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Ghost Stories in the Van

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"Bingo!" Neal said, holding up his card.

Diana looked up, frowning, from the handful of paper strips that she was using to call out bingo squares. They'd used a stack of blank authorization forms to make the bingo cards and the paper number tags. "You've won three in a row. You're cheating somehow."

"You can't cheat at bingo," Neal said.

Jones looked up from his own card. "If anyone can do it, Caffrey can do it."

"Peter," Neal appealed to a higher authority.

Peter glanced over. He was taking a turn on the monitors, earphones sitting askew on his head so that he could hear what was going on in the van. "Did you cheat?" he asked directly. "Yes or no."

"Cheating is such a loaded word ..."

"I knew it," Diana said. She gathered the strips in a crumpled handful and dropped them in the wastebasket, along with her bingo card.

"I don't think we actually need all of us in the van tonight," Neal said hopefully.

"Nice try," Peter said. "You're staying. It's good for you. Builds character."

Neal slumped back in his chair. "It's Halloween. You're making us sit in the van on Halloween."

"Somewhere to be?" Peter asked, eyes sharp and bright.

"Parties," Neal said vaguely. "And whatever."

"Because watching twenty-two-year-olds in tacky costumes bump and grind is totally your kind of scene," Jones said.

Neal looked as if he was considering not answering; then, playing idly with his hat, he said, "June has a haunted house every year. Last year I helped out."

There was a brief silence. Peter broke it. "There'll be other years," he said gently.

Neal made a noncommittal noise.

"Every year," Peter added, looking like the admission was being dragged out of him with pliers, "El and I dress up and hand out candy to the neighborhood kids. Kinda regret missing it this year."

This perked up Neal, as it was no doubt meant to. "You dress up? Are there pictures?"

"No," Peter said.

"I think he's right, boss," Diana said. "Pictures or it didn't happen."

Peter, struggling to keep a smile off his face, pointed at each of them in turn. "It didn't happen, as far as all of you are concerned."

"What happens in the van," Jones said, "stays in the van."

There was a brief silence during which everyone gazed at the monitors, which showed a lonely dark street. A wind lifted some scraps of trash, pushing them along the street. The digital clock on the monitors ticked over 10 p.m.

"Any of you guys have any good ghost stories?" Peter asked at last.

"Are you ten?" Neal said, predictably.

Peter looked defensive. "Hey, when I was a kid we'd go out camping by the lake and scare the pants off each other with ghost stories. I have a million of 'em."

The other three traded wary looks. "It was the seventies," Diana said. "They had to do something to entertain themselves."

"Someone come up with something quick," Neal said plaintively.

Jones cleared his throat. "I have something, actually. It's a story I've never told anyone before."

Now it Peter, Neal, and Diana who looked at each other. "Is this an actual story, or the setup for a ghost story?" Diana asked.

"This really happened," Jones said. "It was a few years ago when I was working late. You guys want to hear it or not?"

Neal raised a hand. "I vote yes."

A smile flickered around the corners of Peter's mouth. "Sure, go ahead."

Jones cleared his throat. "Okay, so this was shortly after I came to work for the New York White Collar office and met you, Peter."

 

***

 

I was new in town, fresh out of the Navy and Quantico. I'm a Baltimore kid, born and raised. Came up to New York a few times on weekends with my buddies, but I didn't know the city well, and I didn't really know anyone here.

Working for White Collar was a good gig, though. I liked the work and I've always been good with computers, so like we all do, I ended up working late a lot. Sometimes I'd be there after everyone else had gone home.

This was one of those nights.

You guys have probably all worked in White Collar long enough to know how the building gets at night. Like any big office building, there's that sense of emptiness after hours, like there's too much space for the walls or something. During the day it's so busy you really just concentrate on your own office space, but at night, you can hear what's going on elsewhere on your floor, and even on other floors.

I'd turned off most of the overhead lights and I was the only person there, sitting alone at my desk in a pool of light from my desk lamp, when I heard the floor above me creak.

That's pretty silly, right? I mean, we have those hanging ceilings. There's a lot of space in there. Even if someone was walking around upstairs -- hell, if a whole herd of buffalo were walking around upstairs -- you wouldn't be able to hear it.

But I heard it plain as day, just like the way the floor creaks in a cheap apartment building whenever the neighbors move around upstairs. And it caught my attention. I stopped, took my hands off the keyboard, and looked up at the ceiling. And I heard it again, a little farther along, a distinct floorboard creak.

I got up and stood looking up. I told myself, don't be ridiculous, Clinton. It's just heating and cooling, in a building this big, transmitting stress along the building's frame. It's not like you could actually hear someone walking around up there.

But then it came again, just a little farther along, and this time there was a sound kind of like something dragging. Like, I guess, a chair scraping along the floor? I don't know. I just know that it was pretty clear, but I know you can't hear what goes on in the upstairs offices. I was just a new guy, but I'd been here long enough to know that for certain.

I held my breath and listened. Mostly I heard the usual sounds of the building at night: the compressor in the refrigerated drinks machine out in the hall, the janitor's vacuum somewhere else in our floor, and the soft pinging of the building's heating system.

When a soft thump came from somewhere above me, I jumped.

Maybe it was just that things were quiet enough the sound transmitted better than I'd realized. It was possible that you could always hear it that well, and I'd just never noticed because there was never anyone on the floor above us. I tried to remember what actually was on the floor above us. Twenty-six was Evidence, I did know that, and twenty-three was Organized Crime. But I really didn't have a clue what went on on the twenty-second floor.

... Okay, I can see you guys laughing. Yeah, you know, and I know now, that it's record-keeping and storage up there. But I didn't know that then, right? And anyway, I'm not sure if knowing it would have helped, because what, exactly, were they doing up there at nine p.m. to make that much noise? Dragging boxes around? Okay, I can come up with some ideas. But I'd worked late a lot, and I'd never heard that before.

I climbed the stairs to the hall outside Peter's office, because it got me closer to the ceiling, and listened. I heard the creaking again, but farther away this time. I listened carefully. It did sound like footsteps, but there was something just a little off about the cadence of them, like someone was taking extra long steps, or had really long legs. My dad was a big guy, and I know what his footsteps always sounded like outside my bedroom, and if these were actually the footsteps of some guy, then he must have been a lot bigger than Dad. Like, NBA basketball player big.

Actually, if I were going to guess, I'd have to say those footsteps sounded like they belonged to someone eight or nine feet tall. Of course that's impossible, so let's say it was a big, really heavy guy walking slowly.

Anyway, I heard the creaking head over toward the elevator, and then I heard the elevator go ding -- and you know you can hear that, especially at night, when the doors open on floors near ours. Okay, no big. Except I didn't hear the elevator move on.

I was still curious. FBI agent, right? I investigate things for a living. I stood there for a little while, and all was still and silent up top, so I headed down the stairs to see what was going on with the elevator. On the way by my desk, I grabbed my weapon and shrugged into the shoulder harness, just in case.

The first thing I saw when I stepped out the glass doors into the hall is just the elevator doors shut, the elevator readouts showing they're on other floors, like you'd expect. One elevator was down on 4. The other ...

Well, that's weird. It's showing 21.5.

Yeah, I see that look, Peter. I know there's no floor 21.5. But I was a new guy then, you know? I was pretty sure the floors were in integers. But I wasn't absolutely, swearing-on-a-Bible certain. And that is what it said, sure as I'm sitting here in this van tonight. I've never seen it read that before or since. In fact -- and I looked into this later, you better believe I did -- there's not actually a spot for decimals on the elevator displays.

But that night, it said 21.5.

I stared at that for a while, and then I pushed the button to bring the elevator to this floor.

That elevator didn't move. It was the other one that did, coming up from 4 to open just as pretty as you please on 21.

Huh, thought I, and I got in. The buttons were like normal, just integers, the next one up being 22, and I wondered if maybe that floor 21.5 was some kind of men-in-black thing. Like how some places have sub-basement floors you can't access without a special key.

I pushed 22 anyway. The elevator went up and stopped, and I found myself holding my breath as the doors opened, my hand touching my gun. They opened on a lobby a lot like ours -- well, if you've ever been up to 22, you know what it looks like. All the lights in the offices were off, but the lights in the elevator lobby were still on, like normal. I stepped out and the elevator doors closed behind me. The other one was still sitting on 21.5.

I walked around a bit, just to reassure myself that no one was up here. There wasn't anyone, but I had the weirdest feeling that --

Okay, this sounds kind of crazy, I know. But when I was growing up in Baltimore, I used to run all over the city, exploring. We actually lived in a pretty good neighborhood, but a lot of parts of town were not so good, and as a teenager who was into urban exploration, I got this sense when I wasn't alone in a place. It's hard to describe; it's just this feeling, this kind of pressure ... yeah, I see Caffrey nodding along. He knows what I'm talking about. And I know the rest of you have probably done sweeps through a building that's supposed to be empty, but actually there's someone hiding in there -- yeah, see, you get this sixth sense that you're not alone. And I was getting it real strong that night.

The thing is, there was no reason -- no legitimate reason -- that anyone would be up there. It's the FBI building; you have to go through the metal detectors and security and all to get in. It's not like anyone could just wander in off the street. And all the lights on that floor were off. The offices, the corridors, they were all dark. As I walked around, I'd turn the lights on, and every time I got this hot prickling tense feeling, like when the lights came on, I was going to see -- I don't know. Someone standing in front of me, maybe, just far enough away that you couldn't see them 'til the lights lit them up and they jumped up like a pop-up in Hogan's Alley back at Quantico.

And you know what a maze that place is, all those hallways and little storage rooms. I wandered around for I don't know how long -- turning lights on and off, feeling sillier by the minute, but I still couldn't shake that skin-crawly feeling that I wasn't alone.

You listen to your instincts in this job. You guys know that.

I was poking around through another empty room when I heard the elevator go ding, unmistakably on my floor.

Well, that's interesting, thought I. Back I went, hurrying to the hallway outside the office where I was looking around, hoping to see who'd come up. Probably the janitor, but I was jumpy enough to have my weapon out -- and it was stupid, there was nothing to be jumpy about, but I just wanted to be certain, you know? I poked my head out into the hallway. It's that long one off the rooms where they keep the pre-computer Missing Persons records, and you know how you can look all the way down and see into the elevator lobby? Well, I leaned out just in time to catch a glimpse...

I don't know what the hell I caught a glimpse of.

Movement, that's mostly what I remember seeing. Something went from the bright elevator lobby -- you know you can't see the elevator doors from that angle -- really fast into the dark hallway off to the right. From the way it had to hunch down to fit, it had to be nine feet tall at least, and it was really slim so it didn't cast much of a shadow, and it was gray. Like, a pale ash gray. I couldn't get a good look, just enough to know that it didn't move right, and there was something about it that was all stretched out. My main impressions were "gray" and "wrong", and then it was gone.

I stood there for a minute just staring and trying to make what I'd just seen fit anything I knew about. It was a probie come up to look up a file he'd forgotten, I told myself.

Then I got to thinking about how all those corridors loop around and hook up with each other, and how dark that corridor was where I was standing. The far end was completely lost in shadows. You couldn't see a thing down there.

I don't mind telling you that I must've set a land speed record for getting back to that nice bright elevator lobby. One of the elevators was back down on 10, and the other, the one that had been on 21.5 before, was sitting on 22. I hit the button and the doors opened as nice as you please.

As I got in, I caught this glimpse -- okay, it was just out of the corner of my eye. You know how the back of the elevators are sort of mirrored, but not really? It's reflective, but you can't really see anything in there. Well, I saw something move in that reflection, and it was moving really fucking fast, and it was coming my way, a pale blur rushing from the dark depths of the offices on the 22nd floor straight towards the elevator lobby.

And then the doors closed.

I hit the first floor button. Hard.

I still had that feeling, though, that I'm not alone feeling. I had it really bad. But, you know, I'm in an elevator that's eight feet across, and it's brightly lit and heading down, and there's not a lot of places to hide, you know? I looked all around and even checked out my reflection in the polished back wall and there's seriously nothing there, which means my instincts are fucking with me and everything is fine.

By the time the doors opened on the first floor, all brightly lit with the usual nighttime security guards hanging out, I'd calmed down a bit. This was stupid, I was a trained FBI agent and a Navy man, and here I was acting like a freshman college student being taken on a snipe hunt. I wandered over and said hi to the security guards. They said hi back, and was I working late, and we shot the breeze a little. Then I said I knew this was a stupid question, but was there a floor 21.5 in the building?

They laughed and said no, of course not.

Then I told them I'd thought maybe I'd heard someone moving around while I was up there, and I wanted to check the security footage. So they said sure, and called up the camera shots for me. There's me in the elevator lobby on 21, there's me getting out on 22, and a couple angles of me poking around on 22 checking things out, like I said.

So I asked them to call up the camera footage for the elevator. You guys know how the camera is angled down so you can't see the buttons or what floor it's on. So it was impossible to tell exactly what the elevator had been doing, but we could see it sitting on one floor for awhile, then it goes to another floor and sits there for a while. Then I see myself get in.

Nothing in between? No passengers in the elevator at all? I scroll back. Nothing. So I watched myself ride down. And then I caught some movement. Not me. Something else.

I looked close. It's just me standing in the elevator, looking a little freaked out. I see myself look around wildly like I remember doing. And there's my reflection in the polished wall behind me, looking around just like I remembered.

But there's something else. I remember really clearly seeing my own reflection and it was the only reflection there -- obviously it was. There was nothing else in the elevator to reflect at all. But on the security footage, there's something else moving in the polished back wall, something that isn't me. I can't get a good look at it, because the security camera image is pretty grainy and also, that wall just doesn't reflect really well. But it's definitely in the elevator with me. Like, standing a little behind me, looming over me. And it's really thin, and one hell of a lot taller than me. And as I watch, it starts to raise one of those long, long arms, coming up, slow and boneless like it's unhinged at the shoulder. Right behind me.

Then the doors open and I get out, and there's nothing behind me, nothing at all.