(I thought I’d do something nice for a change, since none of my schedules seem to work at the moment, and share the first chapter of “Mirror Lake” with you. “Mirror Lake” is the sequel to “All Souls’ Children”, which you can get as e-book for Kindle or as paperback, and which you should totally read.)
Ice crystals glittered on the parking cars. We had not yet had any snow this year, but the berries hanging from the branches were plenty and big. A hard winter was looming ahead of us. The clouds over our heads shimmered orange from the city lights. Not even up here on the hill was the night fully dark.
Raphael parked his car opposite the door of my house and turned the key in the ignition. Silence fell upon us. We sat next to each other while the motor cooled off, ticking quietly. The evening had been nice. We had gone to see a comedy at the cinema and taken a drink at my favorite Brazilian cocktail bar. I loved the atmosphere – the music, the brightly colored paintings adorning the walls, the friendly staff. And now I was trying to figure out whether to ask Raphael inside or not. A slim veil hung in the air over the hood of the car. The burgundy paintjob reflected the holiday lights in my neighbors’ windows. From the corner of my eye I could see at least two brightly lit evergreen trees blinking. Tis the season.
“Well… thanks for the nice evening”, Raphael said after a while. His voice was soft. I had waited too long. His hands were resting on the steering wheel. We had only been going out for three weeks, and so far I had been intent on keeping my privacy. It was only the second time I had allowed him to drive me home, and he had not been inside yet. But what was I waiting for? We were not children after all. I made up my mind and turned around to face him.
“Would… would you like to come inside for a cup of coffee?” My voice was high and breathless. I sounded like a teenager and hated it.
He smiled. I could see the dimple on his right cheek. With his short dark blond hair and his carefully ironed clothes he looked like a mash-up of banker and soldier – a mix I liked very much. My heart sped up.
“I’d love to.” He got out of the car and walked around the front to open the door for me. An old-fashioned quirk, kind of charming.
Our faces were at the same level. Something tickled behind my breast bone. Maybe it was just the cold – there was no reason to stay out here any longer.
Raphael bent closer and pushed a strand of hair from my face that had escaped from my bun. “I like your hair.” His breath was warm on my cheek. “Not meaning to offend you or anything, but… is brown your natural color?”
I pushed his hand away. “Why are you asking?”
“I don’t know.” He smiled. “I like the color.”
As if I had the nerve to waste time and money at the hairdresser every single month.
We crossed the street. I buried my hands in the pockets of my leather jacket to preserve at least a little warmth. The faster we got inside, the-
“Wait!” Raphael grabbed my arm.
I flinched. “What’s up?”
“There’s someone next to the door!”
I squinted and tried to make out shapes in the dark. The street lamp in front of my house was broken again – for the third time this month. The flowerbeds sat untouched and sad, waiting for the snow. The concrete plates between them glittered with snow. The steps lay in deep shadows, and something seemed to move in them. Had my protective circle failed?
The shape stretched. A bundle was sitting at its feet. I thought about the documents on my kitchen table I had spent the afternoon brooding over, and my stomach contracted. I’d rather be safe than sorry. Gently I extracted my arm from Raphael’s grip.
The shadow had reached its full size. I stopped, hands hanging at my sides. The cold bit my fingertips. I visualized a ball of red energy pooling into my abdomen, then flowing towards my hand.
Raphael stepped in front of me. “Anyone there?”
“Don’t!” He was playing the hero. How stupid. None of those I had been up against recently would have been impressed by his bravery. They had destroyed my old car with flames without a second thought. What if-
Not a demon. But not exactly a reason for celebration, either. I hid my hands in my pocket once more, dissolved the energetic ball and grabbed my keys. A mild tingling was all that remained in my fingers. Just what I needed – Falk.
Raphael stood halfway between the shadow and me. I pushed past him to unlock the door. Falk was no acute threat – or at least that was what I thought. And whatever brought him here, we might just as well discuss it inside.
When I turned around, the men stood facing each other. Falk towered over Raphael, at least a head taller than my date. His dark hair, which appeared black in the shadows, was longer than when we last met. He desperately needed to see a barber. Hands in the pockets of his training jacket, he asked, “And who might you be?”
Raphael’s gaze wandered from Falk to me and back again. “Do you know that guy?”
“He is…” I did not have a good answer. How to explain all this without using words such as “crime”, “black magic” or “zombie”? “We worked together once.” That sounded lame even to me.
“I lived with her for a few days”, Falk added. His teeth gleamed in the darkness.
Son of a bitch.
Raphael forced a smile. “The whole coffee thing is probably not the best idea tonight, Helena. I will call you tomorrow, okay?”
I did not even get a kiss on the cheek. Too bad. This was not the evening I had had in mind.
I ground my teeth, waiting for the burgundy Renault to turn around and disappear behind the corner. The sound of the engine seemed to linger in the cold air while the car was swallowed by the darkness under the trees lining the meandering street.
Finally I turned around to Falk. “What are you doing here?”
“I need a place to crash.”
“Have you fled from the Wandering Graveyard?”
He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “I have served my time. They consider me an upright citizen now.”
“Fine, then go back to your family.” Ouch, that sounded bitchy even to my own ears.
“My family doesn’t talk to me.” He watched my face. “Could we please continue inside? I’m freezing.”
“Since when have you been waiting?”
And by now it was past eleven. Poor guy. I hurried to open the door and let him enter. “Why didn’t you call?”
“I don’t have your number.”
Strega recognized my visitor immediately. She raced towards him and wrapped herself around his legs, meowing as if I had neglected her for weeks.
Falk hunkered down stiffly and scratched her behind her red-and-black ears. Tiny ice crystals glittered in his hair.
I closed the door louder than I had planned and went straight into the kitchen. My jacket dropped onto the only free chair. The other one was hidden beneath old newspapers and mail. On top of the pile there was a heavy ice-blue envelope with my mother’s dainty writing on the front. I grabbed it, hesitated, put it down on the counter. Pushed it under the microwave to continue ignoring it. Then I started the kettle for tea. Since this was the only way I’d warm up tonight…
“Sorry I interrupted your date.”
“Never mind”, I replied. My voice was steady, although I would have loved to shake him and shout, what the hell are you doing here? But shaking Falk sounded like a less-than-stellar idea. I poured water into the teapot. Steam welled up. Golden clouds rose from the teabags and spread through the hot liquid. It smelled of mint and vervein, my winter favorite.
“Want some coffee?” I asked and opened the fridge. The coffee jar was right there in front of me.
“Aren’t you making tea?” Falk was still crouching in the door, messing with Strega. His jeans were covered in cat hair. He did not seem to mind. Even across the room I could hear the cat purring. “And who was that, your boyfriend?”
“We have been dating.”
“So he’s your guy.”
I hesitated. Did Raphael and I have a relationship? Maybe. How was I to know? “We don’t know each other long enough to put labels on this”, I decided out loud. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“If you say so.” He kept petting Strega. She sounded like a tiny and very satisfied motorboat. “And yes, I would love some coffee. Where can I put my stuff?”
So he really intended to stay. Well, at least for a night. Or two. It was cold outside. “Remember the sofa?”
Instead of replying, he got up and grabbed the brown envelope lying on the otherwise empty kitchen table.
“Don’t!” I tried to stop him. “That’s confidential!”
Too late. I had not closed the envelope properly, and a pile of perversely well-lit pictures slid over the table.
Festive colors – black, red, white.
Bones. Torn tissue. Blood.
I ripped the envelope from Falk’s hand and hurried to hide away the pictures. “Stay away from my work!”
He was not impressed. “What’s that?”
“A job. A confidential job.”
We looked at each other. I tried to bully him with my evil eye, but I had to tilt my head back for this, which ruined the effect.
Falk turned around and walked towards the living room. I still held the envelope with the crime scene pictures. The coffeemaker wheezed behind me.
Another thing. “You said your family doesn’t talk to you. Why is that?” I asked and followed him.
Falk flung himself into the armchair next to the patio door. He looked incredibly tired. “You really want to know?”
“That’s why I asked.” I put the pictures away on the bookshelf next to the door and sat down on the edge of the sofa.
He closed his eyes. “I am cursed.”
“Or rather, my family is.” His voice was flat and void of emotion, his face a mask. “The firstborn son of each generation is doomed to bring bad luck over the family and die a violent death. My sister terminated her first pregnancy when she learned she would be having a boy.”
I frowned. “I thought you only learn the baby’s sex rather late during pregnancy. Isn’t abortion illegal after the twelfth week?”
He opened his eyes and grabbed a magazine from the coffee table. “There are legal exceptions, when lives are at risk, or in case of severe disabilities.” He flipped through the pages.
“And a curse falls under which of those categories?” I was struggling to understand. We had talked about this topic briefly during my studies, but only as a theoretical game. The teacher had us discussing how many witches a coven needed to curse not just a single person, but several generations at once. Only a thought experiment. Of course there were legends on cursed families, but to my knowledge not a single case had been studied by scientists. On the other hand, if it were my family, I would not want them spreading the tale, either.
“For how many generations has that been going on?”
“I don’t know.” He closed his eyes once more and shook his head. “I always knew what was waiting for me. As a teenager I did terrible things. Finally my parents had had it, and they stopped talking to me.”
“How old were you?”
“I understand them”, Falk continued. “It was a tough time.”
“And you haven’t heard from them since?”
“Not a single word.”
“Have you tried contacting them?”
He took a deep breath. His face transformed. He smiled. “Wasn’t there talk of coffee?”
I had completely forgotten. “One moment, please.”
Balancing two cups filled to the brim, milk and sugar on a tray, I stopped in the kitchen doorway and tried to organize my thoughts. When, during our quarantine, Falk had spoken of his family, his voice had been full of love. In my mind I added years and years to the age of his nieces. Never seeing your family again… – well, I was not too keen on spending time with my mother, either, but that was a different matter. My gaze landed on the ice blue envelope half hidden beneath the microwave. I switched off the light with my elbow.
As I returned to the living room, Falk had made himself comfortable. His shoes stood next to each other in front of the chair, his jacket hung from the arm rest. He was half sitting, half lying between the cushions, with Strega kneading his thighs. She pushed her head against his chest. Shameless beast! I put the tray down on the coffee table.
“What kind of confidential job were you talking about?” Falk asked after the first sip.
“Do you even know what ‘confidential’ means?”
“Sure. Can’t be this top secret if you leave the papers lying on the kitchen table.”
“I just wanted to hide them from Maria. They’d give her nightmares.”
“Maria?” It took him a moment to remember. Then he started laughing. “So you actually hired her?”
“She’s a practical girl and really good at sorting stuff”, I replied. Of course breaking into my home – twice – had not been the best letter of recommendation she could have left. But her work morale more than made up for this. Plus I did not have to keep looking for a personal assistant. Our arrangement made everybody happy. Even Falk, considering the bright grin on his face.
“Spill it”, he insisted. He was breathing heavily from laughing so hard. “What kind of case have you got? Maybe I can help.” He hesitated. “I had hoped you might have a job for me.”
Looked as if I was about to turn into a successful micro-business. “Well, you might actually have a solution for my dilemma.” I stood up and got the envelope. “What do you make of this?”
A young man, pale and bloated. His eye sockets were empty, but that was not the first thing you noticed about the picture. A black hole gaped where the skullcap should have been. Tiny gray specks of tissue stuck to the ragged edges of the bone.
The next picture showed a slim boy’s body, twisted. A black puddle of blood spread out around him. Splintered bone protruded from his legs. His head was strangely deformed.
A third photograph. No body. Only a sparsely furnished room. Two beds, a table, a gray wardrobe. The blanket on the right bed might have been gray once as well, but beneath all the gore it was hard to tell. Floor and walls were all but clinically clean, only one drop of blood clung to the windowpane. Behind the glass you could see a majestic tree in full autumn glory. The golden leaves and the bright red blood formed a stark contrast to the clinical room.
The silence expanded while Falk studied the images. Finally he looked up. “What happened?”
“We don’t know.” I drank my coffee. “Those are two deaths and one missing minor case in a facility for non-integrated youths in the east of the country. All happened in the last few weeks.”
“The bloody room – that’s supposed to be a missing kid?”
“The police haven’t found the boy.”
Falk thought about this for a moment. His fingers stroked Strega’s fur, mechanically. “And what now?” His voice was matter-of-fact. “Boys run away. What is your role in all this?”
“So you’re trying to tell me the boy ran away from that room? Or that this one”, I pointed at the picture of the half-skull-less body, “tried to get away and left his brain behind? And that guy was found at the foot of a tower – a tower the windows of which cannot be opened. Three dead teenagers in two months.” I breathed in. “One of the officials called me. She thinks there may be more to it.”
“And Social Services can afford your work?”
“This is a special case.”
“Because this is not your usual facility.”
Falk looked at the images once more, with more attention. “I see.” His lips turned pale.
Even the best families had their struggles, occasionally. And sometimes Social Services decided that children should better not stay with their biological parents. Some organizations protested against the fact that children of non-human families more frequently ended up in state facilities, but repeated examinations had shown no deviations worth mentioning. And be that as it may, there were facilities for minors with behavioral difficulties, and facilities for children with behavioral difficulties who were… well, different.
“Of course these cases are related”, Falk explained. “The boys couldn’t stand it anymore in that hell hole and decided to take their chances.”
“Maybe”, I sighed. “It is my job to find out what kind of chances.” My cup was empty, and I returned to the kitchen for a glass of herb tea.
Falk followed. “And how are you going to do that?”
“Well, that’s the problem I’ve been thinking about.” I took a sip. The tea tasted as good as it smelled. Piercing and slightly metallic, and like summer. “We’d have to plant someone inside in order to learn more about their living conditions. However, after the missing witch case the yellow press has made sure that everybody knows my face. I don’t think I could pose as educationalist.”
“And what about a truth spell?”
“That might work.” Although it might be difficult. “Unfortunately evidence gained that way won’t be admitted in court. Our judges fear we might plant all kind of nonsense in people’s heads and sell as truth.”
“Of course I could. But it wouldn’t be any more realistic than bribery and threats.”
“Only harder to prove.”
“Unless you ask another witch for help.”
“Whom you would have to trust in turn.” We looked at each other over our beverages. Falk stirred his coffee. “I wouldn’t have thought you knew this much about the legal system.”
I decided to change the topic. “Why haven’t you returned to your old job?” As street fighter he might earn several hundred bucks per night. Unless he got sent to jail for manslaughter again. He surely did not expect to earn similar wages here, right?
Falk shrugged. “Maybe I don’t want to get beat up every night.”
“Trying to escape from the curse?”
“Believe it or not, I feel I’m getting too old to have my bones broken for money. As for the curse – that will come in time. Nothing to be done about it.”
I had one more question burning under my nails. “Your family – are you keeping anything from me, or is death and decay really all it is about?”
Falk emptied his mug and put it in the sink. “You’d love to know that, wouldn’t you?” He stretched and yawned. His hands almost touched the ceiling. “I’d better go to bed. When do we start working tomorrow morning?”
“Help my memory – did I actually offer you a job?”
He did not reply to that. I heard the light switch click, and the door to the living room closing. Strega was nowhere to be seen. I guessed she planned on sleeping on the sofa tonight.