Blackfeather Chapter 10

The adrenalin rush subsided and gave way to tears. She knew she should call the police, but tell them what? A guy she’d met in a bar had put some kind of spell on her, made her fall in love with him, took her out for a meal and then killed a man in front of her?

She felt queasy again and ran to the toilet, reaching it in time to throw up dinner. She sat back, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Had she really seen what she thought she’d seen? Could it have been her imagination? Given the stress she’d been under the last few days she might have imagined it all, including Ash. He had seemed so nice, so likeable, so loveable.

Perhaps she should wait:, if the following day’s news reported a murder, then she would call the police. She staggered back to the kitchen for a drink of water. Her eyes settled on the brown cover of the journal poking out of her bag, where she had dropped it on the kitchen table. She picked it up and drummed her fingers on the cover. She needed to do something to steady her nerves and whether she’d witnessed a murder or not, she wasn’t going to sleep tonight.

*  *  *

She kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the bed with the journal resting on her drawn-up knees. She was tense, edgy, but after flicking through the book and seeing the  translated text again, her anxiety gave way to wonder and excitement.

“All right let’s start at the beginning,” she said aloud and turned back to what she expected would be the book’s title. Her face fell and the colour drained from it. The two words read…

For Catherine.

She sat up, alarmed at the sight of her own name. All right, it was a different spelling, but the chances were phenomenal. After everything else that had happened she could hardly dismiss this as a coincidence. She had two choices: read on or put the book down and forget it. Curiosity got the better of her and she turned the page.

May 12th 1479

So it was a diary and the date placed it a little earlier than the rebuilding of the church. Whoever Catherine was, it certainly didn’t mean her and Kate relaxed a little before starting again.

May 12th 1479

Catherine is on her knees in the little church. She is not praying today, but is scrubbing the stone floors. She is but fourteen years old and is daydreaming, again, about how she will one day meet a handsome knight, who will fall in love with her and take her to his grand castle, where he will make her his lady.

I see the images from her imagination as clearly as if they were my own. We are linked, she and I. I smile as she smiles. She doesn’t know it, but I have been with her since she first drew breath in this life and I love her with a deep abiding and unconditional love. She is a new soul and I have been chosen to watch over her.

She pushes a stray hair from across her face and looks up from her tedious work to a small crudely carved image of one of my brethren. It is Michael, I think. I doubt he would be impressed with the object, too feminine he would say. Gabriel, on the other hand, gentle Gabriel, would find it pleasing.

Catherine speaks aloud. Her voice is a sweet sound to me.

“I wish I could see a real angel, it might restore Uncle’s faith in God and I think would be more wonderful even than a knight.”

The priest is not my concern, it is the secret he keeps and not his faith that vexes him so. A secret of which Catherine is unaware. However, hers is an innocent request and I know others have been granted such visions, so I clothe myself in the form of the man she imagines in her romantic ideas of earthly love and grant her wish. Others would have run away, hidden their faces or fallen to their knees in prayer. Not Catherine. She smiles shyly, thanks God for answering her prayers and asks…

“Which are you? Knight or angel?”

By way of answer I display my wings. They are wondrous to behold and fill the little church with their white evanescence, but her smile is even more brilliant.

She wants to fetch the man she calls Uncle, the priest, but I explain that only she can see me and, for her own safety, this must be our secret. She readily agrees. I know she hopes to persuade me differently later, but for now she is content to obey.

We become constant companions. I hide myself when she is not alone, even though the others can’t see me. It is easier for Catherine that way. Less chance she will give us away.

Time means nothing to me, but for Catherine, days become weeks. Spring turns to Summer and we spend as much time as her chores will allow walking the fields and woods that surround the village. Away from the houses we can talk uninterrupted.

*  *  *

Kate paused. Angel books in the bookshop window, the dictionary of angels in the library, the poster for the festival and now this. This couldn’t be a diary, angels weren’t real, this was someone’s fantasy story.

June 30th 1479

A young man rides into the village. A stranger. The villagers flock to him, fascinated by the novelty of his appearance. His skin is tanned a rich, dark olive and his voice is a mixture of many accents, one layered upon the other, as though he has travelled the world spending many years in each place. The style and quality of his clothes mark him out as a wealthy man, possibly a merchant or squire. He takes a room at the inn telling all within earshot that he is on a business errand for his master. Catherine says he smells of rotting flesh, but no one else seems aware of this. The adults around her don’t notice or don’t care and are too busy doing his every bidding as he showers them with coins from his bulging purse. He throws his money around as if it were as plentiful as animal dung, but it gives him no pleasure to see the people scurry after it. For all his rich trappings and his youth, the stranger appears weary of life and when he catches sight of his reflection in the polished surface of his goblet he sneers at it and quickly looks away, as though he cannot stand the sight of himself.

On Sunday, he attends the evening service in the chapel and later comes to the house to speak with Catherine’s Uncle. She lays on the floorboards of her little room, her ear pressed to the gaps trying to hear what is said below us. I beg her to come away. I don’t know why, but the man frightens me. There is an odd darkness about him. He carries a book and a gaudily jewelled box that give off an aura of evil.

He stays late into the night at Catherine’s Uncle’s table and she must wait on them. I watch from the shadows, afraid for her. His hands are always reaching out to touch her pale skin, but my Catherine is too quick for him, avoiding his contact time and again. When at last she can retire to bed I stay to listen to their conversation. It is banal at first, pointless chatter about local issues and the politics of the day, but eventually the stranger brings out the book and pushes it towards the priest.

“What’s this?” asks Thomas.

“I’ve been told to gift this to you. The book will give you everything you ever dreamed of.”

Thomas smiles indulgently at the man as though he is a child.

“I already have such a book,” he says, waving his hand towards the Bible that sits on the table by the window.

“With this one you can amass great wealth, become Archbishop.” The man barks a short, sharp laugh. “Hell, you could even raise a loved one from the dead.”

The smile fades and now there is fear in the eyes of Thomas Whittle. Has this stranger guessed his secret? He draws himself up and shakes his head.

“How can that be? You speak of something only God could accomplish. This must be some kind of joke.”

The man rises from the table and comes to stand behind the small frame of Thomas Whittle. He leans over him, his hand on Thomas’ shoulder, pressing him down, hard into the bench. The other hand reaches for the book and flips it open. He thrusts Thomas’ face toward it.

“See,” he croons. “The book has wonders for thee to perform.”

Thomas’ eyes scan the page before him and widen with fear and disgust. Before him is the offer of eternal life itself.

“That’s blasphemy,” says Thomas, wriggling under the vice-like grip. “Why are you offering this to me?”

“Come now, we know your faith has left you, Father. God doesn’t answer your prayers any more, Thomas, but the book can, and my master thinks you deserve some reward for the suffering you’ve had to endure. He wants you to know that your anger at God has not gone unnoticed.”

Thomas slumps, recognizing the truth in the words the man speaks. It has grown more and more difficult for him to minister to the villagers’ needs and in the night, when he has thought himself alone, he has gone to the church to rail at God until, his prayers unanswered, his faith is lost altogether.

“And what do I have to do in return?” he asks.

“Ah, you’re a clever man, Father.”

He lets go of Thomas’ shoulder and stands back.

“In return for immortality my master requires that you carry out small tasks from time to time, such as the one I have performed tonight in bringing you the book.”

“And who exactly is your master?”

“Again, a very astute question.”

The stranger returns to his seat, pulls his saddle pack onto the table and opens the flap.

“He is a great prince, but you will never see him unless you accept the offer.”

Thomas suspects he already knows who the stranger’s master might be, but he is already wavering.

“And what must I do to attain this illustrious reward?”

“You must capture an angel, the book will show you how.”

Thomas has taken the opportunity to steady himself with a mouthful of wine. It sprays across the room, the droplets sparkling as they catch the light from the candles. He snorts in derision at the man.

“Don’t be a fool, man. Angels don’t exist, any more than God does.”

“I think you’ll find you’re wrong on both counts, Thomas,” the man says, pulling the jewelled box from his pack.

He lifts the lid and takes out a murderous looking weapon. A dagger sharpened to a wicked point, the hilt as black as midnight, the blade covered with glittering symbols of power. I am astounded at what I see before me, for though its form has changed, I recognise the weapon. Who among us could ever forget it.

This is Lucifer’s sword, from the days of the war in Heaven. When Michael disarmed him, flicking it from his grasp with the fiery point of his own weapon, it fell, plummeting to Earth where it split the landmass and formed the continents. From there it sank, through the depths of the great ocean, lost forever, or so we thought.

Lucifer must have gone to great lengths to recover it and he had altered its appearance, a dagger being less conspicuous than a sword. As an ordinary weapon it was a lethal object, but it had a singular property that made it more fearsome to me – it could kill angels.

“Then I want nothing to do with this evil,” Thomas says with as much conviction as he can muster.

“Oh no, Thomas, you can’t back out now.”

In one swift movement the dark man closes the gap between himself and Thomas and cuts both his own palm and that of the whimpering priest. He presses their palms together in a blood pact. Thomas struggles, the bench falls back with a clatter as he tries to fight off his assailant. His hand caught tight in the dark man’s hand, their blood mingling and dripping to the floor.

The man laughs again, pushes Thomas away from him and leaves him cowering on the floor.

“The book will tell you all you need to know to accomplish this task.”

He towers over the shaking form of Father Whittle, then crouches so their faces almost touch.

“When you have your celestial prisoner, you must kill him with this. Perform the ritual and bind the angel’s soul to the dagger. My master will come to you when you have done all this”

He flourishes the dagger one last time, then lays it back in the box and closes the lid, picks up his saddle bags and purse and walks towards the door.

“Where am I supposed to find this angel?” Thomas whines.

“Ask your daughter.”

His laughter is chilling.

“Ha, you have the wrong man, I have no daughter,” Thomas says, but his brow is beaded with sweat and his skin is a sickly pallor.

The stranger merely smiles a knowing smile and Thomas clasps his hands together to stop them from trembling. In all, four people were aware of Thomas’s secret and three of them were dead. He has hidden the truth that he is Catherine’s father from everyone. Her mother, a nun from the convent at Nun Appleton, died in childbirth. Thomas took the babe to his brother, knowing that his barren wife would persuade him to adopt the child as his own, but she died five years later and her husband, a loyal Yorkist, was killed fighting against Lancaster, less than a year later, at the battle of Tewkesbury. Catherine’s only living relative is Thomas. The man she believes to be her uncle.

Before he leaves the house, the stranger glances in my direction and sniffs the air. He cannot possibly know I am there, but I draw back all the same. I follow him and watch him enter the inn. I am glad when in the dead of night he saddles his horse and leaves, riding out of town without looking back. The book and box are left with Thomas.

I say nothing of the encounter to Catherine and the following morning the book and box with its hateful contents are gone. I pray that Thomas has somehow destroyed them.

In the days that follow, Catherine and I are too happy in each other’s company to notice the change in Thomas. I should have seen how he locked himself away, spending long hours alone by candlelight, well into the night, neglecting his duties in the church, but all I know is love, I have eyes for no-one but Catherine.

 

As I look back I see I was arrogant. I thought I could protect her from anything, but in the end I could do nothing. I was so naive as to be stupid.

 

Wow, thought Kate.

Whoever had written this must have had a fantastic imagination and they’d done their history. Thomas Whittle was a real man. He hadn’t just been the rector of All Souls Church, he had built it, though she couldn’t remember anything about him having a daughter. The story fascinated her and she had to read more.

 

August 15th 1479

Thomas has sent Catherine to the miller today. They need more flour to bake bread. She tells me the day is hot, but I have no sense of these things. I tell her the names of the flowers and birds that we see and hear on our way through the countryside. So engrossed am I in our game that I don’t sense the trio of boys sneak up behind us until it is too late.

They run forward and surround her, one tugs at her hair and calls her simple. He wants to know why she is talking to herself. She knows she cannot tell them and refuses to answer. The oldest boy raises his hand to strike her, but his fist doesn’t make contact. Something stops him. Something he cannot see. He falls backwards as if pushed by an unseen force and the other boys laugh at him. When he gets up and runs away the look he gives Catherine as he flees is one of fear and hatred.

The following day, as we walk along the streams edge, I sense another. A woman from the town watches Catherine. I am not visible to her, but I alert Catherine to her presence and the woman pretends to busy herself with work, then leaves. I tell Catherine we must be more careful, but it is too late and the damage is done. Events are now set in motion that even I cannot prevent.

 

August 20th 1479

It has been another perfect day in Catherine’s company and we talk in quiet whispers as she drifts off to sleep. We have been there for some time when the door is pushed open so violently it shakes on its hinges. It is Thomas who enters the room.

“With whom do you converse, child?” he asks, his voice stern with anger.

“No one, Uncle,” Catherine replies, pulling the blanket up to her chin.

“You lie.”

He strides forward, clutches at Catherine’s wrist and drags her from the bed. She yelps in pain as he shakes her, repeating the question. I stand there helpless, shocked, afraid for her.

“You have been seen Catherine, by the village folk, talking to a spirit. Goodwife Reve espied you at the well and the day before that, your demon struck her boy.”

I was horrified. We had been careless and now I understood what I had seen on the face of the fleeing boy. Now I could see it on the faces of all the villagers. Every time they had looked sideways at Catherine, every time they had crossed themselves as she passed them, every time they turned away from her or went inside when she was near. How could I have been so stupid?

Catherine is crying now.

“He’s not a demon Uncle. He’s an angel. I have seen him and you can too.”

What was she saying? I could not show myself to him. Thomas pauses, he seems to be considering something.

“Bring him forth,” he demands.

Catherine turns to me, but I shake my head.

“He says he cannot.”

“That is unfortunate,” he says. “You give me no option then.”

Suddenly, he has Catherine in his arms, his hand across her mouth. He marches her down the stairs and out into the night. I follow. He reaches the church and pushes open the door, strides down the aisle and takes Catherine down, under the church, through a small trapdoor. There is a small stone lined room here. He pushes her into it and slams the door, locking it with a great iron key and shouts through the door at her.

“When he is ready to show himself I will set you free.”

He leaves her, alone in the dark and damp. The walls ooze moisture. She shivers in her night dress and crouches against the wall, sobbing.

But she is not alone, for I am always with her. I will not leave her now. I try to comfort her, but it is useless.

Thomas does not return until nightfall the next day. Catherine has had neither food nor water, but I have kept her warm by surrounding her with my aura.

His questions are relentless. He wants every detail about me, my name, my appearance, what miracles I can perform. Catherine is defiant, she refuses to answer and he leaves once more. Night after night the scene is repeated. She is given meagre scraps to eat and a few sips of water. I can sustain her for a while, but her body will soon succumb to this harsh treatment.

After endless nights of this torture, Thomas cannot restrain himself any longer and backhands her. It is more than I can stand. If he wants to see me then he shall.

I appear before him, ablaze with blinding light and wings extended. He has planned this and is ready for me. He pulls the black book from beneath his robes and begins to chant some evil spell. My body feels heavy, I am drawn downwards, the light begins to fade. I don’t understand what is happening, but Catherine is cleverer than I. She rushes at Thomas, knocks the book from his hands and screams at me to depart.

I waste no time in argument as I realise Thomas’ intent and remember the words of the dark man.

Brave Catherine, faithful Catherine, lays beaten and bleeding on the stone floor when I return. I sit close to her. She knows I am there, but will not look at me for fear Thomas will sense my presence. His questions never let her rest.

“Conjure it,” he demands of her. “Bring forth the creature who will buy me immortality. It does your bidding, I know.”

“He has left me,” she lies. “He will not return again.”

Thomas storms out of the little cell, his plans in tatters, more angry than ever.

“I will never leave you Catherine,” I tell her, gathering her in my arms.

“I know,” she whispers, a tear slips down her face leaving a trail in the grime and blood. She loses consciousness, a brief respite, while I hold her.

*  *  *

 

There was a gentle knock at the door. Kate had been lost in the story, horrified at the turn of events and now, with a start, sat bolt upright. She held her breath and gripped the bed-covers.

“Kate, I need to talk to you. I won’t hurt you. Please let me in.”

She stifled a cry, it was his voice. The voice that made her melt. How had he found her? He couldn’t have followed her home.

“Kate, I know you’re there. Let me explain.”

As he spoke, Kate slipped off the bed and tiptoed out to the hall. She could see him silhouetted against the glass in the front door.

“How did you get here?” she blurted out. “How did you know where I live?”

“I always know where you are Kate, from the moment you are born. I could find you anywhere.”

His voice was calm, soothing, but if that wasn’t a threat…

“Kate, I know it looks bad, but I swear to you that I mean you no harm.”

“I saw you kill someone!” she yelled. “Do you think I’m going to let you in so you can kill me too?”

“Have you forgotten how I saved your life this week? Why would I want to kill you now?”

She thought about how she’d almost been run over and the near miss on the ice.

“So it was you in front of my car? Who the hell are you?”

There was a long silence. He seemed reluctant to answer.

“I wrote the journal.”

“That’s a lie!” Kate shouted, “You can’t have done! It’s five hundred bloody years old!”

She waited to see what he would say to that, but it had gone quiet and she could no longer see him through the glass. Maybe he’d given up and left. Kate crept towards the door. She screwed her eyes up, peering through the spy hole and listened for the sound of footsteps moving away from the house. It was silent.

“I know, but I can’t lie.”

Kate spun at the sound of his voice. He was standing in the hallway behind her, the journal in his hands.

Her world reeled, some invisible force hit her full on and she thought she was going to faint, but she was held in a bubble of warmth that took all her fear away. The man in black looked at the book in his hands, his face etched with sadness. His fingers stroked the cover. There were tears in his eyes as he smiled at Kate. She thought her heart would break.

“I’m the one responsible for this,” he said.

*  *  *

“I could have come in any time I wanted,” he said. “But I was hoping you’d answer the door.”

“Have you drugged me?” asked Kate.

They were now seated comfortably in the living room. Kate in a chair, Ash a short distance away on the settee.

“No, because I’m close to you I can calm you. It’s a bit like altering your state of consciousness. The way people do when they meditate. You know, a little like what you were up to at the bookshop.”

His words held a touch of reproach in them.

“Was it you they all saw?” she said. “And again with the tarot cards?”

“I had to do something to get you out of there. You shouldn’t be messing with that kind of thing. It’s dangerous.”

Kate’s head felt warm and fuzzy. She was so relaxed that she smiled at him.

“I know underneath this I’m practically hysterical with fear that you’re going to murder me, but for some reason I can’t seem to care at the moment.”

He laughed. It was the most wonderful sound Kate had ever heard.

“It’s OK, I’ll only do this until I explain who I am, then I’ll withdraw my aura.”

“Your aura?” she said, thinking of the girl from the journal, locked in the little cell.

He nodded.

“Did you kill the man in the alley?”

“No, he wasn’t a man.”

“It looked like a man to me.”

“So do I,” he said. “But I’m not.”

She was about to say something else but he cut her off.

“What you saw wasn’t human, they clothe themselves in human form, but they’re far from human. It was probably a spy, sent to find things out and report back to its master. By breaking the neck I sever the connection between its etheric body and what you see as a physical representation of a person. It sends them straight back to where they belong – Hell. I’m guessing it was looking for me.”

“Oh yes, and exactly who are you?”

“My name is Ashrafel,” he said. “I’m your guardian angel.”

It was Kate’s turn to laugh.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

In spite of what she’d read earlier she wasn’t crazy enough to believe it was true. He was clearly deluded and she would call his bluff.

“If you’re an angel,” she said, crossing her arms. “Where are your wings?”

She pushed out her chin and waited to see how he was going to answer that.

He stood and walked to the centre of the room. She tried not to laugh at him and waited to see what excuse he would have when nothing happened and he had to confess he was lying, but gradually she began to notice there was a change in the room. Everything seemed clearer somehow, like someone had turned the brightness up on a T.V. screen. She could see the floral pattern on the vase at the other side of the room in minute detail, the individual strands of wool in the carpet. The light seemed to gather where he stood, coalescing at the epicentre. He glowed with unearthly light. Then there was a rush of cool air, strong enough to push Kate back in the chair and blow her hair about her head. She had to close her eyes against the intense brightness. When she dared open them again the room was filled with wings. She was astonished, but couldn’t help reaching forward with one shaky hand to brush the feathers with her fingertips.

“They’re beautiful,” she whispered, awestruck.

“Thank you.”

There was something not quite right though. She looked up at him with a puzzled frown.

“They’re black!”

“I’m fallen,” he replied. “Exiled.”

There was no further explanation, but she believed him now. He was the angel that poor Catherine Whittle had loved and trusted and protected from her father, and if her dreams were true, he had got her burned at the stake.

He handed the book back to her. The wings had gone and he was just a man again, so sad, so beautiful, but she was still a little afraid of him.

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 9

Kate’s head was spinning and she hadn’t even had a drink. The car seemed to fly home, hardly touching the road, and she floated into the house and up the stairs to bed, wriggled down into a comfortable spot and with the covers pulled up to her chin and a smile fixed on her face, she drifted off into sleep, with hopes of pleasant dreams about the man she’d just met.

“Ash,” she said, trying the word aloud.

She’d decided she wasn’t worried that he hadn’t asked to see her again. He seemed to have an uncanny knack for finding her. Something told her this wasn’t the last time she’d be seeing him.

The journal lay in her bag, forgotten.

*  *  *

She woke several hours later, twisted up in the covers, exhausted from the nightmare of the burning again, and massaged circles into her temples. In the dream she had glimpsed an image of her reflection in a pool of water and recognised the face of the girl she had seen in the mirror above the bookshop. She needed to know why she was having these dreams. Maybe Selena could help her make sense of this.

*  *  *

Ten thirty was too early on a Saturday morning, for Brian to be up. Especially after a night out like last night. He wanted to ignore the phone and go back to sleep. His head throbbed like the skin on a bass drum, pounding out the beat of a marching band.

To say he’d been drunk was an understatement. After Kate’s rejection the last thing he’d expected was for her to fall for his guilt trip and hold up her end of the bargain to go out on the date. He knew it was only offered out of sympathy and that’s why he’d got drunk before she turned up. The messages on her machine about standing him up were revenge for her pity. He’d been gob-smacked when he’d spotted her in the club, staring off into space like Selena in one of her put on trances. By then he was too drunk to care if he made a fool of himself again and thinking back, boy, had he done just that.

What the hell had he been thinking, telling that guy he and Kate were ‘together’? He should have known she wasn’t going to like that one bit. And then making it even worse by offering to fight him. How stupid could he get? But the guy was too pretty by half, exactly the kind that girls went all gooey for and Kate had obviously fallen for it.

He’d looked the kind to talk his way out of a fight, but Brian had got himself worked up by then and needed something to let his disappointment and anger out on. One punch and the guy would be out cold, Brian had been certain. It hadn’t turned out like that though. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure what had happened exactly, other than that the guy had been better than he thought and dodged his every move. After that he couldn’t remember anything else, apart from running away. Like a girl. He was never going to be able to look Kate in the eye again.

“All right, all right!” he yelled, falling out of bed and trudging to the phone. “What?”

“Brian?” It was Kate.

“Yeah?” he said, the aggression going out of him at the sound of her voice.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Had this guy told her he’d run off?

“What do you want?”

“I was hoping you could ask Selena if she’d do a regression on me.”

*  *  *

Well that had been a turn up for the books. The last thing on earth he’d been expecting, especially from Kate. She was full of surprises these days. He had rung Selena as soon as he’d hung up on Kate, and arranged a time for later that afternoon. Selena seemed as eager as Kate to do this regression and he was on his way now to meet them both at the bookshop. He wasn’t going to miss this for the world.

*  *  *

Selena was waiting for him at the door. She tried to pretend that this was because she sensed when people were arriving, but he knew it was all an act. She did have the qualifications that he’d told Kate about, but there was nothing psychic about her. Whatever had happened with Kate at the group session was completely out of the ordinary.

Most of the people that went there, week in, week out, were just like Selena, searching for something, not sure what and mostly pretending to believe in ‘the other side’. They were, for the most part, lonely people who needed like-minded friends.

Brian did believe. He had been following a strict regimen of meditation for weeks now and he was starting to achieve results. Only the other day, he had felt himself slip out of his body and hover in the air, looking back at his prone self. It hadn’t lasted more than a few seconds before he slammed right back into his physical form again, but it was a start.

They were sitting at the kitchen table when the doorbell rang. Selena hadn’t sensed Kate arriving, he noticed, and waited for her to bring Kate up the stairs to the flat.

“Hello,” she said.

He nodded sheepishly at her. Selena poured them both coffee and Kate took off her coat. He was thankful when she didn’t mention his behaviour at the club.

“So, how can I help you?” Selena began.

“I’m not sure,” Kate said. “I’ve been having dreams, as you know, where I seem to be in someone else’s body, living their life.”

“You think the face you saw in the mirror is this person?”

She nodded.

“Possibly.”

Kate fidgeted with the mug in her hands, twisting it from side to side. Selena studied her body language.

“There’s something else,” Selena said.

Kate swallowed. Selena reached across the table and grabbed her hand, turning it face upwards and stroked her fingernails across Kate’s palm.

“A stranger has come into your life, you’re drawn to him, but you don’t trust him.”

Brian shifted in his chair.

“Err well, yes I suppose so, but that’s not…”

“He is tall, dark, has the most intense blue eyes you’ve ever seen.”

“No, actually, he’s blonde and his eyes are green.”

Brian huffed at the dreamy expression that crossed Kate’s face as she talked about the guy from the club. He folded his arms and looked away in disgust.

“Oh,” Selena said. “Well, you’ll meet this person too, soon.”

She dropped Kate’s hand and went to the kettle, poured herself a cup of strong smelling chamomile tea which made Kate wrinkle her nose, and leaned against the counter. Whilst she sipped at the tea she studied Kate. The attention made Kate squirm. After several minutes her attention was drawn to Kate’s bag. The corner of the journal poked out above the zip line.

“What’s that?” Selena asked.

Kate twisted in her seat to see what Selena was talking about. When she saw the journal she tried to push it out of sight.

“An old book I found. It’s nothing really.”

“May I see it?” asked Selena.

“Well, it’s very old, I’d rather it didn’t get handled very much.”

Brian turned back to face her again.

“Is this the book from the box?”

She nodded.

“I thought you said it was a Bible?”

“I thought it was. I don’t know what it is, yet,” she said, just then remembering the text had somehow been changed.

Selena returned to the table and gave Kate a broad smile that was meant to be reassuring. Kate bent to the bag at her side and retrieved the journal. She had misgivings about letting anyone else touch it, but passed it across the table to Selena. She took it with both hands, never taking her eyes from Kate’s and stroked the leather cover, turning the journal round and round. She closed her eyes and placed it against her forehead.

She began moaning and swaying in her chair. Brian rolled his eyes, convinced this was part of the act Selena used to suck people in, then she lurched bolt upright, shocking her guests as she flung the journal across the table at Kate, with a squeal of terror.

“Take it away,” she begged.

“What is it?” Kate asked, reaching for the book, but Brian got there first.

As soon as his fingers made contact with the journal he pulled back again, as if it had bitten him.

“What the…?” he cried.

Kate calmly picked the journal up from the table. The others shrank away from her.

“Please put it away,” Selena said. “That book is meant for no-one but you.”

With a shrug, Kate slipped the book back in her bag. Only when it was completely out of sight did Selena relax. Brian, still rubbing his fingers, scowled at her

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to regress you, but I will read the cards for you,” Selena offered.

With Kate’s agreement, she disappeared behind a swathe of chiffon drapes and returned with a large velvet drawstring bag. She pulled out a pack of colourful tarot cards and began to shuffle them. Satisfied they were suitably mixed, she placed the pack in front of Kate and asked her to cut them into three. Then she recombined the piles and shuffled them again.

Selena laid the cards out like a clock face, one card for every point on the dial with a thirteenth card in the centre. She turned them over, slowly and deliberately and laid each one, with a flourish, in its position in the spread. As she did so she either smiled knowingly or raised her eyebrows. At the last card she gasped.

Death!

Kate took a deep breath. Selena waved her hands over the cards and studied them for several minutes.

“This is very interesting,” she said. “The queen of swords represents you. There are a lot of swords in the spread. Dear me, so much conflict. You must learn to pick your battles. There is a cause to be won… or lost, the outcome depends on you.”

She raised her head and smiled at Kate.

“Ah, here, see, here is your knight, you can trust him, lean on him for support and oh yes, the lovers.”

Kate glanced sideways at Brian, his jaw was tightly clenched. She could see the muscles working as he ground his teeth together and wondered if that was because the knight on the card had blonde hair.

“How unusual,” Selena continued, “so many sword cards and ending in death.”

Noticing Kate’s worried frown she hurried on.

“Oh don’t worry, I don’t mean literally. More often than not, it is the ending of one thing and the beginning of another. I’m not sure how he fits in though.”

She held up a card depicting a man in long robes standing over what appeared to be an altar. The word on the card read, ‘The Magician’.

Brian stood up, there was a bright flash from the plug on the kettle, one of the angel plaques fell from the wall and the stereo in Selena’s lounge burst into life, with a song that Kate recognised immediately. She paled, gripping the table for support. Downstairs the shop bell began to ring and a breeze swept through the flat, picking the tarot cards up and blowing them off the table in a little whirlwind.

“Where did that come from?” Selena said. “The windows are shut and I locked the shop up.”

Her knuckles turned white as she balled her hands into fists. Her reaction said she wasn’t used to this kind of disturbance, for all her ‘experience’ of the occult.

Brian was the first to move. He bounded across the room, first turning off the stereo, then made for the stairs to the shop below. Selena checked the kettle.

“The fuse has blown. It should have tripped the safety so how come the stereo came on?”

Brian returned breathless.

“There’s no one there, the door is locked.”

Selena was staring at Kate, who in turn studied the table top.

“I think you should leave, now.” Selena said.

“It’s not her fault!” Brian shouted in Kate’s defence.

“I don’t care, Brian, I don’t want her in my flat. There’s something not right here and she’s connected to it. I should have known when I touched that book.”

“Come on, Selena, calm down,” he said.

“GET OUT!!” she shrieked.

Kate leapt off her chair. She grabbed her things and made for the exit, with Brian following close behind.

The door wouldn’t open. Her head began to spin and her sweaty palms couldn’t grip the handle properly. There was no escape from the leering pixie faces. The overstocked shelves and sharp edged crystals closed in around her. Brian pushed her to one side and turned the Yale lock, pulling open the door. She almost fell into the street, gasping for air. Brian helpfully scraped back her hair, holding it in a ponytail as she doubled over, clutching at her stomach.

“Are you OK?”

Kate’s eyes went round at the sound of that voice and she froze. She felt Brian stiffen beside her.

“She’s fine. I’m taking her home.”

“What happened, Kate? Are you ill?”

“Nothing happened,” Brian was speaking again, refusing to be ignored, his voice edgy.

Kate straightened and extricated herself from Brian’s grip. She looked up into peridot green eyes and felt herself melting again.

“I’m all right. I just felt a little queasy for a moment.”

Ash, dressed as usual from head to toe in black, reached forward to touch her, Brian shifted forward, a protective gesture, but Ash laid his hand on Kate’s forehead. Almost immediately the nausea dissipated and Kate felt more like herself again.

“You feel a little warm.” he said. “Let’s get you home.”

The mere sound of his voice was soothing.

“That’s exactly what I was planning to do,” Brian said. ”What are you doing here anyway?”

“It’s all right Brian, I’ll be fine now.”

She cringed, she hadn’t meant to make it sound as though Brian was surplus to requirements now that her knight was here. Brian stood his ground, his eyes fixed on Ash.

“Maybe you should go back and check on Selena,“ Kate suggested.

He felt like a child, but there was nothing he could do to protest. He turned and stormed back into the bookshop, slamming the door shut behind him so hard the bell almost jangled itself off its hook.

“What was all that about?” Ash asked her.

She shook her head. The last thing she wanted to tell him was that she was seeking supernatural counselling from a woman who had thrown her out for blowing the electrics. He held out an arm for her to take. She wondered if it would be wrong for her to pretend she was still light-headed and lean against him while he led her away.

“It’s all right, I can manage,” she said, horrified she’d even considered that last thought.

He shrugged and put his hand back in the pocket of his leather jacket.

“I was on my way to the festival. Would you like to come with me?”

“Festival?” Kate said.

“Of Angels.” He smiled, showing his immaculate white teeth.

If only she didn’t fall apart at the thought of all those jostling people.

“I don’t know, I get a bit panicky in crowds.”

“I’ll protect you,” he said. “Trust me.”

She hoped she’d sighed in her head and not out loud then found herself trotting alongside him, continuously protesting that she would be terrible company and he’d be better off without her. He countered every argument she made with a better one for why she should go along and in the end she gave in and let him steer her towards the town.

*  *  *

At first she had resisted, bracing herself against the inevitable pushing and shoving and stretching on tip toes to see over heads, and couldn’t believe it when the crowds parted every time they needed to pass through. She began to enjoy herself and was eager to see the next ice sculpture on the trail, surprised to find she was leading the way.

After several hours, Ash suggested they nip into a cosy restaurant for something to eat. Kate hadn’t realised how hungry she was until he’d made the suggestion, but the place he’d chosen was very popular, crammed with locals and tourists alike, and Kate hung back in the doorway.

“Don’t worry,” Ash said, taking her hand and coaxing her inside.

She wished he would keep hold of it, but he let go as they joined the queue for a table.

It didn’t look promising, the party in front of them were turned away. They stepped forward on their turn and were told a table for two had become available that minute and were shown to a quiet area away from the crowded main bar.

“See, not so bad, is it?” Ash said, handing her a menu and opening his own.

Kate looked at the list of dishes on offer then glanced over the top at him. He had already folded his menu and was watching her while she chose.

“So what’ll it be?” he asked.

“I’ll just have something light,” she said, laying her menu alongside his.

“Oh no you don’t. You haven’t eaten all day. Choose a proper meal.”

“How do you know I haven’t?” she said.

He looked flustered for a moment then frowned.

“Didn’t you say so?”

“No,” she said.

He brushed it off with a shrug.

“Then, I must have been mistaken. How about the steak?”

She nodded and he went to order, leaving her staring after him as he sailed through the parting crowds, his head a little higher than everyone else’s.

This wasn’t the first time he’d said something that hinted at him knowing more about her than he should. Selena was right, she wasn’t sure whether to trust him or not. Being gorgeous didn’t make you honest.

Her mobile rang, she fished it out of her bag and checked the caller ID. It was Brian. Her thumb hovered over the accept call button, but she decided not to answer and placed it on the table. Seconds later the voice-mail icon began flashing on the screen. Brian’s persistence was irritating; she had a feeling she already knew what he was going to say, but she listened to the message anyway.

“Kate, I know you don’t want to hear this, but please listen. You don’t know anything about this guy and I don’t think you should trust him, no matter what Selena’s daft cards say. It’s not like you to be all puppy-eyed, but that’s exactly what you’re doing. I know you think I’m jealous or I’m pissed off about the club, but I’m saying this because I care about you and I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

He sighed.

“Just be careful, all right.” There was a pause. “Call me, let me know you’re OK.”

How stupid did Brian think she was? No matter his message echoed her own thoughts, she was a grown woman, had lived alone for over a year and didn’t need looking out for. All right, she did have feelings for Ash, but what was wrong with love at first sight? It worked for some people. She stabbed at the button, deleting the message. She didn’t want to call Brian, he was the one she couldn’t trust. He was the one dabbling in the occult after all. She recalled The Magician tarot card in the spread Selena had done for her. It probably meant him.

Whatever he said, Brian was jealous and in spite of the weird little exchange they’d had, there was no reason for her to doubt Ash. All the indications pointed to him liking her too, but maybe he was just being nice. And there she went again. Couldn’t she accept that not everyone had ulterior motives and let herself be happy for once? Her trust issues had ruined more than one relationship in the past. She rested her chin on her hand and sighed.

“Why so glum?” Ash said, putting a glass of Coke in front of her and sliding back into the seat opposite.

“No reason,” she said, sitting up straight.

Damn Brian and his paranoia, she wasn’t going to give in to it. She would put her convictions aside and try to get to know Ash better. With a bit of luck by the end of the evening he would want to see her again and if not, well – she didn’t want to think about that.

*  *  *

In the end, she’d told him more about her than the other way around. In fact, he managed to avoid telling her anything much about himself at all. So far he’d discovered where she worked, what she did there, what her favourite colour, film and book were and what did she know about him? Nothing. Not even his last name.

She had asked him if he lived in York.

“For now,” he said.

“What do you do?”

“I suppose you’d call me a bodyguard, of sorts.”

“For someone famous?”

“I couldn’t say,” he winked.

It was all very vague and Kate got the impression he was doing it on purpose. There were several times he didn’t even appear to be listening to the answers she gave to his questions, his head cocked on one side, as though he was listening to what the people on the next table were saying instead. He got up twice, disappearing for up to five minutes at a time, and then dropped back into the conversation as though he’d never left.

This had nothing to do with any issues Kate may have had, she wasn’t imagining any of this and by the end of the meal she had resigned herself to the fact that he probably wouldn’t be asking her out again. She glanced at his plate. He hadn’t touched his meal and now that she thought about it, she couldn’t recall seeing him drink anything either.

They left the bar and walked through the streets in silence, past the club where she’d first met him and back to her car. He seemed distracted. Kate’s breath fogged on the cold air. Ash didn’t seem affected by the cold at all. Her time with him was running out. Last chance to say something that would knock him off his feet and have him begging to see her again. She shook her head, what was wrong with her, this really wasn’t her at all, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to say something, anything…

“Err, I don’t suppose…”

His head snapped up and he stood stiff and attentive to some distant sound. Kate stared at him, eyes wide, mouth held open in her unfinished sentence.

“Shh,” he said.

He was statue still. Whatever he could hear, Kate wasn’t privy to it.

“Wait here,” he whispered. “Don’t move.”

He was off before Kate could reply, walking quickly across the road to the entrance of the lane that ran down the side of the Trafalgar Bay pub. He stopped for a moment then strode into the dark and out of view.

Kate waited by the car. She was shivering now and not just with the cold. She wasn’t sure if she was afraid of whatever it was he’d heard, or of him. He’d looked so fearsome as he entered the alleyway; someone you did not mess with, someone who meant business and could handle themselves in a fight. He’d seen Brian off, after all.

She waited for the tell tale noise of a scuffle, but it was dead silent. Too quiet for the centre of town on a busy Saturday night in an area filled with bars. Even more unusual was the absence of smokers outside the pub.

After several minutes she began to worry for his safety. What if someone had attacked him and he was lying helpless, waiting for her to find him. She didn’t want to disobey him, but she couldn’t wait all night. It had started to snow again.

She set off across the car park, cut across the road and pushed herself close to the wall, peering round it, down the length of Scarcroft Lane. A single street lamp threw a dim light across the alley and he was silhouetted in it. He was not alone.

Kate’s eyes grew wide at what she saw. The man in black, the man she was on the verge of giving her heart to without a second thought, was standing over someone knelt on the ground. The other man was limp, arms hung at his sides as though drunk or asleep, but Ash held him up, with one hand beneath his chin, the other behind his head. He bent down to whisper something in the man’s ear then his arms jerked, twisting the head to the side and the kneeling man fell forward, his neck broken.

Kate couldn’t stop herself from crying out, and clapped a hand over her mouth. Ash whipped round to face her and she turned to run. She could hear him calling out to her with that voice she wanted to fall into.

“Kate, wait. Please, it’s not what you think.”

She didn’t stop, reaching her car and scrabbling for the keys, but the key wouldn’t go in the lock and he was walking towards her now, like a scene from some horrible, low budget slasher movie. Except this was real and he was coming for her. Would he snap her neck too?

By some miracle the car door opened and she threw herself behind the wheel, slamming the door and popping the lock. Ash was still calling out to her, she had no idea how, but he was inside her head now. She realised with horror it was the voice she’d heard in her own kitchen after she’d found the box.

“Kate, I’m not going to hurt you.”

It took all her will to resist, turn the ignition and floor the accelerator. He was right up against the window as she sped out of the car park. How she avoided running him over she didn’t know, but she got past him and the other parked cars, acting as obstacles to her escape, without touching them. The Beetle screeched as she turned the corner at high speed and gunned it away from the city in the direction of home.

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 8

The car park was almost full, but she managed to find a bay in which to leave the Beetle. Music blared from the open doorway of the pub opposite where a couple of smokers huddled against the wall. They shivered as they dragged on their cigarettes then stubbed out the tab ends and went back inside. The sky threatened snow again. Kate pulled her coat tighter; it was only a short walk up the hill to the club.

The bouncer, guarding the doorway of the club, leered at her. It made her feel uncomfortable as she skirted round him.  The place was already packed with people. In honour of The Festival of Angels, the club was hosting an Angels and Demons night and everyone with a pair of novelty wings had turned up, but the girls dressed in tight fitting corsets and short skirts looked far from angelic, making out in dark corners with horned devils and vampire wannabes.

The prospect of making her way through the seething mass of people made her feel queasy. She took slow, deep breaths to steady her nerves and told herself she could do this without losing control. If she repeated the words like a mantra she could just about keep the dizziness and rising panic in check.

She groped her way forward, hoping to find a bit of space, squeezing through the gaps and stumbling out the other side into a tall man with shoulder length black hair. He turned from the conclave of girls that gathered around him, all staring up with something like adoration on their faces, and reached out to steady her. She could see why they were so captivated, he had the most unnatural piercing blue eyes and wore a long leather coat and angel wings that reached to the floor. Kate mumbled an apology and the man bowed to her, stepping back to allow her through.

The cacophony of sound from the dozens of shouted conversations and the thumping beat of the music vibrated through her body as she threaded her way to the edge of the dance floor. She turned a slow three hundred and sixty degree circle, searching the crowd for Brian’s familiar face, and stopped at a figure seated on a stool by the bar.

It was the man in black. He sat alone, his back to the bar, watching her.

The moment their eyes met Kate was transfixed. Her stomach knotted in that way that indicated pure physical desire. From the look on his face, he felt it too. She took a deep breath. She couldn’t have looked away if she’d wanted to. His gaze drew her in and held her spellbound. The air had suddenly gone from the room. The crowd melted away and time slowed to a standstill. He was bathed in light, she assumed, from a spotlight above his head. It made him appear otherworldly. His emerald eyes glittered. They were luminescent and his short blond hair formed a halo around his head. Kate’s heart pounded in time to the music which sounded so very far away now it was just a hum in the distance.

His intense gaze made her knees buckle. This was the moment she’d always dreamed of, but never truly believed would happen. Her long awaited, hit by a sledgehammer, love at first sight moment. The meeting of her soul mate.

Though technically she’d seen him before, this was the first time she’d seen him long enough and clearly enough to appreciate how beautiful he was.

This was the real reason she had chased him from the library. Motivated by an overwhelming attraction to him, she had needed to confirm what her subconscious had already registered, that he felt the same, that somehow they were connected. Though he had composed himself from that electrically charged split second when they’d locked eyes, carefully hiding his emotions behind a neutral facade, she got the impression he was smiling at her and the most incredible feeling of love and protection washed over her.

This is crazy, she thought as she floated in the stillness, I don’t even know you. Her cheeks were beginning to burn.

But I know you, came the vaguely familiar voice in her head.

The man in black didn’t move. He had stopped playing hide and seek with her, but however outwardly calm and confident he appeared, a whole range of emotions were conveyed in those impossibly green eyes; shyness, elation, yet at the same time, there was a deep, underlying sadness. It seemed an internal argument was being waged within him, should he speak to her, or leave; smile or turn away?

Kate wanted to stare into those eyes forever, but another face appeared in front of hers, blocking out the man in black with a huge grin and the spell was broken.

“Katie, Katie, am I glad to see you?” Brian said, his words slurring together.

He hugged her, making them both stumble. She tried to look over Brian’s shoulder, but yet again, the man in black had gone. He’d probably assumed Brian was her boyfriend and left. The sight of his empty stool left a black hole in her stomach.

“Oh Brian, you’re drunk,” she said.

“I had to do something,” he replied. “Someone stood me up.”

He pouted at her, then grabbed her hand and grinned again, his hurt quickly forgotten.

“Come and dance with me.”

He pulled a resistant and protesting Kate to the dance floor, earning a barrage of insults as he elbowed people out of their way. Brian turned, holding up his hands in mock apology and went careening backwards. Kate grabbed the front of his T-shirt, just in time to keep him upright. He draped his arms over her shoulders.

“I always knew you liked me Katie,” he said.

Kate sighed. She was having trouble standing up herself under Brian’s weight, and was trying to manoeuvre him off the dance floor when she heard another voice beside her.

“Is he bothering you?”

Kate shivered. The voice was as smooth and delicious as warm pain au chocolat. It drew attention to itself by the fact that it wasn’t shouting to be heard over the music. A quiet, well articulated voice that Kate heard as clearly as if it had spoken in an empty room. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She knew, without turning, who would be speaking those words.

She raised her eyes to his face, but dared not maintain eye contact for fear of losing herself again in the brilliance of those jewelled irises. At each glance she felt the room spiralling away from her.

“He’s my – friend,” she managed. “But he’s a bit drunk.”

Brian’s head snapped up. He tried to focus on the man at Kate’s side, but found it almost impossible. His eyes seemed to slide past him as though he wasn’t really there.

“Back off,” he said, with venom. “She’s with me.”

“Are you sure?” the man in black said. “I thought she was propping you up.”

“Well, she’s not. We’re together, so clear off unless you want to go outside and make something of it.”

Brian was standing by himself now, swaying back and forth, in danger of falling over at any moment and jutted his chin out at the man in challenge. Kate put her hand on Brian’s arm.

“Don’t be stupid, Brian.”

“OK,” said the man in black.

Kate shot him a disapproving look. He was grinning. Kate’s stomach did back flips, her knees were going again.

“Right,” Brian said. “Out the back then,” and he started to weave his way towards the emergency exit sign.

The man in black and Kate followed, him smiling, Kate protesting all the way.

“You can’t do this. He’s drunk, he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

The man shrugged. Brian was already outside by the time they reached the door.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt him.”

Still smiling, he stepped outside.

The door closed with a clunk behind him, leaving Kate open mouthed on the inside. She grabbed the handle, turned it and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. She rattled the door and pulled as hard as she could with no effect. It couldn’t be locked, she’d watched them go through it. Nevertheless, it was locked to her.

Outside in the alley, Brian stood with his feet wide apart in a desperate attempt to steady the spinning world around him. He put his fists up in front of his face.

“Come on then, let’s get this over with.”

He wasn’t impressed when the man folded his arms.

“Go home Brian and sleep it off.”

Brian’s head felt fuzzy, he heard the words deep inside his brain and he had to admit it did sound like an awfully good idea. After all, he seemed like a nice guy and he didn’t really want a fight. How did he know his name anyway?

It almost worked, but Brian’s pride wouldn’t let him back down so easily. He shook the buzzing from his head and took a swing with his right fist.

He missed!

Hang on a minute. He could’ve sworn he was standing closer than that.

A bewildered Brian screwed up his eyes and stretched them wide open again, taking a deep breath of cold, fresh air. He prepared for another strike and edged closer to the guy, who hadn’t even unfolded his arms.

The man didn’t move, but Brian caught sight of movement over his shoulder and as he watched something big and black grew out of the shadows. Brian had never run from a fight before in his life.

There’s a first time for everything, he thought.

“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, as the shadow coalesced into something impossible and he turned and fled down the alley.

“No, not even close, but if I see him I’ll tell him you said Hello!”

The man in black chuckled to himself and went back into the club.

*  *  *

Kate had been about to go for help when the door opened and the man in black stepped back through into the noisy club. He grinned at her. The intensity of her feelings towards him were confusing. She’d never felt like this about anyone before, especially someone she’d just met and she wasn’t sure how to deal with it. Dreaming about finding true love was not the same as having it happen, and life had always seemed so much easier to deal with on her own. On top of that, he’d thought nothing of going outside to fight Brian. That didn’t make him seem like a good prospect for a boyfriend.

Kate ignored her wobbly legs and scowled at him.

“Where’s Brian?! What have you done to him?!” she yelled over the music.

“Nothing, he wasn’t feeling well and decided to go home.”

Again, he didn’t have to shout to make her hear him. Kate frowned. She turned her back on him and took a step away, only to find him blocking her exit.

There was no time to wonder how he’d managed this because a moment later she found herself flying forwards, falling into his arms. He caught her, his arms around her waist and she remembered how he’d held her as he pulled her off the road, away from the van that had almost knocked her down. She felt the same sensation now. A kind of moving without effort, like taking the moving pavement at the airport, but faster and without going anywhere at all. This time she was looking into his eyes as he rescued her. She resisted the urge to wrap her arms around his neck and stepped back from his embrace.

The bouncer who had shoved past her was still struggling with the man he was dragging towards the exit and shouted a  none too convincing apology. The man, trapped in a head lock, caught hold of her bag and pulled it along with them, dragging it off her shoulder and spilling its contents over the floor.

She scrabbled for her possessions, trying to reach the book before any harm could befall it, but the man in black beat her to it. He had the book in one hand and held out the other with her make-up and keys. He was incredibly fast and agile. She took her things and threw them back in her bag then as they rose together, she held out her hand for the book.

“This looks interesting,” he said. “Is it your diary?”

“Err, no, it’s not really mine, it’s old,” Kate mumbled.

“Is it a good story?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “It’s written in some weird language or code.”

“Is that so?”

He began to flick through the pages.

“Looks like English to me,” he said, handing it over.

“What?”

Kate snatched it and tore it open, searching down the page for the symbols that were no longer there. Instead there were words she understood perfectly.

“That’s impossible,” she yelled, looking up at him. “Who are you?”

“My name is Ash.”

“And that’s supposed to explain it, is it?”

Kate glowered at his handsome face, annoyed by his attractive lopsided grin. She wasn’t going to let the butterflies that smile caused stop her from questioning him.

“Why have you been following me?”

“Have I?”

“Yes, you were in the café when the waitress spilled hot coffee on me, you were in the library this morning and now you’re here, tonight. So why?”

He mulled the question over for a minute.

“Was I in the café when you got there or did I come in after you?”

“You were already there,” she conceded.

“Well then, how could I possibly know you were going to go to that café?”

He carried on before she could answer.

“I like to read so I go to the library a lot and I believe I was sitting by the bar when you walked in here tonight. It’s not following you if I get there first, is it?”

Kate blinked.

“So it’s all coincidence then?”

“Do you believe in coincidences?”

She’d asked Brian that very same question earlier that afternoon. If she hadn’t known better she would have said he’d repeated it now deliberately.

“Do you ever answer a question without asking another question?” she said.

If he was going to mock her she’d do the same to him. He stopped smiling. Kate bit her lip. He seemed hurt and she didn’t like being the cause of it. She relented.

“I don’t know what I believe any more,“ she said, pushing past him and making for the door.

He followed her. They stepped out into the bitter cold of a December night.

She hitched the bag up on to her shoulder and held the book against her chest. Unsure of her bearings, she looked from left to right, then threw her head back and looked up in exasperation at the inky black sky. The stars, bright and clear, winked at her. The man in black, Ash, stood by her side. He smiled at her again.

“Come on,” he said, coming to her rescue once more. “I’ll walk you to your car.”

He walked a few steps ahead of her, then turned back, his hands pushed casually into the pockets of his leather jacket and inclined his head in the direction they were to go, inviting her to follow. Kate stuffed the book into her bag and hurried to catch up with him.

They walked without speaking down the hill, under the arch in the city walls and turned left onto Nunnery Lane. Kate searched for something to say, to break the silence and as an excuse to hear his voice again. They were almost there. He seemed to know exactly which car was hers without even asking her. She fumbled in her bag for her keys.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she said, unlocking the car door.

There was the lopsided smile again. It didn’t annoy her this time.

“Did Brian really go home?”

“Do you honestly think I’d…” he stopped himself mid- question. “Yes, I never touched him, he just went home.”

“Thanks.”

He reached past her and opened the car door, touching her arm and sending a frisson of pleasurable chills through her body. He held it open while she got in.

“Have a safe journey,” he said and shut the door.

Kate sat for a moment, incredulous. After all that, he hadn’t even asked for her number. There was nothing left to do but leave. She started the engine. He raised his hand in farewell and watched her drive away.

*  *  *

The man in black stared off in the direction she had gone, until another figure joined him.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said to the newcomer.

“Why not? You want her to read it, don’t you?” said the second figure.

“That’s not the point. She should never have found it.”

“Oh come on. Her being in the church was too good an opportunity for me to miss, little bro.”

Ash gave the tall man a sidelong glance.

“He’s going to kick my arse over this, isn’t He?”

“Don’t be so pessimistic. Maybe this is part of His plan.”

“ Whatever. She has the diary now and God only knows what will happen.”

“Exactly.”

Ash turned to say something, but there was no point, he was already alone again.

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 7

Kate had spent another restless night dreaming of faces that morphed from one to another and shadowy figures that tailed her wherever she went. She didn’t feel like going into work at all, except for the fact that she would be alone for the day if she didn’t. What she needed was to be around people, the more the merrier.

She hurried past the bookshop this morning, her head down, not looking at anyone, and turned off towards the library which housed the York archives. It would have been easy enough to have done her research at the office, but in the archives she could get on with her work, no bickering from James and Nathan and no unwanted attention from Brian.

There were few people there at this hour, which meant there were plenty of spare computer terminals on the fourth floor reference area. When the monitor had blinked into life, she opened a browser window and entered the URL for the General Register Office. It was part of her job to order birth, marriage and death certificates for every name on a family tree. The client would want a copy of them all. With luck it would take her all day and she wouldn’t have to face Brian at all.

She’d been at it for maybe half an hour when she looked up to give her eyes a break from staring at the screen. From her desk by the balcony, she could see parts of the floors below and all the way down to the entrance on the ground floor. The door was pushed open by an elderly gentleman who paused and held the door for someone behind him. Kate had lost interest and almost looked away before something made her turn back.

A young man stepped into the reception, he bobbed his head in thanks and the old man shuffled off out of view. Kate leaned forward, she couldn’t see his face, just the top of his head, but she recognised him instantly this time. It was the man in black again.

He stood for a moment, admiring the huge Christmas tree, decorated in blue and silver baubles that filled some of the space in the vast library entrance then crossed the hall to the reception desk. She was too far away to hear what he said to the librarian, but his eyes followed her pointing finger as she gave him directions up the staircase. Kate ducked back, afraid he’d seen her. She waited a few seconds, then risked another peek. He was on his way up the stairs. When he turned off onto the floor below she realised she’d stopped breathing and let the air out of her chest in a long sigh. She’d been worried he was looking for her, but how would he have known she was there? Apart from that brief encounter in the café he didn’t know her and she didn’t know him, no matter how familiar he seemed. Now, if she could think of some perfectly rational explanations for the other times she’d seen him…

She could barely see him now, scanning the shelves in the aisle marked Religion, so she craned her neck for a better view. Was he a student at the university? They ran courses in Theology and Religious Studies. He reached out and pulled a book from the shelf. The title wasn’t large enough to read, but there was a picture of clouds on the front. The man in black took it to one of the reading areas and sat down in a large green leather armchair.

His upper half was obscured from view, but his crossed legs and the open book were still visible. Kate was fascinated, not only by what he was reading, but she found herself wishing she could get a better look at his face.

He turned the pages one by one but didn’t appear to be reading the text. After a few pages he began to skip whole sections, then snapped the book shut and laid it on the table in front of him. He took the earphones from his pocket, put the plugs in his ears and looked straight up at Kate as though he’d known she was watching him all along.

She let out an involuntary yelp and pushed herself back from the balcony. Her stomach lurched. What if he was on his way up to her? When she dared to look again he had gone. She searched for him on the stairs, on the floor below, and finally caught sight of him striding purposefully towards the exit.

Grabbing her things, she pushed back her chair, bumping it against the one behind, and realised someone was sitting in it. She apologised, wondering when they’d arrived. She’d been so mesmerised by the man in black she’d not noticed the library filling up with people. How long had she watched him? It couldn’t have been longer than a few minutes, surely? Where had everyone come from?

There was no time to think about it now, she was desperate to reach that book before someone else cleared it away. She slipped into the seat he’d occupied, the leather was still warm. Heads were turning, her cheeks burned with embarrassment. She picked up the book and read the title, “A Dictionary of Angels.” What was it with everyone and all this angel stuff all of a sudden?

She shook her head and returned the book to the table. If she hurried, she might be able to catch up with him. What she would say to him when she did, she had no idea.

On her way out, a poster pinned to the wall at the left of the doorway caught her attention. It was an advertisement for the “Festival of Angels”, that weekend.

Coincidence, she told herself and left.

The man in black was probably long gone by now, but she looked anyway. He could have gone in either direction, but she chose to turn left, where York Minster stood at the end of the street. She headed towards it. It wasn’t long before she spotted him, sitting on the wall on the opposite side of the road, almost as though he’d been waiting for her. No sooner had she seen him than he got up and walked away, under the avenue of trees, though he hadn’t once looked in her direction.

She was convinced he was following her now, but she was more excited than scared and set off after him, determined to find out who he was. With her eyes fixed on the tall stranger, she dodged the other pedestrians, but no matter how hard she tried, she never seemed to get any closer. Without thinking, she ran out from the corner of St. Leonard’s Place, oblivious to the oncoming traffic. She was sure the road had been clear, but now tyres screeched and a horn blared right beside her.

A pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist and she was lifted and pulled backwards onto the kerb. The driver of the white van made a rude gesture and mouthed an obscenity as he sped off. Kate spun round, breathless, expecting to find her rescuer, but there was no one there, except for an old woman, whose wide eyes stared out at her from beneath a blue paisley scarf. She was swamped in the oversized raincoat she wore and clutched her shopping bag tightly in the crook of her arm.

“You were lucky there, love. I don’t know where that young man came from, but one minute you were on the road and the next minute he had hold of you. It’s a shame he rushed off like that.”

“Did you see where he went?” Kate asked.

“Up there, love,” she replied with a nod of her head. “If you run you might catch him.”

She looked in the direction the old woman indicated and caught a glimpse of the man in black, disappearing out of sight around the corner of a building. Kate had known it would be him. What she didn’t understand was how he’d got behind her when she’d been running after him. He had been in front of her, in the distance, and then, with no time for blinking, he was behind her, pulling her out of the way of a speeding car. There was no way he could have reached her in time.

*  *  *

Half an hour later she stood pale and shaking in the office doorway.

“Are you all right, Kate? You look like you’ve seen another ghost,” Brian said.

“Or something like that,” she murmured.

She sat with her elbows on the edge of the desk, her chin resting on her hands, staring over the rim of the coffee Brian had made for her whilst she explained what had happened. She had to have been mistaken, it couldn’t have been the man in black she’d been following, she must have confused him with someone else. How could it have been him? No one could move that fast, or be in two places at once. Either that or Brian was right and she had seen a ghost.

It didn’t take long for her to realise how stupid this was. For one, ghosts did not use earphones and for another, she’d felt his arms, strong and protective around her as he’d pulled her onto the kerb. They were as solid as the table she was sitting at. It was a shame he hadn’t stuck around to be thanked: it wasn’t every day an attractive guy turned out to be your knight in shining armour.

For over an hour, Brian tried to concentrate on the intestacy case he was working on, but he found it increasingly difficult with Kate pacing the floor behind him. When she asked him if he believed in fate and destiny or coincidence he began to think her strange non-accident in the café and her near miss with the van had sent her over the edge and suggested she leave work early. It was Friday after all, and even though James and Nathan were supposed to be out interviewing relatives, he suspected they’d knocked off at lunch time and were probably sitting in a cosy pub somewhere making an early start on the weekend.

He sighed with envy.

When Kate started rambling about the supernatural, Brian threw down his pen and stood up. He took Kate’s coat from the peg and held it out for her. Without thinking, she pushed her arms down the sleeves and let him steer her towards the door.

“Kate, go home. You’ve had a stressful couple of days and are probably suffering from shock.”

“I’m fine and I have work to do,” she insisted, pulling on her hat and wrapping the scarf round her neck.

“Go home.”

Brian stared her down until she relented.

“Get something to eat, have a hot bath and relax.”

He ushered her to the door.

“And don’t worry, after our – misunderstanding, I’m not holding you to our date tonight.”

“Oh Brian…”

She’d forgotten all about it and although she was glad of a way out of her promise, Brian’s glum expression made her feel guilty. He had done her a favour after all.

“Look, we made a deal and I’ll stick to my half,” she said.

His face lit up.

“OK, I’ll meet you at eight outside Monty’s Rock Café.” He patted her bottom. “You know where that is right?”

She rolled her eyes and nodded. His puppy dog eyes had duped her into saying exactly what he wanted. This was going to be her worst nightmare.

She had a safe and uneventful drive home, but couldn’t shake the sensation she was not alone. Not until she was home, the doors locked and bolted did she allow herself to relax. After Brian had more or less forced her to leave, she had wandered down the office steps and out into harsh daylight, her head full of questions about the man in black, the journal, and the strange occurrences she’d experienced since finding the box in the floor of the church. Turning to her right she had been confronted with the ominous word Ghost, merely an advertisement for some trendy fashion designer repeated three times on the clothes shop window and a few feet further down the street, struggling against the tide of tourists and shoppers, she’d been jostled to one side, where she came face to face with the Stonegate Devil. He grinned at her from his vantage point under the eaves of what was once a 16th century printer’s shop and Kate had almost broken into a run, eager to get away from the silent watcher.

She flopped down on the sofa, and her bag, with the journal still inside, dangled off her knees. She took a deep breath and fell back against the cushions. Within seconds she was asleep, exhaustion and delayed shock overwhelming her.

It was dark when Kate opened her eyes, confused and disoriented, unsure about where she was, but also who she was. For a few seconds she had been clawing her way out of flames – again.

The dream had been so intense and real she’d had to push back the blanket and feel beneath her clothes for what she was sure would be cracked and blackened skin. Her relief at finding everything normal was replaced with confusion.

Where had the blanket come from? It had not been there when she’d collapsed onto the settee. Was it possible she had taken it from her room without thinking and been so tired she’d forgotten, or had someone else covered her with it as she slept? She clicked on the table lamp and took a good look at the room.

Nothing missing, she thought.

As if a burglar would cover his sleeping victim anyway. She glanced at the clock and swore.

“Oh shit! Brian.”

She was supposed to have met him twenty minutes ago.

She leapt up from the settee, thrusting the blanket to one side and bounded across the room to the phone. The light blinked on the answering machine. She pressed the button to replay the messages and winced at the sound of Brian’s voice.

There were four messages, all from Brian, each one a little more impatient than the last, until he yelled, “Thanks for standing me up. That’s the last time I do anything for you!” in the final call and hung up.

Kate picked up the handset and dialled his number. Brian’s phone rang and rang, then switched to voice mail.

“Hey Brian, if you get this I’m sorry. I fell asleep. I’m on my way now.”

She wolfed down a bag of crisps and a can of Coke, the first thing she’d eaten since breakfast, took a quick shower and changed into clean black jeans and a white skinny rib vest top and boots, grabbed her coat and keys and slammed out of the house.

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 6

Kate made herself a breakfast of sorts from the contents of a nearly empty packet of cereal found in the back of a cupboard. The box, once again, graced the kitchen table. Its reflection in the black granite made it look twice its actual size. Her plan was to drive to the church before anyone else was around and leave it on the doorstep where Reverend Pilling would find it. She had written a short note explaining what it was and asking the vicar if he would be so kind as to inter it somewhere in the church grounds. She was not going to sign it and she wasn’t going to say where it had come from in the first place.

At 7.00am she left the house and set off towards Bolton Percy. It was still dark and the roads were icy again, but she hoped that even travelling slowly she would reach the church before the vicar. As she drove past the spot where the car had left the road, she thought about Michael and wondered how he was doing. There’d been no contact from the police so she assumed he’d made a full recovery. The fence was still broken and two long ruts furrowed the field. Even the tree hadn’t escaped without injury. A pale scar marked the trunk where the car’s bumper had stripped away the bark.

A lot of strange things had happened since she’d found the box. Perhaps Brian was right and its powdery occupant had been making its presence felt. Well, it would be back where it belonged soon, laid once more to its eternal rest and Kate’s life could return to normal.

Except she’d had a nagging feeling since she got in the car that taking it back was the wrong thing to do. Why, she couldn’t say, but she felt a strange attachment to the box and its morbid contents. It was almost as if they belonged to her in some way and the more she thought about it the more she felt she’d been meant to find it, been guided to it even. Surely the builders would have noticed that such a large stone was loose when they erected the scaffolding? How had it come loose in the first place? And how had it managed to fall so far away from the wall? It hadn’t hit anything else or rolled down the church aisle, it had landed on that one particular flagstone on the one day that Kate had been alone in the church.

She continued to ponder the circumstances as she drove and it was with some surprise that she found she’d arrived at the church. Taking a quick look around, she parked by the wall and got out of the car. The shopping bag, with the box inside, bumped against her leg as she marched up the path, round the back of the church and up to the vestry door. Her intention was to leave it on the doorstep, but as she took it out of the bag she couldn’t help but lift the lid one last time. Her note to the vicar lay on top of the linen bag of ashes, but she saw straight away that something was wrong.

Where was the leather-bound book?

She lifted the ashes, knowing full well the book was not hiding underneath, and checked inside the bag too. She was starting to panic, looking around on the floor in case it had dropped out when she opened the box?

Impossible, she thought and began to retrace her steps to the front of the church and down the path to her car, all the while checking the ground for signs of the book.

She yanked open the car door and searched the seats and foot-wells, all to no avail. There was no doubt in her mind that the book had been in the box when she’d placed the note inside. She remembered putting everything back before she’d left the house and had not removed anything since. She felt sick; how could she lose something so precious.

Precious? Even taking into account the possible age and monetary value of the box it would hardly be called precious. It would have had a certain sentimental value, if it had actually been hers, but it wasn’t, so that didn’t make sense either. Nevertheless, tears were starting to well up again.

Oh this is ridiculous, she thought, blinking them away and climbing into the car, slamming the door shut beside her. I must have left it at home.

Once again she headed out of the village and back along the narrow lane. She ran up the driveway and rushed to the kitchen. There was no sign of the book there and she hurried upstairs to her bedroom.

There it was, lying on her bedside table as though it had always been there. Kate knew she hadn’t left it there, but that didn’t matter now, she was overwhelmed with relief at finding it safe and sound. She picked it up; the leather was smooth under her fingers and on impulse she opened it at the first page. The two words were still there, cryptic and silent. A puzzle waiting to be solved.

If she had to take a guess she would say the most probable three letter word would be “The”, but it would be more difficult to translate the longer one. Unsure what to do next, she turned the page.

The writing was small and neat and faded brown with age. The symbols were consistent with those on the flyleaf,  indecipherable and in some places, so faded with time as to be illegible. The author had written in ink with a quill pen, taking such meticulous care that each one was exactly the same size as its neighbours and each line of text was arrow straight. Being familiar with the kind of Latin old documents tended to be written in, Kate was positive this was not Latin. Some of the symbols looked like familiar letters, but had subtle differences in the way they were formed. No language she could think of looked like this.

She did a quick flick through the rest of the book. Every so often, between several blocks of text, was a blank page. On the next would be a single line. A heading maybe, before the main body of writing would start again. Could it be a journal of some kind, written by the person with whom it had shared the box?

Whatever it was, it would have to wait, she’d run out of time and had to leave for work. She would try to decipher it later. She slipped the journal into her bag, deciding that from now on it would go everywhere with her.

*  *  *

She approached the busy main road, slowed to a stop and waited for the lights to change. The radio crackled and music suddenly blared from the speakers. She hadn’t touched the dial or pressed any of the buttons on the dash and Kate stared at it, amazed to be listening to the same song that had woken her the previous morning.

She listened to the words of the song, drifting off into a world of her own and missed the changing of the traffic lights. The driver behind sounded his horn and flashed his lights. She pulled herself together, switched off the radio and set off again, making a mental note to get the electrics checked. By the time she had parked the car and walked up the hill she had forgotten all about it.

Every day she saw the same familiar faces making their way to work. The few who noticed her said good morning or nodded, but most were huddled over against the cold, their faces obscured in the depths of hooded coats. There was someone new among them today. Her attention was drawn to a young man perusing the display in the little green bookshop. Something about him seemed familiar. He was tall, fair haired and dressed all in black. Just an ordinary man, except Kate was sure she knew him from somewhere. At this distance she couldn’t see his face and she spent a moment trying to place him, until, as she drew closer, he pulled a pair of earphones from the inside pocket of his leather jacket, turned away from the window and walked away. His actions jogged her memory and she realised with a shock that it was the man from the café. Odd that she should see him today when she’d never noticed him here before.

As she drew level with the bookshop, she glanced inside to see what he’d been so interested in. Stretched across the window was a banner that read ‘Have A Cool Yule!’. It was decked out with a multitude of twinkling fairy lights and figures of Santa, dressed in green rather than red. Pixies dusted with glitter were strategically placed throughout the display of New Age books on subjects such as crystal healing and angel encounters. There were even a few on witchcraft. She was reminded of the words on the lid of the box.

Let no man trespass where angels fear to tread.

Why would he be looking at this kind of thing? He didn’t look like your typical New Age believer.

She followed him along the road; he had increased the distance between them, but looked back over his shoulder, in her direction, two or three times and she wondered if he recognised her too. A little further on she spotted him again, passing under the arch into High Petergate, but he turned left at the Minster, into Precentor’s Court and disappeared from view. As he was no longer going in her direction she continued on, turning to look back to see if she could still see him, but she had lost track of him and put the meeting down to chance.

*  *  *

The door to the office was unlocked when she got there, which meant Brian had already arrived. He swivelled his chair in her direction as she came in and hung up her coat, completing the turn through three hundred and sixty degrees as she crossed the office to the sink and table which acted as a makeshift kitchen. They couldn’t have got much work done after she’d gone home the day before because the office now looked as though the box of Christmas decorations had exploded.

She made herself coffee, offering one to Brian, who having just filled his mug, declined.

“So how are you this morning?” he said to her back.

If he was fishing for tales of poltergeist activity, he was going to be disappointed.

“Fine.” she said, replacing the kettle on its stand.

She stirred her coffee and looked down from the window into Stonegate’s narrow street. Two men were taking advantage of the early morning quiet to finish fixing up the Christmas lights stretched across the alleyway, in time for Thursday night’s switch on. They had better hurry, or it would soon fill up with milling tourists and they’d have trouble manoeuvering their equipment through the crowds.

“You look a bit peaky, didn’t you sleep well?”

She would have slept well, if it hadn’t been for the dream, and then there’d been the palaver with returning the box. It was no wonder she looked pale, her nerves were all over the place. Maybe she should tell Brian about the dream, and for that matter about the book. Getting it off her chest might make it seem less fantastical.

She glanced to her right and almost dropped her coffee mug. Someone was sitting on the window ledge of the pub on the opposite side of the lane. It looked like the man from the café again, but it couldn’t be him. She leaned against the glass for a better view. Blonde hair, black jacket and jeans. It was.

Was he following her?

“Are you all right?” Brian said, from close behind her.

He startled her and the coffee sloshed over the edge of the mug. She jumped back to avoid getting it down her front and bumped into Brian. When she looked up the man had gone. He must have ducked down the snickelway into Hornby’s Passage, but why? It didn’t go anywhere, emerging as it did a little further down Stonegate. Perhaps he was simply another tourist, wandering round the town, seeing the sights.

“I think you should stay away from hot drinks, Kate,” Brian said, handing her a tea towel. He took the mug from her hand and plonked it down on her desk.

“I thought I saw…” she shook her head.

“The ashes’ ghost?” Brian finished.

“I did have a bit of a weird dream,” she said.

Brian waited, but she was reluctant to start.

“Go on.”

“All right but you better not laugh.”

He scooted his chair across to her desk, propped his elbows on the edge and leaned forward, all ears.

“It was all a bit confused, but I seemed to be back in the middle ages. Not observing events, but actually inside the body of a young girl. I was reliving her memories. It was weird because I was still in Bolton Percy.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw the church. As it was then and now, at the same time. They were burning me – I mean her, at the stake. I woke up screaming it was so real.”

Her throat felt parched just from recalling the dream and she gulped a mouthful of coffee, gripping the mug to stop her hands from shaking.

“Sounds like a past life memory to me,” Brian said.

“What? You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’ve heard stuff like this before. My friend Selena, her real name’s Hannah Ross, but she thinks Selena Moon makes her sound more ethereal…anyway, she runs hypnosis sessions on this kind of thing.”

Kate stared at Brian.

“I didn’t know you were in to all that?”

He sat up taller and tried to look suave.

“You’d find out all sorts of things about me if you took the time to get to know me better.”

He winked. She ignored him and he slumped forward again.

“No, really, she’s running a group session tonight, you should come along and meet her.”

Kate wasn’t sure. She pictured a woman in brightly coloured, flowing skirts, sitting cross-legged on an overstuffed cushion, chanting obscure words and wreathed in clouds of incense smoke.

“It’s not a love-in,” Brian said, seeing the look on her face. “She’s a qualified hypnotherapist and healer.”

“Where?”

“The bookshop by the Minster.”

“The little green one?” Kate said.

Brian nodded.

Kate couldn’t believe it. Not long ago she’d been staring through its window at the display of angel books because the man from the café had been there. Now she was being invited to meet its owner to have her dreams interpreted. Could this be another coincidence?

“All right. I’ll come,” she said, before she could change her mind again.

“Right. I’ll pick you up after work about seven,” said a delighted Brian.

He pushed off from the edge of her desk and sailed back to his own, chair wheels squeaking.

The door opened and in came James and Nathan, late again. Kate put her head down for work. The fewer people that knew about all this the better.

*  *  *

At the end of the day she confirmed the time with Brian and left for home. All the way to her car she kept turning around to see if anyone was following her, stopping in her tracks every time she saw someone with blonde hair or a black jacket, but she didn’t see the man from the café again.

She popped a microwave meal in the oven then showered and changed in readiness for Brian’s arrival. What did people wear to a group regression? She decided casual was best, and settled for a pair of comfortable black linen trousers and a red jersey cowl-neck top and black wool cardigan.

Brian nodded his approval when he picked her up in the Jeep.

“I’ve told Selena you’re coming but nothing about your dream,” said Brian. “She’s looking forward to meeting you.”

Kate shivered; it was cold but she was nervous too and she was beginning to wish she hadn’t agreed to this.

When they reached the bookshop two or three other people were already going inside. A woman with shoulder length, curly blonde hair stood at the door welcoming people. She wore a thick chunky knit cardigan over a white T-shirt and blue jeans, not the flowing, diaphanous, hippy clothes Kate had been expecting. She looked rather normal. Kate was pleasantly surprised and a little disappointed at the same time. They shook hands as Brian introduced them. Selena held on a little longer than most people would, but she gave Kate a warm smile and ushered them inside and up the stairs to her own private flat above the bookshop.

The space had been set out with bean bags and comfortable chairs arranged in a circle. A neatly folded fleece or cotton blanket had been placed on each seat, though the flat was warm. The early birds had already made themselves comfortable; some wrapped the blankets around their shoulders, others spread them over their knees.

“Deep meditative states can lower your core temperature quite dramatically,” Selena explained.

The lights had been dimmed to a cosy level and tea light candles, in rainbow coloured glass holders, were dotted around on every available surface. More of the same fairy lights Kate had seen in the bookshop window were spiralled around wooden beams and draped around framed pictures of fairies, angels and scenes from Arthurian legend.

It must look like Christmas all the time up here, Kate thought.

The walls were lined with oak bookshelves and not one had space for another book, however thin. The flat was open plan, but Selena had screened off the more private areas with layers of chiffon and organza curtains. Rows of glasses were lined up on the kitchen table, like a regiment of transparent soldiers, with jugs of orange juice and water standing sentry at either end. For those who wanted something more warming, there was decaffeinated coffee, a selection of herbal teas and a large pan of home-made soup simmering on the stove.

Selena had also provided an assortment of biscuits. The regulars who weren’t sitting down helped themselves to what was on offer, the conversation humming back and forth between them.

In addition to the candles, Kate noticed that several large crystals had been placed to good effect, so that the light caught their facets and sparkled invitingly. The foliate faces of green men and plaster cherubs hung on the walls and elfin faces peered out from every corner.

Brian brought Kate a coffee and then Selena called the meeting to order. She asked everyone to sit down and Kate found herself sinking into a soft armchair within the circle, Brian to her left and a woman to her right who looked to be in her thirties. She was dressed as if she’d come straight from the office, in a smart skirt and blouse.

There were more women than men around the circle, but they all appeared very normal. She turned to look at Selena, who was addressing the group.

“Good evening everyone,” she said with a smile.

The group responded in a collective murmur.

“We have a couple of new faces joining us tonight, Kate and Louisa. Please make them feel welcome.”

All eyes turned to Kate and the woman next to her, everyone smiled, a few said hello. Kate hated being the centre of attention, but she smiled and nodded in return.

“OK, let’s get started, shall we?” said Selena, taking a seat on a hard backed chair in the middle of the circle. “First we need to let go of all our daily cares and worries and open ourselves up to the higher realms. Before we can explore our previous lives we need to ask our guides and angels to protect us from harm and allow them to remove any blocks that prevent us from seeing the truth.”

Kate found Brian out of the corner of her eye. He leaned towards her and whispered.

“Give it a chance.”

Selena continued in slow, soothing tones, instructing everyone to close their eyes and relax their bodies, starting with their toes and working their way up. When she was satisfied everyone had chilled out sufficiently, she allowed them to open their eyes again.

“OK, I sense the angels standing behind you all, encircling us in their love.  They inform me we can begin the session.”

Kate couldn’t see any angels. She had stopped believing in them about the same time she’d found out the Tooth Fairy didn’t exist, but a shiver ran down her spine when she thought about the phrase on the lid of the box. Would this be considered trespassing on something they feared?

Selena walked to the side of the room and came back carrying a large oblong object covered with a scarf. She removed the scarf, to reveal a large mirror set in an ornate wooden frame, painted gold and leant it against the chair she had been sitting in. One by one she instructed each person to sit before it and stare at their own reflection. Brian was asked to turn out the main lights, leaving the candles as the only source of light.

As they watched the mirror, Selena talked.

“Let your gaze relax, altar your perceptions and allow the faces of your former lives to emerge.”

There were oohs and aahs as one by one each person in turn had a face from their past revealed to them. Some described what they could see, as their own familiar faces morphed into those of the opposite sex, or developed distinct foreign features and altered skin tones. Some of the onlookers said they too could see other faces staring back at them, one or two were disappointed when they received no images other than their own and one of these was Louisa. Selena assured her that it might take her several attempts to let go of her preconceived notions and that next time would be different and not to give up hope. Then, it was Kate’s turn.

She hadn’t seen any of the things the others had claimed and was highly sceptical of the whole performance. She expected the same as Louisa, but did as she was asked and took her turn in front of the mirror.

At first all she could see, in the warm glow of the candles, was her own face looking back at her. The faces of the others in the circle behind her were less clear and became fuzzy as she concentrated.

“Relax your eyes,” prompted Selena, kneeling next to her. “Squint a little if it helps.”

Kate let her eyes drift over the features of her face. It began to blur and her eyelids drooped at the sound of Selena’s monotone voice beside her. The image shifted and she snapped back to alertness.

“Keep trying,” crooned Selena.

She began the process again. This time the blurring occurred much quicker. In the mirror, the image changed. Her eyes slowly turned from brown to a dark blue then her hair began to lighten from rich chestnut through several shades of lighter brown to a dark blonde. It curled gently about her face instead of hanging smooth and straight in her usual style. At first Kate thought it was a trick of the light, but several voices behind her gasped and were hushed into silence by Selena.

The transformation continued. It was no longer Kate that stared out of the glass, but a young girl of around fourteen. She was pale and undernourished. Kate’s heart rate increased, beside her Selena had grasped hold of her hand and then someone screamed. She lost concentration, her head turned and as soon as she moved her eyes the image reverted back to her own familiar reflection.

The scream had come from Louisa. Some of the others were clutching their neighbours’ hands, looking beyond Kate, not at the mirror, but at something else in the room.

Selena took charge and brought the group back to order. Brian was asked to turn the lights up again and everyone blinked in its sudden harshness.

“I think that’s enough for this session,” Selena said, wafting the scarf back over the mirror. “Please make sure you take all your things and remember we’re here again next week at the same time. Good night everyone.”

The tremor in her voice made it clear she was as spooked as the others. She waited for the stragglers to leave, then gathered Kate and Brian round the table.

“Drink this,” she said, pouring another coffee for Kate. “You need to ground yourself too.”

She held out the plate of biscuits. Kate took one with a trembling hand and nibbled at it.

“What happened?” she asked.

“The girl you saw in the mirror was the face you wore in a previous life.”

“I’ve never seen anyone come through so clearly before,” Brian said.

“Me either,” Selena agreed. “Certainly not for a beginner.”

“And the screaming? What was all that about, because it looked to me like they’d all seen something else?” Kate said.

Selena paused. She seemed reluctant to answer.

“I saw a figure in black,” said Brian. “I can’t speak for anyone else.”

Kate turned to Selena, she was, after all, supposed to be the expert here.

“There was a figure,” she said, staring at the spot where the apparition had appeared. “I think it may have been your guardian angel.”

*  *  *

On the journey back home, Kate quizzed Brian on what he’d seen. He hadn’t seen much in the mirror because his position in the circle meant it was angled away from him, but when Louisa had screamed and the others had all looked up, he’d followed their gaze and seen a dark figure. He couldn’t make out any features, but he described it as being a little taller than 6 feet, man shaped, possibly dressed in black. Kate swallowed at that and fixed her gaze on the road ahead.

“Has anything like that happened before?” she asked.

“Not while I’ve been there. Mostly we sit around, chill out and talk about stuff. Even Selena was spooked,” he said. “I’ve never seen her like that before.”

“Why do you go?” Kate asked him, as he walked her to her door.

“It might surprise you, but I’m interested in that kind of thing.”

When she raised an eyebrow he elaborated.

“You know, the occult.”

She was surprised. Brian always came across as one of the most down to earth, grounded people she knew. He followed her inside as she unlocked the door.

“Don’t worry, I’m no Satan worshipper,” he said, laughing. “But I have dropped the odd love potion in your coffee.”

He gave an odd, maniacal laugh that she guessed was supposed to scare her. She raised her eyebrows at him.

“Just kidding,” he grinned. “You know I wouldn’t do that.”

Brian could be funny at times. He made her laugh now. It felt good and went a long way to dispel the dark cloud that had settled over her after the session at Selena’s. When Brian took a step towards her she wasn’t sure what he was going to do until he brought his head down and pressed his lips against hers. She recoiled, shoving him away, feeling the hard muscles of his shoulders beneath her hands. The realization that he was much stronger than her made her panic.

“Brian, what are you doing?”

He couldn’t make eye contact, looking anywhere but at her.

“I’m sorry. I thought… I’m sorry. I’d better go.”

Kate sighed as she locked the door behind him. Poor Brian, he was never going to learn.

 

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Blackfeather – Chapter 5

Kate threw her keys onto the kitchen table. They skittered across the smooth polished surface and slid over the edge with a clatter. She bent to pick them up again with a loud sigh. This wasn’t turning out to be a good day.

In her bedroom she stripped off her coffee stained clothes and put on her dressing gown then headed to the bathroom to shower. The sticky, brown patches on her arm and legs were proof the incident had happened, but wipe that away and underneath the skin was healthy.

Kate stepped into the flow of hot water, letting it run over her body, easing away the tension in her shoulders and wrapping her in a cocoon of steam. As she relaxed, her mind’s eye replayed the scene in the café.

She watches again as the coffee pours from the jug and the steam from her memory mingles with that of the shower. It had been hot then. So how had she escaped being badly scalded? The vision continues and she recalls the scene in minute detail. It is a cold sensation that spreads along Kate’s arm as the coffee soaks into the sleeve of her favourite powder blue jumper. Brian lurches across the table, grabbing for the pot, but the liquid is already pouring, the waitress is terrified. Behind her Ronnie steps away, not wanting to admit blame and the pool of coffee grows larger, creeping across the table like the tide rising inexorably up a beach.

Fearing for the precious casket, Kate pulls it out of the way of the waterfall of coffee, now spilling over the table’s edge, and the man from the corner gets up from his seat and walks towards them, seemingly unaware of the little drama until he reaches the door and turns, deliberately, to look directly at her.

The feeling of recognition washes over her again and she observes him with detachment. He has short pale blonde hair, the colour of buttermilk, and is incredibly good-looking. He wears a leather jacket, shirt and jeans, all black except for the lining of the jacket, which is red. The white wire of his earphones contrasts sharply against his dark shirt, the end disappearing into the pocket of his jeans, but his most striking feature is his eyes. They are more than green, they are the colour of polished malachite and although she doesn’t know who he is she feels connected to him in a way she can’t explain. His eyes are locked on hers until he passes through the door and it closes behind him. The feeling of loss she experiences as he leaves is inexplicable.

Kate blinked the water from her eyes; it was like waking from a dream. The face she’d pictured with such detail in her mind’s eye a few seconds before was now impossible to capture. Try as she might she couldn’t remember him, but it seemed important that she did. She pressed her fingers to her temples, gradually becoming aware that the persistent ringing in her head was the telephone. She turned off the shower, wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to answer it before the caller rang off.

“Hello.”

“Ah finally! Hi Kate, it’s me, Brian. I  wanted to check you were OK after this afternoon and – well, all right I’m curious as to what you were going to ask me.”

There was a pause.

“Kate, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” she said, trying to figure out what she was going to say.

“You are OK, aren’t you?”

It was obvious Brian was genuinely concerned.

“Yes, I’m all right.” She paused again. “Brian, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you coming over here is there? Tonight?”

It was Brian’s turn to pause at that.

“Yeah, I think I can manage that. Is six thirty OK for you?”

“Yes, that’s fine. I’ll see you then.” A sudden thought crossed Kate’s mind. “And bring your toolbox,” she added.

“Right.” Now he was confused. “What do I need…”

“Please.” She cut him off. “I’ll explain when I see you.”

She hung up, biting her lip, and thought about the brief conversation. Had she done the right thing getting Brian involved? What would he think if he found out she’d stolen the box, never mind where it had come from?

I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it, she thought, echoing the words she’d heard in the church.

If it got her inside the box it would be worth it, she decided and went to get dressed.

*  *  *

It was six forty before Brian’s Jeep Compass crunched through the frozen snow on Kate’s driveway. The motorcycles were for weekends and pleasure, this was Brian’s company vehicle, a respectable car for when dealing with clients and out on field trips to look at Parish Registers and other archives. Eager for his arrival, she’d been pacing back and forth across the front room carpet and stopping at every turn to look out through the window for any sign of him. She was at the door before he even had a chance to knock.

“I thought you were never going to get here,” she said.

“Steady on, what’s the rush? Them roads are treacherous y’ know.”

She remembered Michael, the man she’d rescued the previous night and cringed.

“Right, what’s all this about?” Brian asked, swinging the toolbox by his side.

“How good are your lock picking skills?”

Brian narrowed his eyes at her.

“What did you lose? Car keys, garage keys?”

“Neither.”

Kate was beginning to wish she’d thought this through a little longer. She hadn’t yet formulated a story about how she’d acquired the box and why she needed him to open it. From here on in she was thinking on her feet.

“I need you to open a jewellery box for me.”

Kate waited to gauge Brian’s response. Did she need to add anything more or would Brian accept this simple explanation? He raised an eyebrow and Kate dug herself deeper into the lie.

“I think it belonged to my Grandmother. I found it while rummaging around in the attic last night, but there’s no key and I don’t want to damage it and I want to know what’s inside. You know she died before I knew her and …”

“All right!” Brian interrupted her. “I’ll try and open it for you, but if I do you have to do something for me.”

Kate heard the mischievousness in his tone and tried to figure out what he was up to before she gave in and fell into his trap. How bad could it be?

“All right, what is it?

“You have to come out on a date with me this Friday.”

She groaned.

“Oh Brian, you know how I hate crowded places.”

“Yeah, but I’ll look after you and it’ll do you good to get out for once instead of cooping yourself up here alone all the time.”

The prospect of a date with Brian filled her with dread, but she weighed up the pros and cons, and it was too late to back track now, she had no other choice if she was going to get Brian to cooperate.

“OK. But it’s just this once and it doesn’t mean we’re a couple or anything.”

“No, of course not,” he said. “I’m shocked and hurt you’d even think that.” He pushed his way into the narrow hallway. “OK, where’s the patient?”

He let Kate squeeze past him and lead him into the kitchen, where she’d once again placed the box in the centre of the table. The toolbox thumped on the floor where Brian dropped it. He leaned over the casket and whistled in appreciation of its beauty.

“This has been hidden away in your attic?”

“Yep!” Kate lied again.

“Funny thing to have engraved on a jewellery box,” he said, reading the inscription.

Kate shrugged. They stared at each other for what seemed like a lifetime until she was sure Brian had seen through her deception. She chewed at a fingernail, then he too shrugged and bent down to open the toolbox.

He took out a small black bundle and unrolled it, revealing a row of small metal tools. With a feather light touch he lifted the box, turning it this way and that, appraising the lock and how difficult the job would be. When he was satisfied, he replaced it, pulled out a chair and took a seat. He flexed his fingers until the bones cracked and selected his instrument.

As he placed a hooked tool in the lock, Kate interrupted him.

“Try not to damage it,” she whispered, leaning close to his ear.

Brian paused and turned his face to hers.

“Do you want me to open it or not?”

“Yes.”

“Right, trust me then.”

She took a step back and closed her eyes, clasping her hands together in front of her as much in a silent prayer that the box would open easily as in excitement at discovering what it held.

Brian proved far more expert at picking the lock than she had been with the hair clip and after hearing a small click, pronounced it open. He handed the box to Kate. She stared down at it, reluctant now to disturb its contents in front of anyone else. Brian nodded in encouragement. All Kate wanted was to be left alone with it, but it was clear Brian had no intention of leaving without getting a look inside, so she pushed the lid upwards.

It opened without a sound, as if it had been made yesterday rather than being hidden in the ground for who knew how long. Kate’s eyes were round and expectant and Brian moved to stand beside her, caught up in the moment, as eager as she was to see inside, but when the contents were revealed they were not what either one had anticipated.

They stared in silence at the objects in the box for several minutes before Brian said what both of them were thinking.

“Not quite what you were hoping for, is it?”

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Kate murmured.

“Jewellery, I would’ve thought.”

“Hmm.”

Of course, she hadn’t expected jewellery, but what had she thought would be in there? She hadn’t thought that far ahead. Now she could feel her excitement draining away like water down a sink. Inside the box lay a dirty linen bag and a leather-bound book. There were no markings on the cover or spine and Kate’s initial thought was that it must be a Bible.

“Aren’t you going to open the bag?” asked Brian.

Kate reached in and lifted it out, afraid it might fall apart from years of lying in the ground, but it held together. Maybe it wasn’t as old as she thought it was. The church had been built in the 15th Century, but the bag looked as though it was probably less than a hundred years old. Of course, she was only guessing. She put the box down and weighed the bag in the palm of her hand. It might have been white once, but now it was a dirty grey with splotches of dark brown mottling its surface. She loosened the drawstring and peered inside.

“Well, what is it?”

Brian leaned forward. Kate held it out to him.

“You tell me.”

He took it from her, glanced at the contents, then up at her and back at the bag again before poking a finger inside. He held it up and examined it, rubbing the grey powder between finger and thumb.

“Looks like ash,” he pronounced. “Oh, you don’t think it’s a person’s remains, do you?”

Kate nodded.

“Could be.”

Brian dropped the bag in the box, his face twisted in disgust, and turned to the sink to wash the offending substance from his hand. Whilst his back was turned, Kate picked up the book and opened the cover.

There was something handwritten on the flyleaf and though the writing was easy to make out, it appeared to be in a language Kate had never seen before. In place of letters there were symbols, and assuming that each symbol had been substituted for an ordinary letter, the grouping of first three and then nine didn’t make the words Holy Bible a likely translation. She frowned, unsure what to make of it.

Brian’s voice made her jump. For a moment she had forgotten he was there and she snapped the book shut and held it tightly in her hand.

“What’s that then?”

He nodded at the book at her side.

“An old Bible,” she said.

The more lies she told, the easier it became.

Kate tensed as Brian stepped towards the table where the casket lay. She wanted to grab it, not let him touch it again, but he leaned past it, replaced the tools he’d used in their holder and rolled it up, putting it back in his toolbox and snapping the lid shut.

“Looks like you discovered a dead relative in your attic then. Ugh, creepy. Fancy not knowing it’s been up there all the time you’ve lived here, especially now you’re on your own. I wonder if your mum and dad knew it was there?”

“I don’t think so,” Kate said.

“So what are you going to do with it – him – her?”

What was she going to do?

“Put it back and forget about it, I suppose.”

Brian shivered.

“Creepy,” he said again with a shudder.

There was a moment of awkward silence as Kate stared at the box and Brian waited for her to say something. He decided she wasn’t going to, so he gathered his things to leave.

“S’pose I better get off before them roads freeze up again.”

“Oh yes,” Kate said, distracted. “Um, thanks Brian. I appreciate you coming out to do this for me.”

“Sorry it wasn’t what you expected,” he said, then grinned. “And don’t forget you promised me a date.”

Kate pulled a face, shaking her head at him.

“Don’t worry, I won’t forget.”

She ushered him towards the door.

“Err, I could stay, like, if, y’ know, you feel a bit scared with them ashes in the house.”

“They haven’t hurt me yet, have they?”

“No, but you didn’t know they were there before. You’ve disturbed ’em now, they might not be too happy about that.”

“I’ll be fine,” Kate said, ushering him down the hall and outside, closing the door behind him.

He pressed his face to the glass.

“Well, if you need me, y’ know my number.”

Kate laughed, then walked back down the hall to the kitchen. She leaned back against the cooker and contemplated the box and its contents. The sound of Brian’s Jeep receded into the distance and she was left in silence. She opened the bag and pushed her fingers into the grey dust. The fine particles coated her fingers and a profound sadness welled up within her. Without knowing why, she began to cry. She gathered the book and the linen bag in her arms and hugged them to her, sinking to the floor. Overcome with grief, she rocked back and forth as the tears rolled down her face. Over an hour later, cried out, exhausted and more than a little bewildered, she picked herself up, placed both items back in their resting place with unusual reverence, closed the lid and took herself and the box to bed.

She fell asleep within minutes of closing her eyes, but it was far from peaceful. Her dreams were filled with strange faces, people she thought she knew but couldn’t name. And though she seemed to recognise her surroundings, her body was a different matter. It did not feel as if it belonged to her, she felt younger, but not the girl she remembered as her childhood self. There were voices all around, taunting, shouting, hurtful and though the language was familiar it was not quite modern English.

The scene changed, and she found herself imprisoned in a small cell with no idea of what her crime might be. The questions her gaoler fired at her were unceasing. She was confused, frightened and fighting to get free and when, at last, she thought she would succumb to madness, she heard a low, soothing voice whispering comfort to her. She was cradled in the warm glow of a healing mellow light, and her pain and fear were gone. Then the dream changed once more to a confrontation with a shrieking mob. Her eyes stung with smoke and the last thing she saw, before she woke, screaming, was the figure of a man. He stood alone, watching her burn and behind him was a church.

Her skin slick with cold sweat and her throat parched and sore, she stumbled, trembling, out of bed, down the stairs and into the kitchen in search of water. After gulping down a whole glass she stopped to catch her breath. She’d never had a nightmare so real. She had felt the heat of the flames as they rose up around her and the barrel she bizarrely appeared to be standing in, and though she had lurched awake before they touched her skin, the final image of the dream had burnt itself into her mind.

The church.

In her dream it had been a smaller, plainer building, but a vision of what it would one day become had superimposed itself over its predecessor. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, which church it was. She had visited it the day before. All Souls, in the village where she had been born. The church from which she had stolen the box.

Once she had calmed down it was easy to rationalise an explanation for the nightmare. Finding someone’s ashes in a casket would bring burning to anyone’s mind. It may not have been the cremation one would expect, but a cremation of sorts all the same, and Brian hadn’t helped by putting images of unquiet spirits in her head. No, the tension of the past couple of days and the events culminating in the opening of the box had had a more profound effect on her than she’d realised. Tomorrow, without even touching the book again, she would return the box to the church, anonymously, and that would be that.

With an effort of will, Kate returned to bed. Whether by sheer determination or through complete exhaustion she didn’t know, but she soon fell back to sleep and didn’t wake again until morning.

 

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Blackfeather – Chapter 1

Kate threw the pipe under the scaffolding and hurried down the path to her car. Her hands trembled, her knees were weak. Had anyone seen her, running through the graveyard, flustered and grubby, with a suspicious bundle? She had just stolen something from a church and she didn’t even know what it was.

As she fastened the seatbelt and started the car, she remembered her promise to Reverend Pilling. She swore and raced back to the rear of the church, locked the vestry door and hid the key beneath one of the three plant pots arranged in a triangle near the wall. If anyone had seen her, they hadn’t bothered to investigate what she was up to. Back in the driving seat, she took a deep breath.

Just an hour ago she’d been standing at the lych-gate, looking fondly up at the church where she’d been christened, preparing herself for an afternoon away from the office, researching the family tree of a new client. Scaffolding covered the walls instead of ivy, and mesh screens had been fitted over the stained glass windows to protect them from falling masonry and vandals. By the look of things, repairs to the roof had begun just in time.

She blew away the flurry of snowflakes that danced round her head with a puff of hot breath and pushed a wind-whipped strand of hair back under her woollen hat with a gloved hand, then shouldered her bag, unlatched the gate and made her way up the path to the porch. The iron hinges squeaked as she pushed open the heavy wooden door. It was the perfect accompaniment to the whistle of December wind that played through the bare branches of the trees and it sent goose bumps up Kate’s arms in spite of the layers of warm clothing she’d piled on.

Inside the entrance stood a Christmas tree, its branches as yet untrimmed and at intervals down the nave were leafy green wreaths and swags of ivy, laid out ready for someone to fasten them in place. The decorations brought back happy memories of candlelit Christmas Eve carol services, and being carried back to the car in her father’s arms afterwards, too sleepy to walk.

The rainbow of light from the tall medieval stained glass windows was reflected on the arched stone wall opposite and Jacobean box pews, lined up in rows down the nave, mirrored the dark oak beams in the ceiling. At the entrance to each pew was a small posy of flowers, placed in a conical holder. A couple of sparrows and a plump wood pigeon had found their way in through a hole in the roof and while the pigeon perched on the curve of a wall monument, trying to sleep, his feathers puffed up for warmth, the sparrows chirruped and chased each other from beam to beam.

Kate watched them for a few minutes until an elderly man wearing the ubiquitous grey suit, black shirt and dog collar of an Anglican vicar, emerged through a door in the north wall, half hidden by a second row of arches. When he saw Kate, a wide smile formed on his face. She grinned back as he strode towards her, carrying his cane rather than admit his need for its support by leaning on it, and vigorously shook her hand.

“Goodness me, Kathryn, you have grown up,” he said with a chuckle. “You were just this high the last time I saw you.”

He held up his hand to chest level, then tapped the cane on the stone floor three times, a habit he’d developed soon after acquiring it.

“It’s been ten years,” she said.

“It can’t be!”

Kate nodded.

“Well, tempus fugit, as they say. You must be surprised that I’m still here. Though I think it won’t be long before I’m replaced by a woman. The Bishop is keen to increase the congregation and move with the times. There’s a vicar in the city centre you know who gives sermons dressed as a clown”.

He turned away, then muttered, “Idiot!” under his breath. She heard him, nonetheless and pressed her lips together to stifle a giggle. The Reverend tapped his cane again.

“Well, I expect you want to get on with your research?” he said, adjusting his glasses and turning to look over his shoulder at her with eyebrows raised.

She nodded once more and he led the way down the narrow aisle, between the pews and through the wooden door into the vestry. To their left was Reverend Pilling’s office, but they entered the room opposite, a room filled with shelves of leather bound books, where the church archives were kept.

“I’m afraid I can’t stay, Kathryn. One of my parishioners has suffered a bereavement and I need to get the funeral arrangements underway. I’ll go out the front and lock the main door, but I’d be grateful if you’d lock up round the back and leave the key under the pot when you’ve finished.” He handed her a large, old-fashioned brass key. “I must be off.”

He punctuated his words by tapping the cane a further three times and disappeared back the way they’d come.

Kate sighed with contentment. She loved the solitude of working alone in old buildings and began making herself comfortable, placing her notebook on the table in the centre of the room and laying her outdoor clothes over the back of a wooden chair. She took her time, walking a circuit of the room and running her fingers over the red, leather spines of the books. The dates were stamped on each one in gold lettering and when she found the one she needed, she pulled it from its place and laid it on the lectern on the table. Then she sat down and opened the notebook at a fresh page, wrote the surname of the family she was researching in capitals at the top and opened the register.

Her client had appointed Sharpe’s, Genealogists and Probate Researchers to finish his family tree when he could get no further on his own and had got himself in a muddle with the various records he had so far accumulated. Peter Sharpe had assigned the project to her.

She lost track of time as she worked, poring over the names and dates in the archives until the real world faded away. Anything beyond the book in front of her and the room in which she sat ceased to exist. She was copying the details with meticulous care and double checking the records already provided by the client when she was startled by a loud, reverberating crack and thundering echo from inside the church. She paused, listening for any other sounds before calling out.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

There was no answer, but it was unlikely that anyone would have heard her from the thick walled room. It couldn’t have been a door banging shut. Reverend Pilling had locked the main door and this had sounded like a large, heavy object falling on stone. Something from the roof, maybe.

It was quiet now, too quiet, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate properly until she’d investigated the cause of the noise. Kate put down her pencil and left the sanctuary of the archives, passed through the vestry and emerged into the hushed church. The sound of her boots scuffing on the paved floor echoed round the building. There was no one there and nothing out of place that could offer an explanation for what she’d heard, but as she skirted the Norman font and turned toward the chancel, she found the culprit.

A huge piece of masonry, probably loosened by the roofing contractors, had fallen from high up in the east wall. It had crashed to the floor, miraculously missing the choir stalls and altar table, and landed smack in the centre of the chancel. The only damage was a broken flagstone.

Kate edged towards the slab, glancing nervously upwards with each step. A triangular piece of paving stuck up from the floor at an angle and she nudged it with the toe of her boot. It twisted and fell inwards, revealing a cavity below.

People were often buried beneath church floors, in fact there were other grave slabs nearby, but Kate couldn’t see any carvings on this one, not even worn ones. She crouched down and swept the palm of her hand across the stone’s smooth surface, confirming the absence of an inscription.

She felt along the jagged, broken edge of the flagstone with her fingertips then gave an experimental tug. It didn’t budge, so she pushed her hand into the hole, up to her wrist. Something tickled her and she pulled it out again. The tickle continued, travelling up her arm along with the spider, and she jumped to her feet, shrieking and shaking her arm, brushing furiously at it to dislodge the tiny creature. She hated spiders. When she was sure it had been flung far away from her, she took a deep breath. Her heart pounded and she looked back at the hole with trepidation.

Leave it, she thought. Whatever’s in there isn’t worth it.

She walked away, got as far as the font, stopped and blew out her breath in a long, slow sigh. She was far too curious to let it go.

I don’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, pushing the sleeves of her jumper up to her elbows, and steeling herself to try again.

It took several deep breaths and a number of false starts before she plucked up enough courage to thrust her hand all the way into the hole. It was deeper than she’d expected, but about a foot below the surface she felt something cold and solid and flinched away from it. When it didn’t move she touched it again. Beneath a thick layer of dust she could make out a surface covered with small bumps. Her trembling fingertips traced along the edge of the object, found a corner and continued on until she’d returned to her starting point. The object had depth to it too and with her arm as far into the hole as it would go, she felt all over it, building up a mental image, like a blind person touching the face of someone they’d never met before. It felt like a box.

She brushed the dirt off her hand and pushed herself up, sitting back on her heels to survey the floor around her. The piece of mortar she squeezed between thumb and forefinger crumbled to dust. All the other stones were cemented in place, but this one had been packed round the edges with dirt. It had compacted over the centuries, giving the illusion it was fixed in place like all the others, but if this had been a burial, why had it been left loose?

Go on, dig it out.

The thought was in her head so it must have been her own, but it didn’t feel like something she would say.

She looked around, chewing at a fingernail on the hand that hadn’t been in the hole, while she weighed up her options and wondered how long Reverend Pilling would be gone. She dreaded to think what he was going to say when he saw the damage to his church. Was she really going to do this?

With the decision made, she retreated to the archive room and rummaged through her bag for something to help remove the dirt from around the stone. The old nail file she found would have to do. The box was too big to come out through the hole, but if she could loosen the flagstone she might be able to lift it.

What if I get caught? she asked herself.

 We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Her inner monologue was really playing devil’s advocate today.  It didn’t even sound like her any more.

Go on then, it prompted

It took her fifteen minutes to scrape the dirt away. She stood at the unbroken end; bent over with both hands in the hole and pulled it towards her with all her strength. She managed to raise it an inch or two before the weight of the stone pulled it down again.

Unwilling to admit defeat, Kate scanned the church for something to use as a lever and was surprised by how dark it had become. The late afternoon light had faded to dusk, the church had turned gloomy and the silence settled like a heavy, wool blanket. Even the birds had gone.

The air felt electric, like the moments before a storm when you were just waiting for it to break, and the prickling sensation at the base of her neck made her feel as though she was being watched from the shadows. She shook her shoulders, trying to dispel the idea.

There was nothing she could use inside the church, and she knew better than to even think of using the medieval silver candlesticks adorning the altar, so she slipped outside to search beneath the scaffolding among the discarded rubble. The snow had started to stick and was already filling up the gaps between the stacks of roof slates leant against the wall. She turned up a length of steel pipe and after testing its weight decided it would do the job.

With one end in the hole and using the fallen stone as a fulcrum, she pushed down on the pipe. The flagstone raised enough for Kate to thrust in her spare hand and pull out the large casket that had been hidden there. She released the pressure and the flagstone thudded back into its original resting place. She held the box up to what remained of the light and examined it. Something shifted inside and she screwed up her eyes in an effort to peer through the keyhole on the front.

A rustling from the choir stalls made her jump again. With heart in throat she wasted no time in sweeping the dirt into the hole, back filling the crevices and tidying up as best she could before someone came in and discovered her. When she was satisfied the scene looked as undisturbed as she could make it, she rubbed the loose soil from her hands and wiped them down the front of her jeans, leaving dirty, grey streaks.

What now? she thought as she sat on a nearby pew with the box on her knee. She pulled at the lid, but it wouldn’t open.

Take it home.

Oh no, that was a step too far. She was no thief and whatever was inside was probably an old church relic or a saint’s bones, placed there when the church was built. It was one thing to remove it from the crypt so it didn’t suffer further damage but to steal it..? She shook her head. She would leave the box on Reverend Pilling’s desk with a note explaining everything and phone tomorrow to ask him about it.

With the note written and the box placed squarely on the Reverend’s desk, she took one last look at it and stepped away.

Don’t you want to know what’s inside?

She straightened, tossed her hair back over her shoulder, and firmly pulled the door of the office shut.

Satisfied she had done the right thing, she went back to work. She sat down at the desk in the archives room and picked up her pencil.

What if someone comes in and takes it before the vicar gets back?

       Why would anyone do that?  she thought in reply.

It would be much safer in here with you.

That was true, she could watch over it until she had to leave, at least. Reverend Pilling might be back by then and she could give it to him personally.

That’s right, it will only take a minute to get it.

She got up and moved towards the door and suddenly found herself rooted to the spot.

You don’t have to do this, Kate.

“What?” she said aloud.

Where had that come from? Was someone else here with her? She was sure she had heard someone speak.

“Who’s there?” she called. “Reverend Pilling, is that you?”

There was no reply. She turned the brass knob of the door, but it wouldn’t open. It couldn’t be locked. Unless someone was on the other side.

She heard whispering and stiffened as she tried to hear what was being said, but all she caught were snatches of a few words and phrases between what sounded like two people arguing.

shouldn’t be doing this… can’t interfere…

       …she should know… what if she wants to…

There was a pause and the door was released and Kate stumbled back a step.

Take the box before someone who shouldn’t does.

The thought was so forceful and induced such an overwhelming sense of fear for the safety of the box that Kate hastily packed up her work and a few minutes later was back in the vicar’s office.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the air. “I don’t know why, but I need to know what’s inside. I’ll bring it back. Promise.”

 

And that’s how she found herself fleeing the scene of a crime.

In the time it had taken her to free the box, the road had been obliterated by a layer of snow. Kate restarted the engine of her cherry red VW Beetle and with a quick look over her shoulder pulled away from the church. The back end of the car swung out into the road, but she managed to regain control and accelerated out of the village onto a narrow, unlit country lane.

The branches of the trees on either side of the road reached so far over they met in the middle and interlaced like an arch of swords formed by a military honour guard. The tunnel they formed made it so dark Kate could hardly see where she was going. She hunched over the wheel, her eyes squinting through the blizzard of snowflakes that battered against the windscreen, obscuring her view even further.

She had thrown everything into the back except the box, which lay on the front passenger seat. She tried to focus her attention on driving, rubbing her hand over the inside of the windscreen to clear the mist her breath made on the glass, but the box, thrown about by the movement of the car, jerked forward and teetered on the edge of the seat. She pushed it back, looked up and gasped in shock, jamming her foot onto the brakes.

The man had appeared out of nowhere, and as Kate’s car sped towards him, he looked straight at her and smiled.

 

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