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Family, Family, Family

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The folks organizing the event had been very courteous, accommodating even, Alison thought, for politicians. The guy who’d been e-mailing, a man named Andrew, apparently an assistant for one of the people behind the whole gig, had apologized profusely several times for this being on such short notice, and he hadn’t burdened Alison and Mike with any extra work that wasn’t in the contract. (Alison, who knew perfectly well that she and Mike did most of their work on short notice and in a state of middling to extreme panic, accepted the apologies very cordially.) Andrew and his little horde of staff had brought on their own caterer and decorators, arrived everywhere on time, and kept their preparations strictly out of the way of where they weren’t supposed to be.

The ghosts, always interested in new living people, had watched them set up for most of the morning, but when no exciting chaos occurred, they’d gradually dispersed. Julian had chewed Alison’s ear off for a while about ‘liberal berks’ invading the house, but had grown bored of even that eventually. All in all, this looked to become your bog-standard, boring political fundraiser, not at all like the excessive parties Julian spoke of in that context. (Of course, that had prompted its own comment from him about ‘the libs’ not knowing how to have a good time.) Alison personally liked the sound of an event where people would stand around in an agreed-upon set of rooms, sip a reasonable amount of champagne and talk about how much money they’d need to make the world a better place, instead of trashing her house in some coke-fuelled orgy. Be that as it may, this was the first such event that Alison and Mike were personally hosting, with more potentially in the future, if this lot ended up recommending Button House to all their parliamentary friends. Everything had to go perfectly.

Alison was wondering if she could somehow convince all the ghosts to pile into a cupboard and stay there for the next two days when Robin entered her field of vision. “Big car come down road, stand in driveway,” he announced. Alison had put him on lookout so that he’d feel useful and not get it in his head to spook the people setting up on the ground floor.

“That must be the MP,” Alison said and headed for the door. When Robin grunted and gestured at Julian, Alison added, “No, no, the other one, the one in charge of the fundraiser.” It occurred to her then that she didn’t actually know that much about the people who’d be coming. Several folks from parliament would be there, cross-party cocktail, their staff and various guests. Alison had only ever spoken to Andrew the assistant of… whoever had organized this in the first place, and had probably just arrived to oversee the final touches to the preparations. Oh well, she’d be meeting that person soon enough, likely any minute now. “I’d best be there to show them around.”

“Right on,” said the Captain, swagger stick at the ready. “Men, that is to say, everybody, you know the protocol.”

“What be the protocol?” Mary asked.

“Cap, I really don’t think you all need to come with me,” Alison tried.

“Nonsense, Alison,” said the Captain, waving his staff, “some standards must be maintained. Visiting government official, can’t be seen slacking.”

“Can’t be seen at all,” Thomas muttered rebelliously. “We didn’t throw a whole parade when Julian first came.”

“Then won’t it be doubly exciting to have one now?” Kitty clapped her hands, vibrating a bit with joyous anticipation. “A parade! It’s a pity we don’t have anything to wave! Like little flags, or even just handkerchiefs…”

“Hardly be worth the effort for some effete leftist so-and-so,” Julian opined, but, as did all other ghosts who were interested, he followed Alison. “Hopeless do-gooders, holier-than-thou, the lot…”

Down in the driveway, the ‘big car’ was actually a fairly reasonably sized, environmentally-conscious vehicle. Just as Alison opened her front door, a woman was exiting the car. She was on the short side, blonde, and dressed in a smart linen pantsuit befitting the summery weather. Every aspect of her, her clothing, hairdo, sensibly-heeled ankle boots, discreet makeup, understated jewellery, down to even the expression on her face seemed to be hand-picked to straddle the line between tasteful, refined, composed and easy-going, approachable. She approached Alison now, winning handshake, winning smile.

(Something about the winning smile seemed… slightly… familiar.)

“Hi, you must be Alison Cooper,” the newcomer said. “My assistant showed me your e-mails. I’m sure he already told you, but can I just say again, I’m so glad you could host us on such short notice.”

Behind her, Alison heard several startled inhalations of breath. Odd for people who didn’t need to breathe.

“What is come over me? What do mine eyes behold?” Thomas sighed dreamily. “Oh, but she shines with the beauty of a thousand suns! I must make her acquaintance! Alison, will you not make introductions?” (This, Alison knew, was just Thomas’s standard reaction to seeing a woman. As soon as this one left, he'd forget she ever existed and focus back on her.)

“She won’t, and you’ll shut up now,” said someone else – Julian? Julian.

Thomas was quickly inflamed. “Thus from you, of all people, sir? You who have taken every opportunity presented thus far to chase skirt?!” The ‘sir’ out of his mouth was practically an insult.

“Not that skirt, heavens,” Julian replied. “What in hell do you think I am?”

Before Thomas could say some choice words about what he thought Julian was, or Mary could finish telling him off for blaspheming, or Pat could get anyone to listen to him at all, the woman in front of Alison, blind and deaf to the ghostly bickering, added, “Oh, sorry, have we been introduced at all? I’m Rachel Fawcett.”

Very abruptly, the ghosts fell silent.

Alison blinked.

She asked, “Fawcett like Julian Fawcett?”

The winning smile fell. “Ah. You’ve heard of him, then. Yes, he was my father.”

“Huh,” Alison said. She’d never really looked Julian up, mostly for fear of finding more weird sex stuff. She hadn’t known he’d had a family. Had the other ghosts known? “In… the interest of full disclosure,” she said, intending deeply partial disclosure, “you must be aware that… this place, this house…”

Rachel Fawcett’s shoulders rose. “I do know that he died here.” Bravely, the smile tried to materialize. “I refuse to let that ruin our fundraiser. We must live in the present.”

“Huh,” Alison repeated, momentarily speechless. She just gestured towards the house, motioning for Rachel to follow her inside. Ghosts hurriedly scrambled out of their way.

Rachel must have picked up on Alison’s tone, because she added, “That sounds callous to you, doesn’t it?”

Alison shrugged and made a vague noise, which seemed safest. She kept her eyes on Rachel’s face and off the ghosts.

“You seem to already know the story,” Rachel continued. “Obviously, this is your house, an MP dying here in a sex scandal must be bad PR for you too.”

Alison hadn’t considered Julian’s death from that angle before.

“I barely knew my father. He died when I was little more than a toddler, and before that, he was never around. Always out striking deals with oil execs and foreign dictators and cheating on Mother.”

Alison heard a ghost – maybe Pat – clear their throat.

“All I really know him from are old newsreels. And, of course, the circumstances of his death. People don’t really let you forget that you’re the girl whose father died with his trousers down. It’s followed me around like a… well, like a ghost.”

Alison felt her face scrunch up.

“So, yeah. I mean no offense, Ms. Cooper, I’m sure this is a splendid old place with a rich history apart from, well, that, but I wouldn’t have come here if Ashcroft House hadn’t cancelled on us. I don’t wish to associate myself with the… shameful legacy of my father. My hope is honestly that, after nearly thirty years, no one remembers him or the event here anymore. To be frank, if no one ever mentioned the name Julian Fawcett to me again, it’d be too soon.”

It had the tone of a well-practiced little speech, like indeed Rachel Fawcett was being asked about her father’s death a lot more than she would like, or at least like she’d expected it when coming here. Okay. This situation clearly required some tact. “I can see that it’s a sensitive subject,” Alison said. “Of course we don’t have to, um, dwell on any of that. Let’s just focus on managing the weekend, yeah?”

It couldn’t be put off any longer: she had to look at the ghosts. They each looked various shades of perturbed and embarrassed, and none would look directly at Julian. No one here was an adoring fan of Julian, exactly, but hearing a man be summarily condemned by his family member was never a nice place to be in. The ghosts who had had children of their own were looking especially uncomfortable. Alison found she felt similarly, but someone had to do something, so she dragged her eyes, with extreme reluctance, up to Julian’s face.

Julian was staring at the back of his daughter’s head, eyes wide and seeing god-knows-what. When met with Alison’s gaze, he visibly tried to compose himself, nodding twice, shrugging exaggeratedly. “Well,” he said. “You know. Fair enough.”

Rachel meanwhile headed deeper into the foyer, up to the bottom of the stairs. “Enough talking about me,” she said, “I should go check in with Andrew and the preparations. Up here?”

Alison wrenched herself back to the land of the living. “Oh, absolutely, yes, sure. Let me give you the tour real quick.”

 


 

That evening, Alison fell into bed next to Mike utterly exhausted. The conference – fundraiser, whatever – hadn’t even begun, the guests, apart from Rachel and her assistant, wouldn’t start arriving until tomorrow, but she was already dog-tired. Mike had been busy at work, and hence hadn’t been as involved, besides, he hadn’t had to wrangle ghosts.

“Hard day?” he asked.

“You could say that.”

Rachel had taken over the preparations with a startlingly un-Julian-like competence, firm but friendly with her staff, and of course, unlike Alison, utterly unperturbed by (because ignorant of) the Captain’s attempts at ordering people about who could not see or hear him, or Fanny gliding about the place making very sure that not a single heirloom vase got ever-so-slightly misplaced. And Julian.

Julian, having recovered his usual mood, or a very convincing facsimile thereof, fairly quickly, had spent the day being an utter chaos agent to the utmost of his ability, working as hard that afternoon as usually within a month, swatting things off tables, hiding or even breaking things, all the while manoeuvring around his daughter casting furtive glances. When Alison had finally managed to corner him alone and demanded to know why he’d make himself a nuisance like that, and if it had anything to do with Rachel insulting him earlier, Julian had claimed that his interest wasn’t in petty retribution so much as in getting Rachel out of the house before something happened to her.

“The whole thing smacks of history repeating, does it not?” he’d said with a slight manic glint in his eyes. “I came here for a fundraiser. She’s here for a fundraiser—”

“Green Party fundraiser,” Alison had said. Julian had waved her off.

“The party doesn’t matter. At least, not in the way you think. She’s inviting bad press, staying here, and that is only the beginning. Get a few journos here, they’re going to dredge the whole…” He’d gestured at himself in his entirety. “…back up. Which is the last thing she needs if she wants to keep her seat, she’s just not well enough established to allow for that kind of scandal to be connected to her name. And furthermore, on the twenty-seventh anniversary of my own unfortunate demise—”

Alison had shaken her head. “It’s nowhere near your death day, Julian. You died in spring. It is now summer.”

“Oh, you know what I mean. Look, Robin agrees with me!” Julian had gestured at Robin, who’d been loitering at the back of the room and now appeared at Julian’s left elbow for moral support.

“Bad moonah on rise,” he’d muttered ominously. “Stars tell trouble soon, real soon. You tell Julian’s girl, watch her back.”

Alison was never sure how much credence to give to what Robin claimed he read in the moon and stars. Besides, Julian and Robin had been in each other’s pockets lately even more than usual, often in support of each other’s schemes. Certainly Julian wasn’t the type to believe in portents and omens so Alison, perhaps a bit uncharitably, had maintained that he was probably out for petty revenge. She’d told the two of them to cut it out, but wasn’t too sure how well it had been received.

“You said that Rachel lady seems to have it pretty well together, right?” Mike asked now when Alison told him all this. “It’s not like she’ll bring coke and strippers to the event.”

That made Alison grin. “I haven’t seen any so far.” She reckoned that if Rachel Fawcett saw a stripper, she’d possibly try to drape her blazer over them. “You’re right, she’s very unlikely to do what Julian did. She’s not famous enough to get loads of attention from journalists. I’m not sure what he’s worrying about. Unless he was lying and really does just want to get back at her for what she said.”

Mike sat up in bed, looking thoughtful. “Ali, remember last Christmas? When my mum and dad tried to do all my work again and I got mad? My dad said something to me that helped me understand him a bit better. He said that… parents just like to help their kids out, and that… they’re scared that someday they won’t be able to do it anymore. Really made me think differently about it all.”

“That’s sweet, but… Julian was hindering, not helping.”

“Yeah, well, maybe he’s just… trying to be involved in his daughter’s life in any way he still can. It’s gotta be hard for him, being a ghost and all, not being able to reach out really.”

Alison had to smile. “Julian’s not the fatherly type,” she said. She leaned in to give Mike a kiss. “But it’s very cute of you to think like that.”

 


 

In her assigned guest room in the West Wing of the house, Rachel Fawcett was also attempting to retire, unaware that she was keenly watched. Riveted, the ghosts observed her going through her evening ablutions, removing her makeup and combing out her hair. Believing herself completely alone, she peeled out of her shoes and trousers, opened the top-most buttons of her blouse and thus threw herself backwards onto the bed, spreading her legs and groaning in contentment. The inseams of her slacks had left indents on her skin, and the ghosts watched her attempt to rub the soreness out with one hand as the other scrolled through her phone.

“Abhorrent manners,” Fanny said, peering down her nose at Rachel, who let out a long, open-mouthed yawn. “Slouching, baring her unmentionables, scratching herself in unseemly places, my, she truly is her father’s daughter.”

“She truly has her father’s legs,” said Thomas, peering also.

“Thorne, for once, I have no bloody idea how to react to that,” Julian said.

“Nothing wrong with a gel letting her hair down when she’s alone,” Pat said peaceably. “Which she thinks she is, and which she ought to be.”

“Even so, she is beautiful,” Thomas continued. “I shall compose an ode in honour of this moment. Rachel in Repose, is what I’ll call it.”

“I’m not having that yammering you call poetry anywhere near my daughter.”

Across the room from them, Rachel in Repose flopped onto her stomach and streeeetched to reach over the edge of the bed, where her handbag stood, and fished blindly inside it for what turned out to be a bag of candies.

“I think Thomas is right, she’s very pretty,” Kitty said. “She’ll be my second-best friend, after Alison, naturally. We’ll dine on… gummied worms together and chat about boys.”

“Why she be eatin’ worms?” Mary asked, shuffling closer to examine the bag.

Thomas seemed to have come to a decision. “Julian,” he said, one hand pressed to his heart, “friend through many trials and travails, though hard-won our regard may have been. I humbly beg your permission to court and retain the heart of noble Rachel.”

“What the what? Court and ret—my permission?” Julian chortled. “What is this, the dark ages? You know what, since you asked, no you can’t. Beat me in a duel first.”

“Alas that it must come to this again,” Thomas said gravely.

Julian rolled his eyes at him. “Joking! It was a joke. A j-o-k-e, quit fingering that bullet hole. Even if she could see or hear or do anything with you…” He couldn’t resist adding, “…there’s no way my daughter’s dating some namby-pamby little artiste.”

They were all startled from their conversation when Rachel’s phone rang. She picked it up, looked at the screen, let out an explosive sigh and answered.

“Hello, sweetie.”

“Aw, just your luck, Thomas,” Kitty said. “She’s taken!”

“Yeah, I’m spending the night at the place,” Rachel was saying to whoever was on the phone. “Easier than driving out again tomorrow, but I told you that when I left. It’s… yeah, Button House is the name, I told you that too, were you not listening? Oh… mh-hm… yeah, I knew that before. Yeah, I know this is the place where, yes, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Of course I’m alright. He was a disgusting pig and a Tory and I’m not sad that he is dead. Yeah, no, I get that. Look, some people just don’t get on with their parents, perfectly normal.”

Again, Julian found that all the other ghosts were pointedly avoiding meeting his eyes. Kitty let out a dismayed little noise.

“What? Hm, no, the plan is still to leave Sunday evening. I can’t possibly get away before that,” Rachel continued. “I’m sorry, darling. I know, I meant to make it to your gallery opening, I know, darling. But I told you already that we had to reschedule the fundraiser because of the, yeah, because of that termite infestation at the Ashcroft place, and this was the only spot we could get on such short notice. You think I would have picked the place where my gross dad died if I’d had any choice? No, I couldn’t ‘just cancel it’, do you have any idea how soon the by-election is? Yes, I know how important your art is to you, I knowwwww, darlinggggg.”

“Hah! An artist after all,” Thomas said, vindicated. Julian barely paid attention to him. Apart from the repeated insults to his person, he was starting to recognize a very familiar refrain here. Was her inflection even a bit like his own?

“It’s important to me too, of course it is. But my work is also important. Look, I know what you think of parliament, but I can make actual progress here, okay? We can’t all… revolutionize the world through art. Someone has to sit down and take on the issues that exist now. Yes, I’m sorry, darling, but to me it does sound like you’re not taking seriously what I do here. Mh-hm. Uh-huh. Look, we’re both tired right now, we’re both upset… huh?... I’m not ‘doing a politician voice’, what does that even mean? I just… yeah, that’s probably best. Yeah, talk tomorrow. Bye, I love you, Nadia.”

Rachel groaned and tossed the phone onto the bed.

“There’s just no arguing with that woman when she’s like this,” she said into what, to her, was the empty air.

The Captain, thus far silent, chose this moment to clear his throat.

“You have something to say, mate?” Julian snapped at the Captain, only to realize how ridiculous that notion was. The Captain, of all people, would assuredly not have something to say. For the moment, Julian was left staring, unusually contemplative, as Rachel looked at her phone, sighed… and put it away, took a laptop out of her bag, flipped it open and started working. Her father’s daughter, Fanny had said.

 


 

It was late. Rachel stared at the speech she’d spent all evening re-working, pulled up on her laptop, and realized that she’d been reading the same sentence over and over for the last five minutes. As much of a speech as it was. “We’re trying to do real good out here, we promise. Please give us some of your money.” She didn’t much like these fundraising events. And, try as she might to pretend otherwise, this place was getting to her. The tiff with Nadia wasn’t helping. Sometimes schedules just didn’t line up, she told herself. Sometimes, people couldn’t help but miss out on things in their loved ones’ lives. She’d make up for it, and it wasn’t becoming a habit. She wasn’t turning into her father.

She woke up screaming, terrified, sometimes, from dreams in which she’d turned into her father.

Here, somewhere in this house, maybe close by, Julian Fawcett had breathed his last, and settled his family with a lifetime of issues. Bowed out early so he didn’t have to face the music, as per usual. Rachel had only a few, faded memories of her father that were real, and not something she’d seen in news-archives. Neither memories nor archives had featured anything… remarkable. Extraordinary. Maybe if her father had been brilliant, or zealously dedicated to a cause, or even amazingly handsome, maybe she would have understood just a little bit more. People forgave geniuses and celebrities who were assholes in private, because they gave something remarkable to the public. But there was nothing. Just your average money-grubbing, philandering crooked politician with a sense of entitlement the size of the Commonwealth. Now, that kind of parentage hadn’t been uncommon in Rachel’s circles growing up. Most of her school friends had been neglected Tory brats. But none of their dads had famously died with their trousers down. As soon as everyone at her school had grown old enough to understand what that meant, it had made Rachel a popular subject for ridicule. Even when she’d started hanging out with the misfits and lefties, she’d been the girl with the scandal. It'd been unfair. She hadn’t done anything. As puberty hit, she’d felt people watching her: students, teachers, her mother. Watching what she would do. Waiting for the first shoe to drop. Waiting for her to, what, skip school, fuck wildly, do coke, stage a student protest? (The last one had happened. But not because of who Rachel’s parents were.)

She kept herself clean. Wholesome and scandal-free. She rarely drank, never touched drugs, and slid as far left as parliament would let her. When she’d realized she was attracted to women, it had taken her a lot of therapy to recognize that when her eyes lingered on a woman on the bus, she wasn’t predatory, it didn’t have to be exploitative, it wasn’t her father’s voracious skirt-chasing expressing herself in Rachel’s genes somehow, she wasn’t Julian Fawcett.

And now she’d made Nadia sad, had skipped out on her art exhibit opening night, and come to Button House, of all places, for politics. A coincidence, that it was this place. Andrew hadn’t found another venue, he’d assured her. Still…

There was a clicking noise. Then another. Then another.

Rachel rubbed her eyes. There, right in front of her, an invisible hand was slowly typing, adding letters to her document.

H-E-L-L-O

“Hello?” Rachel asked.

Even more slowly, as if it was taking someone or something a lot of strain, more words started to appear. W-H-Y, pause for space, D-O

There had been some to-do recently, Rachel remembered, about this house being haunted. It had been a hoax. Right? She didn’t believe in that sort of thing. A ghost pressing buttons on her keyboard? Impossible. Still, what else could it be? She looked around the room, sufficiently well lit by a reading lamp on the desk opposite the bed. No one else was here. Her laptop might be broken, but… these were legible words, not random gibberish that might result from a keyboard malfunction. And Rachel was by no means a cybersecurity expert, but she was pretty sure this was not how being hacked worked.

While she’d pondered these options, the invisible hand had completed its question.

“’Why don’t you have a speechwriter’?” Rachel read. “I… it’s lazy, I can write them myself, and I don’t like people putting words in my mouth… wait, who am I telling this to? Who’s in here?”

Nothing happened for a lengthy moment, and Rachel could almost convince herself that she’d momentarily fallen asleep and dreamed, or hallucinated, or whatnot, until suddenly keys were being pressed again. I, spacebar, A-M…

“What the fuck,” she whispered. “What the bloody, bollocking fuck?” How had her life turned from, well, just her life, to a horror movie plot within a single minute? It was beginning to sink in that something truly freaky was occurring, and Rachel felt herself break out into a cold sweat. Her leg was bouncing nervously with primordial fight-or-flight impulses. Only her inherent scepticism kept her rooted to the spot. To shriek and run away now when this could all still turn out to be nothing would look… stupid.

Breathless with morbid fascination, still kind of feeling like she was observing herself on a TV screen playing a ghost movie, she peered back at her document.

“I am your father,” the new words said.

“Okay, Darth,” Rachel muttered until it hit her what precisely these letters claimed. “No. This is some sort of prank. Someone somehow is messing with my laptop, and it’s not the ghost of my dead father.”

Again, words appeared by themselves: A-M, space, T-O-O…

Rachel reached out and slammed her laptop shut. “Nope. Enough. This isn’t real. I’ll just… take this thing to the shop tomorrow…”

Across the room, on the little writing desk that Rachel hadn’t used in favour of simply working curled up in bed, a pencil began to move. On and on it rolled, towards the edge…

 


 

“Robin, spot of help here, please!” Julian requested through gritted teeth, straining to push the pencil with his fingertip.

“On it,” Robin said, “though still not sure if this right approach…”

 


 

…and the desk lamp began to flicker wildly. In the suddenly unsteady light, Rachel watched the pencil fall to the floor, and then the lamp shut off completely, plunging the room into darkness.

“Okay, this is insane,” Rachel whispered. “This is fucking nuts.” Something was here… in the dark with her. She didn’t want to be here in the dark with something. She fumbled for her phone, found it next to her, grabbed it and bolted from the room.

 


 

“Great. You scare her now,” Robin said.

Julian raised a hand. “Aht-aht-aht. We scared her. And at least she noticed us now. All according to plan.”

“Plan not work,” Robin deadpanned.

Chapter Text

Standing in the darkened hallway clutching her phone, Rachel attempted to calm herself. Think rationally. Something weird was happening in the guest room; she couldn’t go back in there. Where to go from here? The friends she’d organized the fundraiser with weren’t here yet. Andrew had stayed the night and was down the hall, presumably sleeping. Did she want to wake him up now, with a wild story about ghosts and lights and objects moving by themselves? She gnawed on her lower lip, dithering in a rare moment of indecision. The flashlight on her phone, a pale, cold light, made the old hallway look inhospitable and eerie. Still a horror film set. The whole house would be like that at night. Whatever was in her room could well follow her…

There was also the house’s owner, the heiress, Alison Cooper. She’d said that Rachel could turn to her or her husband with anything at any hour of the day or night. It had just been politeness, Rachel had assumed, but Alison had told her where to find her, up to and including directions to her bedroom. She hadn’t thought it’d come up. But, well, she really did need someone now.

 


 

Alison woke to the noise of someone knocking on her door. It confused her for a second. Mike was next to her, and the ghosts didn’t knock. Then she remembered: the guests. Reluctantly, she swung her legs out of her warm bed and pushed her feet into her slippers.

When she opened the door, Rachel Fawcett was outside, holding a phone with the flashlight on, looking pale and perturbed and having seemingly taken to imitating her father’s fashion choices. Alison blinked at her bare legs in bewilderment. In this state of deshabille, Rachel Fawcett looked more real, younger. A woman around Alison’s own age, less of a construct, a manicured politician.

It was just now that Rachel seemed to notice her own undress. “Oh gosh, Ms. Cooper, I’m so sorry—”

“Alison,” Alison interrupted. “And it’s fine, I see way worse.” At least she was wearing panties still.

“Alison, good, please call me Rachel,” Rachel said automatically, like someone who’d had manners drilled into her. “Though, this is not… I’ve run into a, um, little bit of a problem. I know it’s late, I’m so sorry. There was just… something strange.” She gestured perplexingly. “In my room.”

“Really?” Hopefully it was something that could be fixed relatively quickly. It really was past midnight.

“Something… er… went wrong with my laptop,” Rachel said, like someone testing the waters, working their way up to… something else. Well, Alison guessed, Mike could have a look at it tomorrow morning, maybe his amazing DIY skills would yield something. Or there was an electronics shop in the next town she could give Rachel directions to.

“Like… words appearing by themselves?” Rachel tried. “Like in a horror film? Also the lights went out. At about the same time.”

Ah.

Well, fuck.

Electronics issues before the conference, that Alison could maybe have fixed. Julian and Robin, she could not fix.

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Those words that were written. What were they? Something… silly? Or maybe something insulting?”

“No,” Rachel said, pensive but… relieved, in a way, to be taken seriously. “They claimed to be, um… the ghost of my father.”

“Oh.” So Julian had decided to reveal himself. Try to really make contact. And Robin had probably thought he was helping. It was… unexpected? Alison wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting.

“I see,” she said.

“I don’t believe in the supernatural or anything,” Rachel said hesitantly. “But…”

“But what you saw tonight was pretty wild. I get it.” Alison nodded. “Look, you’re… this is going to need some explaining, but you’re not in any danger. The last thing Ju—the guys would want to do is hurt you.”

“The guys?” Rachel asked, like someone desperate to pick the plot back up.

And god, where to start? Alison had gotten so used to seeing the ghosts, and not talking about that to anyone from outside, that now that explanations might be in order, she could hardly find words. But this was a very special case. Julian had reached out to his daughter. Julian’s daughter had noticed. What could Alison possibly do but explain?

(Her own father had passed away when she’d been only slightly older than Rachel at the time of Julian’s death. What she wouldn’t give for one last chance at a conversation with him…)

“Let’s go down to the kitchen,” she said, “I’ll put some tea on. Then we can talk ghosts.”

That was how Alison ended up drinking tea with a politician at one in the morning discussing the Button House hauntings. Rachel listened, and nodded sometimes, seeming to rearrange her worldview to fit this in it.

“Tell me more about all the ghosts,” she requested when Alison had finished. “You said one was… a caveman? The one that messed with the light?”

“Yeah, Robin, he’s been here the longest. Hold on. Mike actually made something pretty nifty to help with that!” Alison opened the door to the pantry, where the ghost chart was pinned, and waved Rachel over to come look. “There aren’t pictures of all of them, of course, so for some I tried to draw them. I’m not an artist, but, it’s at least sort of similar.” She laughed.

“'Mike’s ghost chart’. That’s fun,” Rachel said, her eyes skimming all the portraits. “Ooh, is that from one of the World Wars? I didn’t know this house was an army base. ‘Mary (toast)’? What does that mean? Oh, Kitty looks super friend-shaped, somehow. And… ah.”

She’d found Julian. Unfortunately, his picture was a copy of that Sun article with the letters ‘TORY’S FATAL SEX SHAME’ in large, bold print above his face.

“Uhm, Kitty has been saying, she would love to be your friend if you could see her!” Alison said hurriedly. “And Mary is, well, when you walk through her by accident, you smell fire. Sort of like burning toast. It’s because she was, well, burnt at the stake, for witchcraft, allegedly. That’s one of the ways Mike can tell they’re here, you see, so it’s on the chart. Then we’ve got Lady Button, then there’s Pat… oh shit, we don’t have a picture of Humphrey, I should fix that…”

“And they can all move small objects?” Rachel asked, gently interrupting.

“No,” Alison said. “Only Julian.”

Rachel let out a strange little laugh. “Julian,” she repeated. “It’s… wild to me that you’re on first-name basis with my dead dad. I’m barely on any-name-basis with my dad.” She fidgeted a bit. Then she asked, “What… what’s he like?”

Right… she’d said she’d barely known Julian in life. “Do you want me to be honest, or… nice about it?”

“I know my father wasn’t a nice man,” Rachel said. “The truth will do.”

“He’s a nuisance,” Alison said frankly. “He’s constantly using his power to make trouble for Mike and me. He’s always telling anecdotes about his sex life. Always butting heads with the other ghosts. I think he committed war crimes at some point. But somehow we’d miss him if he was gone. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”

“Sounds horrible,” Rachel said, looking contrite. “On behalf of the family, I must apologize for him.”

She really thinks she has to, huh, Alison thought. Poor girl. Meanwhile Julian was hanging around here chewing everyone’s ears off about Panamanian Pumpkin Parties, not a care in the world. “You really don’t have to,” she said, reaching out to pat Rachel’s hand. “He has his moments, you know. He’s an acquired taste, sure, but he can be fun sometimes. Even randomly nice. He’s wormed his way into our hearts somehow.”

“Maybe because he can’t do any real damage anymore,” Rachel guessed. Alison, thinking about the tumble she’d taken from a window that had started it all, which she was having certain suspicions about, was silent.

“Are any ghosts here?” Rachel asked.

Alison shook her head. “For the moment, we’re alone.”

Of course, Julian and Robin elected that moment to sail in through the wall.

“Alison, whatever she told you happened, it probably wasn’t that bad. And besides, it wasn’t our fault. Well, maybe a bit Robin’s fault.”

“I done nothing,” Robin said, a bit less accustomed to subterfuge.

Alison sighed. “We are no longer alone.”

Rachel looked around, of course futilely. “Which ones are here?”

“Just Robin and, er, Julian,” Alison said.

“Where?”

A lone coffee cup next to the sink, that had been left for Mike to clean, fell over. Alison looked at Julian, who shrugged.

“Well, there you have it,” Alison told Rachel. “And Robin right next to him.”

“Oh, wow. Hi, Robin! Hello… um… father.”

Ooohhh, this is happening. Reunion time, Alison thought.

Julian’s face did something complicated that made Alison hold her breath. His voice had gone startlingly soft when he said, “Hello, Rachel.”

He waved, as if trying uselessly to signal across the barrier between life and death.

“He says hello,” Alison whispered.

For a second, a loud, breathless silence reigned. Then both Fawcetts spoke at once.

“How is death? Does it suck?”

“So, Green Party, eh?”

“Okay, this isn’t going to work,” Alison said. She fished her phone out of her pocket and opened the notes-app. “Julian, you could type in here.”

“Huh? Urgh, that keyboard’s tiny,” Julian whinged. “That’ll be a bitch and a half to use.”

“You either do that, or I stay here and translate,” Alison said. “I’m sure you’d like a moment of privacy with each other.”

They all weighed their options. Alison could see thinking going on all around. Then Julian said, “I’ll try typing.”

Alison nodded, and started heading for the door. “Rachel, Julian says he’ll attempt the keyboard.”

“Yes, I think that’s… yes, thank you.” Alison was already back in the hallway when she heard Rachel shout, “And you’ll get your phone back later!”

She chanced one last look back and saw Rachel take her seat and stare, enraptured, at the phone on the table in front of her, as Julian very carefully extended his pointer finger. With a smile, Alison ducked out of the kitchen.

Less than half an hour later, she heard the kitchen door slam and a female voice shout, “Well, bollocks to you, dad!”

Evidently, father-daughter-time had gone great.

She ran into Rachel, blistering with rage, in the hallway. When she saw Alison, Rachel tried hectically to compose herself. “Here’s your phone back,” she blurted out, her face flushed with emotion, and not the warm and fuzzy kind. “Thank you, Alison, for making this happen. It didn’t turn out… but it’s not your fault. My dad is just… my dad.”

She pressed the phone into Alison’s hands but then suddenly seemed to change her mind, grabbed it back and deleted the contents of the notes app. Alison caught a glimpse of a few words, such as ‘socialists’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘your mother’ before they vanished forever.

“I’m okay,” Rachel said. “I just… long day tomorrow. I’ll be heading to bed.” Her eyes gleamed suspiciously wetly. Julian’s eyes. Green.

Julian was now catching up. “Oh, wait up, Trouble!” he demanded, somewhere between peeved and contrite, gesturing expansively, all injured sentiment. “I didn’t mean—bloody hell, sensitive, are we?”

“You’d better leave her be for tonight,” Alison advised in her steeliest you-better-not-try-it-voice she’d gotten special for the ghosts. “Don’t you think you said enough? And what did you just call her?”

“Trouble,” Julian replied. “Because she is. Thin-skinned too - always has been. I remember back in the day she used to cry and wail – for hours sometimes—”

“You mean as a baby?” Alison raised an eyebrow, indicating that Julian was on very thin ice, and it was rapidly thinning further.

Julian threw up his hands (exasperated, guilty, stubborn). “She’ll never get far in politics with that kind of attitude.”

In a huff, he took off in the opposite direction Rachel had gone. Robin had waited up for him, but if Julian thought he was going to get support from him, he was mistaken, as evidenced by Robin’s disapproving headshake. Alison decided it was too late at night and she was too tired to follow up on any more of this tonight.

 


 

The next day saw many more visitors arrive. Rachel, looking pale and like she’d gotten barely any sleep underneath her makeup, seemed nonetheless determined to see the day through and give it her all, and was soon very busy greeting party friends and supporters and those who were interested in becoming either. Alison, seeing that she was getting on alright, banished the ghosts and herself firmly upstairs.

The discussion in the sitting room also ended up revolving around Rachel, however, with Julian right in the middle looking a strange blend of delighted that the conversation was, in a way, all about him, and uncomfortable to have his dirty laundry aired.

“It’s hard, I’m sure, to see your living loved ones again,” said Pat, the only ghost who still had family visiting the house semi-regularly. “And not be able to make yourself known. And the changes, they’re always getting older. Shows how life goes on without you, eh? You said at Christmas that Miss Rachel was real small when you died, didn’t you? About the same age as my Daley?” He attempted a companionable pat at Julian’s arm, to which Julian made a face and tried to angle himself away.

“Even younger," he muttered. "Four years old.”

“Well, she seems to have developed into a competent woman in the meantime,” said the Captain, nodding to himself. “Saw her wrangle some unbidden guests downstairs earlier. Yes, quite formidable.” It occurred to Alison that this was the Captain’s way of congratulating Julian on having a well-turned-out child.

“It be a shame she cannot sees us,” Mary mused. “It be bad for families, for to get torn apart before their times.”

“Yes, such a shame,” Kitty took up the thread. “I’m sure she’d be a wonderful friend to have.”

“Ah, the paeans I’d recite to her beauty, to her noble bearing, to her—”

“Her being a lesbian,” Alison added. Seemed like Thomas had a new crush. She was under no illusion that it wouldn’t fade, and he’d fixate back on her in due time, but for the moment, it was nice to have some peace from his lovestruck act being directed at herself.

“Alas, if some fatal harm would befall Miss Rachel,” Thomas said, strategically ignoring Alison’s intermission, “alas if she were to join our ranks… romance might still kindle. And perhaps some manner of family reunion too,” he added as an afterthought, waving a generous hand at Julian.

“Fatal harm?” Julian glared at him.

“Near-fatal harm might suffice,” the Captain said, gesturing at Alison, “as the record has shown.”

“A dreadful state of things, to know love but partially,” Thomas opined. “To see, to hear, but yet, never to touch!”

“Wow,” Alison said.

“What’s this about touching my daughter, there, mate?”

“I’d settle for near-fatal!” Kitty exclaimed. “Just to have another girl to talk to. I’m sure she’d love that! We have fun, don’t we, Alison?”

Alison put on a slightly strained smile. “Yes, Kitty, so much fun,” she said diplomatically. “Still, nothing’s going to happen to Rachel, not in this house. We’ve had enough members of parliament die here, right, Julian?”

She looked towards Julian’s accustomed seat by the chess table. He was no longer there. In that way the ghosts sometimes did, he seemed to have disappeared very quickly.

“Just missed him,” Robin said.

“Oh, bloody hell.” Alison got up. “I know where he went.”

 


 

For Rachel, the day had gone fine until it had started to go abysmal.

She’d mingled with the guests, some her party friends, co-organizers and aides, some potential hopefuls, nursing a singular glass of champagne. (She rarely drank, especially at political events. She was not her father.) The showing from the press was almost perfunctory, which gave her mixed feelings: she wanted to drum up more publicity, that was what these functions were for, but a virulent loathing for scandalmongers still ran deep within her. A small group of the conservative persuasion had somehow slunk their way into the event, and were now walking around sneering at everything and trying to engage attendees in bad-faith ‘debate’. Since they weren’t doing anything wrong and did have invitations… somehow, Rachel couldn’t exactly tell them to leave, plus the man they’d come here with was, according to Alison, the next-door neighbour, a man named Barclay Beg-Chetwynde, your typical Old Money professional pest. He’d brought, beyond his wife, a whey-faced grand-nephew of some sort, whom Rachel vaguely remembered having met twice before at other political occasions and who had, if memory served, attempted unsuccessfully to hit on her both times. He had one of those typical upperclass twit names. Nigel? Brent? Darren? It was hard to keep all those professional heirs straight.

Beg-Chetwynde Senior had surprised her by coming equipped with Information on her person, and had spent awhile comparing his own sprawling family line against the Fawcett pedigree (Rachel didn’t know much about her pedigree and didn’t care to), adding a few pointed jabs at ‘that sordid business in the 90s, in this very house’. He was oily. He was patronizing. He mentioned what it must undoubtedly do to Rachel’s delicate female sensibilities to come here. She wondered idly if there were ghosts listening.

She couldn’t dwell on the ghost thing now, though, not when she needed her whole brain on the job. If she did, she’d get lost trying to untangle her feelings. So she pushed it aside. Or tried to. She was doing well until mishaps started happening. Little things. Enough to chalk up to clumsiness rather than poltergeist activity. At least at first.

They’d gotten several folks to give little speeches on The Cause before they’d all sit down to dinner. People were being encouraged to step up and seek dialogue. Colleagues of Rachel’s, some folks who did incredible work for charities. Disasters started abounding. When someone tripped over a suddenly mislaid microphone cable and fell flat on his face, toppling the punch bowl, Rachel only allowed herself the tiniest eye-twitch before giving the man a hand up. When someone’s slideshow kept changing to the Brazzers logo, Rachel felt her hands clench at her sides. When the sound system suddenly started blaring Fat-Bottomed Girls and the woman who’d just taken the podium nigh-on burst into tears, Rachel had to grit her teeth to not say something unwise. We can say it was technology issues, later, she thought. Yeah, the decoration just came down on someone’s head, yeah, Beg-Chetwynde’s buddy got wine spilled on his shirt by seemingly no one, but those are just unrelated incidents.

But in her mind’s eye, she could see the couple journalists that had deigned to turn up here. She could see the articles and the tweets already. This fundraiser would be deemed ineffectual at best, a mismanaged disaster reflecting the dysfunction of the entire party at worst. This would all compound and get worse, especially as elections were drawing closer. The party didn't have the budget for many lavish campaigning events, so she was supposed to make this one count. And if she failed, what... who would be the reason? She'd never had any expectations of her father, seeing as for most of her life the man had been nothing but a corpse with a bad reputation. She was an old hand at taking the passive sort of damage that came with a father who was simply absent. She didn't know how to handle being actively sabotaged in her work, the same work that was of the utmost importance in her life. At the edges of her mind, it panicked her that it hurt. Rachel admonished herself to not unravel, and spent the next half-hour going around and making the requisite apologies, and suddenly found herself taken by the arm by Alison, who gently but firmly ushered her off to the side and into the empty kitchen to blow a fuse in peace.

 


 

“Rachel, I am so sorry,” Alison said. “I told the ghosts to stay away, I should have checked if they were listening…”

“Is he here?” Rachel asked.

“…and I should have taken into account how Julian gets when anything left of a Lib-Dem comes in here, I’m sure this had nothing to do with you personally…”

“Is he here,” Rachel repeated.

Julian elected this moment to stick his head in through the closed door. “There you are, Trouble. Finally, a moment away from all these stiffs back there, eh? But seriously, we do not play with Barclay Beg-Chetwynde, do you hear me? And we do not shake his hand, we don’t know where it’s been.”

“Yeah, he just came in,” Alison muttered, gesturing at the door. “Over there.”

God, what a mess. Somehow, by the time Alison had gotten back downstairs to search for Julian, almost all the ghosts had gotten out. Which was fine, really, save for the one of the lot who had the power to cause trouble.

“You…” Rachel took a shaky breath, staring at the door. “Why do you always ruin everything?”

“Well, excuuuuuse me,” Julian said, just a touch on the defensive. “What’s wrong with a cheeky bit of fun?”

Rachel, of course, didn’t hear him, and if she had, it would’ve only made the situation worse. “You’re just dead-set on ruining my life, are you?” she asked. Alison’s worry mounted as she saw her small frame tremble. “Ever since I was a kid, you… you just had to linger like a bad smell. Not enough that I’m constantly dodging being associated with your weird sex scandal. You have to go out of your way to actively sabotage my fundraiser.” Rachel sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “What have I ever done to you? I know you probably don’t want me here, I know you never wanted a kid at all, but this is just excessive!”

Julian was starting to flail. “Now, now, you’re reading way into it…”

“Why don’t you leave living people alone? Why couldn’t you just die and… and be done with it?”

“Um, guys,” Alison said, which went unheeded, “this is getting a little…”

“I’m sorry, but I’m just… I’ve been calm and rational about this my whole life, and now I…” Rachel pointed a shaking hand at Julian. Angry tears were gathering in her eyes. “Why are you even here? You don’t deserve this place. You deserve hell for what you are. The death you got was too kind for you. I hope everyone forgets you ever existed!”

Julian appealed to a higher power, which was to say, to Alison. “Do you hear that? Lefties, I tell you. Always blowing up over nothing…” His words died down even without the aid of Alison’s glare.

“I’m not telling her you said that. Do better.” She carefully approached Rachel, patting her shoulder. “I’ll take you to your room to freshen up, okay? We can fix this up together later, and this time I’ll make sure the ghosts stay where they belong.”

“I’m fine, Alison, thanks,” Rachel claimed, as if she wasn’t shaking with poorly-suppressed sobs.

“You can’t go back out there like this.”

“I’m fine,” Rachel repeated. “I just need a minute to pull myself back together—”

“No, I know, but your makeup’s all over the place.” It was true: angry tears had smudged her mascara, and furious wiping at her eyes had left smeared gaps in her foundation. The concealer she’d evidently used on her dark under-eye circles had all but run off.

“Okay,” Rachel conceded at last. Fully ignoring Julian for the time being, Alison led her away.

 


 

Back in her room, Rachel began to touch up her makeup, but found herself sitting motionless in front of the vanity with her head in her hands. Inside, she was still feeling shaky. She hadn’t been able to actually take the time to process anything beyond last night’s revelation that ghosts were real, not to mention her father being one such ghost, whom she could talk to now, and who appeared to be the same egocentric dickhead he’d reportedly been in life.

“How do you stand it?” she asked. “Nine ghosts total, did you say?”

“Oh, there’s more than nine,” Alison replied. She was sitting in an armchair by the window, a source of immense comfort. Rachel had known this woman for little more than a day, and it surprised her how this ghost thing was fast-tracking them on the course to friendship, but she could just tell from her gut that Alison was a good sort. “Jemima and the guys in the plague pit just keep to themselves mostly.”

“Plague pit,” Rachel repeated weakly.

“Yeah, the house is… a lot,” Alison admitted. “But honestly, Mike and I got used to it all. If all the ghosts got sucked o—moved on tomorrow, I don’t know if I could stand the quiet.”

“Have you been seeing ghosts your whole life?” Rachel asked. “Is this something you’re born with, or…?”

“No, it’s a relatively recent thing. It happened when I moved here. I… had an accident.” She gave Rachel a strange look as she said that. Rachel didn’t know why. “Near-death experience, you see. For a moment, I was… neither here nor there, I guess. And since then, I can see ghosts.”

“Wow,” Rachel said. “I mean, congrats? Or sorry that happened.”

“At first I thought it would go away with time, you know, as I healed? But it’s been a while now, and the ghosts are still here.”

“Here?” Rachel asked, looking around.

“Just… everywhere, all the time. Not in this room.”

Rachel decided to take Alison’s word for it. “Good. I’d hate to have him come back.”

Alison sighed. “I’m sorry for him. God, look at us, just… apologizing for Julian to each other. I should have kept a better eye on, I know how he likes to mess with people.”

“He’s a grown man. Ghost. He’s a grown dead man. You shouldn’t need to babysit him.”

“Look,” Alison said, “he’s just doing these things because he… wants to feel relevant. He wants to be able to feel like he can still influence the world. It’s hard on all of them, never being seen, living people just passing them by. No matter what, I don’t think he hates you. Pat told me that when he found out you’d become an MP, he was so proud—”

Rachel shuddered. “I don’t want him to be proud of me. I don’t want to be anything people like him can take pride in. But then last night when we talked, and he was saying some stuff about the Greens… I always pictured it in my head, you know, that he’d hate my work. It made me feel good. But in that moment, god… could I have actually been that pathetic? Could I have actually wanted daddy’s approval?” She put her face back in her hands, groaning.

“It’s complicated, with fathers,” Alison said.

It left Rachel a bit stumped, if she were to be honest. Alison seemed, again, like a decent and nice person. She didn’t seem at all Tory-affiliated. Why, then, was she sticking up for Julian Fawcett? Had she really, while sharing the house with him, come to appreciate some things about him over time? Were there things to appreciate? From the way Alison had earlier described the ghosts’ relationships to each other, he seemed to have actual friends here. Rachel had come to picture her father as a kind of horrible ghoul, as the epitome of everything she hated in a politician: morally corrupt, chauvinistic, and relying on the Old Boys’ Club to get him by. Idly squandering wealth and status on personal pleasure while abusing his position for making himself more money by fraudulent means. But now, as a ghost with none of his money or power, he’d apparently made friends. He was apparently sympathetic enough for Alison to defend him. It was hard to think this way when Rachel was presently angry at the man for messing up her fundraiser, but… maybe there was more to him than she’d first thought?

 


 

By now, it was evening. Soon, they’d serve dinner. Rachel had been meant to play hostess downstairs. She was sure that her aide had it well in hand, but still, she thought as she felt her composure return a little, she shouldn’t have run off like that. Standing at the top of the large staircase leading from the guest rooms downward, she prepared to head back into the fray.

The rattled feeling still persisted. Talking to Alison had calmed her somewhat, but also raised more questions. Rachel gripped the wooden railing tight and tried to center herself. The ancient wood gave off a mournful creak under her grip.

Just then, her phone went off.

Nadia…

Right, she’d said they’d talk today. It seemed like an eternity ago.

“Hi, honey.”

“Hey. You good? You said you’d call.” The white noise of a crowd could be heard in the background on Nadia’s side. A soft murmur of voices, glasses clinking. The art exhibit. Rachel wished she’d just gone there.

“I’m fine, but listen, it’s been super busy.” She knew it sounded like an excuse for not calling. There were probably more excuses in the future. How could she tell Nadia about the ghost thing? How could she tell anyone?

“Oh.” Nadia sounded about as enthused as was to be expected when she asked, “Your thing going okay?”

“No, it’s all over the place. About everything that could go wrong is going wrong.” The ghost of my father is here. No. She couldn’t.

Nadia’s voice sounded a tad softer when she said, “I’m sorry to hear it.”

“Yeah… listen, I need to go back in and talk to people. Maybe at least the dinner can be salvaged.”

“You said we’d talk.”

“I know, but this isn’t the best time. Something… strange happened, and I… I can’t have this talk on the phone. And you, don’t you want to go attend to your exhibit instead of arguing with me?”

“Oh, suddenly you care about my exhibit?”

“I’ve always cared, I just… just because I can’t be there doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, right? Focus on selling a few paintings, maybe?”

“And what is that supposed to mean? It’s not like I worked on these paintings for years or anything, no—”

And just like that, they were off on another argument, somehow. Rachel was so absorbed by it, she barely noticed how far she was leaning over the railing. She tangentially noticed something like a draft of air against her back. Then she abruptly noticed several things at once.

The shove.

The lurch. The sickening lurch forward.

A scream. Might have been hers.

And now she was flying, no, falling, and the ground flying up to meet her. The only coherent thought in her head was, Huh, there’s no life flashing before my eyes or anything at all…

For a second she felt… something strange, and cold, and everything seemed to slow…

Then pain, like a thundercrack, the impact stunning, utterly numbing. Blackness swam up and engulfed her vision.

 


 

“—chel! Rachel! Good lord, Rachel!”

“Oh no. Oh dear. I jinxed it, didn’t I? I didn’t mean it about the near-fatal harm!”

“Someone ought to call an ambulance. Katherine, go find Alison!”

“Alison! Alisoooon!”

 


 

Before Rachel’s eyes, everything was swimming. A woman’s face hovered over her, a young woman in a strange, old-fashioned dress with bows and frills. There was a man in some kind of uniform, his moustache and hair threaded with silver. Rachel saw these people, but did not understand them. And next to that man—

Rachel met eyes green like hers, widened in terror. Her glance caught on a sock garter. A sock garter?

Somehow, for some reason, her mouth tried to form words. “Hhh… ahh… th—”

 


 

“Hang in there,” Alison was saying. “Mike’s called an ambulance, they’re on their way, hang in there…”

The woman in the frilly dress was wailing like a siren. Somewhere someone was making a noise Rachel lacked words to describe. A wounded animal noise out of a person’s mouth. “Pull yourself together, man!” snapped the uniformed figure…

 


 

Actual sirens now, in the distance. Someone was moving her, away from the eyes green like hers. She tried to groan, to reach, anything…

 


 

It was dark for a while.

Chapter Text

Night was breaking, the sun completely set, only a pale and short-lived sliver of light remained on the horizon. More and more windows lit up in Button House. The living prowled the halls and whispered. So did the dead.

Alison was busy pacifying the guests and talking to the police officers that had arrived on the scene, leaving the ghosts hanging with no link to the living. Pat and the Captain had eventually managed to calm Kitty, assuring her that none of what had happened was, through some strange cramp of fate, her fault. They didn’t really know what to do about Julian.

For all he was usually ready to tell anybody anything there was to know about his life – unlike other ghosts, like the Captain, who kept their stories tightly under locks – Julian seemed genuinely free of anything resembling an inner deep emotional landscape. The ghosts could count on one hand the times Julian had ever let on how he felt about anything. It seemed that in his life – or afterlife – there was rarely cause to feel strongly about anything. He’d coasted through life consequence-free, no scandal or dodgy deal too large to not be swiftly covered up – until the final one. His politics had never really been about ideology or sincere conviction to a cause so much as a means to make a cushy life for himself. In short, Julian was rarely bothered by emotional crisis. As a consequence, the ghosts did not know how to handle it when it did occur. They were old hands at settling Kitty or Thomas. Even Pat or Mary could well be dealt with. But Julian?

Even now, Julian didn’t exhibit outward signs of… much. He’d watched the ambulance leave the gate and the grounds, beyond which he could not go, and simply hadn’t moved since. He was still by the gate now, a tall, silent silhouette in the fading light.

“Well, I don’t know,” the Captain said irritably, gesturing at him. “Patrick, can’t you go and, and talk to him?”

Pat was usually the first to reach out a hand in comfort to anyone who needed it. It could work. The whole situation did remind him a bit of that time his Daley had caught chicken pox – he and Carol had been beside themselves with worry, watching by his bedside the night through for any signs of change – but that was admittedly a tad different from falling down a flight of stairs. Besides, Daley had been four, and not a thirty-year-old politician. Still, the points of commonality—

“I go,” Robin grunted suddenly. “You lot only mess it up.”

“Ah, yes, please, Robin.” The Captain gave him an inviting wave with his staff, palpably relieved. “We defer to your expertise.”

Without losing further words, Robin loped up to Julian. They couldn’t hear what Robin said to him, or if Julian made any reply, but eventually, after some insistent tugging at his sleeve, he was able to lead him back to the house. Robin… well, there was something about Robin. He’d spent the same twenty-seven years with Julian they all had, but Robin knew Julian in a way none of the other ghosts could claim.

They all watched them pass, once more almost afraid to look at Julian’s face, for fear of seeing something there.

 


 

For the rest of the evening and most of the following day, Alison was busy: helping Rachel’s staff see off the guests, tidying up, and, yes, talking to the police about the accident. Rachel apparently was kind of a big deal in the Green Party (they had very very few MPs), so the circumstances were getting investigated. Alison was called upon to testify to the state of repair of her staircase, her own whereabouts at the time, and of course her impressions of the fundraiser and the people at it. She knew how it all had to look. When she’d described the several mishaps during the event leading up to the accident, the officer questioning her had remarked that this looked almost like deliberate sabotage, and Alison had had to pinch herself in order to not laugh hysterically. The police could look for a saboteur all they wanted; they most definitely wouldn’t find Julian.

She couldn’t find a moment to check in on the ghosts. The only point at which any appeared was during the evening, when Julian had suddenly materialized behind her, and whispered in her ear that “Somebody ought to call the girlfriend.” So Alison had passed the message along to Rachel’s aide Andrew, who had called her girlfriend. The woman had sobbed on the phone, something about how she didn’t want her last words to Rachel to be ‘some stupid disagreement about art’. When Alison had asked what about Rachel’s mother, both Andrew and Julian had made deeply contrary noises. When Alison had tried to ask how Julian was holding up, he’d disappeared.

So it was well into the afternoon that Alison got a moment of no activity. Mike was helping out with the rest of the cleaning, and Alison decided to drive over to the next town and look up Rachel in the hospital. There were several reasons for why she was doing this: out of fondness for a woman who was well on her way to becoming a new friend, out of a feeling of responsibility for what had happened to Rachel in her house, and in a way as proxy to Julian, who obviously couldn’t be there. If Mike’s “I hope she doesn’t sue us” still rang in her ears as well, that was only a minor point.

If the woman was in any state to be suing anybody ever again...

 


 

“Checkmate,” Robin said.

He had to repeat himself twice and snap his fingers in front of Julian’s face to get him to react. Julian looked at him across the chess board as if coming back from a long journey inside his head.

“Hmm?”

“I win,” Robin explained. “Horsey boy, he take king.” He demonstrated his last few moves with his hands. “Dooka-dooka.”

“Ah. Yes. Good game.” It hadn’t been. Robin met Julian’s eyes, strange and over-bright, and decided not to mind. “Rematch?”

“No. Is no sense. You come here.” Robin pointed, indicating where he wanted Julian to go. This was something they’d done before, but not in front of a fully populated sitting room. Robin was aware, without knowing specifics, that Julian had some… sensitivities when it came to communal grooming that Robin lacked. For him, this had been common when he was alive. Modern men, apparently, had forgotten all about it. So Robin had never offered this to Julian in front of other ghosts. But today was different. Julian grumbled, but he came.

Once Julian was situated on the floor between Robin’s spread legs, his back to Robin’s front, Robin carefully plunged a hand into Julian’s hair. He never found any lice or fleas to crack between his teeth, the way he sometimes had with his tribesmen, and Julian’s hair felt different to theirs, finer and softer but also stiff with whatever product he’d put in it in life, but Robin still found joy in grooming it just so. It had no practical purpose now, their bodies remained the same in death, but it calmed Robin, and he knew that feeling Robin’s fingertips gently massage his scalp calmed Julian too, even if he never said it. If the other ghosts found this little scene strange, they didn’t point it out.

Between them, Robin and Julian had an agreement. A Gentlemen’s Agreement without any gentlemen, Julian always called it, whereupon he laughed. They lay with each other (“helped each other out” was Julian’s term for it), pranked the living together, played chess and generally existed side by side, without many words needing to be lost about it. For all the millennia that separated them, Robin found that it was easy for him and Julian to understand each other. In life, in their own ways, they’d pursued survival, and when the surviving was taken care of for the day, they’d pursued fun. Now, the surviving was a moot point. Now it was all about feeling a need and satisfying it, in the limited ways that ghosts could still need. They were both driven by impulse, instinct, primal want. Maybe that kind of uncomplicated, but constant and pressing motivation was why they both had the powers they had: they were people who sought amusement on their feet.

Robin knew, in a vague way, that in life, Julian had done something called ‘politics’, which was a bit like being a tribe leader, except totally different in every aspect. He knew Julian had at first been squeamish about copulating with ‘prehistoric man’, accusing Robin half-heartedly of being too animalistic and anyway smelling, but he’d eventually squared it away with however his modern culture had taught him to perceive himself. The truth was, Julian smelled too: of sex and alcohol and something unnatural and cloying that Robin had never smelled before called ‘cologne’, but Robin put up with it and didn’t complain. And Julian was one to speak of ‘animalistic’ – he for sure came with the carnality of one.

Like a number of Tories, Julian had traversed decency, and the conservative moral values he was supposed to champion, and crossed over to the other side, into a place in which people paradoxically had come to expect loose behaviour from the very politicians who made the biggest deal out of being morally upstanding. Robin was aware of these things like he was aware the stars existed: he saw evidence of them up in the sky, but he didn’t know specifics. He knew that whereas for him, it was all very straightforward (he wanted companionship and he wanted Julian, so he asked for these things and usually got them) Julian had arrived at their Agreement through some twisted mental loop-de-loops. He didn’t feel the need to probe deeper. He was content knowing that for the moment, Julian was here.

Now, Julian was leaning his head on Robin’s knee. Slightly muffled, he said, “God, Robin. What if my daughter dies in some dumpy NHS hospital? What if she gets stuck there?”

Robin didn’t have answers. “It could happen” wasn’t ideal, but it was all he had. It was best, then, to evade. “What is N-H…?”

Julian straightened his back, ready to launch into a monologue. “The NHS? Well…” He considered his audience. “Hm. Do you know what a hospital is?”

It all turned out to need a lot of explaining. Robin understood the concept of a doctor easily (in his days, a tribe member, often an elder, who’d observed which herbs helped against what malady, who’d maybe even seen injury and known how to treat it or even set a broken bone) but had of course never seen a hospital. The concept of people paying for things was also tricky. Soon, other ghosts chipped in with explanations, and the discussion was lively. Robin grinned to himself as he finger-combed Julian’s hair into its usual part – distraction provided.

“But… barter economy, surely,” the Captain was saying. “You mentioned a medic – a healer. If you became ill or, god forbid, wounded, what would you give the healer in return for fixing you up?”

“Give? Why give?” Robin asked. “Is what healer does. Like hunter does what hunter does. Is how tribe survives.”

“Aah,” the Captain said thoughtfully. “So the thriving of the, the society, is in itself the reward!”

“Sounds commie to me,” Julian opined, his eyes now comfortably closed.

Thomas harrumphed. “Any whisper of simple kindness sounds ‘commie’ to you. Whatever that means.”

Robin chuckled. “Yes, Julie. Is cause you have no, what’s the word, human-decencies.”

Julian smiled tiredly, not moving from his spot. “Well, it’s not as though I can deny that. Bit to the left, Robin, please, that’s the ticket.” He squinted one eye open. “And I do you later, as per agreement?”

“You do me back when up for it.” Robin smoothed a hand over Julian’s hair. “Is also how tribe survives, eh?”

 


 

When Alison found Rachel’s hospital room, there was another woman already in there, seated on a chair by the bed. As Alison peeked inside, unsure if she should intrude on the two of them, she heard snatches of conversation:

“You must think I’m crazy now. Or that I hallucinated. But…”

“Well, the doctors said…”

“But I know what I saw, Nadia. I can even sort of prove this. If you went back there with me…”

“Shh, Chellie. Listen, I believe you.”

“…You do?”

“The doctors said there was no damage to your brain, so you shouldn’t be hallucinating. And you’re about the most down-to-earth, least esoteric person I know, and you never lied to me. If you say you saw ghosts, you saw ghosts.”

“He looked exactly like in the old Newsnight reels,” Rachel said with a sigh. “Except he had no trousers on.”

Well, this Alison had to check in on. She nudged the door open a bit. “Um, knock, knock? Hello?”

Both women turned to face her.

Rachel, in the hospital bed, made a horrible sight. One of her legs was in a cast, and a head wound had been bandaged. Bruises littered one side of her where she’d made impact with the ground. Not much of a composed politician remained.

Alison hated this. She hated hospitals – who ever liked hospitals? – they brought back memories of the deaths of her parents. Still, she tried, for Rachel’s sake, to put a cheery face on, just as she’d tried for her mum years ago. (She’d been too small to know how, for her dad.)

“Surprise visit!” she tried, waving.

“Alison?” Rachel asked, her voice quiet and weary. “Thought this place was… family only.”

“I said I was your sister,” Alison answered brightly. “They were so busy at the front desk, they just bought it without checking.”

“Sister… I always wanted a sibling.” Rachel laughed quietly. “That’d make you a Fawcett. You know what that means.”

Oh… yeah. It meant Julian.

“About… that,” Alison said. She gave Rachel a significant look, then glanced over at the other woman – leaving it up to Rachel whether she wanted to discuss this now, with someone else present.

“Oh, sorry,” Rachel said, tried to sit up, and gave up on it with a groan. “May I introduce my girlfriend, Nadia? Nadia, this is Alison. She owns the… house, I told you about it.”

“Hi.” Nadia got up and offered Alison her hand to shake with a lopsided little smile. She was only slightly taller than Rachel, with short dark hair cropped close to her head and an eyebrow piercing. She was dressed in what looked like formalwear, but crumpled as though she’d slept in it, with a clashing leather jacket thrown on top. She must have rushed straight here right after getting the phone call, all the way from London. “Rachel was just telling me about the… ghosts in your house?”

“Oh, yeah, them.” So this was safe. It astonished Alison every time that there were people, like Mike and this woman, apparently, who’d accept something like the existence of ghosts at face value just at the word of a loved one.

Rachel nodded, which made her wince. “I saw dad, I think. With some other ghosts. Kitty, maybe? And one of the army captains from the picture?”

“Oh, yeah. Kitty said she and the Captain found you. Julian too, apparently.”

“He looked just like you described him, except… you didn’t say about the trousers situation. Who dies with their trousers off but shoes and socks on?”

“You know, I’ve been wondering about that,” Alison muttered. This meant it was wholly unlikely that Rachel had simply hallucinated: she could apparently see ghosts now like Alison could. Briefly, Alison wondered how many ghosts haunted the Commons, and if Rachel’s job was about to get that much more difficult. Then she remembered what she’d actually come here for. “I’m really sorry,” she said, “Mike and I worked so hard to whip the house back into shape. If we’d known that that railing could give out that easily…” Please don’t sue us, she thought fervently.

Rachel raised a hand to interrupt. “Ah-bah-bah... Madam Speaker… if I may…” Nadia smiled fondly and squeezed her other hand. This seemed to be a common mannerism of Rachel’s. Alison, who also knew it well, almost smiled too. “You… say you haven’t checked there yet?”

“What do you mean?” Alison asked.

Rachel turned to her girlfriend. “Honey, could you go find that nurse from earlier? I need to ask her something about these painkillers I’m supposed to take.”

“O…kay?” For a moment, Nadia looked puzzled, then she seemed to shrug it off. “Either of you want anything else? Coffee from the vending machine?”

“I’d love a coffee,” Alison said. “Milk and sugar?”

“Done and done.” Nadia gave her a thumbs-up and headed out.

When the door had closed behind her, and they were alone, Rachel asked, “What were you about to say? Sorry, I just... certain things... I don't want to worry her.”

Alison repeated, “I wanted to say I’m sorry, and if we’d known that that railing could give out that easily, we’d…”

Rachel blinked at her as if wondering what the fuck she was talking about. “It didn’t,” she said. “Alison, I didn’t fall, I was pushed.”

 


 

That evening, Alison drove back home lost in thought. Rachel had given her much to think about.

‘I didn’t fall, I was pushed’ she’d said. She’d been very certain that she’d felt two strong hands shove at her back. But that made it deliberate… a murder attempt. On the upside, there was no way Button House could be sued for having someone attempt murder within it. On the downside, everything else.

Why would anyone want to murder Rachel Fawcett? When Alison had asked her earlier if she had made any enemies, she’d said, “Politicians always have enemies.” Then she’d added, “Should I list every Tory I ever pissed off?” and laughed (wheezing a little, because of her broken ribs). Even so, she admitted to confusion. She was young, for an MP, and aware enough of England’s political climate to admit that someone from the Green Party was likely not on very many people’s radars. She’d had no trouble in her constituency. And Alison… she didn’t know Rachel very well yet, but she did know Julian. She especially knew the look on Julian’s face when he’d just done something he didn’t immediately want Alison to know about. She recognized that same look on Rachel’s face. Rachel was keeping something secret. Then again, secrets were just another thing that politicians always had. And why would Rachel reveal whatever it was to Alison? Alison wasn’t The Great Detective; whatever the information was, she could do nothing with it. The police were already at the house; when they heard that Rachel suspected foul play, they’d go visit and question all the fundraiser attendees. Maybe it had been one of them, or someone who had snuck in, or a member of Rachel’s staff who held some kind of grudge.

And… there was yet another suspect.

The words ‘every Tory I pissed off’ echoed in Alison’s mind. She certainly knew one Tory whom Rachel had recently had a fight with. And she remembered the conversations between the ghosts: about how Julian might spend some real, quality time with his daughter if ‘some fatal harm befell her’. Just the usual, meaningless chatter of a group of people desensitized to death, Alison had thought. But she also knew how the ghosts could talk each other into hare-brained schemes. And she remembered Rachel saying that she’d seen her father. And she remembered her growing suspicions about her own fall from a window, that had started it all. Had she not also felt two strong hands shove at her back?

Bloody hell, she thought. Julian, what have you done…?

Chapter Text

Rachel got at least one of her wishes, though in a way that no one could have foreseen: any news coverage regarding the mishaps at the fundraiser was very quickly and completely overshadowed by her accident. One journalist had managed to snap a few photographs of her being carried on a stretcher to the ambulance, and it made headlines for a day. Alison still shuddered a bit when she remembered the merciless clicking of cameras so very near the accident. Immediately, she and Mike had done her best to chase off the photographers, but someone still had gotten an especially lurid picture of Rachel lying at the foot of the stairs, one leg bent at an odd angle. Creepy.

But both the journalists and the policemen vanished quickly, and for the next week-and-a-half, life at Button House returned to what it had always been. The ghosts, including Julian, took the message that Rachel was alive if heavily injured with a united sag of relief. Alison didn’t voice her suspicion. It seemed wrong to accuse Julian, who did have a heart underneath his… Julianisms of attempting to murder his daughter. Yes, they had fought that evening, but Julian wasn’t the type to be carried away by great fits of emotion and commit a murder. If Julian committed a murder, it was because he could gain something by it. And what would he have stood to gain? Nothing. Alison assumed that once she was released from the hospital, Rachel would go back to London or wherever else it was she called home, and Julian might not even see her again. So the ghosts tried to find back to their old routines, with Julian perhaps a bit more subdued than usual. He spent a lot of time with Robin in their cave-like alcove and less time trying to play jokes on people, but apart from that, things were going back to normal.

So they were all the more surprised when, less than two weeks after the ill-fated fundraiser, Rachel’s car pulled up into their driveway again. Nadia was driving this time, the reason being starkly clear when Rachel exited on the passenger side. The bandage around her head was gone, but her leg was still in a plastic cast, and she walked with the aid of two hospital-issue crutches. The bruises down one side of her face were healing, which so far meant only that they had discoloured interestingly. Alison, shivering, turned to Mike and asked, “Did I look that bad after my accident?”

“Worse,” Mike said with feeling. “Cause it was you.” Alison understood. Seeing her battered and in her neck brace must have been hell on Mike. She’d hate to see him that way too.

“Come on, let’s see if we can help.”

Following Mike to the door, Alison stopped to shout into the sitting room that Rachel had come back, and could someone go fetch Julian. Only Pat and Kitty were in there, practicing a new dance routine, but both of them went bustling off at once to find the others. By the time they were flocking together and had reached the foyer, Rachel was apparently already taking leave of her girlfriend.

Alison could hear Nadia ask, “And you’re sure you don’t want me there with you?”

“I’ve got to do this by myself,” Rachel replied. “I’ll call you if anything comes up, okay?”

They said their goodbyes, and Rachel began to manoeuvre herself towards the door. Alison and Mike met her halfway and started to do that thing people do where they rush upon an injured person, eager to help, only to end up mostly being in the way. Rachel thanked them and assured them she was getting on fine, even with the crutches, see?

“We’ll make you up a room on the ground floor, huh?” Alison offered. “That is, I mean, if you even want to stay.” It occurred to her suddenly that she had no idea why Rachel even had returned.

“That’d be great,” Rachel said. “I came back to see… well, you can probably imagine… with my own eyes…”

Ah, so she wanted to give the family reunion a second go? “The ghosts are inside. I’m sure they’ll all love to properly meet you.”

And then Mike swung the front door open, and there were most of the ghosts, as usual all trying to speak at once. “Oh, she looks rough,” Pat said sympathetically, and only when Rachel turned towards him and said, “You have an arrow in your neck! Glass houses, eh?” to Pat’s baffled face did Alison remember that she might have neglected to tell the ghosts that…

“She can see us?” the Captain asked.

There had been so much going on, what with one thing and another, that Alison had completely forgotten to tell the ghosts this. “Um… surprise?”

Kitty squealed in a range almost inaudible to human ears. Several other ghosts exclaimed in surprise. And then Thomas, who’d run to find Julian – he’d graciously lent him his sighing spot recently – returned with Julian in tow, and all fell silent. Apart from Thomas, confusedly asking, “What’s going on? What happened? Oh, Miss Rachel looks rough,” all ghosts stepped aside, leaving a path. Everyone held their collective breaths.

“Hello again, dad,” Rachel said. “Would it have hurt to put trousers on for this?”

If Julian was shocked, he recovered quickly. “Can’t, I’m afraid,” he replied. “Died without them on. You know… how it is…?”

“Yes, well. I’m a big girl, I know exactly how you died. Know more about it than I’d like to, actually.” For a beat, no one really knew what to say. Then Rachel shrugged. “Well. Not like you wanted to die that way, huh? Couldn’t have helped it, really.”

And that seemed to be that.

All present relaxed.

Julian reached out his hand, maybe momentarily forgetting his own intangible state, and Rachel tucked one crutch under her arm and reached out as well, only for Julian’s fingers, naturally, to phase right through hers. Rachel gasped, and Alison saw how Julian’s lips thinned, but he valiantly repressed the visceral, revolted reaction of spectral matter to touching something living.

“I felt… something cold,” Rachel said, a look of awe on her face.

“I felt the entirety of what my hand just passed through.” Julian scrunched up his face, trying futilely to wipe his hand on his blazer. “Let’s not try that again, huh?”

“Fine by me.” Rachel leaned back onto both crutches. “Actually, can we just find somewhere to sit? Everything still kind of hurts.”

And then there was Mike gallantly sweeping Rachel up bridal style and carrying her up the stairs to the sitting room, as Rachel giggled and Alison laughed and Julian indignantly squawked at Mike to keep his hands to himself, not catching the irony at all inherent in how much he sounded like Fanny.

Alison brought tea up to the sitting room and found herself almost chaperoning Rachel’s first date with the ghosts. She needn’t have worried. The ghosts were very excited about having a new living person who could see them, and Rachel might not have diplomacy in her blood like Julian later claimed she did, but she did possess a healthy quantity of it. She asked Robin questions about his powers that sounded genuinely interested, she let Kitty sing her something Kitty called ‘The Friendship Song’, she didn’t scream upon seeing Humphrey’s head and laughed at his jokes later. She even managed to grudgingly impress Fanny with her manners, evidenced by how at some point Fanny stopped drilling holes into Rachel with her eyes and started shooting incredulous glares at Julian, as if to say, “How did this come from that?” Julian, for his part, watched in uncharacteristic silence, and smiled when he thought no one was looking.

Eventually, Rachel began to show signs of exhaustion, and Julian enlisted Pat and the Captain to shoo the other ghosts out. Mike had, meanwhile, carried Rachel’s stuff into one of the bedrooms, and Alison offered to help her set up there. The vague hint at them having to do ‘lady things’ together got rid of Julian for the moment.

“So, why actually come back here this soon?” Alison asked, when they were in Rachel’s assigned room alone. “Just for the ghosts? They’re not going anywhere.” Most likely, she added mentally. If being sucked o—moving on was really about achieving inner peace, then Julian of all people would keep. “Besides… someone tried to kill you here.”

“Exactly,” Rachel said tiredly. “No one would expect me to come back here, least of all the press. So yeah, I’m hiding from journalists, if you must know.” For a moment, she looked uncertain, and gave Alison a once-over, before she continued, “I want to keep my friends and Nadia out of… all this. Besides, whom can I trust in London now? Many of my friends in the party were at that fundraiser. My… gut feeling tells me I can trust my father, weirdly enough. He knows how… these things can get.”

These things, Alison thought. There was clearly something here that she wasn’t being told. And Rachel had decided to trust Julian. In the face of that, Alison’s suspicion came roaring back to life. But was she going to tell Rachel that Julian having pushed her was within the realm of the possible? And freak her out over what could turn out to be nothing? Was Rachel in any danger from Julian now? He’d gotten what he might have wanted: his daughter could see and talk to him now, and her formerly antagonistic attitude towards him appeared to be shifting. Surely there was no need to finish the job.

“Tell my father that I’d like to see him before I head to bed, okay?” Rachel asked, hefting her non-functional leg onto the mattress. “If, um… if he can make the time?”

Alison’s actual request to Julian to move his bare ass up there was a bit less obliging.

By the time she brought Julian back up with her, Thomas had meandered his way inside, and was now regaling Rachel with what he had made himself believe was his newest bout of poetry:

“With fingernails that shine like justice,

And a voice that is dark like tinted glass,

She is fast, thorough and sharp as a tack,

She is touring the facility and picking up slack,

I want a girl with a short skirt and a…”

Here Thomas released a deep breath from the depths of his tortured artist’s soul and clenched a fist to the heavens, before finishing in grim triumph,

“…loooooooooooong jacket!”

Rachel, sitting up in bed, hands politely folded on her lap, raised an eyebrow at him. “Thomas, I’m so sorry to tell you, but those are lyrics to a song that already exists. Maybe you heard it on the radio?”

Thomas smacked his fist into his palm, the picture of frustration. “Blast. It happened again!”

“Also I think it’s… a parody? Like, it’s humorously meant? I mean, I don’t think the narrator actually wants ‘a girl with uninterrupted prosperity’…”

“I my living days, that would have been a perfectly normal requirement for a young lady on the marriage market,” Thomas said, somewhat confused.

“Well, I’m not on the marriage market… and I don’t even have a voice that is dark like tinted glass. Listen, I’m super tired, can we do this tomorrow maybe…?”

That was when Alison decided to send Thomas on his way and at the same time beckon Julian inside. She closed the door behind him, but couldn’t quite make herself leave, and she left it open a crack so she could still peer inside. It felt wrong to listen at the door, like she was some voyeur peeping at keyholes. But if Julian did still present a threat to Rachel, there was no way Alison was taking her eyes off him…

 


 

Julian had to steel himself, going in. Since last Christmas, since he’d found out what Rachel was out there doing with her life, he’d thought of her more frequently than admittedly ever before. He’d realized, to his quite considerable dismay, that there wasn’t much of Rachel for him to remember from before she’d swanned into Button House. The reel of daddy-daughter-memories was a short one. Margot had wanted a baby, for several likely reasons – to tether him to her? To save their marriage? Because it was the done thing for conservative women, because she wanted to leave a mark, because she genuinely wanted to raise a kid? Probably a bit of all of the above; she hadn’t exactly listed her reasonings. Just insisted they start trying until Julian gave over. He’d figured they’d hire a nanny and be done with it. He’d missed the birth by about an hour – genuinely not his intent that time, he’d tried to be there, traffic jam all Central London. When he’d gotten to her hospital room at last, Margot had been too groggy still to be mad at him, just reached out to hand him his daughter.

Julian remembered how awkward he had felt, knowing that he was obligated now to be overcome by some emotion that hadn’t manifested – some awe, some sense of dedication to this infant. But his only thought at the scrunched-up little thing in Margot’s arms with its pudgy limbs and its Winston-Churchill-face was a trepidatious sense that his life was about to get even more complicated: That thing is going to be trouble.

He’d naturally held the baby wrong, and a nurse had to step up and adjust his hold, and he’d been utterly conscious of what an utter pillock he must look like. He hadn’t felt like a father. He’d felt like an idiot who’d signed up for a future of screaming and soiled diapers for some unfathomable reason. And now what? What if he dropped it, with Margot and all the nurses watching? What if it started crying, how would that look?

And then Rachel had opened her eyes.

And, “She has your eyes, doesn’t she?” Margot had said, a triumph in her voice, as if to say, “Now she’s real, and she’s yours, now you have to stick around, now you have to love us, now you have to be the picture-book conservative husband and baby-daddy I always wanted.” And, well, it was just another iteration of Julian’s selfishness to only emphasize with something once it reminded him of himself, the kind of egocentrism that made successful Tories, but, well. There it was. There she was. Eyes green like his staring back at him out of that curious new face. And he’d felt the trap slam shut, but he’d also found himself wondering if she’d have more of his traits, later, or if her face would come out all Margot, if she’d be a tall, broad woman or a small, fragile one. He’d found himself thinking something inane like “You are my baby, aren’t you?”

It hadn’t lasted.

The moments of connection with little Rachel, few and far between, had not made Julian a better man, or faithful, or anything of the sort. She’d quickly become, for the most part, one more excuse to get out of the house: How is anyone to concentrate with that constant screaming in here, he’d argued, and, You wanted this, not me, so don’t expect me to do all of the work now, neglecting of course the fact that he’d barely done any work. And thus he’d rationalized one more evening at the club, one more night staying out late getting this or that bill passed, one more work retreat with the hot young secretary. In those four years he’d had more extramarital affairs than memories with his child.

Rachel had liked when he’d jingled the keys to the Jag over her crib, one time even pulling herself up by the bars to reach for them with her chubby little baby hands. She’d preferred them to the house keys. There had been one night that stuck out in Julian’s memory, another flaming row with Margot, interspersed by Rachel’s unceasing wailing, all three parties at the ends of their tethers, the topic of debate having started at “Why won’t she stop crying now” and somehow veering across “I wish you’d at least try to look like a responsible father for the papers, you know” all the way to “And where were you last night, and what is that suspicious stain on your shirt” when Julian had just viscerally, from his gut, known what to do. He’d ignored Margot, grabbed Rachel and bundled her into the passenger seat of the Jag, speeding off through blessedly empty lamplit streets and turning the radio up until Bruce Springsteen drowned out the crying baby. And then, on the freeway, he’d suddenly noticed that the baby wasn’t crying anymore, just staring with wide eyes at the streetlamps whizzing past.

Little speed demon, eh, Julian had thought. It’d made him grin.

None of that, absolutely none of that, had any point of commonality with the grown woman looking at him from the bed. The stranger. Her hands were slender now, with the kinds of callouses that came from playing a stringed instrument, he didn’t know which one. It didn't say on her Vicky Pedia page. He’d fixed it so that she’d inherit his several vintage cars upon coming of age, but she’d come here in none of them, but one of those new-fangled eyesores made to use the least possible amount of fuel. He’d spend time with her once she was old enough to hold a decent conversation, he’d always said to himself. His death had kept him from making good on that, and now she was thirty.

He remembered Margot, during yet another fight, yelling “She’s your legacy too, you know!”, pointing at Rachel in her crib. Julian had almost openly rolled his eyes at the time, at the concept of that little larval wailing thing being in any way equal to his work. Now, as his daughter turned towards him, half of her face still swollen with bruises all colours of the rainbow, Julian remembered that again. This is your legacy too.

“How…” He made a jerky gesture towards the bed. “How are you recovering?” Mentally he shook his head at himself for sounding like the Captain.

“My ribs hurt like hell and my leg’s still useless from the knee down,” Rachel said bluntly. No beating around the bush with her, huh? Wonderful.

“They didn’t give you anything for the pain? Surely the NHS hasn’t gone that much to the dogs?”

“No, I have something, but I don’t want to take them. They mess with my head. I’d rather be in pain.”

She was not that much like him after all, Julian pondered. Why on earth would anyone not want their head messed with? “That’s rather the point, no? Now, me, I’d see if I could wrangle a prescription out of this, see it as an opportunity!”

“For what, a drug habit?” Rachel yawned. “That’s exactly what I don’t want.”

“Huh. Can’t see why, in that job. Then again, you haven't been at it long, eh?” Julian sat down in a chair by the bedside. As an afterthought, he shrugged off his blazer and draped it across his lap. He didn’t usually see the need, but, well, his child was present.

“That is so much better, thank you, dad,” Rachel murmured, tiredness floating on her voice. Julian had to bite the inside of his cheek to mask how the words made him feel some kind of way.

“Well.” He cleared his throat. “One does what one can. Um, Alison said you needed to speak to me about something.”

“Yes.” Rachel rubbed her eyes. She sounded a lot more awake when she said, “I was wondering… you know I didn’t just fall down the stairs, right? Somebody pushed me.”

 


 

On the other side of the door, Alison heard Julian repeat “Pushed?” in what sounded like genuine surprise. Hm. Maybe…

“Do they know who?” Julian’s voice came again.

“I’ve talked to the police. No leads yet.”

“Enemies in the party?” Julian guessed. “Didn’t expect that from those goody-two-shoes in the Greens.”

“Maybe not,” Rachel replied. “But there were people from various parties present. And there’s, um… one more thing. I’ve not told anyone, not even Nadia, but I want to tell you.”

“Me? Why?”

“You got through Thatcher with your career intact, so you know how it gets sometimes. You’ll understand this. And you’re dead so, no offense meant, there can only be very little harm in it. Plus, you’re my dad, and it seems appropriate, I guess? To go to a family member with a thing?”

“I suppose they do that in normal families,” Julian hazarded.

Rachel took a deep breath. “Okay. So. There’s this… massive corruption scandal…”

“You’re implicated in a massive corruption scandal?” Julian asked. Alison didn’t think he sounded particularly judgmental.

Still, Rachel bristled. “No! And it’s technically not a scandal yet, but it could be one, if I decide to publicise certain… information, that I have in my keeping. And I’m thinking ethically speaking I’m obligated to blow the whistle.”

Alison, peering through the keyhole in earnest now, could see Julian’s face turn very grim very quickly. “When you say ‘massive’… how massive are we talking?”

“Very fucking massive. Not Panama Papers massive, but certain circles would very much take a hit.”

“Who?” Julian asked outright.

Rachel sighed. “Just… so many people. I can’t give you any names. I didn’t give the police the names either.”

Julian threw a hand up. “As you said before: I am a literal ghost. What harm could it do?”

“You could tell Alison, and then she’s involved. You can still use the internet. And I know you don’t believe in the concept of consequences for your actions, but I do. I trust you, really, but not that far.”

“So the police don’t know the names,” Julian said, ticking off on his fingers, “and your girlfriend doesn’t know, and I can’t know either. Whom have you told?”

“Nobody… I couldn’t endanger anyone else like that.”

Julian let out a long, very long sigh. “My dear girl, it sounds like you have no idea what you are playing with.”

“Listen, I know what I’m doing.”

“No, you don’t, or you wouldn’t have been very nearly murdered. You have no backups at all of this information? No contingency plans to keep yourself safe? How did you get all this dirt on all these people anyway?”

Rachel attempted to look coy. She didn’t seem to have much practice in it. “Maybe I have informants I have to protect? Maybe I just took a good rummage through Mother’s address book? Anyway, I’m not comfortable with this line of inquiry, sir. Ask me how Mother’s doing or something.”

“Oh, this isn’t over yet, young lady.” Julian wagged a stern, fatherly finger. “I know that facial expression – it’s the same one I made when your mother caught me in flagrante delicto with her yoga teacher. But fine. How is she doing?”

“Same old, I guess.” Rachel chuckled. “You know what, I don’t actually know. She and I agreed ten years ago to not bother each other overmuch.”

“Oh,” Julian said. “And it’s my fault somehow, again?”

“Not at all. That one’s all her. We were constantly in a clinch about politics anyway, and then I came out and she said – I still remember it like it was yesterday – ‘that behaviour is untenable, Rachel. If you want to make it anywhere in politics, you’d better put such silly notions out of your mind’.”

“Yes, well, in the Conservative party, you would have been wise to. All just a matter of keeping it out of the papers, really.” He raised a hand as if to pet Rachel’s hair, reconsidered, and lowered it again. “Trust me on that.”

“I didn’t want to be a Tory. Fuck Tories, no offense.”

Julian grinned. “Oh, none taken, I did do that, frequently.”

“And kept it out of the papers?”

“For the most part. What? What’s that look for? A hole’s a hole, honey.”

“Nothing, just… solidarity. Yay.” Rachel tried to fistbump Julian, gave up, and lowered her hand also.

For a moment, solidarity persisted. It was silent, and very awkward.

“Speaking of,” Julian then said, “Pity you didn’t bring that girlfriend of yours, give me an opportunity to break out the embarrassing baby pictures.”

“She wouldn’t be able to see you,” Rachel said, “And there are no pictures of me as a baby.”

“Oh, are there not?” Even from her perch behind the door, Alison could hear the grin in Julian’s voice. “Then how do you explain… this?” He whipped something out of a jacket pocket.

“You, um… died with your wallet in your pocket?”

“Yeah, plus some other stuff. Most of it’s gone now though. Gave my lighter to Robin, biro to Thomas… lube is always going around. This, I kept for myself.” He was taking something out of his wallet and showing it to Rachel. A photograph. No, two photographs.

“Oh, wow. That little bean was really me?”

“Yep. Rare moment when you weren’t screaming your head off. The dog - see him there? - always seemed to like you. And this one we shot when you were…”

“…when I was three, right?”

“You’d just turned four,” Julian corrected. “This was about two months before… well, you know.” He gestured broadly to indicate the house, his own ghostly form, his death.

“I… remember this.” Rachel sounded awed. “I remember this… fucking dress. Tory-blue. I remember I hated it, and those stupid fucking ribbons in my hair, but Mother insisted. It was for some event. I was so bored and cranky, it must’ve been hell on you two. And… and someone wanted to take a picture of us at some photo op, and you… you picked me up.” Alison saw tears glinting in Rachel’s eyes. Rachel reached out to touch the picture, her fingers of course going right through. Julian shuddered.

“Oh, sorry. I guess I hadn’t really realized that this… object could be, uh, part of your ghost.”

Julian cleared his throat, looking at the nightstand lamp and not his daughter. “Part of me, if you care to stretch the metaphor.”

Rachel, firming her lips, also glanced off to the other side, so that her father might not see her cry. “I do care to,” she said.

It was as close to ‘I love you’ as these two people were bound to get.

Again there was silence, with both participants obviously wondering how they were supposed to go on after this. No one had ever handed either of them that manual. Then Rachel offered, “Let’s just… pretend to hug and have it over with?”

“Grand idea.” Julian nodded. They both moved in for the embrace, only to stop a few inches short and mime patting each other’s backs.

“Pat, pat,” they chorused.

Alison realized belatedly that, potential threat of murder or not, all this really wasn’t stuff she had any right to watch. She snuck away down the hall, leaving the two Fawcetts to themselves.

Chapter Text

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?”

Chapter Text

The police took Darren Beg-Chetwynde, nursing a sizeable bruise at his temple, in for questioning. After some deliberation, as they all heard later, he would eventually decide to confess. “The frigid cow kept rejecting me,” he was rumoured to have said when asked about his motivations.

“Of course,” Rachel commented when she heard of it. “He decided he’d rather be known as an incel than expose his uncle’s dealings in..."

"...Fiji."

She and Julian chorused that last, with facial expressions and inflections so identical, it made Alison burst out into startled laughter.

Beg-Chetwynde wasn’t likely to face any serious, long-term consequences for any of this, Rachel reckoned. Maybe he’d have to lay very, very low for a bit, and he wasn’t going to be invited to very many conservative shindigs. But eventually the family would throw money at anyone responsible and get the whole affair swept under the rug. A part of her couldn’t wait for them to get on it already, so that she could move on from this and go on with her life.

She was healing a bit more every day now, it felt like, and slowly regaining the use of her leg. Button House was a very peculiar environment for this: far off of the bubbling cauldron that was London’s political scene, a tiny self-contained world inhabited, mostly, by the dead. Days went by. The ghosts kept her entertained. She invented a "How we'd paint each other's nails if we could" game with Kitty. She let the head of Humphrey tell her jokes until her mending ribs ached. She listened to the Captain's war anecdotes, and Fanny's stories about the house. Twice a week, Nadia came over and drove her to physical therapy, and it was always an almost jarring little reminder to Rachel that the outside even existed.

She was now learning how to play chess – “another failing of your mother’s” her father sneered when he found out that she didn’t know how. He protested at first when he saw Rachel pick up one of the pieces, insisting that he and Robin – 10000-year-old stepdad? Investigation into the matter was pending – always played by memory. They relented eventually, since Rachel was only a beginner, and let her move the pieces around. She wasn’t sure whether they truly were called ‘prawns’ and ‘lighthouses’ but the important thing was that she gained a comprehensive understanding of the game.

As she began to take more, longer walks again, Thomas took her for a turn around the grounds, which he most likely considered romantic. It was even unchaperoned, or would have been, if Rachel hadn’t spotted her father lurking in the topiary giving Thomas sour looks.

Thomas attempted to make stimulating conversation, and the most stimulating topic to his mind was poetry. He started upon a lengthy discourse about not only his own works but poets of his time, and where they fell short in his estimation, and Rachel abruptly remembered that she couldn’t tell a poem from a restaurant menu.

But she had to be diplomatic about things. It was ingrained.

“Why don’t you tell me more about the Regency?” she offered, just to keep the conversation going. “That’d be so interesting to me. What was the country like then?”

“Well…”

“What of Parliament? Foreign relations? Stuff like that.”

“I really couldn’t tell you, Miss Rachel,” Thomas said with a little sniff. “I wouldn’t know. As a poet, my spirit was far removed from the fetid squabbles of politicians – a riff-raff of slimy opportunists, lacking any semblance of appreciation for what truly enriches the human condition. Alas my soul was meant for higher purpose!”

Rachel came to a halt on the garden path, staring at Thomas in what he might have dubbed ‘wide-eyed surmise’. “Making love poems,” she said.

“Precisely! Matters of the heart, the pure expulsion of emotion. I recoil from the mundane.”

“I think I see my father in the topiary there,” Rachel decided. “I should probably go to him and see what he wants.”

“He still not leaving off?” Julian asked, without preamble, when she caught up with him. “I can box him round the ears for you if you need it.”

Rachel had to smile. The daddy-gets-the-shotgun-act was certainly a hoary old set-piece, she presumed, but mostly so to people who’d always had fathers. “I don’t know. Maybe he realized now that we’re just not clicking.”

Julian chortled. “Reminds me of that berk I worked with back in ’89. That was when they had that fox-hunting bill again…”

“Oh, god—”

They were quickly off on another debate, because naturally the hunt was still a polarizing issue, but at least, Rachel thought, no one was trying to recite poems to her anymore. At least, now, she was talking to somebody on her wavelength.

 


 

“Okay, so now I’m going to move the, um… the penis… guy…?”

“Bishop. It’s a bishop,” Julian interjected. “Don’t let Robin tell you what he thinks the pieces are called.”

“Okay, fine, so I’m going to move him over here to D…5. Is that okay, dad?”

“I’m not always going to be there to backseat-play, you know,” Julian reminded her with a lopsided smirk, “but yes, I’d call that a decent move.”

He watched as Rachel moved her bishop, Robin across from her deliberated his next move, and eventually requested Rachel to “put prawn over there” for him. It was a very different kind of game for the movable pieces, Julian found. He and Robin had gotten so used to playing by memory that paradoxically, moving the pieces became distracting rather than helpful. But Rachel was still learning, this would make things easier on her.

Thank god he was only watching the game, controlling it.

“Right,” he said, leaning in to inspect the board from where he stood behind the armchair that was usually his, which today he’d ceded to Rachel. “Okay, Trouble. Now, the options open to you are—”

“Rachel?” Alison shouted from the doorway. All three of them turned to face her.

“Yeah?” Rachel asked.

“You left your phone downstairs,” Alison said, holding it aloft. “I just noticed you have two missed calls from your staffer, and one from your girlfriend, in case you want to know?”

“Oh, shit, hold on—”

“And Mike said something about baking brownies, and that you’d wanted to help with that? So that’s going on in the kitchen now, if you—”

“Of course! Of course, I’m coming!”

“…We were in the middle of something,” Julian said to the empty doorway as both women’s steps receded into the distance.

After a moment of consternation, he sat down in the chair that Rachel had just vacated. “Hm. Rude. Kids these days, I tell you.”

Robin leaned forward with a grunt and reached across the chessboard to lay a hand on Julian’s arm. “Is her way to be going.”

Julian furrowed his brow. “What?”

“She belong to world of living, Julie. You have to let go, let live.”

“But I’m not…”

“Can’t stay here forever. Hm? Here with us dead people.”

Julian threw up his hands. “But she just got here!” He knew he was whinging. He couldn’t help it.

“She have things to do, out there.” Robin pointed at the window, encapsulating somehow the entire world outside the grounds, the living world, running on and on without them.

Julian nodded. “Of course. She’s going to be Prime Minister someday.” Even with all he now knew about the Green Party, this was clear as day to him. “But she has time, so much time.”

“What is time anyway?” Robin shrugged. “Living people, they no have eternity like us. Have to go out living now. Only one chance at it, hm?”

“Yeah, yeah. Never let it be said that I’m holding my child back. But still.”

“Is not your way, eh? Let go of thing you like.” Robin sighed in a way that told Julian he was feeling the weight of his however many thousand years. “Is never easy, but all learn. I forgot faces of my children 10000 years ago. They here a moment, then time… go on.”

Julian groaned, burying his face in his hands. “This is hell. We’re in hell.”

Robin was patting his arm now. “I older than hell. Is fad, like Christmas, or man on sticks.” He drew a wonky sign of the cross to illustrate whom he meant.

“You think you’re helping, Robin,” Julian said. “But you’re really not.”

 

That night, nestled into Robin’s warm and slightly smelly furs, he cried. It wasn’t so uncommon, he’d learned over the years; there was no ghost in this house who hadn’t sobbed a little over their fate every once in a while. Oh, during the day they all put on their various facades, but nights were different. They lent room to introspection, and with everyone else sleeping, it was harder to distract oneself from the bleak truth that one was trapped in an eternal in-between-world, with no certainty of a way out, while all around, the living were forgetting about them, and their relevance to the world faded with every passing year. Julian did what he always did in those situations: he allowed the moment to pass, wiped his eyes on his sleeve and went for a walk, careful to leave the room quietly to avoid waking Robin. Keep on keeping on.

What, he wondered as he walked, could he give to his daughter, when she would inevitably go away? He owned nothing now but the clothes on his back, and even of those, an insufficient amount in the downstairs department. Everything he had possessed in life was already Rachel’s by will and testament, what with her being the only person who could claim without a doubt to most definitely, legitimately be his child. He had no power to get or do or influence anything for her. What else was Rachel in need of, with her budding political career? She’d certainly not listen to the advice of an old, dead Tory.

Having just wandered into the common room, Julian noticed that Alison had left her laptop here. It was even still on, charger plugged in. It gave him an idea…

He sat down and thought for a while. Then he concentrated, gritted his teeth and placed his Touching Finger onto the trackpad. Slowly, very slowly, he opened a blank document, and began to type…

 


 

When her PT told her that within the next two weeks, the cast on her leg might be coming off, Rachel was awash with excitement. Slow healing was something she found she didn’t have the patience for, and she was eager to get moving again. When she told the household, they reacted with joy for her but there was a subtle wistfulness in the air, because it was felt all around that their time together was coming to an end.

Button House fascinated Rachel endlessly, this space so contained within itself, with the ghosts that couldn’t leave and the living that kept them company. News was carried in as dispatches from a faraway land that the ghosts grew less connected to as the decades and centuries crept by, while history was constantly relived, reenacted, reexamined and regurgitated. The younger (in terms of years dead, not lifespan) ghosts still possessed a keen interest in and some connection to the real world, but they too were being left behind. Rachel spent an evening explaining climate change to her obstinate conservative father, and, after five repetitions of “Now, Trouble, that can’t be right” considered taking up the traditional Fawcett family alcoholism.

The point was, this place was nice, but it wasn’t where she needed to be. Her actual life, with its actual work, was waiting for her, and it wouldn’t wait forever.

She was just in the guest room that was fast becoming ‘her room’, pondering this as she got dressed for the day, when Julian stuck his head in through the wall.

“Pspsps,” he said, “come with me, girl.”

Rachel only barely shrieked anymore at his sudden appearance. Still she shouted, “Dad! I could have been in my underwear or something! Can’t you knock?”

“No,” her father replied, looking not the slightest bit sorry, phasing his hand in through the wall to demonstrate how little, indeed, he could knock. “Come on, I have to show you something.”

With that cryptic remark, his head disappeared the way it had come.

“I can’t go through the walls like you do,” Rachel reminded him.

Julian huffed. “Living people and their limitations. So pedestrian. Fine, meet me outside the door, I guess.”

Wondering what was going on now, Rachel followed her father to the common room, which was empty of anyone else living or dead at the moment. A laptop stood on a coffee table, all by its lonesome. This, Rachel was ushered towards.

“There!” Julian said, something like pride and anticipation in his voice.

It appeared that Rachel was being invited to look at the screen. There seemed to be nothing extraordinary on this desktop that had to belong to Alison, judging by several shortcuts to documents related to event-planning and a folder titled “Mike Christmas Pics” and Rachel wondered if her dad just needed help looking something up, but then she spotted, among the clutter of different icons, a document simply labelled “For Rachel”.

“Oh! Did Alison make that for me?”

“No, I did,” said Julian, tugging on his lapels and visibly preening. “Took me most of two nights to type, too. Go on.”

Rachel blinked at the screen, not knowing what to anticipate. What on earth was so important that Julian would sit down and type, with his one finger that was occasionally tangible, for two consecutive nights?

He gestured now, impatiently. “Well, open it, then!”

Rachel did so, with the same cautious air as someone tearing off the wrapper of a dodgy-looking Christmas present offered up by a relative.

The document that revealed itself to her seemed to be some kind of list, and it was large – many pages of tidy columns of, as far as Rachel could tell at first glance, information about… people. A huge compendium of who with whom, and when, and where, and how much money had changed hands, and which ones had made the taxpayer fund it, and where the bodies had been buried afterwards. Names and dates, constituencies and party allegiances. Commons, Lords. Even some from abroad. Every party was represented, but the vast majority were Tories. Of course, Rachel thought. They act like the oldest bosom chums, all of them have known each other for ages, but they’re constantly poised to stab all the others in the back at the slightest provocation. Some of the columns chronicled merely embarrassing little scandals that someone might be interested in keeping out of the press. Others were potentially career-ending.

“Of course it’s not to date,” her father was saying behind her. “Been a while since I could go looking for these things. But I’m sure at least some of these people are still active, and if not them, then their sons or grandsons or whatnot. Because, you know, same boys, really. So I hope it’s at least a bit useful.”

Rachel nodded. “I do know many of these names.” She pointed one out. “This one, here. Right pain. Constantly lobbying against me.”

“He must be well past seventy!”

“He’s 76 and showing no inclination to retire. We’ve been hoping he’ll just die. You’re telling me he’s, what…” Rachel scanned the corresponding column. “…using a charity for kiddies in Africa to launder money? That’s cartoonish, that is.”

“Yes, he’s also in with the one who’s running an orphanage as a tax shelter. I’ve cross-referenced that there, see?”

For a moment Rachel just scrolled, and looked at the mosaic of corruption that unfolded itself to her. The gamut ran from harmless things, like affairs and MPs who secretly frequented drag bars, to tax evasion, insider trading, bribes, legitimate sex crimes, drug dealings, murder… murder? Even the information Rachel had already possessed, that got her into such trouble with the Beg-Chetwynde clan, paled in comparison.

She looked up and turned towards her father. “Dad… what am I supposed to do with this?”

Julian shrugged. “It’s up to you. Go advance your career.”

“I… would have loved to do that on my own merits. Not through blackmail.”

Julian chuckled. “That’s cute. My funny little girl.” He tried to noogie her, but his hand went right through. He pulled it back with a disgusted expression. “Eugh. Not going to try that again.”

Rachel sighed. “You think I’m naïve for that?”

“Well, see here, Trouble, I’ve looked into your party lately. How many seats do you have again?”

Rachel crossed her arms. “Don’t make me fucking say the number.”

“Right. So if you want results, you need any edge you can get, yes? And you want results, don’t you?”

The thing was, Rachel did want results.

She was a Fawcett. They were not known for their hesitating attitude, or their strict adherence to morals.

Besides, as a gesture, this touched her heart. Her dad wanted to give her a gift, and he was doing it the only way he knew how. This was the only way he could influence the world still, through all this knowledge that had died with him, and had uselessly haunted this house with him.

“Alright, I’ll take this,” she said. “Would be a shame to let it go to waste. And… thank you.”

Julian nodded. “But for the love of god, be careful this time. Keep yourself safe. I’ve added some names at the bottom there of people I could trust with these things, people who will do you a favour if you call on them.”

Rachel scrolled all the way down the list. “Who’s Lindsay Ballantine?”

Julian cleared his throat. “Well. She was the woman who was with me when, you know, when I died. Met her when she was just an exotic dancer, but she became a real confidante.”

“And… Samantha Mayberry? The fashion designer?”

“Is she, now? She was a model in my day. Samantha Fox, was her stage name.”

“I think I own a cocktail dress by her. Small world.” Rachel gave her father a lightly sceptical look. “So you want me to confide in… the women who used to be your side-pieces?”

“Trust that I picked my side-pieces very carefully. Cunning women all, rivalled only by your mother.”

“I’ll take it under consideration.” She’d have to download that list as soon as possible. Surely Alison wouldn’t want to have it in her keeping any longer than necessary. “But, dad, why would you show me this now?”

For a moment, Julian glanced off into the middle distance, and Rachel almost thought he was going to ignore her question. Then he said, “You’re going away soon. I think we all know that.”

Oh. So this was a going-away-present?

“About… that,” Rachel said. “Dad, do you think Alison and Mike would let me come over again? I mean, just to visit? I know I’ve already made a lot of trouble, but… I’ve grown awfully fond of everyone here, even Thomas, and I thought… maybe we could, er, try doing some family stuff together? I know our options are somewhat limited, with the whole ghost thing, but I want to see…? I just, I never had the chance before. Look, stop me if this is a stupid idea—”

“No, no, I’d… please, do visit lots,” Julian said awkwardly, then tacked on, “It does get so boring around here. And I don’t see why that would be a problem. Alison’s the devil for family, really she is.”

“Is that true?” Rachel asked.

“Oh, yes. One time, she almost fell for a scammer pretending to be her sister, she was that eager. Let me tell you…”

 

Oh yes, she would leave soon. But for this moment, singular, golden, the kind of moment that dug itself deep into memory, she had a father.

And she knew now that her father could use a keyboard, which meant e-mails, and texting, and phone calls. She knew now that she had somewhere waiting for her, a house full of people wanting to become her family. She was beginning to understand that if she should ever need it, this place would always be here, waiting. There were people now whom to text Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, and birthdays and yes, death days, to remember: things that families did.

And as she realized this, something within Rachel, that had been aching for so long she hadn’t even noticed it anymore in quite awhile, was beginning to heal over.