Dr. Lasker was watching Shelly on a secret monitor in the lab, secured in the sub- basement. Even when nobody is around, the girl is obviously having a conversation. Look how much she talks. Wait! Her lips have stopped.
Had the ghost left? Was this the right time to approach her without that interfering invisible creature? He had sensed the ghost, for lack of a better word, was suspicious of him, was helping her resist him. Now was the time to spring the trap. She had already taken the bait, staying overnight in that wonderful room. How could anyone who ever lived in a filthy dorm ever turn down a room like that, he mused, congratulating himself again for having insisted on
giving his ‘Ectos’ such luxurious accommodations, little enough compensation for what they would eventually have to go through, he thought. Well worth the price.
He watched Shelly a little longer. He had to be sure. No lips moving at all. Definitely the strangest thing I’ve ever seen…well, maybe not? But in someone so normal-looking? Very strange. He thought of Swan, a former female Ecto, whose dark skin sometimes seemed to have a green tinge, whose eyes were black, but had reddish flecks in them. Where Shelly was small and petite, Swan, the descendant of Navaho shaman, was large-boned and therefore intimidating. He had thought her invincible until the day she had fled from a house and he found her sitting in the dirt, tears flowing down her face. If she, with all her strength and ancestral bravery, could not
survive the pressures of this unique kind of research, how will this fair-skinned, petite girl hope to survive? It almost made him want to release her, but not enough. “If it gets bad,” he promised himself, knowing he might not have the willpower to save her.
Dr. Lasker rushed to the door and made certain to lock it behind him. With Dodd on the loose, every room had to be secured. There was no telling what he might do.
Running, he reached the elevator and dashed inside. I should have taken the stairs he thought, realizing how vulnerable elevators are to attack. He didn’t breathe as the elevator rose two floors and finally reached the basement. Only he and a few others knew about the hidden floor sandwiched between the basement and the sub-basement. It was only accessible from this elevator and with his special key. He had no time to check the floor now so he pressed the B button and prayed he’d catch her before the ghost arrived and he blew his chance to be alone with her.
Shelly was rising from her chair.
“More coffee? I think I’ll have one.” He moved quickly to the samovar and poured a cup of the aromatic brew. “They make wonderful coffee here. Dinner will be lovely too.”
“Dinner? I didn’t see any cooking staff. I didn’t think you ate here?”
“With the cut-backs, we have only staff for lunch and dinner on the top floor of the building. We have a wonderful view of the woods from there and of course the north side of this campus. Perhaps you’ll join me for dinner tonight?”
Shelly shook her head. “I appreciate everything you’re doing for me, but I’m not sure yet what I want to do.”
He leaned forward looking concerned. “I thought you had pretty much made up your
mind?” He gave her a coaxing smile. “Didn’t you like your new room? We can fix it up if there’s anything else you require?”
“Well, yes. The room is lovely as is. Thank you.” She thought he looked almost handsome when he smiled and wondered what the beard hid?
A serious expression replaced the smile. “You did ask me to change your major for you? I took care of that already. Do you wish to switch it back to education now? While I think you’d make a fine reading teacher, I believe what I am about to offer you is far more interesting,
challenging and rewarding.”
“I’m still not sure. It’s a big decision.”
Dr. Lasker nodded. At least she hadn’t turned him down. “Being an Ectoplasmic Researcher is not for everyone. Only a chosen few have the ability…I would like to offer you a job…not exactly a job, but more like an internship…an internship with pay of course.”
“That would help,” Shelly said, knowing it was difficult for new graduate education students to find jobs on campus.
“Good. But as you know we’ve had some cut-backs and I’ve had to let go most of my assistants, but I believe you have the abilities I…this department requires to re-establish itself as the premier program in parapsychology in this state, perhaps in the nation?”
Shelly sighed, her ego a little deflated. “You mean, I have a ghost, and you want him for your department. Is that right?” Allen was right after all. Lasker was only interested in one thing, exploiting Allen and her for his precious department.
Lasker realized she had figured it out. He gave her a friendly smile. “Shelly, I won’t lie to you. You may or may not have a ghost? I honestly don’t know what you have yet, but I strongly feel we can help each other in a mutually beneficial way. I can use my considerable expertise, experience and staff to help you assist your ‘friend’ and thus free yourself again, while you can help me help the many people who have asked for our help with their unique problems.”
Shelly noticed he had used ‘help’ in his last paragraph five times. “I don’t understand.
What kind of help do all these people want of you?”
Dr. Lasker pulled out his IPad. “Do you see all of these faces? I record them for my research. These are a mere sampling of the people who have come to us begging for help, much as you are doing--”
“I’m not begging,” Shelly interrupted. “Do I want your help? Yes. Am I begging? No. If you won’t help I’ll just find someone else who will.” Shelly felt indignant he could think she was ‘begging’ for his help. Arrogant idiot, she thought. How could I have thought he was anything but?
“Calm down please, Shelly. I am not a diplomat and sometimes rather clumsy with words, but I assure you these people are in desperate need. First, there are few programs like ours anywhere else in this country. Second, and most important, I am going to help you, but to do so I must ask in return for your help.” Here goes, he thought, trying to look casual and trust-worthy when he knew he wasn’t telling her everything. He cleared his throat. “On the off-chance that your ‘friend’ is truly a ghost, you may be the only one who can help all these people who are truly begging for my help. Look at their faces, men, women and even babies, and tell me you won’t take a little time and energy to help them? Please, just look?”
Shelly stared at the faces in an endless slideshow on the tablet. There were men with strained expressions, women with lifeless, dark-circled, pitiful eyes, children who appeared gaunt and emaciated and worst of all, babies whose eyes showed no luster, no sign of joy. “What happened to them,” she asked, unable to look at the faces, wondering if all this was some kind of cruel set-up to trick her into staying?
Dr. Lasker glanced at his screen. He saw the face of a young man with long brown curly hair and a tight-lipped smile. Damn! He shut off the program before Shelly could see Dodd’s face. “Shelly, just like you, they all said they were haunted…most still are.”
Shelly was surprised. I’m not the only one, she thought, the faces stuck in her mind. “And they come to you for help?”
“Yes. Every year we get dozens who claim they desperately need our help.”
“And you can’t help them?” Shelly was beginning to understand what the doctor wanted.
She just wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She had a feeling she knew how Allen would feel. “I’m no guinea pig!” She could almost hear the anger in his voice. But he said he would give it a chance…he did say that. Did he mean it? Can you trust a ghost? Can I trust Lasker?
Dr. Lasker shrugged his shoulders. “Some of my assistants have been very good and we’ve had some limited successes. We’ve been able to document some evidence of ‘unusual’ phenomena…rare snippets of the supernatural world that barely scratch the surface of what I suspect is the reality. Unfortunately, most of these cases remain unresolved.” And the more unresolved cases, the less funding we receive, he added to himself. Bloody bean-counters! Hence the shrunken department we now are fighting to resurrect. “You have to understand that part of our funding is based on this kind of essential and desperately needed research.”
“Your funding depends on solving cases of the supernatural,” Shelly asked.
Lasker was surprised at how quickly her mind worked. She was not the foolish young blond girl he had assumed her to be. “To a very large extent, yes. That is why we are down to a skeletal staff. Most of our better assistants have sought greener pastures, better pay at private universities and institutions elsewhere. I don’t blame them, but I believe with your help, we can achieve much improved success and rebuild this department into something you and I will be proud of.”
“This sounds like a bit more than I bargained for,” Shelly said. “I was only looking to rid myself of a ghost not sign on for a life-time career as a ghost-catcher.”
“We call ourselves ectoplasmic researchers.” Lasker tried to look humble. “I fully understand and assure you that you need not make a commitment at this time. All I ask is that you consider giving me one semester to prove the worth of our project and studies. I’ve already changed your major. I know it’s a big change, but if you imagine the possibilities I am certain you will want to try this. And you will be paid, which should help your finances considerably?”
“I don’t know,” Shelly said, thinking very hard about his offer. She suspected he wasn’t telling her everything.
“I have a case right now,” Dr. Lasker said, quickly pulling a folder out of his lab coat. He flipped open the folder. “This is a photograph of a beautiful house. It was built in the early 1800’s and has belonged to many families ever since. All with tragic histories. Why? Can a house be evil? All I ask is that you look at the photograph of this house and tell me what you feel.”
Shelly sighed. “You tried that ESP junk with me yesterday and you saw without Allen I just don’t have it.”
“I’m not asking for your ESP, I’m asking you to just give me your first thoughts on seeing this house. Once you do that, you are free to go back into teaching if you wish, or I hope you will want to stay with me and give this ‘ghost-catching’, as you call it, a chance. No obligation. I promise.” He pushed the photograph in front of her. “Just one look is all I ask.”
Shelly gazed down at the photo and felt a chill immediately race down her spine. She wiped beads of sweat off her forehead. “I feel cold,” she muttered.
“My reaction exactly,” Dr. Lasker said. “Now look back on the faces of the family and say you will not help them?”
Oh God, I wish I could say that, Shelly moaned, knowing she had fallen into his trap.