PAINT IT BLACK
The Witch of Cheyne Heath
Book 4 of 4
When chaos reigns and an invisible enemy is out to get her, what can a witch rely on?
Only her Doc Martens boots, a switchblade, and ancient magic.
Just when Gosha Armitage is getting the hang of being a witch, everything changes. When spells fail and portents of doom foretell a terrible disaster coming in a matter of days, Gosha suspects the return of a vanished enemy, but no one in the hidden corridors of power will believe her. As the stopwatch ticks down toward the death of thousands and her closest relationships begin to unravel, she must travel beyond the boundary of reality to claim the only prize that will save her. Will Gosha find the enemy’s fortress and reach him in time to stop a tragedy that will hurl the word into endless torment?
Paint it Black is the fourth installment in The Witch of Cheyne Heath supernatural mystery series from author W. V. Fitz-Simon. If you like eldritch landscapes, desperate quests, and witches who aren’t afraid to sacrifice everything for those they hold dear, you’ll love this arch and cozy spellpunk adventure. Order Paint it Black and step into the mysterious, treacherous world of Cheyne Heath today!
PRAISE FOR THE SERIES
READ AN EXCERPT
The glitter of sequined gowns lining the walls of the dressing room became the flicker of ambulance lights in her imagination. Glasses chinking in the dishwasher in the kitchen outside became the screech of tires and the whimpering of frightened pedestrians. The smell of catastrophe filled her nostrils. Dust and burning and the bitter, acrid reek of panic overpowered the fragrance of greasepaint and stale costumes that filled the room. Though Małgorzata Mierzejewska Armitage sat backstage at Bar de Bauche, the glitz and glamor slipped away from her, her mind far away, lost in a future she’d glimpsed in a vision, a future that might crash into the here and now at any moment.
In the pocket of her Savile Row pinstripe waistcoat sat a card from her telling deck, a stain of darkness nestled in the slick sheen of purple satin. Sixteen months and eighteen days had passed since all the cards in her deck turned black and the same image began to develop on each of them. A terrifying creature—half insect, half rot and decay—loomed out of the black at her repeated a hundred times. She didn’t need a picture to remind her of the creature and the death and destruction it had wrought. She would have done anything to get rid of the image—doused the cards in paint, burned them in the fireplace, buried them in the garden—but damaging them might allow the monster to break free. Instead the cards were locked in a box on the top shelf of her studio, safely away from curious young hands, this one with her, just in case. She’d known pictures to come to life around her and couldn’t risk allowing the moth-like monstrosity any opportunity to do more harm.
“What’s wrong?” said Johnny at the dressing table, his half-made-up face lit bright by the lighted mirror frame. “You look like you’ve just been flashed by a member of the House of Lords.”
“I’m sorry.” She rolled her head around to stretch out her neck, happy to be distracted, though nothing seemed to help the dull ache at the base of her skull that had been plaguing her for weeks. “Bad headache.”
“Want a paracetamol? I’ve got some in my bag.”
He kicked a sleek cube-shaped bag made of white leather broken up with bright color blocked shapes.
“Wow.” She picked it up. “Where’d you get this?”
He dabbed at a container of Gosha’s special homemade makeup with a brush. The recipes she perfected when she first got to London had stood her in good stead for twenty years—a range of cosmetics Crafted to wipe away years and sculpt a face into the most vibrant version of itself—but Johnny’s debut at Bar de Bauche required something more. She’d toiled for weeks in the kitchen, perfecting foundations and paint that would interact with stage lights to highlight Johnny’s performance. The process took her much longer than expected. Her failed experiments littered the kitchen counters.
“There’s a new boutique up the back of Rafferty’s Yard. You should go down there. They’ve got some brilliant stuff.”
Gosha still couldn’t leave the boundaries of Cheyne Heath, with George and his flunkies lurking outside ready to jump if she stepped beyond her wards without protection, but the neighborhood had come up quite a bit in the past year and a few trendy boutiques had opened around Morel Market. With the leeway of income from her work for Waterford, Wakefield, Winston, and Whorl, shopping for clothes no longer meant scouring charity shops and the used clothing stalls at the market for deals. Financially, at least, life was good. Challenging—nothing the firm threw at her was ever easy, no matter how trivial it seemed—but good.
She put the bag back down. Paracetamol wouldn’t help. Not even Elsie’s concoctions had done the slightest good against her headache.
Johnny dabbed a healthy amount of color onto the bristles and held the brush up to his brow. He’d already spent an hour painting his face and cheeks into an elaborate canvas of shades of blue and purple to match the strange outfit he’d created for the performance. One mistake now applying his eye makeup and all that would be wasted.
“Wait, wait,” she said before he could cock it all up. “Let me. You know you’ve never been good at doing your eyes.”
Johnny’s lips widened into a perfect circle of mock outrage as he looked at her in the mirror.
“How dare you!”
“Come on.” She reached for the brush, but he snatched it away. “Remember when you had the gig at Café de Paris and you had to get a cab all the way back to Canterbury Gardens twenty minutes before showtime just so I could fix the mess you made? Give me the brush.”
She held out her hand, demanding it with a wiggle of her fingers.
“No!” He snatched it away from her again. “I have to do this myself. You’re already helping me enough. How did you get them to let you take photos?”
She sat back on the rickety chair, ready to leap into action when he inevitably smeared his face. She had her lipstick talisman in her pocket and not in her bra tucked against her skin where she usually kept it. Far too much Influence flowed around the club to allow her to have a good time with her second sight active and at full strength.
“Alfie and Bowie Blades are drinking buddies now. He put in a good word. I had to agree to only take photos of you. If anyone else appears in the frame, I have to destroy the negatives. Is Adair coming?”
Johnny and Joel Adair had been an item for almost a year. An employee of the firm of Waterford, Wakefield, Winston, and Whorl, the earthly presence of the Lords of Fate and Fortune, Adair wasn’t an acolyte in the traditional sense. The sphere had no saint or acolytes, no one who had taken an oath of fealty to their lords to gain power. Instead, they manipulated Influence, the supernatural force generated by the psyche of every living person, with strange technologies that Gosha still didn’t understand, even after a year of working closely with him.
“You really have to learn to call him Joel.” Johnny extended the line of his lower eyelid with a graceful flourish. “After all the time you spend together.”
“I would, but he’s always so formal. I tried really hard at Christmas, but he just wasn’t having it.”
“Yeah, I do love that rod up his arse.”
She raised a tart eyebrow.
“What you get up to downstairs in your flat is none of my business.”
He slapped her thigh with the back of his hand.
“Ooh, saucy! I would never tell. A girl needs her secrets.”
“He’s been good for you, hasn’t he? Is he coming tonight?”
To her great surprise, he traced a long, shapely eyebrow across his forehead with a confident hand. He must have been practicing. A lot.
Johnny had changed so much in the past year. He used to be such a scrappy, restless young man, an endless fountain of raw energy, jumping from one project to the next. Now he was so much calmer, so much more focused. It had to be Joel’s influence.
“He can’t. Says they won’t let him in. Can’t let acolytes of another sphere into our hallow.”
Our hallow? The reference troubled her.
“He’s not even a proper acolyte,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s the principle. Our hallow is a sacred place, a place of power. There has to be respect between the spheres or else there’ll be chaos.”
An odd thing for him to say, she thought and cocked her head to look at him.
He laughed a nervous titter and began to paint his other eyebrow.
She stood to zip the garment bag off his outfit where it hung from a hook on the door.
“Tell me your new stage name again? Thessaly Disgrace?”
A waterfall of glistening indigo fabric poured out of the garment bag. She fluffed it up and spread it out like a bride’s train.
“I still don’t get it.”
“Her title’s in her name. Whenever anyone says it, they’re automatically being respectful.”
“No, I mean, why have a drag name at all? You should be using your own name.”
The dress was a blue velvet Morticia Addams sheath with a plunging neckline and sculpted shoulders that arced up in what looked like the mouth of a giant fish about to swallow the wearer whole. Pads beneath the sheath pushed out to alter the shape of the wearer’s body into something unhuman. You couldn’t call what Johnny did drag, exactly, unless it was the drag performed by aliens from a distant galaxy. Or by an apparition from the Shadowlands.
“The dress is amazing.”
“Thank you. They made me do the whole thing myself from scratch.”
She hung the gown on the end of one of the many dress racks packed with glittering outfits that lined the tiny room.
“They made you?” Suspicions that had been mounting for months ticked over in her mind. So many hours spent with Bonita Fascinante and Bowie Blades, acolytes of Delilah Davina, Saint of Strength. So many hours devoted to this one show. “Johnny, what’s going on? How did you get them to let you perform here?”
He put the brush down and turned away from the mirror to look at her directly.
“Can you tell if anyone’s listening?”
She reached for the door, about to pull it open and see if anyone was outside, but Johnny touched her sleeve to stop her.
“No, I mean using Influence.”
She took her lipstick from her pocket. At its touch, her second sight blossomed into life and the room became filled with thick, billowing waves of Influence, much of it flowing off Johnny’s heightened aura, a quality shared by many artists of significant talent. Other than the intensity of the flow, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the room, though she wasn’t sure what a saint or acolyte listening in with High Influence would look like.
The throbbing at the base of her skull spiked.
I wonder if I should see a real medical professional, she thought as she touched the satin shoulder of Johnny’s robe.
A puff of Influence blew through her that dimmed the room and turned the bright colors of the wigs and dresses that lined the walls dull and gray.
“No one can hear us now,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong, but they said I couldn’t tell anyone, and keeping this a secret from you’s been killing me.”
“What is it? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Johnny rolled his eyes.
“Oh, for god’s sake. What’s that leathery old bat’s name that whisked you off in her roller? The Queen of Secrets? I’m going to start calling you the Queen of Drama in a minute. There’s nothing wrong. I’m not in any trouble. This performance is an initiation. That’s why I have to do everything myself. I’m taking the oath of fealty. I’m becoming an acolyte of Strength.”
Gosha’s heart sank. Of all the things he could have told her, this she never would have expected.
“Johnny, why would you want that? You’ve seen first-hand how treacherous these people can be.”
Yes, Bonita Fascinante and several of the other acolytes of Strength in their mundane alter egos had been the boys’ schoolteachers for a number of years, and La Davina had stood up to defend witches against the Convocation, but the Convocation of Saints was a nest of vipers. Everything bad that had happened to her in the past five years was because of them.
“The Queens and Kings of London aren’t like that,” said Johnny.
He reached up to squeeze Gosha’s wrist.
“The queens and…” Gosha didn’t know what to say. There was far too much self-proclaimed aristocracy among oath-bearers. It made her think fondly of the socialism of her childhood in Poland.
“They’re good people. They really are. You should see the work they do.”
“Work? What kind of work?”
“Bowie works at a homeless shelter for gay teens. Greta and Jimbo are drug rehabilitation counselors. Dusty and Metal Micky work with AIDS patients.”
“AIDS patients? They’re using Influence to treat AIDS patients? That could only come at a terrible price.”
No matter how the Convocation might dress up their sorcery with fancy traditions and elaborate rituals, Influence was a product of the human psyche, with all its repressed chaotic darkness. She dreaded to think what sacrifices a person would have to make to use it to be healed of an illness as severe as HIV/AIDS.
Johnny shook his head. Strands of black hair worked loose from his stocking wig cap.
“No, no, no. They don’t have that kind of power. Everything they do, they have to fight for. And what they get is all illusion. They’re good, caring people, and I want to be one of them. I want to be like you. I want to help people like you do.”
“Oh, Johnny.” She crouched before him and cupped his face in her hands, confident that her special recipe of makeup would never smudge. “I’m like this because I have no choice. I was born a witch. I tried to run from it, but I couldn’t. You’re not like me. You don’t have to be mixed up in this. You can have a normal life.”
Johnny’s eyes welled up with tears. Underneath all the makeup he looked like a boy of seventeen.
“But I am like you. Ever since Mick was killed, and then all that mess with Tracey Dobbs. There’s so much trouble out there. I want to help like you do. Trust me, I wouldn’t be involved with these people if I didn’t think they were worth it.”
It was true he wasn’t a child. He’d seen as much of the madness blowing around Cheyne Heath as she had. He knew enough about the true nature of the world to make an informed decision. But she didn’t like it.
“So you’re taking the oath tonight after the show?” Her voice came out low and husky, her throat constricted with worry. This was exactly what she didn’t need, another thing to worry about.
“God no.” He brushed the tears from his eyes as Gosha released him and the spell of concealment broke. “This is just the first step. It’s like I’ve enrolled at Uni to become a doctor. I’ve never studied so hard in my life.”
She stood and smoothed out her black nylon parachute pants.
“What are they teaching—”
The door opened and a boyish drag king in a black suit and tie with slicked back hair and a walkie talkie earpiece in one ear stepped into the tiny dressing room. His aura, a shimmering field surrounded by an orbiting comet of sparking Influence, pushed against the heightened sensations that came with Gosha’s second sight.
“Come with me, please. Both of you.” The drag king pitched his voice low to sound more masculine, causing his voice to crack. “We’re evacuating the building. There’s been a bomb scare.”