Chapter 12: Advice, remembered and forgotten
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
I’d like to say I had an answer for Mac, but I didn’t. Tim Taisey had to be dead. His ghost, his soul, was detached from his body. I’ve heard of people’s souls rising up out of their bodies onto an astral plane, whatever that is, but I’d never heard of them responding to a summons for someone else’s ghost. It made no sense.
After grousing a bit, and downing a beer, Mac took off. I had a job to do, and it kept me pretty busy. Some of it I could do on autopilot. But keeping track of orders and mixing less familiar drinks required my full attention, especially as I was known for being able to make all sorts of mixed drinks. (No good deed goes unpunished.) And my back kept flaring up. Standing seemed to be worse for it than walking. So I didn’t get a lot of time to try to figure out what was going on.
There were some things I was fairly sure of, when I did get a chance to think about the ghosts. Most were century-old miners, the rest were their current victims. Somehow they were connected, so that I couldn’t summon one without summoning them all. That suggested that there was magic binding them. That would explain Charlotte’s curious behavior as a ghost. But who put the magic on them? It seemed to exist from their first appearance after the mine caved in, which implied either that someone had found out about the ghosts and deliberately opened up the mine with a cave-in . . . or that one of the ghosts had been a magician in Farnham, or should I say Jacksonville, in 1896, with enough power to survive to this day. I didn’t know which possibility was worse.
And why wasn’t Crazy Cathy among the ghosts? Why was hers the only body so mutilated? I was going to have to have a serious talk with Doc Helen, to find out just what the story was about Crazy Cathy. Somehow, apart from being crazy, which Doc said she wasn’t, she was different.
Which brought me right back to Tim Taisey’s ghost. If he was dead, and I had to assume he was, then who or what had Mac been talking to? I was going to have to track down Taisey.
Questions, questions, questions. I needed more sleep, too. My shift ended when McNaughten’s closed down. I was slow to get changed out of my duds, so slow I was among the last three people in the bar, along with Nick the night manager and Julia Volcker, a waitress who always took forever to redo her long hair. We ended up walking out the front door together, because Nick always closed the place up, with the front door coming last. Julia split off first, but Nick was with me for more than half my walk home before he turned down a side street.
In retrospect, walking out the front door with Nick and Julia may have saved my life. I had forgotten something Abigail Lane had said to me: “Now that they know you’re here, they’ll be hunting you.” Had I gone out the back, I would have been walking home alone, and what happened might have begun much sooner.
Instead, I was blithely walking along the short distance remaining to Doc’s and my house, when I felt something following me. I struggled to hear, but there was nothing other than the usual noises at nighttime, which included the occasional car passing by. So I finally turned and looked.
There was something behind me. And the thing was entirely black. No, I don’t mean black as in race, I mean black as in this thing looked like a colorless blur, about the size of a really big guy. The moment I turned, the thing switched from walking to running toward me.
I dropped my bag of work clothes and ran. I’ve tackled big guys successfully in the bar, but I didn’t know who or what I was facing. And even the best self-defense isn’t going to get you far if the guy draws a gun on you, though I doubted that was the threat I was facing. I ran for my life. I sprinted as fast as I could, and then some. I looked back once, and saw I was gaining on my pursuer. But it ran silently, without the sound of footsteps, and that made me want to run even faster.
I got within sight of the house when suddenly I was surrounded by the ghosts, reaching at me, pulling at me, slowing me down. It wasn’t anything tangible they were doing. It was more as if they were draining me of energy. I slowed, but I still managed to blow right through them. I kept running until I reached our yard. There I stopped and turned. I’d erected a makeshift magical barrier around the house and yard with the crystals and herbs the other night. I hoped it was still working. If it was, I would see just what was chasing me, and make my stand here if I could.
The ghosts surrounded the place, just staying outside the barrier. I was happy to see that. It was eerie to see Charlotte’s ghost and Tim’s as well among their number. They all were pressing to get in. I could feel the pressure on my barrier, somehow. But they couldn’t get in.
And then the shadow arrived. It had slowed down to a walk, and now stood at the edge, just outside my barrier. But it wasn’t a simple shadow anymore. Either my barrier forced it to reveal what it was, or it just didn’t care to be secretive anymore.
It was Tim Taisey. No, it was Tim Taisey’s body. But it wasn’t Tim Taisey inhabiting that body, no. It was someone or something else, something that didn’t properly fit into his body. It looked out at me through Tim’s eyes with rage and hunger. And then it stepped forward, breaking through my barrier, causing it to collapse.
It could destroy my barrier, which meant it had a good chance of destroying me. And I was out of places to run. So I tried to fight. There was one thing Abigail Lane had told me that I did remember. She had said that silver could protect me, if I knew how to use it. Well, I didn’t. But I’d take a shot. Which is what I did. I took the little bar of silver I used to raise Charlotte’s ghost, and threw it as hard as I could at the thing.
It hit, there were sparks, the thing howled, and it was driven back. But only for a moment. And then it started coming right at me again.
I was out of weapons, and I had no place to run. Instead, I took to the air. I flung off my right hand glove and transformed and flew. I headed west, because it was the only direction I had flown any distance, and I knew some of the wind currents. And then I looked behind me and saw that I wasn’t alone, that the thing was following me. It had taken to wing, too, and it looked so much bigger than I felt.
I ran the air currents as best I remembered them, and that’s what saved me just then. The thing was bigger, it should have been able to catch up to me, but it didn’t know the currents, and couldn’t take advantage of them the way I did. And now I had a destination in mind. Silver was the key. Silver, as in a silver mine.
Symbolism, I told Mac. Arabia. Sanderson. I could defend myself with flour, an earthy grain. Earth. Sand. Maybe even desolate places, maybe that was one symbol concealed in “Arabia.” I’d take whatever symbolism I could get from my names, if I could turn it into magic. Somehow, if I could get that thing in the mine, in the earth, maybe with silver I could defeat it. It was all I had.
I dropped down to the lip of the cave-in. And yes, you’re right, that was a mistake. I should have stood away a few feet, but I was thinking about how I could get the thing behind me into the mine. So I turned, and it was already almost on top of me, swooping in. I grabbed at it and caught hold of something. The thing screamed, beat its wings against my face, throwing me back. Whatever I was grabbing pulled free, and I toppled back down the mine shaft.
I fell, slid, rolled, and finally fetched up against a ledge protruding out of the sloping surface. Another painful blow to my back, but it stopped me from going any farther. For the life of me, I couldn’t move. Had the thing come down the shaft just then, it could have finished me.
I don’t know how many minutes I lay there, just stunned, tired, aching, and wondering if I were about to be killed. I had no idea how far down the shaft I’d slid. It’s not as if there was a hole of sunlight above me. And I waited. But the thing never came down. And as time passed, I began to believe it wasn’t going to come down. Maybe I’d been at least partially right, and the thing feared the silver in the mine.
I tried to sit up, and found that the ledge I was lying on would start to shift if I wasn’t careful. Ever so slowly, I sat up.
My hands had reflexively opened when I fell. But I hadn’t lost all of what I had grabbed. I could feel feathers on my right hand, feathers not my own, feathers caught by my fingers and my own feathers. I plucked the alien feathers out and stuck them in my shirt pocket, worrying every second that the ledge would shift and I’d fall deeper into the shaft.
I was pretty sure I was deeper in the shaft than the previous time. I was in the sloping shaft now. I wasn’t sure I could crawl out, especially if the ground kept sliding down every time I pushed against it. So I had to try something different. Frankly, I was desperate. Hey, this is a silver mine? I know what silver is like. And I think my name is significant. I should have an affinity to earthy things. I placed my hands against the slope above where I was sitting, and tried to find silver, tried to have it link together to hold the slope in place. I concentrated on it so long, I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating or what, but I could sometimes make out a shifting arrangement. And then I had to stop and rest a bit, before trying to crawl out.
It still took me hours. My magic had worked, sort of. The slope was anchored in some places, not in others. I had to be careful, try every handhold and foothold, but how is that different from serious mountain climbing? Including a possibly fatal result if I erred. Ever so slowly I got closer to fresher air. I set no speed records in that climb. I was too tired and too sore. But I climbed and crawled because I had no choice if I wanted to live. And finally I could see daylight overhead when the sun came up. I had only a few yards to crawl.
Just as I got within three feet of the top, the light suddenly dimmed and brightened again. A voice called down, “Give me your hand.” I didn’t care who it was, it was help. I reached up and grabbed that hand, ever so grateful.
The moment we touched, a wave of nausea almost caused me to fall. And as I was pulled up, the feeling got more intense. Nausea, vertigo, and headache crashed into me, ran through me, increasing with every moment, until it was horribly painful. If I could have let go of the hand, I would have. I even tried. But I couldn’t. Whoever was pulling me up had bound our hands together with magic.