How do you prove your innocence when you don’t even remember whether you did it or not?
After a demon attack reveals Dexter’s secret – that his Gran taught him magic – the twenty-three-year-old librarian is forced to work for the local magical law enforcement agency in order to prove his loyalty, and hopefully save his grandmother from execution.
However, when someone tries to frame him for crimes he doesn’t remember committing, Dexter realizes he’ll have to start an investigation of his own. Joined by his beloved husband Eli, their best friend June, and his journalist cousin Kat, he desperately tries to prove his innocence…which is kind of difficult when gaps in his memory make him doubt everything he thinks he knows about himself.
The race against time begins. Can Dexter and his team uncover the criminals weaving the web of guilt around him before it’s too late, or is he going to lose everything and everyone he cares about?
Chapter 1, Scene 1:
I knew Nora Rowe had died in her home without anyone telling me.
I unlocked the door and my stomach dropped as I took in the sight of the small dim living room of her kit home, filled with books and old newspapers. The acrid smell of cigarettes and wood fire smoke filled my nose as I weaved my way through the stacks. Mismatched flatpack bookshelves that warped under the strain of thousands of books lined the walls. Her living room held no other furniture apart from an old TV and a worn leather armchair—the carpet covered by stained, threadbare rugs.
I flicked the first light switch I saw twice.
Why had I expected the power to work?
I walked over to the windows and pushed the dust-caked lace curtains aside.
My eyes watered as the sun poured into the room.
In the kitchen, the doors of the cupboards hung open. The only things left behind were a few cheap plastic items scattered across the scratched lino.
I stepped on a plastic cup on the floor. I wobbled on my feet for a few sick seconds before I grabbed the counter to steady myself. The sharp aluminium edge bit into the skin of my hand.
This place was a death trap!
She had over twenty library books I had to separate from the donations. My legs shook as I walked to the shelves closest to the door.
I ignored the erratic beating of my heart and the part of my brain telling me to run and pulled out my keys to flick the small key chain light on. I placed it between my teeth and examined the spines for library tags.
When the light hit the grimy glass of a small photo frame on the shelf, I saw something move behind me. I kept my eyes fixed on the glass and used my thumb to clear a spot of dust.
If it hadn’t moved, I could have ignored the human-shaped shadow reflected in the glass.
As a kid, I’d been hassled about seeing things and having an overactive imagination. When I was seven, Gran told me the truth. I shared her secret ability to see ghosts.
I turned to look at the woman who sat in the armchair.
This Nora was a couple of years older than the one who celebrated her birthday in the photo. Her gaze focused on the TV, which would have been new the year Queen Elizabeth was coronated.
I kept my gaze locked on her, blinking one eye at a time.
I slowed my breath and took a careful step backwards to the door. The back of my calf hit something that drove several points of pain into my skin.
The stack of books I knocked over sliced through my composure just as easily as it did the silence in the room, the hard covers and spines slapping against each other as they hit the floor.
“What the fuck are you doing in my house?” Nora stood and turned to face me.
I knew I’d given the game away when I jumped out of my skin and almost dropped my keys.
I made a noise like a dying rat.
She knew I could hear her.
The first thing Gran had taught me was not to let a ghost realise you could sense them. It was dangerous—a trigger for the ire of a vengeful spirit.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Your son gave us the key.”
“Worthless piece of shit. Letting strangers into my house. He stole my grandma’s dinner set for drug money before my body was cold. I saw him put it in his car before he called someone to deal with the mess.”
“I’ll just be going now.”
“Actually, I’ll be going.”
I felt a sharp pain in my chest.
I tried to breathe, but my lungs refused to move.
I couldn’t breathe!
The edge of my vision went black as I gasped for air. I fell flat on my front. I was so focused on trying to breathe, I almost missed the presence pushing at the back of my mind. It started small, a hint of a suggestion. The temptation to give in grew. This was her body. I was nothing but a figment of her imagination. Dexter wasn’t real. Nothing more than a thought exercise to see what it’d be like to be a man her grandson’s age. With each second, it pressed harder, and the urge to give in grew.
It would be easy to give in and never have another worry again. All the pain and pressure of life could vanish if I relaxed and let her take control.
I shivered as I tried to move my arms to push myself onto my hands and knees. I focused on the door. It was only a short crawl. I had to do it. For a second, my vision went entirely black.
I gathered all the strength I had and screamed. The remaining air expelled from my lungs. I took a sharp breath. I moved my stiff arms and pushed myself onto my hands and knees.
I was Dexter; I was real, and this was my body. Nothing would take that away from me.
I closed my eyes and pushed back the ghost. I wrapped a mental net around the invasive presence in my mind and forced it back through the hole where it had entered. A hole it had dug in a part of my mind I didn’t even know existed.
One arm forwards, one leg forwards, and breathe.
Move. Breathe. Move. Breathe.
I made it to the threshold and pulled the door open. I slid headfirst down the concrete stairs to lie on my back.
The pressure in my mind slowly vanished as I fell.
I opened my eyes.
Pale blue sky, almost cloudless
My eyes watered from the bright light.
The perfect day was oblivious to my plight. The mid-autumn day was hardly different from late summer. I could’ve laid there for hours, but the hot concrete felt like it was melting the skin off my back where my shirt had ridden up. I rolled onto the dead grass beside the cracked front path.
Sweat ran into my eyes as I sat up. I squeezed my eyes shut to clear my vision.
I could still feel the cold air wafting from the open door. I had to shut it. Mrs Gregory was looking for any excuse to fire me. I stood and walked to the threshold.
All I had to do was grab the handle, pull it closed, remove my hand from the handle and step back.
One quick movement.
I could do it.
As I stared, my eyes adjusted to the dim. She stood just inside, her hard eyes focused on me.
I stepped forwards and grabbed the door handle. Her hand shot out towards my arm.
Her pale, icy fingers clamped around my left wrist. I tightened the grip of my right hand around the door handle. I tucked my chin to my chest and threw myself backwards down the stairs, using the weight of my body to swing the door closed. My shirt ripped as I fell backwards; the sleeve stayed in her hand as my arm slipped free.
The air expelled from my lungs as I hit the ground.
I lay on my back and my lungs refused to work. Fixed to the spot in terror, I gasped for air as my body refused to perform. A function that was usually thoughtless had become my only thought, the pinpoint the world had narrowed to.
There was a dizzy relief as I breathed again, and after a few minutes I slowly stood.
Blood ran down my exposed arm, the only part of my body that had hit the thin concrete path.
Ghosts could touch me! Physically hurt me!
I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing, forcing back the panic attack that bubbled in the back of my mind. I knew about the possession, but the touch? Why hadn’t Gran told me? I needed to call Gran, but I knew she couldn’t help me. She hadn’t talked to me about magic since her accident when I was seventeen.
I suspected the accident was magic-related, but she’d kept silent about it.
She’d looked at me sceptically any time I’d mentioned magic afterwards, as though I spoke of childish whimsy and needed to grow up.
So I had.
I’d left Dunn and become a librarian, a nice stable job for a responsible young man who liked books.
A normal young man who had resigned himself to a life of pretending he couldn’t see the dead.
I’d somehow ended up with nowhere else to turn and ended up back in this town.
Now Gran was in America with Aunt Myrtle, so it was hard to get help.
I drove back to the library to pretend I’d been out for my lunch break.
Ashton currently lives in sunny Queensland able to enjoy the best of the Australian bush and beach. Ashton spent their first fourteen years being raised on a remote farm shaped around the remains of an old mining town. Surrounded by the skeletons of past lives and their matching ghost stories, Ashton developed a love for fantasy, horror, and dark fairy tales from a young age.
Carrying a love of ghost stories into adulthood Ashton started writing novels about magic, vampires and ghosts. Ashton decided to set The Southern Magicks in a world heavily inspired by the backdrop of the Australia bush/beach and the speculative fiction Ashton has consumed over a lifetime.