Darren looked around the small flat. The chill of an unwelcome and supernatural presence hung heavily and the bunch of flowers his host had brought in with them was already shrivelling in its supermarket cellophane. “Yes, there is definitely a problem.” He frowned. “Can you tell me a little of the background.”
Emma looked around her, wondering where to start. “It’s been going on for a few weeks. I thought it was the guttering at first. I got mildew on the wallpaper in that corner, for some reason, but the plaster behind it was dry. The landlord couldn’t work it out.”
“What’s the landlord like?” Darren asked.
Emma shrugged. “I’ve been here around three months. He leaves me alone, and I’m glad of it. But the boiler is in good working order and the appliances are quite new.” She looked anxiously at Darren. “I’m tied into the lease for another nine months. I can’t just walk away from it. I need to get this sorted.”
Darren grunted. “What about the neighbours?”
“There’s a man downstairs, a little older than me,” Emma said. “He’s in his late fifties, I suppose. He works in the week and gets drunk on Saturdays.” She grinned. “He starts singing punk anthems around 8.30pm and is usually quiet by 10. He seems pleasant enough. I’ve not really spoken to him.” She nervously adjusted a cushion. “Won’t you sit down?”
Darren shook his head. “How about upstairs?”
“The flat directly above is empty,” Emma said. “It was a mother and a couple of kids. They moved out the week I moved in. I’ve not heard any noises. Apparently the leases ran from the same dates. She was tied in as well.” She watched Darren pacing up and down the flat with leashed energy. He was not her idea of a priest. Priests, in her opinion, were not tall, well-muscled and ridiculously handsome. And they definitely did not wear well washed supermarket jeans with heavy boots, a faded black shirt and a leather jacket with their dog collar. They also had better people skills. Emma felt that she was getting marks deducted for silliness. “I suppose you could get in there, if you needed to.”
“I’d rather not start by breaking and entering,” Darren said. “Do you know why the people above left?”
“I thought priests could get all sorts of permissions,” Emma said. “I can give you the number of the agency.”
Darren peered through the blinds and out over the car park. “I’m not good with bureaucracy. And did they say why they were moving?” He turned and gave Emma a pointed look.
“Sorry, Phoenix next door said that they were moving in with the woman’s boyfriend,” Emma said. “Are you sure that I can’t get you a cup of tea or coffee?”
“Phoenix?” Darren said. “What sort of name is ‘Phoenix?’ Does she think she’s a superhero?”
Emma thought of the plump, dishevelled lady next door. “No, I don’t think so,” she said. “She told me that her name was revealed to her in a sitting. I think she used to be called Tina.”
Darren stared. “What?”
Emma smiled weakly. “She’s very nice, but into the new age stuff. You know, Tarot cards and crystals and stuff. I never believed in it much, until this.” She gestured helplessly at the blackened flowers on the table. “I think I’ve heard it described as, ‘weird washing powder and knits her own rice’. She follows an alternative lifestyle.” Emma trailed off a little in the face of Darren’s evident disapproval. “She’s saving up for a smallholding.”
“Does she look like she could farm?” Darren asked.
“Um…” Emma didn’t like to be cruel but the man downstairs had more than once been called to help Phoenix with spiders. Besides, she didn’t seem like the outdoor type. “I’m not sure.”
Darren shook his head. “Let’s hope that she’s bad at saving.” He paced back across the room. “What’s this?” he asked, waving a hand at the macrame wall hanging.
“Phoenix gave it me,” Emma said. “She seemed to think that it was lucky.”
Darren looked closer. “How long has it been here?”
“She gave it as a house-warming present.” Emma looked embarrassed. “She was insistent that I put it up straight away, and she always checks that it’s there. It’s not really my taste.”
Darren frowned. “Did you tell Phoenix about the problems?”
Emma nodded. “She said that the previous tenant had the same issues and that’s why he moved out as soon as the lease ended. But then she said she knew someone from her spiritualist group who could help me out. She was quite keen, but I felt better with someone more traditional.” Emma shot an uncomfortable glance at Darren, who looked absolutely nothing like a traditional priest. “I didn’t want to offend her, but I don’t feel comfortable with crystals and that.”
Darren sighed. “Do you have anywhere to stay if things go bad?” he asked.
Emma looked around nervously. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if your neighbour starts harassing you?” Darren said, looking closer at the macrame piece. “Do any of her group turn up here?”
Emma thought for a moment. “I don’t think that I’ve seen anyone. And I can’t just leave here – like I said, I’m tied into the lease.”
“It depends,” Darren frowned and then pulled out a pocket-knife. “The flat isn’t cursed. This knotted thing is.”
“It’s a scam that seems to have been doing the rounds of the area,” Darren said. “A nice neighbour brings in a housewarming gift that you have to put up straight away. And that neighbour can keep coming around and checking that it’s still in place. After all, the neighbour is so nice and helpful so you can’t really stop them coming in. And that knotted thing holds a curse.”
“It’s macrame,” Emma interrupted. “And it is nice.”
“Yes, quite pretty,” Darren agreed. “But the nice neighbour, Phoenix in this case, knows someone and while they won’t charge, they will accept donations to their group. It’s all for good causes and above board, of course. They make sure that you’re so grateful that the curse has gone that you’ll be generous. And they’ll encourage you to come along and be part of that group. Before you know it, you’ll be buying their crystals at inflated prices, and paying for workshops and blessings and courses in their faith.” Darren almost spat the last word out. “I’m a minister of the Anglican Church, the Church of England. My faith is my rock. And I’ve worked with all sorts of Christians, from Greek Orthodox to the most austere Presbytarian, and their faith has been just as solid. I’ve worked with Imams from the mosques, and Buddhists and Sikhs and Wiccans and pagans and all the shades of faith, all of them taking strength from their beliefs. This is nothing to do with belief. This is to do with greed and spite and malice.” He took a deep breath. “Could you give me a moment to compose myself.”
Emma watched in silence. Darren appeared to be praying in front of the macrame hanging. She could feel the atmosphere changing around her. There was still the edge of decay and despair, but now there was a charge of electricity around the room, like the beginning of a thunderstorm. She jumped as there was a knock on the door.
“Emma, are you alright?” Phoenix called through the door. “Is everything okay?”
“Keep her away from me,” Darren muttered as he frowned at the macrame in front of him. He muttered some words and a quick flash of purple light ran around the knotted hanging.
“It’s okay, Phoenix,” Emma called. “I’m just in the middle of something.”
“My telly’s gone all funny,” Phoenix called. “How about you?”
“I’ll check in a minute, Phoenix, and I’ll be around to let you know,” Emma said, stalling.
“Are you having a manifestation?” Phoenix called. “Should I call Mercury? He can be here in twenty minutes. I’ll give him a call, shall I?”
“No!” Emma shouted. “I mean, no, it’s okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Let me in, Emma,” There was an unexpected steel in Phoenix’s voice. “I can help.”
Emma forced herself to stay back from the door. Phoenix’s voice was strangely compelling and it rang around her head like a chimed wineglass. “Just five minutes.” She looked back at Darren who was raising a hand slowly towards the hanging. He muttered a few words in what sounded like Latin and carefully, every inch of him braced for action, slit the rope at the bottom of the hanging.
Emma was flung back by the force of the blast as something hot and foul-smelling washed over her, pushing at her like a tidal wave. At the same time she heard her door splinter and Phoenix fell into the room through the ruined frame. Darren turned and spat out a few strange words which Phoenix seemed to knock physically aside. To Emma’s horror, Phoenix bounded across the room with unheard of grace and speed and grabbed Darren by the throat. Darren raised his shoulder, spun, broke the hold and continued around to get the momentum for a hard kick to Phoenix’s side. Phoenix gasped and then swung a wide, arcing punch but Darren ducked under. “Get out!” he yelled to Emma.
Emma turned to the door but lightning flashed across the room and blocked her path. She turned back. Darren was fighting hard against Phoenix, who seemed, somehow, to be a lot stronger than usual, and, as Emma watched, Phoenix picked up the sofa and hurled at Darren, who ducked. Emma turned back to the door as the sofa frame cracked behind her. The air in front of her seemed to be somehow thicker there, somehow darker. The lightning swirled and crackled, discharging around the ruins of the door frame and the corners of the windows. A shadow was forming.
She turned back to the fight. Darren was keeping Phoenix at arms’ length, dodging and blocking as he weighed up his options. “Emma, you need to get out,” he yelled.
“The door’s blocked.” Emma turned back and flinched as a sharp crack of thunder echoed through the flat and suddenly there was a man standing there, tall dark and absolutely furious. He glared past Emma, as Phoenix swung Emma’s favourite lamp at Darren’s head. Emma flinched as the lamp hit a mirror.
The stranger gestured at Phoenix who spun around as she noticed his presence. “No!” she cried out, “No, I can explain…”
The stranger gestured again and Phoenix twisted, wreathed in the same purple lightning. Somehow she was being folded, smaller and smaller as lightning crackled around the room. In front of Emma’s appalled gaze, the untidy, plump woman was turning and twisting like an origami crane, her features blurring as she shrank. Darren stepped clear. “Wait a minute!”
It was too late. Phoenix screamed one long, last scream and then twisted into a small, knotted, brown bundle of tattered hair and fur which fell with a prosaic thud onto the floor. Emma stared and then jumped as the stranger stepped forward and bowed to Darren.
“My thanks for your rescue, sir. I apologise for any distress and inconvenience to you and your fair lady. I am Vertiver, and I have been trapped by this creature…” he waved a dismissive hand at the bundle on the floor, “…for far too long. I owe you my life, and more.”
Darren shook his head. “No, I’m happy to help.”
“My life was a mere existence, trapped and twisted, forced to perform harsh magics.” Vertiver bowed to Emma. “I apologise for the unpleasantness I brought. I swear that I would not willingly torment a lady.” He turned back to Darren. “My rescuer, my lord, I owe you my freedom. I cannot turn away from my obligation.”
“You can,” Darren said with conviction. “You really can.”
Vertiver shook his head. “You are mortal. I shall pledge to serve you for the rest of your days. That is my oath and my word. I can do no less after being freed from that prison, that dark, dreary, desperate dungeon where I was bound by their cursed knots.”
“No, not at all.” Darren stumbled over his words in his haste to get them out. “No obligation, seriously, my duty.”
“But it is my honour. And no service could be more onerous than the labour recently forced,” Vertiver said, bowing again. “You are a priest? Well, that should make my service interesting and with far nobler deeds than my late captor.”
“Bloody hell,” Darren said.