A Grave Death is currently out for editing and alpha reading with a few awesome people, and I hope to have it out in the world by the end of the month. In the meantime, I thought I’s share this unedited snippet of chapter one 🙂
A protective spirit (Wales)
Boys name meaning amddifynydd, protector (Welsh)
(n.) lit. “sanctuary”; an invisible circle of protection, drawn around the body with the hand, that reminds you that you are safe and loved, even in the darkest times (Scottish/Gaelic)
I was nine the first time I met an agent of the Independent Necromancers’ Bureau. I’d heard about the INB before; who hadn’t? But I’d never met a flesh and blood agent, and Marc Johnson was larger than life with a personality to match. His face was round and flushed. He wore an unbuttoned tatty trench coat, and the buttons on his shirt strained against the girth of his sizeable stomach. He was the kind of guy everyone noticed for the wrong reasons. He came across as brutish and crass, and yeah, he could be a sexist jerk, but those who got to know him and looked past the facade found a caring man with a little sorrow and a little joy behind his eyes. He worked hard, got the job done, and always had my back.
That same day, I saw my first dead body. A reanimated walking calmly down the street with his brain glinting in the summer sun, oblivious to the chaos he caused. You can sure as hell bet I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies since then, and when you look at death as just another stage in our journey through existence, then it gets easier to cope. It really does.
That day changed my whole life. If I hadn’t met Marc, I might never have become an agent. Although, who could say for sure? What I did know was that Marc was one of us, and someone had killed him. He was an arsehole at times, sure, but he was also my friend.
I shifted my gaze from the Dr Martens’ on my feet and stared at Marc’s prostrate form. He lay on top of a grave in St Woolos Cemetery. His trench-coat protected his body from the fine rain, but it didn’t disguise the fact that his head was bashed in. From behind. I chose not to look close enough to see if his brain was on display. Some things you can never unsee.
The cold night air froze a tear on my face as I stood over the body of my friend. A slight drizzle of rain blanketed the cemetery in a hazy mist. The ground was squishy with mud underfoot and the scent of wet grass and cut flowers mingled with the damp, metallic tang coming from the gravestones. It all seemed unreal in the blurred headlights illuminating the scene.
Nain’s grave was two hills over, too far to see from where I stood. Her allotted patch sat next to an old pine tree. Through spring and summer wildflowers surrounded her. Her gravestone was suitably adorned with butterflies spreading their wings and flying free: a symbol of resurrection and the soul leaving the confines of the body. Marc lay at the base of a headstone etched with an arrow. I huffed out a breath and scoffed at the symbol of mortality and martyrdom. Marc had proven how mortal he was. It was up to me to find out why he’d been martyred.
“You alright?” Emma asked as she put her hand around my shoulders and handed me a cup of coffee.
“Cheers, Emma,” I said and nodded. I took a sip of the coffee and welcomed the warmth of the liquid as it flooded through my body. “Right,” I said after we’d stood there too long in silence. “What the hell do we know about this mess?”
“Not a lot, I’m afraid. Frank Russo found Marc at twelve-oh-seven. They’d arranged to meet at midnight, but Frank was a little late. He called it in straight away.”
I looked at my watch: twelve thirty-two. Not a lot of time had passed, but we had to move fast before the police arrived.
“Anyone check the scene over?” I asked, dreading the answer.
Great. Although, I supposed, if anyone was to talk to Marc’s spirit it should be me. I took a deep breath and steeled myself. Sure, he would display the normal confusion following his untimely death, but Marc was one of us, he’d take it better than most.
I extended the power of my caim tattoo and increased the scope of my circle of protection to encompass both me and Marc. The spirits within the graveyard would look for any kind of weakness in my defences. The cobbled stone topped with iron railings surrounded the cemetery and acted as a warded barrier, a border between the world of the dead and the world of the living. No spirit could cross it. Unless that spirit hitched a ride. If a ghost possessed the body of one susceptible to their need, they could walk out of the graveyard safe within the confines of flesh and blood. Nobody needed that kind of trouble. Not tonight.
I closed my eyes, took another deep breath, and centred my energy. The rustling leaves and the gentle patter of the rain on the ground soothed me. Darkness enveloped me like a fog, and a gentle peace radiated from my body. I reached out to the edge of my circle with my magic and closed it off from the outside world.
I opened my eyes.
Beyond my circle of protection, the spirit world overlapped the reality of the mundane. The cemetery was full: stone, grass, trees, flowers, and ghosts, all crammed within the confines of the boundary wall. A sea of spirits pushed between the tombstones all around. Some were newly dead, clothed in summer dresses or smart shirts and trousers. Others wore clothes going back hundreds of years. From long, full-length tunic dresses to frock coats, breeches, and cravats. But something wasn’t right. They kept their distance from the scene of the crime. They hid behind stone angels and row upon row of cracked and crumbling gravestones, uncertain of their place in the world and the scene before them. I braced for a maelstrom of spirits old and new to push at the edge of my consciousness, desperate to get through and take control. But, immersed in the murky violet haze of my power and the protection of my caim, quietude engulfed me.
I focused my mind on Marc and searched desperately for the thread that connects the soul to its body. Anything… I needed just a faint trace to grasp on to. A strand as thin as spider’s silk. A wisp of thread. But there was nothing there. Without it, his death, my loss, felt all the more real. Marc had gone. More than that, his soul had been severed from his body to ensure we couldn’t speak to him.
My chest tightened as frustration and anger boiled through my veins. I turned to the spirits beyond my barrier. “Tell me what you saw,” I demanded.
Some fled with fear on their faces, moving deeper into the shadows and away from view. But the ghost of a young man lingered beside the remains of a fallen tree. Long, wavy hair skimmed his shoulders. His features, surprisingly refined and delicate, were placid in death. Still, the faint smile lines on his face were evidence of the joy he must have felt in life.
“Tell me what you saw?” I asked again, a note of pleading in my voice.
He moved away but turned back to face me a few seconds later. His eyes burrowed into mine as he wound through the maze of graves closer to my circle of protection. I inhaled a deep breath, but struggled to find any air.
A wave of powerlessness engulfed me. It grew stronger and stronger. I gasped as an overwhelming sense of horror bombarded my mind. A black spot of darkness, invasive and tormenting, burrowed deeper and deeper inside. The coffee cup slipped from my hand and tumbled to the ground. I had a vague sense of heat as the hot liquid splashed my leg. The blackness closed in, smothered me. I was dizzy, trapped, lost. Every instinct within me screamed to escape… but, then… it was over.
The young man stopped his assault and looked at me with sorrow in his eyes. I understood. He was afraid. All the spirits were. Whatever happened here had spooked him and the other ghosts. He feared for his safety and the afterlife he had come to cherish, but the good man he had been needed me to know the darkness I was up against.
With a nod, I conveyed my understanding. He slipped away, and I returned my focus to the mundane world.
“He’s gone,” I said to Emma, referring to Marc.
“I saw.” Emma was a rare treasure. She possessed the ability to view the spirit world and see the auroras of the living and the threads of death around her, but lacked the power to interact with them. I often wondered how hard it would be to see the world but not be a part of it, but Emma always bore her situation with good grace and humour. If I were mean spirited, I might declare it easy to have a super positive outlook on life if you’re five foot nine, have the body of a supermodel, and the refined features of Halle Berry. But Emma never made you feel like that. She knew she was beautiful, but made everyone else feel as though they were beautiful, too. Like I said, a rare treasure.
“And the ghost,” she asked. “Did he show you anything useful?”
“Only that he’s afraid. They all are. Marc’s soul was severed from his body and we have a cemetery full of scared ghosts. Whoever did this must be a powerful necromancer, not to mention an evil bastard.”
Emma nodded. “Do you feel the power of another necromancer?”
“I only sense Marc.” His spirit was gone, but a residual energy from his use of his magic drifted on the air. No doubt from the protections he’d erected to enter the cemetery.
“Could it have faded already?”
“It’s possible,” I said, unwilling to think of the alternatives. It would make our search a hell of a lot harder if we had to find a magical artefact and not a necromancer.
“There is the possibility of a relic,” Emma said, her mind thought along the same lines as my own, but her words ended on a sob.
“You alright?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s just hard to believe Marc was in the office, laughing and chatting as normal a few hours ago.”
I nodded. “Did anything seem off to you?” I asked.
“No. As soon as he walked in, he barked an order for me to put the kettle on. I told him he drank too much coffee and if he wanted a cup, he could make his own. He responded with one of his awful jokes. You know the ones… oh, what did he say?” Emma laughed. “Ahh, he said, it’s not coffee he has a problem with, but brake fluid. But I shouldn’t worry, he can stop whenever he likes.”
Despite myself, a small smile crept on my face and I groaned. Awful and unoriginal.
“I should have made him a cup of coffee,” Emma said and wiped the tears from her eyes before shaking herself out of the past. “Anyway, in answer to your question, no, nothing seemed off. He was the same old Marc he always was.”
I bent down to the ground and lifted my now empty coffee cup. The rain eased, and a faint beam of moonlight broke through the clouds to light the sky. I closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths, and tried to compose myself for a moment. This wasn’t going to be easy. The police would shut us out and treat us like suspects. We had to get a move on.
I jumped at the sound of my name and turned to see my boss, Assistant Director Thomas Albert coming up the hill. He wore his tan trench coat unbuttoned, reminding me of Marc. It soaked in the fine rain, leaving dark patches of damp on his shoulders. An unknown man walked beside him, although something about his walk, his boy-next-door good looks, and his haircut pegged him as an American. Both stared at Marc on the mossy ground.
“How you holding up?” Thomas asked as soon as he reached us.
“How does it look?”
Thomas patted me on the shoulder. “It looks like you could use another cup of coffee and a one-way ticket far away from this mess.”
“This is Marc we’re talking about. I’ll investigate even if you take me off the case.” I said the words in a rush and held my breath. Damn right, I’d still investigate. Although, I’d prefer to have the full resources of the INB at my back.
Thomas looked thoughtful as his sad eyes travelled to Marc’s body. After a while, he sighed. “I know you will, that’s why Brandon’s here. Cassie, Emma, this is Brandon Yale, the new transfer. I know he wasn’t meant to start until Monday,” Thomas turned to Brandon, “and I know you haven’t had time to rest or find your feet — Brandon’s plane arrived an hour ago. Under the circumstances, he’s agreed to start work straight away. I want him with you on this, Cassie. No objections. We need a pair of eyes with no connection to Marc.”
“That might be a good idea,” Emma said, and before telling them his spirit had been severed.
Thomas turned to Marc and shook his head. “He was a good man and a great agent. Now, you’d better get out of here. I’ll catch up on all you have to say at the office.” With that statement, he turned and started barking orders. The police were on their way.
I nodded a final farewell to the empty shell of my friend and turned to Brandon. My head came just about up to the level of his chin. Nothing special about that, it happens a lot when you’re only five-four.
“I’m in charge,” I said. “You do what I say.”
“I’m only here to help,” Brandon said in an unmistakable Southern US accent while flashing his hands in the air in mock surrender. “What do we know so far?”
“Best we can tell, it’s the work of a powerful necromancer. Marc’s soul was severed from his body, and the local spooks, well, they’re spooked.”
Emma nodded. “Although, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of a magical artefact.”
“Any evidence either way?” Brandon asked while glancing around the cemetery.
“There’s no signature from a nec in the magical residue, but we don’t have an exact time of death yet, so it could be that the residue has faded. Marc was bashed over the head with something. We haven’t found any weapon, but the police will have time to carry out a more thorough search. Maybe, they’ll have better luck. For now, we have a dead agent, very little evidence, and a whole lot of questions.”
Brandon looked at me curiously, and, for the first time, I noticed how handsome he was. His eyes were radiant and open. He wore a pair of jeans and a lightweight coat. Comfy travelling clothes. Even though he’d zipped his jacket to the collar, it couldn’t be giving him much protection against the elements on an October night. Along with his firm body, his presence spoke of strength and kindness.
I shook my head, I’d been in a relationship with a work colleague before. A cop of all people. I could almost hear Marc mocking me and noting how women were nothing but trouble in the office as they couldn’t keep their knickers on. He might have a point with my mind travelling on the lines it had with my friend’s body not twenty feet away.
Nope. I definitely didn’t need to go there again, especially not now. Even if there was something in his face that drew my gaze to it again and again.
“Anything stolen?” Brandon asked after a moment.
“Nothing obvious.” I sucked at the corner of my lip. “The first question we need to answer is, what was Marc doing here?”
“Meeting Frank Russo,” Emma said.
“But why? You arrange to meet someone in a graveyard at midnight, there’s sure as hell going to be a good reason, and we need to find it.”
“Then we start with this Russo guy,” Brandon said. “Where do we find him?”
“Thomas has him confined to headquarters.”
I took one final glance at the headstone Marc met his final moments besides. Behind the image of the arrow, there was a radiant sun. The symbol of a soul rising to heaven. I hoped Marc was there now.
At that moment, I promised myself, I’d find his killer. Not for Marc, he was beyond caring, and not because he was my friend and it was the least I could do, but because it was my job. The job Marc had introduced me to.
“Let’s go talk to Russo,” I said.
A cat, a ghost, and a zombie walk into a coffeehouse…