Dead Jimmy and the Ghost
by Iseult Murphy
We found the woman exactly where the police told us she would be, standing at the side of the road looking forlorn, with her blonde hair and heavy winter clothes soaking wet, even though it was summer and it hadn’t rained in weeks.
“Ghost,” Uncle Jimmy said, pointing a slime encrusted finger in her direction. He’d found some roadkill in the ditch and was chomping into it with relish.
The girl shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Now that I looked at her more closely, the liquid that dripped from her rat tails of hair didn’t land on the baked pavement, and her skin was bleached pale under the midday sun.
“It’s okay, we’re here to help,” I said.
Judging by her expression, I don’t think she believed me. Maybe it was the sight of Uncle Jimmy chowing down on a decomposing badger, or perhaps it was being an incorporeal entity that put her off.
She held out her hand and pointed a trembling finger at Uncle Jimmy.
“What is that?” she said.
I was surprised. For some reason, I thought ghosts couldn’t talk. This was going to make solving the case so much easier.
“That’s my Uncle Jimmy, he’s a private detective. He’s a bit hungry. He skipped lunch,” I said.
“The zombie detective, huh?” She looked Uncle Jimmy up and down. He lowered the badger leg and smiled, revealing strips of flesh dangling from his discolored teeth. The girl retched. I was intrigued to see if ghosts could vomit.
“I must be a big shot or something to get Dead Jimmy come looking for me,” the girl said. She seemed pleased with the idea, despite my uncle’s repulsiveness.
“I don’t know about that, but the police are fed up of getting phone calls from distressed drivers that have seen you wandering around on the side of the road. They sent us to help you cross over.”
The girl frowned. Uncle Jimmy finished his snack and licked the gunk – and some skin – from his fingers.
“Body,” he said.
“He wants to know where your body is,” I translated.
The girl sighed. “I can’t believe I’m dead,” she said. “I don’t feel dead.”
I shrugged and looked at Uncle Jimmy, who was better able to advise on the whole spectrum of post death emotions. He looked surprised to see us both watching him expectantly, and shuffled away from the road, crossing into the adjoining field.
“So, what’s your name?” I said, following Uncle Jimmy.
“Sandra. Sandra Tiffany.”
She floated soggily beside me.
“I’m Cory. How did you end up haunting this stretch of road?”
She squinted and shook her head, showering the air with droplets of water that vanished before they hit anything. “I’m not sure. I can’t remember. It’s all blurry.”
Ahead of us, Uncle Jimmy paused to sniff the air and then changed direction. I hoped he was using extrasensory perception, because no human nose could detect anything but the stench of ripe zombie in a six-foot radius around him.
“Maybe it’ll come back to you when we find your body.”
“I don’t want to be dead. I’m only twenty-two,” Sandra said. “Do you really have to get rid of me?”
“You don’t belong here anymore, you’ll be better going to wherever you’re supposed to be.”
“You let him stay around,” she said, pointing at Uncle Jimmy.
I looked at my uncle. He stopped every few steps to pick beetles out of the grass and eat them nosily. The tape I had used to reattach his left ear had come loose, and his ear dangled down the side of his face.
“Do you really want…?”
She shook her head before I could finish.
Uncle Jimmy led us through a line of trees into a second field, this one marshy, with a wide oval lake at its center. In the middle of the lake rose a small island, ringed with slabs of broken stone.
“That explains why you’re wet,” I said, nodding at the lake.
Uncle Jimmy stopped by the lake edge, pin wheeling his arms in the air in a bizarre breaststroke.
“Magic here,” he said.
Sandra looked across the still water towards the barren island. I saw a flicker of recognition in her eyes.
“Is this where you died?” I asked.
“It was night. Really dark, but there were lights out on the water.”
I stopped from putting my hand on her shoulder at the last minute. How did you comfort a ghost exactly?
“I was alone, but I was waiting for someone. I saw the lights and walked towards them. I didn’t notice the lake until I stepped into it. I heard someone behind me. I turned.”
She screamed, clutched the back of her head and ducked as if to avoid a blow. I looked behind me, but she was seeing events from another day. I crouched beside her.
“Did you see who did it?”
Her eyes were dark pools. The water streaming down her face looked like tears.
“Help me,” she said.
She grabbed my wrist. She felt very solid for a ghost.
A tingling sensation travelled up my arm, and the heat of her palm became a fire. I heard Uncle Jimmy cry out a warning and then a force, like the pressure wave from an explosion, hit me, pushing me apart from Sandra and throwing me away from the lake. I landed on my back ten feet from the water’s edge, winded.
“Not good, Cory,” Uncle Jimmy moaned.
That was an understatement.
A creature floated over the lake, shimmering in the bright sunlight. Its body was translucent, its outline vague. It looked how a real ghost should.
“Banshee,” Uncle Jimmy said.
The banshee turned and pointed its long fingers at him.
He clasped his hands to the side of his head. At first I thought he had lost his ear again, but then I realized it was a warning. I heard a buzzing sound rising from the open mouth of the banshee. I could feel it vibrating through my body.
I saw Sandra’s drowned head peeking out of the rushes on the other side of the banshee.
“Cover your ears, Sandra,” I shouted. “Back to the road. Run.”
Pressing my fingers into my ears, I turned and ran through the fields. I felt pressure at my back. I hoped Uncle Jimmy was behind me, but I was afraid to look. Sandra appeared beside me, gliding through the grass, her hands clamped to the sides of her head.
When I reached the road, I stopped and looked around. We had lost the banshee, but I couldn’t see Uncle Jimmy. Then he emerged from the grass, stuffing beetles into his mouth. He held both his ears in his hand. He waved at me, smiling proudly, his mouth black with beetle bits.
“What was that thing?” Sandra said, wringing out her sopping hair and brushing streams from her clothing.
“Banshee,” I said. “Guardian of the fairy folk. Her cry sends you into death. That hill in the center of the lake must be a gateway – a fairy fort.”
I was getting good at this. Reading Uncle Jimmy’s books was paying off.
“Changeling,” Uncle Jimmy said, pointing at Sandra as he stomped past, climbing back onto the road. “Not dead. Fae.”
“Well, it seems like we have good news for you, Sandra,” I said, following Uncle Jimmy to the motorcycle. “You’re not dead, you’re a disembodied soul. You’re the victim of a changeling. One of the fairy folk has stolen your body.”
I helped Uncle Jimmy into the side car and climbed onto the motorcycle. While I pondered whether Sandra would be better sitting with Uncle Jimmy or with me, she solved the puzzle, and floated onto the seat behind me.
“That’s good news, right, you can get my body back?”
I started the bike. “We can’t, but we know someone who can.”
“A changeling is a member of the fairy folk, who wants to exchange their life with a human’s,” I said.
Sandra looked happier now we were indoors. She still was bedraggled and dripping, but she looked more like she’d been caught out in the rain than been murdered.
I’d left Uncle Jimmy with some doves in his bedroom to send a message to his fae contacts. Why they still required pigeon post was beyond me. Couldn’t they use a cell phone like everybody else? I hoped Uncle Jimmy could send out his message without biting the head off the dove this time.
“Usually it’s a straight swap, with the human being transferred into the fae body and assuming their life in fairy land. I think that banshee showed up and closed the gate before the transfer could be completed – that’s why you’re still here, in spirit form.”
“So, what are you going to do about it?” Sandra placed her hands on her hips and fixed me with a steely glare. “I don’t want to stay like this forever.”
I sat down at the computer and typed Sandra’s name into a search engine. I started scrolling through the list of results, looking for the most recent entry.
“While we wait for Uncle Jimmy’s fae friends to show up, I thought I’d do some digging into what this changeling’s been up to since it’s taken residence in your body,” I said.
Sandra shivered. “Why do we have to get those folks involved? Can’t we just kidnap my body and force that thing out?”
I could understand her reluctance to deal with the fae. I hadn’t been body-napped, but the few encounters I’d had with the fairy folk were enough to make me not want to deal with them again either.
“I’m afraid we need them to get your body back, and to take the changeling away for due process in whatever passes for a legal system on their side of the gate,” I said.
Sandra peered over my shoulder at the monitor.
“A dog walker,” she said. “That thief is using my body to walk dogs whose owners are too lazy to do it themselves. I was in college. I was going to be a doctor.”
The ad was only a couple of months old. It had a picture showing a young woman kneeling beside an Airedale terrier. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her skin was lightly tanned, but it was definitely Sandra Tiffany.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to take Spot for a walk today,” I said.
Sandra looked bemused, but she caught on when I picked up the phone and made an appointment for my dog to be walked that afternoon. Sandra gave me a thumbs up, while her doppelganger on the other end of the line cheerfully confirmed my address, and said she was looking forward to meeting my furbaby.
“We’ll have you back in your body in no time,” I said, after I’d put down the phone.
“All done,” Uncle Jimmy said. He shuffled into the room with a pleased expression on his decaying face. I didn’t see any blood around his mouth, so I had some hope that the messenger dove had made it out of the window alive.
His smile faded when he saw Sandra. He wrinkled his nose, causing it to wobble on his face.
“Wait now, Cory,” he said.
I hadn’t reattached his ears, so he was still shouting. I made the okay sign and went to get the staple gun and duct tape, while Uncle Jimmy stumbled into the kitchen to raid the fridge.
Changeling Sandra was punctual.
She knocked on my door at precisely the appointed time.
I didn’t know how to deal with a changeling. To be on the safe side, I’d collected a few items – rope, Uncle Jimmy’s spare chains and the tape that I’d used to reattach his ears. I’d Uncle Jimmy’s gun in my pocket. It’d been specially adapted for his line of work, and it couldn’t harm normal humans anymore. I didn’t know where changelings came down on the human side of things, but they weren’t normal.
I’d hidden the ropes out of sight so they wouldn’t be the first thing changeling Sandra saw when she walked in, and I told ghost Sandra to keep hidden, so she wouldn’t tip off our guest as soon as I opened the door.
Changeling Sandra stood on the porch with a broad, professional smile on her face. I found it hard to recognize her now that I saw her in the flesh. She bore little resemblance to the other Sandra Tiffany. She was dressed in a t-shirt and sweats, with a purple hoodie tied around her waist. She smelled of flowers and looked much younger than her twenty-two years. There was a faraway glint in her eye, as if she didn’t quite belong here – and I mean in our world, because she certainly didn’t belong here, in Uncle Jimmy’s house. It was the only hint that something was not quite right about this Sandra Tiffany.
She carried a leash in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. She held them out to me as she stepped into the house.
“Where’s the little guy?” she said, looking around brightly and only wrinkling her nose slightly at the lingering smell of eau de zombie.
I keep a clean house, but there are some odors you just can’t get rid of.
I closed the door behind her, engaging the dead bolts. I smiled and pointed to the living room, letting her lead the way.
“Who, Cory?” Uncle Jimmy said. He pottered out of the kitchen with a string of cow intestines clutched in his hands.
Changeling Sandra squealed and stopped dead. I almost bumped into her.
Uncle Jimmy let the intestines go, and they dropped to the floor with a wet smack. He opened his mouth wide, and I heard something tear as his lower jaw distended like a snake. He roared incoherently as he rushed towards changeling Sandra, his hands stretched out before him in the standard zombie grab and eat position.
Changeling Sandra screamed. I couldn’t blame her. No one wants to be zombie food.
I shoved changeling Sandra to one side and intercepted my crazed uncle. He fell against me, but his hands were pushing, not grabbing. He glared at me and tried to say something, but his dislocated jaw made him difficult to understand.
I realized he was shouting no.
I turned to changeling Sandra. Her back was pressed against the wall, the dog leash at her feet and her hands held in front of her chest, warding off an enemy. She was shaking her head and mumbling “Not again.”
Before I could ponder whether frequent zombie attacks were the reason she had fled fairyland, I noticed she wasn’t looking at Uncle Jimmy anymore.
She was staring at ghost Sandra.
Except ghost Sandra didn’t look that much like Sandra anymore. Her ears had grown long and pointy, and her eyes were now gold instead of blue. Her pale skin had a faint green tinge – not the hue of decay I was familiar with, but a bright, vibrant green like certain lizards.
“Twenty years working hard to get into medical school, and you throw it away to become a dog walker,” ghost Sandra said. She held out her hands and her nails had grown into curved talons. She had stopped dripping, and her clothes flickered as if the effort to maintain the illusion was becoming difficult.
Changeling Sandra – other Sandra – dog walker Sandra, covered her eyes and started a high-pitched keen.
“I can’t go back there. The cleaning, the food, the entertainment. No, you can’t make me go back. I’d rather die.”
Ghost Sandra – who was obviously not Sandra at all – laughed. “Think how I must feel. You’ve only had twenty years of it, I’ve had hundreds. I’m not going to give up this life I’ve worked so hard for. If you would rather die, so be it.”
The creature lunged at the frightened woman. I pulled the gun out of my pocket. Even though it had been repurposed to work against paranormal creatures, I was unsure of what it would do to a spirit.
The changeling snarled at me. Her teeth were small and pointed, like a tiny shark was living in her mouth. She grabbed my wrist and twisted, and the gun clattered to the floor. Like before, her grip singed my flesh with a heat that started to burn. I could feel her fingers sinking into me, and my spirit fighting to keep her out.
“I’m staying, one way or another,” the changeling said.
“Cory,” Uncle Jimmy gurgled, or the closest approximation he could with his new jaw arrangement. He grabbed the changeling, wrapped his arms around her and pulled back.
The changeling screamed, but her grip loosened on my wrist as Uncle Jimmy dragged her away. Once I was free, Uncle Jimmy started squirming and struggling. His skin, usually so grey, turned lobster red. The changeling was sinking into him. Without a soul to protect him, she had nothing to object to her taking over his body.
I tried to grab the changeling, but Uncle Jimmy twisted away from me. He fell to his knees, his arms wrapped around his body, holding himself as the last of the changeling was absorbed.
“Chains, Cory,” he managed to croak. “Get chains.”
His spare chains lay in the corner, near the doorway. I gathered them up and looped them around my uncle, pulling them tight and padlocking them. I got the rope as well, and tied his hands and feet, then wrapped tape over the knots to be on the safe side.
I retrieved the gun and stood panting in front of my uncle. He rotated his head to the side, clicking his jaw back into place. He looked up at me, and his eyes flashed gold before settling back to familiar brown. Clear, moist, soothing brown, like the eyes of the living uncle I hadn’t seen in a long time.
A warm blush diffused his cheeks. His red lips formed a ruthless smile.
“You’ll never shoot me, your beloved uncle,” he said.
The voice was his, rich and clear, but it certainly wasn’t my uncle speaking.
I released the safety. “Watch me.”
A gust of wind flung the front door open with a loud crash, and I regretted putting the dead bolts on. Now I’d need to rehang the door and buy new locks.
Sandra – real Sandra, I guess, and now the only Sandra – started screaming again. A man strode into the room on the tail end of the breeze, the faint chiming of bells and the scent of exotic meadows surrounding him. He was tall, with that freaky waif like androgynous-ness so many of the fae folk have. His skin was white marble with a tracery of silver veins, his raven hair short and spikey, and his violet eyes inhuman. He wore one of those long duster coats that swirled around his legs dramatically. He was accompanied by half a dozen lesser fae in various human disguises.
He stopped in the middle of the room and sniffed contemptuously.
“Ah, Arabella, we’ve got you now. You won’t escape this time,” he said, gazing down his nose at Uncle Jimmy.
Uncle Jimmy, or Arabella, laughed. It was a good natured, rounded laugh, the kind of laugh you needed to be drawing air into your lungs to produce.
“You can’t touch me, Danvers. I haven’t broken any code, this body had no soul to displace.”
Danvers looked disappointed. “You never answered for your crimes for changing with that human child. You need to be back in your own body. We’ve been keeping it warm for you.”
He waved his hand and two of the other fae grabbed Uncle Jimmy, Arabella – I’ll never get used to calling him that – and lifted him to his feet. My chains held up well. He’d have struggled to stand without the support of the fae.
“Take me back to the court, if you must, but they’ll have no objection to my keeping this body. Have you received your punishment, Danvers, for botching the change back and failing to capture my spirit?” Arabella said.
“It was clever of you to keep on this side of the gate in your spirit form. You’re stronger than I gave you credit for,” Danvers said. He shrugged, and I caught a hint of grudging admiration coming from the fae for the thing inside my uncle. I began to get worried that I wouldn’t see Uncle Jimmy again.
“But you still have a body, and that’s where you belong, for the time being. You’ll not get to keep this form. Take her away.”
The fae led Uncle Jimmy out of the room. Danvers turned his attention to Sandra, who was jabbering in the corner.
“You shouldn’t have brought her here,” he said, his eyes flashing at me. “It has complicated things enormously.”
He crossed the room and pressed his fingers to Sandra’s eyes, drawing down her lids. “Sleep,” he said.
She stopped shivering and fell silent. A smile spread across her face as her breathing calmed to a slow, regular rhythm.
Danvers gestured to another couple of his companions.
“Take her home,” he said. “See to it that she remembers nothing – again.”
Finally, he turned to me, drawing himself up to his full height and glaring down at me. “The fae are indebted to you and your uncle for capturing the errant boggart, Arabella. Because of this, I’ll ensure your uncle is returned safely.”
With that, he swept out of the room, clicking his fingers for his remaining companions to follow.
Uncle Jimmy returned a week later. There was a knock on the newly hung door, and when I opened it, Uncle Jimmy stood on the porch with the lingering smell of spring blossoms on his clothes.
“Welcome home,” I said. “It’s good to have you back. You’re looking well.”
He was. He looked the best I’d seen him since he’d been recently dead. There was still some color in his flesh, everything was where it should be for a change, and nothing was held on with staples or tape.
He trotted into the kitchen. I went to the fridge and collected a platter of his favorite things to celebrate his return – some cow brains, a pig’s liver, and a couple of lamb’s kidneys.
I held the plate out to him, but Uncle Jimmy pulled a face and turned away.
“Not hungry, Cory,” he said and shuffled out of the room.
Iseult is drawn to horror, fantasy and science fiction, as she feels that the most difficult aspects of life can be best explored through the lens of speculative fiction. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, her short stories have appeared in multiple venues, and she has published two short story collections, a fantasy novella, and two horror novels in the 7th Hell series. She currently resides on the east coast of Ireland. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys reading, art and spending time with her animals.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”