Ghost towns are supposed to be haunted. It’s the juxtaposition between the apparent emptiness of the buildings and streets set against the weight of time and memories that provokes fascination and dread. Walking through a ghost town involves brushing through hints and whispers of a past that foresaw a very different future than the one which arrived. The ruined windows and barren storefronts whisper a voiceless testament to mortality, quiet enough to be overlooked by a bit of bravado but clear enough to raise goosebumps on those who are either particularly sensitive or looking for a thrill.
Val wasn’t sure she fell into either category, but when she scanned the few buildings which made up Bright Springs, she didn’t feel like she was gazing on anything with ties to the afterlife.
There was something off about Bright Springs, something that made the hair on the back of her neck itch, but it wasn’t an absence like a proper ghost town should have had.
“I could swear we’re being watched,” she said, looking for the spots a sniper would naturally gravitate towards.
“That wouldn’t be unexpected,” Anna said. Her gaze was fixed on the Post Office across the street. “If so however, they seem willing to allow us to make the first move.”
“Where do we start then?” Val asked. It wasn’t a big town, but wherever they went in it she was sure they would find something. Whether it was something that wanted to be found or something they wanted to find was another story.
“Do you see a light on over there?” Anna asked, pointing at the Post Office’s dark windows.
“No,” Val asked, trying hard to see what Anna was talking about. “Do you?”
“It appears I am being invited inside,” Anna said. She brushed off her suit and straightened her shoulders, but didn’t move forward.
“But they don’t want me?” Val asked. There was roughly zero chance of an invitation like that turning out well. Despite that, history suggested there was a fifty-fifty chance that Anna would accept it anyways.
“Do you see any lights on anywhere here?” Anna asked, stretching the fingers on each hand as she contemplated the situation.
“Only the one inside the gas station,” Val said, nodding to the empty building behind them.
“Interesting,” Anna said. “To me, that building looks completely dark.”
“That’s probably not a good sign, is it?” Val asked. Separate perceptions of their surroundings either meant they were being drawn to different, and potentially disconnected, places, or someone was controlling what they could see. Neither was ideal, but neither was completely surprising either.
“Perhaps not, but I do think we can make use of it,” Anna said, unbuttoning her suit jacket. “Let me borrow your racing jacket.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not going to fit,” Val said. The difference in the two women’s builds wasn’t as much a concern as the difference in their height. Anna in Val’s racing jacket would find the bottom of the jacket reaching her navel and the sleeves would barely make it halfway down her forearms.
“We don’t need to wear them,” Anna said. “Just drape it over your shoulders.”
“Ok,” Val said and shrugged off the jacket she wore. “Why are we doing this though?”
“I want you to be my spokesperson,” Anna said. She took Val’s jacket in exchange for her own and dropped it onto her shoulders like a black leather cape.
“That’s not exactly my forte,” Val said, folding Anna’s coat and carrying it over her left arm.
“Whoever is inviting me into the Post Office and you into the gas station has some particular ideas about us,” Anna said. “Since they don’t know us, they probably think I am the leader since I’m older, and you’re my protection.”
“That’s not exactly wrong,” Val said.
“I wouldn’t have asked you to talk Misha over to our side when we took down PrimaLux if I didn’t think you were just as socially adept as I am,” Anna said. “I have a little more experience, but you’re good at reading people. Go see what our friend in the Post Office wants. I’ll deal with the ones they wanted you to tangle with.”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to stick together?” Val asked.
“It would but I noticed that the light in the Post Office is only on when I’m the only one looking at it,” Anna said. “As soon as you turned to it, the light went off. I’m guessing the same was true of the gas station.”
“I don’t see a light on inside it at all anymore,” Val said.
“And I do, or I did until you just looked at it,” Anna said. “Take a look at the Post Office.”
“It’s lit up now.”
“And now?” Anna asked, turning to see it’s dark windows staring back at her.
“The light just went off,” Val said.
“Then I believe our invitations are for one only,” Anna said.
“Great. I guess we shouldn’t keep them waiting any longer then, should we?” Val said.
“I suspect they’ve waited quite a long time already, but we do have other matters to attend to,” Anna said.
There was no need to make plans for what to do if they wound up in trouble. Walking into such an obvious trap meant they were in trouble already. The key was determining exactly how much damage they would need to do in order to get out of that trouble.
The door to the Post Office swung open with the creak of a problem long in need of repair. The light Val had followed inside turned out to come from a central ceiling light with an ancient filament bulb above a battered old counter, behind which row of post office boxes sat.
A tall, thin man sat behind the desk working on a crossword puzzle in folded newspaper. His suit looked overly formal for a post office clerk while also being worn and threadbare enough that Val had to wonder why he wouldn’t have chosen something simpler if he wanted to put on a professional appearance. Also, she didn’t pay much attention to men’s fashion, but something about the cut of his suit seemed archaic. Not “Wild West Boom Town chique” but the cut of his lapel and the overall fit of the suit was definitely from earlier in the previous century.
He looked up when she stepped through the door and blinked in confusion.
“Hello?” he asked, sounding unsure as to whether that was an actual word in English anymore. “Can I help you?”
“I think that’s my question for you,” Val said. She and Anna were in Bright Springs to rescue the town after all. It seemed like the Post Office clerk was going to be the last person who could give them the answers they needed to do so though.
Before the clerk could answer, another man stepped forward from the back office area. Where the clerk was tall and thin, his manager was tall and solid. His features held hard lines of masculine beauty that had been chiselled from granite, and his frown looked tight enough to squeeze diamonds out of coal.
“Don’t worry Bill,” the manager said. “I’ll handle this one.”
Val compressed a chuckle into a short huff. She’d grown up with plenty of meatheads who lived in the gym long enough to turn themselves into perfectly taut specimens of testosterone fueled muscle. Contrary to the stereotypes, some of them managed to be decent guys too, but the gleam of malice in the managers eyes was familiar enough that she knew he wasn’t going to be one of the chill bodybuilder types.
“This ought to be good,” she said and glanced towards the manager’s office to see if he wanted to conduct their discussion in private or whether Bill the clerk was going to get a ring side seat.
“Please, step into my office, Ms…?” the manager said, fishing for her name.
“I’m with the Second Chance Club,” Val said, following him into an office that took up the back half of the Post Office.
The manager’s space was subtly different again from what she’d been expecting. Where Bill’s outfit and the faded decor of the reception area spoke of a time decades gone by, the manager’s office held a timeless quality. Nothing within it spoke to a particular time period, but everything spoke of wealth and privilege.
Val was half certain that when she’d stepped through the door to the Post Office, she’d done the equivalent of walking into a fairy ring. She might still be on Earth, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other rules which applied as well. Rules such as names being the key to far more influence over someone than they normally would be.
“I am afraid I have not heard of your organization,” the manager said. On his desk a name plaque gleamed in polished gold reading “Mitchel Miller”. It probably wasn’t his real name, but it was still something to work with.
“We work for Charlene Potestates,” Val said. James, JB, and Tam had all cautioned Val against giving her own name out freely in an unfamiliar realm, but Charlene herself had instructed her employees to use her name whenever they were in unfamiliar lands.
“Oh,” Miller said. “Her.”
His frown turned the delightful shade of sour disgust that told Val she was speaking with exactly the person she needed to be.
“Nice town you have here Mitch,” she said, dropping into one of the chairs in front of Miller’s desk without brushing off the road dust from her pants. She was tempted to prop her feet up on his desk but she knew that would push him over the edge and for the moment she was willing to play things closer to how Anna would have handled them. Diplomatically.
“Why are you here?” Miller asked.
“We’re here to oversee that the revision of ownership for Bright Springs is handled properly,” Val said.
“On whose authority?” Miller asked, sitting behind his desk and scowling at her.
“The Second Chance Club is acting as a neutral party in this affair,” Val said. “At the request of principals from the now defunct PrimaLux Holdings, we are tracking down some accounting irregularities with the older and more exceptional contracts which Prima had on the books.”
The “PrimaLux Principal” in question was Anna’s new friend Zoe, the former Director of Special Operations for PrimaLux, and the request was more along the lines of general tipoff which Zoe had provided to Tam about areas to look into where problems were likely to arise. Val channeled her inner Anna though and decided that Mr. Mitch Miller did not need to be enlightened any more than was convenient for her to tell him.
“There’s nothing for you to shove your noses into here,” Miller said.
“Right, nothing going on here at all,” Val said. She kicked her feet up and dropped them on Miller’s desk.
Anna could have kept him talking, could have dragged Miller around in circles until he was so dizzy from the debate that he collapsed and told her what she wanted to know. Tam knew she didn’t have that kind of patience though. Miller was already annoying her, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before he crossed the line and she was forced to feed him his teeth. Guys like Miller were predictable to a fault. They had to be right, they had to be the most important person in the room, and they absolutely couldn’t tolerate the thought of being called to task for their wrongdoings.
“Get out here!” Miller yelled, jumping to his feet.
Just like Val knew he would.
She took one foot and shoved the desk hard enough to push Miller into the wall.
“No,” she said, and folded her leg back without rising from the chair.
Angry purple veins roared to the surface of Miller’s face as he went crimson with rage. Rather than leaping over the desk at Val though, he began to scrambled to push it away so that he could reach one of the drawers.
She kicked it again, crushing his hand in between the edge of the desk and the window, which brought a torrent of profanity pouring from his mouth. He favored gendered insults, but made time to insult her heritage, her family, and her sexual proclivities as well.
“You’ve got one good hand left,” Val said. “If you want to keep it intact, don’t try to reach for gun in that drawer again.”
“I am going to kill you, you little…”
Val didn’t give him a chance to finish his threat. If he was going to use his mouth to spew hate then she was going to teach him what the consequences of that should be.
Stepping onto the desk, she didn’t bother with any fancy moves.
His mouth was vomiting words, so she shut it.
With her knee.
Hard enough that he crashed through the window behind them and tumbled into the street as the bloody, shattered mess he deserved to be.
Then the town exploded.