Spooktober, Day 30: Hellblazer

538b2a99c267bfdec836a153741ed0ad--constantine-comic-constantine-hellblazer.jpg“I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness. Oh, I’ve got it all sewn up. I can save you. If it takes the last drop of your blood, I’ll drive your demons away. I’ll kick them in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down and then I’ll be gone back into darkness, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack. I walk my path alone… who would walk with me?”

When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, do yourself a favour: don’t call John Constantine. It rarely ends well.

Hellblazer (sometimes known as Constantine, John Constantine, John Constantine: Hellblazer and Johnny Hellblazer’s Satanic Slip and Slide*) is an ongoing comic series by DC, released under the Vertigo label. John Constantine himself is probably the last person you’d think of as heroic. He smokes, he swears, he makes pacts with the devil, he’s incurably working-class is a con man with no problem committing a lesser evil if it benefits the greater good. He fights evil because he’s addicted to the high, rather than because he has any developed sense of right and wrong, though to his credit he doesn’t flinch from the fact that he’s done some pretty bad things in the past. He’s the most powerful sorcerer in the world and doesn’t use magic if he can help it because he knows there’s always a price. Although he’s technically in the same continuity as Batman, you won’t see Constantine throw around any fireballs or even throw a punch. Instead, he uses his wits, his charm and his formidable ability to lie through his back teeth to get his way. One of the persistent factors of his life is that the use of his powers has a price: Constantine’s friends and associates have a nasty habit of dying when the proverbial hits the fan, and for the most part, evil is only delayed, never destroyed.

He looks nothing like Keanu Reeves: in fact, he was initially modelled on Sting (the musician, not the wrestler).

Hellblazer has been written by several writers over the years, including Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis and Spooktober’s secret MVP, Neil Gaiman. It’s still going, and it’s easy enough to pick up any story arc and read it as a stand-alone story. It’s a dark-as-sin, adults-only freak-show, and worth looking for anyone who likes competent anti-heroes, high stakes and an excessive amount of flies.

Don’t watch the movie, but do watch the TV series.

* I may have made some of those up

Spooktober, Day 27: Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn

KittyandtheMindightHour_cover.jpg“I’m a werewolf trapped in a human body.”

“Well, yeah, that’s kind of the definition.”

“No, really. I’m trapped.”

“Oh? When was the last time you shape-shifted?”

“That’s just it – I’ve never shape-shifted.”

“So you’re not really a werewolf.”

“Not yet. But I was meant to be one, I just know it. How do I get a werewolf to attack me?”

“Stand in the middle of a forest under a full moon with a raw steak tied to your face, holding a sign that says, ‘Eat me; I’m stupid’?”

Kitty Norville is a radio DJ in Denver who runs the graveyard shift at midnight, where she gives phone-in advice for the lonely and the isolated, and anyone who happens to wind up needing help with strange and supernatural goings-on. She offers advice to vampires who want to attend church, gossips about which celebrities may or may not be monsters, and dispenses relationship notes for anyone whose schedule gets interrupted by the full moon. The show is an instant hit, but it puts Kitty in the firing line from all kinds of supernatural politics since most of the creepier things in town don’t want her blabbing to the rest of the world. It doesn’t help that Kitty has to keep the fact that she’s a werewolf herself under wraps…

Carrie Vaughn’s urban fantasy series distinguishes itself through its examination of how the supernatural would work in practice. It raises questions about how mythical creatures would work in reality, examining in detail all the little inconveniences that monsters might face. The whole thing is done with a nudge and a wink, and it’s worth looking into if you want a light-hearted romp through modern-day fantasy.

Spooktober, Day 22: Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson.

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Hexed is a spinoff of Michael Alan Nelson’s comic series for Boom! Studios, Fall of Cthulhu. It centres around the escapades of Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, AKA “Lucifer,” (yes, that is her name), a thief-for-hire and occasional witch who is technically apprenticed to an immoral sorceress from another dimension. Lucifer works for a gallery owner and uses her supernatural thieving skills to make sure the weird and unspeakable artefacts that are so beloved of Lovecraft’s monsters don’t end up in the wrong hands.

The series ran for two volumes, in 2008-9 and 2014-15 and they’re both worth looking into. Hexed has a lot going for it: Dan Mora’s fantastic line art; a badass yet likeable female lead; an urban fantasy setting with a darker underside; and a colourful supporting cast of strange eldritch creatures. It feels a lot like Buffy, in a way: the same youthful wit in the face of unimaginable horror. Both series are pretty short and self-contained, and worth checking out.

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Nelson also wrote a young adult novel about Lucifer’s early years called Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown. It’s full of YA tropeyness (cute boiz and high school angst), but it’s an easy and less hardcore intro to the series for those who prefer prose to sequential art.

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.

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.

 

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.