Medium of Exchange

Medium of Exchange is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

To those who help others out of generosity.

Summary

Jackson Graves is a financial consultant who assists the newly-departed with unfinished business. Corrupt corporations and violent crime plague the city of Port Ripton, ensuring a constant supply of ghosts and a demand for both aspects of his trade. Forced to deal with secretive friends and selfish clients, only the desire to provide for his brother Pierce motivates him to face each new day. When a monstrous force begins hunting both the living and the dead, Jackson suspects it could relate to the city's endemic white-collar crime. With family conflict and friends following their own agendas, he finds that not even those he trusts may be above suspicion. Billions of dollars disappear each day in Port Ripton, and so might one inquisitive medium...

"All money is a matter of belief."

-Adam Smith

Chapter 1: The Loophole City

The highways spread throughout Port Ripton like the tentacles of a concrete kraken. A sea of floating lights unfurled beneath them, a carpet of slums beneath the overpass. The rusted-crowned smokestacks of distant refineries burned like monstrous funeral pyres, as Jackson Graves drove towards the crystal towers of downtown. The glass and steel skyscrapers each bore the logo of a different corporation, sigils of the multinationals headquartered there. His role was a Sisyphean labor in ensuring his clients' interests in a minefield of financial perils, as Port Ripton earned its nickname of "Loophole City" for its tax breaks and lax oversight.

The sleek black car pulled off the exit for downtown where a confluence of ramps snaked around the base of a massive obsidian tower. The rising sun eerily reflected off the eastern side of the building, blinding him even with his dark mirrored sunglasses on. Behind him, a car horn blared as a bright red sports car swerved in front of him, missing his bumper by millimeters. The aggressive driver fled into a multi-story garage next to the skyscraper, while Jackson continued into the nearly empty asphalt plain that was the pre-rush hour parking. He parked the car in the farthest lot from the office tower, and removed his duffel bag from the trunk.

In the early morning solitude, he reflected on the distant sounds of honking horns and idling engines. Beneath his black leather shoes were a line of ants marching back to a crack in the sidewalk, soldiers returning from an unseen expedition with loot and plunder. The similarities were not lost on Jackson Graves as he reached the edge of the lot, and momentarily stared at his reflection in the dark-blue plate glass. His shaved head exposed his chocolate skin to the air, while his hand-tailored suit clung to the outline of his broad shoulders and barrel chest. His round, broad face was a mask of stoic professionalism, with his brown eyes concealed behind his sunglasses. The freelance consultant straightened his red tie with his right hand before walking onwards.

Instead of heading towards the main entrance, Jackson walked in the direction of the garage where the sports car had parked. He continued onwards to an overflowing green dumpster and blue recycling bin, half hidden in the shadow of the parking garage. Jackson took care with each step so as not to dirty his shoes in puddles of garbage-encrusted water pooling near the sewer grates. The pungent smell of alcohol and rotting meat assailed his nostrils, as if a booze-soaked animal carcass had been left out in the sun for days on end. A soft moaning came from behind the dumpster as Graves approached, and a gray-maned head with a pair of wide, green eyes emerged from behind it.

"Good morning, Connor," Graves said, reaching for his wallet. "What news do your contacts bring from the streets?"

"Eh, nothing really new," Connor said, pulling himself up and stepping out from behind the dumpster. He stood a head below Graves, and was clad in a ragged windbreaker, its sleeves covered with the pins and patches of various military units. His legs were clad in ragged jeans, with massive holes exposing patches of hirsute hair covering his wrinkled legs. "The gang war in Casimir's still going on, and a North Eden dealer was found dead."

"Oh?" Graves' brow furled.

"Some punk got slashed in the alley behind the old church," Connor said. "My friend Sgt. Kynes found 'em when picking through the trash, and called the cops. They think it's Los Tigres again."

"Strange he wasn't shot like the others. Thanks for your service," Graves said, bowing his head and pulling a twenty dollar bill from his pocket. "Oh, I think you'll need these more than I do."

He reached into his duffel bag, and tossed a pair of sweat pants to Connor. The homeless man fumbled with them for a few seconds, holding them as if they were a winning lottery ticket. By the time Connor looked up to thank Graves, the consultant left with a hurried goodbye. "See you next time."

Jackson Graves walked into the main lobby with his shoulders held high and gut clenched like a brawler's fist. The tiled floor of the lobby was made of polished black marble, with limestone pillars rising in the corners, and Graves could not help being reminded of a mausoleum. He slipped his sunglasses into his pocket as the desk-dwellers took notice of him. A receptionist with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail looked up from a computer monitor to make eye contact with him. "Can I help you, sir?" she asked in a mousy voice.

"Yes, I have an appointment with Kevin Jones of Ripton Construction," Graves said. "I believe I'm early."

"Lemme check." The receptionist picked up a cord phone from her desk, her fingers dancing across the keys as she dialled the extension. "Yes, Mr. Jones? I have your guest—"

"Jackson Graves, from Graves Consulting," he said.

She continued talking on the phone for a few more moments, before waving Graves on. The businessman did not break stride as he walked towards the elevator. An old man fidgeting on his smart phone almost bumped into Graves as he stepped out.

The elevator car was wider than the narrow doors at the rear of the lobby, but Graves had to duck slightly to avoid hitting his head on the door frame.

Beside him stood a brunette with green eyes, slightly-tanned skin, and her hair pulled back into a bun. She was dressed in a white blouse with a black skirt underneath it. She grinned at him, her lips wide and her lean form angled towards him as Jackson her finger pressed the button for the fifth floor.

"Have I seen you here before?" she asked him. "Or do I have you confused with someone else?"

"I've been here several times with clients, but I don't work here," he answered.

"Oh, who do you work for?" she asked.

"I'm a freelance investment consultant. Jackson Graves, from Graves Consulting. And you are?"

"Patricia Ellis, Assistant Director of Strategic Planning at Snow Financial," she said as her face flushed red with pride. "Just closed a deal with Ridgeway Realty, marketing them options our CEO's been keen on."

"Marketing shapes image, and image is everything," Graves commented. "Good to meet an Assistant Director in person."

"Thanks," Patricia said. "I'm hoping to move up, actually. There's this manager I'm stuck under—I can't stand him, and I don't want to be stuck around him forever. I think he's been making some shady deals."

"Plenty of those in finance," Jackson commented. "You've got to come up with strategies the others haven't."

"Interesting," Patricia said. "I've been considering something, but I'm still nervous."

"Try it," Jackson said. "The results might surprise you. It worked for me."

The elevator chimed to a stop as the doors opened, a signal that ended their conversation. Patricia slipped him a business card as she stepped out of the carriage. "Let's grab lunch some time," she suggested. "I'm free this Sunday."

Graves nodded nonchalantly as the elevator doors closed again. Half a minute later, Jackson Graves stepped out of the carriage and onto the tenth floor. Unlike the gaudy spectacle of the lobby, the tenth floor was covered in a matted blue carpet that likely had not been cleaned in days, with dirty prints covering it. Locked doors bearing empty placards indicated the lack of tenants on the floor, a ghost town lit by fluorescent bulbs overhead. Ridgeway Realtors had become the landlords of empty hallways and offices that would never draw the tenants they sought.

He walked down the hall towards an office with an open door, and gently rapped on it. A middle-aged man with a sagging paunch and ill-fitting blue button-down shirt looked up, staring out the small glasses that rested on his large nose. His rotund face was worn by age, with rolls beneath his chin. The hair remaining on his head was a brown tuft with graying ends, stubbornly resisting old age. A placard on his sparsely covered desk read, "Kevin Jones, Jr."

"Mr. Jones?" Graves asked.

Jones coughed into his hands, each one sounding like he was choking on a hairball. "That's me," the man said. "Have a seat, Mr. Graves."

Graves sat down in a black swivel chair with a plastic-coated spine as he pulled a binder from his duffel bag, and set it across his lap. Jones rose from his desk to push his door closed before returning to his seat.

"Okay, so what's your opinion on Snow Financial's bid?" Jones asked. "My dad started this business, and I don't want some idiot to run it into the ground."

"I believe that Snow Financial's bid for your controlling stake is complete crap," Graves said, recalling he had just met a local Assistant Director. "What they'll do is loot any productive assets they can from the company, fire the workers, overstate the worth of the corpse, sell off some overpriced shares, and pocket the change. They're straight vulture capitalists jamming their tentacles everywhere, and they'll do to your business what they've done to countless others."

Jones' lips sank into a pout, as if he was going to say something in protest. Instead, he merely leaned back in his chair and chuckled to himself. "Heh, figures," he said. "My old man always said if something's too good to be true, it is."

"Wise advice," Graves commented. "Sadly, wishful thinking moves much of our economy."

"Yeah, but I've got other problems," Jones said. "Like retirement. Snow's offer would let me retire earlier than I thought, and I'm not as young as I used to be."

"Their initial offer can wisely be turned aside," Graves continued. "However, you do have other options, as my report will detail."

Jones cocked his head sidewise. "Yeah?"

Graves pushed the binder towards Kevin Jones, who began thumbing through it. Jackson summarized his findings in greater depth, extolling the virtues of overlooked market sectors and honest dealings. He argued for a long-term vision with integrity and quality, unlike the snake-oil salesmen promising quick returns. Jones followed his words with rapt attention, nodding in agreement as the pitch reached its ending: "Deal honestly, and do not forget why you work. A business is a means, not an end in itself."

Jones contentedly set the report aside and extended his right hand across the desk. "Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Graves," he said. A firm right hand wrapped around the freelancer's own, and Graves returned the grip.

"I am sure your father would be proud of your management," Graves said. "If there is one thing this city needs, it's more responsible people."

"Eh, I hope," Jones shrugged. "A lot of this stuff is pretty obvious, now that you bring it up."

"It's all about working smarter, not harder," Graves added. "Be lazy like a fox."

"Sounds like something he'd say," Jones chuckled. "I'll be going over this report for now, and I'll give you a call if I've got any questions."

"A pleasure, Mr. Jones," Graves said. "I believe this concludes our business. I have another client waiting."

"I'm sure." Jones waved farewell as he turned his eyes towards the thick binder on his desk.

Graves left the building at a brisk stroll, leaving the sterile office for the myriad smells of the morning parking lot. For a minute, he could not find his own car, and wandered in the sea of automobiles until he came upon it at the edge of the lot and climbed into the driver's seat of his car.

"How'd it go, kid?" came a raspy voice from the back seat.

The sweet smell of pipe smoke wafted into his nostrils, an emanation coming from behind him. Graves turned towards the back seat, observing his passenger and client. A rotund face, almost the spitting image of the man he had talked with, sat behind him with a pipe in his mouth and a fedora on his head. A trench coat wrapped around his spindly body, occasionally lapsing into translucence. The ethereal passenger flickered like a projected picture upon the car seat, lighting an illusionary stained wooden pipe between his lips.

"Very well," Graves said. "Your business should remain small and family-owned for the foreseeable future, and the workers will have their jobs safe from that hedge fund."

"I'll admit I had doubts about a Negro in a suit," the passenger commented. "But you really blew me away, kid. Back in my day, we didn't have those scavengers."

"Back in your day, segregation and sexism were law," Graves replied. "But, I digress. I have helped your son and your company as you requested. Now, is there anything else you require, Mr. Jones?"

"Nah." The apparition of Kevin Jones, Sr. shook his head. "I'd say a fat Cuban cigar, but I'm not gonna be able to enjoy it."

"Then by the terms of our contract, you are to cease haunting the Reuben Lane construction site," Graves said. "This will also help your son and your business, as it will allow them to complete their contract."

"You've done good by me, kid." The ghost yawned. "Now, I'm going to go get some shuteye."

"Rest well," Graves said, and bowed his head as the specter faded slowly. The ghost set his phantasmal pipe on his lap, and rested his head against the seat as if taking a nap. His body became increasingly translucent as his eyes closed. Kevin Jones, Sr. shimmered for a split instant, as if lightning had struck him, and then his spirit began to dissipate like wisps of smoke from a dying fire. The moment that Jones finally disappeared, Graves wondered whether his son or his company would endure longer. He bowed his head for a moment of silence, before turning his attention to the affairs of the living. He did not know the ultimate fate of the apparition, nor whether it had truly been the soul of Kevin Jones, but it would no longer trouble the living. Jackson Graves took a quick look at his smart phone, and recalled he had more mundane clients to fill the remainder of his day.

Chapter 2: Dead Frequency

It was evening when Graves headed home. The commute took him back the way he came, away from the flame-tipped smokestacks that resembled the pyre of millions against the descending cloak of night. His car ascended a ramp of floating lights towards the highway. I-95 wound away from the river and towards the west, eventually taking Graves to his exit

His car turned into a suburban development, one full of single-story ranch houses constructed during the Sixties and Seventies. He followed the labyrinthine arrangement of identical houses and streets before finally pulling in front of his own home. The white paint on the front and sides was flaking and cracked, and a small satellite dish was perched atop the acutely-angled roof like a bird's nest. The front yard had been converted to a rocky landscape, in contrast to the browning, dried grass in the next door neighbors' yards. A small ceramic pagoda sat on the front landing, an alabaster-white oriental caricature plucked from a garage sale.

The door creaked open to announce his arrival, but not a single person greeted him. He flicked the nearest light switch, illuminating a wall of framed photographs like exposed phantoms. Images of his younger self decorated the nearby wall, and Graves fixated on one of himself as an infant with his parents. His mother sat posed in her hospital scrubs, and his sharp-faced father stood with his Army uniform on. The picture next to it showed Jackson as a pudgy toddler next to his infant little brother, while his mother forced an awkward smile. Jackson barely remembered the training accident that took his father from them, but he was glad he had a chance to know his father.

The young man that was undoubtedly playing videogames in the basement had not. Unfortunately for Jackson's savings, he was also the young man that Jackson had promised his mother to put through college. A series of muffled cries and muted music echoed up through the floor, seeming to confirm his fears. Jackson momentarily considered asking if Pierce had studied, he felt it would be futile.

Against his better judgment, Jackson flung open the basement door.

"Hey, Pierce!" he shouted. "You know that history exam next week?"

"Already studied for it," came a weak response in between the sound of virtual explosions and simulated cries. "Don't worry, bro. I'm trying to learn everything I can."

"I am not paying for you to take this class again," Jackson said as he slammed the door. It took every ounce of restraint he had to keep him from doing more. He walked towards his room, his feet pounding on the shaggy brown carpet. He leaned on the faded floral wallpaper as he carried his duffel bag inside. The well-ordered room smelled like a newly ironed suit, and several outfits like the one he wore were visible in a nearby wardrobe. The bed was covered in plain white sheets, while the walls and floor were kept free of clutter. Various credentials of his, such as his bachelor's degree, his series 6 and 7 licenses, and his CFA level 3 certificate, hung framed across from the mixed martial arts trophies on a small shelf near his bed.

He unzipped his duffel bag and threw his dirty gym clothing into the laundry basket. His cherry-wood bokken, a wooden practice sword, tumbled out of the bag. He propped it against the wall, next to the nightstand where he kept his father's pistol. Jackson quickly checked on the nickel-plated 1911, ensuring it was locked up safely. Afterwards, he continued the rest of his nightly rituals.

Dinner was a bowl of cereal, followed by a chocolate bar for dessert. It was smaller than lunch, and far smaller than the hearty breakfast consumed earlier that day. As his mind shut down, Jackson recalled there was a final task he had to perform. He walked past Pierce's empty bedroom, figuring his brother would be going to sleep when he was waking up, and opened his office, locking the door behind him.

The room had been converted from his parent's former bedroom after his mother passed away from surgical complications. A musty smell that reminded Jackson of his mother's closet lingered in the air like the memories that filled the space. A wooden desk inherited from his grandparents sat between a pair of filing cabinets, with an ancient desktop computer and bulky cathode ray tube monitor propped against the wall. While old, he saw no need to replace what worked. A small artifact sat next to the computer, a two-decade old ham radio with a bundle of crudely-soldered wires connecting it to the nearby computer. Jackson sat down and fiddled with dials he half-understood while the computer warmed up.

The crackle of white noise erupted from the speakers as he shifted across the spectrum. He caught part of a catchy pop song in Spanish as he scanned for something interesting. He entered his password on the computer and clicked an icon called "Dead Frequency." Suddenly, a shrill cry emerged from the ham radio, a banshee's wail across the airwaves. Despite hearing it frequently, it still caused Jackson to jump. As the computer recorded, he spoke into a microphone.

"This is Jackson Graves, consulting medium," he spoke. "If you are hearing this, you most likely have unresolved business. Respond, and we'll discuss terms."

Only a peculiar static cascaded from the speaker system, even after he repeated his message a few minutes later. His standard approach was typically sufficient to lure in any freshly deceased ghosts, but sometimes he had to adjust to particular clients. Some spirits were hard to locate, even with the Dead Frequency and his own eyes.

"If you were the member of the North Eden gang who was attacked last night, I can help you," he said. "Are you there?"

There was not a single response. Jackson's subconscious grew restless. He expected to hear the typical sounds of the recently deceased from around Ripton City: quiet sobbing, desperate pleading, confused threats, and misdirected anger. Instead, the sullen silence lingered on for three long, torturous minutes. Jackson hoped for any kind of voice, even the Spanish pop singer.

"H-hello?" came a cry that almost jolted Jackson from his chair. "W-where am I?"

"You are lingering in the space between life and death," he replied. "I'm Jackson Graves, and I can help you. What's your name?"

"D-Devon." The voice was unmistakably male and terrified. "I-I thought I heard you say North Eden."

"Yes, I did," Jackson said. "One of their dealers was murdered in Casimir. Is that you?"

"I-I guess. But am I dead?"

"If we are speaking, yes," Jackson answered. "Do you remember who did it?"

"I didn't see 'em," Devon replied. "I-I felt a hand wrap around my throat, and felt something cold and sharp in my neck. That's all! You have to help me!"

"I'm trying. Every detail you provide will help me. Now, do you have anything you want taken care of? Loved ones taken care of, last requests, unfinished business, and things of that sort."

There was a second-long delay before Devon began speaking again. "Oh, shit! He's coming back!"

"Who? Who's coming back?" Jackson shouted into the microphone.

A horrific shriek that sounded like an infernal tire screeching to a halt was the only response the medium received. Devon's voice cried out, rising to an inhumanly high pitch. It continued for a full two seconds, the wrenching scream of an unearthly apparition. Dead silence followed, before Jackson saw a spark dance across the radio. There was a scorched crackle as the radio immediately ceased to function, and the computer stopped recording. Jackson had not fully recovered from the bizarre wail from the deceased dealer when he noticed his equipment had been fried.

A frantic pounding at the door came a second later, sending Jackson into fight-or-flight mode until he managed to cooled his frayed nerves. He walked to the door and unlocked it to find a flabby young man dressed in a stained tee shirt and superhero boxer shorts. His rounded face had a second chin underneath the first, scratched box-framed glasses around his eyes, and curly black hair in unwashed clumps. Crumbs fell from the palms of his hands onto the floor below.

"You okay?" Jackson's asked. "I thought I heard something up here."

"Radio's on the fritz, but I'm fine. Looks like I'll have to take it in for repairs tomorrow."

"That thing belongs in a museum," Pierce said, rolling his eyes. "I don't know why you waste time with it every night."

"It has its uses," Jackson said. "But you should worry about that history exam."

"Yeah, sure," Pierce said as he turned away. "Got it covered, brother."

"Oh, and Pierce?" Jackson remembered.

"Yeah?" He turned his head.

"Thanks for your concern," Jackson said.

Pierce said nothing as he vanished from view, likely descending back into a netherworld dominated by electronic escapist fantasies. Jackson wondered for a moment if his brother would ever gain a life. Graves felt it was his job to help restless souls, especially if they still drew breath.

While he quickly put the night's events out of his conscious mind, his stomach twisted itself into knots as he ruminated over Devon's fate. He had little information to go on, but his instincts told him it was not good. The next day would hopefully bring answers.

Chapter 3: Necrotech

The town of Byfield would have simply been an upscale suburb of Port Ripton if not for the famous Rodney University in its heart. I-95 snaked by the outskirts of the town, cutting between a large, tree-covered hill and chemical plant. The university was well known for its chemical engineering department, which unceasingly devised new ways to give people cancer, Jackson thought to himself as he took the road that directly bisected the campus.

Faux classical buildings rested on manicured lawns looking as natural as AstroTurf. Gaggles of students spilled down red brick walkways as they changed classes. He turned left onto the town's main street, a lively stretch of small-town store fronts, notably lacking the aesthetic atrocities of strip malls and parking lots that plagued Port Ripton. He turned down a narrow street lined with Victorian homes, with towering spires and long wrap-around porches. The Greek letters hanging from windows and overgrown grass led Jackson to suspect that the classic structures had been reduced to frat houses and student tenements that would forever reek of alcohol.

The road terminated near the edge of the woods, with a trailer and a shipping container at the end of it. The container was covered in a light green paint, save for a few flecks of rust. Wires connected it to a nearby mobile home, a cheap structure that looked like it had been plucked out of a trailer park. Solar panels covered the tops of both, and a plastic tank was hooked to a serpentine system of makeshift gutters on the trailer. Broken machines, from appliances to automobile hulks, lay disassembled across the property, which looked like a mechanical abattoir. A large wooden sign that read "Necrotech Workshop" with an electric light beneath it. Jackson parked the car in a dirt patch near the street and walked towards the front door of the trailer.

"Ah, welcome back!" came a grating voice from behind him.

The smell of wet dog assaulted Jackson's nostrils before he saw the caretaker. He turned around to see a man clad in a stained lab coat. His dark brown hair was a fraying mess, his face a pale sheet with crooked glasses taped together on his nose, and a restlessly shifting pair of azure eyes. His chimp-like ears and nose had turned a bright red that Jackson had only seen on plastic Santa Claus figures. The man was shorter and thinner than Jackson, but the consultant's instincts still compelled him to give the man a wide berth despite knowing him for years.

"Hello, David," he said. "I need your help."

"Well, you're in luck!" David exclaimed. "Just finished my latest project!"

He threw open the doors to the shipping container and produced an object from his coat. A set of bright LEDs illuminated the metal container, bathing its innards in light. Jackson saw a piece of paper, framed, on the opposite side, a doctoral degree in engineering awarded to David Risona. On either side of the container were anachronistic devices of various types, but Jackson recognized a pattern. One side was almost completely covered in weapons, from stone-tipped spears to futuristic assault rifles. The other was covered by prosthetics and artificial limbs, from a wooden peg leg to a realistic bionic hand. In the center of the room sat multiple desks with computers and machinery that buzzed and beeped and droned, and Jackson had no idea as to their function. A severed rat head, with the remainder of his body replaced by some life-support system, blinked at him. Jackson felt goose bumps crawl up his skin, a revulsion at whatever work had been done here.

David pulled a screwdriver from a nearby toolbox, and then withdrew something from his pocket. He set down a strange, boxy revolver on a workbench, tightening new grips onto the weapon. The firearm was covered with ornate and baroque carvings, a style the wooden grips matched perfectly. Dr. Risona finished tightening the screws, and examined the pistol closely.

"Done like the Romans and ancients, as Grandpa would say," he said, stashing the revolver into a cavernous pocket. "My latest revolver, Sophia, is complete. She's my homage to Renaissance aesthetics and the works of Emilio Ghisoni."

"To each their own," Jackson said. "Now, I've had some technical issues recently."

"Is that it?" David murmured. "Of course it is. You don't visit the dojo any more, or even say 'hi' unless you have problems. Can't you just call up tech support if your computer crashes again?"

"I have a demanding job," Jackson said. "Now, my radio shorted out last night, and I have no idea why."

"You weren't listening to it in the bathtub were you?" the mad scientist asked. "Let me see it."

Jackson led the way towards the back of his car, and opened the trunk. He lifted the ham radio unit out with both of his hands, getting no help from David, and lugged it back to the workshop as he avoided the junk on the ground. He set it down on a wooden work table next to a 3D printer, and David's face lit up even brighter, as he pulled out a multimeter and soldering iron.

"No wonder you couldn't just call tech support," he said, jamming electrodes at the wires. "Now, tell me what happened before it stopped working."

"I was conversing with a potential client, a victim of the ongoing gang war," Jackson said. He explained the story in as much detail as he could recall, while David poked and prodded with his multimeter electrodes.

"Ah, here's the problem," he said, pulling out a small blackened square that was once a transistor. Jackson could still detect a hint of ozone over David's musk. "An ectoplasmic disruption caused this to overload. There's good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?"

"I don't care."

"The good news is we can repair it. The bad news is it'll take a while, like at least a week or two. I'll have to make a replacement part from scratch. Without that it, your radio's not going to pick up the Dead Frequency."

"What is an ectoplasmic disruption?" Jackson asked.

"A catastrophic failure of electronic components due to trans-dimensional ectoplasmic scattering," David explained. "In simpler terms, the ghost was destroyed while you were talking with it, and the radio malfunctioned."

"What could do that?" the businessman asked dispassionately. His insides churned slowly as he realized something existed that could harm the dead. If it was an attack, it directly threatened his business interests.

"Well, your ghostly friend mentioned something about someone coming back," David shrugged. "Beyond that, I'm afraid it's outside my area of expertise. I fix machines, weapons, and medical gear."

"This radio is not normal," Jackson said. "Yet you can repair that."

"But it's still a radio, even if I based it on Edison's necrophone," David replied. "Look, there are other ways to talk to spirits, less efficient and old-fashioned crap like magic and rituals. I'm the wrong guy to ask about that stuff."

"You could work a real job with credentials like yours," Jackson noted. "And earn enough money to expand this operation."

"And be a cubicle slave in a place I hate? No thank you. I find it more rational to live below my means, but do something I love. Better to maximize my enjoyment of life."

Jackson nodded and pulled out a wad of bills from his wallet. He was in no mood to argue with the mad scientist. He put them down on the work bench next to the radio.

"Let me know when you're finished," Jackson said. "And I'll pay the other half."

Risona looked up at Graves as the man departed. "Can you close the door behind you?" he requested. "I prefer to work in silence."

Graves nodded as he shut the doors to the shipping container behind him. The doors creaked shut, a metallic sound like a stretching robot. The consulting medium returned to his car and started up the engine. While the mad scientist could not answer his question, he knew another place he could continue his search for answers.

Chapter 4: Dead Eye

The laws of supply and demand meant Jackson Graves knew why occult lore carried a high price. Fortunately, a spirit had directed him towards such tomes it had owned in life, but which had been languishing in a small used bookstore. For a few dollars, he had secured an investment worth far more than his entire net financial worth.

Jackson returned home, determined to spend his Saturday searching for the information he required. He barged into the house, standing still while he recalled where he had hidden a particular book. He flung open the door to the basement, his memories guiding his every step. He had to duck slightly as he walked down the narrow stairwell, his footsteps heavy on aged planks that groaned under every step.

"Hello," his brother greeted him.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Jackson could see the finishing his parents had given to the Spartan basement. The concrete floor was overlaid with by hexagonal tiles and the walls were covered with thin plywood sheets, making the space livable. In the corner, his brother sat in front of a plasma-screen TV, his window to imaginary worlds.

The young man who shared his flesh and blood slouched on a musty sofa, his corpulent stomach protruding from his abdomen like a gravid goat. His thumbs wriggled like juicy worms, moving a knight around the screen as he hacked his way through a horde of screaming barbarians.

"What brings you down here?" Pierce asked, not even moving his head.

"Business," Jackson coolly said. "Just remember to study."

"Yeah, yeah." Pierce continued playing his game. "Whatever, Milton."

"Please don't call me that."

Jackson said nothing else as he walked into a darkened corner of the basement where a wooden bookshelf gathered dust beneath the dim basement lights, with cobwebs filling the empty shelves. Carefully, Jackson knelt down and produced a key from his pocket. He slid it into a locked drawer at the bottom, and pulled out a green ammunition canister he had gotten from Risona. He opened it up, revealing the leather-bound spine of a book that was old when the telegraph was new. It was encased in a protective layer of plastic wrap, with a label Jackson whispered to himself.

"The Covenant of Shadows: A Codex of Thaumaturgical Rites," he read, voice quivering slightly. The book had survived witch hunts and world wars, but was now subject to the dangers of age. With great care, he took the book upstairs as his brother continued gaming. He entered his study, and locked the door behind him.

A small patch, completely absent of dust, marked where the radio used to sit. Jackson carefully set the book down there, cradling the tome like a newborn baby. He slipped latex gloves onto his hands and pulled out a portable scanner from a nearby drawer. He laid a protective plastic sheet between the pages, and began scanning. He deliberately shifted the device slowly, gingerly lifting the cracking pages after finishing each.

The task was as monotonous as any other paperwork, but it gave Jackson a chance to see the entire book. After completing it, he carefully set the book back into its container, protective wrapping still around it. He treated the grimoire as a sacred relic, for the best investments were to be protected. After scanning it, he had a copy he could browse at his leisure.

Flipping through the virtual pages, he came to the spell he required. "Eyes of the Netherworld," he said, reading the entry aloud. An elaborate drawing, a modified pentagram reminiscent of the symbols in the Ars Goetia, occupied the center of the section. A list of ritual steps was detailed, and Jackson felt his last meal twisting in his stomach, his instincts, warning him about dabbling in such things. There were reasons he had left the spell book locked up, and kept the desktop PC disconnected from the internet when the Dead Frequency was on. He felt confident that the copy on his phone would not draw undue attention, as he renamed the file "Collected Recipes" to limit its interest to any hackers or identity thieves.

The ritual called for objects that Jackson was fortunate to find at the nearby supermarket. He returned to his office half an hour later with a sheet of poster board, chalk, a glass jar, sage oil, salt, candles, and a cigarette lighter. He sketched braces of lines across the poster, as if mapping out a medieval fortress. On the edges, he placed small pastel birthday candles, each held upright by a plastic stand. The bright waxen colors did little to alleviate the fear that stirred inside him. Doubt and insecurity gnawed at his gut, a sense of desperation that he had to force himself to ignore. In the center of the board, he placed a jar half-filled with sage oil. He sprinkled salt around the makeshift ritual circle, then mixed some in with his hands with a fistful of white chalk. He emptied his hands into the jar, before soaking a pair of cheap sunglasses in it.

"Those who have passed on, I beseech thee," he half-whispered, as if fearful someone would barge through his locked door. "Cut these eyes, and I shall truly see."

He blew out one of the candles, and the others flickered subtly in his breath. "Those beyond life, I call to thee." He stopped momentarily, feeling a chill down his back. "Tear the veil that transcends mortality."

He blew out another candle. The other flames began to flicker and dance, despite being a distance from his breath. Jackson thought he heard the floor creaking, as if the house itself was sighing.

"Those who hear me, I command thee," Jackson's voice rose as he tried to cover the upwelling of fear within him. "Give a sign of your presence to me."

He blew out the third candle, just as the window blinds blew upwards as if struck by a torrent of wind. Eerie light filtered into the room for a second as the doorknob rocked back and forth. It sounded as though something was shaking the door from the outside, trying to force its way in. A demented cacophony sounded as the blinds and door were joined by footfalls in the hallway, some barely audible and others like mighty stomps. It was as if a rampaging herd stampeded down his hallway, jerking the door back and forth.

"Those gathered here, I compel thee," Jackson shouted to hear himself over the commotion. "Open these eyes of the Netherworld, the Stygian gaze, and may darkness be!"

Jackson blew out the last candle as he briefly pulled the sunglasses from the jar in the center of the room. He bowed down, casting his head to the floor as he questioned whether it was real or nightmare. He felt a tingling on his arms, and barely held on as frigid pinpricks danced across his exposed flesh. He felt naked before a blizzard, buffeted by forces beyond mortal control. He closed his eyes tightly, balled his fists together, and clenched his teeth. Eerie calls, moans, and wails reminiscent of the static on the Dead Frequency hammered his ear drums, even as he pulled his head between his elbows. As confidence turned to fear, Jackson recalled a lesson learned from life. He stood up, stepped into a boxer's stance, and swept his eyes across the office like scorching rays.

"Enough!" Jackson shouted, converting his fear to fury.

An uncanny silence descended onto what had been pandemonium. Jackson's heart still raced, and adrenaline still coursed through his veins. He scanned for any signs of movement or the ruckus that had swept through the room, but both the blinds and door remained unmoved. Uncertainty flooded his mind, but he gradually grew more curious about the sunglasses submerged in salt and sage oil. He cautiously lifted the glasses, and dried them off on a paper towel while looking for any visible changes. The ritual had not gone as Jackson had hoped, and he was unsure if anything had happened to the glasses.

Throwing caution to the wind, he slipped the sunglasses onto his face and looked around. Aside from the dark, opaque tint that covered his field of vision, he saw nothing he did not anticipate. Even a brief distortion vanished after he wiped a drop of oil off the lens. Jackson sighed dejectedly, believing whatever had just occurred to be for naught. He was about to discard the glasses, when a soft scratching sound came from the window.

Jackson inquisitively moved towards it, and adjusted the blinds to look outside. Blades of sunlight filtered into the room, and Jackson was grateful for the sunglasses as he looked out into the bright daylight for the source of the sound. He opened the window a crack, and heard a slight purring coming close by. A cat stuck its head out from a clump of bushes outside the window, its paws scratching the side of the house.

"Hello there," Jackson said.

The cat meowed happily, and Jackson noticed something peculiar. A blue aura shimmered across the cat's body as it wriggled out of the shrubs. It took a split second to register the pattern of a tire-tread on the cat's stomach, and that squashed organs dangled from the animal's midsection. The consultant's stomach lurched, and he tried to keep its contents in. The cat continued onwards, unaffected by its mortal wounds.

A pigeon perched on a nearby neighbor's rooftop, and a tortured warble left its beak instead of the expected cooing. Examining it closer, Jackson noted a red mark near the bird's throat. He closed his eyes and looked away as he tried to make sense of what he saw. Suddenly, he noted movement in his neighbor's house, a figure shifting in a bedroom window. He saw long, dark hair and alabaster skin on a distinctly feminine form that rapidly vanished from the window.

Jackson shuddered as he realized why. The girl swayed at the end of a noose, moving in a regular rhythm like a macabre clock pendulum. He stood transfixed, until he remembered the family that lived next door had no daughters. He glared at the apparition, a new sense of confidence coming over him. Suddenly, the girl's eyes opened, sullen orbs of darkness staring directly into his soul.

Words formed as her lips moved, a soft and pitiful voice speaking directly into his mind. "Help...me...Jackson..."

He stumbled backwards, the sunglasses falling off as he flailed momentarily. As he regained his bearings, Jackson realized the girl was gone, along with the pigeon and cat. He carefully picked up the sunglasses, unnerved by the idea of putting them back on again.

"Looks like the ritual worked," he said to himself. "I can see the dead wherever I go, perhaps even some spirits too weak to see before."

He slipped the sunglasses into his pocket, and exhaled a sigh of relief. It seemed like he was open for business again, perhaps even able to service a wider range of clients. He pondered for a moment if the price was worth it, but knew he would need more time to find out.

Chapter 5: Family Business

It was only after an hour of research that Jackson Graves worked up enough nerve to put the sunglasses back on. He moved his chair to face the office window and held a stack of papers in his hand. The consulting medium opened the blinds wide, exhaling as sunbeams caressed his dark skin. He saw the side of the neighbors' house, a single-story structure with peeling blue paint on its aluminum siding. A waist-high chain-link fence separated the properties. He inhaled deeply, as if taking a breath before submerging, and placed the glasses over his nose.

Jackson Graves knew that he wasn't seeing the land of the living anymore. The neighbors' house now seemed a deeper, darker blue. A bone-white color was visible underneath the house's navy blue paint, reminiscent of a beached whale's carcass. The sky was no longer a bright aquamarine expanse, but a gray fugue. Clouds flew rapidly above his head, as if fleeing something over the horizon. The girl in the window stared outside at him, as her spectral form swayed gently to and fro. To his limited understanding, the shades acted as supernatural magnifying glasses, allowing him to see those spirits he could have missed for years.

"Help…" came a plea halfway between a moan and a whisper. Her voice sounded like a choking victim's desperate rasps.

"Not to worry, Elizabeth Townes," Jackson said, pulling out a newspaper article. "I feel sorry you felt suicide was the only way out. You had a promising future, given your university acceptances. I regret my family was unable to meet yours before your fateful decision."

He opened the newspaper wide, hoping the spirit would catch sight of the printed page. "While many people have moved in and out of that house, you've remained," Jackson said. "Now, how do you know my name?"

The spirit stopped swaying on the noose, and stared directly at him. "Heard…voice…every…night."

"Ah, but obviously, you were unable to respond," Jackson said. "I blame technical difficulties, but my business has had to make some changes lately. Now that we are speaking, how can I help you?"

Her thin lips pouted as glowing eyes opened wide. "Find…diary…"

"In the two decades since you've died, one book can travel far," Jackson said. "Can you give me any more information?"

"Buried…in…box…near…fence...I'll...show...you." A ribbon of light travelled from Elizabeth's window towards the rusted fence, weaving through rusted metal links until it rested on the ground, next to a fencepost.

"If I recover this, can you rest?" Jackson asked.

A tortured sigh was the only response that came from the ghost. "Read…it."

"We'll talk once I've checked by the fence," Jackson said. "For now, I must go."

He slipped the glasses off, and his pupils took a moment to readjust to the blinding afternoon sun. The ethereal haze before his eyes had vanished, leaving only dark blotches on his peripheral vision. He vaguely recalled the sensation of rising from murky water for air.

As he headed downstairs, Jackson made a quick detour to the bathroom. He found the door already closed and the lights on, and heard the droning fan inside. Jackson rapped gently on the door.

"Pierce, you almost done in there?" he asked.

A hacking cough answered that question for him, and Jackson headed towards the garage instead. He flicked on the lights, and witnessed the chaotic jungle of forgotten tools that filled where his parents' cars used to park. In the years that had followed, a sprawl of disused equipment had spilled from overflowing shelves to the floor. It was after the lawn mower broke that Jackson had the front lawn and garden replaced with a rocky expanse, instead of having to fumble through the garage every week.

Squeezing past a wheelbarrow loaded with old paint cans, Jackson found a musty rack containing empty flower pots. His hand pulled a rusted shovel from a plastic bucket in the corner, and he carried it back while avoiding stepping on a fallen rake. He hefted the rusted shovel over his shoulders and walked out to the side of the house.

The car was absent from the neighbors' driveway, so Jackson felt he did not have to worry about witnesses as he dug on his side of the fence. He thrust the shovel into the parched, sandy ground and pressed down with his heel. He repeated this until the shovel hit something solid, sending a jolt up the handle into his hands. He crouched and fumbled through the dirt until he found what he was looking for.

His soil-covered hands came up with a cracked plastic box. He figured the crack was from his strike with the shovel, but the contents remained unharmed. Jackson carefully set the box on the ground, and set to work filling the hole up again. He did not want to explain to his brother why he had been digging. He returned inside with the box, preparing to inspect its contents more closely.

Jackson headed back to his room as he walked between photographs of a smiling family in happier times. He walked past the bathroom door just as Pierce left with a thick textbook in hand, and Jackson gave a silent nod of approval to his brother as he retreated to his basement lair. He walked into his office, and locked the door.

Carefully, Jackson removed the contents from the plastic container. A small notebook was wrapped within layers of plastic, keeping out moisture and dirt. Even though it was dry, he handled it with the care of an ancient tome. The book was not as old as his grimoire, but it had been in the ground for at least twenty years. Slipping on gloves and placing the book on a sheet of plastic, he began to page through it.

As he skimmed through the book, Jackson could not help but feel like a voyeur. He was reading entries by a teenage girl describing everything from her makeup to lunch. Attempts at poetry filled the margins, some left incomplete and abandoned. He flipped to the end, and noticed the writing grew less organized and legible as though her words were a tangle of barbed wire.

Mom got another diagnosis confirming she's got breast cancer," Jackson read aloud. "Since he got fired, Dad's been much angrier at me."

He gulped slowly, a knot of air descending to his gut like a golf ball. He slowly paged through, dreading what would be at the last entry. Seeing the spirit and its method of imprisonment gave Jackson a sense how it would end. The words he skimmed fed into his darkest fears, but he pressed onwards out of a sense of professional duty.

"To anyone reading this, let the world know I lived," Jackson read, grimly noting the past tense. "Because my parents didn't care."

The journal ended roughly midway down a page towards the rear of the notebook, and Jackson had had enough. He carefully set the book down and allowed the gnawing in his guts to continue as he fought the urge to cry. He remembered his last meeting with his mother when she required surgery for cervical cancer.

Jackson was younger then, a youth midway through his bachelor's degree. He was pudgier and unkempt, almost the spitting image of how Pierce currently was. He sat alone in the hospital lobby, forcing himself to read a year-old gossip magazine as he awaited news. Every time a hospital orderly or nurse would walk out, he stupidly hoped for good news. Each time, the gray-haired front desk receptionist would shake her head and wave him away.

He hoped to see his mother back in the scrubs of a nurse, instead of the gown of a patient. As the hours wore on, Jackson felt nausea and sadness well up in him. He forced himself to continue reading even as tears rolled down his cheeks. His worst fears came true in his mind, as dozens of tragic scenarios unfurled in his imagination. He sobbed silently into his crossed arms, as if to prevent the indifferent receptionist from seeing him.

"There, there, Milton," came a familiar voice. "It'll be alright."

A woman stood before him, her brown skin and rounded face similar to his own. She was clad in the dark blue scrubs of a nurse, her hospital ID card clipped above her pants pocket. She leaned forward slowly, her soft brown eyes making contact with his.

"Mom?" he raised his head from its arms. "Is that you?"

"Yes, now listen," Mom said. "I want you to make sure Pierce has someone to look up to. He's always been a smart boy, but too lazy for his own good."

"What are you talking about?" the distraught boy asked. "How'd the surgery go?"

"When you get home, check the bottom drawer in my dresser," Mom ignored his question. "You know, the one you and Pierce always stole socks from."

"Mom, what are you talking about?" Milton asked.

"Something I want you to do for me. I did it before I met your father, and just after he passed on. But I stopped to raise you and your brother."

"What is it?" He waited expectantly for information.

"You're going to be really good at it, Milton," his mother assured him as she stepped away. "But I have to go."

"Wait!" he shouted. "Where are you going?!"

The receptionist looked up at him, radiating disdain as she narrowed her eyes. "Who were you talking to?"

Before the confused youth could answer, he turned to see his mother had vanished. For a moment, Milton was unsure of what had happened. For several long seconds, he entertained the idea that he had just conversed with a grief-induced hallucination. As he prepared to respond, he saw the receptionist's head turn to see a nurse entering the lobby with a clipboard. She had short golden hair, and freckles crossing the fair skin exposed on her face and forearms.

"Milton Graves?" she asked, peering around the lobby.

"Here." Milton leapt up, excited for the news he was about to receive.

He did not remember the exact exchange of words, but he recalled breaking down in tears at the news. He felt as though his world had ended, shattered into innumerable pieces like a broken statue never to be repaired. Nothing mattered to him, and the angst was contagious. The nurse embraced him, sharing her own sobs.

"Your mother was a great woman to work with," she said, patting him on the back. "Always so caring and selfless."

It was in that moment that Milton knew he had to step up. He found his mother's notes on the Dead Frequency in a notebook in her sock drawer, and that became one of many the major changes in his life that would follow. He took his mother's maiden name as a nickname, and legally changed his own while doubling down on his studies and exercise routine. Pierce barely recognized him after a year after that.

Jackson Graves set the aged diary to the side as he reached for the sunglasses. He moved his chair to the window and put them on. Elizabeth's body had stopped swaying in the window, and her black eyes stared out at him. He carefully held the diary up in front of the window, and the ghost suddenly began to quiver with peculiar stimulation, as if jolted by electricity.

"I read it, as you requested," he said. "Do you want me to share this?"

"Yes," the specter replied. "All...of...it."

"I have a friend who can scan this and set up an online memorial," he explained. "So the entire world will see it. Is this sufficient?"

"Yes," Elizabeth answered, the hint of a smile playing across her face. Her voice sounded more energetic and had a slightly higher pitch to it. The spectral noose around her neck began to fade as the eternal teenager took a step forward. Her porcelain-white skin suddenly grew more pink, as if a black and white photo were being colored in. Her eyes faded from obsidian pools to white spheres, illuminated like a full moon. The somber gray of the spectral plane remained, but she stood out as a beacon of radiance. The newly emancipated ghost took a step forward, walking through the walls of her house and outside to freedom. She appeared much more like the smiling girl in the newspaper photo than the sorry specter from before. She radiated confidence and power, such that he did not need the glasses to see her. The ghost walked through the chain link fence and right up to Jackson's window.

"Do you need any other assistance?" Jackson asked, trying to maintain his professional demeanor. "Most of my clients would be passing on now."

"But I'm not ready." Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm scared!"

"Don't be. I don't know what happens, but my clients have all sought rest."

"Well, I don't!" Elizabeth protested. "Whatever you did, it freed me!"

"Were you hanging there for the last twenty years?" Jackson asked, raising his hands to his chin.

"Yes, I was left hanging," Elizabeth chuckled to herself. "Don't mind the pun."

"You seem in awfully high spirits," Jackson retorted.

"Oh, you're just as bad. Look, call me Liz."

"Very well, Liz. What are your plans now?"

"I dunno," she shrugged. "No one's ever seen me until now, despite me trying to call out to you."

"You are not to interfere with or harm the living," Jackson said, pulling out his bokken. "I've beaten sense into poltergeists with this cherry-wood sword. Don't try anything."

"I've been trying to get mortal attention for so long, I lost count of the years," Liz replied, pointing back at the window. "I had to watch them turn my old room into a family room! Can you imagine how painful that was?"

"Not as painful as losing a mother to cancer," Jackson somberly replied. "We're both alike in those regards."

"She was a nice lady," Liz nodded. "I heard her voice a few times, but she never heard me."

"Our family business is undergoing some changes," Jackson said. "So that we may better serve our clients."

"Yeah, yeah," Liz muttered as she walked towards the window, her voice becoming louder each step. "Spare me the pitch."

"If you don't care for passing on, I have a proposition for you," Jackson stood up. "A business deal."

"How could I help you?" The ghost sauntered forwards, leaning itself against the window frame. "You're the only person to talk to me in years!"

"Look, your skills would be very useful to me," Jackson said. "You'd be a good secretary and spy for me. Plenty of corporations have dirty secrets in this town. Imagine if someone was to help me exploit them?"

"And what would I get?" Liz asked.

Jackson hesitated. He made the offer to spirits before, but each preferred eternal rest.

"I would typically offer an internship for your resume," Jackson said. "But we'd be hurting the bastards who turned this city into a toxic waste dump where it hurts most: their wallets."

"Hmm. Dad always yelled about the fat-cats who fired him, but he took it out on me. Mom always thought she got cancer from where she worked."

"Your father sadly saw no other options. I'm trying to keep what happened to your family from happening to others."

"Well, guess I owe my folks that one."

"This place has gotten worse since you lived," Jackson noted. "So someone has to stop the people running the city into the ground."

"This is sounding really good." Liz smiled wide, undoubtedly for the first time in decades. "Very good."

"In addition, you'd be my assistant when I take on more dead clients," Jackson said. "But I must warn you: there's something in this city that can destroy ghosts."

"I know," Liz said softly. "I heard your talk with that Devon guy."

"Until I know more about what we're dealing with," Jackson wagged his finger. "I want you to stay here and watch my brother."

"Why?" Liz shrugged. "You don't trust your bro?"

"I want to make sure he's studying," Jackson said. "I promised my Mom I'd put him through college."

He did not elaborate and tell her that he considered that his first, and most important, contract.

"Eh, fine," Liz said, her hand reaching through the glass pane. "Anything's better than hanging in that room. Anyway, can I come in?"

"Only for business," Jackson said. "You are to remain in this office, and not travel beyond it unless you are watching my brother."

"I've done babysitting, so I know the drill," Liz stepped into the office, and leaned into a filing cabinet. "He can't be as bad as some of those brats."

"One final term," Jackson recalled. "If I find you have harmed him in any way, or lied to me, I will show you just how much pain a ghost can endure."

Jackson planted the bokken tip down on the office floor as he concluded speaking. Liz gulped and nodded, but Jackson playfully smirked as she glowered. He rattled off a list of his house's supernatural defenses against unwanted spirits, some real and some imaginary. Chief among them were the invisible ink sigils he had painted around his house years ago still functioned perfectly. He omitted a few details, in case Liz was lying or had other plans. He would keep some distance between them for now, but he was in no position to turn down help.

Jackson felt more confidence in his ability to handle rogue ghosts than his younger brother. He was unsure of how his new associate would turn out, but he was reminded that he had no other choice. For a brief instant, he felt a momentary pang of guilt about spying on his brother, but his memories of Mom quickly dispelled it.

Chapter 6: External Audit

Jackson Graves knew that working weekends was a necessary evil in his line of work, given his lack of regular hours. However, spending a Sunday afternoon meeting an attractive woman for a chat was typically an activity limited to his leisure time. He stepped out of his car, clad in a suit and tie as he approached a cafe built into a restored old stone house between Port Ripton and Byfield. The floor was polished wood, and leather chairs sat next to wooden tables covered in books and magazines. "Blue Rock Beans" was in a building dating back at least two centuries, but it was not the age of the structure that irked him.

It was the gaggle of hipsters stuffed inside that was more than sufficient for that task. Thick black glasses, clothing looted from second hand stores, overpriced tablet computers, and pretentious quotes on shirts were dead giveaways as to the consumer preferences of the cafe's standard patrons. A tired Hispanic barista sighed as she handed a crème-topped brew to a customer who could have passed as a vagrant. Jackson imagined Connor, his homeless informant, could easily blend in with the regulars.

"Hey, Jackson!" called a voice from the corner of his vision.

He turned to see a familiar brunette grinning at him—Patricia. He greeted her as he took a seat across from her, folding his hands on the table. "How have you been?" he asked.

"Okay, just remembering how much I liked this place," she said, opening her posture as she set her arms down on the table. She leisurely sipped a cream-topped latte in front of her. "Went here all the time when I was at Rodney."

"It seems nice, but out of the way for me. Now, what can I help you with?"

"To the point," Patricia said before sipping more of her drink. "I like that. But my problems have been with my immediate superior, Regional Director Dick Carver. I think he's been forming his own shell company with my firm's assets. I think he's going to leave us high and dry."

"Continue."

"I looked you up online after our meeting," Patricia said. "I found your results hard to believe at first, but your clients all swear by you. You have some unique method the rest of us don't?"

"Just observation of what a client wants," Jackson answered. "Even if they don't know it yet."

"And if they don't want it," Patricia said. "That's why marketing exists."

The medium nodded in agreement.

Patricia's eyes opened wide, as if she had recalled something. "So, Jackson, you must read a lot, right?"

Jackson simply bowed his head.

"What do you read, if you don't mind me asking?" Patricia asked. "Ripton Investment Insider? Wall Street Gazette? Gloomberg?"

"None of them, as I prefer more direct sources." He added, and re-folded his hands. "Now, what did you wish to discuss?"

"Help with an investment strategy," Patricia said, her tone becoming stern. "And reviewing our financial plans."

"I'm a CFA. Forensic accounting is not something for a CPA."

"I know, but I want to present an alternative to Carver's investment strategy. Ever since he's been in charge, we've closed every quarter worse than before. The CEO, Susan Sharp, will relocate to Ripton soon, and I want to impress her with a portfolio that blows the Regional Director's out of the water."

"And you think I'm some miracle worker?" Jackson asked. He mused on the fact investment banking seemed to draw certain people he would otherwise not associate with.

"Our CEO is always looking for talent, and I want my boss's position. I don't want to work for a company going down in flames."

"And why would you be a better candidate than him? What would you do differently?"

"Plenty, but I need your help. Carver's responsible for a number of public relations disasters, like that foreclosure ordeal with Kraken Security. He's been getting into bed with them, and I even think he's planning to screw us over for his own gain."

Jackson considered the idea for a moment. Involvement in corporate intrigue was something he preferred to avoid, but it could pay very well. He disliked dealing with large investment firms, but petty drama between executives could be quite lucrative, as corporate lawyers would be loosed on each other instead of him. If rumors of a civil war circulated, the sharks would smell blood and their share prices would plunge like a meteor. It might be good additional leverage for him, in case the authorities grew interested.

"Before we continue, I would like to clarify what my services are and are not. I am not promising risk-free investments. What I am providing is a set of strategies, types of investments, and undervalued commodities largely unknown to the bulk of the financial community, tailored to staying competitive in the long term. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Patricia nodded. "And that's exactly what I need. Look, tomorrow, why don't you come on by to my office, and we'll work out the contract?"

"Very well," Jackson said, handing her his business card. "Where's your office?"

"Sixth floor of the Snow Financial building downtown. It's on my card, which you should have. A pleasure meeting you."

"Likewise." Jackson looked at his watch. "Excuse me, I have a few errands to run."

"And I've got to return some books," Patricia said, crushing her now-empty cup. "Then onto a martial arts meeting."

"Oh, which style?" Jackson asked, intrigued.

"Silat," Patricia grinned. "I've done it since I was a teenager."

"Exotic and deadly. I'm more of an MMA and kenjutsu fellow myself."

"Looking forward to our talk tomorrow," she said, still smiling. "Thanks for coming, Jackson. Maybe we can talk more later?"

"It'll be a pleasure," Jackson said, bowing his head as he took his leave. "Talk to you tomorrow."

Leaving the coffee shop, he headed directly towards the supermarket. He had already figured he'd spend most of his afternoon on errands, and more chores once he got home. He quickly pushed business out of his head as he focused on his other responsibilities. He thought he saw something flitting above the windshield, a strange blur haunting his peripheral vision. A cross-shaped shadow tumbled across his vision as an eerie whining accompanied it. The droning continued for a few seconds before ceasing entirely.

It was dusk when Jackson flung open the door to the house, bags of groceries in hand. As he set the bags down on the kitchen table, he put on the pair of sunglasses he carried in his pocket. The other woman waiting for Jackson stepped out of a nearby wall, her translucent form propped against the refrigerator. The eternal teenager flipped a spectral coin in her hand, as if betting on heads or tails.

"So, what's up?" Liz asked.

"Drawn into some corporate drama," Jackson replied. "As always. How about you?"

"Dead," she said. Her ectoplasmic hand caressed his arm. "Look, there's something I need to tell you."

Jackson set down a box of cereal on the table. "Yeah?"

"Your brother, Pierce." She stopped, pausing for a breath that would never come. "He left the house for about two hours, but I didn't see the car he took."

Jackson exhaled, trying to remain calm. The depths of his mind generated dozens of nightmare scenarios. "Okay, did you see what he carried with him when he left and returned?"

The specter shook her head. "Just notebooks and pens."

"He could've just left to go study elsewhere." Jackson tried to pick the most generous answer his brain could consider, even if his instinct felt something was amiss. "But anything else?"

"I think he's sick," Liz said, her face turning pale. "I saw him throw up into the toilet."

"I'll ask him if he's okay. But you had a good first day, Liz. More than I can say for my own work experience."

"Yeah, what happened?"

"I opened a lemonade stand, but the neighborhood bully trashed it. He made fun of my name, and we got into a fight."

"Yeah?"

"Jackson wasn't always my first name," Jackson explained. "I was born Milton Graves, and around high school, I started using my mom's maiden name to keep people from making fun of me like they had. Midway through college when Mom died, I officially changed it."

"So you'd mind if I called you Milton?"

"Very much. I only let Mom and my grandparents call me that, and they've all passed away."

"But not your brother?" Liz scratched her head, but her wispy fingers passed through her hair.

"He does it to piss me off. Like many other things."

"And you let it anger you," Liz countered. "Come on, you're supposed to be some big shot businessman, not some whining jerk!"

"There's another reason he irks me. I used to be exactly like him."

"And that means you don't cut him any slack? You're his big brother, not his goddamn nanny!"

"I'm the big man of the house. I've got tons of responsibilities, unlike him."

"Then why not give him some?" Liz suggested. "I had a friend who tried helping me, but I only realized it after it was too late."

"Huh," Jackson said, and nodded slowly. "I'll think about it."

"You should," Liz smirked. "So, how'd I do?"

"As I said, better than my first day. Now, I've got a big deal coming up. I want you making sure he's okay, and I want you to see if he goes anywhere. Let me know if that car comes again."

"Sure thing, boss. But I think you should ask him yourself."

"He doesn't know about us, nor my side business," Jackson said. "And I'd like to keep him out of it. I'll address him later."

"Long day?" Liz asked. "I understand."

Jackson nodded as he returned to his room to prepare for bed. It would be a long day tomorrow, and he wanted to be well rested for it.

Chapter 7: Client Confidentiality

Jackson Graves came to went the following day as gray clouds rolled over the horizon. The polished skyscrapers in downtown Ripton stood against the sky like the spear-points of a conquering army. He parked his car behind a building topped by a stylized snowflake, the logo of Snow Financial. The building stood directly across from City Hall, a humble brick edifice ringed by crumbling statues and overgrown shrubs.

Before entering to meet with Patricia Ellis, Jackson Graves had another meeting he considered more pressing. As he stepped out of the car, he noticed a group of workers striding through the front doors. Partially on a whim, Graves slipped on his sunglasses, curious to see how the living would appear to his spectral vision. The workers had a slight red aura where their skin was exposed. They almost seemed like cartoon devils, but they wore expressionless faces instead of goat horns and pointed tails. Their auras faded as they slipped into the front entrance, vanishing as they left his field of view.

"Hey," came a familiar voice from behind him.

Graves turned to face Connor, unaware of what he would see. An unearthly radiance blinded the consultant, as if he had starred directly at a red giant. Graves could almost feel Connor's heartbeat, watching the brilliant red aura undulate like the hot breath of a lurking predator. The vagrant stood confidently with his shoulders back and gut in. Connor looked above his shades, however, and noted the man's stare was long and hard. His mind seemed to be wandering while his body was completely tensed like a soldier standing at attention.

"How are you, Connor?" Graves asked. "I've been distracted lately."

"Feeling sick," Connor replied. "Saw something I wish I hadn't."

"What was it, if you don't me asking?" Graves inquired.

"Some kid in Tigres colors," Connor paused. "Or what was left of 'em."

"Part of the gang war?" Graves suggested.

"No, not that," Connor said as blood rushed from his face. "The kid was gutted. Almost completely disemboweled. I saw cops hauling him away this morning."

Graves shuddered a bit, struggling to keep his stoic demeanor. Violent deaths could make for violent ghosts. "Where was this?"

"The old warehouse between Casimir and the docks," Connor hesitated. "The one on Harrison Avenue."

"Thanks," Graves, said and handed a few dollars to Connor. "Say safe."

Graves momentarily entertained the idea this was related to the gang war, but doubted it would ever be seriously investigated. The local police regularly under-reported violent crime statistics and rushed to convictions, a policy that kept local real estate prices high and sent more poor people to for-profit prisons. Regardless, there might still be a wayward spirit requiring his assistance.

"Jackson, are you okay?" a woman's voice asked. "You! Get away from him, or I'll call security!"

He turned to see Patricia pointing an accusing finger at a befuddled Connor. The vagrant stepped away from Jackson, looking with wide-open eyes. "Huh?"

"It's okay," Jackson waved to Patricia. "He's an associate of mine."

"Just check for fleas," Patricia muttered. "I'll be in my office."

She pivoted on stiletto-tipped high heels like a marching soldier and briskly walked towards the front entrance, leaving the homeless man and consulting medium in the parking lot.

"Friend of yours?" Connor asked, scratching his shaggy head.

"Client," Jackson replied. "I prefer to keep the two separate."

"Good idea. Well, I'm gonna scram before anyone else gets their panties in a twist."

"Tomorrow, let's just meet in our normal place."

"Fine by me. See ya later."

Connor turned away and skulked towards the edge of the parking lot like a whipped dog. Jackson felt something cold and moist run along the side of his head. Looking up, he saw droplets of water falling from the sky, and quickened his pace towards the front doors of the Snow Financial building as he ruminated on his plans for after work. The idea of heading into the bad part of town on foot irked his survival instinct, and the possibility of dealing with a hostile ghost made it even less appealing.

Jackson shoved the thoughts from his head as the automatic doors slid closed behind him. The waiting room and reception desk had a sterile white aesthetic that reminded him of a hospital. The walls and ceiling had little decoration on them, save for poor-quality reproductions of wilderness landscapes. Receptionists talked on phones with distant clients, while a handful of individuals lingered on black leather chairs like souls in Purgatory. Running his hand along the unnaturally smooth walls, Jackson felt as though he were an insect who had just wandered into a Venus flytrap and was about to be greeted with a flood of digestive juices.

A pair of security guards, nearly impossible to tell apart, stepped out of the elevator. They were dressed in identical black suits with black ties, wearing sunglasses as dark as night. A black plastic earpiece crossed the left cheek of each like a twisting worm. On their lapels were metallic pins of a stylized squid. Jackson recalled it as the logo of Kraken Security, a private military contractor Snow Financial had outsourced their security to. They had started out guarding ships from pirates, but had recently expanded into bodyguard work and corporate contracts. They typically recruited war criminals and military washouts, given the nature of their work. Eager to avoid eye contact with the ruthless mercenaries, Jackson pretended to check his phone. The pair of suited guards did not break stride, but stepped apart as they simultaneously walked past him on either side. For that half-second, Jackson felt as though he was trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. After they passed, he breathed a sigh of relief as he headed towards his meeting.

Jackson felt executives saw offices in the same way peacocks saw plumage, with Patricia Ellis's office being no exception. It so differed from the vomit-beige cubicle farm holding the human livestock that was lower-level management, Jackson momentarily felt he had entered another building. A mahogany desk was topped with a razor-thin laptop computer screen and photographs of Patricia in a graduation gown. On the rear wall hung strange blades in a protective acrylic glass case, an Indonesian kris blade resembling a slithering serpent and talon-like karambit dagger. On top of a filing cabinet propped against the wall was a map of Indonesia, with pins on various locations. The office itself was drenched in light, mostly from the brilliant bulbs directly above the desk, rather than the gray sky visible outside of the wide window.

At the center of it all, Patricia Ellis sat at her desk, fingers deftly dancing across the computer keyboard. As she walked away from her desk, Jackson realized it reached up to her waist.

"A standing desk," he noted. "Impressive."

"Yeah, better for my back," Patricia replied. "Mind closing the door? I'd like to get down to business."

Jackson delicately closed the door behind him, as not to distract the workers outside. Patricia produced a paper from the filing cabinet and handed it to Jackson. The consultant began reading over it, his mind absorbing all of the legalistic jargon. Much of it was standard fare: non-disclosure of sensitive client information, terms of payment, the expected form of his report, the duration of his employment, and the like. He searched for fine print, a favorite of corporate lawyers, and found nothing beyond the standard fare. In all likelihood, the form was a product of some standardized template from within the bowels of the corporate bureaucracy. He put his name down under Patricia's own signature, and handed the form back.

"I'll make a copy for your records," she said as she slipped it into her scanner. "And here you go."

Jackson accepted the form and folded it within his jacket pocket.

"Now, Mr. Graves, to really impress Susan Sharp, I'll need investments that blow Dick Carver's out of the water. I want you to be completely honest about everything."

"Very well. But I expect you will not agree with much of what I say."

Patricia folded her arms. "Try me."

"If you insist. I believe this futile pissing contest between you and your superior is one of the many reasons the financial sector is ruined beyond repair. Firms like this speculate on vital commodities using software that does nothing but increase volatility and destroy the very concept of price discovery. Furthermore, Snow Financial is nothing but a mal-investment machine that rigs markets, screws clients, steals from savers, and requires government handouts. It is the very antithesis of a competitive free market, a parasitic blight on capitalism itself."

Patricia grinned slightly and clapped. "Bravo. I mostly agree," she said, and paused. "But I still think we can change it from inside."

"Always the harder course of action. Even if you became CEO and tried changing course, there's no guarantee your shareholders and Board of Directors would follow. And even if they did, your competitors could use the standard tricks to rig the market against you."

"So, you're telling me it's hopeless?" Patricia sighed, letting her hands fall to her hips. "Then why should I even bother with your recommendations?"

"No, just extremely difficult. These vultures look for quick returns, something for nothing. When they get a hint, they're like sharks smelling blood. They're extremely good at wasting money on chasing phantoms, which is our greatest strength."

"And what would you recommend I do?" Patricia asked, fumbling for a notepad on her desk.

"Chase something real," Jackson answered. "There are entire markets they overlook, but in order to see them, you need to look at the big picture. Remember the fellow I was talking to? He gives me the view from the gutter."

"Clever. But why bother looking in the gutter?"

"Because you need to know where the road ends. Hard to see the top without the bottom. I've found only success in expanding my information sources."

"I've got another meeting soon. I can't question your reputation, so I won't question your methods," Patricia said, concluding the conversation. "I'm forwarding you the relevant information, and I look forward to your report."

"Likewise. I'll be in touch shortly."

Jackson carefully closed the door behind him as he left Patricia's office. No sooner had the door closed than he was set upon by an executive on the warpath, trundling like a hungry hippopotamus. The first thing that Jackson noticed an ill-fitting shirt barely covered the hairy cellulite beneath, with topped by a balding head with innumerable chins tucked beneath the first. His pasty-white face had a mustache that reminded Jackson of a toilet brush, and a black toupee on his balding head that resembled a wad of pubic hair clogging a shower drain. While his clothing was undoubtedly expensive, he wore it as though someone threw it at him. He had seen pictures and read stories of the man, but there was no mistaking Snow Financial's Regional Director, Dick Carver himself.

"Who are you?" Carver mumbled like a giant craving food. "Haven't seen your face around here."

"Independent contractor." Jackson held up the visitor's ID card he received from the front desk. "Now, if you'll excuse—"

"Who hired you, and for what?" he asked, shooting an accusing glance at the consultant. "You barely look qualified to tie my shoes."

"Then obviously not you, sir," Jackson said, stepping towards the stairs. "Have a good day."

A quick glance to the side, and Jackson saw the cubicle dwellers purposefully ignoring the shouting outside. They leaned towards spreadsheets and computer monitors, fleeing like field mice before a cat. As Carver opened his mouth to shout some more, Jackson realized the best way to end the confrontation, and stepped into the stairwell. As the door slammed behind him, the consultant exhaled a sigh of relief.

He immediately understood why Patricia wanted him gone. He recalled an infamous story about Carver, and how the rabid dog was becoming a corporate liability. A Latin American country defaulted on its bond payments to Snow Financial, so Carver hired Kraken Security to "foreclose" on one of their warships. The vessel lingered in a dock somewhere, undergoing a conversion to a company yacht. Jackson Graves was used to hearing about questionable management decisions, but rarely outright acts of war. As he left Snow Financial, Jackson recalled why he had studied martial arts: to deal with bullies and idiots like Carver. He relished the idea of undermining Carver, and those like him, whenever opportunities presented themselves.

Chapter 8: Unfinished Business

Jackson Graves rarely ventured into Casimir, and merely driving through reminded him why. He wondered for a moment if he had wandered onto the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. The neighborhood had nary a soul visible outside, as if some cataclysm had emptied the streets of human habitation. Casimir seemed devoid of movement, save litter blowing in the wind. The buildings spreading outwards in all directions were squat brick row-homes, many coated in graffiti. The only greenery came from weeds struggling up through the cracks in the pavement. Above the squalor, Graves could see cargo cranes and smokestacks from the nearby docks, and the distant downtown spires. The concrete pillars of the interstate and bridge struts towered over Casimir like a walkway for giants. The pungent stench of the nearby refineries hung in the air, a persistent chemical flatulence. As bad as Port Ripton was, Graves knew from experience that it was even worse on the opposite bank of the Delaware River, in New Jersey.

Graves stopped at the end of the block he was driving along. Across the street stood a vacant lot with weathered brick walls and white mortar, festering like a scab. From the height of the walls and absence of interior divisions, Graves recalled it as the location of an old warehouse. It had collapsed decades ago, and no one had bothered to repair or rebuild it. He parked his car along the emptied street, and pulled his duffel bag from the back seat. Slipping his sunglasses on, he stepped onto the street warily, and locked the car door behind him. As much as he disliked the idea of wandering through gangland with a duffel-bag, he disliked the idea of being completely unprepared for hostile ghosts more. His cherry-wood bokken was the only weapon he carried, more effective against poltergeists than gun-toting gangs.

He exhaled and looked into the twilight between life and death. His sunglasses deadened even the gray skies above him. A soft whimpering filled his ears, as distorted echoes of screams, shouts, and gunfire sounded in the invisible distance. Dark shadows shifted ominously throughout the decaying buildings, flocking like crows as they avoided Jackson's gaze. The cacophony of human agony disconcerted him greatly, torquing his innards as he stepped towards the crime scene.

A young Hispanic man sat behind a wall, a thin man with olive skin and short black hair. He had a tiger tattoo on his exposed forearm, and a tattered gold and black windbreaker slung over his shoulder. A soft blue aura enveloped his eyes, emanating from deep within his pupils. Jackson saw him tug at his waist, and assumed he was pulling up his pants. Instead, he tucked his intestines back into his stomach.

"Hello?" Jackson said.

The young man looked up at him, shoulders and arms rising up in fear. "Who are you?"

"Jackson Graves, consulting medium," he bowed his head. "I understand you may be in need of my services."

"Y-you can hear me?" A look of excitement crossed the dead man's face. "See me?"

"Yes." Jackson extended his opened hand. "What's your name?"

"Pedro Alvarado," the man answered, clasping the medium's hand. Jackson felt an icy, wet chill run through his skin as the specter made direct contact. "Last night, I was walking home from a friend's, saw something behind me, felt a blade enter my chest, saw my throat cut, and woke up here."

"Did you see who attacked you?" Jackson asked.

The ghost shook his head. "Where am I? How come I'm still alive?"

"You're not. That's why I'm here. Do you have any business I can help you with?"

"I-I'm dead?" Pedro's eyes widened. "No, I can't be!"

Jackson raised both of his hands, as if to calm him down. "Where do you think this is?"

"Ripton," Pedro muttered. "But it's not fair, I still have—"

Jackson let his arms fall to his side and sighed. Some of the departed could not accept what had happened. Pedro's open palms turned into clenched fists. Jackson watched the apparition carefully, as a ghost's confusion and denial could easily spiral out of control. He took a step backwards, set his bag down, and opened his hands.

"Just tell me what you want," he said. "Death is not fair, but I can communicate your wishes to the living."

"No!" Pedro's voice turned into a feral shout. "You lie!"

Jackson remained silent, allowing the ghost to vent. Spirits could be even moodier than the living, hence his caution. He took comfort as his foot brushed against his duffel bag, feeling the reassuring shape of his sword within. If Pedro presented a threat to him, he could easily continue lashing out at the living. The people in Casimir did not need another thing making their lives nightmarish. Pedro started to jolt and jerk, his body tumbling like a doll in a clothes dryer. "YOU LIE!" The specter's shout sounded as though it was directly in Jackson's ear. The medium's ears rang for a moment as he struggled to keep his balance.

"Mister Alvarado," Jackson said slowly, delivering a warning to the spirit. It took every bit of composure he could muster to stay calm. "Believe what you want, but I will defend myself."

Pedro Alvarado's form had changed since Jackson had first witnessed him. Instead of a timid, exposed victim, he now stood erect with ectoplasmic entrails cascading from a wound in his chest. They wriggled like a coiled cobra, a snake ready to strike. Jackson stepped backwards as he opened his bag. The tiger tattoo on Pedro's arm seemed to pace restlessly up and down his skin as the apparition opened his mouth. "DIE!"

Intestines arced through the air like a lasso as Jackson drew the bokken from his bag. The wooden blade rose like a heron's beak as Alvarado stood transfixed. The wriggling guts contacted the edge of the training sword, only to be sliced neatly in two like wet noodles. The ghost cried out in pain and fear, and reached for a brick from the nearby wall. The newly-empowered poltergeist hurled his projectile like a fast-ball. Jackson leapt to the side as it sailed over his head.

"Pedro, calm down! I'm not your enemy!"

"SHUT UP!" the departed Tigre shouted.

An inhuman roar erupted from the tiger on his arm. His entrails suddenly jolted upwards, a wriggling pair of ectoplasmic tentacles. They shot towards Jackson's legs, and he felt one run by his heel. His skin felt the frigid chill of the grave right through his clothes. One wrapped around his right leg, pulling tight just as another brick flew towards his head.

Jackson threw his head to the side, but saw his field of vision knocked askew as the sunglasses tumbled from his face. For a brief pause, he found himself alone in the empty lot beside the ruins of the warehouse. A cold and wet ectoplasmic chill caressed his inner thigh. For a moment, Jackson thought he saw something flit through the shadows in a nearby alleyway. The tension on his foot grew as the invisible tentacle tightened. Jackson picked up the fallen glasses, and put them back on his head. Before him, the abomination that used to be Pedro Alvarado towered before him. The entity hesitated for a moment, but Jackson did not. He charged forward with his bokken, and brought the wooden sword down on the creature's head as it futilely tried cowering behind its tentacles.

Jackson Graves almost felt a tinge of regret as his blade separated Pedro's head into two neat halves. He twisted his hips, bringing the wooden weapon downwards until it stopped at the specter's stomach. He twisted the blade to the side as he stepped forwards, noting the soft moaning emanating from what used to be Pedro's throat. He sliced off the dangling intestines with a flick of the blade, then slung the weapon over his shoulder before slipping it back into his duffel bag.

"Get up," he told the dismembered apparition on the ground. "The dead have different rules than the living."

The parts on the ground began to whiten and crumble, like an insect's discarded exoskeleton. Fragments blew away like dust as they dissipated into nothingness. On a broken wall of the warehouse, Pedro reappeared. The young man sobbed silently to himself, but his abdomen was intact, most likely as he remembered himself before death. Hopefully, the nascent poltergeist in him was crushed.

"Listen, you can do much more than lingering here," Jackson said. "Don't let the sadness or anger rule you, Pedro. You don't want to go poltergeist."

"Then what can I do?" the boy sobbed. "Juana! Mami and Papi! I'll never see them again!"

"You can," Jackson said. "But you'll need a medium like me to deliver any messages."

"Y-you'd do that for me?" Pedro said. "After I tried to kill you?"

"It's not your fault," Jackson said, recalling why he preferred speaking over the Dead Frequency. "Death is traumatic for all parties involved. How do you think your friends and family are feeling right now?"

Pedro began sobbing quietly. "C-can you just tell them I miss them?"

"What else?" Jackson said.

"Say I'll be with Umberto," Pedro answered. "That way, they'll know it's me."

"Who's Umberto?" Jackson asked.

"A goldfish," Pedro replied. "But it died after a week, and we joked about it."

"Very well," Jackson patted his hand on Pedro's shoulder. "But I have a favor to ask you, only if you feel comfortable."

"Yeah?" Pedro looked up with blue, tear-filled eyes.

"Who might have killed you?" Jackson asked. "My friend doubts this was North Eden."

"They've been at war with us for weeks," Pedro said. He shook his head. "I can't think of anyone else."

"Most of the previous deaths were shootings," Jackson said. "But just before you, the most recent victim was a North Eden dealer stabbed in the neck."

"Dios mio," Pedro murmured. "No idea who did it. My crew would've shot 'em."

"As street gangs typically do. Now, any more unfinished business I can help you with?"

"Tell my family to check my bottom dresser drawer. They'll need that money more than I will."

"Very well. But there is something else I must warn you about."

"Yeah?" The phantom was growing a tinge paler.

"Something in this town can destroy ghosts. And I don't mean what I just did to you. I mean total annihilation."

Pedro gulped. "What is it?"

"Still not sure about that," Jackson said. "But be careful. Now, where do your parents live?"

Pedro gave him their address, and Jackson jotted it down. He checked his phone. "Stay safe, Pedro," he said. "I go now."

"Don't worry about me," Pedro said, looking out at the urban wasteland. "Just make sure my parents and sister hear from me."

Jackson nodded, and removed the sunglasses from his head. The silent, empty cityscape appeared before his eyes, and the eerie ambience of the spectral slums was gone. The only signs of the fight were a handful of bricks tossed about the lot and a bump on the side of his head. The sounds of distant cars echoed through the streets, and Jackson heard footsteps. Down a distant sidewalk, he could see a group of young men clad in red and white, the North Eden colors. Not wanting to stick around, he tossed his things back into his car and sped away.

Jackson parked in a gas station a few miles away to fill out a note in pen. He drove down a street at the edge of Casimir, and came to a decrepit townhouse surrounded by a dying lawn and wrought iron fence. No lights were on and no cars were parked out front, so he simply drove up to the mailbox and dropped the note in. He drove away a minute later, content that another spirit's needs had been satisfied. As he headed home, he made a mental note to avoid future excursions to Casimir without proper preparations. As a threat, the angry dead paled in comparison to the desperate living.

Chapter 9: Missing Inventory

Jackson Graves arrived home as the sun sank below the horizon like a doomed ship. As he stepped out of the car, he could not help but feel as though he had forgotten something. The slight discomfort only multiplied as he stepped into the house. Jackson felt only confusion and nausea as he walked inside, feeling as though he would burst if he could not tell someone, as if a confidant was a release valve. He heard familiar sounds from the basement as he headed for his room. He thought he felt a familiar presence, which became his personal assistant after turning to see her. The eternal teenager stared at the wall of family photographs, an almost wistful look in her eyes.

"Hey, Liz," Jackson waved to the ghost. "What's up?"

"Just being dead like normal," she said, rolling her eyes. "Unless you can change that."

"I had a new client today. Another guy killed in the gang war."

"And what did he want?" Liz asked, still eying a photograph of a younger Jackson.

"To send a message to his folks. But I keep feeling I forgot something."

"Did you see him cross over, or whatever?" Liz asked.

Jackson slapped himself in the face. "Shit," he said. "I dropped the note off and forgot. But there was something else I feel I'm forgetting."

"How about your brother?" Liz suggested. "I saw him coming home happy today."

"Shit, today was that history exam. But did you see that strange car?"

"Yes, Pierce got in it around noon, and I followed it," the ghost said, turning to Jackson. "I didn't see who else was inside, but I saw it head down I-95 for Byfield."

"That matches with his class schedule," Jackson nodded. "Probably just getting a ride from a friend or classmate."

"How does he normally get there?" Liz asked.

"Bus, but a friend driving would be more reliable," Jackson replied. "Mass transit has not improved since your time."

"Gee, what has?" Liz Townes extended her hand against the wall, and Jackson stared for a moment while he could partially see through it. "Sounds like I died before things really got bad."

"Oh, there are good things if you know where to look," Jackson said. "But I'm not going back into Casimir unprepared again."

"And how are you gonna prepare, hmm? Dad always joked walking alone in Casimir was the expressway to Heaven after taking a detour through Hell."

"I can think of a few things," he said, tossing his jacket onto a rack. "But for now, I've got to focus on my day job with Snow Financial. I've got to tread very carefully through the slumbering snakes."

"How about that other ghost?" Liz asked. "The one you played mailman for?"

"He'll have to wait. If he's still there."

"Eh, just don't leave him hanging too long. Like me."

"Please, enough jokes," Jackson said. "Now, is Pierce still sick?"

"He puked after breakfast, but cleaned it up before he left."

"I'll talk to him about it later. Thanks. Any clientele coming by for a visit?"

Liz shook her head. "No, but I've been watching your brother, so I could've missed 'em."

"Fair enough," Jackson said. "I'm going to talk to him now."

"Going to tell him you sent a ghost to spy on his puking?" Liz rolled her eyes as an unearthly blue radiance emerged from her pupils.

"Maybe," Jackson joked. Just then, he heard distinctive sounds from the basement, the chthonic rumbling of heavy legs on the stairs. Jackson pulled out his cell phone, and pretended to lower it from his face as his brother emerged. "Talk to you later."

"Who are you talking to?" Pierce asked.

"My associate," Jackson said. "Been busy at work today."

A long and heavy sigh escaped his brother's lips as his eyes moved down. "When are you not?"

Jackson tried to change the subject. "Hey, how'd that history test go?"

"How do you think?" Pierce countered, his stance suddenly tightening. "Aced it."

"Oh, really?" Jackson brought his feet together, assuming a "T" stance hardwired into him from kenjutsu. His torso twisted as if he had hefted a blade over his head, aimed directly at his brother. "Prove it. Do you have the exam?"

"The professor's going to grade it and give it back on Friday," Pierce said as a satisfied smile crossed his lips. "I talked with my classmates right after it, and I'm confident I did well."

"Despite always playing videogames?" Jackson advanced onto the balls of his feet.

"You know what the game was?" Pierce asked. "It's a new historical war-game, Age of Conquest V."

"I liked the original," Jackson recalled. "But haven't kept up with it."

"We should play together sometime," Pierce suggested. "You like swords, right? Then you'll love it."

"If I have time. Listen, you have some other tests soon, right?"

"Yeah, but I've been seeing a tutor. I'll show you my history test this Friday. If it's good, you've got to play the game with me, okay?"

"Sure. As long as it's good."

"You used to beat me at videogames all the time," Pierce said, heading back towards the basement. "Can't you hang out with me more?"

"That was before I had to work. So you can go to school."

"So you always say." Pierce pulled the door closed behind him. The staccato sound of his hefty footfalls echoed up the stairwell as electronic noises began to rise from the basement once more. Jackson sighed to himself as he looked up to Liz. The apparition merely shrugged before sinking into the floor. Feeling his body still tense, Jackson realized it would be a long week.

Chapter 10: Taken For A Ride

Jackson Graves knew something was amiss as he walked up to meet Patricia. As soon as he opened the door, he saw a cubicle monkey forcing himself to stare at his computer screen instead of observing the newcomer.

"I am so sorry," came Patricia's voice from behind him.

Jackson turned his head, and saw Patricia's face almost as pale as the ghosts he regularly dealt with. Her eyes were opened wide, with thin veins crisscrossing her eyes like red rivers. He began to guess at what had occurred. The unmistakable shape of Dick Carver moving towards him like an angry warthog confirmed his fear. The rolls on the Regional Director's chin bounced up and down as his hammy fingers pointed accusingly at Graves.

"You!" Carver growled. "I should have you thrown out!"

"No!" Patricia protested. "He's authorized to be here!"

"Only because an Assistant Director overstepped her bounds," Carver shouted at Patricia, spittle flying from his lips. "If not for me, you'd be cleaning dishes!"

Graves had no urge to start talking about how it was well within Patricia's authority to hire a consultant for alternative investment strategies. Some managers simply liked lashing out at the slightest provocation, something he had learned too well. Carver likely was paranoid against any and all threats, seeing those below him as disposable slaves. He simply stood calmly, folded his hands, and wrinkled his brow quizzically in the direction of the furious manager. He hoped to present himself as a curiosity instead of a threat.

"Hey, you," Carver said, his anger calming down. "You're coming for a ride."

Graves could not help but be reminded of a Mafia don ordering a terrified victim into a car trip they'd never return from. All Carver needed was a trench coat, fedora, and Tommy gun to fit the role.

"Why?" Graves asked, hoping to provoke him him. He wanted to study his adversary more. "My business requires I stay here."

"You're going to see how an investment pro does things," Carver said, glaring at Patricia, whose lips quivered, silencing her before she could speak. "Not some fucking bimbo who thinks she runs the place."

Graves briefly wondered why no one had sued the guy for sexual harassment or verbal abuse, and assumed the slime-ball could afford some similarly sleazy lawyers. He had half a mind to record Carver's rant on his phone, but decided being in the car with him would be better to catch him saying something incriminating.

"Patty-cakes, you're coming along." Carver beckoned Patricia with his finger, as if the Assistant Director were a poodle. "I've got a limo waiting outside."

The fat man grabbed a fast food bag from a stunned man exiting the elevator as he waddled into it. Patricia followed behind him, looking like she wished she could call him out. Graves walked inside after his employer, keeping his thoughts to himself. Snow Financial was hostile territory, at least when Director Carver was around.

The elevator seemed to descend slightly faster than Jackson recalled it doing before, perhaps owing to the increased weight it carried. Carver's hand straightened his toupee, using his reflection in the shiny elevator doorframe for guidance, then reached into the stolen bag and pulled out a greasy, half-eaten burger. His hands moved the fast-food beef from a paper wrapper into the yawning cavern of his mouth. Jackson could easily imagine dogs being revolted by the saliva-soaked crumbs falling from Carver's face and the drops of grease staining his shirt.

The burger was completely gone by the end of the elevator ride, and Carver tossed the wrapper into a nearby waste basket in the lobby. It bounced off the rim and onto the floor behind it. Carver ignored the miss and continued striding for the front door. Outside, Jackson could see a pitch-black limousine parked at the curb. The chariot awaiting them was a Hummer limo, a gas-guzzling death-trap primarily intended for conspicuous consumption. A Kraken Security guard stood by the building entrance to walk them to the vehicle.

"Hey, we're going to get lunch, but I want the scenic route," Carver told the doorman. "Got it?"

The security guard nodded silently as Carver climbed in first, moving rapidly between the front door and waiting vehicle, as if natural light was painful to him. Patricia climbed in after him, moving slowly and deliberately to keep some distance between her and her boss. Jackson looked into the vehicle and saw a red-velvet-lined floor and brown leather seats. He wondered how much the company could save by cutting down on Carver's travel expenses alone. He sat at the very edge of the seat, also trying to put as much space as he could between Carver and himself. Patricia sat silently between them, a human wall between the Director and consultant. Directly in front of them was a pane of glass, tinted black like the windows, which obscured the passengers from the driver's seat. The security guard shut the door, and the limo jerked into motion.

Carver rested his arm by the window, looking out. "Alright, boy," he said. "You're going to see the best parts of town, all thanks to me."

Jackson had to resist the urge to punch the Director's face in. Carver pointed out the window to his right. Outside the window was the heart of Downtown, where skyscrapers formed a central campus of the city's primary corporations. Carver's meaty finger shifted towards the edge of Downtown, stopping at the base of a new high-rise, a pearl-white building undoubtedly full of expensive condominiums. It sat across the street from the tree-lined oasis of Hyde Park, the only wooded area in the city center.

"Patty, that's where you live, ain't it?" Carver asked. "The city redeveloped some blighted neighborhoods, and I directed Snow Financial to invest in building that new real estate. If not for me, Patty-cakes, you'd be living in some dive."

Jackson did not want to mention how many of the previous inhabitants had been screwed out of their homes, receiving only a fraction of the price the city sold the properties for. Snow Financial undoubtedly had abuse of eminent domain down pat. The limo veered away from the posh part of town, and headed onto a smaller road heading towards the east. Newer buildings faded into historical stone ones, and then into crumbling brick structures. The green lawns and flower gardens of a gentrifying neighborhood gave way to the urban hell of Casimir. On what was once a fertile flood plain, a drug-fuelled urban warzone unfolded as the limo headed up the ramp towards I-95.

"The gang war's driving property prices down," Carver casually remarked, a grin crossing his face. "The City Council just accelerated their redevelopment timetable, and my investments are already benefiting."

Given what had happened as other parts of the city gentrified, Jackson believed some unfortunate suburb or other neighborhood would receive an influx of displaced and desperate poor. They'd be lucky to get a pittance for their former homes, after eminent domain would be used to gift them to Snow Financial. He noted the limo pulled off at the exit before the bridge, and turned south towards the docks. Jackson thought he noticed a cross-shaped object dancing between buildings, before it ultimately vanished a moment later.

His attention shifted towards his new surroundings. The Port of Ripton was dominated by dinosaur-like cranes shifting containers onto the decks of cargo ships, interspersed with the gas plumes of refineries that burned like medieval torches. Warehouses, new and old, dotted the spaces in between the shipping terminal and the rest of the city. Railroad sidings and access roads melded together like tangled webs, the asphalt arteries of globalization.

"Almost to the best part," Carver chuckled to himself, his hefty belly bouncing.

Jackson felt the limo slowing down as it approached a fenced dock. Guards at a gatehouse stopped the vehicle for a moment before waving it through. Jackson noticed a few security guards with Kraken Security's logo patrolling along the barbed-wire-topped perimeter fence. The waters of the Delaware lapped up against the wooden pilings at the end of the dock, while workers scurried around a docked vessel like ants before a tree. Sails billowed in the air like clouds, and high-tech antennae jutted from several points along the bridge.

It was obvious that the ship was no ordinary corporate yacht. Snow Financial's logo now emblazoned the vessel's bridge, and Kraken Security guards moved across the vessel's deck. Jackson read black letters painted on the starboard bow: La Protección. How Carver had acquired the vessel was quite the story, one Jackson knew he would hear directly from the braggart's mouth.

"Some banana republic tried to screw me over my bond payments," Carver scoffed. "So I had the Kraken Security boys take one of their assets while it was visiting."

"You seized the warship of a sovereign country," Jackson noted. "They used to hang pirates for that."

"And I sent their economy crashing after that," Carver said, a shit-eating grin marching across his face. "No one fucks with me. No one."

Jackson did not care to remind Carver of the PR disaster, or how Snow Financial's share prices took a hit. The bankster's face beamed with pride, like an athlete showing off trophies. The car slowed for a few long seconds, and Jackson felt his breakfast lurch within his stomach. He slipped on his sunglasses and stared out the window, so he would not have to make eye contact with the sentient blob of lard.

The ominous gray descended on his vision of the outside world like a burial shroud. The dark blue waters of the Delaware resembled a black, viscous ichor through the eyes of the dead. Jackson surveyed the dockside from the limo's window in a search for restless spirits, half out of boredom and half out of curiosity. His ears noted the eerie silence of the nearby spirit realm.

The first thing that struck Jackson's eye were the red auras of the longshoremen, human worker bees buzzing around the wharf. The stevedores dodged and weaved among shipping crates, giving a wide berth to the Kraken guards. As Jackson's gaze shifted to a nearby pair of guards, he noticed the mercenaries were most peculiar. Instead of the warm red auras he had anticipated, their skin and faces were wrapped in tendrils of swirling energy. Each was a vortex of black and green spreading like fungal hyphae reaching into infected tissue. Jackson could not help but think of the resemblance of Kraken Security's logo to the contagion.

"Kraken Security would be better off with a new holding company," Carver said. "Less taxes, nosy Feds, and I can make them more profitable than Snow Financial can."

Jackson turned his gaze towards the bloated banker. Thin red splotches ran up his neck like ketchup stains, but his skin did not radiate like the medium had expected. Instead, the cool blue of the dead shone through where his arteries ran. Hints of red coursed along them, mingling into purple as they ran through his massive form. Through the enchanted sunglasses, Jackson felt his subconscious mind screaming at him. Whatever Carter was, it was not human. Jackson had heard of many strange beings dwelling in the deep shadows of humanity, but it was logical that some lurked at the top.

As above, so below, he mused. Jackson saw Patricia's skin appeared as red as Jackson's own, but her posture was far less confident. Her arms crossed her chest and her head stared into them, a subconscious defensive move. The medium felt a chill in his body, as if something was watching him. He slipped his sunglasses off, and turned his eyes back out the window. The dock was far behind him, and the limo had sped up.

Rivulets of saliva ran down Carver's chins after he licked his lips. "We're almost there," he said. "Get me the usual."

Looking outside, Jackson saw that they were pulling into a strip mall on the side of the road. A fast food joint sat in the center of the parking lot, next to a play-set consisting of tangle of plastic tubes. The limo pulled into the drive-through, barely managing to fit between the building and edge of the road. Carver rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The seconds dragged on as they waited, Jackson not wanting to break the awkward silence.

Finally, the limo lurched forwards, and the tinted window was rolled down. The chauffeur stuck his hand through, a brandishing a grease-soaked paper bag. Carver leaned forwards and snatched it, before ripping it open like a fresh kill. Carver pulled out a burger larger than his chunky fists, and rammed it into his mouth. Crumbs and spittle flew as Jackson saw bits of torn beef patty pass by his hideous, yellowing teeth. Jackson said nothing as ketchup and mayonnaise soaked his pant legs. He shifted his legs to the side, and Patricia did the same.

For the remainder of the trip, Jackson tried to ignore the chomping and smacking of Carver's lips. By the time the limo had returned to Snow Financial, the burger and a pack of fries had vanished into the bankster's mouth. Carver waddled out of the car, and Jackson was only too happy to stretch his legs after the trip. Patricia joined him as the Director headed towards the entrance.

"There's a reason I'm on top, Patty-cakes," Carver turned towards Patricia. "You're barely qualified to work on the street corner."

Dick Carver laughed at his own joke before heading into the building. The Hummer limo pulled away, its rear floor now covered in crumbs and wrappers. Checking the time, Jackson realized it was almost time for another appointment. As he turned towards the parking lot, he felt Patricia tug at his arm.

"Wait," she pleaded. "I want to ask you something."

"Yes?" Jackson said. "Don't worry about our contract. I'll just work at home instead of drawing the Director's ire."

"It's not about that. I think there's just...something off about him."

"Several things," Jackson replied. "Same with those Kraken guards."

"Look, I know this is gonna sound crazy," Patricia said. "But I've heard and seen…things I can't explain."

"Any examples?"

"I'm not crazy, but I feel like there's more to this town. Like there's a whole world that normal people never see."

"I agree," Jackson said. "It's called the financial market."

"I mean more than that, Jackson," she said, briefly checking her watch. "But look, I've got to go to a meeting with Mergers and Acquisitions now."

"Talk with you tomorrow," Jackson said, waving her farewell. "Just stay in there. Keep fighting."

"Oh, I try to win the battles I can," Patricia said. "See you."

She vanished into the building as Jackson walked away. He had seen unpleasant managers before, but Carver was a stranger breed entirely. The consultant realized he had to do some research, in case they met under different terms. Whatever Director Carver was, Jackson would only be too happy to see him put out of a job.

Chapter 11: Prior Investments

By the time his car pulled into Byfield, Jackson nearly felt as foul as the weather. He pulled up in front of a familiar decrepit trailer just as the rain began spitting. Stepping out of his car, he vainly tried to avoid dirtying his shoes in the mud between the street and front door. The ground reminded him of melted chocolate clogging a drain. As he surveyed Risona's dwelling, he noticed there seemed to be slightly less junk filling the front yard and tire tracks in the mud. Whether he had guests or had simply had it hauled away, Jackson had no idea.

He stepped towards the trailer, and noticed stained clothing hanging from open windows. For a moment, he wondered if he would be better off taking his chances in the rain than risk soaking up whatever foul odors filled the trailer. He stepped on a wooden ramp and pounded on the trailer's side door. Impatience welled up inside him for a few moments as he heard footsteps within.

"Welcome back," said Risona. "Nice of you to drop by."

Jackson murmured a vague reply as he looked at the mad scientist clad in a gray tee shirt and shorts, with a pair of ratty sneakers nearly falling apart with each step. The fetid stench of sweaty clothing emanated from deep within the opened door. "I need your help."

"As always," Risona sighed. "Now, come in and explain."

Jackson began to tell him about the strange auras he had seen, and stepped reluctantly into the trailer. The white tiled floor was covered with stains and crusty rugs that any sane person would have thrown out. A sleeping bag in the corner passed for Risona's bed, with a malodorous mound of clothes lying beside it. Notebooks and tools were crammed into boxes close to bursting and stuffed into every niche in the mephitic mobile home. A quick look into the miasmic bathroom almost made Jackson want to bolt out the door. His musings on the cesspool sink were cut short when Risona called him over to his laptop computer.

"Nothing useful from the standard sources," Risona said. "But it's most likely the auras denote different types of supernatural beings. Living beings appear to be red, while spirits are blue. Not sure about green or purple, though."

"Do some more research, and I'll make it worth your while." Jackson reached into his wallet, pulled out a few dollars, and tossed them down onto the computer keyboard, as if they had been contaminated by some infectious disease. "Also, dig up what you can on Carver and Kraken Security. Something's definitely up with them."

"No." Risona said, closing the keyboard. He slid the money away from him. "You're not my boss."

He stared at Jackson defiantly for a second, with furled brows and straight mouth. Jackson stumbled with words for a moment, unsure of what to say.

"I'll do it for free," Risona said, beaming. "Because you're my friend. You are, aren't you?"

"A very lousy one," Jackson replied. "My own life's been too busy for fun."

"Oh, just relax," Risona said. "What's the point in stressing yourself to death?"

"Some of us have other responsibilities," Jackson answered. "To the living and dead."

"Responsibilities?" Risona repeated, his chimp-ears going red. "You introduced me to all this supernatural garbage. It's my responsibility as a scientist to poke it, probe it, and use it to better the world. I sacrificed a cozy career for this, you know."

"But you're still doing something you love," Jackson said. "I've got a little brother to put through college, and I deal with professional sleazebags for the money to do it."

"Do you even hang out with Pierce anymore?" Risona asked. "Ever ask him what he's been up to?"

"Sometimes," Jackson replied. "But I don't care how he spends his free time, only that he graduates."

"And then what?" Risona's eyes narrowed. "Have you even told him about the family business?"

"No, and I want it to stay that way. He's comfortable where he is, and I don't want to give him more to worry about."

"Do you really know that? If knowledge creates problems, ignorance can't solve them."

"Easy for you to say," Jackson grumbled as he dug his heel into the floor. "You don't live with anyone else."

"But I still have my own life goals. And I might be leaving soon."

"W-what?"

"I might be moving to a somewhere with less stringent laws on animal and human testing," Risona answered as a grin crossed his face. "You may talk with the dead, but I want to redefine life."

Jackson recalled the makeshift lab and briefly shuddered. Risona's work after even less ethical constraints was not something he wanted to witness. "Will this place still be open?"

"I'm training some people to run the place after I'm gone. Every good organization needs a succession plan. Don't you agree?"

"Yes," Jackson nodded. "But I'm not ready for that yet. I need some special gear for a current client."

"Ah, well, the radio part will take another week. I've fixed it so it won't overload, and I'm throwing in a few spare parts."

"I need something else. I need protective gear for a trip into Casimir."

"I've got a spare bulletproof vest you can use," Risona offered. "It's got a concealed holster that'll work for your pistol."

Jackson recalled how he had a pistol permit he never used, something Risona had nagged him to get. His father's pistol had spent more time locked in the drawer, but he never cared about stockpiling weapons like Dave did. If there was one gun he was comfortable with, the 1911 was it. He figured if he needed to use it, he might as well be dead already. "My client was killed in Casimir, so I want additional protection."

"Going door-to-door now?" Risona asked. "I remember when you always would read the obituaries after the business section. Still using the paper?"

"Among other sources. I've been thinking about something odd, though."

"Like me?" Risona snickered. "As if your job isn't strange enough."

"I said odd, not bizarre." Jackson began pacing back and forth, rubbing the dirt from his shoes onto a dirty mat. "Two of the most recent victims were gang members who can't remember their killer, and both were killed with blades. Very atypical."

"Right, shootings would be more typical for that crowd. But edged weapons can't be ruled out, especially with the City Council loving gun control. I'll call my friend in the coroner's office."

"Thanks. Just forward me anything you dig up."

"You'd be lost without me," Risona said. "Just admit it."

"Will you keep in touch?" Jackson asked.

"Only if you call to say hi now and then. Now, I'll get that armor."

Risona lifted a box from atop a stack of plastic crates, and took out a black garment that resembled the top of diver's wetsuit. Jackson ran his fingertips along the oily black coating of the shirt, expecting it to feel stiff and tight. Instead, the material slightly depressed as he pushed into it. Risona's armor felt more like Pierce's bean bag chair, forming and flowing as if a liquid was inside.

"Just don't get it electrified or punctured," Risona said. "I made this for a military contract, but they said the shear-thickening fluid was too expensive."

"Can it stop a bullet?" Jackson asked. "It feels more like foam padding."

"Several." Risona reached into another box and pulled out his revolver. "Care to try it out?"

"I'll take your word for it," Jackson said, holding the garment up to his chest. It was roughly his size, and could fit nicely under his clothes. He noticed a small pocket in the side, large enough for a pistol. He threw it over his shoulder just as a dejected Risona put his weapon away. "Thanks, though. I've got to be going now."

Jackson headed for the front door, but he felt Risona's hand tug on his wrist. "Wait."

"Yeah?" He turned around.

"Do me a favor," Risona said. "Tell Pierce about your real work."

"Someday," Jackson said, turning around and heading for the door. "But not today."

Risona said nothing. As Jackson walked out and heard the trailer door bolted closed behind him, he found an associate waiting for him outside. She was now composed enough that he didn't need his sunglasses to see her. Liz walked outside of the green shipping container, her spectral form dissipating as raindrops fell through her. She reminded Jackson of a wet stained glass window. Her blue eyes stared off into the distance, and her fingers hung limply towards the ground. Her head slowly turned towards her compatriot.

"Holy shit," she murmured. "How are you friends with that freak?"

"To be honest, he's useful," Jackson replied. "All bark, no bite."

"Yeah, but at least he'll be gone soon. How can you put up with him?"

"We go way back. He was there when I needed it."

"And he's gone freaking nuts," Liz muttered. "Honestly, who does that to animals?"

"A mad scientist. Now let's go."

Liz said nothing as the medium headed for his car. He decided to slow down his plans to familiarize Liz with his circle of contacts, given her reaction to Dave.

Chapter 12: Competitive Marketplace

Telephone poles and street lights leaned over the decaying roadway like the masts of a sunken fleet. The clear blue sky resembled the sparkling waters of a tropical paradise, and the streets of Casimir resembled the favelas beyond the tourist hotels. Jackson Graves pulled his car to a stop in front of a vacant lot, where he had last spoken to a client.

The place where Pedro Alvarado had lingered had changed since Jackson's last visit. The crime scene tape near the walls of the fallen warehouse had been removed, replaced by a makeshift memorial of weathered wreaths, photographs, and flowers. Some flowers had been strewn across the lot, but Graves was unsure if it was merely the wind that was to blame. Eager to ensure his client was satisfied, he put on his sunglasses and saw into the other side.

The ambient sounds of the dead realm no longer frightened Graves as they once had. Instead, he felt acclimated to it, like the humming of an air conditioner in an office. While his duffel bag still contained his cherry-wood bokken, he felt the reassuring snugness of the body armor underneath. His pistol was concealed within, a last resort for only more mundane threats.

"Mr. Alvarado?" Jackson called. "Pedro? Are you here?"

Ghosts could wander, but newer ones typically stayed near a single location. He looked over a nearby wall and found something that gave him pause. A small pool of ichor sat behind the crumbling bricks, softly emitting a weak blue glow. Jackson cautiously ran his left fingertips through it, feeling only the distinctive otherworldly chill of ectoplasm. He brought a fingertip up to his eye, eyeing a globule of it like a specimen under a microscope. As the fluid dripped from his fingers, he had a brief flash of memory.

He felt himself panting, although no breath flowed into his non-existent lungs. Something was out there; something which had returned for him. He searched in vain for a weapon, some method of fighting back. He grasped one of the bricks from the nearby wall, but was too weak to move it. Only a memorial bouquet of flowers tumbled to the ground, the result of him flailing hopelessly. A shadowy figure closed in, and he felt himself began to dissolve.

Jackson awoke to see the pool of ectoplasm smaller than it had been just a few minutes earlier. There was little doubt that the evaporating pool was all that remained of Pedro Alvarado. Jackson felt a sickness welling up inside him, having been unable to ensure a safe transition for his most recent client. Like Devon, Pedro had been murdered twice.

"I'm sorry," Jackson murmured silently. "I'll find whoever did this."

Dozens of questions raced into Jackson's head, but were shelved by a distracting sound. A high-pitched buzzing raced through his head like a swarm of mosquitoes. He looked up, and saw a distorted red mist over a nearby fence. It resembled a cloud of muted lights, like a crimson wisp of colored smoke and pyrotechnics in the shape of a man. The mist-figure lingered behind the wooden fence, then began rapidly moving away from him. Jackson lifted his sunglasses, and adrenaline surged through his veins.

He dashed towards the fence like a raging bull, throwing himself over the top. His duffel bag hung over his shoulder, but the weight didn't faze him in the slightest. He darted through a narrow driveway between two row-homes as he saw the target before him. What had appeared as an apparition of fireless smoke now appeared as the color of water.

The water-man flowed over obstacles in its way as it leapt over a bench. Jackson closed in behind it as fast as he could, every muscle pounding as blood raced through his arteries. As the figure charged into an open street, it suddenly shifted to the side and began to run perpendicular to Jackson's own path. The medium gave chase, taking the direct route to head off his quarry.

He squeezed between two parked cars as the being shifted again. The demon darted back in its original direction, as Jackson recognized him trying to zigzag. For a moment, he considered drawing his gun, but realized that it was a bad idea in this neighborhood. He didn't even feel comfortable enough with the weapon at a range, let alone against a nearly invisible moving target.

Jackson pulled himself through the cars and saw the target running towards the south. He hopped a waist-high fence into a grassy front yard, and struggled to catch his breath as he ran. The entity's footfalls pounded a flowerbed into the ground as it vaulted into the yard ahead of it. Jackson easily cleared the wrought-iron fence, but struggled to locate his target for a split second. As soon as he noticed rapid motion in a shrub, he bolted after it. Off in the distance, a dog barked.

The consultant barreled into another backyard and darted through a sandbox full of plastic toys. The creature raced out onto the street, and slowed for half a second. Jackson sprinted onwards, confident that his foe was now within reach. Perhaps even some supernatural beings had to pause for breath.

As he darted into the street, he realized exactly what he had walked into. Half a dozen young men in red and white sports jackets lingered on a nearby porch. The North Eden gangsters turned their heads towards him simultaneously, and Jackson knew that not a single word he'd say would make a difference. A quick glance showed the creature darting down a nearby alleyway, but the gangsters' hands moved towards suspicious bulges. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his heart pounded. He thought fast.

"Wait! You're being set up!" he shouted. "And so are the Tigres!"

Their hands were halted by their curiosity, if only for a split second. He continued talking, even as his body turned. "And I'm going after the person doing it!"

With that, he sprinted into the alleyway after his quarry. He felt like a hunting dog that had been given the slip, but he pushed his sunglasses on as he ran, unwilling to give up. He saw a familiar ripple in the air as something moved over a brick fence at the end of the alleyway. The invisible man kicked over the box he had clambered up on, but Jackson pressed on undeterred. He sprinted as fast as he could to the end of the alleyway, hoping to close the distance.

Footsteps echoed behind him in the tight corridor, as a quick glance behind him revealed at least three gangsters chasing after him. As he reached the end of the alleyway, he realized the wall was higher than he thought it was. Jackson cursed to himself as his hands barely reached the top. He held on with all of his strength, but his grip began slipping. Just as he was about to fall, an unseen hand pulled him up.

For a moment, he lay prone on top of the wall, impassive and disoriented. He looked behind to see the gangsters had not ceased pursuit. He pushed himself into a squat, ready to continue running on the other side. A distorted voice beside him murmured two words: "Look away."

Jackson turned to see the water-being leap down from the wall and onto the ground on the other side. A familiar buzzing filled the air, and Jackson heard something metallic bouncing along the ground. Curiosity turned his attention backwards, but his gut kept him fixated on the being he had chased. He prepared to leap to the ground as a flash of white light blinded him for a moment. Behind him, he saw the gangsters sprawled out on the cement, disoriented and sickened. Jackson forced himself to land on the ground, and continued after his target.

By now, the strain and fatigue had caught up with him. When his target darted across a road, Jackson pushed what was left of his stamina to cross it. It was only due to his slackened pace that he avoided the car that narrowly missed him. The vehicle swerved to avoid him, ending up directly beside the sidewalk. The driver's side door popped open, revealing no one behind the wheel. Jackson tried to keep up a jogging pace as the spectral being dove into the waiting vehicle. As it pulled away, he realized there was no chance of keeping up. Undeterred, he tried to snap a picture of it with his camera phone. It was a green sedan, a generic car like dozens of similar ones on the road.

Hoping he had snagged the plates, Jackson turned his attention towards his immediate survival. His target had escaped, and he was in the middle of an unfriendly part of town. He caught his breath as he headed towards a nearby bench, where he sat down and quickly checked the map on his smart phone. Fortunately for him, his car was much closer than he had thought it was.

Jackson quickly checked to see if any of the gangsters emerged from the alleyway. While he saw none, he did not want to go back the way he came. He briskly walked towards Tyler Street, which ran from the docks to the city center. He strode with shoulders held high and his stomach held in. If he let his gaze sag towards the ground, he would seem a more inviting target. Instead, he confidently walked east towards the vacant lot where he had parked.

He arrived back at his car to find one of the rear windows smashed. While he had left few things to steal in the car, it looked as though the would-be thief had left in a hurry. Police sirens sounded off in the distance, and Jackson hoped they weren't heading in his direction. He quickly checked for anyone out in the streets, and climbed into his car. He turned the key in the ignition, and revved the engine. It roared like a jungle cat, and he eagerly left Casimir behind him.

Chapter 13: Firing Line

Jackson felt his guts churning as he walked into the front door, but dismissed it as a symptom of the adrenaline wearing off. As the door creaked opened, he saw Elizabeth waiting for him. She tapped her foot impatiently, and her eyes stared low at the ground, as if she had visited Risona's laboratory again.

"What's up?" Jackson asked. "Something happen while I was gone?"

"Yeah," Liz said, looking uneasy. "Pierce just came back with something nasty."

"What?" Jackson waited for the worst. "Booze? Cigarettes? Drugs?"

"A gun. He came home with it just twenty minutes ago."

"Shit," Jackson muttered, forcing himself to remain quiet. "Do you know what kind?"

The apparition shook her head. "Looked like a cowboy gun."

"So, a revolver, then. Are you sure it's real, and not just some replica or toy?"

Jackson recalled Pierce's lack of interest in real weapons and martial arts, even when he had offered to let him try their father's pistol.

"Yes, I'm sure," Liz told him. "He has a box of bullets, too."

"Where is it? I'll say I found it by accident."

"In his closet. Stashed in a green Tupperware box."

"Thanks," Jackson said. He walked towards Pierce's room, and cautiously turned the knob. He pushed the door open slowly, revealing a world he rarely saw. Videogame, anime, and movie posters hung from the walls, which also held shelves covered in plastic toys. Books of all kinds were stacked high atop the floor and bed, like a compacted library. As he looked over the clothes strewn about the floor, he could not help but think of himself before his mother had died.

Unfortunately, Pierce had not yet matured. That was why Jackson felt he had to be his brother's keeper. Part of him wondered why Pierce had a sudden interest in weapons, especially given his prior apathy. He threw open the wooden door and began scanning through the closet for the green box. Suits and clothing several sizes too small for Pierce still hung in the closet, while tiny shoes lined the closet floor. He knelt down, and noticed the container under a pair of small sneakers. Carefully, he removed the box and opened it.

Inside was a revolver, just as Liz had said. The weapon seemed awkward and strange, unlike what Jackson had expected. There was no trigger guard on the weapon, and the barrel and cylinder rotated upwards on a hinge. The barrel and cylinder were polished to a mirror sheen, as if the weapon had just been manufactured. Parts of the handle, however, seemed rusted and worn. The grips themselves had Japanese characters engraved on them. Beside the gun was a white plastic case of cartridges, strange bullets with a translucent plastic heads full of pellets.

Jackson did not know what kind of weapon it was, but he knew someone who would. He snapped a picture of the firearm and bullets with his smart phone, and forwarded it to Risona for identification. Carefully, he set the weapon back where he found it, and closed the closet door. He pulled the room door shut behind him, and moved into his office.

Risona replied faster than Jackson thought he would. "Model 2 revolver from Civil War and Boshin War," he read from the screen. "Modified to take six .22 ratshot cartridges. Can provide more info."

A quick online search showed ratshot bullets were essentially mini-shotgun shells, lethal only to the smallest vermin. He didn't care to inquire more than that, and suddenly felt much more relieved. His contentment was only temporary, as he mused on why his brother had an interest in shooting rats. The worrying amount of crumbs and leftovers in the basement certainly warranted concern about vermin. He mused that perhaps Pierce wanted to exterminate the rats himself, saving his brother the cost of an exterminator. He put his phone away and called Liz into the room.

"I'm going to talk to Pierce," Jackson said. "But I want you to practice something for me."

"What?" Liz asked.

"I've placed a folder called 'Snow Financial' in this filing cabinet," he taped on the side. "It's out of alphabetical order. I want you to find it, read everything inside, and remember whatever you can."

He pulled out a stopwatch. "Go."

"What?"

"Clock's ticking."

The ghost walked into the cabinet, and disappeared as she crouched down within it. Four minutes later, Liz stood up with a tired grin on her face. "O-okay, that was hard," she said, and let her invisible arms droop forward, passing through the top of the filing cabinet.

"So, what was inside?" Jackson stopped the watch.

"Bank accounts, transaction records," she said. "Lots of numbers."

"What was the date of the most recent transaction?"

"Umm, last Tuesday?" she shrugged.

"November of last year," Jackson rolled his eyes. "Look, I've got a plan. There's a sleazy executive who I need some dirt on. He's normally got his office locked up tight, but that won't be a problem for you."

"Clever," Liz grinned. "So I get to be your copy machine, eh?"

"Or at least my scout," Jackson said. "You'd be perfect for the role. Think you're up for it?"

"Can do, boss," she said, raising both thumbs up. "You could just leave me there overnight, since it's not like they'll notice me."

"Perhaps, but there are still some uncertainties. That ghost-hunter's still out there. I saw another victim of his."

Liz pantomimed a gulp.

"I want your input on this decision. But if we can pull this off, we can really hurt that pack of vultures."

"Let me think on it. I'm going to go practice on your other files."

"Go right ahead. But don't do this for my sake. There's other ways of getting information, but only one of you."

"Aw, how sweet," Liz murmured as she walked into another filing cabinet. "But don't worry about me."

"A girl's gotta take care of herself," Jackson said as he walked towards the door. "But for now, I've got family business."

Jackson closed the door behind him, and mentally prepared himself for what he was going to say. He wondered for a moment whether it might be better to confront Pierce when he was less stressed. He still fumed like a smoking volcano, given the day's events and the unpleasant surprise waiting for him at home. After further rumination for a bit, he decided to simply talk with his little brother. He opened the door to the basement and descended into the cool space beneath.

"Hey, Pierce," he said. "How are you today?"

"Fine." Pierce paused his videogame, freezing two martial artists on the screen. "You?"

"Not so fine," Jackson said. "Good job on that history test. The physics one wasn't so bad, either."

"Thanks, I had a good tutor. Actually, I had something to ask you."

"Yeah?"

"I want to go to try shooting," Pierce said. "My tutor said it could help my reflexes."

Jackson wanted to ask why he didn't join him on previous trips to the range, but decided against it. "Dad's pistol is like a hand cannon, but I can show you how to use it."

"It's not Dad's pistol I'm interested in," Pierce said, exhaling. He stood up, turned to face Jackson, and opened his hands. "I just got my own gun, and I want to try that out."

Jackson pretended to act surprised. "Really?" His eyes opened wide for a second, before his expressionless glance returned.

"Yeah, my tutor gave me a Civil War gun we fixed up. He says it still has a few original parts in it."

"As long as it won't blow up in your face. Now, tell me, what kind of tutor gives out guns to his clients?"

"He rewards good performance," Pierce said, smiling. "Instead of demanding it."

"But do you give him anything in exchange?"

"Money and time, plus a few odd jobs," Pierce answered. "That's it."

"What's his name?"

"You know him," Pierce answered, his hands raised defensively. "You mean he hasn't told you?"

"Who?"

"Dave. Your friend Dave."

Jackson tensed up, as if preparing to be struck. The feeling first felt like a stab to the gut, but later a lifting of burdens. For a moment, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The chill that leapt between vertebrae was something else entirely, a subconscious fear of his brother being tainted in some way. He felt he'd wear his teeth down to their roots, the way he kept grinding them together.

"He offered me a part time job to help him around his lab," Pierce said. "You always said I should get a job, so I did."

"Just don't leave animal carcasses around the house," Jackson said, shaking his head. "And don't bring home any more weapons without asking me first. I don't want you going that crazy."

"Sure," Pierce nodded. "But I still think you're crazier. Dave doesn't talk to himself as much as you."

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence." Jackson said, and thought he heard Liz snickering somewhere upstairs. "But we can go shooting together. How's Saturday sound?"

"I'm studying that morning," Pierce said. "But that afternoon is fine."

"Excellent. But just a quick favor: Can you tell me where your gun is, so I can lock it up? A Civil War relic sounds expensive."

"Yeah. It's in a green box in my closet."

"Thanks." Jackson let out a long breath and patted his stomach. "I'm going to get dinner ready."

Pierce nodded in agreement as he returned to his videogame. Jackson walked up the stairs with a blur of emotions clouding his mind: anger, respect, and contentment. He'd definitely be shouting at Dave about the gun, but he never figured the madman would be tutoring people. Of course, there was still the motive of why, but Jackson decided to worry about that another day. He was proud of his brother, at least, for standing up and admitting his actions honestly. He walked back into the office with an aura of victory about him.

"That went better than I thought it would," he told Liz. "Much better."

"He really looks up to you, you know," Liz said as she floated out from a filing cabinet. "You should hang out with him more."

"I wish I could," Jackson sighed. "But I'm going shooting with him Saturday. Turns out crazy Dave was tutoring him, and gave him that gun as a gift."

"Just don't let your brother down," Liz said. "I wish I had a sibling like that."

"You can have him if you want," Jackson joked. "He's single."

"Not my type." Liz shook her head. "Too lively."

Jackson groaned. Before preparing dinner, he locked the revolver away in his own closet, right next to a pair of arcane tomes. As he went about concluding his day, he realized it had ended much better than he could have hoped.

Chapter 14: Opportunity Cost

Jackson Graves was wrenched from peaceful slumber on Tuesday morning by his phone's high-pitched ringtone. The requirements of his career meant his phone was his unwilling companion at all times, like an obsessive stalker. He saw it was nearly 6 AM before taking the call.

"Hello?" he asked.

"Ah, good morning." Patricia's voice on the other end rose into an excited pitch. "Got some great news."

Jackson doubted it was important enough to ruin his valuable sleep. He wondered if Patricia had nothing better to do.

"Carver's going to be out meeting shareholders in New York for the rest of the week," Patricia said. "Can we meet in my office at 9?"

"Works for me," Jackson grumbled. "How'd you find out about Carver?"

"I started chatting up the secretary. You were right about expanding your sources."

"Good idea," Jackson said. "See you then."

He ended the call, and sat staring at the ceiling for a few long minutes. He worried about falling asleep again, so he forced himself out of the warmth of his comforter into the cold air of the room. Liz's head peeked through his door, and stared at him quizzically.

"Looks like I'm not the only undead person here," she said, rolling her eyes. "Rise and shine."

"Feeling confident, Liz? We've lucked out today."

"Yup, been practicing all night. It'll be good to get out," she said.

Jackson explained his plan to his spectral companion, who listened intently. He knew it would be an exciting morning. His car window had been repaired the previous day, so he could drive himself. As he finished his morning routine, he checked to see that Pierce was still asleep. For a moment, he envied his brother's lack of responsibility, but recalled the necessity of his own career.

Jackson arrived early at the Snow Financial campus, and parked in the farthest lot from the building. He headed towards the dumpster for a quick meeting before his appointment within, arranged directly with Connor. He had spent the previous day telecommuting from his office at home, so it was good to get out and stretch his legs.

"Hey," Connor's voice sounded.

Jackson turned to see the homeless man. He stood upright in his jacket and the pants Jackson had given him.

"Hello, Connor. What's new with you?"

"Strange shit, man," Connor said. "Some gangsters said they saw an invisible man, but how the hell can they see someone if he's invisible?"

"Indeed. Anything else?"

"Yeah, saw a lot of cop cars around Hyde Park last night." Connor clutched his head, as if trying to remember something. "You check the news this morning? Maybe they've got something on it."

"I will," Jackson said, and tossed a few dollars to Connor. "Thanks again."

"No problem," Connor said. He craned his neck back and pointed up at the nearby skyscraper. "You know, I remember this town was nicer before they came here."

Jackson considered about explaining why, but decided against it. The average layman cared little for the specifics of finance, but many could sense it boded ill, much like oncoming headlights for a deer. Jackson nodded in agreement, and continued heading towards the contemporary Babel. He hoped that Patricia had been correct in her assessment.

"Are you ready, Liz?" he half-whispered to his invisible assistant. "Last chance to bail."

"Ready as I'll ever be," the ghost replied. "I remember the plan."

"Good. Anything comes up, tell me. We can always try another time."

"Gee, thanks. But I'll be fine. No one's noticed me for the last two decades, so I doubt they'll start now."

"No human noticed you," Jackson said. "We might be dealing with something else."

Liz nodded as he walked into the lobby. Patricia stood impatiently by the elevator, her hair uncombed and clumped together. Her wrinkled blouse and shirt looked like she had tried drying herself with a leaf blower. No makeup covered her face, but Jackson took a few moments to realize it. She still resembled a zombified office drone, albeit more attractive than the ones he was used to seeing. She was a far cry from the perky, excited voice he had heard on the phone.

"You okay?" Jackson asked.

"Fine," she muttered. "Tired, but fine."

"Up late last night?"

"Burning the midnight oil," she said as she walked into the elevator car. "Glad you-know-who's out."

"Yes, he's one good argument for telecommuting. Talk about abuse of authority."

"Not much longer," she said, grinning through a yawn as she leaned against the wall of the elevator. Her eyelids drooped lower for a second. "The CEO's arriving next week, and wants to meet with me about the portfolio."

"You look like you could use a nap."

"Look, I'll tell you more in the office," she said. "I don't feel like talking now."

I'll bet you feel like napping, Jackson mused to himself. He saw Liz standing next to him, and she walked up behind the Assistant Director and put two fingers above her head. She them walked into Patricia's body, and stuck her head out from the Assistant Director's chest. Liz's eyes bulged, and her tongue waggled. She began flapping her hands up and down like a bird, before turning around in place.

Jackson chuckled to himself, while Patricia suddenly stood upright. The shock registered on her face as if she had been doused in ice water. She blinked for a few moments, but regained her composure once the elevator stopped. She walked out into a cubicle farm, with Jackson following. Liz skipped along between them with a forced grin and fluttering arms.

As Patricia headed for her door, Jackson spotted Carver's office, his eyes drawn to the name on the door. The door was locked and the lights were off, but he could see the interior thanks to the beams of light filtering through the blinds. He halted for a moment, and stared within. An executive's office could reveal much about their public façade, the image they presented to their employees and superiors. As much as he disliked Carver, Jackson realized he needed to know his enemy.

An ornately carved mahogany desk with a black leather chair dominated the heart of the office. In front of the desk was a smaller and uncomfortable-looking wooden chair, undoubtedly used to make Carver seem taller than he was. The desk was dominated by stacks of forms arranged like a miniature cityscape. An ancient computer sat in the corner with dust gathering on the keyboard and mouse. Pens were clustered together in groups of five, placed in between the papers. Bookshelves on either wall undoubtedly contributed to the illusion. Jackson could not make out the titles, but noticed a number of finance and account textbooks. Beside the desk were a filing cabinet and a mini-fridge, with a wine glass and corkscrew sat on the top of the latter. A bulletin board hung on the wall, filled with photos and newspaper clippings. Pictures of Carver on a stage, accepting some manner of award, were interspersed with articles about Snow Financial's business dealings. Humility was obviously not one of Carver's strong points.

"There's the place," Jackson whispered under his breath, gesturing to Liz. "Good luck."

The apparition saluted him and walked through the front door, out of sight. Jackson respectfully bowed his head as he walked to join his mortal client in her office, where she closed the door behind him. The businesswoman folded her hands behind her back and stared longingly at her sword.

"Sometimes," she said wistfully. "I wish I could solve my problems with that."

"Who doesn't?" Jackson pulled out a binder from his bag. "Anyway, I'm ready if you are."

"Yeah, sure." Patricia leaned against her standing desk, as if sleep would take her at any moment. "What've you got?"

"This will take a while. Are you sure you're okay?"

"N-no." She clutched her stomach. "You heard the news today, right?"

"Only from Connor. Why?"

"A-a woman was found dead in Hyde Park, near my place." She shuddered a bit. "I was out late last night after practice, and—"

"Understood. Do you want to reschedule?"

"N-no, I need to get back to work. I need to focus. Start talking."

"Very well," he continued. He knew the longer he talked with Patricia, the more time Liz would have to search Carver's office. "There are several sectors outside of the mainstream which I believe are primed for growth…"

He continued his explanation, slowly and clearly enunciating each word. He explained about the opportunities of cryptocurrencies, desktop manufacturing, decentralized power generation, and other terms the wide-eyed Patricia had likely not encountered before. Her apprehension vanished as Jackson paged through his binder and spoke. The minutes flew by, but he did not care to check the time.

"Interesting," she nodded, putting her hand to her chin. "Can you send me the report?"

"Already did," he said, his smart phone in his hand. "If you have any more questions, we can meet again."

"Excellent. I'll let you know what the CEO thinks. Carver's as good as fired at this rate."

"I imagine he's got other options. The fact he's lasted this long means he's either overly confident of his position or supported by someone above him."

"Or just stupid," Patricia said. "Plenty of that here."

"Or all three. But I hope he's not your problem for much longer."

"Oh, that's why I hired you," she said. "But he's not your problem."

Jackson set his binder down on her desk. "I believe this concludes our business," he said. "But I am available for additional questions."

"Oh, I'll have plenty," she yawned, thumbing through the pages. "Let's grab lunch again sometime."

"Or how about dinner?"

"Good idea. Anyway, thanks," she said.

"No problem." He walked out, pulling the door closed slowly behind him. He turned to see his assistant waiting in the hallway with folded hands and staring eyes, shimmering blue from beyond the grave. Jackson briskly walked towards Carver's office, and then turned a sharp right to detour into the nearby men's room.

"I can't go in there!" Liz protested.

"The living and dead have separate laws," he said. "Just don't stare at anything."

He walked into the restroom, and was struck by the odor of piss-soaked urinal cakes and the feel of crusty hand-soap on filthy countertops. For that instant, he envied the sense-deprived ghost he entered with. Despite the tiled floor being recently waxed, he noticed stains and grime already present, as if it was hard-pressed into the floor. He entered the nearest stall, and locked the door behind him.

"So, what did you find?" he asked with eyes opened wide, rubbing his hands together with anticipation.

"Eh, not as much as I had hoped," Liz said. "His drawers were all full of bundles of pens and blank paper."

"What was in the filing cabinet?" Jackson asked.

"Only a few things," she shrugged. "There were forms detailing a new holding company for something called Kraken Security. He's sold off Snow's shares and bought them with his own money."

"So, looks like he wants his own private mercenary army," he mused. "What else?"

"Just a map. With circles on it."

"Where were the circles? Perhaps his real estate?"

"Show me another map, and I'll point them out," Liz closed her eyes, remembering. "Mostly in Casimir, but each had a date."

Jackson brought up a map of the city on his phone. "Point them out."

Whenever Liz's ethereal hand touched the device, there was a brief flicker. Jackson's thumb danced across the screen with his brother's dexterity, placing pin icons across the city. The final circle ended up on the edge of Hyde Park, where the green boundary met the city's concrete gray. A chill descended his spine as he recognized some of the locations.

"The one by the park was dated yesterday," Liz recalled. "But the others all happened in the last few weeks."

"I remember some of these places." He pointed to a church in Casimir and an old warehouse near the docks. "People died here."

The Hyde Park circle was the realization that Jackson had been waiting for. Thoughts raced through his head as he turned towards the toilet. He would have vomited, had anything been in his stomach. A feeling deep in his empty gut told him to get back in his car, and pray he never saw Carver again. He imagined Liz would crack a joke about a black man turning white, but she stayed almost reverently silent.

"Liz, we need to go now," he said. "I'll tell you why once we get back home."

The spirit followed behind him, and Jackson did not stop moving until he sat down in the driver's seat of his car. Not only did Carver gut companies, but there was a good chance he was involved with doing the same to people. He wanted to drive back and warn Patricia, but he felt his own life, and Pierce's, would be at risk. As his recent experiences had shown, there could be worse things than death awaiting them.

Chapter 15: Parkside View

Before heading home from Snow Financial, Jackson took a detour towards Hyde Park. The park itself was a corridor of woodlands around the Christiana Creek, a brown ribbon of rust-red water from the iron-rich bogs it originated from. Jackson recalled playing in the boulder-filled shallow waters in his youth, and occasionally walking through. Now, the park was surrounded by high-rises and skyscrapers from the nearby downtown, as if the wealthier inhabitants had erected a wall around in the last bit of pristine wilderness in the city. Jackson noted even less homeless people around the park than the week before, perhaps from the increased fewer activity. Liz scanned the area with wide-eyed apprehension, as if she was trying to recognize a familiar landmark. The bewildered stare indicated how lost she truly was, as if she had been taken to a new world.

Jackson turned on the radio and scanned until he found a local news station, and listened intently when he heard a report on the recent murder.

"The stabbing victim has been confirmed to be 20 year-old Jennifer Doyle of Byfield, last seen when she left a friend's house last night," the announcer said. "The city is shaken by this horrifying crime—"

Jackson pulled over and checked the story on his phone. The image of a young woman with curly red hair and soft green eyes glowed softly on the screen, which he tilted towards his assistant. He lifted the phone to his ear as if to talk into it, so as to fool any overly curious onlookers. The reassuring heft of his body armor remained in case deception failed.

"Looks like we found a possible new client," he noted. "Keep your eyes peeled."

Liz blinked. "How come she's got a news article but the others didn't?"

"Because she's wealthy and white," Jackson said. "And likely fell to an edged weapon."

"Like the others," Liz observed. "Do you think it's Carver?"

"I think he's an inhuman freak and an abyssal manager. I'm not sure about mad slasher, but I think he's involved."

"As if that map wasn't enough proof?"

"I want to see if she's still here, first," Jackson said. "We need more evidence."

He put on his sunglasses and circled the park again. He had always assumed the park would be a hotbed of all manner of animal ghosts. The lack of spirits gave him pause, so he dropped his speed as he scanned for any signs of activity. He came to a stop on the other side of the park, near Patricia's place. Police cars still formed a makeshift perimeter around a section of jogging trail circled by yellow tape. News vans lingered just beyond the phalanx of law enforcement vehicles, with reporters hovering like vultures desperate for fresh carrion. A handful of empty vehicles sat nearby, including a pair of unmarked utility vans.

Jackson noted something within the grim circus that finally drew his attention. Behind the squirming red bodies of some forensic technicians was a luminescent blue mound of ectoplasm on the ground. Much like Alvarado, the killer had struck down another spirit before Jackson could send it off to its final rest, and he was reminded of his failure. The killer was becoming more efficient at annihilating ghosts, a turn of events Jackson was not happy about.

He pulled over to the side of the road and pointed towards the ectoplasm from within the car.

"Liz, can you check it out?" he directed his friend. "When I touched Pedro's ectoplasm, I relived a few of his last moments. Let me know what you find."

"Sure," Liz said. "Although I'm not looking forward to feeling how someone else died."

Liz walked through the car door and just as effortlessly passed through the assembled police barricade and news crews. Jackson had hoped there would be less people around when he examined Doyle's ectoplasmic remains. It was always easier to deal with the dead when the living were absent, but he did not know how long such ectoplasm would be useful. He saw Liz grasp a clump of it as she knelt down, clutching her nose with her other hand as if it was a piece of rotting trash.

"Yuck," she muttered as she walked back to the car. "This feels grosser than Jersey."

"Oh, come on, it can't be that bad," Jackson said. "Can you bring it here?"

He stuck out an open palm. The eternal teenager dropped the ectoplasm into his waiting hand like a glob of cafeteria food. As Jackson curled his fingers around the wet substance, a supernatural chill jolted his nerves. For a moment, he felt a pang of guilt for stealing someone else's last memories, as if he had stolen the last few drops of water from a thirsty man's canteen. He dispelled those thoughts from his head as the sensations began to flow.

The first thing that Jackson noticed was his center of balance was lower. His height was slightly reduced, and the weight of his body was not what his instincts recalled. For a moment, he felt that he had taken a step onto the moon, with its lowered gravity. His borrowed memory continued as the slight buzz of alcohol filled his senses. If he had not been sitting down in his car, he would have certainly tumbled over as his sense of balance was misaligned. Doyle walked along the jogging path near the park, trying to cut to the nearby bus stop. She saw a pair of utility vans drive by and turn into the park. Suddenly, a warm sensation trickled down onto her shirt. Her senses had barely registered blood flowing from her neck when panic finally set in. Something sharp and cold raked her across her back before plunging through her chest. Her consciousness faded as Jackson found himself back in his car.

"So, how was it?" Liz asked.

"Disorienting and a bit terrifying," he answered. "Did you experience it?"

"Just getting gutted while drunk," she said, nonchalantly. "Guess it affects both of us."

"This ghostly destruction phenomenon is new to me, but there was time between when Devon and Pedro arose and died. Here, the murderer either destroyed the ghost immediately, or that residue was some remnant of the attack."

"Do you really want to wait for Carver to strike again?" Liz asked. "Why not just shoot him in the face next time you see him?"

"Because we don't know it's him, we don't even know if it would harm him, and that would end with me in jail and no one to help my brother or normal clients."

"Aw," Liz sighed. "But do you really want to wait for him to kill again?"

"No. But charging in blindly is a great way to get killed. C'mon, let's get out of here."

Jackson noted the traffic congestion around that part of the park, and decided to take an alternate route home. He circled back around the park and then into a road that bisected it, driving by emptied baseball diamonds and soccer fields devoid of other souls. Off in the distance, water wept off the top of a rotting, lonely wooden pavilion near the edge of the woods. Jackson felt his phone vibrate, and looked to see who had contacted him.

As he skimmed over a spam text, he spotted two men stepping out of the nearby foliage. Liz stared at them, hypnotized, pivoting herself and opening her arms as if she wished to embrace them. Liz stood upwards, and began gliding towards them. Jackson threw on his sunglasses as his spectral companion translucently faded through the door. Adrenaline surged through his body as he leapt from his parked car, observing the men in the bush.

If he had seen them under normal conditions, Jackson would have assumed they were undercover cops. They wore sports jackets and blue jeans, but their black leather boots and uniform stride hinted at professional training. Both wore similar sunglasses and baseball caps, staring unnaturally forward like statues. He imagined undercover police would try to look natural and blend in, unlike the enigmatic figures resembling parade ground rejects. It was only by the green aura engulfing their bodies that Jackson could see they were Kraken Security operatives.

It was not merely Liz drawn towards them. Jackson saw animal spirits, such as birds and squirrels, traveling towards the two sentinels. One Kraken guard extended his left hand, and his partner extended his right arm as if directing traffic. A small, spectral finch collided with his hand and immediately vanished in a burst of ectoplasm. The green aura leapt from the man's skin as it greedily drank down the entire spirit's remains. They turned to see larger prey as Jackson's assistant walked towards them.

"Liz!" Jackson shouted. "Get back here!"

He stepped towards Liz and ran his hand through her transparent fingers, forming ripples in her form like a pond.

"W-what?" she murmured as she continued forwards.

The Kraken operatives stepped out of the foliage and glared at Jackson. The medium felt like he was trying to keep a mutton chop from a pair of starving wolves. He threw himself into Liz, but she walked closer, like a lemming towards a sea-cliff. Jackson realized he had to do something desperate to save his friend. He imagined something brilliant red stirring in distant bushes, but ignored it.

He dashed to the car and pulled the bokken from the backseat. He brandished it in the air for a split second, allowing the Kraken guards to take note of it. Their eyes and faces hardened into scowls as Jackson inhaled deeply. They moved their free hands in uncanny unison into their pockets, never shifting their laser-point stare. They hesitated for a moment, as if daring Jackson to make the next move. His eyes saw Liz shifting closer to them, now within a few yards.

The medium gladly made that move as he lifted the wooden sword over his head, tensed his legs, and catapulted forwards. His shout did not affect the agents as their hands momentarily vanished within their pockets. Jackson vainly hoped they would not emerge until he reached his destination. As he closed the distance, he anticipated where his blade would go. Two glistening suppressed pistols emerged from cavernous pockets, ready to greet the medium. His hips twisted as the bokken descended.

A split second later, the weapon had fallen. Jackson had not attacked the mercenaries, only the air in front of them. It sliced Liz neatly down the center, and the two Kraken sentries stared aimlessly. Each half of Liz remained stationary and upright, only a blue ichor weeping softly between parts of her body. The Kraken sentries took a half-step back as their weapons returned to their concealed sheaths. They wordlessly walked into the brush, undoubtedly seeking easier prey. Jackson kept the bokken out until he lost sight of them. Given the weapons they had pulled out, he doubted their presence was official. Whatever they were up to, they seemed unwilling to leave another dead body in the park.

Both halves of Liz remained stationary for almost a minute before they knit back together. Not a single scar remained, but Liz simply continued staring forwards. Slowly, motion returned to her limbs. First her fingers twitched, and then her hands moved. Gradually, she moved her head and lips.

"What the hell just happened?"

"Not sure myself," he admitted, and tossed the bokken over his shoulder. "But as far as my weapon, don't worry. You ghosts can patch yourselves up pretty quick."

"Sorry for not listening," she said. "But they took over my mind. I felt like I was being sucked into some giant vacuum cleaner."

"Let's get out of here," Jackson said, pointing his thumb back to the car. "We'll worry about them later."

"Think they'll call the cops or follow us?" she asked as she floated into the passenger's seat.

"No," he answered, climbing in beside her. "I doubt they want attention, but I want you to stay home for now. Remember what I said earlier?"

Liz nodded in silent agreement as they headed home. As he turned onto the highway, a cross-shaped shadow crossed his vision for a moment, but he ignored it. His mind was occupied with the question of why Kraken operatives were in Hyde Park.

Chapter 16: Shot Down

When Jackson pulled into his driveway, he was surprised to see Pierce outside. A quick look beside him showed that Liz shared similar sentiments. In his hands, he held what looked like a modified videogame controller, and a toy helicopter buzzed just over the rooftop. He hoped for a moment that he wouldn't have to climb up and retrieve it if it crashed.

"Hey," Pierce greeted him coolly as he walked towards the front door. "How was work?"

"Interesting," Jackson said. "You done with your homework?"

"Yeah. Did it all at Dave's, right after some small jobs."

"Now let me ask you," Jackson grinned. "How was work?"

"It was good. Dave's shown me some really cool experimental stuff, like robots, spy gear—"

Jackson momentarily looked back at his vehicle. Liz had stepped out of the car, and reached for the remote control helicopter that now hovered above the front yard. Her translucent hand passed through the landing struts, and the craft slightly yawed to the side. Her eyes briefly flashed sapphire blue, and she stared in disbelief for a few moments. Pierce waved his hand in front of Jackson's eyes, drawing his attention back to him.

"Can you stop zoning out?" Pierce asked.

"Sorry," Jackson said sheepishly. Liz shrugged from behind his car. "Sounds neat."

"Yeah, it is," Pierce said. "But Dave wants to come over Thursday. He wants to talk with you in person."

"That works for me. I have a few things I need to talk about."

"Mind if I ask you a question?"

"Depends."

Pierce fiddled with the controls, bringing his toy to a soft landing on the ground. He exhaled deeply, and Jackson suddenly felt tension welling up like a compressed spring. Whatever was going to come from Pierce's mouth was not going to be trivial.

"Why were you in Casimir?" Pierce asked.

Jackson felt his blood pressure spike as his own muscles tightened. He considered lying or denying it for a moment, but decided against it. "Business."

"What business would make a bunch of gangsters chase you?"

Jackson's posture drooped forward in defeat. His arms went limp, and a bellyful of air flowed out his mouth like a bellows. He remembered the sensation of being punched in the gut, and his body felt just as battered. His eyes stared at the ground as his mind frantically searched for responses. Part of him wanted to know how Pierce knew. Another part wanted to simply ignore the question. The deepest part of his mind urged him to come clean. It was not impossible that someone would take note of his recent encounters.

"Was it drugs?" Pierce asked.

"Worse," Jackson shook his head. "Real estate. A man was killed on a vacant property, and my client had involvement in property near the site. I thought I saw someone sneaking around, and I blundered onto gang turf."

Jackson felt inwardly proud of his response, as it contained no outright falsehoods. He did not care to elaborate on how the client was the murder victim. For a moment, Pierce ruminated, silently analyzing the answer, then nodded, accepting it. The medium felt as though a millstone had been lifted from his chest, and breathed a sigh of relief. Liz stared at him before heading inside.

"Now," Jackson asked. "Where'd you hear about that?"

"A friend," Pierce replied. "You really stick out in public."

"That's my goal. Free advertising. Now, do you honestly think I'd be involved with drugs?"

"No, but the idea you were dealing crossed my mind. Money can make people do crazy things."

"The financial sector's all about money. Or the illusion of it."

"The idea of you destroying other people's lives to improve mine is still disturbing."

"It's the nature of financial speculation," Jackson said. "Some win, others lose. How it always was."

"Doesn't mean it's fair, or even right."

"I never said it was," Jackson grinned. "But knowing life's unfair means you can plan to change it."

Pierce nodded, and knelt down to pick up his helicopter. "Just stay safe. Don't do stupid shit for me."

"Too late for that," Jackson said. "Now, how are you for dinner?"

"Already had it."

Jackson walked inside, and saw the spectral teenager beckoning to him from his study. She was smiling, her eyes open wide, a lively expression on a dead face. He set his things aside, closed the door, and joined her within.

"What's up?" he asked.

"This." Liz reached towards the desk, a translucent arm passing through wood until it stopped at a pen on the desktop. She used her other hand to caress Jackson's arm. A sensation like an ice cube ran down his skin before she stopped. He had felt ghosts before, but Liz felt practically tangible for a sliver of a second.

"Watch this," Liz said with giddy excitement.

Her other hand closed around the pen, and lifted it up in the air. She held it as high as her arm could reach, and Jackson observed silently. The pen hung suspended in midair as if it dangling from a string on the ceiling. Liz flicked it back and forth like a pendulum, humming to herself as Jackson tracked it. Another pen joined it in the air, and he noted Liz's face flushing red with excitement. The ability to interact with the material world was to ghosts like a blind man given sight, but Jackson noted it had limitations.

"I'm happy for you, but most ghosts I've seen can't maintain it for long." Jackson said. "Can you lift my chair, Liz?"

"I'll try," she said, setting both pens down. She pantomimed spitting in each of her hands and rubbed her palms together. The spirit squatted down next to the chair, and put both hands on the underside. "Here goes nothing."

The chair legs began to move and sway, as if an earthquake had hit the office. Jackson believed for a moment that the chair would leave the ground, as it gently quivered in Liz's grasp. The ghost's face was contorted as her immaterial teeth clenched tightly. The chair jerked upwards for a split second, before falling back to the floor. Liz stayed on the ground, panting as she tried filling nonexistent lungs with breath. He considered for a moment she may actually have limited success in moving air.

"Shit, I can't even lift a cheap chair," the specter muttered. "Age sure has caught up with me."

"Not bad, Liz," he said, clapping. "But you should rest for now. It's been a long day."

"Not a bad way to end a day after almost dying again."

"I'm hoping we can avoid that," Jackson said. "I've got enough things to worry about."

"Like how your brother found out about your Casimir adventure?"

"Yes, and other things. If he found out, what's to stop those gangsters, the police, or Kraken Security from doing the same?"

"What if they already have?"

"Another reason I want you here, Liz. If bad guys come knocking, I want you to protect Pierce."

"How am I going to do that?" she asked. "Throw pens at them?"

"I'm sure you'll think of something," he assured her. "But I'm still unsure of how your abilities work."

"Makes two of us. Look, I really appreciate what you've done for me, but I want to ask you something."

Jackson noted the spirit's change in posture. She shifted her hips forwards, and her arms folded across her chest. Something caused the curtains to ripple slightly. "Why did you save me?"

"Why are you asking this?" he replied. "Because you're my friend and associate, that's why."

"No, I mean you've got a full life ahead of you," Liz said. "You charged guys with guns to save a ghost like me."

"I had body armor and bet they wouldn't want to make another corpse. But we can't assume that in the future."

"Don't kill yourself for me," she said. "I threw my life away. If those freaks come for me again—"

"They won't. But you're right. Pierce needs me."

"Yeah." Liz nodded. "Look, I'm staying here until we know more about them."

"Can you keep me updated about Pierce? Just make sure he's safe."

"So, still want me to spy on him?" she asked, a knowing smile on her translucent lips. "But keep in mind payback's a bitch. Who knows what else he knows about you?"

"Too much," Jackson said. "He is my brother, after all."

Liz laughed, shaking her head at him. Jackson could not help but feel he was being watched. He walked towards the study's window, and threw open the blinds. The golden light of the setting sun filtered into the room, but the sunset was not what he first noticed. The outside of the window was covered in wet condensation, as if skin had been pressed against the glass. A few footprints stood out on the ground, leading over a neighbor's fence. For a split second, Jackson had the urge to bolt outside and follow them. A quick look through his sunglasses saw nothing shifting in the fugue dimension. He decided that whoever, or whatever, had been there had fled. His supernatural defenses worked against spirits, not physical intruders. "Liz, wake me if you spot anyone strange tonight."

The ghost nodded in agreement.

Chapter 17: Informational Efficiency

Jackson woke up the following morning deprived of valuable sleep, his sheets soaked in cold sweat. As he forced himself out of bed, he knew there would be a long day before him. The cool air of his bedroom assaulted his bare skin, and he shivered slightly. Liz stepped through the nearby wall, and a pillow flew through the air at him.

"Wake up," she said. "Time for work."

"I know," he groaned. "See anything last night?"

Liz averted her eyes while he threw his clothes on.

"Nothing to report," she said. "Just pigeons and strays."

"Any ghosts?"

"Just dead pigeons and strays."

"At least those Kraken guys weren't here," he mused. "Thanks, Liz."

"No prob."

Jackson spent the rest of his morning between the lands of the living and dead, catapulted into the former by coffee and the adrenaline rush from exercising. By the time his car left the driveway, the first rays of the sun were beginning to appear over the horizon. Grateful for the body armor concealed under his suit, he exhaled into a relaxed, meditative state as he headed away from the golden orb of heaven into the shadowed vale of concrete and corruption.

Morning parking near downtown resembled sharks in a feeding frenzy. An increasing number of automobiles arrived with each minute, competing for the closest parking spots nearest their destinations. Jackson bypassed much of it by heading for the farthest parking lot, but even he had to linger at traffic lights like a wayward spirit. As he stepped out of his vehicle, he pondered why he couldn't just bike into town. He walked towards the dumpsters by the parking garage for a meeting with his associate.

"Hey man," Connor said as stepped out from behind the garage. "Some really bad stuff's been going down."

Jackson handed him a bill. "Elaborate."

"Goons with guns lurking around Hyde Park. They ain't cops because they've got suppressed pistols, and a different model sidearm than the police. Besides, the bastards chased me out at gunpoint instead of just flashing badges."

"Could they be gangsters?"

"Nah," Connor shook his head. "Too organized. Definitely professional."

"Do you know anything else about them?"

Connor shrugged. "Actually, I was hoping you could tell me."

Jackson leaned in, as if to whisper. He hoped to hinder his foes and air some dirty laundry, if only to get them on the defensive. "I've heard about a PMC, Kraken Security, doing shady stuff around town."

"Mercs, eh? Glad I was out of the military before those overpaid assholes showed up."

"They accosted my friend," Jackson said. "Highly suspicious, their being out in force after a murder."

"Maybe there's more than that?" Connor asked. "Like if the Feds or someone doesn't want people poking around?"

"Information's a powerful commodity, and many would pay to protect it," Jackson told him. "That said, stay safe."

"You too," Connor said, and saluted as he vanished behind the garage.

The rest of the day passed in a blur as Jackson continued his business. At lunch, Risona texted him the time he'd arrive that evening. While it worked for Jackson, a bit of resentment churned in his stomach like food poisoning. Harboring it for too long would only increase the intensity of the vitriol when it erupted later, so he believed it would be good to work it out of his system earlier. While he hoped Risona brought vital information, he wanted to make clear what he didn't approve of.

When Jackson arrived at home, he found Pierce playing with his helicopter in the kitchen. The medium's shoulders were tensed rigidly, his steps were load, and his breath was heavy with barely repressed anger. Pierce landed his helicopter on the kitchen table, and a bemused Liz watched from the basement door.

"Mind taking that downstairs or outside?" Jackson asked. "I'm going to be talking with Dave soon, and I'd appreciate you taking that elsewhere."

"Sure." Pierce grabbed his toy and descended into the basement. "Tell me when you and Dave are done. I want to show him something."

"Don't worry, we won't be long."

The basement door slammed closed, and Liz continued leaning against it nonchalantly.

"No news, I'm afraid," she said apologetically. "No signs of whatever came by here last night."

"I'll have to ask Dave to look at the tracks. If there's still anything left."

"Oh, I'm sure he'd trying vivisecting whatever it was," she said. "By the way, there's something about Pierce—"

"We can talk later," Jackson said, looking at a text on his phone.

He heard the sounds of a car engine idling in the street, and headed to the front door. He looked out front, recalling Risona rarely drove, and found his friend dressed in a gray hooded sweater and shorts, his standard outfit for anything outside of the lab. He carried a heavy-looking duffel bag over his shoulder.

Jackson opened the door and invited him in. The first thing to strike Jackson was the smell, or lack thereof. The medium entertained the idea that Risona had worn clean clothes out of respect for him. The shaved and washed face also lent credence to that idea. Risona grinned as he walked towards the kitchen table.

"May I?" he asked, grasping the bag in both hands.

Jackson nodded. "You may, but we need to talk."

"Definitely," Risona said as he set his burden down on the dinner table. Jackson briefly considered the idea that whatever was inside would make him lose his appetite.

Acting on instinct, he asked his most direct question first. "Why did you give Pierce a gun and not tell me?"

"Because there are things out there I don't know about, and your brother's largely ignorant of them," Risona replied. "Look, I know it annoyed you and I'm sorry. I chose that gun because it's unlikely to harm humans, but useful against supernatural foes."

"Explain."

"Look, it's only .22 ratshot, right? But that's not just lead pellets," he grinned. "It's also got a mix of silver and iron nanoparticles, which should be effective against supernatural foes."

"Have you ever tried them out?"

"Nah. But one of my more reliable sources swears it'll work, especially against lycanthropes and spirits. He's the same one who suggested the invisible ink sigils and the cherry wood sword for ghosts and undead, like the Taoist exorcists used."

Jackson put up his hand to his chin, dwelling on what Risona had said. "I'm disappointed the bokken doesn't work on undead, bloodsucking banks. I'd like the contact info for that source," Jackson joked. "Now, why give Pierce a historical gun?"

"Because he practically restored it for me," Risona said. "I like making investments in historical artifacts, because they'll remain constant or increase in value. I'd thought you'd appreciate my logic."

"And I do. But next time you pass off something to Pierce, I'd prefer you let me know."

"Understandable," Risona said, and nodded in agreement. "Look, there's something I need to tell you."

His face suddenly drained of color, but his ears lit up, as if his entire blood supply raced to his ears. His nostrils flared, and Jackson detected hints of nervousness. Part of him was curious as to why Risona had suddenly lost his composure.

"Remember the invisible man you told me about?" he asked.

"Yes, it escaped in a driverless car," Jackson said. "Did you find out anything about it?"

"That's me," Risona said. He produced a strange garment from within the duffel bag, a bulky gray suit with the texture and feel of tent canvas. "This is my meta-material stealth suit, a prototype I made for a military contract."

Jackson's jaw dropped and his eyes stared blankly for several seconds. He sat quietly, waiting for more responses from the mad scientist. A quick look out in the street revealed a familiar green sedan.

"The car is an experimental robotic one," he continued. "One made from a wreck. That's how Pierce comes over for tutoring and work."

Risona's hand vanished into his bag again, and pulled out several photographs. They detailed a cross-like shape in the air, but the last one caught the medium's attention. It depicted a quadcopter, a drone with four propellers arranged in a cross-shaped pattern. Below the central body of the craft was a camera and mechanical claw. Next to the claw was a small, cylindrical object.

"This is another experimental drone, a low visibility recon one," Risona said. "During our chase, Pierce was the one at the controls. He dropped a flashbang from the drone to shake our pursuers."

"Wait, what?" Jackson asked as confusion and anger seethed into one.

"Pierce used a flash grenade to save you from the North Eden Gang. You mean he never told you?"

Risona's head tilted backwards and upwards as a groan escaped his mouth. "This is awkward," he said. Jackson stared at him, uncertain of how to react to Risona's claims. While it was troubling that Risona and Pierce had been spying on him, the larger question of why traveled into his head. Deep in his mind, he was proud of Pierce, for doing much more than he had ever considered. He continued to stare flabbergasted.

"Short version: Like you, I've been investigating these murders," Risona said. "Since you've been going to door-to-door meeting your clients alone, I've been watching to make sure nothing happens."

Jackson stared aimlessly for almost a minute before moving his lips. He considered that Pierce might be listening to them from the basement stairs, or that he might know about his real profession. "How much does Pierce know about my dealings?"

"Before he saw you in Casimir that once, he'd sometimes check up on you with the drone. I'd even helped him set up a remote control system for it, so he could partially control it from his game console," Risona replied. "He was my eyes in the sky while I was on the ground. I went in directly to try investigating to see if the cops missed anything. I'm honestly surprised you managed to spot me."

"But why'd you run?"

"Imagine a trained martial artist you fear sprinting directly at you in the bad part of town," Risona said. "Instinct took over after realizing my disguise failed, but I honestly didn't know we'd end up in front of those thugs."

"I have my ways," Jackson said, tapping the sunglasses in his pocket. "Now, Dave, listen to me: I've had enough with the secrets and omissions. If anything, anything at all, comes up involving Pierce, you're going to let me know."

"I would've told you everything if you asked!" Risona whined, extending his arms in both directions. "I mean, I assumed Pierce was telling you about this."

"He wasn't. But that's another talk I should have."

"Look, Jackson." Risona opened his hands. "We're all in this together. I'll tell you more of what's going on with me, but I think it's only fair if you tell him about the family business."

"I'd appreciate it if you don't mention that yet," Jackson spoke in a hushed tone. "I'm sure he's got enough problems already."

"It's your call, but I think he's more than responsible enough. Just to let you know, he's the person I'm considering letting run Necrotech after I move."

"Thanks," Jackson said hesitantly. Despite what Risona had mentioned earlier, he still was uncomfortable with the idea of Pierce running a macabre makerspace of mad science experiments. But if his brother was as competent as Risona believed he was, perhaps he was responsible enough to know what was going on.

"I've been investigating these murders myself, but we're probably better off coordinating our efforts. I'm open to suggestions."

"Actually, there's a Regional Director named Richard Carver at Snow Financial, and I found something disturbing in his office."

"Yeah?"

"A map detailing the dates and locations of several murders over the last three months, but with particular interest in the recent stabbings. Furthermore, he's trying to set up a new holding company for Kraken Security with his own funds."

"Oh, yeah, the guy who foreclosed on the ship," Risona recalled. "Why hasn't he done so yet?"

"That's what I need help finding out. How about we meet this weekend to go over what you learn?"

"Works for me. Anything to put a scumbag like that out of business."

"I saw Kraken agents devouring spirits in Hyde Park yesterday, completely annihilating them," Jackson said. "They drew guns on me."

"Yes, I saw them pull guns, but not that spirit thing. But I think there's more to this than tax evasion."

"Which is why I need more eyes on this freak. Here's his office location." Jackson began writing on a small notepad. "Not sure about much else. Whatever he us, he's not human ."

"I doubt many investment bankers are," Risona said, grinning. "I've got it from here."

Jackson exhaled, realizing he had almost completely relaxed. The conversation had gone much better than he hoped it would. Just then, a question welled up from his mind, spurred on by primal fear and caution. "Did you visit here last night?"

"No, why do you ask?"

"I need your help," Jackson said. "Someone or something was pressing its face against my window last night, and left tracks going over the fence."

"Then it's probably not a ghost or spirit."

"Yes. Remember those sigils? Those only work against spectral intruders."

"Shit," Risona said, his teeth clenched. He began putting his things back into his duffel bag. "Let me get my gear. I'll take a look at whatever's left."

The mad scientist headed back out the front door as Liz emerged from the nearby wall. The cross look on her face hinted at bad news coming. Jackson braced himself for the worst, having thought he'd heard enough strangeness for one night.

"I was watching Pierce today, and I saw him throwing up again," Liz said.

Jackson scratched his head. "You mean he's still sick?"

"Not with an upset stomach," Liz said a sadness around her eyes and mouth. "I'm feeling so stupid for not realizing this before. It's something one of my own friends had."

Jackson's heart accelerated as he waited for an answer. If Pierce was ill, he'd have a sudden shift of priorities.

"He only throws up after a meal," Liz explained. "He's got bulimia."

Jackson closed his eyes and ran a heavy hand down the middle of his face from brow to jaw. slapped his hand against his forehead. A mad scientist rambling about murders and robots phased him less than what his assistant mentioned. He found it difficult to believe about his brother, who might've just saved his life and been smarter than he gave him credit for. While Pierce demonstrated far more responsibility than he first envisioned, Jackson still had much to worry about. With all the unknown problems in his life, a very personal one had just jumped up high on his priority list.

Chapter 18: Conspicuous Consumption

The week ended on a different note than Jackson had hoped it would. He spent the remainder of the week searching for information online regarding eating disorders, musing indecisively on how to deal with his brother, and stressing out over work. While the mystery of one invisible man had been solved, he realized he needed information that only a truly invisible group of people could provide. It was midday in the downtown parking lot when Jackson arrived to meet with his most honest associate in the financial district.

"Hey Connor," he said. "Thanks for agreeing to meet outside our normal time."

"Can't turn down a free lunch," the homeless man said. "Where are we going?"

"What do you want to eat?"

"Real meat," Connor said. "And no, fast food doesn't count. That's just pink diarrhea squirted out a machine's asshole."

"I know just the place. Ever heard of the Byfield Grill?"

"Nope. But it sounds good. Haven't had grilled steak since I started hunting."

Connor climbed into a car that had more financial value than the city's poorest people, and buckled himself in. Jackson turned onto the highway for Byfield, savoring the distance he put between himself and the economic tumor of downtown. As the concrete causeway circled away from the city, the affluence declined until all that remained were brick housing projects separated from the highway only by a barbed-wire-topped fence.

As he left the outskirts of the city, Jackson drove through a physical limbo of strip malls and subdivisions in all directions, the relentless advance of suburban sprawl and its bastard progeny. A familiar hill rose in the distance, as they neared their destination, and soon Jackson turned off the road and onto the Main Street of Byfield.

The primary commercial thoroughfare of the city always relaxed him. University students and locals trawled the sidewalks along the one-way street on errands or on their way to lunch, and the medium slowed his car. The shops on either side of the street were built into single or double story structures likely dating from the turn of the century, giving the avenue a quaint and homey feel. Connor leaned back in the seat, enjoying the scenery.

"I'll probably be seeing some of those kids soon," Connor said, surveying the pedestrians. "Few jobs and lots of debt after they graduate."

"It's good you try to help the newly homeless," Jackson said.

"I just wish I could do more for 'em. Whatever happened to the future being brighter for kids?"

"It's only brighter if you've got the cash and luck."

"Dammit, why'd this country have to end up like this?" Connor's face turned red. "I hate saying this, but things were better when I was young."

"In terms of the income gap, definitely. Median household income's crashed since the Seventies."

"I guess whatever goes up must come down. Even good things."

"Especially the good things," Jackson said. "Any group's got good and bad periods across its history."

"Just like every person's got good and bad days," Connor added. "But for the homeless, just seeing the next day's a fight."

"You're at least providing social support."

"Thanks to you paying me, I can," Connor said. "I've got survival skills from the Army and hunting. The others ain't always so lucky, even if I can give 'em advice."

"We're here," Jackson said as they arrived at their destination. He longingly reflected for a moment that he could not pay everyone like he did Connor.

At the end of the road was a blue house-like structure with a wrap-around patio on its second floor. Tables covered the brick pavement and balcony above, many occupied by young couples. A sign shaped like a steak swung loosely in the breeze, reading "Byfield Grill" on it. As they approached, the smell of cooked meat wafted out of the doors. Connor's tongue licked his lips in anticipation. Jackson could not help but imagine his brother puking up lunch, while Connor was lucky to get a warm meal.

"Table for two please," he said to the strawberry-haired waitress at the front. She lead them deeper inside, past a bar with logos of various alcohol brands above it. In the corner was a disused arcade game with a list of high scores that had not been updated for a decade. Connor and Jackson sat down in front of a window that opened out towards a railroad crossing. The waitress handed them menus and walked off, her footsteps sounding on the wooden floor.

"See anything good?" Jackson asked.

"Yup. I want the medium rare steak with a side of salad."

"Good choice," Jackson said. "I'm just going with the soup of the day."

They closed their menus, and the waitress took their orders. As she departed, Jackson narrowed his gaze at Connor. "I thank you for the information you've provided," he said. "But I've got something special to ask."

"Yeah?"

"I need to know who's in charge of North Eden and the Tigres, and how I can get a hold of them," Jackson said. "I have a theory about this gang war."

"What is it?"

"It's a set-up," Jackson continued. "And someone else is interfering."

"Why do you think that?" Connor crossed his arms.

"Well, two gang members were murdered in a similar manner to that girl. And an associate of mine has shared some evidence connecting them."

He did not want to elaborate on Liz or how he had come to believe all were targeted by the ghost-hunter.

"Yeah?"

"Afraid I can't say much more due to the ongoing investigation," Jackson said. "But I believe the motive could be financial."

"Huh?" the homeless man asked. "Maybe an arms dealer wants more people to buy his guns?"

"Perhaps more sinister. The gang war's driven down property values, so companies can buy dirt cheap."

"Or maybe it's just some nutcase trying to stir shit up and watch the city go mad," Connor shrugged. "Assuming they've got half a brain."

"I know a banker who'd make a killing, perhaps literally, if this gang war went on."

Connor rolled his eyes. "Gee, what great people you work with."

"This is the same guy responsible for buying up Kraken Security and using them for company security."

Connor whistled to himself, as if imitating a bird call. "Shit. Kraken? Now we're screwed."

"If you see anything dangerous, get out of there," Jackson said. "Kraken pulled guns on me once."

"Shit, here I thought they'd leave you rich people alone, and just do that to us."

"I'm still black."

"Eh, figures those bastards would do it."

It was then Jackson turned his head after spying movement out of the corner of his eye. The waitress arrived with the food, carrying a tray in each hand. She set down a sizzling dish before Connor's face and a bowl of soup for Jackson. He glared at the tomato paste for a moment, and could not help but think of a toilet filled with his brother's vomit. He realized he must've been hungry, because that mental image did not affect his appetite.

"Better than what I normally eat," Connor said as he greedily chewed his food.

"And what meal is that?"

"Strays," Connor grinned while Jackson glowered. "Just kidding."

Jackson drank a spoonful of soup, letting it wash down his throat. The pleasant warmth and spicy taste allowed him to ignore Connor, who had forsaken the utensils in favor of his hands. Given Connor would keep his food down, Jackson didn't care. He did notice that Connor inhaled the lettuce before moving onto the steak.

"I've was thinking lately," Jackson mused. "Maybe I could officially help you set up a business?"

"I'm game," Connor said. "Not sure what I'd do."

"You'd provide an essential service to your clients, consulting on an invisible side of the city."

"So, what's white-shoe talk for that? Maybe lifestyle consulting? Private investigation?"

"You might be onto something there," Jackson said, checking his watch. "I'd be glad to help set it up."

"Eh, I'll think about it," Connor said. "But thanks."

The meal continued for the next few minutes, until Jackson had finished his lunch. Connor had finished far earlier, and devoured an ice cream sundae in a few seconds. After Jackson paid for both of them, they drove away from Byfield. The sun had moved down from its midday apex, but the air still felt warm. Jackson turned down a side street, intending to check the address of Risona's expert on the supernatural. He wanted to drive by the place before leaving Byfield to ensure he had the correct address.

Jackson drove between two concrete university buildings, megalithic and brutalist rectangular prisms that could not help but make him think of Soviet architecture. He envisioned even Stalin getting a headache from the architectural atrocities. He turned down a street lined in suburban homes, then turned north at the next traffic light, where he silently counted up address numbers until he saw his destination.

The place was a single-floor structure with a facade of rust-red bricks and fading white mortar. The sidewalk in front of it was cracked and buckled as weeds rose from the cracks. The store's front window had a suit of armor holding a decorative sword, standing next to a large metal cauldron, stack of role-playing books, and stylized dice set. A white sign reading, "Witching Hour Games and Comics," hung just above the decorations. Noting the hours, Jackson resolved to visit next week.

He turned to Connor. "Where do you want me to let you off?"

"Weston," Connor replied. "Some friends of mine live there. Better than Hyde Park or downtown."

Jackson headed towards Weston, which was due west of downtown. Originally a bucolic agricultural town, it had been overtaken by developers who sowed it with a crop of empty McMansions and empty strip malls. Adult book and movie stores and strip clubs dominated the commercial ecosystem, while decaying barns and farmhouses were all that remained of its agricultural heritage. Despite the lack of life, Jackson imagined that there were plenty of places where the homeless could squat. When the supply of houses exceeded those who could legally afford them, the informal economy accommodated those who couldn't.

"Over here," Connor said, tugging on Jackson's shoulder while pointing to a boarded-up farmhouse.

Jackson pulled over, and Connor stepped out. "Thanks a lot!"

"No problem." Jackson clasped his hand, feeling a firmer squeeze from Connor than he recalled. "Keep up the good work."

"You know I will."

Jackson pulled away and headed out of Weston. While he had a busy schedule during the week, making time for friends always relaxed him. With the weekend approaching fast, the consulting medium attacked his last bit of Friday work with renewed vigor.

Chapter 19: Resource Allocation

Jackson had forgotten the last time he had visited the shooting range. It was not an indoor one like those in the city, but an outdoor area in a nearby Maryland state park. A grassy hillock sat at the end of the firing lanes, absorbing all of the lead after it had passed through wood and paper targets before it. While it was a clear and cloudless day, it was still a rural place few ventured to. On the rare occasion someone else was there, it was usually a shooter enjoying a new toy or a hunter practicing their aim for an upcoming game season.

The only admission costs were a few dollars to be deposited in a lockbox near the ranger station, as targets and ammunition had to be provided by shooters. Having a dearth of either, Jackson had asked if Risona would join them. His automated green sedan sat on the dirt and gravel parking lot, while he was already set up in one of the lanes. He brought the revolver Jackson had seen before, as well as a sleek, high tech rifle with a complex scope on the top. The mad scientist exhaled as he focused on a black and white paper bull's-eye target, gently compressing the trigger as he did. A thunder-crack erupted from the weapon's barrel, with a tongue of flame and wisps of smoke billowing from the muzzle like the breath of a slumbering dragon.

Jackson could not help but wonder what else Risona had stashed in the trunk of his car. Jackson had only brought two locked boxes with him, holding his and Pierce's weapons. He believed Risona would bring enough spare ammunition for all of them, given his typical interest.

"Hey Dave," Pierce said. "What's that sniper rifle?"

"It's a designated marksman rifle, not a true sniper rifle," Risona corrected him. "The computerized sights on this are calibrated so even a novice can consistently shoot moving targets."

"Yeah?"

"I make some money shooting invasive birds down by the river," Risona explained. "Instead of a shotgun, I decided I wanted something more precise, even able to be hit from a moving boat. Perfect for pest control."

"How about having it able to control the drone, like maybe for bombing runs?"

"Already working on that, as well as adding a laser microphone to listening anything downrange," Risona said. "Now, want to try this out while I talk with Jackson?"

"Sure, Dave!" Pierce's face lit up.

"See if you can get a perfect score on each of the three targets," Risona challenged him, motioning downrange. He handed Pierce a new magazine, and showed him how to use it.

"So, what did you want to tell me about?" Jackson asked, once they were heading back towards the car.

"I asked around with my police contacts," Dave said, reaching into one of the pockets of his hoodie. He fished out a map and opened it. "Apparently, the first murder in the gang war happened about a month ago, where a Tigre's body was fished from the river."

Jackson raised his hand to his chin. "Cause of death?"

"Shot execution style in the back of the head. Murder weapon never recovered, and no suspects charged."

"Then retaliation started?"

"Yes, but a questionable one." Risona pointed to a spot in Casimir. "A North Eden dealer and one bystander were caught in a hail of gunfire from a drive-by. The car was reported stolen earlier that day, and was never found. The weapon was never recovered, either. Not enough evidence for any suspects to be charged."

"Plenty of cars vanish into chop shops," Jackson noted. "But these crimes seem meticulously planned."

"Exactly," Risona continued. "Both gangs suddenly begin hiring really expensive lawyers about a week after this. There's some minor stuff like beatings and assaults of individual gang members, but the next shooting isn't for another week."

"Beating someone half to death is still horrible, but continue."

"The police bust a North Eden dealer with a suitcase full of guns in his trunk," Risona said. "But here's where it gets interesting."

"How so? There are plenty of arrests like that here."

"The guns are all the same pistol model, with no serial numbers on them," the scientist explained. The rifle cracked in the background. "Classic sanitized insurgency weapons."

"A what?"

"Weapons manufactured without proofs or serial numbers, for plausible deniability when they turn up in the hands of people who shouldn't have them."

"Shit."

"My contacts inform me Kraken was believed to have commissioned them, and gave them to Middle Eastern insurgents attacking rival PMCs."

"Sounds despicable, even for ruthless mercs."

"Oh, it gets better. The ones recovered were slated to be destroyed—by Kraken Security nonetheless."

"And you think they didn't?"

"I think they brought the guns home and sold them to the drug gangs. Most of the shootings, even the first ones, were done using the same caliber weapon."

"So the dealer with the case of them is a smoking gun, no pun intended? Can't they be charged?"

"Nope, and you can bet it'll stay that way," David replied, shaking his head. "These guys are thorough and have dozens of lawyers on speed dial."

"Carver," Jackson surmised. "I'll bet he's got something to do with it. The gang war's driven down real estate prices in Casimir, and I've even heard rumors the police want security contracts with Kraken."

"Then he's about to become even wealthier, especially if Kraken's new holding company is in some offshore tax haven."

"Thanks for letting me know," Jackson said. "I've got to warn the leaders of each gang."

"Use this." Risona handed a manila folder and a flash drive to the medium. "Remember, though, those gangsters are the same breed as Carver, only less wealthy."

"I know. But if I can get one or both of them to stand down, it's sure to throw a wrench into Carver's plans."

"Let me know if you need backup."

"Oh, I will," Jackson said. "Say, did you find out anything on Kraken's background?"

"Aside from the weapons bit, yes. Originally, they started off as a front company for a cult in some New England town, the Church of the Eldest Depths."

"How'd they become a PMC?"

"They got into legal hot water and hired Carver as a consultant. When the War on Terror started, he managed to score them contracts in the Middle East," David said. "However, I haven't been able to find much on the Church beyond a few listings on anti-cult websites."

"Thanks," Jackson said, processing the new information. "Oh, I'm going to swing by the Witching Hour next week to see if your contact can help."

"If anyone reads up on crazy cults, it'd be him," David said.

A rifle clicked empty in the background and Jackson turned to see Pierce holding Dave's rifle, smoke still issuing out of the barrel. "How'd I do?" he asked.

Jackson and David looked downrange, and saw perfect bull's-eyes on each target. Jackson gave him a double thumbs-up, and his brother smiled. Jackson reflected it was one of the few times he saw his brother express joy in his presence. He wondered, for a moment, how he'd deal with Pierce's eating disorder.

"Now, I've got another toy," Risona said, loading a single round into his revolver. "In the US, suppressors on firearms have variable legality depending on the state. So, based on a Russian design, I put the suppressor in the bullet."

He aimed his weapon with both hands, almost lovingly caressing the trigger. Instead of the thunderous fireball that Jackson expected, a subsonic thawp was all he heard before a new hole appeared in the central target. Pierce applauded, and Jackson found himself joining in. He realized Dave's love life began and ended with a firing chamber, but at least he was happy. Jackson considered what he could do to remedy his own melancholic moods as of late.

They spent the rest of the day holding various contests and games with their weapons, including movement drills, different methods of aiming, and learning to use each other's guns. Jackson never cared for many of the specifics about firearms, but Pierce loved them. For a moment, he considered inviting Liz on their next outing, assuming the ghost-hunter was stopped and Pierce was informed about her. She certainly knew where the keys for the weapons and ammunition were, but that would have to be another day. For now, he savored his time with his friend and brother under cerulean skies with the smell of sulfur in their nostrils. Risona gave him the fixed radio and spare parts at the end of the day, and Jackson drove home a content man.

Chapter 20: Personal Consultation

The following Monday, Jackson had not yet worked up the nerve to continue his radio broadcasts. The theory that the ghost-hunter was listening in and was perhaps even alerted to prey kept him off the Dead Frequency that night. The two weeks without it had been an eye-opener, allowing Jackson to notice things he had missed before. Without the radio malfunction, he would not have met Liz or acquired his sunglasses. With Connor and Risona still investigating their respective assignments, the consultant sated his own curiosity. It was with a subconscious excitement that he arrived at the Witching Hour in Byfield.

The inside of the store was as Jackson imagined it. He had seen comic book stores before, but immediately Jackson noticed that the overwhelming majority of the shelves and racks were covered in roleplaying books and board games. A terrace-like stack of comics dominated the center of the room, consisting of obscure titles that Jackson had never heard before. Along the walls were sections for models and miniatures, from World War II tanks to fantasy creatures to sci-fi spaceships. A rack nearby had various colors, styles, and types of multi-sided dice. But a wall near the back of the store was what truly caught his attention.

It was a wall of weapons above a shelf of archaic, leather bound tomes. It was nowhere as extensive as David's collection, but primarily consisted of medieval weapons and armor. Swords, axes, maces, shields, crossbows, a handful of black powder guns, and things he couldn't identify hung from pegs on the wall behind them. A clerk stood at the desk, his eyes dancing through a book as he leaned against an old-fashioned mechanical cash register. He stood almost as tall as Jackson, but far more stocky. His pale skin was covered with freckles and a curly brown beard covered much of his chin, extending upwards to his hair. A brown trench coat hung wreathed around his shoulders, the pockets filled to bursting with smaller tomes. Jackson imagined that standing and walking around with that library on him required muscle beneath his bulk.

"Mr. Thaddeus Crowe?" Jackson extended his hand to the man.

"Yes, a pleasure to meet you," the main said, looking up from his book, and he grasped the medium's hand with a firmer grip than Jackson had anticipated. "You're Dr. Risona's friend Jackson, correct?"

"That's right. How'd you meet Dave, if you don't mind me asking?"

"We met in a roleplaying game, and he became a frequent customer of my shop in short order," Thaddeus answered. "He mentioned you both go back to college."

"We do," Jackson said. "I had some questions regarding occult and supernatural lore he'd said you'd be able to help with."

"Dr. Risona relies too much on his crass technology for answers," Thaddeus complained. "My collection was old when the printing press was novel."

"We'll see," Jackson said. "I'd like to know about a New England cult called the Church of the Eldest Depths."

"Ah, an easy one." Thaddeus reached under his desk and pulled out a black ring binder labeled "Contemporary Mystic Orders of North America, Part II." He thumbed through until he came to a page consisting of a pamphlet and a clipped-out newspaper article. The newspaper headline announced that a Church Elder was facing a dozen charges after a critic was assaulted. Jackson skimmed the article, and Thaddeus pulled out the pamphlet.

"Do you feel empty and lonely?" Thaddeus read aloud. "Our Church can raise you out of the Eldest Depths."

"But what's their doctrine?" Jackson asked. "What's the Church actually worship?"

"Our founder, Ezekiel Marsh, was a sailor who received a vision after being swept overboard," Thaddeus continued reading. "Light can reach even the darkest depths of the ocean, and even the fiercest of storms must end."

"Anything about a Kraken in there?"

"But there is an enemy of the carefree and willfully ignorant," Thaddeus read. "Those who live in willful ignorance tempt the Kraken, the Leviathan of the Deep."

Jackson's eyes opened wider.

"Our fellowship will be spared the Kraken's wrath, and will reign as masters of the new world," Thaddeus continued. "Longtime members sign symbolic contracts for an eon, signs of their patience and devotion. Their sacrifices and efforts form the body for our future efforts."

"So, standard convert or suffer pitch," Jackson surmised. "Their marketing could use work."

"Indeed, and their later materials are much improved, if you care to have a look." Thaddeus opened to the following page, revealing several more pamphlets. They were printed on slick and glossy paper, unlike the cheap white pulp used for the first one. While Jackson was tempted to look inside them for a moment, he reminded himself of his other questions.

"I'm told they reformed themselves into a security firm under advice from a financial consultant. Is this accurate?" he asked.

"Yes, the Church was dissolved shortly afterwards, but the leaders became the Board of Directors in the new company and their members became shareholders," Thaddeus said. "Exchanging faith for money is an easy decision for most. I imagine they justified it as pursuing their traditional goals in corporate guise."

"I see. Thanks for all this," Jackson said. "I do have some other questions."

"Sure." Thaddeus closed the binder. "Dr. Risona said you're an experienced medium, so I presume you may be a neophyte to areas outside the grave."

"Only the supernatural ones. Now, some of my...departed clients are being destroyed completely by an entity Dave and I call the ghost-hunter."

"So, destruction of a spirit?"

"Total annihilation."

"There are innumerable beings capable of destroying ghosts and spirits, and these beings are physically and psychologically indistinguishable from humans," Thaddeus said, reaching for a leather-bound notebook enveloped in plastic on his shelf. He slipped a pair of fine gloves over his long, slender fingers before lifting the cover. "Even humans with certain enchanted weapons can annihilate spirits."

"Oh?"

"There are literally as many types as there are weapon-making cultures in history," Thaddeus said. "I'm sure Dr. Risona can explain them in greater detail if you are curious."

"No thanks," Jackson said, having endured enough of his friend's weapon talk for one lifetime. "But I'm curious if a few might've ended up in Ripton."

"Some have," Thaddeus nodded in agreement. "Enchanted Asian blades were popular a decade ago, but now it's primarily historical American ones."

"Is there a dedicated market for supernatural weapons?"

"Not to my knowledge. They come in alongside mundane weapons, with most collectors and hobbyists ignorant of their true nature."

"The recent murders also bother me," Jackson said. "Typically, ghost creation is independent of the cause of death, and only a small percentage of people become ghosts."

"Yes?"

"I've had two ghosts from the gang war destroyed by unknown forces, and I strongly suspect a third was annihilated as well. The only things they had in common were murder by an unknown killer with an edged weapon, dying immediately after each other, and all producing ghosts."

"Statistically improbable."

"Exactly," Jackson said. "Are there any enchantments that can blur memory, or guarantee that a murder will create a ghost, or obliterate a spirit?"

"Yes, there are many weapon enchantments, from those that grant supernatural insight to those that increase aggression. One era's blessing may be another's curse. But have you considered there could be other forces at work?"

"Like other supernatural freaks?" Jackson pulled out his smart phone and brought up the scanned grimoire. "I enchanted a pair of sunglasses with the Eyes of the Netherworld, as detailed in this copy of "A Covenant of Shadows." I've seen some things I'm not sure of."

"Ah, yes, a classic aura vision spell from that tome," Thaddeus said, nodding approvingly. "The living are red, and spirits are blue, correct?"

"Yes, but I've seen a man with a purple aura, another with a bright red aura, and a Kraken Security team with green auras," Jackson said. "And I saw undercover Kraken guards luring and consuming spirits in Hyde Park same day that woman was murdered. They even pulled guns on me."

"Interesting," Thaddeus said, putting hand under his chin. "But I would avoid jumping to conclusions."

"Dave thinks the guy with the purple aura's up to something big with Kraken."

"That may be the case, but let me propose another scenario," Thaddeus said, wagging his finger. "What if these Kraken agents are also investigating the deaths?"

"Like destroying the evidence and intimidating witnesses?"

"Were Kraken agents combing the other sites?"

"It's possible, but my contacts would have missed them." Jackson could see where this was leading. Still, he imagined it was not impossible for a pair of them to escape notice. "What if they're performing some kind of experiment? Like testing ghost-destroying weapons?"

"Perhaps," Thaddeus said. "But ghosts are created from such a small minority of all deaths. What would that give them?"

"Maybe they want to harvest ghosts more reliably?" Jackson shivered at the thought. Generating and harvesting murdered spirits like factory-farmed crops was a chilling enough idea on its own, but he was unsure of the larger mystic implications.

"If a powerful corporation had such an interest, why would they conduct such research here in Delaware?" Thaddeus pulled out a globe from under his desk. He spun it around, and pointed to Somalia, Afghanistan, and various countries with recent crises. "I believe there's someone local, who may have just attracted Kraken's interest."

"But deliberately or not?"

Thaddeus shrugged. "Each raises many questions. Ask me again when you find out more."

"Will do. Thanks."

"Oh, about the purple aura," Thaddeus added, thumbing through a notepad. "As purple was a color of medieval royalty, it can represent an individual of significant supernatural power and rank."

"Need something more specific."

"He may be an archmage, a shapeshifter, a lycanthrope, a bound entity in human form, some fleshy undead, or perhaps something else," Thaddeus explained. "If you can provide me more information, I can give you more details."

"He's nasty, gluttonous, rude."

"As many immature men with power are," Thaddeus stated before opening to another page. "Now, the green aura is the sign of a binding ritual. Powerful ones completely replace an individual's uniqueness and personality."

"It sucks their soul," Jackson noted. "Useful for Kraken, as it would save a bundle on training and therapy costs."

"Not to mention unit cohesion and tactics. Quite a feat for that mercenary racket," Thaddeus said, and Jackson had the feeling the man had read many of the books like the one on the shelf with a tank on the cover, presumably loaded with military terminology.

"Would they have some kind of telepathy or hive-mind?" Jackson asked. "I want to know if they'd know who I am."

"Hmm." Thaddeus' head tottered around like a bobble head while his eyeballs rolled back in thought. His neck cracked as his head completed a rotation. "Probably not, but if one of them saw you, they'd probably be able to track you with more mundane methods."

"Like?"

"Dr. Risona's better poised to answer that than I am," Thaddeus said, extending his hand. "But thanks for the conversation."

"Thanks for the information," Jackson said, returning his handshake. "I'll come back when I have more."

"No rush. But make sure it's reliable."

"I advise my clients to do the same with investments," Jackson said. "Take care."

With plenty on his mind, he headed back to his car. Too much information saturated his mind now, like a clogged drain. The drive to Ripton would be plenty of time to muse over it. He wavered in his decision comparing two forces: Kraken and Carver or some third actor powerful enough to toy with them. He hoped not to make more foes than he already had.

Chapter 21: Direct Approach

On Tuesday, Jackson was fortunate enough to spend time at home. The sky was a foul gray burial shroud upon the land below. He thought he heard the distant rumble of thunder, but realized it was Pierce rushing up the basement stairs. As he consulted with a client in Singapore, he heard the flushing of the toilet in the nearby bathroom. When the flush was not immediately followed by Pierce returning to his lair, he knew what was occurring within. He felt his own stomach churn as realized what was in the toilet in the second flush he heard.

His client asked if everyone was all right, and Jackson assured him it was. After concluding his online meeting, he resolved to do something about it. The consultant descended into his brother's underground home, saw Pierce occupied with reading, and knocked on the wall behind him. Pierce looked up from a notebook, his eyes wide as they fell on his brother. He kept his shoulders angled up, cowering like a helpless fawn while his brother spoke. "Can we talk?"

Pierce's response was barely audible. "Y-yeah, I guess."

"Look, I'm not here to yell at you," Jackson said, exhaling. Instead of standing, he sat next to his brother and put his hand on his shoulder. He could see Liz in the corner of the room, nodding her approval. "But there's something I noticed."

"What?" Pierce's dark face began to flash red. "I've told you everything I've been up to with Dave. What else do you want?"

"This has nothing to do with Dave." Jackson exhaled again, putting his arm over his brother's shoulder. He wanted to be sympathetic, not accusing. "This has to do with you."

"Look, I showed you my latest exams," Pierce said. "I've aced them!"

"And I'm proud of you for it," Jackson grinned. "But this has nothing to do with academics, or a job, or videogames, or anything like that."

"Then what?" Tears began to well up in Pierce's eyes.

"I've suspected it for a while, but it's only now I'm confident in what I thought," Jackson said. "I feel sorry for you, having acted like that."

"Acted like what?"

"Your bulimia. Vomiting into the toilet."

Pierce's eyes stared down apologetically, and tears began to flow down his cheeks. "But I wanted to be like you—"

"By puking into the toilet?" Jackson let his emotions blast out like an artillery salvo. "There's better ways to get like this!"

"I'm sorry," Pierce said, sincerely. "But I look like crap! I'm fat! I'm ugly!"

"You think you're bad?" Jackson shouted. "What about people who don't even eat?"

"I know. But I can't hold onto a diet, and I don't have the confidence to go to the gym."

Jackson tapped him on the shoulder. "You won't need any of that junk."

Pierce looked up at him, tears still pouring from his eyes. "What?"

"You don't need any of that shit," Jackson said. "That's all marketing. I did it without a gym or fad diet. Hell, Dave, too."

His brother began to dry his tears. "Then how?"

"It's about lifestyle changes," Jackson said. "Things you can do without gym toys or protein shakes. Simple stuff, really."

"Yeah?"

"Like having a big breakfast, medium lunch, and small dinner. And being more aware of what you eat, and simply getting exercise each day."

"It doesn't sound impossible. Can you show me?"

"I'll show you my own workout routine of body weight exercises, so you don't need to spend a dime on equipment," Jackson said. "Plus, did you know that Dave teaches a martial arts class?"

"He mentioned it a few times. Never tried it, though."

"If you want a good workout, go there," Jackson said with a smile. "I highly recommend it."

"Will you come with me?"

"I haven't been there in a long time. But sure, I'll come with you."

"Thanks," Pierce said calmly. The tears on his face had vanished, save a few wet tracks cascading down from his eyes.

"If you want to do anything, Pierce, tell me, and I'll make it happen."

Pierce threw his arms around his brother and hugged him. Liz's face appeared from the ceiling above, beaming with what looked like pride. She raised both her thumbs and stuck her hands down through the ceiling in approval. For a long relaxing moment, Jackson simply embraced his brother.

He thought for a moment about telling Pierce about his own work as a medium and the supernatural forces present in the city. But he figured his poor brother had just experienced enough emotional stress for the day. He considered the best day for their visit to Dave's martial arts class. Giving Pierce another method to protect himself would be useful, but not all self-defense was physical.

"Pierce, if anyone ever says that money and things bring happiness," he warned, "they're lying."

"But it pays for stuff you need and like."

"It does. But money's a tool, not an end in itself."

Plenty of companies would still exist if they had kept that lesson in mind, he reflected. For a while, he simply sat quietly with Pierce, until he had leaned back into his notes. Jackson stood up when he received a text message from Risona. He walked upstairs with a warm feeling within him, something the medium hoped to experience more of. Entering his office, he breathed a sigh of relief. A major source of stress had been lifted from his mind and body. He resolved to be more direct in the future.

The contents of Risona's message made it clear he should check his email. He accessed on his smart phone and opened as fast as it would load. Liz walked through the door, approaching behind him.

"So, the footprints were just sneaker prints," Jackson summarized for Liz. "But Risona's noted the gait's odd."

"How so?" Liz asked.

"He says the footfalls are wider than most people's, like the guy's sprinting," he said. "There's no stop at the fence, so the guy could've leapt right over it."

"Assuming it's a person."

"It could be one of those free-runners. I've seen people clear pretty high walls with a running start. At the very least, Dave thinks the footprints are evidence of corporeal intruder."

"So, if it's a person, who would it be?"

"Perhaps a burglar observing when I was home," Jackson said. "But you've seen no one and no new footprints, so I doubt he came back."

"One good thing, at least," Liz said, dragging her hand over her forehead. "But no news on the ghost-hunter or creeps in the park?"

"I talked with a guy who thinks the ghost-hunter and Kraken are separate forces," he explained. "He thinks the ghost-hunter might even have drawn their attention, knowingly or not."

"Well, there's been a murder each week resulting in an unlucky ghost," she noted. "Who then gets devoured by the ghost-hunter."

"Yes, but I'm still not sure what kind of being the hunter could be. There are enchanted weapons that can create and destroy ghosts, sometimes wielded unwittingly. There are supernatural beings that can do it."

"Those mercenary guys were crazy enough."

"They're literally soulless, like the man funding them," Jackson said, staring at nothing as he recalled the auras he had seen around them. "They're all bound by some dark magic."

"And here I thought the mall rent-a-cops were bad," Liz said with a characteristic eye-roll. "At least when I was alive, supernatural serial killers and soulless mercenaries didn't walk the streets."

"Maybe they did," he shrugged. "But you never knew."

"Glad I didn't," Liz said. "On a positive note, can I say you did a good job with Pierce?"

"Thanks," he sighed. "Just wished I had done it sooner."

"Better late than never. But when you tell him about me, how are you going to do it?"

Jackson shrugged. "Cross that bridge when we come to it," he said. "He'll know we've got another housemate."

"An invisible one who's been spying on him for his brother?"

"I won't put it like that," Jackson said. "I just don't know that he'd be comfortable with the stuff I have to deal with."

"He's comfortable with guns, armed drones, his schoolwork, and that mad scientist. So why not me? Am I worse than your crazy friend?"

"No, but I think he's had enough for today."

"Yeah." Liz nodded in agreement. "Alright, but be careful. Whatever's hunting ghosts kills people to make 'em."

"That's why I'm traveling prepared."

Jackson's phone suddenly went off, and he checked his messages. There was one from Risona telling him to check the news. He brought up his phone's web browser and checked a local news website, where a "Breaking News" headline announced that two bodies had been recovered from Christiana Creek in Hyde Park. Risona soon sent him another email containing some of the first pictures from the jogger who had discovered the grisly scene and notes from the medical examiner.

"Guess there's our murder this week," Liz remarked. "And it's a double one."

The medium decided to examine the photos out of curiosity, hoping to glean more clues about the ghost-hunter. While their faces and skin were obscured in the picture, he saw two men of similar physical build were floating face-down in the brackish water. He immediately recognized the clothing they wore. Their sporting gear had been forever burned into his mind as what they wore when they pulled guns on him. While he did not see their guns or sunglasses, there was little doubt these were the same Kraken guards from before.

"Holy shit!" Liz exclaimed. "It's them!"

Jackson skimmed over the notes regarding the suspected causes of death, noting deep lacerations, internal bleeding, and exsanguination. Empty shell casings had been found nearby, matching the caliber of weapons the Kraken guards carried. However, the firearms themselves were not found. The police would likely not be aware of Kraken's activities, but traffic near the park would certainly be a nightmare.

"It's like an animal ripped them apart!" Liz stepped back. "Nasty!"

Jackson immediately felt conflict within him. They were literally soulless mercenaries who had drawn guns on him and almost devoured Liz, but the pictures of their bodies provoked a primal empathy within him. If two trained mercenaries could not deal with the threat, he wondered if he ever could. The empty bullet casings meant they had gone down fighting the ghost-hunter. Whatever had killed them, it was something he never wanted to encounter.

Chapter 22: Reassurance

Jackson had already decided to stay home and simply listen in on the Dead Frequency. A now-familiar silence filled it, as the static washed over his ears. For a few minutes, he was reminded of the crashing of waves upon the beach. Liz waited wordlessly beside him, hoping for replies that would never come. A welcome distraction came as Jackson heard his ringtone and realized he had forgotten to mute his phone. He shut off the ham radio and listened with full attention.

"Hi, Jackson," she said in an enthusiastic and excited voice. "I wanted to talk with you."

"Yes? Any questions on my report?"

"Just one. The CEO's really impressed with the report, actually, and says Carver might be moving on soon. What should I do?"

"Stay on her good side," Jackson said. "My contacts have informed me the Director's up to some shady dealings, and it's probably in Snow Financial's interest to cut him loose."

"And then?"

"And then you fill the void. Powerful positions often get filled by friends rather than merit alone."

"So cynical," Patricia said. "But true. Look, I've seen Carver do things…horrible things, but I know how to make him careless."

"Just be careful. He's a dangerous man, financially and otherwise."

"I want to tell you more, but not over the phone," she said. "Can we meet this weekend?"

"Sure, let's talk over lunch this Saturday. How are things otherwise?"

"Thanks. Otherwise, things are great," she said. Her voice rose. "The CEO said she wanted to take me to meet with the Board of Directors. I'm so excited!"

"Good luck," Jackson said. "Just remember they could turn on you just as fast."

"Thanks. I will."

"Good. Talk to you soon."

Jackson turned off his phone and sighed. A lot of young hopefuls would have their dreams and visions crushed at some point. Patricia seemed nice enough, but he knew that eventually she'd either be disappointed or become what she detested. At least the call had momentarily distracted him from the killings occurring around the city. A mundane serial killer was bad enough, but a supernatural one able to destroy ghosts was terrifying. Jackson took solace in the fact his brother had expressed some interest in weapons and martial arts, so he might at least defend himself against corporeal threads. Subconsciously, he knew that the killer would not be limited to natural methods of causing harm, but denial kept it down.

The following morning, Jackson met with Connor in their standard meeting place. The Delaware dawn weather was set to foul, a sinister overcast sky that marched east across the river into Jersey. Connor was half buried in a blue windbreaker as he leaned against the wall.

"Nice coat," Jackson said.

"Thanks, getting chillier out," Connor said, rubbing his hands together. "Weather's not the only thing getting worse. Heard about the bodies?"

"Two guys dead in Hyde Park." Jackson shook his head. "Not visiting there anytime soon."

"They're calling him the Ripton Ravager. Last thing this town needs is more death."

"The last thing maniacs need is attention," Jackson noted. "But are you okay?"

"Mostly. No more napping in the park for now," Connor said. "Dug up what you wanted about those gangs, though."

"Excellent. So, what's the deal with North Eden?"

"Their leader is a guy called Guts," Connor told him. "Got the nickname because he survived a shooting, but had his intestines hanging out of his shirt."

"And where can I find him?"

"He travels with some snazzy lawyer, hanging out in his house in Casimir. Only place on North Eden Street with a blue sports car in the driveway."

"And Los Tigres?"

"Their leader's Roberto Torres, but it's probably not his real name," Connor said. "The man's past is a blank, but you don't find him. He finds you. Wander around Nuevo San Juan enough, and you'll get his attention. He's been known to sometimes kidnap and interrogate people who seem to stick out too much."

"Anything else?"

"Oh, his appearance. Tall Latino guy with shades, prefers tank-tops, and tiger tattoos on each arm. Likes theatrics, but smarter than he looks."

"Thanks, Connor," Jackson said as he handed him double the normal pay.

"You sure you want to talk with these scumbags?"

"There's a chance I can find out more about the Ravager. The deaths of the gang members and Hyde Park victims seem too similar for comfort."

"Just come back in one piece," Connor said. "I've always got your back."

"Thanks," Jackson said, exchanging a look of respect with the man before heading away.

Both gangs had a long and bloody history in Port Ripton, but the criminal underworld shared traits with conventional business. Leaders often were ruthless enough to seize control, but only the savviest retained it. He would make it a point to ask Risona for any additional intelligence about the two gangsters, as he needed every bit of information he could get. Just as playing to an employer's tastes could result in a job, playing to their tastes could result in him walking out alive. Snow Financial might enjoy immunity from scrutiny, but smaller players had to be careful.

Jackson knew the types of people he'd deal with would have no problem using him for chum if they willed it. In addition, there was the very real possibility of unwanted attention from law enforcement. There were enough laws that could be creatively reinterpreted to build a case against a freelance consultant who suddenly began offering free advice to known criminals. He imagined his skin color would not help in those regards, but knowing a good lawyer might. He was unfortunate enough to have crossed paths with such bipedal sharks during his career, but kept them no closer than his contact list. Even a freelance consultant needed to occasionally rely upon the infernal scriveners of byzantine corporate law.

The medium began gathering supplies for his trip into gangland. The body armor and pistol were requirements, as was his smart phone. He'd bring the bokken in case he came across any wayward spirits, which such parts of town could easily host. He'd also want to dress in business attire, as nothing would draw attention like a well-dressed man in a hand-tailored suit. He'd also want Risona backing him up, in case things went really bad. He imagined the mad scientist had enough firepower and gadgets to handle anything, but Jackson knew he was not so well-equipped himself.

A quick online search told him all he needed to know about the neighborhoods in question. North Eden Street cut through Casimir like a swordsman's slash, bisecting the lowest property values in the city. Crime rates were lower than the official average, owing more to the fact that so few crimes were reported there. He did not know which house had a sports car out front, but imagined such a gangster would not hide signs of his wealth. One did not acquire a nickname like Guts through a life of subtlety.

Nuevo San Juan was another story. Located near the southern end of Casimir near the docks, it was originally settled by Puerto Rican families five decades ago. As more Latin American immigrants settled in the city, it became the largest concentration of Hispanic individuals in Ripton. There were sometimes tensions between them, but Los Tigres drew most of its membership from that neighborhood. It was unlikely that anything happened there without Torres knowing about it. Unlike Casimir, Nuevo San Juan had people walking outside.

With a lawyer on speed dial and gear prepared, he remembered something he had to do that night. He'd see Risona when he took Pierce for a martial arts lesson. Even though he looked forward to spending time with his brother, Jackson could not help but feel a tinge of regret. The longer he waited, the more people would die.

Risona had been spying on Carver lately, and he hoped something incriminating would turn up. Lunch with Patricia might provide additional information, but he his gut told him Carver was too shady not to be involved. Snow Financial and similar firms had admitted to laundering criminal money before, receiving only minor fines if anything. Where there was money, people like Carver would follow. Hindering the parasitic abominations that had annihilated Port Ripton's economy felt like a futile battle sometimes, but that made even the smallest victories all the sweeter. He looked forward to showing Pierce just how even the smallest foe could defeat a larger one. Just as in martial arts, the largest would fall the hardest.

Chapter 23: Lessons Learned

Jackson had resolved to go with Pierce to martial arts class, if for no other reason than to spend his last free night with his brother. The following day, he would descend into gang territory to entreat with the paltry lords of violence. While insignificant in wealth and power next to the individuals he typically worked with, even Jackson wanted to be prepared for whatever challenges awaited him. Thus, a martial arts course would be a good refresher for the lessons he had forgotten.

Risona still trained at the same place he did when Jackson was an undergraduate. It was a small wrestling room in Byfield, an overlooked room near the Rodney University gym. Forsaken after more modern facilities had been constructed, only a handful of university clubs and student organizations ever entered it. It sat forsaken at the edge of campus, a small structure hovering at the side of the parking lot like an abandoned car. With only a brick exterior and empty flowerbed, Jackson was momentarily reminded of the decaying architecture of Casimir. A wooden fence about his height sat behind it, marking the terminus of campus. A small wedge was the only thing keeping the door to the gym open.

Jackson climbed out of the car, and Pierce followed him. Jackson wore his gi top and pants, something he had not worn for ages. Pierce wore a loose shirt and sweatpants, as it was his first excursion into the world of martial arts. Jackson held open the door for his little brother, and was immediately greeted by the pungent stench of sweat and body odor. Risona and another student were quickly going over the gym mats with ragged mops, undulating in a sinusoidal path like soggy rat tails.

David waved to Jackson as he entered. The consultant's eyes shifted to the half-dozen students accompanying Risona. A tall, muscular Asian man in a blue gi handed his mop to Risona, and extended his hand, introducing himself as Adrian Chang.

Jackson gave his own name as he extended a firm handshake, only to be almost crushed. "And this is my brother Pierce," he said, trying not to wince.

"Nice to meet you guys," Adrian said. "Class is starting soon."

The other students formed a row on a mat in the center of the room. Adrian took a position at the right side of the row, sitting on his knees and pressing the tops of his feet into the floor. Jackson and Pierce sat beside him, also sitting in seiza. David took a position at the front of the room, and began to stretch. The scientist wore a stained white gi, a garment Jackson knew he had had for years. The belts he and the students wore came in a variety of colors and styles, indicating experience and rank. As they stretched, he noticed Pierce straining and groaning.

"Just do the best you can," he whispered to his brother. "Stick with it."

Pierce nodded and stretched his hands farther than before, but fell short of his toes. David switched to other stretches and warm-ups, and Jackson heard Pierce's heavy breathing in every step of the workout. Whatever was occurring within his brother's chest was sending hot and heavy breath out. He told Pierce to slow down, but his little brother kept on going. Jackson wasn't sure whether to be proud or concerned for him. The stretches concluded with the small room feeling more fetid and stuffy, until Adrian propped the door opened wider. Jackson thought he saw someone moving outside, but shrugged it off as a random pedestrian.

"Nice to have you back, Jackson," Dave said. "Why don't you demonstrate some escapes? Adrian, attack him however you want."

Jackson stood up with Adrian, and the two walked to the front of the class, where they bowed to each other. Jackson exhaled and waited for an attack. The tall man grabbed his wrist like a vise and circled around to his back. A thick hand snaked around his jaw and across his neck. The medium immediately knew how he'd escape the choke hold. Pierce watched with a blend of wide-eyed excitement and apprehension.

Jackson inhaled as he tucked his chin into his assailant's arm. With a slight movement of his hips, he leaned forwards and stepped his foot out to the side. As Adrian came forward to compensate, Jackson grabbed his hands and stepped onwards. He cast down the grasped hand like a sword-strike, and advanced as Adrian tumbled backwards on the mat. Pierce watched with great interest.

"Okay, that's the first move we'll practice tonight," Risona said. "Everyone, pair up."

Jackson walked back to Pierce, who stood waiting for instruction. Jackson bowed to him, and his brother repeated the gesture. David came over, and began to guide Pierce through the basic movements. "Don't worry about getting it perfect," he said. "Just get the basics down."

Pierce nodded as Jackson led him through the basic steps. The novice twisted himself like a pretzel at first, but eventually learned the proper movements. A grimace of confusion turned into a contented smile of realization. Dave called up Pierce to demonstrate the next movement, and instructed him to throw a gut-punch. Pierce let loose a hesitant, slow moving blow. Dave stepped to the side and compromised Pierce's balance, sending him rolling backwards, dizzy but unharmed. Dave demonstrated again, using himself as the attacker. Pierce grinned as he sent the mad scientist sprawling. Jackson shot him a thumbs-up.

The night continued in a similar fashion, with Pierce ending up soaked in his own sweat. Jackson recalled being similarly out of breath after his own first night. The smile crossing Pierce's face was worth it. Jackson and Pierce lined up next to Adrian as they prepared to close the class. David bowed to the lined-up students, and made some announcements.

"Okay, practice is at the same time two days from now," he said. "We'll be starting extra classes on Monday nights, for grappling and sparring."

As he continued, Adrian's gaze turned towards the door. He stood up.

"Can I help you?" he asked as he walked towards the door.

David's eyes traveled there as Jackson watched. A muscular figure filled the doorframe, its face obscured by a tall hood that engulfed it in shadow. Two orbs of bright orange flashed underneath momentarily, before the figure bolted away. Adrian slowly walked outside. Jackson followed, with David and Pierce close behind.

As soon as Jackson peeked outside the door, he saw Adrian throw himself in front of the figure. A split second later, Adrian flew backwards onto the ground. The muscular man moaned and mumbled to himself as skittering footfalls crossed the parking lot. An alarm somewhere in Jackson's mind sounded as he recognized at the inhuman, bestial gait tearing across the ground. A split second later, his last image of the hooded man was him clearing the fence in a single bound. He could have sworn he heard a feral snarl off in the distance.

The other students emerged with Pierce and David. Jackson momentarily wanted to chase after the strange figure, but realized Adrian needed help. He knelt down, and looked over the man. A red bruise formed on his stomach, as if he had stood in front of a powerful piston. Jackson saw Dave open the trunk of his car. "Have a first aid kit?" Jackson called out to him.

"Better," David replied as he pulled out a small electronic device. "I've got spares of all my medical gadgets here."

"What the hell was that?" Adrian groaned. "I feel like a truck hit me."

"You're conscious and there's no bleeding," David noted. "But I think we should call the police. No one attacks one of my students with impunity."

"Think they'll believe us?" Jackson half-whispered. "Those eyes weren't human."

"Maybe so, but the cops'll be helpful here," Dave said, dialing the campus security number on his phone. "The university police will be on the lookout for a perp who hit a student."

"Hey, what's going on here?" Pierce asked, sweat flowing down his brows. "Why's Adrian on the ground?"

"He was lucky," Jackson said. "Some creep just attacked him."

"Whoever that is," Adrian spit, "is really in for it. Assaulting a Special Agent's going to put them away for a long time."

"Wait, like FBI?" Pierce asked.

"Yes," Adrian nodded. "Here on business when I met Dave."

"Shit," Pierce mumbled. "What if that guy had a gun?"

"I think there are worse things out there," Jackson said, wrapping his arm around Pierce's shoulder. "But don't worry. I'm here."

"But you can't always be." Pierce began to shiver in the cool night, his fear turning into sadness. Sirens sounded in the distance, and Jackson held his brother closer. The other students stood wordless and motionless, until some of them wandered back inside the warmer wrestling room. Jackson led Pierce in to join them, to provide Pierce with a place with light and comfort. His brother began to relax, but stood in the corner as campus police cruisers arrived.

"What's going to happen?"

"The police are going to take statements, and probably send us home," Jackson said. "Sorry your first night at martial arts turned into this."

"Honestly," Pierce said, "it's scary and weird, but I'm glad you could be here."

"So am I."

The strobe lights of the police cars illuminated the parking lot like an insane dance-floor as Jackson looked slowly into the night sky. For a second, the medium momentarily saw two golden orbs staring in through the window. They had vanished when he looked again.

Chapter 24: Negative Externalities

Jackson Graves started the following day with a visit to Connor, just after listening to the radio. He stepped out of his car to find the homeless man pacing nervously back and forth with his hands folded behind his back. Jackson approached him cautiously. Given what he had just heard, he had good reason to suspect the cause of Connor's edginess.

Connor's eyes closed and his mouth exhaled a large breath as his muscles relaxed. He slapped Graves on the back. "It's getting dangerous out here."

"I've heard on the radio," Jackson said. "A homeless man was found dead in Weston."

"Sad thing is, I knew the guy." Connor kept his head down, avoiding eye contact. "Sgt. Barry Kynes. He served with me in the Green Berets."

"I'm sorry. I can't imagine what it's like to lose someone that close."

"Happens all the time when you're poor. But Barry and I are old war-dogs. We fight to the end."

"Was it the Ravager?" Jackson asked, although his gut knew the answer. "There's been no official word yet."

"The cops'll want to keep a lid on it to limit the panic," Connor said. "Won't work too well, since the news vultures'll be all over it if it bleeds. Honestly, makes me wonder if all that coverage is encouraging these psychos."

"Wait, so the Ravager killed a former Green Beret?" Jackson asked. "Shit."

"I've got doubts." Connor chewed his lip. "I talked with a guy who found Barry riddled with bullets."

"So either the Ravager's using guns," Jackson speculated. "or maybe it's unrelated."

"Look at these," Connor reached into his pocket and pulled out a jingling plastic bag. The contents of the bag rang like chimes as he waved them in front of his face. "Nine mil shells. Course, it might not mean anything, but that's the same caliber as Kraken's guns."

"Did Barry have any enemies? Would someone else have tried mugging him or killing him?"

"Barry's tough to kill," Connor said. "He wouldn't have lasted as long as he did if he weren't."

"That why you suspect Kraken? Too hard for regular thugs to kill?"

"Yeah, and I just don't like 'em," Connor said. "See any other weird shit lately?"

"I saw a man tossed across a parking lot by a strange assailant," Jackson said. "Who then leapt over a fence as tall as I was without even touching it."

"Shit. But let me tell ya, I'd be more worried about Kraken."

"My notes implicate them in a number of things," Jackson said. "But thanks, and watch yourself."

"Honestly, I'd rather run like hell from this town. But there are friends here who depend on me. Homeless vets, unemployed kids with loans, the plain unlucky."

"I know the feeling," Jackson said, handing Connor his money. "But I wish I could do more to help."

"So do I, but that costs money," Connor noted. "Honestly, these streets feel like a goddamn warzone."

"There's good reason for that." Jackson walked towards his car. "I've got business in Casimir, so remember that if I don't come back."

As Jackson re-entered his car, he saw Connor shudder, looking on edge as he set off for the dumpsters and vanished from sight. Jackson hoped he could defuse the gang war, but first, he had to test the waters. Risona had given him a special encrypted radio to use, a spy gadget leftover from a contract. It resembled a smart phone encased in black rubber, but lacked the backdoors that smart-phones had. His regular phone was left off and at home. Jackson would be covered by eyes in the sky and help on the ground. As he drove towards Casimir, he saw a reassuring cross-shape in the sky.

"Got you covered, Dove," Risona said, using one of the codenames he insisted were necessary. "Cover fire and air support ready, over."

"Let's hope they're not needed, Base," Jackson said. "Approaching first site."

He pulled off the main road and headed down an avenue of dashed hopes. The area looked like where buildings went to die. North Eden Street used to be the major commercial thoroughfare of the city, but had festered into an expanse of empty strip malls and housing projects. Urban blight ballooned in all directions, with gang signs and graffiti covering decade-old ads. While collapsing homes and brick townhouses crumbled into dust, a single house stood apart from the rest. A sky-blue sports car with a body like a bullet sat in the front driveway. It was undoubtedly the reputation of the home's inhabitant that kept the vehicle from vanishing.

The front yard of the house was maintained well compared to the overgrown, litter-strewn properties of the neighbors. Jackson imagined there was no shortage of sycophantic bangers eager to please their boss. The average dealer slinging narcotics probably made about as much as a fast food clerk behind a counter, but had a higher risk of mortality and arrest. Even the criminal underworld paid its managers far more than its low-level employees. Like the corporate world, the ruthless rose to the top. As he surveyed the deserted street, he could not help but feel he was being watched.

The consultant kept that in mind as he walked up the front door. He took his briefcase with him and left his valuables at home, given the chance the car would not be there when he emerged. Even the body armor and pistol concealed under his suit jacket were of little reassurance against the firepower that might be waiting within. The barking of dogs immediately formed goose bumps up his arms. He imagined what kind of person would greet the door as it slowly opened before him. Jackson straightened his tie and smiled, holding his briefcase. Perhaps if he had put his sunglasses on, he'd see the ghosts that Guts made.

An elderly black woman with a floral patterned dress opened the door. "Hello?" she asked.

"Hi, I'm here to see Guts," he said. "It's about business."

"Garry, your friend is here!" she called.

"Who is it?"

"I don't know all yo' friends!" she shouted up the stairs.

"Coming, Auntie!"

From the cane in her hands and the way she almost bumped into a table, Jackson deduced she was blind or otherwise visually impaired, and he wondered if taking care of a relative was what drove Guts into crime in the first place. He had little time to think about it as heavy footfalls grew louder. A black man descended the stairs, seemingly with girth comparable to Pierce's before Jackson realized what hung from his chest. It was easy to mistake for a paunch from a distance, but the holes in his shirt revealed what was underneath. A pouch of skin, supported by a medical brace, hung from his torso. Scars of sutures were clearly visible as it wobbled back and forth. The source of his nickname was much easier to discern. Behind him, Jackson saw a white middle-aged man in a sharp suit. Jackson presumed that was the lawyer Guts always had with him.

"Who are you?" Guts glared at Jackson in the doorway. "Charlie, you know this fool?"

"No, but let's hear him out," Charlie said. "If he's a Fed, he'll have backup and a wire."

"What are you doing here, fool?"

Jackson pulled out a manila folder from his briefcase. "I represent a concerned party on the manner of recent violence in Casimir," Jackson said. "My client believes that such incidents were spurred on by third parties."

"Huh?" Guts said.

"Who do you represent?" Charlie asked. "You don't look like a Fed or cop."

"I'm a freelance investment consultant," Jackson explained. "I merely represent a private party that believes your client has been deceived."

"Someone trying to set me up?" Anger flashed on Guts' face as his eyes went red. "Who are you?"

"My name is unimportant," Jackson said as sweat beaded down his forehead. "Have a look at this, and let me know if that changes your mind."

The gangster grabbed the papers from Jackson's hand. He rifled through them furiously before tossing them on the nearby coffee table. "Charlie, what's this shit?"

The lawyer came over to his side, and started looking through the papers. As his eyes went wide, he realized exactly what Jackson had given him. He looked through copies of the files and evidence pertaining to Kraken Security, Carver, and other matters of interest.

"Holy shit," the lawyer muttered. "Garry, this stuff is legit. I need time to go over all this."

"Go on," Guts gestured to Jackson. "Scram."

"Thank you for your time." Jackson bowed his head as he headed away from the front door.

He let the door close, and briskly walked away from the house resisting the urge to sprint as fast as his legs would carry him. Off in the distance, he heard high-pitched squealing. Just then, he felt his pocket vibrate and he pulled out Risona's customized radio.

"Things went well, Base," Jackson said. "His lawyer friend's going over the stuff, and I'm still alive."

"Listen, Dove," David said, his voice tight. "There's a car full of armed and masked Hispanic men in Tigres colors heading your way. They've been circling the block for a bit, probably on recon and noticed your parked car. Given Torres's interest in outsiders poking around his rival's home, they're your ride to him."

"So you want me to get into the car with a bunch of gangsters? That right, Base?"

"I don't think they'll give you a choice, Dove," Risona said. "Don't worry, you're covered. Let them know you've been waiting. Get them curious."

Jackson put the radio away. It was then that a car whipped around the corner and accelerated towards him. It was a clunky station wagon with a beige paint job, but with an engine roaring like a rocket. The vehicle resembled a boat on wheels, cumbersome enough to be aimed rather than driven. Jackson walked towards it and stood calmly, checking a nonexistent watch on his sleeve before looking up at his soon-to-be captors who hid behind tinted windows. He waved to the driver as he pulled up. The car's rear door flew open as a man with a handkerchief over his mouth and nose stepped out.

"Get in," he muttered, touching a bulge within his sporting jacket.

"Gracias, amigo," Jackson said as he stepped into the backseat. "May I ask where I'm going?"

"You'll see, amigo," his captor said as he jumped in after him and slammed the door. "Drive."

The three others in the car did not bother even making eye contact with him. They all wore dark glasses, hoods, or bandanas to obscure their faces. They turned away whenever Jackson tried making eye contact or addressing them, but kept a hawkish vigilance out the windows. Jackson imagined they were scouts in enemy territory, sent to observe anyone leaving Guts's house and perhaps even capture them. Their car would attract less attention than others, and Jackson imagined the Tigres did not acquire it legally. Despite the guns that undoubtedly resided in the folds of their clothes, Jackson felt calm. His drive with Carver chilled him far more, as he was confident here that he was still with humans. Even a ruthless human would be preferable to a freak like him, he reasoned. He thought he noticed a familiar coat on a man picking through a dumpster behind a fast food joint. It was then that his captor gestured to the man next to him, and slipped a sack over Jackson's head.

Chapter 25: Broken Window Fallacy

Jackson did not know how long the resulting drive took, but it lasted an eternity in his mind. His skin was slippery and wet with perspiration resulting from both heat and anxiety. His brain had lost all spatial reference, having given up trying to guess where in the city he was. He had a feeling the route would have a lot of redundant turns and doubling-back to make pursuit harder, but his faith in Risona's gadgets was all he had left. The only sounds he heard were the car braking and accelerating, with the occasional muttering in Spanish. He feared the voyage would end with him in some abandoned house, tortured for information on a petty gang feud. Carver outsourced his violence, but the gangsters had no problem doing it directly.

The car stopped after Jackson heard the sounds of a garage door opening. The car ceased moving a few long moments afterwards, but he did not hear seatbelts being released and car doors opening until the garage door closed behind them. He was pulled out of the car, and he confronted the sobering possibility that this was the last place he'd visit alive. Something cold and metal against the back of his neck motivated him on. He considered slowing his cadence to irritate his captors, but received only another cold, metal muzzle against his neck for his troubles. Without a word, he continued his blind march forwards.

It was down a set of stairs that he was pressed against the wall. His captors patted him down, taking Risona's radio and his wallet before setting him down on a stool. He felt his hands pulled behind his back and handcuffs slipped on his wrists. The sack was ripped away, and his vision danced before the bright light shone directly in his eyes.

"Bienvenido," came a deep voice. "Mi casa es su casa."

As the unmistakable musty air of a basement filled his nose, he gazed upon his surroundings. The windows had been completely covered by cushions, leaving only electric lights to illuminate the place. The men who had taken him captive, or their compatriots, stood at attention along the walls. On a wooden chair lined with leather strips sat a muscular titan of a man. He wore military-style camo pants with a tank top stretched tight over his bodybuilder's chest, revealing a pair of inked tigers that extended down each arm like organic murals. Aviator glasses covered both his eyes, and a ring of black facial hair surrounded his mouth. He drank a shot, and slammed the cup upside-down on a stand next to his chair.

"Señor Torres, I presume?" Jackson asked.

"I ask the questions here, comprende?" Roberto Torres said, leaning forward menacingly.

"Si," Jackson responded with his limited Spanish vocabulary.

"First, welcome to my home, Mr. Graves," he said, looking inside at Jackson's wallet. He gestured to a gangster, who put a laptop in front of him. Torres quickly tapped on the keys, his finger-falls sounding like a machinegun. "A nice website, might I add."

"Thanks. My friend helped."

"Staying tech-savvy, eh?" Torres produced a shit-eating grin. "But that brings up another question: Why is a financial consultant talking with Guts? Some bums began asking around my hood last week, saying you wanted to meet me."

"Yes, if you'll open the briefcase," Jackson said, seeing one of the men holding it, "there's a folder labeled 'Combined Evidence,' which I wanted to give you."

Roberto Torres whistled to his underling, who took the laptop and passed him Graves' briefcase. The man rifled through it, and pulled out the folder. He placed it on his lap and moved the briefcase away. He began sorting through the papers with widened eyes.

"Muy interesante," he said. "But how'd a man like you get a hold of this?"

"Friends of mine," Jackson said. "There are powerful businesses that benefit from your feud with North Eden."

"And why would you care?"

"Because my clients are the people they stepped on."

"This makes a good case," Torres chuckled to himself as he skimmed over the papers. He grabbed an apple and a combat knife from the nearby table. He jammed the weapon into the red, sumptuous fruit before bringing a slice towards his mouth. He devoured the morsel impaled on his blade before resuming the conversation. "But tell me why I should let you live."

"Because there are far worse things here than me. I'm tracking down the Ripton Ravager because the cops can't or won't act on this evidence."

"I've heard rumors about a man like you," Torres continued. "A black man in a suit, darting through Casimir after a thing that looked like walking water."

"I'm sure there's a number of rumors you could falsely accuse me of," Jackson said. "But that evidence can assist your organization. Imagine devoting those resources you'd lose in a gang war to something more productive."

"I'm listening." Torres leaned back in his chair.

"I'm sure you can think of something," Jackson said. "As you are an imaginative man."

"Flattery." Torres pointed the knife. "You think it'll get you out of here?"

"No, but your self-interest will. I've dealt with things far worse than your men."

Torres grasped the knife in his hand and stepped forward. "What are you saying?"

He grinned from ear to ear, and Jackson recognized a diabolical predator's grin on the man's face. "Hermanos, leave us. I want some private time with this one."

The gangsters nodded, and began ascending the stairs. One of them shook his head almost empathetically. Jackson began to sweat, but maintained his composure. From the looks on their faces, they were unsure if he'd be leaving in one piece or several.

"Cute trick with the bag. Plus, scoping out enemy turf with a stolen car was clever. Guts advertises where he lives, while you've got a nice setup in the basement. Simple, but effective."

"You know where I learned it?" Torres pressed the knife tip against Jackson's throat. "From your country, at the School of the Americas."

"And that was a sound investment for your future," Jackson noted. "Now, the Ravager is a big threat to your business, perhaps greater than the police and Feds. The more killings go on, the more resources they'll pour into this city. You think operating now is bad? Just wait until they start looking into the gang war."

Torres grunted in understanding. "Point taken, but you ain't going to tell anyone what happened here."

"Gotta keep up appearances, for your job," Jackson said. "I know how that goes. Every day, I deal with walking arguments for abortion. These people had power and privilege, yet chose plundering over producing."

"Ay, tell me about it."

"Anyone asks, I'm too scared to remember what happened," Jackson suggested. "That work?"

Torres walked behind Jackson, and he felt the pressure on his wrists end. The handcuffs clattered to the floor and Jackson breathed a sigh of relief. "My car?"

"Keep your nose out of my business from now on. My men'll drop you off near your car."

Jackson stood up and stretched, then grabbed the items that had been taken from him, and sat ready. Torres whistled, calling his men back down. Jackson feigned fear and terror, shielding his face from the Tigres leader. The sack went back over his head, as he was led back up the stairs. He was put back in the backseat of the car, where he relaxed in the knowledge he was likely almost free.

As soon as the car backed out of the garage, those hopes were dashed completely. A feral snarl sounded through the car at the exact moment the shouting started. Glass shattered, and Jackson imagined fragments of the windshield flying into the front seat. The car horn suddenly sounded, and frantic cursing in Spanish filled the air. Cries of torment and anguish came from around him, as Jackson fumbled with the hood.

He yanked it off without resistance, as his captors had more immediate concerns. The two men on either side of him had drawn pistols and prepared to fire at something in front of them. Jackson saw a maelstrom of blood and broken glass. A figure in a hood had crashed in through the windshield, and was pinning their throats to the seats with hirsute palms. The medium could not see the creature's face, but golden eyes and pearly white teeth flashed under its hood. The gangsters beside him bailed out of the doors, and Jackson saw no reason not to do the same.

He threw himself out the side of the car as the beast ripped a pistol from the hands of a gangster, roaring as it tore the slide clean off the weapon. Springs and gun parts tumbled to the pavement around Jackson, and he grabbed his briefcase to shield himself as he laid prone, scooting himself away from the rampaging beast. Once he had cleared the car door, he stood and sprinted away as fast as he could. A quick glance back, and he saw a car door fly across the street. The hooded creature stared at him, and Jackson forced himself to run even faster.

By the time he felt his lungs would explode, he forced himself into a nearby alleyway. He called up David. "Base, need evac!"

"En route. Take your next left."

Jackson half-jogged towards his destination, ending up near an empty parking lot. He realized his briefcase was still in hand, something he was half-surprised he was still holding. As he caught his breath, he looked around for any signs of movement. Only cars on a distant road passed by, until a familiar green sedan rounded the bend. Jackson jumped inside, lying on the backseat floor as if to hide from the creature.

"Dove, just retrieved the car," David said. "Will drop you in safe zone."

"Enough with the codenames," Jackson muttered. "Wait till I tell you what I saw."

David was silent for the ride home, and that suited Jackson well. He kept his hand close to his pistol the whole time. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the creature again, with its golden eyes and ravenous maw. His imagination assailed him with what the full face of the creature looked like, but he was grateful it had ceased its pursuit if only temporarily. The idea that it was following him home emerged from his subconscious mind, only to be mercifully forgotten a moment later.

Chapter 26: Volatile Market

Jackson Graves was surprised he could sleep that night. Facing two ruthless gangsters and running for his life from an inhuman creature had tired him out enough to make him crash shortly after he got home. Risona had tried reassuring him he'd caught the creature on drone camera, but Jackson doubted anything useful would come from it. The ordeals he'd dealt with had not only sapped his body, but had siphoned his urge to linger on in the waking world.

The following day, the medium was awakened by a pillow to his face. The soft projectile bounced off and fell to the floor as he looked around for his almost-assailant. Liz stood before him, a mischievous grin on her face.

"It's almost the afternoon," she said. "Remember your date?"

"Not a date, just business," Jackson recalled. He was meeting Patricia in her apartment for lunch, and then visiting Dave. "Thanks."

"No problem," Liz said. "Pierce began finding it stuffy in here, and opened a few windows."

"Just keep him safe from that creature. You know where the revolver is, right? Use that."

"Why not your dad's gun?"

"Because that thing is not natural. If Dave says the revolver should work better against supernatural foes, I'll take his word for it."

"Just solve this quickly. Getting bored cooped up here."

"If I'm not safe, I might be giving you company as a ghost," Jackson said as he got changed.

The next few hours were a blur, until Jackson darted out the front door in a freshly dried shirt over his armor. He leapt into his car, and headed for Downtown. He kept his pistol in the trunk of the car, as he did not want it too far from him. He doubted the creature would attack him in a luxury building with its own security force, but realized that running was probably his best chance. If armed gangsters couldn't stop it, one man with a pistol wouldn't be much help. While building security hopefully was better prepared, Jackson made a mental note to stay away from any balconies or open windows.

Hyde Park itself was less congested than he'd thought it would be. The media and police presence had been greatly thinned out, but Jackson still noted officers dressed like sci-fi stormtroopers patrolling parts of the park. For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to live in a place where he could still discern between the military and police. He noted they remained near the more expensive real estate, close to his own destination.

Patricia's building looked like the malformed offspring of a misplaced luxury hotel and a skyscraper. One side of the building was covered in reflective black glass polished to mirror sheen, while another was lined with partially enclosed alabaster-white patios and balconies. A ramp leading down into a partly underground garage was visible from the road, and Jackson headed towards it. He wondered how Connor felt, wandering through Downtown to scavenge trash from the wealthy. After he parked, he called Patricia on his phone.

"Hey Patricia," he said. "Just got here."

"Sure, I'll be waiting at reception," she said. "See you soon."

Jackson walked into the reception, and saw Patricia dressed in a white blouse and knee-length black skirt. She fidgeted with her phone until she looked up to see her guest. "Good to see you," she said.

"Likewise. Sure you want to have lunch here? I know some good places we could go."

She shook her head. "You haven't even tried my cooking yet."

Patricia walked into a nearby elevator, and held the door as Jackson walked in. He wondered what kind of facts he'd learn about Carver, but he'd rather hear stories from Patricia than spend more time with that insufferable waste of breath. Patricia let her hair down when the doors closed, and she bounced on the balls of her feet as the car began moving upwards.

"Someone's happy," Jackson observed.

"Susan Sharp herself said I'd be promoted soon." Patricia smiled. "And she's personally meeting me for dinner here later."

"Congratulations," Jackson said, extending his hand. Patricia grasped it tightly, her wrist muscles coiling like a hungry snake. The elevator dinged to announce they were at their stop, and Jackson released his grip.

The hallway extending outwards reminded Jackson of an office building. For a moment, he hypothesized that many of the inhabitants preferred living somewhere resembling their workplace. The soulless corridor of faux marble terminated at a glass window; Jackson tried to look through to see what the view was like, but was pulled along by his eager hostess.

As he surveyed the room, he observed a snapshot of Patricia's lifestyle. He saw a rather small television set resting on a squat, angular coffee table before a single chair. A folded laptop computer with a stack of martial arts and workout DVDs rested beside it. A small bookshelf sat gathering dust in the corner, covered with finance textbooks and self-help books. A walk-in closet was tucked almost invisibly into a nearby corner. He noticed translucent plastic sheets on the furniture and surrounding floor.

"Eh, don't mind those," Patricia said. "Doing some cleaning later."

The walls themselves were Spartan in their décor and lack of ornamentation, save one of the walls near the kitchen. A variety of snakelike and curved blades hung there on wooden pegs, reminiscent of the ones hanging in her office.

"Like them?" she asked. "I had them all imported from Indonesia."

She took a karambit off the nearby wall, a small curved dagger in the shape of a half-moon with a ring for her finger. It reminded Jackson of a hawk's talons as she twirled the weapon around in her hand before setting it back. She pulled another weapon off the rack, a machete with a rounded leaf-like blade.

Patricia raised it high and grinned maniacally for a moment. Her brows raised as her eyes widened, and she slammed the blade down onto a cutting board. She chopped again, and tossed Jackson a slice of bread. "It looks scary," she said. "But it's just a tool."

"Hopefully you've got more food to eat than this."

"Have a seat," she invited him, gesturing to a small wooden table beside a large refrigerator. There were four wooden chairs clustered tightly around the round table, with dishes, cups, and cutlery already prepared for two of the opposite seats. Patricia returned with a pair of perfectly sliced sandwiches, grilled meat on whole-wheat bread with green lettuce underneath.

"Want anything to drink?"

"Water's fine," Jackson said.

Patricia brought a pitcher of water to the table, and Jackson filled his and Patricia's glasses. "Good luck on the promotion."

"Yeah, but I've got you to thank for it," Patricia said. "Sharp doesn't like Carver, but I don't know why she hasn't fired him yet."

"Some of the shareholders might like him," Jackson noted. "But I imagine she's waiting for the right moment to let him go now she's got a successor."

"Oh, I can't wait." Patricia chugged her glass. "I'll have a party on that day."

"Just make sure you have it in writing that you'll get some kind of raise or promotion. Don't let them string you along."

"Already did. But honestly, I'm really worried about Carver."

"How so?"

"He's mentioning things about my family and friends," Patricia's told him, her eyes opened wide. "Things I never told him."

"I think he's using Kraken Security to dig up dirt on people he doesn't like. My sources say he's involved in some really bad shit."

"I've heard of Kraken Security poking around odd places in old vans, even Hyde Park and Downtown. But how bad?"

Jackson shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try me."

"He convinced some cult to reorganize themselves as a shady, second-rate private military contractor," Jackson said. "And that's where Kraken came from. Now, he's trying to organize a new holding company for them."

"That's interesting," Patricia said. "My sources said he's chartered that ship for next Saturday to celebrate something."

"Know who the party guests are?"

"Yeah—Kraken Security's shareholders. Even the regular crew and catering staff have been replaced by Kraken employees for that night."

"That ship of fools wants privacy bad," Jackson noted. "Doubt anything good's going on."

"All I can do is hope for a maritime disaster."

Jackson continued eating, losing the urge for conversation after her comment. The meat was spicy and seasoned well, something he'd never tasted before. Patricia chomped at her sandwich like a crocodile, devouring large chunks. The awkward silence continued as Jackson finished his own meal.

"Look, Jackson..." Patricia extended her hand towards his wrist. "I heard Carver talking about you, too. You're on his shit list."

"Good," Jackson said. "Being on Carver's shit list is the hallmark of a good person."

"He might send his goons to dig up dirt on you. Stuff like your address, contacts, friends, family, and their private info. Anything he can use against you."

"Shit," Jackson muttered to himself. He thought for a moment about Pierce, Connor, and Dave, and Kraken guards stalking them. Perhaps that creature was one of Carver's associates. The Director barely passed for human, and Jackson wondered what other foul surprises he had up his sleeve. Dave and Connor could handle themselves, he reasoned, but Pierce would be a sitting duck at home.

"I'll gladly look after any of your friends," Patricia offered. "Anyone not Carver is okay in my book."

"Aren't you worried about yourself?" he asked. "That deadbolt on your door isn't very thick."

"No, but this place has some of the best security money can buy," she smirking confidently. "Not cheap hacks like Kraken. I'll tell them you're welcome to come by whenever you want."

"Very considerate of you," he said. Jackson checked his watch, and pivoted his legs to stand up. "Oh, and Patricia?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you."

"Y-you're welcome." She smiled warmly, her face flushing red. "Any time, Jackson."

"I've got another meeting, but let's do this again sometime," he said. "Good meal."

"Thanks."

That was the last thing Jackson heard as he left Patricia's room. He had another appointment to keep, and he had another reason to worry about Pierce.

Chapter 27: Contractor Downsizing

Thunder rumbled across the graying sky as the medium drove home. Risona's sedan was parked outside, and he caught the drone hovering above the house. David was providing a much-valued set of eyes in the sky, hopefully giving them warning of the creature. Liz waited for him in the doorway, her arm leaning through a nearby wall.

"I've seen one strange creature," Liz said. "And he's right there."

The eternal teenager pointed to David, hunched over a laptop at the kitchen table.

"Other than that one?"

"Nothing," Liz shook her head. "I counted fewer strays and pigeons than yesterday, if that's anything."

"And Pierce?"

"No puking since you talked with him," Liz said. "That's why you should be more direct."

Sounds of videogames came from the basement, indicating Pierce was home safe. For a moment, Jackson considered installing a burglar alarm or bars on the basement windows, hopefully forcing the creature to take a longer path to reach his brother. He recalled how easily the beast had ripped apart the car, and decided against it.

"Ah, just in time," David said, turning around. "Thank your friend for the tip, by the way."

"Huh?"

"You don't think I'd let you go alone into a strange room without backup, do you?" David said. "No one's above suspicion. Anyway, the drone got the whole thing."

Jackson repressed the urge to shout at Risona. "How?"

"Laser microphone," David grinned. "Just like my sniper rifle has."

Jackson did not care how the invention worked or what else Dave had been using it for, but he had to keep his fury down better than his brother used to keep food down. His teeth clenched as he continued listening.

"So, I've been doing some recon of Carver's place," David continued, and turned his laptop screen around, showing an overhead view. Jackson recognized the place, a manor in Blue Rock Valley. It was right in the heart of the wealthiest suburb of the city, just north of the city limits. The mansion itself stood at the top of a hill, a Victorian manor surrounded by a sea of McMansions. Sleek sports cars were visible in the garage, openly displayed like an athlete's trophies. With a wrap-around veranda and stone towers, Jackson could not help but think of a haunted house. A well-maintained landscape circled the house like a belt.

"Have a look here."

Risona tapped on a structure in the backyard, where a smaller guest house and servant's quarters were visible. They were prefabricated sheds hastily welded together, worlds apart from the garish display of wealth just a hundred yards away. Within two of the opened sheds, he noted a wood chipper and pile of mulch.

"The servants and guards are all Kraken employees," Risona explained. "Your man refuses to hire anything but them. It's more expensive than regular servants, but he's got plenty of money to burn."

"That all you found out?"

"No." David's face went white. "It gets worse."

He started playing a video file, revealing a black and white camera view of the front door. A small convoy of vehicles pulled up the driveway, including sedans and unmarked utility vans. Carver's gas-guzzling Hummer limo pulled up to the front door after them, and a suited Kraken sentry opened the door for him. Instead of the Director's hammy leg, a woman's high heel and bare leg emerged from the backseat. Two women, each with clothing stretched too tight and over-applied makeup, escorted the corpulent man into the front door as his employees looked on. Carver produced a strange curved dagger from his pocket and slipped it back as he walked inside. A few minutes after they went inside, one of the upstairs lights went off.

"It gets worse," Risona said. "Let's jump ahead a day."

The video feed shifted towards the sheds in the backyard. A Kraken guard walked outside with a bundle of wood and burlap sacks. Two others stood by the wood chipper, which was positioned in front of the mulch pile. The guard stumbled under the weight of his burden, rolling his ankle forwards and nearly dropping his load. David froze the frame and pointed to an opening at the top of the bag.

Jackson inhaled sharply as his jaw dropped. He caught Liz's face wrinkling in disgust. The medium's heart rate rose as he brought his arms up to cover his mouth. David's gaze notably moved away as he left the cursor over part of the screen. Nausea welled up within Jackson's stomach as he processed what he saw, and a chill coursed down his spine like cold lightning. He realized that even dealing with ghosts would not prepare him for some sights. A slender hand had flopped out of the bag, each finger terminating in polished nails. David closed the video, and looked at his friend.

"I recorded the audio for all of that, too," he said. "And I'm doing you a favor by not playing it."

"Don't."

Jackson said nothing else for a long time, ruminating on the horrors he had witnessed. His imagination conjured horrifying scenarios of what had transpired at 77 Emerson Way, and all the ghosts that might've been murdered a second time. Carver and Kraken were more appalling animals than he had envisioned at first. David remained silent for several minutes before continuing.

"That's not the worst of it," he said. "But this is the kind of person out for you."

"He's not a person," Jackson replied. "Pretty sure of that."

"Sadly, my cop and government contacts keep getting told they can't go after him," David said mournfully. "Adrian confirmed this is all legally inadmissible, and could even be written off as digital effects. That's before accounting for this sick fuck's powerful connections. "

"Connections that he's just about cut," Jackson said. "Snow's losing patience with him."

"Yes, but he seems ready to strike out on his own. Imagine him as the CEO of Kraken's new holding company. My contacts say they've already got some big contracts lined up, and they're going to hire lobbyists."

"Shit, then they'll be unstoppable." Jackson shivered. "I'm thinking we should crash their party."

"And do what?"

"Cut the head off the squid," Jackson said. "He's expecting never to answer for his crimes."

David smiled, and his eyebrows furled into a deranged parody of mirth. He let out a low-pitched laugh while thunder crashed outside. Jackson would have been intimidated if he didn't know the mad scientist so well. He could only hope one of his inventions would finish off Carver, but questions still ran through his mind.

"Hey, anything on the creature?" Jackson recalled.

"Oh, almost forgot," David said. He opened another video file on his computer, and Jackson was treated to an aerial view of a scene he had experienced in visceral and abject terror. He saw himself lying on the ground while the hooded creature forced itself through the windshield. Jackson recalled himself fumbling and flailing helplessly as the beast thrashed around. Risona paused the scene and pointed to the monster.

"I talked with Thaddeus, and he thinks it's a shapeshifter," David said, and pointed at the screen. "See how the clothes aren't torn? Either those are part of it, or it's able to pass as human at least sometimes. Perhaps it even changes its clothing after it transforms."

"But did you get any footage of it transforming?"

"No, it approached from a blind spot, and I was focusing on you."

"What happened after I ran?" Jackson asked.

Risona hit the 'play' button, and Jackson watched himself dart off. The creature's head turned as he rushed down the block, and it pulled itself from the car. One of the Tigres managed to make it out of the car, but the creature ripped the door clean off and kicked the gangster flat on his back. The monster ran into the backyard of a nearby house, and vanished behind a fence.

"That's the strange thing," David noted. "It clearly notices you leaving, it has the gang at its mercy, and it just runs off."

"What about the Tigres?"

"They were admitted to the local hospital for bruises and minor lacerations," David said, closing the video. "Battered, but nothing critical. Cops came by and thought it was a car accident."

"Any sign of the beast after this?"

"Negative." David shook his head. "I stopped looking after you called."

"Which I am grateful for. But I've got another favor to ask."

"Yeah?"

"Since both this creature and Carver's mercs are still out there," Jackson said, "I was wondering if you'd mind moving in and watching Pierce for me."

"No problem. But I've got…research to prepare for next weekend. I'll swing by Tuesday morning."

"Works for me." Jackson turned to see an impatient Liz crossing her arms. "Oh, there's another housemate I should introduce."

Liz's translucent skin began to drain of color. Her lips formed into a pout, as if to protest letting Risona know about her existence.

"Her name's Liz Townes, and she used to live next door." Jackson pulled up her picture on his phone. "She's been my helpful assistant and business partner."

"Oh, should've figured you'd have a ghostly associate," Risona laughed, rolling his eyes. "But I'm Dr. David Risona. Pleased to meet you, if you are here."

"Why not let him know you're here?" Jackson asked.

Liz grabbed a pencil from the table, and it hovered several inches in the air. Risona stood transfixed by it, until the eraser pressed the power button on his laptop.

"She's seen your place, and didn't like what she saw," Jackson said. "So, mind not trashing the place?"

"Telekinesis!" Risona's eyes opened wide, and his chimp-like ears flushed red. "A spirit able to interact with the material world! I've got so many experiments I've wanted to run, and now I'm finally able to."

Liz stared at the ground.

"She's not going to consent to your research at this rate," Jackson said.

Liz smiled approvingly at him. "Only if we talk."

"She says she'd want to talk with you directly, first," Jackson said. "Luckily, the radio's working, if you want to use it."

Dave ran into Jackson's office and activated the radio. Liz shrugged and walked in after him.

"Just be polite, Liz," Jackson said. "He's not as bad as you might think."

"I'll take your word for it. But I'm going to be quiet for a few minutes, just to watch him squirm."

"Go right ahead," Jackson said, grinning. "Just don't freak him out too much."

"I won't," Liz said, her deep blue eyes looked innocently up towards the ceiling, before a impish smirk appeared on her face. She walked into the office and closed the door behind her.

Jackson momentarily looked out the front window. The feeling that he was being watched was never far from the forefront of his mind. Dave, Liz, Pierce, Carver, and the creature all had watched or spied on him to different degrees. He wondered if other supernatural forces stirred out there, ready to rise from the shadows. He just hoped the Ravager would not catch him off guard. Whatever was out there was not only a threat to him and his business, but to Pierce and his future. That was why he stayed vigilant.

Chapter 28: Personnel Restructuring

On Sunday, Jackson had the idea of asking Connor about the missing women. He imagined if anyone could direct him towards two missing women, the former Green Beret could, and resolved to ask him the next day. The Dead Frequency had no signs of departed spirits, and he knew Liz savored the brief break in questioning until the mad scientist moved in. Pierce remained in the basement, ignorant of the madness occurring upstairs. Jackson envied that about his brother, but reminded himself that someday that would end.

Monday morning came in its traditional manner, a nail-covered baseball bat to the face that tore him from the embrace of a warm bed. He readied himself for another week, realizing he had preparations to make before Saturday. The stress was pushed out of his mind as he went about his routine, but it remained churning in the bottom of his stomach.

The roads that morning seemed less busy than normal, but every moment he lingered at a red light made him consider the horrors that occurred in Carver's house. The closer he came towards the financial district, the greater the nausea became. Deep within his mind, he could not help but feel that something was amiss. Curious if the Ravager had struck again, he turned on the radio. After a painfully long commercial break, he turned it off with his gut still uneasy. He almost felt like rolling down the window and vomiting.

When he arrived at his meeting place, he immediately sensed something was amiss. He looked towards the parking garage, but did not see Connor. He briskly walked towards the nearby dumpsters, but saw no sign of his associate. As he began to perspire slightly, he heard the throaty thrumming of a powerful engine behind him. He heard the sound of a power window being lowered as someone called out to him.

"Hello, Milton," came Carver's mocking voice behind him. "Missing someone?"

He turned to see Carver sticking his rotund head out of his window. Jackson had to muster every bit of willpower he could to resist punching the bankster in the face. He glowered at the freak, and started walking towards his car. He would not give the psychotic maniac the pleasure of stealing his valuable time from him.

"I had a productive weekend, how about you?" Carver taunted. "Say, you know that bitch Sharp didn't show up in work today? I wonder if they'll find her."

Jackson stopped for a moment, and turned around.

"And your favorite bum's left you, too," Carver sneered down at him. "You're just a fly near a cow's ass, unable to get a real job or be part of something greater."

Jackson forced himself not to respond.

"Soon, I won't have to worry about this drama with Snow. But I wonder who will be next: Patty-cakes, the crank scientist, or maybe that slacker brother of yours. Pierce, right?"

The medium could take it no longer. His temper reached critical mass, and exploded. "If something happens to him, by God, I will—"

"Oh, you're threatening me?" Carver feigned indignation. "Maybe I should call the cops and press charges, boy."

Jackson walked away, while Carver laughed behind him. He heard the window roll up, and the bloated luxury vehicle drive away. It could not vanish fast enough, as its occupant triggered loathing within the consultant that made him want to convert all of his unease into pure, unrestrained fury. Jackson recalled he had his pistol locked in the car and body armor under his shirt, but it would not protect Pierce. He cursed himself for not taking more precautions, like throwing more layers of security on his house or having Dave make more body armor.

It was then that Jackson decided on his course of action. Carver had directly threatened Pierce. Whatever he was up to on Saturday night, the medium was going to crash it. Dave undoubtedly had an arsenal of gadgets and weapons he was preparing. He knew he was about to go well over what passed for the law in the wretched city, but Carver and his minions played by a different set of rules. Just as the living and dead were separated, so too was there a division between that abomination and humanity. Jackson would be glad to shove Carver back down whatever foul hole had puked him up. Whatever was going down Saturday would put Carver out of business for good. Creatures like him thrived in Port Ripton, which was less a corrupt city and more Hell's own sphincter.

He began thinking of the logistics of the undertaking. No doubt David was working on most of it, but he still needed somewhere to keep Pierce. He quickly ruled out his house or Dave's place, since those would be the easiest places to reach. He doubted his enemy would have much interest in Liz, and he would instruct her to flee if she saw anything. He then realized that Patricia's apartment would be the most appropriate. It had security independent of Kraken's, and Patricia herself was trained with an extensive collection of cutlery. While he instinctually disliked putting all his eggs in one basket, it would allow him to operate better knowing Pierce was somewhere safe. He immediately called Patricia and asked if Pierce could spend Saturday night with her.

"Sure thing," Patricia said. "Just watch out for Carver."

"He just told me CEO Sharp has gone missing along, with my contact," Jackson added. "And he mentioned you might be next."

"Oh, God," Patricia gasped. It took almost a half-minute before she regained her composure. "Thanks for letting me know, though."

"Just stay safe. I'm having some suspicions about the Ravager."

"As am I," Patricia said. "Listen, you stay safe, too."

He hung up the phone, and continued about his day. He alternated between periods of busied attentiveness and abject tension, fearing that every movement could be his last. Pierce was spending the day on campus helping Dave, so he was confident in his brother's short-term well-being. Jackson decided to visit Thaddeus the following day, to see if there was any mystical or supernatural assistance that he could provide. If Carver was the ghost-hunter, the desperate course that Jackson had decided on would be good for the supernatural side of his own business. He momentarily consider that perhaps the path leading to becoming Carver was easier than he first thought.

The thought was short-lived as Jackson arrived home. Pierce had not come home yet, but Liz was waiting in the front door for him. The teenage spirit impatiently tapped her foot, and Jackson realized she was more excited than she had been before.

"Hey, Liz," he said, trying to remain calm. "What's up?"

"Well, I found out why I've been counting less strays," Liz said nonchalantly. "Interested to know?"

"Not really," Jackson said as he pulled the door closed behind him. "Why do you ask?"

"Because something's been eating them," she said. "Something hairy and hooded."

"Shit, the monster. Where'd you see it?"

"The better question is, where didn't I see the damn thing? It's been hiding in several of the neighbor's yards, darting around when someone checks nearby."

"Holy fuck," Jackson murmured, as if something was listening in. "When did it show up?"

"This afternoon, after Pierce left," she said. "It's like it's been waiting for something."

"Is Dave's drone around?"

"No, but I wish it was, for once. He says he had to modify it for Saturday."

"Shit, then it might've known we'd lost our eyes in the sky," Jackson said. He recalled that even he could occasionally hear the machine's buzzing sound. A creature with preternatural senses, like ultra-sensitive hearing, might be able to hear it all the time. "But was it just roving around at random?"

"I thought that at first. But it keeps watching this direction."

"Where'd you last see it?"

"Next door," she gestured with her thumb. "Behind my old house."

The conversation stopped at the exact moment that Jackson thought he had heard something. He heard the faintest sound after Liz's pause, only realizing it was the nearby creaking of an opened window when it ceased. He immediately ceased talking, and pointed down the nearby hallway beyond the front door. Liz saluted him silently, and tiptoed through the wall, as if the creature could hear her. Jackson's heart rate jumped and adrenaline surged when he realized he was no longer alone in the house. He would have shouted at Pierce about leaving windows open, but it would do him no good now.

For a long and tense three seconds, Jackson leaned against the wall, expecting the corner to round the beast and eviscerate him. His gut told him this was no ordinary burglar, and he half-expected the ghost-hunter had come in person to finish him off. He remembered the Kraken guards who had emptied clips at it and not killed it off, assuming it could be killed. He recalled that he'd left his father's weapon in the car, but there was still the slim chance the revolver might work.

Liz's translucent head emerged from the nearby wall, almost sending Jackson into cardiac arrest. He had thought he might not see her again, if it truly was the ghost hunter after him. Instead, her lips moved silently, as if to say the beast was here. While it confirmed what Jackson had already known, he responded with a gesture of his own. He pointed his finger like an imaginary gun, and made a mock shooting gesture. He pointed to the office with his other hand, where the weapon had been stored. Liz replied with a thumbs-up before vanishing into the office door.

Jackson knew he had to give Liz a clear line of fire. That meant he had to open the door to whatever room it was hiding within. Jackson heard heavy footfalls upon the distant floor, with breaths like the roar of a waterfall. Instinct and memory pointed him towards his little brother's room, as he thanked his lucky stars that Pierce was still out. He felt through his wallet for the key to Pierce's bedroom, and held it in his hand. It was time to see if the creature could be killed. If he was lucky, he'd survive it. If he was extremely lucky, it wouldn't devour his soul.

The consultant carefully walked down the hallway, moving on the balls of his feet. He stopped before Pierce's door and pressed his ear to it. He heard heavy breathing like exaggerated canine panting, and a restless gait as it moved around the floor. A quick look back showed the pistol's muzzle emerging from the office door. With great apprehension, Jackson unlocked Pierce's and slowly turned the knob.

The door flew open as the creature used its thick arms to complete the motion. Taken back in shock, Jackson stumbled to his rear. He leaned helplessly against the opposite wall as he took in the entirety of the creature before him. Its feet were hairy, bulging flesh almost bursting from the old sneakers they had been crammed into. The legs were likewise pillars of solid muscle and flesh, stretching a pair of elastic sweatpants to their very limits. The chest and arms of the creature were concealed under a dark gray hooded sweater, easily mistaken for black or even dark blue. It hands were extended beyond human dimensions, but still had four digits and a thumb. Instead of nails, each fur-covered finger terminated in an elongated claw.

Jackson beheld the lower body only briefly, for what truly captured his attention was the face. The creature's hood had fallen as it flung opened the door, revealing its concealed features for the first time. Its hirsute face had fur emerging from almost every pore or follicle on its skin, like a mountain man who had completely forsaken shaving. The only areas of bare skin were a small patch beneath each eye, parts of its ears, and a small ring around the mouth exposing crimson lips. Its teeth were a matched, yellowed set of daggers on both the upper and lower jaws, with a slight overbite near the front teeth. The dominant feature of the monster's face was the pair of golden eyes that dominated the center of its skull. They beamed directly at Jackson like a pair of spotlights. The creature's fundamental head was not unlike a human, save for its hairy coating and distorted features. He immediately knew why the creature wore a hood, as it assisted in blending in.

A split second later, Jackson heard a sound blast through the hallway. It was louder than a cap gun but quieter than firecrackers, rather than the massive tongue of fire and thunder he had been expecting. Liz cocked the hammer back as she tried lining up another shot. The creature howled in pain and grasped its shoulder, retreating back into the room. Its features began to contort and flesh began to shift, as if it was being boiled alive. Its hair began to retreat back into its skin, and its muscles withered away into nothing. Liz aimed the weapon and began to squeeze the trigger, but Jackson raised his hand in protest. He stood up, took the pistol from Liz, and walked into his little brother's room. The monster's face twisted and contorted as it wailed in agony, an inhuman sob of pain. Jackson could see almost human features reforming in their wake. Whatever was going on within it was a pain Jackson was glad he wasn't experiencing himself. The creature lay on its back, softly moaning to itself.

"Guess the revolver worked," Jackson said. He knelt down, keeping the antique weapon trained on the creature. "Now let's see who you are."

Using his foot, he turned the creature over. He stared down into the face of the shapeshifter, and almost dropped his weapon. The wounded man clutched his shoulder.

"Wait, Connor?" He stepped back. "W-what are you?"

"I'm a goddam werewolf," Connor said. "Never seen one before?"

Jackson stood for a moment, unsure of what he was seeing.

Chapter 29: Merger

The medium stepped away as he kept the weapon pointed towards the wounded man.

"Start explaining why you've been stalking me, or the next one's in your head," he warned.

"You got me with silver, right?" Connor said. "Get me to your bathroom and get a first-aid kit, and I'll explain everything."

"You better," Jackson said. "Liz, grab the kit under the bathroom sink."

The medium dragged the wounded man by the arms towards the bathroom. He saw Connor's eyes shift towards the medical kit in Liz's hands, but realized that the intruder likely could not see her. Jackson dragged him onto the bathroom's tiled floor, but stopped just short of the bathtub. He grasped the red plastic box in one hand and the revolver in the other. Connor looked up, his wide eyes somewhere between fear and confusion.

"Now, why shouldn't I shoot you again?" Jackson asked. "Why were you in my little brother's room? Why did you turn into that thing?"

"That was your brother's room?" Connor muttered. "Shit. Sorry about that."

"He could transform again, Jackson," Liz protested. "Blast him!"

Jackson raised his hand to her. "Let him talk. If this was anyone else, I'd shoot."

"Who are you talking to?" Connor asked.

"I'm asking the questions here," Jackson replied as he motioned with the gun barrel. "Now answer them."

"Okay," Connor said. "Can I at least have some tweezers? Being shot is always a bitch."

"Answers first, and I'll also throw in some disinfectant. Now talk."

"Fine, you're my friend, and you start asking about all these gangsters and mercenaries and psychos," Connor explained. "I think you were investigating them, but you were out of your league."

"I'll be the one to decide that. But continue."

"Remember when you charged those Kraken goons with guns on you in Hyde Park? I was watching while transformed. I had wondered what the hell had gotten into you. I listened from your yard. I know it's scummy, but I had my reasons. If you died, a whole lot of homeless people would to lose the only one to support 'em. You think I keep all that money you give me?"

"I assumed you barely got by on it. But continue."

"Kynes and I were bitten during our Green Beret days, something that sent us into a coma and got us discharged. When we woke up, we were changed. No real chances for work, so we ended up on the street. We used our skills to help the homeless we met as best we could. Not sure how it works," Connor said, shrugging. "But I had a tougher body and sharper senses. Hell, I don't even need to buy food anymore."

"I had hoped you were joking about eating strays," Jackson said, shaking his head. "But go on."

"Kraken was hunting down homeless in the park, including my old friend Sgt. Kynes," Connor explained. He groaned in pain. "They drove off some and took the others to this creepy mansion in Blue Rock Valley."

Jackson recalled Carver's address. "The one at 77 Emerson Way?"

"Yeah, how'd you know?"

"That's where Dick Carver lives," Jackson said, handing Connor a set of tweezers and disinfectant. "The guy who runs Kraken."

"Yeah, that fucker," Connor said. He pulled pellets out of his shoulder, groaning as he did so. "Kynes said whoever went in, didn't come out."

"What happened then?"

"I realized you had contacts in that company, a view from the belly of the beast. So I tried to help you, and keep you from getting yourself killed."

"Did you kill the Kraken guards?"

"Yeah, because they were out looking for more victims. They kicked us old and ugly people out of the park, but forced younger people into cars and utility vans. I didn't tell you that because I didn't want you end up in one of them."

"Then why knock over my training partner?" Jackson asked. "Can you control your form?"

"I wanted to know what was going on in Byfield, so I followed you there. That guy had the dumb idea to jump in front of me as I was sprinting. As far as the form goes, I can change at will and control it, thanks to memories of earlier hosts."

"And the Tigres?"

"I was listening into that conversation in the basement, and stopped when I heard Torres decide to isolate you," Connor recalled. "I panicked, and came up with a plan to rescue you. I figured Torres had let you go so his men would finish you off elsewhere."

"I believe I struck a deal with him. And I noticed you restrained yourself against them."

"Yeah, it's better to make a scene than make corpses." Connor grit his teeth as he pulled another pellet from his shoulder and dropped it on the floor. "But I'll make a few exceptions to that rule."

"Like Kraken."

"Exactly," Connor flashed a predator's grin. "After we tossed the goons in the river, they stopped operating in the park, but started going outside town for more victims."

"Is that why Kynes died in Weston?"

"Yeah. He tried attacking them head on, but there were too many to handle. We're tough, but not invincible. Enough lead kills us, but a whole lot's needed."

"Why'd you come inside today?" Jackson asked.

"Because I didn't hear the flying robot thing. I didn't know what it was at first, until I saw it land. Once it was gone, I wanted to see if there were any other gadgets you had. I wanted to listen in to see if you'd let any more information out."

"Why come transformed?"

"Because the werewolf form's faster and sneakier than a vagrant in some places. Your development doesn't have many homeless, but it does have lots of hiding places."

"And why should I believe you?"

"Because you're still alive," Connor raised his hands. "Look, Jackson, I think of you as a friend and more than an ATM. You've helped a lot of people you've never met. You might talk all business and stuff, but you've got a soul. You always care about who dies in the gutter."

"You think flattery will help?"

"No, I don't," Connor shook his head. "Silver rips me right back to human shape, and doesn't heal. Enough of it, and I'll probably drop dead. You could blow me away now, but you're not a psycho like Carver. I know I've made some rash decisions, and you've established a clear reason not to repeat them."

"Point taken." Jackson kept the pistol at Connor, hesitating for a moment. "But I want to make something clear. If you had just walked up to the front door or even asked me, I would've told you everything."

He handed the complete first aid kit to Connor, and put the pistol in his pocket. The homeless veteran could have easily reached out to strangle Jackson, but instead dressed his wound with a bandage. "Thanks, Jackson. You've done a lot more for me and a whole lot of homeless people you never met. You're always worried about who dies alone. You've faced things that give me the creeps, all without my training or abilities. You've shown me mercy when you had every reason to blow me away. I can't repay your generosity, but I want to ask you something for my own curiosity."

"Yes?" Jackson said. "Your negotiating position is not very strong now."

"Yeah, but I'm just curious. "How do you make things hover? And who the hell are you always talking to?"

"I'm actually a medium in my free time," Jackson replied. "And I'm mostly addressing my ghostly assistant, Liz."

"Eh, I've heard stranger," Connor shrugged. "But I've got no way of knowing."

"Now, back to business. Carver's up to something big this Saturday. They've rented out a whole boat, full of nothing but Kraken mercenaries and bigwigs. Carver's leading some kind of event there."

"And you want it crashed?"

"Already planning on it. I could use your help."

"Hell yeah." Connor nodded with a fire in his eyes. "Just give me a few days to rest up, and I'll be good as new."

"I'm not quite sure what they're up to, but I'll talk with my occult expert tomorrow," Jackson said. "In the meantime, clean yourself up. My friend Dave's going to cream himself when he gets the chance to meet a real werewolf."

Connor nodded in agreement as he tightened the bandage around his shoulder. Jackson looked on the floor, noting all of the blood-caked pellets on the tiles. He would have to clean them up before Pierce got home. Liz waited nearby, making mock shooting gestures with her fingers. As Connor put his hoodie back on, he headed for the front door.

"You can stay here tonight if you want," Jackson offered. "I've got a guest room, and I can give you some real food."

"Thanks, but I've got to help some people tonight," Connor said. "I've made enough of a mess in your place."

"Come back tomorrow at noon. Dave'll be here, and we'll plan."

"No prob," Connor said, nodding in agreement. "Oh, and thanks again for not shooting me when you had every right to."

"Just don't do it again."

The homeless man left without a further word. As the door closed, Liz crossed her arms and let out a sigh of relief. "So once again, one of your weird friends has been up to things behind your back."

"The important thing is that no one's died," Jackson said. "Just imagine unleashing Connor and Dave on those Kraken creeps."

"Too bad I'll be here," Liz said with a roll of her eyes. "But at least we know the gun works."

Jackson handed the revolver to Liz, who caressed the cooling barrel with her ectoplasmic hands. He wasn't sure whether to be concerned or glad that no neighbors called the cops, but imagined the gunshot wasn't loud enough to register beyond his house. Whatever sounds Connor had made had been likewise muffled in the bathroom, Jackson thought as he scrubbed the blood off the tiles. He made an attempt to remove all elements of the struggle from Pierce's room, too, but it was too difficult, and he began to reconcile himself to the fact that Pierce might find a few ratshot pellets in the end. He gave up on it by the time his little brother arrived home, blissfully ignorant of what had transpired just a few hours before.

The next morning, Jackson made his trip to the Witching Hour in Byfield. Dave was getting settled at his home, and the medium wanted to updated Thaddeus Crowe on everything that had transpired.

The clerk manned his musty shop like a lonely soldier guarding a frontier outpost. He looked up from his book when the consultant walked through the front door.

"Hello, how can I help you today?" Thaddeus asked. "Any updates?"

Jackson informed him of what had transpired since his last visit. As he detailed the strange twists and turns, the store owner stood with his hand on his chin. Jackson had brought several pictures from Risona's drone as evidence. He concluded with the previous day's occurrences, and his concerns over Carver's weekend plans. "So, any ideas about what he's up to?"

"Interesting that you saw him with this type of knife," Thaddeus said, pointing to Carver with the curved dagger. "A traditional New England sacrificial blade, the type used by the Church of the Eldest Depths."

"So, it's enchanted?" Jackson asked. "Could it be what he's killing ghosts with?"

"Not sure, but he's probably using it to kill his mortal victims with," Crowe noted. "It's not merely the weapon that matters, but the use in blood sacrifice."

"So he's going to murder more people this weekend?"

"Perhaps, but there are a number of stars aligning and a full moon." Crowe thumbed through a stack of faded papers and pulled out a star chart for the month, which he pored over before speaking again. "I believe these killings are the prelude to a ritual, which involves the rest of Kraken Security."

"Yeah, but what kind? Why would Carver have waited for this ritual?"

"Blood offerings are typically used to conclude long rituals," Thaddeus explained. "Maybe there have been other sacrifices, of a different nature."

"Like what?"

"Carver's position in Snow Financial allowed him access to plenty of sacrifices over the years, both humans and business to consume. Their remains would be the metaphysical and financial foundation for his grand scheme."

"Yeah, but what kind of ritual is it?"

"I believe a summoning or binding ritual, from what you've described before. Remember the Kraken?"

"Yeah, but a being like that can't exist," Jackson said. "Unless they're trying to summon it. But is this all really about conjuring a giant squid?"

"Don't think so literally," Thaddeus said. "Remember the Kraken's traits? It's immortal, inhuman, and unstoppable."

"And why would Carver have any interest in invoking something like that?"

"Just because something is beyond an individual does not mean it cannot be controlled. Carver seeks absolute control of Kraken Security, correct?"

"Yeah, that's why he wants to be the CEO of the holding company. He'd become the brain of the Kraken."

"Now, imagine if the arcane connections binding the Kraken mercenaries was expanded upon. Every member of the corporation would act in accordance with Carver's will. Many bodies, but one mind. Carver turns from an unpleasant individual to an inhuman apex predator."

"Oh, God. He'd be a sentient corporation!"

"Exactly." Thaddeus grinned, pleased with himself. "He'd become a modern Kraken, a corporate god able to subjugate all before it."

It took Jackson a moment to realize what Thaddeus meant. Carver had done the modern version of blood sacrifice for years, likely one reason he had stuck with Snow Financial. The corporations he had gutted and the victims he had slain were both offerings necessarily for his endeavor. He was going to build an avatar of power, a real Kraken, using the new corporation and its assets. Unlike a conventional corporation, Carver's awareness would consume the souls of all of his employees. He would be the spider in the center of his web, an ever-hungry manifestation of Mammon. With blood money and blood magic, Carver would become the god he was building.

The fictional Kraken could not exist in reality, but a corporation could. It would have the resources to expand its mundane and supernatural tendrils in all directions, dominating its competition in any market. The mega-corporation was the top predator of Jackson's reality, and Carver was evolving it to a whole new level. For several minutes, he stood in the abject terror of what would be occurring. He left Thaddeus's shop murmuring to himself, before hardening his mind onto decisive action. Carver had to be stopped, before his deranged plan could be taken any further.

Chapter 30: Starlight Slaughter

Jackson Graves had envisioned a number of scenarios ending with him in the trunk of Risona's car, but had never considered the possibility of getting in there willingly. For a subjective eternity, he had lain still within the trunk of a robot car that the mad scientist had changed the license plates on. They had departed from his makerspace in Byfield, heading towards Port Ripton's docks. The vehicle would jerk to a stop seemingly at random, but Risona would radio him and tell him they had been hit a red light or traffic jam. At times, it was almost as disquieting as his ride with the Tigres, but the fear of immediate death was mostly reduced.

The medium had never suffered from claustrophobia, but understood why it was intimidating. He was clad in a black outfit with Risona's body armor underneath, equipped with a suppressed pistol similar to Kraken's model, his encrypted radio, and his bokken tucked in his belt. He felt more like a ninja than a businessman, but was grateful to be covered by the viscous armor. The small comfort that Pierce was safe with Patricia did little to alleviate his frustrations with the foul, stuffy air. It was nowhere near as suffocating as he had first imagined it would be, but he could not help wishing David had included better ventilation in the design. Of all the considerations on his mind, David had informed him not to worry about reinforcements or police intervention, something about Kraken running a live-fire security exercise. Kraken Security would use it as an excuse to gun down any intruders in private, but it would be turned against them soon.

"Bird on perch," David said over the radio, using his codename. "Dog's ready to mark his turf. Ready to get out of the bag, Cat?"

"Yeah, whatever, Bird," Jackson said. "I remember the plan."

"Plans don't survive contact with the enemy." Connor said. "But Dog's ready."

"Remember, Cat, get the Rat," David said. "We'll handle the rest."

Jackson fumbled around in the dark momentarily, until his gloved hand fell upon the escape latch for the trunk. He pulled it, and readied his gun. For a second, he wondered what his father and mother would think, with their son attempting the assassination of an inhuman executive. He had never relished the thought of killing, but he had long ago decided Pierce's safety was worth killing for. The Kraken mercenaries were no longer human, as their bodies had been reduced to soulless meat-puppets. Pierce probably now sat in Patricia's apartment, blissfully ignorant of why Jackson had insisted on doing emergency cleaning with Dave. As he stepped out of the car, he lay prone behind the car tire to survey the scene with his pistol drawn. Now, he only had to reach his target.

The only exposed part of his body was a sliver of skin between his nose and forehead, above which rested his sunglasses. He lowered them as he surveyed the dock. Between the realms of the living and dead, even the night sky took on upon a seemingly darker appearance. The electric lights along the wharf were muted and drained, as if the blackness had swallowed them whole. The dim lights of stars flickered overhead, but did not quite match the ones Jackson had noticed moments prior. For a moment, he wondered if stars could leave ghosts, creating a cosmic cemetery illuminated by the pale light of revenant suns.

The movement of a pair of guards shifted his attention back down to Earth. The captured warship sat captured in its dock like a beached whale, a naval vessel lined with the deep green auras of its Kraken parasites. Their auras seemed darker and more potent than he last remembered seeing them, as if their binding magic was more intense. Work on the deck was clearly visible, as a deck gun had been removed for a swimming pool. The vessel was in no condition to sail, but was certainly protected well, and Jackson knew he could not infiltrate undetected. A set of floodlights illuminated both sides of the ship from nearby piers, preventing any intruders from climbing up the sides or gangplanks. Shipping containers were piled like giant fences along the boundaries of the wharf, preventing sailors and stevedores from stumbling onto Carver's pet project. Somewhere amongst the cargo containers were his allies, ready to cause a distraction. Jackson hoped he would not have to use his weapon, as he lacked both Connor's training and David's technology. But if anything stood in his way, he reassured himself he'd shoot it first and regret it later.

"Cat's out of the bag," he said. He raised his sunglasses from his eyes, and mentally planned his movements. "Ready."

Almost on cue, half of the dock went dark. The port side of the vessel was likewise covered in darkness, and Jackson saw a pair of golden orbs flash atop a distant container. He almost pitied the Kraken guards that Connor eviscerated with a single swipe of his claws. As he lowered his sunglasses again and moved towards the darkened half of the dock, he saw some men on the well-lit side fall to Risona's suppressed sniper rounds. A few wisps of red atop a nearby crate were the only signs of the mad scientist's existence in the spectral realm.

"Bird's got starboard, Dog's got port," Risona said. "Cat's call on which."

Jackson saw the green auras scurrying like panicked ants under a magnifying glass. He did not need night vision when he could see the auras of his blind and almost helpless prey. A Kraken guard ran towards the light, only to wander directly into the sights of his pistol. Two brass cases jingled across the ground as the suppressed weapon's slide shifted. The green aura left the man before the body even hit the ground. Pity turned into hatred as Jackson ran on.

He was not sure where the first weapon discharged, but the explosion of a point-blank rifle shot temporarily illuminated the area like an insane strobe light. The wolf-man's claws ripped across a guard's throat, turning the pavement crimson. Jackson noticed a guard struggling to aim his carbine at the threat, and blasted him from behind. The medium hoped the last thing to go through his target's mind was the nine-millimeter bullet.

Jackson continued advancing, his wrath heralded by the musical chiming of expended brass bouncing on the ground. He occasionally knelt over the dead, gathering ammunition, and noticed the frozen faces. Some were unrecognizable craters of blood and bone, while others seemed as chilled and lifeless as wax dummies. He hoped whatever dark magic united them was expelled by his actions, so any souls in his wake would rest in peace, if any remained. As loathsome as the men had been, they had only been men until Carver had turned them into something truly horrid.

Suddenly, Jackson felt a sensation not unlike a kick to the chest. A quick look down showed the malformed mushroom of a rifle round against his torso. A second later, it fell down, and the consultant saw the man who had fired it. The Kraken guard who shot him unleashed a burst, but Jackson never felt the successive rounds. As he brought his own weapon up, he saw the look of abject terror on the mercenary's face as his weapon ran dry. Jackson hesitated for a moment, but hirsute hands did not. Connor snapped the guard's neck like a twig before moving on to other prey. Jackson noted that only another fragmented bullet had contacted him; the rest had sprayed wildly into the air.

"Fall back!" shouted a mercenary before Connor pounced on him from above.

A handful of the mercenaries had flashlights on, but their beams shifted erratically and fearfully as disorganized survivors frantically looked for movement. Jackson saw Connor evade their panicked movements like a ballroom dancer, gleefully toying with his prey while picking them off. Jackson hurried towards the nearest gangplank, which led up to the stern of the vessel. As he walked stealthily up, he briefly gazed upon the Delaware River. The lights of the opposite shore resembled a floating city upon stygian plains, not unlike a ship at sea.

Cries behind him turned his head towards the parking lot. One of the mercenaries darted into the lot, undoubtedly hoping to escape. The headlights of David's robot car sliced through the darkness like demonic eyes, and the engine roared. The hired soldier stood helpless and stunned as the vehicle ran him down. The body rolled over the car, but still twitched. Jackson looked away as the vehicle reversed over him to finish the job. He continued scurrying up the gangplank, secure in the knowledge that none would escape so easily.

As soon as Jackson reached the stern deck, the unthinkable happened. The spotlights reactivated, blinding him as he threw his arm in front of his face.

"Shit, backup power's on," David radioed. "Keep moving, Cat. They've locked down the ship."

"Then how do I get inside?" Jackson asked.

"Some have keycards. Check their IDs."

Jackson continued onwards, cautiously peeking out above the arm he used to cover the exposed part of his face. A Kraken guard emerged from a nearby door, and Jackson fired his pistol. The soldier leapt back in shock, but the shot nicked his leg, which gave way beneath him. He tried to bring his hands up, only for Jackson's heel to stamp down on his throat. The medium refused to remove it until the body went limp. He knelt down, feeling the fresh corpse for an ID or wallet.

A blow suddenly struck him from behind. A gunshot rang out, and something that felt like a runaway freight train plowed him over. Jackson stumbled, trying to keep his balance, only to be pressed against the railing of the ship. Blows rained down on him from the fists of a guard, while another soldier pressed a pistol to his gut. A third arrived, leveling a shotgun at his torso.

"Freeze!" he ordered.

The guard grabbed Jackson's pistol, and tossed it away. A smug grin appeared on the other operative's face as he leveled the shotgun between Jackson's eyes.

"Let's see if we can kill him, boys!" the merc said as he racked the pump.

A shell clattered to the ground the exact moment something metallic rolled along the edge of the ship.

"Let there be light!" David radioed.

Instinct took hold of Jackson as he recalled what would happen next. His fist hammered the shotgun's muzzle away just as the flashbang ignited. His eyes closed, but the mercenaries were not so lucky. He used his free hands to grasp the weapon, yanking it from the sentry's grip, then flipped it around and blasted him at point blank range. Lead, smoke, and blood covered the deck as the weapon resounded like a howitzer to his unprotected ears. Jackson racked the pump and hit the pistol-wielding guard next, sending his lifeless body slumping backwards against the railing. The third Kraken hireling turned to run for the discarded pistol, just as Jackson's shotgun ran empty.

Jackson drew his bokken, unleashed the loudest shout he could, and sprinted after his prey. The Kraken guard dove for the handgun at the same moment Jackson brought the cherry-wood sword down. His hips and hands united in a harmonious strike, bringing the weapon onto the man's temple. Something cracked, and the man went limp. Jackson hoped his sword was still in serviceable condition, for it was his only backup in case bullets failed against Carver. Cherry wood worked wonders for Taoist exorcists, but he was unsure if anything could kill the inhuman menace Carver seemed to be.

He grabbed the pistol from the ground just as a man moved on the decks above him. The muzzle of a powerful rifle swept towards his position as Jackson scurried for some kind of cover. Instinctively, he recognized he was naked from the upper decks, and the sniper held the high ground. Just as he was preparing to sprint, the marksman dropped his weapon. A red wound appeared on his chest, and the rifle fell harmlessly to the ground as the body softly swayed.

"Close one, Bird," Risona said. "But I've got you covered."

The lights suddenly covering the port side of the craft went black. Jackson scanned the nearby corpses at the same moment something heavy splashed into the water. A wolf howl echoed through the port, and Jackson could not help but feel proud of his comrade. He felt ghoulish himself, though, as he rifled and rummaged through the dead mercenaries. Eventually, he found a white plastic card and decided it was what he needed.

"Looks like Dog handled the backup generator," Risona said. "Time to move in, Cat. They're probably meeting in the Seminar Hall on Deck One, just above you."

Jackson ran up a nearby flight of metallic stairs, which rang like ejected casings with each footfall. A quick glance through his sunglasses showed only a handful of green auras on Connor's half of the wharf. He imagined the casualties were similarly high on David's side. Realizing he might need greater firepower, he grabbed a compact assault rifle from a fallen guard with one of Risona's shots through his chest. With the card and carbine ready, he allowed himself access to Carver's inner sanctum.

The first thing to greet Jackson's vision was not a darkened room of robed figures, but a sparse assembly of suited men and women sitting before a wooden podium. The room itself was lit with the same fluorescent light found in any corporate boardroom. The floor itself was a faux-marble tiling similar to Snow Financial's reception area, only wet and soggy from a handful of leaks in the ceiling. The walls were covered with a freshly applied coating of white paint, which nonetheless already showed cracks. Around the speaker's podium was a brown and crimson ring, perhaps dried blood from prior victims. It was arranged in a deliberate pattern, likely some type of ritual circle. Bundles of pens and pencils sat obsessively arranged on the podium, as if they were a count of something. Jackson considered the possibility that they were symbolic of the number of victims.

Carver stood at the speaker's podium like a high priest at a sacrificial altar, with his dagger in one hand and the severed arm of a body in the other. Behind him, a blood-stained white sheet covered the remains of the arm's original owner. Bloody tooth-marks covered the forearm, and Carver greedily chewed the chunk of flesh already in his mouth. A pair of oversized incisors emerged from his upper jaw, which he plunged into the dismembered limb for another bite. Bits of half-chewed flesh tumbled to the floor as Carver sated his depraved appetite.

Jackson was in no mood to listen, raised the rifle, and opened fire on the crowd of Kraken executives. Each shot within the enclosed cabin resounded like a cannon, drowning out the sounds of Carver's lips smacking. Those who lived stood catatonically for a moment before they even reacted to the volley of gunfire. His sunglasses saw their putrid, green auras reduced to cooling cadavers on the floor.

The remaining half-dozen or so executives descended on Jackson like a horde of screaming kamikazes. As the rifle barked its last round, he drew his pistol and emptied the magazine into the inhuman beasts shrieking for his blood. They helplessly clawed at him and his armor, only to receive hot lead delivered to their centers of mass. As the last body fell to the ground, Jackson smashed it in the temple with the butt of the empty rifle.

Silence came over the room like a burial shroud until applause filled the air. The fat man had taken cover behind the podium. Jackson emptied a clip into it before realizing it was bulletproof.

"Good show, boy," Carver called, cowering behind cover. "But they were all expendable, since there's always more where they came from."

"You're not incorporating any dark gods on my watch," Jackson said. "I'm putting you out of business for good."

"We'll see about that," Carver hissed, licking his knife. "You even know what I am, boy?"

"An asshole," Jackson said. "An asshole trying to wrap a vampire squid around humanity's face."

"You got the vampire part," the Director grinned. "We're the next evolution. We raise your pitiful societies out of the mud. I was going to become something grander, the mastermind of a flawless corporate hive. The perfect organism. Just my will."

"No, you're just another parasite," Jackson spit. "Time to squash the Ripton Ravager."

"Oh, you got played," Carver rolled his bloated head around, cracking his neck. Jackson saw the vampire's skin redden, as if blushing. "Just had a good snack and eager to kill you, boy."

Jackson reloaded his pistol and opened fire with his last magazine. Carver charged towards him with his sacrificial knife, leaping forward with inhuman speed. The fat man shifted into a champion sprinter's gait, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. Some of Jackson's shots went wild, as he fled from the unstoppable monstrosity.

"Dog, Bird! Need some help!" he shouted into the radio.

"Busy here! The enemy's regrouping!" Dave shouted back.

"Cheater," Carver mocked behind him.

Jackson was too busy fleeing to respond. He fired blindly over his shoulder until the pistol's slide locked back, and he discarded the empty weapon while darting around a corner. He stopped for a moment, his heart beating like a drum. He didn't know if Risona's armor could stop Carver's dagger, but he didn't want to find out. Desperately, the medium drew his last line of defense.

"Aw, you think that stick'll save you?" Carver jeered in a childish tone.

Carver charged him from around the corner, slashing his knife upwards in a blow that would eviscerate an unprotected man. Jackson's armor was sliced, and a silvery solution began to drip out. Carver looked on with a blend of condescension and bemusement as Jackson looked down in horror at the leak in his armor. With an upsurge of adrenaline born from desperation, Jackson positioned the bokken in front of him, and began to circle the maniac with the knife.

"Once I know what your secret is, all my men'll have gear like that," Carver smirked wickedly. "Nothing—"

Jackson did not let him finish the sentence. He advanced forward and shouted a guttural cry as he recalled his swordsmanship. The vampire darted backwards as the wooden blade descended, but did not escape unscathed. The rounded tip of the weapon fell upon his chin as he pulled his head back, and carved through his skin like butter. Drops of blood trickled out upon the floor, the weeping of a wounded predator.

Jackson recalled his weapon had special properties against the undead, a category which obviously included Carver. It took a moment for the success of the blow to register, and there was a brief hesitation before he thrust forward, which gave Carver time to raise the dagger over his head. The unskilled but fast brute brought the weapon down as Jackson retreated and brought his own blade up. The bokken caught the bankster's wrist, cutting clean through it. The weapon tumbled to the floor, along with the hand that held it. Carver simply stared in disbelief as Jackson thrust the sword through his chest.

"I believe this concludes our business," he said as raised the weapon.

Carver never had a chance to respond, as his head and upper torso lay in two halves on the floor. Jackson stabbed the body repeatedly, hacking off parts to ensure the vampire was dead. The adrenaline rush began to fade, and nausea overcame Jackson's mind and body. He knelt down, and vomited over the floor. For several long minutes, he remained there, catching his breath. Countless thoughts crowded his mind, gushing from his subconscious like a volcanic eruption. Outside, Jackson noticed the staccato of gunfire had ceased.

"Area secured," Risona said over the radio. "Cat, you still alive?"

"Rat's dead," Jackson said. "But I need a car, now. Kitten's in danger. Repeat, Kitten's in danger!"

Jackson ran outside, grabbing a pistol from a fallen mercenary as he passed him. He began descending the stairs, heading for the nearest gangplank.

"How?" an audibly confused Dave asked. "You got him, so what's the rush?"

"I'll explain later," Jackson said, running down the gangplank as fast as his legs would carry him. "Just follow me and bring your medical gear."

"I'll cover your withdrawal," came Connor's voice. "Been a pleasure, Bird and Cat."

"Same, Dog," Jackson said into the radio. In front of him, Risona's robot car waited for him. He opened the door, and had Risona update the coordinates. He had thought his brother was safe at Patricia's penthouse, but that was not the case. As the car accelerated down the road, the medium cursed himself for leaving his brother directly at the mercy of the Ripton Ravager.

Chapter 31: Price Discovery

Horrifying visions invaded Jackson's mind as his car travelled through deserted streets. The lights of the distant oil refinery burned like an industrial hellscape behind him, while the lights of downtown beckoned like a modern Babylon. Jackson prayed to every deity he could think of that he was wrong, but something within his gut cursed him for missing the obvious. The tension only increased as Patricia's penthouse came into view.

His armor had been ruined, so he changed into a black shirt and sweater from his duffel bag. He threw the pistol into one pocket, his sunglasses into another, and bokken into his duffel bag, realizing he still might need each. Hopefully, he could resolve things peacefully, but somehow, he doubted it would be that simple. He tried boosting his confidence artificially, reminding himself that he had just blasted his way through a ship full of supernaturally-augmented mercenaries. Another portion of his mind dismissed such attempts as childish, assigning his good fortune to his friends' abilities, planning, and blind luck.

The automated car screeched to a stop in front of the high-rise, and Jackson sprinted through the front door. He entered Patricia's pass-code into the keypad by the elevator, praying that she had not changed it in the hours he had been gone. A middle-aged receptionist turned to him.

"Where you going, buddy?" he asked.

"Need to talk with Patricia. Left something valuable there."

"Oh, yeah, I remember you came by earlier. Go on."

A long moment passed before the elevator door opened. Jackson hurried within and began to sweat profusely. He wished he had stopped to get water somewhere, but realized there was no time to stop. He had to get Pierce home safe before Patricia killed him, and then murdered him again.

The elevator stopped and Jackson paced down the hallway, duffel bag in hand. He imagined how he'd storm into the room with his pistol ready, blow her away, and escape with Pierce. He shook his head, dispelling the fantasy. He also imagined charging in and bludgeoning her to death with the bokken, but realized he'd need to be more careful. She was still a highly-experienced martial artist with an arsenal of weapons, fighting on her own turf, and that was before considering the possibility that building security would get involved.

Jackson Graves pressed down on the door handle, and realized the door had been left unlocked. Slowly, he opened the door with great apprehension. He suddenly envisioned kicking the door in and storming the place, but decided to be as quiet as possible. He peeked in through the narrowest, most delicate crack he could make in the doorway, searching for a sign his brother was still alive.

His eye surveyed the room. The plastic had been removed from the furniture. The sounds of soft pop music played in the background. Patricia sat calmly on a chair, reading a newspaper. His vision shifted, and he noticed Pierce sitting at the table using the laptop. Suddenly, he felt as though an invisible stone had been lifted from his chest and his blood pressure dropped to healthier levels. The rustling of a newspaper page turned Graves' attention towards Patricia. She stared directly at the door, and tilted her head sideways.

"Hello?" she asked.

Jackson decided it was no longer timed for subtlety. He walked in, his skin and clothing soaked in sweat. He no longer cared about his body odor or appearance, but instead wandered forwards like a zombie.

"Oh, you're back a little early," Pierce said. His eyes widened, sensing something was amiss. "Cleaning go alright?"

"Pierce, we're leaving," he said. "It's getting late."

Jackson walked towards the sink, cupped his hands, and greedily drank cool water right from the tap. Patricia looked at him bewildered, but her eyes began narrowing. The medium tried positioning himself in front of her wall of swords, at least denying her easy access to those weapons.

"What happened with Carver?" Patricia asked. "Did he say anything about me?"

"Carver's gone for good," Jackson replied. "Unless that was your plan all along, you ghost-eating psycho."

Patricia's eyes turned red. Her muscles began tensing as she shifted into a predatory stance. A slight chuckle escaped her lips. Behind her, Pierce edged towards the door. She grabbed a knife from the table and hurled it at the wall behind her. Pierce froze in place, too timid to move.

"No one's going anywhere," she said, grinning insanely. "You know, I almost considered letting you and your brother live. Pierce would've been a great hostage."

Jackson pulled the pistol out and trained it on Patricia. Immediately, Pierce's eyes went wide with fear, and he ran towards the closet. He opened it wide, likely seeking to hide somewhere. Instead, he froze in place. Jackson turned to see what had petrified his younger brother so. Bound and gagged in bloody ropes was a naked, apparently middle-aged woman. Her body was lean and her skin was a ghastly pale, and her face had high, emaciated cheekbones. Her grayish-golden hair was fraying and uneven, with clumps of it ripped out. From the welts and bruises on her body, it was obvious she had been tortured. Pierce stumbled backwards and fainted. Jackson immediately recognized her as Susan Sharp, CEO of Snow Financial. He had seen her face countless times on TV and in press.

Patricia used the distraction to grab the pistol's muzzle, and tried grabbing the back with her other hand. Jackson attempted to pull the weapon back, only for Patricia to reverse direction and send the pistol flying across the room. By the time Jackson had realized it had landed somewhere in the kitchen, Patricia had already slipped passed him and grabbed two weapons from the blade rack. In one hand was her serpentine kris sword, and in the other was the talon-like karambit blade looped around her finger. Jackson drew his bokken and stepped back. He did not want to be in range of either weapon.

"I figured it was you because Carver had his goons to do his dirty work," Jackson said. "And he'd only intervene indirectly in the gang war, and would have no reason to randomly kill that girl. She was killed near where you lived. You were rather tired the next morning, if I recall. Not to mention, you had Sharp over before she vanished."

"Your advice motivated me," Patricia grinned. "I tried something new, and even I was surprised!"

"Not what I meant, and you know that, you maniac."

"They're pathetic creatures, you know," Patricia taunted. "Things like Carver and Sharp. They can't live without our blood, our money, our effort."

"Didn't you look up to Sharp?" Jackson looked for an opening in her stance, but she kept carefully out of his own weapon's range.

"Not until I found out," Patricia said. "The blades told me. I just wanted money at first, but they showed me the secret world."

Jackson whipped his sunglasses out of his pocket, seeing the world through the eyes of the dead. The pitiful prisoner in the cabinet had a purple aura like Carver did, although one greatly diminished in power compared to his. Each of Patricia's blades glowed with an ever-shifting prism of colors. It was almost too intense and blinding to look at, so he lifted the sunglasses up with his free hand. Both of his hands returned to the blade as he parried a wild lunge.

"They tell you about the ghosts, too?"

"Yes," she hissed. "They said when I killed with them, they'd grow stronger. One makes ghosts, the other destroys them. Had to figure that out on my own, after almost forgetting to clean up after the nigger and the spic."

"Where'd they come from?" Jackson leapt out of the way of a wild slash. He could tell she was probing for weaknesses. Adrenaline kept him going now, but he did not know how much longer it would last.

"From Indonesia with the rest of my collection, but these were special," she said, letting out a low, predatory chuckle. "We figured out that Carver probably started the gang war, and together, we could make him careless. Kill a few people, and let the gangs and his ego do the rest."

"So you killed Devon and Pedro to escalate the gang war, but why the girl in Hyde Park? Why Jennifer Doyle?" Jackson sidestepped a horizontal elbow cut from her karambit. He imagined such a nasty blade could easily deal the kind of cuts he'd seen.

"You really want to know why?" Patricia asked as she shifted to the side behind her kris. "Because a young white woman dying in the park meant Carver's mercs couldn't gather up vagrants there with all the attention. I probably saved lives! Luckily I cut some of her meat for those tasty sandwiches, eh?"

Jackson almost dropped his guard as memories of Patricia's mystery meat returned. As disgusted as he felt, he realized Patricia was trying to unnerve him to break his concentration. He forced himself to press on. "He still had undercover men there," Jackson said.

"Just a few stragglers, mopping up spirits that might tattle," Patricia said, a smug grin forming on her face. "The blades said you'd probably be on to that angle."

"And you used me to get on good terms with Sharp so you could lure her here," Jackson surmised. "I know you wanted Carver gone, but what's your goal?"

"Goal?" Patricia smirked. "To rid the economy of parasites like that. They're infesting the whole financial system like fucking roaches. Probably politics and law, too. They die, and I take their position."

"So, personal advance and greed," Jackson noted. "Maybe you're not so different, after all."

"Don't compare me to that filth if you want to keep your spleen!" Patricia shouted.

Instead of being provoked into recklessly attacking like Jackson had hoped, Patricia stepped over the unconscious body of Pierce. She knelt down, but kept her kris up to protect her. With her back hand, she moved the karambit towards Pierce's neck. A demented grin crossed her face as metal sank into soft, exposed flesh. Jackson imagined cold steel unzipping flesh, and his brother bleeding out in seconds. Patricia pressed slightly deeper, a look of orgasmic ecstasy on her face.

He turned his shock into fury and came down on Patricia like a hurricane of wrath. He slapped the blade down hard, knocking her kris out of the way. Notches formed on the bokken from the intersection of razor-sharp steel and wood. Jackson kicked her knee as hard as he could, and stamped his foot down along her shin. Despite her howl of pain, she tried thrusting the karambit into his stomach. The blade cut into his own flesh, but he grabbed her weapon hand before the knife could cut deeper. He torqued the weapon out of her hand, hearing something snap in her fingers. Her other hand with the kris flailed helplessly, until Jackson stomped on her other wrist.

The psychotic woman howled in pain, but Jackson did not stop. He took the weapon, and sliced her jugular artery with it. As she bled out, he put his sunglasses on, and could see a translucent, confused form rise from the body that had once been Patricia Ellis. He seized the kris and sliced the spirit in two. Immediately, her ectoplasmic body began to tumble apart, as if she were made of melting snow. Her form began to lose all color, all cohesion, and all vestiges of its former appearance. Jackson tossed the cursed weapons away as the first ghost he'd ever killed was reduced to a mound of ectoplasm.

His brother's gurgling brought his concerns back to the land of the living. Pierce grasped his neck with both hands, while a ribbon of blood ran from his neck to the floor. A leg jerked upwards as Jackson pressed Pierce's hands down, trying to keep up the pressure on his jugular. Jackson ran his hands along Pierce's arm, but felt the once-mighty pulse fading as his quivering fingers slipped.

"What's going on?" came Dave's voice from behind them.

Jackson turned to see his friend holding a box of medical supplies and gadgets, and for a brief moment, imagined everything would be alright. Realizing he had deprived his brother's neck of much needed pressure, he went back to pressing down as he tried talking.

"Stay with me, Pierce!" he pleaded as tears clouded his eyes. "Stay with me!"

Risona knelt down and began applying some strange tubes to the wound. Jackson hesitantly moved his hands, which were soaked in his own blood and his brother's. He began sobbing to himself as he desperately pleaded with his brother. "Say with me, Pierce!" he cried. "Don't leave me. I wanted to tell you everything!"

"Don't worry about him," came a new speaker from behind him. Jackson turned to see Susan Sharp had freed herself, using a blade that landed nearby. "You've done me two large favors, efficiently eliminating Carver and Ellis in the same night."

Jackson could barely see her through his tear clouded vision. "Rest assured you will be well compensated for this," she walked towards the door. "And don't worry about the law. Our business relationship has only begun, and we play by different rules."

Jackson did not care for the woman's offers or false praise. He half-noticed that she had left the room, focusing on his brother's rapidly fading pulse. He crumbled up on the floor, and buried his head in his arms. He imagined Pierce's skin growing cold. Risona's machine buzzed in the background, and the scientist frantically rummaged through his medical kit. Jackson turned away, unable to watch directly.

He did not need his sunglasses to know what would happen next. As his brother's spirit left his body, only rotting meat would be left. The person he had invested all of his time, all of his money, into ensuring would have a future would have none. Just when things were starting to turn around for Pierce, Jackson's own stupidity had ended his brother's future. He recalled all the times he shouted at Pierce, all the fun times they never shared, and all the times he failed to be a good brother. He remembered the promise he made long ago to his mother, and how he had completely and utterly failed to keep it. Everything he had worked for died with Pierce. It was then he gave up utterly on life, allowing the despair to drag him into unconsciousness.

Chapter 32: Executive Compensation

Jackson Graves was greeted not by the afterlife or oblivion, but the light coming in through the window of his hospital room. Biometric monitors recorded his metrics as plastic tubes snaked through his hospital gown and into the infusion pumps and bags around him. The rhythmic beeping of his heart rate monitor mesmerized him for a few minutes, until he realized he had a splitting migraine. From the scenery outside the window, he immediately knew which hospital it was. He rested secure knowing he was in the place where his mother had worked.

A nurse walked into the room with a tray of food. He did not concentrate on her features, but instead on the meal he hoped was for him. He noticed cereal, some fruit, glass of water, and a small carton of milk. She set it down on the tray beside his bed. What happened to Pierce was still on his mind, and he felt a pang of guilt for placing his own hunger and bodily aches above grieving for his brother.

"Oh, Mr. Graves," she said, noting his open eyes. "Good to see you're up and about this morning."

"What happened?" he asked as he ran his hand down his aching head. "Where's Pierce?"

"Your friend brought you here," she explained. "You had a stress-related incident last night. You're awake and conscious now, so there's a good chance we'll discharge you later today."

"Good to hear." Jackson grabbed a fistful of cereal and shoved it into his mouth. "But can I have a phone? I want to call my him."

"Sure. He said he'd explain everything the moment you were conscious. He left this for when you."

The nurse vanished for a moment, and returned with Jackson's smart phone. He inhaled the pitifully small breakfast left for him and called up Dave.

"Dave," he asked. "Where's Pierce?"

"I just sent him your way," David replied. "I could be a lot better, but I'm just relieved we're all in one piece."

Jackson felt as though a great and terrible burden had been lifted from him. Nearly a minute of silence passed before the conversation continued. He had been absolved of the tension and guilt that writhed inside him like a nest of serpents moments prior. It was not long before self-doubt crept in, regarding some questionable decisions of his own.

"I'm feeling a lot better," Jackson answered. "Look, what happened last night?"

"Well, after you blacked out, I took you to the hospital. Remember that lady you found in Patricia's closet? Turns out she was Snow Financial CEO Sharp. Not sure what she was doing there."

"I do," Jackson replied. He explained his logic, and what occurred just before David arrived.

"Well, Sharp's probably got an interest in you now," David said. "She might try buying you off. Given the money she tosses around, I'm sure it would more than I'm going to see in my life."

If money was coming his way, Jackson had a good idea of what he was going to do with it. He'd set up a non-profit organization to assist the poor and homeless. It might not be enough to live on, but it would definitely assist Connor and make people less vulnerable. "How about Kraken and Carver? What's going on with that?"

"Sharp said her PR people already released a story to the news," David explained. "Something about Carver going rogue and doing deals with the gangs that turned bad. The scandal's finished Kraken Security, and they've going to file for bankruptcy."

"And Patricia?"

"The story claims she committed suicide after her role as Carver's accomplice was revealed," David said. "But they're going to pin the Ravager murders on the gangs. Her swords are on their way to a scrap smelter."

"Maybe they'll be lobbying for a new crime crackdown," Jackson mused. "So they can fill that new for-profit prison they're building."

"I'm just glad I'm leaving soon," Dave sighed. "I've had enough of this place."

"Decided on where you're going yet?"

"Traveling for a bit–not totally sure where, but narrowed it down," Dave answered. "Considering the Pacific Northwest, going abroad again, or staying with my friend in New England. Still, going to miss you guys. We should all go to the range one last time. Hell, even Liz and Connor."

"Is Connor alright?"

"Yeah, but he's been worried about you," Dave said. "Oh, that reminds me. Adrian's going to take over my martial arts class, and he'd welcome you to teach there."

Jackson didn't bother asking about the makerspace, since it would make him think too much about Dave's stomach-churning experiments.

"Thanks, but I'd want some time to recover," Jackson said. "I've had enough violence for one lifetime."

Jackson suddenly turned his attention as the nurse walked into the room. He set the phone down for a moment, and waited for her to speak.

"Say, Mr. Graves, you've got a visitor," she asked. "Want me to send him in?"

"Sure," Jackson said. "Sorry, Dave, but I've gotta go. He's arrived."

Jackson sighed somewhere between anguish and frustration. He didn't know what he was going to do with himself. He drank down a cup of water by his bedside, as he still felt dehydrated. He stared out the window as footsteps grew closer to his bed. The medium turned his head, eager to see his brother. Instead, he sprayed water out over his sheets.

"Tell me why that woman was tied up in your friend's place," Pierce said.

Jackson ran his finger along Pierce's arm. Instead of the cold, moist feeling of fresh ectoplasm he had grown accustomed to, he caressed warm flesh and blood. Pierce was dressed in a sweater and jeans, but Jackson noticed a large bandage on his little brother's neck. Without warning, he leaned forward and wrapped both his arms around his brother's waist. He momentarily thought he saw Liz's smiling face peep through the wall before leaving the two alone together.

"First, what happened with your neck?" Jackson asked. "I thought you were a goner."

"Yeah, about that," Pierce said. "Dave says he set up that crazy life support system for me, but the doctor said the most important thing was you guys gave me first aid immediately."

"At least some good came from his crazy lab," Jackson said. "Now, I want you to know something: I've been keeping secrets from you, and they almost cost me my most valuable investment."

"What's that?"

"You." He held his brother tighter. "Now, I've got a business on the side I've never told you about. I'm actually a medium."

From the blank stare on his brother's face, Jackson knew it would be a long talk. That was fine by him, as long as he could spend it with his brother. He had seen enough lives wasted and ruined to know what mattered most.

Epilogue: Experimental Notes

From: Dr. David Risona

To: Jackson Graves

Subject: Experiment Results

Hi Jackson,

I have to say, it's been an exciting week. I'm going to be leaving soon, but before I go, I felt I'd share something I've been up to lately. I've began compiling results from some experiments I've run on our mutual friends. Connor and Liz were kind enough to volunteer for this, so be sure to thank them next time you see them. While I would've preferred to have a larger sampling size for each category of supernatural beings, I realize the chance to study one in depth was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Here are the notes I've compiled from your testimony and my recent tests. I can send the experimental log if you want more detailed coverage.

-Ghosts: You'd know these better than I would, I imagine. From what you've told me, you can see powerful spirits unaided, but had difficulty noticing weaker ones. That's why you used those enchanted sunglasses, but they lamentably seem to work only for you. Interestingly, the fact that your mother and grandparents could also see ghosts hints at a potential genetic basis for your abilities. Your experiences indicated it was possible for spirits to become more powerful, even able to interact with the living physically. Even though I can't see or hear her, we were able to communicate by having her write with a pencil.

While every culture has its own view of what comprises the afterlife (or lack thereof), I have theories of my own. You've reported that the cause of death is independent of the rate of ghost "birth," as an elder's peaceful death in bed is just as likely to generate a ghost as a young person's violent murder. Thankfully for the living, the actual percentage of deaths leaving ghosts is very low (.001%).

Regardless of cause, the spirits linger on, Some ghosts are able to interact with the world, while others seem to fade into oblivion. Given the inconsistency in their formation, my inability to directly interact with them, and the very small percentage of deaths that result in ghosts, I am forced to rely on your testimony and whatever lore Thaddeus can muster. It's rare to find volunteers for this area of research.

Many ghosts have (or find) a reason for their continued existence. The lore states that a ghost who reaches some sort of emotional fulfillment seems to "pass on" to whatever afterlife exists (if any), forever leaving our universe behind. Whether it is a second death, transition to a "true" afterlife, or reincarnation, no one is sure. That's a question for philosophers to answer, not engineers.

You've mentioned that you're unsure whether a spirit is a continuation of the living person's consciousness, a partial copy, or some form of echo, but the distinction seems largely trivial. My theory is that the ghost is not merely an immaterial entity, but an echo of consciousness upon some supernatural substrate. Essentially, a ghost is an ectoplasmic imprint of the "connectome," a map of information in the brain, often coupled with a mutable form related to its appearance at death. Damage to that mutable form with your bokken can cause it to disincorporate until it regains its strength, much like exhausting a living person. As you put it, it often "knocks sense into them."

Liz demonstrated a clear ability to interact with the physical world, an ability you've witnessed before. I've seen her lift weights of up to 10 kg (~22 lbs) for very short periods, but lighter ones for longer periods. Some ghosts are far more powerful, especially ones with strong emotional baggage. A ghost that loses control of itself may become a poltergeist, often lashing out at anything and anyone around it. Poltergeists are the rabid dogs of the spirit world, having to be beaten down (or sometimes ignored) before they are ready to calm down. Whatever causes them to gain strength often leaves them just as quickly, although the emotional volatility of the newly-deceased means any spirit could potentially become a poltergeist. Aren't you glad the Dead Frequency's up and running instead of having to personally visit each?

Lastly, loose ectoplasm is a substance often found in the wake of ghosts. You've claimed that touching a spirit's ectoplasm allowed you to experience its last memories before destruction, but it's nearly impossible for a normal human to see, feel, or even sense any trace of it. Sometimes, traces of ectoplasm can be found on devices and enchanted items that recently interacted with ghosts, and they can disrupt complex machinery and electronics. That's the main problem with Edison's necrophone design, since a key component failed during the first ghost-murders. I've fixed it so that won't be a problem in the future.

That said, ectoplasm is a reliable indicator of spiritual presence. Strange noises, flickering lights, cold spots, and the like are secondary ones. Many of those are also indicators of heating, wiring, and air circulation problems far more often than ghostly activities. Remember how many "hauntings" were caused by malfunctioning air conditioners and heaters?

You know well that ghosts and spirits can be fearsome foes. It is far better to engage them with dialogue at a distance, only resorting to direct interaction if that should fail. Spirits have been convinced to "abandon" their objectives, often by convincing them that such grudges are not worth holding onto. Despite this tactic being successful with sapient ghosts, one must be prepared to fight with poltergeists. Therefore, it is best to conduct research beforehand and talk over the Dead Frequency. That is typically the difference between defeating a ghost and becoming one.

-Lycanthropes: Lycanthropy is a rather interesting disease. While obviously supernatural, it behaves much like any mundane pathogen. It spreads from contact with bodily fluids, although only when the infected is in his or her transformed state. Not all bitten contract the disease, or even survive long enough to contract it. Some lycanthropes can purposefully spread infection, often by deliberately exposing a victim to more saliva than normal. Make sure you don't start French kissing one while it is transformed. A full moon can sometimes act as a trigger, but such urges can be suppressed or ignored after one gains familiarity with the transformation process.

What makes the disease fascinating to me is how it transforms individuals. Connor's body weight changed before and after transformation, as did his internal anatomy and physiology. When he transformed back, he weighed less than he did before the transformation. Whatever happened to him, it was an energy-intensive process that ate through his body fat stores. That's one possible reason they have a craving for calorie-rich red meat. I'm still not quite sure how the thermodynamics work out, but it's certainly a fascinating process.

Just think of the medical advances we could make if we could isolate the cause of this. The ability to transform one type of tissue to another (and back) in a matter of minutes would be a boon to tissue regeneration research. In particular, muscles in the legs and arms become stronger and shift position dramatically, while skin becomes tougher and reinforced (much like rhinoceros hide). Black and brown hairs emerge all over the body, but particularly around the face and on the hands. Senses are enhanced, with the ears becoming pointed and able to pick up faint sounds from a long way off. The eyes likewise undergo some type of hormonal and physiological transformation, becoming highly reflective in an almost feline manner, and able to see as well in the dark as they can in the light. Despite the name "werewolf," the lycanthropic state I witnessed in Connor was a predatory hominid superficially similar to the more lupine being from popular culture.

Few signs of the transformation remain after reversion. While taking tissue samples from a transformed lycanthrope is ill-advised (given their increased strength and reaction times in this state), I did manage to acquire some hairs from Connor's transformed state. They did not match Connor's own hair, nor any species on record, suggesting they may be some aspect of the pathogen.

As with any pathogen, there is the possibility of mutation and variation in a particular strain over the years. Thaddeus found that during the Victorian period, accounts of lycanthropes similar to Connor's case became dominant. At one point, the disease might have existed in several different forms, but over time one spread wider the others. For example, European accounts from Middle Ages speak of "were-bears" who would accompany the Vikings on raids. I am not sure whether these beings are another strain of lycanthrope or the medieval peasants saw ursine features where we see lupine, but the possibility cannot be discounted. Even the modern sightings of "Bigfoot" and similar cryptids may simply be transformed lycanthropes.

One thing that does hold true from popular culture is lycanthropic injury due to exposure to silver. In a transformed state, Connor's healing and blood clotting increased, with small injuries acquired in one state completely gone after transformation or reversion. The sole exception to this appears to be wounds caused by silver-coated melee weapons or bullets. A puncture or laceration with such a weapon can cause a lycanthrope to revert to their human form, due to some type of allergic reaction. Enough silver is clearly fatal to the subject, but smaller amounts will wound them and cause an involuntary shift back to human form.

The behavioral and cognitive aspects of the disease are the most interesting to me. While transformed, the subject was able to retain full control of his actions and performed a battery of cognitive tasks. Connor's reaction times jumped significantly compared to baseline humans, as he relies on a rapid, subconscious generation of complex strategies. Due to his physiological and anatomical changes, Connor found it difficult to use complex machinery and devices while transformed, but he retained enough motor ability to utilize rudimentary thrown weapons and simple machinery. I'm sure Benjamin Libbet would've loved to study the neuroscience of werewolves. While they're quite savage to people they hate, their emotional instincts cut both ways. In his werewolf state, Connor had increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone that increases both loyalty to friends and hatred of enemies. Even while transformed, most lycanthropes would have inhibitions against attacking friends and kin. That said, I would still avoid any lycanthropes I encounter in the future. There's a good chance they'd see you as a hostile stranger.

The lycanthrope is stereotypically a creature of anger and rage, but I've found that they actually have to be quite cunning and restrained. This is largely due to their reliance on stealth and their niche as an ambush predator. They prefer to locate prey and dispatch it rather quickly. Groups of prey are harder targets, so the lycanthrope has to devise ways to scatter and isolate them. They'd have to be smarter than humans, given that predators have to be more intelligent than their prey. I've considered the idea that lycanthropes evolved to hunt humans, although Connor preferred to subsist on animals instead of people. He's warned me, though, that not all werewolves share this view. I'm half-tempted to see how long Connor can stick with a vegetarian diet, just to see what happens. If he can eat strays, I wonder if he can stomach my soggy tofu salads.

Lastly, the lycanthropic condition typically brings knowledge and instinct honed across dozens of prior generations of the disease. Much of this simply seems to be instinct to the lycanthrope, a subconscious recognition of certain movements and methods of hunting. For example, this is how even a newly infected werewolf can smell and track prey over long distances. In times of stress, deep sleep, meditation, or altered states of consciousness, memories from previous infected can bubble to the surface. Interestingly, it may be possible to build an entire epidemic history by having Connor meditate, assuming the record is complete. How this information is stored, I have no idea, although a genetic memory is not impossible. I imagine historians would benefit from that as well.

-Vampires: Vampirism is the supernatural phenomenon I have the least information about. Cultures from China to Eastern Europe have their own accounts, but they have a few things in common.

Their relationship to human civilization is mostly analogous to fleas on a dog, bloodsucking parasites that rely on a host for sustenance. Like lycanthropy, vampirism is caused by certain supernatural pathogens with adverse reactions to silver. Vampires also benefit from increased strength, speed, and toughness when compared to baseline humans. Interestingly, vampires are likely clinical psychopaths and sociopaths (or demonstrate some of their behaviors), as they may have altered neurophysiology. Empathy is not one of their strong points, as they'd easily qualify for disorders like anti-social personality disorder and narcissism in the DSM.

Vampires also acquire weaknesses that the lycanthropes, and even baseline humans, lack. They are burdened with higher intake caloric requirements, and are vulnerable to silver, weapons affecting undead, and natural sunlight. While physiologically alive (as far as I know), they have the added weakness to weapons that also affect undead. I guess your bokken did do some good against undead banksters, after all.

Despite the stereotype, vampires do not burst into flames in sunlight. Instead, their skin becomes covered with sunburns faster than even a pale-skinned human's, regardless of the vampire's own skin pigmentation. Prolonged exposure to sunlight in a vampire may even result in first, second, and third degree burns.

Due to metabolic demand, vampires are instinctively drawn towards red meat. As psychopaths and sociopaths lacking empathy, vampires often prey on baseline humans utilizing their superior senses and physical abilities. Many victims are not killed, but only partially bled, as killing them outright would relegate prey to a single serving. Due to their nature, vampires are weaker outdoors in daylight. Hence, they are most effective at night or in enclosed environments, such as dark buildings and caves.

They have migrated towards cities increasingly in recent decades, due to the abundant source of prey they provide. Interestingly, the vampires have significant social manipulation abilities as well, related to the superficial charm that many sociopaths possess. An office job allows a vampire many advantages: a place to avoid the sun, a source of victims to abuse, and a method of acquiring wealth and power within the socio-economic system. As such, accounts state that vampires are drawn to positions where ruthlessness, superficial charm, and a talent for deception allow them to rise further. They are conspicuous figures, surrounding themselves with status symbols to denote their power and status.

It is worth noting that many vampires display obsessive behaviors. Remember Carver's bundles of pens? That's because he had arithmomania, a fixation with counting. I can imagine that trait is very useful in the business world. Even though Patricia was a raving lunatic, I can't help but wonder if she was onto something with vampires being involved with politics and law. It would certainly explain certain stereotypes about lawyers.

-Gadgets: I have plenty of odd medical and military devices. Only a handful of them have ever moved beyond prototypes, often due to the client questioning my sanity. What these fools fail to realize is that they're missing the big picture due to their own narrow viewpoints, but I digress. As you've seen, I primarily research medical devices and weapons. Why both? Because you need to know how injuries are caused before you can properly treat them. While I've been called a scientific Janus, I can't help that my interests include both devices that heal and those that harm.

-Rifles: First of all, there are my weapons. Yes, my lovely wall of weapons. You've known me since I got my first bolt-action rifle and combat knife. Since then, I've come to favor a few categories of weapons. While I teach some combatives and jujitsu techniques, my real passion is firearms. In particular, I love rifles and revolvers. If Jeff Cooper was right about the rifle being the queen of personal weapons, a computer-assisted sniper rifle with a laser microphone in the scope and internally-suppressed rounds is their empress. Such a weapon lets me listen in on whatever it's pointed at, even over long range. Each bullet has a piston within that captures the propellant gas, rendering it virtually silent. That all sounds high-tech, but the technologies have existed for years.

-Revolvers: Now, why do I love revolvers? Because they're reliable. I've had some great semi-automatic pistols, but the revolver is where my heart is. It can be loaded with custom rounds of all kinds, and you don't have to worry about having enough force to cycle the action. My latest revolver, Sophia, has the barrel positioned at the bottom cylinder so that the recoil is much more manageable than it is with conventional designs. The revolver that Pierce restored is a nice historical relic, the same model of Smith and Wesson revolver used by the Japanese revolutionary Ryoma Sakamoto and in the Kurosawa film Yojimbo. Even Thaddeus appreciates that nice black powder Colt Dragoon revolver I gave him. Just because it's old doesn't mean it's useless.

-Others: There's also the cloaking suit, body armor, and robots. The cloaking suit's made of a meta-material, an experimental substance that has a negative refractive index that bends light around it. I also threw in some insulating material to make it harder to detect with infrared goggles. It was intended for commandos, but was too expensive to mass produce. The body armor was lined with packets of shear-thickening fluid (STF), which solidify when something hits it. The problems were that the fluid can leak out when punctured, and electricity can cause it to tighten up. When I covered you, I wore that and the cloaking suit to keep myself virtually undetectable. The drone is simply a remotely-piloted quadrotor helicopter with a longer battery life, mechanical claw, and custom engines. The camera and laser microphone make it pretty expensive, and the engines can be quite noisy as well. That one's going back to the drawing board for now. Still, it is nice for dropping flash-bangs on people when they're not expecting it. The robot car is an old project I built for novelty's sake, and I can say the AI is good enough survive driving through New Jersey.

-Artificial Circulation:My main interest in medical technology is a field Liz finds distasteful. There are clear advantages to artificial circulatory systems, even if I have to do extensive animal tests. You know, keeping severed heads and isolated brains alive is a lot harder than you might think. My original inspiration was the monkey head transplant done decades ago by Dr. Robert J. White at Case Western. You need to give them the right blend of nutrients, the correct pressures, and a survivable temperature, and keep them free of infection. On top of that, I need to calibrate a brain-computer interface (BCI) to control a robotic chassis for each. My ideal position in the future involves being a brain in a robot floating through space, so I need to iron out all the bugs now. My motive aside, there are conventional medical benefits in the form of improving prosthetics, streamlining surgery, and advancing the use of artificial organs and xenografts. The problem is finding human volunteers, as few people desire to be brain-jar robots. I can't figure out why. Luckily, there's a Russian fellow with an interest in it.

-Enchanted Swords: Patricia's cutlery came from all over Indonesia, but Thaddeus believes only those two she attacked you with were cursed. I managed to get a hold of the import records, and found that the two were shipped together from an unknown seller in Bali. Blades like the ones she owned are used in silat, a very brutal Indonesian martial art, which she was highly trained in. The karambit is a quick, nasty concealable blade. The kris, on the other hand, is a status symbol across the country. Many of the blades are treasured family heirlooms, with some reputed to have supernatural properties. Unfortunately for us, hers actually did. As to why those enchantments were present, Thaddeus hypothesized that perhaps they were used by some ancient Indonesian warrior to gather intelligence from people he had slain, and then to dispatch the spirits on the off chance they might warn their still-living comrades. Whoever had them forged was definitely no amateur swordsman, and whoever forged them likely had knowledge of both metalworking and enchantment. Given the problems those two blades caused, I can't help but wonder if there are worse things floating around out there. That's why I prefer science to dark magic.

I wish you luck in your future endeavors. I've cleared out my old arsenal and previous experiments from the Necrotech workshop, so Pierce can get it new and shiny. Whether it stays that way is up to him. He's a clever kid, and you're lucky to have a brother like him. No matter where I go, feel free to ask for my help if either of you need it. You're two of the few people I'd come running for. Been a pleasure.

Your Friend,

Dave