Prologue to a hypothetical fantasy novel

Bébinn Hannigan was the sweetest lady on the block; “sweet as a packet of Bourbons and a cola float”, said Mrs. Moulin, owner of the wine shop, which served Bébinn whenever she hosted one of her dinners. These dinners were the highlight of many a week, for those who were invited into her small but well-stocked dining room. Bébinn would bustle between the hostess trolley and the table, ladling strange and aromatic delicacies onto china plates, their white virginities enlightened by the rich sauces and exquisite textures.

She was the kind of woman other women make both a friend and a confidant of; not externally beautiful – she was homely and un-sexy, more of the dishcloth than the dance-floor – she gave no competition in romantic games, could hold herself aloof and offer an ear to listen, a shoulder to support. She was kind and accepting and tolerant.

At least, that was how the adult world thought about her. Occasionally, a very perceptive child might catch a wink or a smirk, an indefinable something in the manner or the words, which gave away just a hint, just a small, sharp slap to the face by an inner sense, of the bottomless pits of Hell which lay behind those green, velvety eyes.

Because Bébinn Hannigan was a murderer. She didn’t, as you might now be thinking given my former focus on her culinary skills, poison her dishes. Nor did she kill with bludgeon, gun, and any earthly weapon. A vampire of the soul, all she needed to do, at least in the eyes of an observer of her crimes, was place her hands on your shoulders, and look at you, meeting and holding your gaze as her lips spilled pleasant inanities.

This was how I first saw her kill. I was an urchin, in the old-fashioned lingo of witches and wizards: an orphan with an aptitude for magic, an inward sense that attracted the invisible energies and, through the instruments of eyes and mouth, could manipulate matter or create the illusion of it.

Known for her charity, she took me into her home when I was eleven, after my parents went to bed one night and never woke up. A gas leak was blamed (I was staying with a friend that night), and the house where we lived, owned by the local council, was condemned, giving rise to a major scandal which made my lawyer a very rich man. My aunt also didn’t do too badly, though she pleaded “ill-equipped” to finish raising me. My magical heritage avowed by representatives from the pagan community (my parents were gifted magicians), I was placed with Ms. Hannigan, who adopted many an urchin.

The “pagans”, I should give you to understand, were a loose connection of people who embraced their magical abilities, which almost every human is born with. Throughout history, many societies have tried to suppress their kind, considering the embracing of magic an affront to “true” spirituality, or the humbling of the self before a recognised deity and/or government body.

I should observe at this juncture that I wasn’t your conventional “magic” orphan. I’ve never considered myself “the chosen One” of anything (not even my own chaotic life), and I certainly didn’t have an unhappy childhood. My unhappiest time was the year and a half between my parents dying and my liberation from the care of Bébinn Hannigan, at which point I was taken in by a pagan scholar, Dr. Samara, and his daughter, Yuoko.

(He was an Arab, his wife had been Japanese, hence his daughter’s mixed heritage, and I was middle-of-the-road, South London English, so we made a happy melting pot, we three.) I loved my parents dearly when they were alive, but since their passing I could not have asked for a more perfect family than Samara and Yuoko, to whom I still return for comfort, shelter, advice, and the warm table of affection.

But, brief as my year with Bébinn (I spent six months in an orphanage) was in The Grand Scheme, I’m still haunted by our encounter that night, when I first saw her kill. The victim was a fellow urchin, but didn’t know he was, and hadn’t shown up on the pagan community’s radar, which is clear to me now as the reason why he was selected. Bébinn had an assistant, a pinch-faced, stern, and mostly silent young German called Mariele, who’d walk the town at night, and once brought back to the house this urchin, a teenage runaway whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I still don’t know.

He was thin and wore a random assortment of off-brand sports clothes, indicating that he’d recently been the beneficiary of a Salvation Army outreach. Mariele conducted him into the lounge, where Bébinn stood by the hearth in seeming anticipation of him. I, seated at the dining table at the far end of the room, in the presently unlighted dining nook, saw Mariele lead him by the arm and leave again without making eye contact with anyone. She knew her role was as a mere facilitator, I suppose.

‘Oh, my dear, you must be famished’, said Bébinn, moving towards him with awkward, faltering steps, like someone approaching an injured stray cat. I seem to remember that, not being able to sleep, I had come downstairs to practice some rudimentary levitation spells in the dark. When Bébinn first entered the lounge while I was at the table that night, a vinegar pot hovered two feet in the air. Now the urchin had joined us, the condiments were rooted to their stations. ‘I, uh, guess I am hungry’, the boy said.

‘Me too, young man, me too…’ Bébinn put her hands on his shoulders and seemed to be leaning in for a kiss. I’ve learned from the few survivors of her assaults that in these moments she can be the most beautiful woman this side of Heaven. So much so that Helen of Troy would scream in animal jealousy, and call her a stuck-up bitch like a high-school girl.

The boy’s eyes widened at first, as if this beauty was what he was seeing, until they began to flicker, then close, all the time Bébinn talking, her voice lowering to a whisper as his eyes closed. ‘That’s it, my dear, we’ll feed you, you’re starving, I know, beyond hungry. You could eat a horse, a fleet of horses, the entire world and then the known universe…’ Her hands pushed him down and onto the sofa, where he slumped, his head forward, his eyes closed. Bébinn stood upright, straightened her dress, and ever so subtly licked her lips. Her eyes were wide open and unblinking. It was then that I learned, suddenly and absolutely, the spell for invisibility.

I don’t think she would have killed me if she’d seen me watching – I was young and naive, unaware of psychic vampires – but I’m glad I never had to put that theory to the test.

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