It was an ordinary Wednesday in November. Outside the imposing home of Sir Malcolm Reynolds, a lady slid shut the door of her mini-van exposing the text on the side. Pristine Christine – cleaner to the extraordinary.
Tall, neat and thin as a poker, Pristine Christine gathered up the tools of her trade: hoover, rectangular bucket of spray bottles and rags, and a mop. She looked across to her sister Maria who was taking the final deep draw from her sixth cigarette of the day. The time was 7:29 and Maria was on the phone to one of her seven sons.
“Yes, darling. It’s time to go and wake your brother.” Maria was talking about her eldest child Dopey. Seventeen, useless and about as dumb as you can get without being diagnosed with something. The combination of the words Dopey and Diagnosis culminated in an odd thought crossing Pristine Christine’s mind. Does the Disney Dopey have Down’s Syndrome? Mute, affectionate, low intelligence and youngest of seven. Hmm … that would make sense.
“His final exams are today. He has to get to school on time.” Maria swapped out the battery pack on her hoover for a charged one.
And a fat lot of good that will do him. A Leaving Certificate full of Ds qualifies you for what? Pristine Christine looked down at the tools of her trade weighing down her limbs. Oh … right.
“But it’s your turn to wake him up darling.” Maria cooed forcefully.
She must be talking to Bashful. Poor kid can barely put together a sentence, let alone square up against a belligerent older brother sunk into his own gloom. Every time Pristine Christine regretted her life choices in remaining childless, she tuned into Maria’s endless stream of nagging.
With a swift kick at Maria’s ankle to hurry her along, Pristine Christine sprang lightly up the steps. Being on time – to the second – was all part of the ‘extraordinary’ cleaning service.
The house tried not to loom. It failed in a ‘sullen guard dog that still thinks it’s a puppy’ kind of way. Her skin prickled as the house allowed her to open the bronze barred gate and walk through the first circle of wards along the boundary fence of six-foot bronze spikes. Maria had to hang up the phone and stub out the cigarette before the house also granted her entry.
Standing on the doorstep, Pristine Christine ran through her mental checklist for Sir Malcolm Reynolds’ cleaning schedule.
7:30 – Dust the string of water barrels against the inside of the exterior walls that comprise the second defensive ward. Check for leaks or signs of evaporation. Adjust levels if necessary, reciting the Rite of the Thirteenth Thaumaturge against intrusion.
8:05 – Check the menagerie and note any escapees. Sir Malcolm does love his pets.
8:15 – Sweep and mop the flagstones on the lower floor. Be sure to check under all the rugs for any aforenoted menagerie escapees.
9:15 – Clean the kitchen. Sharpen and conceal each knife in its correct position.
11:15 – Clean the lower storey windows, polish the rose quartz protection pieces on the windowsills and replace in correct position and orientation.
12:45 – Oil the springs of the traps at the bottom of the stairs. Check the trapdoors. Feed anything you find inside. Don’t listen to any pleas for mercy. Don’t go into the cellar … ever.
13:00 – Clean the trip wire at the top of the stairs and adjust if necessary.
13:15 – Proceed to the top floor, knock on each door before entering and hoover the carpets. Clean windows, polish rose quartz protection pieces on the windowsills and replace in correct position and orientation.
15:00 – Return to lower storey and because this is a three monthly visit, clean the guardian lion statues at the entrance and exit. This is soft detergent wash, mind their pits and testicles and make sure they are dried thoroughly. Even stone lions hate to be wet.
During the above, avoid contact with Sir Malcolm or any houseguests.
Pristine Christine handed the hoover to Maria and used the agreed code to knock on the heavy yew door. Knock knock knock … knock knock … knock.
The door swung open with a heavy groan. Pristine Christine fought the usual urge to oil the hinges. Sir Malcolm liked the door to creak at a theatrical volume.
Pristine Christine crossed the spell-laden threshold with closed eyes and stiff back. The second ward slid over her, parting like a mist of scented oil. Lavender, sage and peppermint and … something else. An acidic whiff like vinegar. Something was a bit wrong. Pristine Christine looked left and right at the chain of barrels set against the inside of the exterior wall.
Second ward must need topping up.
Maria blundered through the doorway behind her with her usual elephantine grace. How can someone so small take up so much space.
“Coo-ee! Anyone home!”
“Shush!” Pristine Christine hissed urgently. And make so much noise.
“Reee-lax you old tight arse. He’s never home.”
Pristine Christine did not deign to answer to ‘tight arse’ although Maria had certainly called her worse over the years.
“Right then. You start in the front drawing room.” Said Pristine Christine starting the checklist run-through.
“Yeah, yeah. And you’ll check the zoo room for escaped whatevers and we’ll meet in the kitchen at 9:15. Same routine every bloody Wednesday.”
“Routines are efficient,” Pristine Christine gave her standard reminder to Maria’s standard challenge. “Get the job done right and get the job done quickly.” And routines keep us safe in this place.
Maria made mealy-mouthed sulky noises back at her sister and then stopped.
“What?” asked Pristine Christine. A flicker of movement in her peripheral vision at head height. She snapped around and grabbed a green tree snake behind its head. Its beautiful green coils were looped around the bannister. Not a venomous or even hostile species, but one could never be too careful in the house of Sir Malcolm Reynolds.
“Hello my lovely. Hope I didn’t grab you too tightly. Were you going on an adventure? Let’s get you back to your nice warm terrarium.”
Maria grumbled off to the front drawing room dragging her hoover, mop and bucket. Pristine Christine firmly unwound the green tree snake from the bannister keeping his coils away from her forearm and headed for the menagerie in a glass conservatory at the back of the house. She backed through the thick clear strips of plastic that formed the first of two doorways. These wards smelt strange too. As though they had gone a bit stale.
Surrounded by lush green fronds and leaves as large as elephant ears, Pristine Christine located the snake’s empty terrarium and popped it on the branch inside. With surprising swiftness it surged for the nearest open edge just as Pristine Christine neatly shut the lid on it. The lid rose as it pushed against it. Pristine Christine secured the flimsy catch just in time.
She looked around at the other cages. Several were empty. And in those that were occupied, the animals paced or scuttled or slithered back and forth urgently pressing themselves against the glass front plates.
7:30 – Dust the string of water barrels against the inside of the exterior walls that comprise the second defensive ward. Check for leaks or signs of evaporation. Adjust levels if necessary, reciting the Rite of the Thirteenth Thaumaturge against intrusion. Pristine Christine’s routine reminded her.
“Please!” Pristine Christine jumped. “Let me out, please madame. My foot. It hurts terribly. And it’s saving me.”
Maria had found someone in a pit trap.
“It’s saving you? Well you don’t need help from me do you?”
“No my dear madame,” the voice was cultured, young and male. “It is saving me for later!”
“Oh dear. Well up you come then,” said Maria.
Pristine Christine nearly choked with outrage. She fled toward the sound of her sister breaking one of the rules. She found Maria at the base of the stairs holding trapdoor number six wide open. She had a bunch of bananas in her other hand. The hoover lay on the floor behind Maria. The hose slithered toward the open trapdoor.
“God bless you madame! Here, take my hand.”
“And you take this.”
Maria dropped the bananas into the pit trap and let the heavy door fall with a slam sending up a thin cloud of dust that made Pristine Christine shudder. The thin cloud parted around two slender translucent pillars. Which walked away bending backward at the knee.
Pristine Christine blinked and then returned her attention to chastising her sister for her sport. Maria gave her a ‘so?’ look and turned back to the hoover frowning as she noted that it had moved.
Oh well, you can’t raise seven sons without developing a cruel streak. Pristine Christine dismissed her sister’s sport and picked up her duster. She started with the paintings. A rare Jacobus Vrel of a young woman in her birthing bed cradling her infant and attended by nuns. A Van Goyen view of Haarlem dated to 1653. And a portrait in similar style and media of Sir Malcolm Reynolds himself. Wild white hair that defied any comb, heavy brows over eyes so black they seemed holes in the fabric of the universe.
Pristine Christine shook her head to break the draw of those portrait eyes.
7:30 – Dust the string of water barrels against the inside of the exterior walls that comprise the second defensive ward. Check for leaks or signs of evaporation. Adjust levels if necessary, reciting the Rite of the Thirteenth Thaumaturge against intrusion. Her routine prompted her.
Dammit Maria, we’re at least 10 minutes behind now. Our window of access is closing fast.
Pristine Christine hastened to the water barrels. She hummed up and down a scale, finding the right frequency. The water in the barrels sang back to her. This act of magical echo location showed the water level of each one. Barrels three, six, nine, twelve and fifteen all needed topping up. Wait, really?
“Chris?” An odd note of tension in Maria’s voice checked Pristine Christine’s usual reaction of annoyance. With a wrench of willpower she abandoned her task and trotted over to Maria.
Maria was at the top of the cellar steps. The door, which had always been shut, barred, and bolted, lay open. The void of the doorframe held a draw as strong as the eyes of Sir Malcolm’s portrait.
Don’t go into the cellar … ever.
Maria held her hoover head up like a battering ram and headed down the steps.
Pristine Christine choked back a scream. Torn between rage at Maria’s willful violation of the rules of this engagement and a foreign surge of fear for her safety.
Oh how do you solve a problem like Maria!
Pristine Christine set down her rectangular bucket. She rummaged through the spray bottles, selected one and sprayed herself from head to toe. Then she swapped it for two others and, holding both like an ambidextrous wild-west gunman, she descended the stairs.
A prickle ran over her skin as she crossed the threshold. The second ward stopped here and stepping beyond its protection stripped away her security blanket made of layers of routines. Pristine Christine fought a surge of panic and an undertow of loss.
“Maria!” She hissed.
“Ooh.” echoed a response.
The stale cellar air was filled with dust, a faint hum, and old old old smells. It was more the dust than sisterly concern that drew Pristine Christine down the stairs. The gloom of the basement defied the efforts of her eyes to adjust. It seemed to clump and twist and surge. Just as she thought she could pick out a shape at the bottom of the stairs it diffused.
“Maria!” she hissed again.
“Rhea … Rhea … Rhea” whispered a sentient echo. Pristine Christine aimed one spray bottle down the staircase and the other at the open door behind her. As her head snapped back and forth, she wobbled on the banner-less steps.
Click. The cellar flooded with light. Pristine Christine blinked and forced her way through the sudden headache. Maria stood at the bottom of the stairs with her hand on a light switch.
The small cellar was bare except for an enormous pentacle on the floor traced in salt. And in the middle was a very dead Sir Malcolm.
“Bugger. There goes two hundred quid a week,” said Maria.
Sir Malcolm lay face up. His chest was still and his dark eyes were open and sightless. A trickle of blood from a scalp wound had washed away the edge of the salt barrier closest to the steps. The bloodied salt had congealed around a hoofprint.
The heavy door at the top of the cellar stairs swung shut with a pounding boom. Under the boom, suckering treads slithered down the steps toward her. Pristine Christine pressed the trigger. A pushed mist folded around outstretched claws inches from her face. The claws pulled back, a narrowed horned head birthed an open mouth that screamed silently in outrage at her impudence and pain at the sting of the peppermint.
Drat, wrong bottle.
Pristine Christine jumped off the stairs landing neatly beside Maria. Maria raised her hoover head at the thing and flicked the switch from suck to blow. With an heroic whirr the hoover spat out a jet of black dirt that clung to Pristine Christine’s peppermint oil suspension. Like a tarred wrongdoer, the grade three umbral weaver was now clearly visible.
Outraged, it clawed at the coating. The sisters shared a nod of agreement on a prepared game plan. Recoiling from the thick dust everywhere Pristine Christine slid to her right along the wall and around the pentacle. Other than the scalp wound there were no obvious marks on Sir Malcolm’s body. Strange.
Christine slid around the rear wall opposite the staircase with one spray bottle trained on the creature on the stairs and the other on Sir Malcolm, just in case. She made it around the back of the pentacle and to the side wall.
A hand dripping sizzling skin grabbed Pristine Christine by the throat. She fired her other spray bottle at the suddenly upright form of Sir Malcolm. His smoking arm extended through the imperfect but operational barrier of the pentacle. The spray of holy water reeled him backward just as Maria smacked her hoover head into the small of the umbral creature’s back. In a split second of anticipation, it turned partway toward the blow and grabbed the head of the hoover. It snatched blindly at Maria. With a well directed shove, Maria ejected the hoover head and the thing toppled down the stairs and neatly back through the pentacle gap.
The coal black eyes of Sir Malcolm burned with an alien malevolence along the smoking ruin of his arm. The flaking flesh sent up a sweet charred barbeque smell. The holy water coating Pristine Christine’s face and throat sizzled against Sir Malcolm’s palm but it was poor protection against the strength of that grip.
“Ma. Ree. Ah!” Pristine Christine gasped.
With the click of a closing lighter, Maria looked up from her cigarette and gave a tsk of annoyance. The part-coated demon flailed around inside the pentacle catching Sir Malcolm by the ankle. The smoldering arm drew Pristine Christine’s face closer to the invisible pentacle barrier. Maria’s eyes lit up as she spotted the breach in the pentacle line. Securing the cigarette in one corner of her mouth and pulling in a breath from the other, Maria shook out more dirt from hoover bag to seal the breach in the traced pentacle. The low-level hum increased like a jet plane straining against gravity.
“Salt!” Pristine Christine gasped. The remnants of Sir Malcolm currently piloted by whatever he had managed to summon but had failed to dominate glared along the smoking arm.
Maria took delicate pinches of salt from the barrier and sprinkled it into the dust patching the breach. The hum intensified. Sir Malcolm’s borrowed features contorted in a howl and Christine pulled back.
The arm popped off and landed with a wet smack along her torso. Its grip tightened around her throat. Pristine Christine fell back against the wall sending up a cloud of dust that clung to the holy water forming an itching cloying gunge. The world closed in. Pristine Christine clenched her bony buttocks to ward off the swoon just as Maria got to her and prised back the thumb. Stale, dust laden air rushed into her lungs and Pristine Christine fell forward.
From her fresh restful perspective along the dirty floor, the pentacle had become an arena. The demon wrestled with the body formerly known as the famous occultist Sir Malcolm Reynolds. Even disarmed, he put up a great fight.
Hands under her armpits lifted Pristine Christine up off the dirty floor, around the edge of the pentacle, and onto the second last cellar step. Maria settled beside her and lit another cigarette. Which she passed to Christine, who surprised herself by taking it. The dirty draw lit up the crush on her windpipe, but Pristine Christine was grateful for it.
The two figured flailed and bit and tore at each other. Pristine Christine’s mind wandered past the broken useless spell of her routine and out to the van. She was going to need volumes three, six and eight of Graves’ Thaumaturgy to exorcise the winner of the fight. And then she would have to purge Sir Malcolm’s corpse and put it somewhere where an understanding third party would find it. Maybe in the basement of the British Museum.
Nah, that won’t work twice.