They said the house was haunted. It had been empty for nearly ten years, and its last inhabitant had been an elderly lady who had lived there for fifty years – shut up alone with the ghosts, they said. Its present owner was away and there was only a caretaker now who came in as few times in a year as possible. The wallpaper was peeling away in long strips of arsenical green and the whole building smelt of damp. If electric power had been installed, it had long since been cut off, so they were all gathered here by candlelight. It added to the mood, Jack supposed, but he still wasn’t sure why he’d come.
It had all seemed a bit of a laugh, back in the warmth of the Arnhirsts’, even if some of the others had been taking it too seriously from the start. They’d decided to take a medium along to the local supernatural hotspot and scare themselves, because why shouldn’t they? One had to do something, after all. And unreal terrors were so much better than the memories of real ones that wouldn’t ever quite leave. Jack didn’t know how it was for the others, all the fellows at least, but there was always thunder in his head these days.
It wasn’t really his sort of thing, though. He’d have been happier to be there if he’d believed there was any chance of a genuine ghost turning up. You’d probably get more sense out of a ghost than Reg when he’d had a few, but his sister had wanted to come, so here he was. He moved away from the rest, tired of their frivolous talk about spirits and which room held the most potential for spectral activity. He found himself next to a tall man, who was standing against the wall, picking at the wallpaper. Jack didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t even sure he’d been with them at the start – maybe they’d picked him up somewhere along the way. But then, he wasn’t the sort of man you noticed especially: thin, quiet, grey, of indeterminate age, although he certainly looked too old for this kind of lark.
“Oh, well,” said Jack, making conversation. “I suppose we’ve got to go through with it now, eh?”
The man turned a curious grey gaze in his direction, although he was still playing with the ends of the wallpaper and it seemed to take him a moment to register Jack fully and bring him into focus. He considered Jack’s rhetorical question with a seriousness it didn’t deserve. “I don’t think it’s too late to leave yet,” he said. “Go while you’ve got the chance.”
“But you’re staying?” said Jack, puzzled, because he didn’t sound at all keen on the plan.
The man shrugged. “I was sent.”
“Oh, well,” Jack said again, thrown by that odd response. He couldn’t think what the chap could mean. “Bad luck, old thing.”
“You really should leave,” the man said. “It won’t do you any good to stay.”
Jack watched the others forming a circle in the centre. He’d have loved to walk out, but it wasn’t an option for him, either. “I can’t leave Eddy,” he told the man. “My sister, you know.” Eddy might think she was old enough for anything, but she was still his baby sister, even now. Trying to get her to leave wouldn’t do, either. She’d kick up one hell of a fuss, and he couldn’t blame her, not if he tried to play the heavy-handed elder brother in front of their friends.
Not feeling he had much else he could say to the strange man, he ambled back towards the others in the circle, watching them shuffle about before joining them, sitting on the floor between Lily Arnhirst and Reg Chapple. He wondered how the medium – Madame Celeste (definitely not her real name) – would fare without the usual table. That was how they did it, wasn’t it? Knocking the table or pulling a thread, plus a few well-chosen and vague questions? He supposed it was all very well, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about people who made a living out of other people’s grief.
Madame Celeste went through all the motions. Jack admired her showmanship if nothing else. As they all remained sitting around the candle, she called out into the darkness beyond them for any spirits here to reveal themselves. Despite himself, Jack drew in his breath, waiting for a response. Here, in this house, it seemed as if something surely had to respond. There was nothing, however, and after the first few minutes his reaction shifted to one of boredom and cynicism. It was cold sitting here on the floor, and he didn’t want to spend the whole evening holding Lily’s and Reg’s hands. He could sense his own impatience echoed in the others, as people began to fidget about, and someone to one side of him was whispering.
Just when he was desperately hoping that someone would at last call it a night, Madame Celeste stiffened, and, in a low voice unlike her own, said, “Diana – Diana – are you here? Don’t leave me!”
It wasn’t the usual sort of spiel, he thought, and stifled a shiver as the medium kept repeating the question until one of the women – the one Reg had been flirting with earlier, Bel something or other – gave a gasp and gripped her partners’ hands so tightly that they protested. Before Jack could see what had happened, the candle blew out and the darkness swallowed them.
Suddenly, everything felt different. Jack waited for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light, but the blackness seemed to remain absolute. He couldn’t seem even to sense Reg or Lily on either side of him. He couldn’t feel their hands in his or hear surprised cries from anyone else in the circle. He had the uneasy feeling that he wasn’t even in the house any more.
The voice was still here, as if a disembodied thing now: “Diana,” it said. “You’ll stay now, won’t you? You’ll stay this time.”
Jack was finding it hard to breathe, but then another voice broke the silence; something completely different – coming from somewhere behind him –
“You’re late.” It was the tall man who was speaking, Jack realised in surprise. He’d felt so sure he was utterly alone in this blackness.
“And you’re falling down on the job,” said another voice; this one new and abrasive. “You were supposed to prevent this from happening.”
“I was told the house would be empty. Something’s gone wrong. I hoped they’d send someone else before it got to this point.”
There was a woman with them now. “You’re right, Copper. We’re late. Maybe too late.” Jack couldn’t see her, but she sounded perhaps a little haughty, maybe aristocratic. He could hear the smile in her voice, though, as she continued: “They should have sent Silver.”
“Sapphire.” The abrasive man again, sounding more urgent this time. “Stop this. Bring them all back.”
“Find a way,” said the man, and Jack knew there’d be no disobeying that order.
The tall man – Copper – spoke again: “The wiring,” he said. “Sapphire – use the wiring – with me –”
The darkness passed as abruptly as it had come and reality reasserted itself. Jack blinked, almost instantly disregarding everything that had happened between the extinguishing of the candles and the lights coming back on.
(But, he thought, somewhere in the back of his head, the electricity was disconnected. There shouldn’t be any power. There shouldn’t be any lights.)
However, the sight that met his eyes drove all thoughts of darkness and light out of his head: Bel was lying in the centre of the circle, passed out from fright or something. Or no . . . She was dead, Jack thought with sudden certainty. He’d seen enough death to know what it looked like. Oh, God, how could she be dead?
He left the others to come to that conclusion for themselves. He cast any considerations of the game, the séance, to the winds, and broke the circle to cross to Eddy, crouching down beside her and taking her hand. For once, she didn’t snap at him for fussing.
He glanced up then and saw that the tall man was still standing at the side of the room, but he had company now, a man and a woman. Jack had a sudden, sick flashback to the moment in the darkness: they matched the voices – a short man sporting evening wear and what looked like a permanent frown, and a woman in a dress of midnight blue satin, long black beads hanging around her neck. Unlike the nondescript Copper, they seemed to have dressed for a party.
Jack stood up, letting go of Eddy. “What are you going to do?” he asked them, drawing everyone else’s attention to the strangers. He couldn’t explain to himself why he’d asked, even as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It was that conversation that maybe he’d only imagined that had made him do it – they’d sounded as if they knew what was going on somehow. As if they could do something about this.
“Who the hell are you?” demanded Reg, turning and seeming to notice them for the first time. “Did you do this?”
The woman smiled. It was strangely dazzling. “I’m Sapphire, and this is Steel. Oh, and that’s Copper. And, no, we didn’t. You did.”
“Look,” Eddy said, “never mind blaming anyone – Bel needs help! Someone needs to go fetch a doctor –”
“No,” said Steel. “No one can leave.”
Reg started forward. “Now, look here –”
“She’s dead,” said Sapphire quietly. “The girl. I’m sorry. It’s too late to help her. And what Steel means is that you can’t leave. Try if you like, but what you’ve done has trapped all of us here.”
Dead? Are you sure?
Twenty-two years, three months and four days. Thirteen hours. Yes, Steel, I’m sure. It took her.
And you just stood there, Copper?
You know that’s unfair, Steel. A technician couldn’t have done anything against – Sapphire stopped, a shadow in her eyes for a moment. Against that.
He could have tried.
I couldn’t, Copper said, but it was said only as a matter of fact, not a defence. I was unable to move. I did what I could with the wiring, but It fixed on me immediately. I warned those people to leave and I tried to get into the connections, but It had taken my measure. There was nothing I could do. I said. Someone’s made a mistake. This isn’t what I was told.
Steel turned slowly, as if to glare at each of the walls in turn. When is it ever?
“I couldn’t move,” said Copper suddenly, as if another conversation had been going on somewhere. Jack looked at him. “And you need to do something now. I can feel it, building up power again, in the wiring. This time it might have sized you two up as well.”
Reg stared. “What the devil are you blithering about? Come on – let’s do as Eddy says and go and get help!”
“Yes, do,” said Steel, striding past Reg, back towards Bel – towards the body, although he stopped short of her. It. “Get out of the way. You’ve done more than enough damage, all of you.”
Jack watched Reg hurry to the door, followed by Lily and Henry. Eddy moved to go after them, but he grabbed her arm. “Wait,” he said in her ear. “This is getting strange. Just – wait.”
A séance, said Steel, his disgust evident in his thoughts. Why?
Boredom, Sapphire said. She shrugged. Boredom, fear, grief, the need for reassurance.
And because of that, they’re probably all going to die, and the damage here may be irreparable!
They’re always reckless, Copper agreed. Although, I wonder –
Copper? said Sapphire.
Sapphire put her hand on her partner’s arm. Steel, Copper doesn’t have idle thoughts.
I think there’s something else, said Copper. Beyond the break. I think they may have been drawn here deliberately. He hesitated and, then, with less certainty, added: I think perhaps even we may have been.
Sapphire leant against the wall with both hands behind her back, tracing the lines of the wallpaper. There’s a number, she said suddenly: twelve.
How many of them are there? asked Steel and then answered his own question, his disapproving gaze sweeping the room. Thirteen. Now there are twelve.
“Damn it,” said Reg, marching back into the room, dark brows locked into a scowl. “We can’t get out.” He rounded on Steel, making all the use of the few inches he had on the man, although it didn’t seem to visibly move him. “You! What the hell did you people do?”
Steel hardly even bothered to look at him. He sounded almost bored. “Not us. You did this – all of you. You held a séance here. You might as well have set the house alight and locked yourselves in it.”
“I say,” Peter objected. “What a foul thing to come out with!”
“Whose idea was it?” Steel waited, and when an answer wasn’t forthcoming, said, with distaste, “This – séance.”
Jack wished they’d all stop arguing. As if it mattered now who was to blame. They just needed to get out of here, preferably alive. He found his gaze straying to the tall man again, to Copper, who was also busy ignoring the exchange. He was still attending to the wallpaper, running long fingers down the raised green patterns and halting by a tear, pulling first paper away, and then, somehow, tugging at a revealed wire, although how it could have come through the plaster, God only knew.
“I’ve been all round the bloody place,” Reg said, running a hand through his hair, making it look even more fly-away than usual. He didn’t even bother to apologise for his bad language, even when Lily flinched at it. “I can’t open the windows – can’t even break them – and the doors won’t budge. I don’t understand it. None of this should be possible!”
Sapphire turned to him. “And yet you were trying to raise a ghost. Didn’t you believe something might answer your call? What was the point if not?”
“We shifted backwards,” said Steel. “In time. The whole building. How long, Sapphire?”
Sapphire’s hazel eyes shifted colour, abruptly glowing blue. Jack felt Eddy press up against him in alarm. He tightened his hold on her hand, no less for his own comfort than hers. Another impossibility. He wished he could believe it was an hallucination.
“Six months, four days, three hours, fifty-three minutes,” said Sapphire distantly.
Steel faced Reg. “That’s why you can’t get out. Just as well. Let you all out into the past and the wall between us and the corridor would shatter.”
“You think there’s structural damage?” said Peter, frowning and clearly not following. Jack couldn’t say that he blamed him. “The house might fall in on us?”
Sapphire gave a passing smile. “If you want to look at it like that, yes. We’re here to prevent that happening.”
“What the hell are you people blathering about?” Reg demanded. “God, are you even sane?”
Steel rounded on him. “It was your idea, wasn’t it?”
“Blaming people isn’t going to help,” Lily said. “Leave Reg alone. It wasn’t his fault.”
Sapphire moved past her to Reg. “It’s not about blame. It’s about locating the source of the problem.”
“Not his fault, or not his idea?” said Steel. “Then who came up with it?”
Jack racked his brains for the answer to that and couldn’t think. Eddy caught his eye for a moment, clearly coming to the same conclusion, and when he glanced round at the rest of their friends, no one seemed to be any the wiser.
“None of you remember?” said Sapphire. She turned back to Steel, with a significant look, although Jack was damned if he could see why it mattered now that things had come to this pass.
Copper, meanwhile, merely continued to wind electrical wire around his hand. The lights flickered and he looked up. “It’s happening again.”
The lights went out, as if on cue, and everybody yelled, no one having much nerve left. Jack hung onto Eddy, hoping fervently that this was some strange nightmare he’d wake from soon. It couldn’t possibly be real.
“You won’t leave me,” said Madame Celeste, much as she had before, causing Eddy to give a shiver that Jack was close enough to feel. There was no name this time, though. She said it again, and this time it wasn’t lost or plaintive, there was force behind it: “You won’t leave me!”
When the lights came back on, everybody else had gone.