Midwinter Alchemy

by London Lampy

Part 2

Seated next to her at the well used kitchen table Dawn lent over and pressed down lightly on her daughter's swollen stomach to feel the movements of the small body under Marni's clothes and skin. "It's lively today," she said with a smile, then took a sip of her rapidly cooling tea.

"And all last night," Marni yawned, "I hardly got any sleep."

"Good practise for when it's born and you're up and down feeding in the night." Dawn thought back to the nights she had spent in this kitchen with first her daughter and then her son when they were tiny babies. Getting out of her warm bed had always been hard but her husband Mack hadn't wanted to be disturbed so she'd taken them downstairs to feed. Once she was fully awake she'd come to rather enjoy the still, quite times alone with her babies. Now one of her babies was due to have a baby herself in the spring, the other was living many miles away and Dawn shared the farmhouse with just her husband. "How are you getting on for names?" she asked, pushing down the feelings of sadness she had at her once full, lively family home now being solely occupied by her for most of the day.

"If it's a boy we're set on Henry after Adrian's grandfather, and if it's a girl I really like Daisy, but Adrian wants Susan because he thinks a girl called Daisy will turn out flighty. Whatever it is we thought we'd give it the middle Sam though." Marni looked over at her mother with a small smile.

"Oh," Dawn put her hand to her mouth, "that would be lovely, but what about your father?"

"I don't care what he thinks," Marni's face hardened. "I don't have to put up with him anymore and seeing as because of him my baby will never know its uncle it's the least I can do."

Marni marrying Adrian had been bitter sweet for Dawn. She knew that her daughter hadn't been in love with the butcher's son when they'd wed. However he was a nice boy from a good family and Mack had wanted his daughter married off quickly in the hope that she'd produce a son to replace Sam as the heir to the family dairy farm. What he hadn't bargained on was his daughter not only falling in love with her new husband but his family too to the extent that Marni now barely acknowledged her father at all. While Marni was living at home on the farm she'd seemed to accept her father's iron discipline, even if she was distraught when her brother ran away from home after a particularly savage beating from him. Now however it was as if she were a simmering pot whose heat had been turned up and since her marriage all the anger toward her father that she'd kept in had suddenly come bubbling out.

"Perhaps next year after the baby's born you and Adrian could go to the city to visit Sam," Dawn suggested. At first she hadn't told Marni that she was in contact with Sam for fear that the girl wouldn't be able to keep it to herself and the information would get back to Mack. It was a few days before Marni's wedding when Dawn had finally decided to tell her because Marni had started to cry about her brother not being there for her big day. Ever since then Dawn had let Marni read Sam's precious letters home so that she could see for herself that he was safe and happy in the city.

"Maybe," Marni agreed, "but we shouldn't have to do that, Sam should be here in Dovedale with his family." She put a hand on her pregnant belly and stroked it.

Dawn nodded, but she privately felt that although she missed her son terribly he was probably better off where he was. He'd found a caring substitute family and was romantically involved with another boy, something that would not easily be tolerated in their small village. But at this time of year, with the snow thick on the ground, the days shorting to no more than a few hours of daylight and Midwinter next week she too longed for Sam to be home.

Sam didn't believe in ghosts, not one bit, or so he told himself as he walked through The Empress' deserted auditorium on his way around the building to padlock all the fire exit doors shut for the night. He'd personally been through one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable when he'd come within a whisker of becoming a human sacrifice for a sick, crazy old man, so a supposed haunting in the theatre couldn't possibly scare him. As he crossed the upper circle, the place where the elderly lady stage door keeper named Meggie had died and whose ghost was now supposedly causing all kind of trouble, he heard the sound of a door creaking. He walked a little faster, feeling utterly stupid for the way his heart had started to beat faster and his palms had suddenly dampened. He had one more chain and padlock to put on before he finished and could make his way down to the stage door where Fran would be waiting to throw the master switch and cut off all the lights in the building before locking the stage door and going home. A thud from somewhere deep within the building made Sam speed up further and by the time he reached the door at the top of the staircase that he needed to descend to find the last unchained door he was almost running.

Sam pushed the door open and stepped through, the door banging shut loudly behind him making him jump. The stairway ran all the way to the street level but it curved halfway down so he was unable to see to the bottom and Sam got the sudden unpleasent feeling that something was lurking down there, waiting for him. If he had needed to descend the stairway for any reason more trivial than locking up he would have abandoned the job and gone back into the auditorium, but he knew that he would be in no end of trouble with Fran if he knowingly left a door unchained.

The exit stairway was freezing cold, not being a part of the building people normally used it wasn't heated. Also the stairs weren't carpeted, just simply bare polished concrete so every step he took echoed around him unnervingly. Sam held the cold metal bannister with one clammy hand and began to descend, the chain and padlock gripped tightly enough in his other hand to dig in painfully. As he got closer to the turn in the stairs he swallowed hard, knowing how foolish he was to be thinking that around it was anything more sinister than more stairs and an unchained door. Sam took one more step down then stopped, he could swear that he had just heard heavy, wet breathing coming from further down. He strained to listen but couldn't catch the sound again and he decided that it had to have been something from the street beyond and not inside the building at all. Holding his nerve he continued to descend, his legs starting to feel like wet string. He rounded the corner with trepidation and as he did it seemed as if his worst, wildest imaginings had come true as a white shape suddenly appeared in the dimly lit well at the bottom of the staircase. He heard a moan coming from it then it hissed his name in a low, raspy voice. Without stopping to consider who or what he was seeing Sam yelped loudly and threw himself back up the stairs two at a time.

The thing seemed to be giving chase and as he crashed through the doors back into the auditorium it called his name again, only this time the voice wasn't raspy or low, it was an ordinary girl's voice, a voice he recognised very well. He didn't stop running though and he was now half way across to the other side of the circle. As the thing came through the doors he turned to look over his shoulder at it and saw Fudge holding one of their dust sheets, waving to him and calling his name.

"What the fuck!" Sam stopped running and rounded on her as she approached.

"Oh my gods!" she giggled. "You should have seen your face, I though you were going to die of fright."

"I might have done, I might have had a heart attack and died and it would have been all your fault because you played a stupid trick on me!"

"Sorry," she tried to stifle her giggles, but failed. "Were you really scared?"

"Yes, of course I bloody was!" Sam leant against the wall and tried to get his breath back. "Just for that you can go back down there and put the chain on." He threw the padlock and chain at Fudge's boot clad feet.

She picked up the chain and left, letting herself back through the door that led to the stairway. As Sam waited for Fudge to return he found that there was an unusual smell wafting through the auditorium, it was the smell of pipe smoke and it seemed to be both fresh and coming from somewhere nearby. He knew that everyone said one of the ways you could tell if the ghost of Meggie was around was by the smell of pipe smoke suddenly appearing in the upper circle.

"You didn't light a pipe while you were down there, did you?" Sam asked Fudge as she came back through the door with a clatter.

"No, why?" the girl's dark features contorted in a puzzled frown.

"Can't you smell it?"

Fudge sniffed the air and her expression rapidly changed to one of wide eyed fear. "Gods, if that's really pipe smoke then Meggie must be in here!" she looked around wildly, her bobbed black hair swishing around her face as she turned her head.

"Let's go," Sam said firmly, grabbing Fudge's wrist and pulling toward the way out. A sound like claws being dragged over metal suddenly seemed to come from somewhere above their heads and this was followed by a muffled screech.

Without a word they both started to walk quickly, then jog, then finally run through the building until they were hurtling together through doors and down stairs and along empty corridors only stopping when they reached Fran at the stage door.

"What the hell's going on?" Fran asked as they came to a panting halt beside him.

"Meggie…" Fudge gasped, "she was…in the upper…circle…"

"You saw her?" Fran frowned.

"No," Sam shook his head. "We smelled pipe smoke and then…"

"She screamed at us!" Fudge butted in.

"Screamed?" Fran looked sceptical.

"Yes…like this…" Fudge attempted to make the sound they'd heard.

"No, it was more like this…" Sam tried, thinking that Fudge had got it all wrong.

"You sound like a pair of cats being strangled," Fran sighed. "Are you sure the noise wasn't people shouting outside?"

"Yes," Sam said at the same time as Fudge.

"It was real, it was really Meggie!" Fudge insisted.

Fran looked at Sam with his brown spaniel's eyes, he looked tired and exasperated, but then he often did. "Do you believe it was Meggie too?" he asked.

"I…" he thought about it, the whole thing had been weird and scary, but did he really believe that they'd encountered the theatre's ghost? "I don't know, but it was very strange and I'm sure the scream wasn't didn't come from the street, it was kind of above us."

"Where ever it came from and whatever produced this screaming sound I'm sure it was of a perfectly normal, non supernatural origin," Fran said. "Come on, let's go home and for the god's sake don't go putting it around to the rest of the staff that you encountered Meggie or they'll resign on mass."

Sam did feel a little reassured by Fran, but between the strange noise and Fudge's earlier prank he was jumpy and his pulse rate didn't return to normal until he was safely snuggled up in bed with Ed.

The next day one of the cleaners marched into Fran's office and handed in her resignation on the spot, claiming that she'd heard a disembodied voice speaking to her as she cleaned the gentlemen's toilets in the upper circle. When he'd asked her what the voice had said the cleaner had told Fran that she couldn't make out any actual words, but she was quite sure that they were something unholy and evil and under no circumstances was she ever coming back.

"This is now well beyond a joke," Fran grumbled to Ozzy. "How the hell can I get them all to stop thinking that every little creak or rattle the building makes is caused by Meggie? Even Fudge and Sam have been sucked in." Fudge he wasn't that surprised at, the girl had always been quite suggestible, but he'd though Sam had more sense.

"Are you sure that there isn't actually a ghost boss?" Ozzy asked, clicking away on their adding machine with his strange, flat visk fingers.

"Yes! I've never been more sure of anything in my life. There are no such things as ghosts!" Fran banged his hand down on his desk to make his point.

"Just checking. Perhaps you should have the place exorcized anyway, if you're wrong and there is a ghost it'll go away, and if there isn't when you tell the staff what's been done they'll think it's gone, either way the result will be the same."

"You know Ozzy, crazy as it sounds that's not a bad idea," Fran mused, "use the power of suggestion to my advantage. Didn't you say your priest did exorcisms, would he do one here?"

"Not unless your ghost is a visk's spirit, no." Ozzy blinked his pure black eyes rapidly.

"Well, seeing as my ghost is a figment of everyone's imagination it wouldn't make one shred of difference if the exorcist was visk, human or monkey, but seeing as everyone knows Meggie was a human I'd better find someone who specialises in exorcizing human spirits."

An event that happened shortly after Fran's conversation with Ozzy led Fran to decide that getting the place exorcized was the only way to end this ridiculous situation. Sam, thinking he'd get his own back on Fudge for scaring the life out of him the previous night had crouched down and hidden behind the counter in the stalls bar, waiting for the girl to come in. When she entered he'd jumped up with a loud shout, and succeeded in thoroughly terrifying her. Unfortunately she happened to be carrying a tray of clean beer glasses at the time and she'd thrown the tray into the air in fright, and the net result of this was broken glass everywhere that took the pair of them over an hour to clean up.

Fran also passed a new company rule, from now on any member of staff deliberately setting out to scare any other member of staff would have two hours pay docked off their wages.

"It is not an exorcism, it is a cleansing ritual," the woman said, looking around the auditorium from the stage. When her gaze reached the exact spot where Meggie had died it seemed to linger for a few seconds before moving on, Fran told himself that this nothing more than a coincidence.

He'd found Lady Zerelda through an advert in the back of the evening newspaper and had Ozzy locate her straight away to see if she was interested in taking on the job of "exorcising" Meggie's ghost from The Empress. Fran was familiar enough with the concept of stage names and performers in general to know a good act when he saw one, and Lady Zerelda certainly seemed adept in playing the part of someone who could communicate with the dead. She was a tall, imposing woman of around sixty with iron grey hair swept up into a bun, a stern hawkish face and dark, searching eyes. She was currently clad all in black, her dress reached down to the ground although the look was slightly spoiled by her hem being soaked in grimy Parnell street runoff. Around her shoulders was a shawl that had been crotched in a pattern that looked very much like a spider's web and she was wearing a small jewellers worth of silver jewellery around her neck, her wrists and on her long fingers.

"Yes, there certainly is an unquiet spirit in here," she said in a low, portentous voice once she'd taken in the whole room. "I can assist you with moving it on and restoring peace to your theatre if you wish."

"I do wish," Fran replied, struggling a little to keep a straight face. "What do you need to do?" He was very much hoping that she would say a few incantations, wave her hands around a bit and that would be that and he could tell everyone Meggie was gone for good.

"I shall need to perform the ritual at midnight, as that is when the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. I will need you to be in attendance along with a few other trusted souls who know the theatre well to aid in providing a conduit for me, and I shall need you to tell no one of our plans."

"But the point of all this is for my staff to know that there's going to be an exor…" Lady Zerelda frowned at him, "…a cleansing ritual. If they don't know it's happening then they won't believe that the ghost has gone."

"The point of all this, as you put it, is to move on a poor, trapped spirit." Lady Zerelda suddenly reminded Fran of Fudge's headmistress telling him off for letting his niece miss yet another day of school to work in the theatre. "And feel free to inform your staff after the ritual has been successfully completed, if you wish I can tell them for you."

"Thank you, that would be perfect." If the staff didn't believe Lady Zerelda that Meggie was gone then they weren't going to believe anyone. "But why can't I tell them before the…" he caught himself in time this time, "…cleansing ritual?"

"They will gossip about it and the spirit may become forewarned, and therefore more resistant to my powers."

"Oh, I see." What Fran really felt like saying was bullpoo, but that would be a very bad idea.

"So we will be keeping this just between ourselves and those who you chose to attend the ritual until the place is cleansed, won't we Fran?"

"Yes," he mumbled.

"Good. I'm available in two nights time, shall we talk about my fees?"

"And just how much is this charlatan charging you?" Mulligan grumbled from the armchair.

"That's not important right now," Fran replied quickly. "What is important is that you're all happy to do this, so are you?" He looked at the small group assembled in his living room. He well knew Mulligan's feelings about those who plied their trade by claiming to be able to see into the future or communicate with the dead and he hadn't expected any other kind of response from him. He also knew that if he asked him Mulligan would be at the cleansing ritual so it wasn't him that Fran was most concerned about agreeing to Lady Zerelda's demands for a select few people who knew The Empress well to be present. Seated on the couch were the rest of his household along with their part time member Earnest, and it was them Fran was really talking to. "I'm not going to force any of you to be there, and even if you don't come Lady Zerelda said that for this to work we weren't to tell the other members of staff…" he ignored a derisive snort from Mulligan "…but you are the best placed people to do this." And the ones he trusted most to both keep their mouths shut and generally do what Lady Zerelda told them.

"It sounds scary," Fudge said from her seat on Earnest's lap.

"I think it sounds kind of exciting," Earnest responded, "and if you get scared I'll protect you." He put his arms tightly around Fudge's middle, making her giggle. Fran had to restrain himself from telling Earnest to get the hell off his niece, the pair of them might have been together for nearly a year now but at times he still wasn't entirely happy at Fudge having a boyfriend.

"I don't mind," Ed shrugged. He was seated at the other end of the couch with Sam next to him. "After living with my gran I'm not scared of old ladies, even ghost old ladies."

"Maybe it is your gran haunting The Empress," Sam put in, ruffling Ed's rust coloured hair. "Maybe she's floating around up there telling the cleaners and ushers about how they're all going to hell if they don't mend their evil ways."

"Gods, do you think so?" Fudge looked at the two boys with wide eyes.

"Fudge," Fran sighed, "There isn't a ghostly Mrs Anglemol in the theatre, there isn't a ghostly Meggie in the theatre, ghosts do not exist. We're doing this to persuade the rest of the staff that the imaginary ghost has gone so things can go back to normal. Now, are we all happy to assist Lady Zerelda, or do I need to find someone else?"

No one except Earnest seemed to be excited by the idea of attending the cleansing ritual, but they all agreed that they would, and that was all Fran wanted.

"Thank you," Dawn said gratefully, taking the envelope off Mr Harper and tucking it into the inside pocket of her coat. The inn's small yard was several inches deep in snow and she could feel the cold seeping through her boots into her feet.

"As always, it's nothing," the inn keeper smiled at her warmly from the doorway, his pipe glowing red in the darkness. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to come in for a hot drink, we've got a vat of mulled cider on the go?"

Dawn would have dearly loved to go into the inn and enjoy a hot drink. Through the open door she could see into the backroom where several of Mr Harper's enormous brood of children were sitting on the floor playing a game of cards together. The smell of the mulled cider mixed with that of supper cooking floated out into the cold air and the whole place just seemed so warm and homely she wanted to go in and never leave. However she needed to get back to her own house, a place that hadn't felt homely since her children had left it, and cook supper for her own husband, who as usual probably would say no more than a handful of words to her between the time he got in from the farm and the time she retired to bed.

"Sorry, I'd love to but I can't. Mack will be wanting his supper soon," she smiled at Mr harper, hoping that he wouldn't take offence at her refusal.

"I'll bid you a good night and see you at the Midwinter festivities then," he said with a nod.

Dawn left by the back gate and hurried away from the inn into the cold darkness before anyone saw her leaving. She desperately wanted to take Sam's letter from her inside pocket, rip it open and read her son's words straight away, but she knew better than to do that in public. If Mack found out that she was receiving letters from Sam she knew that he'd forbid her from ever communicating with or receiving letters from their son again, and she'd be powerless to stop him.

Sitting on the edge of Fran's desk Sam watched Ed's freckled face screw itself up into an annoyed frown as he read his letter. It was the night of the cleansing ritual and Ed had come to The Empress to watch that night's show then stay on afterwards for a very different sort of show. The two of them were in Fran's office because Fran had accidently picked up a letter for Ed amongst that morning's post and he'd left it on his desk for Ed to collect. Sam was pretty sure the letter was from Ed's parents, not because they wrote frequently, they didn't, but because the postmark was from the town that they'd moved to.

"Fucking hell!" Ed swore, crumpling the letter into a ball and throwing it into the waste paper bin. "Do you know what they want?"

"No," Sam shook his head, looking down at Ed who was seated in Fran's chair.

"They want me to send them Gran's wedding ring so that they can sell it. That's all, no how are you, or hope you have a good Midwinter."

"Sorry," Sam sighed, wishing that he could make Ed's parent's care more about their eldest son. While Sam never wanted to see his father again in his life he missed his mother very much, and always eagerly looked forward to receiving her long, chatty letters.

"Well fuck them! If they want it they can come to Parnell to get it, but they'd better bring a shovel because we buried it with Gran."

San dropped down off the edge of the desk onto Ed's lap. "I love you," he said, kissing him on the temple.

"Yeah," Ed wrapped his arms tightly around him, "love you too."

Sam found Ed's mouth with his and they started to kiss one another deeply, their embrace changing from supportive to something more sexual. He felt Ed's hand tunnelling inside his shirt until his fingertips located a nipple and pinched hard, just the way he liked. Sam made an appreciative sound and wriggled on Ed's lap, rubbing himself against Ed's swelling erection.

"Boys!" The pair of them stopped what they were doing and looked round to find Fran standing in the office doorway scowling at them. "How many times do I have to tell you to keep that sort of thing to when you're in private?"

"But we were in private," Sam pointed out as Ed took his hand out of his clothing, "until you came in."

"Sam, my office is not a private place. What if I'd brought someone else up here with me for a meeting, and they saw you all over each other in my chair? It wouldn't look very professional."

"They might have enjoyed the show," Sam suggested.

Fran rolled his eyes at him. "Come on, get out of here the pair of you and go and make yourselves useful somewhere."

"Do you think he's cross with us?" Ed asked as they descended the stairs from Fran's office.

"Not really, at least not as cross as the time he caught us doing it in the kitchen," Sam giggled.

"I thought it was us wasting the butter that got him annoyed that time," Ed replied with a frown.

Although Fran had told them to make themselves useful there wasn't really much to do as it was the quiet time of day when everyone took a break before the show. They made token round of the theatre's bars to make sure that they were set up for the evening, then ran out of ideas so they decided to find somewhere private to carry on doing what they'd been doing in Fran's office.

"Have you ever been in here before?" Sam asked Ed, watching his boyfriend looking around the small storage room.

"No," Ed shook his head.

"Look," Sam undid a catch at the back of what looked like a blacked out window and pushed it open. It let out into the auditorium and Sam peered out.

"What's that for?" Ed asked, sticking his head out of the hole. "It's a crappy view of the stage from here, but you can see into the boxes really well, is it for spying on the rich people in the boxes?"

"No," Sam laughed. "It's so you can reach out and change light bulbs, look," he pointed to a small brass candelabra fixed to the wall just below the opening.

"Oh," Ed pulled his head back in. "That's really dull."

"Yes," Sam agreed, shutting the catch again. "But the thing is, no one ever comes in here except to change light bulbs." He put his arms around Ed's neck and pulled him in for a kiss.

There were times when Sam still couldn't quite believe his luck in having Ed as a boyfriend. Their relationship hadn't got off to the best of starts to say the least, with Ed punching him the very first time Sam had tried to kiss him. However that was a very long time ago, in fact almost a year had passed now since that eventful night. A lot had changed since then, Sam was blissfully happy about being with someone he both loved and desired very very much and that fact that Ed and him got to enjoy the occasional threesome with Victor was just the icing on an already tasty cake.

As they kissed Ed undid Sam's belt then his fly buttons, Ed certainly wasn't sexually shy anymore. Once everything was undone he pushed Sam's trousers and underwear down to around his ankles then squeezed his ass and pushed a finger inside him.

"That feels good, but we don't have any lube," Sam said as Ed's finger went deeper.

"I know," Ed grinned at him. "I'm going to suck you off, but I thought you'd like a finger in your ass first."

Sam nodded in agreement at this, Ed knew him very well indeed. They kissed for a while longer while Ed teased Sam with his finger, then he knelt down in front of Sam, took his erect cock in his hands and looked at it.

"I love this," he said, swirling his tongue over the head to lick up the wetness that had formed there.

"Mmm," Sam replied, burying his hands in Ed's hair and leaning back against the wall.

With one hand Ed rubbed Sam behind the balls while his other hand held Sam's shaft as he began to suck it. They had quickly discovered that Ed couldn't cope with anything going too far into the back of his mouth so he always wrapped his hand around Sam to stop too much of his cock going inside. Because of this Ed tended to concentrate on licking and sucking the head of Sam's erection while stimulating him with his hands. It was a slightly unusual technique but Sam certainly had no complaints about it and he groaned quietly as Ed got to work on him. The two of them had recently been experimenting with seeing how long they could last before coming and Sam was actually getting pretty good at holding off when his body wanted to explode, but as they were in the theatre and it wouldn't be long before the audience would start to be allowed in to find their seats right now wasn't the time for that. He did nothing more than let his desire build to the point where orgasm was imminent then hurriedly told Ed it was about to happen as his boyfriend wasn't fond of getting a mouthful of spunk either. He came with a gasp, shooting strings of white over Ed's face and wrist and when he had finished Ed looked up at him, his freckled face covered in his come. Sam smiled, feeling his heart skip with a perfect combination of love and lust.

"You need to prop all the doors open so that the spirit has means to leave the building. Once that is done I shall need you to turn off the lights, Meggie will respond better to our advances by natural candlelight than by electric light," Lady Zerelda said to the assembled group who were packed into Fran's office. Once again he had to admit that the woman made a lot of effort to look the part of someone who communed with the dead on a regular basis. For tonight's ceremony she had let down her hair so it formed a river of shining grey all the way to her rather ample hips and on her head she was wearing a black lace veil held in place with carved jet combs. She had on a similar long black dress to the last time Fran had seen her but over the top Lady Zerelda had added a midnight blue velvet cape fastened at the neck with a clasp in the shape of a pair of back to back crescent moons, and if anything she seemed to be wearing even more heavy silver jewellery than before.

"Obviously," Mulligan muttered from his seat behind Fran's desk. "Everyone knows that ghosts can't open doors and hate electric lights."

Fran shot him a warning look, wondering if it had been a good idea to include the magician in tonight's ceremony. He was a rock steady presence compared to the youngsters, but he was also a deeply sceptical man who had spent the afternoon regaling Fran with all the tricks that those who claimed to be able to speak with the dead used to con their paying clients. Fran really didn't care if Lady Zerelda was the biggest fraud in the business so long as she did a convincing enough job of persuading his staff that she had got rid of the "ghost" though.

"You doubt my powers, Mr…?" Lady Zerelda fixed Mulligan with a hawk like stare.

"Just Mulligan, and yes, I do," he looked back at her challengingly.

"Perhaps we should move into the auditorium now?" Fran suggested, frowning at the magician. The last thing he wanted to happen was for Lady Zerelda to walk out in a huff over something Mulligan said to her.

The auditorium was in its typical post show state, although the ushers picked up the worst of the rubbish before they left for the night the floor was still littered with spilt candied peanuts, squashed pieces of chocolate and old tickets. The air retained the smell of the audience too, a mixture of a hundred different perfumes, stale tobacco smoke and sweat and the huge room that had held several hundred people less than an hour ago still held the lingering feeling of their presences. To Fran it always felt as if the theatre was holding its breath now, just waiting until it was filled again.

"We should go to the place where the old lady died," Lady Zerelda said as they entered the stalls.

"So the ghost is Meggie?" Fudge asked breathlessly. Fran wasn't at all surprised that his niece was impressed by the woman.

"I believe so, but I shall need to speak with the spirit to confirm my beliefs. Being the place where she passed will help to open up the channels of communications."

Fran elbowed Mulligan sharply in the ribs at the snort of derision he made on hearing this. "Meggie died upstairs in the upper circle," Fran said, "I'll show you the way while the others go round and wedge the doors open."

It was strange how different the placed felt when the only light source was a handful of candle lanterns that Lady Zerelda had produced out of a large tapestry bag worked with a pattern of white funereal lilies on a black background. She had set them in a rough circle on the steps beside the row of seats where old Meggie had breathed her last and once that was done she'd loaned Fran and Mulligan one of her lanterns to find their way back through the building in the dark after they'd turned out the lights. Fran didn't actually need Mulligan to come with him, but neither did he want to leave him alone with the woman. When they returned Fran seated himself on the step below Lady Zerelda thereby forcing Mulligan to sit one more step down from her. At the far end of the circle from Lady Zerelda were Sam and Ed, sharing a step, holding hands and having a whispered conversation. One step up from Ed and opposite Mulligan was Fudge, clutching onto Earnest's arm tightly, her dark eyes looking huge in the candlelight, and above her and flanking Lady Zerelda on the left hand side by the wall was Earnest. To Fran this was a good thing, as out of all of the youngsters his niece's boyfriend was the one least likely to cause any kind of trouble.

"Now we are all here I'm going to use salt to create a circle to bind us all safely inside," Lady Zerelda said in her portentous voice, removing a screw top jar from the depths of her bag. Mulligan snorted once again, and once again Fran elbowed him, but he also noticed Sam looking up sharply to stare at the woman, his eyes seeming to linger on the crescent moons of her cloak's fastening.

"Do you have to?" Sam asked, sounding concerned.

"Yes, it is necessary for our own protection," she replied smoothly.

Fran mentally kicked himself as he realised that he should have never suggested Sam got involved with tonight's ceremony. It simply hadn't occurred to him up until that moment but with the darkness, the candles and all the quasi mysticism this was undoubtedly bringing up memories Sam would rather have stay buried.

"Sam, would you and Ed like to go home?" Fran asked softly as Lady Zerelda stood and began to pour a thin stream of salt from her jar around them.

"No," Sam shook his head, "I'm fine here."

Fran wasn't at all sure he was, Sam's eyes now looked almost as wide as Fudge's and though it was hard to tell by candlelight he seemed to have gone pale. He didn't get a chance to say anything else though as Lady Zerelda had finished her salt circle and was retaking her position on the highest step while telling them all to join hands as she was about to begin making contact with Meggie.

When Dawn had arrived back at the farmhouse from her trip to pick up Sam's letter she'd found her husband already home, seated by the fire trying to get the feeling back into his hands and feet after the walk back from their cow barn. She felt nothing but bitter disappointment at the sight of Mack's brawny body hunched over the grate as now she couldn't read her letter because she couldn't risk him catching her taking it out of her pocket. Even though he had no idea she was receiving post from their son if he saw her with an envelope he'd immediately want to know its contents and she couldn't risk taking it out while her husband was around.

All through supper she'd had to work hard not to glance at the peg by the door where her coat was hanging. After they'd eaten and she'd cleaned the kitchen Mack had demanded a bath so Dawn spent over an hour heating the water to fill their tin bath which she set out in front of the fireplace for him. In the end she'd had to wait until he was asleep and snoring in the bed beside her to creep down the stairs by the light a single candle to retrieve the letter.

With the fire now having died away to nothing more than glowing embers Dawn had wrapped the overcoat over her flannel nightdress for warmth and seated herself on the floor by the hearth. The envelope wasn't as thick as she'd like, Sam's letters were never long, but she knew he was busy and that a boy of his age wasn't going to sit down and write several pages of news to his mother. Even a few lines were a thousand times better than not hearing from him, those weeks after he'd run away when she hadn't known where he was or even if he was still alive were the worst of her life.

Dawn read the letter once through quickly to check that everything was well with her son, then again slowly to take in everything he had to say. She was concentrating so hard on gleaning every last drop of information about Sam's life from his words that she didn't hear the bedroom door opening upstairs, or the tread of feet in knitted bed socks on the staircase. The first she knew that her husband was in the room with her was him asking in a harsh voice what exactly she was holding in her now trembling hands.

Fudge shrieked, pulled her hand from Ed's and threw herself into Earnest's arms. "Something…something breathed on me!" she squeaked.

"Do not break the circle, I am about to make the connection!" Lady Zerelda snapped at her.

"Maybe we should call a halt to this now?" Fran suggested. He'd begun to feel that the whole endeavour had been a terrible mistake on his part. Firstly he'd put Sam into a situation that was rather too reminiscent of his brush with becoming a human sacrifice for comfort, and now his niece was clearly terrified out of her wits. He looked over at her cowering against Earnest's chest then down to where Ed and Sam were. He would have expected them to at least be looking a bit scared by the girl's outburst, but instead a giggling Ed was whispering something to Sam that made him giggle too.

"What's so funny boys?" Fran asked, wondering if some kind of hysteria had gripped them.

"Sorry Fudge," Ed laughed, "that was me blowing on your neck, I couldn't resist."

"Ed, you absolute shit!" Fudge exclaimed, punching Ed in the arm, while Mulligan began to laugh too.

"For the god's sake!" Fran interjected. "Let's give this up as a bad job and go home. We'll simply tell the staff we did it, they won't know the difference."

"I'm sorry Fran, but I cannot be a party to that kind of deception," Lady Zerelda said sternly. "There is an unquiet spirit here and it is my duty to cleanse this theatre."

"Fine," Fran sighed. "All right, everybody let's be sensible this time, no pranks," he glared at Ed and Sam, who were both still grinning impishly, "and no sarcasm," he looked at Mulligan, who gave him a "who me?" kind of shrug.

They began again, Lady Zerelda had them all hold hands once more and she started to impel Meggie's spirit to come to her. At first there was still a certain amount of supressed giggling from their small group but then Fran felt the atmosphere palpably change and soon all he could hear was Lady Zerelda's deep intoning voice and their own breathing. He wasn't sure if it was just his imagination but the air around him seemed to be getting colder by the second, he would expect the room to cool as the heating had long been switched off, but this was happening rapidly. Fran looked up at Lady Zerelda, her eyes were half closed now and her body was swaying as she called out for Meggie to come to her. Everyone except Mulligan was staring up at the woman with wide eyes, however the magician was looking up the stairs and over the woman's head with a frown on his face. He seemed to be sniffing the air and Fran briefly wondered why, then he smelled it too, a faint whiff of fresh pipe smoke was now clearly detectable.

"Gods," Fran breathed to himself. He'd never once believed that Meggie's ghost was anything more than a product of people's imaginations until that instant. He felt his skin pebble with goose bumps and his palms were suddenly slick and cold against the two hands he was holding.

The sound was hardly perceptible at first, it was just at the edge of his hearing and Fran wasn't quite sure it was there at all. Soon it grew louder though and everyone turned to look in the direction it was coming from except for Lady Zerelda who seemed to have slipped into some kind of trance. It was a scratching, tapping noise like metal against metal and it appeared to be originating from the back wall of the upper circle in the walk way behind the seats. The sound was growing louder and closer, once again Fudge let go of Ed's hand and clung to Earnest while the two boys looked like they were glued to the spot in fear.

"That's it, that's what Sam and me heard before!" Fudge said in a panicked tone.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, never once taking his eyes off the wall.

"And…and I can smell pipe smoke, oh gods, OH GODS!" Fudge moaned, hiding her face in Earnest's chest.

"She is here…Meggie is here!" Lady Zerelda announced loudly, her whole body now rocking backward and forward on the step.

Another noise made Fran's heart rate double, it was a not quite human screech but what happened next was worse than any sound. A large, dark shape suddenly appeared from the top of the wall in the air above them and began to bear screaming down out of the darkness toward the small group.

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