What happens when an exorcist who spent a lifetime evicting ghosts gets murdered and becomes one?
When Jake Fletcher died, he discovered a horrible truth. The souls he thought he'd been dispatching to the afterlife are no more. He wasn't sending them to a better place, he was obliterating them. To atone for his mortal sins, he becomes a detective: a phantom PI. Now he helps other restless spirits depart the earthly plane by bringing their killers to justice.
Jake's latest job is no open-and-shut case though. The ghost of a dead woman needs his help to pass on to the other side, but for that to happen, he'll have to defeat a demon. Does Jake have what it takes to send the killer back to Hell, or is another soul about to be lost forever?
"Take a hard-boiled detective book, give it a supernatural twist and you have Fresh Hell, the first book in the new Ghosted series. An excellent, engaging read, full of humor and spooky goings-on."– Amazon Review
"Fresh Hell combines fantasy and noir detective stories into a perfect little blend."– Amazon Review
"The story is exciting, gory and has lots of twists and turns leading to plenty of surprises. I'm already eager for the next book."– Amazon Review
It was half past midnight when the screaming started.
It came from the east bank of Regent's Canal, not far from Camden Lock. The person who called it in said they'd heard a commotion outside their narrow boat and pulled back a curtain to find a figure running along the towpath, screeching at the top of their lungs. The witness said they couldn't understand why the screamer was making such a racket; not until they slammed their palm against the boat's porthole and painted it with a big, red handprint.
The victim didn't have any skin.
They'd been flayed alive from head to toe, peeled like a prawn, yet somehow they still had it in them to be running barefoot—literally barefoot—alongside the canal.
The victim ran some more after that, but didn't make it much farther before they took a tumble over the bank and toppled face-first into the water. It won't shock you to learn that they were pronounced dead on arrival.
When I picked up the message from DCI Stronge that the Marine Policing Unit had fished a skinned corpse out of the drink, I took an interest right away. Things like this—bizarre, gruesome murders—they're right in my wheelhouse. All my life I've had a preoccupation with the macabre: the creatures in the shadows, the lurkers beneath the floorboards, the monsters in the closet. Believe it or not, back in a past life I used to be an exorcist (although obviously I'd prefer if you did take my word for it, otherwise this story is going to be a really tough sell).
I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Jake Fletcher. I'm six-feet tall, I fill out a suit real nice and I've been told by more than one woman that I have—and I quote—"nice teeth." Oh, and I'm dead. Dead as a doornail.
Now, don't start giving me any, "Ghosts aren't real, Jake," bollocks, alright? You're just gonna have to go with me on this. I'm dead, ghosts are legit, and Two Broke Girls is the nadir of human accomplishment. These are the facts. Deal with them.
Where was I again? Oh, right, me being an ex-exorcist.
You're probably wondering how I wound up being an exorcist in the first place, right? I mean, it's not exactly your run of the mill, garden variety profession. My school careers advisor had me pegged as a newspaper reporter or an English teacher, but I guess I was always destined to work with the dead. I was born with The Sight, you see, a special sensitivity to the Uncanny. No one knows how it works exactly—whether it's a sixth sense, an overactive pineal gland, or just plain bad luck—but I have an ability to see the spirits of the dead. Ghosts, phantoms, spectres, whatever you want to call them, I can see the lot, and more besides. If I was to show you some of the "besides" that I've seen, you'd lock yourself in your house and soil yourself for seven days straight. It made for a challenging childhood—Jesus, it did—but it set me up great for a career evicting spooks.
I spent a good few years doing the exorcist thing, Screaming bible passages, waving burning sage about, cleansing haunted properties. That was until I died and became a spook myself. Yeah, I'm not blind to the irony. And don't worry, I'm not the bad kind of ghost who makes the walls bleed and writes threatening messages in the condensation on your bathroom mirror. Honestly, I wouldn't say boo to a goose, nor can I think of a single good reason for doing so.
Anyway, since I croaked, I've taken a bit of a U-turn on the whole "ghost rights" thing. Matter of fact, I've become something of an undead activist. Rights not rites, that's what I say. Because I learned the truth. The real truth about the consequences of what I was doing as an exorcist. But we'll get back to that later.
So… ghosts. Most of them end up marooned on the physical plane because they died a traumatic death and need closure to move on. Not me. I solved my murder – had my chance at the afterlife but passed it up. Well, that's not entirely true. The truth is, I did a runner from the pearly gates. I didn't feel I was ready to face the Big Man at that juncture, not after the life I'd led. Not after the things I'd done. I had a feeling he wouldn't be too quick to hand me a gold card to the exec lounge, not until I'd cancelled out the stuff I'd been up to while I was still alive. Of course, I hadn't known then that I was up to no good, but something told me ignorance wasn't going to earn me a pass.
So, I found my way back here, back to the physical realm. Now I live somewhere between the two worlds, tucked in the middle and out of sight, like a g-string up an arse crack. I move invisibly in this realm, a rumour drifting through a world of facts. Tell you what, let's stick with that last one—the rumour/facts line—it's got a bit more poetry to it than the arse crack thing.
So, you probably want to know how I wound up dead in the first place, right? Well, you know that expression, "Die young and leave a good-looking corpse"? I managed to get the "young" part right. The "good-looking corpse" part, that's a whole other story. The quick version: I succeeded in pissing off the wrong person and ended up cut into four chunks, so... not exactly good-looking. Unless a horribly mashed up corpse gets your motor running, in which case, hey, I won't judge you (actually, what am I talking about? Of course I will, that's messed up).
Anyway, my death's a story for another time – we've already got one sliced-up corpse bobbing in a canal, let's not muddy the waters with another. The reason I mention it is to remind you that, as a bona-fide "goner," I don't have a body. Most of the time I do just fine without one, but seeing as I was about to meet with the police and they wouldn't be able to see me in my spook state, something needed doing. If I wanted to talk with DCI Stronge, I was going to have to make a stop first.
I found him sat in the booth of a late-night bar with his arm around a woman presenting enough chest to be charged with indecent exposure. He was ordering table service. Of course he was, he'd always been a wanker. His name was Mark Ryan and I'd known him since we were eleven years old. Since we were at school together.
We didn't run in the same circles then. His circle was all sports trophies and hand jobs behind the bike sheds, while mine—thanks to him—was the kind of circle Dante wrote about. No matter what I did to avoid the guy, he'd always find a way to seek me out and give me shit: barging me into my locker, kicking footballs at me, tripping me over in the corridor. Boosting his ego at my expense. Mark Ryan was the first person to really make my life hell, and I've been closer to that place than most.
One time he bought a pair of handcuffs into class and manacled me to a radiator while the teacher was out of the room. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Some people pay good money for that. Yeah, he over-tightened the things, but that was par for the course with a shit like Mark Ryan. Besides, that wasn't what really hurt. The real hurt came when the heat from the radiator conducted through the cuff and into my bracelet. That was a new kind of pain. Mark and his crew did nothing to help me – just stood back and laughed, waggling the key at me as I thrashed around, howling in agony.
Even as a ghost, I still have the scar.
So yeah, Mark's not exactly top of my friends list, which is why I decided to make him my designated meat puppet; the body I use whenever I need to pass for living. He's like my toupee, except instead of hiding a bald spot, he hides the fact that I don't have a physical form.
Mark pecked his side-piece on the cheek, squeezed past her and headed to the Gents for a slash. I breezed by the rest of the punters unseen and phased through the bathroom wall to follow him inside. When I got there I found him stood at a urinal, phone in one hand, cock in the other. Not that his downstairs department is anything to write home about. The guy might act like a swinging dick, but he has a knob like an outie belly button.
I sidled up and prepared to stake a pitch in Mark's body. It took me a long time to get the knack of possession. For a while there I was just jumping into people and going arse over tit through the other side as they stood there oblivious. What can I tell you; meat is a tricky medium. Most ghosts never get a handle on it, but somehow I figured out a way. If you asked me how, I'd tell you that my work as an exorcist gave me a qualified understanding of ghosts and their unique metaphysical properties. I'd be shitting you though. All I know for certain is that after a lot of trial and error I finally sussed out how to inhabit the living. Well, at least for a little while. An hour, two hours at most, and a living body rejects me like an unwanted kidney. That's just the way things are, don't ask me to explain the science of it.
I manoeuvred behind Mark invisibly and smiled. He used to tell the kids at school that I was a "gayboy," but only one of us was getting a man inside of him tonight.
I climbed into Mark's body and felt him jolt and recoil as though someone had flushed the toilet on his nice, hot shower. He went into spasms, fighting me, doing what he could to resist my intrusion. He needn't have bothered. A couple of seconds more and I was all moved in; boxes unpacked and making myself comfortable.
I sniffed the air and sighed. It smelled like piss and urinal cake, but the simple act of breathing it was reward enough. It's the little things you miss when you don't have a body.
I zipped Mark up, washed his hands—a habit of mine, not his—and checked my reflection in the mirror above the sink. He was a handsome bastard, I'll give him that. A swimmer's chest and the kind of face that gets you places in life. Too bad for him that his body was a timeshare property.
I headed through the bathroom door and back to the bar. I saw Mark's bit of fluff there, tucked up in her booth, sipping something pink. Now, a more unscrupulous ghost might, when such an opportunity was presented to them, use Mark's body to take this chesty young bint to pleasure town. Well, not me. I may, in many ways, be a bit of a bastard, but I'm not an utter bastard.
I strolled by her and made for the exit.
'Where are you going?' she screeched.
'Out,' I told her, and carried on walking.
Mark was going to have some explaining to do after I was done, that was sure. He wouldn't have much to go on though. He has no recollection of what I get up to while I'm wearing him, I make sure of that. All he has is guesswork. Did he have too much to drink? Did he take a spill and black out? Did the light from a full moon turn him into a werewolf? (those are real by the way, plus vampires, trolls and witches. No such thing as mermaids though. Mermaids are for chumps).
And look, in case you're left with some lingering wisp of sympathy for poor old Mark—some moulded by a bad upbringing guff—you should know this: on top of being a bully, a womaniser, and an all-round subhuman piece of shit, Mark Ryan is a hedge fund manager.
So, I headed for the canal, my conscience clean and my spirit cosy inside of my meat puppet. A dead woman needed my help. A dead woman with a curious lack of skin.