“ … what!? Adopted?” My mother’s voice spiked in shrill disbelief. “Did I hear that quite right? Don’t tell me you’re being serious?”
I heard her hurry away from her desk, heard a door close, caught the intake of breath as she readied herself. My mother’s inevitable expression forced itself into my mind’s eye, a cocktail of outrage and shock. “Heather, what are you talking about? Where has this come from all of a sudden? Adopted? I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Mum,” I forced out. Raine tried to take my hand but I stepped away and shook my head, stared at Sarika’s back on the hospital bed. “I have never been more serious. Please, answer the question.”
Sarika’s choked words rattled around inside my brain, loose bolts in a machine about to shake itself apart.
Propagate – adopt, she’d said.
My mind supplied the rest. It would explain so much if Maisie and I were adopted. If we were supernatural cuckoo-things, deposited here by the Eye in the guise of human beings, to be raised and then returned when ripe. It would explain my phantom limbs and bitter nostalgic dysmorphia too, perhaps my journey through the abyss had reminded my body of a hidden genetic truth.
Perhaps that was why I’d survived the abyss at all.
The idea gripped my guts with a terrible sickness and my head with a panic like the walls closing in. If I’d been adopted, what was I really? Where had I come from? Had I never been a real person at all?
“No!” My mother hissed. “No you are most certainly not bloody well adopted. Heather! Not only are you not adopted, it was a pain in the neck to squeeze you out.”
“I … what?”
“I’ve never told you that, have I? Thought you’d find it too grisly, or it might upset you or give you … ideas. Perhaps I’ll tell the story to your girlfriend when you deign to drag yourself home for a visit, embarrass you in front of her, embarrass us both.” Her voice hitched with a note of real hurt, protected behind easy flippancy. “You wouldn’t come out of me! Didn’t want to get out of your first bed. They had to get the awful dilatory forceps to pull you out.”
“O-oh, well … I-I … ”
“I was huge with you! I felt like a beached whale for months on end. Your father swore- … oh, I’ve never told you this, Heather, not with all the unpleasantness when you were little, but now you’re … you’re doing well these days. When we saw you at Christmas you seemed so much better, so much more normal. Happy, even.” She paused, and gathered herself as if for confession. “When I was pregnant with you, your father swore I was carrying twins.”
I halted my stammering attempts to excuse myself. “Mum? Say that again.”
“Obviously I wasn’t, I was just extremely large, but I certainly did eat for three. You were packed in there like a comfy little Eskimo, double the amount of placental sac as any other baby. So think how I felt all those years later when you had your … your episode. Like you’d dreamed yourself a twin in the womb, like I’d dreamed it for you. Oh, oh, Heather, I do apologise.” My mother sniffed. “I shouldn’t be telling you this story, but – adopted? No! No, you are not.”
I couldn’t speak.
You had carried twins, mother. It was always twins.
The first crack in the Eye’s erasure of Maisie, in all these years.
When I’d first climbed back out of Wonderland and Maisie hadn’t, when I’d sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom and screamed my head off, the Eye hadn’t merely kidnapped my twin sister. It had erased all trace and memory of her. One bed in the room, all her clothes gone, no second face like mine in family photographs. Nobody remembered her, not my parents, not our primary school friends, nobody.
But the Eye didn’t really understand human beings. It had excised my parents’ memories of their other daughter, but couldn’t magic away the physical history of my mother’s body.
She didn’t recall giving birth to twins, but she remembered a belly big enough for two.
That, more than anything else, more than the outraged tone in her voice, more than the certainty she’d told me the truth, more than the slow dawning realisation that my parents were not the sort of people to adopt in the first place, convinced me that I’d gotten this one wrong.
“I’m- I’m sorry, mum.” I smiled with relief, sniffing, backing away from the edge. “You’re right, I’m sorry, I got an idea into my head from a silly place, and-”
“It’s not from this girl you’re seeing, is it?”
“No! No, quite the opposite. Raine is probably quite unimpressed with me for this phone call.” I looked up at Raine, but she beamed at me. Relief as well? “She was telling me I was wrong about this, told me it was silly to call. I should have listened to her.”
“Quite right you should!” My mother tutted. “She’s obviously far more sensible than you are. I suppose that’s some comfort. Put her on, will you? I want to have a word.”
“Of course about you, what do you think?”
“Mum, I can … I … I’m not sure that’s appropriate?”
My mother said something obvious and trite, a huffing and a tutting.
Such incredible relief.
I should have been disappointed, shouldn’t I? Adoption would explain so much, provide a solid lead on why me, why Maisie. But I was not some Outside thing, some Eye-thing pretending to be human, even to myself; I was human – or at least I’d started as one. I am my mother’s daughter, with all the messy familial implications. She remembered carrying me in the womb; by a miracle, she remembered carrying Maisie.
A new-minted part of my mind, an unfamiliar strategic Heather, whispered a victory: the Eye is not infallible. It made a mistake. It missed a detail.
“Fine, fine.” I smiled through my mother’s words. “I’ll put Raine on, here she is.”
I held the phone out to Raine and she accepted it without missing a beat. She tilted her head up, puffed out her chest, and put on her best respectable-young-woman voice.
“Mrs Morell, hello, I- … ” She paused, laughed. “Samantha then, absolutely. Yes, I am, I promise you that. If nothing else, I am trying my best to take good care of her. Mmhmm. Mmhmm.”
Raine made attentive noises. I puffed out a huge sigh, red in the face as relief transmuted into deep, mortified embarrassment. Nicole asked me a question with her eyebrows, and I tried to apologise with a silent look.
“A mutual acquaintance said something hurtful,” Raine explained into the phone, serious and measured. “I think Heather took it to heart. Yes, I do know how she can get, but I put a great deal of faith in her.”
I blushed harder, frowned at Raine. She stuck her tongue out at me.
“Yes, I will,” she continued. “I’ll make sure she does, perhaps for a day or two around Easter? We do get two weeks off, after all. Good, great, no problem. Thank you, Samantha, I really do appreciate your confidence, and I understand I have to earn your trust. Here she is.” Raine passed the phone back to me. She winked.
“Heather, you listen to what that girl tells you,” my mother said. “I liked her when I met her at Christmas, and I don’t think I’m mistaken. She’s very sensible, very organised, very together. And no, one more time, you are not adopted.”
“Thank you. Look, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll give a proper call sometime soon, okay?”
“This evening. I want to hear all about how you’ve been. You never talk about how university is going. I want to hear about your work, how you’re doing, how you’re finding it. Yes?”
“Yes, of course. This evening. I’ll call you then?”
“Make sure you do.”
“Goodbye for now, mum.” I ended the call, stared at the phone screen and blew out a long sigh. “Well, now I feel profoundly silly.”
I’d panicked. The phantom limbs, the desperation for a reason, meeting Maisie again, all mixed up into an cocktail of panic.
What had I expected? Adoption, really? The existence of werewolves and magic and other dimensions did not mean I was living in a daytime soap opera. Neither fae-born changeling or destined for a mysterious fate. I was, on the grand stage of the world, and the grander stage of reality, not that important – except to my friends.
“You know, the first time we discussed the uh, giant alien eyeball situation,” Nicole said, “you told me you weren’t at all some kind of chosen one, or special, or any of that Harry Potter junk.”
“Yes, yes, I know, I just … it was a stupid panic.”
“Wasn’t stupid.” Raine caught my eye, dead serious. “The question was worth an ask. True, there’s probably a better way than freaking your mum out, but hey.” She shrugged and smiled.
I nodded. “What was that about a day or two around Easter?”
“Visiting your parents. You and I. Home cooking, hang out, keep your mother on side.”
“Oh. Oh, right. Well.”
“Was this all a waste of time then?” Nicole asked.
She stuck her hands in her pockets and looked past us, at Sarika still curled up on the hospital bed with her back to us, wheezing and quivering. She looked so small and fragile, and she’d tangled one arm up in the clear plastic drip lines, but at least she’d stopped sobbing.
“ … no,” I said at length. “Sarika still used those words – I’m sorry, ‘propagate’, ‘adopt’, that’s what she said.”
Sarika twitched. The ghost of a shrug.
“Maybe it didn’t mean anything?” Nicole suggested. “Maybe she was just trying to hurt you.”
“That’s possible, I suppose.” I frowned at Sarika’s back. I felt like I had all the puzzle pieces, jumbled up, but I needed to know what the picture showed before I could put them together.
Didn’t want to hurt Sarika again though, the first time had been terrible enough. No matter what she’d done, I couldn’t inflict pain at will.
“Hey, Sarika?” Raine said, bright and clear. She strode forward and leaned on the bed, leaned over to make eye contact. Sarika’s head adjusted, and Raine flashed her a smile. “Can I call you – what, Sarry? Sari? Hmm, nah, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Sa-ri-ka, three syllable beat, almost musical, yeah.” Raine nodded, smile turning rakish. “You don’t need a pet name, your regular one is good enough.”
“Saaa-” Sarika slurred through a mouth thick with saliva. “Sari’s what- what he called me.”
“Girl, you can do miles better than Alexander.” Raine spoke as if we were all sitting in a coffee shop, bonding over love-life trouble, not in a hospital room with a trauma-crippled shell of a human being. “Come on, when you got down to it he was a total arsehole.”
“Didn’t give a toss about you, did he? Threw you to the wolves. Dangerous to know, and not in the fun way.”
“S’what- what I like. Liked?”
“Ahhhhhhh. Ahhh, I get it. Yeah, that’s rough. Can’t help what you’re into.” Raine glanced back at me and winked.
Dangerous to know. I suppose that described Raine, in a very different sort of way.
Nicole looked utterly baffled. I shrugged too, and nodded to urge Raine on, though I had no idea where she was going with this.
“Look, forget all of that,” Raine told Sarika. “Forget him. Think about the future, about how much better you can do.”
A snort, a single derisive laugh. Sarika managed to flop a hand, the arm with attached drip-lines of saline and morphine. The gesture spoke a thousand words: nobody would want her now.
“Pffft, nonsense,” Raine blew theatrical dismissal. “Woman like you? Think about how much better you can do. Think about all the hot guys who’ll be lining up around the block for you. Now me, I’m not much help in that department, cos’ I eat mountains of pussy, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, right?”
Another puff of laughter, less derisive. Gently, Sarika shook her head.
“Yeeeah, there you go,” Raine said. “You know what I’m on about.”
Perhaps it was Raine’s irrelevant change of subject, or perhaps Sarika’s reaction. Gave my subconscious a moment to chew on the problem. Like a magic-eye illusion snapping into focus, the pieces came together.
“So here’s the deal, Sarika,” Raine was saying. “You keep thinking about your veritable buffet of buff dudes, and I’m gonna ask you a question. Just nod or shake, no need to think-”
“It was the other way around,” I said.
Raine stopped and looked at me. Nicole raised an eyebrow.
“Found a cuckoo in its nest,” she croaked, then flinched. Her breath hitched and she curled in as if to close herself up. “Tried to raise- raise it anyway.”
“And tried to raise it anyway,” I echoed. “Oh my God.”
“Heather?” Raine said.
“I’ve figured it out. Raine, it was the other way around. The Eye didn’t send Maisie and I here as cuckoos, it was the other way around.” I spoke so fast I almost babbled, couldn’t contain myself. “The things in the abyss, it’s so obvious, I-”
“Hey, hey, Heather, slow down,” Raine laughed.
“The things in the abyss, the leviathans, they bootstrap themselves via thought. That’s how they grow – they think! So ten years ago Maisie and I go to Wonderland – maybe the Eye drew us there, or maybe it didn’t mean to, or maybe it was all an accident, it doesn’t matter – and what does the Eye see? Human children! We take so long to grow, our minds take twenty years to fully develop, so slow, absorbing knowledge like a sponge, endless curiosity. To the Eye we must have looked like … like … I don’t know. Like an infant version of itself. Or a promising candidate?”
Slowly, rocking herself back and forth, Sarika covered her ears. She didn’t want to hear anything about the Eye, ever again.
“We’re the cuckoos,” I said. “To it. Or we were. And it must have figured that out, but tried to adopt us anyway.”
“A giant alien eyeball thinks it’s your mother?” Nicole asked.
“Sort of. More like a teacher.”
Because discovering a cuckoo’s egg in your nest doesn’t matter if you propagate by thought, if what makes you you is hyperdimensional math, if you don’t have DNA, if your biology is an abyss-born nightmare of will-formed flesh.
A cuckoo in your nest doesn’t matter – if you can take the little cuckoo chick and reforge its mind to be like your own.
“Except it couldn’t tell Maisie and I apart,” I murmured. “We only got half. It thinks half escaped? It’s trying to put us back together? I don’t know.”
Sarika heard silence, and gingerly removed her hands from her ears.
Raine squeezed her shoulder. “Hey, hey, thank you. You did great. I mean it.”
“Do you-” I spoke up. “Sarika, do you know anything about the dead hands?”
Sarika turned in the bed, so much effort for such a small frame. She stared at me, slack and spent.
“Lozzie and I can’t slip – can’t go Outside, beyond, whatever you call it. A feeling like dead hands on my ankles stops me every time. We’re stuck here. I thought it might have something to do with … what you all did.”
“Lauren … Lil- burne?”
Oh. I’d given that one away for free. I suppose it didn’t matter anymore. “Lozzie, yes. She’s with me now.”
“Alex- little sister.” Sarika sniffed hard. A thin trail of tears ran from one eye, soaked into the pillow beneath.
“He treated her terribly. You were his lover. You must have known, don’t- don’t give me that.”
“Yes.” I nodded. “She’s very important to me. I promise I’ll try to keep her safe, as best I can.”
Sarika rolled back over, gave me the cold shoulder, stared out of the window at the grey drizzle.
“All my friends are dead,” she slurred. “Don’t know anything about your hands. Screw you.”
Raine left the bed and returned to Nicole and I.
“Better?” she asked, slipped an arm around me, kept her voice low and soft.
“Yes, thank you.” I bit my lip, still mulling over my new hypothesis. “I need to talk to Evee about all this. We need more information. Confirmation. It does make sense though. The Eye taught me and my sister in order to make another of itself.”
“Well it buggered that up, didn’t it?” Raine grinned. “You’re you, Heather.”
“Still doesn’t answer why us.”
“Hurricanes and floods don’t have motivation,” Nicole suggested. “They just happen to people. Maybe you got unlucky.”
I didn’t like that idea, but it was most likely. We make stories of our lives, but often reality is less sensible than fiction. A reason would make too much sense. Blind chance was cruel, but realistic. I stared at Sarika’s back, thinking.
She’d been complicit in so many horrors, but now she was broken. With the threat from her passed, I no longer felt like I could play judge, jury, or executioner. She deserved punishment of some kind, but I couldn’t measure it. Not this.
“Can I come back to visit her again?” I asked.
“Uh, I mean, if you want to?” Nicole answered, on firmer ground now. “If she doesn’t mind. Protective custody, police protection, it’ll get lifted in time, when it becomes clear this ‘cult’ doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I might do, then. I might do.”
Nicole gave a very glad-that’s-over sigh. “Well, if you two are ready, I’d like you to sit back down. I’ve got an admission to make.”
Raine sensed the change before I did. Despite the cold survivalist logic I’d brought back from the abyss, I had nothing on Raine’s instincts. She stiffened, shifted her posture onto the balls of her feet, that unmistakable readiness for violence.
“Detective?” she said. “What are you up to?”
“Woah, woah.” Nicole put both hands up. A career of conflict resolution and interrogation rooms had given her the rare tool-set to read Raine’s reaction. “Nothing like that. Think of this as my first assignment as a paranormal investigator. A freebie, for you lot. Please, let’s have a sit for a minute.”
“In here?” I asked. “With Sarika?”
“Yes. It’ll be obvious why, I promise.”
For a heartbeat, Raine didn’t move a muscle, then she seemed to decide Nicole was still on the level. She grabbed a chair from next to the bed for me, while Nicole perched on the hard plastic seat from by the door. Raine stood at my shoulder, radiating threat-posture. Nicole gave her a look, then decided better of it.
“Nicky?” I asked.
She wet her lips, hesitated, then nodded.
“I was approached yesterday evening,” she said. “At my home, by a person who somehow knew we’d be meeting up here today. This person wants to speak with you.”
“Go on, Nicky,” Raine said, a dark grin in her voice.
“This person decided to go through me, because apparently you’ll try to kill her if she appears without warning. Which, you know, considering what I saw last week, sounds pretty credible. You lot aren’t above a spot of murder.”
“I neither confirm nor deny these allegations, officer,” said Raine. Nicole rolled her eyes.
I knew exactly who she was talking about. My eyes flickered around the room, behind the medical machines and to the door of the attached toilet. My skin itched and crawled with the desire to defend myself, to grow toxic spines and poison sacs, curl into a corner and armour myself in chitin plates, sprout tentacles to constrict and eyes to see in every direction.
“Yes,” Nicole said quickly. “She’s here. I’m acting as a guarantor of no violence. We’re in a public hospital, I’m a police officer. There’s another uniformed officer right down that hallway, so nothing is going to happen. You don’t attack her, she doesn’t attack you. Got it?”
“Nicky, Nicky,” Raine grinned, dark and sardonic, shaking her head. “You sneaky little fox.”
“She got here before you did. I’ve already searched her, given her a pat down. She’s not only unarmed, she’s carrying bugger all. A wallet with a single twenty pound note and a fake ID, and a stripped down phone with no contacts listed. Nothing else.” Nicole tried a smile. “So no violence, alright?”
“She’s not going to hurt Sarika, is she?” I asked.
“No. Sarika agreed she can be here. Anything happens to Sarika a month or two from now, that draws police attention as well.”
“Where is she?” Raine asked softly.
“In the room across the hallway. I’m gonna send her a text message.” Nicole took out her mobile phone. “Let her know she can come in now. We good? No violence?”
“I won’t if she doesn’t.” Raine shrugged.
I swallowed, my heart racing, struggling with phantom limbs and a screaming survival need to flee.
The door to the hospital room opened, wide and slow.
She paused an inch inside the threshold. Wiry muscle shifted and adjusted beneath an athletic top and a tight grey hoodie. Like a living knife, whipcord thin and spring-loaded. Palms open to show us empty hands. Tattoos climbed her throat. Flint-hard shards of rock peered out from gaunt sockets.
Amy Stack, the ex-cult assassin, nodded her shaved head in greeting.
“Morell, Haynes.” She made eye contact with me and Raine in turn, slow and steady and utterly expressionless. Then Nicole. “Detective.”
“Slaphead. Fancy seeing you here.” Raine’s face split into a maniac grin. She shifted her footing and slid a hand inside her coat. “How’s the arm?”
“Hey, I said no violence.” Nicole stood up, eyes on Raine’s covert hand. “And close the door, please.”
My body made it hard to focus. The ghost echo of iron scales and toxic defences quivered up my back. Amy Stack terrified me on an animal level, because in a way she really was a little bit like Raine, minus any compassion. She was a predator, a pure thing, and the memory of the abyss responded in kind.
I almost lunged out of my chair, gripped by an insane urge to hiss at her with a mouthful of fangs I didn’t possess.
Stack stared – not at Raine and her obvious threat – but at me.
“Scared of me?” I managed.
“Huh,” Stack grunted.
“Hey, shiteater, I asked you a question,” Raine repeated, still grinning. “Not Heather, you don’t even get to look at her. Look at me.”
Slowly, unconcerned, Stack blinked back to Raine. In answer, she glanced down at her right arm, raised it slowly and rotated the wrist. Her broken bone had fully healed since last time we’d met.
“Detective,” I said, trying to distract myself from the phantom limbs, the tentacles in my head. “Are you in on this?”
“No, no,” Nicole answered. “Like I said, she approached me last night. My dog hated her, which is always a bad sign.”
“You have a knife,” Stack said to Raine.
“Good eyes,” Raine purred back.
“Oh, shit,” Nicole glanced between the pair of them. “Come on you psychos, we’re in a fucking hospital.”
“If you draw it,” Stack said, “or rush me, I’ll run away.”
Raine laughed. “Oh yeah? Sounds like a pretty good incentive to rush you then.”
Raine twitched, the very beginning of the motion to draw her knife and drive Stack away. Stack shifted one foot back, about to flee.
“No!” I shot to my feet. “No, Raine, wait.”
They both stopped. A pair of barely domesticated predators caught before a territorial fight. Raine eased off but stepped half in front of me. I looked Stack right in the eyes, swallowed and sweated, struggled to organise my words.
Stack didn’t relax at all. She stared back at me.
“You could have called us if you have something to discuss,” I said. “You have Raine’s phone number. I seriously doubt you’re reckless enough to make an assassination attempt in the middle of a hospital, without backup, in earshot of two police officers, who you’d also have to kill.”
A tilt of her head, the smallest nod.
“Which means this is a show of good faith,” I concluded. “From you?”
“From my boss.”
Alexander’s uncle. Lozzie’s uncle, the one she’d fled Outside to hide from. The old man I’d glimpsed so many months ago in the underground car park. The organiser behind the Sharrowford Cult, splintered off after I’d murdered Alexander, but before the Eye’s corruption.
“Your boss wants a sucking chest wound too, I can arrange that,” said Raine.
Stack ignored her, spoke to me. “I’m here to set up a meeting. My boss wants to talk. To Evelyn Saye, and yourself.”
Stack nodded, that barely perceptible tilt of her head.
“To discuss what?”
She stared, empty and cold.
Raine laughed. “You could at least try to be subtle about setting a trap, you know? Subterfuge 101, don’t stand there giving the game away.”
“Not a trap. In a public place-”
“Like last time you invited me to a ‘little talk’?” I snapped at her, surprised by the depth of my scorn. Phantom limbs tried to reach out, wrap her head in crushing tentacles, shove her away. I shuddered. “Like that coffee shop? Like then?”
She shook her head slowly, blinked slowly, sighed slowly, exaggerating the care in every motion. Keep us calm, no sudden movements. “You choose the public place. You choose the day, the time. You get there first – or don’t, your choice – and then tell us the location. We’ll tell you the route we’ll take, you can watch us approach from a mile away, make sure we don’t deviate. You bring whoever and whatever you want, as long as you come to talk, not to fight.” She raised her eyebrows, as if admitting a point. “Bring Zheng, if you can keep it under control.”
“Sounds like a square deal to me,” Nicole muttered.
Raine turned her head, raised an eyebrow at me without letting Stack out of her peripheral vision. I shrugged, lost, my mind racing to keep it under wraps that Zheng – our most potent weapon – had not returned from the countryside.
“You boss has this all figured out, huh?” Raine asked.
“Edward is a very methodical man.”
“And what do you care, huh?” Raine tilted her head one way, then the other, made it obvious how she was sizing up Stack. “’Show of good faith’ or not, why put yourself in harm’s way? What’s Eddy boy got on you?”
“Pays me a great deal of money.”
“Oh yeah? How much?”
“More than you can afford.”
“Stop it, both of you. Stop sparring,” I said. “What if we refuse the meeting?”
Nicole raised a hand. “Look, I’m on the sidelines here, I know. But I suspect, just from having watched, you know, mafia movies and stuff, that refusal means they escalate anyway. Am I right?”
Stack didn’t bother to look at her.
“What’s so important it has to be done in person?” Raine asked. “Except a trap, that’s one I can think of.”
“I’m not meant to say,” Stack said.
“Come off it, you slaphead.” Raine rocked back on her heels and put her hands on her hips. She’d dialled down the threat posture, but still vibrated with explosive potential. “You know you gotta give us something.”
Stack’s eyes gave nothing away, cold and blank as lead. She looked past us and lingered on Sarika’s hunched back as she huddled and panted into a pillow. “The last of Alexander’s experiment can’t get out of her hospital bed.”
“Fu- fuck you, Amy,” Sarika groaned. “Fuck off and- n’ die.”
Stack turned back to me. Waited. Her gaze spoke volumes, ‘you’re supposed to be the smart one, Heather. Figure this out.’
“Power vacuum,” I said. “There’s a power vacuum in Sharrowford now.”
“Huh, there is, yeah,” Raine added.
“And your boss wants what – to fill it?”
“He wants a truce,” Stack said. “Edward and his associates, Saye and yourself, one or two other interested parties. The invitation is also extended to the detective, as an observer.” She nodded sideways at Nicole, and got a surprised blink in return. “A conference, a treaty. Power-sharing in Sharrowford. Before the vultures and rats move in.”
“Heather?” Raine asked, deferring to me, to my leadership. For a moment I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to deal with Stack for a single moment longer than absolutely necessary. A small mewling part of myself said reject this, reject it and hide, get this monster out of your sight, as far away from you as possible, right now.
Cold abyssal logic whispered do it, say yes. Keep these people in plain sight, get them squared away into a position they can’t hurt you.
Set your own trap.
Kill them all.
“ … what other … what other interested parties?” I asked instead, trying to overrule my competing instincts.
“The people in Brinkwood. Your werewolf friend.”
“And why did you come to the house? On the morning of the- you know when. Why were you at Barrend Road, waiting in your car?”
“N-nothing,” a croak came from behind us. Sarika spoke up. “She- fuck you, Stack. Wasn’t there.”
Stack tilted her chin down. A silent thank you?
“I did ask that question too,” Nicole said. “About the house on Barrend Road. I am a professional, it’s drilled into me. She was observing a gathering of a rival group, getting intel. Made sense to me, at least.”
“You have no way of verifying that,” Stack said before Raine or I could jump in.
“Doesn’t explain why you came to our home,” Raine said. “Before the ‘power vacuum’ had formed. Twil chased you off, didn’t she? Not a fan of big dogs, eh?” She grinned a nasty grin.
“Stop avoiding the question, slaphead.”
Stack ignored her, waited for me.
“Answer the question,” I said. “A show of good faith.”
Stack nodded, gave in. “My boss had instructed me to verify Evelyn Saye’s condition.”
“And kill her if you could,” I filled in the rest.
Stack did not answer.
“Fucking hell,” Nicole muttered. “You really are an assassin.”
Stack pulled the first ever pained face I’d seen from her, if one did not count the carefully controlled gasp of agony after Praem had broken her arm in that coffee shop. A frown with her brow, a curl of the lips, almost a wrinkle to her nose. On her it was practically a grimace.
“Okay, sure, say we believe all this.” Raine spread her arms. “Why aren’t we making this truce with you, right now? Why can’t we hash this out here?”
“Because I’m not a negotiator. Because Evelyn Saye isn’t in this room.” She let out a big sigh and raised her eyebrows. “Because Edward wants this to work.”
“Absolutely fucking not”, Evelyn spat. “Are you mad? You are, aren’t you? You’ve finally lost it. Heather’s ordeal sent you over the edge and you’ve taken leave of your senses. Yes, let’s go down the pub and have a friendly get-together with a monstrous criminal magician, who apparently tried to have me killed. Wonderful plan, Raine. I love it.”
“A pub, heeeey.” Raine nodded. “You know, that’s not bad idea.”
Evelyn’s right eye twitched. She’d been shouting for almost ten minutes, started with white-faced disbelief, built pressure through hot anger, working herself up into a good head of steam. She looked as if she might burst a blood vessel.
Raine wasn’t the real target.
“Evee,” I protested. She ignored me.
I was the only one sitting, pulled up close to the kitchen table while Evelyn stomped back and forth and Raine made four cups of tea. Lozzie hung on the back of my chair, lazy arms over my shoulders. The noise of the argument had drawn her downstairs but she seemed unconcerned, nuzzling the back of my head and blinking slow sleepy eyes at Evelyn’s rant.
Praem stood by the closed door to Evelyn’s magical workshop, comfortable and silent in her ostentatious maid uniform.
Dusk had not yet fallen, but cold wind whipped tongues of heavy rain against the windows and roof. The heating was working overtime.
“We have spent months, and blood and sweat and tears,” Evelyn slammed the tip of her walking stick against the ground, “to drive these vermin out of the city, and now you want to invite them back?”
“Hey, they made the invitation for a chat, not me.” Raine spread her arms, almost laughing.
“Look at it this way, why not hear them out?” Raine finished making the tea, dumped the used teabags into the bin, and slid a steaming mug of peace offering across the counter toward Evelyn. “Costs us nothing but a boring afternoon. You don’t like it, tell them to fuck right off, to their faces. At least it’ll be clear, in the open. We’ll all know where we stand.”
“I already know where we stand,” Evelyn barked. “In Sharrowford. And they do not.”
“Then tell them. Tell them to get on their collective bike and hump it.”
“Why are you so set on this?” Evelyn boggled at her. “Am I speaking Latin, do you not hear the words coming out of my mouth? This is a trap. It cannot be anything-”
“Evee, Evee, hey, I’m not set on anything.” Raine smiled wide and confident, a soothing smile. “If I gotta be honest, I don’t think we should all go ourselves.” She glanced at me for a second. “Just send Praem, do it remote, something like that?”
“I refuse,” Praem intoned.
“See? See?” Evelyn swung an arm at Praem. “Even the demon knows how phenomenally stupid you are, and she’s less than six months old.”
“Evee.” This time, I raised my voice, then flinched as she whirled on me. “Evee, you’re not actually angry with Raine. Stop shouting at her, please?”
Evelyn opened her mouth to bite, to snap, to heap scorn upon my head – then stopped dead. I wasn’t the real target of her anger either, and she knew so.
“Oh, give me that bloody tea,” she grumbled, and slumped down into a chair.
Raine placed the mug of tea in front of Evelyn like a bloodied haunch of meat before a lion. Evelyn ignored it, crossed her arms, and stared at her mobile phone. Ten minutes ago she’d flung it at the tabletop in frustration, almost cracked the screen. Lozzie disentangled herself from the back of my chair and slid into the one next to me. She settled her head onto her arms on the table, and promptly fell asleep, snoring softly.
“Here,” Raine murmured, and set down cups of tea for Lozzie and I as well. She’d added plenty of milk and sugar for Lozzie, though her tea would likely go untouched until cold.
“Idiot mongrel hasn’t exactly left me with much choice,” Evelyn hissed, staring at the phone.
“Evee, it’s okay to care about Twil’s safety. Neither I nor Raine will tease you for that.” I looked quickly at Raine, made sure she wasn’t about to undermine my words with a laugh or a smirk. She hid her mouth behind her own mug of tea. Good enough.
“She’s invincible,” Evelyn said. “What’s to care about?”
She fell silent, then sighed when nobody offered a riposte. She picked up her tea and took a long sip.
The Brinkwood Cult, the Church of Hringewindla, Twil’s family – they’d accepted Edward Lilburne’s invitation. Twil had just called Evelyn to inform us, and for her trouble she had received an earful of creative insults.
Not her fault she’d called right after we’d broken the news to Evelyn.
Also not her fault that Evelyn cared about her.
Twice in the last week, Twil had found excuses to visit us. First to welcome me back with a big hug, to hang out over biscuits and tea, and to swap video games with Raine. The second visit had served purely to irritate Evelyn. Raine and I knew they’d been talking, by phone and text message, but I encouraged as little intervention as my curiosity could stand. Let them work it out on their own.
Instead, they’d hung around in the kitchen, spent nearly forty-five minutes on the edge of an argument about nothing, then finally gone upstairs to watch one of Evelyn’s favourite anime shows together. Door open, Evelyn in chair, Twil sitting on the bed. Twil had nodded off. Evelyn had been less than impressed.
A start, at least.
Twil’s phone call had probably ruined that, for now.
Evelyn thumped her tea back down. “When you went to talk to this Sarika woman, I didn’t expect you to come back with much, but I certainly didn’t predict one of the most stupid plans I’ve ever heard. At least Sarika is out of the picture.” Evelyn swallowed, a bitter taste in her mouth. “Are you absolutely sure the detective isn’t in on this?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think I trust her.”
“You think. You think.” Evelyn shook her head. “She’s too clever by half. Doesn’t understand what she’s getting herself into. We are not walking into a bloody stupid trap, not again.”
“Evee, I really don’t think it’s a trap.”
Evelyn glared at me. “Alright. Alright, explain your reasoning. Go on, I want to hear this. It better be good.”
“I … traps are … Stack wasn’t lying when she called Edward a methodical man.”
“She’s a sociopath. She probably lies as easily as breathe.”
“T-that’s not what I meant.” I groped for the words, wished I could curl up and hide, armour myself in spines and plates. Instead I sat up as best I could. “I mean that we’ve already observed it’s true. He’s always been so careful, he won’t even speak to you over the phone in case you can hurt him somehow. Grand theatrical gestures, that was Alexander’s style. If this man was going to lay a trap, I think he’d do it so quietly, so covertly, that we’d never know it was him. He certainly wouldn’t telegraph his responsibility.”
“What she said, yeah.” Raine raised a toast to me with her mug.
“Also because Raine is a very competent judge of danger,” I said to Evelyn. “If she thought this was dangerous, she wouldn’t be going along with it at all, no matter what decision I’ve made.”
“Ouch.” Raine mock-winced and put a hand over her heart.
Evelyn snorted and shook her head. “And Raine’s never gotten this wrong before? Never put you in danger?”
“That’s not fair … ”
“Come on, I’m hardly a professional,” Raine said. “Mid-market cowboy contractor at best.”
“Why are you so set on it then, Heather?” Evelyn tapped the tabletop. “You’ve seen what these people have done, over and over. You of all people should know-”
“Exactly,” I snapped. Evelyn blinked at me, but I raced on. “Because we need to make a deal, Evelyn. Because I need to get you to the library in Carcosa, so you can raid it for knowledge. Because I need to fix whatever’s happened to Lozzie, get her Outside. I need my friends, all of you, safe. Because I need to find Zheng and I don’t know where to start. Because I refuse to spend another three months of limited time dealing with another cult. Because I need to focus on saving my sister.”
Nobody spoke when I stopped. Rain pounded the windows and roof. Wind whistled through gaps in loose tiles.
“Focus,” Praem intoned.
“I … ” I swallowed and looked down. The anger receded as quickly as it had taken me. “I’m sorry, I just … I have to focus on Maisie. I know I’m not the only one here, my problems aren’t the centre of the world. If you want, I can-”
Evelyn cleared her throat awkwardly. She wet her lips, cast about for the right words, rubbed her forehead. “If you really don’t think it’s a trap, I … perhaps I should trust your … judgement.”
“We can make sure it’s not a trap,” Raine said. “Serious.”
I nodded. “That’s what I mean, I don’t think we should blunder in. We’ll use an actual public place. We’ll go in numbers. You and me, Raine, Praem. Probably best not to take Lozzie, or Kimberly. Twil and her … her side, will be there, and they’re at least sympathetic to us. The detective too, she’ll be like a tripwire, any violence and the mundane world sits up and takes notice. And … ” I swallowed hard. Say it, cold abyssal logic whispered. Say it.
“Heather,” Evelyn said, quiet and serious. “This happened once before. When this Stack woman approached you in the library.”
“Hey, Evee?” Raine started.
“Shut up, Raine, you’re incapable of this part.” Evelyn said. Her eyes searched mine. “Heather, you said no to coexistence then, on moral grounds, because of what the cult did. Because of the killings, the kidnappings, the children you found in that castle. You felt very strongly about that. Very strongly indeed.”
I nodded. “Yes, I remember, I still do, but-”
“But. Exactly. I agreed with you then. I still do now.”
Say it. “But-”
“Dammit, Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “You’ve- you’ve been trying to show me that some decisions don’t have to be made. That magic doesn’t mean I have to … to be like-”
“But we should set a trap of our own,” I said.
“Heather?” Raine raised an impressed eyebrow. Evelyn paused, rapt with attention.
“A magical one,” I explained. “That’s your job, Evee. Either we have this truce, we make a deal – one we can approve of – or we kill them all in a single trap, and it’s done with.”
Cold abyssal memory whispered to me. Lay the trap, lay in wait, kill them all regardless. Make this bolt-hole safe for you, for your friends. Remove the threat.
“You’re serious,” Evelyn said.
I shook my head, uncomfortable, my skin crawling. “Don’t be surprised, please. This uncle, Lozzie’s uncle, I wish we could ask her more about him, but-” I glanced down at Lozzie, dozing on the table.
Her eyes were open. Staring at nothing. Blank gaze, puppet with her strings cut.
She let out a string of mumbles, sleep-talk nonsense, then her voice cohered into actual words “-can’t let him get meeee. Please, please please. Heather, please … ”
“I won’t. Lozzie, I won’t. I promise.” I put a hand on her head, stroked her hair.
She lapsed back into mumbles, then closed her eyes again.
“Mm, quite,” Evelyn grunted.
“That’s the other reason we try to make a deal,” I said. “He stops looking for Lozzie. We- I get space and time to find my sister. Part of any deal has to be no more kidnappings. None. No preying on the weak.” I knew I was trying to convince myself, but I still said the words. Didn’t quite work.
“Perhaps this Edward Lilburne is behind the force keeping you and Lozzie from going Outside,” Evelyn said.
I nodded. “That’s what I was thinking too. Maybe. Except for the thing in Glasswick tower perhaps, and we can’t deal with that alone.”
“Mm.” Evelyn scooped up her phone off the table, hesitated, then pressed the redial button and held it up to her ear. Raine edged away from her and mimed a mock duck-and-cover routine. I sipped my tea. The call connected.
“You,” Evelyn said. “Yes, it’s me again, no- st- Tw- Twil, shut up. We’re in.”
A pause. I caught a snatched word from the other end.
“Yes, we’ll pick the place,” Evelyn continued. “How many of you will there be? Alright. I want you to call me back- no, I want your mother to call me back, or your father, or whoever else is in charge, once they’ve decided on a plan. Then I want you to call me as well, and share anything they didn’t tell me, any suspicions they’re planning a trick, or a setup, or anything else. You tell me. Understand? Good. Later.”
She ended the call and slapped the phone back down on the table.
“Well, that’s her told.”
“Evee, she’s your friend,” Raine said with a sigh and a grin. “She’s trying.”
“She’s a bloody liability, that’s what she is.” Evelyn huffed. “But I like this idea of a trap.”
“I suspected you might,” I said. “But we should only use it if we can’t make a deal. We have to try. I can’t just-” Can’t just surrender to the abyssal logic, the cold needs of pure survival.
Evelyn gave me a sharp look. “We need to find Zheng. They’ll expect her with us. Her absence raises questions, makes us look weak.”
“ … yes.” I winced and resisted the urge to bow my head with guilt. “Yes, I know.”
“She is your responsibility, Heather. You freed her.”
“I know! I- what am I supposed to do?” I shrugged, swallowing past a lump in my throat. “Stand out in the back garden and call her name, like a runaway dog? Go camping and hope she catches my scent? I don’t have some kind of psychic connection to her. I don’t even know where she is.”
“Sleeping in trees, eating wild animals,” Raine said with an approving grin. “Probably having a grand old time.”
“Until she decides to come back,” Evelyn said. “And I for one would prefer she does so before she forgets how to act like a human being.”
I sighed and nodded, knew I had to do something but had no idea what. Apparently there was no magic to locate a stray demon, and hyperdimensional mathematics was still out, too sore, a slow-healing wound.
I raised my eyes and looked through the kitchen window, into the shadows of the back garden.
No solace there.
Tenny’s cocoon hung in the tree, huge and gravid, washed by the rain, swaying with the wind.
Of course, only Praem, Lozzie, and I could see the damn thing. I’d been seeing it all week.
Big as a car, wedged between the top branches to keep it in place, anchored to the ground and tree-trunk with long sticky strips of pneuma-somatic flesh. The cocoon’s surface was a liquid tarry-black, forever shifting and flowing, just as Tenny’s flesh had. Her metamorphosis was taking a very, very long time indeed.
For a while I’d entertained the idea that she’d died in there, that the poor spirit didn’t have the energy to complete her poorly defined transformation, but a few days ago I’d ventured out, gotten close to the cocoon. Hadn’t even needed to touch the thing. I’d felt a heartbeat stir the air, a deep bass thrum of life running through the sticky black cocoon as I’d stood under the tree.
Praem followed my gaze and turned her head to look as well.
“Overdue,” she intoned.
“Yes, quite overdue indeed,” I agreed. Evelyn and Raine shared a glance. They knew it was there, but they couldn’t see it.
Whatever gestated inside, faithful Tenny or not, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with Zheng close at hand when it emerged.
Striking a deal with Edward Lilburne would also go much smoother if I had a big stick to hand, and I could think of no bigger stick than Zheng.