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The Case of the Valentine's Day Ghost

by Mark Friedman

Karen checked over the recipes one last time before putting them in the folder and shutting it. She looked over at her staff. "All right, let's go over what we'll be doing with the show," she said. "I don't think it needs to be mentioned that this episode will be our yearly Valentine's Day special, so I think it goes without saying that I want it to be absolutely terrific - not to say that all the episodes we've done aren't absolutely terrific, of course." She gave everyone a smile, and they all smiled back.

"Of course, for me this will be a particularly special one, since, as you know, besides the usual guest couples we'll be having on the show, I've invited one of my teenage nephews and his boyfriend to join us on camera, and a couple of their friends to help work behind the scenes," Karen said. "Besides being a very boastful aunt who is proud of her amazing nieces and nephews to begin with, I'm hoping that my nephew and his boyfriend will be able to be a bit of a role model for some of our younger viewers who might be a part of the LGBT community."

She then walked around with the group, talking a bit about how she wanted the show to proceed at each point. She did send a couple of people to grab various things from other locations within the studio as she talked and heard ideas; while it was her show - she was both the star and an executive producer of a popular new cooking show - she let the staff (which included interns who were students at the nearby community college) know that they were always welcome and encouraged to make suggestions. They were currently at one station where Dakota, one of the interns, was making a suggestion about the setup of that station when a man in a well-tailored suit walked in.

"Ah, good, you're here," he said to Karen, ignoring the others. "I was hoping you've had time to consider my offer."

"Darrell," Karen said dryly. "I'd hoped that I'd made myself clear the last time you were here as to what my answer to that was."

"I know," Darrel replied, "but I was hoping you'd reconsider. My offer is more than generous."

"Darrell, Darrell, Darrell," Karen said with a sigh. "My answer was 'No' then, and it's still 'No' now."

Darrell's face darkened. "You really should reconsider your decision," he told her. "My associates and I do not take rejection lightly." With that, he turned and left.

Karen rolled her eyes. "Now, where were we?" she said. They returned to the task at hand, giving no more thought to Darrell.

A short time later, they heard a sort of moaning sound. At first they didn't pay it too much heed, as the building was an older one and was prone to various odd sounds at times (which occasionally made for some interesting times when filming episodes). But as the sound continued, it started to increase in volume.

"What is that sound?" someone asked.

Suddenly someone screamed and pointed. Everyone looked in that direction and saw a pale ghostly figure hovering in the air. The figure, who looked to be in some sort of glowing robe, let out a loud moan before moving slowly towards the group. The group was frozen until someone screamed, at which point the group erupted into panic. They scattered, some diving underneath carts or under cooking stations as the ghost continued to chase them, moaning. After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few moments, the moaning stopped, but it was a while before anyone said anything as they continued to quake in their hiding spots.

"Karen, w-what was that?" one intern, Chrissy, asked, peeking around a corner.

"I wish I knew," Karen said. She'd heard some of the interns report seeing a ghost several times in the past couple of days, but she'd dismissed the reports as overactive imaginations, but now she wasn't so sure...

"It was nice of your aunt to invite us to help out with her show," Nichole Chan said to one of the two teenage boys sitting behind her in the van.

"Aunt Karen has always been wonderful," said the boy, Rick Welker. "She's always been there for me, and has always been supportive of Casey and me."

"Plus, it doesn't hurt that she's a great cook," Casey Rogers, Rick's boyfriend said.

"Which always snags major brownie points with you," Ashanti Novell, the fourth member of the group, said.

"Can I help it if I like to eat?" Casey said. "I'm a growing boy, after all."

"Not that it shows," Nichole said. "Honestly, I don't know how you can eat as much as you do and still stay so skinny."

"Disgusting, isn't it?" Ashanti deadpanned.

"All right," said Mr. Welker, Rick's dad, who was driving. "Here we are at the studio." He parked the van, and they all piled out. Rick opened up the back door of the van to let out Shaggy Dog, Casey's dog.

The group headed inside, and checked in with the front desk. A few minutes later a woman came out, and hugged Mr. Welker. "Good to see you, bro," she said.

"Sis, it's been a while," he replied.

The woman then went over and embraced both Casey and Rick. "Rick, honestly, how did you get so tall?" she told Rick.

"I know what you mean," Casey said dryly.

"Aunt Karen, these are a couple of our friends, Ashanti Novell and Nichole Chan," Rick said, changing the subject. "Nichole, Ashanti, this is my Aunt Karen."

"Nice to meet you," Karen told them, shaking their hands.

"Likewise," Ashanti said. "It's nice to be able to finally meet you in person. Rick's told us so much about you."

"All good things, I hope," Karen said with a grin.

"We'd like to thank you for this opportunity," Nichole said. "Ashanti and I have always been fascinated by television production. It will be fun to see a show as it's being produced."

"I'm glad to be able to help," Karen told her. "I think there needs to be more of us girls in the technology field. Show these boys what we're made of."

A whimper came from down below, and Karen dropped to her knees. "And how could I forget my favorite dog?" she asked, vigorously scratching Shaggy Dog's head and getting a slobbery doggy kiss in return. "I've got a special treat for you, big guy," she told him. "And as for the rest of you, I've got something that I've been working on that I'd like for you to try."

A short time later, the group was gathered in the kitchen where the show was recorded. Shaggy Dog was happily chomping away on a meaty bone, while the humans were all enjoying chocolate cupcakes.

"What did you put in these?" Nichole gushed. "They're fabulous!"

"Well, right now the specifics of the recipe is a secret," Karen said, "but I will say that involves melted chocolate being mixed into the batter."

"Karen?" a woman's voice hesitantly called out. "Is that you?"

"Yes, Chrissy," Karen called out, and a moment later a woman came in.

"Oh, good," the woman said. "I thought you might be...well, y'know...the ghost."

"Ghost?" Casey asked, swallowing hard.

After introducing Chrissy to everyone, Karen said sheepishly, "Well, some weird figure has been popping up lately, and it seemed to be some sort of ghost. I know that seems silly, but I saw it myself yesterday, and it was sure was eerie."

"But you don't really be believe that it was a ghost, do you, Aunt Karen?" Rick said.

"I don't know, Rick," she said. "It looked pretty real to me."

"But what would cause a haunting here, anyway?" Ashanti asked. "Assuming that it's really a ghost, of course."

"Well, there was a double murder-suicide here back in 1994," Mr. Welker said. "A man reportedly shot and killed a business partner and the partner's wife before turning the gun on himself. It might have been more widely known, but it was overshadowed by the O.J. Simpson case. I've heard a couple of times of people claiming the building is haunted by the wife's ghost, but I'd never put much stock in it.

"Well, it doesn't seem to stop Darrell," Chrissy said.

"Who's Darrell?" Nichole asked.

"Darrell Goodman," Karen said. "He wants to be able to be the show's new distributor, since our current distributor is going through some rough times financially. I keep telling him no, since I'm working on getting some new financial backers for the distributor, and I don't like the changes that Darrell and his associates would implement for the show, but they don't want to take no for an answer."

"He claims we'll be sorry if we don't accept his offer," Chrissy said.

"I'm not going to let either Darrell or a ghost deter me from running my show," Karen said firmly, and Rick didn't doubt her. She'd been a successful food critic for several years before starting her show, and had been able to balance the two jobs quite well.

"We'd like to be able to help with more than just the show," Rick said.

"Rick, your dad's told me about how you and your friends tend to help figure out purported hauntings, but I'm not too worried at the moment. Darrell isn't doing anything to disrupt the show, and the ghost has appeared only once so far, so that's not something I'm worried about."

"Still, we'll keep our eyes open," Rick said. "Who knows? Maybe we can help, at least with the ghost."

"Well, all right," Karen said, "but for right now, I'd like to go over what we'll be doing for the show, particularly with you two," indicating Rick and Casey.

"Are you sure you want to turn these two loose when it comes to food preparation?" Nichole asked. "They might spend more time eating it than preparing it."

Karen laughed. "Yes, I'm sure. They've helped prepare food at family gatherings a couple of times in the past, and surprisingly they're pretty good."

"Really?" Ashanti said, sounding surprised. "That's certainly news to me."

"Well," Rick said, sounding a bit embarrassed, "we've never really had a chance to prepare food while you and Nichole were around before."

"Hey," Karen said to Rick and Casey, "we'll actually get a chance to show them what you've got in the cooking department. Now, here's what I'll want you two to do for the show. Don't worry if you don't remember everything right now - taping isn't for a couple of days, so you'll have plenty of time to get it down..."

Later on, after they'd gone over the setup for the show the next day, they took a break in the break room just off of the kitchen area. Karen was showing them some pictures of various chefs and restaurant owners she'd met over the years as a food critic.

"It's a real fun job at times," Karen said, "getting to taste a lot of different wonderful dishes."

"Hey, where do I sign up to become a food critic?" Casey asked. "That sounds like my kind of job."

"I could tell you how, though the job does have its down sides," Karen told him. "There are more than a few times where I've had to break the news to by telling them their cooking wasn't nearly as good as they thought it was, and of course, since I wrote about it, it was never in such a way that it remained just between me and that person. Not everyone's cut out to be a professional chef, and I'm sure I've derailed more than a few dreams."

"Still, must be an interesting job," Rick said.

"Yes, and despite its drawbacks, I wouldn't trade it for the world. Of course, I do wind up spending a fair share of times at the gym. Regrettably, I don't seem to have the same metabolism that Casey does."

"Could have fooled me," Rick quickly said. "You look great!"

"Flatterer," she said with a smile.

Rick was about to reply when they heard strange sounds coming from the kitchen. They got up to investigate. Looking around the empty kitchen, they didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

"Are we the only ones here?" Nichole asked.

"Outside of a couple of people at the front desk, we should be the only ones here," Karen replied. "Everyone else has gone home for the night."

Suddenly a ghostly sound filled the area, and moments later they saw a ghost floating into the kitchen. They all cried out and dove for cover as the ghost swooped over them, moaning out. Quickly finding hiding spots, they all hid from the specter.

A couple of minutes later, after noticing the moaning sounds had stopped, Casey asked, "Is it gone? Please tell me it's gone."

Rick stuck his head out. "It seems to be gone."

Everyone crawled out of their hiding spots. "Well, that was creepy," Ashanti said.

"Creepy? Try downright terrifying!" Casey replied.

"Any reason why anyone would want to be doing something like this to you, Aunt Karen?" Mr. Welker asked.

"Outside of Darrell, I doubt it," Karen replied. "And while he has his faults, I can't imagine him doing something like this. He has much to gain by keeping the show going, and this - assuming it's being done by the living - almost seems more like someone wants to stop the show."

"Let's take a look around," Rick suggested. "This building's a good size. Maybe we can find some clues that will help us figure out what's going on."

Rick and Ashanti went in one direction, while Casey and Nichole went in another direction and Mr. Welker and Karen stayed and looked around in the kitchen.

Rick and Ashanti poked around backstage, and looked for anything that might help them. "There's a lot of stuff around here," Ashanti said.

"It can take a lot of thing to make a television show," Rick said, "even in this day and age."

"It's drafty back here," Ashanti commented. "And what's with all that stuff up there?" she asked, indicating not just the walkways and different types of lighting, but of other things as well.

"A lot of the inside walls are actually mobile," Rick said. "They can be moved around on a type of track in order to partition areas in different ways, depending on the needs of the particular show being taped."

"Some of those chords don't seem to be attached to any walls," Ashanti said. "They're just on the tracks."

"Yes, that is odd," Rick said, scratching his head.

"Hey, what are you kids doing back here?" a voice said, and Rick and Ashanti turned to face a man only a few years older than they were.

"I'm Rick, and this is my friend, Ashanti," Rick said. "My aunt's Karen, and she invited us to be on the Valentine's Day show."

"I'm Dakota, one of the interns on the show," the man said. "You really shouldn't be back here. I help out with getting stuff set up, and don't take this the wrong way, but I don't want anyone messing around here with this stuff. I've got it set up a certain way for maximum efficiency."

"Well, the reason we're back here is because we saw the ghost," Ashanti said, "and we're looking for clues."

"You saw the ghost too, eh?" Dakota said, and both Rick and Ashanti nodded. "Well, that's fine and all, but you still shouldn't be back here. There's always a chance you might get hurt if you don't know your way around."

"All right," Rick said. "We'll head back to the kitchen. Just one quick question - does anything back here look out of place?"

"No, nothing does," Dakota said.

"Thank you," Rick said, and the two turned and left. "Notice how he never even looked around when I asked him if anything looked out of place?" Rick asked quietly.

"Yeah," Ashanti said. "And he answered immediately, too. Very odd."

Meanwhile, Casey and Nichole were investigating another part of the building. "I wouldn't even know what to look for," Casey said.

"Anything that looks unusual," Nichole said.

"Yeah, but I've never been in a television studio before. I don't know what constitutes unusual."

"Well then...keep your eyes open," Nichole said, realizing that he did have a point. How would they know a clue if they saw one when they didn't really know what they were looking for?

After a few minutes, Nichole held up a pair of scissors. "These are interesting," she said.

"Scissors? What are so special about those? They have offices in this building, so it's not like scissors would be out of place."

"Yes, but these are sewing scissors," Nichole said. "Why would sewing scissors be used in the offices of a cooking show?"

"I don't know," Casey said.

A moment later they heard voices, and Rick and Ashanti came around the corner. After greeting each other, Rick conveyed the conversation with Dakota, and the four agreed that they hadn't seemed to find much of anything. They headed back to the kitchen. They arrived just as a man in khaki pants and a polo shirt was leaving. The man did not look happy.

"Who was that?" Nichole asked Karen.

"Darrell," she replied. "He showed up just after you four left to look around. He's still trying to get me to go with him and his partners in distributing the show. I've never met someone so stubbornly determined to have his way before. It's just so...aggravating!" She made a sort of clutching motion in the air in front of her with both hands. "And then there's that ghost on top pf everything else. I'm not sure we should go ahead with the show if that thing keeps popping up."

"Hey, can Casey and I stay here tonight, Aunt Karen?" Rick asked.

"Why, whatever for?" Karen asked.

"I don't know," Rick said. "Call it a hunch. Maybe being here we can figure out something about that ghost."

"Well, I suppose we could have you stay in the break room," Karen said. "But you have to promise not to go roaming around the building on your own. I don't want you getting blamed if anything goes wrong."

They both agreed, remembering Dakota's warning. A couple of blankets were grabbed from the van, and the two boys decided to sleep on the couch. After saying good night to everyone else (with Shaggy Dog heading home with Mr. Welker), they headed into the break room as the building was locked up, with the promise to call for help on their cell phone if an emergency came up.

When they were alone in the break room, they sat down on the couch together. A moment later, Casey grabbed Rick and kissed him, and a snog-fest ensued. Being two teenage boys, though, kissing soon wasn't enough, and articles of clothing soon started being shed, and Casey soon found himself laying down on the couch, with Rick on top, grinding their crotches together. They went at it for a few minutes before blowing their loads. They then switched places, and after snagging the blanket they cuddled, falling asleep in each other's arms.

The next morning both slowly got up, groaning as they moved stiff limbs. Rick started moving towards the bathroom when his foot struck the box containing Karen's photos, the ones they'd been looking at the day before. The photos were scattered about, and as Rick, still a bit bleary-eyes, bent done to pick them up, he spotted one in particular, and froze.

"Hey, Casey, look at this one," he said. "Does this person look familiar to you?"

Casey looked at the photo. "Yeah, actually," he said after a moment. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked as he turned it over and read the information that Karen had jotted down on that particular photo, as she'd done with each photo to help her remember the particular scene photographed.

"Yeah, we may have figured out our ghost," Rick said.

When Ashanti, Nichole, Karen, Mr. Welker, and Shaggy Dog came in and Rick explained that he'd come up with a plan to catch the ghost, they quickly agreed to help out. They began making preparations in the kitchen, just as Karen had originally planned.

Things were going smoothly until they once again heard the strange moaning sound. Moments later the ghost made its appearance, and everyone started panicking and running around, the ghost chasing them. Casey suddenly slipped on a wet spot on the floor while reaching for a strategically placed rope and tumbled down onto the floor.

The ghost took advantage of the situation and bore down on him, The ghost was about to strike when Shaggy Dog suddenly appeared and let out a loud "Woof!" The startled ghost jerked back, seemed to lose its balance, and with a different sort of shriek went tumbling over Casey and landed on a table containing a few pastries, and doing a face plant onto a small cake there. On a signal from Rick, a couple of plainclothes police officers (who'd been waiting just outside in the lobby) came into the kitchen and grabbed the 'ghost' by the arms, helping it to stand up.

"Well, I do have to say I'm impressed," Karen said. "I'd heard about how you guys do this sort of thing, but it doesn't quite match up to seeing it in person. So, is this the part where we find out who the ghost is?"

"Yep," said Rick. He stepped over to the ghost and, taking a hold of the hair, pulled up, taking the mask along with.

"Wait - what?" Karen said, confused upon seeing who was under the mask. "Chrissy? You're the ghost? But why?"

When Chrissy said nothing, Rick said, "I think I can explain. Take a look at this photo." Rick handed Karen the photo he and Casey had looked at that morning.

Karen stared at it for a moment. It was a photo of Karen with a woman in a chef's outfit. "Why, this woman looks a lot like Chrissy," she finally said. "But it couldn't be her. This photo was taken years ago. Chrissy would have just been a little girl then."

"That's because this is Chrissy's mother," Rick said.

"Well, I'll be," Karen said. "I remember when this was taken. This woman, Cheryl Heath, was an aspiring chef who'd just opened a restaurant, and I went in to review the place. This photo was taken just after I arrived at the restaurant. I never realized she had a daughter."

Chrissy finally spoke up. "I'm sure you also remember that you gave her a very bad review. It destroyed the dream she had. All she'd ever wanted was to have her own French restaurant, and your review caused her business to go under. Emotionally, she never recovered from that, and she blamed you until the day she died."

"Chrissy grew up harboring a major grudge against you for that," Casey said. "When she found out you were making a cooking show and was bringing on interns from the community college, she used it to get herself in here to get revenge."

"She made her own costume here," Nichole said, holding up the sewing scissors, "and while you and the other interns were busy getting things set up, she snuck off, changed into the costume, and then appeared for a few moments before rushing back to change out of it and sneak back in while everyone was hiding and pretended to be with the rest of you the entire time."

"She used the tracks and cords used to move the walls around as the way to make it appear that she was floating along," Ashanti added. "The drafts added to the effects."

"Oh honey," Karen said gently and without any malice, walking over to Chrissy. "Your mother was a good person. It was never my intention to cause her any harm or ill feelings. She made one of the best cheeseburgers around. But when it came to French cooking...well, Julia Child she wasn't. I wouldn't have been doing my job if I'd said otherwise. Do you really harbor such bad feelings for me that you felt you had to do this to get back at me on her behalf?"

"Yes, I do," Chrissy said. "And I'd have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for these meddling kids and their dumb dog!"

The police took Chrissy off to jail. The preparations for the show continued on without a hitch. Everyone could tell how proud Karen was when she introduced Rick and Casey. The show wound up with the highest ratings of any episode to that date, and received quite a bit of positive feedback, particularly from the LGBT community. The show's distributor also gained some much needed financial support from sponsors, much to Darrell Goodman's annoyance.

At Karen's request, Chrissy did not receive any prison time after pleading guilty to the charges brought against her. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 100 hours of community service, to be carried out at a homeless shelter. Karen reported that she was keeping in touch with Chrissy, and had hopes to be able to patch things up.

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