Authors: Gareth P. Jones
âNeither of us are allowed in there.'
âThen the Coach and Horses it is. Don't forget, it's your round.'
âMy round? I bought the last one.'
The two men staggered to the end of the alley and disappeared on to the main thoroughfare. Lapsewood had got so used to the quiet life in the Bureau he had forgotten what the living world was like, how full of smells and noises, sights and sounds. It was awful. He would have felt nauseous if he still had a stomach. He followed the two men out into the street.
The early evening darkness of winter had led him to believe it was much later than it was, so he was surprised to find the Strand so alive with activity. Tradespeople were selling their goods. All manner of folk were making their way in search of food, entertainment or one of the many diversions provided by the city. Lapsewood felt fearful of stepping out into such a bustling street. He pulled out the London Tenancy List and looked at it, but with no map of the city how was he to find these addresses?
General Colt was right. He was unqualified for this job. He felt sick with dread. He needed somewhere to sit down, somewhere to gather his thoughts and decide upon the best course of action. He saw the two men from the alley go into a public house and decided to follow them, if only to get away from the chaos of the street. Out of habit, he tried to open the door, but his hand went straight through and he stepped inside.
It was even more chaotic and lively inside the pub than in the street. Everyone shouted over each other. With so many people talking he wondered if there was anyone left to listen to what they had to say. The place was full of the thundering laughs of the men and the high, shrill shrieks of the women, all of them either drunk or on their way. In life, Lapsewood had never been one for drinking. Liquor represented everything he found unsettling about life: its unruly wildness, its loss of inhibition.
In amongst the throng his attention was drawn to a small boy. For a moment he wondered whether he might be a pickpocket, but his translucence revealed him to be a ghost. The boy was standing next to the two men from the alley. He noticed Lapsewood looking at him, winked, and nudged the smaller man's arm, sending the contents of his glass over his friend.
âWhat did you do that for?' demanded the other.
âMe? You knocked my hand,' shouted the first.
âYou think I wanted to dowse myself in beer?'
âNo, I think you're a clumsy oaf and you owe me a fresh pint.'
âI already paid for the last two, you skinflint.'
The first man punched the other on the nose. The other came back at the first with a blow to the stomach. Neither noticed the small boy who had caused the argument in the first place. The fight spread like fire through a dry wooden cabin, and soon fists were flying in all directions until the entire pub had descended into a chaotic brawl.
Lapsewood watched as the boy slipped unnoticed through the crowd and straight through a brick wall. âHey,' he cried.
Lapsewood followed him into a side alley.
âHey,' he repeated.
âWhat?' replied the boy.
âWhy did you do that?'
âWhat's it to you?'
âLet me see your polter-licence,' demanded Lapsewood. âYou can't cause such a ruckus in a public place without permission from your local administrative officer, plus the signature from his superior and a stamp from the Department of Polter-Activity. All of which is a considerable amount of work for the sake of a moment's havoc.'
The boy laughed. âA moment's havoc,' he repeated. âI like that. You got a way with words, mister. I'm Tanner.'
Lapsewood was unsure what was so funny. âI think I should speak to your local administrative officer,' he said.
Tanner laughed. âI'm a free spirit, mate.'
âEven free spirits have assigned local administrative officers. Show me your paperwork.'
âI ain't got no paperwork and you ain't no Enforcer. That's plain enough to see.'
The colour would have drained from Lapsewood's face had there been any in the first place. He followed Tanner along the alleyway, down a set of steps on to a road by the side of the Thames. The river was dark, murky and uninviting. He lowered his voice. âYou mean, you're a Rogue ghost?'
âI didn't answer to no one in the last life and I ain't gonna start in this one,' said the boy. âI ain't ready to go through that door yet. There's too much fun to be had here.'
âBy “fun” I presume you mean contraventions of the extensive regulations regarding polter-activity and necessary haunting?'
âI suppose I would mean that if I knew what half of it meant.'
âHow did you even manage to knock that gentleman's arm without a polter-licence?'
âYou Bureau lot are always on about licences, but poltering just takes concentration. You ain't gonna find a better poltergeist than me, licence or no licence. I've even unlocked doors. That takes real skill.'
âHow have you avoided capture by the Enforcers?'
âI'm too quick for them clumsy oafs,' said Tanner. âWhat about you then, Words? What you doing down here in the grime?'
âI have a special mission.'
âWhat mission?' asked Tanner.
âI'm working for the Housing Department. I'm looking for a ghost called Doris McNally. She's an Outreach Worker for housebound spirits.'
âHow you plan on finding her, then?'
âI have a copy of the same list of haunted buildings she was working from. I plan to check each one and ask the Residents when they last saw her.'
âYou don't want to be messing about with haunted houses these days, mate,' said Tanner.
âWhat do you mean?'
âThe Black Rot.'
âThe Black Rot. All us Rogues know about it,' said Tanner. âIt don't surprise me it hasn't reached the Bureau, though. You'll all be searching for a form to fill in about it.'
âWhat is it?' asked Lapsewood.
They were walking along the riverbank. Tanner was casually strolling without a care for the living people passing through him, while Lapsewood was leaping around trying to avoid everyone heading towards him, constantly looking over his shoulder for people coming from behind.
âThe Black Rot sets in when a house loses its ghost, then it traps the next ghost to step inside,' said Tanner.
âHow can a house lose its ghost?' asked Lapsewood, wondering why General Colt hadn't mentioned any of this. âAnd how will we find Doris if we can't risk entering the buildings?'
âWe? I ain't helping you.'
âBut I need help locating these addresses.'
âNot my problem, chum.'
âYou are a Rogue spirit, an illegal ghost, without licence or authorisation,' said Lapsewood. âIf you don't help I'll make sure that you're tracked down and thrown into the Vault.'
âYeah, right? By an Enforcer? Good luck with that. They never caught me yet.'
âBy a Prowler, then.'
âProwlers wouldn't bother with a littl'un like me.'
Lapsewood stopped walking, failing to see the taxicab behind which went straight through him, giving him a fleeting, horrible glimpse of the inside of the cab and its passengers. He shuddered.
Tanner laughed. âAll right. I'll help you out. Not because of your threats but 'cause I've always had a soft spot for helpless creatures. Give us that list.'
Lapsewood handed it to him. Tanner examined it closely.
âLooks like Drury Lane Theatre is the nearest one. I'll meet you outside in ten minutes.'
âBut where is it?' asked Lapsewood.
Tanner threw him another pitying look. âYou never been to the theatre?'
âWell, no, IÂ .Â .Â .'
Tanner laughed. âA ghost that's never even lived. If that ain't funny I don't know what is. Drury Lane's up that alley and to the right.'
âWhere are you going?'
âI've had one of my ideas, ain't I? You're lucky you bumped into me, Words. Make sure you don't go inside until I get back.'
Tanner handed the list back to Lapsewood. A thought struck him. âSo you can read?'
âWhat, I suppose you think a poor little urchin like me wouldn't have had no schooling?'
âNo, but, well, yesÂ .Â .Â .'
âAs it happens, I learnt to read after I died. See you in a minute.'
When Sam arrived back home he found Mr Gliddon, the local grocer, and his two sons talking loudly over each other while Mr Constable sat patiently waiting for a moment to interject. Richard Gliddon, the elder brother, was in his mid-twenties and worked with his father in the shop. Sam was less familiar with Edward, the younger brother, who had moved to London in pursuit of a career as an actor. Mr Gliddon himself had evidently died since Sam had last seen him for, while his sons were sitting opposite Mr Constable, Mr Gliddon was standing in the middle of the desk, his words going unheard by the others.
âOur father deserves a send-off suited to a man who had earned such respect in his community,' said Richard.
âOur father would have shuddered at the cost of what you're proposing,' said Edward, who wore a flamboyantly patterned coat.
âExactly,' agreed the late Mr Gliddon. âWhy waste good money on a dead man? I've always said that, haven't I, Edward?'
âI don't know how you have the gall to sit here speaking of our father's intentions,' said Richard. âYou, who upped and left to chase your own foolish dreams.'
âMy father never thought them foolish dreams,' replied Edward.
âOh, he's your father now, is he?'
âI meant “our”.'
âAnd how would you know what he thought, since you spent all your time consorting with thieves and vagabonds?'
âI call them actors and actresses,' said Edward.
âYou sit here and bicker and yet neither of you can remember my only request,' exclaimed Mr Gliddon.
âIf your profession is such a noble one perhaps you can foot the bill for the funeral,' said Richard.
âI am proposing we minimise that cost in which case, yes, I will gladly split the bill with you,' countered his brother.
âGentlemen,' said Mr Constable, speaking quietly but firmly enough for both men to stop their quarrelling and pay attention. âThe death of a loved one is a difficult time. It is a time when many of us say things we do not mean. It is, therefore, a time when the biting of one's tongue is sometimes the wisest course of action. A little thought before each word spoken can save a great deal of hurt and upset. I am sure we can find a compromise that will keep the both of you happy while remaining true to the wishes of your dear, departed father.'
âWell, I don't think there will be any surprise on which side of things the funeral man will be erring,' said Edward. âHe'll just want to maximise his costs.'
Such a mild-mannered man was Mr Constable that Sam had never seen him actually lose his temper, but it was at moments like this when he came his closest.
âI assure you,' he said unsmilingly, âhere at Constable and Toop we seek only to provide the most appropriate funeral. Many in my profession would see the two of you, assess the budget available to you and suggest a funeral to fit. Why have two horses when you can have four? And let each of them be adorned with black ostrich tails? Why an elm coffin when oak is available? And let us not forget all the other trimmings on offer to the grieving. I assure you, Mr Gliddon, we have all of those things at your disposal, but I can also assure you that when my late father started this business, he did so with an intention of bringing integrity to the business of funerals. My partner and I believe above all else that a funeral should be a moment when the grieving family can mark the passing of a life in a suitable way to that in which it was lived. I knew and respected your father. I think it may be time for the two of you to remember some of that respect he garnered and act appropriately.'
Edward Gliddon looked shamefaced. âIt is a difficult time for us both,' he mumbled by way of apology.
âFor you both?' exploded the ghost of Mr Gliddon. âHow do you think I feel? One minute I'm walking back home from the pub, the next I'm dead in a puddle.'
Mr Constable turned to Sam for the first time since he had entered the shop. âI think you know my partner's son, Sam Toop,' he said.
The two men nodded and offered mumbled greetings.
âI'm very sorry for your loss,' said Sam.
âOh, everyone is very sorry now, aren't they?' said the late Mr Gliddon. âThat's all I hear now I'm dead. Sorry for your loss. Never heard so many kind words when I still had breath in my body.'
âSam, we are discussing what kind of funeral Mr Gliddon would have wanted,' said Mr Constable. âBut it is difficult. Mr Gliddon passed very suddenly. There was no opportunÂÂÂity to discuss these details.'
âHonestly,' sighed Mr Gliddon. âI told them both where I wanted to be buried; the same place as my father.'
âDid your father never express an interest in a particular burial place?' asked Sam.
Father and sons turned to look at Sam. If any had heard tell of Sam's abilities, they had all clearly chosen to dismiss them as rumours spread by silly schoolchildren.
âPerhaps a place of significance to your family?' said Sam.
âI do recall one conversation,' said Edward. âWe were all three there.'
âThe night Mother died,' said Richard, the memory flickering behind his eyes.
Edward nodded. âThat's right. You remember? We sat there drinking that bottle of whiskey.'
âBrandy,' said Richard.
âIt was port,' said Mr Gliddon.
âHe said he wanted to be buried by Grandfather's side,' said Edward.
âFinally!' Mr Gliddon clapped his hands together.