Morning dawned finally, finding Brian in an aching huddle on a dusty casino floor. The sunlight filtering in through a window at the end of the hall hit his eyes and forced them open cruelly. He rolled off his side and onto his back, groaning all the while. His whole body felt stiff and abused, especially his throat. The combined physical exertion and screaming had left it parched and raw. His legs ached, and the strained slightly burning sensation in several spots on his foot told him he would soon have blisters. The almost supernaturally perfect circle of dried herbs still surrounded them, but they no longer cut the air with the earthy fragrance they held the previous night. No doubt that symbolized that their usefulness had also fled with the night. Sharice lay beside him, curled up closed to the sleeping form of Bentley, the dog snoring softly. Sitting up, Brian grabbed her shoulder and shook her awake. He only needed to do it once before her eyes snapped open. She was sitting up before Brian had a chance to say a word, her sudden action waking the wolfhound beside her. They were both off the ground and stretching, as Brian got to his feet attempting to rub out the kink in his neck.
Without a word, the three of them left the circle of herbs and ventured forward, toward the room they hadn't managed to reach the previous night. They fell in through the door, too tired to talk. Gathering up what things they had left. In equal silence but twice the speed, they made their way out of the casino, and back to the car, tossing their things with little care into its trunk. Once Bentley had taken his accustomed place in the back, curling up and nodding off without sound, Brian and Sharice let themselves fall into their seats leaning back and letting out almost identical sighs.
“Food.” Brian said, his voice as raspy as 2 pack a day smoker. Sharice didn't bother responding, she just nodded and took off, her foot descending on the accelerator with an unnecessary amount of force.
They drove the surrounding neighborhood for ten minutes, before managing to find a rundown diner, open even at the ungodly hour of six AM. They left the windows down for Bentley who was still sleeping fitfully, whimpering and running in his dreams. With indecent haste the two of them races each other to the doors, reaching them at exactly the same time and wrenching them open with an almost urgent air. The slightly tired looking hostess standing at the cash register just inside the door, stared at them as they stood in the door frame. Her sleepy green eyes had gone from lethargic to widely attentive as the force from the doors opening blew about several papers on her counter. Brian and Sharice stepped inside and up to the girl, identical haggard scowls on their faces.
“How can...How can I help you?” In the wake of their sleep deprived menace, the greeting became a pleading question.
“A booth...for two...somewhere generally deserted.” Sharice managed to grunt. As the diner was empty for the most part, 'deserted' wasn't like to be an issue. The look on the poor hostess's face changed from terror to a manic sort of smile, as if she were already counting the moments till she was free of her customers and almost cheerfully, showed them to a booth in the back. They sat without comment, ignoring the padding poking out the cracks in the vinyl upholstery. The hostess placed menus down in front of them and scurried off, to her credit, without more than the customary haste all people who work with the public use to escape their customers. Both Sharice and Brian pushed their spotted and barely washed coffee mugs to the edge of the table, and took turns staring at the ceiling and putting their heads in their hands. Mercifully the waitress was not long in coming. Her disinterested eyes, ringed in think eye liner and eye shadow, roamed over the position of their cups, not to mention their careworn expressions. She looked at the coffee pot in her hands, shook her head and disappeared for another five minutes. She came back with a pot of coffee marked with red electric tape on the handle.
“Y'all look like you need this.” She said, filling our glasses and putting the pot down in the middle of the table. She then took their orders and disappeared into the back again. Almost suspiciously, Brian sniffed the coffee. He whipped his head back before the smell had time to burn the hair out of the inside of his nose. Sipping cautiously, he tasted the acrid, almost acidic taste of obscenely strong coffee. He could see that Sharice had come to the same conclusion as she sipped her drink and wrinkled her face in disgust. The two looked at each other, shrugged and passed around the sugar and cream.
By the time the waitress had returned with their food, Brian and Sharice resembled humans once more, they were even able to speak in full sentences. That is, until the food was put down in front of them and they descended on their meal like starving men, making competitive eating competitions look like child's play. With bellies full and strong doses of caffeine coursing through their veins, Brian and Sharice were finally able to have a conversation.
“How many ghosts was that last night?” Brian asked, the liquid making his voice a good deal less raspy.
“I lost count after 30.” Sharice replied sighing deeply.
“What the hell causes upwards of thirty ghosts to haunt a place and chomp down on the denizens!” Hysteria wasn't coming back thankfully, here in the daylight and stuffed with french toast it was particularly difficult to feel the same as he had last night.
“Not many things,” Sharice admitted, concentrating. “There are a few mass graves that were filled with dead Native Americans when the government decided to go all Manifest Destiny, but those hauntings don't sound anything like what we're dealing with. Not to mention we have dental records, fairly recent dental records. Whatever caused this, it certainly wasn't over ambitious white people making up reasons about why they own California.”
“It just has to be anywhere that people died on a large scale right?” Brian countered taking long sips of their newly refreshed motor oil masquerading as coffee. “That could be anything; fire, gas explosion, crazy gunman.”
“Maybe, but if anything that major had happened, we'd have found some record of it in the library.” She was sipping contemplatively as well, then her eyes went wide, lighting up with an idea. She fished the crumpled paper out of her jacket pocket and flattened it on the table. She scanned the medical examiner's report on our likely ghost. “What's a Glioblastoma?”
“A brain tumor, I think.” Brian said, wracking his woefully full knowledge of television procedural dramas. Sharice's face fell again. She leaned back in the booth obviously flustered.
“Well that screws that plan up.” She said sourly. “Our guy died of 'complications due to inoperable glioblastoma'.”
“And he stuck around as a ghost?”
“It's not that rare,” She said rubbing her head. “Most folks aren't ready to go, especially with something like cancer killing them. They usually leave behind ghosts. But still there shouldn't be that many.”
“Could the casino be built over an old hospital?” Brian asked pouring a fresh cup of coffee and upending the sugar dispenser over it. Most people would have stopped pouring after a few seconds, but Brian pressed on, seemingly determined to find out how much sugar it required to turn coffee into syrup.
“No,” Sharice said, shaking her head. Her brows were knit in concentration. “That's the first thing you check when you go ghost hunting. Hospitals, orphanages, mass graves; anywhere something horrible could have happened and made people cement their souls to a single place. I covered that, it was a neighborhood before they tore it down, a few apartments and stores but that’s it.”
Improbably Brian was still hungry. He had devoured two huge pieces of french toast, a plate of home fries, some regular toast, and, after finding to his chagrin the diner had neither of his hometowns favorite breakfast meats (pork roll and scrapple), a large plate of sausage. He was eying the menu for something more to supplement his sleep deprived body, when his stomach somehow managed to growl.
“Who knows at this point.” He sighed, deciding on the short stack of pancakes and gazing about for their waitress. Then he raised his voice comically when she was nowhere to be found. “Maybe they all died of hunger at the local diner. Lord knows they look like their starving.”
So fixated on the lack of waitress in the general area, Brian didn't notice Sharice stiffen. He only noticed when he turned back around resigning himself to having to wait patiently. Sharice was staring at him with wide eyes, almost cartoon like realization dawning on her face.
“What?” Brian asked by her sudden suffusal. She blinked but didn't quite lose the moment of eureka in her expression.
“They're starving!” She repeated excitedly as if this would explain things.
“Yeah they're all gross and emaciated.” Brain said confused as all get out. “from the looks of them they haven't taken a drink in several millennium either. You'd think with all the people they've been scarfing down they'd at least put on a few pounds.”
“They're hungry!” She said smacking the table with her hands sending a small spray of coffee in all directions. Brian grabbed his mug, gazing at Sharice's elated face with concern mingling with the confusion.
“I...I know. Remember, we just established that?”
“They're hungry ghosts!” She practically screamed, pounding on the table in ecstacy.
“I get it! I get it!” Brian said trying to get her to calm the hell down. “We can get them something in a doggie bag if you want.”
The use of sarcasm caused an abrupt shift in Sharice. She cocked her head to the side and looked at him with a wither glare.
“No stupid its the name of what they actually are.” She then launched into a more detailed explanation. “Some people have rituals they perform to placate the dead. A lot of these involve FEEDING the dead. People believe that if you don't do the rituals and you don't feed the dead-”
“The dead get hungry.” Brian finished in a whisper.
“Yeah,” Sharice said, lowering her voice once she saw the hostess determinedly not gazing in our direction.
“So all the ghosts in the casino are people who's relatives haven't fed them?” Brian asked finding something else to be confused about. “That many people in that small an area doing rituals to feed the dead, wouldn't that be a little noticeable.”
“Not if it was something like a small ethnic community, then most people would just see it as some kind of folk ritual, or cultural celebration.”
Brian remembered a flier he picked up off the casino's parking lot and felt fire suffuse his innards.
“What kind of people do rituals like this?” Brian asked
“It's practiced in a lot of places in the world, but if your talking about who coined the term 'hungry ghost' that would probably be in Asia mostly. I know they've got some ties to Buddhism and Hinduism.”
Removing the flier from his pocket and gazed down at it.
“What about China?” He asked breathing fast.
“Yeah I'm pretty sure it's practiced there.” Sharice answered nodding and looking puzzled. “Why?”
In answer Brian slid the flier across the table to her, a smirk forming on her face. She smiled slamming the paper down on the table as she took the meaning.
“I do believe we have our first solid lead.” Brian said smiling down at the flier. He could read the heading even upside down and it put things into a sudden focus.