The Ghost of Tom Johns By: Matt Mitchell At dawn Slick approached the Outpost dragging a dirty pine coffin

across the sandy beach. He’d worked hard that night and was tired, but still had a lot to do before he could rest. A hard thump sounded from the coffin and Slick stopped, eyeing it for a moment before continuing, nodding his head as if in tune to a song heard only by him. When he got to the Outpost he dragged the coffin inside and stood there for a minute. He took a rosary from the front pocket of his jeans and lifted the lid of the coffin, holding the rosary out in front of him. Inside, there was a gray, withered corpse of a man and two buckets of iced beers. He took the buckets out and eased the lid back into place, noticing the cadaver’s right hand was giving him the bird. Slick drank one of the beers and collapsed in a chair, too weary to continue. Within minutes he was asleep, and didn’t wake up until three hours later, jumping out of the chair and getting busy with his preparations. Some time later, he was singing, sitting on the bare-sand floor, “That voodoo, baby, that you do…” He was wearing motorcycle boots and jeans and a thick black belt. It was hot, so he’d taken his shirt off. Every now and then he would pick it up to wipe the sweat off his face and chest and armpits. His hair was greasy and blond and hung down in his eyes. His beard stubble was four days old. In one of his hands was a small wooden bowl and in his other hand was a muddling tool, which he was using to mash the fruit of a honey-locust tree into paste. Finishing that task, he sprinkled a little bone dust into the paste and muddled it some more. He kept adding ingredients here and there and muddling, occasionally picking up his shirt to wipe his face off, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Once his mixture was complete he began dipping locust thorns into it, one by one, until he’d collected about fifty of them. The afternoon waned, but Slick sang on, “let me live, beneath your spell… won’t you tell me dear, why, when you appear…” He knew some of the words but had no clue about the tune so he just crooned happily without care that he was mucking it up. The walls of the Outpost were block, each with a small square window except the north wall, which had the door. All the openings were covered with loose canvas curtains that were whipped about by the briny ocean breeze. As darkness fell Slick built a small fire in the center of the hut’s floor, the smoke rising and dissipating through a hole in the peak of the thatch roof. Beside him lay his leather satchel. There was a chair behind him with a wooden frame. It had thick, worn, mottled brown cushions, and the remaining ice bucket with a few beers left, covered with a small square towel. His tee-shirt hung over the back of the chair, wet with sweat. He could smell wood fire smoke and sea brine on the breeze. He worked through the afternoon, making his preparations. It was going to be a busy night, touch-and-go at best. Later, he heard a sharp thump and his eyes glanced to his right where the pine coffin sat, closed, against the wall. He’d already put the shotgun back in the coffin under the corpse, but there were other things to worry about more than the shotgun. He swallowed and shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He scratched his head and stood up, his expression stern and he stepped over beside the coffin. Another thump sounded from within. He opened the coffin. Tom Johns had been the name on the tombstone, and he was valuable because he was a man who’d died but never found the will to move on to the other side. The corpse lay there, unmoving, but

bound by thick hemp rope. Slick reached into the coffin and suddenly the corpse was shocked to life, writhing and moaning. Slick drew back momentarily, but shook his head and reached into the coffin and pushed a tuft of what looked like green grass back inside of the ropes. The corpse fell straight back into its rictus-faced death posture, still as the night. The only things that suggested it might not simply be a rotting corpse were the clearly unrotted eyes that stared up with hatred as Slick reached down to slide the lid back into the place. Before the lid was completely closed, however, Slick noticed the butt of his shotgun had come out from under Tom Johns’s shoulder. He slid the stock of the shotgun back underneath the corpse. Then he pushed the lid back into place, breathing a little sigh of relief as he did. Slick checked his watch, then picked up his satchel and pulled a box of twelve gauge shells from it. He put four shells in each of his two front jeans pockets, then put the rest back in the bag. He just had time enough to sit down and pull a beer from the icy bucket underneath his chair when a thick, deep voice spoke from outside the door. “Fear the night,” the voice said. The proper reply, according to the agreement, was turn on the lights, but Slick was never one to follow proper procedure. “Fear me instead,” Slick said, taking cigarettes from his satchel and lighting one with a stick from the fire. The door’s curtain pushed aside and a man walked into the room, stopping just inside the doorway. He was wearing a thick, black cloak with a hood pulled over his head. He reached up with black-gloved hands and pulled the hood back to reveal a severely disfigured face: one eye was sewn shut with thick, visible stitching. One corner of his mouth sagged as if he’d had a stroke and was also stitched shut. His skin had the appearance of tanned leather where it wasn’t scarred or marred in some way, but there were no open sores visible. “You’re healing up well, Rushdie,” Slick said with a wry smile. His accent was British, but he was far from Great Britain. He was on the gulf coast of Florida with the vast Everglades behind him. The tropical breeze continued to play at the curtains. “Mary wants her merchandise,” Rushdie said. His voice was gravelly and slurred. “Mary’s welcome to it,” Slick said, nodding toward the coffin. “Tom Johns himself, in a wrapper.” There was a sound outside like an auto and the glow of headlights swam across the walls. Slick observed the light and then gave his visitor a sideways glance and a half-grin and said: “You got followed, mate.” The man’s ragged face managed to look offended. “No.” Slick drank the rest of his beer in one long draught. “We’ll see, then, won’t we?” he said, wiping his mouth. “Hello?” came a voice from outside. “Come on in,” Slick said. The curtain moved aside and a man cautiously entered, wearing jeans and a brown jacket with a badge on it. His service revolver was drawn but aimed at the ground. He paused when he saw Rushdie. “Don’t mind him,” Slick said to the ranger. “His name’s Rushdie. He’s a demihuman, but he won’t bite you.” “And what’s your name?” the ranger asked. “Slick,” he said with half a smile and a sideways glance. “But I’m just a human.”

The ranger looked at Rushdie, but then locked back onto Slick, and Slick knew right then that the ranger was in Rushdie’s pocket. “Got any i.d.?” the ranger asked. “Up my arse,” Slick said, then added, nodding toward Rushdie, “Settle something for me, did you or did you not follow this pig’s arse here?” The ranger looked at Rushdie. “I didn’t.” “Liar,” Slick said. Rushdie and the cop were definitely in cahoots. Slick was almost surprised he was still alive by now. “What’s in the box?” the ranger asked. “Same thing that’s up your arse,” Slick said. “Shite.” The ranger mocked offence, then raised his revolver and aimed it at Slick. “On the floor, now,” he said. “You too,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Rushdie, but keeping the gun on Slick. Rushdie’s face registered vague offence at the ranger’s demand, but then he averted his eyes and looked like he was searching the ceiling for a bird or a bee that might be flying around. Once Slick was flat in the sand with his hands on his head the ranger looked at Rushdie and said, “You get your rotted ass on the floor right now.” Slick smirked, face in the sand, knowing that one of Mary’s boys would never debase himself by bowing to any authority, no matter what deal they’d struck. As if in answer to Slick’s thought, Rushdie did kneel, but went no further and, in fact, if anything, only held his chin higher still. The ranger seemed satisfied well enough with this gesture and turned his attention to the coffin. With one eyebrow cocked, he said, “Now, what have we here?” With the toe of his boot he tested the lid of the coffin and, finding it loose, flicked it over and off the pine box. “Ooh, that ain’t good,” he said. He turned and eyed Slick and clucked his tongue and said, “What is it, child slavery? Molestation?” he asked. Slick and Rushdie exchanged looks, and then looked back up at the ranger, who ordered Slick to crawl over beside Rushdie. Then he made them both put their hands on their heads, and asked them to “fill in the details.” “Well, it’s like this,” Slick said, “This gimp here called me and asked for a ghost. Only a ghost ain’t so easy to deliver, see? You need a vessel, so I had to dig his body up so I could transport him. Rushdie’s just a courier.” The ranger’s puzzlement was apparent on his face. “I gotta say,” he said, “I’ve heard a lot of tales in my time but that’s a doozy. So what you’re saying is… this girl here is a ghost?” Again, Slick and Rushdie exchanged looks. “Girl?” Slick asked. A loud snap emanated from the coffin causing all of them to turn toward it. “I guess a ghost made that sound, eh?” the ranger laughed. He spat. Slick was shaking his head. Rushdie remained dour. “Tell you what,” the ranger said. “I’ll forget about all this. You two fellows can leave, the same way you came. But just leave this little girl here. I’ll take care of her.” “HA!” Slick said, his hands still on his head. “You signed on with a bloody necropheliac!” “If you’ll pay closer attention, Slick, I believe I’ve actually signed on with a pederast. He believes Tom Johns is a little girl,” Rushdie said. Slick looked quizzically at the ranger, who was staring transfixed into the coffin, his trousers stiff with his erection. It dawned on Slick that Tom Johns’s ghost was a shape-shifter. “Well this should make the price jump up a bit,” Slick mumbled. “Shape changers are at a premium right now.”

The temperature dropped about fifteen degrees in a moment and the ranger began drooling. The sound of deep, coarse breathing came from the coffin, and the air thickened, as if they were all in a pressurized chamber. “Shit, mate,” Slick said. Disregarding the ranger, he stood up and reached across the open coffin to replace the lid, but he held fast when he felt cold steel press against the knot of bone behind his left ear. “We’ve got to put it back, mate,” Slick said through tightened lips. “Or we’ll all be on tomorrow’s missing person’s poster.” “You’re not doing anything until I get this sorted out,” the ranger said with a snarl. A shock of silence caused Slick to chance a glance at the ranger. What he saw was Rushdie with a very long knife at the ranger’s throat. “Hand me the gun,” Rushdie said, and then, to Slick: “Put the lid back.” When Slick looked back down he saw a smallish girl, about eleven years old, with a pink Power Girls t-shirt and blond pigtails. He gritted his teeth as he closed the lid, her flesh graying and withering as he did back into that of Tom Johns’s. When the lid was in place a loud snap emanated from within, followed by a smell like ground pepper and ash. The ranger said, “You’re making a big mistake.” Rushdie was as calm as he’d been all night. He tucked the gun into his robes somewhere and dragged the ranger back to the place where he’d been standing by the door. Slick chuckled, “You’re double-crossing the guy you were going to double-cross me with. This is rich.” “Quiet,” Rushdie said. With his free hand he pulled a purple amulet from his shirt. “Put this on,” he said to the ranger. The ranger slid the amulet over his neck, and Rushdie closed his eyes and said, “Mary,” releasing the ranger and taking a step away from him. The ranger’s face twisted into a mask of terror and then his body opened up like a sleeping bag from top to bottom, with a splash of blood and entrails, and Mary stepped forward as if she’d been hiding in there all along. “Mary,” Slick said, pinching his nose against the strong, rotten odor of the ranger’s guts. “I had a feeling you’d show up tonight, but damn what an entrance.” Mary, by appearance a short, fat black woman with a huge halo-like afro, surprisingly had no blood or flecks of tissue on her at all. She was wearing dark brown pants and a tan shirt that was v-necked and strained around a pair of gigantic breasts. The v-neck wasn’t what would be considered low-cut but still bared a full foot of cleavage. As she strutted her breasts bounced with each step, and her lips were pursed as if somebody in the room had just said something immensely stupid. “What you playing at, Slick?” she asked, picking at the lipstick at the corner of her mouth with one long, curved fingernail. “I don’t follow, Mare,” he replied. Rushdie remained silent, standing beside the door, as if none of this concerned him. “My nigga is over here sulking like you won’t play the deal with him. You gon’ play the deal or not, Slick?” “I’ll play the deal, Mary. I just don’t want to get screwed.” “Screwed?” she spun around and looked at Rushdie. “Who gon’ screw you?” Slick shrugged, looking at Rushdie, not knowing exactly how to play this, just wanting to get it over with. Finally, he decided that nothing could be gained by admitting the attempted double-cross Rushdie had been planning. In fact, knowing Mary, it could turn out even worse for him if he did. “What a beer, Mare?” Slick asked.

“Well, it’s about time somebody around here remembered how to treat a lady. I would love a beer, darlin’.” “It’s the last one,” he said, handing it to her. She waited for him to open it and took a sip. “So,” she said. “Is that mine?” Slick nodded and took a step toward the coffin. “Hold up,” Mary said. Slick stopped. “What you hidin’, boy?” Mary asked, taking a few steps toward him. Slick shrugged, a fresh blanket of sweat dampening his entire body. It was one thing to play these games with cops and demi-humans, but Mary was a demon of some standing, and if he didn’t play his cards just right, by daybreak he would be strapped to a nice piece of lava rock, screwed in one end with a thorned penis and being pissed in the other end with black, acidic lava-urine. It really didn’t matter which end got which. He took a deep, centering breath and projected as blank an expression as he could muster. Mary looked him up and down, drank a sip from her beer, and then nodded. “Alright,” she said. She cocked her head to the side and added, “Are you my nigga?” Slick nodded, but she shook her head. “Are you my nigga?” “Juliet, I’ll be your Romeo any day,” Slick said. Mary howled with laughter and slapped her hip, then she batted her eyelashes and puckered her lips. “Maybe later, hon. For right now, show me my bag o’ bones.” Slick opened the lid and Mary peered in. Tom Johns’s eyes moved from Slick to Mary and she smiled. “Uh-huh, that’s my boy. Pay the man, Rushdie.” She turned away from the coffin, satisfied finally that the deal was right. Rushdie drew a bag of coins from within his cloak and tossed it to Slick. The weight of gold coins weighed nicely in his hand. “Mind if I close this, Mare?” Slick asked. “Why? You scared?” she asked, smiling. “You been a demon so long that you forgot little ghosties like Tom Johns can still do a lot of damage to us common folk, Mare?” he said, leaning over the coffin. She chuckled. Slick pulled the shotgun and Mary’s head jerked toward him and her eyes flared with fire. He pulled both triggers, knowing he didn’t have time to aim, just leveling the shotgun at her chest. As he did so, Mary’s lips peeled back and her teeth elongated into fangs. She screamed as the honey-locust thorns and buckshot slammed into her chest, blowing twin kickball-sized holes in her--one where each breast should have been. She fell backward against the wall and collapsed, the ragged, bloody pits in her chest smoking. “Mary!” Rushdie said, and leapt to her side just as a humble demi-human demon servant should do. Slick popped open the gun barrels and reloaded them as quickly as he could, knowing that Rushdie was likely going to have to die now. Mary’s eyes were smoking but the fire was gone. Her teeth were still elongated and the curved fingernails she’d earlier brandished were now long, black talons. Several lumps had erupted across her forehead and down her arms suggesting that a few horns might have been in the process of growing on those spots. There were spots of blood on her face and arms, and the holes in her chest were filling with pools of blood. “What have you done?” Rushdie asked, whirling on Slick. “Just what I had to, mate. Same as you.” He clacked the shotgun’s barrels shut and pulled both hammers back. “No! You don’t understand! Without her I’ll die!”

“You’re not dead yet.” Rushdie looked at his hands. “No.” He looked up at Slick. “She’s not dead?” Slick shook his head. “No.” “Then why would you do this?” Slick shrugged. “Money.” “You got your money!” Slick sighed. “Not your money. The Catholics,” he said. “Look, demons might pay a fair amount for a ghost like Tom Johns, but Catholics will pay ten times that for a live demon. They’ve got this dungeon in Italy where they keep them, run tests, that sort of thing. So I doubt she’ll die, she’ll just be in captivity for a few thousand years.” Rushdie nodded. “What’s it going to be, mate?” Slick asked with a smile. Rushdie straightened his back and held his chin high. He looked down at Mary’s body, which looked like it was frozen stiff, her arms straight out and one leg off the floor. “I suppose you’re asking whether I would choose to fight or leave?” he asked. “You can die or run for it, mate, I don’t care which, but you’d best do it now.” Rushdie nodded and bowed. “Then I will take my leave. And bid you good even.” “Whatever,” Slick said, knowing full well that he would soon be hired by someone, somewhere, to get rid of the demi-human that’s stalking them. He watched Rushdie walk through the door. Slick grabbed his satchel and pulled a pair of bolt cutters out. Then he bent over Mary’s body and said, “Mary, I’m sorry about this, I really am.” He shook his head and then, using the bolt cutters, cut the black talons off each of her fingers. Then he pulled out a handful of syringes and drew some blood from her. He took a few hair samples and some tissue, and then he hefted her and put her into the coffin beside Tom Johns and closed the lid. He put his shirt back on and opened the top on his last beer and drank it all down as fast as he could. He put his satchel on across his shoulders, lit a cigarette, and then grabbed the end of the coffin and strained to lift it. “Bugger me!” he said, setting it back down briefly. Then he picked it back up and, straining, dragged it out the door and away from the Outpost. He pulled a newspaper from his satchel and lit the end of it with his lighter, then threw it on top of the Outpost’s thatch roof, which lit ablaze within seconds. He took a drag off his cigarette, stared up at Orion for a few seconds, noticing that the horizon was beginning to lighten. He looked at the ranger’s truck and figured he could use it to get Mary’s body to his van, parked a mile or so up the beach. At dawn Slick departed the Outpost dragging a dirty pine coffin across the sandy beach.

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