Pat was first alerted to the fact something was wrong when he sat up at his own feet.
The body beside him—his body—was slumped at the wheel of the Barnsley Scout Group’s Fun Bus, hands still loosely in position. Only the wide, staring eyes gave it away as something more grisly than a bloke taking a nap. That, and the arrow clean through its throat.
He reached up to close his own eyes and found that he couldn’t. When his hand went straight through, he shivered.
It wasn’t from fright, but the sensation of touching something no longer tangible. As uncomfortable as it was, it didn’t stop him from trying again, and then a third time. Because it just wasn’t right. His body looked downright ghastly left like that, and what if the boys saw it?
The uselessness of what he was doing had just begun to dawn on him when someone voiced what he was thinking anyway.
“You’re fighting a losing battle. It shall do you no good.”
Peering up to find a chap decked out as some sort of antiquated soldier might have struck Pat as unsettling under different circumstances. As it stood, he was simply glad of the company.
There was only one salient question to ask, really.
“Am I dead?”
“Hm.” The soldier rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. “Say you are dead. Would you wager you’re in Heaven, or Hell?”
Pat groaned—not from any aversion to theology, but because his neck hurt something awful.
“That depends on whether or not you happen to have any aspirin.”
“I am no chemist, sir. Again, it would do nothing for you regardless.”
“Great.” Pat carefully moved to stand up, wobbly on his feet and barely containing it. He stared down the aisle to assess his new acquaintance as he asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m… Well, I’m the Captain. Of a Gunners regiment, that is. One briefly stationed at Button Hall during the war.”
Pat adjusted his glasses, narrowing his eyes behind them. “Which war?”
“The run against the Reich, of course. I’ve been a resident here ever since—entirely without my endorsement, mind—and now, you’re in the same boat.”
“So I’m dead,” Pat stated. Just to recap.
“And… so are you.”
“Yes.” The Captain rocked back onto his heels, looking faintly annoyed. But all the same he went on, “I must say, you’ve caught on quite quickly—to the whole being dead thing, I mean. Well done, you. You wouldn’t believe how long it took for—”
“No.” Though Pat had always taught his boys that it was terribly rude to interrupt people, he felt the urgency of the situation made this an exception. “No, that can’t be right. I have to get the lads home. And I have to call Carol.”
“I can assure you I am right,” the Captain said, frowning. “In fact, I watched you give up the proverbial ghost myself. But you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out. An eternity, perhaps—unless you think you’re about to pass on?”
The Captain’s scowl faded into a bare display of curiosity. Pat peeked down at his hands, turning them over; he found to some relief that he couldn’t see through them, nor had he turned an unnatural white like something out of Scooby-Doo.
Nothing happened. The Captain shrugged.
“Eternity it is, then.”
“No. No, this isn’t happening.” Pat dropped his hands, regarded the Captain, and smiled. It probably looked more nervous than he would’ve liked, but any Scout leader worthy of their oath could plaster on a grin in the face of adversity. “A doctor… That’s all I need, see. There must be a doctor in the town over there.”
“And how do you intend to find them? Even if they could see you, you can’t leave the perimeter.”
“Oh, I don’t need to drive. Who knows? A country walk might do me good!”
“You misunderstand me, sir. You and I, we’re merely a part of the furniture. You won’t be able to leave.”
“Don’t be silly!” Pat scoffed, waving away the suggestion. “For an army captain, you’re a little bit of a defeatist, aren’t you? I’ll be back before you know it.”
The Captain sighed, but Pat had decided not to subject himself to whatever look was on the man’s face. Instead, Pat began hobbling towards the exit, wishing he could steady himself on the seats but not feeling daring enough to try. It was alarming, admittedly, that he breached the doors without physically having to open them, but that was another issue he could raise with the nearest GP.
“Yes,” he heard the Captain say, from within the bus. “I’m sure you will.”
The pain in Pat’s throat had just about subsided by the time he reached the gate, but his freedom was short-lived. It returned with a vengeance when he found the soldier had been telling the truth. He could see the trail beyond the gate, and distant houses scattered in the distance; what he couldn’t see was the wall blocking his path to the outside world.
Not that he could feel it, either. All he felt was dread, and it was insurmountable.
The Captain was gone once Pat got back to the House, but the boys were gone, too. The gaggle of police and paramedics now assembled around the bus told him they’d probably moved his scouts to safety. Pat dimly thought that nobody at the scene looked especially concerned.
Pat already knew in his gut what the outcome would be if he attempted to approach them, but he tried anyway. He gave it up as a bad job when an officer walked through him and left him spluttering.
He was still spluttering when someone tapped him on the shoulder, but the semblance of human contact came as a comfort. He turned to find a scowling woman, wearing some sort of ball gown that had seen better days, and his relief bit the dust.
“Are you the new arrival?” she demanded, her voice an ear-splitting squawk. It did little to help his sore head.
“Erm,” he said. Figuring out how to move had been enough of a struggle; making small talk sounded downright impossible. He gave her a pleading look.
She wasn’t understanding. “Are you a simpleton, sir? It’s a very straightforward question.”
“I—yeah, I think. I must be.” He caught himself. “Not the simpleton part, obviously.”
“Wonderful,” she said, and sniffed. “This is the last thing I need, you know. One of your boorish lot setting up shop here permanently.”
Pat bristled. She made it sound as though the person most inconvenienced by his timely death was her.
But maybe she was having a bad day, too. He considered his words carefully.
“I’m a Scoutmaster, ma’am. We’re very responsible people.”
“Then where were you when your delinquents turned my beautiful home into a lavatory? One relieved themselves in my posies—and, as if that wasn’t enough, another one did that to you.”
She pointed at the arrow still through his neck. Maybe giving it a tug would budge it, but he wasn’t inclined to try.
“You’ve got a point,” Pat said mildly, “but they’re usually good boys. You just have to get to know them. We’ve been on plenty of trips in the past and they’ve never killed anyone before, really.”
“So you say. Forgive me if I require more than your word.” She eyed him warily, only to extend a hand by lifting the back of it. “Lady Fanny Button. You’re charmed, I’m sure.”
Bemused, Pat stared at her hand. Then he shook it. He couldn’t think why she looked so surprised.
“My name’s Pat,” he said brightly, grateful to be in more familiar territory. He was good at introductions. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I just wish it was under other conditions.”
Lady Button crinkled her nose. If she was trying to hide her disdain as she looked him over, she did a poor job.
“The library,” she said. “Ten minutes.”
Though Pat wanted to ask what she meant—followed closely by asking where, exactly, the library was, because he’d yet to so much as set foot inside the building—by the time he opened his mouth, she was gone. Vanished. In her place was fresh air and the sight of an dithering policeman lighting up a cigarette a few yards away.
Pat marveled. And then, he wondered if he could do that.
Just about every employee of Button Hall had flooded outside to gawk over the developing crime scene, which made for a quiet building when Pat finally lumbered in. Something told him to head straight for the staircase, and his search led him to a dim, airless depository for books with worryingly puritanical titles. He supposed Lady Button had been its last curator.
She was nowhere to be found, but a man Pat hadn’t seen before was perched on the windowsill. He had one foot tucked beneath him while he lazily dragged the other in a pendulous line across the floor. The look on his face was sober, which leant itself well to the long, shuddering sigh that came from it.
Pat puzzled over whose benefit it was for, casting a furtive glance over the room. But they were alone.
“Erm. Hello, there.”
The man jumped. He dragged both legs up, whipping his head around to regard Pat with a graceless gawp. Pat got a better look at the chap’s attire and thought he recognised it as… Victorian, maybe.
“So it is true! The Captain gave his word, but I scarcely dared believe it. Another tormented soul has made this place their home.”
“Oh, well,” Pat said. “I wouldn’t know about tormented.”
“Such bravery,” the dandy said, sounding choked. He pressed a fist to his mouth and furrowed his brow over the top of it. “But you need not suffer in silence here! When you weep, we weep with you.”
“That’s… very nice of you,” Pat replied, because it struck him there was little else he could say. “But by we, you mean…?”
The ghost didn’t respond. He turned to look at the bookcase instead—and Pat, feeling uncomfortable and growing more so, followed the ghost’s line of vision.
As if on cue, the bookcase sprouted a procession of limbs, all swishing fabric, emerging from the spines and shelves like a rapidly-spreading moss. Pat watched in awe as the eruptions bloomed into people: a woman who looked like she’d just been down the mines; a beaming girl with a gown even more ostentatious than Lady Button’s; a man cradling his own head.
Sympathetic, Pat nearly winced. He instinctively rubbed his Adam’s apple.
“Hello!” the head said.
“Hello,” Pat echoed, with a polite smile.
“I’ll be mother, shall I?” came the trill of a fourth, and Pat recognised it as belonging to Lady Button before the rest of her materialised. She appeared in the centre of the room, making a point of surveying her present company one by one before settling on Pat. “You’re late, by the way.”
Pat considered pointing out that she’d arrived later than him. But he thought it best to bite his tongue.
It was a good thing he did, because he learnt in short order who exactly he was looking at. Fanny presented her entourage with an approximation of a smile. She seemed to revel in the opportunity to host.
The snappy dresser occupying the windowsill was Thomas, a poet; he had been at the Hall longer than Fanny, but not nearly as long as Mary and Humphrey, who’d both met their grisly ends during national bouts of execution fever. Kitty waved merrily as she was introduced, until Fanny told her she looked ridiculous. Pat had appreciated it anyway.
“What about the other one?” he said, once Fanny had ended her speech by again reminding her audience that she’d once owned the Hall.
Thomas angled his head quizzically. “The other one?”
“Yeah, you know. Scary fella.”
Mary frowned. “You hasn’t met Robin already, has you?”
“Oh, I do hope not,” Kitty said. Her smile was wide enough to be just this side of unsettling. “He has his own special way of making an entrance.”
“Robin,” Pat echoed, testing the name. “Is that the soldier who was hanging about in the gardens earlier?”
“Heavens, no,” Mary said. “No, that’s just—well, he’s the Captain.”
“I certainly am,” the Captain said. He hadn’t been standing over Fanny’s shoulder before Pat blinked, but he was abruptly there afterwards, standing rigidly to attention like a living statue. He had the sort of discipline a Scoutmaster could only dream of inducing in their scouts.
Pat jumped, though he knew it was silly; he was the thing that made people jump. He’d become a ghoul indistinguishable from the other ghouls surrounding him, and he wondered again if all this meant he was able to beam himself around like Lady Button and the soldier did. The Enterprise's Transporter had nothing on them.
“Tardiness, I expect from the others,” Fanny said, peering over her shoulder with her lips pursed, “but you? I’m disappointed, Captain.”
“Now, Fanny,” the Captain said, holding up what looked like a riding crop as though to silence her. “I’ll have you know I boast excellent time management. I simply never said I’d attend this sorry excuse for a shindig.”
“I notice you came anyway,” said Humphrey, rolling his eyes. Then he rolled out of his hands entirely.
As Pat crouched down to retrieve Humphrey’s head, the Captain replied, “I did. I decided, on the balance of probabilities, that attending might be more informative than not. Does our new associate have any queries for us?”
Pat peered up from the floor, disembodied head lightly squirming between his fingers, to see a wall of specters peering right back. They looked expectant, intrigued by him in the way one might be intrigued by a caged animal; he was a novelty to them when honestly, it should’ve been the other way around.
For here he was, holding one-seventh of a nobleman from a bygone era while a handful of other historical throwbacks sized him up, all because he'd foolishly thought the boys in Daley’s group might enjoy a spot of archery over the weekend.
It was a good thing he was already on the ground. Had he been standing, he might’ve toppled over anyway.
“I do have one question,” he said, meekly.
“Fire away, old chap.”
Pat’s gaze darted from Thomas, to Kitty, to Humphrey’s swaying body. He asked no-one in particular, “Are you all—you know, just a suggestion—absolutely sure this isn’t a dream?”
The Captain and Fanny exchanged a look. Then, the Captain rolled back his shoulders.
“You can take this one, Fanny.”
“Me? But I don’t want to.”
“Fair’s fair. I did the last one.”
“That hardly counts,” Fanny insisted, drawing herself to full height. It reminded Pat of a small dog baring its teeth. “She passed on five minutes later after she noticed her glasses had been on her head the entire time.”
“But I still had to counter all her inane protestations before that, didn’t I? Denial, as we well know, is not simply a river in Egypt.”
Pat thought he heard Humphrey mutter, “You would know.”
“I’ll volunteer,” chirped Kitty. “If nobody else wants to talk him through it, then…”
“It’s all right,” Pat interjected quickly. He got to his feet, and after reuniting one section of Humphrey with the other, took a few steps back. “Nobody has to talk me through anything. I think… I just need some time to adjust. That’s all.”
For a moment, the library fell prey to silence. Its inhabitants had seemed so eager to be heard before that Pat worried he’d said the wrong thing, somehow; he scarcely knew the etiquette for being dead and it wouldn’t surprise him to learn he’d un-mortally offended them.
The Captain broke the reverie by lifting his stick. He directed it at Pat, though the gesture lacked any trace of malice—not least of all because he was smiling.
“See? What did I tell you? The Scouts is a fine institution, a bloody fine institution indeed. This man here is a man of resolve and character; I can tell.”
“You’ve only just met him,” Thomas said.
“Doesn’t matter. I can read him. I’m never wrong about these things.” The Captain tucked his stick beneath his arm, fixing his eye on Pat with his smile still in place. It was lopsided, and made him look rather pleased with himself. “You’ll be a superb addition to the household, Patrick.”
“Oh. Just Pat is all right.”
The Captain’s smirk was quickly usurped by a grimace. He hadn’t liked that, then.
“If we’re all quite finished with pleasantries,” Fanny said, “it’s about time we go over the house rules. I think you all could do with a refresher, so if everyone would kindly be seated…”
However she intended to finish that sentence was drowned out by a collective groan, and Pat watched as the people around him—solid and fixed, like they were merely a group of dedicated historical reenactors—faded effortlessly into nothing, one by one.
He regretted gawping so openly when he felt Fanny’s eyes on him, the last man standing. That was the problem; he wasn’t yet sure where he was on willing himself out of existence like a proper phantom. His only option was to take a seat.
Button Hall’s residents had certainly been thorough when they’d created the rules.
Despite the abundance of information Fanny felt it was necessary to impart, she offered very little concerning the one thing Pat truly wanted to know. He hadn’t forgotten about Carol; she’d been at the back of his mind since he’d woken up dead, but there hadn’t been a good moment to mention her yet. He wasn’t sure what he’d say even if there had.
Lady Button, he thought, likely had her uses, but he doubted she’d be particularly helpful on the matter of getting in contact with his wife. Once her speech ultimately wound down, Pat declined the offer of a tour as graciously as he could, deciding instead to venture outside again. At least there, he’d stand some chance of hearing Carol’s name mentioned by one of the coppers, even in passing.
Had she been informed? What had they told her? He both dreaded to think and had to know all at once.
It was already mid-afternoon when he emerged, which had seemingly been enough time to evacuate his poor old body. The bus was still there, smouldering gently against a tree, but the ambulance that had been parked in the courtyard was notably absent. The paramedics had left with it, their place in the fray taken by people Pat recognised as staff members attached to the House. He spotted the groundskeeper who’d helped him set up the archery equipment giving a statement.
There was police tape around the row of mounted targets.
In the middle of it all stood the Captain, unnoticed and undisturbed, arms folded behind his back while looking faintly captivated. He wasn’t falling over himself to get a better look at proceedings, but he was swivelling this way and that whenever something novel caught his eye.
Pat approached. Considering the fact he’d died to make today’s entertainment possible, he was expecting a slightly warmer reception than the dismissive once-over he received.
“I imagined you’d be on the tour by now.”
“Maybe later,” Pat said. He tapped his fingertips together for want of some way to busy his hands. “You, er. You heard anything interesting?”
“Out here?” the Captain asked, and Pat nodded. “Hm. That rather depends on your definition of interesting.”
“I’m not fussy. Anything’ll do.”
“Very well. From the sounds of it, you wrote off that vehicle, they shan’t be charging the boy, and they have asked a woman named Carol to identify you. Just for their records.”
He spoke so matter-of-factly, as though there was nothing remarkable nor devastating about hearing the aftermath of one's demise summed up in a single sentence. Pat’s face fell. He’d missed them contacting Carol, but he could almost hear her voice wailing down the phone, and that was without turning his mind to how Daley must be faring.
“My wife,” he said.
The Captain arched a brow.
“Carol’s my wife. I’m married, see. Got a son, too.”
“Were,” the Captain said, idly smoothing down the front of his tunic. “You were married.” When Pat frowned, he went on, “Is that no longer a staple of marital vows? Til death do us part, hurrah, hurrah.”
Though Pat couldn’t feel the low wind sweeping across the lawn, he suddenly came over quite cold. He adjusted his glasses and found his hands were shaking.
The Captain had a point, mashed in there with his outstanding dearth of tact. In the space of a single morning, Pat had lost both his life and what remained of his dignity—and now, he’d lost his family.
Whatever was written in his posture must’ve caught the Captain’s notice, because he heard the soldier awkwardly clear his throat. Pat followed the noise, finding a slightly more forgiving show on the Captain’s face. He looked uncomfortable, his mouth drawn into a thin line, but his eyes had softened.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. His tone was softer too. “Stiff upper lip, and all that. Everyone goes through this to begin with.”
“What if I can’t be all right?” Pat said.
“You don’t have much of a choice, I’m afraid.”
Pat’s shoulders slumped. He looked down at his shoes, at the lawn beneath them, at the uneven ground he could no longer feel under his feet. Perhaps if he could, he’d be far more unsteady.
“Come, now,” the Captain said. “It isn’t so terrible. The alternative would be a one-way ticket to the great unknown, and none of us have any idea what’s waiting there. Not even Robin.”
There was that name again.
He’d barely completed the question when the guttural roar of a beast beat down on Pat’s neck, accompanied by a blast of hot air and the smell of rotten meat. He jumped, just as he had in the library, then reflexively lurched towards the Captain to take cover behind him.
When he dared catch a glimpse of the creature that had uttered such an ungodly sound, he saw a lumbering mass of fur and leathery skin, resembling a mannequin fresh from a museum exhibit on Early Man. Its arms were up, poised like an apex predator about to pounce.
The Captain looked just as unimpressed by the whole presentation as he sounded. “That’s Robin.”
The creature—Robin—grinned. He nodded to Pat. “How you do.”
Pat gaped; he reckoned his eyes were open wider than his hanging mouth. His brain had disconnected from the latter, rendering him unable to speak—to breathe, even—but Robin seemed less interested in getting a response, and more interested in the detective swanning by with a camera.
As Robin hobbled away to follow the bobby, Pat became mortifyingly aware of the fact he was gripping the Captain’s arm. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to let go.
“You really must grow a spine, man,” the Captain said flatly, propping his chin on his shoulder to level Pat with a disapproving grimace. “What’s going to happen at this point? Something murders you a second time?”
Managing to at last close his jaw, Pat feebly shook his head. “I wasn’t—I wasn’t murdered.”
“Well, what would you call it? A lad with the hollow eyes of a criminal shot you in cold blood. I saw it myself.”
Pat made as though to respond, but didn’t. Everything he uttered was wrong today, it seemed. He couldn’t express what he was feeling when he was unable to identify it himself. He gently released the Captain’s sleeve; the material was scratchy, but he’d only half-felt it, like he’d been recalling the fabric from memory.
“I don’t know what to do now,” Pat finally said. He met the Captain’s eye and held it.
The Captain pursed his lips. He swept a hand over his chin, outwardly pensive, and spoke.
“You could take that tour.”
“I told the chaps in there that you’d fit right in. Don’t show me up. They’re prone enough to mutiny as it is.”
“But what about…”
Up went the Captain’s crop, silencing Pat before he could go any further. “Ah, ah! I’ve got it covered down here. If there are any developments on the front, I’ll report them to you immediately. As it stands, however, this is not a particularly lively investigation.”
Pat smiled despite hardly containing the energy. A part of him suspected the Captain was only offering to keep an eye on things because the alternative was cloud-watching—but if it spared Pat the trouble of hearing people discussing his own corpse, he could overlook any ulterior motives.
“Thank you,” he said.
The Captain held up a hand to graciously dismiss the credit. He’d already turned his head to watch Robin, who was currently attempting to scale the Fun Bus, and veering surprisingly close to succeeding.
Button Hall had seemed so large when Pat had arrived that morning, the very definition of a sprawling country manor, spanning centuries and societies and surviving all of them. But it grew smaller each time he neared it. He saw faces leering at him from its embarrassment of windows, faces that any living souls on the Hall’s grounds wouldn’t be able to see.
It looked like he was one of them now.