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Spirit Houses Chapter One

The first chapter of Spirit Houses… if you enjoy it, then you can buy a copy here!

I

AN EXORCISM

 

‘I didn’t mean to!’

Manda rolls off the bed – it crinkles, they’ve put rubber sheets on it just in case. She narrows her eyes. News travels fast.

‘You keep saying that, but it doesn’t alter the fact that you still did it.’ Daniel’s voice leaks into her bad temper.

Manda plants her boots on the floor and says, ‘We’ve been over and over this. It was your fault. I didn’t mean to; you provoked me.’ She picks at the candle-wicking on the hotel bedspread. ‘And anyway, I can’t even remember what happened properly. Can we change the subject?’

Out of habit, Manda’s fingers rest on her necklace; what looks like a tooth, on a choker of blue glass beads which she navigates like an abacus, settling on one and twisting it.

‘Suit yourself,’ says Daniel. ‘So, what job are we on next?’

Manda reaches out and retrieves an appointments diary from the nightstand. The book is as big as an almanac and bound in tan cloth with the letters ‘D.P.M.’ stamped in no-nonsense black ink across the cover. She tugs a little tasselled cord to switch the electric bedside lamp on; the green glass shade casts an alien shadow across the wall. Flicking through the book she says,

‘Nothing after this one, so far. They’ll tell us back at HQ.’

Standing, Manda sets about gathering stray items of clothing. A green overnight case sits open on a chair; Manda throws in her spare set of clothes, folding them nominally, then checks the equipment as she stows it amongst the padding of shirts and underwear: twisting ampoule lids tight, pushing on caps for a safe seal. She lays her Tunnock’s patented pneumatic syringe carefully across the top.

‘You were good with that last one. The Morfey boy. I’m not sure Ray and I would have managed on our own,’ Manda says, by way of polite conversation.

‘Yes, well, lucky I was there to bail you out.’

Manda rolls her eyes. She replays the events of the previous day in her head.

They pull up outside the next address in the itinerary; a low little lace-makers’ cottage of grey slate, the end house of a tenement. Ray parks the Princess outside the front door of the house with its neat stone step leading straight onto the road. Climbing out of the car, Manda hoists her kit-belt higher on her hips. The air seems unnaturally still. Then, ripping through the peaceful first impression, comes the grating scream of a man in pain.

Ray hammers on the front door with a bunched fist, the brass door knocker in the shape of an elephant and castle chattering up and down from the vibrations, whilst Manda hunts through the vials in her kit. It’s a surprise when a woman answers the door quite calmly.

‘She looks like she’s seen a few possessions,’ says Daniel. Manda raises her eyebrows.

‘Mrs Morfey?’ Ray’s a bit breathless as he addresses the woman who is as pretty and grey as her cottage. He holds up his embossed ID card for her to read.

‘Yes.’ She smiles politely. ‘Do come in, thank you for getting here so quickly.’ She leaves the door open, gesturing for them to follow and Ray has to bow his head to get under the doorjamb; even indoors he’s only a couple of inches from the lime-plaster ceiling. Manda is last in. The cottage smells warmly of pastry and wax polish; she lets the brass snick fall and looks around.

As Mrs Morfey leads them through the neat rooms, she explains, ‘It’s my son again, Adam. You must be sick of coming out to us.’

She’s addressing Ray exclusively. She looks apologetic too, but however much of a repeat case her son is, Manda hasn’t treated him before. ‘He just seems to be susceptible to them, and it’s just the two of us here you see, since his father left…’ Mrs Morfey trails off awkwardly. As if to illustrate her observation, another raw-throated scream echoes around the house. Mrs Morfey declines her gaze from Ray, looking slightly embarrassed. ‘We’re up here,’ she says, preparing to ascend a steep, narrow stairway.

‘She looks more like her dog just got friendly with his leg than her son’s howling the demon-ridden house down,’ Ray whispers and Manda clears her throat to hide a chuckle as they all stop in front of an innocuous bedroom door.

‘Have you restrained your son, Mrs Morfey?’

The woman looks like she’s noticed Manda for the first time.

‘No, no – I couldn’t.’ Physically couldn’t, or couldn’t bring yourself to? ‘I’ve locked the door.’ She holds out a little iron key.

Manda says, decidedly, ‘Ray, you’re in first.’

Ray shuffles to the front of the group, pushing his shirt sleeves back from his forearms. The lock clicks as Manda turns the key and gives the door a shove: Ray slips inside and the door immediately, worryingly, bangs shut again.

‘Oh,’ says Manda, her face falling, but upon trying the door it still opens again easily enough.

The room is a mess, bedding flung around and furniture tipped. In a corner, Ray is crouched. He says, ‘Rope… ah… now!’ and flings a hand out backwards. Manda hands him a length of silk rope at arm’s length, and backs quickly away again. She cranes her neck to see, biting her lip. Ray is wrestling a figure onto the bed. Manda loiters, uncertain, and then catches hold of the end of twine that he tosses to her and secures one thrashing arm to a bedpost. Now she can see him clearly, the patient is far younger than the screams of earlier on would suggest. He’s just a little boy, no older than ten, gnashing his teeth furiously with blood all down his chin.

‘Did he bite you?’

 Ray pushes his hair back. ‘No, it’s his blood. Poor little chap.’

‘Good. They always seem to want to bite you, for some reason.’

‘Fancy that.’

At the edge of her vision, Manda catches sight of Mrs Morfey, waiting in the doorway, one foot only over the threshold. Manda shakes her shoulders, loosening up. There’s a first time for everything.

‘Exorcizo te, immundissime spiritus in nomine Domini nostri Jesu Christi,’

The little figure on the bed goes abruptly rigid, as if having a fit. Manda’s expecting the grown-man screams again, but worse, the boy only emits a pulling rasp as if trying to breathe with collapsing lungs. Mrs Morfey draws back behind the doorframe and Manda’s repetition of the casting-out litany falters as she glances self-consciously at the boy’s mother. The bed begins to rattle. Ray clamps a hand over each of the boy’s tiny wrists and tries to hold him down.

‘Exorcizo te, immundissime spiritus… in nomine Domini nostri Jesu Christi,’ says Manda again.

Under her breath, ‘It’s not working…’

‘Of course it’s not working.’ Daniel’s voice is irritatingly calm. ‘Do you think they still believe in all that church hokum? They’re not stupid; they worked all that out long ago.’

‘Try signing him,’ says Ray. Adam Morfey is as slight as any ten year old, but it’s taking some considerable effort for Ray to keep him pinned down; Ray’s hair has fallen over his eyes and his shirt is damp beneath the arms. Manda edges towards the head of the bed and stretches out a hand to the boy’s flushed forehead.

‘In nomine Patris, et Filii, et…’ She squeals as the boy lurches up, snapping his teeth, his eyes rolling back to show only white sclera filling rapidly with blood. ‘In nomine…’ This time he’s violent enough to dislodge Ray, the boy straining at the ropes with his arms forced so excruciatingly back that he must surely be tearing muscle. Flinching back, Manda loses her balance and sits down heavily on the wooden floor. The boy opens his mouth and howls a noise like shipwrecks; like metal grinding terminally upon lost metal. His mother covers her ears. Manda is shaking.

‘I don’t know what to do.’

‘Book of seals. You have it with you?’ Daniel sounds business-like as ever.

Manda flips open her bag and thumbs through the books she has with her, laying a hand on the little leather-bound volume.

‘Hold it open at him. Flip through it,’ Daniel instructs. ‘Yes, like that, like a flip book.’ Manda riffles the vellum pages. The boy stops writhing for a moment, looking alert. Then he resumes his cacophony. ‘Do it again,’ says Daniel. ‘You need to note which one he reacts to. Identifying the demon is the first step to casting it out.’

‘I thought that was why you were supposed to question them,’ says Manda under her breath.

 Daniel snorts.

‘They’re demons – they lie.’ He pauses, ‘Wait – back one.’

‘Ornias?’ Manda looks, upside down, at the page. Two sets of wavy lines above a crescent set in a circular frame. The boy on the bed freezes, mid-spasm, and glares at her.

‘Command him to leave,’ Daniel says.

Manda reads, ‘Ornias, thumb sucker and thief.’ The boy hisses. Steam appears to be rising from his hair and from his clothes and there’s a penetrating smell of ammonia. ‘Bringer of pain. Lesser devil of the regions of hell.’ She pulls a face. ‘Goodness, whatever happened to ‘great duke and strong’?’

‘They’re not all misunderstood gentleman warriors,’ Daniel says. ‘Some of them adhere to the popular stereotype. Concentrate – don’t lose him.’

‘I command you depart. I cast you out. Lesser devil, I cast you out.’ She repeats the words that appear to cause the demon the most discomfort; repeats them for a long, long time.

At last the air seems to change. The boy blurs and twitches, like a skipping frame in a cine film. An indistinct shape separates from his outline, hovers slightly outside the boy’s skin occupying almost the same space, and then projects for a second indistinctly just above his recumbent form. As soon as the shape is fully distinct it snaps elastically whole and the demon falls, scrambling too quickly over the side of the bed, all clutching limbs and claws. It’s anything but a disappointment – scrawny and scaly with a blue sheen to its skin and a squashed, tusked pug face. Manda wrinkles her nose.

Daniel says, ‘Quickly, sign him before it tries to get back in.’

But Manda is flagging. She fumbles her vial of holy water. The little bottle drops to the floor and shatters on the boards with a bright crack. Elongated fingers fold around the side of the bed. The demon’s eyes appear, glassy, over the crumpled ticking under-sheet.

‘Use the dust instead.’ Daniel’s voice has a serrated edge of exasperation to it and Manda feels irrationally guilty, as if she’s his pupil and she’s letting him down. She tugs another little vial from a cartridge-holder on her kit belt: relic dust. It’s the hardest thing to get hold of but very potent among the superstitious, both human and paranatural, and both more concentrated and more portable than water. Matron was proud of this one when she’d passed it onto Manda; she’d come by it – ever the bargain-hunter – for a surprisingly small sum, due to the unsubstantiated nature of its authenticity. An ashy, charred bundle, it was reputed to be the bones of St Joan of Arc, but when tested proved feline in nature: private collectors wouldn’t touch it, the church turned up its nose. What Matron uncovered was that St Joan was indeed, as charged, a witch. Transforming into a cat a little too late to escape the flames of her pyre didn’t do her any favours in the end.

‘Oh, lovely.’ There’s no time for niceties; Manda unscrews the cap, licks one finger, and pushes it into the glass tube. The demon, Ornias, watches her warily from the other side of the bed as she takes position next to Ray at the bed-head and reaches again for the unconscious child. Ornias seems to be weighing up whether or not to make a last scramble for re-admittance. It’s quite distracting; Manda keeps a nervous eye on it. Its spindly limbs nauseate her; the way it moves is unpleasantly suggestive of a giant spider. Following the diagram in the Book of Seals, Manda traces a copy in relic ashes on Adam Morfey’s forehead.

‘Wait, you – I want a word with you!’ shouts Daniel. Manda sees the demon appear to dwindle, slipping cunningly out of sight; she flips up the counterpane and bends to look under the bed, but only dust and an empty chamber pot remain. Coughing, the boy on the bed regains consciousness, immediately starting to cry in confusion as his mother runs to his side.

‘Yes, well, it’s just lucky that Ferris didn’t think it was a normal spirit possession and sign it off to psych,’ says Daniel. Manda lets out a little snort of agreement, pulling the buckles tight on her overnight case. ‘You’d think he conveniently forgets that demons are corporeal, just because they can possess. Psych aren’t the only ones capable of dealing with possessions.’ He adds, ‘Not that we managed to apprehend it anyway’.

‘I’m just glad it wasn’t an elemental,’ Manda sniffs. ‘I hate elementals.’

‘Racist.’

‘Well, I just do.’

‘You’d think,’ says Daniel, ‘that given your situation you’d be a bit more tolerant of others.’

‘Oh be quiet. You know I am.’ Manda shuts the case and buckles it closed. ‘What are you still doing here, anyway?’

‘I’m…’

‘You all right in there?’

Ray. He’s knocking at the door, his voice milky; he could be calling out ‘room service’ for all the gravity it holds. Manda calls back,

‘Yes, I’m just packing. Be out in a minute.’

‘What’s he still doing here, you mean,’ says Daniel. Manda shushes him.

‘Come on, he’s a nice person. A good nurse.’

‘He’s weak.’

‘He’s caring. Isn’t that what we need to be in this service?’

‘The damn bleeding heart contingent is what’s bringing this department down: rich boys playing at philanthropy.’

‘Because we don’t need donations, obviously.’

‘Rich boys playing at philanthropy. Convincing themselves that their dabbling makes them indispensable members of the paramedical profession.’ Daniel’s voice fizzes with contempt. ‘Their money is most welcome, but this isn’t ‘let’s pretend’ for aspiring saints, lives are at stake here. Let him go and dress as a farmhand and pick strawberries with daddy’s tenants if he wants to validate his existence, damned dilettante.’

Manda shakes her head. Out of habit she opens the curtains just a crack and checks the cumulating dusk outside.

‘Daniel, you’re so overdramatic.’

Still looking out of the window, she hears Daniel sigh irritably.

‘You think I’m being hard on him. You know as well as I do that he wouldn’t have so much as a toe in the door if he wasn’t Doyle’s great-grandson.’

‘That’s not true.’ Manda lets the curtain go and turns back to the room. ‘Biomech is an up and coming field. He’s right up there with the best.’

‘And so he may be, but that doesn’t make him a Field Nurse. He should be locked up in a workshop somewhere, not partnering you on operations.’

Manda purses her lips, jutting out her chin.

‘And there we have the root of your objection.’

‘Oh, spare me. Just because you know I’m right. He’s on this job because he’s descended from the First Doctors, nothing more.’

Opening her mouth for what would be a none-too-polite reply, Manda is interrupted by another knock at the door; rapid like Morse signals, almost forceful.

‘Manda, are you sure you’re fine?’ Ray calls. ‘Who are you talking to?’

When Manda opens the door, he peers past her into the room. Her green leather travelling case: packed and standing by the bed. The room: empty.

‘I was just thinking out loud,’ says Manda. ‘Come on, let’s get going.’

‘Liar,’ says Daniel.

***

Spirit Houses is out now in paperback and e-book!

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