About the Author
Regular forays into fictional realms at a young age created a desire for more, and she soon began to create alternate realities through writing. After teaching English Literature to teens, she set up her own copywriting company and turned her love for the written word into a full-time career. However, the desire to create never went away, so Lucy turned her insomnia into a useful tool—penning her novels in the wee small hours of the night and the stolen moments of the day.
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The Narrow House
The alleyway was dark, silent, and eerily Gothic, in Kester's opinion.
He stumbled along the cobblestones, trying not to think about muggers lurking in the shadowy doorways. It was one of Exeter's many forgotten backstreets; quaint during daylight hours, but disquieting by night, and the decades of rain, pollution, and grime that abused the surrounding brickwork was highlighted by the weak glow of the streetlight.
Trust Miss Wellbeloved to live somewhere that looks like a setting for a Dickens novel, he thought, peering through the gloom. He checked her text message to confirm the address — No. 12, The Mint. She'd also added, Come quickly, I'll explain everything.
He certainly hoped so. Ever since he'd told his father about Anya's disappearance, not to mention her baffling message about the mysterious Thelemites, Dr Ribero and Miss Wellbeloved had been most secretive — giving away nothing, only insisting he meet them that very evening. He was exhausted, but relieved. It might be late, but at least he had a hope of getting some answers rather than spending the night wide awake, fretting.
Miss Wellbeloved's house was at the end of the alleyway; a weathered old property every bit as straight, severe, and narrow as its owner. He rapped the brass knocker, briefly breaking the quiet. A lone candle burned in the window, but otherwise, the house was entirely dark.
Kester waited, shivering.
Finally, a light went on at the window. The door opened, revealing a familiar eye, then the rest of Miss Wellbeloved's face.
"Hello, Kester," she whispered. "Fancy seeing you again so soon."
He stepped in, wiping his feet on the mat. "I know. And there was me, thinking we'd all get a restful night."
Miss Wellbeloved smiled ruefully, then shut the night out behind them.
He looked around. Her hallway was spartan yet cosy, and the wall-lamp cast an amber glow across the walls. A slender staircase led into darkness, and ahead, he spotted a farmhouse kitchen, a homely contrast to the lonely alley outside.
"Your father's getting the fire going," she said, waving him down the corridor. "Why don't you go and join him? Straight ahead, then turn left."
Kester headed along the dark floorboards until he came to a snug little room, stuffed with two oversized sofas and a stone fireplace. True to Miss Wellbeloved's word, Ribero was crouched in front of it, puffing at the kindling with alarming ferocity.
"Hi, Dad," Kester said, loitering by the door.
His father held up a finger, then blew once more on the firewood. A flame leapt up, immediately licking at the bundles of newspaper. "Aha," he said with satisfaction, prodding the pile with a poker. "Now we are in the business, yes?"
"Thanks for coming out tonight to see me," Kester said as he settled himself on the nearest sofa, watching the spreading flames. "Though you're being rather mysterious about it all."
His father blew on the fire again, then leant backwards, massaging his neck. "That is because you mentioned the Thelemites, Kester."
"What are the Thelemites? Should I be worried? Are they going to do anything bad to Anya?"
Ribero shook his head. "Wait until Jennifer is here. Then we will tell you everything."
As though on cue, Miss Wellbeloved poked her head around the door. "Do either of you want a glass of wine?"
"Do you need to ask?" Ribero said, smoothing his moustache.
Miss Wellbeloved smiled. "It's not an Argentinian wine, I'm afraid."
"Which means it will be sub-standard. But I will accept it, nonetheless."
"How very decent of you. Kester, glass of red or white?" "White, please," he replied and leaned back against the soft cushions, which spread deliciously around his tired back.
His father, satisfied that the fire was now alight, laid a couple of logs on top and made himself comfortable. "Have you heard anything else from this girlfriend of yours?" he asked, eyes glittering in the firelight.
Kester shook his head. "Nothing. Just one message from Anya, and that's it."
Ribero frowned. "And she never mentioned the Thelemites to you before?"
"You are sure?"
Kester smiled faintly. "I think I would remember a name like that."
An echo of footsteps down the hallway announced Miss Wellbeloved's return. She handed them their wine, then nodded apologetically at her own drink, which happened to be a mug of hot chocolate. "I simply cannot drink past ten o'clock," she said, sitting beside Kester. "It sends me straight to sleep and gives me a stinking headache the next day."
Kester smiled, noticing her hollow eyes and wan expression. "I'm sorry to land this on you, when we've all only just got home." They'd spent today driving back from Dundee, after a nightmarish week solving a particularly complex case involving a murderous fetch. He knew that the last thing they needed was another problem to deal with.
She flapped her hand at him. "Don't be silly. We're here to help."
"Why don't you start by telling us what you know, Kester?" His father leaned forward, glass pressed between his palms.
Kester shrugged, sipping his drink. "I don't really know much," he said. "I've only known Anya properly for a month or so, if that."
"Does she seem normal?" Miss Wellbeloved asked, studying his face intently.
Kester considered her question. He'd spent so long in the company of rather strange people like Miss Wellbeloved and his father that he wasn't quite sure what a normal person was like anymore.
"I think she's normal," he said finally. "She certainly didn't seem like she was going to disappear without prior warning, if that's what you mean."
"Did she mention any clubs or secret societies?" Kester took a gulp of wine. It was welcome after a long, tiring day. "No, of course not. Well, only her book club. But nothing secretive."
"A book club?" Ribero fixed his gaze on Kester. "Are you sure it was a book club?"
"No, not really," Kester replied. "But why would she lie about something like that?"
"Did you ever meet anyone from her book club?"
Kester shook his head.
"Let me guess," Miss Wellbeloved said. "They meet on Wednesday evenings?"
"How on earth did you know that?"
She nodded at Ribero, who looked grim. "Thelemites," they chanted in unison.
Kester looked at them blankly. "Please explain."
"Gosh, where to start?" Miss Wellbeloved cupped her drink, gaze roving over the fire as though seeking inspiration from the flames. "The Thelemites are an ancient secret society. There's several Thelemite lodges across the world; but the Exeter branch is particularly well-established. Because of its proximity to Glastonbury, you see."
"What, Glastonbury Festival?" Kester asked, blinking.
"No, you silly boy, not because of the festival!" Ribero barked. "Do they teach you nothing at school these days?" "Hang on, is there some link between King Arthur and Glastonbury?"
Ribero snorted, moustache bristling with unbridled irritation. "Yes, it is one of the most spiritually important places in the world, my boy! How can you not know this?"
"Remember," Miss Wellbeloved interrupted, "Kester's only been doing this job for a few months. He's got a lot to learn, Julio." She turned to Kester with a smile. "Have you heard of Glastonbury Tor?"
Kester thought about it. He was sure his housemate Daisy had mentioned it once. Yes, come to think of it, she said she'd climbed up to the Tor with a friend, he remembered. She was wittering on about all the amazing "energies."
"Is it on some kind of hill?" he asked.
Miss Wellbeloved beamed. "Yes, that's right. It used to be a spirit door, back in Druidic times. Obviously, it hasn't been operational for quite some time. These days, the only registered spirit door in the UK is inside Infinite Enterprises HQ." "What about the doors that I open?" Kester asked.
"They are not permanent," Ribero explained. "They are different."
Miss Wellbeloved nodded. "Anyway," she continued, "back to the Thelemites. They're a secret society who believe that spirits and humans should live harmoniously together, as they used to do centuries ago."
"Hang on," Ribero said, holding up an imperious hand. "Is that how it was, Jennifer?"
"It's well documented," Miss Wellbeloved said, pursing her lips together. "For example, humans practiced shamanistic rituals to communicate with spirits."
"Yes, but to present it like it was always happy and smiley, that is not necessarily true."
She took a deep gulp of her drink. "That's not important right now. The Thelemites have been working for years to re-introduce spirits into the world. But in recent times, their methods have become ..."
"Naughty?" Ribero suggested. The fire spat embers on the floorboards, making Kester jump.
"Renegade," Miss Wellbeloved corrected. "They are causing the government some alarm, let's put it like that."
"What do you mean?" Kester asked.
"The Thelemites are like terrorists," Ribero said, waving his glass around in his excitement. "They got involved with a lot of magick, illegal rituals to summon spirits into our world. Very naughty stuff, yes?"
"They are not like terrorists!" Miss Wellbeloved snapped. "Do try to remember that their motives are honourable, even if their methods are a bit unorthodox."
"Pah," Ribero spat, waggling his glass in her direction. "The government should have shut them all down years ago. You know that is true, Jennifer, so don't deny it."
"As if the government could!" Miss Wellbeloved replied. "You forget, the Thelemites date back thousands of years. And they're masters at appearing to behave themselves, even when they're not."
Kester frowned. "Should I be worried that they've kidnapped Anya?" he asked, looking at them in turn. "Are they going to hurt her?"
"They're not going to hurt her," Miss Wellbeloved reassured him.
"I would not be so certain," Ribero muttered.
Kester fell silent. He could feel a headache coming on, which was hardly surprising, given the circumstances. "You're not doing much to calm my nerves here," he said eventually, mulling it all over. "Words like 'terrorist' don't exactly fill me with confidence."
Miss Wellbeloved winced. "They aren't terrorists," she reiterated, looking rather nettled. "And believe me, I should know."
Ribero snorted. "Because her father was one of them. And her grandfather. It's a family thing, yes?"
"Yes, it is," she snapped, crossing her arms. "But I'm not a part of the Thelemites. Not anymore, anyway."
"Why not?" Kester asked.
She rested her head against the cushions, eyes fixed on the ceiling. "I don't like their increasingly aggressive approach. But I am confident they wouldn't harm your girlfriend, especially if she's a member."
"Then why have they kidnapped her?" Kester could wrap his head around a secret organisation. He could even grasp the fact that Anya had been a part of it without telling him. But he couldn't see any logical reason why they'd steal her away.
Miss Wellbeloved shrugged. "I don't know. Perhaps she threatened to reveal their secrets?"
Kester thought about it. It seemed plausible. From what he knew of Anya, she certainly seemed feisty enough. "Would the Thelemites listen to you, if you asked them to let her go?"
Miss Wellbeloved glanced at Ribero, who stared into the fire, his expression unreadable. "I'm sure they would," she said finally. "I'll get in contact with Barty Melville tomorrow morning. He's the Master of the Exeter lodge."
"And he was a good friend of your father's," Ribero added. "I remember him. Looked like the big, fat creature who lives by the sea, you know? The blubbery one with big tusks."
"A walrus, yes," Miss Wellbeloved agreed. "Barty still has that tremendous moustache, I believe. The last time I saw him, it was virtually down to his chest."
Kester nodded. He felt marginally better now that they had a plan. "Thank goodness you know them, eh?" he said, smiling at Miss Wellbeloved. "Can't you get in touch with him now?"
She smiled. "Don't worry, Kester. Nothing bad is going to happen to her in the night. Barty will probably be asleep now, anyway. I very much doubt he'd bother getting out of bed to answer the phone."
"Unless he wants to shout at the person calling him," Ribero grunted. "That is what I do when someone calls me late at night,."
"Quite. Anyway, Kester, try to keep calm until morning, if you can. The Thelemites have questionable methods, but they're not cruel people, and I'm sure they wouldn't harm her. Now, would anyone like some nibbles?" Miss Wellbeloved stood up, tugging her cardigan into position. "I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. I need something to keep me awake."
"Do you want me to go home?" Kester asked. "I don't want to keep you up."
"No, that's quite alright," she replied, her expression softening. "There's something else we need to talk to you about, actually."
Oh really? Kester studied them both, trying to work out what it might be. Miss Wellbeloved winked, then trotted out to the kitchen.
"What else did you want to discuss?" he asked.
His father shifted in his seat, eying Kester intently. "We were not going to have this conversation for a while," he began. "But as you are here now, it seems like a good time."
"Go on then," Kester said, perching on the edge of the sofa. "I'm all ears."
His father took a deep breath. "We know you got offered a place at the SSFE."
"How did you know?" Kester was astounded. He'd only just discovered himself that the School for Supernatural Further Education had accepted his application.
His father tapped the side of his nose. "I have my ways."
"Oh." Kester felt rather deflated. He'd been looking forward to announcing the news and seeing the look of pride on Ribero's face. Ah well, he thought, I suppose it doesn't matter. They studied there themselves, it's probably no big deal to them.
Miss Wellbeloved returned, armed with a plate of chocolate biscuits and a bag of what looked like crisps. On closer inspection, Kester saw that they were kale and parsnip crisps, which didn't sound nearly as appetising. Trust Miss Wellbeloved to have a healthy snack, he thought. I bet even the biscuits are made of carob or chia seeds or something awful like that.
"So, what did you want to talk about?" His hand hovered uncertainly over a biscuit. He was fairly sure it was chocolate, but wasn't sure he wanted to risk it.
"Taking over the business," his father said without preamble as he seized a handful of vegetable crisps.
Not this again, Kester thought, groaning inwardly. "But your health is fine," he said, gesturing at his father. "You can run the business, no problem."
Only a few weeks ago, Ribero had told Kester that he had Parkinson's disease. At times, Kester had noticed the difference: the tremble in his hands, the occasional cramps, the exhaustion after physical exertion. But on other occasions, like now, he found it difficult to believe there was anything wrong with his father at all. For a man in his late sixties, he was full of almost preternatural energy, like a jittery wind-up toy.
Ribero sighed, reaching for another handful of crisps. "At the moment I am healthy, yes," he said, flipping one into his mouth. "But not forever. Now you are studying Spirit Intervention and Business Studies, it is time for you to get hold of the ropes with me and Jennifer, yes?"
"I think you mean 'learn the ropes'," Miss Wellbeloved corrected.
"It is the same thing." Ribero studied Kester fiercely, eyes gleaming. "Soon, we will start teaching you how to manage the business. Okay?"
Kester shook his head. "I don't feel comfortable with the idea."
Ribero grunted. "It is not about comfort. It is about family honour. This is my agency. You are my son. So, you take it over." "Well, no," Kester replied. "For starters, it wasn't your agency until Miss
Wellbeloved's father gave it to you. Secondly, I'm the youngest person working in it. If you think Serena is going to take orders from me, you've got another thing coming." Miss Wellbeloved laughed. "You're right, Serena won't be happy. But she'll come around, given time." She reached for a biscuit. "And as for it being my father's agency, you're absolutely correct. Which is why you'll be running it with me, until I retire.
I have no children to pass the business down to anyway, and I'm more than happy for you to have it."
Kester swallowed. He felt overwhelmed at the prospect of taking over the agency, though he was touched at their faith in him. I've only been a part of it for a few months, he thought, finally daring to take a biscuit. I'm still not totally convinced I want to be a spirit investigator, let alone the owner of a supernatural agency.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dr Ribero's Agency of the Supernatural: The Case of the Hidden Daemon"
Copyright © 2018 Lucy Banks.
Excerpted by permission of Amberjack Publishing.
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