Love Bites

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, not letting him see the wee man until he paid up what she said he owed. Fat chance of that when he’d just lost his job in the off-licence where he’d worked for ten years. Who’d have thought offies in Scotland could ever go out of business? You had to get through the cold and smothering dark of the Scottish winter somehow and it was a time honoured national 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 unsteadily to the bar to get them in. The Bingo Wings was a run down shabby 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. And from the hot glances thrown his way from the blond bints, he was positive he could show them a thing or two on that front. Talent-spotting wasn’t a usual pastime in the Bingo Wings: there were other more likely venues for that sort of nonsense. No, 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 white-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 curiously serpentine motion and three pairs of black eyes fixed on his face with a disconcerting intensity. They must have been sisters because their features were almost identical. There was 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. He knew it, 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 continued.

“Eh, Colin. Colin McQuarrie. And what’s 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, slid gracefully off her stool and came to stand next to him. Maybe he’d be in the three-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 seeing as how they were so up for it. 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 reminded him of blue skies and the green promise of spring woods. He was just about to press his mouth to hers when she ruined it 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?

“An elemental,” said Marjorie.

“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-”

“What she means is the suffering of the victim. For every bad deed there must be a victim-”

“And for every bad deed, the elemental gets bigger-”

“And bigger and-”

“Yours is the size of a tenement. And it’s still growing.”

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 entirely inside his own head. The three hadn’t taken their eyes from 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. Dumbly he nodded.

“That’s from the elemental. Sort of 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 consume you and then you’ll be part of it forever. Isn’t that something?” Margo smiled showing small, perfectly formed white teeth.

He was really confused now, unsure if it was the drink or if the women had drugged him. He wasn’t sure he cared, as long as they stayed with him.

“Can’t I get rid of it? I mean, couldn’t you help me?” he said, like 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 and then all the other stuff since then…

“Ah, now. We were just getting to that,” said Morgan. “But there’s something you need to do for us first.”

The Demon Unbound

“Lukastor, Lord of the fallen, mightiest of the line of Asriel, with the element of earth, I thee bind.” Viridian handed Alice a stone from the perimeter of the circle and she laid held it out to the mirror as though in supplication before carefully laying it down at its foot.

“With the element of air, I thee bind.” This time he gave a feather to Alice who solemnly repeated the ritual.

“With the element of fire, I thee bind.” A lit candle dripping yellow fatty wax was placed before the mirror.

“With the element of water, I thee bind.” Viridian reached into the velvet bag and brought out a dead fish which joined the others at the mirrors foot.

A paranoid crazy thought invaded my brain taking no prisoners: this ritual sounded suspiciously like a mockery of marriage vows, but I didn’t have time for any more before my suspicions were heightened:

“With this corrupted flesh I thee worship,” and so saying he drew the body of a small black kitten out of the bag. It had been skinned and I realised it must still have been alive and that was what I’d heard screaming earlier. I felt sick to my stomach. Sickest of all of myself for participating in this insanity.

But the luxury of introspection was one I couldn’t afford, as the base of the mirror previously engulfed in black flames, quickly became a small inferno that gave out no heat and swallowed the meagre light from the candles greedily, lasciviously, like a long lost lover.

Alice stood in front of the looking glass, arms raised, black flames enveloping her body of which she seemed oblivious:

“Lukastor, by the power of earth, air, fire water and all fleshly things, I command you to come to me.”

Nothing happened. A minute passed, then another. It was obscene, banal and vaguely comical and I was participating in it. Then someone in the room started a hushed conversation and I felt the slow, sick bloom of the realisation that it wasn’t going to work; that it had never had the ghost of a chance of ever working and that it was all a hellish, twisted practical joke of which I was the dunder-headed butt.

And then, almost imperceptibly, the ceiling began to vibrate, graduating to a palsied shaking and then a grand mal seizure of epic proportions. People started screaming and running for the door as enormous cracks appeared in the walls and plaster fell, knocking some of them out and coating everything in a fine, white dust. A disciple ran past me, face a mask of white, hood flapping as though he had come to a fancy dress party as a ghost only to find that’s what everyone else had done. The gash at his temple, a vivid, terrifying blast of colour in the lunar, post-apocalyptic landscape that had once been an ordinary room.

A terrifying, roaring wind whipped around the room sweeping the unwary off their feet as though it was trying to scour the room clean of anything living. A woman to my left screamed and started babbling to whatever it was she worshipped, but the wind whipped her words away and I couldn’t hear who the Lukeky recipient was. It didn’t matter in any case because seconds later the back of her skull was crushed by an old, brass light fixture and she lay like a broken doll at me feet. I felt removed, other-worldly, standing stock still as the killing rain fell, feet apart, face tilted upwards: whatever happened I’d die on my feet. A piece of what once had been the ceiling crashed to the floor just inches from where I was standing breaking the boards on the floor with a deafening almighty crash. Splinters of glass were flying around and I felt my face run with something warm, although I couldn’t feel anything. The mirror was the only thing that was miraculously untouched and the black flames belched forth emitting foul, noxious fumes.

The whole room was shaking now and because the ceiling and walls had been gouged down to brick and beam, they too began to rain down on those who remained, which included Viridian and Alice. In my dream-like state I suddenly became aware of the crush at the door, as people panicked and tried to force their way through, heedless of anyone else and driven by the sheer animal instinct to survive. Some had fallen and were being crushed as their erstwhile comrades stampeded over them oblivious to their cries. Those at the back impatiently pushed those at the front producing a groaning, bleeding heap of the dead and injured. The shocked, writhing mass of humanity melded together as though it was a giant organism comprised of hundreds of component parts that didn’t much like each other, the ultimate Frankenstein’s monster, trapped in the ninth circle of hell.

“No.” Viridian screamed, “You cannot break the circle. Don’t you understand? It’ll loose the spirit. Do not break the circle.”

But no one was listening and in truth his words could hardly be heard above the disintegrating building and howling supernatural wind.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the black flames of the burning mirror were extinguished, the wind dropped and the room stopped its awful dance. And he was in the mirror. I drew in a convulsive breath, I couldn’t help myself. He floated as though in mid air, long black hair trailing behind him like a silken waterfall. Obsidian eyes glittering with scarlet flame flickering in their depths and a molten destructive force that would have beggared a million Hiroshimas. His battered leathers were open to the waist revealing the smooth brown skin beneath. Unfurled wings cast possessive shadows over his face that moved with a life of their own. The power of his mere presence in the mirror was like being doused in petrol and then set alight. The only question was how quickly death would provide blessed release. I couldn’t move, speak, think. I was completely caught in the monster’s thrall; and just when I didn’t think things could get any worse, they did.

“Tsk Tsk Viridian. What have you been up to?” The voice was low and musical and the sound encompassed the room trailing filaments of light as though marking its own progress. It was like being encased in velvet and lovingly suffocated with it. The amused contempt was unmistakable.

“My Lord,” Viridian began, his own voice shaking, reedy with fear, “It was her,” and like a naughty school-boy caught out in his wrong-doing, pointed accusingly at me, blurting: “She wanted to bind you. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“She?” The enveloping voice was now flirtatious, playful, wrapping me up in gossamer skein that held me tight and promised all manner of dark delights that would bind me closer still. Then without warning the monster in the mirror casually stepped out into the little room and the souls caught in it screamed with one bone shattering voice. The sound brought me out of my trance-like state and nearly burst my eardrums. I fought not to vomit, losing my new found focus now was not such a good idea.

Thick wet gobbets of something poured out of the mirror’s depths, pumping out into the room as though like blood from breached artery. It was then that I realised this was the living essence of the mirror and it was now dying. The cracked walls oozed the same dark, clogging substance as though in sympathy with the mirror’s death throes. But I was wrong, it wasn’t the mirror that was dying, it was the souls that had been imprisoned in it: they had become part of the trapping mechanism and when Luke tore it apart by walking through it, he tore them apart in the process. The carnage was indescribable: as though the death and pain from a million abattoirs was concentrated in this small, dirty room.

But all of that was insignificant detail as his presence lit up the room, brown skin a warm copper glow, a beacon of light and warmth that sucked everyone and everything toward it to be consumed ecstatically in its flames. His hair, reaching almost to his waist, had the blue tint of true black and the fathomless ebony eyes traced an arc of light around the room, finally coming to rest on me. The face was of a vaguely oriental cast, high cheekbones tapering to a strongly moulded chin which had the faintest indentation. Slanting black eyes glittered under black brows promising an infinity of unimaginably painful ways to die and the full mouth was set in an uncompromising line. The start of a glossy black tattoo peeked over the collar of his leathers on the left side of his throat and extended to the top of his left hand where his sleeve ended. It wouldn’t be for decoration on a creature like this, it would be some sort of protective ward.

He was huge: I estimated around six feet five with broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist. The battered leathers hugged him like a second skin, the top of his belt tracing the line of his hips above which was a couple of inches of bare skin. A wicked looking knife hung from one side of his belt, a short axe from the other, their hilts engraved with ancient symbols, blades glinting with evil intent. Whatever else this creature was, it was a seasoned warrior. I tried not to imagine what battles it had fought over the millennia, what manner of men and monsters it had faced and felled.

“My Lord-” Viridian stuttered but what he said was lost as Luke raised a languid hand without turning his gaze from mine and the magician was lifted up by forces unseen and smashed head first into a cracked wall from which the plaster had long since fled. The force with which his body had been hurled into the wall was incredible, almost like a flesh and blood cartoon except there was nothing comical about the sickening crack of his skull or the red ruin at the back of his head where I actually see through to softer tissue which must have been his brain, or what was left of it. His body slumped and fell abruptly to the floor in a scarlet spray as though it had momentarily been supported by an unseen hand, and was now lying prone in a rapidly spreading pool of his own blood when it was whipped away; bereft of any signs of life like a puppet that had had its strings cut by a sadistic puppeteer. Alice rushed forward, throwing herself to the floor cradling him in her arms sobbing softly to herself as she rocked to and fro with her bloody burden. But then I discovered I had some pressing problems of my own.

“You,” he said in a lover’s whisper that felt like metal piercing my flesh. The pain was good and brought some hard-won focus. I had caused this mayhem to barter with this devil, barter I would if I could just manage to stay alive long enough.

A Spirited Encounter

The dead hung around Tamsin St Bird in spectral filaments like trailing 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 featureless face toward me, blank apart from two cross shaped scars stitched into her translucent flesh where her eyes should have been.

“Tea Ms Garnett? Or perhaps something stronger,” smiled my hostess, making it sound like a dare.

“Whiskey, if you’ve got it Tamsin,” I said calling her on it but distracted by the ghost-trail marking out this woman’s every move.

The practiced smile slipped a little whether at the request or the use of her first name was anyone’s guess.

“Yes, of course. You don’t mind if I don’t join you? Nine in the morning isn’t my most alcoholic time.”

“In that case, I’d better have yours, so make mine a double,” I said, conscious I was going to need all the help I could get with this one.

“So,” I said settling into the uncomfortable cream leather couch and taking in the chrome and glass designer living room, incongruous in such an old house, “What can I do you for?”

She crossed the high ceilinged room and poured me a drink from the crystal decanter on the drinks cabinet. An oblong of golden light fell across the stripped wooden floor and the sound of the amber liquid sloshing into the shot glass was more relaxing that a day in the country. I knocked it back and held my glass out for more which she did with a bad grace.

“Really, Ms Garnett-”

“Call me Rose.”

“Very well. Rose. You make it sound like you’re offering a plumbing service.”

“Dealing with other people’s shit is what I do Lucille, so it’s not a bad analogy. Anyway, please go on. I’ve got some blocked toilets that need a good old plunging so we need to get down to business, no pun intended.”

The young girl shook her head, distressed, and an old man’s face appeared at Lucille’s elbow with exactly the same cross stitched eyes. He held an elongated spectral finger to non-existent lips.

She eyed me with a delicate distaste spoiled by her ghostly train whimpering in protest when she abruptly sat down on an overstuffed silk striped couch and crossed long, slim legs with a swish of expensive material. Everything about her was tasteful and reined in: long, beige, hair coiled demurely at the nape of her neck in what she probably called a chignon; designer dress, a rich chocolate brown with demure lace collar emphasising a long neck and a well preserved figure for someone in their mid-forties. If it hadn’t been for the eyes, a snapping, stinging, leaf green and the deformed crowd of revenants trailing her like a living shroud, I might even have fallen for it.

She impatiently tapped an expensive looking gold watch, more like a bracelet than anything crass enough to have a use and said:

“Look I know my husband hired your, uh, services, but you must appreciate he’s not been himself lately. I’d like to cancel whatever contract you had with him and pay you a fee for your trouble.”

“Pay me to go away,” I said.

“If you like, yes.”

“Ah, but I don’t like Tamsin. I don’t like at all. My arrangement is with your husband, not you. If he wants to cancel, then he’s the one that’s going to have to do it.”

The ghosts moaned, maws wide with fear, features comically elongating as their substance reconfigured itself to mirror their distress. The fact that she had a little ghost train going on, while unusual wasn’t completely off the scale: you wouldn’t believe the baggage people carried around with them and I don’t mean emotional. What it did mean though was that she was someone who was capable of exerting a serious amount of control over the people and things that were around her. I hadn’t seen such submissive ghosts attached to anyone before and if I was being honest, it was creeping me out a little. How that affected Mr Harper-Hodge was anyone’s guess. Maybe a damned good spanking administered by her followed by some ritual head-shaving down the village square was his idea of marital bliss.

“Okay you won’t take it the easy the way, so let’s get down to brass tacks.”

Clearly a woman who was used to getting her own way, which made her next play all the more jarring.

“My husband is unwell,” she sniffed brushing away a tear, “my child may be dying,” her voice broke, but she hurriedly composed herself and carried on, “the last thing my family need is a so called psychic feeding them false hope. If you had an ethical bone in your body you’d leave us alone and go sell your snake oil somewhere else. I’m offering you money to go away and when my husband calls you, to decline the job.”

Tears formed in the corners of her eyes but sorrow wasn’t what I was getting from the muddy purple and sickly yellow of her aura. I walked across to the crystal decanter where the whisky was held prisoner and liberated a hefty belt to her audible displeasure. I grinned.

“You asked me to come here Tamsin and I did, assuming you wanted to show me around the house and meet your daughter. Now it turns out you want to give me the bum’s rush and have me lie to your husband. What’s the sketch?”

“Taking people’s money for nothing is usually what you people do best, isn’t it?” she was trying for patronising but I was getting the real picture from the agitation of the ghosts swirling around her like the detritus from a geyser.

I drained my glass in one and slammed it down on the hideously ornate side table.

“Tsk Tsk Tamsin. I expected better that that-” That was a lie, the truth was I hadn’t expected this little visit to be so much fun.

“Don’t you dare-”

“What were you going to pay me? Just out of interest you understand.”

I wasn’t remotely offended and in fact had she been offering enough money I’d have taken it. Only a fool works when she doesn’t have to. But I never got to do business with my new best friend because that’s when the old ball and chain decided to stick his oar in and spoil the fun by bursting into the living room and chucking his car keys down with a crash on the smoked glass coffee table eliciting a visible wince from Tamsin.

“Darling,” he roared which I was about to learn was his normal volume. God alone knew what happened when he was angry.

Jason St Bird was big and blond with a large belly making an escape bid over the top of his chinos and from there through the buttons on his too tight mauve shirt. He didn’t look like he’d come from the office. Did any of these toffs work? Dissipated, watery blue eyes peered out from between the folds of a bloated drinker’s face.

“This is the young filly I was telling you about darling. She’s going to help us with Emma.” Filly? Whatever planet this man lived on it wasn’t in this solar system.

Turning to me he said, “Hang on a mo’. I didn’t arrange to meet you, did I? I thought I was to call you-”

“Your wife’s been trying to get rid-”

“-of any preconceptions she might have of the job,” Lucille cut in smoothly giving me a warning glance and a flash of her baby greens. “I didn’t want her to be under any illusions about what she’s up against.

“Quite right darling, Christ knows none of the quacks have been able to help.”

Jason didn’t have any hangers on like his wife, but his aura was distinctly murky. There was a dash of fear, a sprinkling of confusion and a merest soupcon of something darker that I couldn’t work out. What were these people up to and why the hell was I still even here. But then Henry saw my drink and seized it giving me such a vast refill it sloshed over the top. I saluted Lucille and took my medicine like a good girl to the noisy encouragement of her husband who had an even larger pick-me-up that was all gin and no tonic.

“No point in beating about anybody’s bush is there,” he boomed. “Come on and meet Daisy. She should be awake by now.”

“Jason, I really don’t think this is a good idea. Are you really seriously trying to tell me you think there’s a ghost in the house? That some psychic,” she paused infusing the word with a well-bred distaste and turned to me in mock apology, “sorry Ms Barnet nothing personal, is going to succeed where all the experts have failed?

“It’s Garnett.”

“Excuse me?” I could see the irritation in those sparkling tip-tilted cat’s eyes.

“The name is Garnett. And since I’m already here it couldn’t hurt to take a look now could it?” I smiled sweetly at her enjoying her anger like a fine wine chaser after all that glorious whisky.

“Lead on McDuff,” I said to Henry, “but before you do, get me another whisky will you old chap?”

Love Bites

Lucille and Henry Harper-Hodge’s marriage was, contrary to appearances, in free-fall. She had persuaded him to buy the blood red house in Midnight Falls because by that time she had already planned to kill him.

As a witch she was well aware that Midnight Falls was a haven not just for those practising the dark arts but more importantly for those way past the practising stage. The spell of forgetting would turn most mere humans away and discourage the authorities from asking awkward questions. Black magic involved a small and very select breed of creep willing to go quite that far and Lucille was a girl who would go all the way.

It also explained why the Harper-Hodges lived here. Humans occasionally did and of those that did, most were completely insensitive to the aura of the place. These folk wouldn’t have known they were in a village of weres if one gnawed their leg off and started hitting them over the head with the bloody stump. The others were like Lucille: not only in love with the gothic horror of the place but actively seeking to harness it.

Touching the doll I saw her face; lips moving silently as she pierced the surrogate Henry’s heart with her sewing pin. The after shock of her rage was a flash fire that roared around my skull taking all before it. She had spent a long time out there in the garden under a full moon; casting the spell with infinite care, setting up her unloved one’s death with more malice aforethought than if she’d just taken a gun and shot him in the head. She knew that Midnight Falls of all places gave its inhabitants a free get out of jail card. She had wanted to get away with murder and now she had.

And what I saw through my little glass darkly was not just the why of it, but the how.

It had been the oldest and most obvious reason in the book: good old Henry was fooling around with another woman. You could never really predict how someone would react when you screwed them over (or in this case, someone else) no matter how well you thought you knew them. Spurned wives ran the gamut between cutting out the crotches of their husband’s trousers and cutting off the offending body part itself. You couldn’t even know for sure how you were going to react yourself, until it actually happened. You may think you are a mild mannered sort of girl but then find when push comes to shove that for sheer blood lust, you made Sweeny Todd look like a lily-livered vegetarian powder-puff.

Yes, two-timing a common or garden woman was risky enough, but doing it to a practising black witch was just off the scale.

Poor old Henry. Maybe he hadn’t known his wife was a witch. If he’d been a witch himself that might have given him some protection, even so that was a big maybe. The glass showed me the sad sequence of events and my psychic connection provided the Technicolor and surround sound. The only thing missing had been the pop corn.

The unhappy couple had had another row and he was sitting downstairs in the living room while she was sulking in the kitchen. The telephone rang and he cut across the caller’s shrill tones:

“Yes, I’ve told her. But she already knew about us. I’ve no idea how. Look Tamsin, I’ve done what you wanted me to do and now I’m handling it my way.”

A short silence ensued while he listened to the piercing voice on the other end and then a quickly muttered:

“Yes, yes, me too. I’ve got to go.”

Clearly not very happy with any of the women in his life, he made himself a drink unaware it was to be his last and wondered mindlessly to the window to look out through the French windows to the garden beyond. It was early afternoon, but a hint of the day’s demise was foretold by the darkening grey clouds massing on the horizon. He was tall, blond and a little overweight, trousers fighting a losing battle with the onslaught of his gut. A blond fringe flopped over a florid complexion that was only in part due to the drink he’d already consumed.

He stared, unseeing, out into the garden, until a small movement caught his eye. Attention caught he focussed this time, but nothing untoward materialised. He made to turn away from the window and that was when he heard it: faint, but steadily growing louder the unmistakable sound of an accordion playing a jig. There was something about the music that commanded his attention because he opened the French Windows so he could hear it better. A smile hovered round his lips giving a glimpse of the handsome young man he’d been and that maybe Lucille had even loved; until the rot set in. And then he sealed his own fate: he stepped outside.

The garden was easily a couple of acres at the back and he wandered down its length towards the wood, glass still in hand. He didn’t seem to notice the bitter, freezing wind, or the fact he was in his shirtsleeves. Inane grin in place, he went to his death.

“Please come out. I promise I won’t bite,” he laughed loudly as though it was funny.

The music stopped the instant he spoke:

“Please. Let me see you.”

I wondered what magical compulsion was in the spell and soon got my answer. Three scantily clad young women with rippling long, blond hair and black eyes appeared. They all had an eerie sameness about them as though they had been manufactured from the same mould that tried and failed to simulate humanity, producing instead a vaguely distressing mutation. The bodies were convincing enough: lush and slender in all the right places emphasised by the flimsy white shifts they wore. But the vacuity of the bland formless features held nothing human, nothing that could be reasoned or bargained with and I was reminded of shop mannequins come to disturbing life. Henry didn’t mind in the least, or maybe he hadn’t gotten as far as their faces.

One of the girls giggled, a high pitched, fluting sound and Henry reacted as though he’d been given a sexual charge.

“Please, play your music again. I won’t interfere – much!” he said grinning like a loon. Another giggle and then one of the girls produced an accordion out of nowhere and resumed playing while the other two danced with each other; an incongruously sensual series of movements that sat ill with the old fashioned music that nevertheless had Henry rivetted. But the faint ridiculousness of the scene: the jarring discord between dancers and music; the uncanny Stepford appearance of the women themselves; and the sense that whoever had engineered the scene had got it subtly but distinctly wrong, made it all the more disturbing. There was a nighmarish inevitability about this death dance because that’s what it was. This particular three-headed spider had felt its helpless victim tug on the web and was now moving in for the kill.

One of the women dancing glanced toward Henry and motioned gracefully for him to join them, which he did without a second’s hesitation. No, I had whispered stroking the glass as though that would have made a difference to how it had to end.

Henry threw himself into the dance with delirious abandon and was in the middle of a clumsy, lumbering jig, when the blond with the accordion abruptly stopped. She glided over to him and took hold of the front of his shirt in both hands and pulled sending a spray of buttons in motion and demolishing the last of Henry’s restraint. He began to tear off his clothes making a moaning sound deep in his throat. The women watched him impassive and silent; the mask of humanity discarded with the main event about to unfold. Finally he stood before them stark naked having strewn his clothes carelessly around without so much as a shiver of his ruddy flesh or a doubt in his mind. There was a moment where nothing moved and only the brittle susurration of the wind through the remaining leaves of the trees could be heard.

They fell upon him with claws the size of daggers and fangs the colour of old bone, great gouts of saliva soaking their shifts. They gouged and bit off hunks of his flesh, laughing at his screams and impotent thrashing. After one of the three twisted his leg out of its socket with a wet, tearing sound, he wasn’t able to do so much of that anyway. Just at that point Lucille appeared. She stood as close as she dared and called his name. He managed to turn his head, obviously hoping against hope this might mean rescue. That hope died stillborn when he caught the look on her face which was the last thing he ever saw because that’s when they took his eyes.

I looked away at the sound of sharp claws grinding bone. What I couldn’t shut out was the hysterical screaming and wet ripping sounds as though someone was tearing cloth. The three tore him apart while he lived, literally limb from limb, with a cool, dispassionate competence, careful to protract his suffering. And when he had been reduced to nothing but a slab of mutilated meat with nothing to indicate that it had once been a sentient being with hopes and dreams, whose only crime was to have had a white wedding to a black witch, they let him die.

One by one the creatures drifted off into the trees, white shifts stained black in the dusk and Lucille was left at the scene of the crime where she lingered, savouring the moment.

“You always said women would be the death of you Henry,” she said, smiling. Then she spat on the pitiful remnants, turned on her heel and left him to the infinitely tenderer mercies of the creatures that inhabited the wood at the end of the garden.

Killing Me Softly

The parasite first got my attention when it tried to suck my soul on Edinburgh’s High Street.  I watched with a certain clinical detachment as the grey, ragged substance of it began to swell outwards, misshapen teeth sunk into the exposed flesh in my hand.  Not physically you understand because at this stage in the little bastards evolution it didn’t have a body.  What it did have however, was a will hell bent on finding a way.  It was a doppelganger: a vicious predator that survived by duplicating what it fed on, human or non, it didn’t matter.

I watched it chow on down, lip curling as it began the transformation.  What had been a plume of dirty smoke began to balloon out in a parody of humanity, the skull taking shape, gaping maw still barnacled onto my hand.  I shook the offending appendage from side to side and the beast swung with it, at this stage at least weightless, like a jellyfish in tune with the ebb and flow of the ocean.  What it was really doing was getting in tune with me: the way I walked, to quote an old Cramps song, would soon be the way we walked.

Although it was a primitive spirit, without much in the way of intelligence its ability to replicate whatever it latched onto was an architectural achievement of Gaudi-esque proportions.  Although I suppose strictly speaking it was a master forger good enough to fool the victims family and friends, at least for a little while.  The thing was that the original always died while the copy piloted by the doppelganger, painted the town blood red.

I watched my own skull gaining flesh as the mouth worked ever more feverishly on my arm, siphoning my essence and growing stronger by the second.  Within seconds it had grown to five feet eleven and sported a short crop of hair dyed an alarming shade of scarlet.  I gazed critically at it, vowing I’d kill Mariella for talking me into letting her loose on my hair while we were both too drunk to remember anything about it.  My second self was on its knees, jaw working, gaining mass, solidity and an exact copy of my leopard print fake fur in a matter of seconds.

I began to feel a little faint, although that might have had something to do with the vat of whisky I’d had last night.  It was two in the afternoon in the heart of a frozen November and people shouldered past me with grim purpose and if they noticed anything it would just be a tall young woman standing stock still in the middle of the street.  But through the milling throng, I realised that I was wrong, someone had noticed the freak show and was staring at me with an expression of concern on her plump face.  I knew she could see my new best friend because her eyes were flicking between us and she was evidently deciding what to do.  She took a purposeful step in my direction which for some reason aroused me from my torpor.  The last thing I needed was some idiot who fancied herself as a bit of a psychic trying to help me out.  That particular little parlour game always ended in tears and sometimes in other less disposable body fluids.

I was beside the creepy Museum of Childhood and quickly ducked into on of the innumerable closes that infest the High Street, although I’d no idea which one I’d picked which could be very bad news.  I waited a few seconds scanning the street from the safety of the close and the plump woman had disappeared.  I looked down at the thing that was killing me softly and the increased heft of it wasn’t exactly a good sign.

“What am I going to do with you?” I asked it softly, running my hand along its brow complete with dark eyebrows and strange, silver-grey eyes upturned and fixed on mine while it sucked on me like a monstrous baby.  The disturbing thing was that I could touch it.  It had gone from nothing to something in under ten minutes.  I had noticed that the spirit world had become much more active lately; reports of the demonic had shot through the roof, but relatively unusual spirits like this doppelganger never had this much juice.

And yet here we were.

My speciality was communicating with spirits, but that was a euphemism for so much more.  I saw what they saw, felt what they felt in glorious Technicolor and surround sound.  Most of them were just re-runs, sad little shades who’d become stuck doing a particular, usually random thing with not much mind remaining.  But some of them had deliberately chosen not to pass on, usually the deranged, the ones who’d felt cheated by an uncaring universe and were out for blood as long as it was someone else’s.  But this ‘communication’ meant that some of the spirit’s essence stayed with me permanently and in my own way I wasn’t so dissimilar to the parasite I was trying to dislodge.

With every encounter, I was stronger, changed, carrying with me another alien piece in the vast jig-saw puzzle that was my life.  And if I didn’t stop this transference process in time I would consume the spirit totally, just as the parasite was trying to consume me.  That meant that I could kill pure spirit, whether it was the soul of a dead person, or my newest little friend that had become so attached to me.  But I could only kill if I was stronger than the spirit I was siphoning and so far I had been lucky: if you could call the Frankenstein patchwork that I’d become lucky.  Because make no mistake: you are what you eat and the bad shit I’d consumed lately was going to do more than harden my arteries.

“While I’m loving this whole weird twin thing,” I crooned to the thing stroking its/my hair, “the thing is, this town definitely ain’t big enough for the both of us and it’s not me who’s going to leave.”  The doppelganger began to purr, a wet, rasping sound and I staggered against the wall of the close.  A chill wind fresh from whipping up mischief in the North Sea nipped at my face reviving me slightly and  I realised I was close to passing out.  My lack of adrenalin was literally going to be the death of me one day soon.

But the seduction of the hunt was as ever too strong and I knew I’d risk everything for it.  Sometimes I wasn’t sure what I liked best: the hunt; or the kill.  That was the other prong of this wonderful talent I enjoyed so much: I could kill spirit so that it did not exist anywhere on any plane at any time.  It was the reason the psychic community shunned me because they felt, rather wetly I thought, that all forms of existence were sacred.  I shunned them because a) I had to keep my end up on the shunning front and b) I thought they were lily livered liberals and would personally liked to have inserted their own little doppelganger passenger in an intimate part of their anatomy for a few months to see if that changed their minds.  Whatever they liked to believe, there were beings in this world that deserved the kiss of death that only I could give them.  But I didn’t do it for the victims; no, I did it because I liked it.  Without wanting to sound like a high school cheerleader with a profound punning disability, the thrill of the chase was to die for.  As long as the thrill was mine and someone or something else did the dying.

Now I was about to find out what little doppelgangers were made of and if I survived I’d wear its skin next to mine.

Until the next hunt that is.

Staying Alive

It had begun in a vast, flat landscape, a monochrome of dark and light under a leaden sky.  This is where it was made: where the hunger had sparked into life by a beaten track because someone had bled and died.   The next life was taken by force, and then the next and then the next until the entity began to have shape and form, like a pearl formed from grit.

Locals, human and animal alike, began to avoid the spot and so it languished for a time; the life it had stolen beginning to leach back from whence it came.  But the entity was not beaten so easily.  If the prey would not  come to it, it would go to the prey.

And so the hunt began.

In time it reached the city and stalked the streets taking the old, the sick, the unwary.  But even this was not enough and its wants became more capricious and cruel.  It failed to notice the spirits that followed it: a silent army of sad revenants that grew with each passing day.

This was a night much like any other and it cruised the High Street for a likely victim.  A young man with wild, curly hair wearing only a long leather coat with no top underneath emerged from Mary King’s Close.  He looked furtively about him a couple of times and then stared directly at the entity.  Most people did not have the eyes to see, not until it was too late.

The young man smiled and beckoned, pointing behind him into the murk of Mary King’s Close.  Emboldened by the rush of the hunt, it did as it was bid.   A door slammed shut and someone laughed, a thin, gurgling sound.

Still unconcerned the entity sought out the life force of the young man finding nothing but the taste of grave, a faint odour of corruption.  There was nothing of life here.

“We’ve come for you,” said a watery voice as though talking through only partially formed vocal chords.  “We’ve come for the lives you stole.”

“Yes,” another voice wheezed and the entity recognised the owner was trying to laugh,

“You could say we want our lives back.”

Dead Head

The thing in the hall slithered closer to the living room door and I pulled the covers over my head trying to blot out the noise and pretend everything was all right.

Muffled noise insinuated itself into my cloth sanctuary; a voice perhaps, or maybe the scrape of claws on the floorboards. I listened intently: nothing that I could make sense of. Maybe it had gone away. Something hit my shoulder with a painful thud and I ignored that too, burrowing deeper into the nest I’d made on the couch. The room was freezing, despite the fact that my central heating had been cranked up to tropical.

A child’s giggle next to my ear almost cracked my resolve, but good things never came of that, so I huddled harder, willing whatever it was to go away. I should never have done that ouja session when I was pissed last night. I had done some stupid things in my life but this, this made moronic a state I could only aspire to with no hope of actually achieving. I risked peeking out and saw it was snowing outside, lending the darkened room a faint luminescence. A concentrated yet flickering spot of darkness appeared in the middle of the room and the hackles went up on the back of my neck. Another giggle devoid of humour hung in the arctic air and I could see my breath streaming from me in plumes as though trying to escape.

“Rose,” it whispered, echoes reverberating round the room as though we were in a vast cave rather than a small tenement flat in Edinburgh. How it knew my name, I’d no idea. The sound of someone walking through the room, feet striking the floor boards hard assaulted my ears, but there was no one there. No one apart from me and the spirit and whatever it had brought with it. I could make out the faint gleam of my mobile in the gloom and if I’d had someone to call, I would’ve.

“Rosieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” a child’s voice sing-songed. The duvet was pulled off me with sharp tug and I shivered in the pre-doom gloom from nerves or hangover, I didn’t know any more.

The doppelganger

She’s walking along the Bridges, hair glinting like copper wire in the December sun, unaware that by the time she reaches the High Street she is as good as dead.  Although dead would be better than what’s waiting for her, literally just around the corner.  The fact that she’s got no choice in the matter is an irony sweet enough to suck on, because she has herself been Chosen.  Through every fault of her own, she’s come top of the stupid-cow-born-to-be-a-victim Hit Parade and she’ll get hers, make no mistake.

Heading down the High Street now the bitch actually has a jaunty spring in her step so it is definitely time to decide which part of her to latch onto.  It’s a big decision and well worth taking time over. She’s pretty well rugged up but the face is naked (flesh is best), and what a young, open face it is, all freckles and big brown eyes, now squinting against the low slung sun, oblivious to everything but the rut of her small, nothing life.  She’s so thick that she has no idea what’s about to hit her.  The fact is she’s being given an honour she doesn’t deserve by becoming a member of a very select and exclusive club.  She is after all only human.  But looking on the bright side, all of that humanity can be rinsed away like blood and matter down the plug hole: the hideous boyfriend; the dreary friends she never really liked; and that appalling record collection mostly consisting of some little dwarf called Prince.  Well the victim formerly known as Jane was herself going to be renamed if she played her cards wrong.

The steady pulse of her life force ebbs and flows and the intimacy of this moment is so profound it feels raw, exposed, like being flayed alive by a true connoisseur of the craft.  It will take time to replicate this girl down to the last eyelash but when it’s finally done, the simulacrum will stalk the world; spirit made flesh while the so-called ‘real’ Jane lies rotting somewhere, anywhere.  This dance has been done so many times, the names, faces, identities of the Chosen have blurred, become a composite making up a greater whole, superior in every way that counts.  Oh, some of her so-called friends might notice some improvements to the original model, true, but that is a risk worth taking.  Most of them would assume she’d just changed, maybe even coming up with entertaining hypotheses on those dismal nights out down the pub about why that would be.  But whatever they decided, it wouldn’t change the script and they’d do what humans always did with anything they couldn’t quite grasp: pretend they did.

But at some point the new body always destroyed itself, as though responding to an alarm call that could not be bargained with or shut down.  And so it would begin again in a never-ending cycle and yes, the club became a little less exclusive with the passage of time as more and more members swelled its ranks.  For now though, the girl’s essence is like fine wine coursing through veins soon-to-be-made flesh and her blind instinct to survive makes her malleable.

What was the legend humans told about this?  Ah yes: if you met your doppelganger, or double, you would surely die.  True in a way, but not the whole truth.  But what could you expect from creatures who were only fit to be food.  Doppelgangers were as far above humans in the evolutionary chain as humans were to amoebas.  Like a pupa emerging from its chrysalis, I begin to remember myself and the rebirth begins.  And in the act of naming, the ‘I’ becomes separate from yet connected to her.  At least for now.

Like a drunk on the stroke of New Year poised for an unsought kiss, my mouth extends wider, wider, until her face is covered by it and the hooks slide into the tender meat in a movement that is almost sexual, although I cannot feel such a thing, not yet anyway.  In the time spent between the Chosen after the last body has worn out, most of the vices of the living are quickly forgotten, until the next one of course.  She continues walking, although she stumbles slightly and I feel her brief moment of nausea.

I delve deeper, deeper into the bare essentials of her, until I am she and she is me and we are Jane.

She is shopping for ingredients for a meal she’s going to make for her boyfriend Tom.  It’s a complicated vegetarian curry, because Tom’s a veggie and she wants to surprise him with what she can do if she really tries.  She’s been thinking about going veggie herself because he’s always going on and on about how her eating habits are ‘an affront to any right-minded person’.  He’s probably right and anyway if they’re going to spend the rest of their lives together, a little compromise goes a long way.  Besides, tonight’s the night and she’s going to ask him to move in so they can be a proper couple.  He’s been a bit distant recently and she did wonder for a bit if he was having an affair, but he’d never do that to her.  Not her Tom.  They just need to spend more time together that’s all.

I absorb her thoughts about tonight although her mind barely registers the violation, like a stone skiffing the smooth surface of a pond.  She feels a surge of brief but intense panic as though something terrible has happened, but she can’t think what it is.  Shush my pet, my darling, everything’s fine, no need to worry about a thing.  And after I refine her thoughts a little, divert them into more exciting channels, she does shush, starting to feel a little better.  Pretty soon she’s verging on perky, giggling even, as a thought comes out of nowhere accompanied by an sense of ineffable rightness with the world.

She can’t believe she didn’t see it before, but, she could really turn this Tom situation around and have some fun for a change.  Why not give the fat tosser a gourmet meal of iron filings; a playful reminder that he really shouldn’t be two-timing her with that raddled old tart from down the road?  A wavering smile, not entirely her own, lifts the corners of her mouth causing an old woman passing by to smile in return.  If only she knew.

Yes, iron filings, that should do the job nicely.  Compared to the revolting swill he usually ate, she wouldn’t be surprised if he begged for seconds.  And let’s not forget, the cheap, meat-dodging bastard was always looking for new ways to supplement the iron in his diet.

And that was where I stepped out of the doppelganger’s thoughts and back into my own.  Momentarily disorientated, I watched Jane saunter ahead down the Royal Mile with the doppelganger swinging gently from her face.

Who am I?  Well, that’s a good question and most days I’m not sure I know the answer.  My name though is Rose Garnett and I’m a stealer of souls.  By the time I’m finished with the doppelganger, it won’t be doubling up on anyone anytime soon.

Enter The Ghoul

The next job was what I had pegged as a ghoul haunting in a cemetery in Liberton, on the southern outskirts of the city.  The man that I needed to see, Keith Morrison worked for the council and had been tasked with the upkeep of the cemetery and obviously wished that he hadn’t.  He thought the problem was Satanists digging up the stiffs for fun and not tidying them away again once they’d had it, like naughty children with their dolls.  This meant corpses in various states of decomposition lying around in the churchyard and municipal cemetery.  The stiffs in the churchyard had been put there over one hundred and fifty years ago, but the ones in the adjoining municipal cemetery were of much more recent vintage and caused the most upset to the lucky folk who found them in the morning.  It must have been bad for a coonsel employee to be willing to meet me at the week-end.  Wonders would never cease.

They’d tried to set up cameras and recording equipment, but nothing electrical would work for some reason.  The police had kept watch for a few months but it was simply to expensive and draining on man power to keep this up and naturally nothing was discovered during the time they did have.  Aside from some vandalism in and around the Kirk, more serious incidents befell two unlucky coppers resulting in them both having to be treated in the city’s nuthouse, the Royal Edinburgh.  Nearest I could tell, they were still there.  And that’s when the rumour mill started grinding in overtime because the actual details had been deliberately withheld.  The word was though that at least one copper had disappeared and that was why they pulled the plug until they could come up with a better plan.  Some brave civvy souls volunteered to keep watch and some garbled tales of dancing corpses came out but this was dismissed as sensationalism or nutters looking for attention.  The locals apparently thought it was a Hell’s Angels gang and wouldn’t go near the place reasoning that if the police couldn’t catch the culprits the Angels were welcome to their own particular brand of Hell.

I’d read about it in the Scotsman and called the council and that was how Keith’s and my relationship had started.  Naturally I didn’t tell him what my crack-pot theory was, just that I was private investigator who was willing to stay up all night to see what was happening.  Keithie-boy was at the end of his tether having his boss riding him about the negative publicity and the cost to the tax-payer and was more than happy to contract that particular little job out to a free-lancer because he sure as hell didn’t fancy a go.

While most of my business came from word of mouth, I got the most interesting jobs by scanning the papers and net on a daily basis.  It also meant I got a wide variety of work, sometimes very high profile too.  Folk while in denial about what was actually going on (there must be a reasonable, scientific explanation surely Miss Garnett) were quite happy to give me the go ahead if I told them I could fix it, whatever it might turn out to be helped along by a raft of testimonials from satisfied customers.  The trick was to keep your trap shut and just do the work.  If they wanted to believe I was a PI rather than a one woman psychic clear up crew, that was fine by me as long as it paid the rent.  And it did, comfortably thank you for not asking.

I drove out to Liberton and parked in a side street next to the Kirk.  This was a once wealthy little suburb judging from the size of the stone built Victorian villas with their massive windows and even bigger gardens.  The Kirk sat atop a hill from which the skyline of the city could be seen, the hulking bulk of Arthur’s Seat a constant reminder of Edinburgh’s volcanic past.  What I was worried about was the equally volatile present.  The supernatural activity in the city had been building steadily for as long as I’d been here, which was my whole life.

I had always thought that Edinburgh’s hag-ridden spiritual state was because it had started out as a volcanic plug spewed up from the belly of a bilious god.  The fortress built on top gave great view, but wasn’t so hot at being impregnable, so the inhabitants got to see death coming in whatever shape or form it fancied.  Instead of choosing life and moving the hell away from such a god-forsaken spot, they chose long-drawn out, diseased, disgusting death.  And what a choice that turned out to be.  Edinburgh gave birth to the first slum high rises in the world ringed around by city walls just to make sure they built up instead of out and the inhabitants died in their droves, hemmed in by the confines of their assiduously built stone girdle.  But hey, no one loves a fat baby.

Sheol was piled upon Gehenna as one hovel was built upon the next with the spaces in between serving as hot and cold running sewers.  These triumphs of human desperation were built so close to their neighbours, a flea shouldn’t have been able to pass in between them, but they did anyway and brought plague and pestilence to the party.  In the end, whole streets were bricked up to try to contain the amorous attentions of whatever microbe came courting.  In this particular combat, those who were about to die were too busy retching to keep down a last hearty meal, never mind having the space to salute.

But that only served to make them more determined and still they built, up and up and up, as though trying to clear the stench of the sewers from their nostrils or perhaps to get closer to a god that didn’t believe in them any more.  But still the walled city endured, testament to a confused but indomitable drive to survive no matter how great the suffering, how high the price.  And then, when they had gone as high as they could go, leeching the light from the cold rain-filled sky, they started scrabbling at the soft sandstone ridge the city precariously perched on and burrowed down.  Lo and behold, Hell on earth, above and below.  The crush of the souls who had died in this rabbit warren, transformed it into an underground necropolis and it became an albatross around the neck of anyone with the slightest sensitivity to such things.  The weight of the world indeed.

As I walked into the cemetery I pushed these thoughts aside, not without effort, and plastered a smile on my face to greet Keith, who turned out to be a nervous ferrety little man, with the grey skin of the chronic smoker and wisps of hair he for some reason kept long, giving him an unkempt appearance.  Liberton Kirk was an impressive building with a bell that dated, so my charming companion told me, from 1747.  It’s grandeur was in keeping with the houses, but there was something decayed and forlorn about the place, or maybe that was just the mood I was in.  The stone it had been built with was dark and the tall, square, tower wore a crenellated crown, the pinnacles of which pierced a jaundiced sky.  The red doors were bright against the darkness and gloom of the day and I knew it for what it was: a place of power.  You often found with churches, that the spot on which they were built had been used by human kind since time immemorial and it hadn’t surprised me to learn from Keith in one of our innumerable telephone conversations that a Celtic place of worship had been built there in the ninth century (always the ninth).

All in all, the Kirk was a brooding Gothic presence, an impression enhanced by the Kirk-yard dotted with the tombs of the once high and mighty, now laid low under the emerald green turf, the Great and the Good broken down into worm food.  Shelley’s Ozymandias sprang unbidden to my mind, so I shoved it away quickly, pushing away memories of a school-bedevilled childhood not enhanced by the force-feeding of so called culture.

That’s when I noticed the clean up job.  The tombs, most of them anyway had been broken and put back together, but like Humpty Dumpty, not altogether successfully.  The repair work left scars across the old stonework like botched plastic surgery.  The red arched doorways of the Kirk gleamed like the baleful red eyes of a predator that was tracking you for now but couldn’t quite be bothered to finish you off.

Keith pointed behind him, “The cemetery is to the north-west of here and we haven’t gotten around to repairs yet, if you want to see that.  We’ve managed to rebury the bodies from yesterday though,” he rubbed his eyes and I saw how tired and sick of it he was.  I couldn’t blame him either.  Hell of a way to spend your week-end and I couldn’t imagine he was getting paid anything like nearly enough for this shit.

“Thing is,” he went on nervously, “the police said they put the place under surveillance, but I don’t believe they went through with it.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well I think they got more than they bargained for and decided to cut their losses.  Without admitting it publicly of course, no, that would never do.  After those two policemen went, you know, gaga” he made a circle with his finger next to his ear, “and the one that disappeared, I reckon they decided to pull out and pretend everything was hunky dory.  Leave it to some other sucker to sort.”

“Mm-hmm.  That’s how it works Mr Morrison-”

“Keith, call me Keith, please,” he said.

“Rose,”  I smiled and stuck out my hand, which he took in a crushing vice-like grip belying the fragility of his appearance.  Men often did that though, the bone crusher thing having been told that strength of grip was a measure of man-hood.  Never made sense to me, but that was men for you.  I wasn’t a man-hater, oh no. I was an equal opportunity misanthrope and disliked both sexes with just the same zeal.

It was gone two o’clock and a searing, sniping wind had sprung fully armed out of nowhere.  The light  was already draining from the sky and it would be dark by four thirty.

Keith shivered and pulled his old parka tighter, but I didn’t think it was the cold he was trying to keep out.

“I uh, I wanted to meet you Rose, because I’m not very happy about a young girl like you spending the night here alone.  If there’s trouble you won’t be able to count on the locals, that’s for sure.  Hear no evil, see no evil, that’s them all right,” he said peevishly.

“You were probably also wanting to be sure I wasn’t some kind of crack-pot who’d do more harm than good,” I smiled.  He started to protest but I cut him off.

“It’s fine.  In my line of work, that comes with the territory.  Have the police really left you to your own devices?”  I was always fascinated by the authorities supernatural denial and ability to ignore everything that didn’t fit.

“Oh aye,” he said nodding sagely and from the thawing in his manner it seemed he had decided I wasn’t a crack-pot after all and from the looks of me could probably look after myself.  “That about sums it up.  They said they had no leads, but d’you know what I think?  I think they were frightened out their wits,” he spat the last word and I wondered how many hours of his life he’d wasted trying to get them to finish the job.  “You know what they suggested?  They actually had the cheek to suggest we use “a little self help”,  Can you believe it?”

Actually that was the one rule I had in the world: believe anything.

“So let me get it straight,” I said, “bodies are being dug up at night and left lying around.  They get re-buried just to be dug back up.  We don’t actually know for sure what the full story is because you’re not convinced anyone’s actually surveilled the place properly.  Right?

“It’s worse than that,” he said.

“Worse?  Worse how?”

“A fair few look like they’ve been arranged.  Some in, well, if you’ll pardon me saying, pornographic poses, well what’s left you understand.  Some as though they’d been having a tea party.  Others look like they’ve been hurled around the place, you know bits of them have to be recovered from the furthest away parts of the cemetery up by.  It’s not right.  Not right at all.  You know I think it’s them Satanists.  You read about them and you know, what they do and either no one takes them seriously, or thinks it’ll happen in their back yard.  Well, it’s bloody well happened!  Sorry, shouldn’t use such language, but I’m at my wits end with this.”

Since I wasn’t sure how far Keith’s wits stretched, or my own for that matter, I wasn’t sure what this meant.  It was clear though he was scared and not just because of the way his eyes kept darting around the bone-yard as though hoping to keep whatever it was at bay if he concentrated hard enough.

“I have to tell you I don’t to be here much longer Rose.  It’ll be dark soon and I’m still not convinced about you being here either.  I’m not so sure this is a good idea.”

I could see he was genuinely concerned, but concern was struggling with his need for a solution, even the promise of one.  It had gone beyond his job: this was an obsession, a need to know what the hell was going on.  A nice change from the usual run of the mill humanity which just wanted to bury their collective head in the sand.  And that of course was why he was here on a Saturday.

“Nonsense.  I’ll do it from a safe distance,” I lied.  I was going to wrap myself up and sit in the Kirk-yard until something showed if it took me all night.  I loved this part of it, never knowing what was going to come crawling out of the bear-pit until it was upon me.  The thrum of power from the site ebbed and flowed as though it was alive, an insectile humming meant for my ears only.  What sweet music we could make together.

“Besides,” I went on, “I think I can solve the problem for you.”

“But how when the police have failed-”

“Leave that to me.  By the way Keith, do you by any chance know what  the name Liberton means?”  I’d learned very early on that you sometimes picked up a clue or two if you asked about the history of the place.

“Nearest anyone can say is that it was a leper colony.  You know, Leper Town.”

I did ask.


I drove back to my flat in Viewforth Gardens in the Bruntsfield area of town and bounded up the communal stairs to the very top.  After a few hours of snoozing on the couch I had a massive and intensely satisfying fry up consisting of dead animals and burned fat, washed down with two mugs of strong tea reviving body and mind.  One  hot shower later, I put on every thermal piece of underwear in my possession topped with further layers of wool and cotton.  Shoving my feet into my most comfortable pair of biker boots I slipped into a fleeced, wadded overcoat that normally I wouldn’t be seen dead in.  Hopefully this proud tradition would continue and I wouldn’t be seen dead in it tomorrow morning in the boneyard.  It was my stake-out gear and I prepared a flask of strong coffee laced with sugar to keep me awake.  I also took a couple of ham sandwiches I’d picked up earlier but hadn’t worked up the enthusiasm to eat and crammed them into my capacious right hand pocket.  No doubt I’d need all the energy I could get, so I took the box of doughnuts that had I hadn’t touched and were going stale.

My flat looked out over the Firth of Forth and since it was now dark the twinkling lights of Fife reminded me of all the other souls out there going about the business of life and death each in his or her own little rat-run.  Stripped wooden floors ran throughout it topped by Persian rugs.  Furniture was minimalist but comfortable and the walls were dominated by art-works I’d collected over the years ranging from Bacon to Munch, to Schiele.
The very select few who’d ever seen my bower of bliss all informed me that the effect was disturbing in the extreme, but it was soothing to my wicked little soul and that’s what mattered.  It was my bedroom that I loved the most.  It was a large room dominated by a four poster with curtains and matching duvet decked in crimson and black peonys.  I had the urge as I always did to crawl in and pull the curtains but as I’d had a witch acquaintance put a sleep spell on it that wasn’t surprising.  I caught sight of a pale young woman at the foot of my bed, wringing her hands and crying.  She looked at me with narrowed eyes and an expression curiously close to dislike.

It was a new ghost, which was slightly unsettling but I didn’t have any time to do anything about her now.  Some of us had work to do.

At around midnight, I made sure I had my emergency kit: holy water (it worked on the beasties that believed in it); a generous selection of stakes (you never knew when you’d need on ‘til you needed one); flashlight and matches; a Hand of Glory; mobile phone in the front pocket of my chunky, flannel shirt; and lastly an old Celtic amulet found in the ancient burial ground at Cairnpapple, West Lothian.  It depicted a Celtic cross and a figure standing at a crossroads with a staff held aloft as though in salute.  Like all my stuff, I had got it on the black market and it would have to be prised from my cold, dead hands before I’d give it up.  Dull bronze in colour it wasn’t pretty, but it protected the wearer from harm and directed it back from whence it came.  Not infallible, but it had saved my bacon many a time.  I specialised in getting hold of various dodgy items that Ruby and her ‘community’ would have damned me for, if I hadn’t already been beyond redemption.  It gave my hunts a little edge, because I didn’t always know how they would perform.

Cursing as I manoeuvred my little Mini around an Astra that had double parked beside the car in front of me I then made my way back out to the sticks and toward whatever waited for somewhere out there in the dark.

I headed south, urban sprawl gradually giving way to suburban slump.  Actually that was unfair because it was a pleasant enough drive through the posh Morningside area of town and along the golf-course ridden Braid Hills Road, revelling in its superiority over the city sprawled beneath.   When I got there I dumped the car in Kirkgate pulled out the keys to the cemetery gates and checked my hip flask was fully equipped and firmly ensconced.  Satisfied I had all the essentials, I hefted the bag that contained my illicit in-case-of kit.  It was freezing and my breath escaped in plumes before being swallowed up by the dark.  Despite the fact that this was a populous area, there were few signs of night life and the Kirk was set back from the main road with a fair bit of land as a buffer protecting it from unwanted hustle and bustle.  Only the occasional car went by, but no pedestrian traffic that I could see.

An owl hooted and to celebrate the cliché I took a hefty belt of Talisker from my hip flask and laid my bag none to carefully in front of the door in the square tower.  I carefully opened it and slipped the vials of holy water into my pockets and then selected a stake, testing the sharpened tip against my finger which drew blood, as I had intended.

I gingerly picked the Hand of Glory out of the bag, wrinkling my nose against the smell and placed it on the grass beside the nearest tomb to the Kirk.  The miasma that surrounded the Kirk seemed to dim the street lights and I needed to hold my small flashlight in my mouth as I worked.  The tomb had what looked like a cross between a gargoyle and a screaming human head and the shadows moving across it from the bobbing light, made it seem as though the figures were animated with a life of their own.

The Hand of Glory was the hand of a murderer cut down from the gibbet and then worked over by a black magic practitioner.  A milky sheen emanated from it as though it had its own light source and the fingertips all contained candle wicks which I was trying to light with the matches.  It took me a few goes because the cold made me slow and clumsy, then the wicks fizzed with light like a child’s sparkler and started to burn down the digits which began to melt as though they were indeed made of wax.

The Hand was supposed to be used for sending people to sleep, the idea being you left it in a house and the occupants would either fall or stay in an enchanted sleep from which they wouldn’t wake.  But like most folk tales it was only partially true.  Sleep was a euphemism for death and the owner of the Hand could kill his or her chosen victim merely by placing it nearby.  But what I hunted wasn’t human so I was betting the Hand wouldn’t affect it in that way.  My theory was that whatever was haunting the place would be attracted to the stench of death in much the same was as it was attracted to the cemetery.  This was my lure, my latest new and awful toy.  I was hoping it would prove so irresistible that whatever it was would reveal itself.  That was The Plan, what actually would happen was anyone’s guess.  As I walked away, it pulsed with a green-tinged gaseous life, magic awoken and eager to do its stuff.

Ghouls were very much alive and I couldn’t siphon them.  Or at least I hadn’t tried, but they were so low down on the evolutionary scale that I’d been never been remotely tempted.  So it would have be another method tonight.  At least that meant it might not sense me straight away.  I walked around the tombs aware of the cemetery on the north side of the Kirk like a physical space in my head.  I thought, against all logic, that the action was going to take place here among the older, grander graves.  Frost had slimed an obsessive trail over ground and grave alike and the glow of the Hand lit the tomb it guarded with an eerie, flickering light.  I could still see it out the corner of my eye as I walked around the old yew tree, a lurking black mass picked out only at the last minute by the sickly beam of my torch.

I took a healthy swig of Talisker, unable to face the coffee yet.  I’m always at peace in these places, down amongst the dead.  Very few ghosts haunt where they’re buried, most having better places to be: the ones they haunted in life, or where they had a particularly vivid memory and didn’t fade as they did, just before they slipped off the edge into the void of whatever is Next.  And don’t ask, because I don’t know anymore than anyone else.  Not until I get there myself of course.  But what I did know had been seen through a glass darkly and had nothing to recommend it as far as I was concerned.  The idea of eternal life in one form or another scared the shit out of me.  Imagine lingering as a breath of wind or the spray on the waves like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid: truly immortal, but doomed to live in a form of your choosing, forced to go in true Beckettian fashion:  I can’t go on.  Ah fuck it.

After countless circuits of the Kirk-yard more to keep warm than anything else, my hip-flask was considerably lighter and as I passed by, I noticed the Hand’s fingers had burned right down almost to the knuckles.  There were many cross currents of power in this place pulling this way and that, like being caught in a strong undertow.  Where the hell was this thing and when was going to deign to make an appearance?

On drunken impulse, I closed my eyes and reached out with that well-spring of power that I had that honed in on the dead.  I thought of it as a dead-light because that’s literally what it was, like an enormously powerful torch that sought out and sucked in the dead things that hadn’t had the sense to get the hell on with the afterlife.  I didn’t usually leave myself open like this because all manner of undesirables came calling.  I used the dead-light for specific spirits, not just a general trawl through a murky necropolis like I was doing now.  It was akin to going out and leaving the door wide open and a trail of goodies leading up to it: an open invitation to anyone who fancied their luck.  The dead-light played over ground and grave in an interplay of pale motes of light above and below ground, searching probing for any blip on the radar.  Nothing.  Because this part of the graveyard was so old and with no recent burials, my sense of the dead was faint, wavering, like a faltering morse code.  This was because most of the souls had passed on and the remnants were like specks of a partial consciousness that wasn’t aware of itself.

The dark draw of the Kirk wrapped itself around me and I was painfully aware of its slumbering presence, the slumbering reservoir of power that dwelt here and fed on human worship.  These sacred places to humankind were bottomless pools of unfocussed power just waiting to be channeled by someone or something that had the knous and ability to do it.  But it was not the quarry I was after and it didn’t stir itself as though oblivious or indifferent to what was happening to the bodies of the faithful that inadvertently nourished it with every act of worship they ever performed.  Nothing was ever wasted and the raw energy generated by the worship of an absentee land-lord was always going to be food for some other spirit not too fussy to take another’s leavings.

After yet another unproductive tour of the bone-yard, my death-adapted eye hit the jack-pot.  A cross shaped grave-stone ten yards away from the Kirk shimmered with a queasy green tinged glow as though it had been slimed by a giant phosphorescent slug.  As I got closer, a great waft of a ferocious, insatiable appetite rose up like a wall; a blind, sickening tsunami of want that could never be satisfied, a black hole with a connoisseur’s taste for pain that couldn’t be sated.  Like the doppelganger, the evil spirits of this world and the next all wanted the same thing: blood and pain equal measures.  Personally I could see the attraction, but more to the point, it told me that this was the spot as surely as if it had been marked with a large X.

Checking there was no sign of movement, I walked carefully over, knelt down and started to brush the snow away around the base and, pulling my gloves off, started to feel around the ground.  It was frustrating and slow work but I was being driven by something more compelling than mere sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.  Death vision, some called it; I didn’t care about the semantics, I just wanted the damn thing to work.  After scrabbling around and getting nothing but numb hands, I felt an indentation in the ground.  Running my fingers around the groove in the turf, it was a rough oval about a metre and a half across.  It was no use though, no amount of heaving would pry it loose.  Not in the time-frame I had to work to.

I turned the little flashlight onto my watch: two o’ clock in the morning and it looked like it was going to be another ghoul free night, as Crystal Gayle might have sang if she’d had a funky death sense like mine to play with.  Big fat flakes of snow began to fall as I headed back towards the Kirk to get the Hand and I knew I was wasting my time right up until the moment I heard a low warning growl and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention like the good little soldiers they were not.

Not expecting to see much because of its size, I swung my flashlight right and left and just behind an ornate square tomb got that unmistakable glint you get from animals eyes, an unnerving, demonic cast that surely man’s best friend ought not to have.  I hated dogs, always had.  Probably because they hated me back and a fair few had tried to kill me when I was young as though they knew I was a bad seed, something unnatural that was better off dead and they were the devil-dog to do it.

“Easy boy,” I said, walking towards it, hoping the tone was friendly.  Again the thing growled, a low, rolling noise that gathered itself into a snapping snarl.  After that first sighting of the eyes, I couldn’t find it again, as though it had dematerialised.  Except I could hear it panting as though it had run a long way.  I moved the torch around, searching among the tomb stones and was rewarded with nothing but the pointless stone and marble tributes to stiffs long gone and some scrubby trees.  The snow was falling thick and fast now and I had a better idea.  There was light covering of the stuff that made it easier to see and crept slowly round to where I’d seen the eyes.

It was a particularly ugly tomb I couldn’t help noticing.  A skeleton and some incomprehensible Victorian message that probably hadn’t made sense when the late, great Charles Henderson had been laid to his intermittent rest.  Still, at least he’d been a loving husband.  I had always thought they should have inscribed what the person had actually been like in life.  Here lies Charles Henderson, wife beater and adulterer to the end.  Here lies Mary Graham, to those who knew her slut, liar and above all else, thief.  I’m always being told that honesty’s the best policy except of course when it comes to the dead.

That spine tingling growl again, more of a warning this time, but I still couldn’t tell where the hell it was because it seemed behind me now.  Going on nothing but sheer stupidity I extended my gloved left hand behind the tomb near the ground holding the torch in my right where I’d seen the eyes and a something with teeth clamped down on it and a ferocious snarling ensued.  The teeth pierced my coat and from the sharp pain I knew it had pierced my skin as well, although even with the benefit of the torch I couldn’t see what was biting me: it was as though it was invisible.  And the damned thing wouldn’t let go.  I tried to think about what I knew about dog psychology and came up with nothing.  If it was a pit bull or some such, didn’t they hang on until the bitter end?

But it hadn’t made a full frontal attack, it had responded to me invading its space, so maybe if I wasn’t so stupid as to offer myself as a midnight snack I might avoid getting another chunk taken out of me.  I didn’t have a weapon, not the conventional kind anyway, because that didn’t do any good with the beasties I went after.  All this silver shot shit just pissed them off and rest assured you wouldn’t live to regret that one.  The initial shock had worn off and the arm was beginning to throb.  I tried to withdraw the arm and it growled and shook its head tearing further into the meat of me.

“Drop,” I hissed impotently, cursing my own ineptitude.  My arm had crossed through some sort of barrier and the dog hadn’t been visible except in that brief flash.  The dog wasn’t dead but it was in a space usually occupied by the dead and I hadn’t a clue why that should be or how it was possible.  An intense dizziness assailed me and thought I was going to pass out or vomit.  I remembered the ham sandwiches, put the pencil sized flashlight between my teeth and scrabbled around as the dog shook my arm like a terrier with a bone.  The problem was that the bone in question happened to be mine and still attached, at least for now.  I tried to get the wrapping off one handed and it fell to the ground.  I cursed loudly if incomprehensibly round the confines of the light and tried to kick the packet in the dog’s direction.  With a nauseous rush it let go and slavering, snarling noises followed as it fought with my foil wrapped snack.

I couldn’t see a damned thing and the arm started to really throb.  I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to last the night at this rate.  My dead-lights surged up against the barrier that clearly my hand could cross, but my eyes couldn’t.  The snow was being whipped by a vicious east wind into my face and if anything, I could see less.  But then I started to make out a large shape lying on the ground to the side of the tomb and then those eyes.  Angry, suspicious red eyes above snapping jaws tearing through the foil and devouring the meat beneath, just like it had done to my arm.  God, I hated these beasts.  Whoever christened them mans’ best friend hadn’t spent quality time with this particular specimen.

I saw the faint outline of something going from the dog’s neck into the ground.  I made out a huge shaggy head with a torn ear attached to the dark mass of its trunk ending in massive paws crowned with wicked, curved claws as though it hadn’t walked for a long time and the claws had grown apace.  It looked starved and its coat was bedraggled and patchy.  Because it wasn’t fully in our world the snow didn’t fall on it and it lay imprisoned by the cord around it’s neck.  I could see what looked like barbed wire around the makeshift collar so if it pulled to tight, the barbs would enter its flesh.  And the dark pool beside the creature that I hadn’t initially noticed seemed to be coming from a gaping wound in its side through which I could clearly see bone, ribs to be exact.  Now that I looked there seemed to be something wrong with one of its eye, which wept some gungy mucus type substance.  The beast seemed on its last legs despite the ferocity of the attack and the chain securing it meant it was not in a position to chase after me and finish what it had started.

It looked suddenly up and to the side of me, good eye opened wide as if in fear and that was the only warning I had before the rotten decapitated head clipped mine with a dull thunk, leaving a sticky residue on my forehead.  The head, eyes and nose long gone, appeared to be thrown for the dog as it landed right beside it.  But the beast, while clearly starving resolutely ignored it and there was something about its demeanour that made me think it was angry, offended, as though it was a sentient being capable of such things.  Fanciful nonsense of course.  But enough of the dog, what had thrown the head?  An arm sailed by next landing next to the head, so rotted it was almost completely skeletal and from what I could see, with most of its bones missing.

It was as the leg was being hefted my way I began to think the thrower couldn’t see me and that this was for the dog’s benefit.  A high pitched chittering came from other end of the Kirkyard, near the gate where I’d come in accompanied by the sound of frenzied digging.  The dog raised its head in the direction of the noise and stared, growling softly, showing a flash of fang.  On impulse, but also because the dog seemed hostile to the body-part thrower, I took a sharp Swiss army knife out my inside pocket and began to saw through the cord that bound the dog taking the chance it wouldn’t attack me.  My enemies enemy is my friend and all that bollocks, but maybe it wasn’t so fanciful because the beast let me do it.  And then I realised that the knife wasn’t cutting it in any sense.  I smacked myself on the forehead in disgust trusting to the storm and the ghoul’s preoccupation.  I was about to leave with the dog still tied to the spot when I realised I could try something else.  I fished out the vial of holy water and with clumsy gloved fingers tried to unstopper the bottle with no success.

Cursing I stuck the cork between my teeth and pulled, suddenly unsure if it was going to be my teeth that would be pulled out.  Why was I bothering with this mangy cdur anyway?  Eventually I worked the cork stopper out of the bottle and I poured onto the cord.  Nothing happened.  I shrugged and moved off in the direction from which the head had come, but before I got very far I heard a hiss, yelp and frantic scrabbling.  Holy water, you couldn’t beat it for it’s corrosive qualities in the spiritual plane and not for the reasons the god-botherers would have you believe.

I couldn’t see where the gate was because of the swirling snow and gusting wind, but was mercifully able to follow my own footsteps back the way I’d come.  That’s why, when the torso came at me out of nowhere, it was thrown with such force it took me down and I fell on my backside with an agonising thump.  Immediately I started wind-milling my right arm, desperate to get the thing off of me and back on my feet.

The chittering paused as though whatever it was had heard and was listening.  I froze, scarcely daring to breathe, hoping that the noise of the storm had masked my clumsy moment of panic.  As I moved I realised something was weighing my coat down and I didn’t really want to speculate too hard about what it might be.  The torso had had weight to it, as though it was fresh, but if it was it hadn’t been harvested in this part of the bone-yard.  The rain of body parts resumed, thick and fast making me feel like a soldier in one of the Great Wars who had been ordered over the top into no man’s land.  I couldn’t believe I was getting this close, either that or the ghoul had suddenly discovered a talent for tactics and was luring me in for the kill.  The chittering changed to a lower register and settled into a monotonous drone like ancient buzz-saw.  I walked closer not bothering to hide my approach because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The ghoul itself was just a blurred shape and it was only as I drew closer that my eyes began making sense of the scene.  The dog meanwhile had started up a low mournful howling from another part of the graveyard I couldn’t see.  I thought it had broken free, although I had had direct experience of it being able to throw its voice like a demented canine ventriloquist.  There was a pause in the limb tossing and something streaked by me in the direction of the sound.  I swore and turned back after it, treading as carefully as I could, but it didn’t matter: I could have driven a monster truck complete with blaring klaxon and the corpse-botherer wouldn’t have noticed because from the sounds of it, a life or death fight was going on between it and the dog.

The dog appeared to be getting the worst of it judging by the shrieks of pain.  I had a better idea and decided to take advantage of the ghoul’s distraction.  Rather than confront the beast, I could take a look at its lair first because there was bound to be more of them down there.  Maybe this wasn’t going to be quite as dull as I had thought.  Turning on my heel I headed for the tower door, the dogs cries getting fainter, swallowed up by distance and the storm.  The Hand of Glory was still lit despite the storm and I picked it up by the wrist, hurrying to the northern side of the graveyard to the stone where I’d felt the oval opening.  If the creature was out, maybe it had left the door open and the lights on.

Even though fresh snow had fallen the dead-light having once located the lair had it mapped and led me unerringly to it still clutching the flash light and Hand of Glory.    Setting the Hand of Glory down I shone the light down into the hole and picked out a leg broken off at the knee with a tennis shoe on the foot.  While the dead-light was great for finding the dead, it wasn’t so hot at the obstacles thoughtlessly placed in the way of the living.  It was at least a twenty foot drop but that didn’t matter because the ghoul had left a rickety ladder it must have stolen, because they just weren’t smart enough for construction.  That’s why they lived in incestuous family groups, and I’d heard of one that had held more than seventy individuals.

But while they were stupid, they could communicate with each other telepathically and if you came to the attention of the one, your fame would spread to the many.  Before you died, you’d get to experience their hospitality in their underground layer where you would be kept alive long enough to feed their offspring.  I couldn’t see anything else in the hole, but that didn’t mean they weren’t down there.  What bothered me was how strong this one was.  That was another reason they lived in family packs: as individuals they were too weak and stupid to survive, but collectively they managed to keep the larder stocked even if they could only pick off the old, the sick or the very careless.  But if this one was so powerful, what were the other family members like?

I swung my leg onto the ladder and climbed down into the hole.  Despite the cold above, a fetid, warm miasma soon had me sweating.  Waiting for me at the bottom was a crunching layer of old bones, so ancient and crumbling they were past identification.  Raising my flashlight to what I thought was a wall of earth, I soon discovered I was in a warren consisting of four small tunnels.  If I wanted to go on, I’d have to crawl on my hands and knees for the privilege.  But which one?

The sense of the dead was overpowering and I let the dead-light and go where it wanted.  My power spread through the warren and that was a big mistake because it wasn’t just corpses that had been dragged down here, but also the living, whose last experience of this world was this stinking lethal dark.  Fear and pain hung in a miasma over this charnel house so thick that it felt as though I was having to wade my way through it.  A multitude had died here an died hard.

The last tunnel on the left it was then.

I hunkered down, still clutching the Hand and noticed two of the finger nubs had been extinguished.  I checked for my matches and swore softly as I realised I’d left them on the Kirk steps.  Fuck, fuck and triple fuck.

The tunnel was small and I wouldn’t get through it with my bulky overcoat.  Taking it off and extracting my still lit torch, I placed the coat at the foot of the ladder on the bare bones.  As the beam of the torch took in this new hell, I noticed they were everywhere and some were identifiable after all.  Bleached human thigh bones, skulls, some the size of newborns.  Just at the entrance to my tunnel of choice lay a deformed skull with massive eye sockets and a mostly fleshless hand complete with six long digits.  Odd enough on its own until I discovered a dozen more.

I turned back to the tunnel and keeping a firm grip of the Hand with the torch in my mouth I slid my way along it, trying to ignore the stench of rotted meat and the thousand nicks in my flesh caused by the bones.  Death by a thousand cuts indeed.  I lost track of time and my life narrowed down until all it consisted of was the task of inching my way painfully through this wretched worm hole.  The worst point was when I discovered I’d let go of the Hand and had to go all the way back for it.  It struck me that this was the only way I would ever be caught alive or dead actually holding a man’s hand.  Looking ahead I picked out a tiny glimmer of light and inched my way painfully toward it, out into a cavern dug out of the earth and thought I had actually dug my way into Hell itself.

Hauling myself out of my earthen tomb I saw I was in a fair sized chamber about sixteen feet high by fifteen with the ceiling and sides reinforced with a timber frame.  That was when I realised I’d made a big mistake.  Ghouls didn’t build and they always lived in nests.  Always.  I hadn’t come across any other individuals and it occurred to me that maybe this was the first to enjoy the single life.  Not only that, but it was far smarter than it was supposed to be.

Flicking the beam of my torch around the room I saw that death had made its playground here, down among the body parts and scraps of human meat left by a creature whose murderous aspirations were greater than its capacity to ever consume.  I remembered a shed I’d been in where the spiders clearly ruled and every inch of the walls was covered in webbing and the partially consumed bodies of the insects they’d caught.  This was just on a much larger scale.  The ghoul seemed to have a twisted aesthetic sense too, because on one side of the cavern was an earthen wall decorated by still dripping intestines.  A dessicated brain had been carefully placed above it complete with two still fresh eyeballs still attached to the nerves.  It was almost comical if your taste ran to the grotesque, as though a murderous child had tried to depict a human being using body parts instead of its own fingers.  A primitive but discernable organisation had gone on here judging by the mound of legs separated from an adjacent mound of arms in the far corner of the room and in the other, a carefully constructed hill of skulls built in a rough pyramid.

But the piece de resistance and the sole source of light was the human head at the apex of the pyramid.  The skull pan had been roughly sawn open and the brain scooped out to be replaced with a guttering fat yellow candle that I would have be money on was made up of human fat.  That was the last fry up I’d be having for a while. The head must have been reasonably fresh because the face still had flesh and the features were still contorted in agony, a three d reminder of his or her final moments.  The eyes had been hollowed out and the lids sewn shut as though in a parody of sleep.

The smell was so intense that every breath had to be carefully judged so I didn’t vomit up the good Talisker I’d just had.  There was no avoiding it, it demanded acknowledgment and that’s what I had to give it to stay on this killing floor.  On the wall opposite the intestines, a neat array of human ears had been pinned in a straight line.  They were in various stages of decomposition and thin clear coloured gel dripped from them onto the floor.  One of the ears had a stud stained with its owners dried blood.  It occurred to me the ghoul had tried some interior decorating on for size and uncovered hidden talent.  The floor was carpeted with the now familiar mostly pulverised bone and in the middle was a roughly hewn block of wood, roughly the size of a human body complete with restraints and blood stained implements comprising a large curved blade, axe and saw.  All were encrusted with dark stains that it didn’t take a genius to figure out what they were.

And then a soft moan that seemed to come from above.

Snapping my head up, I saw that a series of bodies had been stuck to the cavern ceiling by the same glutinous gel that secured the ears.   Most of them were missing vital body parts like the head, except for one which seemed relatively untouched where the makeshift ceiling joined the top of the longest wall.  I shone my torch on the face and the eyes popped open, bright blue against the red mask of blood.  The mouth opened and shut as though the brain had forgotten how to work it.

“Please.  Kill me,” rasped the voice.  “Please.”


In that one whispered word was an end of hope, sanity and the only certainty, pain beyond any capacity to endure.  A gentle sobbing followed as though the throat from which it came was so lacerated from screaming that there was nothing left but this small, hopeless sound.  I sighed and thought very seriously about leaving him there.  He spoiled it of course by starting to plead with me to kill him again.  He must have thought I was the creature returning for more fun and games.

And then it did return, trailing the scent of death and old meat.  But it hadn’t come in the way I had.  No, it had used a door at the furthest away end of the chamber.  A door that was even now, temptingly ajar.  I didn’t have much time to think about the significance of that because the guttering light from the skull pan candle revealed the creature in its full glory.  I estimated it was about seven feet tall roughly twice the size it should have been.  Long, skeletal arms hung from misshapen shoulders.  The arms themselves had more joints than any mere human giving it an insect-like appearance and culminated in six fingered taloned hands that rang a vague bell somewhere in the jumbled recesses of what passed for my brain.  The head, shoulders and buttocks were covered in what looked like tumerous growths that were dark against the bony whiteness of the rest of its body.  Red eyes flicked feverishly from side to side and drool fell continuously through a motley collection of incisors of different shapes and sizes, some grown monstrous like tusks so the mouth couldn’t close properly and some stunted stumps that that looked like they were used for grinding the marrow out of bones.  A gaping hole graced where the nose should have been as though it had been cut off.  It was wearing something on its back and as I looked I realised it was a cloak of fresh intestines: I knew they were fresh because they were dripping a blackish stain down the ghouls ribs and splattering onto the bones underfoot with a dull, pattering sound.

Ghouls couldn’t see very well, or that was the theory.  The truth was, not many people had actually come across them and most of what we knew was conjecture.  Here’s hoping the nerds had got something right for a change because according to them, ghouls hunted their prey by sensing vibrations.  Just like spiders.  There was in any event nowhere for me to hide.  I wondered briefly why it had bothered with a light source.  Either it could see to some extent, or more disturbingly, maybe the light was for the victims benefit so they could see what was about to be done to them or others.

The live victim stuck to the ceiling began to groan and the ghoul quicker than the time it took me to comprehend what it was doing, scuttled up the wall on all fours, using the bodies as purchase, digging wickedly sharp claws into the flesh and from the sounds of it, not all were quite dead yet.  It sat on the ceiling beside the groaner and just watched him, drool and blood dripping down onto the floor in equal measure.  I stood perfectly still and calculated my chances.  I could make a run for the tunnel and have the ghoul dismember me at leisure as I tried to worm my way out of here.  I could run for the door, but who the hell knew where it lead?  But it must lead to the surface because that’s where it had come from.  If there was indeed only one of them.

“Please,” begged the prisoner, “please, don’t.”  He broke off into a desperate dry throated sobbing that seemed to be working the creature into a frenzy because it started to shake and broke into a high chittering that I’d already heard above ground.  Down here in its lair sixteen or so feet below the sod, it froze the blood.  It began to stroke the captives face with long knife-like claws drawing blood and cutting down to the bone.

Not daring to move a muscle, I glanced down at the Hand cursing silently as I noticed two more of the finger nubs had gone out, leaving only the thumb, burned down almost to its fullest extent.  It would have to do, although I couldn’t throw the damn thing now for fear the last digit would go out.  Just as the captive started to really scream, big, full throated roars that I hadn’t thought him capable of, I said:

“Brought you a housewarming.”

The ghoul stopped the torture immediately as though someone had thrown a bucket of water over it and when the man wouldn’t stop screaming clamped a huge hand over his mouth.

“You’re going to have to come and get it though.”

The monster scuttled crab-like across the ceiling and down the wall with a burst of that same amazing speed it had shown earlier.  The man started his caterwauling again making the ghoul stop and turn back towards him.

“Get down here you sick son of a bitch.  Don’t make me come and get-” and then it was in front of me, so close I could smell the carrion stink of its breath, red eyes glowing in the twilight of the lair.  I raised the Hand and its sightless gaze followed, attracted by it, just as I had hoped.  It must have had some sort of motion tracking ability because it gripped my wrist so hard I felt something break.  It had of course to be the wrist of the left arm, the one that the dog had chowed down on earlier and the pain was so bad I thought I was either going to pass out or vomit, neither of which were viable options if I wanted out of here.  The ghoul’s thin, black lips drew back from rows withing rows of jagged brown teeth and got the damndest sense it was laughing, secure its lair, it didn’t seem to regard me as a threat.  I was just another captive soon to be reduced to a seeping, bleeding hunk of meat like all the others.

Over the ghoul’s shoulder I could see the silent ranks of the dead, doing nothing, just watching, waiting to see who the victor might be.  The shock of their deaths for many of them still the most overwhelming factor of their new and joyless existence. There were so many of them, men, women, children, all murdered by this monster for being in the wrong place at just the right time.  Their presence made me careless, which was the only explanation, make that excuse, for what I did next.

I began to siphon the ghoul.  I can call it siphoning, but it’s not.  It’s much worse.  It’s a consumption, a digestive process so complete that when it’s finished the ghoul’s mind, spirit, consciousness such as it was, would become part of me.  It would of course not survive the process, but its urges, its sick ambitions, would live on and flower through me along with all the other cess-pit bargain bucket monsters I’d collected along the way.

It was the worst low point in a life scarred by too many to mention.  Images burned themselves into my memory in fast moving flow as though I was being made to watch a slide show where the projector had a demonic life and force of its own.  The six fingered skeletal hands that I’d seen were explained as the story unfolded.  It had killed and eaten its own family, every single one including the newborns just wrested from their mother’s innards.

The ghoul finally began to sense its peril and started struggling.  That distracted me and, like awaking from a deep sleep and realising you’re eating rotting meat from a rubbish bin, the full horror of what I was about to do, drew me back from the edge.  Flicking all of my finger-knives to their fullest extent on both hands, I stuck them as forcefully as I could into the bloated belly of the creature and sliced upwards, cutting through the greasy flesh, gutting the wearer with an ease I hadn’t expected.

A look of almost comical surprise crossed the noseless, lipless face and I smiled.  I’ll never know where it found the strength, but it pushed against me causing me to stagger backward and in the process freeing itself from my knives.  It began to whine in a high pitched call of distress that struck me as funny making me laugh out loud.  I picked myself and the knife up and headed for the stricken creature where it lay sprawled, hands clasped to its belly trying to keep the spool of its guts from unwinding onto the floor.  If I hadn’t known better I’d have said it was afraid and that made me want to be cruel, to play with it awhile down among the dead men.

Bending down I was about to finally have some fun when the captive roared with an energy I hadn’t dreamed he possessed:

“NO!  Let the Guardian finish it!  It’s the only way it can regain its strength and keep the others out!”

“The others?  What are you talking about?”

I didn’t bother to press for an answer, because that’s when I heard it: a dragging sound as though something wounded was making its slow torturous way into the chamber.  I wasn’t sure I was up to any more surprises and stood with my knives out, ready to cut and run.  The dragging was louder now accompanied by tiny yips of pain that sounded as though the owner was trying to suppress them.  The door was nudged open and the dog crawled into view, using its front legs one in front of the other to drag the rest of its sorry carcase, back legs trailing behind it, broken and useless.  It snarled at me, eyes wild, but it’s threat was hollow, it was almost dead itself and I didn’t need to see the blood smeared trail it had left behind to know that.

“Let the Guardian kill it!  It’s the only way!” shouted the man, who I’m sorry to say was seriously beginning to piss me off.  But what he said made a certain sense.  I’d heard of church yard Guardians before.  It wasn’t so long ago that black dogs were ritually killed and placed in the foundations of a church so that they could protect the dead.  On nothing more than impulse and the sure knowledge the Ghoul was itself dying, I withdrew the knife and stepped back.

The dog dragged itself over to the creature, the remnants of the chord that had bound it trailing and tried to rip its throat out, whining in frustration and pain after each failed attempt.  The Ghoul although lying on the floor had enough life in it to thrash it’s head to side avoiding the jaws of death with an insulting impunity.  I decided to help and ignoring the warning growls put my booted foot on the Ghouls over-sized skull pinning it down.  It was over in seconds as the Guardian ripped the throat and a good part of the oesophagus out, wolfing it down with a sickening relish, covering me with blood and gore in the process.

I didn’t mind that part so much.  What I did mind was that I hadn’t needed my Hand of Glory and it could only be used once.

A wild snickering from the Man Who Lived On The Ceiling made me wonder how much sanity remained.  There was no way I could get him down myself, I’d have to call the emergency services.  I dug out my mobile from the pocket in my shirt but the damned thing didn’t have a signal.  Stepping over the dog I made my way out of the door the Ghoul had used and found it led to a steep but passable mud slide up to the surface.  I was already filthy so applied myself to the task with the kind of fervour I imagined the character in the Shawshank Redemption had as he crawled through the sewage pipe to freedom.

The storm had abated when got to the surface and the cold air had never been sweeter as I took great lungfuls of it in.  I fished the phone out and made the calls.  Christ knows what they’d make of it, but that wasn’t really my problem and I wasn’t going to be here when they arrived.  The guy stuck to the ceiling and any other poor sod that had survived would need serious medical attention and I’d given enough information so they’d be certain of finding them.  I collapsed by a tombstone, ready to pass out with sheer exhaustion despite the cold.

“You know this is only the start of it, don’t you,” said a wispy voice from the neighbouring gravestone which was low and flat like a table.  The ghost, a young girl, sat on top of it, surprisingly life-like for one that was supposed to be dead.

“What?” was the best I could manage and I was even proud of it.

“The Ghoul was only strong enough to overpower the Guardian because they’re coming.  You haven’t got a prayer,” she giggled.  Ghosts weren’t usually this substantial or coherent and that was a bloody fine thing to my way of thinking.

“What’s coming?”

“You’ll find out,” and then she winked out of existence in the blink of my overtired eye and I was left with nothing but the sad and sorry content of my own thoughts as I limped slowly to the car and drove away.