The dead hung around Tamsin St Bird in spectral filaments like trailing old lace on the wedding dress that Miss Havisham would have killed for. The shade of a young girl, more solid than most of the others, turned a featureless face toward me, blank apart from two cross shaped scars stitched into her translucent flesh where her eyes should have been.
“Tea Ms Garnett? Or perhaps something stronger,” smiled my hostess, making it sound like a dare.
“Whiskey, if you’ve got it Tamsin,” I said calling her on it but distracted by the ghost-trail marking out this woman’s every move.
The practiced smile slipped a little whether at the request or the use of her first name was anyone’s guess.
“Yes, of course. You don’t mind if I don’t join you? Nine in the morning isn’t my most alcoholic time.”
“In that case, I’d better have yours, so make mine a double,” I said, conscious I was going to need all the help I could get with this one.
“So,” I said settling into the uncomfortable cream leather couch and taking in the chrome and glass designer living room, incongruous in such an old house, “What can I do you for?”
She crossed the high ceilinged room and poured me a drink from the crystal decanter on the drinks cabinet. An oblong of golden light fell across the stripped wooden floor and the sound of the amber liquid sloshing into the shot glass was more relaxing that a day in the country. I knocked it back and held my glass out for more which she did with a bad grace.
“Really, Ms Garnett-”
“Call me Rose.”
“Very well. Rose. You make it sound like you’re offering a plumbing service.”
“Dealing with other people’s shit is what I do Lucille, so it’s not a bad analogy. Anyway, please go on. I’ve got some blocked toilets that need a good old plunging so we need to get down to business, no pun intended.”
The young girl shook her head, distressed, and an old man’s face appeared at Lucille’s elbow with exactly the same cross stitched eyes. He held an elongated spectral finger to non-existent lips.
She eyed me with a delicate distaste spoiled by her ghostly train whimpering in protest when she abruptly sat down on an overstuffed silk striped couch and crossed long, slim legs with a swish of expensive material. Everything about her was tasteful and reined in: long, beige, hair coiled demurely at the nape of her neck in what she probably called a chignon; designer dress, a rich chocolate brown with demure lace collar emphasising a long neck and a well preserved figure for someone in their mid-forties. If it hadn’t been for the eyes, a snapping, stinging, leaf green and the deformed crowd of revenants trailing her like a living shroud, I might even have fallen for it.
She impatiently tapped an expensive looking gold watch, more like a bracelet than anything crass enough to have a use and said:
“Look I know my husband hired your, uh, services, but you must appreciate he’s not been himself lately. I’d like to cancel whatever contract you had with him and pay you a fee for your trouble.”
“Pay me to go away,” I said.
“If you like, yes.”
“Ah, but I don’t like Tamsin. I don’t like at all. My arrangement is with your husband, not you. If he wants to cancel, then he’s the one that’s going to have to do it.”
The ghosts moaned, maws wide with fear, features comically elongating as their substance reconfigured itself to mirror their distress. The fact that she had a little ghost train going on, while unusual wasn’t completely off the scale: you wouldn’t believe the baggage people carried around with them and I don’t mean emotional. What it did mean though was that she was someone who was capable of exerting a serious amount of control over the people and things that were around her. I hadn’t seen such submissive ghosts attached to anyone before and if I was being honest, it was creeping me out a little. How that affected Mr Harper-Hodge was anyone’s guess. Maybe a damned good spanking administered by her followed by some ritual head-shaving down the village square was his idea of marital bliss.
“Okay you won’t take it the easy the way, so let’s get down to brass tacks.”
Clearly a woman who was used to getting her own way, which made her next play all the more jarring.
“My husband is unwell,” she sniffed brushing away a tear, “my child may be dying,” her voice broke, but she hurriedly composed herself and carried on, “the last thing my family need is a so called psychic feeding them false hope. If you had an ethical bone in your body you’d leave us alone and go sell your snake oil somewhere else. I’m offering you money to go away and when my husband calls you, to decline the job.”
Tears formed in the corners of her eyes but sorrow wasn’t what I was getting from the muddy purple and sickly yellow of her aura. I walked across to the crystal decanter where the whisky was held prisoner and liberated a hefty belt to her audible displeasure. I grinned.
“You asked me to come here Tamsin and I did, assuming you wanted to show me around the house and meet your daughter. Now it turns out you want to give me the bum’s rush and have me lie to your husband. What’s the sketch?”
“Taking people’s money for nothing is usually what you people do best, isn’t it?” she was trying for patronising but I was getting the real picture from the agitation of the ghosts swirling around her like the detritus from a geyser.
I drained my glass in one and slammed it down on the hideously ornate side table.
“Tsk Tsk Tamsin. I expected better that that-” That was a lie, the truth was I hadn’t expected this little visit to be so much fun.
“Don’t you dare-”
“What were you going to pay me? Just out of interest you understand.”
I wasn’t remotely offended and in fact had she been offering enough money I’d have taken it. Only a fool works when she doesn’t have to. But I never got to do business with my new best friend because that’s when the old ball and chain decided to stick his oar in and spoil the fun by bursting into the living room and chucking his car keys down with a crash on the smoked glass coffee table eliciting a visible wince from Tamsin.
“Darling,” he roared which I was about to learn was his normal volume. God alone knew what happened when he was angry.
Jason St Bird was big and blond with a large belly making an escape bid over the top of his chinos and from there through the buttons on his too tight mauve shirt. He didn’t look like he’d come from the office. Did any of these toffs work? Dissipated, watery blue eyes peered out from between the folds of a bloated drinker’s face.
“This is the young filly I was telling you about darling. She’s going to help us with Emma.” Filly? Whatever planet this man lived on it wasn’t in this solar system.
Turning to me he said, “Hang on a mo’. I didn’t arrange to meet you, did I? I thought I was to call you-”
“Your wife’s been trying to get rid-”
“-of any preconceptions she might have of the job,” Lucille cut in smoothly giving me a warning glance and a flash of her baby greens. “I didn’t want her to be under any illusions about what she’s up against.
“Quite right darling, Christ knows none of the quacks have been able to help.”
Jason didn’t have any hangers on like his wife, but his aura was distinctly murky. There was a dash of fear, a sprinkling of confusion and a merest soupcon of something darker that I couldn’t work out. What were these people up to and why the hell was I still even here. But then Henry saw my drink and seized it giving me such a vast refill it sloshed over the top. I saluted Lucille and took my medicine like a good girl to the noisy encouragement of her husband who had an even larger pick-me-up that was all gin and no tonic.
“No point in beating about anybody’s bush is there,” he boomed. “Come on and meet Daisy. She should be awake by now.”
“Jason, I really don’t think this is a good idea. Are you really seriously trying to tell me you think there’s a ghost in the house? That some psychic,” she paused infusing the word with a well-bred distaste and turned to me in mock apology, “sorry Ms Barnet nothing personal, is going to succeed where all the experts have failed?
“Excuse me?” I could see the irritation in those sparkling tip-tilted cat’s eyes.
“The name is Garnett. And since I’m already here it couldn’t hurt to take a look now could it?” I smiled sweetly at her enjoying her anger like a fine wine chaser after all that glorious whisky.
“Lead on McDuff,” I said to Henry, “but before you do, get me another whisky will you old chap?”