Jimmy Vaun, the terror of the ninth ward, shivered under the cheap wool blankets. Chatham kept heaping them on but it didn’t help. Jimmy’s teeth were still chatting so loudly he thought some of them might break. Jimmy wasn’t the first man Chatham had watched die, but he was certainly trying to be the worst.
“You’ll make ‘em bury me,” Jimmy begged again.
“I promise,” Chatham reassured him. “Money in the sideboard, a real wooden casket just like olden times, and a spot in the church yard.”
“Have to bribe for that, but there should be enough mon-” Jimmy stopped in a fit of coughing. Chatham put his hands around the man’s shoulders, feeling the burning hot skin. The coughing broke something inside Jimmy’s chest, and Chatham watched as he tried to get enough air to form words but couldn’t. Pity nearly overwhelmed him.
“Enough money, I know Jimmy. Don’t worry about it, just rest.”
“Go… Roger… Yourself… Chattie.” Jimmy spit the words out. “Not some… old fool.”
“Yeah, yeah. You know and I know you’re dying. No reason to be an arse about it.”
“No one does. You drank something right? What was it? Where?”
“Not… your place.” Jimmy smiled, then coughed again for a long time. “Outdoors… thirsty… didn’t taste…” Again the coughing took him. “nothing.”
“No one does.” Chatham repeated. Before Jimmy could answer another coughing fit took him, doubling his body, making the bed bounce. Chatham tried to hold him down, to keep the man still. Halfway through the coughing changed to a jerking, a twitching and then Chatham knew the man was dead.
He laid the body back at the bed, and used his finger tips to close the eyes. A trickle of blood came out of Jimmy’s mouth. How many men had he left that way? Bleeding from a busted lip or broken teeth? Jimmy thought the surest way to win a fight was to be the one who started it. Music drifted up from the bar downstairs. Chatham should be there. He knew that. But this, this moment where life ended, it felt like it should be special, like someone would stop for it. No time though, he sighed, said a short prayer under his breath without really knowing he did it, and turned to the sideboard. The purple liquor bottle sack hid under a few good shirts, a velvet vest. Jimmy stole enough to look good and proper. He’d be buried in that one, not the cheap night shirt he wore now. Chatham counted out the coins, nine sterling. Enough to bury him right, maybe another two besides if any little ones showed up asking for it. Chatham shook his head.
“Gonna steal it, Chattie? Bad idea.” The ghost’s warning didn’t come to him fast enough, and though Chatham moved to the side, the transparent fist still rocked his head back.
“Jimmy!” He shouted. The ghost didn’t respond, just kept moving forward, two fists flying. Chatham dodged some of the blows. “Stop!”
The ghost didn’t. They never did.
Chatham felt one strike his nose, the sickening crunch noise came just before the smell of his own blood filled his nostrils. It pushed sense back into his mind, and Chatham grabbed at the knife he always kept inside his waist. It flew into his hand, wanted to do its work.
“Can’t kill me, Chattie, I’m already dead.” Jimmy smiled a grin that half the ghosts in the ward would recognize as the last sight they saw. “And I’m gonna settle some old debts.”
The ghost advanced, moving with the grace of a man used to knife fighting. Chatham watched, feinted left, then right. Just a sudden cold cut slipped into his ribs, the pain of a ghostly weapon, he brought the blade up into the mid-section of the shade. Jimmy’s ribs weren’t there, but the knife punched a hole in the mist as if they were.
“I’m sorry, Jimmy, I truly am.” Chatham cut up the center of the soul, splitting it in two. He reached the jaw when Jimmy saw that there was this, not death but whatever it was, and tried to escape. But the knife knew better, once in it stayed in, until it came out of the top of Jimmy’s head. Split in half the ghost stumbled, trying to find a way to right itself. Instead, Chatham cut the head off, turning the smoky form into four pieces. They disappeared almost before his cut ended.
“Sorry again,” Chatham said, but the soul of Jimmy Vaun, corrupt and sinful, had ceased to exist. It would never get to heaven, never go to hell. Outside of the small rented room above the bar, it was as if Jimmy Vaun had never been born at all.
(I’m working hard on a young adult steampunk manuscript and haven’t been writing my usual short stores. Instead of ignoring my blog, I’m posting excerpts. Today, how Chatham, the bar owner and all around tough guy handles ghosts. Read the others: Andra and Chatham meet, how Andra Deals with Ghosts.)