Chapter 11: In which Sanderson’s victories bear strange fruit
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
It was Doc Helen who told me about Charlotte Smith when I was in the kitchen eating my brunch. She came in, said she’d seen Mac, and told me about Charlotte being found dead behind the counter at 1:30 AM. Doc had already done an autopsy, and found the same pattern of brain hemorrhages as in the two dead motel guests. She was in a hurry, she had patients waiting, but she did tell me to be careful, several times.
That was depressing, so I decided I’d better tackle something positive. I had fortune telling hours starting at 2 PM, so I had maybe a free hour.
First up was Miss Abigail Lane and the Secret Service. Angela Farr hadn’t gotten anywhere with them, but I doubted she’d used the Internet; I hadn’t seen a computer in her home. So I looked up the Secret Service online. I didn’t find any place specific to ask questions about their history, so I tried half a dozen different routes, everything from their Twitter account to the Curator of the Department of the Treasury, where the Secret Service had originally resided. And then I was just going to have to wait and see what response I got, if any.
Second up was ordering a replacement cell phone. I got overnight delivery. I was going to need that phone.
Next was writing to my mother/aunt. I needed Athena’s phone number, because it was through her that I’d met the only person that might be able to help me, one of her ex-boyfriends. Unfortunately, the reason he was an ex-boyfriend was why Athena wasn’t talking to me anymore. And even though it had been two years, I didn’t know if she’d talk to me now. Funny, it had taken Iffie years to get Athena just annoyed at her, while it had taken me only one thing to alienate Athena completely.
I almost decided to call my mother/aunt on Doc’s land line, just to get it over, one way or another. But I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew one of her questions was going to be when would I come home. Two years ago, I would have said “never,” because I didn’t think I could face her after dropping out of college. Now, my answer was more like, “not any time soon.” The truth was, after two years, home wasn’t home anymore. Maybe if I hadn’t screwed up my relationship with Athena, or if I’d finished college, I might have still felt it was home. But it wasn’t, not anymore. I didn’t have a home. If I went back and showed my mother/aunt what I had become, she’d freak out. Home is where you are accepted, where you feel accepted.
Which led me into thinking about what happened last night, and over the last few days. I was fairly certain that the ghosts were miners that had been trapped in the Maverick Mine in 1896, and that the cave-in had released them. There had to be something magical about the mine that had kept them there. Maybe the same magic had shut down my ability to transform when I flew in, because I’d never changed back to human form without intending to before. And somehow my jerry-rigged magic had driven off the ghosts last night, but they’d apparently gone and killed someone else, namely Charlotte.
But why were they killing anyone at all? That wasn’t usual for ghosts. Though after what happened in the ravine, I had to admit my notions about ghosts were inadequate to the reality. And were they apparently based in the motel because a hotel had stood there when the mine was open and the town called Jacksonville?
I needed more information, and I knew of only one way to get it. I was going to have to raise Charlotte’s ghost, preferably without bringing the entire gang of miners’ ghosts down on my head again. Abigail Lane had said my calling hadn’t been specific enough. Well, that should be a simple fix. And if it worked, I’d try calling Abigail Lane next. If she knew more, and I was pretty sure she did, she was going to have to tell me.
I looked up at the clock and found it was ten minutes to two. I quickly called Mac to tell him what I had in mind, got dressed up in my fortune teller’s robe, and went out onto the porch to await customers. I was supposed to be open from two to five, and then on duty at McNaughten’s from seven to two. I’d have to squeeze my ghost raising in-between. It was going to be a busy day.
I had more new customers that day than I’d seen on any previous day. It seemed as if everyone was worried that death was in the air and that they might be next. And they wanted reassurances that it wasn’t so, that they’d come through this fine. And me, what could I tell them? That ghosts from Farnham’s forgotten past were at large and stalking them for reasons no one knew? I earned my money that afternoon, trying to address what my clients for the most part could not say to me.
But some things I couldn’t address. I was ushering out Mrs. Genova when I stepped through the doorway onto the porch and found two people waiting for me. I didn’t recognize the woman. But I did recognize her companion: Sally Smith, Charlotte’s daughter. A pit formed in my stomach.
The older woman spoke first. “Madame Fortuna, I’m Eileen Harbison, Charlotte’s sister.”
I made some noises to the effect that I was sorry for her loss.
She nodded in acknowledgement. “Sally insisted on talking to you, and I felt it best to bring her. Eh,” and her looks turned uncomfortable, “under the circumstances of your relationship with my dear sister, I would prefer that anything you say to Sally be said in my presence.”
I flushed red. “Of course. Come in.” Instead of leading them into my fortune telling parlor, which was on the right, I led them into my sitting room (because I sit there), on the left of the hallway. Sally and Eileen Harbison took the couch, I took an easy chair which I tilted to face them.
Sally hadn’t said a word so far, and I was at a loss as to how to begin. So I settled for plain and simple. “What can I do for you, Sally?”
Sally looked at me, looked away, struggled to come up with what she wanted to say, and finally said, “Why didn’t you tell us that our mother was going to die?”
I wasn’t expecting this question, and answered stupidly. “I didn’t know she was going to die.”
The way Sally looked at me made me realize just what I’d said wrong. “But, you said, you said, Madame Fortuna sees everything. You found Blackie.” I was struggling for an answer when she continued, “You must have seen that my mother . . .” The rest was too much for her, she started crying, and threw herself into her aunt’s arms. Eileen Harbison glared at me, as if to say, “See what you’ve done. I hope you’re satisfied.”
I tried to think of what I could say to Sally to make her feel better, without running afoul of the aunt. Nothing useful came to mind. And after a few minutes, Eileen Harbison, spoke softly to Sally, saying, “Come away now, Sally, you see there’s nothing to be done here.” She coaxed Sally up, escorted her out of the parlor, and onto my porch. There she said to Sally, “Run along to the car, now, I’ll just be a minute.” The moment Sally was out of earshot, she turned to me. “I don’t want to see you near my niece or nephew ever again. Am I clear?” Without waiting for an answer, she pushed open the screen door and left.
It was fortunate this happened around 4 PM, because it lowered my already low spirits. And it so alarmed the next client, who had been sitting in the porch and witnessed the exchange, that I had to do something I’d never done before, and convinced her to forget what she had just heard.
I was never so glad to hang up my robes as I was that afternoon. I changed into casual clothes, packed my bartender’s attire into a bag, along with the kitchen supplies I would need, and headed for the jail.
Farnham’s jail was the second government building constructed in town, which gives you a sense of the town’s priorities. Mac’s living quarters were part of the same building. And the basement served as the morgue for Farnham. I made my way to the basement, where Mac was sitting in a chair, reading a magazine. He’d already brought out Charlotte Smith.
I motioned him to stand at the foot of the table where Charlotte’s corpse was laid out, and began by making another circle with flour. Mac watched with interest until he realized what I was doing. And then he said, “Pardon me for questioning the wisdom of my deputy, but just what are you doing here, Sanderson? You did this last night and it worked, but flour?”
“Symbolism, Mac,” I replied when I’d finished the circle and chant. “Doc reminded me about it when she said something about the meaning of my name. The feathers,” and I stripped off my gloves, holding my right hand so Mac could see the back of it, “the feathers are nightfeathers. And I’m Persephone, who in legend went into the Underworld and came back. So I raise the dead.”
Mac chuckled. “OK, what about your other names?”
I avoided answering. “Another time, Mac. The flour is nature purified by the hands of man, a food stuff, earthy, and I don’t know what else. Fact is, it works. Spices,” and I got out the little packet for him, “have defined symbolic meanings that are centuries old, although between you and me I was guessing last night. Now hush.” I worked myself up into the right frame of mind and then began mumbling my usual spell. But I changed the ending, which I shouted out, “I, Persephone Désirée Arabia Nightfeather Sanderson, magician proved by trial and practiced necromancer, do hereby summon the spirit of Charlotte Smith, who is among the dead, to hold converse with me until she have answered all that I demand of her. Spirit, answer my call.”
There was complete silence for a moment, and then again that odd twisting. Suddenly there were ghosts surrounding us. It was the same ghosts, the ghosts of the miners. I hadn’t called them, but they came anyhow. I was surprised, but ready this time. My barrier held them back.
But where was Charlotte? Most of the ghosts were shadowy, faded. But four stood out as being more vivid. I didn’t recognize two of them, but I didn’t expect to. They were the motel guests who had died. One of the others was Charlotte. Why she appeared outside the circle instead of inside, like she should have since I summoned her, I didn’t understand.
But that wasn’t the biggest surprise. The fourth vivid ghost I expected to be Crazy Cathy. But it wasn’t. It was Tim Taisey, the manager of the motel. But he wasn’t dead! Or was he?
The ghosts all moved about the perimeter of my circle as if they wanted to get in. But they all acted as if they were barely awake or drugged or something. And that included the four recently dead ones (if Taisey was in fact dead).
I cried out, “Charlotte Smith, answer my call!” She wavered, as if she was waking up, but a moment later returned to the zombie-like behavior of the rest of the ghosts.
I didn’t like this, but I was determined to get answers, so I tried something I hoped wouldn’t endanger Mac and me. I reached across the circle with my right hand to try to pull Charlotte in. The moment my hand crossed the circle, the feathers stood up and glowed, and so did the flour circle. And the next moment I grabbed and yanked Charlotte into the circle. And no one was more surprised than I. Ghosts are intangible. You can’t grab them. Well, they couldn’t lift physical objects, either, but I’d seen Abigail Lane do so. I hadn’t thought grabbing Charlotte would actually work, but . . .
Charlotte stood there in a daze, her eyes closed. But after a few seconds, she opened them. It took her about two minutes to come to herself. This was also odd. She should have been aware of her surrounding in seconds.
Charlotte saw me, frowned, turned, and saw her corpse. This is usually a traumatic moment for a ghost, because it’s the first evidence they have that they’re dead. Charlotte stared, bug-eyed at her corpse, then glanced around the room, taking in her surroundings. She saw Mac and addressed him. “Mac, what’s going on? Is this some sort of trick of hers?” Charlotte waved in my direction. Apparently speaking my name was beneath her now, even though I’d raised her from the dead.
Mac walked over until he was standing within three feet of Charlotte. “I’m sorry to say, Charlotte, this is real. You died last night behind the counter. We wanted to know if you could tell us about what happened.”
Charlotte naturally was confused. “I don’t understand. Are you saying . . .?”
“You’re a ghost,” I completed the thought for her. “That’s your body,” I added, pointing to her corpse.
She looked at it again, reached out, put her hand through it and then quickly drew it back. That’s enough of a shock for a lot of ghosts. Charlotte stared at her hand for a bit, then looked around the room again. She turned to Mac. “I don’t understand any of this.”
Mac gave her an uneasy smile. “Truth is, Charlotte, I don’t understand it either. This is Sanderson’s doing. But I asked her to. I need your help to figure out what happened to you.”
Most people like Mac, and that included Charlotte. She replied, “I was just minding the counter, restocking some cigarettes. That’s all I remember.”
“There wasn’t anyone or anything you saw?” Mac asked.
Charlotte shook her head. “Nope, nothing.” A pause. “Wait, I turned around because I heard someone tapping at the window behind me. Tim Taisey was there. I don’t know what he wanted.” Another pause. “What’s going on, Mac? Am I really dead?” Like a lot of ghosts, Charlotte either couldn’t believe what had happened, or preferred not to.
Mac shook his head. “’Fraid so, Charlotte.”
“Why?” Charlotte’s voice was plaintive.
I chimed in. “We don’t know why, yet, Charlotte. We’re investigating.” To put her in better humor, I added, “Your daughter Sally showed up at my place today. A woman named Harbison, said she was your sister, was taking care of her.”
That brought a sad smile to Charlotte’s face. “Eileen. Good.”
I took advantage of her good mood. “Anything else you can remember about what happened just before you died, or since you died?”
She shook her head. “It seems like I’ve been in a dream since then, as if someone’s talking to me but I don’t remember what they said.”
Again, an odd statement. I filed it away in my head for consideration later. I was tempted to ask Charlotte if she had any message for Sally, because I wanted to do something for the girl, no matter what Eileen Harbison thought of me. But I realized that I’d never be able to explain how I got the message. So instead, I dismissed Charlotte’s ghost. And as she disappeared, so did the rest of them. Somehow, Charlotte was linked to the miners. How?
Mac gave me a thoughtful look. “You seem to be improving by leaps and bounds.”
I snorted. “I’m winging it, Mac. You saw Tim Taisey’s ghost?”
He nodded, his usual smile gone. “You need to get to work at McNaughten’s. And I need to go pay a call at the motel to find his body, I guess.”
I stayed long enough to clean up after myself, then headed over to McNaughten’s. I had more questions that I hadn’t mentioned to Mac, primarily because I wasn’t sure what they meant, myself. Also because Mac was going to go find another body and I didn’t want to burden him with anything more.
Thursday night was unusually busy behind the bar. My back, which had held up during the day, began aching again, and I was in a foul mood. Smiling constantly at the customers, mind you, but in a foul mood. After about an hour, Jake Mann, one of the other bartenders, gave me a tap on the shoulder. “Your guardian angel wants to see you,” he told me with a smile. I snarled at him, which didn’t bother him in the slightest, and went looking down the bar. There was Mac, of course. The look he gave me was that of a thoroughly puzzled man.
“I’ve been over to the motel,” he said. “Far from being dead, I just spent half an hour talking with Tim Taisey. So tell me, Sanderson, how did his ghost appear to us when he’s alive?”
So true about “home”.
Very effectively tense moment with Charlotte’s sister. My stomach knotted up.
Can’t wait for the next episode.
Curious-er and curious-er. But it’s not my stomach knotting; it’s my head, trying to figure it, A true fan of whodunnits, I have to work out the answer before it’s revealed. Yea, I know, this isn’t a true whodunnit, but the principle applies.
I know the challenge. I got very frustrated with the Sherlock Holmes stories because some are structured so you can work out the mystery from the clues, while others are not. I’ve noticed that since I’ve started writing, my ability to figure out whodunits has improved a bit, because I think more of the writer’s logic as I read.
There are some reveals coming up, I promise. This chapter actually sets the stage for several of them.
It’s actually since I’ve been writing that I’ve got hooked on the whodunnits – probably because I’m now looking at them from a writer’s angle. But the most frustrating puzzles were given me, close up, by a children’s entertainer (and adult’s magician). No, I couldn’t work out how he was doing his tricks, despite he sat beside me in my office at my desk. He was good. And he never let slip a trick.
But I shall be grateful for some reveals.
Interesting that we should both change our view on whodunits by becoming writers. I’ve been wondering about how my attitude toward reading has been changing. I think I remember reading that Connie Willis said she found it was too easy to see writer’s tricks once she started writing, as if that was a bad thing. I do not find it to be bad, rather enlightening, and offering another type of entertainment.
I think what I notice most is how and where a writer cuts the plot, jumps ahead, steps to the side, or any other number of techniques I hadn’t before thought of, to control the speed of reveal, the rise of suspense, the overall rhythm of the work. Like music, I suppose. .
Fair comparison. I’ve swiped a few techniques, myself, that way. 🙂