As you know, I am busy working on A Grave Death, the first full length novel in my Independent Necromancers’ Bureau series (on track for release in May). A couple of week ago, I shared with you the first short story I wrote in this series, Till Death. Today, as promised, I have for you the second:
A Matter of Death.
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 kicked off my boots and stumbled to the bed, falling face down in a heap on top of the covers. My feet hurt, my head hurt, and my hair was so desperately in need of a wash, my scalp itched.
Mumbling to myself, I considered the distance from the bedroom to the bathroom and the effort required to drag myself through the house and remove my clothes to have a shower.
A slight weight joined me on the bed and a rumble sounded in my ears before Nibbler gave me an affectionate head-butt. ‘You stink of cat food,’ I said before returning the kiss.
‘You, my dear, also do not seem your fresh, cleanly self,’ Dylan said from the corner. ‘Might one suggest a shower?’
Sure, having a friendly neighbourhood ghost pop by was pleasant enough when you’re in the mood for some company and a chat, but not when you’re shattered after a hard night shift, and not when said ghost is being overly critical.
‘No one might not,’ I said, and threw a pillow in his direction. A useless act of defiance when all it did was pass through him and knock over a bottle of hand cream on my dressing table. I flopped back down on the bed and closed my eyes. ‘Besides,’ I said, ‘what do you care? Ghosts have no sense of smell.’
‘This is indeed true. However, one can see the noxious fumes coming off you and it does not require a sense of smell to know that you stink.’
Charming. The cat climbed on my back and nuzzled my hair. ‘If it doesn’t bother Nibbler,’ I said, enjoying his reassuring weight, ‘it doesn’t bother me.’
With that statement, the turncoat cat spluttered on my head, jumped onto the floor and proceeded to have a mild coughing fit.
‘Okay, okay,’ I said and pushed myself off the bed. ‘You win already. I’ll take a shower. But after that, Dylan, you can explain what the hell you’re doing in my house at five in the morning.’
The warm shower washed away the aches and pains in my body and soothed my headache. It’s a miracle how great a clean head of hair can make you feel. To make things even better, as I trundled down the stairs, the fresh scent of coffee enveloped my senses.
Opening the kitchen door, I dropped my head towel on a stool, took a seat on the neighbouring chair, and thanked my lucky stars that Dylan was an old ghost who’d mastered the art of physical manipulation. One of the reasons Nibbler got on so well with him, I was sure. Like I didn’t notice his dwindling treats and expanding girth.
Dylan handed me my hot beverage and opened the fridge. His insubstantial form flickered in the light. For once, groceries lined the shelves, as the supermarket had delivered my bi-weekly shopping the day before. ‘Would you care for some eggs?’ Dylan asked. ‘It would be a matter of moments to whip you up an omelette.’
Not that it wasn’t tempting, Dylan made the best omelettes, always light and fluffy, but I declined and asked him the reason for his visit.
‘I see you are tired. It is of no great urgency.’
Now that was a lie and we both knew it. After five years of living in this three-bed semi and being visited by Dylan, I liked to think we were buddies, even if he was dead, and it was clear something was on his mind. Plus my spidey senses were tingling and sure as hell, anything that bothers a two-hundred year old ghost was bad news for me.
I took a sip of the bitter coffee, savoured the swift injection of caffeine to my brain, and gave Dylan a look that said, ‘Oh, please!’
He closed the fridge and perched his ghostly form on the stool opposite mine. Although downcast, his pale face spoke volumes, but still he seemed reluctant to talk.
I took a long drink from my mug and then placed it on the counter. ‘That bad?’ I asked.
‘One might say, a matter of life or death, if not for the fact the dear lady is already one of the departed.’
‘Lady? So we’re talking about another ghost here.’
When he looked at me, he pushed his shoulders back, adjusted the lapels on his dress waistcoat, and straightened out an imaginary crease in his pantaloons. ‘Elizabeth,’ he said after a moment. ‘She’s in trouble. We met last night and she was most distressed. Her spirit was being drawn to the remains of her body. I stayed with her as long as I could, but, alas, fear of being bound forced me to abandon her.’
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ I said, now understanding Dylan’s reluctance. He was a man of honour and would judge himself harshly for leaving a woman in need.
‘I am a coward. I should have stayed with her to the last. No matter the personal cost.’
‘And where would that have got you? No, Dylan. If you had stayed, you could have been bound, and whatever trouble you think Elizabeth is in, you would be in too.’ I downed the remains of my coffee. Sleep would have to wait.
It was six-fifteen and the sun was a radiant ball of orange cresting the horizon. The sunrise had banished Dylan to whatever plane of existence he visited during the day, but not before I’d gained the best directions he could give.
I jumped in my reliable old Clio, but before I headed to Canton, I pulled my mobile out of my bag.
I needed to call work to rule out the obvious.
‘Independent Necromancers’ Bureau, Klas speaking.’
‘Hi, Emma. It’s Cassie.’
‘Cassie? Thought you’d be dead to the world by now. What keeps you up this time in the morning?’
I smiled. Emma was good people. At twenty-two, she was closer to my age than any other agent, and we’d built a close relationship in the short time she’d been with the bureau.
‘Listen, any chance INB was pulling an operation in Canton last night.’
‘I’ll check now.’ Emma went quiet, but I could hear the quick tapping on her keyboard. It only took a minute for her to come back with the answer, ‘Nope.’
‘Okay. I’m heading to the area now. I haven’t got an exact address, but when I get one, I’ll text it over.’
‘You got a job on?’
I sucked at the corner of my lip, and thought about that for a few moments. From what Dylan had told me, there could be a rogue necromancer on the loose. Now, it could be a misguided practitioner attempting to free trapped souls, but, in my experience, the odds of that were unlikely. ‘Nothing concrete yet,’ I said to Emma. ‘But do me a favour. Run a check and see if there are reports of any activity in the area.’ Who knows, maybe I would get lucky and the odd report of a ghost or unconfirmed zombie would turn up.
‘Will do,’ she said. ‘Give me an hour.’
The seven mile drive from my home in Pontprennau to Canton took almost half an hour, counting a quick detour to the drive-through to refuel on caffeine. Dylan’s description told me that the house I looked for was backed on to Thompson’s Park, and a quick search on my phone told me that there were seven potential streets to search. The third one I tried looked promising with its identical red brick houses and matching single garages. With the house number, window dressings, and occasional hanging basket as the only items to tell each property from its neighbour. The property with the blue garage door and hanging rose baskets caught my eye based on Dylan’s description.
I pulled up outside and was considering my next move when the phone rang.
‘We only have one report linked to the area, back in December. Involved, and I use the complainant’s words here, “a thieving witch”.’
‘That’s something at least,’ I said to Emma. ‘Any concrete details?’
‘No. The complainant withdrew the accusation when agents went to investigate. All I have is her name, Sarah Rose. She’s a student, lives in Cathays.’
‘Okay, thanks, Emma. Text me the full address and I’ll check it out.’
Sarah Rose lived in the heart of student town, and with three days until Easter Break, I wasn’t holding on to much hope of finding her around. The place became a ghost town during the holidays.
I pulled into the street and parked in front of the house Emma had directed me to. Being bin day, wheelie bins lined the street and I was impressed to find the residents of Sarah’s house had also sorted out their recycling. Despite the forthcoming break and the early hour, the door to the run-down terraced house was answered by a sleepy-eyed man after only five minutes of pounding. Between incoherent grunts, I learned that Sarah slept in the attic room. I thanked him for his help and left him to return to bed. Ignoring the stench of weed that permeated the hall, I climbed the stairs.
‘Sarah Rose. This is Cassie Dune. INB.’
I knocked again.
‘Open the door, Miss Rose. I need to talk to you.’
The door was flung open to reveal a blonde in a pink and blue nightgown depicting a cow along with the words “Moooody Cow.” The woman, I presumed to be Sarah, demanded to know what the hell I wanted.
‘It’s regarding a complaint you made just before Christmas, relating to a thieving witch in Canton.’
‘Seriously. I’ve already withdrawn that complaint.’
‘I just need to ask you a few questions. Can I come in?’
‘Sure. Why the hell not? I’m up now anyway.’ Sarah pushed the door wide and I entered.
The room consisted of a double bed and the sunken remains of a foam sofa bed, all exuding that worn-out greyness typical of a student bedsit. A patch of mould grew on the ceiling near the window, and every surface was littered with clothes, makeup, the occasional workbook and the remains of more than one meal. Sarah lifted a jacket from the sofa bed, revealing the bong beneath. I stifled a smirk as she quickly covered it again, and used the jacket to keep it concealed while she moved it to a cupboard on the far side of the room.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ I said. ‘I’m not the police.’
‘Yeah, but you work with them.’
‘When needs arise. I work for the Independent Necromancers’ Bureau. We’re independent. It’s in the name.’
‘The guys I spoke to a few months back sure acted like cops.’
‘We take infractions in supernatural guidelines quite seriously.’ I sat on the sofa and considered the best way to get Sarah to open up. She came across as a girly type, happy to be your best pal if you didn’t push her. ‘I’ll be frank with you,’ I said. ‘I’m not here in any official capacity. It’s a personal matter, a friend of mine is in trouble and I’m hoping you can help me out.’
‘You think this business over in Canton has something to do with your friend’s trouble?’
‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. What can you tell me about the witch?’
Sarah scraped her hand through her hair and paced the small room. Her reluctance to talk was obvious, but when she took a deep breath and sat on the bed opposite me, her words came out rushed.
‘I was having trouble at Uni,’ she said. ‘Thought about quitting. A friend of mine told me about some fortune teller. Helen. I can’t remember the exact address, but it had David in the street name, and there were lots of empty flower baskets outside the house.’
‘Blue garage door?’
‘I think so.’
I nodded. The street name fit and the rose baskets would have been empty before Christmas.
‘Anyway, I paid for a reading. To see what I should do. Helen took me through to her dining room, but when she opened the cabinet, she dropped her crystal ball on the floor and went ape shit. Like it was my fault. Started cursing and screaming. Kicked me out the house and didn’t give me my money back. Hundred quid down the drain.’
‘So why didn’t you tell my colleagues about this?’
Sarah didn’t answer. Instead, she stood, walked over to the window, and looked outside.
I stood and pulled a hundred pounds out of my purse along with a business card. ‘You still at Uni?’ I asked.
‘Good. In this day and age, life’s a damn sight easier with a degree under your belt.’ I handed Sarah my card and the money. ‘You call me if you need anything, okay.’
As I walked to the door to leave, Sarah called to stop me. ‘Watch out for that bitch,’ she said. ‘Looks like butter wouldn’t melt, but don’t be fooled. If your friend’s in trouble with her, then it’s big trouble.’
‘Thanks for the warning. And the info.’
‘No worries. It didn’t come from me though, yeah.’
‘Not official, remember.’
I let myself out, only to slam straight into a couple of guys entering the building. They were amped on coke, if the constant sniffing and pupils the size of frying pans were anything to go by.
‘Hey, what’s the hurry, love?’ one said, blocking my path and reaching to link his hands around my waist. ‘Why don’t you stay and party with us for a while?’ He stank of BO and booze after his all-nighter.
‘Tempting,’ I said, as I narrowed my eyes and gave him my best mean girl stare. ‘But, no thanks.’ My muscles strained as I tried to push free.
They laughed. ‘Come on, love. You frigid or something. Where’s the harm in staying for a little while?’
At five foot four, and weighing a hundred and ten pounds, I’m not exactly rocking the intimidation factor. Although I could probably hold my own against two beefy assholes with more muscles than brains, I didn’t fancy taking the risk. Why fight fair when I don’t have to?
I relished the feeling of lightening that danced through my skin as I called the power within me. Taking a deep breath, I centred it on my caim tattoo and activated my very own circle of protection.
The full magic of my caim can only be used on beings of the spirit world, but a burst of energy created a shockwave around me. The man’s arms were ripped from my waist as he stumbled backwards. I didn’t have enough energy for a second blast, and the effects of this one would only last so long, so I wasted no time. I kicked out and landed a hit squarely between his legs. His friend also felt a blow from the blast and faltered for a second. Before he had a chance to react to his fallen comrade’s plight, I gave him an elbow to the nose.
‘You need any help there, love,’ a bin man shouted as he and two colleagues ran down the street to my aid.
‘I’m fine, thanks,’ I said as I pushed past the injured idiots.
When I climbed in the Clio, I gave work another quick call.
‘Hi, Emma. Great you’re still there.’
‘You just caught me. I’m off in ten.’
‘Do me another quick favour before you go? I’ve been to see Sarah Rose, and I’m not too keen on the shit-tip she’s living in. Bad neighbours. Send someone round to pick her up, will you? Make sure she knows I sent them, and put her in the Marriot. Tell her I’ll drop by later.’
‘You got a line on that issue in Canton?’
I sucked at my lip and wondered how much to tell her.
‘Spill it, Cassie,’ she said. ‘I can hear you thinking.’
‘Okay, but it’s off the record for now and Sarah isn’t to be brought into it.’ I snapped my seatbelt into place and leaned my head on the rest. ‘We could be looking at a divining nec.’
‘A fortune teller. You sure the spirits are forced?’
‘Pretty sure,’ I said. The concern in Emma’s voice echoed my own. A divining nec using bound spirits was the worst type of evil. A spirit may choose to look into the future once or twice, should the need arise, but the act drains their essence. If a spirit is forced to divine over and over again, then they will become a shade of their former self. An empty shell with no personality and no control over their actions, a danger to cross paths with.
‘Then INB should be in this officially.’
‘They will be. I’ll text you the address and let you know when I’m going in. You can have back-up arrive twenty minutes later.’
There was a long pause before Emma advised me to be careful. I told her I was always careful, then hung up and sent her the promised text.
My body ached and my head pounded, so I decided to return home for some much needed sleep. A bound spirit can materialise during the day, but only in a weakened state. If this nec, Helen, was using spirits to divine the future, then she would need them at full strength. That gave me plenty of time to get some rest.
I woke a little after five, showered for the second time that day, grabbed a coffee, and headed out the door. Although not before Nibbler accosted me for some playtime and a little food. There were a few hours to spare before sunset, so I went over to the Marriot to check in on Sarah. With a king-sized bedroom, separate from the living area—the latter of which housed a dining table, writing desk, sofa and chair, and provided satellite TV—the suite Sarah occupied was a far cry from her previous digs. Sarah gave me the name of the friend who referred her to the fortune teller and we grabbed some room service—butternut squash and feta salad, followed by passion fruit crème brulee—before I headed over to Canton.
A spring shower had lowered the temperature and cleansed the evening air. I sat in the car and enjoyed the fresh scent of flowers as the light drained from the sky.
The lights came on inside the building and I watched the house until a little after sunset, then I walked up and knocked on the door.
Helen Davenport was exactly how I imagined. You meet all sorts working for the INB, and given her nature as an evil witch who entrapped spirits, paraded them as some sort of side show, and charged to tell people’s fortunes, then yes, the hospitable, good-humoured woman before me was exactly what I imagined.
She stood before me in her jeans and floral tee, smelling like roses and beaming down like a saint from on high.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked.
I pleaded my case and asked for a reading. Helen looked undecided for a moment, but then smiled and nodded. ‘Follow me,’ she said at last. I was in.
‘Who did you say referred you to my services?’ she asked, leading me through the hallway.
‘Then you know the price?’
I plastered a warm smile on my face and nodded. I knew the price.
Helen led me to a dining room, then moved around drawing the curtains and shutting out the night sky. She removed a crystal ball from a welsh dresser and placed it on the dining table. I sat down and stole a glance at the markings around the base of the ball. Bindings.
‘So will this really work?’ I made the question light and excitable.
‘Spirits never lie…’ She tapped her chin as though thinking. ‘Sorry, what was your name again?’
‘Spirits never lie, Cassie,’ she said and placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘Now, tell me, what do you want to know?’
‘You’re worried about her future?’ She sat in the chair next to mine and held my hands within her own.
‘She’s dead,’ I said. ‘I need to know that she’s moved on. That she’s not trapped in this world.’
She nodded. ‘I understand your worry, but the spirit cannot contact the other world to know this for certain.’
Not that I needed further confirmation, but that sealed it. The spirit she was using was bound and trapped. If it were free, it could reach out, and unable to find my nain, would confirm that she had left the mortal plane. Now all I had to do was find Elizabeth. With any luck, it would be her spirit trapped within the crystal.
I lowered my head and frowned in a show of disappointment. If I was reading Helen right, she would push for the sale, not wanting to risk the loss of a punter.
‘Perhaps, if we rephrase the question,’ she said after a moment. ‘We could ask if you will meet your grandmother again in this lifetime. If the answer is no, then we know she has moved on.’
That was bollocks, but I smiled and squeezed her hands in agreement. As Helen turned and pulled the crystal ball closer, I opened my sight to my gift. A circle of protection surrounded our chairs, lit up in brilliant violet. Another circle, one of containment, enclosed the base of the globe. Helen weaved a thread from herself, reaching out to connect with the shade trapped within.
With the existence of a bound spirit confirmed, there was no further need to continue. ‘Enough,’ I said, standing up. ‘By the power invested in me by the treaty of the Fifth Council, I am taking you into custody for the entrapment and abuse of a spirit.’
‘How dare you,’ Helen said in a low voice while drawing herself up.
A mist swirled within the ball and the spirit came forth, even though it was no longer called. The circumstances of Helen’s fate had been conveyed to it within a flicker of contact.
‘Sit down,’ I said to Helen.
‘Don’t you tell me what to—’
‘Sit down.’ I pushed her back into the chair, pulled her hands behind her back and bound them with plasticuffs.
The translucent purple mist within the confines of the crystal expanded, pushing at the boundaries of the glass as though it could somehow break free. I glanced at the circle of protection still ablaze beneath my feet and reinforced it with my own power. The spirit might be Elizabeth or it could be a shade. Either way, the spirit had to be released and it might respond in a hostile manner after having been bound.
I snatched up the globe and brought it down with a shattering crash.
Helen flinched as broken shards littered the table. In their centre lay a polished finger bone. Above it, the mist coalesced into the shape of a young woman, no more than twenty. Light wavy hair skimmed her shoulders and shrouded her delicate face. Elizabeth, if Dylan’s description was anything to go by.
In a flash, Dylan was in the room. I should have guessed he would be lurking nearby with the sunset. ‘Elizabeth,’ he shouted, before rushing into her spectral arms.
Charming. I do all the work but don’t even get a look in when Elizabeth is in the room. Feeling embarrassed by the pangs of jealousy I felt, I distracted myself by reaching across the table and collecting Elizabeth’s finger bone. Elizabeth’s bond to her remains had been strengthened by Helen and she would be tied to their location for some time. The option of sending Elizabeth on to her afterlife was possible, but I was pretty sure Dylan would voice some objections. I braced myself and decided to broach the subject, when the door crashed open and Emma arrived with my INB backup.
Once all the formalities and paperwork had been completed, it was not far off sunrise, so I headed home to feed Nibbler and get some rest. Luckily, Elizabeth had never had the chance to be used as a seer, so there was no risk to her essence. Had there been, INB would not have hesitated in severing her connection with the living world. Instead, they’d secured her bones at headquarters and allowed her spirit to roam free around the building.
When I arrived through my front door, Nibbler jumped into my arms. I nuzzled my face in his fur as he rolled and gave me his best ‘I love you. Now feed me’ look.
When I heard a noise coming from the kitchen, I lowered the cat to the ground and reached for the coat stand, by the front door. I grabbed the only weapon to hand — a fluorescent pink umbrella my mum had given me for Christmas—and tiptoed through the hall. It was only when Nibbler almost tripped me by circling my legs that I noted how calm he was.
Sure, Nibbler’s an affectionate cat… to me. But ask any number of visitors to my home and they’ll tell you straight out, he’s more likely to claw their eyes out than come for a cuddle. That snarling, spitting beast was a far cry from the docile sweetie he was acting now, and that could mean only one thing. I lowered the umbrella and kicked open the kitchen door.
‘I had not realised it was raining outside,’ Dylan said with raised eyebrows and a nod to the umbrella.
He gave me a glass of water and I sat on a stool as he moved around the kitchen like he owned the place.
‘I thought you might now care for an omelette,’ he said.
‘It’s not long until sunrise.’
‘It will take but a moment.’ Dylan broke two eggs in a bowl, gave them a whisk, and turned the hob on. I watched as he effortlessly prepared a mushroom omelette and laid it on the counter before me.
‘Any particular reason for this visit,’ I said between mouthfuls.
‘My dear lady, can a friend not just visit another friend as an expression of their gratitude?’
‘You’ve thanked me twice already.’
Dylan pushed his shoulders back, gave me a resigned look, and asked me if Elizabeth was truly safe.
I wanted to tell him that she was, that they could carry on in their spectral forms for ever, but we both knew that wasn’t the case.
‘She’s as safe as she can be,’ I said. ‘Being tied to her bone makes her vulnerable.’
I could have added the best option would be to send her on to the next plane of existence, but Dylan wasn’t ready to hear that. Maybe someday he would be.
‘And her assailant?’
‘Helen will have her powers eradicated. A binding similar to the one she trapped Elizabeth with will eliminate her influence on spirits.’
‘Well, that is some small thing at least,’ he said as the sun broke the horizon, streaking the sky in its fiery glow and sending Dylan away for the day.
This was my second short story in the Independent Necromancers’ Bureau series. I hope you liked it. If so, please consider leaving a review on Amazon 🙂
Check back shortly for an excerpt of A Matter of Death, scheduled for release at the end of May.