12. Taking Risks
Friday morning loomed miserable and grey, with rain coming straight down in stair-rods. The weather in Leeds is always a little bit shittier than it has to be. Even if it’s sunny, it’s windy. I took my brolly, but nothing saved me from wet feet the entire day.
Just after eleven my phone beeped with a message. Geraldine.
Come and get the ring.
I nipped out at lunch time and headed for Central Road. With three clicks of my fingers I invoked violet light protection and entered the shop. Geraldine was behind the counter, all smiles.
“Hi darling, well done, we did it.” She warmly held out a tiny box.
My fingers closed around the box. They tingled at the tips as I took it. I smiled at her. “What did you do exactly?”
She glanced at her watch but stayed smiley.
“Certain spells are used to bind the creature to the item. We reversed the exact spells and sent the dragon through the tunnel of light to the Fifth Dimension.”
The tunnel of light and the Fifth Dimension didn’t sound very Wiccan, more New Age spiritualism, but if it worked, it worked.
“So it’s gone?” I opened the box. Inside lay two rings—the original and a new solid silver ring. “What’s this?” Suspicion stirred wakefully at the back of my mind, leaking around the edges of my smile, but Geraldine beamed at me.
“Nothing but a gift. Do with it as you will. After we transferred the dragon, we wove a spell around a new ring to give you peace and happiness. It’s just a gentle charm, but since you’re returning the garnet, we wanted you to have something nice.”
I slipped the box deep into my coat pocket and wandered back to work via a sandwich shop, wondering if it was wise to accept a magical gift from someone I wasn’t sure about. Geraldine unsettled me and I didn’t know on which level, psychic or normal. This whole spirit-guide thing was still too new to me and I was sure I was missing a lot of messages. I missed the obvious at the best of times.
I escaped work at 4:07 PM, thanks to the formidable Christine taking an afternoon off at three for a funeral, and made a beeline across the city centre, slightly ahead of the crowds.
I reached home before five, ahead of Indira. I’d expected her to be in, was sure she had the lunch time shift only today. Maybe it was just as well. She would only worry while I was out. Mind you, worry was better than being dead…or captive in a house with a crazy guy. That was only basic lone worker policy. Someone had to be home to know I wasn’t home yet. Now I wished she was here already, but I didn’t want to wait. I had the gumption to do it right now, but it wasn’t going to last.
I stripped off my grey office gear and dragged on my jeans and a t-shirt, followed by a purple sweater. Around me I wrapped my long black dress coat and as I pulled on my hat, Indira clattered through the flat door.
“You weren’t going without telling me were you? Who’s gonna call the police when you don’t come back?”
“Oh God, don’t make it worse, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“It’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever done.” She took her coat off and hung it up with emphasis.
“I can’t see there’s any better way to do it.”
“For God’s sake don’t break into the house. Just leave the bag in front of the door and get out.” That was more like the Indira I knew. However, what she didn’t know didn’t hurt her. I had already made up my mind. Leaving the items on the doorstep would only alert him to the theft and he was bound to jump to the conclusion that it was me who had stolen the items in the first place.
“Yeah, yeah, I will, don’t worry.” I felt like a teenager going off on a sneaky night out, telling my parents I was out to see a film but headed for a pub crawl
She uncrumpled my collar for me and straightened my coat with a tug.
“Even if the door’s broken don’t even think about slipping the bag inside, just leave it outside.” The no nonsense tone of voice belied her concern, but the way she was fussing over me, I could tell. “And don’t forget to leave the key.”
“Don’t worry.” There was no way I was leaving any connection to him in my possession. I assessed myself in the hall mirror. A slightly glamorous burglar looked back with huge kohl-rimmed eyes, a black beanie hat and leather gloves emphasising the situation. ”It’s going to look bad if I’m seen.”
“Are you going to be all right? Should I report you missing if you don’t come back in a couple of hours?” She was genuine and serious.
“It’ll take me twenty minutes to walk up there, a couple to leave the bag and another twenty back, I shouldn’t be any longer than an hour.” I hoped she would stay off the Valium for the duration.
“I’ll give it another hour before I call the police in case you’ve just been held up.”
I turned to hug her. “Just give it thirty minutes, I won’t be held up by anything unless it’s him.”
I spun on my foot to go, but stopped and turned back.
“Thanks, doll, you’re so thoughtful. I didn’t even think of safety stuff like that.” I had, and she was unknowingly part of my improvised lone burglar plan, but she was so stressed out, she needed to feel good about herself. Besides, I was lucky she’d come home when she did or I’d really be going it alone.
She didn’t fall for it. “Just come back in one piece,” she said as I left the flat.
Dusk made shadows along the edges of the roads and street lamps flickered on as I walked, but despite my dark clothing I felt so conspicuous I dropped off the main road and onto a residential street that ran parallel behind the shops. As I walked, I could see the target house directly ahead, a sentinel on the T-junction with its outsize stone porch.
I stood behind a tree on the pavement, my back to the house, breathing in deeply to calm myself. It was now or never. I turned to survey the target. No window was lit and the door was closed. All seemed good, but I didn’t know what to do. Queen of Not Planning Properly strikes again. I’d gone over the chance he could catch me so many times, I’d forgotten I needed a plan for getting in.
The fear gnawed into me. I couldn’t defend myself on any level, magical or otherwise, feeling like this. If his magic was what bound the dragon to the ring, he was a powerful practitioner and the sort of person I avoided at all costs. My ability to accidentally piss people off is too risky.
I wondered if he’d already started on me. The anxiety could be a fast result. Then I remembered the stories of what can happen under magical attack and quashed that. If the results of an attack were just a bit of anxiety, my luck was strong. Highly unlikely.
Sheepish realisation dawned on me so clearly. I smiled and thanked my guardians. I could go through the front door and no-one would be any the wiser for it. That was what the key was for. No onlooker other than David himself would be able to tell the difference between me and the government-contracted social carers that might be sent to look after him while he convalesced.
I marched right up to the front door, key in hand, a deceptively confident stride.
The key slid into the lock with a smooth series of clicks. Heart in my mouth, I turned it as quietly as I could. The Yale latch on the inside slid across and the door swung open into darkness. All pretence of being a social carer now out the window, blood pounding through my ears, I leaned forward to listen through the gap. The house felt empty. As I stepped into the hallway, the door knocked against something above my head. I looked up. A bird skull dangled from above the frame with some kind of beading hanging from it. A shiver ran through me.
As my eyes got used to the gloom, I dropped into my ground and felt outwards to check the house. No presence. David wasn’t home.
I pulled the key from the latch and shut the door behind me. At the very end of the hallway through a room that looked like a kitchen, I could see the back door. A street light glistened through its window. When I’d come here before, he’d taken me straight to his kitchen. To my right, the stairs led to the next floor, but directly ahead, the hall offered me at least a couple of doors to try. I prayed his store of magical supplies was on the ground floor. No way was I going upstairs. A vision of me having to leap from an upstairs window in a panic compounded that decision.
I crept forwards. Even knowing he wasn’t in the house, I dared not make a sound, not even a scuff with my feet. The first room seemed unlikely to be the one I looked for. The windows were sat directly in view of the street. I accidentally tapped my foot noisily on the tiled floor. Admonished by the rush of adrenaline, I crept more quietly onwards. The loudest sound in the house was my heart beat.
Another door on the left loomed out of the murk, a room at the back of the house. Focused on its wooden form, something brushed against my face and I stifled a scream. A feathered Indian headdress displayed on the hallway wall. How I’d missed that, I couldn’t know. I kept going. Another two steps and I realised I had two doors to choose from. The one on the left and directly opposite, one on the right, built into the stairs, a wooden panelled affair with a series of bones hung across it, small to large, like a xylophone. A xylobone. I smiled despite myself. I took another step so I was level with them both and the left hand door swung quietly open as though I’d triggered something.
Sick with fear, I had to still my panicked legs as they jerked me around. I wanted to run straight out the front door. What the hell was I thinking to be in someone’s house, never mind someone who had it in for me? I should have just left the bag on the step. I just wanted to make it less obvious what had happened, but it would be so fucking clear if he caught me in there.
Almost expecting booby traps Indiana Jones-style, I peered into its depths. Lit badly by another street light, the walls were some dark colour, almost blood red in the dim orange glow, hung with dozens of items all the way along. Bones, feathers, pouches and strange frames in unfamiliar shapes. I could see something white, a weird shape, on the back wall.
My nausea rose in my belly but determined, I stepped into the room, pushing the door wider. The handle felt warm to my touch as though someone had been holding it for a while. The white thing took shape. An animal skull with dark horns that I hadn’t been able to see from the doorway. Maybe a goat or a sheep. I didn’t know. It seemed too large to be either. The horns curled downwards and the eye sockets—they had a presence, as though they were watching me.
Rationally, I wondered if my imagination was taking over. Screw that, my imagination had probably taken over two weeks ago.
Curious, I peered at the contraption below the skull. A complicated series of shelves and a table, each shelf contained one type of item only. A sheathed knife. Three pillar candles. A bowl of salt. A cathedral-style censer with an abalone shell laid next to it, a half-burned smudge stick nestled within its bowl. A huge crystal obelisk on the table, with feathers scattered before it. I wondered if they had been thrown down for some kind of prediction, a soothsaying style similar to i-ching or rune stones.
This was the room. I stared in wonder at the bone mobiles hanging from the ceiling, the African masks on the walls. I hadn’t seen so many magical artefacts outside of a museum. The room felt crowded with presences. Not just the skull, a whole population of weirdness. I got the sense that everything had its place. It was tidy, despite the chaos. Shelving on each wall and between the windows showed nothing but the most organised arrangements of magical artefacts. Crystals on one shelving unit. Books on another.
I brought myself back to the present. I was here to deliver the bag of stolen items and get the hell out. The table in front of one of the windows presented itself. Littered with tiny boxes and items that I couldn’t make out fully, it seemed out of place with the rest of the room. No order at all, only disarray. As I stepped right up to it, I knew this was where Caleb had been. Jewellery, crystals and tiny figurines populated the surface, scattered around as if they’d just been thrown there and tipped out of their boxes.
Touch nothing, Inayat. He would know if I did. With an earth-shattering thud, my heart dropped through my stomach. He would know. Anyone with a room full of magical items like this would know that someone had been here. Would know it was me.
He would know it was me.
I tried to rationalise. I was returning the items, not stealing them.
He wasn’t going to be rational about it. I’d made the situation far worse than it was ever going to be if I’d just dumped the bag on the step and run away.
A tiny noise, like a scuttling across the floorboards, alerted me to the far end of the room. I snapped my head around, but saw nothing. The feeling that I wasn’t alone grew with every second. I had to get out of there. A shadow moved in the corner of my eye and my panic rose over my head. The room spun and I gripped the table to steady myself. It wobbled crazily. I let go, took deep breaths. Fainting in his house would be a good way to die a million times.
I planted my feet firmly on the floor and dropped through my ground into the earth below. The energies felt uncertain, as though I wasn’t grounded at all. I looked down. Then around my feet at the wooden floor. Daubed on the boards, a complicated pentacle with unfamiliar characters. I had placed my feet perfectly in the centre. A shot of adrenaline burst in my stomach and I skipped out of the seal onto a clear area. I was done with this place.
The bag unrolled, I tipped out the contents amongst the mess already left by Caleb and threw the key on top of the pile. Maybe the energies would be messed up by the thief’s energetic footprints. Once David had looked through everything on the table, he’d realise he had everything anyway. Maybe it wouldn’t matter that someone random had been in his house. Maybe pigs would fly.
He was going to know it was me, no two ways about it.
A light flashed past outside and car pulled up. My breath caught in my throat. A door slammed. My heart tried to leap through my mouth. David. Another door slammed, a heavier one, like a boot lid.
I chucked the empty bag under the table and ran the few steps to the doorway. Held my breath. Footsteps coming up the steps outside confirmed my worst fear.
I looked down the hall to the front door. His figure was silhouetted in the frosted glass. He was fiddling with the door. I fingered the key in my pocket. I had seconds. The door under the stairs directly across from me cast an invitation. I hoped it wasn’t a cloakroom and stepped one stride across the hall and through. As I closed it quickly behind me, I nearly fell down the stairs. The smell was damp and musty, like a cellar. No coats. I could hear the xylobones on the outside swinging gently, scraping the wood. I willed them to stop.
I listened. A series of taps and bangs began, presumably the front doo—
My body shook with the strength of a heroin addict on a comedown. He’d broken into his own house. I heard slow footsteps on the tiled floor of the hall. One. Two. Pause. I held my breath. I couldn’t hear the bones sliding on the cellar door any more.
He took another two steps closer and I prayed to my spirits that he wouldn’t check this door. The whole frame of the room creaked, the door, the stairs, everything groaned. And again. The stairs, he was on the stairs, heavy footed and slow, like someone truly tired. Agonisingly slow, he moved to the next step and the next. I counted thirteen, the wood straining around me till he stood directly above my head. He stopped. A creak of a wooden banister, or perhaps a floorboard, then nothing. Nothing. Nothing. He was listening. Not falling asleep, listening. Suspicion leaked through the cracks in the stairs, dribbling down the walls in the space between him and me.
I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t let myself draw the same air he was breathing above my head. The longest moments stretched out and I wondered if this was it. Was he looking at me directly through a spyhole in the ceiling?
He took another step. And another. And ano—his foot slipped on the stairs with a bang. Another step and his weight moved to a different part of the stairs, upwards beyond the cellar ceiling. He shuffled across the floor and I realised he’d made it to the upstairs hall.
A door handle rattled distantly and a loud click confirmed he was entering a bedroom. The door slammed. Two more steps and I heard a loud dull thud, as if he’d sunk into the comfort of his bed. I waited. Counted to thirty. No more movement above my head.
Praying for quiet, I pulled the cellar door open as gently as possible so that the bones weren’t disturbed. I didn’t bother closing it, just left it ajar. He would know someone had been in anyway.
The hallway seemed longer in this direction. Further to go. I tiptoed across the tiles, thankful no floorboards could creak and give my game away. As I reached the front door, I found it ajar, the whole Yale lock bust off the frame, splintered wood decorating the ground. I didn’t remember if the door squeaked, just knew I had to get the hell through it and away. I swung it open carefully, but it hit the bird skull above my head with a clatter. Shocked, I leapt through the frame without closing the door. As the glorious night hit me, I ran down the steps and path and on to the pavement at full pelt, crossing the road and sprinting straight down the street in front of his house.
My coat banged against me as I ran and I pushed my hand into the pocket to see what was there. To my horror my fingers closed around a small box. My chest tightened with panic. How could I have forgotten to return the ring? The black night closed in on me.
I turned on reflex to go back and chuck it in the bag, but someone was standing in his upstairs window. I dove behind the nearest tree and peeped around.
I couldn’t go back. I hadn’t counted on him realising so soon that I’d been in there. It was too late.
I stayed behind the tree for what felt like an age, but I didn’t dare look around its trunk to check. I peeled my ears to listen for the sound of the front door, for steps that indicated he was coming after me. He’d seemed so slow moving up the stairs, I never imagined he’d get up again, never mind come after me, but maybe he’d known all along I was in the house.
Minutes passed. I thought I should go home but I didn’t want to set off straight away. As I acknowledged my hesitance, heaviness in my bones pulled me back to rest against the tree for a moment. Tiredness spread across my body and I propped myself up, sagging against the ash trunk. I weakened and the ground invited me lovingly but I made myself stand. Fear told me he was coming for me, but I was more afraid to keep moving.
After a while, I felt a little lighter. I stood up straight and poked my head round the ash tree for one last look at the house. Through the upstairs window a doorway opened briefly into the lit hall and he passed through it from the room into the hallway. The door closed and the room was in darkness again.
Relief flooded in. My spirits had held me there, made me stay a few minutes longer and he missed seeing me walking away. I thanked my angels and guides and goddess for giving me respite from another confrontation.
I gave it another minute then strode off homewards, down the avenue. All the way home I fiddled with the box but I didn’t open it fully.
Indira met me at the door.
“Are you okay? Have you been? You were ages,” she scolded. “I nearly called the police. How did it go?”
I couldn’t see her sympathising at the fact I still had the ring but I wouldn’t let myself get away without telling her.
“I gave the bag back but he nearly caught me.”
“Why, what happened?” Indira’s eyes were as huge as they could go.
“I’m an idiot, that’s what happened.” I took my coat off, leaving the ring box in the pocket, and entered the living room, Indira right behind me, dying to know more.
A cup of tea and a piece of cake later, I relayed the tale and steeled myself for the bollocking.
She was aghast. Almost speechless, for her.
“Oh my God, babe. I can’t even...” She stopped. “He saw you? Is he going to start coming round here? Do you think he’ll break in here, like tit for tat?”
I hoped not. Maybe it wasn’t his style. I thought about him jumping me at the front door. I hadn’t expected that to be his style either.
“I can’t believe you went in there.” She took a slurp of her tea, still processing my story. “And the ring. So we’ve still got the dragon?”
I nodded dolefully. “Might come in handy if he starts on me.”
“So you do think he’s going to come after you?” She was more than alert, eyes flickering across my face, like she was thinking a million things at the same time.
“I just don’t know. Maybe he didn’t know it was me.” My answer was the lamest of lame.
“I even told you to leave the key,” she groaned. “I didn’t think I had to mention the ring. I thought you were going to sort this once and for all.”
I’d let us both down. She was going to ask me to leave, I could feel it coming. I felt like crying. I just wanted the whole thing over with right now. I wished David was dead.
“Do you think anything else is going to happen? What are you going to do?” she asked.
I shrugged, head hanging low, tea getting cold. “I’ll ask Molly.”