Ghost Story chapter 3

 

NOTE: Due to technical issues, this text is missing some of the final punctuation edits from the final, published version. Our apologies!

. . . . .

Captain Murphy’s old Skylark stopped in a residential area up in Harwood Heights, a place that still looked as empty and hollow as the rest of the city. It was an odd home, for Chicago—a white stucco number with a red tile roof that looked like it had been transplanted from Southern California. In the steady rain and the mournful grey light of the streetlamps it sat, cold, lonely, and empty of purpose among the more traditional homes that surrounded it.

The Buick’s windshield wipers thumped rhythmically.

“Once you get out,” said Captain Murphy, “there’s no coming back. You’re on your own.”

“Been there, done that,” I said. I offered him my hand. “Thank you, Captain.”

He traded grips with me. I didn’t try to outcrush him. He didn’t try to crush me. The men who can really handle themselves rarely do.

I wished Captain Murphy had lived long enough for me to meet him in the real world. I had a feeling he’d have made one hell of an ally.

“I might be in touch with Karrin,” I said.

“No messages. I’ve done her enough harm,” he said, almost before I had finished speaking. His voice carried a tone of unquestionable finality. He nodded toward the house. “But you can tell the big fellow over there that I sent you. It might help.”

I nodded. Then I took a deep breath, opened the door of the car, and stepped out into—

I was more impressed with what I hadn’t stepped into, for a moment. Because when my feet hit the ground and the car door shut behind me, I wasn’t standing in Chicago’s rainy, abandoned corpse. Instead, I was on a city street on a cold, clear evening. No rain fell. The stars and moon burned bright overhead, and the ambient city light combined with a fairly fresh and heavy snowfall to make it nearly as bright as daylight outside.

Sounds rushed all around me. Traffic, distant horns, the thumping beat of music from a large stereo. A jet’s passage left a hollow roar behind it—I was standing only a few miles from O’Hare.

I turned to look behind me, but Captain Murphy’s car had vanished, back into Chicago Between, presumably.

I stood there alone.

I sighed. Then I turned and walked onto the property of Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer.

. . . . .

Once upon a time, Morty had covered his lawn with decorations meant to be intimidating and spooky. Headstones. A wrought-iron fence with a big metal gate. Eerie lighting. The overall impression could be scary if you were gullible enough and the lighting was low, but mostly it had looked like cheap Halloween decorations outside a crack house.

Times had changed.

Morty had gotten rid of all the cheap junk, except for the fence. He’d turned his front yard into a Japanese garden. There were a few hedges, and a koi pond complete with a little wooden bridge that spanned it. Raised planters everywhere contained bonsai, all of them trees native to North America. It was a little unnerving to see what looked like an adult oak tree—only fifteen inches high and complete with miniature leaves.

There weren’t a lot of people in Chicago doing that for money, which implied that it was Morty’s own handiwork. If so, it had taken him a lot of effort and patience to create those.

I walked forward calmly, reaching out to open the gate.

My hand went right through it.

Yeah, I know, I was essentially a ghost, but I’d never gotten much practice with intangibility. I was used to reaching out for objects and being able to touch them. Now my hand simply tingled, as if waking up after I’d taken a nap and used it as a pillow. I pushed my arm a little farther forward, leaning to one side, and saw my fingertips emerge from the metal of the gate. I waggled my fingers, just to be sure.

“Okay,” I said. “No help for it, then.” I took a deep breath and held it as if I were about to jump into deep water. Then I hunched my shoulders and rushed forward.

Anticlimax. As I went through the gate, I was subjected to a swift, intense tingling sensation. Then I was on the other side.

I walked up a little stone path leading to Morty’s front door, but it wasn’t until I had gone over the bridge that I saw the man standing in the shadows on the front porch.

He was huge. Not built like a weight lifter or anything, just a naturally big-boned, brawny man standing almost as tall as I. His dark hair was gathered at the nape of his neck with a bit of ribbon. A long, dark blue coat fell to his calves, its sleeves marked with gold braid. Beneath that, he wore a uniform—a tight-fitting blue jacket, white shirt, white pants, and high black boots. He carried some kind of long-handled ax over one shoulder, and as I came to a halt, he was already drawing a flintlock pistol from his belt with his free hand. He leveled it just a little bit to one side of me and called out, “Halt! Identify yourself, scoundrel, or begone!”

“Scoundrel?” I asked, putting my fingers on my chest as if distressed at the accusation. “That’s a little unfair.”

“Ye’ve the look of a scoundrel!” boomed the man. “And a dandysprat and a ragamuffin. Though I’ll admit, for all that, ye could yet be a congressman.” I could see the white flash of his teeth in the dark as he smiled. “Give me a name, man.”

“Harry Dresden,” I said in a clear tone.

The barrel of the gun wavered a few more degrees away from me. “The wizard?”

“The late wizard,” I replied, then gestured down at myself. “The late Harry Dresden, really.”

“Zounds,” the man said. He frowned for a moment as if in thought. It didn’t look natural on him.

“If you lie,” he said slowly, “I can see no veritable reason for doing so, and I am inclined to shoot you. Yet if you tell the truth, your presence here draws mischief to my friend’s house, and I am inclined to shoot you repeatedly.” He nodded firmly and settled the gun’s barrel on me. “Either way . . .”

He was about to shoot. I didn’t know if it would re-kill me or not, but given what I had experienced of the universe, it might. At the very least, I figured, it would probably hurt like a son of a bitch. I had to keep this bozo from bringing the hammer down. Assuming his period outfit was authentic, that might be simple.

“Little rude, isn’t it, to shoot me?” I asked him. “I’m unarmed, and I’ve offered no violence or insult to you. Introduced myself, even. Whereas you haven’t even told me your name.”

The man in the blue coat looked suddenly abashed, and the pistol dropped slightly once more. “Ah yes. Um, please excuse me. Societal graces were imperfectly instilled in me in my youth, and that sad fact tends to be reflected in my more temperate afterlife.” He straightened and literally clicked his heels together, without ever moving the gun far from me, and gave me a slight bow. “The late Captain Sir Stuart Winchester of the Colonial Marines.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Sir Stuart of the Colonial Marines?”

He shrugged. “It is a protracted and complex tale.”

“Well, Stu,” I said, “With all due respect, my business here is not with you. It’s with Mr. Lindquist.”

“I hardly think so,” Stu sniffed. “Have you an invitation?”

I gave him a blank look for a moment and then said, “I’m new to the whole ghost thing, but I’m damned sure you don’t just send out envelopes through the U.S. Ghostal Service.”

“Ye’d be surprised how many postal workers leave a shade behind,” Stu countered. “The routine, methinks, is what keeps them making their rounds. The poor things don’t even realize anything’s changed.”

“Don’t change the subject,” I said. “I need to talk to Mort.”

“I am sorry, sir,” Stu said. “But the standing order regarding the visit of any uninvited ghosts is to deny them entry.”

“And you have to follow Mort’s orders?”

“It isn’t as though you could cross his threshold uninvited in any case, man,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “You have to follow his orders.”

“We are not compelled,” Stu said at once, and severely. “We aid him out of friendship and respect and . . .” He sighed and added, “And boredom. Ye gods, but this city pales after but half a century, and I’ve lingered here more than four times that.”

I found myself grinning at the ghost. “Stu, let me make you a promise. Maybe even an oath. I come to ask Mort’s help, not to harm him— and I’m reasonably sure my presence will not contribute to your ongoing sense of ennui.”

Stu let out a rolling belly laugh and began to speak, but the sound died off, and he stared at me thoughtfully, tapping a fingertip against the pistol.

“If it makes any difference,” I said, “Jack Murphy was the one who dropped me off here. Told me to mention his name.”

Stu’s eyebrows shot up. I could see the thoughts racing behind his eyes. They weren’t going to win any sprints, but they seemed good for the long haul. “Aye?” He pursed his lips. “A good fellow. For an Irishman.”

I snorted. “If he’s ever around, you’d better smile when you say—”

A flood of intangible cold pressed against my back, as suddenly as if I’d been standing in front of an industrial freezer door when it opened.

I turned to see a humanoid, grey form floating just above the ground maybe five yards away from me and drifting closer. The details were obscure, the proportions slightly off, as if I were looking at a badly molded plastic doll. There were no real features on it, just hollow, gaping eye sockets within a sunken, nearly skull-like face, and a wide, empty mouth that hung open as if the tendons attaching the lower jaw had stretched out like old elastic bands.

It moved with a kind of shuffling grace, as if it had no real weight and needed only to touch the ground to propel itself forward with its toes. It made a sound as it came, a hollow, rattling, muted gasp. It was the sound of an agonized scream that had long since run out of breath to propel it—but tried to continue anyway.

It got closer to me, and I felt colder as it did.

“Get back,” I snapped. “I mean it.”

The creature came forward with another little touch of its toes to the earth, as mindless and graceful as a hungry jellyfish, and a hell of a lot creepier.

I took a pair of quick steps back and said, “Fine. Be that way.” I lifted my right hand, drew in my will, and snarled, “Fuego.

And nothing—nothing at all—happened.

There was no stirring of forces deep inside me. There was no current of equal parts giddy excitement, vibrating tension, and raw lightning flashing through my thoughts. There was no flash of white-hot flame that would have incinerated the apparition coming toward me.

There was no magic.

There was no magic.

“Oh, crap,” I choked and reeled back as the thing’s fingers raked at me with deathly grace, the sound of its strangled scream growing higher pitched. Its fingers didn’t end in nails. They just sort of trailed off into drifting shreds that were surrounded by deadly cold.

Behind me, there was a mechanical sound, click-clack, of a large, half-cocked trigger being pulled fully back and ready to fire.

I whirled my head around in time to see Stu’s enormous old gun snap up to aim directly at the end of my nose. I’m sure its barrel wasn’t actually as big as a train tunnel, but at the moment it sure as hell looked like it.

I felt the wave of cold intensify against my back, and by the time Stu shouted, “Get down!” I was already halfway to the ground.

I hit hard—apparently being insubstantial didn’t free me from the laws of gravity or the discomfort of its unwavering enforcement—at the same time that Stu’s pistol went off.

Everything happened in dreamtime, slowly enough for me to see every detail, but happening so swiftly that I felt that no matter how fast I moved, I would not be able to keep up. I was expecting the crack of a pistol round, or even the hollow whump of a large-bore black-powder weapon. What I got was a roar that sounded like it had been distorted by a dozen different DJs and a mile of train tunnel. The standard plume of black-powder smoke didn’t emerge from the barrel. Instead, expanding concentric rings of pastel mist puffed out, swirling at their center as if pulled into following the contrail of the bullet.

The bullet itself was no lump of lead. It was a sphere of multicolored light that looked nearly big enough to be a golf ball. It went by a couple of feet over my head, and I swear it felt like I’d gotten a mild sunburn just from being close to it. A deep tone, like the thrumming of an amplified bass-guitar string, emanated from the sphere, vibrating through my flesh and against my bones.

I turned my head in time to see the sphere smash against the chest of the attacking apparition. The not-bullet plunged into its body, tearing a hole the size of my fist in its chest. A cloud of something that looked like steam poured out of the creature. Light kindled within it, almost like an old movie projector playing upon the vapor, and I suddenly saw a flicker of shadowy images, all of them dim, warped, twisted, as if someone had made a clips reel from the random strips of celluloid from the cutting-room floor.

The images grew steadily dimmer, until there was nothing left but a thinning cloud of mist. It wasn’t until then that I saw that the grey form was gradually sagging, like a waterskin being slowly emptied.

The mists vanished. All that was left of the grey creature was an ugly, colorless lump on the ground.

Firm bootsteps came down the walkway from the porch, and Stu placed himself between me and the thing, whatever it had been. Though his hands were reloading the pistol, complete with powder horn and a short ramrod, his eyes swept up and down the street around us.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.

“Wraith,” he said quietly, with a certain professional detachment in his voice. “A ghost, like you or me, who gave in to despair and gave up his sense of self-reason.”

“Dangerous?”

“Extremely so,” Stu said. He turned to look down at me. “Especially to someone like you.”

“Like me?”

“A fresh shade. You’ve a paucity of experience in learning to defend yourself here. And it is all but impossible for a fresh shade such as yourself, to hide: there is a sense of life that clings to you.” He frowned. “To you especially.”

“Because I’m a wizard, maybe.” Stu nodded.

“Likely, likely.”

“What would have happened if . . . ?” I gestured at the wraith’s remains.

“It would have devoured your memories,” Stu said calmly.

I considered that for a moment and studied the remains almost wistfully. “I don’t know. I’ve got some I wouldn’t mind losing.”

Stu slid his readied pistol back into his belt. “For shades, memories are life, sustenance, and power. We are memories now, wizard.”

“The images in the mist,” I said. “When it was . . . was dying. They were its memories?”

“Aye. What was left of them.” Stu moved forward and crouched over the remains. He held out his hand, palm down over them, and took a deep breath. After a few heartbeats, glowing mist began to rise from the wraith’s remains. It snaked through the air and into Stu’s chest, flowing into him like water into a pool. When it was complete, he stood again and let out a sigh.

Whatever had struck the wraith, it had evidently been made of the same substance as Sir Stuart. If ghosts, then, were memories . . . “The bullet,” I said. “You made it out of a memory?”

“Naturally,” he said. His expression filled with a gentle, distant sorrow. “A strong one. I’ll make it into another bullet at some point.”

“Thank you,” I said. “For helping me.”

“I must admit, I did not put the poor brute down exclusively for your sake, wizard. You represent a feast for any wraith. Fresh from the world of the living, still with a touch of vitality upon you, and full to bursting with fresh, unfaded memories. The wraith that ate you would become powerful—a dire, fell creature indeed. One that could threaten the world of the living as easily as it could the world of spirit. I won’t have that.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”

Stu nodded and offered me his hand. I took it, rose, and said, “I need to talk to Mort.”

Even as I spoke, I saw two more wraiths appear from the darkness. I checked behind me and saw more coming, drifting with effortless motions and deceptive speed.

“If you get me inside Mort’s threshold, I’ll be safe from them,” I said, nodding to the wraiths. “I don’t know how to defend myself against them. They’ll kill me. And if that happens, you’ll have that monster wraith on your hands.”

“Not if I kill you first,” Stu said calmly, tapping a finger on the handle of his pistol.

I turned my head slightly to one side, eyeing him, studying his face. “Nah,” I said. “Won’t happen.”

“How would you know, spook?” he asked in a flat voice. But he couldn’t keep the smile out of his eyes.

“I’m a wizard,” I said, infusing my voice with portentous undertones. “We have our ways.”

He remained silent, expression stern, but his eyes danced. I sobered.

“And those wraiths are getting closer, man.”

Stu snorted and said, “The wraiths are always getting closer.” Then he drew his pistol and pointed it at my chest. “I hereby take you prisoner, late wizard. Keep your hands in plain sight, follow all my verbal instructions, and we’ll do splendidly.”

I showed him my hands. “Oh. Uh. Okay.”

Stu nodded sharply. “About face, then. Let’s go talk to the little bald man.”

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