SHERIFF DAN RHODES DIDN’T BELIEVE THAT THE BLACKLIN County Jail was haunted. Neither did Lawton, the jailer.
But the dispatcher, Hack Jensen, said that it didn’t make any difference what they believed.
“Those fellas back there in the cells believe it,” he said. “And that’s all that matters.”
Lawton was leaning with one shoulder on the frame of the door that led to the lower cellblock. He had his hands clasped around the handle of the push broom that he held in front of him, right hand high, left hand low. He had a hard round stomach, and his olive-drab coveralls were a little strained across the middle.
It had been threatening rain all day. There was a flash of lightning outside, followed by a roll of thunder that rattled the windows.
“Good day for ghosts,” Lawton said. “I remember that we had some dealin’s with a haint not so long ago. In that college out there at Obert.”
Rhodes wondered just what Lawton meant by we, since the way he remembered it, he was the only one who’d really been involved in that little incident. But Rhodes knew better than to say anything. If he did, he’d just hurt Lawton’s feelings.
Hack, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care whose feelings he hurt.
“Wasn’t a ghost,” he said. “Just a dead man.”
Lawton shifted his weight on his short legs. “Dead man’s just about the next thing to a ghost, I guess. You could look it up on that computer of yours.”
Hack was the dispatcher, and he had argued for years that the jail needed a computer. Now that he had one, he was inordinately proud of the things it could do. Lawton, who wasn’t as enamored of technology as Hack was, liked to tease him about the new machine.
Hack grinned. “That’s right. I could look it up, all right. If I wanted to.”
“Right. It’s all part of the information in that GCIC thing.”
Hack stopped grinning. Rhodes knew why. Hack didn’t like for anyone to make slighting remarks about the computer. At the beginning of the Obert college case, Hack had explained to Lawton about the computer’s link to the National Crime Investigation Center, and Lawton had suggested that they tap into the Ghost Crime Investigation Center for some up-to-date information on what was going on in Obert. Hack hadn’t thought it was funny.
“There’s no such thing as the GCIC,” Hack said now. “And you know it. But I can by God find out about jailhouse ghosts on the Internet.”
The jail’s Internet connection was new. Hack had suggested it to Rhodes, who had seen the value of it and had signed the jail up with a provider.
“All right, let’s see what you can find,” Lawton said, pushing his broom over to Hack’s desk.
There was another rumble of thunder. The windows shook in their frames.
“Maybe I oughta unplug the computer,” Hack said. “Wouldn’t want to take a chance on it getting hit by lightning.”
“You got one of those lightning spike protectors, don’t you?” Lawton asked.
“Then what’re you afraid of?”
“Nothing,” Hack said. “Come on over here and have a look.”
Lawton walked over to the dispatcher’s desk. When the two of them were close together, they seemed to Rhodes to have a strong resemblance to the old comedy team of Abbott and Costello. Hack was tall, with slicked-back hair, a thin gray mustache, and a skeptical look, while Lawton had the smooth round face of an altar boy who was about to snatch the halo off a cherub.
“Just let me call up a search engine,” Hack said.
“Is that like a car engine?” Lawton asked.
Hack didn’t deign to answer. Rhodes got up from his desk and strolled over to the desk to watch Hack type “jail ghost” into the blank on the search engine’s home page.
“Now watch this,” Hack said, clicking on the go button.
He got only one response, a link to something called the Sydney Institute of Technology. Hack clicked on the link and a new screen appeared, revealing that the Sydney Institute was apparently holding classes in the old Darlinghurst Gaol, way Down Under.
“That supposed to be goal?” Lawton asked.
“It’s the way they spell jail in Australia sometimes,” Hack said. “See? It says it right there. J-a-i-1. They have to put that in for people who never took much English in school.”
Lawton looked skeptical. “If they wanted to spell jail, why didn’t they just do it in the first place? Doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“There’s a lot of things don’t make any sense to you,” Hack said. “See what it says there? You can take a class and find out about the convicts and gamblers.” He gave Lawton a significant look. “The gallows, too.”
“Maybe so,” Lawton said. “Don’t see anything about ghosts, though.”
Rhodes figured it was time for him to step in. If he didn’t, the two old men would argue all day.
“It mentioned ghosts on the other page,” he said. “The first one we looked at.”
Lawton shrugged. “Could be. Doesn’t say anything here, though, does it? Besides, who’d want to go to classes in a jail if they didn’t have to?”
“Maybe somebody that wanted to learn something,” Hack said. “Somebody that didn’t want to stay ignorant all his life.”
“Maybe we could offer some classes here,” Lawton said. “Tell ’em about that ghost we got.”
“Good idea,” Hack said. “We could build us a gallows and hang somebody as a demonstration.”
It was pretty clear who he had in mind. So Rhodes changed the subject.
“I haven’t seen any ghost,” he said.
“Me neither,” Lawton said. “I don’t believe in ’em, myself. It’s an ignorant superstition.”
“Doesn’t matter whether you believe in ’em or not,” Hack said, and Rhodes had a strong feeling that this was where he’d come in.
So before Hack could say anything about what “those fellas back in the cells” believed, Rhodes said, “Has anybody seen the ghost lately?”
Lawton straightened up. “Just Lank Rollins.”
Rollins, whose habit of passing hot checks made him a frequent resident of the jail cells, was the one who’d started the whole thing. He claimed to have been sleeping soundly in his bunk when he was awakened by a cold breeze across his face. When he looked up, he saw a dark shadow moving across his cell. He tried to call out, but his throat “closed up like somebody stuck a rag down it.” And when he tried to get out of the bunk, his blanket wrapped itself around him until he was “swaddled up like one of those Egyptian mummies.”
That was the way Lawton had found him in the morning, lying rigidly in his wrappings, flat on his back on the bunk, unable to move.
Rhodes figured that Rollins had simply had a restless night and tangled himself in his blanket, not that it made any difference in the long run.
“Once one of them fellas gets an idea in his head,” Hack said, “you can’t get it out. And then ever’body else catches it.”
Rhodes nodded. It was easy for rumors to get started in a jail, and the other five prisoners had picked up on the idea that a ghost was roaming around in their midst in about ten minutes after Rollins told Lawton the story. Before long, everyone was seeing or hearing the apparition.
One man swore he saw it in the showers. Another said that he heard it moaning in the corner of a vacant cell. And one said that it had walked right through the bars and stared at him.
Rhodes had asked what it looked like.
The man said, “A big black shadow,” which was the way that everyone described it.
Rhodes thought they were seriously lacking in imagination.
“One thing I got to give that ghost credit for,” Lawton said, leaning on the doorframe. “It’s got all those fellas readin’ their Bibles like crazy.”
“Even Tobin,” Hack said.
Andy Tobin, who had a drinking problem that landed him in jail fairly frequently, was the current jailhouse lawyer. Before the appearance of the ghost, he had been a consistent troublemaker, the kind of prisoner who spent most of his time filing grievances and going through law-books to prepare suits against the county, against the commissioners, against Rhodes, against Hack and Lawton, and, for all Rhodes knew, against the president and the Congress.
“Tobin’s the worst one of all,” Lawton said. “He hasn’t had his nose out of that Bible for the past five days.”
Rhodes went back to his desk. It was nice to know that the ghost was having a good effect on the prisoners’ spiritual lives, which could probably use some improvement. But he was afraid any improvement that resulted would be only temporary. Before long, they’d find something else to distract them, and the ghost would be forgotten.
“The latest is, they’re sayin’ it’s the ghost of old Ham Walker,” Lawton said.
“Ham Walker,” Hack said. “How in the world do they know about him?”
“Nearly everybody knows about him,” Rhodes said. “I heard about him when I was just a kid.”
It was a story that mothers in Blacklin County had for years told their children in an attempt to encourage better behavior. According to the most popular version of the tale, Walker had been found hanged in a cell only a few weeks after the jail opened more than seventy years before.
There was a persistent rumor that the hanging had not been a suicide. Walker supposedly had been assisted on his way to the afterlife by the sheriff and his deputies, all of whom had alibied each other. Rhodes didn’t believe that part of the story in the least, though the part about Walker having hanged himself was true enough. It was in the jail records.
“Maybe that explains why the prisoners are bein’ so well behaved,” Hack said. “They’re afraid you’ll slip back there some night and hang ever’ last one of ’em.”
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Lawton said. “I’m gettin’ tired of seein’ that Andy Tobin in here all the time.”
He was about to expand on that idea when the telephone rang.
Hack answered and then listened for a while to someone with an excited voice that Rhodes could hear all the way across the room, though he couldn’t make out the words. Hack wrote down all the information he was given and assured the caller that the sheriff was on the way.
“On the way to where?” Rhodes asked when Hack hung up.
“To the cemetery. That was Clyde Ballinger on the line. He says there’s a dead man in one of the graves out there.”
“Now, there’s a surprise,” Lawton said.