Happy Halloween! We hope you enjoy this treat: an excerpt from Jeff Young’s Defender of the Departed, from his collection Spirit Seeker.

spiritseeker.jpgDefender of the Departed

When the leg kicked, Kassandra jumped. Her mentor, Lehvoi, caught her eye, tipping his head in question. She pushed the probe linked to the static jar down harder and this time both of the frog’s extremities floundered. However, Kassandra wasn’t looking at the interior of the dissected creature any longer but at its dark eyes. She blinked. That wasn’t possible, because the frog was lying on its back. She felt something at the corner of her mouth as if she’d run her tongue over her lips. Snatching off her gloves, she put her fingertips to her mouth and felt a spark leap up to meet them.

The eyes of the frog that were now staring at her were from an immaterial specter of the animal. The experience was like looking at an optical illusion. From one direction, there was a splayed corpse and from another the beady stare. Then she caught the shining reflection of her fingertip. A glistening coat of quicksilver lay over the pads of her fingers from where she’d touched her lips. The distorted image of her wide-eyed visage stared back at her. In the reflection, something moved behind her.

Dropping her hand, she turned in time to catch a glimpse of a figure in a dark cloak walking around her chair. When the other passed in front of the glass doors of the liquor cabinet, Kassandra observed that it cast no reflection. How many apparitions was she seeing? The human figure came to stop, standing over the frog. The long slender fingers of one hand came to rest on the amphibian’s head. Something about them captured her attention a fleeting moment. Before she could tell what, the apparition’s other hand reached out to her. Kassandra could feel the grip that settled on her forearm and she drew in her breath to scream. Just as suddenly as the vision occurred, she became aware that she was still seated in the leather armchair in the study of the folly on her father’s estate. Lehvoi stood over her, his hand gently rocking the chair as he stared into her eyes.

“Are you all right, my dear?” he asked concern roughening his voice.

Before she answered, Kassandra brought her hand up before her face and stared at her fingertips. The mirrored illusion was gone.

Unknowingly mirroring the spirit, Lehvoi reached out, stopping himself just before he caught Kassandra’s hand. She did her best to stifle a smile. While he was a brilliant mentor, Lehvoi was a bit of a germaphobe.

“It was ectoplasm. I know you’ve never seen it before. I…” he stopped and looked down at the floor, gathering his thoughts. Hooking a foot through the legs of a nearby stool, Lehvoi pulled it over and then sat down on it in front of her. He ran a hand through his unruly mop of brown hair as if gathering up his thoughts with his fingers. “I hoped that you might one day demonstrate the abilities that your mother had. Now, I need you to understand, Kassandra Leyden, that no matter what happens, what you have is a gift—a marvelous gift. You have an ability to see things that others will never experience.”

A bell rang and they both turned to see Wexfield, her father’s manservant standing in the doorway. Lehvoi swiftly came to his feet. Wexfield proffered her mentor a small silver tray bearing a white card. Kassandra immediately caught the change in Lehvoi’s expression when he glanced at the card. He turned back to her and sighed. “I am so very sorry, Kassandra. I must take care of this. There is someone who has come a long way to see me. This will only take a moment and then we can continue our conversation. Please wait and I shall be right back.”

When Lehvoi left with Wexfield, all Kassandra could see of the waiting visitor was the back of his tweed jacket. Their shadows passed by the windows of the top floor of the folly and came to stop on the balcony. She realized where the men were standing was exactly the same direction that the apparition of the frog and the stranger in the cloak had faced in her vision. Only then did she realize what she’d seen on the hands that caressed the frog. Adorning one long, slender finger of the left hand had been a familiar ring, a moebius twist of gold—her mother Anastasia’s ring.

Unsettled, Kassandra pushed herself out of the chair and made her way over to the window. The angle of the outdoor shutters made it difficult for her to see the men on the balcony. She resisted the urge to pull the heavy velvet curtain away from the corner and peer out around the mount of the shutter, afraid that the movement would attract their attention. Instead she crept forward and turned her head, brushing aside her red ringlets she laid her ear against the cool glass. As she began to make out voices, she noticed how badly the hand steadying her against the glass shook.

She’d never known her mother’s whole story—and father was certainly not going to tell her. He did his best to wipe those memories away with an omnipresent glass of whisky. All Kassandra knew was that when she was quite young Mother had gone away. She vaguely remembered Father telling her over and over that her mother would be back soon and better than ever. Anastasia had returned, but there was a marked difference. She went out at all hours and strange people came to speak to her in whispered conferences. It was as if her adventurous father had traded places with her now-mysterious mother. Anastasia no longer followed Casimir Leyden’s lead. In fact, the two were often at odds, the least things sparking prolonged arguments. Five years ago Kassandra’s mother had stormed out and never returned. Father refused to speak her name again and began drinking with a vengeance. If Kassandra had seen her mother’s shade, then the worst was true. Somehow, perhaps deep inside, she had always known. When she glanced at her hand on the window, it no longer trembled. Closing her eyes, she leaned harder against the glass, striving to hear.

“What you’re asking for is unreasonable.” That was Lehvoi; she could pick out his nasal voice easily and imagined his ever-present, lace-edged handkerchief dabbing at his forehead. “I do understand the nature of the issue. You have good reason to be concerned about the safety of his Majesty and the possibility of any attempts on his person during the Royal Progress. But…”

“The Southrons are restless now. Mexateca are staging revolts in the south. The withdrawal of our adjutants and militias and the abandonment of our old plantations has given them notions. The days of indentured servitude has left them many memories and most of what they remember makes them less than pleasant.”

The stranger had a deep voice that carried despite the clandestine nature of their meeting. Perhaps they felt safe here on the third floor of the folly tower at the edge of the woods on her father’s estate.

“I understand and I, for one, am deeply concerned about His Majesty’s safety. The Directorate has been most generous to me and I appreciate the support that I have received. But, I cannot rush things. I am fully aware that you want to interrogate the three Southron spies that were recently captured. If only you hadn’t let that magistrate become so damnably inflamed with righteous furor that he ordered their immediate execution, we might be having a very different conversation right now.”

“Can you do it?” What the other voiced wasn’t truly a question, rather a gruff challenge.

“Don’t be a fool, if you believed for one second that I couldn’t wrest the information from those poor, dead bastards, you certainly wouldn’t be annoying me now. It will take—” Lehvoi hesitated. “It will take time. I mean how cooperative would you be if you’d recently been strung up in the courtyard and left for the birds to pick at? I have to convince them that I’m an impartial voice, that I had nothing to do with their suffering before they trust me.”

“There is no time. We need to know now.”

“Oh, why on Earth am I explaining it to you? Suffice it to say that you will have your results. I can secure what I need tonight from Potter’s Field and then I will begin my work. I will, perhaps, in consideration of what I’d mentioned, have to become more creative, Minister.”

“Get me what I want. I don’t care how. Just do it, Lehvoi, or you might be hanging from a tree soon yourself.”

Jeff Young headshotJeff Young is a bookseller first and a writer second – although he wouldn’t mind a reversal of fortune.

He is an award winning author who has contributed to the anthologies: Writers of the Future V.26, By Any Means, Best Laid Plans, Dogs of War, Man and Machine, In Harm’s Way, If We Had Known, Afterpunk, In an Iron Cage: The Magic of Steampunk, Clockwork Chaos, Gaslight and Grimm, Fantastic Futures 13, The Society for the Preservation of C.J. Henderson, TV Gods & TV Gods: Summer Programming and the forthcoming Beer, Because Your Friend’s Aren’t That Interesting. Jeff’s own fiction is collected in Spirit Seeker and TOI Special Edition 2 – Diversiforms. He has also edited the Drunken Comic Book Monkey line, TV Gods and TV Gods –Summer Programming and now serves as the CMO for Fortress Publishing, Inc. He has led the Watch the Skies SF&F Discussion Group of Camp Hill and Harrisburg for more than eighteen years. Jeff is also the proprietor of Helm Haven, the online Etsy and Ebay shops, costuming resources for Renaissance and Steampunk.

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