A group of people moved into the little house on Willow Street, just a few blocks away from Whitechapel House. They kept to themselves mostly. Only one of them - a man with shaggy black hair and a wooly black coat and too many scars – spoke to the locals. He asked strange questions, which always seemed to be about a murder no one could remember involving people no one was sure had ever existed. He was not charming, this man, but he was persuasive. And whenever he got someone to talk, he would invariably ask them about Whitechapel House. He never had to specify which one, because everyone knew. They saw him at Whitechapel, sometimes. Walking along at odd times, glancing through the fence. Some would ask him what he was doing or who he was looking for, and he would tell them, but afterward they could never quite remember what he’d said.
Margo saw him too.
She watched him from her bedroom window. He wore an eye patch, like a pirate captain, but his overall look was that of a war veteran. But Margo couldn’t tell from his age which war that might’ve been.
“His name’s Dragomir,” said a voice from behind Margo, “He’s a ghost hunter.”
The voice was gentle and cheery. She turned and saw a man about her dad’s age in the passage, leaning against the wall. He was handsome – in the way that some dads were – and his eyes smiled. It gave him the impression of sharing a secret with whoever he spoke to.
“Did I give you a fright?’ said the man. “Sorry. I was on my way out.”
“No,” said Margo, “No. It’s ok.”
The ghost smiled, and made to leave.
“What’s he doing here? The ghost hunter?” said Margo.
The ghost was semi-transparent and the parts of his body that leaned against the wall disappeared into it. “That’s what I’d like to know,” he said.
Margo was a bit afraid – she’d never seen a ghost so close to her bedroom before – but this man looked friendly. So she asked, “How do you know who he is?”
“He’s been here before.”
The man nodded. “The people he works for made a truce with our council a long time ago.”
“A ceasefire. An armistice. A temporary peace.”
“I know what a truce is. I meant what sort of truce.”
“They leave us alone as long we leave the owners alone. Or any living people, I suppose.”
“So if he’s here,” Margo said, “it’s because he thinks a ghost did something to a person. Um, a living one.”
The ghost glanced around, and then lowered his voice like a conspirator. “Between us, Margo, I believe a ghost did.”
“I don’t know,” said the man, “but I’m looking.”
“Think you’ll find him?”
“Finding people’s my raison d’etre.”
A part of Margo’s social shield melted, just a little.
“My name’s Margo,” she said. “Well, Margo Comeau. Well, really Margo Catherine Comeau. But I just go by Margo.”
“James,” said the ghost, “well, really James Q. Bale, but James is fine. But not Jim. I detest Jim. Adieu, Margo.”
Like that, the ghost was gone.
“Margo. Hmm, Margo’s boring me today. You’re Gorgeous Pouting Heroine today.”
Only one person spoke to Margo like that. She was on the porch, painting, and she said, “Hey, Quint,” without looking up.
“Hey Pouting Heroine.”
“Don’t I get any say in my new name?”
“Don’t be silly. Of course not.”
She could feel Quint’s smirk.
“What do you want?’ she said.
“To go back in time to stop the Star Wars prequel trilogy from being made. A crime-fighting kangaroo sidekick named Smithers. My old Lego set, except life-size.”
Deadpan, Quint said, “I never joke about Lego.”
“What do you want from me?”
Margo resisted the urge to turn around. She dabbed a brush in blue paint, and took it to the canvas.
“Why are you so confrontational?” Quint said, a smile dancing beneath his face, “You act like life’s a Greek tragedy.”
“It’s more a Shakespearean tragedy.”
“If that was true, you’d be Othello.”
“I would not be Othello. You’d be Puck.”
“The king fairy? The one with the hot wife?”
Quint grinned. “Pretty right about that, Heroine.”
“If you insist on calling me that, I’m giving you a nickname too.”
“I quake with fear.”
Margo thought for a second, slashing red down the canvas.
“Mittens,” she finally said. She felt Quint’s grin deflate a bit.
“Mittens? We’re officially nemesisses,” said Quint.
“Nemeses,” Margo corrected.
“Quint, I’m busy,” Margo said, turning around, brandishing her paintbrush. Quint raised an eyebrow lazily. There was a cigar dangling from his lips. His lips. Jesus Christ.
“You’re smoking a cigar,” said Margo.
“I have no lungs for it to corrupt, so I thought what the hell?”
“Where’ve you been, Quint?’ Margo said.
Another eyebrow went up.
“I’ve hardly seen you at all. You just left me to deal by myself.”
“Doing haunted house stuff,” said Quint.
“Then go do that,” Margo said, turning back to the canvas.
After a moment – a moment long enough for Margo to wonder if he was still there – Quint said, “I’m not a dick.”
The sun was setting. The sky was red.
“I guess I was,” Quint said, “when I was alive and stuff.”
“But I’m trying to be, I don’t want to sound all melodramatic and yin-yangy, but I’m trying to be different.”
“Then why did you just vanish?” said Margo. “Like, I don’t need a chaperone, but come on, Quint. You showed me this,” she gestured vaguely at the house, “all this ghost stuff, and then you left me to deal with it. I might not be some scared little kid but this stuff is - it’s a lot to process, y’know?”
“I didn’t think I had to be your babysitter.”
“I didn’t ask you to be,” Margo snapped. “Just maybe let me know I wasn’t going to get murdered by a phantom.”
“Not all ghosts are bad,” Quint said. “I thought you knew that?”
“I do, but…”
“So? Why are you acting like we’re all out to get you?”
“Because a man got murdered, Quint!”
Margo forged on. She was angry now, and it showed. “I was pretty scared, and…I thought you were my friend, I guess.”
“Then act like it,” said Margo. “If you want to do your haunted stuff, fine. But don’t come here acting like nothing happened. I wouldn’t have left you by yourself.”
“I’m not your personal assistant,” Quint said, eyes narrowing, “Honestly. You’re just like the other owners.”
The words barely off his lips, Quint disappeared.
Margo didn’t cry, but she sat on her bed very quietly and crossly. She tried to take her mind off Quint. She read about the Dadaist art movement, where the artists were not-artists, the art not-art and the movement not-a movement (though, sadly, the homework on it was not not-homework). She sketched a little in one of her notepads (in Margo’s opinion, one could never have enough notepads). But mostly she thought about her raisons d’etre.
The psychologist her parents had taken her to years before – Dr Schaum who looked, at least to Margo’s ten year old mind, like a friendly bear – had asked her to write a list of the things that made her happiest. Dr Schaum had said, in conspiratorial tones, that it would be her weapon against bad days. Her list had changed many times since then, but she still remembered her original one:
Margo Comeau’s Raisons d’Etre
2) Peanut butter
3) Great Moments of Infinite Depth
5) My parents Bagels My parents
7) Trying to be brave
She’d scrawled the list in Sharpie ink in Dr Schuam’s office. That had been just after her brother had died. Now she reworked the list in her head. Some revisions were in order. She needed to add things. Like Investigate the existence of ghosts in this house, and Find out what the man in the black coat is so concerned with. Maybe Punch Quint in his ghost face.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but is something the matter?”
Margo looked up. Bale was standing in the doorway.
“I’m a little pissed off, I guess.”
“No. Pissed off. Like angry?”
“Ah. With what?”
“People,” Bale said, “they’re the worst.”
He had a satchel and he looked like he was going somewhere. Gesturing at it, Margo said, “What are you getting up to?”
“A quest,” Bale said, with a cheeky wink. He would be such a hit with Mom’s book club.
“Are you a knight then?” Margo said. She wasn’t sure what to say. She simultaneously wanted to be alone and to be questing. “Which dragon are you planning to slay?”
“I’m not slaying anyone.”
“Then either you’re not a knight, or you’re a lying knight. Don’t compare yourself to a knight even figuratively unless you’re actually going to behead some literal or figurative dragons.”
Bale chortled. “Don’t trap me in a metaphorical maze.”
“It’s pretty much the only thing I’m good at,” said Margo, “and at getting into fights. Not fistfights – well, there was one time with Jane at the petting zoo, bitch – but oral fights. Not as in biting people. Like words. Verbal fights. Arguments.”
“I would fear being your opponent in a debate,” said Bale. Margo loved the way he talked. Having existed alongside the living for so long, he’d absorbed some modern phrases, but every now and then he spoke the speech of a different time. It meant Bale was probably a hundred years dead, give or take.
“Don’t change the subject,” Margo said, cheering up already. “What’s your quest?”
“Well,” said Bale, rubbing his stubble, “I’m still looking for the ghost that’s attracted Dragomir and his ilk. But there’ve been some developments.”
“Progresses - ”
“What developments?” Margo said, cutting him off.
“Well, there’s the theft, obviously.”
“The theft of the Lich’s knife.”
“Who’s the Leech?” said Margo.
Bale laughed. “I wish Its Majesty could hear you say that.”
Margo didn’t laugh.
“Wait, you’re serious? You don’t know?”
Margo shook her head.
“The Lich isn’t a who. It’s a what. Liches are guardians. They patrol the border between the world of the dead and the world of the dying.”
“Are they ghosts?”
“No. But they’re not alive either. They were created by whatever made this place. Basically, they make sure the dead stay dead. Which is difficult at places like Whitechapel, which is why their services here are doubly necessary. We have a particularly petulant one. Right now, the Lich is incensed – pissed off, you could say – because someone has stolen its knife.”
“So the Lich is PMSing because someone took its toy?”
Bale smiled a little. It was a very charming smile – it almost glinted.
“What does that smile mean?” Margo said, beginning to smile too.
Bale glanced around, eyes sparkling roguishly, and lowered his voice. “I stole the Lich’s knife.”
Margo chuckled. She felt like she was being included on a secret adventure.
“But keep it hush-hush,” said Bale.
Margo mimed locking her lips and tossing the key over her shoulder.
“Why did you steal it?” she said.
“Because someone needs to do something about the ghost that’s stalking this house,” he said, his voice darkening for a second, “We’re in danger, Margo. I don’t want to scare you, and I certainly don’t want to scare the other ghosts, but it’s the truth. So I’m taking steps to look after this house.”
He patted the satchel.
“You brought it here?”
“I didn’t bring the satchel as a fashion statement.”
“But what if the Lich comes looking for it?”
“Oh, well that’s a fate worse than death,” Bale said casually, rummaging in the satchel.
Margo got off her bed. She was relaxed about the supernatural, but even she had boundaries.
“You can’t have the knife in here,” she said.
“I was on my way out,” Bale said.
“Where are you going?”
Bale was already starting toward the door.
“Things to do.”
Bale strode off down the passage. Margo followed.
“So you wish to accompany me on my quest,” he said, glancing out the window. It was dark, and almost no stars were out.
“I’m bored, and Quint’s apparently not showing me around anymore.”
“You’re friends with Quint?”
Mai thought for a second. “No.”
“Spirited lad,” Bale said. “Interesting story, his. Would you mind opening the door? I’m feeling a tad intangible.”
He looked more than a tad intangible. She could see through him in many places, and his left hand would move through anything it touched.
They stepped into the cold night air.
“Where’s our quest taking us?” Margo said.
“I want to join.”
“Quests shouldn’t be undertaken lightly,” said Bale. “Isn’t that the first rule of being a knight or something?”
“I think the first rule of being a knight is: never leave your armour in the rain.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re infuriating, Margo Catherine Comeau?”
“A couple of times.”
Bale sighed. “I see there’s no getting rid of you.”
“Nope. Where are we going anyway?”
They were walking the path that led through the trees to the far side of the garden.
“To the Bridge Below.”