By Caitlin Kittredge
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Caitlin Kittredge
All rights reserved.
A crow sat on the dead branch of the dead tree that watched over two gravestones in the corner of Brompton Cemetery. It watched Jack Winter with its black eyes like beads, and he watched the crow in turn, with eyes that most people called ice, but that he called simply blue.
Jack drew a Parliament out of the air and touched his finger to the tip. He sucked a lungful of smoke and blew it at the crow, which flapped its wings and snapped its beak in irritation. "Fuck off, then," Jack told it. "Not like I want you hanging about."
"Leave that bird alone," said his companion. "If the map I got from tourist information is right, the graves are close by here." Her circular ramble through the headstones came to a stop next to Jack. "Oh. You found them."
"Mary and Stuart Poole," Jack said, flicking his fag at Mary's headstone. "Who says the gods don't have the occasional bout of humor?"
Pete Caldecott gave Jack what he'd describe as a dirty look, and not dirty in the manner that led to being naked and sweaty. She strode over and picked up his litter, shoving it into her coat pocket. "You're a bloody child, you know that? Emotionally twelve. Thirteen at the most."
Jack shrugged. "Been accused of worse." He felt in the inside pocket of his motorbike jacket for another Parliament, but thought better of it when Pete put a hand on her hip.
"We've a job to do, and if we don't do it, we don't get paid, so are you going to stand there all day with your thumb in your arse or are you going to get to work?"
Jack withdrew his hand from his coat slowly, feeling rather like a nun had caught him with a dirty magazine. Pete was, at the first look, not a She Who Must Be Obeyed sort, but Jack knew better. Shorter than him by a head, she had green eyes straight from the Emerald Isle, and dark hair and sun-shy skin that turned her to Snow White in torn denim and an army jacket. Lips plump like rubyfruit, a body that a bloke could spend hours on and still feel like he was starving for it.
But at moments like now, when she glared at him and tapped her foot on the dead grass over the Pooles' final rest, Jack had learned he was better off doing as he was told. Unless he felt like a smack in the head, and it was too early in the day for kinky foreplay.
Jack picked up the black canvas tote they'd brought along and crouched between the Pooles' headstones. The entire practice of raising the dead for things like "closure" and "peace" was a load of bollocks, but Pete's Irish temper kept him from articulating the thought, and she was right, besides — they did have a job.
"'S still a bloody stupid request from the family," Jack told her. "Just like I said when you took them on."
Pete folded her arms. "I spent near a decade of my life pushing paper around a desk at the Metropolitan Police, so once you've dealt with expense reports and a DCI who thinks that equipment that works is a luxury, not a necessity, you can jabber on about bloody stupid, all right?"
Jack grimaced. "I'm not a party trick, luv. This here is my talent and using it thusly ... well ... frankly, it's demeaning."
Pete pointed down at the grave. "Get to work, Winter. Before I lay you a smack."
"I should have been a fucking fortune teller," Jack grumbled. "The future is an open book compared to this shite." He heaved a sigh for effect while he unzipped the satchel and pulled out his spirit heart. Pete merely folded her arms, her expression ever the impassive copper.
In Jack's hand, the clockwork contraption weighed no more than a melon and was of comparable size. Round, made from brass, and hung from a chain, the spirit heart held a small hollowed-out chamber in its bottom. Jack dug the plastic baggie of galangal root out of the satchel and breathed on a pinch of the stuff.
Just a touch of sorcery, just enough to wake up the strands of magic that lived in the galangal. Jack rubbed the pinch between his fingers and tamped it into the chamber of the spirit heart. A stab of pressure hit him in the temple and he rubbed his forehead before standing. His talent knew what was coming, even if his mind didn't, and Jack braced himself to take the punch of spirit energy the galangal root conducted.
Pete reached out and touched him on the arm, the lightest of touches, on his leathers no less, but he still felt it, dancing down through his blood and nerves to his bones. Her own talent felt like gooseflesh, like being touched by a girl you fancied for the first time, every time. It was different from his own slippery, slithering magic as a tube tunnel from a sewer. Similar functions, separated by miles of intent.
"You all right, Jack?" she said.
He lied to her with a small, tight nod and a smile. His head throbbed harder. "Close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades, luv. Let's have this over with."
Pete wasn't fooled, and the twin lines between her eyes said so, but she had the grace to step back and pretend that Jack was as skillful a liar as he claimed.
Jack supposed if he had any sense, he'd be worried. Using magic wasn't supposed to hurt. Not him, not a mage of the Fiach Dubh. The brothers of the crow were the rock stars of a magic trade often fraught with blood and blackness, hard and wicked men whom no one crossed.
Many of them were that. Jack was not. And if he did have sense, he'd stop before his talent burned a hole in him.
No one had ever accused him of having sense, though. Of being a wanker, yes. A thief, a sinner, and a murderer, certainly. But sensible, no. Jack thought that the day someone did accuse him of sense, it would likely be time to hang up his spurs.
"All right, you dusty lot," he murmured, so low only the dead could hear. "Come and give me a haunt."
Pete drew her small digital video kit from the bag and readied it, training the lens on Jack and the graves.
For his part, Jack held the spirit heart straight out above the earth, arm rigid as a divining rod. The clockwork pendulum swung gently, aimlessly. Jack inhaled and held the air. Panic chewed on the ends of his guts, scratched at his neck, and wormed into his brain. His body knew what he was about to do, and it was screaming.
Times like this, Jack felt the longing for a fix like the grasp of a familiar lover — tight, hot, gathered behind his eyes, knotting him up, making him cold, telling him, I have what you need. Take it and warm yourself, save yourself, taste the golden delights of the floating world.
The hiss of need had only grown louder since he'd kicked heroin, begging and pleading to have a chance, just one more chance to make it right.
All Jack could do was tighten his grip on the spirit heart, the cold brass warming to the same degree as his palm, and drown the murmuring of the fix in a tide of other whispers, crying and shouting, faint and fierce, buried and so old no one knew they were buried any longer.
The dead came to Jack as they always came, and he let himself see, do what he'd started fixing to avoid in the first place. Sight was his curse, and the one thing he could never fully erase.
In his hands, the spirit heart gave a tick.
Jack's second sight found ghosts, thick here as a crowd in Trafalgar Square. They stood, for the most part, silent and staring at the living intruder in their pale, witch-lit world. A few hissed at him, black-eyed revenants with their flesh hanging off their bones. Revenants fed on the malice of their lives, which followed them in death like a shroud of black, twisting magic, spots on celluloid film.
Pete moved nearer to him. She couldn't see what he saw, but she knew all the same, perhaps better than Jack, the chill of having the dead always just out of view. "Want me to start it?" she asked quietly. Giving him a way out, a way to pretend that merely looking through his sight wasn't causing him the sort of headache normally found only after strong whiskey and passing out on something hard.
The spirit heart gave another tick, louder, stronger, and Jack nodded. "Wake them up."
"Mary and Stuart Poole." Pete raised her voice and pitched it sharp. Jack flinched as a ghost drifted closer to Pete, a girl with dark wet hair still tangled with the garbage she'd drowned in. The salt-sour stink of the Thames at low tide tickled his nostrils.
The girl ran her hand longingly across Pete's cheek. Jack narrowed his eyes. "Oi. Shove off, miss. That's not yours to take."
Pete shivered, but continued. "Mary and Stuart Poole, we call you to this resting place. Come back to your bones."
The drowned ghost drifted away, her torn dress and lank hair trailing behind her in a remembered river current. Jack felt a pull at his arm, and the spirit heart began to tick faster and faster, clockwork innards spinning like the earth was revolving too fast. He planted his feet and concentrated on staying merely upright. It shouldn't be a task during a simple spirit raising
"Mary and Stuart Poole," Pete said again. "Come back to your bones."
There was power in triplets. Jack had taught her that. Pete never forgot something when you told her once.
A tug on his arm warned Jack that his insistence on going ahead while his magic was spinning out of control may have cost him his arse. The spirit heart was twirling now, as if someone had spun a globe and walked away. The brass caught the low afternoon sun and threw off light, the whirring of the clockwork like a bird's heartbeat. Too fast. Too fast and too soon. The Pooles were coming to his summons, and they could get loose if he didn't rein the power in.
Jack pushed against the swirl of enticement generated by the beating clockwork, forced it into a shape. A focus like the heart, or salt, or stone was important — raw magic pulled from something like a spirit could blow your insides out surely as a shotgun blast.
A halo, black, gathered around the spirit heart, touched it experimentally, the lightest of caresses, while the spirit heart shot blue sparks through the realm of the dead. Pete couldn't see them, but she stepped back all the same. "They coming, then?"
"If I have any say," Jack answered, and tugged ever so gently at the curiosity, the suggestion of minds and bodies that floated from the graves, and guided them to the spirit heart. Coaxed them, teased them, but never ordered them. Ghosts didn't like being pushed about.
Jack had learned that rule the hard way.
In his hand, the spirit heart stopped.
It gave a last click, and the sides opened to allow the Pooles' residual energies in. Jack released his grip on the chain, and the spirit heart floated under its own steam, turning gently in the passage of power from the awakened ghosts.
"Yes? Hello?" Mary Poole stood partly in the earth, ankles cut off by the grave. Her burial clothes clung to her frame in tatters. "Hello, yes? Can you hear me?"
"What do you want?" Stuart Poole was heavy, a heavy face full of jowls sitting on top of a heavy mound of body. "Who are you?"
"Jack Winter," Jack said. "This here's Petunia Caldecott."
He flinched when Pete fetched him a punch in the shoulder. "Tosser." She faced the ghost, pleasant and pointed as if Stuart Poole were a banker she suspected of defrauding his clientele. "Mr. Poole, we're here on behalf of your children. Jayne and Stuart, the junior?"
"Hello?" Mary Poole said. "Yes? Can you hear me?"
"Repeater," Jack said at Pete's questioning eyebrow. "Just a fragment of a spirit left behind with the bones. Mary Poole's been taken on to her eternal reward, if you believe that bollocks."
"Comforting to know what's waiting when I shuffle loose the mortal coil," Pete muttered.
"Pardon me, but I've asked a question — who in blazes are you?" Stuart Poole demanded. "This is most irregular."
"Pete," Pete said. "And that's Jack, like we've established. Your children have some questions about your will, Mr. Poole. Seems they're absent from it?"
"Your beloved offspring were wondering if perhaps there was some mistake there," Jack expanded. The dead pressed closer behind him, and he heard the wings, like wind through a grove of trees, but they were wings. He knew the sound. It was familiar, old, as much a part of him as his tattoos or the vertical scar on his right cheek from the business end of a smashed witch bottle.
Jack supposed he had stolen that necromancer's Hand of Glory, and his wife, but he still thought the bloke had overreacted.
Scars faded, but the rush of wings never did. They always circled back, always came to him when he talked to the dead. A living walker in death's realm always called to them, the eyes and wings of the Underworld. The crows of Death.
"Jack ...," Pete said, right on cue. She didn't have the sight, but she did have a connection he didn't, to the push and pull of power under the world, the constant tide of the Black under their feet.
"I know, I know," he snapped. "Wrapping up — how is it, Stu? You cut your brats out of the will, or was it all a terrible misunderstanding that will be resolved with tears and hugging and vows to be a better sort of person because it's what Mum and Dad would have wanted if they hadn't kicked off in that lorry collision?"
Stuart Poole puffed up, his silvery insubstantial form spreading out over the graves. "It most certainly was not a misunderstanding. Jayne and my son were miscreants — Stuart with his embezzling and Jayne with her women."
Jack cocked an eyebrow at Pete. "The very nerve."
"They're not getting a penny!" Stuart Poole bellowed. "Not a single cold shilling, you understand?"
"Perfectly." Jack dropped a wink at Stuart Poole. "Hope you're less of a miserable sod in the afterlife, guv."
"I never heard such ... ," Poole began, but Jack let go of the thin thread of spirit he'd caught, and Stuart sputtered out like a run-down torch.
The wings were much closer now, ruffling the leaves and the grass around their feet, filling up the air with hisses and cries.
"Hello?" Mary Poole said. "Yes? Hello?"
"Shove off, luv," Jack said. "Your ticket's pulled. Run on and frolic up in God's heaven, now."
"Jack, honestly," Pete said, rolling her eyes. She snapped the camera shut and tucked it back into the bag.
Jack reached out and gently cradled the heart as the clockwork slowed to nothing. The sound of ghosts leaving the living was almost never a howl, an explosion, or a dramatic dying gasp. Like most things, the dead just faded away.
The wings went with them. The ravens of the Bleak Gates, the guards of the entrance to death, had found their quarry, and it hadn't been him. Today.
"Good job of that," Pete said. "Quick and quiet, and the Poole family can't dispute it."
"Pete, people will always dispute what they don't want to hear," Jack said. "Although if you're desperate enough to call on a shady ghost-raising sod like meself, I really don't think you can dispute much of anything. Certainly not that you're a tosser."
"And I thought I was a pessimist." Pete folded the camera into its case and handed him the bag. Jack shoved his spirit heart inside and shouldered the weight. He'd never had to drag around a bloody satchel when he was living as a mage. A little salt and chalk in the pocket, a sliver of mirror or silver, and it was enough to curse or hex his way out of and into most trouble. He'd carried more kit to shoot up than to work magic.
"Let's call on the Pooles and get this over with, shall we?" he asked Pete, ignoring her last comment. You couldn't spend any time at all in the Black and not lose faith in men, gods, and basic decency. The only ones who didn't were the prize idiots who soon got themselves topped, if the older, hungrier citizens of his world were merciful.
"Now we're eager to work?" Pete shoved her hands into her jacket. "This isn't going to be a pleasant scene, you know."
"Yes, well. The less time I have to spend doing parlor tricks for rich twats, the better off we'll all be." Jack added extra weight to his step as they reached Old Brompton Road and started for the tube station. His jackboots rang against the pavement like funeral knells.
Pete let the twat remark pass, and for that Jack was grateful. His temper had returned with a vengeance when he kicked his habit, and lost the thing keeping his sight at bay. The sight was no longer intermittent and faulty, forcing him to live rough and desperate as he used to keep the dead where the dead belonged. Now it was raw, like a fire eating through the paper of his mind, and it played hell with his control. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Demon Bound by Caitlin Kittredge. Copyright © 2009 Caitlin Kittredge. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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