Angelika, medical examiner at a morgue, can talk to the dead; thankfully they don't usually hang around for long - until she meets Elvis; by Katherine Sanger.
Elvis filled her in on all of his birth and childhood as she'd conducted the autopsy. The autopsy was a wasted effort - he wasn't drunk or on drugs. Her knowledge came straight from the source, but she had to follow procedure anyway. Everyone already thought she was weird for wanting to be a forensic pathologist. She wasn't all cute and petite, so her job choice wasn't ironic. She wasn't all goth, so it wasn't appropriate. She was average and boring and everyone expected her to get married to an insurance salesman. But the fact that the dead could talk to her kept her from following an average path.
Ghosts seemed to realize who could and couldn't see them. All her life, ghosts had popped up and spoken to her. They could have existed for minutes, hours, days, years. Even centuries in that one case. Ghosts would appear, make their pronouncements, and vanish. It had been hard on her when she was younger and didn't know what was going on. Her parents thought she had a lot of imaginary friends. They took her to child psychologists who assured them that she would outgrow it. She learned to hide it out of fear; it was something that made her different. She knew no one would believe her. But the regularity with which the ghosts appeared and talked to her made it so that by the time she'd gone off to college, she was good at waving her hand, acknowledging the ghost and making it look as if she was brushing away a fly at the same time. Awkward at frat parties, but fine for the average ghost sighting.
Her career plan had originally been unrelated to the dead. She wanted to avoid them. Maybe do something fun, like wedding planning, or something in sales, like telemarketing. But she quickly learned it wouldn't work. The dead found her, wherever she went. At least she could pretend to be normal working at the morgue. Everyone who dealt with corpses for long enough began to talk to them, so it didn't look too unusual for her to strike up a conversation with a corpse lying on her table.
And that's normally all it was. Something quick and easy. Like that woman yesterday.
"I set it up real good. They'll all blame that asshole of an ex-husband of mine. No one'll know I did it myself."
Angelika hmmmed and made a note on the paperwork to remind her to find enough evidence of self-inflicted wounds to uphold the suicide. Even if the woman was right and her ex was a bad person, murder was a harsh rap and, honestly, Angelika did care about the truth. She would have made an awful telemarketer.
Elvis wouldn't leave her alone, though. Unlike the ghosts of her past, he wouldn't rest. He broke the sterile plane of the room, standing on the green tile floor and pestering her as she slit him open, asking what she was doing, giving her advice on the cut, based on his own personal years of experience of hunting and dressing deer. She tried to ignore him.
"So I'm dead, huh?"
"Like dead dead, huh?"
"Yes. Very dead dead, actually. They couldn't even try to resuscitate. I mean, look at you. Would you want to attempt CPR on those cinders?"
"No, no. Looks like a lost cause to me."
"Exactly. Now I have a job to do here. "
"But whaddam I supposed to do?"
Angelika looked at him, all ghostly and see through. Thank god he was dressed. If someone died with their boots on, their ghosts kept them. So she was always happier when the corpses came in with clothes on. It was one thing to have to deal with a dead body that lay there, all naked and ready for examination. She was used to that. It was when their ghosts stood around, all naked and strangely comfortable about it, that she got all discombobulated.
This one - Elvis, she reminded herself - Elvis seemed forlorn and lost.
"I don't know what to tell you. Normally y'all make a final pronouncement and then vanish. I've never asked." That had been on purpose. They were dead, after all. It wasn't like she could strike up a friendship with them. They appeared, spoke, and disappeared. Like bad boyfriends and high school girlfriends.
Elvis sighed and shifted his arms so they were folded against his chest instead of hanging at his sides. "Wish I could have a cigarette. Waitin's easier when I have a cigarette. "
Angelika glared at him as she weighed his liver. "Isn't that what got you here to begin with?"
"But it's not gonna matter now. Y'all already said I'm dead."
"Guess you're right. Sorry you can't light up." She moved on, trying to pay more attention to the body than its former inhabitant. "You have no idea what to do next? No tugging? No pull?" She had always enjoyed the show about the reapers who helped the dead move onto the other side. They had a purpose. They had other reaper friends who understood their weird habits. And they would have been really helpful right about now when she wanted to get rid of a ghost. It wasn't that she was afraid of him. She was just used to being alone, and the sudden company made her antsy, like a kid who's had their pillow fort invaded by a younger sibling.
Elvis closed his eyes and rocked a bit on his boot heels, then stopped and opened his eyes.
"Nope. Not a hint."
"I'm all done with your body now. So you can go or whatever." She made the final notations and tried to look finished. "Go on. Scoot. Scat."
Elvis cocked his head and stared at her. "I ain't a barn cat. You can't chase me away."
She fixed him with the kind of look bartenders give drunks when they ask for one more, not aware that their friends already switched them over to water. "Elvis, honey, I don't care where you go. But you can't stay here."
In retrospect, Angelika regretted saying that to Elvis, but she had to kick him out of the morgue. It was bad enough having one dead "supervisor" whenever she began working on a body. Having two would have been intolerable. But she should've chosen her words more carefully. She didn't care where he went, but she didn't want him to follow her home.
"I guess you're not bound to your body, then," she said, creeped out by driving home with Elvis's ghost sitting next to her like an undead driving instructor.
"Nope. Guess not. 'Course all this is jest as new to me as it is to you. I ain't never been dead before."
"You sure are dead now."
He looked at her. "You don't have to be hurtful."
"What? No, no, I didn't mean it that way at all."
"How did you mean it?"
"I was -ah- trying to be funny. You know, humor. Levity," she said.
"It ain't funny. Not to me. I had so much I still meant to do."
The enormity of the situation hit Angelika. In the past, ghosts were just ghosts. They had their say. They left her alone. They weren't real. They weren't people. But Elvis was a person. He wasn't a slab of meat or a flicker of a life. He was a living, breathing human being with hopes, goals, a purpose... and now he was dead, and everything he had was gone. Everything he cared about wasn't his to care about anymore. Who was she to make light of it? Her throat hurt.
"Elvis, I didn't mean. I didn't think... what didn't you get to finish?"
"There was this sump pump I was workin' on fixin'."
She glanced at him in the early twilight. Seriously? A sump pump was what was keeping him on earth?
"What if I got it fixed for you? I could call someone once we get to my house. I bet we could have it fixed tomorrow. Then you'd be all ready for passing on to the other side, or whatever it is that you need to do." She tried to tell herself she was doing it to be a wonderful, helpful, caring person - the kind of person who would volunteer at an animal shelter or inner city school. Someone who cared about the downtrodden. But honestly she knew she just wanted to be left alone. She had built a life, and Elvis wasn't part of it. If he had been a hound dog, she'd have dropped him off at the pound. But since that wasn't the option, she'd have to go the extra mile.
"You'd do that for me?"
Elvis put a semitransparent hand over his semitransparent chest. "You are a fine woman. I'd've been happy to marry you. Even if you ain't that much of a looker."
"Thanks so much."
But it didn't work.
She called in sick so she could stay home and take care of Elvis's little sump pump problem. She hired a plumber, "Bob's Best Plumbing Service," and then she and Elvis showed up early to sneak the key out from under the front door mat ("Hurricane Evacuation Plan. 1. Grab Beer 2. Run Like Hell"). Elvis oversaw the work, and she hung out in his house, marveling at his gun safes, his freezer full of deer, and his odd collection of beer bottles filled with soda can pull-tabs.
When the guy who she guessed was Bob (thanks to his handy name tag) pronounced the sump pump fixed, she paid him out of her own pocket.
And while the sump pump worked, the ghost situation still hadn't been fixed.
Elvis stood there, scratching at his head. "I dunno. I figured that's all there was keeping me here. Not much in life's more important than a sump pump."
Except for maybe her own sanity. She tried to leave him behind, staring at the newly working pump, but Elvis materialized in the passenger seat of her Honda.
"Soooo," she said. "No other thoughts at all? No ideas what could be keeping you here? Ex-wife? Illegitimate child? Unsolved mystery?"
Elvis shook his head. "You may not believe it, but I'm a rather simple guy."
She bit the inside of her cheek. No point in getting him all riled up. He'd think of something or he wouldn't. And, honestly, she couldn't even be sure he was supposed to do anything. She'd never had a ghost stick around this long.
"Keep thinking. And keep your senses open or something. You have to go sooner or later."
"I'll try. But maybe it ain't up to me. Maybe I'm here for a purpose."
He was staring at her. Oh god, what did he think his purpose was?
She prayed that he wasn't like her father, interested in getting his old maid daughter married off. She had repeatedly told her father that she wasn't interested. And that she wasn't a lesbian. He didn't seem to believe her on either account. How could her father think that she both wanted to marry a man and sleep with a woman? But that wasn't important. Right now, the only important thing was getting Elvis to move on to wherever he was supposed to move on to so she could go back to her uncomplicated life. Preferably before she went to work tomorrow.
Waking up the next morning, she thought she'd gotten lucky and Elvis had moved on. He wasn't in her room. He wasn't in the bathroom.
"Elvis?" she called, softly at first. "Elvis? Are you here?"
No response. She started to exhale, then choked as he materialized in front of her, forming from the ground up in a mist reminiscent of dry ice.
"Neat, huh? I been working on that all night. Didn't have nothing else to do. I couldn't sleep."
"I'm not sure 'neat' would be exactly the word I'd use," she said, trying to recover her breath.
"Did I scare you? Sorry. I didn't think of that. Around 2 o'clock, you started snorin' real bad, and I let myself sort of flump to the ground, and next thing I knew, it felt like I was passing out or something. I thought you'd be all pleased to wake up and find me gone. But then I realized I weren't going nowhere. But it was all restful. Then you stopped snoring, and I came to check on you, and I came all back together again. So I practiced on it. Whaddaya think?"
"I think I need coffee," Angelika said, starting to brush past him and then realizing there was nothing to brush but air. "Why don't you sink through things, like the floor?"
"I don't rightly know. Guess it's kind of like breathing. Well, it would be if I were breathing anymore."
Angelika made it to the kitchen and got the coffee started. Elvis sat down at the table and stared at the small white machine with undisguised sadness.
"No coffee for me." He hung his head.
Angelika considered feeling bad about having coffee while Elvis was deprived, but it wasn't like she snuffed him. He'd smoked at the gas pump. Stupid choice. But at the same time, she felt a little guilty as she stirred in her half & half and sugar. Everyone made bad choices sooner or later. Most of the time, they didn't end in death. Otherwise no one would make it through their teen years, most definitely not her.
"I'm off to get ready for work," she said brightly and in a way that she hoped didn't sound like an invitation.
"Good. Ready when you are." Elvis looked very alert for someone who had recently given up smoking, coffee, sleeping, and breathing.
"I meant I was going to work. Not we were going to work."
"Oh. Guess I'll stay here. All day. All alone."
Elvis looked even more pathetic than before.
"Wow. Sorry, but, you know, people may not appreciate a crowd watching their autopsies."
"But there's only two of us."
"That's right," Angelika said.
"Two's company. Three's a crowd."
"Right. Okay. Umm. I'm off to get ready then."
"This is purdy neat," Elvis said from his perch on top of the filing cabinet in the corner of the room. "Now that I'm not on the table."
Angelika refused to look at him. He looked like a demented Snoopy, waiting on his doghouse for dinner. She suppressed a shudder. Elvis was a ghost, not a zombie. There would be no dinner for him. But if he kept up the talking vulture routine, she knew she was going to accidentally sever one of her fingers.
"Please come down from there, Elvis. You're making me nervous."
"The last time I was in here, you had me on that table. That made me nervous. Waking up all laid out there."
"About that... how did you wake up?"
"I dunno. But hey, wouldn't it be cool if that girl there woke -"
"She's not a girl. She's a woman," Angelika interrupted Elvis.
"Okay, then, if that woman there woke up."
If Angelika had attended even one more year of catholic school, she would have crossed herself at the thought. Instead, she asked, "Why?"
"She looks a bit like Janis. Joplin, you know. The singer?"
Angelika looked down at the body. "Yeah, she kind of does."
And then the woman opened her eyes and rose up out of her body.
"You think I look like Janis Joplin? She was pretty hot."
Angelika started to slap her forehead, but remembered she was holding a scalpel before she brought her hand all the way up.
Elvis jumped down from the filing cabinet and approached the woman, sizing her up as she checked him out. Janis seemed to like what she was seeing. Did dead people somehow get a wicked pair of beer goggles?
"What's your name?" Elvis asked her.
"Her name is..." Angelika reached for the chart.
"I like Janis," the woman interrupted Angelika. "Call me Janis. What's your name?"
Before Janis died, her name was Emily. Emily had been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, explosive rage disorder, and a few other disorders that her parents thought would help get her into a group home and out of their house while she was still a teenager. It worked. The home kept her until she was 18, and then she was released. On her own. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do.
So she enrolled in community college and got a job at a bar that didn't really care if she was old enough to drink or serve drinks. They had been letting her drink there for three years by then, and she knew them pretty well. They knew her, too. They knew she was a functional alcoholic, they knew she had body issues, and they knew she had nowhere else to go. She dropped out of college during her first semester. She took more hours at the bar. And she rented a little place that was little more than a closet with a bathroom and kitchenette. But she was proud of it.
Proud enough that she was willing to do almost anything to keep her job. But like Meatloaf once said, she wouldn't do that. The group home had taught her that her parents didn't want her and that she had to stand up for herself because there was no one else who would. Telling on someone didn't help; they just came back stronger to make sure you couldn't tell. When her boss pushed her up against the wall that night, she had pushed back with a vengeance. She should have seen it coming; there was nothing he needed help with in the store room, and part of her brain told her that, even as she went back there with him. But she'd never backed down before. Maybe the ODD diagnosis was right.
He'd pinned her against the rough cinderblocks, and she used them to shove off of, grabbed a bottle of scotch, and hauled off and smacked him in the head with it. He'd gone down, the bottle had broken, and the alcohol and blood mixed and ran all over the floor.
She panicked. Had she killed him? What was going to happen to her? She decided that running was her best option; no one really knew her there. She was just a random nearly homeless girl, and she could disappear.
But her sneakers weren't new, and the tread wasn't tread anymore. Just hard rubber. She slipped on the concrete floor, went down, and her head bumped twice, harder than any time she'd been hit, making the bump her boss had given her into the wall feel like a love tap. She saw stars, literal stars, like she was being sucked up into the night sky. For a minute, she loved it. Peace. Love. Calm. Then it vanished, and her eyes opened as a woman was bearing down on her with a scalpel and a guy who oozed truth and trust was calling her by name, even if it wasn't her name.
The scotch had christened her Janis, and she was ready to be born again.
Angelika drove home that night with the lovebirds in the backseat. They were holding hands - ectoplasmic hands? - and murmuring sweet nothings.
She couldn't hear what they were saying. It was like they were speaking at nearly subsonic pitches, just enough that she could register sound but not enough that it was anything more than a weird soft thump in the background of her senses. Was that an ability that came with death? Or after-death? Ghosthood? She wasn't sure what to call it. All she knew was that yesterday, she'd had one ghost in her life; today she had two, and they were communicating in the ghost equivalent of Morse code.
Her head hurt. It was a pounding kind of pain. It felt like the stress of becoming house mother to a dorm of ghosts. What was she going to do with them? Might as well make awkward conversation.
"So, have you guys ever met before?"
"We never met before today," Janis said.
"Either of you feel like you've fulfilled your purpose? Like maybe you want to go... wherever it is that you're going?"
"Why would we go anywhere?" Elvis asked.
"Because you're dead? Don't you feel the urge to move on?"
Elvis looked down at Janis. "I got everything I want right here."
This did not sound good. Angelika had at first worried Elvis wouldn't find his purpose and move on. But, dear god, what if he had found his purpose and moving on wasn't part of it? What if his purpose was to raise an army of ghosts and take over the world, and she had become his unwitting pawn? She glanced back and saw he was still looking at Janis with an adoring puppy dog look. His eyes had almost crossed.
She shook her head. If that was his purpose, he was the witless pawn.
When they got home, Elvis and Janis immediately settled onto the couch, in pretty much the same position that they'd been in in the car. She prayed they would never be able to consummate their relationship, especially on her couch.
Still, she thought as she got changed into her pajamas, at least she only had the two ghosts living with her. It could be worse.
At least, that's what she had been thinking until there was a tremendous crash, followed by the sound of glass shattering. She burst out from the bedroom and found Elvis and Janis standing next to each other. Elvis's mouth was hanging open, and Janis was studiously staring at the ceiling.
The window leading to the fire escape had shattered outward, and Angelika could see a vague planter-like shape on the wrought iron lattice landing.
"What happened?" she tried not to shriek, but failed.
"Janis discovered she has a special talent."
Angelika's eyes had finally adjusted to the dark outside. "And this has something to do with why my only living plant is currently dying from exposure?"
"Yeah. Janis can, well, she can make things move. Even though she ain't touching them." Elvis blushed, and Angelika busied herself staring at the dying plant instead of considering how Elvis has discovered that Janis could "touch" things.
"So as a test of this ability, she threw my plant out the window?" Angelika didn't see the logical progression there.
"No, the plant was an accident. She weren't aiming for it. She... overshot."
Angelika dared to look at them. Janis was half-hiding behind Elvis, but she still had that grin on her face. Elvis's flush hadn't faded. She wondered how he managed it. It wasn't like he had any blood to rush anywhere. But he had managed to raise a woman from the dead, so maybe there was more to him than it looked.
"Okay, so she managed to toss the plant through the window?"
"Yeah. She must have tele-neesis."
Angelika was impressed, even if Elvis hadn't gotten it exactly right.
"Great. I'm going to cover that window up and leave a message for the super. Please try to avoid breaking anything else."
She cleaned it all up, but it wasn't until she had climbed into bed and was drifting off that the word that had been on the tip of her tongue came to her. Janis. She was a poltergeist.
Angelika came awake to the soft steady pound of rain.
The forecast had been for clear skies all week. Why didn't they fire weathermen over this kind of obvious incompetence? She tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but something was wrong.
The drumming noise was too loud for rain, and it wasn't coming from the roof. It came from further away. And in the background, she heard another noise slowly gaining in volume: sirens.
The sirens were indistinct at first, sounding more like a baby crying two floors down, but they grew in intensity as she tried to focus.
"Fine!" She threw the blue comforter onto the floor and abandoned the thought of sleep.
The clock said 4:30, and it was dark outside her window, but she knew the night was over. She stomped over to the bedroom window and saw -
- a hailstorm of round river rocks hitting the neighboring apartment building.
She sucked in a breath and expelled it with a shout. "Elvis?"
He appeared in the doorway. She didn't know whether he'd been there, invisible, or he'd come running when she'd screamed.
"Yeah?" He seemed oddly relaxed, considered the intensity of the siren's blare now that the fire trucks had arrived and were lighting up the block.
"You wouldn't happen to know anything about this situation, would you?" Angelika tried to remain calm. It was possible that Elvis and Janis were innocent.
"See, you left the TV on for us. And we were tryin' to be good and sit quiet and watch it."
Angelika nodded. "Did something happen to the TV?"
"This Hollywood 'making of' came on. It was for this Stephen King movie. I think it was called 'Karen' or 'Carrie' or something like that."
Angelika gritted her teeth.
"Janis, she saw that part where they made up this little house to drop pebbles on. And they said never got a chance to do it in the movie. She thought that was kinda sad. Who knew she could do movie special effects in real life?"
"What? And you supported her in this undertaking?" Angelika asked.
"I thought you weren't gonna make any more dead guy jokes!"
"Different kind of undertaking," Angelika clarified. "What I meant was, did you also think this was a good idea?"
"Are you sure you didn't say something to her - something like, oh, I don't know - 'Go for it, Janis'?"
Elvis's eyes grew wide. "How did you know?"
"My sister has twin toddlers." Angelika pulled her hair back and knotted it into a bun. "Look, can she stop it? There are police and firemen now."
"I dunno. Lemme ask her." He vanished.
Angelika looked around. Elvis had mastered yet another ghostly trick while she slept. She looked out the window again. The street was lit up, bright as floodlights on a football field, thanks to the emergency vehicles and curious onlookers. The stones kept coming, appearing out of seemingly nowhere in the middle of the sky to rain down on the apartment house, and then piling up on the ground around it. They were smooth and round, grey in the light, and reminded her of the stones that builders piled up in front of houses instead of using grass or bushes. Angelika had no idea that Janis could conjure rocks from nowhere before, and the thought was unsettling and disturbing in a way that made her wonder how dangerous Elvis was, despite his slack-jawed yokel appearance.
Then it stopped.
One minute, the rocks were pelting down like fist-sized hail, the next, it was a drizzle - one here, one there, so you could dodge them and avoid getting hit, assuming you could move that quickly. Then they stopped falling. The ones on the ground stayed there, but no new ones appeared. The building looked like it had been hit by a curse from the Old Testament, although she didn't recall "builder's stones" as one of the plagues. The roof had a solid coat of the stones, and the ground around it had piles that reminded her of days when it would snow and the plows came through. Some high piles, some low, and then the few stray stones making it look like monster-sized snowflakes may have indeed fallen and were now reflecting the flashing lights.
Angelika could feel the confusion in the crowd. They stepped back, unsure what would happen next. She watched their stunned silence and unmoving bodies, then one of the cops stepped up and timidly kicked at one of the piles of stones. Nothing happened, other than a stone falling. But it was enough - he went running back from it, and screams erupted from the crowd. Angelika closed the blinds and turned to her own drama unfolding inside the apartment.
Janis had been most apologetic, swearing she hadn't considered the outcome of her actions. Knowing what had made her wind up on the slab at the morgue, Angelika was pretty sure that Janis had gone through most of her life not considering the outcome of her actions. Not that Elvis was any better. What had she been thinking, leaving them awake and moving around while she slept? She should have known something would happen. It was like giving a kid a book of matches, a can of gasoline, and some old newspapers. Angelika wouldn't make that mistake twice.
So, even though she suspected she was making the situation worse, Angelika brought them both to work with her, ordering that they sit quietly in the corner. They could watch, but there was to be no interference, no naming of other bodies, and definitely no raising the dead or moving objects.
On the drive to the office, Janis had explained the stones, at least, which made Angelika feel a bit better while somehow making her feel much, much worse.
"There's this nice home and garden center down the way," she had told Angelika. "I always wanted to buy those hanging vine monkeys for my trees there, but I never had the money. Anyway, they have a huge stock of garden rocks. I picked them up and moved them." She shrugged.
Angelika was glad that the rocks hadn't materialized from thin air, but it still didn't seem right.
But she was stuck with her ghost pals now, and neither of them were going anywhere, at least voluntarily.
"That sounds nice. A garden center." Angelika floundered for conversation. Elvis and Janis were still in the back seat of the car, curled up together. "Uh, Janis. You don't happen to think you're here for a reason, do you? Some sort of unfinished business? Maybe you have something that you always meant to do and never had a chance?"
"Ya know, Elvis was asking me about that last night, too. We had a real good, uhhh, talk, before the movie came on."
Angelika closed her eyes and counted to two to try to get the "talk" they had out of her mind. She would have kept them closed for a count of 100, but there were other cars on the road.
"So you talked?"
"Yeah, and we figured - he figured - that maybe we were here to meet."
"But you met," Angelika pointed out. "And you're both still here."
Janis shrugged again. Elvis stared out the window.
"No other bright ideas?"
Janis shook her head. "We'll talk again tonight."
Angelika thought she heard air quotes around talk but didn't pursue it. There were some things she didn't want to know.
Born James, he'd known he was meant for greatness. He would be worshipped. Adored. Of course, he hadn't figured that it would be because he looked like and sounded like Jim Morrison. But that was okay with him. At the tender age of 17, he joined a Doors cover band and started singing in bars where he was too young to drink. Not that he let that stop him.
By the time he was 19, James went by Jim to both family and fans, and he modeled his life after the real life Jim Morrison. If there was a woman, Jim wanted her. And normally got her. If there was a beer or a joint or anything else that could alter his perception of reality, Jim wanted that, too. And he normally got that, too.
Unfortunately, getting women, drinks, and drugs worked out for him as well as it worked out for the man he modeled his life after.
The Monday night set at the Holiday Inn's bar went great. A few women threw lace panties on stage. A few women flashed him. And a few women were his girlfriends. Although they didn't know that. Until one of them, he thought her name was Brittany, rushed the stage to give him a kiss after the show. And that pissed off another one, whose name he could have sworn was Veronica. Or Betty. One of those. She yelled something like, "Leave my boyfriend alone, you whore!" And he might have recovered from that, but then Jelisa jumped up from her seat - he hadn't even seen that she was there - and suddenly it was an all-out brawl.
So he went to the back, smoked a bowl, and took a bath. And then he woke up to three people looking down at him, and he was in a strange, sterile, tiled room that didn't look anything like the hotel room's bathroom.
Angelika knew better. She knew she knew better. But looking at the ghosts in the corner, it was obvious that she didn't know better.
Three ghosts stared back at her.
One was bad. Two was worse. Three... three was straight out Armageddon.
The newest addition demanded they call him Jim. Like the real Jim, he was obnoxious and talented. When he'd woken up, he'd immediately jumped off the table and strutted over to Janis, a smirk on his admittedly handsome face.
"Hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name?" He sang at her. And she transferred her attachment from Elvis to Jim faster than a cat gets bored with a mouse after biting its head off.
Jim took it in stride, and leaned against the wall in a calculated slouch, hands shoved in pockets, sneer on his face.
"Wow. Did you hear him sing, Elvis? Did you?"
Elvis nodded, sullen. The look he was giving Jim would have killed him again, if it could have. The temperature of the room was bitter cold. Angelika realized there might be a reason people felt cold spots when they walked into haunted houses. She'd never noticed it herself, but maybe that's because she hadn't run into any ghosts quite as pissed off as Elvis was right then.
It was his own fault, though, Angelika thought. He had asked who it was on the table. She had told him, mostly to quell his interest. Why would anyone want to talk to someone who made a career out of copying other people? But Elvis had reacted with interest. Too much interest, she realized. She should have lied. Told him that the guy on the slab was an accountant who had been stressed out during tax season. Or a veterinarian. For some reason, they had an abnormally high suicide rate. But no, she had followed that old tried and true "honesty is the best policy."
She finished up with Jim's body while the trio in the corner kept up their dance - Janis fawning, Elvis seething, and Jim eating it up. His tox report read like a drug raid. She wasn't sure how he had managed to stay alive as long as he had with all that stuff in his bloodstream. Maybe he had lucked into the perfect combination that balanced itself. Until it finally unbalanced and killed him.
It wasn't time for lunch, and she already had three ghosts. How many would there be by the end of the day? Had Elvis learned his lesson? Or would this little development lead to him waking up another woman in hopes of re-gaining Janis's love or replacing her?
Her cell phone rang, startling her and the ghosts. She didn't remember the last time she'd gotten a call during the day, especially from a number she didn't know.
"Uh, hi. Is Angelika there?"
"Uh, hi. This is Bob. You know, from Bob's Best Plumbing Service?"
"Yeah, yeah, the sump pump. Is there a problem?" She racked her brain for why the plumber would be calling. She'd paid him with a check. Had it bounced? No way. She never did anything; her accounts had plenty to cover it.
"Uh, no problem. Um, I was just wondering. Uh, what are you doing this weekend?" Bob said.
"Not having a sump pump fixed." She still wasn't sure why he was calling.
"Heh. Huh. That's funny."
"Thanks, that's me. Call anytime, day or night, to have a joke told to you. It's like the talking clock but better."
"But, um, really, though. Are you busy this weekend?" Bob said.
And something penetrated the fog in her brain. "Are you asking me out?" Angelika said.
"Well, yeah, if you're saying yes."
"And if I'm saying no?"
"Then, uh, I guess I'm just checking to see how that sump pump is working out for your friend. He's just a friend, right?"
She felt herself smiling despite herself. "Yes, he's just a friend. And, no, I don't think I'm busy this weekend. I'm not sure yet."
"Oh, uh," Bob stuttered. "Can I call you back later? Like when you might know?"
Angelika eyed the ghosts. Would they be gone? At this rate, probably not. In fact, there would probably be half a dozen of them. All the more reason to not be home.
"You know what? I think I will be free."
Angelika slid Jim's body into the drawer.
"Done for the day!"
"It isn't even hardly noon," Elvis protested. She got a sinking feeling that he had been considering replacing Janis one way or the other.
She typed up a vacation request on the computer. Technically, vacation requests needed at least 24 hours for approval, but she hadn't taken a vacation day in over a year, so she didn't think anyone would complain. And if they did, she had other things to worry about.
She hit send and went to her locker. "We're done. We're leaving. If you want to stay, please, feel free."
Not that she thought they'd take her up on that.
She left without looking behind her. When she passed Charley's desk, the receptionist let out a gasp.
"What?" Angelika immediately felt defensive; probably still some lingering guilt from the morning's activities.
"Nothing." Charley said.
Angelika stood in front of the desk.
"No. You sounded so..." she wanted to say scared, but didn't know if that would help her come clean, "startled."
The receptionist shook her head. " I thought," she lowered her voice and looked around. "I thought I saw someone following you."
It was Angelika's turn to gasp. "Who did you see?"
From the expression on the receptionist's face, it was clear Angelika appeared a bit overeager.
"It's not like you have to make fun of me. I thought I saw someone out of the corner of my eye, is all. I'm sure this place is getting to me, finally. My mother always did say I'd start seeing ghosts if I kept working in a building with this many dead bodies in the basement." She looked up and seemed to realize who Angelika was. "I mean, no offense or anything."
"Why would I be offended? I'm not a dead body." Angelika grinned at her, risking a glance behind her to discover that all three of her ghosts were standing there, Elvis giving her a rather nasty look. She ignored him. "Seriously, I thought I had spotted someone lurking around earlier, too."
"Really?" Charley asked.
"It was a guy. He kind of looked like Val Kilmer," Charley said.
Val Kilmer? "Do you mean in that movie? The Doors?" Angelika asked.
"Yeah, that guy!"
"So Jim Morrison?" Angelika asked.
"I guess." Charley shrugged.
"But that's the only person you thought you saw?" Angelika pressed her advantage.
"Yeah." The receptionist looked around, as if she would spot someone else. "Why?"
"Oh, I thought I had seen more than one person. Three people, actually." Her heart picked up speed. "One of them looked like Janis Joplin."
"The singer? Wasn't she all fat and ugly?" Charley asked.
The pile of papers in the Charley's outbox caught a gust of wind and blew out of the basket and onto the floor.
"That's weird." The receptionist started to rise from her chair to retrieve them, but Angelika held up her hand.
"That's okay - I'll get them. But, no, Janis was more Rubenesque."
The receptionist snorted in what could only be described as a very unladylike manner. "I've never heard that word before, but unless it means fat and looking like a bulldog, then that's sure not right."
The papers jumped from Angelika's grasp. "Cut it out," Angelika muttered, hoping the receptionist was a bit hard of hearing.
The papers flew away again. Angelika straightened up. "I'm going home."
Angelika took them all home. It was a weird stand-off: Elvis couldn't get rid of either ghost without getting rid of both of them, and he didn't seem ready to abandon Janis, even if she was currently enthralled with Jim. Maybe it wasn't a stand-off. Maybe it was a soap opera. Or a reality show. With really unappealing actors.
Screw it, she decided. Bath time. Book time. She deserved a break.
She pointed at them as she walked past.
None of them responded.
She filled the tub and threw in some strawberry bubble bath. Heavenly. The latest book in her current favorite mystery series had come out, and she hadn't had the time to start it yet. This was her chance. She slunk down into the hot water and suds, wiped her hands on a hanging towel, grabbed her book off the sill, and settled in for some serious R&R, or as serious as she could get in forty-five minutes. The book had already been out for over a month, and she'd read the reviews, avoiding all the spoilers. This was going to be good. And highly deserved after the stress she'd been living through.
But the book didn't hold her interest. Instead, she was thinking about Bob. What was his last name? He'd never said. And she was pretty sure it wasn't Bob the plumber. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been on a date. Her job didn't give her much of a chance to meet and greet people, and the whole seeing ghosts thing made it awkward. And here she was with three ghosts trailing her, and she had agreed to a date? Was she an idiot?
It wasn't until something shattered and penetrated the haze of her introspection that she realized there had been low-level crash and smash noises going on for at least the last chapter. She considered staying in the bath. Whatever had been destroyed wasn't likely to be saved. But what else could they ruin?
Cursing the fact that she had to climb out of the still-hot bathwater, she dripped her way into the living room. Elvis and Jim were engaged in what would have been a mortal struggle, if either of them had still been alive. Elvis was on top of Jim, throttling Jim's neck. Janis was standing off to the side, and her involvement in the fight appeared to be the utter trashing of the apartment. The coffee table, the knick-knacks, even the vase that Angelika had kept with fake flowers - the only thing left from her brief flirtation with "interior decorating" - had been knocked over or thrown across the room to break. Why Janis had decided that the fight needed the physical aspect, Angelika didn't know.
"That's it!" Angelika's shout had the effect that her presence didn't. The three ghosts stopped what they were doing and looked at her. "I've had it. Go fight somewhere else. I can't help you. I can see you, but I'm sure I'm not the only one. Go find someone else. I'm done."
She turned to go back to the bathroom, but stopped. "And clean this place up before you go. I'm not your maid."
She heard whispers behind her and assumed they had stopped fighting. At the very least, she assumed Janis had stopped trashing the place. The poltergeist thing was not acceptable.
The book lay where she'd thrown it on the floor as she'd left the bathroom. She bent down to get it, and utter exhaustion set in. She wasn't mad at them. They were too much like unruly toddlers. She didn't expect them to behave. It was that she'd had this "gift" all her life. Even when she'd first been dealing with it, it had never been this insane. What was she supposed to do?
She dipped a toe in the tub. Chillier now, but the water was there, and it seemed like a waste to drain it already.
Then it hit her.
Her foot had made contact with the water, and for a second, she wondered if Janis had done something terrible and electrocuted her. It felt like a lightning strike.
It was that brilliant.
When Angelika got back to the living room, Elvis and Jim were sitting on opposite ends of the couch, and instead of glaring at each other, they glared at the floor. Janis leaned against the wall, and knick-knacks wafted through the air, finding their places back on end tables. Distracting, Angelika thought. But perfect.
"Okay," she began, but Elvis cut her off.
"Look, we're all real sorry -" Elvis began.
She cut Elvis off.
"Listen. We're all having growing pains. I've never dealt with this situation before, and none of you have, either. This is new. To all of us, right?"
She caught a subtle head nod from Janis, and slightly less subtle ones from Elvis and Jim.
"I had hoped that you," she nodded to Elvis, "would go away. And then I hoped all of you would go away. But that isn't going to happen. So I think we need to do something else. I think we need to put on a show."
"You know, like the Partridge Family or something. We can rent a hall and you guys can perform."
Was it stunned silence? Disgruntled silence? Were they convinced she was crazy, or were they considering it? No immediate rejection. A good sign?
Jim looked up first. He was smiling. Elvis was next. Not quite as much of a smile, but there was no scowl. That was promising. Janis was the last to look at Angelika. She nodded slowly.
It was a go.
But first, Angelika had a date to go on.
Angelika met Bob at Fulchi's, a small Italian restaurant that had opened to rave reviews a few months ago. She had never been there before, but it was nearby, and she liked Italian. And it was a new building, which hopefully meant that it would be ghost free for her date. Her date. She rolled the word around in her head during the drive, and even now, handing her car over to the valet, she struggled with the thought. She hadn't been on a date since college. This was going to be different than those dates, though. This one wasn't some drunk guy at a frat party who was only interested in getting laid. This would be some not-too-drunk guy who had a job who was interested in getting laid. Why was she there again?
Bob was already waiting when she got there. He had declined being seated and had been standing off to the side. He cleaned up nicely. Instead of the overalls and workshirt she had seen him in over at Elvis's, now he was in a pair of nice-fitting khakis and a polo. His hair was slightly too long, something she hadn't noticed before.
He held out a single rose to her. She felt her knees buckle. This made no sense. Why did this feel so good?
The maître d' seated them, and dinner went well. The fettuccini tasted yummy, and Bob was an interesting conversationalist. He talked about books and movies... and he asked her questions, too. Everything was going great, until dessert. She ordered her coffee; they ordered a cheesecake to split. And then he sprung it on her.
"I have a surprise for you," Bob said.
"Oh?" She had liked the rose, so she was hopeful.
"I got us tickets to the ghost tour!"
Angelika spit her coffee. She had heard the phrase before, but thought it was a joke. But, no, apparently, it could happen.
"Are you okay?"
Bob was immediately solicitous, offering his napkin, calling for the waiter for a new cup of coffee for her, doing anything he could. But she couldn't pay attention or think clearly; he wanted them to go on a ghost tour. That would be like bringing a raging alcoholic to a teenager's Craigslist party. She couldn't do it. Any hopes of having a "normal" dating life evaporated.
"I'm sorry. But I have to go."
And she left, ignoring his entreaties as she paid the tab (she wasn't going to stick him with it), picked up the car from the valet, and told Bob that she'd had a lovely evening, but it just wasn't meant to be for them.
Meanwhile, the show wasn't quite a go. It was more like getting a seven letter word in Scrabble and then not being able to put it on the board: a no-go. The plan was there. The plan was brilliant.
But Angelika hadn't realized how involved it was to put on a show. Or how expensive. She couldn't expect investors, so she had to pony up her own money for everything. Hall rental, advertising, a sound and light crew. Admittedly, there would be very little sound. Jim could sort of materialize but was silent. Elvis couldn't be seen or heard. The only noises Janis made involved destruction.
The saving grace Angelika kept in her mind as she ripped yet another check from her previously under-used checkbook was that she'd only been living slightly above "nun in a convent" standard, and so she had the money to fritter away. The worst thing that could happen now was that she'd have to keep working past the age of retirement.
Jim had been so pleased at the thought of appearing to a large group that Elvis had changed his original vote "for" to a vote "against." At least, that was until Janis held his hand and looked up at him with doe eyes. He'd relented back to his "for" vote then. But the fragile peace held only as long as Janis kept using her feminine wiles.
Angelika handed over the check to pay the deposit on the hall. The manager took it from her, held it up to the light as if he could spot if it was good or bad based on how much light shone through it, and then looked at her again, as if trying to tell if she was good or bad.
"So what kind of show is this gonna be again?"
Angelika imagined him with a cigar tucked between his teeth. It seemed wrong that there was no smoking in the theater - the manager was missing something to chomp on.
"It's an... artistic endeavor." Angelika couldn't classify it.
"Does that mean you're gonna get nekkid?" He leered at her. Angelika wasn't sure she'd ever truly been leered at before, at least at that level. This was a leer that put all others to shame.
"No, I won't be. The show does have two men and one woman, though. You may want to show up for it. Tickets will be $25." Okay, so she'd made up the ticket price off the top of her head, but it sounded reasonable.
"Two guys and they're being artistic?" The manager looked at her like she had sprouted a third head. He'd already been looking at her like she had two since she came in and said she wanted to book the hall for two weeks. "I ain't into the queers."
She nodded. "Not your kind of show then."
He held up the check again. His eyes lingered on the string of zeroes, and he put it back down on the desk.
"If the police bust it up, I ain't responsible, and I don't give refunds," he said in a tone that made it clear to her that he would be calling the police opening night.
The next month merged in Angelika's mind. Not that the days were similar. They were horribly, horrifically, unbelievably awfully different.
First, she got fired. Technically, a "temporary suspension." But she knew it would become permanent. And it was all the fault of her damn ghosts. Them and her marketing expert.
She didn't want the show to be a total flop. While she didn't have any false hope that the show would make her rich and famous, she had hoped to at least recoup half her money. Even a quarter would be fine with her. She didn't relish the thought of losing her shirt over a few ghosts who couldn't figure out how to move on. So she'd hired a marketing expert who was supposed to come up with some great ad campaigns and ways to get the show into the news and into the minds of the general public. Unfortunately, the marketing expert was excellent at her job.
When the show made the papers and the morning show on TV, Angelika got a call from work. She was summoned for a meeting with her boss. His secretary didn't specify the reason for the meeting, and when Angelika asked, the secretary ignored the question and repeated the date and time of the meeting request.
The meeting went well. At least for her boss. For Angelika, not so much.
"Ghosts?" He stared at her across the desk, and she couldn't tell if it was meant to be rhetorical.
"Yes?" she asked.
He leaned back and folded his hands in front of him on an obsolete blotter. "You think you see ghosts?"
"Yes?" she didn't like repeating herself but felt committed to the situation now.
"Do you know how bad this looks for us?" His stare hadn't wavered, but her resolve started to.
"Yes?" It didn't feel good to keep saying a positive word in a negative way.
"I don't think you do. All of your decisions are going to be called into question. People are going to demand exhumations. New autopsies. Anything that was in the least bit questionable is going to be re-questioned. There will be new trials."
"Yes, but -" she tried to interrupt.
"We've already started damage control, and all your files are being reviewed."
"Yes, and -" she tried again.
"You're suspended, pending a psychiatric review. Anne will help you set up the appointment. Assuming everything is acceptable, I expect we will see you back in a few months, unless you find something else you'd like to be doing." He looked down to his clasped hands. "I don't think any of us would blame you if you found a new position."
Angelika nodded, numb, and wondered why it surprised her, why she tried to fight. If she'd been one of the people imprisoned by something a crazy lady who believed in ghosts had written, she would've been on the phone with her lawyer, too.
She realized she'd been sitting, shuffling her feet. The meeting was obviously over.
"Thanks," she said, not knowing why she felt the urge to thank the person who'd killed her career. "I'll go see Anne now."
And then Bob called. Out of the blue. He wasn't sure what he'd done wrong, but he wanted another chance. He'd seen the flyers for the show, and he wanted to know if that had been the problem.
So Angelika came clean. She saw ghosts. She lived with them, in fact. And the sump pump he had fixed belonged to one of the ghosts.
Bob didn't hang up. He didn't laugh. He just said, in one of the sweetest voices she had ever heard, "Yeah, my grandma would see ghosts, too. Said that her house was haunted, but she liked the ghosts. They kept her company. She always said that one day she'd join them. I kinda like to think that she did."
Angelika said yes when he asked her out again. This time, not to a ghost tour.
When she got off the phone, Elvis was happy with her and with Bob. "A girl like you could do a lot worse than a guy who can fix a sump pump like that."
Elvis was the only one decent enough to feel guilty about her quasi-firing.
"That our fault?" he asked when Angelika came home and plopped on the sofa.
Her immediate response was to say yes, but it wasn't entirely their fault. She'd been the one to think of the show. She'd been the one to advertise it. She'd been the one stupid enough to not kick them out of her apartment and life.
Elvis look hurt, but Janis and Jim ignored the whole exchange. Angelika didn't think they felt bad about it.
"But, hey," Angelika said, "at least now I can focus on the show."
At the mention of the show, Jim and Janis both perked up.
"I've been practicing," Janis said, showing the most animation Angelika had seen from her yet. "Look."
Janis pointed to the sofa where Elvis sat, and it rose a foot in the air then settled back down. No crash. No destruction.
"Nice," Angelika said.
Janis's smile took up half her face. No simpering at a guy. She was happy with herself. Proud of herself. It was a completely different Janis. Angelika liked this Janis. Maybe the show was a good thing. And if it wasn't, maybe she was crazy. She could probably find a logical explanation for everything that had happened since Elvis followed her home. She thought about recent events. Okay, she couldn't quite explain away the rain of stones. But everything else.
She wouldn't be the first medical examiner to have a nervous breakdown. She could get locked up for a few months, take some kick-ass drugs, and go on disability.
But while it was a nice little fantasy, the thought of being under lock and key made her fear that she would go insane, which would ruin the entire purpose of the insanity escape. She didn't really want to be insane. And she thought that she might find that she missed Bob if she were drugged for too long.
So it must be time to put on the show.
Opening night sold out.
Bob was there with her. He still wasn't sold on the ghost thing, but he'd been willing to see this through with her. He even said he'd have an open mind about it.
"They're here to see us? Us?" Elvis hid behind the curtain, peering out into the audience that was, as of fifteen minutes before show time, still half-way empty.
Angelika wasn't sure why Elvis was hiding behind the curtain. It wasn't like the audience could see him, even if he stood out in front of the curtain and mooned them. But she didn't say anything. Why put a damper on what seemed to be the most exciting night of his life? His after-life? His non-life?
Janis stood behind him, not quite touching him, and practiced. She moved the curtain cord to the left, then to the right. No more than an inch or two. Angelika wasn't even sure she was seeing it. But the concentration on Janis's face made it clear that she was doing it, and she was nervous.
Jim seemed to be taking it the hardest. For someone who had done a nightly cover show as Jim Morrison, he seemed out of his element. He wasn't looking at the crowd. He wasn't looking at the other soon to be performers. He wasn't looking at anything, except maybe his feet. He stood there, off to the side, away from the other two ghosts, and rocked back and forth. Maybe this was normal for him. Perhaps he was centering himself before the show. Or he was having a total breakdown. She couldn't be sure, and she didn't want to ask. He might tell her.
Ten minutes to curtain. The ghosts were still there. Bob was still there, watching her watching the ghosts. She hadn't thought this would fulfill their destiny or whatever it was that would make them disappear out of her life forever, but what if it did? What if the curtain rose, and they rose with it? Dispersing to whatever afterlife they belonged to? Would she be happy about that? She reached out to Bob, took his hand. Held it. Squeezed it.
Five minutes to curtain.