The room was thick with anticipation. This was, in many ways, our last hope. My partner raised his shaking hand, aimed right at me, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger . . .
I guess I need to go back a few days for this to make any sense.
The window on the door should have said Grimmer & Grimmer, P.I. but instead it read Johnson Lumber Comp— in spray painted stencil letters across the plywood. I guess it should have been a window, too, but that had just been shattered by—well, let’s call her a pretty dame with a voice to die for. That sounds suitably noire. That’s another story, though.
In my defense, even solid things are sort of windows when you’re a ghost. Which I am. And particularly when you’re shifted down spectrum, which I was. Hovering about at lower energy levels is always a bit easier, in case seemed a little opaque. Yes, that was a joke. I firmly believe that just because you’re dead doesn’t mean your sense of humor has to die with you. I was, just then, when this story begins, watching my partner struggle to open a bottle cheap whiskey with his unsteady hands. It’s one thing he’s got on me, the ability to actually interact with non-electronic physical gadgets and doodads.
“Come on,” he groaned. He struggled with it for almost a minute, as I watched in silence. Finally, he shrugged and broke the bottle off at the neck. I was impressed; he’s not usually coordinated enough to pull something like that off.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” I told him. “Might swallow some broken glass.”
“Shhhuddup,” he slurred at me. He tipped the bottle up and began chugging. He stopped when the bottle was empty.
“Godamnit,” he growled.
“Nothing?” I asked.
“Oh well, we’ll think of something,” I assured him. “Now, get to the bathroom, you’re leaking.”
He looked down, “Chrissht. Need to shtitch theesh up.”
A small whiskey fountain had erupted from one of the half dozen unhealed bullet holes in his chest. He put the bottle under the flow, and managed to capture a good portion of it.
“Ugh, don’t do that, it’s disgusting” I said. “Besides it’s not working. And, really, disgusting. I don’t even have a stomach and you’re making me queasy.”
Whiskey began spurting out two more of the holes. Z. gave up, slamming the half-full bottle down on the desk.
“Shhhhhht,” he cursed, and lurched to the door. After a few fumbling seconds he got it open and stumbled down the hall in a sad mockery of unattainable drunkenness.
Moments after Z. made his exit, a man in an Armani suit walked through the door. It was tailored to fit, but of a cut suggesting the man was much younger and fitter in the confines of his mind than the confines his suit. He looked around with a dubious expression, taking in the plywood over the door, and clearly weighing it against the shelf of expensive whiskey that wrapped around the room.
“Er. Hello?” he asked, peering around.
“Can I help you, sir?” I responded.
He let out a small shriek. It wanted to be a big shriek, but he cut it off before it could really get any momentum going.
“Sorry,” I said, remembering I’d drifted into the infrared, and shifted up-spectrum, into the visible range. I couldn’t see through the walls anymore, but that hardly mattered. “I forgot you couldn’t see me.”
He took a deep breath. His nostrils flared and he wrinkled his nose.
“I say,” he said, “are you drunk?”
“No,” I lamented. “Not since I died.”
“Ah.” He glanced at the bottle at the desk. “Well, I guess that’s one thing I’ve got over you people.”
Yes, he said it. You people.
He picked a tumbler up off the desk and poured whiskey from the bottle. He held the glass up to the light slanting in through the offices one tiny window, checking for broken glass.
“You might want to skip that whiskey, sir,” I suggested.
He scowled at me. “I don’t need someone goddamned peel telling me whether or not I need a drink. . . sir.”
With that he tipped the glass back and drained it. His eyes narrowed and he scowled.
“Why did you just turn green?” he asked me, glancing back down at the glass in distaste.
“A residual sympathetic psychological response,” I explained. “And we prefer ‘post living’ to ‘peel’ if it’s all the same to you.”
“It isn’t.” The man turned his scowl from the glass up to me. “I know you guys are the ‘new normal’ and all since all that stuff went down, but that doesn’t mean it’s not creepy and wrong. Also, this whiskey is terrible. Twice-filtered my ass.”
“Thrice filtered, technically,” I informed him.
“Uh. Never mind. If you don’t like us, what are you doing here, exactly?”
“I have a job for you that, unfortunately, a real person is entirely unqualified for.”
“And why would I take the job?”
He glanced around. “You need the money.”
I stared at him for a long time. Bastard had a point, and there was no denying it. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay rent these days.
“Fine,” I said. “Pour yourself another glass and tell me what you need done.”
“It’s about my dead wife,” he explained. “She’s gotten really clingy since she passed away . . .”
Half an hour later, the man was gone, his deposit remained in a manila envelope on the desk, and he’d written an address on a notepad. And Z. still wasn’t back. Probably off sulking somewhere. This created something of a problem for me, obviously, since I couldn’t put the cash away or close the door on my own. We needed an office assistant, but assistants cost money. I had to just hope Z. came back before someone helped themselves to the contents of envelope. And the office.
One thing ghosts can do, thankfully, is muster enough EM energy to operate touch screens. I waved my hand over our office set, and a holoscreen blinked to life. I hit the “Record” button on the little floating UI.
“Hey Z.,” I dictated. “some asshole came by an hired me to tail his partially-deceased wife. Apparently, she isn’t on board with the, ’til death do us’ bit, and the real people—his words, not mine—who he’s hired haven’t been able to follow her through walls and things.” I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction. “Apparently she’s taken to floating in the air above his bed when he’s with his mistresses and offering constructive criticism. I understand it kills the mood. I’m supposed to look for anything to use against her for a restraining order in court. And, if possible, serve notice regarding a divorce hearing. Put the money in the drawer, please. Or shamble on over to the bank if you’re feeling up to it. G. out.”
I hit the bricks. And continued right through them.
Say what you will about discorporeal experience, it does have perks. I drifted by a group of pretty young women who shot me nervous glances. One of them who was a bit more up on the way of things shot me a slightly scandalized look, and covered her breasts. That bit about seeing through solid objects does apply to clothing, you know. Like I said, perks.
My living self used to dream about having a superpower that let him see through shirts. He’d be rolling in his grave, if he knew. Or if he’d made it to his grave, for that matter. The complications really outweigh the perks, to tell the truth.
I drifted on down towards the Four Seasons, where his wife was, supposedly, staying. Where she was running up a hefty tab, anyway. I considered trying to sneak in, but I didn’t doubt a swanky joint like this one had some sort of ghost-alarm installed. I went in the front doors. These upper crust hotels take guest privacy—and ghost privacy—seriously. The lobby was empty, except for a man in a khaki jumpsuit, moving from plant to plant with some sort of mister or sprayer, and a young woman who had to be the receptionist.
“Hello, young lady,” I said to the receptionist. She was a pretty girl. Vietnamese, maybe, or Cambodian. She had delicate features, slightly too thin for conventional beauty, like her face had been caught in vice at some point.
She flashed me a genuine grin that made her tens times prettier, and asked, “Checking in, sir?”
“Afraid not, Miss,” I said. “Just looking in on an acquaintance who’s set up a long-term residence here. If you just point me towards her room, I’ll—“
The young woman’s smile vanished like, well, you know, a ghost. I couldn’t see her heart, but I could see the blood start to rush through her arteries. Was she scared, or angry? “You’re working for Bill Preston, aren’t you?”
Angry. Damn. I’d been hoping she’d see me, a ghost, and just assume we all knew each other. I held up my hands, and in them the ghost of my old Private Investigator’s license. “You got me. I’m a P.I. I was hired to find her.”
“You brought your license through with you?” she asked, sounding surprised. Which meant she knew enough about our side of the street to know it was weird.
“It was the first thing I manifested,” I confirmed.
“The first thing? Before clothes?”
“Even before the hat,” I confirmed.
“My gramps didn’t even bother manifesting clothes for a month.” She gave me a pained look. “You must take your job very seriously.”
“It’s one of two things I take seriously.”
“What’s the other?”
“I hold liquids about as well as upside down bucket.”
I glanced again at plant-mister guy, taking careful note of the aerosolizing sprayer, and decided he was too far away to overhear us. One nice thing about people is once they’re talking, it’s easy to keep them talking. I took a stab in the dark. “I sense you’re not a fan of Mr. Preston, though?”
She shook her head. “Guy’s a pig. And a corporealist, you know,” she shot me a significant glance. “When I told him my Gramps was playing at being some sort of ancestral guardian spirit, he lectured me for about ten years on how we were all going to hell.” She waved her hands in the air. She was wearing one of those heavy-element woven undergarments ghosts can’t see through, but they still looked . . . perky. “I was like ‘Goddamnit man, look at me! I’m Vietnamese!’ I’m a Buddhist. . . Besides, it’s like, really? When exactly? Not when we die, obviously, because my very dead grandfather lectured me on the importance of finding a man to help me carry on the bloodline over dinner last night. It’s like,” she threw her hands up, “uhhggh! Why the hell are you working with a guy like that?”
“Why are you working somewhere you have to work with people like him?” I countered.
“Fair enough,” she admitted, fanning imaginary bills with her thumb. “All about the Benjamin’s, right?”
“And he will not shut up about it,” I muttered.
She looked up, sharply, “What was that?”
“Uh, never mind,” I told her. “Point is, I need the money, and, ass that he may be, Mr. Preston is within his rights to serve papers—“
“—something you can’t do, by the way—“
“—and saying that doesn’t strike you a bit bigoted—“ I began, only to be cut off by her upraised hand snapping closed right in front of my face.
“—Uh-uh, don’t try to pull the ghost card on me here, spy-boy.”
“Fine. I have been hired to give verbal notice, on account of how the fleshy hirelings are having some trouble.”
She smirked, “Damn straight they were! Victoria is—“ she paused, considering. “Was? Is? Was and is,” she settled on, with an air of someone who’s figured out a tough riddle, “a damned smart lady. Who I happen to like, so why would I help you?”
“Well, I may have let Bill drink whiskey that had recently passed through a zombie this morning.”
She choked, made an exaggerated blegh motion, then said, “Oh, that’s awful. I may have to like you after all.” She stared at me, considering. “Okay, so she slipped the maintenance guys some cash to disable the PolterGuard across her balcony. She’s been coming and going right off the thirtieth floor the whole time.”
I winced. A PolterGuard screen? I was expecting something one step above a circle of salt. PolterGuard is serious stuff, a charged ionic field tuned to the adaptive wave phases of a whole host of post-living entities—good thing I hadn’t tried to sneak in, that would have hurt.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
She smiled. “Well, for one thing, I think she needs to deal with this. Move on. For another thing, I think you’re sort of charming in your way, with that whole Sam Spade thing you’re going for.” That took me aback. I’d always wanted to dress this way, but it was too ridiculous for a living body. It’s not all that strange to meet a woman who’s into ghosts, mind you. I blame Patrick Swayze. Still, she hadn’t given off the usual Morticia vibe. . . suddenly I knew where this was going. “And, third off,” she leaned forward, whispering, “I think there’s more to this than meets the eye, and I need a favor. I think Victoria might be in real trouble.”
I realized, after a moment, that she was flirting for appearance, setting up an excuse to whisper, and maybe meet up later. She was so close that little wisps of her fine black hair were blowing through me. I felt a pang of loss. She looked like the sort of girl who would smell of strawberries, whose soft lips would be cool at first touch and burning hot by the next.
“Information for a favor?”
She nodded, and leaned even closer, feigning an intimate demeanor. At this angle, though, I could see the ghost image of her heart racing. The girl was either very excited, or terrified.
“I’m off at six. Her balcony is on the west side of the hotel, thirtieth floor, third from the left, as you face it. Oh, and do avoid the guards, they have ghost guns.”
I think it says something about our species that it took eleven months, two weeks, and nine days, after the first confirmation of the Event and ghostkind, for them to invent a gun that could shoot us. Not kill us, precisely, so far, but scatter things around for a bit.
“Thanks,” I said. “And at six?”
“Buy you a drink?” she asked. Probably only a little maliciously. “I’ll meet you in the hotel bar.”
What the hell? I leaned forward in a way I hoped also seemed flirtatious, and said, “Looking forward to it.”
She stiffened for half a second, then nodded slightly. A wicked smile played across her features, and she leaned just a little into me, understand I’m not using a colloquialism here, and closed her eyes, letting out a throaty whisper, “I hear ghosts can do, mmmm, interesting things, to a woman.”
Did you ever have a pretty girl say something to you, and then freeze, wishing you could just vanish? Well, ghosts can. So I did. I actually think it was pretty smooth. When she opened her eyes, she glanced around, past me, and, truly, through me. Then she smirked and hummed her way back behind the reception desk.
It was definitely smoother than blurting out the truth, “Yeah, I’ve heard that, too, but I have zero idea how it’s done, despite exhaustive web searches on the subject,” which was my second option. I was just as glad I’d left that unsaid.
I nodded to myself, and left the hotel, shifting up spectrum, out of the normal visual range—I can turn complete transparent to the whole spectrum, but, of course, then I can’t see anything at all, so it’s easier to just wobble out of the range vanilla humans can spot—circling to the west side at what I felt was a safe distance from anything that would disperse me over half the town.
Then I looked up.
Remember when I said the perks weren’t worth it? Even measured against booze, and scent of strawberries I’d never smell, lips I’d never feel . . . there’s one thing that makes it all worth it. I took an entirely unnecessary leap, and I flew.