Brandon caught himself before he ran over Harper, but unfortunately Cassie wasn’t quite as quick, slamming into his back with a muffled squeak. The car was in an odd state, with half the benches empty and the passengers dangerously packed into the other half. The engineers in the locomotive were probably working overtime keeping the car balanced and even with the rest of the train. Brandon had a half moment to wonder what was going on before he heard Harper whisper, “Captain Colbert…”
Everyone seemed to be looking at something in the middle of the car but try as he might Brandon couldn’t tell what it was. He was about to tap Harper on his shoulder when Cassie took his arm and pulled him back.
“There’s something there,” she whispered. “I can hear it.”
Harper walked towards the center of the car, suddenly looking less like a seasoned railway inspector – no, detective – and more like a sleepwalking child. Brandon cleared his throat. “Is everything alright, Detective?”
“What are you doing here?” Harper asked.
Brandon shifted from one foot to the other and back again, a deep discomfort working its way up his back and spreading through the roots of his muscles. He leaned over to his sister and whispered, “What do you hear?”
“It’s not clear,” she whispered back. “Something there is talking to him, but-”
“You always were one for following orders,” Harper said, acid creeping in to his voice.
“-but its voice is indistinct and-” she visibly flinched. Brandon began to reach for the yew around his waist but Cassie stopped him. “Whatever is over there it knows Mr. Harper. And doesn’t like him very much. I don’t know if we should interfere.”
“I don’t care,” Harper snapped. “You need to clear off this train and take your new general with you.”
The children shifted, murmuring in barely controlled fear. Harper’s eyes seemed to track with something standing up in the seat in front of him. Then Brandon heard it, some sort of echo at once distant and immediate, a wild and malicious laugh that swept through the train car and faded.
Cassie let out a breath and shook herself off. “It’s gone now.”
“What was it?”
“I couldn’t tell just from the voice,” Cassie said. “Some kind of spirit. Maybe just a ghost, maybe something more significant. Mr. Harper definitely recognized it as much as it recognized him.”
“Probably a ghost, then,” Brandon said, watching as the man in question moved further into the car to speak with the Hearth Keeper. “We should keep an eye on him, just to be sure he’s not consorting with anything sinister.”
“Can you tell me what happened, ma’am?” Harper asked, taking his hat from his head and holding it in both hands.
The Hearth Keeper, a matronly woman in her mid forties, made a helpless gesture, her expression one of concern more than fear. “The children saw it, didn’t they? Poor man with his belly cut open. He kept telling them the train was never coming down again. What kind of notion is that? Everything that flies falls in time, don’t it?”
“That’s my experience, ma’am,” Harper replied. “But you didn’t see the ghost?”
“Haven’t got the sight, not me. But I knew they saw something. They was too scared to be running a prank.” From the confused expression on his face it was clear Harper didn’t understand what had happened.
Brandon cleared his throat again and stepped forward. “It’s a matter of age,” he said. “Those who haven’t gone through puberty tend to be very attuned to ghosts and spirits. The sight starts to fade around the age of ten but it can take as long as a decade to fade. Most lose it in a year or so.”
Harper’s gaze sharpened and focused on him. “I didn’t know that. Thank you, Mr. Fairchild. But if that’s true, why did I see Captain Colbert? I’m well past twenty.”
“Since you knew the ghost’s name,” Brandon mused, “you may have a personal connection that attuned you to it. That can enhance your ability to perceive them.”
“Perhaps. And perhaps…” Harper’s attention wandered for a moment then he turned back to the woman and continued his conversation. Brandon glanced around and realized Cassie had moved over to the place the ghost had occupied.
He moved over and asked, “Anything out of the ordinary?”
“No,” she said. “Not even an echo of what was here. But its voice seemed to harmonize with the sound of the train so well, almost as if the soul was a part of it. Very odd.”
“Ever heard of anything like it?”
“No.” Cassie’s face told him that worried her, which was enough to worry him.
“The Hearth Keeper’s agreed to come with us in a moment, so long as her husband feels its safe here,” Roy announced, crossing to join them. “What was it you wanted to ask the girl about, Miss Cassandra?”
Cassie straightened up, looking a bit surprised at the intrusion. “Yes! I thought it was odd only one of the children in the compartment saw the ghost there and I wondered if the girl had latent talents as a river seer or stone singer. Those children looked old enough to have lost their sight.”
“Is.. she in danger?” Harper asked. “Her or the train?”
“The train isn’t, if that’s the case,” Cassie said. “But she’ll need a mentor to help her get her gifts under control. She could be attracting ghosts the children are seeing without even knowing it.”
“Then we’d better figure that out before anything else. We’ll go in a minute.” Harper crossed away to the other side of the car, stopping to talk to the Storm Watcher.
“Do you still think this is just a stray ghost?” Brandon asked, leaning in for a measure of privacy. “Or is it possible we got called in this direction because of a seer or singer?”
“It’s only one or two ghosts at the moment,” she replied. “But it is possible there’s a singer or seer on this train and that’s where the leading came from. We do resonate with each other, from time to time.”
The Hearth Keeper was approaching them so Brandon bit down on the other questions he wanted to ask, instead turning to her and saying, “Can we help you, ma’am?”
She gave the two of them a stern look. “Is it true that you can recognize someone with the Sight?”
“I know a test or two we could give,” she admitted. “But if they don’t reveal anything it doesn’t mean Olivia isn’t a river seer or something similar. Definitively disproving that requires a good deal of in depth exercises.”
The Keeper nodded, her expression turning shrewd. “It would be a good thing to know. Those kinds of talents could open many doors.”
Brandon kept the smirk off his face, but only barely. The Keeper’s calculating assessment strongly reminded him of his mother’s attitude when she learned of Cassie’s gift. She was a much more profane woman than the one before him but some things were universal, it seemed. Unfortunately that attitude glossed over the harsher realities of gifts like Cassie had. The Hearth Keeper had a few other questions for Cassie but Brandon tuned them out, instead keeping an eye on the rest of the car. The children were nervous and upset, but gradually calming down. However the undercurrent of fear remained.
“I think the children will be alright with your husband,” Harper said, returning from his conversation with the Watcher. “Let’s go and talk to the girl and see what you can see.”
A moment later the four of them were hustling back up the length of the train. Once they were again clear of the breezeway Harper asked, “If you’re wrong, and Olivia isn’t what attracted Captain Colbert’s ghost to this train, what could be the cause?”
“Ghosts aren’t spontaneous phenomenon, for the most part,” Brandon said. “They’re attracted to someone or something. Generally speaking, an untrained river seer can yank them from their normal path just by catching sight of them, stone singers can get attached to them by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Otherwise, they don’t generally leave their patterns of haunting.”
“So,” Harper mused, “is it possible Miss Cassandra picked up this ghost somehow? Said the wrong thing?”
Brandon found himself reappraising Harper for the third time in an hour. “No. She’s far too experienced to make a mistake like that.”
“I’ll trust your judgment. How likely is it that there’s some other seer or singer somewhere else on the train?”
“It’s not impossible,” Brandon admitted. “But it’s not likely.”
“How likely is it that Olivia just so happened to snag a ghost out of my past within a few hours of my boarding this train?”
“I have no idea, Mr. Harper. I imagine the odds are quite small.”
The shorter man let out a long suffering sigh. “Well, it’s all we’ve got to go on.”
The Hearth Keeper unlocked the door to the private compartment a minute later. The room was really meant for four, perhaps six if some of them were young children, so it ran out of room quickly. Brandon was in the process of easing himself into a narrow space on the bench beside Cassie when Harper’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder, squeezing uncomfortably. “Well,” Harper said, “get to it. I’ve something of my own to follow up on.”
And then he was moving forward again, heading towards their compartment with purpose. For a moment Brandon wondered what the detective was doing but Cassie gently pulled him the rest of the way into the compartment and his thoughts moved on. The girl, Olivia, had recovered with the strength of youth and now chatted happily with the Hearth Keeper.
“And you’re sure it wasn’t just a nightmare?” The Keeper was asking.
“It wasn’t, ma’am,” she said with great sincerity. “There was a man in the couch with no stomach. Like he just peeked up through the cushions!”
Beside him, Cassie began to hum quietly. For his part, Brandon assessed the children with a more critical eye than he had at first. Olivia looked the youngest, possible still young enough to see a ghost naturally. Clark appeared oldest, at least thirteen and probably fourteen, he would likely reach adulthood in a year or so.
But best to be certain. He cleared his throat and asked, “How old are the three of you?”
The tone of Cassie’s hum changed slightly.
“Eleven,” Olivia said.
“I’m fourteen,” Clark added, “And Annie’s almost thirteen.”
The redhead nodded her affirmation.
Brandon gestured in his sister’s direction. “And what do you see here?”
All three of them stared blankly for a moment. Finally Clark said, “A pretty lady?”
Annie gave him a forceful shove, prompting some purely juvenile outrage. Olivia’s attention turned to them and the Hearth Keeper intervened to break up the argument. Cassie stopped humming.
Once things calmed down the Hearth Keeper turned back, hands clasped, and said, “Well?”
“I’m afraid there’s no sign of either talent among them,” Cassie said. When the woman’s face fell she hastened to add, “But that may be for the best. The path to mastering either gift is very difficult. Still, there might be one among your children. Could we talk to those in the public compartment as well?”
“Of course. You three children had better come with us then.”
The Hearth Keeper bustled the lot of them back out into the passage and towards the back of the train. Brandon spared a moment to look for Roy Harper, but the detective was nowhere to be seen.