The Ghost in the Machine
This work of short fiction includes a secretary in one of Tecumseh’s law firms receives computer messages from the ghost in the machine. #short fiction #Tecuseh #Indiana #ghost #computer
When I was hired for the secretarial position at Horowitz, Petlowski, & Bloomberg Attorneys at Law, I thought it was a blessing. I discovered I stumbled onto a curse instead. I moved to Tecumseh, Indiana, to get away from my ex-boyfriend, who didn’t understand the terms of a restraining order.
The morning I woke up to find all four of my tires slashed and a note propped under my windshield wiper blades I knew I had to leave town before Billy Bob made my life miserable. I showed up in Tecumseh in the middle of the night with two hundred dollars tucked into the bottom of my purse.
I slept on a friend’s couch for a month before I found this job. It might have been a good idea if I’d taken my chances with Billy Bob and stayed in Illinois. I’ve met a couple of sketchy characters since I arrived in this small city. My odds of getting out of Tecumseh alive are slim to none.
Why I came to Tecumseh
The drama started to unfold a week after I was hired. The attorney I worked for was an attractive older gentleman with roaming hands and eyes. It was obvious Ezra Bloomberg wanted me to do more than type and file. There was the way his eyes lingered on my breast and the occasional out of place touch, which indicated I was going to have a problem to deal with soon.
It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. I was an expert at putting guys like Ezra in their place. The shady characters who showed up at the office was a bigger concern. I found this clientele out of place in the plush surroundings of the office waiting room. My boss wasn’t a criminal law attorney.
I got the job
His specialty leaned more in the direction of settling messy divorces, real estate law, and personal injury claims. There was one man who showed up at least once a week. Lester Burke brought the odor of cigarette smoke and stale whiskey with him into the office. The entire time he occupied the waiting room,
Lester would watch me with his evil, yellow cat-like eyes until I was so uncomfortable my hands would shake. I knew a bad guy when I saw one, and Burke was the king wicked. He exuded wickedness from every pore of his body. I could have tolerated Ezra’s roving hands and the sketchy clientele if it hadn’t been for the ghost in the machine.
The Lucy Smith file
The Lucy Smith file popped onto my computer screen in bold seventy-two-inch letters when I logged in on Monday morning. I dismissed the appearance of the WORD document as some sort of weird computer fluke. I knew Lucy was the name of the woman who used to sit at the desk I now occupied. There were whispered conversations at the coffee shop across the street from the courthouse.
People didn’t recognize me as Ezra’s new secretary, so they talked freely over their coffee and lunch sandwiches. I listened to the gossip because I thought it might be helpful if I could get a handle on why my predecessor left the firm in such a hurry. A well-dressed lady carrying a designer bag suggested she disappeared from town to be with a man she met on the cruise to the Bahamas she took last winter.
Rumors about the ghost in the machine
The woman seemed to be an authority on Lucy Smith. She claimed Ezra’s former secretary departed without giving notice because of love. A man dressed in a bailiff uniform disagreed. He claimed Lucy went home to Kentucky to help her sick mother. With all the speculation floating around concerning Lucy’s vanishing,
I was shocked to read the word terminated on the last line of the personnel form I pulled out of the official records. I knew I should have left the mystery about Lucy alone when I saw the important looking file glowing white on my computer screen. My curiosity got the better of me. They say it was the thing that killed the cat. I said a silent prayer under my breath nosiness wouldn’t lead me to a similar demise.
I dismissed the appearance of the WORD document as an onetime computer glitch until Lucy Smith started visiting me every morning as soon as I logged onto my computer. My skills include typing, filing, answering the phone, and looking good while I’m doing it, but I’m no IT expert. Therefore, I was about to suggest the machine needed a visit to the computer store for service when mysterious emails started popping up in my inbox.
Messages from the ghost in the machine
They were all from Lucy. The first one simply read, “Hi!” I thought it was a joke. The address line read Lucy Smith at a Gmail account. Anyone can sit up a thing like that without giving their real name. I decided to go along with the game., so I typed, “Hello,” in response. I waited, but nothing happened. Ezra said good morning when he walked into the reception area where I have my desk, and the office was soon bustling with activity. The mysterious email was pushed to the back of my mind, but Lucy Smith’s personnel file started popping up on my computer screen at awkward moments throughout my day.
The second email came a few days later. The message, “Hi, my name is Lucy,” waited for me in my inbox when I logged in on Wednesday morning. I decided to play along. “Nice to meet you, Lucy. My name is Megan. I’m your replacement.” I waited, but I never received a response. Calling her bluff must have put an end to whatever game the mysterious Lucy was playing. I went on about my business.
The ghost in the machine warns me
I was certain the introduction was the last message I’d ever receive from her. I was wrong. A week later, a dire warning was waiting for me when I checked my email. In twenty-inch bold letters, the words “BE CAREFUL” were scrolled across my computer screen. Someone was taking this joke too far. I was about to tell Ezra about the email messages when intuition stopped me.
A subtle voice in the back of my head whispered I should pay attention to Lucy’s warnings. I decided to be careful about who I trusted. Ezra Bloomberg wasn’t at the top of the list. He might be a tall attractive man with a head full of silver hair, but there was an enigma buried deep beneath his sexy brown eyes. I shuttered at the thought of what those secrets might be.
Ezra is a snake, but Lester is a dragon
There wasn’t another email from Lucy Smith in my inbox for two weeks. I was certain whoever was pulling the prank stopped until I came into work on Monday morning. Every nerve ending in my body screamed at me to click delete. A new dangerous element to this game I was playing with the mysterious Lucy Smith was taking shape. My curiosity needed to be placed on the back burner before I ended up unemployed. I opened the email and read, “EZRA IS A SNAKE, BUT LESTER IS A DRAGON.”
The words were scrolled across my screen in bold capital letters. I couldn’t suppress a chuckle. I’d only been on the job for a couple of months, but it was long enough to understand Lucy was correct in her assessment of the two men. The new warning was an indication I should start looking for another job, except there was a big problem.
Tecumseh was a small city. There weren’t many career avenues open to a girl with limited secretarial skills, trying to make a living without the benefit of a college degree. I moved into a nice apartment over the weekend. The place was empty except for a bed a friend loaned to me, but it felt like home. An income was a necessity if I was going to continue to pay rent. I decided to hang around for a while. Ezra might be a snake, but he was a reptile who paid well.
I hid the message from the ghost in the machine
I clicked off the computer screen when I saw Ezra move through the front door of the office. Lucy’s message would get me in trouble with the boss if he got a look at what she wrote. I made up my mind I wouldn’t open any more of her emails because I needed the phony-baloney job more than the amusement I was getting from playing the silly game with the mysterious Lucy Smith. Yet, I worried about the way her personnel file with the words terminated at the bottom of the page popped up on my screen throughout the day. There was nothing I could do to stop it except close out the page.
Lucy was silent for weeks. Not a single email showed up in my inbox. I imagined whoever was messing with me got tired of the game and moved on to greener pastures.
So, I settled into a work pattern that left me little time to worry about the Lucy Smith personnel file or her weird emails. That’s why I was surprised when “Why are you ignoring my warnings,” came in as the subject line of the next email Lucy sent. Something ind=side of me couldn’t resist, so I opened the email and typed, “Because you’re not real.” My computer made the cute little sound it did every time I received a reply to a previous message. “I WAS REAL, BUT NOW I MIGHT BE DEAD.”
I should have listened to the ghost in the machine
My hand trembled as I moved the mouse cursor to select all and clicked delete. I glanced around the office to see if anyone was watching. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to my computer screen. It occurred to me I wasn’t in the middle of a harmless game of wits with a practical joker anymore.
I was communing with Lucy Smith’s ghost. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those silly women who believes every bump in the night is some dead relative trying to communicate with them, but these messages from Lucy were giving me the creeps. It was a bloodcurdling thought. I tried to force the idea out of my mind, but I overheard a conversation later that afternoon I couldn’t ignore. Lester Burke was in Ezra’s office when I came back from lunch. The door was open. The two men didn’t notice I’d returned to the office and taken a seat at my desk.
The ghost in the machine told me the truth
“I cleaned out her apartment and got rid of her personal belongings. Also, I told the landlord I was an uncle from Kentuck, and I paid off the rest of her lease. He was happy to get the money.” I heard Lester say. I knew he was talking about Lucy even without him mentioning her name.
“The gossip seems to be dying down. It’s too bad the girl threatened to go to the authorities when she found out about our side business. She was a good secretary. They are hard to find,” Ezra said.
“How’s this one working out?” Lester said with a harsh tone in his voice.
I tried to play it cool
I didn’t hang around to hear the answer to that question. An urge to run came over me. I fought it off as I backed out of the office. Ten minutes later, I reentered the room, making enough noise, so the two men in Ezra’s office knew I was there. I shouted that I was sorry for being late coming back from lunch so that I could get their attention. Their conversation stopped.
Lester stood to his feet, stomped toward the door, and slammed it hard enough to make the windows in the building rattle. Muffled voices echoed inside Ezra’s office until the door opened, and Lester moved into the reception area. He shot an angry glance in my direction before he trudged through the door leading to the outside world. I knew I couldn’t continue working for Ezra. There was something evil going on in his law practice, and I didn’t want any part of it. He paid well, but I figured I was as expendable as the former Lucy Smith.
I try to find evidence to prove the existence of the ghost in the machine
The first thing I did was log onto my computer and performed a search for Lucy’s emails. My idea was to print off copies of Lucy’s correspondence to deliver to the cop shop when I asked for their help. I would delete every single one of the mysterious messages before I wrote my resignation.
I didn’t want to give Ezra a reason to send Lester to track me down. They weren’t there. It was like they never existed. I attempted to pull up the Lucy Smith personnel file. There was no trace of her ever being employed at the Horowitz, Petlowski, and Bloomberg law firm. There wasn’t a single shred of evidence I could take to the police to prove she ever existed. I needed protection against one of the most influential members of their community. The cops would never listen to me if all I had to offer were a hunch and thin air.
I tried to get out of town
There was only one option left open for me. I had to get out of Tecumseh, and I had to leave before Ezra and Lester found out I knew something about Lucy Smith’s disappearance.
There were only a few personal items on my desk. I hadn’t worked at the firm long enough to make this office my home away from home. I put the picture of my mom and dad and the silver pen they gave me for Christmas into my purse. The best thing for me to do would be to finish out the day.
The ghost in the machine tells me to run
My computer screen fell asleep while I was thinking about what my next move should be. I logged in and started work on my letter of resignation. Before I reached the middle of creating a good excuse for my sudden departure of working in the law firm a beep sounded, letting me know I had mail. So, I clicked on the icon to discover a message from Lucy. “RUN. THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU,” screamed at me from the computer screen.
I didn’t waste any time. I headed out the door with my purse slung over my shoulder as soon as I logged off my computer. There wasn’t any reason for me to leave a hint of Lucy’s message behind. As soon as I entered the parking garage, I saw Lester’s long, lean body resting against the side of my car.
My first instinct was to turn around and run. A voice whispered inside my head. It warned me he’d catch me if I tried to getaway. The only other option was to play it cool. I strolled to my car, inserted the key in the driver’s side door, and said, “Can I help you with something.”
Lester gives me a warning
“We’re going to take a little drive. There are some important matters we need to talk about.” Lester wasn’t asking. He was telling me I had no choice in the matter.
“I don’t want to go anywhere with you,” I said, trying to sound tough, but my trembling hands gave me away.
“It will be bad for your health if we don’t have a serious conversation about your future employment with the firm. The boss thinks it’s time we set down some ground rules,” Lester said before a cruel smile spread across his face.
I’m afraid I’ll become the next ghost in the machine
My chance for escape had come and gone. I opened the driver’s side door, lowered myself onto the seat, and reached for the lock that would give Lester access to my vehicle. I won’t waste your time going into detail, but the jest of what he said was simple. Ezra Bloomberg needed a secretary. I would do as good as any. I’d stay alive if I kept my nose out of their business.
He warned me if I tried to leave town, he had ways of finding stupid young women who thought they could play hide and seek with a man like him. If I didn’t go back to work and keep my mouth shut about my suspicions regarding Lucy, I’d end up spending eternity with her in a shallow grave.
The warning I leave for the next person to sit at my desk
I’m writing this message down on pen and paper, so there will be a copy for someone to find if I happen to disappear. I’m taping it under the drawer for you to discover when you start to work for Horowitz, Petlowski, & Bloomberg. I decided after my little talk with Lester, “to go along to get along,” as he phrased it.
I’m not going to candy coat what I’m trying to say in this letter. If you find this envelope, you will know I’ve been murdered. My advice to you is to run as fast as your feet will carry you. Don’t stick around and end up like Lucy and me. Get out of town unless you want to become another ghost in the machine.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.
Be sure to follow Molly on Twitter!