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Three things I’ve learned about a pissed-off ghost. First, it likes to do the scaring. When the tables are turned and it’s suddenly the one being scared shitless, batten down the hatches. Second, like pretty much anything backed into a corner, it’s going to get frantic. And third, it’s not going to look like your kid brother under a sheet or Jacob Marley dragging a chain or a glowing pretty boy like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to see it at all, it’ll look like a nasty, zigzagging ball of lightning in a jar. That electrical energy—what I call the z-thing—is the zizz, the zam. Ben Franklin did not discover this stuff. Whatever it is, it stands you right the hell to attention when it zaps you.
The second I enter the barn, a sphere comes at me like a major-league fastball and I hit the deck. Pop! A lightbulb behind me blows. Then another. Then three more surge, explode, and send a burst of wicked sparks into the air. I’m not in darkness long. Flames erupt and race up the walls. Smoke envelopes me and I’m coughing up a lung. The soul trap vibrates and hums in my hands. The horses that fled circle the barn and whinny frantically.
After a display of electromagnetic manipulation like that, the soul will be spent, at least for a minute or two. In a barn like this, baking in the California sun for fifty years, the timbers are as dry as dinosaur bones. I have five minutes to end this—tops.
“Give it up, Casper! I own your spectral ass,” I yell as I throw the emitter switch on the soul trap. A wall of red light—the phantom fence—erupts from the barrel and forms a barrier between me and the barn door. I pivot and throw the switch again. A second fence stretches to the barn wall. It’s called a fence, but it’s more like a bubble. It pens ghosts in, but also puts a barrier above and below them as well.
Now I have it boxed in.
The flames in the hayloft arc and spiral like a gust of wind hit them. Bingo. I grab the ladder it hurled at me moments before and climb to the hayloft. Both phantom fences close behind me and surround us.
Now I have it cornered.
The flames licking the walls ignite the roof. Heavy smoke fills my lungs. The soul trap vibrates madly, then stops. The monitor on the butt end of the trap flashes to life and the targeting program launches automatically. I try to steady my nerves, but the smoke is too thick. I point the barrel of the weapon at the back wall. The spirit roars, and I don’t need a digital recorder to hear its rage. It’s desperate, cornered—at last, an easy target. An unseen force pulls the barrel a little to the right, then a hair to the left. I look at the monitor—the crosshairs illuminate and I hear the familiar shrill tone. Locked and loaded. I pull the trigger. Fire.
Dirty Harry had his .44 Magnum. Van Helsing, his crucifix and stake. I have the soul trap, and once again, it delivers. I close my eyes and brace for the noise, a cacophony not of this world—loud and long: a static-charged rip, as if the fabric of time and space is torn in half, a soul’s anguished moan, a colossal boom, then the slurp of megasuction like a Dirt Devil on steroids. Mission accomplished.
The smoke clouds my vision. I reach for the ladder and halfway down, my lungs close and I can’t breathe. It hits me—I might die. I might end up a ghost. With half a dozen rungs left to descend, I leap off and try to sprint, but collapse. I press my cheek to the ground and start crawling toward the door. When I finally emerge from the barn, I use the barrel of the soul trap to help me stand. Then I hear a thousand Louisville Sluggers being snapped like twigs all at once. Adrenaline kicks in and I manage to run. When I’m out of the fire and into the night air, the barn roof collapses and a column of fire darts into the sky. Somehow I’m still on my feet, and moving fast. I sprint twenty yards to safety, drop to my hands and knees and vomit ash, smoke, and a three-hour-old burrito.
Besides the raging inferno, I hear two other things: sirens in the distance and footsteps coming toward me.
“Christ in heaven, are you okay?” asks Rick Camarillo, the owner of the ranch.
I choke out an “uh-huh.”
“Did you capture it?” he asks in a Hispanic accent as thick as his salt-and-pepper mustache.
I struggle to speak. “I got it.”
“Thank you. God bless you, Kane.”
“It’s a nasty prick—powerful. The barn just went up.” With what feels like a mouthful of charcoal briquettes, I say, “I’m sorry.”
“That devil spirit made the flames. I know it. It has threatened me and my horses with fire before.” SeÑor Camarillo stares sadly at the carnage. “You’re sure I’m rid of it?” he asks.
I look up. Through burning, watery eyes I see him staring at the flames. “Then the barn is a small price to pay.”
The sirens get louder. “Must be the fire department,” I say, hacking.
“And the police,” says Camarillo.
“What?” Goddamnit. Did I mention I pretty much hate everyone? That includes horseshit shovelers with Magnum P.I. mustaches. Fuckin’ A, I’m going to jail over this.
“It’s my wife,” he says, nervously stroking his pornstache. “She doesn’t trust you—thinks you’re loco. She called the police—told them you burned down our barn.”
“And you couldn’t stop her?”
Pussy-whipped rancher. I stand and search the horizon for flashing lights, but everything’s a blur. “My eyes are on fire. So are my lungs. I need water.”
“There’s water in the well,” Camarillo says, pointing to our left. “I still draw from it. Better than the mule piss the city of L.A. puts through the pipes.”
I dart to the well, raise the bucket, and bury my head in the cold water. Heaven on earth. I yank my head out of the bucket, glance around. The sirens echo off the canyon wall behind the ranch. I have a minute, maybe two. My heart pounds. I pick up the trap, shoot a look right and left. Nothing. I glance at Rancher Rick staring at the fallen barn. I’d like to trust him with it, but I can’t. I don’t trust anyone.
The police cars and fire engines turn onto Camarillo’s property. No choice. I dump out the water in the bucket, place the soul trap inside, and lower it halfway down the well. Maybe I’ll get lucky and walk out of here with it. Probably not, in which case Ned will have to come and get it.
I could try to make a run for it into the canyon, but I don’t have the wind for it. Plus, they’ll bust me harder for fleeing the scene. The best I can do now is put a little distance between me and the trap. I raise my hands and run toward the three approaching LAPD cruisers. The cops are out of their vehicles in a flash, nines drawn.
“Freeze or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
“Facedown on the ground. Now!”
I’ve been through this dance before with the trigger-happy LAPD. One stupid move, I’m dead, and these jackasses are off to high-five each other at the TGIF happy hour in Simi Valley. I bite my tongue and drop facedown. It’s like a herd of bison approaching and stomping me. Two swats with a nightstick open a gash in my scalp, three punches to my temple and jaw ring my bell, and a well-placed patrol boot to my kidney makes me piss a little in my jeans. My shoulder ligaments are stretched to the max as they slap the cuffs on me and drag me across rocks and dirt to an awaiting cruiser. I can’t breathe. I feel like a goldfish on the floor of a mean kid’s bedroom.
Fuck biting my tongue. “Hey, assholes,” I groan. “Can’t we all just get along?”
The two cops dragging me stop and drop me. The only words I hear are “You have the right to remain—” before one of the cops takes his baton upside my head and sends me to dreamland.
© 2011 F. J. Lennon