The dead hung around her in spectral filaments like old lace on the wedding dress that Miss Havisham would have killed for. The shade of a young girl, more solid than most of the others, turned a face towards me that was smooth and devoid of features apart from two cross shaped scars where her eyes should have been.
’Tea Ms Garnett? ’ smiled my hostess giving me the benefit of her own honey brown peepers.
‘No, but I’ll have some whisky if you’ve got it Lucille,’ I said staring at the ghosts covering her.
The practiced smile slipped a little, whether at the request or the use of her first name, I couldn’t tell.
‘Yes…yes of course. You don’t mind if I don’t join you, do you? Nine in the morning is a tad early for me.’
‘In that case I’ll have yours, so make mine a double,’ I said, grinning. Nothing cheered me up like a spot of narking the clients and I had a feeling this one was going to be a riot.
‘So,’ I said settling into the uncomfortable cream leather couch and taking in the large chrome and glass living-room, ‘What can I do you for?’
She crossed the room and poured me a drink from a sparkling crystal decanter snatched from the drinks cabinet. An oblong of spring sunlight spilled into the room through the huge bay window and across my hostess, or perhaps ghostess would have been more apt, elevating her hair from red to fiery shades of copper and obliterating her trailing ghost-train.
The sounds of birdsong from the garden and the amber liquid sloshing into the shot glass momentarily calmed the white noise in my head. She handed me the drink with a sour grace and I glugged it down, holding my glass out for more and waggling it around for maximum irritation value.
‘Really, Ms Garnett-’
‘Call me Rose.’
‘Very well. Rose. You make it sound like you’re offering a plumbing service. And and I’d just like to remind you that this is not a public house.’
‘Dealing with other people’s shit is what I do, so it’s not a bad analogy. Anyway barkeep, after you’ve gotten me another li’l drinkie, you can tell me why the hell you’ve asked me here. I’ve got a fun-packed day ahead so we really do need to get down to it.’
The shade with the cross scarred eyes shook her head and placed an elongated spectral finger to non-existent lips.
‘What?’ I asked the wraith.
‘I didn’t say anything,’ said Lucille. ‘I should warn you that I’ll be making a complaint to your superiors about your behaviour today. It’s highly unprofessional, not to mention downright rude and frankly I think you have an alcohol problem.’
‘I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to one of the ghosts that’s clinging to you for dear life. Or should that be death? Anyway,’ I said putting a finger up to forestall interruption. ‘First off I don’t have any superiors. I’m my own boss so complaint duly noted and rest assured my fuck you response is in the post. Second I’m the only ‘professional’ in a city of bungling amateurs and I’m more than happy to leave you to their tender mercies, ‘cos frankly babes I don’t need either the work or the additional drama. And third, the only problem I have with alcohol is when I don’t bloody have any.’
I set the empty glass down on the ornate coffee table and got up.
‘Let’s not be so hasty shall we? Here, let me get you that drink,’ she said grabbing my glass and racing over to the drinks cabinet.
What sort of twisted individual had a drinks cabinet? Any booze that made it over my threshold was drained dry immediately. Perhaps more to the point, what sort of weirdo had her own personal ghost riders?
‘Look,’ she said, biting a lipsticked lower lip and handing me a heroic measure of whisky, ‘we’ve obviously got off on the wrong foot. I’m sorry if I’m a bit, well, abrupt, but I’ve been worried sick.’
Being a contrary sort, I accepted the glass first and then considered the apology.
‘Now, about this, er, ghost’ she continued. ‘What do you mean by that? Can you describe it?’
The scarred revenant shook her outsized head with such force that it wobbled on its little spindle of a neck. I downed my replenished drink which had a superior burn to the last one. What the hell was ol’ Luce was up to? Clients changing their tune was one thing, but breaking out the good booze for the lowly help meant a whole new level of messed up in my experience.
What was really bothering me though, was that while ghosts did occasionally haunt people, they never did it en masse – not unless…
I slammed my glass down, eliciting the desired wince from my hostess.
‘Let’s cut the crap, shall we,’ I said. ‘Just tell me where you’ve buried the bodies.’
The dead hung around her in spectral filaments like old lace on the wedding dress that Miss Havisham would have killed for. The shade of a young girl, more solid than most of the others, turned a face towards me that was smooth and devoid of features apart from two cross shaped scars where her eyes should have been.
It was drizzling that Tuesday, a sullen, persistent skin-soaker that matched the mood of the funeral taking place in Liberton Kirk’s municipal cemetery. Everything was going to plan until Aunt Bella gave an eldritch shriek and threw herself into her husband’s open grave, trying to prise the lid of the coffin open with bloodied nails. The rest of us gawped and looked on, struggling to come to grips with this one and only show of the closest thing to affection that we’d witnessed in their twenty-five year stretch together. You could have called it a loveless marriage on a good day, but so far they’d never had one of those and now it was too late.
She scrabbled at the coffin lid leaving bloody smears on the polished wood, blonde hair escaping from its chignon and sticking to her blotched, mascara-stained face. The too short, too tight skirt she’d been wearing had rucked up in the fall and a hint of bright red underwear was all too visible against the black suit and rich brown of the freshly dug earth: a wound in tender flesh.
Uncle Monty started to scramble down after her but paused when she began writhing around and clutching her stomach, mouth open as though about to vomit. I wondered for an irrational moment if we were going to be treated to an Alien type scene culminating in Bella bursting open on the grave of her barely beloved.
But as always truth was stranger than fiction.
Two unfeasibly attractive young guys I’d never seen before leapt down into the grave and manhandled the lucky widow back out. They managed to prop her up against a gravestone all the while talking to her in low soothing tones while she nodded and sobbed. Looked like the wake wasn’t going to be as dull as I’d thought.
My mother gave me that look, rolling her eyes and twisting her face as she usually did when confronted with such attention-seeking behaviour.
So engrossed were we in this little family drama, that at first the muffled roars of rage from the coffin went unnoticed.
But then there was a loud snapping sound and the lid of the box sprang open…
Although the place had been wiped clean of ghosts, there was one that had not been persuaded to go. One that was so much a part of the fabric of the house and the people who lived here, that it had refused to make that final journey along the Highway of the Dead.
Looking at me warily from the corner of the room, the ghost fiddled with its over-sized granny glasses, the pattern of the wall paper behind it showing clearly through the insubstantial body. The forehead just above the left eye had been stoved in and something fluid glistened inside. This was how it remembered the injury it had received, a vague recollection of an outrage perpetrated on a body it no longer possessed.
I held out my hand and it came.
A wave of loneliness crashed over me casting me adrift on a vast featureless sea under a leaden sky, moorings cut, compass broken. But now there was a lifeline because we had a connection, a conduit through which, with a little luck, the spirit would yield its secrets.
Grudging details came at first, like reluctant suitors on a first date. In life it had been called Anne, but what had rooted it here in death was buried deep down under the surface like a sleeping leviathan. My death sense began to whisper to it, threats and enticements in equal measure, prodding the monster to wake. The two shape-shifters in the room with me whined, afraid of something that would never be the quarry of mere tooth and claw. Death however had no need for such hot-blooded seductions.
Capitulation when it came was as sudden as it was complete. My death sense swarmed eagerly over and around the spirit in spun filaments of blue and silver light. The ghost gained more solidity and in the process the extent of the head-injury was more evident. Previous reluctance forgotten, it, she, now wanted to tell me everything and the trickle of information became a flood.
When the last the frenetic jumble of images slowed, I pieced them into a sequence that started with two boys, the younger with short fair hair, the other a loose limbed teenager. There was now a third child, a girl, all of them playing in a fast flowing stream swollen with recent rain. The rich scent of damp earth carried with it the tease of summer and the children’s laughter hung on the warmed air. A brief moment of suspension and then I was inside the girl, Anne, and into a running commentary: a loop run by this forlorn piece of ghostly consciousness for more years now than it had been alive.
Adam starts saying that Phineas fancied Jenny so we laugh and Phineas tells us we’re being stupid. That just makes it funnier though. Stupid is as stupid does, mum always says. It’s kind of cold in the shallows of the stream and maybe that’s why mum has told us not to play here, but my big brothers are here so it’ll be okay.
Phin lifts a big rock and shouts to us to come over and see what he’s found underneath. I think he’s playing a joke on us for laughing at him because he can be mean like that sometimes. But then Adam shouts to me to come see. I turn too quick and put my foot down hard on a stone that moves when I stand on it. I lose my balance and fall face down into the river bed, smacking my head hard and everything goes black. Then it’s weird because I’m above my body, looking at it face down in the water. There’s a growing pool of red around my head and I think it must be blood, but how could it be, there’s just so much of it? I watch the red bits spread in the water and shout at my brothers as they pull me onto the bank. They look so funny with their mouths flapping trying to pick me up and Phineas even blows air from his mouth into mine when they get me onto the bank. Yuck, why are boys so gross? I really hope Amanda Strathmartin didn’t see that because she’d blab to the whole school about how I was snogging my brother and then I’d have to go to a new school and it would all be just be stupid.
But then some men with stretchers come and take me away, well not me, just my body, but can’t be right, ‘cos I’m here, amn’t I? Anyway, I’d better stay by the river and wait for mum to come get me because I don’t know if I can move. It’s so cold out here and now I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting. Now it’s dark and I start to cry ‘cos mum’s not come for me. She must be really angry with me this time, because she’s never not come before. After a while though I get the hang of things and find that if I really try, I can move. It takes ages though and it’s quite hard to do, so as I head off in the direction of our house I have plenty time to grump about why they’ve just left me behind.
I finally make it back to the house in a total strop and all I want to do is find mum. But the door is open and the house is empty and that’s never happened before – not that I remember anyway. Where have they all gone?
Now it’s all changed and somehow I’m floating above my own body. I must be in hospital ‘cos people in white coats are shouting and putting metal things on my bare, naked chest with electricity coming out. Either that or I’m in the loony bin. Amanda Strathmartin would really love this. I think about this for so long I start to feel funny. I can see mum and dad just outside, dad being held back by more people in white coats. What does he think he’s doing? Maybe I’m dreaming or something, maybe that’s it and it’s all okay. I try to call to mum and dad, but either they can’t hear or my voice has packed up. Dad’s face is all red and mum looks like she’s been crying. I float near the ceiling and next thing, hear this man with a stupid pointy beard say: “She was dead on arrival, it’s no use. Simon, better get someone to tell the parents.”
They can’t mean me can they? What is dead anyway? How can I be dead if I can still think things and see and hear stuff? But everything changes again and now I’m back at the house and it really does look as though someone has died because dad has his black suit on and the boys have their hair brushed in daft side partings which makes me laugh because I know how much they hate that. Today, though they don’t seem to mind that much. Dad’s face is all screwed up and he smells of that stuff adults drink that makes them act all silly and embarrassing.
“What is it dad?” I say and touch him on the arm but he doesn’t hear me. I find mum in the kitchen crying and she won’t pay attention to me either. What’s wrong with everyone? Are they playing a joke to teach me a lesson about being in the stream? But the boys were doing it too, so how is that fair?
But then I have a thought which makes me think that maybe I have gone loop the loop, like Jackie MacLean’s mum when her husband ran off with the baby-sitter: they’re not ignoring me on purpose, I’m dead and this is my funeral. It must be because I don’t have a body and now I don’t have a mum, dad and two stinky brothers anymore. Did I do something wrong? I shouldn’t have played where mum told me not to, but I wasn’t bad enough for this, was I? Maybe if I say I’m sorry, it’ll come all right again. I’m a bit worried about mum and dad to be honest, hope they’re going to be okay because they look awful upset…
But that night something had made me opt for Salisbury Crags, Arthur Seat’s idiot offspring, alone but for the wind tangling my hair and the scent of damp earth. Something niggled at the back of my mind and then fled, giggling, before I could catch it.
I had reached the Radical Road, the pathway that curved around the Crags like an old scar carved out of reptilian skin. My way up to the top was lit by the mauve phosphorescence of corpse candles, behind and below me lay the rust coloured miasma of city lights, like old blood on a corpse long dead.
As I climbed, a breeze ruffled over my skin, carrying with it the scent of spring and the promise of another sullen east coast Edinburgh summer. My menagerie had gone on ahead and was even now sending back images of our prey: a biker gang, lured here by the siren song of strong drugs leavened with S and M action but who were destined for so much more before the night was out.
I stopped for a moment all the better to savour what I had been sent; the weight of the gang’s murderous past and present as plain to my little dark-adapted eyes as Jacob Marley’s chains, each link a misdeed that could not be undone, an outrage that could not be forgiven. The huge and bloated elementals that had attached themselves to each and every gang member were testimony to that.
Against the darkness, the dim glamour of their crimes signalled their presence to me and mine like a beacon. But tonight there was something else hunting in the Park of the Holy Rood, something infinitely worse than a dozen Hell’s Angels painting the city blood red.
Something worse, even, than me.
The corpse-candles were still buzzing around my head, intent on leading me to my death over the Crags and exposing my position to whatever was out there. The wind turned chill, reminding me that I still had my own monsters to find and revenge to wreak.
After all, as my old mother might have said if I’d ever met her: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
A morning mist hung low over frost slimed grass. Branches of trees pierced the grey gloom like the petrified carcasses of unnameable beasts.
This was the Meadows, slap bang in the middle of a city of half a million souls that now felt as distant as the stars: an island of live greenery in a desiccated urban wasteland. Or so it must have seemed to the horned creature that had padded this way earlier on taloned feet, the old presences stirred by its passage.
My quarry was near.
In the bad old days the Meadows had been submerged under a body of water that stretched from Hope Park Terrace to Brougham Street, contaminated by raw sewage and worse. When the water had been drained it took the human waste with it, but the spiritual effluent remained, keeping me in a job and the city in fear.
I almost walked into the vast trunk of an old elm and cursed my clumsiness aloud drawing the attention of another predator out on the prowl this fine Sunday morning. A low, throaty laugh, the caress of light breath on the back of my neck and I knew I had much more to worry about than the minor demon I’d been hunting.
“About time,” it said stepping out in front of me. “I’m starved.”
The Ice Cream Man drove along Constitution Street, the strains of Greensleeves trailing a sweet discord in his wake. It was two in the morning and raining hard, but the Ice Cream Man had no need for lights and window-wipers. Truth to tell they disturbed his concentration and that was Bad For Business.
A muffled sob from the back of the van told him that they weren’t all dead yet. Never mind, they’d soon wish they were. The hunger was on him tonight, an appetite that was getting harder to satisfy. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure it was all worth it. In those darker moods that seemed to take him more and more these days, all he wanted was to burn the world down and him with it.
But not tonight, not yet.
A police squad car passed by, the occupants blind and deaf to the ice cream van’s siren song – unlike the unfortunates he’d caught and stacked in the back. It was too easy really and the boredom made him cruel. Take last night for instance…
He smiled to himself and began to whistle, the world beyond the windscreen a smeared blur of light and shadow. Another sob from the back but he was oblivious, lost in the downward spiral of his own thoughts.
But the instant she woke and came to the window, face a pale oval, smooth and perfect as an egg, he was roused from his reverie.
“Come on down Cathy,” he intoned through the loudspeaker. “I’ve got your favourite. Just pop some slippers on sweetheart. I’ve got a special surprise for you in the back. Best get it while it’s cold though.”
The long painted mouth sneered. She’d get it alright.
‘Okay,’ said Rufus, ‘this is what we know. Some time in the evening of 28th May this year, Robyn Farquhar aged ten, ran out of her parent’s flat in Forrest Road into the street. They thought she was tucked up in bed with a cold and didn’t know any different until they heard the sound of sirens outside. Robyn had been found by a passer-by in a state of unconsciousness. She was taken to the Edinburgh’s Sick Children’s Hospital where she remains in a coma rated, so I’m told, as a 4 on Glasgow Coma scale. This means she can open her eyes but there’s no one home.’
‘Rufus, please, this is a child we’re talking about,’ said Ruby.
I rolled my eyes and got another drink up.
‘Just trying to cut to the chase Rubes. There is some neurological activity, but not a great deal. She’s been in that state now for seven months and doctors are not hopeful because they don’t know what has caused the coma. Also not helping is the fact that it’s a deep one and it’s lasted for a long time.’
‘Her parents Pat and Gordon got in touch with me because they’ve been, well, hearing things in their flat and they think it’s haunted,’ said Ruby.
‘What sort of things?’ I asked.
“Started off as whispers, shit where it shouldn’t be, hey, that sounds like a good t-shirt slogan for an exorcist, don’t you think? Never mind, where was I? Oh yes, banging on walls, you know the usual,’ said Rufus. ‘But then it changed. Became more heavy-duty, nastier, if you get my drift.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘not unless you spell it out for me. And as for the slogan, you stole that from me when we were at Michael and Vic’s.’
‘And what a laugh that turned out to be. Okay then, voices late at night dredging up old secrets from the past, like Gordon’s affair, which Pat didn’t know about. Pat’s obsession with an ex, that Gordon didn’t know about and it went downhill from there. Things got more physical so to speak: plates being thrown and not just by the unhappy couple you understand, furniture upended, food spoiling in the fridge despite being just bought. Just you know, your classic demonic manifestations.’
‘Which is why you’re involved,’ I said. ‘So, correct me if I’m wrong but we’ve gone from a child lapsing into a coma to possible demonic possession, not of the child, but of the flat where she lived? Is that even possible?’
‘It’s not common, but having consulted the grimoires, it is possible. As you’ll know from your boyfriend Lukastor, there are many types of demon. Some possess places rather than humans. They are like humanity in that they can evolve to fit the conditions. They’re essentially parasites, arguably also like humanity. Anyway, that was the theory we were working on until Ruby did her thing and tried to contact Robyn. Take it away Rubes.’
‘Gordon and Pat gave me some of Robyn’s things,’ she indicated the objects on the table, ‘and I thought I’d give it a go even though we knew Robyn wasn’t dead. You remember that’s how I found Steph or Sophie or whatever she called herself.’
‘Oh, I think I still have a vague memory,’ I said getting an unwelcome flashback to our little showdown on the Castle esplanade with a particularly vile serial killer and pulling myself back with no little effort.
Outside something thumped against the window, a dark shape disappearing into the swirling snow.
“Brandy for everyone?’ said Ruby, pouring it out before I could stop her. The light was fading and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to. The photos on Ruby’s Wall of Death were also starting to creep me out. Unlike Ruby, I lived in the present and had no need of the dark, cloying weight of the past and the wants and needs of others dragging me down into it.
‘But I still don’t get why the parents wanted you to find her. They know where she is – she’s lying unconscious in the Sick Kids. If they’ve now got a haunting or possession surely that’s a separate thing? Hell it could have been triggered by events. There’s a missing link here, the one between the child and the goings-on.’
‘Pat and Gordon believe that someone, something has taken Robyn’s soul and is holding it captive,’ said Ruby.
‘Based on the fact that there is no physical explanation that can be found for the coma. Robyn hasn’t suffered a stroke, heart-attack, nor does she have a head wound. The entity in their flat knows things about Pat and Gordon that only Robyn would know.’
‘It might just be a powerful demon. It doesn’t mean something’s got hold of Robyn’s spirit.’
‘You don’t understand Rose,’ said Ruby. ‘They don’t just think the entity has Robyn, they think it is Robyn, in part anyway.’
‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,’ I said. ‘How could it be Robyn, partly, wholly or any other way? And where does the captivity bit fit in?’
‘Well first off we don’t have all the answers and the ones we do beg more questions. I went to see Pat and Gordon last week and it was clear to me that they were, well, scared of Robyn, there’s no other way to put it. I don’t just mean now, but before the coma too. It turns out she’s psychic and, by their accounts, a very powerful one. She always knew things she wasn’t supposed to. Can’t be easy for the parents when dead members of the family and other random spirits are spilling secrets to their ten year old who then spills them at school until pretty soon there aren’t any left. Especially when as you know most people prefer to live in denial of that sort of thing. So some of the stuff the voices were saying wasn’t so dissimilar to what Robyn used to reveal. But there was a nastier edge to the goings on that weren’t typical of their child an intent you might say.’
‘While my heart really does bleed, there’s still not enough evidence to support what you’re saying,’ I told her.
‘I’m sorry Rose, I’m not explaining this very well. What I’m trying to say is that when I tried to contact Robyn, I was successful and she…spoke to me.’
I made a circling motion with my hand. Day was bleeding into night and the flat’s interior grew gloomier with every passing second.
‘She said that she was scared,’ Ruby continued, ‘that she didn’t know where she was, that she wanted to come home but couldn’t – and that she had a message for you. For you Rose,’ she looked at me with frightened eyes. ‘Why would she have a message for you?’
‘In the name of god woman,’ I said, hand over my eyes.
‘She said was to tell you that ‘The Ice Cream Man Cometh.’ Does that mean anything to you Rose? Rose?’
By the time I got to the Cowgate, one of the victims was already dead, his decapitated body slung into the waiting Transit van. His two male companions had been captured and pinned against the wall at the back of the Snake-Pit club. The taller of the two, a boy who didn’t look old enough to be out of school let alone out on the tiles, began to plead for his life.
The vampire holding him growled, trailing a taloned claw across the boy’s neck turning the flow of words into blood. The wound was not deep enough to kill, but it confirmed that these three monsters were out of control. On the bright side, it looked like the boy was going to get the chance to paint the town red after all.
All of the vampires were blond, female and bore a striking resemblance to Morgana their Queen, so my source had been correct in that respect at least. The erstwhile driver of the van had abandoned her post at the wheel and was, from the sound of cracking bones, worrying the corpse while the other two played with their food.
With a cursed blade in each hand I crept around to the open doors at the back of the vehicle, breath pluming in the arctic night air. I needn’t have bothered with stealth because the corpse-botherer was too busy pulling the entrails out of the belly like so many linked sausages, snarls of appetite muffled by the corpse’s head which it gripped in its teeth.
The coppery tang of blood was strong and the Deadlights, that sixth sense I’d been born with, gift and nightmare in equal parts was eager to be free. It invaded the memories and thoughts of dead and living alike without fear or favour, consuming a portion of whatever it touched. And, like the parasite that I was, that meant I did too.
It was for that very reason that the Deadlights were out of luck tonight because I didn’t fancy chowing down on vampire. That left only good, old-fashioned brute force.
“Oi,” I said as though talking to a bothersome dog who had been rooting in the bins.
There was a beat of silence before she turned towards me, blood-soaked blond hair black in the sodium lights, teeth buried in the tender flesh of the corpses cheek. She shook her head, the flesh gave way and the head dropped with a thunk onto the floor. She flew for me, teeth distended and snapping. I brought both daggers up as though making an offering and drove them deep into her heart. Stakes were for the movies and those foolish enough to set store by such things. Like all good arguments, all you needed was a point and enough wit to ram it home.
At least that was the theory…
There was something about the three blonde, black-eyed women that was not quite right. At least that was Colin’s opinion as he finished one pint and considered starting another. His thoughts turned as they always did to his bitch ex Jackie, who was giving him grief and not letting him see the wee man until he paid what she said he owed. Fat chance of that when he’d just lost his job in the off-licence where he had worked for ten years. Who could have predicted offies in Scotland would ever go out of business? You had to get through the cold, smothering dark of the winter months somehow and it had long been a family tradition that a vast quantity of booze was just the way to do it.
He decided on a another pint and whisky chaser and lumbered to the bar to get them in. The Bingo Wings was a run-down sort of place, but you could sit in the gloom and nurse drink and grievances in equal measure with no interference from anyone who knew what was good for them.
So the hot glances thrown his way from the blond bints, weren’t really what he’d come to expect from his inner sanctum, least of all on a blustery Tuesday afternoon. No, talent-spotting wasn’t the usual pastime in the Bingo Wings and there were other more likely venues for that sort of nonsense. This was where silent, angry men sat and drank themselves into a well earned oblivion before picking a fight outside to round the evening off.
Christ they were fit though: lush, full figured and from the long legs, not much shy of his six feet frame. He thought maybe they’d been to a fancy dress party because they were all dressed in white see-through dress things that rode right up when they sat down on the bar stools, so you could pretty much see everything. Little tarts.
The nearest one turned her head to look at him, a sinuous, twisting motion accompanied by a fall of arctic-blond hair that was so long she could have sat on it. Well, if the little slag played her cards right, she’d be sitting on something else before the end of the night.
“Are you sisters then?” he said controlling the slurring with a mighty effort.
The other two turned to stare at him with that same serpentine motion and three pairs of black eyes fixed on his face as though he was the most fascinating creature in the world. Probably couldn’t believe their luck.
They must have been sisters because their features were almost identical. There was also a sharpness about the nose and cheek-bones that he hadn’t noticed at first, but they were still stunners, no doubt about it.
“In a way,” the nearest one answered in a soft voice.
She was definitely up for it. Wait until Jackie found out that he still had the old one, two magic.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Eh, Colin. Colin McQuarrie. Yours?” he asked, finally remembering the finer points of leg-over etiquette.
“Margo. And this is Morgan and Marjorie.”
The blond in the middle, Morgan, slithered off her stool and came to stand next to him. Christ, maybe he’d be in a four-way before the night was out if he minded his p’s and q’s. He hurriedly calculated just how much he’d had to drink because it really wouldn’t do to disappoint the ladies. Not if the abuse Jackie had regularly showered him with was anything to go by.
Morgan put a hand on his arm and was so close he could smell her: an intoxicating scent that brought with it the green promise of spring woods. He was just about to press his mouth to hers and maybe even give her a bit of tongue, when she ruined the moment by speaking. That was women for you.
“Did you know you have an elemental attached to you?”
“An elephant? Are you pissed hen?”
The third blond, Marjorie had joined them and stood on his other side. He felt hemmed in for some reason and started to wonder where Rab the barman was; quelling a sudden surge of adrenalin as though some part of his brain was telling him to make a run for it. Why would he run from three lassies?
“It’s a lower form of spirit-”
“That attaches itself to people who have done bad things in their lives. It feeds off the energy that creates-”
“And for every bad deed, the elemental gets bigger-”
“And bigger and-”
“Yours is the size of this room. And it’s still growing. You must have been a very naughty boy Colin.”
He’d lost track of who was saying what but it didn’t matter because it melded into a seamless whole as though the conversation was taking place inside his own head. The three hadn’t taken their eyes off him, tracking his progress like a deer or some other prey that didn’t have a hope in hell. Being hopeless had never felt so good.
“You know those angry, frustrated feelings you get where you want to burn the world and everybody in it?”
He was pretty sure that was Marjorie who was stroking his arm, snaking a trail up to the back of his neck. He nodded, a heroic effort in what was turning into an epic afternoon.
“That’s from the elemental. Like waste products if you see what I mean. You’ll have noticed how it’s getting worse no doubt? That’s the elemental getting stronger. Soon it’ll be powerful enough to…extinguish you. Your essence as it were. Oh, don’t worry, silly billy: it won’t kill you. Isn’t that something?” Margo smiled. Was it just his imagination, or were her teeth more prominent than they had been a moment ago?
He felt dizzy as though the women had slipped him something in his drink. As long as they stayed with him, he wasn’t sure he cared.
“Can’t I get rid of it? I mean, couldn’t you help me?” he said, a little boy pleading not to be sent to bed. He didn’t question the truth of what he was being told: it was as if he’d always known. Ever since that hit and run that he’d been responsible for as a teenager nothing had gone right for him.
“Ah, now. We were just getting to that,” said Morgan tapping him on the nose. “But first there’s something you need to do for us.”
Legend had it that an imprisoned dragon lay coiled in the rock under Edinburgh Castle and that the day it broke free and wreaked its revenge would be the city’s last. I had never been particularly interested in the story, but the supernatural critter that had wrapped itself around Maud Mulroney’s corpse in her open-casket coffin, appeared to be doing its very own winged worm tribute act.
A blob of phlegm flung by the corpse cuddler in question just missed the top of my head and that’s when it started to laugh, a rasping, guttural noise that sounded like thirty years of dedicated cigarette smoking put to good use. Its long, snake-like body curled tighter around the dead woman, so tight in fact that it pierced the bloodless skin with its razor-sharp scales.
This was Maud’s living room, or at least it had been when she was alive. She had lived in this house, a terraced affair in the village of Gilmerton, for fifty years and I wondered what she would have made of her wake. Ordinarily I could have just summoned her spirit to find that out given she had only just kicked the proverbial bucket. But not today, not here, because the fact was that this little supernatural charmer was not only holding the corpse hostage, it was also preventing the spirit from leaving the body.
The creature began to convulse, spasms running along it’s entire length before it vomited green bile all over the corpse’s head in an explosive rush. The acrid stench was overpowering and I had to fight not to add my own contribution to the gunge-fest.
Supernatural vermin extermination wasn’t my usual gig and it was beginning to show. My normal day job was hunting down and killing the perpetrators of unsolved murders but it was all I could manage after my last starring role had damn near killed me. I was, as the Fox twins kept on telling me, recuperating; which was why they had succeeded in foisting this particular no hoper on me. But it was true: I wasn’t back to anything like full strength and now it looked like I might not even be up to getting rid of this parasitic bottom-feeder.
I had to concede however that it was a bottom-feeder with a sense of humour because it had now transferred Maude’s blonde bobbed wig from her head to its own, the red glare of its eyes visible through the strands of hair. Slowly and with great deliberation it winked at me, opening its mouth to reveal rows of wicked looking teeth before settling down to nibble at the corpse’s nose.
Question was which of us had bitten off more than we could chew?