“Well, actually no, not a constable,” Twil said, her throat bobbing with an uncomfortable swallow. “If she was a regular old bobby she’d be in uniform, right?”
I stared at her, lost for words, and also just plain lost in incredulous disbelief. “Twil, what does that mean? Lozzie said police woman, quite clearly,” I pointed at Lozzie, who dutifully nodded. “Did I imagine that? Am I hallucinating from stress? Please, please tell me that woman in there is a cultist, or at least a random member of the public. Please.”
“Uh, no. Kim, what did she say, at the door?”
I turned to Kimberly – she cringed away at the look on my face, but for once I couldn’t soften my expression. “ … well?”
“She … she introduced herself as ‘detective sergeant’,” Kimberly all but squeaked, her voice still raw from Zheng’s hand squeezing her throat earlier.
For a moment I refused to believe my ears, staring, blinking, but not seeing. Kimberly bit her lip and lowered her head as I glanced between her and Twil. “ … and did she volunteer this information before, or after you decided to tie her up?”
Twil pulled a teeth-gritting grimace, ducking her head and hunching her shoulders like a flinching hound; pained, sheepish, embarrassed, and mortified all at once. Normally I found her mannerisms endearing, almost kind of sweet; in her best moments I very much understood what Evelyn saw in Twil, but right now I felt myself ready to explode in her face. I bit my lips to control myself.
“Before!” Lozzie chirped with a smile. “I was listening in.”
“It’s not like we had a choice.” Twil spread her hands. “Our scrub job around the door is pretty bad, and hell, it stinks of blood, right? Even you lot can smell it, can’t you? It reeks in here.”
“A little,” I managed.
“Rancid,” Zheng grunted.
“She was asking questions about ‘the noise’ last night, but then also about who owns the house and all this other shit. I couldn’t keep up with it, I’ve never had to deal with coppers before. Then she tried to walk into the kitchen, and there’s fucking bodies in there, Heather. She saw them, and she … well, she didn’t freak out, not until I had to hold her down.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “Assault as well. Wonderful.”
“I had to!”
“She talked really fast, but it was all surface, no depth,” Lozzie added, almost to herself. “She was really good at talking. I didn’t like her, she wasn’t genuine.”
“At least she’s by herself,” Kimberly said.
“And that makes it better how, exactly?” I snapped at her. I didn’t mean to, and she didn’t deserve that. Kimberly flinched, her hands jerking up to shield herself from my anger. Zheng let out an approving chuckle. I hissed a tut at myself through my teeth, but I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to care right now, let alone apologise.
“That’s why I didn’t answer the door right away when you knocked,” Twil said. “Thought it might be another one. Or, you know, a follow up.”
“Twil. Twil, you are absolutely sure she’s what she says she is? You’re certain?”
“Uh, yeah. Here,” she pulled a compact card wallet from one of her coat pockets and held it up, black leather with a Sharrowford Police crest on the front. “Her badge is real. Warrant card? Whatever you call it.”
I let out a shaking breath. “Great. Great.”
“I’m really sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault,” Kimberly whined.
“Nah, it’s fine, fuck, I should have run her off somehow,” Twil said. “I dunno what the hell to do with her, she’ll call the police. Uh, I mean, she is the police, but like the rest of the police. You know what I mean.”
“ACAB!” Lozzie half-laughed.
“I don’t like police either,” Kimberly said. “But we can’t do this. We can’t. We’re going to get in so much trouble.”
“We’re already in-”
“Please, just show her we’re-”
“I could take her Out! Show her- oh no, wait-”
“Police meat tastes as good as any other, shaman. Ten minutes alone, then burn the clothing-”
I tuned them out, the growing argument between Twil and Kimberly, Lozzie’s inappropriate laughter and Zheng’s disgusting suggestions. A high-pitched ringing sound echoed in my ears. My breath tightened in my chest. A tremor took my hands.
A panic attack lurked on the edge of my consciousness.
No Raine would catch me if I fell. No time for warm tender recovery and a cup of tea. Yes, I was surrounded by friends and allies – yes, more than one of them carrying their own flavour of risk, but friends and allies all the same – but without Raine, and teetering on the edge of an abyss.
If the police got involved, it was all over.
Obstruction by the normal, sane world of human activity and institutions, day jobs and the scientific method, would destroy any hope we had. Evelyn did not need a hospital, she needed a mage. Raine didn’t need a missing persons report, she needed me.
“Heatheeer? Woo?” Lozzie waved a hand in front of my face. I met her eyes but didn’t really make contact. She squeezed my shoulders in a hug, gentle and careful with my bruised stomach. My own arms responded on automatic until she let go again and she turned away to reply to something from Twil, as the argument spiralled onward.
The police were already involved. It was too late.
The police detective bound at wrist and ankle in the disused sitting room, gagged with an old tea-towel from our kitchen – I struggled to hold onto the important fact that she was a person, the fleeting impression of a few scraps of pinned-back blonde hair, a dark suit, piercing eyes. A person, a human being, like me.
But she was also the first exploratory feeler of a bureaucratic leviathan every bit as inhuman as anything from Outside.
What do I do? Imitate Raine? She’d know what to do, with her confidence and her lightning-fast plans, her voice never leaving room for doubt, always pulling me back up to my feet when I felt lost. I wasn’t Raine, I couldn’t be like her. I couldn’t even be like Evelyn. I was me, little Heather, and what could I do?
The dark glimmering of a solution presented itself, like a poisonous flower unfolding in the back of my mind.
“No, absolutely not,” I murmured.
But I would do anything to save Raine. All the problems in the way must be excised. Which meant I had to work hard now, to avoid becoming a monster by the time I saw her again.
Panic fell away, replaced with a cold, shaking focus like a icicle grown inside my chest. I shed the filthy blanket from my shoulders, straightened up, and filled my lungs.
“Everyone shut up! Stop talking,” I yelled, then added, almost as an afterthought, “please.”
It worked. Four pairs of eyes – flinching, surprised, amused, and hurt in turn – all looked at me as I took another breath and gathered my thoughts.
“ … Heather?” Twil ventured. I raised a finger and made a face.
“That means stay quiet,” Zheng rumbled for me. “The shaman is thinking.”
“It goes for you too,” I hissed at her, then turned to Lozzie, “I’m sorry Lozzie, it’s fine. I love you, I’m not angry with you.”
Lozzie nodded and blinked, biting her bottom lip, like a child caught in adults’ crossfire.
I filed away that ‘I love you’ for later, a burst of truth in the heat of the moment; I did love Lozzie, like a little sister I’d never had, but this wasn’t the time to think about the million questions I had for her. This was the time for practical solutions.
“How long?” I said, my voice quiet but my tone steady, not through effort of will but sheer necessity. “How long’s the police detective been tied up in there?”
“Uh.” Twil’s eyes went up and left, thinking. “’Bout an hour, bit more?”
“And you did confiscate her mobile phone, any pocketknives, and, I don’t know, pagers? Bent paper clips? Lipstick?” I waved my raised finger at Twil when she frowned with incredulity. “No, I know what you’re going to say, and no. Assume for a moment that we’re dealing with a master detective, the protagonist of her own bloody television program. Is there any way she can escape?”
“I don’t think so. I emptied her pockets, and she’s tied up with gardening wire. I couldn’t find anything else so I, you know, used my elbow grease, bent it round.” Twil rummaged in her jacket pockets again and produced an expensive-looking smart-phone. “This was hers.”
“Is it switched off?”
“Uh … ”
“Switch it off, then wipe your fingerprints off it,” I said. “Are there any other problems I don’t know about? No more surprises, from any of you. If you tell me now, you have amnesty from being shouted at later.”
“Stack knocked on the door round about dawn,” Twil said – to her credit, without hesitation.
I stared at her for a second, not certain if I believed my ears. “ … Amy Stack? The ex-cult assassin Amy Stack?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. The bald bitch.”
“Right. Okay. What … what did she want? Did you take her head off, by any chance? Please, that would be wonderful.”
“Nah.” Twil shrugged. “I mean, I would have, but by the time I got to the door she’d backed up all the way to the garden gate, like she knew it was risky. She wanted to talk, I think, but I chased her off, and she had a car parked nearby, so … ” Twil pulled another guilty grimace. “I didn’t want to leave Evelyn alone here, ‘case it was a trap.”
“Good. Good thinking,” I forced myself to say, to compliment Twil, to keep her head above water. “It’s a pity you didn’t get her, but you did the right thing. Thank you, Twil.”
Of course she didn’t give chase, not after the object lesson of last night, after she left the house. Twil must be feeling terrible guilt, feeling responsible.
“I’ve … ” Kimberly started, then stopped and looked down when I paid attention to her. “It doesn’t matter, but I was supposed to be at work four hours ago. Probably lost my job for real this time. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter, compared to … everything else.”
“It does matter,” I managed. “I’m sorry, Kim. We’ll do something about that. Just, not right now.”
Lozzie raised her hand up high, elbow straight.
“I put Tenny into her cocoon.”
“ … you … what?”
“That’s what you called her, right? It’s a real cute name! With the tentacles and the black goo? When I made her she was supposed to pupate on her own after she’d grown up a bit, but she didn’t and I don’t know why, but I found her out in your garden this morning and just gave her a little nudge along, and poof! She’s up in the tree in the garden, she’ll be fine, it’s not really a problem but I thought I better tell you in case you wonder where she is. Or if you look out there. It’s kinda cute!”
Lozzie smiled a very Lozzie smile.
“Yeah,” Twil said, looking askance at her. “She just ran out there and waved her arms in the air for a bit.”
“ … okay, I’ll … thank you,” I said. “We’ll … later.”
Clink agreed Praem, from where Twil had left her bottle on the floor.
Cocoon? Pupate? Was Tenny going to turn into a pneuma-somatic butterfly with a twenty-foot wingspan? I put that firmly to one side for now. Bizarre, but not a crisis. Not yet, at least.
“Alright, my turn,” I said. “The cult isn’t dead, obviously, Alexander Lilburne did some last—ditch deal, and he’s dead but now they’re worshipping the Eye. None of you really know what that means-”
“I do!” Lozzie raised her hand.
“Yes, except Lozzie, because she saved me from it this morning. The fake version of her is dead, by the way, she killed it.”
“Wham bam,” Lozzie whispered. Zheng cocked an interested eyebrow.
“And Glasswick tower looks like the inside of an intestine because it thinks it’s Alexander’s body. According to Zheng here.” I gestured politely over my shoulder.
“Cool,” Twil grunted, eyeing the zombie again.
“And here’s what we’re going to do,” I said. “First, Kimberly.”
“Yes, you. You’ve been trying to wake Evelyn but it’s not working, is that correct?”
“I- yes. I’m sorry. I only know the things I was taught. I-if I had time with her books, maybe-”
“See that bottle? That’s Praem, the cultists tore her out of her body, which is also right next to you.”
Clink, went Praem.
Kimberly’s eyes went wide and she turned her head slowly, as if expecting to see an actual corpse lying next to her, then froze for a second at the sight of the twisted wooden mannequin laid out on the boxes.
“You used to put Outsiders into bodies for the Sharrowford Cult,” I said. “Can you still do it?”
“I-I- in theory.” She frowned, swallowed, looking very uncertain. “I’m not sure, I-”
“Can you put Praem back into her body for me? Without, I don’t know, losing her somehow?”
Kimberly stared at the bottle for a second, her brow creasing in a frown that turned from confused to thoughtful and then much darker. She chewed on her lip. “Maybe. I’m not sure. We used … you know what we used, not wood.” She cringed, voice shaking a little on that last word. “Heather, I- I don’t know … I can’t … I don’t know if I can face doing that again.”
Behind me, Zheng rumbled, purring like a disturbed tiger.
“Please try.” I pulled out the big guns, a real Raine-ism. “Kim, you’re the only one of us who can do this, none of us know how this works and Evelyn is in a coma. We need all the protection we can get right now, and that includes Praem.”
Kimberly’s eyes went downward, a hollow space revealed behind them, and for a moment I thought she was going to break, but then she nodded, once, twice, a third time more firm. “Alright,” she whispered.
“Good. Take the bottle into the workshop. Keep it off the floor though, Praem needs all the comfort she can get.”
Kimberly gathered the bottle up in her arms, frowning down at the wisp of oily smoke inside.
I turned to Zheng. “Do you need to … rest?”
“Hmmmm?” Zheng rumbled.
“We walked for three hours, Zheng. I’m ready to collapse. Are you?”
She shrugged, but it meant no. It meant don’t be so stupid, you weak little monkey, I could walk for thirty hours if I so wished.
“Good then. Would you please carry Praem’s bones for Kimberly? Lay them on the sofa in the workshop, it’s the room to the left of the kitchen.”
To Kimberly’s credit she moved pretty sharpish once she realised she was about to have Zheng bringing up her rear. She scurried through into the kitchen as if the hounds of hell were on her heels, but she needn’t have bothered. Zheng didn’t move and stared at me instead, an eyebrow raised, darkly amused.
“You don’t have to help, but if you’re not going to, then keep out of the way. Go raid the fridge or something, but don’t you dare slow me down.”
Zheng broke into a big shark-toothed grin, dangerous and approving, the first since I’d peeled her fist out of Kimberly’s mouth. She bristled with implied challenge for a moment, then strode past me, scooped up Praem’s wooden bones, and followed Kimberly.
“And don’t threaten her again!” I called. “And come back here, I need you for something else as well! Now, Twil.”
“Yeah?” Twil blinked at me, a bit lost in all this sudden decisiveness.
“Just before she got taken, Raine was using her mobile phone. Is it still here?”
“Oh, yeah actually.” Twil nodded. My knees went weak with relief but I tried not to show it. The moment I let myself feel normal, I knew I was going to collapse. I had to keep moving forward. Don’t stop. “Her phone was on the floor. I think I put it in the kitchen?”
“Good, I’m going to need that. But first, you’re going out into the street to find that detective’s car.”
Twil’s eyes went wide. “Oh, shi-”
“Yes, exactly. She’s a plainclothes detective so the car will be unmarked, which means you’re the only one who can identify it.” I tapped my nose. “Can you sniff it out?”
“Yeah, shouldn’t be too hard.”
“Cover Barnslow Drive and every street within a five-ten minute walk. Find that car, but don’t touch it. I’ll have to deal with it myself if-” I bit down. If the worst comes to the worst. “Find the car.”
“Right, got you, no problem.” She nodded and gave me a thumbs up, trying to be reassuring, then jerked her head at the closed door to the disused sitting room. “What we gonna do about her then? What’s the plan?”
“What is the plan indeed,” I sighed. “That’s the question.”
“I’m getting there. Believe it or not, other things have more pressing time limits. The police officer you assaulted and kidnapped is not the top priority here.”
“She’s … not?” Twil blinked at me.
“I … guess … she will?”
Zheng appeared through the kitchen doorway again, ducking her gigantic frame with one hand on top of the door, thankfully free of any fresh blood. “Zheng, you’re going to watch our captive.”
She straightened up. “Sounds familiar.”
“Please. Go in there, watch her, make sure she’s not escaping or cutting her bonds or something, but for the love of God, please do not make things worse for me by eating bits of her.”
“Uhhhhhhh,” Twil let out a noise like a printer error. “Heather, are you sure?”
“Zheng is the only one I can spare right now, but more importantly she’s by far the most intimidating thing within a hundred miles. That is a message we need to send.”
“Flattery gets you everywhere, shaman.” Zheng purred in approval, like a tiger getting belly scratches.
As the towering zombie strode toward the old sitting room door and opened it on the shadowed interior, an evil voice whispered to me from the darkness in the rear of my skull. If Zheng did eat the detective, the decision would not be mine to make, my hands would clean. Had my subconscious chosen Zheng for this, to shield me from consequence? Zheng pushed the door wide, and I caught a glimpse of the detective’s trouser legs, slender ankles tied with green gardening wire.
“Shaman?” Zheng turned before going inside, one hand on the lintel as she ducked.
“I mean it. Don’t eat her.”
The detective made a muffled cough of surprise through the makeshift gag. Couldn’t blame her, really.
Zheng paused for a moment too long, those dark eyes boring into mine with all the slow perception of a jungle cat. Could demons read minds? In the past I’d often gotten the sense that Praem understood more than she let on. Zheng nodded slowly, straightened up inside the room, and closed the door behind her.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to regain the sense of fleeting clarity I’d had moments before.
All this confident order-giving was an act. Fake it until you make it, pretend to know what you’re doing, and convince everyone else to believe. Ignore my racing heart and sweaty palms and churning guts. Doubt would crush me in an instant if I let it in.
I bet Raine didn’t feel like this all the time. I couldn’t fill these boots.
“Heather?” Twil said.
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine.”
“I don’t think you are,” Lozzie said in a small voice. I made myself smile for her.
“And you. Lozzie, you … ” I said – and almost choked up. Lozzie, with her healthy face and silly-cute rabbit poncho, almost broke me. The truth slipped out, or as much of it as I could bear right now. “Promise me you won’t leave again. Not before we have a chance to actually sit down and talk, properly. Please. I can’t deal with it if you vanish again. I’ll go to pieces.”
Lozzie did a double-blink, very theatrical, and pulled a sort of teasing smile with her eyes rolled upward. “Promise-promise.”
“Good. Twil, get moving. Lozzie, help me up the stairs and into the bathroom. I think I can spare five minutes to wipe my face and sit on the toilet.”
“Are you sure about this?” Twil asked.
“Sure? No, I’m sure of exceptionally little right now. Moreso than usual.” I sighed down at Raine’s mobile phone in my hands, at the contact listed as ‘Fliss – land line only’.
Raine had typed those words, along with every other contact in her list. Random shops in Sharrowford, takeaway joints we’d eaten from, Evelyn, Twil, a mechanic’s shop on the other side of the city, the university dentist, the student union bar, a number labelled ‘not home’, another with the name of one of her exes – all things I’d scrolled past while clenching my heart, to find the mysterious Felicity.
“Then it’s a risk, right?” Twil said. “Last thing we need is more risks, come on.”
“Everything’s a risk. Leaving her like this is a risk.” I nodded at Evelyn, unconscious on her bed.
“Living’s a risk,” Lozzie said, nodding sagely.
“True that,” Twil murmured.
Evelyn looked as if she was asleep, her face a little waxy as she suffered through troubled dreams behind unquiet eyelids. Her breathing came steady and slow, but she wouldn’t wake up.
In a touching gesture that I refrained from commenting on, Twil had not merely carried Evelyn up to her bedroom and laid her out. She’d cleared a space on Evelyn’s plushly overstuffed bed, and tucked Evee under two layers of warm blankets. She’d wiped Evee’s face and placed her prosthetic leg nearby, perhaps on the optimistic off-chance that Evelyn would wake when none of us were there to watch over her.
We were invaders in this haven of comfort, watched by Evelyn’s jury of plush animals and the judgemental faces of her anime figurines. Twil perched on the bed with her furrowed concern, Lozzie lounged against the far wall biting her lip, and I sat in the desk chair, in all my rotten glory.
Twil had followed the detective’s scent right to her car – an old BMW parked two streets away – and in the ten minutes she’d taken doing that, I’d managed to clean myself up enough to feel approximately human. Lozzie had helped me hobble upstairs to the bathroom, where I’d gulped down pints of cold water, wiped the worst of the dried blood from my face, and ran my bleeding foot under the hot tap in the bathtub, wincing as I’d scrubbed it clean to ward off infection.
I’d replaced my stinking pajamas with Raine’s dirty clothes instead, an oversized black band tshirt and plaid pajama bottoms, plucked from the floor of our bedroom. Wrapped myself in her scent like a suit of armour. Socks too, over the hastily applied bandage around my savaged sole.
Between the blood and the fear-sweat and the Wonderland ash, I probably reeked like an abattoir fire, but I didn’t care right now.
Evelyn was on a time limit, one perhaps more pressing than Raine’s. None of us had any medical training, any knowledge about what to do with a person in a coma. If she stayed like this for much longer she’d need an IV drip for hydration, she’d need to be turned to prevent bedsores, and I could only imagine what being bed-bound would do to the already acute pain problems in her back and hips. We had to wake her, fast.
“We need a mage,” I said, and realised I was trying to convince myself.
“We’ve got Kim,” Twil said from the corner of her mouth.
“A real one. Apologies to those absent.”
“Yeah, I know, okay? Kim’s tried stuff, nothing works. Who the hell is this Felicity woman, anyway?”
“I don’t rightly know. Back before Christmas, we were trying to figure out where Tenny came from – that’s the spirit that’s been following me around. Turned out Lozzie sent it,” I nodded toward the culprit, who lit up with a little satisfied smile. “But before we knew that, Evelyn called around people she used to know, from her childhood, or teenage years, I think. Mages. One of them was Felicity. It was a … weird phone call.”
I suppressed a shudder at the memory of that strange voice which had answered first, that whisper of sulphur across the humming phone lines, but I didn’t mention it out loud.
“Scary?” Lozzie said, all the same. “Was she scary?”
“Not really,” I lied.
“I don’t give a shit about scary, can we trust her?” Twil asked.
“Evelyn had some choice words for her,” I admitted. “I got the impression she didn’t like Felicity very much, but Raine seemed to think it would be safe to ask her for help. Safe for Evee, I mean. I trust Raine’s judgement, often more than I trust my own.”
My thumb hesitated over the call button. There was still time to turn back, to admit we did have another option, one I’d already thought of last night. Last night, with Raine still at my side.
Hyperdimensional mathematics could wake Evelyn. Hyperdimensional mathematics could do anything. In theory.
But I could also fail, and pass out, for hours on end. I knew I was fragile right now, I felt it in my bones and the hollow in my chest, the floaty sensation in my skin, like it was too big for me. Any use of brainmath might put me over the edge – and I had no other way to find Raine. I had one shot at that, and spending it on Evelyn might cost me everything.
Silently, in the guilt-wracked privacy of my own mind, I apologised to her. I told her I cared, as much as I did for Raine.
But I still made the choice.
I pressed the call button and put the phone to my ear, listening to it ring. Twil shifted to the end of the bed and leaned in close. Lozzie tilted her head, only half-interested, her eyes elsewhere.
The phone rang and rang and rang. Echoes in the darkness. On and on, my heart tightening in my chest, hoping I got Felicity first and not that other voice.
A moment of silence stretched out, as if the line had connected to an abyss, a marine trench of lightless pressure.
Something inhaled as if waking up.
“Tannerbaum house,” a woman’s voice answered in a clumsy half-mumble.
“Hello, good morning. Is this … ” I stumbled. I’d only ever heard Felicity once before, her voice on speaker-phone and fighting against Evelyn’s contempt. “Am I … we don’t … we don’t know each other, but am I speaking to Felicity? I’m sorry, it’s rude of me, but I don’t know your surname.”
“Yes? Yes, this is Felicity speaking,” came the hesitant half-mumble once more. “Nobody … nobody uses this number. Who are you?”
“My name is Heather. Heather Morell. I’m not a mage but I’m in the know, and I’m a friend of Evelyn Saye.”
So much in that little sound. Deadened surprise. Old pain, the kind of ache that never really heals. Loss, of a sort I knew. Felicity, whoever she was, had reacted to Evelyn’s name with an echo of how I might react to Maisie’s.
“Hello? Miss? … Heather? Hello?” Felicity asked into my shocked pause.
Twil caught my eyes, boggling at why I wasn’t answering. I wet my lips and gathered myself.
“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m Evee’s friend, maybe her best friend. Listen, she’s been hurt, magically, and I’m led to understand that you might be able to help. Might be willing.”
“Evee’s been hurt? How? What happened?” Felicity asked, her voice urgent but still blurred by the mumble, as if she couldn’t open her mouth properly. I’d assumed the phone call had woken her, but now I wondered at some other, darker cause. “Where’s Raine, why isn’t she calling me instead?”
“Raine is indisposed at the moment.”
“Who- no, who are you? This is a trick. Who are you?”
“I’m Raine’s girlfriend, alright?” I snapped at her. “I’m not trying to con you. Evelyn’s in a coma, and she won’t wake up. The cause is too complex to explain. Magic. Can you help, or not?”
A long pause, a thinking pause, during which Felicity swallowed then burped gently. “I’m sorry. I have … I have to be paranoid.”
“Yes,” I sighed. “I’m familiar with the mage lifestyle.”
“Of course I can help Evee, I’d do anything for her,” Felicity said. I heard her stand up on the other side of the phone, and caught a hint of falling rain on thin windowpanes. A scuffle of paper and pens, the scrape of a chair on a stone floor. “But … well … do you know … I don’t know where she lives now. I don’t think she wants me to. Which is … I’ll need an address.”
“Sharrowford. Do you know the city?”
“I’ve never been there, but it’s a few hours drive at most, if I leave now. Which I will … Heather? Hello?”
“Before I give you the address, there’s something else first.”
“ … yes?”
“Evelyn, when she called you a few months ago, she described you to me as a ‘sociopathic pederast demonophile’.”
Twil’s eyebrows well near left her forehead. She gaped at me. Lozzie put her hand over her scandalised smirk.
“ … oh,” Felicity said. Hollow, hurt, old pain.
“I don’t care what you are,” I said. Twil was mouthing an outraged ‘What?!’ at me, but I carried on. “I’m just letting you know that I don’t entirely trust you. I want my friend to be safe and well again, and I don’t care what you are or what you did in the past, as long as you’re coming here to help Evee. Raine seemed to think you’re okay. If you’re not-”
A sigh on the other end of the phone. “None of those things are true.”
“If you’re not,” I repeated. “If you’re a threat, I’ll get rid of you. I’ve killed mages before.”
“ … what? I thought you said you were-”
“I’m not a mage, no. I’m much worse. And I have to be paranoid too, for Evee as well.”
A swallow from the other end of the phone. “I understand. I suppose I deserved that, didn’t I?”
“She’s told me nothing about you, Felicity. I don’t know who you are.”
A sad puff of laughter. “Doing what I never could, huh? Standing up to something like me. She’s lucky to have you, Heather.”
“I hope so. Here.” I gave her the full address for number 12 Barnslow Drive, postcode and all, and heard her scratching to write it down as I rattled it off.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can, look for me in three or four hours, I think. I drive an old range rover, so don’t blow it up when I get there, or whatever it is you do.”
“I won’t. Thank you. Please be fast.”
“Try my best.”
The moment she hung up I let out a huge breath and started shaking all over, hiccuped twice and felt bile threaten to escape my throat. Fake confidence shed from me all at once like melted skin. I sniffed hard and hugged myself, dropping the phone onto Evee’s little laptop desk with a clatter. Lozzie was suddenly on me, squeezing me hard.
“Ah, ow, ow, bruises,” I said, and she eased off just enough. I hiccuped again.
“Bloody hell, Heather,” Twil said. “Where’d you get all that from?”
“I can be kind of scary, when I want,” I managed, resisting the urge to curl up and hide.
“Yeah. Nice. Good job, yeah.” She nodded along, believing we were going to be alright. I’d made her believe.
“You’re not scary, durr,” Lozzie said. “You’re Heather.”
“I still don’t like the sound of that woman,” Twil said. “If she smells wrong, she’s not going anywhere near Evee. And she’s definitely not being alone with her.”
I nodded in mute agreement, no emotional energy left for argument. “That’s one down.”
“One of many problems.”
“And a bitch ain’t one,” Lozzie said in a sing-song voice. Despite the situation, despite herself, despite everything, Twil burst out laughing. Lozzie laughed back and they descended into a moment of shared giggle fit as I stared on in bewilderment.
“ … I’m sorry, what?”
“It’s a rap song,” Twil said, sniffing to control herself. “I got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one? Kinda famous? Come on, Heather, you must know that one.”
I shook my head. “No, actually. Sorry.”
Twil shrugged. “Right you are then, boss girl. What’s next?” Twil hopped up from the bed, cast one last glance back at Evelyn’s sleeping form, and looked to me – looked to me for directions. For orders. For confidence.
“Boss girl needs to eat,” Lozzie said.
I held myself back from the answer I wanted to give. Next should be Raine, the great unknown. To whom anything could be happening. But that wasn’t sensible, that wasn’t smart, I couldn’t burn myself out before we were ready, before we were safe, before my effort might mean success.
I drew myself up and clenched down on the shaking. Time enough for that later.
“Next we deal with the old bill.”
The officer’s name was Nicole Webb, and she lived up admirably to my mental image of a lady police detective.
Short and compact, hair up in a tight blonde bun, in her mid-to-late-thirties but trim from half-marathons, martial arts, and a sensible diet. No jewelry, and minimal makeup on a tightly alert face. Her legs were drawn up as best she could with her ankles bound, the gardening wire biting into the fabric of her suit trousers, her back against the sofa’s footrest. Intelligent, watchful eyes looked up at me the moment I opened the door on the shadowed room.
She was angry and scared, projecting the anger to hide the fear. Hiding it well, yes, but I was somewhat of an expert on fear. Not surprising, after an hour alone in a room with Zheng.
We’d gotten her name from her police badge, which I now held before me like a talisman, the key to her mind.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled at me, arms crossed, radiating boredom. “Is there meat in your fridge?”
“Uh, yes, Zheng, I think there’s some chicken,” I replied without taking my eyes off the detective. “I’m sorry for making you stand here all this time.”
“You don’t make me do anything,” Zheng grunted, and ducked through the door, stomping off toward the kitchen before I had a chance to stop her. Twil and Lozzie both hopped out of her path, then gathered at the door again.
“Would hardly be fair for me to sit in a chair,” I said, and gently levered myself down to the floor. I got halfway there before I remembered my stomach, and rather spoilt the effect as I winced and straightened back up, then had to awkwardly sit down with far too much use of my hands. “Ahh, ow. Ow, okay. Okay, sitting. There we are, here on the same level.”
The detective and I stared at each other, until finally her eyes left me and took in Twil and Lozzie hovering in the doorway. The anger in her eyes melted away, replaced with a tentative curious frown. She’d probably been expecting a man to come in here and shoot her twice in the back of the head, but instead she got a dishevelled college student and two teenage girls. Her frown went through a most interesting transformation; she didn’t know how to play this situation. She didn’t know what we were.
Her brow was sticky with dried sweat. Another sigh escaped me.
“Um … Twil? Can you get this gag out of her mouth? Why is she gagged, anyway? Why was that necessary?”
“So she couldn’t scream for help? Seemed pretty obvious to me,” Twil ventured, then grimaced when I gave her an unimpressed glare. She crossed the room and undid the knotted tea-towel serving as a gag, and revealed the rest of Nicole’s face: a small, neat mouth and a very mobile jaw, which Nicole instantly worked up and down to relieve the stiffness.
She watched me, and watched Twil, and even watched Lozzie still lurking in the doorway, as she wet her lips and took several deep breaths. Finally, she seemed to settle on me.
“Alright, I’ll go first then,” she said. “You obviously want to talk to me, or you wouldn’t have removed that gag. What do you wanna talk about?”
My heart hammered in my chest. Why was this, of all things, so nerve-wracking? I’d faced down a flesh-eating monster this morning, and almost been eaten by a building. This should be nothing.
“What’s your name?” she carried on. “Mine’s Nico-”
“Nicole, yes, I know,” I almost snapped. “Nicole Webb, detective sergeant, Derbyshire Constabulary.”
She smiled a little. “You got that off my badge, didn’t you?”
It was how she used her voice, soft and measured, gentle and coaxing. She was rigid with tension, but doing an incredible job of controlling her breathing, of playing the part she thought would get her out of here. She made me feel every bit what I actually was – an ill and exhausted young woman, not a supernatural mastermind.
“We did, yes,” I managed, trying to stick to the script. “My name is Heather Morell, and I do have a question for you, yes.”
“Ask away, please,” she said quickly, before I could continue. I knew exactly what she was doing, building rapport. She caught my pause and carried through again. “I’m all all ears, Heather, please.”
“Are you a real police detective, or … ” I trailed off, my heart hammering like a deer trying to batter itself to pieces against a fence. “Oh hell, I can’t do this,” I spat.
“Heather?” The detective spoke very quickly now. “Can’t do what? What are you being forced to do here? Talk to me, please, I can help-”
“Heather?” Twil hissed. “The- we need to-”
“Wrong end of the stick,” Lozzie chirped from the doorway, then let out a flighty little sigh.
“This isn’t going to work,” I said. “She doesn’t have the slightest clue what she’s walked into, and Zheng hasn’t made the impact I hoped.”
“What have I walked into?” Nicole asked. “Please, help me understand, and I can help you. Your big friend didn’t say a word to me, no, but she sure is big. She coming back too?” Nicole lowered her voice. “Or are you sort of glad she’s not listening in right now?”
I shook my head, at a loss, trying not to face the inevitable even as I said it. “I do not have time to deal with you. I just don’t. We can’t do this, I don’t know how.”
Nicole’s front finally cracked – just a little. She frowned, and that was real, an unrehearsed, unglossed, genuine quirk of confusion. “Heather, yes?”
“Yes. That’s me.”
“Are you in charge here?”
I blinked at her, paused, my mouth open like an idiot. “ … yes. Yes, I suppose I am. Right now, I am the closest thing this bunch has to a leader, yes.”
“You’re all a bit young for this sort of thing, aren’t you?” Nicole tried another smile, wet her lips. “Any of you a day over twenty?”
“I am, in fact. A couple of weeks ago,” I said.
“Hey, Heather, happy birthday!” Lozzie lit up behind me. “I had mine too. We should do a double party when this is all over.”
“’This sort of thing’?” Twil echoed, frowning.
“Covering up a double murder. Striking a deal with a detective,” Nicole said, oddly casual, though the tension in her eyes gave her away. “I assume that is what you’re trying to do?”
I sighed and put my face in my hand. “Nobody here’s committed murder. Not today.”
Nicole puffed out a long breath and pulled a if-you-say-so sort of face. “I did see two bodies. Hiding a body is a lot of work, you know, and ninety-nine percent of the time it’s not successful, pieces get found, forensics turns stuff up. Is one of you covering for a relative? A father? An uncle? Some sort of fight gone wrong? Look, all three of you girls are in trouble, I’m not going to lie, but I can help you. You feel like you’re trapped, like you’ve got no choice, but that’s not true, you-”
“What do you think Zheng was?” I asked.
“ … she’s a professional, isn’t she?” Nicole’s voice dropped to a hushed whisper, her face into a serious frown. “She’s watching you three, while you wait for a real clean-up crew? Or she was involved, she killed those two men? If that’s right, you need to untie me right now and-”
“She’s a demon,” I said. “And my friend.”
“Ahhh fuckin’ ‘ell.” Twil grimaced.
Nicole paused for a lot longer than she needed to, then nodded slowly. “Alright, we’ll go with that. So … is she … uh-”
“The bodies you saw were killed by a servitor – that’s a kind of spirit, which you can’t see – put here by the grandmother of the owner of this house, who is currently upstairs in a coma, because we’re having a crisis.” The words tumbled out of me, as I tried to avoid what I had to do. My voice shook, the plan all coming apart. “Multiple crises, in fact. And that is why I do not have time to deal with you. I need to find my partner, who has been kidnapped by actual evil cultists who worship an alien god outside of our reality. Are you following me so far?”
Lozzie caught the upset in my voice and made a noise like she wanted to hug me, but she hung back. Nicole was doing a very bad job of concealing her conclusion that she was surrounded by not just murderers and criminals, but mad ones.
“Right,” she said. “Right. Okay. This … ‘servitor’, uh, where is it? Does it look like a person? Is it here now?”
“Oh come on!” Lozzie demanded of her. “Use your noggin, think! Think!”
“What did you think happened to you when Twil overpowered you earlier?” I asked. “Was that normal?”
“ … that was just … bad luck. Props to you, by the way,” she nodded to Twil. “Twil, is it? Had me bang to rights with that armlock.”
“She’s a werewolf,” I said.
“Heather,” Twil whined, then almost grinned to herself. She loved it really, the showing off.
“Fuzzy,” Lozzie said with a cheeky grin, then darted behind the door-frame to escape Twil’s little growl.
“A … werewolf?” Nicole’s eyebrows went up. “Okay.”
“No, not okay. It’s not okay, because you need to accept it, and I don’t know how to make you do that. And what about Zheng? You think she’s tall? She’s nearly seven feet, can’t you see that isn’t normal? People don’t get that tall, not built like her.”
“What are you trying to tell me here? I’ve stumbled into a bad urban fantasy novel?” Nicole smiled as she spoke, but she failed to keep the incredulity out of her voice. Now she thought I was just messing with her. I wished I was.
“Pffffffft,” Lozzie blew a raspberry from the doorway. “No imagination. She’s never gonna get it.”
“We have to make her get it. We have to show her,” I said, my voice tight and shaking with the racing of my heart. “Or I have to kill her.”