It was late.
It was dark.
The light from the hallway cast a bar that fell on Mandy in the chair beside Anna’s bed. Anna had fallen asleep, a strawberry bootlace hung, halfway eaten, from her mouth. She snored like a bison. On the cushioned stool in front of the dresser Mr Vance slumped, his chin on his chest, drool cobwebbed his beard.
Mandy stared at the dark.
The clock ticked.
Occasionally a car passed outside, swiping jagged light through the broken window and across the wall. The engine sounds were sudden, loud, and faded quickly.
Someone was hurting her daughter.
Through the hole that should have been a window, the night air was busy with nothing specific, it was filled with a million little night noises, a silence made from sound. Every now and again something was clearer, a rustle of leaves, a distant bark. She didn’t know what was going on in the other houses, but in this one, someone was causing pain to her child, had possibly stolen her away forever.
And she could do nothing about it.
Obscenely, there was someone in her daughter. She couldn’t rip him out and tear him apart with her nails and teeth, though she dearly wanted to. She couldn’t pray him out. She couldn’t curse him out. She lacked the power to magic him out.
In fact, she lacked the power to do anything.
Mandy stared at the dark.
The clock ticked.
A sound emerged from the white noise of the night.
It was a small motor, as of a little scooter.
It got louder and louder and stopped. After a moment, there came the crunch of feet on gravel and someone knocked on the door. A jaunty knock as if it was to the rhythm of a jolly tune that Mandy didn’t recognise. It wasn’t a very loud knock, just loud enough to alert someone who might be sitting awake, staring at the dark.
Mandy got up and went downstairs to the front door.
When she opened it, she found a little, perky young woman grinning at her. She had short, messy red hair and a yellow anorak.
It was the woman from the surgery carpark.
“It’s you!” the woman said, smiling in delight. “What are the ruddy chances, eh? How’ve you been?” She held her arms out. “Should we hug?”
Mr Vance, it seemed, had phoned a tiny, crazy lady.
“You’re just staring at me,” the woman said. “So, this is probably not a hugging moment, am I right? Sometimes I misjudge and just go in for one, I likes a nice cwtch I do, bit of a bonding cuddle, small sniff… I mean, if a stranger’s hair has tickled your cheek, are they really still a stranger?”
“You are who Mr Vance called?”
“Yep. Shop local if you can afford it, see? Chances are you won’t regret it. And if you do, you probably know where they live,” the woman laughed an innocent, tinkling laugh as if to show she didn’t mean anything sinister by what she’d just said. “So, you can kill them, I mean,” she added. “Rightio, so where’s the patient then? If I stands out here much longer, my little norks are going to freeze off.”
“Um…” Mandy dithered, she wasn’t sure if a wild card was what the situation needed.
“Tits,” said the woman.
“Norks are tits,” she said helpfully. “Either you were wondering what norks were, or you were debating whether I’d make things worse or not.”
“I know what norks are,” Mandy said.
“Right, well, okay. I’m Daisy, you may not know this, but this town is mine, and I really, really don’t like the idea of possessed little girls. Honestly, it’s horrible, I’m not even maternal but it makes my ovaries proper clench,” the woman held her little fists up and squeezed them tight. “Know what I mean?”
On the yellow plastic fabric sleeves of her coat, there were splashes of blood.
And it wasn’t the same blood Mandy had seen in the carpark. It looked fresh.
“Is this not working?” Daisy asked. “I’ve mentioned my tits and baby bundles in the space of thirty seconds. Thought that might establish our shared sisterhood status.” She pointed back and fore between them, then saw where Mandy was looking. “Oh, that. That’s why I was a bit late, it is. There was some nobber selling dried Pwca fingers up The Naddy. I don’t know why people do it, bad if you smoke them, awful for the poor Pwcas, and people knows what I’ll do if I catches them at it.”
To clarify, she reached into her coat and held up a stubby little rounders bat. It was stained, dented and, embedded in the wood about two thirds of the way up, there was what appeared to be a fragment of tooth.
Mandy chewed her cheek. This diminutive, innocent-looking woman at her door was clearly a dangerous and violent lunatic, someone seeped in the supernatural who did terrible, sadistic things to people who crossed her. She was absolutely, 100% not someone you would want in your house with your eleven-year-old daughter.
“Would you like a cuppa?” Mandy asked, standing to one side.
“Ooo, lovely,” said Daisy.
Daisy took her tea “Kong-strong, milky-milky, and as sweet as a kitten in mittens, please.”
In the kitchen, she took a sip, gave a gratified nod to Mandy and absently perused the décor. Mandy was pleased to note her gaze linger on the discoloured tile on the floor and on the Alexa on top of the cupboard.
“Been a spot of bother in here then,” the little woman noted.
Mandy nodded and found that when she tried to speak, her voice caught. She wished she’d made herself a cup of tea so she could have had a sip.
Daisy sniffed and made a face, “whiffs,” she said. Mandy took a slow breath through her nose but couldn’t smell anything apart from kitchen smells. The woman took another sip of her tea and opened the fridge. It was empty and messy, just wrappers and smears inside. “Uh-huh,” Daisy said and slowly lifted her face until she was staring straight up at the ceiling.
Straight up to Anna’s room.
“Is it?” she said.
“Is… what it?” Mandy asked.
“I think it is,” Daisy replied, apparently not being deliberately evasive, she appeared vague and unfocused. She shook her head like dog and smiled hungrily at Mandy. “Shall we go on up?”
They creaked up the stairs.
Mandy pushed the door open and turned the light on. Anna was in the same position, bubbling and snoring, the strawberry lace now glued to her chin with slobber.
Daisy entered the room. Took a sip of her tea.
Anna shifted in her sleep, then started moving her head back and fore. It looked like she was having a nightmare. Mandy quenched the urge to go to her and wake her from it, hoping it wasn’t Anna who was having the nightmare.
Mr Vance snored, snorted and opened his eyes with a start.
Blearily, he looked at Daisy.
“Bout bloody time,” he said.
“Shut it, you tart,” Daisy replied, looking thoughtfully at the bed. “Witch at work.”
Mandy ground her teeth.
She’d invited a witch into her house?
Mr Vance grumbled, but didn’t say anything more. Daisy’s eyes went unfocused again and she looked around in the air above Anna’s bed, like she’d lost a pet moth.
“Hmmm,” she said. “No, no, no, definitely not, no, no, that would eat us, maybe, no, no, God no, ah! That’s odd! Oh, yes, that’s perfect! You! Yes, you, why don’t you come here? Come on, over here, something interesting is waiting, I promise. Come on!”
Mandy leaned into Mr Vance.
“What are you playing at, Mr Vance?” she whispered. “Getting her in? Look at the state of her! She said she’s a witch and she’s off her bloody rocker.”
“Yes and no,” the old man replied, lit up a cigarette and gave a phlegmy cough. “Mostly yes, admittedly, but how about we wait and see, eh?”
The little woman seemed done talking to invisible things in thin air and she leaned towards the bed where Anna fidgeted in troubled dreams. She took another sip of her tea.
“Hey, angel,” she said, gently, in her sing-song voice. “Hey gorgeous, hey sleepy-head, come down from the rickety stairs, hey darling, come on, little one, open those pinky peepers.”
Slowly, Anna roused from her nightmare and opened her eyes a crack.
“There you are, princess,” said Daisy. “Hi there!”
“Oh, merciful heaven!” Anna shrieked and scrambled backwards in the bed, rumpling the sheets until they fell off the bottom of the bed at Daisy’s feet. “You really are here!”
“Hello, Huarwar, son of Halwn, I thought I could smell you,” said Daisy, conversationally, took a sip of tea and swallowed. “So, how’ve you been?”
Mandy looked at Mr Vance in shock. He cracked a smile.
They finally had a name!
“Dead!” Huarwar, through Anna, snapped. “And you should know! You killed me!”
Mandy looked sharply at Mr Vance again. This time he shrugged awkwardly and wouldn’t meet her eye. “That really doesn’t narrow it down much,” he said in a loud whisper.
“By and gone,” the little witch said dismissively. “You seem to have got over it anyway. That’s impressive incidentally, bet there’s a tale attached to that one.”
“Stay away from me, pig!” Anna shouted.
“What’s more, not only are you not dead but you’re still housed in your body. Yet you have possessed another body. Now that, cheeky-chops, that is impossible. It is against all laws of logic, common sense, magic, people and gods. Demons even and they just don’t care. Spirits can do what spirits can do. Bodies can do what bodies can do. And never-the-twain. This is no power in any realm that would be down with what you’re doing. It is, almost universally, obscene.”
“I’m impressed with your ball skills,” the witch said, approvingly (which made Mandy want to claw her eyes out) and her face turned serious. “Or I would be if it wasn’t for your choice of vessel.”
Anna’s leer became a sneer.
“Ha! What are you going to do, pig? You won’t come in and get me, she wouldn’t survive that, she’d be all over the walls. If you drag me out, I’ll shred her good.” A look of horrid triumph dawned over Anna’s features. “And I’ve just realised something.”
“Oh, bugger,” said Daisy.
“What?” Mandy asked.
“Mother,” Huarwar gloated in Anna’s voice. “This bitch killed me. And because this bitch killed me… This bitch owes me a boon.”
“Nuts,” Daisy said and sipped tea. “It’s true.”
“What does that mean?” Mandy asked them. Neither answered so she turned to Mr Vance. “What does that mean?” she asked him.
He shrugged, “search me.”
“Okay Huarwar, what would you have me do?” Daisy asked.
Anna laughed cruelly and sucked the strawberry lace into her mouth. “Little witch, little witch! As my boon from thee, I would ask thou kindly to… leave me be.”
Mandy looked from Daisy to Mr Vance to her daughter, her daughter who had a ghastly rictus of triumph stretched over her innocent face.
“No!” Mandy shouted. “No, that can’t be it! You were getting somewhere! You were the only one of the bloody lot of them who was getting somewhere!”
“Well, Huarwar is a clever old sausage. I must leave him be.”
“No!” Mandy screamed in tears, and in rage. “NO!”
“Oh!” said Daisy, looking shocked at Mandy’s reaction. “Sorry, no wait, don’t be upset, love! I was being dramatic. Sorry! I likes to spin things out with a little drama sometimes. No, I’m very glad he chose those particular words.”
“What do you mean?” Mandy said at the same time as Huarwar. Mandy wiped hot tears from her cheek with the heel of her hand.
“Bear with me,” Daisy looked up into the air again. “Come on! Just a little bit closer. This way! Follow my voice!”
“Who are you talking to?” Mandy asked.
“The ether, let’s call it the ether, is a complicated old place, Mands. And it’s busy-busy with wanderers, travellers, things lost, so many points are the same point. Honestly, if you could see all the wotsits that have whiffled through this room while we’ve been talking, you’d go quite cuckoo,” Daisy said with a laugh. With a little difficulty she stopped laughing and added. “And it’s one of them, not me, what is going to help us out.” She smiled sweetly at Anna. “See what I did there, H?”
“No, wait, you can’t…. that’s not… that’s… cheating!” Huarwar protested.
Daisy giggled nastily at him and looked at something only she could see, “Oh, here we go. Come on, chicken! Come on, poppet! This way! This way! Aaaaand… pow!”
In the middle of the room, a blur appeared.
It was amorphous, wobbly, like the ghost of a blancmange. Then it coalesced into a roughly human form so that it resembled a jelly-baby or a soap carving and then, with a plop, a very real, very solid person arrived in the air in the middle of the room, looking startled.
Gravity took hold and she dropped the foot or so to the floor, falling to her knees.
With a groan, she painfully heaved herself up.
It was a skinny young girl, not much older than Anna, wearing a long green coat, an orange T-shirt and in her hand, she held… Mandy couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like a lot of things, floppy, pointy, alive, dead. It looked, in fact, like the representation of something you might see in the hand of a dark god carved into a temple wall.
But this girl didn’t look like a god, much less a dark one. Mandy’s heart went out to her. She looked battered, weary, like she needed a bath, a cuppa, a hot meal, then a good kip and a hug on waking.
“Oh, my days!” said Shoo. “Where am I now?”