GH Sunday: Day 01 Scene 03
Max Beaumont (f) & Wooster
A few minutes later, the grey wolf returned, bounding through the snow with Wooster snapping at his heels and I was ready this time with my spell, practically hurling my sigils at him, snarling out the sung chant and, mid-leap, he disappeared. I could still feel his hot breath on my face.
“Where’s the girl?” I asked Wooster, who looked up at me with warm brown eyes and wagged his tail eagerly. “The girl he was chasing? Where is she? Go find her. Quick, find her!”
Wooster obeyed my commands and headed back into the storm, but, though he brought me many more ghosts that night as the storm blew on, there was no more sign of the girl and by the time the storm had finally blown itself out, the spirits of the cemetery all settled back into their graves, I was so exhausted that I barely remembered she had ever even existed. It was too dark and I was too tired to search the cemetery for her. I dug into my pockets for the daiman that I had brought with me, already charged with magic, their sigils sparking under my fingers from the charge. These were the cemetery’s chains, with two large brass padlocks to secure the gates and I used them now, shutting myself out of the cemetery, hopefully shutting any remaining ghosts inside. The spells there were not enough to hold back a storm, but if there was a ghost or two still lurking in the cemetery, it shouldn’t be able to get out again until I was rested enough to come back and exorcise it. My phone vibrated in my chest pocket and I checked its screen; with his usual good timing, it was a text from Chief Newman, telling me to come in from the cold.
It was past four in the morning, painfully cold; between the cloudy sky and the glow of the streetlights, the stars were near invisible, only a couple of the brighter ones, shining overhead. The snow crunched and squeaked loudly under my boots as Wooster and I made our weary way back to HQ. Wooster, ever tireless, amused himself by chasing the occasional flurry of late-falling snowflakes. As we crossed the Common, we came across a man crouching over a huddled shape, covered in snow on a bench. The man stank of urine, his hair a wild, ragged mess, his face encrusted with dirt. He was frenziedly shovelling snow off the huddled shape with his hands, revealing beneath its cold embrace a dead man with a face identical to his own. Wooster, trained to spot ghosts, barked sharply at him, startling the nearby ghost of a cow so much that the cow spontaneously exorcised herself and disappeared. But the homeless man’s ghost only looked at me with resentful eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to raise another single exorcism spell and not just because I was so tired. What had he done, that he deserved to die in the storm, alone and cold? Who was I to rid him of the one last hold he had on this world? Who was I to get rid of him, so that others didn’t have to see, didn’t have to be confronted with the twin realities of death and poverty?
We saw yet more storm damage caused by an excess of magic as we crossed Massachusetts Avenue. The rubbish bins there had sprouted iridescent wings and were now hovering above the street, their flight ungainly and uncertain as they struggled to stay aloft, wings buzzing like saws. As we walked past them, two crashed, plopping into deep drifts and flapping their wings furiously as they tried to lift themselves into the air again.
By the time we got to the SDA headquarters, Wooster looked like a coke addict, his nose white from all the snow banks he’d been sticking his head into. Headquarters was a modern building just above Harvard Square, on Oxford Street, built mostly of glass and wood. To get in at this time of night meant knowing and casting the right spell at the daiman on the door. I did so and headed immediately for the bathrooms on the ground floor. I’d been fighting the storm non-stop for over five hours and I needed badly to pee. It took a while, my fingers fumbling and stupid from the cold. I ran them under tepid water in the sink to slowly wake them back up. I walked up the stairs to the first floor (second floor in American terminology) where I found the storm-fighters in the large open-plan briefing room. The room spanned much of that floor, with tall windows on either side of the room. The glass was dark, of course and with the overhead bright lights, all I could see was a ghostly impression of the city lights and the reflections of my fellow storm-fighters, dressed in their grey and black uniforms, their reflective yellow jackets slung over the backs of chairs, or piled onto the floor.
They were mostly sitting, many clutching a cup of coffee. I found the hot drinks at the back of the room - no tea, of course. I helped myself to a hot chocolate and found myself a seat near the back of the room. My work as ghost hunter for neighbourhood ten was solitary, so it wasn’t often I sat in a room with my colleagues and I was self conscious in front of them, but no one had paid any attention to my entrance. Their attention was on the map on the wall in front of us and Chief Newman. He was a big man, with a New Englander’s brusque manner.
“I know you’re all damn tired, so I’ll keep this short,” he said. “We’ve got the magic contained well enough for now. I want the B teams for neighbourhoods 1 through 6 to stay here the night. You’re on call for the whole of f***ing Cambridge, but you’ll only go out if there’s an emergency. You can use the bunks upstairs to get some shut eye, if things stay quiet. The B teams for neighbourhoods 7 through 13 will report for work tomorrow at 9am and you will do a half shift until 1pm. There’s room for you to bunk down here, if you don’t want to waste time going home. All A teams are to report to work at 1pm tomorrow and you will work through until 7pm. You will stay focused on your own neighbourhood. I’m anticipating that we will not have to work through the damn night again, however, at 7pm, the B teams for neighbourhoods 1 through 6 will take a full night shift of being on call. You can stay at home, you don’t have to damn well bunk here, but you’d better be in f***ing contact and if you’re called in you’d better get here f***ing straight away. I don’t want to hear any excuses about how your damn car wouldn’t start or you needed to f***ing dig it out or wait for your damn babysitter. On Tuesday, we’ll go back to the normal shift pattern and you will all be working your usual neighbourhoods. That’s A teams taking the first shift, B teams taking the second and a rotation with one mage per neighbourhood on call at night. Now, we’re going to have a lot of f***ing clean-up to do over the next few days. There’s a lot of random magic out there…”
My chair was made of hard plastic, uncomfortable, but I was still finding myself falling asleep, bolt upright, with my cup clasped firmly in my fist. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I was warm. I struggled to keep my attention on the Chief as he talked of the hot spots for the magic and where he wanted the storm-fighters to concentrate their attention within their neighbourhoods. He didn’t mean me, of course, nor any of the twelve other ghost hunters scattered about the room. Our work was far more lowly, less important and less urgent. There would be no night shifts for us. I finished my hot chocolate, put the cup on the floor and tried to blink myself awake. Wooster was snuggled in my lap, curled up into a tight ball, fast asleep. I smiled down at him, stroking him, my head nodding...
“Max,” I lifted my head at Chief Newman’s sharp tone.
I was aware of the amused looks I was being given by some of the other mages. One of my fellow ghost hunters, Dan Haslett from neighbourhood twelve, was given me a disapproving stare.
“You falling asleep there Max?” the chief asked, his voice amused.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s the warmth.”
There were a few chuckles near me, which made me blush.
“Well, if you could stay awake for a few minutes more, Max,” the chief said with deceptive gentleness. “I’ve got work for you in the morning.”
“Right you are.”
A storm-fighter sitting near me snorted again. Clearly everything I said was amusing.
“This is for all the ghost hunters,” the chief said. “You’re not expected to take any night shifts, but I want all of you reporting to your neighbourhood at ten am. You’ll do a full day’s work, I don’t want anyone knocking off before six.” He frowned at a preppy looking blond man, who was the ghost hunter for neighbourhood one and known to have ambitions to move on quickly from such a lowly position. Like the rest of us ghost hunters, he didn’t wear the storm fighter’s uniform, and had only a yellow reflective vest to be work over his coat, with the letters SDA on the front and back, to identify him.
“I’m expecting you to do clear-up in addition to your main duties. I’ll be giving you assignments via text, so keep your phones on you and not on silent and don’t take on any work that I haven’t specifically given you. I don’t want you chasing after benign haunting when there’s a poltergeist that needs addressing. Yes?”
The preppy ghost hunter, Rob was his name, had his hand in the air. “Are we going to be able to take some time back, in lieu? I mean given we’ve just worked a Sunday and Sunday night and now you’re wanting us to do a full week’s work.”
There were some sniggers and sardonic glances exchanged amongst the storm-fighters.
“No you’re not getting any f***ing time off in f***ing lieu,” the chief snarled. “This is your f***ing job, so f***ing get on with it.”
Rob shrugged, seemingly unabashed. I raised my own hand.
“Max?” the chief snarled.
“I had a ghost escape me from the cemetery,” I told him. Dan from neighbourhood twelve tutted loudly. I glared at him. He hadn’t any cemetery to patrol, his night would have been an easy one.
“She’ll need chasing down,” I continued.
“Right, any sign that she’s harmful?”
“No,” I shrugged. “She’s a young girl, probably died around the turn of the last century. Of course, there’s no real way of knowing.”
“I’ll make sure she’s assigned to you, but there’ll be other priorities,” the chief warned me. “You’ve got probably the busiest neighbourhood…”
“I’ve got the city hospital!” neighbourhood six protested.
“And I’ve got police headquarters, the jail and the city court,” Rob from neighbourhood one pointed out.
“Yeah, but Max has a cemetery and a hospital, which none of you f**kers have, so shut it,” the chief snarled. “Max, I’ll bear your ghost in mind.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The meeting broke up shortly after that, everyone picking up their coats. The grey carpet was damp from the snow melting off our boots. I kicked Wooster off my lap and he stretched luxuriously, before looking up at me with a wagging tail and eager brown eyes.
“Still got that dog, then?” Dan from neighbourhood twelve asked. He’d once asked me, with a smug smile, if I thought it was appropriate for me, as a ghost hunter, to keep Wooster with me.
“You know, you might want to think about the impression that makes on others…”
“Hello Wooster,” Chief Newman came over to greet him. Wooster’s tailed blurred it was wagging so fast and he jumped up.
“He wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feed him treats,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?” the chief replied, digging into his pocket and retrieving a dog biscuit. Wooster sat obediently, gazing up at him with what you would swear was love. “Good boy.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Dan muttered, stalking off.
I shrugged on my jacket and headed for the door myself. I was exhausted and only wanted to go home. Wooster, having eaten his biscuit in one gulp, followed at my heels.
“Hey, what was with that British accent?” the storm-fighter who’d been sitting near me, snorting at everything I said, asked. “That a private joke between you and the chief?”
“No,” I said. “I’m British. This is how I talk.”
“Oh,” he grinned. “I thought you were just taking the piss.”
I shrugged. There seemed to be little to say in response to that. I ignored the lift and took the stairs back down to the ground floor. As I opened the door and stepped outside, a blast of cold air hit me like an icy fist. Even in the short time I’d been inside, I’d lost my tolerance for the cold. I jammed my hat low down over my ears, shrugged on my gloves and trudged home.
© Essie Gilbey, 2014
© Essie Gilbey, 2014