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Saturday, 2 August 2014

Saturday Story - 'There'll Always be Ghosts'

                                               
THERE’LL ALWAYS BE GHOSTS

Nik Morton


I'm going to miss old Thomas Howard. He was one of the oldest ghosts in this area, and though he talked a mite strange, he was personable enough, even with his head under his arm. And smart. He looked the part, with his doublet and hose, his Elizabethan ruff and jewelled rings. In pinstripes and white shirt, I must appear very nondescript for a ghost. My whole life I've been plain Charles Inchcape, a not particularly edifying fellow. Yet somehow we took to each other straight off. Perhaps because we both haunted banks in our spare time, of which we accrued plenty. His was, inevitably, the Queen's bank, Coutts; mine's the Allied & Northern (they insist on the ampersand, thinking it’s trendy).

            It took a little adjustment. One minute I was hurrying round to see Jimmy, the next I was hit by a car which didn't stop.

I died on the way to hospital.

But, as Thomas said, at least I kept my head.

 
Mr. Digby Wessex had been the branch manager at Allied & Northern for about six years by the time I joined as assistant manager. He had an abrupt manner, was going to fat and looking for a coronary to happen. We never got on from the start. He was sanctimonious and a hypocrite: do as I say, not as I do. He deplored unpunctuality in his staff and upbraided anyone unfortunate enough to arrive late due to inclement weather or unreliable public transport: he seemed to take great pleasure in embarrassing his staff, particularly in front of customers. If any mistake occurred, it became public knowledge.

            Jane Mumford was a charming blonde young teller, always there with a cheerful word for the customers. I was in love with her, but being a balding old coot of fifty-two, I would just have to dream. Yet she was pleasant to me, with a lovely genuine smile and bright blue eyes. She was also the epitome of banking efficiency. Her book-work was immaculate and precise.

            When customers started complaining about phantom withdrawals, Jane agreed to look into the matter. It wasn't simply a case of withdrawals from the ATM, where the bank could reasonably argue that the customer was mistaken. No, these debits were made by cheque and though many accounts were affected, the cheque-numbers were all the same sequence. It was as though a cheque-book had been printed with a different account number for each cheque! A good scam for a printer, if he could manage it, I suppose ...

            Jane and I stayed late a number of nights, working on this problem. Mr. Wessex vetoed any overtime and dismissed the customers' claims as nonsense.

            Then one afternoon while Mr. Wessex “popped out for lunch” - a three-hour session, usually - I searched through his in-tray for a missing file. He constantly denied having any files that went astray; they all turned up, eventually, often mysteriously, and I continued to harbour the feeling that he had them.

            On this occasion the file was there all right, tucked inside a wallet folder. At the same moment I noticed his PC terminal was still switched on and he was logged into a session. The screen was in INQUIRY mode, so there was no risk of updating the computer records. However, I was surprised to note extra User Help icons along the top of the screen. Not unusual, though their names seemed odd: UPDQ and UPDS. The screen was on a customer's bank record, and I did a double-take as I recognised the cheque-number of the latest entry - it was in the same sequence as all those phantom withdrawals!

            Curious now, heart hammering, I rummaged in Mr. Wessex's drawers and in-tray, but could find nothing of any relevance. I logged out and switched off the Personal Computer and tidied up.

            Before leaving Mr. Wessex's office I telephoned a friend in the Fraud Squad. Jimmy was most helpful: some PC programs could update the database and there would be no audit-trail of the action other than the revised record ... I asked if I could call on him next evening.

 
The following day I advised Jane I was onto something but would rather wait till after my meeting with Jimmy. For the time being I suggested she suspend any further investigations. Afterwhich she could do a search for the amounts deposited in customers accounts that tallied with the phantom amounts: I did not believe Mr. Wessex would use his real name or his own account.

            On my way round to see Jimmy, the car hit me but didn't stop.

Old Thomas sympathised, as his death had been swift while mine had been quite protracted and agonizing.

Thomas showed me what happened. Ghosts have this knack of pulling back the veil of the past. It makes timeless wandering bearable, if you have any interest in history.

“’Tis a strange gap in time, it seems, this haunting business,” observed Thomas feelingly.

            When Mr. Wessex came back into the office, he looked worried: he'd noticed the tidy desk, the PC switched off and obviously recalled leaving with it switched on. He picked up his phone and jabbed the Last Recall button and of course Jimmy answered.

            Wessex apologised, said it was a wrong number ... Then he swore and his face seemed to go pale and cold, the eyes dark and fathomless. Even watching as a ghost, I was startled by the sheer evil in his face. As my Gran used to say, “It's not the dead you need to worry about.”

Thomas remarked sadly, "The dark augury of your death was etched in those features.”

 
“But he'll get away with it, unless Jane ...” I stopped, fear for her safety suddenly making me uneasy. I had no heart, no physical presence, so I could no longer experience distress through the emotions, yet strangely I sensed a phase-shift in my astral being, a disconcerting disquiet when I realized the danger Jane may be in.

            “Precisely,” said Thomas with his usual percipience. “Welcome to the hell of our limbo, where you can observe those you hold dear without being able to offer any solace or guidance, where you must suffer all the torments of the shell you have departed though multiplied a thousand-fold.”

            “You sound very bitter,” I said.

            “I have reason to be, for I was the subject of a trumped-up charge of treason. Simply because I would not bend to the Queen's command.”

            With a single blow of the axe he was beheaded in 1572 near the Tower of London, where he had been imprisoned: he was accused of plotting to wed Mary Queen of Scots and then seize the crown from Elizabeth I.

“Yes,” he said again, “I hold much bitterness.”

 
I’d awoken in my ghostly form about a week after my death. Lying on a park-bench opposite the Allied & Northern bank, I accepted this strange unreality with surprisingly little concern.

            To my chagrin the funeral was over, so I didn't even have the solace of hearing any eulogy: strange, they only tend to write or say good things about you when you're dead - unless you happen to be in show-business... “You may wish to journey back to the funeral later,” suggested a voice, “to hear what was said about you.”

            Despite being a ghost, I found I was capable of being startled.

            Strolling across - no, floating above - the grass was a headless Elizabethan: he introduced himself, “Thomas Howard, the fourth Duke of Norfolk, at your service, sir.” He bowed, which amused me, as his head stayed in the crook of his arm.

            It was comforting to know I could still be amused and it seemed that I was not destined to be alone in this limbo. “The regrets and anger will visit upon you in a while, my friend,” Thomas told me.

            We soon became firm friends. I enjoyed his dry sense of humor: “All the best banks have a ghost, though it can become quite tedious in this credulous age.”

 
We watched as Jane stayed behind one evening and ran a small inquiry program knocked together by a computer whiz, a nice young man.

            “If she finds out about Wessex and he gets to know, he's not going to hesitate... Another hit-and-run...” I tried concentrating, passing mental messages, STOP IT, DON'T GO ON, JANE, STOP!

She would pause, as if listening to something imperceptible in the air, then shake her head and continue with her investigations.

            “This new world of banking offers me new interests, young Charles,” said Thomas. “Despite having no palpable form, I find I can affect the conduits which emanate from these machines and thus disturb their esoteric messages.”

            “A gremlin, you mean? You're a gremlin in the system?”

            Thomas shrugged his headless shoulder. “If you say so. It has proved fun in the past, to discern the bafflement of the machine users when my intervention has taken effect!” The wily old buzzard, I thought.

            “I've been called worse,” he sallied back.

 
After much effort we could actually substitute separate characters displayed on the terminal’s screen. “Now we can send her a message, warn her!”

            “No,” said Thomas. “I have a better idea.”

            So we set to with a will and after two days of extreme astral exertion we’d accomplished everything that was necessary.

 
The Allied & Northern Head Office received a message on their electronic mail system, on every terminal, which read:

            MR. D WESSEX THE BRANCH MANAGER OF A&N ALVERTOWN HAS BEEN SYPHONING OFF PHANTOM WITHDRAWALS FROM HIS CUSTOMERS. SUGGEST YOU INVESTIGATE. JANE MUMFORD.

There followed full details of the withdrawals and the bogus account they were syphoned into. Jane was puzzled as she noted these same details in her own computer investigations.

            A secret Head Office entrapment program was installed in Mr. Wessex's branch which succeeded in logging his next illegal withdrawal. It also traced the transaction to Wessex's bogus account. He tried to protest his innocence, blaming Jane, but Jane's meticulous records exonerated her.

 
A couple of days later Thomas was exorcised by his illustrious descendants. As he faded from sight, he gently placed his head on his shoulders and smiled. “At last, with my family's help, I can now let this bitterness go.”

            Fortunately, I have met other ghosts since Thomas left. I still miss him, but this non-life is interesting. I attended Jane's wedding the other day. She married that computer whiz-kid and they honeymooned on the bonus she was awarded for bringing Wessex to justice.

            Unlike Thomas, I’m not bitter. Perhaps that will come as time goes by; he tarried a while, some four hundred years. I wonder what life will be like in the next hundred years or so? Perhaps theft will be obsolete, unlike ghosts. There'll always be ghosts.

***
Previously published in Portsmouth Post as ‘Phantom Withdrawals’, 2004.

Copyright Nik Morton 2014

***

If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

 
 
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.





 

2 comments:

Thomas McNulty said...

Nik, I liked this story a great deal. At some point I will check out your collection. Kudos, Tom

Nik said...

Many thanks for the feedback, Tom!