Authors: Gareth P. Jones
âEnter,' called Mrs Pringle.
Lapsewood stepped inside. Alice's face was still at the forefront of his mind but General Colt's secretary could not have been less like her. She was old and haggard. She had been ghost-born in the late seventeenth century, judging by her clothes, and had the look of one who had not so much died as rotted away.
âYes?' she said. She looked up from the novel she was reading and peered at Lapsewood over the top of her glasses.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
,' said Lapsewood, reading the title. âDickens' unfinished novel.'
âActually, Mr Dickens was kind enough to supply me with the final chapters posthumously,' she replied, unsmilingly. âCan I help you?'
âMr Lapsewood, transfer from Dispatches,' he announced.
She looked him up and down. âOh really? Oh dear. Oh well, go on in.'
Lapsewood went through to the main office. The walls were lined with large dusty books; hundreds of volumes, detailing every rule, law, by-law, edict, clause and guideline that made up the complex Bureaucratic Procedure. General Colt was sitting with his feet on the desk, eyes shut, his enormous walrus moustache moving in time with the sound of his heavy breathing. The rest of his face was covered by a large wide-brimmed hat. Lapsewood paused and turned back to Mrs Pringle.
âHe appears to be asleep,' he said.
âYes,' she replied.
âBut that's impossible. Ghosts can't sleep.'
Mrs Pringle placed a finger at the point she was up to in her book and looked up. âYou'd be surprised by the lengths some people will go to to avoid signing a batch of New Resident Allocation documents.' In spite of the fact that she shouted this, her words apparently went unheard by the general.
âShould I come back later?' asked Lapsewood.
âI'd give him a nudge if I were you.'
Lapsewood stepped inside the room.
âAnd close the door,' added Mrs Pringle.
Lapsewood pulled the door to, hoping the sound would rouse him, but the general continued to snore. He coughed. Nothing. âAh-hem,' he said. Still no movement.
Lapsewood went around the back of the desk and, ever so slowly, nudged one of the general's supporting elbows and then quickly darted back to the other side. The general sat up with a start. âWhat? Why theÂ .Â .Â . who are you?'
âLapsewood, sir,' he said. âDispatches. Colonel Penhaligan sent me.'
âPen-hal-igan?' he repeated, in a pronounced accent that Lapsewood vaguely placed as coming from somewhere in the southern states of America. âOh yeah. Penhaligan.' He looked at Lapsewood. âOh, are you sure he sent you?'
âWell, you won't do at all. Not at all, son.'
âPenhaligan never had any complaints about my work, sir.'
âWhy did he send you here, then?'
Lapsewood didn't respond.
âWhat we have here,' continued General Colt, âif I'm not very much mistaken, is a fob off, and I don't care for being fobbed off. You trying to fob me off, boy?'
General Colt stood up, walked around in a small circle and sat back down.
âPerhaps if you could let me know the nature of the work I might be able to assist,' said Lapsewood.
âThe nature of the work, as you put it, is that I need someone with haunting experience, someone with a brain, somÂeone with legitimate contacts in the living world and a current polter-licence.'
âYou mean a Prowler, sir?'
âExactly, and just looking at you I'd be willing to bet that you haven't so much as stepped out of this building since the day you died. Am I right? Don't answer that. I know I'm right.'
âMy work has been mostly office-bound until this point, butâ'
âDon't give me any flannel,' interrupted the furious general. âYou're about as useful as a three-legged horse.'
Lapsewood wondered whether a three-legged horse was better or worse than a donkey.
General Colt pulled out a large silver gun from his holster. âI'd have you put down if you weren't already dead.'
Worse, thought Lapsewood. Definitely worse.
General Colt aimed and pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang.
âNo firearms!' screamed Mrs Pringle from the other side of the door.
âOld witch,' muttered General Colt.
Lapsewood wondered whether the general would have shot him if he thought it would have done any harm. He feared he would. Perhaps he should have taken Colonel Penhaligan's first offer to resolve his unfinished business. But, quite aside from the fear of stepping through the Unseen Door into whatever lay on the other side, Lapsewood hadn't the faintest idea what could be left unfinished in his wholly unremarkable life.
âI can do it,' he said in a shaky voice.
âWhat was that, boy?' demanded General Colt.
âI can do it, whatever it is you need doing. I'm sure I can do it. What I lack in experience I make up for in determination and initiative.'
General Colt laughed and holstered his gun. âYou got guts, boy. I'll give you that.' He removed his hat, placing it on the table, and Lapsewood's eyes were drawn to the perfectly round hole in the centre of his temple revealing the grey inside of his skull. General Colt noticed him looking. âAh, I see you've seen my old death wound. I tell you, if my own gun hadn't jammed on me I'd have hit that son of a gun first. Still, the man who gave me this brain ventilation swung for his crime. I was there. I watched his ghost rise up from his limp hanging body and go straight through to the other side. Whereas I ended up with a job here. So who's laughing now, eh? Don't answer that.'
âWhat do you need me for, sir?' asked Lapsewood.
âWhat do you know about haunted houses?'
âThey're houses with ghosts living in them?' ventured Lapsewood.
âI'm beginning to see why Penhaligan was willing to let you go.' General Colt raised his eyebrows. âYes, houses with ghosts in them. Do you know why this happens?' he asked, as though addressing a child, and a simple one at that.
âIt's something to do withÂ .Â .Â . or it's because ofÂ .Â .Â . Actually, no. I don't think I do know.'
âLet me enlighten you,' said General Colt. âHouses are made of physical materials: wood, brick, stone and so on, but even inanimate objects can retain the imprint of a life that comes into regular contact with them.'
âYou mean like how a medium can use an object like a ring to contact a spirit?' said Lapsewood.
âDon't interrupt. But yes. A building has much more contact with life than a ring, though. It contains life. Think of it like the shell of a hermit crab. You've heard of hermit crabs, I suppose? Don't answer that. The fact is that structures that contain life for so long get used to it. They come to require it. Over time, they come to need life. Are you following me?'
âHouses need life, sir.'
âIt's not just houses, Lapsewood. Buildings. Theatres, churches, pubsÂ .Â .Â . barns, even. Anything with four walls and a roof. And if a house that has become accustomed to a great deal of life suddenly finds itself empty, it latches on to a soul and keeps the ghost back. It becomes a prison for that spirit, even after new tenants move in.'
âI think I understand.'
âWell, that's what we deal with at the Housing Department. We act as liaison for housebound spirits, dealing with their requests for polter-licences, Opacity Permission applications, correspondence and so on. Our small team of Outreach Workers spend their time visiting each Resident. It can be a lonely life stuck in an attic for eternity. And then there are all the problems they have when new living tenants move in, changing the wallpaper, throwing out furniture â you know the kind of thing.'
âAnd why exactly do you need me?'
âOne of my Outreach Workers has gone missing.' He looked down at a piece of paper in front of him. âDoris McNally's her name.'
âMissing?' said Lapsewood nervously.
âYep, disappeared without a trace. She covers the London area. Lot of haunted houses there, but she stopped reporting in a couple of weeks ago. Probably got fed up and gone Rogue. So, you see, what I really need is a Prowler. Tracking down ghosts is no task for a pen pusher.'
âI can do it,' said Lapsewood, with what he hoped would sound like confidence.
âI seriously doubt that, boy, but since I'm not exactly drowning in options hereÂ .Â .Â .' The general reached under the desk and, for a moment, Lapsewood thought he was going for his gun again. To his relief, he opened a drawer and pulled out a file. âThis is a copy of the London Tenancy List. It itemises every haunted house in London in the right-hand column. The left has its Resident and the date of their ghost birth. Doris has the other copy. I need you to go to London and find her. It involved enough paperwork getting you here in the first place. Assigning a new Outreach Worker will take months.'
Lapsewood picked up the list. âI'll do it, sir.'
âConfidence,' said General Colt, grinning. âThat's what I like to see. Have I misjudged you, boy? Don't answer that. Mrs Pringle will issue you with all the licences and permissions you'll need. Now, unless you've got any more questions, I've an important appointment with Mr Wingrave. Good luck, Lackwood.'
General Colt stood up and walked out of the room. âMrs Pringle, I'll be out for the rest of the day,' he announced. âGet my caddie to meet me on the fairway.'
Lady Aysgarth detested breakfasting with the Tiltmans. She only did it because she considered it the polite thing to do. Her new tenants, however, were unaware of her benevolent sacrifice. In fact, they were utterly unaware of her existence at all, due to what she tended to think of as her
It had been sixteen years since the Tiltmans chose the house in a quiet courtyard off Fleet Street as their new home, and yet Her Ladyship still considered them new tenants. She had watched their daughter Clara grow into an unruly fifteen-year-old girl who, in Lady Aysgarth's opinion, needed taking in hand.
The Tiltmans, with their money, garish wallpaper and modern ideas, were a daily reminder that Lady Aysgarth's death had signified the end of her own much nobler bloodline. The large chandelier that hung in the hall was just about the only original feature that remained after Mrs Tiltman got to work demonstrating what she laughingly referred to as her flair for interior design.
How Lady Aysgarth longed to hear the Knocking. How frustrating it was that her application was routinely refused by that awful McNally woman on the basis that
âthe house needs a spirit'
. To which Lady Aysgarth always responded with another question:
âYes, but why mine?'
When Mrs Tiltman's mother had moved in, sick and clearly on the way out, Lady Aysgarth had suggested that the old lady's ghost could take her place. Doris McNally had explained that it didn't work like that and Lady Aysgarth had been forced to watch the old lady die and her spirit disappear through the Unseen Door.
Lady Aysgarth sat miserably watching the Tiltmans eat.
âI shall be late back this evening, darling,' said Mr Tiltman. âIt's to be one of those days at the exchange, I fear.'
After all these years, Lady Aysgarth still had no idea what it was that Mr Tiltman did for a living, beyond it having something to do with money. But then, as far as she could tell, nor did Mrs Tiltman, who was content to spend his earnings while glossing over the exactitudes of how he came by it. Occasionally, Lady Aysgarth wondered whether even Mr Tiltman himself knew precisely what it was he did.
âI hope you have remembered we have guests this evening,' said Mrs Tiltman.
âOh, we don't, do we?' replied her husband.
âI reminded you yesterday and twice on Monday.'
âI do hate guests,' he said, winking at his daughter mischievously.
âGeorge, you shouldn't speak in such a way in front of Clara,' scolded Mrs Tiltman. âBesides, my sister is bringing one of her people.'
Mr Tiltman groaned. âOh, spare us from Hetty's people.'
âShe says this one is completely unique. She says we're in for the most amusing evening.'
âShe said the same about the one-eyed dwarf.'
âWell, he was amusing.'
âHe stole our cutlery.'
âYou don't know that for sure. Anyway, this isn't a dwarf.'
âWhat is it this time? A giant? A bearded lady? A Spaniard? It's sure to be some monstrous freak on loan from the circus.'
âI don't know what exactly, but if Hetty says it's going to be diverting I believe it will be.'
âIt's difficult not to be diverted when there's a diminutive cyclops making off with the silverware.'
This time Mrs Tiltman was unable to hide a smile as well, but it did not stop her from chastising her daughter for giggling.
âPlease can I stay up and meet Hetty's person?' asked Clara.
âNo,' stated her mother. âChildren do not attend dinner parties.'
âI could write an article about it.'
âYou won't be writing any such thing,' said Mrs Tiltman.
âI'll hear no more about it.'
Mr Tiltman smiled indulgently at his daughter. âIf the person seems appropriate, I'll ask Hetty to bring them round again to meet you one day soon,' he said kindly. âBut we are probably doing you a great favour by keeping you out of sight. I should prefer to be upstairs hiding away too.'
Mrs Tiltman stood up angrily. âYou are as bad as each other.'
Lady Aysgarth stood too. She remembered as a child being given in church a vivid picture of Hell. Burning flames, fire and brimstone. She recalled sitting up one night reading Dante's account of each layer, filled with sinners, toiling away for eternity. This was worse. Sitting at a table, listening to this family, planning a dinner party of vulgarity, spending their money on vile objects that seemed specially designed to uglify the house that bore her family name. She stepped through the wall into the hallway, turned to Ether Dust and drifted up to the attic.