The Dire King

A Jackaby Novel


By William Ritter

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In the action-packed fourth book in the New York Times bestselling Jackaby series, a supernatural detective and his indispensable assistant, Abigail Rook, are plunged into the heart of an apocalyptic war between magical worlds.

The fate of the world is in the hands of detective of the supernatural R. F. Jackaby and his intrepid assistant, Abigail Rook. An evil king is turning ancient tensions into modern strife, using a blend of magic and technology to push the earth and the otherworld into a mortal competition. Jackaby and Abigail are caught in the middle as they continue to solve mysteries in New Fiddleham, New England—like who’s created the rend between the worlds, how to close it, and why the undead are appearing around town.

At the same time, the romance between Abigail and the shape-shifting police detective Charlie Cane deepens, and Jackaby’s resistance to his feelings for the ghostly lady of 926 Augur Lane, Jenny Cavanaugh, begins to give way. But before the four can think about their own futures, they will have to defeat an evil that wants to destroy the future altogether.
The epic fourth volume in the New York Times bestselling Jackaby series features wry humor and a cast of unforgettable characters facing off against their most dangerous, bone-chilling foe ever.


Chapter One

To say that the house at 926 Augur Lane was not yet back to normal would be to grossly misrepresent the nature of the house at 926 Augur Lane. At its best, the peculiar property was an abode of the abnormal and a sanctuary for the strange.

The notion of premeditation did not appear to have been of any concern to the building's architects, the result of which was an eclectic edifice constructed using all manner of materials and styles. Its columns and cornices, balconies and balustrades all came at one another from unruly angles to form what ought to have been a hideous mess but was somehow beautiful instead. Still a mess, certainly, but a beautiful one.

From within, the house was more astonishing still. My employer, private investigator R. F. Jackaby, was no average detective, and the proof was packed in every corner of his property. Eldritch mementos from countless curious cases filled the shelves; strange smells swept from his kitchen laboratory, wove through the crooked hallway, spilled into his overstuffed office, and tickled the spines in his lavish library. As I slid past the spiral staircase, I could hear from above me the familiar splash of wings on water, the echoes bouncing down from the duck pond on the third floor, where Douglas, Jackaby's prior assistant and current resident waterfowl, spent much of his time.

Strange as it all might seem, I had come to think of this place as my home. And then my home had been violated.

I stepped out the back door into the bright summer sunlight, past the pile of broken busts and shattered reliquaries Jackaby had pitched out of his office window as he had tidied up the wreckage during the past weeks. Our investigation had rattled a hornets' nest, and the hornets had sent giant monsters to rattle ours. Their intrusion had done irreparable damage to our statuaries and plasterwork, but even more to our sense of safety. We had done what we could since the incident. We had swept up the pile of crimson splinters that had once been our cheery red front door, plastered over the worst of the battered masonry, and scooped up the sea of broken glassware in the ravaged laboratory. But the damage had been done.

The house at 926 Augur Lane was not back to normal. It was not back to abnormal. It was wrong and it felt wrong.

I came to a stop and fished a hefty iron key out of my pocket. My only consolation was that the culprit behind the destruction was now our captive, locked up securely in Jackaby's supernaturally safeguarded cellar.

Morwen Finstern did not look very intimidating as I swung open the door and climbed down the steps into her makeshift prison. She was of average appearance, with strawberry blond hair hanging in tangled waves around her slender face. Her eyes were wide and sad, and I might have felt sorry for her if I had not known she was a malicious nixie, a shape-shifting creature responsible for the brutal deaths of countless innocent victims over the centuries.

"Shepherd's pie," I said, dropping the plate on the dusty table. "It's not very warm."

"I smell onions," Morwen said.

"I used extra."

"I told you yesterday, I hate onions."

"That's why I used extra."

Morwen's fingers flexed as though she might like to take a swipe at me. The slender chain around her wrist clinked softly with the motion. Tibetan sky iron, Jackaby had called it, enchanted by some manner of sorcery. I did not fully understand the artifact, but I could not deny its effectiveness. So long as the binding held fast, the nixie could take no action against her captor's will. This did nothing to improve her temperament, but it did render her more or less benign.

"I'm thirsty," she grumbled.

"There are a couple of grapes on the side of the plate. You can suck on those."

"Just a small glass of—"

"No." I had seen what Morwen could do with a little water.

"What's the matter? Afraid of little old me?" she jeered.

"Mortified," I replied. "Imagine what the neighbors would think if they looked under our house and found you skittering about down here. It would be almost as shameful as finding mice in the walls or mold in the attic."

"It's not your neighbors you should worry about finding me here," she spat as I turned to go. "The council is coming for me. My father is coming for me!"

"Well then." I stepped back up into the daylight, hoping that I sounded as dauntless as I wasn't. "I guess you had better finish up those onions before he arrives." As I clicked shut the heavy iron padlock, I could hear her muffled curses through the door.

Of course I was afraid. Morwen's unsettling intrusion into our home had been nothing compared to her father's trespasses. The self-proclaimed king of the earth and the otherworld had been inside my head. He had controlled me. It made my skin crawl to think of it—and it was far from over. "The age of man has ended," he had promised. His specific intentions were inscrutable—but not a week passed during which we did not receive word of another unnatural episode or creepy creature emerging from the alleyways of New Fiddleham, and all of the threads led back to the Dire Council and their cryptic king.

For all the signs and portents, the king and his council might as well have been whispers in the wind. I found myself obsessing fruitlessly, lying awake at night, staring at the cracking plaster of my ceiling until the morning light crept through my window.

I took a deep breath and straightened my skirts as I crossed the garden. The king had trespassed in my mind, but I refused to let him take up permanent residence there. There was still work to be done. I trod around the side of the house, busying my mind with more productive tasks.

Jackaby's weathered wooden fence was inscribed all around with protective words and symbols, and the branches of his trees were hung with feathers and cords tied in intricate knots. The old willow's foliage had faded from bright green to pale gold in the past week, and leaves spun around me as I untangled a few of the wards that hung from their branches. I dusted off stone totems and pulled stray twigs out of the ring of salt that ran along the foundation of the house. As I watered the fragrant rosemary and the budding yellow witch hazel, I gazed up at the brickwork, noting the myriad symbols hiding in the masonry like sly old friends. There, by the eaves, was the eye of Ra, there, the hammer of Thor, and there, the seal of Solomon. I brushed my palm over a faded shamrock relief as I rounded the front of the house.

Hanging over the entry was the same wrought iron sign that had greeted me so many months ago when I first came trudging up the icy cobblestones of Augur Lane in that cold January of 1892.

investigative services

private detection & consultations:

unexplained phenomena our specialty

Beneath this stood the detective himself, hammering in the final nail to rehang his horseshoe door knocker. The new door was a bit wider and sturdier than its predecessor, but it was already painted the same brilliant red. Built into the frame above it was a new narrow window as well—a single pane of frosted glass, into which were etched the words:

r. f. jackaby

private detective

"Good morning, Mr. Jackaby," I said. "The new entryway looks lovely."

"Contextual relevancy," he said, although the words had to wend their way through a mouthful of spare tacks.

"Come again?"

He spat the nails into his hand. "The transom. Here, come closer."

I stepped up to the landing, and the frosted glass clouded over momentarily, clearing just as quickly to reveal a revised set of words:

r. f. jackaby

mentor & employer

"That's incredible!" I said.

"Bit of a special order. The limited clairvoyant effect is achieved through a psychic crystal suffusion in the glass. It senses the needs and expectations of each caller and generates a respective title. Come, see it from the inside."

I followed him in. The letters should have been reversed, but the transom read the same from within as it did from without.

"The house now knows what our potential clients really think of my services before we even open the door," he said. "I thought that might be a convenient forewarning, given a few of our most recent visitors."

"A wise precaution."

"Yes. I took the liberty of having them enchant it with a glamour-inhibitor charm, as well. I have no trouble telling who is what and what is who, but I thought you might appreciate knowing who you're dealing with. Now then, speaking of visitors," he said, depositing his hammer and spare nails casually into a drawer marked Receipts, "have you fed our unwilling guest this morning?"

"Yes, sir. And I locked up tight behind myself."

"Good. Checked the exterior wards?"

"Just now, sir."

"It's Tuesday. Be sure you leave a saucer of honeyed milk out for the pixies."

"Wednesday, sir. And I already put out fresh strawberries for the sprites."

Jackaby gave a satisfied nod. "Excellent. Get yourself ready, then. We leave within the hour."

"Yes, sir. Where are we going today?"

"Seeley's Square, and from there through the veil to see a king about a council."

"The king of the Annwyn?" My breath caught in my throat. A pair of blood red eyes burned in my memory. "Sir, we aren't remotely prepared yet!"

"What?" Jackaby said. "Oh, not that king. There are as many kings in the otherworld as there are kings on earth. As many bad kings and as many good, but there has never been one king to rule them all, in spite of what that nasty nixie's father says. No, no. It has taken some time, but I finally arranged a meeting with a king of a very different sort. If there is anyone in the Annwyn with a vested interest in protecting the barrier between that world and this one, it is the Fair King, Arawn. His emissaries will meet us at noon precisely to escort us through the veil-gate."

"I suppose at this point I shouldn't be surprised to learn you're friends with the magical king of the good fairies," I said. I occasionally wondered if I would ever wake up from my bizarre life in New Fiddleham to find I had really just dozed off on a pile of storybooks and scientific journals, and that I was back home in Portchester, still in England, where life made sense and fairy tales were fiction.

"Friends is not necessarily the term I would use," said Jackaby. "I am in Lord Arawn's debt. He presented me with the dossier of the Seer when I was a boy, just as he had presented it to the Seer before me. I would know nothing of the history of my gifts if it were not for—" Jackaby froze and looked up at the open door.

I followed his gaze to see a white-haired old man stumbling up to the landing panting heavily, his skin wan. He reached out to steady himself on the door frame, but missed, collapsing to his knees on the threshold.

Above him, the cloudy glass of the transom window was already clearing.

R. F. Jackaby

Desperate last resort

Chapter Two

The devil's come for me," the old man wheezed. "He's come for me at last!"

Jackaby knelt beside him, offering him a steady hand. "There are no devils here," he said. "Catch your breath a moment. That's it." His eyes narrowed. "Hold on, now—you're familiar."

"We have met, Detective," the man croaked. "The church—" But he collapsed into a fit of dry coughs.

Recognition dawned and Jackaby cocked his head, startled. "My word! It's Gustaf, isn't it? No, Grossman? Grafton!" The old man nodded weakly. "Father Grafton. Yes. Good God, you've grown old!"

"Sir," I chided.

"Miss Rook, allow me to introduce Father Grafton. We last met—what was it—three years ago? When Douglas and I were investigating a rather grisly series of killings on the outskirts of town."

"Not my doing," Grafton managed. "The killings."

"No," confirmed Jackaby. "The pastor was doing everything in his power to prevent any further harm from befalling his parishioners. Made a good show of it, too. Of course, he was at least thirty years younger then." He whipped back to the old man. "Three decades in just three years? Have you been meddling with the occult? You know firsthand how dangerous that is! I'll have you know Douglas hasn't been the same since he left that church of yours!"

"Put the fear in him, did it?"

"A bit. Mostly it turned him into an aquatic bird."

"D-dim hud." The man's eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing. He shook his head, blinking. "No magic. Not anymore." A patch of wispy white hair fell from his head and drifted to the floorboards.

Jackaby peered intensely at Father Grafton. "You're getting older by the second!"

Grafton nodded weakly.

"I don't understand." Jackaby peered into Grafton's ear and then took a sniff of his wispy hair. "I don't see any sign of a curse, no traces of paranormal poisons, no visible enchantments. Who did this to you?"

"Time," Grafton rasped. "Not much time." Wrinkles cut across the man's face like scars and milky white cataracts formed in his eyes. His shoulders shook. "Harfau o Hafgan," he breathed.

"Harfau o Hafgan? What does that mean? Is that Welsh?"

"Mae'r coron, waywffon, a darian," Grafton mumbled, his head drooping with each word—and then he lurched up so suddenly it made me jump. He clutched Jackaby's arm. "The crown, the spear, the shield. You cannot let him collect them. He has already taken the crown. The spear . . . it was destroyed, but I fear it has been remade. The shield . . . the shield . . ." He was gasping with each breath, his whole body shuddering. His eyes were wide and wild. "He trusted me. Now I have to trust you. The shield is in the Bible. The Bible of the zealot."

"The shield is in a Bible?" said Jackaby. "What Bible? Whose? Are you the zealot?"

"Not much time. The shield. In the Bible. You must stop—stop—stopiwch y brenin." Father Grafton crumpled to the floor, and with one last rattling breath, he was still.

Jackaby delicately turned him over. Grafton's skin had gone as dry as parchment. The old man's body looked as though he had been mummified. I put a hand over my mouth.

"Is he—" I whispered.

"Quite," said Jackaby.

"How?" I gulped.

"It doesn't make sense." Jackaby scowled.

He stood and began to pace at Father Grafton's head.

"He wasn't charmed or hexed. There was a somewhat ethereal aura about him, but no more than I might expect from a man of the cloth. There's nothing about him that should have caused this! It's as though he was just taken by a sudden and inexplicable bout of old age. If I had not seen it happen—if I had only stumbled across him—I would say this was the corpse of a man who died decades ago of natural causes."

"What about that was natural?" I asked.

Jackaby shook his head, vexed. "Did you catch everything he said?" he asked.

"Yes. I think so."

"Jot it all down for our records, then. It seems we have been hired for another case, Miss Rook, and the good father has already paid us with his life."

We managed to maneuver the body inside before it could draw attention from the neighbors. I would like to say it was the first body that Jackaby and I had ever deposited on the old wooden bench in our foyer, or that it would be the last, but neither would be true.

"What should we do with him now?" I asked.

"I have a decent coffin in the attic that should suit the gentleman well enough. I'll just need to find somewhere else to store my encyclopedias." Jackaby paced the threadbare carpet. "We should search his church immediately. It's a smallish parish on the outskirts of the city. He said the shield was in a Bible. Whatever the shield is, I expect we'll find it there—and if the devil really is after Father Grafton, then I'd rather find it before he does."

"So much for meeting the fairy king at noon," I said. "I guess Lord Arawn will have to wait."

"Oh hell," Jackaby said. "No, I can't miss my rendezvous. The fair folk don't take kindly to social improprieties, and I can't afford to wait for another meeting."

"Well then, I'll go."

"Absolutely not. Arawn's emissaries expect me. They would never grant you the meeting without me."

"I mean I'll go to look for the Bible."

"What? Out of the question," Jackaby said. "The last assistant I sent into that church alone has been eating bugs and bread crumbs out of the grass ever since."

"I won't go alone; I'll bring Charlie." Officer Charlie Barker, formerly Charlie Cane, was the finest companion I could ask for on a job like this. In addition to being a top-notch and highly trained detective in his own right, Charlie was also—well—special. Descended from an ancient family of shape-shifters called the Om Caini, Charlie could transform at will into a powerful hound. He had saved my life and that of countless others, although he had been forced to live in hiding ever since his secret inhuman heritage had been revealed. A great affection had grown between Charlie and me—though his nature, the need to conceal it, and the pace of the unbelievable events unfolding around us made our situation . . . complicated.

"Charlie is on special assignment for Marlowe again," said Jackaby. "Left Douglas in charge of his dog and took off just before dawn this morning. Lord knows when the commissioner will be done with him this time—he needs all the help he can get. The whole of New Fiddleham is a boiling mess. I think I preferred it when Mayor Spade just pretended the supernatural didn't exist. Now he's causing more trouble than he's averting with his ludicrous witch hunt. Marlowe can barely keep up."

I couldn't entirely blame Mayor Spade. The nasty nixie in our cellar had spent the better part of the past ten years masquerading as Spade's doting wife, manipulating and using him all the while. The truth of this had not come gently to the mayor. His world had turned upside down overnight, and in the weeks since, he had launched his own personal crusade to set it right, with little regard to how he might set it wrong in the process.

Charlie had been covertly helping Commissioner Marlowe smooth out the prickliest situations caused by Spade's creature-catching campaign. It was thankless work, but Charlie was stubbornly noble, risking his hide for a city that would just as soon label him one of the monsters. His stalwart nature made him gallant—but it also made him absent, which did little to help me right at the moment.

"Why don't you send me?" Jackaby and I both turned to see Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghost of Augur Lane, hovering in the doorway. She was translucent, her edges wavering ever so slightly, her silvery hair floating behind her. The loathsome Morwen Finstern had taken poor Jenny's life over a decade ago, but Jenny had firmly taken back her afterlife. Around her neck now hung a pewter locket. Inside it was a simple inscription, From Howard with love, and a pinch of brick dust. Howard Carson had been Jenny's past. The brick dust was her future. By carrying with her that small piece of her home and the place of her death, Jenny had made herself free to explore the world once again in her ghostly form.

"It's too dangerous," Jackaby said.

"Then it's a good thing I can't be killed again."

At length Jackaby relented. "Grafton said the shield was in the Bible. Look for a Bible with a crest on the cover," he said. "Or perhaps one with something tucked inside. Just"—Jackaby met Jenny's eyes—"be careful."

Jenny smiled softly at the detective. "And you."

Chapter Three

Mother had always told me that it was prudent to be prepared—although I imagine she would have preferred that I equip myself with spare silk handkerchiefs and sun hats and leave the silver daggers and vials of holy water at home. By the time Jackaby swept into my room, I had finished loading the pockets of my skirts with supplies and safeguards: a sprig of wolfsbane, a small talisman, a silver coin. The weight of my knife and scabbard on one hip was balanced by that of my leather-bound notebook on the other.

My modest collection was nothing compared to the walking arsenal of artifacts that was my employer. The overstuffed pockets of his long duster clinked and jingled, and he smelled pleasantly of cloves. "Ready, Miss Rook?"

"Whenever you are, sir."

"Then let's be off. Our carriage is waiting out front."

"You've chartered a driver for the trip?" Jackaby almost never summoned a cab if he could manage on foot.

"No," said Jackaby. "Didn't I mention? I have hired one on a more permanent basis. Well, semipermanent. Really quite temporary—call it a trial period. I retain the right to give her the sack as soon as the world is no longer in imminent peril. For the time being, it seemed convenient to retain reliable transportation."

I followed my employer down the spiral stairs, through the winding hallway, and out the front door. Waiting on the street was not a sleek black hansom cab, but an exceedingly battered one-horse vendor's carriage with the words Dr. Emerson's Enervating Elixir—also good for cats! written in peeling paint along the side.

"Who is Dr. Emerson?" I asked.

"A fellow whose tonic, it seems, did not sell well enough to merit the expense of his vehicle. He was willing to part with it for a reasonable figure."

A tall, dark woman stepped down from the driver's box. She was dressed in a neat black skirt and matching jacket with a prim bow at the neck of her crisp white shirtwaist, and she wore a rosy bonnet pinned up in the curls of her hair. Her shoulders were broad and her jawline hard, but she moved with all the grace of a dancer. I knew her at once. Miss Lydia Lee.

"Miss Lee!" I called out. "How delightful to see you again!"

"Likewise, Miss Rook. And very kind of you to say." Lydia Lee smiled a little nervously, tugging at the hem of her jacket. She opened the door and stood up straight like a proper valet.

"Thank you, Miss Lee," Jackaby said. "Up you go, Rook."

"Have you much experience working with horses?" I asked Miss Lee, climbing up the creaking step. Within, the coach smelled strongly of garlic and peaches. Behind our seats was a storage area, where a few empty bottles of Dr. Emerson's Elixir clinked about on the floor.

Miss Lee pursed her lips, looking less than confident as she clicked shut the door for us. "She'll be fine," Jackaby assured me. "The stable master taught her all about bits and bridles and all that business yesterday when we bought the old stallion off him. Miss Lee was of the opinion that she was woefully unqualified at first, but as I explained to her then, the best way to become qualified is to do. How's it coming along, Miss Lee?"

Miss Lee shrugged. "This old plug and I are getting used to each other, I guess," she said, giving the dappled gray a pat before she climbed back up to take the reins. "The Duke's only nipped at me two or three times this morning."

"Splendid progress. Seeley's Square, please. We have a king to question."

When we arrived at the vibrant park in the center of New Fiddleham, the clock atop the Stapleton building read five minutes to twelve. My stomach had begun to flutter with the anxious excitement that every new case with Jackaby seemed to elicit. Admittedly, the feeling may have been exacerbated by the fact that the Duke seemed unwilling to take the winding curves of New Fiddleham's streets at anything less than a full gallop no matter how desperately Miss Lee pulled at the reins. By the time we arrived, I was more than eager to step down from the coach and into Seeley's Square. Mr. Jackaby bade Miss Lee good-bye as I took a few deep breaths and regained my bearings.

The park before us was a beautiful expanse of green grass and healthy foliage. Butterflies fluttered about over the bushes and birds twittered in the treetops. A handful of businessmen took their lunches on park benches, and a woman pushed a stroller along the path while twin girls in bright petticoats ran circles around her.

Jackaby ambled away from all of them, heading off the path and through the less manicured brush toward a grove at the very center of Seeley's Square. I had not noticed it at first, but in the dead center of the park stood a cluster of trees that grew in an unnaturally tight circle. Jackaby drew to a stop in front of them.

"Is this where we will be meeting the . . . er . . . them?" I asked.

"I believe we are meant to enter the ring first," he replied.

I tried to peer between the trunks to see what might lie within, but no matter how I craned my neck, I could not seem to catch the right angle. The trees did not appear to be touching one another, but it was almost as though they kept leaning closer so that no matter where I peeked the inside of the circle was just out of view.

"How are we meant to do that?" I asked.

"Hm." Jackaby reached out a hand and touched the nearest tree. It responded by remaining a tree. Jackaby began to rummage through his pockets. "The Jericho doorbell is no good on a living wall. Magic beans would get us over the top and then some, but it seems rather a waste."

While he pondered, I strode around the perimeter of the grove. It was fifteen or twenty feet in diameter, growing with perfect geometric precision. "It's no good," I said. "They're just the same, all the way around the—" As I finished walking the full circle I froze. Jackaby had vanished.


  • “Offers a pointed and timely message about pluralism and the value of bridges over barriers. A humorous, energetic, action-packed, and magical conclusion.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • "Twists and turns provide for action-packed pages. Events that have been heavily foreshadowed throughout will come to fruition in a satisfying ending that offers tantalizing hints of the characters’ fortunes."—School Library Journal
  • The Dire King challenges hatemongers and bullies. It promotes tolerance, resilience, courage and hope. More than ever, this is a message our young people need to hear, and William Ritter delivers."—Kitsap Sun
  •  “Filled with the candid, fast-paced, adventurous writing style of William Ritter, readers will plunge right into all the action, adventure, and plot twists that will keep them guessing to the very end.”—Dixon Independent Voice

On Sale
Aug 22, 2023
Page Count
368 pages

William Ritter

About the Author

William Ritter is an Oregon educator and the New York Times bestselling author of the Jackaby series, which received glowing trade and national reviews and was named to many state lists. He is the proud father of the two bravest boys in the Wild Wood, and husband to the indomitable Queen of the Deep Dark. Visit him online at and find him on Twitter: @Willothewords.

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