by Jon Kaneko-James
As always, Sam was late. This time, Alice didn’t mind too
much – they were meeting at a house in London’s Stoke
Newington, which meant she’d been able to buy a cake from
one of the little shops on Church Street and find herself a
spot in the park where she could soak up the late spring sun.
It wasn’t quite warm enough to wear a top or a t-shirt, but
she had gotten away with only wearing a sweater.
As often was the case, Sam hadn’t told her what they were
supposed to be doing. He’d mentioned it being an old friend,
and someone who Alice got on with, but they’d done enough
cases that it didn’t really narrow things down much. It could
be anyone from the whispering and portentous sea captain
they’d worked with in Portsmouth to James Mortimer, to the
terrifying, possessed woman from the Mirandola club he’d
ended up working with last week. (Alice had done more than
her share of possession cases, but this was the first time she’d been less scared of the demon than the woman it was possessing.)
Still, it didn’t matter – it was a nice day, she had an ice cream, and after a bit of searching on what was only tangentially the Dark Web, she’d found a version of Erementhius de Lobokovicz’s Manual Daemonum that she could upload to her tablet.
(de Lobkovicz wasn’t the worst of the Early Modern conjurers to study – while it was obvious that some of his experiences had taken their toll on his grasp of reality, he had a sense of humour that even came through in the translation. Sam had been suggesting that she should read it for ages, just to familiarise herself with some of the spirits they were dealing with, but it was the first time she’d gotten around to it.)
That was why she wasn’t too upset when, after an indeterminate wait, someone standing over her coughed.
It was warm, although Sam was still wearing a long dark raincoat – not as heavy as the woollen military coat he usually wore, though. He stood over her, his expression of eagerness barely concealed by the black cloth facemask he was wearing. “Come on then,” he said, offering her a hand up. “We’re not far from the house.”
Alice let herself be hauled up and dusted herself off. Now she was closer, she could see that Sam’s mask had a black on black pattern stitched into the fabric – a twisting design that she vaguely recognised from one of his notebooks. (Her own mask had leaves and cherries on it – she’d ordered it online from a shop in Brighton.)
“Are you going to tell me what we’re doing?” she said, following as he started to stride through the small park. “You know, Rachel was getting a car and heading out to Whitstable.”
“You’ll like it,” Sam said, leading her across the road from the park into a street of four-story Victorian houses. From the number of doorbells, they’d all been cut up into flats. “Penny says that one of the kids in the street is being haunted.”
Alice raised an eyebrow. “How haunted? Knightsbridge? Proper gothic horror with a cursed doll?”
Sam smiled. “We can but hope.”
* * *
He gave her a bracelet to wear before they got to the house. “It’s for the same thing as before, plus something else you might find useful.”
Alice put it on. It was some sort of white metal, and old by the look of it, although it had a number of soldered additions that were pure Sam Hain.
Sam smiled. “It should allow you to understand when Penny is signing.”
Alice’s eyebrows, which seemed to be very animated today, shot up. “You can teach me a language, just like that?”
“It won’t work forever, sadly,” Sam said. “It tends to run out of juice and take a long time to recharge, but there’s a whole school of magic based around the accelerated learning of skills. It tends to either not work, or cause horrific brain damage, unfortunately.”
Alice’s hand flew to her wrist.
“That one is in perfect condition, though,” Sam said, hastily, “I’ve tested it myself and I came to no harm.”
“Hmm,” Alice said, trying to guess which one of the houses they were heading for. “If you had, would we ever know?” Sam rolled his eyes at the jab.
The house they were approaching almost capped the street – the road turned such a sharp right that at first, it looked like a dead end. The house was extraordinarily well maintained – the paintwork was the black it had probably always been, with Victorian gothic features and an arched front door. If whoever lived there hadn’t spent so much time and money looking after the place, it would have looked like the stereotypical haunted house.
That was when she noticed something truly strange: the house only had one doorbell. “Does one family live here?” Alice asked.
“My God, they must be doing well,” she said, trying not to sound too much like a character from Oliver Twist.
They’d barely gotten to the front step when the door swung open. A huge figure in a gothic mourning dress loomed over them.
It was sweet that Penny was wearing a facemask, mostly because Alice wasn’t convinced that she even needed to breathe. Penny wasn’t human – she’d met Sam over a shared passion for Enochian crosswords at a café. She was just over six foot five, wore almost exclusively black Victorian dresses, and had a deer skull for a head.
Getting the mask on seemed to have been a feat of engineering – by the looks of things, she’d hooked it around her antlers and then dared it to break when she stretched it around the front of her head.
She did a little bob of excitement, signing rapidly. I’m so glad you’re here – the Williams’ are out at the moment so we’ve got a little time to work. I’ve tried everything but I can’t find what’s going on.
They let themselves be invited in. The hallway was a work of modern minimalism that would have made Marie Kondo proud. There were white walls with barely-there furniture. The living room was empty except for an expensively plain sofa and two free standing bookcases. There didn’t even seem to be a television.
Sam looked around and took his transphasic energy probe out. If Penny could have verbalised – or at least, if she could have verbalised without melting Alice and Sam’s flesh like it was wax – she would have gone, ‘oooh.’ She leaned over the probe and tapped the crystal on the end, producing a crackle of magical energy that would probably have hurt anyone else.
“Don’t touch that,” Sam said, gently swatting her hand away. “I’m trying to maintain my air of sorcerous dignity.”
With an air of semi-contrition, Penny retracted her hand and went over to some bay windows. Alice paced the living room, looking out for things that looked out of place – haunted idols, cursed paintings, gifts or jewellery that could have been hexed. The problem with a minimalist living room was that everything there looked out of place – from the scattering of objects on the free standing shelves to the three umbrellas hanging from hooks on the living room wall.
“That’s real wealth,” Alice said. “Having enough storage to be able to make it look like you’ve only just moved in.”
Sam swept the probe from side to side. “I’m not getting anything. What did you say was happening?”
Penny came to life again and brought them over to the stairs. They were a set of beautifully sturdy Victorian steps, with a rich off white carpet that almost matched the walls.
Most of the phenomena are upstairs, in Oliver’s bedroom, Penny signed, leading them up to the first floor. She paused on the landing – it was wide, with immaculate white plasterwork leading to beautifully arranged rooms. He’s been really frightened. His parents aren’t sure what to do, which is why I asked you to come while everyone was out.
Alice got her phone out and prepared to take notes. Sam had a surprisingly retentive memory, but it was always useful to make sure that you captured things in people’s exact words.
It happens more and more often now – he says that while he’s asleep, the wardrobe opens and a monstrous thing comes out. It usually crosses the room and leaves, although recently it’s just been lurking in the dark. He’s so frightened, poor thing, Penny signed, normally, I could get rid of it myself, but I just can’t find anything.
Oliver’s bedroom was a typical youngish boy’s room – from the look of it he was somewhere around nine or ten. It was bright, and cheerful in a scheme of sky blues – except for the dark wood wardrobe in the corner.
There was something else about the room: a magical circle, barely visible until Alice forced herself to concentrate on it. The symbols were familiar from some of the books she’d researched in her cases with Sam. Oddly, the closer she looked, the less familiar they were – a different stroke here, a changed line there. She turned away, a faint headache blossoming.
Sam swept the probe over the circle. “I take it, this is yours?” he asked.
Penny nodded. Nothing should be able to even get near his bed.
“Did he give you a description?” Sam asked.
Not really – officially, they haven’t spoken to me about it, I just overheard things. He just says it’s huge, it looms in the darkness, and it’s becoming more and more obsessed with him, Penny signed.
Sam chewed a nail as he did another sweep of the room. “There are plenty of things out there – spirits that target children. Some of them were even children once themselves, this is how they reproduce. It’s the level of concealment that worries me. Not that it’s impossible, but… it suggests a sort of intelligence that we haven’t seen since… well…”
Penny didn’t have facial expressions, but her demeanour was grave. That was my worry. There are things that could do it but…
Sam sighed, and gave a nod. Alice looked between them. “What are we talking about here?”
“Rituals,” Sam said, his voice low and heavy. “Blood magic that spans generations. No wonder Penny wanted us here.”
Alice tried to run the possibilities through her mind. It wasn’t as if it was the first time she’d encountered blood magic. “Is this something like the Regents?”
“Don’t,” he whispered. “Although, it could be. It could also be his parents. There are spells, dark ones, that require the sacrifice of a child.”
Penny spread her hands wide, and then started to sign again. I don’t think it’s a creature, but I had to be sure.
“Umm,” Sam said, shoving his hair out of his face. “We should look around the house – change the focus from looking for creatures to ritual items. They must have some storage somewhere. Have you ever been to the attic?”
Penny shook her head again. I mostly just come in and out. I feel so foolish.
Alice patted her on the shoulder. To her surprise, it had flesh. “You couldn’t know, they’re your friends.”
I know, Penny signed. I knew it couldn’t be a creature though. I’d have seen it.
Alice patted her shoulder again. “Are you and Oliver close?”
I’m in and out of the wardrobe every night – two or three times recently, while I’m taking care of some business, she signed, her hands trembling a little.
A red flag popped up in Alice’s brain, like a ‘sale’ sign on an old-style till. She looked at Sam. He looked the way she felt.
I stood over him for an hour last night, just waiting for it to come, Penny signed. Nothing happened, but when I was listening this morning, he said that—
Sam held a finger up, stopping Penny mid-flow. He looked at Alice in a very ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ way.
Alice put a hand on Penny’s arm. “Umm, Penny,” Alice asked, “I’m really sorry if this is off the mark, but… do the Williams’ know you… umm… exist? I mean, have you had a conversation with them?”
Penny looked nonplussed. Well, they must do – I don’t hide. I just use the wardrobes to enter this reality and slip out. I pay my way – I tidied a few things up the day before yesterday, I sorted all their post on Tuesday. I think I might put things up a bit high for them, though.
Alice tried to think of a way to break it to her without also breaking her heart. “The thing is, though… you’ve never actually said, ‘I’m Penny, I’m just passing through, don’t worry about me.’ You just sort of come in and out while they’re sleeping?”
I don’t want to disturb anyone. I usually check all the bedrooms to make sure everyone’s asleep, she signed.
Alice wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry, or hug her. “Yes… right… and last night, you came in three or four times, and stood over the little boy’s bed?”
Penny nodded. Nothing got to him, I’m certain of it.
Alice bit her lip. As tenderly as she could, she put a hand on Penny’s wrist. “Penny, it’s you.”
There was an almost visible mental lurch as Penny realised what Alice had been leading her towards. Her shoulders rounded.
Oh, she signed. Yes.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said. “It was a really nice thing to do, it’s just that… if they can see that you look… well… like this… and you come creeping out of a wardrobe at three in the morning…”
I feel so foolish, Penny signed. I should have concealed myself.
Sam patted her on the back. “There, there. We should go before they—”
Unfortunately, the Gods weren’t on his side.
Downstairs, a key rattled in the lock.
Sam smiled weakly. “Wardrobe?”