It was an ancient house which perched on a hump of a hill a short distance outside town, a house that did not even have a name, a house which nobody dared enter. Everyone just called it the Haunted House.
The Haunted House was not empty. It held a population of several thousand spiders, a not inconsiderable number of rats, some beetles, and a bat or two. It also contained a ghost.
It was a very, very old ghost. Not even the ghost itself knew quite how old it was. It was, of course, not the spirit of a dead person, because if the spirits of dead people exist, they have better things to do than hang around haunting old houses and scaring people. Like all ghosts, it was an ancient remnant of the energies that created the universe.
It was a very lonely ghost. It had been alone since the beginning of time, and had never found another of its own kind in all the billions of years of searching. It had only found other energies, which were actively hostile and wanted to consume it. Finally, it had decided to slink into hiding in a small planet orbiting a minor sun in a remote spiral arm of an unexceptionable galaxy.
And there, for millions of years, it had remained, drifting from shelter to shelter as it had to. And for years beyond counting, it had resided in the Haunted House Outside The Town.
The Haunted House was also extremely old. Nobody knew just how old, because the land records had long since disappeared and nobody dared enter the premises to look for them. That suited the ghost fine, because it was terrified of human beings.
It was a very cowardly ghost, though in its defence its experiences over the billennia would have been enough to sour its outlook forever. It shrank from the slightest noise, and hid under the stairs at a clap of thunder. It was even afraid of the spiders which spun webs high up in the corners, and stared sown into the room with their eight bulging eyes.
Such was the situation when the bandit Diego el Diablo came to town.
The entire country knew Diego el Diablo very well. Even those who had never seen him before could describe his crossed bandoliers, his pair of revolvers, his huge sombrero, his bags of loot, and most of all, his pair of moustaches. Those were a very luxuriant pair of moustaches, and Diego el Diablo spent a lot of time and trouble waxing, polishing and taking care of them. You might say the moustaches were his most prized possession.
Now two things must be realised: Diego el Diablo did not know of the existence of the ghost, and the ghost wasn’t afraid of moustaches.
There was a reason for this. Many aeons ago, the ghost had been a fugitive fleeing between the galaxies, chased by energies great enough to swallow star systems whole and spit out black holes. The greatest and most implacable of these entities had been one with flat, expressionless black eyes, rather like someone wearing an immense pair of sunglasses. Escaping from it had been almost impossible, but finally the ghost had found shelter for a few million years in a mass of dark matter. That mass of dark matter had looked exactly like a gigantic pair of moustaches.
In time, the dark matter had dispersed, and the ghost had had to look for shelter elsewhere. But it had never forgotten the moustaches, and thought of them as its only friend.
Meanwhile, there was Diego el Diablo. In truth, his reputation was far more fearsome than the truth. Actually, Diego el Diablo was a harmless man who had once wanted to star in the movies. However, the producers had laughed at him, saying he looked like a cartoon Mexican bandit. Diego, insulted and ashamed, had decided then and there that he should become a real bandit, not just a cartoon one. And being someone with immense strength of character, he had forthwith set out to achieve his goal. Today, though he wasn’t a Mexican bandit, he was at least quite indubitably a bandit. What more did he want?
Well, several things, actually. For one, he was lonely, and he wanted someone to talk to. Being a bandit was all very well, but it didn’t make for great social interaction. Then, he wanted a place to hide out for a while.
The reason he wanted to hide out for a while was this: a few days previously, in his most audacious strike yet, he had successfully robbed an armoured car and made off with enough money to retire for life. But the police were hard on his trail. They’d quickly formed a posse to chase him, under the command of an Inspector who wore big sunglasses at all times, even at night. They had been following him, day and night, until he could run no longer. If he looked over his shoulder, he could almost see them on the horizon. The huge old ruin of a house seemed the answer to a prayer.
When Diego el Diablo made a decision, he did not hesitate. Bounding over the crumbling wall of the decaying edifice, he broke open the fastening of a window and clambered inside.
For a while he wandered up and down corridors, looking into rooms ankle-deep in dust, wondering how long it had been since the old pile had last had a visitor. Except for his own footprints, there were no marks in the dust, and apart from the spiders watching balefully from the corners of the ceiling, he didn’t see another living thing. Diego el Diablo was not a particularly imaginative individual, but it did occur to him to wonder why a place like this should have been left alone for so long.
He was no closer to thinking of an answer when something happened. Because of the filth on the windows, it was almost dark inside, and he couldn’t see out. Therefore it was some time before he became aware that there were noises outside, as of a police posse trying to work up the courage to break into a house where an armed robber might be lying in ambush, and a ghost most assuredly would.
Nobody had ever called Diego el Diablo slow to react in a crisis. At the moment he heard the police, he was walking past the stairs. Without a moment’s pause to think, he dived into the space under the stairs.
And, once there, he suddenly found he wasn’t alone.
The ghost had hidden under the stairs in terror – terror of the crashing and splintering noise of Diego’s entrance, and then the tramp of his boots up and down the ancient hallways. It had been far too terrified to even sneak a look to see what had invaded its domain after so many years. All it could think was that it had finally been discovered by the enemy it feared most of all – the entity which looked like a pair of flat, expressionless eyes.
And yet, when suddenly confronted with the intruder, the ghost found that it was not the enemy which had discovered it, after all, but something completely different – the pair of moustaches which had sheltered it, instead.
So it was out of relief as much as anything that the ghost leapt forward and embraced the bandit as hard as it could...
Diego el Diablo was no poltroon. He’d faced down a lot of dangers in his time, dangers which might have made a lesser man’s hair go white, or at least compel him to rethink his choice of career. But the sudden and completely unexpected embrace of a ghost was enough to unsettle even him, to the extent that he let out a bloodcurdling scream of panic. The scream was so loud and shrill that it sent the ghost scooting for the nearest shelter – Diego’s magnificent pair of moustaches.
“What was that?” the ghost gasped, from the safety of the moustaches. “What was that horrible sound?”
“Just me, screaming,” Diego el Diablo confessed, with embarrassment. “You took me by surprise, you see.”
“I take you by surprise?” the ghost replied indignantly. “Here you’ve been stomping around the place all this time, would’ve given me a heart attack if I’d had a heart, and you tell me I took you by surprise?”
“I wasn’t expecting a ghost,” Diego told it. “If I’d known there was a ghost in residence I wouldn’t have come in here. I don’t want to intrude where I’m not wanted.”
“Well, I’m...” the ghost began, but it was interrupted.
It wasn’t only the ghost which had been spooked by Diego’s terrified scream. The police squad which had been on the verge of storming the house was also stopped in its tracks by the terrible sound. It didn’t know what the scream meant, of course; whether the scream was from Diego el Diablo being eaten by the ghost, or from someone else being killed or captured by Diego, or of that someone else being eaten by the ghost. Shaken to the core, the members retreated back beyond the wall and brought up a megaphone.
“Diego!” the Inspector with the shades called through the megaphone, not particularly hopefully. “You’re surrounded. Your situation is hopeless. Come out with your hands up.” Nothing happened, so he tried again. “Diego,” he wheedled, “you don’t want to be in there with the ghost, do you? We may not be exactly your friends out here, but at least we’re human like you, right? What do you say, Diego? Come out and give yourself up, there’s a good boy.”
There was still no answer.
“I think the ghost got him,” the Inspector told his deputy, worriedly. “Not that I’d care about that, ordinarily, but he’s got all that loot in there with him, and I need to recover it.”
“Isn’t it insured?” the deputy remarked, stupidly. “Won’t the bank get the money back anyway?”
The Inspector glared at him, though the dark glasses took the edge off the glare. “I said I need to recover it,” he said acidly. “Who cares about the bank?”
On that note, he turned back to his men and began to organise another attempt at storming the ghost’s ancient citadel.
It didn’t work out very well.
“We all heard the bandit screaming,” the men said. “It’s obvious the ghost ripped out his intestines. We don’t want the ghost to rip out our intestines, as well.”
“I think you’re going to have to give up the plan of securing the money,” the deputy said, not quite daring to smirk with satisfaction.
“Never,” the Inspector snapped. “I’ll never give up. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Wait, I’ve got an idea. The town’s not far off, is it? I’ll be right back.”
Meanwhile, inside the building, the ghost and Diego el Diablo were conferring hurriedly. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready to fire at them through the windows?” the former said. “That’s how they always do it in the movies. ‘You’ll never take me alive,’ and all that.”
“When did you ever get to the movies?” Diego el Diablo asked curiously. “Aren’t you kind of stuck here for the duration?”
If the ghost could have blushed it would have. Even though it couldn’t, Diego’s moustaches momentarily turned a pinkish hue. “A while back I checked the electromagnetic spectrum and came across TV. I was bored, so...anyway, aren’t you going to get ready for the bog stand-off?”
“What with?” Diego el Diablo asked. “I don’t have any ammunition.”
“Loaded with blanks, of course,” Diego snorted. He swept his hands over the bandoliers. “All these are blanks," he said. "Do you think I’d ever use real bullets? That’s insanely dangerous. Someone could get shot!”
There was a brief pause.
“In fact,” Diego added, “I don’t really have much of an idea how to fire these guns. I never have, you see.”
“Well then,” said the ghost, “what do you intend to do?”
If Diego el Diablo had an answer, he didn’t have the opportunity to voice it, because at that moment the front door – directly opposite the stairs under which the ghost and he were hiding – opened with a terrible screech and a jabber of prayer.
Prayer? Diego el Diablo, and the ghost, both peeked cautiously out from under the stairs. A priest stood at the door, sprinkling holy water everywhere and mumbling out exhortations for all unclean spirits to depart the premises.
“I like that!” the ghost said indignantly. “I bet I’m much cleaner than him. Look at the dirt on his collar.”
Some of this must have been audible to the priest, for he stopped and pointed a trembling finger in the general direction of the stairs. “Depart at once,” he declaimed. “Depart to the realm of the dead!”
“Why?” the ghost replied, jumping out. “I’m not dead, I’ve never been dead, I don’t know the way to the realm of the dead, and I wouldn’t go there if I could. As for you...” It stopped, because with a shriek of terror, the priest had dropped his flask of holy water and rushed towards the door to escape.
And there, at the door, coming in, was the Inspector, his sunglasses still in place. He was just in time to collide with the fleeing priest.
“Ouch,” said the Inspector, and went sprawling on the floor. The priest didn’t even pause. With a prodigious leap, worthy of a place in the Olympic Games, he jumped over the policeman and sprinted through the door like an athlete on steroids.
The Inspector lay on the floor, rubbing his stomach and wincing. He looked in such pain that Diego el Diablo popped out from under the stairs to give him a hand, before taking a moment to think what he was doing.
The Inspector looked at Diego el Diablo, and Diego looked back at him.
“So,” the Inspector said, reaching for his gun, which was most definitely loaded. “Diego. You aren’t dead after all.”
“No,” Diego agreed, “I’m most definitely not dead.”
“You soon will be,” the Inspector promised him, and fired. But with the darkness inside and the sunglasses he was wearing, he could hardly see anything, so the shot went wide. Cursing, he ripped off the sunglasses, and that was his mistake.
At the first sight of the Inspector and his shades, the ghost, in a Pavlovian reaction of terror, had gone rushing back to the safety of Diego el Diablo’s moustaches. But as soon as the Inspector had taken off the sunglasses, the ghost realised that it wasn’t being threatened by the entity which had followed it so long through space and time. Also, it realised that the friend it had just begun to make was in danger of being lost forever.
Full of wrath, it struck.
It struck like an express train, like a battering ram, with a shriek of anger so loud that it sounded as though it was tearing the sound barrier in half. The Inspector didn’t even have the time to blink. The ghost ripped the gun from his hand, twisted it into a Möbius strip, and threw it into the corner. Still screaming, it lifted him high into the air, twirled him around twice, and flung him into the corner. He’d hardly hit the floor before it picked him up again and, holding him by the ankles, prepared to dash his brains out.
“Wait,” Diego shouted. “Don’t kill him.”
“He was going to kill you,” the ghost said.
“He didn’t, did he? And now that you’ve wrecked his gun, he can’t. So don’t kill him.”
“If you say so.” With a disgusted snort, the ghost flicked the Inspector through the door. He landed on his back in a puff of dust.
“Thanks,” Diego said. “I appreciate that.”
“You’re too nice for your own good,” the ghost grumbled. “That man will be back, mark my words. He’s not the sort to give up, ever.”
Even as it was speaking, the Inspector was scrambling to his feet outside and gesturing wildly. “Go in there,” he shouted to his men. “Diego el Diablo is there, alive. Go and finish him off.”
There was no response. None of his men were left to obey his orders. Half of them had fled at the priest’s scream, and the remainder at the ghost’s enraged shriek. All that was left was a puff of dust on the horizon.
“You’d better run, too,” Diego called, peering out through the open door. “Or I’ll send my friend after you.”
“Boo!” the ghost said, popping out of the moustaches for a moment.
The Inspector ran.
“It was nice of you to come with me,” Diego said, poking at the bonfire with a stick. “After all, that old pile was your home.”
The ghost snorted. “I’ve had a lot of homes before,” it said. “Besides, how long do you think it would have been before they’d have returned with ten times the men and weapons? Even I couldn’t have protected you forever. And what kind of home would it have been like for me afterwards anyway?”
“You’re probably right,” Diego said, stretching. All around, the night lay silent and calm. “It’s time I gave up the robbery business,” he observed.
“I thought it was your job?”
“Well, there’s not much of a future in it, and it can be hazardous to health.” Diego yawned. “Besides, with the loot from my last job I have enough to get by for the rest of my life if I’m careful. No more banditry. I find I’m not nearly ruthless enough for it. ”
“We’ll find something for you to do instead,” the ghost said.
“We’ll find something to do instead,” Diego agreed, rolling himself in his blanket and yawning again. “I’m not planning on becoming an idle layabout.”
“Go to sleep,” the ghost said. “I’ll keep a lookout, don’t worry.”
“I’m sure,” the ghost said. “I don’t need sleep.” It watched Diego el Diablo pull his sombrero over his face and lie down. “Thanks for turning up,” it said softly. “You can’t believe how lonely I’d got over the years, and how desperate. Now, I’m not even afraid anymore.”
There was no response except a snore. Diego el Diablo was asleep.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012