Paul Lonardo is a freelance writer and author with numerous titles, both fiction and nonfiction books. He has placed short, dark fiction and nonfiction articles in various genre magazines and ezines, and was fortunate enough to have had work published in The Horror Zine, Trembling with Fear, and Cult Horrotica Magazine, among others.

He is a staff writer for Tales from the Moonlit Path. In summer of 2023, his collection of 365 haiku horror poems titled Penny Dreadfuls was published, and an anthology of dark fantasy stories titled Small Dark Things was released in October of the same year.

He is an Active HWA member.


by Paul Lonardo


When Thomas Couchon first saw the ghost, he was not as startled as he thought he would have been by such a sight.

He had arrived at the midtown Manhattan restaurant named Rena’s at 9 PM, exactly when he was supposed to meet Jerry Preciado and a couple other Coda Pharmaceuticals reps for a business meeting. A few minutes later, Jerry texted that he would be late, and over the course of the next hour Thomas sat at the bar and put away three scotch and waters while the ghost polished off a three-course meal and had started on a pasta dish, a heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

The alcohol went down easily, and Thomas was feeling the effects, but the lightheadedness alone couldn’t fully explain the vision at the back of the restaurant. He took a deep breath to try and clear his head before looking back over, but he could still see it.

The figure was dining alone in a back booth. The only illumination came from the flame of a single flickering candle in the middle of the table. The diner’s girth was such that the meager light could not cast its glow across both mighty shoulders. The brim of a black-banded, white fedora that the specter wore was angled downward sufficiently to conceal its face. The dinner plate now contained only excess tomato sauce, which the apparition sopped up with a thick slice of Italian bread.

Thomas shook his head and turned away.

You know you’ve had too much to drink, farm boy, he told himself, when you start seeing fat guys who aren’t there eating spaghetti in the dark.

He knew it wasn’t real because no one else in the restaurant so much as glanced over at that closed section of the dining room. And no waitress ever went over to serve him. The food the ghost ate just appeared, some of it wasn’t even on the menu, including the shrimp and scungilli salad that he started to eat next.

Thomas raised his glass to his mouth and took a long swallow, keeping it pressed against his lips until the scotch was drained. He wasn’t looking forward to the reunion with his old frat brother, whom he never liked. Jerry thought he was better than everyone, and he was always joking around. There were other things about Jerry that rubbed Thomas the wrong way, but he didn’t like to think about them.

Thomas took solace thinking how he would be home with his wife and young son in a few days. His mood was buoyed by the prospect of being back in a familiar, comfortable environment. In this contented state of mind, he looked up fully expecting the vision to have returned to the bottom of his glass where it came from. However, not only was the ghost still there, it was peering directly at him. The scowl it countenanced was made more ominous by the shadows cast on its face from the low angle of the candle glow.

Thomas averted his eyes and looked around the dining room, which was now more than three-quarters full while the bar remained practically empty. Two guys in their mid-twenties were seated directly across the horseshoe-shaped bar from Thomas. They were talking to a red-headed woman who was sipping a glass of white wine. The only other person at the bar was a guy seated a couple stools away on his left: a bulky, middle-age man, with dark hair swept neatly back. He was wearing a charcoal gray suit and an old-fashioned pocket-watch, the chain clearly visible in his vest pocket. There was a long white trench coat draped on the back of his chair and a Russian-style fur hat beside him on the top of the bar.

He couldn’t recall seeing the man sitting there when he entered the bar an hour earlier, nor had he observed anyone come in during that time. He watched as the man unwrapped a fat cigar and stuck it between his lips, but did not light it.

Just then he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder and he started. He abruptly turned around, hearing the braying laugh of Jerry Preciado before he saw him.

“Tom Boy!” Jerry said with jaunty exuberance. “Sorry I’m late, my old Alpha Tau Omega brother. God, it’s really good to see you, Tom Boy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Thomas responded. The fact was Jerry looked exactly the same. Not a single blonde hair was out of place, his complexion tanned and unblemished, and he was dressed in a business casual style that would have been appropriate in either the boardroom or on a yacht.

“Some coincidence, huh, Tom Boy?”

“What’s that?”

“Who would have guessed that we’d meet again this way? Me, a budgeting executive for an upstart pharmaceutical firm, and you selling instrumentation to us?”

Thomas nodded, manufacturing a good-humored smile.

Jerry looked up and called out, “Ryan, Sam."

The two twenty-somethings across the bar lifted their heads. One waved in acknowledgment and headed over. The other took a moment to remove a business card from his wallet and hand it to a beautiful redhead before walking around the bar to join his friend. Neither of them glanced at the man seated near Thomas.

“This is Ryan Landry,” Jerry said, nodding toward the first one to arrive. “And Sam Perry. Two bums I work with. Say hello to Tommy Raymer.” The men exchanged handshakes. “Tom and I went to college together. We were in the same fraternity. Tom Boy here is from Idaho. Hey, what’s the name of that town you grew up in? Bumfuck?”

Jerry hasn’t wasted any time diving into the country bumpkin jokes, Thomas thought. He knew that the clown prince of the Alpha Tau Omega house was just getting warmed up, and now he had his sights set on his favorite target.

“Boomstack,” Thomas corrected him.

Jerry slapped him on the back and laughed. “I’m just screwing with you, Tom Boy.”

Thomas grinned, maintaining a guarded disposition. So far, Jerry showed no signs of seeing the ghost, and for the first time, Thomas began to wonder if perhaps Jerry knew more about it than he was letting on. It was not implausible that Jerry had arranged to have this meeting at a familiar restaurant where he could set up a prank whose only purpose was to humiliate a frat brother he picked on all through college. In fact, it’s highly probable, Thomas thought.

“So what are you drinking, Tom Boy?”

“I-I’m good,” Thomas stammered, mopping his damp forehead with the palm of his hand. He was suddenly feeling very warm.

“What?” Jerry feigned surprise. “Do my ears deceive me? As I recall, at our frat parties, you drank everyone under the table. What happened?”

“Remember, I’ve been here a while waiting for you. Listen, I really just want to go to my hotel room, call my wife, and unwind. I’m beat. It was a long flight. Let’s reschedule our meeting for tomorrow morning.”

Ignoring that, Jerry draped an arm across Thomas’ shoulders. “Oh, hey, how’s Brooke doing, anyway?” he asked, his smile morphing into a smirk.

Thomas faltered. “She’s good.”

“Say hello for me. Tell her I was asking about her.” Jerry looked over at Ryan and Sam. “Brooke and I dated for awhile in college,” he told them. “That was before Tom Boy here stole her away from me. Ain’t that right, Tom Boy?” he asked, turning back to Thomas and pulling their shoulders together.

The two other men exchanged a knowing look.

“You have a kid now, don’t you, Tom Boy?” Jerry asked.

Thomas smiled. “Nolan.”

“That’s great. How old is he?”

“He’s six.”

“Six, huh. Well, say hello to your wife and my son.” Jerry cackled and gave Thomas a playful punch in the gut. “You know, I picked this restaurant specifically with you in mind, Tom Boy. Everything on the menu is fantastic, but the steak is to die for. The best in the city. A beef-fed Idaho boy like you should appreciate that.” He patted Thomas’ belly-bulge and laughed. “Seriously, people come here from all around the world for their filet. I eat here twice a week.”

Jerry was on a roll now. He was talking so fast the words seemed to escape his lips before they were fully formed. Thomas just wanted to get out of there. To hell with new sales.

“And if it’s atmosphere you prefer, look no further,” Jerry continued. “There are those who’ll swear this building is haunted by the spirit of Louie “Black Shoes” Salivucci, a capo in one of the New York crime families who was gunned down in this very room in 1941.”

The statement nailed Thomas’ feet to the floor. Despite his distrust of anything Jerry said, he found himself being drawn into the story about the mob killing.

He’d always been fascinated with organized crime and its history of grisly murders, particularly those execution-style slayings carried out in public. Jerry knew all about Thomas’ perverse preoccupation with underworld violence because Thomas’ frat room had been literally wallpapered with movie posters from such classic films as Little Caesar, White Heat, and The Public Enemy, as well as the more violent modern mobster movies like Scarface, Goodfellas, and The Departed.

Gangsters, with their dual nature of family commitment and moral corruption, and the hypocrisy of their code of ethics, held as much interest to Thomas now as ever, and he figured that Jerry was banking on this fixation when he set up this practical joke.

Thomas had to admit that it was genius, far exceeding any of the pranks Jerry pulled off in college.

“This used to be an Italian restaurant that catered to a mob clientele," Jerry continued. “As the story goes, Salivucci was seated in the back of the restaurant, dining with his mistress. His back was to the wall, as always, ever on the lookout for assassins. He never expected his demise to come the way it did in a mob restaurant run by his own cousin.”

Despite himself, Thomas absorbed every detail of Jerry’s account.

“Salivucci had a bodyguard with him that night, but he wanted to be alone with his lady,” Jerry added. “While the bodyguard went to the bar, Salivucci’s goomah excused herself to go powder her nose. The mobster was left alone to finish his double order of spaghetti and meatballs. Just then the waiter, some young kid, came by with the check. Salivucci angrily told him to get lost and come back when he finished eating. But the kid just stood there, calm as can be, staring at the irate gangster who had pasta sauce dripping down his chin. Then the waiter leaned in close to old Black Shoes and said, ‘The bill’s come due.’”

Thomas was mesmerized, his jaw hinged open.

“At that point, Salivucci knew he was in trouble.” Jerry paused for dramatic effect, then the cadence of his voice quickened and sharpened. “He started to get up as the waiter pulled a sawed-off shotgun out from behind his back and boom! The weapon was discharged point-blank, taking the guinea-hood’s face off like a Halloween mask, neat as you please.”

Thomas flinched inwardly. He could hear the percussion of the blast in his head.

“Salivucci’s mistress and his bodyguard, who had never gotten up off the bar stool, were both rumored to be in on the hit,” Jerry concluded. “The waiter who pulled the trigger had been brought in from Italy so nobody would recognize him. According to multiple accounts, the shooter was bold enough to lift a C-note out of Salivucci’s wallet as a tip before he left, if you can believe that.”Jerry let out an exhausted breath and stared back at Thomas.

“That’s quite a story,” Thomas said.

“Sure is,” Jerry agreed. “But there’s one more thing. Today, there are many who claim to have seen the ghost of Louie “Black Shoes” Salivucci sitting in the back of the bar eating his trademark double order of spaghetti and meatballs.”

As intriguing as the tale had been, Thomas had never heard of Black Shoes Salivucci or the slaying. Now, he had to decide how he was going to play this. And quickly.

The way he saw it, he had two choices. One was to let Jerry off the hook and confess that he knew all about the high-tech prank, or two, pretend he didn’t see anything and bide his time until the gag stretched itself beyond the point of being funny and then spring it on Jerry that he had been wise to it all along. Thomas opted for the latter, and the more he thought about how the elaborate hoax was going to blow up in Jerry’s face, the better Thomas felt about the whole thing.

Sam and Ryan must be in on it too, Thomas realized, along with everyone else in the bar. They were all sitting back waiting for him to start ranting about the ghost so they could point and laugh at the dumb rube from Idaho known as Tom Boy in his college fraternity, and whose wife used to date Jerry when they were all attending Washington State University together.

Frustration and anger began to mount inside him, and he wondered why someone he hadn’t seen in so long would go this far to embarrass him.

“So, what do you think, Tom Boy?" Jerry asked. “Does that convince you to stay and eat with us?”

“Nah, I think I’m just gonna hit the men’s room before heading back to my hotel,” Thomas said.

“Too bad, Tom Boy,” Jerry said, and then jerked his thumb back toward the secluded table where the gangster was dining. “The head's over there. All the way in the back. You can’t miss it.”

Thomas was determined not to give the gangland phantom a second look when he passed by it on the way to the bathroom. He did not want to give Jerry the satisfaction.

He couldn’t resist a passing glance, however, and what he saw out of the corner of his eye almost stopped him in his tracks. He managed to keep moving, despite the grisly scene that was now on display. The would-be don sitting alone in the booth had no face to speak of, though his fedora somehow maintained its position, albeit slightly askew, atop the shattered remains of his skull. The wall behind him was splattered with blood and bone fragments. More gore dripped from the unsightly wound, puddling on top of the remaining spaghetti in the bowl like frightful tomato sauce.

Although Thomas couldn’t be exactly sure how this stunt had been engineered, the creation of the mobster-ghost was ingenious. He really had to hand it to Jerry this time, abandoning the old standby redneck and inbreeding jokes for a bit of 21st century techno-wizardry. Louie “Black Shoes” Salivucci could only have been the product of a uniquely talented, if somewhat deranged, special effects make-up magician.

Thomas’ own head swooned at the mere sight of it. If he had to look at the leaking remains of the prosthetic head a moment longer, he was sure he would have gotten sick to his stomach right then and there. He only hoped that any incidental facial expression or physical reaction he had to the tableau went undetected by Jerry, or anyone else who might be watching him at that moment.

As he gripped the edge of the sink in the men’s room and waited for the nausea to pass, he was suddenly struck with the notion that there might be a video camera aimed at him at that very moment, ready to record even his most subtle gasp of horror for the pranksters to laugh at afterward. Thomas wouldn’t put it past Jerry, so he straightened up and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He saw the terror evident on his pallid face and in the cast of his eyes, and he tried to will it away.

Just then the bathroom door opened and the stranger seated near him at the bar entered, stopping just far enough inside to allow the door to close behind him. The wide lapels of his tapered jacket made them look even larger and more threatening. He reached back and slid the dead bolt across the door jamb. As if the lock and the catch were made of cotton, this action produced no sound.

The man turned back and stood silently facing Thomas. He showed no sign of hostility, though his expression was unreadable as stone.

“What do you want?” Thomas asked, his voice quavering.

When the man didn’t respond, Thomas became thoroughly frightened. Suddenly the man reached behind his back and produced something short and black. It took Thomas a moment to recognize the object. It was a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun.

“Listen, I’m not involved with Jerry.” Again, he was ignored.

The man raised the weapon, chest-level, and Thomas cringed. He expected to first feel the mule kick of the impact on his torso and then hear the sound of his warm insides spilling out onto the cold ceramic title. But the man spun the weapon around in his palm and offered the handle to Thomas, who found himself reaching for it without being told. Then Thomas tucked it in his belt in the small of his back, concealing it under his coat.

“The bill’s come due,” the man finally said, then turned and threw back the silent bolt before walking out of the bathroom.

Alone again, Thomas paused a moment to reflect on what just transpired. He could hear his heart beating in his chest and he was sweating profusely. Bending over the sink, he splashed cold water on his face, hoping it might clear his head a little.

Then it occurred to him.

Of course, he thought. This was all part of the charade. Jerry had sent the man in with the altered shotgun to see what I would do.

Thomas almost laughed out loud. Reminding himself about the possibility of a hidden camera, he quickly patted his face dry with a paper towel and went back out to the bar. He was more determined than ever not to mention a word to Jerry about the slain Salivucci, or the man that had approached him in the bathroom with the shotgun. The longer he held off, Thomas told himself, the more sour the taste of Jerry’s own medicine would be to him.

He lied to Jerry, telling him how great it was to see him and apologized for cutting out early. He said he would see them at the Coda plant in the morning and left the restaurant, taking a taxi back to his hotel.

The stench and noise of the city gave him a headache. He needed another drink, and before calling Brooke, he invaded the hotel’s mini bar. He passed out, leaving very little left behind in the liquor cabinet.

In the morning, he wanted to call Brooke but he overslept, and with the little time he had available he spent getting himself ready to face Jerry and his other new clients. He’d always been able to effectively mask his drinking from the people he worked with by adhering to a strict regimen of personal hygiene that included frequent showering and the regular use of mouthwash and scented aftershave. The burden was becoming too great, however, and Thomas found himself less willing to put in the time and the effort necessary to maintain the illusion.

Upon arriving at Coda, he thought he would take a moment to give his wife a call. He went so far as to dial her number before quickly disconnecting when it occurred to him that Jerry may have figured out a way to listen in on his conversation, just to see if he mentioned the ghost to her. Thomas decided it was not worth the risk to say anything to anyone.

He worked through lunch and managed to hammer out a sales contract with Coda Pharmaceuticals by day’s end. The agreement was better for Coda, with Thomas leaving more commission money on the table than he would have liked, but he was just glad to conclude his business there.

He said his goodbyes, but he didn’t check out of his hotel. He returned to Rena’s that night, hoping to surprise Jerry, but his fraternity brother wasn't there.

Determined to have the last laugh, Thomas went back to the restaurant each of the next three nights, until finally he saw Jerry walk in with a tall, slender brunette. They were escorted to an intimate table at the back of the bar and sat down. There were no other tables in the section. They were all alone and barely visible in the dim radiance of a flameless candle.

Thomas watched them out of the corner of his eye as he sipped his scotch and water.

And waited.

For the first time all week he was relaxed, at peace. He felt like he was home. In the bar, he didn’t have to pretend to be anything that he was not.

When the woman got up to go to the ladies’ room, Thomas finished his drink and slipped a hundred dollar bill under the glass. When she disappeared down the hallway, he slid off the stool and walked deliberately across the room, squinting through the darkness at Jerry, who was sitting there with his head down looking at his phone. As Thomas approached the table, Jerry looked up absently. For a moment, his expression did not change, and then all at once recognition washed over his face. He did a double take.

“Tom Boy? What are you doing here?”

“You don’t have to pretend anymore,” Thomas said calmly. “The ruse is over. And while I should give you credit for originality, you’ll be disappointed to know that I knew all along you staged the whole thing. Seems like I’m the one who fooled you. So, who’s the clod now, Jerry?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jerry insisted.

“Maybe you’ll understand this,” Thomas said, reaching around and removing the double-barreled shotgun underneath his coat.

Jerry’s eyes went wide as the barrels were leveled at him. “No, Don—” he started to say just before the muzzle blast momentarily brightened the shadowy corner of the bar and the 12-gauge shot shell all but decapitated him.

“The bill’s come due,” Thomas said softly and raised the shotgun again, this time placing the barrel under his chin and pulling the trigger.


Carl the bartender saw the whole thing. He later provided eyewitness testimony to investigators about the gruesome murder-suicide. He would tell detectives all he knew about Thomas, which wasn’t much besides the killer’s drink of choice. No motive could be established, and the incident was considered a lone gunman-shooting by a deeply disturbed individual, a despondent alcoholic whose wife had left him because of his drinking, taking their young child with her and moving to Tennessee to live with her mother.

The one stumbling block in the case was the question of how Thomas had gotten his hands on the shotgun, particularly the vintage make and model that he had in his possession.

Carl had witnessed something else that he couldn't explain. After the shooting, while giving his statement to the police, he heard someone call his name. He looked up, but nobody was there.

When Carl heard his name being called a second time, he peered into the brilliant light of a police cruiser’s flickering strobe reflecting inside the restaurant and saw a ghostly image in the booth where the shootings had taken place. Both bodies had been removed, but the figure sitting at the table looked exactly like the shooter, Thomas Couchon of Boomstack, Idaho.

Then, just like that, it was gone.