Excerpt from Dead Man’s Hand by Pati Nagle. Copyright © Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
(listen to William’s soundtrack on Pandora)
William Weare sat up, much annoyed, and took the coins from his eyes. He had been in the middle of a perfectly good haunting when a peculiar sensation had gripped him, rather like to being drawn into a maelstrom, though the underwater feeling of it may have just been his imagination. He was dry now, in any case, though rather chilled. That, upon reflection, was unusual.
He looked around and saw that he was in the Elstree churchyard, right enough. There was the obnoxious Burton monument just near. He was sitting on his own grave, dressed in his Sunday best. He frowned, stood up, and noticed a stray leaf on his sleeve. He brushed at it and it fell off. That was when he realized he was in a living body.
Disturbing; he’d forgotten how heavy it felt. He took a deep breath and marveled at the smell of mouldering leaves and damp night air. He hefted the two coins in his hand. Guineas, antiques by now. Probably worth a pretty penny. He dropped them into his coat pocket.
Alive again. He supposed he should be pleased, but he still felt faintly annoyed. He’d got used to being dead. He could go where he liked without anyone bothering him, and if he got bored he could frighten a few good people out of their wits for a laugh. How was he to frighten anyone now?
And these clothes—the ones he’d been buried in—well, they were absolutely out of fashion now, he knew that much. Frock coat and breeches belonged at a fancy dress ball, nowadays.
The young people he had been haunting were nowhere in sight. Scared off, perhaps, by the maelstrom or whatever it had been. They had gone home, or off to the pub to brag about daring the graveyard. He felt cheated.
The sound of horses’ hooves clopping on pavement made him turn his head. Outside the churchyard fence he saw a black coach and pair coming down the street. The matched black horses raised their hooves high as they trotted, very showy. The coach pulled up to the gate and stopped.
William gazed at it with narrowed eyes. He’d never seen the coach before, but it didn’t belong in the middle of 21st century Elstree any more than he did. That meant it must have something to do with the maelstrom and his sudden return to flesh. Well, he might as well have it out with the driver.
He strode through the churchyard to the gate and went out. Still frowning, he accosted the driver.
“You there! What’s your business with me?”
No reply, and he noticed now that there was no face beneath the top hat. He grimaced. He wasn’t fond of magical creatures, preferred to avoid them. They cramped his style.
The coach door opened and a young man stepped out. He was slender with dark hair and eyes of greenish gold, and wore a black driving coat with several shoulder capes. Very dashing for 1823, but a little out of place now. The fellow bowed to William.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Well? What do you want? And what do you mean by coming here in that museum piece?”
The youth looked at the coach, then back at William. “It’s meant to make you feel at home.”
The accent was American, definitely. William knew it from watching the telly; he had also seen American tourists often enough, even haunted a few.
“Feel at home? It’s a bloody antique! Where do you think I’ve been the last hundred and eighty-nine years?”
The youth looked disconcerted. “Well … you’ve been dead.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely out of touch!”
William eyed the coach with displeasure, partly born of the remembrance of his departure from this mortal coil—or some other mortal coil, more likely. This one was in too good condition to be the same.
He’d been dragged out of a coach—a gig, actually, smaller than the monstrosity before him—by his boon companion, John Thurtell, who had proceeded to murder him. Thurtell had taken exception to losing at cards, accused William of cheating (true, but Thurtell had no proof of it), and bludgeoned him to death. With the help of friends he had then dropped William in the pond at Gills Hill Cottage, but being nervous that he’d be discovered, they had moved him to another, more remote pond, and then to the river.
After all that sloshing about, William’s remains had been in poor condition. He remembered. He had watched.
He’d watched the trial, too, and a rare sensation it had been. He had been a solicitor in life, and professional interest, not to mention having little else to do, had drawn him to take in all the many blustering hours. He’d been at the hanging as well, there to greet his old companion and hasten him to his own personal hell. Thurtell hadn’t liked seeing him, William recalled with a smile.
The young man in the driving coat cleared his throat. William glanced up at him.
“Mr. Weare, I’m here to invite you to join a card game.”
“A card game? Is that why I’m given a new body, so that I can play cards?”
“And to whom to I owe this honor? If it’s Thurtell you can get back in that rattletrap and begone.”
“No, no. It’s Mr. Simon Penstemon, he’s an American. The game’s in America.”
“And why should I journey to America merely for a game of cards?”
“Don’t you want to keep that new body?” said the youth.
A feminine giggle drew William’s attention. Two young ladies, a plump redhead and a petite brunette, both wearing fuzzy jumpers over their blue jeans, were walking toward him along the street. They had their heads together and were obviously amused by William’s attire. The brunette cast a coy glance at the young man in the driving coat.
“They can see you,” William accused.
“They can’t see the coach,” the fellow replied in a whisper, then he nodded and smiled to the ladies.
“Hello, boys!” said the redhead. “Off to a masquerade? Can we come?”
“No masquerade,” said the fellow in black. “We’re just talking.”
The redhead pouted. Her friend was staring at the young man in open admiration, but he appeared not to notice. William chuckled, then hid it in a cough.
“Buy us a drink then?” the redhead said to him. “You’ll be a hit at the pub.”
“Sorry, we can’t,” said the youth. “We’ve got a plane to catch.”
“Hold on, hold on,” said William. “We’ve got time for a drink, haven’t we?”
The young man met his gaze, frowning. William smiled. He had the fellow, and they both knew it.
A silent bargain passed between them; a drink at the pub in exchange for his cooperation. He’d get the drink, and then he’d see about the cooperation.
Turning to the redhead, William offered his arm. “Lead on, my dear.”
A drink. A nice pint of bitters—it had been so long he could scarcely remember the taste.
“I’m Alma,” said the redhead, “and that’s Joanie.”
“William,” he said, and glanced at the youth.
“Festus,” said the youth grudgingly.
Alma laughed, a little cascading sound. “What a funny name! Is it American?”
“It’s short for Hephæstus.”
“Like the Greek god,” said Joanie, beaming up at him.
The youth said nothing, and didn’t quite roll his eyes, though he looked away. Alma pulled William forward, and the other two followed. The coach, which neither of the girls had heeded, began a laborious turn in the street and eventually followed them.
The pub wasn’t far. It was filled with people, mostly younger folk, chattering over loud rock music. A tiny dance floor in one corner was crammed with youngsters bouncing to the music. William had drifted in here once or twice, but it wasn’t a good place for haunting. Too hard to get people’s attention with all the noise and activity.
Alma led William up to the bar. The barkeep, a cheery fellow with the build of a prizefighter, looked up.
“Hallo, Alma,” he said in a bluff voice that cut through the music. “Wotcha got here?”
“This is William,” Alma shouted back. “Ain’t he grand?”
The barkeep’s brows rose. “How do, your lordship. What’ll you have?”
“A pint of your best,” said William loudly, “and whatever the ladies would like.”
“Pint for me, too,” said Alma.
“I’ll have a GT,” said Joanie. She looked at Festus, and the barkeep shifted his gaze to the youth.
“Just water for me,” he said. “I’m driving.”
An interesting lie, William thought. He watched as the barkeep fetched the drinks. Festus had better have the means to pay for them, because he wasn’t wasting one of his guineas on a couple of pints.
The barkeep set a glass before him. William admired the dark, golden-brown color, then sipped and sighed. Good ale, sharp with hops, mellow underneath. Bliss.
“So what do you do, William?” Alma asked, leaning one arm against the bar and sipping at the ale in her other hand.
“Do? Nothing.” He thought for a moment and added, “I’m retired.”
“And you dress like this just for kicks?”
“That’s right,” he said with a glance at Festus beside him, who looked increasingly uncomfortable. “For kicks.”
“You two should go dance,” Alma said to Joanie and Festus.
Joanie looked shocked. “It’s too crowded,” she said, with a worried glance at Festus.
“I don’t dance,” Festus said flatly, and swallowed half his glass of water.
William took another sip of his ale. He was rather enjoying this. All the physical sensations were so strong. As a ghost, he’d barely had a whisper of them. He liked it better than he’d remembered.
He liked Alma particularly, she was soft and warm and smelled interesting. He wondered if she’d be willing to take a tumble with him. Women nowadays were much more open to that sort of thing, it wasn’t nearly the disgrace it had been in his time. Perfectly respectable women slept with whomever they pleased, and called it dating.
“Are you at university?” he heard Joanie ask Festus.
“No,” Festus said without elaboration.
William sighed and took another swallow of ale. The fellow was a fool. Here was a lovely young thing clearly enamored of him, and he was throwing it away.
“So, where’s the plane taking you?” Alma asked.
“America. Want to come along?” William glanced sidelong at Festus, who looked fit to burst with annoyance.
Alma’s cascading laugh rose above the music. “Yeah, sure. Can you get me home by morning? I’ve got to work.”
“Call in sick,” William suggested.
Alma laughed again. Festus, who had both elbows on the bar, stared sullenly at his glass. Beyond him, Joanie watched, a hopeless jumble of confusion and infatuation.
William finished his ale and ordered another. He flirted with Alma while he drank it, much to Festus’s annoyance. Joanie tried a few more times to engage the fellow in conversation, then gave up and quietly sipped her drink. Poor girl. She wasn’t having a bit of fun.
“Nother round?” asked the barkeep, glancing at William’s nearly-empty glass.
“Not for me,” said Alma.
William finished his drink and set down the glass. He was feeling nicely mellow. “That’ll do, I guess.”
The barkeep waved a slip of paper. “Who gets the tab?”
William looked at Festus. The youth reached into the pocket of his driving coat and withdrew a twenty-pound note, which he dropped on the bar.
“Will that cover it?”
“More than. I’ll get your change,” said the barkeep.
“Keep it.” Festus turned to William with a hard look. “Time to go.”
William shrugged and offered an arm to Alma again. She finished her pint and slid her arm through his. Warm and soft.
Festus turned and began pushing his way through the crowd. William and Alma followed, with poor Joanie tagging behind. When they reached the street Festus headed for the coach, and William noticed that he walked haltingly. That accounted for his not wanting to dance. Joanie followed him a couple of steps back, her arms crossed over her chest.
Festus stopped beside the coach, which was waiting at the curb. “It was nice meeting you both,” he said to the girls, “but I’m afraid we have to say goodbye.”
“Hang on a minute,” Alma said, grinning at William. “You offered to take us along, right?”
“Sorry, we can’t,” Festus said shortly.
“In that case I’ll stay here,” William said. “You go on, my boy.”
“I can’t leave without you!” Festus sounded annoyed.
“Then you’ll have to take us all,” William said. “If you want me, you’ve got to bring Alma and Joanie.”
Alma laughed. Joanie looked uncomfortable and murmured a protest, but her eyes were hopeful as she glanced up at Festus.
“I can’t do that!” Festus said. “It’s not allowed!”
“Why not? Private plane, isn’t it? There’s room, isn’t there?” William was gambling on these assumptions, but from Festus’s reaction it looked like he’d been right. He grinned.
“They’re mundanes!” Festus said in exasperation.
“I beg your pardon!” Alma said, looking ready to clock him one.
“Mundanes aren’t allowed in the Black Queen,” Festus said, ignoring her. “Mr. Penstemon’s very strict about it.”
“Am I a mundane?” William asked.
Festus blinked. “Well—I guess you are—”
“So the rule doesn’t apply on this occasion, does it?”
“You’re an invited guest! They’re not!”
Festus’s brows were knit in an anxious frown, and color was rising in his cheeks. William felt a glow of calm triumph, an echo of his days as a solicitor. When one’s opponent was flustered, one was on the verge of victory.
“Bring them along,” he said in a kindly tone, “and I’ll work it all out with Mr. Penstemon. You won’t get in trouble, I’ll explain to him.”
Festus made a frustrated sound, like a strangled growl. “All right, all right,” he said, yanking open the door of the coach. “Get in.”