Detective Durand carefully walked down the worn stone steps of the spiral staircase. She ran her left hand along the wall and carried and a candle in her right. This was not a place for the living or at least not inviting to those who still drew breath. The steps were uneven and more than once, she nearly tumbled.
After what seemed like a long time, Durand finally came to a decayed wooden door, bound with verdigris-covered brass.
“I beg entry in the name of Saint Januarius, who watches the dead and I knock thrice, once for the nadir, once for the zenith and once for what lies between.”
With that, she grasped the tarnished ring that hung from a devil’s nose and banged three times. The sound echoed and faded, leaving a heavy silence. Her candle flickered and the door creaked open. Detective Durand stepped over the threshold and entered the Conclave of the Undeparted.
It was a large chamber, oval-shaped with rising tiers of seats. Detective Durand was always reminded of a coliseum, though she never had to fight. Braziers full of blue fire illuminated things in an eerie way and it was no accident. The dead were nothing if not theatrical.
She walked to the center and removed and opened a bottle of expensive brandy along with a large sack of pâtisseries from her shoulder bag and placed them on the dais.
“Given freely, as a visitant,” she said to the apparently empty room.
Frigid wind howled around the room, making the braziers gutter but not go out. Durand pulled her coat close to her, even if it did little to warm her.
A deep and terrible voice spoke from the darkness.
“Do I smell marzipan?”
“And blood orange.”
From the shadowed places surged baker’s dozen of ghosts. They circled the brandy and sweets like hungry serpents and when they dispersed, the bottle was empty and the sack tumbled off the dais, empty.
“Is my offering accepted?” she asked.
The room reverberated with affirmative comments such as “Magnificent!” and “Luscious!”
“I have questions.”
A specter garbed in an embroidered outfit that was probably quite fashionable at the time of his passing floated down to Detective Durand.
“Of course, you are the detective for the dead.”
“Half the spirits in the Arrondissement have vanished-“
A chorus of moans sounded at that statement.
“Hush!” said the embroidered ghost, whose name was Dieudonné Murat. The moans faded.
“I cannot help you.”
“Half of your compatriots have disappeared. I would think that you would be falling over one another to prevent it from happening again.”
Dieudonné Murat reared back and unhinged his jaw, emitting a howl that would freeze the blood of anyone.
“Have you forgotten who I am?” she asked.
“I beg your pardon,” Dieudonné Murat bowed.
“Please get up. I am not your enemy.”
“Good. Then let me help you.”
“It is not so simple.”
Dieudonné Murat began to speak but he spoke so softly that she could not hear.
“You will need to speak up.”
The specter floated close to her and whispered, “We don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“Anything!” he shouted, “Why this has happened, who could do it, how it could even be done! We are terrified! It is our job to terrify! The unnatural order is topsy turvy!”
Awkward truth settled in the chamber. Detective Durand sighed.
“I am sorry-“
“Please! We do not want or require pity!” said Dieudonné Murat who floated off to the far side of the dais. Detective Durand gave him a moment, then walked over and sat beside him.
“I am genuinely sorry for what is happening,” she said.
“But I cannot help you if you don’t share what you know.”
Turning to her with sincere sorrow on his face, he said, “I desperately wish I knew.”
Removing a notebook from her bag, she opened it to the page with the spider floret.
“Does this mean anything to you?”
He gazed at it intently.
“No, I’ve never seen it before.”
“Have any of your folk seen it?”
With a rapid series of intricate hand gestures, Dieudonné Murat threw a ghostly image of the spider floret into the middle of the chamber.
“Have any of you seen this image? “ he said, his voice booming.
Many specters looked out from where they had hidden, some glided by to get a closer look. Each one, as they passed, shook their heads. Even the one who carried his head under his arm.
“I’m sorry, we cannot help you.”
Detective Durand sighed. They were telling the truth, a ghost has a tell when they were lying.
“If you hear anything, even if it seems insignificant, contact me immediately.”
“But of course.”
She bowed, as was the custom and Dieudonné Murat returned it and faded into darkness. Detective Durand exited by the same door she entered and found a ghost hovering on the spiral staircase, smoking.
“None of them can help you,” said the new spirit.
“So I gathered.”
The ghost, who was a smartly dressed young woman, put out the stub of her cigarette and said, “My name is Nikita.”
“You are all they talk about.”
“They hoped you would know what happened.”
“I hoped they might know.”
“That lot wanders the same old paths, they’re all cowards.”
“I think they are just scared, ironically.”
“You know something?” asked Detective Durand.
“Very good. Your reputation is well earned.”
“It’s not that difficult. You wanted to speak to me alone, without the pomp and circumstance of the Conclave of the Undeparted. You are clearly a new ghost based on your outfit, love the jacket, by the way, you have spirit smokes, so someone or a group of people still mourn your passing. Also, you want something from me, other than to solve this mystery.”
Nikita stared at her for a moment.
“Also, now that I look at you, you were the woman pushed off the Wandering Woman several months ago. Correct.”
“You are very good.”
“You’re right about how I died. My heart gave out before I hit the bottom, which why, I was told, I am not a ghostly crêpe.”
“Then you are lucky. Well, not as lucky as you might be. Now what can you tell me?”
The ghost smoothed her clothing and said, “I’ve seen that symbol and I can take you to where I saw it.”
“I do want something.”
“Other than not being erased from existence?”
“Yes. I want to work with you.”
“We’re about to do just that.”
“Not just this, I want to be a gendarme, like you.”
Detective Durand pondered this for a moment.
“I don’t have the authority to make you a gendarme.”
“However, if you prove yourself useful, I will do what I can to aid you. Do we have a deal?”
Nikita raised her hand and Durand did the same. Not a handshake, which was not feasible but she felt a chill and it was as good as one.
“Follow me,” said Nikita who seemed very pleased.
Detective Durand did.