Celebrity Service

I knew who Melody Anders was before she entered the shop. How could I not?  I’d seen a few of her films— the sci-fi stuff, mostly, not the romcoms. I’d seen her face plastered on every bus, every day on my way to work. Even snuck a peak at her in magazines at the barbers or in doctors’ offices: look, I’m only human. Who hasn’t spent a few idle moments here and there wondering what it would be like to meet the most beautiful woman in the world?

Never in a hundred years would I imagine I’d see her walk into my store, and smile that Fort-Knox-gold smile at me like we were old friends.

Her agent had made the call a couple of days ago.

‘Is that McTavish Whiskies in Edinburgh, Scotland?’ Except the woman on the phone pronounced it “Edinburg,” to rhyme with “Pittsburg”. She asked if we’d be happy closing the store for an hour or two, so that Melody Anders could shop in peace, away from the paparazzi and the autograph hunters. If Dad had been here, there would be “nae way in Heav’n n’Earth Ah’m closing’ this shop so some stuck-up Yank bint can wander aimless fer an hour,” but he wasn’t here. He was in Tenerife. I was in charge, and it was my choice to make.

I said no.

The woman on the phone— Linda, was it? — asked why.

I said that at McTavish Whiskies we aimed to treat all our customers to the same level of excellent customer service, and we couldn’t possibly turn away paying customers for the sake of one individual, no matter how famous she might be.

Linda told me how much Miss Anders was looking forward to this visit. She said that Miss Anders loved our whisky, that she imported it, and did I know she’d given a bottle to Kanye for his birthday?

I said I didn’t know that and that I was sorry, but it just wasn’t possible.

Linda told me she’d compensate us.

I said we weren’t interested.

But just out of curiosity, I asked how much.

She gave me a figure. A ridiculous figure. A figure big enough to let us close the shop for a year. A figure big enough for me to live on for years, to write, to work on getting published, to find a way to move out of Dad’s attic.

I said no. The tanning that Dad would give me wasn’t worth it.

She gave me another figure. Twice as ridiculous.

My mouth went dry. Hey, what dad didn’t know wasn’t going to kill him, was it? I told Linda we would be free for an hour on Thursday.

I barely slept the night before her visit. I kept fidgeting in bed, imagining all the things that could go wrong. I had to eat three tablespoons of raw coffee, just to stay awake while I cleaned the store, dusted, polished every bottle.

My stomach was a cage of moths by the time the car rolled up outside, just after four. Two men, two pit-fighters, modern day gladiators that someone had trapped in matching suits strode into the shop, looked around. One of them sniffed the air, the other gave the slightest of nods, and the back door of the car opened.

I don’t know what I was expecting Melody Anders to look like. A cartoon version of a movie star, perhaps? Plastic skin and a bad attitude? Giant sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to make her face look tiny? A dead animal around her neck, a live one poking its head out of a Prada bag? A face that had been painted on by a team of Renaissance artists into a permanent scowl?

Whoever I expected, it wasn’t Melody Anders.

The woman who walked into my shop was shorter than she looked on TV, but she made the rest of the room shrink around her.  She looked so normal surrounded by the autumnal golds and reds around her: the crest of copper curls that crowned her heart-shaped face reflected in the bottles.  Her chartreuse eyes were gleaming, bright as gemstones as they roamed around the store.

My store.

‘Wow,’ she said, apricot lips curving into a smile that could melt a glacier.

As she sauntered towards me, I fought the urge to tear away my gaze and stare at the floor. Her clothes were nothing too showy: T-shirt and jeans, torn artfully and deliberately.  Stylish, good cut, but not excessive. Hugging her body just enough to trace the outline of her curves

‘Hi there.’ Her voice was friendly but smoky.

She offered me her hand. I took it, shook it once, carefully, in case I broke it.

‘Hello,’ I said.

She grinned. Her teeth were a choir of pearls. ’I’m Melody. Nice to meet you.’

‘Simon,’ I stammered.  ‘You too’.

She flicked back her hair. ‘This is a great shop you’ve got here, Simon. You must work really hard on it.’

‘It’s nothing special. I’ve been lucky. My dad did most of the work. And the location’s good, so we get a lot of tourists.’

I felt like such a fraud. How on earth could this amazing, perfect, flawless woman possibly be interested in my shop? Had she gotten the wrong address?

She strolled along the aisles of the floor, touching bottles lightly, like a child in a toyshop, trying to stop herself from grabbing everything. ‘God, I’ve wanted to come here for so long. Did you know my grandpa was Scottish?’

‘Um, no. I didn’t.’

‘Yeah, he was from Dunbar. Emigrated after the war. He was the one who introduced me to real Scotch. Taught me to drink it properly. Said there was nowhere better than McTavish’s in all the Lowlands. Glad to see the place is still here.’  She turned to me and smiled. ‘Is there anything you’d recommend?’

I looked around, searching for something good enough for her. ‘Well,’ I said, as I picked up a bottle. ‘This is a seventeen-year-old Balvenie, doublewood, but…’ No. Not good enough. Not for her. ‘How about this? Islay, single malt, eighteen years? Or… hold on.’

I ran into the back, pulled out a bottle of golden honey that cost more than my university tuition. ‘Here. The Kinkell Signature. Triple cask. Forty years. They only produced twelve bottles.’

Her eyes went wide as saucers. ‘Can I try some?’

I smiled and pulled on the bottle. Tore the seal, and tried not to think about what Dad would do to me if he knew I’d opened a four-figure whisky bottle just to impress a girl. I poured a dram into the glass, offered it to her.

She held it in her hand like it was the Holy Grail, swirled it deliberately. It reminded me of how Dad looked when he held an unusually fine dram. She brought it to her nose and sniffed.

‘Wow, that is something else. Smells like someone set my dad’s log cabin on fire.’

She knocked back her hand, tossed the whisky into her mouth. Held for a moment, swallowed, and shrieked.

‘Damn. That stuff’s like a shotgun blast of honey to the back of my skull.’ She put the glass down in front of her, shook her head. It’s gonna be hell getting this through customs. Can I try it with water?’

I could feel the blood draining from my face at the thought of pouring a second glass of priceless liquor. ‘You want another?’

‘Sure. That’s the only way to check the flavor, right? A little bit of water opens it up. I mean, if you don’t mind.’

I didn’t mind. Dad would mind. But looking into those priceless eyes, his opinion didn’t seem to matter.

I poured. Let Melody Anders add the water.

She drank it. Her cheeks flushed with colour.

‘Yep,’ she croaked, shaking her head. ‘Definitely getting that one.’

I made a few more suggestions, and every time she tried one she smiled at me like we were old friends.

‘Man,’ she said. ‘It feels so good to get away from to interviews and photo shoots.’ She cocked her head at me, shook her head. ‘That’s gotta sound so dumb, right? Melody Anders complaining about how hard she’s got it to someone with a real job? Is that crazy?’

I shrugged. ‘It doesn’t sound crazy to me.’

She reached out, took my hand. ‘Thanks for letting me visit today, Simon. It’s been really great to pretend to be a real person, just for a while. Hey, do you mind doing me a little favor?

‘Of course. What do you need?’

‘Do you have anywhere I can go change? It’s been a long day, and I still have, like, a hundred engagements.’

‘Yeah, sure. There’s space in the back.’

I lead her through the corridor at the back of the shop, noting every patch of mould, every speck of dust in the hallway. Why hadn’t I thought to clean it?

I’d never thought of the warehouse as special: just a dank cellar behind the store full of barrels. But Melody grinned like a little girl at a theme park while she strolled around the undercroft.

‘Wow! It’s like living in a castle, or something! Don’t you ever wanna just live down here?’

‘Not really. It’s dark, and it’s wet.’

‘Come on, dude, you’re ruining the fun. Hey, do you mind giving me a couple of minutes?’

She made it sound so ordinary. Like she was someone I’d known for years. And not some stranger asking me to leave her alone in our cellar full of antique whiskies.

‘Wouldn’t you rather that I stayed?’ I offered, feebly.

‘Thanks, Simon. Hey: if I steal anything, at least you’ll have a good story to give the cops. I’ll be good. Girl scouts honor.’

All I could do was nod. ‘Okay.’

‘Great. I’ll treat you to a burger later, okay? Promise. Just do me a favor: no peeking, all right?’

‘If you say so.’

‘Promise?’

‘I promise.’

‘Thanks.’ She smiled, and I walked back towards the shop.

I sat behind the counter, waited. My eyes drifted toward the monitor hidden under the desk: a tiny cathode ray, outputting in fuzzy, faded colours. The security feed.

There was a camera in the warehouse.

The obvious thought burst into my mind, causing sweat to coat the skin underneath my shirt. How often would I get a chance to watch the most beautiful woman in the world undress? I shuddered, wishing I hadn’t thought it. She’d been nothing but polite the whole time. Not pushy, or demanding. She’d treated me like a real human being, not a walking cash register, and that was a lot more than a lot of customers managed. No. She’d treated me like a human being, and I was going to show her the same courtesy.

I stared at the clock on the wall, watched the hands creep forward.

How long was she going to take?

Maybe just a quick peek? It wasn’t like she was going to know?

I flipped to the camera in the warehouse.

Melody was standing in the middle of the room.  I watched as she slipped out of the t-shirt, slid the jeans down her thighs. Oh, my God. Skin taut over muscle, curves swaying as she undressed.  I put my fist into my mouth, bit so hard it would leave a mark, just to stop myself from weeping.

Then she took off her skin.

She made it look easy, just like she had with her clothes. She reached up, grabbed the spot under one of her shoulders and pulled, and her body fell away like an old jacket to reveal what she was underneath. Where Melody Anders had once been there was only a bundle of copper fur.

At first, I thought it was a cat. Then I saw it scamper out of the pile of clothes, and I realised cats didn’t have such bushy tails. And they usually only had one.

I watched, dumbfounded, unable to pull away from the screen. The fox that had been a woman bounded across the floor the warehouse shop on all fours. Both its tail twitched with excitement as its jaws reached out and twisted the tap on a cask of Glenmorangie and lapped at the contents with a delicate pink tongue.

Then it stopped. Twitched its nose. Cocked its head. Stared upwards. Right at the camera in the corner

Right at me.

Chartreuse eyes gleaming brightly as gemstones, burrowing into my brain. Melody’s eyes. Or at least, they were the same colour, the same shape, but the expression in them was different. Not friendly, or cheerful, or kind. These eyes were cold as stone. As they focused on me, pierced me through the camera feed, I felt a chill run through me. As if I could feel the raw hurt behind those eyes, and the seething, boiling outrage in the fox’s heart.

The camera feed went out, replaced by the hazy blur of static.

Oh, God. Had she seen me?

I turned off the monitor, like I was trying to hide what I’d done, and headed out onto the floor, just in time to see Melody open the door, wearing a different coat and skirt.

‘Well, then, Mr McTavish,’ she said brusquely as if her previous good cheer had melted in the air. ‘I’ll not take up any more of your time.’

‘Please, I didn’t mean to spy, it was an accident, I…’

‘I’ll certainly take a bottle of the Kinkell, and a few of these.’ She pointed idly at the bottles behind her as if she didn’t even care which ones she bought. ‘If you’d be kind enough to gift wrap them for me, I’d appreciate it. Linda will give you the address, you can forward them to there.’

‘Of course, Melody, I—.’

‘I’ll be sure to recommend you, Mr McTavish.’

‘Thank you.’ I offered her my hand. She looked at it, grimaced. I couldn’t even look her in her eyes as she shook my hand gingerly as if she was touching a slug.

She froze her grip, pulled me towards her. Whispered into my ear, her voice as cold and dangerous as a knife in my heart.

‘I know what you saw. And I’m gonna let it slide because you were kind. Just this once. But if you ever tell anyone— and I mean, if you tell a single living soul, for as long as you live— I’ll know. And you will regret it. Do you understand?’

I nodded, unable to look her in the eye.

She squeezed my hand. Her grip was iron as I felt her fingers dig into my palm. ’Promise me.’

I winced. I couldn’t feel my hand. ‘I promise.’

‘Good.’ She relaxed her grip. She smiled at me. At least, her mouth smiled. Her eyes had the same stony look that the fox had given me through the camera, as cold and uncaring as winter. ‘Take care of yourself, Mr McTavish.’

She walked away, opened the door, and left. It was several minutes before I moved.

***

I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind. I tried to think about it as if Melody Anders was just another unhappy customer, storming out of the shop for no good reason. It helped if I thought about her as the spoiled prima donna everyone expects Hollywood A-listers to be, instead of the women I’d actually met.

Callum asked me about her in the pub, a week or so later. He wasn’t the first. A few people heard about her visit, and they asked me what she was like. I just said she was nice. There didn’t seem any point in saying anything else.

Maybe I got tired of people asking me. Maybe my head was fuzzy from a few pints too many. Either way, something inside of me rebelled.

‘She’s a fox,’ I said

‘Aye.’ Callum leered at me, nudged my arm with his elbow. ‘You’re telling me!’

‘No, I mean really. She turned into a real, flesh-and-blood fox. Red hair and bushy tail.’

Callum frowned and squinted at me. ‘What on earth are you talking about, Simon?’

I sighed. There didn’t seem any point trying to explain to him. I ordered another round instead.

I didn’t give her much thought after that. I didn’t want to think about Melody Anders after that day, or the hurt look that she’d given me before she walked out of my shop. I learned to live with it. The tourist season came and went. We did pretty well, as it happened. Maybe she was good as her word and told all her friends about us. Perhaps she gave us a bump on Twitter. I didn’t have the heart to check.

I didn’t see her again until some night after work, a few months later, when I was skimming through channels on the telly, looking for something to watch while I cooked dinner.  I stumbled on one of her films: one of the romantic comedies. There she was on my screen, just like I’d seen her, copper hair and Chartreuse eyes, having a pleasant conversation with an unspeakably handsome man that I half-recognised.

And then she turned and looked at me.

I blinked, thinking for a moment I’d imagined it. But there she was, staring at me out of the screen, eyes smouldering. Her whole body was taut, rigid. And when she spoke her voice was a harsh yapping sound, more animal than human.

‘You promised not to tell anyone. You broke your promise. But I won’t break mine, Simon.’

Then, like someone had flipped a switch, she went back to the conversation with the man onscreen.

For a moment I sat there, frozen, wondering if I’d imagined it. Then I went to bed.

The next day, on the way to work, I noticed they’d put out a new poster on the bus stop. Some new sci-fi film coming soon: an image of a red planet, a man in a spacesuit, a woman’s face looking down at him.

Melody’s face.

Before I could look away, the face on the poster twisted towards me. Eyes flashing at me, radiating hate.

I skipped the bus. But it wasn’t the only poster on the way to work. Nor was it the last time I saw her.

On most days I can get by without getting the worst of it, so long as I don’t read newspapers and I’m careful which websites I go to. But every now and then, a bus will go by, or I’ll see a billboard or some little flash of video, and there she is, just for a moment: Melody Anders, staring at me, her face twisted in hatred, and I’m reminded that so long as I live, she will make me pay.

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The Monster In The Cave

At sunset Davey led the others down to the cave by the beach where he saw the monster.

(Previously read at The Visitation at Old Low Light)

At sunset Davey led the others down to the cave by the beach where he saw the monster.

‘I bet there isn’t even anything there,’ Sean said. He was the oldest and the shortest, and his ears stuck out from the sides of his head like the wings of a bat. ‘Bet he’s made the whole thing up just for the attention.’

‘Shut up, Sean,’ said Kev, who wasn’t the oldest but was the tallest and was usually in charge because he was bigger than the others and already had hairs sprouting in the dark corners of his body. He showed them to the others, sometimes, to remind them why he was in charge. ‘I want to see the monster.’ Kev liked monsters. His mum and dad let him watch a lot of videos with monsters in them, which he leant to the others even though his parents told him not to. They came in black plastic boxes with pictures of naked women on the front, most of whom were missing limbs. He never leant them to Davey though, because Davey was too scared to watch monster videos, and they all knew it.

‘What kind of monster is it then, Davey?’ Sean asked. ‘Is it something big and hairy, with huge teeth and giant claws?’

‘Don’t be stupid, Sean,’ said Kev. ‘It won’t be furry if it lives in a cave by the sea. It’ll be like a fish, so it’ll be wet and scaly and slimy.’

‘How can it be a fish if it lives in a cave? How does it breathe?’

‘It breathes air and water, obviously,’

‘That’s dumb,’ Sean replied. ‘How can something breathe air and water?’

‘Whales can.’

‘No they can’t.’

‘Yeah, they can. Because they’re not fish.’

‘Why do they live in the sea, then?’

Kev didn’t know that, but he found it difficult to confess his ignorance where others would hear. ‘’Cause they’re so big, and the sea’s the only place where they can live where there’s enough room.’

Sean considered this. Not for very long though: he was easily distracted, and when he had a thought that was too hard to answer, he used to start thinking about the girls in his class, and what they looked like under their skirts.

‘Hey, Davey,’ Kev began. ‘How much further is it?’

Davey raised his hand and pointed at an outcrop of rocks. It didn’t look far.

The sun hung over the sea like a glowing orange, shimmering against the purple sky. Seagulls swooped and dived overhead. Davey stepped nimbly across the edges of the rock pools, while Kev kept on slipping, and Sean just stomped right through them without worrying about staining his trousers, or who would have to clean them.

‘What do you think the monster looks like?’ Sean asked.

‘I told you,’ Kev said, ‘it looks like a fish.’

‘Yeah, but what sort of fish?’

Kev chewed on his lip, tried to have a think. ‘I reckon it’ll be like a huge crab. Except it’ll be person-sized, and it’ll stand up like a person would.’

‘Yeah?’

‘And it won’t have a head. It’ll just have a lot of those feeler things, like octopuses have.’

‘Octopi,’ Sean suggested.

‘Whatever.’ Kev was starting to get excited. ‘And they’ll be millions of these little tentacles, and it’ll use you to pull you in close and suck your head inside so it can eat you. But it won’t eat you straight away. It’ll eat you slowly, peeling off your skin a strip at a time with its tongue, until the only part of you left is your skull. And when it’s done it’ll tie your skull around its waist, so you can hear the skulls knocking against each other when it walks.’ And Kev made a popping sound with his finger inside his mouth, to show what it would sound like.

‘Eww!’ Sean’s mouth twisted in disgust. ‘You got that from a video, didn’t you?’

‘No I didn’t!’ Kev insisted, quite indignant because for once he had come up with a monster by himself. Well, he might have seen something like it in a video game, once. ‘What do you think it’ll be like.’

Sean shrugged. ‘Dunno.’ He never had much in the way of imagination, unless it was thinking up new ways to sneak into the girls’ changing room. ‘Don’t really care, so long as it’s not like a ghost.’

Kev rolled his eyes. ‘Ghosts aren’t monsters.’

‘Yeah they are!’ Sean didn’t care much about monsters, but the thought of ghosts interested him. He liked to collect stories of murders, snippets of crime, urban legends. Anything that had a taste of cruelty to it. And what was a ghost, but the memory of a cruelty? ’Have you ever heard of Red Molly?’

‘That’s a bad name for a ghost,’ Kev said.

‘Molly was the wife of a fisherman,’ Sean said, ignoring Kev’s disdain. ‘She used to sell her husband’s catch down by the fish market. She used to chop the fish with a massive cleaver, bigger than her head, chop, chop, chop.’ Sean lowered the plane of his hand with every “chop,” to slice an imaginary fish. ‘But Molly’s husband was lazy, and a pretty bad fisherman. And when he didn’t have enough money for his beer, he used to beat Molly senseless, called her useless for not selling his catch at a fair price. Until one day, after he came home more drunk than usual, he lashed out at her, and she couldn’t take it any more. So she grabbed the cleaver, raised it above her head, and brought it down on him so hard it split his skull.’

‘Well that was stupid,’ Kev said. ‘What did she do with the body?’

‘She dumped it in the sea, obviously. And she thought that was over. Except, here’s the thing: the next load of fish she had brought in, she noticed it tasted a lot better. Sort of tangy, like the fish had been cooked in lemon. And Molly wasn’t the only one: soon she was selling so much more fish she couldn’t keep up, and she ran out of stocks pretty quick. And she realised that whatever her husband’s body had done to improve the fish, it was wearing off. So what do you think she did?’

‘I don’t know,’ Kev admitted.

Sean smiled. ‘Well, let’s just say that there were a lot of people who went missing that year’

Kev screwed up his face. ‘Really?’

‘Sure. And people kept going missing for months and years after that. Until she was caught, of course: there’s only so long you can go chopping up bodies and dumping them in the sea before someone notices. The police caught her, and they hanged her, and that was that. Except…’

‘Except what?’

Sean grinned evilly. ‘Well, every now and then, you hear strange stories from the fish market. Fisherman who say they heard something scratching against the bottom of their boat; fish that when you bite into them, they taste like blood. I even heard a story about one guy, a tourist, who bit into a fish supper, and saw an eyeball staring back at him— ow!’

Kev punched Sean in the arm. ‘You’re a bloody idiot, Sean! You’ve just made that up!’

Sean rubbed his arm. ‘Sure, the last part. The rest is true though. I’d rather it was a monster in the cave, not a ghost. At least you can fight a monster.’

They could see the cave by now: a jagged crack in the side of the cliff, so dark it felt like a tear in the beach, a hole that the landscape would pour into like water down a plughole. As they walked, they saw flocks of seagulls resting on the rocks at the mouth of the cave. Except they weren’t resting. Most of them weren’t even moving.

The sunlight trickled away behind the horizon. Kev began to wonder if they would have enough light to make their way back to the beach. Sean began to shiver, and he wished he’d brought along a warmer coat. But they couldn’t turn back. Not while the other was watching. So they kept following Davey, and neither could begin to guess what he might be thinking.

When they came to the mouth of the cave, they peered inside. Darkness waited for them, cold and inviting, covering everything so that it was impossible to make out details, just streaks of salt and lichen. The three of them stopped, and waited, until one of them found the courage to go inside.

‘You first,’ said Kev.

‘You go,’ Sean answered. ‘You’re bigger than me.’

‘And you’re older. So you should be braver.’

They both stood there, staring at each other, and neither noticed that Davey had already gone inside.

‘Davey! Where are you?’ Kev called into the blackness, but the only answer he got was his own voice, echoing from the alls of the cave.

Kev and Sean looked at each other. Then they went inside.

On and on they stumbled, further and further from the last dying fragments of the light. They called out for Davey, shouted his name, which rebounded off the walls of stone. Every now and then one of them would reach out, or fall, and their hand would touch the rock, or rub against some could slimy thing that could have been alive, once.

‘I think we should go back out,’ Kev said.

‘Yeah,’ Sean added.

When they turned around, hoping to find their way back to the beach, they spotted something that pierced the gloom: a shaft of light, streaming from outside. In the remnants of daylight, they could make out Davey’s shape, outlined in silhouette. The look on his face was strange to both of them, and it made them feel sick to their very stomachs, for it was a look that neither of them had seen Davey make before.

Davey was smiling.

Before they could say or do anything they heard a noise, a low rumbling sound like nails scratching along the rock around them, a voice that whispered to them from the edge of nightmares.

Are these the ones you promised me?

Davey nodded, his face twisted by shadows.

Good, said the voice of the cave.

Kev and Sean stood still, paralysed, unable to move even though they desperately wanted to, as a cold, horrible something stirred in the darkness around them, slithered over the rocks. And even though they couldn’t see it— never saw it— they could almost feel it creep towards them.

Davey turned and walked away as the walls of the cave began to close.

Read “The Black Oracle” now at Inside the Bell Jar

(Trigger warning for discussion of depression)

The second issue of Inside the Bell Jar has been released, and it features my flash-fiction piece, “The Black Oracle“!

I honestly never thought I’d do much with this piece. I wrote it into my journal after a particularly difficult day, mostly for my own benefit to work through how I was feeling. I didn’t think much of it until Vic shared the call for submissions on the subject of mental health.

In the story I tried to personify that voice in my head that tells me I’m going to fail, that always seems to know the future. Depression is an ugly thing, but part of the reason that it works is due to how it presents itself as fair and reasonable, like it’s got out best interests at heart. I suppose the lesson to take to heart is to remind myself that the Black Oracle is not my friend, and it’s certainly not as infallible as it thinks it is.

I honestly couldn’t more thrilled to be featured in the new issue. It’s still a little strange seeing my own work on a website that I didn’t copy-paste myself, complete with a bio and a headshot! And I really love the photo they chose to go with it: lonely and oppressive, yet ambiguous enough to be the Oracle itself.

Anyway, if you liked the story (or appreciated it, at any rate), please feel free to leave a comment and share it around. And please check out the other stuff that Inside the Bell Jar is putting out: they’re doing good work.

The Witch’s Delight

This is the full, unabridged version of the story I read at Noir At The Bar North East. It’s the opening chapter for a (hopefully!) forthcoming novel featuring a young lady we’ve met before, in her early days…

Many thanks to everyone who took the time to read this over and offer feedback: Julie, Vic, Gary, Ana, Gemma, Chris and anyone else I’ve forgot to mention– feel free to knock me on the head and tell me I’ve forgotten about you!

I’m thinking about recording an audio version: let me know if that’s something you’d like to hear!

 

By the start of second year, there weren’t many of us left in the class. Thirteen souls in total, down from twenty-two in my first year. The rest had dropped out, changed subjects, gone for something less demanding on their time or patience. The rest of us were proud to have survived.  We were the elite. Hardcore. Proud to have survived. By the time the exams came at the end of the first semester, we felt like the hardened veterans of a long campaign against buggy code and unreasonable deadlines. The last exam in Elder Hall was the gonna be our biggest fight.  Gettysburg. The high water mark.

Elder Hall was one of the least haunted buildings in Chrismont. It wasn’t even that old— barely two hundred, pretty much a snot-nosed kid for a town that was already old when the Vikings burned it down. It had a quiet history: it wasn’t built on a plague pit, no one had ever been imprisoned or executed or starved to death in the basement. Well, if anyone had, it wasn’t in the tourist brochure. It was about as close to a happy building as you were gonna get in an English seaside town with more bones under the roads than cement. Maybe that was why they used it for exams: so the students had no excuse for freaking out under the pressure.

Most days the auditorium in Elder Hall was the stage for music recitals: it was one of the few indoor spaces able to fit in enough people, and the domed roof provided great acoustics. Once a year, the final-year students and their proud families gathered here to be punished in the ritual of Latin and bad fashion known as “Graduation”.

That was some way away for me, of course. First things first: I had to get through Intermediate Software Engineering. This was the only exam that really had me worried. Not because the subject was difficult. There was no coding, no math, nothing that risked any actual thought. Just a lot of memorisation and some essay questions. The usual pseudo-philosophical jargon about ethics in computer science, nothing I couldn’t extend for a few hundred words until the examiner surrendered and let me pass. It was humanities stuff, not real science, and as much use as a satnav on a lawnmower. The exam didn’t scare me.

If I kept telling myself that, maybe I’d believe it.

I stared down at the notes in my hand. Not that there was much point, now: my brain was crammed so full of facts and formulae, I felt they might just burst out of my skull and spill out. In a way, the exam was already over, and I’d already passed or failed: all that was left was the boring work of actually taking it.

‘Hey, Jen, can I borrow your notes?’

I looked up, saw Nate give me an awkward smile, hands in pockets, shoulders haunched. A picture of nervous energy, badly contained. He looked like he would bolt if anyone said his name too loudly.

‘Sure.’

I handed him the pages. He squinted his eyes, creased his brow as he stared at them.

‘Um, what does that say?’

I glanced at the spot where he pointed. ’“Waterfall model”.’

’Really?’ He stared at me, incredulous. ‘That’s a “w”?’

I shrugged. ’My handwriting’s not the best, okay?’

‘You’re telling me. It looks like a spider dragged the ink over the page. Backwards.’

I rolled my eyes. Teachers had complained about my handwriting since elementary school. Who needs penmanship in the twentieth century anyway?

Nate shuffled through the ragged pages. ‘Do you want these back?’

‘Nah, I’m good. At this point, it’s either sunk in or it’s not. No point stressing over stuff you can’t help.’

‘Speak for yourself. I fully intend to stay stressed.’

‘You’ll do fine.’ Nate was one of the smartest guys I knew. Dude could get DOS running on a spinning wheel if he put his mind to it. Poor guy suffered from imposter syndrome, though, big time. Always worried that he couldn’t hang, that he didn’t belong here, that he was gonna mess up and people would find him out.

I looked around the foyer at the rest of my classmates. They had a buzz about them. Whether excited, or scared, or just plain confused, there was a real sense that things were coming to an end, that all we had to do was press on just a little and everything would be okay.

The only one who looked calm was Em.

That in and of itself was weird. Ordinarily Em could come up with six things to freak out about before breakfast. Was her hair too tangled? Was her heartbeat irregular? Who was feeding bacon to the cat in the hall? (it was usually me, by the way). Had she gained/lost weight in her sleep?

Today there was none of that. Em was quiet as a cloud. She looked like part of the furniture, resting on the stairs in the corner, staring at the wall with an odd smile on her face. Like she had something bigger to worry about than software engineering principles.

I walked over to her. ‘You okay?’ I asked.

‘Hm? Oh, sure. I’m fine. How are you doing, darling?’

Em called everyone ‘darling’. Not in a patronising way, like some movie star trying to poison you with caramel words. She was a local girl, born on Tyneside, and her  accent drawled with genuine affection. Like she thought everyone was her best friend.

‘I’m okay.’ I shrugged. ‘Just want it over with at this point.’

She smiled. ‘You’ll be fine.’

‘We should do something afterward,’ I said, to change the subject. ‘To celebrate. Or not.’

Her smile froze, flickered and died. ‘I don’t think I will, Jen.’

‘C’mon, you know Red’s gonna try to drag us out to some dive bar and get us top-five drunk. We’ve got to stick together. Come up with a better plan. An indoors plan, with chocolate and DVDs.’

‘Sorry. You should have fun without me, love.’

‘Dude, how am I supposed to have fun without you?’

Me and Em were the only girls in the class. Two out of thirteen was pretty good representation in computer science. The boys treated us like endangered animal mascots, class totems, something to take pride in and fear, often at the same time.

We’d been friends since first year, comrades-in-arms ever since we met at a twenty-four-hour coding marathon, a ‘hackathon’ hosted by the School of Computer Science. I caught up with her afterwards, after I heard her presentation on an algorithm designed to replicate a fifteenth century necromantic ritual that she found in a German textbook. Completely useless, maybe, but the code was genius, and it appealed to my inner fourteen-year-old, my love for rainy days and graveyard poetry and the occasional cantrip to clear up acne flare-up. It turned out we were in the same halls of residence, and we hung out in her room after that, swapped warez, worked on projects together for school. Come the end of the academic year and staring homelessness in the face, she asked if I wanted to be the third signature on a tenancy renting a basement flat alongside another chick, a red-headed, six-foot pirate of a woman who  played the drums, and who could out-drink a frat house and still go a few rounds in the ring with a berserk Viking. I said yes, and hadn’t seen reason to regret it, apart from a few sleepless nights listening to post-thrash drum fills and the occasional fight over the shower in the morning.

I sat down next to her, close enough to nudge her in the ribs. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘You wanna hear something cool?’

Em said nothing, so I continued;

‘Apparently, Elder Hall has got a haunted painting.’

She rolled her eyes. ’No it doesn’t Jen.’

‘Yeah, it does!’ I insisted. ‘It’s called “The Witch’s Delight,” and it was left by some professor who got sacked by the university in his will. And I heard that anyone who sits underneath during an exam fails.

‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘It’s true! Like, ten years ago, a student ran  out of the exam hall, screaming “the witch made me do it”!’

‘Darling, you are so full of rubbish, I’m surprised the council doesn’t take you away every week.’

‘Yeah? Well then, I dare you to sit underneath it.’

‘Where do you get these stories from?’

‘It’s fun, y’know? There’s ghost stories from all over this town, and I collect them. Like stamps’

‘Except your stories are even more useless. There’s no such thing as ghosts.’

‘How do you know that?’

She shrugged. ‘I know’

I smiled. She was right, of course. It was a dumb story. Some student probably cracked under the pressure, got distracted by the painting and ran screaming for the toilet. Didn’t need to invent a curse for that. Still, scary stories had always interested me. Made me feel like there was something more to the world, like there was a point to it besides the boring everyday truth of homework and skin problems.

Em looked at me. ‘I’m going to miss this, love.’

I bit my lip. ‘Miss what?’

‘You. This.’ She sighed. ‘Everything.’

‘You’re weird.’

Before I could say anything else, an invigilator carrying a clipboard like an offensive weapon propped open the door to the auditorium. That was the signal for us to file in.

I smiled at Em. ’See you on the other side.’

She didn’t answer. Didn’t even meet my eyes.

I followed the rest of the class into the auditorium. Dropped off my bag at the back: the last thing I needed was my phone going off in the middle of a test. As I strolled past row after row of desks, I tried not to look at the wall of paintings on the far side. Tried, and failed. I couldn’t have missed the haunted painting if I’d wanted to: my eyes were drawn to it,  like the gravitational pull of a black hole, sucking at the room until no light could escape. The figures dancing naked around a bonfire were twisted like dolls whose limbs looked like they’d been torn off and reassembled in the wrong places. The old woman in the painting stared at me. Her eyes bulged in her head like bloated worms trying to squeeze out of her skull. The painting didn’t have to be haunted to freak the crap out of me.

Silently I told myself that the curse was just a story. But the shiver down my back was very real. Just in case, I slid over to the opposite side of the room, far enough forward that I couldn’t see the painting without turning around, and sat down at a desk in the corner.

The exam paper squatted on the desk like a death warrant. I wrote my name and filled out the course details, though it was like carving into stone. Then I waited, like the last inmate on Death Row, hoping against hope for a reprieve.

I realized, with horrific certainty, how hideously unprepared for this I was.

The invigilator at the front barked like a drill sergeant. ‘You may now begin.’

Papers rustled. Heads bowed. I turned over the page.

1. Discuss at least three software factors that contributed to the SafeSurgeon incident, and how you would avoid them. (9 marks)

Oh, was that all they wanted? A page and a half telling them how not to murder patients with a burning scalpel. Dammit, I knew I should have taken notes on that, but oh no, Jen thinks she’s smarter than the examiners. “No way they’ll ask about that, why bother?” Idiot.

I put pen to paper, and wrote “One factor to consider”. Then I stopped.

Was it too late to run out the hall, screaming “the witch made me do it“?

I turned, my head, looked at Em.

She wasn’t writing anything. Wasn’t even looking at the page.

She turned towards me and caught my eye. She smiled. A strange, crooked thing, that spread across her face like morning sunlight, putting her at peace.

That was when she jammed her pen into her neck.

I would have screamed, but my throat was dry as dust, and the sound caught in my mouth. In a moment that felt it could last forever, I watched  as Em tore open her throat, wrenching her pen like an industrial laser tearing through sheet metal. Blood ran down her hands like treacle, staining her clothes and smearing the desk in front of her. It was almost a relief when the screaming started and I realised it wasn’t just me watching her die.

The noise shattered the stillness of the exam hall like glass. Em fell off her chair, sank sinking in slow motion to the floor. One of the guys next to her— Anthony, I think it was— rushed over, grabbed her by the shoulders and, held her up. He strained to hold up her limp body. Put his hand to her throat. Her breath was hoarse and, ragged as the colour drained from her face, but her expression was what scared me most: I could have coped if she had looked scared, or desperate, or given some sign that showed she was still fighting, tooth and nail, to cling to life. Instead, I saw nothing . Just those bright brown eyes gazing back at me, and just the faint sign of a smile on her lips.

The crowd around Em was growing, as invigilators and students pulled together to shout out bad advice. Take the pen out. No, leave it in. Didn’t matter: in the end, it was Em herself who finally yanked the thing out of her flesh, causing another jet of blood to pump between Anthony’s fingers.

She convulsed like a moth breaking free of its cocoon, then was still.

The crowd was too big now, forcing me back. Someone shouted to call an ambulance, to call the police, like there was anything they could do to fix her, like they could somehow force the blood back into her veins, the life back into her lungs.

I glanced around the room, looking for something, anything that would distract my attention. Saw There was the paper on Em’s desk, crumpled and covered in red fingerprints. Some instinct, some perverse impulse, made me reach over, grab it, stuff it into my pocket.

Desperate to think of anything else, I looked over at the far wall. At the painting in the middle, staring looming down at over the hallway hall like a gargoyle. Maybe it was just my mind fraying at the edges, but I could have sworn I saw the old woman smile.

 

Nemo

 

In the year of the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus, fifty-nine years before the birth of Christ, there lives a prostitute in Rome named Nemo.

I hope I shall be forgiven for the conceit of naming my protagonist: “Nobody”. That is not her birth name, of course, nor is it the alias she provided to the aedile when she registered her profession. Indeed, I have not fully concluded any details about her or her life. There is much about her that remains mysterious to me, and so the duty falls to me to paint upon the blank canvas of her existence.

Now there were many classes of prostitutes in the twilight days of the Republic, though I suppose she is rather more successful than the common sort, for she eats well keeps quarters of her own upon the Aventine, perhaps keeping a slave or two. There are so many possible backgrounds from which to choose, each offering such a surfeit of narrative potential that I am loath to choose just one. Perhaps she is a foreign slave, a woman from Pontus captured by the legions of Crassus when he vanquished Mithridates. No, that will not do: she must be a Roman, well-educated and literate, as many of her profession were. She needs to be of gentle birth, from a well-to-do family, a patrician gens of great antiquity that has fallen on hard times in the tumult of the Republic’s death throes- perhaps they were reduced to poverty by the proscription of the tyrant Sulla, and this poor dove must now endure the infamy of harlotry if she is to survive in an uncaring world. Yes. There is pathos to her plight that I find most appealing. Perchance her family is a famous one, and she is a hitherto anonymous descendant of Brutus the Regicide, or Cato the Censor, or an unknown cousin of Tully. I wonder what other great scions of Rome could trace their ancestry to my Nemo: it is within my power to make her the progenitrix of Agrippina, Honoria and Theodora. Perhaps she is my own ancestress, and her blood calls to me across the abyss of time and space.

It is past midday, a fine spring morning. Nemo is waiting for someone in the Forum Romanum. Ironically, she is standing next to the Temple of Vesta. Most common harlots would avoid the Forum, but Nemo is a woman of taste and distinction, able to simply imitate the manners of a respectable Roman maiden so that she move effortlessly among the upper crust of society without attracting attention.

She listens to three senators of some small importance whose names have been lost to history. They discuss their misgivings over some plot or other between Crassus, Pompey and Caesar. I deem that Nemo is an intelligent and engaged young woman who believes that Crassus is too good a man to need the support of butcher Pompey and philanderer Caesar. One of them turns and sees her, and she smiles. He is one of her clients, an overweight man who refers to his wife as “that frigid shrew”, and orders Nemo to call him Domine! and Taure! and other such nonsense to compensate for his lack of vigour. Last time he was inside her he lasted two minutes and eighteen seconds, though he demanded that she attend to him for another hour, since he is a rather miserly soul who demands his money’s worth in all things. He flushes as he sees her, and then wanders off, leaving his colleagues bewildered. Nemo laughs.

An hour passes. Nemo watches the pigeons defecate on the curia. Then she spies a young man in the distance and waves to him to attract his attention. He is a client of hers, a man of equestrian rank and therefore still eats well enough to afford my Nemo. He is younger than the fat senator, and handsome, after a fashion, though his hair is prematurely thinning to reveal an oversized forehead, and he tends too much towards the skinny. He is a poet, by inclination and vocation, and though I would dearly like to believe that my Nemo is not so shallow as to be swayed by such frivolity, I must conclude that she is somewhat smitten with the young man. If her heart were easily won then it would not be worth winning, but I must allow her some small weakness. It would only add to her charm.

She greets him, Salve, Gaius Valerius. It is not entirely proper for her to address him so without his cognomen, but alas! I cannot bring myself to name the undeserving wretch who has so easily swayed her heart.

The poet responds. Salve, Nemo. He remarks that it is a fine day, today, and suggests that he walk with her a while. She agrees, and they promenade about the forum. They hear a nuncio announce from the Rostra that Calpurnia Pisonis is engaged to marry Gaius Julius Caesar, to general indifference from the crowd. The impertinent youth is in favour of the marriage, since he is an ignoramus who does not realise that the marriage will founder upon the rocks of childlessness and Caesar’s dalliance with the last of the Ptolemies.

The youth is nervous, and stumbles over many of his words. Nemo finds his awkwardness charming, and takes it as a compliment, for he is clearly in awe of her. I do not blame him, for it goes without saying that she is beautiful, since that is a basic requirement of her employment, or least for its success. Moreover, it is not the insipid beauty of emaciation and ultraviolet bombardment favoured in the twenty-first century, but a classic, Roman beauty. She is full figured: her hips are broad and sensual, her thighs firm, toned. Her skin is fashionably pale, though I suspect it would have to be painted with cosmetics, since maintaining a natural pallor would be difficult when one must endure the Mediterranean sun every day. It is a great shame, for she doesn’t need to paint her face to be beautiful: her face is a perfect heart shape, framed delicately by her long, iridescent tresses. Her hair is dark, a shade of midnight black that reflects the light of the world. She reminds me of a comely young lady I knew once, an enchanting maiden with whom I was enamoured until she laughed at me and rendered me a cuckold.

The couple speaks for a while about pleasant irrelevances. The price of wine. The difficulty of finding a good tailor. They would not be out of place in a Victorian novel or a fashionable Sunday night drama. Comfortable civility fills the air between them. He recites a poem about a girl playing with her sparrow. She smiles at that. She thinks it is about her, poor thing!

They wind their way out of the forum and up towards the Palatine, which in my own day is pleasantly forested. I would like to imagine it was also so in that charming afternoon in 59 BC, before Nero inflicted his monstrously gaudy palace upon it, so that Nemo and her unworthy suitor may spend a while in the shade, away from the heat, and talk about nothing in particular.

Twilight falls on the Eternal City. Nemo looks about the hill, to ensure there is no one else about. There isn’t. They are alone beneath the awakening stars. She moves in close to the boy –and be assured, whatever his age, that he is still a boy! – and brushes against his thigh with long, delicate fingers. She runs her hand up his chest, his neck, and cups his face just below his ear, and kisses him. Gently at first, then with greater passion.

She feels the urgency start to grow deep within her, in the tingling of her chest, the warmth between her legs. The boy is slow to respond, of course, so she reaches down to his groin, begins to stroke him. Slowly, he starts to stir. He moans a little, bites his lip. She unties the girdle around her waist, lifts up her skirts, lowers herself onto him, starts to rock gently back and forth.

She sighs as she rides him, and for once her pleasure is not feigned. He begins to caress her breasts, to kiss her neck. Then he turns her around, violently, pushes her onto her hands and knees, enters her from behind, mounts her. He whispers a name, but it is not hers. Lesbia. Over and over, faster and faster, he says the name. Lesbia. Lesbia. Lesbia.

Ungrateful swine! Most wretched of sinners! You have before you the most exquisite woman in the Seven Hills, a jewel among pebbles, all yours to take delight in, and you profane her so with the name of another woman! You will not even look upon her perfect face and see her sighs of pleasure for yourself. You cannot see her face, her bright-eyed desire that she has only for you, unworthy Catullus! Even here, even now, in the presence of this goddess, you cannot forget your adulteress and her fucking sparrow! You long for a mere girl who is beyond your grasp when you could have a woman, willing and expectant! No shame, no ignominy is too great for you!

But I am the author of your tale, Catullus: this is my realm, and I am more powerful than Jove and Apollo and Hercules combined. You shall not escape my retribution! You reach your pinnacle too soon, leaving dear, sweet Nemo unsatisfied. She employs her powers in an effort to rouse you, only to be rewarded with flaccidity. She sighs and whispers falsehoods in your ear, that it happens to all men, that you lasted for far, far longer than most, that she enjoyed it nevertheless and reached the plateau of her own pleasure several times. But you and I know better, O Catullus. We know the truth: that when called upon to perform you have failed as a lover and as a man.

It is dark now. Nemo leaves for her quarters. She sleeps pleasantly, though she must attend to herself first to finish what Catullus could not. She does not think of him. But another fate awaits the poet when he returns home. For I am already waiting for him, lurking behind his door with the knife in my hand, ready to inflict the same fate upon him that Caesar will endure scant years from now. Once the scoundrel has laid down his head, I make my move. I stand over his sleeping form with my blade drawn, and then…

I realise that death would be too easy for him to endure, and that it is within my power to inflict a far greater doom upon this wicked bastard. I lean into his ear, and I smile as I echo his own words back to him:

I shall bugger you and fuck you in the face,

Faggot and shirt-lifter Gaius Catullus,

You who think that because your little poems

Are rather girly, you have a trace of shame.

For a true poet should exercise virtue

Himself, but you have never practiced any.

Your poems are witless, without any charm

They mistake sensitivity for passion

Useful only when they arouse some small itch

In hairless youths and little rich buggers who

Suffer from acute erectile dysfunction.

Since you cannot escape the throes of cliché

You are worthless as a man and as a poet.

I shall bugger you and fuck you in the face

I shall use the power at my disposal, far beyond the cretinous imaginings of this human sputum. I shall send him somewhere cold and distant- perhaps to Bithynia- where he shall know the company of no woman. I shall curse him so that his precious Lesbia never loves him, and spurns his every advance. I shall ensure he dies young and unremarked, and condemn him to centuries of obscurity. The greater lights of Horace, Virgil and Juvenal shall eclipse him: no one shall ever ask Gaius Valerius Catullus to be their guide through the Inferno! Finally, many centuries later, when he is rediscovered, he shall little more than a figure of fun amongst English grammar schoolboys, who shall delight in his childish vulgarity and mock him for his failure to win the heart of his beloved. His obscene words shall be better known than the sensitive ones he is so fond of, and the entire world will know that I am the better man!

I take my leave of him. There is only one thing left for me to do. When dawn awakens, fresh and rosy-fingered, I go to Nemo’s home and take her into my arms. I kiss her. She tastes of pomegranates and full summer days. She tells me that wants to know only me, that she would refuse the embrace of Jupiter himself over mine. We make love, over and over again, until every nerve is numb with the sweet, desperate ache for each other. The days melt together. How much time has passed? Every morning I cover her with kisses, more kisses than there are grains of Libyan sand in salty Cyrene. Every time, I watch the light of her eyes as she climaxes. Sing, O Venuses and Cupids, for we have triumphed over Catullus and his accursed sparrow!

I realise that she deserves better than this, my queen, my Nemo. She deserves better than to live in an age of squalor, war and uncertainty. And I realise that it is within my power to grant her every happiness. I could ensure that she lives a long and happy life, that she will never want for anything, but shall eat with finest meals and keep the finest servants. Of course, I shall have to make it so that she never knows the touch of another man: for she must be mine, and mine alone. I could have her join a priesthood- not the Vestals, of course, since she must remain free for me to enjoy. I can make it so that she keeps her beauty for many years, so that folk wonder how she remains so radiant, fresh, perfect, until at last she comes to an end in the year 4 AD, so that she may now peace under the reign of Augustus. She shall be forgotten by history and known only to me. My world. My love. My Nemo.

Yes. It shall be so. Tomorrow.

 

When morning comes I wake up, and turn to face my beloved. She isn’t there. I search every room in the house, desperate, feverish, aching for the touch of her fingers, the warmth of her breath. She isn’t there. I head out into the street and I interrogate everyone who might have seen her. Blank stares. I call her name- her true name, the name I didn’t give her- until my throat is coarse. For days and days I search, from the catacombs to the Capitol, from the Esquiline to Tiber Island. In all the streets and caponae, in all the bathhouses and temples, mansions and slave-markets, there is not the slightest sign of my darling.

Where has she gone?

Who has taken her?

Has she left me?

Why would she leave me?

How could she leave me?

 

I hate her, and I love her. One may ask why I would do that to myself.

I do not know, but I feel it, and I am tormented!

Her Voice In The Rain

It rained on the day of my uncle’s funeral.

It rained on the day of my uncle’s funeral.

It was a mean sort of service, held in a little church on the shores of Lough Merrow, a short way from my uncle’s house. My house, I reminded myself. My uncle did not have many friends at the end. The staff at Merrowley were there, of course, as was my uncle’s solicitor. I would not have thought to return myself, had it not been for his passing: we had parted on sour terms when I left for England. He had not kept his intention that I should take over the running of our ancestral home a secret. Nor had I hidden my disinterest in being tied in a mouldering house, filled with the somber shadows of ages past. I could only hope that the old fool didn’t go to his end thinking ill of me.

My uncle had never married, and had no children of his own, so Merrowley had passed to me. I was the master of the house I grew up in, and I still had not decided what to do with it.

After the service the mourning party shuffled out of the church, eager to get out of the rain. But as I stood in front of the door, shaking the hands of each mourner while they offered their condolences, I heard the strangest sound: the voice of a woman singing. I could not say where it came from: it felt like it was coming from all around me, as if carried by the rain itself.

How can I describe the voice? My knowledge of Gaelic is rudimentary so I could not understand the words, and it is hard for me to put into words, except to say that it spoke of an inestimable sadness. There was no mistaking that sentiment, that aching sense of loss, as if something vital had been ripped out of the world, and the land itself was weeping. She sang as if to move all the angels of Heaven myself Yet despite that I could help but feel a certain familiarity, as if the voice came from a dream of my youth, long forgotten. It moved me to tears, and I had to dab my eyes with a handkerchief before I regained my composure.

I looked around, hoping to find the mysterious singer, but there was no sign of anyone.

My uncle’s housekeeper, Mrs White must have caught the look of confusion on my face. ‘Something troubling you, Master Donal?

‘Do you know who that is?’ I asked?

‘Whoever do you mean, sir?’

‘That voice. The woman singing. Who do you suppose it is?’

She frowned.’I hear no voice, sir.’

‘Come now, Mrs White, how could you miss such a thing.’

Her eyes were wide. The colour had drained from her cheeks. ‘There’s no voice, Master Donal.’

Now I have known Mrs White since before I had begun to walk. A solid, sturdy woman, who had weathered nine children and at least two husbands, one of home was a drunk and a gambler, she always seemed to me as sturdy and indefatigable as an ironclad warship. She was never one given to flights of emotion.

‘Mrs White,’ I said, ‘are you feeling alright?’

‘Quite alright, Master Donal. Best we head on inside, don’t you think? Get out of this rain, and forget about such things.’ She smiled, but it was forced, taut, as if she had to squeeze her muscles to contract as she pulled on my arm and dragged me towards the house.

I thought to protest, but she had already grabbed me by the arm, and begun to pull me back towards the house. I turned my head, looked on last time around the churchyard for the mysterious singer, but there was no one there.

So Merrowley was mine, in name if not in spirit, for I could not help but feel a distance between the house and myself. It was like I viewed it through a mirror, coated in dust and the detritus of long years, as if the house was a mirage or dream, always out of reach of my fingertips. Mrs White’s presence did little to comfort me. I still felt the absolute loneliness at night the chill of the autumn air wrapped around me like a shroud, squeezing all joy and mirth from my lungs as surely as a constricting serpent.I slept little and fitfully.

To pass the time until sleep took me, I decided to sort through Cillian’s old correspondence, the entire drawers in his study left overstuffed with unsent letters, bills, deeds and journals. Even the occasional poem, though my uncle was at best an indifferent wordsmith.

In the evenings I would wade through his paperwork, sorting through what was to be kept, what needed to be sent to the relevant parties, and what could be safely burned. I would work through them for hours at a time, until the light outside became dim. One night, as I sat at my desk, sifting through my uncle’s journals to wile away the hours, I happened upon one entry towards the end which caught my interest:

March 12th, 19__

Have heard her voice at last.

Happened while taking evening constitutional by the lake. Rain caught me by surprise: had to take shelter in the boat shed.

Unclear how long I stayed there. Mind feels heavy, fogged, like waking in the middle of the night. Reminded me of the night we found her. Heard the song from all around me, felt like the rain itself was calling to me. Then was gone, and the rain eased off.

Woman’s voice: lament, maybe? Reminiscent of keening I heard at mother’s funeral.

Troubles me. Surely it must be A. Has she has come for me? Is it time? Must warn Donal: there is not much time left.

The mention of my name startled me. What could he have wanted to warn me about? I could not help but think of my own experience, of the voice I had heard in the rain. Could it have been the same voice that Cillian had heard?

I had to know. I kept on reading.

It soon became clear that my uncle had entertained a particular interest– bordering on obsession– with the recent history of our family. He made painstaking notes about every death in the family, whether they happened in Ireland or abroad. Most often, he wrote of some figure simply referred to in his notes as A.: “A. appeared at Diarmaid’s,” he would write. Or, “is this A.?”, circled and underlined, in relation to a sudden storm that caused some distant cousin’s ship to capsize. Again and again, I saw the pattern: a death in the family, a sudden change in the weather, and a woman singing, heard but never seen.

Who could this person be? And why did they haunt the edges of my uncle’s imagination so?

As I read, it became clear to me that this investigation wore on my uncle’s mind. His penmanship, at first so florid, became ragged and terse. His words attested to a prolonged, fevered desperation, as if he wrote against some unspoken deadline that feed the fires that drove his mad search for answers.. Ocassionally I would find scraps of paper, cuttings and photos that my uncle had left in the journal: a weather report from half a century ago; a police file about the death of some unknown relative; and the faded photo of two young men and a woman, who judging from their dress were attending a wedding. The men I recognised easily enough as my uncle and my father in their youth, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. But the young woman standing between them, starting out at me with melancholy eyes, was a stranger to me.

All of a sudden, I was startled back to wakefulness by the noise outside my window, the murmur of the rain battering the house from the outside. The wind carried the sound through the house, crept through the cracks in the walls, the secret places under the floorboards, moaning and whispering around me.

My mind was racing. Sleep would have been impossible: I kept on reading, page after page, word after word, until at last I came to the final entry in my uncle’s journal.

April 30th, 19__

Hear her song constantly now.

Hear it when I wake up, thudding on the roof with every wretched raindrop. Follows me through the rooms of the house, reverberates from the foundations to the rafters. I stop up my ears: does no good. Mrs White hears nothing, she thinks me mad. I pray to God and the saints that I she is correct, and the song is only the weary imagining of a lonely old man. It would be better than the alternative, that I am haunted by an omen from the past.

If these are to be my last words, let them at least do some good.

I have failed. All my research and long studies have come to naught. I had hoped to make some final breakthrough before the end, if only for Donal’s sake. But I have not, and time is short.

I suppose you will read this, Donal. Despite the passage of time and the scars that I still bear from our parting, I want you to know: you are my heir, the son I never had. And although I shall leave you Merrowley and all its holdings, I must inform you of another, darker legacy that is now your burden to bear.

I say you are the son I never had, Donal, but I will not say you are the last of our family. For there is another out there, hiding in the rain, a some phantom from beyond the veil of logic. It has haunted our family since I was young, ever since we found her in the lake. I have no doubt now that it is my sister, your aunt, Aibell, and it has been my life’s work to break the spell she holds on our line. I hope you can forgive me for never mentioning her to you, but the memory was too painful to bear: it was your father who found her body by the lake, the day after the great storm. I should have been there to keep her safe, I should have been there.

But the evidence is now incontrovertible. I heard her sing for Father and Mother when they passed. For Gerald, and Mary, and Steven. For as far back as I can remember, every time one of our family has died, the rain has come, and brought her song with it. No, that is not entirely true: for in every case I heard her song before someone died. I have long wondered whether Aibell is warning us that our death is coming, or whether– and I shudder to imagine the possibility– she is somehow responsible. Could it be that it is her song itself that caused my father’s heart to fail, my mother’s breath to give out? Is it possible that she stalks me through the rain even now, biding her time, waiting for me?

I can hear her now: her voice is coming from outside the window, echoing with every raindrop pounding on the glass. She will be here soon. I wish I knew how to break her curse, but I have no succour to offer you except for this: make your peace, Donal. Prepare to meet thy God. It is my fondest wish that you should marry and have children of your own, but I fear I know you too well. You take after me too much: you shall live alone, the last of our line. Perhaps that is for the best, and her dreadful curse will die with you.

Oh God, the window! She is calling my name. Goodbye, Donal. God be with you.

Here my uncle’s journal ended. The page was crinkled, warped by the ink, stained by water.

My fingers quivered as I laid down the book. My heart raced, beating so loud in my chest that I feared it would burst. I could hear the whisper of the raindrops dancing on the roof. light-headed, I peered behind me, at the window I had left open to let in air.

There was nothing there.

I let out a sigh, and the tension left my lungs like the air from bellows.. I was alone. These scrawlings were nothing but the troubled phantasies of a man in pain. Who could say what twisted imaginings had passed through his addled mind as he wandered his house alone as he saw his end approach. He had always had a a passion for the fantastic. Was it truly a surprise that he had dressed up his demise as ghosts and goblins?

I laughed, though the cold air made my chest hurt. Thinking of him sent a sharp pain through my soul, as had his cold reminder that I was the last of our family left alive. For a moment the notion passed through my mind that I should sell Merrowley, or maybe even burn it to the ground, and lay whatever power Cillian’s ghosts had over the place to rest

But that decision could wait until morning

I stood up to draw the curtains before retiring to bed. The wind had died down and the evening was calm. The whole world was at peace. The only sound as I rolled onto the bed and closed my eyes was the gentle patter of raindrops above my head. I listened for a moment, letting the sound lull me to sleep.

Then…

My eyes snapped open.

No, it couldn’t be.

Somewhere, far away, I heard it. The sound of a woman, singing, calling my name.

The Thing That Should Not Love

I knocked on the door of the study. ‘Niall? Are you there?’
No answer.
I knocked again.
No answer.
I pushed open the door, felt it open with a creak. The study was dark, lit only by the gas lamp on Niall’s desk, casting shadows on the bookcases. The smell of salt in the air made my head ache.
I walked over to the desk: one top of the pile of papers there was the same old book that I’d seen Diego with. There was something embossed on the front in gold, shaped like a shrimp or a cuttlefish: as I ran my finger down it, feeling the cold numb my skin, I thought I saw the shape… change somehow. Like I was looking at it from underwater, watching it ripple into something new. The face of a golden angel, staring at me with emerald eyes.
I couldn’t stop myself. I had to know what was inside.
Trembling, I undid the clasp and let the cover fall on the desk with a thud. I winced as the briny stench intensified, covered my mouth and looked at the page: at with red words in a language I didn’t recognize but somehow understood:
I did not know what was to come. I was a child, and He taught me the truth: that mortal love is frail, but the love of that which is dead is eternal. Ia, He is risen: and you shall come to know His love, or you shall perish.

Tech Support

The blonde woman at the front desk gave me a weird look as I stepped out of the elevator. I guess I stood out: everything about the office space screamed “class,” from the modern art paintings on the wall, to the automated water-cooler, to the huge windows opening out onto the city below. Potted plants, stone sculptures, office drones in suits and ties, wearing stress on them like cheap aftershave. And then there’s me, some Yank urchin rolls in, with her jeans and her hoodie and her dyed hair. It gets noticed. The blonde woman was arguing on a phone while another pair of phones lit up in front of her. Her smile spasmed when she saw me: I could almost see the fight going on her head, like she couldn’t decide whether she should help the scruffy intruder or call security. Poor thing. You’d think she ‘d never seen a necromancer before.

‘Ummm…’ The receptionist covered the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand. ‘Can I help you?’ Faint accent, northern English. She was trying to hide it, and failing

‘Yeah. Hi.’ I tossed a business card onto the counter. Hey, free advertising. ‘I’m here to fix the computers?’

The receptionist went for a half-smile. ‘Oh. Hang on a moment.’ She hung up the phone, picked up another, dialled a number.

‘Mr Roberts? It’s Sarah. Hi. There’s a… young woman here to see you. Yes. Yes, a woman. Really. Yes. I see. Thanks, I’ll tell her.’ She put the phone down. ‘Mr Roberts is busy at the moment, He’ll be with you as soon as he’s available. Please take a seat.’ She gestured towards the chairs on the opposite wall.

‘Nah, that’s alright.’ I leaned on the desk. The receptionist smiled a smile that she must have learned from TV, then turned away and started dialling another number.

‘Busy today?’ I asked, but she was already talking to someone else.

I waited. Drummed my fingers on the desk. Looked around the office. It was a wide-open space, separated by cubicle dividers, filled with the sounds of phones going off and the frantic rhythm of typing. Someone had spent a lot of money here: the monitors were knife-thin, sporting glossy, high-def displays. Each of the desktop towers could have paid for my college tuition for a semester. Someone took this stuff seriously. On any other day the staff might have been working peacefully at their desks, waiting out the clock until lunch or the end of the world, whichever came first. Not today: the staff were scurrying around like ants at a picnic, red-faced and flustered, filling the air with desperate shouting and the acid stench of frustration. Something was wrong.

A middle-aged man with a red t-shirt stained with sweat wandered over to me, offered his hand. I took it. It felt like week-old fish in my palm.

‘Hello. Ken Roberts, head of Information Services.’ He spoke with a lisp and couldn’t quite close one side of his mouth. ‘You’re Liz?’

‘Yeah. Liz Brink.’ I hadn’t given my real name over the phone. “Jennifer Bromley” is on too many watch lists, but “Lizzy Brink”? She’s everyone’s friend. ‘I hear you got a problem.’

‘A problem.’ He snorted, shook his head, spraying sweat onto the floor. ‘We don’t have a problem. Management thinks we have a problem, but I can assure you, we don’t’

‘Sure. Do you mind if I take a look anyway? Since you guys are paying me.’

He scratched the spot on his head where his hair used to be, scowled. ‘Follow me.’

I followed him past rows of cubicles, full of people fighting with machines. One guy picked up his mug and threw it through the monitor. Another shook his laptop to try and stop the theme to NYPD Blue plying over the speakers. I watched as one guy tried and failed to close a window on the screen, filled with the pulsating skin. I hoped the picture was meant to be upside down.

‘Really, we don’t need your help,’ Roberts said, walking so fast that I had to take strides to keep up. ‘The issue is being sorted.’

‘Uh huh.’ I nodded. ‘Any idea what it could be?’

Roberts shrugged. ‘We believe it might be a cyber-attack. Initially we thought it might be the Evenstar trojan, but…‘ He pointed at screen playing a five second clip from The Wizard of Oz ‘—Some of the symptoms are a little… peculiar.’

‘What are you doing to fix it?’

‘Everything we can. Rebooting the system. Running anti-virus. Verifying the symptoms online.’

I nodded. Of course. Switching it off and on again. Asking Doctor Google. Checking for bugs. All pretty routine. If you were reading from a checklist.

‘So we don’t need your help,’ Roberts continued ‘But Management has decided we might need a fresh perspective from an outside source.’

‘And here I am.’

‘Yes,’ he sneered. ‘Here you are. Didn’t think a professional IT consultant would be quite so… young’

‘Young?’ I rolled my eyes. What he meant to say was female. I watched his expression, saw the way his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. He thought I was on his turf. Just some punk chick, treading on his toes. Great. ‘I’ll do what I can.’

Roberts grunted something. He led me past a door marked “IT Services”, into a little room with a computer cluster in the center, servers towering against the walls. It was like stepping back in time: dank and dirty after the shiny lights and glass surfaces of the office. Old legacy hardware yellowed by age, a few old floppy disks strewn about the Sinclair keyboards. Would have made a nice late-80s themed retro bar. But as IT hubs went, it was only a few steps beyond a blackboard and smoke signals.

‘Okay.’ I ran my finger along the top of a monitor, tracing a line in the dust. ‘Your… situation. What are the symptoms?’

‘Well.’ Roberts coughed, cleared his throat. ‘There’s the network disruption, obviously: we’re down to kilobits per second, at best. Then there’s the bug checks, the fatal errors, the security failures, the nuisance calls, the phone disruption, the–’

‘Alright,’ I said. ‘That would be consistent with an outside attack. But that’s not why you called me, is it?’

Roberts tilted his head from side to side. His lips were tightly pursed. ‘No. There are… a few other problems.’

‘Yeah?’ I folded my arms. ‘Like what?’

He didn’t have time to answer. I felt something shoot past my face, fast as a bullet. Heard it shatter on the far wall. Saw the ruined innards of a laptop that had been sitting on the desk next to me fall to the floor.

‘Like that,’ Roberts said.

A moment later something else whizzed past me. A hole-puncher. Bang. A Printer. Crash. A phone: I watched as an invisible force ripped it from the wall, trailing cables.

‘Get down,’ Roberts yelled. I fell to the floor, scrambled under the nearest desk. Roberts followed after me. We watched as the hurricane of stationary and IT equipment gathered pace in the air above us.

‘Aww, nuts.’ I said. ‘You’ve got a geist.’

‘A what?’ Roberts’ face was blank.

‘A poltergeist. Your network is haunted.’

‘What? Don’t be ridiculous!’

‘Look, has anything else weird been happening? And I mean really weird, not just buggy computers.’

Robert made a click with his tongue. ‘Well, there’s the servers. They’re… leaking.’

‘Leaking what?’

Roberts cocked his head towards the tower in the corner of the room. I crawled towards it, ducked behind it to hide from the whirlwind around me. Checked the fan: saw the residue encrusted underneath it, like ketchup around the ring of a bottle. I sniffed, got the tang of copper. Oh. Great. ‘Anything else I should know?’

‘The printout.’ Roberts pointed at the printer beside me. The mechanism was still buzzing, the light was still on, but it wasn’t printing anything. ‘It’s been like that all day! Even when it ran out of paper, it wouldn’t stop!’

I picked up a page from the floor. Two columns of text, smeared from the printer. Most of it was gibberish: some of it wasn’t even alphanumeric. The only pattern I could see was one word, repeated every couple of lines.

Abbey.

‘That’s why we called you.’ Roberts yelled. ‘Your website says you deal with this sort of thing. Freelance IT consultancy and–’

‘Necromancy, right.’ I’d designed the website myself. ‘Okay. Here’s what we need to do. First, shut down the network, now.’

‘Shut it off? All of it?’

‘Yeah. This thing is in your system. We have to stop it spreading.’ I slung the bag on my shoulder onto the ground, reached in and pulled out my tablet—the Trinodia with the cracked screen, with the skull engraved on the back. ‘I’m gonna start an adjuration program.’ I unrolled a USB cable, and connected the tablet to the server. ‘It’ll clear out the most common bugs. If it doesn’t stop this thing, at least it’ll slow it down.’

I started the program. Part antivirus, part exorcism ritual. I watched as the sigils danced and whirled on the screen, cleansing the system of any malicious code.

Something flashed on the screen, red and loud. The program had stopped. Behind me, I heard Roberts grunt as a user manual slammed him in the gut and knocked him into the wall.

I swore. ‘It’s not working. We need to get out of here.’

I dragged Roberts out of the room, slammed the door shut and sealed it with my weight.

‘Okay,’ I said, between breaths. ‘So. You’ve got a geist.’

Roberts leaned forwards, looking like he might hurl. ‘What?’

‘A geist. .gst. A digital ghost. The remnants of some dead guy clogging up your network. Majorly unhappy, and throwing itself around to make sure we know it.’

Roberts shook his head. ‘Look, love, I don’t know what sort of scam you’re trying to pull, but–’

‘Has the temperature dropped lately? Has anyone being hearing stuff at night? Strange voices, stuff moving around when they’re not looking? A feeling that they’re being watched?

He gave me a blank look, but said nothing.

‘Anyone been off sick lately? Suddenly coming down with something that the doctors couldn’t explain?’

‘Steve in Statistics was a bit off-colour, but that doesn’t mean…’ He trailed off, sighed, looked at me. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’s a ghost?’

‘Yep.’

‘How did it get here?’

I bit my lip. ‘Dunno. You receive any suspicious emails?’

‘There was one with just a URL in the text box. But it was so obvious! I warned everyone not to open it.’

‘Someone didn’t get the memo. But we still need to figure out who it is. Or was.’ I pinched the bridge of my nose, tried to concentrate. ‘Are there any other employees who’ve been absent lately?’

‘Absent?’ Roberts stammered. ‘What do you mean by “absent”?’

Permanently absent?’ I saw the empty look, sighed. ‘Has anyone died recently?’

‘Oh. Like Phil? He works… he used to work in HR, I think. I didn’t know him that well.’

‘What happened to him?’

‘He was in an accident a month ago. A bus crash.’

‘Untimely death.’ I made a clicking sound with my tongue ‘Probably unfinished business. Can you show me where he used to work?

***

Phil’s desk had been cleared, but not cleaned: there were still rings on the wood where someone had left a mug of coffee. I opened the drawer, checked the collection of knick-knacks rattling inside. I sat at the chair at the computer, brought up the login page.

‘Alrighty. Do you know his password?’

Roberts snorted. ‘Why would I know his password?’ Anyway, we wiped the hard drive.’

I gave him a grin. ‘Well, we can work with that.’ I plugged my tablet in with the USB cable, tapped on the screen a few times. The login details flashed on the screen, then it changed to the home screen. ‘There we go.’

Roberts blinked as I started to type. ‘How did you do that?’

‘Information daimon. Includes a function to search through his keystroke history.’

‘That’s impossible! The memory’s been wiped clean!’

‘Only in this plane of reality.’ I opened a web browser. ‘There’s still an Akashic signature in the Acheron Network. Look, here’s his Friendlog page.’

‘That should be locked! What are you doing, going through a dead man’s Friendlog page?’

‘Ghosts don’t just rattle their chains and make the walls bleed for the fun of it. They scream for attention. He wants something. We need to find out what it is.’ I scanned the page for data on Phil. Thirty-one years old. Educated at Northumbria University. Libra. Liked spy novels, chicken korma and post-grunge. He’d worked in HR for six years. There was a memorial wall. Shorter than I’d have thought. I searched through the friend list, the condolences, searching for a name, for—aha!

‘There.’ I pointed at the screen.

‘I don’t see anything,’ said Roberts.

‘There she is. Abigail Rene. Abby.’

Roberts squinted at the screen. ‘Hang on. I’ve seen her. She works in accounts.’

‘Hmm.’ I smiled. It was starting to make sense. I clicked on an icon on the desktop, searched for something that used to be there. Brought up dozens of image files, taken from Friendlog. All of the same face. The same woman. At a table with relatives, out with friends, on the couch with a cat on her lap. Big brown eyes, auburn curls. A smile like a cocker spaniel puppy, asking for a treat. Easy to love. Easy to obsess over.

I logged out, stood up. ‘I think we should talk to her.’

***

Abby was pretty in the photos. In the flesh, she could break hearts.

She was short: maybe an inch or two taller than me in her heels. A little thinner, too. Well-shaped: the expensive business suit made the most of what she had. Her skin was like polished amber: her hair bounced like a shampoo commercial when she tilted her head. Her eyes shone like dark marble. Some people have all the luck.

‘Sorry,’ she said, wrinkling her button-nose. ‘I don’t think I quite understand.’

I sighed. ‘Well, the short version is there’s a ghost in the company network causing trouble, and I think it’s ‘cause he has a crush on you.’

Abby blinked, twice, and stared at me. ‘And who are you again, Miss Brink?’

‘She’s helping me,’ Roberts said. ‘There’s a… bug in the system. I’m sure you’ve noticed.’

‘I have, actually. My computer froze, and there’s an odd hiss coming from the speakers. It sounds like someone’s trying to say my name.’

‘Did you know Phil?’ I asked.

‘Who?’

‘Phillip Barber,’ Roberts added. ‘From HR.’

‘Oh. He was the one in that accident, wasn’t he? I was at the service. Gosh, it was a shame. I wish I’d got to know him better.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘ ’Cause he liked every one of your Friendlog posts.’

Abby gave a dainty shrug. ‘Lots of people like my posts. If someone sends a friend request, I don’t think too much about it.’

Maybe you should, I thought. ‘How many of your friends comment on your photos?’ I handed her my tablet, let her take a look. ‘ “Looking good lol”,’ I read. ‘ “Red suits you” smiley face. “Looking forward to seeing you”.’

Abby screwed up her face. ‘He was just someone I saw at work. Why would he do something like that.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘I can see a couple of reasons. Look, could you just come with us, please? I think you can help us fix it.’

***

Roberts opened the door to IT Services. I ducked to avoid a router as it flew through the air towards me.

The room was a wreck. Every surface was coated in debris. The wind ripped through the air like a gale in a teacup, flinging anything light enough at the walls.

‘I don’t see how I can help.’ Abby yelled over the wind. ‘If Phil left a virus, I don’t think there’s much I can do about it.’

I gestured for both of them to stay back, and dashed to the nearest table. I pulled it towards me, until it fell on its side and scattered the contents across the floor. I crouched behind the table to take shelter from the maelstrom of flying electrical equipment. Then I gave the signal, and Roberts and Abby rushed into the room and ducked beside me.

‘Alrighty,’ I yelled, fighting to make myself heard above the roar of the wind. ‘Here.’ I shoved the tablet into Abby’s hands. ‘Log into Friendlog.’

‘What? Why?’

‘You’ve gotta talk to him. Try to get him to calm down.’

She sat back behind the desk, tapped on the screen. ‘This is ridiculous. If he was a ghost, couldn’t I just… speak to him?’

‘He’s passed beyond the analogue world. He’s a digital entity now. Just code. You can’t just sit him down for a chat: you need a medium he’ll understand. Send him an instant message.’

She sighed, but she typed something into the chat window:

Hello Phil.

The roar behind us stopped. The room went quiet. I peeked out of the side of the desk. The debris of the room had stopped moving, and just floated in the air like decorations hanging from a Christmas tree.

‘What did I do?’ Abby asked.

‘What you had to,’ I said. ‘Look.’

Something beeped on the screen. A new message appeared in the chat window.

Abby?

I smiled. Now we were getting somewhere.

‘What now?’ Abby whispered to me.

I bit my lip. ‘Say something nice.’

Abby typed:

How are you?

A moment later, there was a beep, and a reply:

I could be better.

Abby looked at me. I shrugged. She typed.

Sorry to hear that.

Beep.

Thanks

Type.

You’re welcome.

How are you?

Oh, you know. Busy with work.

Yeah.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So we’re talking. Now you have to ask him out.’

Abby made a face like something was choking her. ‘I have to what?

‘That’s why he’s hanging around, causing a nuisance. That’s his unfinished business: he was hung up on you but he never had the guts to act on it. We have to fix that. Ask him out on a date.’

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes!’

‘But I have a boyfriend!’ She whispered the last word like it was a secret.

‘So? Phil’s dead: It’s not like you’re gonna go through with it! Just… make him happy, and he’ll go away. Probably.’

‘Urgh!’ Abby’s mouth twisted like she’d swallowed a lemon whole. Started to type.

Phil, I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you better.

Beep

Thanks

I’d like to fix that, if I could.

There was a long pause. I watched the fragments of equipment hanging the air, threatening to fall at any time.

Beep.

Really?

Yes. You seem like a really nice guy. I’d like to find out more about you.

Another long pause.

Beep

You want to go on a date?

Yes.

With me?

Yes. 🙂

Pause. The only sound I could hear was my own pulse, pounding in my head.

Beep.

You’re lying.

Abby looked at me, confused. Then something struck the wall opposite us and shattered. The clutter in the air started whizzing around. Damn. Maybe the smiley face was a bit too much.

Beep.

You lying cow. You’re just like all the others. “You’re a really nice guy, but… I don’t want to ruin our friendship… you’re like a brother to me.” I wanted to talk to you for so long, and you had to wait until after I died?

‘You’ve made it worse!’ Roberts whined. ‘What do we do now?’

I closed my eyes, tried to shut out the racket all around me. I needed to think.

Beep.

It’s not fair. I am a nice guy, but you never bothered to find out!

I felt the next thud in my back when it hit the table. And the next thud. And the next. Phil was done just throwing his toys about: now he was aiming at us.

Beep.

I treat people well. I deserve someone who’ll love me!

The edges of the table were starting to fray. Every impact sent splinters flying into the air. I had to do something. I had to get out. I had to—

Abby started to type.

No. You don’t.

The thudding stopped. The room went quiet.

Abby focused on the screen in front of her.

Phil, maybe you were a nice guy. Maybe you weren’t. I wouldn’t know, because I never got to know you. You had a whole lifetime to let me get to know you. You could have just asked. Now it’s too late.

I waited for a moment, forgot to breath. But Phil said nothing.

Abby typed:

I hope you find someone who you can love, and who’ll love you back. But it won’t be me. And so long as you keep acting like a spoiled baby, then it won’t be anyone else, either.

She hit enter, sent the message, and we waited to see what would happen.

Phil didn’t respond.

A moment later, the junk in the air crashed to the ground.

For a moment I didn’t move. I needed to make sure it was safe. Then I stood, walked over to the nearest terminal, typed something. No frozen screen, no bugs. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. I took the tablet from Abby’s limp fingers, and ran a diagnostic.

‘Nope,’ I said. ‘It’s clean. He’s gone.’

Abby peered over the top of the upturned table. ‘Really?’

‘Looks like.’ I reached into my bad, picked out a jar of salt, unscrewed the lid. I started to sprinkle it around the room to purify the air. Just in case. ‘Guess he just needed to hear the truth, so he could move on. Good work, Abby.’

She blushed. She looked good when she blushed. Of course she did. ‘Thank you.’

I put the salt back in my bag, and slung it over my shoulder. I turned to Roberts, and offered him my hand.

‘Well, dude, looks like I’m done here. Problem solved.’

He stared at my palm, with a face like a thundercloud. ‘ “Solved”? Have you seen this mess?’ He looked around at the devastated room. ‘How am I supposed to explain to my manager that a poltergeist caused this?’

I shrugged. ‘Tell him whatever you want. Tell him there was a break in. Or a power outage. Or a pack of wild monkeys escaped from the zoo.’

He shook his head. ‘He won’t pay, you know. He’ll just say there’s no such thing as ghosts, and that you’re just running some sort of con.’

I frowned. ‘Well, then we’ve got a problem, haven’t we? ‘Cause the way I see it, I just saved all your butts!’

‘I doubt he’ll see it that way.’

‘Huh. In that case–’ I pulled out my tablet, did a quick search. ‘Tell him I know all about the Bermuda accounts. And while you’re at it, tell him I know about the overflow site at Kielder. And the missing Oslo portfolio. Oh, and the list of user emails that got leaked. Tell him that I’m sending him my invoice, and if I don’t get paid by Monday morning, then…’ I scrolled down the screen. ‘Ah, then I’m gonna start telling a whole bunch of people about what happened in Dundee. Starting with his wife. Okay?’

Roberts had gone pale. ‘I understand.’

I smiled as nicely as I could. ‘Great. Here’s my card. Tell your friends about me. Let me know if you have any more problems.’ I pushed the door open. ‘See you around, Abby. Have a nice day.’

Then I walked out of the room, and headed towards the elevator

***

I took the Metro home. It was pricier than the bus, but it got there faster, and I wasn’t in the mood for playing musical chairs at the bus stop.

I wish I hadn’t lost my temper. The guy was just doing his job. Can’t blame him for finding it hard to believe when some strange chick waltzes in and tells you ghosts are real.

I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket: I’d had a cantrip installed on it so it worked underground. Useful thing to have when you dig up graves for a living. I fished it out, pressed “accept,” spoke into the headphone mike. “Yo, Catrina.”

‘Good afternoon, Shayde.’ Catrina’s voice was musical, like the strings of a harp, slightly out of tune, fuzzing in my ears. ‘I trust everything went well with the client?’

That was Catrina: all business. Good thing to have in a secretary. Or a familiar ‘Pretty much. They tried to stiff me on payment, but I got them to reconsider. Make sure they get the invoice, okay?’

‘Certainly. Then they did not suspect anything?’

I bristled, felt a pang of guilt uncoil in my stomach. ‘No. They’re just your usual, everyday IT types. They’d never seen a real haunting before.’

‘When can we expect payment?’

‘I said Monday. Don’t worry, they’ll pay.’

‘And if your assessment is incorrect?’

I chewed on the nail of my thumb. ‘They’ll pay.’ I repeated. ‘I made it real clear what would happen if they didn’t.’

‘Hmm.’ I could almost hear Catrina frown on the other end of the phone. If she was actually on the other end. ‘One of these days, Shayde, you may have to back up the threats that you make.’

‘Yeah. But not today. I’ll see you at the office.’ I hung up, and stared out the window. The train was underground: there was nothing outside but darkness.

It wasn’t like I was proud of myself. But there wasn’t as much money in the Black Arts as people thought. It’s the twenty-first century: when people want advice, they call into reality TV shows, or read a self-help blog. They don’t pay the chick with the tarot cards and Ouija boards to solve their problems. And a girl’s gotta eat.

Besides, I was doing them a favor by sending them that email. If anyone was dumb enough to click on a URL that contained an evocation that woke up any geists on the local network, then hey: they needed to be taught a lesson. Security systems are no good if no one tests them. They were lucky it was just me, trying to drum up work, and not one of the really nasty hackers. The ones take “Human Resources” very literally. The way I saw it, the ghost was gone, the problem was solved, and I got to pay the rent this month. Everyone was happy.

Yeah. Happy.

I sat back in the seat, turned up the volume on the headphones, and waited for the train to stop.

Good Night, Good Bless

‘Good night, God bless,’ Mother whispers to me, her smile a promise that dawn will come. ‘May angels guard you as you sleep.’

She closes the door, and exiles the light from the room. The air is still, the sheets are warm and welcoming, and the whole world beckons me into sleep.

But I shall not sleep.

My mind is alive, ablaze with questions.

What if the angels are not there?

What are they guarding me from?

Why does Mother ask the angels to watch over me? What unseen threat lies in waited, crouched, coiled between the shadows on the wall? What nameless terror could there be in this room with me?

And why would Mother lock me in the room with them?

I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling. Concentrating on the drops of paint above me, each a tiny hill rising from the plaster. Each a worm, a slug, an amoeba, hundreds of them, hanging, dangling, dripping from the roof. If I wait and watch, surely one of them will fall.

The rapping at the window steals my focus, spikes my pulse. My body is paralysed, too numb to move, but I can turn my head to listen to the sound, to the tap-tap-tapping on the glass. I whisper to myself, that it is only the wind, just a tree branch swaying in the breeze, knocking gently against the windowpane. But what if I am wrong? What if it is not the wind, or tree branches? What if they are fingers, gnarled and twisted, pawing, clawing outside my room, pawing, clawing, searching for a way in? And what will they look for, once they are inside?

The sweat stings my forehead, turns the sheets slick with fear. I make myself sit up, feel the cool air on my skin, and look around the room. That gap between the bookshelf and the cupboard: was it always there? I remember there was nothing there but wallpaper, before Mother closed the door and stole the light. Was it always so dark? Is it a black door to nothingness, a ravenous wound in the side of reality, slowly, inevitably, growing bigger?

The shadows dance around the room, over chair and table and drawers. Back and forth, back and forth they spin and pirouette, come together and part. I can’t look at them, can’t stand the way the peer at me with their eyeless faces, the way they laugh at me with silence.

I turn around, lie on my back, away from the room. Wrap my hands around my knees like a baby. And I pray. I pray to the angels to remember me. To watch over me. To be there. To exist. To shield me from the darkness, from the shadows creeping, stalking towards me, their hands outstretched, their fingers cold and black.

The angels do not answer.

I hold my breath, pull the sheets over my head, and I wait for my heart to stop.

(This was inspired by one of Victoria’s writing sessions, on the subject of “Bedtime Stories”. So naturally I took it to the darkest place I could)