Mistake

This is the third in a series of very short pieces. The first piece is here and the second piece is here. I hope you enjoy them.

Dave stretched and worked his shoulders. Life as a Tarot reader could be remarkably stressful. He checked the clock and grimaced. There wasn’t really time for a decent run before the next booking, but he would definitely hit the gym when the store closed. That was one advantage of having a room for Tarot reading over a new age supplies and book shop. He could keep to shop hours. There was a knock on the door. Dave groaned inwardly. “Come in.”

Martin strode in and took the chair opposite Dave. “You’re a funny sort of Tarot Reader. You don’t believe in it.”

Dave shrugged. “It says ‘for entertainment purposes only’ on the booking form. Besides, what I do is a sort of counselling. I’ve even been taking night courses for therapists.”

“I heard that you claimed them on your expense forms,” Martin said. “Anyway, I’m not here about the Tarot. It’s Paladin business.”

“What have you done?” Dave asked. Tarot reading was his side business. His main purpose was to be the Paladin of York, the defender of the unknowing normals who lived in the area against the supernatural creatures that lived among them. This wasn’t the easiest of jobs. He worked in a shop run by half the non-normal population of the area and they all seemed to have their own version of reality that they refused to abandon.

“It’s not exactly what I’ve done,” Martin said. “It’s more what I was seen to have done.”

“Does Lady Freydis know?” Dave asked. The ancient vampire shifting uncomfortably in the seat opposite him was married to the Prince of York, the ruler of the non-normal population and a barista downstairs. They weren’t exactly difficult, and they weren’t generally considered dangerous to people in general. However they had the potential for more havoc that was good for Dave’s mental health.

“Of course,” Martin said. “She thinks that it’s hilarious but that you ought to know.”

Dave’s heart sank further. “So what exactly happened?”

“I was minding my own business,” Martin said. “I had met with one of my young ladies.”

“That’s one of the ladies you feed from,” Dave said. “I thought that there were alternatives to feeding from young ladies.”

Martin ignored that. “As you know, I take great care of my young ladies, and we were having a very pleasant moment.”

“You were feeding,” Dave said.

“Yes, I was feeding, but I don’t want you to think that there was anything non-consensual involved.” Martin said. “I take great pains to make the experience pleasant for the young lady.”

“So I believe,” Dave said dryly.

“The young lady involved was very much enjoying herself. And I was rather lost in the moment myself.”

“So you were seen feeding,” Dave said. “What happened then?”

“The man interrupted us and pushed me away, telling Kayla that he would defend her.” Martin winced. “It didn’t go down well.”

Dave shut his eyes for a brief moment and shuddered. “What did you do to him?”

“I didn’t do a thing!” Martin said. “Kayla was the one who drove him off. But he said that he would hunt me down, that he wouldn’t forget this, and that he would find me and stake me.”

“What did Lady Freydis say?” Dave asked.

Martin shrugged. “She hasn’t stopped laughing at it. He is probably traumatised and out there somewhere. I’m quite worried about him. I thought I may try and look for him, but that I had better let you know. And he may come to you through the usual channels.”

“When you say you are going to look for him, you mean to explain things and reassure him, right?” Dave looked hard at Martin.

“I have not survived these endless centuries by indulging in mindless cruelty,” Martin said firmly. “And the young lad looked distressed. I want to make sure that he is alright.”

Dave ran a tired hand over his face. “I’ll have a look out for him as well,” he said. “And I’ll give Darren and Luke the heads up. What does he look like?”

Martin thought for a moment. I suppose he is about the same height as you, so tall but not too tall. He’s slim, but not skinny. He has blond hair, not bright blonde, but sort of dull like old sacking. And he has a black eye.”

“I thought you said you didn’t do anything to him,” Dave said.

“I didn’t,” Martin said. “But Kayla was really upset and has a surprisingly good right hook.” He winced in sympathy as he remembered it. “And perhaps we had better find this young man before she does.”

Lucky Meeting

The first part of the story, published last week, is here.

Alex sat in the coffee bar and stared at the camera. Perhaps he should have shown the vicar the pictures. They were still on the camera, but also backed up on his PC, the cloud, half a dozen emails and two usb sticks. He flicked through the pictures on the view screen. Perhaps it was just good makeup at Halloween, but it looked too real. And if it was still on the camera, it couldn’t have been photoshopped – could it?

“Hey,” a deep voice said behind him. Alex turned around. A tall man stood behind him, slim but not skinny, with a neatly trimmed beard and short hair. “I saw those pictures.”

Alex forced a smile. “I got the camera second hand with these pictures on them. Looks like great makeup – right?”

“I’m Rhys McGee,” he said, sitting opposite Alex. “And I think we both know that it isn’t makeup.”

Alex froze for a moment, before forcing out, “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s real,” Rhys said quietly. “But perhaps you shouldn’t be looking in a public place. If I could see them, so could anyone, or anything, else.”

“I got the camera blessed by a priest,” Alex said defensively.

Rhys hovered a hand over the camera, then paused. “That should help,” he said. “But what are you going to do about it?”

Alex shrugged helplessly. “I’m not exactly an action man,” he said.

Rhys looked thoughtfully at the skinny youngster in front of him. “I’m not going up against anything on my own,” he said. “That’s suicide. But perhaps we can do some stuff together. And I’ve worked as a personal trainer.”

Alex picked up the camera and stared at the pictures. “That’s what the priest said. That it was dangerous and that if a crime was committed then I should tell him.”

“What does an old man think he can do?” Rhys said. “Listen, I’ve got to get going, but why don’t we meet down by the river tonight, on the Lendal Bridge. They’re not supposed to be able to cross running water, so it should be safe enough.”

Alex stared at the stranger. For a brief moment he had the feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff or the start of a rollercoaster. He should listen to the young, dynamic priest instead of some man that had approached him in a café. He should be sensible. He should get his laundry done before work tomorrow. He should walk away. Instead he nodded. “What time?”

“Make it around 10pm,” Rhys said. “I’ll have finished work by then, and it will be quieter.”

Rhys left the café and strode down Coppergate. Of course vampires could cross running water. He crossed the Lendal Bridge half a dozen times a day and it never bothered him. He could walk in sunlight as well, though he preferred the night and his night vision was now excellent. So was his hearing, which made the chatter filling the street and the off key busker even more annoying. Just because he could almost hear whether a coin had landed heads up did not make it a blessing.

He still couldn’t remember exactly how he became this monster. His memory was hazy. He’d met a woman in a bar a few years ago. Vivienne had been wild and edgy and he had gone back to her place and then…

He could never remember much more. There had been others around, he thought, coming and going, and lots of strange incense. Then one day, in the middle of summer, he had woken up. The old stone house was empty and all the vampires, including Vivienne, were gone.

Rhys would never forget the isolation he felt. The sensation of being adrift in a small, rudderless boat with no shore in sight. There was the gnawing hunger always at his back, a darkness in him that hadn’t been there when he was the second desk on IT support. He didn’t need caffeine anymore. He needed something far darker. And he couldn’t touch the camera.

There were advantages. When Rhys had searched the house for information, he had found some very detailed, very organised paperwork that even had his name on it. Through complicated trusts and deeds, he was now an owner of a large property set in its own grounds on the edge of the tourist haven of York. He was getting a fortune for it as a holiday rental. He hung out in a small caravan in a corner of the grounds. It gave him time to work his way up as a freelance tech guy and to work out what he was supposed to do now.

Perhaps he should speak to the priest. Whoever he was, he knew his stuff. The camera had been glowing with the blessing. Rhys hadn’t been able to get his hand near it. But then, getting a priest involved wasn’t fair. Most priests were old and frail and he didn’t want to drag one into a fight. Because that was what he was planning. He was going to hunt down every vampire he could, and he was going to destroy them. He was going to train a team, starting with Alex Poole. And they were going to get every last bloodsucker out there. All he, Rhys McGee, Vampire and Vampire Hunter, had to do was find them.

And he could start by looking through the pictures on the camera.

Get a Picture

black Canon EOS Rebel-series DSLR camera
Image from Unsplash, taken by Andrew Hutchings

“You want me to do what?” Darren asked, baffled.

Alex Poole leant forward. “It’s important,” he said. “If you bless the camera then I have a chance of keeping the images.”

“And you want to keep the images of…” Darren looked at the camera and then back at Alex. “If you actually find vampires and take pictures of them, what are you going to do with the pictures?”

“It’s proof that they exist,” Alex said. “I’m sure that they do. I’ve heard all sorts of rumours. An old guard told me that there were incidents under York Railway Station a few years back.”

“I don’t remember seeing anything about that in the papers,” Darren said.

“And there have been people talking about pet rats disappearing from their cages in mysterious circumstances.”

“Really?” Darren said helpfully. He looked at the camera then back and the thin, eager face of Alex. “And if you get a picture of a vampire, how do you prove that he or she is a vampire?”

Alex paused for a moment. “I’d have to follow them, to make sure that I got a proper picture.”

“Don’t you think that would be a little risky?” Darren asked.

“That’s where the blessing would come in,” Alex said. “If you blessed the camera, they wouldn’t be able to touch it.”

“It wouldn’t stop them touching you,” Darren said.

“Oh!” Alex sat back, suddenly thoughtful.

“Another important point is that a blessing or a prayer isn’t like an action in a video game. It’s about faith, and intent, and the will of God. It’s not something that settles on the camera like dust.” Darren said. “But let’s go further. If you find a vampire, and get a picture that is definitely of a vampire without any doubt, what are you going to do?”

“Stake it, of course,” Alex said.

Darren looked thoughtfully at the slight young man sitting opposite. “Apart from putting yourself in extreme danger, what would happen if you got it wrong?” He watched as Alex hesitated.

There was a knock on the door and Egerton stuck his head in. “Ian and Dean are here for the Bible study,” he said. “I’ve left them in the living room.”

“I’ll be a few minutes,” Darren said. He turned back to Alex. “Do you have evidence that a crime has been committed?”

Alex shook his head. “But if vampires are prowling our streets, then no-one is safe.”

“I am not going to tell you that vampires do not exist,” Darren said carefully. “And I can believe that they walk the streets. For all you know, the people waiting in my living room could be a vampire or werewolf.”

“That’s not possible,” Alex interrupted. “No vampire or werewolf could come into a vicarage.”

Darren looked thoughtful. “I’m an exorcist, as you know. I’ve seen many strange things. And I’ve seen people with all the disadvantages trying to live a normal life without hurting anyone. I’ll bless you and the camera, but I advise you against vampire hunting. And if there is any crime being committed, apart from possibly fraud, come to me. I’ll make sure that the authorities listen.”

“You don’t believe in vampires,” Alex said flatly.

“I believe that perhaps this isn’t a good idea,” Darren said. “But I will never refuse a blessing. Some things are beyond my judgement. Please, put the camera on the table and we can pray.”

Movement

brown house surrounded white trees
Image from Unsplash, taken by Craig Cooper

The day is without motion, all is quiet

The smoke across the valley rises straight

And in the silent room that is my kitchen

I sit and nurse my tea and slowly wait.

I careful move, not to disturb the silence

The frost is hard and the brittle grass is white

I sit and chill within the silent garden

The sunshine has no heat, just frozen light

As slow as moss, I move back to the kitchen

And breathe while waiting for my heart to fill

One day I’ll thaw and rattle through the hours

Till then the light, the day and I are still.

Flowers

green and yellow plant on white car
Image from Unsplash, taken by Maurice Pehle

“The flowers are late!” I rushed into the kitchen, my wedding dress bunched around my waist and my veil askew. I looked at my husband-to-be. “I knew we shouldn’t have trusted that florist.” I took a deep breath. “And I knew we shouldn’t have got ready together. It’s supposed to be unlucky.”

Tim sighed. “It’s just nothing. It’s probably meant to allow the bride a little peace to get ready without the groom asking a lot of questions and causing fuss. We aren’t doing all the fuss.”

It made a sort of sense, but I was still frantic. “What about the flowers?”

“Can’t your little friends help out with that?” Tim asked.

“You know I don’t like you calling them that,” I said. I manouevred my skirt over a stool and sank down. “They’re the fair folk – if you have to talk about them at all.”

Tim walked over to me, put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me gently on the forehead. “Well, whoever they are took a lot of getting used to. I’m still not sure they approve of me. But I love you, friends and all, and don’t worry.” Tim grinned, that crooked grin that I loved so much. “Besides, they’re more like family, really, and we all have awkward family. I mean, you’ve met my Auntie Violet. She is far worse than misplaced car keys and iffy reception for the radio.”

I smiled back for a moment. “Lots of people call this house haunted, but it isn’t really. I just have friends.” My face fell. “But no flowers – and you know that the minister said he wouldn’t go ahead if we were late. We can’t wait around for the dratted florist. What are we going to do?”

Tim took my hands and gently squeezed them. “My darling, we agreed that this is about the marriage that we are going to have for the rest of our lives, not one day. We agreed that we would remember the things that went wrong as fun stories and not as awful events.” He grew serious. “I wish my mum was able to come, but we lost her last year. I wish your family was still here. I wish that your bridesmaid hadn’t eloped with my best man a week before it was all due to happen. I wish all sorts of things. The flowers, well, it’s just another story. As long as we get married, that’s all that matters. I love you.”

I smiled back. “I love you too.” I sighed. “I hope the fair ones are happy. They haven’t interfered so far, which is a good sign.” I disentangled my voluminous skirt from the stool and stood up. “They mean a lot to me.” I pulled myself up and settled my veil. “They’re the last of my family. Come on, we can’t be late. We can do without the flowers. Let’s go and get married.”

Tim led me outside ready to drive to the church, then stopped. I almost fell over as I bumped into him and then stared. A small bundle of wild flowers lay across the boot of the rental car.

Tim picked them up tenderly and looked around. “Thank you for this,” he said to the empty air. “An amazing gift on our wedding day.” He turned to me. “Your family have given their blessing. Let’s go and get married.” He looked around again. “And I’ll save you some cake!”

Just a Point

Kent waved the letter at his wife.  “It’s the valuation.” He ripped it open.   Rupert watched carefully.

“You can’t be thinking of selling it.” Alison said.  “It’s been in your family for generations.”  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  “And you know painting is haunted.  Look what happened last time it was sent for cleaning.”  Rupert nodded.  At least someone else was paying attention.

“Those sort of accidents are normal for a house of this age.” Kent looked uneasily over his shoulder.  “And we have to face reality.  We are in a Grade I listed English Stately Home with a leaking roof.  We can’t just get any old tiles from the local builder’s yard and get the cheapest quote plus scaffolding.  Did you see how much the only firm I could track down wanted?  We need the money.”

“Do you want to sell it?” Alison asked as Kent pulled the letter out of it’s rich, cream envelope.

Kent shrugged.  “No, I don’t.  It’s part of the place, I was fascinated by the old man in the picture as a child.  But sentiment won’t patch the roof.”  He absently straightened out the letter.  “I wish we didn’t have to.”  He straightened his shoulders.  “And if I’m not getting a good enough offer, I’m keeping it.  There are grants, after all.”

Jenkins stuck his head round the door.  “It’s Soames about his business proposition.  He’s in the study, sir.”

Rupert waited until Kent and Alison had left the room and inspected the letter.  He concentrated.  Kent would certainly sell for £350,000 but while the figure was flattering, he could not let the portrait go.  It took some work to manipulate it but by the time Kent got back the offer was £35,000, take it or leave it.  The old ghost knew that Kent would never settle for that.  The portrait would be safe for now.  Rupert tapped his ghostly finger on the polished mantle.  Now how could he help with this business idea?

Not Alone

I double checked the locks. I checked the windows and closed the curtains over. I pushed furniture out of place to block the door. Tonight is the last night. Tomorrow I will go back to my family, go back to my friends and beg them to forgive me, beg them to let me back into their lives.

As the darkness falls, I can hear them singing. Whatever they are, they surround this house, the place that was supposed to be my refuge, away from anyone who could hurt me, away from Steve.

But the strange singing and the tapping get worse every night. The haunting voices are getting closer and climbing the ivy and the outhouse roof. I feel so alone. I hope I make it to morning.

The Castle

There is a castle on the hill

A king sat there in days of old

His knights were brave, his ladies fair

The pinnacle of brave and bold

Minstrels there were, and jesters sharp

Ministers with wisdom deep

Priests and monks in cloistered nooks

All knowledge gathered in his keep

There was a knight, a lady fair

A false man and a desperate fight

A riven kingdom, empty hope

A funeral pyre and fading light

The story’s old and patched with songs

On threads that wore out long ago

Who knows the truth of treasure there

Before the final overthrow

Young lads go there to try their hand

Digging the vaults and dusty hall

The tombs are empty, nothing’s there

A bird’s nest in a broken wall.

Some nights, when Venus sails the sky

And Mars is courting near the moon

They say that ghostly dancers whirl

To echoes of an ancient tune

Splendour and crowns have tumbled down

The painted walls have faded pale

And while we bustle round our lives

Dust slowly settles on the tale. 

Seeking

It took me a long time to learn how to see fairies. I don’t mean the sort that you see in children’s books, but the fair folk, the shining ones, the quiet presence in a country lane. I trained myself to see a shimmer in the corner of a garden, a hint of rainbow as I walked down a dark country lane. I watched for an unexpected glimmer. I listened for a hint of tune that shouldn’t be playing. I waited for the scent of honeysuckle on the winter air.

An old man waited at the gate, grabbing my arm and pulling me to one side where my mum couldn’t see. “They’re hunting you. You need to stay safe. Carry salt or iron – or both! Or you’ll be trapped.”

I laughed and pulled away. How could they be hunting me when it was me that was searching them out, looking for the rainbows in dim places, listening for strange song. The glimpses were getting longer and I knew I was getting closer. I skipped school and found strange corners on the industrial estates where bindweed wound its way through the fences and flies hung in the shade of scented elder bushes.

I read everything in the library and on the internet. I joined groups and forums. They didn’t help. But I started noticing, through the long summer holiday, that I saw more of the glimpses near elder bushes and trees. I searched them out. I found clusters of them near abandoned warehouses and around the edges of neglected parks. I saw glimpses of the fair folk now, just a brief look at a face, glorious with beauty, lit from within by their wild, magical nature.

As the year turned, I ignored school and gloried in the change of the weather, watching the wind swirl the dead leaves around elder bushes drooping under heavy, purple berries. I saw more of them. They wore green and brown and the ladies had wreaths of autumn leaves in their hair. I stayed as still as a cat, watching. As the nights grew longer and the arguments with my mum got worse, I got closer. I could hear their singing and their soft conversations. Finally, I saw them enter the fairy realm. I saw them slip between two elder stems and I followed through.

The sky was alive with colours and shapes. The trees whispered in shock as I walked into the forest and called ahead that a mortal child was here. I could see the Lords and Ladies, the fair ones, riding towards me, their harness jingling and the sun glinting on their shining hair.

The doctor put down the latest report and shook his head. “I’m sorry Mrs Taylor. All tests for drugs have come back negative, but your daughter continues in a persistent, catatonic, hallucinating state. We’ve tried everything to reach her, but I’m afraid that there’s nothing more we can do. She’s lost to us.”

Never Get Drunk with a Stranger

Never get drunk with a stranger. My life would have been a lot easier if I had remembered those words. I may have missed out on some excitement, but, looking back, I could have lived with that.

Moving to Leeds was supposed to be the start of a better life. Moving from rural Lincolnshire to an insurance job in a city was supposed to be the start of great opportunities that included a steady job, a pension and possibly even a girlfriend. It was supposed to be an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. “It will do you good to get away from your computer,” my mother had told me as she packed my good shirts into my single suitcase. “You can get a hobby.”

“Computer gaming is a hobby.” I had tried to argue one last time.

“But you don’t find a girlfriend like that. Don’t forget to send us pictures.” My mother had tucked a pair of socks into the corner of the case and zipped it up. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

So here I was, three months into my life in Leeds, still without a girlfriend, and getting drunk with a stranger. His name was Piotr but he said to call him Peter. “It’s what all the English guys do.”

“So you’re not from Leeds either?” I said.

Piotr laughed. “I’m Polish, of course, from near Krakow. And this beer is no good. I’ll show you a pub that does proper drink.”

“Where is everyone?” I asked as we stumbled out into the dusty street. Last time I had been in Headingley the place had been almost too full to move and I had given up and gone home.

“Headingley is the student place and most have gone for the summer.” Piotr put a brotherly arm around me and steered me towards the back streets. “And finally we can get the good drink.”

If a stranger you have just met tells you to come with him for a good drink, don’t go. It’s never a good idea. Usually you get mugged. But we had had a few beers and traded a few stories and all sense had been washed away. The warm night air felt soft and lulled me into a sense of security as I listened to Piotr pouring his heart out to me about his girlfriend. At least he had one.

“She is so beautiful. But she knows how beautiful she is, and she is difficult.” Piotr said as we cut down one of the many back alleys. The cobbles were uneven, and I had had enough to drink to be paying attention to walking safely on the old stones. Piotr seemed used to them, though, and strode confidently ahead through the red painted, brick-built terraces to what looked like a private house. “Here we can get the good drink.”

If a stranger you have just met tells you to come into a private house for a good drink, don’t do it. There are so many bad things that can happen that you should just turn around there and then before you get mugged, or you have your organs harvested, or even just drink bootleg vodka that turns you blind. But Piotr seemed low and I had had a few beers and, besides, what else was I supposed to do on a Friday night? I followed him in.

This was a room for serious drinkers. Battered sofas were pushed against the walls, the carpet was threadbare, and the air was heavy with smoke. Men of different ages sat around, ignoring the wall mounted tv and staring at the drinks in their hands. All of them were holding small glasses filled with colourless liquid and all, like Piotr, were clean, neatly dressed and silent. It was a room with a single purpose and that purpose was drink. A middle-aged woman in heavy make up and an unflattering low-cut top sat behind a table in a corner. Piotr handed over some money and hissed at me to do the same. It seemed a lot, but I handed over the cost of two bottles of good whisky and accepted the small glass and bottle of liquor.

If someone you don’t know hands you a re-used bottle filled with alcohol, don’t take it. To be honest, a re-used bottle even from someone you trust is a risk. My bottle looked like it had once held maple syrup and it didn’t have a label. But here I was, in a room full of drinkers, all drinking. What else could I do? I joined Piotr on a cracked, leatherette sofa in the corner and poured myself a small shot.

“What am I going to do, Jamie?” Piotr asked as he poured himself a cautious amount. “Jenja is my life, but she is so fickle. And she says she loves me.”

A few drinkers glanced up at this. I looked up from the glass and got a sense that this was something unusual, but the rest of the men turned their attention back to their drinks and I followed their lead. Did I down it like tequila or sip it like a fine, single malt whisky? The others were sipping so I followed their example. How bad can bootleg vodka be?

This wasn’t vodka. I didn’t know what it was, but it slipped gently past my lips like sunlight made solid and spread warm over my mouth and down my throat. My fingers glowed, my legs tingled and I could feel a blessing stealing over me. I took a moment and breathed in the wonderful sense of well-being. I bathed in the sense of a golden glow before taking another sip. “This isn’t vodka.”

“It’s nearly vodka, made with plums.” Piotr said. “It’s hard to translate. Jamie.” He put a persuasive hand on my arm. “You are a good man. I can tell you are a good man and you come here, and you drink the good drink, and listen to a stranger who is facing a bad death. Do one thing for me. Please?”

“What do you mean?” The golden haze lifted a little. “Are you sick? There are new cures every day, you know. You look great.”

Piotr sadly shook his head. “I have fought against it for many days, but I must accept my fate.” He poured himself another measure of the gift from the gods and raised his glass, saying something in Polish before draining his glass.

I topped my own glass up and saluted him. “Cheers. But what do you mean? Surely there’s something that you can do?” I downed the glass, just like Piotr. This time it felt like a ball of liquid sunset smoothed its way down my throat to warm my stomach. This stuff was probably illegal.

“Jenja has said that she loves me. She is sorry for it, but it is what it is. She is crying at home.” Piotr looked sadly at his glass. “Or, at least, she is staying at home.”

“I don’t understand.” I said. I poured a little more of the magical water into my glass and took a sip. I felt like warm sun caressed my shoulders, but it didn’t help me think any clearer.

“You are English.” Piotr said. “And you are kind. Please, take care of Jenja when I go.”

I looked at my glass. It was half full. I didn’t think another drink would help, but I took it anyway. “Can’t Jenja be taken care of by her family or friends? Is she sick?”

Piotr sadly shook his head. “No-one Polish will help.”

I looked around the room. The silent men were all nodding. A few raised their glasses for the Polish toast, their eyes sad and sympathetic. “Why do you think you’re going to die?”

“Because Jenja said she loved me.” Piotr waved a drunken finger. “I forget. You are English. When a Vila loves someone, they die in dreadful ways. I write down the address for Jenja. You must help her get home.” He patted his pockets and found a cheap pen. He kept searching until the woman from behind the makeshift bar came out with a page ripped from her puzzle magazine and handed it to him. He nodded a thanks and carefully wrote the address. “We live near Bridgewater Place, where the winds are.”

I took the ragged piece of paper, folded it and put it into my wallet. “But you may not die.” I said.

“I will die and Jenja will be left alone and she will need help to go home. Jamie, you are a good man. Please, please promise me that you will take care of her, even if she is difficult.”

Never promise anyone anything when you are drunk. That’s how I got kicked out of the Student Union’s French Society. “I’ll look after Jenja.”

Piotr put an earnest hand on my arm and made sure he looked me in the eye. “Promise me, Jamie. Promise me on something that will mean it.”

What could I say. “I promise, Piotr. I promise I will look after Jenja.”

“By what do you swear?” His grip was tight and I was in danger of spilling the vital contents of my glass.

“I swear by Manchester United.” Never swear on anything while drunk. You will swear on something that means life or death to you and sound like an idiot at the same time. “But you may not die.”

Piotr poured himself another glass. “It will be bad.” He raised his glass and drank. I matched him and felt a golden filter settle over my vision. I could see, but there was a warm, fuzzy glow around the room, like a filter on a camera lens. Even the woman behind the bar looked good. Piotr stood shakily. “I use the bathroom.” No-one looked up as he weaved his way across the room to a door in the back wall.

I sat back and looked at the glass in front of me. I had never tasted anything like it. Reassured by the wonderful clarity in my glass, I knew that Piotr was just feeling his mortality. You worry about strange things under the influence of drink. Tomorrow we would forget all about this. Piotr and I would sleep off the heavenly fumes of whatever it was we were drinking and laugh at the promise. There was an awful crash from the bathroom.

Every head turned towards the battered door at the back of the room. I tried to rationalise it. Perhaps Piotr had knocked something over or had fallen. The woman got up from behind the door and, taking a deep breath, walked towards the crash. She paused before she opened the door, took a deep breath and closed it gently behind her. There was a long pause, as if the room held its breath. Eventually the woman came out looking pale and shaken.

“Piotr has died. I will call ambulance and fire brigade.” She thought for a moment. “Also plumber. You all leave.” She walked over to me as I struggled to get to my feet. “You go to Jenja now.” Her hand closed over my arm and it was icy. I looked into her eyes and even through the effects of the plum vodka I knew that I didn’t want to know the details. “You are a good boy. Get Jenja home. Be blessed.”

I had never knocked on a stranger’s door in the middle of the night while drunk. It’s exhilarating. While the nectar from heaven was still working its magic, I didn’t worry about getting a police record, or whether I was going to get mugged before someone could answer the door, or even if I had found the right place. The cramped terraces that sprawl south of Leeds City Centre are not safe for strangers who can barely walk. I made it, however, and a woman answered the door.

“Jenja, I have bad news!” I said dramatically, falling into the tiny entrance hall. “It has happened.”

“Who the hell are you?” She didn’t look like I expected. Her dark hair was tousled and she had a faded dressing gown over well washed pyjamas. She was pretty, in an understated way, but nothing like the vision Piotr described. She also had a look in her eye that could make any man sober.

“I’m Jamie Reid. Piotr made me promise to take care of you, Jenja. I’m really sorry…”

She held up a stern hand. “I’m not Jenja. I’m Lindsey.”

I looked again at the paper. “Piotr said you were Jenja.” I peered at the address.

Lindsey sighed. “Jenja is in her room. She’s been crying.” She leant against the newel post at the foot of the stairs and shouted up. “Jenja, there’s someone at the door. He says it’s about Piotr.”

A soul shattering wail came from upstairs, followed by a crash and a thump. Lindsey shook her head. “She keeps throwing glasses at the wall. What was your name again?”

“I’m Jamie.” I was sobering up fast and I didn’t like it. I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

Lindsey shook my hand but before she could say anything a door slammed and a vision of loveliness appeared at the top of the stairs. Jenja was dainty with an inviting figure under a white satin wrap. Her golden blonde hair was swept into an adorable ponytail and her large, deep blue eyes were red-rimmed from crying. “It has happened.”

“I’m sorry to break the bad news.” How did you tell a barely dressed vision of beauty that her boyfriend was dead. “I’m afraid Piotr had an accident. He… he didn’t survive. He made me promise to come and tell you.”

“Did you promise to send me home?” Jenja asked.

“Yes, I promised.” Now that I was sobering up I realised I had no idea about how to send a beautiful woman to Poland. “I don’t know when the funeral will be…”

Jenja waved an imperious hand as she came down the stairs. “I can go home now.” She pushed past Lindsey and I and wandered into the living room. I exchanged a worried glance with Lindsey. Perhaps she was in shock.

“I can look into flights tomorrow.” I said. “Have you got a lot of stuff to take back?”

Jenja looked at me in bewilderment. “I am Vila. You burn the lock of hair and I can go home. Where is Piotr’s green shirt?”

“Would you like a cup of tea.” I said.

Lindsey shook her head. “She really is a supernatural air spirit. Piotr told me his family sent her over as they were worried he didn’t have a girlfriend.”

My first thought was that why did all these families worry about girlfriends. Then my mind caught up. “What?”

Jenja sighed. “They never believe me here.” She waved her dainty hand. For a moment I was caught in the sweet elegance of the pink painted fingernails before I grabbed hold of the door frame. That casual gesture had sent a stiff breeze around the room that knocked the cheap prints off the walls and whirled the letters from their pile on the mantelpiece to all corners of the room.

“The Greeks called them sylphs, I think.” Lindsey said, picking up the envelopes.

“Sylphs are pathetic.” Jenja said. “They don’t know how to treat a man.”

I inched nearer to Lindsey for protection. “This lock of hair?”

“Yes! A lock of my hair. I am bound to it. Once it is burned, I am free and can go home.” Jenja smiled. For a heartbeat I was dazzled by the beauty. I wanted to lay the world at her feet. I wanted to sweep her into my arms and never let her go. I wanted to kneel before her. Lindsey elbowed me sharply in the ribs and I gathered what was left of my wits.

“Where is the lock of hair?” I looked around. “Did Piotr keep it in his room?”

“His mother sewed it into the pocket of his green shirt. She knew he would never look there. That way he couldn’t send me back and get an English girl.” Jenja said, looking around. “Where is Piotr’s shirt?”

“The green one that had the frayed collar and the airplane design on the back?” Lindsey said, feeling her way into a chair and sitting down.

“Yes, that’s the one.” Jenja said. “If I do not burn it then I am trapped in England.” She turned to me and looked deep into my eyes. “I want to go home.”

Before I could promise to dedicate my life to finding the green shirt, Lindsey grabbed my arm and squeezed it hard, digging her nails in. She turned to Jenja. “There’s a problem. You see, I was sorting out some of my old clothes to donate to the church sale and Piotr gave me some old clothes he didn’t want to add to my bag.” Lindsey swallowed. “He said that the green shirt was falling apart but someone may have a use for it.”

“I have a use for it!” Jenja snapped, her eyes sparkling. “I want to use it to go home. Where is this bag of valuable clothing?”

“It’s just old clothes for the sale tomorrow at the church.” Lindsey huddled back into her chair. “I took it down this afternoon.”

Jenja stamped her foot and another sharp breeze rattled around the room. “That is not good.”

“That’s okay, we can just call in tomorrow and buy the shirt, can’t we?” I looked between the two women. “It’s only a church sale. It will be less than a pound.”

Jenja shook her head. “I know these women. They will be in early in the morning to sort out the clothes and to take the best stuff for themselves. They are known for it.”

“Mrs Rafferty can get quite fierce.” Lindsey said. “But the shirt was worn out. I can’t see anyone buying it.”

Jenja started pacing, her wrap working loose and showing more of her than I expected. “What if they decide it is no good but they can put it in with the rags? I know that they have a deal with Mr Rafiq. He takes the stuff that doesn’t sell for his own reasons.” Jenja dropped into a chair across the room.

“He’s got a deal with a warehouse in Dewsbury.” Lindsey said. “Why don’t we just go in early before the sale starts and explain that we need the shirt?”

“Mrs Rafferty will not help with anything to do with me.” Jenja said. “Not after the incident with the marmalade. And I must be there to see if it is the right shirt.”

At this point I started to wonder exactly what had been in the bottle and how long it took to leave the system. “So what can we do?”

Never ask an air spirit a rhetorical question. It’s not something that comes up often, but I think it’s worth sharing. From what I read afterwards, air spirits are tricky, duplicitous and malevolent. They are also impressively slick at persuading people to do stupid things. That is why Lindsey and I found ourselves standing outside a church hall at two in the morning, wondering how to break in.

“There are bound to be alarms.” I said.

“Who steals from churches?” Lindsey asked.

I looked at her. “You would be surprised.”

“But it’s just a church sale of old clothes and second-hand ornaments.” Lindsey said. “There’s nothing of value.”

I shook my head and pointed to the alarm box at the side of the building. “We are not in the best part of Leeds. People will steal the copper from the wiring.”

Jenja looked thoughtfully at the church hall. Back home in Lincolnshire, the church hall had been solid stone and about a hundred years old. This was a slapdash wooden building, about twenty years old, with wire mesh over the large, square windows which were interspersed with panels of cheap turquoise plastic. She looked down at the rubbish strewn and overgrown flower beds that surrounded it. She paced around the structure, nodding and turned to us. “You will wait across the street. Then you will help me find the shirt.”

Lindsey and I crossed the street and leaned against the stone wall. There weren’t any houses on the street, thank goodness. The church next to the hall and the school we leaned against were empty, as was the ramshackle garages and the deserted fast food shop. I watched Jenja pacing up and down outside the hall. “Why are we here?”

“Because you made a promise to someone who died almost immediately afterwards, and I can’t wait to get Jenja out of my house.” Lindsey said.

“She’s not really going to break into a church hall, is she?” I asked. “And what if we’re caught? I work in insurance.”

“And I work in a solicitor’s office.” Lindsey said. “Piotr was a lovely lad, but I wish I had never met him.”

I was about to agree with her when Jenja started dancing. She was spinning as she ran up and down the street and around and around the hall. I shivered as the suddenly warm night chilled and a sharp wind whipped along the street. Dust and crisp packets whirled behind her and the moribund roses dipped and rattled as she passed. “I don’t think this is good.” I grabbed Lindsey’s arm and pulled her inside the small school doorway.

“She’s going to do something dreadful, isn’t she?” Lindsey yelled over the noise of the cans clattering in the gutters. I nodded, and with some instinct I didn’t know I had, pulled Lindsey against me and turned us away from the open street.

It was a good call. Behind us I heard a huge crash echoing with glass against metal. I could feel dust and grit spatter against my back as we huddled against the door. As the echoes of the explosion died down, I heard Jenja shouting, “Come on, you must help me.”

The nearest street light had been shattered in the blast, but enough light came from the ones further away to see the damage. Jenja was leaning in through what was left of the window. Something had blasted out all the church hall’s windows and the main door which sagged helplessly on its hinges. Twisted metal and glass shards littered over the road and there were cracks in the windows of the school and church. We ran over, squinting in the dust.

“I do not have a torch,” Jenja said. “And it may alert people if we switch on the lights.”

“People may have been alerted by the noise.” I said, shouting over the sound of the alarm.

“Then you have to be quick.” Jenja said and looked at us.

Never climb in through a broken window, no matter how much you think you have cleared it. There are always tiny shards of glass still embedded in the frame that will claw your skin off. None of us were wearing jackets and so I pulled the curtains hanging askew from the curtain pole and made a rough pad to climb over. Jenja went first, undaunted by the glass and splinters scattered over the floor. “You must help me. It’s here. I can feel it.”

I helped Lindsey in next and followed, my heart in my throat. I wished I was still drunk as I pulled out my phone and switched on the torch. My ears were still ringing from the blast and the noise from the alarm was getting on my nerves. It was obviously affecting Jenja as she hurried over to the pile of bags in one corner. “It’s in here, somewhere. Please help.”

“We had better be quick before the police arrive.” I said, ripping open the nearest bag and dumping the contents on the floor. I looked at Lindsey. She shook her head.

“That stuff isn’t mine.” She held her phone steady for light as Jenja and I tore open the bags scattering tired baby clothes and worn shirts across the glass and splinters. I kept glancing out of the window, waiting for sirens, but nothing came.

Jenja shrieked. “Here it is! I have found it!”

“Are you sure?” Lindsey asked, training the light of the phone on the worn fabric in Jenja’s hands. There was a faint lump in the pocket flap and Jenja used one of her long nails to slit open the fabric. She sighed and pulled out a neatly tied bundle of golden hair.

“This is mine. I can go home now.”

We got back to Lindsey’s house without any trouble. A few people were peering past us through cracks in their curtains as we passed, but they were all looking at the dust hanging over the church hall and ignoring us. Lindsey unlocked the door and we headed for the kitchen where Jenja pulled out a small, metal pan and placed the lock of her hair precisely in its centre. “The lighter, please.” Lindsey handed over the lighter they used for the kitchen candles and Jenja smiled. “Thank you for all your help. Please pray for Piotr.” And then she lit the hair.

Never light a lock of hair in a rental kitchen, especially if you light it directly under the smoke detector. All your neighbours will hate you for setting off the alarm at three in the morning. You should also never light a lock of hair in that rental kitchen if it’s going to release a Vila. Because right after the smoke alarm went off, Jenja sighed and vanished. Every window in the street blew out and all the street lights shattered. As the noise of breaking glass faded, there was the thumping sound as tiles slid from roofs up to a hundred yards away. And just as that settled down, the water main blew.

Good things did come out of that drink with a stranger. As Lindsey’s house was wrecked and the landlord had a breakdown, Lindsey moved in with me. One thing led to another and now we’re getting married in three months’ time. I now look at insurance claims for wind damage in a new light. I have never been able to find that little house with the golden drink again, although I walk around the area every now and then. And when it’s stormy and the winds are howling around the chimneys, I think of Jenja and wonder what she’s doing now. Then I thank my good fortune that I’m not a part of that and say a prayer for Piotr.