The Riverboat Phantom
The Haunted series is about a brother and sister who travel with their parents’ ghost hunter TV show. In each book, the TV show researches a new ghost at a new location. The kids try to help the ghosts, while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups. Book 2: The Riverboat Phantom features a steamboat pilot still trying to prevent a long-ago disaster.
“I can’t wait to meet this ghost!”
“Shh!” I hissed. “Lower your voice. Or at least don’t talk like you expect to see the ghost yourself. You could say something like, ‘I can’t wait to learn about the ghost.’ Then it wouldn’t matter if people overhear.”
Tania nodded absently, her eyes on the steamboat ahead. I followed her gaze. I was psyched about the trip. I’d never been on a steamboat, and this one was a beauty, old-fashioned and fancy. It had a real paddlewheel! On the top deck, a flag whipped in the wind. The air smelled of river water, and gasoline from the boat.
We were on a dock in a small town on the Mississippi River, somewhere north of St. Louis. We’d head down the river, just Mom, my sister and me—and the crew of the Ghost Trackers TV show. The fact that we were investigating a ghost story, and my sister could really see ghosts, made it just that much better. Even if I couldn’t see ghosts myself, I could expect an adventure.
“I can see why they wanted to investigate this ghost,” I said. “A steamship pilot who crashed the boat. Pretty dramatic.” I leaned closer and whispered, “See any sign of him?”
“Not yet.” Tania glanced around, and then her nose wrinkled. “This would be great, if it weren’t for her,” she muttered.
I didn’t have to follow my sister’s gaze to know whom she meant. Madame Natasha stood on the dock a few yards from us. Her gauzy blue and green dress fluttered in the wind, her red hair topping it like a candle flame. She had her eyes closed, and her face pinched in this expression that was probably supposed to be spiritual. She’d said she wanted to start “tuning into the vibrations,” if you can believe that.
I found Madame Natasha annoying, but it was even worse for Tania. She could see ghosts, but didn’t want anyone to know about it. The fake psychic said she saw ghosts, and wanted everyone to know about it. Tania knew Madame Natasha was only pretending, and the stories she made up were all wrong.
I watched the TV crew board. Most of them I recognized from the first time we traveled with them, a month ago, though I didn’t know them well. My heart jumped when I spotted Maggie, the production assistant. She grinned and waved. I felt my face go red as I waved back.
Mom hurried around the deck, checking on everyone. She saw me watching and called out, “Not long now!”
Right. I’d learned something about TV shows. When you see them on TV, they’re usually exciting, because something is happening all the time. But when they’re shooting a TV show, mostly nothing is happening. It’s just people moving around, setting up equipment, calling out commands, and complaining that things aren’t working right. It takes forever.
“Let’s get on now,” I said, “before they start shooting. We can explore the ship.”
Tania’s gaze flicked between the ship and Madame Natasha. “I don’t know. I want to see that fraud’s first encounter. I want to hear what lies she makes up.”
I glanced over at Madame Natasha. She was standing in full sun, probably to make her colors brighter. But I guess she hadn’t yet learned the lesson about slow TV shows. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and her hair looked limp. The makeup artist came down to dab more powder on her face, as if she didn’t already have enough.
“We’ll have a better view from on the ship,” I said.
Tania wrinkled her nose and nodded.  “I guess we’d better get behind the cameras before they start filming.”
We went up the gangplank, dodging TV show staff and the boat’s crew. The sailors were all dressed old-fashioned. The ship usually did river cruises, and I guess the old costumes were part of the deal.
We checked out the main deck, then took steep stairs up to the second level. If we leaned over the railing, we had a good view of the gangplank and open part of the lower deck. Bruce stood in front of the cameras and beamed. Someone called out, “Action!”
“Welcome to Ghost Trackers, where we delve into the questions of the spirit world. We’re here today on the Delta Belle steamboat, one of the rare survivors from the great era of steamboat river traffic. This beautiful ship was built in 1920. A mere six years later, the ship hit a snag in the river, a buried tree which tore through its hull. Many passengers and crew died that day–and it is said that one of them still haunts the ship! We’re here to see if we can reach that ghost. To start, we have our special guest, the psychic Madame Natasha. Let’s watch her first entrance to the ship. Will she pick up on vibrations from the spirit world?”
Tania leaned close to me and whispered, “I can’t wait to see this.”
“Speaking of seeing things, do you see anyone else? I mean, anyone I can’t see?”
Tania shaded her eyes and scanned the deck. “No. No ghosts here. So if that fraud says she sees one, she’s lying.”
I considered this. “That’s assuming you still see every ghost there is. We don’t know that for sure.”
Tania looked up with wide eyes. “But I have to!”
My sister’s on a mission to save all ghosts. “Remember what you read? Sometimes preteen girls see ghosts, but then stop seeing them as they grow up.”
“But I’m not a teenager yet! I’m only 11.”
“Yes, but we can’t assume it will stop exactly on your 13th birthday. We don’t know for sure. I’m just saying you should be prepared for disappointment.”
Tania slumped down and scowled. Personally, I wouldn’t mind so much if she never saw another ghost. The last one almost killed her. Sure, Tania will insist it wasn’t the ghost’s fault. She didn’t mean any harm. But what difference does that make, when you’re possessed by a crazy ghost that makes you ice cold? And I was the one who had to protect Tania, help her help the ghost, and keep it all a secret from our parents and the TV crew.
I didn’t even get to see the ghost. I guess I’m not “sensitive” enough. Doesn’t life stink sometimes?
Madame Natasha came slowly up the gangplank. I think she was trying to look floaty, but it ruined the effect when she tripped at the top. She recovered and took a few steps onto the deck. She closed her eyes, held up her hands and tossed her head back and forth a few times. “The spirit vibrations are so strong! So much pain. Oh!”
She dropped her hands and staggered back a step. I was hoping she’d step onto the gangplank and fall down it, but no such luck.
She had her head down, and I think she was moaning, though I couldn’t quite hear. Then her head snapped up and her eyes opened, staring straight ahead. She reached out a hand as if offering to shake. “Yes. Yes, I can hear you. We’re here to help you move on to a better place. I will help you pass through the veil, so you may rest in peace.”
From behind the camera, Bruce started waving his hands and mouthing something. Madame Natasha glanced at him and added, “After we hear your story.” Bruce nodded.
Tania turned away with a sound of disgust. “That’s most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Come on, I want to find the real ghost.”
We went all over the ship. The bottom deck was the largest, with about 20 feet of open space at the front of the boat. That was where they’d filmed Madame Natasha. The boiler room was toward the front, and the engine room at the back. Staterooms surrounded them. The paddlewheel, at the back of the boat, rose as high as the third deck.
Stairs led up to the next level. A sign said it was called the boiler deck, even though the boiler had been below. A walkway went around the deck, with railings on the outside. That level had an enormous lounge, a kitchen, and a big dining room where waiters were setting the tables.
The third level was called the hurricane deck, for some reason. It had the same kind of open passage all the way around, with railings to keep you from falling off. I don’t think I’d want to be up there in a hurricane, though. This level held the more staterooms.
Finally, the top deck was open except for a tiny pilothouse and black smokestacks rising into the air. The sign said the deck was called the Texas Roof. Where did they get these names?
The pilothouse had windows in a curve around the front and sides. We peered through a side window. Four men stood inside, dressed fancy in buttoned up vests and hats and things. A big guy with a mustache had one hand on the enormous wheel. He glanced at us, grinned, and lifted the other hand to pull a cord.
The sound of the whistle made my heart leap in a funny way, and I found myself grinning back. Steam billowed out of the smokestack just behind the pilothouse. The Captain’s hand dropped to the wheel, and we were moving.
I swung around to look over the front of the boat, as we pulled away from the dock and out into the river.
“All gone, Sir!” one of the men called.
“Maybe they’ll let us go in and watch him steer,” I said.
Tania didn’t glance at me. “But where’s the ghost! I want to find him.”
I sighed. “Can’t you just relax and have fun?”
She turned her big blue eyes on me and just looked. I sighed again. No, she couldn’t just have fun. “Well, where else do you want to look, then?” I grumbled. I wondered again—what if there was no ghost? The last time, I had trouble even believing Tania. I thought she might be crazy, or lying, or... something. Ghosts couldn’t be real. Even after seeing one possess her, I hadn’t seen the ghost itself. The more time passed, the more my skepticism was coming back. And even if some ghosts were real, who was to say this one was?
“What about down below?” she said.  “In the... the hold, or whatever? There must be a lower deck.”
I shrugged. “Let’s look.”
We went to the first deck again. As we poked around, I had the strangest feeling. Like someone was watching me.