by P. G. Edwards
The office was cramped, dark and smelt like rotten meat. A handful of half-melted burning candles were scattered about the room and thick, acrid smoke poisoned the air. There were no windows; ancient, mismatched furniture cluttered the already claustrophobic room. Any respectable professional would have been ashamed to meet prospective clients in such an inhospitable dump.
Luckily, Vannevar’s profession was well beyond the realm of respectability. People that chose to procure Vannevar’s services were not expecting a clean, well-presented and sanitary experience. If they were, they were seriously delusional. There were only two types of client in Vannevar’s profession, the desperate and the depraved. Vannevar was a necromancer, the darkest of all the dark sorcerers, and a ceaseless pest of the souls of the dead. A necromancer was a figure whom society shunned, and who shunned society right back. A necromancer could, for the right fee, make deals with demons and summon spirits, even resurrect the dead.
Vannevar was a very good necromancer. Unfortunately, he was also a terrible poker player.
“My full house beats your three Queens,” the disembodied voice said calmly but intensely, “pay up.” Vannevar huffed irritably as he leant over and plucked three fingers from a large gory bucket that stood on the floor to his right. Random body parts of various states of decomposition filled the bucket to its brim. The necromancer flicked the fingers into the centre of the table, where a rotting severed hand (that possessed only a thumb and a forefinger) crawled across the grimy table cloth and collected them.
“Look at that! You’ve only been playing a few hours and you’ve already got yourself a whole hand!”
The second voice was far more jovial than the first, although it carried the same echo to it as the first, and came from a headless, one-armed torso that was propped up in a chair to Vannevar’s left at the table. What appeared to be a grey mist hung around the area where the body’s head should have been.
“You know, Moss, I’d greatly appreciate it if you didn’t spread the news of these poker games to the entire spiritual plane,” Vannevar remarked to the one-armed torso. “It really hampers my ability to intimidate the spirits of the dead if they all think of me as a glorified body part dispenser.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Vannevar, there’s nothing glorified about you. And as I’ve told you before, only a precious few souls know about this little arrangement. I’m very strict with my selection process,” the semi-bodied spirit named Moss protested unconvincingly.
“Good, keep it that way. I want only the most useful souls to know about the game.”
In truth, Vannevar didn’t much care which spirits knew about his poker habit; however he had to give the impression that he was playing against his better judgement.
The principle law of the ignoble profession of necromancy went thus: Knowledge is power, more so than in any other vocation; a necromancer must always have some information or connection that those he deals with do not have, but do desire.
Vannevar had links all over the spiritual plane of existence, or more accurately non-existence. The spirits knew well that a word from Vannevar in the right metaphysical ear could either deliver them to the glory above, or damn them to the pits below. Therefore many of those lost souls that lingered in the purgatory of the Void were more than willing to deal with the necromancer.
The angels of the heavens and the demons of the hellfire were much tougher to bargain with. Vannevar had to make use of every scrap of information that he could glean to get what he needed. He also took full advantage of the competitive hierarchical systems of heaven and hell, both of which Vannevar had found to be more ludicrous and dishonest than any political environment on the physical plane.
The sad fact of the matter was that the Lord Himself was not as powerful, nor as omniscient, as the priests liked to claim. The Lord Himself had to look after the entire physical world, and indeed any other physical worlds. He simply did not have the time to concern himself with the minutiae of everyday afterlife.
That detail was left to his lieutenants, who were powerful, but certainly not omniscient. No matter how much detail they obtained on a person’s life there was usually, in at least ninety-six and a half percent of cases, some transgression that had been overlooked.
The Agents of the afterlife obtained their information from the memories of both those that had died, and those that remained alive. Rich men and women with dark secrets often hired mages of ill-repute to remove such dark secrets from the memories of those that knew of them. Thus, when the Agents came looking for the deeds of the deceased, the dark secret remained just so. The ravages of reminiscence wrought by the passing of time had a similar effect.
Vannevar used his contacts, both ethereal and physical, to furnish him with information that would allow him to fulfill the wishes of his clients. Retrieving secrets from the beyond wasn’t the only service that Vannevar provided, but it was what the vast majority of his customers required.
Vannevar huffed as he lost another hand to Moss, in more ways than one. He looked around the table at his poker buddies. Moss had been a hitter for a small time gang before he’d died; he’d never killed anyone, so it was unlikely he’d end up in Hell. More than likely a few decades of purgatory awaited him before he was finally allowed into the bottom rung of the Heavens; unless Vannevar helped him of course.
Moss was almost as bad at poker as Vannevar was, but the new one across the table was worryingly good. Octavius was his name; he had been a banker who’d swindled his clients out of hundreds of thousands of crowns. They’d burned him alive when they found out, which is exactly the kind of experience that creates violent poltergeists. The spirit seemed calm enough now, but Vannevar knew he’d have to be careful with this one or he’d end up with another psychotic zombie serial killer on the loose.
The third spirit was also playing with Vannevar for the first time. He had been very important indeed in life, and Vannevar was certain that this spirit would prove to be very valuable to him over the course of the next hour.
There was a conspicuously polite knock at the office door. Vannevar got up wordlessly and carefully picked his way past the numerous cadavers and mouldy textbooks that littered his office floor.
“Oh, now that’s poor form, Van, tell ‘em to sod off so we can carry on with the game,” Moss cried. Vannevar turned and shot a dirty look that silenced the spirit immediately. He then turned and opened the door for his newest client.
As the former Duchess of Stygg Island, Lady Anne was not accustomed to walking through such squalor. The street that she now found herself in was particularly decrepit, even in relation to the filthiness of the district of Tøv as a whole. She reminded herself of her pressing need to be there and forced her feet along the mud and effluent covered street.
She stopped at an especially disgusting hovel, in front of which was a hideous pile of decaying corpses. She wretched at the abominable sight and rancid smell and somehow found the will to prevent herself from vomiting upon her own shoes. The door of the place had a large V roughly carved into its surface, and this told her she had arrived at the right place. Although, she thought to herself, it was more than a little unsettling that she should consider a place such as this as “the right place.”
Lady Anne took a few moments to muster up all the composure that five decades of life experience had provided her with, and then knocked on the door of the squalid shack that stood before her. She tried vainly to maintain some of her dignity as a thick smudge of grime smeared across the knuckles of her fine white gloves. She brushed a few of the myriad specks of dirt off the front of her long dark blue jacket, and resolved that she would maintain her noble bearing throughout the whole of this grim encounter.
The door opened surprisingly smoothly and out of the interior gloom stepped a tall, thin, pale man with long dark hair and a preposterous goatee. Were it not for the Vandyck-ian monstrosity that clung to his face, along with his general air of un-cleanliness, Lady Anne thought that he might have been considered handsome.
“Mister Vannevar, I presume?” she queried icily.
“Your Ladyship, I’ve been expecting you. Come in. Please excuse the mess; I’m afraid that I have misplaced my broom.”
He spoke with an authoritative voice that sounded remarkably educated. Despite herself she chuckled internally at his sarcasm. The man had already confounded Her Ladyship’s expectations somewhat, and she had been caught off guard.
As she walked past him and into his shack, he peered beyond her at the pile of corpses that clogged the street.
“Excellent! The postman’s been,” he chirped. He then turned and called into the gloom, “Gabe, today’s delivery is here. Sort it out will you please, I’m with a client.”
Lady Anne shuddered at being termed a “client” of this man, but made no audible objection.
Just then the musty air in front of her stirred and an outrageous monstrosity shuffled past her and into the street. Its skin was translucent grey and rotting in several places. It was mostly humanoid in shape, except for two extra arms that were grafted onto its chest, and an extra eye that swivelled around seemingly aimlessly in the back of its bald head.
“Ignore him, he’s harmless; and brainless…ish,” remarked Vannevar. Lady Anne looked back at her host in disbelief; sheer shock kept her from screaming. She was swiftly forgetting her sensibilities and felt it was high time to get on with her business for being there, before she lost them altogether.
“Mister Vannevar, could I be so bold as to suggest we move along with my business here?” she said, with as much insistence as she dared.
“Of course! How rude of me,” Vannevar exclaimed cheerily, then he turned and shouted to his thing-servant, “Take them round the side, Gabe, I’m busy in here.” The thing grunted in what Lady Anne guessed was an affirmation.
“Now, follow me Your Ladyship.” Vannevar shut the door and then turned and led Her Ladyship further into the unsettling shadows of his office. As she followed she felt herself stepping in some unknown mushy substance and fought the urge to look down and identify it. In this instance, she reckoned, ignorance was probably bliss.
Ahead of her, Vannevar had stopped at a barely illuminated circular table a short way into the room. Although she couldn’t see the walls of the office through the dark, the layout of the nearby furniture told her that it was a small space.
She stopped just at the edge of the light of the table and gasped as she took in the grotesque tableau before her. To the far left, a grimy naked torso was propped up in a chair. It only possessed its right arm, and both the stitch marks on its shoulder and the wildly differing skin colours told her that the arm had not come from the same body as the torso. A fingerless hand was attempting to perform what looked like a shoulder massage on the torso, without much success.
Across the table from Her Ladyship, a hand full of mismatched digits idly pawed at the tablecloth. She looked, but could see no other body parts attached to the hand. The chair to the right of the table contained nothing but a strange silvery mist, which on closer inspection could be seen lurking around the other three chairs also.
Vannevar noticed the horrified grimace on Her Ladyship’s undeniably attractive face and made to reassure her, “Don’t worry, they can’t hurt you; they’re quite dead.” This didn’t appear to have the desired effect, so he continued, “None of them were violent, just petty criminals, for the most part.”
She could only manage a weak, disbelieving, “Why?”
“Well, it started as a way of getting information, but now I’m mostly just trying to get my body parts back,” Vannevar whispered to her sheepishly.
Unfortunately for Vannevar, Moss chose that time to pipe up.
“I don’t believe it! Is that a woman you’ve got there? Haven’t seen one of those around here in a while.” The necromancer’s face had gone a deep crimson, so naturally Moss continued, “Well, fair play, Van, I must admit I’ve noticed you’ve seemed a bit lonely recently.”
Vannevar’s eyes were now clenched shut.
“You fu…” he muttered, before remembering his company and abruptly stifling the curse. Despite her situation, Lady Anne found herself struggling to stifle a chuckle. The necromancer calmly turned to face the table and said, “Dimitto.”
Her Ladyship could just hear Moss say, “Oh, you complete pri…” before he and the spirit with the single hand disappeared into the ether. The body parts that they had previously occupied drooped lifelessly, and the torso with one arm tilted precariously in its chair.
The bodiless spirit that remained in the chair to Lady Anne’s right was formless, but she could have sworn that she saw it turn to face Vannevar.
“Why am I still here?” it enquired politely, but firmly.
Her Ladyship gasped; even through the echoing distortion of its spiritual form, she still recognised that voice.
Vannevar noticed the wave of recognition across her face.
“I suppose it’s time we addressed your business for being here,” he said. “I’m sure by now you realise that the spirit in front of you is none other than that of your departed husband, the former Duke Elbert of Stygg Island.”
Lady Anne stepped forward into the faint light of the candles that surrounded the table. She gazed intensely at the formless mist before her.
“Hello Elbert,” she whispered softly. The spirit seemed to recoil slightly, as if shocked at being addressed so familiarly.
“Anne? Is that you my love?” The voice that returned from the spirit seemed slightly hollow, but the emotion it carried was almost tangible.
“It’s me, Elbert,” she replied simply. “I hired the necromancer to summon you.”
“Why? You can’t be thinking of bringing me back as an abomination, surely?” A note of panic inflected the spirit of Elbert’s voice, but Vannevar also detected a hint of longing. This had been no mere marriage for status, the necromancer thought to himself, these two truly loved each other.
“No, Elbert. I miss you sorely, and I will never reclaim the piece of me that died with you; but I have made my peace with your absence, and will not desecrate your legacy by attempting such a deed.”
Vannevar was glad to hear this; full blown resurrection was both laborious and painful, not to mention messy. He had no desire to spend the next week picking ectoplasm out of his moustache.
Lady Anne stiffened then, as if rinsing herself of the emotions that clogged her brain. This was a woman who had had to become extremely tough in the last month since her husband had died.
“Elbert,” she began, “I have a question that I need to ask you, and you must tell me the entire truth.”
“Of course, my love, ask me anything.”
“How did you die?” Her Ladyship asked levelly.
“It was a heart attack, my love.”
Vannevar noticed a hesitation there; in all his years of reading spirits, he could tell when one was not telling the whole truth. He wondered if Lady Anne had noticed it.
“I asked you to tell me the entire truth.” There was a steely determination in Her Ladyship’s voice now.
“I– I did. Why, what did my brother tell you?” Panic grew in Elbert’s voice.
“He told me nothing!” Anne snapped. “That is what concerns me so. I was told only that you had died and the doctor suspected a heart attack. They would not let me see your body, they would not let me talk to the mortician, and to make matters worse, the doctor who pronounced you dead has mysteriously disappeared!” All the pent up frustration of the last month burst out of the former duchess like steam from a kettle.
“What are you saying? What are you suggesting?” The spirit of the ex-duke was beginning to buckle under the stress of inquisition. Vannevar felt sorry for him, death was a stressful enough experience even without the heartbroken histrionics of your own widow to compound it. Although, during his period of governance over Stygg Island, Elbert had cracked down mercilessly on those of Vannevar’s profession as well as other practitioners of dark magic. Perhaps I will wait a little longer before intervening on his behalf, the necromancer thought to himself.
“Elbert, I know Ivan is your brother and you may feel some bizarre need to protect him, but if he had anything to do with your death then please tell me.” Lady Anne’s voice remained dignified, but Vannevar detected the threat of tears.
“Anne, my love, Ivan had nothing to do with how I died.” Again, Vannevar could tell that Elbert was only telling half of the truth.
“Don’t lie to me! I am, was, your wife. Ivan is a greedy fool but I didn’t think he would stoop as low as to murder his own brother just for the chance to take over this god-forsaken island!” Anne breathed deeply, and then continued, “And you have the temerity, the sheer asinine blind loyalty to protect him, even from beyond the grave!”
Elbert’s spirit squeaked in protestation, but before he could issue a further denial, Lady Anne cut him off.
“I will have him hanged for this! Executed! I knew that no mere heart attack could take Elbert Bendtsson from me.”
Her Ladyship rose up to her full, not inconsiderable, height and Vannevar could see in this woman the strength had enabled her to cope with the numerous assassination attempts, slanderous allegations and failed kidnapping plots that had been aimed at her family during her husband’s time as Duke of Stygg Island. Elbert had been popular with the people during his reign, but any ruler that was popular with the people was more often than not deeply unpopular with the dangerous criminal underbelly that polluted every major population centre.
Just as Lady Anne was about to speak again, Elbert interjected, and even without an obvious visual expression to draw from, Vannevar could tell that this spirit had been broken by guilt.
“It wasn’t Ivan who killed me, my love, but you are correct, it wasn’t a heart attack.”
Lady Anne stood dumbstruck but, after a brief moment of surprise, she beckoned him to continue.
“I was not killed by any other person or animal, it was infection that took me; that much is true.” The spirit sounded heartbroken; Vannevar considered that were this not a weekly occurrence in his professional life, he would probably have shed a tear for these two.
“How?” Anne said simply.
“Syphilis,” Elbert replied.
Her Ladyship collapsed to her knees, heedless of the filth on the floor beneath her. A look of devastation afflicted her previously dignified face.
“I suffered no such blight,” she uttered meekly. Tears welled in the eyes of the shattered former duchess.
“I know, my love,” the spirit then made a noise that, had it possessed a human form, would surely have taken the form of a deep, regretful sigh. It continued, “I am so deeply, deeply sorry for this. I suffered a moment of weakness and will carry my shame with me for the rest of my afterlife.”
“Who?” asked Her Ladyship tearfully.
“She was an office clerk in King Herbert of Franke’s cabinet. I met her on my last diplomatic trip to Franke’s capital, Eiffel,” said Elbert. “I’d been away from you for weeks; I was lonely and the city seduced me. I don’t even remember her name,” he added frantically.
Vannevar considered this information with relish. The Frankish were notoriously promiscuous, and if the office clerk had had the temerity to attempt to seduce a foreign dignitary then she must have been quite the attractive little saucepot. The thought of a particularly virulent venereal disease spreading rampantly through the King of Franke’s cabinet was wildly amusing to the necromancer. This thought caused a violent giggle to erupt forth from Vannevar’s throat, which he barely managed to mask with a deeply suspicious bout of coughing. Neither of his clients noticed his dramatics.
“Please say something to me, Anne, my love.” Elbert’s soft words smashed the tense silence.
Her Ladyship said nothing. Instead, she rose to her feet, wiped the tears and smeared make-up from her eyes and turned to leave. On her way to the door she wordlessly deposited Vannevar’s payment on a heavily soiled cabinet. Ignoring the viscera under her feet, she walked right up to the door to the street outside and opened it, and then she turned back to her former husband and said, “I loved you to the end… and beyond.” Immediately the steel returned to her features and she stepped into the street, slamming the door behind her.
The spirit of the former duke of Stygg Island addressed Vannevar the necromancer. “I won’t feel slighted if you share my transgression with the powers that be. I deserve much worse. I had the memories of everyone who knew shielded.”
“I think you’ve paid enough penance for this particular sin. None of the powers will examine your wife’s memory again so long after your death. I will keep your secret.” Until somebody offers me a lot of money for it, he added to himself silently.
“Thank you,” said Elbert. Vannevar nodded in acknowledgement and uttered the word to dismiss the spirit back to the Void.
He considered Elbert’s situation and sighed; the man couldn’t have used a reputable physician to treat his disease for fear of his secret being exposed to anyone with a bit of ambition and a lot of coin, and using a black market doctor would have been far too risky considering his reputation amongst the criminal classes.
“How tragic,” Vannevar said to himself, not completely disingenuously.
The necromancer retrieved his money from the cabinet and picked up his appointment book, which was perhaps the cleanest thing in his entire office. He opened it up and examined his appointments for the rest of the day. He cursed loudly as he saw that he had booked the Skorpion Gang in an hour, to perform a full resurrection of their currently deceased leader. Looks like I’ll need a wash tonight after all, he thought to himself. Well… maybe.
P.G. EDWARDS was born just outside London, England on Feb 26th 1989. He has lived in the county of Berkshire for the entirety of his formative years; which included being taught at a convent school by real nuns. Since leaving school he has worked in a variety of laborious jobs (including a stint at a camping shop), and has decided to start early in the pursuit of his ultimate dream of becoming a full-time writer.