Chapter 13: A link to the past
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
The moment I was pulled far enough away from the edge to stop sliding in, the other person’s hand let go. Immediately, I felt less nauseated. There was a voice in my ear. “There’s food and water and a first aid kit here. I can’t stay and help you with them.” Then my unknown rescuer walked away.
The nausea, vertigo, and headache all receded and vanished. I was still sore, parched, and my clothes smelled foul, for the obvious reasons. Water seemed like a good idea. I drank down half of a canteen, used the other half to wash my hands and mouth. Dirt was ground into my hands. I couldn’t tell what was dirt at first and what were cuts. And where they weren’t cut, my hands were rubbed raw. I decided to skip bandaging them up for some food and more water, first. I got a sandwich out, I couldn’t tell you what was in it I ate it so fast, and then another. Wiped out a second canteen of water, almost. Used the rest of it to wash my hands off again before tackling first aid.
And then I got my first surprise. Just beyond the first aid kit were clothes, my clothes, old serviceable stuff I wore only when I was at home, with holes and patches.
I finally sat up, reached over for the first aid kit, and got my second surprise. Sitting some distance off was a woman watching me intently. Once she saw that I was looking at her, she said, “I figured you might need a change of clothes. Sorry I can’t arrange a bath for you.” It was the voice of my rescuer.
I said the first thing that came into my mind while opening up the first aid kit. “You know who I am?”
“I rather doubt many people come out hiking here with a change of your clothes by chance. In fact, I’ve had a world of trouble trying to track you down. Though it seems you’ve been in a few difficulties yourself.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. So I started spraying disinfectant on my hand before trying to come up with a more brilliant question. “And the reason you’re looking for me?”
The woman dug into her pocket, pulled out something, and threw it to me. It landed directly in front of me. Good aim, there. I picked it up. It was a wallet. I flipped it open. On one side was an ID card for the United States Secret Service, in the name of agent Valerie T. Thompson. On the other side was the badge to go with it.
OK, that answered a few questions. And then I almost dropped the wallet in fright. It had changed. There had been a surge of magic. Instead of a badge, there was a government seal: an eagle in the center that looked like something out of the nineteenth century, and around it a legend: OFFICE OF OCCULT AFFAIRS + EST. 1882. The ID on the other side bore a similar legend, now, and Valerie Theodora Thompson was identified as a “practicing magician.”
I looked up at her. She said, “You can see it unassisted. Most people can’t.”
I made at least one connection in this. “This has something to do with the e-mails I sent yesterday to the Secret Service?”
She nodded. “You’ve seen Abigail’s ghost. Not many people have.”
“I didn’t say that in any of my e-mails.”
“You didn’t have to,” she replied. “See the seal? The Office was created in 1882 as a sort of branch of the Secret Service. The first magician the new director hired was Abigail Lane. As to how I knew you had seen her, I talked with your sheriff, Jason MacGregor. As you might imagine, it was easy to get him to tell me anything I wanted to know.”
Hmph. I had been worried about the ethics of playing with people’s emotions. This Valerie Thompson seemed to think it fair to make people tell her things whether they wanted to or not. But the implications of what she said were sinking in. “Abigail Lane was here in 1896 investigating something to do with magic?”
“Precisely. Otherwise her ghost wouldn’t be showing up here. Abigail was a very dedicated magician in the Office. Just how dedicated we didn’t realize until after she died. Ever since, she’s been showing up every so often at places where magic is going wrong, places with which she was associated in life. She once wrote that the Office of Occult Affairs should be the defender of the nation against evil magic. Apparently she’s still defending the nation. You happen to be her chosen instrument this time. Anytime, anytime, we hear a report that indicates Abigail may have appeared, I track it down.”
“So you’ve met her several times, I suppose.”
She shook her head. “Never. She knows better than to appear to me.”
It sounded as if Valerie Thompson was saying she was a threat to Abigail Lane, which didn’t make sense. “What does that mean?”
“I’ll show you.” She stood up and began walking toward me. She had closed maybe a third of the distance when I started to feel nauseated again. The closer she got, the worse it got. She got within ten feet of me, then backed off and returned to where she had been. “You felt that, just as you felt it when I pulled you up, but it was much worse that time.”
She was right. “What sort of hobgoblin are you?” I asked.
That set her to laughing. It was the first time she had smiled. “I’ll have to remember that. I’ve never been called a hobgoblin before. Some of my colleagues in D.C. would agree with you.” She stopped smiling. “No, it’s just that my magical field interferes destructively with that of other magicians. I get near them, they feel sick. If I stay near them, they’ll eventually have a grand mal seizure. A bit longer, and irreversible brain damage occurs. And then they die.” She shrugged. “I’m not very popular with my fellow magicians. But the same thing applies to ghosts. If they get near me, they rapidly decompose. I’ll never meet Abigail unless she’s intent on ending her ghostly existence.”
By this time, I’d bandaged up my hands and was working on my third sandwich. I thought a bit about what Valerie Thompson said, and it didn’t really make sense to me. So I said so. “Why would your Office of whatever-it-is send out a magician to check on Abigail Lane when you’ll never meet her?”
I generally couldn’t read people at a distance, but I got the sense that Valerie Thompson was actually a very emotional individual who lived behind a façade of professional reserve. She “felt” as if she were amused by my questions, but she didn’t crack a smile on her long oval face. “They send me, because I can’t work with anyone else. They send me because most of the time, it just turns out that someone stumbled on a reference to Abigail, like your local historian Miss Farr several years ago. And,” and she barely sighed, “they send me out because I want to help Abigail. My mother was one of her last friends. I feel an obligation to carry on her work.”
We fell silent while I polished off my third sandwich. Then I said to Valerie Thompson, “What now?”
“You finish eating, change into something I can stand downwind of, and we walks out of here back to Farnham. And you’re going to tell me what’s going on here and what Abigail said to you, and I’m going to tell you what happened in 1896.”
And that’s what we did. It took us a few hours to get out of the hills, across the ravine, and back to Farnham. I couldn’t have done it without Valerie Thompson, I was so tired and battered. She didn’t look strong, she was a narrow-framed woman, but she must have been wiry, because she hauled a great big pack on her back the whole way, and helped me up the east ravine wall with the help of ropes.
And we talked. Valerie already knew everything I had told Mac and Doc, so I didn’t have to say much. She did most of the talking. Valerie always stayed about twenty feet behind me, but somehow she could project her voice so it sounded as if she was walking beside me. She told me it was a trick she’d learned from a ventriloquist. Every so often I’d look back to see her, clad in jeans and flannel, blond hair pinned back on her head, the back of her pack sticking above her head. And she would always be talking. For she had a tale to tell, a tale of magic set in 1896.