Three Minutes Past Midnight
In life, Detective James Q Bale had been renowned for his dinner parties, which always began at three minutes past midnight. Receiving an invitation was an honour, and talking about the dinner afterward was forbidden. Rumours ranged from raucous balls to occult rituals, with new theories popping up every day amongst those forced to stare longingly at Bale’s barred doors. But one thing was certain: everyone wanted an invitation. That night, Bale planned to hold his first three minutes past midnight party postmortem, and he told Margo and Quint to dress accordingly.
The Dark Triplets, or whatever they were exactly, because they weren’t the same ghosts Margo had met in the world Above, led Margo and Quint through the house, once Bale had left them. On the inside, the house was also a mirror image of Margo’s home. The same furniture, same paint, same pictures. Although a fire burned in the lounge, when the fireplace at Margo’s home was sealed up. Margo’s passages were cluttered with junk. These were pristine. Margo felt a chill run over her when she saw the photograph hanging on the dining room wall. In her dining room, it had been a picture of her with her parents. It was the same picture here, but they had no eyes.
The Dark Triplets showed Quint to a spare room and closed to the door behind him. Margo knew the way to the guest room, but the Triplets insisted on going with her. Once they were alone in the room – which was cleaner and more homely-looking than it had ever been in Margo’s world – she asked them if they were the same triplets she’d seen Above.
“No, we’re their dark half,” said one of the girls. “We’re the lost parts of those girls. Just like our Bride is the lost part of yours.”
“This whole world is made up of lost things,” said another of the triplets, her black eyes emotionless.
“They say everything and everyone that comes here is lost.”
“That can’t be true,” said Margo, setting down her backpack next to the guest bed, “I’m not lost.”
The first girl smiled at her. “No. No, of course not.”
“We’ll call when it’s time for dinner. Change into something more dinner fitting.”
“I don’t have anything.”
“There’s a dress in the cupboard.”
Margo opened the cupboard. A black dress hung there, made of a material that shimmered. It looked like a night sky speckled with stars.
“How do you know it fits?” Margo said.
But when Margo turned around the girls were gone. All that was left of them was a sound that may or not have been the echo of a giggle.
Margo was alone.
She unpacked her things and ran herself a bath. It felt good to get out of her clothes, which had been stained with nervous sweat. She was still nervous now. Bale seemed to suspect nothing. But there was always the chance he could find out their real purpose there, and that was a thought too dark to consider for long.
Margo slipped into the bath (the only difference was that this one had clawed, bronze feet) and thought about their Real Purpose. She’d divided the plan into three parts, and given each a codename:
Peanut – Win Bale’s trust
Butter – Learn his plan
Jelly – Cause his downfall.
The dining room had never looked so good in Margo’s world.
Candles had been put out, and curtains hung. A gold and red table cloth lolled across the table like a dragon’s tongue. Margo entered wearing the night sky dress, and saw that Quint had also been given clothes to wear: a black and white suit. He sat at the table, whispering with Bale. Bale looked up when she walked in,
Bale: oozing charm as always. He used it the way an anglerfish used its light.
Margo nodded in greeting and slid into the table, next to Quint. Bale sat at the head of the table, the Dark Bride to his left, holding his hand.
“How do you find this place?” Bale asked her.
“It’s certainly better looked after than mine,” Margo said.
“It’s a slice of paradise we have here,” said Bale, “There’s no hunger, no war, no poverty. In fact, there’s no economy at all. There’s no need for one. There’s enough for everyone. It’s the proverbial land of milk and honey, found in the most unlikely of places.”
Margo pictured the dog made of bones.
“Is there a government here?” Quint said.
“Not at all. No president, no monarch, no politicians.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“My darling,” said Bale, “Modern society exists despite politicians.”
“Then who’s in charge here?” said Margo.
One of the Triplets appeared beside her, with a bottle of wine. She poured it into Margo’s glass.
“No one really,” said Bale.
“Don’t be modest, James,” said the Dark Bride,
squeezing his hand. “James is the unofficial leader of Below.”
“Shush, my sweet,” Bale said to her. “Forgive my wife. She loves to embarrass me.”
“You’re married?” said Margo.
“Engaged. And that’s another thing about this world. We could never have married in yours. In short, the world Below is the world Above, but better in every way.”
“Maybe not every,” said Margo.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s not better than my world in every way.”
Bale’s face contorted into a Cheshire smile. “In what ways is yours better?”
“There’s death in ours.”
Bale chuckled. “And what would a living girl know about death?”
Margo imagined her brother.
“Not much,” she said.
“No one living knows what death really is,” said Bale, “But as someone who has died, I can tell you that I’m not any closer to understanding death either.”
“But what do you think?” said Margo.
“I think that death’s inevitable, that along with taxes it’s the only certain thing, and that death’s got a scythe and death’s got a cure. I think death’s a bastard and I think death’s kinder than people give him credit for. I think people who say dying is hard have never lived. I think cats die nine times, Christians die zero, and that ghosts are more alive than people precisely because they’ve died. But, above all, I think it’s time we had supper.”
Margo hesitantly sunk her knife into the roast chicken. She slipped the tiniest of morsels into her mouth. It was delicious. So too, was the rest of the dinner. She wondered who had made it and where it had come from.
“I don’t like your world, Margo,” Bale said, while she ate, “I find those people to have the open-mindedness of a mob of villagers carrying pitchforks. They don’t take kindly to the living dead. I’m not blaming them. You can’t blame a stone for being dumb. But I can avoid them. But that’s not what I want. I wish the living could get along with the dead. Imagine what we could accomplish together. We could open Bridges all around the world. People could live down Below. The dead could visit their families. We could even have a damn tourist industry. Camp outs along the River Styx and romantic getaways in the Ninth Ring of Hell.” Bale chuckled, sipping his wine. It looked like liquefied rubies.
“Naturally, when I was leader of the ghost council, I broached the idea to the people living in the house. They threatened to exorcise me. Quint, as a dead person who obviously has no qualms about being friends with a living girl, what are your thoughts on an alliance between the lamented and the lamenting?”
Quint hadn’t touched his meal. Ghosts didn’t eat, after all. Margo wondered why Bale would have served him anything. Possibly to prove a point, or make him jealous – Bale was able to eat and drink, albeit in small amounts. He was an odd ghost indeed, and much more than he seemed. Margo was sure of it.
“I think ghosts and people shouldn’t have anything to do with each other.”
Bale’s smile faltered. “I don’t think I heard you.”
“I think the dead should stay dead. To be honest, I wish there was no such thing as ghosts.”
“But you’re one.”
“And not a day goes by that I wish I wasn’t.”
Bale shared a glance with the Dark Bride. “What brought you to that conclusion?”
“The toy shop.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“There’s a toy shop just down the road,” said Quint. “Or there was. Maybe it’s a burger place now, or a parking lot or MI5 headquarters. I don’t know. Whenever I’d had a bad day or I was just generally pissed off, I’d go down there. Not even play with the toys, not really, but just be around them. And that made he feel okay. These really beautiful sailing ships, in particular. I wanted to be a toy designer actually. Not those shitty plastic cars and things you get, but real, engaging toys. Ones that require you to use your imagination. Like those ships. So that’s the worst thing about being dead. I haunt the house. I can’t leave it. I can’t go to that toy shop.”
Bale drank wine, slowly, silently, then said, “Understandable. But what I’m proposing is a way to bring the toy shop down here, to us.”
“Wouldn’t really be the same toy shop though, would it?”
“It could be a better one.”
Quint stared at Bale for a long time. “You didn’t have a good life, did you?”
“Quint…” said Margo.
The Dark Bride’s hand twitched.
“No, no, it’s alright,” said Bale. “I see what Quint’s trying to say. I admit, death isn’t perfect. If we built holiday houses or toy shops or MI5 headquarters in the ghost worlds, yes, they wouldn’t quite be the same as the ones for the living. But they’d be a way to feel alive. And if we had all the things we had in life, then being dead would be like immortality, don’t you think? Give me a thousand bards with a thousand lyres and they wouldn’t be able to write a song able to capture the wonder of that. Isn’t that what humanity’s been striving for? Why we started chucking spears at antelope, landed on the moon, why Cole Porter writes those songs that always get stuck in my head, why we get drunk and try our damnedest to get the farmer’s daughter into bed?. Because we’re all so frightened of dying. And our mortal coil’s so bastardly short, isn’t it? And when it’s run its course, then wouldn’t a world where you could be a ghost forever be better than nothing?”
“No,” said Quint quietly.
The smile was gone from Bale’s voice.
“Ignore him,” Margo said. “He’s just a moody teenager.”
“Yeah,” said Quint. “Exactly.”
After dessert, Bale invited Margo into his office – what in the world Above had been her dad’s study.
He took a seat behind the desk, motioning for Margo to take a chair opposite.
“Margo,” he said, lighting a cigarette, “how do you feel about liars?”
“Can’t say I’m a fan.”
“Understandable,” said Bale, “Most people aren’t. I don’t like liars either, but I do think lies are useful things. Lies are protection. Cigarette?”
Margo waved away the box he held out to her.
“I’ve been a dead a long while,” continued Bale, “but I pay attention to world events. The ‘40s in particular were an interesting decade. One event in the War’s always stuck with me. In 1940, the allies had deciphered the Enigma code, revealing German plans to blitz Coventry. Instead of evacuating the area, Churchill kept quiet about the impending obliteration. As a result, Coventry’s cathedral was turned to dust and thousands of people died. So why didn’t Churchill save those people?”
Margo knew Coventry’s history. “Because evacuating Coventry would’ve given away that they’d cracked the German codes.”
“Exactly,” said Bale. “That little lie, although
painful, ended up saving millions of lives; perhaps it even helped win the war.
Now, I’m the first to admit I sometimes lie, but I always have a reason for it.
So let me tell you now that when I said I wanted to go Below to stop the ghost
attacks, I was lying.”
“My real reason is more precious. One could say it’s
my breaking Enigma.”
“Why are you telling me this?” said Margo.
“Because I know your real reason for being here,” said Bale.
Margo forced her expression to stay still.
Bale stared at her for a moment that was just a second too long.
“You want something,” he declared, “I guess, we all do. You’ve lost something, and you want it back. And you thought if you came here, if you worked with me, I’d reward you, and give you what you want.”
Margo forced a laugh. “Red-handed.”
Bale’s eyes twinkled. “That’s alright because, as it happens, I need your help too, Margo.”
“Yes. You’re the only living person down here. And some things I need done can’t be done by the dead.”
Bale leaned toward her. “I’ve got a plan, Margo Catherine Comeau. It hinges on the fact that ultimately, the human race is doomed. Everyone is a unique kind of doomed, that’s the human condition, isn’t it? Both wonderfully and terribly made, and all that crap. And one day soon in the grand scheme of the universe the sun is going to explode and turn every single thing mankind has ever done – I mean the pyramids, the Mona Lisa, quantum physics, the Beatles albums, everything that shows that the human race ever existed – is going to be turned into less than dust. And when that happens, the ghost world is going to be the only world. And right now, despite its advances, it’s very inhospitable. But I think I can save us. I think it’s possible to bottle mortality, put an end to death; real death, that kind that happens when ghosts vanish. I think I can make each person into a god. I’ve broken Enigma. That’s the grand protection that each of my little lies makes possible.”
“Alchemy,” said Bale. “People a few eons ago knew a lot more about the afterlife than they do now. However, the average thaumaturge didn’t have any ambitions greater than turning copper into gold and enchanting the local seamstress into bed. They forgot about rituals that could do so much more.”
“What sort of rituals?”
Bale smiled. “I like you, Margo. But you understand that I don’t want to share all the details quite yet, especially when you never know who might be listening.”
“But you want me to help you.”
“Oh yes,” said Bale. “I’m quite unreasonable with my demands. But I promise you’ll be rewarded.”
Bale’s persuasiveness was almost tangible.
“What do you want me to do?” said Margo.
“I want you to get me something.”
Margo watched his expression, choosing her words carefully. Bale didn’t know her true purpose here, and she didn’t want to seem overeager to help. As it was, suspicion seemed to shift beneath Bale’s every word, like the shadowy shape of a shark beneath the surface.
“What is it?” she said.
“I’ve found the cure for Fading.”
Bale leaned forward, eyes flashing.
“I’ve got a sort of recipe for the ritual,” he said, “but I need things for the enchantment to work. It’s all in the land here. The ground Whitechapel was built on has power – but it’s greedy, it needs things. But if you give them to it, it’ll do anything for you. One of these things it needs is a dark memory.”
“Why’s it always something dark?” said Margo. “Why can’t it ever be a happy memory of unicorns and party balloons?”
Bale didn’t laugh. “I guess pain’s powerful,” he said.
“How does one retrieve a memory?”
“You have to go the Bridge,” Bale said. “I find it gives up its answers very easily, to those who ask.”