with are not going to like this. Not at all.
“You just have to trust me, Buddy. I’m fairly sure that you will screw things up at some point. I’ll try to fix your mistakes if I can. But I’m only human. Well, maybe not technically, but you know what I mean. Just do as you’re told, and you’ll be fine.
“Well, that’s it for now. I will be in contact.” The tape died. Buddy replayed it three times.
Buddy had trouble breathing. For the past five years, he had been building something — something big. Thanks to him, the Rockville Police had links with organized crime, links to the drug trade, gambling, prostitution, and whatever else the mob bosses needed. The police kept the small-timers from becoming big-timers, ensuring that the bosses remained in charge. They protected the rackets. Hell, they nurtured the rackets. And Buddy was the go-to guy. He had been involved since the beginning. He knew a lot. That was fine as long as he was on board, playing nice with his counterparts in the mob. But if the Gray Ghost was telling the truth (and Buddy had no reason to doubt it), his life was in danger. If the D.A. had his ledgers, a lot of heads were going to be on the chopping block, some of them cops (a lot of them, actually).
Buddy turned on the radio and tuned into the twenty-four-hour news station. He waited for the news to cycle, and then it came. The arrest of ten more cops. How many cops had already been arrested? Buddy was under no illusions. His ledgers could put dozens of his colleagues behind bars, and not just cops.
Looking out the window, Buddy saw a car with two guys in it. He was sure they were cops, but not his guys. He didn’t know them. One of them smiled and waved. Buddy didn’t like the smile. It wasn’t a friendly, fellow cop kind of smile. It was the smile of a cop who had his prey trapped. And that’s what Buddy was. He was trapped — inside. If he left the house, he could be killed by any number of people. Those cops were his captors, but they were also the only thing keeping him alive.
He wanted to call his partner, but his line was undoubtedly tapped. And, for all he knew, his partner had already been arrested. He had no one to turn to. He had no choice but to wait to hear from the district attorney… or the Gray Ghost.
The Gray Ghost went to the Office. Perhaps saying he “went” would be a poor choice of words. To say that a person goes implies movement. But the ways of the spirit world were different than that of humanity. A ghost — for the Gray Ghost was a ghost in actuality and not just in name — need not move to go from one place to another, especially from one realm of reality to another. The Office, of course, did not exist in the material world, but in a place beyond our comprehension. And the Gray Ghost arrived there with no more than a thought.
The Office, at least to the Gray Ghost, appeared to be an office building, but he never saw it from the outside. When he needed to be at the Office, he always found himself in the hallway right outside the door of Charles Hawthorn. Hawthorn was nominally the Gray Ghost’s superior; he gave the Gray Ghost assignments, and the Gray Ghost reported his progress to him. But the Ghost never felt that Hawthorn needed these reports; he seemed to know everything even before the Ghost opened his mouth. This made sense in that Hawthorn himself had a superior who was referred to as G, and the Gray Ghost had a suspicion as to his identity.
The Gray Ghost had been working for the Agency (that was what they called it) for a short period of time, but long enough, he felt, to ask some questions. Undoubtedly, Hawthorn would know the questions before they were asked, but the Ghost hoped he would get some answers.
Entering the Office, the Gray Ghost was dressed in a well-cut, pin-striped blue suit, and wore a domino mask and a black fedora. He threw the fedora toward the coat rack in the corner of the room. The hat landed squarely on one of the hooks. He smiled at Ms. Nichols, the secretary, a woman who managed to be both demure and amazingly sexy. Of course, his smile was devastating.
“Morning, Niki,” he chirped. “Is the old man in?”
“He’s in there, Ghost, but I don’t know that you want to see him,” said Ms. Nichols. “He’s going through the report for the last quarter. It’s not good news. But I know he wants to see you.”
“Wonderful,” said the Gray Ghost. “Who writes these reports, anyway?”
“Oh, you know. Someone in the back office.”
“There’s a back office?” The Ghost’s interest was piqued. “Where is it? I’ve never seen it.”
Ms. Nichols rolled her eyes at him. “It’s not for the likes of us, Ghost. We have other roles.”
The intercom on her desk buzzed. “Is that the Ghost?”
“Yes, Mr. Hawthorne. He just walked in.”
“Well, skip the usual banter, and send him right in, Ms. Nichols.”
“You heard the man, Ghost. Go in,” Ms. Nichols urged.
“Thanks, Niki. You’re an angel.”
Ms Nichols rolled her eyes again. “That’s what they keep telling me.”
The Ghost opened the door to Hawthorn’s office. It was large room with a large desk at the far end. Hawthorn appeared to be a middle-aged man with dark hair, graying at his temples. He was on the short side, a tad overweight, and had a mustache. He wore glasses and was looking at the contents of the only file on his desk.
“Ah, Ghost, glad you could come in, ” Hawthorn said. “Just looking over the quarterly report. Bad stuff.”
“Sorry to hear that, sir, ” the Ghost said.
“Something in here might be up your alley after this Rockville matter is cleared up. How’s that going, by the way?”
“All the pieces are in place, sir. I expect to have this wrapped up soon.”
“Good show, Ghost. Anything further to report?”
“Nothing to report, sir, but I do have some questions,” the Ghost replied.
Hawthorn looked at him. “Well?” he said.
“I am the Gray Ghost.”
“That you are,” Hawthorn agreed.
“As I understand it, a ghost is the spirit of a dead human being,” the Gray Ghost said.
“That is a somewhat simplistic description, but essentially correct,” replied Hawthorn.
“But I don’t know who I was when I was alive. I know a lot of things, but I don’t know that or anything about my life,” said the Ghost.
Hawthorn sighed. “Ghost, the life you lived as a human was beyond reproach. You were a great man, and a man with great talents. That’s why, after you died, you were tapped for this assignment. But your job is being a dead man on Earth. If you knew who you were, you would gravitate toward your old life, your friends, your family. We can’t have that.”
“With respect, sir, I’d like to make my case directly to G. I think I’m owed that,” said the Gray Ghost.
“Owed? We do appreciate your work, Ghost, but don’t overstep. Believe me, G is aware of all this. You can’t appeal my ruling to him, because I did not make the rule; He did. Maybe you think it’s unfair, but that’s only because you do not understand the bigger picture. That answer may not satisfy you — in fact, I’m sure it won’t — but it’s the best I can give you. Of course, you do have one option aside from acceptance.”
“You can give up your role as the Gray Ghost and go on to your reward. Nobody in the Agency will hold it against you. Of course, I have no idea what will happen to Buddy Carter if you do. But maybe that’s a bad example. Carter’s a bad apple; he probably doesn’t deserve your help. But there are others who will.”
The Gray Ghost paused. This was not the answer that he’d wanted. He wasn’t going to learn what he wanted to know. But he knew that he couldn’t just dump his mission. It wasn’t in him. “I think Buddy deserves my help. I believe in the chance for redemption. And I think Buddy will wind up being an asset to the Agency.”
“Excuse me?” For the first time, Hawthorn seemed surprised. “How is Buddy Carter going to be an asset to the Agency?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” the Ghost replied. “Now I have to get back to work.” And he walked out the door.
Eight-year-old Alice Murphy walked up the walk to Buddy Carter’s house, dressed in her Girl Scout uniform. Hanks and Garland, the two police officers on duty in front of Buddy’s house, saw her and did nothing. After all, they weren’t stationed in front of Buddy’s house to prevent a Girl Scout from selling Buddy cookies. And they had seen Alice playing in the neighborhood. She didn’t pose a threat.
Alice rang Buddy’s doorbell. Buddy looked out his front window and saw Alice, who waved at him. He opened the door, keeping out of the doorway. “Alice,” he said, “I just bought three boxes of cookies from you last week.”
“I’m not Alice,” the little girl said. “I’m the Gray Ghost. May I come in?”
Buddy was astounded. The Gray Ghost posing as a little girl? Well, he had posed as Buddy long enough to put his life in danger, so anything was possible. Buddy nodded and let Alice/the Gray Ghost into his house.
Alice walked into Buddy’s family room and sat on the coach. Her feet didn’t reach the floor. “I thought it was time we spoke face to face,” the Gray Ghost said.
“Except your face belongs to my next-door neighbor’s little girl,” Buddy replied.
The Gray Ghost grimaced. “I had to get into the house. The police would stop any adult. And I’m sure your phone is tapped.”
Buddy wanted to strangle the Gray Ghost. Thanks to him, he could be killed at any moment. But the Gray Ghost was just a kid, or at least the body he was using was a kid. Buddy realized strangling him wouldn’t do any good.
“OK, what do you have to say?”
The Gray Ghost noticed a bottle of scotch on the coffee table. “First, any drinking has got to stop. If I have to borrow your body, I do not want it impaired by alcohol. Saving your life is going to be hard enough. No need to make it harder.”
Buddy nodded. “What’s the story? I can’t stay cooped up in here forever.”
The Gray Ghost laughed a little girl’s laugh. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. I expect some excitement very soon. Your mob connections do not expect you to live much longer.”
Buddy jumped up. “You think I don’t know that? I’m dead meat. I can’t just sit here.”
“That’s precisely what you will do: sit and wait. And when the time comes, I will take the proper action. Believe me, I know what I’m doing.”
“And I’m supposed to just trust you on that? You put my life in danger. Now you ask me to sit around and wait until someone tries to kill me? Why the hell should I trust you?”
It was a good question. There was no reason for Carter to believe that the Gray Ghost could save him. No one knew the Gray Ghost. No one knew what he could do. The Gray Ghost had anticipated that this problem would arise, and he and Ms. Nichols had contacted the back office and developed a solution.
“You’re right, Buddy,” the Ghost said. “You have no reason to trust me.”
“Damn straight,” said Buddy.
“But you have no choice. I am your only chance of surviving this. And while you may not trust me, someone else does.”
“Who?” Buddy asked.
“Look at me,” the Ghost said.
Buddy looked at the Gray Ghost. All he saw was a little girl in a Girl Scout uniform. But as he looked at her, Alice’s face seemed to shift. It became older, the color of the eyes changed from green to blue, and the hair from brown to blond. He knew that face. It could never be erased from his memory.
“Grace,” gasped Buddy.
“Yes, Buddy, it’s me,” said Grace. “The Gray Ghost arranged so that I can talk to you.”
“I’m so sorry, Buddy. I didn’t want to leave you. I never dreamed what it would do to you.” Grace began to cry. “If I hadn’t died, this would never have happened. You would have been a good cop. You were a good cop.”
Buddy began to sob. He tried to speak, but the words didn’t come. But he knew that Grace understood him even without the words. She always had.
“Help the Gray Ghost, Buddy. If you do, if you live a good life from now on, we’ll be together again in the end. He’s giving you a chance for redemption. Take it, my true love. Take it.”
Grace’s face began to change, and soon Buddy was looking at Alice again.
“How do I know that was real?” he asked.
The Gray Ghost said, “You know.”
Buddy nodded, and the Gray Ghost knew that Buddy would do whatever he asked. He knew what was at stake.