Authors: Mike Carey
Also by Mike Carey
The Devil You Know
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Mike Carey
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written
permission of the publisher.
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Originally published in Great Britain in September 2007 by Orbit
First eBook Edition: July 2009
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To Charlotte Oria,
my transatlantic connection for a quarter of a century,
with much love and gratitude
DON’T DO FUNERALS ALL THAT OFTEN, AND WHEN I DO, I prefer to be either falling-down drunk or dosed up on some herbal fuzz-bomb
like salvinorin to the point where I start to lose feeling from the feet on up, like a kind of rising damp of the central
nervous system. Today I was as sober as a judge, and that was only the start of it. The cemetery was freezing cold—cold enough
to chill me even through the Russian-army greatcoat I was wearing (I never fought, but poor bloody infantry is a state of
mind). The sun was still locked up for winter, a gusty east wind was stropping itself sharp on my face, and guilt was working
its slow way through my mind like a weighted cheese wire through a block of ice.
Ashes to ashes, the priest said, or at least that was what it boiled down to. His hair and his skin were ash-pale in the February
cold. The pallbearers stepped forward just as the wind sprang up again, and the shroud on top of the coffin bellied like a
sail. It was a short voyage, though: Two steps brought them alongside the neat, rectangular hole in the ground, where they
bent as one and laid the coffin down on a pair of canvas straps held in place by four burly sextons. Then the sextons stepped
in from either side, in synchrony, and the coffin slid silently down into the ground.
Rest in peace, John Gittings. The mortal part of you, anyway; for the rest, it was going to be a case of wait-and-see. Maybe
that was why John’s widow, Carla, looked so strained and tense as she stood directly opposite me in her funereal finery. Her
outfit incorporated a brooch made from a sweep of midnight-dark feathers, and staring at it made me momentarily imagine that
I was looking down from a great height, the black of her dress becoming the black of an asphalt highway, the remains of a
dead bird lying there like roadkill.
The priest started up again, the wind stealing his voice and distributing it piecemeal among us so that everyone got a beggar’s
share of the wisdom and consolation. Sunk in my own thoughts, which were fixed on mortality and resurrection to the exclusion
of redemption, I looked around at the other mourners. It was a who’s who of the London exorcist community: Reggie Tang, Therese
O’Driscoll, and Greg Lockyear were there, representing the Thames Collective; Bourbon Bryant and his hatchet-faced new wife,
Cath; Larry Tallowhill and Louise Beddows, Larry looking like a walking corpse himself with the white of his cheekbones showing
through his skin like a flame through a paper lantern; Bill Schofield, known for reasons both complicated and obscene as Jonah;
Ade Underwood, Sita Lovejoy, Michelle Mooney, all up from the beautiful South (Elephant and Castle, or thereabouts); and among
the also-rans, a very striking, very young woman with shoulder-length white-blond hair who kept staring at me all the way
through the service. There was something both familiar and unsettling about her face, but I couldn’t place it. That uncertainty
did nothing to improve my mood, and neither did the absence of the one London exorcist I’d been hoping to see at this shindig.
But then Juliet Salazar never did hold with cheap sentiment. In fact, she probably didn’t have any to sell even at the market
Meanwhile, seeing as how this was a cemetery, the dead had turned up in considerable force. They clustered around us at a
safe distance, sensing the power gathered here and what it could do to them, but so starved of sensation that they couldn’t
keep away. It was hard not to look at the sad multitude, even though looking at ghosts often makes them come in closer, as
though your attention is a gradient they slide down toward you. There were dozens, if not hundreds, packed so closely together
that they overlapped, thrusting their heads through one another’s limbs and torsos to get a better look at us and maybe at
the new kid on the block. The ghosts of the most recent vintage still carried the marks of their death on them in wasted flesh,
oddly angled limbs, and in one case, a gaping chest hole that was almost certainly a bullet wound. The tenants of longer standing
had either learned or forgotten enough to look more like themselves in life, or else they’d started to fade to the point where
some of the more gruesome details had been lost or smudged over.
The priest seemed oblivious to his larger audience, which was probably a good thing: He looked old enough and frail enough
that he might not weather the shock. But people in my profession have the sight whether they like it or not, and it’s not
something you can turn on and off. At one point during the funeral oration, Bourbon Bryant reached into his pocket and half
drew out the book of matches he always carried there—the particular tool he uses to get the whip hand on the invisible kingdoms,
just as a tin whistle (Clarke Sweetone, key of D) is mine.
I put a hand on his arm and shook my head. “Not the time,” I said tersely, speaking out of the corner of my mouth.
“I’ll just torch one or two, Fix,” he muttered back. “The rest will scatter like pigeons.”
“I’ll break your jaw if you do,” I said equably. He shot me a surprised, affronted look, read my own expression accurately,
and put away the matches.
Why hadn’t I gotten drunk before coming here? Judging by the faces around me, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been the only one.
Exorcists often resort to booze to stifle their death perception, just as a lot of them use speed when they want to put a
particular edge on it. But I’m careful about how I deploy my crutches. Today that would have felt like I was hiding from something
specific I was ashamed to face, rather than just dulling unpleasant distractions. Bad precedent.
I defocused as far as I could, staring through the massed ranks of the dead toward the cemetery’s high wrought-iron fence,
which was topped with very un-Christian razor wire. No respite there, though; the Breath of Life protesters were pressed up
against the bars like tourists at the zoo, shouting abuse at us that we were too far away to decipher. The Breathers, as we
dismissively call them, are radical dead-rights extremists, and they view us ghostbreakers in much the same light in which
staunch Catholics tend to see abortionists: You can always rely on them to break up the funeral of an exorcist if they get
a tip-off that it’s going down. Most likely, the priest or one of the sextons was a closet sympathizer and had sent the word
down the line.
Things were starting to wind down now. Carla threw some earth into her husband’s grave, and a few other people got in line
to do the same. Then the sextons took over for the serious shoveling. Now that we’d made that ritualistic nod toward plowing
the fields, we were free to scatter as soon as was decent. Carla’s earlier plan for a post-funeral gathering at her house
in Mill Hill had been canceled at the last moment for reasons that weren’t entirely clear—and the service, which on the black-edged
invitations had been set for three p.m., had been moved forward to one-thirty without explanation. Maybe that was why Juliet
But just as I was congratulating myself on getting away easy, a shout from the main gates made me turn my head in that direction.
There was a man there, running toward us at a flat-out sprint that sat oddly with his immaculately cut Italian suit. By and
large, people don’t wear Enzo Tovare to go jogging. All the muck sweat’s not good for that delicate stitching.
This Johnny-come-lately looked pretty striking in other ways, too. His mid-brown hair was back-combed into an Errol Flynn–style
college cut, and he had the Hollywood face to go with it—hard to get without plastic surgery or sterling-silver genes. He
looked to be about thirty, but there was something in his face that read as either premature experience or some kind of innate
calm and seriousness. He was old for his age, but he wore it pretty well.
He had a folded sheet of paper in his hand that he was holding up for our appreciation like Neville Chamberlain. That plus
the sharp suit made it less likely that he was what I’d taken him to be at first: one of the Breath of Life guys trying to
disrupt proceedings with a paint bomb or a noisemaker.
He slowed down as he got in among us, and I noticed as he passed me that he wasn’t breathing hard despite the run. I wondered
if he worked out in Italian linen, too.
“Mrs. Gittings,” he said, offering the paper to Carla. “This is a warrant executed this morning by Judge Tilney at Hendon
Magistrates’ court. Will you please read it?”
Carla smacked the paper out of the man’s hand so that he had to flail briefly to catch it again before it fell into the grave.
“Go away, Mr. Todd,” she said coldly. “You’ve got no business being here. No business at all.”
“I have to disagree,” Italian-suit guy said politely enough, unfolding the paper and showing it to Carla. “You know what my
business is, Mrs. Gittings, and you know why I couldn’t just allow this to happen. What you’re doing here is illegal. This
warrant forbids you from burying the mortal remains of the late Jonathan Gittings, and it requires you to appear at—”
He ran out of steam very abruptly. He was looking into the grave, and he clearly registered the fact that it was already occupied
and half full of earth. There was maybe a second when he seemed false-footed: all dressed up, writ in hand, and nowhere to
go. Then he refolded his warrant and tucked it away in his breast pocket with a decisive motion, his expression somber.
“Obviously, I’m already too late,” he said. “I was under the impression that this service was scheduled to start at three
o’clock. I’m sure that was what I was told when I called the funeral parlor this morning. Perhaps there was a last-minute
cancellation?” Carla flushed red, opened her mouth to speak, but Todd raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not going to try
to interrupt a funeral that’s already in progress—and I apologize for disturbing the solemnity of the occasion. If I’d been
in time to stop the burial, it was my legal duty to do so. Now… I’ll retire and consider the other avenues available to me.
We’ll talk again, Mrs. Gittings. And you can expect an exhumation order in the fullness of time.”
Carla gave a short cry of pain, as if the words had physically wounded her. Then Reggie Tang—an unlikely Galahad—stepped in
between her and the lawyer, fixing him with a look full of violent promise.
“Can I see your invitation, mate?” he demanded. At the same time I saw Reggie’s deceptively scrawny-looking friend Greg Lockyear
moving in behind Todd, looking to Reggie for his cue. I couldn’t believe they were planning to lay some hurt on a lawyer in
front of fifty witnesses, but the grim set of Reggie’s face was impossible to misread. Like most of us, he knew John from
way back, and like most of us, he’d teamed up with him a fair few times when there was nothing better on offer. That tended
to be how it worked, and I guessed that maybe, like me, he was feeling some belated pangs of guilt that he’d only ever seen
John as a last resort. So maybe beating up a man in a sharp suit seemed like an easy way to burn off some of the bad karma.
Stepping forward as much to my own surprise as anyone else’s, I put a hand on Reggie’s shoulder. He turned his glare on me,
surprised and indignant to be interrupted when he was still warming up.
“Behave yourself, Reggie,” I said. “You’re doing no one a favor starting a fight here, least of all Carla.”
We held each other’s eyes for a moment longer, and I was half convinced he was going to take a swing at me. I took a step
to the left to keep Greg Lockyear in view, because that way, at least, I wouldn’t be fighting on two fronts; but the moment
passed, and Reggie turned away with a disgusted shrug.
“Frigging parasites,” he said. “Have it your way, Fix. But if he doesn’t get the fuck out of here, I’m gonna put something
through his face.”
I gave Todd a look that asked him what he was waiting for. “Mrs. Gittings will be in touch,” I said.
“I’m sure,” he agreed. “But I really need to proceed with—”
“You need to pick your time. She’ll be in touch. Leave it until then, eh?”
Todd looked at the grim faces ringing him and probably did some calculations. He glanced around for Carla, but she’d stepped
back into the supportive crowd and was being comforted by Cath and Therese. “I’m prepared to wait a day or so,” he said, “out
of respect. A day or so—no longer.”
“Good plan,” I agreed.
With a wry nod to me, Todd turned on his heel. He took the path back to the gate a lot more slowly and stayed in sight for
the better part of a minute, further dampening the already tense mood.
We broke up by inches and ounces, swapping halfhearted conversation at the turning circle by the car park because nobody wanted
to seem in an indecent hurry to escape. I said hello to Louise, whom I hadn’t seen in a year or more, and we played the “ain’t
it awful” game, trading stories about the Breathers.
“They’re running ambushes now,” Louise said in her lugubrious Tyneside drawl, igniting a cigarette with a gold lighter shaped
like a tiny revolver. “Picking us off. Can you believe it? Stu Langley got a call in the early hours of the morning. Some
woman saying she’d just moved into a new house and there was a ghost in the bloody downstairs lavvy. He told her he’d come
the next morning, but she started crying and pleading. Laying it on thicker and thicker, she was, and Stu’s too polite to
hang up on her. So in the end he got dressed and went out there. I’d have told her to hold it in or piss out the window.
“Anyway, he gets to this place out in Gypsy Hill somewhere, and look at that. There’s a house with a for-sale sign up, exactly
where she said it would be, and the front door’s open. So he went on in, like a bloody idiot. Didn’t stop to ask himself why
there were no lights on, or why the sign still said for sale if this whinging old biddy had already moved in.
“There were four of them, with baseball bats. They laid into him so hard they put him in a coma. He lasted for a week, and
then they turned the machine off. I’m telling you, Fix, they won’t be happy until they’ve killed us all.”
“Won’t do them much good if they do,” I observed, shaking my head as she offered me a drag on the cigarette. “Exorcism is
in the human genome now. Probably always was, only it didn’t show itself until there was something there to use it on. Killing
us doesn’t make the problem go away.”
She blew smoke out of her nose, hard. “No, but beating the shit out of a few of us gives the rest of us something to think
Another knot of mourners walked past us, heading for their cars. One of them was the acid-blond girl, walking alongside two
guys I didn’t know, and she gave me another killing look as she passed.
“Any idea who that is?” I asked Louise, rolling my eyes to indicate who I meant without being too obvious about it.
Louise expelled breath in a forced sigh, made a weary face. “Dana McClennan.”
“McClennan?” Something inside me lurched and settled at an odd angle. “Any relation to the late, great Gabriel McClennan?”
“Daughter,” said Louise. “And she’s following on in the family tradition, Fix. Bigger arsehole than he was, if anything. When
she found out Larry was HIV-positive, she backed off at a hundred miles an hour. You’d think he’d tried to give her a Frenchie
or something. Or maybe she thinks you can catch it by talking about it, like my mum.”
I didn’t answer. The mention of Gabe McClennan’s name had triggered a whole lot of very unpleasant memories, most of them
dating from the night when I’d killed him. Okay, it was kind of by proxy: Actually, I just made it really easy for someone
else to kill him. It wasn’t like he left me much choice, either, since he was out for my blood; and the wolf I threw him to
was one he’d brought to the party himself, so you could say what goes around comes around. Lots of great arguments to mix
and match. None of them made me feel any better about it, though, and there was no way I’d ever be able to explain it to the
wife and kid he’d left behind.
“So what’s she doing here?” I asked.
“She came with Bourbon. I think he put the word out at the Oriflamme that John was going into the ground today—said he’d lay
on cars for any exorcists who wanted to come along.”
“She’s a ghostbreaker?”
Louise shrugged. “That’s what she’s calling herself, yes. Following in her father’s footsteps. I don’t know if she’s any good
I took it on the chin, but it wasn’t great news. If Gabe’s daughter was in the same line of business as me now, and if she
was operating in London, then we were going to keep running across each other’s trail whether we liked it or not. Not a happy
prospect. I watched Gabe’s daughter down to the gates—saw her stop, her two escorts walking on without her, and exchange words
with the Breathers on picket duty. Someone ought to have a word with her about that: It wasn’t a great idea to encourage the
“How’s the music going?” I asked in a ham-fisted effort to raise the mood. Louise played bass in a band that had had many
more names than gigs. I had a vague feeling that their current nom de soundstage was something vaguely punk, like All-Star
Wank, but it would be something different tomorrow.
“It’s good,” Louise said. “It’s going good. We’ve got a new manager. He reckons he can get us in at the Spitz.”
Larry Tallowhill came up alongside Louise at this point and slid an arm around her waist. “Felix Castor,” he said with mock
sternness. “Leave my fucking woman alone.”
“Can I help it if I’m irresistible?” I asked. “How are the new drugs working?”
Larry shrugged expansively. “They’re great,” he said. “I’ll live until something else kills me. Can’t ask for more than that.”
Larry was always amazingly upbeat about his condition, which was the result of the sort of arbitrary bad luck that would fill
most people with rage or despair to the slopping-over-the-top, foaming-at-the-mouth point. He’d contracted HIV from a bite
he got when he was trying to subdue a loup-garou—you might call it a werewolf, except that the animal component here was something
leaner and longer-limbed and altogether stranger than that word suggests. It wasn’t even a paying job; he just saw this monster
chasing a bunch of kids across a Sainsbury’s car park, and stepped in without even thinking about it. The thing was looking
to feed, but it turned its attention to Larry as soon as it realized he was a threat, and like I said, it was sleek and fast
and very, very mean. Larry took the damage, finished the job with one arm hanging off in strips, then walked a mile and a
half to the hospital to get himself patched up. They did a great job: stabilized him, took the severed finger he’d brought
with him and sewed it back on, stopped him from bleeding to death or getting tetanus, and eventually restored 95 percent of
nervous function. About ten or eleven months later, he got the bad news.
For an exorcist, it all falls under the heading of occupational hazard. There aren’t very many of us who get to die of old
I changed the subject, which sooner or later was going to bring us around to the even more painful issue of how John Gittings
had died—locked in the bathroom with the business end of a shotgun in his mouth. I’m not squeamish, but I’d been shying away
from that particular image all afternoon.
“Business good?” I asked, falling back once more on the old conversational staples.
“It’s great,” Larry said. “Best it’s ever been.”
“Three bloody jobs all at once yesterday,” Louise confirmed. “He’s fast.” She nodded at Larry. “You know how fast he is, but
even he can’t do three in a day. They get in the way of each other. The second’s harder than the first, and the third’s impossible.
So I did the middle one, and of course, that was the one that turned out to be an absolute bastard. Old woman—very tough.
Fought back, and I lost my lunch all over the client’s carpet.”
“Your breakfast,” Larry corrected. “It was only eleven o’clock.”
“My brunch. And this bloke—company director or something, lives in Regent Quarter—he says, ‘I hope you’re going to clean that
up before you go.’ And I would have done, too, but not after he said that. I hit him with the standard terms and conditions
and walked out. Now he’s saying he won’t pay, but he sodding will. One way or another, he will.”
As changes of subject go, it hadn’t gotten us very far away from death. But that’s exorcists’ shoptalk for you.
After a few more pleasantries, Lou and Larry strolled away arm in arm, and I walked back over to the grave to say my goodbyes.
Carla was now standing in deep conversation with the priest—maybe a little too deep for comfort. At any rate, she took the
opportunity as I walked up to extricate herself, thank him, and disengage.
“I’m heading out,” I said. “Take care of yourself, Carla. I’ll be in touch, okay?” But she was holding something out to me,
and the something turned out to be her car keys.
“Fix,” she said apologetically, “could you drive me home? I really don’t feel up to it. And there’s something I want to ask
I hesitated. They say misery loves company, but I’m the kind of misery who usually doesn’t. On the other hand, I’d missed
Bourbon’s charabanc, and I needed a lift back into town. Maybe a half-second too late to look generous, I nodded and took
the keys. “Thanks again, Father,” Carla called over her shoulder. I glanced back. The priest was watching us as we walked
away, the expression on his face slightly troubled.
“He asked me if I had any doubts,” Carla said, catching the movement as I looked around. “Any bits of doctrine I wanted to
talk over with him. Then, before I could get a word in, he was pumping me for clues.”
“Men of the cloth are the worst,” I agreed. “They don’t approve, but they have to look. It’s the same principle as the
News of the World
.” That was slightly unfair, but it’s something you come across a lot. People assume that we’re sitting on a big secret: We
have to be, because how could we do what we do without knowing how it’s done? But it’s not like that at all. Would you ask
Steve Davis for an explanation of Brownian motion, or Torvill and Dean how ice crystals form? We’ve got a skill set, not the
big book of answers.
Carla’s car was the only one left in the car park: a big, roomy old Vectra GLS in a dark gray that showed off the splatter
stains of old bird shit to good effect. I let Carla in—no central locking—and walked around to the driver’s side, taking an
appraising look at her in the process. She was calmer now that it was all over, but she looked a little tired and a little
old. That wasn’t surprising: Having someone you love commit suicide has to be one of the nastiest low blows life can throw
at you. In other respects, she was still very much the woman I’d known back in the early nineties, before she’d ever met John—when
she was a brassy, loud blonde I’d met at a poker session and almost gone to bed with, except that my fear of intimacy and
her preference for older men had kicked in at about the same time and turned a promising fumble into an awkward conversation
about micro-limit hold ’em. There’s a line in a Yeats poem where he asks whether your imagination lingers longest on a woman
you won or a woman you lost. While you’re puzzling over that one, you can maybe give him an estimate on how long a piece of
string is. If things had worked out differently, Carla and me could have gotten a whole Mrs. Robinson thing going, although
even in those days, I was less of a Benjamin Braddock and more of a Ratso Rizzo.
I started the car and pulled away, noticing that the priest followed us with his sad eyes as we drove by. I sympathized up
to a point. It couldn’t be an easy way to earn a living these days.
We eased our way out between the pickets, collecting a fair share of abuse and ridicule along the way but no actual missiles
or threats. Most of the people waving placards and chanting rhythmically were in their teens or early twenties. What did they
know about death? They hadn’t even gotten all that far with life yet.
The cemetery was all the way out in Waltham Abbey, and John and Carla lived—or rather, Carla still lived and John didn’t anymore—on
Aldermans Hill just outside of Southgate, in a flat over a dress shop. It was going to be a long haul, and the Vectra handled
like a half-swamped raft. Turning in to the traffic, I remembered the half-bottle of metaxa in my inside pocket, fished it
out one-handed, and passed it across to Carla. She took it without a word, unscrewed the lid, and downed a long swallow. It
made her shudder; probably it made her eyes water, too, but there were plenty of other explanations available for why she
rubbed the heel of her hand quickly across her face.
Looking in the rearview mirror, I noticed that we’d picked up a tail. I swore under my breath. It was one of the vans that
the Breathers had arrived in—a big high-sided delivery truck that someone must have borrowed from work, deep blue and with
BOWYER’S CLEANING SERVICES
written in reverse script over the windscreen—because a good idea is a good idea, even if the emergency services think of
it first. I didn’t mention it to Carla: I just switched lanes whenever I could to make life harder for them. I was confident
that I could lose them long before we got back into London.
“So what was all that shit with the lawyer?” I asked. It sounds tactless, put like that, but I’ve always found anger a good
corrective to grief. Grief paralyzes you, where a good head of hacked-off biliousness keeps you moving right along, although
it’s not so great for making you look where you’re going.
Carla shook her head, as though she didn’t want to talk about it, and I was going to let it lie. But then she took a second
pull on the brandy bottle, and away she went.
“John had always said he wanted to be buried at Waltham Abbey, next to his sister, Hailey,” she muttered. “Always. She was
the only person he ever loved, apart from me. But he wasn’t himself, Fix. Not for months before he died. He wasn’t anyone
I recognized.” She sighed deeply and a little raggedly. “There’s a condition—EOA, it’s called. Early-onset Alzheimer’s. It
got John’s dad when he was only forty-eight, and by the time he turned fifty, he couldn’t even dress himself. John was convinced
that Hailey was starting to get it just before she died, and he was always terrified he was going to go the same way. He tried
to make me promise once that I’d give him pills if it ever took him. If he ever got to the point where—you know, where there
was nothing left of him. But I couldn’t, and I told him I couldn’t.
“Anyway, just because it
run in families doesn’t mean it will. You don’t know, do you? There’s no point running halfway to meet trouble. But he’d
have days when he couldn’t move, hardly, for brooding about it. I tried to jolly him along when he was in one of those moods.
Wait for him to pull out of it again, and then most times he’d say he was sorry he’d worried me, and that’d be that.
“But a couple of months before Christmas, he went through a bad time. He had a job on—something that was going to pay really
well, but it seemed to prey on his mind a lot.”
“What sort of job?” I asked, sounding a lot more casual than I felt. This was where my guilt was stemming from, in case you
were wondering. I’d already heard a few hints about John’s last big earner, and I had good reason to feel uneasy about it.
“He wouldn’t say. But he put a grand in my hand, sometime back in November, it was, and told me to bank it—and he said there’d
be more later. Well, you know how it is, Fix. Most of the time, no offense, you just work for rent money, don’t you? Oh yeah,
for young men, it’s lovely. Two or three hundred quid for a couple of days’ work, you’re laughing. When you’re a bit older,
it gets to be different, and you never really have a chance to lay anything by. So I was over the moon for him, I really was.
I said, ‘What, is there a ghost in Buckingham Palace or something? Can we say we’re by royal appointment now?’ And he laughed
and said something about East End royalty, but he wouldn’t tell me what he meant.
“I think the truth was, whatever this job was all about, he didn’t know if he could handle it. He called those two on the
Collective—Reggie and that friend of his who never washes. But they wouldn’t work with him anymore. They said he was too sloppy,
and they wouldn’t trust him if things went bad on a job.”
She hesitated as if she thought I might want to jump in at this point and defend John’s reputation, but I made no comment.
Because if Reggie had said that, Reggie was right. John had never been the most focused of men, and he’d gotten worse as he
got older. Having him at your back was far from reassuring: Generally, it just gave you one more thing to worry about.
But I didn’t feel comfortable thinking those thoughts, because John hadn’t called only Reggie. He’d called me, too, three
times in the space of a week. The messages were still on my answerphone, since I never bother to wipe the tape. Three times
I’d sat there and listened to him telling me he might have some work to put my way, and three times I hadn’t even picked up
because life’s too short and you tend to avoid things that might make it shorter still.
Then I got a call from Bourbon, the de facto godfather of London’s ghostbusters, with the news that John had kissed a loaded
“Did he say who he was working for?” I asked Carla, crashing the gears as we turned onto the M25 sliproad. The blue van was
still in back of us, but I wasn’t worried; I hadn’t even begun to fight.
Carla shook her head. “I asked him. He didn’t want to talk about it. He just said it was big, and that when it was done, he’d
be in the history books. ‘One for the books,’ he kept on saying. Something nobody’s ever done before.
“And it changed him. He started to get really fretful and really paranoid about forgetting things. He’d make himself little
notes—lists of names, lists of places—and he’d hide them all around the house. I’d open the tea caddy, and there’d be a bit
of paper all folded up inside the lid. Just names. Then the next day he’d go around and collect them all up again. And burn
them. For the first time ever, I started to think he might have been right all along. You know, about the Alzheimer’s. I thought
maybe the stress had brought it on or something.”
She rubbed her eyes again. “It was a terrible time, Fix. I didn’t know who to talk to about it. When Hailey was alive, I’d
have called her over, and we’d have had it out with him all together. But I couldn’t get near him. He started to fly off the
handle whenever I even hinted that he was acting strangely. It got so I had to pretend everything was all right even when
he was sneaking around like a spy in a film, picking up secret messages that he’d left for himself.
“Then one night he got into bed and started to talk about death. Said he thought his time would be coming soon, and he’d changed
his mind about what kind of send-off he wanted. ‘Forget about Waltham Abbey, Carla. You’ve got to cremate me.’ Well, I didn’t
know what to say. What about Hailey? What about the plot he’d already paid for, right next to her? It was the disease talking.
It wasn’t him. So I did just what I did that time when he tried to make me promise to poison him. I kept shtumm. I didn’t
say a word. I wasn’t going to make a promise that I didn’t mean to keep.
“And then after he”—she saw the word looming, swerved away from it—“after he did it, I got this letter from a solicitor. Mr.
Maynard Todd from some company with three names, and one of the names is him. He said John had come to him before he died
and written a new will. Still left all his money to me, but he wanted to make sure he’d be burned instead of buried. Even
picked out someplace over in the East End—Grace something. He’d put it all down in black and white. And he’d written a bit
at the end about how he’d had to go to a stranger because he couldn’t trust his own wife to do right by him.”
“So what did you do?”
“Nothing,” Carla said with bitter satisfaction. “I ignored it. I thought, Fuck it, let the bastard sue me. I’ll do what my
John wanted when he was still in his right mind. So I went ahead with the funeral, even though this Maynard Todd said he was
going to stop me, and I moved the time from three back to one-thirty so he’d miss it and get there too late. Which he did.”
Her voice had been getting thicker, and now she burst into shuddering sobs. “But it doesn’t matter anymore, Fix. I don’t care
what they do to John’s body. I just want him to be at peace. Oh God, let him find some peace!”
There wasn’t anything I could say to that, so I didn’t try. I just concentrated on making life hideous for the driver of the
blue van. The League Against Cruel Sports wouldn’t approve, but if you know you’re being tailed, there are all sorts of subtle
torments and indignities you can inflict on the guy who’s chasing you. By the time we’d reached the Stag Hill turnoff, I’d
shaken him loose and relieved some of my own tensions in the process.
I drove on in silence, exiting the motorway and coaxing the uncooperative car through the congested streets of Cockfosters
and Southgate. Meanwhile, Carla went through three handkerchiefs and most of what was left in the bottle.
When I pulled up at Aldermans Hill, she was more than half drunk. I parked in front of the costume shop, which was closed
for Sunday, leaving the car on a double-yellow line because it seemed more important right then to get her back onto home
turf and more or less settled.
The flat was on the first floor, up an external flight of steps with a dogleg. On the door frame there were a good half-dozen
wards against the dead, ranging from a sprig of silver birch bound with white thread to a crudely drawn magic circle with
written across it in Greek script. That translates as “bugger off until you’re wanted, you bodiless bastards.” Greek is a
very concise language.
Carla fumbled with her keys, and I noticed that her hands were trembling. I was quite keen to get out of there now that I’d
done my civic duty. I’m fuckall use as a shoulder to cry on.
“I’m sure he is,” I said clumsily—and belatedly. “At peace, I mean. John was a good man, Carla. He didn’t have any enemies
in this world. You know I don’t believe in heaven, but if anyone deserved—”
I stopped because she was looking at me with the sort of expression you give to dangerous madmen.
“No,” she said bluntly. “He’s not in heaven, Fix, or anywhere else. He’s here. He’s still here.”
She turned the key and shoved the door open, but she made no move to go in. I stepped past her into the small hallway, smelling
a slightly musty, unused smell, as though nobody had been there in a few days.
Three steps took me into the living room, and I stopped dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, taking in a scene of devastation
and ruin. Most of the furniture was overturned. The television lay in the corner like a poleaxed drunk, staring blindly up
at the ceiling. Three deep dents scarred the screen, a fish-scale pattern of fracture marks spreading out from each one. Broken
glass crunched under my feet.
And then a framed photo of John and Carla smiling, arm in arm, leaped up from the broken-legged dresser and shot through the
air, spinning like a shuriken, to explode against the wall just inches from my head.
With a muttered oath, I dodged back around the corner and turned to stare at Carla in dazed disbelief. She gave me a curt
nod, her face bitter and despairing.
Despite his faults, most of which I’ve already mentioned, John had always been a pretty easygoing sort of guy. But that was
when he was alive.
In death, it was painfully obvious, he’d gone geist.
OME APOSTLE NOT NOTED FOR CHARM OR TACT ONCE told an appreciative audience somewhere near the Sea of Galilee that the poor
would always be with us. He could have said the same thing about the dead. Of course, back in Jesus’s time, there were only
maybe a hundred million people in the world, give or take, but even then they were heavily outnumbered by the part of the
human race that was already lying in the ground. The exact ratio wobbles up and down as we ride the demographic roller coaster,
but these days you could bet on twenty to one and probably not lose your money.
Twenty of them to one of us. Twenty ghosts for every man, woman, and child living on this planet. But that was an empty statistic
until just before the turn of the second millennium. Until then most of the dead were content to stay where they’d been put.
In the words of a million headstones, they were “only sleeping.” Then, not too long ago, the alarm clock went off and they
all sat up.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Even now a whole lot of people die and stay dead—trek off across the undiscovered country, or
dissolve into thin air, or go and sit at God’s right hand in sinless white pajamas, or whatever. But a whole lot more don’t:
They wake up in the darkness of their own death, and they head back toward the light of the world they just left, which is
the only direction they know. Most of the time they come back as a visual echo of their former selves, without substance,
mass, or weight, and then we call them ghosts. Sometimes they burrow back into their own dead flesh and make it move; then
we call them zombies. Occasionally, they invade an animal body, subdue the host mind by force majeure, and redecorate the
flesh and bone so it looks more like what they used to remember seeing in the mirror. Then we call them werewolves or loup-garous,
and if we’re smart, we keep the fuck out of their way.
But here’s the wonderful thing: In all their many forms, there were people like me who shouldered the live man’s burden and
came out fighting with the skill and the will to knock them back again. The exorcists. Probably we’d always been there, too—a
latent tendency in the human gene pool, as I’d said to Louise, waiting for its time to shine. Whatever it is that we do, it’s
got sod all to do with sanctity or holy writ. It’s just an innate ability expressing itself through the other abilities that
we pick up as we go through life. If you’re good with words, then you’ll bind the dead with some kind of incantation; if you’re
an artist, you’ll use sketches and sigils. I met a gambler a while back—nice guy named Dennis Peace—who did it with card tricks.