After the affair of Jason Moriarty had come to a conclusion, I remained in New Babbage for some time. I seemed to be spending enough time in the city that I scouted for inexpensive lodgings such that I would always have a base of operations when I returned. I looked at a few rooms and interviewed with several landladies, but nothing leapt out to me.
During my search, however, I was in contact with a Mr. Obadiah French, a real estate agent. He asked what brought me to New Babbage. When he learned that I was an investigative journalist, a strange look passed his face. He said in a conspiratorial tone, "I have a small problem that you could perhaps help me with. It requires the utmost discretion."
"I am the soul of discretion," I replied, mentally crossing my fingers. A good story was a rare thing, and I wasn't about to promise my way out of one.
"I have a property in Clockhaven that is vacant at present." Clockhaven, the oldest inhabited part of the city, was a warren of wooden buildings and roads that ran at crazy angles. I assumed that what was coming next was a request to spy on a couple having marital problems, or catch a juvenile vandal who was making it difficult for Mr. French to sell this house. "I'm having some trouble selling the property..." Saw that one coming. "...because it is haunted by a resident ghost."
Okay, I didn't see that one coming.
"A ghost, Mr. French? Surely you don't believe -"
"Of course I don't believe in ghosts, Miss. I'm not some superstitious know-nothing from the Seventeen Century, and I'm not living in Winterfell. And I've never seen this creature. No, the problem is that more than one potential buyer has been frightened off by what seems to be a ghost. We both know this is nonsense, but something must be going on inside that house, and I want to know what it is. Once I know the cause of the problem, I can fix it and get on with the business of selling the house. Can you help me?"
Turning down money has always been hard for me; I'm weak that way. I nodded curtly and asked him to show me the house.
The house was clearly once a place of pride, but time had not been kind. Its once-white wooden siding looked slightly out of place from its neighbors. The house was set apart in other ways as well, with an iron fence ringing the property, ivy entwining the crosspieces. The gate was now ajar, one side drooping as one hinge failed. The lawn was weedy and unkempt. The house itself was in poor repair, though the structure was still solid. This was once the premier estate in the neighborhood. It was still a fine property that a young couple with a growing family might buy and renovate.
Mr. French led me through the gates, up the walkway, past a cracked and dry fountain, to the front door. I looked around and saw no neighbors, nor foot traffic through the street. Was he luring me here for some nefarious purpose? I shook the thought out of my head and patted my derringer absent-mindedly. He seemed to be genuinely concerned about the so-called ghost problem and, in any event, I had my safety covered.
"It's always the third floor rear suite where visitors say they see the ghost. Let me show you." He opened the door and bade me enter. I placed a gloved hand on his arm and said, "No, Mr. French, let me venture alone. You said the ghost never manifests itself to you. Perhaps whatever is behind this will think I am an interested buyer and will try to scare me away." He looked dubious but agreed to leave me there and return the next morning, allowing me the entire night in the house, if needed.
As the real estate agent left, I locked the door behind me and looked around. The interior of the house was consistent with the exterior: originally luxurious, now shabby. Off to one side of the grand foyer was a parlor, dominated by a large fireplace flanked by classical-style pillars. The wallpaper, of Chinese lanterns, was once vibrant but was now faded and peeling in places. The intricate moldings appeared to be in good shape, if in need of a new coat of paint. On the other side of the foyer was the library, with similar faded promise. Neither room seemed to have a ghost of any kind.
I walked up the main stairs and looked at the second floor bedrooms, a master suit and smaller bedroom. Again, no spirits. One more set of stairs to the top floor of the family's part of the house. Three more bedrooms, one of which had an unusual set of locks on the door. Walking into the master suite, I smelled mold and old-house decay, but caught no aroma of ghost. Then again, I was not entirely sure what I should see, smell, or hear. One of the smaller bedrooms was equally ghost-free. The other room was still locked. I considered attempting to pick the locks, but thought Mr. French would not be pleased if he had been the one to put the locks on the door, though what valuables could be behind the door I couldn’t imagine. I shrugged mentally and walked down the back stairs. I investigated the servants' quarters and the kitchen as well, with the same lack of success. I was less thrilled with the idea of going through the cellar, especially now that dark was falling, but a job was a job and I did not want to leave any area of the house unexplored.
I lit a candle and carried it carefully down the cellar stairs. The gloom was dense, so I could not see far in front of me, and I moved carefully. Despite my foreboding, the cellar was unexpectedly clean and it was free of obstacles. Nothing caught my eye as I surveyed the entire floor. I returned to the main part of the house.
At this point, there was nothing for me to do but wait for darkness to fall and see if the ghost would appear at that time. I made my encampment in the library, assembling some cheese and bread, along with some dried fruit, into a semblance of dinner. I poured a small glass of brandy to keep me warm. Making myself comfortable, I pulled out a volume of Mr. Charles Dickens and waited.