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February 19, 2024


By Mel Trent

On Fridays, Jack Runner got to sleep in. The Thursday night training sessions, boring procedural stuff, textbook ghost and demon stuff and firearms training, lasted until at least midnight and usually well past that depending on how much he felt like getting through. Last night, he hadn't gotten back to his dorm room until almost three AM, and he had looked forward to sleeping in. He only had one regular class on Friday, and that was after noon. He was planning to skip it anyway. He wanted to be well rested for the Friday night training session. Field training was more fun than any frat party.

When he woke up abruptly shortly before eight, he was disappointed but not surprised. He had never slept particularly well, and his insomnia had been worse in the last couple of months. Since the field training had started, really. He would spend sleepless hours after each session replaying every move in his mind. The exercises had all been simulations. Killing simulated demons and ghosts was easy, but when he obsessed over the details, he tried to imagine killing real ghosts and demons. He couldn't do it. Not in his imagination, anyway. He supposed a real situation would change things, but he wondered how easy it would be.

He wasn't thinking about killing things that Friday morning, though. What woke him up, he realized after a moment, was a dream about the detective who was training him. He couldn't remember the details of the dream, just the intensity of it and how silly it was. He supposed it was okay to have a crush on his teacher, but he was beginning to wonder if it was worse than that. He curled up on his side and forced himself to stop thinking about it.

Getting back to sleep proved impossible. He was no longer tired, and his head was starting to throb. He got up, took his medications and stood under the weak dribble of tepid water that masqueraded as a shower. He went to the dining hall for coffee and stayed there to catch up on his reading before class, blissfully not thinking of anything but coffee and American history.

Detective Sam Winston called at seven-thirty sharp, just like he did every Friday night. "You ready?" he asked.

"Always," Jack said. "I'll be down in a minute." He grabbed his cigarettes and his lighter and bounded out of the dorm.

"You seem hyper," Sam said when Jack slid into the passenger seat.

Jack shrugged. "Must be the meds," he said. "Or too much coffee."

Sam pulled away from the curb and drove in silence for a while. Sam wasn't the ideal man to train new agents. He was gruff and didn't like working with anyone. He was the Agency's top detective, though, and the Agency thought so highly of Jack's potential that they wouldn't have dreamed of having anyone else train Jack. Oddly enough, Sam and Jack were a perfect match.

"Where's the party this time?" Jack asked.

"214 West Halcyon Street," Sam said. "Abandoned apartment building. We got a report of poltergeist activity a few hours ago."

Jack didn't like Halcyon Street. Not the west end, the east end, where Baymont Asylum and St. Gregory's Cathedral were, or the stuff in the middle. The whole district felt like a festering wound. Sooner or later, the rot would spread, and the limb would have to be amputated. Jack couldn't wait for that to happen.

Sam parked the car across the street from the apartment building. He looked out the window at the fourth floor. Behind the darkened windows, he could see flickering suggestions of movement. "See anything?" he asked.

Jack leaned over towards Sam and craned his neck up, trying not to notice the way Sam tensed and pushed back in his seat. Too bad; he noticed it anyway, but what he saw on the fourth floor canceled that out. "What the fuck is going on up there?" he asked. "Looks like a fucking disco, and I can barely see anything."

"Hand me the EMF reader. It's in the glove box."

Jack sat up and opened the glove box. He gave the EMF reader to Sam, and while Sam fiddled with that, Jack took out his guns. He couldn't legally keep his weapons on campus, so, for the time being, they lived in Sam's glove box. One was a modified flare gun that fired shells full of rock salt, supposedly useful for killing ghosts. The other gun was a standard issue nine millimeter loaded with silver bullets. The silver was an unnecessary affectation, but if the Agency thought it helped, Jack wasn't going to argue. He tucked both guns in his waistband and got out of the car.

He lit a cigarette and stared up at the fourth floor. He couldn't see individual ghosts, but there were faint blue lights popping on and off deep in the shadows. If he had to guess, he would have said there were at least twenty poltergeists up there. He was pretty sure they weren't simulated either. He leaned in the passenger window. "Hey, Sam," he said.

"Yeah?" Sam asked.

"This isn't a simulation, is it?"

Sam looked at him for just a second and then turned his attention back to the EMF reader. "No, it's not. I told them this was a bad idea. You're not ready for something like this. You need more experience."

Jack thought about the hell hound puppy, the pirate ghost and the countless other creatures he had encountered in his eighteen years. The pirate had been the most dangerous, and he hadn't handled it exactly well. Still, it had given him a very good idea of what to expect when ghosts were aggressive. "How am I supposed to get experience, then?"

"Not with something like this."

"I think I can handle it."

"How many are up there? I can't get a clear reading."

"Twenty at least. Maybe more."

"And you honestly think you can handle twenty-plus poltergeists that'll rip you to shreds if they get even the least little hint you're sensitive?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"You're fucking insane."

"Yeah, but you love me anyway, right?"

Sam said nothing. Jack saw his jaw clench and was glad Sam wasn't looking at him. That was entirely the wrong thing to say. He knew that as soon as he opened his mouth. At least Sam had the grace to ignore the comment.

Sam tossed the EMF reader onto the passenger seat and got out of the car. Jack finished his cigarette and joined Sam at the back of the car. Sam was going through the weapons in the large duffel bag in the trunk. He had shotguns, flash grenades, magazines of hollow point bullets with holy water in the tips and a couple of knives with silver blades.

"We don't really have anything to take them all out at once," Sam said. "Guess I could rig up the salt shells to the grenades. As long as they all stay in one place, that could work."

Jack stared up at the fourth floor and said nothing. He could almost hear the poltergeists screaming, and in the intermittent flashes, he could almost see their faces pressed up against the glass. They weren't behaving like poltergeists. They wanted to escape, not force the living away. Besides, no one was living in the building except maybe rats.



"Are you paying any attention at all?"

"Yeah, of course."

"Then what did I just say?"

"Um ..."

"Stay focused. This is bad enough as it is. You start spacing out, it's just gonna get worse."

"I'm not spacing out. I'm thinking."

"Well, stop."

"Something's not right here, Sam."

"What d'you mean?"

"I mean ... I mean, what do poltergeists do? They want the living out of their territory, so they do everything they can to get the living out. They make noise, they move shit around, they play nasty tricks, and they can, if pushed, hurt people."

"I'm glad you read your handbook."

"What lives there they'd want to get rid of?"

Sam looked up at the fourth floor windows.

"You said it was abandoned."

"That's what I was told."

"They don't want to make someone leave. They want out."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"I ... nothing. It's your call."

Sam thought about it for a minute, turning away from the building to look at Jack. He didn't like the look on Jack's face. He was okay with Jack's unorthodox approach to the job, but he had been warned that Jack was likely to cross the line he toed so blithely. In the simulated exercises, Jack had been perfectly happy to kill whatever creatures he was told to kill. This was real, though, and Jack wasn't going to pull the trigger if he could come up with something else. "What are you thinking?" he asked.

"I think we need to investigate. Find out why they're here. Just killing them isn't going to solve that problem. If we can fix whatever's got them trapped, we may not have to kill anything at all."

For a moment, Jack wished he had kept his mouth shut. What he was suggesting was hardly procedure for this kind of situation. Sam wasn't much for improvising when improvising meant completely ignoring procedure. There was no way Sam was going to agree to walking into the building and actually trying to help the ghosts. And of course, Sam would be obligated to report Jack's stupid idea to his recruiting officer, and his recruiting officer would report it to her bosses, and they would decide that Jack wasn't fit to be a detective after all, and they'd toss him back in Baymont and start experimenting on him again. Sharp little pains fluttered along the left side of his head, and he rubbed his temple.

Sam was quiet for a minute. Jack was right, of course. This wasn't normal poltergeist activity, but Sam was reluctant to agree to Jack's plan. Not because he didn't think Jack could handle it; he could. That in itself was a problem, but the bigger problem, Sam thought, was that Jack wasn't showing the least bit of fear. Fear was healthy. Fear prompted caution. Fear kept people alive. Jack didn't seem to care about his own safety at all. Fine, Sam thought. I'll be afraid for both of us. "All right," he said. "Let's try this your way."

The air in the lobby was icy. It wasn't normal cold. There was something distinctly ghostly about it, a quality the simulations could never duplicate. Jack shuddered.

"You okay?" Sam asked.

"Yeah," Jack said.

"Where do we start?"

It took Jack a minute to register the fact that Sam was deferring to him, and he wasn't sure he liked the idea of calling the shots. He would have been far more comfortable if he were alone. "The fourth floor," he said. "That's where they are."

Sam looked doubtful but didn't disagree.

"You can stay down here."

"Don't try to be a fucking hero, Jack."

No, not a hero. A martyr, maybe, Jack thought. "Where do you think we should start?"

Sam shrugged. "Fourth floor. That's where they are."

As they climbed the stairs towards the fourth floor, the air got colder, and the screaming in Jack's head got louder. There were too many of them for the words to be coherent, but Jack got the gist of it. The ghosts were scared and angry. They didn't understand why they were ghosts or why they were trapped.

When they reached the fourth floor landing, Sam grabbed Jack's arm. "Wait," he said. "Smell that?"

Jack hadn't noticed any smell. The cold masked it somewhat, and he was too focused on listening to the ghosts to worry about anything else. But the stench was there, a sickly sweet, meaty odor of decay and blood. Scores of dead vermin wouldn't have been a surprise, but this was too fresh, too human. When the realization flashed in Jack's mind, the ghosts howled even louder. He flinched.

"We need to rethink this," Sam said.

Jack shook his head. "It doesn't change anything," he said. But it did, didn't it? It made it even harder for him to want to back off.

"But if --" Sam stopped abruptly when Jack looked at him. He tightened his grip on Jack's arm.

The ghosts were too loud in Jack's head for him to pick up any thoughts or feelings from Sam, but the expression on Sam's face was enough. There was more than worry there. Jack looked away so he wouldn't have to think about what that look meant.

Sam let go of Jack's arm. "All right, fine," he said. "But we're going to go in carefully, not casually. Okay?"

Jack nodded. It wouldn't be his fault things didn't go as planned.

The door handle was cold in Jack's hand, almost cold enough to hurt. He jerked the door open quickly and stepped into the hall. It was like falling into a vortex of screaming trains and howling dogs. Cold slammed Jack's chest, taking his breath away for a moment. Ghosts crowded around him. Their fingers knifed through him as they tried to grab him. His computer sputtered. It could barely keep up with the savage spike in his abnormal brain waves. His normal brain waves were probably going insane, too. Human corpses were strung from the ceiling like sides of beef.

The stairwell door banged shut. Jack could hear Sam pounding on it from the other side, but Sam wasn't going to get in. Not that way. Jack was on his own.

His computer came back online and the pain faded, the ghosts were hovering around Jack. They were silent and avoided touching him, but they weren't about to leave him alone.

"Why are you here?" Jack asked. It sounded cheesy, like the kind of question someone asks in a bad monster movie.

The ghosts didn't answer. Of course not, he thought. It was the wrong question. He knew why they were there. That answer was hanging right in front of him.

"What the fuck do you want me to do about it?"

They surged around him, howling and scratching. He felt shallow cuts opening on his hands as they grabbed at him and pulled him forward. He pulled his left hand out of their grip and got a long, deep cut for his trouble. The cold of their touch seeped into the wound and made it hurt worse that it would have otherwise. "Fuck!" he said.

"Jack!" Sam shouted from the other side of the door.

"I'm okay!"

"I can't --"


Cold ghost fingers clamped down on the back of Jack's neck. If Sam said anything else, Jack didn't hear it.

Jack let his body relax into the ghosts' hands. It wasn't an easy thing to do. It hurt, and his computer started faltering again. He couldn't tell the ghosts to be gentle with him. They were beyond caring about his physical comfort. Or his mental comfort for that matter.

They led him down the hallway, not bothering to dodge the corpses. Jack tried not to notice what he was running into and tried not to see their faces, but every time he touched one of the bodies, the face of the ghost it had belonged to loomed in his vision, always contorted by screams of terror.

Jack didn't see the man come out of the apartment. The ghosts had consumed his sight by then. He saw shadows and movement and the bright flash of a knife blade. The ghosts shrieked. Jack aimed his gun at the streaking shadow and fired three times. The man fell forward, jabbing the knife into Jack's thigh as he went down. Jack fell hard. His gun skittered across the floor. He panicked for a moment when it stopped near the man's hand, but the man was dead.

The noise stopped suddenly. The ghosts vanished, and the air was no longer oppressively cold. Jack slumped against the wall with his hands pressed to the wound in his thigh.

Sam finally got the door open. "Jack!" he yelled as he worked his way down the hall around the strung up bodies.

"I'm okay," Jack said.

Sam was standing in front of him a moment later, his face pale. He looked at Jack, at the dead man and at the bodies and said nothing.

Jack looked up. He expected Sam to start yelling about procedures and being careful and all that shit, but Sam only crouched down, put his arm around Jack's waist and hauled him to his feet. "Let's get out of here," Sam said.

It was almost midnight. Jack was tired and aching. He wanted to swallow a handful of the sleeping pills Dr. Tobin had prescribed him that he never used and sleep all weekend. With enough pills and whiskey, he could make a go of ignoring his nightmares.

Jack and Sam were sitting in a cold office at the Agency headquarters. Sam looked only mildly uncomfortable, but Jack was shivering. He had used his shirt to staunch the blood from the gouge in his thigh while they had waited for the ambulance to get there. He had a blanket from the ambulance over his shoulders, but it was thin.

It wasn't just cold that made him shiver. He was thinking about the man he had killed. He had seen what was in the killer's mind when the man came at him. It had been a deep red churning violence; not rage, just the desire, the need, to hurt people. Jack had never seen or felt anything like it. It made him wish the computer in his head and the medications were a cure.

Neither of them looked up when the office door opened and Sue Leland walked in. The recruiting officer sat behind her desk and glared at them for a minute or two. When neither of them would meet her gaze, she said, "Either of you want to tell me what happened tonight?"

"Report's been filed," Sam said.

"Yeah, I read that, Detective Winston. It reads like a bad novel."

Sam clenched his teeth and said nothing.

"Detective Runner? Anything to add?"

Jack looked up, startled. No one had called him detective before. He liked the sound of it. Maybe too much. "I filed my report, too," he said. "What difference does it make? The ghosts left as soon as the guy died."

"You didn't follow procedure."

"I wasn't aware there was procedure for being attacked by a psychopath."

That seemed to take some of the venom out of Sue's sting. "Let me remind you both that we have procedures in place for a reason. I expected better of you, Detective Winston, and Detective Runner, don't make a habit of this. I would hate for your career to be cut short because you find rules inconvenient. You won't be so lucky next time."

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-02-28
1 Reader Comments
04:36:02 PM
Ah, good to see a slice of Jack in his beginning. Thanks for the cool story Mel.
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