“What’s up with the dead kids” I say, pulling a shiny spirit-killing blade out of my cane. He doesn’t speak, but I got his attention. Without moving his eyes, the old ghost focuses all his energy and concentration on my weapon.
“Listen,” Riley says, producing his own glowing saber and directing it at the easy chair, “we being nice by talking to you right now instead of just getting this over with, but we could certainly—“
You dare address Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, boy?
The voice is a sharp slither inside our heads. The old man just sits there smiling.
“Excuse me?” Riley demands.
“What do you want?” I say.
The Calhouns were once a well-respected family. It feels like a knife is cutting away parts of my brain with each word. Kept New York harbor a central point in the transatlantic slave trade. Ran a de facto empire from our estates in the Hudson Valley. A name known all over the civilized world. Three generations later, my fop of a great-great grandson has further disgraced his noble lineage.
“Is he talking to us?” Riley whispers.
“I don’t know,” I say.
My knees are starting to give out. I’m not sure if I’m holding off ending him from fascination or fear, but the no-turning back point’s fast approaching.
And now: Here I am in this faggotine city of corpulence, cross-breeding and cowardice, shackled to a worthless, slave loving progeny. Still: I manage to have my fun, wreak my vengeance in a manner fit for pharaohs.
“The first born sons,” I say. “The tenth plague. You’re a dipshit just like your great grandson.”
The old man turns his shaggy sneering face towards me for the first time and I almost double over with nausea. The extinction of the black race has to begin somewhere. Why not in the uppermost echelons?
I’m done finding shit out. Time to endgame the situation. As I step forward to engage the ghost, the office door swings open and John Calhoun bursts in. He’s wearing tighty-whitey and a stained, white t-shirt. He looks pissed. Gone is the forced smile he had flashed again and again that afternoon. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my office, Detective?”
He stands directly between my blade and his slave-trading, child-killing ancestor. A cruel laughter erupts in my brain like a bomb going off. “Get out of the way,” I say. I’m trying to put on a calm front but a shiver has found its way into my voice. Both Calhouns hear it. The laughter in my head gets louder. “I have to destroy that chair.”
“That chair is an heirloom!” John Calhoun screams.
“I bet,” Riley mutters.
“I’m calling the police,” Calhoun announces, as if that settles the matter. He produces a cell phone and I swat it out of his hands with my cane. He glares at me in total disbelief. I swat him again, higher this time and he falls out of the way and cowers in a corner.
“Let’s get this over with, man” Riley says. He’s beside me now, weak but ready to move. “Hold Captain Underpants and I’ll deal with Gramps.” I feel his icy hand on my shoulder, steadying me.
The transmission comes in blaring and staticky: Councilman Arsten to agents Washington and Delacruz. We both straighten to attention at the sound of Bart’s nasally voice. Be advised, the entity known as Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, deceased 1846 of New York State, is a confirmed protected entity. He is not to be touched, harmed, or insulted. I try to concentrate on holding my blade steady, keeping both Calhouns at bay. Riley starts breathing heavily. Under no circumstances is he to be dispatched into non-existence. This concludes Emergency Executive Order 203-14 of the New York Council of the Dead. Failure to comply will result in banishment and termination.
When the transmission ends, all I hear is the ghost Calhoun’s piercing laughter. I lower my blade slightly and then bring it back up. I feel Riley’s bristling and burning like a fireball beside me. There’s a pause. Then Riley lurches forward. I see the blade flash and the old man’s face suddenly looks frail and desperate. You ever notice how old people do that? Act all powerful until things don’t go their way. The ancient phantom moans, gurgles and then shrivels our of existence. On the floor lies the crumples pile of wood and fabric that had once been a Calhoun family heirloom. I feel sudden light on my feet. The whole room takes a breath, like the steam had been let out of the pressure cooker.
John Calhoun, still cowering in the corner, stammers nonsensically. Riley and I look at each other. I can’t decide if that’s disappointment in his frown or just the sullen satisfaction of a grim job well done. I had hesitated. When he moved, the whole world had moved to deliver that divine justice; I could feel the sacred pantheon reveling in his victory around us. But the repercussions of defying the Council are devastating. We don’t have much time. Death’s angry bull’s-eye is already swirling towards Riley.
Calhoun screams and I realize that Riley has made himself visible. I guess once you’ve tossed the rulebook out, you might as well go all the way.
“You’ve caused a lot of problems,” Riley says.
“Jesus, what are you?
“It’s not about me. Maybe if you’d spent more time studying your own people before your came studying mine, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“I-I don’t understand!”
“I think you do, but I’ll let it slide. Imma need you to do me a favor, though, Mr. Calhoun.”
“Put some of the degree’d-up intellect of yours into dealing with your own shit,” Riley says, “and move out.”
—Excerpted from Salsa Nocturna: Stories, a collection of “ghost noir” short stories by R guest contributor Daniel José Older.