GHOST OF A CHANCE


By Richard Ciciarelli



Charles Blake III paraded in front of his grandfather, showing off his Batman costume.

"How do I look, Gramps? Like a real crime fighter?"

"Aren't you a little old to be trick or treating?" Charles Blake the first asked.

"I'm not trick or treating. Our school is having a Halloween dance, and the person in the best costume wins a prize. What do you think?"

"I think this reminds me of a murder investigation I was involved in one Halloween. Got a few minutes to hear about it?"

"I've always got time for one of your stories, Gramps."

* * *

It was 1976. Everybody in the country was celebrating the bicentennial of the founding of the U.S. — Red, white and blue bunting adorned almost every house and fireworks were a nightly event.

One house here, though, wasn't decorated. It was the old Lonsdale house. It had been empty for years after Old Man Lonsdale died, and everyone in town said the place was haunted.

I can't tell you how many times neighbors called the station to report seeing lights and hearing eerie noises coming from that place, but every time we investigated, all we found were cobwebs and dust.

Now, in late October of 1976, John Thorndyke, the editor of our local paper, wrote an editorial about the Lonsdale house. In it he challenged anyone to come up with proof that the place was haunted. He even offered a one thousand dollar reward to anyone who could convince him that the lights and sounds coming from the house were of ghostly origin.

Well, that got the whole town ghost happy, but most of the folks were afraid to set foot in Old Man Lonsdale's house. He was a miserable old cuss when he was alive, and they had no intention of tangling with his spirit.

That's why I was kind of surprised when the Captain called me into his office on the day after Halloween.

"We got a call from a Marie Stone," he said. "Her husband, Hal, has been spending the past three or four nights in the Lonsdale place. He's trying to take pictures of a ghost so he can win that thousand bucks John Thorndyke offered."

"And?" I asked, knowing there was more to it than just that.

"And he didn't come home last night or this morning. She's afraid something happened."

"So what are we supposed to do?"

"Not we. You. You're going to the Lonsdale house to see what happened."

"You're kidding, right?"

The Captain tilted his head, grinned, and reached for one of his foul-smelling cigars.

I sighed and headed to the parking lot and a squad car.

* * *

The Lonsdale house looked like something out of a Bela Lugosi movie. Its white paint had turned gray and was peeling all over. Several shingles had blown off the roof, and the grass in the front yard was knee high.

I made my way up a cracked walk that ended at a porch with three steps, all of which creaked when I climbed them.

The front door was ajar. I noticed smudges on the doorknob. To my knowledge, ghosts didn't leave marks like that, so I wasn't worried about encountering anything supernatural.

I stepped into a large anteroom with one doorway straight in front of me. It was when I passed through that I discovered why Marie Stone's husband hadn't come home.

Hal Stone's body lay on the dust covered floor, face down, arms stretched above his head. A few feet away was a small Styrofoam cooler; beer bottles, a brown bag, and several wads of crumpled-up wax paper were strewn around near the body. A camera lay a few feet away.

I approached Stone's body and put my fingers on his carotid artery. His neck felt cold and there was no pulse. It appeared he had been dead for some time.

I couldn't see any signs of a wound, but that didn't mean there wasn't one. I wasn't about to turn him over. I'd leave that job for the medical examiner.

I went back to the squad car and radioed the station. Remember, we didn't have cell phones in those days. The car's two-way radio was my only connection to headquarters.

I waited on the porch until the ME and a forensics crew arrived. Then I stayed out of their way as they went about their business.

When a couple of men in white wheeled a body in a black bag out into an ambulance I knew the ME had finished his job.

"What's the word, Sam?" I asked as the ME came out.

"Confusing."

"Care to elaborate?"

"No wounds on the body. There were some marks on the sides and back of his neck, but they weren't severe enough to cause death. No bluish color around the lips, so he wasn't poisoned. His skin was a little flushed, but that's about all."

"So what killed him?"

Sam shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe a stroke, maybe a heart attack. It'll take a full autopsy to determine that."

"Could he have been scared to death?" As soon as I said it I realized how dumb that sounded.

"You mean by a ghost? Are you serious?"

"Well, he was here to get proof that the house was haunted."

"I'll tell you right now," Sam said with a huge grin on his face, "if a ghost killed Hal Stone, no test I have will prove it." And he walked away shaking his head.

* * *

There wasn't a whole lot I could do at the Lonsdale place, so I took a trip to Hal Stone's house to talk to his wife.

The Stones lived on the east side of town in a smallish Cape Cod house. A shiny new Firebird sat in the driveway. Personalized license plates HS-MS told me I had the right house.

Marie Stone let me in and led me to the kitchen. Her red, puffy eyes indicated she had been crying.

"Your captain called me and told me Hal was found dead. What happened?"

"We're not sure yet. I need to know a few things. I understand your husband was trying to win a reward for proving the Lonsdale place was haunted."

Mrs. Stone nodded. "Hal read that editorial in the paper last week. He called on John Thorndyke to see if he was serious. When he said he was, Hal started staying at the Lonsdale house nights."

"All night?"

"No. He always came home at one or two in the morning. Except last night."

"Tell me about yesterday."

"It was pretty much the same as the last couple of days. Hal went to work, same as usual. Then when he came home he got some things together and went to that house to stay the night."

"What kind of things?"

"I made him some sandwiches. He had his camera and he stopped at Carter's for beer and ice. Then I guess he went to Lonsdale's to wait for his ghost."

"He didn't take a flashlight or lantern?"

"No. Hal said there was enough light from a streetlight so he could see well enough. Besides, he said a lantern might scare any ghosts away."

"So when he didn't come home you got worried and called the police?"

"Yes. See, Hal has asthma, and sitting in that dirty old house wasn't good for him. I didn't like him going there in the first place, but he wanted that reward."

"What else can you tell me about your husband?"

"Hal served in Viet Nam. I don't see how, what with his asthma and all, but after a year over there he was finally discharged as disabled. He was different once he came home. I think it might have been all the things he saw over there."

"War can do that to a person," I said.

Marie Stone's head drooped. "It also made Hal think he was invincible. If the Viet Cong couldn't kill him, nothing could. That's why he wasn't afraid to confront any ghost."

"I think I can safely say, Mrs. Stone, that it wasn't a ghost that killed your husband."

* * *

My next stop was Carter's Bait and Tackle Shop on the south side of town. It was a little cinderblock place with a flat roof and a sign out front that announced "Beer, Bait and Bullets."

A couple of workmen were busy putting white siding on the building, replacing the windows, and re-tarring the roof.

Lew Carter was inside, leaning on a counter whose glass sides revealed fishing flies of every shape and size.

I introduced myself and told him why I was there.

"Hal's dead?" Carter scratched his balding head. "I just saw him yesterday, He looked fine to me."

"Well, he may have had some help passing over to the other side."

"You think he was killed?"

I shrugged. "Not sure yet. His wife said he'd come here the last few days."

"Yeh. He said he was going to the Lonsdale place to find ghosts and he needed some courage."

"You sell courage?"

"By the six pack. See, Hal and me went to school together. When we were in high school we were always doing crazy things. You know, drag racing, skinny-dipping with the girls, painting graffiti on a rival school the day before a big football game. We always got up the courage to do that stuff by drinking a little beer first."

"A little?"

"Well, maybe more than a little. Anyhow, that's something that never changed. Before Hal went into the army we drank. Before he got married we drank."

"So before he went ghost hunting he drank?"

"Yep. Stopped by here for a six-pack and some dry ice to keep it cold while he waited. Said the same thing every time: 'Here for my nightly courage, Lew.' So what happened?"

"That's what the ME is trying to find out. You sure you don't know anything else?"

"No. Except when Hal came back from Nam he was different. Kept more to himself. Only stopped by here when he needed to buy something."

"Did he fish or hunt?"

"Nope. He wasn't one to sit in a boat and wait for fish to come to him. And he said he had enough of shooting when he was over there. Funny, he never said Viet Nam or Nam. Always 'over there.'"

"Thanks, Mr. Carter."

"Any time. Hey, you fish or hunt?"

"I fish a little every once in a while."

"Stop by, then. I'll give you a good deal on bait. With the price of gas being what it is, a lot of boaters ain't going out as much as they used to. Business is a little slow. I'd be happy to have you as a new customer."

"I'll keep that in mind. Thanks."

* * *

I went back to the station and made a few phone calls. I was trying to find out as much about Hal Stone's background as I could.

Those were the days before the Internet and Google, so that kind of work took more time.

I learned that Stone worked at a local car dealership, and since it was still fairly early, I took a ride over there.

Janice Wagner was the manager of the place, unusual in those days for a woman to run an auto lot.

"Yes, I hired Hal," she told me. "He was fresh out of the war and needed a job, so I took him on."

"Was he a good salesman?"

"Oh, he didn't sell. He answered the phone. You know: 'Wagner's Autos. How may I help you?' Then he'd connect the caller with a salesman or the service department or even me once in a while."

"Was he a good worker?"

"At first. But the last year or so he'd become unreliable. He was always coming in late, he took a lot of breaks, and he was constantly eating. Do you know what it does to business when the person answering the phone is talking around a mouth full of potato chips?"

"So what did you do?"

"Well, I docked his paycheck every time he was late, but that didn't seem to bother him. He just didn't seem to care about the job any more. I was considering firing him."

"No need for that now, is there?"

"I guess not. What happened to him?"

"We're not exactly sure yet, but he died in the Lonsdale house looking for ghosts."

Wagner nodded. "Yeh. That was his latest excuse for not coming to work on time. He had been up until the wee hours of the morning trying to earn a thousand dollars, Funny, but he actually lost about three hours' pay because of that."

"And he would have lost his job?"

"Maybe."

* * *

It was late afternoon by the time I left Wagner's Autos, so I headed back to the station.

The ME's report was on my desk. Things were still sketchy, but it appeared Hal Stone had died from suffocation. The ME had found petechia in Stone's eyes; that's what led to his conclusion. But at the same time there was no indication of anything being placed over his nose or mouth to prevent him from breathing. It was all very confusing.

The next morning I decided to pay a visit to our local newspaper office to speak to John Thorndyke.

"Yes, as a mater of fact, Mr. Stone did come here a week or so ago," Thorndyke told me. "He wanted details about my editorial."

"What did you tell him?"

"I said I'd accept a photograph if my people could prove that the picture wasn't faked somehow. You know, double exposure or a sheet hanging from a wire or anything like that."

"And if Stone could produce such a picture?"

"Then the thousand dollars would be his."

"And he was happy with that?"

"Absolutely. He walked out of here smiling. He said he'd be on the front page of my paper in no time."

"But instead he ended up in the obituaries."

Thorndyke took a deep breath. "If I had known something like this would happen, I'd have never written that editorial."

* * *

I spent the rest of the day at the station going over the information we'd gathered on the Stone case.

My desk was covered with crime scene photos, the ME's report, and my own notes on what I'd seen and the people I'd spoken to.

The crime scene photos came first. They showed Stone lying face down, arms outstretched. Not far away were six empty beer bottles, a small bottle opener, an empty six-pack carton, a crumpled brown bag and three crumpled wads of wax paper. Near a wall was an empty, overturned Styrofoam container that was just about big enough to hold the six-pack of beer and Stone's bag of sandwiches.

The lab report said the camera that was found near the body had a fresh roll of film in it, completely unexposed. There were no digital cameras in those days, you know. All cameras took pictures on film.

I read the ME's report again: Red marks on the back of Stone's neck, petechia in the eyes, slightly flushed skin, no other marks of any kind — including needle marks.

Stomach contents included ham, cheese, bread, mustard and beer. Blood alcohol levels were consistent with Stone having drunk all six bottles of beer.

I checked the lab report again. The only fingerprints on the beer bottles were Stone's.

So that was it. Hal Stone died somehow while waiting for a ghost to appear, but exactly how was still a mystery.

I didn't get much sleep that night. I kept staring at the ceiling asking myself what could have happened to Hal Stone that Halloween night as he drank himself silly in the Lonsdale house. It wasn't until the sky was beginning to get light that an idea occurred to me.

* * *

The next day I picked up the phone on my desk at the station and called the ME. I had to find out if something was physically possible. When, after a few minutes of hemming and hawing he told me it was, I hung up and got hold of the Captain.

Within an hour we had Lew Carter in one of the interrogation rooms.

"What's this all about?" he asked.

"Just a few more questions about Hal Stone's death," I said. "You don't mind, do you?"

"No. Shoot."

"Did Hal ever talk to you about his job?"

"At the car dealership? No. Why?"

"His boss said he'd been unreliable lately and she'd been docking his pay regularly."

"So?"

"So when I went to talk to Hal's wife I noticed a brand new Firebird in the driveway. I got to wondering how he could afford a car like that on a reduced paycheck."

Carter shrugged. "Search me."

"That's not all. Hal had been taking a lot of breaks and eating constantly. Now that sounds to me like somebody who's got the marijuana munchies. You know, it's not unusual for GIs who served in Nam to pick up a drug habit."

"I still don't see what this has to do with me."

"Well, drugs take money. Stone didn't have much money — unless he was also dealing and not just using. That would explain how he could afford a Firebird and why he didn't worry much about his paycheck being docked."

"But," Carter began, but I held up a hand to stop him.

"When I visited your place the other day you told me business was slow."

"It is. Local boaters aren't going out much, and out-of-towners don't come here because of the price of gas."

"Yet you have enough money to renovate your building. How is that?"

Carter tensed up.

"I think you and Hal were dealing together. Two old high school buddies making a few bucks to supplement their meager incomes. But you got greedy. You weren't satisfied splitting your drug money. You wanted it all. But you couldn't figure out a way to cut Hal out. Until he told you he was going to find a ghost in the old Lonsdale place.

"That's when you got the idea to kill him and make it look like the Lonsdale ghost got him. He came to you for beer and dry ice, didn't he? And you knew about his asthma.

"So on Halloween night you paid him a visit at the Lonsdale house. He had already polished off the entire six-pack, so he was in no condition to defend himself. You stuck his head in his Styrofoam container, forcing him to breath in the carbon dioxide that filled it as the dry ice melted — or as the ME told me, sublimated.

"With his asthma and all that CO2 entering his lungs, it wouldn't take long for Hal to die. And the only evidence would be the red marks your hand left on the back of his neck. You suffocated him without a pillow or gag or anything else. He breathed himself to death."

Carter stared at me, silent all this time.

"Yep, Two high school buddies who always did crazy things together. Did you need much courage to do this?" I got up and walked out, leaving Carter alone with the Captain.

* * *

"Then what, Gramps?" Charles Blake III asked.

"The Captain got Carter to confess. We really didn't have any proof that would hold up in court, so it's a good thing the Captain was so persuasive."

"And you figured it all out because two guys with small incomes were spending big money."

"Partly, yes. Now shouldn't you be getting off to that Halloween dance?"

"I almost forgot. Gee, this costume contest is nothing compared to your Halloween of 1976."

"Not much is, Charlie. Not much is."


Richard Ciciarelli is a member of Mystery Writers of America and since 1982 has seen over 70 short stories published in some of the country's top magazines and on-line mystery sites.


Copyright 2011 Richard Ciciarelli. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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