“That’s simply crazy.” Priya shook her head. “It’ll never work.”
Sujay frowned. “Why don’t you at least let me tell you about it before you shoot me down?”
“Because it’s crazy.” Priya sat back and studied Sujay over the rim of her mug of beer. “There’s nobody who’s going to go for it. Capture ghosts, indeed!”
“But I’ve got the apparatus for the job.” Sujay lifted the heavy canvas haversack off the floor and put it back down. “I told you, it’s all taken care of.”
Priya looked from Sujay to the haversack and back again. “I can’t believe it,” she said wonderingly. “You’re actually serious about this.”
“Of course I am.” Sujay looked quickly around the pub to check if anyone was listening. Even if they were, they’d have had to be lipreaders to be able to make out what he was saying even from the next table, and with night vision to be able to see his lips in the semi-darkness. Reassured, he turned back to Priya. “It’s going to work,” he said earnestly. “Look, we live in a superstitious country, right?”
“And a lot of people believe in ghosts, isn’t that so?”
“Yeah, but –“
“And they’re willing to pay good money to useless tantriks and witch doctors and the like to rid them of these ghosts. You’ll agree with me on that?”
“Yes,” Priya admitted. “But,” she added firmly, taking advantage of the chance to get her word in, “why would they pay us money to get rid of their ghost instead?”
Sujay sighed with satisfaction. “Two reasons. In the first place, technology. This is the age of technology. We aren’t going to mutter chants over chalk pentagrams drawn on the floor. We’re going to do it properly.”
“Yes, with modern technology. People trust technology. And why do they trust technology?”
Priya shrugged. “Because it works?”
“Precisely. And this works.”
Priya stared at him. “Oh no. Please don’t tell me you said that. Don’t tell me you said you can really catch ghosts.”
“Shhh.” Sujay looked around again, but since there were only about a hundred and fifty other people in the pub he seemed to be reassured. “The second reason is, yes, this really catches ghosts. Look, let’s assume for the sake of argument that ghosts really exist, OK?”
“Um, yeah. All right.” Priya propped her chin on the knuckles of one hand. “Suppose we assume it. So?”
“So, suppose ghosts exist, what would you assume they are? What’s their nature?”
Priya shrugged. “You and I both don’t believe in this ‘soul’ crap, so, shall we say...electromagnetic energies of some kind?”
“Good, that’s pretty much what I think too. Electromagnetic waves or radiation, whatever. Now, of course electromagnetic waves or radiation can be detected. Right?”
“Physics isn’t my field, but, yeah, sure. So?”
“So if we have the right kind of detector we should be able to detect ghosts.” Sujay patted the haversack. “And if we can detect them we can trap them. You know, like radiation can be trapped in a box.”
“You think so?’
“Sure.” Sujay leaned earnestly across the table and only avoided spilling his beer because he’d already drunk it all. The mug clunked over on the table, unnoticed. “Look, by all the accounts, ghosts don’t wander far, do they? You don’t get ghosts flying all over the world. They tend to stay in one restricted spot, like a haunted house or something like that. So whatever kind of radiation they are, it’s one of those which don’t move far from their point of origin. And those radiations can usually be captured and trapped.”
Priya blinked. “Trapped? How?”
“I’ll show you later. Now, listen. Suppose we could actually, you know, trap ghosts. We’d have to find a market for people to ask us to trap their ghosts for them, right? So we’d have to prove to them that we can, actually, trap ghosts.”
“And then –“
“Then they’ll jump at the chance to get rid of their ghosts by hiring Priya and Sujay, Ghostcatchers Ltd. Why wouldn’t they?”
Priya tapped her cheek with her index finger while she stared across the table at him. “Don’t tell me,” she said eventually. “Let me guess. We’re going to go out and trap a ghost to use as an advert. Am I right?”
“And we’re going to go do it now, am I also right?”
“And here I was thinking I’d have a hard time convincing you.”
“This,” Sujay said, as he awkwardly manoeuvred several chunks of metal and plastic out of the bag, “is the detector. I haven’t put it together yet, of course.”
Priya glanced across at him from behind the wheel. Outside the car’s windows, the night flashed by. They’d already left the main city behind. “Have you checked that it actually, you know, works?”
“Well, there aren’t exactly too many ghosts available in a modern city, and there are far too many additional sources of electromagnetic waves. That’s why we’re going out to this lake. But, yeah, I did come across a couple of readings which were a little...strange.”
“How do you mean – strange?”
Sujay shrugged. “Just strange. I can’t identify it as from any other source, that’s all.” He connected some leads and flipped a couple of switches. Lights blinked and flickered. “Right, we’re all set,” he said, and turned off the switches. “Got to conserve the battery power.”
“You think we’ll find ghosts up by the lake?”
“Why not? It’s creepy enough, even by day. I mean, we don’t exactly have haunted houses available.” He looked gloomily out of the window at the night flowing past. “Just think, if this was fifty years ago, we could have had our pick of haunted houses. No self respecting town didn’t have at least one. If it were only fifty years ago...”
“If it was fifty years ago,” Priya pointed out, “you wouldn’t have any of this fancy equipment available. If it works, that is.”
“Don’t worry about that. It works.” Sujay pulled a long grey pipe like an elongated cone out of the bag. It had a bulbous rubber structure at the narrow end while the wider end was covered by a grill. There were buttons and USB ports along a strip on one side. “Now this,” he said, “is the actual ghostcatcher.”
“Fascinating,” Priya said. “How does it work?”
“We hook it up to the detector. When it detects a ghost, we home in on it and pinpoint the source at which the signal is strongest. Then we simply press this bulb and release it, and the ghost’s sucked right up the tube into the bulb.”
“There’s something wrong with my hearing. I think I drank too much. It sounded like you said we suck the ghost up into the tube by pressing the bulb.”
“That’s what I said. Of course, the ghost won’t stay confined in that bulb forever.”
“Fancy that,” Priya murmured, shifting up to fifth.
“So,” said Sujay enthusiastically, and fished out another object from the bag. It was a box about the size of a shoebox, and obviously very strongly built, with rivets at all the corners. It was also obviously very heavy. “So,” he resumed, “we squirt the ghost into this.”
“I said ghosts must be locally isolated radiations, didn’t I? This box is lined with lead.”
“It blocks radiation. The thickness determines how much radiation it blocks. In fact it’s only about a third as big inside as it is on the outside. The filling is all lead. Let’s see how the ghost gets out of that. Of course,” he added, “the clients have to actually see the ghost inside the box. In order for it to have any effect, you know, as advertising.”
“Yes, I was wondering when you were going to come to that.”
“Look here.” Sujay pointed to a small projection on the roof of the box, with a button beside it. “That’s an eyepiece with lenses set inside the box. Lead glass lenses, just so the ghost can’t get out that way. And the button is for lights to come on in the box.” He waxed enthusiastic. “Now, when our business is all established, we can offer the clients their ghosts to keep, imprisoned forever in these lead-lined boxes, and with or without lenses as they want. If they feel like talking to the ghost...”
“Talking to the ghost?”
“Why, yes, there’s a facility for a microphone as well.” Sujay pointed at an inconspicuous aperture. “If they want to talk to it, all they have to do is plug their headphones in.”
“Great idea.” Priya concentrated on driving for a few minutes. The road was getting steep and narrow as they headed up into the hills. “There’s one big flaw in your plan,” she said eventually. “Both of us are assuming there aren’t any such things as souls. So what would be the source of these ghosts of yours, and how would they be able to communicate in any fashion?”
“I don’t know,” Sujay confessed. “If we catch one we can ask it. But I’m sure there must be an answer.”
They were coming to the lake. It lay, glimmering in the faint moonlight, like a crumpled black mirrored cloth flung across the space between four hills. In the daytime, there would have been people around. Not many, because this lake wasn’t popular with the tourists, but there would be a few.
At night, they were totally alone.
“One of the reasons I think we have a better chance of finding a ghost here,” Sujay said, “is that there aren’t people around. No competing radiations, no disturbance. If there are ghosts we’ll find them.”
“It’s cold,” Priya said. She rummaged in the back seat of her car and brought out a couple of hoodies. “Here,” she said, handing one to Sujay. “Luckily I came prepared.”
“What, you knew I was going to bring you up here to catch ghosts?”
“I’m always ready to go anywhere there’s a chance of catching ghosts.” Priya watched as Sujay turned on the ghost detector. A dial lit up with a pale greenish glow which lit up his face. The effect made him rather resemble a ghost himself.
“See anything?” Priya asked after a while.
“...not yet,” Sujay said, twiddling knobs on the control box.
“Maybe it’s not working.”
“It’s working.” Sujay pointed at a green light on the box. “See?”
“Well then, maybe there aren’t any ghosts up here.”
“There ought to be,” Sujay said. “Let’s make a circuit of the lake. If there are any we’ll detect them.”
They began walking around the lake. It was dark, and Priya had open sandals on, which made her fear for her toenails if she came up against a rock. She thought about turning on her cell phone torch, but remembered that Sujay had said that the electronic interference from mobile phones could stop ghosts from being detected.
There was a sudden noise in the darkness. Sujay turned quickly. “Did you hear that?”
“It was just me.” Priya smothered another belch. “The beer, you know.”
“Oh.” They’d covered almost half the lake, and come to the jetty which extended a few steps out over the water. The overturned hulls of a few derelict boats lay among the weeds like slumbering seals. “Hey, wait.”
“Look.” Sujay bent to one side to allow Priya to peer over his shoulder. “The readouts are going off the scale. There’s something here.”
Priya looked at the dial. The needle was over on the red zone on the right, almost at the maximum. Sujay took a step forward, and it moved even further to the right.
“Whatever it is,” he said, “it’s on the jetty.”
“On the jetty?” Priya peered at the jetty. It was almost invisible except for the tops of the supports, faintly picked out by the moon. “Can’t see anything.”
“It’s there, though.” Sujay started out on to the jetty, holding the detector before him. “The signal’s getting stronger by the minute. It’s...ooh.”
There was a splintering crack and a splash in the dark water, and the detector thumped on the wood of the jetty. Priya stared in dismay at the broken plank and the spreading ripples.
“Sujay?” she asked. “Sujay?”
There was no answer, and no time to waste. Sujay could swim, but he was stewed to the gills and might not be able to get back up with all the weight of the ghostly things he was carrying. Pausing only to kick off her sandals and pull off her hoodie, she dived into the water.
It was bitterly cold, cold enough to send a shock to the centre of her body, but it wasn’t deep, and she was a fairly good swimmer. Diving under the surface, her fingers encountered Sujay’s collar. Getting a firm grip on it, she began dragging him up to the top.
“You’re choking!” she said as they clung to the supporting posts of the jetty. “Did you breathe in water?”
“No,” Sujay managed. “You almost...strangled me...dragging on my collar.” Then he began gasping and grooghing again.
“You sound really bad,” Priya said, concerned. “Let’s get ashore and we’ll go to a hospital and...”
Instead of replying, Sujay pointed up at the jetty. Priya turned to look, and then started gasping and grooghing herself.
Something sat on the jetty, dangling its feet over the edge. It was white and misty and almost human-looking except that when it moved, it flowed like gas, with streamers and wisps drifting behind. It peered down at them through huge eyeless sockets.
“Why are you splashing about in the lake?” it asked. Its voice was thick, like muddy water. “You’d better get up here before you...” it paused and sneezed so violently that pieces of it drifted away into the air for several seconds before coalescing. “...catch your deaths of cold,” it finished.
“Are you,” Priya asked, vaguely aware of how stupid it sounded, “dead?”
“Of course I’m not dead,” the ghost said indignantly. “I’d not be hanging around here if I were dead, would I?”
There seemed no ready answer to that, but Sujay tried anyway. “But you’re a ghost.”
“Of curse I’m a ghost.” It started laughing at its own stupid pun, and then sneezed again. “But how does that have anything to do with my being dead?” it asked, watching them squelch their way out of the water. “Have you ever heard of a dead ghost?”
Sujay and Priya glanced at each other. “Well, come to think of it, no. We just assumed...”
“Everyone assumes,” the ghost said angrily. “Nobody wants to find out anything or confirm anything. They just assume! I’ll bet you...you maybe think I’m a dead human or something, right?”
“I knew it,” the ghost said with gloomy triumph. “You lot aren’t even satisfied with assuming things about us. You want to assume the worst insults you can think...” it sneezed. “...of,” it finished.
“Actually,” Sujay said, “we didn’t think you were a dead anything. We were trying to find out what ghosts are.”
“We thought you might be some kind of electromagnetic radiation,” Priya said.
“Sentient electromagnetic radiation,” Sujay put in quickly.
“Thinking, feeling, sentient electromagnetic radiation.” Priya suppressed another belch. “Really nice electromagnetic radiation.”
“The best in the world,” Sujay nodded.
“That’s easy for you to say,” the ghost said, quite unmollified. “You can go anywhere you want, so you can say this or that is the best in the world. All I can do is take your word for it.”
“Why, can’t you go anywhere too if you want?”
“No,” the ghost said miserably. “I’m stuck here in this damp and cold. Achchoo! Why do you imagine I’m always sneezing?”
“Let me get this clear,” Priya asked, carefully. “You’d like to go away?”
The ghost rubbed at its empty eye sockets as though wiping away tears. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to go away,” it said dreamily. “Imagine seeing the world, instead of this damned lake, day in, day out, nothing ever changes, all I do is freeze and sneeze, and –“
“Well then,” Sujay said. “Listen, ghost, we have a proposal for you...”
And that was how it all began.
Today, Sujay and Priya run the best ghostcatching firm in the business. If you want a ghost caught by them, there’s a six-month waiting period before your turn comes up, they’re that sought after. But then it’s only right. After all, they do, absolutely, guarantee success.
And if you have any doubts about their ability, you’re simply referred to the third partner in the firm. That’s another guarantee, that you’ll never have a doubt along those lines again.
Partner, did I say? Oh yes. It didn’t get called Priya and Sujay Ghostcatchers Ltd. after all.
The name of the firm is Priya, Sujay, and Ghost.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
(With many thanks to Sujay Paniyadi and Priya D'Souza for permitting me to lampoon them unmercifully in this piece. I had fun writing it!)