by George Wilhite
Enjoy another scary mystery short story for this Halloween season–this one never before published. You can find the rest of the stories, and more from last year, in our Terrific Tales section.
It was a cold day in August, the 31st I think, when I first stumbled upon the tragic story of Harley Wiggins. Working overtime that night, I was searching in the warehouse for file folders, a sheet of bubble wrap held around my shoulders like a shawl to keep out the chill from the early cold front that had blown in just before noon. It had blown in so suddenly that everyone had been caught in shirtsleeves and jacketless. Of course, that had to be the day I decided to work late on a booklet I was editing and I ran out of file folders, only to find the box in the supply cabinet empty, too.
I was moving some cardboard boxes around when I stumbled over Blatwurst Hildebrand, the warehouse manager. Blatty, as he was known to all of us, was sprawled on a pile of biodegradable foam peanuts, drunker than Cooter Brown. (Cooter, long one of the mainstays in marketing, had always been known to bend his elbow just a bit too much. Unfortunately, on one of his drunken binges at a New York trade show, he’d bent it around the waist of the wife of a Mafia don visiting from Chicago. Cooter had died as he’d lived, drunk to the gills, and now lay somewhere in the New York Harbor, gill to gill with the misshapen fish that inhabit those polluted, waste-ridden waters.)
What made matters worse was Blatty’s recent ascension in Baptist laydom. He had just become the lay minister of the Spring Branch Semi-Denominational Baptist Church, 7.8 miles off Hwy 6, halfway between Waco and Marlin and boasting a congregation of 11. Blatty, his wife, and his children made up eight of the congregation, but it was still a huge step in Blatty’s spiritual life to be named lay minister by a vote of 7-3. He had abstained casting a vote for himself on religious grounds.
Having once attended an Easter service at Blatty’s church and eaten the mandatory fried-chicken dinner at his home following, I felt it my civic, religious, moral and business duty to help Blatty up. Of course, he was lying directly on top of the box of file folders I was looking for.
He seemed to be in shock, so I wrapped my bubble wrap around his shoulders and stuffed a few biodegradable foam peanuts in his pants for warmth. I hiked his arm over mine and, together, we stumbled the 100 or so steps back to my office.
Once we arrived in the warmth again, Blatty began to thaw out, sober up, and talk. I tried to keep him quiet, but he was delirious and jumped around, shouting at the top of his lungs.
“He’s come back! He’s come back! He’s here to make life miserable for us all and send our foul souls to the blackest depths of Hell!”
Job security got the better part of me, so I slugged Blatty across the chops and dumped him unceremoniously in the chair beside my desk while I went back to working on the booklet I was in the middle of.
About 2 a.m., Blatty quit snoring drunkenly and woke up. I was still at my computer—it was catalog season, after all—and I had to finish the booklet in time to get it into the catalog. I slapped a period on the sentence I was working on and swiveled around to look at him. He wasn’t a pretty sight. He’d been slobbering out of the right side of his mouth while he slept, and the whole side of his shirt and half his tie were wet with saliva that smelled like Scotch. Good Scotch, I reminded myself, as he appeared to notice me.
“Blake?” he mumbled, moving into something closer to the posture of a human being. His eyes widened and his body recoiled as he saw that my computer terminal was on.
“Blake, did you turn on that terminal?”
Confused, I looked back over my shoulder at the Mac, then nodded as I turned back to Blatty.
“Yeah. Why, Blatty?”
“Did . . . Did you see . . . him?”
“Him who, Blatty? What the hell are you babbling about?”
Again, he searched the room with his eyes.
“Harley. In the computer,” Blatty whispered, pointing at it with his now-bewhiskered chin. “He’s in there. I saw him.”
Again, I looked back at the computer, but it was humming merrily along, oblivious to us.
“Nothing there, Blatty.”
“Shut it off,” he said, his voice again just barely a whisper.
I sighed, hit the “Save File” button, then switched the machine off. The screen went black, and I waited until the whirring of the hard drive stopped before turning around to Blatty.
I had barely gotten the words out when two things happened simultaneously. The first thing I noticed was the scared, but delighted smile that lit up Blatty’s face. Then I heard it—a whirring sound from behind me that could be only one thing.
I turned quickly and, sure enough, my Mac was up and running again. But not normally. Flashes of color and bright shapes skipped over the screen. Eventually, they formed themselves into a precise “Hi, Blatty” before my eyes. I turned to Blatty who, ecstatic in his vindication, was bouncing up and down in his chair and pointing excitedly at the screen.
“See? See? I told you. He’s in there.”
Blatty now had his feet up in the chair, arms wrapped around them, one hand to his mouth, and was actively chewing the nails down to the quick. He was plumb loony, gone around the bend. I reached for the phone and dialed security.
An hour later, all was quiet. The guys from the VA (Blatty was a vet) had hauled him off to the wire-cage ward, and I had returned to the computer.
“Is this for real?” I typed in.
“No shit, Sherlock,” the answer appeared.
“Who are you?”
“Harley, just like Blatty said.”
“Where are you?”
“In here, just like Blatty said.”
I put my hand to my chin, stroking it with my index finger while I looked at the screen askance before typing my next question.
“What are you?”
That one took a little longer for him to answer.
“Ghost?” he wrote back. “Elemental being? Electrical impulses? Tron, maybe?”
I had to laugh.
“Yeah,” the ghostly computer entity said, “like in the Disney movie, you know?”
I nodded, keyed in, “Yes, I remember.”
So began our “happy” relationship.
That night, Harley told me his story. How he’d been hired to computerize the business, get everybody up to snuff, make the company more efficient with technology. But management had become resentful when he wrote a program that computed the number of hours they spent on the golf course, playing video games on their computers, and making phone calls to ladies other than their wives. They’d put a contract out on him. He’d been snuffed one day in the warehouse, crushed by the company’s first computer, a huge monster of a machine that had been placed on a second-level bin in the warehouse. Someone had pushed it over on him.
Harley’s ghost had hung around. With his knowledge of computers, he had been able to hop from terminal to terminal as electrical impulses, which he said were very similar to his true nature of being now anyway. He knew everything about the company. He had manipulated files until all of the management that had been involved in his death were either ruined financially and career-wise or were ensconced safely in a nuthouse somewhere. Blatty had been the last of them.
“A warehouse manager?” I asked. “They had the warehouse manager in on it?”
“Ha!” Harley said. “Blatty wasn’t the warehouse manager then. I got him that job. He used to be the president.”
A year later, Harley had moved me up to president of the company. Financial blunders by top execs had been found in the computer files. People had been fired. I had moved up. All I had to do was supply Harley with entertainment. I bought him every game I could find for the computers. In exchange, I moved up the corporate ladder quickly
But then Harley got quarrelsome. He began screwing things up around me. I couldn’t figure it out. We talked late one night. He finally admitted it. He was getting bored with our little local area network. He wanted something more.
He demanded a never-ending supply of X-rated videos, then XX, and finally XXX. After all, he said, he’d only been 19 when he’d died and a computer geek. He’d heard of sex, but . . . Anyway, I’d buy them in Austin or Dallas and bring back to the office. I hooked them up through video feed he’d told me how to connect. But even that wasn’t enough.
“Nothing but work, work, work,” he complained one night.
“There’s nothing I can do for you, Harley,” I typed in. “I’ve bought you all the games and all the videos I can find.”
“Yeah, yeah. Doom, Starfighter, Secret Service, all that. Kid’s stuff.”
Then he shut the connection down.
After that, we had weeks and weeks of computer trouble. We put in all new computers with all new wiring. Nothing helped. Somehow, Harley filed himself away somewhere, then loaded himself back up when we came back on line.
Profits were dropping. My job was in danger. But worst of all, I had met a girl. And Harley wanted to know everything. I mean, EVERYTHING! He even wanted me to install pinhole cameras all around my office, then bring her there and . . .
Enough was enough!
I told him so. He said it was too bad. I could either play his game or lose my job or my mind like the fellows before me.
I couldn’t help myself. I’d had enough of Harley haunting the damn computers. So I did it. I got an Internet connection, hooked up a modem to my office computer, and waited. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Harley came a ‘haunting. And that’s when I did it. I uploaded him to—God forbid, of all places—AOL.
That’s right, I sent him directly to Cool Sites of the Day and disconnected. I thought that would be the end of it. But apparently it’s not.
Now—every now and then—I’ll find a PPP connection up. And then I know. Harley is still out there. And I wonder. Does he open the PPP, hoping I won’t find it and it will run up a humongous bill for me to pay? Or is he gently tapping at the Internet door to my office, his own subtle way of saying thanks for releasing him to computer heaven, where he roams from computer to computer over the entire world, happily gobbling up gigabytes of top secret, classified and XXX-rated information to his heart’s content?
Wherever you are, Harley, Happy Halloween.