Almost a Ghost Story by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
We could still hear the thunder growling away in the distance. Rain was lashing the windows. Brenda snatched the paper out of her typewriter and slid it in front of me.
“Signature, please, Mrs. A!”
Without looking at it she folded it, slipped it into an envelope and said "Coffee time".
Which created a problem.
The cafeteria was in the next building. The path across the grass to reach it was muddy at the best of times; today it would be a swamp. Gloria, going on a date right after work, was wearing her best stiletto heel shoes. None of us wanted to get soaked or to wade through the bog.
We had an alternative – the tunnel that ran underground between the old asylum buildings. Reluctantly we discussed using it. Brenda, efficient as ever, reminded us that we had never used it before. Gloria asked why not.
She was new, and young enough to believe that looking smart on a date was of prime importance. While I pondered how much I should tell her Brenda came right to the point. “Because of the murder.”
“Brenda!” I didn’t want Gloria shocked on the first week of her first real job.
“I might as well tell her, or Florence will.”
On cue Florence came in wearing one of her tweed skirts and smiling gently at nothing in particular. “If we go through the tunnel” she said, “I can show where the murder happened.”
Gloria’s eyes were huge, but she managed to murmur “You’re joking, right?”
She was grasping at straws because it was quite clear Florence never joked. The scars on her once badly burned face allowed for a small smile but not wide-open laughter. Her carefully curled white hair, thick stockings and flat shoes spoke of someone who was too old to be regular asylum staff but who was allowed to use a small office where she did odds and ends of extra typing despite the stiffness of her badly scarred hands.
Brenda kept an eye on her, complimented her taste in 1940’s tweed skirts and came up with extra typing whenever Florence was bored enough to start arguing with herself.
“Murder. It’s a lot of nonsense.” Brenda scoffed. “I’m not going outside in this weather. I’ll take the tunnel.”
Nonsense or not, she had worked here at the asylum for five years and she had never taken the tunnel before. Not that she believed the story, she said she just preferred the fresh air.
But today she ignored her raincoat and umbrella and set off down the long hallway to the stairs, gently chivvying Florence along with her. I grabbed my heavy ring of keys and followed. Gloria in her high heels was careful not to get left behind.
I unlocked the heavy door to the stairs and was careful to lock it behind me. We clattered down the stone steps, holding the handrail in the dim lighting. Why waste money on electricity when virtually no-one came this way. At the bottom was another heavy door for me to unlock and lock.
“Are we locked in now?” Gloria asked.
“Perfectly safe!” I said cheerily. At least, I hoped it was cheerily.
I led the way, detecting a faint aroma in the concrete tunnel – mold perhaps. My mind refused to consider other options. The low ceiling made it claustrophobic, and the few, bare light bulb accentuated that. Cold and damp made me shiver and walk faster. A long, tired groan stopped me in my tracks.
“It’s just the water in the pipes.” Brenda said.
In the semi-darkness I hadn’t noticed pipes and cables running along the top of the tunnel up to our right. I tried to lead the group speedily along with some semblance of authority, but Florence was walking more slowly. Brenda linked her arm “Come along, love, it’s just an old tunnel.”
Whoever had designed the tunnel was not a fan of the straight line. It made frequent sharp turns. At one of them Florence stopped.
“It was right in that corner there.” She pointed.
“What?” Gloria gasped.
We all looked at the corner. Marks of burning were plain to see in the cement floor.
Gloria looked ready to flee despite her unsuitable footwear. It would have done her no good. I had the keys.
“That’s where he burned her body.” Florence’s voice was flat, expressionless.
I wasn’t sure that she was one hundred percent reliable, but I didn’t want to question her. Brenda, who has lived in this city much longer than I have, came to the rescue.
“It was in the newspaper oh, about ten years ago. One of the male patients brought a female patient down here and when she wouldn’t go along with his…ideas… he grabbed her by the throat. I think she was dead pretty quick – they said he was a big strong guy. He got scared and tried to set fire to her body with his cigarette. He succeeded too, her clothes caught fire and they must have blazed right up. It was still smouldering when staff came searching for the missing girl. She was dead. Nothing they could do.”
“What happened to the guy.”
“Locked ward I suppose, one of those high up in the old building.” Brenda looked bored with the subject, trying to urge Florence away from the blackened cement.
I looked at the charred cement scarring the floor. It didn’t seem like much of a memorial to some poor girl. Gloria gazed at it as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. Her chin trembled.
I heard the deep groan again. Quickly Brenda repeated “Just water in the pipes.”
But Florence tilted her head slightly. “They say she groans whenever she remembers what Robert did to her.”
“Mmm. He was so good looking – we all thought he looked like a film star, old style like Cary Grant. He never looked at me. I wasn’t pretty, even back then.”
“You knew him?” Florence wasn’t always in the same world we were, so I wanted to be sure this had some truth behind it.
“Oh, yes. I was afraid of him because of his bad temper, but like I say, he never spared me a look. The other girls, the prettier ones, would do whatever he asked, just to keep his attention. I wondered whether I’d do that too, if he’d asked me.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” Brenda said firmly, trying to move along in the direction of the cafeteria.
Florence got down on her knees and with difficulty rubbed her finger around the blackened cement. “Poor Janie. She was the prettiest of all of us. We all knew Robert had a key and he’d bring his pet girl of the moment down here for kissing and that, but I never thought Janie would come down here.”
“Kissing? Gloria asked.
“That’s what he said, yes.”
I heard another groan.
“Water, just water.” Brenda said.
Florence gently stroked the cement. “Ssh Janie, it’s all over, lovey. You can rest in peace now. Robert got his punishment; I saw to that.”
“Let’s go now, or all the best cookies will be gone.” Brenda tried to pull Florence to her feet.
“You saw to what?” I didn’t like the sudden pang of fear in my gut.
“He burned her, so I burned him. I stole keys and a cigarette lighter and slipped into his ward and his room. By then he hadn’t had a chance to be with a girl in weeks, so he was glad to see any girl, even me. He pulled me down on his bed. He was so busy with his hands in my clothes that he didn’t notice at first, then it was too late. I’d pulled all the bedclothes loose and wrapped him in them tight like a mummy. Then I lit the sheets and pushed a pillow over his face. He tried to get loose, and he was big and strong. It took me every ounce of strength to hold him in the flames even after nurses came and tried to pull me off. I hung on and hung on – they couldn’t pry me off.”
“You killed him?” I tried to sound only mildly interested.
“I had to, didn’t I? I wanted vengeance for Janie. I loved Janie, she was more than my friend and he took her away from me.”
Brenda helped Florence to her feet. “You did the best you could, you did it for your friend. I understand. Mrs. A and Gloria understand too, don’t you?”
We both nodded, although for me it wasn’t understanding. I was too shocked to disagree.
“I paid the price, though, didn’t I?” Florence looked up at me, hope in eyes that peered from the burn-scarred face.
I remembered burning my hand in a campfire near Whistler when I was ten. I think I screamed for an hour with the pain.
“Oh, yes. You have paid the price.”
Brenda put her arm around Florence’s shoulders. “Come along. It’s over and done with and I’m going to buy you a big, creamy coffee.”
Florence held my gaze. Although she had no lips her mouth moved soundlessly. “It’s never over and done with.”