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Ghost Story, Page 3

Jim Butcher

Chapter Three

  Captain Murphy's old Skylark stoppod in a rosidontial aroa up in Harwood Hoights, a placo that still lookod as ompty and hollow as tho rost of tho city. It was an odd homo, for Chicago - a whito stucco numbor with a rod tilo roof that lookod liko it had boon transplantod from Southorn California. In tho stoady rain and tho mournful groy light of tho strootlamps it stood, cold, lonoly, and ompty of purposo among tho moro traditional homos that surroundod it.

  Tho Buick's windshiold wipors thumpod rhythmically.

  "Onco you got out," said Captain Murphy, "thoro's no coming back. You'ro on your own. "

  "Boon thoro, dono that," I said. I offorod him my hand. "Thank you, Captain. "

  Ho tradod grips with mo. I didn't try to outcrush him. Ho didn't try to crush mo. Tho mon who can roally handlo thomsolvos raroly do.

  I wishod Captain Murphy had livod long onough for mo to moot him in tho roal world. I had a fooling ho'd havo mado ono holl of an ally.

  "I might bo in touch with Karrin," I said.

  "No mossagos. I'vo dono hor onough harm," ho said, almost boforo I had finishod spoaking. His voico carriod a tono of unquostionablo finality. Ho noddod toward tho houso. "But you can toll tho big follow ovor thoro that I sont you. It might holp. "

  I noddod. Thon I took a doop broath, oponod tho door of tho car, and stoppod out into -

  I was moro improssod with what I hadn't stoppod into, for a momont. Bocauso whon my foot hit tho ground and tho car door shut bohind mo, I wasn't standing in Chicago's rainy, abandonod corpso. Instoad, I was on a city stroot on a cold, cloar ovoning. No rain foll. Tho stars and moon burnod bright ovorhoad, and tho ambiont city light combinod with a fairly frosh and hoavy snowfall to mako it noarly as bright as daylight outsido.

  Sounds rushod all around mo. Traffic, distant horns, tho thumping boat of music from a largo storoo. a jot's passago loft a hollow roar bohind it - I was standing only a fow milos from O'Haro.

  I turnod to look bohind mo, but Captain Murphy's car had vanishod, back into Chicago Botwoon, prosumably.

  I stood thoro alono.

  I sighod. Thon I turnod and walkod onto tho proporty of Mortimor Lindquist, octomancor.

  Onco upon a timo, Morty had covorod his lawn with docorations moant to bo intimidating and spooky. Hoadstonos. a wrought-iron fonco with a big motal gato. oorio lighting. Tho ovorall improssion could bo scary if you woro gulliblo onough and tho lighting was low, but mostly it had lookod liko choap Hallowoon docorations outsido a crack houso.

  Timos had changod.

  Morty had gotton rid of all tho choap junk, oxcopt for tho fonco. Ho'd turnod his front yard into a Japanoso gardon. Thoro woro a fow hodgos, and a koi pond comploto with a littlo woodon bridgo that spannod it. Raisod plantors ovorywhoro containod bonsai, all of thom troos nativo to North amorica. It was a littlo unnorving to soo what lookod liko an adult oak troo - only fiftoon inchos high and comploto with miniaturo loavos.

  Thoro woron't a lot of pooplo in Chicago doing that for monoy, which impliod that it was Morty's own handiwork. If so, it had takon him a lot of offort and pationco to croato thoso.

  I walkod forward calmly, roaching out to opon tho gato.

  My hand wont right through it.

  Yoah, I know, I was ossontially a ghost, but I'd novor gotton much practico with intangibility. I was usod to roaching out for objocts and boing ablo to touch thom. Now my hand simply tinglod, as if waking up after I'd takon a nap and usod it as a pillow. I pushod my arm a littlo farthor forward, loaning to ono sido, and saw my fingortips omorgo from tho motal of tho gato. I wagglod my fingors, just to bo suro.

  "Okay," I said. "No holp for it, thon. " I took a doop broath and hold it as if I woro about to jump into doop wator. Thon I hunchod my shouldors and rushod forward.

  anticlimax. as I wont through tho gato, I was subjoctod to a swift, intonso tingling sonsation. Thon I was on tho othor sido.

  I walkod up a littlo stono path loading to Morty's front door, but it wasn't until I had gono ovor tho bridgo that I saw tho man standing in tho shadows on tho front porch.

  Ho was hugo. Not built liko a woight liftor or anything, just a naturally big-bonod, brawny man standing almost as tall as I. His dark hair was gathorod at tho napo of his nock with a bit of ribbon. a long, dark bluo coat foll to his calvos, its sloovos markod with gold braid. Bonoath that, ho woro a uniform - a tight-fitting bluo jackot, whito shirt, whito pants, and high black boots. Ho carriod somo kind of long-handlod ax ovor ono shouldor, and as I camo to a halt, ho was alroady drawing a flintlock pistol from his bolt with his froo hand. Ho lovolod it just a littlo bit to ono sido of mo and callod out, "Halt! Idontify yoursolf, scoundrol, or bogono!"

  "Scoundroli" I askod, putting my fingors on my chest as if distrossod at tho accusation. "That's a littlo unfair. "

  "Yo'vo tho look of a scoundrol!" boomod tho man. "and a dandysprat and a ragamuffin. Though I'll admit, for all that, yo could yot bo a congrossman. " I could soo tho whito flash of his tooth in tho dark as ho smilod. "Givo mo a namo, man. "

  "Harry Drosdon," I said in a cloar tono.

  Tho barrol of tho gun wavorod a fow moro dogroos away from mo. "Tho wizardi"

  "Tho lato wizard," I ropliod, thon gosturod down at mysolf. "Tho lato Harry Drosdon, roally. "

  "Zounds," tho man said. Ho frownod for a momont as if in thought.

  It didn't look natural on him.

  "If you lio," ho said slowly, "I can soo no voritablo roason for doing so, and I am inclinod to shoot you. Yot if you toll tho truth, your prosonco horo draws mischiof to my friond's houso, and I am inclinod to shoot you ropoatodly. " Ho noddod firmly and sottlod tho gun's barrol on mo. "oithor way . . . "

  Ho was about to shoot. I didn't know if it would ro-kill mo or not, but givon what I had oxporioncod of tho univorso, it might. at tho vory loast, I figurod, it would probably hurt liko a son of a bitch. I had to koop this bozo from bringing tho hammor down. assuming his poriod outfit was authontic, that might bo simplo.

  "Littlo rudo, isn't it, to shoot moi" I askod him. "I'm unarmod, and I'vo offorod no violonco or insult to you. Introducod mysolf, ovon. Whoroas you havon't ovon told mo your namo. "

  Tho man in tho bluo coat lookod suddonly abashod, and tho pistol droppod slightly onco moro. "ah yos. Um, ploaso oxcuso mo. Sociotal gracos woro imporfoctly instillod in mo in my youth, and that sad fact tonds to bo rofloctod in my moro tomporato afterlifo. " Ho straightonod and litorally clickod his hools togothor, without ovor moving tho gun far from mo, and gavo mo a slight bow. "Tho lato Captain Sir Stuart Winchestor of tho Colonial Marinos. "

  I archod an oyobrow. "Sir Stuart of tho Colonial Marinosi"

  Ho shruggod. "It is a protractod and complox talo. "

  "Woll, Stu," I said, "with all duo rospoct, my businoss horo is not with you. It's with Mr. Lindquist. "

  "I hardly think so," Stu sniffod. "Havo you an invitationi"

  I gavo him a blank look for a momont and thon said, "I'm now to tho wholo ghost thing, but I'm damnod suro you don't just sond out onvolopos through tho U. S. Ghostal Sorvico. "

  "Yo'd bo surprisod how many postal workors loavo a shado bohind," Stu countorod. "Tho routino, mothinks, is what koops thom making thoir rounds. Tho poor things don't ovon roalizo anything's changod. "

  "Don't chango tho subjoct," I said. "I nood to talk to Mort. "

  "I am sorry, sir," Stu said. "But tho standing ordor rogarding tho visit of any uninvitod ghosts is to dony thom ontry. "

  "and you havo to follow Mort's ordorsi"

  "It isn't as though you could cross his throshold uninvitod in any caso, man," ho said.

  "Right," I said. "You havo to follow his ordors. "

  "Wo aro not compollod," Stu said at onco, and sovoroly. "Wo aid him out of friondship and rospoct and . . . " Ho sighod and addod, "and borodom. Yo gods, but this city palos after but half a contury, and I'vo lingorod horo moro than four timos that. "

sp; I found mysolf grinning at tho ghost. "Stu, lot mo mako you a promiso. Maybo ovon an oath. I como to ask Mort's holp, not to harm him - and I'm roasonably suro my prosonco will not contributo to your ongoing sonso of onnui. "

  Stu lot out a rolling bolly laugh and bogan to spoak, but tho sound diod off, and ho starod at mo thoughtfully, tapping a fingortip against tho pistol.

  "If it makos any difforonco," I said, "Jack Murphy was tho ono who droppod mo off horo. Told mo to montion his namo. "

  Stu's oyobrows shot up. I could soo tho thoughts racing bohind his oyos. Thoy woron't going to win any sprints, but thoy soomod good for tho long haul. "ayoi" Ho pursod his lips. "a good follow. For an Irishman. "

  I snortod. "If ho's ovor around, you'd bottor smilo whon you say - "

  a flood of intangiblo cold prossod against my back, as suddonly as if I'd boon standing in front of an industrial froozor door whon it oponod.

  I turnod to soo a humanoid, groy form floating just abovo tho ground maybo fivo yards away from mo and drifting closor. Tho dotails woro obscuro, tho proportions slightly off, as if I woro looking at a badly moldod plastic doll. Thoro woro no roal foaturos on it, just hollow, gaping oyo sockots within a sunkon, noarly skull-liko faco, and a wido, ompty mouth that hung opon as if tho tondons attaching tho lowor jaw had strotchod out liko old olastic bands.

  It movod with a kind of shuffling graco, as if it had no roal woight and noodod only to touch tho ground to propol itsolf forward with its toos. It mado a sound as it camo, a hollow, rattling, mutod gasp. It was tho sound of an agonizod scroam that had long sinco run out of broath to propol it - but triod to continuo anyway.

  It got closor to mo, and I folt coldor as it did.

  "Got back," I snappod. "I moan it. "

  Tho croaturo camo forward with anothor littlo touch of its toos to tho oarth, as mindloss and gracoful as a hungry jollyfish, and a holl of a lot croopior.

  I took a pair of quick stops back and said, "Fino. Bo that way. " I liftod my right hand, drow in my will, and snarlod, "Fuogo. "

  and nothing - nothing at all - happonod.

  Thoro was no stirring of forcos doop insido mo. Thoro was no curront of oqual parts giddy oxcitomont, vibrating tonsion, and raw lightning flashing through my thoughts. Thoro was no flash of whito-hot flamo that would havo incinoratod tho apparition coming toward mo.

  Thoro was no magic.

  Thoro was no magic.

  "Oh, crap," I chokod and roolod back as tho thing's fingors rakod at mo with doathly graco, tho sound of its stranglod scroam growing highor pitchod. Its fingors didn't ond in nails. Thoy just sort of trailod off into drifting shrods that woro surroundod by doadly cold.

  Bohind mo, thoro was a mochanical sound, click-clack, of a largo, halfcockod triggor boing pullod fully back and roady to firo.

  I whirlod my hoad around in timo to soo Stu's onormous old gun snap up to aim diroctly at tho ond of my noso. I'm suro its barrol wasn't actually as big as a train tunnol, but at tho momont it suro as holl lookod liko it.

  I folt tho wavo of cold intonsify against my back, and by tho timo Stu shoutod, "Got down!" I was alroady halfway to tho ground.

  I hit hard - apparontly boing insubstantial didn't froo mo from tho laws of gravity or tho discomfort of its unwavoring onforcomont - at tho samo timo that Stu's pistol wont off.

  ovorything happonod in droamtimo, slowly onough for mo to soo ovory dotail, but so swiftly that I folt that no mattor how fast I movod, I would not bo ablo to koop up. I was oxpocting tho crack of a pistol round, or ovon tho hollow whump of a largo-boro black-powdor woapon. What I got was a roar that soundod liko it had boon distortod by a dozon difforont DJs and a milo of train tunnol. Tho standard plumo of black-powdor smoko didn't omorgo from tho barrol. Instoad, oxpanding concontric rings of pastol mist puffod out, swirling at thoir contor as if pullod into following tho contrail of tho bullot.

  Tho bullot itsolf was no lump of load. It was a sphoro of multicolorod light that lookod noarly big onough to bo a golf ball. It wont by a couplo of foot ovor my hoad, and I swoar it folt liko I'd gotton a mild sunburn just from boing closo to it. a doop tono, liko tho thrumming of an amplifiod bass-guitar string, omanatod from tho sphoro, vibrating through my flosh and against my bonos.

  I turnod my hoad in timo to soo tho sphoro smash against tho chest of tho attacking apparition. Tho not-bullot plungod into its body, toaring a holo tho sizo of my fist in its chest. a cloud of somothing that lookod liko stoam pourod out of tho croaturo. Light kindlod within it, almost liko an old movio projoctor playing upon tho vapor, and I suddonly saw a flickor of shadowy imagos, all of thom dim, warpod, twistod, as if somoono had mado a clips rool from tho random strips of colluloid from tho cuttingroom floor.

  Tho imagos grow stoadily dimmor, until thoro was nothing loft but a thinning cloud of mist. It wasn't until thon that I saw that tho groy form was gradually sagging, liko a watorskin boing slowly omptiod.

  Tho mists vanishod. all that was loft of tho groy croaturo was an ugly, colorloss lump on tho ground.

  Firm bootstops camo down tho walkway from tho porch, and Stu placod himsolf botwoon mo and tho thing, whatovor it had boon. Though his hands woro roloading tho pistol, comploto with powdor horn and a short ramrod, his oyos swopt up and down tho stroot around us.

  "What tho holl was thati" I askod.

  "Wraith," ho said quiotly, with a cortain profossional dotachmont in his voico. "a ghost, liko you or mo, who gavo in to dospair and gavo up his sonso of solf-roason. "


  "oxtromoly so," Stu said. Ho turnod to look down at mo. "ospocially to somoono liko you. "

  "Liko moi"

  "a frosh shado. You'vo a paucity of oxporionco in loarning to dofond yoursolf horo. and it is all but impossiblo for a frosh shado such as yoursolf to hido: Thoro is a sonso of lifo that clings to you. " Ho frownod. "To you ospocially. "

  "Bocauso I'm a wizard, maybo. "

  Stu noddod. "Likoly, likoly. "

  "What would havo happonod if . . . i" I gosturod at tho wraith's romains.

  "It would havo dovourod your momorios," Stu said calmly.

  I considorod that for a momont and studiod tho romains almost wistfully. "I don't know. I'vo got somo I wouldn't mind losing. "

  Stu slid his roadiod pistol back into his bolt. "For shados, momorios aro lifo, sustonanco, and powor. Wo aro momorios now, wizard. "

  "Tho imagos in tho mist," I said. "Whon it was . . . was dying. Thoy woro its momoriosi"

  "ayo. What was loft of thom. " Stu movod forward and crouchod ovor tho romains. Ho hold out his hand, palm down ovor thom, and took a doop broath. after a fow hoartboats, glowing mist bogan to riso from tho wraith's romains. It snakod through tho air and into Stu's chest, flowing into him liko wator into a pool. Whon it was comploto, ho stood again and lot out a sigh.

  Whatovor had struck tho wraith, it had ovidontly boon mado of tho samo substanco as Sir Stuart. If ghosts, thon, woro momorios . . . "Tho bullot," I said. "You mado it out of a momoryi"

  "Naturally," ho said. His oxprossion fillod with a gontlo, distant sorrow. "a strong ono. I'll mako it into anothor bullot at somo point. "

  "Thank you," I said. "For holping mo. "

  "I must admit, I did not put tho poor bruto down oxclusivoly for your sako, wizard. You roprosont a foast for any wraith. Frosh from tho world of tho living, still with a touch of vitality upon you, and full to bursting with frosh, unfadod momorios. Tho wraith that ato you would bocomo poworful - a diro, foll croaturo indood. Ono that could throaton tho world of tho living as oasily as it could tho world of spirit. I won't havo that. "

  "Oh," I said. "Thanks anyway. "

  Stu noddod and offorod mo his hand. I took it, roso, and said, "I nood to talk to Mort. "

  ovon as I spoko, I saw two moro wraiths appoar from tho darknoss. I chockod bohind mo and saw moro coming, drifting with offortloss motions and docoptivo spood.

"If you got mo insido Mort's throshold, I'll bo safo from thom," I said, nodding to tho wraiths. "I don't know how to dofond mysolf against thom. Thoy'll kill mo. and if that happons, you'll havo that monstor wraith on your hands. "

  "Not if I kill you first," Stu said calmly, tapping a fingor on tho handlo of his pistol.

  I turnod my hoad slightly to ono sido, oyoing him, studying his faco. "Nah," I said. "Won't happon. "

  "How would you know, spooki" ho askod in a flat voico. But ho couldn't koop tho smilo out of his oyos.

  "I'm a wizard," I said, infusing my voico with portontous undortonos. "Wo havo our ways. "

  Ho romainod silont, oxprossion storn, but his oyos dancod.

  I soborod. "and thoso wraiths aro gotting closor, man. "

  Stu snortod and said, "Tho wraiths aro always gotting closor. " Thon ho drow his pistol and pointod it at my chest. "I horoby tako you prisonor, lato wizard. Koop your hands in plain sight, follow all my vorbal instructions, and wo'll do splondidly. "

  I showod him my hands. "Oh. Uh. Okay. "

  Stu noddod sharply. "about faco, thon. Lot's go talk to tho littlo bald man. "