Chapter 6: In the ravine
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
The ravine is the one that runs to the west of the town, separating it from the hills on the other side. The Interstate bridges it, but otherwise there’s no way across it by car within twenty miles of town. Some of the newer developments on the south side of the Interstate run almost right up to the edge, but north of the Interstate there’s two miles of mostly vacant land between the town and the ravine.
There is one old road just north of the center of Farnham that goes out to the edge, but it’s unpaved for three-quarters of the distance and isn’t used by much of anyone except hikers. Supposedly there was once a bridge across the ravine at that point, and there are traces of a road on the other side, but it must have been a long time ago. And the road peters out in the hills. No one knows why anyone would have made a road out there.
Mac took Doc and me out in his cruiser, with Doc riding up front. Doc was there to serve as medical examiner and coroner. Me? I was there as deputy sheriff officially, and possibly for my ability to raise ghosts.
Yes, deputy sheriff is my third job. You see, Mac used to have a problem. Anytime he had to arrest a woman of any age, he had to round up a female volunteer to check her over, or find himself possibly the subject of some sort of sexual harassment lawsuit. And there were enough working girls plying their trade in town that this was a constant problem.
Well, a few months after I started working here as a waitress, a drunk customer got too free with his hands, my nightfeathers broke out of their glove, and he ended up having to be shipped to the nearest hospital with broken bones and “lacerations of unknown origin,” as Doc termed them. That’s how Doc and Mac found out about my hand, and it gave Mac two ideas. He managed to convince Nick to switch me from being a waitress to being a bartender, by pointing out that it would be better for McNaughten’s if I were helping to shut down fights rather than being the cause of them. And he hired me as a part-time, on-call deputy sheriff.
So we drove out on the old ravine road. I’d never been out this way, myself. So I was taken by surprise by the one house sitting by itself about a mile out of town. It was a one-story ranch house that was in need of a paint job, and the grounds were just scrub. No car in sight, nor a garage. “Who lives there?” I asked.
Doc Helen said, “Catherine Wise. I should look in on her on our way back.”
“Who?” I thought I knew almost everybody in town over twenty-one.
“Crazy Cathy,” Mac chimed in.
“Oh.” Crazy Cathy I knew, just hadn’t known Wise was her surname. She was the town’s enigma. She wasn’t quite sane, she wasn’t quite poor, when you talked to her she made sense about 25% of the time, and she was always sick with something. She came into McNaughten’s twice a month like clockwork, once for dinner, once to drink as much beer as she could hold, so she couldn’t have been completely nuts.
She was one of Doc’s patients. I’d asked Doc about her once. Doc replied, “Let’s just say that when they deinstitutionalized the mentally ill a few decades back, some didn’t adapt well and there wasn’t anyone to help them. Crazy Cathy’s one of those who didn’t adapt. And she’s not really crazy, she’s just . . . well, I can’t say more without violating her privacy, so let’s leave it at that.”
As we passed her house, I had to say to myself: that is what I’d expect Crazy Cathy’s house to look like. There wasn’t anything else on the road until we got to the parking area by its end. This was nothing more than a bare area devoid of vegetation that hikers’ cars had made over the years. There was one car there, with a tanned couple, probably in their late twenties, standing there in hiking gear and shorts. They were clearly day-trippers given the size of their packs.
Mac stepped out, walked over to the couple with Doc and me trailing behind. “I’m Sheriff Jason MacGregor. You the people who called me up about a body in the ravine?”
Usually it’s the guy who speaks for a couple. Not this time. The woman was the one who spoke up. “Yes, we are. The body’s down at the bottom, maybe fifty yards to the right of where the trail comes out.”
Mac asked, “You want to come with me and show me?”
At that, she got an uncomfortable look on her face. So did the guy. In fact, he’d been wearing one from the first. She replied, “We’d rather not, if it’s all the same with you. You can’t miss it. And we didn’t disturb it or anything. We just saw . . . well, you’ll see.”
Mac grunted, waved for us to come along, and we headed to the trailhead at the lip of the ravine. I got almost all the way there and came to a standstill. I looked around, thought about what I was seeing, and shuddered.
Doc was behind me. She asked, “Something wrong?”
I looked back at her. In a low voice, I replied, “Yeah. This is where I saw the ghosts last night.”
Doc’s eyes narrowed. She said, “Tell Mac when we get down there. He already knows about last night.”
The trail down, if you ask me, is a trail in name only. There are stretches where you have to grasp for handholds and footholds along a rock face. And I’m afraid of heights, except when I’m flying. It was a nightmare getting down. I hated to think of what it would be like on the way up.
The bottom of the ravine is a dried-up watercourse that runs only in the spring. On the other side, it slopes up steeply into the hills. On this side, there’s a ledge of about five to twenty feet in width between the ravine wall and the watercourse. At least that’s what it was like here. I’ve since learned that the ledge sometimes runs on one side, sometimes on the other.
We’d gone maybe fifty feet when the corpse came into view. I think there’s an instinctive revulsion to death and deformations of the human body, and in its current shape the corpse exhibited both. I couldn’t look at it, even knowing I would have to at some point.
Mac was the first to comment. “Well, that’s the end of Crazy Cathy.” He sounded regretful.
Doc used her clinical tone of voice. “She was dead before she hit bottom, Mac. There’s nothing here that could break up her body like that. I’m going to have to do an autopsy.”
Next thing I knew, Mac was turning me around to look at him. He said to me, “You see Crazy Cathy out when you were out this way, Sanderson?”
I shook my head. But I was uneasy. The way I had explained it to Doc, she had assumed I’d been on foot out this way, because she didn’t know I could fly. Thing is, Cathy could have been out near the ghosts, and I might not have noticed her. So I took refuge in a certainty. “Her house is the nearest one to where I saw the ghosts coming over.”
Mac looked at me curiously, as if I’d said something wrong. Then he shook his head, turned to Doc. “Can you do anything here, or do I need to get a helicopter in here?”
Doc kept to her clinical tones. “Order the helicopter. I’ll do what I can.”
Mac took out his cell phone, only to find that reception was zero in the ravine. He turned to me. “You coming out with me, or staying with the Doc?”
Doc Helen chimed in. “Go on with Mac, no one’s going to bother me here.”
I demurred. “I’ll stick around.”
“Suit yourself,” was all Mac said, before heading back to the trail up the ravine wall.
He’d barely got out of sight when Doc turned to me. She gave me a quizzical stare. Guess it was my day for them. Eventually, she said, “I didn’t think you were up for it, but if you want to try some of your black magic hocus-pocus on Crazy Cathy, I’m not against it.”
My stomach turned just thinking of how that would go. “I thought you were going to do an autopsy.”
She shrugged. “What am I going to report? Massive trauma. I can tell she was dead before someone tossed her down here. Mac will look for clues when he gets up there. But if your ghosts are involved, then maybe we need a ghost to answer our questions.”
Sometimes Doc Helen amazed me. She had seen me raise a ghost from a corpse once, and now to her it was a reasonable approach. Of course, it now meant I had to stand nearer to the corpse to make the process work. It didn’t always.
So I got out of my backpack what I needed: a fine cotton handkerchief, a flask full of Scotland’s finest beverage, and a small bar of sterling silver that fit in my hand. Since it was just the two of us, I stripped off my gloves. The nightfeathers fluttered a bit, much like my nerves. I held the handkerchief in my right hand, and poured some of the scotch on it, enough to have it soak through. I took a swig of it myself, and then started to put the flask back. But Doc Helen stopped me, took it, and had a swig herself. She handed it back to me, saying, “I don’t know about you, Seffie, but this makes me nervous.”
I’d mentioned my old nickname to Doc one night when I was crying on her shoulder. Since then, she’d only used it once or twice when we were being very personal with each other. Somehow, her use of it now and her admitting she was nervous buoyed me up. I wrapped the silver bar in the handkerchief, strode over to the largest part of the corpse, and held the handkerchief tightly in my right hand, while I began the invocation for the raising of the dead.
The invocation takes only a few minutes to run through, particularly when you mumble it, like I usually do. But the end I have to enunciate clearly and loudly. “I, Persephone Désirée Arabia Nightfeather Sanderson, magician proved by trial and practiced necromancer, do hereby summon ye spirits of the dead, to hold converse with me until ye have answered all that I demand of you. Spirits, answer my call.”
By this point, my entire body was shaking, as much due to nerves as magic. The nightfeathers were trembling as they pointed down at the corpse. And it was as if everything stopped for a moment, maybe even two. Nothing moved. You could not even hear the sounds of the insects.
And then everything went wrong.