Verity’s all about protecting her city, but right now that’s mostly running surveillance and handling the less exciting cases for the Weyrd Council—after all, it’s hard to chase the bad guys through the streets of Brisbane when you’re really, really pregnant.
An insurance investigation sounds pretty harmless, even if it is for ‘Unusual Happenstance’. That’s not usually a clause Normals use—it covers all-purpose hauntings, angry genii loci, ectoplasmic home invasion, demonic possession, that sort of thing—but Susan Beckett’s claimed three times in three months. Her house keeps getting inundated with mud, but she’s still insisting she doesn’t need or want help… until the dry-land drownings begin.
V’s first lead takes her to Chinatown, where she is confronted by kitsune assassins. But when she suddenly goes into labour, it’s clear the fox spirits are not going to be helpful…
Corpselight is the sequel to Vigil and the second book in the Verity Fassbinder series by award-winning author Angela Slatter—available now in the UK from Jo Fletcher Books.
She took a while getting out of her car, smoothing the workday creases from her Donna Karan suit, collecting her handbag and the briefcase. She jingled the keys before inserting them in the lock of the house’s front door, as if the noise might ward off evil spirits; as if it might let them know she was home and they should disappear. The hallway looked fine, but the smell hit her before she’d taken even two steps inside. Had she caused it, she wondered, with her expectation? She shook her head: magical thinking would get her nowhere. Steeling herself, she followed the stench.
It was all over the expensive silk-blend rug at the base of the rocker-recliner that had replaced the last one: oblongs of insufficiently jellified gunk, almost like footprints but lacking definition. Up close, the odour got worse, and she noticed the whole chair wore a thick coat of the same crap. And it wasn’t just mud. It was filth, ooze. Foetid, decaying, contaminated liquefied death.
This was the third such occurrence in as many months: unpredictable, never on the same day or date; if whatever was inflicting this upon her had a schedule, she couldn’t make it out. The mess was always there when she returned from work; the perpetrator must wait until she left, then set about making its point—and always in the same spots. None of her precautions had done a damned thing. She’d be having words with the bloody hippy chick at the St Lucia spook shop about her rubbish ingredients.
She couldn’t imagine the insurance company would pay out, not again, not even under the Unnatural Happenstance provision.
The first time this had happened she’d been unnerved, even afraid.
The second time, she’d been annoyed; she’d thought, Tricks. Shitty little tricks. Shitty, spiteful little tricks.
This time, the only thing on her mind was, Fuck you!
‘It’ll take a damned sight more than this,’ she shouted at the empty room, making sure her anger carried her words all through the house.
She moved through the dining room to find there was more: the kitchen was awash with brown, slither marks patterning the linoleum as if a nest of middling-sized snakes had run amok. The biggest puddle was in front of the fridge. She picked her way across, stepping on the clean patches, careful not to slip, careful not to get sludge on her expensive new Nicholas Kirkwood Carnaby Prism pumps.
The handle of the fridge door was pristine; she grasped it and pulled.
There was a moment, one of those frozen seconds when things stand still. In theory, in that moment, there was time to step away, to jump to safety. In reality, the chocolatey rectangle filling the matt-silver Fisher & Paykel quivered and slid out onto the neutral patent leather of her Kirkwoods with an obscene sucking sound, leaving her shin-deep in muck.
Then the doorbell rang.
‘I’ve given this a lot of thought,’ I said, ‘and I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t go through with it.’
David put an arm around my shoulders because circumnavigating my waist had become more of a challenge than it used to be. ‘Not to be negative or unhelpful, but I don’t think that’s an option anymore, V.’
We were slumped on the couch, staring out over the sea of baby-related items we’d just schlepped home after what I prayed was our Last Ever Shopping Trip. A bouncer with an electronic vibrate function that Mel Wilkes, my friend and neighbour, swore I’d be grateful for. Two colourful mobiles to go above the crib because we’d been unable to agree on which one to get; a roster system would be in place until the offspring could decide for herself. Bulk supplies of talc, nappies, wet wipes, rash cream, lavender-scented baby rub. Tiny hats, booties and singlets so small that they required four zeros to indicate sizing. Things in nice neutral greens and yellows, because, once we’d found out we were having a daughter, the pink gifts arrived thick and fast. To combat princessification we’d bought Lego construction kits, books from the Mighty Girl reading lists, science experiment and chemistry sets and Tonka trucks, as well as a good sturdy teddy bear. If we’d been stockpiling canned goods and weaponry in the same manner we’d have been called Doomsday preppers, but as it was, we looked like precisely what we were: very nervous expectant first-time parents. David had even gone through the storage shed where we’d put all his stuff that couldn’t fit into my house (avoiding once again having The Discussion about what would eventually happen to all said stuff) and emerged triumphantly with the old microscope he’d been given as a boy. He’d polished it till it shone like new and now it sat on a shelf in the library, waiting patiently for our child to be seized by Science. Realistically, we suspected we were getting way ahead of ourselves, but we wanted to be organised.
But that was the fun stuff, and it wasn’t what was making me try to back out of the whole baby-having deal.
It was all the un-fun stuff, which included bottles, sterilisers, a nappy bag big enough for any US Marine to pack her gear in, a pram that required an engineering degree to put together, let alone operate, a changing table with a ridiculous number of drawers, a plastic bath, a high chair and, not even worst of all, an apparently irony-free potty shaped like Winnie the Pooh’s head. But the thing that had me making for the hills as fast as I could waddle was the breast pump. It looked nasty – I couldn’t even imagine trying to attach it to my worst enemy, let alone to me. I’m not thick: I understood that expressing milk would mean I didn’t have to get up every time the bub needed a night feed—and it would also mean the other parent would have no good excuse not to do it—but still… It made the iron maiden and the crocodile shears look appealing. The longer I stared at it, the less I liked it.
‘Are you sure? I mean, there’s got to be some kind of voodoo that can—’
‘No voodoo, no hoodoo, no magic around the baby,’ he said severely. ‘Not until Maisie’s older, anyway.’
‘I think I would like a sandwich now.’
‘You just had a sandwich. To be precise you had two BLTs at that café, and then you ate half of mine,’ he said, but got up anyway and stepped around the bench into the kitchen.
‘Correction: our daughter had two and a half BLTs. While she’s distracted by digestion I’d like a sandwich.’
‘I don’t think it works like that. Cheese and vegemite?’
‘Please.’ I rubbed both hands over my five-storey belly. ‘I can’t wait to have soft cheese again. I miss Brie. And Gorgonzola.’
‘I, for one, have not missed the stinky cheese.’
‘You don’t have to eat the stinky cheese.’
‘No, but I do have to kiss you, who eats the stinky cheese.’
‘That’s true. It is in your contract.’
‘There’s a contract—?’
Any possible escalation was prevented by a knock on the front door, and I levered myself upwards. ‘I’ll get it. It’s critical that you finish that important task.’
‘The fate of the world depends on it?’
‘Sure, why not.’
The figure standing on the patio was recognisable only by the wisps of thin ginger hair that stuck up from beyond the pile of items in the bearer’s arms. More pink things: soft toys, little fairy dresses, teeny-tiny ballet jiffies. Not a one, might I add, was modestly hidden in shopping bags that might suggest actual purchases. I knew if I posed a question about that, the answer would be ‘I know a guy’. Frankly, I didn’t want to know any more than that.
‘Ziggi Hassman, enough with the pink,’ I said, but stood aside to let him in, landing a kiss on his pale cheek as he passed. The eye in the back of his head gave me a wink. I’d removed almost all the wards from my house since the events of last winter, when Brisneyland in general and me in particular had been threatened by an archangel on a crusade, a golem made of garbage, an aggressive vintner and an especially ill-tempered mage, but I was starting to wonder if I shouldn’t find one to ensure no Barbie doll could enter.
‘I couldn’t help it. Look at the shoes—how small are they?’
‘So small. But you’ve got to stop: I’m only having one kid.’ Not to mention that Mel had already pressed upon me all of her daughter Lizzie’s baby cast-offs. We had enough gear to start our own line of black-market babywear.
After I’d inhaled two sandwiches and Ziggi had dug through the mound of things we’d bought earlier, offering helpful comment on each and every one after giving the breast pump an especially dubious glance, he got to the point. ‘So, V, fancy going for a ride?’
‘That’s phrased that like a question, but I fear it is not.’ Past experiences had shown that my chances of bailing were not good, but I had to try, whining, ‘Ziggi, it’s Sunday.’
‘It would be a leisurely drive.’
‘Am I not on maternity leave?’ I fidgeted with the ring David had given me for my birthday a few months ago, a vintage silver band set with a square-cut emerald. I’d noticed lately that whenever I didn’t want to do something work-related, I touched the cool metal and stone as if it might somehow get me out of it. So far, it hadn’t worked, but I wasn’t quite prepared to give up yet.
‘Technically, we don’t have maternity leave, what with our jobs being secret, non-Union and all, but you’re still getting paid for a lot of sitting around as far as I can tell.’
He was right. Ziggi and I were employed by the Council of Five, the group which oversaw Brisbane’s Weyrd population, keeping the community’s existence as close to secret as possible, and its members—as well as the Normal populace at large—safe. A run-in with a nasty creature called a ’serker had seen me injured and in need of a chauffeur for a lot of months, and even after I’d swallowed my pride and let a Weyrd healer fix me up, we’d never got out of the habit of Ziggi driving me around. Besides, our boss, Zvezdomir—‘Bela’—Tepes (I’m positive his eyebrows were directly descended Bela Lugosi)—wanted me to have back-up wherever I went. The memory of the pain inflicted by the ’serker’s claws remained fresh enough to keep me from complaining about having a nanny.
‘Will there be any sitting in cars? I warn you, my personal plumbing no longer reacts well to stress tests.’
‘There are many cafés where we’re going.’
‘Ooh, posh.’ I looked at David, but the bastard just grinned and nodded. He’d been my last hope. David had adjusted astonishingly well to finding out about the Weyrd world that existed—mostly—quietly alongside the ordinary everyday Normal world. Not that he’d had much choice: making a life with me meant getting used to some strange things, like folk who were the stuff of nightmares beneath their carefully cast glamours, the true sight of whom would send Normals running for torches and pitchforks. Also, like the fact that I was hybrid, a strangeling, with a Normal mother and a Weyrd father and a complicated history, not to mention ridiculous strength—but thankfully, neither tail, nor horns, nor any other sign of my heritage. And David had taken it all in his stride.
‘Off you go,’ he said. ‘I have manly crib-assembling tasks to do.’
‘You just don’t want to make any more sandwiches.’ I grumbled a bit more, then went to collect my leather jacket, because it was chilly outside, and the handbag I carried nowadays because somehow the number of possessions I couldn’t do without had multiplied.
* * *
The house had once been a simple workers’ cottage perched on the ridge of Enoggera Terrace that ran through Paddington. At some point it’d been renovated to within an inch of its life: the traditional white picket fence had been replaced by something looking remarkably like a rendered rampart in a fetching sandy hue, hiding everything except a covered carport that sheltered a navy BMW 3 Series sedan. I was surprised the vehicle wasn’t stashed away in a highly secure garage, but maybe that upgrade was on the way. The monotony of the wall was relieved only by a cedarwood door and a tastefully subtle intercom box.
We’d parked across the road in Ziggi’s impossible-to-camouflage purple gypsy cab, which was neither tasteful nor subtle, and my driver sat quietly while I looked through photos of the house’s interior and yard. It was built on a slope, like just about everything in this suburb; the lower section, originally stilts and palings, had at some point been enclosed and turned into four bedrooms and a family bathroom. The kitchen, lounge and dining rooms were upstairs, along with a small powder room. The polished floors were honey-coloured, and the VJ walls—which everyone else calls ‘tongue and groove’, but we Queenslanders insist are VJs—were painted a shade of clotted cream . If those weren’t the original leadlight windows, someone had made some wonderful reproductions. Above each doorframe was a carved panel with a kangaroo and an emu giving each other the Federation eye.
The furniture was mostly in similar buttery tones, with the occasional item of burnt orange for contrast. The plasma TV was supermodel thin and a sound system had been unobtrusively recessed into the walls so you barely noticed it. The kitchen had a lot of white marble, stainless steel and pale wood, with appliances that looked brand new. The bedrooms were beautifully decorated, not a carefully plumped cushion or artfully draped throw out of place. A wooden deck led off the kitchen, accessorised with a cocoa-hued wicker and glass table and chairs for eight, but no sign of a barbeque—downright unAustralian, if you ask me—and looked out over the lap pool that took up the length of the back yard. A small tool shed sat in one corner, and drought-resistant plants ran around the fence line.
‘Nice house,’ I said, not at all envious. Okay, maybe a little.
I flicked over to the second set of photos and whistled. The contrast was marked: what looked like mud was smeared throughout the home, on floors and walls; the claw-foot tub in the bathroom was filled with what appeared to be chocolate mousse. I examined the envelope the pictures had come in; the top left hand corner bore a logo and the name Soteria Insurance.
‘And we’re here because?’
‘Because the owner, Susan Beckett, has recently made multiple claims on the Unnatural Happenstance part of her policy.’
‘Oooooh.’ Very few insurance companies had such clauses, and those who did generally had a particular kind of clientele and only consented to said clauses after a specific request and an impressive hike in premiums. Most people had no idea what ‘Unnatural Happenstance’ was and wouldn’t think such cover necessary if they did, but there were a few Normals and all of the Weyrd populations who knew better. The provision was specifically to cover losses and destruction occasioned by, amongst other things, poltergeists, demonic exertions, hauntings and other revenants—so unlikely to appear in the paperwork next to anything as mundane as theft of your garden furniture or fusion of your washing machine.
‘And when you say “multiple”?’
‘Three times—the third was last week.’
‘Who called us in?’
‘The head honcho at Soteria is a friend of Bela’s. He called Bela, Bela called me.’
‘Why didn’t Bela contact me?’ I was less offended than curious.
‘He’s trying not to ring too late. He knows you’re sleeping for two now. Also, you yelled at him on the last occasion. For quite a long time.’
That did sound like me. I was out like a light by eight-thirty most evenings, and spent half of my waking hours forgetting why I’d gone into a particular room. Pregnancy brain was doing me no favours. ‘I’m grateful for that.’
‘Plus he knows David doesn’t like him.’
‘It’s not so much that he doesn’t like him…well, okay, yeah, he really doesn’t like him.’
‘Anyway, we are to surveil as subtly as we know how—’
‘Not a lot of space to manoeuvre there.’
‘—and not make any trouble.’ He sighed. ‘We just need to keep an eye out.’
‘A bit difficult to do from here.’ I shifted uncomfortably on the back seat. ‘Do we ever get to interview her?’
‘When we’ve surveilled enough.’
‘Do you have a ball-park figure on how long that might be?’ I peered at the house. ‘It’s just that while I appreciate Bela putting me on low-stress tasks, I’m fairly bored.’
‘Remain calm, sit quietly and see what we can see,’ he said wisely. In the rear-view mirror I saw him tapping the side of his nose. With a grumble, I settled down to wait.
* * *
‘There’s a café not twenty metres away,’ Ziggi objected.
‘I love you, Ziggi, and I would do almost anything for you, except right now. I’m just going to ask the nice lady if she’ll let me use her loo. Consider this multitasking.’
Opening the door, I manoeuvred my thirty-two weeks’ worth of bulk out of the taxi with neither elegance nor dignity; it felt like an age since I’d been acquainted with either of those graces. I’d resisted giving up my favourite jeans for as long as I could, but a separation was imminent. The belly-band that had kept me decent during the last couple of months was either going to saw me in half, make me pee my pants or snap and ping off into the distance as if launched from a trebuchet. I wasn’t sure which would be worse.
‘But Bela said we should watch. Just watch. Surveillance, remember?’
I didn’t reply, merely quickened my pace, gasping as circulation returned to my swollen ankles and my one-size-bigger-than-usual feet. The shirt I was wearing had a three-seater sofa’s worth of fabric in it and ballooned behind me as I tried—and failed—not to walk like a duck. I looked as if I was setting sail. Like an idiot I’d left my jacket in the car with the enormous handbag and the winter air bit sharply; I walked faster.
Susan Beckett, Ziggi had told me while we surveilled, was a thirty-two-year-old ex-pat lawyer from New South Wales, qualified to practice in Queensland for the past three years. She worked for Walsh & Penhalligon, a medium-sized firm with nondescript offices on the edge of the CBD; no high-rise, high-cost real estate for them. They dealt mostly with commercial litigation and insolvency in the building industry—Beckett was a bankruptcy specialist, indulging in asset stripping via legal means, which couldn’t have made her popular, and it was definitely an angle to investigate. The firm’s name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite recall why.
I reached the fortress wall and hit the buzzer, hoping with all my heart that Susan Beckett was the type to respond promptly—and that she was actually at home. My luck was in.
‘Hello?’ A cool voice trickled from the speaker and I suddenly realised there was a tiny camera lens embedded in the intercom panel.
I waved. ‘I’m so sorry to bother you—I was out for a walk and I, errr, seem to have…’ I pointed at my belly.
‘You’re not going into labour are you?’ The tone warmed with alarm.
‘No, but I do need to… go. I’m so sorry to impose, but no one seems to be home next door and…’
After a tiny pause, the gate clicked and I pushed through: presumably relief that I wasn’t going to give birth on her doorstep had combined with general human decency. I stepped into a tiny, highly manicured front yard with a pocket-handkerchief lawn, all lush green stripes, surrounded by beds of architectural succulents, and moved briskly towards the open front door.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said again to the chic blonde woman in cream woollen pants, a blue linen-knit T-shirt accessorised with an Ola Gorie barn owl pendant on a long silver chain, and embroidered ballet flats from, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, either Etro or Tabitha Simmons. No Ugg boots or trackie pants here.
She waved to a door at the end of a long hallway. ‘Ensuite straight through there.’
Throwing any attempt at elegance out of the window, I waddled as fast as I could into a powder room that was Home Beautiful perfect, with a sunflower-painted feature wall, a Carrera marble handbasin sitting perfectly in the centre of a golden pecan bench top, and bright yellow Sheridan hand towels hanging on polished brass hooks. Taps and spouts glowed in beams of light from the frosted-glass skylight and the stained-glass window featuring more sunflowers that overlooked the back garden as well as Paddington and beyond, towards Bardon and Ashgrove.
Enthroned and considerably more comfortable than I’d been, I could think more clearly. I must have appeared (a) convincing and (b) harmless for Susan Beckett to have let me in so easily. Or maybe she figured she could take care of herself. Or maybe she really didn’t want to risk a puddle by her impeccably maintained front gate.
Feeling a good deal more focused when I finished, I used the Creamy Honey Handwash from L’Occitaine (it put my no-name soap to shame), and liberally spritzed Rose 4 Reines house perfume to make sure no trace of me remained. When I exited, it was to find my hostess hovering politely, uncertainly, in the corridor. I smiled as I covertly examined her more closely: wide blue eyes, pert nose, thin lips, sharp chin.
‘Thank you very much. I’m so grateful.’
‘No problem,’ she said, with a distant smile, and returned swiftly to the front entrance. It appeared my visit was to be short—no girly chitchat, no ‘when’s the baby due; do you know what sex?’ cooing—so I peered around, trying to take in as much as I could before I got ejected. There was a bare patch in the sitting room, a square of floorboards slightly lighter than the rest, a spot where maybe a rug was missing. Other than that, it was hard to pick anything off-key. Except… except … under all the sweetness of bathroom fresheners and soaps, under the scents of all the lovely things I’d sprayed and washed with, there was a sour odour. I realised I’d smelled it on arrival, but I really had been too distracted to process it then. Now my pregnant-lady sense of smell went into overdrive and my stomach gave a little heave of protest.
It was bitter and brown, rotten, like ripe, nasty, wet shit, and it wasn’t being helped by the warm air being pushed out by the ducted air conditioning.
But the perfectly groomed woman waiting in her stylish clothes, perfectly straightened hair with the tiny upward flick at the ends, her carefully applied make-up and subtle bouquet of Givenchy’s Amarige, wasn’t the source. I was willing to bet she’d done her best—or more likely paid someone else to do their best—to get rid of the stink and whatever had caused it. Perhaps she couldn’t smell it anymore, perhaps she’d become accustomed to that after-note, perhaps it only affected me—but those efforts at cleansing hadn’t been entirely successful, and it would fade only with time, frequent airing of the house and regular squirting of expensive perfumes.
But I wasn’t in a position to ask about it, not yet.
I followed as quickly as I could and let her hustle me out as I gave one last heartfelt thank you. She was glad to see the back of me, I could tell, and that was okay. I’d been inside; I’d avoided a very embarrassing personal mishap and I’d learned something important.
Whatever kept hitting Susan Beckett’s house liked to make its mark, and it would return, whether she wanted it to or not.
Excerpted from Corpselight, copyright © 2017 by Angela Slatter.