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Family, Family, Family

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Once Rachel had gone to sleep, the ghosts convened again in the sitting room. The meeting would most certainly at some point need a referee, so Alison was badgered out of going to bed. She was surprised to learn that Fanny, of all people, had called the assembly.

“Is this meeting necessary?” Julian asked, sauntering in a good five minutes after most other ghosts had already taken their places. “I had an important prior obligation sitting in my daughter’s room and staring at her as she sleeps.”

“And I had to sit and stare at Julian stare at daughter,” Robin said, following him inside.

“This meeting is decidedly not of the sort that… ‘could have been an e-mail’, as the modern parlance would have it,” Fanny proclaimed, imbuing the phrase with the withering scorn of someone utterly uninterested in learning what an e-mail actually was.

“All of us,” she continued, “are patrons of Button House…”

“...Some more voluntarily than others…” Julian muttered, to which several ghosts nodded, but only when Fanny wasn’t looking their way.

“…some of us have even called it our own within our lifetimes,” Fanny concluded. “Now, yet one more time in its stormy history, a horrid injustice has occurred within our walls. Shall we really sit idly by and let said injustice go unpunished?”

“Huh?” said the Captain.

“What?” said Humphrey’s head, propped up on the Captain’s knee.

“Have you been binging Murder She Wrote again, Fanny?” said Alison, politely.

“Hush, you all,” said Thomas. “She’s speaking of the attempt upon the life of Miss Rachel.”

A small ruckus broke out. Apparently only half the ghosts were up to date on the news again.

“Why was I, the ranking officer, not told there was foul play involved?” the Captain demanded.

“What exactly would you have done about it, mate?” Humphrey’s head wondered.

“I think Lady B is right,” Thomas said. “Such foul, unnatural crime must be avenged.”

“She’s not going to fuck you, Thorne.” Ignoring Thomas’s outraged gasp at the insinuation, Julian tugged on his lapels, straightening up. “You people are in no way equipped to even gauge what this is all about—”

“Guys, guys!” Alison clapped her hands, calling for silence. “Let Fanny finish.”

“Thank you,” Fanny said, all vindicated pride as everyone else settled. “Yes, I am addressing the attempt to murder the girl. I speak for us all, I think, in saying that this ought to concern us.”

“Bunch of people die here,” Robin argued, but went mostly unheeded. “Why only concern now?”

Julian looked at him and shrugged. “She’s bored, so she wants to make a spectacle of my daughter. Which, well, the girl is a public figure. It’ll be good for her, getting some hands-on experience in on how to deal with busybodies.”

 But the wind had turned due Fanny as the other ghosts saw something on the horizon that they all eternally sought: an interesting pastime to fill their evening.

“The police are investigating,” Alison reminded them.

“The police? Hah.” Fanny let out a somewhat unladylike snort. “Corrupt, incompetent buffoons, the lot. We were there the whole evening and able to investigate unseen. Who better to unveil the goings-on than we?”

Alison refrained from reminding them that technically, they had all promised her that night to not leave the sitting room. Obviously more of them than Julian had ended up downstairs anyway.

“Well, I was here the whole time,” Pat said.

“Alright, squad.” The Captain stood up, tapping his stick against, for lack of a surface of some kind, his own palm. “All of you who did, against orders I might add, abandon their posts in this room at any point during the evening in question. The transgression shall, in this special case, be stricken from the record in exchange for information. Let’s collect our impressions. What did you see?”

“Many, many prankable libs,” Julian said.

“I happened to overhear some members of the staff exchange some rather contemptible gossip,” Fanny admitted. “In a manner truly inappropriate for the serving body to be discussing their employer. It was said that the girl was found to be… uptight in her manner, if fair in her treatment of her aides. That… certain indiscretions in her background had left her, in certain aspects, vulnerable.”

“Vulnerable how?” the Captain asked.

“There were hints as to some failing in her parentage,” Fanny said primly. “Such things can mark a young person.”

“Offfffff course,” Julian sighed.

“I saw man speak to other men,” Robin reported, “who said that power come from beams of Sun, brother of moonah, and that it can make things go. Like lights in bulb, but also energy in wires and other things.”

“Um, solar power?” Alison guessed. “Yeah, Rachel’s party’s all about that kind of thing.”

“Curious,” the Captain said, “but not really germane to the topic, Robin.”

Robin shrugged. “Just thought it int-esting, is all.”

Kitty raised her hand like a star pupil. “Oh, oh, me next!”

The Captain pointed the swagger stick at her. “Yes, Katherine.”

“I saw Rachel talk to many people all evening,” Kitty eagerly began her tale. “They all were so very nice to each other – well, at first, before Julian started playing all his jokes on them and made a gentleman trip into the punch bowl. Everyone had such fine clothes on…”

“…What passes for fine clothing in this era…” Fanny interjected.

“…and Miss Rachel was smiling at everybody and being a wonderful hostess…”

Julian coughed suddenly.

“…like a lady at court almost. But there were some people in attendance who weren’t at all being courteous. They came with the man from next door, the one who always calls his dogs a rude word…”

“Barclay Beg-Chetwynde?” Alison asked. “Ugh, yeah, he did get an invite from… somewhere.” It embarrassed her to say, but the man had simply turned up unannounced again and then spent an hour talking rings around her until she’d handed him a bunch of those pre-made invitation letters Rachel’s assistant had sent them just so he’d go away.

“Beg-Chetwynde, yes, fabulous work, Katherine,” said the Captain. “If only I had some kind of blackboard to write this down on… ah, well. Certainly, the man and his company were present at the occasion to sow dissent. But does that necessarily imply a readiness to resort to murder?”

“Why not? He’d be the type.” Despite his initial reluctance, Julian had apparently decided to enter the discussion. “And he probably has dealings he’d like to keep secret, all depending on what information Little Miss Trouble has gathered. Revenge of the Fiji account.”

“You’ve lost us there, mate,” Pat said, exchanging a puzzled glance with the Captain.

Julian sighed and began examining his fingernails. “In the… recent past, my daughter’s done a very stupid thing that’s made some very rich people very angry. She’s obtained information somehow on some dodgy dealings that she’s being infuriatingly vague about, which she could now use for exposition, blackmail, or getting assassinated over. Could Barclay’s offshore account be part of that package? Feasibly. Maybe. Or maybe it’s not the offshore account at all but something else the family's up to, who’s to say? Rachel made mention of her mother’s address book, by which I am to infer she played her Tory brat contacts to get her hands on… whatever it is she has. Potentially she could know where many people’s bodies are buried! The point being, if the family knows about this and feels just threatened enough, yes, they'd kill her stone-dead.”

Julian swept his gaze over his audience. Some of them were hesitantly nodding along, the older ones however looked mostly confused.

“It’s confidential intel, then. State secrets,” the Captain summarized.

“Not state. Not necessarily quite state. Although, maybe. Lot of potential in that."

“But would that odious man truly be so stupid as to remove a political rival… of some sort… in a place he has been widely seen to attend?” Fanny asked.

“It’s not a widely-known rivalry, Lady B,” Julian said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “The girl hasn’t told anyone but me, and only just.”

Alison kept her mouth shut.

“Perhaps some other member of his company,” Thomas suggested. “Who was with him?”

“Well, the wife. Well-inebriated as usual,” Julian listed. “The grand-nephew, one of those gormless-looking fellows. And two other chaps I didn’t know.”

“Right. But what if the miscreant was not one of them? What if they slipped in from the outside in a moment when everyone was distracted?” Thomas said. “Or… oh! Disguised themselves as a member of the staff!”

“A classic,” said Fanny. “A case of the butler as the murderer.”

“Or maybe…” Kitty said slowly, “Maybe the person pretended to be one of Rachel’s friends… but in reality…” She shuddered at the very thought. Somebody pretending to be nice, but scheming behind another person's back... it was horrifying. Thank goodness she knew nobody who'd ever do such a thing.

“This is fruitless,” said the Captain. “It could have been anyone… not Alison or Michael, obviously, but anyone else among the living.”

“Or…” Mary suddenly piped up, “Or the culprit be… Julian.”

Everyone looked at Julian.

“Me!” Julian put a hand on his chest. “That’s ridiculous!”

Mary cowered in her seat at the force of his outrage. The Captain glared at Julian. “Please, would you explain that, Mary?” he asked in a tone that was, for him, gentle.

“Well… I remembers how we was all talkin’ about it that day… how ‘twas said that if she were to die, Julian could make up with his daughter. And we knows he can touch the livings sometimes… that he’s pushed… someone… before,” Mary said timidly. “And mayhap all his talks about enemies just then be some evil trick.”

Thomas gasped. “Perhaps he means to throw us off!”

“Ridiculous,” Julian repeated. “What do I stand to gain? A dead child? And have her ghost give me hell for the rest of forever?”

“Things have, in fact, turned out pretty well for you,” the Captain mused. “And you were at the scene very quickly after she fell.”

“Yes, I was at the bottom of the stairs, not that it’s anybody’s business,” Julian defended himself and, as if that were a normal statement to make, added, “I was eavesdropping, of course, on her phone call with that lesbo.”

“Her girlfriend?” Alison asked dryly.

The Captain shifted in his seat.

“Yes. They were really going at it, whoo boy – arguing, that is. Then there was just this… scream. And then…” He tugged at his tie as if to loosen it, his eyes flitting from ghost to ghost. All of them were intent on him. “I tried to catch her, if you must know. Yes, yes, it’s stupid. But as has been pointed out so kindly, I’ve been able to touch the living before. I thought maybe… well, I guess I wasn’t thinking much at all.”

They all visibly let that sink in. So did Alison. It was a miracle, she remembered they’d said at the hospital, that Rachel hadn’t busted her skull or damaged her spine and ended up dead or permanently paralyzed. A ghost with powers like Julian’s would probably not have been strong enough to stop her hitting the ground, but he might slow her fall a bit… cushion the blow… and maybe that was what Rachel had seen, why she was so willing to trust Julian now…

“Well,” said Kitty, “do we put him on our list of suspects or not?”

Before anybody could answer, there was a scream. Not from amidst them, but somewhere else in the house.

Contrary to popular belief, when hearing a scream, people do not usually jump up immediately and run in the direction of the sound. They look around confused. They ask each other, “Did you hear that? That sounded like a scream to me…”

“It’s not 3am,” the Captain said. “And Fanny is right here.”

“That came from downstairs,” Alison said.

A second scream, abruptly cut short.

Julian abruptly rose from his seat. “I’d know that set of lungs anywhere. Drove me bloody batty for four years.”

The Captain was already halfway to the door. “Move out!”

And then everybody lunged for the stairs at once.

Alison’s body reacted before her brain could quite catch up, and she was bolting down the stairs and through the hall, barrelling through some ghosts up ahead, no time to stop and address their shouts of alarm. Arriving at Rachel’s bedroom, she wrenched the door open.

A dark figure – a man in a mask? – stood bent over Rachel’s bed, pressing a pillow onto her face.

Rachel struggled, but her squirming was already growing weaker, her multiple injuries weighing her down.

Alison… froze. She blurted out something inarticulate, like “Hey!” and for a split-second, the man’s eyes behind the ski-mask met hers as he flinched upright, caught. It was all too incredible. This couldn’t be happening in real life, in her house, this was how it happened in movies. The only thought that whizzed through Alison’s head, in that split-second, was an irrational wish for Mike to be here to help her. Meanwhile Julian—

(“He had the vixen look,” Robin would say later, and tell Alison a story from his lifetime, of how one day he’d dug in the dirt for roots when he’d fallen, by accident, into a fox’s burrow. Robin could usually take on a fox easily in those days, provided it wasn’t rabid, he’d say, but this time the vixen had had cubs. He’d pull down his furry boot then, and show Alison the teeth-marks that persisted on his calves to the present day.)

Alison had heard the same types of stories that most people had, at some point within their lives, about a parent fighting a bear or lifting an entire car that their child was trapped underneath. Heartwarming, she’d always thought, but probably strongly embellished. But now Julian, who had trouble moving one tiny chess piece on a good day, picked up a hideous, fist-sized heirloom vase from the vanity and brought it down on the intruder’s head.

It hit the intruder’s temple and shattered, making the man reel backwards, confused and horrified, and now more footsteps could be heard from the hallway, footsteps Alison knew like her own: Mike, having heard the screams and coming to investigate.

“Mike!” Alison yelled. “Mike, in here!”

“Shit, shit,” the intruder hissed, clearly now panicking, and there was the window behind him, wide open. By the time Mike had arrived, and Alison had willed her legs to move across the room, he had vaulted out, hit the ground and taken off running across the lawn towards the forest. Within seconds, the darkness had swallowed him.

“Can we go after him?” Mike asked.

“Not in the dratted dark,” the Captain said, forgetting for a moment that Mike couldn’t hear him. “By the time we get downstairs to grab a torch, he’ll be god-knows-where.”

Behind them, Rachel was sitting up, tossing the pillow off herself and gasping for air. All the ghosts had arrived by now, and clustered around either her or the window, whispering in worried tones. Rachel was taking deep, heaving breaths, her eyes glazed over with shock.

“Who was that motherfucker?” she blurted out. “Did he want to finish the job? What an idiotic way to do it!”

“Yeah,” Alison said weakly, sinking down onto the bed. Her hand found Rachel’s, and now they were holding each other for dear life. Alison was shaking, the buzz in her ears clearing up for the first time since she’d ripped the door open. The whole scene replayed itself in her head in ghastly clarity. A part of her still couldn’t believe it. A murderer in her house! What if he hadn’t run away? What if he’d had a weapon? She could have become the newest ghost of Button House right then and there, and Rachel right along with her. “What an idiot.”

Then Mike was there, putting his arms around her. Alison leaned into his embrace, closed her eyes and breathed in the calming scent of him until the shaking subsided.

She surfaced back into the world to the feeling of something wet on her shoulder. Oh, tears. Rachel had cycled into the next phase of shock and was now crying into her sweater.

“I can’t believe you guys came,” she sobbed. “I can’t believe anyone came!”

Alison pulled her closer, stroking her shoulder in a way she hoped was soothing. “We heard you scream, love.”

If anything, it made Rachel sob harder, the big, inelegant, blubbery tears of someone who doesn’t cry often. “Huuuh—I never… n-nobody ever, since I-I was a kid…”

“Well, we’re here now,” Julian said, sitting down by the bedside and attempting to pat Rachel’s hand. The flash of whatever passed, for a ghost, as adrenaline had clearly left him, because he only succeeded on the third try.

Flinching at the sudden cold of ghostly matter making contact with her skin, Rachel turned to Julian. Their eyes met, and twenty-seven years evaporated into thin air.

“Oh, daddy… oh, daddy, it’s all so horrible…”

“Occupational hazard,” Julian muttered.

“…please don’t leave again,” Rachel blurted out, and Julian made a face as if someone had smacked him, and suddenly Rachel’s brain seemed to kick back into gear with the sheer mortification of what she’d just said, and remember she was an adult and a Member of Parliament.

“I mean,” she said, taking rapid, flat breaths to compose herself, “Um… that is to say, it’s, you can go if you want to, I’ll be fine here, um. Er,”

Julian, too, was visibly struggling. “Well, look, if… yes, I can indeed go where I may, within the bound of the estate of course, but… here, is as good a place as any, no? The, um… and everyone’s here already, right? So I might as well, ah, stay. Unless you want to be by yourself, actually.”

There was only so much emotional repression Alison could stand in one day. She decided to help them out. “Be good to have a ghost in here in any case,” she suggested. “In case that guy comes back.”

“I volunteer first watch,” Julian said promptly.

“I watch too,” Robin offered.

“Of course you will,” Julian said, and smiled at Robin in a way that made Alison decide that sometimes she didn’t have to pry; sometimes, ghost business was ghost business.

 


 

Somehow, more of the ghosts chose to keep hanging around the room for a little while longer, until it became clear that nobody was leaving. They all found somewhere to sit and soon, a comfortable chatter resumed. Rachel meant to listen, to take part in the conversation, but found herself in a strange, drifting state, which a distant, still-vigilant part of her mind concluded had to be residual shock. Under normal circumstances, she never could have even thought to fall asleep with people all around her talking, or after such a harrowing experience, but her recent injuries had left her weak, and her body was ready to call it quits on her for a while. Somehow, her eyes wandered to the ghost of her father, and the caveman sitting legs akimbo on the floor by his chair, who now put his head in her father’s lap, and she felt a strange sense of comfort she couldn’t remember ever feeling, not even in earliest childhood, a feeling that was so unfamiliar that she’d never thought to even miss it: a sense that someone was there watching, and that things would be okay. She dozed off half-listening to the ghosts’ voices.

“He ran towards the woods,” Pat was saying.

“Yes, and if he knew the terrain well, he could double back to the Beg-Chetwynde property easily.” That was the Captain.

“Or to town. But that’d take a while, and in the dark, in the woods…”

“Unless he had an escape vehicle stashed away somewhere…”

“A vehicle? A car, you say? What does that remind me of…?”

“How did that man know how to come here anyway, when no one was told Miss Rachel was recuperating here?”

“Good thinking, Thorne. Maybe the girlfriend snitched. I knew right off the bat she wasn’t good enough for my babygirl…”

“The course of true love never doth run smooth…”

“No, no. He would have seen her car coming!”

“Seen it from where? There’s nothing around here but woods and lawn for miles and miles.”

“And the Beg-Chetwynde property…”

“Well, that wasn’t Barclay in here. That chap was taller, skinnier, besides, Barclay’s in no shape to go jumping out of windows at his age.”

“What about the nephew, or grand-nephew, or whatever? The one who was here that night? What was his name again… Nigel? Dennis?”

“Are… we solving it? Should we notify Alison? Should we have Alison call the authorities?”

“They’ll know who it was by the vase-shaped bruise on their head, hehe.”

“Yes, good work with vase, Julie. Stronger than look, eh?”

“I’ll have you savages know, that vase was part of my dowry.”

“Much good it did you, then, eh, Lady B?”

Rachel fell asleep in the cosy certainty that people – dead people, but nonetheless – were watching over her.

 


 

She woke up and found golden sunlight slanting in from the window, and most of the ghosts gone. Two had remained: her father, seated in the armchair by the bedside, one hand propping up his face, elbow resting on the arm of said chair, snoring with his full chest, open-mouthed. Robin had nestled between his splayed legs, his head leaned onto Julian’s thigh, and was adding his own snores to the concerto. Well, they did say one could sleep when one was dead. Rachel wished she could take a picture of the scene to tease them with later.

She sat up in bed with a small sigh, careful not to make any noise to risk waking anybody. If one ignored the snoring, it was so quiet. She’d sorely wished for quiet in these last few days. She’d wished, ever since coming here, repeatedly for a moment to unpack her feelings about the situation. She supposed the moment was now.

Rachel elected to start at the beginning. No, even further back than that. The actual beginning. In the beginning, she had had this father.

In the beginning, at three, four years old, she hadn’t cared much one way or the other about this father she’d had. He’d always been coming and going, always one foot out the door, more like a houseguest than a person living there – except Mother never fought with their houseguests. There had been birthdays and Christmases and anniversaries and lots of talk about an entity named ‘your father’ and whether or not he’d be ‘coming home’ for the event in question. He never had shown, and Rachel remembered resenting ‘your father’ for putting a sour face on Mother at what should be happy, joyful occasions (at least, she remembered thinking, that’s what they looked like on TV).

Then one day she’d had to put on a black dress and coat, and she and Mother had gone to Funeral, where some people half-heartedly gave some speeches about a person named Julian Fawcett Em-Pee and the things he had reportedly done for ‘The Party’. She remembered thinking, “That man has the same last name as Mother and I. Maybe that is why I’m here?” After that, there had been birthdays and Christmases too, but no more talk of ‘your father’, and Rachel had been relieved.

Later, after she’d put the dots together, she’d pinpointed a change in her mother that had occurred after the Funeral. Before, there had been the fighting and yelling and frustration, yes, but also the times when Mother had laughed, drank wine and played music and invited men over whom Rachel had not known, big men with handsome faces and shiny white-toothed smiles. Afterwards, something in Mother had grown cold, and rigid, and hard.

Rachel had been raised to propriety, to dignity. Fanny would have greatly approved. “We will show them,” Mother had told her sometimes. “We’re not what he’s done to us. We keep our chin up, we garner respect in our own right, despite… despite…”

She’d never told Rachel despite what. She’d been too young for that talk, of course. She’d never connected the dots back to the father she’d almost completely forgotten by then, until boarding school, until puberty hit, until her schoolmates dug up the information about what ‘died with his trousers down’ really meant. Living with prepubescent rich kids could be rough. No one had allowed her to forget her father since then. But for a while, at least, it had been Rachel and Mother against the world, until Rachel got politics of her own and the scales shifted again, and it started to look like more of a Rachel vs Mother vs World cage-match. And all her father’s fault, for his neglect, for his piggish ways, for his stupid death.

It was easy to hate someone for not being there. It was harder to do that when the person was in front of you. Sort of rendered the point moot, Rachel reckoned.

Now the reality was that her father was a ghost, chained to this house he’d died in. He hadn’t wanted to die here. He hadn’t wanted his reputation to be what it was. He certainly would have loved a more dignified death, or to still be alive even. And he probably hadn’t wanted his shameful legacy to bring secondhand shame to Rachel. How could she hate someone for having a stupid, fatal accident? Plus, she was pretty sure he’d saved her life twice. That had to count for something.

Who was her father, when the chips were down? Alison had said he could be troublesome, selfish. But she’d also said he was funny, and sometimes even kind. Rachel wanted to see if that was true. She’d effectively stopped having a mother at the age of twenty, when she’d come out and in the same breath announced her wish to join the Green Party. Those had been ten lonely years. Maybe she wanted to give having a father a try.

Alas, there was no reason to start off by being sappy about it. She was a Fawcett after all.

She reached out and loudly banged her fist against the nightstand. “Wake the fuck up!”

Disoriented noises emitted from the armchair as the two ghosts flinched upright.

"Five more minutes," Robin muttered, as if he'd ever risen to an alarm.

“Whuh… ah? Oh, it’s you, Trouble. And there I was having such an interesting dream too… Samantha Fox was there… you know, your godmother?”

My what now?! Rachel shook her head – they could unpack that later. “Didn’t ask. Listen. Did I mishear that last night, or did you guys sleuth out who our attempted murderer is?”