Mark’s next door neighbour and business partner Pat kept telling him that power flowed through his veins. He took a breath and closed his eyes, trying to will the power back out again and into the ash wand in his outstretched hand. He pointed it at Pat’s door. A narrow beam of blue light squeezed out of the end and hit the lock. Nothing happened. Sighing, he folded the wand and put it in his pocket. He took out his key and let himself into her house.
He heard her moving around in the kitchen, back from sorting out the invasion of reptilian arsonists in a garden in Llandudno the day before, while he had expelled a banshee from a pub in Macclesfield. This morning’s job was to sort out an elderly-care home with a spirit infestation. Mark opened the kitchen door.
Pat coughed, wafting her hand at a cloud of green fumes. “Damn, they’re still moving,” she said.
Mark peered through the smoke. Two dragons, one red, one green, as iridescent as hummingbirds, each about an inch long, stood in the palm of her hand hissing at each other.
“They might be tiny but they’d incinerated every plant in that,” Pat said. One dragon snorted, and shot a tiny flare the size of a match flame towards the other. “Help me separate them.” She pushed her hand towards Mark.
He picked up the green one with his forefinger and thumb. “I’ll put them in the safe.”
“No room, there’s a backlog of entities stuck in there, waiting for me to get the chance to dispose of them.”
“Get the dragons to set each other alight and burn each other up.”
“That won’t work,” she said. “An entity can’t destroy another entity. If they could we’d be out of a job. I was trying to find a way round the space problem using this new incantation I picked up online. Instead of you having to exorcise them and put them in containment, it renders them immobile and you can leave them anywhere.”
“Wouldn’t it get a little cluttered after a while?”
“No, apparently they fade away gradually over a few hours. At least, that’s what it said on the website.”
“Seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”
Pat moved her hand away as her dragon flamed at the one Mark held. She shook her head. “I think it should make things easier. Exorcising a recalcitrant entity the usual way can be exhausting. It causes something like a bad hangover, without any of the pleasure of the night before.”
“I’ve felt that. Bit like 24 hour flu?”
Pat nodded. “Consider it an occupational hazard. But this new method doesn’t seem to work, the dragons are still moving about. Good job I tested it on something small.”
Mark looked at Pat’s notebook open on the table, the dragon still held between two fingers. “You should have printed the thing out instead of copying it. This looks like an inky spider’s crawled over the page.” He held the green dragon at arm’s length and read the incantation. This time, red smoke billowed. As it cleared, he saw the red dragon motionless on Pat’s palm. She picked it up by a wing.
“I can’t read my own writing,” she said. “Well done.” She put the dragon on a shelf next to a pile of recipe books. “You stay there, Boyo. We’ve got work to do.” Mark put the green one next to it. They stood, as immobile as toys. Pat picked up her car keys. They got into the car, she slipped her stiletto heels off and they drove away.
They arrived at a low rise building, set back from the road. Star Lodge.
“It doesn’t look haunted to me,” Mark said. He saw a group of elderly people sitting in deckchairs on the lawn in front of the building. Some chatted, some slumped in silence. He shivered. At sixty-two, he knew he was looking at his and Pat’s future. Maybe only twenty years away.
“You should know by now that you can’t tell by appearances if there are ghosts, unless you can see them.” Pat slipped her shoes back on. Mark tried not to watch her tugging her skirt down over her knees as she got out of the car, the long white plait swinging down her back.
She passed him the phasmometer, a black object the size and shape of a goose egg, that detected entities. He pointed it at the building and looked at the display.
“I’m right. It’s reading zero. Nothing here.”
“Give it to me, I’ll check the batteries. It keeps switching itself on every time it brushes against anything else.” She shook the detector, shrugged and passed it back to Mark.
Mark pressed the doorbell and gave their names. The door buzzed, and they went into the entrance hall.
“The detector’s reading ‘entity’ now,” Mark said. “How can you tell what sort it is?”
She took the detector from him and put it in her pocket. “You can’t, always. Sometimes you have to wait till it appears. Or summon it.”
An old woman sat knitting by the door, grey hair piled into a bun. A few curls escaped, held back by a pair of glasses.
“Receptionist’s gone for tea. Buy something?” She pointed at the woollen hats and scarves on a table next to her. A card beside them read ‘Nettie”s Nitting. All proceeds go to Star Lodge.’
“It’s not her, she’s still alive,” Pat whispered to Mark. She chose a pair of gloves and handed over a ten pound note, waving Nettie’s hand away when she tried to give her change.
“Where’s Mr Bocock’s office?”
Nettie’s face hardened. “Who wants to know? You’re those ghostbusters, aren’t you? I heard Bocock on the phone to you. Well?”
Pat crouched so that their faces were level. “We’re from a pest control firm.”
“Don’t give me that. I heard what you said just now. We’ve got no pests here. There’s no ghosts either, so you can just clear off.” Mark turned on the facial expression he had honed after forty years silencing class-loads of revolting adolescents. Nettie’s face reddened, and she looked away. “Office’s two doors down from the lift.”
Pat and Mark headed along the corridor. A ball of yarn bounced past them across the floor.
“Give that back, you little so-and-so!” Nettie shouted behind them. The ball rolled back the way it came. “That’s better. Now, Jade, you’d better run along. Greedy Guts will be sniffing round. He’s getting hungry.”
Mark looked into the lift, where a repair man pulled at a cat’s cradle of cables sticking out of a hatch. He heard a buzz and the crackle of electricity. The lift’s internal light dimmed and brightened, blobbing long shadows into the corridor.
“Oy! I saw you!” the repair man shouted.
Pat jumped. Mark heard children running. He looked along the corridor. Nobody there.
The man leaned out. “They your kids?”
Pat shook her head.
“They won’t leave these buttons alone,” the man said, tapping at the console on the outside of the lift with a screwdriver. “Third time I’ve been called in this week, some old dear got stuck inside. It’s nice when young ‘uns come to see gran and gramps, but someone should keep them under control.” He went on tinkering with the cables.
Two little girls aged about seven came out of a door at the end of the corridor hand-in-hand. One wore a knee-length faded cotton summer dress, ankle socks and t-bar sandals. A bow was tied in her blonde hair, at the top of her head. She grinned at her dark-haired companion, who wore striped leggings, trainers, and a t-shirt with the slogan ‘girl power’.
The repair man poked his head out of the lift again. “Clear off!”
The dark-haired girl put out her tongue. The blonde put her left thumb to her nose. They turned and walked back into the room they came from. Through the wall.
There was a red light on the office door. Pat knocked.
Pretentious idiot, Mark thought. The light changed to green.
They walked round a group of waste sacks filled to the top with paper, stuck in the middle of the floor like standing stones. The desk at the end was piled high with files. A man sat behind it, looking at a computer screen.
“Sit!” Without looking up, he pointed at two leather chairs in front of the desk. “Be right with you – still trying to sort out the mess left by my predecessor. Had this collective way of running this place that actually means never dumping anything.”
“I’m Cleopatra Court,” Pat said. “This is my partner, Mark Anderson. Our specialty’s ancient gods, eldritch horror, cosmic nightmare, that type of thing.”
“I’m George Bocock. And, dear, you call them what you like, I’m not having them here.” He looked at Mark. “I saw a ghost. Can’t have that. A kid – a girl, running down the corridor. Disappeared.”
“We think there’s at least one entity here,” Mark said.
“I just told you that. Also, one of the residents told an inspector that children came out of her bedroom wall at night. I managed to pass it off as Lewy body dementia; hallucinations are a big part of that. What are you going to do about it?”
“We’ll set up a psychic field,” Mark said, “and—”
“Didn’t you think to contact your local diocese?” Pat said. “They’ll have an exorcist.
Bocock took a sharp breath in and gripped the edge of the desk. “Don’t be stupid,” he said to Pat. “Involving the church is out of the question. Don’t want people thinking I’m some kind of nutter.” He looked at Mark. “I trust I can rely on you people to be discreet. Now, you will,” he lifted an index finger to either side of his face and made quotation mark movements “move them onto the next plane. That’s what you people call it.” A statement, not a question.
“We usually use the term ‘exorcise’,” Pat said.
“Just get rid of them. And don’t expect to run up the charge by dawdling. Reggie Pittenweem offered me a discount, five ghosts for the price of four.” He turned back to Mark. “But he couldn’t come in for three weeks. I’ve got another inspection due any day, so the job’s yours.”
Pat stood up. “We’ll do a survey and report back within the hour.”
They left the office and Pat shut the door. “I didn’t think sexist idiots like that still existed.” She sighed. “Anyway, we’re here to do a job. Let’s start looking in the place where those girls went.”
Armchairs lined the walls of the lounge. At one end, a 60 inch TV showed a football match, but nobody was watching. A nurse crooned to herself as she fed tomato soup to an old man.
“More company!” he said, pushing the spoon away. “A boy come to see me last week. He just stood there, didn’t say a word. Then just cleared off.”
“That’s nice,” Pat said. “Who was he?”
“You must have been dreaming, Arthur,” the nurse said, squeezing his hand. She looked up. “He never gets visitors.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark saw movement in the corridor and snapped his head round. A boy stood in the doorway, aged about 12. He wore a short sleeved shirt and a knitted v-necked sleeveless tank top. His legs protruded from baggy, knee length shorts. He wore long grey socks and black lace-up shoes.
“There he is!” The man smiled and pointed towards the door.
“Arthur. Now you’re winding me up. If you’ve finished, I’ll take your bowl back to the kitchen.” The nurse walked through the boy as she left the room.
Pat took the phasmometer out of her pocket and tapped the display. “I’m only picking up three of them. Let’s finish this. We need to find an empty room where we can summon them all at once.”
They walked along the empty corridor. Pat peered over Mark’s shoulder as he looked into a bedroom. “Someone’s asleep in here,” she said. She looked left and right. “There’s nobody around. Let’s try upstairs.” She went to shut the door.
Mark put his finger up to his lips and nodded towards the inside of the room.
A nurse stood next to a bed with raised sides, surrounded by half-closed curtains. On it an old man lay, his eyes closed. A brightly patterned knitted blanket covered him, rising and falling as he breathed. The dark-haired girl stood on the other side, holding his hand. He opened his eyes, turned to her and smiled. A shimmering man-like shape, like a silver cloud floated above him, joined to his chest by a fine thread.
The girl beckoned and as the shape moved towards her, the thread snapped. The shape rose past her to the ceiling, fading to nothing. The girl stood up and walked through the wall.
The nurse looked up, frowning. “What do you two want? Can’t this poor thing have a bit of peace?”
The blanket was still. After touching the old man’s wrist again, the nurse closed the curtains round the bed.
“Out of my way,” Bocock said, from behind them. Mark jumped. “He’s very ill, isn’t he?” Bocock shoved past him into the room.
“I know you like to sit with them, Mr B,” the nurse said. “But I’m afraid you”re too late. Poor Harold’s just passed away.”
Bocock frowned and, turning away from her without a word, stamped away down the corridor.
“You’d think he’d show some respect,” Mark whispered to Pat. Bocock stopped and turned round.
“Are you planning to do any work, or just stand round talking? Get on with it.” He walked away.
“Probably brassed off at the paperwork the death will generate, miserable sod,” Mark said.
Pat looked down the corridor. Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not so sure,” she said. She took the phasmometer out of her pocket and held it at arm’s length. “Too much interference from that girl. She’s in the next room – come on.” She grabbed Mark’s hand and they ran.
It was a bathroom. Mark closed the door behind them. The boy Mark had seen earlier manifested, sitting on a chair next to the bath. The girls appeared in front of him, with their back to Pat and Mark. The boy leaned forward and smiled, giving a thumbs-up sign to the dark haired girl.
The boy took a pencil stub from behind his ear and a notepad out of his pocket. On a page he wrote ‘EDNA’ and handed it to the blonde-haired girl.
“Excuse me. Time to go,” Mark said. The children turned round and the boy stood up, his hands on his hips, mouth in a line, still clutching the notepad and pencil. His chin wobbled. The girls ran behind him.
Mark spoke to Pat out of the corner of his mouth. “They haven’t really done much wrong. Do we have to kick them out? They’re only kids.”
Pat shook her head. “They were, but not any more. They don’t belong here. They’ll be at peace, once they’ve moved on. We’ll use that immobilising charm, like with the dragons. They’ll be OK.”
“Fine, I can remember the form of words.” Mark felt an itching, buzzing sensation under his skin. He shuddered. “You felt that too, didn’t you?” Pat said. “Residual magic. Someone’s done something to those kids already, put some sort of silence charm on them.” She wafted the detector in front of the boy. “Not all ghosts talk, but I think these would, if something wasn’t stopping them.”
She shook her head. “Looks like the work of another entity.” The children nodded. “One entity can’t destroy another, but one seems to have shut them up.”
The boy scribbled on the page: ‘BOCOCK IS…’ His hand stopped in mid-phrase.
Mark took his ash wand out of his pocket and pointed it at the ghosts. “Yes, I know, he’s not very nice. But he’s the boss, he wants you out, and that’s our job. So, let’s go somewhere nobody will see you while you disperse. Put that stuff down, lad, and all of you stand still.” The children’s mouths shut and they stood motionless, their hands by their sides. The pencil and notepad fell to the floor.
Pat opened the door. Mark put his head out and looked right and left. He walked out of the bathroom into the empty corridor, followed by the ghosts and Pat. She stopped by a door marked ‘cleaners’.
“Put them in here, I’ll jam the door shut,” she said. The ghosts filed in. He read the immobilising incantation, they left the room and Pat shut the door. “No key. Never mind.” She held onto the handle, closed her eyes and muttered a charm. “See if you can get it open,” she said to Mark. The handle felt hot to his touch, and he could not move it.
“Good,” Pat said. “A locksmith will be able to open it. But by the time they get one in, the ghosts will have gone. Not many here can see them, but we don’t want to take any chances.”
Bocock looked up from his computer screen as they came into his office.
“The place was haunted, by three children,” Pat said, shivering. “But you won’t be troubled again. We’ve been all over the building and it’s clear now. Our work carries a one-year guarantee, extendable to three for a very reasonable fee.”
“Had you considered taking out our maintenance contract?” Mark said. “It’s cheaper in the long run. Keeping ghosts away is easier than getting rid of them.”
“A cheque’ll be fine, thanks,” Pat said.
“I don’t think so,” Bocock said.
“Fair enough,” Pat said. “I know they’re not used much these days. We take credit cards and PayPal. Cash is always welcome, of course.”
“You’ll have to do better than that. “Our work”? I didn’t see you do anything. I’m not paying you to prance in here and bandy a few bits of phony-looking kit about. Which is, I know, all you’ve done.”
“That’s disgraceful!” Pat said.
Mark’s face reddened. He leaned across the desk. Bocock’s eyes were as blank and empty as though they were made of glass. “This is illegal,” Mark said. “When you called us in and agreed the fee, it was a contract. It’s binding.”
Bocock shrugged his shoulders. “Magic, is it? I’m quaking in my boots. See you in court. But you’ll find that any so-called agreement is with Star Lodge, not me. I don’t think you’ll want to be seen suing a care home, legal fees will mean less to spend on the residents. It’d be like taking money out of their pockets.”
“I’ll go to the local paper,” Pat said. “They’ll be very interested to hear about how you ripped us off.”
“Publish and be damned. If you think they’ll believe you.” Bocock turned away and sniffed. “Time for lunch. Don’t let me detain you. Excuse me if I don’t see you out, but I’ve got a-” he sniffed again “-woman to visit.” He left them standing in the office.
“This is an outrage.” Mark felt his throat tighten. His hands clenched into fists. “I’m not letting him get away it. What a diabolical liberty.”
“You’re closer than you realise.” Pat held out the phasmometer and showed Mark its display. “This switched itself on in my pocket, and a good job it did. I’ve had the feeling that something’s been watching me the whole time we’ve been here. And Bocock…he makes me shudder.”
“I’ve been feeling like that too. I thought it was something to do with those kids.”
“No, you don’t get that from ghosts. Look, the display’s off the scale. Whatever Bocock is, he’s pure evil. We can’t leave him here. We have to eliminate him.” She dashed away holding the instrument in front of her. Mark followed.
They picked up his trail on the top floor. As they rounded the corner Mark heard Bocock talking to a nurse. “You call the doctor, I’ll sit with Edna.” The nurse walked away. Bocock disappeared inside a bedroom and closed the door.
Pat opened it. Bocock sat next to a bed in which an old woman lay motionless. Above her, joined by a fine silver cord, hovered a shimmering steamy shape. He opened his mouth. Mark heard a sucking noise, and the shape disappeared between Bocock’s lips. He looked round and bit the cord in two, the end protruding from his mouth.
“Don’t bother me now. I’m eating.” Saliva dripped down his chin. “And now, thanks to you, those little sods are out of the way and I can take as long as I like.” His jaws worked. “I can chew each mouthful thirty two times, like I was taught.” He swallowed with a gulp. “Now, who’s for dessert?” He stood and sniffed, turning his head from side to side.
Pat rubbed her hands together and clapped once. “Michael and Sandalphon rid you from this place!”
“Don’t bother me,” Bocock said. He grabbed the back of the wooden chair he had been sitting in and threw it towards Mark. As it flew, it broke into sharp-splintered fragments. Mark put his hands up in front of his face.
Pat jumped between him and the flying wood. She raised her hands to shoulder height, palms away. Mark heard a crack, like a spark of static electricity. The pieces of wood stopped in mid air and clattered to the ground in a heap.
“That’s enough tricks, dear,” Bocock said. “I’m going to finish this somewhere we won’t be interrupted.” He walked into the corridor. A force that Mark could not resist pulled him outside. Pat grabbed Mark’s arm but the force gripped them both and they stumbled as they were dragged along. Bocock opened a door. Mark felt himself shoved inside the empty bedroom. Pat fell after him.
Bocock locked the door and swelled until he reached the ceiling, his body stretching as wide as the room. He pushed out hands the size of soup plates, the fingers grabbing for them. “You’re going to wish you’d left when you had the chance.”
Pat recoiled. “Get back to your place!” Mark shouted. Bocock’s mouth dropped open, and he shrank to his former size. He glared and made a fanning movement with his hands. A grey mist formed in front of him, moving towards Mark. “You’re getting tired, old man.” His voice made Mark’s brain rattle. “You can’t keep your eyes open. Lie down and sleep. Forever.”
Mark felt as though cotton wool filled his head. He looked around, yawning. Was this his room? He staggered towards the bed and lay down.
“And you’re next, dear. Luscious, vital. Such a change from those half-dead, dry creatures.” Bocock stretched out his fist, opening his fingers and squeezing them shut. Pat fell to her knees, retching and clutching her chest. Mark snapped awake, sprang off the bed and grabbed her. He tried to think of a banishing invocation. His mind was blank. “Stop! Leave her!” He needed more power.
He felt a cool breeze against his face. The grey mist cleared in the corner of the room. The three ghost children appeared. They held hands, the boy between the two girls. The dark girl grabbed Pat’s hand and dragged it away from her chest. The blonde girl snatched Mark’s left hand. Mark took Pat’s other hand with his right, completing the circle. He saw their fingers glowing blood red, as though lit from the inside.
A ball of flame shot from the centre of the circle and flew towards Bocock. As it corkscrewed into him, he buried his face in his arms. Mark saw flashes of red light, burning into Bocock. Blow after blow. Flames enveloped him. Waving his arms, a thin scream came from the place where his mouth had been. As though a switch had been thrown the light vanished and the flames snuffed out leaving a silent shape like a man’s, but made of ash, standing in front of them. Its hand reached out. The children pursed their lips and blew. The shape collapsed to a pile of cinders.
Flakes of ash swirled and fluttered. Pat staggered to her feet, coughed and fell against the wall. Mark grabbed her, his hands shaking with fatigue. “You OK?”
“Yes, I said big exorcisms were wearing. You feel it too, don’t you?” She wheezed and brushed ash off her shoulders. “I must look like I’ve got a bad attack of dandruff.”
“How come the fire alarm didn’t sound?”
“They only work with real flames. Not the psychic sort. Those kids must have more power than we thought, to be able to beat the immobilisation charm.”
“It wore off. Don’t you know anything about magic?” the boy said. “That form of words is only temp-a-ry.” He kicked at the pile of cinders. “Goodbye, Greedy Guts.”
“It’s all over now,” Pat said. “We couldn’t have done it without you. Who are you, anyway? Brother and sisters?”
“I’m Roger,” the boy said. “This is Susan.” He nodded towards the blonde girl in the summer dress.
“And I’m Jade,” the dark girl said.
“We’re not related,” Roger said. “I’ve been drifting about since I died in 1957. Got exorcised from the first place I tried so I came here. It just felt right. Susan arrived about five years after. Jade’s the newcomer, didn’t snuff it till 1998.”
Pat nodded. “Some places are like magnets for ghosts.”
“But we look out for each other, like family, even if we didn’t all get here at once,” Roger said. “When you die, sometimes you just wander. The next life is like school only back to front. If you come late they don’t make you stay after lessons, they won’t let you in at all.”
“Well, we’re very grateful to you,” Pat said. “So I’m going to see if I can get them to open those gates. There’s bound to be a way.”
“Oh no, we’re needed here,” Jade said. “What if someone else like Greedy Guts gets in?”
“And even if they don’t, what if souls get lost?” Roger said. “We know where the next world is, we’ve been showing them the way to go for years. Let us stay, then the Grandpas and Nans won’t wander.”
“We don’t want to go to the next life,” Susan said. “We want to stay here. And maybe the old ‘uns we help’ll come back and see us. Please, Auntie Pat?” She raised her eyebrows and clasped her hands together under her chin.
Pat narrowed her eyes. “This isn’t the usual procedure. But what the hell, nobody got anywhere by just sticking to the tried and tested. We’ll do it.”
“But walk in the corridors, girls,” Mark said. “Don’t run. Stop playing with the lift. Do you all promise to behave?”
“We promise,” the ghosts said in unison. They faded to invisibility, shimmering around the edges as they vanished leaving a smell of toffee behind. Mark felt a sensation on his tongue like fizzing sherbet.
Pat held out her left hand with the palm facing sideways. “This’ll keep them on the straight and narrow.” She held her right hand as a fist against the left, and twisted. “It’s the second part of a two-part binding. First I had to get them to make a promise. This completes it.”
“Not quite,” Mark said. “Who’s going to manage this place now?”
“Hang on.” Pat pulled the orange cord dangling from the ceiling. An alarm sounded. Mark heard the sound of feet in the corridor and a nurse ran in, her eyebrows raised. She looked down at the cinders and ashes and gasped.
“What’s happened here? Why didn’t the fire alarm sound?”
“I don’t know, you’d better check it,” Pat said. “But Mr Bocock asked us to tell you he’s been called away. He said to call in the deputy manager.”
The nurse tutted, rolling her eyes upwards. “Silly bugger. Typical. We’re always the last ones to be told.” She slapped her hand over her own mouth, then lowered it. “You didn’t hear me say that. Are you with that inspection Mr B warned us about? You’re going to mark us down because the alarm didn’t sound. I’m sure you’re telling me the truth about what he said but I’ll go and check if he’s in the office.” She ran out of the bedroom and headed down the corridor.
“That’s what we need, a healthy dose of cynicism,” Pat said. “The sort who won’t believe any stories about the place being haunted.”
Mark nodded. “It’ll let our three get on with their work in peace.”
Mark shut the front door of Star Lodge behind them and he and Pat headed for the car. “You’d better step on it,” Mark said, his brow furrowed. “Thanks to that temp-a-ry incantation, there are two dragons flying round your kitchen.”
Pat smiled and started the engine. “Just goes to show you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the web. But, things could be worse. I don’t know about you, but nearly getting killed has given me an appetite. And I do know that a cheese sandwich, toasted over a dragon’s flame, is something else altogether.”
Judith Field was born in Liverpool, England and lives in London. She has two daughters, a son, a granddaughter and a grandson. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications in the USA and UK. She is also a pharmacist, freelance journalist, editor, medical writer, and indexer.
She blogs at www.millil.blogspot.com