“Haldrick looks a bit under the weather, don’t you think?” Finley smiled. He hoped it was a pleasant smile, and not at all the sort of grimace that made him seem dodgy. Daisy had been suspicious of him ever since his brief disappearance.
“Yes, he does. All of the ghosts look unwell.” Daisy’s face betrayed no distrust. But then, faces like hers – which were more fleshless skull, than actual face – seldom did. This was lucky, because the truth was that she currently did not trust Finley Jansen Guildersand at all. “You, however, seem the picture of postmortem health. Tell me, what’s your secret?”
There was, Finley thought, rather too much emphasis on the ‘your’ in Daisy’s question. “I have no secret, I don’t know why I am not being affected like the other ghosts.” This was not true. Finley had many secrets, and knew exactly why he remained unaffected by the malady that that had caused all the other ghosts to behave in a manner that could only be described as quietly creepy. For starters, he wasn’t really a ghost at all, though he had gone to great pains to set it up so that he could pass as one. “Perhaps,” he ventured, “it’s because I’m pretty amazing.”
If Daisy had been in possession of eyes, they would have narrowed at this statement. If that statement had been a bowl of chili, she thought, it would have been the kind of weak chili that she would refuse to buy. Which was saying something, because Daisy Wheelwright loved chili; it went well with beer. Yet, for reasons that she could not explain, Daisy was reluctant to press Finley on the matter. Possibly, although she was loath to admit it, she had become slightly afraid of him. This was both weird and unsettling, since Daisy had not been afraid of anything for centuries. A general lack of fear was one of the perks of being Death.
It wasn’t that Finley had done anything in particular to Daisy to make her afraid. Not that she could put her finger bones on, at any rate. Was it because he’d lied when she had asked him where he’d gone? He’d maintained then, as he did now, that he hadn’t gone anywhere. He’d claimed that he had been on the beach the whole time, and it was more likely that Daisy just hadn’t noticed – much in the same way that someone who’s late for work can’t find the car keys, even though she’s looking right at them. No, Daisy realized, the fear had set in before that; a slow, icey creep of anxiety that began when she’d first noticed his absence. Anyway, lies never much troubled Daisy. Yet, there was a quality to the way Finley had lied that had given her anxieties a more definable shape. It was simply this: he’d lied to her skull without a hint of self involvement.
If, when Finley had been confronted with the fact of his disappearance, he had said: ‘I was being incredible on the beach, and soaking up praise from many ghosts whose deaths have been enriched by knowing me’, that would have been more usual. But he hadn’t. He’d made no claims to his greatness at all. And that was completely out of character. Which is why Daisy had noticed. Until that moment, Finley had been remarkably one dimensional, insofar as he turned every conversation into a discourse, or comment, on his brilliance. It had made him very difficult to talk to, which is why Daisy and the others mostly ignored him. Further, he had appeared only harmlessly arrogant – if a little boring – so it had seemed better to not pay any attention to him at all. And that raised an interesting possibility: that all Finley’s harmless self-centeredness was an act; one designed to make him seem innocuous.
It occurred to Daisy, that if one was up to something – which she now strongly suspected that Finley was – the best way to do it would be to get people to not pay attention to you. And, the best way to that, would most definitely be to make yourself so tediously boring that people would literally go out of their way to ignore you. A clever twist on the gambit of ‘hiding in plain sight’, Daisy observed. But why bother? She couldn’t think what Finley could possibly have to gain. But then, that would be the point wouldn’t it? She’d been so busy ignoring him, that she wouldn’t have noticed him doing anything remotely suspicious. She was lucky to catch him not being on the beach, now that she thought about it.
“So,” said Finley, interrupting Daisy’s paranoia, “why do you think all the ghosts are just sort of standing there and moaning like that?”
There it was again, Daisy thought, a proper question that did not speak to Finley’s general awesomeness. She would master her fear, and challenge him directly, consequences be damned. “What’s your game then, Guildersand? Why are you so interested in the suddenly inexplicable behaviour of all these ghosts that I’ve gathered here, eh?”
“Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Just the sort of puzzle that appeals to a remarkable mind like mine.”
“I see,” said Daisy. But what she thought was: the tricky bastard knows I suspect him, and has gone back to being arrogant. Sneaky bugger.
“I have a theory. Naturally it’s genius. But I wanted to get your read on it, so I could know how amazingly brilliant my theory is next to your own. Of course, the comparison will be a wonderful learning opportunity for you, too.”
“Oh, will it now.” Daisy had gone from being fearfully suspicious, to a three-alarm-irritation.
“Most certainly.” Finley smiled a smile of innocence. This was not actually the kind of smile he was going for, he was trying to look smug.
If she was honest, Daisy had no idea why all the ghosts had started to behave so strangely. She wasn’t even sure when it had started. The first time she noticed that something was amiss was when – after collecting some stray ghosts from different points around the globe, convincing them that she was taking them to the afterlife, and taking them to the tropical beach which was in no way an afterlife – she’d tried to start a conversation with Haldrick. Haldrick hadn’t been in the mood for conversation. A fact Daisy inferred by the soft, low, undulating moan he made instead. This was about as unlike Haldrick as you could get; he was normally much more articulate. But that wasn’t even the oddest part.
On paying Haldrick a closer examination, and after several questions about his wellbeing – all of which were greeted with moans – Daisy became aware of four things. First: Haldrick appeared to be shimmering. Many people believe that this is perfectly normal behavior for a ghost, but they are wrong. Second: each shimmer coincided with an oscillation, or shift, in the moan’s pitch. It was almost as if Haldrick’s spectral body had become an oscilloscope, or had transformed into some other fancy piece of laboratory equipment. Third: he was swaying slightly, facing the sea, and staring up towards an oddly shaded, thunderous looking sky. Finally, Daisy noticed the fourth thing: all of the ghosts were behaving in exactly in the same way as Haldrick; even the group she had just brought to the beach, though they had seemed perfectly healthy only moments before. The only ghost that seemed unaffected was Finley. He just looked very pleased with himself. That, at least, was normal.
Daisy wanted very much to offer a theory to explain all of this creepy weirdness. A theory so elegant, so subtle, that it would neatly wrap up all the available facts in brightly colored parcel, and wipe that innocent grin right off Finley’s face. But she couldn’t. Still, she wasn’t going to let Finley know that, so instead she said: “You go first, Guildersand. I insist.”
“Well, if you’re sure?”
“Quite sure, thank you.”
“Okay, since you insist, and are also sure.” Finley paused, and set his features to reflect what he hoped gave the impression of scholarliness. “What we are experiencing here,” he said, not without some pomposity, “are the effects of a ‘contingently coalesced entropy accelerator’.”
“Wow,” said Daisy, with some sarcasm. “That is brilliant. I’m astounded. That is, in fact, so astoundingly brilliant, that I am also completely amazed, as you predicted. You know why I’m sure what you just said is an astounding-brilliant-amazement?”
“Ummm, no.” Finley began to feel that, perhaps, he didn’t want to know, either. This was going to be unpleasant. But he needed to see it through. He had to move the conversation to the right point.
“Because it makes no fucking sense at all. In short, it is complete, festering tripe.”
On balance, Finley felt, that could have been worse. Still, he had to resist the temptation to argue. Daisy was primed now. If he played it right, she would pursue the course of action he needed. “I’m sorry that you think so, but it remains true nonetheless. Basically, such a large number of ghosts in close proximity to each other, has accelerated their rate of decay. This, in turn, is causing everything around them to also decay, that process will increase exponentially until it consumes everything.”
“I’m just going to go ahead and call bullshit on that.”
“Fine. It’s still genius.”
“Yeah, well I don’t believe it.”
“And yet, it still remains true, despite your lack of belief.” This, thought Finley, is going very well. The next part was going to be crucial though. He’d have to play it very carefully. “But okay, don’t believe it.” He paused, he needed what he said next to produce the correct response. “Still, I wouldn’t bring any more ghosts here if I were you.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t would you? No more ghosts, you say? What, because the world will end? I don’t think so. I’ll bring as many ghosts here as I want. And you will just have to suck it up, princess.”
“Technically,” said Finley, measuring his words carefully, “everything will end. But go ahead, bring more ghosts if you feel like it. I’m sure you think you know what you’re doing.”
“I DO KNOW,” Daisy screamed. She was now irrationally angry. That self involved bastard had really gotten under her skeleton. “I DO KNOW WHAT I’M DOING. WHO’S THE CURRENT DEATH HERE, EH? IS IT YOU, GUILDERSAND? IS IT? NO, IT’S NOT. IT’S ME. I KNOW ABOUT GHOSTS, FRIEND. I KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT THEM, AND I WILL BRING AS MANY HERE AS I WANT. IN FACT, I’M GOING TO GO OUT NOW, AND BRING ALL THE GHOSTS.”
“Fine,” said Finley, in a calm voice calculated to aggravate. “You do that, you bring all the ghosts. I’m just saying, it’s a terrible idea. But hey, I’m only a genius, so what do I know?”
Daisy said nothing. She was too angry. If skeleton’s were capable of producing a good glare, she’d be glaring it up real nice in Finley’s general direction. As it was, she turned on her heal bones, and stormed off. She knew she couldn’t possibly get all of the ghosts, new ones were being made all the time. But she would get as many of them together as she could, and bring them to the beach. First, though, she would go to the pub and get as drunk as she could. Not once did it occur to her that she was about to do exactly what Finley had wanted the whole time. If she had, maybe things would have worked out differently. But she couldn’t know that yet. Hindsight can only happen after the fact.
As Daisy stormed off, just as he hoped she would, Finley couldn’t help but feel very pleased with himself. That had gone very well, indeed. Yet, he also felt a little sad. The truth was, that he rather liked Daisy. It didn’t feel great to have to manipulate her so brazenly. For the first time, in an existence that was much longer than anyone suspected, Finley began to wonder what the point of it all was. Still, this was his role, and so this was what he had to do. Even he had to play by the rules, that’s what the rules were for.
Finley shrugged off his doubts. This was no time to dither. There was work to be done, and it was time for him to check on one of the other projects he had going. It was time to go and see some shadow creatures about a prehistoric deer-turned-Spirit Animal.
END OF PART SEVENTEEN