Early on the afternoon of 13 March 1926, Augusta Van Dyne looked up from her copy of Poe’s Complete Works to find a ghost dog sitting at her feet.
She knew the dog: Voltaire by name, a beautiful golden retriever with large brown eyes and a honey coat. He loved ear scratches and secret treats under the table. She knew that Voltaire was dead: he cast no shadow and his coat was a warmer gold than it had ever been in life. And while she did not know for certain, she was fairly positive that Voltaire’s master was dead, as well. Professor Green was widely hated by his students and colleagues alike, but Voltaire adored him — and it could be said that Green loved nothing else in the world except his dog.
Voltaire never would have left his side except in death and, even then, only if it was necessary.
Augusta blinked as her friend Josie — a copy of Shelley under one arm and a sandwich in hand — hurried across the sorority’s common room, passed cleanly through the spirit of Voltaire, and dropped into the chair across from Augusta. Bits of lettuce and tomato dropped out of her sandwich, dribbling down her silk blouse and onto her pin-striped trousers.
“Poe again?” Josie wrinkled her nose, dropping the thin volume of Shelley onto the table. “Too objectifying. The death of a beautiful woman being poetical, and all that. Give me Fuller or Wollstonecraft any day.” She took a bite and scooted into a more comfortable position.
“Mm. He has his moments.” Augusta flipped through her book and set it open on top of the Shelley. “Here. Try Ligeia. Definitely some subversive subtext going on there.”
Josie leaned sideways, frowning slightly, chewing thoughtfully. “You sure?”
“Positive. I have to run an errand, anyway, so enjoy.” She stood and kissed the top of Josie’s head good-bye.
She could just hear the faint click of the dog’s nails as Voltaire followed her to the front door.
Grabbing her blue felt cloche and blue wool and fur coat off the wall hook — each girl in the house had her own, neatly labeled to avoid “accidental” borrowing — Augusta pulled open the heavy door. The wind kicked up, tossing old leaves inside, but it was Voltaire passing through her legs at an eager run that made her shiver. She paused long enough to button her jacket, waved a good-bye to Harriet and Edna as they huddled on the far end of the porch arguing about Sappho, then followed Voltaire down the steps and into the chilly sunlight.
The dog led her across the quad, past the library and the performing arts center, around a corner, and up the steps of Stratemeyer Hall. A few of her fellow students milled around, sharing mid-term horror stories, and she could hear voices through some of the closed doors. Professor Warne was yelling at her secretary — again — her French twisted and furious. Through the open door of the English Literature department, she saw of one of her classmates waving a paper under Professor Butterworth’s nose; the good professor looked bored. He caught Augusta’s eye as she passed and winked at her.
She answered with a half-smile, quickening her pace as Voltaire cut through a wall and disappeared around a corner.
She found him climbing the steps to the second floor.
She could never understand how they did that. Ghosts were peculiar creatures. Sometimes solid objects were solid, sometimes they were not. Sometimes the ghosts spoke and she could understand them; other times they shouted in mute rage, or didn’t try to say anything at all.
Gramma Van Dyne had not understood it, either. She had simply shrugged and said, “If I figure it out when I die, I’ll let you know.”
They had spent a week together after Gramma died, going through family photos and heirlooms. Gramma’s hands had passed through teacups, but touched Augusta’s cheek as gently as ever. If she had figured it out, she never told Augusta.
Canine nails scratched on wood and there was a low, echoing whimper.
Augusta grabbed the banister and ran up the last few steps to the third floor, sunlight skipping across her legs.
Professor Green’s door was closed tight. Voltaire sat in front of it, head down, shoulders hunched. His tail patted at the floor uncertainly.
Decorum taking over, Augusta knocked politely at the door. “Professor Green? It’s Augusta Van Dyne. I have a question about my term paper.” No answer. She knocked again. “Professor?”
Voltaire whined loudly, and the glass in the windows tinkled alarmingly.
“Sshh, it’s okay.”
It was not okay. Augusta knew that it was not okay.
Closing her hand around the knob, drawing a deep breath, she gave the door a firm shove.
There was a faint creak of the hinges and then the office spread out before her. Professor Green had ruled the combined World Literature and Languages department for over thirty years from this room, and his authority was visible in every accolade that hung from the wall, every framed photo and letter from an author of worth, every book that lined the floor-to-ceiling shelves. A wide bay window looked onto a small courtyard and the rear of the library and the rest of the campus beyond. Awards lined the mantel of the fireplace. A heavy wooden desk and high-backed chairs occupied the center of the room. The air smelled of leather and paper and ash and blood.
Voltaire whined again. The bay window rattled.
A polished shoe poked out from behind the desk.
Breathing through her mouth, Augusta cautiously entered the office. She paused as she caught sight of a glistening dark spot on the floor. She stepped around it. A second spot, and a third. Angling around the desk, she stopped as the former Professor Green and his beloved canine came into view.
An ugly hole perforated the side of Green’s neck. His eyes were wide in shock and his mouth hung open. He lay on his side, a tacky pool of black-red blood spread beneath him. Near the professor’s head lay Voltaire, his once shining coat a mess of red slashes.
Augusta covered her mouth as her stomach lurched.
It never got any easier, finding them like this ….
She bit her tongue, suppressing a squeal of alarm as a pale, wispy figure suddenly erupted into the air in front of her. She stumbled back a step and Voltaire — the spirit Voltaire — hopped up and down, running in a circle around her legs.
The ghost of Professor Green gesticulated angrily. He threw his arms wide, pointing at her, at the wall, at the window, back at her again. His mouth opened and closed as he shouted soundlessly.
For a moment, he looked so much like the man who had terrorized her Medieval French Literature class that she started to recite the Chanson de geste. She caught herself after the first line and shook her head.
“Professor, I’m sorry, but — I don’t — I can’t hear you.” She pointed at her ear.
Green threw his hands up in disgust. He pointed at the wall behind his desk again and, with a swirl of mist, was gone.
Voltaire whined so loudly that a crack split the middle of the window.
“Sshh, boy, I know, I know.” Augusta licked her lips. “Come on. We have to make a call.”
The dog following reluctantly, Augusta returned to the first floor. She hugged her jacket tight, just shaking her head when Professor Butterworth called out a jovial greeting.
She found the secretary in the front office, Professor Warne gone off somewhere.
Augusta cleared her throat. “Pardon me, but may I use your telephone?”
The secretary frowned. “Is this a social call? Because — ”
“No, ma’am. There’s been a murder. I need to speak with Detective Arthur Van Dyne of the River Bay Police Department.”
Augusta waited at the third floor landing, her back to the window. The glass was cold. The light gradually faded as afternoon turned to twilight. Voltaire huddled at her feet, his head down.
There was a flash of light and the pop of a bulb inside Green’s office, and the low murmur of voices.
She waited until the uniformed policeman standing by Green’s door looked away, and then she reached down. She could, very faintly, feel the brush of soft fur. Keeping her eyes on the police officer, she gently stroked the dog’s head, his tail thumping along. Slowly his head lifted and he huffed, not quite content, but no longer so afraid and grief-stricken that it seemed he would slip right through the floor and disappear.
Augusta straightened when the policeman turned in her direction again, crossing her arms over her chest.
He frowned at her, then took a respectful step back, tipping his hat. “Detective Van Dyne.”
Another flash of light and the pop of a bulb.
Uncle Arthur nodded to the officer as he exited the room. Hands in his pockets, he walked over to her, his lips pursed sympathetically. “Doing okay there, Gus?”
“Mm. Unofficially, wanna tell me how you knew?”
“Unofficially, Gramma Van Dyne would be proud.”
“Thought as much. Learn anything useful?”
“Only that Green is as much an angry blowhard in death as he was in life.” She shrugged. “Saw him. Sort of. Couldn’t understand him, though. He kept pointing at the wall behind his desk, if that helps.”
The detective tilted his head. “Maybe. Want another look around?”
“Absolutely.” She lifted her chin. “No one liked Professor Green, not even me, but no one deserves to die like that. And Voltaire certainly didn’t.”
“All right. They should be done in another twenty minutes or so.” He turned away, then spun on his heel to face her again. “And when are you gonna tell your parents that you’re majoring in psychology, not art? I had to lie in my last letter and tell them I went to an exhibition. Your work is ‘invigorating.’”
Augusta wrinkled her nose. “‘Invigorating’? Also, not until aftergraduation.”
Rolling his eyes and sighing in exasperation, Uncle Arthur returned to Green’s office.
A few minutes later, the photographer stumbled out, bulky bags hanging from his shoulders. Then the coroner and his assistants, the shrouded body strapped to the stretcher between them. The coroner himself carried Voltaire’s body in a heavy cloth bag.
Augusta flinched when she saw it. She backed out of the way so that the stretcher could squeeze around the landing and down the stairs. She heard gasps and muffled screams from the teachers and students gathered below. There would certainly be more out front, attracted to the sight of the police cruisers and ambulance.
Uncle Arthur waited until they heard the distinctive clunk of doors being closed and the rumble of engines before he motioned her into the room.
Voltaire stuck close, occasionally brushing against and through her leg. She shivered each time — not so much because of the chill that pebbled her skin as the weird overlapping sensation; during those brief moments, she could swear that she had four legs instead of two and the smell of blood and ash and fingerprint powder was much stronger.
She blinked, pausing in front of Green’s desk to reorient herself.
“I’m good. Just been a while since I’ve had to deal with an animal spirit.”
Uncle Arthur’s eyebrows shot up. “Hunh. Did the dog see anything?”
Augusta gave him an exasperated look. “No idea. It’s not like he could tellme.”
“You’d be surprised. When this is over, I have some stories to tell you about my grandfather.”
“Oh.” Augusta rolled that around in her head for a moment, then wrinkled her nose as the various smells hit her again. “You think the fingerprinting will do any good?”
The detective shrugged, digging his notepad and pencil out of his jacket. “Probably not. This doesn’t strike me as a robbery gone bad. He was probably killed by someone he knew, so it wouldn’t be unusual to find their prints here. Now, if we can find the murder weapon ….”
“Which was ….” She studied the desk, the usually neat stacks of papers and mail scattered across its surface “Oh. The letter opener.”
“Yeah. It’s missing and the coroner says that fits the wound pattern. Also fits with Green knowing his attacker, and that it was impulsive, not pre-meditated. Not much of a struggle, though it looks like they managed to break the window.”
“Oh. Um, actually that was Voltaire. Sorry. He reacted badly to Green’s spirit moving on.”
Uncle Arthur glanced down at his notepad, scratching his cheek. “Okay. Not sure how I’m going to cover that in my report.”
Augusta nodded vaguely, gaze shifting from the desk to the wall behind it. A dozen framed letters and photos hung there, the late Professor’s most prized possessions set out to awe and intimidate anyone who dared to enter his office. Green shaking hands with Kipling, enjoying a cigar with Doyle, sharing brandy with Henry James. A letter from Dickens and another from Melville, this one with a big coffee stain in the middle. And —
“Well, now, that is interesting.”
Augusta scooted forward around the desk, realized where she was going, and hastily sidestepped the two large red-black stains. Voltaire followed, whimpering once. She pointed to the four rows of frames. “I recognize all of these. Can’t tell you how many times I stared at them while Green yelled at me about something. But they’re out of order. That letter from Poe to the Baltimore Saturday Visitor should be on the end, and the letter from Shelley to Byron should be in the middle. They’ve flipped positions.”
“Green could’ve moved them.”
“No.” Augusta shook her head. “He was very particular about the placement of everything in this room. He had a maid fired once for not putting a chair back just so after she mopped the floor.”
“Getting the distinct impression that there will be no shortage of suspects.”
“‘Fraid not.” Augusta leaned forward awkwardly, trying to get a better look at the letters without stepping in the bloodstain. “He was controlling, belittling, and arrogant. A misogynist of the first order.”
“And yet he taught at a private women’s university.”
“He enjoyed lording over those he considered to be his intellectual inferiors.”
The detective shook his head and scribbled a note.
“This one fell, or was dropped. See? There’s a crack in the bottom of the frame for the Shelley letter.”
Uncle Arthur came around the far side of the desk, stepping wide, and then crouching, balancing carefully on the balls of his feet. “No blood on the frame, so it happened before the murder. Maybe this was an attempted robbery. That letter worth anything?”
“Not sure. Maybe a few hundred? But that’s only to another collector, a fan of Shelley. The chemistry and geology labs contain items worth a heck of a lot more. So does the archaeology department, come to think of it. No, that’s not ….” Her voice trailed off as she studied the inky scrawl. Words looped across the aging paper. “Looks like … July 1819 … he’s telling Byron about his work on The Cenci, the death of his son, his wife’s depression, which he hopes might be alleviated by, um, stuff from his father-in-law? Shelley’s father-in-law, I mean. That would have been William Godwin.”
The detective scribbled. “Father-in-law. Godwin. Stuff. Got it.”
“They were living in Italy at the time. Looks like her father sent them a box of books and letters and journals … oh.”
Augusta bolted upright, her eyes wide.
“Oh,” she whispered.
Voltaire whimpered, the low whine turning into a growly bark. He brushed against her leg, into her leg, both legs, and suddenly she had four legs and the room smelled so strange, not like her master at all, but like her master when he was sick only worse and then he remembered, master is gone, master is gone, yelling, so much yelling, he didn’t know those words, he knew other words like Voltaire and dinner and walk and love but not these words, these words that were so angry bite bite bite —
She gasped, her whole body lurching. Her legs ached and her hands were shaking and curled into fists. Uncle Arthur was holding her shoulders, his fingers digging in to hold her upright.
“Yes!” She gasped again, trying to draw a steady breath. “Yes. I’m fine. Fine. Sorry.”
“You sure?” He didn’t let go, studying her carefully.
She swallowed, nodding. “Yeah, good.” She licked her lips. “We need to go see Professor Butterworth.”
The good professor was just locking up his office when they came down the stairs. He looked up, blinking in confusion when Uncle Arthur called out to him.
“Yes? I say, Augusta, are you all right? I saw you earlier right after — and, well, dreadful business.”
“I’m good. Really. Could I ask you a question?”
“I … yes, I suppose.” His eyes bounced in confusion between Augusta and the detective.
“You’re Josie Hoffman’s advisor, correct?”
Butterworth nodded slowly.
“A few months ago, I remember her talking about her term paper. She wanted to write about Mary Shelley. She even spent winter break in Italy doing research.”
Another slow nod.
“Do you know … did she find something? Something important?”
The professor’s eyes flicked back and forth between Augusta and her uncle again. He shuffled his feet and licked his lips. “Yes.”
“What did she find?”
“I really don’t — I ….” He turned to the detective in confusion. “Is this necessary? Shouldn’t you be asking the questions?”
Uncle Arthur shrugged. “Okay. What did she find?”
Butterworth’s mouth opened and closed.
“Frankenstein,” Augusta answered for him. “She found Mary Shelley’s journals from when she was writing Frankenstein. Lost for a hundred years, and Josie found them. Mary must have left them with her father, William Godwin, and he sent them to her after she and Percy moved to Italy.”
The professor’s head dropped, his throat moving as he swallowed.
Detective Van Dyne frowned. “So?”
Voltaire whined as Augusta continued, “One of the masterpieces of world literature. Written by a woman.”
“‘A misogynist of the first order,’” he repeated.
Augusta nodded. “Green, and others like him, were convinced that PercyShelley wrote Frankenstein, not Mary. Or, at the very least, had a much larger role in its creation than she ever publicly acknowledged.”
“The journals could have proven him right.”
“Or completely wrong,” Butterworth whispered, his head still down. “The journals … reaffirmed Mary Shelley’s sole authorship.”
“You saw them?”
“She was so excited when she returned from Italy. She couldn’t wait to show them to me. They would be the backbone of her thesis. The lost journals of Mary Shelley, chronicling the composition and development of Frankenstein.”
Augusta crossed her arms, already imagining what was to come. “You told Green.”
“Well … not at first.”
“And when you did?”
“He — he is — was the head of the entire department! He could have — my career! I had — well, he had final say on her thesis, and, so, I had to tell him. I did! I had to!”
“Damn it, Josie,” Augusta whispered.
“Know where we can find her?” Uncle Arthur asked.
Augusta nodded and led him out into the night, Voltaire at her side.
Harriet and Edna were still huddled on the far end of the porch, passing a cigarette back and forth as they argued over this or that point of classical Greek grammar. Harriet cast them a curious glance, snapping, “No men after curfew!”
Augusta ignored her. Uncle Arthur flashed his badge and followed her through the door.
She found Josie where she had left her only … what, three hours ago? She sat in the chair, legs curled beneath her, the copy of Poe’s Complete Works in her lap. Only now did Augusta see that her normally chic bob was messy and her tie was loose.
Augusta stopped in front of her and she looked up, smiling. “You were right abut Ligeia, Gus. It’s creepy, but ….” Her voice trailed off. Her eyes widened and her lips trembled, just a bit. She carefully closed the book. “I think I’m beginning to see why you like these stories. Guess I should have been studying Poe instead of Wollstonecraft and Shelley.”
Uncle Arthur moved into Augusta’s line of sight. From the corner of her eye, she saw him pull his badge out again. “Miss Hoffman? Detective Van Dyne, River Bay Police. May I ask you a few questions about the murder of Professor Green?”
Her smile got wider and tighter. “Of course.”
“I understand that you and Professor Green had a disagreement in regards to your thesis? You found some journals to support your argument that Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein? But Green disputed that?”
With every word, a flush spread further up Josie’s neck and cheeks. She blinked rapidly, her smile wavering. Her hands tightened in her lap, her knuckles turning white. When she finally spoke, her voice was a rough whisper. “Disputed is not the right word. He was violently opposed. He was screaming. You know what he was like, Gus. He didn’t just dispute my findings. He — he — he burned them, Gus. He burned her journals. There was nothing. Nothing left. He was yelling. I was — ” Her voice caught, tears running down her cheeks. “He burned them, Gus.” Her voice dropped even lower, barely audible. “How could he do that? How could he?”
Augusta stumbled a step forward, pulling Josie into her arms, pressing her cheek to the top of Josie’s head. She realized they were both crying, and Voltaire was whining and barking.
“Why?” Josie whispered, voice rough. “Why couldn’t you — you just — he was horrible.”
Stroking Josie’s hair, Augusta leaned back, struggling to find the right words. Catching Uncle Arthur’s eye, she followed his gaze down to Josie’s right arm. The silk sleeve was stained dark red, the fine material outlining the hastily-bandaged bite marks.
Augusta could only shake her head and whisper, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
March drew to a chilly close, and April bloomed. Daffodils poked curious heads out of the hard earth, searching for sunlight.
Augusta sat on the porch, hands wrapped around a mug of hot chocolate, chin tucked into the fur of her coat. Butterworth’s leave of absence meant no classes that day, so she hadn’t bothered to dress; just left her pajamas on, and pulled on some heavy socks to go with her slippers.
She chuckled, watching Voltaire chase squirrels around the quad. He didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t really catch them. Another of those unexplainable oddities: the ground was solid beneath his feet, but the squirrels were not; his jaws would close around them and they would just scamper away.
“Morning, Sleeping Beauty.”
Augusta smiled at her uncle as he made his way up the steps and dropped into a rocking chair beside her. “Morning, yourself. Cocoa?”
He shook his head and patted his belly. “Big breakfast. Dog’s still here, I take it?”
“Any idea why?”
“Nope. And I’m just going to enjoy it while I can. Mom and Dad never let me have any pets, so I have a lot of catching up to do.” She took another sip. “How’s Josie?”
He braced his elbows on his knees, rubbing his hands together. “The court is satisfied with her confession. Handing over her bloody clothes and the letter opener helped, but she did initially try to hide what she had done. Her only serious injuries were the dog bites, so hard to argue self-defense.” When Augusta remained silent, he continued, “You approve of what she did?”
“No. No, I don’t. Like I said, no one deserves to die like that. I can understand why she killed Green, but that doesn’t mean I condone it. And she did kill Voltaire.”
Uncle Arthur nodded slowly. When he finally spoke, his voice held an odd note of anticipation. “You know what, maybe I will have some cocoa. And while I’m enjoying my hot drink, you and I can figure out what you are going to tell your parents when they drop by for a visit tomorrow.”
Augusta choked, spitting cocoa onto her pajamas.
In the center of the quad, Voltaire barked happily.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and short stories can be found there.]