Book excerpt

Soul Trade

Black London

Caitlin Kittredge

St. Martin's Press

1.
 
 
Pete Caldecott sat on a tombstone, watching fog curl soft fingers against the graveyard earth and waiting for Mickey Martin’s ghost to appear.
Mickey Martin hadn’t always been a ghost, and before a hail of constable’s bullets had snuffed out his life in the winter of 1844, he’d managed to slit the throats of thirteen women.
Murderers weren’t supposed to be buried on consecrated ground, but with a bribe to the right vicar, Mickey Martin’s admirers made sure he got a proper burial. Even razor-wielding serial killers had their fans.
Mickey Martin professed to be a man of God, ridding the earth of wickedness, and in the poverty-stricken world of Victorian London, a bloke who went about slashing prostitutes and charwomen was looked on not as a monster, but as an avenging angel, cleaning the mud-choked streets of the East End of their filth.
Pete wasn’t usually the one who sat in chilly graveyards, waiting for the dead. Usually, that was Jack’s job. But Jack, the one who could see the dead with his second sight, the one who had all the talent when it came to disposing of the unnatural that crawled under cover of night in London, wanted nothing to do with the Mickey Martin business. Or, if Pete was honest, with much of anything lately.
She could have put her foot down, demanded that Jack be the one to take this on, but that would bring on a row, and she’d had her fill of those for this lifetime and possibly the next. Sitting alone in a graveyard at nearly midnight didn’t bother her overmuch. It wasn’t like she’d be getting any sleep at home, between Lily’s erratic schedule and Jack’s ever-present foul mood.
Still, she wished she could chuck it in and go home, sit down in front of the telly with Lily and Jack, and pretend just for the span of a program or two that they were a regular sort of family. The sort where Mum and Dad occasionally got along, and neither of them had any special connection to the ghosts and magic that wound around the city as surely as the river and the rail lines.
Jack had said this job wasn’t worth their time when it had come in, but he said that about every routine exorcism. They weren’t flashy, but they usually paid, the victims too terrified to even consider stiffing the person who had made the big bad ghost go poof. And something had to put food on Pete and Jack’s table, to pay for Lily’s nappies and the expenses involved with living in London, which were considerable. If that was boring, shopworn exorcisms, so be it.
It wasn’t as if this particular ghost job had come from a disreputable source. PC Brandi Wolcott was a member of Pete’s old squad when she’d been on the Met, smart and hardworking, ambitious and driven. And now terrified, after a routine call had turned into a brush with Mickey Martin.
Pete had a reputation with such matters, whether she liked it or not. Everyone at her old squad in Camden knew she’d quit to go chase spooks and vapors. Or at least those were the rumors. The truth was a little more complicated. But trying to explain to coppers like PC Wolcott that if they just cared to look, from the corner of their eye, a part of London would reveal itself—a part made of magic and shadows, harboring creatures like Mickey Martin and far, far worse—would end with leather straps and lithium, and that wouldn’t help anyone.
“Caldecott.” Pete’s Bluetooth headset came to life, and she jumped. She cleared her throat before fishing her mobile from her overcoat. She didn’t want PC Wolcott to know she’d been drifting and not holding up her end of their two-person search team.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“I’ve finished my perimeter sweep. Heading back your way.” Wolcott was out here on her own time, which Pete gave her credit for—though not more credit than she gave PC Wolcott for calling her in the first place. Ghost attacks against the living were rare and could usually be written off as muggings or bad trips, but something about this one had shaken Brandi Wolcott badly enough that she quietly went searching for an exorcist, and found Pete. Beyond that, she hadn’t said all that much, and Pete got the sense she was having second thoughts about the whole thing. You didn’t want to be the only PC who believed in ghosts.
Pete shoved her mobile back into her pocket and let her hands follow. October nights brought on the chill and the threat of winter to come, and the damp crept through her hair and her clothes, all the way to her skin. She could feel the gentle pulse of the Black, the other side that people like Wolcott chose not to see, like the vibration of a subterranean train under her feet. She was mostly used to it by now, but on nights like tonight, when it was silent and the hum of the city seemed miles away, it seeped in and knocked around her skull, almost as palpable as the fog.
Wolcott’s blonde head appeared, bobbing between the monuments. The churchyard was only a hundred meters from end to end, but it was crammed full of headstones and obelisks, with far more bodies than there were stones below Pete’s boots. London suffered from too many dead and too little space, and before great swaths of green were cordoned off for burying by the later Victorians, the dead resided wherever there was room—in churchyards, under the church floorboards, in shallow pits that fouled the air and drew in the Black like a magnetic field.
“Christ, this weather,” Wolcott said. Her bronze skin, painted on rather than earned under the sun, was as brassy as her hair. In her off-hours, Wolcott favored skintight satin pants, loud prints, earrings large enough to use as handcuffs, and makeup by the pound. But she was bright and had nerves of steel, and Pete was glad she’d agreed to come.
“It’s going to piss down rain any moment,” Pete agreed. She gestured toward a large winged angel, the biggest monument in the churchyard. “Can you take me through it again? What happened the other night?”
“Sure.” Wolcott shrugged. “Station got a call from the vicar about half-twelve and I came around. Said there were lights out in the churchyard. Figured it was some hoodies pissing about, thought nothing of it.” She walked a few paces, staring up at the angel. Its stone eyes were blacked over with moss, and the ghostly marks of old graffiti wrapped like white vines around its base.
“I got about halfway into the yard when I heard this sound,” Wolcott said softly. “This low sound, like a moaning. Still thought it were kids, so I pulled out my light and gave the order to show their smart little faces.”
The wind picked up, pushing leaves against Pete’s feet, and the fog flowed and rippled across the uneven ground as if it were alive and making a mad dash for the safety of the church. “But it wasn’t,” Pete encouraged the other woman. Wolcott flinched, as if she expected Pete to accuse her of making it all up, or simply laugh in her face.
“Brandi,” Pete said. She laid a hand on Wolcott’s nylon-clad arm. “I believe you. The more I know, the easier it’ll be for us to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The PC hunched inside her navy blue windcheater, and Pete saw then, up close under the sodium lights, that what she’d taken for reluctance was actually fear. Wolcott’s entire body was strung with it, as if she were a puppet on wires. Pete sucked in a deep lungful of damp, cold air. Whatever had happened here, it had been a lot worse than a ghost popping out of a mirror or a poltergeist flinging crockery.
Not for the first time that night, she cursed Jack and his stubborn refusal to do anything that wasn’t exactly in line with what he wanted.
Wolcott spoke again in a rush, voice rattling like the dead leaves all around. “I seen this shape hunched on the ground, and he were mumbling, over and over. It were Bible talk, I don’t know. I never did pay attention in church.”
“‘Behold, I am coming soon. I have my reward with me and I shall give to everyone according to what he has done,’” Pete said. That had been Mickey Martin’s favorite passage to quote in his letters to the various tabloids and one-sheets of the day.
Wolcott’s nose wrinkled. “Yeah, that. Street-corner nutter ramblings, I thought.”
“It’s Revelation,” Pete said. “The handbook of all street-corner nutters.”
“You some kind of brain, then?” Wolcott asked, clearly glad to have the subject diverted from what she’d seen.
“No,” Pete said. “Just a very poor sort of Catholic.”
“Was about to ask,” said Wolcott. “Don’t see many Catholics mucking about with the dark arts.”
“You saw the man and then what?” Pete prompted, deciding that the lecture on black magic versus exorcism could wait for another day.
“I told him the churchyard was closed and he’d have to move along,” said Wolcott, “and then he just … he looked at me, and I can’t describe it. Had dead black eyes, bleeding onto his face. Such deep holes. Felt like I was falling, and then the cold was all around, and he…” Wolcott swallowed, her voice trembling along with the rising energies of the Black.
Pete scratched at the back of her neck. The feelings picking at the part of her mind connected to magic were bloody active, even for a graveyard. Then again, not all graveyards boasted their very own serial killer.
“He came for me,” Wolcott said. “Straight through the headstones, like he were made of smoke. And he grabbed for me, his hand went through my stab vest, and it was as if…” She shuddered. “He knew me. Could see every wicked thing I’d done, and was going to burn me up from the inside.”
“I know it must have been terrible for you,” Pete said. “If it makes you feel better—six other people have had the same thing happen over the last six months.”
“Shit,” Wolcott muttered, but her shoulders relaxed a fraction. Pete figured knowing it wasn’t just her might help settle Wolcott’s nerves—not that it did much for her own tingling hands and jumping heart. The churchyard had been silent for decades until the first terrified woman had called 999 from the pub across the road, and Pete had an idea why Mickey Martin was up and about again—when she and Jack had stopped the primordial demon, Nergal, from ripping his way into the daylight world, it had rippled out and touched everything in the city. Every ghost, every lesser demon, every scrap and snip of magic-having life in London had felt the effects. And now they were awake, and hungry.
At least Pete could put Mickey Martin in his place. The larger aftermath of Nergal and his brethren would just have to sort itself out.
“You’re nicer about it than my DCI, but you still probably think I’m crazy,” Wolcott mumbled, leaning against the monument. “Everybody else does.”
Crazy’s not the word I’d use,” Pete said. Wolcott, too, represented a problem—when the Black echoed like a rung bell as Nergal and the other four primordial demons tried to break out of the prison the Princes of Hell had erected for them millennia ago, all of the citizens of both daylight London and the Black beneath with the slightest bit of sensitivity got a jolt like grabbing a high-tension cable.
For psychics like Jack it meant more sleepless nights, more waking visions, and more barrages from the dead and the living alike. For people like Wolcott, who would have never known she possessed the slightest bit of talent under normal circumstances, it led to nights like this.
It wasn’t Pete’s problem. Her problem was Mickey Martin and his recently reacquired hobby of murdering those he considered wicked.
“You don’t seem so looney,” Wolcott observed. “From what they say around the station, I was expecting Stevie Nicks.”
“I thought I’d leave my scarves and tarot at home, yeah,” Pete agreed. She ignored the implication that apparently the longer she was gone from the Met, the more of a moony-eyed hippie type she became in common legend.
“Never liked stakeouts,” Wolcott said. “Bloody boredom sets in quick, don’t it?” She scraped a fingernail against the moss on the monument. “How’d you cope, when you was a DI?”
Pete’s head started to throb, though she didn’t know if it was from a lack of coffee, the cold, or Wolcott’s persistent questions. She shouldn’t be mad at the PC—Wolcott was just trying to distract herself from her nerves.
She did the same, counting headstones, listening to the faint thump of music from the far-off pub, feeling the droplets of fog collect on her face and hair. The whispers of the graveyard had stilled, and even the mist held its place, covering the ground, the headstones, and the dead beneath. For a moment, it was as if the entire city of London held its breath—no music, no cars, no trains, not even the heartbeat of the rushing Thames.
Then the pain in Pete’s head spiked, and she knew the silence had only been a lull, not a finale.
From the stone behind Wolcott, the shadows began to seep and merge, moving of their own accord, against the light that gleamed from the vestry windows and the streetlamps beyond the confines of the churchyard. The monument gave birth to a dripping black shape that wavered from cohesive to vapor and back again, sliding through the pocked limestone like oil through water.
“Wolcott!” Pete shouted, but it was too late. The thing had Brandi by the throat and engulfed her, pouring into her eyes and nostrils and down her open gullet, choking her scream before it had a chance to be born.
“Shit,” Pete said, only able to watch as the ghost of Mickey Martin poured itself like black, oily water into a brand-new body. She’d only met a few ghosts that could do that, and none of them had anyone’s best interest in mind. Exorcisms were hard enough when you were only dealing with a vapor.
And yet, Pete thought as Brandi’s eyes clouded over with silver and she let out a choked moan, her limbs jerking and spasming as the ghost took control, it didn’t feel like a ghost. Pete wasn’t a psychic—that was Jack’s game—but ghosts felt like electricity, like lightning striking too close for comfort, like every ion in the room was awake and slamming against her skin. This was cold, and black, and bottomless, giving no sense that the thing inside Brandi Wolcott had ever been alive, never mind human.
The one thought pounding through her head over and over was that Jack would never have let this happen. He’d have known something was off, and been ready for this thing that was not a ghost.
Pete sidestepped as Brandi came for her, acrylic fingernails catching and ripping at the front of Pete’s overcoat. Jack would never have let this happen, but he wasn’t here, so she was just going to have to make do with her own wits. They’d served her well enough for thirty-one odd years; they’d do for a few more minutes.
Brandi came for her again. She was as fast and mean as a PCP addict, an inhuman sight with black energy spilling out of her eyes and her mouth, her face twisted in a grimace of perpetual agony.
Pete amended that. If she managed to survive the next few minutes, then she could figure out how to end this.
A headstone caught Pete at the knees and she fell, feeling her left arm twist under her, the ugly crunch of bone on stone resonating over Brandi’s ragged breathing and Pete’s own heartbeat.
“Aren’t you pretty,” Brandi growled in the guttural tones of East London. The voice of Mickey Martin, made rough and hot with hatred. “Pretty enough to turn heads.” Brandi crouched over Pete, inhaling deeply at the nexus of Pete’s neck and shoulder. “I can smell it on you,” Brandi intoned. “Wickedness. Sin. The filth of the streets dripping off your skin.” She grinned, black spilling over her tongue and down across Pete’s cheek. “Going to enjoy slicing you open and watching it all bleed out.”
Pete was glad Mickey Martin was a talker. It gave her time to plunge her hand into her opposite coat pocket and bring out her metal police baton. She tried to snap it open, but the bolt of lightning up her left arm told her that the plan was dead before it began. Her arm was sprained, at best. Shattered, at worst. Later. She could fix her arm later, when she was alive and away from here. Otherwise, they could arrange it in her casket so nobody would know. Either way, she had a more pressing problem.
Instead, she wrapped her good hand around Brandi Wolcott’s neck and squeezed. Ghosts riding bodies needed life, breath. They weren’t zombies, hunks of corpse revived by a necromancer. So Pete squeezed, with every ounce of strength left in her.
She expected that Mickey Martin would vacate Wolcott’s skin, and then she’d have a fighting chance to send him back to the Bleak Gates and the land of the dead beyond. She never expected the smoke pouring from Wolcott to wrap itself around her wrist and begin the slow crawl up her own arm.
Not again, Pete’s mind screamed. Not this.
She didn’t allow herself to give voice to the scream she felt bubbling up in her throat. When a nasty from beyond the beyond was bent on her flesh, panic was a luxury she didn’t have. She let the onslaught of the ghost’s form come, because it was better for her to be Mickey Martin’s victim than Wolcott. Wolcott didn’t know how to save herself.
“You think this’ll end well for you?” Brandi growled as the black smoke overtook Pete’s hands, her arms, crept toward her mouth and throat.
“Better than it will for you,” Pete rasped, as the first fingers of cold found their way over her tongue.
The ghost of Mickey Martin didn’t feel right, as it bled out of Brandi Wolcott in a flood and rushed up at Pete’s consciousness. It didn’t feel like a ghost; it just felt hungry, and cold.
This is wrong. Pete didn’t have to be a psychic or a professional exorcist to know when things had gone pear-shaped. She’d had a ghost try to take up residence in her skin once before, and it hadn’t felt like this, this … nothing, howling and trying to swallow her.
Brandi collapsed on top of Pete, choking, and Pete managed to wriggle out from under her and get herself upright. She was still tangled with Mickey Martin’s ghost—or the thing that had been his ghost. Pete knew that the regular exorcism that she’d planned would do less than shit. It might tickle this thing that had grown out of the ghost, or ruffle a few hairs, but that would be about it.
Then it would just be a matter of how many pieces she and Wolcott were found in, once someone noticed they were missing.
What would Jack do? Something stupid, likely, but as Pete felt the chill air against her face, felt the smoke creeping into her nostrils, she decided stupid was better than nothing.
Rather than fight the smoke any longer, she let it come. She might not have the sort of talent that let her throw fireballs or read minds, but she did have one. She felt the thing trying to move into her flesh, overpower her mind, and she welcomed it. Let it in until it touched her talent, and reared back with a scream.
“Oh no,” Pete told it, as the thing coalesced into a form, tall and skinnier than any man, with a mouth as wide as Pete’s two hands put together. “You wanted me, you have me.” She felt her talent wake up, begin to drain the cold from the thing, the malice and the hunger. It thrashed like a fish on a line, screaming now in pain rather than anticipation.
Pete recognized the thing now—a wraith, a personification of the hunger and the rage that were the dregs of a spirit. Wraiths consumed ghosts, fed until they’d burned through the spirit’s energy like a bad battery, and then moved on. Any humans that happened along would be found by an unfortunate passerby after they’d been wholly consumed, desiccated and frozen from the inside out.
This wraith, though, would never escape to feed on any of the other spirits that haunted the churchyard. This wraith belonged to her now, and she felt its cold magic seeping into her, as her talent drank the wraith down. It gave one final spasm before it detached from the battered shell of Mickey Martin’s ghost and scattered on the cold wind, wisps and faint trails and finally only the echo of its last howl against the headstones.
Pete felt her legs give out, and she sank to her knees in the rough dead grass at the base of the obelisk. Her fingers were blue, and her breath when she blew it out was frosty and opaque white. She could feel the wraith’s magic fluttering inside her like a dying bird, and she let it go. If she held it in too long, her talent would burn her from the inside out. It hadn’t been easy, to learn to let go of that dizzying high that came with sucking another being dry. That high was the ostensible upside of being a Weir, a channel for the darkest and oldest powers in the Black. Unlimited power, as much as you could steal—if you could hold it. Otherwise, you went insane when you hit the threshold and took too much of another’s power. Or simply burst a blood vessel and keeled over dead, because magic was more powerful than any narcotic, and your lust for it had eaten you alive.
Weirs didn’t usually last long. To make it to thirty-one was a feat, according to Jack. Most days, Pete wasn’t sure it was something to be proud of.
“Fuck, my head,” Brandi Wolcott groaned. “What happened, Pete? What was that?”
“Mickey Martin,” Pete said quietly. “Or what was left of him.” Wraiths were rare; it took a clever predator to survive by eating the innards out of ghosts, and London, while rife with spirits, was also rife with mages, exorcists, and psychics who ensured that predators like wraiths stayed where they belonged—in the vast screaming nothing where unfortunate lost souls could be consumed by any number of hungry things. They couldn’t usually fight their way out to attempt to make a meal out of flesh-and-blood people.
Pete supposed she was just lucky she’d been the one to get the full brunt of this wraith, rather than poor Wolcott or some unsuspecting priest or church worker.
“So it’s over?” Wolcott looked a bit mussed, but none the worse for wear. Most victims of possession never even knew it had happened. The mind glossed it over, a horror a regular person couldn’t contemplate.
“Yeah,” Pete said. Wolcott came and helped her up, and Pete bit down hard enough to draw blood when her arm spasmed again. “Fuck,” she hissed. She simply couldn’t be laid up right now—not only did she have more jobs booked over the coming weeks, but it was also going to be impossible to hold, feed, and change a baby with one working arm.
“You all right?” Wolcott’s alarmingly orange brow furrowed.
“I’ll manage,” Pete said. Wolcott considered for a moment, and then nodded.
“Right. I’m parked up on the high street. Should get on home, probably.” She started to walk away, then turned back. “He’s … it’s … that thing’s not … coming back, is it?”
“No,” Pete said. “That’s done with.”
“And those things he said to me … they’re not true.”
Pete shrugged, the last of her ability to sugarcoat gone. “I don’t know what he said to you, Wolcott. I can’t know if any of it was true.”
The constable’s mouth turned down at the edges, and she glared at Pete. “You know, them up in the squad was right about you.”
“What, that I’m a nutter?” Pete shrugged and immediately regretted it, feeling the twinge of battered tendons.
“No,” Wolcott said. “That you can be a bit of a bitch.” She made her way through the churchyard and out the gate, not looking back.
“No argument from me on that score,” Pete muttered, feeling for the keys to her battered red Mini Cooper. They’d fallen from her pocket in the struggle, along with her wallet and her mobile, scattered across the grass. Pete collected everything, and then gave a fresh yelp as she straightened up and almost bumped foreheads with a tall figure in a black coat and hat.
Her first thought was Shit, shit, shit as she braced herself to come face to face with a squad of witchfinders, the only sort of gits who favored the “Orson Welles circa The Third Man” look.
When the figures merely stood impassively, however, she got a second look. Their hat brims were pulled low, and what faces she could see had the corpselike pallor and waxy, unhealthy skin that normally only cropped up on zombies. Their mouths were free of red stitching, though, and the way they’d appeared out of thin air wasn’t terribly zombielike. Zombies were brutes, and they were generally no good at sneaking about.
“Petunia Caldecott,” said the leader. His voice didn’t make her name a question. The other four stared at her, motionless as the headstones all around.
Pete figured there was no point in arguing. “Yeah?”
The figure extended a hand. His fingers were long, the nails nonexistent, pulled out by the root, gnarled scar tissue in their place. Pete gingerly took the black envelope offered, being careful not to touch the thing. Skin-to-skin contact in the Black was often worse than grabbing a live wire—and there was plenty of black magic that could be passed with only a touch. After the scene with the wraith that ate Mickey Martin, she wasn’t about to take any more stupid chances tonight.
“You are cordially invited to attend the tenth full gathering of the Prometheus Club,” said the figure. His voice was oddly high and reedy, as if he were on the verge of having his vocal cords wriggle their way out through his throat.
“I … have no clue what you’re on about,” Pete said, holding the envelope by the corner. In any other place, on any other night, this would smack of bad live theater, but she was rattled enough not to antagonize the waxen men. There was something about their mannerisms and the way they’d just appeared out of thin air that hinted to Pete that they were dead serious.
“The patrons of the Prometheus Club do hope you will choose to attend, Weir,” said the lead figure.
“It took five of you to tell me that?” Pete asked, flicking her gaze quickly between the pale men. It wasn’t exactly a secret that she was a Weir, but those in the Black were usually a bit more circumspect about saying it to her face. She scared people, and she wished she didn’t, but the Weir was something to be afraid of. Hell, she was afraid of it.
“We are messengers,” said the lead figure. “We have delivered our message.”
“Yeah, well,” Pete said. “Tell your club to shove it. I don’t particularly cotton to shadowy errands, especially ones that come with an implied threat.”
“That is a pity,” said the figure, and he tilted his head so that Pete caught a bit more of his face and a flash of his eyes. Or where his eyes should have been. The thing didn’t have any sockets, just divots in the skull, covered over with that same waxy, unnatural flesh. Pete swallowed a roll of nausea. She’d seen worse. Crime scenes had been worse. She kept her face still. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t come face to face before with things that weren’t strictly human. Or strictly alive.
“I never considered it a pity to miss a fancy party full of twats who think scenes like this are funny,” she said.
“The penalty for refusing the Prometheus Club is dire,” said the figure. He gestured woodenly at the envelope still pinched between Pete’s fingers. “Would you care to reconsider?”
“No,” Pete said instantly. The type who’d send heavies for a simple invite were the type you wanted to avoid. “No, I will not reconsider. And now I’m tired, so kindly fuck off and let me go on home.”
“Your choice,” said the figure, and all five turned and marched, single file, through the churchyard gate and into the inscrutable fog.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Caitlin Kittredge

CAITLIN KITTREDGE is the author of the Nocturne City and Black London series, as well as several short stories and young adult novels. She is the proud owner of an English degree, two cats, a morbid imagination, a taste for black clothing, punk rock, and comic books. She’s lucky enough to write full time and watches far too many trashy horror movies.