Ghoul

It was a hard rain, the kind of cold, mean rain that can slap the smile right off your face.

And if you happen to be in a good mood, it did. Soaking through your coat and hat and chilling you; ripping the ribs out of your umbrella and your umbrella out of your hand and making you feel like punching somebody in the nose. Yeah, you’d lose your smile real fast if you were out in that dirty, October rain.

But I wasn’t. I was cozy and warm inside, looking out the window at the poor saps caught outside in the monotonous downpour. I was sitting at my desk reading a tattered catalogue from Victoria’s Secret. My stitches itched like hell and I was dying to scratch. But I didn’t have a clean shirt with me.

Nothing was shaking in the storming-of-my-doors department since my last case, so I was taking advantage of sitting in the office. I was paying the rent on it so I might as well get something out of it.

I recently installed a bar fridge and a small TV-DVD combo. Hell I might just move in altogether and give up my apartment. No maybe not, there wasn’t enough room in the office for my bed—and lately that was seeing more traffic than the office. Amazing how a bullet hole brings out the mother in casual girlfriends

I don’t like to brag, but my last case brought me some degree of notoriety here in the city. In fact I was plastered all over the three dailies with various headline accompaniments, “Private security firm busts child porn ring.” I like that one.  And this one’s pretty good, too, “Pedophile racket exposed by Toronto undercover outfit.” The one I don’t much like is, “Local private dick shot nabbing kiddie gang.” You can see why.

So my door should be straining at the hinges to hold back the crowds of eager clients, but here’s me reading underwear pictures and waiting for my scab to scar over, instead of raking in the assets. Maybe it’s the rain keeping the criminals inside off the streets and the victims safely unmolested.

I tossed the catalogue on my clean desk and got up to get a ginger ale from the little bar fridge and while across the room, the phone rang. I caught myself in half-bend and twisted quickly around to backtrack to the desk—bad move, I pulled a stitch and felt a warm trickle run down my side. What the hell, I could use another vicodin. I snatched up the phone and answered,

“United Private Investigators, how can I help?”

“Get a secretary.” It was my partner, Juris Rasa. Funny guy.

“Waddaya want, smart guy?” I pulled the blood wet Oxford Broadcloth away from my ribs and looked around for paper towels.

“Are you going to be there for a while?” he asked.

“In this rain? I’m staying put until the sun comes out again. I’ve got movies, old underwear books, ginger ale and microwave popcorn. Everything a growing boy needs.”

“Good you’re not busy,” Juris observed. “There’s somebody on the way over to the office. Hide the dirty book and make yourself presentable. It’s a paying client so don’t embarrass us.”

“Embarrass? I’m the picture of decorum; the apple of every mother’s eye. What embarrass?”

“I suppose it’s too late for you to take a bath and get your hair cut. Change your shirt, at least.”

“How did you know I need to change my shirt?”

“You’ve got that, ‘mommy I have a boo-boo’ whine in your voice, so you’ve either picked at your scab or done something equally uncivilized. Your prized turtleneck is in the drawer and the paper towel is behind the bar fridge under the first-aid kit.”

How the hell does he know these things?

“All right I’m getting presentable. When you think they’ll be here?”

“Wait for it…Ah!” And there was a buzz from the downstairs lobby. “Get the door and I’ll check in later to make sure you remembered to charge her a fee.”

“Funny guy. Her?”

“Don’t screw it up,” he said as I hung up the phone.

 

She sat across from me with her long, lovely legs tightly crossed and her small, smooth hands in her lap. Knuckles whitening as she made little fists and then relaxed them over and over again. She wore a wool jacket and matching skirt, cut of some Irish weave I’d never seen before, but it was pure wool because of the smell of wet dog released as it slowly lost the rain-soak and dried in the warmth of my office. She’d refused coffee, tea, ginger ale and even the Jameson’s 12 year old Irish I keep for special occasions. Aside from the fear behind her startling amber eyes, and the fidgeting fists, she was all business.

“I can’t go to the police, but I’m not sure you’re the right person to be confiding in either, Mr. Brand. However you do come highly recommended.”

Here she paused to take in a tiny sip of air. Her rather thin lips defined her small mouth in sharp, yet warm, pink lines. She knew her makeup, and she took care choosing colors to match the weather. A slight pink blush was mirrored higher up on her milky cheeks. Altogether a wonderful effect, above the warmth of the tweed below. I was intrigued.

“Sometimes I don’t think I’m the right person for half the jobs I take on, myself, miss…?”

“Andrea Dougherty.” Pause; flicker of eye contact. “I know, Mr. Brand, I sound like a boat. My father had a childish sense of humor.”

I wondered how that affected her formative years. Did she grow up stronger or with a mean streak. I leaned toward the former as I sat waiting for her to go on. She didn’t come across as mean-spirited or vindictive. But I’ve been wrong before with women.

When she didn’t continue I spread my arms in a vague gesture of invitation.

“Actually I’m not sure who I should confide in. I think I’m in serious trouble, Mr. Brand. I took something from the Museum of Islamic Antiquities that belonged to my grandfather. I didn’t actually steal it, just retrieved it. But that’s not the way Dr. Stoker sees it.”

“And he is…?”

“Dr. Stoker is the curator of Ethnopaleontology and Applied Anthropology.”

“That’s very interesting, Miss Dougherty, but it doesn’t help me a bit. What’s ethnopaleontology and applied anthropology in the grand scheme of my existence? And how does it affect you?”

“In Dr. Stoker’s case it pertains to the collection and taxonomy of tribal, clan and pagan relics, totems and fetishes. But that sounds far too limiting. Imagine a room, a very large room, filled floor to ceiling with field notes and dissertations on over thirteen thousand examples of archeo- paleo- and anthropological masks, wands, sacrificial blades, ju ju sticks, charms, shards, statuettes, crude jewellery, shamanistic, druidic and generally magical objects lifted from digs and field studies in hundreds of countries and jerk water back alleys over a century and a half, and you get an idea of what he does and who he is.”

“That’s a serious mouthful of words for a woman who wasn’t sure I could be confided in,” I snorted.

She compressed her lips in a half frown. (Half smile?)

“The pertinent part of that mouthful, Mr. Brand, is the part attached to the word, Magical; in this case, unfortunately, Black Magical.”

She stood up then, and walked to the window I’d been gloating from just minutes before. I could see the streams of rainwater running down the pane reflected on her perfect face.

“The object I reclaimed from the museum was part of my grandfather’s collection of Islamic relics captured from a wandering monk, or so the story goes. The monk was connected to a largely unknown English cult that sprouted up in Wessex in the eleventh century promoting Edward the Confessor to sainthood. It is a silver cloak pin, a silver clasp, if you like, bearing what was claimed the first likeness struck of St. Edward III—taken from the monk just before the time of the first Crusade in 1096.”

She stared silently for a while, chewing the inside of her right cheek, giving her face a gaunt appearance. The streetlights reflected rivers in her eyes.

“The clasp was taken after the monk was tortured to death—parboiled skinned, and disembowelled, apparently for no other reason than the amusement of the Ismā'īlī sect of Shia Muslim mercenaries who kidnapped him. Again, so goes the tale,” she looked back over her shoulder at me and raised an eyebrow. Daring me to dispute her story? I was so close to her then I could smell her breath; it was like a slice of coconut cream pie.

Her gaze, tracking the progress of the wet pedestrians, slipping hither and thither along the sidewalks, focused intensely as she continued; “The clasp is heavy silver and made by a true artisan; my grandfather insisted it was made by a hermetic magician following prehistoric ritual. You do know that true magic has always been an oral tradition, spoken by the master to the apprentice?” I gave her a face and a shrug that said, “of course, who in my position wouldn’t know that? Do I look that stupid?” She passed on an answer and continued.

“The clasp’s pin is actually a small and deadly blade—typical of the time, even a piece of decorative jewellery was a weapon in disguise. And although the band of Hashasheen mercenaries (you might recognize the name as the forerunners of Assassins) who supposedly robbed the monk were happy to allow the clasp represented St Edward the Confessor, bent forward in absolution over a supplicant, they recognized right away that it was really a powerful sign of personal protection—the image of a desert ghoul, bent over a repast of human agony.”

“Protection for who, the guy getting eaten or the ghoul doing the eating,” I asked.

“Certainly not for the Hashasheen mercenaries if we can believe the accounts of the first crusaders to cross into the Holy Land. A probing force, sent secretly by Pope Urban II, came across their encampment and found hoards of loot and personal letters of transit and introduction from the travellers they’d butchered. They also found the nine mercenaries—dismembered and denuded of flesh.

“Their bodies had been gnawed upon—not ravaged by scavengers, but eaten by human-seeming jaws.”

“Again,” I said, “how does this affect me in the grand scheme of things—or you for that matter?”

“When I stole the clasp I thought I was doing my grandfather a favour. But when he heard what I’d done, he begged me to return it to the museum, but not me personally. He mentioned your name; told me you and your former partner had done a piece of work for him last year and he was very impressed with your partner—with you, too, of course.

“The point is, Mr Brand, the clasp is an amulet of great power and it’s carried a curse for a thousand years. I wouldn’t have done this had I known, and now I need to get it back into Dr. Stoker’s care before the creature is released again.”

I was about to correct her about the ‘former partner’ gaff, when she barged ahead;

“The silver clasp was intended for the ruler of the Seljuq Turks in 1093, Rukn ad-Din Barkiyaruq, and had he received it, the Crusades would have been over in a month and Europe would have ruled the known world.

“The hermeticist who created the clasp fashioned a Trojan Horse of sorts; a fake good luck charm that would have passed any inspection. He used an incantation of enslavement to entangle the Ghoul within the very metal of the blade. It was intended to assassinate Rukn ad-Din, and then the monk would dispatch the Ghoul, somehow.

“But the Ghoul was interrupted en route by the Hashasheen and instead killed them all and feasted on their flesh. And in the process the purpose of the amulet was corrupted. Now it sees it’s holy mission is to kill whoever steals the amulet. And it appears that that’s me.”

I had a lungful of air ready to launch my deluge of disbelief, but in a heartbeat her fixed attention out the window narrowed and then a sudden look of terror and recognition widened her eyes. She jerked back from the window and audibly clamped her teeth on the inside of her cheek and burbled a guttural noise of pain and despair.

“Oh God, it’s true. It ‘s following me!” she whimpered. Then she lost her rigid stance, trembled, and buckled at the knees. I bolted from behind my desk and caught her as she slumped to the floor.

The phone rang as I carried her limp body to the couch across from my desk. I eased her onto the cushions and grabbed it up, “What?”

“Aren’t we testy?” It was Juris.

“Look, JJ I have a situation here,” I began to explain.

“Graver than you know. Throw a coat over her and put her in my office, lock her in and make yourself small. Don’t open the door unless you know it’s me—and Bubbles; load your gun.”

The line went dead.

After moving Miss Dougherty to the inner office and seeing that she was comfortable, I locked that door, too, and sat at my desk, back to the window with its rain spattered panes and face to the front door. My Glock G17 nestled solidly in my two handed grip and my closed hands rested on the city phone book for stability. The Glock’s polymer barrel pointed at the middle of the locked office door and the safety was on. After all I was expecting my partner.

Instead what I got was a furtive snuffling, as you’d hear if a wild animal were sniffing outside your tent, looking for a free meal or a loose pet to take the edge of its hunger. Something was pressing against the outside of the door and making noises like dry paper rustling together as it rubbed from edge to edge, then came a soft thumping, tentative, dull straining, as if something was testing the strength of the door; it’s wood panels bulging inward dangerously. What happened next stopped my breath in a glottal shock and slammed my heart against my bone box. A reedy, dead voice echoed in my ears with the susurrations of skin sloughing off a dry corpse; “Are you close? Are you waiting for me?”
 
I shivered. I had never been as scared as I was then—not even staring at the man who was shooting bullets into me. This was a fear beyond the rational. I knew my spiritual self was in danger of being ripped away from me and I whimpered a low whisper behind my teeth. The thing outside my office door continued to speak, but in a language I didn’t recognize; many languages, in fact. Only once in a long string of babble did I hear a phrase in English, and it was always a clumsy but effectively chilling threat.

Then it got very quiet outside the door. Time pulled itself across the hour with arthritic fingers and crippled feet. The minutes waited their turn without enthusiasm and the very air settled to the bottom of the room and refused to circulate until the minutes picked up their pace. Then I heard the long, slow, deep clawing of sharp talons dragging furrows through wood grain.

Where the hell was Juris?

The heart stopping squeal of the fax machine galvanized me into jumping in my chair and squeezing the trigger of the Glock over and over again. Nothing went bang; the safety was still on. I dropped the gun as if it were covered in mucus; looking down at it with a mixture of confusion and abhorrence and wiping my hands on my sweater.

“Jesus Christ…” I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. “Jesus, Jimmy Crack Corn Christ!”

Andrea banged on the locked door to Juris’ office just as the fax transmission ended and I got up to attend to both at the same time, still muttering religious non sequiturs at the Glock on my desk. I ripped the fax out of the machine first, and turned the lock on the door next, then fell back into my spot at the desk.

“What happened? Are we all right? Did it come for me?” She was shaken as well as groggy from her recent faint. I looked at my watch, she’d been out for an hour and I must have nodded off myself, but for how long I couldn’t guess.

“We’re good,” I lied. “Whatever you saw, it’s gone now. Take it easy.” Big brave man, my heart was still fluttering hummingbird wings against my lungs and if my hands weren’t pressing on the top of the desk, they’d be dancing across the oak surface. I fumbled the Glock into the top drawer and asked her if she wanted fresh coffee. This time she said yes, and I pointed to where the machine and fixings were. She needed something to occupy her mind while I read the fax. It made sense to me, anyway.

 

It began with a warning;

“Listen, Bill, this is something you have to take very seriously. I can’t explain how or why it’s happening, but it’s real and it is happening to you. Andrea is being stalked by a Ghoul; not the cutsie, Hallo-weenie kind we’ve grown up with here, but the nasty, hungry, soul crushing monsters that were bred in the Arabian desert at the beginning of time. This one’s attached to her, and now to you because you’ve protected her. This is what I was able to find;

The ghūl "destroyer" is the most malicious species of the jinn. In ancient Arabic folklore, ghūls belonged to a diabolic class of spirits and were said to be the offspring of Iblīs, the Muslim prince of darkness. Anglicized as ‘ghoul, they are capable of changing form and walking through the places in time and space, but their presence is always accompanied by the stench of death and recognizable by their unalterable sign: cloven hooves.

The ghūl stalks the desert, often in the guise of an attractive woman, trying to distract travelers, and, when successful, kills and eats them. The males are often described with matted shaggy hair that hangs over their eyes, or completely hairless. In their natural state, they are thin and gaunt and their skin is parchment-like.

They are intelligent to a degree in that they can understand how to track and recognize their prey once they have been tasked by a higher force to perform an assassination. They are generally lethargic and unmotivated by their surroundings, but capable of great bursts of speed and strength when on the hunt. Once free of the task (their victim dead and consumed), they return to their encampments in the spaces between the worlds that exist in the deserts of Arabia.

“Bubbles, you have to keep in mind that these things are elemental forces—Karma-cursed dwellers of the threshold, earth-bound shells of the dead—Kabalah’s bitches and none too happy about it.—Be careful, I’ll get there when I can.”

As soon as I’d finished reading the fax, the phone rang. I snatched it up and hissed into the mouthpiece,“Where the hell are you, JJ? I could use a little help here.”

“Don’t get snitty with me, Turkey Face; I got you the information on the creature lurking outside your door, didn’t I? I’d say that was a day’s work in itself,” he said. “Beside that fact, I think I have something else worthy of a plethora of praise.”

“There’s a ghost outside waiting to get in and …”

“It’s a ghoul, not a ghost; and the good news is I know how to get rid of it.”

“How?”

“Give back the silver amulet.”

“That’s it? That’s all we have to do?”

“Yep.” I could hear his grin. He must have felt pretty satisfied with himself. “So we just hand it over to the ghoul and that’s that?”

“Did you take it from the ghoul,” he asked?

“Andrea stole it from some museum of Islamic Antiquities, why?”

“Well, Sherlock, that’s where you have to give it back.”

“That’s what Andrea said.”

“Smart cookie; that Andrea.”

“That’s easy for you to say, how do we get by the ghoul,” I asked?

“How’s your side; is it still bleeding? Can you move around okay?”

“I think it’s all right. A little sore.”

“How are the girl’s legs? Long and lovely? Silky and muscular?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I’m just trying to determine if you can both run,” he explained reasonably; as if talking to a kid about tying his shoes.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose we could put on a spurt. But what about just shooting it?”

“No good. It’s already dead—and there are certain rules that have to be observed.”

“But you told me to load my gun…”

“And you felt safe, didn’t you? Imagine if I’d said don’t bother shooting it, you’ll just piss it off?”

“Jesus, Juris; I wish you were here. I could use your help.”

“You’ll be all right, Bubbles. Take the girl out the side door and go down the freight elevator. Make a lot of noise at the front door then scoot right out the side; that should confuse the idiot long enough. They’re deadly but not the sharpest whisker in the beard.”

“Yeah, but…”

“I’ll be close by, Bill. I won’t let anything happen.”

Andrea had been standing by the coffee machine with two cups while I listened to JJ on the phone.

“Who were you talking to just now? I didn’t hear the phone ring.”

“It doesn’t matter. We have to get out of here now and get that thing back to Stoker’s museum. Where is it?”

“What the museum or the clasp?”

“Both.”

He museum’s in the annex of the University of Toronto and I have the clasp here in my bag.”

“You have it on you? Why didn’t you ditch it somewhere when you found out about the curse,” I asked in disbelief?

“From what my grandfather told me it wouldn’t matter. I’m marked until I give it back to Dr. Stoker. And even then it’s a matter of interpretation of the texts.”

“Tell me later. Get your things and let’s move. There’s a side door from Juris’ office that leads to the freight elevator. We can make a racket here to draw it to us, then head out the side as fast as we can run. If it follows, we should already be down to the parking garage and on our way out before it gets downstairs.”

She nodded and picked up her bag and the umbrella she brought into the office so long ago. I held up my hand in caution until I flipped the switch on the TV with the remote. I hiked the volume up high and started slamming open and closed the drawers of my desk and filing cabinets. She got the message and began looking for ways to make her own noise.

Then we both froze as we saw the panels of the door bellow inward and the wood screamed, on the point of shattering. Then came the frantic clawing of the door frame. We bolted to JJ’s office and the side door. It was locked.

“Where’s the key,” Andrea shouted in my face?

“Juris must still have it,” I said.

“What do you mean Juris has it? Juris is dead.”

“Don’t talk crazy,” I yelled back as I rammed my foot into the lock plate and the door slammed open with a crash. We made for the freight elevator and it was already on the floor waiting for us. Down we rode to the dark garage, where we hustled across the near empty tarmac and to my locked car. A door banged open somewhere behind us as I opened the car door. The night maintenance lights all went out, leaving the garage level in total, blinding darkness.

Echoes of clicking footsteps in the dark chilled me and I reached for my Glock. The holster was empty. It was still up in my desk where I’d swept it into the open drawer. The footsteps grew louder and they had an eerily familiar sound— hoof beats! They clopped like little hooves and the rapid staccato reverberations surrounded us as it closed the distance. Andrea pounded my shoulder and I came back into myself.

“It’s nearly at the car. What are you waiting for; let’s get out of here!”

Then a light came on in the emergency stairwell and I saw Juris wave and turn to open the doorway and walk his familiar, straight-backed walk up the stairs. Whatever made the echoing hoof beats hesitated, as if unsure of who to follow. In that instant I fumbled my car keys and gunned the engine. I heard a shriek of anguish as my tires squealed and burned rubber out of the parking garage and into the night.

Then we were on the street heading for the U of T.


The front doors to the Antiquities Museum were wide open and the deadbolt lock was sheared.

The entrance was at the side of the university off a narrow, treed lane bordered by a Victorian cast iron fence. I got the impression this was one of the highlights of the university tour—nicely hidden, and so very quaint. Andrea was all for rushing in to find Dr. Stoker and force the amulet into his care, but I wanted to go slowly; so we did.

The doors opened into a long, discreetly lit entryway, flanked by portraits of notables from the centuries of Islamic and pre-Islamic mid-East history, on the floor beneath each piece of displayed artwork were alternately placed urns and stands, both decorative and functional. Some held assortments of antique thrusting weapons; others held lances, while a collection of scimitars dangled in a scattered pattern between many of the portraits. I moved to the wall on my left and picked a jewelled scimitar off the wall and the hallway lit up like a slot machine on triple sevens. The jangle of alarms echoed off the walls and rolled down the hallway. And that suited me just fine.

If there was a supernatural creature stalking us, I wanted more than a pretty sword to fight it off—I wanted the entire Metropolitan Toronto Police Force with guns and tasers blazing.

Amid the cacophonous din I expected to see the mysterious Dr. Stoker bounding out of his scriptorium with quill in hand ready for a fight with whoever swiped his sword; but no dice. No doctor, either. There was no sign of him.

Further down the entry hall were three doors opening off the right hand wall. Each led to a display area dedicated to separate ages in Arabic and Islamic history, with appropriately displayed art and arms comprising each collection.

In the third room, at the end of the hall, we found the remains of the doctor. Andrea saw him first, lying beside a long table heavy with first editions and folios. He was spread eagled on his stomach, in a thick gel of pooled blood. She pointed to him silently, her eyes wide and her face pale as un-risen dough. Then she turned back into the entryway and dry heaved until she fell to her knees, gasping for breath. I walked to where the doctor lay, hefting the scimitar at the ready; alarm bells clanging all around us.

“How do we stop it now?” Andrea rasped from the threshold of the door. “Who do we give the amulet back to? How do we return it?”

I didn’t know. I looked down at Dr. Stoker’s corpse—the flesh tattered and chewed away from the face and head—parts missing from the torso. It cemented in my mind that the thing was a reality. Whatever it was known as, it was physical and it was life ending, and it was still in the room.

From behind a tapestry depicting some battle or other, it peeked out at us, Juris was right, they weren’t smart creatures. All of it was visible to the room except for parts of its face and its eyes. Like the ostrich in the joke, it probably thought if it couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see it. I wanted to laugh. Instead I rushed at it and hacked repeatedly with the sword, lopping pieces violently from its cringing body and kicking up a fine mist of blood.

The creature went down under my blows, but I continued to hack at it until Andrea screamed at me to stop. I stood breathing deeply, feeling my side wet and throbbing from the torn stitches. I looked dumbly at her horrified face and couldn’t fathom what she was reacting to. I’d killed the ghoul and taken care of our problem, what’s was the fuss? Then I looked back down at the body of the ghoul. In its place lay the butchered remains of Dr. Stoker. I had unknowingly cut him literally into chunks.

A thin, ghostly laugh echoed off the walls and ceiling, travelling around us, surrounding us, bouncing from place to place in a rebounding ricochet. And with the sound came a sense of physical presence—a light touch to the neck or the cheek, a fetid breath of cold wind and an overpowering stench of the grave. It was toying with us. It was taunting me with the proof of what it could do. I felt useless to defeat it.

Something hit me from behind and I went down to one knee. I was hit again and crumpled to the floor in a swirling fog of pain. Pinpricks of light flickered behind my eyes and I heard Andrea sobbing in fear and despair. I saw Juris in a kind of dream. He smiled down at me and reached out his hand. I took it in my dream and he brought me to my feet.

“Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I, Bubbles? You’re not making a great impression on the girl, either. Why don’t you think of the silver amulet and how the monk planned to kill this ghoul after it assassinated Rukn ad-Din. C’mon, Billy-Boy, do I have to do all the thinking?”

Yeah, I thought, how did he think he was going to pull that off? He must have known it was a suicide mission, but he thought he’d be able to kill Barkiyaruq first, and then get rid of the ghoul when it came back to him. How?

“How did Andrea describe the clasp? You promised not to embarrass us, remember? What did she said about the pin? Come on, Turkey Face, you can do it. Time to wake up, now, Bubbles. Let’s go, Bill, wake up. Get moving before it’s too late.”

I rolled over onto my hands and knees. My side burned and my head felt split in two. I opened my eyes but saw only darkly through a veil. I soon figured my eyes were awash in my own blood and wiped them with my coat sleeves. I raised my head slowly; because of the pain I couldn’t move at more than a snail’s pace. When I could focus on the room before me, I saw that Andrea was held down on the large table—books swept aside onto the floor, and the ghoul sat astride her chest, holding both her arms outstretched, drooling down at her now unconscious face.
Her bag; I had to find her bag, and the amulet within, if I was going to prevent her death. I crawled quietly and slowly across the floor—like those seconds crawling across that lost hour so long ago. I cast my gaze upward briefly to see the ghoul tasting her face, licking her closed eyes with its leathery tongue. Breathing heavily and grunting.

I felt it before seeing her handbag, and I fumbled it open. Reaching deep inside, I felt the cold metal first, then the electric sting of the sharp blade of the pin. Blade, that’s it! The pin was a weapon, like everything else from that period it could be used to kill.

With a dizzying sickness engulfing me, I rose in an instant to my feet and fell forward onto the ghoul. It screamed in rage at the interruption and half turned to claw me away. I brought my right hand down on its neck and with the blade of the pin fully exposed, stabbed it deeply in the throat. I only stabbed once, because I had no strength to see it through another time. I fell to the floor and into unconsciousness.

 

In the weeks that followed that October night, Andrea visited me in the hospital nearly every night—for the first week at least. Then less frequently, but I understood. She had to have some space and time between her and what happened and I was a big point of remembrance. I guess I made it all too real whenever she saw me.

The murder and mutilation of Dr. Stoker was assumed to have been a fundamentalist terrorist message to others who steal Islamic treasures. Since I was no help in dissuading the authorities, I can only assume Andrea saw this as a neat way to leave it. Why muddy the waters with tales of curses and ghouls from far Arabia?

But Juris didn’t visit me once while I was there in ICU or later in recovery. I didn’t take it personally, though; I know he doesn’t like hospitals.

The trauma team that worked me over that first night did a really good job sticking me back inside my skin and stitching me up. I lost a piece of my liver, though. It was never explained fully to me, because they couldn’t figure out how it was done. They just assumed I was targeted by the same terrorists when Andrea and I stumbled on them torturing Stoker.

I stayed in hospital for three weeks and visited as an outpatient for the next couple of months. I’m better now.

In fact I went to the Shamrock the other day for a game of pool and a ginger ale. I don’t drink any more, but I can still play pool. I met JJ at the same back table in the dark part of the famous underground pub. He was nursing two bottles of Old Vienna lager, just like he always did.

When I sat down at the table he looked over at me and said, “So? Tell me about yourself. Your hopes, your dreams, your desires, your aspirations; you’ve got thirty seconds, don’t bore me.”

And he smiled that same old smile. And I smiled too. Just seeing him again made me feel better.

“How did you know to stab it only once,” he asked?

“What are you talking about? I was out on my feet; I only had one shot in my whole body. Why?”

“Rules,” he said. “A ghoul is a tricky thing; if you hit it once you kill it—you hit it more than once; and it kills you.”

“It’s a stupid rule.”

“Yes, Bubbles, but a rule nonetheless. Now, you know why I didn’t come to see you, right?”

“Yeah, I know you don’t like hospitals.”

“You’re a funny guy, Bill, that’s why I like you. By the way, you weren’t wearing that turtleneck when you were attacked, were you?”

“Yeah, smart guy. Why?”

“No wonder he didn’t kill you—I wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit.”

I chuckled at the tired joke, but then realized how appropriate it was. “Yeah, I have to remember to wear this whenever I go out looking for monsters.”

“Well, I’m glad you survived, Bubbles. There’s gonna be a lot more like that one from now on.”

“Why, what do you mean a lot more like that?”

“The door’s open now, Bill. They know how to come through—we’ve shown them how.”

“Look Juris, let’s shoot over to the Sunrise and get something to eat, I’m starving. There‘s nothing to eat in the hospital but cardboard and Jell-O.” I got up to leave but JJ stayed put.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“You know I can’t leave here, Bill. I’m not allowed.”

“Get off it! Cut the crap and let’s go.”

“Bill, there are rules, remember. I can’t leave here. I’m dead.”

Then it all came back in a wash of red and screams of pain. The night we busted up the pedophile ring. The screaming children; the freaks torturing them; the shouts of outrage and the gunshots. We’d killed three of them before they shot us. I lived; Juris didn’t. They buried him while I was still recovering in hospital. I didn’t remember, because I couldn’t remember without feeling the pain.

“So I guess it’s true, then,” I asked him?

“Well, whether it’s true or not doesn’t change anything between us. I’ll always be here for you. You’re my little buddy, Bubbles. I’m not gonna let anything happen to my little buddy.”

“So, you’re a ghost?”

“I’m whatever they let me be. Now you go home and get some sleep. I’ll call you in a few days. I think you’re gonna become pretty popular in certain circles of private investigation. With my brains and connections and your brawn and good looks, we’re gonna go a long way, Bubbles.”

I walked out of the Shamrock smiling and the waiter waved at me, thinking I was smiling at him.

The End