I hate being a ghost. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have consciousness and all that, but it’s the little things I miss. Like the taste of a tender, juicy steak and a cold beer. The sound of an audience clapping for me. The feel of a pair of dice in my hands. The rough texture of a cat’s tongue. The searing heat of the Tucson sun.
But so what? I’m a ghost and I’ve got a murder to solve. Mine.
We ghosts usually have unfinished business, and since I haven’t heard the “call,” I figure my unfinished business is my murder—that’s what’s keeping me earthbound. The “call” is that glorious event when a ghost moves on to the next stage of their afterlife. Opinions on exactly what this is varies, but I’m ready to be out of here.
Not that I’m qualified to solve murders or anything. I was a dentist by trade and before that an out-of-work actor.
These thoughts rumbled through my mind as I stared at the dead body on the grimy carpet below me.
“Well?” Emily asked. She looked at me with her ancient green eyes that inhabited her round baby face. She has short, curly blonde hair that reminds me of Shirley Temple when she was a kid. Emily died when she was four years old, but now she’s eighty years dead. There is a lot of wisdom packed in that adorable little body. But I gotta tell you, it’s more than a little disconcerting.
“What?” I shrugged, looking at the dead body and her ghost. She was in her late twenties with long brown hair. Her blood had pooled and congealed on the light-blue carpet. Her ghost was gape jawed and clearly in distress, the thin silver cord that attached her soul to her body still intact, going from belly button to belly button.
“You’ve got to do something,” Emily insisted.
“Why?” I asked.
“The poor thing is suffering,” she said, pointing at the wispy mess of a ghost, its mouth open wide, a pitiful moan escaping from its throat.
“You do something,” I said.
“I am. My plan is to whine until you do something.” Emily may be eighty years dead, but there was still a lot of four-year-old left in her.
I sighed. “This is a distraction, Emily. We are here tracking a clue to my murder.”
“Yeah, and that clue took us here. To her. I think we need to investigate.”
I nodded, stooping down and looking at the body. “Maybe we can snoop around and get Banquo to come take care of the bardo-brain.” The bardo is a place we ghosts often find ourselves when things don’t go so well and this ghost had all the signs.
“Should I go get him?” Emily asked, her voice going all high when she said “him.” The girl has a great big crush on Banquo. He’s kind of the ringleader of our graveyard community, and Emily has had a thing for him since he first came there around ten years ago. He is an expert, as much as anyone is, in helping these distressed ghosts.
I looked closer at the corpse, getting down low so I could clearly see her face. I felt a tingle of shock flow through my ghostly form. I knew this woman. She temped at my dental practice the month before I was murdered. And now she lay here also murdered.
Even though I wasn’t experienced at the detective thing at the time, the knife sticking out of her back gave away the “murder” part of the equation.
My name is Walter Anchor. I solve murders. This is my first case.
“Yeah,” I said to Emily, “go get him.” With a girlish squeal and a “pop” she was gone, and I was left there with the dead dental assistant.
I looked around the grubby little Tucson apartment. A small bedroom, a kitchen with dirty dishes everywhere, a cracked LCD TV in the living room. I then looked at the victim again. Tall, slender, dressed in designer jeans and a pastel blue blouse stained with her own blood. Her nails were well manicured and the makeup on her face expertly applied.
This was not her apartment.
Being a ghost detective is all about observation. It’s not like you can question witnesses, or root through their garbage, or run a background check. What you can do is watch and observe, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The ghost groaned and I got up and looked at it. Her ghostly appearance was nothing like her physical appearance. She had a diffuse vapor-like form, her eyes wide, her limbs vague stubs. She was lost, trapped in her own personal hell, a place known as the bardo. This torturous state is not uncommon for us earthbound spirits, and even less uncommon for the murdered.
I have never been in that state. I have Emily to thank for that.
The ghost moaned again and I listened carefully. The one great advantage of being a ghost detective is that you can sometimes talk to the dead.
“Haley,” I said, remembering her name. “It’s me, Doctor Anchor. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Blaaa,” she hissed, her eyes meeting mine briefly. “Blaaaack Shooooes.”
“Black Shoes?” I asked.
“Blaaaack Shooooes,” she moaned again. In fact, the need to listen carefully was overkill. Haley just kept saying it over and over again, the moan of it becoming a kind of eerie mantra as I went back to examining the body.
The knife was thin and long, buried to the hilt between two of the vertebrosternal ribs. It had pierced her heart, she hadn’t been alive long; the person wielding the knife had known what they were doing.
I made a slow sweep of the apartment and found out several things. Someone named Roger Coptic lived there, he was a slob, a drug addict (the used needles in the trash can were a dead giveaway), and hadn’t been home in quite some time (the wilted marijuana plants in the bathtub helped with that).
Which led to the question, what was a nice girl like her doing in a place like this? And, what did this Roger Coptic have to do with my own murder?
Maybe I should pause and give you a lay of the land. Like when I was alive and a patient would come in for a procedure. It seemed to always help for me to sit down with them and tell them what to expect, warn them of the difficult parts, and make sure they understood both the risks and the rewards. Especially the unpleasant procedures like a root canal or an extraction or root planing. Ah, hell, who am I kidding? I was a dentist, most of the “procedures” were unpleasant.
I would put on my deep actorly voice and tell them the toughest pieces in the calmest, most reassuring voice possible.
So here goes.
The world thinks I committed suicide, which I frankly find depressing. I know, suicide is pretty high in my line of work, but I was a happy dentist. Seriously, I was. I loved my job, I loved my staff, I loved my patients. My life wasn’t perfect, I had been divorced for several years and found myself a bit phobic about relationships (could explain why my best friend as a ghost appears to be a four-year-old), I had a bit of a gambling problem (okay, okay, by a “bit,” I meant “massive”), and I hadn’t talked to any family members for a few years.
So yeah, there was the good in my life and the not so good. Just like any other human on the planet, you peel back the layers you’re going to find some nasty stuff. Me, I was lonely. I worked too long because I didn’t have much else to do, except for gambling. It’s hard to feel alone when you’re throwing the dice at the craps table and people are cheering you on.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah… lay of the land. So about six months before finding Haley murdered, I had been working late, finishing my charting, avoiding going back to my big empty house, when I was murdered. It wasn’t anything spectacular, I had just sat down in one of the dental chairs and closed my eyes for a moment—I must have fallen asleep. Next thing I knew I was a ghost hovering over my own body.
It was a shock, to say the least. Looking at my body, a hypodermic still sitting in my slack hand, a drop of blood where the injection had been made in my arm. It looked like a suicide, but I know it wasn’t.
I spent several months in the dental office—and not by choice, I must say—watching. I guess you could say I was haunting the place. I didn’t “do” anything but creep people out occasionally, but I watched and waited and listened.
My partner in the practice, Doctor Wheeler, kept things going and soon people started talking about me. Specifically, talking about me like I wasn’t there.
So let me give you a piece of advice. If you find yourself a ghost, get away from the people you knew if you can. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but folks don’t see you the same way you see yourself. There are misunderstandings and your intent is not always apparent. The experience can be disturbing to say the least.
So, one brief example germane to this story. When I was alive, one of the office girls, Annie, couldn’t get her car to start after work, so I drove her home. It was the right thing to do. I loved my people. But to hear her talk about it after my death it was like we both “felt” something that night and if she had just let me know that she had “felt” something too, then everything would have magically changed and I wouldn’t have been some lonely loser and not taken my life.
So, I was stuck in my dental office, and as the picture of the events of that day became clear, I decided I needed to find my own murderer. One clue at a time, one step at a time.
It’s not like I had anything else to do.
When I heard two pops, I looked up from Haley’s body and saw Emily and Banquo. Emily was beaming and looking up at the big-bellied man. Banquo stepped forward, his eyes on me and then the ghost.
“Good evening, Walter,” he said.
“Banquo,” I replied. Look, I give the guy his props. He knows a lot and does a lot for our little community, but I just ain’t in the fan club. Not one of his students.
Now it could be that he is also the leader of the Midnight Circle—the nightly gathering of the ghosts at the graveyard—and that irks me a bit. Sure the guy’s an English Lit professor, knows a lot of Shakespeare and other plays by heart that he leads the circle in. But maybe they should give someone with acting experience a chance every now and then. Someone like—
“Have you tried to reach her?” he asked.
I snorted in response. I knew he knew the answer. He just wanted to hear me say I couldn’t be bothered.
“I know you can help her,” Emily said to Banquo, her little lispy voice higher than usual. She’s one of the reasons I don’t feel the need to faun over Banquo—she does it more than enough for both of us.
“My boy,” Banquo said to me, “you really should take the time to help those in need.”
I straightened up and met Banquo’s gaze. “I am,” I said, pointing at myself with both my thumbs. “Who else is going to solve my murder?” I moved away into the bedroom to see what I could see there. I left Banquo, Haley’s ghost, and Emily to do their thing.
All that time I spent haunting my dental practice I learned many things, but most of them not useful to solving my murder.
Mostly what I learned watching and listening was the messy reality of humanity: unhappiness, affairs, depression, petty bickering, addiction, and the like. I also saw the good stuff (kindness, love, and generosity), which I had known was there too. But, it was the quantity of the not so good stuff that surprised me.
Ultimately I did find a clue to my murder. There was something off about Midge, my office manager. It was the guilty look she kept getting on her round Midwestern face when no one was looking. She knew something.
When I could finally leave the dental office (that’s a whole ‘nother story), I started following her everywhere and eventually came the day when the letter arrived. It was a plain white envelope with her address shakily written in blue ink. She had rushed into the bathroom with it, avoiding her husband and daughter, and opened it.
It said, “If you need to reach me again about your financial problems, drop a note at this address.” It was followed by the address of the gross apartment Haley died in.
Midge’s hands shook as she slowly tore up the letter and flushed it down the toilet. At first when I saw that guilt on her face I had been angry; seeing her scared like that softened that feeling. She knew something, but whatever she had done, she had been coerced.
I shook right next to Midge, my ghostly form turning diffuse, my vision tunneling in, a crushing depression descending on me.
Conspiracy… had there been a conspiracy to kill me? Was Midge part of it? It looked like my death was part of something larger. I was nobody, just a failed actor turned dentist. Who would want me dead?
I would have fallen into the bardo right then and there if it hadn’t been for the little voice that said, “Not cool, let the lady go to the bathroom in private. What kind of sicko are you?”
I saw the little ghostly form of Emily, her hands on her hips, her mouth a sneer.
Seeing her shocked me back to myself. “Who are you?” I asked.
As I looked around Roger Coptic’s bedroom with its unmade bed, its piles of dirty laundry and unopened mail, I tried to tune out Emily and Banquo. Her voice was an octave higher than usual as she said things like, “Oh, I so know you can help her,” or “Did anyone ever tell you you look like Lawrence Olivier from when he played King Lear at the West End in London?” or “What are you doing later tonight?”
Banquo’s replies were curt but courteous. And then at some point things got quiet out there, which was fine by me.
“I had a thought,” Banquo said to me, from the door of the bedroom.
I looked up from the grease-stained pile of mail, not answering, but giving him my best “can’t you see I’m busy doing important things” look.
“I think you should try to pull her from the bardo. She might have some information for you about her murder and that might help you along.”
Emily stood behind him and to his left, her eyes all doey as she stared up at him. “Walter,” she gasped. “Isn’t that a brilliant idea? That was brilliant, Banquo.”
And it was a good thought, but I certainly didn’t want to say that in front of Emily. “I guess,” I replied. “But, I have no idea how to—”
Banquo’s face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. “I’ll be happy to show you what I know, my boy.” Banquo loves to teach, it’s really his thing. And while I appreciated the thought, I can’t stand it when he calls me “my boy.” I’m not his boy.
Banquo is chubby, bald, sixtyish, and grey haired. He slowly paced around Haley as he lectured, his hands clasped behind his back. Very much the professor.
He started by explaining the bardo—I know what the bardo is. It’s that place ghosts often get stuck where they are reliving the worst of their past, stuck in their regrets. It’s hell, quite literally. Haley was there, no doubt. Her eyes were wide, her mouth slack, B-movie-ghost groans coming out of her mouth. And I felt for her, I did, but it’s not like there’s an easy foolproof five-step plan to get someone out of the bardo.
“The essence of it,” Banquo said, “is finding something more important to her than her suffering.”
“Oh,” I said in my best dry sarcastic tone. “That’s all.”
Banquo stopped and looked at me. He has this penetrating gaze that, if the rumors around the graveyard are to be believed, can see directly into your soul.
“People like to suffer,” I said by way of explanation, his eyes focusing on mine. I really didn’t want him looking into my soul. That grunge and disorder that has its home there is mine, all mine. Emily looked at me too, her little brow furrowed. “Really, they do,” I continued. “Look at anyone you knew when they were alive. How many ways did they make their life harder, how many things couldn’t they let go of that would have made them happier? How much—” I cut myself off when I saw Emily’s face, her lower lip was quivering and she looked like she was about to cry. I knelt down in front of her and said, “What is it, honey?”
As little girl tears rolled down her ghostly face, she said, “My mom, after I died. She couldn’t let it go, she suffered so much. I…”
I carefully modulated my ghostly form (a must for a ghost to touch another ghost) and pulled Emily in for a hug and let her cry. She was in the past, and when she was like that she was much more the four-year-old girl and much less the eighty-year-old ghost. I caught Banquo giving me a “look what you’ve done now” look.
After she was done crying, she growled, “Get your mitts off me, you perv.”
I didn’t take it personally. It was Emily’s way of telling me she was all right.
“Now,” Banquo said, clearly about to resume his lecture, “you knew her, what might be more important to her than her suffering?”
“Knew her?” I said. “She temped for me for a month. We weren’t exactly bosom buddies.”
“Nevertheless, you knew her best. What might be more important to her?”
And thus began my first lesson with Banquo. And I will admit he was smart, knew his way around the ghostly world, and was generous with his time. But, that doesn’t mean I suddenly became one of his disciples, hanging on his every word, kowtowing to him. I listened and I learned.
We tried everything, it took hours and hours. I kept hoping someone would discover the body so we could, at least, get out of that disgusting apartment. But no such luck. The sun set, night passed, and the sun rose before I finally stumbled onto something. It came from fatigue, not thinking.
“Hey, Haley,” I said. “You look good today. You know I really appreciate you coming in and helping us out, but I’m kind of torn. I have a policy of not dating any of my staff, and if you weren’t… well I would… you know.” I used to be an actor, so I sold it. Being all shy and coy, my ghostly cheeks flushing red. I am not sure what possessed me to try it beyond fatigue and what I had learned haunting the office—more than one of the girls and at least one of the boys had had a crush on me.
There was a sharp snap, as the silver cord connecting her spirit to her body broke, her eyes came into focus and a smile formed on her lips. “Doctor Anchor, why, I had no idea.” She blinked rapidly a few times, her eyes widening, her mouth opening, her form firming up a bit, looking a little less bardo-ish.
“I couldn’t tell you then, Haley,” I said, fighting to keep her present. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Banquo beckoning me towards the door, out of the apartment. Yeah, that made sense. Not a good idea for Haley to see her body with the knife sticking out the back and her dried blood looking like reddish-brown cottage cheese. “But now… you know… maybe we can spend some time together.”
Her eyes stayed focused on me as we walked through the wall and out of the apartment into the Tucson morning, the sun just peaking over the horizon. “I think I would like that, Doctor Anchor.”
Inside I was freaking out—I had no desire for a ghost girlfriend, but I just smiled and held my character. “Haley, it’s not Doctor Anchor. It’s time you called me Walter.”
Detecting Haley is available as part of Life After: Stories of Life, Death, and the Places in Between. Get it now!