NOTE: Due to technical issues, this text is missing some of the final punctuation edits from the final, published version. Our apologies!
. . . . .
I followed Stu through the front door (dammit, tingle, ouch), and paused on the other side to consider that fact for a moment. Only a member of the household’s family could issue an invitation that would let an immaterial entity past the home’s threshold.
So. Sir Stuart was practically family around Mort’s place. Unless he was literal family. Hauntings, after all, have historically been known to remain with a specific family lineage. Could Stu be one of Mort’s ancestors, here to watch out for his familial posterity? Or had the little ectomancer always possessed an odd sort of family, one I had never known about?
Interesting. It would be wise to keep my eyes open.
The house looked much different. What had been a cheesily staged séance room had become a living room with a sofa, love seat, and comfortable chairs. I’d seen only part of the rest of the house, but as I walked with Sir Stuart, I could see that the dismal little den of a house had been renovated, redecorated, and otherwise made more beautiful. Stu guided me to a room that was part library, part office, with a fire crackling in the fireplace.
Mortimer Lindquist seemed to have finally given in to the inevitable. I’d seen him with a bad toupee, and with an even worse comb-over, but this was the first time I’d seen him sporting a full-on Charles Xavier. The unbroken shine of his pate looked a lot better than the partial coverage. He’d lost weight, too, since the last I’d seen him. I mean, he wasn’t going to be modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch or anything, but he’d definitely dropped from self-destructively obese down to merely stout. He was in his early fifties, under five-and-a-half feet tall, and dressed in black slacks and a grey silk shirt, and he wore little square-rimmed spectacles.
He sat at his table, a deck of playing cards spread out in front of him in what could be either a fortune-telling through the cards or a game of solitaire—they tended to have about the same amount of significance, in my experience.
“Did I hear a shot, Sir Stuart?” Mort asked absently, staring intently at the cards. Then his hands froze in the act of dealing another, and he shot to his feet, whirling to face me. “Oh, perfect.”
“Hiya, Morty,” I said.
“This is not happening,” Mort said, promptly getting up from the table and walking quickly toward another room. “This just can’t be happening. No one is this unlucky.”
I hurried forward, trying to keep up, and followed him into a hallway. “I need to talk to—”
“I don’t care,” Mort said, his arms crossing one another in a slashing, pushing-away gesture, never stopping. “I do not see you. I am not listening to you, Dresden. It’s not enough that you have to keep dragging me into things in life. So now your stupid ghost shows up to do it, too? No. Whatever it is, no.”
We entered a kitchen, where I found Sir Stuart already present, his arms folded, leaning back against a wall with a quiet smile as he watched. Mort went to a large cookie jar, opened it, and took out a single Oreo before replacing the lid.
“Morty, come on, it’s never been like that,” I said. “I’ve come to ask your help a couple of times because you’re a capable professional and—”
“Bullshit,” Mort snapped, spinning to face me, his eyes flashing. “Dresden came to me when he was so desperate he might as well try any old loser.”
I winced. His summation of our relationship was partially true. But not entirely. “Morty, please.”
“Morty, what?” he snapped back. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I am not getting involved in whatever international crisis you mean to perpetrate next.”
“It’s not like I’ve got a lot of choice in the matter, man. It’s you or no one. Please. Just hear me out.”
He barked out an incredulous little laugh. “No, you hear me out, shade. No means ‘no.’ It isn’t happening. It isn’t ever going to happen. I said no!” And then he slammed the door to the next room in my face.
“Dammit, Morty,” I snarled, and braced myself for the plunge through his door after him.
“Dresden, st—!” Sir Stuart said.
Too late. I slammed my nose and face into the door and fell backward onto my ass like a perfect idiot. My face began to throb immediately, swelling with pain that felt precisely normal, identical to that of any dummy who walked into a solid oak door.
“—op,” Sir Stuart finished. He sighed, and offered me a hand up. I took it and he hauled me to my feet. “Ghost dust mixed into the paint inside the room,” he explained. “No spirit can pass through it.”
“I’m familiar with it,” I muttered, and felt annoyed that I hadn’t thought of the idea before, as an additional protection against hostile spirits at my own apartment. To the beings of the immaterial, ghost dust was incontrovertible solidity. Thrown directly at a ghost, it would cause tremendous pain and paralyze it for a little while, as if the spook had been suddenly loaded down with an incredible and unexpected weight. If I’d put it all over my walls, it would have turned them into a solid obstacle to ghosts and their ilk, shutting them out with obdurate immobility.
Of course, my recipe had used depleted uranium dust, which would have made it just a tad silly to spread around the interior of my apartment.
Not that it mattered. My apartment was gone, taken when a Molotov cocktail, hurled by a vampire assassin, had burned the boarding house to the ground along with most of my worldly possessions. Only a few had been left, hidden away. God knew where they were now.
I suppose I couldn’t really count that as a loss, all things considered. Material possessions aren’t much use to a dead man.
I lifted a hand to my nose, wincing and expecting to find it rebroken. No such thing had happened, though a glob of some kind of runny, transparent, gelatinous liquid smeared the back of my hand. “Hell’s bells. I’m bleeding ectoplasm?”
That drew a smile from the late marine. “Ghosts generally do. You’ll have to forgive him, Dresden. He can be very slow to understand things at times.”
“I don’t have time to wait for him to catch on,” I said. “I need his help.”
Sir Stuart grinned some more. “You aren’t going to get it by standing there repeating yourself like a broken record. Repeating yourself like a broken record. Repeating yourself like a broken—”
“Ha, ha,” I said without enthusiasm. “People who cared about me are going to get hurt if I can’t act.”
Sir Stuart pursed his lips. “It seems to me that if your demise was to leave someone vulnerable, something would have happened to them already. It’s been six months, after all.”
I felt my jaw drop open. “W-what? Six months?”
The ghost nodded. “Today is the ninth of May, to be precise.”
I stared at him, flabbergasted. Then I turned, put my back against Morty’s impenetrable door, and used it to stay upright as I sank to the ground. “Six months?”
“That’s not . . .” I knew I was just gabbling my stream of thought, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from talking. “That’s not right. It can’t be right. I was dead for less than a freaking hour. What kind of Rip van Winkle bullshit is this?”
Sir Stuart watched me, his expression serious and untroubled. “Time has little meaning to us now, Dresden, and it’s very easy to become unattached to it. I once lost five years listening to a Pink Floyd album.”
“There is snow a foot and a half deep on the ground,” I said, pointing in a random direction. “In May?”
His voice turned dry. “The television station Mortimer watches theorizes that it is due to person-made, global climate change.”
I was going to say something insulting, maybe even offensive, but just then the rippling sound of metallic wind chimes tinkled through the air. They were joined seconds later by more and more of the same, until the noise was considerable.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Sir Stuart turned and walked back the way we’d come, and I hurried to follow. In the next room over, a dozen sets of wind chimes hung from the ceiling. All of them were astir, whispering and singing even though there was no air moving through the room.
Sir Stuart’s hand went to his ax, and I suddenly understood what I was looking at.
It was an alarm system. “What’s happening?” I asked him.
“Another assault,” he said. “We have less than thirty seconds. Come with me.”