and less pleasant places – 6.3

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Raine often proposes solutions that are themselves new types of problem. Before I met her, the idea of breaking into a person’s home to resolve a situation would have seemed utter madness; nowadays it felt merely inevitable.

I let out a huge sigh and put my face in my hands.

“Heather? Hey, hey, it’s okay, I- ahhh.” Raine paused, and I could picture her pained smile in my mind’s eye. “Hey, she’s probably fine. I just was thinking worse-case scenarios. Most likely this is all a misunderstanding. Maybe she left Sharrowford and didn’t tell us, didn’t want to be followed, and hey, I wouldn’t blame her. Best thing for her really, start a better life elsewhere, without the cult and all that hanging over her.”

I sighed again, sat up straight, and gave Raine a deadpan stare. “Breaking and entering.”

“Yeah!”

“Elucidate for me?”

“Yeah, me too, hey?” Twil added. “You have got a plan for this, right?”

“It’ll be easy. No problems.” Raine leaned back, getting comfortable in her chair. “Her place is in one of the two old towers on Headly. Shared entranceway, so we can wait for somebody else to hold the door. Failing that, the lock should be easy to force, all you need’s a screwdriver. Kimberly’s own front door is pretty secluded, floor fourteen, number 62, last one in the row.”

Twil shrugged. “What do you need me for then?”

“’Cos I dunno what’s in there. Could be nothing, could be a man-eating tiger. I’d take Praem, but I don’t want to leave Evelyn here alone without her.” Raine gestured at me with her eyes. “And I think Heather might kill me if I went by myself and got in trouble.”

I tutted. “No ‘might’ about it.”

Twil crossed her arms and frowned. “As long as this isn’t gonna turn into a whole … thing. I have got school tomorrow morning.”

Raine nodded. “Lock-picks, not door-smashing. It’s an old cylinder lock, I’ll have it open in a couple of minutes at most. I do the breaking, you do the entering.”

“Mmm,” Twil growled, uncertain.

I flinched.

It had been a few weeks since I’d last heard that sound. She’d probably meant to grumble in thought, but the noise from Twil’s throat came out low, resonant, bestial – not a human vocalisation at all, let alone what one expected from a slender teenage girl. A thrill passed through me, suddenly aware of the exact distance between us.

Then Twil puffed out a breath and shrugged, and she was all human again.

“Take Praem if you must,” Evelyn said. She clacked over to us but didn’t sit down, tossed an open packet of chocolate digestives onto the table and extracted one for herself. “This is important. Find out what the necromancer is doing, or where she’s gone. Today.”

“Breaking and entering,” Praem intoned.

Twil jumped in her seat, startled, then frowned at the doll-demon. “Bloody hell. She’s too quiet, I keep forgetting she’s there.”

“I am precisely as quiet as I wish,” Praem said. Twil frowned at her, the suspicion of a canine for an unknown animal.

“Don’t engage with her,” Evelyn said. “Not unless it’s necessary.”

“You’re not thinking of coming with, are you?” Raine cocked an eyebrow at Evelyn. “It’s a bit of a hole round there.”

Evelyn shook her head and tapped her walking stick against her artificial leg, a dull thunk. “I don’t fancy running away if anything goes wrong, no.”

“What’s the time, getting on for twelve?” Twil asked. “We gonna do this now?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” Raine said.

“Wait, wait.” I held up a hand, feeling like I was the only sane person in the room. “What if somebody sees you breaking in, and calls the police?”

“Ahh?” Raine laughed gently. “Heather, nobody’s going to do that, trust me.”

“Round Headly? In the towers?” Twil squinted at me. “I’m from Brinkwood and even I know that no bugger’ll call the rozzers in Headly.”

“Rozzers?” I echoed. “Twil, you live in a rural village, you don’t talk like that.”

Twil grimaced and scratched the back of her head.

“Twil’s right. Whingate and Headly’s the roughest council estate in Sharrowford,” Raine said. “The other tower’s condemned, has been for ages. Police only go there in threes, or not at all. Our girl lives in a rough neighbourhood.”

“Yes, I gathered that part,” I said. “But are you certain nobody will call the police?”

Raine shrugged. “Ninety-nine percent.”

Even I’d heard of Whingate and Headly — before I moved to Sharrowford. One of those names that turned up in national crime statistics, television news pieces about knife crime and youth stabbings, a turbulent spot in the otherwise placid surface of Sharrowford’s desultory attempts at regeneration. I didn’t like the idea of Raine walking around a place like that, but she’d been there three times already and this time she’d be taking Twil. The pair of them together would probably be the most dangerous thing on that council estate. I distracted myself by grabbing a chocolate digestive, and focused on avoiding crumbs as I bit into the biscuit.

Twil stood up and knocked back the rest of her tea. Evelyn eyed her for a moment, opened her mouth and closed it again, until Twil caught her staring and spread her arms in an exasperated shrug.

“I was going to ask how things have been with your mother,” Evelyn snapped, averted her eyes, and added in a much gentler voice, “professional curiosity..”

“Weird,” Twil said. Evelyn shot her an offended frown. “I mean with my my mum, not you asking that. Simmer down, jeeze.”

“Evee’s concerned for you, Twil, she cares,” I said. “We all do. She just has a funny way of showing it.”

Funny way?” Evelyn muttered.

“We don’t want to pry,” I forged on, doing my best to ignore Evelyn’s ire, though I almost flinched. “But after what happened when your mother visited, well, we all hope your family life is going okay.”

“Ehhhh.” Twil shrugged and glanced out of the window. “Like I said, weird. Not much more weird than usual though. I mean … she’s still my mum, even if she’s … timesharing her head, I guess. Nobody in the Church will talk about it. I guess some of them are the same, yeah, got the god riding along upside their skulls?”

“Most likely,” Evelyn said, her voice tight.

Twil stared out of the kitchen window, a moment too long for comfort, watching the leaden sky and the threat of rain, the wind plucking at the unkempt grass.

For all my involvement with the supernatural, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how Twil felt about her family, about the pseudo-religion she’d grown up with, or the crippled Outsider they worshipped beneath the ruined Church out in the woods. It was like the plot of a bad horror film: a cult in the wilds, a hidden secret, a young and vulnerable girl – except Twil was anything but vulnerable. She knew all their secrets and she was still very much alive and untouched, and untouchable, as I’d seen so many times.

What on earth could I say to show her I cared? They and their ‘god’ didn’t seem so bad now, not when compared to the Sharrowford cult or Evelyn’s past. When Twil’s mother, Christine Hopton – the high priestess of the Brinkwood Church – had visited Sharrowford to offer us their dubious help, she’d been sweet and personable, hadn’t creeped me out at all until the moment I’d seen something moving behind her eyes. She was still herself, still a person, just hosting a guest in her mind.

Perhaps to Twil it was normal. Or perhaps not.

“They won’t do it to you,” Evelyn said suddenly. Twil turned to look, eyebrows raised. “I mean they won’t, you’re probably too dangerous for the cu- … for your Church’s’ god.”

Twil puffed out her cheeks and flapped her coat. “More werewolf advantage, huh? Cool. Dunno how I feel about that, really.”

“You should feel safe,” Evelyn grumbled, then picked out another biscuit, chewed on it for a moment before she continued. “My offer still stands, and don’t you forget it. You can stay here if you ever need to. You come here, to me, at the first sign of family trouble.”

“There won’t be any.” Twil looked at the floor and shrugged. “But yeah, thanks. Wouldn’t mind hanging out over a Friday night sometime.”

Evelyn grunted and turned away. I gave Twil a covert thumbs up, but she only raised a confused eyebrow at me.

“We should crack on now if we wanna get this done before dark,” Raine said, and stood up. She stepped over to me and ruffled my hair, exploited the instinctive urge to close my eyes whenever she did that. “Meanwhile, you better eat some proper breakfast, Heather. You haven’t had anything since six last night. Go back to bed if you need, yeah? Don’t wait up for us, we won’t be long, it’s probably nothing.”

“And if it’s not, what are you going to do?”

“We find anything, we’ll call. You’ll be the first to know, I promise.”

“I guess so … ”

Raine kissed me on the forehead and then flipped my onesie hood over my hair as she skipped away, left me flustering and blushing as Twil guffawed at the pair of us.

They didn’t waste any time. Raine dragged on her leather jacket in the front room, and Twil began to boast that she could run her way to the old council estate faster than a bus could take them. Evelyn didn’t show much interest, wandering back into her workshop without so much as a friendly goodbye to Twil, but I followed into the front room, hesitated, then gathered my courage and spoke up.

“I’m coming with you.”

“Heather?” Raine finished stashing something black and metallic back inside her jacket. I didn’t have to guess what that was. She smiled and shook her head. “You haven’t eaten breakfast yet, come on.”

“Then I’ll take a cereal bar. I’m coming with you.”

“Uhhh,” Twil made an idiot noise. “No offence, but Headly council estate might be a little like, out of your depth?”

“I have been in much scarier places, thank you very much.”

“Girl’s got a point,” Raine said. “She sure has.”

“Still, s’not the same, is it?” Twil shrugged. “It’s not exactly transferable skills. You can’t explode some tweaker chav with magic in broad daylight, you’ll get in right bother.”

“You can if you’re good enough at it,” Evelyn called from the kitchen.

“I’m coming with you,” I repeated. “No ifs or buts.”

“No butts, huh? Speaking of which, I could always take you upstairs,” Raine said, her voice dropping, dangerous and low. “Leave you unable to walk straight for half an hour. Then you won’t be coming with us, after coming with me.”

If she expected to defeat me with embarrassment and sexual innuendo, Raine was sorely mistaken. I felt a blush rise in my cheeks, to hear her talk to me that way in front of Twil – who was blinking at us in confusion, not sure if she was following – but I raised my chin at Raine. I had her in checkmate.

“But you want to get moving right away, don’t you?” I said lightly. “If I hold out, it’ll take you quite a while to render me incapable of standing up.”

Raine burst out laughing, boggling at me in surprise and raising her hands. “Alright, alright you got me. I’m just playing.”

Twil grimaced at us. “Bloody hell you two. Is this just an excuse to flirt? Hey, Evee! They do this all the time?”

“Yes,” Evelyn called back. “It’s obnoxious.”

“I’m not flirting, I’m serious,” I said. “I’m coming with you. That’s final.”

Raine opened her mouth, and began to half-sigh, half-laugh, but then she must have caught the resolve behind my eyes, the reason I was demanding this. She killed the laughter and tilted her head at me. “Why? Either the flat’s empty, or she’s hiding in there. Anything else is unlikely, you’re not going to miss anything important.”

“Because I’m responsible.”

“For?” Raine asked.

I wet my lips and sighed, had to think. The initial desire had been pure gut feeling, unpacking it was a challenge. “Kimberly Kemp, I’m responsible for her. From what she said when we let her go, the cult was all she had in life. No family here, and a grinding, low-paying job. You’ve met her since, do you think that’s accurate?”

Raine nodded slowly. “Yeah, yeah, it is, I think.”

“Then I destroyed what little support network she had. I’m responsible. Don’t you remember the way she looked at me? The … ” I almost shivered with distaste at the memory. “The awe? I was the one she pleaded with, I gave conditions, for her life. I’m responsible. I’d like to see her again, maybe talk to her, especially if she’s scared of us, say … I don’t know. Something. Apologise, maybe.”

Apologise?” Evelyn drawled from the doorway behind me.

“I’ll think about it on the way there.”

Raine nodded, all trace of playful humour gone. “Okay, sure, you’re with us then. But find a cereal bar first, or three. You need to eat.”

“You sure about this?” Twil looked very doubtful. “Heather, like, I get what you mean, it’s cool, poor girl’s probably scared as shit, but it’s really rough round Headly. Like, scary rough.”

“I can handle that.”

In truth I was barely considering where we were going.

Raine shrugged. “We’ll all be together, it’ll be fine. Headly’s rough but it’s hardly Afghanistan. And there’s probably nothing in that flat but mouldy bread. It can’t hurt.” Raine fixed me with an intense look, a no-questions-do-what-I-say look. “As long as you stick to exactly what I tell you to, and stick with us, right by my side. Wander off alone and you’ll have fourteen-year-olds trying to sell you drugs in five seconds, propositioning you in ten.”

“Yes ma’am.” I imitated the tone Raine used when I bossed her about, stood up straight and pulled a mock-salute. She grinned, winked at me, and Twil rolled her eyes. “Frankly, if we do find Kimberly,” I added. “It might be a little easier on her nerves if she sees me, instead of you two.”

Twil frowned, gesturing at herself. “What’s wrong with me? Raine I get, she’s a psycho, but me? Me?”

I sighed. “Twil, she watched you dismantle her zombies with your bare hands.”

“Well … yeah, she did! That was her fault.”

I gave her a look. “And that makes you less frightening how, exactly?”

“Oh, alright, fine.” Twil shrugged, doing a poor job of hiding her brief smile. I suspect she rather enjoyed the feeling of being big and scary whenever she wanted. She came up short, frowned, and looked me up and down. “Uh, you are gonna change out of that cat onesie, right? That might scare our Poundland Necromancer for a whole different reason.”

I huffed out a sigh and put my hands on my hips. Raine started laughing.

“Yes, Twil, I thought I’d wander down there in the onesie, really get the locals’ attention. What do you think?”

==

Headly council estate – a truncated double-crescent of squat brick flats between Whingate road and the distant motorway embankment, laid out like crab pincers, lined with cramped windows, pockmarked with air-conditioning outlets and little satellite TV dishes, scarred with the shadows of badly cleaned graffiti, its rot frozen by the cold – unsettled me worse than I’d expected.

Sharrowford was not in general a rough town. Every city has forgotten pits, neglected areas full of people who’ve fallen through the cracks, too poor and ground down to claw themselves out. I’d grown up in Reading, more sheltered than most due to my ‘mental illness’ and teenage isolation, but even I, mousy little Heather who never went out on the weekends, knew the reputation of places like Southcote or Whitley among my peers.

Even with Raine on my right and Twil on my left, as we walked up the long concrete pathway on the green, this place unnerved me.

Not the same way as Outside, otherworldly realms on the razor’s edge of human comprehension, or being lost in the Sharrowford cult’s pocket dimension, but a sensation more animal discomfort than fear. An itch between my shoulder blades. A tightness in my chest. A need to look everywhere all at once, but also make myself small and unremarkable.

The green between the two rows of flats was covered in scraggly brown grass, not doing too well in the winter, scared by tire-marks from bikes and littered with empty cans and cigarette ends in any convenient corner – plus several dessicated dog turds, and more than one or two used condoms. Several half-dead trees struggled up from their potting gaps between concrete slabs.

We passed a few people, teenagers – and young adults dressed like teenagers – all greased hair and imitation jewelry, smoking cigarettes in the shelter between two of the blocks, glaring out at the world as if looking for a fight. Old women made entirely of boot leather. A trio of muscled, tattooed men hanging around on a corner, one who whom had a huge, stained dressing dressing over one eye.

Twice, brave souls offered to sell us ‘smack’ – though I didn’t know what that was – or rather, they offered it to Raine, who turned them down with a shake of the head and a ‘nah thanks mate’. Once, a lad hooted something rude at us, trotting in our direction across the grass, and I’d struggled quite hard not to flinch.

Twil glared at him, barely growling, and he made himself scarce.

Terrifying god-aliens from outside reality? Sure. Evil wizards and giant zombies? No problem. Urban decay? Perhaps I’d better stay home.

Nothing was going to happen to us, not in the middle of the day, despite the low grumbling sky. Three of us, in public, with Raine radiating such an frigid aura. Nothing was going to happen.

A tiny, mad, dangerous part of me enjoyed this experience, but not for any sensible reasons.

Raine and Twil were positively intimidating.

None of it directed my way, of course. If they ganged up on me like this, I would probably pass out in mortified arousal. The feeling of being guarded, looked after, sandwiched between two of the most attractive women I’d ever known, either of whom could lift me off my feet — well, I stored those feelings away for later.

Raine held her shoulders squared, chin up, hands in her pockets, an exaggerated casual swagger to her walk, as if we were exactly where we were supposed to be. I realised I’d never seen her put on this particular front before, a defensive wall, don’t-mess-with-me. Twil, on the other hand, had somehow descended a notch or two toward her wolf-like state, but without any physical changes; a dark glower in her eyes, a subliminal threat in her musculature, an animal roll to her shoulders.

And then there was me, twitchy and nervous.

“Which tower is it? Left or right?” Twil asked quietly, as the shadow of the council estate’s crowning glory fell over us.

“The one on the left,” Raine said, her tone deceptively casual. “That’s Gleaston tower. Glasswick tower’s on the right, that’s the condemned one. Wouldn’t wanna go in there for love nor money.” She glanced down at me. “You finished all those cereal bars, right? Warmed up a bit?”

“Mmhmm.” I nodded, then cleared my throat, fighting the urge to stay small and silent, my face tucked down inside my new scarf. “Yes, I ate them on the bus. I’m fine, I’m doing fine.”

A white lie. No matter.

“Not long ‘till we get inside,” Raine murmured. She pointed ahead and up – and up, and up. “You can see Kimberly’s place from here, the corner flat on floor fourteen. Curtains are shut, but I swear that’s a light. Bathroom window, maybe. See it?”

I tried to count the floors, to follow Raine’s finger, but the pollution-stained concrete defeated my eyes.

Living in Gleaston Tower sounded like my idea of hell.

Twinned concrete monoliths, the Headly towers – Gleaston and Glasswick – sat at the point the low rise flats stuttered out into open ground. Thirty floors each of thick concrete slab, once-fashionable apartments, dingy windows and cacophonous graffiti, they tore at the sky’s underbelly over Sharrowford’s west end.

They could be worse, at least to my sensibilities. Better the texture of aged concrete than the too-clean surfaces of steel and glass such things would be built from these days. At least these had life, of a kind. Some of the higher flats in Gleaston tower sported window boxes, sadly empty this time of year, or big houseplants visible behind the glass, a pleasing counterpoint to the grey exterior. One flat near the summit flew the Cross of St George from their window, and another two the ram’s head colours of Sharrowford Football Club.

Glasswick – the condemned tower – looked awful. Every window up to the tenth story had been boarded, the wood damp and rotting from weather damage. The glass higher up had been smashed. Weeds sprouted in the concrete cracks and lichen had colonised big patches of concrete, a building with a skin disease.

The police had nailed a man-sized plastic notice in big bold letters to the boarding over the entranceway. Keep out, building condemned by order of Sharrowford council, entry punishable by £500 fine, so on and so forth.

The notice was caked with graffiti, and a board had been kicked in next to it, an entrance to the lightless interior.

At least the local spirit life seemed unruffled by the state of the place. Pneuma-somatic creatures treated Headly much the same as the rest of Sharrowford. A beefy thing like a gorilla made out of charred meat was busy climbing down the side of one of the towers, and a pack of wolfish ghoul-faced monsters lurked around the connecting alleyways, alternately chased by and sometimes chasing a tentacled lurker with a trio of huge stalked eyes, which occasionally waved over the buildings.

We crossed the junction of pathways that marked the boundary between low-rise and the tower-blocks. I checked over my shoulder, as I had every couple of minutes since we’d stepped off the bus.

I did a double-take and shuffled to a halt, pulling on Raine’s sleeve.

“Raine. Raine, she’s stopped,” I hissed.

“Tenny’s stopped?” Raine looked back, as if she had any hope of seeing our invisible fourth companion.

Tenny had indeed stopped, right at the boundary between the towers and the rest of Headly council estate, with her deep-sea black eyes upturned to gaze at the top of the condemned tower. She kept putting one tarry-black foot forward and withdrawing it again, hesitant and uncertain, her lithe, androgynous form slowly shifting as if adjusting her footing before a sleeping predator. Her tentacles waved slowly, tasting the air.

After we’d returned from down south, Tenny had resumed her habit of following me to and from university, though only about half the time. She loved to explore everything we passed, fascinated by every little detail of the world – pavement, weeds, passing dogs, glass windows, campus carpet. If Lozzie had created her, I suppose she was indeed very young. Curious and innocent?

As we’d left the house this morning, she’d ambled out of the garden to accompany us, and Raine had decided her presence was a good idea. Just in case.

“I don’t know why,” I said. “She doesn’t look comfortable with this.”

Twil stopped a few paces on, frowning hard. “Your uh, weird tentacle thing? She gone all canary on us?”

“Don’t say that. She’s not a canary. And she’s not a thing.”

“What’s she doing?” Raine asked softly.

I shook my head. “She’s not blocked, there’s no magical boundary here. She’s just … uncomfortable. Tenny?” I raised my voice very slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Can you ask her what’s wrong?” Raine said.

“In public?” I pulled a face. “Here?”

“Not like you’ll be out of place,” Twil laughed.

“I don’t know.” I felt hot under the collar, increasingly concerned, but unwilling to talk to the air in the middle of Headly council estate. Tenny just kept staring up at the tower.

“This might be important,” Raine said. “Please, Heather, for me?”

I glanced around, biting my lip and weighing my options. I didn’t like this one bit, but Raine was right, and I suppose I could make it look like I was talking to her. I nodded, swallowed my pride, and walked back to Tenny. Raine stuck to me like glue and Twil trailed along, both of them looking suitably dangerous and performatively combative.

“Tenny?” I said her name again, voice soft, as I reached out and concentrated on the act of touching one of her tentacles. The pneuma-somatic flesh went right through my glove, but I caught the appendage in my hand, smooth and oddly warm, and I held her softly. “Tenny, what’s wrong? Why don’t you want to come with us?”

Her reply came in that low, bubbling mud-voice, inhuman words at first, filtered into comprehension in the back of my head.

“ – too big too big swallow me whole.”

“The tower?” I whispered, glancing up at the concrete spar.

“Big and dark and a big mouth to swallow me whole,” she said, and I got the distinct impression she was talking to herself.

“We’re not going to that one,” I whispered to her. “It’s condemned, nobody goes there. We’re going to the other one. Tenny, over there.” I tried to point for her, show her the way with her own tentacle. She came around slowly, as if taking a risk by looking away from the condemned building.

“She doesn’t like Glasswick?” Raine asked. I shrugged.

“Don’t blame her for that, s’a shithole,” Twil said.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said, mouth dry. “Why would she react this way?”

“You know why it was condemned, right?” Twil asked. I shook my head. “There was a triple-murder up there, years and years ago, like 2003 or 2004 or something. Guy went door to door with a knife and stabbed anybody who answered, but it turned out he was actually killing people who’d got his wife addicted to heroin, plus a bystander. Straw that broke the camel’s back, lots of people moved out after. Maybe she’s picking up on bad vibes, bad history?”

Raine nodded. “Bad vibes, perhaps.”

“Bad vibes. Right.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“We’ll stay on our toes,” Raine said, deadly serious. “If she freaks out again, the smallest twitch, you call stop and we stop, no questions. Got it?”

I nodded. “It’ll have to do.”

Tenny seemed less agitated now. When I let go of her tentacle, she followed us once more, all the way up to the shared entranceway of Gleaston Tower.

We stood around for a minute or two. Raine kept up a steam of chatter as we waited for a resident to open the door so we could tailgate in behind, but when none appeared, Raine casually palmed a screwdriver from inside her jacket.

My nerves shot through the roof, butterflies in my stomach. This was it, we were on the cusp of doing something very illegal indeed.

To my surprise I was deeply excited. A small part of me screamed about how I was meant to be a good girl, a good citizen, and good people didn’t break into tower blocks they didn’t live in.

I counted my blessings, and reminded myself I had committed murder. Not such a good girl anymore, and never innocent.

Raine jammed the screwdriver into the gap between door and frame, blocking the action with her back. She jerked it up and down, then swung the door wide for Twil and I. We hurried inside, out of the winter cold and into the entranceway, all sticky laminated flooring and stippled plaster walls. Tenny crept in last, slipping inside as Raine let the door swing closed.

Wide staircases led upward into the tower on our left and right. A bank of four lifts stood at the far end of the room, their call buttons glowing noxious green. Everything reeked of that unique damp concrete scent, with hint of wet dog and tobacco smoke. I wrinkled my nose, feeling delicate.

“Right, you’ve got a decision to make,” Raine said, rubbing her hands together.

“Me?”

“Unfortunately, yeah.” She winced in apology. “I forgot about this part.”

“This place stinks, ugh,” Twil grimaced.

“S’not that bad. Bit of local colour,” Raine said, then caught my eye again. “Kimberly’s flat is fourteen stories up. Twil and I can manage the stairs, I’ve done it before, but I don’t want to force you into a long climb without warning you first. It’s a long way up, your legs are gonna get tired.”

“Why can’t we take the lifts?”

“We can, but they all stink of piss.” Raine shrugged.

“Ugh, count me out, fuck it, I’ll climb,” Twil grunted. “Floor fourteen, right?”

“There is a third option,” Raine said. I detected the hint of a smirk. “I could carry you most of the way up.”

I sighed and closed my eyes for a moment. Raine was being completely serious. “While I do adore your efforts to spare me life’s little indignities, I am a big girl and I can hold my nose for two minutes. We’ll take the lift.”

Raine laughed softly and nodded. “Right you are then.”

Twil pulled another grimace. “Wouldn’t even touch the call button if I was you. See you two up there, then? Hey, you wanna have a race? I reckon I can beat the lift.” She broke into a toothy smile and bounced on the spot, limbering up.

“Fourteen stories?” Raine almost purred, low and mocking. “No way. Not even you, lassie.”

“Sure I can. S’easy.” Twil winked at her, then at me. “What do you think, Heather?”

“I think this neither the time nor place,” I muttered, covering for how attractive I found this sudden competitive clash.

“You’re on,” Raine said. “Loser buys lunch?”

“Threetwoonego!” Twil barked, laughed, and sprinted off in a dead run straight up the stairs, coat flapping behind her, feet slapping against the concrete steps. I swear I heard her bounce off a wall, an animal grunt of effort echoing down the stairwell.

==

Knock knock knock.

No answer.

Raine rapped her knuckles against the front door of number 62, Gleaston Tower, Kimberly Kemp’s tiny flat. The sound echoed down the dingy tile-and-concrete corridor, lost around the sharp turn under the buzzing strip-lights. Twil leaned in close, listening for movement inside. I bit my bottom lip a little too hard, nerves churning in the pit of my stomach.

“Nothing?” Raine mouthed to Twil. The werewolf shook her head.

Raine knocked again, and called through the door. “Kim, it’s me, alright? I’m worried about you, yeah?”

“Won’t-” I hissed, then bit my lip again as Raine put a finger to hers. “Won’t somebody hear us?” I whispered.

Twil shrugged. “Nobody cares. And nobody’s doing bugger all in there, not that I can hear.”

Raine straightened up and slid a little folded sheath of plastic from her pocket. “Alright. We go through with the plan.”

Twil had won the race, met us on floor fourteen as the lift doors had opened, grinning from ear to ear and puffing for breath after a dead sprint up all those flights of stairs. Raine had insisted her victory didn’t count, as not only had we waited for the lift, but I’d made Raine hold the doors until Tenny joined us, tentacles crammed inside. Twil had laughed and punched Raine in the shoulder, demanding her prize.

Our shared mirth died off quickly. Raine led us into the bowels of Gleaston Tower, down the narrow connecting corridors between the flats. A few spirits lurked here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. We’d passed only one other person, a young mother pushing a buggy toward the lifts, who’d pretended not to see us. Did we really look that dangerous?

I suppose we were.

Raine unrolled the plastic sheath and extracted a pair of slender steel tools. My heart climbed into my throat. She knelt in front of door’s lock and set to work, tongue in the corner of her lips, eyes staring at nothing as she felt for the resistance of the pins inside the mechanism. Her fingers moved with such delicate care.

“Never knew you could pick locks,” Twil said.

“I can do a lot of things,” Raine muttered, distracted. “Fruit of a misspent youth.”

She squinted in concentration, grunted “there we go”, then used the thicker of the two tools to turn the lock. A solid click sounded from within the door. Raine hopped up, slid the lock-pick away, and tried the handle – very, very carefully.

The door opened an inch, hinges silent.

“You’re up.” Raine nodded to Twil. “Heather, you stick behind me, okay?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak without squeaking. To my surprise, Tenny was sticking behind me, as if I offered any protection whatsoever. She peered over my shoulder, stray tentacles drifting in my peripheral vision.

Twil eased the door wide and crept into the flat.

Raine followed, every muscle tensed and ready, one hand inside her jacket, with me in her wake.

The next few moments felt both a tense violation of social norms, and somehow farcical.

Kimberly Kemp’s flat was neither large enough nor spooky enough to warrant this kind of treatment. Small, cramped, but nicer than my old bedsit, it consisted of a very short tile entranceway – enough to spare the carpet from one’s shoes – a tiny combined kitchen and sitting room, and two doors which presumably led off to the bedroom and bathroom, the former of which was wide open on an unmade bed and some discarded clothes.

Twil’s shoulders hunched like a wary hound. She paused every pace to sniff the air, stepping into the open area of the sitting room and eyeing the doors to bedroom and bathroom.

“Knock knock,” Twil said out loud. “Anybody home?”

“Heather, close the front door behind us, please,” Raine hissed, so soft but so loud in the silence. Hands fumbling, I pushed the door shut with a resounding click, and winced.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“S’fine,” Twil said, straightening up. “There’s nobody in here.”

Tenny slid past me, investigating the kitchen space, tentacles running over the cheap heating rings and ancient dishwasher, before she lost interest and circled around Twil.

“Can you smell her?” Raine asked, voice still soft. “Smell when Kim was last here?”

Twil gave Raine an unimpressed frown. “Of course I can smell her, she lives here, you twat. She’s not a cat, and neither am I. S’not like I can tell when she last rubbed her scent on everything, can I?”

Raine shrugged an apology and moved forward into the room as well. She craned around without approaching the bedroom, trying to see inside, then slid forward and poked her head through. “Nobody here. What about the bathroom?”

“I don’t hear nothing,” Twil said. “Lemme guess, you want me to go first?”

I followed them into the sitting room area. I didn’t find it too difficult to calm my racing heart; the decor subdued my nerves.

Kimberly had spent a lot of effort making her little flat comfy and welcoming, though I was less sure about her taste. Besides a beanbag chair and a small television with a battered video game console plugged into it, the place was done up like a new age grotto. The walls sported hanging posters of majestic looking wolves in suitably fantastical forests and mountains, and a few fancy coloured crystals decorated a bookshelf, accompanied by a tacky statue of a rearing dragon.

Of the books themselves, I recognised a few titles from the fake collection of occult junk in the Medieval Metaphysics room — volumes with silver pentagrams on the front, written by people with pen names like ‘Sky Raven’ and ‘Coven Mistress Dahlia’. Through Kimberly’s open bedroom door I spied a huge poster of a rainbow-clad unicorn, in pride of place above her bed.

It would almost be sweet – if I hadn’t seen her commanding those zombies for the cult. I had to remind myself of what she’d been involved in.

A smoky, musky scent seemed baked into the air. I wrinkled my nose, sniffing.

“You smell that too, huh?” Twil asked with a wry smirk.

“What it is? I think I recognise it, but I’m not sure.”

“Weed, lots of it,” Raine announced. She pointed toward the low table in the centre of the room, the sort you’re meant to kneel at, complete with a few purple cushions and a blanket. Alongside a licked-clean microwave meal box, the table held a plastic bag full of dried green plant matter, a tab of roll-up papers, and a bag of cigarette filters. Two completed blunts lay on a small plate. “She was toking up last time I visited, didn’t think anything of it.”

“Oh, cannabis?” I blinked at the stuff on the table. This was out of my depth.

“Hey, hey, wait a sec,” Twil frowned at the drugs, shaking her head. “Nobody’d leave that much weed behind. Maybe she-”

Scritch-scratch. Ka-thunk.

We all froze. My heart leapt into my mouth. Twil flexed claws instead of fingers, and Raine pulled a familiar black metal truncheon from inside her jacket, span it in one hand.

That sound had come from the bathroom. A pair of feet kicking across a tiled floor and knocking an object over.

“Kim?” Raine called. “It’s me. Is that you in there? You need to say something, right now, ‘cos we don’t know-”

The bathroom door burst open.

Kimberly Kemp, wide-eyed and screaming, lurched at us with a knife in her hand.

Of course, in the panic and terror of the moment, I wasn’t able to piece that together anywhere near as neatly, especially as Raine grabbed me first and shoved me clear. All I knew for several pounding heartbeats was adrenaline and fight-or-flight response, my own back against the wall, Tenny rearing up in front of me at the perceived threat, Twil and Raine both shouting.

For a split-second, amid the confusion, I saw Kimberly’s face – and I knew we’d gotten this all wrong.

She was more terrified than I’d ever seen a human being. Except for myself.

Eyes wide, bloodshot and red-rimmed, ringed with heavy dark circles of exhaustion, shaking like a leaf, Kimberly Kemp didn’t really see us. She saw whatever she’d expected to break into her apartment, whatever she’d spent the last week hiding from.

“Stop, stop!” I shouted.

She lashed out with a half-blunt kitchen knife, to ward us off. Raine must have understood what I meant, because she tried to backpedal, the nightstick a poor defence against a manic blade if one wasn’t willing to cripple or kill — but Raine didn’t want to let her at me. The space was too cramped, too tight, Kimberly too wild, lost inside her own head, not really aiming for any of us. Raine raised one arm as the knife came down, to take the blade on the leather, to take the strike instead of me.

Twil caught the knife.

With her hand, point-first, right through her palm.

Metal through meat; the sound turned my stomach. I yelped, a hand to my mouth.

“Fuck!” Twil howled in pain, ripped the knife out of Kimberly’s grip, and shoved her so hard that Kimberly stumbled into the wall and sat down in a heap. “Fucking shit, fuck fuck fucking ow fuck!”

Bleeding all over the carpet, knife stabbed halfway through her hand like a Halloween prop, Twil filled the apartment with some of the loudest swearing I’d ever heard.

“I-I didn’t-” Kimberly blinked and stammered, trying to scramble back up to her feet. “Don’t- don’t hurt-”

Raine was on Kimberly in a split-second, shoving her onto the carpet, face down, a knee on her back, wrists pinned. The woman was shaking and crying, eyes whirling between us. She saw me and stopped, stared. I hiccuped, at a total loss.

“Don’t don’t don’t no no no-” she blubbered, trying to kick herself free. Raine trod on her ankle.

“Stay down,” Raine snapped.

“I- … I-I … unnh- uuh-” Kimberly whimpered through her teeth.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” I said, as loud and clear as I could make myself, voice shaking with adrenaline shock. Gently I took one of Tenny’s tentacles and encouraged her to stand down, stop waving them like an enraged octopus. “Kimberly. Kimberly. We’re not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”

She panted, staring at me, eyes puffy, but I think I got through to her.

“Speak for yourself,” Twil growled. “Fucking bitch oh motherfucker this hurts, holy shit, fucking cunt arse fuck shit.” She screwed her eyes shut and grit her teeth, letting out a long grunt from deep in her throat. “Uuurrrghhh, fuck. Goddamn, fuck knives. Fucking shit.”

“Twil, you good?” Raine asked.

“Do I look fucking good?” Twil almost roared back at her. “Fuck. You got her under control now or what?” Twil didn’t wait for an answer. She stomped over to the little kitchen and held her bleeding hand over the sink. “Uuurggh, I gotta pull this fucking bitch out now. Fuck me.”

“Then do it,” I snapped. “Or ask for help.”

Twil scowled and growled at me, but I’d hit the right nerve – pride. She pulled a savage, pain-filled grin and yanked the knife free, howling through clenched teeth. The blade clattered into the sink, followed by a thick flow of Twil’s blood. She clenched and unclenched her fist, accelerated werewolf healing already sucking the wound shut. “Never had a fucking knife in my hand before. Fuck.”

“Thanks for the assist, yeah?” Raine called to her. “I mean it.”

“I didn’t mean-” Kimberly blubbered. “I didn’t- I- but you sent- I-”

“Kimberly,” I said, struggling to keep all these spinning plates from crashing down. “Please stop trying to explain yourself. I’m sure you have a good reason.”

“She fucking better,” Twil grunted.

“Okay, let’s all slow way, way down. Okay? First off, Heather, you okay?” Raine said, her voice pitched low and gentle. That tone did more than all of my words could. I nodded, and she turned back to Kimberly. “Kim, I’m gonna take my knee off your back now, and you’re not gonna attack us again, right? Can you promise me you’re going to sit up, nice and gentle?”

“Yes, yes, I- yes. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sorry-” she hiccuped, still crying in fear. “Sorry, I’m sorry.”

Raine let off, slowly. Kimberly sat up and scrambled against the wall, still panting, staring at us, making herself as small as possible. Small and mousy, auburn hair sweat-matted, dressed in unicorn-pattern pajama bottoms and a over-sized pastel pink tshirt with a cartoon dragon on the front. She looked rough, older than she really was, a lost soul at the end of her rope. She met my eyes again and stared, utterly terrified of me.

“There’s no need to apologise,” I said.

“Yes there fucking is!” Twil snapped from behind me. “To me, for that!”

“I’m sorry!” Kimberly blurted out. “I thought you were Stack, I thought she’d come back again- I-”

“Amy Stack?” Raine asked gently. “From the cult?”

“The bald bitch?” Twil asked.

“Mm.” Kimberly nodded, frantic. “Yes, yes, her.”

“I called through the door,” Raine said. She stayed crouched, at eye level with Kimberly, watching her carefully. “Why would you think I was Amy Stack?”

Kimberly blinked at her. “But- because- she was here. She was-”

“She came here?” Raine shared a look with me. A cold hand trailed down my spine, and suddenly I didn’t blame Kimberly for locking herself away all week. Stack terrified me. “Why didn’t you call me? I told you we’d handle it if they contacted you again. You must have heard it was us out here, why come at me with a knife?”

Kimberly stared between us, frozen for a moment, as if we should already know this.

Or as if we were trying to catch her out with a trick question.

“It’s okay,” I said. She glanced at me, and I decided to gamble, play the part she might need. She’d been in Alexander’s cult, easily led and easily dominated. Perhaps she needed a firm hand, a commanding voice telling her what to do. I put on the best Evelyn impression I could muster, still shaky inside. “I’m in charge here. You know who I am, and what I do – what I can do, and I’m not going to hurt you, and neither is Twil.”

“Oi!” Twil snapped.

And neither is Twil,” I repeated, forcing a hard bite into my voice. I winced inside, I’d need to apologise for that one later. “What did Amy Stack want with you, and why did you attack us? I promise, I don’t already know. None of us do. I’m not trying to gaslight you, or toy with you. Please.”

Kimberly shook her head at me. “H-how can you not know? She was here for- on Saturday, last Saturday, she was looking for Lauren. I-I made a mistake, I wanted to- she must have seen me me go-”

A cold fist slid into my gut. A high-pitched sound rang on the edge of my hearing.

“ … Lauren?” I heard myself ask.

“Lauren Lilburne. Uh, Lozzie. You sent her here, right? She’s with you lot now, isn’t she? I d-don’t know what you did to her, b-but it’s none of my business, it’s okay, I don’t care, please don’t-”

When?” I demanded. Kimberly flinched.

“W-what?”

“Heather,” Raine murmured, and stood up, one hand on my shoulder. She squeezed, but I felt nothing.

“Lozzie,” I repeated. “When was she here?”

“L-last Friday. I thought- I thought she was with you. I thought that was your message, how she’d been, um, changed.” Kimberly rushed to explain herself, running over her own words, but I soaked up everything she said, my mind racing at a thousand miles an hour. “I let her in b-but I was too scared to ask her anything, I’m sorry, I should have- I thought you were showing me what you’d done to her. Like a … a t-threat.”

“Lauren Lilburne is my friend,” I managed, going numb all over. “I’d never- never do anything bad to her.”

Twil snorted, a humourless laugh. She didn’t know. “Yeah, fuck off, we don’t do that kinda thing. You’re too used to your cult freaks. I don’t get it, so Lozzie was here? So what? I thought she was like, ‘outside’ right now?”

“She was,” I murmured.

My blood ran so very cold.

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4 thoughts on “and less pleasant places – 6.3

  1. Heather’s so sheltered she calls weed marijuana :p The description of Kimberly’s home was pretty cute too, I bet she has a shirt with wolves howling on it.

  2. …Oh, that’s not good at all.

    Poor Twil, not even 2 chapters back and she gets stabbed. She should really demand hazard pay at this rate!

    Welp, time to either rescue Lozzie or ask for help in dealing with her, because a teleporting Outsider that has a physical link to…Inside? is exceedingly dangerous. The Eye might be a resource here, actually, it may have a lesson for throwing out Outsiders from someone’s body…huh, I was typing that almost as a joke, but writing it out it seems lke a better idea? The Eye seems amenable to teaching Heather regardless, I don’t think it would mind teaching something specific…

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