THE MEMOIRS OF JONATHON CARNAHAN
Explorer, Archaeologist And Defender Of Mankind
(Part Three, 1924)
Things tend to happen, when I'm around. You may have noticed this. It amuses some people - presumably those who think that it's funny to get caught up in a swarm of evil locusts, or to have the skin flayed from their bodies by enraged mediaeval spirits - and rather tends to annoy plenty of others. Rick O'Connell for one, although personally I think it's just a little rum, him getting upset. After all, it's not like I was alone when Imhotep came after us those times; it's not like I read from the Book Of The Dead; and unless I was a lot more drunk than I remember being, it was Rick - neither myself nor Evie - who opened that tomb in Berlin in 1931, and unleashed the decidedly vengeful spirit of Jamash. But then Rick's inclined to overlook such little details. Selective memory, you see. Bloody typical of the heroic type. Anyway, my point being that things have a tendency to happen, and when they do, yours truly has an uncanny knack of being in the thick of it all. Bank robbers fleeing the police, and where do they decide to hole up? My local. A beautiful female spy from some mysterious Eastern European country, and whose car does she hide in? Mine. Whose carriage in the Orient Express gets used as a hideaway by a pair of escaping jewel thieves with half of the Western world on their tails? You guessed it. And that was one of my quieter holidays. It's a talent, some might say. Or possibly a curse. Whichever. Downright bloody inconvenient, though, at any rate. Kills romance, too. Nothing makes a girl refuse to go out on a second date more surely than an army of the undead trying to eat her alive on the first.
Anyway, I'm rambling. Another talent of mine. It was October 29th, 1924 - an otherwise unimpressive day of a largely unimpressive year. Almost a year to the day, as it happens, since Rick O'Connell had made his first visit to the until then apparently mythical city of Hamunaptra, but I wasn't to meet him until 1926, so I had no idea of any of that then. In 1924 I was attempting to make a more or less honest living at a small museum in London, on one of my periodic visits to the homeland of my father. Britain is in fifty percent of my blood cells, after all, though I tend to spend rather less than fifty percent of my time there. The weather never really agreed with me. Well, you'll know what I mean, if you've ever been there. The potential for truly beautiful summers, but a rather annoying habit of sneakily avoiding them. A lot of cloud. Cloud, cloud and - if you're lucky - even more cloud. All a tasteful shade of grey.
But it's unfair to moan about the weather too much. After all, London's a bloody sight closer to the North Pole than Egypt is, and can't hope to compete when it comes to sunshine. But whatever. I don't spend nearly as much time there as I would if Britain were placed neatly on the equator, anyway. That's the point I'm trying to make. And, as usual, the point that I'm making is almost entirely irrelevant. I couldn't really waffle more if I was trying, could I.
So anyway. October 29th, 1924. A little museum in London, where yours truly had been working as a translator and archivist, pretending to be considerably more talented than I was, in all honesty, and trying damned hard not to get found out. I seem to remember having got the job just to prove to Evie that I really could do something that didn't involve either stealing, getting drunk, or lying through my teeth, but since the only way I could get the job in the first place was by lying through my teeth and getting the proprietor drunk, I rather think that Evie was the moral winner of that little bet. Not that I told her that. She probably still thinks that honest ability won the day. Sweet, isn't she - my little one woman fan club. I probably shouldn't have admitted to all that, since she's bound to read these memoirs; but then she's Evie. The only person in the world who loves me whatever my misdemeanours. Well, except young Alex of course, but then I haven't got him into trouble nearly as much as I have Evie, so his endearing devotion is a little more easily explained.
I was mostly in charge of Egyptian whatnots in my little museum of course. It's my field of expertise - my legal field of expertise, I should say - and I actually do know one or two things about the place and its bric-a-brac. Enough to identify some pieces that might have fallen by the wayside otherwise, and to earmark certain other pieces that deserved closer study by real experts. Things that might have languished in the vaults, otherwise, instead of being looked at by people who could actually do something useful with them. I even got a letter from one extremely distinguished scholar who wanted to thank me for sending him a relic that had enabled him to find a series of ruins lost in the desert. Distinguished scholars don't usually find much to thank me for. Actually, to be perfectly honest, most distinguished scholars just tend to be thoroughly ticked off by my very existence, and the only time I see them is when they're looking at me with utter loathing across the canapés at one of my sister's dinner parties. They're a disapproving lot. Not old Professor Christopher Rutherford-Faulkes, though. Even sent me a bottle of brandy as a thank you. Now that, dear reader, is a gentleman. And yes, alright, so it was his daughter who was the one that nearly got eaten alive by the undead army on our first date, and it was his wife who tried to get me thrown out of the country shortly afterwards - fortunately the authorities refused to believe her tale of undead armies and ghostly footsoldiers, so I got to stay in London a while longer - but the old professor himself stayed courteous right to the end. Even left me the contents of his drinks cabinet in his will. Like I said - a real gentleman. And a gentleman with a connoisseur's eye for a good whisky, too. Ever a pleasant combination in a drinking companion.
October 29th, 1924. I am getting there, honestly. Slowly, but reasonably surely, this chapter is heading in the intended direction, I promise. On October 29th of that otherwise unimpressive year, I took delivery at the hotel of three new items for our collection. The proprietor was away, so I was looking after the whole place that day, and not just the Egyptian section as normal. Quiet day, until the delivery man came knocking. And... well how can I phrase this best. I had been... imbibing. A little. Well, like I said - it was a quiet day, and there was nobody else around, and I'd not had anything else to do save write incensed letters to the Times under a variety of aliases, claiming to be horrified at the breakdown of modern society. Don't look like that - it's the sort of thing you do, when you're bored, and alone, and the blasted wireless only seems inclined to buzz and crackle. Really - you don't think all those blustering letters complaining about the behaviour of the young, and the state of the nation that the Times prints every day are actually genuine, do you? No - they're all written by sarcastic layabouts like me, with nothing better to do with our time than annoy people. And so, with nothing more to do that day than write yet another load of waffle in the hope of stirring things up a bit, I wound my weary and somewhat wobbly way to the front door, and admitted a delivery man in a spick-and-span uniform and very shiny cap. He handed me a clipboard that seemed innocuous enough, and I signed it - facetiously, I admit, in the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury - without really looking at what I was signing for. It was another hour or two before I bothered to look at our new acquisitions, when I was a little more sober thanks to a lunch that was almost entirely non-alcoholic. The first was a small statue, about a foot high, of the god Hermes - an old favourite of mine, given his famous patronage of all people decidedly dubious. The second, a stone tablet, engraved with one of the less easily translatable pictographic languages of long ago, which to my unpractised eye appeared to be something about the murder of a king. Interesting stuff, though not to me necessarily, and certainly not on that day, when I was tipsy, bored and annoyed with my boss for not being there. It was the third thing that I was interested in, and that in itself should have rung alarm bells. Like I said - things tend to happen, when I'm around, and since so many of those things appear to be kicked off by relics, tombs, ruins and other such antiquities, it's a sure fire certainty that anything old and dusty I take an interest in is going to wind up getting me into trouble. Annoying, but true. And, dear reader, the third item I took possession of, on behalf of that little, out of the way London museum on the 29th of October, 1924, was no exception. And that's putting it mildly.
It was a box. Not large, not small, not lavish, not plain. Rectangular, about three feet by two feet, and approximately a foot in height, with some eye-catching engraving along the edges. Made of hardwood, beautifully coloured and seasoned the way that only good, old wood can be, and still bearing traces of the earth that had held it for the past two hundred years, for it came into my hands not two days after being dug up in the Forest of Dean by a geography teacher doing something peculiar on a field trip with half a dozen of his pupils. Ra only knows what he was up to, since no geography lesson of mine ever involved digging up the local forest and finding archaeological oddities, but to be fair to him, field trips were rare in those days, and one did tend to be quite enthusiastic about them. Whatever he was doing, anyway, he did find the thing, and for that I shall always be... well, not grateful, let's be honest. Actually I rather despise the mortar-boarded fool for digging the bloody thing up. Things are usually buried for a reason, after all. Was Imhotep buried just for the hell of it? No! Was the Haunted Sword of Persia buried just because the Persians didn't much like the look of it? No! Really, this is one of the reasons why archaeologists are unwittingly the cause of so many of the hardships in my life. They're forever digging things up. Well, them and over-enthusiastic geography teachers who have been allowed off the school premises probably for the first time in a decade. But back to the box, which was very good-looking, to give it its due. Understated. Dignified. Nothing remotely alarming about it. No large warnings carved into the lid, telling of its contents, and warning the unwary never to open it. Or not to dig it up in the first place. Oh no. That would be far too easy. Far too helpful. That might have allowed me to have avoided mortal danger for once, and as I'm sure you're now well aware, gentle reader, that just isn't allowed.
I looked at the box for some time. It was tempting. It didn't rattle, but it obviously had something inside it. Wood is heavy, especially when it comes in those dimensions, but this box seemed heavier than it would have been had it been empty. I may not be the world's greatest scholar, but I know boxes, and I know treasure, and I am an excellent judge of when a box may or may not have something worth having inside it. Something that has the potential to be sparkly, exciting and hopefully valuable. Something that should with luck appeal most highly to an avaricious ne'er-do-well like myself. So I looked at the box from one angle, and I looked at the box from another angle, and I knocked on it, and I went away to another part of the museum and tried to forget about it... but it wasn't doing any good. I wanted to open it. I had to open it. You might understand, dear reader. If you're rather less wilfully irresponsible than I - and I very much hope that you are - then you probably don't understand, but I don't care. There was I, and there was the box, and inside it was something that I wanted - by then positively needed - to see. And so I went back to my little storeroom of Egyptian thingamajigs, selected the biggest, heaviest and most satisfying crowbar that I could lay my nefarious hands upon, and - a good deal less prudently than was in any way advisable - levered the bloody thing open. And did it contain any treasures? Did it hold riches so gold and glittery? Well yes it did as it happens. But it also held something else. Several somethings. And I'd be hard put to decide who was least pleased to see who.
There were four of them. Four shapeless, monstrous, glowing, twisting things, that rose up out of the box as soon as the lid had hit the floor, and screamed with the delight of prisoners released, to say nothing of the hatred of those who deserve never to be released. I had a quick glimpse, then, of the people they had used to be - four men, with skin deathly white, and hair ragged, wild and unkempt. Another second or two and all that was gone. They didn't look human anymore - instead it was all snake-like monstrosities, with teeth like Jurassic beasts. Sorry. Rick is always telling me off for being too dramatic, but you try opening a box and finding four murderous phantoms inside it. See if you don't get dramatic. At any rate, they weren't pretty, as I'm sure you'll agree. And by no means, either, were they what I was hoping to find. I mean, what's wrong with simple treasure? Gold, silver, nice gleaming jewels. Old coins, sparkly trinkets. Delightful shiny gewgaws fashioned by long dead artists, in the days when money wasn't really an issue. These are the things that we all like to find in nice wooden boxes. These are the things that wooden boxes were invented for. Things I can accidentally appropriate, and pass on to people who are free with their ready cash. Things I can display on my mantelpiece, in order to impress the ladies I like to invite home every once in a while. Good, old fashioned treasure. Say what you will about gold being a cliché; maybe it is. But it certainly beats the hell out of psychopathic ghosts. Actually, pretty much everything does. Except scarab beetles.
So what did I do, with four ginormous ghosts twisting and writhing in the air above my head? Well really - what would you do? I suppose I could claim that I did battle, most gallantly, with a set of stationery supplies for weapons - but you've read enough of my story over the last couple of chapters to know that I'd be lying. No. In point of fact I dived under the nearest table, clung to the legs of a chair, and put to test the old theory that if I closed my eyes they wouldn't be able to see me. It might almost have worked, for they didn't take any notice of me at first. They zoomed one way, they zoomed back again, they beat a tattoo upon the ceiling, and they did their best to out-scream each other. I was thinking that it might be safe to sneak away, and slip out of the door whilst they were distracted, but I had no sooner moved one foot, than the ghosts were reminded of my presence and swooped down upon the table with a collective howl. I freely admit to some energetic trembling at this point, and quite possibly some yelping as well. You know the sort of thing - mindless jibbering with terror at the sudden, unwelcome attention of four clearly maddened supernatural beings. I confess quite readily that mindless jibbering serves no truly useful purpose, but it comes naturally to some of us, and I've always been one for doing what's natural. Why deny one's instincts, especially when quaking in one's boots can't possibly make things any worse? So quake I did. Quake, jibber and, after a moment or two, scuttle away on all fours making incomprehensible squeaking noises. The ghosts seemed unimpressed with this display of masculine courage, and whooped, hollered, and threw things at my retreating back. Stationery supplies, mostly, but after a moment some of the contents of their box as well. That had a certain pleasurable quality to it. I mean, if you have to have missiles lobbed at you by ferocious ghostly beings, antique gold missiles are definitely the sort to go with. They do hurt, mind. Heavy, you see. Make a hell of a racket bouncing off walls, too.
To cut a long story short, which no doubt makes you breathe a little easier, my literary friends, I reached the door, staggered to my feet, and with an effort that would have made even the greatest of the labours of Hercules - or Heracles - look a mere trifling in comparison, I tugged it open intending to make my escape. Good plan, usually. Not, however, when pursued by four ghosts. Those four ghosts, at any rate. My impending departure clearly filled them with horror, for they grabbed hold of the door en masse, and after a wrestling match that lasted just a few seconds, they slammed it shut and nearly trapped my fingers in the process. I think I probably yelped again, and made a dash for another door, only to find two of the ghosts already there ahead of me. Probably I yelped again, or squeaked. Maybe jibbered a bit more. Then with a remarkable turn of speed, I fled for the nearest likely bit of cover - the stationery cupboard up at the other end of the room. I dived inside, scattering reams of paper, boxes of pencils and bottles of ink, and managed to shut the door after me. My ghostly tormentors made no objection there. Clearly they only minded if I tried to get out of the room; hiding inside it was perfectly acceptable. They amused themselves by tapping on the door, and poking long, ethereal fingers through the keyhole, before one of them pushed his entire head through the door itself. He stared at me, backed up against a shelf of staples and paper-clips, and chuckled. Perhaps the most unfriendly, unpleasant, unwelcome chuckle I had ever heard, certainly up until that point in my life, and I was aghast. Well what precisely is one expected to do, dear reader, when confronted with a huge, faintly glowing head, that's erupted suddenly through a door and is threatening to all but bite your nose off? I may have considered fainting. I distinctly recall my head feeling light and my legs going all wobbly, but I'm not really the naturally fainting type, believe it or not. At any rate, after promising oblivion, my body failed to deliver, and I had no choice but to remain conscious whilst the ghosts tore open the door, and regarded me with obvious amusement. They looked at me, I looked at them (through screwed up eyes, and between my fingers), and thus we remained, for several minutes. After that, taking the initiative, I threw a handful of pens and pencils at my four glowing bully boys and fled. I leapt over a table with a delightful display of acrobatics, the sort that athletes might look upon with envy, and attempted to jump out of the nearest window. We were only on the ground floor, so it wouldn't have been at all unpleasant - had the window been open. Instead, as I leapt desperately for its wide open promise of relief, the bloody thing slammed shut in my face, meeting me in mid air, and knocking me backwards to the ground like some wildly leaping puppet suddenly dropped in disgust by its owner. I distinctly remember colliding with the carpet, bouncing slightly, then colliding with the carpet again. It even managed to leave me with burn marks on my back. Bloody thing. I'd always hated that carpet. Ugly, fuzzy thing, without even a pleasant colour scheme in its favour. Not that it was much on my mind at the time, for I was staring instead at the ceiling, and wondering if it had always wobbled so much. I don't remember seeing it moving about and spinning in circles on any previous occasion, but then I didn't often spend quite so long staring at it. For all I know it wobbled most of the time.
It was the screaming of the ghosts that drew me back to my present predicament, and made me abandon my ponderings of rotating ceilings. Or possibly rotating eyes. Ah yes, I seem to remember that my faintly befuddled mind suddenly thought. The ghosts. Odd that I had forgotten them, but then I suppose when your head bounces about on the floor with that much force, you do tend to forget one or two things. I thought about not moving, with the hope that they might think I had died and then leave me alone - but it seemed silly trying to pretend to be dead in front of a ghost. After all, if anybody is going to know whether or not you're dead, surely it's somebody who's already suffering from that condition? I turned my head slightly, and peered up at the nearest ghost. He leered back at me in a way horribly reminiscent of myself, heavily drunk, and regarding the rather more salubrious women at the other end of the bar.
It's difficult to know what to say in these situations. "Morning!" or "Afternoon!" (depending on the time of day, obviously) are two perfectly acceptable conversational openers. When you run into a friend at a night club, or are introduced to somebody new at a dinner party, it's usually easy enough to spark off a new line of chatter, no matter how inane. There's the weather, common acquaintances, events in the news. All the usual topics, mundane and pointless. It's harder, though, when the person or thing you're trying to have your natter with is dead, or evil, or - more often than you might think - both. They're just not interested in the weather, or whatever is happening in the news. They rarely care for "How do you do" or "How are the children?" Of all the dead, evil things I've encountered, Imhotep was one of the chattiest, and goodness knows he didn't have the slightest interest in discussing the unseasonal amount of rain, or the likely spread of Communism across Europe. He was in my future at this point of course, but even so, four largely formless, so far decidedly untalkative members of the ghostly race didn't promise to be the easiest beings to engage in conversation. I tried a "Morning!", which was probably inaccurate, as I'm sure it was afternoon by then. I'd had some lunch earlier, after all. Most people seem quite picky about these things, and are apt to correct such mistakes, but the ghosts clearly didn't give a damn. Two of them glowered, and the other two grinned. I decided that I preferred the glowering ones. I mean, if you're about to eviscerate somebody with your supernatural powers, the least that you can do is look evil. Grinning is downright rude.
"Bonjour?" I offered, somewhat hesitantly. "Guten tag?" Again no luck. So they weren't French or German ghosts, then. Or possibly they were, but were just being unhelpful. I tried my querulous greeting in half a dozen further languages, none of which garnered more response than any of their predecessors, and finally gave up. Two ghosts were still grinning at me, and two were still glowering, and I was caught in the middle, terrified, uncomfortable on the ugly carpet, and with numerous parts of me hurting from my unfortunate attempt to jump out of the window. My mind began to drift on towards other options; ones that didn't involve attempting to speak. Running was at the top of the list, although I had absolutely no idea where I could run to. Or how I could run there. Or how I could get past the ghosts. With one nervous hand I groped for my hip flask, a favourite piece of equipment with which I am rarely without even to this day. Well, no, not exactly. That particular hip flask met its unfortunate end when it got sucked into hell alongside a ferocious pair of executed murderers from somewhere in Mesopotamia. I forget how I came to meet them, but I do know that it had something to do with an old bottle, a box of gold, and a beautiful Persian woman with a most bewitching smile half hidden by her veil... Mmm. Nice memories. And somewhat traumatic ones, obviously. Yes, it was a shame to lose that hip flask. I'd had it since I was fourteen, when I'd stolen it from a soldier out in the desert. He was a deserter, I suspect, and had come upon the family campfire when I was alone there, watching our evening meal cooking in a an old pot. I had fed him, and he had tried to steal my gun, only to be knocked out by one of the camels. It's not often that those confounded beasts proved themselves useful, but on that occasion I was thankful. Nobody especially likes to be robbed, and he had had that look in his eye that suggested he would happily have slit my throat once he had relieved me of my various belongings. It's funny, but I often meet people like that. Anyway, he crumpled up, and the hip flask fell from his belt. Knowing quality when I see, it (sometimes) I kept the flask, and spent the rest of the evening doing my damnedest not to let on that I was drunk. Whatever he'd had in the flask, it was considerably stronger than anything I had had before. You know how nothing ever seems funnier than it does when you really mustn't laugh? Well believe you me, there's nothing like needing not to look drunk to make your condition readily apparent. I must have tripped over every imaginable (and unimaginable) thing in the camp that night, and my tongue was no help. It seemed quite determined to trip over as well, at every available opportunity, and at some point I think it declared war on my teeth. Fortunately my parents were too tired to notice, although judging by the enthusiasm with which she kept loudly offering me my share of the breakfast the following morning, Evelyn wasn't. When is she ever?
Sorry, where was I? Ghosts. Right. Damned annoying gatecrashers, and definitely what I hadn't wanted to have to deal with that day. I mean, yes it had been a boring morning, and yes I had been hoping that something would happen. But really. Ghosts?! What's wrong with living visitors? A friend dropping by? A visit from a gorgeous archaeologist who isn't your sister? I think I must have seriously annoyed somebody in a previous life. Somebody with a lot of influence in whatever heavenly department doles out luck. How many of you, my loyal and devoted readers, have encountered ghosts? Probably a fair few of you. I know that Britain is full of the things, and certainly plenty of other countries are as well. Virtual swarms of the dead, living in atmospheric old buildings, or old ruins, or floating up through the foundations of new buildings built on the sites of long ago ill deeds. Bloody things are everywhere, and people are forever being inconvenienced by them. Ever lost a pen? Put it down and then couldn't find it again? Ghosts. Sure to be. Don't know quite why they like hiding pens so much, but they can't seem to resist it. Hiding pens is to ghosts what throwing ornaments is to poltergeists. Irresistible, like alcohol for an alcoholic. And I know a fair bit about that, too. At any rate, perhaps more of you than realise it have encountered our dead cousins once or twice. Very few of you, though, I'll wager, have had to fight for your life against a swarm of supernatural assassins, or thwart some dastardly plot set in motion by long dead madmen seeking revenge. Ghosts aren't all about floating across the corner of your vision, or walking through walls and startling the guests in old hotels. Certain stately homes use them as a tourist attraction, and have done for a hundred years or more, but that kind of ghost - the pleasant, domestic kind, who make doors slam unexpectedly, and cause your dog to bark at shadows - rarely deign to cross my path. For example:
I was eleven, I think, which would have made it 1906. My family were visiting England, almost certainly on one of my parents' periodic attempts to find me a school that I could attend as my adolescence progressed. They had hit upon the idea of boarding school in the motherland, so to speak. Or fatherland, technically I suppose, since my mother was Egyptian. And my father was Scottish, originally, so I suppose England was neither the fatherland nor the motherland, and yes, I know, I ramble. Anyway, we'd rented an old house on the outskirts of London, in one of those little villages that have long since been swallowed up by the city. There were a lot of them still, in those days. Surprisingly tiny, almost backward places, hiding from the sprawling metropolis on their doorstep. The sort of places where only the richest man in the neighbourhood owned a car, and electricity was a luxury known to few. The house in question was a big one, with bars on the nursery windows, and a massive kitchen that was probably supposed to come with a sizeable staff. In place of that we had my mother, and an eccentric little local lady who had offered to come in to cook and clean, but who clearly had had no idea that her charges would be a quaintly eccentric professor and his family. Evelyn was excited at the change of scenery, and spent much of her time digging in the garden looking for old coins, which annoyed the gardener no end. My mother kept hijacking the kitchen to cook lentils and rice, and the various spicy concoctions that we ate in Egypt, which drove our little local lady to distraction; and I annoyed everybody by sulking over having been brought to England at a decidedly chilly time of the year, in order to look for a place where I could spend nine months in every twelve being taught things I didn't want to know, by people I didn't especially want to be taught them by. I mostly did this by steadfastly refusing to speak English, and generally being an unpleasant little tick, but no doubt I thought it was clever at the time. Actually, on the quiet I was almost glad to have been brought away from Egypt, having only recently had rather a hair-raising experience with a cursed artefact that I had been sold in a marketplace by a trader who must have been delighted to get the bloody thing off his hands. It made all my hair fall out, amongst other things, and I had little more than a decidedly unfetching stubble on my head during this particular trip to England. I must have looked like a Borstal Boy, which is what I'm fairly certain that the little local lady thought I was. There must have been a reason why she refused to be alone in a room with me, and kept throwing me the most suspicious of glances. I'd rather think that it was theories of Borstal than bad personal hygiene, anyway.
So that was our house, for a month that year. A place of ivy on the walls, roaring fires in huge stone fireplaces, and floorboards that creaked and groaned all day and all night. Seems quite homely now, dear reader, for it's just that sort of house that is home to my sister and her husband, but in those days I'd lived almost exclusively in draughty tents and houses of mud brick. I knew nothing of the way that old houses sing themselves to sleep. I thought that the place was full of ghosts. My father laughed, and explained at length about subsidence, things contracting as the ambient temperature cooled, and old pipes doing as old pipes will. All very true, very well explained, and needless to say, of minimal relevance, at least in that house. It wasn't pipes, subsidence or falling temperatures causing the vast majority of our creaks, groans, pops and crackles. It was ghosts. Big ones, small ones, old ones, young ones - we never really found out. We just experienced the effects of a large scale haunting. Our belongings disappeared, strange messages wrote themselves on walls and mirrors, and on one occasion we awoke in the small hours to find that most of our clothing and furnishings were in the process of being hurled out of the upper windows. The gardener disappeared and was never seen again (although I suspect he merely abandoned his job, rather than being kidnapped into the netherworld by one of our ghosts. I doubt that there's much call for part time gardeners in the spirit world) and our little local lady turned up a day later cowering in the airing cupboard with a blanket over her head. She refused to accept that they were English ghosts causing the trouble, and insisted that we must have brought them with us. I'm almost positive that we hadn't. It was a haunted house, simply enough. She just hadn't noticed that before.
Anyway, we tried the usual. My father read a few passages from the Bible, and my mother chanted passages from an ancient Babylonian book of the dead - supposed to be of use in these situations, but of no use whatsoever to us. Then my father read something terribly serious in an ancient Celtic dialect, whilst my mother read psalms and crossed herself a lot. There was much saying of prayers, and waving of incense, and general exorcisey behaviour. It was like some priestly get-together. Candles, herbs, ritual sprinkling of this, that and the other. Goodness knows what the little local lady thought. Damn it, why can't I remember her name? Seems awfully unmannerly to keep referring to her as the 'little local lady'. Anyway, she went straight from thinking that we were a band of weird Egyptian troublemakers, to thinking that we were religious nuts, and she tried to leave immediately. The ghosts wouldn't let her. I recall very clearly the expression on her face as she was snatched up into the air by a pair of ghostly ladies wearing the unmistakable uniforms of British Nanny-hood. Just moments before she had seemed so confident and determined, but clearly heading for the door was not the best of options just then. Eventually we got her back, anyway, somewhat dishevelled and with her glasses on crooked, and yours truly got sent to rescue her missing left shoe from the top of the banister. After that things pretty much went downhill. It was impossible to sleep, and largely pointless to try. My mother's attempts to cook were constantly thwarted by ghosts blowing out the fire in the stove, and any milk that came into the house curdled immediately. Deprived of any way of making coffee or tea, my father turned into a bear with a very sore head, and took to sitting in the drawing room, engaged in a furious shouting match with one of the ghosts. The little local lady went back to quaking in the airing cupboard with a blanket over her head, and Evelyn and I played draughts in the sitting room, whilst some petulant dead child (I think) hurled chess pieces at us. For three days we were trapped in that house, eating bread and digestive biscuits, and unable to get near a door. Then one day the ghosts all disappeared, the front door opened of its own accord, and all the banging and knocking sounds in the pipes and under the floorboards ceased at once. We wondered if the ghosts had given up, but given the amount of cooking implements that were thrown at us out of the upstairs windows as we left, I doubt that that was the case. My mother collected our little local lady from the airing cupboard, although she energetically fought our attempts to rescue her, and we hurried off down the garden path with a mere fraction of the possessions with which we had arrived. My father insisted that we were never coming to England again, which I was glad to hear - although my father was never consistent, which explains how I wound up going to boarding school there anyway - and he took us straight to Plymouth in search of a ship. And so ended another holiday. They have a habit of being perilous undertakings for members of my family; and from what I hear, young Alex is continuing with that tradition. Something he proved just recently in the Alps, apparently, where he and his young lady encountered a troublesome sprite causing havoc on the ski slopes. Poor chap. Still, it's best that his sweetheart learns about these things early in the relationship. I mean, if they ever decide to get married, she's bound to spend some time with his parents - and that could be a baptism of fire in the literal sense. Well, you've probably read the accounts in the newspapers. Suffice to say, they only tell you what they think you'll believe. Which isn't all that much, actually.
So there I was, in London, surrounded by energetic spooks. See - you just knew that I'd get back to the point eventually. I usually do. I was groping for my hip flask, and attempting to co-ordinate hand, eye, mouth and flask with a view to getting some whisky down my disturbingly sober throat. Alcohol has its uses, dear reader, and they're many and varied. One of my favourites is its ability to make one worry rather less than might be sensible. Pour enough single malt - or even just some blended - down your throat, and fear becomes less a disability, more a mild inconvenience. My teeth chattered alarmingly on the neck of the flask, but I swallowed enough to make my stomach think that it was back in the heat of Egypt. I took a deep breath then, making one of my periodic resolutions to be brave, and stumbled with determination to my feet. I was alive, I was young, I was healthy. I was going to be a man, damn it, and stand up for myself. For myself, for my museum, for... I don't know. For the living, perhaps. After all, who were four dead things to make me cower in a corner, or hide in a cupboard, or nearly kill myself trying to leap out of a treacherous window? Well, they were angry, and they were considerably stronger than I was; that's who they were. I looked at them, they looked at me - much as we had been doing all along - and my resolve melted faster than my bravado. I began to quake again. Heroism, you must know by now, is not my favourite hobby. I decided there and then that I was going to run, and if they stopped me, they stopped me. I could always faint as a last resort.
Which is when, of course, the door opened, presenting me all at the same time with an escape route, the perfect distraction, and the reason why I couldn't use either. It was Samms, the doorman, a permanently melancholic individual whose frequent claims that drunkenness is a positive boon when one's job consists solely of opening and closing doors for London's exalted, was constantly disproved by the steadfast sobriety of every other doorman in the city. On this occasion he was clearly as drunk as the poor, misrepresented, proverbial skunk. Intoxication was written all over him, from the uppermost point of his dented and crooked top hat, to the undone laces on his less than shiny shoes. His uniform jacket was undone, his tie askew, his shirt untucked, and he walked with a decided list. I didn't blame him for taking full advantage of a quiet day and an absent boss, but right now a drunkard was the last thing that I wanted. He was gloriously unaware of the danger floating in the room above our heads, and for me to have run off through that gaping door, taking full advantage of the distraction of the ghosts, would have been cruel to the extreme. Samms was a pain in the neck, and I'm hardly one for making grand sacrifices for the good of others anyway, but even I couldn't run off and leave him to his fate. My attempt to shout a warning, however, met with a cheery wave, and a salute with a largely empty bottle of cheap red wine. I rolled my eyes, and espying our latest comrade, the ghosts set up a clamour of joyous approval. The two grinning ones swooped down from the ceiling, seized poor Samms by the arms, and lifted him clean off his feet, eventually dangling him upside down whilst flying a victory lap of the room. Poor Samms turned a very unhealthy shade of green, right before his predicament finally seemed to sink in. His green bits all went white, which looked even less healthy, and his eyes widened to quite impressive extremes. He was shouting something, but it was impossible to work out what above the noise of the ghosts. Probably "Help me!" Well, at any rate, it's traditional. I rather impressed myself by demanding that they let the poor chap go, and got laughed at in a most derogatory manner. They did let him go, however, in a fashion predictably removed from the one that both of us would albeit have preferred. He, because being dropped, upside down, from a great height is rarely enjoyable; me, because that was what he landed on. I extricated myself from beneath his jibbering form in time to see the door slam shut, the curtains swish closed across the windows, and the four ghosts lower themselves to the ground. They seemed more human again now, and less like writhing snakes. More determined, clearly. More like beings with a definite agenda, upon which they were likely about to embark. I could feel that something was about to happen. One always feels these things. I think it comes with experience and a strong sense of the bloody unfair.
"You freed us," declared one of the ghosts. I began to feel increasingly concerned. Either he was going to hate me for letting him out of the box, or I was going to wind up with the blame for whatever he and his friends did next. I tried out a shaky smile.
"You freed all of us from the box. We were trapped for two hundred and fifty years."
"Um. Right..." My sense of panic was increasing by the second. "Well that's nice. You'll be wanting to stretch your legs then. I'll, er... I'll be letting you get on with it." I looked over at Samms, back on his feet now, but looking as though his brain had fallen out of his head at some point during his upside-down aerial tour of the room. He smiled at me dreamily, displaying to full effect the extent of his blood alcohol level, and tried to focus on the four ghosts. His earlier fear seemed to have been tempered by general confusion, or perhaps he was just concussed.
"Come along, Samms." It was pure optimism on my part. I doubt that the poor fellow was capable of responding anyway, even if the ghosts had been about to let us leave. I tried tapping him on the shoulder, giving his arm a quick shake; even seizing him by the back of the neck and trying to forcibly move him, but he just swayed, grinning stupidly, and staring at the ghosts with a deepening frown. The ghost that had just spoken smiled unpleasantly.
"You're not leaving. You set us free. Now you have to help us."
Oh joy. Responsibility. After bravery it's the thing I'm least good at. I had been smiling uncertainly, but now the smile became fixed and rictal. I could feel my lips drawing back from my teeth.
"I have to... help you?" Maybe I'd get lucky, and he was just looking for a good hotel, or a friendly pub. Maybe he wanted to take in a show, see how much the country had changed, look up his old house. It didn't have to be something ominous, right? But perhaps I was forgetting who I am. Like I said before; friendly ghosts just don't tend to cross my path. I don't get the ones who want to rattle chains and amuse the tourists. All four ghosts were grinning now, in just the same, bloodcurdling manner as two of them had been doing all along. "Help you how exactly? Because I'm not known for being very helpful. Ask anyone. Useless, really. My own sister says so. You'd be better off asking a policeman."
"You let us out of the box." The spokesman of the group - spokesghost, if you prefer - pointed one finger at me, and it grew longer and longer until it tapped against my chest. I begged to differ.
"It was an accident," I claimed, with the sort of expression of wounded innocence with which I so often try to ride out my most bare-faced lies. "I tripped. The latch was faulty. So you see it wasn't really me who let you out. It was probably the fellow who dug the thing up and had it sent here."
"It was you." The elongated finger tapped against my chest again. I took a step back, and it adjusted its length accordingly. Ghastly thing, all long and white and pointy. "Your greed caused you to open the box. You let us out."
"You let them out." Samms beamed at me. He was beginning to look distinctly unwell. "Do we have to put them back in again?"
"Hardly." Our spokesghost shot him an extremely disdainful glare. "We were put into the box by our enemy, Richard Whitcombe, in 1678. He sealed us in, and buried the box. For two hundred and fifty years we've seen and heard the world go by. We've seen everything, from a tiny prison. It's a powerful hatred that makes a man do that to another."
"You must have been ghosts already, or you'd never have fitted in the box." I was quite pleased with that deduction. Deducting is hardly one of my strong points. Along with responsibility and bravery and all the other things that people seem to find so important. I don't have all that many strong points, let's be brutally honest. The ghost glared at me, and nodded its head.
"We were dead. Dead by his hand, eighteen months previously. We came back for revenge, and he imprisoned us in the box. All we want now is revenge. The revenge that was due to us when he killed us unlawfully in 1677. The revenge we're owed for our imprisonment the following year. Call it simple justice. It's what we're owed."
"You don't sound like you've been in a box since 1678," slurred Samms. I awarded him a point for that one; it was a good observation. The ghost glared at him again, then retracted its long white finger, halved the distance between itself and the hapless doorman, and seized him by the neck.
"Do you make a habit, my drunken friend, of speaking to ghosts who have been shut up in boxes for several centuries?"
"Um... no." Samms had gone a few shades paler, and now looked distinctly less alive than the ghosts. "Not that I've noticed."
"Then I would suggest staying silent." The ghost let him go, then turned to look at me with beady little eyes that showed he intended no good for anyone. "And you, my quivering little human, had better see that he does. We only need you. We could leave him in pieces spread throughout the south east if we chose." I resisted the temptation to tell him that I didn't much care. Samms was a colleague only by virtue of us working in the approximate same place, and I felt no particular responsibility for his welfare. I might have mentioned before that responsibility isn't something that I'm particularly good at. Ah yes. I see that I did. Jolly good. It's true, anyway. I wasn't about to run out on him earlier, and leave him to the tender mercies of the ghosts, but that didn't mean that I was prepared to put myself between him and harm now. In all honesty, though like as not I shouldn't speak that way of him now, he was a pain in the neck, and a liability to boot. He, however, seemed to take it as read that I wouldn't allow anything to happen to him, for he looked at me now as though he were mistaking me for a hero. Clearly he expected me to do the honourable thing, and agree to help these four dead men in their quest for revenge, rather than see him minced and scattered far and wide. Presumptuous, to say nothing of erroneous. I smiled awkwardly.
"Besides," my ghost informed me, somewhat contradicting the earlier claims that I was necessary, "you don't have any choice. You'll help us, or die alongside your servant."
"Servant?" Samms was not drunk enough to have missed that. "I'm not his servant." The ghost clearly didn't care. It had turned its attention back upon me, apparently dismissing the drunken doorman as a person of little consequence. I was rather inclined to agree with that estimate, as so far in our acquaintance Samms had proved himself to be of very little worth. In all the time I knew him, I never truly saw him sober, and later he was found to have stolen a fair proportion of the small and easily disposable items in the museum's vaults in order to augment his salary. As a man of considerably light-fingers myself, it's hardly my place to judge another for his lack of honesty, but Samms had a habit of annoying me greatly. I suspect it was because there was a definite hint of my own possible future in his sorry dissipation. Goodness knows I've drunk more in my life than many people would ever attempt to match, and stolen more than it's probably wise to admit. One never knows, after all, who is likely to read one's memoirs; especially when they're being published throughout the Empire. I harbour no great dreams of Hollywood knocking at my door, or the world's newspapers clamouring for the rights to serialise my benighted tome, but still - the potential readership is large. I am not going to lay claim to the full extent of my crimes. I probably shouldn't have mentioned old Samms's either, if truth be told. Still, annoyance or not - servant or not - it seemed that Samms was now my responsibility. The ghosts didn't look inclined to let him go, so we were stuck here together, in the general inconvenience of shared peril. I wilted.
"If this chap Whitcombe killed you in 1677, surely he's going to be dead now as well?" I had to ask the question; so far the ghosts seemed to have overlooked it. I received another of those disparaging stares at which the dead appear so very skilled.
"Whitcombe is dead, yes. We said that we had seen all in our prison, remember? He died in 1689. But his family lives on in the house of their ancestors. His descendants can inherit us, as well as all of their other heirlooms."
"That'll be nice for them." I tried to think. If we were going to be heading off into the countryside; perhaps back to the place where the box had been found; then the opportunities for escape would be legion. It sounded a far better situation than the current one, trapped in a room with no way out. Besides, everybody else seemed to consider the arrangement already made; the ghosts were not really offering me a choice, but were merely telling me what was going to happen, and Samms clearly found it ridiculous to even consider that I might let them chop him up. Now that I'd been told I would be chopped up as well, it certainly was ridiculous to consider it, but Samms was clearly overestimating his own importance. I'm Jonathon Carnahan, not Rick O'Connell. If you want heroism and self-sacrifice; if you want to see the right thing - the honourable and the brave thing - done; then you go to Rick. If you want to have your pocket-picked and your whisky drunk, then you come to me. That's how these things work.
"You'll help us," said the spokesghost. It wasn't a question, needless to say - and as such it probably didn't require an answer. I answered anyway. I do tend to babble at times of personal peril, and always have done. In fact a three thousand year old Phoenician priestess once told me that I was the single most chatty person she had ever encountered. She didn't mean it as a compliment, but I confess to being rather pleased with myself anyway. I mean, presumably you meet a lot of people when you're three thousand years old. To be remembered above all the others is quite an honour, even if she did try to cut out my tongue to prove a point.
"I'll help you," I announced, trying to make it sound like some brave undertaking. Here I was, the hero of the day, saving Samms from execution, and helping four wronged souls to achieve some peace. Well - that was how I chose to see it. The truth was more along the lines of helping four extremely sour souls take their revenge upon a number of complete innocents, but I'm hardly the first to give the facts a tweak here and there, to make a story more palatable. History is full of such things, and probably always has been. The ghosts, as one, nodded their gruesome heads.
"So we'll be off to the Forest of Dean, then?" I asked. Oh what a fool I can be. When do things ever work out the way that I hope?
"The Forest of Dean?" Our head ghost eyed me with some amusement, apparently realising that I had had some plans involving that pleasantly long trip to the Midlands. "No. Richard Whitcombe buried us in the Forest of Dean, but his lands were not there. His family seat is here, in London. Here, or hereabouts. There's no long journey ahead of us. My apologies, my friend." Sarcastic sod.
"Ah." My mind trailed back to hopeless thoughts of escape, and Samms be damned. "You're sure about that? I mean, the Forest is nice at this time of the year. Sure to be." I think I may have mentioned dramatic autumn colours, and all that sort of thing. Tried to sell the charms of the place a bit. Not that I'd ever been there at that point in my life, but a forest is a forest is a forest, as it were. And forests - unless they're coniferous ones I suppose - tend to get all red and fiery at that time of the year. People look at them and get all poetic. Guaranteed to soften the heart of any cruel ghost, am I not right?
I'm not right, of course. When am I ever?
"I don't see why we have to help," groused Samms, as we were herded towards the door. Not a bad question, and I can't imagine why it hadn't occurred to me first. Still, abject terror is known for leaving holes in a man's reasoning. Couldn't the ghosts just transport themselves to wherever they wanted to go, and then terrorise their supposed enemies to their hearts' content? Do ghosts have hearts? Presumably not anymore, especially when they've been dead since 1677.
"We need your assistance." As an explanation it wasn't worth a great deal, but apparently it was all that we were getting. Perhaps the Whitcombe descendants were wise to the threat of dead enemies, and had some kind of ghost repellent in effect around their house. A nice spell from some obliging magician. Now that is the sort of thing that I could do with. Something to keep the ghosts, zombies and mummies away. Something to prevent any representative, servant or member of the dead; any denizen of the many levels of hell; far away from yours truly. Life would have been very, very different, if I'd come across such a thing during my many travels. I'd have met with far less peril, for one thing.
Although admittedly my twenty-first birthday wouldn't have been half so much fun.
They herded us out to the little backyard, where the rattletrap van that was used to make collections and the occasional delivery was kept beneath a sheet of tarpaulin. It was one of those early vehicles that abounded in those days, complete with crankshaft handle and running-boards. A dusty black machine with the neat legend "The Patrick Robinson Museum Of Antiquities" painted on the side for free by our esteemed employer's sign-writing apprenticed nephew. For a moment I wondered whether our ghosts might be planning to drive it. They did claim to have 'seen all' in their box prison, so perhaps they had worked out the principles of the internal combustion engine as well. If so then they were one up on me. They made no move to pull off the tarpaulin though, and instead blinked up at the sky as though they'd never seen the thing before. The old notion of escape was beginning to creep into my mind again - if we were going to walk, then anything was possible, right? Surely there'd be any number of opportunities for leaping into a bush, or through a convenient door, or shinning up a bloody lamp-post and hoping nobody noticed. You'd think so, wouldn't you. But let's not forget who I am, and what a remarkable ability I have of avoiding luck. Joining hands in a circle around us, the ghosts immediately destroyed all my naïve hopes of escape by blurring into a blue-grey mist, and transporting us instantaneously to their planned destination. There's only one thing that springs to a man's mind in a situation like that; but as I'm sure you can imagine, it's extremely rude. I debated just then about whether or not to write it anyway, but my publisher's the nervous sort. So let's just assume that my response was "Oh bother." (It wasn't).
We were at one of those large houses that used to be extremely popular amongst the richer English families. Probably still are popular with them - it's just that they don't seem to build them anymore. Either it isn't cost effective, or you can't get the planning permission - or somebody finally realised that they were always full of ghosts and murders and the like, and decided that the English countryside was better off without them. They tend to be open to the public these days, with their rooms full of art treasures and obscure family heirlooms, and their splendidly sculpted gardens - but back then that was rare. This one, on the outskirts of London from what I could gather, was clearly still a proper family house. The huge drive displayed at least three cars that made my jealous heart flutter - I may not understand what makes them go, but once they're going I understand them just fine. Certainly beats camels as a form of transport. Samms was looking about with interest, undoubtedly seeing such a house at close range for the first time. If the huge building, and magnificent roses climbing up its front wall, were not impressive enough, the massive chandeliers we could see through the downstairs windows certainly were. A house doesn't have chandeliers like that without having other things of value as well. Chandeliers cost money. Tasteful chandeliers, like those ones, cost even more.
"What now?" asked Samms. He seemed to be sobering up, which was encouraging. One never likes to face mortal peril accompanied only by a drowsy drunkard with a tenuous grip on consciousness. Hang on. One never likes to face mortal peril at all, at least if one is me; but if you're caught up in it regardless, and there's not a blind bloody thing you can do about it, it's best to do it in the company of somebody awake, aware, and able to get you out of it in one piece. Makes me feel sorry for all the people who have faced death and danger accompanied by me, but that's their look out.
"Now we go in," was the answer to the question. I quite liked that idea. A part of my brain was actually looking forward to seeing the expression on the butler's face when he came to open the door and found four ghosts looking back at him. Would he faint? Quiver? Or would he fulfil the job description to the tee by not so much as raising an eyebrow? It's the sort of thing I've been known to place bets upon in the past, but there didn't seem to be the opportunity just then. Instead of knocking at the door, or floating through a window, or drifting with suitable menace down the nearest chimney, however, our ghosts began to blur again. Were we going to find ourselves taken instantly into the entrance hall? A nice quiet room with some easily secreted, expensive knickknacks would have been nice. Mortal peril doesn't blunt a man's acquisitive instincts all that much - or not this man's, anyway. But of course that wasn't the way it was going to be. The blurring figures of the ghosts seemed to surround old Samms and me, and the next thing I knew two of the ghosts were sinking into me, in the most unwelcome kind of intrusion. Possession? I don't know - there's many different kinds of possession, after all. Certainly my limbs didn't seem to belong to me anymore. Not my most favourite moment. I was damned glad that Samms had got mixed up with all of this, then. If it was highly unpleasant to have two ghosts floating around inside my head, it would have been a good deal more unpleasant to have had all four of them in there. All of a sudden we were heading towards the front door, and I wasn't at all happy to be going. It felt all jerky and peculiar, and I could hardly see a blasted thing for all that swirly blue-grey mist. It was my hand that rang the bell, but I'll be damned if I could do a thing about it. Goodness knows what the butler thought when he came to answer the door and saw me gaping at him, with two people inside me making me stand still and say good afternoon, and myself in there too trying to protest the whole business. What does one say, exactly? "There are two ghosts inside me. I suspect they're up to no good," or perhaps "I'm possessed. Run!"? All I managed was a hopeless sort of choking sound, which was no good to anybody. I heard my voice asking to see Mr Whitcombe, though, and mentioning an old family connection, and the next thing I knew I was walking into a grand old entrance hall with big shiny floor tiles, and a matching set of some of the biggest paintings I'd ever seen. There was even a suit of armour in one corner of the room - real, old, traditional landed gentry stuff. Piano music came from a door nearby, and a footman in a rather unfortunately coloured striped waistcoat was wandering around with a tray of cocktails. That got my notice, and it definitely got Samms's, but neither one of us was going to be getting a drink just then. Instead we were ushered towards the sound of the piano music by our ghostly pilots, steered neatly around the helpful footman, and deposited in the doorway of a drawing room. There was a woman playing the piano - definitely the best looking piano player I'd ever seen, although of course there was a wedding ring on her finger. Bloody typical. Three men were in there as well, listening to her play; two of them in expensive lounge suits, and one in a set of tweeds. He was older, with wire rimmed spectacles and that ruffled, half batty look of the intellectual. Yes, dear reader, I know what you're thinking - what do I know about intellectuals? I can spot one when I see one, thank you very much. My sister has given me that, and three years pretending to study at Oxford helped. That fellow was the sort who liked books, and it was written all over his tweed, his glasses, and the goofy smile that he was directing at the tray of cocktails. And now I'll have annoyed those of you, my loyal friends, who like to consider yourselves intellectuals, and can hold your drink pefectly well, don't wear tweed, and have never looked goofy in your lives. I make no apologies, though. You know what I mean.
It all happened rather suddenly after that. One moment the beauty at the piano was standing up and turning around to greet us, and the two men in lounge suits were striding forwards, hailing us with hearty halloos - and the next that blue-grey mist was leaving my eyes, and my arms and legs were all pins and needles, and suddenly our new friends were confronted, no longer by two faintly dishevelled-looking men, but by two considerably more dishevelled-looking men, and four less-than-cheery-looking ghosts. The chap in the tweeds goggled. Well, let's face it - it's not as if four floating, glowing, gruesome-looking whatnots can really be explained away as anything other than what they are. And unless you're extremely lucky, it's not the sort of thing that you see every day. I contemplated making a quick dive for the nearest table, in the hope that hiding underneath it might help me avoid any unpleasantries, when it suddenly became clear that the two young fellows in lounge suits, and the aristocratic-looking beauty at the piano, were both holding guns. Large guns. Big, chunky pistols that looked custom made, with long barrels and of clearly large calibre. Where they had pulled them from I don't know - especially the subject of my latest infatuation, given that her cocktail dress didn't leave a great deal to the imagination, even allowing for the delicate sensibilities of the time. Still - draw them they had, and they all seemed to be pointing them at me. I could have objected to that - there were five other potential targets. Alright, yes, pointing a gun at a ghost is of limited purpose, but Samms was there too. At any rate, I didn't dare dive for the nearest table. I didn't move a muscle.
"You've been expecting us." I think that's what our chattiest ghost said. I confess I wasn't listening terribly hard at the time, since most of my attention was upon the guns. Well - the guns and the girl. Damn it, why did she have to be married? Which of these two infuriatingly heroic-looking types in the lounge suits was her husband? Could the ghosts be persuaded to kill him and not her?
"Our family has been expecting you for generations," said the taller of the lounge-suited duo, in the slightly smug-sounding voice of the terminally courageous. "But we knew that the box had been found, yes." He looked over at me at that point, apparently holding me responsible for the release of the ghosts. Yes, alright, so it was me who had opened the box - but it's not as if I knew what was in there, is it. It's not as if I wilfully opened the box with the express intention of bringing four spooks to this grand old house to wipe out the current incumbents. I'm a scoundrel; I happily admit to that. I'm probably a whole lot worse. I'm not in the habit of unleashing evil ghosties upon the general public on purpose, however; even if recent events might suggest otherwise (and whatever you've read, that day in 1950 just happened. Paranormal phenomena occur much more readily in some years than in others, and it was categorically not my fault).
"Um..." The tweedy gentleman displayed the sort of expression of minimal comprehension with which I can entirely sympathise. "Er..."
"They're ghosts, Gregson." The smaller of the lounge suits shot him a sharp glance. "You're supposed to be the expert."
"Ah." The tweedy fellow toyed with his glasses and looked uncomfortable. "Oh." Poor chap. By the look of things he'd been invited to this little party solely because his hosts suspected that something was going to happen, and liked the idea of having somebody on the premises who might know what to do. "Um..."
"They're here to kill us." The girl came forward then, looking impossibly glamorous, and quite gloriously used to holding the gun. She had hair streaked with black and brown, eyes that were black to match, and an expression of haughty superiority that ought to have been quite insufferable, but somehow wasn't. It all went rather well with the fiery red dress and the gleaming pistol. My faintly befogged brain chose to interpret her complete disinterest in me as an act of incorrigible flirtation. I'm an optimist. It's in my blood.
"Um..." was Gregson's only conversational offering. I flashed him an encouraging smile, but he didn't seem inclined to add anything else. Shame. If he was indeed an expert on ghosts, I was as anxious to hear his advice as was everybody else.
"Justice," muttered one of the ghosts. He sounded edgy. Positively murderous, to be entirely honest. The taller of our heroic pair shot him a disparaging look.
"Not justice," he commented harshly. "Revenge. And unfairly so. You got what you deserved." That seemed a little unkind. I mean, admittedly it's hardly friendly to come looking for revenge on the descendants of whoever your grudge is against, but how did this fellow know that the ghosts had got what they deserved? Just because an old family tale presumably passed down through the generations said that they had asked for it, didn't mean that they really had. Their current attitude was no proof, either. Think about it - two hundred and fifty years locked in a small box would be likely to turn the kindest and most charming of ghosts into a homicidal maniac. I'd imagine it would leave me at less than my best, anyway. Beginning to anticipate accelerating tensions, I went back to thinking about diving under tables. There was a pleasingly sturdy-looking sideboard on one side of the room that might provide some decent cover, and the piano would have been a good bet too. It was one of those big, heavy ones, and I know from experience that they're remarkably good at stopping bullets.
"Er..." said Gregson. He was frowning, perhaps hoping either that this was all a dream brought on by unaccustomed exposure to cocktails, or was part of some unconventional party entertainment. Poor fellow. His hosts were not remotely sympathetic to his confusion. He had been invited here to help them with their age-old family feud, and that was becoming clearer by the minute. Now they were expecting him to repay their hospitality with some kind of brainwave, or heroics, or just with a bit of advice. He smiled awkwardly instead, and managed his first comprehensible word. "Joke?"
"Hardly." The woman gestured with her gun towards myself and Samms, the latter now barely upright. I fully expected him to slither under the settee at any moment. "These two are alive. Probably treasure hunters, or mercenaries who think they can profit from our misfortunes. The other four are ghosts. Surely you can see that? You presented yourself as an expert in the paranormal."
"Ah." Gregson nodded, a retraction of any previous claims now looming in his eyes. "Well yes. I may have... I mean when I said expert, really what I meant was..."
"Never mind who or what he claims to be." The taller lounge suit was clearly desperate for a chance to be a hero. I decided that he must be the girl's husband, hence his anxiousness to prove his masculinity. I'd already long ago decided that I hated him, for his superciliousness if nothing else. Heroes have a tendency to be deeply annoying. They're so bloody smug, for one thing. Anyway, if he was the husband then I definitely hated him. Lucky sod. The heroes get all the best girls. Our ghosts, meanwhile, were beginning to look annoyed by how little attention was being paid to them. Fair enough, really. If you turn up planning to massacre a few people, and those people seem more inclined to stand around arguing over what's happening, it probably is likely to annoy you; especially when you've spent two hundred and fifty years looking forward to the affair.
"Kill," hissed one ghost. It's good to get to the point. I was still thinking about tables, sideboards and sturdy pianos, myself, in anticipation of just this moment, and chose this as a good time to tense up and prepare to run. When dead things start growling words like 'kill', things never look good. People start dying gruesomely. The danger factor rises alarmingly. Such moments are not nice ones for born cowards like me.
"Well?" The shorter lounge suit was still looking at poor old Gregson as though he expected the man to pull a magic wand from inside his suit, and start banishing spooks. Gregson gaped at him.
"Er..." he tried again. He was good at hesitant noises. Apparently he was fluent in them. A ghost pointed at him, his finger elongating into a long, white spike that reached towards the supposed expert's chest as though to impale the poor fellow there and then. Showing more comprehension than he had managed so far, Gregson saved his life by fainting on the spot. The ghost growled. Samms hiccuped loudly. Looking back, that's probably the moment when everything went peculiar. I remember running for cover, as I had been hoping to do for some time. I remember somebody shooting at me - not the girl, I still like to think, despite what I was later to learn about her. Probably the tall bloke. He seemed the type. I also remember the ghosts beginning a fearful screeching and wailing of pure rage that probably had something to do with the unwillingness of their intended victims just to stand still and die. They might have seen everything in their box prison, but clearly they hadn't seen that their enemies would be expecting them. I suppose when you have a possible curse hanging over you for generations, a certain degree of foresight is understandable, but it's not everybody who'd keep their family in a state of alert for two and a half centuries. Good on them, then, in that case. A lot of people would have dismissed it all as so much nonsense after so long, or just forgotten about it through the passing years. There aren't many who even believe in ghosts these days. They're one of those old traditions that have faded from the public consciousness, like magic and curses. Mind you, it's hard not to believe in something that extricates itself from a house guest in a cloud of blue-grey smoke, and then whirls about the room screeching in rage. From beneath my table I looked out at the ghosts, transformed now into semi-human shapes, their fingers like long knives, and their eyes all bright and furious. There was a wind rushing around with them, whipping up their cries into a sound like a storm, and giving a fine old battering to the expensive hairstyle of the woman, as she stood in the middle of the room trying to shoot the spooks down. I said that she was beautiful, dear reader. I didn't say that she was clever as well. Only when she ran out of bullets did she stop firing, then frowned rather uncomprehendingly at the blur of colour and noise that was the ghosts. One of them swooped down towards her, those knife-like fingers slashing at the air. Neither of her friends seemed about to dash to her rescue. One of them was backed up against a wall, his fingers held up to form a cross, as though that might help to ward off the spirits, and the other was standing on the sideboard, laying about him with a silver candlestick. It struck home several times, but being dead, the ghosts didn't show any sign of being bothered by the attack. Why do the dead get all the luck? Well, some of it. I've been hit with a silver candlestick, and trust me on this - it hurts. The ghosts showed no sign of appreciating their good fortune.
Anyway, there in the greatest of peril was this latest target of my lust. Lust? Romantic dreams. Sweet young love. No, alright. Lust. There she was, anyway, about to be chopped up into little pieces by a ghost with a grudge, her gun empty and useless, her black eyes all a-fire. I made a run for her, intending to be terribly heroic and haul her to safety, but she misinterpreted my intentions. Not a surprise - she didn't know which side I was on, and we hadn't been introduced. Women - especially in those days - tend not to like being leaped upon unexpectedly by strange men, especially ones that they have good reason to believe may be evil. With that in mind she walloped me over the head with remarkable enthusiasm, fortunately catching me only a glancing blow, given that it was the hand still holding the gun that she hit me with. Even so I saw enough stars to light up several night skies, and tripped up with a lack of dignity that was distinctly disappointing. I'd been trying so hard to look heroic, and in that way outclass the graceless twit she'd married, and here I was toppling over and knocking the poor woman to the floor with all the elegance of a gorilla attempting ballet. I say that, you understand, purely as a metaphor. I've never seen a gorilla attempting ballet, and for all I know they're very good at it. The woman swatted at me again, but fortunately seemed to have lost hold of the gun during the tumble, or she'd probably have caved in my skull. Daft woman - couldn't she see that I'd just saved her life? The ghost's attack missed, and it flew harmlessly past us. I suppose at that point the ideal move would have been for me to have rolled off the girl, jumped to my feet, and pulled her up as well. Then we'd have made a dramatic escape out of the door, or leapt behind the piano, or something. Anything, really, would have been better than me continuing to lie there, squashing the poor woman, trying to recover my senses and failing dismally. In the end she pushed me off.
"What in heaven's name do you think you're doing?" she asked. Or she asked something similar, anyway. As always you have to appreciate that the dialogue in these memoirs is mostly just an illustration of the truth. I can't remember full conversations, especially the ones I had when I was half conscious and extremely disorientated. I blinked. I think I might have smiled at her. She was gorgeous, after all.
"Rescue," I croaked. Or tried to. I've no idea if that's actually what I said, as my tongue was at that point about as responsive as the rest of my body; by which I mean it was doing a good impression of being made of lead, and belonging to somebody else into the bargain. The girl glared at me.
"You brought them here!" She had retrieved her gun, and was reloading it with the enthusiasm of the permanently disillusioned. Hadn't she noticed how useless it had been before? Meanwhile the ghost was turning around to come in for a second attack, its eyes practically standing out on stalks. I could hear its screams rather more clearly than I could hear the woman's angry yelling, and was rather more inclined to listen to the ghost, too. It made sense to pay attention to the furious dead thing flying through the air with the definite intention of mincing us. On the other hand, the woman was turning her reloaded gun to point at me, and quite obviously had every intention of firing it. I squawked something and rolled aside, colliding hard with the sideboard which, obviously not being half so sturdy as I'd thought earlier, caused the fellow on top of it to wobble and fall off. He landed on top of me, the woman shot him neatly in the arm, and half a dozen sherry glasses fell from the man's former perch and smashed themselves on my head. The woman let out a shout of horror - not at my distress, needless to say, but in clear dismay at having shot the wrong man - and ran forward. Her sudden movement caused the ghost to miss again, though this time, sadly, its actions were not without casualties. Missing the girl, it collided instead with Samms, who had somehow wandered into its path. Presumably he was trying to see what was going on, or was just confused and looking for direction. I don't know. At any rate I wasn't able to ask him after that. The ghost's head collided with his, the force of the blow knocking the poor chap clean off his feet and rendering him airborne, hurling him into the path of one of the other ghosts. There was a whirl of those knife-like fingers, a choked off cry, and a quite astonishing amount of blood. I know that I cried out, but I don't know what I said. Caught under Lounge Suit No. 2, it was a bit difficult to do anything much, and I wouldn't have been making much sense anyway. My head had taken quite a bit of abuse, and I suppose I wasn't in the best of shape. Poor Samms, though. I still feel bad about him. I don't know that there was anything I could ever have done to stop him being mixed up in the affair, but he really was one of those innocent bystanders that one reads about; and he wasn't a bad bloke, all things considered. Far from it, at least beneath all the grime and the whisky. To her credit the woman looked upset, but there wasn't a great deal of time for regrets. Not then. Scurrying out of the way, she crouched down beside the man that she had just shot, and positioned the gun as though she still believed that it might be of some use against the dead things now circling us merrily. The taller lounge suit had disappeared. Taking cover, if he had any sense - I knew that he wasn't dead, because of the mess that poor Samms had made. Anybody else would have made a similar mess, and I was pretty sure that I'd have noticed it. Geysers of blood aren't easily overlooked.
"Mrghugh," said Gregson at this point. I apologise in advance for my spelling. In those days memoirs were far from my mind, and I wasn't taking notes. If I'd known then that people would be offering me improbably large amounts of money for the story of my life, I'd have asked the man to repeat himself. As it is you'll just have to put up with my approximations. He groaned, anyway. Please yourself on how to spell it.
"Gregson!" The woman was delighted. He was the expert, brought here to luncheon on the suspicion that the recently dug up box would be spitting out its cargo of malevolent ghosts at some point in the next day or so. These people wanted a return on their investment; on the number of cocktails they had served him; the cost of whatever food they had filled him up with. They wanted him to leap to his feet and do something terribly useful and knowledgeable, and be the expert in paranormal events that they believed they needed. Experts in paranormal events, my dear friends, are rarely as much use in these situation sas you'd think they'd be. Ask them questions in their offices; sit in libraries and talk to them of ectoplasm and poltergeist activity, and they'll tell you everything that you could ever hope to know. Stick them in a drawing room with four angry ghosts determined to shred half a dozen people into ribbons, on the other hand, and suddenly they cease to look like experts at all. They just quiver, in much the same way that everybody else does. Oddly enough, Egyptologists are the same, when confronted with actual mummies. Actual walking, talking, resurrected and psychotic mummies, anyway. Obviously they don't all run in terror from the dusty, inanimate ones lying in ancient coffins. Otherwise archaeologists would never get anything done.
"Had the strangest dream..." Gregson sat up, looking like the perfect target for our dead friends. He rubbed his head, then looked around, apparently confused. No doubt he had thought he was in bed, or that he had dropped off on the settee or something; suddenly finding that he had been lying on the carpet, that one of his hosts had been shot, and that there were a lot of guns, broken glasses and bits of chopped up doorman lying about the place, had thrown him no end. He blinked at me, then pointed. "Ghosts!" he announced in the end. I nodded encouragingly, hoping that he would then realise that there were, indeed, ghosts in the vicinity. Angry, large, violent ghosts. With obvious intent.
"Get out of the bloody way, you fool." It was the larger lounge suit, arriving like some typical hero, all big and strong and daring, and unconcerned by the ghosts about to dive-bomb him. He vaulted a table, grabbed Gregson, bundled him behind the piano, then sprawled there looking triumphant. Triumphant and smug. Did I mention that he annoyed me? The woman, needless to say, was gazing at him with clear admiration. The ghosts were unimpressed, but neither were they doing anything to wipe the smirk off his face. Why didn't they attack? Why only go for poor, harmless Samms? I imagined that they were able to attack only in the open. It seemed a feasible theory, but needless to say the more annoying of the lounge-suited duo ruined it by shouting much the same thing. I immediately decided that I didn't believe the theory anymore. Not that I could think of a better one. It's rare for me to think of one theory, for goodness sakes. You can't expect two from me in the same day, unless possibly they involve women, whisky or gold. Sorry; should I have thought of another one beginning with 'W'?
"Are you alright?" asked the woman at this point. My heart gave a little leap. No, I tell a lie - it didn't bother. I liked to think that she was talking to me, but my heart knew better, and was well aware that she was really talking to the man she had just shot. I rubbed my head ruefully, and wished that somebody would offer me an ice-pack. Or a glass of whisky. I thought about the hip flask, but right then I wasn't at all sure about making any unheralded movements. The woman did still have the gun, and she had already displayed a definite readiness to blast me with it. The lounge suit nodded his head, and gripped his arm in a manner that suggested he was lying through his teeth.
"Fine." Liar. He didn't even bother not to wince. I really didn't like the man. The taller of the pair might be the really annoying one, but on reflection I decided that his smaller companion was really no better. He had the square jaw and the sparkling eyes that always make young women smile, and immediately turn their attention away from me. The sort of square jaw that gets used as a model for comic strip heroes, striding through the pages of adventure books with their arms folded dramatically across their annoyingly muscley chests, and all the heroines gasping in delight at their every speech bubble. Sorry. Slightly distracted for a moment there. I dabbed surreptitiously at my head, in the hope that it might come away covered in blood, so that I could play the part of the wounded hero too. After all - at least my injury had been received legitimately. I hadn't been shot by accident.
I'm losing the point again, aren't I. I can tell. Where were we? Ghosts. Blood. Ill intent. Not attacking us for some reason, that I'd thought was to do with furniture, but didn't want to think so anymore. The woman glared at me, although I couldn't see any sensible reason why. Stroppy type. Evie had a friend like that once. English girl that she met at university, who was always glaring at me whenever I happened to catch her eye. As it turned out it was because - so she said - she'd had a crush on me for some time, and was annoyed that I hadn't seemed to notice. Pretty girl. Married an officer stationed out in India, and had about eleven children. Insisted on sending them all back to England to go to school, which must have cost a fortune. Personally I'd have sent them to the local village school in India, but then I always did think that school was pointless, and England unnecessarily chilly. I glared back at the woman anyway - the one in the stately home with me then, not Evie's awkward college friend - and she glared back harder still. I decided to introduce myself. Usually it'll either help to break the ice, or make things more unfriendly still. Introductions are like that.
"Jonathon Carnahan," I said, in a manner that I liked to think was charming. Warm, but not overly familiar. Confident, brisk, disarming. She glared some more. I contemplated glaring back again, but the lounge suit beside us reached out uncomfortably with the arm that didn't have a hole in it, and tried to shake my hand.
"David Whitcombe," he said. He sounded quite friendly, which annoyed me. I had decided to hate him nearly as much as his compatriot, after all. "This is my sister-in-law Penelope, and the man behind the piano is my brother James."
Penelope. Penelope. That made me feel a little better about her being married, and extremely hostile. I mean - Penelope? Doesn't have much poetry to it, does it. Oh. Sorry, if that happens to be your name. I'm sure it has a lot else to recommend it. And I'm not even smirking as I type that. Which is just as well, as smirking would make me lose concentration, and then I'd get my fingers caught between the bloody keys again. I hate typewriters. Unwieldy bloody things. And who can type properly with their fingers uphill?
"He knows who we are, David." Penelope - I resolved to call her Penny, as she seemed the kind to be inordinately annoyed by it - shot him a haughty look. "He came here to kill us, didn't he."
"Not really," I commented, without having much confidence of being heard. The woman glared at me again, something that she obviously greatly enjoyed doing. I harboured secret, rather pleasant thoughts of Evie's friend, and her reasons for glaring at me so much of the time. It would be nice if this woman had her own secret thoughts... Yes, I know. Self delusion. You don't have to point it out to me. I told her - and him - that I had no desire to kill them, that I had been brought here against my will, for no reason that I could determine, and that I had no interest in old family feuds involving long dead ancestors, and certain boxes that they had buried in the Forest Of Dean. David Whitcombe, much as I wanted to hate him, nodded sympathetically. Penny, bless her fiery eyes and furious heart, showed no such charity. She just carried on glaring, and looking like she wanted to throw me out to the ghosts. I pointed out that poor Samms had just been killed, so we clearly hadn't been on the same side as the spooks, but she didn't show any sign of wanting to listen to that either. David nodded sagely. He believed me, which wasn't helping me to keep hating him. He even offered me a conciliatory smile, and made some joking apology for Penny's inflammatory attitude, for all the world as though we were old friends. Couldn't he see that we were mortal enemies? Or that we were supposed to be glaring at each other, anyway. Obviously not.
"We've been waiting for this for generations," he said eventually. "This house is supposedly protected by all kinds of spells. Something to do with an ancestor of ours. You'd think we'd be a bit more prepared, really. Instead we just tricked poor old Gregson into coming down here for a few days, and as it turns out I don't think he really even believes in ghosts."
"Nobody believes in ghosts," said Penny, with obvious conviction. Poor girl. Boy had she married into the wrong family. When there's four of the things whooping and hollering around the ceiling, and you're still trying to insist that they don't exist, chances are you're not intended for a career dealing with the supernatural. Or for a successful marriage to a man cursed by such things. Perhaps she was better suited to Gregson.
"We need to work out why they're not attacking us." I had a sudden strange desire to start playing the part of the veteran ghost expert. Maybe I wanted to play the hero. Maybe I wanted to get everybody out of this alive. Yes, alright. I was probably just hoping to impress Penny. All the same - it was a reasonable thing to say, and seemed important to me. Nobody else had addressed the issue as yet. For all his earlier heroics, James Whitcombe was still cowering behind the piano with the world's most useless psychic investigator, and David didn't seem inclined to do much more than sprawl on the floor and clutch at his arm. He was in pain right enough, and I could understand that, as I've been shot once or twice in my life. Well, shot at, mainly, but grazes hurt too. All the same, he could try to be useful. Isn't that the sort of thing that heroes do?
"You have any ideas?" he asked me. There might even have been a sort of respect in his eyes. That's not something that I see often. I enjoy it when it happens, but for some reason I've never been especially inspired to seek it out. Too much effort involved, probably. I basked in it then, though. I may have led an odd life - downright bloody peculiar life, to be perfectly honest - but clearly even that has its bonuses. Like being able to look knowledgeable in situations like that one, for example. I managed to pull off what I like to think was a casual but manly shrug.
"They came here to kill you, and your ancestors knew about it. You mentioned spells." Now spells are something I've never been all that familiar with. I've met witches - both real ones, and people who just claim to have the powers - but there doesn't seem to be any kind of regularity to their supposed art. The real witches generally like incense and candles, and chant complicated strings of words in smoky rooms - unless you tell them categorically that you're not a tourist, in which case they just whisper secret little spells, and don't do anything involving dirty black cauldrons, frog's eyes or newt's toes. All very disappointing. The people who just claim to be witches usually dress in extremely peculiar clothes, and always claim that they can heal your congenital back pains just by waving their hands in the air, and shaking maracas at you. Spells to ward off ghosts, and prevent them from taking their revenge, though - that means a practitioner who genuinely knows what they're doing. People who really understand magic, and how to use it. Not the hashish smoking showmen of the many market squares of my youth.
"Magical furniture?" suggested Penny, with unnecessary sarcasm, I thought. She really wasn't entering into the whole spirit of the thing. Pun not intended. Sorry. Perhaps she was wishing that she was behind the piano with James. Personally I was glad that she was with me instead, even if she clearly loathed me, and had no intention of taking me seriously. "They're just here to threaten us. There are no magical spells. It's all some... trick. Some sort of hallucination."
"No, it's a matching set of ghosts." I offered her a confident smile; the kind that I imagined learned professors giving their green-gilled students when somebody asks a naïve question. "They've been waiting two hundred and fifty years to come here and kill anybody connected with the Richard Whitcombe who killed them, and locked them up in that box. They're not suddenly going to give up when they get here, and start screeching instead. That's not much of a revenge." I was quite proud of that point. It made me sound like a detective. David nodded gravely, hanging on my every word, which annoyed me greatly. It wasn't him I was trying to impress.
"Do you... have any experience with this sort of thing?" asked Whitcombe Minor in the end. I hesitated before answering. It's a tough question to answer without sounding like a refugee from a lunatic asylum, after all. In the end he got an enigmatic smile, and a slight shrug.
"You'd be surprised what goes on in the world," I told them both, at the same time wishing fervently that Evie were there. I mean, what's the point in having a hugely capable sister who knows everything, if she's not going to be in the right place at the right time? Downright negligence, I call it.
"What are we going to do, then?" Penny had not lessened her hostility in the slightest. A cruel woman. Her eldest son went on to invent something, but I'll be damned if I can remember what. Probably some kind of torture device. Anyway, trust her to come up with the difficult question. How in all the netherworlds was I supposed to know what to do? I'm Jonathon Carnahan. I swagger my way through life armed with a hip flask, a dashing smile, and a pocket of pilfered cash. I don't make plans, I don't work things out, and I don't save the day. We've been through this before - you want heroics, speak to my brother-in-law. Except that at that moment in time he wasn't my brother-in-law, and I'd never heard of him. Lot of good you were to me then, Rick.
Still, I'd made my bed, and I knew I'd have to lie in it. I'd much rather have lain in certain other beds - one certain bed - but it wasn't on offer. Not yet. I did wonder if it might be offered, if I managed to save everybody and look suitably courageous, but I had my doubts. Of the two people currently sheltering with me, only one had shown any inclination to melt the ice and make friendly contact, and he was definitely the one that I was least interested in getting into bed with. Whether or not Penny was likely to offer to share her pillow with a coward like me was a moot point, though, when we were quite possibly about to die, in which case nobody would be going to bed with anybody. I began racking my brains.
In 1919 I was in Ireland, which sounds like I'm rambling again, I know, but bear with me. Whilst I was there I was taken on a tour of old monuments and sites of archaeological interest by a very old man who could well have been alive - and already old - when half of the monuments were put up. He warned me at just about every site we visited that there were ghosts and spirits and all manner of other nasties lurking here, there and everywhere. Tour guides do that all the time; it adds colour, spice, and increases the chance of a tip. I can't remember the fellow's name, but I do know that it was something appallingly clichéd. Paddy O'Leary or something. Anyway, on the third day of the trip, just as I was beginning to go spare with all his tales and mutterings and nonsense about ghosts - don't ask me why I'm so slow to believe these things coming from others after all that I've seen myself; I just am - he went off down a little pathway behind a supposedly haunted whatnot, and never came back. Gone, just like that. No hole in the ground, no secret passages, at least that I could find. I raised the proper hue and cry of course, and we searched the place for days, but nobody ever saw old Paddy O'Reilly (or whatever his name was) again. The point being that you should never a: dismiss the words of somebody who claims to know what he's talking about, and b: underestimate a ghost. They may keep quiet for two hundred years, so that nobody really believes in them anymore, but if they want you, they'll come out and get you. C'est la vie, and all that (actually C'est la morte would probably be more appropriate, but you get the picture). I regarded our prancing, raging ghosts with a very regretful eye, and decided that there was only one thing for it. They had brought poor old Samms and me here for a reason, and had then accidentally (I hoped) put Samms out of the picture. Hopefully they had had some intended use to which we were supposed to have been put, and with Samms gone, they wouldn't want to risk losing me as well. And if there was anybody in this room who could claim to know what they were talking about, and therefore was worth listening to, it was the ghosts. I probably hoped that I'd look extremely heroic as I stood up and stepped out from the cover of the sideboard, although admittedly I'd probably have looked a damned sight more heroic without my hair in disarray and my clothing wrinkled up like... well, like my clothing usually does look. Oh well. At least I wasn't the one who'd been accidentally shot by their sister-in-law.
Perhaps you were right. The bit about Ireland might just have been rambling after all.
It's difficult to know how to address a set of murderous ghosts. I believe I've mentioned that once before. Even when you have a bit of experience in these things, it's still a tough conversation to start. Come to that, murderous humans aren't great for approaching either. Friendly faces don't tend to cut much ice when the other bloke's a psychopath with a meat cleaver, and a misplaced conviction that you've half-inched his boodle. But that's another tale entirely. No, on the whole its best not to walk over to some self-confessed killers and start asking questions. But then Penny was watching, and I really was quite determined to impress her. The mood takes me every so often. Heaven only knows why.
"Um..." My nerve had long ago failed me, so the hesitation was more to do with trying to do this right rather than beginning to wish I hadn't started it in the first place. I was already wishing that. I'd been wishing it since before I'd stood up. "Um... Might I have a word?" Not a bad opener. Polite, but with an air of confidence. A frisson of authority, I think. Did the ghosts care? Of course they bloody didn't. With a wail of glee, a howl of delight, a positive whoop of jubilation, all four of the confounded creatures drew themselves together into an almighty ball of whirling floaty lights and blue-grey mist, performed a startlingly speedy circuit of yours truly that left my head spinning, then descended upon me like some maddened eagle crash-landing upon its prey. I ducked, no doubt yelped, and tried to run for cover. Penny, bless her icy heart, bellowed at me to do something. Do something?! Like what?! Yes, alright, so I'd painted myself as some sort of expert, and yes, alright, the poor woman quite obviously thought that I was going to do something useful. In the circumstances, though, it might have been nice to have had some support. A little sympathy. Instead I got bashed on the head by four ghosts in close formation, and the next thing I knew I was airborne. Either me or the floor, anyway. Physicists tell me it's more likely that it was me, and I'm prepared to take the word of experts. Airborne floors probably aren't an especially common phenomenon. I flew through the air, anyway, and seconds later collided with a wall some considerable distance from where my flight had started. I was quite prepared to shout "Ow!", or possibly something ruder. That or lose consciousness. Instead I realised that I didn't need to. Quite frankly I'd have preferred it if I had.
Have you ever been possessed, dear reader? How about by four ghosts at the same time? Even two is a trial; four is just downright uncomfortable. I heard a rush of voices inside my head; the jumble of memories that came from the many sights the ghosts had 'seen' whilst imprisoned in their box. It's weird seeing somebody else's memories floating around inside your head, and it's weirder still when there are four sets of those memories all colliding and hurtling and arguing it out amongst themselves. My arms belonged to somebody else, my legs seemed to be under the control of at least three other people, and I had a nasty suspicion that my mouth was hanging open. Looking like an idiot hardly seemed the best way in which to impress Penny, and I debated trying to tell her what the problem was, so that she didn't think any the worse of me for my slack-jawed staggering act. I couldn't do it, though. My voice was as confused as the rest of me, and even if I had been able to find it, I doubt that I'd have been able to do anything with it. Screaming wasn't going to have done any good, and at that stage I'd probably not have been capable of anything more comprehensible. Well, you'll know what I mean if you've ever been possessed. You'll certainly know what I mean if you've ever been possessed by four ghosts at once; largely because that would probably mean that you're me. For your sake I hope that you're not. I like me, probably rather more than anybody else does, and goodness knows I'd like to be somebody else often enough. Usually when there are dead things around.
But, as ever to get back to the point, there I was - possessed, confused, disorientated - and strangely hungry, for some reason. Don't ask me why the latter. There might be a scientific explanation, but it's not one that I've bothered pursuing. In that first moment of struggling to balance myself, and of trying to make sure that I still knew who I was beneath the swirly escort, I did get other explanations though. The reason why I'd been brought along, for example, and why the ghosts hadn't attacked us when we'd been hiding in the furniture. And yes, it did make me feel like a fool. Since you ask.
It was all down to magic of course. Magic protecting the house, magic protecting its residents - though not its uninvited house guests, clearly. Magic impregnating every brick, every piece of wood panelling, every drawer and every shelf. The ghosts couldn't get into the place without help, and they couldn't do anything when they were inside without help. Enter the trouble magnet, handily placed for instant possession. I suppose they'd risked the failure of their plans when they'd abandoned ship so to speak, in their enthusiasm for letting the Whitcombes know who and what they were, but it was a gamble that had paid off. Well of course it was. After all, it's not like I was going to be sensible enough to stay still, out of the way, causing no harm, and preventing my re-possession for long. Not me, dear reader. But then you already knew that. Especially if you've been reading from the beginning.
So. Possessed. Full of mad, would-be killer ghosts, intended victims spread out around me like lambs awaiting slaughter. Potential weapons all over the place. Spells neatly circumvented by sneaky tricks, and a hapless fool with a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All just another day in the life of a Carnahan. I started heading towards Penny, which was a strange sort of poesy I suppose. After all, it was my desire to impress her that had got me possessed in the first place, wasn't it. Well, yes, that and the fact that I was greedy and thoughtless, and had been desperate to find out what was inside that blasted box back at the museum; but from the vantage point of several decades distance, I like to fondly blame Penny. Sweet, dear Penny, with a right hook like a professional boxer's, and a kick like a mule's. I don't know quite what it was about my approach that made her take that course of action, but then I suppose she had witnessed the mass dive-bombing, and the way that the ghosts had disappeared inside me. Either that or she just didn't like the look of me. Undoubtedly that played a part in it, since she was later to tell me that she thought I was absurd, insane, and very probably dangerous, and that it might be worth her while to seek out some kind of restraining order; but then it had been a very hard day, and it's quite likely that she was no longer at her best by that point. It's also very possible that I shouldn't have asked her out to dinner, given that she was a married woman expecting her first child, and I was the man who had, to all appearances, just tried to kill her entire family with a table leg and a ceremonial sword. It can do serious damage to your relationship prospects, something like that.
"Er..." That was from poor old Gregson, needless to say. I think it was then that I picked up the table leg, snapping it off the table by bashing the poor offending article against a bit of wall. Strong arm tactics aren't usually my thing of course, but it felt good to put on a display of machismo in front of Penny. Not that I had any choice in the matter, or that it was my strength on display, but nonetheless, it's nice to be the tough guy occasionally. Gregson squeaked at the sight, and James Whitcombe finally stood up from his hiding place. I think he probably intended to come over all heroic, but I threw half the table at him, and he disappeared again. That, to the best of my memory, is when Penny punched me. Impressive force for somebody who would have made Evie look like a heavyweight, but then desperation lends strength, and all that. I - sad to say, but then it really wasn't me in the pilot's seat - swiped at her with the table leg, missed, and clobbered David instead. Right in the wounded arm. Still, he was the annoying type, like his brother, so even now I can't say that the sense of guilt is particularly strong. He was bigger than me anyway. Not sure that counts when the smaller fellow is stuffed to the gills with angry ghosts lending him extra strength, but I still don't feel particularly apologetic. Apologists don't usually embark upon such nefarious careers. Besides, I paid for the violence, because that was when dear, sweet little Penny kicked me. Right in the stomach, with tremendous gusto, and with the force of several steam hammers - or so it felt. I fell over backwards, and saw the ceremonial sword under the sideboard. I was quite pleased with it on several levels. For one thing it was definitely what the ghosts had been hoping for, as it was big and pointy and suitably wicked - and for another it was old, and pretty, and clearly worth quite a bit. So I liked it too. The Whitcombes didn't look too happy, and having been on the unfortunate end of several swords myself, I can understand that. Nasty things, swords. Well, except the pretty and valuable ones, obviously. And the ones that are being wielded by you, rather than by your various enemies.
Things blur a little after that. I know that I went after Gregson with the sword, and that he tripped over what was left of the table and disappeared under the piano. I remember hitting the piano with the sword, and producing a remarkably tuneful sound. I think I remember James coming after me, and me hitting him with the table leg whilst shouting something rude about his ancestor, and I'm almost positive that David was trying to talk to me nicely, although even he must have realised that it probably wasn't going to help. Penny started throwing wine glasses at my head around then, and I ran after her with the sword. Yes, I know what you're thinking - not the best way to begin a romance. The way I see it, we'd already got off to a pretty bad start anyway, so it wasn't as though I was ruining something wonderful, but I do recall wondering if there was going to be any hope at all for the two of us after this. Yes, I know she was married. Married and not remotely interested in my hopes of romantic bliss; but optimism works wonders, you know, even when you're possessed, manic, violent and confused. Anyway, I dodged most of the glasses, and smashed up most of the others with the sword and the table leg, all the while heading straight for her. I don't know what the plan was going to be when I arrived. Probably hitting her with her own wine glasses, and then stuffing her headfirst into the piano. An image of that very event appeared in my mind at the mere thought of it, and I must say it was quite enjoyable. Needless to say I didn't get that far, or even I might have felt some degree of guilt. An annoying aristocrat who looks like he can take care of himself is one thing; a young woman half your own size is quite another. Or so that part of my brain that was still me thought to itself right up until she brained me with an oaken chair. Women are rarely as helpless as they, their male relations, historical precedent, or convention would have you believe. Inside my head, a ghost screamed its rage.
"Now! Now!" That was James, hurtling back from wherever he had been hiding himself, launching himself at me in the understandable conviction that I'd be dazed or about to pass out. He was right of course, and I was, but the ghosts weren't. Powered by their general sense of indestructibility, I turned around to meet his attack, and lashed out with the sword. He yelped, ducked, stumbled into the debris of several dozen wine glasses, and skidded on the broken glass. Fortunately I missed him, as swords do tend to be rather messy. Even ceremonial ones. Spurred on perhaps by his brother, or through outrage at the thought of said brother being skewered or sliced up, David leapt at me then. We went down together, and Penny leapt into the fray, rather too gleefully for my liking. James scrambled over and joined in the scrum as well, and even Gregson, muttering and mumbling something panic-stricken, climbed on top of the rather squished me. It hurt. Being ground into a carpet usually does. The ghosts weren't bothered by pain though, and I could feel them rallying inside, drawing together their supernatural strength x 4, and dragging me up to my feet. Assorted Whitcombes fell all over the place, and only Gregson was left, clinging on round my neck like a limpet, squeaking and whimpering and quoting passages from the Bible. I'd lost my sword, which annoyed me, and I couldn't reach him properly with my table leg. I was feeling thoroughly got at by then. It wasn't as if I'd asked to be possessed, and here I was, beaten up by Penny even before the ghosts got inside me, head ringing, ribs bruised, glass inside my shirt, and now a professional ghost hunter who didn't believe in ghosts hanging around my neck like a peculiar, animated rucksack. He had sharp knees, which I remember with great clarity. Sharp knees and a rather bristly chin.
"Box." I had an idea in my head, forming awkwardly between furious shouts from the ghosts. Half an idea, anyway, since I didn't have a clue what to do with it. Gregson's grip around my neck was proving almost as powerful an obstacle to vocalising the thoughts as were the ghosts desperately trying to shut me up. I'd swear that one of them was sticking his fingers down inside my vocal chords, and another was trying to fill up my lungs with some kind of supernatural soup. Felt like it, anyway. I couldn't breathe, seeing was becoming increasingly difficult, I had long since lost any clarity of thought, but I knew that I had to try something. Being a coward is all very well - being ineffectual and largely pointless, as Rick likes to accuse me of being at least once a week, is all very well too - but every once in a while everybody has to stand up for themselves. They do when they're possessed, beginning to suffocate, and are trying to shake off a tenacious scientist, at any rate. Otherwise all you achieve is fainting.
"Box... spells... furniture..." Clear and concise, as I'm sure you won't agree. Well, you can't disagree with the concise bit, really. Problem is, it's all very well knowing what you want to say, but actually saying it under conditions like those becomes very difficult. I wasn't sure that I had actually said it aloud, at least at first - and then given that nobody reacted, and Gregson didn't loosen his hold, I wondered if I had merely thought it, and had actually said something very different. I knew what the ghosts wanted me to say, and of course it was nothing at all like "Box... spells... furniture." Mind you, what they wanted me to say did at least make sense. Even if it was the sort of thing that I can't very well repeat here without losing my publishing deal. Practically growling with anger that was probably theirs, but might have been mine, I threw off Gregson, and tried not to brain him with the table leg. The ghosts were beginning to object rather strongly to my continued attempts at autonomy, and resistance was decidedly painful. My words were beginning to look like they had had an effect though. James was frowning. David was looking confused. Penny was still looking hostile, but then she enjoyed that. She was that sort of girl.
"Box spells furniture?" asked James. I think he was directing the question at me, which was something of a waste of time. By that stage I was long past conversation. I think I went for him with the table leg, but the fury of the ghosts was rather affecting my vision. Funny, isn't it, that four apparently less than massively competent ghosts should have picked me as a host. Good old perennially less than massively competent me. I considered hitting myself with the table leg, to see if that helped at all, but decided against it even before the ghosts took the matter out of my hands by hurling the table leg at David. He ducked, looking faintly hurt. "Box spells furniture? No it doesn't."
"No. Spells." David was suddenly looking inspired. Usually when a man like that gets an idea, it's good to put some distance between you and him, but on this occasion he was really showing promise. "Spells. Like with magic." I tried nodding enthusiastically, but the ghosts were getting better control now, and launched me into a somewhat violent attack against poor Gregson. The alleged ghost expert scrambled on top of the sideboard and threw a candlestick at me. Penny, meanwhile, had retrieved her gun. This didn't bother me as much as it might, which is proof enough of the power that the ghosts now had. Being dead, they were less inclined to be bothered by guns. She fired the damn thing at me, anyway, which just goes to prove that she really wasn't the friendly type at all. Mercifully she missed. I think she hit the piano. The bullet ricocheted off and hit the service bell, but the butler and the footman I had seen earlier didn't answer it. Presumably they were far too sensible to come anywhere near us all at that moment. Hiding in the kitchen, I shouldn't wonder, with a bottle of their employers' best brandy, and the finest pickings from the larder. Butlers are usually a lot smarter than their employers, and it's on occasions such as these that you really notice it.
"Spells like with magic?" James was being obtuse. I'd have hit him, but I was past caring. Looking back I can remember hearing him, but at the time I was concerned solely with trying to knock Gregson off his perch. He wasn't even a Whitcombe, but he'd annoyed the ghosts for some reason, and they were suddenly extremely anxious to tear him apart. Penny fired her gun again, and this time hit what looked to be a valuable vase. She stopped shooting after that, but she kept eyeing me in her manic, beady fashion. David, meanwhile, was getting excited.
"The spells! The ghosts couldn't get in here without a human to hide inside. They couldn't touch us until they got back in him again. It's the spells. You know the stories. The place is protected." Poor chap was quite over-excited. He was beginning to sound like a speeded up gramophone record. James, from what I could see, was just staring at him, much as though his brother had been possessed too. David was overjoyed by now though, and kept prancing about shouting about boxes, and how the ghosts had been imprisoned in one before, and couldn't they be again? I left Gregson alone after that, as the ghosts propelled me, somewhat belatedly, over towards David. He dodged. I was quicker. We crashed through a table and wrestled for control of Gregson's abandoned candlestick.
"David!" James hauled me off with an impressive effort, which suggests that the ghosts might have been tiring. That might explain their increasing desperation, I suppose. Perhaps they could only keep up the possession so long. I was flung, without ceremony, into a corner, and had to fight my way out of a pile of chairs before I could stand upright again. By then James was attacking the sideboard with gusto, proving that its solid oaken construction was anything but solid, and quite possibly wasn't even oaken. I jumped at him, and Penny hit me with the piano stool. Confound the woman, she really did take great delight in hitting me with pieces of furniture. And what had I ever done to her? No, don't answer that. But I do still stand by the story that it wasn't my fault. The ghosts had found some sort of second wind, though, and they had me back up on my feet soon enough, feeling like hell, and no doubt looking like it. I leapt at David this time, only to suddenly find myself bouncing off a table that he swung around to use as a shield. I fell back, crashing into another table, on this occasion wielded by Gregson. He looked less than determined, but there was interest in his eyes. Our useless ghost hunter was clearly finding a whole new love for his work. Inside my head, the ghosts shouted out their rage, and threw themselves, and me, in another direction. This time Penny was there, holding a piece of vandalised sideboard, tipping it so that it formed a lean-to above my head. I confess that I began to panic then, just like the ghosts. What if they were planning to make a box and seal me inside it as well? I laid into them all with new power, as my own panic obviously weakened my control, and let the ghosts take over all the more. It didn't do any good. Soon James was there as well, making a fourth side to the box, completing the temporary roof, and imprisoning me inside the most rickety, but disturbingly effective, dungeon I'd ever encountered. I felt terribly, terribly sick. Apparently whilst they were inside me, the ghosts weren't effected by the spells that protected the house and its contents - but seal them into so closely confined a space, and they were badly hurt. It felt as though my head were about to explode, and I started to collapse then. Everything went peculiar. Sorry to say, for it leaves us with rather a hole in the story, I'm not at all sure what happened next. I remember a crack like thunder, a peculiar feeling like being torn apart inside myself, and an awful lot of blue-grey mist. I remember being very confused, and I remember suddenly feeling all the pain and fatigue that the strength of the ghosts had been keeping from me; and I remember being decidedly annoyed about that. I remember being dragged from the box, fighting against everything that touched me, and hearing shouts for ways to seal the thing closed. There was talk of curtain cords, and a floor for the box, but I didn't care for any of it. I'd not felt so ill in years; not since my first hangover, after a session of far-too-enthusiastic experimentation with the son of the head camel wrangler on one of my parents' digs. I just knew that all was not well. Not by a long shot.
After that, the rest is piecemeal. I remember Penny's eyes, staring down at me, and I think I smiled up at her. Her face, faintly fuzzy thanks to my decidedly wobbly consciousness, seemed very beautiful just then, and I distinctly remember thinking that her eyes were extremely attractive. I may have tried to tell her so. She hit me, so I probably did; or I probably tried to say something, anyway. To be honest I'm not sure how much of me was functioning at that point, and it's perfectly plausible that bits of the possession still lingered, at least in the psychological sense. It's therefore entirely possible that I only thought the bit about eyes, and actually said something about skinning her alive, or eviscerating her husband or something. Or perhaps she just didn't like strange men making advances; that does tend to happen. Either way, her looming, pretty, impressively hostile face was the last thing I remember seeing with any particular clarity before the cobwebs in my head parted enough to bring back a few realities, and rather a lot of injuries came clamouring to be the first to be noticed. I passed out after that. It seemed prudent. When I woke up the box was gone, and with it John Gregson, who had been entrusted to take it far away from the house. I didn't see either of them again after that, and if I'm honest I don't hope to. It's an attitude I generally take towards things that cause me those kinds of discomfort - unless they're really valuable - and that's still true to this day. Ghosts in crumbling boxes don't have the same attraction as cursed jewels that admittedly turn out to be enchanted scarab beetles, but twinkle nicely in the meantime. Yes, I know, I know - my values are skewed. But I do so like things that twinkle.
I'd like to say that Penny and I formed a lasting relationship, but if I did you'd know I was lying. I didn't leave straight away, and I offered to help with the clearing up, but in all honesty there were never going to be any proper friendships formed that night. The Whitcombes, rightly or wrongly, felt that I was to blame for their drawing room getting smashed up, and them nearly losing their lives. Their piano was ruined, their sideboard broken, most of their glasses destroyed - Penny's fault, in the latter case, if you ask me. Not mine. The worst thing was poor Samms, sprayed all over the walls and the carpet, and steadfastly refusing to be washed out. By all accounts he still is, even all these years later. The Whitcombes have moved out of their old family home now, preferring something a little more cosy, but the builders brought in by the new owners have made the pages of several newspapers. No matter how many coats of paint they put on those drawing room walls, the blood still comes seeping through. Poor old Samms. Still, it's nice to know that he's making his presence felt, just like he used to back at the museum. I wonder if his approach is still heralded by the distinct scent of whisky, as it was when he was alive. I don't suppose I'll bother to ask. Knowing my luck, if the builders and the new owners find out that I know anything about it, I'll end up being saddled with the bill for the renovations.
Anyway, needless to say I told Evie about it all later. At the time I don't think she believed me. Probably thought I'd got drunk and dreamt it all. Despite the peculiar things that had already happened to both of us by then, she still had a tendency to take the annoyingly rational approach, and refuse to believe in things that weren't in her text books. She's changed somewhat, as you might have guessed. All those bloody mummies, no doubt. Back then there was no sympathy though, and not even a cup of tea and a biscuit, as she was in a hurry to scuttle out to a lecture by some archaeology hero of hers. And yes I am hoping that she'll read this and feel guilty; it's only fair. But then, of course, I would say that.
And there, dear reader, you have another misadventure from my seeming endless list of said same. 1924, as I believe I've already said, was a pretty unimpressive year for me. I fell in love half a dozen times, spent a lot of chilly nights thinking that it was probably about time to go back to Egypt, and a lot of days thinking that gainful employment wasn't much fun. I met the Prime Minister (accidentally, thanks to a minor traffic accident), appeared in three national newspapers (accidentally, thanks to a minor traffic accident), and got shot at by three men with revolvers (not accidentally, thanks to a bank robbery. And I was an innocent bystander before you jump to any conclusions). I bought a flat in London, which I believe I still own, and should probably go back and look at again some time. And that, dear friends, was 1924, or bits of it. You can take what lessons you like from my misadventures: don't open strange boxes, don't get possessed by angry ghosts, don't attempt to earn an honest wage when your heart demands a poker table or somebody else's wallet. Make of it all what you will. I did - and I survived. And at the end of the day, when all's said and done, that's got to be a good thing, right? You know you're getting it right when you survive.
Which brings us to the end of 1924; the end of my attempts at honest employment; the end of my attempts to be a conventional English gentleman; and the end, though I failed to notice it at the time, of my twenties. Some mourn that part of their life. I was too busy enjoying myself in half a dozen countries across Europe and Northern Africa, getting drunk on a hundred local alternatives to whisky, and gambling with money that more often than not wasn't strictly mine. There were brawls, there were women, there was gold and there was Evie. Always Evie. And then, very shortly afterwards, there was Rick, and all our lives hit a new chapter - which just goes to show that you never do know what lies ahead. I suppose it's worth remembering that. On the other hand, loyal readers, when you're in a tight spot, you should probably forget what I said earlier about always listening to the man who claims to know what he's talking about.
Because if your luck's anything like mine, it'll be me.