Hey there, Insiders!
Spectral Detective fans rejoice! A new Jake Fletcher book is on the way, and today I’m going to share the whole of the first chapter with you. I hope this wets your whistle until the book comes out later this year…
Chapter One: Ghosted
Night-time. Smoky shafts of neon light filtering through the slats of a Venetian blind. A shady lady with legs up to her armpits and lipstick the colour of wet blood. That’s how detective stories are meant to start.
Not with some irked bloke sitting alone in a dank pub, waiting on a client who doesn’t even have the decency to show up. Who’d read that? Who wants to follow the story of a pissed off loser watching a closed door, standing by for a job that’s never going to happen? A case that ain’t to be.
That’s what he told me, this no-show of a client. Said he’d been hexed, and that nothing good could come his way until the spell was lifted. He didn’t know where the curse had come from, or who’d dealt it, but he was sure there was black magic involved. Sure of it. The ones who come my way always are. It’s never down to their shitty life choices. Never their habit of using the free will they were given to always, always make the wrong decisions. Oh no. Black magic, that’s the culprit every time. Lose a bundle on the nags? Cursed. Passed over for that promotion? Cursed. Got steaming drunk, ran a red light, and ended up with some old dear’s brains painting your mud flaps? Double cursed.
Or maybe I was wrong. Maybe the guy I was waiting on really did have a monkey on his back. Maybe he had every intention of showing up tonight… at least until he fell down a lift shaft to the distant sound of a cackling gypsy. From my perspective, it didn’t much matter. Well, not really. The job was a write-off, and I’d wasted an entire evening doing sweet FA. Those were the facts.
Walking through the pub door came a man, middle-aged and wearing a face like a dropped flan. Was this my jinxed client? Was this the man who was going to pull me out of my professional slump and offer up some decent work to chew on?
The feller with the face shuffled by me and took a seat at the bar before ordering a pint of something brown and bubbly. Lenny, the landlord, reluctantly heaved his elbows off the bartop and obliged.
I just realised I haven’t really set the scene for you. Sorry about that. Give me a sec and I’ll paint a proper picture. Okay, where to start? Tell you what, why don’t we kick off with my favourite subject: me. My name’s Jake Fletcher. I’m six-feet tall, easy on the eye, and I dress in a tidy black suit (a nice one, not something off a Moss Bros clearance rack). At this point in the story, I’m in The Beehive, specifically The Beehive’s saloon bar. The bar is a sort of speakeasy; a place for a certain… subset of London society to relax and tip their elbows among their own kind. I’ll get into the details later; right now, let me just give you some atmos.
The room I was sat in was packed full of wonky furniture and booths with Gaffer tape-patched upholstery, all propped up by a floor so sticky you’d think someone had gone arse-over-tit with a bucket of glue. Lenny, the aforementioned landlord, was a rafter-scraping man-mountain with cro-magnon features covered in a dusting of iron-filings stubble, and a voice that made him sound like he’d swallowed a lawnmower.
He leaned around the man at the bar and fixed his deep-set eyes on me. ‘Been stood up, Fletcher?’
‘Leave it out, Lenny, I’m not in the mood.’
A smile quirked his lips. ‘Horrible to watch. Just horrible.’
A new punter hailed Lenny from the other end of the bar, and he trudged off to serve her.
I wasn’t up for banter. Work had been thin on the ground lately, and I lacked the energy to act as if that didn’t bother me. The manners, too. Far as I was concerned, Lenny could take a hot dip in a wet shit.
I felt a buzz coming from the inside pocket of my suit jacket and plucked out my phone. Was this the client?
Please let that be him, please let that be him…
I stared at the name on the screen. Vic Lords. Vic fucking Lords.
Vic was what you might call a local entrepreneur, but could more accurately be described as a brothel owner, drug dealer, money launderer, gunrunner, human trafficker, and all-round shady geezer. Originally born within earshot of the Bow bells, Vic now presided over a criminal fiefdom that reached from east to west London and both sides of the river. As well as running scores of illegal enterprises, he was known to be a closet Satanist who dabbled in the very darkest corners of the occult. I’d seen some evidence of this myself but had yet to witness first-hand proof of any of the more outlandish rumours associated with his name, by which I mean cannibalism, communing with demons, and a penchant for human sacrifice. In any case, whether the gossip was true or not, Vic Lords was a bad man. The kind of man who should be accompanied by the theme tune to Jaws.
I cancelled the call, but no sooner had I returned the phone to my pocket than the thing started up again. It had been ringing red-hot ever since curiosity got the better of me and I picked up the first of Vic’s calls two days ago.
‘Jakey boy,’ the voice on the other end of the line had said. ‘How you keeping?’
‘What do you want, Vic?’ I spat back.
Him and me had a past. One I’m not going to get into here. For now, let’s just say we did some business together once, and that we didn’t part on the best of terms.
I heard the creak of cheap vinyl as Vic rocked back in his office chair. ‘Got a proposition for you, me old mucker.’
‘Yeah. Thought I’d chuck a job your way. Put a bit of dosh in your back pocket. You in?’
‘Thanks for thinking of me, Vic, but I’d rather clean Camden with my tongue.’
He unleashed an ugly, phlegmy laugh. ‘Why not, Fletcher? Did you lose your bottle? Or are you too busy for the likes of me?’
Something about the way he asked that question suggested that he knew I wasn’t. I didn’t care for that. Had he been digging into my business? Keeping tabs on my comings and goings? I wondered, did he have eyes on me at that moment, sat there kicking my heels up at a boozer when I should have been out there chasing pavement and righting wrongs?
‘You’ve got nothing to offer me, Vic,’ I told him.
‘Well, if it’s not cash you’re after, what do you want? Just name your price, my son.’
I could feel his shark fin circling. Vic had been on my case for years, trying to tempt me back into the fold with increasingly generous offers, but I was having none of it. I’d turned over a new leaf, and no amount of honeyed words were going to win me back.
‘I already gave you my answer,’ I told him. ‘Now give it a rest and lose this number.’
‘Haven’t I always done right by you, Fletcher?’ he went on, undeterred. ‘Haven’t I helped you out of some jams? The least you could do is hear what I have to say.’
‘Don’t act like you’ve done me any favours, Vic.’ My thumb hovered over the End Call button, but refused to pull the trigger.
‘I gave you work when no one else was offering. Paid you a fair price for it, too. What do you call that except for a favour?’
‘A mistake,’ I replied.
I heard a couple of strokes of a Zippo, then Vic took a long drag on what I knew from first-hand experience was a cigar that smelled worse than a burning mummy. ‘Why don’t you have a think on it, Jakey boy? Take some time to consider my offer properly. For old times’ sake.’
‘Okay, I will. I promise.’
‘Sure. Hey, you know what, I just thought about it. Fuck you, Vic.’
He laughed again; a laugh like he knew something that I didn’t. ‘You’re your own worst enemy, Jake, you know that?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
He hung up before I had a chance to find out.
Back in the here and now, the phone rang again. Again, I cancelled the call. I should have put a block on Vic’s number two days ago, but knowing how inept I am with technology, I’d probably have ended up finding a button that set the phone on fire.
I waited for the mobile to ring again, but this time it stayed quiet. Ten minutes passed, and the device sat idle on the table in front of me. What was all that about? Had Vic finally given up, or had he decided that he was done asking nicely? People who said no to Vic had a habit of winding up preserved in concrete and propping up motorway flyovers, or—as one oft-told yet never verified story went—cut up and sold to local kebab shops for meat. Had I just made the mistake of a lifetime?
I thought about that all the way back to my office in Chalk Farm.
The building I was based in was a gin warehouse originally, but had since been converted into a residential block. Well, half-converted; the work was never officially completed, which is how I came to grab a sweet top floor corner office with an impressive panoramic view of the borough.
I took the shuttered lift to the fifth and headed left, only to find the door to my office slightly ajar. I pulled to a stop.
‘Hello?’ I called out.
Was someone snooping around in there, or had they shown up looking for my services? Maybe the bloke who left me in the lurch at the pub arrived here instead, wanting to talk about his curse. Not likely, though. Chances were he got lucky at the races and knocked the whole “hexed” theory into a cocked hat. Poxy timewaster.
So who was it, then? Who’d let themselves into my office? Had a potential client come knocking and made himself comfortable in my absence? Maybe this was good news for a change. I could certainly do with a dose of that. It had been a good long while since I sunk my teeth into a nice, juicy case, and I was hungry for another bite.
I approached the doorway to the office and looked down to see splinters of wood on the ground, just beyond the threshold. The doorframe had been shattered, no doubt the result of someone kicking their way inside. Guess that blew my “good news” premise out of the water.
‘Hello?’ I repeated. ‘Who’s in there?’
Whoever it was that had broken in, they were either gone or hiding. And if they were hiding, they definitely weren’t on my friends list. What was I looking at here? A burglar? A junkie looking for someplace dry to shoot up? Or was it one of Vic Lords’ goons, come to twist my arm? Maybe even punch my ticket for good.
I stepped sideways through the door and switched on what I generously called “the lights”. The building’s electricity had been cut off a while back, leaving me to make do with a scattering of battery-powered lamps. I switched on the closest and lit up the front half of the office, not that there was much to illuminate. A desk, a battered office chair, an old filing cabinet—empty—and that was about it. Some visitors have referred to the decor as “spartan”, or “were you robbed?”. Me, I prefer “uncluttered”.
The back half of the office remained robed in shadow, but as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could just about make out something that shouldn’t be there: the silhouette of a figure, stood motionless in the darkness. Ice spiked my veins. It was a real squeaky bum moment.
‘Whoever you are, this is your last chance to skedaddle. I’ve got a shooter, and I’m more than happy to use it.’
I was bluffing, but with any luck, I’d managed to put enough steel in my voice for the lie to ring true.
But no. The figure remained, still as a statue, so quiet that I couldn’t even hear him breathing.
‘If you’re one of Vic’s dogsbodies, you can piss right off. I already told him I’m not for sale.’
Then again, on second glance, the figure didn’t look big enough to be one of Vic’s bully boys. No, the profile was all wrong for a heavy. Who was this bloke? I was desperate to get a proper look at my mystery guest, but the lamp that lit the remainder of the room was out of reach, at least without moving into grabbing distance of the intruder.
I briefly wondered if the trespasser was of the supernatural variety, but I’d long since taken precautions against those. I had a protective ward in place that locked off my entire floor to Uncannies. A ward composed of a concoction of my own design that I call my “secret herbs and spices”: a proprietary blend of silver oxide, rock salt, iron filings, wolves bane, desiccated chicken blood, and anything else that keeps the beasties out.
The trespasser moved suddenly, lurching forward a step and letting forth a deep, guttural moan that made my scalp crawl. I backed up a step, but the figure kept coming, shambling towards me with an ungainly, shuffling gait, arms out like a cartoon sleepwalker.
No special powder for that. No magical protection to ward off the walking dead. At least, none that I knew of.
The bones in the zombie’s stiffened neck creaked as it groped its way in my direction, shuffling into the pool of light cast by the nearby lamp. It wore a decomposed black suit that was a surprising match for my own. I saw its face and heard a gasp escape my throat.
I couldn’t correlate what it was I was seeing. The logical part of my brain tried to convince the lizard part that it was a trick of the light, a mental glitch, anything that made sense. Something that explained this impossible sight away. But the lizard part of my brain knew the truth.
I was looking at my own reanimated corpse.Now, that’s definitely not the way a detective story is meant to start.
All right, that’s enough for now, Insiders. Thank you so much for reading. Stick around for a bit longer and I’ll let you know when the book is finished and available to buy. Cut-price for you, of course, you saucy devils.