He had been hunting for days now.
Nobody ever said hunting was a walk in the park, but at least someone could have informed him about the job prospects: bone-weariness and going for days on end without food. Right now, all he wanted was a burger, a beer and a long cold shower.
No. He couldn’t think of that now. He had to focus. Nothing was more important right now the hunt. The errant soul was always a step ahead of him. He had to think of a way to outsmart and outmaneuver it, bring an end to this. It didn’t help that the soul was indifferent about wasting lives in this game. The longer it took for him to track it down and send it on its way, the more people were going to die.
He had veered too far away from civilization. Was that a good or bad thing? He’d attract less attention, for sure, when he had to perform the exorcism. But he doubted the soul would show up here. Where was here, anyway? Not a soul (well, figuratively speaking) could be seen, and the only thing he heard was … the chugging of a train.
He saw the girl before he spotted the railway tracks.
He could tell if she was alive. She was just lying there on a discarded old green couch, right in the middle of the train tracks.
It struck him as strange – and he was accustomed to strange – that a girl would be lying on a couch on a railway track. So it had to be a trap, then.
Except, what if it wasn’t? Stranger things had happened, hadn’t they?
His brand of saving people didn’t usually involve hauling random girls off train tracks – not unless there was something supernatural involved – but even if the tracks were defunct now, he couldn’t exactly leave her lying there.
Gravel crunched under his boots as he inched his way over to her, hand poised on the hilt of his dagger.
She was young, perhaps in her early twenties; her skin still had the silky, elastic quality endowed by youth. Her pink chiffon dress was shredded and stained with dirt at the hem, but other than that, she didn’t seem to be hurt. Her head lolled over the armrest. She was too pale to be alive, but her lips hadn’t turned blue yet.
He tapped her arm. Too cold. “Miss?”
He felt for her pulse and discerned a faint but sporadic throb under her translucent skin.
In the distance, the chugging was louder now. When he looked up, he could almost spot the train through the unnatural mist that had descended at noon. He couldn’t tell how far away it was, but judging by the sound, he probably should get off the tracks now.
When he picked her up off the old couch, he hadn’t expected her to be that heavy. Or maybe he was just weak from so many days without fuel. But it felt almost like she didn’t want to be carried off.
The train wasn’t just a silhouette now, but an unstoppable creature of steel, belting steam and careening their way.
The girl stirred. She lifted her head and winced, bringing her hand up to her neck.
“Hey,” he said, keeping an eye on the incoming train.
“Who are you?” She swiveled her head around. “Where am I?”
“Look. I don’t have time to explain” – the train whistled; steam wafted over to them – “but right now, we have to get off this track.”
She grabbed his hand, swift and unyielding. Blinking, she revealed eyes the color of blood. Before he could react, she had heaved herself up from the couch and rammed him onto it, all in a fluid motion.
“It’s open season, hunter.” Her voice was low, womanly, but the monster was in her eyes.
She was too strong for him. He couldn’t move an inch from the couch, and his senses were screaming as loudly as the train that was speeding his way. In less than ten seconds – fifteen, if he was lucky – he would be roadkill.
“You’ve been hunting me for a long time, haven’t you?” She tilted her head coyly. “Well, here I am. Do as you please.”
Perspiration leaked from him. He struggled for his dagger, grasped the hilt.
The girl saw what he was doing and smirked. “It’s not the girl you have to kill. You do know that even if you kill her, I’ll just find someone else, don’t you? So go ahead, kill her.”
There was nothing else he could do, no weapon, no means of wasting the damn soul. Meanwhile, the face of the train had grown into a wall, ready to slam into him.
And then something occurred to him. He plunged the dagger into her side, grabbed her and leapt off the tracks, just as the train roared past him in a whirl of clattering metal and hot wind.
He waited until the metallic monster had hurtled past before yanking out the knife from the girl. “Yeah, well,” he said, like there hadn’t been any interruption at all. “I think the girl was dead to begin with, thanks to you. You were only keeping her alive to set up this trap.”
She stared down at the wound in her side. There was no blood, just tar-like substance that crept out. Ectoplasm. The sight gave him satisfaction like nothing else could.
“That’s not possible,” she rasped. “Mortal weapons don’t work on us.”
“Isn’t it? It’s a special knife, bitch, tailor-made to wipe out pesky souls like yourself. You did a real sloppy job of setting up the trap, though. You tampered with the pulse, and the girl’s cold as ice. Next time, why don’t you impress me better?”
She couldn’t squeeze in a retort in time. All around him was ectoplasm, a steadily growing pool of it. Great, he thought, not another pair of jeans stained with ghostly filth. He wiped down his dagger, and laid the body amongst the waist-high grass. Just another job, he told himself. It’s just another job.
Now, for that burger, beer and nice cold shower.