2. Harry Hogan - Ghost in the Wood Shed
Thunder cracked loudly overhead and then faded to a low distant rumble. Lightning cut through the darkness, lighting up the whole countryside for a split second. Wind battered the thin wooden walls until the glass in the single four-paned window vibrated and rattled. He prayed fervently that the glass would hold for this was the first half decent shelter he'd found in days. It was also the worst rainstorm he'd witnessed in a long time. He cringed inside with every powerful gust of wind. All the while, rain pounded the earth relentlessly and hammered like drumbeats on the roof of his temporary abode. He was bone tired but did not want to sleep until the storm showed signs of abating. If the window blew in he would have to spend the night in the truck.
It was dawn when he opened his eyes and it was quiet. He had fallen asleep after all, probably from exhaustion, sitting on the floor with his back up against the wall. Slowly he got to his feet and stretched, moving his arms and legs to work out the stiffness. He hadn't even taken the time to unroll his sleeping bag and he realized now that he could not continue living like this. And there was no real reason why he should.
Now, in the growing light of day, he began to look around, taking stock of his situation. Overall the place looked to be maybe twelve feet wide and maybe eight on the ends. The roof slanted from front to back to avoid too much snow building up in the winter. The ill-fitting door was centre-front with a latch but no lock. The small two-pane window in the end towards the highway had survived the storm but didn't provide much light. Some small pieces of bark and wood chips on the floor indicated that it had probably been a wood shed at one time but there were no signs of recent use.
His thin lips curved slightly in what might pass for a smile as he considered the possibility of staying here for a few days. He walked outside and looked around. He could see water beyond the trees. It would be nice to stay in one place long enough to catch up on his journal and decide what his next move should be. But first he needed to stock up on some supplies and he hoped to find a service station nearby with a convenience store attached. A public shower facility would be nice too, but if he didn't find one he would make use of the water he had glimpsed through the trees.
"I know what I saw! There was a light in that old wood shed out on Thompson's farm."
"Come on, Andy. You know as well as I do that Thompson's farm has been abandoned for years."
"Dash it all, Hogan. You think I don't know that?" Andy Hatcher ran one beefy hand through his grey hair, leaving it sticking up in an untidy mop. "But I'm telling you, I saw a light there last night... and the night before. You know, they always said that farm was haunted."
"For Pete's sake, Andy. There's no such thing as ghosts."
"Well, something - or someone - has been out there. I know I saw that light," Andy said stubbornly.
Police detective Harry Hogan rubbed the back of his neck. Why did all the nut cases come out of the woodwork when it got close to Halloween? "Kids could be using it for underage drinking or drugs, I suppose. I'll take a run out there and check it out, just in case."
"Thanks." Andy turned towards the door of the police station and stopped. "Will you let me know if you find anything?"
"I said I'll check it out, Andy."
Hatcher was no sooner out the door when Harry's partner Bruce Parkins came in. "What's on Andy's mind today?"
"Thompson's old sheep farm," Hogan said and related what Hatcher had told him.
"I heard the stories about that place being haunted when I was growing up. They said it was old Thompson's grandfather... or perhaps it was his great-grandfather... I'm not sure which. Anyway, the story was that he stuck around to make sure nobody ever found the gold he had hidden. He was said to have been a tight-fisted old coot who kept an iron control over his money."
Harry groaned. "Not you too. What is it with this town and ghost stories?"
"Hey, I didn't say I believed it." Bruce raised his hands defensively. "Do you really think some kids could be using it?"
Hogan shrugged his broad shoulders. "Possible. You never know. Could also be a homeless person taking advantage of what shelter is available."
"I'm sure vagrants have used it from time to time," Bruce said. "No real harm in that I suppose."
"Not unless someone accidentally starts a fire out there that happens to get out of control." Harry stood up and shrugged into his jacket. "I'll go take a look around, just to ease my mind. A fire out there is the last thing we need. You coming?"
Bruce nodded as he zipped up his jacket. "Plenty of old, dry wood out there. The whole place would go up like a tinderbox. Add a little puff of wind in the right direction and it could be a disaster."
"That's what I thought," Harry tossed him the keys as they headed towards the patrol car. "You're driving."
Bruce slid behind the wheel. "Knee acting up again?" Harry grimaced as he took the passenger seat. "You know, knee replacements are common these days."
"It's just arthritis, Parkins. People have lived with it since the beginning of time. I'll handle it as long as I can. Besides, how else would I know when there's rain on the way? Now drive."
"Yes sir!" Bruce pinched his lips together tightly to hide a smile. He knew Hogan didn't want to admit that his knee was in bad shape.
"Stop here," Harry said when they reached the gateway of the farm. The gate had long since disappeared, probably used as fuel in some fire pit. "That looks like fresh tire tracks." They both got out of the car for a closer look.
"Truck, I'd say, or an SUV; probably a half-ton," Bruce said. "Doesn't look like car tires to me."
Harry stood in silence a moment. "No sane person would drive a car up this road, or what remains of it. It's nothing more than a dirt track."
"Should we make casts of the tire marks?"
Harry slowly shook his head. "Not yet! Let's go on up and check out the wood shed first. On foot," he added as Bruce turned towards the car.
"Oh! Of course. I'll just get the keys from the ignition." He leaned into the car, pretending to be retrieving the keys, mentally smacking himself in the head. The keys were in his pocket but he had forgotten about messing up the tracks by driving over them. "What exactly are we looking for up there?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, partner. Anything that indicates recent activity, I guess, whether it's kids drinking or doing drugs, maybe some homeless person taking shelter here, or even someone using it as a romantic hideaway... take your pick."
"Except a homeless person probably wouldn't have a vehicle."
When they had reached the little shed the door was closed so Harry knocked but there was no answer. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. "Not much light in here," he said as he reached for his flashlight and turned it on.
"You're right about that." Bruce turned his light on too. "Not much to see... hang on, take a look at this, over here in the far corner... the dust looks disturbed."
"You're right," Harry said as he joined him. "I see a couple of dark spots too, wet looking, like water dripped off something. Someone might have slept here and the water might have come from something they were carrying."
"No sign of anything else around, though. Maybe it was just a vagrant passing through or a homeless person."
"I'm not so sure," Harry said thoughtfully. "That vehicle ties in here somehow. A farm, abandoned for years, suddenly has an overnight tenant... I want to know who and why."
Bruce sighed. "Why do you always look for explanations for everything?"
"There's a story behind everything, Bruce. It might be perfectly innocent but I want to know what it is."
"Stakeout tonight then?" Bruce was already thinking about hot chocolate and raisin tea buns, his go-to snacks for a stakeout.
"If it's necessary."
"What do you mean?" Bruce looked at him as they closed the door behind them and headed back to their vehicle.
"I'll send one of the boys out here to cruise back and forth in an unmarked and report in if he spots a vehicle turning in here," Harry explained. "Whoever was here might still be in the area."
"What if it's not the same person?"
Harry looked at him. "Two different visitors in as many days stopping at an abandoned old sheep farm? What are the chances of that?"
"Pretty slim, I guess. Harry, you don't think... I mean, could it possibly be drug dealers?"
"Anything is possible and you can't be too careful." They got into the car and Harry called the station as Bruce was pulling out onto the highway. They hadn't driven far when they passed a very dusty black pickup going the other way. Minutes later Bruce stopped and pulled off onto the shoulder of the road.
"What's up?" Harry asked.
"That truck we just passed turned into Thompson's place. I saw it in the rear view mirror."
"Then what are you waiting for? Turn this thing around and let's get back there."
Bruce did as instructed and within minutes they stopped at the old farm entrance, pretty much in the same place as they had stopped the first time. They got out and headed up the old road once more, still not wanting to mess up the tire tracks.
Walking carefully and quietly, they approached the old wood shed where the truck was parked outside, a 4-door Ford F-150, complete with cap, which looked to be no more than a year old. The driver's door was open and a backpack lay on the passenger seat. "Keep your eyes open," Harry whispered. "The owner of that truck is no vagrant or homeless person. And he's not far away."
Bruce nodded as they walked up to the door.
"Can I help you?"
Harry and Bruce both whirled around. A thin man of average height, wearing faded jeans, blue plaid flannel shirt and a ball cap that said he was a Blue Jays fan, was coming towards them from the lake.
Harry showed his badge and ID. "Who are you?" Harry asked. "Have any I.D. on you?"
"Name's Bert Branson." The man unbuttoned a top pocket of his shirt and pulled out a wallet. He removed his driver's licence and handed it to Harry.
"I'm Hogan, he's Parkins. What are you doing here, Mr. Branson?" The licence looked legit and was not outdated. Harry passed it back.
"Hoping to catch a few days rest before moving on. The place is obviously abandoned so I didn't think it would do any harm, Detective."
"Not if that's all you're doing," Harry said. "Mind telling us a bit about yourself and how you came to be here?"
"Not at all." Branson gestured toward the backpack. "May I?" Harry nodded. Branson reached in and extracted a letter-size zippered leather folder which he opened and held out to Harry. "Take a look."
The man seems to have money, Harry thought as he took the folder. Bruce stepped up closer as he and Harry perused several news clippings in the folder. "This is you?"
Branson nodded his head. "Cut the hair and shave the beard and... yeah, that's me."
"I don't get it," Bruce said. "All this money and you're out here holed up in an old wood shed... what happened? Why not some top-notch hotel?"
"I think I can guess. You don't want to be recognized," Harry said. "Right?"
"I never wanted to be rich, never even bought lottery tickets. My wife died several years ago, my son and daughter are both in university and this seemed like a good way to escape all the notoriety so I pulled up stakes and hit the road."
"So you took a leave of absence or quit your job, probably bought this truck, and just took off." Bruce shook his head.
"Pretty much," Branson said. "Uncle John was my father's younger brother and I was called after him, Jonathan Bertram. He played the stock market, and was brilliant at it. He was very wealthy but he never married and had no children so apart from a number of bequests to charity; he left his entire estate to the one person who never expected it. Don't get me wrong, I was fond of him but never expected this. When the papers got hold of it, it wasn't long before the phone calls, letters and knocks on the door began, all looking for donations to one cause or another. They all needed money to keep their organizations afloat. Most of them were bogus. Then there were calls to appear on talk shows or those who wanted to write my 'rags-to-riches' story. It was a nightmare."
"I can see how it would be," Harry said. "It must be a big adjustment, kind of like your life is turned upside down overnight."
"But... all that money, and never having to work again... must be nice not to have to worry about keeping the bills paid." Bruce was a little astonished.
A hint of a smile touched Branson's lips. "I admit it can make life easier in some ways but there are plenty of drawbacks too. I gave up my apartment in the city, bought a new cell phone to which only the kids and my lawyer have the number, traded my sedan for this truck and left. I avoided contact with others as much as possible to avoid being recognized..." he stroked his beard "...but there's probably less chance of that now."
Harry laughed. "I think you're pretty safe on that score. How long have you been here?"
"Since the night before last. The storm was getting pretty bad when I spotted this old road. I turned off hoping I might find a place to park the truck for the night. That old shed was an unexpected bonus. I don't particularly like sleeping in the truck."
"How long do you plan to continue doing this?" Harry asked. "It must get tiresome."
"It does and that's one of the reasons I decided to spend a few days here," Branson said. "I've been on the road for just over six months now and I've seen some beautiful places, but lately I've had a longing to return to a more structured life."
"Would you go back to being an accountant?" Bruce asked.
Branson shook his head. "Uncle John had a beautiful country home with a lot of land. I think I'd live there and.." He grinned. "Since I've been on the road, I've been recording my thoughts on how my life has changed. I've been thinking I might put it all into a book if I can find a publisher who's interested. A few days here would give me a chance to catch up on my notes and finalize my plans before winter sets in. I really don't relish being on the road during winter."
"No, I doubt if the experience would be as good as what you've had already. Besides, if you go home you might even write that rags-to-riches story yourself," said Harry. "I doubt if you staying will bother anyone but please leave the place as you found it. Stop by the station and let us know when you leave."
"I'll do that," Branson agreed, nodding his head. "A few days are all I need, detective."
"Do you believe him?" Bruce asked later as they walked across the parking lot towards the station.
"You read the same stories I did... and yes, I do. In fact, I think he might even write that rags-to-riches story himself."
"I could only read the headlines," Bruce admitted, "but I could see the resemblance in the picture."
Harry stepped inside and turned as Bruce came behind him. "Go," he said, pointing a finger at his partner. "Make an appointment with the optometrist, first one you can get, and have your eyes checked."
Bruce hesitated. "I don't know if I'd look good in glasses."
Harry glared at him. "I hope to God you aren't serious. We're talking about your vision, you nitwit! And they do have contact lenses these days, you know."
"I'm kidding!" Bruce grinned and headed quickly towards his desk.
Harry shook his head and pointed his finger again. "Go. Now." Then he walked into his office and shut the door firmly behind him. He sat at the desk and prepared to write up his report, feeling the tension in the back of his neck again. The ghost in the wood shed had turned out to be very human. He wondered briefly if he should let Hatcher know. Then he grinned. Nah, he thought, I'll leave him wondering. No doubt he'll see the light again tonight and be back here tomorrow. I'll tell him then.
© Fay Herridge
Published in Story Quilt, Sep 2019
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