A magical book, a mysterious voicemail and a sinister ginger cat. A fantasy sequel to The Late Client.
A sequel to The late client, as requested by
three commenters popular demand. But it’s still a standalone story.
It took Alyssa three days to open Derek’s book, in which time she had two unexpected visitors.
The first was a policeman who knocked on her door so loudly that she almost dropped her late mother’s glass vase on the floor. She’d opened the door immediately, trembling with anxiety and annoyance, but they were only making inquiries. The nearby home explosion had been an act of suspected arson, the man said, and he wanted to know if she’d seen any suspicious persons in the early hours of the morning. It only occurred to her, as she explained she’d been asleep and shut the door in the acned policeman’s face, that she was at least a half hour walk from Derek’s house, so why did they think she might have seen anything? That made her feel more anxious and irritated than ever.
The second visitor was a little less intrusive, but no less shocking. They rang the bell very quietly, so quietly she almost didn’t go to the door, but she couldn’t watch TV with the thought of someone waiting outside so she went anyway.
Her old boss, Sharon, looked strange out of her work clothes, prettier but somehow more tense, as if she was clenching her stomach in at all times. She had her hair scrunched up tight as usual. Unkind people used to call it the Croydon facelift, though the idea of Sharon ever venturing beyond Guildford was unthinkable.
“I just wanted to give you these. And tell you how sorry I was to hear about Derek’s house.”
She held out a bunch of pink carnations. Alyssa took them, thinking of her mother’s vase and how they’d look dwarfed inside it. Perhaps she could rinse out a jam jar, but that felt mean.
“We all miss you,” Sharon said. She seemed unnaturally nervous, not looking Alyssa in the eye. “If you ever wanted to… you know, come back.”
“I need time.”
“Of course. Take as much time as you want.”
There was an awkward pause. Alyssa knew she ought to invite Sharon in, offer her tea and ask how the business was going: was Linda’s poodle still vomiting all over the clients’ carpets, did Bushra ever dump her layabout boyfriend, were Honour and Tina still as gossipy as ever? Part of her wanted to know. But a larger part, a harder, more practiced part, knew that if she lingered, questions would be asked of her, and she did not like the idea of letting another human in. Derek had been one of the few people who could navigate past her natural defence system. She couldn’t face the pain all over again.
Sharon seemed to read the truth in her blank face. “I’ll leave you to it. Call me if you need me. Or message, whatever works.”
Alyssa shut the door.
Damn them. Damn them all. Why did they have to be so nice? Why did they have to keep trying to reach her, when she was clearly unreachable?
She stormed into the living room come bedroom in her studio flat, sat down heavily on the sofa and tried to watch TV again. But it was no good. Tears blurred her eyes. She couldn’t put it off any longer
Bloody Sharon, she thought viciously, reaching under the coffee table and picking up Derek’s book.
It still felt like an ordinary old book, the outside of the pages growing yellow, the red leather cover worn and the edges curling. Only the golden tree retained any shine.
Well, she thought, here goes nothing, and she opened the book at a random page. She squinted at the tiny printed lettering, turned several pages, flicked through the book from end to end and then let out a loud cry of exasperation
It was gibberish. Total and utter gobbledegook.
Another language, she could have accepted. Archaic words, strange metaphors, even pictograms. But this was just random nonsense.
Maybe she just didn’t understand it well enough, she theorised hopefully. She turned to page one and, feeling completely stupid, began to read aloud.
“Quince gibbet, my friend hamster banana barnacle. Fairy daisy train squash. Flaubert flibbert tinkerbell.” Nothing distinctly happened. She tried again and again. No incidences, magical or otherwise, occurred.
“What a joke!” she shouted to the empty room. Derek must have been having her on. That or his time in the computer had addled his mind and he’d forgotten to leave some clue, some clear instruction to-
Her mobile began to ring.
She jumped up. Her phone had fallen out of her pocket and she scrabbled around, eventually finding it under the coffee table. It was an unknown number.
“This had better not be a scam,” she growled, answering.
There was static on the other end, a click and then a familiar voice said.
“Is this thing on?”
She almost dropped the phone. He’s alive. He’s alive.
She tried to speak but Derek’s voice steamrollered right over her. “Is it working? Damn it, I hate this sort of thing. Anyway. Hello, Alyssa. Just wanted to say, when you drop in on Tuesday, could you pick up some lighter fluid, matches and paraffin. Oh, and a packet of digestives. The nice ones, with the chocolate.”
Alyssa sank back onto the sofa. It was a recording. Derek had died on a Tuesday. Somehow, the message had only just come through.
It wasn’t fair, she thought, angry tears burning her eyes once more. He had to stop doing this to her, dying and living and dying all over again.
“Alyssa! Are you still listening?”
Against her will, she sat up straighter.
“There’s something else. My brother’s in trouble. I’m not sure what, but I have this... feeling. And he won’t bloody listen to me if I tell him, so you’d better do it.”
“Trouble?” She said it aloud, despite herself. “What sort of—?” But the recorded message cut her off.
“Have you got a pen and paper? I need you…” There was some intense rustling, followed by a rush of air. “To take down an address. Pay attention, this won’t be repeated.”
Rolling her eyes, Alyssa dutifully noted down the address on her notes app, which, despite his previous threat, he read extremely slowly three times.
“Now. Do you—?” Static drowned out the words. ‘Good. We’ll talk on Tuesday.” There was a click and another burst of static, following by clattering. “Bloody hell and blast it! Where’s the teapot? She’s moved the bloody teapot. Alyssa, next time you start tidying, tell an old man where you’ve—”
The message cut off abruptly. She stared at the phone, then put it slowly down on the sofa arm. It slid off, landing face down on the carpet. She didn’t move to pick it up, only stared at the blank TV screen, hoping that Derek’s face might pop up suddenly and give her some clearer instructions.
Not that she ought to follow them, she thought crossly, googling train times and wincing at the prices. There was no way she should embark on a wild goose chase to help a man she’d never met. And certainly not on the word of a possessed answering machine.
But who was she kidding?
With an aggrieved sigh, she booked the 10am train. If Derek could save himself in his old computer, perhaps she could learn how to invoice the spiritual realm.
Alyssa stared out the window of her third bus, Derek’s book open on her lap. She’d given up trying to understand any of it and was now staring at the parade of shops, wishing she’d brought something to eat.
London was a lot bigger than she remembered. Travelling across the capital seemed to take twice as long as it took to get into it, and the traffic was awful. But the idea of cramming into an airless tin can buried miles underground was more than she could bear.
Trying to distract herself from the idea of being crushed to death on the Northern Line, she returned to Derek’s book, squinting at the latest gibberish sentence: ‘Fairy spleen block, wibbly wobbly, fluff cat, rat a tat tat, wow, frog, fiddlesticks, gibblet.’ The more she read, the worse it seemed to get.
Damn you, Derek. This book is complete codswallop and you know it.
The bus, which had finally started to trundle forwards, halted with a sudden jerk. The book fell from her lap and she leaned down, trying to grab it. Only someone got there first.
The old man behind her smiled apologetically, his small body buried under a blue puffa jacket, black scarf and woollen beanie. On his lap sat the largest ginger cat she had ever seen, its marmalade stripes rivalling a tiger’s. The man stroked the creature’s head softly, whispering little cooing noises as the cat’s entire body rumbled like a motorbike. In the other hand, he gripped the book tightly.
“Excuse me,” she said, putting her hand on the book. “That’s mine.”
The old man paused. People were starting to look at them.
“Oops,” he said at last. “Sorry dearie.”
She had to prise the thing from his gloved hands, fraying woollen threads dangling from his wrists. The cat reached up and flicked one with an idle claw.
“Thanks,” Alyssa muttered, getting up and hurrying to the bus doors before he could change his mind. She was two stops away from her destination, but the idea of sitting behind that animal made her skin itch. It wasn’t natural for cat to be that size. Perhaps it was half wildcat, or lynx.
You’re being melodramatic, she told herself as she slipped off the bus, hoping she was heading the right way. But that didn’t stop her turning round to make sure the man hadn’t tried to follow her.
He hadn’t of course. No one paid her the least attention. She could have been invisible.
It took her twenty minutes to reach the block of flats, by which time her stomach had turned into fizzing bag of nerves. It wasn’t like her to get this anxious about meeting new people, yet here she was, heart pounding, sweat seeping from her back into her clothes, unable to rid her mouth of a thick papery taste.
Why are you freaking out so much? It’s Derek’s brother, not an axe murderer.
Her only frame of reference for Dave was an old family photo: a boyish young man with slicked back hair standing on a windy beach, casually waving at an unseen observer. His arm was around Derek’s shoulder, who stood there stiffly, formal in a shirt and tweed jacket that looked dated even for the time. Dave would be in his seventies now, Alyssa guessed, a little younger than Derek. In the photo, there had been an easy lightness in his eyes that seemed so different to Derek, bookish and awkward, unhappy to be in the sunlight. She wondered what other differences there were between them.
Is that what was worrying her? The thought that he’d be too much like Derek, or too little?
She pressed the buzzer, the prickling in her stomach intensifying. At last, the buzzer clicked off and a surprisingly clear, strong baritone said.
“Good afternoon. Who is this?”
Alyssa cleared her throat. “Hello. I’m…” She wasn’t sure how to say it. “A friend of Derek’s. Is this Dave’s—?”
The voice cooled. “It is. I suppose you’d better come up.”
Alyssa climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. She’d been expecting dirt and urine smelling corridors, and was surprised to find clean carpets and the scent of lemon air freshener, reminding her of hotels. The door to Dave’s flat was already open and she stepped inside.
Light melodious piano music floated towards her. She examined the posters of famous rock bands framed on the walls as she entered the living room. Unlike her pokey studio, the entire place felt airy and open, conveying space and finely designed comfort. One wall was made entirely of glass, shining pure natural daylight on the neutral colours of the room. A large peace lily sat in a corner, next to a bookcase of artfully placed books. The boxy sofa faced a wide screened TV. She looked across to the open plan kitchen, with an island with bar stools, breathed in the smell of freshly baked bread from the bread maker.
Whatever she’d expected, it wasn’t this.
A light in the bathroom clicked off and the door opened, revealing an older man in a white shirt and brown chinos, collar done up to the throat. His iron-grey hair was combed back hard, probably covering a bald patch. Only a small pot belly suggested any excess in his life and even that seemed controlled, soon to be trimmed back like the leaves of the peace lily.
“Thank you for dropping by,” he intoned, smiling, and offering a hand for her to shake. She took it awkwardly, surprised by the formality so unlike the picture she’d built up in her head. He gestured for her to take a seat on the sofa, which she did with some trepidation. It felt like the sweat on her back and the dirt of the bus was infecting the luxurious leather, leaving it soiled and tainted.
“May I take your coat and bag?”
She felt a strange reluctance to see them taken away, hung up on hooks in the corridor. Now she would have to stay here, to have the conversation she hardly knew how to begin.
Dave positioned himself next to her. Every move he made was deliberate, and yet he did not seem in control of it.
“I’m glad you came, Alyssa,” said at last.
“You are?” Relief washed over her. “That’s good. Because I … well … before he died. Your brother asked me to check you were OK.”
His blue eyes were just like Derek’s, yet there was none of Derek’s intensity or kindness. They seemed distant, like looking at a misty skyline. Occasionally, he scratched his trouser leg with a perfectly trimmed nail.
“As you can see, I’ve never been better.” He smiled at her, warm and broad, and she caught a glimpse of the easy young man in the photo, high on youth and life. But there was something else too, something lingering in the air, a feeling that made the hairs on her neck stand on end.
“You’d better go now,” Dave said, standing up suddenly. “I’m expecting someone. They’re almost here.”
He’d hardly made two steps across the living room when a waft of cold air blew into the room. A rumbling sound filled her ears, deep and guttural and, as if on cue, a figure walked into the room.
The man wore a blue padded coat and beanie hat, though he’d lost the scarf, presumably hung up on a hook in the hallway. Weaving between his legs with all the cuteness of a ginger Rottweiler was the giant marmalade cat. It purred away like a pneumatic drill.
“Now, my sweet,”, cooed the old man. “Be calm.”
The cat wound through the old man’s legs and wandered up to Alyssa, tail twitching. She tried to edge away from the animal, but it was impossible. Her legs sunk into the wooden floor, held by something invisible and sticky. She wanted to scream but she couldn’t get enough air out. Instead, she made a sort of strangled cough.
All this time, Dave didn’t look at her. He stood in the centre of the room, hands clasped in front of him. At first, she thought he was frozen in terror, but he seemed to lack the life. It was as if his personality had exited his body the very second the old man had stepped inside.
“Excellent work,” purred the old man, sounding more like his cat in human form. “You have the spellbook, I trust?”
“In her bag,” Dave said, his voice far away.
“Well done. Fetch it for me, if you would be so good?”
Dave completed the task with the silent obedience of robot, holding up the rucksack in one hand. At a nod from his master, he overturned the contents onto the floor.
Injustice gripped Alyssa. It felt like the ultimate robbery, stealing the one thing she had left of her friend. She wanted to scream, punch him, grab the bag and run.
Oblivious to her rage, Dave emptied out the contents of her bag on a heap on the floor. Derek’s book fell out first, followed by a threadbare make-up bag, a portable charger, her purse, a packet of pens, some chewing gum, headphones, house keys, an extra jumper. The old man picked up the book in his gloved hands, sneering.
She writhed as much as she could, but the air around her felt like jellified glue, gumming up her muscles as well as her mouth and throat. She could only watch in helpless horror as the old man opened Derek’s book.
“Such bilge,” he moaned with a theatrical sigh, riffling through the pages then throwing it to one side. “But it may come in useful. Search her pockets, Dave, would you? I don’t want her playing any nasty tricks on us.”
Dave strode forwards and thrust his hands into her front jean pockets. It felt horrible, a violation, but she could not struggle, she could not move. He pulled out a pound coin and a wad of tissue, which he presented to the old man like treasure.
A horrible grin spread across his the old man’s face. He lifted up his hand and removed one of his gloves. His fingers were scarlet and scaly, ending in long black claws. He removed the other deftly, then reached up and pulled off his beanie hat. For a moment she expected red scales and black horns, but there was only a smooth, bald human scalp. He approached her cautiously, inching closer until their faces were almost touching. She imagined biting his nose off, sinking her teeth deep into his flesh until he screamed.
“Now, dearie.” The old man wagged a finger. “No need for all this violence.” His beetlelike eyes glittered in his large, egglike head. She looked at Dave in desperation, begging him to snap out of it and help her, but he simply stared into the distance. There was no help coming in that direction. She was alone.
The old man petted his monstrous cat, and reached over Alyssa’s head to the bookshelf, pulling off the only volume that seemed out of place: a tatty black tome entitled Basic Summoning. Receipts and old scraps of paper rained on the floor as he flicked through the heavy yellow pages. Alyssa saw tiny script, peppered with strange inky diagrams and charts.
She felt the invisible restraints bend a little, allowing her to lean slightly forward. The old man was pointing at a hideous drawing of a man stabbing a woman, her hands held up as two small children hid behind her skirts. Behind the man stood a shadowy winged figure with clawed hands, stroking a large black cat.
“The perils of summoning demonkind are numerous,” intoned the old man in a mock serious voice. “Demons are tricky, unfaithful creatures, who delight in fulfilling wishes in the most outrageous and horrifying manner possible. The summoner, if unprepared, gradually turns into little more than a husk, committing foul deeds at their master’s whims. This is why summoning from demonic realm is best avoided, even by experienced practitioners. We suggest that the amateur summoner begins with lesser beings, such as fairies and minor goblins, who at worst will steal your trousers in public.”
He shut the book with a papery thump. “A little unusual, to leave the important warnings to page 332,” he said, cackling. “But then, these wizards are notoriously stupid.”
He eyed up Alyssa meaningfully as he said this. She tried to hide her panic, fixing her face into as haughty and mighty an expression as possible.
“You won’t… get away with this,” she forced out, feeling as if gummy jelly was pressing round her lips. “Someone… will be coming for me.”
The demon grinned. His teeth were black, just like Derek’s. “Oh,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m counting on it.”
The cat yowled. If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn it was laughing.
They stayed there for what felt to Alyssa like hours, Dave impassive, the demon mocking and insufferable, while the cat sat on the floor in the middle of the room and watched her with its relentless yellow eyes. She imagined it was plotting to eat her, imagining the taste of her human flesh washed down with a saucer of milk. As she thought this, it opened its mouth, revealing a long pink tongue and sharp needle teeth.
At last, the demon lost what little patience he had. “Dave, get the girl’s phone.” He attempted to smile at Alyssa, his dark eyes black with rage. “Tell your master that I have his protégé and I won’t release her until he gives in to my demands. But no funny business, dearie.” The infernal clawed finger wagged in her face again. “Or I’ll string you up by your pretty little innards.” He giggled to himself, the only one amused by his poor joke. But Alyssa wasn’t worried about that.
He doesn’t know Derek is dead. Oh god. What do I do?
Dave held the phone. She took it in her released hands, scrolling for a number, any number. She hovered over Sharon for a moment, then considered the consequences. She couldn’t put anyone else at risk. No. She had to take a chance.
With a great deal of reluctance, she dialled Derek’s old mobile. The number rang and rang, and a part of her hoped he might pick up, that he might suddenly appear and save her. But the phone went to voicemail.
“I’m not here! Don’t bother me!”
The demon snatched the phone. He looked at it, and then at her.
“Looks like no one’s coming for you, dearie.” The rotten teeth flashed. “Let’s have some fun.”
An invisible blast flung her over the top of the sofa and smacked her against the wall. She clutched at her throat, gasping for air that would not come. She felt her ribs buckle and a fierce stabbing in her temples. He was going to crack her open like an egg. And then, as suddenly as it came, the pain stopped. The invisible hand let go and she collapsed on the floor in the heap.
“No,” the demon whispered. “Not that easy.”
He looked at Dave. Alyssa lay dazed, uncomprehending, as the demon whispered something in his ear. He blinked, looked at the demon in confusion, and then at Alyssa.
“Look at her,” the demon hissed, wrapping a clawed hand around Derek’s arm. “This is what wormed her way into your brother’s life like a maggot. This is what seeped into his brain, making him think she was special, deserving. Why else would he leave you, with your ordinary life, while she was allowed access to power? Why else did he give her his spellbook, and not you?”
Dave’s fingers trembled. A flash of true emotion finally passed over his impassive waxen face. He swallowed hard, shaking with rage, knuckles cracking.
The cat purred loudly, dancing round the room as Dave’s skin deepened to red, to purple. He reached out towards the kitchen island, opened a drawer, pulled out a steak knife.
Alyssa screamed. She tried to run, to flee, but she could only lie in a paralysed heap as Derek’s brother advanced over her, and she suddenly saw the family resemblance, the one she’d never seen, only it was distorted, a cruel mirror. Derek’s blue eyes fired with malevolence, the heavy brows taught, the narrow jawline tensed up, the plump lips uncannily still. Behind him, the demon was laughing, the dark, rich, fruity laughter of pure joy. She shut her eyes, unable to look, and the laughter grew louder and louder, until there was nothing but laugher, laughter and darkness.
Then she heard screaming.
Her eyes flew open. Dave was driving the knife into the copy of Basic Summoning, sweat pouring off his face onto the pages. The demon screamed again, clutching his head. Steam was pouring off him, and he fell to the ground, hands contorted into twisted monstrosities. But Dave did not look at him. He eyes were fixed on the book, driving in the knife with a demented righteous fury as the demon writhed on the floor, clutching at his head and screaming. The cat let out a banshee cry, and leapt onto the body of its dying master, pawing at his chest. Then, with the wisdom natural to all cats, it sprung away and sprinted out the front door.
The demon cursed foully at his pet, condemning him to a thousand hells. Yellow bile dribbled from his twisted mouth, congealing on his chin. Alyssa felt the paralysis lifting, could wriggle her arms and legs, but lacked the strength to run away. She could only watch as the demon’s body juddered, spewed more yellow bile from his mouth, his blue puffa coat blackening from an inner fire. Then, with a sudden hiss, the demon began to melt, his flesh evaporating into black smoke that crept up to the ceiling and disappeared. She could still hear the screaming as the last of the demon’s body left this mortal plane, leaving nothing but a small heap of grey ash.
Dave flung the book and the knife to one side, staggered and fell forwards, landing face first. Alyssa ran to him, then stopped. He was still breathing.
“Dave? David? Can you hear me?”
With some trepidation, she reached down towards him. When he twitched, she leapt back. He had almost tried to kill her after all.
He didn’t seem threatening right now. But just to be certain, she kicked the abandoned knife well out of his reach.
“A-A-lyss-a,” he rasped, and coughed. Black soot came out his mouth, staining his white shirt. “I’m – s-s-sorry.”
“It’s all right.” It was not all right. It was far from all right. “Can you get up?”
He managed, after some effort, to get himself sitting upright. She knew she ought to help, but she could not make herself touch him. He still terrified her.
“I – oh God. It’s like a nightmare. A horrible nightmare.” He looked across, saw the knife in the corner of the kitchenette. “I … I tried to kill you. Oh my God. I tried to kill you.”
He wept loudly, burying his face into his hands. Alyssa could only stand there, watching. She wanted more than anything to get away from here, to get on the first train home and never return. She wanted, for the first time, to pretend Derek had never existed. Because he had led her into this. He’d known it was dangerous and still he’d let her walk in without any defences.
He couldn’t have known it was this bad. Besides, when he sent that message, he probably thought he’d be alive to help.
The charitable thought rang hollow.
“Give it a rest,” she snapped at Dave with a sharpness that surprised her. But it worked, because Dave wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve and stopped crying.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, voice muffled by a stuffy nose.
Alyssa sat down on the sofa, looking at the pathetic heap on the floor. He’s just an old man, she thought to herself, trying to hold back time’s hand with a ridiculous combover. Only minutes earlier, he had been terrifying.
“Why?” she said at last. “Why did you have to be so… stupid?”
Dave shook his head. Then, after coughing again and bringing up more soot, he started talking.
He told her the truth. She knew it was the truth, because his eyes often turned away from her, staring at the wall as if he was confessing to it, and because he did not falter. He told the truth relentlessly, brutally, as a man does on his deathbed, knowing the time of excuses has long passed. At times, she felt like leaving, not facing his story, but something kept her rooted there, more powerful than any demon magic.
He spoke about Derek. He told her how close they were as children, despite their differences. Chalk and cheese they were: Dave, likeable, popular, easygoing. Derek, quiet, stubborn, prickly to the point of rudeness. But there was goodness in him, Dave insisted, a purity of conviction that others didn’t see. He was unafraid of defending the innocent, even if that meant punching a teacher on the nose.
“If he hadn’t of been so clever, they’d have kicked him out of school,” Dave said with some admiration.
As it was, both brothers were intelligent and ambitious, and won places at Oxford; a fine achievement for two children of the lower middle class in those days. Then, all of a sudden, Derek announced that he’d turned it down and was going to study abroad. Where and what, he wouldn’t say.
“It was unthinkable,” Dave said, “throwing everything we’d worked for down the drain. I tried to reason with him, but he clammed up. Disappeared for a year. Sent the occasional postcard to prove he was alive.”
Sounds like Derek, Alyssa thought with affection.
“I didn’t ask him what he was up to, thought he might stop writing altogether. Then I went down to Brighton one day and there he was, as if we’d arranged it. I was so happy to see him I forgot to be angry.”
Alyssa remembered the picture of two men on a beach, Derek’s discomfort and Dave’s ease. How happy Dave looked. It made sense.
They’d made it routine after that, Dave said, even after he graduated. But then life, as it does, became busy. Dave was climbing up the corporate ladder, travelling and working long hours. The monthly trips to Brighton became quarterly, then annual, then petered out altogether. Until one day, Dave’s secretary handed him a sealed envelope, containing a photograph of Brighton Pier. Scrawled on the back in Derek’s messy handwriting were the words:
‘The Grand, tomorrow, at noon. Tell no one.’
Dave cancelled his appointments and went. Derek arrived half an hour late, and whisked Dave up to his hotel room.
‘Hold your beliefs at the door,’ he said, ‘and watch.’
Dave watched. He watched Derek got out a musty old tome and start mumbling nonsense. He shrieked when, with a sudden pop, weasel fell from the ceiling and landed on the bed, writhing and running in circles. He stood, stunned, as Derek muttered more words and the creature vanished into nothingness.
‘That’s my secret,’ Derek said. ‘That’s what I’ve been up. I can teach you, if you want.’
At this point in telling his story, Dave’s monologue slowed. He touched his trouser leg, picking off invisible fluff. Then he looked Alyssa straight in the eye, daring her to ask what happened next. But she did not respond. She simply sat there, arms folded, waiting for him to continue.
“I laughed,” he said at last. “I laughed until tears ran from my eyes. It took ten minutes for the fit to peter out and by then it was too late. The woman at the desk said he’d checked out, but gave me his forwarding address. When I went there, he refused to answer the door.”
Dave rubbed his face with a thin hand, and Alyssa saw how the years pressed against him, how his shoulders slumped. He seemed to have aged ten years since the conversation had begun. But then she thought of Derek, and her heart hardened. She would not break the uncomfortable silence. She knew there was more. She’d wait all night long, if she had to.
At last, Dave continued. After the incident at The Grand, his relationship with Derek shifted inalterably. Letters went unanswered, calls ignored. Contact was reduced to a perfunctory Christmas card, dashed off at the last moment. But he did not forget what he’d seen. How could he? To witness true power beyond imagining and have it snatched from your grasp at the very last moment… the wound festered in his mind, deepening with each passing year.
“I know how it sounds. I know how I sound. I can’t justify it. I’m simply telling you the truth, warts and all, because for years I never have.” He pointed to his combover. “I’ve tried every trick in the book to get this to stay on my head. I buy books I’ll never read and wear clothes I don’t like and decorate in a style I hate, just because it’s the fashion. It all seems so pointless now.”
He drifted off a moment, then seemed to realise Alyssa was still there. It seemed Dave’s suspicions were right, because last year, out of the blue, he began to receive emails.
“He often spoke about you.” Dave looked a little wistful. “He cared about you greatly. Said you were kind.”
He looked away as Alyssa held her hand over her eyes. She wiped the tears away, pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
“Go on,” she said. “Don’t stop.”
At last, Derek stopped the pleasantries and sent a cryptic message. Dave must come to his house, at once. He had something to give him. The moment, it seemed, had arrived. Derek was going to reveal the secrets of his magic.
Dave’s cheeks flushed crimson as he recollected it. “I swaggered in, going in for the hug, but he was stiff as a board. ‘I’m going to die soon,’ he said. ‘Nonsense,’ I said, ‘you look strong as an ox.’ And he took me upstairs to his study, full of old books and told me I could borrow whatever I wanted.”
“They were just old books, Alyssa. Classical literature, histories, that type of thing. I felt cheated. I told him…” His voice wobbled, fingers tightening as he dug his nails into his palms. “I told him he was a selfish swine, that I wanted the real books, the ones about magic. And he looked me up and down, shook his head at me like a disappointed parent, and…” Dave’s bottom lip trembled. “He said, ‘You don’t deserve it.’ Just like that.”
He looked at Alyssa helplessly, as if expecting her to deny it. But she kept her silence.
After a deep breath, he carried on. “I felt like storming at him, but I decided to be clever. I took an Oxford English Dictionary and went on my merry way. But I saw where he put the spare key, and in the dead of night I snuck into that house, looking for a real magic book, the one I deserved. And I found it all right.” Dave laughed bitterly. “I found the book I deserved. Only I didn’t know it then.”
He took just the one, he told her, so as not to arouse suspicion. An ordinary book; he barely looked at the title. It took weeks to decipher the curling script and strange prose, and gather the required components. By that time, the task had been all consuming. He barely remembered Derek’s funeral.
“I thought I was summoning a genie,” he said with a mocking smile. “The book used a name for demons that I didn’t understand… but even if I had, I doubt it would have stopped me, I was obsessed. At last the time came. I followed the instructions to the letter. And lo and behold, where you are sitting now, was the old man you saw.”
Alyssa shuddered with horror and moved to a different spot on the sofa.
“The crushing disappointment I felt,” Dave said, not seeming to notice. “But when the old man spoke to me, he promised me everything I could have wanted. At a cost.” He faltered. “He knew my brother was magical, knew everything. The price, he said, was Derek’s spellbook. It was a trifle, nothing special. And if I gave it to him, he would gift me with limitless power.
“I didn’t want to confess I didn’t know where it was. So I stalled for time. I promised I could get Derek to give it to me immediately, only when I went to the house, it had been burnt to a crisp. I was devastated. I told the old man that Derek had disappeared and taken the book, and he lost his temper. Well, you saw what that’s like. I realised what sort of creature I had summoned, but by then it was too late. He had a hold over me that I could not resist.
“I suddenly remembered you. I had this… feeling that the book hadn’t been destroyed, that you had it. So I asked for something terrible. I… I asked him to help me use you. He did the rest. He sent you that – voicemail. Imitated Derek’s voice so perfectly, it was frightening. He said he knew that you would come. And you did.”
He stopped, face scarlet. He looked down at the floor. He could have been a statue, he sat so still. He was waiting, Alyssa realised, for her to say something, to do something.
She stood up. Strength had returned to her legs now. Her heart hammered in her ears. She went to the corner of the kitchenette and picked up the knife. It was still laced with paper dust from the ruined book, but it looked sharp enough. She held it to the light, making her decision.
She flung the knife across the counter. Dave flinched, as if the blade had hit him.
“Get my bag. I’m going home.”
By the time Alyssa reached her flat, it was gone midnight. She barely remembered any of the journey. She had not eaten since breakfast and her stomach was growling, but she did not get up to eat. She was exhausted, and she did not lie down. She simply sat there, staring at the switched off television.
It wasn’t him. It was all a lie.
The book sat in her lap. The book that Dave had almost killed her for. A book that, to her, was utterly useless.
‘Fairy flibberty gibberty cod fallow soft plop. Try a jape, go a jape, throw a jape, king kicking kippers, ka ka ka.’
The book slipped from her lap, face up. She looked at it, her vision blurred with tiredness and pain. And perhaps it was that odd way of looking at it, or her lack of sleep, because she noticed something she’d never seen before. A small, scrawled note in the margin.
Leave your beliefs at the door.
Alyssa picked up the book again. She pictured the hotel room, the weasel twisting on the bed, Dave laughing.
Poor Dave. Too caught up in pride and self-importance to follow Derek’s simple instruction… but then, look at her. She was just as hopeless.
Or was she?
The book felt different this time, heavier. Her eyes scanned the page. It was nonsense but – there. Something interesting. A connection. Between this word and that. She turned the page, found herself sinking into the sofa. The hours ticked by and still she read on.
She had been thinking about this all wrong. To her, it was always Derek’s book, Derek’s tasks, Derek’s magic. Something strange and alien, that did not belong to her. But it was her book now. And even if it took her days, weeks, months, even years, she would learn its secrets. Because magic had been given to her. And unlike certain brothers, she truly deserved it.
This is a lot longer than I’d intended it to be originally! Seemed to end up that way but let me know what you think. Do you want more of Alyssa and Derek? What did you think of Dave? Most importantly, would you like more of the ginger cat? Remember, dear reader, you have great power over my output.