by this art you may contemplate – 10.8

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Sarika cried quietly, to herself, hunched forward with her head down; none of us had the guts to interrupt.

I’ve heard tell in bad poetry and scenes in sappy movies, that a woman can look pretty while crying. Like a wounded swan. Raine has claimed that I still look good when I’m emotionally distraught and bawling my eyes out, but I don’t believe a word of it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Raine loves me so much it scares me. She’d think me charming while covered in vomit and blood, with half a dozen alien appendages emerging from my flesh. She’d love me even with a mouthful of shark’s teeth and toxic quills down my back, even if she saw me as the thing I’d once been, out there in the dark.

Tears of relief, or adoration – or, rarely, orgasm – maybe those can be pretty. Pain, never. Not when you know what’s happening inside. It’s good for you, for me, for any of us to cry, but it’s not pretty – though it may be beautiful. The distinction is slim.

Sarika’s expression didn’t change at all when she cried. Slack with exhaustion, staring at her own knees. Didn’t even sob as the tears fell. She truly had nothing left to give.

Not ugly – empty.

Nobody wanted to tell Sarika ‘there there’, or pat her on the back, or say everything was going to be okay. The ‘dead friends’ she cried over were members of a murderous cult which had kidnapped people, killed children, and almost managed to send me back to the Eye. I stared at her, defying myself to feel real sympathy. She didn’t deserve the state of her body, but I couldn’t say she didn’t deserve to cry.

But I almost joined in.

Was she right? Would we have killed her friends?

Almost too much to bear, that thought. What had happened to the other two people with Mister Joking – Billington Cook and Sandy Harrison? Empty, meaningless names without faces. Were they real ex-cultists or hidden mages like him?

For a moment, forget what Mister Joking really was. If three desperate people had turned up at our front door, ex-cultists with the Eye torturing them from inside their own heads, begging for help, would we have killed them? Mages or not, would Evelyn have demanded it? Or would the animal caution inside me lash out at the threat?

You would have vivisected their souls, a dark part of me whispered, for one hint of how the Eye works.

But when I looked at Sarika, the abyssal thing in me didn’t care. She wasn’t a threat. She was barely ambulatory. She couldn’t sustain the focus or fortitude for magic, probably never again. My phantom limbs lay at rest; abyssal instinct lurked unstirring. That side of me slept, and I was left without the buffer of ruthlessness.

They’d been right to avoid us, hadn’t they? I was terrifying thing, an associate of a mage, a monster from the Abyss, a murderer.

No, I tried to tell myself. If they’d asked for help, I would have tried. Nobody deserved the Eye.

I wasn’t the only one made uncomfortable by Sarika’s silent, empty tears. Evelyn frowned holes in the top of Sarika’s head, but couldn’t keep up the pressure. Her frown turned hollow and exasperated. She broke off and looked around as if for help, lost.

Nicole sat there sipping her tea with expert detachment. The product of many hours in interrogation rooms, I’m sure. She could endure any level of awkwardness.

Raine was no help either. That single mention of Amy Stack had sent some alert-signal zapping into her brainstem. She’d unfolded her arms, hands loose and ready by her sides, staring out the back window, face blank with attention as she listened for tell-tale signs beyond the kitchen. Outdoors, the sun was going down, dipping toward the horizon, turning the room faintly orange despite the blazing electrical lights.

Eventually Evelyn cleared her throat. “Well … well … be that as it may … you don’t … oh, bugger it,” she snapped, and waved a hand at Sarika. “Praem, fetch her a box of tissues. Please. We can’t talk like this.”

Praem obeyed as if she’d been waiting for nothing else. She fetched a box of tissues from the kitchen counter and clicked her heels as she held them out next to Sarika’s bowed head. Sarika scrabbled at the box with a claw-like hand, ripping tissues free. She took a good long half-minute to dry her eyes, making little choking sounds as her lungs and torso twitched. She pulled herself back into an approximation of an upright sitting position, bloodshot eyes ringed with red.

“Sick,” she slurred, looking Praem up and down. “Dressing … thing up as a m-m-maid. Freaks.”

Evelyn huffed and spread her hands in a hopeless gesture. At least she’d stopped touching the scrimshawed thigh bone. “She chose the clothes. Not I.”

“Y-you let it- it- choose?”

“She’s a she,” I managed, pulling myself back from dark thoughts. “Not an it. Her name is Praem. And you have no right to criticise.”

Praem stared at Sarika. Sarika stared back at Praem, into her empty white eyes, then gave up.

“Not- n-not going to kill me, then?” she croaked out.

“What? No,” Evelyn snapped. “No, that isn’t what this is about. If I wanted you dead, you’d … oh, for fuck’s sake.” She lowered her face into a hand. “No, I’m not going to kill a bloody cripple, alright? Do you believe me now? Do you know who I am?”

“Saye,” Sarika croaked.

Evelyn opened her mouth, presumably to say ‘exactly’ or ‘so you know I could kill you’, some variation ‘on I’m bigger than you, little thing’. But she didn’t, she just sat there like a fish, then turned to me.

She needed help.

She didn’t say it out loud. Too proud, too guarded, too careful for that. But her eyes said she couldn’t do this alone.

“We’re not-” I swallowed, playing catch up, stepping up into the leader’s role yet again. Abyssal instinct had nothing to say, and I was on my own “We’re not going to kill you, Sarika. I already explained that, and why. And we didn’t kill your friends. We wouldn’t have, not if they’d come to us for help. We wouldn’t. We’re not like you people were. And … and frankly,” I drew myself up. “It would be rude. You’re a guest. Have a biscuit.” I gestured at the plate on the table.

Evelyn frowned at me like I’d gone mad. I shrugged at her with both hands.

“Yeah, let’s have a biscuit,” Nicole announced, and took one from the plate. She dunked it into her tea and made an appreciative noise.

“She wants to kill me,” Sarika slurred, jerking her chin at Evelyn.

“Yes, yes maybe I do,” Evelyn said to her, low and dark. “And you would have done the same to me. Wouldn’t you? That night your men came to this house, you would have cut my throat while I was in a coma. I’m glad – fucking happy that Heather slaughtered your bastard fucking boyfriend, you-”

“Evee!” I scolded. “Please.”

“You c-couldn’t,” Sarika choked out at her. “I know I- couldn’t. Order, mmhmm. Me? Myself? Nah. Couldn’t.”

Evelyn stared at her across the table. One of her eyes twitched.

“Evee, Evee,” I tried to sound strict, rather than panicked and out of my depth. “Stop, stop, please stop.”

“Yeah,” Nicole added, standing up out of her chair, raising both hands. “Okay, this is getting really fucked up. This is meant to be an information exchange, not an adversarial therapy session. Talk about the dude with the stupid name, not about how you wizard school rejects want to kill each other all the time, right? Right? Can we agree on that? Can we agree to stick to the subject?” She plucked another biscuit from the plate, bit it in half, and raised her eyebrows. “Yeah?”

Sarika looked down into her lap, sullen and slack. Evelyn folded her arms and glared at us both, but nodded slowly.

“Thank you, Nicky,” I said.

“Maybe we should cut this short,” Raine murmured.

The tone of her voice – that wound-tight intensity – sent an involuntary thrill down my spine. I clenched my jaw, bit down on the rush. Raine shifted her attention smoothly from the back window to Sarika, and pivoted her weight from one foot to the other, a perfectly balanced adjustment of poise and tension. Unsmiling, focused, ready to uncoil.

“Raine,” I said, and had to swallow, wet my lips, take a breath. “Will you please stop that?”

Raine blinked at me – and broke into a laughing smile. “Stop what?”

“That. Amy Stack is not going to burst through the wall because somebody said her name.”

“Aw, Heather, come on, I was just being cautious.” Raine grinned for me, but for once I wasn’t buying. “She’s the last person I expected to crop up, that’s all. Guess her whole ‘I’m out’ thing was so much guff, eh?”

I closed my eyes for a second, if only to blot out the effect her physique had on my better judgement. Don’t think about the way her toned muscles flex beneath her jacket, or the way they accentuate her curves. Don’t look at the grin.

“You’re … you’re practically vibrating like you’re about to be in a fight.”

“She is?” Nicole asked.

“I can tell,” I said. “Usually, I quite like it. Not right now.”

Raine laughed, awkwardly rubbing the back of her head. “Hey, you never know what might happen.”

“Actually I think we would know by now,” I said. “And we’re all together, all in one place. Praem is standing right there, and I don’t think Stack would want her arm broken a second time. We have a police officer in the room with us. Stack isn’t going to throw a bomb in here or something. Raine, please. Switch off.”

“Quite,” Evelyn grumbled. “Nothing for you to punch right now, Raine. Quit it.”

Raine opened her mouth to craft another denial, then locked eyes with me and laughed at herself. Like flicking a switch, she shifted her weight and the tension flowed out of her limbs. I had no idea how she did that, how she could be so on one second and then just drop it. She glanced at Sarika again, this time without the flint-hard focus in her eyes.

“Sarika, Sarika, Sarika,” Raine said. “You having a sulk?”

“Mm?”

A sinking feeling took hold in my belly. “Raine, where is this going?”

“Nowhere funny, no worries. Mind if I pull up a chair for a sec though? Get a word in edge-ways, yeah? Here, Sarika, don’t mind me.” As she spoke, Raine dragged a chair out with one foot and scooted in right next to Sarika, a twinkle in her eye and a beaming smile on her face. She plopped herself down and hovered an arm just above Sarika’s shoulders. “Just checking, is it alright to touch you? Just a friendly gesture, you know, but it sorta defeats the purpose if it’s gonna make you scream or shake or something. Yeah? We good?”

Even Sarika, crippled and twitching and with none of her muscles working properly, could not fully resist Raine with the charm turned up to maximum. She grunted a dismissive assent, eyelids twitching as if she couldn’t focus. Raine put her arm around Sarika’s hunched shoulders.

Raine,” I warned.

“No, I want to see where this is going,” Evelyn grumbled. Nicole just shrugged, mouth half-full of biscuit.

“It’s alright, it’s alright.” Raine said. “Just making a few things clear, that’s all. Sticking to the subject. Practical subjects. First off, I gotta ask you a question, Sarika, about Miss – or is it Mrs? doubt it – Miss Amy Stack. She was with these old cult buddies of yours, doing things about our big ocular friend in the sky, right?”

Sarika nodded.

“But see, I gotta know,” Raine said. “I really gotta know. Was she with them, or with them?”

Sarika jerked her head once from side to side. “For money. Profesh- fess-”

“Professional. Professional, right, I get it, take it easy, thank you Sarika,” Raine went on. “So she wasn’t screwed in the head, by our big blinking sky friend?”

“Not with w-with … no.”

“Ahhhhh.” Raine let out this huge theatrical sigh. She leaned back in the chair, still with her arm around Sarika’s shoulders, and kicked her booted feet up on the table.

“Raine,” I tutted. “That’s unhygienic.”

“Feet off table,” Praem intoned.

Raine ignored us. “’Cos if she had, that would be a real shame. Sad, actually. She and I, we’ve a bit of a thing going on, every time we see each other. Stack and I, we’re kinda similar, you know? You see, Evee here,” Raine nodded across the table, leaning in close to Sarika as if this was a covet, one-on-one gossip session. “Don’t let her fool you.”

“Excuse me, Raine?” Evelyn bristled.

“Under all the magic stuff, she’s a pretty normal person. She can be real nice, if you ever have the pleasure of meeting her on a good day. You are too, Sarika. Quite normal, once we peel away all the magical knowledge and the weird cult and all that jazz. At least that’s my read on you. Am I right? Maybe a little bit of a power-tripper or something, but that can be normal too. Heather as well. Heather’s just a real sweetheart, whatever else she is.” Raine paused. “But me?”

Raine grinned, wide, showing all her teeth, and my stomach flipped over. I almost started to shake. Couldn’t tear my eyes away from her. If she’d spoken to me like that, I would have melted in her hands. Sarika stared back at her, sullen and slack, mouth hanging open, her jerky breathing audible in the gaps between Raine’s rambling monologue.

“But I’m not,” Raine said. “I’m not.”

Behind Sarika, Nicole winced in slow-motion.

“See, you can taunt Evee about murder,” Raine carried on, lower, her voice almost a purr, as if there was nobody in the room except her and Sarika. “Go back and forth with this whole mage brinkmanship shit, dare each other to pull the trigger, to cross more and more moral boundaries. I’ve seen it before, don’t really care much for it myself. It just messes people up. But hey, that’s why I’m here. Me, I’d do it quiet, and quick. I’d sneak into your house at night and you wouldn’t feel a thing, and I wouldn’t need to front about it either. Wouldn’t need to agonise over it, wouldn’t leave a stain on my conscience. Just do it.” Raine clicked her fingers. “Because I’m not one of you.”

“Okay, alright, that’s enough,” Nicole said with a sudden bark of authority, a please-stand-back-madam voice that made me flinch.

Raine laughed, good natured again all of a sudden. “Hey, hey, I’m Sarika’s friend right now. Isn’t that right, Sarika? ‘Cos you’re wounded and you need help, and well, I’m a huge sucker for that. If you weren’t straight and I’d never met Heather, hey, who knows?”

“Raine,” I managed to hiss, but trying to stop her felt like reaching into a lion’s cage.

“This isn’t even a threat, really,” Raine went on. “See, Sarika? Look at my eyes, go on. Right now. No threat. I’m your friend. See?”

Sarika stared into Raine’s eyes as best she could, blinking and twitching. She managed a jerky nod.

“And we gotta clear all this misunderstanding up. You gotta tell us what you were doing with those old cult buddies of yours. With less bullshit. We cool?”

“ … c-c-cool,” Sarika stutter-slurred, then paused and added, “B-bitch.”

“Now that’s more like it!” Raine laughed, and catapulted herself out of her chair all at once, sweeping it away and leaving Sarika alone again. She winked at me, ruffled my hair, and leaned back against the counter, warm and good-natured, no trace of what she’d been slinging moments ago. I could only gape at her, and half-wish she would speak to me like that later on.

Praem set about making a big show of wiping down the part of the table where Raine had put her feet up. Well, as much as she can make a ‘big show’ of anything. I swear I caught her staring at Raine, none too pleased beneath the untouchable expression.

“Haynes, you are a nutter,” Nicole said, not amused, shaking her head.

Raine winked. “One of my many hidden talents.”

Evelyn scoffed.

“Raine, you really must learn to use your powers for good, not evil,” I said with a sigh, trying to discharge my own tension through lame humour. It didn’t work. “Sarika, are you … okay?”

Sarika, still sullen and exhausted, had drawn herself up to watch our exchange. She pushed her prematurely white hair out of face, and stared at me.

Raine grinned. “My powers?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” I struggled not to blush. “Don’t turn that on for other girls, unless you’re actually being nice to them.”

“But wouldn’t that make you jealous?”

“That is hardly the issue here.” I huffed, and failed to contain the blush. “It’s entirely inappropriate.”

“You don’t scare me, d-dumbarse,” Sarika suddenly spoke up, slurring at Raine.

Raine burst out laughing. “Yes! That’s what I mean! That is more like it, yes, get some steel in that spine, girl!”

“You can’t d-do anything to me w-worse than what I had.” She swallowed hard. Paused. Swallowed again. “Idiot.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Sarika twisted her lips, eyelids heavy in a slack parody of a thinking face, turning back to Evelyn. For the first time since she arrived, she was putting on an expression for show. “C-can tell you about Josh if you want. Suppose. Don’t understand why. Nobody. But f-fiiii- fiiii- … ” She paused and frowned, struggling over the word, eyes glued on the plate of barely touched biscuits laid out on the table. “First,” she finally said, slowly and carefully. “I want something in return.”

What?” Evelyn said. “The whole point of you coming here was to clear your name.”

“Excuse. Y-your excuse. Thought I was coming h-here to d-die anyway. If I’m not … ” She shrugged. “I want-”

Evelyn slapped the table with her good hand. “You’re not in any position to make demands!”

“ – a chocolate eclair.”

We all looked at each other. Evelyn frowned as if she didn’t believe her ears. Raine smirked wide. Nicole put her face in her hand.

“Chocolate eclair,” Praem echoed.

“You get me a chocolate eclair,” Sarika slurred, nodding with jerky motions and a sideways twitch of her head. I realised she was trying to incline her chin, look down her nose. “One from … Plass- plassi- … plassi—i-”

Plaisir coupable,” Raine said, in an atrocious French accent. “Pasty joint, next to the big Waitrose, right?” She let out a low whistle. “Expensive tastes.”

“Best,” Sarika said.

“ … you difficult bitch,” Evelyn spat.

Sarika smiled. Twitching, broken, threatening drool, full of spite and petty revenge – but it was a real smile.

In that moment, I understood Sarika. She’d been crippled, her body wounded in a way that would probably never heal. She’d lost all but a scrap of dignity. She couldn’t walk right, or speak without slurring, and certainly would never be doing magic again, at least not for many years. She was utterly, completely powerless, and she knew that whatever we wanted of her, she couldn’t stop us, not really. If she refused to speak, Evelyn would rip her secrets out. If she’d not come here, Evelyn would have turned up at her house, or sent Praem, or worse. This petty request was her attempt to exercise what little control she had over this situation.

“No,” Evelyn grumbled. “We are not playing along with a childish and puerile-”

“I think we should be polite to our guest,” I said, and forced myself to smile. Everyone looked at me. “It’s only fair. We can get you an eclair, Sarika. Is there a special kind at this pastry shop? Why don’t we get a box, we could all have some. That seems nice. Doesn’t it?”

Sarika met my gaze. Sullen hate behind her smug look. But she managed a nod.

Evelyn stared at me as if I’d suggested she swallow a live frog.

“Did you hit your head this morning, Heather?” she asked, voice full of angry disbelief. “Do you need Raine to take you upstairs and shag some sense back into you?”

“Woah, Evee, hey,” Raine laughed.

“Yes, excuse me,” I added.

Evelyn ignored us, turning back to Sarika. “You can’t seriously expect anything. I can make you talk, you-”

“N-not a mage anymore. Don’t give a f-f-f-uck,” Sarika spat. “Gonna torture me? Hm? Huh? Eclair, or send me home. Stuff your hunt for King up y-your arse.”

“Mister King. Josh, ‘Joe King’, whatever,” Evelyn said, staring at Sarika, voice dripping venom. “Whatever his real name, he is not what he appears to be. We found him dead, and he got back up. If you know anything – and I think you do, you were in this long enough – then you know the kind of power that takes.”

Sarika took the bait. Her smug smile wavered.

“Evee, please,” I said. “I am asking you as your best friend, please let this-”

“He’s not the person he appears to be,” Evelyn carried on, low and soft. “He’s a mage, a real one, not like your dabbling. He did some kind of fucking personality-switching trick. Went toe-to-toe with Zheng. The demon couldn’t even touch him. You understand? Hm? This is bigger than your petty needs. He’s a mage. You live in this city too, you think you’ll get overlooked, if this place goes to hell?”

“ … b-bullshit,” Sarika slurred. “Bull- … mage? No mage, no, no.” She breathed too hard, a twitching tic making her head jerk to an unheard rhythm. “Sandy- Sandy was the m-mage. Josh? No. Josh was … Alexander liked him. Good dogsbody. Errand boy. Always said- too stupid to stab him in the back. Didn’t like vi-vi-ooo- violence.” Sarika struggled over that word, spat it out, panting between snatches of speech. “The Joe King thing … name. Was a joke. Always used to make. Made bad jokes. Not a mage. Too stupid. No illumination- in him. You’re lying.”

Evelyn’s lips twisted into a nasty smile.

“Fuck you, Saye,” Sarika slurred.

“You’re going to tell us everything,” Evelyn instructed her. “Everything you know about Joshua King. What these three were doing, what they called you about, what their plan was, how they-”

“No!” Sarika spat. “Eclair. You d-do, do- do … I want an eclair.” She tried to draw herself up again, lips twisted against each other, eyes watering.

“- how they planned to resist the Eye.”

Sarika let out the most God-awful noise. Frustration, pain, denial, the name of the Eye torturing her neurons and twisting her up inside. She sagged and drooled and panted, couldn’t breathe properly. Nicole helped her, wiped her eyes, held her hand.

“Evelyn Saye, stop,” I snapped.

Evelyn whirled on me instantly. “I forgot! Okay, I forgot! I didn’t mean to hurt her, but what if this is a trap? Hm? Did you think about that, Heather?”

“Woah, woah, Evee, hold up,” Raine said, raising her hands. “That’s hardly fair now, is it? If she was trying to cover for a trap, the cat’s out of the bag already. Make up your mind.”

“What?” Evelyn boggled at her.

“Evee,” I said as gently as I could muster. “You successfully scared and bullied her into giving information up for free, by using the fact she doesn’t know about King. Which is it, a trap, or not?”

Evelyn stared at me, blinking, trying to build up steam again. “ … it could still be … it could still be a trap, don’t be absurd. She’s trying to peel one of us off. She’s even named the location. Next to the Waitrose? It’ll be a thirty-five minute round trip at best, anything could happen! Here, or on the way there!”

“I could take the car,” Raine suggested. “Won’t take me fifteen minutes.”

“You will bloody well not!” Evelyn all but shouted. “You are staying put. We are not getting this woman an eclair, trap or otherwise.”

“Maybe it’s time to stop thinking like that,” I said. I was more horrified than angry. Horrified at us.

I spoke softly, but a fraction of my self-hate must have leaked into my voice, because Evelyn drew up short. I took a breath and groped for the right words to continue.

“If … if you’re really that worried, send Praem. Wait, no. Praem, dear, I’m sorry,” I turned to the doll-demon. “Would you be happy to go fetch a box of chocolate eclairs for us? You’re by for the most difficult to surprise or ambush, if you’re worried about that too. And it’s not going to happen anyway. That’s not what this request is about.”

“Chocolate eclairs,” Praem echoed. I took that as an affirmative.

Evelyn started to say something, then stopped. I saw an echo of my own hollow feelings reflected in her eyes. She closed her mouth again, chewing her tongue in frustration.

“Get a box enough for all of us, yeah?” Raine asked, a cheery note in her voice.

“I’ll have that cup of t-t—t- … tea too,” Sarika croaked, eyes still full of tears of wounded pride. She’d recovered enough to sit up again. “C-cool it first. Need a straw.”

“Lukewarm tea, with a straw,” Raine said, clicking her fingers and pointing finger guns at Sarika. “Coming right up.”

“Oh fine, sod it,” Evelyn grunted. “Get me a mug as well, but hot. And Praem, go fetch my purse, I expect you’re going to need some cash to purchase a bloody twenty quid box of eclairs.”

“Thirty,” Sarika croaked.

Raine let out a low whistle.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “These better bloody well be worth it.”

==

Armed with a wad of twenty pound notes and unnecessary instructions to come straight home, Praem was ordered back into casual clothes, handed Evelyn’s mobile phone, and sent off on her merry way to purchase a puff pastry peace pipe.

“There won’t be a trap. That’s not what this is about,” I said as Raine and I saw her off at the front door. “But please be careful.”

“Look both ways when crossing the road,” she sang, and left.

Back in the kitchen, one could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Raine did in fact try.

The aftermath of all that pressure, the slow bubbling self-horror – not to mention the sheer animal magnetism in Raine’s little performance earlier – made me twitchy, tight in the chest, and hungry. I wanted to go upstairs and find Lozzie and curl up in the dark and not think. Instead I occupied my hands with a glass of apple juice, and before I knew what I was doing, I’d eaten a dozen chocolate biscuits. My stomach would not thank me later for that combination.

Sarika and Evelyn both found ways of quietly and passive-aggressively occupying themselves. Sarika dug a surprisingly new mobile phone from one of her coat pockets, hampered and slowed by her imprecise grip, and booted up some kind of mobile game – big numbers and turn based battles, lots of brightly coloured cartoon characters in impractical looking fantasy armour. She kept the volume off, had trouble clicking some parts of the screen, but didn’t once look up. Evelyn sat there fuming softly for a few minutes until she scraped her chair back, stomped out of the kitchen, stomped upstairs, and stomped all the way back holding a battered copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book which I was certain she’d never read and probably wouldn’t enjoy. She’d likely grabbed the first thing to hand in the old study. She set herself up in her seat and commenced reading with one of the grumpiest expressions I’d ever seen from her, which is saying quite a bit.

Raine decided to lean over the back of Sarika’s chair and take an interest. She provided a running commentary on both the gameplay and the state of undress of several of the female characters, with sneaky winks at me as I stood there munching my unwise mouthful of biscuits.

“Wait,” Raine said, pointing at the phone screen. “Switch her back to the other outfit, the one with the boob armour.”

This did not help.

Raine was somewhat put out when Sarika switched her in-game team to all pretty boys.

“Much better,” Sarika croaked.

Nicole cleared her throat, stood up, and gestured at the dying light through the kitchen window. “I need some fresh air. If I leave you lot with Sarika, you’re not going to turn her into a frog or whatever?”

“S’fine, detective,” Raine said with a wink. “We’re having fun.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose you’ve worked that out, right. So, if I step out into your back garden, I’m not going to get, I dunno, eaten by a giant anaconda or something?”

“Watch your step for the fragments of invisible monster cocoon,” Evelyn drawled.

Nicole blinked at her.

I sighed. “She’s being silly. The cocoon isn’t there anymore. It melted.”

Nicole gave me a split-second of thousand-yard stare, then nodded and sucked on her teeth and made for the back door through the utility room.

“You do know,” Evelyn deadpanned at Sarika, “that it would save us all considerable time if we talk now. I’ll even go first.”

“No. Eclair first. Payment first.”

Evelyn grit her teeth, then returned to staring at the page of her book without reading the words.

Twenty six minutes and counting. I thought being stuck in the Medieval Metaphysics room with Evelyn and Twil had been awkward, but this took a new award, one I hadn’t known existed. I ate another biscuit, and realised I was barely tasting anything.

“I’m just going to … to check on Nicky,” I announced.

“You sure?” Raine asked. “You want me to come with? That hoodie enough for outdoors right now?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “And you should stay here.” I glanced pointedly at Evelyn. “For the sake of … blood pressure.”

“Ah. Gotcha. Shout if you need me.”

“Thank you, yes. Always.”

I slipped out of the kitchen and into the cramped, shadowy confines of the utility room. The heat from the old iron radiators struggled to reach back here, so I hugged myself through my pink hoodie, tugged my sleeves over my hands, and breathed a sigh of relief. Outdoors, the sun bisected the rooftops on the horizon, filling the tiny room with reflected sunset backwash through the thick glass of the door.

Nicole stood on the dirty paving slabs and weeds of the untended back patio, watching the sunset. An unlit cigarette hung from her lips, a packet of them in one hand. She turned in surprise when I clicked the back door open and stepped out to join her.

“Uh, Heather?” She plucked the unlit cigarette from her mouth. “Are things safe in there without you?”

“Are you implying I’d be able to stop anything?”

Nicole tilted her head, dead serious. “Yeah. You’re the real alpha round here, whatever front Raine puts up.”

“Oh, I, uh … yes? Yes, they’re fine, please don’t worry. Raine won’t actually hurt Sarika, not out of the blue. Not unless … well … you know.” I smiled with awkward embarrassment and tucked my hair behind one ear, self-conscious and confused. Alpha? Nonsense. I shut the back door, and tucked my hands under my armpits against the evening chill.

Nicole sighed through a pained smile. “Then I shall defer to your judgement. Couldn’t stand the heat in there either, huh?”

“That is a very mild way of putting it, yes.”

She laughed, a good chuckle that washed the harsh authority from her face. I realised I’d never actually been alone with Nicole before.

Though she was very good looking, I didn’t find Nicole personally attractive. She didn’t act my type. But standing in the orange glow of an overcast sunset, side-lit in her long dark coat and well fitting suit, with that cynical, knowing look on her face, she could have stepped straight from the pages of a romantic noir novel. The glow caught her tightly bunned hair, turned it gold. Quite the heartthrob to the right eyes, the dashing lady detective. Or private eye, I corrected myself. That would be better.

“I didn’t know you smoked, Nicky.” I nodded at the cigarette in her hand, just for something to say.

“Ah? Oh, this.” She held up the unlit cigarette and frowned at it as if it had insulted her. “Yeah, I smoke, but not nicotine, if you know what I mean. Er, don’t tell anybody I said that, right? Bought these this morning, first pack of actual fags I’ve had years.”

“Do you … do you need somebody to stop you?” I asked. “To take them off you?”

“You volunteering?”

“If that’s what you need?” I sunk deeper into my hoodie. Behind Nicole, a gentle wind ruffled the unruly grass and the leaves on the big tree. Houses in the distance caught the dying sun on their rooftops. “I doubt I’d be tempted to smoke them, at least. I’ve never tried.”

Nicole slotted the one cigarette back into the packet, flipped it closed, and held it out to me. “I come asking for those back, you tell me no. Deal?”

“I’ll try my best.” The packet of cigarettes felt so much lighter in my hand than I’d expected. I tucked it into my hoodie’s front pocket.

“Another notch for your belt.”

I blinked at her. “I’m … I’m sorry?”

“You’re not even aware of it, are you?” She smiled an inscrutable smile. “Natural born charisma, and you don’t even know what you’re doing. We’re all very lucky that you are who you are, Heather. You’d be lethal otherwise.”

“I-I’m … I’m not, I’m not special, Nicky. I’m really not. And I’m not lethal, please don’t say that.” I struggled to swallow down the lump in my throat. We were not lethal. I wouldn’t let us be.

“S’what I said, you’re not lethal. Take the rest as a compliment, yeah?” Nicole reached to her mouth as if to remove a cigarette again, then blinked at her empty fingers before she laughed at herself.

“How have you been lately, Nicky? We haven’t talked since the hospital.”

She gave me an unsmiling ‘what-do-you-think’ sort of look. “I need some serious stress relief. Weed and netflix ain’t cuttin’ it.”

“Oh.”

Perhaps a private heart-to-heart with a washed up, psychologically damaged, bent police detective was about to be more awkward then standing around in the kitchen while Sarika played sexually charged mobile games. Oh dear.

Nicole nodded up at the house behind us, at the upstairs windows with the curtains closed. “Is that redhead girl still hanging around you lot?”

“Ah.” A lifeline!

“Ah? That a yes or a no?”

I cleared my throat, thanking heaven for an easy topic, pretending innocent obliviousness. I was very bad at it. “Redhead girl?”

Nicole laughed in defeat and rolled her eyes. “Alright, fine, I totally remember her name. Kimberly Kemp. The cute little redhead with the button nose and the funny walk.”

“Funny walk?”

“Cute walk. Does this thing with her hips.”

“ … I … I never noticed. Wow. Nicky.”

“She around?”

“Not at the moment, sorry. Kim’s at work.”

“Ah. Shame.” Nicole sighed, then looked up at the windows again. “You sure?”

“Yes, I’m not holding out on you.” I tutted. “Kim’s at work, though I think her shift is over soon. Hopefully we’ll be done by the time she gets home.”

“Oh yeah? Where’s she work?”

I frowned gently. Nicole had the good shame to clear her throat and shrug and add, “I’m just taking an interest.”

“She found a new job,” I said, carefully unimpressed, but smiling inside. “At a florist in the city centre, the one just outside the train station. It’s independently owned and they do a lot of business, so it pays a lot better than she was hoping. We’re all very happy for her.”

“Aww, that’s great. Glad to hear it.”

“If you do decide to go visit her at work, I don’t suggest going dressed like you are right now.”

“Ah?” Nicole glanced down at herself, suited and booted, trim and tight.

“I get the impression that Kimberly doesn’t trust police. I think she’s had some bad experiences.”

“Ahhhh, right, yeah.” Nicole cleared her throat. “Yeah. I’m out of practice at this. Don’t remind me.”

I almost giggled. It was quite exciting, in a way, to hear an older woman – though by less than fifteen years – talk so candidly. For a moment I even managed to forget Sarika, back in the kitchen.

“So, you, um, you like women then?” I asked.

Nicole took a deep breath and blew out slowly into the cold air, as if she’d taken a drag on that invisible cigarette, hands in her coat pockets, looking at me sidelong.

“I bat for both teams,” she said. “Does that surprise you?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Though I haven’t batted at all for … fuck.” She grimaced. “Six years, give or take. Kim hits my mark, that’s all.”

A red standard shot up a flagpole in my mind. “The nervous and skittish type?”

“Nah, not exactly. I wanna see what she’s like when she’s actually happy, you know? The skittish stuff is endearing, but I’d rather make her smile first.”

The red flag went down again. “She’s sweet. Very caring. ‘Girly’, I suppose.”

“Yeah, exactly, that’s the exact word I was hoping to hear.” Nicole grinned, then caught herself, sighed and shook her head. “I’m pathetic. Too old for the club scene and one night stands, and my type doesn’t crop up in my lifestyle or line of work. You don’t meet a lot of himbos or girly girls on the bloody Sharrowford police force.”

“‘Himbos’?” I echoed, then held up a hand. “Actually, never mind, sorry, I can guess the etymology.”

Nicole laughed and I blushed. I didn’t want to think too hard about the detective’s private life.

“Look, Nicky, are you seriously going to approach Kim?”

“Oh dear. Am I about to get a stern talking to?”

“I’m serious. I have a responsibility. Don’t treat her as stress relief, or I … I’ll … I shall be very upset with you.”

“Loud and clear, mama bear.”

“No, you don’t get it,” I sighed. “What happened to her isn’t on the same level as Sarika, but the Sharrowford Cult broke her just the same. What happened to her was …  she was … ” I didn’t have the words. This wasn’t the moment, and not mine to tell.

“I’m listening,” Nicole said softly, and she meant it, or at least made me believe it.

“It’s her place to tell you, if she wants, not mine. But they made her work for them, and you can guess what that entailed. She was groomed, trapped, used. And she joined the cult in the first place after she got out of an abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend.” I nodded up at the house. “Living here is an awful paradox for her. She wants out – out of magic, out of all of this, but she’s really reluctant to return to her flat. I suspect that being friends with us is the first time in years she’s felt safe. Don’t take that away from her.”

Nicole nodded slowly as I spoke, no longer making a joke of this. “Alright,” she said when I finished.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to put you off.”

“Hey, don’t be. Maybe some real sweetness and light is what I need. But … boyfriend?”

“Oh.” I bit my lip. “Oh, that’s a good point. I don’t know. Her friends at her Wiccian group didn’t seem surprised when she pretended to be my girlfriend.”

Nicole couldn’t suppress a laugh. “What? Heather, oh, I need to hear this story.”

“It’s complicated. Magic stuff. She helped us contact somebody. It’s too long for right now, Praem would get back before I can finish.”

“Bank it for me, I could do with a good laugh.”

“And I’m really not sure she’d be comfortable with a police officer. No matter how much you think you’re a good apple. Don’t hurt her, Nicky. Please.”

Nicole sighed a big sigh and shot me a sad grin. “Not police for much longer, so that’s one less strike against me.”

“Ah? Oh, you are going to quit after all?”

“I’m in the process. Turns out becoming a private eye is a lot more difficult than I thought, so I’m hooking up with this … well, not a company exactly, more like a cooperate collective, over in Manchester. Sharing information, sharing jobs, keeping each other in the loop. This guy I used to know on the force, he’s one of them, so I’ve got a personal connection. They’ve been getting me up to speed. Then when I’m certain I can land on my feet, in goes my resignation.” She shot me a grin. “And then it’s chasing unfaithful husbands and dumpster diving for corporate secrets. That’s where the real money is, apparently.” She nodded back at the house, at the kitchen window. “I keep doing this sorta thing for you people, eventually I’m gonna have to start charging for my time.”

“I really hope it works out for you. Good luck.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Nicole stared off at the rim of the sunset amid the gathering dark, and suddenly I could see the weighing-up going on behind her eyes, the cogs turning and locking into place. With a sigh, she seemed to let go of something.

“You know what I wanted to be when I was little, Heather? A hero.” She spoke slowly. “I wanted to save people. Should have been a bloody firefighter, but I’m probably too short for that. Didn’t much care about catching criminals or anything, just the saving part. But the world doesn’t actually work that way, you know? That’s not what institutions are for.”

“Nobody’s really a hero.”

“Oh yeah?” She turned to me, dead serious, and suddenly I felt every year of the gap between us. “You can save people in your own life, if you keep them close. Raine’s a hero. So are you.”

“What? What- no, no, Nicky-”

“Don’t get me wrong, Heather. Real heroism doesn’t mean you can help everyone. You have to make choices. My brush with you lot, well, maybe that’s showed me some of those choices make you into something else at the same time, and I’m not sure I can deal with that part. I think about you, and your friends in there, and the whole world you inhabit a lot. Because what you’re doing is real. It’s so real it hurts. I can’t ignore it, can’t switch it off, because it’s there and it’s real and the whole thing scares me shitless.”

I blinked at her. That was the last place I’d assumed she was going with this. She looked off into the darkness, awkward and hurting inside.

“It … it scares me too, Nicky,” I tried. “All the time.”

“I have nightmares about that house.” I heard a lump in her throat, and I did not need to ask which house she meant. “Not the bodies, not the blood. I’ve seen worse than that. I’ve seen dead kids, whatever. No, it was the feeling in that place. The oppression of it. Like we’d gone down some dark hole in the ground and found a primordial truth and I’d never be the same again.”

She took a long shuddering breath. I reached out and touched her arm gently, uncertain where this was going, where it would end.

“But I can’t turn away,” she said with a rueful smile, looking round at me again. “’Cos I’m a sucker. Because here it is. It’s real. And that means I can make a difference. Maybe only to your redhead friend, but that’s real enough for me.”

“You don’t have to get involved in the supernatural to make a positive difference to somebody’s life,” I said. “Don’t be silly.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right, but I don’t make very good life choices anyway. Why break my streak now?” She took a deep sigh and rolled her shoulders, as if a weight had been lifted. “Your friends in there are fucking nuts, you know?

“Ah?”

“I went along with Raine’s bad cop routine, but that was heavy shit. You don’t learn skills like that. Not even on the force. She’d be terrifying in a police questioning room, no mistake. Psychopaths and wizards trying to kill each other. Is this what it’s always like?”

“Not always,” I sighed. “I’m sorry you’ve had to see all that. I’m really sorry about her.”

Nicole snorted with laughter. “You’re alright, Heather. You know why? Because you worked hard to find a way not to kill me. Your friends in there are … different.”

“They’re not. Nicky, I … ” A hard lump formed in my throat. My palms turned sweaty. I hunched up tight. Couldn’t meet her eyes. Hands shaking, I pulled up the hood on my hoodie and felt like hiding inside it.

“Heather? I hit a nerve?”

“I’m cold.”

“Ah.”

She let that hang. An expert interrogator. I didn’t stand a chance.

“I’ve killed two people,” I said into the sunset gloom. “I’m no different. Yes, both times were self defense, but I’m still technically a murderer. Murderess?” I laughed a little. “Is that still a word? Sounds like vocabulary from a 1930s detective novel. Miss Morell the Murderess.”

Nicole just waited, eyebrows raised.

“Alexander Lilburne … he deserved to die,” I said. “I have no doubts about that, but it still … I still think about it sometimes. But the first one, he was just some guy, some cult henchman probably just as abused and bullied as Kimberly. I just panicked. I wanted him off me. I wanted him gone. Pure instinct. And I didn’t pull the trigger myself, but he’s dead. He’s absolutely dead and that’s my fault and it didn’t have to happen.”

Nicole gave me a moment. She didn’t rub my back or purr sweet excuses to me, like Raine would have. Eventually, when I straightened back up and could look her in the eye again, she just said, “self defense.”

Somehow, that helped. I shrugged.

“I get the impression it’s not the same for your friends,” she said with a rueful smile.

Above us, a window rattled open. Lozzie’s elfin little face appeared, leaning out from the second floor, a frowning sprite caught in dusken colours. One of Tenny’s tentacles snaked out over her shoulders.

“Don’t talk to the coppers!” she called down to me.

“L-Lozzie?” I gaped, suddenly laughing.

She turned her serious little frown on Nicole and stuck her tongue out, then grabbed Tenny’s stray tentacle, pulled her back inside, and slammed the window shut. The curtain flicked back into place a second later.

“Um,” Nicole said.

But I was laughing. I was laughing so bad I was almost crying, dabbing at my eyes with my sleeve. “Oh, oh I needed that. I needed that so much. How did she know I needed that?”

“Yeah, um, was that a huge black tentacle behind her?”

“Yes. It’s fine, that’s- that’s somebody else, don’t worry.”

“Oh-kay,” Nicole said, very much not okay. “You alright there?”

“Yes, yes thank you. I just needed a … a laugh, I suppose.” I took a deep breath, finally able to answer Nicole’s question. “My friends, well. Raine is … ah, well, you know. But Evelyn, she’s not a casual murderer at all, that’s not true.”

“She’s paranoid.” Nicole spoke as if she knew the signs. “Or worse. That whole performance in there on the doormat. What would have happened if Sarika wasn’t clean or whatever?”

“I would have stopped it all.”

“Exactly. And if you weren’t there? If you were sick in bed with flu? Or sitting on the toilet? Would she have killed Sarika?”

“I don’t know. I admit, I don’t know. I think it would hurt her in a way she couldn’t deal with, and that’s why it’s good that I’m here.”

“Damn right it is.” Nicole cleared her throat and visibly switched tracks. “So come on, what is this all about? You can spill the beans to me, what happened with this Joshua guy you’re looking for?”

“ … magic and all? Lozzie did just give me some good advice.”

“Magic and all. I’m here, Heather, I’m already arse deep, and not as a police officer anymore. I picked some of it up back there, the gist, but … ”

Blow by blow, as best I could, I told Nicole what had happened on Saturday night, about the revenant, the three-in-one man, and how he’d eventually run off into the dark Sharrowford streets with Zheng on his tail. As I spoke, the sun dipped almost fully below the horizon. Night wind crept beneath my hood, and it was only by the light spilling from the house’s windows that I could see Nicole’s deepening frown as I came to a conclusion.

“So now Evelyn wants to find out where he is,” I said. “What he’s up to. I suppose.

“Hold on. Rewind for me a sec.” Nicole raised one hand. “This guy, from what you’ve just told me, he never actually did anything to any of you. Zheng got hurt by accident. He took his notepad back, and then he never touched you. I guess he punched Zheng, but, who cares about that, she could shrug off a train.”

“He did magic. He cast a spell, at me.”

Nicole shrugged. “With Zheng bearing down on him? About to, I don’t know, eat his face off? That sounds like justifiable self defence.”

“Oh, thank you very much for being on my side, Nicky. He could have killed me.”

“I’m trying to be objective here. And the spell didn’t even do anything to Zheng, right? Maybe it was a warning shot. You think of that?”

“And he knew things. Things about us. He … what he said about Zheng, what that implied, that’s not forgivable, he-”

“He hoodwinked you. You just said, Heather, you can’t be certain if he really was what he pretended to be. So what now, Evelyn’s gonna hunt him down and kill him? He ran from you lot, disengaged, deescalated. Smart guy, if you ask me. He bugged out and he’s not been back to bother you. And now you and Evelyn and Raine are gonna press Sarika for a way to find this guy?”

“Not necessarily. I don’t want it to be like that, it doesn’t … it doesn’t have to be. But … he’s a mage … he … he’d drawn the Eye … he’s dangerous. Evelyn always says that … that … ”

“Forget the stupid wizard bullshit for a sec, yeah? Imagine this is just a guy. If your friends in there get their hands on him, they’ll kill him. Or try to. Does he deserve that? He left, he got out, and in my professional opinion he avoided hurting any of you who couldn’t take it.”

“He might!” I blurted out.

Nicole didn’t even have to look unimpressed. She just tilted her head.

“He might do. He might … oh.” I put my face in my hand, sighed, squeezed my eyes closed. “Oh damn you, detective. Damn you.”

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14 thoughts on “by this art you may contemplate – 10.8

  1. Lol we all know he’ll come back do to narrative reasons because a character wouldn’t just be introduced just to F-off elsewhere. But if that actually is the case, I would actually love this serial much more than I already do.

      • or returned in a capacity that is neither enemy nor surprise ally, that works too.

        Subverting expectations sometime is nice and it would be character development for Evelyn to handle the idea of another mage in HER town not actually having anything to do with her at all beyond being a neighbour.

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