Chapter 16: In which we return to the present, where Sanderson’s plans are undone
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
I woke up, saw it was about the middle of the day, to judge from the sunlight, and realized that something was wrong. It had been about the middle of the day when I had arrived back in town. I had staggered in through the door to my house, and the next thing I knew Doc was helping Valerie Thompson strip me, get me showered and cleaned, and then put me to bed. And I knew I had been sleeping for some time. I reached over for my cell phone, turned it on, and looked at the display. It was Saturday, 1:04 PM. I had slept ’round the clock. Damn.
My hands still looked a bit raw, I had blisters on my feet, and it felt as if my hair was shorter. And I wasn’t wearing any gloves. That I fixed immediately. Then I got dressed. It was only then, when I went to stick it in my pocket, that I remembered that my cell phone was lost in a cave-in. Oh, this had to be the replacement. Crud, I was going to have to insert all my personal information into it again, though some of that was backed up in the cloud. And then I went paging through the apps. Everything was already in place. Everything, even my passwords, even my credit card info. Weird.
I went into the kitchen, knocked on Doc’s door, found it open, and went into her side of the house. But she wasn’t there, and judging from the state of her office, she was out on a house call. So I went back to the kitchen, made myself up some leftovers I found in the fridge, and ate about twice my usual meal.
What to do next? I needed to find Valerie Thompson because I was going to need her help to tackle this soul-eater thing. But I also needed to go to McNaughten’s and find out if I still had a job, since I had missed my Friday shift. Ghostly spirits won out over alcoholic ones: I decided to track down Valerie. My decision was made easier by figuring that she was probably talking to Mac, and Mac would no doubt know how much hot water I was in over my bartending job.
So I stepped out and walked over to the jail. Mac saw me walk in the door, rushed over, and gave me a bear hug. I didn’t even mind how much my bruises were protesting, it felt good to be appreciated. Mac loosened up and held me at arm’s length while looking me over. “You don’t look too bad, Sanderson, for someone who’s fallen down a mine shaft twice and almost been killed by a supernatural thingamajigger. Come, sit down, take it easy.” Mac pulled out a chair from the wall and set it facing his desk.
I sat down. Mac swung around his desk and took up his chair behind it. “Your Ms. Thompson is quite the impressive Secret Service agent. No nonsense about that one. She came into town at three in the morning, rousted me and Doc out of bed, found the bag you dropped, and outfitted herself for a hike in less than two hours. And then she came back with you. Doc told me you looked like you were at death’s door, while Thompson looked like she’d just come from a summer stroll.”
I was glad to hear Valerie Thompson had made a good impression, though I could have done without the last comparison. I said to Mac, “Where is she now? We need to talk about how to hunt down the soul-eater.”
Mac kept smiling, but he shook his head. “She’s left. This soul-eater thing managed to kill one more person at the motel Thursday night, but then it took off. Thompson said the creature wouldn’t stick around with her here. So she’s gone off to track it down and destroy it. I tell you, I wouldn’t want to be that creature when Thompson finds it.”
I felt deflated. I had seen myself working with Valerie Thompson to find and destroy the soul-eater, and it turned out that she didn’t need me. She could chase that thing right out of Farnham just being here, while I had barely survived an encounter with it. Of course, she might run into trouble. I asked Mac, “Did she leave a phone number, or any way to contact her?”
Mac thought a second, shook his head. “Nope, not even a card. I doubt we’ll be seeing her again. She acts like the type that’s always busy. No doubt she’ll have something else to do once she destroys this thing.” He took a look at me, and frowned. “Something bothering you, Sanderson? I mentioned Thompson, and you started to look like a balloon with a pin stuck in it. She rub you the wrong way or something?”
The truth was too embarrassing, so I switched the subject. “I was just thinking that McNaughten’s has probably fired me by now.”
To my surprise, that got Mac laughing. It took him a while before he stopped and wiped his eyes. “No, Sanderson, you are in absolutely no danger of losing your job. Thompson went over to McNaughton’s and told them your services had been requisitioned by the United States Secret Service on a matter of national security, and that you had been injured in the course of those duties. You’re a hero, now.”
Great. I do squat, and Valerie Thompson turns me into a hero. The taste was bitter in my mouth.
I realized Mac was inspecting me, and he didn’t like what he saw. He said, “I’d have expected you to be laughing at that. You still look a bit worn, and I know Doc Helen didn’t want you out of the house until she’d given you a once-over. C’mon, I’ll take you back and you can take it easy the rest of the day. What about it?”
Rather than try to explain myself, I went along. Doc was back, and fussed over me as if I were a child, giving me a physical, getting me soup(!), and telling me to take it easy because I had to be careful. I felt like a four-year-old. And it didn’t help the way she praised Valerie Thompson to the skies, too. Among other things, Valerie had reprogrammed my phone for me, and apparently it only took her half an hour. I wasn’t too happy thinking about how she had obtained my passwords. Probably read my mind.
So I found myself in my sitting room, dressed in my bathrobe and pajamas like the aforementioned four-year-old, a book in front of me that I didn’t want to read, and time on my hands. Oh, joy. At the same time I was kicking myself. This was no way to act. I’d survived a creature trying to kill me or eat my soul. The killings had apparently stopped, and I had played a role in that happening. And Valerie Thompson no doubt did what she did because she was good at it, and I shouldn’t resent someone who helped save me from collapsing after falling down a mine shaft. But it still hurt that she’d taken off and not even left a word. I think I could have stood all the praise directed her way, and the praise I’d not earned, if Valerie Thompson had left some way for me to reach her.
And that was my problem: I had finally met someone with magical powers, someone who knew what my life was like from experience, and she was infinitely better than I was. Mac and Doc talked about her as if she could walk on water. And she’d blown me off.
So was there anything I could do better? Well, I had time on my hands. And unlike Valerie, I had personal experience of what had been going on here. So maybe I could figure out something that she wouldn’t know.
Some conclusions were obvious. The mine cave-in must have released the soul-eater. How it had survived for over a century, I didn’t know, but I suspected the ghosts with it had something to do with it. The soul-eater hadn’t found a magician, so it had taken up residence in Tim Taisey, and that was why it kept killing people, to survive until it found a magician. Me, for example, which, as Abigail Lane warned me, was why it had tried to hunt me down. And apparently the soul-eater was keeping the ghosts of the people it killed around, which explained why Charlotte Smith and Tim Taisey were among the ghosts. Why it hadn’t eaten all the ghosts, I didn’t know.
And that was just the start of what I didn’t know. I didn’t know why Abigail Lane had appealed to me to take on this job, when apparently I wasn’t up to it. I figured the creature hadn’t tried to kill me the night in the motel because I was protected, but that hadn’t stopped it from crashing through my protection around the house. And I didn’t know why Crazy Cathy had died the way she did, or why she wasn’t among the soul-eater’s ghosts. After all, she certainly had been killed by it. And last, but not least, I didn’t know why the soul-eater hadn’t followed me into the mine shaft and killed me. Probably the silver in the ground around me, but that was just a good guess.
Doc came over repeatedly to fuss over me, and at one point suggested I stay home and rest all Sunday, too, and cancel my fortune-telling hours.
I exploded. “Doc, you’re my doctor, not my mother. There is no way I am spending tomorrow sitting around doing nothing. If that’s your medical advice, you can take it and shove it.”
Doc stared at me as if she was shocked by what I said. And then in a tone of voice colder than I’d ever heard from her, she said, “Very well. You have my advice. Do as you please.” And she turned around and left, and didn’t come over to my side of the house again for the rest of the day.
I regretted what I had said not long after. But I figured we’d both get over it.
I was wrong. Sunday morning at breakfast, Doc didn’t say one word to me. I think she cut short her meal just to avoid being in the room with me.
My afternoon stint as Madame Fortuna was immensely profitable for me, and my mood sank with every visitor. News of my so-called involvement in a national security matter with an impressive Secret Service agent had spread, and most of my visitors came by to congratulate me, to find out what I had done, to drop money in my collection jar, and to ask how Doc was doing. I accepted the congratulations with what warmth I could muster, alleged an oath of secrecy for the second, was embarrassed at the third, and cringed at the fourth, particularly when the visitor indicated he or she would just drop in on Doc to tell her how proud the town was of me.
Doc didn’t even come to dinner, and when I stuck my head around to her side of the house, curtly informed me she had made other arrangements. And what was really disturbing about this was that Doc was clearly stone sober. Had she been drunk, I could have chalked this up to her moods and to booze. I wanted to apologize to her, but I wasn’t sure for what, and a part of me just simply couldn’t do it.
I went out on my porch that evening, something I rarely do because it gets cold at night. But I wrapped myself up and sat out there with a couple of beers and wondered just how it could be that everyone was happy with me except Doc, and I was miserable.
And then I almost spilled one of my beers, because a voice emerged out from an empty chair facing me. “You’re looking well, Sanderson.” It was Valerie Thompson.
I stood up, looking around. “Where are you?”
“Far enough away that you won’t get sick,” the voice said. “I thought you should know I got the soul-eater.”
I finally figured out where she was, standing by a car parked out on the street. That made me happy, because I had wondered how I could tell if the soul-eater had actually taken over Valerie Thompson. But, no, this was definitely Valerie. So I replied, “Glad to hear it. I’ve got some questions I’d like to ask about this business.”
Valerie’s voice replied. “I can’t stay and talk. We’ve dealt with the problem Abigail Lane alerted us to, and she never shows up a second time. Now there are other urgent matters I have to attend to.”
I was getting blown off again. But she had said “we” had dealt with the problem, and that gave me the courage to say what was really on my mind. “Take me with you.”
I could tell Valerie had been stunned by my request, so I rushed to explain myself. “I want to join your organization. I want to work with people like you, people like me.”
There was a long silence. Finally, Valerie’s voice said, “I’m not a recruiter, Sanderson. And you couldn’t come with me. My presence would kill you.”
“Then can you put me in touch with someone in your organization who can hire me?”
Valerie Thompson had always sounded so self-confident, no matter what. So it was startling to hear her voice turn strained and tense. “That’s out of my bailiwick. I really can’t deal with this right now. I have to go. And besides, you’re too young.” And before I could protest, she got into her car and sped off.
I sat there, devastated. I’d finally realized why I’d been so upset when Valerie Thompson took off without leaving any word for me. I wanted to do what she did. I wanted to belong to people like me. And now she had gone off again. Not just gone off, but told me in so many words that I wasn’t good enough to work with people like her. Oh, that isn’t what she said, but I was pretty sure that’s what she meant.
I went back in the house, raided the kitchen for one of Doc’s bottles of whiskey, and took it to my bedroom. I was going to drink myself into oblivion. But it turned out I couldn’t even do that. The whiskey made me more and more morose. I looked over my life, and it had all turned to ashes. I’d just had an adventure, but its real hero had been Valerie Thompson. I was left stuck here in Farnham, where Doc wasn’t speaking to me and everyone else thought I was a hero that I wasn’t. And I’d never write that letter to my mother/aunt. I’d just wait until the holidays, and then write a perfunctory letter as I had done the past two years. And I’d just missed my chance to work with other people like me, because they wouldn’t want me.
You don’t reason when you have that much booze in you, but I was in no mood for reason. And after a while I just started crying, and after that I wasn’t even in the mood for more drinking. I just crawled into bed and went to sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a headache and a full bladder. I hit the bathroom and then the kitchen for aspirin and water. I wasn’t sure whether to cuss myself out for thinking Valerie Thompson would just simply take me away from here because I was just so darn wonderful, or for just making a mess of my life in general. Or maybe I should just cuss myself out for getting drunk.
I was so full of sad thoughts about myself that I didn’t even notice the other person in my bedroom until I got back in bed. Well, it wasn’t a person in the fullest sense of the word. It was a ghost.