Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Ghostreaper, or, Life After Revenge

I’d used duct tape to attach one end of a garden hose to the exhaust pipe, and the other end of the hose ran in through the crack at the top of the passenger-side window, pumping sweet poison into the interior. I took a last swig from the bottle between my knees, the liquor burning its familiar path down my throat. I closed my eyes and waited for a sleep that would be forever untroubled by bad dreams—for the final closing of the unbalanced account of my life—when something tapped against the glass beside my left ear.

I lifted my head from my contemplation of the steering wheel and saw a pretty, thirty-something, red-haired woman crouched down and smiling on the other side of the window. She held a long pole in her hand—the length of a broom handle, but thicker, and off-white and weirdly textured. I rolled down the window, my head full of dizzy clouds.

“Don’t die,” she said. Her breath smelled of cherries and honey and, faintly, blood-rare steak.

“Ah.” The exhaust I’d inhaled so far gave my perceptions a muffled, cotton-swaddled quality. “I . . . what do you mean? What should I do instead?”

She said, “Kill.”

I had expected her to say “Live,” I guess, that most simplemindedly optimistic imperative. I blinked. “Kill . . . whom?”

“‘Whom,’ he says!” She rolled her eyes and grimaced dramatically. “Whomsoever made you want to die yourself, that’s probably a good start. Turn off the engine, will you? The fumes are making my eyes water.”

That was demonstrably untrue—her eyes were bright and clear and untouched by tears—but I killed the ignition anyway. She struck me as more interesting than death, which, for a long time now, hadn’t been true of anything else in my life.

The woman tapped against the side of the car with the thing that wasn’t a broom handle. “With this, you can punish everyone who ever wronged you.”

“With a stick?” I coughed, waving the fumes away from my face.

“A spear.” She slid the stick—it was the color of old ivory, carved all over with delicate abstract patterns of swirls and whorls and curlicues—down through her hands, until I could see what capped the end: a pale, glossy spearhead as long as my forearm, lashed to the shaft with leather thongs gone black with age.

“What’s that supposed to be? The spear the Roman soldier used to stab Christ on the cross? Are you selling relics?” The flicker of interest I’d felt a moment ago faded as suddenly as it had come. I was so inexpressibly weary, of everything.

She snorted. “Ha. I see I’ve got an erudite suicide on my hands. You think it’s the Spear of Longinus, that old thing? No. I’m not selling relics. I’m giving away . . . call it an artifact. An object with a point of view. I hold in my hands one of the most perfect instruments of vengeance ever wrought by human hands—strike that, I’m pretty sure it predates humanity, and I don’t know for sure that any hands at all were involved in its wrought-ing. Wrighting? You wouldn’t say ‘forging,’ it’s made of bones and teeth and skin, not metal . . . its making, then. Anyway, come on. Who are we reaping first?”

“Reaping? It’s not a scythe.”

“You’re awfully pedantic for a guy who was about to be dead in a few minutes. But reaping’s what I mean. This spear has a name, or at least, some people have a name for it—they call it ‘Ghostreaper.’ Not as classic as ‘Heartseeker’ or ‘Stormbringer,’ but it’s got a certain ring. So. Let’s go make some ghosts?”

“I wish you’d leave me alone.” I slumped even further in my seat. “I don’t know you. I don’t want you here. I don’t want what you’re selling. The problems I have can’t be solved with a spear.

“I’m not here to advocate problem solving. I prefer causing problems. I’m here to advocate revenge. Who’s to blame for your suicidal tendencies? You’re, what? Early fifties, only moderately pear-shaped, all your own hair, good teeth, nice house, fancy car . . . It’ll lose a lot of resale value once you die in it, though. So what’s the problem? Heartbreak? Gambling habit catch up with you? I don’t sense anything terminal on you, certainly not cancer—that’s kind of my specialty—and your serotonin levels smell fine, which makes me think it’s situational depression. So what’s the situation?”

“It’s . . . lots of things.” The litany of misfortune unspooled in my head. “My boyfriend was killed a few months ago. In a hit-and-run, just a few blocks from our house. This house. We were going to get married. After that, I just . . . had trouble focusing. I lost my job—I am, or was, an accountant, corporate taxes mainly. I cashed in my retirement fund and thought I’d drink myself to death.” I laughed, but not happily. “I just fall asleep before I get very far, though, and throw everything up.”

“The key is to sleep on your back, so you aspirate on the vomit,” the woman said seriously.

I wrinkled my nose in distaste. I had never liked a mess. “I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this.”

“I have one of those faces that makes people want to confess. It’s one of my many fine qualities. Here, give me your hand.” Before I could reply, she reached into the car through the open window, grabbed my wrist, and pressed my palm against the shaft of the spear.

I jolted upright. The sensation was like being plunged into ice water, but also like touching a Van de Graaf generator, and—

“Feels like getting a blowjob from a guy with a peppermint in his mouth, doesn’t it?” she said. “The tingle! That’s the alcohol leaving your body, and the need for alcohol leaving, too, and any other addictions you’ve got. Maybe the loss of an inhibition or two as well. Ghostreaper likes a clean vessel. So why didn’t you ever hunt down the asshole who ran over your boyfriend?”

I kept my fingers curled around the cool haft of the spear. The tingling had subsided, leaving in its place a sort of cold, distancing clarity, as if I were viewing the world through a pool of perfectly still, icy water. “The police didn’t have any leads. Richard was home sick from work that day; I don’t even know why he was out walking—he should have been here in bed. No one saw the car that ran him down. A neighbor found him, bleeding in the street.” His blood had run down into a storm drain; I saw faded brown splotches staining the gutter’s iron grating later.

The woman slid across the hood of my car like the heroine of an action movie and pulled open the passenger door—even though I’d locked it—dislodging the hose in the process. She sat down next to me and patted my hand. “I can find the killer for you. And you can introduce them to Ghostreaper. Would you like that?”

“What—how—”

“It’s pretty much always a waste of time to ask me questions. I prefer assertions, even if they’re mistaken ones. Shall we?”

* * * *

We rearranged things, first. I climbed out of the car awkwardly, keeping my hand on Ghostreaper through the window, unwilling to lose the numbing clarity that touching the weapon seemed to afford. I grasped it with my other hand before untangling myself from the window. The spear was six feet long from its base to the tip of its point, two inches taller than me.

The woman slid out of the passenger seat and took a moment to yank the garden hose loose from the exhaust pipe. Then she looked around my garage, humming, and picked up one of my smaller telescopes from the workbench, a refractor with a 2.76 inch aperture, about fifteen inches long. Not as obvious a blunt object as a lead pipe, but of roughly the same dimensions. “Heads up,” she said, and swung the scope at my head like a baseball bat.

I flinched away, turning to catch the blow on my shoulder—but when the scope struck me I felt no pain, and barely any sensation, just the barest flutter of pressure, as if I’d been brushed by a butterfly’s wing.

She tossed the telescope on the ground with a clatter, and even as my mind raced and my adrenaline pumped, I winced at the tinkle of the lens breaking.

“The wielder of Ghostreaper is invulnerable to physical assault,” the woman said. “As long as you’re touching the spear, anyway. Let it leave your grasp and you’re as breakable as ever. So what I’m saying is: while you wield Ghostreaper, act with impunity. Of course, I always say that anyway.

“You could have just told me. You didn’t have to break my telescope—”

“I believe in instructive demonstrations. Besides, telescopes are for the long view, and I want you focused on the immediate situation.”

I maneuvered the spear into the car with difficulty, shoving its butt deep into the passenger footwell, reclining the seat and leaning the shaft back against it, the head nearly touching the back window. I got into the driver’s seat, resting my fingers on the shaft, glad the car was an automatic and not a stick shift, so I’d have a hand free. The woman sat in the back seat, right behind me.

“Who are you?” I reached for the key awkwardly with my left hand, but I didn’t turn it yet. Last time I’d started the car, I’d intended to kill myself. Next time I started it, I would do so with the intent of killing someone else.

“My name’s Elsie. You’re Dave, right?”

“Carson,” I said. “My name is Carson.”

“Oh. Well, that’s okay. You’ll do.”

“When you say you can find the killer—”

“Open up the garage door, and turn left. Your vehicular manslaughter-er doesn’t live too far away. Keeping it local—I like that, shows real community spirit.”

I activated the garage door opener and did as she asked. I followed her directions, and soon parked in front of a neat, narrow, two-story house just a few blocks away. I saw someone moving through the windows inside.

“She’s home!” Elsie said. “Let’s go visit.”

I stared at the silver Prius parked in the driveway. “They found flakes of silver paint on Richard’s body. The police said it was too common to trace.”

“Luckily I have other ways of finding things that interest me.” Elsie took a great gulping inhalation of air. “I can smell chaos in the air. I’m like a bloodhound for strife. Also for actual blood.”

I climbed out of the car, bringing Ghostreaper with me. The day was cool but clear, a perfect San Francisco summer. It should have been awkward to get out of a car dragging a six-foot spear after me, but I didn’t have any trouble at all. Still, even with the cold clarity of the weapon in my hand, I hesitated. “I don’t—what do I say to her—”

Elsie was somehow out of the car and beside me in an instant. “What, you mean, like, ‘Prepare yourself, Dana Martin, for I am your death, destroyer of worlds?’ Eh. Pithy one-liners are overrated. I mean, the main audience is going to be dead in a minute, yeah? When you tell the story later you can make up any dialogue you want, because who can contradict you? You can say anything you want, or nothing. Though if you do have questions, I find that menacing someone with a huge weapon is a good way to get them to answer. The answers might not be true, but truth is overrated, too.”

We walked toward the front door, and I paused by the Prius. I slashed the spear at the car viciously, expecting to smash the rear window.

Instead the spearhead passed through the glass, as if I’d slashed at a fog bank. I gaped. “What—”

“Oh, sorry—Ghostreaper isn’t much good for general vandalism. The shaft is ordinary matter, at least most of the time, so you could maybe smash a taillight with it. But the spearhead just passes harmlessly through anything that’s not alive. It’s one of those quirks. Magical weapons, what are you gonna do?” She skipped up the front steps, turned the knob, and threw the door open. I was surprised the door was unlocked—but maybe it wasn’t. Locks hadn’t kept Elsie out of my garage, or my car either.

I went up the steps, the spearhead passing through the doorframe as if it wasn’t there at all. I stood awkwardly in a stranger’s living room, full of old, comfortable furniture, abstract prints on the walls, and enough potted plants to give the whole place a jungle feeling.

The woman, Dana, hurried in from another room, frizzy-haired and sharp-featured, dressed in Bohemian swirls of skirts and scarves. She froze when she saw me, I assumed because I was holding an enormous spear, but then she whimpered and said, “You.” Her body language shifted, as if she planned to run away, but then she steeled herself, lifted her chin, and said, “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I parked my car first; I just wanted to talk to him, but he walked away from me, called me a crazy bitch and then just walked away, and I lost control, I put the car in gear—”

I’d half-believed Elsie was trying to deceive me into committing some grudge-murder on her behalf, but this was an open confession, not even of an accident, but of something akin to premeditated murder.

Which seemed to me, in the cool comfort of Ghostreaper’s company, to be grounds for a premeditated murder of my own.

“We used to climb up on the roof together.” I twisted the spear in my hands, the delicate filigree patterns cutting into my palms. “Richard and I. We’d lay there and look up at the stars, what few we could see with all the city lights. Sometimes we’d go out to the desert to see the stars, or go camping during meteor showers. We made up our own names for the constellations. Now I can’t even look at the sky without feeling a black hole open up in my chest. “

Dana’s face crumpled in on itself, tears springing into her eyes. “I’m so—”

“You took the stars away from me,” I said, and stepped forward, swinging the spear at her soft belly. The spearhead passed through her, still with no resistance at all, and I thought it was a different cruel trick, a spear that couldn’t stab anything, the murderous equivalent of those birthday candles you can’t blow out no matter how you huff and puff. But Dana’s eyes went blank, and she slowly crumpled to the floor, sprawling on her side. There was no blood on the spear when I lifted it away, no visible wound, but her body was still and unbreathing.

“So how did that feel?” Elsie stepped inside and shutting the door behind her.

I looked down at the corpse of the woman who’d killed my boyfriend. “It felt. . .good. Like closing a difficult account forever.”

“Revenge gets a bad rap.” Elsie prodded the corpse with her foot. “People say it’s ultimately unsatisfying, that it only ends in tears—but of course, people would say that, wouldn’t they? To discourage people like you from going out and getting revenge on them. I’ve always found vengeance to be pretty satisfying, making people pay for what they’ve done to me. Hell, sometimes I even make them pay in advance.” She looked at the ceiling, and her tone took a turn for the philosophical. “Of course, it is true that an act of revenge can begin an endless cycle of retribution, with this woman’s loved ones coming to kill you, and so on . . . but fuck ‘em. You’ve got the spear. As you can see, Ghostreaper makes it look pretty much like death from natural causes, so it’s super fun at parties—”

“You killed me!” a voice shrieked, and Dana walked into the room again—but now she looked like a faded watercolor of herself, almost transparent in places, and her feet didn’t quite touch the ground.

“Oh, right,” Elsie said. “I forgot to tell you about that part.”

I stumbled away from the shimmering doppelganger, lifting up the spear defensively.

Elsie said, “When you kill someone with Ghostreaper, it, well . . . it rips out their soul. Or essence. Or thought-pattern. It makes a ghost, more or less. A ghost that follows you around, uh . . . Forever, pretty much. But if it’s any consolation, no one else can see her, unless you want them to. And she’s bound to your service. Instead of getting an afterlife, she gets to do your bidding for eternity, or the local equivalent.”

This was too much. It occurred to me that I was probably still sitting in my car, breathing carbon monoxide, having a terrible final hallucination in my last moments of life. I found that idea very comforting.

“Will you tell her to shut up with that wailing?” Elsie said.

Dana—my victim—was indeed making quite a commotion, crouching by her corpse, keening. “Ah,” I said. “Could you . . . stop making that noise?”

The ghost went silent. Her hands went to her throat, her mouth, and she opened and closed her lips soundlessly, eyes wide.

“You can talk, I just don’t want you to—”

“He was cheating on you,” she said dully, still looking at her body, stroking the corpse’s frizzy hair. “Richard. He was cheating on you with my husband, Harvey. I did you a favor—”

“Richard and I had an open relationship,” I said. “We never wanted a little thing like temporary lust to ruin our connection.”

Dana sprang to her feet, floating just above the carpet. “They were going to run away together, you moron! You fat old man, your boyfriend was young, and so was my Harvey—”

“Stop talking,” I said, and she did, making those fish-mouth silent gapings, which should have been comical, but were horrible instead.

“So what next?” Elsie said brightly.

I frowned at her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you’ve been transformed into an instrument of perfect revenge! Surely someone else has wronged you. Like the dead lady’s husband. He walked out on her—I can smell traces of their marital discord—but I can track him down. He was doing the dirty with your boyfriend, and even if you’ve got one of those brains that doesn’t get jealous over a little ugly-bumping, dead Dickie was planning to abandon you for hot-and-heavy Harvey, so surely that—”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know this Harvey, and if he made Richard happy, for a little while, that’s all I ever wanted, for him to be happy.”

Elsie sighed. “You disappoint me, Dave. I thought I saw real potential in—”

“I want to kill my boss.” I caressed Ghostreaper. “The one who fired me. The one who said it wasn’t as if my wife had died, just my boyfriend. Except he said ‘boy toy,’ he—”

“Even better.” Elsie beamed like a proud mother. “I love a man who shows initiative. The victims you choose yourself are always the sweetest.”

I looked down at the ghost. “Do you have any duct tape?”

* * * *

The car was crowded with Ghostreaper in the passenger seat, Elsie behind me, and Dana in the back seat next to her, body contorted to avoid contact with the wedged-in spear. Dana seemed to be attached to me by an intangible tether: when I walked out the door, she’d bobbed along after me, floating just off the ground, like a helium balloon that had degraded into neutral buoyancy.

I drove slowly. I didn’t have any doubt about my chosen course—but that didn’t mean I wasn’t full of questions. “Why did you bring me this spear?” I looked at Elsie in the rearview mirror. “Why are you doing any of this? You don’t even know me.”

“Oh, people are the same all over, Dave.”

“I told you, my name’s Carson. And that’s not an answer.”

She looked out the window, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. “It’s not complicated. I eat chaos, and I get bored easily. There, that’s my motivations sorted.”

“Where are we going?” Dana spoke but didn’t look up, sullen as a teenage girl forced to go on a family road trip.

Elsie patted her ghostly knee and replied, “To get you some company.”

* * * *

My former employer was an innumerate buffoon who’d inherited the firm from his father, a genuine gentleman who’d had an unfortunate blind spot when it came to recognizing the foulness of his imbecilic spawn. The old man was dead, and the idiot was ascendant, having stripped away all the small perqs and pleasantries of working in the firm until it was as soulless as any corporate cubicle farm. I’d come in late one too many times, probably with breakfast bourbon on my breath, and the idiot had called me in and told me with great relish that I was “out on my ass.” He then said, “Thanks for giving me a reason to get rid of you—now I can hire some young hotshot for half your salary.” I’d spent thirty years at the company, and I was escorted out by security, my possessions boxed up and mailed to me in a jumble.

When I opened the box later, I found my framed picture of Richard with a star-shaped crack in the glass. I’d taken the picture on our first trip together to Hawaii, after calling in a favor from an old college friend—one who’d stayed in astronomy instead of dropping out to make money working with numbers—and getting us a tour of the observatory on Mauna Kea. A dome holding a telescope loomed behind Richard in the photo, a ragged gash in the image, his face scratched by the broken glass.

My idiot boss had treated my life like meaningless trash, and for a while, I’d thought it was, too.

With a spear in my hand, all such existential problems suddenly had obvious solutions.

* * * *

I sat staring at the doors to the building’s lobby. There was a security guard behind the desk, and I knew there was at least one more roaming the ground floor hallways. I knew the names of those men; I knew the names of their children.

I knew if I walked in carrying an enormous spear, they would try to stop me.

The firm was on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors of the building. I couldn’t conceive of any way to reach my boss without causing a great deal of trouble along the way. “I should wait,” I said slowly. “Find out where he lives, prepare for him—”

Bor-ing,” Elsie singsonged. “I’ll get fidgety and take the spear away long before that.”

I blinked. “You mean . . . you’re going to take it away from me?”

“Only if you run out of people you want to murder,” Elsie said. “What—did you think I was here because I think you’re cute?”

“What are you?” Dana said. “Some kind of demon?”

“You’re just racist against redheads,” Elsie said. “I’m no demon, devil, or monster—just an ordinary gal who feeds on chaos and disaster, who happens to own a magical spear. What I am is an enabler. So what’s it going to be? Are you going to go make with the revenging, or give me back my spear and sit around with ghost-girl here forever?”

I wasn’t ready to let go of the feeling of power—or of cool detachment—that holding Ghostreaper afforded me. I climbed out of the car, and Elsie followed, along with Dana’s ghost. We all stood on the sidewalk. “The spear,” I said, trying to hide its length against the side of the car. “Does it have any other powers? Can it make people go to sleep, or—”

Elsie laughed. “You can’t set that phaser on stun, son. It’s only got one mode of attack: soul-ripping.”

“Those guards never did anything to me.”

“Oh, they will in a minute,” Elsie said breezily. “They’ll draw guns on you, probably, and maybe try to shoot you.”

I was invulnerable while I held the spear. Perhaps I could simply walk past the guards, brush off their attacks. I reached back into the car and took the roll of duct tape I’d found in Dana’s house, and began to wind the tape around my right hand and the shaft of Ghostreaper, binding the weapon to my flesh, leaving my fingers free, but with the spear strapped to my palm.

“Good thinking,” Elsie said. “If you tripped and dropped the spear you’d be dead in a hot second once the bullets started flying.”

“This is insane,” Dana said. “I don’t believe this—”

“Believe it,” I said, not really thinking of it as a command, but then Dana began to whimper.

“I do,” she murmured. “I do believe it. All of it.”

I glanced at Elsie, who shrugged. “Ghosts are very literal. If you told her to go fuck herself, the results would be pretty dramatic.”

I pushed open the door to the lobby and stepped inside. The guard behind the desk, a huge and affable man named Latu, rose from his chair, eyes wide. “Mr. Whitaker, you can’t—I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I ignored him, walking toward the bank of elevators. I had a vision of Latu drawing his gun, firing into my chest, bullets bouncing off me like Superman—but instead he simply walked around the desk and grabbed my right arm, the one holding the spear. His grip didn’t hurt, but it was like iron, unshakeable. He was built like a sumo wrestler. “You’ll have to leave,” he said. “Don’t make me call the police. I always liked you—”

“Oh, just spear him,” Elsie said.

“No.” I gritted my teeth. “He’s innocent.”

She cocked her head. “Huh. More or less true, actually.” She sighed. “This is boring. Tell Dana to stick her head into his head.”

“I—what?”

“Mr. Whitaker, who are you talking to?” Latu said. “Are you hearing voices?”

I realized he couldn’t see Elsie. Was she always invisible, or just when it suited her? I suddenly wondered if she was real at all. The possibility of carbon monoxide hallucination arose in my mind again, but somehow seemed less plausible this time.

“Her head, his head,” Elsie reiterated. “She’s your ghost, you have to tell her what to do, they lack initiative.”

“Dana, ah—put your head into his head.”

Dana rolled her eyes, stepped forward, and seemed to head-butt Latu . . . except her head didn’t strike his, it simply submerged into it, disappearing. Latu twitched and shivered and dropped to the floor, spasming and drooling.

“Don’t worry, he’s fine,” Elsie said. “Just a little seizure. Your ghost-slaves can actually possess people—clumsily, moving their bodies around about as elegantly as novice stilt-walkers, but still. Dana just jostled his life force a little and made him pass out.”

“I was in his head.” Dana hugged herself and shuddered. “My head was in his head—”

“Or maybe she disrupted the electro-chemical processes of his brain,” Elsie said, scratching her chin. “I never entirely understood the mechanism.”

“I can taste the inside of his brain.” Dana bent over, retching and spitting.

“Ha. No stomach, but she still gets nauseated, you’ve got to love it.” Elsie smiled. “Elevators now?”

I stared at her. “You won’t tell me what you are, where you come from. But where did this spear come from?”

She shrugged. “Another place. Where screaming hordes descend from fortresses made of acid clouds. Where leviathans the size of moons splash in seas that are literally bottomless. Where warriors receive guidance from living books, and go on quests set by mad seers. Where the sky is the belly of a goddess, and the triple suns are just jewels in her navel. Where marsh witches whisper to their children, who are living axes.” She smiled hideously, and the phrase that leapt into my mind was “baby-eating grin.” “I didn’t see any reason why they should get to have all the best toys, so I stole a couple.” The grin abruptly vanished. “Don’t make me regret letting you play with one of them.”

I turned and marched for the elevators, then spun, swinging the spear toward Elsie.

She leapt several feet straight up, and came down to land in a crouch, balanced on the shaft of the spear, like something from a wire-fu martial arts movie. “Do you think I’d give you a weapon that could hurt me? But it was amusing of you to try.”

I shook the spear, and she hopped off, like a bird flitting from a perch.

“There’s no going back for me, is there?” I said. “And this isn’t a hallucination, is it?”

“No, and no. But look at it this way: this morning you expected to be dead by now. There’s pretty much nowhere your day can go from there except up.” She paused. “Or on to fates worse than death, I guess. Like the one poor Dana here got. No eternal oblivion, no afterlife—if they have those in this world, I can’t recall—no rest at all.”

I turned to the elevators. There was nowhere to go now but onward.

* * * *

We rode uneventfully to the sixth floor, and I stepped out, unnoticed at first. Reception and conference rooms were on the fourth floor, and higher up it was mostly offices for HR and some of the more senior members of the staff—and my boss, of course, the idiot. I walked down the hallway, dragging the butt of the spear along behind me, like a kid drawing lines in the dirt with a stick.

A security guard I didn’t recognize stepped out of an office in the corridor, holding a weapon that I thought at first was a gun and then realized was a taser. Latu must have called in the arrival of a man with a spear before Dana zapped his brain, or else he’d awakened since then and summoned assistance.

“The police are on the way,” the guard said. He was young, freckled, and jittery. “Put down the, ah . . . spear.” He shook his head. “I’ve heard of disgruntled employees coming back with a gun, but what do you think you’re going to do with that?”

I stepped toward him, and he fired the taser. The contacts struck my chest, and I felt nothing, not even the tingle I’d experienced when I first grasped Ghostreaper. “Get out of my way,” I said. “I’m not here for you.”

The guard dropped the taser and fumbled for his gun.

“Dana?” I said. “Stop him.”

She sighed, and swept her hand through his chest, and the guard fell back, clutching at his ribs, sliding down the wall. His eyes closed.

“I didn’t say kill him!”

“I didn’t.” Dana’s sulky tone was grating. “I just made his heart skip a little. I just knocked him out, god.

Somewhere someone screamed, and I heard the thud of running feet.

More people would be calling the police soon. I hurried down the familiar corridors, past glassed-in offices and the occasional sad cubicle where contract workers and temps were consigned. My boss, the idiot, had a corner office, of course. His secretary’s desk was deserted, his door closed, and for a moment I thought I’d made a mistake, that he was gone, out of town for a meeting, or just having one of his famous three-hour lunches.

Then his door banged open, and he stuck his head out, scowling. He wasn’t yet thirty, and had a very expensive ugly suit and a very expensive stupid haircut. “Where the fuck is—” he began. His eyes widened when he saw me. “Whitaker?” I was stunned when he began to laugh at me. “What the hell is that taped to your hand? Your toy spear from Halloween? Did you go as a Zulu warrior or something? I figured you for the kind of guy who’d dress in drag, or maybe just put on a leather vest and call it a—”

He gasped as the point of the spear entered his belly, then slid up through his chest, and out through his throat. I was watching for it this time, and saw the gossamer substance of his soul caught on the end of Ghostreaper’s spearhead. It fluttered away, taking on definition as it fell, until it was recognizably the idiot’s ghost, hovering just above the ground on all fours, shaking his head in confusion.

“That’s good,” I said. “Stay like that. Crawl on hands and knees. You don’t get to stand up.”

He lifted his stupid face, squinting at me. “Whitaker? I don’t—”

“Understand what’s happening to you,” I ordered. “And then shut the fuck up.”

His eyes widened, but he didn’t speak. I saw Dana in my peripheral vision, desperately trying not to be noticed, doubtless afraid I’d turn my wrath on her.

But the wrath was running out of me like water from a cracked cup. Where would this end? I’d had legitimate grievances against these two, but what would Elsie want me to do next? What offenses were worthy of Ghostreaper’s touch? Should I go back to my hometown in Idaho and take revenge on the aging upperclassmen who’d played “smear the queer” with me in high school? Track down the guy I’d had a one-night-stand with, who’d stolen my TV while I slept hungover in the bed we’d shared?

There’s an old saying: “He who seeks revenge should dig two graves.” It’s meant to be a warning about the dark consequences of taking a vengeful path, but I think it’s just good advice. Because I was having a hard time imagining life after revenge.

“Elsie,” I said. “I don’t know if I can—”

“Don’t worry, sweetie.” She patted my shoulder. “Things are progressing nicely. These little grudges are fun, but they’re so petty. We’ve moved beyond that now. Let’s go to the roof.”

I followed her, because I could hear sirens, and knew going downstairs wouldn’t end well.

* * * *

I let the idiot crawl up a flight of stairs—never quite touching the stairs, mind you—before becoming ashamed of my own pettiness and telling him to walk like a man. Now he and Dana hovered near one of the big air conditioners on the roof, while Elsie and I looked down at the chaos below.

There were police cars, lots of them, parked at crazy angles in the street, the area blocked off by sawhorses. Crowds of bystanders were taking advantage of their lunch breaks to see what all the commotion was about. A man with a megaphone stood below, shouting something I couldn’t hear from ten stories above.

“Ha,” Elsie said. “I’m at full visibility, and I bet they think I’m a hostage. This is great.” She glanced around at the taller buildings surrounding us. “Pretty soon sniper bullets are going to be bouncing off you left and right. There are lots of great perches for gunmen around here.”

“What am I supposed to do now?” I was not expecting good advice. But I wasn’t expecting what she actually said, either.

“What any animal does when it’s cornered, Dave. You’re going to fight. But unlike the noble but helpless, I don’t know, vole or whatever, when you’re set upon by badgers—let’s say—you’re going to surprise the hell out of them by actually winning.”

I shook my head. Ghostreaper suddenly felt heavy in my hand, and if not for the duct tape binding it to my palm, it might have fallen from my grasp. “But what’s the point? There’s just—there’s no good outcome here.”

“Here’s what I’d like to see happen.” Elsie touched her chest modestly. “You go on a complete rampage. You stroll down there, or better yet, leap right off the roof, fall ten stories, land in a crouch, and stand up unharmed, swinging the spear like a badass. The cops open fire, bullets bounce off. They try to swarm you, bury you in bodies, and you swing the spear a time or two. Pretty soon your sad little ghost pity party back there becomes a ghost army, and they clear you a path. The cops call in reinforcements. Air support. The National Guard. All kinds of tactical backup. You just walk right through them all. The cops crash cars into you, they shoot missiles at you, I’m talking full-on action movie video game shit.”

Her eyes were shining. I don’t mean in some metaphorical sense; I mean they were actually shining, radiating white light as she contemplated that imagined destruction. “Picture it, Dave. A trail of fire and disaster follows you wherever you go. The military steps in, and you brush off their tanks and bombs too, because while you hold the spear, you’re a creature made of iron in a world made of tapioca pudding. Eventually you become a warlord, because there’s pretty much nothing else you can do. You become a conqueror because there’s no other way you can get any rest. You sit on a throne atop a mountain of skulls. I don’t know how that works, logistically—I guess you epoxy the skulls together or something. The world changes, and it can never change back.” She grinned again, and there was blood on her teeth, either from biting her own lip or from some other, more mysterious, source. “Then, when you’re all settled in as king of the world, maybe I find some lowly fucker and give him one of the other toys I’ve come across in my travels. A sword, maybe, that sings notes that can shatter buildings. Or a horn that calls forth the spirits of dead monsters, or an axe forged from the last fragment of a broken alien moon. Something along those lines. And then we have some real fun.”

I barked a laugh. “And what if that doesn’t sound like fun to me? What if I won’t fight?”

She shrugged. “I’ll take the spear away. You’ll get caught by the cops and go to jail. Even if they can’t pin any murders on you, you came to work and took hostages with a big spear—you’ll get stuck in a psych ward at the very least. Where you’ll be stuck in a cell with your two ghosts, by the way. Maybe you can use the ghosts to escape, and then you’ll get to be an aging fugitive—goodie for you. As for me? I’ll just have to overcome my sadness at your failure and try again with someone else. Ghostreaper is a gift that keeps on giving. You won’t all be such horrible disappointments.”

Earlier that morning, I’d expected to die. I’d planned for it. Staying alive had only led to more deaths—and, oddly, I wasn’t bothered by that, not really. The world was better without Dana and my idiot boss, and if they hadn’t deserved death, so what—neither had Richard, and he’d died all the same.

But being forced to spend the rest of my life with the ghosts of people I despised was a cruel sort of victory, even if they were puppets I could order to dance. Nor did I relish the prospect of death in a hail of bullets, or conscious suffering in a prison under suicide watch.

Or the thought of Elsie laughing at whatever misfortune befell me, growing fat on the chaos I’d created.

So I tore away the tape from my wrist, and propped the base of the spear against the low wall that ran around the perimeter of the roof. I positioned the spearhead over my heart, leaning gently against it.

“You wanna be careful with that thing, Dave—”

The spear pierced me, and I felt no pain . . . until I took my hands away from the shaft, and lost my invulnerability to the weapon, and the point of the spear passed through my body. I didn’t expect it to hurt, but it did, like my body was a sheet of paper being torn in half.

My vision blurred, and I gasped, and when my eyes cleared, I saw my own crumpled body lying on the roof.

Elsie whistled. “You reaped yourself? I have to say I didn’t see that coming. Usually I like surprises, but this one, not so much.”

I looked around. Dana and the idiot were nowhere to be seen.

“They’re free.” Elsie waved her hand around vaguely. “They went . . . wherever ghost-slaves go, once their owner dies.”

“But I’m still here.” I patted my body, which felt perfectly substantial to me. The rest of the world, however, had gone soft and faded, resembling a watercolor painting of reality.

“That’s because you’re a ghost bound in service to yourself. Which is, more or less, the same as having free will. It’s all very boring, Dave. I wanted a banquet of chaos from you, or at least a never-ending salad bowl, and I barely got an appetizer. I’ll just have to take my spear and go—”

I had no idea whether my plan would work or not, but I stepped forward, and stuck my head inside her head.

Being inside Elsie was like dunking my head into a cauldron of boiling blood while trying to put on a suit of ill-fitting armor. I twisted and writhed inside her, and she fought, screaming at me—but once I got myself aligned properly, she couldn’t reach me, any more than I could claw at my own spleen. She fell down, and then I was inside the borders of her body entirely, looking out through her eyes. I made her arms and legs move, inelegantly, and lurched toward the edge of the roof.

Then I made her topple over the side.

Halfway down, I let myself float out of her body, and drifted down to the street slowly. She didn’t break when she landed, didn’t splash—just lay sprawled on the sidewalk, some magic keeping her from coming apart. But I’d done a number on whatever she had for a brain, because she just twitched and writhed as the police descended on her, pointing their guns and shouting.

I had no illusions that the authorities would hold her for long, no matter how much they wanted to question her. I had no true understanding of what Elsie was, apart from trouble, but I knew she had powers beyond my understanding.

But I hoped they could keep her for a little while. For long enough.

* * * *

I escaped in the body of one of my former co-workers. There was so much chaos and confusion with the police, press, concerned relatives, and bystanders milling around that it was surprisingly easy to take the back stairs and stroll away with Ghostreaper wrapped in a torn curtain, tucked under my arm. It was just a short walk to the Embarcadero—though it took me a long time, and I’m sure I looked like a lurching drunk—and then a short wait for the ferry across the bay. The woman selling tickets gave my bundle an odd look, but when I mumbled “Curtain rods,” she just shrugged.

I dropped Ghostreaper over the side of the ferry not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, the heavy point dragging the spear’s shaft down, down, down. I left my co-worker’s body—twitching and shuddering on the ferry, making a commotion; Elsie would have enjoyed it—and let myself sink down into the water after the spear. Ghostreaper fell unerringly downward, its descent perfectly vertical, until its point disappeared into the muck at the bottom of the bay. I looked for a while at the shaft, which stood upright like a standard without a flag

I missed the cold comfort of the spear in my hand. Even in the depths of the bay, in the frigid waters, I didn’t feel that wonderfully numb.

Turning my face up, I floated to the surface. Breaking from the water, I gazed at the unlovely underside of the Golden Gate Bridge, a structure that’s so pretty from other angles. Dana and the idiot hadn’t shown any indication that they could fly, but then, I’d been their master, and I’d never told them to. So I told myself: fly.

And rose like a leaf caught in a dust devil, spiraling upward toward the bridge. Maybe I should have driven to the Golden Gate and jumped off, instead of trying to kill myself in my garage. That would have spared me meeting Elsie. I’d wanted to go quietly, that was all, I hadn’t wanted to cause any fuss, and wasn’t that a laugh—

“Hey, Davey boy.” Elsie leaned against the railing on the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, one eyebrow raised. I jerked backward, spinning in the air away from her, out of her reach. She laughed, a black scarf blowing around her in the wind. She wore a puffy red ski jacket that exactly matched the fiery shade of her hair, and she was the only perfectly clear and sharp-edged thing in my watercolor world. “Don’t panic. I can’t hurt you now, even if I wanted to. Besides, I’m impressed. I’m used to being the trickster, not so much getting tricked. Anyway, I lied earlier. I’m not really heavily into revenge, it’s too predictable.

She crooked her finger, beckoning me, but I didn’t come any closer. “Listen,” she said. “How about you and me travel together for a while? I used to know a guy who could take control of people’s bodies, but we had a falling out when I had to assassinate his best friend. I always thought I’d have fun with somebody who could take another person’s initiative that way. You and me, Dave, we could go down to Hollywood, get some movie stars in trouble—”

I lifted my head and floated up, rising away as fast as I could—which seemed to be very fast. But I still heard Elsie’s voice screeching after me: “Hey, Carson, where exactly are you going?”

I didn’t answer her. I didn’t care if she ever figured it out.

I was going to see the stars.

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Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt’s short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short StoriesThe Year’s Best Fantasy, and other nice places. His most recent collection is Hart and Boot and Other Stories, and his work has won a Hugo Award and been nominated for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards. He blogs intermittently at timpratt.org, where you can also find links to many of his stories. Pratt is also a senior editor at Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field. He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife, writer Heather Shaw, and their son River.