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Represented by: Catherine Pellegrino

Publishers: Egmont
Strange Chemistry Stripes

Undiscovered Voices Winner's Badge

The Weight of Souls

Chapter one: It's coming to take you away

Dead men take me to the nicest places.

I pulled my hood further over my eyes and glowered at the block of flats. Stained net curtains billowed from otherwise bare windows and, on half the balconies, shirts and greying underwear were hanging out to dry. My bones thrummed with a deep bass that seemed to boom through the tarmac itself; the music actually came through an open window on the ground floor.

It was twilight but the streetlights hadn’t yet lit. Most of them were smashed. On my way through the estate I’d walked through shards of glass like crackling bird bones. The car park was lit by a burning trash can and acrid smoke stung tears from my eyes. I shifted further from the drifting ash without taking my eyes from the third floor flat I was staking out. The wall in front of me was daubed with graffiti: slogans, gang signs and a portrait of a dark-eyed boy with a date beneath his shoulders. But I wasn’t here for Cayden’s killers, human justice had taken care of them and Cayden ought to be at rest.

I turned my eyes back to the flat I was watching and clenched my fist around the Mark the dead man had pressed onto my hand. It wouldn’t be long now before I could pass it on to his killers. Evening had fallen and, like a pack of wolves, the gang members would be drawn outside by the gibbous moon, ready for my own form of retribution.

“Jesus loves you. It’s not too late to change. Repent.” The wild-haired white man with the sandwich-board was standing on the corner at the other side of the lot. His cries had been providing an urgent counterpoint to the gangsta rap that rattled the concrete slabs of the flats.

“Repent, ye sinners.” He shouted one last time and shook his fist as the door to the flats banged open. Then he clutched his sandwich board around himself and ran.

As he disappeared round the corner I returned my gaze to the emerging gang.

“You packing, Shawn?” The voice carried across the lot.

“Course, Jay. You said we got plans tonight.” A whip-thin gang member opened his jacket to flash a Magnum and I swallowed. This was going to be harder than I’d thought.

I wondered if I had time to wait till tomorrow and do the job in the daylight, but I’d been wearing the dead man's Mark for nearly two weeks already. Mum’s voice blew through my head like the wind.

“If the touch of a ghost leaves a stain on your skin, you must avenge their death. Track down their killer and transfer the Mark to them, but do it quickly because the Mark is a beacon for the Darkness and if you wear it too long, it may come for you.”

The gang were here now and I didn’t have time to wait. I straightened and started forwards. The smallest member of the gang spotted me. Suggestively he adjusted the crotch of his baggy jeans. “Hey, look, it’s Lucy Liu, innit? Come for some real man, Lucy Liu?”

He couldn’t have been much older than I was and I had to suppress an explosion of laughter that would probably have killed me.

Heart pounding, I stopped. My toes were inches from the trainers of the oldest gang member, who didn’t look far into his twenties. Jay, they’d called him.

His friends closed around me.

"It's them. The one who killed me has a scar through his right eyebrow."

The dead man who had been shadowing me drifted forward. I tilted my head meaningfully. Every member of the gang was sporting the double whammy of cap and hood pulled low over their eyes. I couldn’t tell who I was looking for. On a few occasions I’d seen the Darkness actually come for the killers I’d Marked and I had no intention of sending it after an innocent.

“It was him. The biggest one.” The dead man was murmuring under his breath, as though they’d be able to hear him. I realised I had been holding my breath and exhaled. Then I held out my hand hoping the gang leader would shake; it was the easiest way of transferring the Mark and most of my victims really did fall for it.

Jay snorted. “Where d’you think you are? Buckingham Palace?”

His crew nudged each other and instead of shaking my hand Jay raised my palm to his lips and kissed it. “There you go, princess.”

The boys to my left whistled and the skinny one to my right massaged his crotch again. I smiled tightly as Jay lifted his head and revealed the black stain that now covered his lips; the Mark that had just doomed him to the Darkness. I snatched my hand away and stole a glance at the palm. It was clean.

"You need to get out of here."

I suppressed a groan. Dead men: masters of the obvious.

“So, Lucy Liu, what d'you want with the Streatham Crew?” Jay smiled with his blackened mouth and I shuddered. As the night continued to bleach the world of colour he looked more and more like a wolf who had just lifted its head from a deer’s gut.

I brought up one of my stock tales. “I’m looking for a guy named Dan Brown.”

“Dan Brown.” The one called Shawn squared up. “You think we know someone called,” he raised his voice two or three social classes. “Dan Brown.”

I took a step backwards trying to make it looked natural. “He’s a friend. He ran away from home. Someone said he might have been seen around here and I was told you guys knew everyone, so…”

“Hold up, Shawn.” Jay pushed his cap up to reveal a scar. A weight lifted from my chest. I had Marked the right guy. “We ain’t seen no ‘Dan Brown’. But why don’t you leave your number? If we hear something I can call you.”

I cleared my throat. Leaving my phone number wasn’t a great idea. On the other hand if I didn’t... “Sure.” I forced my voice into an eager tone, grateful for his help. “Should I programme it into your phone?” I held out my hand and Jay leaned in so close his breath coated my face. My nose filled with the smell of too much aftershave and my eyes went to the Mark that pulsed across his lips. For a moment the gang held its breath then Jay laughed and pulled an iPhone from his pocket.

“Here then girlie - gimme your number.”

With fingers that felt like sticks I fumbled with the unfamiliar operating system then pinned on a semi-flirtatious smile as I handed the phone back. “I’ve put it under ‘Lucy’.”

Jay nodded and, with his eyes on mine, flicked through his contacts. “Got your number,” he said in a tone that crackled with menace.

“Yeah.” I took a backwards step and a dog howled in the distance. “I’d better go. Thanks.” The crew watched me retreat until I reached a rusted Toyota Corolla boosted up on some bricks. I was steeling myself to turn my back on the pack when quiet dropped like a guillotine and cut the howling dog off mid-note.

I clapped my hands over my ears as the air pressure built. When it came the Darkness brought not only the absence of light, but sound. It was as though its deadly arrival bent the rules of our world.

“Something ain’t right, Jay.” Shawn’s voice carried through the quiet as he fiddled with his baseball cap. Suddenly the shadows cast by the smoking trash can started to grow.

Jay spotted the moving Darkness and jumped back but, with startling suddenness, it rose into a looming column and he stumbled.

Like a coward I squeezed my eyes shut, unable to watch, as screams rent the air. They were oddly muffled as if they came from a distant television rather than the five gang members.

Then three loud bangs penetrated the blanket of silence. The one called Shawn was using his gun. I ducked quickly behind the car and left the dead man standing in the centre of the car-park, avidly scrutinising the action. Jay started running, inadvertently drawing the Darkness away from his posse.

It seeped across the derelict space like an ink spill, blotting out everything it covered, and its advance was unhurried as though it knew its prey couldn’t escape.

Then my heart thudded. Jay was running towards me.

“Did you do this?” he screamed.

I leaped to my feet, but he caught me in a second. He grabbed my upper arms and swung me round.

“What is it?”

Like acid eating away the world and revealing nothing beneath, the monstrous Darkness inched forwards. I’d never seen it this close before; never taken the risk. “It’s the Darkness,” I whispered. “It’s coming to take you away.”

“Take me where, bitch?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen what happens after.”

“Make it stop.”

I shook my head. “I can’t.”

“What d’you mean can’t?” he snarled. “Crazy bitch. Call. It. Off.”

“I don’t know how,” I whispered.

The Darkness reached us and I was trapped. Then, as if I was standing on a rock, the tide split in two and flowed around my feet. Hypnotised, I turned my head.

Against my back the rise and fall of Jay’s chest halted; he was holding his breath. The Darkness seemed to withdraw for a second, and then it struck. Jay’s nails scrabbled at the fine skin of my throat and I cried out as, with a terrifying jerky speed, Jay was sucked into the Darkness as if he’d never been.

Fear-sweat stuck my hair to my head and my heart hammered so hard I thought my ribs would break. Trembling, I stared into the void.

The Darkness appeared to pulsate, forming a hole from our universe into another, blacker plane. The harder I stared, the less I could see. Inside, lights seemed to flash, but it was just the nerves firing in my straining eyes. There was no sign of Jay, no sign of anything at all. Not for the first time, I wondered what happened to those I’d Marked. After an age of staring the adrenaline washed out of my limbs and I started to sway. The Darkness hadn’t advanced so I tried a backwards step. When it did not follow I turned and ran.

“Thank you.” The lawyer who’d dragged me into this was behind me once more. When I stopped he leaned under the single working streetlamp. He cast no shadow.

“You’re satisfied? Justice has been done?”

He nodded and his lined face sagged. “I’m sorry I had to involve you. I didn’t realise you’d be so young. I’d have left you alone, but it was hard to track you down and I didn’t know if I’d be able to find someone else with your gift.”

“Whatever. You got your justice. You can go now, can’t you?”

“I can.”

“So go.”

The street light shone between his open fingers and as I watched it penetrated the flesh. Gradually the lawyer faded like a photograph left in the sun until there was nothing left but the night breeze.