Evelyn read the name out loud, blocky black letters on the tiny LCD screen. She pulled a face like she’d swallowed a lemon.
“Oh.” For a moment I couldn’t process the information. Sarika, really? “But … wait, that doesn’t make sense.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” said Raine. She flipped the phone back around and resumed thumbing down through the incriminating call log. “Question is, why’d he use-”
“That woman,” Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth, “was to never lift a finger in magic again. She is meant to be incapable. That’s what you both told me. A cripple, useless, can’t even wipe her own arse, nothing bloody well left of her.”
“There isn’t. Wasn’t.” A confused shudder passed through me as I recalled the human wreckage curled up on a hospital bed. “She wouldn’t. Couldn’t. There’s no way. No way.”
“Care to test that hypothesis?” Evelyn jabbed a finger at the mobile phone in Raine’s hand. She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned away in a mounting rage, gesturing with the head of her walking stick. “The only reason that woman is still breathing is because I was assured she wasn’t a threat. That she was done, not a mage, not even a human being anymore, that I didn’t have to worry about yet another goddamn amateur dabbler loose in Sharrowford, but oh no, no, I let myself get convinced, didn’t I?”
“Hey, hey, Evee, slow down,” Raine laughed.
“Should never have let her live. Burned that house down and locked her in cupboard,” Evelyn spat. “Stupid, stupid decision. Always so weak, so-”
“Evelyn,” I snapped.
“The only reason Sarika is still alive is because I brought her back,” I continued. “I did that. I decided to do that. You don’t decide if she dies.”
I bristled, bizarrely protective. Sarika was a horrible person who had done indefensible things, but while she did not deserve what happened to her, that wasn’t why I cared. I’d torn a broken thing from the Eye’s clutches, and I had to believe that the effort had been worthwhile. That the technique was replicable. It was important to me that she lived.
“That isn’t-” Evelyn stammered. “I’m not blaming you- Heather, I-”
“And also, we’re not executioners.”
I sounded more confident than I felt, a lump in my throat, hunched and wretched and not entirely certain I was correct. Maybe we were executioners. Raine certainly would be, if I asked her to. I looked down at my feet and hugged myself tighter through my hoodie. My phantom limbs tried to help, but succeeded only in sending echoes of muscle pain up the bruises in my flanks.
“Fair enough,” Evelyn said. Bitter. She didn’t get it.
“Deciding the fate of other people is a horrible thing to have to do,” I said to the threadbare, scratchy carpet. “You’re not weak for not wanting to, Evee. That’s not weakness. It’s not. Sarika’s on me.”
Raine’s free hand found my back. When I looked up again, Evelyn’s eyes found mine and she didn’t say a word, just swallowed and nodded once, then had to look away as well. She let out a big sigh and cleared her throat.
“Done with your long-jump practice, Evee?” Raine asked.
Evelyn squinted at her. “What?”
“’Cos, you know, really leaping to those conclusions. Olympic standards. Could jump for England.”
Evelyn gave Raine a capital-L Look. Raine just laughed. I couldn’t resist a small smile.
“We don’t know what Mister Joking was calling Sarika about,” Raine said, waggling the phone back and forth, showing us the little screen again. “Look at the timings on the calls, the two the night before. One minute thirty-two seconds, then sixteen seconds. And those are the first times he’s ever called her number, according to the log.”
“So?” Evelyn snapped.
“Doesn’t sound like time enough to plan much, does it?” Raine thumbed the antiquated buttons on the mobile phone again, the clicking sounds close and alien in the tight confines of the dirty bedsit room. “Then he calls her again on the same morning he bought his train ticket to Sharrowford. Six minutes, still not much.”
“Yes, because as we know, all murderous magical plots are put together over the phone,” Evelyn deadpanned at her. “I thought you were meant to be good at this, Raine. What if he had a different number, or other associates communicating with her? We are out. Of. The. Loop.”
Raine grinned as if she’d drawn a trump card. “You think Bikeman and January are real names?”
“Of course not!” Evelyn snapped. “What are you getting at?”
“Yes, I was thinking that too,” I said, a hitch in my throat. “It’s so obvious.”
“So why use pseudonyms for those two – but not for Sarika?” Raine asked. “Don’t you smell a rat, Evee?”
Evelyn frowned hard.
“I mean- I mean-” I struggled to put two and two together, not quite adding up to four. “That would suggest this is a red herring. Bait. He left Sarika’s name on there on purpose, but that would mean he intended for us to steal his phone, and that’s just … that’s crazy. Raine, no.”
She shrugged. “Wouldn’t put it past him.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn said, but she sounded less and less sure as she went on. “He couldn’t have known he’d be dead, or that we’d be the ones to show up and find his body … or that we … know Sarika … ”
Raine waited for her to trail off, then tilted her head with an indulgent smile. “You wanna know what I think, Evee?”
“Not particularly,” Evelyn tutted. “But I don’t expect I have a choice.”
“Evee,” I admonished as gently as I could. She was even more prickly and irritable than usual. Carefully as I could, I disentangled my arms from my security-blanket self-hug, and reached out to place my hand atop hers, on the handle of her walking stick. She sighed, but didn’t shrug me off.
“I think we’re dealing with a master manipulator,” Raine said. “Saturday night, yeah, we caught him a little off guard. Maybe he didn’t expect Zheng, or didn’t think we’d be crazy enough to stick a gateway right into the house. So he improvised, had to bust out some of his real moves, but I’d bet we didn’t see the bottom of the barrel, not by a long shot.” She tapped Sarika’s name on the phone’s screen. “And I think we’re still in it.”
My skin crawled.
I glanced around the dimly lit bedsit flat again, at the dirty food wrappers and rumpled sheets, at the thin, anaemic light slanting in under the blinds, at the complete lack of any evidence. At the fake. Unconsciously, I took a step closer to Raine, shivering a little inside my hoodie, a creeping between my shoulder blades. Perhaps we hadn’t tracked down a safe-house after all. Perhaps we were in the jaws.
“Safe,” Praem intoned.
I jumped, then huffed and rolled my eyes at myself, fists clenched against my sides. I’d almost forgotten she was standing there.
“Yes, quite,” Evelyn said. “There’s no traps in here, magical or otherwise. Unless he’s laced the room with anthrax spores, and that’s a little beyond us. Calm down, Heather. There’s no traps here.”
Raine waggled the phone again. “You sure about that?”
“Raine, Raine please stop,” I said, my throat closing up. “We should leave. We should leave. If this- this- if you’re right-”
“Hey, hey, Heather, I’m sorry.” Raine squeezed my shoulder. “I didn’t mean it that way. If I thought we were in danger, I’d be carrying you out myself.”
“Stop spooking your girlfriend, you colossal idiot,” Evelyn drawled. “It’s not as if you need to get in her underwear any easier.”
“Evee!” I blushed. Raine laughed.
“It’s perfectly safe in here,” Evelyn went on. “But I would like to go home anyway. Get back to the point, Raine.”
Raine cleared her throat. “Right, well. Point is, keys and phone are what anyone would take off a body, right? They’ve obvious. But hey, remember the cocaine? I bet that was a red herring too. Big deal, finding that on a corpse, yeah? Drug dealer, maybe he had a habit, maybe you could sell it.”
“Who gives a damn?” Evelyn said. “He can snort bath salts and drink piss for all I care, he’s a bloody mage, that’s what matters.”
“Yes, Raine, you’ve lost me here,” I admitted. “I don’t follow.”
“You’re not meant to. I’m not meant to. The coke wasn’t for us,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “I think this is all contingencies, various different distractions in case somebody found his body before he came back to life, covering every different angle, everyone who might have found him. The keys led us here, the phone leads us to Sarika. Maybe these other people he called that morning mean something too, whoever January and Bikeman are. For us, it’s mostly Sarika. But you know what? I’m betting Sarika isn’t even for us.”
“The Cult,” I said, finally catching up.
“What?” Evelyn frowned, still lagging behind.
“Say a survivor from the Sharrowford Cult found him first,” Raine explained. “They check his phone and who do they see? Sarika, the only known survivor of the house fire. Good lead, right? Gonna throw them off Mister Joking’s scent. She’s a red herring, but maybe not ours alone.”
“That makes more sense. I think.” I sighed the words, nodding, an odd relief at the way Raine had put this all together.
Evelyn stared at Raine for a moment longer, then at me, examining us as if we’d both just claimed to be from Mars. “You are both idiots and this is all conjecture.”
“You got a better one?” Raine asked. “Theory for us, Evee?”
“Yes. The only way to be sure is to prise it out of Sarika herself. Goddamn it all,” Evelyn spat, looking away at the peeling paint on the wall, then at Praem, standing ramrod straight with her hands folded before her. “This is a nightmare. We’re going to have to go her house, her family home, and make her talk. Fuck.”
“Evee,” I said. “I really don’t think she’s capable of anything. You were being kind of nasty earlier, but yes, it’s not an exaggeration to say she probably can’t perform basic bodily functions without help.” I cleared my throat at that. “Let alone take part in a magical plot aimed at us. Or anybody.”
Raine slid Mister Joking’s phone back into her leather jacket, and pulled out her own mobile, thumbing open her contacts list.
Evelyn turned on her with a snarl. “And don’t you bloody call her, you fool! She may have been compromised by that mage, there could be anything waiting for us.”
Raine shot Evelyn a wink. She held the phone to her ear, titling her chin up and adopting a shrewd little smile. “One step ahead o’ you, Evee.”
“Kill the call before it connects, you-”
“I’m not calling Sarika. Got a better plan than that.”
Evelyn huffed and put a hand on her hips. “Drop the Sherlock act. It doesn’t suit you.”
“I think it does … ” I said. It was rather nice, seeing Raine be clever.
“Thinking like a manipulator is difficult and unpleasant,” Raine said. Her little smile betrayed the truth behind her words, a cloaked edge I almost missed. I filed that away for later – was she talking about herself, or somebody else? “Let me deal with it this time, yeah?”
The phone rang three times before the call connected with a soft click. Raine had the handset tilted ever so slightly so Evelyn and I could hear the voice on the other end, tinny and distant.
“Hello, Raine,” detective Nicole Webb answered with a sigh.
Sharp. All-business. Not unfriendly, but not impressed.
“Good morning, officer,” Raine said, a great big grin in her voice. “I’d like to report a break-in in progress.”
“ … why do I know you’re the one doing the breaking in?”
“Four suspects, all incredibly beautiful young women, armed and dangerous. You should send your most athletic and suggestible female constables to the scene immediately. As many as you can spare. Apprehension may require a struggle.”
Nicole sighed down the phone. “Very well, Miss Haynes, I suggest you call nine-nine-nine, request police, and describe the emergency to them.”
“But you’re a hero, detective. Can’t you help?”
“Ha fucking ha. Did you call to distract me from work with bad jokes, or did you actually need something?”
“Aww, can’t I call just to say hi?”
“You could, but you aren’t,” Nicole said. “You want something, and you’re trying to disarm me with humour first. Good try.”
Raine laughed, tone relaxing down by a couple of notches. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? You at work right now?”
“At the station.”
“Still a police officer, eh? Thought you were quitting.”
“Still. For now.” Cagey. Closed off. Very unhappy.
“Hi, Nicky,” I said, loud enough to carry through the microphone. Evelyn frowned at me and Raine raised an eyebrow, tilting the phone out a little more to catch my voice. “I-I hope you’re well!”
“Is that Heather?” the tinny reply came, much happier. “I’d much rather talk to Heather than you, Haynes. Put her on instead, go on.”
“You gotta get through me first, copper,” Raine said.
“A bridge troll, blocking the way, huh?” Nicole shot back. “Fits you.”
I rolled my eyes, but I was smiling. Even Evelyn had a half smile tugging at her face. Raine’s attempts at starting smooth did not go well with detective Webb. She was much too experienced, much too used to the back-and-forth of verbal jousting and covert manoeuvring.
“Alright, alright,” Raine said, admitting defeat with the tone of her voice. “Seriously, Nicole, are you still keeping an eye on Sarika?”
A silent pause echoed from the other end of the phone, broken by a few snatched words away from the speaker and the sound of a door clicking shut. When Nicole spoke again, her voice had a loftier quality. She’d stepped outdoors.
“Officially or unofficially?” she asked.
“Either,” Raine said. “Both.”
Soft crunching noises made their way down the phone line – gravel beneath comfortable shoes. “Officially, no. I’m not on the Barrend road case team, and it’s practically a dead case anyway. My part in that is packed up and done.”
A big sigh. I pictured Nicole, a smallish, very neat woman in her suit and long coat, hair pinned up tight, pictured her letting go of the strict authority for just a moment. It was that kind of sigh.
“Her family are good people,” she said eventually. “As far as they’re concerned I saved her bloody life, so, yeah, I’ve been round there a few times. It’s not as if she can talk to any of them about what actually happened.” Another sigh, less comfortable. “Not that I want to hear it from her either, really.”
“She been out much?” Raine asked. “Any strange visitors?”
“Never.” Raine grinned. “You know me.”
“She doesn’t do much of anything. You saw her, Raine. Or hell, ask Heather. Sarika’s broken, inside and out. Barely leaves the house. Spends some time with her family, her brothers are round quite a bit, but that’s it. She spends most of her time on the internet or playing Minecraft for hours, far as I can tell.”
Evelyn scoffed. I shot her a disapproving look and she had the good grace to at least look away.
“Walks a bit now,” Nicole was carrying on. “On crutches, but never very far. Raine, what is this about?”
“Gotta confirm our ex-mage is staying firmly ex.”
“Oh yeah? I don’t believe you,” Nicole said without the slightest hesitation. “There’s more to this, isn’t there?”
“There is, Nicky,” I said, feeling awful. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Raine laughed, easy and obvious. “Look, as you’re still a copper, I was wondering if you could do us a favour. Can you look for a man for me?”
“A man?” Nicole asked. “You changing teams, Raine?”
“Nicole!” I scolded at the phone. She made an embarrassed throat clearing sound.
“Well, ahem, um. Depends, who? Who am I looking for, and why? Is this more heebie-jeebie shit?”
“Sorta,” said Raine. “Maybe. Does the name ‘Joshua King’ ring any bells?”
A pause. A long pause. The gravel-crunching footsteps stopped. A distant gust of wind caressed the phone line, produced a faint crackle. A chill went down my spine. Evelyn and I shared a glance. She was grinding her teeth.
“You treating me like a mushroom?” Nicole asked eventually. She did not sound happy.
“Keeping you in the dark and feeding you shit?” Raine laughed. “Yeah. A little. But you’re doing the same to us. Right?”
“No, actually. I’ve been entirely forthright with you, Raine,” Nicole went on, all the good banter and humour gone from her voice. “I’m not joking, put Heather on, I wanna talk to her instead. You and Sarika are both playing me from different angles, and I’m not having it. You tell me what’s going on.”
“Nicky, I’m sorry,” I said out loud. “We didn’t mean to-”
“Shhh,” Evelyn hissed, squeezing my arm.
“Maybe you don’t wanna get involved again, Webb,” Raine said softly. “You could just tell us what the name Joshua King means to you, and we’ll go see Sarika and deal with this ourselves, and you forget all about it.”
“I’m already involved. My nightmares are testament to that. Tell me what’s going on.”
“You first. That name rang a bell, right?”
A pause. A sucking of teeth. Nicole thought about it for a long moment. “You owe me, Raine. You or Sarika or somebody here owes me an explanation, because I don’t like playing piggy in the middle.”
“Please,” I said at the phone in Raine’s hand. “Please, Nicky. Something … something happened, something hard to explain. We had an- an incident. We need to find this man because he might be dangerous. He’s a mage. Or maybe we can decide we don’t need to find him at all. Sarika might be connected.”
“Alright, alright Heather, okay. I recognise that name because last week, Sarika asked me exactly the same question.”
Raine raised her eyebrows at Evelyn and I. Evelyn scowled up a storm.
“Detective,” Evelyn said, raising her voice. “Explain that statement, please.”
“Is that miss Saye? Hello to you too. Long story short, Sarika wanted me to find this guy, if I could turn up anything on him. Him and two others – a mister Billington Cook, which I doubt is a real name, and a miss Sandy Harrison. But as far as I can tell, Joshua King and his two mates have fallen off the face of the earth. That or they’re all dead in a ditch somewhere.”
“Not in a ditch,” said Raine.
“ … oh fuck, oh no,” Nicole sighed. In in my mind’s eye I saw her pinching the bridge of her nose. “You are not confessing to a murder over a police officer’s phone. You’re not. You didn’t just say that.”
Raine laughed out loud. I rolled my eyes. Evelyn huffed.
“I wish I was,” Raine said. “Does it count as murder if he gets up again afterward?”
Nicole paused for a long, long moment. “That wasn’t a joke, was it?”
“I really hate this supernatural bullshit,” she sighed. “I truly do.”
“I do as well,” I murmured.
Nicole handled transportation. We provided the venue, the security, the tea and biscuits.
If meeting with Edward Lilburne had felt like peace talks between rival mafia families, then setting up for questioning Sarika Masalkar was akin to dragging an international criminal out of a cell at the Hague.
Every turn of every plan hampered us with unexpected and byzantine requirements; we couldn’t do this over the phone, because Sarika might be compromised already, or she might lie to protect her associates. Evelyn insisted we needed to physically see Sarika, to inspect her in ways that Nicole was not capable of, to make sure that Mister Joking the mage hadn’t done anything to her – with or without her consent. We couldn’t pop round her family home and have a five minute chat on the doorstep, because her family would ask questions about these strange young women who came to interrogate her, and because the police would be very interested to hear about us.
But most of all, because that might be a trap.
We couldn’t have a friendly sit down in a pub, because after our brush with the revenant, Evelyn insisted on maximum security. We couldn’t use Nicole’s home, because we couldn’t guarantee she was clean either, not if Sarika had been compromised.
Organising the meet took the rest of that afternoon and all evening. Evelyn drove it, did all the talking, because this was about mages now.
Every piece of back-and-forth had to be routed through Nicole, because Evelyn refused to call Sarika directly. Even if she wouldn’t admit so out loud, she’d taken Raine’s warning to heart; if we’d already been hoodwinked, anything could a trap.
It wasn’t until the following day that we were sure it was going ahead. The pace of normal life – eating dinner, forcing myself to read another long section of Heart of Darkness, going to classes in the morning for a lecture on To The Lighthouse – seemed so at odds with the urgency of the supernatural truth. But we all have to eat, as Raine said. She even had a shift that evening at her student union bar job. Life went on, or pretended to, as the secret world lurked at our backs.
In the end, Sarika herself suggested she come to the house, to number 12 Barnslow drive, right into the mouth of the beast.
“She’s mad then,” Evelyn had grumbled down the phone at five minutes to midnight, hunched over the kitchen table, eyes red with exhaustion. I’d caught her napping there, upright in a kitchen chair, arms crossed over her chest while Praem wedged a pillow behind her head. Couldn’t have been any good for her spine. “Mad to come here. Mad to trust me. I don’t trust it.”
“She’s trying to make a gesture of goodwill,” came Nicole’s voice from the phone on the table, exasperated.
“She’s trying to trick us. I just know it.”
“Look, I don’t hear that when I speak to her, and I’m willing to bet I’m a better judge of intention than you are. No offence,” Nicole’s voice floated up from the phone. “She wants to make it clear she wasn’t involved in whatever happened. Saye, Evelyn, we are out of options. Either I bring her to your house, or we give up on this. I’m going to bed in five minutes, so make a decision and then we’re done. That’s it. Done. Dusted. Finito. Kaput.”
Nicole’s old BMW pulled to a stop outside the house at almost exactly 5.45pm the following day.
“Right on time,” Raine announced from the front room, then called through to me. “Heather?”
Dark windows, dark metal, engine rumbling like a steamship anchored offshore from some primeval jungle. I peered at it through a crack in the curtains in the dusty, disused sitting room, with the lights off.
On the edge of my hearing, muffled through the walls of the house – and God alone knew what magical wards woven into the brick and plaster – I heard the engine sputter out into silence. I imagined the slow cooling of the car’s bonnet, the creak and crack of contracting metal. I knew next to nothing about cars, but even I could tell Nicole probably spent more on keeping that old machine running than she would need to pay for a new one.
The car sat. No doors opened. Nobody stepped out.
“Heather?” Raine called again. I blinked hard and rubbed my aching, bruised sides, tried to dispel the feeling of hiding under a rock, fought the instinct to stay silent and still and let the predators pass by.
“Nothing,” I replied. I let the curtain fall back into place, and plodded into the front room and the light and the open space that made my phantom limbs want to pull me back into the comfortable dark. Raine met me with raised eyebrows. I shook my head. “All the spirit life was acting normal. They made way for the car, but that was all. Whatever’s in there didn’t spook them.”
“Hey, that’s a good sign, yeah.” Raine shot me a grin, then winked at Praem next to her.
The doll-demon stood at attention, facing the front door at minimum safe distance, dressed in her full maid uniform getup. Anyone stepping through the front door would see her first, and I had to admit the sight of Praem greeting me upon returning home wasn’t an unpleasant one, especially when she stood so straight-backed, all that blonde hair and ice-blue eyes and great masses of soft huggable flesh. Not that I would. Unless she asked.
The spider-servitor hung above the front door, completing the trap. Carrot and stick. Except that Praem was perfectly capable of acting the stick too.
She ignored Raine.
“It means nothing,” Evelyn said, standing far back in the kitchen doorway. She had her hair pinned up loose behind her head, and was wearing the best clothes she owned, a cream jumper and long dark skirt, no hand-mended seams or ragged sleeves. “Stick to the plan. Step two.”
“Step two it is, yes ma’am, lickety split.” Raine mock-saluted, then winked at me. “You don’t have to stick around out here for this, Heather. Not if you don’t wanna. Go keep Lozzie and Tenny company upstairs?”
I gave her a look. “Don’t be silly.”
“At least go join Evee?”
“I’m fine here. This is going to be fine.”
Step two was an awkward dance of pre-planned phone calls and cautious approaches. Nicole called Raine’s phone from the car. Raine called her back and confirmed the number. Nicole got out of the car, shut and locked the door behind her, and walked down the garden path while still on the call. She sighed at the seeming absurdity of the instructions, but played along, knocking three times on the door, waiting a moment, then trying the handle and finding it unlocked.
The front door swung open to reveal Nicole looking a bit perplexed.
She’d come straight from work without changing, in a dark trouser suit and a long black woollen coat, short and tight and trim, her blonde hair pulled back into a helmet-like bun. Curious but irritated eyes met us from a sharply intelligent face. Neat, serious, quietly athletic under her clothes.
“Aaaaand now I’m looking at you,” she said, her voice doubled from Raine’s phone with a micro-second delay. “I’m looking at you, Raine, and you’re looking back at me, and this is all very silly.”
“Bear with it, yeah?” Raine smirked, and killed the phone call.
Nicole let out a big sigh, nodded, then nodded to me as well. “Hey Heather, nice to see you.” I gave her a nervous smile in return. “And Evelyn, back there, hi. And uh, Praem, right?”
“Good afternoon, detective Webb,” Praem sing-songed.
“ … and a good afternoon to you too!” Nicole lit up with a surprised smile. “Thought you didn’t talk much?”
Praem declined to answer further. I glanced at her. “I think we’re all a little on edge,” I said. “Even Praem. Sorry.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine, take it easy. So am I coming in, or will I burst into flame if I don’t turn around three times and throw a pinch of salt over my shoulder?”
“Yeah, you first,” Raine said. “Then you go back and fetch Sarika.”
“I may as well get her now.” Nicole thumbed over her shoulder, at the car. “I searched her, and her crutches, and she’s not carrying anything, I can attest to that. Unless we’re-”
“You first,” Evelyn said, voice tight. She did well to conceal the tremor, but I heard it all the same.
“Please step forward onto the welcome mat,” Praem intoned, with a cadence like an airport announcement made of wind chimes and icicles. “Do not step beyond the welcome mat. Keep your hands and feet inside the boundaries of the welcome mat.”
Nicole stared at her. “Uh … ”
“Do as she says,” Evelyn snapped.
Nicole glanced to me for help. “Am I gonna get like a pat down, or … ?”
“Sort of!” Raine answered for me. I resisted the urge to look up. Nicole wouldn’t see anything there, of course, but I didn’t want to spook the poor woman. “You won’t even see or feel anything, promise,” Raine went on. “We’re gonna do the same to Sarika. S’just insurance.”
Nicole held up a finger to Raine, not even bothering to look at her. “Heather? I trust you, right? You know that?”
“It’s safe,” I said with a lump in my throat. “If you’re not … a trap. You’re not. I don’t believe you are. It’s safe.”
“Do it or we call this off,” Evelyn added.
Slowly, carefully, Nicole stepped over the threshold of number 12 Barnslow drive and onto the scratchy welcome mat. She waited with raised eyebrows, as if for a flash of light or the whir of an x-ray machine. “Now what?”
“Stay still,” Praem intoned.
“Evee?” Raine asked over her shoulder. I looked back too, and recognised the moment of hesitation in Evelyn’s eyes.
“If it goes wrong, I’ll stop it,” I said, quietly.
“If what goes wrong?” Nicole said, eyes wide. “Woah, guys, hey, what?”
Evelyn wet her lips and spoke. “Adspicio.”
Like a nightmare parody of a mechanical arm, the spider-servitor responded to Evelyn’s input code. It ratcheted itself down from the ambush perch above the front doorway, hanging on with half its legs while the other half descended to encircle Nicole. Hand-thick stingers whipped into place, aimed at Nicole’s skull and throat and heart and belly. The spider’s bank of crystalline eyes lowered level with her face, staring into her.
The way it moved made my skin crawl, all rapid motion between split-seconds of statue stillness. My phantom limbs scrambled into a reactive defense for a second, making me wince as my bruised flanks twitched and ached, before my body accepted it wasn’t coming for me. I had to consciously remind myself that this thing was on our side. Evelyn claimed they didn’t really possess the capacity for independent thought, that they were just tools. I didn’t believe that last part.
“Something meant to be happening?” Nicole asked. She couldn’t see it. Lucky.
“Stay still,” Praem repeated.
“Yes, please, Nicky, please stay still,” I said, a lump in my throat.
“Oh great, there’s some invisible shit right in front of me, isn’t there?”
“Heather, is it working?” Evelyn asked. “Did it move?”
“Yes. It’s … it’s doing something.”
Nicole tried to give me an unimpressed look, but my view of her was blocked by the mass of black pitted chitin and the row of heat-exchanger pipes on the spider’s back.
“If I twitch a finger am I gonna lose it?” Nicole asked.
“Please hold,” Praem intoned.
The spider-servitor took a teeth-grinding, buttock-clenching thirty long seconds to inspect the contents of Nicole’s head, or the colour of her soul, or the flavour of her aura. Truth was, we had no idea what it was really searching. Evelyn had little comprehension of how her home’s ancestral, inherited guard dogs actually worked. What she had was her mother’s notes, a few control words, and absolute unshakable faith in her grandmother’s original handiwork.
When the spider moved again, it did so without warning. It withdrew from Nicole in a burst of scuttling limbs and snaking stingers, so sudden that I flinched, phantom limbs lashing in panic, forcing me to swallow a hiss of pain. The spider settled back onto its legs in the perch above the door, as if it had never moved in the first place.
“Oh,” I breathed a sigh of relief, hand to my racing heart. Raine took my shoulders in both hands, rubbed the sides of my arms, the back of my neck.
“I take it I’ve been approved?” Nicole asked.
“How can you tell?” I asked, dripping with sarcasm.
“It’s done?” Evelyn asked. “Heather, it’s done?” She held up a hand. “Detective, do not move until we say so. Heather?”
“And it’s back in position?”
“Itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout,” Praem sang.
“ … Heather, you have to stop giving her children’s books.” Evelyn huffed, rubbed the bridge of her nose, then nodded and swallowed. “Okay, detective, okay. Bring her in.”
“You lot are worse than security at Heathrow,” Nicole laughed, shaking her head. “What happens if Sarika’s not clean? Does an invisible gorilla pull her head off? I’m not letting a wounded, crippled young woman walk into danger.” Nicole raised a hand to forestall any complaint, raising her voice a fraction too. “No matter who she is or what she did in the past. Yeah? Is this setup you’ve got here safe?”
Evelyn looked away. Raine pulled an awkward grin. Praem said nothing.
“It’s safe for you, and it’s safe for her,” I said, surprising myself, drawing myself up. “Because if Joshua King did anything to her, I will undo it, because … because she’s my responsibility.”
Nicole nodded, understood how serious I was. “Okay. Alright. I’ll go get her now.”
Detective Webb stepped back out and left the door open. Evelyn grunted and retreated into the kitchen. Raine rubbed my back and squeezed one of my shoulders. I tried not to think about the gun in the front of her jacket, and just how badly the next few minutes might go.
From the safety of the front room, we watched Nicole help Sarika out of the car. Not an easy process. She couldn’t stand unaided, and even once Nicole got the crutches in both of Sarika’s hands, her legs refused to work right. The muscles twitched and shivered in random erratic spasms. She had to stop three times on the way up the garden path, her breathing jerky and obviously painful. On the third and final pause, she rejected Nicole’s help with a sharp elbow, an angry hiss through gritted teeth, face shaking, eyes glued to her rebellious feet. The detective hovered nearby, but Sarika made the final few paces to the front door by herself.
She stopped at the threshold, adjusted her weight on the crutches, and looked up at last. I did her the courtesy of meeting her gaze.
Determination – and deep, bone-crushing exhaustion. The first time I’d met Sarika she looked as if she hadn’t slept in a long time. Now she looked as if she never slept at all, fuelled by spite alone. She did look healthier than she had in the hospital, but that was a low bar to clear.
She was all there behind her own bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes, facial muscles still slack but not empty, and she looked physically clean at least, though her coffee-brown skin was just as pale and waxen as before. She twitched constantly, wracked by a dozen different tics and spasms, misfiring nerve signals that my emergency hyperdimensional mathematics had not quite saved from the ravages of the Eye. She was dressed in a comfortable, loose dark jumper and a pair of pajama bottoms beneath a long brown coat. The visible flesh of her hands was covered in tiny scratches and scabs where she’d obviously been biting and chewing her own fingers and nails. Her breath came in jerky, short bursts, stuck in her throat.
Only a few streaks of black pigmentation remained in her hair. The rest had turned white.
She stared at me and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Neither could she, because a change passed across her face, as if she lost track of her spite for a moment, and had to pick up the pieces to re-balance them in her mind. She seemed smaller for a few seconds, then looked away from me, at Raine, then at Praem.
“Good afternoon, miss Masalkar,” Praem intoned.
Sarika grunted. A croaky, broken noise.
“Yeah, hey, welcome,” Raine said, pulling out her confident beaming smile for Sarika. “Don’t feel awkward, yeah? We’re all here to have a chat, nothing more, and you’ve got Nicole at your back to ensure that.”
“Hello, Sarika,” I managed at last. “It’s … I’m … you’re looking better.”
“No I’m f-f-fucking not,” she stammered around a thick tongue. Her voice was like a drainpipe filled with gravel.
“Please step forward onto the welcome mat,” Praem sing-songed. “Do not step beyond the welcome mat. Keep your hands and feet inside the boundaries of the welcome mat.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sarika croaked, then frightened everyone as her throat made an alarming single-choke noise, but apparently she was used to it. She swallowed and closed her eyes, knuckles turning white around the handles of her crutches as she clenched down on a shaking spell. She began to list to one side, but Nicole caught her before she fell.
“Sarika?” Nicole said. “I told you, we should have brought the wheelchair.”
“Shut up. Fuck the wheelchair.” Sarika slurred, jaw hanging, breathing through both mouth and nose at the same time. The spell passed and she had to make an obvious effort not to sag against her crutches, weakly shouldering away Nicole’s help.
“Please step forward onto the welcome mat,” Praem repeated.
“Alright, y-y-y-es. Get it-” Sarika cut off into another little choking sound, “-over with.”
“They uh,” Nicole ventured, “told me to stand very still when I did it, maybe-”
“The less I know- know … knooow-” Sarika blinked hard, grimaced as she brought her speech centre back under control. “The better. I can imagine what it is. Shut up.”
She had to look down at her feet again to manoeuvre herself over the barely quarter-inch of steel and rubber seal on the inside of the door frame, lifting each crutch with great difficulty. She swayed in place on the mat for a second as Nicole stood by to catch her.
“Please stand back, detective Webb,” Praem intoned.
“Sarika, hey,” Raine said, pitching her voice for a smile, serious but calm. She could have soothed a raging bull with that voice. “You ready? Shouldn’t feel a thing.”
“Get on with it.”
Raine looked over her shoulder and called out. “Ready!”
“Adspicio,” Evelyn said softly from the kitchen.
The spider-servitor did its thing again, dropping down around Sarika, a cage of black chitin and quivering stingers. She couldn’t see it any more than Nicole could, didn’t bother to look up, just stared at a spot on the floorboards. After a few seconds she closed her eyes, swaying gently, and my heart skipped a beat at the thought of her about to pass out, about to crash head-first into the nightmare spider inches from her face. She started to drool.
“Sarika,” I hissed. “Don’t fall asleep.”
“Fa- fat- fat chance,” she spat.
Twenty long seconds passed. Thirty. Forty, and I started to worry. The spider hung unmoving, right in front of Sarika’s gaunt face. My phantom limbs responded to my increasing heart rate and the tension in my gut, preparing for a fight, for a explosion of violence. Cold air seeped in through the open door, chilling my nose and the front of my pink hoodie.
“This … this isn’t right,” I squeezed out.
“Still going?” Raine asked.
“Itsy bitsy spider,” Praem sung. Did she think it was cute?
“Yes,” I breathed, a lump in my throat. “It’s just … maybe it’s because she came back wrong. Maybe she doesn’t … seem like a human anymore, or-”
And in the middle of my sentence, fast enough to make me jump and stifle a yelp, the spider-servitor finally approved. It withdrew in a blur of whirring limbs, leaving Sarika standing there alone on the mat.
The sudden surprise made my phantom limbs whirl in panic, sending shock waves of pain up through my sides. I clutched myself and grimaced, curled up, Raine’s arm linked through mine for support.
“What?” Nicole looked at me, wide-eyed. “What happened?”
“Itsy bitsy spider climbed up,” Praem intoned.
“It’s done. It’s done. She’s clean,” I said, swallowing my pain through deep breaths. “She’s clean.”
Sarika grunted and struggled a couple of paces off the mat. She met my eyes, stared at me. “Y-yeah. Feel it t-too.”
“Feel … ?”
Pain. She meant pain. The physical price of leaving humanity behind. The barest hint of a cruel smile touched the corners of her lips. She liked that I felt it too.
Praem executed a perfect ninety-degree turn on one heel and stepped back precisely one pace, then unfolded a hand and gestured to the kitchen doorway.
“Uh, yeah!” Raine said. “Into the kitchen, please. Let’s all go sit down and talk.”
Waiting for a person who can only hobble along on crutches is both awkward and painful, with bodily sympathy and second-hand embarrassment. As we watched Sarika struggle to cross the front room, Nicole ready to catch her if she fell, I wondered if I should look away to spare her what scraps of dignity she still had left. Breath jerking, head twitching, muttering low, she dragged herself into the kitchen. We followed. Praem shut the front door, then brought up the rear.
We’d cleaned the kitchen for the sake of this meeting, cleared away the plates and mugs, wiped the table, had the kettle ready to boil. Raine had opened a packet of biscuits and put them on a plate. Civilised. That’s what we were going to be, I told myself. We were asking a very, very sick woman some simple questions. Civilised, sensible people who are capable of having a discussion that involved neither threats nor intimidation.
When we stepped into the kitchen, I saw Evelyn, and rolled my eyes.
“Queen on- on her throne?” Sarika asked.
Evelyn had set herself up on the far side of the table, so she faced the door as Sarika had walked in, walking stick in one hand, point placed against the floor. The scrimshawed magical thighbone lay on the kitchen table before her, displayed end-to-end like a polished, loaded shotgun. Evelyn’s other hand rested casually on the middle of the magical weapon. A small stack of leather-bound books sat next to the bone, and I suddenly recognised them as the magical tomes we’d saved from the middle of the Sharrowford Cult’s final ritual. As she sat there, Praem rounded the table to stand beside and just behind her.
Trophies and threats.
A queen? No. More like a shaman. Physically crippled but magically strong, ensconced here in her smoky tent, surrounded by esoteric tools and fetishes, bones and skulls and the hides of her enemies.
“Not quite,” Evelyn replied to Sarika.
“Was this really necessary?” I sighed. “Evee, really. Really.”
“Heather, don’t. Not now.”
“Don’t what?” I almost snapped at her, controlling myself at the last second. “There was no need for this. Evelyn, you do not need to establish dominance over a woman who can’t stand without crutches.”
Evelyn attempted to continue the staring contest with Sarika, then failed all at once, glaring at me and huffing. “She’s been working with another bloody mage, Heather. I think a little intimidation is in order.”
“We don’t know that yet,” Raine said gently.
“Mage?” Sarika slurred. She frowned about at us. “No mage. Fucking- f-f-fuuu,” she couldn’t get the word out. “Idiots. Not mages. Not.”
We all shared a glance. Only Nicole didn’t understand the full implications of that statement, lie or otherwise.
“Look, hey, she can’t stand up for long,” Nicole said. “She’s not gonna say this, but she will collapse eventually. Hey?”
Sarika stared at a point on the floor, jaw slack, eyes full of spite.
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. “Get her sat down. Sit down.”
Nicole helped Sarika into a chair. Once sitting, Sarika seemed to curl up on herself, head hanging forward, breathing hard, recovering her strength. Nicole tried to take the crutches from her, but Sarika made an angry grunt and held onto them.
“Is she even … lucid?” Evelyn grimaced. “I mean … is this …”
“Yes,” Sarika herself croaked. “Yes. M’here. Here.”
Evelyn sighed. She shared a glance with me, and I saw a hint of guilt in her eyes, but there was nothing else to do about it now, we were already here. I got myself sat down too, far enough from Sarika that I didn’t feel totally uncomfortable. Raine asked if anybody wanted tea, and the only taker was Nicole. We sat in awkward silence as the kettle boiled, and eventually Sarika found the strength to raise her head and look around.
“More of you,” she croaked.
“Pardon?” Evelyn replied.
“There were … were … more of you. The … wolf?” She struggled for breath for a second. “I remember wolf. And Zheng.”
“She means we’re not all here,” Raine said with a good helping of fake cheer as she placed Nicole’s tea in front of her on the table. “And you’re right, Sarika. Twil’s not around, and Zheng’s out hunting.”
The absences went a step further than that. Lozzie and Tenny had very strict instructions to remain upstairs, away from this, for their own safety, although I wouldn’t be averse to Nicole meeting Tenny once this was all over. Kimberly was safely at work, warned in advance. She’d missed the festivities on Saturday the same way, and seemed glad for it.
If Zheng turned up, we were all in trouble. She’d want to pull Sarika’s tongue out.
“Kill you all,” Sarika slurred. “She will. Demon.”
“She won’t,” I said, compelled. “She won’t.”
Sarika shrugged, not even bothering to look at me, as if she didn’t much care.
“Right then. First things first,” Evelyn announced, raising her chin and tapping the scrimshawed thighbone with one nail. “Sarika Masalkar, do you know what this is?”
Sarika looked up and stared at Evelyn for a long, sulky moment, then looked at the bone. “Guess. Can.”
“Good. I can compel you to tell me anything I want to know, with this. It is the result of a lot of work, mine and my mother’s. But I will not use it on a … sick woman.”
“Our Evee’s being merciful,” Raine added with a wink. Evelyn gritted her teeth. My stomach clenched up. Threats, more threats. Was this really who we were?
“Who knows you’re here?” Evelyn asked.
“Me,” Nicole answered for her. “That’s all. Her family think we’ve gone out for coffee. They were really happy about that, actually. Trusted me implicitly.” Nicole sighed and cleared her throat and sipped her tea. I had to apologise to her later. I really did.
Sarika stared at Evelyn, impossible to read – except for the spite.
“Do you understand what this is about?” Evelyn asked. “Nicole related the basics, but I need you to under-”
Sarika’s eyes flashed deep down, a spike of anger rising through her, hitching her breathing. “M’still fucking human. F-f-f-fuck you. Yes, I under- understand. Can hear. Can think. Yes, I get it. You caught King, and Bill, and Sandy,” she spat the names with great difficulty, slapping her own mouth in an effort to wipe away drool. “Probably k-killed them too, and now you’re drumming up a kangaroo court for me, convince yourself you can kill me too. Fuck you. Should have let me die.”
We all shared a glance. Even Raine was shocked. Evelyn frowned at Sarika, not sure what to make of that. Nicole let out a concerned ‘uh?’ noise.
“That’s not what’s happening here,” Evelyn said, sighing.
“Don’t- don’t believe you.”
“I’m not going to let anybody kill you,” I spoke up, surprised myself. “Not because I want to protect you, or have any pity for you, but because more murder is wrong. You’re helpless, you’re … you’ve had punishment enough.”
“We did not catch your friends,” Evelyn said.
“Not friends,” Sarika croaked.
“She’s in the dark,” Raine said. “Sure as sure. C’mon, Evee, this is not an act. She’s in the dark. She didn’t know what he really is either.”
“Shh!” Evelyn hissed.
“Heh.” Sarika’s lips twitched toward a cold smile. “They pull- p-pull one over on you?”
“Sarika, you are going to tell us everything you know about Joshua King,” Evelyn said, grim and serious. “If you lie, I will use what methods I have. Why did he call you? What was it about? What about the other two? What were they up to, and what was your involvement?”
Sarika’s smile twitched wider. “You get Stack too? H-hope she’s d-dead. Bitch.”
Raine stiffened, a near-invisible change but one I knew all too well, a tensing of muscles all the way up her body. It sent a thrill through my guts too.
“Amy Stack?” Raine asked.
“He c-called me. They all did. Had a plan,” Sarika went on, halting, wheezing for breath. “Escape the- the- the-”
She squeezed her eyes shut and made a choking sound. Face twitching, body shaking, rejecting the thought. She couldn’t get past the concept.
“The Eye,” I said for her.
It took her almost two full minutes to come back. She drooled down her own chin and struggled to wipe it on her sleeve, couldn’t re-focus her eyes without difficulty, seemed like she might vomit if pushed much further. Evelyn looked on the verge of screaming in frustration, but even she was mollified by the obvious physical torture the poor woman was going through for the sake of a single word. Raine was watching the back window. I felt a horrible churning in my stomach, because I knew what it was like, at least a little. Eventually, Nicole helped Sarika sit up straight again.
“Explain,” Evelyn grunted.
“Escape plan. Called me. Came to the house. Three of them, Stack too,” Sarika slurred and shrugged. “Working for them. Maybe. Escape plan from … it. Gave them … doorway, gate, basics. They thought I had- had more. Get into the … Alex’s castle. Don’t know where. Didn’t want to know where.”
“ … you didn’t tell me about this,” Nicole said, then turned to us. “She didn’t tell me a word of this. I swear.”
“Y-you would have told them,” Sarika jerked her chin at Evelyn. “They’d have killed them.”
“You could have told me,” I said. “I could have helped them. If they were trying to … to escape it. Sarika, damn you, I would have helped. We wouldn’t have killed them. We wouldn’t.”
Slowly, she turned her eyes to look at me. She hated me. Really, deeply hated me.
“Would’ve been a threat to you, girl. Think they- they’d be able to resist? Resist trying to send you to- to- t-t-t- … it? Give you to it? Then you would have killed them. Tell me I’m wrong. G-go on. T-tell me I’m wrong.”
The denial stuck in my throat.
“S’what I t-thought,” she slurred – and started to cry, huge wet tears in her hateful eyes. “More dead friends. More dead friends.”