The old sign creaked over the door in the cold wind. In chipped and yellowed paint it read:
Eldridge and Associate
and Bereavement Counseling
All except the “and Associate.” That paint was new and white and already fading.
The sign hung over a large window made of many small panes all misted by age-old city greases. The window did a poor job of keeping the cold out of a sparely furnished office inside. Off to the side, his quill scratching away in a notebook, sat Wickham Eldridge the Ghost Hunter. He sat at a long table on the left side of the room, his back to the door but ready, in his work clothes, to meet with customers. He wore a black waistcoat and white shirt, tidy and pressed and the same as he had been for as long as most of his clients could say. He kept his white hair and beard well-trimmed. Deep wrinkles drew years of memory around his mouth and eyes. His eyelids hung like forgetting over his dark brown eyes. Under the lids, though, they had sparks like lightning in them, ready to flash forth when he decided. He always smiled just a little because, frankly, the world amused him more than saddened him anymore. Though his patience had been tried a great deal more than usual lately.
He had hands as white and slowly creeping as cave-dwelling tarantulas; they were the bone-strong hands of many long decades of constant work and at the same time skin soft as talcum powder. In one of his hands he held a jar with a little sawdust in the bottom and a dull grey tie pin in the sawdust. With his other hand he scratched with a quill in a notebook. The page he wrote had the heading, “Alvin Algology.” The notes Eldridge was writing were things like, “Mr. Algology’s ghost hardly put up a fight. He seemed quite as prepared to go on as might be expected from a man several months deceased—” The tie pin nestled in a more than usually brooding way for those who could see it. It was the effect of a tethered ghost haunting it. Because of a special knack for such things, Eldridge could very nearly see the ghost as a hazy shadow unaffected by any light. On his worktable he had a small wooden crate, its bottom full of shredded paper. In the shredded paper nestled a dozen or so jars holding a haunted vessel each. He occasionally glanced at the crate, and he felt satisfied with his work.
The “associate” of the above mentioned sign bore the name Knott. Mr. Knott thunked past Eldridge’s worktable and set down something as he went to put some books back on a shelf. Eldridge glanced at the younger man’s back as he passed. Knott had practically no meat on him, an unremarkable color of hair—vaguely blonde but nearly brown. His waistcoat did not fit as well as Eldridge would have liked. Their trade required a certain demonstrable dignity; it comforted the clientele. Knott wore small round glasses that made his small face look all the smaller, in spite of which he grew a large mustache. Knott turned to check his watch, and Eldridge was able to see the mustache. He wondered, not for the last time, why the man kept it. Eldridge disapproved of many aspects of Knott, most except one: Knott had a strong spirit; Eldridge saw it like a biding echo. It made Knott the raw gristle of a potential great man. Eldridge hoped he would be someday. Knott came across as fussy and overly particular right now.
Only after a disapproving huff, Eldridge examined the stack of small papers Knott had placed on his table. In Knott’s efficient scrawl, the little pieces of paper bore names—one a piece. Alvin Algology was the first. Eldridge flicked the papers away with frown. He went back to his notebook. A few silent minutes passed during which Eldridge hoped Knott would do nothing. Eldridge had never been very good at wishing, though.
“These are labels,” Knott said, picking up the little stack of papers. “We’re supposed to use them.”
Eldridge turned toward Knott. He had a good, long stare, allowing the youth the option to stop talking. Knott was not, however, a youth in any sense. He was thirty-five and he possessed a man’s conviction. Eldridge forgot that about Knott most of the time.
“Who, pray, supposes that, sir?” Eldridge asked in his voice as low as a kettledrum and precise as a scalpel.
Knott cleared his throat. “It is becoming a convention of the trade, Mr. Eldridge.”
Eldridge dipped his quill into his inkwell. “Mr. Knott, some time ago a man discovered the correct process by which a ghost might be tethered to an item that the ghost did not have a personal relationship to in his life. All Ghost Hunting has relied upon that process since that day. Do you know who discovered that process?”
“I do, sir,” Knott said.
“I discovered it,” Eldridge said. He said it calmly—without boasting. “Remember that you came to me, Mr. Knott. You asked me to teach you this trade. By your leave, I will continue to teach it to you.”
Knott pressed his lips together. Taking his little stack of labels with him, he went to his writing desk in the opposite corner of the room.
The bell above the door tinkled. A gust of chilled air and a smell of spiced autumn came in, as did a man and his large stomping feet.
Eldridge put away his quill and weighted open his notebook so the ink could dry. He spun in his swiveling chair and rose to his feet, taking his knee-length coat from where it hung on a hat tree within reach. Wickham Eldridge had excellent posture; he was tall and thin and, in his well-tailored black suit, looked every inch the undertaker…or the accountant. He considered himself a mix of the two, so that suited him.
The man who had entered had a squashed face, or one that at least looked squashed. Everything about the man looked squashed, as if he had survived many fights leaving him stocky and spread out. He dressed like a working man in a dirty brown jacket and pants and shoes and hat. The red scarf around his neck was of a fine silk, however, and his jacket clearly came from a finer shop and fit him with the fine tailoring of Slightly’s or some other gentleman’s shop. Though he had clearly not bothered taking care of it; it had the usual frayed cuffs and roughly-patched elbows one expected on a working man.
From the unshakeable way the man placed his feet at every step and the shifty glances of his glinting eyes, Eldridge thought the man looked like a professional fighter. He was a little old for one, though, and the finer cloths he wore suggested more money than fighters usually made.
After a thorough and quick survey of the room, the man spoke, and his accent was as unapologetically callous as Eldridge would have expected. “This the Ghost Hunters’ place, then?” the man said.
“Yes, sir,” Eldridge said, buttoning his coat as he approached the man. “We are professionals in that arena. I am Mr. Eldridge, and this is my associate, Mr. Knott.”
“An’ you do work with hauntings and such bedevilments, eh?” the man said.
“We do, sir, though rarely with gentlemen who we do not know personally,” Eldridge said, his small smile returned to his face.
For the first time since the squashed man had entered the room he met Eldridge’s eyes. Something about the moment seemed to strike him as funny, and the man let out a hacking laugh, made scratchy by too much pipe smoke. “Of course and naturally, gov,” he said. “You have standing before you James Pilgrim. At your service.” With the words, James Pilgrim took his dirty cap off his head and gave a sort of suggestion of a bow like he had long ago lost the illusions of the politic differences between himself and a gentleman.
“You used to have a different name, did you not?” Knott said. “Treasure Pilgrim.”
Mr. Pilgrim let loose another grating laugh. “Gov knows ’is fighters, does he?” he said. “Mr. Pilgrim once fought under the name Treasure Pilgrim. Treasure terrorized the pits in this town. Not another fighter lived who’d meet him knuckle-to-toe, not an’ feel happy doing it. Nah, but Treasure retired years back. Mr. Pilgrim’s an honest businessman, now,” Mr. Pilgrim’s smile had gone. He replaced it with wrinkles of concern. “But now…some strange spirit’s having a wrecking on my business. I’ve reached the end of patience, gov. Mr. Pilgrim has no end of patience an’ all.”
“Quite,” Eldridge said. He smiled. “Would you have a seat, Mr. Pilgrim?” He gestured to two leather chairs that sat either side a small table near the middle of the room. “Your notebook, Mr. Knott. You know the sorts of things to note.”
“Yes, Mr. Eldridge,” Knott said. He took his notebook and a pencil from his pocket and made a note at the top of a new page.
“Now, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said. He took a seat in one of the chairs, crossing his ankles and interweaving his fingers. “Tell us the story.”
“I know where to start,” Mr. Pilgrim took his cap off and scratched his forehead. He sat in the other chair, facing Eldridge. “Not sure if I’ve the nerve to start there, eh?”
“We are here to assist, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said.
Mr. Pilgrim nodded. He frowned—his jowls turned handfuls of wrinkles. “Do you remember the first time a ghost gave you the shakes?” he asked. “Everyone has a first time in this world.”
“I forgot my first time,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “Fell to a gloomy cold, always giving me gooseflesh—not unexpected, eh? Pilgrim learned his knocks on the streets. Everyone died there.” This brought another laugh out of Pilgrim. It disappeared to a frown again before he kept talking. “I got woke up to an old memory by our new ghost. I know how young Jimmy Pilgrim feared the first ghost he saw.”
Knott made a note.
Mr. Pilgrim continued his story. His brow furrowed, and his gaze stayed down as he remembered. “Like I say, I’m a businessman now. I run a fighting arena in Roseboro Street—clean an’ honest a pit as any man could expect in a pit. That is precious little, I’d never be anything but square about that, but I used to be a fighter, an’ I saw too much unfair treatment of fighters to let that go on…well, not more than the usual sort of carousing fighters do on their own time…. An’ that’s to say nothing of the bookies. Lords of Chaos, gov, if ever you discover you need to do business with bookies, take it from a curmudgeon who knows the difference: don’t. Eh?” Mr. Pilgrim let loose another laugh.
“I think I understand the setting, sir,” Eldridge said. He glanced at Knott—Knott returned a small nod and emphatically dotted his notebook. Mr. Pilgrim’s nerves suggested a deep brooding cloud had filled the whole haunted place. “You meander away from the narrative, Mr. Pilgrim.”
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Pilgrim paused, pursed his lips and squinted thoughtful. “Lor’, it must have been a few months back. Aye, it was because I remember the blazing heat when I first saw evidence of it. What happened, Mr. Eldridge, was some of me bookies complained they’d started losing money.”
“Tragic, sir,” Eldridge said, suggesting mild irony. Mr. Pilgrim glanced up. He smiled back to Eldridge’s mild smile. More at ease, Mr. Pilgrim continued more calmly.
“When that occurs, Mr. Pilgrim has grief,” Mr. Pilgrim said with danger in his voice. “Of course, you know that the profession of a bookie is judging how a fight will end. Well, when one bookie come and tell me he lost money when a fight went sour on him I put it down to whining. Same with two and a couple more. When nigh a dozen bookies tell me fights they saw had what they viewed as unsavorable outcomes, well, I could hardly leave it lie there, could I? Mr. Pilgrim made his own inquiries.” Mr. Pilgrim finished with a smile. Then he scratched his cheek, and his smile disappeared as he thought through the next thing he would say. “Now, understand that fighting in the pits calls the roughest lads to it. The vipers’ll pull the lowest, greasiest trick they can to put one up. Only way any of us ever made money was by dirty fighting. You make a name not by guts nor skill nor brawn, but by how much you’ll pay from your conscience out to the pit…. Well…the lads that was winning the fights and raising such uncommon attention, they was the underdogs in no uncertain sense.
“Sometimes an underdog’ll sideways ya,” Mr. Pilgrim smiled again, doing a few pulled punches from his chair. “That’s where the sport is. Them fights are flukes. Not the same with these fights: these lads was winning fights in ways they had no business knowing. Fat boys being too quick—trembling dogs firm as iron. One broomstick of a pup broke a prize fighter’s jaw and three of his ribs. Worst of them, though…something in the gaze,” Mr. Pilgrim frowned now, staring at the floor. “They wasn’t looking no where, all the same sort of way.” Mr. Pilgrim took his cap off, scratching his scalp underneath it. His frown took on a curve of confusion. “Have you heard of a ghost like that?”
“I have not yet heard you mention a ghost, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said, although he surmised that he actually had heard all about the ghost. He hoped to be wrong about his conclusion. He rarely came to wrong conclusions.
“Well the lads, they was making deals with it,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “That’s how they won fights, see? Pilgrim’s got no proof of the solid sort of that. The vipers wouldn’t talk of it. When I found the room where it stays it kept itself out of sight—far as I can say in truth in seeing or hearing it never was there.”
“You think it was there?”
“I know it was,” Mr. Pilgrim said.
Eldridge raised an eyebrow and gestured for Mr. Pilgrim to explain.
“Kept out of sight, it done, but never tried to hide,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “Somewhere in my gut a frightened boy woke up, and that ghost laughed at him.”
Eldridge didn’t like the sound of that. He looked at Knott, an eyebrow raised. Knott nodded, scratching away at his notes. “You said that the fighters make deals with the ghost.”
Mr. Pilgrim nodded. “Heard ’em chatting on that. So’d my valet.”
Eldridge smiled at the thought of Mr. Pilgrim keeping a valet. “What kind of payment do they exchange?”
Mr. Pilgrim gave a dismissive flick of his fingers. “Keeping that mums, they be. What sort of thing can a living man pay a ghost, an’ all?”
“What sort indeed,” Eldridge pursed his lips, touching them with his fingers. What indeed. Eldridge had never heard of the dead desiring anything except information pertinent to their peaceful afterlife. They rarely sought the information, however. They usually waited for it to come to them, if it ever did. He couldn’t guess what this ghost asked for.
“Is that the whole story, Mr. Pilgrim?” Knott asked.
“It is,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “This situation…it ain’t good for business. It ain’t good for clients. It just don’t feel right.”
Eldridge nodded. A quiet moment crept on. Eldridge cleared his throat. “We shall consider our services engaged, Mr. Pilgrim,” Eldridge said. “We shall need to see the work of this fighting ghost.”
“Naw, now you make it too easy, gov,” Mr. Pilgrim said, his snaggletooth grin broad as his crooked voice.
Mr. Pilgrim sent word with a boy that he had arranged a performance by the ghost that night. Eldridge and Knott put on their stovepipe hats, white gloves, and wool capes against the autumn chill. They took a horse drawn cab across town to Mr. Pilgrim’s Arena. Their cab ride passed in silence; both men watched the grey city pass.
Mr. Pilgrim’s Arena was a converted warehouse. Flower and cigarette girls huddled around fires in metal baskets sharing cigarettes and jokes with painted ladies. A handful of working men in greasy coats and caps leaned against the building, chatting over clay mugs of what smelled like hot mulled wine. Only a few of them turned their dirty faces toward the approaching Ghost Hunters. None of them looked surprised to see two men in evening wear coming to the arena. Gentlemen sometimes attended fights in the pits.
In the thirty feet of walking from the cab to the arena, Eldridge began to do what made him the best Ghost Hunter in the business: he looked at the Shadow Plain, where ghosts exist. Due to an unfortunate experience with a being that stayed on the Shadow Plain, Eldridge had the ability to look at the deeper and more essential parts of thing—at the immaterial parts. It used to be a struggle to look into the Shadow Plain. In the past years it had started becoming more of a struggle to stay out of it. Looking beneath the material and into the ghostish felt like letting his concentration lag. He never confided that in anyone. It quite disturbed him.
He slipped out of the autumnal cold on his skin and into a quieter cold in depths. His bones rattled with it. Sights and sounds subdued, taking second place to their echoing insides. Inanimate things vagued away to dark and static outlines. He could see all the people still, but he saw them as undetailed shells. Now he saw their ghosts as their more vivid parts. Like so much cobwebbing of smoke and gossamer darkness, the ghosts communicated by furtive glance and obscure gesture, responding to and confused by each other and the acts in the material world.
Any light of the hundred candles and oil lamps, any heat and smells of straw and sweat clouded out from the door of the arena, arrived on Eldridge’s eyes and ears and nose as a crinkling suggestion, less important than what he sometimes called the thematic relevance of the impressions. He still perceived sensible things, but only insofar as they affected his soul: bad smells disgusted him, loud noises irritated him, and the hints he could hear of raucousness reminded him of his younger days.
A pair of thick-souled men flanked the door, their ghosts hardly moving clouds. The taller of the two wore a finer coat and a bowler hat. Eldridge looked closer at the material part to see he had a mustache with waxed curls as wide as his face. He knuckled his forehead at the sight of Eldridge, just barely tipping his hat.
“Mr. Pilgrim’s expecting you,” the large bouncer said. His ghost behaved almost exactly the same as his material part: solid and with limited expression.
“And your name?”
“Oldham,” Oldham said. “Mr. Pilgrim’s valet.”
“Thank you,” Eldridge said. “My associate will follow me in a few minutes,” Eldridge said, gesturing with his stick back to where Knott asked questions of the people just outside the door of the arena. “See that he finds me, would you?”
“We’ll see to it, gov,” the bouncer said. He said a few hushed words to the other bouncer, prodding a thumb at Knott as he did. The second bouncer’s ghost did a lot of looking back and forth, evaluating the situation. The bouncers nodded to each other. The larger bouncer led Eldridge inside then.
They walked through the arena. The word eerie had been invented for the shadow plane. There was a crowd, and the crowd was excited, drinking and cheering. To Eldridge, they loitered around in a dimness leftover in the thinning of shadow that was the usual ghost of light. The Shadow Plain tended to be black and grey and filled with mists, the people in it half-blind shells with not much to say.
He watched the dark mists of the not-living building cause obstacle to the cobweb-and-gossamer souls of people clinging to their bodies. Almost every ghost looked directly at him with wide eyes and gaping jaws. They knew he could see them, but they did not know what to make of it. Only one thing usually looked directly at the ghosts still clinging to bodies: Ferryman, the god of death, come to collect. Since no one knew what Ferryman looked like Eldridge found himself often mistaken for the morbid god.
Eldridge followed the solid bouncer to a clear spot at the edge of the fighting pit. Peering in, Eldridge watched the fight start.
On the one side, a man with happy anger—visible in his ghost as brightness and the emptiness behind the echoes of laughter—lunged forward. Eldridge only had shadow eyes for the other fighter, though.
White mist clung to the fighter. Even at this distance, Eldridge could smell the chalk in the mist. It made thin veins around the fighter’s hands and feet, clearly steering their movements, and it obscured the fighter’s face. Holes with all depth replaced his eyes, and instead of a mouth he had grin with no mirth. The mist sang in strangled verse, all its words in wrong order, yet it expressed a perfect contradiction of terror and joy.
It drove the fighter to a swift victory. Even in the Shadow Plain Eldridge could see the blood spattering into the sawdust covering the floor of the pit.
A non-voice whispered at his side; with no breath nor sound it said, Wickham…good to see you again.
With no interest to look, Eldridge looked, though he knew what he would see. That is to say, he knew that he would see an absence of presence. The thing could hardly be said to appear at all: a shape as shifting as water. It existed as a hole in the imagination; if ever closely examined, it would hold as much shape as the memory of a bad dream long forgotten, because the mind needed to have shapes for things. Eldridge found the absence of presence to very nearly resemble a slender man-shape made all of absent light—not darkness—that drew in undulating tendrils from behind all around them.
In the ghost hunting community, this creature had a name: Frost. No one remembered why that name.
Ah, you have come for the fighting ghost, Frost did not say. Good. I can take the last piece of you if you try. I might take you as my apprentice. You have some skill in this trade, Wickham. We could be jailors of ghosts together. Till the end of all times.
Risen from the Shadow Plain, Eldridge strode back through the Arena toward the exit. He frowned, in part because it always gave him a pain between the eyes to pull himself out of the Shadow Plain. Frost had quite put him out.
The room had far more light than Eldridge had supposed. The brightness irritated him.
As Eldridge swept toward the door, he spotted Knott hustling in the opposite direction. Knott had his gaze tight on his little notebook and was liable to miss seeing Eldridge. Eldridge turned to head the younger man off.
“We’re leaving, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge said.
Knott fell into step with Eldridge without looking away from his notes. “We are not dealing the average sort of ghost,” Knott said, his voice hurried and low almost as if he spoke to himself. “The degree of ambient unsettlement is higher than usual, but the individual instances of fear have hardly charted. The ghost’s inclination to interact only with underdog fighters is telling—it likes the power. A dominant spirit. I think the most relevant thing I discovered was the manner of bartering token the ghost asks of the fighters: rumors and gossip, the farther flung the rumor’s source the better the ghost repays the fighter. This ghost is actively looking for something, Mr. Eldridge! And…we are leaving?”
While Knott spoke, Eldridge led the way back out into the street. A hesitancy of snow had begun falling from the sky. He signaled for a cab from the scattering of them in the main road. One cantered over to them.
Eldridge frowned down at Knott. Knott’s brow wrinkled—his lips curled in befuddlement.
“There’s so much left here to discover,” Knott said.
“We’re not taking the job, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge said. He swung himself up into the cab that arrived. Slower, Knott followed. He didn’t put his notebook away.
Most of the cab ride, the only sound came by clattering of wheel on cobble and the clatters and jangles coming from the horse’s movements. Knott spent the ride trying not to speak, Eldridge could tell. The younger man’s curiosity scratched like a sound. Eldridge was nearly ninety years old, though, and hardly felt like he needed to respond to such things except in his own time.
Lo…eventually he did, when the cab made the third to last turn before reaching the chambers of the Ghost Hunters.
“Do you remember your history from school?” Eldridge asked. Knott nodded. “Do you remember the story of Twig Lithnmark?”
“The draugr,” Knott said. “The dead and walking soldier.”
“The Ghost Hunting community has speculated a great deal about Lithnmark,” Eldridge said. “He is understood to be his own vessel—his ghost tethered to his body by the exiled gods in the Age of Legend. Ghost Hunters speculate that they ought to have a similar power. The yield of experiments in that area has proved to Ghost Hunters the necessity of humility regarding their powers. We are not life bringers, and dead men stay dead unless by some power beyond us.”
Eldridge snuffed, looking out the window while deciding how to phrase the next part. “If a man is willing to make certain sacrifices, his ghost might become…” Eldridge took a deep breath—words had trouble describing these things. He settled on a word that made sense, “it might become stronger than it would otherwise.”
“Why would you want that?” Knott asked, his tone confused.
Eldridge waved the question away with two fingers. “There are reasons. In any event, if a man does not know the manner of tethering used in ghost hunting, if he wishes for a stronger ghost there is a person of influence he might approach who will charge him steeply for their product. In life, the strengthened ghost might have greater vitality than usual.”
“When he dies I suppose the person of influence has a thing or two to say about him.” Eldridge did not nod. He glanced at Knott, who was right. Knott took the silence as assent. Knott’s eyebrows wrinkled in thought. “I can’t think what kinds of things a ghost would be able to pay someone…aside from maybe themselves.”
“Yes,” Eldridge said. “The person enslaves ghosts on the Shadow Plain.”
“I didn’t know there are any persons of influence who have influence on the Shadow Plain.”
“The one of importance in our present circumstances is the creature called Frost.”
“I thought Frost was more or less a poltergeist.”
“Rather more than less, I’m afraid,” Eldridge said in a voice of distant thunder. Eldridge considered explaining then that part of own ghost had been captured by Frost—that Eldridge was, in face, partly dead, in a sense. He had sacrificed part of himself to defend the rest of him from Frost’s clutches. It had resulted in some part of his soul being turned to ephemeral, matterless dust, scattered in the void.
It had not been pleasant. Because he had anchored himself, his soul and body had remained apiece. He didn’t know how much of him remained inside, though, and did not wish to discover it.
“He’s defending this fighting ghost?” Knott asked.
Eldridge saw no reason to reply. “I will not fight him again.”
Another pensive silence ascended. The cab made the last turn onto their street. Eldridge hoped Knott would say nothing more, but he feared the man would.
As the cab slowed to a halt in front of their chambers, Knott spoke. “So…he can be fought,” he said.
“Leave it in peace, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge snapped.
Eldridge avoided Knott for the next day. Keeping to his small apartment above the shop, Eldridge avoided callers as well, instead distracting himself with some deskwork that he had been allowing to pile up. He was working on two books: his memoirs, and a tome that would be the most comprehensive guide on ghost hunting ever written. He knew because he had read all the others. He also hoped it would be the most practical: brevity and clarity were his foundations.
He emerged only for food and drink. Finding himself in need of tea, he pulled his dressing gown around his shoulders and exited his apartment with his empty kettle. He filled it from a tap in the kitchen down the hall. The hall ended on a landing that overlooked the front offices. The sound of voices chattered from there. It was probably clients. Knott had told Eldridge he would continue taking clients, and Eldridge had given his consent. Eldridge went to look who Knott entertained.
The scene in the shop below halted at the sight of Eldridge’s silent entrance, which was fortunate because it was a peculiar sight: four burly men removing the lid from a coffin; inside the coffin lay a tall and thin man with a face as wrinkled and hard as driftwood. Knott stood at the foot of the coffin; his jaw tensed at the sight of Eldridge. Knott looked like a youth caught in an act of vandalism. Eldridge had only a glance to spare for the last two man, but a glance completed his impression: Mr. Pilgrim and his bowler-wearing bouncer cum valet looked up at Eldridge.
Eldridge supposed he should not have been shocked. It did not stop him from stiffening in anger. He had nothing to say, though. Knott was a grown man and he could design his end however he wished. Taking up his kettle, Eldridge turned and went back to his room.
Hours passed. Eldridge tried to concentrate on his memoirs again. He found his attention lagging, so he went for a brief walk in the neighborhood and bought a loaf of bread. When he returned to his apartment he stoked his fire and made some toast on a poker. By the time he had made six pieces he felt very nearly distracted. He sat down at his writing table. The plate of toast nestled among his papers with a small bowl of butter and another of peach jam. With his fresh pot of tea, he prepared for a late dinner.
Before he started to eat, he listened. He couldn’t hear much. His fire crackled—the night outside had a tame wind blowing. Aside from that he couldn’t hear anything at all. He tried to hear what Knott was doing. Whatever it was, it made very little noise.
Eldridge lasted halfway through one piece of toast, and by then he found the crunching too loud in the silence. He gathered his plate of toast, his jam, and his tea on a tray. He carried it out into the hall.
Knott wasn’t in his room down the hall. It was cold and dark and as messy as it could be for a room with very little in it. Eldridge went out to front offices. From there he could smell where he needed to go: whiffs of ether and formaldehyde tendrils crawled from one of the back rooms. Eldridge followed the smell down a hall. It had no lights except the flicker of oil lamps from a door cracked open at the end on the left. Thin sounds of cloth slides and metal clinks came from behind the door.
Nudging with his toe, Eldridge pushed into the room. Knott’s back was to the door. He was in an apron and his shirtsleeves. He glanced around at the small swish of the door opening. With a single nod, Knott acknowledged Eldridge’s presence, then he turned back to his work.
The body from earlier lay on the table wearing only trousers. Fresh cuts with fresh stitches lined the body’s arms and legs. Knott made more deep cuts in the body’s chest. From the look of the tension in his shoulders, Knott looked like he was having difficulties.
“Toast and tea,” Eldridge said, setting the tray down on the wooden counter that circled the room. The counter was covered in beakers and tools and jars.
“I shall have some when I reach a good place to stop,” Knott said. “In a few minutes, perhaps. This is proving…difficult.”
Eldridge, taking up a cup of tea, went to stand next to Knott to look at the body.
“Meet Perlis Grady,” Knott said. “Called until recently Black Knuckles Grady.”
“Another pit fighter,” Eldridge said. “He died less than a week ago. The fighting ghost will not know he has died.”
Knott nodded. “It will be effective in my snare,” Knott said. He frowned, finishing a cut into the belly of Mr. Grady. “If all goes well, at least.”
“Hmm,” Eldridge said. He sipped his tea. “What sort of snare?” he asked, looking around at the other things on the table. Some rubber tubing lay in coils with the innards of clocks along with a nearly-finished battery. Knott had clever ideas about machines.
As Eldridge watched, Knott started working lengths of rubber tubing into the cuts in Mr. Grady. “I will hopefully succeed in convincing the fighting ghost to give Black Knuckles Grady aid in his last fight.”
Knott went across the room and took up a glass beaker and a large, antique coin.
“Is that the vessel you have selected?” Eldridge asked, pointing at the coin. Knott, nodding, handed it over. The coin was heavy, an inch and a quarter across, and had the profile of a bear on it. It was a coin that had been in wide circulation some few hundred years ago, and it was just the right kind of neutrally old manmade thing that could hold a ghost—it had enough constructed structure and enough aged tie to the earth to maintain solidity even while haunted. Ideally, vessels should be artifacts from the ghost’s life. They did not know the fighting ghost’s identity, though, so Knott needed to use this sort of vessel: a vessel with enough tie to materiality to work. Eldridge had discovered this coin decades ago; he had been saving it for just such a day as this.
Eldridge thought it quite a suitable choice.
“I thought that I could construct a frame of corks,” Knott said, taking the bear coin with a pair of tweezers. He held it suspended in the middle of the spherical jar, demonstrating his idea. “The vessel would be less apparent to the fighting ghost if the iron doesn’t touch the glass.”
“A good instinct,” Eldridge said. He took a fragrant, rough sack from a cabinet. “A cumbersome method. Fill the jar with lily petals,” Eldridge said, filling the jar with dried lily petals by the handful from the bag. “They will hold the vessel in place, and—”
Knott interrupted, “The ghost will be distracted by the lily petals as well.”
“Yes,” Eldridge said. There are many reasons why lilies are the funerary flower.
When the jar was packed halfway with lily petals, Knott settled the bear coin in among them. Eldridge let Knott finish the job. The old Ghost Hunter went back to his tea.
Without speaking, Eldridge watched Knott keep at his work. Knott packed the jar then corked it and sealed it with wax. Setting the jar with the vessel aside, Knott began constructing the small mechanical device that he intended to put into Mr. Grady’s chest that would be used to trick the ghost into thinking Mr. Grady still had pumping blood. It had fittings for the rubber tubes in Mr. Grady’s limbs. Knott filled another jar with a protein-rich jelly of his own concocting. He stabbed wires from the battery into it then attached the jar to the device. The device—part clockwork, part electric, with a jar of now-sparking jelly attached to it—looked a bit like a nine inch long body of a man with fittings for the rubber tubing instead of arms and legs. Last, Knott attached the jar with the vessel for a head. The setup needed to be extra complicated because the ghost was atypical.
“Next to hollow him out,” Knott said, taking up a knife to go back to work on Mr. Grady. “He will never again win an endurance contest, but he will serve for long enough.”
“It is a morbid machine you have made, Mr. Knott.”
“Thank you, Mr. Eldridge,” Knott said.
Eldridge considered how to phrase the next words he wanted to say. He frowned, watching Knott work. Knott surprised him and spoke first.
“You do not need to say it,” Knott said. “I know you’d rather I avoided this job.”
“Yes,” Eldridge said. “Because I fear you are incapable of accomplishing it.”
“I have studied every one of your cases,” Knott said. “I can reproduce your methods on this one.”
“Are you sure of that?”
Knott said nothing. He said nothing in a way that said he did not know how sure he was. “I am unmovable, sir,” Knott finally said.
“May I ask you why?” Eldridge asked.
Knott, with a frown on his face, glanced around at Eldridge. Eldridge had trouble reading the expression. Fear—focus—nerves—but his strongest expressed emotion was resolve.
“I am a Ghost Hunter, Wickham,” Knott said.
Eldridge thought of a hundred things he might say. The one he never considered saying, though it resounded most loudly in his head, was, at least one of us is.
He did not say that. Instead, Eldridge walked out of the room, taking with him a piece of toast and his cup of tea, and leaving behind a clinking quiet and the makings of a good man.
Late the next afternoon, Mr. Pilgrim returned with his four, hefty lads. They put Mr. Grady back in his coffin and they nailed him in. Knott watched, his cloak around his shoulders and his top hat and black gloves in his hand.
“You look pale, gov,” Mr. Pilgrim said to Knott. “Need a drink, eh?”
Knott shook his head. He tried to say something, but couldn’t. Instead he swallowed, then gestured with his gloves to the hefty men to take Mr. Grady’s coffin with them.
“Will Mr. Eldridge be coming along, then?” Mr. Pilgrim asked.
Knott shook his head. He looked up at the landing to the second floor. Eldridge had not appeared from his room since bringing the toast and tea down. “He’s involved in another case,” Knott said. He cleared his throat before producing the following lie, “He has expressed complete confidence in my ability to deliver satisfaction.”
“Well, gov, you’re the experts,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “We shall defer to your wisdom. Come on, lads. Pack it up.”
The hefty men carried the coffin to a cart in the street that Mr. Pilgrim had brought. Knott followed, but slowly, he took as much time as he could, delaying and hoping Eldridge arrived at the top of the stairs. Eldridge did not.
Growing ever paler, Knott left the shop. He checked his watch, then the door jangled shut behind him.
The shop, for a moment, settled in silence. It sounded more crisp and cold than it actually was. That was the effect of the winter sunshine gleaming off the darkly-polished surfaces of just about everything there.
A noise of clicking footsteps disturbed the shop. In a moment or two, Eldridge appeared at the top of the stairs, bedecked to go out. He even wore his fine, white cashmere scarf, which he rarely wore except to the symphony. Resting his walking stick on his shoulder, Eldridge looked over his shop with a satisfied smile. He nigh-skipped down the stairs, and he exited into the cold. Feeling energetic, he walked with his stick clacking on the grey cobbles for a block before even attempting to hail a cab.
“Where to, gov?” the cabby asked. Then he did a double-take. “Lords of Chaos, gov, you feeling well? Look pale as death, if you don’t mind me saying it.”
Eldridge tapped his stick against the brim of his hat, smiling like a rogue all over his chalk-white face. He had lost his color, like a man barely recovered from bad influenza. His eyes sparked with a fiercer than usual light. Stepping like a dancer into the cab, he told the cabby where to go in clipped tones. Then he collapsed back into the seat of the cab, closing his eyes and submitting for a moment to the exhaustion.
He squeezed his walking stick. It would help him anchor—that was the key, to anchor, right till the end.
When he arrived at Pilgrim’s Arena, the sight was far different than several nights previous. It was still daylight, for one thing; being much earlier in the evening, no one loitered outside. The building looked like a calm barn in the daylight.
Eldridge strode from his cab through the wide open doors of the Arena. There were no customers in the building. The smells of the other night were old now. In the main part, the light came only from all the various windows letting in the cold sun.
Words murmured from near the pit. Eldridge walked that way. The smells greeted him: ether and formaldehyde, and also a rising sweet savor of a thick cloud of incense smoke.
A handful of people stood around the ring. Mr. Pilgrim stood alone at one corner. Four men who looked like bookies huddled at another. A few gentlemen—probably prestigious gamblers and investors—chatted here and there in hushed words.
In the ring, the large bouncer cum valet with the bowler hat paced at one end. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up and a cigar puffing in his mouth. He looked ready to fight.
At the other end of the ring, Mr. Grady sat in a chair. Incense burned under the chair, letting off creeping breaths of smoke. Mr. Grady had been arranged in a natural pose, his forearms resting on his thighs and his feet far apart. The smoke obscured him from easy view. He looked tired, but he did not look dead.
Near the middle of the ring, Knott consulted his watch. Now it had nearly begun, he looked far more relaxed.
Eldridge walked to the edge of the ring. “Well, Mr. Knott,” he said. “Everything looks in place.”
Knott’s expression was marvelous. It was a look of perfect confusion. Ghost hunters get used to coping with hallucinations. For a moment, Eldridge watched Knott assume he was imagining Eldridge. Knott had enough command over himself that he quickly went over the signs of hallucination or other trickery and determined that Eldridge was, in fact, standing there. Knott’s response was to sigh. He did not smile, but smiling was not in his nature. He did nod just a little.
Knott turned to Mr. Pilgrim. “All is in place, Mr. Pilgrim.”
“Should be starting at any moment, Mr. Knott,” Mr. Pilgrim said. “The ghost has always been prompt. The lads told it that the fight should start…” Mr. Pilgrim checked his pocket watch, “just about now.”
Eldridge looked at Mr. Grady. No one present seemed even to breathe. They watched. Nothing sits more motionless than a dead man.
Then the dead man moved. It looked like a trick of the eye at first; the wreathing smoke made it appear his hand shifted. His chin lifted from his chest. Mr. Grady’s face looked toward his adversary with eyes of umbral gloss—not a twitch of expression changed Mr. Grady’s becalmed face.
Mr. Grady slowly rose to his feet. The bouncer, his adversary, had a face made all of timidity.
Eldridge looked at Knott. Knott was on his knees. He shielded his head with his hands, though he stood far from anyone else.
Frost had come.
Without hesitation, Eldridge fell into the Shadow Plain. All darkness arose. The fighting ghost gripped Mr. Grady. The bouncer’s solid spirit screamed. In the middle of the fighting pit, the absence that was Frost bore down on the cowering Knott. If Frost had such a thing as posture, it expressed manic glee at having Knott so nearly taken.
He raised his walking stick. It was made of a shard of the black crystals that formed the bones of the world. He had a special fondness for it, and now it was a bomb made from part of his own ghost.
He charged toward Frost, bringing his walking stick down on the creature. Without turning, Frost faced Eldridge. As much as the absence could express, Frost let loose an angry howl. He took a first aggressive step toward Eldridge. Laces of the black of Frost crawled up to pluck at Eldridge. Raising his walking stick again, Eldridge smacked it down on Frost.
The stick broke. A crying flashed from the shards. A ripping followed. The ghost of Eldridge momentarily filled the negative space of Frost, turning the black to pale grey mist. In a scream with all the drawing force of a receding tide, the mist spread in a rush. It could no longer hold shape because it did not know what shape it was supposed to hold. Frost’s black said one thing, and Eldridge’s partial ghost said things incompatible. In splintering tendrils the mist burst. Every tendril hooked a piece of Eldridge. He felt his crumbs ripping out of him to the void. It was not a pain. Pain was material. It was terror drawn from him in little shards.
Thus he won the fight.
He fell to the sawdust, rising from the Shadow Plain. He felt so utterly spent. Shadow flooded his head—so much psychic ink. The last he saw was Knott digging in the chest of the again still body of Mr. Grady. Knott smashed the lily petal filled jar against the floor. The petals fell through Knott’s trembling fingers leaving the bear head coin behind.
“We have it,” Knott whispered. With those words in his ears, Eldridge fell into silent black, his last feeling of thankfulness for a final and long-awaited end.
Firelight flickered on the jar. Shredded paper partly filled the jar. Nestled in the shredded paper the bear head coin brooded with more than the usual motionlessness of old coins. On the little table with the jar sat a notebook, a quill and ink, a pot of paste, a pair of scissors, and a glass of port. The port smelled of bedtime and glinted with more pretty depth than the other items on the table. It deserved a long appreciative look.
Some minutes passed, but then Eldridge’s long hands opened the notebook, dabbed the quill in the inkpot. Eldridge wrote The Fighting Ghost at the top of a blank page of paper. With the scissors, he cut out the rectangle the words covered, allowing them a generous margin. Daubing paste lightly on the blank side of the paper, he placed it on the jar with the bear head coin. Not entirely sure if he liked the effect, but decided on it, Eldridge turned the label away from himself. He sipped his port and nestled into his wing-backed chair.
Making as little noise as possible, Knott entered the room. He took up the jar containing the fighting ghost. When he saw the label, his brow wrinkled, his lips pressed tight under his mustache, and he looked as if he had something to say, but also as if he would never say it.
“I am tired, Mr. Knott,” Eldridge said. “I may need some time to heal. The practice is safe in your hands, I trust?”
Knott nodded. “It is, Mr. Eldridge.”
“Thank you, Mr. Knott.”