"Unfinished business?" I repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The creature behind the desk adjusted his glasses. "Precisely what it sounds like, Miss Richards: you left something unresolved that you absolutely must resolve prior to admission to heaven."
I furrowed my brow in thought. "What is this unfinished business that you say I've left?"
He sighed, trying to veil his slight annoyance. "Well, according to my records," he began, pausing to wildly flip through his papers, "your fatality was sustained in a manner most singular and atypical, and therefore it must be resolved prior to your seraphic sojourn."
"My who was what now, and it must be where prior to my come again?" The poor little thing fumed a moment. "Could you rephrase that, please?"
He buried his face in his hands a moment to collect himself, then with a deep breath he looked at me again, fingers bridged to support his translucent chin. "Miss Richards, it's really very simple. Your life ended in a very unusual manner. We keep track of causes of death for several reasons that other departments can explain to you, but one of the ways that would concern you is this: people often like to know how they died at some point in eternity. It gives the soul some sense of peace for some reason. However, most people know how their lives ended upon registration.
"Unfortunately in some cases, such as yours, the soul doesn't know how he or she spent his or her dying moments, and because of that we can't fill out the necessary paperwork to admit that soul properly into the afterlife. There are other cases of unfinished business, none of which concern you." The little creature paused to catch his breath. "Are you with me thus far, Miss Richards?" I nodded. "Now, before we can admit you, you must find out your precise cause of death. The only records we have is that you were murdered."
I'd surmised as much from the grisly hacks in my neck, but hearing someone verbally confirm it aroused a gasp. He looked up. "Were you not aware?"
I spent a moment rooting around my throat for my voice. "I... I was, but hearing someone say it..." My hand shot to my neck, and to my curious surprise there were a number of raised lines scoring across my trachea.
I wasn't aware spirits could scar.
I spent a few moments tracing my fatal marks, furrowing my brow and morphing my mouth in curious wonder. Who knew such a thing could happen? Who would've thought such ghastly marks would leave a neck feeling so lacy? What on earth--?
A clearing throat broke my inner monologue. "If you'll allow me to finish, Miss Richards?"
Blushing, I muttered an apology. "It's alright, I realize it must come as a bit of a surprise."
"Wait a moment, if you know how I died, why do I have to find out myself?"
He raised a finger intelligently. "Ah, this is it, Miss Richards. In cases such as yours, 'murder' does not completely qualify. Yes, it is technically a cause, but this isn't enough for inevitable and insatiable curiosity later on. You must go back and find out who murdered you, why they committed such an act, and, if at all possible, you must inflict some punishment upon them."
"So I have to go back, solve my own murder, and make the murderer pay?" He nodded. I crossed my arms. "Must I? I've never considered myself a protege of Sherlock Holmes, but now I need to solve my murder to get into the afterlife?"
"Well, unless you want to do generations of paperwork, which take eons to then file." He turned up his palms in a shrug. "Honestly, Miss Richards, it's much easier to find out for yourself."
This struck me as ridiculous. Surely I was dreaming, surely I was just sleeping! I pinched myself a few times, to no avail.
I was awake, I was still dead, and I still had to solve my own murder.
Frantically I leaned emphatically closer to the bespectacled creature buried in paperwork. "And just how am I supposed to do this? I couldn't do such a thing alone, and I doubt I can do it alone now!"
"Ah, but you don't have to do it alone."
"No indeed, Miss Richards. As a phantasm you're able to appear to the living in various ways. But, as you're not yet officially in the afterlife, you have some limitations."
"For instance, you can only appear to people you knew, and to those people you can only appear through dreams, mirrors, tracing messages in foggy windows, et cetera."
"So, I can't appear to anyone directly?"
"You can, but at the moment you can only appear to and communicate with four mortals: three of whom you choose, the fourth will be your murderer when you find him or her. Preferably the three you choose will be able to help you solve your murder"
He pulled a form out of a ludicrously haphazard pile and set it before me. "This is where you place the names of those to whom you want to appear. You don't have to choose all at once, but once you choose, you cannot change."
I hesitated. How could I choose people to whom I wanted to appear? Who could help me figure out my death? I thought of my family, but they'd be too distraught to do anything. My mind next conjured up my Christopher and Sarah, my two dear friends. Sarah would be just as frazzled by my death as my family would be, but Christopher... he would mourn, yes, but this sort of thing was right up his way. He was fiendishly clever, forever solving impossible puzzles, but above all he was unwaveringly loyal. I could trust him with anything while I was alive, I could certainly trust him while deceased.
Taking a deep breath, I picked up the nearest pen and carefully wrote down his name: Christopher Elliot Swannson.
"I can't decide who else at the moment," I admitted, sliding the paper back across the creature's desk.
"That's fine." He examined the paper over the top of his glasses, nodding approvingly. "This'll appear when you need it next, you're free to appear back down there. Have a good day, Miss Richards."
Appear? What did he--?
Before I could finish my thought the woolly-cloud waiting room had dissolved, and I found myself perching on the edge of my grandmother's bed once again, but this time amid stern and mournful company.