The Misadventures of Isabel Instance: VII

The concluding part of the first ever Isabel Instance tale. The story so far: Isabel, librarian and friend to the dead, and her deceased associate Aelfric Fouracre, are investigating the curious case of Gary Simmons, who has put his mother Maureen in the freezer. Gary believes that they are angels: he is wrong. Isabel is a death investigator. Ael is  well. A death tourist, perhaps…


Isabel Instance and Aelfric Fouracre go through the usual procedure with the ghost of Maureen Simmons. Isabel tells her earnestly, over and over, that she is dead. This kind of quiet repetition, she and Ael have found, seems the best bet for successful communication, and accepting the fact of death is the first and most important step towards the light. Then Isabel talks about the light itself, again gently repeating her words. Finally Ael gives his speech about what the light signifies: ascension to a nobler sphere. Isabel lets him talk, and tries not to look too disapproving. He doesn’t know that; no-one does. But such is his fond assumption. She lets him rhapsodise for a while, then leans forward.

“Whatever happens, Maureen, once you’ve passed,” Isabel says, with a slight shudder – it’s a horrible word but the only one she and Ael can both agree on – “you won’t have to worry about anything any more.”

That is the only thing Isabel knows for sure about the light. Whatever its significance, she can’t conceive that there is any chance to worry on the other side of it. If there was, the fretting masses would have found some way to come back and complain they’d gone to the wrong place, their needs were not taken account of, you couldn’t get spelt bread, there must be a mistake. The living might complain about stress, but in Isabel’s experience the dead beat them hands down.

There’s only one more piece of business. Isabel clears her throat, and makes sure Ael is still watching Gary. “Now, worry is what you have to avoid above all,” she says to Maureen. “The light won’t come if you’re anxious about something, dear. Message to pass on, and all that. If there’s anything troubling you, try and let…”

Before she can finish, Gary speaks. “I did it,” he says quietly. “I know what you’re saying. You don’t need to make Mum tell you. I killed her. To set her free.” He gazes at them with intensity. “You’re aren’t the first angels to come here. They visited before. They told me I had a destiny, a great calling. They told me about sacrifice. For a long time I didn’t understand. Then I saw. I had to give her up.”

Isabel listens, her lips pressed together. “So, these angels…” she prompts.

His thin mouth stretches into a smile. “They speak to me all the time. They told me to let go my thoughts. To trust my feelings. The one thing I always knew was that Mum was special. She was called, and I sent her on her way.”

Ael turns to her and mouths, schizo. Isabel glares at him to shut up, but he has a point, if no delicacy of terminology.

“So what did you do, Gary?” she asks.

His eyes meet hers, craftily. “I helped her sleep,” he says. “And when she was resting, I carried her to where she lies in peace.”

Ael was right, then. He usually is. “What did you use? Pills?” Isabel asks, feeling the usual pointless, bitter anger at human folly. And if she feels it, what Maureen must be feeling…

Gary smiles, almost shyly, like a child. “Gin,” he says, succinctly. Ael snorts. Next to Gary his mother’s spirit gazes at him with fury. What a fate, Isabel thinks: waking up dead in a freezer, lying on a bag of frozen mixed veg, in a state of bewilderment. She doesn’t have much chance of attaining the light of grace, not while she is this angry – and she seems like the kind of person who might have been able to hold a grudge pretty hard while she was alive, let alone dead. Still, they have uncovered the circumstances all right: there isn’t much else they can do.

“Now Gary, listen to me,” Isabel says earnestly. “We’re all going to go outside now, and you’re going to tell the police, all right?”

He laughs, a short, sharp noise. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says. “Eh? The angels told me not to tell. They told me to wait for them to come. I thought I was waiting for you.” He looks at her narrowly, then at Ael. “You are… I mean…”

“Look,” Isabel begins, but Ael interrupts.

“Gary, you have done as we asked you,” he says, using his sepulchral voice again. Gary ducks his head gratefully. “You have done well,” Ael goes on. “But things have changed. We intend great things for you, Gary. Go to the police, tell them everything. Laugh in their faces. We shall come again, Gary, only if you obey me in this.”

Gary nods eagerly. “Yes, Lord. Thank you. I am sorry I did not heed the woman. But she…”

“Have no mind to her, Gary,” Ael says with bass majesty. “Come with us now.”

He leads Gary towards the door. Maureen drifts close after him. Isabel tries to get in her way; they can’t leave her like this. But all Maureen’s energy is concentrated on her son. Before they step into the hall Ael pauses.

“There is one more thing,” he says. “Er… my son.” Isabel rolls her eyes. He is such a ham. “Your relations with your mother. Is there any secret you have not told us?”

Isabel shakes her head ruefully. Nothing is enough for him: there always has to be some gratuitous twist. Gary looks confused. “My heart is open,” he says hesitantly. “What do you…”

“Did you ever conceive carnal desire towards her? Did she ever make you prey to her lust?”

Gary recoils, as does the spirit of Maureen. “No! Of course not! How can you… how can you think…”

“Trouble yourself not,” Ael says hastily. “I spoke only to see if any, er, foul demons had come to you in her shape. Come on. Out we go.”

For a moment it seems like he’s blown it, but Gary reluctantly follows him into the hall. This time she is quick, and stands in front of Maureen.

“Listen,” Isabel says intently. “Leave him, all right? Don’t think of him. Don’t dwell. The light will never come if you do, and you’ll be here forever, long after he’s dead and all this is gone, all right? None of life matters now. Please remember that.”

Maureen ripples with what might be understanding, or might simply be rage. Isabel turns, and follows the others. They probably haven’t done much good. At least they’ve tried, she tells herself, which is her chief consolation. Ael leads Gary out towards the police, who cluster round, taking Gary in charge and reacting towards Ael with a deferential wonder that is probably his chief consolation. Assuming he needs any.

On the street Isabel shoulders past a ghost or two, who stand around looking aimless. A crowd, however small, tends to draw in the dead. One of the ghosts is talking, a thick garbled voice rising and falling like the sound of distant traffic. Once Isabel reaches the police perimeter, she turns and scowls at Ael, who disengages himself from his admirers hastily, and comes up to her beaming. Another entry in his catalogue of macabre eccentricity. Over his shoulder Isabel sees Maureen’s ghost standing uncertainly on the threshold of her house. Isabel has a vision of her standing there still, long after the house is demolished, in another age of the world, lingering on a long-vanished threshold. Not for the first time, Isabel Instance raises a silent prayer to the God in Whom she doesn’t believe. Please, she thinks to herself, not me. Don’t let it ever happen to me.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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