Aug 20 2013 4:00pm
Delia’s Shadow (Excerpt)
Check out Delia’s Shadow, Jaime Lee Moyer’s debut novel, available September 17th!
It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted—or some would say cursed—with an ability to peer across to the other side.
Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest.
The locomotive engine belched billowing clouds of steam, a blackiron dragon chained to the tracks. Warm air ruffled my hair and vanished before I became sure I’d felt it. Foggy, late-spring nights in San Francisco were cold, something I’d conveniently forgotten.
Sam, the elderly porter who’d looked after me all the way from New York, took my satchel and offered his hand as I came down the rickety train-car steps. “Will you be all right on your own, Miss Delia? I can wait until your friend comes if you’d feel better.”
“I’ll be fine.” I shook out my skirts and took my bag. “This is home. I won’t get lost.”
He doffed his cap and smiled. “You take extra care anyway. Lots of strangers in town for the fair.”
I tipped Sam a dollar and moved away from the tracks, facing my fear head on and confronting the reason I’d left home three years ago. San Francisco was full of ghosts. Long-dead children trailed after sad and worn-looking women, and young mothers carrying newborn babes followed proper-looking gentlemen with new wives on an arm. Each restless soul clung to someone they’d loved in life, unwilling to let go. Others walked purposely through train cars and walls, following paths they’d walked before or stopping to cross streets that no longer existed.
Ever since I was a small child I’d caught glimpses of people my parents couldn’t see, or faces peering at me from corners in an otherwise empty room. More than once I’d run to my mother frightened and certain that some stranger had crept into our house. Each time she’d stopped whatever she was doing and taken my hand, walking me from room to room so I could see no one was there. She thought the ghosts I saw an overabundance of childhood fancy, something I’d outgrow in time.
My mother was seldom wrong, but growing up didn’t cure me of seeing spirits. After the earthquake and subsequent fire nine years ago, I began to see them everywhere. Some ghosts were translucent with no more substance than the fog, barely in the world of the living. I’d no way of knowing for certain, but I thought them the oldest or with the fewest ties to loved ones. Others were so close to solid looking I might have thought them made of warm flesh if not for the old style of their clothes and ability to walk through objects.
Going to New York was an attempt to escape spirits and find respite, however brief. That respite lasted almost two and a half years. Long enough to think I might have a normal life.
I dropped my monogrammed satchel on a bench and gathered courage to search the faces on the platform for Sadie. My shadow stood before me, appearing so alive I expected to see her breathe. Thinking of her as a shadow made me feel less insane. I’d never wanted to believe in ghosts, not really. After six months of being haunted by one, I clung to every scrap of sanity I could.
She watched patiently and waited to follow as soon as I moved away. Long dark hair was plaited and coiled neatly on the top of her head, exposing delicate ears and a pale neck. Slender fingers clutched a thin shawl closed over her old-fashioned white cotton blouse. A gold cross glittered at her throat, tiny and easily missed. Dark-blue skirts brushed the top of her scuffed shoes. Green eyes met mine, aware that I saw her.
I didn’t know her name or why she followed me; she’d died before I was born. She’d found and laid claim to me just the same.
Since the morning I awoke to find her standing at the side of my bed, I began to see spirits everywhere again. My hopes for a normal life had vanished. I couldn’t help but feel a touch of panic at the thought of being haunted. But everyone had a shadow, perfectly normal people who never gave the bit of darkness following them a thought. Normalcy was something I desperately craved. Returning home might give me a chance to find it again.
The train station was new since I’d left three years before. Tall stone columns held up a ceiling decorated with plaster medallions carved into intricate leaves and flowers, the designs overlaid with gold leaf to catch the light. Oval windows along the front wall were framed in dark wood, beveled glass held in place by strips of soldered lead foil. Nightfall meant clouds had moved in off the bay, smothering the city in a curtain of gray mist. Fog rolled through the arched double doors open at the end of the platform, wisps flowing across soiled tile floors and leaving a slick film of moisture behind. Dampness glistened on wooden benches framed with iron, filmed flickering electric lamps, and the four-wheeled carts porters filled with luggage too large to carry.
A deep breath brought the salt-tang of the bay and of fish offloaded on the docks, overlaid with the oily scent of cinders darkening the track bed. The fire had changed the look of the city, ripped away familiar places and replaced them with new buildings, but the air still smelled of home.
“Delia! Over here!” Sadie waved and plowed through the crowd, living and dead. Tall and slim, Sadie’s wide-brimmed hat was tipped to show off a heart-shaped face and ocean-blue eyes. She was always in fashion, wearing the latest styles to sweep the city. I’d no doubt the fur-trimmed wool coat, the black kid gloves, and beads looped around her neck were all the rage. She’d cut her hair as well and curls the color of sun-ripe wheat foamed out of the hat. I felt like the poor country cousin in my traveling garb.
I kept a smile on my face, knowing she wouldn’t understand my flinch as she walked through the middle of a gold-rush miner and a Chinese railroad worker. My shadow stepped aside or Sadie might have ended up standing inside the ghost.
“It’s so good to see you.” I shut my eyes and hugged Sadie, unnerved at seeing my ghost hovering behind her. “Three years is a long time.”
She held me at arm’s length, glee barely contained. “I’m not the one who took a teaching job on the other side of the country. You’ve no one to blame for being deprived of my company but yourself. I might even forgive you for going away if you show proper appreciation for my surprise.”
“Surprise?” She was the same old Sadie, bubbly and bright, brimming with secrets and infectious good humor. I really was home and laughing easy. Being haunted suddenly didn’t seem as horrible. “Are you going to tell me or make me wait to find out?”
Sadie tugged off her glove and shoved a hand under my nose, grinning and obviously pleased with herself. A sapphire and garnet ring sparkled on her finger. “Look! Isn’t it glorious?”
“Oh, yes, completely glorious.” I held her hand where I could view her finger without my eyes crossing. The ring was beautiful, stones catching the light and glimmering like captured stars. “From Jack I assume. I hope you’d have written if you’d tossed him aside and taken up with a new suitor.”
She laughed, knowing me too well to think my words anything but teasing. “Of course it’s Jack. Now let’s get home. You must be exhausted and Mother’s waiting up to see you. I’ve got a cab parked at the curb. Do you have another bag?”
“Somehow my trunk got put on the wrong train when I transferred in Denver. The rail company assures me they’ll send the luggage on and deliver it to the house.” I hefted the small satchel and threaded my other arm through Sadie’s. “I’ll survive until it arrives. How is Mama Esther?”
Sadie’s frown was an unfamiliar visitor on her face. “Weaker. The doctors tell me that hanging on through the winter was a positive sign. I’m sure she pays them to lie to me and thinks I don’t know.” She squeezed my hand and smiled. “I’m glad you came home for the summer. Seeing you will brighten the house for all of us. And I’m counting on you to talk some sense into me about wedding plans.”
I laughed again and we started for the door, my shadow a step behind. More ghosts crowded the lobby now that the train was empty, far more than I’d seen in one place before. None wore the face of those I’d loved and lost in the quake, and I was very grateful. I steeled myself to walk normally and not try to steer Sadie around spirits. She couldn’t see and wouldn’t feel them, but I didn’t have that luxury.
Each ghost that passed through me deepened the clammy chill that shivered over my skin. Voices filled my head and faded again. I heard cries of pain and pleas for help from those trapped under rubble after the quake, felt the heat of the fire steal a last breath. Age and sickness stole life as well, seldom peacefully. Touching death again and again brought me closer to tears. I gritted my teeth and held on. People would truly think me insane if I began to cry for no reason.
Fog swallowed the ghosts as soon as we stepped outside, all but my shadow. I caught my breath, grateful they’d vanished and not caring why. Sadie chatted about mutual friends all the way to the cab, filling me in on all the gossip and scandals I’d missed. We’d been friends since the age of ten and our time together was always the same, her talking a blue streak and me listening.
The cab driver took my bag, tucking the satchel into the footwell of the driver’s seat before helping Sadie and me into the cab. My shadow drifted into view as well, sitting next to Sadie and watching me with the expectant stare I’d come to know. I’d become more certain she wanted something from me as the months went by. What the ghost expected I’d no idea, but coming home was the first step toward discovery.
Sadie waited until the driver whistled the horses into motion, and the four-horse hack lurched away from the curb before she pounced. “Fess up, Delia. You didn’t come home just to see the exposition. Tell me what’s wrong. Did the boy you were seeing break it off? For the life of me I can’t remember his name, but you know the one I mean.”
“Yes! That’s the one.” She leaned forward and touched my hand. “You didn’t mention him in the last letters you sent. I thought that must be the reason, that he’d ended the engagement. That sort of thing is always so dreadful.”
“Nothing so dramatic as a broken engagement, Sadie. We never got to that point. And if you must know, Jonathan didn’t break off courting me. I told him I didn’t see a future for the two of us.” I leaned back against the cold leather seat, surprised that Sadie thought a broken heart would send me running for home. “Do I need a special reason for coming to visit?”
She crossed her arms, bunching the fur collar on her coat and peered at me from under the brim of her hat. Nothing put Sadie off once she’d caught the scent of even a hint of gossip. “This is me, Dee. That story might work on Mother, but I know better.”
My shadow had turned away, staring out the cab window as the horses labored up hills, past neighborhoods newly built since the fire and through pockets of streets spared by the flames. Watching the ghost’s wistful expression, I could well believe that she’d come home as well. Perhaps she had.
I smoothed ash-gray skirts over my knees, stalling another moment. “All right. I did want to see the fair, that part is true. And I’ve missed you terribly, but that’s not the entire reason.”
Sadie leaned forward, eyes sparkling. “I knew it. Keep talking and don’t make me pry it out of you.”
Of all the people in my life, Sadie was the one I felt sure would believe me. My parents hosted a society benefit at our house one night when we were both twelve. Sadie came to keep me company and we spent the night up in my room, trading secrets. Clouds covered the moon and wind whipped rain and tree branches against my window, making the atmosphere decidedly spooky. She hadn’t believed my claim of seeing ghosts at first, so I’d tried to frighten Sadie by describing the haunts wandering through the churchyard across the street, wildly embellishing to make them sound more gruesome. Instead of being scared, she’d sworn to keep my secret and begged me to teach her how to see spirits as well. I knew then I could trust her with anything.
That didn’t make telling her any easier or take away the worry of what she’d think. I folded my hands in my lap and swallowed back tears. “What would you say if I told you I thought—I knew— that a ghost was following me? That I was being… haunted.”
“Haunted? Really?” Sadie bounced in her seat, face lit with delight. “Tell me you mean it and that you’re not teasing.”
“I mean it, Sadie. I’ve never been more serious.” I’d hoped she’d believe me, but I hadn’t anticipated enthusiasm. “She follows me everywhere and I’ve no idea why.”
“Where is this ghost now?”
I nodded at the spirit, still transfixed with the scene outside the window. “Sitting next to you. She seems taken with the scenery at the moment. Most of the time she stares at me.”
Sadie grabbed both my hands. “A real ghost! How exciting. What’s her name?”
“I don’t know her name or anything about her, just that she wants me to do something. I’ve had the feeling since she came to me that something terrible happened to her.” My shadow turned from the window, her face a study in patience. I saw something new in her green eyes as well—sorrow. Not at all sure why, I began to cry, wiping tears on a sleeve and embarrassed that I couldn’t stop. “Then a few weeks ago I started dreaming about being in San Francisco. She was always there, just as she was in New York. But instead of following she was… leading me toward something. I woke up one morning and knew I had to come home. So here I am. Crazy, isn’t it?”
“Oh, Dee.” Sadie sobered and passed me a lace-trimmed hankie from her bag. “No, it’s not crazy and neither are you. You did the right thing. I know a person who can help, someone with a real connection to the spirit world. We’ll find some answers and the ghost won’t need to haunt you.”
“I knew I could count on you. Thank you.” I dried my face and balled the damp handkerchief in my hand, still sniffling, but calmer now that she knew. Underneath Sadie’s foolish exterior was a good heart. “Call her Shadow. It’s more dignified and respectful, at least until we discover her true name. I can’t bring myself to think of her as just another ghost.”
Shadow went back to her silent vigil and I watched out the window as well, reacquainting myself with home. Fog softened brick and glass storefronts, the sharp corners not yet worn by storms or wind rounded by mist-shadows. Empty lots were a swirl of pearly gray. The familiar was there, but so much was new and jarring, so much gone. I could name each missing storefront on the blocks I’d walked summer evenings with my first beau. The ice-cream parlor was gone and a butcher shop in its place, the candy store where he’d bought me taffy replaced with a tailor’s shop. Each loss was a fresh stab of pain.
New houses filled this side of the hill, built in the style of the homes lost to the fire. Tall turret rooms and bay windows overlooked the street, and columned porches graced the front. Even fog couldn’t soften the sheen of too-bright paint on wooden siding and the scalloped trim dangling from the edge of roofs, or framing windows. In time the paint would fade, the harshness so evident to one who’d grown up in the city gradually become less noticeable. Now each new dwelling was a fresh wound, bleeding and garish.
Three years away hadn’t prepared me or cushioned the blow. If the city was Shadow’s home, I couldn’t imagine what San Francisco looked like to her, or how much the changes hurt.
The cab stopped in front of the small house atop Russian Hill. I gathered my skirts and slid out after Sadie, digging coins from my handbag to pay the driver before my friend could stop me or protest.
I turned for my first look at home, the house I’d missed for three years. On the outside everything appeared exactly the same. Morning glory vines ambled up one side of the porch and across the top, blossoms shut tight against the night and ready to open at sunrise. Nasturtiums spilled out of window boxes in ribbons of yellow and orange flowers and saucer-shaped leaves. My father and mother’s will made Esther my guardian, and provided me with a substantial trust as well as income from my father’s real-estate holdings. I could afford to buy a house of my own in San Francisco or anywhere I chose, but this place and the people inside held my heart. This was home.
But even if things appeared unchanged, I knew that wasn’t true. I couldn’t resume my old life and go on as if I’d never gone away.
Shadow was already waiting on the walk, stoic and expectant.
Gabe pulled back on the reins just enough to slow the horses to a walk. The buggy crept past the house, allowing him to keep Jack’s fiancée and her friend in sight until the front door closed behind them. He poked his partner with an elbow. “Sit up, Jack, and stop worrying. Sadie’s safe inside and the cab is gone. They won’t go out again tonight.”
Jack uncurled from his crouch and sat on the seat properly. He slicked back unruly red-brown hair and settled his hat down tight. “Thanks for your help. I wanted to take a few hours’ leave this evening and go with her to meet Delia’s train, but Sadie wouldn’t hear of it. She’s perfectly capable of getting to the train station and back, but with all that’s happened—I just didn’t feel easy about her being out alone.”
“If that was Victoria I’d do exactly the same thing right now.” Saying her name never got easier. Nine years had passed since Victoria and their unborn child had died in the fire that swept the city after the quake. Gabe mourned each and every day. He might have saved them if he’d been home and not out on patrol when the quake struck. Not knowing added guilt to his grief.
Gabe guided the horses around the corner at the end of the block, away from the well-to-do houses on Russian Hill and toward Nob Hill’s mansions. He watched the shadows for movement and anything that didn’t belong. On a workday evening, most of the residents were tucked in for the night. Anyone skulking near houses or walking the streets most likely didn’t belong. “Have you told Sadie anything?”
“Not yet. I don’t want to frighten her, not until I’ve no choice. I keep hoping one of us will catch the killer and telling Sadie I’ve been keeping secrets won’t be necessary.” Jack yanked his hat off again, raking fingers through his hair and adding to his disheveled look. The dampness in the air only made his hair and mustache curl tighter. “Patrolling this neighborhood is a waste of time. It gave me an excuse to follow Sadie home tonight, but that’s the only good I can see.”
Gabe gestured at the well-kept mansions, manicured front gardens, and ornamental iron fences. “Police patrols until the ‘unpleasantness’ is resolved will keep San Francisco’s leading citizens off the mayor’s back.”
“I doubt the esteemed citizens of Nob Hill know anything about what’s happened.” Jack fell silent for half a block, the scowl on his face deepening with each darkened house they passed. “Is the paper going to print the latest letter? The editor and the chief were still yelling in Cap’s office when I left.”
Three letters sat in Gabe’s files, each addressed in a careful hand to the editor of The Examiner, and detailing how the killer’s victims suffered. If the person writing the letters were telling the truth, there were more victims than the police knew. A lot more.
Gabe’s hands curled into fists, the reins digging furrows into his skin. He was positive the handwriting on the pale blue envelopes and cheap stationery was identical to the old letters in his father’s files. The muscles in the back of his neck twitched each time he thought of the symbols drawn in place of a signature. “The newest message threatened people visiting the fair if the letters aren’t on the front page by tomorrow. Printing them could cause panic. Not printing them means people could die. The chief is in a bad spot either way. And I don’t know how the mayor thinks he can keep this quiet.”
“I don’t know how we’re expected to catch this killer, either.” Jack smothered a yawn with the back of his hand. “Not if every detective on the force is watching the wrong neighborhoods. This butcher’s been one step ahead for weeks.”
The buggy crested the hill. Gabe hesitated at the top before turning away from gated mansions and rich people sleeping soundly. No one would miss them if they spent the last two hours of their shift driving other neighborhoods. Parts of the city never slept. Those were the streets they needed to be on.
“We won’t be patrolling up here much longer, Jack. Time is running out.” He smiled, grim and without humor. “People from all over the world are in San Francisco for the Pan Pacific. Printing his letters won’t stop him from expanding his hunting ground. He wants the attention a killing in a public place will bring him.”
Jack put his foot up on the buggy front and rested an arm on his knee. “And what’s to stop him from moving on again when the entire police force converges on the fair?”
“Nothing. But I don’t think he will.” Gabe shrugged. “Call it a hunch, but I think he’ll stick around as long as he’s getting the publicity he wants or we catch him.”
“Then I guess we better catch him. Any idea how we go about that?”
“Not yet.” Gabe’s stomach churned, his father’s stories whirling in his head. Captain Matthew Ryan worked five years on the letter writer’s murders and the killings stopped as suddenly as they’d started. That he’d never brought the killer to justice still haunted his father. “We’ll find a way. I’m not letting him get away.”
He bit his tongue before the words “not again” slipped out. Gabe hadn’t told Jack about the letters in his father’s files, not yet. He’d needed to satisfy his doubts about the similarities and that his memory was sound. Until then, it was only a hunch. His father had taught him hunches had no real place in police work.
Someday Gabe might even believe that.
Delia’s Shadow © Jaime Lee Moyer, 2013