Tuesday, October 1, 1935 – Silver City, Coastal Federation
Twenty mounted ghost warriors charged through the stormy night sky. Through torrents of rain and deafening thunder. Through lightning bolts and blasts of hail.
Burilgi, their leader, rode out in front on a brown gelding. With seeping, empty eye sockets he surveyed the wrathful heavens. Many centuries dead, the wraith did not feel the chill and damp that would have pained an ordinary mortal.
After long hours pounding southward, the ghost troop soared out of the storm and into ragged clouds that reflected a salmon-colored dawn. Burilgi bent his bloody, eyeless gaze downward.
Spiderwebs of dirt roads spread out beneath him. Then came thousands of little houses on grids of streets. Automobiles belched smoke and puttered along. Farther to the south, a huge city glittered on the shore of a vast ocean.
The troop of Steppe Warriors flew in over the metropolis and scattered. Burilgi made his way to an abandoned herbalist’s shop in a part of the city where immigrants from the Jade Kingdom had settled. There he waited.
Some hours later, he heard a key snick into the lock of the shop’s front door. It swung open as he watched from his hiding place in the wall.
In stepped a tall, heavy white man—a living man—who wore a long black coat. His head was perfectly, glisteningly bald. The only hair he seemed to have was a trim white mustache. He didn’t even have eyebrows.
Fishing a flashlight out of his pocket, the man shot a beam of light around the room. Nothing was revealed but dusty display cases and cascades of cobwebs.
“Burilgi, are you here?” the man asked quietly.
The eyeless ghost emerged out of the far wall.
The very instant the bald man saw the wraith, he gasped and took a step backward. His narrow slits of eyes opened wide. He stood there stock still, except for the constant twitching of his left hand. Finally composing himself, he asked, “Are you all here?”
“All twenty.” Burilgi’s voice sounded like sandpaper rubbing on stone.
“You know your mission.”
“To exterminate the enemies of our khan. Now tell me where to find them.”
* * *
The Exquisite Pearl Temple sat on a narrow side street in Silver City’s teeming Jadetown. Burilgi entered the temple’s meditation chamber from the rear, through brick and mortar and iron, a spear in his hand. Butter lamps flickered here and there among the sculptures and tapestries.
At this late hour in the evening, only one person remained in the chamber—a thin, elderly man kneeling on a prayer rug before a large golden statue of the sacred one. He wore a shabby, wrinkled jacket of light blue, trousers of threadbare khaki, and a white shirt. A few strands of gray hair trailed across the top of his head.
“Mongke Eng,” hissed the specter.
The old man lifted his head, gingerly rose to his feet, wobbled, and turned around. He had a face very much like Burilgi’s—but without the cruelty and hatred. Mongke Eng focused his rheumy eyes on the ghost and nodded.
“Where are your guards?” snorted the specter. “I was told you would have guards.”
“None are needed,” replied Mongke Eng.
“Because I am dying anyway.”
Burilgi tilted his head. “Of what?”
“Cancer. In my blood. Better to die quickly, I think.”
Burilgi couldn’t help but admire the old man. “To bravely face death at the hands of your enemy is honorable.”
“But why am I your enemy?”
“Orders from the khan.”
Mongke Eng looked astonished. “You have a new khan? A new leader? Remarkable. There has not been a khan in over three centuries.”
Burigli saw the face of the old man transform itself—from dismal acceptance of his doom to bright-eyed fascination. As if he was delighted to learn something new and wonderful, even in the very last moments of his life.
“You are from the era of Semei Khan, unless I am mistaken,” said Mongke Eng. “Circa 1220 to 1250. Am I right?”
“From the army of the One-Armed General? Your uniform is most distinctive. The rampant wolf that you wear on your tunic was unique among the Steppe armies. The bronze-pointed leather helmet, as well.”
The Steppe Warrior said nothing.
“Can you see without eyes?” Mongke Eng asked with sincere curiosity.
“Would I be here if I could not?”
Mongke Eng smiled at the terse reply. “What is your name?”
The old man chuckled. “Destroyer? Your parents called you Destroyer?”
“A good name,” the ghost said. “You know why I am here.”
Mongke Eng nodded tiredly, like a man ready for a long, long sleep. “You’ve killed at least three others—and now me. Who is next?”
“Someone called Melanie Graphic.”
The old scholar shut his eyes and shook his head. “But she’s so very young.”
“She must die, too, old man. The khan has given me my orders.”
Mongke Eng was about to say something else when the spear caught him in the chest, tumbling him backward into the statue of the sacred one.
Wednesday, October 2, 1935 – Zenith, Plains Republic
Wearing a brown cloth cap and shabby overcoat, Johnny Graphic trudged along the north side of Superior Avenue, head down. I can’t believe I’m doing this, he thought.
No one noticed him. The people bustling around were far too busy chattering among themselves. If shoppers wondered about the square object in the canvas bag slung over his shoulder, they didn’t say so. If they were curious about the peculiar grin that kept breaking out on his round, freckled face, they didn’t mention it. And as far as he was concerned, that was just fine. They had no idea they might be seeing his photo in tomorrow’s newspaper.
Johnny still couldn’t imagine never having to go to school again. Unless he wanted to. He’d spent a year studying hard and had passed the high school exams on his very first try. And here he was, at twelve and a half, taking photos for the Zenith Clarion. He was an honest-to-goodness newspaper photographer. The youngest ever in the history of Zenith, the second biggest city in the Plains Republic.
His seventeen-year-old sister, Melanie, had warned him—in that gloomy way of hers—that he’d be missing some of the best years of his life by getting out of school early. The way he looked at it, staying in school meant missing five years of taking pictures. Now that would really be sad.
From the time he was a little kid, Johnny thought that shooting photos was something almost magical. Frame the shot. Focus. Press the shutter at just the right moment. Then, when the prints came back from the drugstore, the things and people you saw through the viewfinder would be on paper, captured forever. Every time he opened up that envelope and saw his newest pictures, it was like getting presents on his birthday.
At first, the idea that formed in his head seemed too impossible, too incredible. But as he studied every newspaper photo he could get his hands on, he began to think, why couldn’t I do this?
And now he was. Getting paid for his pictures in the newspaper. Getting a byline under his shots—“Photo by Johnny Graphic.”
The photo editor at the Zenith Clarion had hired Johnny at first to do a simple freelance assignment. Then another and another. A press conference at the Zenith Geographical Society. The launching of a new lake boat down at the shipyards. Triplets born at Hilltop Hospital.
But today was the first time he had been given an important assignment, a dangerous story. Miss Maude Beale, managing editor of the Clarion, had personally told Johnny what it was all about and what he had to do and why he was the best “man” for the job.
Here I am, he thought, wearing my first disguise. The shabby, dirty coat. The tattered newsboy cap tugged down over his head. The dirt he’d purposely smudged on his face. He looked just like a poor, homeless kid. Too bad Miss Beale had nixed his idea of a mustache.
Maybe, he daydreamed, I’ll even get on the front page.
He was just plodding past a newsstand when a headline on the Clarion late edition stopped him in his tracks.
Ghostly Murder Mystery: Who Killed the Etherist?
Johnny grabbed a copy. He scanned the article and let out a gasp. The subhead read: “Silver City etherist run through with a spear.”
The article went on to say that Mongke Eng had been slain early the morning before. Police didn’t know who was responsible for the death but suspected renegade ghosts—possibly ancient warriors that had been seen in the vicinity.
Johnny put the paper back down, shaking his head. Mongke Eng was a family friend. Johnny had met him several times and thought he was a nice old guy. Like Johnny’s sister Melanie, Mongke Eng was an etherist, or “wraith handler.” Johnny explained to people that etherists were professionals who hired ghosts or fired ghosts. The technical term that etherists sometimes used to refer to themselves was “effectuators.”
In fact, right now Mel was out in the suburbs somewhere, trying to evict a particularly noxious specter from someone’s house. She probably hadn’t heard about what happened to Mongke Eng. As soon as he was done with the assignment, Johnny had to get home and give her the bad news.
Out of nowhere a very large, strong hand grabbed him by the collar and twisted him around.
“What the heck are you doing?” Johnny yelled, struggling to break free. Then he looked up into the long, acne-scarred face of the biggest, tallest policeman he’d ever seen.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, young man?” the officer said in a voice that rumbled like a foghorn.
“I tested out,” Johnny answered. “Earned my high school diploma a couple months ago.”
The officer scowled. “I’ll need some proof.”
Johnny glanced down the busy sidewalk behind the policeman. A throng of pedestrians flowed along on both sides of them, like a stream around a boulder. Just then he saw a ghost rider on a ghost horse trotting toward him. The bearded rider, looking very grim, had his saber drawn as if ready to attack.
Johnny was one of the few people on Superior Avenue that afternoon who could see the wraith. Only two or three in a hundred humans had the gift of etheric sight.
When Johnny noticed the ghost approaching them, he shook his head violently and threw up his open left hand, as if to say, STOP. And the spectral rider did just that.
The officer squinted down at him in puzzlement. “Are you okay, kid?”
“Here, just a minute,” Johnny sputtered, putting down his backpack and reaching into his coat pocket. He fished out a new leather wallet and flipped it open. Beneath a clear celluloid window was an official-looking card bearing the signature of the Superintendent of Zenith Public Schools. It had a tiny photo of Johnny glued in the upper right corner and it stated: John Joshua Graphic, having earned the Zenith Public Schools high school graduation equivalency certificate, is hereby relieved of any further requirement for regular attendance in school session. Granted this 23rd day of July, 1935.
The policeman took the wallet and peered at Johnny’s get-out-of-school card. “Not right that a kid your age ain’t in school,” the copper grumbled. “Guess you’re legal, though.” He let go of Johnny’s collar and handed back the wallet. “Just don’t get into any mischief,” he said, and sauntered away.
Johnny stuck his wallet back in his pocket and picked up the canvas bag. He glared up at the waiting ghost rider and frowned. “What were you going to do, Colonel? Cut his head off?”
Dead now over seventy years, the ghost still maintained his ramrod military posture. A barely visible smile broke out among his whiskers. “Are we just going to stand here, then, Master Graphic? Don’t we have work to do?”
* * *
Johnny found the four sewer workers sitting around an upended wooden cable spool, down a shadowy alleyway. Just as Miss Beale had said he would find them. They were playing poker, cracking wise, and drinking beer straight out of the bottles—right in the middle of what ought to have been their afternoon shift. The game so occupied them that it took half a minute before one of the men noticed Johnny standing there. “Get outta here, kid,” he snarled.
Johnny just slouched there and waited for the men—all in dirty brown overalls, tin hats, and tall, black rubber boots—to stop noticing him. When they finally did, he reached into the canvas bag and pulled out his Zoom 4×5 press camera. The film and flashbulb were ready to go.
He lifted the camera up to his eye, framed the picture at just the perfect instant, and pressed the shutter release. A bright explosion of light filled the alley.
With roars of outrage, the sewer men rushed at him.
Johnny was already halfway down the alley, his legs pumping, his feet pounding the pavement. But the men were catching up. No way could he outrun them.
Suddenly he threw a hand high into the air. The colonel hauled him up into the saddle and they galloped off down the street.
Johnny saw the startled looks on faces all around, as he bounced along five feet above the street with no apparent means of support. Glancing back, he caught sight of one of the sewer men angrily throwing his tin hat on the sidewalk.
“Spooks!” the worker hollered in disgust, as if it were the filthiest word imaginable. “That kid’s in cahoots with spooks!”
Johnny was tempted to shout back a retort. Instead, he held tightly to the ghost horse’s luxuriant mane and laughed in giddy relief.
Holy maroley, he thought, I really did it.
Johnny did not enjoy flying with Colonel MacFarlane and his ghost horse, Buck. Not one little bit.
To tumble off Buck from the height of several hundred feet, Johnny figured, would be every bit as fatal as falling off a cliff or a tall building. Gravity doesn’t care how a fellow got up there.
But after reading the headline on the front page of the Clarion—about Mongke Eng getting murdered by ghosts—Johnny knew he had to tell Mel the bad news as soon as he could. Mel really respected the old man, and hearing about his death from Johnny might soften the blow. The streetcar and bus would take too long. So after turning in his film at the newspaper office, he asked the colonel to fly him home.
Home was a twenty-mile flight from downtown Zenith. The Graphics’ house, Birchwood, was a couple hundred yards up from the rocky shore of Great Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the world. From Lake Highway down by the shore, the brick house could barely be seen through the evergreens, birches, and poplars that filled its big front yard.
The instant they touched down on the driveway, Johnny hopped off the ghost horse and rushed up the porch steps. He threw open the front door and shouted, “Mel! Are you home yet?”
No one answered.
Johnny trotted into the living room, tossing his camera bag onto the sofa. “Mel?”
Again, not a peep from anyone.
Johnny went back into the hallway and ran up the stairway two steps at a time. Maybe, he thought, Mel was back, working in her bedroom. When she was really busy with a project, it took a stick of dynamite to get her attention. But when he peered into her open bedroom door, no one was there. Just her stuff. A cluttered desk and bookshelves. Her upright piano. Her bed, neatly made up, with the crossed army sabers up above it, hanging on the wall. The landscape painting by the Contessa di Altamonta, the famous ghost artist and friend of their mom.
Johnny nearly jumped out of his skin. He twirled around and saw Mrs. Lundgren standing in the hallway by the bathroom door. Pale and translucent, the ghost housekeeper held a real bucket in one hand and a real mop in the other. Her apple-doll face showed a look of worry.
“What’s wrong, child?” she asked in that peculiar whispery tone. “Is anything the matter?”
“I’m looking for Mel, Mrs. Lundgren. Something important’s come up and she needs to know about it.”
“I believe Miss Melanie said she would be back by suppertime.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Lundgren,” Johnny said, and headed back downstairs. He went out on the front porch and sat on the long oak bench, waiting for Mel’s return. It wasn’t very long before someone arrived home—but not his sister.
Puffing up the driveway on her balloon-tired bicycle came Nina Bain, attired in a khaki safari jacket and stout skirt of olive drab. Her short, black corkscrew curls bobbed with every pump of the pedals. The dark-skinned girl and Johnny had been best friends ever since she and Uncle Louie came to live in the big brick house—right after Will and Lydia Graphic had vanished.
Johnny thought it was swell, how Uncle Louie had been granted custody of Nina after her father died. That kind of made her Johnny’s honorary cousin. The two were about the same age and natural allies in the fight against sober adult points of view. Johnny sometimes called her “Sparks,” because she was a dedicated ham radio operator. She had her radio gear up in the attic and a tall antenna on the roof.
Almost out of breath, Nina rested her bike against the side of the porch and joined Johnny on the bench. “So how’d it go?” she asked, taking off her backpack and laying it on the floor.
“It went okay, Sparks, but it was a little bit scary. First time I’ve taken shots of people who don’t want their photos taken.”
“Is your picture going to be on the front page?”
“Yup, they said it would be.”
“That’s great. So what happened exactly?”
And Johnny told Nina about the whole adventure. At several points during his narrative she shook her head in amazement. But when he finished she had a kind of funny expression on her face. “What?” he said. “What’s wrong?”
Nina narrowed her eyes and peered at him. “The Johnny Graphic I know would be grinning and jumping up and down. You seem awfully subdued, considering you’re getting your first front-page photo credit. Smells a little fishy to me. You have a bellyache or something?”
“I wish that’s all it was,” Johnny said. Then he told her about Mongke Eng.
* * *
Melanie Graphic didn’t make it home for supper that evening. By the time she finally came through the front door at half past ten, almost everyone else had gone to bed. But Johnny was waiting for her in the entranceway.
Mel looked utterly exhausted. Her limp black hair was limper and stringier than usual, and the circles under her eyes more pronounced. She wearily took off her green plaid jacket and hung it on the coat rack, then headed toward the kitchen, giving her brother a half-hearted wave.
He hopped out of his chair and followed her. “Bad haunting?” he asked.
“I’ll say,” Mel yawned, making straight for the refrigerator. She pulled the door open, extracted a bottle of milk, and found the cheese-and-sausage sandwich Mrs. Lundgren had made for her.
Johnny sat down opposite his sister at the table. “So what happened?”
“People sometimes don’t know how lucky they are, not seeing and hearing ghosts,” she said after her first mouthful of sandwich. “New family bought an old house in Hector Town. The daughter can see ghosts. Of course, she can hear them, too. Moved into a place with a screamer, and the mom and dad didn’t know it beforehand.”
Johnny winced. Screamers were ghosts that howled and screeched pretty much non-stop. Not because they couldn’t stop, but because they were angry with everyone and everything.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Mel, “but I got him to move to an abandoned mansion about a mile away. I convinced him he’d sound even louder in a big empty house like that. Took a while, though.” She took another bite of sandwich and regarded Johnny with a quizzical look. “You seem awfully grim. Do you want to tell me something?”
Johnny looked at his seventeen-year-old sister. She had the same spray of freckles across the cheeks and nose as him. But her eyes were hazel, not blue; her hair black, not dark blond. Sometimes they almost didn’t look like siblings. She resembled their mom, he was a lot like their pop.
“What is it, Johnny?” Mel asked, suddenly concerned.
Johnny took a deep breath. “They killed Mongke Eng. Some ghost assassin in Silver City. The article in the Clarion said it was some kind of a warrior.”
He expected her to show some shock, but to his surprise she didn’t. She merely slumped down in her chair.
“Steppe Warriors,” Mel said, almost in a whisper. “They’re called Steppe Warriors. Now that you know about it, I might as well tell you everything.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “‘Everything’? What do you mean, ‘everything’?”
“It’s not just Mongke,” Mel said. “Five other members of the Hausenhofer Gesellschaft have been murdered by ghost assassins. The first two or three, we hoped it was just some grisly coincidence. But now…” She trailed off.
What Mel had just said hit Johnny like a ton of bricks.
It wasn’t just a single etherist who had gotten himself killed. It was specifically members of the group to which Mel belonged—the Gesellschaft. There were only about twenty-five of them in the outfit. And now six were dead. This was a lot worse than he had thought.
If someone was targeting members of the Gesellschaft, then Mel’s life was in danger, too!