Strange things are happening in the land of Driszaw, and it is up to the Special Spirit Squad to investigate.
In the previous chapter the Squad investigated strange lights that haunted the zoo at night, which turned out to be caused by Richard the Celestial Goat. They now turn their attention to the call of Gallagher Burke, Freelance Ghost Hunter, who needs their help dealing with a powerful specter…
Gallagher Burke, Freelance Ghost Hunter, twenty-seven years old, had been hot on the case for days. He had it all figured out by now; it was pretty obvious if you stopped to think about it, child’s play, really, if you had the right instruments; which he had, of course, by his own design, to boot.
All of his readings confirmed it: There was a foul specter afoot, attacking local vermin in dark alleys, leaving its glowing green ectoplasm all over as proof. The specter-o-meter’s needle kept swinging between 19.937 and 19.938 (repeating, of course) kilospooks: A class three phantom, at least, for which he would need help from real professionals. Not that he wasn’t a real professional, mind you – he just didn’t have any experience in the field, that’s all.
Had he seen a ghost before? Well, no, not as such, he hadn’t technically seen one, but he’d studied the readings, which was just as good. Besides, he wasn’t a fighter, not an exorcist; if a ghost needed busting, he wouldn’t be the one doing it, he was humble enough to admit to that much, at least. This wasn’t a game, not anymore; if his readings were correct – which they were, of course, how could they not be, when the math checked out – this phantom posed a real threat, to actual, supposedly innocent, people.
Gallagher had been besides himself with excitement when his sources confirmed that the Special Spirit Squad had arrived in Lamelf. Well, he told the people at the tavern that he had ‘sources’, but he really just meant himself, peeking over the city-walls, after having studied the Hill Giant Bus schedules and cross-referencing it with weather reports to calculate precisely when they would arrive.
One day he would have sources. It wasn’t a lie if it was going to be real someday, just a debit on truth; and wasn’t that what science was all about?
And now, finally, after an excruciating wait of two whole days, the illustrious Special Spirit Squad had agreed to meet with him, Gallagher Burke, Freelance Ghost Hunter, twenty-seven years old. Gallagher had been so nervous that he hadn’t been able to sleep all night, and he looked the part. No matter. He would just tell them that he had spent the night trailing the phantom, which wasn’t entirely untrue; he did spent a lot of time tracking it. Just during the day, when the sun was out, and the ghost couldn’t harm him.
They had agreed to meet in the Paella Salamander, a restaurant in the oldest part of town. The lizardfolk waiter kept bugging him, and Gallagher kept ordering bread sticks and water; he drank the water but left the bread sticks on the table, using them to construct a little cabin. They were hard as logs and unfit for eating, anyway.
When the cabin’s outhouse was just about finished, the doors of the Paella Salamander swung open and the Special Spirit Squad entered. Gallagher opened his enormous eyes wide, sucking up every detail of his heroes. First off was Koumi Ko, a samurai from far-off lands, munching on a tough piece of licorice. Right behind him was his companion, Nathaniel Sharp, inquisitor of Serenrae and the Squad’s detective, followed by Glurf, the Toad exorcist. Finally, ever vigilant in the rear, was Maurice, the ranger.
Gallagher was awestruck. His first instinct was to hide, so he could spy on them for a bit longer, but he was the only customer in the restaurant and Nathaniel had already made eye-contact with him. So observant; so keen! He had no choice but to introduce himself. But what would he say? Stupid gnome! He had been waiting here for over an hour and yet had not thought of anything to say.
Koumi Ko was coming straight at him now. The Koumi Ko. Ghost Hunting professional – a member of the Special Spirit Squad! What if he didn’t like his bread-stick cabin?
“Hi! I’m Ko,” said Ko. “I like your bread-stick cabin.”
Gallagher was beyond flustered. Koumi Ko liked is cabin! His big cheeks reddened with pride. He jumped on his chair, reached towards Ko’s hand with both of his tiny hands and shook it with vigor. “Galagher Burke, Freelance Ghost Hunter, twenty-seven years old!”
Nathaniel pulled up a chair and sat down. “Ah, yes, the employer. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is-”
“Nathaniel Sharp!” Gallagher said breathlessly, “Aasimar inquisitor.” He continued, pointing at the other two as he described them as they sat down. “Glurf, Toad priestess of Heqet; Maurice, hunter and tracker.”
“Yay!” Said Glurf enthusiastically, clapping her moist hands together, “That’s right!”
“Yes, very…apt descriptions. It’s almost as you’ve read our files,” said Nathaniel.
Gallagher, feeling exposed, began to stutter. “I-I-I d-didn’t – wait, there are files?”
“Would you finally like to order, sssssir?” The waiter had snuck up on the group without anyone noticing, wearing the faux-patient smile of a seasoned server. “Now that your friendssss have arrived.”
“They’re not my friends,” Gallagher was quick to say, “They’re colleagues.”
Colleagues. Fellow ghost-hunters. Nathaniel called him ’employer’…Gallagher could hardly believe it.
“Whatever you sssssay, sir.”
“Well, we weren’t actually planning on eating here,” said Nathaniel, “we have-”
“What’s a Paella?” interrupted Ko.
“It’s a rice dissssssh,” explained the dutiful waiter, “with white and green beansss, meat or fish, sssssnails, sssssafron ssseasoning-”
“Snails!” boomed Glurf, “I love snails! Let’s have paella.”
Ko wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Snails? I’m not too sure about that.”
“Might I mention that we have recently introduced a new sssssecret ssssauce?”
“Secret sauce?!” Ko said, leaping up from his chair. “Count me in! Besides, I love seafood. Just give my snails to Glurf.”
“Aw, Ko, you’re so nice!”
“Don’t get used to it, woman.”
Glurf slumped in her chair, hiding most of her body underneath the table save for her eyes, which bobbed above the tablecloth like a crocodile’s would above water.
“Asssss you wish,” said the waiter. “And the other gentlemen?”
Maurice, who had been quietly studying the restaurant and had judged the sanitary conditions to be below his standards, decided to pass. “No thanks, I’m not hungry. Nathaniel?”
The inquisitor agreed. “Same. I’ll have a whiskey, though.”
“We don’t ssssserve hard liquor at this hour, ssssir,” said the waiter, showing just the subtlest signs of snootiness underneath his mask of servitude.
“Fine. Wine, then. Whatever you have in stock.”
“Me too!” Gallagher was quick to say.
The paella looked far from appetizing, but Glurf seemed to like the taste. Ko’s curiosity was satisfied after just one lick of the viscous green goop that ostensibly passed as a ‘secret sauce,’ and shoveled the rest of it, along with the snails, on Glurf’s plate. He ate the rice and fish with his own cutlery, two thin sticks, a custom he had kept from his far-away home. Nathaniel drank his wine in one lung gulp and asked for Gallagher’s cup before the gnome could even taste his. Gallagher was eager to agree, since he didn’t even drink alcohol in the first place. Dampens the mind. But he didn’t tell Nathaniel that.
Once Glurf had finished her meal and the lizard waiter slithered forth with the bill, Nathaniel reached for his purse, but Gallagher insisted on paying. Afterwards, he leads his heroes to the alley where he had run afoul the felled rodent corpses, which turned out to be just around the corner. Gallagher thought it would be convenient to meet in some place close, so they could get straight to business.
The alleyway was littered with dead rats. You didn’t need Maurice’s keen ranger eyes to determine the cause of death: Each and everyone of them lay in a puddle of disgusting green goop and guts, leaking out of a hole in their belly.
“This is disgusting,” complained Maurice.
“Smells good, though,” said Glurf. “Doesn’t that smell remind you guys of something?”
“Yes, it does,” said Ko slowly. “The special sauce.”
Everyone turned to face Glurf, who seemed quite oblivious.
“Glurf, are you feeling alright?” Nathaniel asked her.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said slowly, although she looked far from. Her skin had shifted to a lighter shade of brown and her stomach rumbled ominously.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Nathaniel said quickly, wanting desperately to believe that giant toad creatures were more resilient than rats.
“So what you are saying, respected colleagues,” Gallagher said, still gushing at the opportunity to call the squad colleagues, “that this specter has developed a taste for the Paella Salamander’s Special Sauce?”
“No, we’re saying they have,” said Maurice, indicating the dead rats.
“Oh. Oooooh,” Glurf wailed, clutching her big belly, “suddenly I don’t feel so good…” She retched violently, spraying the paella and its special sauce all over the alley in a fountain of green goop and yellow rice. It was the very same color as the goop that looked to have torn its way through the rats’ bellies.
“Well, better through the mouth than through the skin,” argued Maurice.
“Ko, why don’t you take Glurf back to the tavern?” suggested Nathaniel, “Make sure she gets plenty of water.”
“Just take me to a lake,” Glurf begged, “I need a soak.”
“Even better,” Nathaniel agreed.
“Why me?” complained Ko, “I want to solve the mystery. Besides, I don’t want to go with her.”
“Just take her on Haviér,” snapped Nathaniel, “Or do you want that to happen to her?” he added, indicating the rats.
“OK, fair enough; you’re right,” Ko said, suddenly serious. He whistled, calling his horse. “But I’m not touching her.”
Once the sick toad and the samurai had taken off on Haviér, the investigation could continue.
Gallagher was looking miserable. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know the Salamander’s new sauce was that bad.”
“That’s quite alright,” said Nathaniel. “I’m glad you brought us here; now someone can do something about it. Don’t worry about Glurf – I’m sure she’s tougher than some rats.”
“I don’t understand, though,” said Gallagher as he took out his specter-o-meter. “You’re saying the ectoplasm is…sauce? But what about the readings?”
“Can I see that?” asked Nathaniel. Gallagher handed the instrument over, and Nathaniel took it and started walking away from the alley, studying the figures closely. “The numbers don’t seem to go up or down.”
“Huh? Let me see that.” Gallagher took the spectre-o-meter and turned it over. “Oh. How embarrassing – the range is set wide, a thousand kilometers, how embarrassing…Let me just…” he opened the apparatus and operated on it with a spanner. “There. It’s set to ten meters now. Let’s see…Oh. Zero.”
“Meaning no ghosts here,” said Nathaniel confidently.
“How surprising,” Maurice added.
“I’m sorry for wasting your time…”
Nathaniel knelt down to be level with Gallagher, much as he would with a child. “Don’t be too quick to say that, chief – why don’t you go home and work on that for a while, see if you can adjust the settings to something more useful, say, a range of something between one and five kilometers? That would make it an invaluable tool for us.”
“Really?” asked Gallagher full of hope, “you think so?”
“Definitely. And do you think maybe you can add in some sort of compass that points towards the source? That way we can figure out where that level three phantom is hiding.”
“I’ll get to work immediately!” beamed Gallagher. “And I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve made the modifications! Wow – a compass, I can’t believe I never thought of that. That’s a professional for ya!”
Once Gallagher had darted off to work on his gadget, Maurice scoffed loudly.
“You don’t really believe that kid’s toy actually works, do you?”
“I think he’s probably in his late twenties,” said Nathaniel. “And I don’t know. If it does, it’ll certainly come in handy. We can’t afford to discard any possible advantages. Besides, he looked morose, I figured he could do with some encouragement.
“More like you’re feeding into his delusions.”
“Let’s just go talk with the owner of this place and wrap this whole dumb thing up.”
It didn’t take Nathaniel and Maurice long to figure out what had happened. The Paella Salamander had been experimenting with a new sauce, which the poor rats and Glurf had fallen victim to.. They had gotten the main ingredients from traders from out of town, and hadn’t been informed that the herbs must be served fresh; they spoil very quickly, after which they adopt a certain acidic quality. The lizardfolk cook was delighted to learn of this; a little natural acid is precisely what his spicy dish needed, in moderation, of course.
After a long dip in the local lake, Glurf felt much better, and the group reconvened at the tavern to discuss what job to pick next. Ultimately they decided to investigate reported sightings of creepy red-eyed ghost-children. Glurf appeared highly anxious at the prospect of confronting actual phantoms, but Nathaniel told her he didn’t expect to encounter any; he thought of Pip and the other orphans, living on their own in the slums because the orphanage burned down, and suspected these ‘creepy ghost children’ might be suffering a similar fate. They’ll have to wait until dark to find out.
It didn’t take Gallagher long to make the requested adjustments. He had a broken compass just lying around; re-purposing its needle to fit the specter-o-meter was child’s play. Changing the range was a matter of fiddling with the settings a little. Easy. He turned the revised gadget on and studied the readings closely. To his disappointment, the readings were the same as before, oscillating between 19.937 and 19.938 kilospooks – repeating, of course. The compass needle was stuck pointing north, never budging an inch; still broken, useless. He obviously made some mistake; these readings couldn’t be right. To the north of where Gallagher lived was the richest and safest part of town, where the aristocrats lived in their huge mansions. If there were any hauntings there, he would have heard about them.
Gallagher would spend the rest few days checking and double-checking his calculations, never finding a single mistake.
Join the Special Spirit Squad next time as they investigate a creepy ghost child sighting!