As far as dramatic entrances went, Dennis thought, this one left something to be desired. After taking a deep breath and nodding to Bobo, he had moved to open the way into Evy’s room and found it locked. Unfortunately, he had been leaning into the motion, and had slammed rather
awkwardly against the solid wooden door. The setback, minor though it was, had thrown Bobo into a fit of giggles that seemed out of character for a man his size. Dennis stood in silence for several seconds while Bobo continued to laugh, and irritably wondered if bringing the bigger man along had been the best decision.
“Are you done?” Dennis asked. Bobo continued to snort and chuckle as he wiped a tear from his eyes.
“Oh, god, that was funny,” he wheezed. “Really, you should have seen it from where I’m standing.”
Dennis rolled his eyes and grumbled. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll go ask Elspeth for the key.” He stalked back down the hallway, fully aware of Bobo’s continued laughter behind him. After a couple of wrong turns, he managed to find Elspeth still in the kitchen, loading the dishes from the morning meal into a giant stainless steel dishwasher.
“Something wrong, Dennis?” She didn’t turn from her task.
“No, not really,” replied Dennis. “I just remembered that I need the key, is all.”
“Ah, yes,” Elspeth said. “I was wondering what that thump was.”
Dennis could feel himself blushing as Elspeth opened a drawer and withdrew a nondescript key. He mumbled his thanks and hurried back to where he had left Bobo, who was still chortling quietly.
“Knock it off,” muttered Dennis. “You want to make a good impression, don’t you?”
“Seems to me that I’ll be doing that more than once,” Bobo replied. “I mean, with her memory and all.”
Dennis sighed and fumbled with the key until finally the door swung open. The room appeared exactly as it had before, with the brown armchair standing resolutely at its center. Bobo leaned through the doorframe and stared.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?”
“Wait until she shows up,” replied Dennis. He searched the room until he found the wooden stool, which he positioned in front of the armchair. Then, without further ceremony, he sat down and took a deep breath. “Hello Evy,” he said carefully. “My name is Doc… My name is Dennis. I’d like to talk to you.”
For a few minutes, nothing happened, and the only sound was Bobo shifting his weight. “Quite dramatic, this is.”
Dennis was uncertain as to whether Bobo was joking or not, but he didn’t offer a response. Instead, he kept his gaze focused on the worn upholstery, looking for a hint of the ghost’s appearance.
“Evy,” he said again, leaning forward, “can you hear me?” He was growing tense. Had he done something wrong? Or maybe – he had to consider it as an option – this was the punch line to an incredibly elaborate practical joke.
“Whoa!” Bobo suddenly exclaimed. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day!”
Dennis glanced back at Bobo with a confused expression. His eyes had gone wide, and were locked on the chair. Dennis turned back to it, hoping to see something new, but came up empty.
“What?” he asked finally. “I don’t see anything.”
“That’s a bloody big spider there!” Bobo responded, jabbing a finger forward. Dennis looked to where the man was pointing and saw a large, eight-legged shape taking a slow walk down the side of the chair. He shivered involuntarily, and scooted back slightly. His motions did not go unnoticed by Bobo, who grinned with amusement.
“Oh, come on, now,” he said, chuckling. “Don’t tell me Doctor September is afraid of a little bug.”
“It’s not a bug,” Dennis replied, feeling queasy.
“It’s a creepy-crawly bugger,” Bobo replied. “I don’t care if it’s an insect.” He stepped forward and slapped the interloper with a broad palm. “There,” he said, brushing his hand against his leg. “All dead.”
, said a voice in Dennis’ head. He jumped and looked back at the chair, which was suddenly occupied by the young girl he had seen during his last visit. There was no subtle fading-into-existence this time, either. One moment, the chair had been a dull piece of furniture, and the next it was providing a seat to a spectral teenager. She was still clad in the v-necked day dress, and nothing else about her had changed, at least not that Dennis could see.
“Whoa!” Bobo exclaimed again. This time, it was his turn to jump, and his voice tightened. “September, look! Look at that!”
“Please excuse him,” Dennis said to the ghost, not bothering to hide his triumphant smile. “He’s not the most diplomatic person on the planet.” He was secretly pleased by Bobo’s reaction, as it made him feel much less cowardly. Even so, he was dimly aware of his heart pounding in his chest.
“I can see as much,” Evy replied. Her transparent form shifted on the chair as she adjusted to what was presumably a more comfortable position. Then again, Dennis mused, the chair probably didn’t offer much in the way of cushioning to a person who was weightless. Evy rocked her head from side to side, and her brows knit in concentration. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said finally, “but I’m afraid you have me at a loss.”
“It’s alright, Evy,” Dennis replied. “My name is Dennis, and I’m here to talk to you about…” He paused. Come to think of it, what exactly was he here to talk about? It seemed like a bad idea to say that he was here to drive her off, regardless of whether she would remember it.
“Yes?” Evy prompted. Her voice had a coy ring to it, and she pursed her lips expectantly. Dennis opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Bobo, who stepped forward with a disarming smile.
“We’re here because we need your help,” he declared. “I’m Barnaby, but you can call me Bobo.”
Evy’s expression changed to one of annoyance as she shifted her gaze upwards. “Thank you… Bobo.” Her voice held a tone that was generally reserved for inept children. “I’ll be sure to tell you if I need anything.” Her eyes flicked back to Dennis, who was still wracking his brain in an attempt to find conversational topics. “You were saying, Dennis?” she asked.
“Well,” Dennis stuttered, “I was hoping that you could answer some questions for me.” Evy let out a seductive laugh and leaned forward.
“And what,” she asked suggestively, “will you do for me in return?”
Dennis didn’t know which part was more disturbing: That he was being propositioned by a ghost, or that she would have been almost forty years his senior if she had been alive. He heard muffled laughter from behind him, and looked back to see Bobo clamping his hand across an amused grin. Dennis gave him a pointed glare and turned his attention back to Evy, who was still displaying a sultry smile and a clear view of her celestial cleavage. He wasn’t particularly familiar with the culture at the time of Evy’s death, but her behavior seemed much more well-suited to the lusty barflies that he sometimes encountered at Thoreau’s.
Probably best not to tell Luke too much about this, he thought wryly. He cleared his throat. “Well, we can discuss that later on,” Dennis said, tilting his head towards Bobo. Evy followed the motion with her eyes, and understanding registered on her face.
“Bobo, dear,” she said suddenly, batting her eyelashes once. “I’m so terribly thirsty. Would you go and find something for us to drink?”
“Oh, right away, missus,” Bobo replied in a fair approximation of a Jim Crow accent. “I jus’ get right on that.” He remained where he was, and gave Dennis a humorless smile and a shrug. Evy did not appear to notice, and once again turned back to Dennis.
“What did you want to ask me, Dennis?” Evy inquired. Then she giggled and touched a finger to her bottom lip. “You know, you remind me of Cary Grant.”
“Uh, thank you,” Dennis replied. “I think.” Evy giggled again and lounged against one side of the armchair, bringing her legs up underneath her.
“I just love the cinema,” she said with a sigh. “Don’t you?”
Dennis started to respond, but closed his mouth over the words and shook his head. “Evy, what did you do yesterday?” he asked. It was a decidedly frail attempt at a topic change, but he realized that the question might actually yield pertinent results. If nothing else, maybe he could get a handle on how Evy had died. Then again, that would require that she provide a helpful response, which she seemed disinclined to do. She threw back her head and let out a moan of mock frustration.
“Oh, let’s not discuss anything so boring, Dennis,” she said. “All that arguing and fighting over something so silly.”
“What was silly?” Bobo interjected. Both Dennis and Evy turned to look at him. “Who was arguing?” he added.
“Where is our tea, Bobo?” Evy asked with obviously feigned patience.
“Not ready yet, ma’am,” Bobo replied. Evy rolled her eyes and gave Dennis a knowing look.
“Really, Dennis,” she chided with a patronizing smile, “I hope you don’t let him act quite so brashly towards you.” Bobo muttered something about a bruise on his head, but let the remark slide.
“Actually, I was curious about that myself,” Dennis said. “Who was arguing? About what?"
Evy sighed again, this time with genuine frustration in the sound. “It was just something to do with father’s work, of course. Does he ever talk about anything else?”
“I don’t know,” Dennis replied. “Does he?”
Evy leveled a dark look at him. “I’m not sure I like where this is going, Dennis. Why did you say you were here, exactly?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously and she pulled herself upright. “I think perhaps it would be best if you left.”
“Now you’ve done it,” Bobo commented dryly.
“Done what?” snapped Dennis, looking over his shoulder.
“Trod too close to the fire, you did.”
“Bobo, did you not understand me when I asked you to bring us tea?” Evy demanded through a saccharine smile.
Dennis made an aggravated noise and buried his face in his hands, and he suppressed a humorless laugh when he heard Evy say “There, now, you’ve gone and made Dennis get all worked up.” Apparently, he could either endure the flirtations of a ghost, or he could get himself ousted by pissing her off. Neither option seemed to be a particularly effective method of exorcism, unless it was Dennis who was the target. He tried in vain to get the conversation back under control, but after a few more minutes, it proved to be an entirely hopeless endeavor.
“Please excuse us for a minute, Evy,” Dennis said. He rose and beckoned for Bobo to follow him. “I’ll be back soon.” Evy replied with a skeptical hum, and turned to examine a blank spot on the wall. It was dismissal enough for Dennis, and he made a hurried exit.
Back in the kitchen, the pair found Elspeth in the midst of putting dishes away. “That was certainly a fast conversation.”
“Your sister has quite the attitude, ma’am,” Bobo said.
“Yes, well, I did warn you.”
Dennis coughed softly. “You didn’t mention that she was quite so, uh…” he trailed off, searching for the word.
“Horny?” offered Bobo. Elspeth sniffed with what could have been either distaste or amusement, and finished placing the dishes in their various cabinets. Dennis considered punching Bobo, but the gesture died before it reached his hand. He was frustrated, but he had to admit that he was scarcely an expert at dealing with any aspect of the situation, regardless of what his alter ego claimed.
“Anyway,” Dennis said firmly, trying to keep his thoughts from derailing, “she doesn’t seem too inclined to talk about anything that happened around the time that she died.”
“No, I wouldn’t expect so,” Elspeth replied. “Not the happiest of times, really. I don’t remember much of it.” She stood on her toes and stretched her petite frame to put the last of the dishes back in the cupboard. Bobo made a move to help her, but shrank back under the force of a warning frown. Dennis smiled quietly. Elspeth didn’t strike him as being willing to accept help from anyone. She made it clear that her independence was her most precious possession.
Dennis’ smile faded and dropped into a thoughtful frown. Come to think of it, Elspeth’s decision to hire an investigator seemed drastically out of character for her. This was a woman who did her own gardening, her own cooking, and presumably kept the entire house in its spotless condition of cleanliness. Dennis’ frown deepened. Looming death sentence or not, he couldn’t picture Elspeth as the sort of person who would willingly ask for help unless there was something incredibly important at stake, and her attitude about her sister seemed almost blasé. Something, Dennis decided, was missing.
The feeling of a hand gripping his arm pulled Dennis out of his thoughts. Elspeth was staring up at him with an expression of very slight impatience on her face, and he was suddenly aware that Bobo was whistling tunelessly in the background.
“Sorry, I was off in my own little world there,” Dennis said. Bobo’s quiet whistling shifted, and went through a few lines of what might have been “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Elspeth’s attention remained on Dennis.
“I asked if you agreed with your musically-inclined partner,” she said, her look of irritation growing in proportion to the volume of Bobo’s noise.
“Bobo, knock it off,” Dennis said. The whistling stopped, although it may have been less out of choice and more due to the broad smile that suddenly stretched Bobo’s face. Dennis gave him a look, and then smiled apologetically down at Elspeth. “I’m sorry, I must have missed something while I was thinking. What are you asking me?”
“Barnaby has suggested a rather… unique solution,” explained Elspeth. Behind her, Bobo made a cross-eyed face and pantomimed an explosion with his hands.
“Oh, that,” Dennis said. He raised an eyebrow at Bobo as he spoke. “We discussed it, but only as a last resort.” He looked back at Elspeth, whose face was now touched by a skeptical if not patiently amused smirk.
“You’re welcome to try it, of course.” She turned to look at Bobo, who was not quite fast enough in dropping his arms. “I don’t imagine you’ll have very satisfying results, though.”
Bobo was talking before Elspeth was halfway through her disclaimer. “Great!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “I’ll set about moving the chair outside, then.” He marched out of the room, the sounds of his whistling following him. Dennis watched the man go, and a few seconds passed before he realized that Elspeth was staring his way.
“I’m sorry about him,” Dennis said in a low voice. “I’m sure he means well. I’ll ask him to stay behind tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“Oh, hardly, Dennis,” replied Elspeth. “He’s an entertaining young man. A bit quick to resort to drastic measures, perhaps, but his enthusiasm is endearing.” She beckoned for Dennis to follow her. They walked through the kitchen’s side door and entered a spacious living room which Dennis had yet to see. Elspeth approached a slender wooden cabinet at the room’s far side, and fiddled with a decorative key set into one of the doors.
“I’m afraid that I haven’t any gasoline handy,” she said. There was a metallic click of a latch, and Elspeth pulled her canvas purse from the cabinet’s recesses. “There’s a station near the highway, though, and I should think that you can buy a gas can there.” She handed Dennis a few bills, which he took reluctantly.
“I could convince him to let me talk to her a bit longer,” Dennis said. He could already hear the grunts and thumps of Bobo wrestling the chair through the house. “I mean, we only tried for a few minutes. I’m not ready to give up yet.”
Elspeth smiled cryptically. “Humor your friend for now, Dennis. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have plenty of time to do things your way.”
The walk to the gas station was fairly short, but was still taking awhile. It wasn’t until Dennis was halfway along that he realized he could have just driven the distance, and by that point he didn’t feel like turning around. Besides, the time alone gave him a chance to mull over the various details that had been bothering him. There was no reason for Elspeth to lie, but perhaps she had unconsciously omitted an important point somewhere. About what, Dennis couldn’t say. He supposed there was always the chance that his suspicions were merely the result of his paranoia acting up again.
His steps fell into a slow rhythm as he worked through his thoughts. Elspeth had contacted him because she wanted to get rid of her dead sister. Why was it so important? Yes, she was due to follow in her departed sibling’s footsteps before too long, but that didn’t seem to be quite enough motivation for a woman who was otherwise so independent. Maybe, as she had hinted, she was worried that she’d wind up as a ghost herself, and was trying to make certain that she didn’t have any reason to hang around. Eight years around a haunted chair probably gave one some interesting thoughts about the afterlife.
Several minutes of thought-heavy walking passed before he became aware of the dark blue sedan following behind him. Dennis glanced over his shoulder, wondering if the driver was lost. The glare cast by the midmorning sun obscured any view of the car’s interior, but whoever was inside responded to being noticed by pulling up next to him and stopping. The passenger side window rolled down, and a deep voice called out.
“Hey there, Dennis.” The rumbling of the car’s idling engine muffled the words, but there was no mistaking that Dennis’ name had been called. Confused, curious, and only marginally concerned, Dennis approached the vehicle and peered through the open window. The spacious interior was empty, save for the muscled, dark-skinned driver. Dennis felt his heart jump into his throat when he recognized the man as the so-called retired detective that he had seen exiting Harding’s office.“Going somewhere?” the man asked. Dennis took an involuntary step back from the car, his mind and heart racing to see which could explode first. “Why don’t you hop in? I’ll give you a ride.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather walk.” Dennis’ dry mouth made the words come out as a rasping croak, and the man gave him a humorless smile.
“I’d be happier if you got in the car,” he said. His left hand tapped at a spot just beneath his right arm, and Dennis’ heart kicked itself into overdrive as he saw the telltale bulge of a gun beneath the man’s jacket. He considered running, but didn’t imagine he could get very far on foot. Even if he tried to jump over a fence or escape down an alleyway somewhere, he suspected he would be easily outrun. With trembling hands, he reached forward and tugged on the handle of the car door.
Several millennia passed, and the man in the car finally asked “Something wrong?” Dennis swallowed and pulled on the handle again.
“It’s locked,” he managed to say.
“Oh. Sorry.” There was a click from the door, and a third attempt at pulling the handle opened it. Dennis slid into the passenger seat, dimly aware that his panic had given way to a sense of resolute dread. The window next to him rolled back up, cutting off the sounds from outside. It left the car silent, save for the hum of the motor and the whisper of the heater. For several agonizing moments, nothing was said, and the car remained where it was.
“Seat belt,” the man said plainly. Dennis jumped at the sound, but quickly followed the implied request. As soon as the buckle had clicked into place, the man shifted the car into gear and started slowly driving down the street.“My name’s Spinner,” he said. “Malcolm Spinner.”
“I saw you outside the sandwich shop,” Dennis answered. Spinner gave no reply. “And at Samuel Harding’s office,” he tried again.
“What were you doing there, Dennis?” he asked. “Or is it Darvyn?” He looked over at Dennis, who kept staring straight ahead. “No? You’re not Darvyn September?” He pulled two photographs from a pocket and tossed them into Dennis’ lap. One showed Dennis staring out of a restaurant window, phone still in hand, while the other was a blurry but unmistakable picture of himself in costume. Dennis said nothing, which was not so much an act of defiance as the result of his mind being too occupied to think of a reply. “Well, whichever you are,” Spinner continued, “I think it would be a good idea for you to consider a career change.”
“Am I under arrest?” Dennis asked. Spinner snorted.
“No. This is just a friendly ride. Where are you going, by the way?”
“Gas station,” murmured Dennis. Despite having threatened him earlier, the man did not appear to be openly hostile. Dennis had seen enough daytime television to know what a “good cop” was, but somehow this situation didn’t seem to fit the profile.
“Car died on you?” Spinner asked. Dennis did not reply, hoping that his captor would draw his own conclusions. “That’s a nice bar your friend runs,” Spinner said. “I might stop by again sometime.”
“Look, what’s this about?” Dennis snapped. The temperature in the car seemed to drop several degrees as the congenial tone of Spinner’s voice disappeared and was replaced by something forceful and unrelenting.
“Don’t play dumb, kid,” he said. “You think that a small-timer like you has any tricks that haven’t been played a million times before?” He wrenched on the steering wheel, taking the car around a sharp corner that roughly pushed Dennis into the door. “You and your buddy aren’t anything special. Just another couple of crooks.” The car continued to wind through the neighborhood, following a path that was as seemingly aimless as the one being traced by Dennis’ thoughts. Several minutes passed as he tried to assemble a decent response, but the eloquence of his retort evaporated as Spinner slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to an abrupt halt.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dennis coughed, straining against where the seat belt had cut into his neck.
“The hell you don’t,” growled Spinner. He turned in his seat and stared solidly at Dennis, who did his best to meet the man’s gaze unflinchingly. Surprisingly, it was Spinner who shifted first. He looked back through the windshield and tightly gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Then, just as quickly as the man’s friendly demeanor had disappeared before, it was back.
“Look,” Spinner sighed. “Maybe you got into this thinking you’d be helping someone out. I could buy that. You seem like a nice kid.” He turned back to Dennis and thrust a finger forward. “That’s why you’ve got no reason to keep at it. If you really want to help the lady, stay the hell away from her.” He nodded towards the windshield. “The gas station’s about a hundred yards up.”
Dennis hurriedly fumbled with the seat belt, releasing its hold on him. Then he reached for the door handle, and paused. “Um,” he stuttered, looking down.
“What is it, kid?” Spinner asked. His voice was gentle, and had an expectant quality to it.
“The door,” replied Dennis. “It’s locked again.”
“Oh, right,” Spinner said. He pressed an unseen button, and the latch popped open. “It does that automatically when I start driving.”
Dennis climbed out onto shaking legs and steadied himself on the open door. He left the pictures on the floor. Spinner leaned forward and held out a white business card. “Listen, Dennis,” he said, “if you change your mind about talking to me, give me a call.” Dennis didn’t respond, but took the card nonetheless. Without so much as a second look in Spinner’s direction, he pushed the door closed, and felt his heart speed up again as it immediately swung back open.
“You have to really slam it sometimes,” Spinner’s voice called. Dennis scowled and threw the door again, this time latching it. The car immediately pulled away, leaving a shaken and unsteady Dennis to walk the final stretch to the gas station. In spite of his still overwhelming sense of panic, he realized that it was a different place than the one he had intended to visit, and he darkly wondered if he’d be able to find his way back.
Dennis had purchased a package of cigarettes in addition to the supplies for Bobo’s anticipated display of pyrotechnics, hopeful that the nicotine would do something to soothe his electrified nerves. Instead, the smoke had only given him a headache, which was just as well since carrying both a smoldering cigarette and a can of gasoline was not the most brilliant of ideas. He had wandered for a bit before coming across a street he recognized, and by the time he arrived back at Elspeth’s house, the sun was almost directly overhead and his stomach was growling.
Several attempts at pounding on the front door, both with the knocker and with his fist, failed to result in either Elspeth’s or Bobo’s presence to greet him. When he finally entered on his own, the house seemed deserted. He meandered through the familiar areas of the dwelling, checking Evy’s room first, now devoid of the chair, and then searched the connected kitchen and dining room. Eventually, he found his way to an open door leading out behind the house, and the sudden sound of Bobo’s laughter told him that he had finally located the other two living entities in residence.
The backyard was landscaped in much the same way as its more evident counterpart at the house’s front. Rows of flowers bordered a well-kempt lawn, kept invisible from neighbors by a tall wooden fence. A single, ancient tree stood off to the left side of the area, beneath which a white table and matching chairs had been set. Bobo and Elspeth sat opposite each other, with a game board between them, and Evy’s chair stood at the yard’s far corner, looking for all the world like an innocent piece of furniture.
“Took you long enough, mate!” Bobo called when he saw Dennis approaching. “We was thinking you’d been kidnapped!"
He sort of had, Dennis thought with a shiver. He had decided during his walk back that he wouldn’t mention the encounter with Spinner. There was no need to worry Bobo needlessly, and Elspeth could easily confirm the reason for his presence, should anyone happen to ask. He had briefly imagined that a squadron of police officers would be waiting for him upon his return, but had decided that Spinner wouldn’t have let him go if he had been planning anything of the sort. With a carefully neutral expression, Dennis walked forward and examined the game in progress.
“How are you at Backgammon, Dennis?” Elspeth asked. Dennis ran his eyes across the game board and tried to make sense of the pieces.
“I’ve never played,” he confessed. He turned his gaze to Bobo, whose face was lit by a near-perpetual grin.
“I’m winning,” Bobo proudly declared.
“No you aren’t,” countered Elspeth good-naturedly. She winked at Dennis. “He hadn’t played before either. Some of the finer points are still eluding him.” There was a clattering of dice and some pieces changed position on the board. Judging by the look of bemused mirth on Bobo’s face, the finer points of the game were the least of his worries.
“So, are we going to do this?” Dennis asked. Both Elspeth and Bobo looked up with varying degrees of amusement on their faces, and suddenly Dennis felt incredibly silly standing there with his gallon-sized jug of accelerant.
“It can wait until we finish the game,” Elspeth said. A fair enough statement, Dennis thought, but he didn’t feel particularly productive as an observer. He trudged over to where Evy’s chair sat and gave it an accusing glare.
“What have you gotten me into?” he demanded in an exaggerated voice. Although the chair was seemingly vacant, Dennis preferred it that way. He didn’t see much appeal in complaining at an object that could offer input. “One minute, I’m just an author with a stupid hobby, and the next, I’m getting forced into cars at gunpoint while my partner the fraudulent shaman plays Parcheesi with a British version of Martha Stewart.”
“Backgammon!” yelled Bobo. Dennis felt his ears burn and his face turn red. He hadn’t realized that he’d speaking loud enough for his words to carry back to the table, and he wondered how much of what he’d said had been overheard. He stole a quick look over his shoulder. Based on the carefree way that the game continued to progress, he figured that the part about his encounter with Spinner had gone thankfully unnoticed.
The gas can landed with a sloshing thud as Dennis dropped it, and he sat down in front of the chair. For a moment, he thought he heard a faint hint of laughter, but it could have been coming from a house nearby. A piece of stiff material dug into his hip, and after a moment of contorted grasping, he pulled out Spinner’s business card, now slightly wrinkled by his efforts. The information printed on it was straightforward and simple enough, but one detail caught Dennis’ attention. Under the name “Malcolm R. Spinner,” was a line of smaller text, spelling out the words “Private Investigator.” The man wasn’t a detective after all, at least not of the official variety. While the fact put Dennis more at ease than he had been, it also raised further questions.
Questions which would have to wait, it seemed, as Bobo was suddenly at Dennis’ side, having bounded across the yard like an overgrown puppy.
“Alright, then, September,” he said, snatching up the gas can. “Let’s have us an old-fashioned exorcism!”
“I don’t remember anything about gasoline in those rituals,” replied Dennis, climbing back to his feet. The brief moments sitting had left some moisture clinging to the underside of his legs, along with a few blades of cut grass. He brushed at them with one hand, eyeing Bobo warily.
“You must have slept through that part,” Bobo said.
“Did you get matches?”
“No, I figured we’d use a lighter. What was that you just said about sleeping?"
Bobo plopped the gas can down on the chair. “Bad idea to use a lighter for this, mate. With matches, you can toss ‘em.”
“Ask Elspeth for some matches, then!” Dennis said. “And tell me what you meant by sleeping!”
“No time for that now, we have an exorcism to perform.”
Dennis eyed Bobo with a flat glare. “Are you always so intentionally difficult?” As expected, Bobo grinned in response.
“It’s a movie, September. An old one, even. You know, with the girl and the priests?”
“Haven’t seen it.”
“And the backwards stairs?”
“Now it sounds like one of those M.C. Escher drawings,” Dennis muttered. “Alright, fine, start dousing the chair. I’ll go get some matches from Elspeth.”
“Right here, Dennis,” the woman chimed, materializing next to him. She held out a cardboard box of oversized fire starters, probably designed for getting fireplaces going. Dennis took them with a nod of thanks, and reminded himself to get more sleep that night. Ironically, he was at greater ease with the idea of dealing with Evy than he was with the surprise of the girl’s sister sneaking up on him. At least he hadn’t yelped.
Nearby, Bobo was whistling as he emptied the gas can onto the chair. It took less than a minute before the final drops fell onto the worn upholstery. When the task was complete, Dennis stepped forward, readying one of the elongated matches.
“Okay, as soon as I light this, we’re going to want to get back a bit,” he said.
Bobo nodded seriously, glancing back towards the tree. “How hot are you thinking it’ll be?”
“This was your idea, you tell me,” Dennis muttered. “I just don’t want to take any chances.” He struck the match and waited for the flaring sparks to calm into a steady flame. Then, with a quick look to make sure that both Elspeth and Bobo were a safe distance from any danger, he flung the match at the chair and sprinted away.
After a minute or two had passed, Dennis stormed back towards the chair, a wide-smiled Bobo in tow.
“Make sure it don’t go out this time,” suggested Bobo helpfully.
“Do you want to do this?” Dennis scowled.
“Hey, you’re the big-shot doctor, I’m just the advisor. The assistant, if you will.”
Dennis struck another match and watched it burn for a few seconds. “Funny how the assistant sat back here and played Baccarat while the big-shot doctor played errand boy,” he said.
“Backgammon,” Bobo corrected. He readied himself to run as Dennis held the match up, and the pair retreated back to the tree as the tiny flame sailed towards the chair. This time, the effect was instantaneous, and a brief roar of spawning fire reached Dennis’ ears as he ducked behind the massive trunk.
He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Ethereal screaming, maybe, or some kind of exotically-colored smoke. Instead, the pyre looked incredibly mundane, or at least as mundane as could be expected when it consisted of a brown armchair and a gallon of unleaded fuel. It was hard to tell through the waves of heat and oily smoke, but the chair seemed to be enduring the conflagration with impressive resolve.
“Well,” Bobo began after several moments of watching the blaze, “at least it’s pretty, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” replied Dennis. “In a mad arsonist sort of way.” The flames continued to lick at the chair, although they were slowly shrinking as the fuel ran low. When the last flicker of the inferno finally died, the chair remained where it was, apparently no worse for the wear.
“I suppose that’s the end of it,” said Elspeth quietly.
“Do you really think that she’s gone?” Dennis asked, surprised. Elspeth looked up with an incredulous smirk.
“I was referring to the fire, Dennis. I suspect that Evy is alive and well, in a manner of speaking.”
“Here, now, that can’t be right!” Bobo protested. “That was a gallon of petrol, that was! It was enough to burn bricks!”
“But not antique furniture, by the looks of it,” mused Dennis. He stared across the yard at the object in question. The grass beneath it had dried out and cooked, but the chair itself appeared to be completely untouched.
“Bollocks!” Bobo pushed away from the protective cover of the tree and stomped towards the burnt area on the grass. Dennis started to protest, but it was clear that his words would have no effect. He hurried to follow, anxious to see what Bobo was up to. The bigger man stood with his hands on his hips, regarding the chair with a mixture of detachment and frustration.
“What the hell is going on here?” growled Bobo. Neither the chair nor its currently absent spectral inhabitant offered anything in the way of a response, and Dennis hurried to offer potential explanations in their stead.
“It might not have been hot enough,” he ventured. “Sometimes it takes a lot to get things going, especially when the wood is really hard.”
“What are you, a bleeding Boy Scout?”
“I was,” Dennis confessed. He swept a palm over the chair’s frame, taking care not to touch the wood. “It isn’t hot at all,” he stated. He stared down at the upholstery, which had remained equally untouched by the inferno. “You know, you’d think that the cushions would have been singed, at least.”
“You’d think the whole bloody chair would be!” Bob exclaimed. He grumbled something under his breath and took his anger out on the chair with a well-placed kick.
A deafening explosion assaulted Dennis’ eardrums at the same time that a violent shockwave, hot and powerful, threw him away from the chair and across the yard. He landed badly, and what little breath the detonation hadn’t forced from his lungs was quickly expelled by the painful blow of his back slamming into the ground. A high-pitched ringing in his ears blocked out any other sounds, and it took several moments of bewildered blinking before he realized that the painful disk of bright light at the center of his vision was, in fact, the sun. The entire front of his body felt like it had been pummeled by a fist made of red-hot iron, and it only intensified when he instinctively curled up in an effort to breathe.
He might have stayed there for hours had his mind not reminded him that both Bobo and Elspeth had probably been hit by the blast as well. With a groan of effort that was inaudible to his own ears, Dennis waged an internal war against his protesting muscles until he had finally wrestled himself into a huddled kneeling position. Bobo was several yards away, propped up on one hand as he twirled a finger in his ear canal. The ridiculous open-mouthed expressions passing across the man’s face told Dennis that his friend had also lost his sense of hearing, and was trying to regain it by any means possible. He scanned the yard, mildly concerned at how suddenly vibrant the colors seemed, until he spotted Elspeth’s dainty figure splayed out near the overturned table. He made an effort to stand and stagger towards her, but instead had to crawl forward on all fours, lest his aching limbs rebel and impede his progress.
Dennis was relieved when Elspeth waved off his attempts at helping her, and more than a little jealous when she climbed to her feet unaided. A black and white mess of Backgammon pieces littered the ground nearby, as Dennis discovered rather painfully when he sat on a die hidden in the grass. He watched as Elspeth pushed the table and its surrounding chairs back upright, the entire thing like a scene from a silent movie accompanied only by a perpetually ringing bell.
Muscles ached in protest as Dennis was suddenly hauled to his feet, but the feeling that he had lost a fight against a rabid bulldozer had mercifully begun to subside. He let himself be led to one of the chairs, and tensed painfully as he fell into it. Given the choice, Dennis thought, he would have preferred to stay on the grass. Bobo walked around from behind him, his giddy demeanor having returned with such fervor that Dennis wondered if the man had taken a blow to the head. Words were mouthed to him, but the ringing in Dennis’ head had not yet faded to the point where they were intelligible. He pointed to his ears meaningfully.
“I can’t hear anything,” Dennis said. The sound of his own voice came to him as if through miles of cotton. It must been louder than he’d intended, though, because Bobo made hasty shushing motions in response. A few moments later, two glasses were placed on the table. Remembering his experience from earlier in the week, Dennis took a careful sip of the contents before downing one of the containers in grateful relief. One surprise glass of gin had been more than enough.
“Anything broken, Dennis?” asked Elspeth from behind him. Her words were muffled and carried an odd buzzing quality, but at least he could make them out.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. His vision, which he hadn’t even realized had been tunneling, faded back to normal. “What happened?” He looked over at Bobo, who was staring off in the direction of the chair. Steeling himself against further surprises, Dennis followed his gaze.
The chair remained where it had been, upright and unaffected by the events of the past several minutes. If anything, it looked moderately better than it had earlier, probably as a result of having any still-clinging dust either burned or blown away.
“I don’t think she liked that much,” Bobo observed.
Dennis snorted. “Really? What was your first clue?” Something about the scene seemed a little bit strange, even when he ignored the obvious. It was another moment before the hidden detail became apparent. “Flowers,” Dennis stated, pointing towards the chair.
“Flowers?” repeated Bobo. “What about them?”
“Look at the flowers behind the chair,” Dennis prompted. “What do you see?”
Bobo squinted for a few seconds. “Irises?” he guessed.
“Quite right,” interjected Elspeth. Dennis glanced over to see the woman picking up the last pieces of the scattered game. “They’re lovely, aren’t they?”
“Very lovely, ma’am,” Bobo agreed.
“Yeah, lovely irises,” said Dennis hastily. “What do you notice about them, though?”
“That they’re very lovely!” Bobo declared. He beamed at Elspeth, who shared a smile with him.
“They’re also still there,” Dennis impatiently pointed out. “That blast was powerful enough to knock the table over, but the flowers that are two feet away look fine.”
“Oh, actually, Dennis,” said Elspeth gently, “I’m afraid it was me who knocked the table over.” She brushed at herself idly. “The whole thing toppled with me when I tried to catch myself, and it brought a few of the chairs down with it.”
Dennis considered this for a moment. “Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “that the explosion only hit the three of us?”
Bobo shrugged. “Looks like it.”
“That’s impossible!” Dennis exclaimed. Bobo shrugged again.
“More impossible than a ghost what haunts a chair?”
“Yes!” sputtered Dennis. “Well, no. I don’t know!” He gritted his teeth and felt one of his eardrums pop back into place, putting him slightly off-balance. “Anyway, it’s not supposed to work like that. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
“I don’t know that I could take another one of her reactions,” Bobo said. He scratched his head as he regarded the chair, much in the way that a shepherd might regard a sheep that was trying to fly. He turned back to Dennis. “So, what now, boss?”
“Back to talking, I suppose,” Dennis sighed. His fingers made a metallic noise as he drummed them on the table. “I need to figure out a way of getting her to trust me, though.”
“Yeah, she didn’t seem too keen on telling you anything,” Bobo agreed. “Though she was pretty keen on you, eh?”
“Oh, yes, Evy fancies herself quite the vixen,” Elspeth cut in. She put the last of the retrieved game pieces back on the table and sat down in a vacant chair. “One of the fellows I hired before was rather taken with her.” Both Dennis and Bobo turned to listen. “I suppose it’s a small miracle that she always shows up in the same state,” Elspeth continued. “I rather doubt she’d have been willing to put her clothes back on otherwise.”
Neither Bobo nor Dennis said anything in response, but both men exchanged a look. It hadn’t occurred to Dennis that the ghost might be capable of shedding her garments, and the thought definitely added an unexpected element. He was already feeling guilty about lying to Alena, and he doubted that it would improve if he was treated to a spectral striptease. Still, he had to admit, the thought did bring to mind some interesting images.
“Actually,” Dennis murmured, “maybe that’s the answer.”
“Oi!” exclaimed Bobo with a furtive glance at Elspeth. He lowered his voice to an urgent hiss. “You’re not thinking of doing the nasty with her?”
“No, you dolt,” Dennis replied. “I’m thinking that I know of a way to get her to open up to me. Not like that!” he added in response to Bobo’s widening grin. “I just bet that I know a situation where she’d be willing to answer my questions.” He made a show of adjusting his clothes. “I’m going on a date with a ghost.”