Chapter 1

John was the best I'd ever seen with a blowtorch. He wielded it like Da Vinci wielded a god-damn paintbrush. He could do things with it that in many places were certainly illegal and could even be considered deranged, with the possible exception of Japan.

There was this thing about John and the blue-hot propane flames that bordered - nay, even surpassed - the realm of wonder. If Jesus could come down and visit from the Heavens and work with a blowtorch next to John, he'd look like some kind of a pyromaniac hobo with a messiah complex and a background in carpentry, while John would just shine with a bright white light emanating from within, being able to turn water into beer and beer into piss with just a look. John was just that good.

So it was a fucking bummer when I learned that his last words actually were: "Don't be a pussy, oxygen tanks do that hissing sound all the time."

As far as classifying bummers goes, this was a triple-A class bummer, the kind of showstopper that had only been theorised up to John's untimely and gruesome death. The kind of bummer that could have made Jim Carey's face look flat and emotionless. It ranked way far above the A-plus bummer of being recently divorced, fired, being fired upon and being set on fire at the same time.

Which was bad in and of itself, but not as bad as John getting blown up a day before the 'job'. That was a sad state of affairs that meant I was now a very sorry son of a bitch with a life expectancy that made the term "lifetime warranty" an almost moot point.

So here I was, melting away in a decrepit diner on route 72, at a swampy nowhere with some supposedly native American though actually gibberish name like 'Alatanoosa' or 'Whahananoka'. It was between Alabama and Tennessee, which to me was pretty much the same. The coffee tasted like imported dirt; the kind of dirt you read about being very fashionable and exaggeratedly overpriced but at the end of the day, was just plain old dirt anyway you looked at it.

The fried eggs looked like fried eggs, but only in the most rudimentary way: there was an orange bit with some sort of white substance with the mechanical properties of rubber all around it. I guess my flair for adventure was wearing out so it just sat there, while I happily failed to ingest it.

It didn't take me much time to realise I really didn't feel like eating at all. Maybe it was the god-damn heat, the stale humid air and the fact that about the same time the next day, I would be probably looking at the wrong end of more than a couple of gun barrels because I had been forced into something I couldn't deliver by some very single-minded people with a propensity for shooting, rather than having coffee and biscuits and sympathizing with the occasional bad card life dealt you.

The reason I couldn't deliver was I couldn't do the 'job'. And I couldn't do the 'job' without John, because John, the flamboyant blowtorch virtuoso with an unmatched record of ninety-two safes, safe-rooms, and bank vaults; an average time of three point three minutes, clean as a germ-obsessed placebo-munching single old lady right before kidney stone surgery and a no-smoking-on-the-job policy that kept my cigarette budget intact, had gone and killed himself in his brother's-in-law chop shop.

I stopped and asked myself at that point whether that unfortunate death, at such a bad time, right before what would probably prove to be the last gig in my career was a sign from God to stop doing what I did best: stealing. In a rare know-thyself moment I reminded myself I wasn't half as good at it as those folks in Wall Street, most politicians and the let-me-lend-you-your-own-money cutthroats that roamed the street unabashed, calling themselves bankers.

Logic would then imply that if there was going to be any smiting and all that holier-than-thou business, any God with a sense of perspective, morality and justice wouldn't start dishing it out on my end. And in any case, I decided that if God really had something to tell me, he'd better make a really good point with lots of compelling arguments, like saving my ass, pronto.

Or at least point me to a direction, show me the road to salvation that preferably led somewhere warm and sandy in the Pacific, along with a couple of bank accounts in the Caymans, some instantly gratifying plastic surgery and twelve hundred different driving licenses.

Realising how God and reality rarely intertwined, I felt an emotional pressure the likes of which I hadn't experienced since high-school and all the awkward parties that went with it. A stress relief mechanism kicked in somewhere inside me and I sighed deeply before shouting out an expletive, something eloquent like 'Fuck!'.

That made some heads in the diner turn, eyebrows raised apprehensively. It also gained me the attention of the establishment's chef-du-cuisine; a six-foot-three, two-hundred and fifty pound red-haired, bush-bearded wild-eyed man-like Alabaman, more creature than man, with a meat cleaver, a stained apron and a murderous gleam in his eye. He pointed that cleaver towards my direction and said with a slight snarl "Now yo' better watch that god-damn filthy mouth a yours, 'less you got dental, son."

I think I nodded faintly and muttered "I should. I'm sorry," in an absent-minded fashion before I put ten bucks on the table, got up and left. He probably felt that'd given me a good old fashioned run-down, but it was high time I'd left.

I looked at my watch, one of the few items I had actually bought with honest money from a winning lottery ticket back when I kept saying to myself that heists were 'a temporary thing'. It was half past ten in the morning, and I had more or less twenty two and a half hours to live. As I looked at the bland, flat, moist, green and brown Southern scenery, I noticed a couple of dogs humping without a care in the world, oblivious to pretty much everything else.

I was about to think something profound about nature and the will of life to survive and continue, when I noticed they both had "stuff" dangling underneath. Even nature had a way of giving me the finger. I looked up into the blighting sun for just a moment, and all I could see was white and red dots for the next couple of minutes.

I'd left my glasses inside the diner. I said to myself, 'fuck that, I don't need sunglasses. I'm going to do what it takes, and I sure as hell can do it without sunglasses.'

Now, thinking back to that particular moment in time, the moment I decided to act was the moment I kept thinking to myself 'Bobby, that doesn't mean shit. John blowing up doesn't mean shit. You can still do this. You can still get rich, or die trying, ' that must have been the moment that would probably get the most votes in the 'Most Regrettable Moment in Your Entire Life' category. It would also get lots of points in the 'Shit I Wish I Hadn't Done' category, but the real winner in that one was calling up Eileen. I'd done mistakes before, but it always amazed me how impossibly fast I regretted calling Eileen on that particular day. I panicked.

I rang her three times before she picked it up. When she did, it sounded like she hadn't talked to a real person in about three years, give or take:

"Mmbby? Mmmby Baahow? My Bobby Bear?"

I took little notice of the fact that she had been apparently stuffing herself, probably having a bad case of the munchies.

I said "Yeah, Eileen," managing to keep my tone of voice even, normal-sounding. It really felt like biting the bullet when I said "it's me, Papa-Bear". It also made me cringe as the connotations that old term of endearment implied flashed across my mind's eye. Jesus Christ, not Eileen. What was I doing? Was there no other way? Was this a possible way out or was it just a faster way under?

"Awwww, Papa-Bear ... Is this really you Bobby? I miss you so much, you know. Where have you been all these days?"

She sounded quite sincere but then again crazy people always do sound sincere, especially those that do believe you are actually an ursine humanoid, complete with fur, claws, a fluffy tummy, and possessed by an unhealthy hunger for honey and tacos.

"Right, Eileen. That's, me ... Yeah. Papa-waka-bear. Uhm..."

The words seemed to be drip-fed to my brain from some sort of mental black hole that spewed forth nothing that made sense. Fortunately, that seemed to strongly resonate with Eileen's warped sense of reality:

"Oh, Papa-waka-bear, so strong and furry and manly ... With lots and lots of furry shoulder hair for me to rub and that sweet tummy ... Can I see you Bobby? Just this once, I won't be a bother, really. We don't need to go boat-pedaling or skating. Just see you, maybe let me rub your tummy? And have animal sex together?"

I closed my eyes and recalled a picture from the past: myself laden with honey from tip to toe, tied to a bed with a Winnie the Pooh plushie wearing a strap-on dildo and Eileen shouting "Rawr! I'm your honeycomb slice, Papa-Bear!". I decided then and there that I'd have to appeal to whatever core of sanity remained in her mind, or else I could just go drown myself in a really shallow body of water, like, say, a gutter.

"Listen, Eileen ... We can't ... I can't do all that, okay? I wish I could, but..."

That was a lie. That was a lie. That was a lie. I was lying to her, but that was okay cause she was crazy.

"Ohh. Why can't you Papa-Bear? We could have so much fun together! We could ride the tram around the city, and I could feed you cotton candy and berries. Like last time, don't you remember? Didn't you have fun that time? Please, Bobby. Can't I see you once more? Why did you call me then? Do you really want to hurt me, Bobby? Is that it?"

Her voice reminded me uncannily of Boy George and that made my eyes hurt just by thinking about it. I felt my stomach knot at the thought of all the things I would have to endure to get on her good side. Or it might have been the coffee-like dirt-brew from the diner. I took a deep breath before uttering the words as if they were my last:

"I need to see you Eileen."

"Oh, Bobby! You really can't tell how happy that makes me! I feel like leaping outside the window and flying to your arms, Papa-Bear!"

Oh God, shit no. She was crazy enough to actually pop out the window and crack her head open on the street below.

"No, no, Eileen! Don't do that honey, no. You gotta wait a couple of hours, I'll drop by your place. Okay?"

"But whoosy-cooshy-huggy of mine, I'll be flying to you in a jippy if you just say the word!"

"No, no! Just sit tight, will ya? I'll bring you some chocolate chip cookies, your favorite right? Just don't go anywhere. And Eileen, take your meds, please. You're still on meds, right?"

"Oh, you mean those horrible pills? They were so bitter and bad for me; unlike you Bobby. No, no, daddy paid off the bad men in white and now I'm home again. Free as a bird. Your little nightingale."

That was probably wrong. No meds; rampant insanity mixed with nymphomaniac tendencies. And ursine fantasies. For a moment I thought it'd be a better bet to just reason with Falconi, but the fact that the last guy who tried that ended up as a collection of hand-made soap bars with Falconi's signature on it left me with little doubt about where my chances lay. I'd stick with the looney. At least she seemed to still have this thing for me.

"Okaaay, Eileen. Now, see Papa-Bear's in trouble and I need your help. So, make sure you can get a hold of daddy and tell him that you might need that jet of his for a trip. And some pocket money too. Tell him you're going shopping in New York, okay?"

"We're going shopping? Oh, Papa-Bear I always knew you were so much fun!"

"Yeah, I'm a god-damn roaming circus. So, see you in a couple of hours."

"Don't take long, Papa-Bear! I want to squash you in my arms and feel your tummy and tousle your hair and then su-"

Damn you to hell John Staikos, this was all your fault.

"Yeah, yeah, okay Eileen. Anything you like. Bye!"

"Wait, wait!"

"What?"

"Whoopsy-kissy?"

I hesitated just for the tiniest moment and I could almost picture the sad, watery eyes and then the coming onslaught of cries, curses and finely sharpened blades being hurled against me, so I made something like a smooching sound. It might have sounded like a fart, I'm not sure, but she sounded positively satisfied:

"Oh, I love you Papa-Bear! I can't wait to snuggly-wuggly you in my arms and tie you down and -"

"Goodbye!"

I hang up in the nick of time. The ordeal was over for now, but doubts started assaulting me like journalists outside a rehab facility for famous people. Was this my only option? Would she come through? What if she had been waiting for that call, that one call that I might have given her in such a time of extenuating circumstances and dire need, just so I could come running to her for help and then dice me up because I had shot the best-man on our wedding day and ran off in her father's Porsche?

I had to keep reminding myself I wasn't the bad person here, even as I strode back into my piece-of-shit Taurus. These were desperate times, and they obviously required insanely desperate measures.

I got back on route 72, heading for Memphis. While the radio waves reeked with country, bluegrass and heart-felt messages to the parishioners to pledge their support to the Church of Latter Day Saints With Semi-Automatic Rifles, I casually gazed outside the window and couldn't help notice that this countryside was so flat and uninteresting that if there was some kind of hell waiting for everyone, this would be it.

I was about to start a self-gratifying rant, using phrases like "Good job right there, Bobby", "Sure I can vouch for that sleazeball Mr. Falconi", "Heck no, nothing can go wrong, we're all pros here. Right?" when a big brown legged thing just popped right in front of the Taurus. I applied pressure to the braking pedal and then the laws of physics worked their magic.

Now, despite appearances I'm a fairly well-educated man and I know that Taurus is just a fancy word for bull. I also know that for a car to decelerate from eighty miles-per-hour to zero, it takes a couple hundred feet, and that's because no-one in his right mind would design a car that could turn its occupants into mush or tarmac jelly (depending on the seat belt arrangement) when they wanted it to stop.

That being said, I wasn't really surprised when the Taurus hit that horse. I wasn't really surprised when the airbag tried to rob me of what looked like my early dying breath. Surprise wasn't achieved even when the car swiveled and landed sideways in a gravely ditch. It wasn't the fact that I was still in one piece, nor the fact that the horse - had it been given the oral faculty post-mortem - could not say the same for itself.

It was the shaman.

There I was, still trying to decide whether or not I was still alive and with my brain firmly between my ears, when I saw through the hazy smoke and vapor of the smashed front of the car the figure of a lone man, looking directly at me with a deeply sombre gaze, as if I had just killed his horse.

He was dressed in a brown leather jacket, crisscrossed leather vest, and soft tan shoes. I'd have wagered he was some kind of a disco enthusiast with a slightly bent sexual orientation, if it wasn't for the feathery hat and the somewhat austere, manly jaw line. He was the spitting image of some Cherokee. Or Navajo. I didn't know, I just knew there are cars named after these kinds of people.

He spoke with a peculiar voice that had the impossible qualities of gravel and running water at the same time:

"Are you hurt?"

I would normally have taken the time to think about faking some injury so I could sue the guy for damages. But under the circumstances, namely that I was planning on disappearing forever, combined with this guy's entire estate most probably consisting of a dead horse, a tipi and his grandparents in a convenient form of ash, I instinctively opted for the truth. Every limb felt connected to the proper slots and I literally (and sadly, figuratively as well) saw no great blinding light at the end of a tunnel.

He came closer, shook open my jammed door and helped me get out of the car. He struck me as neither too old and neither too young, kind of exactly like Ronn Moss.

"Yeah, I think I'm okay. Where did you, ahm ... I mean, the horse just popped out of nowhere, and..."

"I know, Bobby."

His words had a strangely calming effect. They oozed serenity. It was like listening to the voice of a loving grandfather, and by loving I don't mean pedophile. But then it hit me:

How did he know my name?

What did he mean by saying 'I know'? What did he know? I looked blankly at him, wondering briefly if there was a universal balance being observed right at that moment. My impending doom, and a horse dying in front of Taurus. Could it be that somehow the cosmic forces of life contrived to tell me something? Had some sort of karmic exchange taken place right in front of my eyes? A horse's life, for my own? An offering, a sacrifice to the powers beyond reach? Was he a holy man? Some sort of shaman? An emissary of fate? Was this the break I so desperately needed?

How did he know my name?

His next words jarred me out of my shocked reverie:

"The plates."

"Excuse me?"

"Says here on the car plates, 'BOBBY B'. That's you, right?"

I felt a bit silly, standing right beside him on the side of the road, bending over looking at what must have been horse gut sprayed all over what at some point, had been my Taurus's radiator.

"I'm sorry, I must've been thinking out loud. Well, yeah. Bobby Barhoe."

He looked at me sideways, somehow failing to mask his feelings disappointment. I couldn't know if it was my name or the pool of blood oozing from the horse.

"What kind of a name is that, Barhoe? Seriously?"

It was an odd think to ask, but then again I'd just run over his horse so I felt I should indulge the man. It might have also been an unconscious, fool-hardy effort to steer the discussion away from the dead horse.

"I've never really given it much thought. It's just a name, really. I actually think it sounds sturdy, homely. Like, say -"

"Burroughs?"

He furrowed his left eyebrow in a grimace that would have normally required a monocle for full effect. I took a closer look at the steaming pile of heap that used to be the engine block. From a long experience in messy stuff, I could tell changing the tires wouldn't work.

"Yeah, kinda like that one. Or Thibodeau. Sounds dependable, right?"

"That doesn't sound sturdy, homely or dependable. That sounds like someone fell down the stairs."

"I think it's a good name. And so is Barhoe, don't mind me saying," I said and sat in front of the dead horse, arms crossed, trying to sound convivial. I must've come across like a prissy twat.

"Well I really don't think so, Bobby," he said and he scratched his head under the feather hat while grinning profusely as if he was enjoying all this immensely.

"I don't want to sound like a total jerk since I seem to have inadvertently fatally injured your horse over there, but you know who I am, while I don't."

I think I pointed lamely to the dead horse and sounded like a total jerk.

"I'm The Sad Son of A Bitch Whose Horse Runneth Over."

"Wow. Really? That's kind of tragic, isn't it? Talk about karma, huh?"

"Not really. Just because I'm Alabama it doesn't mean we have names like that anymore ... The name's Steve Johnson."

After all the pointless discussion about names it felt like I'd been cheated.

"What kind of an Indian is named like that? I mean, seriously?"

"Now look here, I'm tired of this shit. Just because I'm Alabama it doesn't mean our people live like a hundred and fifty years ago. I went to college. I got into a Greek society, got drunk and wedgied and did all that frat-house shit just because I lacked the necessary maturity and personality like every other post-adolescent American male. And on an athletic scholarship, mind you."

His name, even though it was as common as the cold, sounded oddly familiar.

"Did you by any chance play football at Kentucky?"

"Track and field, Alabama State. Do I look like I could play football?"

He was about five-foot-ten, a bit on the light side, no more than a hundred and thirty, a hundred and forty pounds. In pygmy football he might've been a world champion, but I don't think there is such a thing as pygmy football. Nor should there ever be.

"Not really, no."

His back was turned to me, looking at a far part of the sky brimming with timidly approaching dark clouds when he abruptly spun around and said with a beaming smile:

"That doesn't mean I'm not a shaman though."

"It doesn't?"

I suddenly felt the conversation was starting to get a bit light-headed, when he explained:

"Shamanistic rituals form the basis of a hard core of belief in existentialist individualism, a wave breaker of people against the tsunami of pragmatic atavism of today's profit-driven societies. Part of the SSSD manifesto stands for -"

I couldn't resist interrupting the bullshit storm so I told him with a straight face:

"I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with that SS thing. Is it, like, Hitler's SS?"

"What? No, no. It's the Societé des Shamans et Sorciers-Docteurs."

The man seemed impervious to sarcasm.

"That's German, isn't it?"

"No, it's french for the Society of Shamans and Witch Doctors."

Even though he was probably right, I was pretty convinced that French and German were one and the same. At least, originally.

"So you got your own thing going? Shamanizing? Actually, is that a real word?"

"Well, the internet's helped a lot, you know? Coming together, feeling the buzz, spreading the word, but what's -"

One of the few things that I really feared apart from dying gruesomely in the hands (holding sharp instruments of death implied) of Falconi's goons was being surrounded by miracle workers, televangelists and all sorts of religious yahoos that sounded just as coherent and sincere as that church of something where rich, famous, short actors used to go to find out the real truth.

"Listen, I'm in a bit of a hurry. I really have to get to Memphis, like really soon. Actually I should have been almost half way there by now. Say, you wouldn't be on your way to Memphis would you? I'd be very grateful -"

"Dead!" he suddenly exclaimed raising his hands as if a switch had been turned on.

"What?"

"My horse is dead."

"I kind of noticed that. It hasn't moved since it spewed its - what I meant to say was, could you drop me off with your car?"

"I don't have a car."

"Your bike?"

"No bike either," he said, and shook his head.

"Your other horse?" I asked in vain.

"Awatame was my friend and only steed for many years. May he rest in peace," he said with a genuine sadness that quickly passed over his features as well.

"The horse had a name?"

I felt that was the wrong thing to say but he didn't seem to be offended. He rather asked me with a slim smile:

"Have you heard of a horse with no name?"

His question had a curious ring to it but I couldn't quite remember why.

"Look, we could go on like this for hours but not today. In about twenty hours or so, give or take, some really pissed off people with very little in the way of ethics considerations concerning the sanctity of human life are going to come looking for me, and my instincts tell me to run and hide, and they're usually right. You might think I'm pulling your leg here, having killed your horse and so on but -"

He took off his feathery hat and straightened his hair. He said with unnerving casualness:

"Yeah, you vouched for Dempsey, and when he vanished into thin air with thirty million in Falconi's bonds, he gave you another shot - the Veteran's Fund job. Problem is, John Staikos blew up along with his brother's-in-law chop shop, and took the job with him down the sinkhole. You're not a gun-crazed ape so you can't deal with Falconi going in, guns blazing.

You are the careful, studied planner who has taken everything into consideration and has mathematically proven you need John to pull off the job. You can't just pretend to do the job and get caught because then Falconi would take care of you in the jail anyhow. You can't find a replacement - no less in such a short notice - because John was the only guy who has cut open a vault like that, ever. You're thinking about flying away with Eileen's help. Maybe hide somewhere in Mexico, or in the Andes. Or maybe someplace real deep in the Amazon."

I watched in stunned silence as flies the size of hummingbirds buzzed around the horse. I managed to ask him what I believed was a valid question under the circumstances:

"How the fuck do you know all that?"

"I told you, I'm a shaman. I resonate with mother Earth. I communicate with the spirits. I conversed with John, actually. We were drinking buddies back in the college days. He asked me to help a friend in need. So here I am."

Instincts took over so I couldn't believe a god-damn thing he was saying so I reverted to what should be the most logical explanation according to my experience as a fund displacement engineer:

"You're a Fed, right? This is some kind of elaborate setup. You've been monitoring me for some time know and you want me to confess, put Falconi behind bars, put me in witness protection. I can see the snipers, I'm not stupid. Let me tell you, not a chance. Falconi will find a way to kill me. So I'm not buying this. Oh, and I don't know who he is. Or what's his name. I'm not talking man. You got nothing on me."

I think I had said pretty much everything I wasn't supposed to say but once more that wouldn't prove to be much of a problem.

"John said you'd be hard to convince. What if I can answer only something the two of you would ever know?"

"You could have gotten to him, tortured him for every little detail. Heck, you might've blown him up just to throw a wrench in Falconi's job."

"I guess you're also thinking we didn't land on the moon."

"Of course we landed on the moon, in '53. The landings in '69 were just a cover-up to discredit all the -"

"I get the picture. What if he told you himself? Would that be enough to make you believe?"

"So it's a ruse? He's alive, right? Working with the Feds? Are we still on, Steve? Or should I call you Agent Johnson?"

I smiled smugly and thought I had him nailed right over there. Things looked like they could still turn out OK in the end. Maybe we'd have a cold one at a strip joint, and laugh about it surrounded by well-endowed professional dancers with allergies to any sort of garment. I couldn't be farther away from reality.

"I'm afraid he's pretty dead. Bought the proverbial farm. But, you're still on."

"We are? How?"

"Like this," Steve said and closed his eyes before he started dancing. At first I thought it was part of keeping in par with the whole Indian routine, doing the rain dance and shrieking like a baboon. But the way he tip-toed, spun and jumped into the air, then gracefully landing and doing a pirouette reminded me of soft ballerina's shoes, stockings and New York Times articles on homophobia.

Instinctively I took a couple of steps back watching with increasing horror as Steven pranced around the dead horse with arms extended like paws, and suddenly all I could think of was Michael Jackson and zombies. I was about to break into a hopeless run thinking that nut-jobs usually can't afford snipers until they're elected in office and then I saw John as a bluish, thin apparition seeping out from the horse.

He was wearing goggles over his eyes and had a blow torch in hand; he was looking rather pale which under any circumstances seemed only natural. I was about to yell 'Hologram!' when he uncannily zipped right next to me and said:

"Bobby, my man. The Taurus got totaled, huh? Bummer."

"John?"

"Where you expecting someone else?"

Needless to say I did the first thing that came to my ape-descendant brain: I tried to poke him with a finger but it went right through him. Then I tried not to faint, and I remember I heard Steve say:

"Tell him it's all true."

Then John, or his apparition, or his astral projection or whatever it was I was technically talking to said:

"It's all true."

"See? I told you," said Steve and smiled encouragingly while my eyes darted back and forth trying to find some point of reference that would explain all this and keep my brain from melting. That mostly failed. My lips moved but nothing came out of my mouth except perhaps some drool.

"Huh?"

John the Ghost, or John the Apparition, or the Spirit Formerly known as John said:

"Don't try to understand, at least not now. Steve's a buddy, so do what he says and he'll fix us both up. I might actually help you live through it and make it in time for the game on Saturday as well."

Steve popped a question with a frown:

"Buffalo?"

"Nah, Nicks. So, Bobby. I'm counting on you. I gotta run now, some attendant's busting my balls, says I parked on a handicapped spot."

And just like that, before I could breathe in and out, he vanished. I managed to make sounds like words again. Almost.

"Uh. Um. That was John?"

Steve nodded 'yes' with his head.

"And he wasn't fucking with me? You aren't fucking with me?"

He shook his head in a well-known fashion that in almost any known human culture meant 'no'. I took a few deep breaths while my mind tried to empty itself. It took a while longer than usual this time around.

"So what did he mean? Why is he counting on me? Can someone else do the job for him? Oh, I get it! Can he possess Falconi, make his head spin around and break his neck? Or do some of that weird ghost shit, scare him shitless and make him jump off the 13th floor? Was that a ghost? Or a ghoul? I can't tell the difference, you should know that stuff. I mean you can summon the dead, right?"

I think there was a strange gleam of shocked terror when I said that, so Steve sounded a bit apprehensive:

"You're weird. He's neither. He's in an incorporeal form. His spirit still roams the Earth freely and can be called upon, but his soul is trapped in the afterworld. If he doesn't find the exit soon, he'll be trapped there, forever."

"Yeah, okay, I just talked with a dead guy. So, how can he help me? Can he do the job in that condition?"

"He can't, he's dead. We have to bring him back. Well, you, actually."

"Bring him back from the dead? As in, raise him from the dead? As in, resurrection?"

"Technically, it's not exactly like that. There have been precedents. Lazarus, Jesus. Disney, Elvis. Hitler. It's more like, re-rolling the last dice."

"What, like in a game?"

"Isn't life but just a game?"

"What's with all the philosophical questions today? Maybe ... The accident ... The dead horse ... I was badly injured. I'm in a coma. And I'm seeing these visions, and you're like a spiritual guide but in reality, you're just a figment of my imagination, a creation of my subconscious mind which is trying to stay alive and-"

And then he suddenly punched me really hard in the face. It made my jaw go numb for like a minute or two, and then I knew that for all intends and purposes this was probably real enough.

"Did you imagine that? I don't think so. And to get down to business, John really wants that second chance. I mean who wouldn't? Except maybe people who owe lots of money. But to do that, someone has to vouch for him. If he fails to get that second chance, he and that someone get to serve at the Parking Lot of Eternity as attendants for, well, all Eternity."

"Is that like a valet service for the dead then?"

"You could say so, yes."

"So how are you going to do it?"

"Do what?"

"You know, save John. Give him his second chance, save my life, all that."

"I'm not doing anything like that. You are going to."

"I am? Maybe you are imagining this?"

He looked at me in a funny way that expertly conveyed the message 'do you want another punch in the face?'.

"Yeah, I think you're not imagining it any more than I am. Come to think of it, I'm done for either way, right?"

"The smart money's on that."

Falconi would scour the Earth to get me. I'd have a considerably shortened expiration date and the overall idea of growing old and senile around scantily clad teens that didn't speak a word of English would be thrown out of the window.

I was scared. I was panicked. The instinct of fleeing in the face of insurmountable odds and grave danger overcame my cold, calculating sense of reason, even though I was starting to reconsider the meaning of the word 'reason'. If all that were true, if indeed there was the slightest hope of John coming back from the dead, and doing the job, what did I have to lose apart from my sanity?

"Okay. I'll do it. What do I have to do?"

"Collect spirit shards."

"What, is this like Zelda or something?"

Steve looked puzzled, as if I had just said something in Swahili.

"What's Zelda? Some new age Zen crap? Because the spirits will be angry if-"

"No, it's a game on the Nintendo."

"What's a Nintendo?"

"The Wii?"

"We, what?"

"Forget about Zelda, she can be a real bitch anyway. What kind of spirit shards are you talking about?"

"Real spirit shards, from willing souls. I need to perform a certain ritual for each and every soul that is willing to merge a part of it with yours."

Instincts kicked in so I couldn't help asking:

"Will that hurt?"

"No, I don't think so."

"You don't think so?"

"I don't. I haven't done it before."

I should have known I'd hear that phrase at some point in the discussion.

"Oh, that's just classic. I mean, what is this, amateur shaman night? You haven't done it before?"

"Have you talked with lots of dead people?"

"Not really, no. Just John back there."

"Well, that's because it's pretty fucking rare. So are spirit shards. Souls are very fickle and rarely accept such a thing."

"Right. And how are we going to pull that soul-catching off then?"

"I have something in mind. At least someplace we can start."

"Whatever, I'm game as long I get to keep my head and my balls attached. Do you know how to do your stuff?"

"I'm qualified. I've taken classes."

That sounded as reassuring as an old lady armed with a sewing needle. I'd seen stranger stuff just a couple of minutes earlier but I just spurted the words:

"You can't be serious. Does it involve dancing like a queer?"

"I am. Serious, I mean. And if you mean 'ballet', it does. We need to act quickly. And you need to get us some transportation. Hitchhiking a ride might do the trick."

"Why me?"

"You're the white, respectable-looking guy."

"I'm a god-damn thief. And I got some Latino blood in me too, I'm not all 'whitey'. I have this thing for salsa and tortillas, someone in the family must've been an hombre."

Steve looked at me with a vaguely mixed feeling somewhere between pity and disgust.

"I said respectable-looking. Don't blame me for your society's prejudices against minorities."

"Minorities? I thought it was your society as well. That you had integrated, and so on."

"That's just what we tell folks at job interviews. Now, remember I'm only doing this as a favor to John. I'm not sure we can be buddies yet, so remember that as well."

A slightly uneasy silence followed as we both looked onto the street, hunting for a passing ride. At some point I felt like I just had to ask:

"He owes you money, right?"

"Yeah. Two hundred bucks. Said he had some debt he needed to pay off fast."

"That's funny, he owed me two hundred bucks."

Steve looked at me wide-eyed and exclaimed:

"Well, dress me up like Custer and shoot me full of arrows. That's karma, come a lyin'."

"Don't sing that, I hate Culture Club."

"Don't sing what? You mean like a choir club?"

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Story tagged with:
Fiction / Humor / Paranormal /