The vampire known as Phil woke to discover steel restraints around his wrists, ankles, and middle. Intrigued by the novelty—and far less concerned with the restraints than with the fact that he’d been asleep—he focused his roving eye on a familiar half-full bottle of whisky several feet away from where he lay. And the background fell into place, along with memory.
Edinburgh. He really had to stop coming here.
He’d been sitting at the top of Playfair Steps, enjoying the night, appreciating the view spread before him and the feathery tickle of the misty summer rain on his face and hands, the delicious smell of all that human blood milling around him. It was Festival time, and apart from a few locals, no one seemed to sleep. Instead of the usual drunks and partygoers and the odd troublemaker, it was the culture vultures who wandered these streets after dark, looking for comedy venues and avant-garde theatre.
Hence Phil’s presence on Playfair Steps. He didn’t need to jump the first human he saw. He could pick and choose from the crowd. When he’d dined, he could catch the end of Elena Santini’s show in the General Assembly hall, after which he’d thought he might stroll down to the New Town and visit Blair and his delectable human lover.
Those were his vague, pleasant plans when some kind of steel net had suddenly dropped over his head and upper body. Surprised, Phil had lowered his whisky bottle from his mouth and several passersby had laughed, imagining it was yet more street theatre. Something sharp had pricked his neck, and the first twinge of unease had struck him. The second kicked in when a man and woman swung into focus. The woman was pretty, if not to his normal taste, but the man looked familiar. And not in a good way.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have drunk the half bottle quite so quickly. His brain might have worked faster. Although he doubted the outcome would have been much different.
The man’s face had fuzzed before Phil’s eyes, and consciousness had slipped from him with an ease reminiscent of distant childhood. He’d barely had time to worry.
And now here he was, waking up, restrained, in some kind of hospital. Or laboratory. He supposed the equipment set out on the workbench could have been used by either. Syringes, vials, and test tubes, petri dishes, computers, and electronic gadgetry galore.
The most annoying thing about it all was that he couldn’t reach his whisky.
Nor was there anyone in the room who could be charmed, threatened, or mesmerised into fetching it. Or loosening the steel restraints.
Phil sighed. Clearly, it was yet another case of if you want something done, do it yourself.
He examined his manacles. They didn’t allow for much movement, and they were clearly designed to hold the strongest of prisoners. Phil, however, wasn’t just any prisoner. He strained his arms upward until the mechanism sprang open on each side. It took rather more effort than he’d expected. Then he sat up in one movement and prised open the large band around his middle. That done, he could actually explore around the base of his bed, where he found a handy button that released his feet.
Phil swung his legs around and slid to the floor. He could smell humans close by, hear the whisper of their voices in another room. Just two—probably the same two from Playfair Steps.
Phil strolled the few feet to the workbench and picked up his whisky. He unscrewed the cap. After sniffing the contents for contamination and finding none, he leaned back against the workbench and took a thoughtful swig.
He had a choice here. He could just leave: walk out the door and imagine their faces as they wondered how the hell he’d managed it; it might be amusing. On the other hand, this was really the most interesting thing that had happened to him since—well, since the last time he’d been in Edinburgh. And he suspected he’d be much more entertained by whatever the hell was going on here. The involvement of that fellow, whose name temporarily escaped him, was definitely interesting. And dangerous. He shouldn’t forget that this time.
Phil let the whisky burn its way down his throat and gave a satisfied sigh. You couldn’t beat a good malt. He straightened, and, transferring his bottle to the left hand, he began to poke around his prison.
First, he uncapped a vial of unlabelled blood, which, when he sniffed it, proved to be his own. Humans taking blood from a vampire? That has to be a first. Good God, I must be a scientific experiment.
The idea amused him for all of two seconds, until he realised the implications. Vampires thrived on the fringes of human existence, beneath people’s radar, knowledge, and belief. A scientific examination had to be a bad thing. Especially if it involved Whatshisname.
In the spirit of waste not, want not, he poured the blood down his throat and sweetened it with a slug of whisky, while pulling a clipboard toward him. The form at the front showed a photograph of him with his eyes closed in sleep. Clearly taken while he lay here. It was labelled “Specimen V3.” His height and head circumference were recorded beneath the photograph, but the rest of the personal information, like age, address, etc., had been left blank. Flipping it over, he found other forms showing his captors were interested in elements of his blood and DNA.
Specimen V3… Vampire 3? Who were vampires 1 and 2? In fact, where were vampires 1 and 2?
Phil opened a fridge under the workbench and found it full of labelled containers, glass bottles, and vials. None of it looked like anyone’s lunch. He closed the door and moved toward the filing cabinet, but on the way became distracted by a large, grey ring binder. He opened it and found a pile of about twenty forms similar to his own. The top one showed a photograph of a young, golden-haired woman. She was labelled T1. Phil flipped over to see that lots of information had been filled in on her form; then, for some reason, he immediately turned back to the photograph.
Even with her eyes closed, she was beautiful, her features fine and even except for a rather charming upward tilt of her nose, her lips full and shapely. She was a definite treat to gaze upon, although Phil would have preferred to see her eyes. He could think of a few pleasurable ways to wake her up… But she didn’t look much like a vampire, and this was neither the time nor the place for lascivious thoughts. The unfortunate being had presumably been captive in this establishment at some point.
Besides, a door closed somewhere nearby and footsteps sounded, coming closer. Phil closed the ring binder and put the top back on his whisky as he strode to the bed. Hastily, he shoved the bottle under the pillow before sitting on the couch and bending the restraints back around his feet without letting them lock. He lay down and did the same with the large band around his middle and his left hand. He had a little more difficulty with the right wrist, since he had to work one-handed, but by the time the door opened, he suspected it would pass a cursory glance.
“He’ll still be asleep,” the woman said as she entered the room ahead of her partner in crime. Obligingly, Phil closed his eyes. “The others were out for hours.”
“This one may be stronger,” the man warned, and Phil lifted his eyelids a crack in time to see his male captor sweep up the clipboard while the woman collected an alarming array of instruments, including a very large needle and a thin tube which she inserted into Phil’s mouth. For curiosity’s sake, he waited to see what would happen next. Since she was distracted, he opened his eyes fully and studied her.
Late thirties or early forties, he guessed, professional, intelligent. Her brown hair was short and neat; she wore a white coat and surgical gloves. And although her face bore few traces of makeup, she looked well-groomed and smelled very clean. Her firm if slightly thin lips spoke of determination. Her cold eyes seemed clinical rather than compassionate.
A machine clicked on, and Phil realised it operated some kind of suction, similar to that used by dentists.
She was collecting his saliva as well as his blood? Bizarre.
Phil bit the tube, piercing it with his fang, and spat it out.
The woman leapt back. “He’s awake!”
Her partner, who’d been standing right behind her, swore as she stood on his toes. “Yes, well you don’t need to run for the hills,” he said. “He’s restrained, remember?”
“I know, but he worries me more than the others,” the woman said dubiously.
Obligingly, Phil smiled to display his fangs.
“Enough,” the man said in a stern, peremptory fashion as he loomed over the woman’s shoulder. “Or you’ll be sedated again.”
Phil tried to look meek.
The woman picked up the tube and frowned at the hole in it. “Well, since you’re awake,” she said, “what is your name, and how old are you?”
Phil, who happened to know from their last encounter that the man was telepathic, conducted an experiment of his own by sending his answer directly at the mind of the woman. “My name is Archibald Scott, but you can call me Phil. And I’m roughly three hundred years old.”
His thoughts bounced off her unresponsive brain, which appeared to be encased behind the same brick wall he encountered in nearly all humans.
“Answer me,” she said sharply.
The man struck himself in the forehead. “He can’t! Of course, he can’t! He’s one of the old ones, and they can’t talk.”
“Can’t talk?” the woman repeated, scowling. “Why not?”
The man shrugged. “God knows. They just don’t. They communicate telepathically with each other. I told you, they’re solitary creatures and stay well away from humans. Apart from feeding purposes.”
“So how come the others, the newer ones, speak?”
Answer that one, you bastard, Phil thought, although he kept it to himself.
“Better designed,” the man said blandly. “It doesn’t matter. We don’t need his name and address, for God’s sake. Just get the fluids from his mouth, brain, and spine, and then we’re done.”
The woman clicked her tongue. Clearly this wasn’t the ordered way she liked to do things. “Pass the syringe,” she said resignedly.
Which was Phil’s cue to exit.
With a speed guaranteed to startle humans, he sat up, and his restraints all sprang open. At the same time, he bared his fangs and hissed in the woman’s face in the manner of all the best horror films. She sprang backwards with a squeak of terror as Phil swung the whisky bottle from under his pillow.
He aimed it at his male captor, although he gave him time to dodge it—no point in wasting decent whisky—before he kicked him backwards and leapt off the bed. But if Phil had imagined he’d get out quite so easily, he was doomed to disappointment. The man charged at him, head down like a desperate bull to prevent free passage to the door, and although Phil easily sidestepped him, in the process he almost walked into the woman coming at him with a syringe and had to back rapidly toward the workbench.
“Get the blowpipe!” she yelled. Which must have been how they’d got him on Playfair Steps—some kind of dart blown from a tube with devastating accuracy. And none of the witnesses would have clocked what was really happening in the bizarre street theatre before them.
The man grabbed something from his pocket—it looked like a musical instrument, a bit like a small recorder—and stuck it in his mouth. Phil threw a stool at him, and while he was engaged in fending that off, Phil reached out and upended his bed to keep the woman and her syringe back. Then he flew at the man and hurled him into the carnage of the bed before tearing off the fridge door and throwing that at him too. Glass vials and bottles fell to the floor. For good measure, Phil pulled the fridge over as well and trampled over the spilling contents on his way to the door. Plastic lids popped off under his feet; glass crunched horribly under the door as he wrenched it open.
The man was stumbling to his feet, shaking liquid of some kind off his blowpipe. The woman rummaged amid the carnage for her dropped syringe, screaming, “He’s getting away!”
Phil raised his bottle to them by way of farewell, just as the man gave up on the pipe and lunged after him. Phil turned his back and slammed the door shut and locked it with his mind. It was a useful trick, he reflected as he strolled along a windowless passage toward a flight of stone stairs from which he could smell fresh air. Behind him, a series of thuds told him his erstwhile captors were throwing themselves at the locked door of his prison. Phil smiled.
Although the door at the top of the stairs was locked, it gave him no trouble. He didn’t even bother to close it behind him as he walked out into a dark, silent street. Which looked ominous, like something from his youth or a historical horror film. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, perhaps, or Burke and Hare.
Bloody Edinburgh. Elena Santini, however talented, however beautiful, just wasn’t worth the risks of this place. The last time he’d been here, he’d almost run slap-bang into the Founder himself. It was generally considered a good thing not to attract that particular being’s notice at all. The time before that, he’d been burned almost to true death. Really, except for the very bored who were desperate for any kind of excitement, the whole city was best avoided nowadays. And just as soon as he found out what was going on, that was exactly what Phil intended to do.
Serafina knew as soon as she touched the door knocker that the house was haunted. In enough quantity to catch at her breath.
It was a modest mid-terrace Georgian house of the sort Sera might have considered buying. If only she had any money. It had a neat little garden, and even in the dark of the August evening, she could tell that the house had character and proportion and was just the right size. Plus, she thought wistfully, a house full of ghosts wouldn’t bother her. They’d clear off anyway, if Blair lived there. Spirits did not care for the walking dead. Maybe the owner, Karen Wyse, could be induced to sell it for a song because of the ghosts.
The door was opened by a slender, rather stylish, hippy-seeming woman, perhaps in her thirties. Her unruly brown hair was mostly dragged behind her head, emphasising the sort of cheekbones an actress or a model might kill for.
“Ms. Wyse?” Sera said by way of greeting. “I’m Sera MacBride. This is my colleague, Rose Mason.”
“Very pleased to meet you! Karen Wyse,” the woman said, shaking hands briefly but firmly with both of them. Sera picked up no trace of insincerity. In this case, “pleased to meet you” meant just that. “Come in.”
Karen Wyse stepped back and waved her hand invitingly inward. Sera entered the house, Rose at her heels. Rose stumbled, clutching the door for support, and Sera quickly turned and grabbed the instrument case from her.
“You okay?” Sera murmured.
Rose nodded, straightening. “Sorry…” Her gaze flickered to Sera’s. “There’s something here.”
So Rose felt it too. Good. Sera had obviously made the right decision taking her on. The plan was to train the new recruits in the technology of psychic investigation, leaving Sera free to do what Jilly called the touchy-feely stuff. They’d employed Rose, on three months’ probation, because of her enthusiasm and interest in the supernatural. And now it looked as if she was, at the very least, sensitive to “other” presences.
Karen Wyse, who seemed to have missed this brief exchange, led them into an untidy living room on the ground floor. A fat tabby cat woke up and stomped off when Rose sat beside it on the sofa.
“Glass of wine?” Karen said, reaching for an open bottle.
“Yes, please,” Rose said with alacrity.
Sera hid her annoyance. In certain circumstances, she was quite happy to drink on the job, even to get riotously pissed. But absolutely not on a first encounter with a new client. Apart from anything else, it created a bad impression. Still, perhaps it would calm the girl’s nerves.
“No, thanks,” Sera said, “I’m driving. So, you’re having a few problems here?”
Although untidy by most standards—Sera didn’t include her own, which were extremely lax—the room was comfortable and pleasantly furnished, with lots of Indian fabrics and artwork in several different styles.
Karen sighed and presented Rose with a glass before sitting beside her in the cat hair. “We seem to have ghosts. Things get inexplicably moved, people feel creepy breath, hear doors closing when there’s no one else in the house.”
“People,” Sera repeated. “Then you haven’t noticed these phenomena yourself?”
“Well, some of it. It just doesn’t bother me.”
“Okay,” Sera said, feeling her way. “Then you called us…why?”
“Because my housemates are freaked and will probably move out. I’ll lose their rent, and frankly, I need it.”
Sera, in the armchair by the empty fireplace, wished she was sitting in Rose’s place so she’d have an excuse to touch Karen’s hand or brush casually against her in order to gauge her honesty. As it was, she had to make do with careful observation.
Karen was not someone she took to naturally. Overeducated and probably from a wealthy background, judging by her accent, and a little too airy-fairy for Sera’s down-to-earth tastes. She doubted Karen’s need of money corresponded to the needs of other people she knew. In Karen’s case, the lack of rent income probably meant she’d have to forgo her third holiday of the year. On the other hand, she did appear sincere, and Sera liked that the idea of spirits didn’t bother her. She could sense them in the distance, drifting, unthreatening.
“All right,” Sera said. “I feel compelled to point out that all the phenomena you’ve mentioned could easily be caused by things other than the supernatural. But since both of us feel some kind of presence here, we’ll go with the assumption that they are supernatural. What would you like us to do? Eject the spirits? Encourage them to move on?”
“I suppose so,” Karen murmured, before her eyes focused on Sera and she frowned. “Move on where? Where do they go?”
“No idea,” Sera confessed. “But it seems to be where they’re meant to be. Most of them are more content not wandering between worlds. Something holds them here, and they don’t seem to know how to break free. Or want to, in some cases. Some just like visiting, but we can discourage them.”
“You can?” Karen’s gaze was direct and searching.
It wasn’t the first time a client had tried to measure Sera’s sincerity. That was fair. Her profession was riddled with charlatans. In fact, Sera herself could scam with the best when she chose.
“Usually,” Sera said steadily. “So how many people live here?”
“Four just now, myself and three students. Officially. Unofficially, Ben’s girlfriend is often here too.”
“Are they in? Can I speak to them?”
“I’ll give them a shout,” Karen said, standing up and leaving the room. A moment later, they heard her yell with surprising abandon, “Ben! Linnie! Mark! Come and talk to the psychics!”
She walked back in to the sound of opening doors farther up the house and the clatter of feet on the stairs.
“Sorry,” she said. “Don’t know what else to call you.”
“Not a problem,” Sera said, amused. “I don’t consider it an insult.”
Two young men wandered into the room, a pale-skinned redhead and a black guy with dreadlocks.
“Where’s Linnie?” Karen asked.
“Pub,” said the redhead, whom Karen introduced as Mark, apparently a student of philosophy, politics, and economics. Ben was a medical student from the West Indies.
Sera shook hands with both of them, mainly to pick up any vibes. Both seemed a little uneasy, half-embarrassed to be talking to a psychic, half-frightened by what they obviously thought was going on in the house.
“So you’re both students at Edinburgh uni?” Sera asked, making conversation. “Bit early for term time, isn’t it?”
“Like it here,” Mark said.
Ben smiled and turned his pockets inside out, by which Sera was clearly meant to understand a lack of funds to go anywhere else.
“So tell me about the strange things that go on here,” Sera invited.
While Sera paced around the room, watching them, they told much the same tale as Karen had, with just a few more details. Nothing truly inexplicable, but taken together, the incidents were enough to have seriously freaked them both. Sera brushed against Mark’s arm as she bent to stroke the cat; she dropped her bag in front of Ben, and made sure their fingers touched as he instinctively bent to retrieve it for her. She sensed no guile, no basic dishonesty.
Except when Mark said, “We’re concerned for Linnie, really.”
“The disturbances upset her more?” Sera asked.
“Yes, but she’s a little fragile right now,” Karen intervened. “She was in an accident recently, and she’s still suffering amnesia, amongst other things.”
“She’s a student too?”
“About to be,” Ben said. “This will be her first year.”
“Okay,” Sera said. “What I propose is to set up some equipment that can sense and measure such disturbances. Over a couple of days and nights, this should give us some idea of how often and how strongly your spirits are around.”
“Really?” Ben said, raising one sceptical eyebrow. Karen only smiled.
“Really. With a program developed by my technical whizz, it does seem to work surprisingly well.”
“Why surprisingly?” Karen asked.
“Most people doubt psychics,” Sera explained. “I doubt technology. But this stuff and I have agreed too often for me to doubt it any longer. And it’s quicker than me at initial exploration.”
Mark shifted in his seat. “Can’t you just get rid of it tonight?”
“No,” Sera said apologetically. “I suspect you have several spirits, and several kinds of spirits here for several different reasons. It’ll take time.”
“And money?” Karen asked with a crooked smile.
“Absolutely,” Sera said. “But I’m sure we can agree on a flat fee.”