N ightingale drove back to his flat to pick up clean clothes and cleaning supplies, then drove to Gosling Manor on autopilot, barely aware of the twists and turns in the road. Part of him didn’t want to go, but he knew there was only one way he could find out who or what had been in the basement. And there was only one person he was sure could help save his sister’s soul. The roads were clear and he arrived at the house shortly before ten o’clock. The gates were still open but he closed them after he’d driven through, then parked and smoked a cigarette in the cold night air before heading inside. He switched on the lights and went slowly up the staircase, running his hand along the banister.
Nightingale didn’t know much about magic circles or how they worked. He had learned how to construct one and he knew that he was safe only so long as he remained inside its confines, but other than that he knew next to nothing. The circle that he’d used the first time he had summoned Proserpine was still in the master bedroom, but he had a gut feeling that protective circles could only be used once. He figured that they were probably like the gaskets in his beloved MGB. Whenever he took the engine apart, which was at least twice a year, he always installed brand-new gaskets. More often than not the old ones would probably work but experience had taught him that it was better not to take the risk.
All the bedrooms off the upstairs hallway were clean, but Nightingale figured there was clean and there was magic-circle clean so he fetched a bucket and a brush from the kitchen and spent the best part of an hour washing and rewashing the floor of the bedroom next to the one where Ainsley Gosling had ended his life with a shotgun blast.
There was a small bathroom leading off the bedroom and he emptied the dirty water down the toilet, then took off his clothes and stepped into the shower. He used a plastic nail brush to clean under his fingernails and his toenails, and shampooed his hair twice. He worked up a lather with a fresh bar of coal tar soap, rinsed himself off, and then repeated the process. He dried himself with a new, unused towel, then put on fresh clothes. He smiled at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. ‘Squeaky clean,’ he said.
He’d brought up everything that he needed from the basement in a cardboard box that now stood in the middle of the room. On the top was the box of chalk. He took out a stick and carefully drew a circle about twelve feet in diameter, with the cardboard box in the centre. Picking up the birch branch that he’d taken from the garden he slowly ran it around the chalk mark and then put it back in the box. He used the chalk to draw a pentagram inside the circle, directing two of the five points towards north. Then he drew a triangle around the circle, with the apex pointing north, making sure that there was plenty of room between the two shapes. Any devil summoned to the magic circle would remain trapped between the circle and the triangle. Finally he wrote the letters MI, CH and AEL at the three points of the triangle. Michael. The Archangel. Sworn enemy of Satan and the fallen angels. Michael was the Angel of Death, who, according to the Bible, appeared before every soul at the point of death giving them a last chance to redeem themselves. It was the power of the Archangel that would keep Proserpine trapped within the triangle and keep Nightingale safe inside the pentagram.
He straightened up, then took a small glass bottle from the cardboard box. Consecrated salt water. He removed the stopper and carefully sprinkled the water around the circle. He replaced the stopper, put the bottle back in the box, and took out five church candles. He placed them at the five points of the pentagram, struck a long match and carefully lit them, moving clockwise around the circle. When he’d finished he blew out the match and put it into the box. He’d written a checklist of everything he was supposed to do and he methodically worked through it, ensuring that he hadn’t forgotten anything. At the bottom of the list was the Latin phrase that he had to repeat when he wanted Proserpine to appear.
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He desperately wanted a cigarette but smoke was an impurity that would weaken the circle. He wiped his hands on his trousers and then picked up a plastic bag full of herbs. He took a handful and sprinkled it over the candles one by one, again moving clockwise. As the herbs hit the flames they spluttered and sparked and the air was soon thick with cloying fumes. Nightingale took a lead crucible from the box and poured the rest of the herbs into it, then used another long match to ignite them. He took another deep breath and his head started to swim. He felt the strength drain from his legs and his knees began to buckle but he bunched his hands into fists and gritted his teeth, forcing himself to concentrate. He stood in the exact centre of the pentagram and slowly read out the Latin phrase, carefully enunciating every syllable. Then he shouted the final three words: ‘ Bagahi laca bacabe! ’
The air was so thick with smoke that he could no longer see the walls. The ceiling shimmered and went dark, and then the smoke began to form into a slowly moving vortex. His eyes were watering and he could taste something metallic at the back of his mouth. There was a flash of lightning and the smell of cordite and then the floorboards began to shake.
Space seemed to fold into itself and there was a series of rapid-fire bright flashes. The air went blurry and then suddenly came back into focus and she was standing there, dressed in black with her black and white collie dog standing by her side. Her face was a deathly white, her hair jet black and spiky, her lashes loaded with mascara, black lipstick emphasising her pout. She was wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket with an upside-down silver crucifix on the left lapel and a leering silver skull on the right, tight black jeans with ripped knees and black stiletto heels. Her toenails and fingernails were painted a glossy black to match her eyes.
‘Nightingale,’ she said. ‘I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.’ Her dog barked and she stroked it behind the ear.
‘Good dog,’ said Nightingale.
The animal bared its fangs at him. ‘Don’t tease him,’ said Proserpine. ‘He doesn’t like being teased.’
‘Who does?’ said Nightingale. ‘How’re things?’
‘Life, or whatever passes for life for a demon from Hell.’
‘You wouldn’t understand.’
‘I’ve an enquiring mind.’
She sneered at him. ‘Trying to explain my existence would be like you explaining quantum physics to a cockroach.’
‘When I summon you, where do you come from?’
‘The Elsewhere,’ she said. ‘Somewhere else. Somewhen else. You wouldn’t understand.’
She shook her head, almost sadly. ‘You use words without any comprehension of their meaning. You have no idea what a dimension is. You know nothing. A blink of an eye ago and you humans thought the world was flat. And then you believed that the sun went around your little planet. Now your brightest minds tell you that the universe was created from nothing and is expanding outwards.’
‘And it isn’t?’
She laughed and the dog looked up at her and wagged its tail. ‘What do you want, Nightingale?’
Nightingale folded his arms ‘Help,’ he said.
Proserpine laughed again and the walls shook as if the building was in the grip of an earthquake. ‘Help?’
‘My sister. Ainsley Gosling sold her soul as well as mine.’
Proserpine shrugged. ‘So?’
‘People keep telling me that she’s going to Hell.’
‘They’re probably right.’
‘Tonight I used a Ouija board in the basement. Someone or something gave me the same message.’
‘And again, so?’
‘I thought it might have been you.’
‘Well, you thought wrong. I have no interest in your sister. You’re not the centre of my universe, Nightingale. Why would you think I care what happens to you or those close to you?’
‘I sort of assumed you saw and heard everything.’
‘Well, you sort of assumed wrong. You call me and I’ll come to see what you want. But when I’m in the Elsewhere I don’t give you a second’s thought.’
‘No, you’re not, but carry on wasting my time like this and you’ll feel pain like you’ve never felt before.’ She folded her arms. ‘What do you want? Why did you call me?’
‘My sister’s soul. Ainsley Gosling sold it to one of your lot. Frimost.’
‘Frimost?’ repeated Proserpine.
‘You know him?’
‘By reputation,’ she said. ‘He’s a nasty piece of work.’
Nightingale grinned. ‘That’s ironic, coming from you.’
Proserpine narrowed her eyes. ‘What do you mean, exactly?’
‘Well, you’re all devils, aren’t you? The Fallen. Sending souls to Hell and all that jazz. I guess to an outsider you’d all look like nasty pieces of work. No offence.’
Proserpine roared with laughter and the floor shook. ‘None taken,’ she said. ‘But we’re not all the same, Nightingale. And, if you meddle with Frimost, you’ll discover that to your cost.’ She put her hands on her hips. ‘So what do you want?’
‘I want to know how to get my sister’s soul back,’ said Nightingale. ‘I want to know how to deal with Frimost.’ He studied Proserpine with unblinking eyes, looking for any hint as to what was going through her mind. As a police negotiator he’d learned that body language and facial expressions were more of a key to what a person was thinking than what came out of their mouths. But Proserpine wasn’t human, she was a demon from the bowels of Hell, and her face was as smooth and featureless as porcelain, her eyes like pools of oil.
‘What do you think I am, Nightingale?’ she said. ‘Phone a friend?’
‘I thought we had a connection,’ he said. ‘I helped you get what you wanted, didn’t I?’
She sneered at him. ‘We had a deal, Nightingale. That doesn’t mean we had a connection.’
Nightingale rubbed the back of his neck. The skin there was soaking wet. ‘My sister’s an innocent in all this,’ he said.
Proserpine grinned. ‘There are no innocents, Nightingale. Haven’t you heard of Original Sin?’
‘Her soul was sold on the day she was born,’ said Nightingale. ‘It wasn’t her choice and she didn’t do anything wrong. She didn’t do a deal; she has no idea what’s coming.’
‘Do I care?’ The dog growled again and Proserpine patted him on the neck. ‘We won’t be here long,’ she said.
‘Actually, that’s not true, is it?’ said Nightingale.
She looked up at him, her eyes narrow slits. ‘What do you mean?’
‘According to the rules of the game, if I summon you, you have to stay here for as long as I want you to. And you have to stay in the space between the circle and the triangle. That’s right, isn’t it?’
Proserpine straightened up and cocked her head to one side. ‘So now you’re an expert on summoning devils, are you?’
‘I just know what I’ve read,’ he said. ‘And what I’ve read says that you’re a prisoner until I let you go.’
She nodded slowly, clearly amused.
‘What’s funny?’ he asked.
‘ Little Britain,’ she said. ‘That always makes me laugh. The fat bald one, what’s his name?’
Nightingale shrugged. ‘I don’t watch much TV these days.’
‘You should,’ she said. ‘Reflects life the way it’s lived. And The Office. Now that was funny. The place they work in reminds me of Hell.’
‘I thought Hell was fire and brimstone.’
‘It can be,’ she said. ‘Do you want a visit?’
‘You can take me?’
‘And you’ll bring me back?’
She laughed and this time the floor shuddered as if the house was in the grip of an earthquake. ‘I shall miss your sense of humour, Nightingale,’ she said.
‘When you’re dead.’ She ran her hand through her spiky hair. ‘It’s time for you to let me go,’ she said. ‘You keep me any longer and you’ll try my patience.’
‘You have to stay until I say you can go.’
She folded her arms. ‘Really?’ she said.
‘That’s what the books say.’
‘You don’t want to believe everything you read in books,’ she said. ‘There’s a lot of crap in the Bible, for instance. And don’t get me started on the Koran.’
‘I just want some advice,’ he said. ‘Some guidance. Give me that and I’ll release you.’
‘What if we just wait and see?’ she said quietly.
‘What do you mean?’
A cunning smile spread slowly across her face. ‘You really don’t understand the magic circle, do you?’ she said.
‘It got you here, didn’t it?’
‘Yes, it did,’ she said. ‘And you’re inside the circle and I’m outside, but which of us is really trapped?’
Nightingale felt something cold run down his spine and he shivered.
‘Time is different for me, Nightingale. You measure your fleeting life in seconds and minutes. I measure mine in…’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t measure it,’ she said. ‘Time just is. Time to me is like length, breadth and width. It’s just there. It doesn’t move the way it does for you.’
Nightingale frowned. ‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ he said.
‘Of course you don’t,’ she said. ‘But understand this. I can stand here for a hundred years. A thousand. A million, if necessary. But you? Could you do twenty-four hours in that circle? A week? Could you do a month? Without food or water? And even without food and water how long do you think you can stay there before you lose your mind?’ She grinned. ‘How about we give it a go?’ She dropped her arms to her sides and stared at him impassively.
‘This is ridiculous,’ said Nightingale.
Proserpine said nothing but continued to stare at him. Her eyes were black and featureless, the irises blending perfectly into the pupils; but there was no reflection in them so it seemed as if they absorbed everything. Her face was a blank mask and he couldn’t tell if she was looking at him or through him. He walked around the cardboard box and then faced her again. She hadn’t moved, and neither had the dog. It was as if they had frozen.
‘You’re sulking, is that it?’ he asked.
There was no reaction.
‘You’re just going to stand there and do nothing?’
She stayed where she was, frozen to the spot. Nightingale walked up to her and stared at her across the chalk outline. He held up his right hand and waved it in front of her face. Her eyes continued to stare fixedly ahead and there was no sign that she was even breathing.
He moved his head closer to hers, taking care not to cross the pentagram, but still Proserpine didn’t react. He walked back to the centre of the pentagram and stood there watching her. The seconds ticked by. A minute. Two minutes. Nightingale realised that she was right. Time was crawling by and there was no way he could spend hours in the pentagram, never mind days or weeks. And so long as she was in the room, he couldn’t step outside the pentagram because then it would all be over. The pentagram wasn’t only protection, it was a prison. He looked at the dog. It was completely motionless and the eyes were dull and lifeless. Nightingale stared at the dog, waiting to see if it would blink, but a full minute passed and nothing happened.
He paced slowly around the pentagram. The herbs were still smouldering in the lead crucible. He looked at his watch. Only five minutes had gone by since Proserpine and her dog had stopped moving but it felt like hours. He walked over to her side of the pentagram and took a deep breath. ‘Okay, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I apologise.’ He put his hand over his heart, fingers splayed. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you and I’ve learned my lesson.’
Proserpine smiled. ‘That’s better,’ she said. The dog woofed quietly and its tongue lolled from the side of its mouth.
‘I just thought that the spell was what you did if you wanted to converse with a devil.’
‘It is, but it’s not to be misused. I’m not a dog to be summoned by the jerking of a chain.’
The dog growled and Proserpine bent down and rubbed it behind the ear. ‘That’s right, honey, no one will ever chain you.’ She looked up at Nightingale and smiled. ‘So we’re done, right?’ she said.
‘Is there anything I can say or do that would persuade you to help me?’
She straightened up and shrugged her shoulders. ‘A deal,’ she said. ‘You could offer me a deal. That’s the only good reason to summon a devil. We’re usually summoned by those with a soul to sell.’ She licked her lips with the tip of her tongue. ‘What about it, Jack Nightingale? Do you want to sell your soul?’
‘I’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to keep it, thanks,’ he said.
‘An exchange, then?’ she said, her voice a throaty whisper. ‘Your soul for your sister’s?’
‘You could do that? Even though her soul isn’t promised to you?’
‘I can pull strings, Nightingale. So do we have a deal? Your soul for hers? It’s no biggie; it would put you back where we started. Your soul was always mine anyway.’
‘Only because my father sold it to you before I was born,’ he said. ‘I was never given a choice in the matter. Now I do have a choice, and I want to keep it.’
‘So we’re done, then,’ said Proserpine. ‘Say the words to end this and I’ll be on my way.’
‘What about a little help?’ said Nightingale. ‘Some guidance?’
‘I’m not an agony aunt. I take souls. You’re starting to try my patience, Nightingale.’
Nightingale put up his hands. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘How about a deal? What would you want to answer a few questions?’
‘What are you offering?’
‘Proserpine, I have enough trouble buying birthday presents for my secretary, how on earth would I know what you want? I’m guessing that book tokens wouldn’t cut it.’
Proserpine threw back her head and laughed. The room shook and the bottle of consecrated salt water fell out of the cardboard box and shattered. The dog’s tail swished from side to side as it arched its head to look up at its mistress. The herbs flared in the crucible and a shower of sparks rained down on Nightingale’s shoulders. ‘You want to buy information from me?’ she asked. ‘With trinkets?’
‘What do you want?’ asked Nightingale. ‘Tell me what you want and maybe we can do a deal.’
‘Is this how you worked when you were a police negotiator, Nightingale? Promise them anything so long as they come along quietly?’
‘If you find out what a person in crisis wants, then more often than not you can offer them something that will make their life easier.’
Proserpine’s eyes narrowed. ‘I’m not in crisis, Nightingale.’
‘No, but I am. Look, I don’t know where my sister is – hell, I don’t even know who she is. But I’ll do whatever I have to do to find her.’
‘I’ve already told you, I can’t help you with that.’
‘No, but you can help me get her soul back. Assuming that I can find her. But I need intel. Intel that you can supply me with.’
Proserpine studied him with her unblinking black eyes for several seconds, and then she slowly nodded. ‘You want questions answered?’
‘I need to know how to help my sister.’
‘From what you’ve said it sounds as if she’s beyond help.’
‘That’s what everyone said about me, but I did okay.’
Proserpine smiled slyly. ‘Maybe you did. And maybe you didn’t.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings,’ said Proserpine. ‘So how about this? For every question of yours that I answer, you give up ten years of your life.’
Nightingale’s jaw dropped. ‘What do you mean by “give up”? You mean I go to prison?’
‘I mean you die ten years earlier than you would have done.’
Nightingale’s mouth had gone suddenly dry but he tried not to show his discomfort. ‘I’m not keen on that, frankly,’ he said.
‘Are you sure you want to do this, Nightingale?’
Nightingale ran a hand through his hair. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Are you really sure?’ pressed Proserpine. ‘You don’t even know this person. Why does her welfare concern you so much?’
‘She’s my sister.’
‘So she’s the only family I have. She’s blood.’
‘And blood isn’t worth ten years?’ she asked.
‘It’s a bit steep. What else have you got?’
Proserpine sighed and folded her arms, then cocked her head like a hawk scrutinising potential prey. ‘How about this?’ she said. ‘You want “intel” as you call it. Fine. But for every question of yours that I answer, I’ll send someone to kill you.’
Nightingale’s brow furrowed. ‘Someone or something?’
Proserpine smiled. ‘Now you’re thinking,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry, they’ll be human. Genetically anyway.’
‘And they’ll try to kill me?’
‘Oh they’ll be professionals, Nightingale. They won’t be playing with you.’
‘And what do you get out of it?’ he asked. The nicotine craving had returned with a vengeance and he gritted his teeth.
‘Entertainment,’ she said. ‘Amusement. Plus I can use you as a reward.’
‘A treat. Something to show my minions that I care for them. They do so love to serve me. Do you want the deal or not, Nightingale? If not, say the words and I’ll be on my way.’
‘It’s a deal,’ he said. ‘And you’ll answer any question that I ask you?’
A cruel smile spread across her face. ‘Yes, Nightingale, I will.’ She bit down on her lower lip and watched him.
Nightingale wondered why she was smiling, then realisation hit him like a punch to the solar plexus. He’d asked his first question and she’d answered it. And that stupid slip was going to cost him an attempt on his life. ‘Okay,’ he said, nodding slowly. ‘I see how it works.’ He stopped speaking as his mind whirled. He was going to have to be very, very careful because the next words out of his mouth would be a matter of life or death.