Chapters:

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE: IN WHICH PERCY THE POLTERGEIST GOES MISSING




In the backwoods of Louisiana, where the trees are draped in Spanish moss and mist rises from the swamps, there is a grand old house called La Maison des Fantômes. It is a mysterious house, cobwebbed and covered in ivy. Its columns are French, its gardens English, and just beyond it, where the alligators rest in the oak grove, is the oldest graveyard in all of Louisiana. Its keeper is Geraldine Grey.

If you ever saw Geraldine, the first thing you would notice was that she was a Very Serious child. At twelve, she had already mastered the stern calmness of a professor, and was prone to carrying exactly three books in her satchel at all times. Her curly black hair fell just to her nut-brown shoulders, and her elbows and knees were knobbier than the branches on an old elm tree. Her most important features, however, were her eyes, which were eerie white, except for the faint black ring separating her pupils.

Geraldine’s eyes were important, because they were what allowed her to see ghosts.

“Bonsoir, Mister Thompson,” Geraldine greeted the groundskeeper when she arrived at the graveyard that evening – bonsoir, of course, meaning good evening in French.

The bad-tempered old ghost did not agree with this salutation. “I don’t see what’s so good about it,” he grouched as he rose from his grave and stretched. His bones rattled from the movement. Mister Thompson was as gaunt and bony in death as he had been in life.

You’d think he’d lighten up just once, Gabriel whispered, trotting up beside Geraldine.

Gabriel was a white wolf with bright blue eyes. Most times, people mistook him for a husky, or an Alaskan Mamalute, but he was a hundred percent Siberian direwolf. He was also Geraldine’s Hound, which meant he had been born the very same day, hour, and minute she was. The Hound and the Raiser were always born at the same time, because they were partners, the Hound sniffing out the dead, and the Raiser waking them or returning them to their eternal rest. The Hound was also the Raiser’s protector. It was his job to keep her safe.

Gabriel, unfortunately, couldn’t even keep himself safe. Geraldine bit back a smile as he tripped over a gravestone, landing on the rising spirit of Millicent MacRay (died 1792, a housemaid).

“Ah, bonsoir, Mademoiselle Geraldine, Maître Gabriel,” the plump, cheerful spirit greeted, dusting a stray cobweb from her marble aboveground coffin. Millicent had worked at La Maison des Fantômes from the moment she’d died and was very happy to be of use. She didn’t want to be like most ghosts, sleeping away her afterlife.

“Bonsoir, Millicent,” Geraldine replied. “It is almost six o’clock.” She looked at the ancient clock held by the angel statue in the middle of the graveyard.

“Oui,” Millicent agreed, saying the French word for yes, which always sounded like you were whooshing wind from the back of your throat. “It is time to wake the dead.”

Nodding, Geraldine summoned the candles, commanding them to appear with her magic. They immediately obeyed, all nine now circling in the air around her. Each one represented an anchor grave; a grave containing the powerful spirits that kept all the others in line. Once they were in place, Geraldine looked down at Gabriel, whose eyes were already beginning to glow. The white direwolf nodded, then sent a piercing howl deep into the sky, scattering the bats sleeping in the oak trees and the spiders webbing the spaces between the crypts.

“Wake!” Geraldine commanded, and the candles sparked to life.

Within moments, a chorus of moans was rising in the cemetery like an icy wind across a moonless night. It was an eerie sound that would scare the socks off most people, but to Geraldine, it was normal as an alarm clock. She watched, silent, as the ghosts rose from their crypts, stretching and yawning to greet the new night. They immediately began to call to each other.

There are hundreds of ghosts in la Maison des Fantômes’ graveyard. Most of them are Creole like Geraldine and Millicent, the descendants of the French settlers and the African slaves that made Louisiana their home. That is why they are prone to peppering their sentences with French phrases. Others are Spanish settlers, English builders, revolutionary soldiers – basically, any lost or restless spirit that didn’t have a final resting place in Louisiana eventually found its way to La Maison des Fantômes. Geraldine walked among the ghosts, saying her good evenings and bonsoirs, taking attendance, and generally seeing how they were all doing. Finally, she came to the very end of the graveyard.

“Percy?” she called. “Percival Pollux?”

When there was no reply, she turned to Gabriel. “Oh, no, he’s gone poltergeisting.”

Gabriel sighed, already sniffing the air to catch Percy’s scent.


***


Poltergeist is a German word that means noisy ghost, and that’s exactly what Percival Pollux (Percy for short) was, a very noisy ghost. He was also quite fat, had a maniacal twinkle in his eye, and an annoying habit of twirling tippy-toed when he was excited. By the time Geraldine and Gabriel caught up with him, he was already at his favorite haunt, The Thirsty Alligator, a bar floating at the edge of the bayou. By now, he was dancing gleefully across the bar, kicking aside bottles of beer, jumping on plates of shrimp, and shaking his considerable rump to the jukebox, which he had turned on since all the musicians had run away, leaving their instruments behind. When he caught sight of Geraldine and Gabriel at the door, he scowled, and arched a ghoulish eyebrow.

“Well lookee who it is, Geriatric Gerry, and her puppy wolf, here to spoil my fun,” the poltergeist pouted.

“I’m twelve,” Geraldine reminded him calmly. “Geriatric means old, and I’m not old.”

“On the outside, you’re not, but on the inside, you’re ancient!” the poltergeist cackled. Percy was of the opinion that anyone who wasn’t into practical jokes and silly scares was old and decrepit. That included Very Serious little girls who were only trying to do their jobs.

Geraldine sighed again. “Why don’t you come down, Percy. Maman doesn’t like it when you go poltergeisting. Ghosts are supposed to remain in the graveyard.”

Percy blew a raspberry, and wiggled his behind. “Tell your Maman she can kiss my big, fat–”

CHOMP!

Percy squealed, outraged, as Gabriel bit him squarely on the tush. “Hey, that was my butt, you big, dumb mutt!” he shouted.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist, the white direwolf whispered. He would have snickered if it hadn’t been unprofessional.

“And he wouldn’t have had to bite you if you hadn’t insulted Maman,” Geraldine added. “Now let’s go, Percy.”

“Or what?” Percy arched that eyebrow again.

“Florry,” Geraldine sighed, calmly summoning her staff. Within moments, it appeared in her hand, a golden walking stick her exact height topped by a skull made of the same metal. The skull’s real name was Flaubert, which is pronounced Flo-beer, but Geraldine hadn’t known that when she’d first summoned him, which was why she just called him Florry.

“Why, Miss Geraldine, how lovely to see you,” the skull drawled in his lazy Southern accent, yawning. He had been resting, as he always did between summonings.

“No time to talk, Florry, Percy’s poltergeisting again.”

“And I won’t let you get me, not this time, no, no,” Percy cackled, blowing on his thumb. His body inflated like a ballon, rising up towards the ceiling.

“Gabriel!” Geraldine commanded.

“On it!” Gabriel sprang up the wall and bit Percy on the rump again.

POP! The poltergeist bounced from wall to wall as he deflated. Cups fell, glasses broke – outside the bar, the terrified musicians searched for a place to hide. Since Percy had overturned their cars, they were trapped here until the tow trucks came.

Finally, Percy bounced into reach. “Florry!” Geraldine called, and the staff opened his mouth.

“Ahhhh!!!!” the golden skull sang, an eerie, unearthly sound. Within seconds, Percy was sucked into the skull’s mouth. The teeth quickly snapped shut behind him, unyielding as any prison bars.

Percy frantically rattled the skull. “Let me out! Let me out! I promise I’ll be good this time! I’ll never poltergeist again!”

Geraldine tapped Florry, and the top of his head became transparent, so she could see Percy, a miserable, squished-up spirit. “That’s what you always say, Percy,” she reminded him. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you another chance. In say, three months.”

“What?!” Percy wailed. “No, please, no!”

But Geraldine ignored him and turned to the skull. “Thank you, Florry,” she said.

“As always, Miss Geraldine,” Florry drawled. And then he was gone.

The musicians didn’t see Geraldine or Gabriel as they walked out the bar that night. They didn’t see anything other than the white mist, curling up from the swamp towards the full moon above.

“Let’s go home, Gabriel,” Geraldine said, skipping across alligator heads.

“Yes, let’s,” the white direwolf agreed, and as they disappeared into the mists of the swamp, the band began to play again.







CHAPTER TWO: IN WHICH A NEW SOUL ARRIVES AT LA MAISON





By the time Geraldine and Gabriel returned home, it was midnight, and the zombies had already set the table for lunch. Maman was in her usual seat at the head of the mile-long oak table, reading the paper. Maman was a dark, elegant woman that looked eerily like a black widow spider. Her waist-long raven hair was streaked with white, her fingers were long and skeletal, and her cheekbones were so sharp they could cut glass. Unlike Geraldine, her eyes were not white, but a deep, true black. Maman could see ghosts too, but that was the very least of her abilities. Madame Gertrude Grey (for that was Maman’s full name) was a grand dame of the voudon, a very powerful old witch.

When Geraldine took a seat across the table, Maman put aside her paper. “Well, ma cherie?” she asked, using the French word for darling. She stared at Geraldine, her black eyes curious.

Geraldine fought the urge to shiver. There was something about Maman’s gaze that always made it seem like she was staring straight through you. She ignored the feeling as she stood up. “All there and accounted for,” she announced. “Including Percy.”

“So he went poltergeisting again.” This was not a question, but a statement.

“To the Thirsty Alligator.”

Maman sighed. “You are too lenient with him, ma cherie.”

“Percy can’t help himself when he’s bored,” Geraldine said. “You’d want to go poltergeisting too if you were cooped up in the same old graveyard, day in, day out for two hundred years.”

“Touché,” Maman said, which meant ‘good point’ in French, and then she went back to her papers. When Gabriel scrambled up to his seat beside Geraldine, those papers twitched. “Gabriel.” Maman’s voice emerged like a chilling wind from behind the paper. “What have I told you about your appearance when attending dinner?”

Gabriel sighed. “Always in human form,” he pouted, his bones already forming and shaping.

Within seconds, he was a pale, bony boy with surprised blue eyes, and wild, bushy white hair that sprang in all directions. If you had seen this change happen, you would have blinked in confusion, and then just as quickly forgot. That was direwolf magic for you. It gave its users the ability to transform from wolf to human in the blink of an eye and automatically made all nonmagical creatures forget what they’d just seen. No wonder werewolves were always jealous; they could only change once a month, and people always saw them when they did.

Once Gabriel was in his human form (which was not halfway as impressive as his Hound form), he sighed mournfully at the cut of rare beef on his plate. He’d been looking forward to eating it as a direwolf. The flavors were always better that way.

Don’t whine, Gabriel, it’s not seemly, his father, Alexander, reminded him. The gigantic black direwolf sat in the shadows behind Maman as he always did. He would have been a very intimidating sight, had he not been softly snoring just seconds ago.

Alexander was a very grand old Hound. In his youth, he had been the terror of Poland, Finland, and several swatches of Russia. Now he was old and his rheumatism was flaring up, so he mostly kept to Hound form and liked sleeping on his soft pillow in Maman’s shadow. He rarely left La Maison anymore but then, neither did Maman. Chasing ghosts was a young person’s game, and Geraldine and Gabriel were Raiser and Hound now.

“Oh, Geraldine, ma cherie, I almost forgot,” Maman looked up again. “There is a new lost soul in the cemetery. You will see to him after lunch.”

“Oui, Maman,” Geraldine agreed, and then she began to eat her poulet au paprika, which is French for chicken with paprika.


***


After lunch, Geraldine and Gabriel walked down into the basement of the house – an enormous, rambling space filled with old clothes, abandoned pipe organs, and the odd hangman’s noose or two. When they reached the cobwebbed guillotine, they turned left, and Geraldine knocked three times on the wall. It slid squeakily back, revealing a stone staircase that spiraled down into the darkness. This was the La Crypte Infernale – The Infernal Crypt.

The word infernal comes from the Latin infernus, meaning below, or underground. La Crypte Infernale was built so deep underground, it seemed to be an entirely different place. Inside its dark, spooky confines, rooms moved, hallways shifted – entire underground caverns appeared, if you weren’t careful. Geraldine was grateful she’d spent all her life playing in its shadows. She’d get lost every time she entered it, otherwise.

When she reached the top of the stairs, she quickly summoned a candle, and began the long trek down. Gabriel pressed closer to her, unnerved. He had remained in human form after dinner, and was now a pale, scrawny shadow in the darkness.

“It’s cold,” he whined.

“Then change back to direwolf,” Geraldine said.

“But they don’t like it,” he reminded her with a frightened whisper.

Geraldine didn’t have to ask to know who “they” were. She could already feel them, the nine spirit anchors of La Maison des Fantômes, the ghosts so old and powerful, they had become something else over the centuries, something elemental. Their presence surrounded the crypt, a low thrumming that Geraldine could feel all the way to her bones.

“Illuminate,” she whispered softly, not wanting to disturb them.

The crypt’s candles sparked to life, illuminating the nine graves that were stored there. Each was carved out of marble and had a statue guarding it. In each statue’s left hand was an unlit candle. They could only be lit for Very Special occasions, and you had to use an actual match to do it instead of magic.

Geraldine walked to the center of the crypt where the circle of skulls lay. “Florry,” she commanded and the staff appeared. She pointed it towards the circle. “Release,” she said, and Florry spat Percy out.

The poltergeist immediately rose, panic in his eyes. “No, please, I’ll do–” he began, but Geraldine thumped the staff against the floor.

“Sleep now,” she commanded.

Percy immediately folded his arms across his chest and fell backwards into the circle, fast asleep. As Geraldine watched, his body slowly rose, floating to one of the many holes that pitted the wall beyond the nine graves. These were the catacombs, and they stored the restless spirits of the dead. Percy’s spirit would remain there for the next three months or until Geraldine next summoned him.

“Please keep an eye on him,” she whispered respectfully to the spirits in the crypt.

Geraldine imagined she felt a tremor of agreement as she began the long walk back up the stairs.


***



As the oldest cemetery in Louisiana, the graveyard behind La Maison des Fantômes is a very special place. It is where all the lost souls, the forgotten spirits, come when they die. The newest arrival was a teenager, Jackson Chow, just sixteen years old. Jackson was an athletic sort of person. Geraldine could tell because he had muscles, was wearing a baseball uniform, and chewing gum – well, ghost gum, since very few spirits could touch solid things once they died. He was also sulking.

“ ‘E ees touchy, zat one,” Claire LaRue sniffed as she led Geraldine towards the lanky boy leaning against her mausoleum, the aboveground building where her tomb was kept.

Claire had been a ballerina in her mortal life, and even now wore a light pink tutu and old ballet shoes. Like most ghosts, she shimmered every time she passed through a physical object and was little more than a faint outline in the air. Also like most ghosts, Claire was Very Sensitive and tended to take things to heart.

“‘E didn’t even compliment me on my hair,” she humphed, eyeing the boy with displeasure before angling a look at Geraldine.

“Your hair is lovely, Claire,” Geraldine automatically replied.

“Beautiful,” Gabriel added solemnly, nodding his head for emphasis. They both knew there was nothing Claire loved more than compliments.

As Claire giggled and danced off into the mist, Geraldine cautiously approached Jackson. New ghosts tended to spook easily, since they were overwhelmed by the sudden transition from life to death. “Hi there,” she said slowly.

The ghost didn’t look up. “Don’t want company,” he grunted as he slipped through the walls into the next mausoleum over.

Sighing, Geraldine walked around and used the mausoleum’s door. She would have slipped through the wall too, but it took a lot of energy to turn solid things incorporeal, a word which here means without shape or substance. When she and Gabriel entered the dark, cobwebby building, Jackson was slumped in the corner, staring out into the distance. Geraldine felt a little pang of sympathy. It was hard to be a ghost when you were so young. By the time most people died, they had loads of family waiting for them on the Other Side. Jackson, it seemed, had no one, but that wasn’t surprising, given his age.

“Hi, Jackson, my name is Geraldine,” she said again. The ghost didn’t reply. He kept staring stubbornly at something in his hand. Geraldine couldn’t quite make it out. “Hi,” she repeated, but there was still no answer.

By now, Gabriel was getting annoyed. If there was one thing that ruffled his fur, it was rudeness. “Geraldine said hi,” he snapped. “Least you could do is do the same.” When Jackson did not reply, Gabriel walked over until he was standing just before the stubborn ghost. “It doesn’t take a lot of effort. None, actually.”

Jackson remained stubbornly silent. That is, until he looked up, and caught sight of Gabriel. The teenaged ghost’s eyebrows immediately gathered in confusion. “What are you, some kind of wolfman?” he asked, a question which startled Geraldine.

Could it be that Jackson was was seeing Gabriel’s full direwolf form? she silently wondered. Usually, only the ghosts of supernatural creatures could see that. Jackson, however, was a perfectly normal teenager. It was probably just a fluke, Geraldine decided.

“Direwolf,” Gabriel finally corrected after he got over his surprise that Jackson could truly see him. “Siberian, to be exact.” He slid a long, diamond-sharp claw out his finger. “That’s important for you to know, cause one thing Siberian direwolves can do is exorcise spirits. All spirits.”

“Gabriel, that’s enough,” Geraldine shushed. Being a new ghost was hard enough without some strange wolf guy threatening you. To Jackson, she then said, “I’m sorry about Gabriel. He’s just being protective.”

“Guard dogs can’t help themselves, right?” Jackson sniped.

“That was rude,” Geraldine said. “We’re just trying to help.”

“Who said I needed any?” Jackson snarled.

“You did,” Geraldine replied softly. “When you came here. Only ghosts with unfinished business come if they’re not buried here. What’s yours?”

Jackson whirled away. “Why do you care?” he muttered, clenching the thing in his hands so tightly it would have broken if it’d had any weight to it.

Geraldine placed a hand on his shoulder, biting back a smile when he whirled towards her, shocked. It was probably the first time someone had touched him since he’d become a ghost. “It’s my job,” she said. “That’s why I can touch you without my hand passing through.”

Jackson stared at her, thinking. Finally, he opened his hand, revealing the baseball clenched inside it. To Geraldine’s surprise, it was a real ball, made of sturdy leather. There was some kind of signature on the side, but she couldn’t quite make it out. She looked up at him, shocked, as he said, “It’s this ball, you see. I have to get it back.”








CHAPTER THREE: IN WHICH GERALDINE VISITS MISS AGATHA’S TEA AND BEIGNETS





It was early next morning when Geraldine, Gabriel, and Jackson started out. The sun had just risen in the sky, and mist sparkled on the trees like tiny diamonds. As the trio raced invisibly past sleepy streets and brightly colored tram cars, Geraldine fought back a deep yawn. It was well past her bedtime now. She always kept the same schedule as the ghosts, who were nocturnal, or nighttime creatures, so she usually wasn’t awake during the day. Nevertheless, she had promised Jackson they would return that ball as early as they could, and she always kept her promises.

Their destination, Miss Agatha’s Tea and Beignets, was a quaint, ivy-covered Victorian house deep in the Garden District. When they reached the end of the tree-lined street, Geraldine stopped just behind a gigantic magnolia, and materialized, meaning she went from invisible to visible. It was very rude to do otherwise – just pop up out of thin air. Most people who saw her either rubbed their eyes very hard, or swore off alcohol, if they were drinkers. Geraldine was sure she’d made a lot of people stop drinking cold turkey when she first started. Once both she and Gabriel were fully solid, she walked over to Miss Agatha’s and squinted past the cheerfully painted gate to the building behind it.

There was something strange about that building, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. A shiver of unease curled in her belly, but she quickly shook it off. She was just hungry, she told herself, and it didn’t help any that the warm, delicious scent of beignets wafted from the house’s chimneys with the early morning breeze.

“You sure this is it?” Gabriel frowned. He was in his human form now, and dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, since most business owners didn’t take kindly to gigantic direwolves or naked little boys frequenting their establishments. “Looks like a weird place to return a Jackie Robinson ball.”

That was what that baseball was, one of the few balls signed by the legendary Jackie Robinson. Geraldine wasn’t quite sure who Jackie Robinson was, exactly, but from what she’d understood of Jackson’s explanation, he was one of the godfathers of baseball. That was why Jackson had stolen the ball when he and his family came to brunch at Miss Agatha’s some weeks ago. He couldn’t help himself, he’d moaned (a new ghostly habit); the urge had just been too strong.

Now Jackson was staring at the ball, which was still clutched in his invisible hand. An old man walking by with his dog did a double take when he saw the battered leather sphere floating mid-air.

Geraldine ignored him as she listened to Jackson explain, “Jackie was visiting New Orleans in 1949 when he stopped by Miss Agatha’s for beignets. Most people don’t know this, but Jackie really loved beignets.” He turned ashamed eyes towards Geraldine as he then mumbled, “I’d never stolen before. It’s just… Jackie Robinson,” he ended, as if that was supposed to make sense.

Geraldine nodded quietly. “I’m sure Miss Agatha will be glad to have it back.”

As Jackson smiled, she extended her hand for the ball, hiding her relieved sigh when he quickly handed it over. She’d met too many ghosts who got so attached to their possessions, they started haunting them. Dealing with a haunted baseball was the last thing she wanted.

“Alright then,” she said, glancing at the house again. “Let’s go return the ball so you can pass over to the Other Side.”


***



If Miss Agatha’s was quaint outside, it was, surprisingly, downright gloomy in. The multiple stained-glass lamps provided very little light, and Geraldine could barely make out the velvet couches reclining against each wall. Strangely, there were no customers about, but then, it was still very early in the morning. Perhaps Miss Agatha’s wasn’t open yet, which, of course, would explain the gloom.

“Hello?” Geraldine called, pushing back another shiver of unease. She didn’t know why, but she felt distinctly on edge now.

Gabriel must have felt it too because he edged closer to her. “Something’s weird about this place, Geraldine,” he whispered nervously, but Geraldine ignored him as she looked around.

“Is anyone home?” she called. The sooner she dropped off the ball, the sooner they could go.

The rustling of fabric immediately attracted her attention to the stairs, where a small, plump woman in a bright pink robe was now fluttering down. “Oh, hallo there!” the woman waved, her frizzy grey hair in danger of bursting from its hairpins. She reminded Geraldine of a hummingbird, all bright colors and nervous energy. “You’re very early. We don’t open for another hour at least!”

Geraldine stepped forward. “We didn’t come for your beignets, sorry,” she apologized. “We came to return something of yours.” She held up the ball.

The woman – Miss Agatha, Geraldine was assuming – put plump, beringed fingers to her generous chest in shock, clasping the gaudy ruby necklace there. “My Jackie Robinson!” she gasped. “Wherever did you find it?”

“Someone gave it to us.” She slid a quick look at Jackson, who was nervously floating beside her.

Miss Agatha, of course, didn’t notice him. Most humans couldn’t notice anything past their own noses, much less ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Even so, Jackson looked so tense now, Geraldine hoped he wouldn’t start pacing. Whenever ghosts got that nervous, lightbulbs tended to go out. As if on cue, the dim chandelier above them began to flicker.

She quickly continued. “He felt guilty for stealing it. He’s a gigantic fan of Jackie Robinson, you see. He hopes you forgive him.”

“Of course!” Miss Agatha gasped. “I’m just happy to have it back.” Beaming, she pinched Geraldine’s cheek with soft pink fingers. “What a lovely child you are, coming all this way just to bring it back.”

Geraldine smiled uncomfortably and glanced over at Jackson. He was beaming ear to ear, all the tension drained from his shoulders now that Miss Agatha said she’d forgive him. He seemed like an entirely different ghost from the surly one she’d met just a day ago.

By now, the plump old woman had already turned her cheek-pinchers to Gabriel. “And you as well, mon cher!” she said, calling him the male version of darling in French. “Such lovely children!”

“Umm, thanks?” Gabriel gave her a faint smile in return, then quickly sniffled as his nose suddenly itched. Miss Agatha’s perfume was very strong.

Miss Agatha didn’t notice, because she was drawing herself up to her full height, which was all of five foot nothing. She was even shorter than Gabriel, who hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, and that was saying a lot. Now she beamed at the children, her plump cheeks radiating cheer. “Tell you what? Why don’t you go out into my garden, and I’ll bring a plate of beignets and an assortment of teas just for you two.”

“Oh, you don’t have to–” Geraldine began, but Mis Agatha quickly shushed her.

“I insist. Into the garden you go,” the tiny old woman shooed, opening a nearby door, and letting in a sparkling of sunlight.

Not surprisingly, Miss Agatha’s garden was very pretty. Bushes of roses and hydrangeas curled around white cast iron garden chairs. Moss dripped from the magnolia trees, and little hummingbirds buzzed in the gardenias. It was Southern charm at its finest, but as Geraldine pushed past the pretty garden gate, she now felt more uneasy than ever. The sunlight streaming into the garden seemed strangely hazy, and the gardenias’ perfume made her head fuzzy. But she was just imagining things, she sternly told herself. There was nothing wrong with the light, or the flowers. Besides, this was the best place to send Jackson to the beyond. What better farewell to the world of the living than a garden exploding with flowers?

Plastering a bright smile on her face, she turned to the teenage ghost, who was now floating beside her, grinning. “Are you ready to go now, Jackson?” she asked.

Jackson nodded, a shy expression on his face. “Thanks, Geraldine.” Then he added, clearing his throat, “I guess you’re not, uhh, so bad after all.”

Geraldine nodded. High praise, coming from the once-surly teenage ghost. She extended her hand. “Florry,” she summoned.

The golden staff appeared immediately, the skull yawning at the earliness of the hour. “Well, hello, Miss Geraldine,” Florry drawled in between wide yawns. “I would say it’s lovely to see you, but it’s a mite early for my tastes.”

“Sorry, Florry,” Geraldine apologized.

Gabriel sidled closer to the golden staff. “I told her it was early. And weird,” he added, glaring balefully around. “This place gives me the willies – ACHOO!” he sneezed, and then he glared some more. Flowers always made him sniffly, and it didn’t help that Miss Agatha’s perfume was also all mixed in with theirs. Even when he wrinkled his nose, he could smell that musty old lady smell of Bengay heat rub and aged perfume.

“That’s probably just your allergies,” Geraldine said, but she couldn’t help but silently agree. This place was weird. She turned back to Florry. “I need you to open the gate,” she told him meaningfully.

Florry immediately stopped yawning. This was his most important job – opening the gate, the door between this world and the Other Side. Of course, ghosts could usually find it on their own, but every once in a while, there were special ghosts like Jackson, who Geraldine had to help with fulfilling their last wishes. After she was done, she always opened the gate for them, since she liked to do a complete job.

She extended Florry towards the sky. “Lux est in porta,” she intoned in Latin.

Immediately she felt it, the low vibration in the air as the magic began to gather and form. Now she watched, awed, as she always was, when the gate appeared, a glowing circle of light so bright everything else seemed to fade away. There was happiness coming from that light – or perhaps, the light itself was the happiness, because now Geraldine felt a giddy feeling in her stomach and a smile twitching at her lips. Beside her, Jackson was beaming, his smile stretching ear to ear.

He turned back to her. “Is that it? Is that my gate?”

Geraldine nodded. “Yes. All you have to do is go towards it.”

Jackson grinned again. “Thanks again for everything, Geraldine,” he said, his spirit glowing more and more golden as he approached the shimmering beam of light.

But as Geraldine nodded, her smile widening more and more, a strange creaking suddenly sounded behind her – the garden gate, slowly opening. “Is that the Staff of Souls?” a familiar voice giggled. “I’d very much like to have it…”

By the time Geraldine whirled around, shocked, Miss Agatha was already stretching out her hand. All Geraldine felt was a strange jerking sensation and then – WHOOSH! Florry was flying into the tiny woman’s hand.

“Wait, what’s hap– Ahh!” Jackson cried as the light suddenly vanished, and he was caught, halfway in and halfway out.

He immediately began fading, losing form and color, until soon, he was barely more than an outline and then, a mere shimmering in the air. Now Miss Agatha walked into the garden, a victorious smile on her face as she primly closed the gate.

“There,” the tiny witch said – because, Geraldine realized now, that’s what she was, a very tiny, very powerful witch. Suddenly, she could fully feel the malice and darkness spreading from Miss Agatha’s body like a malignant wave. “Now that’s that, I would very much like you to stay a while in my garden,” she waved.

A strange rumbling was all Geraldine felt before Miss Agatha’s roses suddenly wrapped themselves around her feet.













CHAPTER FOUR: IN WHICH GERALDINE AND GABRIEL MUST ESCAPE A WITCH’S GARDEN





As the roses snaked their prickly stems around Geraldine’s feet, she had one thought – they had to get out of here! She quickly grabbed the only thing she could – her satchel – and began using it to beat the stems back.

“Back! Get back!” she cried, relieved when the leather bag connected with satisfying thuds.

Beside her, Gabriel was rooting the stems out with his claws and sneezing every time he did so. “What’s happening, Geraldine – ACHOO!” he sneezed, panicked, but his reply came, not from Geraldine, but from Miss Agatha, who was now smiling a very sinister smile.

“There’s no hope for you, children. Not here, in my garden!” Her voice was even higher pitched now, and she almost seemed to be shrieking the end of her words.

That wasn’t the only thing that had changed about her either. The tiny woman looked different – taller, somehow – but that was because she was actually growing, her body seeming to stretch and elongate, her white hair bursting from its pins and whipping around her face. Why, even her skin was turning paler now, fading to white before Geraldine’s very eyes. When Miss Agatha’s robes also transformed from bright pink to a cobwebby grey, as did all the roses around her, Geraldine gasped, quickly understanding. Miss Agatha was not just a witch, she was mixed with something else as well! What that something else was exactly, Geraldine didn’t know, but what she did know was that if they remained here until the witch fully transformed, she would do something horrible to them, and there was nothing they could do about it.

She turned to Gabriel, panicked. “Gabriel, we have to get out of here, now!” she shouted.

“On it–ACHOO!” Gabriel sneezed, ripping up the last of his stems and then bounding over to her.

“No! What are you doing?” Miss Agatha shrieked. By now her fingers were black and sharply curved as they gripped Florry.

“Hurry!” Geraldine urged Gabriel when he began ripping the stems circling her feet.

To her annoyance, more were growing behind him now, their flowery heads snapping ominously. She quickly bashed one, satisfied when a shower of grey petals exploded into the air. As the plant growled and snapped, miffed, she and Gabriel made short work of the other vines.

“Let’s go – CHOO!” Gabriel sniffled, grabbing her hand, but Geraldine was whirling back towards Jackson, a faint shimmer in the air beside Miss Agatha. The ghost could barely even move, he was so weakened now.

“Jackson!” Geraldine gasped.

Gabriel continued dragging her along. Behind them, more and more vines were erupting from the ground and snapping at their feet. They had to leave now.

Please don’t leave me… the voice was low – weak, as it filtered into her head, but Geraldine knew it was Jackson. When she glanced towards him once more, he was staring at her with pleading eyes, which were getting more and more vacant by the moment. I didn’t know what she was, Jackson whispered faintly, distressed. I promise, I didn’t know about any of this, please don’t leave me…

“Jackson!” Geraldine called back, her heart breaking.

But Gabriel quickly dragged her away. “We have to leave him!” he shouted. “If she fully changes, we’re done for!”

Geraldine nodded reluctantly, knowing as well as Gabriel did that while most witches couldn’t ordinarily harm them, they were in Miss Agatha’s garden, and therefore, her world. Miss Agatha was one of those very few, very dangerous witches that could create little pockets of magic wherever they went.

Geraldine turned regretful eyes to Jackson. “I’ll come back for you, I promise!” she shouted.

As the ghost nodded vacantly, his eyes ever more dull and unseeing, Miss Agatha turned her own glowing green eyes towards Geraldine and Gabriel. “I’d like to see you try!” she shrieked.

Gabriel swerved as the sound exploded a mass of vines writhing towards them. Miss Agatha was almost fully transformed now. Only that awful ruby necklace on her chest remained the same. Nevertheless, he grinned back at the irate witch. “Thanks for the help!” he shouted, he and Geraldine both jumping the fence now that the path was cleared.

Another shriek quickly came hurtling their way. By now, however, the children were safely on the other side of the fence, so the sound fell harmlessly away, only singeing a few restless vines.

Relieved and excited, Gabriel turned to Geraldine again. “Phew, that was a close one,” he grinned.

But Geraldine was still staring at the garden, and the ghost trapped inside. Jackson was so faint now, it was almost like he wasn’t there. Even worse than that was the vacant expression in his eyes. He was losing himself – Geraldine could sense it – and every second that passed was another second more of him faded away. If something wasn’t done, and quickly, he would become a lost soul, one of those spirits that aimlessly wandered the world with no memory of themselves or their former lives.

Desperate now, she turned from him to Florry. “Florry!” she summoned, extending her hand. If she could get him back, she could send Jackson into the gate, witch or no witch. But to her shock, nothing happened. She tried again. “Florry!” she commanded, hand extended. Still nothing.

Miss Agatha continued holding Florry, a triumphant smirk on her face. “It’s no use, child, he’s mine now!” she cackled.

Beside her, the golden skull turned apologetically to Geraldine. “I’m sorry, Miss Geraldine,” he said solemnly, “It seems she has greater power than you.”

“And in just a few weeks, you’ll know just how great!” the almost-transformed Miss Agatha crowed maliciously. Then she continued, “Now, Geraldine, dear, do tell your mother I said hi. I will look so forward to taking over La Maison. Toodleloo!”

Just like that, the garden, Jackson, even the paint on the fence vanished.

All Geraldine and Gabriel were left with was a decrepit old house, falling apart at the seams. Gabriel glanced up at it and sighed. “We’ve been tricked, haven’t we?”

Geraldine nodded silently, but she didn’t say what she truly felt. That she knew, deep inside her, that this was much, much worse than a mere trick. That she knew, deep inside her, that something very bad had happened and that she feared, in the coming days, she and Gabriel would quickly find out just how bad.


***


It was almost evening when Geraldine and Gabriel finally returned to La Maison. By then, the sun was low in the horizon, and clouds of mist hung over the bayou, shading the crickets just now stirring from their nests. Geraldine was not surprised by how quickly time seemed to have passed, however. Time always went by differently inside a magic pocket than outside. She was just grateful entire days hadn’t passed while she and Gabriel were inside Miss Agatha’s garden. She suddenly wondered how Jackson was doing, then pushed aside the thought when a pang of guilt shot through her. She had promised him she would get him back, and she would. She always kept her promises.

La Maison was silent when the children entered – not even the bats stirred as Geraldine opened the door. Beside her, Gabriel looked nervously around. Now that the excitement of the escape from Madame Agatha’s garden was over, he knew they were in heaps of trouble, which was why he’d returned to Hound form.

Do we have to go to them now? he whispered as he slunk quietly into the room, tail between his legs. Them, of course, meant Maman and his father.

As Geraldine nodded silently – “No need to look for us, mon cher, we are already here,” a calm voice replied.

It was coming from the cavernous fireplace at the very end of the room. Whoosh! A fire suddenly sprang to life there, revealing Maman and Alexander, sitting beside it. Alexander was in human form for once, and wore a handsome, if outdated brown suit, and solid leather shoes. He looked just like Gabriel, actually – if Gabriel was a grumpy middle-aged man nearly seven feet tall with a rugged, grouchy face offset by eyes so blue, they almost seemed to glow. Like Gabriel, Alexander’s grey-streaked hair sprouted like an unruly bush atop his head, although he’d managed to tame some of it with a leather hair tie.

As the old Hound lit his pipe with a stick of wood from the fire, Maman turned calm black eyes towards the children and gestured a blood red fingernail to the seat opposite her. “Viens, mes chéries,” she said, a phrase which here means ‘come, my darlings’. “Tell me everything that happened this day.”

Geraldine quickly settled herself into the chair, then glared at Gabriel when he didn’t join her. Snuffling mournfully, Gabriel reluctantly settled himself behind her so only his eyes and snout were visible. Witches and allergy-filled gardens he could face, but Madame Gertrude Grey was another matter entirely. She could be very intimidating if she wanted to, especially when she was staring at you silently, as she was doing now. Gabriel hid his snout under his paws.

Geraldine, meanwhile, turned to her mother, calm, even under that unmoving black stare. “You already know what happened,” she finally said – a statement, not a question. Maman had spies everywhere, after all, and most of them weren’t even ghosts. Why bother raising a spirit when the common spider, a mouse, or even a lizard, would do just as well.

Nevertheless, Maman shook her head, “I would hear it from your own mouth, ma petite,” she insisted, using the french phrase for ‘little one’ to lesson the sting of the command.

Geraldine nodded, sighing. “Jackson, the ghost from last night, took us to a house to complete his unfinished business, but a witch named Miss Agatha – well, I’m not sure if Miss Agatha is her true name, or if she’s all witch,” she digressed, a word, which here means that she strayed from the topic, or got sidetracked. “–was there. Anyway, she stole Florry.”

This wasn’t the best explanation, but Maman nodded, nevertheless, her eyes shadowed. “I feared that was the case. Agatha has always been angling for La Maison.”

Geraldine gasped, shocked. “You know her?”

Maman nodded. “She and I have a very long history. This had to happen sooner or later.” She sighed as she rose and turned to Geraldine. “Come, ma petite, and you as well, Gabriel. It is time I showed you the true nature of La Maison.”

Now Maman waved, and the back of the fireplace suddenly opened, revealing a dark staircase that led all the way down into the darkness. Grabbing a torch from the side of the fireplace, she walked through the fire to the top of the stairs.

“Well, mes chéries,” she prompted, “Are you coming?”

Nodding, the children quickly followed.



***


The path Maman took them down was completely different from all the ones Geraldine and Gabriel had used before. Candles lit themselves in the hundreds of skulls embedded in the walls as Madame Gertrude Grey passed. A low mist swirled around them, blanketing the bottom of the seemingly endless stairs in shadow. Even Alexander’s hulking Hound form was cloaked as he padded silently behind Maman. Geraldine shivered, despite herself. This place was scary – not a screaming, frightened way, but in a knots-in-your-stomach, don’t-know-what-to-expect-around-the-next-corner way.

Behind her, Gabriel was still in Hound form, his eyes wide as he stared at all the skulls. When he stumbled, nearly pushing her forward, she gasped, startled. “Ow, Gabriel, be careful!”

But it’s scary in here… he whimpered, his ears pressed flat against his head, and his tail dragging behind him.

He was completely right. Even now, a cold wind was stroking icy fingers across the back of Geraldine’s neck. She fought back a shiver, knowing it was probably just her imagination.

You’re right, it is scary, she said to Gabriel. But not as scary as Miss Agatha’s garden.

Gabriel silently nodded.

To her surprise, when they reached the bottom of the stairs, it gave way, not to the catacombs, as she’d expected, but to a small pier at the edge of a large, dark river. Her eyes widened. She’d never known there was a river under La Maison, and yet, here it was, gliding slowly underneath the far-off roof of this gigantic, dark cavern. Maman walked purposefully to its edge, then glanced back.

“What are you waiting for, ma cherie?” she said. “Climb on.”

As Geraldine blinked, not exactly sure where all the climbing on was supposed to be happening, a boat suddenly glided out of the mists and parked itself just beside Maman. It was the strangest thing Geraldine had ever seen. Made entirely out of bones, it was covered in cobwebs, and creaked every time it moved. Despite its strangeness, however, Geraldine recognized it immediately – could almost feel the memory of it in her skin. This was a Boat of Souls; a vessel that carried newly deceased souls to the Other Side. There were hundreds of them across the world, she suddenly knew, the knowledge slipping into her head like a warm, long-ago memory. In fact, there was one for every major city. This one, however, was special. Its passengers only came from Louisiana, and Maman was its Captain.

When Geraldine turned, gasping at this knowledge, Maman was now suddenly dressed as she’d never seen her before – in a long black robe, with a hood that almost covered her face. Her eyes seemed large now, so very large. They almost burned in her sockets. Even worse, Geraldine could see Maman’s skeleton beyond them; or was it that Maman was a skeleton, and all that flesh was an illusion?

Beside her, Gabriel shifted nervously. What’s happening to her? he whispered, his eyes owlishly wide.

I think she’s the riverman – well, riverperson, Geraldine gasped, awed. The riverperson of souls.

Maman smiled wryly, amused. “I see you are finally beginning to understand the nature of things, ma cherie,” she said, reaching into the air.

A long staff immediately appeared in her hand. It almost looked like Florry, except it was made entirely out of bone, and female. Geraldine didn’t know how she knew this, but she just did.

“Ah, Gertrude,” the skull on this new staff greeted, yawning lazily. “It has been ages, my dear…”

“Nubia, I trust you slept well?” Maman replied.

“As if I could with these old bones,” Nubia yawned. She was very prissy sounding, despite being only a skull and spine connected together. She turned to Geraldine and Gabriel, who were still frozen in their daze. “Well, whatever are you waiting for, children?” she said. “Come along then.”

Geraldine and Gabriel quickly did as they were told, both looking nervously down. The water was dark green underneath the boat, and fluorescent shadows floated just under the surface. Geraldine didn’t have to ask to know that those were souls, thousands of them. They made a low moaning sound that echoed eerily in the silent cavern.

“Lost souls,” Maman explained, as she dipped Nubia into the water, using her like a paddle.

Geraldine wasn’t particularly surprised to see that the water flowed easily past Nubia – or was it the other way around? Nubia flowed easily past the water. In any event, by the time she blinked, the pier was already disappearing into the distance, a long ago memory. This place was another magic pocket, just as she’d suspected.

She returned her attention as Maman then continued, “They failed to pay the riverman.”

“You, you mean,” Geraldine clarified.

Maman nodded. “Qui, ma petite. Me.” Turning her eyes to the river, she added, “That was hundreds of years ago, of course. Traditions have changed since then. Now there are other ways spirits can become lost souls.”

Geraldine nodded, since she didn’t know what else to do. Of course she knew it had once been the tradition to bury people with a gold coin in their mouths for the riverman, but why was Maman telling her about that now? More to the point, exactly what was Maman trying to tell her? She knew there was a point to this entire conversation, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. And where was Maman taking them? Geraldine fixed her eyes on the distance, where another pier was appearing. Strangely, this one looked familiar. She gasped when the boat turned the corner and she could finally see what it was.

The Crypte Infernale!

But why had Maman taken them on the boat just to take them right back to La Maison? She didn’t have time to dwell on the question, because now, the boat had already arrived at the pier and Maman was quickly disembarking.

“Watch your step,” Maman cautioned.

Geraldine nodded as she exited. “Thank you for the ride, Maman,” she said, since it was only polite. “It was very–” She stopped mid-sentence, surprised. The boat, the river, the lost souls – they were all gone.

Behind her, Maman smiled. “You were saying?”

But Geraldine shook her head, at a loss for words.
















CHAPTER FIVE: IN WHICH GERALDINE LEARNS A FEW HARD TRUTHS






The Crypte Infernale was dark when Geraldine, Maman, Gabriel, and Alexander, finally reached it. Only the torch Alexander was now carrying provided any light. Geraldine squinted, her eyes straining to see past its dull flicker. Usually, her night vision was fine – much better than the average person, actually, but the Crypte Infernale had a special type of darkness; the complete and utter gloom of the dead.

“Illumi-” Geraldine began, but Maman pressed a skeletal finger to her lips.

“No, ma cherie,” she shook her head. “Today, we light the candles.”

Taking the torch from Alexander, she walked to the center of the Crypt, where the two oldest graves stood. These were the graves of Grandmère, and Grandpère, Maman’s mother and father; the oldest souls in all of La Maison des Fantômes. Geraldine had grown up with them floating around La Maison but that had been years and years ago. Now she only saw Grandmère and Grandpère in her dreams and whenever she did, it was a quick, fleeting conversation, rather than the long, lazy afternoons they’d used to spend together. But that was the nature of things when you dealt with ghosts as old as Grandmère and Grandpère. They weren’t very aware of the passage of time, and when they slept, it was for years, rather than days.

Maman raised her torch towards the statue standing above Grandpère’s tomb. It was of a tall, distinguished-looking man in a three-piece suit with a pocket watch attached to his waistcoat. Grandpère. If you looked carefully at the cover of the pocket watch, you would see a sphinx engraved there. Most people thought that the sphinx was just a lion-bodied, woman-headed monster that asked you questions and then killed you if you got the answer wrong, but Geraldine knew the sphinx was actually a guardian; a gatekeeper of the roads of the dead. Even though Grandpère’s statue changed every hundred years or so to keep up with the times, one thing always remained constant. The sphinx.

She watched as Maman lowered the torch to the candle outstretched in Grandpère’s hand. “Honored spirit of the dead, I greet you,” Maman intoned, touching the flame to the aged, nubby wick. Nothing happened, not even a flicker, but Maman paid no attention to this as she turned to Grandmère’s grave.

The statue there was as unlike the one above Grandpère’s as could be. Grandmère was a plump, cheerful woman in a flowery dress, and she grinned as she stretched out a candle in one hand, and a frog in the other. Like the sphinx, the frog had a meaning as well. It symbolized rebirth, since many frogs could appear to be dead for years, only to spring awake again at the first hint of rain. Also like the sphinx, it would always appear on Grandmère’s grave even when the statue changed. The statues on the two tombs may have looked completely different from each other, but in a strange, funny way, they matched.

Maman touched the torch to Grandmère’s candle. “Honored spirit of the dead, I greet you,” she whispered again, and then she stepped back.

As before, there was silence. The candle didn’t even catch flame, until… – Geraldine’s heart sped up as she felt it – the sudden thrumming rising in the crypt. Around the group, a thousand candles suddenly began to light; one by one, wick by wick, they sparked aflame, until soon, the group was standing in a constellation of candles, a galaxy of flames. As the last wick sparked awake, a sudden wind swept through the Crypt, warm and damp, with just a hint of must. It seemed to center on Grandmère and Grandpère’s tombs, because now, something strange was happening there. The wicks were flickering – moving, as if stirred by the breeze.

Whoosh! They suddenly sprang to life, black flames, sparkling in the darkness.

“Oooooooohhhhh,” a ghostly male voice suddenly moaned. “Woooooooo….”

Geraldine turned to Grandpère’s crypt, where a tall ghost in a three piece suit was now wafting up through the marble, his hands outstretched as he made that horrible moan.

“Wooooooo,” the ghost of Grandpère moaned. “Ooooooohhhh….”

“Oh, would you stop that infernal racket!”

When Geraldine turned, startled, the ghost of Grandmère darted out her tomb in a brisk, business-like fashion and glared at Grandpère, who had the grace to seem ashamed. He blushed behind his whiskers – which, Geraldine knew, was what they’d called mustaches the last time Grandpère had spent a long time awake (he always liked to keep up with the fashions, even though he was always a hundred years or so behind).

“Oh, don’t be like that, Ade,” Grandpère said. “I was just trying to add a little theatricality to the whole event. It’s been so long since we’ve been called,” he added.

“Two thousand years old, and you’re still acting like a child,” Grandmère sniffed, primly dusting off her dress.

“Keeps the soul young,” Grandpère shrugged, floating over to join her. The two quickly held hands, as much in love now, as they had been for the last two thousand years.

When they turned towards the gathered group, Maman nodded respectfully. “Grandmère, Grandpère,” she greeted. “It is good to see you.”

The ancient ghosts smiled. “Gertrude, mon amour…” As Grandmère floated to her daughter with open arms, Geraldine blinked, startled. It was strange to hear someone other than her father call maman, “my love,” but then, her father never said it in French. She watched as Grandmère hugged Maman, and then continued by asking, “It has been…?”

“Six years, three months, and four days,” Maman quickly inserted, since she knew neither Grandmère nor Grandpère knew what day it was, much less what year. “Geraldine is twelve now.”

When she gestured to Geraldine, both Grandmère and Grandpère’s eyes widened. “Why, little Geraldine!” Grandpère beamed, hugging her. When he tossed her up into the air, and then allowed her to float there, Geraldine couldn’t contain her delighted giggle. Two thousand years of hauntings had made Grandpère quite accomplished at ghostly tricks like levitation, the art of floating things into the air. That was, of course, why he was an anchor spirit instead of just a regular old ghost. “You’re all grown up now,” he said finally, tickling her chin when she floated back down.

“And the spitting image of your mother, when she was your age,” Grandmère added, now hugging Geraldine tight.

Though Grandmère was a ghost, insubstantial and incorporeal (which here is a very fancy way of saying that she wasn’t solid), Geraldine imagined she felt a soft, comforting warmth radiating from her. She smiled and closed her eyes, savoring the moment. Who knew when next it would come again? Now Grandmère caught sight of Gabriel, sitting just beside Geraldine’s feet.

“And is that Gabriel I see?” she gasped, causing the boy to blush despite still being in Hound form. “Just look at you, so grown up! And such beautiful fur!” She began to pet it.

As she did so, Maman suddenly cleared her throat. “I hate to interrupt, but we must attend to the matter I woke you for.” When the two anchor spirits turned to her, she continued, “Strange and unexpected though may be, it seems Geraldine has reached the age where she can be Contested.”

Both Grandmère and Grandpère released identical gasps of shock.



***


By the time Maman finished her explanation, Grandmère and Grandpère had finally gotten over their surprise, and were staring at Geraldine with thoughtful expressions. Grandpère was silently stroking his beard, although Geraldine was sure this was more for show than anything. Grandpère was very fond of posturing, a nice, big word that means behaving in a certain way to impress others. Grandmère, meanwhile, just watched her with a worried expression. Geraldine was sure if she’d had a handkerchief, she’d be wringing it right now. Since she didn’t, she just clutched the string of pearls around her neck.

From what Geraldine had understood, Contesting (always with a capital C) meant challenging a person to some sort of duel. She hoped it wasn’t with pistols or swords, like it had been back in the old days, but that didn’t seem likely from the way Grandmère and Grandpère were talking. Still, the Contest was a Very Bad Thing, and worse, Maman, couldn’t help her at all now that she was old enough to do it. It was against the rules, apparently. This, of course, explained why Grandmère and Grandpère seemed so worried.

“So this Miss Agatha has the Staff of Souls,” Grandpère suddenly repeated, grim.

Maman nodded. “Yes, and Geraldine has three months before she must Contest to retrieve it.”

By now, Geraldine had a thousand questions. “What exactly is Contesting? And why couldn’t I take Florry back from her?” Even now, she remembered the strange, almost powerless feeling she’d felt when she’d tried.

“Because Miss Agatha is a potential Charon,” Maman murmured, her black eyes mysterious. “Just like you.”

Geraldine’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “A Charon?” she repeated.

Grandmère floated over. “A riverman of the dead, dear,” she explained, sniffling softly.

She seemed truly distressed, though Geraldine didn’t understand why, so she looked from her to Maman. “What does that mean, Maman?” she asked.

She knew there was much more to being a riverman than just captaining a Boat of Souls like Maman did. As she watched, Maman turned towards the darkness beyond the crypt, which quickly shimmered under her gaze. The river had appeared again. Geraldine blinked, startled, but not particularly surprised. Maman could summon the river with only a thought, she somehow knew. She continued watching as Maman lifted a flame from one of the candles on the ground and then walked towards the water, the tiny fire flickering a bright yellow above her palm.

“There are many rivers of the dead,” Maman explained, holding up her staff. “In Louisiana, for instance, there are the Mississippi and the Red River. All are pathways for the souls of the dead to cross to the Other Side.”

As Maman said this, a thousand fluorescent green rivers suddenly flickered to life in the darkness, those bone boats, the Boats of the Souls, gliding gently over them, their hooded captains navigating with skull staffs. Geraldine was surprised to see that there were Hounds at each riverman’s side. They weren’t necessarily direwolves like Gabriel and Alexander. Some were werewolves, others werecats – Geraldine was even sure she saw a weregator paddling at one of the riverman’s sides.

You seeing what I’m seeing, Geraldine? Gabriel whispered, awed.

Geraldine nodded silently, unable to speak. There were so many rivers, all of them filled with lost souls. Souls like… Jackson… She pushed back a trickling of guilt at the thought.

“We the Charon are the rivermen of the dead.”

Now Geraldine blinked. “You mean river-people.”

“Pardon?” Maman asked, confused.

“Well, you’re not a man,” Geraldine began, “and I’m guessing there are other Charon who also aren’t men, so wouldn’t it be river-people rather than rivermen?”

Geraldine liked things to be specific.

Maman nodded, smiling an amused smile. “I suppose you are correct, ma fille,” Maman said, using the french word for daughter as she corrected herself. “Very well, we the Charon are the river-people of the dead, so named after the most famous of our kind, a Greek riverman named Charon.” At this, she pointed at a lone riverman, more skeleton than anything as he paddled through his silent river. “It is our duty to protect the gates of the dead, you see. Gates like La Maison des Fantômes.”

Geraldine’s eyes widened. “Wait, La Maison is a–”

“Gate to the Underworld?” Grandpère floated over. “Indeed. There is one for every city. And your Flaubert is one of the keys to opening it, Nubia being the only other.”

As Geraldine turned to the skull staff, her eyes rounding, Maman added, “That is most likely why Miss Agatha stole Florry. During the Contest, you see, the two potential Charons battle magically to prove their power over the dead. She who has the most power wins.”

By now, Geraldine’s thoughts were in a whirl. La Maison was a gate to the Underworld, Florry was a key, and she was a potential Charon? Even worse, she had fight Miss Agatha with magic to show she deserved to be a Charon? There were so many things to absorb, so many new fact to understand. Her head felt overstuffed with information.

Beside her, Gabriel’s snout wrinkled. He’d just had a thought. So if Miss Agatha wins this Contest thing, and gets to keep Florry, then–

“I suspect she will open the gates between the land of the living, and the land of the dead. And then we will have a lot more to worry about a few errant poltergeists in Louisiana,” Grandmère ended, her eyes grim. She turned to Geraldine. “Not all potential Charon embrace their responsibilities, you see. Some would abuse their power. No doubt that is why Flaubert chose you over Miss Agatha.”

Those words immediately put an end to Geraldine’s whirling thoughts. As Gabriel whimpered beside her, scared, she looked up at her mother. “What can I do?” she asked, deadly serious now.

“You can learn to use the power of a Charon so you can take Flaubert back,” Maman said simply. “You can learn to be stronger than Miss Agatha.”

Geraldine nodded, “Teach me how.”