and less pleasant places – 6.6

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Two days later, on an evening of clear black skies and frosty pavements, Raine pulled her car to a stop in the Foxenden Road multi-story car park, set the handbrake, killed the engine, and turned to Kimberly and I in the back seat.

“Was gonna ask if you two feel ready.” Her grin was almost lost in the concrete gloom. “Don’t need to, do I? You look ready.”

“As much as I’ll ever be,” I muttered. I wriggled my hands into the white leather gloves I’d borrowed from Evelyn, and tucked my scarf around my throat.

Kimberly nodded and exhaled slowly and steadily. She didn’t look too shaky in the dim orange light cast by the car park’s overhead lamps. I suspected she had some cannabis in her bloodstream, but I didn’t blame her one bit. Everything tonight rested on the strength of her nerves – and her acting talent.

She didn’t need to hold it together for long; two hours from now this would all be over, one way or another.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll be okay.”

“Focus on the fun part, hey?” said Raine. “You get to hang out with some of your actual friends for a bit, right? The messy part, that’s all me and Heather. You don’t even have to stay and watch that part if you don’t want to.”

“That’s very kind of you. But … I’d rather not walk home by myself. Please.”

I cleared my throat and shot Raine a look. “You won’t have to.”

“Sure, no problem, we’ll give you a lift.” Raine shrugged. “I’ll even walk you up to your flat, make sure there’s nobody lurking about. Sounds cool?”

“Yes. Yes, thank you.”

I treated Raine to another few seconds of my best glower. She just grinned at me, attractive and infuriating in equal measure.

What Kimberly didn’t know – and what left me so irritated before we’d even begun the evening’s absurd plan – was that she wasn’t going home tonight. She was coming back to number 12 Barnslow Drive whether she liked it or not. Supposedly half for her own safety, but also half because Evelyn had demanded they meet. I suspect Evee wanted to interrogate the poor woman herself.

Raine had insisted we treat Kimberly’s nerves with cotton wool, which meant lying to her, so as not to spoil our chances of pulling off this mad escapade. The deception tasted like rotten bile in my mouth. I had an entire paragraph-long apology to deliver, not to mention some choice criticism for my friends when we got home.

I checked the contents of my pockets: purse, lipsalve for the five minute walk through the biting cold, mobile phone for emergencies, personal attack alarm for bigger emergencies, and Raine’s most recent present for me – a slender black palm-sized can of highly illegal pepper spray – for absolute emergencies.

“Wanna go over the plan one last time?” Raine asked.

I shook my head. “It’s not exactly difficult. Kimberly?”

“I’m fine too.”

“You’ve got to sell the girlfriend angle,” Raine said. “Stop high priestess spooky smelling a rat. We’ve got to get her alone. She suspects anything, then I’ll have to do this all in a much uglier way.”

“And how do you suggest we do that, Raine?” I asked. “Make out in front of the Wiccans? Dress in rainbow flags?”

I’d heard all the reasoning, three times over, but I still huffed and crossed my arms. Kimberly swallowed, and I felt even more sorry for her. She was the one who’d have to fake a lesbian relationship in front of all her old friends and acquaintances.

She hadn’t raised a squeak of protest though. Privately I wondered if she’d made this about atonement.

At least we were dressed the part. I’d played up the clean-cut student angle, a thick cream-coloured polo neck borrowed from Evelyn under my coat, and a long skirt over a pair of burgundy tights. Raine had helped me choose, helped soften the nasty bruise around my eye with foundation and concealer, and helped me do my hair too, brushed it smooth and teased the ends up. A fake date night outfit, far beyond the usual limits of my courage, but this was for Lozzie’s sake.

Kimberly still looked deeply unhealthy, but she’d cleaned up well, her auburn hair twisted back and pinned up with a pair of chopsticks, the worst of her dark eye-circles hidden with a little makeup, neat sky-blue polish on her nails. Comfortable denim jeans drew attention upward, to her hips and her showy tshirt visible through her open coat, the front printed with a rearing unicorn locked in combat with a dragon.

“Hold hands, stick close to each other, make eye contact,” Raine said. “And Kim, introduce Heather as your girlfriend. That’s all. S’easy. Just don’t make a move ‘til you see me. I’ll be right there the whole time, in case things get too weird. You won’t be in any danger, either of you.”

“What if you can’t get inside?” Kimberly asked. “I know you can pick locks, but … ”

“Then I’ll text Heather, like I said. Anything doesn’t go to plan, the smallest nut or bolt, then I text Heather, and suddenly you both have to leave because of family in hospital, or your car’s been clamped, or one of you has the shits. Walk out without explanation if you have to. We’ll be right there.” She turned to the fourth member of our little team. “Ain’t that right, Praem?”

“We shall,” Praem intoned from the passenger seat, staring straight ahead, hands folded in her lap. She’d peeled herself out of – or been peeled out of – her maid uniform, dumped unceremoniously into a pair of ugly cargo trousers and a big puffy coat.

I did feel sorry for her, but one could hardly conduct occult espionage dressed like a domestic servant.

“Bear with it for now, Praem,” I said. “Won’t take long.”

“Bearing,” Praem replied, a musical lilt in her voice.

Raine cocked a curious eyebrow at me, but I waved her down, too jittery and impatient to explain. She shrugged, smirked, and twisted around to wave a hand in front of Praem’s eyes. “You tuned in as well, Evee?”

“Evelyn says she is watching,” Praem replied.

“Have fun with Twil while we’re all away, yeah?” Raine winked at Praem, or more accurately she winked at Evelyn, watching through the doll-demon’s eyes via a paddling pool full of water in her magical workshop back home, while Twil kept her company and guarded the house.

If we’d been doing something less mad, I would have rather enjoyed the thought of those two alone with each other for several hours. I did so hope Evelyn found her courage.

“Stop wasting time,” Praem said, and I could tell those weren’t her words, the doll-demon’s musical tones warped by Evelyn’s cadence. “Fashionably late is one thing, but really late is going to look suspicious. Shit or get off the pot.”

“Right you are, right you are.” Raine laughed and rubbed her hands together, then leaned back over the seats and kissed me once, hard, on the forehead, and patted Kimberly’s shoulder. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be right behind you.”

“I still can’t believe this doesn’t make you jealous,” I said.

Raine winked at me. “Break a leg.”

==

Sheltered from the worst of the cold by the close-leaning commercial buildings of the city centre’s edge, the five minute walk from the car park to St. Helen’s road was still punishing in the January evening.

We walked hand-in-hand through the pools of orange streetlight, without speaking. Kimberly’s hand felt clammy and limp in mine, as she led me past closed sporting-goods stores and office supply places. When we rounded a corner, I looked up, and caught a brief glimpse of Sharrowford Cathedral in the distance, the beautiful stonework lit from below, before we turned down a less-used side road.

Along the pavement and leaf-choked gutter, past a hole-in-the-wall sandwich place and a greasy little pawn shop, and there it stood on the last corner before a half-lit dingy residential street.

Grey Magicks, the shop sign read, in big jagged letters faded by the weather.

I assumed the font was meant to resemble runes. It looked tacky.

Besides the unfortunate sign, the exterior of the shop struck me as quite charming. The door was short, stout wood, with an iron knocker shaped like a lion’s head. A bank of narrow, metal-latticed windows looked out on the street, overhung by oddly thick walls and glowing with soft light inside. A chalk signboard sat out the front, advertising, of all things, ‘self-confidence, good energy, and love of nature!!!!’ Each exclamation mark was written in a different colour.

Nothing gave the casual observer any idea of what the shop actually sold. Not the sort of place one wandered into without already knowing what one was in for.

“This is it,” Kimberly breathed. Her eyes darted up and down the darkened street as we stopped on the opposite pavement. I did my best to conceal my own nerves. The last thing the star of tonight’s show needed was my second-hand jitters.

“We’re late, but that’s fine. That’s part of the plan. Everyone else must already be here.”

“I was-” She swallowed and sniffed. “I wasn’t looking for others. I was looking for Raine.”

Kimberly hadn’t really led me here, of course, and she knew that too. Raine would never leave such an important factor to chance. We’d used Google maps to check out the route, the layout of the surrounding streets, and even dug up a picture or two of the interior of Grey Magicks – although I seriously doubted I’d remember any of the details in a crisis. For now though, I knew exactly what to expect, inside and out. No surprises.

The last 48 hours had not been easy, not on anybody except Raine – she hadn’t been able to suppress her relish at embarking on this kind of mischief, which for once didn’t put me in explicit danger.

I, on the other hand, had spent every spare minute since Sunday wracking my brains for another way to find Lozzie. It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in this plan, but I couldn’t bear the waiting, the not knowing, the dwelling on what Lozzie might be going through as I pretended everything was normal, went to university classes, slept and ate and felt useless.

Could we go back to the little park where she vanished Outside, could I somehow trace her from there? Did Evelyn have a way – her answer was not encouraging: maybe, perhaps, with the right tools, if, if, if. Could I somehow follow her trail Outside, do it myself, alone, unprotected? That line of thought terminated last night, with me sobbing in the bathroom, the door locked behind me, as I’d tried to summon the courage. Raine had found me first, of course.

Which part of Sunday’s news got to Evelyn so badly, I was never really sure. She didn’t care much for Lozzie, I knew that, but I trusted in the basic goodness of her heart, and I chose to believe at least part of her frantic attitude was born from care.

She’d demanded to speak with Kimberly, ranted and raved about an Outsider loose in Sharrowford, locked herself in her workshop for the whole of Sunday night and emerged again to interrogate me about Lozzie’s behaviour. She couldn’t wait either, but neither did she have a solution.

“Espionage,” I whispered to myself as I gathered my wits and prepared to cross the road. “If only my mother could see me now.”

Kimberly attempted a smile. She was shaking.

“Just remember what Raine said,” I murmured, squeezing her hand. “Act like nothing’s wrong.”

She nodded. Her eyes were unreadable dead pools of sterile blue ice. “I won’t let you down. I promise.”

I did have some inkling of what she was bottling up, didn’t I?

I nodded toward Grey Magicks, at the faux-rustic building, and completely failed to make my point properly when I opened my stupid mouth. “You know, I’m pretty sure Evelyn Saye believes in God.”

“ … I … o-okay.”

I sighed, both at myself, and at Kimberly’s meek acceptance of my non-sequitur. “That didn’t come out right. And it’s not entirely accurate, either. I think Evelyn believes in God, on some level. She told me this complex metaphor once, for reality, about a castle, and how, well, a castle has to have a builder. I’m not saying she’s Christian, that would be absurd, but she believes in something.” Kimberly eyed me warily, so I forged on, trying to explain myself. “I’d never really thought about it before, but considering everything people like us have seen, perhaps it’s difficult to not believe in something, at least. What I’m trying to say is … all that stuff, in there,” I nodded toward Grey Magicks. “It’s as valid as anything else. Perhaps you don’t have to give up on it.”

Kimberly blinked several times and looked away. “I don’t know … ”

“I’m sorry. This probably isn’t the best time to discuss that.”

“No. No, it’s okay. Maybe you’re right. I don’t know anymore. I wish I’d never found religion.”

I squeezed her hand again, and this time she squeezed back, no longer so limp.

“Nothing more to do out here,” I said, my heart fluttering too hard in my chest. We were perfectly safe. Raine was nearby, and so was Praem. All we had to do was pretend for an hour or two, and then we’d have a talk with Catherine Gillespie.

A little chat, that was all.

==

The Wiccan coven meet was technically called an ‘esbat’, although I wasn’t informed exactly what that word meant.

It was also exactly what I expected it to be, and despite my best efforts it all felt quite silly indeed.

Fourteen regulars were in attendance on this Tuesday evening, though apparently the coven proper was over double that size. This was only a bi-weekly extra, for those who had the time and inclination on a week night. I spotted a few faces I very vaguely recognised from campus, but not all the Wiccans were young impressionable hippie-adjacent women, not by a long shot.

A trio of older ladies – and one much older gentleman – formed the emotional bedrock of the congregation, and they looked the part to absolute perfection. All long grey hair and faces crinkled from lifetimes of smiling, wearing pentagram pendants and comfortable cardigans, fanciful old tattoos on liver-spotted arms. They were already sitting and chatting in comfortable chairs toward the back of the store’s floor space, in a nice large cleared area before a desk which obviously served as the shop’s till while open, but was now covered with a white cloth and several ritual items – wooden bowls, a blunt knife, a silver mirror, lots of scented candles.

The rest of the coven was a mixture of fresh-faced bright young things, and middled aged women, though to my shameful surprise it wasn’t all women. Why had I expected that?

Three other men were here, one a huge barrel-chested giant of a man with enough hair to drown an elephant, who was meditating quietly when we entered, sat on the floor with his eyes closed, legs crossed, hands balanced on his knees.

Four of the younger Wiccans in their 20s – Kimberly’s old friends from before the Cult got her, as I was about to discover – were wearing crowns of fake ivy, and despite myself I thought it looked sort of sweet, especially as they were the ones to perk up and greet Kimberly first. We’d barely gotten through the door and out of the cold, when we were suddenly surrounded by a storm of attention.

“Kim! You’re back again!”

“Oooh, who’s this with you? Hello!”

“Give us a hug, Kim. Here, don’t be a stranger.”

“Thought we’d lost you yet again when you weren’t here Saturday. Can’t stay away, eh?”

“I’m- I- yes.” Kimberly managed a shaky smile, and gave the requested hug to a particularly plush looking friend of hers. “I can’t stay away, you’re very right there, yes. T-this is Heather.” She held up my hand, still in hers, and her friends took her nervous awkwardness in their stride. “She’s- she’s my girlfriend.”

“Oooh, lovely to meet you, Heather.”

“Yes!” One of them clapped. “Well done, Kim, about time you found somebody again.”

“Is this your first visit?” Another asked me. “Have you ever been to a Wiccan esbat or sabbat before? You do look a bit nervy, it’ll be fine, promise. You don’t have to do anything.”

“Oh, look at her, she’s so cute! You’re tiny! How tall are you?”

“Um, not- uh- not very.” A terrible blush crept up my cheeks, though not for the reason Kimberly’s friends assumed; for a split-second Kimberly was not the liability here – I was, and I almost cracked.

All I could do was smile and nod.

But that’s what I’d do if this situation was for real, wouldn’t I? Brought on an awkward date, surrounded by kooky neopaganism, intimidated by a gaggle of older girls.

I smiled, and I nodded.

“Heather,” Kimberly continued, with a real smile on her face now as she indicated her friends one by one. “This is Ginny, and this is Kate. The one who is about to hug you, that’s Natalie, and last but not least, this is Spike.”

“S-spike?” I stammered, already forgetting which names went with which faces. Unlikely I’d ever seen any of these people again after tonight.

“It’s a nickname,” ‘Spike’ said, and the others all laughed. She didn’t look much like a ‘Spike’, with long curly brown hair and big glasses. I smiled and nodded, and went with the flow.

“Come along you two, now you’re here. It won’t be long now, they’re about to start,” one of them said.

We all wandered down the length of the shop together, past bookshelves and wooden racking, glass cases and display tables, all filled with glossy ‘occult’ texts, fancy ritual tools, crystal balls, statuettes, robes, and all manner of pagan knick-knacks. At one point a large orange cat got under our feet, purring loudly and looking for attention. One of the girls picked him up and carried him along with us.

Over the next ten minutes of settling down in a rough ring of chairs and stools in the cleared portion of the battered old store, I couldn’t help but notice that Kimberly positively transformed as she spoke to her coven-mates. She smiled without forcing her expression, sat up straighter, spoke without being spoken to – and not only to her old friends either. Almost everybody greeted her by name, and some asked if she was coming back for good this time. The much older gentleman in one of the comfortable chairs actually stood up and crossed the circle, and Kimberly all but bounced out of her seat to give him a friendly hug.

“Are you staying this time, Kemp?” he asked her. “We’ve all missed you dearly. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’m … I’m sorry, Jerry. I hope so, yes, I do hope so,” she said after a moment, then turned to me. “Heather, this is Gerald Hower. He’s been here the longest, and he owns the shop. Jerry, Heather. She’s my uh … mine.”

Couldn’t quite lie to the old man, could she? A surrogate father figure. Better than Alexander, at least.

“Oh. Welcome, you’re very welcome.” He nodded to me and beamed the sort of smile that only genuinely kind old men can. “I hope you decide to come back too. Might be a bit spooky, your first time, but don’t you worry.” He gave me a broad wink.

“I’m quite good with spooky,” I said, and smiled. At least in that, I could speak the truth.

A middle aged woman – perhaps in her fifties, wearing a rough-spun green robe over her clothes – stepped up behind the table with the white cloth and rung a tiny silver bell. All fell silent, and my heart climbed into my throat. She smiled at everyone present, open and welcoming, crow’s feet in the corners of bright eyes, as she raised both hands. Loose dark hair fell about her shoulders, and she wore more makeup than most, heavy lashes and long false fingernails.

“I declare this esbat, begun,” said Catherine Gillespie.

==

She didn’t recognise my face, didn’t know me, was none the wiser – and didn’t seem surprised to see Kimberly still alive and breathing.

Or perhaps Gillespie had plenty of practice concealing her true feelings.

I wasn’t as singled out as I might have felt, because there were two other first-timers in attendance that night: a young woman about my age, and the twelve year old granddaughter of an another coven member. The little girl was certainly much more nervous than I, even though when this was over she’d be off home to bed, whereas I’d be staying behind to do things both illegal and cruel.

The proceedings felt very silly to me, from the moment Gillespie led the group in a prayer – though they didn’t call it a prayer – to ‘beseech the Goddess and God for help and comfort, love and support’, all the way through the whole hour and a half of greetings, coven news, and then a great big ritual they organised in the middle of the floor. Chalk pentagrams with candles and lacquered wooden offering bowls at the corners, lots of chanting and flowery language, a blunt silver ritual knife and cups of spiced wine.

Despite my assumptions, the ‘high priestess’ didn’t actually lead the ritual. That was left for the older gentleman, Gerald, who I gathered had been doing this sort of thing for a long time indeed. To my surprise, he invited Kimberly to help him.

She lit up so much, waving around those bowls of rose-scented water.

The ritual was a petition for for aid, a “magical working to encourage the good health and speedy recovery of one of us who cannot be here today,” Gillespie said. One of Kimberly’s friends leaned over to me and explained that one of the younger members of the coven was in the hospital. Leukaemia.

At least these people’s hearts were in the right place. I was starting to understand why Kimberly valued this, no matter how silly it felt.

Would my reaction have been any different this time last year? What I felt was not the mere embarrassed scepticism of a lifelong agnostic, or the usual polite British distaste for ostentatious displays of religion, but a much deeper absurdity, one which only emerged in full once the coven started their ritual.

As they chalked their pentagrams on the floor, I couldn’t help but compare this to the very real magecraft I’d witnessed over the last few months. The blood and pain, the eye-searing magic circles, the languages that were never meant to be spoken with human mouths. This was like children playing dress up in adult clothes, and it made me uncomfortable – and more than a little sad.

I did my best to seem attentive and interested, sitting on the sidelines with the other observers, as I focused all my real attention on watching Catherine Gillespie.

Twil hadn’t liked that our target was named Catherine. “S’my mum’s name, isn’t it? That’s just weird. Ugh,” she’d complained.

“Maybe we put the wind up her bad enough, she’ll change it for you,” Raine had said, elbowing Twil in the ribs.

Gillespie didn’t look like the sort of woman who would funnel vulnerable victims to the likes of Alexander Lilburne and the Sharrowford Cult. An icy shard of doubt settled in my gut as I watched her smile at the other coven members, exchange encouraging words with her flock, counsel those who looked up to her. Her whole bearing radiated motherly kindness.

Could this be a trap?

Could Kimberly have lied to us?

No, paranoia. Nothing more. My eyes flickered to the back of the cramped, junk-packed store, to the two doors that led into the back, to where Raine likely now lurked.

The ritual ended with an offering – cake and wine – lifted on a tray over the pentagram, dedicated to their deities, and then laid down on the table to be shared out among us mere mortals.

The atmosphere descended into something more like a party than a religious gathering.

It was utterly exhausting.

I’ve never been a social butterfly, or even a social moth. Pretending to be Kimberly’s girlfriend, and interested in Wicca, and keep track of Gillespie, and ready myself for the moment we put the plan into action? I felt ready to spin apart.

One of Kimberly’s friends pressed a cup of spiced wine into my hands. I pretended to sip, pretended to follow the chatter, gave answers that I forgot as soon as I’d said them. Had to keep my wits about me. Kimberly returned, all smiles, but faltered when she caught the look in my eyes.

“Heather. I’ll uh, yeah. I’ll go have a word with her. I’ll be right back. Right back.”

I watched Kimberly in the corner of my eye, pulse heavy in my throat, heart tight inside my ribcage, as she slipped back through the crowd to seek a private word with Gillespie. She found her high priestess and took her briefly to one side. I heard Kimberly’s words inside my head, the ones we’d rehearsed.

‘I brought Heather tonight because our … mutual friends, they suggested to me that she should be introduced, through yourself.’

This was the fulcrum on which the plan turned. The entire reason for this absurd setup.

We had to get Gillespie alone, but the problem was how. If she really was connected to the Cult, she’d be cautious, and possibly paranoid of discovery. We needed her curious – why had Kimberly come back again, who was this with her? – but not spooked by the obvious, open threat of somebody like Raine turning up.

I readied myself to break for the front door, for the plan to crumble, but Kimberly held her nerve. Gillespie glanced my way, and put a reassuring hand on Kimberly’s shoulder, and nodded to herself.

Kimberly made her way back over to me and took my hand for real, not just for appearances sake. Her smile was frozen, her palm clammy. I squeezed, and she squeezed back. I watched for Gillespie to pull out a mobile phone or disappear into the back, but she did neither.

Slowly, agonisingly, the gathering wound down. People began to dibble away into the night in ones and twos. Kimberly’s friends asked if we would walk with them.

“We’re going to stay, actually,” Kimberly jumped in for me. “Heather wants to ask Catherine about initiation.”

That earned me many approving noises and another hug, but it didn’t help our cause. If even one person lingered with us, the plan was off. We were counting on Gillespie’s assumed need for secrecy.

Eventually, when there were only half a dozen people left inside Grey Magicks, Gillespie came to see me.

“Heather. Heather Morell, yes?” Her voice was soft and slow. She greeted me with a big smile and an extended hand, which I shook. Dry and cool. “Kim’s told me a little about you, that you’re very interested in us, in perhaps joining the coven? I’m delighted to hear that, we’re open to all here. Have you enjoyed today?”

“Yes, quite,” I nodded, and looked at Kim. “We both have.”

She smiled broadly again. “I hear you’re also … ” She paused, the air pregnant with unspoken meaning. Another coven member called to her from the door, interrupting us. Gillespie raised a hand to wave goodnight. Only two left to leave now, a pair of women talking over by the table. Gillespie turned back to me. “I hear you’re also interested in certain … deeper mysteries, yes?”

“Oh, yes.” I tried to look awestruck and naive, widened my eyes, nodded eagerly, and hated it. “Yes, yes indeed. Kimberly told me you might have … ways.”

Oh damn it all, I wasn’t pulling this off. I sounded like an extra from a bad Hammer Horror movie, the sort Raine liked to laugh at. A young woman in a white dress about to be drained by a vampire.

But it worked.

“Ways and means, yes, ways and means,” Gillespie purred. “Witchcraft can be a rewarding path, and there are others with so much more knowledge and wisdom than I. If you like, I can set up an introduction.”

“Perhaps we should-” Kimberly almost squeaked, then took a shaky breath. “Talk about it somewhere. In private?”

“A lovely idea, Kim, certainly.”

Gillespie turned to the two lingering coven members, told them she was going to speak with us about initiation – a sensitive, personal matter, individual to every aspiring witch. They bowed out, with much approval and serious promises to be here on the coming Saturday. The front door of Grey Magicks closed with a soft click. Gillespie went over to turn the latch.

“We do have much to discuss, girls, much to discuss. Shall we?”

We had her now. I tried not to shake with nervous tension.

Gillespie ushered us into the store’s back room, and I discovered that twenty-first century witches still need computers. It was far less fancy than the front of the shop, despite a pentagram on one wall and a fertility goddess mural on another. A compact office space with a dusty computer on an old desk, cardboard boxes full of excess stock on the floor – and a single open doorway connected to a cramped, dark storage area.

Our host settled herself into the old wooden office chair next to the desk, and gestured with a smile at a trio of plastic chairs opposite. “Please, girls, please do sit down. Make yourselves comfortable. I can’t offer you any tea in here, sadly, Jerry doesn’t believe in kettles.”

She had her back to the open door to the storage area. Perfect.

Was Raine ready? She needed to be, needed to make her move now. I couldn’t wait any longer.

Couldn’t wait any longer? For what?

Oh.

A shard of ice, a remnant of an old feeling, wormed it’s way into my chest.

“T-thank you, Cathy,” Kimberly said, and half sat down before she realised I wasn’t moving a muscle. She straightened back up, eyes glued on me, going white in the face.

“Kimberly, dear, whatever’s the matter?” Catherine asked, frowning gently. “Now, I thought you were-”

“Do you know a man named Alexander Lilburne?” I asked.

The words came out low and easy. Not part of the plan, not at all.

Gillespie blinked in polite surprise. So measured, so reasonable, so kind.

She disgusted me on a level I hadn’t time to process. She’d all but confessed her involvement with the Cult already, and I seethed inside with a cold certainty I hadn’t felt since I’d faced Alexander. No more delay, no more waiting, no more pretending.

“Yes,” she said at length, then drew herself up straighter, gathering her confidence again. “Yes, that name belongs to an old friend of mine, in fact, if you’re referring to the same person. Do you happen to know-”

“When’s the last time you saw him?” I said.

She frowned, and her mask finally began slipping, that slow motherly benevolence falling away. “ … who are you, exactly?”

“The woman who killed him.”

Gillespie’s face froze, but only for a second. She rose to her feet in a rush, thundering at us with an outraged frown. “Who on earth are you? Kimberly, who is this girl? And don’t be so absurd. Lilburne, killed by some- some- whatever you are?”

Behind her, a shadow detached itself from the doorway into the darkened storage area, rippling into the light with razor-sharp precision, every muscle held tight.

Raine slipped toward Gillespie’s back on silent feet, eyes glued to her target, matte black handgun held casually at her side.

If I hadn’t been so focused, that sight would have given me the shivers, and not in a bad way. With an effort of will, I resisted the urge to look. Kimberly failed, and her wide-eyed stare gave the game away.

Gillespie turned – but Raine was faster. The high priestess found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“And a good evening to you,” Raine said to her, face splitting with a grin. “Now be nice, and sit yourself back down.”

“Who- who- what are you? Who- what-” Gillespie went white in the face.

Praem stepped out of the back stockroom too, hands clasped, eyes staring at nothing. I let out a shuddering breath and realised how badly my knees were shaking. Kimberly backed away a couple of paces, swallowing loudly. We hadn’t warned her about the handgun.

“Hey there you two,” Raine said to us without taking her eyes off Gillespie. “Took your time. We almost ran out of things to talk about, didn’t we, Praem?”

“Hey yourself,” I managed to breathe.

“Who- who are you people? What is this?” Gillespie asked.

“I thought I told you to sit down?” Raine asked, smiling, all calm and casual. “The next question you ask, I’ll break your nose. That’s a promise. Sit. Down.”

Gillespie sat down, slowly and carefully, eyes wide with terror, hands shaking as she grasped the chair’s armrests. I would have felt sorry for her, if it wasn’t for what came out of her mouth next.

“I’m no apostate!” she cried out. “I’ve not breathed a word to anybody, I’ve kept every secret, I swear! I’ve not spoken to the police, my husband, anybody. Nobody knows. Nobody.”

“Knows about what?” Raine asked, grinning.

“The … the … ”

“Answer her,” I hissed.

“The supply agreement. The scum. Is it not enough? I can always find more, there’s always more out there. Don’t, please don’t!”

Raine raised her eyebrows, feigning polite interest. “Sounds like we got the right person.”

“Yes. We have,” I managed, staring at this unassuming woman. The Sharrowford Cult’s supplier.

“Unfortunately for your future health prospects, we’re not from the Sharrowford Cult,” Raine said to her. “We’re more like a wild card. About to get wild all over your face, if you don’t tell us what we want to know.”

Gillespie frowned, and her panic drained away as quickly as it had mounted. She tugged her robe straight, and then to my utter amazement she stood up again, ignoring the handgun pointed right at her.

“Kimberly,” she snapped. “This is completely unacceptable. Your masters will hear of this behaviour, I swear they will.”

“No they won’t,” Kimberly said, voice filling with unaccustomed nervous confidence. “Because they’re all dead. Weren’t you listening?”

“Don’t be so insulting. You expect me to believe-”

“You’re not talking to her,” Raine said, amused. “You’re talking to me. Sit down before you hurt yourself.”

“Absolutely not. Who do you think you are, ordering me to do anything?” Gillespie drew herself up and tried to look down on Raine – which didn’t work, because she wasn’t tall enough. “If you’re not with the Brotherhood, then you should know I have Alexander’s personal protec-”

Raine punched her in the nose.

Gillespie sat down, sudden and hard, crying out in pain with one hand cradling her face. “Ah- ahh- ow- ah!”

“Who do I think I am?” Raine grinned. “That counted as a question. Did warn you I’d break your nose. Fair’s fair.”

“Fair’s fair,” Praem echoed from the doorway. Gillespie stared her for a second, wounded and shocked, bleeding down her face.

Raine loomed over the high priestess. “Look, Gill – can I call you Gill? Maybe you’re not scared of the gun, maybe you think this is a toy or something. It’s not, and I will shoot you in the head if you keep giving us shit. We’ve got plenty of other ways to find out what we want to know, you just happen to be the easiest. If you make it harder, we’ll take the next easiest. Get me?”

Gillespie’s eyes roved the room, as if searching for help. She settled on Kimberly and I.

“She’ll do it,” I said.

Kimberly nodded, and did her part with commendable gusto, though I suspect she didn’t need to act. “She has- she’s s-shot people before, right in front of me. Please. Please give her a reason to. I hate you.”

Gillespie straightened up, slowly, gathering her dignity and poise again, and looked us all in the eye one by one, nose bleeding. “You may address me as Catherine. What is it you want to know?”

Raine glanced at me. I was supposed to ask the question, that was the script – but I couldn’t speak, gripped by a growing cold anger inside my chest. I hadn’t even flinched when Raine had lashed out, I could only think about one thing.

What had Gillespie meant by ‘supply agreement’ – and ‘scum’?

I knew, didn’t I?

“You have a way to contact the Cult – or what’s left of them, since we tore them up. We know that,” Raine said eventually. “Kimberly came back to your Wicca happy hour, and you told your contact, because then she got hassled. Maybe you even know where they hang out these days, and you’re gonna tell us.”

“I have a contact, who visits me, not the other way around. I have no way of reaching them outside of that, which I cannot predict, or direct. I don’t know what it is you people want, but you’re meddling in things you don’t understand.”

“Shut up,” I hissed. “Answer the questions.”

Gillespie scowled at me.

“Who’s the contact?” Raine demanded. Gillespie crossed her arms.

“Alexander Lilburne cannot possibly be dead. Don’t take me for some fool, I know how the world really works. Killed by some slip of a girl? Don’t make me laugh, this is ridiculous. I shan’t answer a single further question, and I shall call the police.”

She reached for the battered cordless phone on the desk, but Praem was there first, hand on the receiver. The doll-demon stared into Gillespie’s eyes, and the high priestess recoiled at what she saw there.

“What- what are-”

Raine sighed and levelled her handgun at Gillespie’s head, an unimpressed smile on her face. “I wasn’t bluffing, you know? Don’t make this difficult.”

“What are you going to do, shoot me?” Gillespie almost spat. “Here, in the middle of the city? A dozen people will hear the gunshot, and you’ll never get away with it. You children have absolutely no idea how the world works, how your coddled little lives are kept safe – by people like me. You won’t shoot, you can’t possibly do it. Get that thing out of my face.”

Raine’s tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth, and for a split-second I thought I saw her finger tighten on the trigger – but that wasn’t why we were here. She glanced at me, smiled sadly, and shrugged.

“I did say no killing,” I muttered, cold creeping out of my chest and into my brain.

“Don’t you worry, we came right prepared for that.” Raine lowered her gun. “Praem, hold her down.”

“What?” Gillespie swivelled in her chair. Raine dug a sock out of her jacket pocket, one that I knew was loaded with a bar of soap in the end. “No, don’t you dare! You-”

“Stop,” I said, barely able to get the word out. “Praem, you too. Don’t touch her.”

“ … Heather?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “We talked about this. You don’t have to watch us hit her.”

I shook my head, and took a step toward Gillespie. She scowled at me like she’d found me on the underside of her shoe. “That’s more like it,” she muttered.

“What did you mean, when you said ‘scum’?” I asked.

She blinked at me. “I don’t recall-”

“She means me,” Kimberly blurted out, voice blurred by bitterness and suffocated anger. “People like me.”

“I most certainly do not mean you, my dear. You’re a valuable addition to the Brotherhood of the New Sun, aren’t you? You’ve found purpose, and acceptance, and something useful and important to do with your life.”

“Answer the question, or I will do to you what I did to Alexander.” My voice emerged with a shake, a strange, cold anger. It rushed through me, almost beyond my control.

“Don’t be so sanctimonious, you know exactly what I mean. The Brotherhood does good work, necessary work. Have you seen the filth-filled tent villages growing like mushrooms by the motorway? There’s no helping those people. They’re all drug addicts and illegal immigrants. You saw my coven, this night, you saw the sorts of decent, vulnerable girls those animals prey on, and now you’re blaming me for helping clear them off the streets?”

“You funnelled the homeless people to the cult.” Raine nodded slowly. “Makes sense. You look pretty non-threatening.”

Gillespie raised her chin. “As I said, necessary work. Don’t you dare look at me like that, none of you have the courage.”

I took another step toward her. “I saw dead children. In a cage.”

She rolled her eyes and huffed. “Don’t be so absurd, you saw nothing of the sort. And where? Where exactly did you see this? You, you are play-acting. Virtue signalling. Who do you expect to convince, here?”

“I’ve changed my mind. You don’t get to live.”

I moved before the others could react, before Raine could stop me, before the cold certainty abandoned me to doubt. It took only a split-second, clarity and speed born of indignant rage.

I reached out and grabbed Gillespie’s wrist.

Out.

The equation, the one I knew so well, spun into place with a wrenching of my skull and a heaving in my guts. I grasped the dripping black levers of reality, and pulled hard.

Gillespie vanished.

I reeled away and almost fell over, clawing at the edge of the desk before Raine caught me. Blinking through stabbing headache, nose bleeding, I groped for the office’s waste paper bin, into which I promptly vomited.

“Oh Goddess, oh, oh-” Kimberly was panting.

Raine helped me sit down on the floor, bin between my knees as I spat bile. I shook all over, half from the brainmath and half from adrenaline. Raine passed me tissues from a packet to wipe my bloody nose, as she gently smoothed my hair out of my face.

“You okay? Heather? Breathe slowly, yeah?”

“Ehh,” I croaked. “Been better.”

She handed me an almost empty bottle of water, and I sipped the dregs to wash the taste of sick from my mouth. “Gotta admit, Heather, I didn’t see that one coming. Would’a brought more water along if I’d known you were gonna do that.”

“You were homeless once,” I croaked.

“Sure. I just thought, you know, we were meant to be bluffing?” She looked over at the now empty chair with a rueful sigh. Kimberly walked over and touched the chair’s arm, then stared at me.

“That’s our lead gone then,” Praem intoned, and I knew it was Evelyn speaking through her.

“We are bluffing,” I grumbled, blew my bloody nose into a tissue, and squeezed my eyes shut. “I can bring her back. The map. S’possible now.”

“If she survives,” Praem said.

“She’ll be fine. As long as she closed her eyes on the way, I suppose.”

Raine raised an eyebrow at me, rubbing my back. “You sent her somewhere specific, didn’t you?”

I nodded. “Place I slipped to as a teenager. Windowless metal halls, darkness, things moving. It’s bad. Everywhere Outside is bad. This won’t kill her. Leave her there for ten minutes, should be enough.”

“Right.” Raine nodded. “Right you are then.”

We spent those ten minutes going through the office, just in case, though the only thing we found was Gillespie’s handbag, which contained nothing incriminating or out of the ordinary. Well, Raine did that, while I sat in a heap and tried not to be sick again, and Kimberly vibrated with terror and awe.

“Time’s up,” Praem said, and it felt far too soon, but I nodded and closed my eyes.

“Do you need to go touch the chair?” Raine asked.

“No. I only need to concentrate. And this is going to hurt, come touch my head, please.”

In truth the hyperdimensional mathematics was relatively simple, at least in theory. Now I had the map, the pathways, the vectors through which matter could pass, all I had to do was reverse the equation – but I’d never done it before. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I could bring Catherine Gillespie back.

I hadn’t really been bluffing either, but I kept that to myself.

Catherine Gillespie did not deserve to live. I knew I had no right to judge, certainly not to torture her by sending her Outside, but I’d done it anyway.

Alexander may have been the head of the snake, but by himself he would have been nothing. Dark Lords only exist in fantasy stories, real people need support networks. Alexander Lilburne had willing helpers, followers, people who turned a blind eye, others bribed or bought out for the price of their humanity, along with those who rationalised evil to themselves – as Gillespie had done so openly, right to our faces.

Slamming my mind back through the equation, clenching up hard on the roiling in my guts as I pieced it together with the map, I wasn’t certain I even wanted to bring her back.

Had I thrown away our only lead to Lozzie, in order to satisfy my righteous anger?

I was turning into something I didn’t like very much.

“Unnn,” I grunted, grit my teeth, endured a spike of pain battering through my forehead.

I dragged the high priestess back from Outside, back to our reality.

Then I vomited into the bin again, wining, my head throbbing.

Gillespie had fared far worse.

She was curled up in a ball on the floor, panting and shaking, cringing in on herself like a wounded insect. Perhaps she’d found a corner in which to wedge herself, out there. Her face had turned bone pale, eyes wide as saucers, makeup running from her tears. Strange sticky white dust covered her shoulder and one arm, where some Outside creature had brushed against her, investigated this terrified fragile ape. She’d lost control of her bladder, too.

Her eyes whirled between us, sanity hanging by a thread.

“You deserved that,” Kimberly hissed. Raine just rubbed my back, shaking her head, not even bothering to level her gun at the broken woman I’d brought back.

“Can you speak?” I croaked, quashing my self-directed horror. I’d done this thing, now I had to make it worthwhile. For Lozzie.

“I-I-I c-can! Yes! Y-yes. I’ll tell you- anything- anything. Yes, y-yes.” Gillespie lurched to her feet, unsteady and shaking all over. Raine rose too and covered her with the gun, but there was no need. The high priestess stared down at the sticky dust on her shoulder and arm, an empty thousand-yard stare glassing over her eyes. “Oh. Oh G-goddess. Where was that? Where- An illusion, you- no, no that wasn’t real, can’t be real-”

“Do you want to go back there?” I asked.

“No! Please! Please no, not again.” She scrabbled for her handbag on the desk. “They gave me money- paid me well. Lots of money. I’ll give- give- give-” Her open purse spilled from her fingers as she tossed banknotes on the desk.

I sighed. “Tell us about the Cult.”

“Cult. The Brotherhood of the New Sun. Yes. Yes, I-”

She told us everything, most of it both useless and horrifying, about the supply line she’d established for the Cult, luring vulnerable homeless people with promises of help or shelter. She babbled every secret she had in sheer animal desire to never, ever go back to the place I’d sent her. I’d broken this woman, tortured her, and while I managed to keep my expression neutral, self-disgust boiled inside me.

She deserved it, part of me whispered, and it was right.

But I still felt sick.

“T-the visits, that wasn’t a lie. I-it’s only once every few weeks, and never the same time. I can’t lead you to them, I don’t know where, please- please don’t-”

“Who visits you?” Raine asked. “Give us a name, or a description.”

“Stack,” Kimberly said.

“Amy Stack, yes, a-a s-sort of thug, or something. I swear, I don’t really know-”

“We know of her,” Raine said with a nod. “Keep going.”

“She came here last week, and of course, I told her about Kimberly returning. She didn’t care, though. She was asking after Alexander’s younger sister, but I don’t know anything about that either, I swear, I swear I’d never heard of the girl before. I do have an emergency phone number. I’m not supposed to ever call it, ever, only if the police catch wind of- of- you know, yes, yes, you know. For an emergency only.”

“Write it down,” Raine said. “And it better be correct, or … ” She trailed off, with a meaningful head tilt toward me.

“O-of course, of course, y-yes, yes. You can have the number, here, here, take it!”

Gillespie had to write it three times before she could control her shaking hands enough to form legible numbers. Raine tucked the slip of paper into her jacket.

“This isn’t enough,” I muttered.

“I swear, I-I- I don’t have anything more to give! Please-”

“Hey, you heard the lady,” Raine said. “She’s in charge here. She says it’s not enough, it’s not enough.”

“That’s not what I … ” I murmured, and trailed off. I’d meant this wasn’t enough to justify what I’d done. A phone number, was that all?

“They had a- I mean, I know of a couple of places in the city where they did … unsavoury things. They might have … retreated there?” Gillespie said. She was blinking rapidly, her eyes wild and all over the place, wracking her brains for any scraps that would save her hide. “One was on that- uh- that terrible council estate, in the condemned tower, uh-”

In the corner of my vision, I saw the blood drain from Kimberly’s face. Her mouth hung open in silent horror.

“Glasswick tower?” Raine asked. “The Cult have a hideout in Glasswick tower?”

“Yes, yes that’s the name.” Gillespie nodded, smiling and desperate, so very thankful. “Glasswick tower.”

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10 thoughts on “and less pleasant places – 6.6

  1. Catherine, you are the one meddling in things you don’t understand. Perhaps you understand a little better now. And that’s where Heather went as a teenager. Good thing she is still sane, although she thought she wasn’t.
    Dear fellow readers, we too shall be sent Outside this page just briefly for the good cause of voting for Katalepsis http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=katalepsis

  2. Kim’s unicorn-fighting-dragon shirt sounds adorable.

    Ah, Raine has armed herself with that most deadly of weapons: the stuffed sock.

    Gillespie sucks a lot, but it’s probably a good thing that Heather still feels bad about torture-through-brainmath-displacement :v

    • I’m 99% certain that shirt actually exists!

      Fun fact (that you may already know): a bar of soap wrapped in a knotted towel or sock is one of the most effective improvised weapons for delivering a beating to the stomach area without leaving too much of a mark.

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