Previously published in Tales of the Talisman
“We simply don’t know what to do.”
“Well,” said the balding man, “why don’t cha tell me what ya tried so far, and I’ll see if I can think of anything different.”
The first speaker had been Dr. Zachary Goward, a professor of both theology and philosophy from New York City’s Columbia University. He was a tall man with blazing blue eyes and bushy hair, overly thin both from a hyperbolic metabolism and a small bone structure, but square-shouldered and filled with energy. He sat at a wooden picnic bench in the waning sunlight, staring at a man almost his exact opposite.
Paul Morcey was a detective, not a professor, a former janitor who was neither tall, nor thin. His slightly graying brown hair, what remained of it, hung down his back in a lengthy ponytail. He sat the other side of the picnic table waiting for Goward’s story, his face betraying a mix of enthusiasm and apprehension.
“How much of the story do you require, Paul?” asked the professor. “I mean, has anyone brought you up to speed at all?”
“I know a little,” the ex-maintenance man admitted, “but let’s pretend I don’t. I’d hate to miss the answer to this mess ‘cause we tried to hurry things.”
“Good point,” agreed Goward, approving of Morcey’s almost academic methodology. Hoping the detective might be able to succeed where he and the others had failed, he began the tale of the London Agency’s latest case by saying, “The problem here seems to be ghosts.”
Ghosts. The idea did not bother the balding man greatly. After all, Paul Morcey believed in the supernatural. He had good reason to do so. Together with his boss, Theodore London, he had wrestled with it, filled it with lead, battered it with axes—stared it in the eye and smelled it up close. Werewolves, vampires, star-traveling godlings, he had seen it all.
All except ghosts.
Oh well, he thought, first time for everything, I guess.
“This area,” started Goward, pointing to a huge, gaping hole torn in the Earth behind them both, “was recently strip mined for coal. Those small mountains off to our left are the top soil that was removed before the mining actually began. Fantastic as it might sound, to avoid protests, modern strip miners actually keep the upper layers of soil at hand and then replace them after the mining operation is over. In the order they took them. Nicely landscaped.”
“Really?” Morcey said the word with soft surprise.
“Indeed,” answered Goward. “Environmental concerns. Coal may be removed only if the company doing the removing agrees to replace the top soil, plant trees, that sort of nonsense. It’s all very utopian.”
“There is more to this,” asked the balding man. “Right?”
“Certainly,” answered the professor. Digging his pipe out of a front jacket pocket, he searched the others for his tobacco pouch as he continued.
“Earlier on there was a terrible accident. Five of the miners were killed in a slide when some type of earth-moving machine which was not properly positioned shifted slightly. The men were all killed instantly. And there within lies the real problem.”
“And that real problem would be ...?”
The men were killed so quickly, it seems none of them realized they were dead. Now, their shades toil on every night, undoing the work being done during the day.”
“Yer sayin’,” Morcey questioned, “that durin’ the day, men are movin’ soil and plantin’ trees and the such, and at night these guys are comin’ back as ghosts and tearin’ it all out.”
Morcey chuckled, then blew a gust of air out from between his lips, the noise fully expressing the sentiment that their architect had now seen everything. Goward, finally finding his tobacco pouch, stopped to fill the bowl of his pipe. He had admitted to the breezing sentiment some time earlier.
Not knowing what else to do at that moment, Morcey looked around him—his eyes searching the landscape, looking for—
What? He asked himself, what do you expect to see?
As the sun began to set, the detective drummed his fingers on the picnic bench, pursing his lips.
“Workers die on the job all the time, Doc,” the ex-maintenance man said. “What makes these guys so special that they gotta come back and haunt this place?”
“Apparently, the answer lies in the fact that these workers were union men. At the moment of their deaths, they were working—on the job, as it were—and now the part of them that survives on believes that they must continuing working, for the honor of their brotherhood.”
Morcey nodded without making comment.
“The problem is the deadline is approaching for the contract to be completed,” continued Goward. “The agency was contacted in the hopes they could eradicate the problem. You see, if the land isn’t reforested according to the entry agreement, then the company will end up having to pay massive penalties, and may even face criminal charges.”
“The Department of Environmental Protection has apparently been rubbing its hands together in a most sinister manner over the prospect of draining all the available cash for our latest employer.”
Morcey nodded again. Before he had joined the London Agency he had been a worker himself. He knew more than a little about both the honor of union brothers and the greed of government lawyers. Noting that the sun was but moments from setting, he asked;
“Before we run out of time, what’ve you guys tried so far?”
“Well, since we thought this was a simple haunting, I told Theodore I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at it. Waiting until dark, I established contact with the spirits rather easily. They are highly connected to the current plane and most communicative. But, when I tried to explain to them that they had expired and that they could rest, it did not seem to matter to them.”
“It didn’t matter to them they was dead?”
“Not really,” answered Goward. Exhaling a rich cloud of smoke, he shook his head, “they simply declared that ‘union men never quit,’ and kept tearing back into the landscape, looking for coal.”
Morcey nodded, keeping his thoughts to himself.
“That was the night before. Last night, Theodore himself came to the site. He made contact with the spirits with an ease equal to mine, and was equally rebuked. Being somewhat more adept at these things than I, however, he turn the full force of his abilities on them. If they would not leave of their own accord, then he would simply force them out. Banish them from this plane, so to speak.”
“No. Surprisingly, considering the force Theodore can muster in these circumstances, it was quite disconcerting to see the results. His assault burned the landscape, fried the air until the scent of ozone was as thick as porridge ... but, when the smoke finally cleared, the five of them were still hard at work, still chanting, ‘union men never quit.’”
Morcey watched as the last halo of sunlight began to disintegrate along the horizon. As thick lines of shadow cut across the area, filling in the coal pit with an ever-thickening darkness, Goward took another long pull on his pipe, then added philosophically;
“I remember something Eugene V. Debs said. It was back in 1905, when the labor unions were just getting things together. He declared that ‘the workers are the saviors of society, the redeemers of the race.’”
“True, but fitting,” answered the professor. “These five out here obviously consider themselves cut from Debs’ cloth. They are, I believe, actually channeling the power of the unions, cracking into that collective wealth on energy built up by dedicated union laborers over the past some hundred years.”
Exhaling a dark, gray cloud, Goward narrowed his eyes as he added, “I would warn you to caution, Paul. This is no simple haunting. These spirits could be extremely dangerous if antagonized.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Doc.”
As the last vestiges of sunlight faded from orange to pink to nothingness, the ex-maintenance man scanned the area, waiting for the spirits to materialize. He did not need to wait long. Within seconds, five ghostly shapes began to form—ozone burning—the air hissing around them as they opaqued into view. Pursing his lips, Morcey swallowed a deep breath and then moved off toward the spirits. As they began their nightly ritual of destruction, he called out to them loudly.
“Gentlemen, can I get your attention, please?”
“We don’t quit,” answered one of the spirits.
“Union men never quit,” answered another.
“Union men never quit,” responded a third. As the four words started to become a mantra for the ghosts, Morcey called out again.
“Gentlemen, I would never ask a union man to sully the reputation of his brotherhood, but ...”
Pausing, the ex-maintenance man pulled out his wallet. From it, he removed a card which he flashed toward the spirits. Catching their momentary attention, he said;
“But, I’m here from the Service Employees International Union, Local 32B-32J, New York City chapter.”
Several of the ghosts stared, their ectoplasm straining to blink. Having them engrossed, Morcey told them;
“The SEIU is goin’ out on strike, and your union is standing in solidarity.”
The five shades looked one to the other, then turned back toward Morcey, all of them giving him the thumbs up as they slowly vanished from sight. Even as the last was fading from sight, Goward approached the spot where Morcey kept watch.
“I’m practically dumbfounded,” he admitted, his manner somewhat tinged with jealousy. “What about all that ‘never quitting’ business? How could they overcome such an ideal so easily?”
“Doc,” answered the ex-maintenance man, “to you they were the ‘saviors of society,’ and God knows ol’ Debs mighta even been right about that. But, I think back to Normal Mailer and I believe he had it right when he said ‘the working class is loyal to friends, not ideas.’”
Goward blinked for a moment, then chuckled, smoke dribbling from his lips as he smiled broadly. Making a small bow to Morcey, he offered;
“Might I buy you a beer somewhere, so that I might learn further from your wisdom, oh sage?”
“Oh, but you might,” answered the balding man, hiding his own smile. The two turned and walked back toward their cars, while the Local Brotherhood of Seraphim welcomed home five of their own.