Two-Bug vs the Ghoul
“He’s been gone too long,” said Toni. She watched the snowfall in the driver’s side mirror. She kept flexing her hands. They felt empty, ineffectual, without a sword to grip.
“He’ll be back any minute,” Two-Bug said. But he knew she was right. Caspar had been gone for nearly ten minutes. Something was wrong.
“I’m going to go look for him,” Toni said.
“Absolutely not.” Two-Bug jerked his head back towards the trailer. “We still got cargo to deliver. Caspar told you to stay with the package.”
Toni watched as he started to shrug into his jacket. “I’ll check it out,” he said.
“We should stay together.”
Two-Bug shook his head. “If I’m not back in three minutes, you get this rig moving. You don’t stop until you hit Davenport.”
“Two-Bug, I’m not going to leave you, and Warp. And Whiskers.”
“Array, girl, nobody wants me or Whiskers. If there’s Villains out there behind all this, all they want is Blue. You get Blue to the destination, and you do it fast. You don’t stop for nothing.”
She stared at him for several seconds, her face sour. But she nodded.
Two-Bug put his hand on the door. “I’m sure this is nothing,” he said. “Caspar fell on the ice, and is waiting out there for me to pick his sorry ass off the ground.”
“I don’t care what the problem is,” she said. “You get back here in three minutes, you understand? Even if you have to carry that stubborn jackass.”
Two-Bug managed a smile. “You’d like to see that.”
“You hear me? Three minutes.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
There was a knock at Two-Bug’s window.
Two-Bug whirled. Standing outside his door was an unnaturally thin man. He wore no winter gear, just filthy jeans and a ripped t-shirt. His face was ghoul-thin, skin stretched tight over cheekbones, and the thin wisps of hair on his head looked like they would blow off at any moment. It seemed impossible that he could be standing so casually in subzero temperatures, but he showed no discomfort. In fact, as Two-Bug gawked at him through the glass, his mouth split in a wide grin, showing rotten teeth.
He held up Caspar’s tire iron. One end glistened wetly. Two-Bug saw a long smear of blood soiling the man’s shirt.
“Your friend dropped this,” he said.
He turned away, toward the back of the semi. Two-Bug heard the steady scrunch of snow beneath his worn sneakers as he trudged out of sight. He wasn’t wearing socks.
No one can survive like that in this, Two-Bug thought. He should be dead.
“Who the hell was that?” Toni asked, alarmed. Two-Bug found he couldn’t formulate an answer.
He zipped up his jacket and grabbed his flashlight. “I’m going to go find out.” He pushed open the door.
“Lock it up tight,” he said.
Two-Bug stepped down onto the snow-covered pavement, slamming the door behind him. He made an imposing figure. At six foot nine and with the build of a linebacker, Two-Bug topped out at just over 280 pounds. His dark skin contrasted starkly with the white of his jacket. He kept his hair cropped short, and had a knitted cap pulled tight around his ears. There was a small loop of gold in his right ear, the only jewelry he wore.
This side of the trailer, shielded from the tall lights of the parking lot, was in almost total darkness. Two-Bug pulled on his gloves, switched on his flashlight, and started walking towards the back of the rig. To his left, less than fifteen feet away, was the four-foot wall of snow created by the plows that had cleared the lot. His light illuminated the ghoul-man’s footprints in the meager powder ahead. Just before he reached the back, the prints vanished.
Two-Bug halted, staring. He swung the flashlight under the rig, and then to the left. Nothing. The man’s prints just ended, like he’d vanished into thin air.
“Shit,” said Two-Bug.
There was a sound behind the rig. Like the cracking of bone.
“Caspar?” said Two-Bug. “You there, man?”
Two-Bug rounded the back of the trailer. It was brighter here. The empty lot stretched away to the right, the lamps near the charging stations casting long shadows. The lot had been plowed recently, but the wind pulled streamers of snow off the heavy banks to the west, and swirled them into insubstantial drifts that zig-zagged across the pavement like frozen lightning.
Lying on the ground thirty feet from the back of the trailer was Caspar’s tire iron. It looked like it had been placed there, very deliberately.
Two-Bug approached until it was close enough to pick up. He turned around in a slow circle. No sign of the creepy ghoul dude.
No sign of Caspar, either. Two-Bug scanned the dark corners of the lot, drawing cold air in through his teeth. Anxiety knotted his stomach. Was it possible Caspar had made the long walk to the Esso mart without bothering to tell them? No. That wasn’t like Caspar.
“Your friend’s gone,” said a voice behind him.
Two-Bug spun around. Standing not six feet away was the ghoul-thin man who’d been at his window.
Two-Bug swore reflexively, taking a step back. “Jesus!”
Ghoul-man seemed to find that amusing. His face split in a grin, as his fraying shirt flapped sharply in the wind. It had a fist-sized hole near his left armpit.
Up close like this, he was even more repulsive. Two-Bug knew street people who had better hygiene than this guy. Much better. He looked like the meth addict who’d assaulted his shift supervisor in Philly twenty years ago. Except that guy had better teeth.
“Who the hell are you?” said Two-Bug.
The ghoul shrugged. “You don’t want to know my name.”
Two-Bug decided on the spot that that was the truth. He was already freezing, and had no patience for a banal conversation with this asshole. If he was trying to rattle him, he’d have to work harder than that.
“Whatever, dude. I ain’t got time for games.” He turned away, cupping his hands to the sides of his mouth. “Caspar! CASPAR!!”
“Caspar can’t answer you.”
Two-Bug turned to face him. He flexed his hands. Okay. It looked like they were going to do this, then. “What the hell did you do?” he said.
The man shambled a step closer. He was so thin it seemed the wind would carry him away at any moment.
“I’ll show you,” he said.
He moved so fast Two-Bug didn’t even see it happen. He raked the nails of his left hand across Two-Bug’s face, slicing through his cheek, his nose, and the hood of his parka. Two-Bug staggered to the left, saw a spray of fresh blood hit the pavement.
“Gaahh!” He shielded his face with his arm, falling back several paces.
He assessed the damage quickly. He was bleeding, but not seriously. His wounds were superficial. He dropped his arm, looking for his attacker.
“You’re not much of a fighter,” the ghoul said behind him.
Two-Bug whirled. The man hit him in the face before he’d even finished his turn. As he pulled back, a hammer-blow to the stomach made him double over.
Two-Bug almost retched. His hands were raised uselessly as he stumbled backwards, nearly falling over. The ghoul-man didn’t move, just stood appraising him.
Two-Bug retreated until he hit the wall of snow. He managed a steadying breath. He put the snow at his back, centered his feet, and rose to his full height with an effort.
The ghoul still hadn't moved. Two-Bug wiped fresh blood from his mouth.
“You’re fast,” Two-Bug said. “But you’re still just a skinny punk.”
The man lazily spread his bone-white arms, began to spin in place. He was a thoroughly out-of-place figure in the whirling snow. Two-Bug easily outweighed him by a hundred and fifty pounds and was bundled in a heavy parka, and still he was freezing. This guy’s arms should be blue by now. He should have frostbite over two-thirds of his body.
The way he moved in the cold, impossibly quickly, like it exhilarated him, gave him strength… He had to be a PIP.
It doesn’t matter, thought Two-Bug. Whatever strange gifts the Pulse had granted this ghoul, he was still a bug-ugly shithead who weighed exactly nothing. He’d done something terrible to Caspar, and Two-Bug was going to find out precisely what.
With a roar, he charged. It was a straight-up tackle, executed with skill and precision. It should have turned the ghoul’s ugly frame into a heap of shattered bone on the blacktop.
The ghoul pivoted faster than anyone he had ever seen. As Two-Bug sailed by in a clean miss, the ghoul brought his elbow down savagely on his back.
Two-Bug landed badly. Very badly. There was an explosion of pain. He felt his shoulder snap as he hit the ground, and was unable to shield his face. His nose and jaw took the brunt of it as he skidded over the ice-slick surface.
At first he was unable to do more than roll on his back. He could barely breathe through the pain. He grabbed his shoulder instinctively, then released it with a gasp. He arched his back, trying desperately to keep weight off his shoulder, find a position less excruciating.
He heard footsteps. He forced his eyes open. The ghoul was pacing around him.
“I was told you were the dangerous one,” the ghoul-man said. He sounded incredulous. “That’s what they told me. Said you were full of surprises.”
“Who the fuck are ‘they?’” Two-Bug said, spitting blood on the ground.
“Can’t tell you that, can’t tell you that.” The ghoul came closer, dropped to his knees right in front of him. “They pay the bills.”
“Pay the bills. You’re a goddamn mercenary.”
The ghoul took Two-Bug’s bruised jaw in his left hand. He wrenched him forward until the two were face-to-face, barely inches apart.
The ghoul hovered a broken black fingernail over Two-Bug’s right eye. “No sir, no. I am not.”
“What I am is a professional. They call me Spectre.”
Two-Bug blinked in surprise. Spectre? Spectre was a well-known PIP, and he looked totally different from this guy.
Didn’t he? Two-Bug blinked the water from his eyes, struggling to get a good look at his opponent.
Something was happening to the ghoul’s skin. Wisps of greenish mist were slowly rising from his exposed arms, coiling in the air like steam. Two-Bug couldn’t tear his eyes away. They were strangely substantial, and for an instant Two-Bug thought he could see a tiny, grotesque face in the wispy tendril closest to his neck.
“I don’t understand,” Spectre said. “I’m honestly curious. Tell me.”
“What?” Two-Bug managed, returning his gaze to the ghoul.
“You’re slow, and you’re stupid. Why do they think you’re dangerous?”
There was the soft scrape of metal, somewhere nearby. Spectre was so entranced he didn’t notice.
Two-Bug locked eyes with him, fought to keep the pain at bay. When he spoke blood bubbled past his lips.
“What’d you do to Caspar?”
“Your friend? He’s buried. In the snow.”
“You son of a bitch.”
The greenish mist was coming off this guy now. Tendrils clung to Two-Bug’s left shoulder. He was sure he saw a wide-eyed face in the ghostly mist drifting next to the ghoul’s elbow.
“He put up less of a fight than you did,” Spectre said. “He even offered to give up your Package, in the end. What about you, dangerous guy?”
Spectre held his broken nail directly above Two-Bug’s left eye. “What about you, hmm? Would you hand over Blue, to save your life?”
“Go to hell.”
There was a footstep, very close. Spectre heard it at last. He released Two-Bug and twisted around, rising off his knees.
But too late, too late. One-Bug was already swinging the crowbar, and he connected. Two-Bug heard the crack of bone and saw Spectre jerk violently to the right, landing with a thump on the asphalt six feet away.
One-Bug was not a guy for half measures. Before the ghoul had a chance to get to his feet he followed through, slamming the iron bar into his chest. He took a step back to wind up, then did it again, and again.
After the fourth hit he took a moment to survey his handiwork. There was no blood that he could see, but the ghoul wasn’t moving.
He was changing shape, however. He no longer looked emaciated, ghoul-like. Blood trickled from his chin onto the snow-covered tarmac. Jesus, thought Two-Bug. It IS Spectre.
Two-Bug struggled into an upright position. It hurt so much to move that he could barely breathe, but once he was sitting, the pain lessened marginally.
Spectre was a crumpled heap, but his eyes were open. They were clear and focused. They flickered back and forth between One-Bug and the man on the ground. He took in their identical faces, their identical movements. Even their winter jackets were identical.
Spectre spoke. His voice was only slightly slurred. “He’s…. you.”
“That’s right,” said Two-Bug.
“They’re both you. You have two bodies.”
Two-Bug nodded. He couldn’t speak for a moment as he drew his feet under him, and then slowly, slowly stood up. One-Bug never moved to help, never took his eyes off the man in front of him.
Two-Bug made it to his feet. He swayed for a moment; took a breath, then another. Satisfied that he wouldn’t immediately topple over, he looked down at the ghoul.
“That’s why they call me Two-Bug, bitch.”
One-Bug grinned, looking over at Two-Bug. The instant he did, Spectre sprang forward like a spider. Fast, but not fast enough. One-Bug took a quick step, swinging the crowbar like a golf club. Two-Bug heard the satisfying sound of a breaking jaw.