Chapter Six: Life Is Just A Dream For The Dead
Ryder had just reached his locker and had started to fumble with the lock as he tried to remember his new combination number, when the lack of biting criticism about his every move suddenly sank in. Pausing, Ryder turned to look around him and felt his eyes widen in panic. Spencer was nowhere to be seen. He'd gotten Death lost. Ryder was so dead … again.
And there was no way Spencer was going to be able to keep himself out of trouble. The Scottish grouch was totally incapable of picking up on social cues: or totally unwilling to conform to them. Either way, there was no way Spencer was going to be able to keep a low profile. Ryder let his locker swing closed and banged his head against it a couple of times. He couldn't let himself panic, he told himself firmly. He had to focus and work out where Spencer was most likely to be. Then he could find the guy and make sure he didn't kill anyone … or start a fight … or speak to anyone. Would Spencer agree to being shut in the supply closet during school hours? Ryder sighed. Well, if Spencer was off "interacting" with his fellow students, it wasn't like anyone was going to bother about –
"Ryder MacKenzie, isn't it?"
With a yelp, Ryder spun to gape at the sight of one Thandie Bryce standing right in front of him with a slightly raised eyebrow. Seeing she had somehow managed to secure his attention, Thandie gestured in the direction of the administration block, causing the numerous slender silver bracelets to chime against each other. "Your friend lost you. He's probably waiting for you in Admin." Not bothering to receive a response, Thandie then turned and made her way down the corridor apparently unaware of the way in which the other students were all but throwing themselves out of her way.
Ryder watched her go with his back still pressed defensively against the metal locker and his mouth gaping open. As normal levels of awareness began to return to his shell-shocked mind, he did his best to make sense of what had just happened. As he understood it, Thandie Bryce had just informed him that Spencer was currently in Admin. Meaning that she'd obviously spoken to Spencer. And that she knew who Ryder was and thus was able to pass on the message.
She was so a suspect.
Not wishing to linger by the lockers any longer and thus risk yet more interaction with people who shouldn't be paying him any attention whatsoever, Ryder pushed away from the metal surface and hurriedly picked his way through the thronging crowds as he made his way towards Admin in search of Spencer. He picked and weaved his way through the oblivious student mass before realising that it wouldn't make any difference if he just marched straight on through the middle of them. Everyone automatically veered away from him without the slightest amount of eye-contact or any indication that they were aware of him at all. Ryder glanced down at his hands and frowned thoughtfully. Did he actually have substance in relation to actual living people at the moment or not? Ryder was currently fighting an almost overwhelming urge to simply plough through his fellow students and find out if the sight of his ghostly form would have any impact on a teenage population before 9am in the morning.
"Fuck it," he distinctly heard someone nearby say carelessly before realising it was himself and before he was fully aware of what he was doing, Ryder found himself moving away from the quieter sides of the corridor to walk down the centre with absolutely no regard to the movements of others around him. He had a brief moment to wonder if this was what it was like being a total asshole like Spencer and then he was rebounding off a surface that he would have mistaken for a brick wall if it hadn't been covered in fabric and warm.
Well he had an answer to the question of whether he had a solid form or not, Ryder thought somewhat dazedly. Although, retaining physical form probably wasn't all that now he pondered some of the small print. He glanced to see just who he'd run straight into and mentally hit himself.
Blinking down at Ryder in utter bafflement was none other than Dexter Holland, one arm already securely locked in a deathgrip around Jinx Harwood's scrawny neck and shoulders. Jinx too was staring at Ryder, but his expression was more wide-eyed fear and dread of the inevitable bloodbath that was no doubt going to end up soaking his shirt unless he was somehow released in the next ten seconds.
"You ran into me," Dexter said slowly, clearly having trouble in processing this deviation from normal routine. "You just ran straight into me."
Ryder didn't see much point in denying the obvious. "Yes," he answered. "It hurt." Some distant part of his brain was noting with no small amount of astonishment that his voice lacked any sign of the usual tremor of fear that just about anyone who wasn't part of the football or cheerleading teams developed when talking to the man-mountain. Obviously already being dead alleviated a good deal of anxiety as to one's future well-being when showing less than the usual respect.
Dexter blinked and frowned. "What?"
Ryder suppressed a sudden urge to roll his eyes which was almost immediately followed by an even greater urge to laugh in quiet hysteria at the number of unspoken social rules he was currently breaking. He suppressed that too, but it was harder. Showing complete disregard for the social order was providing a bit of a rush. "You're too solid," he heard himself say in a tone so blunt it was clear he had been hanging around Spencer for too long. "So either dissolve or move. I've got somewhere to be."
Still clenched within Dexter's iron grasp, Jinx let out an exhalation of air that was somewhere between a sob of terror and a stifled gasp of laughter. He immediately screwed his face up and began to try to struggle free before his lapse was noted.
Dexter however seemed incapable of dealing with more than one mutiny at a time. Still staring at Ryder in complete bafflement, he hesitantly shuffled a couple of steps to the side, turning slightly to continue to stare at Ryder as he passed. Perhaps he was waiting for the moment when reality made itself known to Ryder and he collapsed at Dexter's feet in a gibbering wreck awaiting his rightful punishment, but that would have to wait until Ryder had made sure that Spencer had not gotten himself into any major trouble. And anyway, aside from anything else, Spencer was currently far more capable of making Ryder miserable than anyone else with a pulse. It was simply a case of priorities.
Ryder continued down the corridor aware that despite now lacking any kind of body and adrenal system, he seemed to be completely pumped up on adrenaline. He had just stood up to Dexter Holland. He had answered back to Dexter Holland. He had shown a complete and utter lack of respect to Dexter Holland. In any other case, days would be numbered in single digits, but considering he was clocking up negative figures anyway, it didn't matter.
And he had been spoken to by Thandie Bryce. But now he didn't have to worry about surviving until the end of school as that chance had already been and gone. He had no reason to be scared of her. He had no reason to be scared of anyone. He could do whatever he wanted, say whatever he wanted and no one could do anything to him because he was dead.
Ryder had to take a quick moment to rest against the lockers as he fought the urge to become completely power mad. Suddenly, all those ghosts floating around the place was making complete sense to him. Who wouldn't want the chance to hang around and completely stomp all over convention? He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He couldn't let this go to his head. It had to stop. Right now, Ryder needed to focus on finding out who murdered him and also preventing Spencer from losing his temper and sending all of Ryder's peer group to join him in the afterlife.
Admin was located just around the corner, far enough away from the majority of the crowds for the adults who worked there to kid themselves that they weren't currently surrounded by overly-emotional and hormonally unbalanced students who also out-numbered them. Ryder made his way towards the main desk, becoming painfully aware that the usual whirr of photocopiers and clatter of typewriters was currently absent. Instead, he could hear a flurry of female voices.
"You certainly take after your father, don't you?"
"Mm, he was such a charmer."
"Rather cold hands though…"
Ryder moved into the Administration block and saw Spencer surrounded by the middle-aged secretaries who were all but cooing over him. A sheet of paper, no doubt a class schedule, was gripped tightly between his hands. His posture oscillating between defensive and just plain pissy, Spencer's eyes were darting between the fawning women with increasing desperation at the obvious lack of escape.
"Your parents were very concerned about you just being thrown into the middle of a school year like this, so we all immediately volunteered to help out with anything you might have difficulty with. It can't be easy settling into not just a new school, but also a whole new country."
"So if you're having trouble with anything, be sure to let us know."
Spencer suddenly spotted Ryder's lurking form and his expression immediately resolved itself into a determined and somewhat quelling glare. "It's okay," Spencer somehow managed to grind out. "My guide has decided to show up after all."
A number of heads turned in Ryder's direction and blinked at him with not a visible flicker of emotion on one of them. Finally, the secretary standing nearest frowned slightly and reached towards her desk. "Are you another new student too? You'll need to hand over your enrolment forms … though I don't think we have a schedule for you."
Ryder was torn between the usual sinking sensation reactions such as this caused and jubilation that finally someone was reacting to him in a normal manner. "Er, no. I'm already a student here. I'm supposed to be showing the new kid around." Seeing the confusion on the woman's face, Ryder sighed. "I'll just wait outside 'til you're done."
Ignoring the outraged look of utter betrayal on Spencer's features, Ryder began to back out of Admin. He'd just passed the corner, thereby blocking Spencer's dirty looks from sight, when his retreat was halted by the solid form he backed into. Jumping in surprise, Ryder spun to confront the obstacle, wondering just why he was bumping into so many people now he was dead. "Uh, sorry," he mumbled.
"Hey don't worry about it." The speaker was a tall, well-built man whom Ryder guessed to be in his mid-twenties at least. Short blond hair, neatly styled away from his face and an equally immaculate suit revealed the guy to be some sort of freshly qualified teacher, by Ryder's reckoning. They always made such an effort for the first couple of weeks before the overwhelming despair of trying to teach the apathetic caused small-scale mental breakdowns and an adoption of the unofficial uniform the students themselves wore of jeans and t-shirts.
The man grinned at Ryder before peering over his shoulder and into the room the teen had just backed out of. "So what's got you beating a retreat this early in the morning?" A small murmur of understanding indicated that Spencer's glare had not let up in the time it had taken Ryder to turn tail and ditch Death. "Ah. He's a regular ray of sunshine."
Ryder forced something approximating a smile onto his face as he turned away from the stranger to also look back towards Spencer's glowering form. "First day of school obviously does that to some people."
The man snorted in amusement. "You'd think he'd be enjoying his time away from work a little more, considering the amount of bitching he does about it."
"Huh?" Blinking in surprise, Ryder spun back to face the man he'd assumed was as teacher only to find an empty corridor.
Ryder was still staring around in search of his conversational companion when Spencer stropped his way over to him, shedding forms and class schedules with every step. "Thanks for that," Spencer snarked as he vainly attempted to shove the excess sheets of paper into his messenger bag while still retaining hold of the information regarding his classes. "Nice to see that you're incapable of doing anything other than getting eaten when confronted by a rampaging demon, but are more than able to turn tail and run off when it comes to lending me a hand. Great priorities there, Dead Kid. I have no idea how you ended up as pavement pizza."
Ryder sighed, wondering if the fact that he was growing used to this continual verbal onslaught made him some kind of masochist. "Whatever. Um, there was a weird guy out here a moment ago, but he's vanished. I … uh … think he knew you."
Spencer froze for a moment before looking at Ryder with great suspicion. "Really? What did the bastard look like?"
"Uh, tall … about my height. Bigger build though … blond hair, neatly dressed … I thought he was a teacher."
Spencer muttered something that wasn't in English under his breath. "Anthony. So that's who they've got to be my locum. Figures that bitch would send one of her goons. Oh there are definitely going to be a few phone-calls made."
Ryder ran a hand through his hair as he watched the smaller male fume. "So, uh, does he run about killing people too?"
Spencer broke off his mumbled tirade to glare at Ryder once again. "We send on the deceased, we don't kill them," he snarled before adding; "More's the pity."
Ryder rolled his eyes.
"Anyway," Spencer continued in a notably different tone of voice. "That arsehole works for Fate. You see him around; you have to let me know immediately because they'll be trying to fuck things up. And if they succeed, you're never going to find out who killed you and I'll have to listen to your whiney, wispy little spirit until the standard terms elapse."
Ryder frowned. "Uh, what was that last bit? I don't think I'm following."
Spencer waved a dismissive hand as he started down the corridor. "Forget about it. It won't apply to you."
Ryder sighed as he watched Spencer saunter off. "Er, Spencer? Spencer? Hey!"
Scowling Spencer spun on one foot. "What now?" he hissed.
Ryder pointed in the opposite direction to the one Spencer had been travelling in. "Homeroom would be this way."
Spencer blinked and then headed back towards Ryder, muttering under his breath the whole while. Ryder tried hard not to crack a smile at the sight.
"Stop smirking Dead Kid."
An hour and thirty minutes later and Ryder was really appreciating the fact that his heart rate was now incapable of rising above flatline. Otherwise he'd be torn between extreme worry and panic over the future safety of his classmates versus sheer, uncontrollable laughter at the increasingly uncomfortable expression on Spencer's face. Ryder was aware of Spencer's logic. He was surly, completely unconcerned with how other people viewed him and not interested in playing nice. Spencer had obviously therefore assumed that his fellow students would pick up on the negative vibes and leave him well alone to observe them from a distance. But Spencer had failed to take two major factors into consideration. He had a British accent and was precisely what girls currently considered 'cute'. Therefore the attitude was seen as yet another aspect of The Spencer Mystique and he was currently being fawned over by all and sundry. Even the guys, who had clocked Spencer's obvious disinterest in their girls and subsequently decided the guy was no threat and labelled him 'cool'; no doubt in an attempt to win points with the aforementioned females.
Ryder quickly ducked his head and pretended to be immensely interested in his literature textbook as he felt Spencer direct yet another angry glare in his direction. There was obviously still some lingering adrenaline in his system from the earlier run-in with Dexter because right at this moment, Ryder was more interested in making Spencer suffer than worrying about how Death was going to inflict some vengeance later on. It definitely wasn't a wise course of action, but as Ryder reflected with a slightly pained smile, if he wasn't finding the situation amusing, he'd be feeling more than a little depressed and inadequate as Spencer effortlessly demonstrated it was more than possible to be treated as something other than a non-entity in High School. Apparently all you had to do was genuinely not care one whit what other people thought about you. Somewhat ironic, Ryder mused as he tapped his pen against the still blank notebook he had spread in front of him. Fitting in was probably the only thing most people his age really cared about. And now Ryder had to watch Spencer achieve the kind of social inclusion that Ryder himself had never even dreamed of receiving knowing that his one shot to actually interact with other people had been well and truly shot to hell. Or rather, chewed up and spat out by hell.
Ryder glanced over at Spencer once again. At the start of each new class, Spencer had been pointed out as a new student and asked to introduce himself to the class. In each and every case the response had been. "Spencer. Nice to meet you" delivered in an emotionless and clearly unconcerned tone of voice. Any remarks on his accent or entreaties to talk a little about where he was from had been met with a Look. Ryder hadn't missed the fact that the guy had yet to reveal his full name, but as of yet no one else had commented on it. Out of idle speculation, Ryder wondered what Spencer's enrolment forms had on them.
The bell rang, announcing the end of that class and what had been a relatively quiet classroom abruptly exploded with the noise of twenty students cramming their work into bags and the scraping of chairs as everyone moved to leave before the teacher could announce that week's homework. Ryder remained where he was, staring down at his still blank page and wondering why he was even bothering with the pretence of continuing to learn when there wasn't much point in it anymore.
"Working hard there, I see."
Ryder blinked at the sound of Spencer's caustic tones and looked up to see the smaller male standing by his desk and wearing his usual expression of irritation. Not far behind Spencer, a group of jocks and cheerleaders were making their way out of the classroom.
"Hey Spencer!" a pretty blonde that Ryder recognised as Angelina Weiss called out. "It's lunch so we're making our way over to the cafeteria now. Wanna join us?"
With only the briefest glance in her direction, Spencer waved an arm. "I've got other plans."
Blinking, Angelina's eyes looked between Spencer and Ryder in bafflement before she shook her head slightly. "Uh. Okay. You can join us later though."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Ryder winced at the tone of Spencer's voice, but it seemed no one else in the classroom was attuned enough to recognise the dismissive undercurrents. Looking up at the dark-haired man, Ryder raised an eyebrow. "You really should be a little nicer to them. Being popular will make your life much easier than being assigned to the alternative crowd."
Spencer's eyes narrowed. "No one's assigning me to anything," he informed Ryder. "Just because everyone else in this place has been brainwashed into conforming doesn't mean I have to join them." Spencer glanced down at Ryder with a snort. "In fact, the biggest non-conformist around here is probably you, Dead Kid. Pathetic as that sounds."
Ryder really didn't know how to answer that. Spencer's thought processes were a little bizarre at times. Finally packing up his stuff, Ryder unfolded himself from the classroom chair and rose to his feet. "Um, right now most people are probably heading to the cafeteria to get something to eat."
Spencer nodded. "How many suspects will we find there?"
Ryder paused to consider this. "Lucille will definitely be there. The cheerleaders have their own table and she wouldn't miss the opportunity to flaunt her status to the gathered crowds. Dexter should be there too, he'll no doubt be getting some extra cash from the small and weak to buy more food. Umm, Thandie might be there somewhere…"
"Don't need to speak to her again," Spencer cut in. "Met her this morning."
Ryder blinked as he studied Spencer for any traces of lingering fear. Then he cleared his throat. "Uh, okay. Well … there's a good chance that Nicolai'll be there somewhere. The number of students means a higher percentage of something newsworthy occurring. Russell Lee'll be in the computer labs. I don't think he eats during school hours."
Spencer nodded. "Are the computer labs anywhere near this canteen place? I want to at least be able to recognise these so-called suspects."
Ryder blinked. "So-called? You don't even know them! How can you dismiss them like that?"
Spencer snorted as he readjusted the messenger bag that hung casually off one shoulder. "Thandie's completely innocent. And if that's what you consider a suspect, I suggest you recast the net a little wider. Try including people who are actually genuinely murderous."
Ryder opened his mouth to reply, but had to close it again as he struggled for a suitable response. The pair fell into step and were halfway along the corridor before Ryder felt controlled enough to speak normally. "Uh, did you actually speak to her?"
"Of course I did," Spencer countered with a sideways glare out of his eyes. "She was refreshingly upfront."
Ryder sighed. "Set a psycho to catch a psycho," he muttered under his breath.
Obviously not quiet enough for Spencer abruptly rounded on Ryder. "Excuse me?" Spencer snarled.
Ryder was about to apologise, but as he went to speak something entirely different emerged from his mouth. "Well come on, we're looking for someone who hates people enough to waste their time picking on a complete non-entity like me. Someone who probably doesn't even care who they send off for a demonic snack, but takes pleasure in the fact that there's one less teenager about. Aside from the suspect, who else around here has that level of misanthropy?"
"Yet another stunningly well-delivered argument as to why involving you even this much is a waste of my time," Spencer shot back. "You're a lousy judge of character and your powers of observation have clearly been blinkered by too many years of actually listening to the opinions of idiots."
Ryder couldn't think of any real way of answering that and so settled for simply staring at the irate Death.
Spencer took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, looking away to study the corridor rather than continue to glare at Ryder. "The food's in that direction, right?" Spencer said curtly, jabbing a finger in the direction they'd originally been heading. At a nod from Ryder, Spencer spun and began to march down the corridor without waiting to see if Ryder was coming as well.
"That's a nasty temper, he's got," drawled a feminine voice not far behind Ryder.
Ryder felt himself start at the words, not having realised that someone else had been there to witness Spencer in all his snarling glory. He turned to find a tall and slender woman in her mid-thirties leaning against the corridor wall as she watched Spencer stropping off into the distance with a vague frown and slightly narrowed brown eyes behind her wire-rimmed glasses. The plastic identity badge that hung from the waist of her knee-high beige skirt revealed her to be a member of the teaching staff. She wasn't one of Ryder's teachers, but the neat twist that her honey-blond hair was tied into and the lace detailing of the pink blouse she wore had Ryder guessing she was probably languages or social science of some description. She wasn't messy enough to be any of the Arts or severe enough to be any of the Sciences.
Her gaze transferred to Ryder and the woman smiled slightly. "Anything in particular set that one off?"
Ryder swallowed before shaking his head. "Uh, no. Not really."
The female teacher hummed as she straightened. "Is that so? I think you and I should have a word somewhere a little more private."
Wincing once the woman turned her back on him, Ryder obediently fell into step behind her as he began to try and think of a believable reason for making the new kid argue with him. The teacher unlocked the door to a nearby classroom and ushered Ryder inside. The interior revealed it to be one of the Spanish classrooms and confirmed Ryder's guess as to her subject.
Closing the door once Ryder was in the classroom, the teacher gestured idly to one of the empty desks as she perched on the edge of one not far from where Ryder stood. "So, things not going too well at the moment?"
Ryder slid into the nearest chair and blinked slowly at the question. "Um, I wouldn't say that."
The woman smiled reassuringly at Ryder. "It's his first day here, isn't it?" At Ryder's nod she smiled again. "Well he's probably feeling a little out of his depth. High School's probably a bit much to contend with in addition to everything else."
"Everything else?" Ryder echoed faintly.
"Investigating your death," the woman said blithely as though it were the sort of thing she encountered every day. At Ryder's silence, she glanced over at him and raised a gracefully arched eyebrow at him. "That is why you're still here, isn't it? Investigating your death?"
Ryder remained silent, not quite sure of whether he should respond or not.
The woman picked up on his hesitation and waved a hand reassuringly in his direction. "Oh relax, I know about you. I'm in the business as it were." She grinned at him. "We tend to crop up all over the place, but Spencer's so anti-social you'll probably never meet half of us. And speaking of Spencer, he doesn't actually seem to be hindering you much. Is he trying to stay on your good side?"
"Um," Ryder said faintly. "He's trying to stay on my good side?" The concept of how Spencer would be behaving were he not was a somewhat intimidating thought.
The blonde nodded. "Well it makes sense that he's trying to suck up. He'll be in a lot more trouble than he is at the moment if you decide to formalise the complaint." Leaning back on the desk, the woman tilted her head as she studied Ryder with that faint frown once more. "And speaking of that and simply for my own curiosity; why did you turn down the MOLAD application in favour of this? You certainly qualified with that time lapse and there were plenty of prospects around considering he found you in that mall. After all, you know what they say; fall hard, fall fast."
Ryder was now feeling very confused. He opened his mouth with the intention of asking just what they were actually talking about because Ryder certainly had no idea, when the sound of the classroom door slamming open distracted his attention.
Spencer stood in the doorway, his lips pressed so closely together that they appeared bloodless and his eyes narrowed to slits. Without a word he stepped inside the room and began to advance on the blonde, gaining speed as he did so. His hands, previously clenched into white-knuckled fists, swung down below the level of the desks and when they rose into Ryder's line of sight again, they were clutched around a lethal looking scythe. In a flurry of movement that seemed to be occurring in slow motion before Ryder's stunned gaze, Spencer knocked the woman from the desk to the floor and had the tip of the scythe pressed against her throat in one flowing motion.
"Spencer!" His name being called by the woman caused the dark-haired male to freeze momentarily as he glared down at the blonde who seemed unconcerned by her hazardous position. With a small smile still lingering around her mouth the woman took care to speak slowly and clearly. "Remember Spencer, you're bound by contract."
Spencer's face contorted for a moment before smoothing out once more. "Get out," he snarled.
And then she was gone. One moment, the woman had been lying on the floor with a scythe to her throat and the next there was no sign of either the lady or the weapon. Ryder stared at the scene in utterly baffled confusion before he fixed his eyes on Spencer.
Spencer was staring fixedly at the floor, the rise and fall of his shoulders testament to the fact that the guy was still on the wrong side of pissed. Not even looking at Ryder, Spencer spun on his heel and marched out of the classroom as the first bell to indicate the end of lunch rang.