From the author: Are you afraid of NO GHOST, though?
Delia Novakoski walked into the armory wearing plainclothes and handed her requisition form to the sergeant behind the caged service window. She braced herself for the inevitable quip about her atheism—that tiny "religion" checkbox at the top of the "in event of death" box—but it never came.
"Aren't you a little young for ghost patrol?" the sergeant asked.
"Special assignment," Delia said. "I'm supposed to go anchor Asher Kuhmann's spirit."
The sergeant seemed to be more interested in studying her figure than her requisition form. Delia couldn't decide if that was an improvement.
She hated doing paperwork. It seemed like half the department forms asked for her religion and preferred burial method, and she resented having to admit over and over again that she was an atheist with no post-mortem ritual requests. It couldn't legally prevent her from advancing in her career, but it certainly didn't recommend her for promotion.
The sergeant initialed the form and disappeared into the back room. A moment later, he opened the side door and walked out carrying a Kevlar breastplate emblazoned with a protective sigil on the front and the word POLICE on the back.
"There you go," he said, handing over the armor. "One spirit-proof vest."
"Thanks." Delia put on the vest. It was heavier than she expected, and she still felt strange not wearing a uniform. She pulled her badge off her belt and clipped it to the top of the vest.
"Be careful out there," the sergeant said, with a wink.
Delia found herself smiling for no good reason she could think of. Is he actually flirting with me?
"I'm not too worried," she said. "He's already dead, right?"
The sergeant grunted. "Dead people can be a real pain in the ass."
It was almost noon when Delia arrived at the cemetery. She showed her ID to the uniforms guarding the gate, then drove down the winding path until she found a man and a woman sitting on lawn chairs next to a new plot. They couldn't have been more of a contrast. The woman sat up straight, her posture eminently ladylike; the man slouched like he didn't give a shit what anybody thought about anything.
Delia couldn't remember ever seeing Detective Jonas Mendenhall without a cigarette, and today was no exception. It made him talk out of one side of his mouth. Everyone in the precinct could recognize his voice that way.
Margaret Kuhmann wore the same black dress as she had yesterday, at her husband's funeral. Her eyes were bloodshot with gray circles underneath. That was understandable—she and Mendenhall had been sitting watch all night.
Delia walked up to the gravesite, pulling her jacket closed over the bulky spirit-proof vest. She didn't want to appear disrespectful.
She stopped beside Mendenhall and extended her hand. "Detective Mendenhall? Officer Delia Novakoski, reporting for duty."
"Took you long enough," Mendenhall said, not moving from his seat. "Did you at least bring some coffee?"
Delia shoved her hand back into her jacket pocket and stammered, "I didn't know—nobody told me—"
"Just ignore him, officer," Margaret Kuhmann said, staring at the headstone: ASHER SAMUEL KUHMANN, 1965-2014. A police shield and crucifix were carved above his name.
"Detective Kuhmann hasn't risen yet, has he?" Delia asked.
She checked her wristwatch. It had been less than twenty-four hours since the burial. No ghost had ever risen before the twenty-eighth hour, but family and friends always sat watch just in case. A ghost might anchor to one of them if no sensitive was present. That had been standard practice in the Soviet Union, back when the Bolsheviks denied the existence of any spiritual phenomena and systematically oppressed anyone who believed. Delia's grandfather had no shortage of stories about that.
"Nah," Mendenhall said, pulling a necklace out of his shirt. The sense-stone pendant hanging from the chain was clear, with a single vertical band of green light down the middle. "It's been as quiet as a, well, you know."
He laughed at his own joke and lit a new cigarette. Delia decided she'd rather have a conversation with the widow, and knelt down between the two lawn chairs. "My condolences, Mrs. Kuhmann. Your husband was one of our best."
"Thank you." Margaret didn't move her eyes. "And please, call me Peggy." A faint smile flickered over her face. "That's what Ash called me. Peggy."
"Good ol' Ash," Mendenhall said. "That's an ironic name for a medium, isn't it?"
Delia couldn't let that one slide. "The preferred term is ‘sensitive.'"
The burly detective sat up, leaned forward, and blew cigarette smoke into her face. "Don't get used to playing dress-up, Officer. This isn't a regular gig. One week." That was the longest any ghost could exist, and only if anchored to a living human. "Then you go back to directing traffic or whatever you were doing before."
"Missing Persons," Delia said, with more pride than usual. "And with all due respect, Detective, if you don't want me here, why did you request me specifically?"
"Not my idea." Mendenhall slouched back into his chair. "My late partner liked to find new recruits for the post-mortem detail from inside the department. He was always a bit of a snob that way. Never got along with civilian mediums—sorry, sensitives.
"Anyway, you tested well at the academy last year, apparently, and your file was at the top of his inbox for review when he died." Mendenhall squinted at the grass. "Ash didn't leave much of a will or anything, so I felt like, I don't know, I wanted to grant his last request or something."
Delia noticed Mendenhall's face twitching as he talked about his partner. Maybe the cynical detective had a bit of a soft spot after all.
"Thank you," Delia said.
Mendenhall waved his hand dismissively, stood up, and started pacing.
"Did you know Ash very well?" Peggy asked.
Delia shook her head. "I never met him."
"You must be very gifted," Peggy said, "for him to have chosen you out of all those officers."
Delia didn't say anything. She couldn't imagine why Ash would ever have chosen her. She was an atheist. Non-believers were rarely sensitive, and they never spawned spirits after they died. Did Ash Kuhmann know something about her that she didn't?
The first time Delia saw a ghost, she was twelve years old, and she thought she might be going crazy. Then her parents sat her down and explained all about spirits: how ghosts could only rise after a proper burial; how they would only anchor to one person, usually a sensitive; how they stayed for exactly one week, then disappeared forever; how nobody but the anchor could see or hear the ghost.
Delia still had a hard time deciding whether that conversation was more awkward than the birds-and-bees talk they'd given her a few years later.
It wasn't hard for Delia to believe in something she could see and hear for herself. But she'd never taken to any flavor of religion, and she always had trouble with psychic tutors, who spoke in terms of sensations and beliefs Delia didn't have and couldn't identify with.
She'd first read about Ash Kuhmann after joining the force, in a news clipping on the Missing Persons bulletin board. Police took good press wherever they could get it, and Ash was a minor celebrity. He and Mendenhall were decorated ghost patrol veterans. They'd even consulted with the FBI and out-of-state police departments. One time a sheriff in Alaska had flown Ash up to Fairbanks, first class, to see if he could get information from a deceased police dog. Mendenhall always found some excuse to tag along.
Ash had also collected spirited relics—artifacts accumulated over a lifetime of debunking charlatans. He and Mendenhall had probably worked as many fraud cases as homicides, putting away impostors who tried to cheat victims' families in their most vulnerable time of grief. There were ways to prove the presence of a ghost beyond any doubt. Though some sensitives found artifacts personally insulting, Ash championed their use. Delia had respected him for that. She could touch an artifact. She couldn't touch what was in someone else's head.
And if Ash Kuhmann had faith in the abilities of a girl he'd never even met, maybe Delia could still have a future in ghost patrol. Maybe she could have faith without having religion.
She felt it in her nose first. Every sensitive experienced a slightly different physical manifestation of their awareness; for Delia, it was a sensation of something inside her nostrils. It wasn't actually a smell. That was just the part of her brain most perturbed by the presence of a spirit.
Her vision connected a few seconds later, and she saw Ash Kuhmann standing on his fresh grave. His body was translucent, and the colors of his skin and clothing were faded, as if bleached by sunlight. He cast no shadow. He wore the suit and tie he had died in, and his eyes glowed with unearthly light behind round glasses.
"Detective Mendenhall," Delia said, "Mrs. Kuhmann—he's here."
Mendenhall looked up from his phone, then looked down at the cat's-eye around his neck. The sense-stone was lit up with a bright swirling pattern. He dropped his cigarette and smothered it with his shoe.
Ash Kuhmann's ghost waved its hands. The mouth was moving, but Delia couldn't hear anything yet. It had been a while since she'd anchored a spirit, and she had to concentrate to align all five senses with Ash's presence.
Peggy Kuhmann moved next to Delia. "Can you see him? Is it Ash?"
"Yes," Delia said. "He's here." She took a step toward the ghost and pulled back her jacket to show her badge. "Detective Kuhmann, I'm Officer Delia Novakoski—"
"—murdered me!" came Ash's voice, a distorted rattle. "Behind you!"
Something heavy hit the back of Delia's head, and the world went away.
Delia woke up in the dark. The only thing she could move was her head, and as soon as that stopped spinning, she realized she was sitting in a chair. It felt wooden, heavy, old; some kind of pointy carving dug into the inside of her arm. She tried to lift her arms, but they were tied behind her back. Her legs were tied down too.
Her weapon, cell phone, and wallet were gone, of course, but she was still wearing the spirit-proof vest. That meant her captors wanted her alive, and Kuhmann's ghost to stay. Most professional sensitives wore some kind of artifact to protect them from stray contact with spirits. Many ghosts were disoriented when first released from their bodies, and one touch from a spirit could scramble a living mind, or even kill.
Whoever had knocked out Delia in the cemetery wanted some kind of information from Ash. That meant interrogation, and probably torture. She bit her lip and took several deep breaths, willing herself not to cry. The first duty of every prisoner is to escape. She was still on the job.
The room was dark, but not pitch black. She saw a thin horizontal stripe of light at the bottom of one wall. A door, maybe? She opened her mouth to shout something, then decided against it.
"About time you woke up," said someone behind her.
She recognized Ash's ghostly voice. Spirits didn't sound like humans. Their voices weren't the result of their breath moving air molecules; ghosts spoke directly to a sensitive's mind, and the receiver interpreted the signals as sound.
The glowing, translucent figure moved around the chair and stopped in front of her.
"Detective Kuhmann," Delia said.
"In the flesh," Ash said. "Or lack thereof, I suppose."
"Do you know where we are?"
"Yeah. We're in a self-storage facility by the docks. I was able to anchor to you before Jonas knocked you out—"
"Jonas?" Delia said. "Detective Mendenhall? Your partner?"
Ash nodded. "Ex-partner. He's also the one who killed me, by the way. That's what I was trying to tell you in the graveyard."
Delia felt her face growing hot. If only she'd been a little faster, if she'd been able to hear Kuhmann from the start… "Sorry," she said quietly.
"Not your fault," Ash said. "Even I didn't see it coming, and I was his partner for twelve years."
The police-investigator part of Delia's mind snapped to attention, and she welcomed it. "Did you see him do it? Can you make a positive identification?" It had taken years for the legal system to accept sensitive testimony as evidence, but with Ash's name attached, the DA could make the charges stick.
"Not exactly." Ash stared off into the distance.
"What the hell does that mean?" Delia asked.
"I didn't actually see his face," Ash said.
Ash's body had washed up on a local beach last week, with two bullet holes through his chest and two more in his skull. His car was still missing. Everyone in homicide expected the pending ballistics report to point to one of the city's drug-running gangs. Every time they killed someone, ghost patrol picked up a new lead, and Kuhmann and Mendenhall were known for closing cases.
"Then how do you know it was Mendenhall?"
"He was following me," Ash said.
Delia frowned. "What do you mean? In his car?"
"Yes." Ash started pacing back and forth. "We had an argument."
"There was an incident." Ash shook his head. "It's kind of a long story."
Delia's fingernails dug into her palm. "Detective Kuhmann, do I look like a dentist?"
Ash tilted his head. "No?"
"Good," Delia said, "because I don't enjoy pulling teeth. Now you can tell me what's going on, or help me get out of here, but either way, please stop wasting my time."
Ash stared at her, then nodded. "I tried to get a look outside earlier, but you're keeping me on a pretty tight leash."
"I have no control over that," Delia snapped.
"I didn't mean to imply anything. Different sensitives have different ranges—"
"That's fascinating," Delia said. She jerked her head backward, indicating her restraints. "Get back here and tell me how to get out of this knot."
Ash circled around her. "I'll need a minute to study this."
Delia waited, staring at the light in the corner. "Why did you pick me?"
"Mendenhall said my file was on your desk," she said. "For recruiting into the post-mortem division. Why me?"
"You said your name was Novakoski?"
"I've never heard of you," Ash said. "I don't know why Jonas told you that."
Delia felt a tightness in her stomach. Of course. Mendenhall hadn't wanted a reliable anchor. He had wanted the worst one possible, an atheist who hadn't practiced in years. He had wanted Ash's ghost to find Mendenhall or Peggy instead. But why? What did Ash know that was so important?
"Okay," Ash said, "I see one rope looped around the other, kind of like a coil. Huh. I think I know the name of this knot."
"You can show me your merit badge later," said Delia. "Do you see the end of the rope? Can I grab it?"
The door opened and light flooded into the room, blinding Delia. She closed her eyes, turned her head, and felt something crash into her. Her chair tipped over and her head hit the floor.
The door slammed shut, and Delia opened her eyes. Through a haze of flashing spots, she saw the faint outline of a person against the far wall, struggling up into a sitting position.
"It's Peggy," Ash said, hovering near the wall. "It's my wife!"
Delia called out, "Mrs. Kuhmann? Are you hurt?"
Peggy made a noise halfway between a sob and a whimper. Delia yanked hard on her restraints, making her chair rattle against the floor.
"I don't see any blood," said Ash.
"Mrs. Kuhmann!" Delia said. "If you can talk, I need you to respond!"
"He killed him!" Peggy wailed. "Oh God, he killed Ash!"
"I know, Mrs. Kuhmann," Delia said. "Are you tied up? Handcuffed?"
Delia saw Ash shaking his head before Peggy answered. "N-no. He didn't… he held me down and… he forced himself on me… oh, God…" She broke down sobbing.
"I'm going to kill him," Ash said.
"Mrs. Kuhmann, I realize this is very difficult for you, but we need to get out of here before Jonas does anything else. Like killing us. Or worse." Delia paused for effect. "Do you understand, Mrs. Kuhmann?"
Peggy sniffled and took a deep breath. "Yes." Her dim outline straightened for a moment, then crumpled again. "Is… is Ash here now?"
"Yeah, he's right here."
"I couldn't stop him!" Peggy cried. "I'm sorry, Ash, I wasn't strong enough…"
"I don't blame you," Ash said. "Tell her I don't blame her."
"He's more concerned about your safety right now," Delia said.
"That's not what I said!"
Delia ignored him. "Mrs. Kuhmann, I'm on the ground here, tied to a chair. I need you to follow the sound of my voice and untie these ropes. I can get us out of here, but I need your help." She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt.
After a moment, the sobbing noises abated, and Delia heard shuffling on the ground approaching her.
"Bowline," Ash said. "That's a bowline knot. Easy to untie. Why do I know that?"
"Your husband's going to tell us how to untie this knot," Delia said, directing her voice toward the ghost.
Ash shook his head. "Right. Tell her to look for the two crossed loops."
It took several minutes for Peggy to undo the knot holding Delia's wrists to the chair. Delia felt her heart pounding against her vest the whole time.
She couldn't help but wonder what Jonas would do if he found them trying to escape. Being raped and murdered by a crooked cop was not high on her list of preferred ways to die. And though she never told anyone about it, she did have an actual list, which she recopied from time to time and kept tucked away inside the fireproof safe in her bedroom closet.
Delia knew she wouldn't rise after she died. It was a cold, hard fact that only the faithful came back. There was now some debate about whether a strong belief in secular organizations—systems of government, twelve-step programs, television show fan communities—could provide the requisite spiritual foundation for an afterlife. So far, no one had been able to gather any compelling evidence for substitution phenomena.
If anything could give Delia life after death, she had hoped it might be her devotion to the police force. She was a fourth-generation cop, and she couldn't remember ever wanting to be anything else. But her faith in the thin blue line had faded over time, as she witnessed corruption and apathy in her fellow officers. No amount of oversight or punishment could prevent a few police from going bad—behind the badge, under the uniform, they were all still human.
Delia would never be a ghost. She supposed she had known that for a long time, but she had still hoped. She didn't think she could keep hoping any more.
Ash moved outside the sliding door of the storage space and told Delia how to pry it open. While Delia was still getting her bearings in the hallway, Ash asked, "Did Jonas interrogate Peggy? What information was he trying to get?"
Delia relayed the question. Peggy said, "He said something about Ash's collection. About a secret project. I didn't know what he was talking about. I couldn't tell him anything." Her lip quivered. "That made him angry."
"We're getting out of here," Delia said, grabbing Peggy's arm and walking toward an EXIT sign at the end of the hall. "Ash, get in front of us and warn us if anybody's coming."
"Where are we going?" Ash asked.
"Where do you think?" Delia said. "To the nearest police station. For backup, and a rape kit."
"I know what Jonas wants," Ash said, "and we can't let him find it first."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Delia asked.
Ash shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. I need to show you. It's not far from here. And once you've seen it, you need to take it with you, so the department can keep it locked up—"
"We don't have time for this!"
Ash moved toward Delia, pushing himself into her personal space until his face was inches from hers. His ghostly torso flickered and sputtered against the protective aura of her vest. "I have eight open cases on my desk, including four homicides. I can give you what you need to close all of those and put Jonas on death row. But I won't give you anything unless you do as I say right now."
"You're bluffing." Delia stepped away from Peggy and lowered her voice. "He murdered you and raped your wife. You wouldn't let him walk."
"This is more important," Ash said.
Delia glared at Ash. She didn't like gambling. She wanted to know things for sure, without having to guess or speculate. She had no idea what Ash Kuhmann would be willing to die for. But her curiosity was driving her crazy.
"This had better be good," she said.
Ash led the way down the waterfront to a small warehouse. He gave Delia the combination for the lock on the side door. Delia pushed Peggy inside after Ash went in.
Piles of wooden crates and cardboard boxes filled the dim space. Yellow light bulbs cast harsh shadows around Delia. She saw dozens of objects whose purpose she could only guess at. There were sense-stones and dark-mirrors, which would indicate when a spirit was nearby, but also unfamiliar devices made of brass and crystal.
She saw a box labeled SKULLS and walked past it quickly.
The sense-stones began glowing, and the dark-mirrors fogged up, as Ash's ghost moved to the center of the room. He stopped at a long table. A single incandescent bulb hung above the table, illuminating a mass of machinery which looked like an extremely complicated espresso machine. Delia saw no obvious moving parts, but the power source was unmistakable.
"Jesus Christ!" Delia said. "That can't be legal."
"What is it?" Peggy asked. "What's not legal?"
Delia pointed to what looked like a block of poured concrete, veined through with an unearthly green glow that Peggy couldn't see. It was only visible to a sensitive. "That's Lapis Fidelis. Probably twenty or thirty kilos, and I'm guessing at least eighty percent pure from the color of the aura."
"Ninety," Ash said. "Otherwise this wouldn't work."
"Faith-stone?" Peggy said. "That's what Ash was making in here?" She sounded disappointed.
"No." Delia walked around the table, examining the machine. She recognized some of the components—ecto tubes, vax filters, lead shielding—but not being a professional mystic, she had no idea how they all fit together. "That's just the power source. He was building whatever the hell this thing is."
"I'm still trying to find a good name," Ash said. "I've been calling it a ghost trap, but—"
"Ghost traps don't work," Delia said. "Only a sensitive can anchor a ghost. Only a living human mind."
"Have you ever wondered why ghosts rise in the first place?" Ash asked. "Why only the religious and the faithful can spawn spirits?"
Delia clenched her teeth. "That's just how the universe works."
"I'm not talking about theology. I've been working ghost patrol most of my life, and I've studied this. There's something special about a faithful mind, some particular brain wave pattern—"
"I've read the textbook. You're saying this trap actually works?"
"Yes." He sounded more guilty than proud.
Delia shook her head. "There's no way you could possibly know that. You would have to test it on someone…"
"I didn't," Ash said quickly. "Jonas did. Without my knowledge! I built the machine in the woods, and I thought we were alone. But Jonas got a vagrant to come with him. I didn't know the man was outside. I didn't know until I saw his ghost."
"You killed him," Delia said quietly.
"The machine did. It was an accident!" Ash waved at the table. "If anyone's to blame, it's Jonas. We fought. I took the machine and hid it here. He wanted to sell it. I can't allow that. It's too dangerous.
"Do you understand? This is not just a trap. This machine will force a ghost out of any living person. Faithful or otherwise, burial or no, it doesn't matter. The machine can anchor that spirit indefinitely—as long as it has power."
Delia blinked as she tried to process this information. "You can't spawn a ghost from an atheist." Like me. "It's not possible."
Ash pointed to the glowing block of stone at the heart of the machine. "You don't need inner faith when you can collect the psychic residue of sacred places."
Delia's mouth felt dry. "This must have taken you years."
Peggy had moved closer, and was standing on the other side of the table, gaping at Delia. "A ghost trap? Does it really work?"
"That's what your husband says," Delia said.
"Of course it works," said a familiar male voice.
Delia reached for her sidearm and cursed when her hands closed around empty air. Jonas Mendenhall stood beside a stack of crates, aiming a revolver at the two women.
"Was my ex-partner just telling you about our little human experiment?" Mendenhall asked. "I saw that ghost with my own eyes. Talked to him, too. Craziest thing ever. This machine is going to change everything.
"Too bad Ash didn't want to sell out." He winked at Peggy. "What do you think, sweetheart? How much is this miracle of science going to be worth on the black market?"
Before Delia could tell Peggy not to do anything stupid, she ran toward the door. Jonas grabbed her with one arm while keeping his revolver trained on Delia.
Peggy looked up at Mendenhall. "Please don't hurt me."
Mendenhall said, "Not unless you ask me to, baby."
He leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. Peggy threw her arms around him and ran her fingers through his hair.
"You lying bitch," Delia and Ash said in unison.
Peggy turned and said, "Oh, I didn't lie, honey. He did force himself on me. But I wanted him to."
"That's why I knew the knot!" Ash said. "Peggy tied it. She used it on me once—"
"Really don't want to hear this right now," Delia said.
"No problem," Jonas said. "Your days of hearing things are coming to an end real soon."
He raised the revolver. Delia felt her heart pounding. Ash bobbed in the air before her, hands balled into fists, looking from Jonas to Peggy to the machine.
"This isn't the whole machine, you know," Delia said.
"What?" Ash asked, whipping around to face her.
"You both said it works," Peggy said.
"She's just stalling," Jonas said.
Delia pressed her hands against her legs to keep them from shaking. "Ash disassembled it after the accident. For safety. He removed the on switch." She emphasized the last three words, hoping the ghost would understand.
Ash's face fell. "It would kill you."
Delia gritted her teeth and glared at him.
"Well, then," Jonas said, "I guess we'd better keep ol' Ashie and little miss sensitive around just a bit longer."
Peggy sneered at Delia. "This would have been so much simpler if you'd just fizzled instead of anchoring Ash."
"I don't know what happens to me when you die," Ash said, drifting down toward the machine.
"Sorry to disappoint you," Delia said. Then, to Jonas, "How did you even get my reassignment approved?"
"It wasn't your test scores, believe me. An atheist on ghost patrol? That'll be the day." He chuckled. "But nobody argues when I tell them it's what the beloved Ash Kuhmann would have wanted."
"Let's get out of here," Peggy said. "Do you want to knock her out, or should I?"
"You do it," Jonas said. "I always enjoy a little girl-on-girl action."
"Jesus, kill me now," Delia said to Ash. "I can't listen to any more of this."
Ash nodded and said, "The lever next to the brass monkey."
Delia looked down and saw him pointing a ghostly finger at an ornate brass handle connected to a gearbox. The metal plate covering the gearbox was decorated with a monkey head. The monkey seemed to be laughing maniacally, teeth bared and hair standing on end.
Peggy picked up a softball-sized crystal paperweight and took a step toward Delia. Jonas lowered his weapon.
Delia lunged at the machine and threw the switch.
A few years ago, Delia had gone to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. While her date was in the bathroom, the waiter had brought a dish of soy sauce, pickled ginger, and a mound of green paste that looked like guacamole. It was not guacamole.
The burning sensation of that wasabi in her sinuses was nothing compared to the blinding heat that now engulfed her entire body and rendered her muscles useless. Delia saw the side of Ash's machine a split second before her forehead slammed into it.
She bounced off the machine and fell backward into a stack of crates. The boards smacked against the hard surface of her spirit-proof vest. It worked. The vest keeps spirits in as well as out. I'm not dead! I'm not a ghost!
Delia laughed out loud. Her limbs jerked back to life. She ignored the searing pain and staggered to her feet.
A tidal wave of dizziness threatened to drown her. She grabbed the crates and concentrated on not throwing up. She reminded herself to ask Ash later exactly why the machine made her feel like she was on fire and being turned inside out.
She heard screeching noises coming from the other side of the room and fought to focus her eyes on something she shouldn't have been able to see.
One ghost, one sensitive, one week. That was the rule. But Ash's machine broke all the rules.
Delia saw three ghosts in the air above her. Ash had his hands around Jonas' and Peggy's throats. The co-conspirators appeared to be unconscious—whatever that meant for a ghost. Ash looked down at Delia.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
Delia did her best to speak, but all she managed was a gurgling noise. The heat in her body was changing to a sharp, stinging pain, radiating out from her spine.
"The disorientation should pass in a few seconds," Ash said. "I'll hold them here while you call for backup."
Delia nodded and took a step. Her knees buckled. She collapsed to the floor. There was surprisingly little pain when her forehead smacked against the concrete.
She hoped Ash was right about the nausea passing. Her bowels rumbled, and she didn't want to lose control of them before blacking out. That was one thing she would rather not be awake to experience.
Ash pulled the two other ghosts down beside their lifeless former bodies. "I should have guessed the vest would protect you from the machine. I used weald-wards, myself, but it makes perfect sense. How did you know?"
I didn't have much to lose at that point, Delia wanted to say. She groaned instead. Pinpricks of pain accumulated at the base of her skull, as if someone were trying to decapitate her with millions of sewing needles.
"Good Lord," Ash said. His voice sounded muffled. "You're turning blue!"
Delia tried to take a breath. The air squeaked to a stop in her throat. Her lungs felt like ice. She wondered how long it would take her to suffocate to death from a mystical engine scrambling her central nervous system. This sure as hell wasn't on the list.
"This is all wrong," Ash said. "This shouldn't be happening!"
I'm not normal, Delia thought. I don't believe.
"You need to turn it off." Ash's voice was suddenly loud and piercing in her ear. Or was it her head? "Stop this before it kills you!"
Delia forced her eyes open. She could only see blurs and splotches of color, but she recognized Ash's ghost-glow to her left. "Suspects," she croaked.
"These two? They're already dead!"
"Delia Novakoski," Ash said, "you are a sworn officer of the law, and I am your superior. Shut it down. That's an order!"
Delia's hand twitched involuntarily, smacking against one leg of the table holding the machine. The metal felt smooth and cold against her skin, soothing the psychic heat burning up her entire body from the inside. She felt it.
She felt it.
The machine might make her a ghost indefinitely, but physical sensations would be lost forever to a spirit. No touch. Nothing she could get a solid grip on.
I'm not dead yet.
She fought to get both her hands around the table leg, then worked them upwards, one over the other, her muscles souring with pain.
I'm not dead.
It felt like an eternity until she could place a palm on the tabletop, and eons more before she found the control panel. The angular brass shapes chilled her fingertips.
I'm. Not. Dead!
The lever clicked back into the off position. Delia's vision snapped into focus just in time for her to see Jonas and Peggy fading away.
After Delia vomited, she crawled out of the warehouse and called 911 from the nearest pay phone. Mercifully, that was less than a block away.
She lay face up on the pleasantly cool sidewalk, feeling the rough surface with both hands, and waited for backup to arrive. Ash hovered above her.
"You know," Delia said, "she was probably sleeping with him before either of them found out about your machine."
"I know that's not much comfort—"
"Shut up and rest, please." Ash folded his arms. "You nearly died."
Delia heard sirens in the distance.
"Going to be an interesting week," she said.
"Yeah." Ash looked down the street. "A lot of paperwork."
Delia smiled. "I don't mind."