Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3)


by William Ritter

Chapter One

Mr. Jackaby’s cluttered office spun around me. Leaning heavily on the desk, I caught my breath in shuddering gulps. My head was throbbing, as though a shard of ice had pierced through one temple and out the other, but the sensation was gradually subsiding. I opened my eyes. The stack of case files I had spent all morning sorting lay strewn across the carpet, and the house’s resident duck was cowering behind the legs of my employer’s dusty chalkboard, shuffling anxiously from one webbed foot to the other.

One lonely file remained on the desk at my fingertips—a mess of fading newsprint and gritty photographs. My pulse hammered against the inside of my skull, and I concentrated, trying to slow my heartbeat as I propped myself up on the desk. Before me lay the police report, which described the grisly murder of an innocent woman and the mysterious disappearance of her fiancé. Beneath it was tucked the lithograph of a house, a three-story building in a quiet New England port town—the same house in which I now stood, only ten years younger—it looked simpler and sadder back in 1882. Then there were my employer’s collected notes, and beside them the photograph of a pale man, his lips curled in a wicked smirk. Strange men stood behind him wearing long leather aprons and dark goggles. My eyes halted, as they always did, on one final photograph. A woman.

I felt sick. My vision blurred again for a moment and I forced myself to focus. Deep breath. The woman in the picture wore an elegant, sleeveless dress as she lay on a bare floor, one arm outstretched and the other resting at the torn collar of her gown. A necklace with a little pewter pendant hung around her neck, and a dark stain shaded her chest and collected around her body in an ink-black pool. Jenny Cavanaugh. My friend. Dead ten years, and a ghost the whole time I had known her.

The air in the room shimmered like a mirage, and I pulled my gaze away from the macabre picture. Keeping one hand on the desk to steady myself, I raised my chin and straightened my blouse as a spectral figure coalesced before me. My pulse was still pounding in my ears. I wondered if Jenny could hear it, too.

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” I lied. I am not fine, every fiber within me shouted. “I’m ready this time.” I am anything but ready. I took a deep breath. The phantom did not look convinced. “Please,” I said. “Try it again.” This is a bad idea. This is a terrible idea. This is—

And then the office vanished in a blinding haze of mist and ice and pain.

Jenny Cavanaugh was dead, and she wasn’t happy about it. Another week would mark the passing of ten years since death had come prowling into her home. It would mark ten years since it had dropped her on her back in the middle of her bedroom, her blood spilling across the polished floor. Her fiancé, Howard Carson, had vanished the same night, and with him any clues as to the purpose or perpetrator of the gruesome crime.

Perhaps it was due to the approach of such a morbid anniversary, but in all the months I had known her, Jenny had never been so consumed by her memories as she had become in the past week. Her carefree attitude and easy laugh had given way to tense silence. She made an effort to maintain her usual mask of confidence, smiling and assuring me that all was well. Her eyes betrayed the turmoil inside her, though—and there were times when the mask fell away completely. What lay beneath was not a pleasant sight.

R. F. Jackaby, my employer and a specialist in all things strange and supernatural, called those moments echoes. I cannot begin to fathom the depths of Jenny’s trauma, but I glimpsed into that icy darkness every time I witnessed an echo. Everything Jenny was fell away in an instant—the woman she had once been and the spirit she had become—until all that was left was a broken reflection of her last living seconds. Fury and fear overwhelmed her as she relived the scene, and all around her spun a storm of ice and wind. The unfathomable forces that held a soul intact had come untethered in Jenny, and what remained was something less than living and something more than human. The first time I watched her fall into that cold place had been bad enough, but it was far from the last. The further we pursued her case, the more frequently and violently the echoes overcame her.

Jenny regarded these moments with frustrated embarrassment after she regained her composure, as might a sleepwalker upon waking to find herself on the roof. She became increasingly determined to hone her spiritual control so that she might find answers to the questions that had haunted her since her death, and I became increasingly determined to help.

“Tread lightly, Miss Rook,” warned Mr. Jackaby one evening, although he was usually the last person to exercise caution. “It would not do to push Miss Cavanaugh too far or too fast.”

“I’m sure she’s capable of much more than we know, sir,” I told him. “If I may . . .”

“You may not, Miss Rook,” he said. “I’ve done my research: Mendel’s treatise on the demi-deceased; Haversham’s Gaelic Ghasts. Lord Alexander Reisfar wrote volumes on the frailty of the undead psyche, and his findings are not for the faint of heart. We are churning up water we ought not stir too roughly, Miss Rook. For her sake and for ours.”

“With all due respect, sir, Jenny isn’t one of stuffy Lord Reisfar’s findings. She’s your friend.”

“You’re right. She isn’t one of Lord Reisfar’s findings, because Lord Reisfar’s findings involved pushing spectral subjects to their limits just to see what would happen to them—and that is not something I intend to do.”

I hesitated. “What would happen to his subjects?”

“What would happen,” answered Jackaby, “is the reason Lord Reisfar is not around to tell you in person.”

“They killed him?”

“A bit. Not exactly. It’s complicated. His nerves gave out, so he abandoned necropsychology in favor of a less enervating discipline, and was shortly thereafter eaten by a colleague’s manticore. He might or might not still haunt a small rhubarb patch in Brussels. Cryptozoology is an unpredictable discipline. But my point stands!”

“Sir—”

“The matter is settled. Jenny Cavanaugh is in an unstable condition at the best of times, and finding painful answers before she is ready might send her over an internal threshold from which there can be no return.”

I don’t think my employer realized that Jenny had crossed an internal threshold already. Until recently, she had always been reticent about investigating her own death, shying away from solid answers as one who has been burned shies away from the flame. When Jackaby had first moved his practice into her former property, into the home in which she had lived and died, Jenny had not been ready. The truth had been too much for her soul to seek. She had made a decision, however, when she finally enlisted our services to solve her case—and, once made, that decision had become her driving force. She had waited long enough.