Chapter 7: People find dead bodies upsetting. Ghosts aren’t a treat, either.
There’s a slight disturbance when a ghost appears. It feels like the slightest of winds, and yet there is no breeze. I had expected Crazy Cathy’s ghost to appear with such a disturbance.
Instead, it felt as if the universe was twisting in my head. And then they appeared. Not one ghost, but many. Not a new ghost, not the Crazy Cathy I had expected, but old ghosts, shadowy blobs that looked even more insubstantial in the sunlight of midday, which had only reached the bottom of the ravine minutes ago. And yet the sunlight, too, seemed to have dimmed with their advent.
I couldn’t tell how many there were. Ten? Twenty? A hundred? And they seemed to be all around, in no particular pattern.
I just stood there, completely baffled. Were these the ghosts I had seen last night? The same thought must have occurred to Doc Helen, too, because she turned to me, surprise and fear in her eyes, and started to say something. “Seffie . . . ?”
That was as far as she got. The moment she started speaking, some of the ghosts converged on her, and she just crumpled to the ground.
I started to run over to help her, but it was if I were swimming in honey. I moved so slowly, and the air felt so thick, and I felt so tired. The ghosts clustered around me. They were hungry, I thought, and knew I should be afraid, but couldn’t manage it. It was as if I was just shutting down. It was hard to think, hard to move. I stumbled and fell down hard on my back. That reawakened the pain in my back, and I was able to sit up. But that’s as far as I could go. I felt woozy. I knew I had better not fall asleep, but I doubted I could stop myself.
And then all the ghosts vanished, all at once. I still felt tired, but I could hold my head up again without feeling like I would pass out.
I looked around. The ghosts were gone, but there was someone new standing over by Doc Helen. A woman. In the once-again bright sunlight, I couldn’t see much of her features. But I could make out her clothes. They were definitely odd. They looked as if they were what a woman might have worn out here maybe a century ago or more.
And then the realization hit me. She was a ghost.
Her head snapped up at that moment, and she walked over to stand in front of me. In a normal voice, as if she were newly dead, she said, “You have had a narrow escape. Do you not know how to protect yourself, or were you just too careless?” For a new ghost, she seemed awfully self-possessed.
I was still muddle-headed. “Protect myself from what? The ghosts?”
Her voice was severe. “Of course. That is what you summoned, is it not? And what is that in your right hand?”
I felt like I was being lectured by a teacher, so I did as I was told. I opened my hand up. Somehow I’d managed not to drop my little silver bar and handkerchief when I fell.
The ghost woman knelt down and picked it out of my hand. Ghosts can’t do that, but this one did. She unwrapped the handkerchief, looked at the silver bar, gave a (sorry for the expression) ghost of a smile, and wrapped it up. “Ingenious,” she said. “And silver can protect you, if you use it properly.” She was about to place it back in my hand when instead she reached out and turned my hand over. Her fingers felt like . . . nothing, but I couldn’t stop her, not that I tried, I was that astonished. She glanced at the back of my hand. “Night feathers,” she said as if it were two distinct words. She turned my hand back over, dropped my little package back into it.
Hearing my feathers given their name startled me out of my fuzzy thinking. “What do you know about nightfeathers?” I asked.
She was squatting in front of me, so we were face to face with each other. I could see she was middle-aged, had fair skin and gray eyes. What was really weird is that I could smell her: a smell of leather and dirt, and horse sweat and human body odor. That’s very, very rare, to smell a ghost.
She shook her head in response to my question. “I don’t have time for that right now. You need to be more careful. Now that they know you’re here, they’ll be hunting you. I don’t suppose you have someone you can call on, someone with more knowledge and power who can help you?”
I thought about it, shook my head.
She noticed the hesitation. “But . . . ?”
“I do know someone,” I replied. “But it could take me days to get in touch.”
She shook her head, stood up. “Not good enough, Miss Sanderson.”
I stood up myself, and was surprised I felt fine. I looked up at her. She was tall, certainly taller than me. “How do you know my name?”
Again, the barest of smiles. “You announced it to the world when you summoned the ghosts, did you not?”
Right enough. I nodded to that.
“You are going to need more information to prevail, Miss Sanderson. Look into the past. Look to history. The Maverick Mine, Miss Sanderson, look into the Maverick Mine. And now I must go.”
She started to turn away, but I called to her. “Wait!” She halted, turned back to face me. I said to her, “I didn’t summon you.”
She frowned. “You did not summon anyone specific. That is why they came. You need a better invocation, Miss Sanderson. I suggest you find someone to train you after this business is concluded.” She started to turn away again.
“Wait!” I called, but she didn’t stop. “What’s your name?” I called to her.
That brought her around. Again that faint smile. “How rude of me. I have quite forgotten my manners since I died. My name, Miss Sanderson, is Miss Lane, Miss Abigail Lane.” She bowed. And then she turned, walked past Doc’s prostrate body, and vanished.
I must have stood there, my mouth agape, for several minutes, just looking at where Miss Abigail Lane had disappeared. I’d just had several of my notions about how my magic worked and how ghosts behaved completely overturned. My summons was only supposed to pull in the ghost of the body in front of me. Ghosts can’t harm you. Ghosts can’t even interact with the physical world. And most ghosts are a bit confused by their state. All, to judge from what had just happened, weren’t in fact true. And Miss Abigail Lane took the cake. Her outfit, and something about the way she spoke, made it sound as if she’d been dead a while. But to be so almost tangible that I could see and even smell her, and that she could pick up things, argued that she had died very recently, like within the last six hours. On the other hand, she was far too self-possessed and knowledgeable about her own state for someone recently dead.
My eyes glanced down to the body of Doc, and I shook myself out of this pointless wondering and went over to check on her. I was afraid she had been seriously hurt, but a quick whiff of the whiskey brought her back to consciousness. Not that she touched it. I offered it to her, but she pushed it away, and then sat up. A glance around, then she turned to me. “You want to explain what happened?”
I was tired. “I’m not sure . . .”
“You’re not sure?” Doc was clearly upset. She looked at me with a mix of incredulity and hostility.
“Well, I think the ghosts attacked you somehow . . .”
“You told me they couldn’t hurt anyone!” If Doc got any louder they’d be able to hear her at the top of the ravine.
“Well, um, apparently I didn’t know everything.”
Doc stood up, glared at me. “I’ll say you didn’t.”
Great. First a ghost lectured me on my deficiencies, now Doc.
Doc did calm down pretty quickly after that, though. She spent the time before the helicopter arrived giving us both a thorough check-up, as well as looking at Crazy Cathy’s corpse again. And when there wasn’t room for me on the helicopter, she sent Mac down to help me get back up out of the ravine. I wasn’t feeling up to doing it by myself.
Mac wasn’t inclined to conversation while we were getting back out of the ravine, which wasn’t so surprising. What bothered me was that he pretty much refused to have a conversation while he drove me home. When he came in with me, I knew something was up.
Doc was sitting at the kitchen table, a tumbler of what smelt like her favorite pick-me-up, coffee and whiskey, in front of her. Mac reached into our refrigerator for a beer. I went to grab one, too, but he shut the door before I could, shook his head. “Nope, Sanderson, nothing for you yet. We need to talk.”
Mac hadn’t been smiling since he came back down into the ravine. I’d assumed it was Crazy Cathy’s death that was bothering him. But from the tone of his voice, it was me. What had I done?
I took a seat at the table, looked over to Doc Helen, who wouldn’t look at me, and then back at Mac. He took a seat himself, took a big gulp out of the beer, and said, “You’re my deputy, Sanderson. That means you have to trust me, and I have to be able to trust you. Now, you’re going to sit here and tell me exactly what you saw last night, and what happened down there in the ravine with you and Helen, and you aren’t going to leave out the slightest detail. Understand?”
Mac hadn’t used such a tone with me since the bar fight that had ultimately made me a bartender. I was just enough intimidated that I started to talk. And then what Doc Helen calls my stiff temperament kicked in. I leaned forward until my face was inches from Mac’s. And I said to him in the steadiest tone I could manage, “Since I know you’re not accusing me of killing Crazy Cathy, you want to tell me just what’s got your dander up? I want to make sure to cover it in my sworn statement, so I don’t get convicted of perjury.”
Mac looked at me steadily for several seconds, then he leaned back. “OK,” he said. “You told me you’ve never been out the ravine road before, right? You didn’t recognize Crazy Cathy’s house, right?”
“Then how did you happen to be out there by the ravine’s edge last night?”
Oh. That. I’ve never been very good as a liar. So a lie was out, not that I could think of a probable one. But the truth wasn’t going to win me any points either. Mac was going to wonder why I’d never mentioned it before. I couldn’t look at either Mac or Doc so I just looked down in my lap. I just got so angry and frustrated, I could feel the feathers straining against the glove, see the fabric stretching. Finally, I looked back up at Mac. “I can fly, Mac.”
I could see Doc actually nodding, as if that made sense to her. It didn’t make sense to Mac. He gave me a skeptical look. “Then why didn’t you just fly out of the ravine? Flap your arms and everything? What other tricks can you pull for me today, Sanderson?”
This was so unfair, and I was so exasperated, that the feathers just sprung out, cutting through the back of my glove, and before I knew it, I had broken the chair’s arm off. And that sent me into tears. I’d seen a badly mutilated corpse, I’d been lectured to by a ghost, had all my beliefs about magic overturned, had Doc yell at me, and now Mac was giving me the third degree with a side dish of sarcasm. And I’d just broken a chair, and paying for it would dip into my miserable savings. It was almost enough to make me want to go home. I just dropped my head and arms on the table and cried.