“Once there was a fox who lived nine times nine years in the wild places of ancient Japan and on the first dawn of her eighty-second year learned the trick of taking on human form and forgot the trick of dying. So the fox became a beautiful maiden and the maiden strolled through all the long centuries to the present day, travelling this world and those beyond it while donning a new disguise for each new land and every new age that she explored. But for all she saw and learned and did she never forgot that once she had been a cunning little red-furred creature that was made to hunt in moonlit forests and sleep in hidden dens.”
Now that is a lie. But it is one of the more well-meaning kinds of lie; one which is really just a boiled down and prettied up version of the truth. Truths so often lack the artistry and poetry of a good lie; most real truths are long and over-complicated and full of dull little details. I try never to give anyone that I like the entire and unvarnished truth.
My name is Inari Meiwaku, I am a Kitsune and this is my story. I hope you can enjoy it for what it is, the truest kind of lie I know how to tell and the best face I can put on the truths of my life.
Chapter 1. How my morning was ruined.
“I said I wouldn’t do field trips. Briefings, lectures, interviews and conferences with good catering yes; missions, errands, quests or journeys into the Otherworlds no. That was the agreement.” I spoke to my mobile in the extremely calm and reasonable tone I use when I’m feeling particularly frustrated or hard done by.
Up until that point my job as an advisor to MI13, a section of the British Intelligence Services so classified it makes MI5 look like Fox News, had consisted mostly of interviews and briefings where I explained some of what I knew about the activities of supernatural beings on this sphere of existence. Occasionally I had sat in the office and provided guidance to investigators in the field; listening to their radio chatter or watching through helmet-cameras as they probed the dark corners of Britain in search of supernatural threats or ways to stop them. Sometimes the investigators brought things for me to look at or things for me to talk to – one dangerous magical entity to another. But I did not think that they trusted me enough to bring me along on an actual mission and I liked it that way; my past few lives had nearly gotten me killed on a depressingly regular basis and I was due a few decades of me-time; calm, quiet and above all safe me-time. Apparently I had been too helpful or my innate charm had won them over because now it looked like my duties for the department had expanded to actually going out and tangling with dark forces myself.
The warm and mellow voice of my boss, Gregory Durand, eased its way out of the phone’s speaker. “I am sorry for the inconvenience Mei. But actually everyone who works for the department is contractually required to accompany teams into the field whenever their expertise is needed. And we need your skills on this one; we don’t have enough information, we don’t have any backup and I have a feeling in my water that this could be the breakthrough we’ve been looking for.” I’ve never known someone who could sound so apologetic without betraying the slightest hint of weakness and I’ve met a lot of people down the years. The way he said it helped of course; if you took a BBC radio presenter from the 40s and made him eat nothing but plum pudding drenched in warm chocolate sauce and drink nothing but brandy mixed with caramel for about thirty years while being voice-coached by an angel then he might just be able to recreate the hypnotic posher-than-thou sound of Gregory’s voice. You could put that voice on a plate with cream and eat it for dessert.
I adjusted my position slightly before replying. I had been in the middle of my morning exercises when Gregory called and was currently holding the pose that the yoga book called ‘The Eight Angles’; balanced on both hands with my body held a few inches above the floor and bent into a right angle at the hips, legs crossed at the ankles with my right arm threaded between them and my face looking down at the bright white screen of my Hi-Phone 7. Being a shapeshifter I don’t technically have to work out or do stretches in order to get the body I want; with a little time and an effort of will I can mould myself from the bones outward into whatever shape or sort of human I want to be that day. But metabolism is a lot harder to control than bone structure and using magic alone to stop that new body from losing muscle definition or storing up fat in inconvenient places over time gets to be more annoying than just maintaining it properly in the first place. Besides, exercise and meditation concentrate the mind beautifully and no immortal who wants to see the next century can afford to get lazy or stupid.
“Your contract might have a clause in it about running off to do dangerous things in far flung parts of the British Isles whenever Queen and Country require you too, Greg.” He doesn’t like to be called Greg at work, it’s the kind of informal behaviour that can lead to a breakdown of ‘Standards’, an old-fashioned and slightly incomprehensible set of rules for British society which, in Gregory’s mind at least, are always written with a capital ‘S’ to remind people that they are at least as important as actual laws. I was not due to come into work today and this lapse into informality was my way of reminding him of that fact. “But when you first recruited me and my contract was being drawn up I visited the London office and had a lovely chat with Pari who works in HR. She has a weakness for redheads and she very kindly adjusted some of the clauses in my terms of employment to make them more sensible.” She also took out a whole load of stuff about putting my life in danger to save the Prime Minister or the royal family from assassination attempts; I haven’t outlived so many different monarchs by getting involved in their battles, even the ones that aren’t allowed to have people executed, officially anyway. But now didn’t seem to be the time to share that piece of information, Gregory probably has a picture of the Queen in his living room and at least one tea-set commemorating the latest royal Jubilee.
Gregory’s glorious voice held a note of fascinated horror as he asked. “You arranged a liaison for a member of HR with a … red haired person in return for changes to your contract?”
I shook my head pityingly, despite the fact that he couldn’t see me. “You remember the part where I’m a shapeshifter right? I found out what her type was and became it, temporarily. It’s not a bad look actually.” That was true enough. These days I usually look like a young five foot tall East Asian woman with long black hair and a pretty, but not beautiful, face. When I visit Pari in HR I am a statuesque six-foot-and-change European knockout with freckles, strawberry blonde hair and a smile that could launch a thousand erections; you should see how many holidays I get a year.
“That was appallingly unprofessional!” He sounded genuinely upset. Being unprofessional is one of the worst ways to transgress against the mysterious laws of ‘Standards’ in Gregory’s eyes. Personally I tend to treat all rules the same way I treat my own lies; if they aren’t working for me I work around them.
“Hey.” I said sharply. “You leave Pari out of this. She practically runs that department and she hasn’t had a pay-rise in three years. She deserves better from us than petty complaints about her work.”
“I was talking about you.”
“Oh.” I said. Slightly hurt. “Well that was unkind of you. I do my best to fit in with the rest of the team. I haven’t cursed anyone even when they deserved it. And Steve always deserves it.” Stephen Westlake is a Grade A bureaucrat and departmental factfinder with all the warmth and compassion of a hammerhead shark who firmly believes that supernatural creatures like me belong in cages. For some reason MI13 think that it’s a good idea for Stephen to conduct most of my interviews so I try to make those interviews as difficult as possible in the hope that one day either they will assign me a different interrogator or Stephen will have a breakdown.
“I seem to recall that when you first joined the department you told us that Bakeneko could not curse people?” Now Gregory’s tone was a little suspicious; there was a dash of sour jam amongst the plums and treacle pudding of his upper class accent. He had a point. I had told my new colleagues that Bakeneko, cat-spirits or demon-cats from my native Japan who were known for raising the dead, deceiving humans with illusions and dancing with handkerchiefs on their heads, could not put actual curses on humans, although they could torment them in many, many other ways. I had also told them that I knew this because I was myself a Bakeneko. Neither of those statements is entirely true. Or even a little bit true.
You might think that convincing a highly classified arm of the British government that you are a dangerous feline necromancer with bad taste in headgear is at best an odd thing to do and at worst the action of a gibbering lunatic. In my defence they had just told me that they knew I was a shapeshifter and they knew I was from Japan; I had to lie about something and there weren’t many other options that I could pull off convincingly.
“I was joking when I said that, Greg,”
“Were you joking back then when you said that you couldn’t cast curses or just now when you implied that you could?” He asked me with that careful pedantry which I had seen him use to grind down the subjects of several interrogations and at least one exorcism.
“Greg. I’ve been holding this pose for twice the recommended amount of time for a practitioner at my level; I’ve lost all feeling from the knees down.” I lied. “I’ll see you in the office on Monday. Don’t call me at the weekend again.”
He ignored my painfully unsubtle attempt to end the conversation. “We have had people working round the clock for weeks now trying to find the source of The Problem. All I’m asking you to do is drive down to a barrow in Lincolnshire and be on hand to advise the team there in case they encounter any hostile MNPs or learn something that could help us.” MNP stands for Meta Natural Phenomena, which can mean anything from blameless non-human individuals like me to potentially apocalyptic events that cannot be explained by mortal science. All government agencies have their own acronyms and codes to describe their work, not because they enjoy confusing everyone else, though some do, but so that they don’t have to spend so much time talking about things or writing things down, time is money after all and no government department in the history of bureaucracy has ever had enough of either.
‘The Problem’ was a euphemism for the wave of omens, occult incidents and unnatural events that had been plaguing Britain for about a month and half by this point. Not your good old fashioned two-headed calves either but serious events that had caught the imagination of the national press.
A man who claimed to be able to hear angels and had written a fairly successful book about their insights into the modern world was caught on camera in Glasgow stabbing himself to death with a knife that wasn’t there.
The sea around the Holy Island of Lindisfarne turned red and viscous for the best part of a day and several people who ventured close to the crimson waters heard voices speaking urgently in Latin, which unfortunately none of them could understand.
One of the ravens that lived at the Tower of London had gotten itself eaten by something, though no one could agree afterwards precisely what the something was or where it had gone. That incident had really upset the UK authorities; who mostly didn’t believe the old story that Britain would fall if the ravens left the Tower but knew a publicity nightmare when they saw one. The remaining ravens were being watched round the clock by handlers, newly armed Beefeaters and a police sniper team with orders to use maximum force if so much as an aggressive housefly approached the precious birds.
Most recently; Google, Twitter, Youtube and Facebook had all become completely inaccessible from anywhere on the British mainland for seven minutes and seven point seven seconds; although that could just have been a prank by some truly exceptional hackers.
“Of course.” Gregory continued. “If your conscience will really allow you to sit back and do nothing while your colleagues, including young Darren, walk into what could be a highly volatile situation without the protection only you can provide …” He trailed off meaningfully.
I actually wavered for a moment. Not physically, my Eight Angles pose was still rock solid. But the thought of Darren of all people poking around in an ancient and magically active barrow without a responsible adult to look out for him made my heart twinge a little. It’s not that I’m fond of Darren, though he is sweet natured and handsome in a middle-of-the-road boy-band kind of way, it’s just that he’s so very naïve and hapless that he sets off those fierce protective instincts which I have spent more than a millennium trying unsuccessfully to purge from my body and soul. Other people see an ill-dressed tech-nerd in his very early 20s; the ghost of a Fox that lurks deep inside me just sees a helpless new-born kit that can’t be trusted to leave the den without someone to look after him.
Realising that yet another human had managed to work his way under my skin made me grumpy; so I decided to take it out on Gregory, who was responsible for this entire situation after all. “Listen mortal.” I said in the best approximation of a predatory cat-like yowl that I could manage without actually altering my voicebox. “Just because I agreed to work as an advisor for your little organisation does not mean that I care about any of you. I was old when this nation of yours was young. I have built and outlived empires and watched more humans than you have ever met age and die in front of my eyes. If you rely on my better nature you will suffer for it.”
There was a little sigh from the other end of the line. I tried to convince myself that it was the sound of a frightened man who had been cowed into defeat by my fearsome Bond-villain style speechifying. Gregory’s next words dispelled that illusion quite thoroughly. “I am disappointed in you Mei. If you maintain this unhelpful attitude then we will have to review the terms of your contract. And until that review is done your access privileges to the Archives will be revoked.”
I said. “Hang on a moment Greg. I’ve got another call coming through.” Then I twisted myself into a more natural posture, still face down but with straightened out and with both hands and feet on the floor, and reached down to put the call on hold. With my boss no longer able to hear me I pushed up into a standing position and proceeded to curse fluently in seventeen different languages, not all of them human.
When Gregory and his team found me and offered me a job I told them that my reason for accepting was that I was bored, which was true, and that working for a secret service would be a new experience for me, which was not true. I did not mention how intrigued I was by the collection of artefacts and unnatural oddities that their organisation, currently designated MI13, had inherited from its mysterious predecessors. It appeared that since signing up with the department I had not been as circumspect about my interest in the Archives as I had thought. Deception comes naturally to me but my mortal spy-skills are pretty rusty and it can be easy to underestimate humans when you’ve known as many of them as I have. It seemed that I had underestimated Gregory, or someone who worked for him.
Feeling slightly better I picked the phone up off the floor and reactivated the call. “Look, you and I both know that I could get into the Archives whenever I wanted if that was all I wanted. I’m sure the team will be fine without me along. Who’s going besides Darren?”
He did not sound reassured. “Patricia is out of the country so we’re sending Kelly Soanes in her place. Our archaeology expert, Professor Bronwyn Gray, is leading the team. You’ve met her before.”
“I remember Professor Gray, she’s a tough old bird but I wouldn’t send her into the field at her age.” I mused, blithely ignoring the fact that I was many times older than the good Professor. “How many of your pet soldiers did you say would be along for the ride?”
“None.” This word was thick with disapproval, though without being able to see his face I couldn’t say exactly whom he was disappointed in.
“So you think this site could be the source of The Problem but you’re only sending the wonder-boy, an academic with the upper-body strength of a runner bean and Kelly Soanes; who calls herself a ‘sensitive’, believes in the healing power of crystals and tends to respond to MNPs by going into a trance, speaking in tongues or crying tears of blood? If you’re really worried that they’ll stumble across something important or dangerous in rural Lincolnshire of all places then get them an escort of serious people with serious guns.”
“I can’t.” He said stiffly; there was definitely more brandy than caramel in his voice now, perhaps even a hint of ginger. “Darren pinpointed the barrow as a site of interest while experimenting with the Parum Bello and we have no other intelligence on the area that suggests any danger to the public, so this operation has been designated an investigation not a search and destroy mission and our army liaison will not release any military operators for a routine investigation.” Only MI13 would call poking around in a pre-historic burial mound to see if weird stuff happened, or stopped happening, when they did ‘a routine investigation’. But since the British military are quite busy these days fighting wars in the Middle East they tend to resent being asked to send their valuable personnel to help a branch of the intelligence services which never provides any useful information on insurgents or terrorists and spends its time dealing with entities and situations that most of the military don’t believe exist. The UK’s various Police Services aren’t much better. If Gregory had admitted to his contacts that our tip for this operation came from the Parum Bello, an artefact which looks something like a chessboard with a set of arcane looking chess-pieces that can be coaxed to act out scenes of occult significance if you know the right phrases in Latin or Ancient Greek, then he would be lucky to get so much as a member of the Coast Guard to turn up at any of our operations for the rest of the year.
Gregory could have reached out to the British Navy of course but their relationship with the supernatural could fill a whole book in itself and they seem to think that they have enough on their plate as it is.
It was my turn to sigh. “Well then I’d say that you’re just going to have to get over this feeling in your water unless you’re willing to pay me over-time and give me Monday and Tuesday off in return for my traipsing half way across England to hold the hands of the agency’s version of Time Team.” I didn’t need the extra money but it would be helpful if Gregory believed that I did.
“Done and done.” He replied without a moment’s hesitation. I wished that I could see his face because I couldn’t tell from his tone whether I had sufficiently disguised the fact that my interest in the Archives was the real reason that I had caved in to his demands. I didn’t think so; he hadn’t reached his current position as a high ranking member of a spy organisation dedicated to studying the supernatural by being easy to fool. Of all the new technologies that humans have invented over the last century or two phones are one of the most useful and the most aggravating; I spent centuries perfecting my ability to read people’s facial expressions and recognise the scents of fear, anger and desire and now they can talk to me through featureless, odourless slices of plastic and glass. Sometimes I think that deep down the human race isn’t as clueless about the existence of supernatural beings as they appear to be and all these new inventions are just a way to level the playing field against creatures that can fly, or walk through walls or sing songs so beautiful that hearing them drives you insane.
“Fine.” I hissed. “I’ll go and nursemaid the team for you. But if this happens again I’m going to find out who your military liaison is and track them down for a conversation so unprofessional that it will make you forget all about my little chats with Pari.”
He didn’t rise to the bait. “Give my best to Professor Gray when you see her. She doesn’t make it up to the London office very often these days.” He rang off.
Two minutes later Gregory sent the details of the investigation to my work phone. The amount of solid intelligence we had on the magical disturbance was pretty pathetic. Gregory’s terse but thorough report of Darren’s conversation, if conversation is the right word, with his pet artefact included the following nuggets of occult wisdom; what the barrow had to do with The Problem – ‘something’, what might happen when we got there – ‘anything’ and what could happen if we gave the whole idea up as a bad job and left the barrow to its own devices – ‘very bad things’.
The only useful pieces of information were a GPS point for the barrow itself, a place called Cinder Hill, and the address of the nearby farmhouse that MI13, disguised as investigators from the Department of Health responding to reports of poisonous gases being released from somewhere within the barrow, had commandeered for their team’s use. I skimmed over the remaining notes and a message at the bottom which pointed out that the rest of the team were already well on their way so I should hurry to beat the traffic out of London.
Then I went and had a long hot shower while thinking about all the things I would have preferred to spend my Saturday doing. Next I prepared and ate a leisurely breakfast consisting of green tea, cherry granola, a bowl of fresh fruit and a breakfast muffin topped with a poached egg and some slivers of smoked salmon. It was a bright and windy morning so I enjoyed the view from my flat, which is at the top of a twenty storey high apartment block in London’s East End, while I delicately devoured the food. Finally I dressed for a crisp spring day in the English countryside by putting on grey slacks, a loose white blouse and a chunky chocolate-brown sweater. I completed the outfit with some minimal make up, a couple of concealed knives and a pair of walking shoes so sensible that they’d make a fashion designer shriek and flee the room like Dracula being presented with a garlic-flavoured cross. No Dracula is not real; Carmilla on the other hand … but I digress.
After a little thought I filled a shoulder bag with some odds and ends which might come in useful when encountering supernatural powers and took it with me as I left my flat and took the lift down to the building’s underground carpark.
My watch was showing a quarter past nine as the lift reached the basement level and I stepped out into the harshly lit concrete complex filled with slumbering metallic steeds, I could hear that no one else was around so I set off towards the spaces assigned to me with casual speed. When I reached to my section I got into the inoffensive little Peugeot that I drive when I’m being Mei-Hua; the young Chinese archaeology student who I invented when I decided that this century would be a good time to relax and stay out of trouble for a couple of lifetimes. MI13 wrecked that plan pretty thoroughly when they found me and recruited me but I’m still fond of being Mei-Hua, she’s a sweet, restful soul and the world is a kinder place with her in it.
My other car really is a Ferrari but I felt no regret about leaving it behind. I don’t often drive the Ferrari, I just bought it to remind myself that no matter how difficult, dangerous and downright bloody terrifying most of the 20th Century was for me, at least I came out of it with enough money to live more than comfortably for the next 150 years or so, even without taking the time to make some wise investments.
Throwing money around for the sake of showing off doesn’t sit well with me, even when I do it. I love comfort; good food, fine wine, clever art and soft beds. I like the freedom that money provides; the ability to go where I want when I want and not have to work if I’m not in the mood to. But the display of wealth, glitz and glamour, fancy clothes and gadgets and ornamental jewels, makes me feel jittery and exposed. Maybe I’ve spent too many lives as an outsider, poor and resentful, to really be able to enjoy true wealth without sinking into self-hatred. Maybe it’s the voice of the Fox, reminding me that the whole business is just another kind of lie, an illusion which distracts people from the real business of life; survival.