Where Do You Start?

Paul pulled up in front of the stone cottage with a sigh of relief. He was a city lad, born and bred, and the country roads had been a challenge. The drive with all the narrow lanes, blind corners and dry stone walls inches away from the car had been harrowing. He got out and stretched. The roads may be a nightmare, but there were compensations. The air was fresh and the only sounds he could hear were birds and sheep, apart from the thumping coming from the cottage window. He knocked politely on the door. “Hello, is that Mike?” he called.

There was a patter of feet and the door flew open. A small brunette, flushed and out of breath, smiled at him. “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Carol.”

“Of course I remember you,” Paul said. “We met at Richard’s house, during the interview.”

Carole grinned. “It’s good to see you. Come on in. I’ll give you a quick look around. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“I’d love one,” Paul said, relaxing a little. “The drive here was terrifying.”

Carol laughed as she led Paul inside. “You’ll get used to it. Okay, this is the hall…”

Carol showed Paul around the deceptively large cottage. “I was in the middle of giving it a good clean when you knocked. Richard has suggested that I come down here once a week to give it a turn out, depending on how you feel.” She looked around the plain, plastered walls. “It could do with it. The place has been neglected for years. Anyway, once you have had a fire going for a while, it will warm up.” She led him out of the back door. “Firewood is there.” She waved an arm at a well stocked store. “And you can get propane in Hebden Bridge. That’s probably the best place to call in for food, or Halifax, or even Burnley. There isn’t a town close.”

“I’m not used to it being so quiet,” Paul said, looking out the window to the rolling moor. “But I can see me getting used to it.”

“I moved here from London,” Carol said. “It was a real shock to the system. By the way, the electricity can go in bad weather. Follow me and I’ll show you where we keep oil lamps and candles. There are some solar powered lamps as well, on the shelves in the kitchen, but Richard is old fashioned and he likes to make sure that we are all prepared.”

Paul peered at the cupboard under the stairs. “What’s in the safe?”

“Hmm?” Carol looked again. “I’ve no idea. I’ll ask Richard. Anyway, on the subject of being prepared, you can’t always get a signal for mobile phones so we use landlines.” She led Paul across to the large living room. “There’s a list of useful numbers next to the phone. You may want to copy them into your mobile. Mike runs a construction business and Richard works in IT so between them they can sort out most things. I’ve stocked the kitchen with the most obvious things, but there are farm shops around for any extras, and you can always pop in to somewhere like Todmorden or Haworth.”

Paul followed Carol into the kitchen. “I don’t think that there’s a house within miles. I can’t exactly knock on a neighbour’s door to borrow some milk.”

Carol laughed. “Well, we’re just up the hill. I usually have a good stock cupboard.” She frowned. “With more jobs working remotely, a lot of people have been moving up here. I’ve had a few people knock on my door, and there’s one that seems very persistent.” She shook her head and clicked the kettle on. “I’m sure that you’ll be fine. I’ve got tea and coffee in here, and I put a few packets of rice and pasta in the cupboards. I baked some biscuits and cakes for you – I’d like the boxes back, please – and I put a few meals in the freezer.”

Paul stopped for a moment. He wasn’t used to this. “It’s very kind of you,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“It’s not a problem,” Carol said. She handed him a mug and beckoned him outside. A stone bench stood behind the kitchen door, looking over a tiny, unkempt back garden and then across a dry stone wall to the moorland. “No-one has lived here for years.” She frowned. “I think there’s some sort of mystery going on. I don’t know if Mike is planning to convert it to a holiday cottage or something.” She shrugged and took her seat at one end. “All I know is that there is a stack of papers that Mike and Richard want sorting. Oh, I nearly forgot.” Carol waited until Paul was sat next to her and handed over a key ring. “Front door, back door, meter cupboard and these two are the paper room.” She dropped the keys into Paul’s waiting hand. “Richard would like you to keep the paper room locked at all times.” She looked over towards a large house in the distance. “I’ve started keeping the doors locked at Darke Manor,” she said. “I never used to, but since Theo McGuire started prowling around, I’ve not felt as comfortable.”

“I can’t imagine leaving a door unlocked,” Paul said. “I’ve always lived in the city. But I’ll be careful.”

Paul watched her leave and then unloaded the car. He had kept things to a minimum. His exercise equipment, some clothes, toiletries and laptop didn’t take up much space. His books and notebooks had taken up a little more. Paul looked around carefully before opening the boot. When you practice magic in a room in a shared house you learned to be discreet and you learned to work with the bare essentials of tools. It still took up most of the boot, however, and the polished wooden cases that he had commissioned were a contrast to the battered holdalls and supermarket bags that held the rest of his stuff. He really didn’t want anyone to see these. He carried the equipment to one of the spare rooms. He could always hide it back in the car on the days that Carol came cleaning, or perhaps he could shove them in the locked paper room. Paul wondered how much there could be in there. There was bound to be space if he was careful.

 Paul took his time. Richard and Mike had been clear. His job was to make sense of a collection of handwritten notebooks and papers, get them in some sort of order and catalogue them so that there was a rough guide to what was there. They seemed very trusting, Paul thought, as he sat on the stone bench and had the protein shake and salad that he had brought with him. There were no guidelines, no timesheet, and no hint that they would even call in regularly. They seemed to think that the job would take a while, and the pay was quite generous, so what was the catch? They hadn’t even asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Paul carefully tidied the remains of his lunch away, grabbed a notebook and, after checking that the front and back doors were locked, opened the so-called paper room. For a long moment he just stood and stared. He hadn’t expected this.

Carol had not been allowed in here, that was obvious. Apart from the generous amounts of dust, there was no hint of cleaning spray hanging in the atmosphere like the rest of the cottage. Instead it was musty and the air felt dead and overstuffed. It was a large room and dozens of side tables were heaped with bundles of papers, notebooks, files, maps and battered books. A couple of generous mahogany bookcases on the far wall spilled over with wedges of more notebooks and papers. The wide window was barred and locked, with dirty net curtains hiding the view and filtering the light. Opposite was a huge map that looked older than Paul, complete with pencil notes and rusty push pins. Someone had brought in a small folding desk and computer chair and, from the drag marks, shoved another box of paper out of the way to set them out. A fresh post-it note was stuck to it. Paul carefully shut the door behind him and went over to the desk. The note read, ‘filing cabinets and filing supplies arriving Monday. Please inform if more needed. R.’

Paul put his tea and notebook down on the table and turned around several times. Where did he start? What was all this stuff? He picked up the nearest notebook and opened it at random. The handwriting was haphazard and the pencil was smudged, but Paul could read the title at the top of the page – Rogue werewolf at Carter’s Farm. He picked up another random book. Attempted demon summoning at Carr End. He strode over to a stack of leather bound books and tried to decipher the titles. His eyes widened as he read Amphitheatrum Sapientae Aeternae, Solius Verae. He’d only ever heard of that as he researched alchemy. He never thought that he would ever hold a copy – it went for thousands online.  

Paul sat down carefully in the cheap computer chair and stared around him. What on earth had he found? And what was he supposed to do now?

You can find the first part of Paul’s adventure, Words, here and you can find the Interview here.

The Interview

“Please, come in. I’m Mike Dixon and this is Richard Darke. We are the trustees behind this project. I hope that you found us without too much trouble.” Mike gestured to a chair in the well-furnished study.

Paul Kidson smiled and sat down. “The roads are a little tricky up here in the wilds of the Penines, but I checked a map before I came and I have a very good satnav.”

“Would you like a tea or a coffee, Paul?” Richard asked. “I think that anyone who makes it as far as my house deserves some refreshments.”

“Thank you, a cup of tea would be nice.” Paul looked around the study. “Is this where the job is?”

Richard shook his head. “I’m afraid it isn’t. Hang on, I’ll just shout for my housekeeper.”

Mike shuffled the papers in front of him as Richard yelled for Carol, his housekeeper. There was something about Paul that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The man had come for a job interview. He should be the one shifting nervously in his seat. Instead he seemed to be completely in control. “So, your last place of work shut down?” he asked.

Paul nodded. “The owner wanted to retire. None of his family were interested and, to be honest, it was an old fashioned business that wasn’t keeping up. Mr Andrews, my boss, wouldn’t deal with emails, for example. I had to print it all out for him. He refused to have a website. It was a shame because it was a nice place to work.”

Mike flicked through the papers. “You ran the office, according to this. Does that mean all of it?”

“I sent the accounts to the accountant once a year,” Paul said. “But I did everything else. Mr Andrews paid for me to take courses at night school.”

Mike met Richard’s eyes. The qualifications looked promising, with a lengthy list of certificates. “A small cottage comes with the job, or rather, the job is inside a small cottage. Are you prepared to move here?” The man was too controlled. There didn’t seem to be a stray movement.

“As you can see, I left a foster home a few years ago,” Paul stated. “I’ve lived in house shares since. I don’t really have any roots. Moving here would be a bonus. The area is beautiful.”

“Do you have any connection to the area?” Richard asked.

Paul shook his head. “No, I just saw the advert and thought it would be interesting.”

“It’s interesting, alright,” Mike said. “There is a mass of documents and books that need cataloguing. There are boxes of diaries that need transcribing and, well, just a load of stuff that needs sorting out. The cottage has a room full of paperwork and, to be honest, we don’t know where to start.”

There was a knock on the door and a young woman came in with a trolley. “Sorry to interrupt.” She held up a teapot and looked questioningly at Paul.

“Milk, no sugar,” he said. He stretched out a hand to take the cup and his shirt sleeve rode up, exposing part of a livid burn.

“That looks bad,” Richard said. “How did you get that?”

Paul looked at his arm. “On the oven,” he lied. “To be honest, I’d forgotten about it.”

Carol smiled brightly, handed Mike and Richard their cups and left.

“That was my housekeeper,” Richard said. “She gave the cottage a bit of a clean for whoever gets the job, and we’ve supplied a few basics. Some of the work will be done up here, and she’ll be around. She’s very efficient.”

Paul sipped the excellent cup of tea and smiled. “I’m sure she is. The job said that those of a superstitious nature should not apply.”

Mike had been dreading this sort of question. “A lot of the papers refer to folk beliefs,” he said airily. “We think that there may have been a sort of code, or perhaps ongoing mental issues…”

Richard jumped in to help him. “If you are bothered by the idea of ghosts and such then perhaps it isn’t the job for you. And some of the books are of what could be considered an ‘occult’ nature.”

“We think that people got carried away. I mean, no-one believes in magic anyway,” Mike added.

“Of course not,” Paul said. “But I’ve always found folk belief fascinating. It would be interesting to see what’s there.”

“We might consider publishing some of the papers later, or donating to a museum or library,” Richard said. “For academic purposes only,” he added quickly. “They would need to be in order for that.”

“Are there a lot of papers?” Paul asked.

Mike shuddered in spite of himself. “There’s about a ton of them. And all the little diaries and notebooks in leather bindings, stacked three deep in the bookshelves. We expect the work to take at least a year.”

“So we have to ask about how you would feel being so isolated,” Richard said. “We can be all but cut off over the winter, and the power goes down regrettably often.”

“The chance of some peace and quiet after the last few years sounds wonderful,” Paul said. “I’ve been cooped up with roommates and the thought of a bathroom that I don’t have to share sounds wonderful.”

“Would you like to take your tea into the living room and wait,” Richard asked. “I’d like to have a word with Mike.”

They watched Paul pick up his cup and leave. Mike closed the door carefully and then the werewolf and vampire looked at each other. Mike shook his head. “It’s got to be him. I mean, I don’t think that he’s the one but he’s the one meant to do the project. No-one else has applied.”

“There’s some strange forces at work,” Richard said. “I hope that he isn’t too interested in occult documents. We would have our hands full then. But we need the stuff in order for when the Paladin turns up.”

Mike shook his head. “It feels wrong. The Prince hasn’t been out of his domain for, what is it?”

“I haven’t seen him out of his lands for about two hundred years,” said Richard. “He was never really interested in vampires like Nathan and I anyway. I’ve heard that he’s become too susceptible to iron, like all the old and powerful elfen. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was replaced.”

“And that’s a war I want our pack to stay out of,” Mike said. “It never ends well for the werewolves. But, well, it’s not right that we’re looking out for a Paladin.”

“What choice do we have?” Richard sighed. “I suppose we had better tell him that he’s got the job.”

Richard and Mike are from ‘Dinner at Dark’ and you can read more about the world in which this is set here, ‘The World of the White Hart

And you can read the first part of Paul’s story here, in a little flash fiction from last week.

Tribute

cooked meat on wooden surface beside drink and foods in bowls
Image from Unsplash, taken by Alexander Kovacs

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired) lifted his head at the same time his great hound, Garm, pricked up his ears. After a few moments, there was a knock on the door. Cerne frowned at Garm. “I’m not expecting anyone, old boy. Who do you think it is?” He wandered down the hall and opened the door. He flinched as the middle aged woman in bright pink waved her arms wildly and screeched.

“O Great One! I, Madeline, beseech your aid!” She made a passable attempt at a curtsey.

“No, please stand, er, Madeline.” Cerne stared as Garm backed away. “Would you like to come in?”

Madeline looked terrified. “I would not presume, O Great One,” she declaimed loudly. “I merely come seeking a favour. I bring tribute.” She waved at the pile of shopping bags behind her.

“But let’s not disturb the neighbours,” Cerne said. Garm had retreated back into the living room.

“Of course,” Madeline said, in her normal voice. “I’m sorry.”

“And you can call me Mr Cornwall. I’m retired, but I help out where I can.” Cerne looked at the pile of bags. The morning was looking up.

“It’s my Mikey,” Madeline said. “He’s everything to me, O Great One, I mean, Mr Cornwall. He gives meaning to my life. And now he has gone.”

Cerne did not feel like dealing with errant lovers. “I’m not sure that I can help much with this,” he said. “I’m good at hunting.”

“I spoke to Dawn and she said that you were so kind with the wedding and everything,” Madeline said. “And I knew that you would be good to a helpless old woman missing her only companion, my reason for living.”

Cerne had a bad feeling about this. “I’ll do what I can,” he said. “So, tell me about Mikey.”

“He’s got the sweetest nature and is so gentle.” Madeline rummaged in her handbag. “So many people say that he is a complete angel. There’s not many that have a lovely nature like him.”

“Hey, Cerne! Have any of your neighbours lost a dog?” Taranis wandered around the corner holding a small chihuahua. “I found this lad down the road looking lost and I thought I’d ask around.”

Cerne wasn’t sure whether his old friend was going to be a help or a hindrance. “Madeline, this is Taranis, retired god of thunder. You can call him Mr Thomas.” He looked hard at Taranis. “I’m in the middle of a consultation.

Madeline shrieked as she saw Taranis. “O Great One! You found him!”

“What?” Cerne said.

“What?” Taranis looked at Cerne.

“My Mikey, you’ve found him!” Madeline moved fast for a woman of her age. She hurtled down the path towards Taranis.

Taranis stared in horror at the large pink lady advancing at speed towards him. “Umm…”

“My Mikey!” Madeline grabbed at the small dog who leapt into her arms, his tail wagging furiously as he licked his owner’s face.

“That’s Mikey?” Cerne said carefully.

“My little Mikey,” Madeline sighed. “He’s such a good boy, except when he runs out when the nasty meter reader called.”

“I can see it’s your dog,” Taranis said. “I’m glad I found him for you.”

Madeline ignored him and raced back up the path to fling her arms around an appalled Cerne. “You are just as good as Dawn said. Thank you for granting my request.”

“I found the dog,” Taranis said behind her.

Madeline ignored him. She attempted another curtsey. “O Great Cerne, Mighty Hunter, Lord of the Forest, thank you for bringing back my lost dog, after hunting him down and rescuing him from his peril.”

“He was wandering around the petunias at Number 43,” Taranis said. “And I found him.”

Madeline stared worshipfully up at Cerne, tears in her eyes. “Thank you for making an old woman very happy,” she said, her voice breaking. “Accept my offering. And you can keep the bags.”

Cerne watched, stunned, as Madeline walked away, hugging the chihuahua close. Then he looked at the bags. “What happened?”

I found a lost dog and you got the tribute,” Taranis said. “What is it?”

“Give me a hand,” Cerne lifted up two of the bags. “And let’s get away from the neighbours.”

Taranis lifted the other two bags and followed his old friend inside. “I didn’t recognise her,” he said. “Is she new?”

“Probably,” Cerne set the bags down in the middle of the floor and started unpacking. “I hope so.”

Garm woofed and trotted over as Cerne and Taranis unpacked box after box. Taranis rubbed the dog’s ears. “She included dog treats for you, old boy, as well as our goodies.”

“Honey cakes!” Cerne said. “I hardly ever see these. And they’re made properly, without any of this baking powder nonsense.”

“This is decent wine,” Taranis pulled out a bottle. “It’s not any of the supermarket rubbish.”

“And venison!” Cerne pulled out some more boxes. “A joint of venison with venison sausages, venison burgers…”

“This roast pork is perfect.” Taranis looked up at Cerne. “I found the dog.”

“But she came to me with the tribute,” Cerne said. He shrugged. “We split it.”

Taranis nodded. “Sounds fair.” He thought for a moment. “We can send a quick blessing her way as well. It seems only right.”

Cerne nodded. “But let’s do that before we have the wine.” He tossed a few dog treats to Garm who snatched them out of the air and crunched them with gusto. “Then we can drink a toast to Mikey.”

This story is part of the Stormdance Quarterly Blog Hop. Why not check out the other contributers to the list?

Dragon’s Tale by S. R. Olson
Coming Out by Katharina Gerlach
Rabid Rabbits Revenge by Jemma Weir
Jory’s Gamble Juneta Key 
The Ballad of Jamie Stewart by Vanessa Wells
Moon Flower by Melanie J. Drake
Battlefield by Barbara Lund 

Words

“It’s definitely my mother-in-law,” Elaine said. “She loathed me.”

Paul Kidson glanced briefly at her, then looked back at the glyphs he was chalking on the wall. “It’s tricky to know exactly what we’re dealing with,” he said.

Elaine watched anxiously over his shoulder. “She always said that she would come back and haunt me.”

“Did she die recently?” Paul asked. He meticulously measured an angle and moved across the room to mark another glyph.

“No, it’s been a few years,” Elaine said. “But Dave, my husband, he’s gone abroad on a six month placement that was too good to miss, and my son is at university now, so it’s just me. I think she thought I would be an easy target now,” Elaine added bitterly.

“I see,” Paul kept his opinions to himself. He marked another glyph. “Could you step into this circle here – through the gap, not over the markings, please.”

Elaine, her eyes round, stepped through the gap. Paul closed the gap with chalk and took his position in his own circle. He looked hard at Elaine. “Do not interrupt me. Do not question me. Do not make a sound.” Inwardly he sighed. The damn thing only manifested if Elaine was present, so he had to have her here. He didn’t like working with an audience, though, and he didn’t have much hope that she would respect his concentration. He raised his arms centred himself and began.

Paul found himself fighting for mental balance. He was used to vague presences and a flicker of a candle flame, but this was different. The air grew thick around him and smoke drifted and spiralled. He concentrated hard on his words. A corner of his mind noted Elaine shivering in her circle but she was blessedly silent. He was aware, however, of an underlying muttering. Whatever was haunting this house had a lot to say. A bookshelf toppled over in the corner and Elaine flinched. Paul ignored both it and the crash in the kitchen. He needed to divert the power. He looked over at the jar open in the centre of a chalked triangle. The smoke was swirling nearer but was not near enough. “Spirit, I give you leave to speak!” It was a mistake.

“That woman is in my house without my son!” an older woman’s voice snapped. “That woman is in my house.”

“You know it was my money that paid off the mortgage,” Elaine yelled. “And I paid a load of the bills.”

“But it’s my house,” the voice shouted. “And you are a trollop.”

“After all I’ve done for your son, this is what you’re like?” Elaine shouted. “You should have been down on your knees thanking me, Brenda, for all I had to put up with.”

“You are in my house and you are a slut,” Brenda’s disembodied voice shrieked. “And you haven’t cleaned behind the bed in the spare room.”

“Nobody’s been in there for months!” Elaine yelled back. “Why should I kill myself with housework, working all the hours, then coming back to an empty home with your son away with what he calls his job. I bet he’s not dusting behind spare beds while he’s away.”

“Busy with work?” Brenda’s voice suddenly sounded smooth, like poisoned syrup. “Busy with that young man you call Mick, and you ought to be ashamed.”

“You leave Mick out of this!” Elaine shouted. “And I remember hearing all about you and Bert and what your poor husband thought of it all. You have no room to talk.”

Paul fought for concentration as the allegations and insults flew before he managed to push out the final syllables, helped by Brenda’s increasing focus on the argument with Elaine. With an incongruous pop, the smoke snaked into the jar and curled up, vibrating. Paul muttered a few protective syllables, stepped over the chalk line and flinched. A crack of electricity ran through the air but, before the smoke could escape, Paul clipped the lid over the jar and wrapped it quickly in red thread. He stood, wincing, and said a few more words before nodding at Elaine. “You can come out of the circle now.”

Elaine stumbled across the chalk line and stared at the jar. “Is that her?”

“It could be something using her voice,” Paul said. “It sounded like generic insults to me. I think it’s more likely to be a malevolent spirit.”

“It could be her as well as a malevolent spirit,” Elaine said. “That woman was poison.” She glared at the jar. “She spoiled my engagement, my wedding, my honeymoon, my first baby, the Christening…” She looked at Paul, pale faced and swaying next to her and then down at his arm. A burn mark had sliced through his shirt from wrist to elbow and deep into the skin beneath. “You had better run that under the cold tap before you do anything else.”

Paul looked down at the livid mark, then across at the jar, which was rocking slightly. “I think I’ll just take care of one last thing. I don’t want whatever that is to have the last word.”

Chat: Take Three Words…

I write Flash Fiction every Monday (or try to) as a way of going to the writing gym. The plan is to shake some ideas free, wake me up and get me looking at writing from a different angle. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it’s an epic fail.

The last few months seem to have been filled with fiction that links to other projects. There’s been a lot of fiction that went with King’s Silver and the latest Grumpy Old Gods anthology. I also felt that my writing was sounding a little dark. I needed to change things up.

My usual source of inspiration is wandering around a supermarket, washing up, driving or generally minding my own business and letting my thoughts wander. Sometimes I worry about where my imagination takes me. It feels like my train of thought has left the station and I’m left behind, picking daisies on the railway tracks and then suddenly an idea about magic creeping into a Medieval fantasy world ambushes me (King’s Silver). Or what happens if someone uses the steampunk power to create a monster in the East End of London (Out of the London Mist). This time I was drawing a blank, so I thought, what the heck, and googled writing prompts. I had a little rummage and found this – Writing Exercises which has a load of great ways to start ideas. I went for the ‘Take Three Nouns’ prompt. My prompt was ‘Attic, Bookcase, Forgiveness’ and I wanted to write something completely new.

(I’ve just clicked on it again and it came up with ‘Adventure, Castle, Necklace’ and how can you not write a story about that. ‘Thrill, Clown, Butterfly is more of a challenge. I can see me going back there.)

So I sat down with the three words in my mind and thought about the ideas that they sparked in me. I really wanted to do something different, and definitely not something spooky. Which is why, of course, I wrote a piece that belongs with the ongoing story of Kane and has a strong supernatural slant. Completely not different and utterly spooky. You can find the story here and the background with Kane here.

I quite like writing the gentle little snippets, like I Never Knew Her Name’, but there seems to be something deep inside me that says that it isn’t a proper story if it’s entirely in the real world. That stories should have a hint of magic and wonder about them.

I suppose that I ought to try more prosaic subjects. After all, it’s supposed to be an exercise to keep my writing fresh. On the other hand, no matter what I try, spooky keeps creeping in. I’m working on the principle – if it’s fun to write, then I should go for it!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Up in the Attic

Kane’s story can be read from the beginning here.

“I’m so sorry to involve you,” Adele said. “But I was finding it…” She trailed off and looked unseeingly past Kane and through the window behind him. “I’m hoping that it will be nothing and I can pull myself together.”

Kane managed a reassuring smile. “It’s okay. Sometimes it can be noises in the pipes, or mice. I’ve been called out to all sorts of places, and it isn’t always ghosts.”

Adele relaxed a little. “You were recommended by someone from my aunts’ church,” she said. “He said that you were more sensible than the usual ‘ghostbuster’ and I didn’t need to worry.” She hesitated. “But you will tell me if you see anything? Even if it’s not what you think that I want to hear?”

Kane nodded. “It’s always easier to deal with the truth,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me a little about the background?”

Adele ushered him into the immaculate, if old fashioned, kitchen. “I was brought up by my aunts,” she said. “It’s sort of complicated. My father was their half-brother, and twenty years younger than them, after his father’s second marriage. And he was quite old when I was born…” Again she trailed off, staring into space. She forced herself back into the present and flashed a brief smile at Kane. “I was two when my parents died and my aunts were in their late fifties. Neither of them had married but had lived here since they inherited from their parents.” She glanced around. “It was all that they had ever known.” She paused again.

“It must have been a challenge for everyone,” Kane said quietly into the silence.

“I suppose so,” Adele said. “I think that they did their best, but it was…” She looked down at the cup of tea she was clutching. “They didn’t approve of modern clothing, or music, or make up or anything. I mean, they grew up in the sixties, but it was like they were Victorian. But they did their best. And they really encouraged me at school. They didn’t understand computers, but they still bought me top of the range kit with all the extras.” Adele paused again. “They understood some things, though. I was always allowed privacy. That was more than many of my friends had. After I was about nine or ten, they said that my room was mine alone. They wouldn’t go in there. And they didn’t. I suppose it’s because they insisted on keeping their own space. They were always fair.” Adele swallowed. “I was never allowed in the attic. They said it was their space, just like my room was my space. Even after they passed, a few months ago, I didn’t want to go up. And that’s where the noises come from.”

“Are you worried that their spirits may be there?” Kane asked. “I’m sorry to ask, but how did they die?”

“Covid,” Adele said. “They were both elderly, it was the start of the pandemic before any of the vaccines, and they were already frail. They never had a chance.” She swallowed again. “I really miss them, even though we had been arguing. They weren’t sure about my boyfriend.”

“What does he think?” Kane asked.

Adele managed another smile. “He dumped me when I wouldn’t sell the house. The aunts were right about him. Sometimes I really miss them.” She looked up at Kane. “I’m sorry to be so maudlin. I suppose that you’re used to it.” She looked a little closer at the slight young man sitting opposite her. “How did you start with this? Mr Eastham said that you had a lot of experience.”

Kane smiled. “I’ve always been able to see ghosts. I just got into the way of helping people out. I can’t make ghosts do what I want,” he added, “but sometimes they listen to me. I usually pass on messages so that they can rest.”

“I’m sure that the relatives are grateful,” Adele said.

Kane thought for a moment. “It depends,” he said, trying to be tactful. “You meet all sorts, but it has its rewards.” He set his cup down and stood up. “I’d like to see the room, please.”

The stairs from the hall to the bedrooms were wide and sweeping but the stairs up to the attic room were cramped and twisted. Kane followed Adele as she forced herself up the final flight, her back straight and determined as she pushed open the solid wood door and walked forward. “Come in,” she said. “This is where the noises are coming from.”

Kane stepped past her and looked around. It was a snug room, a little dusty now, but you could see the good order shining through. There was a table in the centre of the room with two dusty glasses still on them. Two wing backed chairs were placed either side with cushions placed to support an elderly back. Footstools to help creaky knees were placed neatly to the side. There was an old-fashioned radio sat on top of a huge mahogany bookcase and small lap blankets and shawls folded on a rack in the corner. Kane braced himself as he saw the two ghosts of elderly ladies sitting upright and prim in the faded chairs. “Good morning,” he said politely.

“He can see us, Elsie.” The taller of the two ghosts stood and nodded. “Good morning, young man. I’m very glad to see you.”

“Do you know, Mildred, I thought that we would be here forever.” Elsie stood next to her sister and smoothed down her insubstantial skirt before turning to Kane. “I hope you wiped your feet before coming up here.”

“Yes, miss,” Kane looked nervously between the two ghosts. “And Adele showed me where to wash my hands.”

Mildred snorted. “That is as maybe. Well, now that you’re finally here, we have a message before we can get away.”

“It was all very difficult at the end,” Elsie added. “We weren’t allowed visitors. I was quite upset.”

“We both were,” Mildred added. She looked at Adele. “You had better say something to her. The child looks like she has swallowed a fishbone.”

Kane turned to Adele. “I can see two elderly ladies.”

Adele nodded. “I can see by your expression that it’s them. Are they telling you off?”

“Not yet,” Kane said cautiously.

“Don’t be smart!” Mildred snapped. “Seeing us doesn’t make you clever. And don’t slouch!”

Kane found himself straightening up. “No, miss.”

Elsie drifted over to the bookcase. “We have had a long discussion about this,” she said. “And we have agreed that there are two main messages. The first is that we want Adele to know that we are proud of her.”

Mildred nodded. “We may not have always showed it.” She pursed her lips. “We always felt that there was too much silly emotion around. We didn’t feel the need to go around expressing ourselves. That’s for the youngsters. We kept ourselves busy.”

Elsie nodded in agreement. “So you should tell Adele that we are both proud of her. She may not feel that. She always lacked confidence, you know, though we did our best. But if she looks in the bookcase, she may find some reassurance.”

Mildred drifted next to her. “And she should make more time with the young man from next door but two,” she added. “We always stressed that she should look for a young man in a profession and not a trade…”

“The washing could be dreadful if you married into a trade,” Elsie interrupted. “But it’s not so bad now with the new washing machines.”

Mildred gave her sister a sharp look before continuing. “He may only be a plumber, but he has a kind heart which is more than that other good-for-nothing has.” She sniffed hard and glared at Kane. “He wanted her to sell the house so that he could get the money, you know. We heard him on the phone.”

“And then poor Adele would be left without anything,” Elsie added. “Because men of that sort never stay around.”

“Pay attention, young man!” Mildred floated over to Kane. “Tell Adele about the young man next door but two and the bookcase. And that we are very proud of her.” She looked over to her sister. “Well, that’s that. Now we can go and find father.”

Kane watched the ghosts of the elderly ladies fade away before relaxing and turning to Adele. She was looking through the bookcase, looking pale. She looked up at Kane. “They kept everything.”

“They said that they were proud of you, and that you should pay attention to the young man next door but two,” Kane said. “Are you alright?”

“They kept everything.” Adele pulled out a folder. “Every school letter, every piece of art, every report. And they put notes.”

Kane looked over Adele’s shoulder. Attached to the school report was a sheet of paper covered with copperplate notes. “They really didn’t like your maths teacher, did they?”

Adele stared at the paper. “I know that I always got good marks after the first parents’ evening and he never said a single word to me in class after that.” She looked closer. “I always wanted them to be proud of me. Why didn’t they tell me?” She handed the folder to Kane and pulled out another. “And these are all the school photos. They put notes next to them about how well I was doing in the science classes, and how they were impressed by my essays. They even planned out how to buy the right books for me, as a reward.” Her voice broke. “I feel like I’ve finally got there. I’ve finally made it.”

“They also mentioned the man next door but two,” Kane said.

Adele managed a smile through the tears. “We’re going for a coffee tomorrow. They’re probably right about him too.”

Particular

I looked down at my husband’s grave. The funeral had been yesterday and the flowers were already drooping. I stooped and pulled out a faded leaf. Alan always liked things just so, and it was the least I could do for his memory.

He had liked his tea brewed for exactly four and a half minutes. He had insisted that his newspaper was placed at the side of his breakfast dish with the sports pages showing. He had always checked that his dinner knife was exactly perpendicular to the edge of the table. I accommodated his little ways as the years went on. After all, a prize winning research chemist had to have a few little foibles after working with dangerous chemicals all these years.

But while he was so particular about the brand of salt on the table and the angle of the curtains when they were opened, it was a shame that he had paid less attention to other details. It was always risky taking a mistress who worked in the same lab as you and who also dealt with dangerous poisons. And his genius for new compounds was lacking when it came to cyber security. I had known all his personal passwords for years, and I suppose plenty of other people had as well. Perhaps most dangerously, he forgot that once, long ago, I had also worked in the lab with him on dangerous chemicals, the same lab I regularly visited to bring his freshly home-made lunch, with the sandwiches always cut on the diagonal.

The police had found the email apparently from my husband to his mistress, ending their relationship. They had found poison in the mistress’s bag, coyly left next to my husband’s coat in the cloakroom where I left his lunch. They had ascribed the hysterics she had to guilt.

I straightened the roses – not lilies. My husband had been particular about flowers as well. If only he had been as particular and paid attention to me.

Trouble at the Feast

“Thank you for coming, Mr Cornwall, I mean, sir, I mean, my lord…” Dawn trailed off, twisting her hands nervously together.

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired) looked around the wreckage of the wedding reception with some concern. “It’s okay, Dawn. You can call me Mr Cornwall. I think the important thing now is to work out what happened and how to put it right.” There was a roll of thunder in the background and Garm, Cerne’s huge dog, stood closer to Cerne and looked fearfully around.

“I didn’t think this would happen,” Dawn said. “I mean, they said that they were worshippers of the natural principle. I thought that they were sort of aligned. Like that time those lovely Swedish people came for a visit with Lord Thor. So when our Amber got engaged to their Gawain, I thought it would be okay.”

Cerne patted Garm’s head. Taranis may have been retired, but when the two thunder gods had started drinking, it had taken all his persuasion to stop things before they became paperwork. “I haven’t seen them around,” he said carefully as he looked over to a middle aged woman being talked down from hysterics by what looked like a bridesmaid. “But that doesn’t really mean anything. So your daughter got married to their son?”

Dawn nodded. “I mean, my mother always said that they were a bit peculiar. Each to their own, I say, but they were a bit, well…” She searched for a kind version of her words and gave up. “She’s home made everything and the type who wants to knit her own rice, and he’s so keen on saving money that I swear he’d have second hand toilet paper.” Her hand flew to her mouth as she remembered that she was talking to a god. “I’m sorry.”

“It looks like it has been stressful for you, don’t worry about it. So, what happened?” Cerne ran a reassuring hand over his trembling dog.

“We invited Lord Taranis, of course we did. He’s always been good to us, and I didn’t think it would matter, with them being all open minded.” Dawn flinched as lightning shot overhead, followed by a rattle of thunder. “And it got a bit silly on the run up to the wedding, with them wanting to save money and Mike wanting to give Amber a proper send off.” Dawn looked over to where her husband was looking sadly at the wreckage of a marquee. Shredded pink ribbon blew around the garden in the rising breeze. “We had some terrible arguments with them. Mike said that he was happy to pay, and it was only once if it was done right, and they shouldn’t worry. But Gawain’s parents couldn’t bear to see us spending money. They took the ribbon back to the shop three times before I hid it properly.”

“They didn’t like pink?” Cerne asked, bewildered. Beside him Garm whimpered as lightning flashed again. “So, Lord Taranis is in there, is he?” Cerne nodded at a separate, smaller catering tent. “If that is where the strong drink is, it’s going to be a problem.” He looked up at another rumble of thunder. “And it’s going to start raining hard any minute. You need to get stuff inside.”

“No, they didn’t mind pink,” Dawn said, looking over to a middle aged man in a bad suit standing alone outside the garden next to a row of cars and avoiding everyone’s glances. “It’s just that they thought it would be better to cut up a sheet and dye it pink. Shirley said she could do it with avocadoes. They don’t even eat avocadoes!”

Cerne wasn’t sure what an avocado was. “Dawn, I really think that you need to tell me what upset Lord Taranis and you need to tell me now!”

Dawn wrung her hands as women started frantically carrying plates and platters into the house. “We set up the wedding food as a proper dinner. We ordered plenty of beef and some salmon and a special side of roast pork for Lord Taranis. He’s always particular, and we always get him the good roast pork. Our family have always done our best.”

Cerne nodded. “Lord Taranis insists on the good meat for a feast. He may have even given you some if you couldn’t manage it, to make your daughter’s wedding special.” He tried a reassuring smile on the woman in front of him. “And he has always praised your cooking.”

Dawn’s eyes brimmed with tears. “We always got him the best stuff. We ordered a barrel of mead as well, and Mike had racked up extra home brewed beer and wine, and everything.” There was a crash from the catering tent, and lightning hissed down and split the tarmac on the road outside.

“If you have Lord Taranis hiding with Mike’s home brew, you need to tell me what happened quickly,” Cerne said. “You know what he gets like.”

“Gawain’s parents called the caterer and changed the order,” Dawn whispered as smoke from the burnt road drifted across the garden. “They said that we needed a more cost effective menu.” The first fat droplets of rain splashed on the broken tables piled up on the side of the lawn.

Cerne felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as Garm pressed his huge body against the god’s legs. “They didn’t give him fish, did they?”

A bellow came from catering tent and the sound of smashing glass. Dawn started sobbing. “They gave him the vegan option.”

Quiet Remembrance

Taranis, god of thunder (retired), opened up his camping chair and pulled out his thermos flask. “It’s a cold night, but not a bad time to remember someone. And it’s quiet.”

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired), dumped his bag next to the cairn of stones. “Have you really brought tea to a memorial feast?” His great hound, Garm, sniffed at the stones and then flopped down next to them.

“It’s good to drop some of this into a hot drink,” Taranis pulled out a black, unlabelled bottle that glowed faintly in the night air.

Cerne brightened up. “That’s more like it.” His breath steamed in front of him and he rubbed his hands briskly together. “I’ll get a fire going.” He looked over to the stones. “Seems only right to remember an old friend with flames and strong drink.”

Taranis busied himself setting up a second camp chair and a small table. He caught Cerne’s eye. “The damp gets right in my bones,” he grumbled. “There’s no need to be uncomfortable.”

Cerne shrugged. “I hadn’t thought of Bran in years.” He pulled out his own contribution. “I brought venison.” He set some large Tupperware tubs on the table. Garm’s eyes followed every movement.

“I suppose you bought it from a butcher, didn’t you,” Taranis grumbled.

The former god of the hunt added some soft white bread in a box. “I’ve been busy.” He paused and looked at the cairn. “Time just slips by these days.”

“It wasn’t until I saw all the fuss in the paper that I remembered,” Taranis said. He set out two large tin mugs and a few more unlabelled bottles. “But I couldn’t let them build over the last resting place of our old friend.”

Cerne built a small fire, carefully arranging the logs and twigs for a long night of burning. He stacked up more firewood and cleared the space as Taranis set out the food and drink. Cerne nodded at the unlit wood. Taranis shrugged and a spark jumped from his fingers to light the campfire. “That’s better. I’ve got some mead and barley cakes to leave for Bran, before we start.”

Cerne nodded. “I suppose so.”

“Hey, grandad!”

They turned around and stared at the newcomers. A red-faced middle-aged man with a battery spotlight was in front of half a dozen lads who were holding shovels and crowbars. He strode forward angrily. “This is prime development land. I had everything set up ready for some residential and a shopping centre and then you bleeding hearts turned up. I’ve paid out good money for the land, but now that it’s a ‘special archaeological site’ it’s worthless.” He looked at the lads behind him. “But with one of those unexplained incidents, and with no way of being able to find the culprits, all the archaeology is going to disappear. There’ll be nothing left for any special interest and before you know it there will be executive townhouses and some convenient shop fronts. So why don’t you coffin dodgers pack up your little picnic and bugger off before things start getting messy.”

“You’re Mr Harris the developer, aren’t you?,” Taranis said. “We’re not leaving. We’re here to pay our quiet respects to an old friend. Just leave us in peace.” There was a brief rumble of thunder. He looked over the lads behind the developer. “I know you, Darren, and you know me. You ought to know better. Now get off back home, and I won’t say anything more about it.” The young lad lost every trace of colour, dropped the shovel he was holding, turned and fled. Taranis looked over the rest of the motley bunch. “Go away.”

“You don’t want to end up with paperwork,” Cerne said to Taranis. He turned to Mr Harris. “I’m sure that there’s ways of working around this. Why don’t we talk this out tomorrow?”

“There are plenty of ways, but they all cost money,” Mr Harris shouted. “I’m not wasting any of that on some dried up bones. So I’m saying – bugger off! I don’t care how old you are, you’ll regret it if you don’t move.”

Cerne sighed and looked at the bunch in front of them before catching Taranis’ eye. “There’s only half a dozen of them. Don’t go too hard on the youngsters. I’ll set up the memorial for Bran.”

Taranis growled. Thunder rolled and a flash of lightning arced across the sky. “Get out of here,” he snarled at the men in front of him.

Garm crawled under the picnic table. He was a big dog under a small table, but he did his best. Cerne patted his head. “Don’t worry, boy. Taranis will sort it out.” He pulled out a small box. “Just stay there, that’s a good boy.”

Garm’s tail thumped on the side of the table as he watched Cerne take out some candles and arranged them on the cairn. A crowbar sailed overhead. Cerne carefully wedged the candles and glanced over to Taranis. “Remember – no paperwork!”

“Coming here to disturb our peace,” Taranis growled as he grabbed a shovel and snapped it in half, throwing the pieces to the side.

Cerne ducked as a part of the handle flew past him. “Watch out,” he said mildly as he lit the candles. He looked thoughtfully down at the stones, ignoring the screams. “Bran would have sorted them out in no time. He insisted on respect.” He picked up the small box of barley cakes. “It’s hard to get proper barley cakes these days. But Mrs Atkins down the road is always happy to help out.” He glanced over and frowned as Taranis threw a young lad across the clearing. “Take it steady, Taranis. These lads aren’t like the old days. They break a bit easier.”

“Damn them,” Taranis roared as a brave lad tried to grapple him from behind.

Cerne sighed and shook his head as he broke the cakes over the mound. “I think Mrs Atkins is a little sweet on me,” he confided to Garm. “And she is a good cook. I could do worse than visit her more often.” He grimaced at another crash and looked back at the fight. Taranis had slowed his punch down enough to let the youngster in front of him dodge and the punch broke the tree behind the lad. The branches of the sycamore bounced gently as they fell. “You’re going to be in trouble if their mums complain,” he said. “And if Gaia finds out about that tree, you’ll be sorry.” He turned back to the cairn and opened up the mead. “I’ll pour the mead out for Bran now, should I?”

“Hang on,” Taranis grunted as he shook off the lad and grabbed him by the front of his t-shirt. “Go away and don’t come back, dog breath!” He dropped the offender who crashed, struggled to his feet and ran, leaving the developer all alone. Taranis turned back to Mr Harris who turned to flee. “Not so fast!” Lightning flashed to the ground in front of the man, singeing the earth and leaving Garm whimpering. “I want words with you.” He grabbed Mr Harris by the scruff of his jacket.

“Remember the paperwork,” Cerne said. “You know you’d get in trouble if you skewer him.” Mr Harris moaned.

“If you had made a decent fire we could have roasted him,” Taranis said, his quick wink at Cerne unnoticed by the terrified man in front of him. “And Gaia will take hardcore offerings for trees at a pinch.”

“She’s gone vegan,” Cerne said. “Let Harris go. We’re here for Bran.”

“Bran would have skinned him,” Taranis grumbled. “And thrown the skin to the dogs in front of him.”

Garm tried to retreat further under the small table as Cerne hid a grin. “Bran had his bad points as well.” Cerne stood and strolled over to Taranis’ captive. “Why don’t you go home. We can talk about this tomorrow, nice and modern and without any paperwork.”

Taranis dropped him. “Don’t try and run. We’ll find you no matter where you go.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr Harris squeaked.

“I’m sure that we can set the misunderstanding straight.” Cerne said. “But tomorrow. Because we want a nice quiet evening to remember our friend, okay?”

They watched as Mr Harris nodded, stumbled backwards, turned and staggered back to his car. Taranis sighed. “He wasn’t much of a fight.” He brightened a little. “But we have the venison, and some of my special home brew.”

“And some time for a quiet remembrance,” added Cerne.

Dominoes

“My mum says that you’re the god of thunder.”

Taranis looked up from his game of dominoes at the skinny lad staring at him. Across the table, Cerne, god of the hunt, grinned. Taranis ignored the grin. “I was, lad, I was. I’m retired now, though, and don’t really get involved. You must be Dawn’s youngest.”

“She sends a pork joint to regular, but I think you’re a con artist and a fake,” the lad continued. “And I think you should stop taking advantage.”

Cerne placed his domino down. “Your move.”

Taranis looked at the lad. “It’s Owen, isn’t it? You drive that weird yellow Corsa and your mum told me that you were working with a plumber.”

“You see, that’s it!” Owen said. “Mum gets stuff like that wrong all the time. I’m apprenticed. It’s all legal and properly set out. Mr Barker looks after me and I try and do him proud. I work hard for my money, and so does my mum, and I don’t see why elderly scammers like you should have any of it.” He glared at Taranis. “And it isn’t a weird yellow. It’s a custom wrap. That car is better than anything you’ve ever had or ever will have!”

Taranis grunted, laid down his domino and took a drink from his pint. There weren’t many people in the old-fashioned pub, and they were all carefully ignoring the lad and his demands. “Are you sure that I’m a scammer. I got rid of that problem Josie had.”

“I think it would have gone on its own,” Owen said angrily. He turned to the distant rumble of thunder outside the door. “And don’t try and fake that was you. I saw the weather forecast. Just leave us alone.” Owen turned on his heel and stalked over to his friends waiting at the bar.

Cerne looked thoughtfully down at the dominoes, ignoring the sharp crack of thunder outside. “Of course, a lightning strike on the electrics would just be coincidence,” he remarked. “But it’s obvious that the car is his pride and joy. I’m going to have to knock.”

Taranis nodded as he perused the dominoes. “There’s one thing about lightning that everyone forgets,” he said. “It’s hot.” He lay down a double six.

Cerne narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to have to pass again. So, lightning’s hot. I thought it just started fires.”

“I’ve got a good view of the car park from here,” Taranis nodded at the angled mirror behind the bar that, to the right seat, showed the half dozen cars spaced out in front of the pub. “And I’ve still got decent aim.” He put down another domino with a smug grin.

Cerne pursed his lips and then managed to lay down a tile before standing and peering out of the window. “There’s a lot of smoke out there.”

Taranis nodded thoughtfully as he lay down his last piece. “I’m out. And it’s hard to explain all four tyres spot welded to the tarmac as coincidence, especially with nothing else touched.” Taranis drained his beer glass. “That’s three games all and it’s your round.”

Cerne watched the shocked murmur run through the few patrons before they all rushed out to see for themselves. “I bet you get an extra offering next time,” he grinned. “Same again?”

Taranis nodded contentedly as he watched the confusion outside. “Yep, same again.”