Billy jolted awake and squinted against the blinding light streaming in from the tiny flat’s window. Clearly, whoever designed the place forty years ago had taken careful measurements and consulted star charts to make absolutely certain that the sun’s most direct rays would hit this flat’s two by two foot square window and form a laser precisely in the only spot where a settee would fit at 7:24 AM exactly. Thankfully this was England, and such a beam couldn’t manage to get hot enough to singe off anything vital.
Groaning, he pinched the bridge of his nose, but it did nothing to alleviate the throb of the headache that settled in as soon as he was conscious. The shrill sound that woke him continued repetitively, until he stumbled off the sofa and over a pile of laundry to grab for his mobile.
“BOYD! MR. BOYD?”
“Ah, yes, this is—"
“MR. BOYD, HE’S COME BACK, AND HE’S TERRIFYING MY CATS, AND YOU TOLD ME HE’D GONE—"
“Missus… ah, Mrs. Cranston, is it?”
“MY SNOOKUMS IS BESIDE ‘IMSELF, AND—"
Billy held the phone quite away from his ear and winced. “Mrs. Cranston, I’ve told you—"
“IT’S MY FRANK, I TELL YOU. HE HATED THE CATS ALL OUR LIVES, THE OLD BASTARD, WHY I EVER MARRIED THE SONOFABITCH I DON’T KNOW—"
“MRS. CRANSTON!” Billy wasn’t in the practice of bellowing at clients, but if they yelled at him as much as this old deaf bat did, it really was only fair. With a whimper, she finally quieted. “Now, what’s your trouble, m’um?”
“T-the… the b-banging!” she blubbered, albeit quieter, “He’s gone banging ‘round again, always when I’m in the kitchen making breakfast or lunch or tea or supper for the kitties, and dammit, I thought you said HE’D MOVED ON—"
“Ms. Cranston,” Billy interrupted very calmly, massaging the pain in his forehead, “I’ve told you, the banging happens when you turn on the taps, yes? It’s only the pipes, m’um, I’m quite certain your late husband has left you and your cats well enough alone. Now, all you need do is hire a plumber in to work on your pipes. I believe I did offer my own services, but–”
“You did, Mr. Boyd, and you are too bloody expensive for an old woman like me with twelve starving cats to feed, and anyway, I’ve got no leaks, so I don’t see as why I need a plumber in the first place,” the old woman’s tone had gone quite snooty, “It’s the soul of my old departed Frank you’re meant to help me with…”
Billy rolled his eyes, but that proved painful. Not quite as painful as what he was willing to do to get fucking shot of her and ‘Frank’ and her twelve bloody cats, which were, in fact, not starving at all. “Ms. Cranston, I would be delighted to offer you my personal plumbing services at… at half rate.”
She hesitated, as if thinking this over. “Half rate, did you say?” Or perhaps that’s what she’d been playing at all along, the old cunt.
“Well, that’s all right then, I suppose, if you want to starve me out of house and home. I’ve only got my cats, you know. I’ve not got that much time left for this world without you people robbing my pocketbook for every pence and bit…”
Yes, well, that would solve everyone’s problems now, wouldn’t it? Billy bit down on his desire to snap the old woman’s head off as he made arrangements to come fix her plumbing within an hour and starve himself in the process.
Ringing off, he found and kicked the empty whiskey bottle he’d sucked down the previous evening. Served him right, drinking cheap and awful scotch that he’d wake with a cheap and awful hangover. The ‘Past Due’ notices still piled up on his coffee table. It would only be a matter of time at this rate before he’d show up on Maggie’s doorstep looking pitiful.
He maneuvered his way to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee and swallow a painkiller before lumbering off to take a shower. It was bad enough dealing with Ms. Cranston and Snookums sober. Combined with a hangover, she might well become a ghost herself.
Bill was on his back beneath Mrs. Cranston’s positively ancient kitchen sink with a giant cat sitting on his chest, scrutinizing his every move with lurid green eyes and a look that said something akin to ‘soon’.
Not to say he didn’t like cats, but he wasn’t overly fond of twelve of them in various states of grouchy and decrepit, not unlike their owner and this old rotting Tudor. It stank with a lovely mixture of choking lavender perfume, cat piss and corned beef, and he’d do better to replumb the whole damned place from scratch than deal with these crusty, brittle pipes. Come to think of it, he could really just surreptitiously drop a match…
From his pocket, his phone went off, ringing and vibrating and… “MROAOAAAAAARR!!”
Snookums dug each and every one of its claws into him. Sitting up to peel the fucking beast off, he thwacked his head hard against the cabinet, and the headache resumed, as fierce as it ever had been. “FUCK!”
“WHAT’S THAT?” Ms. Cranston called from the sitting room.
“NO–fuck!… NOTHING, M’UM! RIGHT AS RAIN IN HERE!” He yelled back, clutching his stinging chest and digging out the phone from his pocket. “Just as soon as I twist the head off that fucking cunting arsing… Hullo, Boyd’s Plumbing.”
“It will heal,” said a slow voice.
“It will… what?”
“Your flesh. It will heal. Your heart may not.”
Billy blinked, unzipping his coveralls and tugging up his t-shirt to assess the damage while he placed that voice. “Cate, this really isn’t the greatest time—"
“Beware the manor house,” she said, her voice still the low, utterly certain tone.
Billy lightly touched the hot bump forming on his forehead, noting that it actually had a straight divot in it from the wood, and sighed heavily, “I’ve no idea what you mean, Cate. Haven’t I asked you to leave me out of your business and I’ll stay out of yours?”
“This is business we may yet share, Billy. It’s only polite to warn you now.”
“Warn me of what?” Billy was becoming exasperated with this entire day, and perhaps the rest of the week for good measure, since it hadn’t been a good one in the least. “Another bill I can’t pay? An eviction notice, maybe? Enlighten me, O Clairvoyant One.”
“Temptation, in many forms. Fear, betrayal, anger. That’s all I can see for now. Beware the manor house,” she answered cryptically, before her voice took on the more musical lilt of her normal speech. “And don’t make fun, Bill. We’re both professionals here.”
“Right. Any particular manor house you wanted to specify? We’ve got a fair few of those round here, I hear tell.” Billy sniped irritably, but the line had already cut out.
The white and brown cat stared at him from behind a moldy cabinet, its ears flattened and eyes huge, growling low from its throat.
“Fuck off, you,” he muttered quietly, brandishing a wrench in front of himself like a sword.
The phone rang again before he’d ducked back under the sink. The cat hissed and Billy curled into a defensive ball, but it had streaked out of the room through a cat-flap in the kitchen door about four times smaller than the cat itself.
There was silence, and then… “I’m sorry, I must have a wrong number.”
“Well, in that case, Boyd’s Paranormal Investigation.”
“Oh… oh.” The man on the line sounded upper class, and nervous. “Then this is… Is this…?”
“Boyd’s Paranormal, yes. It’s a, ah…moonlighting sort of a thing. Literally.”
“You can, er. You can get rid of a… a ghost, then?”
“That’ll depend on if you have a ghost, Sir. But in most cases, these things can be explained scientifically. Sometimes it’s naught but your plumbing, and I’m your man there as well. What’s your trouble?”
There was a sigh down the line. “I… I have a problem.”
“What are you experiencing?” Billy asked patiently.
“Everything. It’s thrown things round the rooms, moved furniture, it’s spoken in my ear, I’ve seen it—"
“You’ve seen it?” Billy interrupted, “Like a shadow, or something that repeats, like a video recording?”
“No, I’ve seen it. Coming at me. I’ve felt it. The whole room goes cold as ice. It’s a man. It was a man. The eyes almost glow, and it shakes the beds, and slams doors… I’m at my wit’s end, Mr. Boyd. My wife is terrified, she won’t go near the place.”
“Of course,” Billy agreed, licking his lips. “I’ll, uh… what I’ll do is set up an initial visit so you can show me around, show me the places of high activity so I can take some readings—"
“It’s everywhere. I don’t think you understand, Mr. Boyd. I don’t think I have a ghost, I know I do. And I’m not a man that buys into this… this paranormal codswallop. ”
“Ah,” Billy paused. “I’m sorry, your name is…?”
“Ian Holm, Mr. Boyd. And I would… I’d appreciate a certain amount of discretion on your part about this matter.”
Billy gulped. Ian Holm, once a prominent and outspoken member of the London Assembly, a self-made millionaire and a politician that was either unlikeable or detestable depending on who you talked to. Billy had seen him on the telly occasionally, though he had to admit he paid little attention to politics. “Oh… right. Certainly, Sir. Where… uh, what part of London is this…?”
“Ho, no-no… Not in London, of course,” the man answered, “This is near Milton Keynes. Old place, long before that rot came in.”
Billy wrinkled his nose. “I see. That’s a wee drive, I suppose. Most of my business is here in London though. Plumbing business is a bit more lucrative, as it were.”
“I bought that place for a peaceful retirement and it’s been nothing of the sort. We had cleaners in, and they were fine for the first day or so, but then they run off and left my wife and I to finish and it…” the man halted and changed tact, “I’m willing to pay you whatever it takes, Mr. Boyd."
"Mr. Holm, Sir, I'm merely an investigator… ah, a debunker, really. There are ways of getting a ghost to move on, I suppose, but I've never…"
"I don't think you heard me properly, Mr. Boyd. I will pay you whatever it takes. Your expenses, your petrol and then some. I need someone to get rid of this thing. For good. I’ve already had a bloody priest in, and he came out ten minutes later telling me to phone the bloody Vatican. I’m not even a religious man. This is… it’s ludicrous.”
The cat poked its head through the cat-flap, its eyes glowing with an eerie yellow light.
“I understand,” Billy answered mechanically, eying the cat, “When… erm, when shall I start?”