Specific details of the dream slip my mind. But what I do recall is seeing the tuxedo for the first time. I recognised it as the design referred to with humorous, somewhat clichéd connections to penguins, and guessed the fabric the sort a wise old tailor would rub between fingers while nodding in approval. The suit stood before me, perfectly fitted and shining gloriously. But where a neck and head should have protruded was only empty space.
“Who are you,” my dream presence asked. And a face swam into focus; human, but for the light blue skin and pupil-less, blood-red eyes. It looked at me somberly, eyes swivelling like moist red marbles and darting up the length of my body. It was trying to recognise me. Or was I trying to recognise it?
Then the pain started. Some unknown pointed object being forced into my lower back, three inches above my backside. I attempted to reach for the object and realised I was paralysed.
Bizarrely, I did not panic. Not yet.
The moment drew on for dream obscured ‘infinity’. The pain in my back passed ‘uncomfortable’ and screamed right along to ‘unbearable’. I spoke again.
The blue creature flinched.
“Wake up! Wake up!”
And then I was alone in my bedroom, twisted amongst ribbons of bed sheets. Above, shafts of morning sunlight painted the ceiling gold, accompanied by the shrill songs of birds on a mission to capture the proverbial worm. My chest heaved.
“Unpleasant,” I muttered to myself, wiping away sweat, “Very, very unpleasant.”
A thought occurred, and, tentatively, I slipped a hand under my night T-shirt and massaged the aching spot on my lower back.
It took a few more seconds before the chaos around me was registered. Every object in my bedroom was sitting as if flung from where I lay. To my left the wooden bedside table had been sent skidding across the floor till it made contact with the wall. Looking down the length of my body I saw the chair, normally at the foot of my bed, pushed forward till it sat leaning against the cupboard.
“What the hell…?”
My eyes drifted up to the light fixture. It swung erratically, arching through the air as if molested seconds prior. I did not yet see the blood on the wall, and so stood, stumbled from my bedroom and into the bathroom. When I lifted my shirt and turned my back to the mirror, the bright red mark where the pointed object had done its business was visible. This in itself would have dialled the horror up to a healthy nine, but upon returning to my bedroom I now spotted the blood on the wall; the shape and size of a starfish.
Critter was my mom's boyfriend’s cat. He had been flung against the wall with enough force to kill him instantly.
“Oh no…” I gasped.
* * *
From his pointy little ears, to smug flat-faced expression, one that suggested he had just been granted the headlining role in an Opera, Critter had never been my favourite feline. On several occasion it had been hinted that I disliked him; on others that I outright hated him. If forced to be honest, I had thought of Critter the same way some viewed disease-infested rats. And no, the irony that ‘Critter’ was a self-fulfilling name in that case was not lost on me.
But I did not and would not kill Critter, or any animal. Not on purpose. And the fact that the little bastard was dead put me in a whole world of trouble.
It was 5:45am when I crept downstairs, snuck into the kitchen and stole a garbage bag from the drawer.
By 6:00am I had Critter in the bag; a process that took about fourteen minutes longer than anticipated. The delay attributed to hesitation in handling a bloody feline.
It was just after 6:06am when I stepped into the crisp morning air and began to dig in the back garden. Having not located the shovel, I was forced to settle for the trowel. It had me digging till 6:15am.
Critter was put to rest, bless his furry soul, at 6:35am.
By the time I tiptoed back up to my room I sensed no indication I had been overheard by my mother or Clinton. And, as I grabbed a sponge from my bathroom and scrubbed the blood stain, I felt satisfied I was in the clear. For the moment.
When my alarm clock went off at 7:30am I descended the wooden staircase as per normal, dressed for work in my standard attire of ‘whatever happened to be close at hand.’
I headed for the kitchen to find my mother, Liza, already cooking eggs. Dressed in apron and flattering work clothes one was dared to believe she was a day over thirty five.
Her spectacle wearing boyfriend, Clinton, who hadn't been polite enough to die during the night, gave me an uncertain smile from the small kitchen table. His appearance, on the other hand, loudly declared every day of his fifty years on Earth.
“Morning, Jet,” he said hopefully.
I sat across from him and avoided his eyes. My mother glanced over her shoulder.
“Want some eggs?” she asked amiably.
I sat in silence, half expecting screaming accusations of cat homicide. The eggs continued their merry sizzle in the pan.
“Clinton’s going for an interview later,” my mother said, trying again to initiate morning conversation. To validate her statement’s truthfulness the skinny man offered a strained grin.
“Great,” I muttered.
The room fell back into silence. The eggs were flipped. I studied my hands, clamped so tightly in my lap ten knuckles stood out like lumps of ivory.
“I just had the strangest dream,” I said.
“Oh?” my mother replied, “Do tell.”
“I'm wondering if it might not have been magical.”
She glanced around again, eyebrows raised, while beside me Clinton sunk into his chair dejectedly. Not his subject of expertise. Part of me glowed in smug delight.
“What makes you think it was magical?” my mother asked. She attempted to hide currents of excitement.
“Well…” I struggled for words.
The brochures they handed out on the first day of high school always said stuff like ‘dreams of a magical nature.’ But I had never cared enough to read any specifics. Nowhere had I ever heard mention of dead household pets or telekinesis. But an image returned to me, one near the back of the brochure that had drawn gawks of horror from the other students. A sketch of a creature so terrible I refused to believe such a thing could exist in any logical world. ‘Demon,’ the caption had read.
“I was attacked,” I continued.
“Attacked?” Her eyes widened as eggs were slid onto plates and one placed in front of Clinton. He started eating, thankful to have his mouth occupied.
“Yes. Something was pushed into my back. Just here.” I touched the spot.
“Oh dear, does it hurt? Do you want me to have a look?”
She made to inspect my back and I waved her off. “Its fine, its fine. It doesn't hurt.”
“Well, was someone there,” she asked, excitement transforming to concern.
I squinted. All at once the dream seemed vague and uncertain; events long ago involving some other person.
“Some kind of creature,” I said reflectively, “Blue face, red eyes. Not human. Well, sort of human. But…”
“I see.” She put a second plate in front of me and took a seat. Her eyes probed my face, brow furrowing in apprehension. “And did this blue guy… say anything?”
“No. I looked in the mirror after. There’s a mark on my back, right where it hurt in the dream.” I leaned forward. “Mom, is it something serious? That brochure from high school, I remember it said.…” I cleared my throat nervously. “Was that blue thing a demon?”
Clinton looked up, jaw working endlessly on eggs. His eyes widened behind the spectacles.
“Oh no dear,” my mother replied quickly, fanning out brunette hair with a quick shake of her head, “we can’t make such assumptions. Certainly not…” But the worried frown remained on her brow.
I stuffed eggs into my mouth, watching her. But she broke suddenly into a beaming smile and gave my shoulder a sudden slap. It was supposed to be an indication of congratulations, but succeeded only in making a forkful of egg miss my mouth by an inch. She did these things, my mother; odd gestures of parental affection that should've come from a father.
“I guess you have an appointment at the Department of Magic, then,” she declared.
“Guess so,” I responded, trying to work up excitement for her sake and failing.
“I was thinking, Jet,” Clinton spoke up suddenly, turning our heads in unison, “maybe we could have a coffee after you knock off from work today. I’ll be out that way after my interview.”
I stared at him. His expression was that of a man who had just suggested a seal-clubbing date and was hoping it would not be taken the wrong way.
“Not today,” I replied evenly.
“Yes, maybe another day,” he muttered, “I guess not the right time. What with all this talk of demons…”
“We don’t know it’s a demon,” my mother cut in sharply, previous smile melting. We were ushered into yet another awkward silence; courtesy of Skinny Clinton.
“Right,” my mother declared, “I need to get to work.” She stood, turned to Clinton, “Best of luck, dear,” kissed his forehead, and paused before exiting, giving me a long stare. Hints of apprehension were again betrayed. “You’ll call the Department of Magic, Jet?”
“Yes, after breakfast.”
“Let me know how it goes?”
“Of course, mom.”
The door closed behind her. I took the cue and abandoned the rest of my toast. But Clinton wasn't going to let me escape without dropping the bombshell.
“Have you seen Critter this morning?”
I froze. Then, being a terrible liar, opted to shrug my shoulders unconvincingly before shuffling from the kitchen and flying to the downstairs telephone. There I flipped through a phone book, found the number for the local D.O.M, and dialled. But was put on hold. The holding music was a horrific instrumental version of a popular movie theme, its shrieking notes so painful they could only be popular in the torture inflicting industry. At the point of being forced to consider suicide, I hung-up and headed for work.
* * *
Researcher. That was the official title of my job at The Whisperer. If they had been honest though, they would have called it ‘that place below the ladder before you have even begun to climb.’ My efforts to mount the first rung had thus far been minimal.
This, you see, is because The Whisperer is not so much a magazine as it was the single biggest load of completely fabricated celebrity bullshit it is possible to bind between two glossy covers. It preferred to be called a ‘gossip magazine.’
My job was to scour the internet for information or photos that might embarrass, or better yet humiliate, various celebrities. A good day was when I managed to spot the overlooked nipple of a popular female star in a new photo. And I need not point out there is something seriously wrong and acutely depressing about with your life when you get excited about a cheeky nipple for all the wrong reasons.
I’d worked there for only a few months, and already been reduced to turning in information about celebrities’ pets to fulfil my daily quota of ‘ten items of interest.’ That was what three years of studying journalism had got me; a ‘ten items of interest’ daily quota and a salary that still had me living with my mother.
My desk, quietly sitting in a corner that seemed less well lit than the rest of the office, was positioned as to be just beyond talking range of the next person. You might think this had been a small lack of foresight in office layout, but it soon became clear this was a well-planned decision. It must have become apparent to those in charge that any person holding the job of ‘researcher’ would be reaching out to other humans in desperation; a pathetic attempt to remain sane under relentless ‘ten items of interest’ bombardments. So, obviously, the correct course of action had been to place the soon-to-be-insane employee’s desk on the fringe of ‘inside voice’ distance. All the better to let them sink alone, without dragging others down for the ride. Like kicking well-anchored vines away from a person being consumed by quicksand.
It occurred to me that others probably did not make such detailed observations about their environment. But it was something I found myself doing often. You might walk through The Whisperer offices a hundred times and not notice my previous observations. I managed to pick it up on my very first day on the job.
My eyes drifted to my PC monitor, currently displaying what may or may not have been an ageing female singer exposing her panties while climbing from a limo. I clicked the image and began typing up a description for the chief editor.
I had not yet got round to braving the D.O.M’s cruel ‘on hold’ music a second time. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder what exactly the government’s reaction would be to my little transgression. It was no secret that harsher punishment had been getting dealt out to those who broke magical laws as of late, and what penalties I might pay was starting to become a concern. I was reminded of second rather disturbing image I had seen in that brochure they handed out on the first day of high school…
A hand descended on my shoulder and I jumped.
“Well, well, surfing the snatch on company time,” a voice said.
It was Brent, a late twenties graphic designer from a section of the building that remained a mystery. The only person I considered to be a friend from the bowels of The Whisperer.
“She’s nearly fifty,” I responded.
“Really? Who’s it supposed to be?”
“Does it matter?”
“Guess not.” He leaned in for a closer look. “That’s an awfully provocative pair of panties for a fifty year old. I’ll bet she’s a minx, even if she is old enough to be my mother.”
“You are aware of the incredible level of Freudian depths you just ploughed?”
“Ah. Very clever.”
He sat on the edge of my desk and scratched at the little goatee that lived on the tip of his chin. It was the most finely nurtured piece of facial hair I had ever seen, putting my own rather scruffy stubble to horrible shame.
“Listen, there’s a work thing going on Friday, lunchtime,” he said, “Cecil’s birthday. You should come.”
“You know, Cecil. Over in…uh....”
“You have no idea who he is, do you?”
“None. But look, it’s my responsibility, okay? I got shafted with the office team-building bullshit in my section and I have to make sure people show-up.” He paused, thinking. “Claudia will be there.”
I racked my brain. “The girl at the front desk?”
“That’s the one. What a fox, right? She can’t stop talking about you.”
I had said a total of one sentence to Claudia the Receptionist. It went; ‘I'm here about the job.’ Instinct told me she preferred guys who could afford to take her somewhere of a higher standard than a fast food joint. Regardless, to spare Brent’s feelings I made a show of being torn with the difficult position, going as far as to sigh in farcical disappointment.
“I’d like to, Brent. Really, I would. But I've got an appointment at the Department of Magic. So…”
He stared at me. I nearly burst a blood vessel attempting to maintain a poker-face.
“You’re lying,” he declared, “I've seen dead squirrels with more magical ability than you.”
“Fine. Yes, I'm lying. But just for the record; I really could have an appointment on Friday.”
“At the D.O.M?”
“Yes. I had a dream.”
“Hope you changed the bed sheets.”
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I honestly didn't take you for a magic user, Jet. What’s your Spirit Level?”
“No idea. I've never had it measured. Doesn't interest me enough to willingly subject myself to the D.O.M.”
“But rules is rules,” he said jovially. A sinister grin turned up the corners of his mouth. “The up-side is that I have the means to help you jump to the front of the queue, effectively circumnavigating those six long, blasphemous hours dealing with the body odour of the fat guy that will inevitably be in the seat next to you. It just so happens that my brother, Benny, is a Junior Enforcer.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I shit you not. He could handle your Spirit test personally and have you registered before lunch.” He paused for effect. “So I’ll see you at Cecil’s birthday? No need to bring a gift, your heartfelt best wishes will do.”
I sighed. “Claudia will really be there?”
“Sure. But forget her; gotta have gold to attract gold diggers. She’s a princess anyway, you wouldn't like her.” He took out his wallet, fished for a business card, and handed it to me. “Good luck. Benny’s a bit of an odd one. He made a guy eat his own liver once.”
* * *
Although being ludicrously easy to identify by the theatrical uniform, one that would, in my opinion, be more at home in a military ceremonial event, I had seen only a handful of real Enforcers in my life. And that had been only in passing, glimpsed on the street or spotted hovering around in a building lobby. The rumours, on the other hand, I had heard by the truckload, and on many occasions had turned in a wacky ‘celebrity Enforcer’ story as one of my ‘ten items of interest…’
‘Enforcer confirmed to have bizarre fetish; makes love to goldfish,’ ‘Enforcer spotted fondling goat at petting zoo,’ ‘Enforcer admits rolling around naked in chicken feathers.’
It was all about as substantial as any other celebrity news. But, there was no question that for some reason the line of work seemed to attract bizarre controversy. I had never heard of an Enforcer making a person eat their own liver, and was sure, not in the least because of the logistics involved, that it was not even possible to do so. Still, as I headed for the local D.O.M the thought lingered in my mind.
Upon entering the Department of Magic I was greeted by the sight that turns even strong men’s blood cold; a queue of seated civilians, all secretly hoping for a quick death to relieve them from tedium, winding its way in a zigzag towards a row of teller windows.
To my left, behind a tiny wooden desk, a frowning obese woman burned holes in my face with her stare. I approached her, my footsteps deafeningly loud in the silent hall.
“I have an appointment with Benny Kingston.”
She consulted a book. “Jet Clarence?”
“Door across the hall, turn left, office is on your right.”
I headed for the door, feeling supremely smug as I skirted the queue and drew envious gazes. It opened onto a narrow passage and I turned left, soon finding the door labelled “Benny Kingston.” I knocked.
Inside the office was roughly the size of a jail cell. Benny Kingston I assumed, sat behind a desk, eyes fixed on a computer monitor that could have told more stories about the ‘good old days’ than I cared to hear. He was a thin clean-shaven man with only one real distinguishing feature; a nose that would have felt comfortable in profile on a Roman coin. All this apparent ordinariness was, however, absurdly contrasted by the ridiculous Enforcer’s uniform. Blue blazer, protruding gold buttons, a jingling collection of what appeared to be decorative medals on the left breast, and although I could not currently see them, I knew the polished black boots sat below the table.
“Benny Kingston?” I enquired.
He gestured to the guests’ seat without taking his eyes from the monitor and I sat, aware that a powerful feeling of claustrophobia was setting in like a foot of whale blubber. Apparently forgetting I was in the room Benny continued to stare with intense concentration at the monitor, leaving us in awkward silence.
So I leaned back, fingers locked in my lap, and chose a section of blank white wall above his head at which to stare. The moment drew on; he didn't cough or so much as clear his throat. To my left, the plain white clock on the wall ticked; a sound I would never have believed could be so loud. Finally I opened my mouth, and as I did Benny’s head snapped up.
“So you surf porn for a living, huh,” he asked brightly.
“Sort of,” I responded, relieved though not understanding why, “That’s part of it, I guess. But…”
“If I got paid to surf porn I’d be a rich man.”
“Well, I'm not.”
He grinned. “You said over the phone you had a dream?”
“That’s right,” I said, shifting about in my chair to avoid my legs going numb, “last night.”
“I see.” He nodded, then took a plastic pouch from the desk’s top drawer. I was certain it would contain some kind of magical paraphernalia, but out tipped a mountain of tobacco onto the desk. “And this dream was significant to you?”
“It made an impression,” I said, watching as he started to sift through the pile, “I was attacked by a guy with a blue face.”
“Okay, fine. You recognised this guy?”
“No. Afterwards there was a red mark on my back. That’s what worried me.”
“Nothing to be worried about, you were attacked by a demon.” He said this as if it held no significance.
I blinked. “Is that not a bad thing?”
“Well, it’s not a good thing, per se, but it is good confirmation your Spirit levels are high. No one squanders their time digging for potatoes in infertile soil, if you catch my meaning.”
“So, I'm not in any danger?”
He hesitated. “You’re in a fair amount of danger. I was trying to lessen your anxiety.”
“Oh. Thanks. What kind of danger?”
“If left unchecked the demon will grow in strength and eventually feed on you. If that continues, it could be very bad for your mental health.” He paused, then added; “Sorry.”
I stared. “Feed on me?”
“Don’t sweat it; it takes a long time for a demon to reach that level. You’ll have it sorted out long before then. The plus is you can learn a few spells. Impress girls, be the life of the party. That sort of thing.”
Satisfied that his tobacco was now sorted, he reached down and took a second pouch from the drawer. From this he extracted a pinch of new tobacco that was sprinkled onto the original pile. I watched the process with mild fascination. His methodical movements seemed oddly misplaced.
“So what does this mean,” I asked, “What are we going to do?”
“Two things,” he declared, “Firstly, we will need to measure your Spirit level. Secondly, should your Spirit level be above average, I will have to register you. Beyond that it’s really up to you. If you want training that’s on your own buck, the government doesn't cover it.” He now took a rolling paper from his top pocket and started to roll a cigarette.
“Wait, you said I need this training to avoid being fed on by a demon.”
“The government doesn't cover that?”
“You can tell me I need it, but not give it to me?”
I sighed. “Great. Thanks.”
“Tell me this, how much do you actually know about magic? Read any books? Got a user in the family?”
“And what is her Spirit level?”
“I'm not sure.”
“You never asked?”
“No. Well, she’s told me before, but I don’t remember.”
“Okay, and what is her chosen field of magic?”
I racked my brain. “Illusion, Influence and Manipulation.”
“That’s a broad field. More specifically?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Liza Clarence.” He placed the perfectly rolled cigarette between his lips and punched keys on the keyboard with his right hand, while, absently, pinching the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. A small flame sprang from between the pinched fingers and ignited the cigarette. A not too impressive bit of magic; I’d seen it before. “It says here your mother is a competent Influencer.”
“Right. That’s it.”
“And was he a user?”
“Not as far as I know.”
He squinted at the monitor. “It says here your father died under suspicious circumstances.”
“What? No. He had a heart attack when I was young.”
“I'm reading it right here, Jet; ‘died under suspicious circumstances’. But the case was closed almost immediately, so I guess it was nothing.”
“It must be a mistake. I'm telling you it was a heart attack. I was there.”
“Yes? What happened, if you don’t mind me asking.”
I cast my mind back to the events of my father’s death, something which I thought about as little as possible for obvious reasons. I had been standing, looking down at my father as he lay on his back, arms spread on either side of his body. My mother had been kneeling beside him, screaming herself near hoarse.
“What’s wrong with dad?” I had asked, my voice calm for a child witnessing death.
And my mother, looking up at me as if just realising I was present, responded…
Benny watched me.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” I muttered, “I just don’t really remember the events very well.”
He had one long drag, took an ashtray from a drawer, and stubbed out the un-smoked cigarette. The ashtray was overflowing with similarly abandoned cigarettes.
“Vague memories are sometimes a sign of having been manipulated.”
“You think I was manipulated? Magically?”
“I never said that.” he replied, “I just said it’s interesting. Besides, the case was closed so I'm sure it’s nothing. Now, let’s do your test, shall we?”
“Okay.” I shifted my position again.
“What can you tell me about your time here so far, Jet?”
I squinted at him. “Is this the test now?”
“Just answer the question.”
“Well, is it?”
“You've already had the test.” A wry smile.
“Good. Then the test worked. Now, tell me about the time from when you entered the office up till now.”
I hesitated. “I came into the room, you told me to sit and I sat down.”
“Is that what happened?”
I thought about it. “You never actually said sit down, you gestured to the chair, and then I sat down.”
“Right. And then?”
“And then what?”
“How did you feel?” he prompted.
“I remember feeling a bit claustrophobic.”
“Good, yes. And then…”
“I was about to talk, but you spoke first.”
“Exactly. And how long do you think you sat in silence before you started to speak?”
“A minute or two.”
“Two minutes and thirty seven seconds,” he declared, “Would it amaze you to know that some have sat there in complete silence for nearly a full hour? Others have simply stood and left, never having exchanged a word with me, so deep was their confusion. They failed.”
“Failed? I'm sorry, I'm still not following.”
“I've measured not your Spirit Level, Jet my old chum, but rather your natural defence against magical attacks. You were under attack the moment you stepped through the door. The room, the clock, your chair, and my attitude, were all a very well planned attack. But you broke the effect in just two minutes and thirty seven seconds. Not bad.”
I hesitated. “Is this the real test? Talking nonsensical shit and seeing if I’ll buy it?”
He threw back his head and laughed. “No, but extra points for that. It’s called Mental Manipulation and Influence. I suspect, since your mother is a practised user of similar techniques, you have picked up a strong resistance, regardless of whether you know it or not.”
“So you made me uncomfortable and waited to see how long I would tolerate it?”
He nodded. “It was just the basis of an attack. It could have gone much further, depending on intention. It may have progressed to making you believe you were a wildebeest, for example.”
“A wildebeest, of course. The tobacco thing was part of it?”
“No,” he said, “The tobacco thing is my Primary Crutch. But that’s not important, you’ll learn about that later if you choose to have training.”
“Did you make a guy eat his own liver?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
He stared, expressionless. “Did I make a guy eat his own liver? Are you serious?”
“I heard a rumour.”
“Did you even stop to think about what that would involve, logistically? How would I have gone about doing it? Surgically extracting it, then serving it with a bit of apple sauce and hoping the victim will go along for the experience?”
I shrugged. “Yes well, when you say it that way it does sound a little impossible.”
“It’s very possible. Weren't you listening? Surgery and apple sauce. And yes, I could make a man eat his own liver. As to why I would do such a thing is another question.”
“Right.” I shifted in my seat again, frowning. “What about the fire from the fingertips thing? How do I do that?”
“Well, that’s a different field altogether; Self Deceit, a branch of Reality Manipulation. It involves having a mental discussion about the nature of combustion, friction and heat. And if your mind is convinced, at that moment, that having fire spring forth from your fingertips is logical, it will be so.”
“I'm still a little confused here…”
“Yes well, you may have a high Spirit Level, but your grasp of the basics is not very strong, Jet. I’ll register you. What you plan to do now is up to you. But since you have been targeted by a demon, I would strongly recommend you seek advanced defence training.” He took a business card from his top pocket and handed it to me, then turned his attention to the monitor. “Full name?”