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“What’s a five-letter word for ‘MT city’? Ends in E.” The man in the passenger seat chews on the end of a souvenir pen.
“No, MT. Letter M. Letter T.”
“Oh,” the man behind the wheel thinks for a second. “Butte.”
“Doesn’t that end in T?”
“B-U-T-T-E. Butte. It’s a city in Montana. Not B-E-A-U-T.”
The man in the passenger seat scribbles this into the grid. He then squints through the windshield at the setting sun. The highway stretches toward the horizon. A few dusty cars pass their own. “Are we nearly there yet?”
“We should be at the turnoff soon.” He peers at the odometer. “At least, that’s what the lady at that truck stop said.” He takes a sip from a plastic mug filled with coffee.
“But we’ve been driving for miles and it’s nearly dark.”
“Like you’d notice with your face buried in that book. Five years we’ve been doing this and you’ve gotten maybe half-way through that thing. And there’s only like, what, 250 crosswords in there.”
“It helps me relax before a job.”
“Relax? But you’re terrible at them. You have to ask me for half the words.”
The man in the driver’s seat is in his mid-fifties. His graying hair is slicked back against his skull. His face is set in a permanent scowl, and his teeth, though he does not show them often, have recently been bleached white. His aqualine nose bears the appearance of having been broken more than once. His clothes are muted tans and browns, the only exception being a large gold pinky ring set with a ruby on his left hand. He is called Roman, though that is not his real name.
The man in the passenger’s seat is more than a few pounds overweight blinks a lot behind the thick glasses set crookedly on his face. His ears are too big and his chin looks like a dinner roll. He is wearing a white sweat-stained T-shirt with a bar code printed on it. His leather jacket is crumpled up in his lap. He is called Specs. It is an unimaginative nickname, but Specs is an unimaginative person.
He’s perfect for ghost hunting.
Dustwind Gulch is a ghost town, both in the figurative and literal sense. It was once a fairly bustling frontier town, but these days it is a infrequently visited tourist trap. A few tour guides tell the history of the place while a handful of actors stage a showdown on the main street each day at noon. Then again at 2:00 p.m. And at 4:00 p.m. But it is the off season now, and the town is closed to visitors. Luckily for Roman and Specs, they are not here for the foam rubber ten-gallon hats and six-shooter keychains. They are here on business.
Their light gray sedan bumps along the skinny dirt road that connects the town to the highway and pulls up in front of Rose’s Saloon. The building, which sports a large red rose painted on the sign above the door, has obviously been refurbished to provide guests with a modern dining experience. It still retains most of the charm of a Wild West saloon, or at least, what the public expects a Wild West saloon to look like. The engine of the sedan idles for a few seconds and then cuts out.
The two men exit the car and walk behind it. The trunk opens and they begin rummaging through it. They both don a pair of what appear to be night vision goggles, and even though a small sliver of the sun is still visible, Dustwind Gulch has no lampposts. Roman slips on a shoulder holster and puts a gun-shaped object in it. Specs removes an item the size of a shotgun and holds it gingerly at his side. They also clip a thin rectangular object to their belt loops.
Roman closes the trunk. “Ready?” he asks, and Specs nods. “Standard frequency.” A low hum emanates from the goggles and a sickly greenish light spills out from around the edges of the lenses. Roman cannot help but think that his partner looks like a radioactive owl, and then wonders if he looks the same. He brushes the notion aside and motions toward the saloon.
The front doors are unlocked—they are the swinging kind. The two men step inside and sweep their enhanced gazes across the bar, the tables and chairs, the player piano sitting quietly in one corner, the empty stage. It is a set straight out of Gunsmoke. Roman steps over to the bar, pulls out a stool, and has a seat. Specs follows suit, and the two sit in silence for nearly an hour. After a while, Specs begins to wish that he had brought his puzzle book.
The ghost doesn’t appear until night has completely fallen. It is a woman, her long hair pinned up on her head, a few unruly strands spilling down onto her thin neck. She wears an lavish dress, the skirt billowing out from her hips, the bodice tight and low cut. She drifts through the stage curtain, but does not wail or moan. She merely coughs politely.
Specs whips his head around so fast that his goggles nearly fall off. Roman slowly turns on the stool and gets to his feet, reaching into his jacket to remove a notepad marked with an official and occult seal.
“Miss Rose O’Hanlon?” he asks after turning to an earmarked page.
“Yes. And you gentlemen would be…” the spirit’s eyes are drawn to the metal objects the men are wearing at their waists. They are also sigils, both mystical and magisterial. They are badges.
“We’re from the Agency. The name’s Roman. This is Specs. Sorry we didn’t come sooner.”
“Oh, thank goodness!” The ghost of Rose O’Hanlon begins to fan herself with her left hand. “I was beginning to think we’d been left to our own devices out here!” She glides behind the bar. Her form is not reflected in the mirror.
“You’ve registered a complaint against one of your fellow spirits.” Roman turns a page. “A Judge Isaac Bean?”
“Oh my, yes. He’s become an monster, an absolute monster.”
“Rose, I told ya we could take care of our own.” Another ghost has materialized in the front of the saloon. He is over six feet tall, not counting the cowboy hat. He sports a bolo tie, a vest, and a badge of his own.
Roman doesn’t need to consult his notepad for this one. “Sheriff,” he says, and nods a greeting. “We’re not hear to step on any toes, but when a free-form repeating apparition takes the time to contact us about another free-form repeating apparition, it’s our duty to investigate.”
“And besides, James, when you went up to talk to the Judge last week, he sentenced you to hang. Twice!” Rose takes out a translucent bottle of whiskey from behind the bar and proceeds to pour out two indistinct glasses. She slides one down the countertop, which the sheriff catches and drinks in one gulp.
“I can handle myself, Rose,” he says, wiping the remnants of phantom booze from his lips. “In fact, I was just about to ‘round up a posse. Mayhap these two city slickers would want to come along. Seems like they’re packin’.”
Roman gives a polite smile. “If it’s all the same to you, Sheriff Chance, my partner and I would like to have a word with Judge Bean before you dispense your own particular brand of…justice.”
“Suit yerself, but I won’t be surprised if y’all end up on the gallows come mornin’.”
The courthouse is situated on the far side of town at the end of the street. Three steps lead up to the heavy wooden front door, flanked by two windows stencilled with the town’s name and darkened from the inside by drapes. The building is strangely ominous in the darkness, despite the fact that it was refurbished with the same faux rustic feel as the saloon. Roman pulls on the door, and it creaks open, revealing a short hallway.
“Looks like no one’s home,” Specs stammers. Roman gives him a look. “Though we should probably check the courtroom,” Specs finishes.
Roman moves inside, keeping his right hand inside his jacket, resting lightly on the grip of his gun. He inches to the end of the hallway, Specs no more than a few steps behind him. Something rustles in the otherwise silent building. The two reach the far door, which also swings open at a touch.
The courtroom is littered with discarded newspaper. A quick glance reveals publications from as far away as a dozen towns over and dating as far back as three months earlier. Roman swears under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” Specs asks.
“The news. Some idiot tourist must have dropped a paper in here right before the town closed up for the season and Bean must have gotten a look at it.”
“Most spirits still mentally inhabit the period in which they lived and died. They don’t often take well to the changing times.”
“Yeah, but that kinda stuff is everywhere.”
“And for most apparitions, it merely causes them to fade away in sadness and frsutration. But some—those with particularly strong personalities in real life—well, they just get angry.”
“Oh,” Specs blanches. “I read Bean’s profile. He was pretty uptight.”
“Exactly. And imagine the effect’s of today’s headlines on him. Not pretty. He must have gathered enough righteous indigination to get some of these other papers blowing by in the wind to angle toward his town here.”
“So what do we do?”
“Be judged and hang!” The ghost of Judge Isaac Bean takes shape behind the bench. His emaciated bald head pokes out from his formal robes. His face is a mask of fury. His crooked finger points squarely at Specs. “I’ll have no weapons in my courtroom, boy!” The shotgun flies across the room, bounces against the wall, and lands under a table.
“Class 3 poltergeist,” Roman mutters to himself and steps forward. He grabs the badge from his belt and holds it forth. “The late Judge Isaac Bean, you are hereby ordered by the Federal Paranormal Regulations Agency to cease and desist your unauthorized haunting under the laws set forth and maintained by Director John Dee.”
The judge is unperturbed. He gestures and Roman’s badge also sails across the room. “Bah! Laws set forth by liars and thieves! I read your news!” A breeze begins to blow from nowhere, moving the edges of the papers around the room. The judge floats forward to the center of the room, spectral flecks of spittle at the corner of his mouth. “Two-faced! Adulterers and perjurers! And you claim to represent them!” The periodicals start to swirl in a vortex around the walls of the room. Flickers of St. Elmo’s fire appear in the sconces on the walls.
“Class 5,” Roman amends, his voice impressed. He gestures at Specs to hit the ground. “Your time has come and gone, spirit! Leave this place and partake of your eternal rest!” Roman draws patterns in the air with his left hand, circles and swirls and crosses. Specs crawls across the room, past chairs that begin to shake and lift off of the floor. “In nomine Patris et Filli et Spiritus Sanctum.”
“You think to bring God into this? When every day His commandments are broken by those in power?” Judge Bean scoffs.
“Actually, I’m a pantheist. Now!” Roman shouts. Specs pops up to the judge’s left, having retrieved his shotgun. There is a massive boom, a sound like thunder, and a flash of light from the gun’s muzzle. The judge looks down at his ectoplasmic form. Several holes have been rent in his torso and the side of his face is missing.
“What…?” the ghost tries to say.
“A buckshot coctail of sea salt blessed by Tibetan monks and tiny chunks of silver. And this,” Roman pulls out his own gun. It is all chrome and glass tubes. “Is something technical I’ve never really fully understood. Reversed tachyon particles or something.” He pulls the trigger and a beam of blue energy shoots forth, striking the judge squarely in his chest. The spirit begins to implode slowly, shrieking all the while. The pitch gets so high at one point that the windows of the courthouse shatter. Eventually, it contracts to a single point of light, which returns along the ray back into Roman’s gun. Roman ejects a shell covered with frost and steaming. He pockets it.
“Another soul ready for absolution, eh Roman?” Specs says, adjusting his goggles, which have nearly fallen off again.
“Another job well done,” the older man says. It is as close as he ever comes to complimenting his partner. “Let’s get out of here.”
Outside, they walk down the main street of Dustwind Gulch, quietly watched by the inhabitants. They put their gear back into the trunk and get into the car. Specs settles into his seat and picks up his book. A moment later, he says, “Swayze/Moore vehicle. Five letters. Stars with G.”
“You’re an idiot.”
The car drives off.