Elisabeth gave her invitation to the valet and received a gilt-edged program in return. It welcomed her to the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. The valet glanced at Elisabeth’s satchel and then escorted her into the ballroom.
Bearbrass had been a sleepy colonial outpost until gold was discovered in the nearby hills. Within three years, it had been transformed into the largest city in all of the colonies. Elisabeth did not think of it as necessarily an improvement.
A dozen chandeliers clung to the ceiling and paintings imported from the empire competed for space on the walls. An orchestra of more than twenty musicians waited on the stage at the far end of the room.
Mrs. Rittiker, the president of the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society, greeted Elisabeth at the entrance. She was a short, stout woman in her early fifties and wore a purple chiffon gown with a plunging neckline. “You’ve come without a chaperone again,” she said. “If I were half the gentle lady I pretend to be, I would be thoroughly scandalized.”
Elisabeth laughed. Although ostensibly the Gentle Ladies Society served as an organizer of social functions, the society’s inner council was devoted to recovering the lost knowledge of the ancient gentle ladies. She had known Mrs. Rittiker all of her life. She handed over the satchel. “Fresh from the book mines.”
Mrs. Rittiker opened the bag and took out a book. She brushed a speck of dirt from the cover and smiled when she read the title. The Gentle Ladies’ Guide to Midnight Apparitions. “No one has your talent for finding books, Elisabeth.”
She replaced the book in the satchel and handed it to a servant. “Take this to my carriage.” She took Elisabeth by the hand. “There are some handsome young men waiting to see you.” Mrs. Rittiker led her over to the other guests and a dozen young men formed a line in front of her.
Elisabeth suppressed a sigh. The only reason she came to the balls was to meet Bertie, and he was always irritatingly late.
“This is Horatio Lightfellow,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “He arrived on this morning’s zeppelin from the empire.”
“Charmed to meet you,” Lightfellow said. “At some point in the evening I would be most happy to inform you of the latest fashions in the capital.” His gaze strayed to Elisabeth’s hair. She had been born with hair made from gold.
“I had been told of the remarkable properties of Bearbrass gold,” he said. “But I wasn’t aware it extended to the city’s inhabitants.”
Elisabeth could think of nothing less interesting than talking about what clothes people she had never met were wearing. “I was conceived in a gold mine,” she said.
Lightfellow looked shocked. “I hardly think that’s something a young lady should mention.” He looked to Mrs. Rittiker for assistance. “I had heard tales of the wild women in the colonies, but I had presumed them exaggerated.”
“Bearbrass Gentle Ladies are not as gentle as the ladies of the empire,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “We take great pride in that.”
“My father was a gold prospector,” Elisabeth said. “My mother was a librarian. I am a book prospector.”
“She’s the best in all the colonies,” Mrs. Rittiker added. “Her heart is made from gold too.”
Lightfellow appeared lost for words. “May I have the pleasure of the last dance?” he eventually asked.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Lightfellow,” Elisabeth replied. “I always leave the last dance free.”
He checked his program. “The seventeenth dance?”
“I would be most pleased to dance with you.” She wrote Lightfellow in the space next to 17 on her program.
Lightfellow bowed and hastily retreated. The next man stepped forward and the process continued. She insisted on leaving the last dance free.
The orchestra started playing. Her first partner led her onto the polished hardwood floor. She danced a waltz, changed partners, danced a polka, then a one step and another waltz. Her partners were a mixture of gold prospectors, bankers and cattle kings. Halfway through the night they paused for supper and crowded around tables laden with cakes and pastries. Elisabeth helped herself to a slice of chocolate cake.
Mrs. Rittiker gathered a crowd around her and began a lengthy tale of her exploits on the cricket field.
Elisabeth overheard Lightfellow expressing his disapproval of Bearbrass women.
Then everyone fell silent. Elisabeth turned around.
A four foot high ventriloquist’s puppet stood at the entrance to the room. It wore a dark suit and orange bow tie and clenched a poster in its right hand. The puppet marched mechanically towards the stage, its wooden limbs jerking as though pulled by invisible strings.
Elisabeth leaned over to Mrs. Rittiker. “Who’s that?”
“Mr. Nine. The Governor hired it to crush the miners’ rebellion. Now it can go wherever it pleases. Even the Governor’s scared of it.”
The puppet slowly made its way up the stage stairs. It took a moment to survey the crowd. “Mr. Nine is most sorry to intrude.” It unfurled a wanted poster, revealing a sketch of a monkey. “Mr. Nine wants this monkey spirit. Have you seen it?”
No one spoke. The puppet sniffed the air. It stared at Elisabeth.
Her heart hammered against her chest. “How did it come to life?” she whispered.
“The gold did it. Now it has to eat gold to stay alive.” Mrs. Rittiker glanced at Elisabeth’s golden strands. “You should be careful, my dear.”
A servant placed a table and stool at the edge of the stage. The puppet sat down and rested its elbows on the table. The little finger on its left hand was missing.
“Why is it looking for a monkey spirit?” Elisabeth asked.
“A monkey spirit bit off one of its fingers.”
A servant brought a pile of pancakes sprinkled with gold dust to Mr. Nine’s table. The puppet began eating with great gusto, shoveling the pancakes into its little mouth. It washed them down with a glass of iced water mixed with gold flakes.
The orchestra resumed playing and Elisabeth’s next dance partner escorted her onto the floor. She couldn’t help glancing at Mr. Nine and twice accidentally stood on her partner’s foot. The puppet finished eating the pancakes and licked its lips with its bright green tongue.
The dances continued until it was almost time for the last dance. Captain Albert Widdershins floated through the far wall and strode through the orchestra. The musicians scattered. No one liked having a ghost walk through them.
Elisabeth felt the tension slip away. Bertie always liked to make a grand entrance. He was six feet tall with a ramrod-straight back, a trim moustache and short hair. He had once been a zeppelin captain and wore riding boots and a tight-fitting military uniform. She could sense the envy of the other young ladies. He was the most handsome gentleman ghost in all of Bearbrass. He had died in the mines and the gold had brought him back.
He nodded to Mrs. Rittiker and glided over to Elisabeth. “If you’ll permit me to say so, you look most enchanting tonight, Miss Elisabeth.”
“Permission granted, Captain Widdershins.”
“I must once again apologize for my tardiness.”
“The hour grows late, Captain. I fear the last dance is almost upon us.”
He stepped closer to her. “If the lady would be so kind as to allow me to touch her golden locks.”
She nodded. He slipped off his gloves and put them in his belt. When his spectral hand met Elisabeth’s hair, a jolt of energy coursed through her. His ghostly hand assumed a solid form and gradually his whole body transformed into solid flesh.
His hand lingered a moment on her hair. “May I have the last dance?”
She pretended to check her program. Then she took his arm in hers. His body was cold, but she felt it growing warmer.
In her excitement at Bertie’s arrival, she had almost forgotten about Mr. Nine. The puppet watched silently from its stool. She tried to put it out of her mind.
The last dance was a waltz. The captain encircled her waist with his right arm and took her right hand in his left. He twirled her and led her around in a circle. The rest of the world seemed to disappear. It was just the music and Bertie’s strong arms. It felt like they had only been dancing for a few seconds and then the music finished.
“Once again, Miss Elisabeth you have enchanted me with your grace and beauty,” Bertie said. “I warrant that even the Queen of the Fairies would acknowledge you as the superior dancer.”
Elisabeth laughed. “And I warrant that even the King of the Leprechauns would acknowledge you as the superior flatterer.”
Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned to see Mr. Nine.
The puppet bowed. “Mr. Nine would like to request the last dance.”
“But the last dance has just finished,” she said.
“That was the second last dance,” the puppet replied. “The orchestra will play again. What is the lady’s preference? A waltz?”
“I’m sorry, but the evening is late. I must be getting home.”
“Do not concern yourself. Mr. Nine’s carriage will take you home.”
Captain Widdershins stepped in front of Elisabeth. “The lady has said she is going home. It is the height of bad manners to persist in bothering her.”
Mr. Nine stared at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine is requesting the last dance. This does not concern you.”
Elisabeth put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Bertie.” She looked down at Mr. Nine. “Thank you for your offer, but Captain Widdershins has already agreed to escort me home.”
The puppet sniffed the air and its green tongue crept along its lips. “Mr. Nine is hungry. Mr. Nine likes your smell.” The puppet stared at Elisabeth’s chest.
Widdershins plucked a glove from his belt and slapped Mr. Nine across the face.
The puppet’s eyes rolled in surprise and it glared up at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine accepts your challenge.”
The Bearbrass cricket oval also served as the dueling grounds. Elisabeth and Bertie walked to the oval, followed by a crowd of onlookers. Mr. Nine traveled by carriage.
As the host of the ball, the duty of overseeing the duel fell to Mrs. Rittiker. She directed the servants as they laid out a number of lanterns in a circle.
Elisabeth and Bertie waited near the lanterns. Clouds obscured the moon, and shadows hid Bertie’s face.
“I don’t want you to do this,” she said.
“I don’t want to do this either,” he replied. “But I have no choice. If I don’t stop the puppet, it will come for you. It wants to eat your heart.”
“Let me worry about that. I can always hide in the mines.”
“It is my duty as a gentleman to protect you.”
“I can look after myself. Who is going to look after you?”
“I am a most accomplished duelist,” he replied.
“Why do you have to fight now? If you wait until morning, you’ll be spectral again.”
“If I’m spectral, I can’t hold a gun,” Bertie said.
“What happens if a ghost is killed?” she asked.
“If a ghost dies, you should collect some of its blood. Ghost blood has many powers.” He paused and then said, “I want you to promise me that you’ll take the first zeppelin in the morning if I don’t win.”
Elisabeth shook her head. “Not without you.”
“You know it won’t be safe here. Promise me.”
“Only if you promise that you won’t die.”
Bertie laughed. “I’m already dead.”
Mrs. Rittiker walked over to them. “You shouldn’t go through with this,” she said. “The puppet is near unkillable. The only thing that can stop it is if you bite off parts of its body. That’s why it can’t replace its finger. The monkey spirit bit it off.”
“Thank you for your concern, dear lady. I shall disable the puppet with a shot to the head and then I shall use my teeth to sever what body parts I deem necessary.”
Elisabeth took his hand. “Please, Bertie.”
“A zeppelin captain never backs away from a fight.”
Mrs. Rittiker sighed. “Then we are ready to start.” She walked to the center of the circle.
Bertie squeezed her fingers. “Goodbye Beth.” He let go of her hand and followed Mrs. Rittiker.
Mr. Nine’s driver opened the puppet’s carriage door. Mr. Nine stepped out of the carriage and set off towards the circle. The driver took a wicker laundry basket from inside the carriage and then followed after the puppet.
Mr. Nine marched into the illuminated circle. The driver stopped at the edge of the crowd. About fifty onlookers, including several women, had come from the ball to watch the spectacle. Their faces were hidden in the shadows cast by the lanterns, but Elisabeth heard their excited voices. Witnessing a duel between a puppet and a ghost would give them a tale to entertain their society friends.
Elisabeth swore at the top of her voice.
The crowd fell into a shocked silence.
“Be quiet,” she said softly.
Mrs. Rittiker waited until Bertie and the puppet stood next to each other.
“Do either of you wish to withdraw from this duel?”
“No,” Bertie said.
“Mr. Nine is ready to fight,” the puppet said.
Mrs. Rittiker handed a dueling pistol to each of the combatants. They inspected the guns and then exchanged them. They took up positions at opposite edges of the circle.
Elisabeth noticed that Mr. Nine’s driver had opened the wicker basket and was peering into it.
Mrs. Rittiker held a red handkerchief in her hand. She lifted her arm and then dropped the handkerchief.
Bertie aimed his gun and fired. Mr. Nine’s wooden head exploded.
The puppet’s body raised its gun and shot Bertie between the eyes.
Captain Widdershins tumbled to the ground.
Elisabeth sprinted to his side. She shook him, but he didn’t respond. His body was cold. She wiped the blood from his face with her handkerchief. She closed his eyes and kissed his cold lips. His body faded away.
Mr. Nine’s driver carried a wooden head with an identical face on it towards Mr. Nine’s headless body.
Elisabeth put on her pair of cats-eye spectacles and stepped into the mine shaft. It was dark, but the glasses allowed her to see. After ten minutes she reached a large cavern with a dozen tunnels branching off in different directions. She knew this area well and had a good idea where to look for the book she wanted. She chose one of the tunnels leading south.
Eventually she noticed some small, brown, spotted, speckled mushrooms. The wall was moist, damp, clotted and earthen. Adjectives were one of the most common signs of buried books. Now all she had to do was find a subtext. She put her nose against the earth. There was the faint smell of lemon. She followed the scent until she found a vein of books hidden near the wall. She took a small spade from her tool bag and started clearing away the dirt from the top of the dozens of books. It took her three hours, but eventually she found the book she was looking for.
Separating a book from the earth required a precision tool. It was easy to make mistakes. Several times in the past, she had cut the pages and the words had bled everywhere.
She probed the dirt at the edge of the cover with her book scalpel. After a few delicate cuts, she removed the book from the ground and looked at the cover.
The Gentle Ladies’ Field Guide to Animal Spirits.
She leafed through it until she found an illustration that matched the sketch on the wanted poster.
The golden spectral monkey.
She carefully excised the page and smeared it with the ghost blood from her handkerchief. The page transformed into a spectral monkey.
“Do you know who I want you to kill?” she asked.
The monkey nodded. “I need gold to make me corporeal,” it said.
Elisabeth grabbed her pair of scissors. She was about to cut a lock of her hair, but the monkey shook its head.
“I require greater payment,” it said.
It pointed at her heart.
Every month Elisabeth attends the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. She is not nearly as graceful a dancer as she used to be. A wooden heart is not an ideal substitute for one made of gold. But she is still the most beautiful girl in all of Bearbrass and many men want to dance with her.
They ask if they can have the last dance, but Elisabeth apologizes.
Today we present Aidan Doyle’s story, Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost, which was originally published on the Weird Tales web site. Aidan’s been with before; he wrote Episode 31, Inksucker. Aidan is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 80 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Fantasy.
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
Aidan Doyle is an Australian computer programmer and science fiction writer. He lives in Melbourne and loves travelling. He’s been lucky enough to visit more than 100 countries.
Aidan has always been interested in writing science fiction and made his first sale when he was 18. He’s had short stories and articles published in magazines, newspapers and web sites. He’s been a finalist for the Aurealis Awards, several of his stories have received honorable mentions in Year’s Best SF anthologies, and he was the youngest writer to have an entry in the Encyclopedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy.
In 2009 Aidan attended the Clarion South science fiction writing workshop in Brisbane. Clarion South was an Australian version of the US Clarion workshops, but unfortunately hasn’t run for a number of years.
He did a computer science degree at Monash University in Melbourne. After university he worked for an Australian computer games company as a programmer and designer. He’s also worked as a software consultant and web site programmer.
Aidan has an entry in the Internet Movie Database. (For a computer game he worked on). His IF game, Bolivia By Night was nominated for 2 XYZZY awards.
Some of the interesting places he’s visited include: North Korea, Belarus, the Galapagos and Transnistria (not officially a real country). He worked in Bolivia for a short time as a journalist for a Bolivian English-language newspaper. He lived in Osaka in for 4 years and worked as an English teacher. Now he’s working as a web site programmer.
Aidan co-edited the anthology, Sword and Sonnet – a book of science fiction and fantasy stories about battle poets.
He’s had articles and stories translated into Finnish, Mandarin, Romanian, Polish, Hebrew, Catalan and Galician.
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.