Of Moon & Shadow
(First of all, apologies: due to personal matters, I didn't read a new book in April and I didn't put up any book reviews or release a newsletter. However, I will resume the newsletter this month. Next, please enjoy something that I wrote for fun.)
Du Ming hated mornings.
She particularly hated mornings when her boss showed up at her door, because she was A) not a morning person by any account; B) Caine would be aggressively proper; and C) whenever he showed up in person rather than text her, the job would be a major suckfest.
This was of course one of those mornings that she particularly hated. Caine was in his neat pinstripe suit, looking dapper as hell, with a goddamn travel mug of coffee in hand. He had let himself into her apartment, using the duplicate key he made her give him after that one time she kept him standing out in the corridor for over an hour. Now she wished she had never granted him access.
“I suppose you need fifteen minutes to make yourself presentable before I brief you.” The bald man raised a groomed eyebrow at the mess. The corner of his mouth twitched.
“Nngh.” She buried her head under a pillow. With luck she might suffocate herself.
“Twenty then. Up you get.” Caine dragged her out of bed with ease and shoved her in the direction of the en suite, kicking aside a pile of laundry of dubious cleanliness. “I apologize, sir, but you would have to vacate the premises.”
The man in Ming’s bed grumbled, “Who are you? Hey, Ming, who the fuck is this Alfred dude?”
Ming splashed her face with cold water and stared at her reflection in the cracked mirror. Red-rimmed eyes, hair sticking out in the weirdest of ways… and was that a bite mark on her neck? Oh gods she needed to brush her teeth and take a shower. At least she was already undressed.
“Ming! Babe, who the fucking hell is this?”
“He’s my fucking boss!” Ming shouted. She finally poked her head out of the bathroom. “Look, you really need to go, okay? I have to get to work. Thanks for last night, Andrew.”
“What the – I’m not Andrew,” the guy protested. He was already in his jeans. Ming took a second to admire that ass. “Are you serious? You can’t remember my fucking name?”
Ming squinted. After all those drinks, it was a miracle she remembered her own name sometimes. His ass, yes, that she recalled. It was a very fine ass, and even better without the jeans on. “Uh… Anderson? Andy? Aaron?”
The guy stared at her. “It’s Thomas, you cunt.”
“Yeah, that was gonna be my next guess,” said Ming. “Boss, you mind getting Thomas You Cunt some coffee or juice? I’ll be ready pronto.”
Caine raised an eyebrow before sighing. “Come along, Mr Thomas. Given the abysmal state of her kitchen, I would suggest tap water…”
Ming ducked back into the shower. Lukewarm water sluiced down her body, doing absolutely nothing for her various aches,but at least she wasn’t going to be itching with dried fluids. The bruises on her shin and right forearm from last week were purple-blue, shading towards yellow. She hoped they would fade soon. They attracted the wrong attention in bars.
Not that she was attracting the correct attention before them anyway.
By the time she emerged fully dressed and slightly more alert than a zombie, Caine had already put her dining table back in order, and most of her leftovers were in a large plastic bag.
“You know, most bosses just yell at tardy employees,” she said. “They don’t clean their dining rooms. And they certainly don’t manhandle their naked employees.”
“If I were like most bosses, I would have fired you.” He flicked an assessing glance at her before he gathered up his travel mug. “I cleaned the table because I needed a place to put my coffee. Besides, you have literally stripped in front of me before. I have seen more of you than I want to.”
Ming snorted and grabbed a can of her favorite energy drink from the fridge. “So what’s the sitch, boss?”
“I thought Sanshen has a monopoly on poltergeist activity.” Ming rummaged under her kitchen counter for a bag of chips she thought she had stuffed in there.
“They did. They called me.” Caine was about to set the telescreen onto the counter when he saw a splotch of a white creamy substance that had suspicious green growth on it. “And I am calling you a professional cleaning company. You are living in a biohazardous zone.”
Giving up on the chips, Ming took the telescreen from him and found the transcription of the phone call. She scanned it quickly, pausing on the document Sanshen had sent over. “A level three was killed?”
“Ribs crushed entirely. Apparently the poltergeist found it fun to smash him into the floor,” Caine said. He reached across the counter and opened the video file. “That is the spirit you are dealing with.”
“I can barely see it.” She turned on the projection function and magnified the scene. The poltergeist in question was hovering in the corner of the room, a vague, blurry form. “How is a spirit doing all that damage without manifesting fully? It shouldn’t be able to move more than a teaspoon.”
Caine retrieved the telescreen. “Sanshen wants us to capture it.”
“You know how I feel about spirit capture.”
“They’re paying you ten thousand credits.”
Ming rolled her eyes. “Fine, okay. Screw feelings. I can be bought.”
The professional side of Ming balked at capturing a spirit instead of exorcising them, but ten thousand credits would pay off much of her car loan. If Sanshen was less of an asshole, Du Ming might have worked for them. However, even though Caine paid a lot less, he was more humane than they were, even if Caine was technically a half-demon. Sanshen didn’t care who they were exorcising. They also captured unusual spirits to experiment on them. It was one experiment gone wrong with a doyol, the spirit of an unborn child, that finally put the kibosh on their recklessness; the law had gone after them and slapped them with at least seven major charges.
Sanshen had somehow bought their way to justice, with a promise that they would only practice pure exorcisms. Ming however heard of Sanshen taking on other jobs like summoning and warding, with under the table payments. At least they had learned their lesson. Ever since the doyol incident, they had not had a single mishap, and was steadily rebuilding their brand.
Du Ming, on the other hand, wasn’t a brand. She had a reputation. In her late teens and early twenties, she had revelled in being the best, until she overworked herself and nearly died of an overdose. Then she signed on to Caine’s stable of exorcists, knowing that he would assess if the client needed someone of her caliber.
It had been many years since she took on a poltergeist. The last time was nearly eight years ago, and that was just a lot of rattling drawers and shoes dancing about. Most of her work involved setting up protective wards and dealing with demonic possession. Now and then she would be asked to contact the dead, but she didn’t take those jobs. The peacefully dead were done with living, so why disturb them? Her job was to put the restless spirits to rest.
The location this time was a sweet little cottage, with slate gray siding and bright white trim. It even had a porch swing painted the same cobalt blue as the door, with butter yellow cushions on it. The lawn had been mowed recently, and the path leading to the cottage was well-maintained. It was a cheery place, made even more lovely by the bright morning. Though it was not set very far back from the road, it had a tree to provide shade and to muffle some of the noise from traffic.
As they got closer to the haunted property, the more the back of Ming’s neck tingled. The sigil of Nedu she had tattooed there was practically burning by the time they got to the door.
The doorknob had a bright yellow daisy painted on it.
“Charming place,” Ming muttered. It looked pretty, but it smelled of bad memories and violent death. She sniffed again. Violent deaths,she mentally amended to the plural.
Caine snapped out his baton. The protective etchings on it glowed moon-white. He secured the door with talismans of his own. As a half-demon, Caine was unaffected by the dead; talismans in his blood locked a spirit into a specific location. “How long do you think this will take?”
She pulled on her silk gloves and placed her palms flat on the door. Nothing other than the heat on the back of her neck. “Hard to say. I’ll have to go inside.”
For the first time in a long while, Caine looked uncertain. “I don’t know if you should go in.”
“I know I must if I want my payment.” She rolled her shoulders and considered her arsenal. She should have enough. “While I’m inside, set up the mu perimeter.”
“What else do you need?”
“If I die, tell Cassie that she can have my apartment.”
Caine squeezed her shoulder. “Not until after I have it entirely sterilized. It’s disgustingly dirty.”
She chuckled and turned the doorknob.
The inside was as sweetly decorated as the outside. Physically she could not smell anything off, other than the blood that had pooled in the living room, but a miasma of terror and malice nearly choked Ming’s other senses.
Whatever happened here had happened long before the exorcism gone wrong.
She stepped into the living room, coming to where the previous exorcist sent by Sanshen had stood. The hairs on her arms were standing on end. An absolute silence descended like a fog. Strain as she might, she could not even detect the faintest sound of traffic or birdsong.
“I don’t mean to trespass,” she said. “I just want to help you.”
That was from behind her. Ming slowly turned around, but she could see no one. “Who are you?”
“I can help, but I need to know who you are,” Ming said. She could feel nervous energy thrumming just inside her ribs. That faint hiss of a word was barely audible.
“Tell me your name.”
Ming wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. A poltergeist capable of killing a level three exorcist should be more than able to answer questions. It should be screaming at her now, or even attacking her. If all she could get from the spirit was a disembodied voice, then the killing of the exorcist made no sense.
Help/Help me/Help/No one came/Help
She had to do something. Fishing out six tokens painted with different sigils from her jacket, she set them around the pool of dried blood and chanted a mantra of revealing. The silence abruptly exploded into a deafening roar and a vicious gale whipped round them, tearing at the wall decorations and shifting the furniture.
The tokens remained where they had been placed, however. Ming kept chanting. Something raked across her back and she spun round to grab whatever it was. Her gloved hand closed around a thin wrist.
The wind and noise instantly died down. Ming was holding on to a mass of black smoke. She was not fooled and kept hold of the spirit which was now writhing and twisting in a bid to get free. She tightened her grip and finished her mantra.
The smoke dissipated. In its place was a skinny young child with large, scared eyes, with a bleeding mouth. Ming noticed the rope burns around her neck. Bile rose in the exorcist’s throat – the spirit was of a girl who looked no older than nine.
“I’m here to help you,” Ming told the girl. “But to help you, I need your name.”
I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it please I didn’t I didn’t I didn’t please help me.
The girl was clearly still caught in her death trauma. The exorcist shook her and, with her free hand, made the girl look at her in the eyes.
“Look, I am here to help you,” she said in a firm yet gentle tone. “I need you to tell me your name.”
The girl gaped at Ming. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The exchange went on for nearly an hour, with the child unable to focus on the present or unable to hear Ming, sometimes shapeshifting into billowing clouds of black smoke or disappearing entirely from sight, even though Ming’s gloved hand kept a tight hold of the spirit.
Eventually the spirit calmed down enough to give Ming an answer. “Daisy McKay. I was called Daisy McKay.”
“Daisy. That’s a very pretty name.” Ming smiled at the girl. “Close your eyes, Daisy.”
Daisy blinked at her and swallowed hard. “Are you going to make me go to sleep?”
The exorcist considered her words. “Not really. I just need you to close your eyes.”
“Bad things happen when I go to sleep,” Daisy said, ignoring Ming’s words, and her expression twisted into one of mounting anger. “No more bad things. No more bad things!”
The air around them spun once more. Ming could feel the entire cottage rattling, shaking even the foundation.
“Daisy!” she yelled.
The child spirit was screaming with the most unearthly screech Ming had ever heard. How was it possible that a spirit that couldn’t manifest without Ming’s assistance could contain this much power? Already Ming could feel her hold on the spirit slipping. Time for her sponsors to actually do something.
“Nedu, I call upon you!” the woman yelled. Her voice was ripped away by the wind, but power flowed from the back of her neck into her hand where she was gripping the poltergeist. The spirit continued struggling, threatening to rip the house apart from the force of her tantrum. Ming pulled out the big guns. “By the grace of Ereshkigal, Isis, and Setesuyara, I bind you!”
Three snakes of wondrous colors erupted from three of the tokens on the ground and twined about the amorphous cloud. Ming shut her eyes when the reptiles squeezed.
Light flashed. Ming blinked away the remnant flickers, and then stared at the little girl whose spirit was now a simple blood-red crystal in her palm. A pale light danced within it, bouncing off the facets. That was Daisy’s spirit.
If she did a cleansing ritual, Daisy would be exorcised into the next life. If she gave the stone to Sanshen, she’d have ten thousand credits.
“Fuck,” Ming said, eloquently.