Atam leaned against the wall of the alley behind the Cairo and lit a cigarette. He was grateful proper smoking had made a comeback. Vaping was a crime against nature. It was too easy, too sleek and clean, the apotheosis of nicotine consumption. He had known when the technology arrived, but it had taken others a decade or more to realize. To enjoy a cigarette with neither the immediate nor the long-term consequences… it flew in the face of God, who had made his own comeback of sorts. Vaping was gauche, but cigarettes were a respectable vice.
A damp, chilly breeze wafted past and got under his clothes, pulling Atam right out of his head. He’s never far when I light up, he thought. Down at the other end of the alley, the cold air coalesced into a tall, thin shadow that slowly approached him. As it moved closer, features began to take shape. First it was a bulky trench coat and a low, flat-brimmed fedora. Then a thin, gaunt face poked out from between the two. It was a man, or something like a man, but his form was composed out of nothing. Air, light, substance, all seemed to not be wherever he was. Once he was next to Atam in the alley, he looked up at him, and something that might have been a smile spread across his face. “Those aren’t your usuals. Royal Turks?” he asked.
“Turkish Royals. It’s okay to say it right,” Atam mumbled while looking at his feet.
“Well I take it you want to move forward with this, or you wouldn’t have flashed my bat signal this early in the evening,” the spectre nudged Atam, and where their arms touched a painful, icy cold spread up Atam’s right side. “What do you say we take a walk and figure out what we know?” the spectre motioned out of the alley. Atam didn’t nod or even indicate that he heard, but followed him out of the hallway of dilapidated brick.
As they walked through the port district towards a towering suspension bridge, the ghost tried to contain his excitement, but to no avail. “This is my wheelhouse, you know. Back before I was this, I was H. Jerod Vegaro, -“
“G-man,” Atam completed his sentence. “I know you’re going to have this cracked in no time, Hanley. But I need this to go slowly. Can you do that for me?” he asked.
“I suppose,” Hanley grumbled. “But let’s at least get the bones of this case on the table – “
“It’s not a case! I don’t even know why I’m doing this! She left me, Hanley. If she wanted me finding her, she wouldn’t have fucking disappeared,” Atam shouted, and then slumped on the curb and began to sob.
“Hey. You ain’t your woman. If you were, you’d be gone too. If I learned anything before I crossed over, it’s that you can always find another woman. A good one, too,” Hanley knelt beside him, eyeing the cigarette that Atam was trying to steady his hand in order to light. “I know this isn’t the best time, but do you mind if I..?”
Atam slumped even lower, his back making a C-shape as he lit the cigarette with his face pointed to the ground. “Go for it,” he mumbled between sobs.
Hanley rubbed his hands eagerly and slid inside Atam’s skin. He loved occupying a body. It was so warm. It didn’t matter whether it was the dead of winter; he could always feel the warmth blooming from Atam’s heart. That was how he knew the heart was more than a pump. It was warming up a damn ghost. He raised Atam’s hand and put the cigarette to his lips, taking a hearty drag. Smoking was the opposite of being dead. No damp or cold. Adam’s lungs and throat felt like wool socks drying in front of a wood stove. It was delicious.
Hanley retreated from Atam’s body, relishing the last few moments as Atam recovered from the brief but taxing possession. Atam writhed for a few seconds and gasped repeatedly as though the wind had been knocked out of him. He looked up at Hanley, once again ethereal, and his eyes were sunken and resentful. But as he regained his breath, they returned to sadness with a little of Atam’s usual apathy.
“Now,” said Hanley, turning to face the water so as to avoid Atam’s displeasure, “Tell me what you know – what you’re sure of in this whole ordeal.”