In the end we chose a pub.
Well, Raine did.
The Bricklayer’s Arms was located on Sharrowford’s eastern edge, where the buildings thinned out. For a brief moment the city could convince itself it wasn’t a post-industrial hulk wrapped in a curtain of decay.
Close enough to the university to feel like home turf, but far enough from home to count as neutral territory. Back toward the city, one could spy snatches of university spire or blunt brutalist concrete on the horizon, beyond the semi-detached houses set in generous but bare gardens. In the other direction, copses of trees huddled against the late winter cold. Dank dripping hedgerows wound across the landscape as Sharrowford ran out, and the countryside began.
Secluded – check.
The pub boasted a large open garden in the rear, a ‘beer garden’ with optimistically clean tables, limp sun-shade umbrellas, and lots of elbow room. It backed onto an empty field that served as a campsite, separated by a gravel path mostly gone to mud. In summer, campers would provide much of the pub’s income, but this time of year the campground was empty, patchworked with weeds and thistles.
No angle for a surprise approach – check.
Proximity to the university supplied a steady flow of students, but also meant the Bricklayer’s Arms never quite managed to fly the lofty heights of the middle-class gastropub it so dearly wanted to be. Students got rowdy, smoked weed, drank heavily, talked politics and philosophy and other subjects one wasn’t ‘meant’ to discuss over a meal. The pub saw plenty of patrons, but not families, nobody out in the leafy garden for a pub lunch.
Public enough to discourage open violence – double check – but not too many prying eyes – check.
“Told you it was perfect, hey?” Raine murmured. As we emerged from the warm dark confines of the pub itself, out through the back door, she turned to us and spread her hands in a gesture of presentation.
Our only human observers were a trio of day-drinking math students, hunched under the pointless sunshades around a growing clutter of empty beer glasses and cigarette butts, talking loudly about something called the ‘Riemann Hypothesis’. Only one of them bothered to look our way, a striking young woman with dyed green hair. Her eyes slid off Praem, thwarted. Normal people.
“Still would have preferred campus,” Evelyn said.
“Busy,” Praem intoned.
She obviously did not mean the pub. Raine thumbed at her in agreement. “I’m with Praem on that one. Campus would be way too busy.”
“Yes, yes, it’ll do. I suppose.”
“It’s … nice,” I managed, trying to ignore the caterpillars gnawing at my guts.
“Heather, you’re too sweet for your own good.” Raine laughed gently. “The Bricklayer’s is a shit-hole. Somebody got glassed here three weeks ago.”
“Got what? I’m sorry, what?”
But Raine was already thumbing over her shoulder. “Nobody ever sits down the back, s’too cold and too far from the bar. Come on.”
We took the pair of tables all the way at the bottom of the garden, where it opened out onto the empty campsite.
Only a few spirits lurked in the garden itself – a huge thing like a bipedal hippo was slouched over one of the tables, and something with too many spindle-like legs crouched atop the pub’s roof – but beyond, plenty of pneuma-somatic life slithered and crawled, chittered and chattered. A pulsating mass of tendrils like a rooted plant stood out in the campground, and several creatures like crosses between chimpanzees and bats stalked in small packs across the open countryside beyond.
A few glanced at me. None lingered, even when I looked back.
It had taken me over a week to notice. Since I’d returned from the abyss, spirit life gave me a wider berth.
Didn’t know how to feel about that. I didn’t exactly have the emotional bandwidth to think about it much; wasn’t complaining, not yet.
“Oh, you weren’t exaggerating, it is cold here,” I said, bunkered down inside my hoodie and coat as I went to sit at the wooden table. A stand of gnarled oak trees ran all the way down the length of the property and the field beyond. They blocked the worst of the wind, but February wasn’t over yet. I looked back up the length of the garden and a sigh escaped my lips.
The pub itself was a whitewashed brick and beam structure, real rustic, practically pre-rustic. Probably been here longer than the city, its predecessors sinking into the clay for millennia. The thatch roof must have cost a small fortune in upkeep. Tiny lead-lined windows peered out into the garden like the eyes of a wizened old woman. The brief moments we’d spent inside as we’d crossed to the garden had been a wonder of dark wood stained by decades of tobacco smoke, a wide bar worn smooth by years of hands and elbows, odd paintings and photographs of local landscapes on the walls, and a tantalising hint of an upper story of creaking floorboards. The whole place looked lopsided, slouched with age and weight.
I’d much rather conduct this meeting inside. At least then I’d have some beauty to dampen my nerves.
“Wait, wait, hold your horses.” Evelyn gestured at me to stop before my backside touched the seat, then pulled two small folded towels out of her bag. She handed one to me.
“Um … ”
“For sitting. These bench seats stay damp forever, you’ll get piles.”
“Ah.” I nodded and got settled in. The towel did indeed provide a buffer between my delicate bum and the damp wood. Evelyn took the seat to my left, while Raine just rested the heel of one boot on the edge to my right, too alert to sit down.
Praem had carried a heavy sports bag all the way from home, and now she placed it in the seat next to Evelyn. Then she stepped back, clasped her hands in front of her, and stood stock-still.
I tried as best I could to ignore the tiny rustling sounds from inside the bag.
“You gonna take it out?” Raine asked.
“Yes, of course I will,” Evelyn drawled. “I’m going to unwrap an animal corpse right here, out in the open, and play with roadkill on the table. What do you think, you blistering idiot?” She nodded at the maths students, all the way at the other end of the garden. “I doubt even that day-drunk trio over there would overlook a fucking reanimated rabbit.”
Raine cleared her throat and barely suppressed a smirk. “Point.”
Evelyn whacked the top of the bag with her walking stick. The rustling noises stopped. “Maybe I should. Let it loose now and get this over with.”
I closed my eyes and forced a deep breath. “Evee, only if we have to. We have to try first.”
Evelyn huffed and grit her teeth, but she nodded. Raine’s hand found the top of my head. Gently, she ruffled my hair.
“S’like we’re really in the mafia, huh?” she mused.
“Two-o-five,” she announced, checking the time on her mobile phone. “Five minutes ‘till first arrival. You three alright here on your own for a sec?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “Praem’s here.”
“Here,” Praem said.
“No,” Evelyn deadpanned. “The moment you look away from us, we’ll vanish, explode, and be replaced by identical dopplegangers. Yes, Raine, we’ll be fine. Go keep the staff off us. Stick to the plan.”
“Stick to the plan,” I echoed.
“Sticking to the plan, yes ma’am, yes ma’am.” Raine mock-saluted, then marched off back to the pub, to order drinks and a few packets of crisps to keep the staff from bothering us too much. Nothing suspicious back here, not at all, just a big bunch of friends and family gathering for a drink on a cold, grey day, at the end of a dreary damp garden. Don’t stray too close, you might hear some strange things.
The plan was simple. Potentially brutal. Very few moving parts. Little to go wrong.
Evelyn had sent Praem here alone this morning, before sunrise, ahead of the rest of us. She’d placed wards at five equidistant points around the property, the campsite field, and the surrounding three streets. The Fractal, cut into the bark of trees, graffitied onto back-alley walls, hidden in the refuse of abandoned scrub-ground; we now sat at the centre of a giant protective pentagram. Nowhere near as strong as the much older wards on Evelyn’s house and the Medieval Metaphysics room, a temporary measure which sapped a great deal of Praem’s concentration. The spell would alert her to any spirits – or more importantly, servitors – which crossed the boundary.
If this was a trap, if we didn’t like what we heard, if we couldn’t extract a satisfactory agreement out of Edward Lilburne, Evelyn would speak a trigger word in Latin – inimicus – which Raine and I had also memorised.
The thing in the bag would hear that word, through bin-liner and towel and tin foil, and it would wake.
It would memorise the faces and scents Evelyn told it to, then scamper off into the countryside for two weeks to grow strong.
Then it would hunt.
But first, we would try to talk.
Civilised discussion, reasonable debate, compromise. That was what would happen here, I told myself, we would not need to spring our trap. Everything was going to be okay. Ugly, but okay. This is what I’m supposed to be good at. I’m the sensible one, aren’t I? Raine hurts people and makes threats. Evelyn does magic and knows things. Me?
Somehow I’d slipped into a natural leadership role. Because I struck compromise, because I stopped people hurting each other, because I made deals.
Or at least I had, before the abyss.
Instinct fed me contradictory impulses. Phantom limbs urged to me to flee, to hide, to lie in wait with spring-loaded claws and razor-sharp teeth I did not possess. To tear open the sports bag and dump the contents onto the table to establish dominance when our adversaries arrived. To scuttle home and curl up in the dark with Lozzie.
I did none of those things. I sat quietly and sipped an orange juice Raine bought me, trying to act like a person.
Almost exactly four minutes and thirty seconds later, a short, athletic-looking blonde lady in a long dark coat strolled into the pub garden. She spotted us and walked over.
At first I didn’t recognise her. I felt my hackles rise, an animal hiss in my throat, a desire to paint myself with threat warning and toxic sweat.
Raine raised a hand in greeting. “Right on time, detective.”
“Oh, Nicky,” I said, blinking. “Hello.”
“Never know what you can find out if you’re on time,” Nicole said. “Afternoon, you lot, Raine, Heather, Evelyn, uhh … Praem? Right. And not so much with the titles today, please. I’m off-duty.” She shot us all a broad wink, looked Praem up and down, then took a deep breath of the cold air and glanced around the garden. “Interesting choice of venue.”
Her clothes weren’t too different – jeans and a ribbed grey cardigan instead of a suit, the coat a touch more functional rather than the austere black she’d worn on the job, lots of pockets, a pair of curb-stomper boots on her feet. She had her hair up in a ponytail, freed from the usual iron-hard bun. No makeup, no jewelry, practical and serious.
None of that added up to why I hadn’t recognised Nicole. She was ‘off-duty’ in more than the way she meant. Not only had she shed the institutional armour of her suit, she’d shed her authority too.
In its place stood something else, a quiet cunning, an understated alertness.
“If by interesting you mean shit-hole, sure,” Raine said.
“Some poor bugger got glassed in the face here recently, right?”
Nicole laughed and shook her head. “I’ll go get a drink then. Keep a seat warm for me, yeah?”
She returned with a pint and a packet of crisps a minute later, debated silently, then crossed to our side of the table and sat one space down from Raine. She opened her crisps, crunched loudly, then noticed the way we were all looking at her.
“What?” she asked. “Am I the only one drinking?”
Raine smirked. “I’d rather keep a clear head, for the moment.”
“I don’t really drink,” I said.
“That’s a lie, by the way,” Evelyn added. “She drinks vodka with Raine on occasion. They make an awful lot of noise, even more insufferable than usual.” Evelyn eyed the detective’s pint. “Raine has a point though.”
“We’re at the pub,” Nicole said with a shrug. “Which means no fighting, no mucking about, no hard feelings.”
“You are frighteningly naive, detective.”
“Maybe. That’s why I’m here though, isn’t it? Can’t exactly be a neutral party if I’ve got no idea what you wizards and monsters are actually up to.” She raised her pint in a solitary toast to Evelyn, and got a frowning glare in return. “Where’s the other woman, anyway? The cute little redhead?”
“Kimberly?” Evelyn frowned.
“Kim stayed at home,” I answered. “This would have terrified her, and she doesn’t want to be involved in magic anymore. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Oh. Oh, right. Well.” Nicole settled down in her coat, a little put out, then smirked as an idea occurred to her “What about the giant? Couldn’t fit her in your car?”
“Zheng- … ” I swallowed, caught a side-eyed look from Evelyn. “Zheng would be too conspicuous.”
Nicole laughed. “Yes, yes she would be, no joke there.” She took a sip from her pint.
The truth was far messier. We couldn’t find Zheng, and the failure had been eating at me for days. Raine and I had gone over the local newspapers from Sharrowford and nearby, searched for reports of mutilated cattle or ‘news of the weird’ about odd countryside sightings, big cats loose on the moors, that sort of thing.
A sheep corpse gutted and partially consumed here, a missing cow there, an old woman who’d heard booming laughter from over a hillside west of the city, a farmer to the north who swore blind that one night he’d seen a ten-foot shadow fighting an angry ram.
We’d stuck virtual pins on google maps to establish a pattern, but there wasn’t one. If Zheng was out there, she was all over the place.
Nicole gestured with her pint glass. “What you got in the bag there?”
“A dead rabbit,” said Evelyn.
Nicole blinked and looked at the bag again. It was twitching. Evelyn reached over and whacked it with the head of her walking stick.
“Um … ”
“That’s not a joke,” I said with a sigh. “A dead rabbit, wrapped in a bin liner and tinfoil and … reanimated. It’s disgusting.”
“Wizard shit,” said Raine.
“ … right!” Nicole smiled, drank a mouthful of beer, and sat back in her chair. “Wizard shit. Say no more.”
Guilt fought with survival instinct. We’d already agreed – Raine and Evelyn and I – that nobody else needed to know about the trap. It wasn’t like a bomb or sudden violence. It wouldn’t, couldn’t, hurt Nicole or Twil or anybody else that Evelyn didn’t point it at.
But didn’t they have a right to know? It might go wrong, might not prevail, might make this shadow war worse. They’d all be accomplices by association.
Cold logic said no, they might disagree, and then you’d lose your shot at Edward Lilburne.
“One,” Praem suddenly announced.
“Only one?” Evelyn snapped, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Heather, you keep your eyes open. Spot it before it’s overhead.”
“I’m watching, yes.”
“One what?” Nicole asked.
“One servitor,” Evelyn answered. “Twil’s lot.”
The Church of Hringewindla turned up right on cue. Five people including Twil, one dog, and no surprises. We’d organised it over the phone, made sure we both knew exactly who and how many would attend. No surprises meant no excuses for what Raine would call an ‘itchy trigger finger.’
“Hey, guys!” Twil strode ahead of the others in her awful clashing lime green coat and white hoodie, beaming at us as she trotted forward.
“Twil, hello.” I managed a smile, then resumed scanning the air for the unseen seventh member of their group, hoping it wasn’t somehow crammed inside the dog. I hadn’t thought of that, and well, it sounds absurd, but my life is a constant parade of absurdity.
Raine said hi. Nicole raised her pint and muttered something that sounded like ‘bloody werewolf.’
“Evee, hey,” Twil started. “After this, you wanna-”
“Sit down,” Evelyn barked. “The sooner you sit, the sooner Raine can make the call, and we can get this over with.” Evelyn’s gaze snapped away from Twil to take in the other four who drew up around her.
“I-” Twil stammered. “Yeah, I mean- that’s cool- I-”
Two I didn’t recognise, a man and woman, though I knew exactly who they were. The woman had a dog on a leash, a large and friendly-looking golden retriever to which I took an immediate gut-level liking. A good dog.
The other two I already knew. Twil’s mother had visited the house before, on the ill-fated afternoon before our trip to Alexander’s castle. Her ‘bodyguard’, Twil’s cousin, was attending as well, a six-foot slab of muscle and fat by the name of Benjamin, with a doughy face and a slightly more impressive scratch of beard than last time. He stopped by the corner of the table and folded his arms, playing the tough guy. Raine winked at him with a smirk. He glowered back, performatively grumpy.
He wasn’t their real protection.
Neither was Twil, an angelically pretty teenage girl who could probably bend steel with her bare hands and sprint at thirty miles an hour.
Their real bodyguard was the disgusting mass of near-invisible spheres which bobbed in the air about twenty feet up. Soap bubbles, ranging in size from pinhead to human head, translucent except for a sheen of pneuma-somatic ichor. The bubbles slid over each other, rearranged in a constant effort of locomotion, adjusting itself through the air as if on self-laid tracks.
“I see the servitor,” I said out loud. “Praem?”
“Yes,” she agreed, watching it too.
“You keep that clear of us, you hear?” Evelyn raised her voice. “Or I’ll have Praem kill it.”
The woman I didn’t recognise nodded her head. She rolled her eyes back for a moment and pressed her hands together as if praying. The glugging bubble spirit stopped a good distance from the table.
“I’ll leave it on overwatch, is this acceptable?” she asked, voice a breathy sing-song.
Evelyn glanced at me.
“Keep it there, please,” I said.
“Miss Saye, it’s lovely to see you well.” Twil’s mother said. Christine Hopton was Twil but thirty years older, the same sharp features and dark hair, softened by crow’s feet, a warm smile, and a twinkle in her eyes. Right now she looked like she’d been dredged up from a misremembered 1969, dressed in a tye-dyed poncho and a shawl against the cold.
When I’d first met her, I’d rather liked her, until I’d seen what lay behind her eyes.
I had to remind myself that all these people carried a passenger inside their skulls.
“You as well Heather, and Raine.” Christine nodded to us, inclined her head to Praem, then glanced at Nicole. “But I don’t think I’ve met you before, so you must be our, ahem,” she cleared her throat gently, “friend from the police force?”
“Police,” Benjamin muttered, tutting and shaking his head.
“That’s me.” Nicole raised her pint in a jovial greeting. “Nicole Webb. You gonna introduce us, werewolf?”
Twil suddenly looked stuck. “This is, uh, my mum? She’s … ”
“Christine Hopton,” Evelyn almost growled. “High Priestess of the Brinkwood cult.”
“Of the Church of Hringewindla,” Christine corrected gently. Nicole nodded. We’d already filled her in, and I cursed the need for all this manoeuvring and positioning. Cold abyssal logic whispered that none of this mattered, everyone needed to pick sides and sit down, get on with it. I squirmed in my seat, restless and itching to extend limbs I did not have, to intimidate these apes into action, or to slink away to hide in a hollow in the ground.
“And when you speak to any of them,” Evelyn continued for Nicole’s benefit, “the crippled outsider they call a god is listening as well, from directly inside their heads. Never go to their Church, unless you want it in yours too.”
“That’s not strictly true, not unless you invite him in,” the other Hopton woman said.
“Then you’d have no objection to Heather visiting, would you?” Evelyn asked.
“Evee,” I sighed.
“May I introduce my sister?” Twil’s mother said. “This is Amanda. Of all of us, she is the closest to our God. She speaks for Hringewindla here.”
“Pleased to meet you all,” said Amanda Hopton. She raised the leash, the golden retriever happily at her heels. “This is Bernard.”
The resemblance between sisters was less than that between Twil and her mother. Where Christine was wiry and dark, Amanda had run into weight problems, sallow skin under her eyes. She looked older, somehow worn thinner. Her smile held a touch of shaking mania or imminent collapse.
I wondered if Hringewindla was in the dog as well.
“Right. Great,” Evelyn grunted. She looked to the other man, who had not yet spoken. “Which means you’re the final member of the triumvirate, right?”
“Miss Saye,” he grunted. “Ladies. Detective.”
Twil’s father. Twil may have gotten her looks from her mother, but her father answered the mystery of Twil’s aggressive mannerisms. Mid-fifties perhaps, with a thatch of dark hair, radiating peak physical fitness despite his compact frame. His chin was like an outcrop of granite dusted with salt-and-pepper beard. He and Twil even stood the same, feet apart, duck-footed, ready to bristle, absolutely devoid of guile or ability to conceal one’s emotions.
He did not like us, and he was not happy to be here.
“This is my dad,” Twil said. “Uh, dad?”
“Michael,” he allowed.
“Dad, come on, for fuck’s sake. Don’t be an arse.”
“I am not being an arse,” he tutted, then gathered himself exactly like Twil would, trying to reassert his imposing look. He hesitated, then leaned across the table toward Evelyn. “Now you listen here, magician. I won’t be the one that starts anything here today, but-”
“Dad!” Twil yelled, blushing furiously. “You promised!”
Evelyn snapped back. “Oh shut up with your theatrics-”
“-it’s your war we’re here to put an end to-”
“Dear,” Christine raised her voice, spoke over her husband, “the people who caused us problems are gone because of these young ladies.”
He glanced at his wife, almost tripped on his words, but managed to forge ahead. “-and I’ll expect no more violence, certainly-”
“-you brain-infected overgrown sock puppet-” Evelyn spat.
“-and if anything happens to my daughter, I’ll-”
A hiss split the air – low and angry and dangerous, half-snake, half-insect, all alien. The argument slammed to a halt.
Everyone stared at me.
“Heather?” Raine said my name very gently, as one might speak the name of a cornered fox. I flinched so hard I nearly fell backward off the bench, then stared at her, blinking and confused. Her hand found my back and gripped my shoulder. “Heather, hey? You okay?”
I tried to swallow. My throat felt wrong, twisted up inside. I had to unclench muscles I hadn’t realised I possessed.
“I’m … ” I cleared my throat, swallowed twice as if to shift a blockage, mortified and going red in the face. “I’m fine. I’m sorry, sorry … I just … if everyone could sit down, please? We’re not enemies here, not us.”
Michael Hopton opened his mouth again. An intrusive thought said get up and slap it shut for him. “That remains to be-”
“For God’s sake,” I snapped. “Evelyn and your daughter are practically courting each other. We’re all on the same side and we’re about to meet a real monster. Sit down, or leave.” I pointed back at the pub.
“We’re what?” Twil squinted. Evelyn cleared her throat.
“Heather has made an excellent point,” she managed. “Make your choice. Please.”
The Hoptons decided to sat down. They took the second table, off to the right, but faced toward the back of the pub in the same direction we did. Twil perched on the opposite end next to Evelyn, separated by the bulk of the sports bag. Evelyn wouldn’t look at her.
“Better.” I nodded. “Better. Thank you.”
I looked down at the warped wood of the table, heart racing, head spinning.
How had I made that sound? Raine squeezed my shoulder. Above the beginnings of awkward conversation, I heard the soft click of her lips parting to murmur something to me, words of reassurance perhaps – but when I looked up, I saw Amanda Hopton staring.
Past me. At the bag.
“I believe Evelyn Saye has set a trap,” she said with slow, almost dream-like pronunciation.
And with that, our hard-won momentary peace was shattered. Everyone spoke at once.
“What do you mean, a trap? Amanda?”
“Hey, Evee, what?”
“Woah woah, how can she tell that? How does she know that?”
Evelyn didn’t say a word, just stared back at Amanda.
“Tardus venandi, yes?” Amanda asked.
“Correct,” Evelyn grunted.
Michael Hopton was on his feet. So was Benjamin, looking like he wanted to crack his knuckles.
“Are you serious?” Michael asked. “You brought a trap- we- we agreed no tricks, no-”
“It was my decision,” I raised my voice, forced it not to shake. “Not hers.”
He blinked at me, perhaps thrown off by this tiny scrap of scraggly looking woman raising her voice. Instinct said stand up, make yourself tall. My legs twitched and tensed – maybe I could climb up on the table? I clamped down on that notion, stayed sitting. It was absurd, an animal’s response.
“The people we’re about to meet are, at the very least, accomplices to- … certain crimes,” I said. “If I cannot extract from them a promise not to abuse and kill people, then yes, I will pull the trigger, and they will all die.”
He frowned at me, put-off and uncertain.
“I think that can be acceptable,” Christine Hopton said quietly. “Regrettable, but acceptable. Dear, do sit down. Stop scaring the poor girl. You too, Ben.”
Michael Hopton grumbled but sat down, frowning at me, unhappy but cowed. Benjamin awkwardly did the same, but went ahead and cracked his knuckles first. Raine mirrored his gesture, and earned herself another grumpy scowl.
Amanda stared at me now, contemplative and thoughtful.
“She will do it,” she said, then tilted her head the other way. “Who are you, Heather?”
I sighed. “Please, can we just get on with this?”
“I’m gonna call in the goons then,” said Raine. She was the only one still standing, one foot up on the edge of the seat. “We all agreed?”
Nods and murmurs all round.
Raine placed the call. Even using the phone, her posture shifted at the sound of a voice from the other end, her musculature flowing into threat-response, ready for violence, thrumming with spring-loaded energy.
“Alright, slaphead, that you? Good. Here’s where we’re at.” She gave the address of the pub. “Uh huh, uh huh. That quick, huh? Maybe we’ll get lucky, maybe you’ll crash your car on the way here. Don’t die now.” She ended the call and grinned. “Ten minutes, give or take. Anybody else fancy a drink? Round’s on me.”
Ten minutes felt like an hour.
The others managed to strike up a smattering of awkward, guarded conversation, moreso after Raine returned with more drinks.
Nicole asked if the dog was friendly. The answer was yes, and the friendly dog was rewarded with attention, while Amanda got to field soft questions about his breed and age and the time he chased a rabbit but didn’t know what to do when he caught up to it. Christine made an attempt to chat as well, asked how we were all getting along at university, if we thought it would be right for Twil. Even Michael seemed to relax after a mouthful or two of bitter, though Benjamin alternated between glowering into his beer and glowering at Raine.
Twil tried. She leaned over to nudge Evelyn in the shoulder. She didn’t get far.
Conversation dribbled on. I didn’t listen, couldn’t listen.
All my senses stayed locked on high alert. I watched the approaches, the back door of the pub, the route around the side into the garden. Every passing car made my heart rate spike. Three times I craned around to look over my shoulder, into the empty campsite field.
My shoulder blades itched, my skin crawled, my eyeballs ached. My whole body cried out for change, weak and vulnerable and about to face dangerous predators. I was too weak, it whispered. I needed spines and claws and rending teeth. This was not how one dealt with predators. I required protection. Somehow, Raine was not enough, not for what I’d brought back from the abyss.
I spotted Stack before she saw us.
She emerged from the back door of the pub, a knife-slash wrapped in a grey hoodie and lightweight raincoat. Her eyes found us in a fraction of a second, found me – but I saw her first. The psychological edge was intoxicating. I’m faster than you, part of me whispered.
She walked across the garden, wound her way around empty tables and folded sunshades, slow and casual. Raine let go of my hand, straightened up, and radiated silent threat. Conversation died away. Stack took her hands out of her pockets to show us empty palms.
When Stack reached our table, she paused to lock eyes with Raine. Unspoken communication passed between them, body language and micro-expression. Then she sat down opposite us. I struggled to control my breathing, felt sweat on my back and under my arms, heart thudding against my ribcage.
“Eight minutes,” Raine said, low and grinning. “You’re early, you lying cunt.”
Stack shrugged, barely lifting her shoulders.
“This is her?” Evelyn asked. “You’re Amy Stack?”
Stack looked Evelyn in the eye, cold and relaxed. Evelyn glared back. Twil, off to one side, bared her teeth in a sudden rising growl.
“Twil, dear, please,” Christine Hopton said. “We’re all here to talk.”
“You tried to kill me,” Evelyn murmured to Stack.
“No,” Stack replied. “I didn’t try.”
Twil growled louder. Evelyn’s anger, her front, her scowl, failed to cover what lay beneath. Her hands gripped her walking stick with white-knuckle tension.
The pieces fell into place. I’d been so blind. Too wrapped up in myself.
On the morning after Glasswick tower, the only thing between Evelyn and a quick death at this woman’s hands had been Twil. Kimberly had been present in the house too, at least before Lozzie turned up, but I very much doubted either of them would have been capable of running Stack off, let alone stopping her. Twil had chosen to stay, and in that act she’d saved Evelyn’s life, perhaps moreso than the rest of us had with Felicity’s spell.
No wonder Evelyn hadn’t dealt with her feelings for Twil. Evee, proud and bitter, admitting vulnerability and fear to Twil? She probably couldn’t even say thank you, not in the way that mattered.
They weren’t being stereotypical useless lesbians at all.
And now, here was the rematch.
Twil was going to take Stack’s head off, in public, for Evelyn, unless somebody stopped them.
“Praem!” I turned in my seat and caught the doll-demon’s gaze. In a minor miracle, she understood perfectly what I needed.
Praem stepped forward, neat and precise, to Evelyn’s shoulder. She made the very beginning of a reaching motion with one hand, not even a quarter of the way complete, halting before it even really began.
Stack broke off, visibly suppressed a flinch in her right arm. Twil stopped growling.
Evelyn broke into an evil smile.
“Your body recalls that one, does it?” she hissed. “I should know, I was watching through Praem’s eyes when she broke your arm.”
Stack leaned back and nodded once with that tiny tilt of her head. An admission of defeat, of a point scored. She cast her eyes across everyone present, then settled back on me.
She didn’t even need to say it, I saw the conclusion in her eyes: no Zheng. Her stare lingered only a moment, but I felt as if she saw right through me, read my thoughts on my face. She blinked slowly, done with me, and turned to Raine.
“All ready?” Stack asked.
“Send him in, yes, get on with it,” Evelyn snapped at her before Raine could reply.
Stack reached inside her coat nice and slow, never once broke eye contact with Raine, and produced a mobile phone. She sent a pre-arranged text message with a flick of her thumb. A moment later, the back door of the pub swung open to admit two more people into the beer garden. Two men. They spotted us and walked over.
I didn’t recognise either of them.
This was getting ridiculous. Just how cautious did Edward need to be? Perhaps it was theatrical arrogance. He’d have his entourage sit down one by one, and only emerge last, the prima donna swanning onto the stage. I thought back to the old man I’d seen in the underground car park, his stringy grey hair and wireframe glasses.
No, drama didn’t seem his style. This was pure paranoia. I couldn’t blame him for that.
The man in front carried a briefcase. Maybe in his late forties or early fifties, he had a face like a happy little pet rat, a squished smile, and big blinking eyes, his hair sticking up in little wispy tufts. A little short, portly in a comfortable sort of way, upholstered with good living and little exercise, wearing a comfortable if rumpled suit underneath a sensible, smart coat.
He hurried over to us, smiling, eyes darting about to take us all in.
“Hello, hello, yes, yes, delighted to meet you all, I’m sure, I’m sure, hmmmm?” he chattered. He stuck his hand out to shake at each of us one by one, but didn’t actually wait for anybody to take the offer. “Mrs Hopton, Mr Hopton, the other Mrs Hopton, young master Hopton, little miss Hopton. Officer Webb. Raine- um, no sorry, forgot your one – miss Evelyn Saye of course, miss Morell, you-” He paused and blinked at Praem, like a hedgehog in headlights. “You I don’t know! That’s fine, fine, all fine, all good. I’m certain everyone who should be here is here! Mmhmm? Mm, yes!”
And with that, he sat down next to Stack. He placed his briefcase on the table and beamed at us.
The second man was younger, maybe late twenties, tall and black and dressed in a far sharper suit, not a single crease about him. He greeted us all with a nod and an ironic smile.
“Good afternoon, ladies, gentlemen,” he said, in a broad north London accent.
I disliked him instantly. Reminded me too much of Alexander.
“Sit down, Julian, sit down.” The hyperactive rat-man waved an impatient hand at him. “Julian is my assistant, you see, still believes in all that standing on ceremony stuff, thinks it’s more important than actually getting down to brass tacks. Hmhm!” He made a funny little closed-mouth titter at his own non-joke.
Julian lowered himself into a seat too, nodding his head in gentle agreement.
“Shall we begin, then, hmmm?” The rat-man asked, clasping his hands together. “We all know what we’re here for, after all, I hope? Our own little Potsdam conference, no?
“Except we did all the work,” Evelyn almost growled.
“Ahem, well, ahem. No?” He avoided her venomous glare. “No laughs? Well, well, just one of my small jokes, a small joke. Do um, do forgive me.”
“Alright, I’ve had enough of this,” Raine said, shaking her head with an indulgent smile. “We’ve got the assassin and the jester, and whatever you’re meant to be,” she gestured at Julian. “When’s Eddy-boy himself putting in an appearance?”
“He’s too paranoid,” I said out loud, as it dawned on me.
“ … I’m- I’m sorry?” The rat-like man blinked several times.
“What’s wrong?” Michael Hotpon asked. Sharp.
“I think we may have been misled,” Christine said, delicately.
Evelyn frowned. She pointed at the rat-faced man. “This isn’t him? This isn’t Edward Lilburne?”
“No,” I said. “No, it isn’t.”
“W-what?” the rat man spluttered. “But of course I’m not? I don’t follow? Slow down, please, I-”
“Where is he?” Raine asked Stack. “Where’s your head honcho? Where’s Ed-boy?”
Stack just stared.
“He’s not coming, is he?” I asked.
“It’s a trap, then,” Evelyn hissed between gritted teeth. She placed one hand on the sports bag.
“Evee!” I panicked. “Evee, wait.” In the corner of my eye, I saw Stack switch to the bag, suddenly on and alert.
“This was supposed to be a straightforward meeting,” Michael Hopton said, on his feet. “Where’s mister Lilburne?”
“Please!” The rat-man got to his feet too, raised both hands in a placating gesture “I assure you, I am fully empowered to act and negotiate on my client’s behalf, with the full force of-”
They both talked over each other. Benjamin stood and glowered. Julian looked quite alarmed, like he wanted to get up and flee. I almost reached out and took Evelyn’s hand, to stop her before it was too late. Twil looked supremely lost. For a moment all was confusion.
“Sneaky bitch,” Raine murmured. She eased back from the table. Her hand reached inside her coat. Stack tensed, a coiled spring of muscle and tendon about to launch itself from a standing start.
And Nicole burst out laughing.
Everyone stopped and looked at her. She shook her head in disbelief at the little rat-faced man. “I thought I recognised you from somewhere.”
He cleared his throat, decidedly uncomfortable. “Well, of course you know me, officer. I never forget a face from business, never ever.”
“I haven’t forgotten your’s either, you dirty fucker,” she said, grinning. “You got the Northcolt Ripper off on manslaughter.” She pointed at him and looked around at the rest of us. “I know this man. I’ve seen him in court. It’s alright, I know exactly what he is, and he’s absolutely here to negotiate. You’re in a very different kind of trouble here. Put the magic wands down, ladies and gentlemen. Come on, don’t make me go back on duty and arrest you all for breach of the peace.”
Glances were shared. Muscles relaxed. Everyone backed down – though Raine and Stack stayed locked on each other.
The rat-faced man took a very long breath indeed, swallowed, and wet his lips. He cast a blinking glance sideways at Stack. “I do wish you people wouldn’t do this to me all the bloody time. Our good friends here are unaware of the, ahem, specific arrangements?”
“Yes,” said Stack.
He let out a long-suffering sigh. “Julian, were you aware of this too? Please, I know you’re my client’s apprentice as well, but, really now?”
“Unfortunately yes, sir.”
I realised with a suppressed shiver that Julian was eyeing the bag with intense curiosity. Only now did he look up and resume the mantle of well-dressed young man, and smile.
“Very well, very well, we will work with what we’ve got. Let’s start from the top, shall we?” The rat-faced man pulled himself up as best he could, straightened his rumpled suit, and smiled like a pet rat getting ear scratches. “My name is Harold Yuleson. I am fully empowered by my client to make decisions pertaining to relations between himself and the two other parties represented here today – supposed to be three, but well, one rejection is acceptable – not inclusive of detective Webb as a mediator and external observer. I am ‘in the know’,” he made little air-quotes with his fingers, “as we say. That is, I know that half the people here are mages, and the other half are barely human. I myself do not practice, I am very glad to say. I am about as normal as you can get.” He grinned, oddly pleased with himself about that.
Raine shook her head. “You pulled one over on us.”
“Only a little,” Stack replied.
“Who the hell are you then?” Evelyn snapped at the rat-like man.
“A representative. A mouthpiece,” Amanda Hopton said.
I sighed. “Exactly.”
“Is it … is it not obvious?” Yuleson asked, genuinely put out and quite worried. I almost wanted to reassure him. He was half endearing in the way a small, nervous gerbil or hamster might be. He cleared his throat and cast about for help, made several ‘mmm’ noises.
“I am certain they will understand, sir,” Julian offered. “We’re all civilised people here.”
“Yes, yes, well,” Yuleson sighed, as if resigned to his lot in life. He finally managed to meet Evelyn’s thunderous glower once more. “Ladies and gentlemen, magicians and monsters, extra-dimensional entities and others – I am Mister Edward Lilburne’s lawyer.”