“Bloody unlikely there’s anyone up there,” Evelyn said.
Exhausted by extrovert acting and hasty brainmath, coming down off the high of strangled righteous anger, and still choked by the oily toxin of self-disgust, I managed only to lift my eyes across the kitchen table to where Evelyn sat.
“How’d you figure that?” Raine asked for me.
Evelyn frowned at her, then at me, then over at Twil.
“Anybody? Really? Am I the only one with two brain cells left?” Evelyn huffed. “The Sharrowford Cult wasn’t naked screaming madmen, they were otherwise normal people, with homes, jobs.” She flung an irritated gesture toward Kimberly, who was still sitting quietly in the corner where we’d deposited her. The untouched mug of tea in Kimberly’s hands betrayed her nerves, and she flinched so badly she almost spilt some. She quickly averted her eyes to avoid her share of Evelyn’s glare.
“It’s alright, she doesn’t bite,” Raine said to Kim.
“I certainly do,” Evelyn snapped. “Why would these vermin ‘hide out’ in an abandoned building? This isn’t a cheap murder mystery novel or noir film. We’re looking for Amy Stack, and guess what, she probably lives in suburban Manchester.”
Raine raised her eyebrows and pulled a ‘fair enough’ face.
Twil laughed. “Evee, what are you talking about? They had a castle.”
Evelyn let out a slow sigh and fixed Twil with a capital-L look.
“What?” Twil spread her arms and tilted her chair back on two legs with perfect balance. At least one of us was in high spirits. “They did! Why not Glasswick tower block? S’not where I’d go, I’d go get lost in the woods, but these people are wackjobs, right?” She tapped her temple.
An internal struggle passed across Evelyn’s face. I wasn’t privy to what she and Twil had talked about while Kimberly and I had spent two hours pretending to be Wiccan girlfriends, but I recognised Evelyn fighting to swallow one of her usual scathing responses.
“Go on then,” Twil said. “Call me a dumbarse, tell me why I’m wrong.”
“You are not only astoundingly stupid, you’re capable of missing things right under your own nose,” Evelyn said, then sank into a very private glower. Oh dear, I suspected that comment had more meaning than Twil knew. “They had a castle because they were doing magical experiments, in their own pocket dimension, hidden from me. They wouldn’t be able to hide for long in an old tower block. It’s useless.”
“I told you already,” I said, and bore Evelyn’s glare with ease for once. “Tenny reacted, when she saw the tower. She didn’t like it at all.”
“ … oh, fuck, alright,” Evelyn spat, and all but threw her empty mug at the tabletop. It bounced once, and Raine snatched the mug out of the air before it could shatter on the floor, muttering ‘mad skills’ under her breath.
“I don’t want to believe it either,” I said. “It’s too silly.”
“It’s absurd,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “That’s what it is.”
That was all I could muster for the moment. I screwed my eyes shut in a vain attempt to control the lingering headache inside my skull. All I wanted right now was to curl up under my bed covers and forget this entire evening, shut out the echoes of pain and the awful awareness of the line I’d crossed. None of the others seemed to notice the difference. Even Raine treated me as if nothing had changed.
“Surprised you didn’t know about the place, right next door to you and all,” Twil said. I eased my eyes open to find she was addressing Kimberly.
“I-I didn’t. Nothing.” She shook her head. “I knew the castle, that was it.”
“I find that exceptionally hard to believe,” Evelyn said. Kimberly froze up and swallowed on a dry throat.
She’d been white faced and quiet since the moment Gillespie had finally spilt the beans about Glasswick tower. Huddling in the back of Raine’s car on the return journey, the only thing Kimberly had said was a tiny, terrified plea to please let her come with us, that she couldn’t go home, not now, she had nowhere to go, they’ll get her and they’ll-
“’Course you can come with us,” Raine had said, not missing a beat. “Wouldn’t dream of sending you off alone, not now.”
At least that was one problem less, no need to coax or threaten poor abused Kimberly into coming back with us. I’d almost rolled my eyes to hear Raine play knight in shining armour for another girl, but there was no real jealousy in my heart. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth.
She hadn’t taken much convincing to come inside either. To her eyes, number 12 Barnslow Drive was another run-down Victorian redbrick in some forgotten Sharrowford street. She wasn’t informed enough, important enough, involved enough, to know about the Saye house – and she’d been coerced into much creepier places before. Evelyn had glanced her up and down in the front room, grunted, and told Raine to park her in a corner.
“I believe her,” I said, summoning myself back to the present, tearing myself away from the guilt. The last thing we needed was Evelyn going off on one. “Kim?”
“Y-yes? Yes, Heather?”
“You’ve never been in Glasswick tower, and you don’t know what the cult did or does there? Tell me the truth.” My words felt so fragile, having to play both enforcer and diplomat, Kimberly’s magical idol and Lozzie’s only link.
“Yes, I promise. I’ve never been in there, I don’t know anything about it. If I did I would tell you. I would tell you, Heather.”
Evelyn grumbled in her throat, unhappy but disarmed for now.
“Maybe Alexander’s in there?” Twil suggested.
“He’s dead. I killed him,” I said.
She shrugged wide. “Seriously? We never saw a corpse, and the big fucko zombie woman made off like a ghost afterward, right? Tch, it’s like you lot don’t even have basic instincts. If you don’t see the kill, it might have run off.”
“Don’t say that. Twil, don’t say that.” I shook my head and sighed. “That is the last thought I needed preying on my mind right now, please.”
Raine squeezed my shoulders. “Hey, Heather, why don’t we go upstairs and get you changed out of this outfit? You feel pretty cold still, could do with some thicker layers, yeah?”
“No, not yet, I … ” I caught Evelyn’s expression – hard, staring, taking Twil all too seriously.
“Think I’m right?” Twil asked with a smirk. “See? I do have good ideas.”
“Unlikely,” Evelyn murmured, then cleared her throat. “Mages are hard to kill, but they’re not invincible.”
“Heather put him through a stone wall,” Raine said. “That’s a lot of broken bones.”
“That wasn’t stone,” I reminded her.
“Good as. Through a stone wall, down like five stories, and then a hard landing – splat. Not even counting what she did to him first. If the bastard lived, he’d have no bone unbroken, no muscle unpulped. You’d be healing from that for years, even with magic to keep his brain fluid from slopping out his ears.”
“Yeah, true, he’d be a sack of mincemeat now,” Twil said. “But maybe that’s why they need an abandoned building. Keep him hidden. Wouldn’t take him to a regular hospital, would they?”
“Unlikely,” Evelyn grunted. She stared at nothing, eyes far away.
“Don’t,” I hissed. Raine squeezed my shoulders again.
Evelyn drew herself up, sharp and resolved. “The last time we confronted these people in their lair, we were completely unprepared. Miracle none of us died. This time we’re going to do it right, or not at all. We’re in no rush, we’re not rescuing Lozzie – she’s popping in and out of reality somewhere, doing God knows what, so forget her.” She tapped the table. “If Alexander’s blood-sodden corpse is in that building – which it isn’t, because they won’t have anything in there at all, and he is dead – I’m going to bury him in a mountain of rubble. I’ll demolish Glasswick tower myself. It’s well overdue.”
“With … magic?” Twil blinked at her. “You can do that?”
That raised of an entire level crossing worth of red flags. “Evee, you can’t be serious,” I said.
“Deadly serious. We do this right.”
“Evee, they demolish buildings like that with explosives. Careful explosives. And they evacuate the surroundings first. None of us understands the first thing about controlled explosions.” I gaped at her. “Uh, unless … ” I glanced up at Raine.
She burst out laughing. “Heather, that is so flattering. But no, blowing stuff up isn’t in my skill set.”
Evelyn frowned at her. “Don’t lie. You built a bomb once. I watched you do it.”
“ … I did?” Raine looked bemused. “Oh, the petrol bomb. Come on, I made that with a plastic bag and stolen diesel, and it didn’t work. Teenage stupidity doesn’t count.”
“Evee, I’m serious,” I pushed on. “I think demolishing a building might be a little beyond us.”
“How hard can it be?” She scowled at me.
“Pretty hard. One brick wrong and Glasswick tower could fall and hit the other tower, or fall on people’s homes. And there’s bound to be a few homeless people camped in there, too. Evee, no.”
“Yeah, uh, look,” Raine cleared her throat. “I know I have pretty flexible ethics, and I’m all for anything that keeps us out of danger, but we’re not gonna take the risk of killing a thousand people with a magically induced industrial accident.”
“Please don’t-” Kimberly squeaked, swallowed, tried again. “Please don’t destroy my home.”
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes.
“I could go check the place out,” Twil said. “Poke my head inside, run up the stairs. It’ll take like ten minutes tops once I’m there. Anybody freaky shows up I’ll knock ‘em sideways and we’ll be done.”
Evelyn looked at her like she was an idiot. “Do you have the memory of a goldfish?”
“Do you not recall the sorts of things in their little pocket dimension? You want to get eaten that badly, hm?”
“Yeah.” Raine nodded. “Even without that, the inside of Glasswick’ll be a nightmare. Even for you, big bad wolf. No lights, lots of blind corners, those big stairwells. Too many angles, too many hiding places. A gun would be the least of our worries. Kim, you weren’t the Cult’s only trainee mage, not by a long shot, right?”
Kimberly swallowed. “Yes, that’s right. At least three others, t-that I knew of.”
“I rest my case.”
“What could they do?” Twil laughed. “I’m invincible! None of you have to come wi-”
“You are not fucking going in there!” Evelyn exploded. Of all of us, only Raine didn’t flinch. Kimberly nearly fell out of her chair. Even Twil herself jerked back in shock as Evelyn shouted at her. “Not now, not later, not alone, not with us, not at all. I will have Praem tie you to that fucking chair with steel wire if I have to.”
“Alright, alright.” Twil put her hands up. “Fuck. Be cool. No need to shout. If you care that much, alright, I won’t.”
“I shouted because your idiocy is only outstripped by your … ” She huffed and screwed her eyes up, hand to her forehead.
“It’s okay, Evee, we know,” I said. I’m not certain Twil did know. “And I agree. Nobody goes in Glasswick tower. We’re not doing that all over again.”
“If not me, why not send Praem?” Twil asked gently, words on eggshells. “She’s … well.”
“Don’t you dare say expendable,” I hissed.
Twil winced. “S’not what I meant. I mean like, she’s, you know, you can just put her in a new body if you need to, right?”
Evelyn huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, scowling down at the tabletop. “I’ll think of something else. But we’re not setting foot in there. Absolutely not.”
Praem already had her own task to carry out, complete with its own risks, and we waited for her to return home before we placed the phone call. Just in case.
I’d retreated from the crowded kitchen to the sanctuary of upstairs, the familiar textures of wooden floorboards and old rugs under my feet, with the intention of shedding the skirt and tights, wiping the foundation off my face, peeling myself out of the sticky, uncomfortable shell I’d worn all evening. I’d never been to a party, not a real one, but I assumed this was what the aftermath might be like if one had a very bad time indeed, bedraggled and upset with oneself.
Raine found me ten minutes later. Still in all my clothes, squinting into the bathroom mirror as I tried to scrub the foundation away from around my eye, wincing as the bruise still stung underneath.
“Hey you,” she said, came up behind me and gently caught my hand. “Hey, hey, let me do that. Soap and water won’t do the job so well, you need some of the good shit. Here.” She grabbed one of the bottles from by the sink and sprayed the contents onto the wet flannel I’d been using, turned me around to face her, and began wiping the makeup off my face. Gentle fingers traced my cheekbones.
I felt like a small girl having her grubby face cleaned, and for a reason I couldn’t admit yet, I felt awful.
“Heather? Hey, it’s okay. You really pulled it off tonight, you know? It was hard, but it’s over now.”
“I’m fine.” I shook my head. “Well, no, that’s a lie, I’m not fine. I’m … emotionally exhausted.”
“Let’s get your face clean first, yeah?” Raine set back to work on me. “I was getting Kim a bit more settled, that’s why I was a few minutes. She’s freaking out ‘cos all her stuff’s back in her flat and she’s gotta go to work in the morning. I’m gonna give her a lift though. She’ll be alright here overnight.”
I allowed Raine to lead me over the creaking floorboards to our bedroom, to the fresh pajama bottoms and a blanket we’d left draped over the old iron radiator. I craved the heat, but somehow I knew it wouldn’t touch the ice inside me. I went to sit down, to tug the skirt off, but Raine stopped me, lifted one of my hands by the fingers, looked me up and down, and smiled.
“You look really good in that getup. Those tights, oooh.” She pulled an approving face. “Killing me.”
I sighed, not up to blushing or feeling flustered right now. “Raine, I was vomiting an hour ago. I feel disgusting.”
“When we’ve found Lozzie, and things quieten down again, we’re gonna both get dressed up and go on a real date. Just you and me, screw everything else for a day. We could go to that noodle place, the fancy one in the shopping centre, and that bookstore you like, and anything else you fancy.”
“Shh.” She pressed a finger to my lips. “You don’t get to say no to this one. I gotta get you in colourful tights again, ‘cos it makes me randy.”
“Raine.” I rolled my eyes. I knew what she was up to, but it did the trick. The cold in my chest finally began to thaw.
She helped me out of the skirt and tights, rubbed my freezing cold feet, and I wriggled back into the warm pajama bottoms as she wrapped my shoulders in the blanket. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the heat for a moment, or at least I tried to.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” Raine said.
The words spilled from me before I could stop them. My voice didn’t shake or shiver, only sounded hollow. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Heather? Done what?”
“I crossed a line tonight. One I didn’t even know was there.”
“Heather? Hey, hey.” She sat next to me on the bed, arm around my shoulders. “I’m not gonna pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the last thing you should do is beat yourself up about it.” I met her eyes, silently sceptical, and she replied with a smirk. “Come on, I know you inside out by now. You feel bad about what we did to that Gillespie woman.”
“I tortured her. Me. I did that.”
Raine let out a big sigh and her smirk dialled down. “I was about to do the exact same thing. Who knows, maybe a trip Outside was less traumatic in the long run than me whacking her in the stomach a dozen times.”
I shook my head. “I sent her Outside. I tortured her with an experience I’ve been through. Self-defence, that was one thing, but … how could I?”
“Hey,” Raine said. “She deserved it.”
“I know she did,” I whined. “I know. She deserves worse. She should be locked up, for life. But I tortured a person.”
“You were justified. You had good bloody reason. We had to find out what she knew, and she’ll never see any other punishment for what she did with the cult. If it was up to me, she’d have gotten off a lot less lightly.”
“It wasn’t lightly, Raine. I broke that woman.” I felt an awful choke in the back of my throat. “How can you not see this? You’re a philosophy student, you’ve studied ethics. Is torture ever acceptable? Is it? I did it without thinking, in the heat of the moment, and it was an awful thing to do.”
I buried my face in her shoulder and tried to shut out the world.
“So you made a mistake,” she said, in a tone of voice that would have made more sense if I’d left the oven on or spilled coffee on a carpet.
“Ugh,” I groaned.
“Everybody makes mistakes. I’m not great at judging these things, it’s up to you. If you think you did wrong then that counts as a mistake. Learn from it, think it over, so next time you’ll act differently. And hey, when it came time to think carefully, you didn’t kill her.”
I didn’t kill Gillespie, that much was true, but it hadn’t been an easy decision.
Cringing up at me from the chair in the back office of Grey Magicks, she’d stared in utter terror when I’d pronounced her sentence.
“You’re going to leave Sharrowford. Tonight,” I’d said.
“Leave? I- no- no no please not again-”
“Shut up.” My lips still tasted of vomit and my head rang. Raine had to hold me up, arm around my waist, but I felt no less vengeful for being weak. “I don’t mean where I sent you. I mean leave the city. The cult gave you money, didn’t they? I don’t care how much you’ve already spent, or how much debt you have, or anything like that. Leave. I don’t care if you die in a ditch somewhere. If I ever see you again in Sharrowford, I will send you Outside, and nobody will bring you back.”
“Oh, I- t-thank you, yes, yes I promise, I won’t ever come back. I promise, just- yes.”
“It’s better than you deserve!” Kimberly hissed at her. I jerked a hand at her to shut her up too, this wasn’t her fight anymore.
“What if she talks to the cult?” Praem intoned – Evelyn speaking through her. “We can’t just let her go, don’t be stupid.”
“Yes we can,” I spat.
“I- y-yes … m-my husband, he-”
“I don’t care. No sob stories. You’re leaving.”
“Heather, we need some kind of insurance here,” Raine murmured softly.
“We’re letting her live,” I said. “I’m not- I’m not- oh, fine. You want insurance?”
I forced my feet underneath me, still shaking from the brainmath, shoving Raine’s help away and bracing myself with the corner of the desk. Gillespie stared at me. Her eyes went wide. I reached out one hand toward her and she screamed, tried to scramble away until Praem caught her, tears streaming down her face. She babbled nonsense, pleading, begging, tearing at her own clothes.
“Shut up!” I shouted at her, my throat raw, and lowered my hand. “You see? You see that? I don’t have to explain myself.”
“Saw,” Praem said. That was her, not Evelyn.
“Take her mobile phone if we have to, take her … does she have an organiser, a phone book in her bag? Do you?”
“Yes, yes! Take it, take it!”
Praem did as I suggested, stripping phone and other important things from Gillespie’s handbag on the desk. “Praem, you can go with her to her home, make sure she leaves. Tonight.” Gillespie had fallen to her knees again. I stared down at her. “You understand what I’m trying to do? Because I’m trying really hard to win this argument with myself. If you talk to anyone from the cult, you set foot in Sharrowford again, you do anything, anything – I’ll send you back Outside.”
“I understand! I do! I promise, please- what if- what if the Brotherhood-”
“That’s why you’re leaving.”
“The cult gave you money, yeah?” Raine asked slowly. “How much money?”
“I … uh … e-enough. W-why?”
Raine smirked. “Just curious. Praem, she got a chequebook in that bag?”
“I’m gonna make a guess, Heather, a bit of a shot in the dark,” Raine said. My head was still nestled against her shoulder, and I felt the words vibrate through her chest.
“Are you afraid of changing? Becoming something you don’t recognise anymore?”
“That’s hardly a guess,” I said, and sat up so I could see her face properly. “And no, for once you’re wrong.” I gave her a little smile, the best I could manage. “Killing Alexander didn’t change me. This won’t change me either. It’s … who I was all along, I suppose.”
“That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, not unless you make it that way.”
“Says the woman who’s killed several people right in front of me.”
She grinned and shrugged. Couldn’t help it, could she? “Hey, when it works, it works.”
I sighed. “Maybe we should have killed her. All those homeless people … every one of those zombies, every one was a person. Maybe that’s what bothers me more. Removing one exploitative monster – even Alexander – doesn’t change the world, doesn’t affect anything, all that real horror going on out there.” I gestured vaguely at the window, at Sharrowford beyond. “It doesn’t make a difference. I can’t even save one person.”
“Yes, you can. You have. And we will.”
“I hope so,” I muttered.
“You originally from Sharrowford, then?” Twil asked Kim, as we all sat about in the kitchen waiting for Praem.
Evelyn had left the door open to her magical workshop, serenading us with the sounds of her stomping about and leafing through books. Raine kicked out a chair next to me and put her feet up, then dug out the slip of paper with Gillespie’s ‘emergency number’ and tossed it on the table.
A few figures on a torn piece of note paper, and I’d tortured a woman for this. I hugged the blanket tighter around my shoulders, but at least I didn’t feel so damned cold anymore. Raine produced her phone and muttered something about checking the number.
“Um, yes. Born and bred.” Kimberly tried a smile, but it didn’t last long.
“Where’s all your family about then?” Twil said.
“Both my parents died, six years ago, and five years ago. My dad went first, and my mum didn’t outlive him by much. They couldn’t live without each other.”
“Aww. Sad. Yeah, yeah I get it,” Twil said, nodding. She reached over and awkwardly nudged Kimberly in the shoulder.
“It was a fifth of my life ago. It’s fine.”
“It seemed to me that you had plenty of family tonight,” I said, dragging myself away from dark thoughts. “You should go back to the coven again.”
“I don’t … I don’t know if I can, I … I don’t know.”
I sighed and let myself sag against the table. All I wanted to do was curl up in bed, to not think, but this night wasn’t over yet. “Do I have to command you? Is that what you need?”
“Heather, oi.” Twil frowned at me. I shrugged.
“You should have seen her,” I said. “She was a completely different person.”
Raine looked up from her phone and grinned. “Maybe you should be the new high priestess. A hostile takeover.”
“No, I … I couldn’t. But maybe you’re right.” Kimberly stared into her untouched mug of tea. “Jerry can’t do everything on his own, maybe … with Cathy gone … ”
When Kimberly didn’t resume her train of thought out loud, Raine clonked her phone down on the table and stretched her arms above her head. “Well, it’s a Sharrowford number, for sure, and it’s real. Shows up in listings and stuff, but not who or what it’s registered to. Could be anything.”
“You think the old bitch might have lied?” Twil asked.
“No.” I shook my head. “She was too afraid to lie to me.”
Raine reached over and squeezed my shoulder.
“Mmm,” Twil grunted, shrugged, then turned to Kim again. “Why’d you like being Wiccan, anyway? What’s it like?”
“Why are you so interested in her life story?” Evelyn drawled from the doorway to her workshop. She had a face like a thunderstorm. “You know what she was.”
“Evee,” Raine sighed.
“I’m sorry,” Kimberly squeaked “I-”
“Et tu?” Evelyn snapped at her, rattling off Latin at sudden speed. “Quid de te? Intellige quae dico?”
“I-I don’t- I only know a few words, only the things I needed for the spells I was taught. That’s all, I promise.”
Evelyn stared at her like she was trying to bore holes in Kimberly’s head, then grunted a dismissal. She shoved discarded mugs out of the way with her walking stick, unrolled a piece of canvas from under her arm, and laid it down on the table. A magic circle draw in hasty marker pen stared back at us, and set a tingling feeling in the back of my skull.
“Precautions.” Evelyn held her hand out. “Whose phone are we using for this?”
Raine’s phone, apparently, which she carefully deposited in the centre of the magic circle.
“Who does the talking?” Twil asked.
“Me obviously,” Evelyn grunted as she sat down, rubbing her thigh where her prosthetic attached. “I’m the only one who can credibly threaten them over a phone line.”
“Can you … ” Kimberly asked. “Can you really do that?”
Evelyn gave her a withering stare. “What do you think?”
I caught Evelyn’s eyes, asking the same question without words. She sighed and shook her head ever so slightly. So, we were powerless.
Praem returned a few minutes later, a smart click as she unlocked the front door and let herself in. Raine went to check she locked up again properly, and Praem glided into the kitchen. She took her usual place a few paces behind Evelyn.
“Success, or not?” Evelyn grunted at her.
“Success,” Praem intoned.
“In my account?”
“Went off without a hitch?” Raine asked, coming back in and grinning at the doll-demon. “She really did it, huh? How much did she have in her bank account?”
Praem’s musical lilt all but sung the number out. “Thirty three thousand seven hundred and twenty two pounds.”
None of us said anything for a long moment. I believe my mouth hung open. Evelyn snorted, Raine laughed.
“That is so much fucking money. Fuck,” Twil said, gaping at us. “What- how-”
“Thirty thousand quid. Bugger me.” Raine grinned.
“What are you going to do with it all?” Kimberly asked.
“That is so much fucking money,” Twil repeated.
“It’s not that much,” Evelyn tutted.
“Yeah, and you’re rich. You don’t get to weigh in,” Twil said. “Fuck. Fuck.”
“We could buy a boat!” Raine laughed.
“It goes to Shelter,” I said, gathering my wits. I put some steel into my voice. “We can keep a little – a little – but it goes to Shelter.”
“Who? What?” Twil blinked.
“The homeless charity,” Evelyn said, nodding. “She’s right.”
“Oh. Oh, right.”
“And- and the Trussell people, the food banks,” I added. “Gillespie preyed on the homeless. Her money goes to helping them. None of us are anywhere near that desperate.”
Nobody argued, thank God. Thirty thousand was more than I’d expected. We had to be very, very careful with this. No time to think it over right now though.
We turned all the lights on. No sense doing this in the dark, Raine said. No sense making this more creepy than it had to be. Carefully, Evelyn reached over and set Raine’s mobile phone to speaker mode, then punched in the number, and let it ring.
Five rings, six rings – seven, eight, still not going to answer-phone.
“Please, please,” I whispered.
“It is like, almost midnight,” Twil hissed. “Whoever has it might be asleep.”
“Or dead,” Raine offered. “Might be we slapped ‘em back in the castle.”
“Or they’re not stupid enough to fall for this,” Evelyn sighed, and reached forward to kill the call.
The call connected. Evelyn whipped her hand back as a voice whispered out from the phone’s speaker.
“Who is this?”
Soft and measured, drained of affect, a gauze-thin layer of supreme detachment over the promise of quick violence. My stomach clenched up with instinctive recognition.
“Stack,” I mouthed silently.
“Bingo,” Raine whispered, wiggling her eyebrows.
In the corner of my eye I noticed Kimberly tense up in the way a small animal might do. Evelyn nodded her understanding, took a breath, drew herself up, and raised her chin.
“This is Evelyn Saye. You know who I am, and I know who you are, and you know that if you put the phone down I can hurt you much faster than you can escape. Understand? Are you listening to me, Amy Stack?”
Silence. Slow, brooding silence.
“I hear you,” Amy Stack said eventually. Like she didn’t even care.
“You’ve been tracking Lauren Lilburne. She’s been back to this side of reality. You’re going to tell me how you’re doing it, or where to find her.” Evelyn raised her eyes to meet mine. I nodded, heart in my throat.
Another long pause. So long that Raine raised an eyebrow and Twil bared her teeth.
“Mm,” Stack grunted. “Can’t tell you that.”
“Can’t, or won’t?” Evelyn snapped.
“Can’t,” Stack repeated. She drew in a long breath and sighed slowly, the sound distorted by the phone connection. A creak – settling into a chair, or back on her bed? Had the call woken her? “I can’t tell you that, because it’s not Lauren we’re trying to catch.”
“Not Lauren?” I blurted out. Evelyn shot me a pinched frown, but I’d convinced myself I knew what I was doing.
“ … miss Morell. No, if you’ve seen the same thing we have, it’s not Lauren Lilburne.”
“She could still be in there,” I hissed.
“Who is ‘we’?” Raine asked.
“Mister Edward Lilburne and his associates.”
Evelyn barked a derisive laugh. “Another cult. Don’t put on airs, you sad little thing.”
“As you say.”
My patience ran thin as stretched skin. Was this what I’d tortured a human being for, this stonewalling? Evelyn and Raine were busy making silent eyes at each other, debating how to proceed, while Twil scowled at the phone as if it had offended her. Kimberly was no help at all, curling smaller and smaller on her chair in the corner.
“I need you to talk to me, Stack,” I said, summoning up the shredded reserves of my determination. “I tortured a woman today, I sent her Outside and brought her back, because I thought she might lead me to Lozzie. And right now I think you’re the next link. I don’t care what I have to … ”
The words died in my throat. Instinct told me Stack didn’t care about threats.
Another long silence before she spoke again, reptile thoughts at reptile speed.
“I need to talk to my boss,” she said. “I’m going to have to put the phone down.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Evelyn hissed. “You tell me right now, exactly what you people have been up to again in my city.”
“Mr Lilburne may decide to share certain facts with you,” Stack said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t suggest I ask him. And he’s too much of a coward to talk to any of you himself. I’ll call you back on this number, likely within fifteen minutes. Do we have a deal?”
“ … deal,” I mouthed, nodding. “Deal,” Raine whispered. Evelyn grit her teeth. Twil shrugged, Kim stayed silent.
“Deal,” Evelyn said out loud.
The call disconnected. None of us spoke for several seconds, until Raine shook herself and blew out a long breath. “What’s the odds on her actually calling us back?”
“Slim,” Evelyn grunted.
“It’s worth a try,” I said, throat tight.
“It’s a bloody good thing I have this in place.” Evelyn reached forward and tapped the magic circle on the piece of canvas. “Her boss is probably about to try something stupid. This is a fool’s errand. Best case, she feeds us a pack of lies. Our next step is Glasswick tower, but fuck me if I know how.”
“I,” Praem intoned.
Everyone looked at her, but Praem stared straight ahead.
“Was that meant to be you stepping forward?” Evelyn asked. “Yes, for your information, of course I’ve thought of using you. What do you think you’re here for?”
“Going anyway,” Praem said. Evelyn frowned at her.
“For Lozzie?” I asked.
Praem turned to stare at me, but said nothing. I nodded a silent thank you. Raine chuckled softly and shook her head, opened her mouth to speak, when the phone on the table rang softly and made me jump. Evelyn put a finger to her lips, waited a beat, and pressed the answer call button.
“It’s me,” Stack’s voice floated from the phone’s speaker.
“You again, indeed.” Evelyn eyed the magic circle, tension plain on her face, but nothing started glowing or hissing or sparking, my vision didn’t swim and my head didn’t hurt any more than it already did.
“My boss has decided it’s better you’re informed than not.”
“Oh, lucky us,” Twil sneered.
“ … I don’t recognise that voice,” Stack said.
“You wanna get to know it, bitch?” Twil asked.
Evelyn swiped a finger at Twil, a silent shut-the-hell-up gesture. “Never you mind who that is. Now why would your boss want to share anything with us at all? Convince me this isn’t a trap, if you can.”
“Better you deal with this than we have to,” Stack said. “Mr Edward is a much more sensible leader than his late nephew. Less ideological, more practical. Terrified of everything. Whatever it is wandering around Sharrowford and the surrounding countryside, if you want it, you’re welcome to it.”
“It is Lozzie,” I hissed.
“No, it’s not. I’ve seen it up close. It’s a passable facsimile at a distance, but it’s not Lauren Lilburne. It’s pretending to be her.”
A spark of dark hope kindled in my chest, but I couldn’t believe it, not from this source. “You’ve seen her?”
“That’s a lie!” Kimberly said. “I’ve seen her too, I know it’s her. It looks like her!” She clamped a hand over her mouth, wide-eyed.
“ … is that who I think it is?” Stack asked softly.
“You leave her alone, slaphead,” Raine said, low and dangerous. “Or I’ll be the thing going bump in the night on your skull.”
“Mm,” Stack grunted. “She’s wrong. It’s not Lauren. It visited us, in broad daylight, to speak with Mister Lilburne, except it didn’t say anything that made sense.”
“What exactly did she say?” I asked, and could almost feel the shrug from the other end of the phone.
“Nonsense words. Nothing with any meaning, like a old person with advanced Alzheimer’s. Then it left.”
“Where’d it visit you?” Evelyn asked. “In Sharrowford? Over in Manchester? Where are you, exactly?”
“Nice try.” Stack’s tone said it wasn’t a nice try at all. Evelyn snorted.
“How do I find her?” I asked. “How did you find she’d gone to Kimberly’s flat?”
“Mister Lilburne is unwilling to share his techniques.”
“But,” Stack said, soft and affectless as all her speech – but something new lurked behind her words. “Pretty sure it’s the same method he used to to detect your extra-dimensional messenger. Back in the autumn, I believe?”
“Maisie’s messenger?” I breathed. “You have a way of picking up things entering our reality from Outside, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I’m no magician.”
We all shared a glance with each other. Evelyn grit her teeth and shook her head, powerless over the phone line for all her threats and bluster.
“I think it’s looking for things from Lozzie’s life. Locations. People. Maybe trying to imitate her better, who knows.”
“Is that your boss speaking, or you?” Raine asked. She must have picked up the same undertone I heard.
A very long moment of silence. I half-thought she’d put the phone down without us realising it.
“Let’s keep this line of communication open. If he … ” She paused. “If we detect it again, we’ll call this number. You catch her, you let us know.”
“We’ll let you know both bull and shit, skinhead,” Raine said, a smirk in her voice.
“Wait,” Evelyn growled. “Glasswick tower. What do you know about it?”
“Glasswick tower? Wouldn’t go there if I wanted to keep my skin. Alexander Lilburne had a project in there, something ugly. Needed a few bodies for it. I never went up.”
“Are there any of you lot left in there? Any of your idiot ‘Brotherhood’?”
“We’re not with them anymore. That’s all.”
“You tell us-”
“That’s all. Good hunting.”