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Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 130, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 793 & 794, September/October 2007
The Carville Ghost
by Bill Pronzini
© 2007 by Bill Pronzini
Art by Allen Davis
Bill Pronzini is the author of 66 novels, including three in collaboration with his wife, Marcia Muller, and 32 in his popular “Nameless Detective” series. (See Savages, Forge, ’07). He is a multiple Shamus Award winner, and a recipient of both the PWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and France’s Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière. A character from this story is borrowed by Marcia Muller for her story “Pickpocket.”
Sabina said, “A ghost?”
Barnaby Meeker bobbed his shaggy head. “A strange apparition of unknown origin, Mrs. Carpenter. I’ve seen it with my own eyes more than once.”
“In Carville, of all places?”
“In a scattering of abandoned cars near my home there. Floating about inside different ones and then rushing out across the dunes.”
“How can a group of abandoned horse-traction cars possibly be haunted?”
“How, indeed?” Meeker said mournfully. “How, indeed?”
“And you say this apparition fled when you chased after it?”
“Not once but both times I saw it. Bounded away across the dune tops and then simply vanished into thin air. Well, into heavy mist, to be completely accurate.”
“What did it look like, exactly?”
“A human shape surrounded by a whitish glow. Never have I seen a more eerie and frightening sight.”
“And it left no footprints behind?”
“None. Ghosts don’t leave footprints, do they?”
“If it was a ghost.”
“The dune crests were unmarked along the thing’s path of flight and it left no trace in the cars — except, that is, for claw marks on the walls and floors. What else could it be?”
Quincannon, who had been listening to all of this with a stoic mien, could restrain himself no longer. “Balderdash,” he said emphatically.
Sabina and Barnaby Meeker both glanced at him in a startled way, as if they’d forgotten he was present in the office.
“Glowing apparitions, sudden disappearances, unmarked sand... confounded claptrap, the lot.” He added for good measure, “Bah!”
Meeker was offended. He drew himself up in his chair, his cheeks and chest both puffing like a toad’s. “If you doubt my word, sir...”
It’s not your word I doubt but your sanity, Quincannon thought, but he managed not to voice the opinion. “There are no such beings as ghosts,” he said.
“Three days ago I would have agreed with you. But after what I’ve seen with my own eyes, my own eyes, I repeat, I am no longer certain of anything.”
Sabina stirred behind her desk. Pale March sunlight, slanting in through the windows that faced on Market Street, created shimmering highlights in her upswept black hair. It also threw across the desk’s polished surface the shadow of the words painted on the window glass: Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services.
She said, “Others saw the same as you, Mr. Meeker?”
“My wife, my son, and a neighbor, Artemus Crabb. They will vouchsafe everything I have told you.”
“What time of night did these events take place?”
“After midnight, in all three cases. Crabb was the only one who saw the thing the first time it appeared. I happened to awaken on the second night and spied it in one of the cars. I went out alone to investigate, but it fled and vanished before I could reach the cars. Lucretia, my wife, and my son Jared both saw it last night — in one of the cars and then on the dune tops. Jared and I examined the cars by lantern light and again in the morning by daylight. The marks on walls and floor were the only evidence of its presence.”
“Claw marks, you said?”
Meeker repressed an involuntary shudder. “As if the thing had the talons of a beast.”
Quincannon said, “And evidently the heart of a coward.”
“Why else would it run away or bound away or whatever it did? It’s humans who are afraid of ghosts, not the converse.”
“I have no explanation for what happened,” Meeker said. “That is why I have come to you.”
“And just what do you expect us to do? Mrs. Carpenter and I are detectives, not dabblers in paranormal twaddle.”
Again Meeker puffed up. He was an oddly shaped gent in his forties, with an abnormally large head set on a narrow neck and a slight body. A wild tangle of curly hair made his head seem even larger and more disproportionate. He carried a blackthorn walking stick, which he held between his knees and thumped on the floor now and then for emphasis.
“What I want is an explanation for these bizarre occurances. Normal or paranormal, it matters not to me, as long as they are explained to my satisfaction. If they continue and word gets out, residents will leave and no new ones come to take their place. Carville will become a literal ghost town.”
“And you don’t want this to happen.”
“Of course not. Carville-by-the-Sea is my home and one day it will be the home of many other progressive-minded citizens like myself. Businesses, churches — a thriving community. Why, no less a personage than Adolph Sutro hopes to persuade wealthy San Franciscans to buy land there and build grand estates like his own at Sutro Heights.”
A cracked filbert, Mr. Barnaby Meeker, Quincannon thought. Anyone who chose of his own free will to live in a home fashioned of abandoned street cars in an isolated, fog-ridden, wind-and-sand-blown place like Carville was welcome to the company of other cracked filberts, Adolph Sutro and his ilk included. He had no patience with eccentrics of any stripe, a sentiment he had expressed to Sabina on more than one occasion. She allowed as how that was because he was one himself, but he forgave her. Dear Sabina — he would forgive her anything. Except, perhaps, her steadfast refusal to succumb to his advances...
“I will pay you five hundred dollars to come to Carville and view the phenomenon for yourself,” Barnaby Meeker said.
“Eh? What’s that?”
“Five hundred dollars, sir. And an additional one thousand dollars if you can provide a satisfactory explanation for these fantastic goings-on.”
Quincannon’s ears pricked up like a hound’s. “Fifteen hundred dollars?”
“If, as I said, you provide a satisfactory explanation.”
“Can you afford such a large sum, Mr. Meeker?”
“Of course I can afford it,” Meeker said, bristling. “Would I offer it if I couldn’t?”
“Ah, I ask only because—”
“Only because of where I choose to reside.” Meeker thumped his stick to punctuate his testy displeasure. “It so happens I am a man of considerable means, sir. Railroad stock, if you must know — a substantial portfolio. I have made my home in Carville because I have always been fond of the ocean and the solitude of the dunes. Does that satisfy you?”
“It does.” Quincannon’s annoyance and suspicion had both vanished as swiftly as the alleged Carville ghost. A smile now bisected his freebooter’s beard, the sort Sabina referred to rather unkindly as his greedy grin. “I meant no offense. You may consider us completely at your service.”