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Ghosts of Columbia
By L. E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2005 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
One ghost in my life was bad enough, but when you have two, an inconvenience can become a disaster. That Saturday night in October, I wasn't really thinking about Carolynne — the family ghost — disasters, or any other ghost. All I wanted to do was lock the office door and get back to the recital hall for Llysette's concert because I'd lost track of time.
My mind was on Llysette when I left my office and walked down the stairs and through the Natural Resources Department offices. I stepped out onto the covered porch and the almost subsonic shivering that tells you there's a ghost around hit me. I thrust the key in the lock, feeling uncomfortable and hurried, without knowing why at first.
Then I pulled out my key, and the shivering went up two notches before the sobbing began.
"No ... no ... I wouldn't tell ... wouldn't listen ... no ... no ..."
The light on the porch of the old Dutch Republican that had been converted to the offices of the Natural Resources Department came from a low-powered permanent glow square. The glow square made seeing the ghost a lot easier because she didn't wash out under the light. Ghosts, even fresh ones, aren't that substantial, and this one was a mess, with white streaks and gashes and droplets of white ectoplasm dripping away from her figure.
I swallowed, hard, because the ghost was Miranda — Miranda Miller, the piano professor — and you don't usually see ghosts like that unless someone's been murdered. Murders aren't that common in the Republic, especially at universities located out in the hinterlands. Miranda was an easy grader, so it couldn't have been a disgruntled student, although that has happened, I understand, but not at Vanderbraak State University. Llysette was more likely to be a target of some burgher's pampered daughter than Miranda.
"No ... no ..." The ghost's hands were up, as if trying to push someone away.
"Miranda ..." I tried to keep my voice soft. The books all say that you have to be gentle with ghosts, but since I come from a pretty normal family, I'd never seen a ghost right after it had been created by violent death. Grandpa's ghost had been pretty ornery, but he'd been ornery enough in life, and he'd faded before long. Most ghosts did, sooner or later.
"Miranda, what happened?"
"No ... no ... no ..." She didn't seem to recognize me. She just projected that aura of terror that felt like subsonics. Then she was gone, drifting across the faculty green toward the administration building — a stone and mortar horror, what the first Dutch settlers had called native-stone colonial. Campus Security had offices there, but I doubted that they were really set for ghost handling, nor were the county watch, even though Vanderbraak Centre was the county seat.
Almost as an afterthought, I closed the door and pulled the key out. I started walking, then running downhill toward the watch building — not even taking those long wide stone steps that led past the car park and down to the lower part of the campus. Halfway down the hill, I skidded to a stop on the browning leaves that the university zombies hadn't been able to sweep up as fast as they fell and looked down at the town square. I was across from the new post centre. The old one had burned down forty years ago, but in Vanderbraak Centre, a forty-year-old building is practically new.
But that wasn't why I stopped. I was going to claim that someone had stabbed Miranda because her ghost had drifted by me, sobbing and incoherent? That might have gone over all right in New Amsterdam, or some other big city like Columbia City, where the feds understood ghost theory, but not in Vanderbraak Centre. The watch were mostly old Dutch stock, stolid, and you seldom saw Dutch ghosts. Don't ask me why, but that was the way it was. The odds were I'd end up in one of those cold iron-barred cells, not because I'd seen a ghost, but because they'd more likely believe I'd committed the murder and claimed I'd seen a ghost.
So I gritted my teeth and turned around to walk back up the hill to the old Physical Training Center that had become the Music and Theatre Department when old Marinus Voorster donated a million guilders to build the new field house — all out of spite with Katrinka Er Recchus, now the acting dean. Then she'd been running the strings program, even before she became department chair. Rumor had it that she'd been more than friendly with old Marinus, hoping for a new performing arts center she could run.
I glanced farther uphill at the Physical Sciences building that held the Babbage centre, but only the outside lights were on. My eyes flicked back to the Music and Theatre building. All the old gym doors were open, since it was a warm night for mid-October. I stopped, straightened my damp collar and my cravat, took some deep breaths, and wiped my forehead on my sleeve before I walked up the stone steps into the building.
As usual, even though it was less than ten minutes before the recital started, only a handful of people walked across the foyer and down the side corridor in front of me.
"Good evening, Doktor Eschbach."
"Good evening." I took the one-sheet program and nodded at the usher, a student whose name momentarily escaped me.
The recital hall had actually been a lecture hall, the only one in the old PT building, so that the "renovation" that had turned it into a recital hall had consisted of adding a full stage, taking out several rows of seats, and removing the lift-tilt desktops attached to the sides of the seats. The seats were still the traditional Dutch colonial hardwood that made long recitals — even Llysette's — tests of endurance.
Miranda Miller — dead? Why Miranda? Certainly, according to Llysette, she whined a lot in her mid-south English dialect. I could have seen it had it been Dean Er Recchus or Gregor, the theatre head who bellowed at everyone, or even Llysette and her perfectionist ways.
The program looked all right:
Featuring the Mozart Anti-Mass
She was doing mostly standard stuff, for her, except for the Britten and Exten. She'd protested doing the Mozart Anti-Mass, but the dean had pointed out that the stipend from the Austro-Hungarian Cultural Foundation had come because they were pushing their traditional musicians, even Mozart, even the later ultraromantic stuff composed after his bout with renal failure, even the weird pieces no one sings much anymore, if they ever did. She'd wanted to do Lady Macbeth's aria from Beethoven's Macbeth or Anne's aria from his Heinrich Verrückt, but the Austro-Hungarians were pushing Mozart's less popular pieces, and the Foundation had suggested either the Anti-Mass or the love song from Elisabet.
You don't turn down a two-hundred-dollar stipend, nor the dean's suggestion, not if you're an academic in up-county New Bruges. Not if you're a refugee from the fall of France trying to get tenure. And not, I supposed, if you were linked to the suspicious Herr Doktor Eschbach, that notorious subversive who'd been forced out of the government when Speaker Hartpence's Reformed Tories had won the elections on a call for a clean sweep of the ministries. So Llysette had opted for the Anti-Mass as the least of the evils.
I settled into a seat halfway back on the left side, right off the aisle, and wiped my forehead again. I was definitely not in the shape I had once been. Yet it hadn't seemed that long since I'd been a flying officer in Republic Air Corps, and my assignments in the Sedition Prevention and Security Service had certainly required conditioning. So what had happened? I shook my head and resolved to step up my running and exercises, and I wiped my forehead once again.
By the time the lights went down, Llysette had a decent crowd, maybe a hundred fifty, certainly not bad for a vocal performance. The Dutch have never been that supportive of vocalists. Strings, strings, and more strings, with a touch of brass — that's how you reach their hearts, but, as Katrinka Er Recchus found out, not their pocketbooks.
Llysette swept onto the stage, all luminous and beautiful, dark hair upswept and braided back, bowed, and nodded at Johanna Vonderhaus, her accompanist, seated at the big Steinbach.
Llysette was in good voice, and everyone thought she was wonderful, so wonderful that they gave her a brief second ovation. I hadn't heard that in New Bruges in the three years I'd been there, except for her concert the previous spring when she had proved that a singer could actually master oratorio and survive.
I should have brought her chocolates, but I only brought myself backstage, and came to a sudden stop as I reached the open wing — the dressing rooms were down a side hall toward the practice rooms and studios — where she stood, pale and composed.
Two watch officers were there in their black and silver, and one was talking to her, one to Johanna. I listened.
"When did you see Doktor Miller last?"
Llysette shrugged in her Gallic way. "Perhaps it was mid-afternoon yesterday. I went home early to prepare for the recital. Preparing for a recital, that is always hard."
"You went home alone?"
"Ah, non, monsieur. Doktor Eschbach there drove me in his steamer. Then we ate, and he drove home. This afternoon he drove to my home, and brought me to his house for an early dinner. Then we came to the hall together, and I prepared for the recital."
"Did you see Doktor Miller tonight?"
"Mais non. I even sent Johan away while I was dressing and warming up."
"Was anyone else here?"
"Johanna." Llysette inclined her head toward the slender accompanist. "Before the hall was opened, we practiced the Exten."
"Did you see anyone go down the halls toward the studios?"
"Non. You must concentrate very hard before the recital."
"Were you alone here at any time after Doktor Eschbach left?"
"I could not say." Llysette shrugged wearily. "Worried I was about the Exten and the Mozart, and people, they could have come and gone. That is what happens before a recital."
There were more questions, but what else could she add? We'd left early on Friday, and on Saturday afternoon we had been together until she started to warm up and dress. That was when I went up to my office.
The tall and chunky watch officer, of course, had to question me then.
"Doktor Eschbach, what did you do when you came back to the university tonight?"
"When we came back, I dropped Doktor duBoise off in front of the theatre building. I parked the steamer in the car park between the theatre building and the library. I walked into the building to make sure Doktor duBoise had everything she needed. When she said she needed to warm up, I went to my office to check my box for any messages, and then I did some paperwork for a new course for next semester. After that I came back and listened to the recital."
"Did you see or hear anything unusual?"
I frowned, on purpose, not wanting to lie exactly, but not wanting to tell the whole truth. "I felt a low sound, almost a sobbing, when I left the department office. I looked around, but it faded away."
"Ghost formation," said the other watch officer, the young and fresh-faced officer I hadn't seen around Vanderbraak Centre before. He reminded me of someone, but I knew I hadn't met him before.
"Ghost formation?" I said almost involuntarily, surprised that the locals were that up-to-date on the mechanics of ghosting and equally surprised that the younger officer would upstage the older.
"There was an article in the latest Watch Qnarterly. Subsonics apparently often occur during and immediately after ghosting occurs." The younger officer blushed as the tall chunky man who had questioned me turned toward him.
"What time did you feel these vibrations?" asked the older watch officer.
"Mmmm ... it was about fifteen minutes before the concert. Quarter before eight, I would say."
"How well did you know Doktor Miller?"
"Scarcely at all. I knew who she was. Perhaps I'd spoken to her a dozen times, briefly." I wouldn't have known her at all if I hadn't been seeing Llysette.
The questions they posed to me went on even longer than those they had posed to Llysette, but they were all routine, trying to establish who was doing what and where and if I had noticed anything unusual. Finally both officers exchanged glances and nodded.
"We may need to talk to you both later, Doktors," added the taller officer — Herlingen was his name. When I'd first come back to Vanderbraak Centre the year before, he had suggested that I replace my Columbian national plates on the steamer with New Bruges plates as soon as practical.
They bowed and departed, leaving the three of us — me, Llysette, and Johanna — standing in the wing off the recital hall stage. I wiped my forehead.
"Are you up to walking up to the steamer?" I asked Llysette, then looked at Johanna. "Do you need a lift?"
"No, thank you, Johan. Pietr is waiting outside." The tall accompanist smiled briefly, then shook her head. "Poor Miranda."
"Moi, I am more than happy to depart." Llysette lifted her bag with her makeup and other necessities, and I took it from her.
Outside, a half moon shone across the campus, and between the moon and the soft illumination of the glow lamps, there was more than enough light to make our way along the brick wall to the car park and the glimmering sleek lines of the Stanley, a far cry from the early steam-carts or even the open-topped racing steamers of early in the century.
Llysette fidgeted for the minute or so that it took for the steam pressure to build. "Why you Columbians love your steamers — that I do not understand. The petrol engines are so much more convenient."
"Columbia is a bigger country than France." I climbed into the driver's seat and eased the throttle open. Only two other steamers were left in the car park, and one belonged to the watch. "Internal petrol engines burn four times as much fuel for the mileage. We can't afford to waste oil, not when Ferdinand controls most of the world's supply, and Maximilian the rest."
"I have heard this lecture before, Johan," Llysette reminded me. At least she smiled.
"That's what you get from a former subminister of Natural Resources." I turned left at the bottom of the hill and steered around the square and toward the bridge that would take us to my house. The breeze through the steamer windows was welcome after the heat of the concert hall.
"More than merely a former subminister. Other worthwhile attributes you have, as well." She paused. "With this event, tonight, is it wise that I should stay with you?"
"Wise? A woman has been murdered, and you want to stay alone?"
"Ah, yes, there is that. Truthfully, I had not thought of that."
I shook my head. Sometimes Llysette never considered the obvious, but I supposed that was because, no matter what they say, sometimes singers are just unrealistic. "Why would anyone want to kill Miranda? She whined too much, but ... murder?"
"Miranda, she seemed so, so helpless." Llysette cleared her throat, and her voice firmed. "Still, there are always reasons, Johan."
"I suppose so. I wonder if we'll ever know."
"That I could certainly not say."
The breeze held that autumn evening smell of fall in New Bruges, the scent I had missed so much during my years in Columbia City, the smell that reminded me of Elspeth still. I swallowed, and for a moment my eyes burned. I kept my eyes on the narrow line of pavement for a time. Sometimes, at odd times, the old agonies reemerged.
Once across the river and up the hill, I turned the Stanley left onto the narrow lane — everyone called it Deacon's Lane, but that name had never appeared on any sign or map that I knew of — that wound up the hill through the mortared stone walls dating back to the first Dutch settlers. The driveway was dark under the maples that still held most of their leaves, but I had left a light on between the car barn and the house.
I let Llysette out under the light, opened the barn, and parked the steamer. It was warm enough that I didn't worry about plugging in the water tank heater.
She was waiting under the light as I walked up with her bag. I kissed her cheek and took her chin in my hand, gently, but she turned away. "You are most insistent tonight, Johan."
Excerpted from Ghosts of Columbia by L. E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2005 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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