Hey there, Insiders!
A new Fletcher & Fletcher book is on the way, and today I’m going to share the first two chapters with you. I hope this wets your whistle until the book comes out on December 21st. You can pre-order that here.
Chapter One: It’s All Downhill From Here
The house looked all right at a distance: bricks and mortar topped with slate, same as any other. It wasn’t until I pushed open the stubborn front gate and drew nearer that I realised what a wreck the place was. The porch was so run down that it looked as if it was wilting under the onslaught of the afternoon’s unsympathetic downpour. The windows were spidered with cracks and held in place by termite-infested frames. The front door had barely a few scabs of paint left on it. And then there was the low hum of menace the house gave off: the queasy vibration that seeped into my bones and got my down-belows clenching. Something was wrong with this house. Very wrong.
I rang the doorbell. The sound it gave off was tinny and grating; simultaneously a long way away and right inside my ear. While I waited for an answer, I shook the rainwater from my umbrella and folded it up. The front door opened with a sound like a dying animal and an old woman peered out at me with rheumy eyes, her face scored with more grooves than a walnut. She wore makeup—so much makeup that if she were a passenger in the back of your car and you had to make an emergency stop, you’d have ended up with her portrait on the back of your headrest. This wasn’t your typical tarted-up old biddy, though: the kind who spunked away her pension at the bingo hall and always smelled of travel sweets. No. Despite her arthritic joints, I could tell from her surefooted stance that this was the kind of golden-ager who could wait tables in an army mess hall if need be.
‘Just the one of you then, is it?’ she asked, her voice a rusty hinge. ‘The ad said Fletcher and Fletcher.’
‘My partner’s not feeling his best,’ I replied, ‘but don’t you worry, I can manage. I’m a real one-man band.’
The old woman scratched her thistly chin. ‘Come on in before you catch a death, then.’
She beckoned me inside with a bony finger. I instinctively went to wipe my feet on the doormat but found nothing underfoot across the threshold but rotten floorboards. The hallway in front of me was dim and uninviting and appeared to be held together by cobwebs.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ said the old dear as she led me deeper inside.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said. All this place needs is a lick of paint, a spritz of Febreze, and a direct hit from a short-range ballistic missile is the part I didn’t say.
We arrived in a lounge that was empty except for a threadbare floral sofa. There was no other furniture in the room, no pictures on the wall, no TV set.
‘I’m guessing you don’t do a lot of entertaining,’ I said.
She snorted. ‘Everyone I know is dead.’
There’s a cheery thought.
‘So,’ I said, moving things along, ‘what is it you need my help with exactly?’
The old woman dumped her wide behind on the sofa, which responded with a great belch of dust. ‘I need something gotten rid of.’
‘I see. And what’s that exactly?’
She cast a furtive look to the Artex ceiling. ‘Something up there.’
It was obvious what she was getting at. I felt it before I stepped through the front door. ‘You think this place is haunted.’
‘I know it is, and I need you to put a stop to it.’
‘Stop it how?’
‘I don’t bloody know, do I? You’re the expert. Get out your holy cross and tell it to bugger off.’
‘Miss, there’s been a misunderstanding. I’m an investigator, not an exorcist.’
I didn’t tell her that an exorcist is exactly what I used to be, back before I got a tag put on my toe.
She showed me a folded-up piece of paper torn from the Yellow Pages. ‘Says here you’re a paranormal investigator.’
‘Correct. Meaning I look into unexplained phenomena. The transmundane.’
‘Nothing mundane about the thing lurking up there.’
‘Maybe not, but that doesn’t give me the right to destroy it.’
The old woman sat forward. ‘No one’s asking you to destroy anything. All I want is for you to shoo the thing away and send it off through the pearly gates.’ Her voice cracked and her eyes took on a watery sheen. ‘Please, Mister Fletcher, I’m begging you. I can’t carry on like this. You have to help me.’
I was under no illusions. I knew full well that she was playing the “poor old dear” card, but knowing it didn’t make it any less effective.
‘Okay, don’t get yourself all wound up, luv. I’ll take a look, but I’m not making any promises.’
She returned a dented smile and deflated back into the sofa. ‘Thank you, that’s all I’m asking.’
I patted down my pockets to make sure I had everything I needed.
‘Before I get to work, why don’t you tell me exactly what’s been going on up there?’
‘Lots of things. Footsteps that don’t belong to anyone. A weird voice whispering through the walls. Saw a white figure just floating there one time, bold as brass.’
She sounded genuine enough.
‘One last thing. I’ve seen these things get dicey fast, so before I go, are you absolutely sure you’re telling me everything I need to know?’
‘Dead sure,’ she said.
‘Nothing missed out?’
‘Okay then. I’ll have a shufty and let you know what I find. You wait here, all right?’
Two quick head bobs. ‘The room you want is at the top of the stairs, first door on your right.’
I followed the line of her crooked finger to the source of the supernatural presence and felt an icy tickle along my spine like a key dropped down the back of my shirt. Leaving the old woman behind, I trudged up a flight of creaky steps and pushed open the door she’d directed me to.
The room was small and meat-locker cold. Dubious fingers of daylight clawed through a gap in a ragged set of curtains but didn’t make it far before they recoiled from the darkness like a hand from a flame. The only furnishings on display were more cobwebs and dead flies littering the floor. Even the slimiest of estate agents would have struggled to make this room sound aspirational.
Compact design! A blank canvas! Great flow!
I closed the door behind me, held my breath, and waited a few seconds to make sure the old lady hadn’t followed me up. Certain she was downstairs still, I stepped out of the body I was occupying and became two people.
For those of you playing catch-up, let me colour in the details. Reader’s Digest version: I’m a ghost who works with, and is able to inhabit the person of, my own reanimated corpse. Yeah, that old cliché. Jake and Frank—that’s me and my corporeal counterpart—twin halves of the intrepid Fletcher & Fletcher super-team. Two dead folks who co-run an investigation agency. Together, we put the P.I. in R.I.P.
‘Thanks, big man,’ I told my partner. ‘I know it ain’t easy, lugging me around in your noggin.’
Frank gave me a lopsided grin and made a sloppy OK sign. ‘S’allriiight,’ he slurred.
His speech was really coming along. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m rubbing off on the feller. Since he showed up, the two of us have been closer than two bollocks in a ball bag.
‘Let’s get cracking, shall we?’
Frank lumbered off and I parted the curtains, burnishing the room with amber. Even lit up, there wasn’t much to look at. The only features present were a cheap mirror splotched black and dotted with greasy fingerprints, rusted staples on the walls pinning ripped corners of torn-down posters, and a tatty white nightdress hanging from a hook on the door. No sign of an otherworldly presence. No disembodied whispering. No eerie footsteps.
I started to wonder if maybe I’d been mistaken; if the frigid, sinking fear I felt earlier had been in my head. Was I imagining things? Her downstairs, too? Could be she was just a bit batty from old age, saw a white nightdress hanging on the back of the door, and mistook it for a phantom. Or maybe her brain was addled some other way. Back in the day, I dealt with more than one ghostly manifestation that turned out to be nothing more sinister than a knackered boiler. A carbon monoxide leak combined with a screaming radiator can easily get your mind running. Next thing you know you’re hallucinating tortured spirits and voices from nowhere. No shame in it, just a chemical reaction.
I turned to my partner. ‘You smell gas?’
I couldn’t, seeing as I don’t have a physical body, but my other half had the nose of a bloodhound and the drool to match.
Frank gave the air a sniff and shook his head, dislodging a cloud of dead skin cells that briefly caught the light before drifting lazily to the ground. But his nose caught something besides gas. Something that had him circling the room like a dog looking for a place to take a dump. After a couple of circuits he lurched to a stop and pressed his face against the wall decorated with the old mirror. With rigor mortis hands he began to paw at the faded wallpaper.
‘What is it, Lassie? Did little Timmy fall down the well?’
Whatever was going on inside that wall, it had Frank’s undivided attention. Maybe the old lady was right. Maybe she was on to something when she said she heard voices coming through the plaster.
I was about to poke my head through and take a look inside the wall cavity (a doddle when you’re a phantasm) when Frank growled, raised his fists, and put them both through the brickwork. He tore into the wall as if it were made of shortbread, bringing down a door-sized chunk of masonry with an apocalyptic crash.
‘What the bloody hell is going on up there?’ the old lady cried from downstairs.
‘Mirror came off its hook, that’s all,’ I said, feeding her some flannel. ‘Bit of a mess but nothing to worry about. You can deduct it from my bill.’
I was about to shoot Frank a filthy look, but my eyes had already settled upon something poking out of the jumble of bricks spilt across the floor. Breaking up the powdery mess of orange and grey was a shiny white dome: the crown of a skull—a human skull—sat atop a pile of assorted bones.
Chapter Two: Remains to be Seen
‘What the hell happened here?’ I asked.
Frank didn’t have any answers, but then I don’t really look to my partner for his penetrating insight. Frank’s the guy I go to when heads need bashing in; I’m the brains of this operation.
I dropped to my haunches to get a better look at the skeleton. Was the person those bones belonged to hidden in the crawlspace post-mortem, Fred West style, or were they bricked up alive? More importantly, would desecrating their grave stir up the lingering soul of an angry bogeyman welcome in neither Heaven nor Hell?
From the dread gloom of the exposed cavity came my answer. Creeping through the demolition cloud came curling silvery wisps accompanied by a sound that no living thing could make. A sickly dread furred my tongue as the immaterial tendrils tangled and solidified to form a pair of arms that gripped the cratered edges of the wall and hauled through a body. A creature rendered from pain and malice sprang from the hole, a monstrous dead thing that existed only to plague the living. This wasn’t a ghost like me: the earthbound imprint of a former person concocted from ectoplasm. This was a wailing horror movie banshee, a revenant, an unquiet spirit who refused to go softly into the night.
The ghost shot forward like a film strip skipping its sprockets—over there one moment and right on top of me the next. I felt its anvil weight across my ribcage and realised I was on my back, feet pedalling air. The revenant leered over me, eyes burning like hot coals, its mouth hung open in a silent scream. It raised a pair of gangly arms, sending golden razors of sunlight filtering through its oversized claws. I was about to get my face raked off when a confused expression crossed the creature’s face, then off it went, reeling back like a fish yanked away on an angler’s line.
Frank hoisted the revenant up by its neck and slammed it into the deck beside me. It thrashed around like a mammoth sinking into a tar pit, but Frank wasn’t taking any shit. With the no-nonsense efficiency of a tired mother dealing with a toddler’s supermarket tantrum, he bundled the creature into a manageable shape and pinned it to the ground.
‘Nicely done,’ I said.
Frank wouldn’t be able to hold the bastard for long, though. I had to act fast. From the inside of my jacket I removed a claw hammer, specially treated for my phantom hands. I don’t like to carry a shooter unless it’s absolutely necessary, but it never hurts to have a bit of iron in your pocket. The hammer wasn’t for the revenant, though, it was for the remains it had left behind. From another pocket I produced a nail. This wasn’t the sort of hardware you’d find at B&Q, mind you. This was an ancient relic, a holy nail, the kind the Romans used to pin Jesus to the cross.
Now, you might think—top whack—there’d be maybe three holy nails in this world, four at a push, but you’d be wrong. Just like Christ’s foreskin, there are double digits scattered among various monasteries and cathedrals around the globe. What this says about organised religion I’ll leave you to figure out. For my purposes, the authenticity of the holy nails wasn’t all that important. The fact that they were venerated and sanctified provided them with an Uncanny potency that served my needs perfectly.
I pinched a nail between forefinger and thumb, raised the hammer above my head, and pounded it into the top of the skull lying amongst the rubble. The effect was instant. The second the nail drove home, the revenant Frank was pinning transformed from a feral monster into a person. A young woman. She looked to be in her late teens and was dressed like someone from decades ago.
‘Let her go,’ I told Frank.
He took his weight off her and she scrambled backwards into the corner of the room, leaving behind a pitter-patter of ethereal tears. She shivered and shook, a bundle of frayed nerves.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’
‘What about him?’ she said, pointing at Frank, who stood there like a loyal attack dog awaiting a command.
‘Don’t mind my partner,’ I replied. ‘He’s harmless.’
Frank would never hurt someone who didn’t deserve it; he had too good a heart. Technically, it was my heart, but it didn’t burn with the same world-weary cynicism as the cold stone I carried around these days.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked the girl, still keeping my distance.
‘Mary,’ she replied, avoiding my gaze. ‘Mary Connor.’
‘Nice to meet you, Mary Connor. How did you end up here?’
Her eyes stayed anchored to the ground. ‘I got stuck. In the wall.’
I brought myself to her level, sinking down beside her whilst maintaining a respectful span between us. ‘I see. And how did that happen?’
‘Something went wrong. I went in but I couldn’t get back out.’
‘Hold your horses…’ I said, realising that “I got stuck” implied some degree of culpability, ‘… are you saying you went into that wall voluntarily?’
She stashed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. ‘I was an assistant.’
‘An assistant what?’
‘Spiritualist. I hid in there while my partner held a séance out here. It was my job. The punters thought they were talking to the dead, but it was just me knocking on the wall.’
Frank gave me a look. He knew how I felt about spiritualists: con artists, one and all. But I had a job to do, and I couldn’t let old animosities cloud my judgment. I gave Frank a nod to let him know I had this.
‘When did you pass?’ I asked the girl.
‘It was January 26th, 1946 when I got trapped.’
That tracked. The spiritualism racket had been about since the 1800s but membership really swelled after a big dust-up. The aftermath of the Great War and its sequel, WW2, were boom times for wall-rappers and table-knockers. Shameless hucksters would use their wiles to fleece war widows and milk grieving parents. Like I say, nasty pieces of work.
‘How did you manage to get stuck?’ I asked.
‘We were in the middle of a session. Betsy was using the ruler hidden in her sleeve to make the table jump when the rozzers kicked down the door and carted her away.’
‘Betsy being your partner?’
A shallow nod. ‘That’s right. Cleared out the punters too, they did. They would have had me away an’ all, but I was hidden in the wall.’
‘I don’t get it. Why did you stay there after the pigs left?’
‘I tried to get out—course I did—but the door was stuck.’
I figured it must have jammed somehow and stayed that way while her body turned to bones. The remains probably went unnoticed and got plastered over by the folks who moved into the property next.
‘Go on,’ I urged her. ‘What happened then?’
For the first time since she’d appeared in her earthly form, the girl raised her head to meet my gaze. Her stare went right through me.
‘I shouted for help but no one came. I screamed the place down. There was no food, no water. Eventually, I just went to sleep and that was the end of me. I’ve been stuck in this place ever since, trying to get the people who pass through to listen, but only scaring them away.’
‘And that made you angry.’
‘Yes. And then it made me something else.’
A ghost can only stay sane for so long beached on the material plane. I seem to be the exception to this rule, but there’s no telling when I might go ballistic and start clawing people’s eyeballs out. I just had to hope I could get right with Him Upstairs before that happened, and freeing this tortured girl of her Earthbound shackles was a step towards doing that.
‘What happened to Betsy?’ I asked. ‘Why didn’t she come back for you?’
‘That’s what I want to know,’ she said, lips stretched thin, her eyes burning with the same otherworldly glow they had before I hammered a nail into her bones. ‘We were a team. Why did she leave me to die?’
‘Calm down, okay?’ I said, fearing I was about to lose her. If she gave into rage with the holy nail in place, she’d be snuffed out like that. I needed her at peace if I was going to walk her to the next step. ‘I’m here to help you, but I can only do that if you work with me. Understand?’
The embers in her eyes cooled and were replaced by silvery tears that welled up and spilled down her cheeks. ‘I understand.’
A raw sobbing shook her whole body. Frank pulled a hankie from the top pocket of his jacket and handed it to her. She took it with a crooked smile and dabbed her wet cheeks.
I couldn’t say for sure what had happened to Betsy, but I had a pretty good idea. Her profession tended not to attract the most trustworthy of people. When their operation was busted and the dust finally settled, I expect Betsy made for the hills and never looked back.
‘You have to help me,’ pleaded the girl. ‘I can’t stay here any more.’
Despite being the architect of her own downfall, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.
‘It’s hard, I know,’ I said, doing my best to empathise. ‘I mean, talk about unlucky. You pretend to be the voice of the dead and end up becoming exactly that.’
‘Is that supposed to help?’ she asked, giving me a look that could have curdled milk.
I held up my hands in surrender. ‘Not knocking you, luv. I’m no stranger to irony. I used to be an exorcist and now look at me,’ I pointed at myself, then at my reanimated corpse. ‘My own worst nightmare.’
The girl sat up sharply. ‘You were an exorcist? Then you can help me. Help me pass through. Help me get to the other side.’
I shook my head. ‘It doesn’t work like that. If I exorcise you, you’ll be obliterated. I’m talking permanent midnight. Trust me, I learned that the hard way.’
‘Then why are you here? What are you going to do?’
‘I’m not going to do anything. Your fate isn’t up to me. If you want into Heaven, you’re going to have to talk to the Governor.’
‘Yeah. Go to Him willingly, ask for absolution, and who knows, you might just get the key to the clubhouse.’
The girl looked at me as if I’d asked her to join me for a quick dip in a slurry tank. ‘You’re asking me to face The Almighty? Do you know what the Bible says about spiritualists? Leviticus 20:27: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death”. Does that sound like I’d see a fair trial?’
I took a shuffle in her direction, closing the gap between us. We were navel-to-navel now, just an arm’s-width apart.
‘There’s a lot of iffy stuff in that part of the Bible. You know Leviticus also forbids drinking alcohol in holy places? If that’s gospel, that’s every churchgoing Catholic on the planet fucked.’
‘Look, all I’m saying is, maybe the Big Man’s chilled out a bit since then. Could be He was having a bad day when He passed those little nuggets along. Point is, your choices are: confess your sins to the Almighty, or spend an eternity here as a tormented poltergeist. So what’s it going to be, Mary?’
She folded her arms. ‘I don’t get it. You’re dead, too. If Heaven’s the place to be, what are you doing down here?’
I sketched out a smile. ‘Me and the Author have a deal: before I get to go Upstairs, I have to clear some debts. That’s what this little visit is about, the latest stop on my Road to Redemption tour. If you want atonement, you’re going to have to ask for it, and I recommend asking nicely.’
She hung her head. ‘How would I even get His attention?’
I gave her a paternal cheek-cup. ‘If I were you I’d start with the Lord’s Prayer. After that, you’re on your own.’
She looked to Frank as if he might provide a second opinion, but my partner had nothing to offer but a sympathetic nod.
The girl’s shoulders sank and her face assumed a frown so pronounced that it appeared to end below her chin. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘I hear what you’re saying and I’ve made up my mind. Thank you.’
‘No need to thank me,’ I replied, ‘just make sure you—’
That was as far as I got before she made the lunge past me, past Frank, and across the room to the dusty cranium with the holy nail hammered into it. Wrapping a dainty fist around the nail, she wrenched it free and instantly reverted to the howling monster that had emerged from the ruined brick wall.
The revenant spun about to face me, a venomous hiss unravelling from its coal-black tongue, its eyes two windows of a burning building.
‘Fine,’ I said, taking a step back and removing a fresh tool from my pocket. ‘Have it your way, Mary.’
She came at me shrieking and I met her with my crucifix.
All right, that’s enough for now. Thank you so much for reading, and don’t forget to pre-order your copy here!