Your Weekly Dose of Atmospheric Gloom
There’s been a slight change of plan regarding tomorrow’s episode of Literature Emergency Broadcast. The lovely Miss Jex Collyer will be available for an interview on Saturday at the earliest, and so the altogether resplendent James L. Wilber of My Babylon fame will be usurping her place.
We should also fairly shortly have exciting news regarding a new website for female readers and writers of science fiction. I’ve been working with Clarity‘s Anna Herlihy on the project for the last month or so, and by all accounts it is sounding like a very good thing. More about that closer to release.
Thanks to everyone who volunteered to beta read Love, Charybdis. If I have been slack in letting you know, the beta version will go out on the weekend, fingers crossed. I realised yesterday that I had accidentally moved an important landmark ten kilometres along the coast of Brittany, but since it’s an alternate history story I’m hoping everyone will let me get away with that. :
And finally! It’s rainy, it’s stormy, it’s gloomy as hell; it’s the Sunday Witch Hunters episode 3!
The Sunday Witch Hunters
Monday. A pitiless day at the best of times. Today it seemed to Knox particularly spiteful.
It was the kind of day where every man, woman, senior citizen, parents’ group, right-wing librarian and child wanted their pound of flesh. It had rained all day and the foyer carpet was buried in an inch of muddy footprints. The encroaching mud had driven the other, less English librarians to distraction and now the shelves were in chaos, the books were outdated, the audiotapes were scratched, the database was corrupted, the photocopier had caught fire, Knox shouldn’t be talking, he shouldn’t not be talking, the coffee had gone bad, there was a mouse in the staff lounge and the front desk had been declared an OH&S hazard, why had the cemetery blueprint been moved from the local archives, and who made a bridge over the mud with the old cataloguing cards?
“I did,” Knox muttered, hiding in his office on the third floor of the library. “I used your blasted cataloguing cards. And if I had my time again, I would use still them. Get rid of your cards!”
He sighed. He still had work to do. It was 6.25 on a Monday evening, and aside from Knox the library was devoid of life. Well okay, there remained the mouse in the staff lounge and Knox was fairly certain there were gremlins in the third floor archives and also probably the photocopier. But aside from that, he was alone.
A ream of paper covered in late-returns offenders was piled up on Knox’s desk. They needed seeing to. Which was a pity, since Knox had zero inclination of seeing to them. The poltergeist was on the loose at Saint Ann’s Chapel again, and Presley had just called to say that his gout was playing up and he wouldn’t be able to make the job. That left Knox to drive out to the chapel alone. Which he would do, if it weren’t still hissing down rain and his car wasn’t under repair from the last time he’d driven in the rain with demons on the loose.
“Oh yes, that’s right.” Knox stared at the stacks of papers on his desk. He had another job later in the evening, this one out of town. He could walk home from the library without much inconvenience, and he could foreseeably walk the nine kilometres to Saint Ann’s Chapel. But the farm? Please! Soon the demons would be complaining he wasn’t exorcising them fast enough.
Unless … Well, he seemed to recall Joe having a car. The new boy wasn’t scheduled for any jobs this week. And Knoxhad promised to show him the ropes. Yes, yes, of course. A poltergeist would make a perfect introduction into the unseemly ranks of the Witch Hunters.
He reached for the phone.
Night fell early on Muraluna. The night was windy and the rain determined yet to drown the earth, rain lashing the streets in sheets of white water, making rivers of the gutters while intermittent lightning strobed the skies.
Seven o’ clock rolled around to find Knox waiting patiently for Joe on the street outside the library. Only the way he balanced on the outside curves of his dress shoes indicated Knox noticed the rain water pooling on the pavement. His umbrella perched like a black orchid above him. Alone on the street, he waited.
A crow cawed at him from the lowest branch of a deluged birch. Knox glanced at it.
“Listen, you can just sod off. I’m not in the mood for ill omens.”
The crow eyeballed him a moment longer, then made a great show of being absorbed with preening its feathers. Knox turned back to the street.
He didn’t wait long. Tyres sluiced over wet bitumen, pale yellow headlights lanced the sleeting rain at the end of the block and a 1986 Mitsubishi Colt, flesh pink and rust in colour, shuddered its way along the street to stop in front of the library. Knox stepped back to avoid the spray from the tyres pitching against the streaming gutter, which the car squealed against for a second before mounting.
He regarded the car without budging another inch. Cautiously, he checked up and down the street. There was no mistaking it; the rusted Colt was stopped right in front of him. He remained still.
Finally, the passenger’s door was thrown open, and Joe leaned out squinting against the rain. “Sir! Are you ready?”
Knox slid a sideways glance at the crow, who hopped along its branch, cawing its amusement.
“Quiet, you.” Knox took a deep breath. He nodded to Joe and ducked into the passenger seat, closing his umbrella and laying it against the door. He admired the large patches of rust accruing on the floor with measured disbelief.
“Sorry I’m late,” Joe said, “The Colt didn’t want to start.”
Joe’s eyes ran over the crisp white shirt, black vest and tie and suit trousers the Chief wore under his Drizabone and the top hat on his knees and he wondered if his own jeans and sweater were too casual. He would have to start wearing his school uniform to these Witch Hunter meetings. It was the only formal thing he owned.
Knox was from the depths of his reverie. He pulled his gaze from the rust patches to smile at Joe. It was the kind of smile one expects to find painted on a Kitty Hawk. “Not to mind. We each have our commitments. Why, not once have I been on time to a faculty meeting. But then, I despise the faculty and everything they stand for.”
“Er,” said Joe, “I have nothing against you, sir. Although you freaked out Grandma on the phone. She thinks I’ve joined a militia. Anyway. What’s the address?”
The Colt stalled once before rumbling unhappily back to life. The Chief rattled off an address, noted Joe’s blank expression, and began over with directions. Joe dismounted the curb, and the Colt crunched off across the slick bitumen.
Ten minutes later Saint Ann’s Chapel emerged into view above a bank of green-grey fog rising under the foot of the rain. They were on the old side of town. There were a few inhabited houses closer to the river, but here they were close to the old main street, the ex-industrial zone. A pocket of houses backed against the disused factories and yards, houses that hadn’t seen paying occupants in twenty years. It was a forlorn and lost place, haunted by dreams of a happier past that would never come again. The chapel fitted right in, hugging the last of the semi-abandoned yards before the occupied river streets.
The word “poltergeist” had been mentioned generously in the ten minutes from the library to the chapel. Funny that. Eleven minutes ago, Joe could have sworn he didn’t even believe in the things.
Knox pushed open the passenger door as thunder rumbled low on the horizon. He yawned. “Ah. Here were are. Do you feel the malevolence in the air? That’s our poltergeist.”
Joe climbed out of the Colt. He scrutinised the chapel. It was a squat red-brick building, crouched in an overgrown garden some distance from the road, shrouded in fog and rain and the gloom of the premature evening. A decaying presbytery stood closer to the street. Ivy swarmed up its dark stone sides, biting into the wall where the wood had caved in. Rain sleeted in waves down both presbytery and the chapel lurking behind it. Joe didn’t think there needed to be poltergeists involved for the place to be malevolent. Hell, with its stain glass windows as black voids and the rain raising hackles on its sloped roof, the chapel was downright sinister.
He locked the Colt and hurried to catch up with the Chief. It wasn’t just that Knox was plus one umbrella that made Joe hurry. Something about the chapel was making his flesh crawl. Joe fought to suppress the feeling. He decided to state the obvious.
“Chief, sir, there’s no way a church could be haunted.”
The Chief glanced at Joe as they squelched through the tangled garden. “Usually you would be correct in that thought. This poltergeist is, however, an exception. He’s unfortunately familiar to us – and damned if we’ve been able to get rid of him. The nuns call him Vulgar Ted. Once upon a time he was a devoted church-goer; he used to have the job of ringing the bell. Then, ten years ago, as Ted was ringing the bell to announce mass, the bell rope snapped and the bell crushed him flat. He still hangs around the chapel, although now he’s rather loathsome.”
Joe was aghast. He demanded, “He died in the chapel?”
“Yes, and his funeral was also held here. Of course, that was the end of the chapel. There’s a marriage held here every so often, but mostly it’s a dive for amateur ghost spotters. The local nuns take care of the place. I understand they turn quite a profit from showing tourists around.” Knox steered Joe towards the presbytery. Their footsteps squelched in the mud rising over the long grass. “Come now, we’ll have a chat to Sister Annie before we deal with MasterTed.”
Joe hurried after the umbrella. “Are two of us enough to deal with a poltergeist? Shouldn’t we have back-up? Or am I like your partner now?”
“Goodness no.” The Chief let loose his startling laugh, as if Joe’s nerves needed further fraying. “I’m not even certain you’re an exorcist. You may be a passive psychic. The Sunday Witch Hunters are a combination of exorcists, passive psychics and administrators. Administrators and passive psychics are never allowed to act solo on a job which risks harm to their person. Exorcists have fewer rules about it.”
“And you’re an exorcist?”
“According to regulation.”
“What does that mean, to be an exorcist?”
Knox glanced at Joe. “It means you’ll see, if you hang around long enough.”
“Do you always work alone?”
Joe was near running to keep pace with the Chief’s long strides. His sneakers skidded and slipped in the mud. He was a whole lot muddier than Knox, despite having been outside for less. There was more to this poltergeist business than he had counted on.
Knox turned away. “For demons, we always have at least two exorcists. For poltergeists, one is sufficient. It otherwise depends on the job. I called Miss Ireland after I spoke to you. She’ll join us for the second job this evening. It ought to be fun; shade hunting. Miss Ireland isn’t an exorcist, but hunting shades isn’t particularly difficult for two Witch Hunters of any calibre, although nearly impossible for one. You’ll see what I mean. And here we are.”
He stepped under the cover of the short presbytery overhang, rapping on the door with the handle of his umbrella. Joe crowded beside him. Water dripped on his shoulder.
Moments later the door swung inwards and a round white face appeared from the gloom. The Chief bowed. “Sister Annie,” he said, “I trust you’re keeping well. Allow me to introduce Joe. He’s our newest member.”
“Knox!” the face cried, launching a habit and unexpected pink pyjamas onto the front step. “You boys are late. I’m missing Home and Away to be out here. And our Vulgar Ted will be getting impatient.”
The Chief barked a laugh and ushered Sister Annie back into the presbytery, sliding past her into the blue lit depths of the hall. “Considering MasterTed has been dawdling on this plane of existence for the past decade, another ten minutes will hardly bring him undone.”
“Well, maybe not,” Sister Annie conceded, “But I’m still missing Home and Away.”
She handed Joe a big brass key with a leather tag of Hell’s Angels dangling from the keychain. Nuns with a sense of humour. Joe felt faint.
“You can let yourselves in,” Sister Annie told him, “That’s the only key. I’m sure I can trust such an honest face not to lose it.”
She winked at Joe. The Chief had disappeared around a dimly lit hallway door deeper within the presbytery. With an expression of the utmost sincerity, Joe replied, “Rest assured, Sister, sir, I will do my best to protect this key. You can depend on me.”
Sister Annie sniggered. “And they say chivalry is dead. Knox won’t be a minute, dear. I’ll put the kettle on.”
She too ambled back inside. Joe was left to watch the storm from the doorstep. His attention drifted to his little car resting at the curb, pale behind the thick screen of rain. Thunder cracked somewhere in the distance. He felt his stomach flop and wondered if he should run for the car.
The Chief returned within the minute. His umbrella was folded beneath his arm to free both hands for a huge, cumbersome suitcase. It was, of course, black. Joe rushed forward to help, and nearly copped an umbrella in the eye for his troubles.
“One other thing I forgot to mention,” the Chief panted, letting the suitcase thud to the step, “Always keep your demon hunting equipment in the boot. It saves having to borrow from friends.”
“Yes, sir. Sir, please don’t strain yourself,” Joe said, fretting over the suitcase. He went to help and Knox shooed him away. The Chief popped the locks on the suitcase and passed Joe a handful of cardboard slips.
“Those are wards. We might need them in a moment. Take a handful or two; it’s better to have too many than to run short.”
The Chief wasn’t paying attention to Joe as he spoke. He had eyes only for the suitcase. Joe followed his attention. Revolvers, rifles, a huge grey cannon and other devices of apparently alien make filled the suitcase’s foldout shelves, blue light rippling along their sleek forms. Most had glass and copper components as well as steel and thick rubber insulation on the grips. The Chief buckled a leather harness across his chest and proceeded to fill it with weapons.
Joe filled his jacket pockets with tags, as directed. He ached to get his hands on the guns. The Chief already had a sleek silver revolver and a cannon as tall as Sister Annie strapped to his harness.
“I’m taking extra for demonstration purposes,” he explained, and relieved the suitcase of what Joe took to be a copper and rubber road flare. He tipped two thumb-length glass vials into his coat pocket, and folded the suitcase closed. He glanced up at Joe. “I know you’re keen to get your hands on these, but it pays to be patient in this instance. Last night you met our accountant, HarveyGasper?”
“Hm,” Joe agreed, thinking of Harvey with his bright orange board shorts and wonky goatee.
“Then you should know even we hunters of the foul spawn of the night are accountable to Occupational Health and Safety procedures.” The Chief stood, and Joe sensed an air of challenge to the hard, angular line of his jaw. “In Abraham’s day, such rot would have been tossed out with the bed pans. Now we’re up to our optic nerves in regulation. Least we have more leeway out here than those in the city. Bah.”
The Chief fell silent, his dark eyes smouldering at some invisible battle beyond the scope of Joe’s understanding, the battle of a practical man versus bureaucratic red tape. Joe could all but hear the bagpipes marching into war.
“Well then,” the Chief said suddenly, startling himself as much as Joe, “Never mind all that. You’ll learn to use these trinkets under supervision, and that’s that. Shall we proceed to the chapel? Our tea will grow cold if we don’t hurry.”
“I can’t wait,” Joe lied, and with one last longing look at the suitcase, he followed the Chief into the raining night.
Next time on the Sunday Witch Hunters: Joe meets his first poltergeist and learns the true meaning of Christmas – I mean fear.
Love it, hate it, typos? Let me know what you think!