There are two things the Ministry of Occultism prize most highly in their agents. Firstly, the ability to face off against the kinds of ungodly things they have to deal with on a daily basis without getting paralysed by disbelieving horror, and secondly, discretion. The experiences of 7 years in cat burglary made me extremely well-equipped with the latter, and the experience of 5 days in a Buckinghamshire manor house took care of the former. Small wonder, then, that they were borrowing me virtually every other weekend.

The Ministry was an eternally short-staffed operation. The government couldn’t hire more than a handful of specialists without making it increasingly difficult to pretend that the MoO didn’t exist, and the senior staff had the highest stress level and employee turnover of any government ministry. They tended to rely on the STP for most of their dirty work.

The first stage of government exorcism is a subtle preliminary probe to ensure genuine occult activity, carried out by a junior investigator. I’ve never met any of these people in person – with the exception of one Andrew ‘AJ’ Jarvis, but that was before I took this job, and there hadn’t been a lot of time to chat – but I’d read enough of their field reports to know that they weren’t people I’d like to get trapped in a conversation with at a dull party. When occult activity is confirmed, that’s where I’m brought in, or someone like me. Experienced occult researchers to scout out the situation, attempt reason if it’s intelligent, exorcise or eliminate if it isn’t.

On this occasion I’d been called in after confirmed reports of unquiet spirits in the remains of a burnt-down council estate in Birmingham. The lower income neighbourhoods of the city, obviously. The entire place had burnt to the ground because it was the kind of place where the kids have to get their entertainment from setting fire to next door’s cat. Twelve dead, thirty-four injured. Crying shame. Especially for me, since one of the victims had decided to hang around.

I decided to avoid the locals, aware that a government-issue car and a neatly-pressed three-piece suit would rub them up the wrong way. I arrived at a carefully-chosen hour of darkness, parked my car as far from the reach of hubcap thieves and graffiti artists as I could be bothered to walk, and made my way to the ruins.

I was never more aware of my drastic career change than at that point, as I snuck through the charred remains of a pokey inner city slum. I, who had once made a living separating the overprivileged from their vulgar jewelled trappings. Surrounded now by the sad remnants of cheap mismatched furniture and inexpensive baby cots, the comfort and security I usually felt in darkness was marred by grim introspection.

I felt a warmth emanating from my inside blazer pocket, and dug out my issued nugget of Magenta, the mystical purple-pink rock that heated up in the presence of magic. It was beginning to glow dully. I wasn’t far away.

Ghosts are hybrids. That is, a soul from a Scientific Realm creature infused with magic leaking through from the Ethereal Realm. Hybrids are everywhere. I’m led to understand that something like twenty percent of all human beings alive today have hybrid souls. Most of them never manifest magic; it takes a hugely traumatic event to bring out any sort of magical mutation like vampirism or lycanthropy, especially in such a magic-resistant atmosphere as the Scientific Realm.

I held the Magenta out in front of me, using it as a guide towards the magic-trailing ghost. It led me up a creaking set of stairs to what I presumed was a bedroom. A blackened network of springs was all that remained of a mattress. I just about recognised some posters representing Japanese cartoon characters, and the melted shell of a high-end PC.

The Magenta would have scalded me if it weren’t for my glove. This was it. The ghost was tied to this room. The next step was to provoke a manifestation, which was always the difficult part.

As far as I understand it, when you die, your three aspects – body, mind, and soul – split apart and drift off from each other. Ghosts occur when a hybridised human soul dies but can’t let go of something. Your soul is little more than your consciousness, but it’s also a storage unit. It stores the memories that are closest to you, the ones that shaped your personality, the ones that make you... well, you. Science has never been able to figure out the exact details of how all this works, but I did know from experience that some kind of emotional trigger was the best way to provoke a lost soul.

And the trouble with emotional triggers is that they vary from person to person. There’s no ward or magic circle that can do this – personal attachment is the only way.

“I always loved you,” I said aloud. It was an old trick, and only worked in about two out of ten cases, but worth a try.

No response. I puffed out my cheeks and glanced around. From the evidence this was the bedroom of a teenager. That made things a little easier, as hormonal as they were.

I sifted through the wreckage of shelves and wardrobes, looking for something that might indicate towards an interest or hobby. I found spines from paperback books, with what looked like exaggerated Japanese characters on them, and… DVD cases? No… video game boxes.

“Comics and video games are for babies,” I said, filling my voice with scorn. “God, people who can’t grow up past that stuff make me sick.” I slapped the melted flatscreen monitor off the desk and shoved my foot into the computer case. “You should get a life and read a real book, you fat prick.”

“Stop it!”

I spun around. The ghost was quite freshly-killed, judging by the way he was still holding onto his residual self-image. The blurry grey outline of a short, dumpy young man hung sulkily in the corner of the room. Despite myself, I was impressed. It took a ghost with astonishing levels of control to manifest so clearly, and to be actually heard speaking in a clear, articulate voice… I realised with weary certainty that the Ministry were going to want this encounter documented.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Greg,” came the reply. “Who are you?”

I crouched to bring myself to his level. The important thing was to keep the ghost’s scrappy remnants of consciousness focussed long enough to make the necessary enquiries. Don’t give in to temptation to answer questions; keep asking questions of your own, keep them thinking. “What are you doing here?”

“Leave me alone,” whimpered the high-pitched voice.

“Do you really think I would hurt you?”


It was certainly one of the more coherent spirits I’d reasoned with. Most conversations with ghosts rarely proceed beyond tortured wails. Even one operating on the social level of a child was a historic discovery. I tried the authoritarian approach. “Isn’t there somewhere you’re supposed to be, now?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Go where?”

“Wherever you go when you’re dead.”

My jaw dropped stupidly. “How are you aware that you’re dead?”

“I just guessed. I am, aren’t I?”

Making the subject aware that they are dead is one of the major and most difficult steps in an exorcism. Once that has been achieved, a ghost will either immediately pass on to other realms, or become angry and hostile, which would mean performing a banishment ritual. Established procedure was now useless. I was in unknown territory, uncomfortably aware that everything I did from then on set a new precedent. “Why don’t you want to pass on?”

“Nariko,” said the ghost, emotion sticking in its imaginary throat. “I can’t go without telling her I love her.”

Despite what fiction might have you believe, love is one of the least common causes of a confused ghost remaining tied to the land of the living. Number one is workaholism. “Who is Nariko?”

“My girlfriend. In Japan. We used to talk on MSN every night. She’s going to be worried.”

I sighed in irritation. “You and Nariko can’t have any kind of reasonable relationship now. You have to let the poor girl get over you. Hanging on is just unfair on her.”

I cursed myself for not bringing a camera, because the ghost’s face was manifesting clearly enough to recognise a crestfallen look in its features. “I know you’re probably right. I keep telling myself that. But there’s so much I’ve never had a chance to do. I wasted my whole life. I never even kissed a girl. Why are you checking your watch?”

“No reason,” I said quickly, stuffing my hand in my pocket.

“It’s OK if you want to leave. I’m used to being alone.” Its spectral limbs drew up around itself in a mid-air foetal position, and it turned its back to me.

A sigh escaped my lips before I could stop it. The Ministry wouldn’t let me hear the end of this until the hybrid had passed on, safe from prying civilian eyes. “You really can’t stay. You don’t belong here.”

The ghost looked back at me with something approaching hope. “Would you take me with you?”

“You’re tied to this location. The only places you can go are here or the afterlife.”

“I’ll just stay here then,” it said, curling up again.

“Hang on, hang on,” I blustered. “There’s one possibility. Was there any particular possession you spent a particularly large amount of time around?”

There was a thoughtful pause.


Claire occupied the office across from mine at the STP headquarters. She was a bespectacled woman in her thirties, appearance-wise the sort of person you can expect to see duplicated manyfold in absolutely any office environment, organising morning teas and putting cat figurines on her monitor. She was also very, very psychic, specialising in remote viewing, but that wasn’t important. “Hi, Trilby,” she said, poking her head around my door. “You wanted to see m… what happened to your computer?”

I was leaning back in my office chair, thoughtfully tapping a pencil against my desk. “It’s not mine, I took it from a burnt-out building. This is Greg.”


“Holy shit. I mean, hello. Sorry, you caught me off guard.”

“That’s OK.”

“I’ve never seen a ghost with such a powerful manifestation. You must be really potent."

Greg’s grey cheeks became flushed with greyish-purple. “Thank you.”

I rolled my eyes. Claire was good with people. Of course she was; she could read minds. “I need a favour,” I said. “Could you kiss him?”

She glanced between the two of us a few times. “Are you serious?”

Greg’s face reached maximum spectral reddening. “It’s okay if you don’t want to…”

“You shut up,” I interjected. “He died without knowing what a kiss is like so I’m of the opinion that getting someone to kiss him might make him capable of leaving this plane of existence.”

She looked him up and down, nonplussed. “How am I supposed to do that? He’s non-corporeal. No offence.”

“I really don’t want to put anyone out…”

“Shft,” I hissed, silencing him. “I had an idea. You’re telepathic, right?”

“A bit, yes,” said Claire.

“Could you transmit the idea, or the sensation, of being kissed directly to his soul? Something from your own memory?”

“It’s worth a try,” she conceded. “You want me to do it right now?”

“If you would.”

She tapped her chin, umming and erring like a person called upon to tell a joke in a social gathering, trying to call one to memory. “Okay, got one. Hold still, okay Greg?”

Magic research is kind of an oxymoron. It’s futile to try and approach magic with a scientific mindset. Magic and science are incompatible; I gather that’s partly why our universe separated into the two realms. The moment you try to measure any magical event scientifically the magic changes, or disappears, or refuses to work. Any measuring device would have shown that there was absolutely nothing happening between Claire and Greg, not in physics, chemistry or biology. And yet, an expression of slightly bewildered tranquillity formed on his transparent face.

“How was that?” I asked, as the two of them separated, feeling like some kind of disgruntled father interrupting a teenage make-out. “Feel any better?”

“Actually, I kind of feel even more depressed,” said Greg.

I threw up my hands. “What did you give him?”

“Just some feelings of my first boyfriend…”

I searched my memories. “The one who died?”

“Yeah.” She snapped her fingers. “You know what? That was probably a mistake.”

“Look, I can just go back to my house…” began Greg.

“Why don’t you want to pass on to the next world, Greg?” asked Claire tenderly. “It’s probably nice.”

Greg was becoming noticeably more relaxed around Claire, which made sense, considering that they’d been occupying each other’s minds a second ago. “It’s scary, y’know, given a choice between what you’re familiar with and something completely unknown… and then there’s Nariko…”

Claire turned to me. “He’s articulate for a ghost, isn’t he? Has Yarrow seen him?”

Yarrow was the Ministry’s head researcher. I avoided him because I found his breathless enthusiasm embarrassing. “I’ve got a couple of meetings,” I said, making motions towards the door. “Can you stay here and experiment?”

“Actually I have to -”

“Much obliged.” I left.


The STP’s IT department had come through and been able to extract Nariko’s MSN details from Greg’s half-destroyed hard drive. A few phone calls later and I found myself that afternoon in the IT department’s office, the receiver of their phone pressed coldly to my ear, expressionlessly out-staring a poster of Judge Dredd.

“So you’re not actually Japanese,” I intoned.

“Nope,” said Nariko, in a southern American drawl. “Reckon I can be anyone I want on the internet, ain’t no law against that.”

A headache was blossoming nicely in the front of my brain. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “And you’re not female, either.”

“It was just a game at first but then I found I was really looking forward to our chats and I couldn’t think of a way to break it to him. I’m real sorry to hear that he died, I didn’t mean him no harm.”

“Yes, well, I wouldn’t worry, Nariko.”


“Frank.” I sighed. “It’s not your life that just became five hundred times more complicated.”

I stopped on my way back at the coffee machine to get myself a cup of the wretched brown nothingness that called itself a cappuccino, then took it with me into a broom cupboard and shut the door. I found it easier to think in total darkness.

I had no intention of breaking this to Greg. I doubted that learning that his one true love was a burly abattoir worker from Louisiana would give him the satisfactory conclusion he needed for his life – that was what negotiating with ghosts was all about, satisfactory conclusions – and would probably make him all the more determined to hang around wallowing in self-pity.

Privately, I suspected that even had Nariko been a socially awkward lingerie model that it wouldn’t have been enough to convince Greg to move on. He struck me as the kind of person who relished their own misery. I’d known people like that at school, pale, glum types with greasy dyed fringes getting taped into bins by bigger boys and secretly loving the attention. Becoming a tortured lost soul was probably pretty high up in their top ten ideal career plans.

So, what now? Following the Nariko thread was fruitless. I very much doubted that Greg would willingly step into a banishment circle. There was a temptation to kick it upstairs, but I had that troublesome reputation for decisiveness to maintain. I tapped my index finger against the coffee cup, thinking.


When I returned to my office about an hour later, Claire was still there. I recognised the exhausted, emotionally troubled look of an overexerted psychic. Greg was still hanging miserably around.

“I tried kissing, cuddling, sex, moving in together, and that one time I went tandem skydiving,” she said in a monotone. “I don’t think this is the answer.”

“I’m really sorry,” muttered Greg, although he seemed in a better mood. “I guess it’s going to have to be Nariko after all…”

“Greg, tracking down Nariko may take some time,” I said. “You understand that, as a paranormal entity, national security mandates that you cannot leave the STP facility?”

“I think you mentioned that…”

“I’ve been talking to my superiors and some of the Ministry research team,” I continued, perching next to the ruined computer. “They’re all in agreement that you’re a fascinating specimen.”

“He’s not a dissected frog, Trilby, he’s still a human soul,” said Claire.

“Sorry. But in the meantime, while we follow up on Nariko, we were wondering if you’d consider doing your government a service.”

Suspicion. “What kind of service?”

“Call it consultancy. There are a lot of areas in the field of paranormal research where having someone in your… position would be useful. You’re the most potent manifestation in history. You could teach us more about death and magic than we’ve ever been able to establish.”

His little ghostly ego was visible inflating. “Could I really?”

“It’s a great career opportunity,” said Claire encouragingly. “Actually, you’re probably not so bothered about that.”

“Maybe this is what I needed,” said Greg mostly to himself, excitement rising. “To be useful, to have a purpose, to be totally unique for the first time in my li… existence.”

“We’ve got a special chamber set up for you,” I said, gathering the bits of computer in my arms. “Facilities for a non-corporeal resident. Follow me.”

“Special,” he repeated, following me down the corridor. “I’ve never been special before. I could… I could really make a difference, couldn’t I?”

“You are special,” pressed Claire, who was tagging along.

I kicked open the door to the prepared chamber and gently set down the equipment just inside. “I’ll let you get settled in, but we’ll have to talk more about the fine details later.”

Suddenly Greg seemed a lot more alive. He looked me in the eye, and I fanced I saw emotion welling. “Thank you.”

I nodded shallowly, as between equals.

He drifted through the doorway, then stopped. “Hang on, this is a broom cupboa -”

I slammed the door behind him. As it closed, the runes I had carved into the underside completed a banishment circle I had spent the last hour drawing on the floor. The door juddered beneath my weight and light burst out from the gap underneath as I yelled binding chants at the top of my voice, almost drowned out by the roar of ghostly wind. Finally, a magical cough, a final explosion of pink light, and a release of pungent smoke from under the door signalled Greg’s departure from this mortal coil.

Claire was glaring at me. “You’re a devious bastard, aren’t you.”

I shrugged. “That’s why they hired me.”

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