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With A Little Help From My Friends

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"Jeannie."

When he opened his eyes, he was home. The room was in darkness, showing only a faint glow from the window, but he knew where he was. Those familiar aromas that he remembered – ground coffee in the kitchenette, stale cigarette smoke clinging to an ashtray, and the enduring base note of her perfume – were tangible clues denied to him, just as he was now unable to savour the comfort of his armchair or touch any of his former worldly possessions. Yet Jean had called him back, and this would always be his home if she was here.

Jeannie.

She hadn't summoned him through a medium or Ouija board, but still he had come to her. He didn't 'hear' her or Jeff when they needed him, because it was not super-sensitive hearing or a signal like a telephone bell that drew him, but a gentle pressure building within that would eventually become a thought: Jeff was in trouble, or Jeannie was thinking of him. Or at least, that was the usual order of demand.

Nor was this 'sensation' unique to his current situation; his intuition was not part of the curse that had trapped him between planes for a century, inherited with a white suit and a plot in the cemetery. When he was alive, here with Jeannie, he had felt the same connection: she could bring him back into a room without speaking or moving a muscle, and say, 'Oh yes, I forgot to tell you –' Or he would be alone in the office, and suddenly glance at the telephone before it rang, knowing it was Jean calling. Jeff used to scoff, debating which of the two worriers checked in with the other most often: 'You and Jeannie are always thinking of something else to tell each other, it's not hard to predict who it is when the phone rings.' Perhaps that was it.

Marty Hopkirk turned towards the bedroom, and noticed light edging the door in its frame. He stepped back into the living room, peering at the pale face of the clock on the mantelpiece – it was half past three in the morning, why was Jeannie still up? With a blink of his eyes, imagining himself on the other side of the door, he re-materialised at his wife's bedside; it was easier, and less distasteful than 'gliding', as Jeff glibly termed the process, though walls. Marty supposed he was getting lazy.

With the lamp on his side of the bed banishing the darkness in the room, he could see Jean curled up beneath the quilt in the centre of the bed like a child hiding in her parents' room. Her face, pressed into Marty's pillow, was turned towards the light, and her eyelashes, free of mascara, were dark with tears that welled in her great brown eyes and spilled over, dampening her cheeks.

"Jeannie!" Marty gasped, rushing instinctively forwards to be with her. He dropped down onto the mattress, reaching out a hand, and only checked his impulse when he began to sink through the frame of the bed; navigating the living world as if he still belonged there required concentration and he had lost focus in his haste to comfort his wife. "Jeannie, love – it's me, it's Marty! What's wrong?"

Leaning over her, Marty noted the strands of flyaway blonde hair hastily tucked behind her ear; saw how the tip of her nose was standing out an angry pink against an otherwise grey complexion; noticed her chin trembling behind the damp and twisted handkerchief she was holding to her mouth. Jean had obviously been crying alone for some time, perhaps stifling her sobs against his pillow, and her tender eyes were still blinking away tears as she silently released the emotion behind them. She stared past him, unaware that he had come at last.

"I'm here now, sweetheart," he whispered, drawing his hand over the stitched panels of the quilt until his fingers hovered without touching above her silken hair. Passing through a living being was even more disturbing than disappearing into a solid wall, serving as a painful reminder of his own limitations. He did not know how it would feel for Jean.

"I know you can't hear me or see me, like Jeff can, but I'll never regret coming back if I can be with you, Jeannie," he went on, stroking back her hair and brushing away her tears in a careful mime. "I wish I could still hold you, and talk to you – and protect you –"

Marty closed his eyes against the memory of her ordeal and his own impotent rage; she had been in very real danger, and he had failed her. Alive, he would have stayed by her side, and not left her alone like the police bodyguard who had abandoned her to her fate. Once, in a desperate moment, Marty had asked her to stand guard over an escaped criminal, convincing himself that she would be safe if the man was bound to a chair and she had his gun, but that had been an emergency. He had never endangered her precious life so recklessly again after that gamble. And now, as her 'guardian angel', he should have made sense of what his abilities were showing him, and worked with Jeff to free her a damn sight quicker than they had managed. So close, yet oblivious to the vital connection time after time: her fear had called him to their apartment, as his own distress and sense of inadequacy blinded him to her location.

Jean shivered, tugging the quilt closer around her shoulders, and Marty sat back. Could she feel him, sense him? Was he chilling her with his touch where he only meant to calm? People made insensitive comments about draughts and cold spots when he materialised in a room, but it all sounded like a lot of superstition to Marty; ghosts are an absence, not a presence. He lacked warmth, substance, status, any kind of physical sensation – not to mention a lack of life. To imagine that his imitation caress might affect Jean, or even register with her, was a pathetic fantasy.

"Oh, Marty," she sighed. "Where are you now?"

In his astonishment, Marty vanished like a picture on a television screen, scattering his spirit into non-existence. He had to concentrate to bring himself back, and he found Jean leaning over his side of the bed when he reappeared, her outstretched arm poking straight through his stomach. Moving clear, he saw that she was reaching for the slim drawer of his bedside cabinet, her fingers blindly selecting the only item still contained there.

"What've you got there, Jeannie?" he asked, as she sank back down into the pillows, clutching her treasure against the covers.

Beneath the protective curl of her fingers, Marty could see gilt-edged casing and the folded support of a picture frame. He didn't have to look at the photograph to know that she was holding their wedding portrait. It had been taken outside Chelsea Town Hall on a bright day in April, and she looked exquisite. Jeff was best man, with her friend Suzanne standing as the other witness, just before she had drifted out of Jean's life forever. Jeff had also doubled as their photographer, experimenting with his new, second-hand Minolta and admittedly producing a polished portfolio of memories. The album showed Marty as a dazed but elated husband, holding onto his new bride as if the wet ink on the certificate might dissolve and she with it. They had been a perfect matching pair, right down to the print on his blue tie and the Sweet Williams of her bouquet; she fit neatly into his arms, her hands resting on his shoulders and their faces meeting in a kiss. The registrar had told them they were made for each other, Marty remembered, and he still believed it. How could there be this barrier between them now? She needed him, but she was alone and afraid. If only he could hold her, talk to her ...

Marty looked at the frame that Jeannie was still holding, and thought of the friend who had given them both that small, enduring token of their love. No, I can't talk to her, he thought, but I know a man who can.

*   *   *

"Jeff!" Marty barked, bending over the tangle of sheets and pyjamas that was his sleeping friend. In response, one hand reached out for a pillow and covered a dishevelled head. "Jeff! Wake up! I need you to –" Marty made a fist, and then lowered it. "Argh!" If Jeff was in a deep sleep, there was no ghostly way to wake him.

"What's wrong, Marty?" A muffled voice rumbled from beneath the pillow, and Marty straightened as the whole mountain of slumber stirred and Jeff sat up.

"It's Jeannie, Jeff," he told him quickly, before the stupor of interrupted sleep wore off and his friend realised what time it was. "She's lying awake with the light on, crying and afraid. That's not like her."

Jeff reached for the lamp, and screwed his eyes tight before switching it on. "No, it's not," he agreed from behind his hands. "Is she really upset?"

"Not now, but I think she has been," Marty fretted. "Can't you go over, and –"

"Go over there now?" Jeff choked, raising his wrinkled face to look at Marty. "It's –" He was about to say 'the middle of the night', but a horrified glance over his shoulder at the alarm clock corrected that error: "– it's four in the morning!"

"So?"

"So, unlike you, who can't even manage eternal rest, I have to sleep! I was asleep!"

Marty's drew his hands up to his hips. "Is Jeannie that much of an inconvenience to you, then? You'd leave her terrified and sobbing, and just roll over and go back to sleep, would you?"

Jeff huffed out a sigh. "No, of course not! But Jeannie's probably asleep by now, anyway – I'll talk to her in the morning."

"Yes, she'll have cried herself to sleep!" Marty told him through gritted teeth. "You promised me you'd look after Jeannie, if anything happened to me!"

"Yes, and you're still here, aren't you?" He met the cold, flat stare of his friend's blue eyes, and then swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "She won't thank me for this, you know, Marty."

"She will, Jeff," Marty assured him in a forgiving, though still anxious, voice. "She needs somebody to sit with her, and I –" He threw his hands up. "What can I do?"

"All right, Marty, all right," Jeff groaned. He sat a moment longer, and then turned his head towards the trunk at the foot of the mattress. Instead of standing up, he stretched out along the bed, propping himself on one elbow, and reached out a hand.

Marty watched him. "Jeff, what are you doing?"

"Making use of technology," he groaned, drawing himself upright again. "It's called a telephone. Jean has one, too, and when I dial her number here –"

"That's no good, I told you!" Marty insisted, waving his hands in front of Jeff's face.

"Marty, I can't just arrive on her doorstep, I'll frighten her to death!" he told him again. "And besides – do you know what you're saying? Aren't you making a rather improper suggestion?"

"I am not!" Marty objected. "She needs a friend, that's all – those reprobate Roden brothers could have ..." He shook his head. "She shouldn't be alone, Jeff, please – let's go over there. You'll only startle her briefly, until she knows it's you."

There was a certain emotional logic to Marty's idea that made more sense to Jeff as he slowly resigned himself to leaving his comfortable bed: the hour and the propriety of the situation were only minor obstacles, and if he refused to go, he would never hear the end of the matter from Marty – and his conscience. He hadn't liked letting Jean go back to her empty apartment after the trial, but with the Roden brothers where they belonged, she had insisted that the crisis was over. What could he have done? A fully grown woman, his business partner, his friend's widow – if she told him she was fine by herself, he had to accept her word. Marty's contradiction of her wellbeing was unsettling, though, and he was right, it wouldn't hurt to make sure. Dawn was on its way, and if she didn't want to talk, he could just lig out on the couch and make her go back to bed for an undisturbed rest.

"Jeff?" Marty prompted, reading his friend's face.

"Right," he sighed. "You make the coffee, I'll get dressed."

*   *   *

Jean struggled out of a fitful doze, her swollen eyes flickering open. What was that? She moved her blurred gaze around the bedroom without lifting her head from Marty's pillow, taking in the familiar objects in their usual places.

The door buzzer sounded. She flinched almost imperceptibly, and then held her breath, feeling the sickening throb of her heartbeat. It was late, she knew that; the clock was behind her on the table, and she couldn't bring herself to turn over and look, but it seemed like hours since she had crawled into bed and burst into uncontrollable tears. Releasing her breath in a soft sigh, Jean waited.

"She must be asleep," Jeff hissed to Marty outside on the landing, "I told you."

"Use your key!" Marty whispered pointlessly.

Jeff shot an angry glare at him. "I will not! You're obviously worried about her, Marty, or you wouldn't even have suggested that, but I'm not letting myself in to Jean's apartment at –" He dragged on his coat sleeve to check his watch: "– going on for five in the morning! She would be scared if I did that!"

Marty frowned, pressing his lips together. "You're right, Jeff," he admitted. "Try again."

Jeff rolled his eyes, but gave the button another sharp press and stood back.

When the grating of the buzzer came again, Jean shot upright. The photograph fell from her clammy grasp onto the bed, and she met Marty's blue eyes smiling up at her. She was wearing one of his old cardigans over her clothes, but his scent had gone from it, or else she had forgotten what that was; now it just smelled like her own perfume, and the clean fragrance of the sheets.

Mechanically smoothing back her hair and wiping her face, Jean threw back the cover and then sat waiting for the next drone of the buzzer; if whoever it was rang again, she would go to the door and ask who was there, she decided. There was no need to let them in, after all, and she could call for help if ...

There it was. Stepping clumsily on heavy legs, Jean moved stiffly and silently out of the room, readjusting her rumpled trousers and pushing back the sleeves of Marty's cardigan as she walked. Slowing as she crossed the lounge, Jean paused by the coat rack to listen.

"Hello?" she called, her dry throat pitching a low, broken voice.

"Jean, love? It's Jeff." He announced himself softly, pressing his forehead to the door and speaking close to the wood. "It's all right, Jeff," Marty called from inside, "she's coming to the door now."

"Jeff?" Jean's pale face and large eyes appeared over the security chain a moment later, and he was surprised by how young she looked without make-up. "Oh, sorry!" she called, and closed the door on him. He heard her slipping the chain off. When she could see him again, she asked: "What time is it?"

"It's – it's nearly five, I'm sorry, love," Jeff mumbled, catching sight of Marty behind her. "Were you asleep?" he asked sheepishly, noting her creased trousers and what looked like an old jumper of Marty's.

"Oh," she laughed, debating whether to make a joke or be honest, "I woke up earlier, and I couldn't get back to sleep. I was just napping."

"I –" Marty appeared at Jean's shoulder, studying her face. He looked to Jeff, and shook his head. "I'm sorry it's so early, Jeannie," Jeff offered, "but I was worried about you."

"Worried about me?" Jean echoed, and then put a hand to her head. "Come in, Jeff, I didn't mean to keep you standing on the doorstep, sorry."

"Thanks," he smiled, and shuffled inside. "You seemed a bit shaky yesterday, after the trial, but I didn't like to push. How are you feeling?"

Twisting her wedding band around her finger, Jean offered a tight shrug. "Tired," she told him, her eyes flicking up from beneath fluttering lashes to meet his.

"Join the club!" Jeff laughed weakly. He glanced at Marty, who nodded towards the lounge: "Get her to sit down, Jeff, and make her a coffee. Milk, no sugar."

"Ah, let's sit down, love," Jeff took the cue, raising his arm.

Jean did as he asked, automatically leading her guest into the lounge, and he let his hand fall back to his side without touching her as she moved ahead of him. Her blonde hair hung straight and flat against her head, and the delicate colour of her natural complexion looked drained against the dark blue of Marty's cardigan. She stood back against the couch arm, nodding Jeff towards the chair with a weary smile.

"Oh, let me make you a drink, Jeff – coffee?" Jean suddenly blurted, starting towards the dining room. He caught her by the elbow, stumbling against the chair, and drew her back.

"Let me, Jeannie," he pleaded. "It's the least I can do."

"But – you don't know –"

"I'll manage," he told her. "Come on, you sit down here."

Neither had forgotten their loss, but vivid memories of Marty's death came flooding back in the early morning silence of the apartment. They had sat like this, Jean on the couch and Jeff on the edge of Marty's old armchair, after returning from the hospital, and again as they planned the funeral. His mourning had been brief, but she was still in love with her husband's memory, and Jean found herself missing him with an ache she had not felt for months; Jeff had to pretend that he still grieved for Marty, too.

"How's the coffee?" he asked, glimpsing his best friend's stark white presence in the corner of his eye. Marty was perched on the other arm of the couch, staying close to his widow.

Jean glanced at the mug in her hands. "Oh, fine," she murmured. "Thanks, Jeff."

"It's cold, and she hasn't touched it," Marty told him. "I told you it was too strong."

Jeff cleared his throat. "I wanted to say, love –" he began, speaking too loudly. She looked up at him, her dark eyes bruised and puffy. "You did well, testifying today. Yesterday. Facing them in court, so soon after getting free."

Jean shrugged, lowering her eyes. "What else could I do?"

"It would have been easier and safer to just go home, especially after they threatened you," he offered weakly, knowing she could never have given into them once she was safe.

"Easier perhaps, but not safer, and not right," she confirmed. "They got what they deserved."

Marty gave a start, and leaned forward. "Oh no, Jeff!"

"Jeannie, you weren't –" He couldn't ask her.

Mrs Roden, the hard and bitter matriarch of the clan, had remained with her son as a female warder, but there was certainly no guarantee that she would have intervened if Mort had wanted to play with the prisoner. It was in their interests not to hurt Jean, but as long as they didn't cross that line, Jean would have been at his mercy. The thought of her trapped in a room with predatory, vicious Mort Roden and his devoted mother made Jeff's skin crawl, and Marty obviously feared the worst, too.

"No," she said quietly, answering the question he had left hanging. Jeff nodded, relieved, and reached for his own cup of coffee. It was cold, but he pretended to drink. Only Marty, with the unwavering attention of a lover, noticed the slight shiver that crawled over her nerves and made her tremble.

"We should have got there sooner, Jeff," he intoned, studying the rigid set of his wife's gentle features. She was staring fixedly at the congealed contents of the mug, her lips pressed together, and he wondered if she was thinking or remembering. "I let her down. Tell her."

Jeff narrowed his eyes at his friend, and then looked at Jean. "I'm sorry, love," he heard himself saying, apologising sincerely and personally. "I got you into this mess, and didn't act fast enough to get you out. Some detective I am."

Jean inhaled sharply, as if she had forgotten to breathe, and struggled free of her reverie. "It wasn't your fault, honestly, Jeff," she said, shaking her head. "We both found the body in your car, and I identified George Roden in the identification parade as well. Nothing happened upstairs. I'm fine."

Jeff glanced back at Marty. "But if I'd figured it out sooner –"

"For heaven's sake!" Jean put her feet to the floor, slopping coffee onto the table top as she slammed the mug down. "You're starting to sound like Marty! He always felt responsible for me, but he was my husband, Jeff – all I need you to be is a friend. Please."

Marty looked away from them both, a frown twitching his brow.

"I am your friend, Jeannie," Jeff soothed. "Yours and Marty's. I promised him I would look after you, if –" He shrugged. "That's all I'm trying to do."

Jean was slowly combing her fingers through her hair. She paused, staring at him. "Marty? But – you never talk about him, Jeff. I haven't heard you mention his name in months, not since that man Jansen escaped from prison. Do you still miss him, too?"

Jeff threw a murky glance at his persistent partner. "Yeah. Sometimes it's like he's still here."

"What would you do without me?" Marty muttered.

Jean drew down her sleeves and hugged Marty's cardigan closer around her. "I wish he was," she confessed. "It's nice to know you're not alone."

"You're not, love," Jeff said, stroking her arm. She gave him a small smile. "Now, why don't you try and get in a couple more hours of sleep, and then I'll take you for breakfast. How's that?"

"Who's paying?" Marty scoffed.

"Your treat, or are we going Dutch?" she asked wryly. "Thank you, Jeff. I'm glad you came."

"What are friends for?" he replied, meeting the mingled sorrow and gratitude in Marty's blue eyes. "Any time."

FIN