Making credible threats did not come naturally to me, but lately I’d become worryingly good at this.
“Or I have to kill her.”
My ultimatum hung in the late-morning shadows of the old sitting room, on a dingy winter’s day. A self-directed expression of horror. An admission to myself of what I had to do. A half-apology to the police detective, Nicole Webb: ‘look, you’re just doing your job, but you’ve stumbled onto something too far beyond of your sphere of experience, and it’s going to be the end of you, unless you start believing in fairy tales.’
Perhaps she read the certainty in my voice. Maybe she used that detective experience to deduce that I’d committed murder before. Or more likely the whole being bound at wrists and ankles thing did the trick.
Nicole Webb took my words as very credible threat indeed.
“Hey, hey hey hey now,” she said. Her widening eyes betrayed her struggle to stay in control. She raised her wire-bound hands and wet her lips. “You’ve already got me exactly where you want me, you can make any demands you like, any deal you want, and I can’t say no, right? I can’t say no. This doesn’t have to end poorly for any of us, does it? There’s a dozen better solutions we can come to, before doing something you can’t take back.”
“I- that wasn’t- I know that.” My thin resolve buckled under Nicole’s obvious fear. “I don’t have anything against you, I don’t want to make you suffer. I just … I need you to not exist.”
“Ahhh shit.” Twil grimaced. “Heather, are you serious?”
“What do you think?” I tried to snap at her, but my words trickled out, slow and cold. “What do you think happens if we let her go, Twil? You think Felicity will be able to help Evee if we’re all in a police station holding cell? You think we’ll be able to find Raine? The … detective here can ruin everything.”
Twil grit her teeth and cast about. “Yeah but, we don’t have to murder her.”
“Yes, listen to her,” Nicole said, wetting her lips again and speaking fast this time. “I understand you’re panicked, you’re in a corner, you’ve got this personal crisis going on – but the last thing you want on your hands is a dead police officer. I wasn’t lying about bodies being hard to hide, it’s exceptionally difficult. Plus you’d have to find my car and get rid of it, and there’s a paper trail at the station that points to this house. If I go missing, my colleagues start following leads.”
“We already found your car,” I said, looking down and picking at the threadbare carpet. “Why am I even talking to you?”
Nicole swallowed, loudly. “Look, Heather, you seem like a reasonable person, and you too, Twil, and um … ” Nicole’s eyes went over my shoulder.
“I’m a secret,” Lozzie said.
“Okay. Look, nobody here has to get arrested, not today, not tomorrow, not a year from now. None of this has to go anywhere. I can pretend I didn’t see anything.” She managed to pull a smile, shaking beneath the surface. “If I’ve got a choice between being a bent copper or ending up in a landfill, I’ll choose being a bent copper every time. I’m not a superhero, yeah? I’m just doing my job here. I’d like to go home at the end of the day.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and hunched over, curling up around the dull ache in my stomach muscles and the tighter ache in my heart; I had to do this, but I couldn’t.
Homicide in self-defence, or murdering a real monster in Alexander Lilburne, or even killing those who would send me back to the Eye, those I could do. Threatening Catherine Gillespie with death, a woman who deserved at least life in prison, that cost me no sleep. For those things I could find justification somewhere in my messed-up little heart.
This? A bystander was pleading for her life. She had nothing to do with those who wished me ill, no responsibility for anything that had ever happened to me. She spoke perfect sense, but I was going to send her Outside, to die alone and unmarked in an alien place.
“You’re too much of a risk,” I hissed. “It’s impossible. Twil, Lozzie, please leave the … the room … Shut the door. I-I can’t-”
Lozzie fell on me like a blanket fresh from the tumble dryer. “Oh Heather, no, no no,” she whispered. “No.”
I opened my eyes and found a very distraught Lozzie staring back at me. She’d fallen to her knees and wrapped me in a hug, biting her bottom lip, big eyes filled with wild horror.
“I don’t want you to watch this,” I said.
“No! Heather, no!” She shook her head emphatically, wispy blonde hair flying everywhere. “What’s gotten into your head? We have to get it back out!”
“Lozzie, I have to get rid of her. She’s-” I glanced at Nicole, who had gone very still indeed. “She’s dangerous. She’ll-”
“Dangerparty is our default setting. I’m dangerous, you’re dangerous. We can all be dangerous together.”
“You don’t understand.” I felt so distant, so isolated. Even Lozzie didn’t get it, wasn’t able to shoulder the responsibility. “I’m sorry, but sometimes … we have to … do things that aren’t right, because-”
“I’ve heard all that before! That’s what he used to say.”
My mind hit a brick wall, from sixty miles an hour to nothing in the blink of an eye. “Your … your brother?”
“He had good intentions too. At first.” Lozzie sniffed back tears, nodding and biting her lip.
I shook my head, still clinging to this false resolve. “You’re the one who asked me to-” I couldn’t finish. You’re the one who asked me to kill your brother, Lozzie. You began this, didn’t you?
“I’m sorry,” she squeaked. “You shouldn’t do it when there’s other ways?”
Not an instruction or a demand, not even a suggestion. A halting, confused question from a girl who didn’t live in this reality ninety-five percent of the time, and it made more sense than all my justifications. One should probably not kill people, if there’s any other way.
Drawing back from the edge was harder than approaching it. I’d convinced myself that being a leader meant making tough choices, just like Raine, but I’d gotten it all wrong. All turned around.
I hiccuped once, and hugged Lozzie back.
“Since when are you my moral compass?” I said, sniffing back tears of my own and half-laughing. Lozzie sobbed once into my shoulder, little hands pressing at my back. “I’m meant to be the normal one around here.”
When Lozzie and I finally disentangled ourselves from each other – wiping our eyes and holding hands for a fleeting moment – I knew we’d shredded any credibility in my threat to Nicole’s life.
But I didn’t care.
The detective watched us warily, as I turned back to her. Anybody else would have stupid enough to say something at that point, a ‘so, not going to kill me now?’ or ‘thank you, Lozzie’, or some other inane, gloating statement that mistook real moral fibre for weakness. But Nicole swallowed, dipped her head in a nod, and waited.
This was the actual tough choice.
“We’re going to do this the hard way,” I said, and saying it felt so much easier. “I’m sorry, in advance, for what I’m about to do to you.”
“Aversion therapy,” Lozzie stage-whispered, and flipped up the hood on her poncho, the attached floppy rabbit ears falling down over her face.
“Hey,” Nicole said. “If you need me to believe that you’re all werewolves and wizards or whatever, that’s fine, we can work with that. That’s somewhere to start. I’ll- I can try to accept that, if that’s what you need.”
I sighed at her and shook my head. “Humouring us isn’t enough. If you’ve never been exposed to the supernatural, then your mind always finds a way to explain what you’ve experienced. Unless it’s extreme enough or sustained enough to break you, make you accept it or go mad. And then you’re in, and you can never really go back.”
Nicole’s eyes tightened with obvious scepticism. “You’re telling not to trust my own senses? Forgive me, but that’s a classic manipulative trick.”
“No, I’m saying the opposite. You’ve ignored your senses twice this morning, and you didn’t even notice yourself doing it. Twil could hold you down – how? She’s not exactly heavily muscled.”
“’Ey,” Twil muttered a complaint.
“She’s a slender teenage girl, you’re a veteran police officer,” I continued as Nicole looked Twil up and down. “How’d she do that? And you’ve seen Zheng. She’s seven feet tall. Seven feet.”
Nicole sucked on her teeth. “So what, you’re going to keep me tied up until I develop Stockholm Syndrome, believe the things you believe?”
I sighed, harsher this time. “No, I need you to accept it now, because we’re in the middle of multiple crises.”
“Hold up, hold up,” Twil interrupted, a nasty grin at the corners of her mouth. She cracked her knuckles. “You know what? This looks like a job for me.”
“We need to do this gently, Twil, she could lose her mind.”
“She’ll be fiiiiiine,” Lozzie said, peering out from behind those cloth rabbit ears. “Fuz-zy, fuz-zy,” she began chanting, pounding the floor with her fists.
“Yeah, don’t worry big H. I’ve got this one.” Twil stepped up as if on a stage, raising her chin, cracking a nasty smirk. “Plus, I’ve always wanted to do this. Bet you’ve seen a lot of shit, right, copper? Dead bodies and stuff? Gunshot wounds? Car crashes?”
Nicole looked to me and Lozzie for help as Twil rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath. “ … yes? I’ve seen my share. Where is this going?”
“Somewhere bad,” I warned her. “Brace yourself.”
“Fuz-zy, fuz-zy, fuz-zy!”
“I’d keep your eyes on the prize if I were you, copper.” Twil pointed at herself with a thumb. “On the count of three – three!”
Twil showed no mercy. Human to full-on werewolf in a heartbeat, no partial transformation and no holding back. She summoned her ghostly flesh into full solidity, wrapped it around her own skin and clothes like a collapsing whirlpool in fast forward. Five-foot-two of wolf-girl bristled with fur and claw, amber eyes flashing as she stretched jaw wide on a maw full of fangs. Lozzie jerked and yipped. Even I flinched, and I was far too exhausted to be frightened of what I’d seen before.
Nicole started screaming.
She tried to shove herself away from the sudden monstrosity in the middle of the room, kicking out with her bound feet, hands raised to ward off the impossible, eyes wide and bulging in incomprehension. She saw, completely and without a filter, while the fear overrode her conscious mind.
Lozzie decided this was the perfect moment to bounce back to her feet and launch herself at Twil in a flying tackle-hug that landed like a wrecking ball. Her hooded head hit Twil in the ribcage and nearly sent both of them flying.
“Oof!” went Twil. Gently but firmly she peeled Lozzie off and held her at arm’s length. A wolf and a rabbit, how appropriate. “What-”
“Touch fluffy touch fluffy let me let me!” Lozzie whined. “Please please please!”
“Um,” Twil growled, wolf snout twisted in disbelief. Nicole was staring now, panting hard, and flinched like a struck dog when Twil glanced her way again. “Um, oops?”
“No, this is good,” I said. “This is what we need. Nicole, detective, what do you see? Say it out loud.”
Nicole managed a shake of her head, but that was all, paralysed and goggle-eyed.
“Twil hug me, hug me like that pleeeeease!” Lozzie whined again.
“You may want to turn it off now,” I said.
Twil growled again and flicked her head back – back to human. The summoned spirit-flesh dissolved in an instant, leaving behind a slightly flustered Twil instead.
Lozzie pouted and gave up trying to bundle herself into Twil. “Aww.”
Nicole couldn’t stop staring. She was plastered with cold sweat, face turned ashen white, blinking rapidly as her mind tried to reboot. Her mouth worked as if trying to speak, but no sound came out, shaking her head back and forth in a gesture of hopeless repeating denial.
“Detective? Nicole?” I tried, but she just kept shaking her head. “Twil, are you certain nobody’s ever seen you like that in public before?”
She shrugged. “Like, from a distance. They probably just assume I’m a big dog or something.”
“You’re so fuzzy holy shit please,” Lozzie said. “Please please please I want.”
“I’m not a petting zoo,” Twil told her.
“You could be!”
“What-” Nicole managed, and we all looked at her. She kept trying to look away from Twil, her head moving as if to make eye contact with me, but her eyeballs refused to obey, locked onto this source of contextless threat. “What- what- what was that?”
“A werewolf,” I said.
The wrong thing to say, apparently. The word ‘werewolf’ as acted a catalyst. With an effort of supreme willpower, Nicole pulled herself back together; the on-the-job detective mask slid back down like a steel wall behind her eyes, and she finally managed to look at me.
“There’s no such thing as werewolves,” she said.
“You just saw one!” Twil said, outraged.
“Yes, I know it’s completely ridiculous,” I said. “I reacted in much the same way, and I already knew about magic and monsters. Werewolves are just silly, right?”
“Yes!” Nicole snapped. “Yes they are.”
“Oi, I’m standing right here.” Twil put her hands on her hips.
Nicole flinched as she looked at Twil again, as if expecting to see something other than a mildly grumpy teenage girl. “That was a trick,” she said. “It had to be. With mirrors, or … a … a projector. You people are a cult and you’re trying to convert me.”
“Oh thanks, great. Fuck you too,” Twil told her.
“Detective,” I said. “You’re denying the evidence of your own senses.”
Nicole stared at me good five seconds, then back at Twil. She shook her head. “Werewolves don’t exist.”
“God dammit,” I whispered.
“Fuckin’ do it again if you need,” Twil huffed.
“No! No, thank you, no.” Nicole swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Twil snorted with derision. “That couldn’t have been real, that wasn’t real. Werewolves don’t exist. You are not a werewolf, you’re a con artist, you-”
Twil transformed again.
No warning this time, fake countdown or otherwise, though she was prepared for Lozzie, catching the smaller girl’s flying hug in mid-leap with one arm. Nicole started screaming her head off – and increased in volume when Twil reached for her. Failing, kicking with her bound legs, one mis-aimed strike thwacked Twil full in the snout. The werewolf jerked back, growling.
“Twil, stop, it,” I snapped. “The neighbours are going to hear her.”
Twil growled again – but dismissed her transformation, the flesh leaving her in slow wisps of pneuma-somatic matter. She raked her fingers through her curls and rubbed at her face where Nicole’s shoe had connected with her jaw. “Ow, shit.”
“Don’t do that again!” the detective shrieked at her.
“Don’t do what, huh?” Twil sneered. “Thought I wasn’t real.”
“You’re so fluffy,” Lozzie said. “Heather, isn’t she so fluffy?”
“She can be,” I admitted.
“That was not real,” Nicole said. “You are- f-fucking with me. With my head, somehow. Let me go. Let me go!” She shouted, wild-eyed, pulling against her bonds. Her hair was in increasing disarray, strands of blonde escaping the tight, ordered bun. “Look, you’ve successfully frightened me, well done. I won’t tell anybody, I’ll- I’ll falsify my travel reports for the day. I don’t care, just don’t- don’t do that again! I don’t care.”
“Aw come on, she’s so cuddly and fluffy?” Lozzie blinked at her. “Don’t you wanna touch too?”
“Lozzie, I do adore you,” I said. “But your standard for what’s frightening is a little … unique.”
“Mmmmm.” Lozzie pouted.
“It’s not like I was gonna bite you,” Twil grumbled.
“Let me go. Okay?” Nicole repeated. “You’ve made your point, okay?”
“Twil, maybe wait in the front room for a minute,” I said.
“What? But I didn’t do-”
Twil huffed and shook her head, but made the compromise of stomping over to stand in the doorway with her arms crossed. Nicole watched her, visibly relaxing as Twil put distance between them.
“Nicole. Detective?” I said, as hard I could currently muster, trying to get her to look at me. “Do you believe me now?”
She hesitated, trying to say no, unwilling to say yes. “You could be … could be doing something to me. I’m drugged. Or … ”
I sighed and put my face in my hands, then took a deep breath and sat up again, straight as I could with all my aches and pains. I’d made my decision and we had to keep going. “Lozzie, would you do me a really big favour, please? I’m sorry to ask, but I’m too fragile and exhausted to do it myself right now, I had to sort of overuse things earlier.”
“Mmm?” Lozzie took her hood’s bunny ears in her hands and flapped them at me. “Anything.”
“Would you send an object Outside in front of our guest here? You can use a spoon from the kitchen, or something. It doesn’t matter what, nothing important though, obviously.”
“Hmm? Mmm?” Lozzie made a sound like a confused bird.
“I’m sorry, I know- … well, actually, I don’t know. It always seems easier for you.”
“What are you two talking about?” Nicole demanded. “Send what outside where?”
“I can’t do that.” Lozzie shook her head.
I blinked at her, lost for a second. “ … I … I’m sorry, what?”
“I mean, I can’t do that. I can’t move stuff. You can, Heather?”
“ … y-yes?” I frowned at her, confusion increasing. Was I losing my mind? “You can’t?”
“No! Only people, and the kami of course, but they’re like people too. Dead matter doesn’t go anywhere, unless I’m holding it when I go!” She smiled at me as if this was the coolest thing in the world. “Clothes come with people, and stuff in my pockets, and I’ve never figured out why that is – but just stuff? Nope! You can do that, Heather? Serious?”
“Yes … yes I can. We came to this by different ways, didn’t we?” I muttered to myself, no time to analyse this now. Lozzie smiled and nodded. “I suppose I’ll have to do it myself then.”
“Sorry,” Lozzie said, and she did genuinely look it.
“That’s okay, it’s not your fault you’re less messed up than I am. Twil, would you please fetch me something expendable?”
“Right you are, boss,” Twil muttered under her breath, more sarcastic than serious, and stomped off to the kitchen.
She returned a few moments later with a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels – which I suspected she’d fished out of the bin – and a grimace on her face.
“ … Twil? What’s wrong?” I asked as she handed me the cardboard tube.
“Your big friend is making a right mess in there. Like … never mind.”
My stomach lurched. “She’s not eating the corpses, is she?”
“What?!” Nicole almost exploded.
“Ugh, no, fucking hell,” Twil said. “Is that a thing she does?”
“Yes, actually. I think. To be fair, she only did it once, and I think it was a heat of the moment thing. Maybe.”
“Maybe? Oh great, wonderful.”
Nicole looked more worried than when she’d thought I was going to kill her. I cleared my throat and held up the cardboard tube. “Forget about that, please, detective. I’m going to make this vanish.”
“Oh yeah? And then pull rabbits out of a hat?”
“I’m already out!” Lozzie chirped, fiddling with her floppy rabbit ears again. “And out.”
“It’s not stage magic,” I said, exasperated and at the end of my patience. “I don’t know any stage magic. Even if I did, look at me, look how tired I am. Where exactly can I make this tube vanish to? Up my backside? I’m wearing short sleeves, there’s nowhere for it to go. I’m not going to misdirect you, or make you look away, or pull any trick at all. I’m going to use something called hyperdimensional mathematics, to rewrite part of reality. I don’t understand it all myself, I just know I can do it. It’s a long story. Now watch.”
“ … I’m watching.” Nicole frowned.
The brainmath came rough and jagged, like walking on sore muscles and skinned feet; I was running on empty, only just able to do something this simple. A droplet of blood ran from my nose as I struggled to fit the pieces of the equation into place. A second was too long, two were torture, and three set my brain on fire.
The tube vanished. I doubled up around my roiling stomach and let out a whine.
Lozzie didn’t know what to do. She came to my side but her hands fluttered around, uncertain and confused by my pain. Slowly, panting through my teeth, I held onto to contents of my stomach, and sat up.
“Where … ” Nicole managed, staring at me, at my empty hands. “No. No.”
“I sent it Outside. Outside our reality. Beyond, into another dimension. Call it what you will. I can do it to anything, if I’m prepared to endure considerable pain.”
In one of the most fascinating moments of human observation in my life, I actually saw the precise moment Nicole’s mind buckled.
A survival strategy, that’s what it was, not open-mindedness or a tendency to believe in the occult. Until now, Miss Webb had been a straight-laced, 21st century woman, a child of the enlightenment, the scientific method, technology, and very normal, sensible, four-dimensional maths.
But her primal lizard-brain knew only that she was in danger, and it would do anything to survive. Eventually, with enough evidence, it shouted down her ossified frontal lobe, and she accepted the impossible.
A subtle change crossed her face, falling through incomprehension and denial until landing like a burst melon in plain fear and wonder. The evidence of her senses finally rewrote some fundamental element that kept her her grounded in normal reality. If she’d been free, I have no doubt she’d have found some way to rationalise everything she’d seen – a clever sleight of hand, a stress-induced hallucination, drugs and torture. She’d have forgotten us in a month or a year, and gone back to her life. But I trapped her here forever, with us.
I was ready for her to break down, perhaps weep, maybe go into a kind of shock. This was always a gamble, one she might lose.
Nicole Webb was made of sterner stuff than that. The fear and wonder hardened into outrage, and she stared at me like I was responsible. Which in a way, I was.
“I fucking hate Harry Potter,” she spat.
Twil started laughing between attempts to say ‘what?’. Lozzie stuck her finger in her mouth and made a vomiting noise.
I blinked at Nicole. “ … okay?”
“You’re a wizard? A witch, whatever. Fuck you. Don’t you tell me I’m living in a stupid series of children’s books. Absolutely fucking not. Argh.” She spat a noise of pure frustration. “I can’t fucking stand this. You- fuck you. And you, fucking werewolf, stop laughing, it’s not funny!”
And with that, she was off to the races. Nicole spat and ranted, angry in a way I’d never seen a person angry before, an adult’s tantrum of pure disgust, directed not at us but at the whole world. Twice she used her bound hands to punch herself in the leg, and several times kicked at the floor, gathering speed as she heaped insults on children’s books about magic schools and – I quote – their ‘vulture, class-traitor, illiterate authors’. Her furious tirade was surprisingly coherent, though she repeated the same points several times once she began to run out of steam.
We all deal with supernatural revelation in different ways, I suppose. Not everybody has a missing twin and survivor’s guilt.
“Alright then, Miss wizard,” Nicole eventually hissed. “You’re telling me I don’t need to account for the two bodies in your kitchen, or whatever else you’ve done, because you’ve got your own … I don’t know, magical police? Your own authorities are going to deal with this? I’ve blundered into your world, and … and what?”
Lozzie rolled her eyes so hard I swear she was going to dislocate her spine.
“Um, no, not exactly,” I managed.
Twil snorted. “You think somebody’s like, in charge? Good luck.”
“What does that mean?” Nicole demanded. “What the hell does that mean?”
“There’s no … council of mages,” I said, shrugging, trying to keep my voice calm and collected, casting my mind back through the months to when Evelyn had conducted this exact same conversation with me, albeit in far more relaxed circumstances. “There’s no secret world, no secret power structures except a few cults worshipping things they shouldn’t. There’s mages, a few, as far as I know. Sorry to use the analogy, but there’s no ‘Ministry of magic’. Nobody’s in charge. Nobody even knows much. There’s just people.”
“ … that’s it?” Nicole asked, squinting with indignant frustration.
Her anger finally began to subside. She stared in silence at a point on the wall, taking deep breaths and shaking her head in disgust, slowly pulling herself back together. I tried to look sympathetic.
“I know what it’s like,” I said. “At least you’re getting it all at once, and you’re an adult. I was a child.”
She sighed heavily, still shaking her head. “So, don’t tell me you lot are busy saving the world, and I’ve held you up?”
“Uh, no, not that either. We’re not really important.”
“You’re wizards!” She almost blew up at me again, exasperated disbelief on her face. “How can you not be important? That’s ridiculous.”
I shrugged. “Because we’re not. I’m here, involved, because my twin was kidnapped by a … something from Outside. It’s a long story, and you don’t care. But no, we could all vanish tomorrow, and the world would go on much the same without us.”
Nicole let out one sad laugh and pulled a self-pitying smile – a real smile, sardonic and grim, not the easy fake smile from earlier, not the detective’s smile. “Just my luck. Bunch’a nobodies, hey? Well, that’s a start, we’ve got that in common.”
“Nobody’s important unless they’re loaded,” Lozzie said. “Loadsa money makes you big.”
“She’s got her head on straight.” Nicole nodded at Lozzie, and got a beaming smile in reply.
“You’ve got no idea,” I muttered.
“Great. So what happens to me now?” Nicole asked. “What am I supposed to do? I can hardly call those bodies in if … I dunno, you’ll turn all the responding officers into frogs or some shit.”
“I … hadn’t actually thought this far,” I said. “I didn’t expect this to work. Why were you here in the first place? Was it the gun shots last night?”
“Gun shots?” Nicole started laughing, the edge of hysteria in her voice. “Fucking hell, thanks for that freebie. They were gun shots then, for real? Was that how those two poor fuckers in the kitchen died?”
“No, I already told you, it was a servitor – which really does exist, yes. The gun shots, well, the thing that got shot got up again, and it’s not in this dimension anymore.”
“Okay, yeah, right, I forgot the whole teleported to dimension X part.” She rolled her eyes. “And yeah, the gun shots led me here, but that wasn’t why I knocked on your door this morning.”
I frowned at her, confused. “I’m sorry?”
“A neighbour of yours two streets over put in a noise complaint last night,” she began, smiling with ironic detachment. “Said they might have heard gun shots, but this is a nice part of Sharrowford. Nobody’s going to send out a squad car out here at five in the morning because some old dear heard a car backfire. But your address, this address? It goes in the system, along with a half-dozen others the noise could have come from. And, what do you know? Ding!” She held up a finger, bound hands together. “It gets flagged, because the address is in some stupid file I’ve got, and this morning that noise complaint is on my desk. I think, bugger it, I wanna stretch my legs. Seems like a good excuse to swing by and see who really lives in that old house. Best case it’s squatters, and I get a free baggie of weed. Worst case, it’s empty. But maybe, just maybe, the occupant owns the house, and I get a lead.”
“A lead?” I asked, my mind racing through the dozen possible crimes any of us might have committed over the last six months. “On what?”
“Property tax fraud.”
“ … what?”
Nicole laughed again, self-pitying and defeated. “You thought I was homicide? For years, yeah, I was. But I’m a major screw-up of a human being, let alone a detective. I’m in a financial crimes unit. A unit that consists of me and two even worse screw-ups, in an office the size of a cupboard, with no real budget, to keep us out of the way. Most of my days I get to spend at a desk while two alcoholic old men wait to collect their pensions. A punishment detail. I haven’t done any real police work in almost five years.” Her voice turned bitter as she spoke, she couldn’t hold it back. “First time I try, hey,” she gestured at us with her bound hands. “Look what I find. Fucking wizards.”
We all stared at her. Even Lozzie was wrong-footed.
“Property tax fraud,” I echoed.
“Yeah. This address? Part of a tax fraud scheme, a really old one, going back fifty, sixty odd years. Small enough to avoid notice, big enough to be dangerous to poke. That’s why I’m here.”
“I … I’m sorry. If it’s … I mean … I can give you contact details for the man who actually owns the house. I think.”
“Oh yeah, is he a wizard too?”
“No, actually. He’s a lawyer, works in London. My friend, his daughter, she’s upstairs right now in a sort of magical coma. We’ve called somebody to help her.”
“Lawyers, great.” Nicole rolled her eyes. “Practically just as bad.”
“So.” I swallowed, gathered myself. “Is it safe for us to untie you now?”
Nicole gave me a thoroughly defeated look. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean you believe us, what we are, what we’re involved in? The bodies in the kitchen, they’re cultists, and they came here to kill us or kidnap us. That … reporting everything you’ve seen would be a disaster, for us, for you? That I can let you go, without … well.”
“I believe what I’ve seen. She’s a werewolf,” Nicole glanced at Twil, wary and frowning. “And you’re a wizard, or whatever, and you can make things vanish with your mind. You ever use that trick on a person?”
“ … in self defence.”
Nicole looked me up and down, all five foot nothing of me hunched over my aching stomach, my scrawny limbs and messy hair and bloodshot eyes, wrapped in Raine’s unwashed baggy clothes. She nodded. “Yeah, I bet,” she murmured. “Is that what you’ll do to me as well, if I try to put cuffs on you?”
I stared back, reluctant to answer, but I knew what I had to say. “I could make you vanish too, yes. Send you Outside to some alien dimension you’ll never return from. You’d die of hunger or thirst, or get eaten by something unspeakable. If we let you go and you call this in, I’ll vanish the responding officers, the car they put me in, the cell door, the whole bloody police station if I have to. Because my lover has been kidnapped by a cult, a real one, that worships something from Outside, and nothing is going to stop me from finding her. Not the cultists, not exhaustion, not you or the rest of the normal world.”
“Me too,” Lozzie stage-whispered.
Nicole shook her head. “You’re telling me a young woman’s been kidnapped by religious nut jobs, and the police aren’t supposed to get involved?”
I pulled a face. “Yes, I know that sounds stupid.”
“It does. Look, even if I believe everything you’ve told me, there’s still the matter of two corpses to deal with. If I don’t report what I’ve seen, if I lie, and bits of hair and flesh turn up in your drainpipes three months from now, I will get shat on from a very great height. I wasn’t lying when I said bodies are hard to dispose of, unless you … can … ” she trailed off, blinking at me, then let out an exasperated sigh. “You can.”
I pulled an apologetic smile. “Yes, exactly.”
“Poof!” Lozzie smiled and spread her hands like a stage magician concluding a trick. “And the evidence is gone!”
Two dead bodies, a mess of cleaning supplies, bin bags full of entire rolls worth of paper towels and soiled rags, two buckets of pink-tinted grimy water – and Zheng. The kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it.
Blood still stained the floor tiles from where Twil and Kimberly had dragged the corpses from the sitting room. The less said about those the better. I tried not to look at the lumpy humanoid shapes laid out on an old bit of tarpaulin and hastily wrapped up with bin bags. The rest of the floor was littered with the entire contents of the cupboard under the sink, bright pink and yellow cleaning products everywhere, along with a trio of sponges that looked like they’d last been used on a car that had survived a fire. A sad pair of rubber gloves hung over the side of the sink, flanked by some exhausted brillo pads, and some kind of electric scrubbing brush that I’m pretty sure was broken before any of us were born. Everything stank of blood and bleach.
Zheng had her boots up on the table.
I couldn’t summon any words for the mess, let alone ask Zheng to put her feet down.
“Heather, it’ll be alright,” Twil said, grimacing. “We’re like, halfway through cleaning up.”
“Okay. Okay?” I said. “Okay. Sure. Okay. Yes.”
Nicole, still massaging her wrists where Twil had removed her bonds, stared at the giant zombie with an impressively stoic expression. Zheng stared back, calm and slow, like a sated jungle cat.
Sated she better be, because she’d emptied our fridge of every last scrap of animal protein. Before her on the table, like a mound of offerings to some pagan god, lay three empty sandwich meat packets, the wrapping from a trio of raw chicken breasts, and the remains of a block of cheese. She’d even devoured the week-old chili from the bottom of the fridge, which if she’d been human, would have struck her dead with food poisoning.
Twil picked up a long grey coat from the back of a chair, and held it out to Nicole. “Everything’s back in the pockets.” Her eyes flickered to me. “Your phone too.”
“It’ll be fine,” I repeated for the fifth time since I’d asked Twil to untie the detective, though I felt less sure after seeing the kitchen. “We have an understanding now.”
“Yeah, yeah, right,” Twil murmured.
“So what are you supposed to be, then?” Nicole finally asked Zheng.
Zheng grinned, slowly, as if trying to reveal each and every perfect razor tooth in turn. “A nightmare.”
“ … fair enough.” Nicole sighed and took her coat from Twil, shrugging it on and checking her pockets. She was made of sterner stuff than I, if she could ignore Zheng. Then again, she probably had a lot of experience in concealing when she felt intimidated.
“It’s probably best to ignore each other right now, you two,” I said, suppressing a sigh of my own. “Zheng, like I said, we’ve come to an understanding.”
“I know, shaman. I was listening.”
“Of course you were. I’m sorry to have to ask this, but you didn’t … you weren’t … ” I gestured awkwardly at the corpses in the corner.
Zheng raised an eyebrow and managed to look disgusted. A new one for her. “Shaman.”
“I- I needed to ask, to be sure.”
“The dead monkeys are spoiling with their own shit and gut bacteria. No.”
“You know, I think I agree with the uh, whatever the hell she is,” Nicole said, eyeing Zheng. “Can we crack on with this? The less time we spend in a room with corpses, the better for all of us, on every level – legal, medical, and gastronomic.”
Her dignity restored and standing on her own two feet once more, Nicole Webb looked every bit a television police detective, albeit after some minor pre-watershed escapade, dangerous but still suitable for younger viewers. Tight and serious around the eyes, with several strands of hair having escaped her blonde bun, and a small bruise forming on her cheek from where Twil had done some damage during their initial meeting.
The long grey coat over the dark suit and open top button of her shirt lent her an air of both authority and distance. She wore her role in society like armour, and she’d let us in on the secret that it was rusted on the inside.
“Please!” Lozzie agreed, peeking around the kitchen doorway from front room. “The sooner the better!”
I turned to her and she gave me a very uncertain smile.
“Lozzie, are you sure you’re … ” I started softly, then had to self-edit. “Doing alright?”
“Mmhmm! It’s okay, I’m not going anywhere, promise promise,” Lozzie said, seeing right through to my real question. “Just don’t want to see, don’t want to see the dead people.”
“Alright, well, we’ll be as quick as we can, okay?”
“Then it’s time for more cleaning!” she chirped. I nodded and turned back to the kitchen, and tried my best to believe Lozzie would still be in this reality when I wanted to see her.
“So how does this work?” Nicole asked me. She’d stepped over to the corpses, frowning down at them through the veil of bin bags, her hands in her coat pockets. “You lay hands on them and then they’re just gone?”
“Basically, yes. At least that’s what you’ll see.”
“Mind if I take a look at them first?”
“Why?” Twil demanded, doing an exceptionally poor job of hiding her suspicion.
“Seriously?” Nicole shrugged. “In case I ever come across this again. Just from what you’ve told me, you lot aren’t the only wizards or mages or bugbears running around Sharrowford. Maybe I want to see what the wounds from a ‘servitor’ look like. No objections?”
“I don’t mind, but-” I started.
“Yeah, I don’t like the sound of that,” Twil half-growled.
“Twil, stop,” I huffed. Twil blinked at me. “What I was trying to say, detective Webb, is that I don’t mind, but the servitor that killed those men is – as far as I know – the personal handiwork of a woman who’s been dead for a long time, the grandmother of the girl in a coma upstairs. You’re unlikely to find them anywhere else.”
“You think that, or you know that?” Nicole asked.
“Then I’d still like to have a look.” She rummaged around in one of her coat pockets and pulled out a wad of pale blue surgical gloves wrapped up with a rubber band, extracted one, and wriggled it on with a snap. “May I? With permission, Miss wizard?”
I nodded and looked away from the gruesome spectacle. Nicole squatted down to peel back the bin bags from the lumpy, misshapen forms that had once been two human beings. Twil puffed out a long sigh and looked away too, but Zheng craned her neck to watch. I knew I’d have to touch them soon enough, but the less I thought about that the better.
Nicole was quite silent for a good minute or so as she examined the corpses, except for the initial moment as she turned her head and audibly suppressed the urge to be sick. I didn’t blame her. Eventually she covered the bodies again, stood up, and snapped the surgical glove off her hand.
“Well. Well,” she said, holding the glove for a moment as if she didn’t know what to do with it. She’d gone pale and waxen.
“You can just put that in the bin. Gotta burn it all anyway,” Twil grunted.
“Learn anything useful?” I asked.
Nicole opened her mouth, closed it again, and shook her head. “Wild animal? Bear? Industrial accident? I’ve never seen anything like that. Like they were … there’s no way I can see this ‘servitor’, right? You said it’s invisible?”
“I can see it, nobody else. There’s a magic circle we can use, but we’d need Evelyn to be awake.”
“Your friend upstairs?”
“Why you?” Nicole asked. “Why can you see these things? Why not the werewolf, or the other girl, Lozzie?”
“You don’t know my name, pig!” Lozzie called from the front room.
I sighed and gave Nicole a level stare. “Because I was abducted by an alien god when I was a little girl, and my mind was violated, changed somehow, and sometimes I suspect I’m not meant to exist in this reality anymore.”
“You are!” Lozzie called. I closed my eyes and thanked her in silence.
Nicole nodded several times. “Fair enough.”
Getting rid of the bodies was both easy and difficult. The brainmath was simple enough, the same thing I’d done so many times in so many different situations, complicated only by the presence of two separate objects to shunt Outside, a problem I solved by conceptualising it all – meat, tarpaulin, bin liners – as one single charnel mass.
The difficult part was getting onto my knees next to the corpses and touching them. Lumpy, hard, cold beneath the thin plastic. I’d seen corpses too many times in the last six months, but I’d never touched one before. The sensation made my gorge rise in my throat. I felt ready to be sick in a whole new way.
Teleporting such a large object finally broke my winning streak. I raced through the equation, slammed it into place with an impatience born of disgust and determination; the corpses vanished, cut-price death shroud and all, and I instantly doubled up and added to the mess all over the kitchen floor.
Sagging, half-choking, whining at the taste of blood and vomit in the back of my throat, I refused to collapse or pass out, hauling myself up to spit stomach acid into the sink.
Lozzie was there a second later, little feet pattering across the kitchen toward me, holding me up. Twil was there too, arm under my shoulders. I wretched and spat and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand.
“Good enough for you?” I croaked at Nicole.
“Think she’s suitably impressed, yeah,” Twil said. I managed to lever myself around to find Nicole staring at the spot the corpses had lain, now painted with the contents of my stomach.
“Are you going to look the other way now, detective?” I croaked again and cleared my throat, feeling like death and letting my friends take most of my weight.
“ … bit more than a cardboard tube,” she muttered, then blinked and drew herself together, met my eyes. “Really messes you up too, huh?”
“How could you tell?”
Slowly, to my surprise, Nicole smirked. “No, I’m not going to look the other way. Ah- ah-” She held up both hands and flinched, as Twil bristled with implicit threat and Zheng tilted her head to watch. “No, no, wait, before you turn me into a frog or something. I’m not going to call this in, I won’t report anything I’ve seen, I realise it’s pointless. Plenty of DNA evidence, but nobody to link it to. I’ve got no bodies, they’re … fucking gone,” she let out a single laugh. “But you’ve told me there’s a cult of crazy people operating in Sharrowford, in my city. They’ve kidnapped a young woman, your girlfriend. The least I can do is fudge a missing person’s report, but there’s got to be more. I could take this to my bosses, all the way up the chain, if there’s a plausible conspiracy to commit. What else have they done? Who are these people? Names, addresses. Anything you got, I can use.”
“They’ve done plenty, yeah,” Twil said, nodding. “This lot are nasty.”
“Kept me in a castle,” Lozzie said. Nicole frowned at her.
“Plenty of things, yes,” I echoed. “But you’re not going to convince anybody of this. That’s not how it works. I had to break you with the evidence of your senses before you even risked belief. You’re not going to get through to your superiors, detective.”
She smiled – the false easy smile she’d worn earlier. “You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do, I-”
“What if this sort of thing gets out? Blow the lid on it. You people could change the world, you-”
“Don’t wake the sleeping tiger,” Zheng purred. We all looked at her.
“Oh, I know this one!” Lozzie said.
“Mooncalf knows. Have you ever seen a mob, watchman?” She asked Nicole, speaking slow and quiet. “Peasants with fire and pikes? Reality doesn’t penetrate your monkey brains until you’re ready for it, but fear does. You, and I, and the shaman, we’re all in a locked room with a tiger, and if we make enough noise the tiger will wake up, and instinct doesn’t care for allegiance, or right, or words. The tiger doesn’t know what we are and it doesn’t care, but it will still eat us, and shit us out, and the shit will be very normal, and nobody will change the world.” Zheng broke into a grin. “I lied. The tiger will eat you, but I am indigestible.”
Zheng’s tone – spoken from undoubted experience – worked on Nicole in a way the protests of three young women didn’t. Nicole stared at her for a moment, then sighed deeply and nodded.
“Nobody believes until they’re broken,” I said. “And you got lucky. Most go mad, or spend the rest of their life trying to forget. Or so I’m told. That’s how it works.”
“Alright, so I can’t go to my bosses. You can’t call the police. But as of right now, I’m a bent copper whatever I do.” Nicole looked at me, a strange fire behind her eyes. “So tell me everything anyway.”