Smoking In the Dark


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Café Nero was almost deserted. Conversation was kept to a muted, musical hum, overpowered by the epileptic cappuccino machine. The dybbuk was sitting comfortably, inside someone else's skin. It was nice to feel human again. 

She'd possessed a young Italian-looking man who'd been sitting by the window, staring out through the condensation, eyes searching for a familiar figure; probably his girlfriend. The dybbuk hoped he'd been stood up, because she'd have to vacate if the girl showed. Still, no one in the café had given him the eye or come over to touch his arm, and the longer he remained solitary, the more the dybbuk relaxed.

She made the young man watch a customer called Rachel, a heavyset, twentysomething black girl. Rachel didn't know him and he didn't know her; and anyway he wasn't her type. But the dybbuk was here to help Rachel, and the young man made a convenient observation post.

With great supernatural power came great supernatural responsibility. Not that the dybbuk had great power, and she was never allocated the really important jobs. She was low in the Great Hierarchy of spiritual beings. Above the crude, inarticulate spirits that possessed golems and other homunculi; but way, way below even the most junior angel. And she certainly wasn't fit to brush even the hem of an archangel's aura.

She watched Rachel order a plain black coffee. Indulging in a little reverse snobbery, are we? she sneered to herself. Poor Rachel was just so un-classy that she couldn't accomplish the complicated orders that other customers reeled off like memorised verses of poetry, although she had dressed up a little by her standards. She was wearing black jeans and a red shirt, with a long black jacket that belonged to her flatmate John. Rachel didn't feel quite at home in it; it had a stiffness in the elbows and shoulders that spoke of expensive, scarcely-used design. It was far too big for her and she had to roll up the cuffs, revealing an opulent satin lining, which she occasionally stroked like a fascinated child. Rachel felt uncomfortably masculine, as though she was trying to be something she wasn't, but her reflection in the window showed that this jacket looked perfect on her, with her high forehead, heavy brows and strong, fleshy jaw line.

The dybbuk slid the man's hand into the pocket of his Gap cords and gave his balls a quick squeeze. Felt weird being a man. She brought the hand back up, made it flip the finger at a bedraggled God-botherer on the pavement, and then ordered a piece of chocolate cake and, like Rachel, a plain black coffee (none of that frothy almond-flavoured shit for her, oh no). She even managed to bum a cigarette from the tall, gorgeous black waitress. Heaven.

Actually, the dybbuk had seen Heaven; or, at least, the refined realm where the angels liked to hang out. It wasn't like a cafe...too many martyrs with bits missing, and only one smoking section. Which had come as a surprise. She knew that angels often indulged in simulated acts-of-life, and had expected them to relish cigarettes, cigars, pipes or even the odd spliff. But she had learned that anything to do with flames made them jumpy. As martyrs, many had seen too much fire on earth. And anyway, smoke was associated with the Grey Area - the domain of her boss, Dann'iel. Nearly all afterlifers were familiar with the Area's ordeals - staring into Dann'iel's unimpressed face as he split them off according to their lights. She'd been the only lightless one in her flock (according to Dann; she couldn't actually see the lights, none of them could) and she'd been huddled waiting for hours - not that hours existed in the Grey Area - until she was the only one left.

Then he'd turned around and said resignedly, 'Do you want a cup of coffee?' 

Coffee and smoke. The dead loved them.

The dybbuk drew hungrily on her fag, commandeering a tin ashtray, and then started on the coffee and cake. It was rare that she got a treat like this. She was considering the possibility of attempting to get the waitress into a back room for a quick shag, when the door opened, bringing in cold air and Dr Kate Banks - and the dybbuk guiltily remembered that she was supposed to be at work. She hoped Dann'iel wasn't watching. 

Rachel looked up and grinned openly. Kate gave her a shy smile in return. Considering her weight, she looked surprisingly fragile and slight, blue eyes blinking downwards in groundless self-consciousness, her small, pink tongue darting out to lick dry lips.

Rachel pulled the opposite chair out so she could sit down. Once seated, Kate seemed more comfortable. The doctor gave her friend a genuine smile that lit up her face momentarily.

'Sorry I'm late,' she explained, her voice hushed for no real reason. 'I had a little trouble finding this place.' Kate looked around, giving everything her full attention. 'It's nice, though.'

She removed her winter coat and shook out her thick, flaxen hair that fell just past her shoulders, shining with gold chips of light. She was wearing a pastel-blue blouse and a long, full navy skirt. In her exquisite ears were sapphire earrings that set off her eyes, glowing and clear today; on pollen-heavy summer days, Kate's eyes were red as an albino rabbit's. Although she was Oxford's premier allergist, she'd never managed to beat her own allergies- or her feelings about them- into any kind of submission, and if it hadn't been for the coming of autumn with its cloistered, germy damp, poor Kate would scarcely be able to get a word out for sneezing. 

Rachel nodded slowly, smiling, trying to put this awkward, affectionate woman at her ease. Kate's heavy head and eyelids made a sharp contrast to the way she sat, her shoulders hunched painfully and her spine perfectly straight. Sitting there together, the two women could hardly have looked more different, Kate with her expensive, carefully chosen wardrobe and daintily sculptured Meissen china face, and Rachel in John's jacket and jeans with her thick spill of untidy dreadlocks, her oversized eyes, mouth and nostrils, her lopsided happy-puppy grin. 

'I thought you might like it. What are you going to have?' Rachel offered Kate the menu, then sat back and looked at her friend more closely. The doctor seemed pale and listless and the shadows under her eyes were gothically dark. But even those badly camouflaged crescents didn't entirely spoil her creamy prettiness. 

Rachel watched Kate read every word, absorbed in the soft, fresh quality of her skin, the caramel-brown eyebrows and sweeping, darker lashes framing deep blue eyes, which were truly excited by the elaborate descriptions of the various confections on offer.

Jesus pole-vaulting Christ, thought the dybbuk. This was going to be as dull as a Sunday afternoon in the Grey Area; she could just feel it. She reminded herself why she was here.

Official reason: To ensure happiness for the two women at the nearby table.

How? By magic, of course, and by making Kate confront her sexuality. Kate was fairly comfortable with her lesbianism, but had yet to come to terms with her sneezing fetish. The dybbuk had already done some groundwork. She had employed a cabalistic charm to make Kate sneeze whenever she found herself aroused by another woman sneezing.

It was supposed to force the good doctor out of the fetish closet.

But because Kate had horrific allergies anyway, she hadn't noticed anything was amiss. The dybbuk wondered if she should try something else. In the meantime, she thought she would take Rachel down a peg or two. Rachel annoyed her; she was too self-satisfied, too comfortable in her Women's-VP-and-LGB-Rep soapbox role, too easily distracted by the paperwork, breaches of politically correct Newspeak and general trivia of a microcosm within a microcosm. Bloody Oxford, though Iliana, a place inside-out enough to distract a saint, never mind a newly outed English student from Clapham. 

'I don't know...' Gently biting a manicured nail, Kate let her eyes stray to the pastry counter, where luscious cakes shone like sugared jewels behind a wall of glass. She pointed out a slice of particularly wicked-looking chocolate cake. 'You think I could have one of those?' she asked, as though betraying a great secret.

Rachel grinned. 'Free country, Kate. Besides, you look like you need the energy.'

Kate looked with a certain unclassifiable happiness at the cake. 'I didn't have time to get any lunch...'

'There you go then,' said Rachel, already tiring of the discussion. 

'But think of all the calories.'

Rachel sighed stagily. 'Do I have to?'

'No, I do.'

'I fancy some of that now. I'll have a slice as well, if it'll make you feel any better.'

Her guilt partially alleviated by the reminder that some people ate chocolate without giving a damn, Kate nodded gratefully. She remembered that Rachel didn't give a damn about anything anyway, and liked her even more for it.

Still bored, the dybbuk opened the young man's bag and found, to her infinite joy, a pack of Marlboro Lights. And a book of James Baldwin's poetry. Perhaps her gracious host was gay; what Dann'iel would have called a Semen Demon. Dann liked devilish terminology, and had a particular weakness for rhyme. Once, on referring to his female staff as his 'ho's in different Area Codes', he'd been hauled up before the Grand Obscura, an episode which he still didn't talk about. (In a way though, he'd been right; they were whores to the living, totally dependent on them both for work and pleasure).

'It's like this, y'see,' he had told her as they'd sat in the Grey Area's BroadEdge Café on the day she'd died. They called the establishment Smoke City, for good reason; full of wraiths and currents of smoke, all of it violet and blue (no true lungs, no moisture, no colour change). There she'd sat, recently dead, in her newest non-form, watching the other non-forms jostling, yammering in different languages, spitting out their coffee. Coping with being dead.

'Words, yeah? Rhymes. Life-affirming. D'you know,' he'd said conversationally, 'that about a hundred years ago, Swift and all that crowd used to call coitus interruptus "making a coffee-house of a woman's cunt"?'

'What, they stuck their dicks in the cups?' She was naïve, sparky, terrified. She had died young.

'I'm not sure,' he admitted. 'Stopping in for a quick visit, I suppose. I'm slightly obsessed. It's been a few years since I got so much as a sniff at the old spasm chasm.' He drew out a pack of cigarettes and offered her one. 

'I don't smoke.'

'You will. Can't get us now, can it? You'll understand.'

She did now. She remembered smoking those ghost-fags in the Area Codes...sitting in the Green Area's Meat Market with Ari and Roz as Roz's Rachel cigarette holder described circles in the air; drinking after-hours coffee with Charis while puffing on the remnants of a pack. And those Maori guys who'd showed up in the Orange Area. They wore tribal dress, including oversized penis sheaths, and called themselves Afterlife Guides, but they seemed to do nothing but smoke joints the size and consistency of stuffed football socks. They'd often give her a toke or two, and she'd always feel just that bit more alive, psychologically stoned with her spectral lungs full of purple phantoms.

'You ever smoke in the dark?' Dann'iel had asked her later on, and she'd understood.

A life of mimicking life. It wasn't bloody fair. All she'd seen in her short human existence were chickens and fuckfaced Cossacks. She'd been born a poor peasant Jewess in nineteenth-century Novgorod, Russia. Her parents called her Iliana. On her twentieth birthday, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and the pogroms against the Jews began. She was one of the first to be killed. A meaningless, ugly death. She'd been a victim of the crudest racism, at the lowest end of the food chain - beneath the chickens, anyway.

She felt wretchedly unfulfilled. And perhaps it was this lack, this empty, gnawing feeling that had drawn Dann'iel to her. Perhaps it was why he had chosen her to be a dybbuk - a wandering soul who possessed the bodies of the living. Sometimes her possessions had a purpose, passed on to her by Dann and decreed by the Higher Powers. At other times she would hitch a ride in an unsuspecting victim simply because that was who she was. A being who lived vicariously; a wraith; a whisper in the dead of night.

Nothing filled her lack. She'd experienced "life" while body-hopping. There were years of ephemeral glamour, playing the muse with linen-clad writers on the Riviera. She'd chucked chips playing the roulette wheel at Charlie Chester's; she'd leapt randomly from body to body at Harry's Bar just to get as many sips of bellini as she could; and she recalled with particular fondness the time she's slipped into the tanned flesh of a perfect Mexican boy to give some dowager actress a damn good seeing to. But none of it quite made up for the short, brutal reality of her true human life.

The dybbuk snapped out of her gloomy reverie to hear Kate complimenting Rachel. Typical behaviour. 'You look lovely today. Really.'

'Thanks,' said Rachel. 'So do you.'

Kate sighed. 'Flattery will get you everywhere, but I look like hell.'

The waitress, a pretty young black woman with long straightened hair and amber eyes, took their order. Rachel asked for another cup of coffee along with the cake. Kate ordered herbal tea with an engaging old-world charm and courtesy that amused and appealed to her younger, more gauche companion. 

Kate seemed more relaxed. She lit a cigarette, took a drag and began to cough - a nasty, dry little cough that felt as though someone was tickling the back of her throat with a feather. 

Rachel looked up, her dark gypsy eyes tender with concern. 'You OK, Kate? Want me to ask that girl for a glass of water?'

Kate swallowed and shook her head vehemently, before starting to cough again. It was a hacking cough with no real force, but irritating, sounding like a small hammer pounding a block of wood. Kate stubbed her cigarette out, and tried to suppress her cough against her hand. Rachel sat, feeling useless - she wondered whether to pat Kate on the back, but decided she probably didn't know her quite well enough.

Their orders arrived almost instantly. Kate smiled apologetically at Rachel, gracefully taking a mouthful of her tea. The doctor sipped, swallowed, and got her cough under control. She wiped her eyes on a napkin and looked up at Rachel. 

'I'm so sorry about that, honey. I just got a bit of a tickle in my throat.'

Rachel looked worried. 'Sure you're all right? You look so pale.'

Kate nodded calmly, sipping her tea. 'I can't handle cigarettes like I used to either.' 

She was comforted by the warm, safe sweetness of the tea. She took a few more mouthfuls before she felt strong enough to pay full attention to her cake and relish it in the way that it should be relished.

Rachel felt momentarily awed by the slice of gateau in front of her. It was richly draped with dark velvet ripples of chocolate fudge icing, and Maraschino cherries had been set in sculpted flowers of thick cream like spherical rubies. She slid her fork in satisfyingly, crinkling the fudge and thick sponge, before devouring more than a third of it in a single huge mouthful which melted, cloying, on her tongue.

The dybbuk was still bored. She glanced at the black waitress. Time for a little fun; time to move the action along.

'Arbadacarba,' she said under her breath. It was the old cabalistic charm pronounced backward. It its normal forward state it protected against disease, but when reversed it could produce some interesting effects. Iliana surreptitiously pointed at the gorgeous waitress.

The waitress bent over slightly and brought her long, expressive hands up to her nose. Her huge brown eyes blinked, her lips twitched and her nostrils began flaring noticeably. She gave a few more quiet sniffs as she waited. She rubbed at her nose again, sniffing very wetly and wincing a little. But it was too late - she exhaled shakily, then inhaled sharply as she started to lose the battle. She tried to disguise it by clearing her throat.

'Are you all right, miss?' asked the dybbuk in the young man's voice. 

'Fi...hiii...' She exhaled again and gave a larger gasp. 'HI - ' the build-up was quick, desperate and astonishingly loud, almost a scream of exertion. Her lips drew sharply back over her teeth, as her pink-edged nostrils flared hugely - 'ITSCCCHOOO!' and she sprayed a huge cloud of wetness into the air around her, despite the hand clapped hurriedly to her nose. 

She sniffed thickly and looked at him, blushing. 'Scuse be.'

The dybbuk put on her best underwear-melting expression of concern. 'Bless you.'

The girl cast her eyes down, blushing furiously. 'Thahgks.' She sniffed. 'Baybe I'b cubbig dowd wid a code or subthig. Id cambe on so quickly.'

'Oh, how awful...' The young man seemed to be a student, thought Iliana, listening to the sound of her vehicle's voice. He was certainly posh enough. 'Got anyone to look after you?'

She was still blushing, but smiling now. 'Yes...I'b afraid so.'

'Oh well. Can't say I'm surprised.' They laughed together, nervously. Oy gevalt, thought the dybbuk. Not only am I in a man's body, I appear to be getting a hard-on. 'Can I have some more coffee?'

The waitress bustled off, scrubbing at her nose with clenched fingers.

Kate, trying not to look completely aroused by this gorgeous young woman's sneeze, stared down at her untouched cake. She couldn't believe this; her nose was tickling now. Her hay fever had let up that afternoon for the first time in ages, and now she had to sneeze again - in front of Rachel, too. She scowled in concentration, rubbing a finger under her nose.

Kate blinked. Oh God, she really needed to sneeze. Rachel was talking about a mutual friend, Mary, who had decided to deny her homosexuality and marry a man. She broke off her anti-closet tirade, laced with a healthy dose of student self-righteousness, to ask Kate what she thought.

'Everyone always wants to talk to me about her,' said Kate irritably. 'Like I know what she's doing, even.' Her nose was tickling unbearably, but she soldiered on. 'I think I probably know less than you do. I don't really think I'll be much help, honey...' Suddenly, she wrinkled up her nose. 'Oh,' she said breathily. 'Sorry 'I... hah... Hi need to... hah... need to snuh...snuheeze…' rising in pitch, her voice trailed off, '…damnallergies- huhISSSSCCChew!' She sniffed, and urgently began to search her plump person for a hanky. 'Now - where is that damn thing?'

'Er, there's a tissue in your sleeve, Kate.'

'Thanks,' Kate managed. She found the tissue and held it to her nose, but she couldn't choke down the next colossal sneeze - 'huhuh-huhuh-huhISSSSCCHHHHooo!'

Rachel started, then held back a fit of giggles - she was quite amazed that Kate's small, dainty nose could produce such a violent explosion. 'Bless you!'

Kate sank back in her chair, pantomiming relief. 

'Whew! Sorry, hon. I've been waiting for that for the past five minutes!'

'Better out than in,' said Rachel.

Kate smiled at her. 'For some people,' she said dryly.

Rachel looked embarrassed. 'Uh, Kate? Your mascara's running.'

'Oh, I'm such a mess!' Kate began to rifle through her big, clumsy handbag, spilling uncapped lipsticks, small change, sweets, tickets, wrappers, keys, throat lozenges, scribbled notes, leaking pens, exploding powder compacts, tablets for various allergies, and an inhaler.

Rachel smiled a little sympathetically. She had finally met someone even scattier than she was. 'You, uh, OK?'

Kate nodded. 'Just a little touch of hay fever. I know it's raining, but this morning it was absolutely dreadful...I don't think it's quite gone yet.' She sniffed experimentally and paused, eyes squeezing shut. 'I think maybe - I've got another sneeze coming on - '

Kate sniffed, nostrils widening a little, eyes looking forward in concentration. Rachel watched her close her eyes, place a finger under her nose and take in a sharp, deep breath, her enormous chest rising beneath her tightly buttoned blouse so that her breasts stretched the fragile silk almost to its limits. She rubbed her nose with her index finger a few times, trying to suppress the sneeze. Then she gave up, and sighed. 

'In fact, I know I do. Rachel, honey, could you excuse me a moment?'

For about three seconds she sat like a statue, hands lightly folded in her lap, not moving… except her eyes were closing slowly. Then she reached frantically for the soggy tissue and took in a deep breath. 'I'm going to sneeze,' she said, and did, violently. 'Ehhh...uhhh...ahhh...ahhhh - AH-ISSCCHHHOOO!...Dear me,' Dr. Kate said fussily, patting her nose with the tissue. 'I'm sorry, honey, I just couldn't help that.'

Kate removed a pale blue compact from her bag, took off her gold-rimmed glasses, rubbed her reddened eyes and managed to blow her nose in the most refined way possible, hardly making a sound, although Rachel could tell she was stuffed up by the tight, nasal sound of her voice.

'How do you manage to work like that?'

'I'm used to it. I've always had allergies. It looks miserable, but the pollen count is outrageous today. Good job I don't get out much.' She smiled shyly. 'In any sense.'

Kate repaired her eye makeup.

The dybbuk, who had been fascinated by Kate's sneezing fit, realised that she - or, rather, her young male host - was being checked out by five secretaries on their lunch break; each one of them shot dark, admiring glances at the young man, then one by one they turned to each other and conversed in a perfumed whisper punctuated by nudges and giggles. There was one hard-faced smoker with hair like candyfloss, one with an annoying laugh, orange lipstick and green eye shadow, one with a behind that was about to split the stoically straining skirt of her Marks and Spencer's two-piece, and one with orange frizz-wire curls. 

The fifth secretary was not too bad at all. Her tiny black skirt was riding up her wide, heavy smoky-nyloned thighs and her breasts looked ready to escape her fitted white shirt, but her face was delicately formed into a heart-shape with a small, sculpted nose, pointed chin, high cheekbones, almond-shaped dark eyes and full, pouting lips. Her eyebrows were plucked into perfect arches and her dark brown hair was cut into a glossy, professional shoulder-length bob, which didn't quite go with her voluptuous, exotic figure. 

She smiled at him, gently bounced one curvy leg against the other and cast her eyes down in a parody of modesty. The dybbuk smiled broadly and lecherously at her, and the secretaries heaved into gales of violent feminine laughter. Iliana suddenly felt a stab of pain, a deep sexual ache. It had been so long. Any of them would do. Even the one Dann'iel would've called 'old ginge minge'. But number five…oh God, number five.

She tried to listen to Rachel again, but found herself staring at the young man's hands. Flesh of my flesh, she thought. His hands were strong and spatulate, sprinkled at the joints with strong, thick dark hairs. 

The dybbuk had been totally mesmerised by the way that Kate sneezed; she'd seen thousands of sneezes, millions of them, but they never failed to amaze her. According to Dann - who was roughly as trustworthy as a government official with his fingers crossed behind his back - it was a great fad among the angels, making themselves sneeze. Well, faking it, really. Dann'iel, so-called Master of Unnatural Selection, was a bit of a sneeze fetishist himself; he liked the ramifications of it, the loss of control, the vulnerability. 'The angels say it makes them feel alive again,' he'd said, in a sentimental moment. 'Sneezing proves you're human. When I was alive, I just didn't get it.'

Kate had such wonderful sneezes; the build-ups were so urgent, and yet, when they came, the sneezes were matter-of-fact and unforced, with the perfect degree of volume and wetness. Iliana had so loved watching Kate's usually calm and collected face screw up in a comic grimace of agony, the reddening and flaring of her nose, the way her dark blonde brows twitched, creasing up over her nose, the way she tried to hold them back with one little finger, her quivering, pursing, expensively glossed lips, the tissue-fumbling, the desperation, and finally, the unique relief of a big, satisfying sneeze.

The dybbuk missed sneezing herself.

She started to use the man's fingers again - picking up the pepper-shaker on the table, examining it. Sorely tempted.

Rachel forked in another mouthful of cake, and eyed Kate's untouched slice with amusement. 'Aren't you gonna eat that after all?'

Kate looked at the cake, her rounded face absorbed with delight as she reached for her fork again. 

Rachel was fascinated by her friend's expression as she lifted a neat forkful of chocolate cake to her mouth. It was the look of a little girl in heaven over an extra-special treat.

'You like that?' Rachel asked, biting down on a smile.

Kate fastidiously licked the crumbs from her lips, dabbing her mouth with a napkin. 'Umm, it's good.' She gave a smile of genuine happiness, and tucked in. 

The dybbuk emptied a little pepper onto the young man's finger, and sniffed it up with the young man's nose. Immediately, she felt her host's nostrils beginning to twinge and burn. It felt strange; at once her sensation and not hers, at a remove from her. A fad among the angels, she thought. Dann'iel was so full of shit he squeaked.

Still, it felt good. Wonderful. Like being real again. Even better than smoking, in the dark or in the light.

She watched the young man's face in the steamed-up window as it contorted and twitched in response to the maddening tickle. His big dark ladykiller eyes were starting to look wet, and the nose was trembling just a little as the sneeze continued to grow in slow motion. She found herself aware of his breathing, the way it hitched and heaved as she watched the young man's generous lips arch up toward the base of his gorgeous Roman nose. It looked perfect with flared nostrils.

The dybbuk was dimly aware that the waitress, hovering a few feet away with the coffee, was watching. But she seemed miles away. This was now. 

'Ah,' Iliana's host breathed. 'Ahhh. Ahhhhhh.'

She felt him make a strangled, hiccupy noise, and then the build-up took them both over entirely. Too late, she wished she had a tissue - but even if she had one, she could never have brought herself to stifle the sneeze. She struggled to keep her host's eyes open so she could watch, though she knew she couldn't, and she felt the wonderful force of the coming explosion, the sensation of floodgates giving way, of plummeting, release, relief....

The young man's mouth yawned wide and the dybbuk registered the noise coming up, rising in pitch: 'AaaaAAHHHH...HAAAA...HAIIISSSHHHOOOOO!'

The dybbuk shook her head, sniffling, still in love with the image of her surrogate self on the brink of a sneeze, the bliss and agony of anticipating the inevitable, embracing life - all that was good about it, all that was bad, and all that was just plain annoying. 

You ever smoke in the dark? she thought - and suddenly felt like crying.

'God bless you!' the waitress had finally tottered over on her impractical wedge shoes. She set the coffee down in front of Iliana. 'I hope you're dot catchig by code.'

Distracted by the sudden rush of self-pity, the dybbuk heard her true voice - deep, feminine, and furious, impacted by years of not-quite-life - rushing out as irrepressibly as the sneeze: 'You can't catch cold in hell.' 

'This is'd hell,' said the waitress uncertainly. 'Bide you, id is goig to be a Starbucks dext week.' 

'My point exactly...' The dybbuk smiled at her. 'Sorry. Just thinking out loud. It's not often I get to do that.' 

As the mystified waitress left, the dybbuk found that her host was sniffling uncontrollably. Secretary Number Five watched as the beautiful, poetry-reading young man sniffed deeply in a pathetic attempt to stop his itchy, protesting nose overflowing. Hot, irritated tears dampened his lashes, brightening his black eyes. She almost cooed with pity as he ran his wrist under his chapped, tender nose, attempting to deal with the huge amount of mucus that his sneeze had discharged; and when that didn't work he sniffled like a little boy who'd forgotten his hanky. Oh God, she just couldn't bear this.

The dybbuk looked up as the plump, moll-like secretary, blushing a little, stood over the young man and offered him a lacy, freshly laundered handkerchief.

'Excuse me,' the secretary said shyly, and the dybbuk noticed in surprise that she had a soft Irish brogue. 'You look like you might need a hanky.'

Iliana arranged her host's features into an expression of helpless innocence. 'Are you sure? Disgusting, isn't it? I think I'm coming down with a cold.'

Oh, the luxury of being human, the dybbuk thought, watching the woman's eyes widen in sympathy.

'You certainly look like you are, love,' the secretary said kindly. 'You give your nose a good blow.'

She waited as the young man unfolded her handkerchief and blew his nose until it was clear. 'This town, I don't know. Fresher's Flu, they call it. I think it's a disgrace. Young lads like you, all on your own...when my brother Brendan went to Trinity, he bankrupted himself in the first term buying new outfits every week cause he couldn't bear to admit that he didn't know how to use the washing machine...Oh just keep the hanky, love, I've got drawers full of the bloody things, it's all my mother ever gives us.' With that, she smiled shyly and went back to her friends, who were staring at her with undisguised envy.

'Thanks,' said the dybbuk, squeezing the hanky in the young man's hand as though it were a holy relic, unspeakably grateful for the existence of women.

Reluctantly, she turned her attention back to Kate and Rachel and realised to her horror that they were arguing. Oh no! This wasn't how things were meant to be.

Rachel was insisting that Kate speak to the errant Mary. And Kate was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and tetchy, trying to concentrate on her cake. Then Rachel tried something sharp and cruel, to snap Kate out of her love affair with confectionery.

'Maybe there's no point in you talking to Mary,' she said coldly. 'After all, Mary did once tell me she thought you came over like a complete bitch.'

Shit, that worked. Kate looked up, large liquid eyes wide with bewilderment. 

'Oh,' she said huffily. 'I always listen to dykes who have problems with my personality.' 

'Kate, you are a dyke.'

'You don't have to tell me that!' Kate snapped.

Rachel looked out of the window and said evenly: 'And she says you're a closet case.'

'That's rich coming from her!'

Kate had surprised herself with her own vehemence. This wasn't like her at all. She lowered her fork to the side of her plate and stared down at the remains of her dessert as though it had suddenly become an alien object. Her amiable face seemed defenceless, uncertain. Almost imperceptibly, she lowered her head, blinking.

Like a taunting child who knew she had gone too far, Rachel felt her body bathed in sweat. A hot, frightened impulse of shame mixed with pleasure shot through her. She thought childishly - Oh Jesus, I made her cry.

Unsure of what to do, what to say, she reached for the other woman's hand. It felt fragile and chilled, shaking a little. She was reminded of a shocked, dying baby bird that she had once held.

Rachel whispered, 'Kate, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to…'

She focused on Kate's plate, and felt awful for not letting her enjoy her cake. She tried to warm the waxy coldness of Kate's hand, smoothing it with rough, long black fingers, hoping that her own damp, feverish heat would seep into the skin of this terribly vulnerable woman to whom she found herself inexplicably drawn. 

She felt guilty, but she also felt a terrible temptation to hurt Kate further, to see the tears trembling in her eyes and stream down her soft, chubby cheeks.

'Are you all right?' Rachel asked.

'Just my allergies.' Kate sniffed. She still looked defenceless, but her tone had become formal and stiff. Her face was locked up tight, and Rachel could see nothing in her eyes. Anger or tears would have been better than this glacial impasse.

Time to act, thought the dybbuk. She decided on something drastic. Another 'arbadacarba' wouldn't be sufficient. Instead she concentrated all her years of power into creating a tiny homunculus, an almost microscopic little figure composed of dust. Then she filled it with her soul, rushing out of the dark young man, compacting herself, concentrating her power. It was a neat trick, but it took a lot of psychic energy.

She had become a mote, a speck, and moving through the air of Café Nero was like swimming in warm soup packed with a heady mixture of odours. As she withdrew the remaining tendrils of control from the young man, she made him perform one farewell act.

She willed him to close his book.

And as he snapped the covers together, a gust of air cascaded from the pages and caught her tiny form, hurling it towards Rachel.

The dybbuk used her microscopic limbs to control her flight, like a parachutist in free-fall. She hurtled towards her target, exhilarated and terrified. She soared across the chasm between coffeehouse tables, straight up the wide, inviting oval of Rachel's left nostril.

(The young man jolted back to himself, wondering why his nose was tickling. He felt like he'd just smoked ten fags in a row, and the waitress and that pretty dark secretary-type were giving him the eye. Not for the first time, he wished that he wasn't so given to smoking weed for breakfast.)

Rachel registered the tickle immediately. She tried to damp it down by pressing on her nostril from the side as she stared at her plate, concentrating on not letting the sneeze out. She suddenly looked calm, twisted lines of guilt and anger easing to smoothness. Her lips softened from their gritted knot into a soft roll of helplessness.

Oh God. She really didn't want to sneeze. The coffee shop had seemed a lot quieter since she'd upset Kate, and she had a feeling that a lot of the bored student patrons were watching them. The staff of Café Nero always put on the blues, possibly to stupefy the jostling lunch crowd from killing each other over the scanty sandwiches and their over-riding need for caffeine, and although things had quietened down, the blues moaned on. Rachel held her breath.

Kate, still staring at her own plate, didn't ordinarily enjoy the blues, but now she wanted to drink it up, hold it inside her, let the music still the jangled electricity of her nerves. Billie Holiday in her Great American Songbook period replaced Vera Hall on the soundtrack, her voice coquettishly caught between a sob and a burst of laughter, tightness stretched in her throat. Kate felt that if Billie let her voice flow from its teasing choke it would flood the air with a colour that wasn't quite blue, but something deeper, more arterial, drowning the hiccupped stabs of New Orleans piano. 

Rachel suddenly heaved in a deep, desperate gasp - 'haAHHHH' - which made Kate look up curiously. Rachel's black eyes welled with tears of sneezy irritation, brightening the flashes of silver and gold that shone in the irises.

Rachel's usually composed face contorted into a comic-book grimace, the kind of bizarre expression that came over the face of a cartoon character whenever the Acme Corporation delivered a huge box of pepper.

The dybbuk was rather enjoying herself up Rachel's nose; it was warm and damp, the surprisingly pink skin silky and shining like stained glass in the dim light, pulsating as the tickle worked away and Rachel embarked on a series of curt, wet sniffles.

Kate watched, sniffling a little herself, but thankfully distracted. Looking at Rachel, she felt her irritation ebb away and melt into excitement. This was her major weakness - there was nothing she loved more about sneezes than what she thought of as 'the balance of power'. It was a welcome relief to watch Rachel - big and powerful and trying so damn hard to be butch - struggling with the same tiny, bathetic weakness that plagued her so often. It was also profoundly sexy. Against her will, she felt a harsh spasm grip her down below, as though her clitoris was growing and hardening. She licked crumby lips and tried to keep her expression innocent, cheeks flushing like over-ripe peaches.

Buffeted around by Rachel's shallow, panicky breaths - 'huhh- huh-HUH' - the dybbuk clung for a moment to a single hair that waved in the breeze of Rachel's breath like a water-reed in the current, and then allowed herself to be sucked right in.

Rachel was practically panting now. 'Huh- hehh-heh-HEAHH...'

It was a curiously comforting feeling for the dybbuk, entering that tiny black hole, being embraced by a hot, smooth, damp tightening sensation, and then plunged into total darkness as Rachel held a finger against her nostril, blocking the dybbuk's view of her half-eaten chocolate cake.

'All right, honey?' Kate asked, surprised at the steadiness and clarity of her voice.

Rachel heaved in another shallow breath. 'ThikI'bgudda...sdeehze,' she whispered hurriedly.
No shit, Sherlock, thought the dybbuk. The damage having been done, she was killing time by playing pinball with herself against the stretched sides of Rachel's nostril as they flared and contracted.

'Idoht-thinhk - ' Rachel whispered desperately under the slow, sexy blues, 'Icadhodeitback...forbuch logger - '

She sniffed harshly and Iliana shuddered with the pressure, clinging onto a hair for dear life - the last thing she wanted was to get lost in this girl's sinuses.

'Cadyou-cadyouhahdbehaaahhh - ' Rachel's request trailed off into a thin, shivery breath, and she could barely get out the last strained word, 'tissue...'

Kate hurriedly reached in her handbag for a tissue and pressed it into Rachel's free hand. The usually strong curve of her mouth twitching violently, Rachel nodded her thanks and pressed the tissue first to her streaming, half-closed eyes and then her trembling nose. Kate tried to remain poker-faced, but it wasn't easy. Although her face looked like a china angel's, she could feel little shivers of excitement running up her thighs and she didn't dare to look down at the front of her thin, chastely buttoned silk blouse; her nipples were tingling unbearably and she knew they must be visibly erect. Fortunately, Rachel was distracted. 

Feeling the rustle of the paper, the relief coursing through Rachel's tense body, and the harsh gasps growing shorter - 'Huh-huh!-huh...' - the dybbuk braced herself, half-wishing she'd never started this in the first place. She knew there was no way she could get hurt, but it had been a while since she'd tried this sort of thing, and she'd never done it with a woman whose sneezes were so huge - not to mention wet. She could already feel Rachel's nostril starting to run, spraying moisture around her like a geyser as they both steadied themselves for the blow.


The sneeze came in a torrential blast, and the dybbuk was shot from Rachel's nose as if from the barrel of a cannon - or perhaps, the mouth of a water ride, given the jet of wetness that shot with her. She noted happily that the entire café - including her still-confused former host, the waitress, the secretaries and the extremely stoned-looking Puerto Rican guy who manned the cappuccino machine and who sported a few sparse tufts of dodgy facial hair - was staring unabashedly at Rachel. Even Billie Holiday seemed to have shut up.

'Bless you, honey.' Kate gave a brittle little laugh. 'Big sneeze.'

Kate swallowed hard as Rachel screwed up her face and brought the soaking tissue to her nose again. Realising that Rachel's nose was still tickling - she'd obviously done a good job - Iliana made a valiant attempt to scramble off the surface of the Kleenex before Rachel had to sneeze again, but Rachel was too quick, and the layer of wetness on the tissue too thick, for her to move. She quailed as she came into intimate contact with Rachel's wide black tunnel-arch nostrils, pink at the edges, wet and ready to blow.

'EhTISSCCHOO! Huh-eh-eh-ehTUSSCHEWW!' The sneezes were smaller, wetter, but just as forceful. The dybbuk shook in her nest of damp tissue; and Kate watched admiringly, trying to keep her face blank, as Rachel let loose with another simply lovely, perfectly formed 'Huh-huh!- huh- UhTISSCHOOOO!'

'Bless you again.'

'Oh...that's not it... by dose is still...' sniff '…uh...still ticklig a little bit...I thik I bight...start sdeezig ag-ed...hode od...' Rachel sneezed again, a long drawn-out, 'heh...oh...HehTSCHEEEOOO!..'

Her voice was deliciously thick and breathy, the dybbuk noticed with grudging relish, but for all the pleasure she got from being totally submissive to Rachel's sneezes, she felt as though she was suffocating. Iliana thanked Whoever that she didn't have to breathe, but the sensation of drowning in Rachel's nasal fluid was hardly pleasant.

'HuhUhh...huhI - ' sniff '- cahdtstop - ' sniff ' - sdeeh - '

The word trailed off entirely as Rachel gasped, rising in pitch toward the end in a way that made her usually gruff, studied tones sound positively feminine.

'Heh-hehUh-UH-' The sneeze built, and then trickled away. 

Rachel's cheeks flushed violently with embarrassment and discomfort, as the people around them continued to stare. Time and again she notched up towards a big sneeze, and then it ebbed, leaving her staring ahead, dopey-looking and desperate, her eyes full of irritated tears. It was what Kate - who knew her subject well, after all - informally called a 'tickle sneeze', coming and intensifying again and again, but taking forever to build and come to its fruition.

'Hhuhuh-huhuh-HUH...' Nothing. 'Ahhh. HUH- huuhhh!' a defeated exhale, almost a sigh.

Rachel breathed deeply and regularly, as though trying to convince her nose that she was sneezing. In the blasts of breath, the dybbuk clung and shook, at once hoping that Rachel would sneeze and hoping that it wouldn't come.

'Huh. Huuh. Huh. Huhh. Heh!' Rachel sniffed. 'Oh...huh...uh...that tickles!...' She tried to laugh. 'Huhuh-huhuh-hehehheehh...Uhhh. Oh God, thahd's so annoyihg...I hade ihd whed thahd hahhh...AHHH...'

Kate realised that she was biting her lip. Rachel gave a huge, wet sniff, rubbing defeatedly at her treacherous nose. 

'Huh. huhuhuh. Hiiii...' Rachel needed to sneeze so badly she almost sounded like she was whimpering.

'Are you all right?' Kate asked.

'Deed to sdeehze,' she whispered. 'Won't...hahUH!...cub oud. Uh!' Her gasps increased in pitch and desperation. 'Huuh! Huh!' And then it came - drawn-out, wet and infinitely satisfying. 'HuhIIISSSSHHHHHHooooo!...Ohh.' Rachel sounded immeasurably relieved, if still stuffy and indistinct with the desire to sneeze again. 'Sorry. - Huh! HEE-UH! UH! Uh-PTISSSHHHEW!'

'Oh, bless you, hon.' 

Kate's cunt - though she would have never used that word when thinking about it - was torturously swollen and wet, moist lips embracing each other and contracting every time Rachel sneezed. Despite her long years of what was basically aversion therapy, she felt a warm wet spot forming inexorably in the crotch of her panties - sensible, generous cream lace middle-aged panties, at that. 

Rachel's eyes were squeezed tightly shut as she embarked on yet another build-up.


For the first time since meeting Rachel, Kate imagined her naked. She would look less perfect than usual; less precise. Perhaps she'd have little rolls of fat here and there, her skin creamy-dark, maybe with that kind of tiger lily down Kate liked. Probably, Kate thought, looking at her dreadlocked hair, the faint dust at the edge of her jaw, like dark peach-fuzz, as Rachel gasped and sniffed.

'…heheh...ehhh...' A thick sniff. '…huh-huh-HUH-huh...'

Kate allowed herself a momentary glance at Rachel's abundant breasts, heaving helplessly with the build-up. Rachel certainly didn't think much about the kind of bras she wore; she needed much better support than that. Was she even wearing one? For a moment, Kate imagined herself in bed with Rachel, her lady-of-leisure body plump and pale, Rachel's sinewy and dark but with a few extra tempting handfuls, handfuls she didn't like to acknowledge, but ummm…In her fantasy, Kate found the courage to seize a coloured feather, a long, fluffy, eloquent turquoise - and start to tickle Rachel's twitching nose as the two women gasped in pleasure…

'Uh!' Rachel exclaimed, and sniffed wetly. 'Wouldyoubide - ' another thick sniff ' - haddig be adother tissue?...' She gestured to Kate's handbag, still sniffing. 'Thesesdeezes just wod't...stohp...huh..huhuuh..itsuhhh...'

The rest of her sentence was choked off, as Kate hurriedly handed her another tissue. Rachel got it to her nose and erupted in a big, bellowing sneeze: 'HahTISSSCCHEEEAAAA!...uhh.'

Her head was starting to spin, and her eyes were swimming with tears. She'd never had such a dose of the sneezes - well, not just randomly like this. In summer, she often caught streaming colds during which her eyes and nose ran in rivers, but even then the longest sneezing fit she could remember having was a paltry six or seven.

'Scuse be...thi...this is gudda...guhhhh...' Sniff. 'Be a...Uhhh. HeyeISHHHEEEEOOOO!...' She sniffed, laughed. 'Uhh. Big one.'

The dybbuk gratefully found herself on the table. She struggled out of the sodden cocoon of Kleenex and hurriedly resumed her real form, if 'form' was the correct word for it, since she was invisible - a wraith, a force, an awareness without corporeal form. God, she couldn't believe Rachel was still sneezing; she must have really irritated that big sensitive nose. Too bad. 

'Hehhh...huh! HUH!...huh...'

Without a host, Iliana began to find it difficult to stay put. She was drifting: drawn inexorably to the dreamscape of the afterlife. But she had to see whether her methods had succeeded, whether she had set Rachel and Kate on the intended track.

The dybbuk struggled to watch them as the broad dark planes of Rachel's face scrunched up like a gargoyle's.

'I...hiI I...thikI'bgudda...sdeeze ag-ed...' Rachel warned Kate and seventy per cent of the clientele, her voice stretched tight and foreshortened. 

Rachel held the tissue a few centimetres from her nose, as though this might stop the urge to sneeze better than her wet, smothered, tissue-covered explosions; and Kate stared, mesmerised, at the soft spray that burst forth.


Oh wow, Kate thought helplessly. This one had a real 'last sneeze' hallmark about it, deliciously wet and full, forceful but unforced with no hint of discomfort, just relief; nothing like Rachel's usual strong, desperate I-really-don't-want-to-do-this sneezes which had almost frightened her with their unstoppable force. This, though, was absolutely perfect. 

'Bless you,' Kate said softly, in awe.

The dybbuk took in the momentary entranced expression on her face, then channelled her ebbing power into a current of air that shifted dust across the tip of Kate's delicately formed nose, and around the rims of her nostrils.

Nothing happened - Kate blinked and her nose twitched slightly, but she remained unruffled.
'A perfect ten,' said the doctor admiringly. 'Even I don't usually manage that. You all right, honey?'

Rachel sniffed. 'Fide.' She shook her head as though to clear it. 'I think thad's it.' She looked unsurprisingly tired and washed out as she smiled at Kate shamefacedly, then sniffed and ducked her head to give her nose a good blow. 'Whoa, excuse be, Kate.'

Kate sniffed too, smiling wanly. And Iliana drew some up some dark specks from the pepper canister, adding them to her small dust storm and sending them towards Kate's damp, sniffy, sensitive nose. She waited for another sniff and it came - then Kate let out a soft, slightly desperate-sounding 'oh', as her nose began to tickle mercilessly.

'You know what, Rachel? My nose is tickly too! Damn it...' She laughed. 'I think I'm allergic to sneezes!'

'Oh, I'm sorry!'

' couldn't help it...ahhhh...' sniff '…aaaahhhhh - '

In a moment, Kate was frowning slightly, the crease between her soft brows deepening, as she rummaged again in her handbag, desperately searching for another tissue. 

'Ah...ah!' Kate began to gasp. 'HuhptisSHEE-OOO!' 

The sneeze was muted, crescendoing to a high pitch, slightly longer than Kate's usual little cat 'TiSSSH!' sneeze and with a defined, almost shouted ending that made her cover her mouth and nose in alarm. 'Oh, bless me!'

Rachel smiled ruefully. 'You're blessed.'

Kate swallowed hard, her dry, scratchy throat protesting as she did so, and rested her hands on her soft, plump thighs, wanting and fearing the way Rachel was looking at her. She can't like this, Kate thought, but Rachel's smile told her otherwise.

'Did I set you off?' Rachel asked, her voice low and caressing.

Kate gave her a watery smile back, nodding. 'Ah..sorry- it just-workslikethis-subtibes-iECCSSSHHHew!... ohhh.'

Rachel was actually laughing now. 'Poor Kate! How on earth do you cope at work?'

'With greah...great difficulty...huh...Huh-HuhTISSCHEEEew!'

They were still getting a lot of stares, some curious smiles, some comments - the customers were enjoying the ironic counterpoint between the big black girl and her huge, gutsy sneezes, and the tiny white woman with her smaller, more ladylike ones.

Rachel reached out and took hold of her hand again, this time in a relaxed gesture of concern and support. 'Bless you, Kate.' 

The two of them sniffed simultaneously, and swapped watery smiles. 

'All done?' Rachel asked, feeling even more protective of Kate. Was there nothing that didn't affect her?

Kate nodded. 'Think so. Don't pay my stupid nose any attention, it's always acting up like this...I'm a little worried about you, though, honey. You don't usually sneeze like that. I hope you're not coming down with a cold.' 

'It's just dust, probably. I feel fine.'

They smiled at each other again, and Kate resumed making love to her cake. Rachel leant back in her seat, the fight gone out of her. The dybbuk realised that all the antagonism between them had completely evaporated, and that something else was taking its place. Far too early to call it love, but 'strong affection' certainly wasn't far off. Fuck, thought the dybbuk, with satisfaction, almost with surprise, I think I've succeeded.

It was also too early to tell whether Kate had come out of the fetish closet. And Iliana felt a powerful need to stick around and see exactly how things turned out. But her current stay here was approaching an end. Unless…she looked at the dark young man, wondering if she could repossess his body; or perhaps she could take control of Kate or Rachel…

'Time to go, Iliana. You know the rules.' It was Dann'iel's voice.

The dybbuk sighed, feeling her grip on this realm of existence weakening. The Higher Powers allotted her time for each visit to earth; she had no choice in the matter.

She felt an unbearable surge of loneliness. Was this really her lot now - sorting out the emotional entanglements of screwed-up women who were too busy yakking about their Issues to leave so much as a ripple on the face of time? Could she ever let them know how lucky they were?

'A bad artist always blames her tools.' Looking almost entirely human, he was sitting at a nearby table, upending six packets of brown sugar into his brimming black coffee. A B&H smouldered in the pressed tin ashtray in front of him. 'Nice choice of venue for this little afternoon winter sneezefest, Illy. One of the last smoking cafes in this rainy valley mausoleum, and possibly one of the three that isn't either a listed building or a Starbucks. Isn't it amazing how crap watery coffee can take over the world? I haven't tasted coffee so fuckawful since the Siege of Vienna. If those bloody Turks had succeeded in invading, at least they'd've had some decent joe, eh? Go on, have a fag.'

'I don't want to be Iliana.' She was annoyed by his presence. Surely he had more important things in his schedule?

'You can't change your essence. Iliana today, yesterday, tomorrow and forever.'

'Fuck you.'

She looked down at her hands, surprised to see that she had a corporeal form. Dann had supplied it, of course. They weren't her hands; at least as far as she remembered - they were long and tapering, the whitish-pink of the inside of a shell, nails clean and conic-shaped, the same healthy, sinewy pink. A turquoise ring in the shape of a curled-up asp graced her middle finger. She looked at herself in the dark, steamed-up window and realised that Dann'iel had made her over as a Manga cartoon of a Coffeehouse Intellectual Chick, with huge brown Bambi eyes, a cutely uptilted nose and an unpainted Angelina Jolie mouth. Yardstick-straight brown hair fell past her lilac pashmina - would she ever wear such a thing? - all the way to her waist.

'I never looked like this, you big hairy bollock.'

'Sit next to me. You're making the place look untidy.'

'Can we just go now?' she asked, but did as she was told.

'I've decided to make you a student. Studying something nice and useless. I know. History of Art!' Chuckling like a Yiddish Chuckie, Dann withdrew a thick paperback on Medieval Erotica from the Paul Frank backpack at the side of her chair. 'Besides, you can't remember what you looked like.' He took a mouthful of his oversugared coffee and gobbed it back into the cup. 'Though I do. The way you were in Novgorod, anyway.'

'This is the Disney version of me. You'd never see anyone looking quite this freshly scrubbed in Tsarist Russia unless they were royalty, which I certainly wasn't. And you've made my tits far too big.'


'This materialisation business must be tiring you out, Dann. I could never keep it up for as long as this.'

'You, my dear, are an amateur.'

'Get bent. You just haven't done anything to upset your EvenKeel in weeks.' She took a mouthful of cappuccino. 'And hasn't anyone noticed two malignant spirits just appearing out of nowhere to swill up their finest espresso?' 

'Not a chance. I managed to slip in while they were watching your friend there sneeze her head off.' Dann shook his head, grinning mischievously.

Iliana looked around and saw that the whole place was ignoring them. The coffee house clientele weren't frozen in that cheesy Matrix-style that Dann usually favoured, but moving too slow to catch them. 'They sense us,' Dann'iel said. 'Perhaps. Have some cheesecake.'

'No thanks.'

'You're down, Ill.' 

'I have no purpose now. What do you expect? I'm not even sure I've helped Kate and Rachel. I can't help thinking that our kind is becoming a little…obsolete.'

He ran his hand through his thick, black hair. 'The world used to be simpler, you're right about that much. The days when we ran around in forests putting love-charms on errant students and whipping stools out from under milkmaids are over. They were the days of miracle and wonder. And these are the days of eggnog lattes. Feh. But that doesn't mean we serve no purpose.'

She shook her head. 'We used to preserve history, magic and the fear of God, or at least the fear of something.'

'Traditionally, the fear of love,' he said. 'How different is that from what you're doing now?'

'What I'm doing now is of no consequence. I used to do frescos, now I'm doing miniatures in ivory. And badly, I might add. You don't think tools have anything to do with bad art? Try to recreate the Sistine Chapel with a cocktail stick and see which side of your arse you're smiling on.'

'It's a small world.'

'It's one big fucking Starbucks. When do I get to put in for retirement?'

He grinned at her. 'Illy, you're loving this rilly.' He looked over at Rachel. 'Personally I don't know how you could stand being up her nose. But then again - ' he got up ' - I don't know everything. And now we must be going, dear heart.'

He kissed her lightly on the forehead, mist meeting mist, but she closed her eyes hungrily to receive it.

'Dann,' she whispered. 'Why can't I sneeze?'

But even as she spoke, she felt their wraith forms fading, retreating to the realm of the dead. Like cigarette smoke dissolving into darkness.