Chapter Nine

Lia picked up the lighter she’d found the night before from its new resting place on her bookshelf. She noted the burnt spot beneath it with a frown. But no matter. She turned, holding up the Zippo as a skeleton who dressed like a detective from a black- amp;-white movie came climbing down the tube ladder and into her underground home. Graves’ bony, segmented fingers clicked and rang against the ladder’s metal rungs. Hannah descended after him. Black Tom was down here already, projected from his catbody and appearing human again to Lia (although he remained invisible to everybody else). He kept one censorious eyebrow arched in the undead thing’s direction, but Mr. Graves’ courteous attitude was so different from that of the Tzitzimime that it was hard for Lia to believe he might be in league with them, despite the probable origin that his raw-boned appearance hinted at.

Whatever he was and wherever he’d come from, all he really seemed interested in was finding his cigarette lighter.

“Is this it?” Lia asked.

The skeleton raced over and snatched the Zippo from her hand, Smeagol-like, as soon as his shoeless, skinless feet hit the concrete floor. “Yes!” he shouted. “Oh, man, it is good to have this back.” Graves flipped the lid a couple of times, clicked the wheel to light the device and snuffed it out again, nodding happily. “Ohhhh yeah, that’s the stuff,” he crooned. “That’s just, I dunno… satisfying, somehow.”

He became aware of the strange looks the women were giving him and straightened up to recover his dignity. “Uh… yeah,” he said. “Sorry. I’m not, y’know, section eight or nothin.’”

“I’d never think it,” Lia said.

“It’s just got personal meaning for me, this thing,” Graves explained, contemplating the tarnished old lighter.

“Then I’m glad I can give it back to you.”

She meant it, too. The raggedly dressed skeleton looked up at her and seemed in a way to see her for the very first time. It was hard to tell without facial expressions, but she thought he looked surprised, and maybe even humbled.

Then his swagger reasserted itself. Grinning (again, insofar as that could be done without facial muscles or lips-it was mostly a matter of skull positioning), he sauntered over to take Lia’s hand, clearly and perversely attempting to charm her pants off. That he now conspicuously lacked the endowments needed to follow through on his compulsion didn’t seem to faze him at all.

“Well, listen, dollface,” he drawled. “I am in your debt here, so if there’s anything, and I do mean anything that I can do-”

Lia recoiled when Graves took her hand and attempted to kiss it, jerking it away and shying back with a startled hiss.

It made for an awkward moment between them, to say the least.

Lia regretted her reaction as soon as she sensed Hannah’s mounting alarm over it. If Lia turned frightened of this thing that called itself Dexter Graves, then Mrs. Potter might well freak out. And who’d be able to blame her?

Graves looked down at his own fleshless phalanges. “I keep forgettin’ I’m not as pretty as I used to be,” he said quietly, by way of apology.

Lia felt guilty enough about her discourtesy to a guest that she began to protest automatically, in spite of her genuine consternation. “No, no, it isn’t that,” she said, groping for words even though she wasn’t sure what she meant to say. The man was a walking cadaver, after all, and Miss Manners was sure to be silent on subjects like these. No index entry for ‘undeadiquette,’ Lia would’ve wagered. She didn’t like to hurt feelings, though, if she could help it, no matter who or what those feelings might belong to. “It’s just-”

“Guess I could be crawling with disease, too, couldn’t I?” Graves mused, talking over her and rubbing it in a bit, she thought, now that he could see she felt bad. “After being planted for… well, hell, how long has it been, anyway?”

Lia didn’t know. How on earth could she? She shrugged and shook her head, still feeling quite bewildered by him. By the incredible fact of his existence, as well as the sheer undeniability of his presence. Desiccated Dexter Graves represented a new phase in her experience, all right. A mindblowing one, even for a woman with interests and predilections like hers. He looked like a Day of the Dead decoration come to life. “When did you, umm…?”

“Buy the farm?” Graves teased, trying and failing to cajole her out of her obvious discomfort. “Cash my check? Shuffle off my-”

“Yeah. That.”

“1950 or so, I s’pose,” Graves said, thinking about it. He scratched at his fractured skull, tipping back his hat and revealing a ragged crater in his forehead, like an off-center third-eye socket. “Memory’s a little cracked, y’know. So, when is it now?”

Lia hesitated. She didn’t want to deliver this sort of news.

Hannah stepped in, seeking to take the pressure off her rattled friend, and Lia was more than willing to let her. Han took Graves’ reclaimed lighter from his hand and set it aside, then urged Graves to sit.

He did so compliantly, settling his assbones onto one of Lia’s scavenged chairs with a trenchcoat-muffled thump. Hannah crouched down in front of him, took both of his hands, and looked him square in the eyeholes.

“Dexter…” Han said. “Brace yourself, okay?”

“I’m braced,” he said, and Hannah told him what she knew.

Graves looked overcome.

“No fooling?” he said wonderingly, after a moment or two. “Sixty years?” He thought about it for another beat, and some of the straightness went out of his spine. “Everyone I ever knew is dead,” he murmured.

“Probably,” Lia agreed, perhaps tactlessly, but it was out there before she could think better of it.

Graves shook his skull as the full weight of his existential conundrum crashed over him. It was as though a spell that’d been keeping him from thinking too deeply about his circumstances had evaporated, probably at the instant she gave him back that lighter. His cervical vertebrae crackled.

“Holy hell,” he said. “I never thought… I mean, how could I have, it’s not, it, it-oh God what’s happening? What the hell is going on?”

He jumped up, beseeching, and this time both women recoiled in fear. Lia pushed Hannah aside to grab up Graves’ Zippo from the pile of books Han had absently set it on top of. Graves lurched away after Hannah, who shrieked at full volume, her voice echoing painfully off the close concrete walls.

“Lady, come on, you gotta tell me, how is this happening?” the skeleton pleaded, backing Hannah into a corner. “Why did I come here? Who the hell are you people? Come on,I need to know!”

All right now, Lia thought. Enough’s enough.

She deftly wrapped Graves’ lighter in twine that she snatched up from a handy box of craft supplies, then nipped it off with her teeth and knotted it. She dumped the stagnant remainder of a beverage from a nearby drinking glass and clapped it down over the lighter. She put her hands over the glass, closed her eyes and concentrated hard to charge her intention. She gasped sharply and straightened up like she’d been jabbed in some invisible way when she felt the psychic circuit close. It would’ve been difficult for an observer to guess whether this was painful or pleasurable for her. She wasn’t always so sure herself.

At the instant her eyes flew open, Dexter Graves tumbled into a heap of bones and clothes on the floor behind her. His ongoing rant was silenced mid-shout. Lia heard the bones clatter, and the coat whispered as it deflated.

Hannah, cowering against the wall, likewise sagged with relief. “Is he gone?” she asked in a shaky voice.

Lia turned around, feeling woozy, and smoke rose up from Graves’ disarticulated bones. It coalesced into a vivid ghost right in front of her, one that looked the way Graves must have before he died: smug and cool in his coat and hat. “Not gone by a long shot, sister,” he said to Hannah, who yelped and clutched at her breastbone when he spoke to her. “Not forgotten either.”

“Oh, my God, it’s a ghost,” Han said.

“It was a talking skeleton when you were having a drink with it,” Lia observed.

“Yeah, but… I’ve never seen a ghost,” Hannah said, prompting Lia to roll her eyes and abandon the conversation.

“Listen,” Graves said. “I don’t know what you dolls are tryin’ to pull here, but-”

He took a step toward Lia and bumped against an invisible barrier, like a mime in a box. Or under a big drinking glass.

“Heyyy,” he said, scowling and testing the unexpectedly resistant air before him. “What gives?”

Lia pointed to her arrangement of glass and lighter and string, nestled up on her overstuffed bookshelf. “I’ve bound you, Mr. Graves,” she explained. “I’m sorry, you seem like a very nice man, but… you’re scary.”

Graves shrugged. He couldn’t argue that one.

“What I mean is, we don’t know what you are or why you’re here, any more than you seem to. And until we figure that out, I think it’s best you stay right where you are.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Graves said. “What, you’re just gonna leave me here? For how long?”

“I don’t think time is exactly of the essence with you, Mr. Graves,” Lia said.

The ghost put his hands on his hips and looked for a retort, but he couldn’t seem to find one. “Yeah, well, maybe not,” he said, and sighed, looking defeated. “Will you at least call me Dexter, then? I like to be on a first-name basis with all my captors.”

“I will do that,” Lia agreed with a nod. “And… you are right about one thing, Dexter.”

She looked Graves’-Dexter’s-ghost up and down, with an approving lift of her eyebrows (a mannerism she’d half-consciously adopted from Tom). In life Dex had been tall and solid, with dark hair, nice eyes, and an affably bemused expression. He looked damn good in the suit he’d manifested, too.

“You were prettier before you rotted,” she told him.

Then she sashayed over to the tube and climbed up without another look back. Hannah waved an awkward goodbye before she followed.

Graves heard the hatch clank shut and the wheel squeal, above. He reflected that this, then, was the second time he’d ever been dumped in a hole for safekeeping. At least he had dim electric light and a little bit of elbow room this time around. His invisible cell allowed him almost five whole feet of leeway. Enough space to dance a goddamn jig, should the spirit move him.

He wanted to be angrier about all of this than he was really able to manage. That Lia was smart to be cautious, as well as far too cute for him to stay mad at. Her oversized eyes glittered like balls of dark glass, and her pert little figure looked generous in all the right places.

While he’d looked like something a dog might dig up and barf onto a kitchen floor, when making his first impression.

Frustrated, Graves sat down crosslegged amidst his own dusty bones, with his ghostcoat pooling out around his insubstantial shoes. This whole deal felt backwards to him. Clients were supposed to walk into his office, looking for help from a man who knew the score. Not the other way around. Miss Lia seemed at least to know the name of the game they were playing, which was far more than Graves could currently say for himself. She’d also dealt with his little outburst pretty efficiently, as soon as she felt the need. He couldn’t help but be impressed with that, despite the resulting inconvenience. She was like nothing he’d ever seen before.

Letting his thoughts drift back toward the girl wasn’t as distracting as the weird compulsion that had left him like a dream as soon as he touched his lighter, but it was a perfectly kosher way of occupying his mind while he waited for a plan to occur to him. Habit made him pat his breast pocket and he was pleasantly surprised to find a pack of ectoplasmic cigarettes in there.

Talk about coffin nails, he thought dryly.

He patted again, his hopes rising, but he no longer seemed to have his lighter. He remembered why and looked over at it, tied shut and imprisoned under glass up on Lia’s crowded bookshelf. He sneered bitterly.

“Story of my goddamn life,” he muttered.