Bones of an unusual small animal, a battered fob watch in a fine silver case and a tattered silk handkerchief with a dark stain in one corner. Eddie hated jobs like this.
As soon as he got the text telling him to come to the front door, not the basement entrance, he knew something was wrong. He contemplated not going at all, but the money was double and this was his profession.
A nice fresh corpse meant things would go smoothly. One long gone and nothing but a few personal possessions to work with meant difficulty and danger.
Lamia had let him into the Dark House, and hovered behind him now.
“Can you do it?’ they asked
‘Triple my fee,’ he said. ‘Where’s the question?’
Lamia nodded as if the inflated fee was only to be expected, and handed him a sheet of grubby paper with one line of writing scrawled across it.
The thing on the top floor was screaming again. Lamia looked upwards with a concerned expression, as if a baby was crying not a — whatever it was. Eddie had seen it once, by accident, and it had almost lured him in, sweet as it seemed. Only the amulets he always wore kept him from being consumed.
‘What’s up?’ he asked.
Lamia shook the paper at him.
‘That is what you’re here to find out. I brought your things up from downstairs. If you need anything else, call me.’
Pushing the paper into his hand, Lamia left him in the dimly-lit room. Overhead, the screaming continued.
Smoothing the sheet of paper, Eddie stared at the writing. Baffled, he turned the paper through 180 degrees and tried again. No. The writing was an incomprehensible line of wobbly marks whichever way he looked at it. Eddie had some grasp of quite a few obscure and ancient scripts, but this was nothing he recognised. It hardly looked like writing at all, but more like something an illiterate person might produce if forced to ‘write’ something.
Eddie left the room and went to the bottom of the stairs. (He knew better than to climb them.)
‘Hello?’ he called, several times. At last Lamia appeared to the top of the stairs, paler even than usual. Eddie waved the paper. ‘If this is the question, I can’t read it. How can I ask an unreadable question?’
‘Show it,’ said Lamia, and turned away, running back up out of sight.
Show it. The Recalled were not generally in the mood for reading, but he was being paid triple rates, so he shrugged and went back to make his preparations.
From his box of necessaries he took a human skull complete with lower jaw hinged in place with silver wire, and arranged the possessions of the one to be recalled around it, along with other items which it would not be prudent to mention here.
After an hour’s worth of incantations and deep concentration Eddie was sweating and exhausted with the effort, but the skull began to vibrate. It started to chatter its teeth together like a wind-up toy, leapt into the air and flew across the room, bouncing off a red velvet chaise longue and onto the floor.
It appeared that this Recalled One did not wish to fit itself into someone else’s skull.
Eddie considered his options. Resistance called for a more direct approach. He thought of that triple fee. He thought of taking a holiday somewhere warm. Somewhere hot.
There was a little bottle of oil in the box of necessaries, which he he seldom used. The tools of the trade were, of course, only vehicles for the trained practitioner, but this was a particularly powerful tool.
He took the handkerchief and laid the silver watch and the collection of small animal bones on it. The tiny skull was peculiar, with huge eye sockets and many pointed teeth, all black and shiny. Eddie drew up the corners of the handkerchief and tied it all into a small bundle.
Unscrewing the top of the oil bottle, he let two drops fall onto the carpet in front of him, then, with the bundle of possessions in his left hand and the unreadable question in the other, he began a long, repetitive incantation. Concentrating on the air in front of him, the objects in his hands and the sound of his own voice, he continued the rhythmic chant on and on, never pausing, never allowing his mind to drift. At last a small spot of mist appeared, widening into a circle like a dissipating smoke ring, opening a dark hole in reality. The hole grew to about the height of a man. Eddie continued to chant until he was sure it was stable, then he began his recall.
‘Come forth by night. Here are your treasures, here is a question for you. Come forth.’
There was no response. It would have been easier if he had a name for the target, but he suspected that he was calling on one with a dangerous name, or no name at all. Again and again he demanded the presence of the owner of the handkerchief and its contents, insisting on his right to call them to answer.
The eventual response was not exactly what he expected. a violent groan carried on foul air emitted from the hole. Eddie held his nerve and continued his demands. Suddenly something long, dark and flexible reached out of the hole, grabbed him by the neck and pulled him through into the darkness.
This was a new experience, but he had to hold his concentration or everything would be lost. Eddie demanded his answer, holding out the paper with the unreadable squiggles on it. Something stumbled towards him. Its breath was cold and it stank of putrefaction. For a brief moment, Eddie questioned his choice of profession. That moment was just long enough for his attacker to take the paper away from him, and almost succeed in taking the handkerchief bundle, too. Eddie managed to keep hold of that just because he had taken care to tangle his fingers around the knot.
The Recalled One was angry. It howled and treated him to another blast of icy stinking air. Eddie could hardly breathe, but he was a professional and he held his ground, and the bundle that enabled him to control the recalling. Again he demanded an answer. What he got was a ferocious blow into middle of his chest. He lost both control and consciousness. The world was black inside and out.
His neck was twisted to the right, his cheek pressed into a fuzzy surface. A skull, someone else’s, he hoped, lay close by, mouth open wide. It took a few moments for Eddie to realise where he was. He pushed himself into a sitting position and found his fingers still entangled in the knotted handkerchief, which had a few more unpleasant stains on it now, still moist.
Up near the ceiling a dusty, half-seen, feathered creature shifted.
‘Yeah,’ he said to it, ‘not quite, not this time. My lucky day, not yours,’
It shifted again, and was gone.
The screaming from upstairs continued, but at a different pitch. Lamia entered the room, flustered and distressed.
‘I heard you yell,’ they said.
‘I yelled? That’s possible.’
Eddie pushed himself to his knees, intending to get up. Something dripped onto the floor. Oh yes, his nose was bleeding. He almost used the hanky bundle to stem the flow but stopped himself in time, disentangled his fingers and set it onto the chaise longue. Then he got up and sat next to it, found a tissue in his pocket and held it to his nose.
‘I didn’t—,’ he began, but Lamia gave a cry and swooped down to pick a ball of something off the floor. Fingering it open, Lamia spread it out on the table next to Eddie’s box and smoothed it down. It was the question.
Eddie got up to look. The paper was well-chewed, damp and sticky, but under the original line of squiggles, there was another burned into the paper, as if someone had written it with a sharp smouldering stick.
‘What does it say?’ he asked
‘I have no idea.’
Lamia grasped the paper and ran from the room and Eddie heard them dashing upstairs. After a minute or two, the screaming stopped.
With a sigh he picked up the skull and put it back in the box. Then he untied the handkerchief, laid it on the table and opened it out. The battered fob watch was ticking, and the animal skeleton was covered in flesh with scales in many shades of blue. The creature opened one large eye and looked at him. Eddie took a step backwards out of caution, but it showed no inclination to do anything but lie there on its back twitching its tiny paws.
He left the room, closing the door, and waited in the hall, holding a sodden tissue to his still dripping nose. After a while, Lamia came down, smiling (though he wished they wouldn’t). They offered him a clean linen handkerchief, and he took it, feeling that losing too much blood in this house was a bad idea.
‘It seems the answer was satisfactory,’ said Lamia.
‘Good,’ said Eddie. ‘Who was it I recalled?’
‘Best not to think about it.’
Ah, not a someone then, more of a something, that had once had need of a timepiece, or — but no, best not to think about it.
‘I’m going on holiday for a month.’
‘Thank you for letting me know. Your fee has been sent direct to your bank account.’
He nodded and stepped out of the front door. Dawn was just breaking, the eastern horizon brightening to a pale lemon which to Eddie was the most beautiful colour he had ever seen.