Chapter 1: Entrepreneurial Spirits
Jackson Graves sat across the table from his client, the mirror-dark sunglasses on his nose hiding the piercing brown eyes beneath. He straightened the long, black tie the same shade of his suit as he momentarily caught his reflection in the window. His chocolate-color skin was a contrasted against the orange light of a dying day. His broad, rounded face maintained a veneer of dispassionate detachment, even as he typed on his smartphone.
Across from him, an elderly woman viewed a document placed before her with a slight smile on her face. A floral pattern dress covered her wrinkled and sun-burnt skin, while her fingers twirled bleached white coils. Her green eyes turned upwards to Jackson, widening as she placed both her hands down in apprehension.
"It's good my family has everything sorted, but I can't help but worry about him."
"I'm still waiting on results, Mrs. Hill," Jackson said. "The man on the other end of my phone's still new to this."
"Can't he work faster?" Mrs. Hill said, hissing as she leaned forwards.
"No. Stay back, please," Jackson locked his eyes with the old woman, and tapped on the smartphone directly in front of him. Mrs. Hill's emerald eyes and hands twitched moved like a junkie needing a fix. For a split second, he felt the tension rise. His heart began to race as he noticed Mrs. Hill obsessively staring at him. The financial consultant had planned for several possibilities, but few remained intact after facing reality.
"Give me that!"
She reached across the table, but Jackson moved faster. He pulled an object from beneath the table, and swung it at the would-be assailant. A cherry-wood bokken, a training sword, swept through the air and cut across Mrs. Hill's exposed palms. The cuts flickered like the predatory creatures of the eldritch depths, as he kept the weapon pointed at her neck. Mrs. Hill, realizing the futility of her actions, sat back down. Jackson kept the weapon on the table as a reminder.
Mrs. Hill closed her eyes and folded her hands around her chest. "I-I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me—"
"Just don't do it again," he said, recalling that the recently deceased could be emotionally unstable. If they succumbed, they could easily go poltergeist.
An awkward silence descended upon them as Jackson folded his hands on the table and Mrs. Hill ruminated to herself. He had many things to say, but his experience with ghosts held his tongue. As he exhaled, his phone buzzed. He and his spectral client looked down at the phone. The medium read the text from his phone, but Mrs. Hill waited for news with wide, hopeful eyes.
"He's been adopted by a family from Philadelphia."
Mrs. Hill raised her hands high as she rejoiced. "Oh, thank God! I was so worried that if I went somewhere and—"
"Now we've ensured your cat's taken care of," Jackson said. "Do you have any other business?"
Mrs. Hill put her hand under her chin, and began thinking. Jackson waited quietly, observing the ghost in his dining room with his hands never straying far from the bokken. For a moment, he felt something twist within his stomach. He could not quite place the sensation, but he could not help but shake the vague unease of looming pain. He looked at his client, as if she could explain what had just occurred.
At the same moment, a wave crossed Mrs. Hill's ectoplasmic form. A visual distortion not unlike ripples in a pond flowed across her face and body. She stared onwards, in silent disbelief in what was occurring. When the first wave reached the other end of her body, the anomaly had vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She frantically touched herself with her cut hands, as if her body had changed shape without her. "What's going on?"
"It's gone," Jackson noted. "Now, is there any more business?"
"N-no. That's it," Mrs. Hill said. "I-I'm still sorry for—"
"Don't worry. Let go of worry and regret. You won't need them where you're going."
"I suppose," Mrs. Hill said. "I'm sorry for everything. I just wanted to make sure Fluffy's doing well."
"And he is."
Mrs. Hill said nothing for a moment, as her body became increasingly translucent. Her eyes closed, and her ectoplasmic wounds ceased to gleam. She glimmered for an instant, as her form dissipated like fragile blossoms in the wind. The moment she finally disappeared, Jackson wondered what the ultimate fate of the apparition was. Whether it was oblivion or some afterlife, it would no longer haunt the living. Such concerns were for philosophers, not for financial consultants moonlighting as mediums.
Jackson sat quietly for a moment before hearing another voice behind him. "I have to say, you really handed it to her."
He turned to see his personal assistant, the ghost of a teenager who used to live next door. Liz Townes walked through the door from the nearby office, an eternal teenager untouched by death. She was dressed in a teal shirt and blue jeans, mutable shifts of ectoplasm detailed enough to pass for clothing. Her golden hair, light skin, and blue eyes were not unattractive, but few people that would ever see her appearance.
"Not quite," Jackson said, ignoring the attempt at humor. "But did you feel something strange?"
"Yeah. I felt like I was going to puke, but realized how lucky I was not to have a stomach."
"You know what it was?"
"Eh, no. I was hoping you'd know," Liz shrugged.
"Well, it looked like a wave spread across her body, like I tossed a rock into a pond."
"And which direction did the ripples come from?" Liz asked. "I was too dizzy to tell."
"That way," Jackson said, tracing his finger from left to right. "As if they came from the west—"
"Oh, yeah," Liz said. "That's near Byfield, right?"
Jackson recalled his younger brother had recently moved out there, balancing a job with his university studies.
"Yeah, I'm going to check on Pierce. At least when he lived here, checking on him was easier."
Jackson called his brother and put the phone against his ear. Part of his mind juggled worry and fear, but curiosity dominated his consciousness. Unlike him, his brother was not gifted with the ability to see ghosts. Whatever had occurred, he hoped it would not affect his brother. He'd almost lost his brother once, and he was in no urge to have it happen again. He'd spent years of his life working to put him through college, so he could graduate with that engineering degree he'd been working on.
As the phone rang, Jackson was sure Pierce would pick it up. Instead, the call was unceremoniously diverted into voicemail, where Jackson struggled to compose himself. "Hey, Pierce. I wanted to thank you for earlier. Can you call me back ASAP?"
Jackson terminated the call and sent a text to be sure. His protective instincts raised his blood pressure as nightmare scenarios bubbled up from his imagination. He grit his teeth, destroying the façade of stoicism he had displayed just minutes before. He grabbed the bokken and walked out towards the driveway, where a sleek black car awaited. Liz followed behind him, floating through walls and objects in her way.
"Don't tell me you're driving over to check up on him," she said, rolling her eyes. "Maybe he's just distracted by work or videogames?"
"Even so, there's another place in Byfield we're going," Jackson recalled a specialist in occult and supernatural lore. "After the Ripton Ravager, I'm not taking any chances with beings that can harm ghosts."
"Okay, I've just checked the trunk. Your pistol, bulletproof vest, and first aid kit are right where you left 'em."
"And this," he said, setting the bokken down. "Dealing with bipolar spirits is bad enough. That other stuff's for things that bleed."
Jackson turned the key in the ignition, and pulled out of the driveway. Behind him, he took a quick glance at the distant skyscrapers of Port Ripton. The towering monuments to Mammon rose after Port Ripton prostituted itself before financial firms, earning it the unenviable moniker of the Loophole City. As he left Ripton behind him, Jackson prayed his brother was safe from the beasts that lurked in his fears. To his brother's credit, Pierce always was savvy enough to avoid the ones that dwelt in the distant office buildings. Jackson could not help but agree with the sentiment as he tore along the asphalt ribbons that led out of town.