Authors: Gareth P. Jones
âSend me back?' snorted Lady Aysgarth. âBack where exactly?'
âI feel as if you've watched me all these years, like a guardian angel. I don't want to lose you now.'
âGuardian angel. RidiculousÂ .Â .Â .'
In all her years as a ghost, Lady Aysgarth had turned to Ether Dust many times, but only ever by choice. Now, all of a sudden, she felt a loss of control like she had never experienced before. Her body began to lose its shape. She fought to hold herself together but something was manipuÂlating her, like a hapless marionette being worked by an unseen puppeteer. When Lady Aysgarth saw the look on Clara's face she realised that, for the first time since her death, she was visible. Before she could utter a word she was dragged down through the gaps in the floorboards.
âLady Aysgarth!' cried Clara.
But Lady Aysgarth was flowing down through the house. Down, down, until she felt her particles of her body re-form and saw that she had arrived in the drawing room, suspended above the large wooden table where Mrs Tiltman liked to play card games with her friends. Except there were no cards laid out on the table and the people who sat around it were all holding hands, staring up at her. They included Mr and Mrs Tiltman, Hetty, and their friends Dr Wyatt and his wife, sitting next to a man dressed in black. More disturbingly, the living people could see her. Mrs Tiltman and Mrs Wyatt screamed. Dr Wyatt and Mr Tiltman gasped. Hetty released the hands she was holding and clapped excitedly.
âPlease do not be concerned,' said the man in black. âThe spirit cannot harm us. She is in my control.' He had a bald head with a three-pointed birthmark across his skull, blood-red in colour. He wore a clerical collar around his neck and his eyes bulged like those of a strangulated frog, while his pink tongue stuck out between his teeth.
âWhat do you want with me?' demanded Lady Aysgarth.
âIt sees us,' whispered Mrs Tiltman.
âIt? What do you mean “it”?' Lady Aysgarth exclaimed. âOf course I can see you. I've always been able to see you, you terrible people.'
The Tiltmans and their guests laughed nervously. Lady Aysgarth had become so accustomed to insulting the Tiltmans without being heard that she wasn't sure what to say now they could hear her every word. She simply wanted to leave. But no matter how she struggled it was as if there was a chain holding her in place, slowly moving her around.
âWhat message have you from the other side, spirit?' asked Dr Wyatt in a tone of quiet reverence.
âYou're all awful people,' said Lady Aysgarth.
Again, the laughter.
âDo not ask this spirit for wisdom,' said the clerical-collared man. âShe is an earthbound demon. She knows no more of the afterlife than you or I.' He raised his hands and wailed, âOh, forces of the after world, draw unto you this spirit. Release her from this earthly prison. Rid us of her demonic presence.'
âYes, find me a door,' said Lady Aysgarth. âAll I want is to hear the Knocking.'
But no knocking came. No door appeared. Instead, cracks appeared all around her, in the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Hairline cracks at first, but rapidly widening. From the blackness within came a crescendo of pained screams.
âOh, cursed spirit,' cried the man in black. âIt is time for you to go. Let your soul split. Let your form disassemble. Leave this house, leave this earth and never NEVER return.'
The man slammed his hands down on the desk and Lady Aysgarth felt the agony of being torn apart. It was so much more potent than physical pain. It was the pain of a soul being shattered.
Then she was no more.
Lapsewood and Tanner made their way east across London on foot, searching buildings on the London Tenancy List for Doris McNally. Travelling as Ether Dust would have been quicker but would have made it hard to hang on to the spirit hounds. Slowly they worked their way down the list, each time sending a dog in first, awaiting its return then venturing in themselves to interview the Resident.
In an Aldwych residence they found a ghost by the name of Mrs Heber, who had died in childbirth and been forced to remain in the house and watch as the daughter who had unwittingly killed her grew up, got married and then died in the same way herself. Mrs Heber sobbed as she explained that her daughter had heard the Knocking upon the moment of her death and stepped straight through the Unseen Door but, imprisoned by the house, she was unable to follow. Lapsewood and Tanner listened patiently to her story, then asked about Doris. Mrs Heber hadn't seen her in several months.
Lapsewood had been greatly affected by the story and was upset when Tanner revealed that he had pilfered a stick that Mrs Heber had clenched between her teeth during her last moments of life.
âWe're gonna need a few things to throw,' he said in his defence. âI mean, when we find an infected house, if the dog don't come out nor will the stick. And it's not always that easy to find ghost objects. They've got to be something the spirit was touching at the point of death.'
The next house they visited proved Tanner right. He threw the stick and sent in the Labrador as usual, but neither returned.
âPerhaps it came the wrong way out,' said Lapsewood.
âI don't think so. Look,' said Tanner.
Upon closer inspection, around the edges of the brickwork was a very subtle discolouration.
âBlack Rot,' said Lapsewood.
âCertainly seems so. Must be a pretty bad case to be visible from the outside.'
Lapsewood made a note of it on the list, holding the nib of the pen on the paper for a moment, allowing the ink to spread a little before writing
for âinfected' next to it.
They continued on their way with the four dogs in tow. As they got further down the list, Lapsewood noticed how the three-legged Jack Russell always walked at the front, and that Tanner routinely pushed him to the back whenever he was choosing the next one to go inside a property.
They lost another dog to a house in a courtyard off Fleet Street that had no visible signs of Black Rot from the outside. In a nearby public house called the Boar's Head they found the ghost of a former publican by the name of Paddy O'Twain, an extremely welcoming Irishman, as thin as a rake, who offered them both a drink as soon as they entered.
âA very good evening to you, fine fellows,' he said, spreading his arms wide as if they were old friends. âMay I interest you in some fine strong, freshly brewed spirit ale? Finest in the city, so it is. Oh, that all ghosts should know the happiness of imprisonment in a pub.'
Lapsewood refused, but Tanner happily took a glass of the dubious-looking concoction from the man. When Lapsewood pointed out that Tanner was too young for liquor, he brushed off the suggestion, pointing out that since he had now been ten years alive and ten dead he was actually twenty years of age and therefore old enough to partake. However, the moment they left the establishment Lapsewood noticed a decline in Tanner's ability to speak without giggling and how he took an extremely long time to untangle the three remaining dogs when it came to the next building. Paddy had seen Doris McNally a month ago, but had heard nothing of her since and did not know which direction she had been heading.
In an attic in Eastcheap, they met a poet who insisted they sit and appraise his latest poem before he answer their questions. Tanner had fully sobered up by the time the young man had read all thirty stanzas, but he was polite enough in his assessment of the poem. The poet said he had been visited by Doris a week ago.
âWe are getting closer,' said Lapsewood, stepping back into the street. âDoris must have been heading in the same direction as us.'
âI wouldn't trust anything that poet said,' said Tanner. âThe man was a fool.'
âHe had some talent with words, though,' said Lapsewood. âI thought his poem excellent.'
âYou said so too.'
âI was just being polite.'
âYou didn't like it?'
âIt wasn't that I didn't like it so much as, having sat through him prattling on about the stars and the oceans and the colour of his true love's eye, I think I'd still be hard pushed to tell you what it was about.'
âWell, I suppose you had little exposure to such things in life,' said Lapsewood.
âOK, if you're so poetic, then you tell me what it was about.'
âIt was aÂ .Â .Â . well, it was a musing on the futility of life, I think, or perhaps on the endlessness of deathÂ .Â .Â .'
Tanner laughed triumphantly. âJust as I thought. Not a clue.'
By the time Lapsewood and Tanner reached Whitechapel, the three-legged Jack Russell was the only dog left and there were four black dots on Lapsewood's list. Four infected houses.
Tanner cradled the remaining dog in his arms as they walked silently toward their next destination, St Winifred's School.
âWe can find more dogs if you don't want to send her in,' said Lapsewood.
âDon't be soft,' said Tanner. âShe's only a dead dog. Aren't you, Lil' Mags?' He tickled the dog under her chin and she let out a contented bark.
âWe'll need more, anyway,' said Lapsewood kindly. âWe may as well get them now.'
âWe'll get more when we need more,' replied Tanner. âCome on now, let's get this done.'
Lapsewood stopped outside the school. An imposing, redbrick building, it was empty and deserted so late at night. They had both got into the habit of checking carefully for signs of Black Rot first, to avoid wasting dogs, but Tanner studied this one extra diligently.
âI told you, we can get another dog if you're worried,' said Lapsewood.
âNo,' replied Tanner. He placed Lil' Mags down and held up a bedpost he had pinched from the poet's bed. Lil' Mags sniffed it eagerly, excited that it was finally her turn to play the game of fetch.
âGood luck, Lil' Mags,' whispered Tanner and he lobbed the bedpost in.
The Jack Russell looked up at him and, for a moment, Lapsewood thought the dog wasn't going to follow it, but she turned around and bounded in, vanishing inside the building.
Lapsewood said nothing while they waited, but the look of relief on Tanner's face was plain enough to see when the dog came out with the bedpost between her teeth.
âGood girl,' said Tanner, playfully trying to get the bedpost off her. âGood girl.'
They stepped through the wall into a large school hall where they were instantly accosted by the ghost of a woman wearing a green dress and a blood-soaked apron, her red hair tied up on top of her head.
âOch, at last, you've come,' she exclaimed. âI was beginning to think I'd been forgotten about. I suppose General Colt sent you.'
âYes,' said Lapsewood. They were standing in amongst rows of wooden desks. It took Lapsewood back to his own school days. Tanner was happily patting Lil' Mags. âAre you Doris McNally?'
âI was the last time I checked, aye. Try telling this school that, though. It thinks I'm its ghost.'
Lapsewood looked down at the list. âIt says it should be Janey Brown.'
âYou don't need to tell me that,' said Doris, holding up her copy of the London Tenancy List. âI've been visiting Janey for years. Poor girl was locked in the cellar as punishment for talking. Only the schoolmaster forgot about her, didn't he? She died of starvation, her poor frail body discovered by a teacher a week later. Sad story, but a lovely girl. Not one of the moaners. The ones who die in their own homes are always worse. It's always the wallpaper with that lot.'
âWhat happened to Janey?' asked Lapsewood.
âI wish I knew. When I got here, Janey was'ne here.'
âBut we checked. The school is not infected,' said Lapsewood.
âI guess the Black Rot must go when the building gets a new Resident,' replied Tanner.
âInfected? Black Rot?' exclaimed Doris. âWhat are you two blathering about?'
âIt's happening all over London,' said Lapsewood. âResidents are going missing.'
âI think I'd have heard about something like that,' replied Doris. âI've been working as an Outreach Worker since you were still breathing air into your lungs.'
âOf course,' said Lapsewood to Tanner. âShe wouldn't have learnt about it until she stepped into an infected house.'
âBy which time it would have been too late,' agreed Tanner.
âI've no idea what you're on about, but since you're here this place can have one of you as its new Resident.'
Doris turned to Ether Dust and flew at the outside wall but, rather than flying straight through it, she rematerialised as she smacked into it and fell to the ground with a thud. Tanner laughed. Lapsewood walked over to give her a hand up.
âI'm sorry,' he said.
âI can'ne be stuck in this place for the rest of eternity. I did'ne die here. There are rules about these things.' Doris leaned against the outside wall. âI'm a prisoner,' she said with a sigh. âI'm a prisoner, stuck in here with these wee bairns repeating sums for all eternity.'
âI'll go back to the Bureau and submit my findings,' said Lapsewood. âI'm sure General Colt will find a way to get you out. He did send me to find you after all.'
âThere's nothing to be done. Of all people I should know that.'
âOf course there is. They can probably get Extraction documents or something. You do work for the Bureau.'
She shook her head sadly. âI've done this job long enough to know that all you can do for a Resident is support them, because the house will never let them go. You make out like you're helping. You listen to their complaints, but there's nothing you can actually do.'
Lapsewood patted her back awkwardly and said, âI will do something about this. I promise.'