The catnip spray made her naked form easy to find. Her ectoplasmic hands clutched at the back of a sofa. Gaunt and wrinkly. Would be nice to extract an attractive ghost for a change.
Ralph lumbered over to her, activated the acetone spray, set the wetvac nozzle against her hands, and broke her grip on the fabric. Her drug-addled wail was faint but audible as she was sucked in. Every time, he thought, I get shaky every time.
He walked out the front door of the house and slipped between the plastic sheeting that covered it. Mrs. Calassi was standing in the driveway waiting for him, dressed like she was going to play tennis. She’d been watching his performance on a tablet. Her expression shifted between frightened and disgusted.
Ralph set down the wetvac, which shuddered, turned off the camera mounted on his hood and pulled his head gear off. “There you go, Mrs. Calassi, the ghost is gone.”
“That’s terrible! Her face- she could have been my mother.”
Or mine. “Don’t feel too bad, Mrs. Calassi. She was infesting your house. But she’s drugged, trapped and gone. And with Hauntfree ongoing inspection coverage, we can suck up any recurrence.”
Ralph stepped over to his van, grabbed his cell phone and sent a text. “The crew will be here shortly to pull off the sheeting and hoses and vacuum up the Catnip. “There’s a balance of seven thousand for the extermination and sixty-five hundred for the two-year inspection agreement.”
She stared at the quivering wetvac. “Ah, Mr. Cramden, about the inspections, the cost of your exorcism has cleaned us out. We really can’t afford them.”
Ralph knew what he was supposed to tell her. That houses once haunted are apparition prone, and that without the coverage they’d be charged full price for another removal. But ghosts weren’t house bound, and almost never moved back into a house that’d been fumigated. And he knew from their credit check that the couple were almost completely buried in debt. And she’d been nice.
He shrugged. “Mrs. Calassi, we recommend the inspection coverage, but it’s not mandatory. If you like I’ll take it off the bill.
Thelma’s relief was apparent. “Thank you.” After Ralph revised the bill down, she touched her phone to his and Visa took over.
Once stripped out of the hazmat suit and back in the van, Ralph called his office. “Hi Sarah, one for the toilet, paid like you see on your screen. Anything else?”
“Hey, Ralph. The beta crew just wrapped a house on Longview for a late afternoon fumigation. Want some overtime?”
“You know I could use the money.” For the Bitch Queen’s alimony.
”Couple’s name is Norten. They’ve paid in advance so just suck ‘em up and drop ‘em. Nobody’ll be there, but they’ve given us the code for the security alarm. Are you gassy enough?”
Ralph checked his gauges. “Got plenty of acetone, but I’m low on toluene and nitrous oxide. Powdered catnip should be topped up as well.”
“Swing by. You can flush your critter while you get gassed.”
“Will do.” As Ralph settled behind the steering wheel, he could smell the chemicals that had infiltrated his suit. He’d wondered about slipping under the tarp and getting high on happy juice and glue solvent, but he’d seen too many whacked out ghosts with frozen screams. And it was a contact high for the non-breathing ghosts, while Ralph could get his lungs eaten out.
First stop once back at the facility was to hook his wetvac up to the tank, reverse the suction, and squirt his new friend into the holding pen. Company PR said that the ghosts remained incarcerated at the facility, but Ralph suspected that a few ghosts built a tolerance for the catnip and were able to sneak off. We’re just gamekeepers, ensuring that enough ghosts are loose that we always have work.
The nitrous oxide and acetone were no problem to handle, flammability aside, but toluene was different, more poisonous and volatile. The powdered catnip, soporific of choice for cats and ghosts, was merely messy. Once his van was replenished, Ralph called the office back.
“Sarah? Armed and dangerous, and on my way back out.”
“Stay suited, Ralphie.”
“Aw, you care.”
“Don’t be a dumbass.”
Under the plastic sheeting the bones of the house looked old, but the owners had gentrified it beyond architectural principles or good taste. Ralph rang the doorbell and waited, but there was no response. When he opened the door the alarm started beeping, and he quickly keyed in the code.
Step one was a walk through to establish the nozzle placements. He found some light switches and turned them on, then walked from the entry hall into a great room. And dropped his tablet with a clatter.
An old ghost with a scraggy Van Dyke beard was seated in a leather easy chair. He didn’t float up. “Mr. Cramden, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Please don’t try and run out, I’ve bolted the door. If you’ll listen for just a few minutes I’ll explain how you can earn a great deal of money.”
Ralph pulled out his emergency aerosol of Specter Spew and pointed it at the apparition. “Easy or hard, spooky, you’re the one that’ll be leaving.” Then he hesitated. “It’s daylight still. How the hell can you appear? And how do you know my name?” He squeezed off a quick warning spray of holy water.
The ghost flinched back ten feet behind the chair. “Call me Ed Norten, good as any name. Daylight’s excruciatingly painful and draining, so I have to be quick. Tell me Ralph, do you know the effects your drugs have on ghosts?”
“Sure. Our chemicals knock the ghosts unconscious, we contain and remove them. No, wait, do you mean how the ghosts feel? They’re high as hell, so great.”
“Your cocktail produces an ecstatic high, but it’s also viciously addictive. Once the ghosts come back down they spend their spectral existence trying to repeat the narcotic effect.” Ed Norten smiled, not pleasantly.
Get a grip on your dick, Ralph told himself, you’re the one that’s armed. “Look, whatever you are, you mess with me and the whole company moves in and treats you with special attention.”
Norten waved a hand that Ralph could just see the drapes through. “Relax, Ralph, there’s no point in my driving you insane. I have a proposition.”
“No deals, clammy. If you’re not gone by the time I start spraying I’ll be taking you with me.”
“That’s almost what I want you to do. Hear me out. Want a drink? I can load up a brandy snifter for you.”
“Drop really dead, you mind fart.”
“Ah Ralph, always listen to a proposal before reverting to unthinking. The Nortens are expecting a cleansing, and you’ll give it to them. I’ll be gone beforehand.”
“So why are we still talking?”
“Because two extra ghosts will be here for you to drug.”
“I don’t understand.”
The ghost sighed. “So dense. You’re going to become my dealer. You’ll tip me off about the next drug spraying and I’ll insert an extra ghost or two so they can get high.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Money of course. With your free hand, reach over to the bookcase and take the money from the middle shelf.”
“Ralph reached over, picked up the wad, and one-hand riffled through it. Mostly twenties with a few hundreds, maybe two grand.
The ghost nodded. “Future payments would be the same. All you have to do is tip me off as to time and location. I’ll take care of the rest. You just do your job.”
“I’ll get fired. No way!”
Norten’s expression flicked and Ralph had a peek at something rotted. “How have you survived this long, Ralph? As we’ve been talking I’ve keyed into you. You could move to Ecuador and not lose me. If you continue to refuse I’ll make your life the kind of hell the living pay you to get rid of.”
Ralph felt sweat on his neck and forehead. “Why would you want to make addicts of your own kind?”
“They’re already addicts, Ralph, I’m just helping them along.”
Ralph put the Specter Spew back in its holster. “But you don’t need money, what’s in it for you?”
The ghost glided over in front of Ralph. Ralph smelled dry corruption. “You wouldn’t understand the words, Ralph, but here’s the sensations.” It touched a finger the color of milkweed sap to Ralph’s forehead. His senses caught fire, tinted vision of shifting, moving beings, smells of earth and rot, touch that reached inside another, couplings with complete penetration of each other’s bodies. “My God, you can do that with the women?”
“And much more. When you encounter ghosts they are as most of them died, old and ugly. But they live night after night in the times and forms they prefer, nubile and intelligent, acutely aware. Your drugs give them an ecstatic overload that they desperately want to get back to.”
The white finger moved away and Ralph nodded. “I understand I guess, but you don’t need money. What’s in it for you?”
Norten’s expression was more leer than smile. “Our currency is emotional. Ectoplasmic sex, revenge for slights, power over another ghost. What I exact from them is none of your business, but it’s exquisitely pleasant and manipulative. I have two manipulees waiting. Shall we proceed?”
The ghost’s senses had clouded Ralph’s thoughts, and he shook his head hard to clear it. All that money meant a new car, hell, a whole new lifestyle. “How do you get the money?”
“Ghosts drift in and out of secret compartments and hidey holes all the time. If you’d rather I could arrange payment in jewelry or gold coins.”
Ralph realized that his arms and legs were trembling “I’ll take that drink.”
“So,” Ralph continued as he sipped, “you’re telling me that ghosts don’t stay confined in our holding tanks?”
“Most do, but not all. You keep them tranqued on catnip, but some develop a tolerance, slip out of the tank and come looking for me so they can get high again. Who am I to deny them?”
“Why would your customers use Hauntfree rather than Ghost Be Gone or any other service?”
“Some business you’d continue to get from your company’s routine sales efforts. Ghosts who’ve approached me would use their powers of suggestion to steer the homeowners to you.”
“Oh. How long would I have to do it?”
“How long do you want to be rich?”
Ralph hesitated, but there didn’t seem to be any downside. The addicted ghosts had no incentive to rat him out.
“Okay, I agree to tip you off to my cleansing schedule, and let you bring in your Jonesing ghosts.”
“That’ll do nicely. Finish your brandy and let’s get to work.”
Ralph didn’t even have to make phone calls to Ed. Once he was given his schedule he visualized Norten’s appearance and the ghost picture would nod once it learned the destination. The money would appear on the kitchen counter of Ralph’s apartment immediately after he’d sucked up the druggies. Management was happy that Ralph had gotten more efficient in extracting specters and gave him a decent raise. The new Escalade treated Ralph well, and he found attractive company he could rent. Life was good.
Almost good. Ralph began to recognize repeat business. Distended limbs; blotchy, haggard expressions; suppurating pale wounds, incoherent. Increasingly, eternally maimed by each iteration. He sensed that he was condemning these spirits to an ever-worsening hell.
Late one Thursday evening, Ralph rolled in from a gentlemen’s club to find his hidden money stash piled on the kitchen table. A voice rumbled from behind him. “About time you showed up, fatso. We know what you’re doing with that swish spook. You want to keep this money you’re gonna be working with us.”
Ralph had almost muddied himself. With no aerosol handy he was at the mercy of whatever psychological torture the spindly ghost wanted to inflict. He visualized Norten, but saw that Norten was being held by two large spirits. He was on his own.
“Ah,” Ralph said. It was a start. “Ah, who are you?”
“Call me Preston. And I already shit canned your spray bombs, so don’t bother looking. Here’s the deal. Norten already admitted after a little prodding that he pays you three grand a visit.”
Good for you, Norten.
“You don’t do nothing with Norten anymore. We’re going to addict him and let him help pay his way. You work for us, same money.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because, you shit-brained air breather, we’re going to addict your buddy and turn him into a paying customer. You want the money, you work for us.”
Ralph’s used-to-be-Catholic conscience had given him the glimmer of an idea. “Well, you already got Norten, so I guess I have to cooperate. But if I understand this stuff, Norten’s got to take his focus off of me so you can put it on, right?”
“I’ve got calls scheduled tomorrow, but the day after I can get to the Norten’s house and we can make the swap.”
“You don’t want me to do that, it puts my job at more risk.”
Preston screeched like rusty subway wheels. “All right, the day after afternoon at Norten’s house. Keep the money, carrion eater.” Preston’s ectoplasm flaked and dissolved.
Ralph was too scared to sleep, so he put the night to use, getting more efficient as he sobered up. Then he called in sick and kept working on what he needed.
Preston, his two after death goons and Norten were all waiting for Ralph in the great room of the Norten’s house. “In here, bowel boy,” Preston ordered. Ralph walked in carrying a paint gun.
One of the goons giggled. “You gonna shoot at us with that?”
“Yeah,” Ralph replied, shouldered the gun and fired three quick shots into Preston and his friends. Their screams were the scrapings of steel nails on glass, almost piercing Ralph’s ear drums. He pumped several more pellets into the writhing ectoplasms, stopping only when their shapes deflated into saggy bags decorated with spots of seeping yellow-green paste.
Norten, no longer being held, drifted over. “What just happened?”
“A mixture of catnip to slow their reflexes and holy water as bon voyage. As the pellet passes into the ghost the holy water vaporizes. Bitch to get it into those pellets. ” Ralph swung the pellet gun toward Norten. “We’re renegotiating the contract.”
“Ralph, thank you so much for getting rid of those hoodlums, but we already have a deal.”
“I’m changing it. From now on, when you get repeat business, they’re going to exit without recycling. You can promise them one last rapture before they move on. They’re desperate for the fix, they’ll take it. I gas them just like usual, then use Bertha here to dispatch them. Lets me feel better about myself.”
“But Ralph, your business will suffer.”
“Not much. People keep dying, ghosts keep showing up. We drug them up the first time, if they come back we dispatch them the next. Tidy.”
Ralph smiled. “Oh, and I want that three grand a house you told Preston I was getting.”
By Edward Ahern
EPA hazardous waste.