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Haunted

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            Jeff Randall heard the outer door open and close. He glanced up, knowing it could only be Jean Hopkirk, and saw the distorted silhouette of her blonde hair and orange coat through the glass. She clattered across the vestibule and swept into the office.

            “Sorry, Jeff,” she gasped, dumping her handbag on the desk and unfastening her coat. “Late again!”

            He shrugged. What did it matter? Who was keeping time?

            “That’s all right,” he told her. “More car trouble?”

            Jean hung up her coat, straightening out the sleeves, and then quickly smoothed down her dress. “No, not really,” she answered vaguely, turning to face him. “Well –”

            “What is it, love?”

            She moved behind her desk – Marty’s desk – and pulled out the chair. “I’m thinking of trading it in,” she confessed, watching Jeff from over the covered typewriter. “Or maybe just – getting rid of it, buying my own.”

            Jeff met the hesitant expression in her brown eyes. Marty’s Austin Mini, his treasured first car. “Just make sure you get a good deal,” he advised. Noncommittal, unobtrusive: a safe reply. “It’s seen better days, but still a nice motor.”

            Jean nodded slowly, staring at her bag perched still on the corner of the desk. “I feel so guilty, Jeff, but it’s just that it’s Marty’s car,” she spoke softly. “That’s how I still think of it. Silly, isn’t it?”

           He turned his chair out towards her and leaned back, studying the distracted look on her face. The truth was that Marty still thought of the car as his, too, but Jeff could hardly tell her that! Still, he wasn’t sure what she wanted to hear: should he encourage her to buy a motor that was free of memories, or reassure her that it was all right to keep this link to her late husband? Be practical, economical, or sentimental about it?

            “No, not at all, love,” he offered, stalling.

            “I know I should be ready to sell it, but I already feel like I’ve been giving Marty away, piece by piece – his clothes, his possessions,” Jean explained. She sighed. “He’s gone from the apartment, now, every trace – I only have our wedding album, and the letters he wrote to me. It seems so fast.”

            Jeff swallowed awkwardly. “Those are only things, Jeannie – his suits, his car. You can’t hang onto them forever.” He couldn’t talk to her about fond memories and keeping Marty alive in her heart because it would sound stupid coming from him, but there was also the fact that he didn’t know what she was going through. His mourning had been interrupted by the return of his best friend; he didn’t need photos and keepsakes because Marty hadn’t given him time to dwell on his absence.

            Jean started absently picking at the typewriter cover. “I wish I could be like you, Jeff,” she said, her voice catching, “and put Marty’s death behind me, but – everything is a memory. I try, but I just can’t stop thinking about him.”

            “That’s not fair, Jeannie,” he muttered, knowing that she had a point. “I do think about him.”

            She finally met his eyes again, and Jeff instantly regretted his selfish words. This was obviously one of those ‘low’ days she had told him of, where she just felt miserable and little things made her cry. “You do?” she gulped. “When?”

            He took a deep breath, but to his surprise found that he knew what to say. “Every day,” he told her honestly. “When I get to the office and find I’m the first one here. Opening an old file or checking back through the books and finding Marty’s neat handwriting. Needing a drink on an evening, and having to get it myself –”

            Jean gave a soft laugh. Jeff unfastened his jacket and dragged a chain free, dangling his own memento of Marty, a pocket watch, from his fingers. “Every day.”

            “I’m sorry, Jeff,” she whispered. “I know you miss him, too.”

            And he did, whether he had a right to or not: he missed his best friend. He could talk to Marty, and work on cases with him, arguing with him more than before, but there was always lurking the sobering thought that this – presence – in the white suit was not real. Marty Hopkirk was dead. He and Jean had buried him, three days after he had been viciously struck and killed by a hitman’s car.

            “I miss the stupid things about him,” he went on, talking to Jean but thinking of Marty. “He used to come round to my place and start picking up after me, shutting drawers and putting the washing up in the sink. I don’t even think he knew he was doing it, he’d just be talking and moving all the time.”

            Marty more or less lived with him now, although ‘living’ was an inappropriate term to use, but he could only dim the lights, flutter the pages of a book, or propel a glass across the table. Ghostly party tricks, not the meddling company of his best friend. Jeff wanted those idle hours back where Marty would bring in the milk when he called round, or loan him a tie for an official appointment somewhere. Of course, being able to throw Marty out and keep him out was another advantage.

            “Yes, he was very neat,” Jean said, smiling at a memory of her own. “He certainly made the housework a lot easier!”

            “And we used to have a game of cards on an evening, playing poker or pontoon for copper,” Jeff remembered abstractly, “or even paperclips, in the early days!”

            They looked at each other, still lost in the past. Yes, he did miss Marty. He got on well with Jean, always had, but she was still his partner’s wife, or widow, and not really his friend.

            In the office, they worked together as business partners – her share of the boredom and debt inherited from Marty – and she mostly stayed behind on the odd occasion that Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) were actually called on to investigate. Mostly. Her involvement in the business was rapidly outgrowing the polite deference she had shown to him in the first few months after Marty’s death, and in response, he tried to share the real work with her. Jean’s smart appearance and pleasant voice were the perfect weapons for quizzing unsuspecting spouses or going undercover, and she made up for with nerve what she lacked in intuition. Marty still fretted about her safety, though, so Jeff found it easier to tackle the physical side of the job alone, calling on Jean for occasional assistance and leaving the surveillance to Marty.

            Away from work, he was there for Jean when she needed him, thus fulfilling the promise he made to his best friend on the night Marty was killed. She had her own life, and knew perhaps too well how complicated his own social diary could get, so the arrangement suited them both. Jeff asked her to join him at the theatre and took her to shows that he thought she might enjoy, and in return, let her ‘borrow’ him as a companion. After a year of shared loss and mutual support, a more personal form of partnership was slowly emerging, but there was still a missing link. For both of them, he suspected.

            “Hey, Jeannie,” he called, “do you remember that trip to Brighton, just after Marty passed his test? We nearly ended up in Dover!”

            Jean grimaced. “How could I forget? It was unbearably hot, and we spent nearly the whole day in the car!” She laughed, shaking her head. “Poor Marty! He was so proud to be taking us out for a change!” Jean had taught Marty to drive, an unenviable task refused out of hand by Jeff. “Still, we got there in the end, the three of us in his new car.”

            “In that little red Mini,” he added needlessly.

            The conversation had come full circle, after a diversion along memory lane. Jeff knew that Marty would always haunt them, in one way or another, but at least his ghost was fading for Jean. She was starting to move on with her life, and being able to look back with a smile was a good sign for the future. In some ways, he envied her.

            “What kind of car did you have in mind?” he asked. “How about a Beetle?”

 

FIN