William Pennyfeather was years dead, opened up from thigh to chin by something in the haunted underground of Holborn Station. Until an hour ago, this had been the most traumatic experience of his existence. Again, he looked down at the patchwork of rough cloth and thread his spirit had been trapped in, a crude approximation of a human form perhaps a handspan in height. He would have screamed, but the gash in his face that passed for a mouth only had stitches for lips.
He tried anyway.
One day, Robert Pennyfeather woke up and found himself no longer half of the best exorcist pair in the Greater London area. Granted, he’d woken up with a broken arm and five broken ribs, and his brother was lost to something in the dark under Holborn. Bill had saved him that night, and then again, when he was becalmed in William’s absence. It was customary for the dead to move on, but Bill and Bob Pennyfeather, bespoke exorcists, were anything but slaves to custom, and so the Work resumed.
The Work, bequeathed to the two Witchborn sons of the Mistress Pennyfeather; the easing of the passage of souls too attached to this realm, the guarding of one world from encroachments of others, was their burden. His brother’s return re-inspired the both of them, Bill being dead was only a minor inconvenience to a partnership that played around the boundaries of life and death so much that the two states seemed less disparate and more like a continuum. The Work took on a gentler tone; Bill’s death had brought perspective to their commissions, they took on more cases pro bono.
Until Bob woke up alone again.
It took Bob a while to notice, the loss of a ghost is wholly different. The apartment office of an exorcist looked very much like someone took the den of a conspiracy theorist and mixed it with a museum of the occult. Or, in the case of the Pennyfeather office, took the two and smashed them together. Bob waded through the detritus of a hundred cases, brushing aside totems of power and obscure holy icons, hand stopping at a photo frame turned face down. He’d meant to throw that out, but there were no places that developed film around. Like the relationship, a relic of a world that hadn’t kept up, not with his Work, not with his mother’s illness and death. He noticed his brother’s absence that morning like a noise only conspicuous by its silence. Bill had become so much a part of Bob’s life that losing him a second time was like losing a part of himself.
Finding a ghost should have been easy for an exorcist. Part of the job and the easy part at that. Bob exhausted every means at his disposal to find some trace of his brother, burning through contacts and favours to no avail. Until he found himself at the one place he hadn’t hoped to be, outside King’s Cross station at the turning of the day. He buttoned up his coat to keep the cold out, and still it leaked in through his sleeves, around his neck and seeped into his bones. An ancient pocketwatch told him it was nearing midnight. The watch face was far from normal, the numbers one through twelve were out of sequence around the dial. Not good at all for telling time; but it excelled at one thing. Bob watched as the second slowed as the minute hand approached midnight, as though the clock were winding down, except it wasn’t the clock but time itself slowing.At two seconds to midnight, it ground to an almost halt, its movements imperceptible. Bob Pennyfeather crossed the threshold into the station.
The station itself was a place of liminality, of flux and constant motion. It was before midnight, and it would be again after, but at this ordained time, a very special train was coming, and the station was still and empty. Bob’s footsteps carried through the still air and bounced off the vaulted glass ceiling. Eleven fifty nine and fifty nine seconds. The exorcist nodded to one of the shift cleaners, who nodded back. A stationmaster checked his own watch. Bob did not recognize this one, but evidently the stationmaster recognized him. Perk of the job, he supposed. A fare gate opened up to let Bob into the concourse, and he hit the platform as the clock struck twelve and the dead came.
A city charter is many things; a compact between hewn stone and bedrock, between citizen and government. Between living and dead.
Unquiet spirits breezed past Bob, their movement generating a breeze where there should have been none; whipping up litter and dust, spinning the detritus of the days passing into curlicues and spirals. The recently dead, more than a hundred a day in Greater London, were here. Some chose to stay, to haunt; some took a different path and the rest rode the Train. Those that did were a mix, some bore the marks of violence, of accidents; others, the lingering scent of hospital beds. Some were at peace, and others still gibbering and wailing.
An efficient arrangement, a line specifically for the dead, to move them elsewhere, that they could cross. Part of the charter of the city, and the only reliable way for a message to reach the other side. There were other ways to speak to the long dead, but there was too much noise to signal for Bob’s level of skill, his talents with his Witchborn power were far more down to earth. Bob stepped onto the platform as the train pulled in. The physics of where this platform was the rest of the day mattered not to Bob, save that it could only be accessed in the lone minute of midnight for the living and the dead. He waved to the conductor, at least he knew this one.
“Mahmoud,” he said, as the other man gave a gap-toothed smile through his thick beard.
“Friend Pennyfeather!” he boomed, the voice as large as the man. “I heard you were working again! With your brother no less!”
“That’s what I’m here for actually. Did William . . . ” It was difficult to say, the words feeling like a fishbone in his throat, even if his brother had died once before. “ . . . cross?” he finished.
Mahmoud furrowed his brow. “William Pennyfeather. No, no. We have not seen any of your family since the great Mistress Pennyfeather, may she rest in peace.”
“If he’s not taken the train, then I need you to pass a message to my mother.”
The conductor laughed, deep and throaty, and even the wailing spirits around were silent for a while. “Well, your mother, she has beaten you to it. She has a message for you.” With that, he drew Bob close, and he could smell spiced tobacco and thick deodorant. Mahmoud continued in a conspiratorial whisper, although with his voice, half the ghosts on the platform could still hear them. “She said you are not to cross over without your brother, or she will give you a scolding to rival the one when you shit yourself in kindergarten.”
Bob felt the colour rise to his cheeks. “That’s not very helpful.”
“Not done, my friend. She said to find the Dollmaker.”
“That’s all, ghost hunter. You need me to repeat it?”
“Nah, I got it. One thing I have to ask. How’d my mother know which day I’d be down to ask about William?”
“She didn’t,” said Mahmoud, slapping Bob on his back, so hard that the exorcist’s teeth clacked together. “She gave the message to every single conductor.”
William wasn’t the only one in the dollhouse, there were others.
He’d been searching for something on his own time. Chasing down whispers. Someone like them, an exorcist, a witch. The brothers had faced down many things over their careers—but they’d never needed to confront a fellow human being. They dealt with the occult, not flesh, and Bill wasn’t sure Bob had recovered enough for this hunt. He should have been more careful; too late, he found his quarry had been leading him on all along, that he wasn’t the hunter in this situation. Trapped in a web of the same power his brother and he wielded, immobilized and sutured into a cadaver of linen and cotton, with twine for hair and buttons for eyes, and left to fester in the dollhouse, except it seemed as large to Bill as a mausoleum.
The other dolls must have been the same as him, trapped spirits, seeing through black plastic eyes, straining at stitched shut lips, shuffling on their blunt stumpy limbs. The dollhouse in which Bill found himself had all the fixtures, tiny bedroom, tiny kitchen, tiny living room. The entire edifice split in half along its axis, bifurcated to open into the room beyond.
If grief could be distilled into a single smell, the room beyond the dollhouse would have it. A heady perfume; an undertone of mildew and rot, damp that could not be kept abay; a base note of chemical disinfectant, sharp enough to sting; and a top note of a child’s soap, sweet and cloying. The room itself was immaculate, a perfectly made bed, shoes beneath neatly aligned. Clothes folded away in a half open wardrobe, and in the corner, a child’s dress draped over a chair.
No, not draped. The thing of fine lace and linens, embroidered with flowers, was filled out, as though worn by a person, but no hands emerged from the sleeves, neither head nor legs graced the garment with their presence. Yet the dress stood, the fabric rippling, like a wriggling mat of bloodworms, and turned to face William Pennyfeather. The other dolls had hidden, and he was alone.
Bob stared at the squirming mass of gyrating bodies at the silent rave, no sound but the shuffle of feet and the dull thud of bodies slamming into each other and onto the ground; no music but the desperate breathing of the revellers. Across him sat a Chinese gentleman of indeterminate age, who wore smoked glasses indoors but carried himself in a way that suggested the glasses were for your protection rather than his benefit.
“Mr Gu, I trust the business is doing well.”
Gu smiled, and signaled a server over. Bob shook his head, it was unsafe to drink anything at the silent rave, even more unsafe to accept anything from the likes of Mr Gu.
“Business, as you can see, is modest. The customers, they like what they hear.” Which was, to Bob, nothing. Gu’s kind had a specific gift with chemicals, and Bob made it a point never to consume anything in his presence. Gu made good money catering to the esoteric segments of London’s connoisseurs of chemical experience.
“And what exactly are they dancing to?” asked Bob.
“The music of the spheres, the bass heartbeat of your diseased city. It is very catchy.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Before we conduct our business, I must know that it is still safe.”
Bob nodded. “It” being something that manifested in one of Mr Gu’s parties, something that had broken through the fragile walls of perceived reality and fused the bacchanalian gathering into a spreading fractal nimbus of flesh and splintered bone, of grasping fingers and kissing mouths. Something that even Mr Gu had to enlist Pennyfeather help to put down. Or at least, put away, there was no killing something that fell outside of simple definitions of alive or dead. Gu’s kind were sticklers for face and protocol, and he had treated the Pennyfeathers with courtesy ever since.
“I’m here about my brother.”
“I heard he was dead, and that you were still working together.”
“Bill is missing. He hasn’t left the city, I’ve checked. My mother gave me a name. The Dollmaker.”
Mr Gu paused, and pulled his glasses down to look Bob in the eye. Bob looked into the eyeless pits behind the shades without flinching. “So you had to go to your mother. Very astute, to ask for the wisdom of your ancestors. I have been in this city since before your mother was doing the Work.” It gave Bob a chill to hear the inflection in Gu’s voice, that reverence for the establishment he and Bill inherited. “The Dollmaker is one of your kind, Bob.”
“A witch, he disappeared before you started your own career. Now, there are only whispers of what he does.”
“Which is?” Bob could not keep the edge from his voice, his words sharp and curt. There was no need to antagonise Mr Gu.
“Exactly what they name him for. Like the most successful of your killers, he only takes those that will not be missed.”
“Exactly. That is all I know.”
“You have been more helpful than I deserved. My mother didn’t say it, but my brother and I always could always find each other. Not since he died. But I know how I can find him. With your help, of course.”
Mr Gu smiled, and his black teeth looked very sharp indeed.
The Dollmaker sat on the ground across from the dollhouse, working.
Bill had experienced the Dollmaker’s ministrations first hand, but seeing it wrought on another was its own fresh trauma. The other dolls had seen this before, and huddled at the back of the dollhouse, quivering as a group. The Pennyfeather alone bore witness. The spirit the Dollmaker had snared with his power, so similar to the Pennyfeather’s, yet so different, writhed like a pinned butterfly.
The Dollmaker was quick and efficient, although larger and gangly, his stitches were small and economical, binding the thrashing ghost to rags and cotton. Instead of a normal needle, the Dollmaker used a suturing needle, curved like a fish hook. What Bill earlier thought to be twine appeared now to be suturing thread drawn out of some form of animal gut, or at least Bill hoped it had animal origin. With his long, weathered face, the Dollmaker could have been on a park bench, feeding pigeons; or reading a newspaper in a deli. The only thing uncanny about him was how average he looked. Bill much preferred ghosts, who externalised their trauma and scars; people kept it buried so deep that it emerged periodically and unexpectedly, like an earthquake or the spew from a geyser.
“A child must have dolls. Dolls were the only thing that made her happy when she was alive,” said the Dollmaker, not looking up from his task. Bill looked over to the floating dress, handless, handless, legless, and still felt that it was looking at him. Bill was already dead, and even when alive, had the gift and curse of being able to see and interact with otherworldly things. If there was a ghost there, Bill would have seen it. Something worse inhabited the dress.
One gnarled and grime encrusted hand brushed by Bill’s cloth body and rummaged deep in the dollhouse. It came out with one of Bill’s compatriots. There was no way for that doll, spirit bound in textile and gut and magic, to have an expression and yet it exuded an aura of desperation. The Dollmaker sighed. “Ghost dolls for my ghost girl. But girls don’t last, and neither do the dolls.” When the doll was drawn into the dim light of the room, Bill saw why the Dollmaker had chosen it. It was unclear how long it been in the dollhouse, but some form of rot had overtaken it, the Dollmaker’s thick fingers sank into the fabric of the doll. He sighed, brought his other hand up and gently teased the doll into two; the receptacle crumbling to black dust as Bill watched. The Dollmaker cupped the dust, careful not to let it sully his daughter’s shrine. Something caught his attention. “Just in time, someone else is here.” The Dollmaker took his leave, shutting the door quietly.
Another doomed soul, just like Bill, just like the newest addition to the dollhouse. Again, William Pennyfeather had bitten off more than he could chew. Just like when he’d led Bob down under Holborn and nearly cost his brother his life. He’d left no trace back at the office to lead Bob here. There was no way he’d put Bob at risk like that, the Dollmaker was a problem to be dealt with, but by him alone.
Now he was going to die for it. Not exactly die. He had already crossed that bridge. Something worse. That was when Bob burst through the door.
Not kicking the door down, straight through it. Much like Bill would have. But Bill was already dead. Bill would have yelled out to his brother, save that he was bound to this accursed, mouthless form.
“Bill? Where the hell are you?” His brother’s eyes scanned the room, finally resting on the dollhouse. Bill felt the bonds of power and dried gut wither and burst as Bob channelled his own gift to undo the Dollmaker’s work. The brothers stood face to face, and hugged. “I thought I lost you for good this time,” said Bob.
“What? No. Wait, are you dead?”
Bob twanged a silver thread that stretched from the door and vanished into his back. The thread pulsed dully, heartbeat slow. “Mostly dead, with a little bit of help. Still tethered to my body. I figured that freeing myself from the concerns of the flesh was the only way I could sense you. We need to get you out of here.”
Already, Bill could hear the Dollmaker approaching, he stared at the door, as if he could have willed it shut. “This place is set up to trap ghosts. I’m not getting out. You got in, you can get out. You can still save yourself.”
“You know, I’ve always wondered, if we were back at Holborn, if I would have done the same to save you.” Bill already knew Bob would have, and that it didn’t need to be said. He turned to his brother, ready to speak, but his brother had severed the silver thread from his back, seized Bill’s hand and looped the thread around his wrist. “It’s not a great body, but it’s all I have.” Then the string snapped taut and yanked Bill straight out of the house.
Bob had woken up alive, died sometime past dinner and saved his brother. And before the day was over an old exorcist was licking a wickedly curved needle to cinch Bill’s arm into a doll’s, the string and witchborn magic pulling spirit into fabric, tying it down tight.
“Girl needs to have dolls. Lose a doll, gain a doll. All is fair,” said the Dollmaker, not slowing his task. Bob took in the strangely filled dress, with its billowing and rippling fabric. If anything inhabited that article of clothing, it wasn’t a ghost. If he strained, he could pick up a slight keening, a wail at the edge of sensation. If grief had a sound, that would be it. The Dollmaker, with all his experience, should’ve known it was no child’s soul that inhabited the dress. Perhaps he didn’t care.
From the dollhouse, more than two dozen pairs of button eyes stared out of cloth faces, looking at their newest companion. “I know you. Pennyfeather boy. Surprised you came back. Word on the street was you left your brother underground at Holborn.”
Bob didn’t let the Dollmaker get under his skin. He’d heard that before. And he would have given anything for any of the dozen rumours to be true, nothing was worse than the truth he’d lived and carried.
“You’re one to talk. How many spirits have you imprisoned? And for what?” Bob Pennyfeather shot back. “You know that isn’t your daughter.” There was a rustle as the dolls watching from across the room hid. But the Dollmaker’s response was only a sigh.
“What would you have given to have your brother back, after he left?” The Dollmaker looped sutures around Bob’s lips, cinching the spirit’s head into the doll’s. “Anything. Just to keep that little bit of them alive. Anything.”
That was when Bill came through the door. Not as a ghost; wearing Bob’s body. Bill wasn’t wearing it well, lurching a little and crashing bodily into the Dollmaker, sending Bob and the doll he was half sewn into skittering across the floor. The Dollmaker, lanky and lugubrious as he was, turned out to be a scrappy fighter on the ground, lashing out with his long limbs, bloodying Bill’s face. Bill, to his credit, fought back; turning Bob’s weight to his advantage, wrapping his arms around the Dollmaker’s waist and hurling him bodily out of the room. He leaned against the ruined door, pushing back to keep the other man out.
Bob took his free hand and ripped the stitches from his lips. “OK, Bill, fun’s over. Let me back in.”
“What, you think I can’t handle that old man?”
“No. Yes. Get out of there before you break something.”
“And you’ll do much better than me?”
“Sure, if all else fails, I’ll throw a Hail Mary or something.”
Bill reached out and their fingers touched just as the Dollmaker splintered what was left of the door. Bob got to his feet, fumbling in his pocket. The Dollmaker hit him; once, twice, big swings with the full force of his shoulder behind them. There was a cadence to those blows, enough for Bob to take them on his raised forearms before connecting a tight uppercut straight to the Dollmaker’s jaw. The taller man went down, clutching his face.
“What the hell did you hit him with?” asked Bill. Bob raised his right hand, revealing a set of brass knuckles clutched in his fist, the letters M-A-R-Y carved into the business side.
“Don’t you check your pockets at all?”
“No, never woke up in someone else’s body before.”
Bill busied himself with freeing the other spirits, picking apart doing the Dollmaker’s handiwork. Bob watched the man on the ground, casting a glance at the floating dress. If the dress had any concern about its patron, or the growing crowd in the room. It was not uncommon to see ghosts emaciated or gaunt, but these spirits were something else entirely—fainter, as though they were diminished and faded away by their ordeal.
Bill stepped next to Bob. “You could have told me about the Dollmaker. We could have done this job together.” His brother’s spirit looked better off than the others, but not by much. “I didn’t want a repeat of the last time. Never again.”
“Hey,” said Bob, meeting his brother’s gaze, “I was as much to blame for Holborn as you.”
“When I came back… when Mum sent me back for you, I swore we’d never get as deep again. Ever. I couldn’t have let you do this.”
Both of them carried their own burden’s from that disastrous jaunt under Holborn station. And Bob could see that even though his brother crossed back to save him from his spiral, Bill had come back still bearing his own weight from Holborn.
“Holborn happened. We can’t change that. But it won’t happen again, not if we have each other’s backs.”
His brother was silent for a while, amongst the ghosts and the floating dress and the disgraced exorcist on the ground. “What are we going to do about that?” Bob asked, pointing at the dress, which swivelled to face him; he recoiled from the dress and its rippling fabric.
“It’s not a ghost or a spirit. I think it’s something else completely.”
“Grief. Guilt. Tempered with the same power we have, given form.”
The brothers looked at the man on the ground. “All this time, he was alone? Just him and that dress. Which he nourished with those he trapped,” said Bill, moving as if to kick the prone body.
“The living aren’t for us to judge,” said Bob, “Neither are the dead. “Maybe the Dollmaker and I aren’t so different after all. This could have been me.”
The two turned their attention to the web of power the Dollmaker had woven around his house, dismantling it quickly, efficiently and in silence. Bill broke the stillness. “I wouldn’t have let that happen. But this won’t stop him.”
“We’ve set the ghosts here free. That’s the Work. What happens between the Dollmaker and them is not for us to concern ourselves with.” Already, they could see a few of the ghosts fleeing, some faster, some taking their time. But there were others that stayed; too many, even for an exorcist of the Dollmaker’s considerable skill.
The Pennyfeather brothers left them to it, and walked away into the dark outside the house.