Raine and Zheng fought with everything they had, right down to the last sliver of crimson, and I couldn’t do a single thing to stop them.
They loved it. Body and soul, they both loved a good fight.
And to my complete lack of surprise, I loved watching them.
“You gotta learn to block air,” Raine said, grinning like mad. “You gotta start blocking air, ‘cos I’m gonna keep jumping in. Gonna keep jumping. In. On. You. Ha!”
“Rrrrrrr.” Zheng bared her teeth in a low growl. “Little wolf, I am going to be the one jumping on you.”
“Don’t announce your intentions, blockhead,” Raine shot back. “Then I can prep- oh! Yeah! Haha!” Raine got hit, hard. She rolled with the blows and came up laughing. “That’s more like it!”
“I learnt to feint in combat before your first recognisable ancestors dribbled down your great-great-great-grandmother’s thigh,” Zheng growled as she pressed the attack.
“Not like this you didn’t.”
Raine went quiet and focused. She dodged all of Zheng’s follow-up attacks, and used a technique I hadn’t witnessed yet, a ridiculous spinning jump which misdirected the target away from the arc of her knife.
Zheng went down, snapped her teeth in frustration, and hopped back up – only to lose the round to a tiny toe-jab.
“Unnhnnn,” she grunted, the closest she could get to graceful acknowledgement.
Raine raised both thumbs, and blew across them in the manner of an old west gunslinger blowing across the barrel of a six-shooter after a duel.
“Next time, little wolf,” Zheng rumbled, “I will pin you in the corner and tear your guts out. And I will use a different fighter.”
I sighed from below the action. “Is all the rudeness really necessary?”
Raine glanced down at me – spread across both their laps – with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. She was glowing with enjoyment, completely in her element, and my minor complaint felt like a reed before a hurricane, unworthy of being voiced. I was the luckiest girl in the entire world, to get to witness this up close and personal.
Then she reached down and goosed my side through my pink jumper.
“R-Raine!” I squeaked, trying to squirm away.
“Sorry, couldn’t help myself,” she laughed “And yes. Trash talk is an integral part of fighting game culture. Zheng and I, right now? We’re bonding. Ain’t we?”
Raine moved her elbow – her actual, physical elbow, in the real world of flesh and blood – about eight inches, to gently nudge Zheng in the side. Zheng allowed this liberty to pass without comment, which was true testimony to how far they’d come today.
“We are,” Zheng grunted, but sounded vaguely angry about it.
I sighed again and turned my eyes back to the television. With Raine’s victory, their temporary virtual battlefield was dissolving back into the character select screen, full of tiny cartoon portraits of various anime girls and boys and monsters and several combinations of all three.
“I suppose I wouldn’t know about that,” I said.
But then, that was the point; this was for them. Not me.
They’d been going at it now for half an hour, and unlike akarakish, this contest was not even remotely fair. Zheng had never so much as touched a video game before, let alone gone head-to-head against an experienced opponent. I’d breathed an actual audible sigh of relief when Raine had suggested video games, but Zheng had watched in cautious curiosity. Raine had turned on her laptop, hooked it up to the back of the television, and spooled out cables for a pair of controllers.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to use the console thingy?” I’d asked.
“Ah? Oh, this one isn’t on the console,” Raine answered.
“Can’t we play the alchemist game?” I’d blinked in confusion. This was a lot of material setup for a single video game. “The one with the … substantial bosom?”
“That’s not even two-player. Plus, this is special. Zheng’ll like it.”
She’d placed one of the two black controllers in Zheng’s waiting hands – the ‘better one’, she’d called it. “Without the sticky triangle button, but I can compensate for that.”
“You are disadvantaging yourself?” Zheng had rumbled, her narrowed eyes flicking across the controller buttons with intense interest.
“S’only fair. Least at first.”
Raine booted the game up and output the visuals from her laptop to the television, an apparently elementary trick that had me wide-eyed with surprise. I hadn’t known that was possible. I suppose she’d done it before for other things, but I probably hadn’t been paying attention to the specifics. She explained the basic notion of a fighting game, the concepts, terminology, button presses and moves – and not just to Zheng, though I was much slower on the uptake than Zheng.
“Let’s not muck about in practice mode. You can learn by whaling on me for real,” Raine said.
Within about thirty seconds they’d left me far behind with “invincibility frames” and “quarter circle forward”, “she’s a grappler” and “press three face buttons at once when you have heat.” Zheng only needed to see something once, hear an explanation once, and she was away. She was surprisingly dexterous with the controller too, far better than I’d expected, and she stopped needing to glance down at her hands within about five seconds. Better than my record at least, and I’d been playing much easier games too.
Learning by doing only lasted a couple of rounds, until Zheng stopped responding to Raine’s suggestions, and went for her unprompted.
“Wanna go for real? Got a choice?” Raine nodded at the character select screen. “I main Shiki here, but you might like that one, or her. They’re both up close and personal. Like you.”
“Who is this big man?” Zheng rumbled, as her selection hovered over the ‘big man’ in question.
“Shoots animals out of his body.”
“Mmmmm. Good,” Zheng purred, and they began.
They fought the first round without settling in for the long haul. Raine stood by the bed and Zheng still sat in the armchair, but by the third round Raine had sat down on the edge of the bed, and by the forth she’d scooted over next to me, legs crossed, intent and focused on the screen even when I thoughtlessly leaned against her back.
When Zheng lost for the fifth time, she stood up all at once with a growl between her teeth, huge and threatening in the confined space of our bedroom.
“Hey, don’t be a sore loser,” Raine told her with a warning tone in her voice. “You’re learning, you landed that combo on me, you-”
“You have gained a morale advantage, little wolf.” Zheng jerked her chin at me.
“O-oh!” I pulled away from Raine, blushing and surprised. “I didn’t mean to favour one of you over the other. I was just- it was- I was-”
Raine just laughed and ruffled my hair. “You need some motivational Heather too, hey? Climb aboard then.” Raine glanced at me. “If you don’t mind, of course?”
“N-not at all!” I squeaked, self-conscious at the attention all over again.
But my self-consciousness melted away like spring frost in gentle sunlight. Zheng joined us on the bed, and I silently thanked the Saye family tastes in bed frame sizes, because while she did have to scoot back a bit further, she fit quite comfortably alongside Raine, both of them cross-legged and focused as they started another round. I leaned on both their backs and watched over their shoulders for a while, the recipient of unexpected casual skinship between rounds or after another victory – Raine ruffling my hair, Zheng reaching back to rub me like a cat – but I slowly found myself drawn to the obvious conclusion, the one place I was supposed to be. With the possibility of sex banished for now, with Raine and Zheng truly invested and focused on the game, everything made so much more sense. I could do this, and it wasn’t embarrassing.
Well, it was a little bit embarrassing.
Unspoken, almost unthinking, entirely natural, I shed my pink-scaled hoodie like a protective skin no longer needed, and crawled around the front and into both of their laps.
Head nestled on Zheng’s thigh, legs draped over Raine’s lap, I watched them fight.
My inviolate realm had finally welcomed two others.
I understood vanishingly little of what either of them was actually doing, what any of the button presses meant, but I could follow the action on the screen readily enough, and the action on screen was very pretty – little animated two-dimensional characters beating each other up, sprouting claws, throwing knives, punching fire, baring fangs – even if I had no idea how any of it was being achieved.
I felt a little like a background bystander during a climactic fight scene in an anime show.
Lots of flashy moves and very impressive anime ladies, and not an overinflated bust-line in sight, but it all seemed a bit over the top to me, nothing like a real fight. Everybody involved should have been dead a dozen times over; one did not hit a concrete pavement and get one’s skull crushed by a pretty vampire lady and then bounce back to one’s feet as if nothing had happened. I sighed inside at the implication: I knew what a real fight looked like. Little Heather, terminal mess, can’t even dress herself without freaking out, knows intimately the reality of a life-or-death fight. What would my mother say?
Raine stuck with the one character she knew how to play at a high level of competence – a woman in a kimono, slashing a knife about, whose design I rather liked. She went easy as Zheng tried out different options, different play-styles, but she never gave Zheng the win for free. Raine always let her get a few hits in or try out all her moves, before making it clear who was still on top.
But somewhere between rounds ten and eleven, while I lay in both their laps and felt like a very lucky kitten with my skirt across Raine’s legs and my head in the gap between Zheng’s thigh and the warm flexing hardness of her abdominal muscles, Zheng surprised Raine.
She’d tried a few different characters by then – the ‘big man’, a teenage Japanese girl vampire, a sort of tiny comedic cat, and a mischievous maid who couldn’t possibly be further from Praem-like – but she settled on a madly grinning, evil-looking vampire lady, who was perhaps the entire reason Raine had selected the game in the first place. Her moves seemed very aggressive to me, big and wide and confident. Not unlike Zheng herself, perhaps.
Zheng used her to take a round off Raine, aggressive, unrelenting, and with a sliver of red left in her health bar.
“Woo!” But it was Raine who whooped at the end, and held up a hand.
“Victory, little wolf,” Zheng growled. “At last.”
Raine waggled her hand. “Don’t leave me hanging!”
“Mmmmm?” Zheng purred, tilting her head.
“Come on, up top,” Raine said.
Zheng blinked, once, slowly, like a lizard.
Raine narrowed her eyes and cracked a sharp grin. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what a high-five is. You’ve been hanging around wizards, not preserved in ice since the Mongols. You’re not Captain Caveman.”
Zheng maintained her quiet curiosity for a moment longer, pretending incomprehension. Had a win made her aggressive? Or was she toying with Raine as one cat might with another? Being so close to the minor confrontation but seeing it from below, down in her lap, made it almost comedic. My phantom limbs tried to poke her in the cheeks and forehead, more amused than concerned.
“No fighting,” I said – and my words emerged almost Lozzie-like, a tiny sing-song that made me blush and wiggle and hide behind a hand.
“Yeah, what she said.” Raine nodded down at me and squeezed one of my knees, stroking my leg through my white tights.
Zheng broke into an all-tooth grin at Raine, a dragon about to ask a difficult riddle of its lunch, and finally slapped her own massive palm against Raine’s hand.
“Ha!” She barked at Raine’s answering grin. “Another!”
“Sure thing,” Raine said. “You won’t win again though. I got you dialled in now.”
Zheng had been turning back to the screen, with one hand lowered toward my head to stroke my hair, but the confident bite in Raine’s tone made her freeze. I felt the sudden flow of tension in her muscles, the tightening of instinct, the sharpening of senses. Heavy dark eyes shot back to Raine, and a shiver of animal fear went through me.
It wasn’t a joke anymore.
“Little wolf,” she purred.
“Z-Zheng-” I murmured, but she ignored me.
Raine went tense too, still grinning, a dangerous twinkle in her eyes. “Now you take offence? That’s what it takes? A little bit of shit-talking?”
“Overconfidence does not suit you,” Zheng purred. She placed her controller down on the bed and leaned towards Raine, slowly easing closer and closer. She pulled her lips back to show all her teeth, a maw filled with daggers that made my stomach turn over with both excitement and fear. I twisted and fidgeted in her lap, instinct telling me to clear out of the way, love demanding I stay where I was.
Raine, incredibly, stood her ground, and withstood Zheng’s predatory attention with nought but a raised eyebrow.
“Dunno if you’ve checked recently,” she said. “But I don’t scare easy. Now, you wanna put some cash down, make this a money match, then I’ll be shitting myself.”
“N-no fighting, please … ” I squeaked.
“I don’t think we’re fighting,” Raine murmured, eyes locked on Zheng’s gaze. “Are we?”
Zheng leaned in even closer, until their faces were barely six inches apart. Her teeth parted and out rolled twelve inches of wet pink tongue, slicing into the air with lizard-like slowness, tasting Raine’s breath in front of her face.
Raine’s eyebrows almost achieved escape velocity. She let out a low whistle. “Okay, now I see why Heather wants to sleep with you. Dang.”
“R-Raine!” I squealed in mortified embarrassment. She laughed, but Zheng didn’t so much as flicker.
Slowly, inch by inch, Zheng reeled her tongue back into her mouth, and clicked her teeth together. She let out a sound halfway between a tiger’s purr and the distant murmur of a lost jungle leviathan. Raine stared back with manic joy. I could barely draw breath, I was so overexcited, panged with a tiny spike of guilt over how much I was enjoying the moment of strange animal frisson between them. Zheng’s behaviour was reminiscent of how she’d first approached me.
Was this her way of flirting? Was she trying to decide if she liked Raine? Or was it challenge, confrontation, jostling for dominance?
Abyssal instinct knew it was both.
Finally, Raine’s eyes flickered down to me for a split-second. “Heather looks like she’s about to blow a gasket, watching us do this.”
“Can you blame me?!” I burst out, then slammed my mouth shut and hid behind both hands, blushing and vibrating and making a sound like a distressed seal.
Zheng’s laugh was a low rumbly chuckle. She pulled back from Raine and let out a long sigh, like a mountain trying to decide if it was going to become a volcano. I peeked out from between my hands just in time to see her raking her fingers back through the mess of her dark hair, regarding Raine from behind inscrutable eyes.
“A start, little wolf.”
Raine narrowed one eye in a sceptical look. “But only a start.”
“Then let us continue.” Zheng plucked the controller off the bed, and stroked my overheated head with her other hand. I whined and hid and felt exceptionally silly.
“Yeah, continue kicking your arse more like,” Raine laughed, and turned back to the character select screen.
Zheng took another two rounds off her before Raine could adapt. But then Raine came back with misdirection, finally pulled out her full range of experience, and that’s when the trash talking started.
However much I might complain, it amused me to my core. The way Raine and Zheng sniped back and forth, skirting the fuzzy line between playful and insulting, the way Raine jeered and whooped, the way she stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, the way Zheng focused, eyes widening with predatory intensity, baring her teeth at critical moments – all of it was delightful.
Raine never treated me like that, never insulted me like that, even as a joke. I wasn’t a rival. I was not a challenger. I couldn’t be that to her. This was something she couldn’t get from me.
Cuddled up in both their laps at once, half-drowsing in Zheng’s body heat and both their scents, I turned that idea over in my mind, staring up at Raine as she bit out another smiling jibe.
Was I jealous?
No, not in the slightest. I was enjoying this side of her.
Zheng was similar. To her I was The Shaman, a person of transcendent respect. She would never call me a ‘dung-eater’ like she did when Raine won a round without taking a single piece of damage. Her aggression shone through, but directed, almost friendly and warm.
And this was so much better than real fighting, than letting them hurt each other for real. This risked nothing except one’s ego. With delight came relief, that we’d found a way.
I drifted on the edge of drowsiness, and asked myself the questions that mattered.
Was this what I needed?
Is this my anchor?
And as soon as that thought took conscious form in my mind, something changed about the video game which Raine and Zheng were playing.
The character Raine was controlling did a move I hadn’t seen before, a sort of stab-stop pullback with her knife, and when she resumed her neutral pose it was subtly different. She was standing differently, holding her knife differently, with an oddly familiar smirk animated in miniature.
Zheng’s character, the crazed violent vampire, suffered a similar ‘glitch’. She landed a few blows which Raine blocked, and then when the little animated figure jumped back, she rolled her neck and flexed muscles in a way she had not done before. A very familiar way, as a huge toothy grin ripped across the tiny cartoon face.
The two figures jumped at each other again, and their movements looked nothing like previously. Raine’s character stabbed and span, sticking and moving, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Zheng’s character grabbed and ripped, bearing mighty teeth, leaping like a hungry lion. Both of them on screen grinned like maniacs. They were loving this.
Very alert and very awake now, I stared at the screen in disbelief. Neither Raine nor Zheng appeared to notice anything was wrong.
And then I spied, in the background of the stage – a children’s playground at night, beneath a crescent moon – that a figure had appeared. Part of the scenery. Pixelated yellow robes and a mask for a face, observing the fight.
I do hope Sevens saw my scowl from the far side of the television screen.
‘And what, pray tell, is this little play supposed to teach me?’ I thought at her in frustration, angry at her for intruding on our private bonding session. ‘That Raine and Zheng look hot when they fight?’
She gave me an answer, a practical one.
For the first time in all the rounds they’d fought, Raine and Zheng drew. In a moment which I understand is quite rare in fighting games, their ‘hitboxes’ – I word I later learnt from Raine – overlapped in such a fashion that Raine’s knife-strike took out Zheng in the exact same moment that Zheng put her fist through Raine’s chest.
They both fell down, thrown across the cartoon stage in slow-motion double-defeat.
“Awww, come on!” Raine called out.
“Disappointing,” Zheng rumbled.
Maybe they couldn’t see what happened next. Perhaps it was for my eyes only. Perhaps Seven-Shades-of-Software-Issues intended it that way.
The two little figures on the screen – one battered and bloody knife-woman and one limping superhuman vampire – got up and staggered toward each other in a shared animation, then slumped together, each standing only with the other’s support. Arms linked, heads together, grinning wild.
“Yare sasenakereba naranai,” said the yellow-robed figure in the background. “Aitsura no seishitsu desu.”
Subtitles scrolled at the base of the screen, in blocky yellow.
‘You have to let them. It’s what they are.’
I sighed through my nose.
Let them what? Fight, for real?
“Heather?” Raine said my name with obvious concern, and I looked up from the screen, caught red-handed. “You’ve gone tense. You okay?”
“Something is wrong, shaman?” Zheng purred as well. Her hand found my head, cradling my skull like I was a small nervous animal.
“Nothing I could possibly explain,” I said with another sigh, and forced myself to relax. “It’s just really good to see you two having fun together. Fun. Yes.”
When I looked back at the screen, the yellow figure was walking away, vanishing into the pixelated background.
“Lemme lay this one out flat then, for my own benefit,” said Nicole Webb. She wrapped her hands around the fresh mug of tea which Praem had placed on the kitchen table in front of her. “You want me to locate an extraordinarily dangerous man, who we know from experience can wear other people’s faces, who lives outside the law, can throw fireballs or turn people into frogs or whatever, possibly commands a cult of dedicated acolytes, and has committed actual honest to God kidnapping, torture, and probably human experimentation?”
“W-well … ” I stammered, but Nicole held up a hand. She wasn’t done yet.
Evelyn tried to sit up straight, frowning at old pain in her twisted spine. One hand left the table to rub at the socket of her prosthetic leg, through her comfortable skirt. “That would be the long and short of it, yes,” she said.
“And you can’t find him with magic,” Nicole went on. “Because he’s too well hidden. With magic.”
“Correct. We assume.”
“And you think I’m the woman for this job?” Nicole’s faux-serious front broke into a laugh as she leaned back in her chair. “Look, all of you, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but what the fuck?”
Over by the counter, standing in defiance of her very real need to sit down as much as possible to help her healing leg, Raine shot a finger-gun at Nicole.
“Nicky, come on,” she said. “You’re the expert.”
Nicole laughed at her too. “You’re more expert at killing wizards than I am, Haynes. No offense, but fuck off.”
“You are the expert,” Evelyn said, her voice thin with fraying patience. “Mages still have to eat and sleep, and occasionally take a shit. Somebody buys food for him. He’s an old man, he must see a doctor on occasion. He lives somewhere, I’d guess no further out than Manchester. We’re not asking you to kill him, we’re asking you to find him. And none of us are experts at finding people who don’t want to be found.”
Nicole shrugged with feigned helplessness “Alright, what if he’s gone off to one of your weird dimensions outside reality?” She gestured at me. “Ever think of that?”
“Constantly,” I muttered.
“Yeah,” Lozzie hissed, hovering at my shoulders. “Hope he has.”
“If he’s hiding Outside,” Evelyn deadpanned, “then the problem solves itself. No human being lasts long out there. But Edward Lilburne is far too clever for that.”
“You’ve got the skills, Nicky,” Raine said. “And we’ve got the need. Need a manhunt here. Tracking a fugitive. Come on.”
Nicole blew out a long breath, making a pbbbbbt sound as she did, and cast her eyes around the kitchen. “What about the great hunter, hey? Isn’t she supposed to be good at this?”
Evelyn stiffened. “If you are referring to Twil, she is both busy with school, and I don’t want her-”
“Nah, not miss teenage werewolf.” Nicole waved a hand. “The big lady with all the muscles. The-” She tutted. “Demon.”
“Zheng’s asleep,” I informed her – though I left out the detail of exactly who’s bed she was sleeping in. “She’s been hunting every night for the last week, trying to pick up any trace of him, and she’s having no luck either. Please, Nicky.” I pleaded. “Even if you’re not comfortable taking the job for us, could you … suggest anything? Anything at all? Please.”
Nicole looked at me, and all her dismissive humour melted away.
After all, I was the one who’d pulled her into this world.
It was Saturday morning, almost a full week since Raine and Zheng and I had spent the afternoon playing video games together. We – myself, Evelyn, Raine, Praem, and Lozzie – were all gathered in the kitchen, to ask PI Nicole Webb to achieve the impossible.
The last four days had been quiet, uneventful, and saturated with deep unspoken emotional confusion which left me barely able to concentrate on anything more complicated than losing myself in a book, let alone the strategic necessity of enlisting Nicole Webb’s detective skills to find Edward Lilburne. Evelyn had informed me back on Tuesday – or was it Wednesday? – that Nicole was now an exceptionally busy woman, but she would make time for us first thing Saturday morning. I’d likely forgotten all about the agreed meeting five minutes later.
Bothering Nicole shouldn’t have been necessary; I should have been able to solve this days ago. I should have been able to do this with brainmath.
I should have forged my anchor by now.
Nicole didn’t seem to mind popping round to the house though, and in a way it was good to see her.
“You seem different, detective,” Raine had said when we’d greeted her at the front door, as Praem had closed and locked it again behind her. Nicole had wiped her boots on the doormat and glanced around the front room, nodding to each of us in polite, professional greeting even as Raine needled her. “Get a haircut? Buy a new car?” Raine cracked a grin. “Get laid at last?”
“Raine,” I tutted under my breath. Lozzie, draped over my shoulders like a plush toy, stifled a snort behind one hand.
“Ha ha,” Nicole had deadpanned back. “Nice crutch, Haynes. What’d you do, twist your ankle doing a spin-kick?”
Raine grinned back, brimming with smug satisfaction. “Took a bullet.”
Nicole hesitated on a laugh, then looked around at the rest of us. Evelyn sighed and nodded. I nodded too, feeling oddly sheepish, as I was the one Raine had taken the bullet for. Lozzie directed a tiny scowl at Nicole.
“Uh … alright then,” Nicole said, suitably serious now but a bit floored. “From a gun?” She held up a hand. “Okay, no, stupid question. From a gun that I need to worry about?”
“Nah,” Raine said. “Got it upstairs, actually, s’mine now. And the shooter’s come over to our side.”
“Conditionally,” Evelyn grunted. “Miss Webb, welcome, and thank you for coming. Please do ignore Raine being an insufferable bore, and-”
“Got a scar too,” Raine spoke over Evelyn. “In an interesting place. Wanna see my proof, officer? Wanna interrogate me?”
“You and me alone in an interrogation room won’t go well for either of us, Haynes,” Nicole shot back – with a tight, nasty grin.
Evelyn boggled at them. I blinked in surprise too.
“Down,” Praem intoned.
That made Nicole jump. The doll-demon had stepped back from the door after locking it, to lurk at the edge of Nicole’s vision.
She held out one hand. “Coat.”
Nicole stared at her, taking in the hints of Night Praem showing through in her choice of clothing. Her new maid uniform was yet to arrive, after being painstakingly selected one night as she had poured over options via Evelyn’s laptop, so in the meantime Praem had taken to combining some of her new clothes – long skirt and tight sweater – with deep dark eyeshadow and a pair of black lace gloves she’d picked up during our shopping trip.
“ … you going goth there?” Nicole asked.
“Coat,” Praem repeated.
“Coat,” Nicole echoed, empty and blinking. “Oh, right, yeah, cool. Coat.” She patted her coat down for mobile phone and a notebook, extracted them, then shucked off the coat and handed it to Praem. “Thank you.”
Evelyn finally recovered with a huff. “Stop flirting, you pair of wild dogs,” she said. “Raine, I expect it from you, but miss Webb, don’t join in with her, for God’s sake.”
“Yes, Raine,” I tutted softly. “Be nice.”
“Hey, I am being extra nice,” said Raine.
Nicole shot us all a sheepish grin, and reserved an apologetic nod for me. “Sorry, I don’t mean to spar with your girlfriend, Heather. I’m just feeling a lot less constrained these days. You know?”
Raine wasn’t wrong though. Nicole did seem different.
Between the casual grey jumper and the unremarkable jeans, the big boots on her feet and the many and varied bulges in the pockets of her long coat, the simple ponytail and the relaxed awareness on her face, there was very little left of Detective Sargent Webb. She looked more like an investigative reporter, unassuming, camouflaged by normality, and easy to talk to.
“And don’t call me officer,” she added to Raine. “It’s just Nicky now. Nicole to you.”
Raine laughed. “Whatever you say, copper.”
Nicole frowned. Evelyn looked like she wanted to twat Raine over the head with her walking stick.
“Ayy-see-ayy-bee?” Lozzie asked slowly, from right next to my head, still draped over my shoulders from behind like an affectionate boa constrictor. I caught the edge of her narrowed eyes, her suspicious pout, her serious little frown.
“Lozzie,” I said gently. “Maybe it’s not the time for-”
“It’s always the time!” Lozzie chirped, squishing her cheek against mine.
“You know what?” Nicole said. “Sure, why not? ACAB. Shine on, you wonderful weird little person you.”
She held out a fist toward Lozzie and I, and for a moment I assumed this was some kind of passive-aggressive gesture, that I’d failed to forestall a confrontation. But then Lozzie reached out, slowly and distrustfully, like a wary cat, and bumped her own fist against Nicole’s.
Lozzie hadn’t stopped watching her like a small animal with an unfamiliar intruder, but she hadn’t raised any further objection to Nicole being allowed in the house. Praem had hung up Nicole’s coat, Nicole had taken her shoes off, and we’d decamped to the kitchen for tea and a briefing, which hadn’t gone well when Evelyn had gotten straight into what we needed, what we were asking for, and ended with Nicole staring at me, like a shipwrecked sailor regarding the remains of her ruined boat.
“You don’t have to be here,” I said to that face. “I’m sorry.”
Nicole blew out another long breath. “Look, this is for your long-lost sister, yeah? Not revenge. Not territorial pissing. Not self-defense. It’s for your twin. Tell me it is.”
“It is. We need the book he stole.”
Nicole nodded slowly, picked her pencil up off the table, and tapped her notebook with the point – currently open to a page she’d stopped scribbling on when Evelyn had gotten into the uncomfortable details. She wrote the word ‘leverage’, underlined it twice, then flipped the notebook shut and looked up at us again.
“Alright you lot, if I’m going to do this – and I don’t know that I will,” she held up a hand, “I’m gonna need every single scrap of information you have on Edward Lilburne and his possible associates. Everything, no matter how unimportant.” She glanced at Lozzie. “You’re his niece, right? You gotta spill some family beans. I’m sorry, but you gotta.”
Lozzie shrunk down against my shoulders, cheeks puffed out, making a soft whining noise in her throat.
“We have Amy Stack looking for him already,” Evelyn spoke up. “Inconclusively, so far.”
“Oh hey, fuck, what?” Nicole boggled at her. “Woah, no. I don’t know if I wanna deal with her again. I’ve seen some shit on the police force, but she was a real bona-fide psychopath. You could tell at a glance.”
“No kidding,” Raine murmured.
Did I detect a wistful hint in Raine’s voice? I glanced at her, but she was focused on Nicole.
“Also, wait,” Nicole carried on. “She’s on your side now?”
“We saved her little boy,” Evelyn said, curt and simple.
“She has a child?! That woman, that stone-cold killer, has a child?”
“Monsters have families too,” Raine said.
“It’s not important right now,” Evelyn grumbled. “The important thing is that I can put you in contact with her, if you wish.”
“Errrr, let me think about that one,” Nicole said, in a tone which meant ‘let me think of a reasonable excuse to turn it down.’ “Is that all you’ve got on him then, one lone psycho out there trying to find him? A physical description, and … well, his lawyer? That’s it?”
Evelyn cleared her throat. Raine shrugged.
“That is it,” Praem intoned from by the doorway.
Nicole sighed, and started to shake her head.
“What’s it like being a private eye?” I blurted out. She looked up at me, surprised. “I mean, now that you’ve been doing it for a little while. A … a month? Now that you’re … like you said, freer than you used to be.”
I cleared my throat and felt intensely awkward. Nicole was an experienced interrogator, she knew how to read and manipulate people, and she must have known exactly what I was trying to do. But she smiled and played along anyway. Perhaps she really did want to help, and all she needed was the right excuse.
“Mostly what I expected,” she said, leaning back in her chair.
She put her pencil down and finally took up her cup of tea. She took a long sip as she gathered her thoughts.
“All mysterious beautiful women wandering into your office on a dark and stormy evening?” Raine asked.
Nicole smirked back. “I wish. Nah. It’s slow stuff most of the time, which can be a bit of a drag, but I don’t have a boss to answer to anymore, and I don’t have to worry about departmental politics. There’s a lotta slow time, lots of talking people, which I’m good at, I guess. Lots of following cheating spouses, lots of industrial espionage.” She took another long sip of tea. “Loooots of industrial espionage.”
“What does that entail then?” Raine asked. I silently thanked her for helping this along.
“Well, for example,” Nicole said. “I spent two days this week waiting for a very specific dumpster to fill with some very specific unshredded documents. Then I bribed a dustman, and handed those documents to some people who are going to make a court case based on stuff in said documents, who then paid me money.” She winked at Raine. “Can’t get any more specific than that, or I’d have to kill you. I can do that now. Practically a secret agent, you know.”
Raine laughed. “You can try.”
Nicole waved her down. “I did end up joining that cooperate collective over in Manchester, bunch of other PIs from all over this part of the north. Some of them get into much more grey area shit. Dressing up as plumbers or electricians and blagging their way into places, or straight up sneaking into office blocks. I haven’t got the bottle for that. Yet.”
“Do crime,” Lozzie whispered.
“Grey areas!” Nicole protested, but with a grin.
“Be gay,” Lozzie whispered, even quieter.
“Sounds very … fulfilling,” Evelyn tried, a little half-hearted.
Nicole shrugged. “It’s not like I’m achieving any great good in the world, but then again I didn’t do that on the police force either. At least this way I might help somebody for real someday. And I’ve even got an office now, over in Manchester. Sort of. Only stood in it once. Not even a desk in there. Could’a pitched up there for the day and made you come to me.” She broke into a grin at Evelyn.
“I do hope the building in question has proper disabled access,” Evelyn deadpanned at her.
Nicole froze. “Uh … I-I think there’s a lift.”
Evelyn puffed out a single laugh. “Relax, I’m winding you up.”
“Oh. Oh, right, uh. Ahem. Well. You are paying my advertised rates for this job, right?” Nicole recovered with a cheeky grin. “Nah, I’m joking, for you lot, this is a freebie.”
“Oh,” I spoke up. “We wouldn’t dream of expecting you to-”
“No, seriously.” Nicole waved me down. “For you-”
“I’ll pay your normal rates,” Evelyn said.
Nicole blinked at her. “ … I mean … no offense, but you are a just university student in the end … oh.” Nicole brightened up. “Right. You’re rich, miss Saye, aren’t you?”
“For a given value of rich. And I’m not going to extract free labour from anybody. If you do the job, I’ll pay.”
Nicole cleared her throat. “Half normal rates.”
“Seventy five,” Evelyn said.
“Okay, done. Oh, but that reminds me. Meant to mention a little something to you next time I got the chance. Before I quit the force, somebody happened to misplace the relevant files about your father’s possible property tax issues. Some of those documents were pretty old. Thirty, forty years, and nobody made copies. Pity. Dunno what happened to them.”
“Heeeeeeeeeey, go Nicky,” Raine said with a grin.
“Nothing to do with me,” Nicole said. Picture of innocence, she withstood Evelyn’s level gaze with utter obliviousness.
“I don’t approve of police corruption,” Evelyn said eventually.
“Well, it’s a damn good thing I’m not a police officer anymore, then, isn’t it?” Nicole cracked a huge grin, and was answered with a chirp of agreement from Lozzie. “Let’s not get too far into the weeds right now, yeah? So, you lot have tried to locate mister Lilburne with magic already, right?”
Involuntary or not, Evelyn glanced at me.
“Yes,” she said. “My ways haven’t worked. Heather’s … ”
I hadn’t tried brainmath again, not yet.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had made it clear that the next time I attempted to sip from the dark waters of the abyss, she could not be the one to pull me back to my feet if I slipped any deeper than intended. My anchor had to be complete, but I hadn’t the faintest clue how to define a polyamorous relationship as an anchor of hyperdimensional mathematics.
I might have tried, but I wasn’t even sure if I had an anchor.
Since Raine and Zheng had bonded over fighting games, I’d only grown more confused. I hadn’t known what to expect in the hours and days that had followed, but surprisingly little had changed. There had been no great transformation of my romantic or sexual life. No revelation of how polyamory was meant to work. The biggest difference was nothing to even do with Zheng; I’d grown ever so slightly more comfortable in my new clothes. Even now, sitting at the kitchen table, I was wearing my pink ribbed sweater with my pajama bottoms.
Zheng and I had most certainly not entered any kind of sexual relationship. We hadn’t even kissed. She’d taken to affectionately touching my head whenever nearby, and I’d cuddled in her lap several times, which was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had discovered in life, and I’d even fallen asleep like that one night, after which she had deposited me back in bed with Raine.
It was cuddly. And I liked that. But it confused me.
There was an odd distance between her and Raine, an undercurrent of combative looks and friendly jibes that convinced me Seven-Shades was right. They did need to fight. Zheng had moved partway into our shared life, even joined us in our bedroom the last two nights – when she wasn’t hunting – sleeping in the chair like a huge silent sentinel, making me chew my lip in anxiety as I struggled to find the words to invite her into bed. Raine and her had opened up to each other, but the next step was impossible without their own methods.
And that meant no true polyamory. No anchor. No brainmath to find Edward Lilburne.
Or did it?
Not all love is eros, Zheng had told me, twice now.
Did I love Zheng? And if so, how?
“The lawyer is the way in,” Nicole was saying, tapping her notebook as I resurfaced from confusing thoughts once more.
“The fat man with the rat face?” Raine asked.
Nicole laughed out loud. “Yeah. Harold Yuleson. Left an impression, didn’t he? I knew him a little from my time on the force, if you recall?”
“Indeed,” Evelyn said, tight and frowning.
“Not the other guy who was with him,” Nicole went on. “Julian, was that his name? I’m not dealing with one of you wizards. No way. But lawyers, eh. I can wrangle lawyers. I might lack certain kinds of authority now, but that gives me other edges.”
“Any approach to his lawyer will alert Lilburne to our intentions,” Evelyn said. “Anything other than agreeing to terms.”
Nicole spread her hands. “I’m not going to make an approach. I’m going to break into his office.”
“Yeeeeeeeah girl,” Raine said. “We’ll make a cat burglar out of you yet.”
“He’s gotta have an address in his files somewhere,” Nicole went on, leaning forward, getting more animated as she went. “Even if it’s just for a contact. A single phone number can be the first loose stitch to unravel the whole thing. Anything.”
“You done breaking and entering before?” Raine asked her.
“No, but I know how,” Nicole admitted. “As long as he doesn’t have magical locks or something.”
Evelyn was frowning, obviously not happy with this plan, but her hands were tied. We had asked for expert opinion, and we’d gotten it.
“Look,” Nicole said, obviously catching Evelyn’s silent meaning. “We’ll make a deal. If I see a floating ghost or hear a zombie’s moan or come across a spooky old book, I’ll turn around and walk away and call you. How’s that?”
Evelyn opened her mouth to reply.
“There’s somebody else I’d like you to look for as well,” I interrupted.
“Heather,” Evelyn said in low warning. “We said we don’t have the spare time or energy.”
“I think we need to try. It’s not like I’m useful for much else lately,” I told Evelyn, then turned back to Nicole. “It’s something we should inform you about too, since you were involved.”
“Oh dear,” Nicole said, all her enthusiasm draining away. “I think I know where this is going.”
“Oh dear,” Praem echoed, sing-song style. Lozzie made a sad whine and hid behind my shoulders.
“Not all of the Eye cultists are dead,” Raine said, when I couldn’t get the words out. Nicole blew out a long breath, and I saw her turn a touch pale in the face.
I nodded. “We saw one of them. A man. He recognised me somehow. And we got a picture of the number plate from his car. I’d like you to find him.”
“What for?” Nicole asked, slowly.
“So I can help him,” I said. “Or deal with him.”
Or vivisect him, whispered the cold abyssal logic that forever lived inside me, and would do anything to rescue Maisie.