“Oh,” said Stephen. His jaw tensed. “This is …certainly interesting.”
“Eh?” grunted Mrs. Grindolin. She craned her neck over her shoulder, her eyes darting about the room like peevish wasps looking for something to sting.
“This,” said Stephen, pointing an unsteady hand at the kitchen table of Grindolin’s Inn. A dead body sprawled casually across the blocky wood, a man ready to nap for another five minutes or so – don’t bother me yet dear. He was packed into a sopping tweed suit, swollen hands lolling from its sleeves. He looked like a frog, splayed for dissection.
“Neh, that ‘un. Found ‘im in theWashthis morning,” said Mrs. Grindolin. She clucked her tongue, and Stephen nodded thoughtfully. He sometimes found shells by the sands of the Wash when his daily ramblings rendered him thereabouts. It was a pretty place. Too pretty to find something so grotesque. Wincing, he consulted the dead man’s face: It was pale wax and ghostly, already crossed over, hollowed out, an empty hermit’s shack up for rent. Beer brown eyes sunk wetly into slippery wooden cheeks – bloodless, drained, drowned.
“Hum,” hummed Stephen, because humming made him feel braver. “May I ask why he is on the kitchen table?”
“Dining room table had laundry on it.” Mrs. Grindolin frowned like she had something in her teeth. “Blasted Emma’s day off, you know.” She snorted scornfully, as if to say, Day off, my grandmother’s bloomers.
Stephen hummed again, once, before his throat became too dry. Stephen had come down only to fetch a morsel of last night’s lemon crumble, his latest experiment still steaming on his worktable, but his plans had been interrupted somewhat by this body business. He tapped an uncomfortable rhythm lightly on his thighs, tilted his heels. He was no good at dealing with the unexpected, especially when the unexpected was a dead body that reeked worse than fifty wet cats, yet smelled somehow familiar. “Well,” he said, to ground himself. Not humming.
“Well,” said Mrs. Grindolin.
“Well,” said Stephen.
“Well,” said the corpse, without moving its mouth.
“Well,” said the corpse. Its voice was rusted with cobwebs.
“Well.” Well indeed, thought Stephen, utterly taken aback. In all his experience, he had never known a corpse to speak.
“So he’s alive then, is he?” Stephen asked Mrs. Grindolin in a strained whisper. Mrs. Grindolin shoved a finger up her nose musingly and rummaged around a bit, looking for an answer. But she didn’t need one.
“Ay,” the corpse spoke for itself, still stationary.
Stephen’s shaky need for orientation got the better of him, knocking out anxiousness and making a run for the gold. “Not to be nitpicky, but aren’t you technically not a corpse if you’re not entirely… you know…dead?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” said the corpse as a nasty cough scratched its way through his frozen purple lips.
Stephen pondered this. He supposed it wouldn’t be too outlandish to claim that a living dead body was not necessarily a corpse, just as it would be sane to say that a breakfast which included more than four sausages continued to be breakfast and not instead a strange manner of lunch. The fact of the matter was the same, though the definition might not be.
He had heard his old Uncle William tell such wild tales of the unusual. Normally Stephen disregarded his eccentric uncle’s stories, but since one of them was currently lying across the kitchen table, he had no other choice but to believe what he was seeing.
“I say,” said Stephen, addressing the corpse without much confidence at all, “have you heard of a man called William?”
“I’ve heard of more Williams than I’d care to remember,” said the corpse.
Of course. Stephen cleared his throat, his face stuck as still as the corpse’s. “This particular William was called William Cavendish.” Then, to clarify, he added, “He was a wobbly old man who wore waistcoats that looked like wallpaper. He had a moustache a couple feet long, mismatched shoes, and was shaped like a walrus.”
“Ah, Cavendish the magician,” said the corpse, hacking grandly. “He’s the one who got me into this mess in the first place. I didn’t used to be dead before I knew Bill Cavendish.”
Stephen scowled, frustration banishing his fear for a moment. “I should have known that Uncle William had something to do with this.” So it was clear that now Uncle William was terrorizing them from beyond the grave… or beyond their little town of Fanford… or beyond wherever he was.
Stephen recalled Uncle William’s infamous pranks, getting people to choke on bread and slide off cliffs and such. Stephen had survived a few such pranks, but not unscathed. He had a small scar on his left ankle where a rabid squirrel had become infuriated with him after he was flung into its tree by one of Uncle William’s ‘disease-curing-catapults.’
“What, may I ask, happened to you?”
“I was drowned in a vat of newt urine, I’m afraid, which I understand is a fairly common mistake for apprentices,” replied the corpse.
Newt urine. Now Stephen recognized why the corpse smelled so familiar. “Were you apprenticed to my Uncle William?”
“For all of three weeks, if you could call that an apprenticeship.”
Mrs. Grindolin, who had been uncharacteristically silent for all this time, concentrating on picking her nose, brought up the questions that Stephen had thus far been too shocked to ask.
“What d’yeh want from us, then?” she asserted, wiping her claw-like fingers on her filthy apron. “And who are you? I dragged you in here to get some use out of you, so if you can talk, I want to see some manners.”
“The name’s Gallahad Richard,” answered the corpse, “And I need some help.”
Suddenly, a new voice rumbled from the stairway.
“Gallahad,” it said, gruff. “Of course you’d end up here.” Stephen turned to look at the source of the sound. As he had suspected, it was Ogden, the only other boarder at the Inn.
Ogden was a man perpetually clad in a black wool cloak, no matter what the weather or where he was. His facial features were thin and hard, and his skin was as pale as a spider’s egg sac. His muddy green-gray eyes were deeply set and shadowed in his brow, glaring out at the world with an expression that suggested that everyone else had better get sorted out. Ogden was built like a bear, but less cuddly and with slightly fewer teeth. And when he spoke, he sounded more like he was growling than trying to expel coherent words.
“I’m not surprised you turned out this way, plastered to the Grindolins’ table and begging for help.”
“I don’t want help from you,” said the corpse. His voice was colder than his hands.
Stephen padded over to lurk behind Mrs. Grindolin. Again he had plopped into the middle of a conflict when all he wanted was a snack.
“William pushed me into this pile of droppings, and William’s nephew will help me get out.” The plopping had turned into a shove.
“Stephen?” scoffed Ogden. “He couldn’t help himself to a themed buffet, let alone a cursed corpse. The last time he tried to ‘help’ someone he sparked the Great Outhouse Upheaval. We smelled that for weeks, and Emma is still unable to see colors.”
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if you hadn’t decided to interfere,” snapped Stephen. “It could have fixed itself, but no, you conjured that… horrible elf.” Stephen shuddered at the memory.
“That ‘horrible elf’ was the town doctor,” said Ogden. “I called him after you broke your own leg trying to crawl out the window. Let a magician take care of this.”
Stephen’s face flushed. As much as Stephen wanted to be left alone, Gallahad had signed him up. He was not about to let Ogden sign him out, as usual. This was the straw that gave the proverbial camel a major sprain. With a flash of heat blistering across his cheeks, Stephen took courage from his indignation.
“No, Ogden,” he declared, stepping out from behind Mrs. Grindolin, who had returned to picking her nose. “Gallahad requested my help, not yours. It’s because of a magician that he’s a cursed corpse in the first place, and he’s not about to let magic make him worse. I’m a scientist, and I shall treat him with science. So be off with you.”
Ogden rolled his eyes darkly. “Let me know when you need my help.” With that, he pulled his cloak close and clomped up the stairs.
Stephen stood still, watching Ogden’s cloak as it swished around the corner and knowing he’d made a mistake. Ogden may have been unfriendly, but at least he was competent. What did Stephen know about curses? What did Stephen know about anything? He turned his chagrined attention to Mrs. Grindolin and Gallahad.
“Er…Gallahad, about what I just said…”
“You’ll help me.” It was less a hopeful request than a command.
“I…er… well… all right.” You didn’t want to argue with a cursed corpse – at least, not right away. Stephen wouldn’t argue until he knew what the curse did, and whether it could kill him. “So…what kind of curse is this?”
“I’m trapped in a corpse,” said the corpse. “I have no control over this body, which is dead, by the way, and I am stuck inside. I want you to help me get out.”
Simple enough, thought Stephen, except how to fix it.
The copper wires crackled with light as Stephen tripped gracefully over them and landed crooked-limbed in a pile of burlap sacks.
“Yes, those are very nice,” said Gallahad, impatience tugging at a thread of his voice. He was propped upon the kitchen table against a heavy rack of knives and a burly ceramic kitten that smiled beatifically. “Are you quite finished?”
“Almost,” called Stephen, but his word was muffled by the sack into which his face seemed to be stuck. “Oh my, it smells foul in here.” As Stephen disentangled his nose from the sack’s drawstrings, he rather hoped Gallahad wasn’t beginning to have doubts about his procedure.
Mrs. Grindolin stumbled into the kitchen, a basket full of what appeared to be damp rags trying to make a leap out of her arms. “Got ‘em.” She dropped the basket on the floor, and some of the rags flopped out, revealing themselves to be raccoons.
“My dear Mrs. Grindolin,” said Stephen, having finally managed to extract his face from the sack pile. “I asked for onions.”
“Ey, I checked the cellar,” said Mrs. Grindolin, sullenly shoving her hands deep in her pockets. “We only ‘ad the raccoons.”
“You had dead raccoons but no onions?” asked Gallahad.
Stephen turned sympathetically towards the corpse. “You’ll find it happens a lot around here.” He got up, plucked a dead raccoon from the floor, and prodded it gently. “Well, I suppose this will have to do.”
“If you get this wrong,” said Gallahad, his words suddenly low and stony, his manner dialed down to bottom volume. “You’ll find that I will have no other choice than to burn you alive.”
Stephen froze. Something broke in his brain; his thoughts flashed blindly.
“I- …Th-…that was not part of the bargain.”
Without warning, the volume dial swung back up to a messy crescendo. “Pardon?” asked Gallahad. Then, gauging Stephen’s petrified silence, amended, “Ah, I must have threatened you. Never you mind that.” But then the corpse broke off. His vacant eyes offered no clues.
Stephen returned the raccoon he was holding to Mrs. Grindolin’s basket, his spine stiff. His hands had started to shake. “So…let’s… let’s make this work then.”
Mrs. Grindolin, unfazed by the past few moments of conversation, began to string the raccoons along the copper wires. Stephen laced the wires through the eyelets of Gallahad’s forlorn, mud-caked boots.
“The idea,” Stephen explained hesitantly, “Is that we fire a large shock into one end of the wires. The power travels along the wires, augmented by the oni- ah, raccoons, and then bounces off your feet, ricochets off the window you’re facing, and shoots straight into your heart, thus dislodging your soul.”
Stephen had to admit that for a scientific progress, it was a little lackluster. He had only drawn up three pages of blueprints for this one; had only spent half an hour crammed into an unused cattle stall, which was his Thinking Space. But Stephen knew how to invent. He could shave a sheep using naught but a bottle of Emma’s headache tonic; he could repair the massive holes he regularly blew in the barn walls with a simple wave of a tarp and his own concoction of rubber and manure.
He would give this one a sound thrashing about with reason and hope it worked.
“Do what you do, Stephen,” said Gallahad.
Stephen sucked a deep breath through this teeth, surveyed the room to make sure everything was in place. It was. Mrs. Grindolin stroked a spare raccoon as Stephen picked his way over the wires to a shabby wooden crate close to the doorway. A bright orange switch poked out of the crate like a bedraggled flower, and Stephen flicked it with all his might.
Nothing happened for a moment, and then the room exploded with a fizzling crinkle and sizzled crack. Lights spun like fairies through the room, flying along the copper wires, beating against them in infinite rapid vibrations, singeing every raccoon as they whizzed past. Power whistled through the air as the charge plunged into the soles the corpse’s boots; it cartwheeled off of them, a radiant roman candle that exploded into the window then flashed back like a bullet.
It rocketed into Gallahad’s chest, and the blast of the collision bathed the entire room in a burst of brilliance. Stephen stood open-mouthed at the doorway, fists scarred and white. Mrs. Grindolin squeezed the raccoon, her wrinkled eyelids parted wide. An electric glow, webbed like lightning, flickered across their faces.
The blaze finally faded, and a man emerged from behind the dissipating flare. He was an otter-like little man with a weedy moustache, squinting into the friendly yellow warmth of the kitchen. Gallahad. His former corpse sagged leisurely against its ceramic props, completely empty now, as flatly bereft as a bottle by the Wash.
The otter-like man blinked.
Mrs. Grindolin’s dead raccoon blinked – which everyone ignored.
“Well,” said Stephen.
“Well,” said Gallahad.
“Well,” said Stephen. “Who’s up for lemon crumble?”
Ogden slumped against the kitchen door with a mighty sigh. That one had taken some legwork. Of course, you didn’t just save two lives like that without a little effort. Ogden closed his eyes, dabbed at his brow with a coarse handkerchief.
Dead raccoons, Stephen? Really?
That man never learned.