Ghost Writing by Monika Ragland
Synopsis: A professional writer has a secret that allows him to tell the most interesting, detailed stories. As with many secrets, they can twist and turn, becoming difficult and deadly. Beware of what you write, it may kill you.
About the Author: Monika Ragland is a retired educator who has had poetry published in a number of journals. Her short fiction has appeared in Voice and Creosote, Arizona publications. She lives in Safford, Arizona, a small town in southeast Arizona. She spends her time writing, reading, and hiking on nearby Mt. Graham.
In this spellbinding horror, writing makes the pen a deadly tool.
It wasn’t Barnes & Noble, but it was paying the bills. My star was rising. I met with an increasing fan base at the smaller specialty bookstores that still clung like lichen to the world of publishing. Overstuffed chairs sat in semi-circles around podiums crowded by oak bookcases. Fans relished feeling intimate and close and I liked that I didn’t need a mike to read a chapter from my latest murder mystery. It was great—until he killed me.
Not that he was personally involved, but he did it just the same. I was reading out of Falling Leaves & Shattered Seasons, my third Jackson Towers novel. Over the top of the book, I noticed two cops coming in. Thought they were fans. Stupid me.
“Jake Stower, you’re under arrest for the murders of Kathleen Bailey, Jessica Andrews, and Sandra Hewitt…” It all went to, “Blah, blah blah…” after the word murder. Yeah, they dragged me out in cuffs, and shoved me into the backseat of a squad car. All I could think was I hope this ups the book sales.
Hollywood gives police interviews a dramatic grittiness. There’s shouting and shoving. Steely glares and fists pounding on furniture lead to the final pathetic confession. In reality, they make it uncomfortable, but it’s pretty straightforward. Not too much high tech or psychiatrists watching from the other side of the mirror in Smalltown, USA.
“We know you killed them. We just want to know why.”
“I didn’t kill anyone!” I put my best innocent emphasis on the words, but wasn’t really worried too much. After all, I hadn’t killed anyone. I recited that mantra for the first few weeks—with the police, the arraignment judge, and the public defender. No one listened. They were all convinced that I had killed three women. I started to worry.
You know you’re in trouble when you start selling everything you own, emptying your bank accounts, and borrowing from anyone you’d ever counted as a friend just to get a good lawyer. John W. Pierce was supposed to be good. By then I certainly hoped so. I was tired of Mayberry’s jail and wanted bail, a decent meal, and a shower without company—in that order.
“Mr. Stower, now that we have you out of jail, shall we proceed to the gist of the matter? Did you do it?” A pinstriped suit, manicure, and framed vellum diplomas lent an air of sophistication to Pierce’s questioning. On my side of the polished desk I started to feel a bit of relief. It was obvious that he was successful. I needed successful.
“Nope. I don’t even know how the police connected me to this or why they seem so positive that I’m guilty. I’m a writer. I can’t remember having been to the cities where these murders supposedly happened!” At this point of the game, I was having real trouble maintaining a calm certainty in the infallibility of the Justice System. My calm was definitely being damaged. And this was all before disclosure.
The interview after disclosure was a bit different.
“Mr. Stower, I don’t like clients who lie to me. I don’t really care if you are innocent or guilty. I care about doing the best job I can for you. I can’t do that if you lie to me. “Shall we try again? Did you do it?”
“I don’t know what you think you know, but I DID NOT KILL ANYONE!” Shouting at your lawyer is never a good idea, but frustration leads to bad judgment.
We spent the next five hours (at $500 an hour!) going over the case against me. That’s when it became clear to me how he’d killed me.
It doesn’t matter how many “Ghost Hunters International” programs they air on SciFy or Discovery Channel; the average person still doesn’t believe in ghosts. It’s all lights and mirrors and spooky entertainment. Unfortunately for me, I knew they were real. I spoke to them.
It started when I was young and dumb. I’d gone out with the rest of the macho men at Creston High to tip over headstones at the local cemetery. It was the cool thing to do after midnight on a Saturday night. One time I was the last to leave (the other guys weren’t interested in watching me puke my drunken guts out) and heard someone crying. A plaintive sobbing hiccupped through the night. The heartbreaking sound had me wandering among the graves lit by solar path lights.
“Who’s there? Are you Okay?” I never saw anyone, but I did start a conversation I would never forget. I could hear her talking. It was like she just made the words appear in my brain. I’m sure from the outside it looked pretty weird—me sitting on an overturned grave marker talking to myself in the middle of the night.
Her name was Anna Lynne Martin. Yeah, we’d turned over her headstone. It was dawn before I left, knowing everything there was to know about Anna. I could picture the house she’d grown up in, the pets she’d had, and the strapless, silver, satin gown she’d worn to the prom. I even knew how and why she’d killed herself.
I didn’t think much about it for a while. Then Ms. Howard assigned a short story. Until that moment, I had never even thought about writing. I didn’t have to work on a story because I had a story to tell—Anna’s. Her sorrowful life made a great story. Ms. Howard even complimented me for doing such great research on one of our town’s historic tragedies.
After that, I was a natural writer. In college I published a few stories in some minor magazines and journals. Material was easy to find. I’d just hang out at a cemetery on moonless nights talking to no one. My developing, offbeat reputation didn’t bother me. The effort was paying off.
When I moved from Arizona, I found bigger, older cemeteries that had even more stories to tell. For the next decade I lived life, bummed around the country, trolled cemeteries, and sold dead people’s stories.
Then one night I started my conversation with Jacob Haney.
I’d been strolling around Paxtonville Cemetery in up-state New York at dusk. You know the kind…lined with oaks and maples that had seen the Revolution, manicured lawns dotted with hand-carved angels on pedestals and obelisks that mirrored Cleopatra’s Needle. I’d had enough short stories published that my ego yelled that it was time to move on to writing a book.
Usually, I trolled headstones looking for someone who’d died young. Short lives—short stories. But I wanted a book this time so I expanded the age range to find a full life experience. Books were character driven. The rich complexity needed was developed over time. It was made up of dreams and disappointments, naiveté and cynicism, tears and laughter—all in equal or not so equal parts. Of course the best characters had flaws that motivated them, hindered them, made them likable or hateable but left them unforgettable.
As the sun dropped leaving the sky shades of mauve and purple, I tripped over a nondescript marker raised barely above ground level. Jacob Haney was sandblasted into its face. He’d died at 52. As I thought about his age, I realized he’d lived through some pretty interesting history—the Viet Nam war, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space program, the Iran-Contra Affair and Star Wars—both the Lucas and the Reagan versions. So I waited for Jacob. Planting myself on their headstones usually brought some kind of response from the resident ghost.
Jacob was an angry man. It took me a few nights just to get him to listen to me. We finally came to an understanding and he agreed to tell me things. Some nights he’d ramble on about inconsequential crap and disappear in a huff when I pushed for something better. Other times he’d come in furious and fast—it was all I could do to take notes and keep up. His mercurial moods kept me coming back. Besides, as a newspaper reporter, Jacob had more stories and details than an average life could have offered up.
During the months I sat there talking to Jacob, you’d have thought that I’d get in trouble with someone. A couple times I had to dodge some late-night kids, but, for the most part, cemeteries are pretty empty after midnight. I actually rented a dump in town and settled in to write. Everyone thought I had a night job because of my schedule. I’d meet with Jacob, scribbling notes furiously, and then go home and type until I had to sleep. When I woke up it started all over again.
Needless to say, Jacob had great stories that made pretty good books. It was working for me—until the trial.
Did you know that circumstance can build a pretty strong bridge to guilty? The prosecution didn’t even have to work all that hard. You see, it seems I did have cops who were fans. All the evidence they needed was right there in black and white. Three murders—three books. Every little detail—when, where, how, with what—it was all spelled out. Some details had never been released by the police. Kathleen had been killed by a knife found buried under an oak in a cemetery. A scene I had written in detail in book one. The gun that killed Jessica was found on the pages of book two. Book three vividly described the cottage on Gun Lake where Sandra died, and exactly what was used to weigh down her body in its dark waters. Only the actual killer would have known these things. And I thought Jacob was just a great reporter.
As a loner who’d spent his time in cemeteries at night, I couldn’t offer up a reliable alibi for anything. I suppose I could have gone for the insanity plea by testifying that I got it from a ghost. But really, would that have cleared me? No!.
My last thought as the needle went into my arm was, “Who’s gonna tell my story?”
**** THE END ****
Copyright Monika Ragland 2012
Image Courtesy: Bergen County Historic Sites