water of the womb – 12.2

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“What sort of desperate idiot would stick his dick in you?” Raine asked Amy Stack.

I winced and let out a sigh. Perhaps not the most diplomatic opening salvo to get Stack to open up again, but under the circumstances I found it difficult to blame Raine for getting some light psychological revenge. At least she was smiling.

Evelyn was less understanding. I caught her rolling her eyes.

“Like screwing a rat trap filled with broken glass and acid,” Raine went on. “Wouldn’t risk my fingers with you, girl, I wouldn’t get ‘em back. Or hey, who am I to judge? Maybe he was into the whole ‘Eastern European mercenary stuck in a prefab bunker for twelve months’ look you’ve got going on.” She held up thumb and forefinger as if framing Stack for a photo-shoot. “A real romantic epic, straight from the Donbass basin.”

Stack declined the bait, staring back in affectless silence.

“Stop taking your pain out on her,” Evelyn grumbled. “It’s easy, it feels good, and it doesn’t solve anything. Trust me.”

Raine turned in her chair and flashed a grin. “Who said anything about pain? I’ve got enough tramadol in me to kill a bull elephant. I am flying, Evee. Never better!”

Evelyn returned a look of such blank disbelief she could have given Stack a run for her money.

“Liar liar,” Praem sang.

“Seriously!” Raine insisted a little too hard, turning left and right and over her shoulders, to include me and even Zheng, lounging against the cellar’s back wall, in her unconvincing performance. “The painkillers work great, I’m fine. I’m only having a sit down for a proper chat with our guest here, face to face. I’m doing just fine. Fine. Don’t you worry about me, Stack.” She winked at Amy. “Word of advice, use bigger bullets next time, hey?”

Raine did not look fine. She hadn’t looked fine all morning. Swaddled in a big fluffy grey dressing gown, with dark bags under her eyes, and a pinched tightness in her face, she mostly looked exhausted.

She was the only one of us sitting down. Except for Stack.

“Raine,” I scolded gently. I was standing behind her, trying to rub the unfamiliar tension out of her shoulders.

Her grin turned into a grimace, at Stack.

“Alright. Alright, yeah,” Raine gave up. “It hurts like a red-sore whipped bitch. Hasn’t stopped aching since the morphine wore off overnight. Constipated ‘cos of the drugs. And I can’t take a shower, which sucks big fat hairy donkey balls. You ever been shot before, Stack? Know what it feels like?”

As she spoke, Raine gripped the jagged machine of black metal which lay in her lap – Stack’s gun.

She’d brought the thing down here to the cellar, laid it across her thighs like a pet cat as she’d sat down to face Amy, and I didn’t pretend to understand why. We couldn’t threaten Stack with it, and according to Raine it was out of bullets anyway. Stack had saved one for herself and then put it through Raine’s leg instead. We’d found spare magazines in her military-style webbing, but they were empty, used up in panic back in Carcosa.

But I wasn’t about to critique Raine’s emotional processing of her bullet wound. Unless she got unhealthy – and Evelyn had already called her out on that – she could carry the gun around for a week, or take it apart and eat it, or sleep with it for all I cared. If that helped.

Raine lifted the gun off her lap with one hand, pointed it at Stack, and squeezed the trigger on an empty chamber – click.

I pulled a face, but said nothing. Evelyn tutted.

Stack’s level gaze ignored the gun and travelled down, to Raine’s left thigh, to the spot Raine kept unconsciously touching when she wasn’t paying attention. The dressing was a vague bulge beneath fluffy robe and pajama bottoms.

“Waterproof tape and a plastic bag,” Stack said to the hidden wound. “Good enough for a shower.”

Raine lowered the gun and raised her eyebrows. “You serious?”

“Worked for me.”

Raine laughed through her grin, shaking her head. A real laugh. She was incapable of that bitter lack of humour which anybody else would probably have shown to a person who had shot them yesterday. Bizarre, perhaps, but her laugh made my guts unclench.

“Guess that answers my question,” she said.

“Great,” Evelyn grumbled. “I’m so glad you two have established something in common.”

Raine balanced the gun upright, resting the stock – according to her that is the technical name for the bit your put against your shoulder – against her good thigh as she gripped the ‘barrel shroud’ – another technical term I could happily have never learnt – and gazed upon the collection of black lines and shaped metal like it was an object of transcendent beauty. She sighed and shook her head, almost sadly.

“Bet you weren’t shot with a gun like this though,” she said. “I am not in good company on the business end of this thing, am I?”

Her admiration for the killing machine made me vaguely uncomfortable.

“It’s just a gun, Raine,” I said.

Raine twisted to look at me over her shoulder, a rakish grin bursting through the chronic ache around her eyes. “Just a gun? Just a gun? Heather, I’ve been shot with a genuine antique, let me have this.”

“Oh great, here we go,” Evelyn muttered.

“What?” I blinked down at the twinkle in Raine’s eyes. “Do I … do I want to know?”

“Unless I am very much mistaken, this here is a Sten submachine gun,” said Raine. “A mark two maybe, though more likely three, considering we heard her fire off, what? Two whole mags on full auto without a jam? Which means it’s sixty years old, at least. Maybe older! This little gun may have started life being pointed at actual card-carrying Nazis. How cool is that?”

I blinked at the gun, then at the pleasure in Raine’s face, and did my best to share her strange glee. “Um … well, that’s something to brag about, at least?”

“This machine kills fascists!” Raine laughed. “Maybe that’s why it couldn’t get me, huh?”

“Fetishism saves no warrior,” Zheng rumbled.

“Ahhhh, come off it big girl.” Raine grinned at her. “Let me have my fun.” She turned back to Stack. “Where the hell did you get this anyway, rob a museum?”

Stack stared back, unmoved.

“Seriously,” Raine carried on. “I’m not looking to rumble your criminal contacts or whatever, I’m just dying to know. Does the Imperial War Museum have some inventory missing or what?”

As if she couldn’t be bothered, Stack looked at the firearm. She opened her mouth with a tiny sigh. “The weapon is ex-IRA. Decommissioned.”

Somehow she managed to make the word sound sarcastic without changing the tone of her voice. A good trick, if you can manage it.

“ … fuck me,” muttered Raine, and glanced at the gun again, much more sober now.

“Great. Doubly illegal,” said Evelyn. “The gun shouldn’t even exist.”

“What?” Raine looked up, a little manic around the eyes. “No, Evee, you don’t get it. This is the coolest thing I have ever gotten my hands on. With the exception of Heather, ‘course.”

“Raine,” I tutted. Evelyn rolled her eyes.

Raine laughed again, laid the gun back across her lap, and shook her head at Stack. “Ex-IRA weapons and mercenary for a monster. Does your little boy know what mummy does for work? Can’t believe you’ve got a kid, Stack. You must make a terrible mother.”

“That’s why he lives with his father,” Stack said.

Raine, Evelyn, and I all shared a surprised look. Zheng let out a thoughtful, rumbling purr from where she lounged against the wall behind us, a sleepy tiger in the dark. Only Praem didn’t react, standing guard a few paces to Stack’s side.

That was the most Amy had opened up again since last night.

After she’d confessed to me that Edward Lilburne ‘had’ her little boy, her son, her child – whatever that actually meant – Amy Stack had clammed up again. As if compensating for a mistake, she’d closed down dropped back into her impassive, stony, affectless exterior, no matter what I’d said to her. And I had said some rather extreme things – mostly promises of help, half-formed questions, bewildered pleas, exhausted sighs.

But she’d responded to nothing, except to say, “Go to bed, Morell.”

So I had. I’d checked with Zheng that she didn’t need to sleep – “Pleasure, but not need, shaman. My muscles and memory are fuelled differently to you monkeys.” Then I’d crept out of the cellar, back into the light, to find Praem and Lozzie waiting for me in the kitchen, Lozzie half-asleep and Praem ready to carry her to bed.

We’d gone to sleep. I’d snatched a few hours.

Raine had woken early. The dull pain in her thigh had kept her from further rest, despite her valiantly stupid protests to the contrary. I’d helped her downstairs in the wee hours of the morning, helped her swallow painkillers and carefully noted down the time and the dose and when she was allowed more.

But sleep had not returned. My lover had a bullet wound closed by eleven stitches, and tramadol was not morphine.

I’d seen those stitches up close, earlier that morning. Raine had put up a token resistance as I’d examined the How to care for your surgical wound pamphlet and begun cutting dressing and gauze to the length specified in the doctors’ instructions, but I’d shushed her with a frown and a tut. She’d obediently sat on the bed and allowed me to peel off the bandage, pull back the cotton wool and gauze, soaked with a patch of slow-oozing blood, and reveal the wound.

Two ugly, jagged, red lines of damaged flesh, puffy and irritated, surprisingly close together, closed with thick dark thread through Raine’s soft skin. She hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d called it a flesh wound. The bullet had barely grazed her, passing through her thigh at an angle – but even these little things were messier than I was expecting, these little holes that had made her bleed so much.

I had to very carefully stop thinking about Raine’s physical fragility, and concentrate on applying the prescribed antibiotic ointment. Raine gritted her teeth against the sudden sting, and waited patiently for me to cushion her in gauze and bandage once more. She’d leaned heavily on her unfamiliar crutch when moving around, kept unconsciously reaching for her thigh, and grinned through the grinding pain of a slow-healing wound.

I’d told her about Stack. We’d gone downstairs, found Evelyn eating breakfast with Praem sitting on the other side of the table, and told her too.

And now, very early in the morning on a dreary Sharrowford Sunday, with dozing streets and low sky like a leaded ceiling, with thickly cold air rustling the branches of the tree in the back garden, with the old iron radiators putting up a final last stand against the straggling ladders of spring, we had all descended into the cellar to question Amy Stack.

All but those of us still sleeping. I’d checked on Lozzie, snuggled up beneath her bed covers like a beaver in a dam, sleeping off the lasagna. Tenny had joined her after Raine had woken up. Evelyn assured us Twil was a late riser. I didn’t ask which bed the werewolf was in.

The cellar was no more welcoming by day. Even with the door wide open, precious little sunlight reached down into the deep.

Stack saw our reaction and shut her mouth again, as if she realised she’d said too much.

“Lives with his father? Your baby-daddy’s still alive?” Raine asked with wide-eyed mock-shock. “Well blow me down with a feather, I didn’t expect that. Woman like you should have eaten him after, like a spider does. Lemme guess, he had to tie you up during the act, while you were turned on, so you didn’t cannibalise him in the afterglow? Was he into that? Bit of a freak? Takes all sorts, I guess.”

“He is a good man,” said Stack, level and affectless.

I had to suppress a cough of surprise.

“Oh yeah?” Raine shot back, still grinning. “What counts as ‘good’ in your books, Amy? Deft hands with a executioner’s axe? Body count in the low triple-digits? Blind and limbless?”

“He knows nothing about what I do,” Stack replied. “He is not involved in our world. He is of no interest to you. If you take his location from my mind, do not harass him or hurt him.”

“Or what?” Raine asked.

Stack had no reply to that.

“Amy?” I spoke up from over Raine’s shoulder. “What’s your little boy’s name?”

Stack looked at me, stone-cold empty.

“Ahhh come on,” Raine joined in. “If we’re gonna go in swinging and rescue your kid, we need to know what name to call.”

Stack flexed beneath her clothes and the ropes binding her to the chair, and I realised that she’d bristled, the closest I’d seen to her expressing honest, open anger.

“I am not afraid of you or your polycule-” she said.

“Polycule?” I blurted out, bewildered.

“-and neither is mister Lilburne,” she finished.

Raine was laughing and I didn’t understand why.

“We are not a ‘polycule’,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Are we not?” Praem sang, and Evelyn turned a frown on her – though more delicately than I had ever seen her do so before.

“You people have a tendency to collect others,” Stack said. “You will not add me.”

“We don’t want you,” Evelyn said, quick and nasty.

“Yeah, hey, don’t flatter yourself,” Raine agreed, tamping down her laughter. “We haven’t yet ruled out putting you in a shallow grave.”

“Raine,” I hissed under my breath, though there was no hope of Stack not hearing. “I told you, we are not carrying out a cold-blooded execution here. Absolutely not.”

“She’d do it to us, Heather,” Raine countered. “She will, if we give her the chance.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted.

“We might have to,” Raine said, no longer laughing at all.

I ran a hand over my face and tried to regain control of the situation. “But … but not yet. Alright. Okay. Amy, we- you know we-”

“William,” said Stack.

“ … William?” I echoed, blinking at her – but she was staring back at Raine, focused and intense. “That’s his name? That’s very … traditional. A very noble sort of name?”

“After the fuckin’ prince?” Raine scoffed at her. “Didn’t take you for the type, Stack. Royalist and psycho? You got any redeeming features at all?”

“William Stack, then?” I asked, gently.

“William Selani Yousafzai,” said Amy.

Not a trace of gentleness in her voice, like she was reading off a target list.

Raine whistled, raising her eyebrows. “Hell of a name. Bit difficult to believe you’d-”

“English first name,” said Stack – with a touch of actual defiance in her voice, a hidden blade. “Father’s family name. Easier that way.”

Raine put her hands up. “Hey, I didn’t mean to imply-”

“William Yousafzai,” I echoed. “Unique, wow, yes, um-”

“There are very few ways to make me angry, Haynes,” Stack spoke calmly, over both of us. “Keep going and find out.”

“Why you?”

Evelyn’s question cut across all of us, with the tone of an adult tired of listening to children argue over the rules of a made up game.

Stack did Evelyn the courtesy of making eye contact, though didn’t answer. A cold, lizard-stare, locked in place, unblinking.

“I have looked into the eyes of a demon living inside my own body,” Evelyn told her. “You are not intimidating. Answer the question. Why you?”

“Why me what?”

“There’s plenty of thugs out there willing to do violence for money,” said Evelyn. “And stupid enough to walk through a gateway to Outside. It doesn’t take child kidnapping to convince a warm body to point a gun at something they don’t understand. What’s so special about you?”

“Oh, right,” Raine said under her breath. “Yeah Stack, why you?”

“Experience,” Zheng purred.

Stack looked at Zheng, then at the rest of us one by one, then settled back on Raine. Her natural foe, something like herself.

“There are very few people in this country capable of putting together a team of skilled operators, on short notice,” Stack said.

“Operators?” Raine echoed, laughing. “Listen to you, with this Call of Duty bollocks.”

“I have the contacts to do that,” Stack went on. “Certain people I used to work with trust me to be honest.”

“And were you?” I asked, suddenly and darkly fascinated. “Who was the man we saw die, back in Carcosa?”

“Not a cultist. He knew the risks, signed up for the pay.” Stack made eye contact with me and I shuddered inside. “Mister Lilburne wanted a team to go out there and collect certain books. I told them all the truth, about what we were walking into. I … ” her voice faltered, as if confused. “Tried to. They did not handle exposure well. But everyone with me in the … library,” her voice stalled again, “was a competent professional who understood what they were getting into.”

“No they didn’t,” I said.

“ … no, they didn’t,” she said quietly, after a moment.

“You’ll get no forgiveness from me,” I told her. “Not for that.”

Incredibly, Stack lowered her gaze from mine, and looked at the floor.

“Who on earth are you, Stack?” Raine asked, fascination shining in her voice. “Where’d you come from? Ex-military? Organised crime? Professional mercenaries with back channels to continuity IRA groups aren’t exactly common-and-garden critters, not in these here green and pleasant isles, if you know what I mean?”

Stack stared at her, stone-cold again. “Do you have a mobile phone on you?”

“Sure. Not gonna let you make a call though. We’re not playing by those rules.”

“Do a google search for ‘TCAS International Advisory Group.’”

Raine pulled a sceptical, amused frown, but I was curious, and squeezed her shoulder in silent encouragement. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and thumbed the screen open, doing as Stack had asked.

“Ignore the first two results,” Stack said as Raine typed. “Third should be a newspaper article. Morning Star.”

“Morning Star it is, good taste,” Raine murmured, frowning down at the screen as she scrolled, as we both realised what we were looking at. “Fifth result though, not third.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “World forgets us quickly.”

Raine opened the article – with that distinctive red banner along the top I’d seen on her phone before – and read the title out loud. “‘Westminster concealing funds to private military companies in Helmand Province.’ August third, two-thousand ten.”

“There’s a picture,” Stack said. “Scroll down.”

Raine scrolled down.

In the middle of the article, as an eyecatch for the inattentive reader, was a photograph of a place on the other side of the world.

Soaked in baking sunlight from a sky of iron-hammered blue, shrouded in that mantle of wind-teased dust which I remembered on television news from when I was a child, a group of about a dozen people stood facing the camera. They looked half like ramshackle robots, half like an amateur football team, and all terrifying. Gathered around some kind of dun-brown armoured transport, some pulled cocky show-off smiles, some were grim behind mirrored shades, some sported helmets, some wore bushy beards. All of them were white, all of them carried webbing and over-complex black-and-dun rifles, nothing like the ancient lump of metal on Raine’s lap, modern things with sights and plastic stocks like over-designed kitchenware. Between body armour and camo-print and makeshift head-scarves and the way they were festooned with guns, none of them wore anything that could be mistaken as a uniform.

A caption below read: ‘Private contractors caught celebrating in a candid moment, somewhere in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Passed anonymously to our sources by one of the men pictured.’

The group contained two women. One stood at the back. She was looking off to the left as if she’d just seen something, through wraparound shades beneath the shallow peak of a camo-print helmet. In her arms was some kind of long-barrelled rifle with a funny wide bit at the end. She wore a flinty, affectless expression, unmistakable even at the grainy resolution of a phone camera circa two thousand and ten.

“Oh,” I breathed.

“Let me guess,” Evelyn drawled, not bothering to lean over to look at Raine’s phone. “She’s in the picture?”

“Uh huh,” Raine grunted, and raised her eyes to Amy, cold in a way I had not often seen Raine cold before. “You were an actual PMC soldier. A real-life merc’. The real thing. Fucking Afghanistan?”

“I never fired on civilians,” said Stack. “Never murdered anybody who wasn’t already trying to kill us.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” Raine shot back, not laughing. “Wasn’t me, guv’, just a few bad apples, please don’t convict me of war crimes your honour sir. Shit, Stack, I think I will shoot you.”

“Raine,” I hissed, but my heart was going too fast. We’d lost control somewhere.

“It was not a few bad apples,” Stack said, slow and level and unconcerned. “I was in an operational unit.”

“Cut the clean speak,” Raine said, the confrontation sharp in her voice. “What does that mean? Tip of the spear?”

Stack nodded. “The company – TCAS, Tactical Command and Security – was mostly hot air. They brought in under trained staff from sub-Saharan Africa, paid them ten pounds a day to guard stuff for civilian contractors, stuff the army didn’t have the manpower for. But we were the real thing. Most of the men were ex-military, enjoyed it too much, should never have been allowed to hold a gun again. South Africans, some Russians, couple of Americans. We babysat local politicians, dug out agitators, sometimes went into situations the army did not wish to be seen in. They kept the official MOD photographers away from us. Yes, I saw war crimes. I am under no illusions.”

“How long were you there?” Raine asked.

“Two thousand eight, for most of the year. Went back in twenty ten, stayed three years without leaving. I learnt to be what I am. Made a lot of contacts. Which is why mister Lilburne needed me specifically.”

Raine was shaking her head. “Why not just join the army, hey? You really wanted to go shoot-”

“The army treats women like shit,” said Stack. “The army doesn’t put women in combat roles. Fighting was the only thing I was ever good at. The only thing which gave me purpose. And I wasn’t going to rot on a council estate for the rest of my life.”

It sounded like a justification, an excuse – or a reason. But Stack’s low, affectless voice gave us nothing to work with, nothing at all.

Raine tilted her head as if considering Stack from a different angle.

“Shoot me and get rid of me, Haynes,” Stack was saying, calm and easy. “I am exactly what you assume I am. Shoot me. Get it over with.”

Raine laughed again and shook her head. “And your son’s got an Afghani surname? What, you bring back a piece of exotic man-meat as a souvenir?”

Before that last word had even exited Raine’s mouth, Stack jerked forward in her seat, face a mask of burning stone, and strained against the ropes in a sudden spasm of undeniable anger.

I flinched and yelped as she almost got to her feet. Praem was on her in a split-second, hand on Stack’s head, pushing her back down so the chair-legs clacked against the cellar flagstones.

“Stay,” Praem intoned.

“Oh my goodness,” I heaved out a panting breath and hiccuped, loudly.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled – at my shoulder, making me jump a second time. She’d moved forward too, as if to sweep me up at the first sign of danger.

“I’m fine, I’m fine-” I lied.

“Still feel like dying, Stack?” Raine asked, very quietly. “Or have I finally pissed you off too much?”

Amy Stack did not answer. Her affectless look burned inside with naked flame. Raine had succeeded in making her exceptionally angry.

“Raine, there’s no need to be insensitive,” I managed, tutting. “Not … racially, not like that. I thought better of you, really.”

Raine had the good grace to flash a sheepish wince back at me. “Ahh, I didn’t really mean it. Wanted to see if she cares about anything except money and her own genetic offspring. Didn’t expect to hit the mark.”

“His name is Shuja.” Stack spoke unprompted, voice tight with something akin to anger. “He was a combat interpreter. And they were going to leave him behind to die.”

“Who?” Raine asked.

“All of them. The company. The army. The government. He was there when I needed somebody to watch my back, to shoot one of my own men. And I got him out, got him here, got him proper citizenship. I paid my debt. Do not make it sound perverse. Do not look down on him.”

Raine let out a sigh, shaking her head in amazement.

I felt totally out of my depth. Amy Stack came from a world I couldn’t even calibrate my thoughts to process, let alone coherently judge.

Suddenly, Zheng purred a soft question from behind me.

Kawal ta muhabbat yee, kakay geedarha?

Stack stared at her, unsurprised. “Your grammar is terrible. He would correct you.”

“Did you, little fox?”

Stack almost shrugged. I saw her shoulders twitch. “No.”

“Alright, Amy,” Raine said with a sigh. “You’ll never catch me saying this again, but I apologise. For that and that only, mind you. Just trying to press your buttons, see if you had any.”

Stack stared back at Raine. “Shoot me.”

The cellar descended into uncomfortable silence. I looked over at Evelyn, standing there leaning on her walking stick, lost in deep thought behind a craggy frown. She caught me looking and caught my eye, and pulled a resigned smile.

“We need that book, Heather,” she said.

“Do we?” I asked. “Isn’t there some way we can do without it?”

Evelyn shook her head, sighed, and shifted her weight on her walking stick. “I’ve looked over the other two. We have a treasure trove there, indeed. But to make a true Invisus Oculus, according to what little I do know, will require certain formulae which other books reference as being in The Testament of Heliopolis. And we’re not walking in through Wonderland’s front door with a half-baked approximation. We’re not even sneaking in through the back without the full thing, tested and certain. I can make us invisible to the Eye, I think. But only if I have the resources.”

I nodded, a lump in my throat, and glanced back at Amy Stack, who was locked in a intense, silent staring match with Raine. Both of them ignored us. Like cats.

“I’m exhausted, Heather,” Evelyn went on before I could gather my thoughts. “We all are. Frankly, we all need a good rest. A few weeks with no bullshit, where nothing much happens. This last week, not to mention yesterday … ” She shook her head and cleared her throat with a grumble. “Raine’s wounded, I’m … well, me. The last thing I want to be doing right now is organising a mage’s war against Edward Lilburne. I’d much rather spend the next three days taking Praem shopping for clothes.”

“Please,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn cleared her throat and nodded vaguely, but then gestured at Stack. “But we cannot keep her in our cellar for long.”

“I am a problem for you,” Stack said out loud, as if talking to Raine. “Shoot me. Take what I know, and shoot me.”

“What if we solve the problem with her little boy and-” I tried.

“We need that book,” Evelyn repeated, staring holes through Stack.

“ … I can take what she knows from her mind,” I said around the lump in my throat.

“Do it,” Stack said.

“No,” Evelyn mused. “No, Heather, I don’t think you can.”

“Evee?”

“She doesn’t know where Edward Lilburne is,” Evelyn said.

With the slow reluctance of a predator dismissing a rival only to discover its territory had been breached by something so much worse than another creature like itself, Stack broke eye contact with Raine and looked up at Evelyn.

“Oho?” went Raine. “Evee, what’s this?”

Evelyn sucked her teeth in thought as she stepped forward toward Stack. Past Raine’s chair, past minimum safe distance, into what would have been Stack’s personal space if she wasn’t tied down. Praem moved to stand at her shoulder but Evelyn gently waved the doll-demon back with her free hand, totally focused on Amy.

“Saye,” said Stack.

“You know as well as we do,” Evelyn began, slow and measured and unruffled, but tired in every syllable. “The only way to make certain your little boy is safe is killing Edward. If you knew where Edward was, you would have told us, as soon as possible. Your best hope is for us to get rid of him, quickly, before he has time to think about where you might be.” Evelyn sighed. “But you didn’t. You want us to do it, but you can’t throw in with us, because that means committing to finding him, and he has leverage over you, so if that goes wrong then a decision you made gets your boy hurt. If we let you go, you’ll have to slink back to him, and explain why we’re all still alive, which might get your boy hurt. If you’re dead, you have no responsibility. You’re trying to take the only way out that doesn’t make it your fault if your kid dies.”

Stack stared back, face a stone-cold mask. “ … I do know where-”

“You’re a soldier, not a strategist,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t try to keep up with me.”

To my amazement, Stack visibly swallowed, throat bobbing. “Shoot me.”

“No,” Evelyn said, unimpressed. “Come out of your stupid corner and take responsibility.”

“ … I don’t know where mister Lilburne is,” Stack said. “Everything was done by intermediaries, and over the phone. The doorway to that library dimension was in a suburban house out in Coltmere village, but we had to bring all the equipment on-site ourselves. There was a man there I’d never met before, an older gentleman who opened the gate for us. Had instructions to destroy it afterward and move all the equipment. The books were to be passed to his lawyer. I don’t know where Lilburne’s been operating from. I have a phone number memorised by which I contact a middleman. Mister Lilburne would then leave messages for me, on my phone, from a protected number. Now I’m here. I’m out of the loop.”

“Thank you,” Evelyn said, dripping sarcasm.

“I know nothing. I am useless. Shoot me.”

“How do we know any of that’s the truth?” I asked. “Not that I wish to disbelieve you, Amy, but … well … you are … um-”

“She’s not lying,” Raine said softly.

“Shoot me. Have Zheng eat me. Send me … send me Beyond. Get rid of me,” Stack said again, and the chill in her voice hurt to hear.

Evelyn gave her a look, and I could see she was seriously considering the option.

“No,” I spoke up. “We’re not killing anybody if we can avoid it. Cold-blooded execution is a step we can’t come back from, and I cannot believe I am having to say that out loud. Evee, no.”

“She is a liability,” Evelyn murmured. “Until Edward is dead, she is a liability. And what do we do with her in the meantime, hm? She’s a human being. She needs to eat and drink and take a shit now and again. Are we going to have Zheng brush her teeth for her while we keep her tied up down here? What if it takes weeks for us to find Edward?”

“Then weeks is what it takes,” I said, groping for justification.

Evelyn shot me a sidelong frown. “Have you forgotten what this woman is, Heather? Who she helped? Who she worked for?”

“Not for a second,” I said, and managed to keep the quiver out of my voice. “She is a monster, yes. She deserves trial and conviction, for … for everything with Alexander, at the very least. For whatever part she had in all those dead people. But she’s harmless to us like this, and I refuse to kill a person in cold blood. And I won’t have either of you do it.” I glanced back at Zheng. “And don’t even offer. We are not for this, we can’t be judges and executioners like that. The cost to ourselves is too high.”

Evelyn tutted. “As you’ve said before.”

“This is the same problem as with Sarika.”

“Sarika isn’t dangerous anymore,” Evelyn drawled.

“I will do as you need, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “But this fox will not lie still in the trap. Quicker to snap her neck.”

Raine laughed a single, humourless laugh and shook her head.

“I think-” I spoke up and hiccuped. “I think I am about to be outvoted. Aren’t I?”

Stack closed her eyes in acceptance. She’d come to the same conclusion.

“We’re not killing her,” Raine said, very quietly.

“What?” Evelyn frowned back at her in surprise.

Raine shrugged and flashed a strange grin. “Executive decision. I’m with Heather on this. Plus, hey, if we can find her kid, that solves it, right?”

“Have you taken leave of your senses, Raine? No, it must be the painkillers, of course, I never thought you were a … ” Evelyn trailed off, eyes distant. I could practically see the light bulb going on in her head. “Yes,” she whispered. “That’s how we’re going to play this.”

“Save the kid, win her over?” Raine asked. “Evee, I’m tending toward mercy for Heather’s sake-”

“Well, thank you,” I tutted.

“-but Stack here is still a psycho, that’s not gonna work.”

Evelyn tutted and shook her head. “There’s been no kidnapping. Rescue is not how we solve this.”

“Eh?” Raine frowned at her.

“Do keep up, Raine,” Evelyn huffed.

“I … Evee? Excuse me?” I blinked at Evelyn. “No kidnapping? She’s lying?”

“Kidnapping a child is a high-risk move, to put it extremely lightly,” Evelyn said, apparently willing to explain for me what earned Raine a condescending huff. “Too many parts of mundane society begin to notice when a child goes missing. Well, as long as that child isn’t already homeless or vulnerable or fallen through the cracks. School, police, social services. Slow machinery, but it does move, eventually. That’s why my mother kept me strictly off the books.” Evelyn pulled a grimace. “If Edward is not stupid – and I don’t think he is – he wouldn’t even outsource something like this. A smart strategist is not going to legally implicate himself with a kidnapping case, even at arm’s length, not with anybody who might roll on him if the police catch up.”

“What if Eddy’s actually a twat?” Raine asked.

Evelyn completely ignored her. “And I can find a mundane missing person, if they’re within about a hundred miles. I have the necessary spells, it’s not hard, assuming we can get a sample of hair, maybe from a pillow, or a nail clipping, or any other cast-off piece of body.”

She looked back down at Stack.

“It would be an extraordinarily stupid move,” she went on. “It would lead us right to him, or whatever legal or extra-legal appendage he’s using. So, Stack, if I offer to find your son, what do you tell me?”

“He has my little boy,” Stack repeated, with a note of horror and defeat creeping into her voice, a hollow sound that made my heart ache, even for this monster. “But it’s not a kidnapping.”

“Bingo. Do share, that’s a good girl,” Evelyn drawled.

Stack stared back, silence.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Fine. If I offer to protect your son, under my auspices, me, Evelyn fucking Saye,” she said with relish, “with every piece of power I have at my disposal, what do you say, little thing?”

“Take the offer,” Praem intoned, softly.

“My boy and his father have an unwanted house guest,” Stack said. “I couldn’t get rid of it. Neither can you. The day after I tried, I got the first call from him, the request to come back in. The threat was obvious. Shoot me, and Edward might call it off.”

Evelyn turned to me with a smile of grim triumph. “And there’s the thread we pull to find the puppet master.”

“Shoot me.” Stack swallowed. “Please.”

==

Twenty-Seven Meadowfields Road was a squat and grimy two-story terraced house, in a row of similarly squat and grimy two-story terraced houses, set back from the potholed road itself behind a tiny bricked-in garden which had seen neither grass nor flower for many a year. Covered in awful 1960s flat cladding which looked like diseased sand peeled from a beach, punctuated by white plastic windowsills and black drain-piping and the alien spacecraft of a satellite television dish, it did not look like a very nice place to live.

A battered old compact car lurked half-up on the pavement. It was, after all, Sunday lunchtime.

Praem pulled Raine’s car to a stop on the opposite side of the road, and killed the engine with deft, efficient motions of her hands. Evelyn sat up and squinted through the passenger-side window, and the three of us in the back craned to see as well.

“His neighbours are probably at home,” Twil grunted, frowning and huffing and almost growling with how much she disliked this. “Gotta do this quiet like.”

“If anything requires making a lot of noise,” Evelyn said, “then we are not up to it. Not right now.”

“Speak for yourself, I’m ready to fight a bull,” Twil hissed.

“I don’t need my legs to pull a trigger,” Raine said.

“No gunfire,” Evelyn said through her teeth. “This is social work. If we have to remove something by force, best Heather does it.” Evelyn glanced at me, sandwiched between Raine and Twil in the back seat, and I shot her a nervous smile of acknowledgement.

“Good deeds,” Praem intoned.

Twil shook her head. “Can’t believe we left her alive when she didn’t know shit.”

In the end, Stack had given up the address without torture or hyperdimensional mind-rip. I suspected she knew this task was inevitable either way, and she’d rather we go into it with all the energy we could muster. I wasn’t certain if Evelyn had made her see sense, or if she had other plans once we were gone, but Zheng was still watching her, and I had complete faith in my giant beautiful zombie to keep Amy Stack firmly in that chair until we returned home. Then, well, we’d see.

Praem had driven us, a slightly risky decision considering she neither had a licence nor officially existed, but there was no way Raine was going to drive across Sharrowford with one functional leg. I was not privy to the details of clutch and brake and accelerator, but I was assured by Evelyn’s snippy comments that this would have been a bad idea. So Praem took the helm, and we went along for the short ride. She was careful, precise, and drove at a perfectly safe speed.

“She is an asset,” Evelyn said, still watching the house.

“She’s a fuckin’ psycho.” Twil elbowed the back of Evelyn’s seat and got a glare in return. “You can’t be serious, shut up.”

“We are going to ward this house to the gills. We’re going to ward the boy. This is my city, my territory, I am not having this happening to a child, not here. And it binds Stack to us. If I get rid of the ‘unwanted guest’ and then ward the house, then a threat to me is a threat to her child. She does care about more than money, and we can protect it better than she can.”

“Why bother?” Twil grumbled.

“Because if these strings don’t lead us back to Edward, then she will do, if properly motivated.” Evelyn glanced into the back seat, at me. “Anything, Heather?”

“I hate this idea as much as Twil,” I said. “Evee, when I said we shouldn’t kill her-”

“I mean, do you see anything?” Evelyn said, with infinite patience. “Let’s just get this part done. Then we can debate.”

I sighed and looked through the car windows again, to show willing. “Just regular spirit life. There’s … ”

A cross between a squid and a komodo dragon, scales reflecting grey sky like tiny mirrors, was basking on a nearby rooftop. At the far end of the street, a pack of things like jackals with faces like melted masks were playing some kind of physical game which involved rushing back and forth from each other. A twenty-foot figure of shadow and wings stood a few gardens down, staring up at the sky. Overhead, a whirligig spinning top of rippling flesh bobbed along on invisible currents, trailing thousand-foot tentacles behind it.

“Nothing important,” I finished.

“Right. Raine, make the call.”

Raine produced her mobile phone and brought up the personal number which Amy Stack had divulged. We hadn’t called ahead, in case other parties were listening in and decided to get here before us. She pressed the call button. Four rings, then the line connected.

“Hello?” I heard from the other end – a man’s voice with the faintest hint of a Pashto accent.

“Hello, good afternoon good sir,” Raine launched into her full-blown customer-service good-girl voice and shot a thumbs up at the rest of us. In any other situation I would have burst out laughing, it was so bizarre. I wondered where she’d learnt how to speak like that. “Am I speaking to mister Shuja Yousafzai?”

“Speaking,” the man replied, curious but wary. Even down the phone his voice was worn out and stretched thin. In one of the windows of number Twenty-Seven, a curtain twitched. “Who is this?”

“We’ve come about your pest problem,” Raine said, bright and happy, grinning wide.

“I’m sorry? I didn’t call anybody from any pest control company, I don’t understand. You must have a wrong-”

“Yeah, you don’t understand,” Raine spoke right over him. “An old comrade of yours sent us, to solve your pest control problem.”

Silence. A long, horrible moment of silence, during which I shared the cold shiver that must have come over the poor man inside that house, peering out of a crack in his curtains at a world that had sent a monster to haunt his son.

“Ah,” he breathed eventually. “The … pest. Yes. The pest problem. I will … I will come to the front door. I have a … I am armed, if you are … if you are not what you say you are. Show yourself, I will come to the door.”

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15 thoughts on “water of the womb – 12.2

    • Thank you for all the votes!!!

      There was originally a “who you gonna call?” joke in this chapter, but it sits in editing notes for now.

  1. Kidnapped Soldier of fortune in the basement, situation normal. Praem drives without a license, Heather is stressed.

    Also, from the outside I can see why informed strangers might think polycule. From the inside it’s not that kind of web serial… 🙂

  2. He’s going to be surprised when what comes to the door is a gaggle of young women: one with a cane, one on crutches, one petite, one still a teen, and…..Praem….more impressive, if he can even see her.

    I wouldn’t blame Amy Stack in this chapter if she was thinking she didn’t shoot Raine enough.

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