A streak of jagged lightning tore across the sky, and the thunderclap that followed sounded like a herd of constipated elephants. Rain poured down in buckets.
But to Willy Larson, it was a beautiful day. Somewhere up there behind those clouds the sun was shining and scattering silver linings this way and that. Down here it might be a bit darker, a bit chillier, and whole lots wetter, but to Willy Larson, it was beautiful. He was about to achieve his dream.
But that didn't mean he couldn't try to get the price down a bit. So to his realtor he said, "I've heard this place is haunted."
"This place" was "The Rialto Theatre -- Vaudeville Saturday." They were standing in the lobby, which Willy could barely make out by the light of the three or four bulbs that still worked here. Despite the realtor's efforts to clean the place, it had obviously seen better days. Much better days. Perhaps half a century ago.
"Who said?" Benny Thonke, the realtor, asked absently. He was more concerned with his efforts to clear away some of the cobwebs with an old broom he had found. "Willy, Willy, Willy. Ya been diggin' up old rumors, that's all." "Lots of stuff in old newspapers," said Willy.
"Hey, somebody's been joshing you." Benny tried to laugh. He either wiped away the last cobweb or gave up trying -- it was hard to tell in this light. He leaned the broom against the wall. "You know how it is with these old places and rumors. You think people would have better things to do than make up stories, but no." He tried a chuckle but it sounded more like a smoker's cough. "It's like that nickname of yours, 'Loser' Lawson. It's all just baloney."
"Oh, so you heard that nickname, did you?"
"I don't put anymore stock in that than I do in the stories about this place being haunted." He looked around. "Just take this place in. The gilt paint is still on the molding. I tell you, this rathole is a palace."
"Rathole?" said Willy.
"You misheard me. I'm sure I said something else. Palace, maybe. And besides, it's a bargain the way I cut the price down just because I like you and all. Ah, to heck with that." He went to a pair of double doors and pushed them open. "Let me show you how much room there is." He fumbled along the wall, pressed a switch as Willy joined him.
When the interior lights flared up, Willy could see row upon row of seats, sloping down toward a curtained stage. The curtains were sagging and moldy. Then the lights flickered, flickered again and dimmed. "The electric company. Their generator's always overloading," he added an apologetic cough. "But you can see how big it is. There's room to convert it to any kind of business."
"If it's haunted. . . ," Willy began.
"Old wives tales!" Benny snorted. "And so old the old wives became old grandmothers. And most of them are dead, anyway. Everybody's done forgot about it. Now what do you say?"
Willy looked at the realtor and judged the time was right. "Well, if that's the way you feel . . . " and turned as if to 'exit right.'
Benny put a hand on Willy's arm. "Awright, awright," he said reluctantly. "Ten thou and she's yours for a month. Fifty for the option to buy."
Willy lifted his bushy eyebrows and pushed his hands further down into his pockets. "Two thousand for month, thirty to buy, and we've got a deal. Otherwise," he said drawing out the word, "I've got other things to do."
Willy was watching Benny out of the corner of his eye, waiting in hopes he would blink. He'd been trying to sell the dump for fifteen years. And sure enough, he blinked. "I'll cut the purchase price to forty."
Willy shook off the realtor's hand and headed for the door.
"Okay, olay," the realtor said, sagging. "Two thou and thirty to buy."
They signed the papers, Benny handed Willy the keys and left before the sap could change his mind.
Through his uncle, Jimmy Tweet, Mayor of Palmdale, Willy had made friends with a banker, T.J. Elliott. Elliott had already approved a fifty thousand dollar loan, so Willy would have eighteen thousand for remodeling and advertising.
As soon as he was certain the realtor was gone, Willy shouted "Yahoo! I did it! I did it! 'Loser' Lawson came out on top!" He went through the double doors, started down the aisle, then jumped up and clicked his heels.
A spooky wail came from the ceiling, followed by a rattling of chains.
Willy cocked his head and called, "That's a good beginning. Anything else?"
Blood began to drip from above.
"Woo-hoo!" shouted Willy, then added with mild concern. "Hope that won't leave a stain. What else you got?"
A woman's voice came from behind him. "Hey, man, what do you want? An egg in your beer?"
Willy turned to see an attractive, long-legged brunette in the aisle behind him. Her long legs were emphasized by the short-shorts she wore. "I come with the place," she said, scowling. "What's it to you, anyway? And why aren't you scared?"
Willy smiled. "Why should I be scared? I'm a great believer in psychic phenomena, vibrations left in the ether by psychic occurrences and the like. I don't believe in ghosts, but I know all about the vibrations that remain in the walls and things, stuff that shows up that people don't understand like flying saucers and crop circles and all that."
The brunette put her hands on her hips and walked languidly toward him. "But you don't believe in ghosts?"
"The very idea of ghosts is silly," he said. "Just a bunch of misunderstood superstition. There's no such thing as --"
He stopped as the girl walked through him.
"Jeesh!" said Willy. "That was cold!" He whirled around to see her standing there facing him, her hands still on her hips. "How did you do that? Is it a trick you can repeat?"
"Trick?" the brunette said in disgust. "Lord love a platypus, you don't have the sense God gave a walnut. We died here in a backstage fire, back in 1939. I'm a ghost -- can't you tell?"
Willy made a self-deprecatory shrug. "Everybody knows I'm 'Loser' Lawson. They think just because I believe in ESP and psychic stuff that I'm easy to fool." He crossed his arms. "That was a good trick, but I'm not falling for it."
The girl stamped her right foot. "Ooooh!" she said in exasperation, then turned and started gliding toward the stage. "Girls!" she called.
With a wave of her hand, the lights came back on. When she ducked behind the curtains they appeared to be new velvet with tassels hanging from the bottom as it scraped the stage.
Then the curtains slowly opened and, framed by a spotlight, the brunette and two other girls stood arm-in-arm. An unseen band began to play and the three long-legged girls started kicking out with an expertise the Rockettes would have appreciated. "Hello my honey, hello my baby, hello my ragtime gal!" they sang.
As they finished, they pointed to the far side of the stage. The spotlight followed and another girl walked out holding a huge muff. She did a strip routine that Willy thought was probably superfluous considering how poorly the muff concealed her, and then, as she sashayed off stage she tossed the muff into the seats.
Willy applauded and gave a whistle. "Great!" he shouted. "Encore!"
"Let's show him the 'A' stuff," the brunette said. She lay down on her stomach, legs stretched out, arms on elbows, chin resting on upturned palms . . . about six feet in the air. The two others joined her, all facing in, and then the stripper, wearing tassels and a g-string came out and assumed her position so they were ninety degrees from each other. Their bodies started rotating like a slowly spinning compass as they came out over the seats and floated toward Willy. When they were above him, they lowered until their faces were level with his.
"Boo!" said the brunette.
"No . . . no wires!" Willy managed.
The girls stood and smiled at him. "Like I said -- we're ghosts!" said the brunette.
She pointed at the stripper. "This is Dottie --"
"Please!" Dottie cut in. "I keep telling you, call me Dorothy! 'Dottie' sounds like I'm, well, like I'm dotty."
"Enough said," the brunette nodded. She pointed at the redhead. "This is Jean." Then to the blonde. "And she's Sally. Me? You can call me 'Countess.'
"When the fire killed us," she went on, "We didn't know we were dead at first -- until everybody ignored us, and we could walk through things! It was fun, for a long time, because we could scare people and everything. But then we found, when the place closed down, that we couldn't leave here. Some kind of ghost rules, I guess."
Up close, Countess was a looker; they all were. But she had a shrewd smile despite the seen-it-all-not-impressed look on her face, and there was a glint of mischief in the back of her eyes.
Sagging, Willy slumped to the floor and put his head in his hands. "They're right!" he said. "I'm 'Loser' Lawson for sure! I try to buy a haunted theatre and the ghosts are pretty girls!" A sob came from behind his hands.
"And that's a bad thing?" Countess said, sounding a touch hurt.
Willy looked up. "Oh, no, no. Don't get me wrong. You girls are really lookers. I don't think I've ever seen four prettier girls. But I wanted a haunted theatre . . . "
Countess looked at him like he was crazy. "But you told that guy, I mean, you made it sound like . . . "
Willy looked up, a crooked, disconsolate smile on his face. "I know," he admitted. "I thought I was being so clever! He'd had this place for years and couldn't unload it because of the stories it was haunted. I wanted him to think I was interested but didn't like the 'haunted' part. He was desperate and fell for it. Now," Willy went on, head back in his hands, "now it won't work! I'm broke. There's no way I can get my money back."
"How would a haunted theatre help you?" Countess demanded.
Lifting his sad face Willy said, "This is the end of September. I thought I'd have plenty of time to open it for Halloween. Its rep would help me, and real haunts would help even more! Two weeks' admission fees and concession sales would make enough, when added to opening two days for every Friday the Thirteenth to pay two years' mortgage payment. Now . . . " He sank his head back into his hands.
"Just a minute!" Sally objected. "We're not just strip tease artistes! We're actresses, too. Look at this!" Smoke billowed around her and then a huge ogre stood in her place and roared.
"I still don't understand something," Countess put in. "You didn't believe in ghosts, but we showed you we exist and you just took it in. I'm wondering about this sob story of yours." She looked at Jean. "You're the brainy one, Jean. Check him out."
"Look at me Willy," the redhead said. Willy pointed his unhappy face in her direction. As he watched, her gaze fastened on his -- and her head lifted off her body and floated to him. They were nose-to-nose, and then Jean's head merged with his.
He could feel her searching about in his mind. A panicky feeling shifted through his head but he was unable to pull back, move away. After a moment, the panic subsided and he found things creepy but not scary. Then her head reappeared and rejoined her body.
"He's the real McCoy, Countess. Been called 'Loser' since grammar school. It's all just as he said."
Cocking her head, Countess said, "So it really doesn't bother you we're ghosts?"
"Hey!" Jean cut in. "He believes in aliens and all that; ghosts wouldn't be that much for him to accept!"
Blushing at Jean's assessment, Willy said, "Well, I guess ghosts are just another form of psychic phenomena. I was hoping for the psychic stuff to juice up the haunting. But pretty girls are a complication. Who's afraid of pretty girls?"
His cellphone rang. "Yes?"
"Say it isn't so, Willy!" said his Uncle Jimmy. "You didn't buy that old burlesque house, did you?"
"Well, I . . . I mean, that's sorta right, Uncle Jimmy, but it's not --"
"Are you there now?"
"Well, yes. But -- "
"I'll be right there," his uncle said, and disconnected.
"What's that about?" Countess asked.
Willy shook his head. "I don't know. Must have something to do with his re-election. It's about time for another run at his office, but he's been there for so many years I don't see how --" Then he interrupted himself. "'Burlesque house,'" he quoted. "That must be it. Maybe he thinks that would tie in nicely with his re-election campaign. Look, he's on his way over here. You girls get backstage and put on a real show for him when I bring him in!"
"Sounds like fun!" said Countess. "Come on, girls!"
When Uncle Jimmy's limousine rolled to a stop outside the theatre, the mayor got out and came running in. Since he was pudgy and round-faced, he was puffing when he came through the doors Willy opened. "Willy . . . Willy," he gasped. "I just couldn't believeó"
"Come on, I'll show you," Willy said, eagerly. He opened the double doors. A spotlight hit the curtains and they opened to reveal the three girls and their routine. Willy sat beside his wide-eyed uncle and watched. As usual, the girls ended with the stripper joining them. His uncle was really gasping now.
When the curtains closed, the girls came running down the aisle to Willy and his uncle. Getting Uncle Willy to his feet, Willy introduced them all. He noted that Dotty was eying his uncle with undisguised interest.
Uncle Jimmy pulled at Willy's sleeve. "I. . . I need to see you. Alone," he added.
Puzzled, Willy went out to the lobby with the mayor. "Didn't you like the show, Uncle Jimmy?" he asked. He knew his uncle well enough to be certain he had been pleased with the pulchritude.
"Willy. Willy!" His uncle was obviously distressed. "You just don't understand politics. If it come s out that my nephew has reopened a burlesque house just before election time, it would be . . . it would be disastrous! All the churches in town would just explode! The Women's Club of Palmdale would be outraged! It would cost me re-election, is what it would do!"
"I. . . I didn't know," Willy said, distraught.
"I know you didn't," Uncle Jimmy said. "Like I said, you don't understand politics. I hate doing this to you, Willy boy, but I'll hafta go to Elliott and tell him to withdraw your loan."
"But . . . but . . . "
"String him along," Countess's voice whispered into his ear.
"Uncle Jimmy," he said in desperation. "There's something you don't understand as well. I thought you'd like a burlesque house, so I showed you what it could be. But," he added, aware that the double doors were quietly opening and that Dotty, still in her costume, what there was of it, was slipping into the lobby, "that isn't what I'm planning on. I just showed you that because I thought you'd like it. Y'see, what I'm really planning on is a haunted house for Halloween. Since this place has a reputation for being haunted, I thought it would be a natural."
Dotty, temporarily solid, eased up behind the mayor and stroked his cheek. "I just couldn't keep away from this big hunk of man," she purred. She kissed him on the flushed cheek. "You're just what I like."
Flustered but pleased, Uncle Jimmy said, "I am?"
As he said it, Dotty rubbed up against him. "Oh, yes, indeed!" she said, almost cooing the words.
When she kissed him, Willy brought out his camera and took a picture. He suspected Dotty wouldn't show up on it, but that wasn't the idea. This was for his uncle's benefit. Willy took a couple more, just to be sure Uncle Jimmy saw him.
"Wh-what are you doing, Willy?"
Grinning, Willy said, "Just thought you might like a souvenir. Or maybe the papers might like the picture."
"Willy!" Uncle Jimmy yelped. "You couldn't . . . you wouldn't! I mean, they'd crucify me. I'm a happily married man!"
Willy noted that his 'happily married' Uncle Jimmy's arm was still around Dotty's waist as he said, "Whereas I'll be a happy and industrious businessman if you don't mess up the loan. Honest, Uncle Jimmy," he continued, desperate again. "All I want is to run a Haunted Rialto for Halloween! That won't interfere with your election."
"Well," Uncle Jimmy said, obviously having his concentration split between politics and Dotty. "I guess . . . I mean , I don't see how it could hurt. All right, Willy. You can have your haunted house. I won't interfere." He looked at Dotty and his hand slid down her waist... and into it. Dotty had obviously overextended herself.
"What?" the mayor exclaimed as Dotty disappeared. "Where . . . ? She . . . just . . . "
"Just disappeared," Willy completed for him. He was satisfied. "Don't you remember? This place is haunted!"