Technically, as a Railway Detective, Roy was able to enter other people’s compartments as needed. He’d only ever done it twice, both times to check on passengers who’d fallen asleep and overstayed their time on a train, so it still felt strange to just let himself into a compartment in use by others, even if they weren’t there. He did his best to ignore the luggage, discarded coats and other signs of habitation. Instead he focused on Jenkins’s ghost, who stood looking out the window and making the whole experience even more surreal.
“You’re sure you want to be here?” He asked. “The girl says you’re just an afterimage, like an echo. So I suppose you’re not really being hurt but still…”
“You’ve changed since we last met.” Roy gave Jenkins’s ghost a curious look. “I suppose it’s been a few years but still…”
The mirroring was uncanny. The shade matched his tone, cadence and even choice of final words. Roy wasn’t sure if it was some kind of ploy or just something intrinsic to the nature of ghosts but he was sure that it wasn’t the kind of behavior Sam Jenkins would have indulged in his life. Once again he wondered if the spirit was partially a projection of his own mind rather than an echo of a man he’d met years ago, during the Summer of Snow.
“Do you remember?” Jenkins asked, unprompted. “When the Browncoat told us he could only fight the cold if we paid him?”
Roy shifted on his feet, uncomfortable. “Yes, I remember.”
“I thought you would tear him apart yourself.” The ghost moved as if it was laughing but to Roy’s horror he just heard a distant wail. “When he refused to leave I started to hate him. I hated myself more when we finally agreed to his price.”
Roy shoved his hands awkwardly into his back pockets. “I felt much the same at the time.”
“There are worse deals to make,” Jenkins whispered. “Many times since I’ve wondered if he was trying to show us we should be careful when we strike a pact. Many times I’ve wondered what happened to him, to ask. Do they still talk about him?”
“From time to time, in the Treaty Lands,” Roy admitted. “I take it you haven’t seen him since Tyson’s Run?”
“Not me, or Tad Heller.”
“Heller’s still kicking?” Roy whistled. “That old man has spirit, I’ll give him that.”
“In the end I convinced him.”
Jenkins abrupt, unprompted subject changes left Roy off balance. “Of?”
“That the Browncoat was untrustworthy. That the price was too high to ask for help of the Strongest Man in the World a second time.” The train car shuddered under Roy’s feet and he found himself anxiously looking about, expecting the specter to give way before the arrival of the single most terrifying human being Roy had met in his life. But the moment passed, the name of power unanswered. If it noticed the momentary disruption Jenkins’ ghost gave no sign of it. “I made the choice to seek another deal. I paid a different price. And I never stopped paying that price until the day I died. Let me do one last thing, free of those shackles once more.”
Roy nodded, starting to see what the ghost was trying to say. “Then let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on here.” He raised his voice a shade. “Are you done over there, Fairchilds?”
After a moment’s pause Brandon appeared in the doorway. “Well?”
“I do have a few questions for the pair of you.” Cassandra joined her brother and they crowded into the compartment. “First of all, we need to assess the situation. Miss Cassandra, you can hear the ghosts even if you can’t see them?”
“A little,” she admitted. “But it’s hard to tell them apart. And I think they’ve started avoiding me since I led the children in the March of Joy.”
“There is something frightful about you,” Jenkins admitted. “As if staying near you will send us somewhere far away. If that makes sense.”
“It doesn’t,” Roy muttered.
“No surprise,” the specter said. “If it helps, I can see the other ghosts.”
“That was going to be my next question,” Roy said. “We need to figure out where the ghosts are concentrated and who, if anyone, on the train may be attracting them before we take any steps to clear up the situation.”
“Is it even necessary to clear it up?” Cassandra asked. “They’re unsettling but not dangerous, at least so far.”
“I’m afraid it is,” Roy said. “To protect the K&O Railway Company’s reputation if nothing else. No one wants to ride a haunted train.”
“Do you think this is some kind of sabotage?” Brandon asked. “An attempt to discredit the rail line by rivals?”
“It’s a possibility,” Roy said. “But I was thinking of the Gulf Locomotion Company that went bankrupt because people wouldn’t ride with them after a passenger died mid flight and haunted the train.”
“That’s a bit different don’t you think?” Cassandra asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Roy said. “The way the West works, people will jump to conclusions regardless. But ultimately I suspect summoning this many ghosts here is not the easiest way to bankrupt K&O, there must be dozens of easier ways about it. So I find sabotage unlikely.”
Brandon folded his arms with a thoughtful air. “What is your working theory?”
“Someone is forming an army,” Jenkins’ ghost said.
A moment of silence filled the compartment. Roy gave Jenkins a hard look. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, I’m no soldier, that’s certain.” Jenkins leaned his body halfway out the wall and looked about outside the train, his voice still somehow echoing through the compartment. “But the ghosts out here certainly look like an army.”
Roy shifted uneasily. “They’re in a formation? Banners? Officers?”
“The first and last, though no banners,” Jenkins confirmed. “Although not all of ’em have uniforms the leaders definitely do. And there’s the numbers.”
“How many ghosts are out there?” Cassandra asked, a slight quaver entering her voice.
“At least a couple hundred of them and it looks like there’s more coming,” the specter said.
“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered, ignoring the obvious discomfort of the Fairchilds. “Right, then the leader is either at the front or back of the train. Jenkins, search for a ghost who could command this army in those places. We’ll look for a human capable of it. Let’s get moving.”
“Why there?” Cassandra asked as she got to her feet.
“If it’s an army it has a front and back line. The quiet parts are ahead of the front line and in the back lines, everything else is busy and confusing. Generals are usually in the back line, where it’s quiet.” Roy hesitated, thoughts of Briarheart Ridge flicking through his mind. “Most of the time. There are no ghost sightings in the locomotive or the caboose, so the back line of this army is in one of those two places.”
He opened the door of the compartment and started to step out into the hall only to stop short when he nearly ran over the conductor, who was in the process of lifting his hand to knock on the door. “Oh! Mr. Harper, there you are. I’ve been looking for you.”
“What’s the matter?” Roy demanded. “Beyond the obvious.”
“Well…” He gestured helplessly towards the front of the train. “We can all see them now.”
Roy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Of course. Well, you and I will head to the front, Fairchilds to the rear.”
“What are we doing?” The conductor asked, confused.
“I’ll explain along the way.”