Henry pours more coal onto the hearth as a gust of wind rattles through the cracked window frame. She's almost an hour late. He's half tempted to leave a one-star review on her website, but he knows it won't make a difference, not after tonight.
As he stokes the fire, he wonders whether or not she'll look anything like her picture. The last one didn't, not that he cared. He doesn't select people based on attraction. What would be the point when the aim is to bury her in ten different shallow graves spread across Northumberland? Substance is far more important to Henry. Well, substance, and the fact that she profits from other people's grief by pretending to speak with the dead.
Headlights flood the room as the sound of car tyres crunching gravel fills him with nervous excitement. He relishes moments like this. The anticipation is almost better than the act itself.
He rushes to the front door but is distracted by the mirror next to the stairs. His hair is still gelled and in its proper place, but his shirt is creased. It must have happened whilst he was sat on the sofa waiting. This is her fault.
Henry yanks a sweater from the ornate banister and wriggles through its innards to appear less uncouth.
There's a gentle knock on the front door, followed by three heavy thuds.
He reaches for the brass knob, turns it, then pulls at the solid oak door. The rusty hinges groan from the weight. His heart drums a beat against his ribcage as he slowly reveals his prey.
Except there are two of them. Why are there two of them? There was only supposed to be one.
The younger woman with the worn leather jacket and dyed black hair, he recognises from the website as Violet. It's clear from her eyeliner that the ripped jeans and battered Dr. Martens are a fashion choice. The blonde woman with a plait hung delicately over one shoulder is a surprise. Her grey cardigan and suit pants make her look far too respectable for what Henry has planned.
'Hello. I take it you are Mr. Kramer?' Says the uninvited blonde. She sounds like a Southerner and a posh one at that. He wonders what she's doing this far up North.
'I am Alice Shipton, and this is Violet Firth.' She motions towards Henry's intended victim. 'I believe you emailed us.'
'That's right.' He panics. 'Please, come in.'
'Perfect,' Alice replies, smiling as she enters his home. An expensive handbag dangles from the crook of her elbow. Violet nods in his general direction but doesn't look him in the eyes.
'I am sorry we are late. We drove past the entrance to your lane three times before we spotted it between the trees. This is not the easiest place to find,' Alice says.
'It's alright, I'm just glad you came. I didn't realise both of you would be coming, though, I thought it would just be Violet,' he says, forcing the door shut behind her, hoping that sounded like small talk.
'Don't worry, the price is still the same, it is just safer to work as a team, especially with everything that has happened recently. I am assuming you saw the news last week.'
'Yes, I saw. Horrible, isn't it.' Did that sound too non-committal? He's unsure.
'Now, I know you explained your predicament over email, but I think it would be best if you could walk us through it in person, just so we are on the same page. Ideally, I need to know what the problem is and how you would like us to solve it.'
'Right, yes. It feels silly saying this out loud, but I think the house is haunted. I've been trying to renovate it, but weird things keep happening, like, you know, banging, distant voices, cold air, that sort of thing.'
'Okay, so as you know, we charge one hundred and fifty pounds per spirit. First, we have to locate the spirit, and then we will attempt to remove it. Have you got the money?' Alice asks.
Henry reaches into his back pocket and pulls out several notes. 'I only have twenties, so there's one sixty there.'
'A ten pound tip. How thoughtful.'
The voice inside his head screams bitch, but his mouth says, 'Sure, why not.'
'So,' Alice says, sliding the notes into her cardigan pocket, 'where were you when you first became aware of the presence?'
His eyes search the corridor for an answer. Looking past the stairs, he settles on the door at the end of the hall. 'The kitchen.' That'll do.
'And where would that be?' She says, craning her neck to get a better look through the open doorway of the living room behind him.
'At the end there.' He points.
Alice follows his finger, mutters 'Perfect,' then walks towards the kitchen. Henry follows her closely as Violet waits for them both to pass, and trails behind.
Alice's heavily applied perfume smells of chemicals. It's almost like kitchen degreaser, there's a hint of fruit, but you can't tell what type, and you wouldn't want to put it in your mouth.
As she opens the kitchen door, the smell of rotting meat assaults Henry's tastebuds. Alice covers her nose and looks back at him questioningly.
He had hoped the bowls of baking soda in the cupboard under the stairs would have soaked up the smell by now, but it was evident he was wrong to assume anything. 'Sorry, I forgot about the smell. I'm in the process of clearing out the previous owner's rubbish, and the kitchens become a bit of a dumping ground,' he lies. 'We can go to a different room if you prefer.'
'If this is where you first felt the spirit, then this is where we need to be,' says Alice.
Violet doesn't look happy about this.
A strange sense of enjoyment passes through him as they enter the kitchen. Usually, he'd spread a thick layer of Vick's Vapo Rub over his top lip to mask the smell, but if he did that now, he'd have to offer them some, and there's no fun in that.
He watches the two women as they scour the room.
The mound of unwashed dishes by the sink, the tea-stained wooden countertops, and the cracked tiles reek of abandonment. A pile of bin bags leans against the door to the cupboard under the stairs. Henry's aim was to block the door, but now, he's hoping the rubbish takes the blame for the pungent odour of rotting flesh permeating the room. Yet, despite all of this, there are no signs of paranormal activity, of that he's sure.
'Who are the people in that photo?' Alice asks, pointing to the fridge.
'They used to live here,' he replies.
'And they don't anymore?'
'No, they died.'
Alice and Violet glance at each other. It's not for long, but it's long enough for Henry to notice. 'Really?' Alice smiles. 'Do you know their names?'
'Her name's Janet. I'm not so sure about his, though.'
'Interesting. Very interesting,' Alice mutters as she continues to survey the room.
Violet stares at the floor, lips sealed tight.
'Were you close?' Alice asks.
'With them? No. Why would you ask that?'
'Because you still have their photo on your fridge.'
'Oh, right, yes. Most of their stuff is still here. I haven't gotten around to throwing it away yet.' He gestures to the pile of black bags.
'Well, you should. It smells like someone died in here. Plus, a clean house is easier to cleanse.'
Violet either coughs, giggles, chokes, or does all three at once, but Henry can't tell which.
Alice continues, 'So, can you walk us through what happened? Did you notice the unusual activity straight away or sometime after you moved in?'
'I don't live here, I just come here to work, but yes, I noticed it almost straight away. It was my first time here, I was doing some, uhm, work, when the radio started acting up. I figured it was probably a loose wire, or it had been dropped, but it wasn't that. The words were too specific.'
'What d'you mean?' Violet asks without looking at him.
'It spoke to me,' Henry lies. 'Directly.'
'Interesting,' Alice mutters.
She looks at Violet and nods towards the radio. Violet walks over to it and presses the power button. White noise bounces around the tiled kitchen.
The three of them stand, listening for several seconds, when a man's voice cuts through the static, 'Hoover.'
Alice and Violet turn to each other with excited eyes.
A woman's voice playfully calls through the garbled noise, 'That's a lie.'
Henry's eyes narrow as he watches the two women. They are too busy with the broken radio to pay him any attention, so, with hands behind his back, he steps sideways towards the bench.
After several seconds, another voice shouts, 'Danger,' through the static.
Henry sidesteps again. He grabs a dirty mug from the counter and hides it behind his back. Violet looks at him, so he smiles, and she turns back towards the radio.
Another radio presenter calls out, 'Careful.'
Henry moves away from the bench, gripping the base of the mug with his fingertips. He waits and then takes another step so that he's back where he started and out of arms reach of any surface.
'Runway,' the radio declares.
With a flick of his wrist, Henry launches the mug across the room. It bounces off the far wall and then smashes against the tiled floor right behind Alice, causing both of them to jump.
Henry stares at the shattered mug, mouth ajar. It's stained brown and growing mould.
They look from the broken shards to Henry, then back to the shards. He's pretty sure they bought it.
'That's the first time that's ever happened,' he says.
Violet flicks the switch on the radio, and the static cuts out.
'What do you think?' Alice asks Violet.
'That was clearly a sign,' she replies.
'I thought so too.'
'It's going to be a tough one to cleanse,' Violet says. 'We'd be at risk with an entity this strong, so we'll have to be careful.'
'Really? Do you think so?' Alice asks her partner.
'No doubt. I reckon we'll need to use all the candles we've got, but we should be able to do it.'
'Yes, I think so too.' Alice turns to Henry. 'We will remove the spirit from you. For you, I mean. Are you alright for us to get started?'
They both stare at him, awaiting his answer. They've put a lot of practice into this routine, he thinks, it would be a pity to ruin it just yet.
'Of Course,' he says. 'Whatever it takes, just as long as you can get rid of this ghost.'
'It's more than likely a demon instead of a ghost,' Violet says, 'but we'll get rid of it for you. Where else do things like this happen?'
'It's worse upstairs,' he replies.
'Let's go then,' Violet says.
'Yes, there is no point staying in here any longer than we have to,' Alice adds. 'After you.'
Henry walks out into the corridor, and they follow, shutting the door behind them as they leave.
He steals a glimpse at his own reflection as he passes the mirror. Still immaculate. He also sees Violet mouth something to Alice behind his back, but he can't work out what she's saying.
As they reach the top of the stairs, Henry leans into the darkness and flicks on the light. Nothing happens. 'Damn it,' he says. 'I forgot about that. Hang on.' He walks through the darkened corridor, using the wall for guidance. Upon reaching a doorway, he leans against the frame and sweeps the wall with his hand. His fingers find the switch, and with a click, a yellow glow fills the room, partially lighting the hallway behind him. He looks over to the women still waiting at the top of the stairs. 'This way,' he beckons.
Plastic crinkles under his weight as he walks to the center of the room. The floor, walls, and ceiling are covered in clear plastic sheets, each one meticulously duct-taped in place.
'This is where the worst things happen,' he says.
'What's with all the plastic?' Violet asks.
'I'm renovating, and I need somewhere to repaint the furniture,' he lies.
'But there's no paint in here,' says Violet.
'That's because I haven't started yet. It's hard to get any work done with the, you know, ghost.'
'Demon,' Alice corrects him.
'Exactly,' he replies. 'That's why I hired you. I want things to get back to normal so that I can get started.'
'That makes sense,' Violet replies. Was that sarcasm? No, probably not.
'We need to talk tactics and devise a plan.' Alice turns to Henry, 'Would you mind if we go into another room for a moment so we can talk in private?'
'Sure. The room at the other end of the hall should have a lightbulb, you can go in there.'
'Thanks.' Violet grips Alice's bicep and leads her away from Henry.
He watches as they walk down the corridor, turn on the light, and then close the door behind them. He can't believe how easy this has been. They weren't even concerned about the plastic. Ghost people are far too gullible for their own good. He leans against the wall and waits for them to finish. He's going to enjoy tonight.
'Something feels off. You know what that smell was in the kitchen right,' Violet whispers.
'What?' Alice replies as she relaxes her posture and begins to stretch.
'The dead body smell.'
'You're being paranoid mate. It's minging, I'll give you that, but that wasn't a death smell, just rotten food.'
'Keep doing the posh voice. He might hear you.'
'Nar, it'll be sound, he can't hear us from there.'
'Do it anyway. Just in case.'
Alice shakes her head. 'Does this please madame?'
'Fine. Are you alright, though? You seem on edge.'
'Yes,' Violet snaps. 'I've just got a bad feeling about this.'
'How many times have we done this, and how many times have we been caught? Everything will work out, it always does. You trust me, right?'
'You know I do,' Violet says. 'D'you think he bought it though?'
'Definitely, he is too gullible not to.'
'You know he threw the mug, right.'
'I thought that was you,' Alice says.
'You're overthinking this. He was probably just trying to convince us the house is haunted, so we take him seriously.'
'You think?' Violet says. 'Well, anyway, I did the last one, so it's your turn to choose.'
'We should do a possession,' Alice says.
'D'you think he'll buy it?'
'He would buy anti-ghost deodorant if we told him to. You saw how scared he was when he answered the door.'
'It's risky,' Violet says. 'Look what happened last time.'
'I know, but possessions are fun, plus, I reckon I can make him cry.'
'You know I can't resist a crier. Did you bring the stuff for a possession?' Violet asks.
Alice rummages through her handbag. 'I have dust, candles, and chalk. We can make do with that.' She continues her search. 'Here, hold this,' she says, passing Violet the taser. 'I think I left my knife at home.'
'You still got yours?'
Violet's hand disappears into the inside pocket of her leather jacket. 'Yes, it's here.'
'Good. Keep him distracted whilst I set up, then, when I get possessed, have him stand in front of me. Get him really close.'
'You're going to do the nose thing again, aren't you.'
'That depends how close he gets,' Alice laughs, 'but yes, I want to do the nose thing.'
'There's something wrong with you, you know that, right?'
'And that is why you love me.' Alice grabs the back of Violet's head and kisses her. 'At least the clean-up will be quick with all that plastic.'
What's taking them so long, Henry wonders. What if they don't actually believe him? It wouldn't be the first time. He peers down the hallway, a thin stream of light surrounds the closed door. What if they've climbed out the window and escaped already? No, he would have heard their car.
As soon as the handle moves, Henry ducks out of view. He doesn't want to be caught prying.
He shifts his weight uncomfortably as the two women make their way back toward the room. 'Is everything alright?' he asks.
'Everything's fine,' Violet tells him, 'we just had to sort something out. We're all good now, though.'
'Excellent.' Henry perks up. 'So, uhm, what's the next step?'
'First, we must make contact with the spirit. This seems as good a place as any, so we shall do it here,' Alice says, reaching into her handbag. 'Only when we know what we are dealing with will we be able to know what to do.' She pulls out a small leather pouch and throws it to Violet.
'What's that?' Henry asks.
'Brick dust. It's a Hoodoo thing,' Violet says.
Alice pulls an inch-thick piece of chalk from her handbag and begins drawing on the plastic sheets.
'Do you mean Voodoo?'
'No, I mean Hoodoo.'
'I've not heard of that before. What's she doing now?' Henry asks, pointing to the chalk.
'She's drawing a pentagram. It'll protect her when we make contact.'
'Protect her from what? The ghost?' He has no real interest in what she's saying, but he's curious as to where they're going with this nonsense.
'Ghosts. Demons. Possessions. You know, that sort of thing.'
Alice glares at Violet but doesn't stop dragging the chalk over plastic.
'She's going to make contact with the other side, and if something goes wrong, I'm going to encircle her in brick dust to make sure the demon can't escape with her body.'
'Violet,' Alice interjects.
'Will you start setting up the candles, please.' She thrusts her bag towards Violet. 'Here.'
Violet grabs the bag. Alice mouths something at her, but Henry can't make out the words.
'The candles are designed to banish negativity,' Violet continues. 'That's why they're black. When the last one burns out, the spirit will be banished. Well, only if we do this right.'
'What happens if you don't?'
'Violet. The candles. Now please.'
'I'm doing it,' she says, reaching into the bag and pulling out a stubby black candle. She places it at the tip of one of the five chalk points, then slowly moves around the star, placing a candle on each of them.
As she does this, Alice lowers herself into a sitting position in the centre of the pentagram and waits. Violet takes out a box of matches and lights the candles. She then flicks off the light switch and stands beside Henry, still holding the handbag.
'What happens now?' He asks.
Alice starts to whisper. At first, she's barely audible, but the volume grows with time. Henry's not certain, but he's pretty sure it's Latin. He's impressed, this is much better than the Wiccan woman who recited terrible poetry. Although, if ghosts really did exist, he's pretty sure they wouldn't all speak Latin. It's such a ridiculous concept. Are you taught Latin as soon as you die? He doubts it.
As she grows louder, her words grow clearer.
It definitely sounds like Latin, but he doesn't speak it, so he can't be sure. If it were Violet doing this, he would have dismissed it as nonsense, but Alice is clearly well-educated, so it could actually be Latin.
'Odium du partum. Igni ay un dovicile, du fortum par un anime. Grannet dae du ovicium portudae du grannetor varcum.'
'What's she saying?' Henry whispers to Violet, but she ignores him.
'Odium du partume. Igni ay un dovicil, du fortum par un animel. Grannet dae du oviciun portuder du grannetor varcon,' she repeats.
She says it a third time, even louder when her left arm begins to twitch. Her head tilts to the left, her crossed legs begin to shake, and her head snaps to the right, whipping her plait through the air. She begins to convulse as the candlelit shadows dance across her face. Her shoulders rise, and her chest shudders with every breath.
Violet loosens the pouch of brick dust and lurches forward, pouring it onto the floor, striding in a circle, and sealing Alice, the pentagram, and the candles in its center. Once the circle of orange powder is complete, she throws the empty pouch to the side of the room and stands beside Henry.
As the convulsions begin to ease off, Alice locks eyes with Violet. Her hands slap against the floor as she rises to her feet. They continue to stare into each other's eyes as Alice, now on her feet and hunched over, shuffles her left foot forward. Her right leg lifts from the plastic sheet and slaps back down with such force, her head jolts forward, causing her to glare at the floor. Her left leg jerks closer but stops short of the brick dust. She tries to push a foot through the circle, but despite her red face and the bulging vein on her forehead, she doesn't.
Alice breaks eye contact to glare at the powder encircling her. As she looks up at Violet with bared teeth, a guttural growl emanates from deep within Alice's throat. It grows louder and more disjointed until words begin to form through the noise. 'Your petty tricks can't hold me, I am the harbinger of death.'
Henry takes a step back. They're good, he thinks to himself. Actual professionals for a change. It's no wonder they've got such good reviews. He reaches into his back pocket and grips the steel handle of his collapsible baton.
'I am the speaker of unwanted truths, the weaver of fate, the puppeteer of life, and the bringer of death to those that disobey me. I am the darkness in the corner of the room, I am the shadow at the edge of your vision, and I am the reason your children can't sleep at night, for my name is…
'I'm bored now,' Henry interrupts, 'let's have some real fun.' With a flick of his wrist, the police baton expands.
Violet spins to face him. Alice straightens.
He swings the steel baton up towards Violet's face, catches her on the chin, and she drops to the floor, still clutching the handbag. Henry steps over her and grins at Alice.
'You're him aren't you,' Alice says, backing away.
Henry follows. 'Are you scared? Do you want to run?'
'Yes,' she says, throwing herself backwards and screaming hysterically. Her arms flail through the air.
Henry is surprised by this because he's never seen anybody react this way before. In a film, maybe, or even in a book, but not in real life. People don't fall apart when faced with their own death, at least not in his experience. Sure, some people cry, others have begged, but this, what is this?
Alice is still trying to move backwards despite being pressed firmly against the wall. As her boots tear up the plastic, Henry's annoyance outgrows his curiosity. He starts to raise the baton above his head, as is his custom, when Alice flops to the floor and starts kicking at the air. She slaps the floor with her hands and screams incomprehensible nonsense at him.
He watches in disbelief for several seconds until she stops moving.
Alice sits up and looks at him. 'Guess what,' she says.
He's about to reply when his muscles contract in agony, and a loud, familiar clicking noise fills his ears. He collapses, head slamming against the plastic-covered wooden floorboards.
Violet looks down at him, taser in hand. He tries to catch his breath as his heart races to stabilise. Alice leans over him now, dishevelled but still smirking.
'Stupid twat,' she says, spitting in his mouth as he gasps for air. Her accent has changed. She's far more Northern than Henry had originally thought.
He clenches his fist and attempts to swing it at her, but the taser is pressed into his ribs again. The pain is unbearable, and then it's over.
As his muscles fight to relax, Violet pins his ankles and wraps them in duct tape. She presses her knee into his stomach, forcing his hands to react, and then grabs them. He tries to squirm free as she tapes his wrists together, but he doesn't have the strength, and she's too quick. It's obvious she's done this before.
Alice crouches down and leans in close to Henry's face, sweat now seeping through the heavily applied perfume, 'Listen here, you little prick, we're going to carve you up.'
'And we're going to take our time with it,' Violet adds.
'But first.' She lunges at him, sinking her teeth into his nose. As the flesh tears and the cartilage snaps, Henry cries out, but he knows that nobody outside of this room will ever hear him.