Lillian was a mess, tears dripping down her face making her mascara run, hair all over the place, her expression one of confusion and loss. Actually, that was pretty much how she’d looked when she got here.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” she bawled through snot bubbles coming out of her pierced nose.
I was holding the helmet I’d taken from one of the guys who’d smashed down the door. I thought it would have a mic in it and I’d be able to hear them talking to each other, but there was no sound coming out of it. These brilliant ideas always work out in movies. It’s almost as if they just make shit up.
“Hey, if you need some time to work through some issues, feel free to go home. I’ve got some stuff to take care of anyway. Got to get a new door, for a start.”
There was a mean draft coming down the hallway. Where do you even buy a new front door?
“It’s real. It’s all really real. I’m not insane. I’m… gifted.”
“Okay,” I said. “Good for you.”
“I can help you. I can help you find your way to the light.”
She was convinced I was a ghost, which I thought would make her run away. Nope.
“Thanks, but I’ve already been. Not as impressive as you’d think. Really long queues.”
“You have some unfinished business to take care of before you can leave?”
She’d seen too many movies about life after death. She’d be setting up a pottery wheel next.
“Look, I’m sure you mean well, but I don’t really need any help right now. Not unless you know a local 24-hour door repairman. Just because you want to help someone doesn’t mean they want your help. Especially if your own life is a mess. You are not qualified, that’s the plain honest truth. Sorry.”
She sniffed loudly and stopped being emotional. “You really are an obnoxious twerp.”
“Yes,” I said. “I find it’s the only way to get people to leave me alone. They get to feel all superior and I get to not have them bothering me. It’s a win-win.”
“I want to help you so I’m going to, accept it. This is the greatest discovery in human history. Ghosts are real! There’s no way I’m leaving here until I get some answers. Those people who broke in, who were they?”
I had a feeling it was the first in what was going to be a series of penetrating questions. Fuck my life.
“They were here for you, maybe you should go ask them.”
“But you’re a ghost,” she said, ignoring my suggestion. “You’ve seen what happens after we die… there’s so much I want to know. I need to get in touch with my father. I need him to forgive me.”
“Great — I can see you’re very excited about all of this — but how is that interesting for me? I’m not here to help you resolve your personal problems. We don’t have that sort of time. Just go home and don’t attract any attention or you’ll find out about life after death the old fashioned way.”
“No, I can’t leave, not yet.” She stood up, wiping her face with her black lace fingerless gloves. Not a goth my arse. “Would you give up an opportunity like this if our roles were reversed?”
It was a reasonable point, or would have been if I hadn’t already experienced this kind of situation multiple times.
“Yes, I would. I have. As amazing and wild you think this is, it’s not a big deal. I’ve seen far freakier shit. You don’t need to know what happens when you die to have a happy life. Your life will be shit regardless.”
As a motivational speaker, I like to think I give people what they need, not what they want or deserve or have paid for.
“You’re a ghost!” she shouted into my face and grabbed my arm. Her black-painted fake nails dug into me.
“Ow. What the fuck?” Where was my insta-heal power when I was being viciously attacked?
She let go of me and jumped back, startled. Then she grabbed my arm even harder and pinched and poked me some more. “Why are you so hard and solid?” Not something many women have said to me.
“Because I’m not really a ghost, obviously.” I shook her off. “Do you really think I’d be hanging around here if I could walk through walls and go wherever I wanted?”
She tried again, touching and patting me on the shoulder and back.
“Get off!” I slapped her hands away. “No consent. No consent.” I wanted to make sure if this came to court, it was absolutely clear I hadn’t been playing hard to get and I didn’t like it rough. I know how these sexually aggressive types operate, I’ve seen Law & Order: SVU.
“I saw that man fall through your body. I saw it.”
“You didn’t see nothing. Now go home and if Jenny contacts you again, tell her I’ve gone down the pub and I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. Go on, this is none of your business.”
“It’s late and this isn’t a very nice area,” said Lillian, which the broken door and recently departed commandos sort of confirmed.
“Well, I’m very sorry. We can’t all live in the house on the hill from Psycho or wherever the hell you come from. Is that what happened to your dad? Sitting in a rocking chair wearing a wig?”
She looked shocked, then upset.
Maybe it was going too far. Maybe I didn’t give a fuck. Whatever her problems with Daddy, there was no reason to share them with me. What is it with people that makes them think if they have a legitimate reason to be angry then they’re entitled to make everyone else’s life a misery, too?
“You know nothing about my father,” she said through gritted teeth.
“No,” I replied, also through gritted teeth (because it was the latest craze, apparently — who knows what’s hot and what’s not if not the goths?), “I don’t want to know anything about your dad, but here you are forcing your paternal infatuations down my neck. Keep that shit to yourself. This is England, we don’t speak about such things in public, only behind people’s backs.” I would have knocked out a couple of verses of Jerusalem to underline my point, but I hate karaoke, especially the kind they do in church.
“He died because—”
“Shut up,” I interrupted before she got to the part where I had to help her right a wrong or heal a wound or whatever. “I don’t care. And tell Jenny not to call again unless she has something helpful. No one ever comes to my rescue, it’s always what I can do for them. Tell you what, you save my life and then I’ll consider helping you.”
“How can I save your life? You’re already dead.”
“Don’t make excuses. You delivered your message — thanks, appreciated — now begone, goth.”
“I am not—”
“Don’t even.” I pointed at the passage leading out. And was irritated to see Jack walking down it. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. What now? Round two? You’re making it very hard for me to not kill you, you know?”
I had said next time I saw him, that would be it. Go time. Curtains. The dance of death. I tend to make these sorts of threats on the understanding I won’t be seeing that person again. If I’d known he’d be around later, I’d have shook hands and made nice with the massive musclebound twat. That is the English way of dealing with these things.
“Sorry for coming in unannounced,” said Jack with a thin smile. “It was open.” He had two goons with him, their heads on swivels as they scanned the perimeter or checked their six or whatever it is they say these days to justify murdering unarmed civilians.
“Have you come for her, too? Because you can have her.”
Jack shook his head. “Those guys weren’t ours. We saw them leave as we got here, nothing to do with us.”
“They were American,” I said.
“A lot of people are,” said Jack. He was sticking to his story, but that didn’t mean much.
“Then why are you here?” I asked.
“To make sure you’re okay. Even if you’re not interested in working with Mr Orion, he still wants you safe.”
“Then go chase the guys who broke down my door. I’ll feel a lot safer with them in one of your safe houses where you can torture people because you’re not on US soil, which is how morality is defined, by geographic location. I think that’s how it’s explained in the Bible — thou shalt not kill, except on a black site or in international waters.”
“We have no idea where they went,” said Jack. “Looked like they had an extraction point. Probably special forces, but not working for us. Hey, I’m not lying.”
“Sure.” I raised the helmet to my mouth and spoke into it. “Hello, hello?” I kept my eyes on the boys, my plan being to hear my voice coming out of their communications devices, thus proving they were connected to my intruders. Brilliant, if it had worked.
The boys just looked at me. I lowered the helmet and then casually dropped it behind me.
“Anyway… I’m fine, thanks for the concern. This soft side of you is very touching, like those war movies where the soldiers are really nice to the locals and only sleep with the ones who are into it.”
“It never ends with you, does it?” Jack was starting to get riled by constant insinuations that the American army was populated with rapists and psychotics. I made it look easy, but it actually took a lot of work.
“No, it never ends. This is Lillian, by the way — not a goth. I know, but don’t say anything, she might bite you and turn you into a goth as well. I believe that’s how it spreads, although I might be thinking of Hepatitis C. Those guys you saw earlier? They were after her, not me.”
“Her?” said Jack, pulling down his mouth and giving Lillian the once over. “Why?”
“Want to tell them?” I asked Lillian.
“No,” said Lillian. “It was a mistake. They thought I was with him, wanted to use me for leverage, which is crazy. Obviously, he wouldn’t care.”
“Obviously,” agreed Jack.
“Speaking of crazy,” I said, “Lillian’s a psychic and can talk to people in other worlds, if you catch my drift.” I gave Jack a knowing look. He gave me a clueless one in return. “She can contact Peter for you.”
“Really?” said Jack, suddenly much more interested. “She can… over there?”
I nodded. “Throw her in your van and take her to the nearest holding facility. What are you using nowadays, hamster cages full of stinging nettles? Or is that just for the under fives?”
Jack would have said something, but the room was suddenly awash in flashing blue. I went to the window — there were two police cars outside. Someone had called 999, which was quite amazing. Londoners don’t usually give a shit about anything less than a tower block on fire. Ironically, the London city officials only care if it’s less than a tower block on fire.
“Police are here,” I said. “I hope you aren’t undocumented, you might be forced into a bed and breakfast while they review your paperwork. I know, barbaric.”
“You better come with us,” said Jack. “They’ll be asking some awkward questions.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, “but take her. She’s not good with father figures, probably try to get a policeman to adopt her.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Lillian, just as a bag went over her head and she was thrown over a shoulder. Feminists would not have been happy. I was quite relieved.
“I’ll keep the cops busy, tell them it was some young ragamuffins. They love to chase down youths on a council estate.”
Jack turned around and the boys legged it. I had possibly sold Lillian into white slavery — since she was a goth, the whitest slavery possible — but I was fairly certain she’d be okay. Like, sixty percent.
I leaned out of the window. “Hey, there’s a girl being kidnapped by three guys, round the back. They look Eastern European.”
The policemen, who were just milling around on the street, probably discussing which far-right candidate to vote for in the upcoming elections, looked up in a panic.
“She’s a white girl,” I threw in, to help them get to a quicker decision.
The cops were off and running.
I took the opportunity to leave, too. No point hanging around here. It was getting very drafty.
There was a back way out that was only meant for emergencies, but not getting caught up in any of this nonsense seemed fairly urgent, at least to me. I’d just wanted to watch the footie and have an Indian, but no. I would be a lot safer from these constant interruptions back at Cheng’s place. I could decide what to do next from there. It was handy having someone to rely on for once in my life, even if it came with Mandy.
The station wasn’t too far and there was a taxi rank outside it. Time to use some of that cash I’d been given. Chauffeur-driven from now on, the smell of kebabs in the back and bhangra music on the radio, that’s the way to travel when you’re feeling flush.
I jumped in the back of a Mercedes with a taxi logo on the side and gave the driver the address. The other door opened and a girl got in. It took me a moment to recognise her without the makeup and wig.
“How did you get away from Jack?”
“That amateur?” said Lillian. “Gimme a break.”
“What do you want? You can’t come with me.”
“I don’t want to come with you,” she said. “I want you to come with me.”
The doors opened again and a big guy got in next to me, another in front. The one beside me looked familiar. He was the one who had broken down my door.
“He with you, is he?” It was starting to look like a stitch up.
“Yes. Don’t be mad. Jenny said you were special, that I could test you if I wanted. So I did.”
“Passed, did I?” I wasn’t happy. Was this a rival bunch to Orion’s lot? Or working with them to make me think I had options? It was suspicious how this small girl managed to get away from Jack and his men.
The driver turned around. He was a black guy, very dark skin, very white teeth. “You don’t want to upset the lady,” he said in a heavy African accent. “She can be very mean.”
“So can I,” I said. Kill everyone now? Would make it hard to get out over the corpses. I could phase through them, if I could figure out how to do it on command.
“Jenny said a lot of other things about you,” said Lillian.
“Why not ask her yourself. You can talk to her.”
“What are you going to do, mind-meld with me?”
“We have a machine,” she said. “My boss will show you how to use it.”
A trap? Probably. But it would mean getting a bunch of them in one place. Save time getting rid of them all at once. “Okay, let’s go.”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino