Mirror Mirror

Rose opened the door a crack and timidly peered at the two men outside in the grubby yard. “Hello.”

“Good evening,” the dark haired man said. He was impossibly handsome and his hard muscles showed under the thin, well-washed shirt. The air of dangerous focus that hung around him was at variance with his clerical dog collar. “My name is Darren King, and this is my associate, Flynn.”

“I preferred being called Vertiver,” his associate grumbled. He was just as tall and muscled but more casual in t-shirt and jeans. A shock of thick red hair hung to his shoulders. He noticed Rose’s appraising gaze and smiled like the devil. “I didn’t realise that you were so young and beautiful. We should have been here sooner.”

Rose found herself blushing and tried to claw back some control. At 24 she was no longer used to being thought young, and she hardly thought she was pretty. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“In what?” Flyn leant against the door frame, at least six inches taller than her and full of flirtatious intention. “You don’t know why we called.”

“The Church fund?” Rose guessed. It had to be some sort of scam.

“May we come in?” Darren asked, glaring at Flynn.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Rose said. “I mean, as a woman living on my own, I have to be careful. I’m sure that you are both perfect gentlemen, but I don’t want the neighbours to talk.”

“But you don’t live on your own, do you?” Flynn leant in a little closer.

Rose stepped back involuntarily. “I want you to leave,” she forced out, “Or I’ll call the police.”

“You can call the police if you like,” Flynn said. “He’s with them, sort of.”

“I’m not police,” Darren snapped. “Flynn stop intimidating this woman.” He turned to Rose and tried a professional smile. “We have reason to believe that you have a haunted mirror.”

Rose stared at him as all colour drained from her face.

A deep voice behind her spoke. “It’s okay. We knew that this day would come.”

Rose shook her head. “I can’t lose you.”

Darren and Flynn exchanged glances as Flynn pushed past Rose and into the tiny hall with Darren following close behind.

The hall was a marked contrast to the grubby yard and grubby street outside. Inside was completely different. Pale walls and clever lighting gave an illusion of airy space in the narrow entrance. The wooden floor was polished and a subtle hint of lavender hung in the air. The men followed Rose as she retreated to the living room. Darren shut the front door firmly behind them.

The living room was a similar revelation. Outside there was a dirty street, cluttered with rubbish. Inside was a cool, understated minimalism centred around an unexpectedly ornate mirror. It had a flat copper sheen, picked up by the few decorating accents, and it only showed the magical inscription to the knowledgeable.

In front of the mirror was a transparent, ghost-like figure, an older man, with streaks of grey in his dark hair, lithe and slim in a grey, three piece suit. Magical energy whirled between the pale hands. Rose grabbed the iron poker and whirled to face them. “I don’t know how you found us, but I won’t pay you and you can’t take him. Leave us alone.”

Darren raised a sceptical eyebrow then, with snakelike speed, caught Rose’s arm, lifted, turned and pulled. The poker clattered onto the floor leaving Rose trapped in an impersonal, iron grip. Flynn moved with equal speed. His hands darted out, tangling his own magical energy into the glow in front of the ghost and unravelling it, reeling it in and catching it in a spinning, glowing sphere above Flynn’s left shoulder. Colour drained from the apparition and it faded into a translucent shadow. There had been barely enough time to breathe and suddenly Rose and the spirit were completely at the men’s mercy.

“I wish people would not jump to conclusions,” Darren said. “You have a haunted mirror, obviously. We are here to release the spirit. If there is any threat, we would deal with it, but it appears that there is an amicable arrangement here. I can’t see any reason for us to be involved any further once the spirit is released.” He grinned. “If the spirit behaves, that is.”

Flynn was staring at the apparition. “Lucius? Is that you?”

“Vertiver, what are you doing here? I was searching for you but got trapped.” Lucius managed a roguish grin. “I wasa at least aware enough that they couldn’t control me. They gave up trying to make me haunt properly, but they still sold on the mirror. I laid low, until I was lucky enough to meet Rose.” He paused and looked at Rose with love in his eyes. “Unfortunately they were still tracking me. We’ve been trying to hide from them.”

“You did a good job,” Flynn said. “I would never have thought to find you in a dump like this.” He smiled at Rose. “But the decorating is as excellent as ever.”

“You know who is tracking you?” Darren asked. “I’m trying to catch up with them. Flynn isn’t the only spirit we’ve managed to release over the last few months. Someone or something, somewhere, is making a fortune from fear, while trapping non-normals and effectively torturing them into slavery.” He released Rose and stepped back warily.

Rose stared at him. “You’re not going to try and take Lucius away.”

Darren shook his head. “Flynn should be able to release him. But we should step out of the room while it happens. Perhaps the kitchen?”

The kitchen was as minimalist and airy as the rest of the house. Darren leant against the counter. “How do you feel about Lucius?”

Rose blushed. “It’s complicated.”

“Do you love him,” Darren asked.

“Like I said, it’s complicated,” Rose said. “I think so. And I think he loves me.”

“Has he said so?” Darren said.

Rose felt her face glowing with embarrassment. “He said that he gave his word it was love and not lust that he felt,” she said. “He promised.”

“That sounds like love.” Darren said. “I’ll have a proper talk later, but you know that your life is about to get…” Darren searched for the right words. “Fairytale romances can be difficult. But they can work.”

“They can?” Rose asked cautiously.

Darren nodded. “I’ll have a proper talk later. For now, do you have records of any contact with the people looking for Lucius? Someone called Mercury?”

Rose nodded. “I kept everything.” She pulled out her phone. “I’ve saved everything, taken photos of the letters, made notes of conversations, times and dates – the whole lot. And I’ve saved it in plenty of places as well.” She jumped as a sudden crack rang through the room next door.

Darren ignored the noise. “Here are some places to send copies,” he said, pulling a small notebook from his jeans pocket and scribbling some notes. “Once you have sent them, change passwords and find another safe place to copy them. There shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s best to stay safe.” He tore out the page and handed it to Rose. “We’ll take it from there.”

Rose shook her head. “I’m sure that Lucius will want to be involved,” she said. “I don’t think you could stop him.”

The sound of Flynn swearing and the smell of brimstone seeped into the kitchen. Darren took no notice. “It may take some time for Lucius to regain his strength. Besides, he needs to look after you. Mercury doesn’t like being thwarted. We’ve heard enough to ask you and Lucius to move to a safe house.”

“A safe house?” Rose stared. “But I thought you weren’t police.”

“Other people than police have safe houses,” Darren said. “And you and Lucius have a lot of catching up to do.”

Tied In

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.”

“What?”

“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.

Eggs for Breakfast

“These are hard,” my mother said. “You should make some new ones.”

“Sorry, I’ll get them done now,” I said.

“I don’t know why you can’t them right first time,” Mother complained. “It’s not like you never cook eggs.”

“Sorry,” I said as I put the pan back on the heat. “Maybe I should get the pan hotter first.”

“You never think!” Mother said. “You’re going to have to have them. I can’t have them going to waste. And what about dinner? I suppose you haven’t thought about that?”

“I’ve got some chicken out of the freezer,” I lied, knowing what would come next.

“I don’t fancy chicken,” Mother said. “I think that we eat too much chicken. Is that toast fresh?”

“Yes, it’s just come out,” I said as I buttered it quickly and slid it on to the plate. I pushed it over to her and cracked two more eggs into the pan.

“You could have at least cut the toast for me,” Mother said. “I have to do everything. You have no consideration for me. I’ve had such a bad night.”

“Sorry,” I repeated, as I quickly poured tea into her mug. “Here, this will help.”

Mother took a sip. “Is this milk okay?”

“It’s fine,” said, turning the eggs. “I had some in my tea when I got up earlier.”

“It tastes off,” Mother said. “Could you open a fresh carton?”

“It’s the last carton,” I said. “I usually pick it up after work, but there was that after work meeting, remember, and I didn’t have time before getting home to cook dinner.” I slid the new eggs onto her warmed plate and pushed the toast nearer.

“You’ll have to pick up some tonight, and some eggs. We seem to go through so many eggs with you wasting them.” Mother shook her head sadly. “So what are we going to have for dinner if we can’t have chicken?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You should know!” Mother exclaimed. “You are the one in charge of the kitchen, you should know what we have. We’ll just have to order pizza. I know you say you don’t like it, but you should have thought of that before getting the chicken out. And today of all days! You know I’m out for the day with Mrs Timmins and you didn’t even press the blue dress.”

“What blue dress?” I asked, bewildered.

“The one in the wardrobe. It’s been there so long that it was looking sad. I’ve had to put on this pink one. Of course, if you took me out more, it wouldn’t matter so much.”

“But you know I work,” I said wearily and took a bite of the eggs she’d rejected. They tasted fine.

“I keep telling you that you should give up work and get carer’s allowance. You and me could be quite cosy, just the two of us here,” Mother said. “I don’t know what you need your job for. They only pay a pittance.” She looked out of the window. “There’s Mrs Timmins – I have to go! Where have you put my bag?”

I watched her leave, sipping my tea as she glared one last time at me through the window as she climbed into Mrs Timmins’ car, then breathed out. Finally she was gone. I dumped my unwashed plate and mug into the sink and raced upstairs to grab my one remaining bag. My job paid extremely well, thank goodness, though she never knew, more than enough for the very reasonable rent on a tiny flat near work. The down payment had cleared, I’d picked up the keys and today was the day I moved away from Mother and into my own home. And what was more, I thought, as I shut the door and pushed the keys back through the letterbox, I would never, ever have to eat eggs for breakfast again.

Dark Cupboard

bald eagle door chain lock
Image from Unsplash, taken by Thom Milkovic

Jim looked around. “It’s not a bad little flat,” he said. “It’ll turn a good profit once we’ve tidied it up a bit.”

Steve nodded. “It really just needs a few coats of paint and perhaps new doors on the kitchen cupboards. Everything is pretty sound.”

“She didn’t want to leave,” Jim said thoughtfully. “I mean, she handed over the keys alright, and the place was cleared, but she kept warning me about the cupboard.” He nodded to the cupboard set into the wall, with chipped paint and an ornate chain.

“I’ve got the bolt cutters here,” said Steve. “I’ll get into it in a sec.”

“I’ll nip back to the van and get the camera,” Jim said. “She seemed a sweet old dear, and a little confused, but she may have been playing crafty. There could be structural stuff inside that cupboard and there go our profits.” He glanced over at Steve. “Don’t start without me, we need to document this.”

“I’ll get it opened up,” Steve said. “I’ll get the lamp shining in by the time you’re back. It’s probably where she hid the empty bottles. She was talking about spirits when she left.”

“Or it could be a Ouija board,” Jim said with a shudder. “You know I hate anything like that.” He glanced uneasily at the cupboard. “Back in a tick.”

Steve shook his head as he heard Jim clatter down the stairs. You couldn’t even read your newspaper horoscope around Jim. He hefted the bolt cutters and checked the chain. It was steel but old and the bolt cutters were top of the range. The chain fell apart without much effort.

The cupboard was dark inside, much darker than Steve expected. He pulled out his phone to use the torch and shivered as a cold draught ran through the room. He looked closer and saw a few chalked symbols, faded and barely visible under some dusty leaves, on the base of the cupboard. The stench was stomach churning.

“There’s nothing here, Jim,” Steve called, heading to the windows. He had to get some fresh air into this room. “But we may have a sewer line issue.” He tugged at the window catch. “Have you got some WD40?” The window was jammed, no matter how hard he pushed and shoved. He frowned. They had been fine earlier and there had been nothing in the survey. He could hear Jim on the stairs. He had better get the chalk marks wiped off before he got here, or he would have a fit. “Hang on, Jim, I need a cloth.” Steve strode over to the door, shivering as another blast of icy stench ran over him, and grabbed the door handle. It wouldn’t move. “Jim, the door’s stuck. Give it a push, will you?”

There was a rattle. “I can’t shift it,” Jim said. “Is there a lock?”

Steve peered at the door. “I can’t see anything.”

“I’ll get the toolbox,” Jim called. “Back in a tick.”

The light in the room dimmed. Steve turned around, hit by another icy, stinking draught, but there was nothing over the window and the sun seemed just as bright. He shivered as the room got colder and, as he heard a low, malicious chuckle, he wondered if they would have been better leaving the cupboard alone…

Domestic Demon

two Caution signages
Image from Unsplash, taken by Oliver Hale

“I’m sorry, darling.” Darren smiled nervously at me.  “But it is only twice a year, and it is only from Thursday to Tuesday.”

I took a deep breath.  “Of course, I know.  Your mother and I don’t see eye to eye, but that’s okay.  She’s your mother and we both love you.  That’s why I’ve got the day off to get the house all set up for her.”

Darren winced.  “I’ll pick her up from the airport.  I’ll pick up a takeaway on my way back.”

“Absolutely not.” I said firmly.  “I’ll make a lovely casserole and that way it doesn’t matter if you are a little late.”

“Thank you, darling, I do appreciate it.” Darren gave me a quick kiss and hurried off to work.

Pamela, my mother-in-law, did only visit twice a year. She came in the first weekend after the Christmas break and the first weekend in July.  It was some awful ritual where a demon was unleashed twice a year.  They could make a Nicholas Cage movie out of it.  As for the takeaway, I was not falling for that again.  Four years ago I had made the mistake of allowing Darren to pick up a pizza on the way back.  For the last four years I had been hearing about how a proper wife made her husband meals, no matter what the circumstances.

I slouched into the kitchen.  I had never felt less like being a domestic goddess.  It was all so humiliating.  I was far too particular, according to my friends, and wasted far too much time cleaning.  According to Pamela, I was a slattern.  Every inch of this house would be scrutinised.  Last time I thought I had her.  There was no dust on the top of the kitchen cupboards and the walls had been washed down.  I had put brand new bedding on her bed and I had dusted behind every stick of furniture.  I had had the oven professionally cleaned and steamed the carpets.  The old witch had actually taken the drawers out of her dresser and found dust on the inside of the frame.  She had been so smug, sitting opposite me in my kitchen, eating my food which I had cooked, while Darren sat between us, twitching.

I looked around my lovely, clean kitchen.  Not only would she go over the room like a forensic detective but she would also sigh and complain that it looked too bare.  “It’s a shame you don’t have any knickknacks around,” she had said last time.  “Of course, not everyone has a flair for decorating.  Perhaps it is just as well that you haven’t tried.” She had smiled a wide, fake smile and patted my arm.  “I’ll bring you some nice things next time I come.  Then you won’t have to worry about getting it wrong.”

The old trout had great taste – for 1972!  I knew that she would have a suitcase full of cheap tat when she turned up, and that it would have to be in the same place she left it when she returned six months later – and she would know if the plastic grot had been moved an inch.  I swear the old bat had a photographic memory.

I threw together a boeuf bourguignon and put it on slow.  I’d already taken out every removable drawer in the house and cleaned behind them.  All the carpets, curtains and rugs had been steamed last week.  Not only was the bedding in her room new but so was the curtains.  I’d cleaned all the lampshades yesterday and dusted all the lightbulbs.  I sighed and started to pull out the fridge.  Then I paused.

Why was I playing her game?  Why was I running round in circles trying to get her to like me when nothing short of a sharp blow to the head would ever make her accept the woman who stole away her baby boy?  I’d been doing it wrong for years.  If she ran out of things to check I swear she would pull up the floorboards.  Okay, if she wanted something different, she could have something different.

By the time Darren’s car pulled into the drive I was finished.  I ached with the efforts, and I had had to get a few friends to help out.  It had been entirely worth it.  I looked around as I heard Darren carefully reversing into the garage.  The kitchen was smeared with jam and I had done my best to give a greasy feel by spraying the wall with the oil spray I used in cooking.  I had found some kitchen curtains in a skip which were now drooping at the window.  I had gone to every friend and neighbour and scrounged the contents of their vacuum cleaners.  After some trial I found that a light mist of water helped the dust of a dozen homes cling to walls, sink and bath.  I had put a mouse trap at the back of her dresser, just where it would get her if she checked, and I put the contents of four dryer filters under her bed.

The trip to the charity shop had been the most fun.  The house was awash with ‘accents’.  Our house was now a temple to the worse taste that ever landed on an Oxfam donation table.  There was plastic everywhere.  I had also got some extremely washed bedding from the charity shop and begged some curtains for Pamela’s room that they were going to send to the rag man and rubbed damp instant coffee granules along the edges for an added artistic touch.  I had had fun, and so had my friends.  Everyone had got photos.

I turned round as Darren unlocked the door.  “Darling, my mother’s plane has been delayed and she has decided not to come until the Christmas break after all…” He stopped as he walked in to the kitchen.  There was a long pause.  “Darling, would you like a drink?”

I’m working hard on a deadline at the moment, so I thought I’d have a look back at a story I first published back in 2015. I smiled when I re-read it, and I hope you also found it fun. Wishing good health to all.

Monster in the Forest

trees on forest with sun rays
Image from Unsplash, taken by Sebastian Unrau

“I told you to stay away from me.” Cana rolled away from him. There was plenty of room in the clearing and the fire was still bright.

“I thought we stayed close when camping in the woods,” Sion said. “To keep warm.”

“It’s past midsummer,” Cana said. “It’s not cold.” She rolled over and looked at the stars peeking through the canopy of leaves overhead. “The fire will keep away wolves and the horses will warn us if anything approaches. Get some sleep. We should reach the castle by noon tomorrow.”

“You won’t come into the castle with me?” Sion asked.

“I’ve been warned about monsters in the castle.” Cana said. “Besides, as you said, I’m just a girl.”

“Tomorrow I go to fight a monster,” Sion said. “This could be my last night on this earth. Won’t you at least make it a little warmer for me.”

“No,” Cana said, shifting her blanket a little further away from him.

“I could come back laden with jewels and gold,” Sion says. “The rumours say that there is treasure beyond counting.”

“And that is why you are going to the castle.” Cana said. “If there was no castle then the villagers could rot under monsters for all you cared.”

Sion laughed. “A man has to make his way in the world,” he said.

“I’m only here because of the steward’s orders,” Cana said. “You could turn back at any time.”

“I received no encouragement from village,” Sion said. “Don’t you fear monsters?”

“We fear them,” Cana said. “And we have learned to recognise them. You are going into this with a black eye because you couldn’t learn to take ‘no’ as an answer and the men of our village are protective.”

“And the women are no fun,” Sion said. “You are sleeping with a knife under your pillow. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Is that why the priest refused to bless me and my weapons?”

“It’s because you wouldn’t confess your sins first,” Cana said. “The whole village heard the argument.”

“Tomorrow I face a blood sucking, immortal creature that has powers that no-one can measure,” Sion said. “Won’t you warm my bedroll, to give me the comfort I need?”

Cana turned back and looked at the greasy, red face, predatory intent clear. “Save your strength. You’ll need it.” She looked coldly into his eyes. “And you’ll never make the castle if you try to force me.”

Sion laughed again. “It’s worth asking, at least.” He placed his sword in the clear ground between them. “There, do you feel safer?”

“The horses will warn of any movement,” Cana said. “Goodnight.”

Cana watched him leave the next morning and then tidied the campsite. Those who tracked the creature in the castle came at all times of year, so she stacked up firewood against the winter. She had lost count of those that she had brought here, seeking their fortune and perhaps fame. There had even been a few that had wanted to serve what they thought lived in the lonely fortress that was a short ride down the path. There were raspberries in the forest, and she picked a good basket full before the shadows lengthened. Then she made up the fire and waited.

She became aware of a presence. “You defeated him?”

Calixtus nodded and joined her near the fire. “To be truthful, he was a careless warrior. And he was avoiding me as he searched for the fabled treasure. I think he would have fed you to me to buy time if he could.”

“And you’re unhurt?” Cana asked.

“I can’t be hurt like you,” Calixtus said softly. “But no, he didn’t land a blow. The black eye didn’t help. Let me guess, he tried to flirt with Maria?”

“He tried more than flirting!” Cana said. “Fortunately for him, her husband reached them before she could do much.”

“How is Maria?” Calixtus asked.

“She’s well.” Cana said. “Rhia has had her baby, it’s a boy and they are calling him Calix, after you.” She frowned. “Father John’s joints are hurting him, I think, though he isn’t saying anything.”

“I’ll call in soon and see what I can do,” Calixtus said. “And I’ll have a look at the mill while I am there.”

Cana smiled. “You know so much. Perhaps you should take an apprentice.” She loosened her tunic.

“Perhaps I should,” Calixtus said. He held up his hand. “I won’t need blood for a while. The would-be warrior gave me plenty and there are many animals in the forest. But thank you.”

Cana shook her head. “You have saved us from so many monsters. Now, sit, share some raspberries and let me tell you all of the news.”

Light up the Night

Image from Unsplash, taken by Thomas Allsop

“They always go over the top.” Dad turned away from the lounge window. “I don’t know who they think they’re impressing.”

“There must be yards and yards of the things,” Mum said. “Or metres or whatever. They’re not cheap, you know, not even in Aldi.”

Sandra drifted over to the window. The family across the street had swathed their house liberally with fairy lights – inside and out. The colours twinkled as they changed, spinning around the door and window frames and the miniature conifers in the front garden.

“Look at the way that they change,” Dad said. “That’s technology, that is.”

“It’s an app,” Sandra said, staring at the lights. They swirled and danced, echoed by their reflections in the cars parked in the drive and cast coloured shadows on the snow.

“They must have money to burn,” Mum said. “Those apps are expensive. And you need the phone to go with it.”

Sandra didn’t answer but instead watched the sequence chasing over the porch and across to the fuschias.

“I wonder what it does to their electric,” Dad said. “It must put the bill up something fierce. He frowned. “You won’t catch me wasting money like that, not for a few days when there are other things you can be spending on.”

“Or just putting the money away,” Mum said. “You never know when it would come in useful.”

Sandra looked around. As usual, her parents had only decorated the lounge, and the dusty paper streamers hung, sagging, across the ceiling. Faded tinsel wound around the miniature artificial Christmas tree. It was older than Sandra and beginning to show its age as the tinsel dropped. “You’ll need a new Christmas tree next year,” she said.

“No, it will do,” Dad said. “It’s not like you’re a little kid anymore. You’re moving out next week, for your fancy new job. I hope you’ve thought of all the expenses. You won’t be able to waste money, you know, not when you’re starting out.”

Mum nodded. “We’ve always been careful with the decorations, and it hasn’t hurt us. Some of these decorations are older than you. And there’s nothing wrong with them.”

Sandra thought of her skint friend, with the bright bells made of egg boxes and foil, the snowflake wreaths from thin sandwich bags and the newspaper garlands wound with cheap, bright tinsel. She looked back at the lights across the road. Their generous sparkle lit up the entire section of the street. “I’ll be careful.”

“Anyway, you’ll be back for Christmas next year, at least,” Dad said. “You’ll miss us.”

The lights across the road were reflected in cars on both sides of the street. The neighbours on either side had their lights reflecting with them, and mingled with the fireworks over head as they marked the New Year. The bright chaos made her smile. “I’ll be celebrating in the new flat,” Sandra said. “And I’ll have every room filled with fairy lights.”

Out with the Old

black fireplace near couch
Image from Unsplash, taken by Annie Spratt

It was the longest night of the year and she always found it tough. She loved the sunlight and long days, and the dark, dreary nights pressed down on her like a weight. She sat next to the new woodburning stove and watched the flames flickering. He’d forbidden her to get a stove, of course. “Central heating is good enough for the church in the village, so it’s good enough for us.” The church was always freezing, though, and the central heating had never quite given the warmth of a fire in this draughty room. She added a small fragment of crumbling wood to the stove and watched it crackle into fiery life.

Traditionally it was a time to look back at the last year and on to the next. Last year had been a long, grinding slog with little respite. Her husband had fallen ill, and they had found it was terminal with very little time left.

“I told you to see a doctor about that cough,” she had said.

He had glared at her, his eyes sunk in his greying face but the glint of malice still bright. “I was never going to let you tell me what to do. You were always trying to get one over on me. You never knew your place.”

She shrugged. “Can I fetch you some water?”

“That fool Jeffries has been on the phone,” he had snarled. “They won’t let me change the payee on the life insurance. Did you sleep with him? You should have made me go to the doctor – I bet you worked it so that I wouldn’t.”

She had stared at him for a long moment. She had begged him for months to get a medical appointment but his refusal was still her fault. “It won’t be much,” she said. “I’ll have to go back to work.”

“No you won’t!” he had growled before a coughing fit took him. He sipped some water and gathered his strength. “I’ve made arrangements. There’ll be enough for you to live quietly, but you’re not to go gallivanting around and meeting people, and you’re not to change anything in the house.” His smile under the oxygen mask took on a vicious slant. “When I said I’ve made arrangements, I mean I’ve made proper arrangements. I’ve been speaking to Doctor Adodo and I’ll be haunting you. I’ll be watching every move you make and I’ll be waiting for you at the other side instead of crossing straight over.” The vicious angle of his smile grew stronger. “And you won’t like what happens if you disobey.”

He had not lasted long after that, and the funeral had been particularly grim. Hardly anyone attended apart from the unnerving Dr Adodo with his assistant and a scattering of neighbours who had nothing better to do. Unexpected fog had risen from the grave as he had been lowered down and Dr Adodo had given her a meaningful look. If she hadn’t seen Dr Adodo’s assistant tip dry ice into the grave as the minister said the last prayers, she would have been seriously upset.

The clock in the hall struck ten. She had spent enough time thinking of the past. There was a good film on and a bottle of wine in the fridge. He had been wrong about so many things. She had never stopped him going to see a doctor. She had never slept with Mr Jeffries at his old firm. And he was not haunting her. There had been a few unpleasant incidents at first, when she had started to redecorate, but she had dealt with that. She tossed the last piece of coffin wood onto the fire before standing up and fetching the wine. YouTube really did have a tutorial for everything.

How Do You Tell?

top view photography of broken ceramic plate
Image from Unsplash, taken by Chuttersnap

Carol cracked open the front door and peeked through the tiny gap. “Can I help you?”

Sir Dylan smiled brightly as he forced the door open and strode in. “May I come in?” he asked as he stood in the hall, checking out the layout of the small house.

“You can’t come in!” Carol said, her voice wavering. “Please leave.”

“Leave now, before something dreadful happens,” a voice boomed from the kitchen at the back of the house.

Sir Dylan flung open the kitchen door. The room was icy, far colder than outside or the rest of the house, and incense smoke hung heavily in the air. A plate flew off a shelf and through the air, past his ear, and smashed dramatically on a cupboard. The tall, thin man standing in the centre of the room was holding a Bible and gesturing dramatically. He didn’t look around. “Leave now, while your soul is still safe.”

“Hello, Foxglove,” Sir Dylan said.

The tall man froze and then spun around. “It’s Foxbane.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Sir Dylan said, taking the Bible out of his limp grasp and setting it down respectfully on the nearby counter. “You’ve been warned about this.”

“I swear that this is a genuine exorcism,” Foxbane said. “Absolutely 100% genuine. This poor lady came to me when unexplained cold and draughts affected her home.” He looked behind Sir Dylan at Carol who was hovering helplessly. “There was unexplained activity and some damage. I was helping her out of the goodness of my heart.”

Sir Dylan backed away a little, keeping an eye on Foxbane as he asked Carol, “How much did he charge?”

“It’s true that I went to him,” Carol said. “Someone on Facebook recommended him, and I’m paying in instalments.” She laid a trembling hand on Sir Dylan’s arm. “It’s all real, you know, all of it. It’s been a nightmare. I’ve not been able to sleep properly for months.”

Sir Dylan looked at her. She was an older woman, with deeply shadowed eyes and tension lines around her mouth. She did not deserve Foxbane’s games. “I know it’s real,” he said. “But it’s not exactly what you think.” He pulled a small monocle from his pocket and peered through it.

“Look at us,” Foxbane said to Carol. “Who looks more trustworthy?”

Carol looked at Foxbane. He looked tall and urbane, with a silver streak in his dark hair. His expensive suit and shirt looked a little rumpled from the effort of the exorcism and his silk tie was askew, but he looked erudite and in control. Sir Dylan was wearing a leather jacket over a cheap t-shirt and battered jeans. His heavy boots were scuffed and tattoos covered his thickly muscled arms and ran up his neck into his closely cropped hair. Carol eyed the knight nervously. “It all seems very complicated.”

Sir Dylan glared at Foxbane. “I’ve spoken to Lord Marius, and he says that he would like to deal with you himself.” He eased something out of his pocket with his free hand. “He’s not happy.”

Foxbane pulled himself up to his full height. “I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t care,” Sir Dylan said. “But he gave me some stuff to help me out.” He threw a chain at Foxbane which wrapped itself loosely around his neck and hung over his arms. As Foxbane stood pinned and immobile, Sir Dylan held out the monocle and peered through it before his hand shot out and grabbed what seemed to be thin air. Without warning his hand was clutching the throat of a red-headed young man who wriggled wildly as Sir Dylan dropped the monocle and pulled out a second chain. “Hello, Catkin.”

“It’s not Catkin, it’s Willow,” the man hissed, clawing at Sir Dylan’s fingers tightening around his throat.

“Yeah,” Sir Dylan said, dropping the chain around Willow’s neck. He turned his back on the two frozen figures and tried a reassuring smile at Carol. “I’m sorry that you were bothered by this, ma’am. I’m afraid you’ve been targeted by scammers.”

“But you saw that plate move…” Carol trailed off. Willow had appeared from nowhere and he and Foxbane were now frozen underneath the thin chains, their outlines fuzzy and indistinct.

“These aren’t human,” Sir Dylan said, “Or they’re differently human, or whatever the latest phrase is. They’re elfen. They’ve done it before. One causes psychic disturbances in a house, one tries and fails to exorcise the ‘spirit’. Then they suggest you move out, as it’s the only way. Obviously you won’t get a decent price for a house with flying plates, but they can recommend a broker. So you sell your house to them at below market value and then they flip it and sell on. House prices are going up around here, aren’t they?”

The colour drained from Carol’s face. “I’ve had a few letters asking for me to sell, but it was my mum’s house and I’d hate to leave it…” She trailed off.

“Have you given them any money?” Sir Dylan asked.

“I gave them £200 on deposit when they came in,” Carol said, still pale.

Sir Dylan strode over to Foxbane and started rummaging through the frozen elfen’s pockets. It took a few attempts as he delved into the shiny stones, fake rings and feathers, but he found a wallet and extracted £300 before replacing it. “That’s your money and a little compensation for the inconvenience,” he said as he handed over the money. He reached into his own pocket and pulled out a card. “If you have any more problems, or you know someone who needs an exorcism or has supernatural problems, call me. We don’t charge.”

Carol looked down at the card. “Knights Templar?”

Sir Dylan nodded. “It’s changed a bit since the Middle Ages.” He rummaged around in his pockets again and pulled out a small, marquetry box. “Try to forget about this. With a little luck, you’ll never need to talk to us again.” He flipped open the lid and braced himself against the kitchen doorframe.

Carol watched as the two frozen figures twisted and turned in place, dissolving into strings and ropes of colour that curled and writhed before being sucked, rattling, into the small box. The chains fell to the floor with a clatter as Sir Dylan snapped the box shut. “Is that it?”

“That’s it,” Sir Dylan agreed. “I suppose it seems an anti-climax, but you shouldn’t have any more problems.” He tucked the box into an inside pocket and picked up the chains. “Don’t feel bad about getting played. It’s easy to get sucked in, especially if you are unfamiliar with this sort of thing. I’ll see myself out.”

Carol stood in the middle of the kitchen listening to the heavy boots treading down the hall and the slam of the door closing behind Sir Dylan and slowly relaxed. The scent of incense still hung in the air, but as she picked up the brush to sweep up the pieces, she realised that the room was finally getting warmer.

Window

brown brick wall with green plants
Image from Unsplash, taken by Random Sky

“It’s easier to show you,” Kate said.

“We wouldn’t have believed it if we hadn’t seen it,” Kes chipped in.

Kane looked nervously at the couple. “I’ve never dealt with a haunted window before,” he said. “They’ve always been haunted by someone.”

Kes shrugged his broad shoulders. “We didn’t know where to turn until you were recommended.”

Kane sighed. “Show me the problem, please.”

Kate led them into the small back room in the tiny terrace. “We sunk a lot of money into this. We always came in the evenings, though, and when we look back, the old owner always rushed us out of this room.”

“We thought of suing the surveyor,” Kes said. “But how do you explain this in court?”

Kate went over to the far wall where thick curtains hung and pulled them back. Kane stared as Kes switched on the light. The window was completely bricked up. Kate saw his confusion. “We thought we could have it knocked through, but, well…”

Kane watched in disbelief as Kate’s hand passed through the apparently solid brick and rapped smartly on what sounded like a glass pane. “I think I see.”

“It looks normal from the outside,” Kes said. “You can even see the furniture in the room and everything.”

Kate nodded. “We asked the previous owner.” She sighed. “He had inherited the house from his aunt. Apparently the old lady had seen her fiancé kissing another woman through this window, and so she had it bricked up.”

“She never married, or even dated, as far as the nephew knew,” Kes said. “It’s a very sad story.”

“I’ve never done a window before,” Kane said carefully. “I’ve only done people.” He thought for a moment. “And dogs.” He walked slowly up to the window and pressed his fingers against what looked like dark brick. They passed through and rested against cool glass. “Could you give me a moment?”

Kane waited until the door had shut quietly behind him and then looked carefully around. It took a moment, but he saw her, a bent old lady huddled in the corner. “Hello, Miss. I’m Kane. Are you okay?”

“I’m so ashamed,” the frail figure said. “I’ve never forgave myself.”

“I knew it wasn’t just a window,” Kane said. “There is always someone there.”

“I found out later that it was his sister,” the shade of the old lady said. “It had just been a peck on the cheek anyway, but I was so jealous.” The ghost of a withered hand wiped away a translucent tear. “And afterwards, well, I just couldn’t look him in the face. I had said such dreadful things.”

“I’m sure he knew that you didn’t mean them.” Kane said sympathetically.

The old lady’s ghost shook her head. “I couldn’t live with myself. I wouldn’t see him. I couldn’t even bare to read his letters.” She gestured to the ghost of the brickwork. “I had to do this.”

Kane stared at the ghost of the brickwork and then back at the old lady. “Who took it down?”

“My nephew, Arthur, took it down.” The old lady slowly approached the window and stood next to Kane. “I should have done that years ago, and I was glad that he had.” Tears slid down the wrinkled cheeks. “I should have gone to him years ago, and now it’s too late.”

Kane thought for a moment. “But it isn’t really too late,” he said. “You could find him now.”

The old lady was suddenly still. “You mean, apologise? It’s too late for that. And I could never find him now.”

Kane shrugged. “People seem to manage once they’ve passed over. And perhaps you could just talk to him. You can explain.”

The old lady slowly shook her head. “I need to apologise. I need to go and find him.” She slowly faded into the dim light in the corner of the room. As her presence left, light flooded in as the ghosts of the bricks on the window followed her.

Kane sighed as he turned to call in Kate and Kes, his heart breaking a little for her sadness. He had dealt with enough ghosts to be unsurprised by her stubbornness.