Ceri Edwards and two school friends lift the lid on an ancient book of recipes belonging to Betty Williams, a volunteer at the local hospital in Pontypridd, South Wales. Two Kansas City cops step off a flight at London Heathrow and one of them falls to the ground with a painful conviction that there's something evil in the air.
United in their destinies, Ceri and the police officers are drawn into a world where prophecies are pitted against invisible forces planning to raze London to the ground and bring down the Royal Family.
It all rests with Dai Williams, recently knighted MI5 agent and reluctant hero, to bring some order to the improbable events and to ensure that afternoon tea at The Ritz continues for another hundred years.
A great cross between Kim Newman and Ben Aaranovitch and a thrill for any fan of contemporary urban horror.
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About the Author
David Graham lives in an ostensibly carbon zero house in rural Kent with his partner and two cats amidst fields of maize and poly-tunnels of strawberries. Previously, he lived and worked in London as a consultant in the NHS. His previous non-fiction titles include: Medical Computing and Applications, Creative Sound and Computer-Assisted Medical Learning: Clinical Anatomy. David turned his attention to writing fiction in 2012. Since then, he has written one self-published novel (Looks Could Kill) and two traditionally published novels (Captive and Wet & Wild) under the name David Ellis. Looks Could Kill was in the Amazon Kindle Top 10 of spy thrillers and was downloaded more than 3,000 times. Captive was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. He has also written two romance novellas under the name Richard Longfellow. His horror thriller The Screaming was published by Frostbite Publishing in the US in 2014, and by Austin Macauley in the UK in 2015. His new book The Knowing is the sequel to The Screaming and is due to be published early 2017 by Urbane Publications.
Read an Excerpt
By David Graham
Urbane Publications LtdCopyright © 2017 David Graham
All rights reserved.
A decent pot-bellied, cast iron cauldron typically sold for a £100. One that was antique and tarnished by heat might easily fetch double that sum. Use by an accredited witch – specifically, a member of the Dynion Mwyn tradition – could send the figure sky-high. It was reputed that a well-used cauldron absorbed a witch's hexes into the metalwork, thereby making incantations more effective. Lesser witches had attempted to debunk that idea by insisting cauldrons should be thoroughly cleansed before every new incantation. They were the sort who wore latex gloves to handle wooden spoons and kept a sharps box in the kitchen.
To complicate matters, Welsh folklore remedies had become available in disposable, ready-to-boil cauldrons marketed under the Cymry Originals brand, complete with an ostentatious logo of giant leeks crossed like swords under two golden harps. Any self-respecting witch would have viewed that as the end of the line for their hard-earned tradition. The royal approval was yet another nail in the coffin. It was like homeopathy and Bach flower essences all over again.
The worst insult to the witches' calling had been the bitching and badmouthing from north of the border. It had become nastier and more personal since the shutdown of the internet and social media. Sending cats' eyes in the post marked an all-time low. But at least they were the sort taxidermists used.
So, all things considered, Wales wasn't currently the best of places to be practising witchery. Witches had been advised to keep a low profile, limiting their activities to the occasional bit of folk healing, with coffee mornings for mutual support.
All that was quite academic to the three Welsh girls currently peering into an empty cauldron, considering their next move. Ceri, Dilys and Bronwen liked their magick delivered with Grimm determination and lashings of David Giuntoli, whom they had already accorded the title of 'Honorary Welshman'. He'd know a good potion if he saw one and wouldn't have time for fripperies like wands. They were for stupid kids who knocked themselves out walking into walls at railway stations.
All three would-be witches had been outfitted courtesy of the Halloween section in a local supermarket. 'Gold Witch' had seemed an absolute steal at just £3. They'd also considered the 'Mental Patient' blood-spattered straitjacket costume, but Bronwen's mother was a social worker and thought the mentally ill deserved more respect than a few pence-worth of garish polyester. A gorily-streaked plastic meat cleaver was an optional extra and even Bronwen's mother thought it looked realistic.
It was all for show, of course. They'd no need of such embellishments, but it kept their mothers happy and ignorant of what they were really up to. Halloween – or, more accurately, All Hallows' Eve – was just around the corner and provided the perfect cover for their activities.
Modern witchery had honed potion ingredients down to freeze-dried essences of magic that could be bought over the internet. Currently, they had no internet thanks to the government, so they'd had to improvise – after tossing salt over their left shoulders, crossing their fingers and reciting a few Hail Marys. There was also the chance that Ceri's mother might enter the room while they added an eye or two of newt, so they had the music system turned up loud and playing Super Furry Animals.
* * *
Their history teacher had suggested the idea. They'd wanted to do something culturally relevant for their GCSE project. Miss Donn had brought in a newspaper clipping with the heading: 'WITCHCRAFT THRIVING IN THE WELSH COUNTRYSIDE.' The article went on to say that there were 80 witches active in South Wales. There was no mention of familiars, broomsticks, steaming cauldrons or the best witches' outfitters. In fact, it was impossible to see in what way witchcraft was actually thriving. The reader might have concluded that 21st century witches spent all their time reminiscing about their best spells and smelliest potions. Ceri and her friends had been left wanting to know more, but contact details hadn't been included either.
So, one afternoon after school, the three of them walked up the steps of Pontypridd Central Library, hand in hand, in search of the truth about Welsh witchcraft. Bronwen was momentarily distracted by the hand-knitted poster for 'Knitting Nanna's Knitting Circle' next to the men's toilets. She'd never progressed beyond monochromatic plain and purl, so the idea of making chunky willy warmers, in all colours of the rainbow, was hugely attractive. Dilys seemed intrigued by the notice for the 'Lilac Lounge Reading Group', which showed two young women in diaphanous dresses, their arms entwined, smiling joyously and reading from the same book. Ceri made a mental note to look up what 'Sapphic' meant. She dragged Bronwen and Dilys away from their temptations and they found a trainee male librarian whom they charmed into ordering a rare treatise, with the title A Course in Welsh Witchcraft. Ceri was convinced their hitched hems had helped, although Dilys's alteration had overstepped the bounds of public decency by several inches.
Two weeks later, the trio collected the book from the library. They'd had to promise, on pain of death and a date or two, to give it the care and attention it deserved. The volume was leather bound, about two inches thick and had a deliciously musty smell. The front cover was embossed with peeling gold leaf. The names of the joint authors, Taliesin einion Vawr and Rhuddlwm Gawr, sounded strange and exotic. Bronwen wondered whether they spoke Klingon. Some of the pages were stuck together and Dilys suggested that it must be because of ectoplasm. She was always getting the supernatural confused, poor dab. Two Post-it notes had been left in between pages: one consisted of numbers written in green ink and the other read, simply: 'Siandi Da'aan'.
Bronwen nudged Dilys. "I told you he fancied you," she said smirking.
"No, it's Ceri he likes," Dilys countered hastily, her cheeks reddening.
"That's strange," Ceri said, oblivious to her friends' comments. "'Da'aan' is similar to our teacher's name. Sounds really ancient, though. You don't think they're related, do you?"
"Dunno," Dilys mumbled moodily. Ceri guessed she was trying to square up her thoughts about the book-sharing bibliophiles. It'd certainly be frustrating if one read faster than the other.
"Could be," Bronwen said, surreptitiously popping the Post-it with the librarian's telephone number into a pocket.
Ceri continued thumbing through the brittle, brown-edged pages marked by the Post-it and read that Siandi Da'aan was a local witch. Unfortunately, she'd died a 150 years ago and was unavailable for interview for a GCSE project by any conventional means. She sounded a force to be reckoned with and Ceri thought her story would provide a good background to their work. There was even something of a connection with Queen Victoria that Ceri planned to chase up.
Soon after that they found Ceri's great grand-mother's cauldron. Elizabeth Williams's home had been left to Ceri's family on her death. It wasn't much more than the usual two-up two-down miner's cottage, but a previously locked door off the kitchen had led them to a treasure trove of a cupboard that included the cauldron and a potions book. It was almost as if the cauldron wanted to be discovered. It wasn't exactly that it called out to Ceri, but the door did keep on opening by itself in her vicinity, so she'd felt compelled to investigate.
Their first task was to deal with some mean-looking spiders. Dilys and Bronwen ran screaming out of the kitchen when one of the pot's occupants climbed up the side and peered at them with its eight beady eyes. Ceri thought they'd been placed there as guardians. The library book had mentioned about using a black cat to free a cauldron from protection, and Ceri managed to cajole the neighbour's moggy into dispatching the spiders by opening a large can of tuna.
The cauldron itself was about a foot in diameter and sat on feet that reminded Ceri of a bird's claws. It took all three of them to transfer it to the kitchen table.
"Gosh, that weighs a ton," Dilys said, mopping her brow.
"You're so unfit, you," Bronwen said. "Just you watch me lift it on my own." She strained her puny muscles, but the cauldron remained where it was. She looked puzzled. "Humph! You try, Ceri."
Ceri picked the cauldron up with one hand and put the handle over her shoulder like a handbag. Dilys and Bronwen stared at it disbelievingly.
"Ceri bach, are you Superwoman or something?" Bronwen asked, her eyes wide with surprise.
"No, more like Superman," Dilys said. "She's always forgetting to put her knickers on under her trousers."
Bronwen and Dilys snickered into their hands. "Ooh, ah, I lost my bra, I left my knickers in my boyfriend's car," they chanted in between giggles.
"You're tossers, both of you," Ceri grumbled. "If you're not going to take it seriously, I'll tell Miss Donn that the project was too much like hard work for you."
"Sorry, Ceri," Bronwen and Dilys said together, still stifling sniggers.
"Anyway, according to the course in witchcraft we're meant to be studying –" she gave them a censorious look, "– variable mass is a feature of a true witch's cauldron." Ceri deposited the cauldron with a clang back on the table. She flicked a finger at the metal. "It's got a clear sound, too, so it must have seen some good potions over the years. Bronwen, can you pass me the book?"
No matter how long Dilys and Bronwen looked at the potions book, it just read, 'Recipes'. They'd even tried holding it above their heads so the light struck the cover differently. The appearance of the book was like something their grandmothers would have put together over the years, complete with oil spots, food stains and lingering smells from the stove. The recipes inside, in spidery black handwriting, were just like their nans' homeliest food. Dilys was particularly taken by a sticky toffee version of bara brith and planned to search for Medjool dates to add to her next baking session.
Everything fell into place as soon as Ceri looked at the book with her left eye closed while standing on her right foot. The word 'Potions' and her great grandmother's name had a flickering quality. She'd heard of the term 'illuminated' applied to books, but the letters on the cover almost seemed on fire. Ceri glanced around the kitchen to see where her mother had put the fire extinguisher. She deposited the book carefully on the kitchen table and flipped open the cover, watching out for sparks. The book was remarkably neat and organised. She didn't recognise the handwriting. It certainly didn't look anything like Granny Betty's old-fashioned squiggles. Her eyes were drawn to the last entry in the list of contents: 'DANGEROUS HEXES'. Now, what might they be? She turned the pages cautiously, getting a glimpse and the occasional whiff of potions as she flicked through the book. And then she saw it: 'Divination Hex – to gain insight into a question, situation or individual by way of an occultic, standardised process or ritual'.
* * *
Ceri stared into the cauldron, searching for a sign that they were right to go ahead, but the blackness was all consuming and the vessel wasn't about to give anything away.
"Come on, Ceri," the habitually impatient Dilys said. "We've delayed this too long already. He'll be out of our reach soon."
Bronwen nodded her approval and folded her polyester-clad arms across her large golden bosom. "Yeah, Ceri," she said, "you listen to Dilys, you."
Ceri shot daggers at them and sighed to herself – followed by wishing she had the guts to stand up to her friends. She was such a ... what was the expression her mother used? ... sad arse, that was it. What they were about to do had been a good idea at the time, but now ... well, she wasn't sure. Perhaps it was the family resemblance ... and his good looks ... and a few other reasons she wasn't about to admit. Freed from the kitchen cupboard and its guardians, the cauldron had also been chomping at the bit – or whatever cauldrons do when they want a piece of the action. Her mother had blamed the putrid smell coming from her room on her, when it was actually the cauldron throwing a stink under the bed. She'd been tempted to try a hex right there and then, but the library book had warned the reader that a hex in haste is worse than a spell at speed.
Ceri turned to check that the door was still closed and then extracted a glossy sheet of paper out of a plastic bag. She glanced at it briefly before pressing her right thumb against the face in the photo and muttering two words under her breath. She passed it to Bronwen and Dilys who repeated her actions.
"Are you sure this'll work?" Bronwen said, ever the doubting Thomas, as she handed back the photo. "After all, they didn't have inkjet printers in your gran's day."
Ceri had already considered this. The hex might carry more force if the colours leaked from the photo into the cauldron. And there were still the other items in the bag. She carefully placed the photo on the bottom of the vessel. With her smartphone confiscated, she'd had to dig out an old digital camera to take the shot from the TV screen and the end result was a bit fuzzy. Dai looked far too pleased with himself. Was that because the Queen had called him 'Sir David'? Of course they were proud that someone from Pontypridd had been knighted, but getting engaged to an English girl with a Welsh surname really took the mickey. And if he was using witchery ... well, that could be dangerous. More pertinently, they were jealous of what he'd been up to and wanted to know how he did it. Ceri reached into the bag again and withdrew two items. She put one of them to her nose.
"What does it smell of, then, Ceri?" Bronwen said, wrinkling her nose. "Did he use that horrible Brylcream stuff my dad gets from Bryn the barber?"
Ceri sniffed the hairbrush. She had little experience of men's hair products, but she didn't imagine Brylcream being one of the usual odours emanating from the boys' changing room at school. She couldn't detect any smell. She inspected the brush: dark hairs were clinging to the bristles and a fragment of Dai's DNA might still be there. If it wasn't his DNA ... well, that could prove unfortunate. At least there was the back-up of his much-chewed toothbrush.
Ceri added the hairbrush to the ingredients in the cauldron. Dilys and Bronwen tipped the contents of colour-coded sachets on top of the photo – freeze-dried eye of newt included. Ceri's final contribution was critical: a Christmas card Dai had sent to her mother shortly after he moved to London. He'd included a photo of the Park Estate tower block and drawn an arrow pointing to his flat on the top floor. Her mother used to say that Dai had never been blessed with brains. Ceri agreed; the addition of the picture was as good as using a laser-guided missile.
Incanting a hex was straightforward as long as nothing got missed out. There seemed little chance of the hex going astray with all the extras added to the cauldron. It was really the equivalent of the failsafe computer systems on an aircraft. The three girls started reading aloud from the page Ceri had copied out of Granny Betty's potions book. It had been taken from a section headed 'DANGEROUS HEXES' and the top of the page had a roughly drawn skull and crossbones as a warning. The hex was a divination spell with some added bells and whistles. The add-ons designed to get inside Dai's head were what warranted the equivalent of a HAZMAT label.
He is the one who went away
He is the one who was led astray
He is the one who must be made to pay
He is the one whose mind we open up
As they repeated the incantation, Ceri stirred the contents of the cauldron with a wooden spoon that looked as ancient as the pot itself. Although there was nothing liquid in the vessel, an opaque film spread over the photo until the only part visible was Dai's face. And then the strangest thing happened: smoke erupted through his eyes and billowed up, filling the vessel. The three of them peered into the murky depths and glimpsed fragments of the photo: a spike of hair here, a glimmer of gold there, his eyes watching them all the time, his mouth taunting them with a sweetly innocent smile. It was as if Dai's image was being disassembled while they stared. The cauldron had also started producing heat despite the absence of a flame. The clouds swirled around, but they were going anticlockwise, contradicting what they'd learned about the Coriolis effect in physics lessons.
Excerpted from The Knowing by David Graham. Copyright © 2017 David Graham. Excerpted by permission of Urbane Publications Ltd.
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