The Adventure of the Ghost Watch
©2010 Michael A Stackpole
Jack Card sat in a big leather chair in the corner of the Wanderers’ Club quiet room. He did his best not to fidget. That would get him noticed, and in the room full of adults—especially these people—that was the last thing he wanted.
Rogers, the Club’s major domo, appeared and placed a highball glass on the small table next to him. “Your Roy Rogers, Master Card.”
“Thank you.” Jack’s words came in a hushed whisper. He nodded toward a man. “Is that really Sir Ashton-Moore?”
“Quite so, sir.” Rogers, a man so cadaverously slender that he nearly vanished when he turned sideways, smiled. “He seems calm after unburdening himself of his tale, Gentlemanly Horrors of Mine Alone. I believe he is going out to hunt down some dinner.”
“That story didn’t leave me very hungry.” Jack kept his voice low. Listening to the story had almost let him forget his nervousness.
Rogers nodded back in Jack’s direction. “It should not be too long now, sir. The scholarship committee is just finishing up with another candidate. I will come for you when it is time to present your paper.”
Jack looked down at the report resting on his lap. The Adventure of The Ghost Watch. He’d titled it that because, well, in sixth grade it made it sound good. But here, in the Wanderers’ Club, it was nothing compared to the adventures the members had on a regular basis.
“Thank you, Mr. Rogers.”
“Just Rogers, Master Jack.” The servant bowed, then spun about to attend to a member’s shouted request from across the room.
Jack took a deep breath and forced it out. Then he sipped his drink, but resisted eating the cherry. He wasn’t sure he could keep it down.
Which is kind of silly, Jack, he told himself. After all, you weren’t afraid that night at the Shippington Mansion. He smiled. That was true, but then again, that day, when the doorbell rang, he’d really not known what he was getting into…
Jack Card put his book down and answered the door.
A smiling man in a red uniform held up an envelope. “I have a message here for Master John Card. Is that you?”
“Yes, sir.” Jack opened the door and signed for the ivory color envelope. He took it, then looked up. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money. I can ask my mom…”
The messenger held a hand up. “It’s been taken care of, son. Enjoy your afternoon.”
Jack smiled and closed the door. The envelope had no postmark and no address. His name had been written in a flowing, elegant hand. Each letter stood out clearly.
He carried it into the kitchen. “Mom, Aunt Flora sent me an invitation.”
Jack’s mom glanced up. She was elbow deep in making lasagna. “Have you opened it?”
“Nope.” He smiled. “Aunt Flora wouldn’t have sent it if she’d not already asked you if I could go. Is it another one of her escapades?”
His mother blew a lock of brown hair back out of her face. “You’ll go, and you’ll be respectful. She depends on you, you know.”
The brown-eyed boy slid a thumb under the flap and gently tore the envelope open. The notecard within matched the envelope’s color. The initials FW stood out at the top, embossed as they were in gold. He scanned the note, then read it aloud to his mother.
Dear Master John,
I request the pleasure of your company this evening, for a midnight tour of the Shippington Mansion. Doctor E. Everett Everson of the Everson Institute of Ectoplasmic Investigation is going to show us a ghost.
Miss Flora Williams
A ghost! Jack’s heart skipped a beat. He knew there was no such thing as ghosts, but everyone in town knew the Shippington Mansion was haunted. Jack had shivered whenever biking past it after dark. Even on a dare, he wouldn’t go near the place on Halloween.
The fear passed. The idea of seeing a ghost thrilled him. Jack loved reading about history and science and archeology, but being only twelve, he’d not gotten to do anything he could call field research. Well, maybe a few of the other outings with Aunt Flora would count, but this would be the first real expedition into the unknown.
“Is this for real, mom?”
Mina Card smiled indulgently. “Aunt Flora was determined to go. Doctor Everson is hoping she’ll help fund more research. I tried to talk her out of it, but she just said I was too set in my ways to see the possibilities in the world. She suggested you would be suitable company.”
Jack nodded. He loved Aunt Flora—really his Great Grand-aunt Flora. She drifted through life, being very lucky—though his father thought she was very shrewd and just pretended to be daffy. She’d made a lot of money down through the years investing with people she trusted—like that “awkward Gates boy” as she described Microsoft’s founder.
“You want me to look out for her, right?”
His mother nodded. “You’re a big boy now, Jack, and a pretty smart one.”
“I’m not smart, mom, I just remember things.”
“Well, remember this: your aunt is generous to a fault. People will take advantage of her. She’ll listen to you. Don’t let this Doctor Everson talk her into writing a check.”
“Got it, mom.”
“Your father and I will be waiting up for you.”
“Thanks, mom.” Jack slipped the note back into the envelope. “I better go get ready.”
“Sounds like you’ll be packing for an expedition to the Amazon.”
“Not quite.” He headed for his room. “But if I’m going to meet a ghost, I don’t want to go unprepared.”
As it turned out Jack didn’t have any ghost hunting gear. He ransacked his desk. Nothing. He went through the shoe boxes tucked under his bed. He came up empty there, too. His best effort produced a compass, a pocket knife and a wind-up flashlight.
He sat on his bed. The compass, pocket knife and flashlight weren’t bad adventuring equipment, but he wasn’t sure they’d help him in catching ghost. All the TV shows had guys with fancy detectors and expensive cameras. They had the sort of equipment Dr. Everson would have.
Then it dawned on Jack. Even with all that fancy gear, none of them had ever caught a ghost.
Another thought came to him. He wasn’t really going along to catch a ghost. He was going along to see if Doctor Everson was telling the truth. Given that Doctor Everson was a doctor, he had to be pretty smart. And because he did research, he had to know his stuff on ghosts. Or on tricking people into believing there were ghosts.
If he was lying, it wouldn’t be easy to catch him. Jack filled his pockets with his tools as his mom called him for dinner. Still, if that’s what it took to protect Aunt Flora, Jack would find a way to do it.
Even though the summer’s heat kept the night warm, Aunt Flora wore a coat and dark slacks. She’d always said Jack got his skinniness from her side of the family, and teased him that some day his brown hair would be as white as hers. Slender though she was, the hand gripping his shoulder had strength, and her blue eyes still flashed with mischief.
Several other families gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Shippington Mansion. Jack recognized an Asian kid from the swimming pool at the YMCA. Harry Lee was his name. He was there with his parents. Harry had just moved to town, so Jack didn’t know him more than to nod at him. Harry had earphones in and was looking at an iPod Touch, concentrating seriously on something.
The Shippington Mansion was one of the oldest buildings in town. It brooded, all dark, at the top of the hill. A wrought-iron fence surrounded it. Six gables rose from the roof and a porch ran three-quarters of the way around the building. Jack had seen old pictures, back when the house had been kept up. He felt sad seeing it having been neglected. Still the mansion had fared far better than the decrepit outbuildings in the overgrown back yard.
Doctor E. Everett Everson emerged from the dark building and strode boldly down to the gate. A plump man, he wore a dark wool suit with a bright red vest beneath and a monocle over his right eye. It popped out when he saw Aunt Flora. He greeted her happily and kissed her hand. She giggled.
“And this must be your nephew, John.” The man ruffled Jack’s hair, which he hated. “Welcome to the Mansion, son.”
Doctor Everson greeted the others just as profusely. At least Harry didn’t get his hair messed up. The doctor waved everyone through the gate and stopped them on the porch.
“Before we go in, it’s important to sort fact from fiction. Many of you have grown up here, others of you are new, yet you’ve all heard the stories. Let me tell you what we truly know about the tragedy that unfolded here, this very night, July 15th, in 1882.” As Everson spoke he hooked his thumbs in his vest’s pockets. “Hugh Shippington was a very wealthy man, with homes from New York to California. This building was his newest and best loved. Workmen had finished it a month before, and he stopped in it for the first time this very day in 1882. He so loved it that he immediately sent a telegram to his family in New York, telling them to come at once. He sent that telegram at noon.
“Ten that evening he got a telegram from New York. His house in the city had burned down and his family had all been killed. He tried to get a train back east immediately, but the next locomotive would not be coming through until the following morning. So he spent his first night in his new home in mourning and, at midnight, he died of a broken heart.”
Aunt Flora clutched Jack’s shoulder. “That is so sad.”
“True, Miss Williams, but here is the odd part. His family, upon receipt of his telegram, had not even bothered to pack. They headed here immediately. They arrived the following afternoon to learn the bad news—double bad news, since they’d not known their home had burned. The family moved in and remained a year before the anniversary of Hugh’s death.” Everson looked straight at Jack. “Can you imagine what happened then?”
Jack didn’t need to imagine. He knew the stories. “The ghost of Hugh Shippington chased them all out since he was waiting for his family to join him.”
The other guests gasped, save for Harry. He gave Jack a disgusted look.
Jack shrugged. “It’s not like I believe.”
“Good lad,” shouted the doctor, believing Jack had been speaking to him. “In science we don’t go by belief, we only accept proof. In my researches I’ve used the finest equipment and most sensitive devices to amass evidence. That evidence is overwhelming. Ghosts exist, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight you’ll see a ghost with your own eyes.”
Doctor Everson pulled an antique pocket watch from his vest pocket. He showed both sides, including the ornate scrollwork and monogram HS. “This was Hugh Shippington’s own watch. It lay on his nightside table as he died. Hugh Shippington will appear to us when his own watch strikes midnight.”
Again more gasps.
The doctor held a hand up. “We have, my associates and I, thoroughly gone through the house. All power is off—a safety precaution since electricity was installed in the 1920s and last maintained in the 1940s. I’d ask you all to turn off any cell phones and you, young man, that music thing. No recording devices, please. We don’t need electromagnetic pulses interfering with ectoplasmic transference.”
The adults all nodded, but Jack and Harry exchanged glances. Jack wasn’t 100% sure what “ectoplasmic transference” was. It sounded like hokum and nonsense.
As they filtered into the mansion, Harry fell in line behind him. “Techno-babble.”
Jack smiled, keeping his voice low. “Worse than Star Trek.”
Harry snorted, then they separated as the group entered the living room. Two rows of folding chairs had been set up in a semi-circle facing the fireplace. Jack sat next to Aunt Flora in the front row, all the way over on the left side, and Harry opposite him on the right. The others filled in toward the middle. Most folks tried to look unimpressed. Little shivers here and there revealed their true feelings.
Doctor Everson wound the Shippington watch, then placed it in a bell jar on the center of the mantle. Candles burned in rows on either side of it, providing all of the room’s illumination. The flickering flames made shadows dance. Combined with the musty scent, faded wallpaper and dirty tin ceiling, the wavering candlelight made things spookier than a Halloween haunted house.
Everson returned his monocle to his eye. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are all rational beings, but what you shall witness tonight will carry you beyond reason. In order to create a more perfect environment for Hugh Shippington, we will douse all of the candles just prior to midnight. This should keep him calm. I will attempt contact with him, but whatever you do, you must not speak, or leave your chairs. This is for your own safety.”
Everson’s emphasis on safety sent a shiver down Jack’s spine. He blushed. He was pretty sure Everson was a better actor than he was a scientist.
The bulbous man went on, pacing before the fireplace. “You may hear things. You may feel things. Many people report feeling a chill. My apologies for not telling you to bring a sweater.” He looked straight at Aunt Flora. “If you require my jacket, Miss Williams, I shall be happy to oblige you.”
“You’re very kind, Doctor Everson, but I shall be fine.”
“Very well.” He glanced at the watch, then took out a dark handkerchief and blotted sweat from his forehead. “Hugh shall be with us very shortly. Please, if you all could join hands. And you, the young gentlemen on the end, if you could reach back to take a hand in the second row. We’ll have a nice little circle. I shall take up my position in the back of the room, to be ready for him.”
Everson worked his way down the line of candles. With each one blown out, darkness seeped into the room. Jack held Aunt Flora slender hand in his left, and extended his right back to a woman in the second row. Both women shivered and Jack almost yelped as something brushed by him in the darkness.
It was Doctor Everson, slipping past. The heavy man’s steps made the floorboards creak. “Very soon now. When the watch chimes we should have our manifestation.”
Jack sat there, the only sounds he could hear being his heart pounding and the squeaks of people shifting in their chairs. He looked for anything, but in the utter darkness he couldn’t even see his aunt.
Then, before he saw anything or heard anything, he felt something. The air stirred. Not much, but just enough. And it became colder. A chill blanketed the room and Aunt Flora began to shiver for real.
Then the watch rang. It sounded with a tiny ding for each hour. Jack thought it was a pretty sound, but somehow it echoed far louder in the room than it should have. The sound grew and lingered. The echoes remained long after the watched stopped pealing.
In their wake came a scraping sound. Definitely shoe-leather on wood. It became louder, as if a man was approaching from a great distance. And a voice began. A whisper, nothing more.
“Who is here in my house?”
Jack wasn’t sure he’d heard it the first time. Even the second he didn’t catch all the words, but the third, well. The third time the ghost spoke more clearly and loudly. “Who is in my house?”
Everson’s voice boomed confidently from the back of the room. “Mr. Shippington, I am Doctor E. Everett Everson.”
“Doctor Everson? Do I know you, sir?”
“No, sir, you do not, yet.”
The ghost’s voice came from the center of the room, right inside their midst. “Do you know how to cure a broken heart, Doctor Everson? Do you know my family lies dead in New York? Have you any idea the pain of separation, sir?”
Everson kept his voice calm. “I have some understanding of the matter, sir. I hope, though my work, to be able to assist you.”
“Assist me?” The ghost laughed and fear trickled down Jack’s spine. “My family is dead. I shall never rest until I rend the veil between life and death and look up on them again. This I shall do, doctor, mark my words. Nothing you can do will ease my pain! Begone from my house.”
Aunt Flora clutched Jack’s hand with all her strength.
The ghost shrieked. “Begone, all of you, and damn you to Hell!”
Hugh Shippington’s curse rang in their ears, then silence fell. Jack strained to hear anything, but short of old-house creaks and pops, he got nothing until Everson returned to the front of the room. The man struck a wooden match.
The doctor’s expression betrayed nervousness in the light of that match. “Ladies and gentlemen, never, in all my years, have I faced so strong a presence.”
He turned and lit the candles again, then tossed the match into the fireplace to die. “As you can see, as you doubtless felt, when Hugh Shippington answered the call of midnight on his watch, the Shippington Mansion is a deep well of ectoplasmic activity. I dare say—mere speculation, of course—that this location may mark a thinning of the barrier between life and death. It is the perfect place for my researches to continue. However, in the Mansion’s current state…”
The woman behind Aunt Flora raised a hand. “How much money do you need to continue, Doctor Everson?”
The large man blinked. “You anticipate me. I had more words to say, but if you wish to cut to the point.”
“Your work is very important, Doctor. I see no reason any of us would wish to waste your valuable time.” The woman looked around. Others, including Aunt Flora, nodded. “I can write you a check for twenty-thousand right now, Doctor. Will that help?”
“Oh my, yes, very generous. That would keep us going for several months.” Everson wiped his monocle on his jacket’s lapel. “If any of the rest of you were to see it within your powers to contribute.”
Aunt Flora smiled. “How much to endow the project in its entirety?”
“Miss Williams, it would be a million dollars, but I fear I could not impose on your generosity so mightily.”
Jack’s aunt laughed, her hand rising to her throat. “Doctor Everson, it is merely money. I should be glad to write the check this instant, with one tiny provision.”
Everson nodded. “Yes?”
“Provided my nephew, John, thinks I should write it.”
Everson smiled. “Well, John. You look to be a smart lad. What say you? Shall we let your aunt fund the work that will bring peace to tormented souls like Hugh Shippington.”
Everyone turned to look at Jack.
He swallowed hard. “I guess that sort of work would be very important. It would probably be worth every penny spent on it.”
“Quite so, lad, thank you.”
Jack held a hand up. “The problem is, you’re lying about the ghost.”
Everson’s eyes grew large. “How dare you?”
Aunt Flora turned to Jack. “That’s a serious charge, John.”
“I know.” Jack drew confidence from the pride on his Aunt’s face. “You said the ghost would come at midnight on the day he died. You set his watch to chime at midnight.”
Everson turned and waved a hand at the watch. “You all saw. It’s fifteen past, now.”
“Yes, fifteen past midnight, Daylight Savings Time.” Jack shrugged. “The United States didn’t start observing Daylight Savings Time until 1918. If Hugh Shippington was going to show up, he would have done it at eleven in the evening, because that was his midnight!”
The woman who had offered the first pledge sputtered. “But the ghost came to the watch. We felt the chill, we heard him speak. You’re too young to understand.”
“You’re changing things. That’s not what Doctor Everson told us.” Jack gasped. She wouldn’t let herself see the lie. Others nodded in agreement with her.
Then Harry stood up, brandishing his iPod. “He lied about no electricity, too. He has a wifi network up in the house.”
“But the chill…” Aunt Flora looked at Harry. “Why did we feel cold?”
“I don’t know for sure but I bet he has an air conditioner in one of the shacks out back. He ran conduit in and it came down through the holes in the tin ceiling. He could control that, and the sounds, from an iPhone or iPod.”
Jack nodded. “Which is why he stood in the back, so we couldn’t see the light. And he covered it with his handkerchief to hide it more.”
Everson puffed himself up. “This is preposterous. I have never been so insulted. To have two brats interrupt serious work…”
Harry’s mother got up and a pair of handcuff appeared from her purse. “One of these brats happens to be my son, Doctor Everson, and I happen to be a detective with the fraud squad. I hope you have good answers for all the questions we’re going to be asking you.
Harry’s mother called for back-up. Forensic experts arrived with uniformed policemen. They swept the mansion and found not only the wifi network Harry had discovered, but wireless speakers for making the noise, and a heavy-duty air conditioner with generator out in the old smokehouse.
Pretty much everyone else cleared out, save for the woman who had been the first to pledge. Harry’s mom brought her in for questioning, too. It turned out that she was in cahoots with Everson, encouraging others to invest.
Aunt Flora allowed Jack to stick around and watch the police work for a while, then thanked Harry. “You saved me a great deal of money, the both of you. You make quite a team.”
Jack smiled and offered Harry his hand. “I guess I’ll see you at the Y. We can eat lunch together, if you want.”
“That’s cool. Thank you.” Harry watched as the squad car carrying Everson headed off. “He’ll be convicted, right? He’s not going to get off.”
“Him, being found innocent?” Jack shook his head. “Not a ghost of a chance.”
Jack stood and straightened his blazer as Rogers returned. “Are they ready?”
“They are. Don’t be nervous.” The major domo waved him toward the door. “Just go in there and tell your story. Nothing better they like here, than a good story.”