Check out Apparition, the third novel in Trish J. MacGregor’s The Hungry Ghosts series, available November 12th from Tor Books!
Tess and Ian have been living in the high city of Esperanza for years, along with Tess’s niece, Maddie, and her partner, Nick Sanchez. They thought they could rest, that they had defeated the brujo threat to our plane of existence. But they were wrong.
A new and greater threat has formed, a new tribe of the hungry dead, seeking to possess the bodies of the living in order to experience the passions of physical life. This new tribe has found the door to the physical plane that is Esperanza, and they threaten all human life. Only the outnumbered Light Chasers and their human allies can stand against the evil brujos.
Tess and Ricardo
December 14, 2012
As Tess drove into the setting sun, Esperanza Spalding sang from the CD player. The orange light burned across the face of the distant Taquina volcano and transformed the thin band of clouds that hugged the top of it into a necklace of fire. The light glinted off the old railroad track that paralleled the autopista, causing it to glisten and gleam as though it were brand-new.
The track had been laid in the late 1920s and for nearly two decades Esperanza 14 had hauled locals from downtown Esperanza into the smaller communities scattered through the hills. In 1939, an 8.0 quake had ruptured many of the tracks, hurled fourteen cars over the side of a cliff, and killed more than three hundred adults and children in the village below. Supposedly, every year around the anniversary of the disaster, the ghost train appeared somewhere on those tracks, chugging along, spewing smoke, its windows flung open to the cool mountain air. Some years, so the story went, you could see passengers inside the doomed train, children waving from the windows, the conductor a dark reflection in the glass. Tess had never seen it, but didn’t doubt the stories. In Esperanza, anything was possible.
As the sun slipped a little lower, Tess flipped down the visor so she could see where she was going. Traffic along the autopista that ran east to west across the city moved at a swift clip, cars whizzed past her in the other three lanes. Her Mini Cooper chugged along. The car would never win a race, but it was her dependable buddy whom she could call upon any time of the day or night to get her from point A to point Z. She had bought it the day that Charles Schulz had died, so in his honor she had named the black-and-white car Snoopy. It still smelled new, the leather seats and floor mats were pristine.
Up until she’d bought Snoopy, she and Ian had been sharing an aging VW Bug. He finally traded it in and bought a Jetta with a soupedup engine. In the end, it didn’t matter what you drove in this city as long as it was small and fast enough. Snoopy was fast enough to keep pace with the flow of traffic on the autopista and small enough to slip into parking spaces on the narrow neighborhood streets that were best suited for bicycles, scooters, and smart cars.
Ten minutes into her current love fest with Snoopy, traffic slowed, then stalled altogether. Dozens of cars snaked up and down the highway. Shadows now clung like cookie crumbs to the inside of her car. She suddenly felt that something or someone had hitched a ride with her.
The skin across the back of her neck prickled, her throat felt as if she’d swallowed shards of glass.
“Dad?” she whispered, glancing in the rearview mirror.
Her dad, dead twelve years, stayed wherever he was. He hadn’t appeared to her in months. And no disembodied spirits or hungry ghosts appeared. Paranoia, she thought.
Tess nervously flexed her fingers against the steering wheel and pressed back against the seat, willing the traffic to move. Darkness now spread across the city like India ink seeping through pale fabric. It spilled down the surrounding mountains as if it hoped to swallow them in a single, heaving gulp. Up and down the long line of stalled cars, headlights winked on, the widely spaced street lamps flared. And still the traffic didn’t move and the sensation persisted that she wasn’t alone.
Brujos hadn’t been sighted in Esperanza since the battle in June 2008 that had annihilated Dominica’s tribe of sixty thousand. Tess had no reason to suspect the hungry ghosts had returned, but she couldn’t deny her body’s sensations.
Sips from a bottle of water helped to ease the dryness in her throat. When she had lived in Florida, she’d carried bottled water with her because of the heat. In Esperanza, she carried it because the altitude, about thirteen thousand feet, sucked away her body’s moisture.
So, okay, now she had an alternate explanation for the dry throat— not spooks, not brujos, just the altitude. What about the tightness across the back of her neck, the goose bumps on her arms? Those sensations weren’t due to altitude.
Recently, the city grapevine had hummed with rumors about brujo attacks in other countries. Speculation ran rampant on the Internet that Esperanza’s mythology and folklore were factual, that the city actually was a bridge between the living and the dead. As far as Tess knew, though, brujos had stayed out of Ecuador since the destruction of Dominica’s tribe. And Esperanza had flourished. But the paranoia and terror that had prevailed during the dark years when the hungry ghosts had preyed on the living, seizing their bodies, possessing them, using them to experience physical pleasures, still rippled beneath the surface of daily life. Yet, the sirens that had once alerted the populace to seek shelter from brujos hadn’t shrieked since that battle in 2008, and every day, she felt the undercurrent of fear losing its hold on the people of Esperanza.
The most likely explanation for her unease was that her dead father actually was in the car and simply chose not to show himself. Charlie Livingston, trickster. “Dad?” she said again.
She thought she caught a whiff of his trademark cigar smoke and heard the incessant snapping of his Zippo lighter. Then her iPhone belted out Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” Ian’s ring tone. Tess smiled and took the call. “Hey, Clooney, where are you?”
“Got held up. I’m just leaving now, Slim. Your mom called to report the numbers of births in OB and I wanted to get it into tomorrow’s edition. You at the restaurant yet?”
“Stuck in traffic on the autopista. How many births?”
“Twelve. The most for a single day since Dominica’s tribe was decimated.”
She heard a trace of excitement in his voice that had nothing to do with the birth rate in Esperanza. “You’ve got a guess-what.”
He laughed. “You read me too well, Slim. The Expat News got picked up for distribution in Guayaquil and the Galápagos. The newspaper will be carried on all the ships that trek through the islands. It means we can now publish daily, hire some new employees, expand our website… our newspaper is finally going to turn a profit we can live on.”
“Fantastic. How’d this happen?”
“The distributor for the islands saw our online edition and liked it.” They had started the newspaper on July 4, 2008, but it had always
been Ian’s baby, and had become hers by default. Until she’d met Ian, she’d never thought she would be anything but a burned-out FBI agent. “Now what? When do we start advertising for new reporters?”
Ian’s laughter swelled with joy. She could see him in her mind, his head thrown back, the crinkles at the corners of his dark, George Clooney eyes. He looked so much like Clooney that when they’d first met, she’d actually thought he was the actor traveling incognito.
“I figured we can discuss it over dinner and a bottle of Chilean wine,” he said.
“It’ll be waiting for you when you arrive.”
“Are Maddie and Sanchez meeting us there?” he asked.
“I texted her, but haven’t heard anything. They may have left for Quito.”
“Okay. Love you, Slim.”
“Ditto, bigger than Google. We have plenty to celebrate.”
Two years ago, as the expatriate community in Esperanza had expanded, they had started publishing the Expat News as a biweekly newspaper in both English and Spanish, tripled their staff, and kept it in the family. Tess’s niece, Maddie, built and maintained their website. Her fiancé, Nick Sanchez, and his father did the Spanish translations and sold advertising. Tess’s mother, Lauren, worked at the paper on her days off from the Esperanza Hospital OB ward, doing whatever was needed. Occasionally, Leo, Lauren’s lover and an obstetrician, wrote a health column for expectant mothers.
Ian’s news meant they would be hiring outside their immediate circle. She could think of a dozen people who would be terrific additions to the staff.
Tess followed a line of cars onto the shoulder of the road and slipped around the fender bender that had caused the traffic jam. As Snoopy picked up speed, the sensation that she wasn’t alone swept over her again.
“Okay, Dad. I know you’re here.”
Something took shape in the passenger seat—but it wasn’t the ghost of her father. The ghost who materialized, becoming more solid and real by the second, was a short, thin man, a Quechua with large dark eyes and a thick black braid that fell across his right shoulder. He wore faded jeans and a pale blue shirt with a colorful wool blanket draped around his shoulders.
“Not dad.” Slight accent. Amusement in his voice. “Name’s Ricardo.”
She could barely swallow around the sudden pounding in her throat. The mark on the inside of her right wrist itched terribly. Four years of inactivity and now her hungry ghost detector kicked in too late. Despite the chill in the air, sweat seeped from the pores of her skin and she knew he could smell it, smell her fear. Even when he was in a virtual form, a brujo’s sense of smell was acute.
Ricardo lifted his chin and made a point of sniffing loudly at the air, mocking her. “Relax, if I intended to seize you, it would be over already.”
Tess eased into the right lane, then onto the shoulder and sped forward until she could turn off somewhere, anywhere. She tore across a swale of grass and pebbles, swung into a parking lot, slammed on the brake. Snoopy shuddered, gasped, and died. “You haven’t seized me because you can’t.” Tess held out her arm and the flickering light from the lot fell across the inside of her forearm, so that the mark was easy to see. “Do you know what this is?”
He glanced at her wrist, reached out to touch it, and she jerked her arm back. “You aren’t touching that unless I invite you to touch it.”
“Oh, please,” he murmured, and grabbed her wrist and stroked the mark with his thumb, a cool, creepy touch.
Tess wrenched her arm away and Ricardo just laughed. “You really are quite lovely, Tess Livingston. I love your blond hair, those gorgeous blue eyes, and your elegant height. I would like nothing more than to taste you, seize you, use you. You’re the crème de la crème, the prize every brujo hungers for. What wonders we could learn from you.”
His soft voice moved through her, around her, strangely seductive and utterly terrifying. She kept her eyes on the now moving lights on the autopista, on the rising moon, on the neon signs that flashed and flickered up and down the highway. Beyond it all rose the majestic Taquina volcano, moonlight flowing like lava down its sides. The power of brujos was like that volcano, an unpredictable force of nature.
“Of course I know what that mark is,” he said. “Every brujo knows the story. It’s part of our collective knowledge, our lore. The big difference between the living and the dead, Tess, is that we know our lore is factual.”
“This sounds like typical brujo bullshit, Ricardo.”
“Four years ago, you were an FBI agent who suffered a fatal gunshot wound, flatlined, and your soul made its way to Esperanza. You met Ian, who’d had a massive heart attack and was also a transitional soul. The two of you fell in love.” He grinned and played an imaginary violin. “You were the first transitionals to be admitted to the city in five hundred years, since the chasers brought Esperanza into the physical world. While you were in your transitional state, waiting at a depot for Bus 13 to Esperanza, a Quechua man who had been seized by a brujo grabbed your arm, marking it forever. It became your brujo detector and a sign to us that you were a special transitional and couldn’t be seized.”
The old bruise now burned and throbbed like a heart. Tess rubbed at it. “So why’re you here?”
“So why’re you afraid of me?” he shot back.
She laughed. “Who says I’m afraid of you?”
“I smell your fear.”
“What you smell is my fear of what your presence here means. The only thing brujos have ever meant for Esperanza is death and destruction.”
Ricardo slapped his thighs and exploded with laughter. “You’ve lived here four and a half years and think that qualifies you to speak about the role that brujos have played in the long history of Esperanza? Please. You Americans are so insufferably arrogant.”
“Why have you appeared now?”
“Ah. Now you’re asking the right question. Did it ever occur to you that we’ve been here all along, but have simply chosen not to reveal our presence? No, probably not. That arrogance again.”
Tess caught the odd, knowing smile that turned his mouth into some horrifying parody of a mouth. It was like some sort of Pac-Man icon that chewed its way across the bottom of a computer screen.
“And you read signs,” he continued, and reached out and drew his fingers through her thick, long hair.
Tess pulled her head away. “I recognize patterns. And this one is ugly. Stop touching me.”
Ricardo grabbed a handful of her hair, jerked her head back, and leaned in so close to her she could smell death in his breath, the stink of rotting eggs and decaying flesh. His dark eyes impaled hers. “Let me enlighten you, Tess. You don’t have a clue what’s going on. I read that in your hair, your eyes, your very being. I smell it on you.”
His tongue, the color of ash, darted from his mouth. It was strangely long, like the tongue of a frog or a lizard, and touched her neck. Licked. Traveled up toward her ear and down again, but slowly. The tongue tasted her and enabled his essence to sample her memories, needs, desires, terrors. Tess fought him, struggled, slammed her fists against his temples and back, punched him in the ribs. He pulled harder on her hair and tightened his hands around her throat.
She screamed, but the sound never reached the air. Ricardo pressed his mouth to hers and sucked the scream into himself, drawing the texture and truth of her terror into his essence, where he would study it, pick it apart, and somehow weaponize it to use against her later. Then he drew back slightly, one hand still gripping her hair, the other holding tightly to her shoulder. He smiled, licked his lips, smacked them like a kid with an ice-cream cone. “I can taste your ignorance. You don’t know what’s happening inside your own body, don’t understand shit. You aren’t worth my time.”
He shoved her away from him and Tess fell against the driver’s door, her heart pounding, her breath quick and shallow. Then something huge and monstrous—a crazed, panicked grizzly bear—reared up inside her and she slammed her arm, hand fisted, across his face.
He gasped, his hand flew to his nose, a liquid streamed through his fingers. It didn’t look like blood. Thick, viscous, white like pus, it ran down his arms and onto his jeans. As it hit the seat, it burst briefly into flame, emitted puffs of smoke and vanished.
Tess grabbed her bag and threw open the door, lurched out of the car and ran through the parking lot, weaving in between cars, scooters, motorcycles, bikes. It didn’t matter where she ran as long as she quickly put distance between herself and Ricardo. The mark on her arm now ached and throbbed furiously and never mind that the warning had come too late. How was she supposed to defend herself? Another punch to the brujo’s virtual body? What good would that do? Ricardo was already dead. He could bleed and feel pain in his virtual body, the form that Esperanza enabled him to create so that he appeared to be physical. But none of it was real.
She reached the front of the shopping center, a bookstore and café to her right, a Tibetan restaurant on her left, people seated at tables along the sidewalk. Safety in crowds, she thought, and ran onto one of the balconies, gulping at the air like a dying fish. She dropped forward, hands pressed to her thighs, and struggled to breathe.
You’re safe, he can’t hurt you, can’t seize you.
“Señora, are you all right?”
Tess rose. A waiter, a young Ecuadorian man, stood in front of her, a tray of food balanced in one hand, a tray of drinks in the other. He was frowning, fretting that a gringa who might be deranged had lumbered into the area where his customers were sitting.
“Yes,” she managed to say. “Fine. Sorry to intrude like this.”
Then the waiter began to twitch—the muscles in his face and mouth and just beneath his eyes throbbed spasmodically. The twitching expanded into his shoulders and arms, but not violently enough to cause him to lose his grip on the tray. Not violently enough to draw attention from anyone else.
His eyes went completely dark, an oily dark that poured across even the whites of his eyes. She knew he’d been seized and was now possessed by a brujo, that the ghost’s essence had entered him and was fully in control of the waiter’s body. Then Ricardo spoke in the waiter’s voice.
“Tess, Tess,” Ricardo murmured. “You can’t escape me so easily. Please tell your father that we all want the same thing, to live peacefully in Esperanza. If the chaser council and the people of this city can’t accept that, then my tribe of three million will attack Esperanza so savagely that not a single person in this city will be spared. We’ll make the dark years of Dominica’s tribe look like kindergarten. And do give Wayra my regards.”
With that, a bit of mist, Ricardo’s essence, drifted out of the top of the waiter’s skull and the young man blinked hard, nearly lost his grip on the tray, glanced around uneasily, then looked at Tess. “How many… in your group, señora?”
“None,” she whispered hoarsely, and spun around and raced away from the waiter, out toward her car.
With traffic now moving again on the autopista, Tess drove like a maniac, whipping from one lane to another, her heart still hammering. She exited near the airport and took a shortcut through El Bosque—the Woods—a sprawling residential neighborhood. Tall, thick trees blanketed the area, many of them grown first in greenhouses in Esperanza, then transplanted here. Trees, at an altitude where trees weren’t supposed to grow.
She felt safe in this neighborhood, it smacked of normalcy. Familiar streets. Homes decorated with Christmas lights. Small yards where children played. Schools and sidewalks where teens on bikes sped through the puddles of light the color of melted butter.
She approached Mercado del León, a bodega where she and Ian shopped when they were in the mood for exotic foods imported from all over South America. She pulled into one of the parking spaces between the market and a small church and waited, watching cars that passed. It unsettled her that Ricardo might have seized any of those drivers, that he might be following her even now.
She pressed her fists against her eyes. She could still taste and smell the brujo’s breath, his presence, could still feel his essence moving around inside of her, reading her like a comic book. Three million in his tribe? Three fucking million of these suckers?
The defeat of Dominica’s tribe, supposedly the largest tribe of brujos at the time, had required help from churches, light chasers like her father, and from twenty thousand individuals from all over South America who had lost loved ones to the brujos. Defeating her had demanded a revolution against tyranny. But what defense would Esperanza’s thirty thousand inhabitants have against three million hungry ghosts that were invisible to most people and could seize the living, possess them, and use their bodies as their own?
We’ll lose. Even chasers, evolved souls who had overseen the evolution of Esperanza since they had brought it into the physical world, couldn’t take on three million brujos. Tess wasn’t exactly sure how many chasers there were worldwide, but suspected their numbers were in the low five digits. Hardly a large enough army to defeat three million brujos.
Her arms dropped to her sides, she glanced around again. None of the cars stopped, no pedestrian suddenly started jerking like that waiter had. Still, she had to know for sure.
She drove over to the church, Iglesia del Bosque, and parked in the shade of a tree. As far as she knew, brujos generally didn’t enter churches and were terrified of cemeteries. She supposed they had individual fears, too, just like the living did. Dominica had been afraid of water because she had never learned to swim. What fears did this Ricardo have?
The church, like every other building in this neighborhood, was decorated for Christmas. Blue, green, and red lights festooned the windows and strings of blinking gold lights spiraled up a tremendous pine tree out front. As Tess stepped into the church, she removed the top of her lipstick tube and dipped it into the bowl of holy water. Just in case. She had no idea if holy water had any effect on brujos. But if it did and if Ricardo had followed her in here, she would be ready.
Then again, maybe she had seen too many bad horror movies as a kid. She cupped the lipstick cap in her hand, thumb pressed over the top of it.
Except for an elderly couple lighting candles near the altar, the church was empty. She slipped into a pew and felt strangely comforted by the quiet. A young man emerged from a confessional, then the door opened and a priest walked out, his shoulders so hunched he could barely raise his head. He looked deliberately at Tess and moved toward her. “Are you waiting to confess?” he asked.
The oily dark poured across his eyes and he grinned and aimed his finger at her as though it were a gun. “You can’t escape so easily, Tess,” he said softly. “We are everywhere. Be sure to give your father my message.”
Tess hurled the holy water and it struck the priest in the face. But his skin didn’t burst into flame, he didn’t dissolve or turn to dust. Ricardo just laughed, the sound of it echoing strangely through the church, surrounding her as though it were amplified somehow. “You’re kidding, right? You, the legendary Tess Livingston, really believed holy water would turn me to dust or something?”
Tess fled the church, leaped into her car, and sped out of El Bosque.
Two blocks from the Café Taquina, where she was supposed to meet Ian, she nosed Snoopy into the first parking spot she saw and sank back against the seat, into the silence. She slipped her iPhone out of her jacket pocket and texted Wayra. Who’s Ricardo? She had no idea whether he and his wife, Illary, were even in the city this weekend, but eventually he would pick up his voice mail, e-mail, text messages. Even a shape shifter understood the value of technology and rapid communication.
She got out of the car, zipped up her leather jacket, slung her bag over her shoulder and hurried up the street, anxious to be around people, in a crowd. Before she reached the café, Wayra replied to her text message:
Can u b more specific?
Brujo. Ricardo. He sends u his regards. Says his tribe numbers three million.
What else did he say?
2 much 2 text.
Where r u?
@ Café Taquina. Meeting Ian 4 dinner. Will b there shortly. Time 2 talk.
Tess slid her iPhone back into her jacket pocket, speculations churning through her. A brujo who supposedly commanded a tribe of three million ghosts had tapped her to deliver messages to her father and to Wayra, a shape shifter who knew more about hungry ghosts than anyone. But first he had tasted her, plundered her memories, moved around inside of her like a lover. Yet he hadn’t tried to seize her and hadn’t bled out the waiter and the priest he’d seized. Ricardo had used both men as messengers.
Since brujos rarely told the truth about anything, she wanted to believe that Ricardo’s tribe was vastly smaller than what he’d claimed, thirty or three hundred tired old ghosts instead of three million chafing at the bit to seize the living. In this way, brujos were similar to politicians, bovine blowhards who sought to intimidate in any way available to them. It bothered her, though, that when she mentioned Ricardo’s name to Wayra, he replied that they needed to talk.
When she was confronted with a potential horror show, her former FBI training always kicked in. Pick it apart. Detail by detail. Piece by piece. First detail: the shifter wasn’t a talker. When he shared information and insights, it was only because he felt you absolutely needed to know or because he’d been backed into a corner and had no other choice.
More than three years ago, when Dominica had seized Tess’s niece, Maddie, as her human host and fled Esperanza, Wayra had pursued her without telling Tess, her mother, or Ian. He had cut them out of the search as cleanly as a surgeon excised a tumor. Tess now understood he’d done it for fear they would screw things up because of their emotional connection to Maddie. But when it had been happening, she had grown to resent Wayra for excluding them. Tess’s mother had refused to speak to him for months. Only Ian had maintained contact, doing what he did best, building bridges in spite of differences.
Esperanza versus the brujos. The battle in 2008 hadn’t ended anything. It had only delayed what suddenly seemed inevitable.
The thought was so depressing, she paused on a corner near the café and shouted, “Hey, Dad, you there? I could use some help.”
A breeze carried her voice through the street and out across the lake to the volcano. Charlie never answered.
Apparition © Trish J. MacGregor, 2013