I’m thinking so hard about this that I don’t notice I’m leading them right into the apartment. The door has been left ajar and we’ve walked right into the empty living room. Our feet strike the bare flooring—whatever was left over after all the carpeting was pulled up. It looks like chipboard. I stop so fast that Thomas runs into my back. For a minute, I think the place is empty.
But then I see the black figure huddled in the corner, near the window. It’s got its hands over its head and it’s rocking back and forth, muttering to itself.
“Whoa,” Will whispers. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
“No one is here,” I say, and feel them tense as they catch my meaning. It doesn’t matter if this is what they meant to bring me to. Seeing it for real is a completely different ballgame. I motion for them to stay back, and walk in a wide arc around the cop to get a better view. He’s got his eyes wide open; he looks terrified. He’s muttering and chittering like a chipmunk, all nonsense. It’s disturbing to think how sane he must’ve been when he was alive. I pull my athame out, not to threaten him but just to have it out, just in case. Carmel gives a little gasp, and for some reason that gets his attention.
He fixes his shiny eye on her. “Don’t do it,” he hisses. She backs up a step.
“Hey,” I say softly, and get no response. The cop has his eyes on Carmel. There must be something about her. Maybe she reminds him of the hostages—the wife and daughter.
Carmel doesn’t know what to do. Her mouth is open, the beginning of a word caught in her throat, and she’s looking quickly from the cop to me and back again.
I feel a familiar sharpening. That’s what I call it: a sharpening. It isn’t that I start to breathe harder, or that my heart speeds up and pounds in my chest. It’s subtler than that. I breathe deeper, and my heart beats stronger. Everything around me slows down, and all of the lines are crisp and clear. It has to do with confidence, and my natural edge. It has to do with my fingers humming as they squeeze the handle of my athame.
I never once had this feeling when I went up against Anna. It’s what I’ve been missing, and maybe Will was a blessing in disguise. This is what I’m after: this edge, this living on the balls of my feet. I can see everything in an instant: that Thomas is genuinely thinking about how to protect Carmel, and that Will is trying to work up the nerve to try something himself, to prove that I’m not the only one who can do this. Maybe I should let him. Let the ghost of the cop give him a scare and put him back in his place.
“Please,” Carmel says. “Just calm down. I didn’t want to come here in the first place, and I’m not who you think I am. I don’t want to hurt anybody!”
And then something interesting happens. Something I haven’t seen before. The features on the cop’s face change. It’s almost impossible to see, like picking out the current of a river moving beneath the surface. The nose broadens. The cheekbones shift downward. The lips grow thinner and the teeth shift inside the mouth. All of this has happened in two or three blinks of an eye. I’m looking at another face.
“Interesting,” I mutter, and my peripheral vision registers Thomas giving me the is-that-all-you-can-say? face. “This ghost isn’t just the cop,” I explain. “It’s both of them. The cop and the railroad worker, trapped together in one form.” This is the railroad worker, I think, and I glance down at his hands just as he’s lifting one to aim a gun at Carmel.
She shrieks, and Thomas grabs her and pulls her down. Will doesn’t do much of anything. He just starts saying, “It’s just a ghost, it’s just a ghost” over and over very loudly, which is pretty damn stupid. I, on the other hand, don’t hesitate.
The weight of my athame moves easily in my palm, flipping so the blade isn’t pointed ahead but back; I’m holding it like the guy from Psycho did when he was hacking through that chick in the shower scene. But I’m not using it to hack. The sharp side of the blade is facing up, and as the ghost raises the gun on my friends, I jerk my arm toward the ceiling. The athame connects and slices most of the way through his wrist.
He howls and steps back; I do too. The gun drops to the ground without a noise. It’s eerie, the sight of something that should make a racket and yet you don’t even hear a whisper. He looks at his hand in puzzlement. It’s hanging by a thread of skin, but there isn’t any blood. When he plucks it off, it dissolves into smoke: oily, cancerous tendrils. I don’t think I need to tell anyone not to breathe it in.