Chapter 17: Old problems are new problems
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
The lamp on my headboard was really more of a reading lamp than anything else, and only dimly illuminated the rest of my bedroom. So the ghost sat in the shadows. But I recognized her well enough: the dark blond hair, the gray eyes, the antique clothing: it was Abigail Lane. I was still suffering from a headache, so I said the first thing that popped into my mind. “Valerie said you never show up twice.”
In a dry voice, Abigail replied, “Well, Valerie Thompson is so rarely wrong that I fear to contradict her. And in fact she is right. I never appear more than once for any given problem. I have to husband what little power I have. I’m not here to deal with the soul-eater, but with a new problem: you.”
All I could think to say was, “You mean how I screwed up the task you set me?”
Abigail was sharp. “Don’t talk tripe. The soul-eater is dead, and that wouldn’t have happened without your help.”
“And Valerie’s.” I added. “She’s the one who actually killed it.”
Abigail looked quite cross. “I imagine Valerie Thompson told you about how Charles Horner and I thought we had killed it in 1896. Tell me, Persephone, how do you think Charles felt when I was the one who trapped it? Do you think he felt like a failure?”
I didn’t have an answer for that that wouldn’t make me sound stupid. So that’s the one I had to use. “No, but you two were partners. Valerie, she treated me . . .”
Abigail cut in. “The way she treats everybody. You don’t understand the burdens Valerie carries. I knew her mother. Sylvia was a wonderful woman and a powerful magician. Valerie grew up in her shadow, wanting to be just like her. It was the proudest day of Valerie’s life when she began to manifest magical powers, for they are rarely inherited. And it was the worst day of her life when she realized that her powers would make her a pariah among magicians.”
Oh. “You know a lot about Valerie.”
Abigail shrugged. “She studies me, so it seems only fair that I study her. I know her well enough to tell you that you struck at her most vulnerable point when you asked to work with her and other magicians. That is something she has never been able to do.”
Now that explained Valerie’s behavior there at the end. And it suggested something outrageous. “You mean she turned me down out of spite? Or just because she can’t work with other magicians?”
Abigail was emphatic. “NO. She turned you down because you’re not ready yet.”
I was tempted to be sarcastic, but I didn’t want to offend Abigail again. I settled for asking, “How so?”
“Two things above all else. First, you don’t know how to work with people very well. You want to be the hero every time. It doesn’t happen that way in real life, Persephone. Charles bailed me out as often I saved him. You should do the best at the part you can play, and not worry about how you look in other’s eyes.”
Abigail got up, walked over to the bed, sat on it (without making any impression on it), and then reached over for my hand. I let her take it. It was odd, feeling my hand being lifted by nothing I could feel. Abigail stripped off the glove, turned my hand over so the feathers were on top. And then she did something I would never have expected. She began stroking the feathers. Although I could not feel her hand, somehow it felt very soothing. The feathers rose up, but they didn’t take on an edge the way they usually did. They seemed to enjoy being stroked by Abigail. I asked her, “What are you doing?”
She looked at me with that ghost of a smile. (I’m sorry to keep saying so, but it was just that.) “Showing you that you don’t yet know much about yourself or what you can do, or your vulnerabilities for that matter. I don’t suppose you realize that if I hadn’t scared away the ghosts in the ravine when we first met, they would have weakened you to the point that the soul-eater could have taken over your body and consumed your soul right then and there.”
If it hadn’t been for the way she was stroking my feathers, I would have been dismayed to learn that. Instead, I just shook my head and quietly said, “No, I didn’t realize that.”
Abigail acknowledged my response with a nod. She looked down at my hand, and in a wistful voice said, “Night feathers. I once knew another magician with night feathers, a magician of great potential.” She made a face. “It didn’t work out well.” Abigail dropped my hand and stood up, her reverie ended. In her normal voice, she said, “I’ve told you what you need to know, Persephone. How you use it is up to you.” And then she simply vanished.
I sat there in my bed for several minutes after, just enjoying the feeling from my nightfeathers. As it faded, I began wondering just what Abigail Lane had done to me. She said it was about what I am and what I can do, which should mean that I could recreate that feeling. It was as if my feathers had two modes, and I knew only how to use one of them. Angered, I could use those feathers to cut through anything opposing me. What could I do with them in this other state?
And then I was just too tired, and fell back asleep. I didn’t even turn the light out.
I woke up late Monday morning, feeling better than I had in a week. Even my back pain was pretty much gone. I scrounged breakfast, and then decided I had better mend some fences. I went over to Doc’s side of the house, to her waiting room. Doc didn’t usually have a receptionist; the waiting room worked strictly on a first-come, first-serve basis. So I sat and waited, chatted with the people there, tried to be modest when people wanted to know what I had done for the government, and waited. Doc looked in and saw me, of course, but didn’t say a word.
When it was my turn, I went into the examining room, sat on the table, and said to her, “Doctor, I have to report a case of emotionally clouded judgment.”
Doc stood there, looking at me, deliberating on what to say. I wasn’t expecting what came next. “There’s a bottle of whiskey missing from the kitchen.”
That was a surprise. I never knew Doc kept count, there are so many. I’d dug myself into this pit by not explaining myself, so I just told her, “I took it last night to drink myself to sleep.” That didn’t draw any reaction, so I added, “Valerie Thompson stopped by long enough to tell me that she’d killed the soul-eater, and that I wasn’t good enough to work for her organization.”
That got Doc’s attention. She sat down, gave me a thoughtful look, and then asked, “Does this have anything to do with why you treated me like a useless nuisance?” Oooh, there was an edge in her voice.
I answered her in her own terms. “Probably because I felt like a useless nuisance myself, Helen, and lashed out at you. I wanted to destroy the soul-eater. This is my town, my turf. And I was doing the job, when Valerie Thompson swooped in and showed me up as . . . well, as a useless nuisance.” I blinked back the tears that were forming. Abigail may have told me differently, but the hurt still remained.
Doc no doubt saw the tears anyhow. She was good at things like that. She sat there, looking me over for a bit before she replied, “And I was just handy for this?”
I shook my head. “No. You were making me feel even more useless. I know you didn’t mean it, but you were making me feel like I was a four-year-old.” And before she could say a word, I added, “I’m sorry, Helen.”
Doc started to say something, and then clamped her mouth shut. She did it again. And then she said, “I can’t resolve this right now. I have patients to see. Run along, Seffie, and we’ll talk at dinner.” The coldness and the edge were both gone from her voice.
It wasn’t much different from what Valerie had said to me last night, but Doc wasn’t blowing me off. So I jumped up, gave her a hug before she had a chance to say anything, and left. We’d fix things up, that I was sure.
And speaking of fixing things up, I figured I’d better go see Mac next, see if I’d managed to offend him. For that matter, I didn’t know if he knew that Valerie had killed the soul-eater. So I waltzed on over to the jail.
Mac was sitting behind his desk with a frown on his face when I arrived, but he lit up when he saw me. “My deputy ready for service again?”
I smiled back, and pulled up a chair to sit down. “Sure am. You know Thompson got the soul-eater?”
He nodded. “Yeah, she left me a note. It’s too bad she didn’t stick around. We’ve got problems, Sanderson. The ghosts are back.”