I have decided to commit the experiences of the past few years to paper in an attempt to make sense of them for myself and, in the case of another abduction for both Janie and Sharon, maybe even George and Majorie.
Whoever reads this will, I hope, find an explanation for my erratic behaviour in recent times. That is, if they accept my writings as fact. Oh this I am myself still unsure. The other possibility is that I have gone insane, although that would in itself be an explanation for my actions. In some ways I sincerely hope that the latter is true and what bizarre occurrences I experienced are merely constructs of a broken mind. I will adopt a somewhat narrative style in recounting the events of recent times, for which I apologise to whoever you are, but it is the only way I can be sure of accurately remembering the bizarre and terrible experience. I would rather not relive the terrifying time I spent in that place, but feel that it may help me in the longer term. I will start recounting the events on the afternoon of the last day I can clearly remember the date of, the >insert date here<.
It has been six months since the accident that took Becky from me and left Janie in this state. I am sitting by her bedside at Great Ormond Street when Janie wakes up. She is clearly confused “Dad?” she asks.
“I’m here” I take her hand.
“Where’s mum’s locket? Can you fetch Mum’s locket?”
“Of course” but she can’t hear me. She has slipped back into the coma. I get up to see if I can find Becky’s locket. I gave her the locket for our first anniversary, but I can’t remember where it is now. Remembering that she wore it the day of the accident, I rise to leave, when a doctor comes in, alerted by the change in Janie’s vitals.
“Did she wake up?” he asks.
“Yes, for about thirty seconds or so.”
He walks over and pushes a few buttons on the machine, then he turns and takes me outside. “This is probably not what you want to hear, Mr. Torrance, but these increasingly short periods of waking are not a good sign. I think it best if you prepare yourself for the worst.”
I nod silently. Fucking quack. They say there’s nothing wrong with her physically. Why can’t they do something to wake her up? I shake his hand and try to return his fake smile as best as I can, then leave and call a cab to take me home.
At home I find George packing some of Becky’s effects into boxes. I can’t work him out. Before all this happened he would barely give me the time of day, now he’s polite almost to the point of obsequiousness.
“Hi James” he greets me as I let myself in “how’s Janie?”
“Woke up briefly and asked for Becky’s locket. You haven’t seen it, have you?”
“I think mum took all that kind of stuff to be valued at an antiques place.” He pulls out his wallet and produces a business card. Hedgeways Antiques on Portabello Road.
“Thanks George” I say, get outside and get in my car, resisting the urge to kick in the dustbin on the way out. Fucking bitch. That’s so like her, selling off Becky’s things, regardless of whether they may have sentimental value for me or Janie. Think she’s given up on Janie, as well, hardly ever comes to visit her. Although she might just be avoiding me. I’m pretty sure she never liked me and I know she blames me for what happened. She might not be too far wrong with that though, I blame myself most days.
I park the car up and walk up to Hedgeways Antiques. It is one of those old, very narrow townhouses. Inside, there is an assortment of junk, for want of a better phrase. Many of these things are certainly old, but may have been new when they were moved in here. Stepping in to the dusty place, I call out “Hello? Anybody here?”
I don’t notice the door fall shut behind me as I make my way past the first line of dusty shelves. Nobody answers, so I open the door in the far wall and see another room filled with shelves upon which a variety of items gather dust. Calling in here raises nobody, either and I cross the room to find another door, similar to the last. Stepping through, yet another room with rubbish but no living soul. After this door, another room. This one ends in a sturdy steel door. Again, no one answers my hails and I am about to leave when I notice an alabaster bust on a pedestal against one wall. Around the bust’s neck are a number of necklaces and, among them, Becky’s locket. I try one last time to raise anybody in this musty shop. Eventually, I simply take the locket, leaving in its place an explanatory note with my name and contact number, and place the chain around my neck. Retracing my steps, I open the final door and am surprised to find it open into a large vibrantly green garden. I must have got turned around somehow and entered a side door, I had not noticed before to end up in this place. Turning around, I attempt to find where I went wrong, but only end up at the entrance to the garden again. Twice more I try to find the door that leads to the road and twice more I fail to end up at the start of the garden path.
Eventually I give up and decide that I can simply cross the garden and climb a fence on the far side to end up either in somebody else’s garden or the road. As I start down the path, I notice that the hedge has wickedly sharp thorns and looks unscalably high. I wonder idly whether the neighbours ever bug the council about this high hedge. After quite some time, I also start to wonder how they managed to fit a garden of this size into Central London., but with nowhere else to go, I carry on walking, hopes of finding the other side slowly fading. There are many strange things in this garden, fruits and vegetables of peculiar sizes and shapes, as well as some kind of large insects. I decide that I do not want to get close to these bugs, in case they are the blood-sucking type. Some time later, I spot the cottage. Yes, a cottage in a garden in the middle of the Capital.
In the hope that I may find some assistance here, I walk up to the door and knock. When nobody answers, I let myself in and take a look around. This place is as deserted as the antiques shop was. One thing I do find as I retrace my steps is a trail of blood leading to the door. I then realise that I am bleeding from a large number of shallow cuts all over my body and a deeper one in my left calf. Making a hasty search of the cottage, I find some bed linen, and bandage myself up. Satisfied with my efforts I take my phone out of my pocket. No service. With nothing to lose, I try 112 anyway and, to my surprise someone answers.
“Emergency services. What is the nature of the emergency you require.”
“Thank god. I’m hurt and lost. I need you to triangulate my signal and send an ambulance.”
“What is the nature of the emergency you require, Sir?”
“Aren’t you listening? I need an ambulance here, now!”
“I’m sorry that service is not available.”
“Then send the police, fire service, anyone, I don’t care.”
“Understood, Sir. The emergency is on its way” they hang up.
It eventually sinks in what the other side said and the need to get out of here just increased. I walk outside, through the cottage’s vegetable patch and see more of those huge bugs. Except these bugs have weirdly human faces and are all staring at me. I look around for a shovel or something I can defend myself with, in case these things decide to do more than just look. There is a shed in one corner of the garden and I let myself in. Seeing no shovel, the next best thing is a rake, so I grab that and make my way out of there. Weird. All the implements in that shed are made of brass.
Eventually I find myself on a paved road with a signpost that says “Seven Dials 12” to my left and “City 4” to my right. The city sounds good, plus it is closer and I have no idea what Seven Dials might be, so I turn right and make my way along the cobbled road. Along the way are more strange sights, including a tree that appears to be growing wine bottles. By now, I have decided that I must either be dreaming or have been subjected to a large dose or hallucinogenic drugs.
After a while I must have travelled “4”, whatever that means, as I arrive at a door set into a large white town-house like facing. It is here that the White road ends, at a door, not the “City”. The door itself is black and sports a brass knocker, which I duly employ. A somewhat familiar voice invites me in. Inside is a hallway with doors to the left and right and a staircase immediately ahead. Realising I am still clutching the rake, I plant it in the umbrella stand to the left of the door and make my way up the stairs.
“I’m in the playroom” that familiar voice again.
I open the door to the room from which the voice seems to be emanating and am faced with a very pink room. It is as though a deranged Victorian era child had been watching modern advertisements and decorated her room accordingly. Toys are strewn everywhere and I notice that many of them are in bits. Standing with her back to me in front of an ornate toy chest is a girl that looks astonishingly like my daughter.
“Janie? Is that you?”
“No” even her voice sounds like Janie.
She turns around and I have to stifle a scream. If someone had scooped out Janie’s insides and somehow animated the skin, the result would have been this thing that looks at me out of empty sockets.
“Hello Father” it says
“What the... I thought you said you weren’t Janie” I manage in reply.
“I’m not. But I’ve been watching you watch over her. I’ve always wanted such a devoted Father, so here you are.”
Great. This thing has somehow got wind of me looking after Janie these last months and has decided I am Father of the Year or something. Had it considered the previous fourteen years of her life, it might have realised what I have over the last six months: I have been a lousy father.
“Now you’re here you can play with me. I want to play tea party” it continues “Look, here’s Mother.”
A thin woman enters the room with a tray of plastic cups. She looks haggard and scared to death. Her hands are shaking as she puts the tray down on the table and she can barely pour the “tea”.
“This is messed up, kid.” I tell the thing pretending to be my daughter. “You’re not my daughter, I’m not your father and I’m pretty sure she’s not your mother” I point at the woman.
“But you are. I’ve searched for a long time to find anyone as dedicated as you” it insists and starts to pout.
“Ok. Supposing for a moment that I am indeed your father and you’re not Janie, what the hell do I call you?”
It seems to brighten up a little “I am the Princess of the Precious, but you will call me Daughter. Or Darling.” Sounds to me like someone has been watching too much TV but I don’t like the way it used the word “will”.
“Now” it sits down at the table “we need some guests. Fetch some of my toys. I want a knight, a prince and princess and a horse.”
Convinced by now that my assessment about a strong hallucinogen must be correct and too bemused to do anything else, I decide to play along for now.
“Where are they? In here?” I walk to the toy chest.
“NO!” it snaps at me “not in there. Through that door” it points at a door.
I cross the room and open the door. Inside is what looks to be a hospital ward, complete with a corridor stretching into the distance. That is not the most disturbing part though. More so is the fact that there are a large number of dishevelled and malnourished people cowering in make shift cells made from old hospital beds.
Incredulous, I turn around. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Don’t swear, Father. I want my toys. Get them. Now.” the thing says in a dangerous voice.
“No way. I’m out of here.” I attempt to leave but the thing makes a little gesture and I find that I can’t move. The thing moves over to where I am and takes me by the hand. It then places my hand between two of the bars that make up the cells and twists. I still can’t move but I can feel my wrist shatter.
“Son of a...” I exclaim collapse to the floor as it returns my bodily functions and.
“What did I tell you about swearing, Father? Now, I want a knight, a prince and princess and a horse. Fetch. Them. Now.”
I think its eyes narrow dangerously, but that’s hard to detect on something that’s nothing but a shell of a person. Struggling to my feet, I wave my undamaged hand at four of the prisoners. “Those four, I guess” as I do so, the D shackles that from the locks fall open and three of the four start trudging dejectedly out of the cell. The fourth, a woman bolts out of the door. She doesn’t get very far before the thing does its time stopping trick again. I hear a horrendous crunching sound and a scream. She is gone when I can move again.
The other three have sat down and are now dressed appropriate to the thing’s imagining of them.
I join them, murmuring “Shame she was spirited. Would have made a great horse” in shocked disbelief.
I instantly regret these words when the thing exclaims “What a brilliant idea father” in a cheerful voice. Once again, it stops time and returns with the woman in tow. Except that she has taken on decidedly horse-like features and looks around, wide-eyed with terror. The thing leads her to the table and we have a bizarre tea party. This is what Lewis Carroll must have had in mind when he wrote about the tea party. Except this one has physical torture.
It passes me a slice of what looks like a pumpkin designed by Andy Warhol but has the consistency of bread. “What the hell is this?” I ask it.
“Pumpkin bread. Eat it” it instructs.
Having experienced what happens when I disobey, I reluctantly put a piece in my mouth. To my surprise, it does not instantly strike me dead, but is actually quite tasty. Even more surprising is that my shattered wrist appears to be mending itself and I am no longer in pain, only seconds after eating the pumpkin bread. After we have finished, “Mother” clears everything away and the thing puts away its toys.
“We should go for a walk” it declares “where should we go, Father?”
“How about I and these other poor bastards go home and you go to hell?”
“Don’t sass me Father. You, Mother and I are going to go for a nice walk. Where should we go?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know? Nothing in this messed up place makes any sense.”
It seems to be getting impatient again, so I hastily add “On second thoughts, a walk would be nice. We’ll go... this way” I choose the door I entered the room through. Outside the door is not the staircase leading to the hallway, but a large garden. I hesitate.
“What’s the matter father? Do you not know the way?” It asks in a dangerous voice.
“Of course I do. Silly me. Just got myself a bit confused is all. It’s this way” I lead Mother and the thing to the prison door and walk through, only to find myself in some kind of shanty town.
“What is this?” I ask Mother quietly.
“This is Hob town. A very dangerous place” she replies.
“What are you whispering?” the thing demands to know.
“Nothing” I hurriedly assure it “this is where we will go for a walk.”
“Oh good. I like Hob Town” it claps its hands delightedly. “We should go to the Casino!”
Not knowing whether I want to go to a casino in this messed up place I try to dissuade her. “Gambling is wrong” I say in my most authoritative tone.
“You’re right” it agrees “so you will gamble, so that I can be shown a lesson.”
Shit. It leads us through a series of narrow decrepit-looking alleys to a large building with a crudely-lettered sign and we enter. A variety of tables are scattered throughout the place and at first glance the familiarity is almost comforting. Looking more closely, all the games are different from ones I am familiar with and I start to despair at getting out of this unscathed.
“Well, what will you play?” The thing wants to know from me.
I desperately look around and settle on a card table where four creatures are sitting. Surely they can’t do anything too weird to a card game, so I sit down and study my opponents. They are humanoid, but are clearly not human. One has rock-like skin, while a second appears to be an animate tree. The other two have animal-like features, one a dog, the other a weasel or something like that. They glare at me as I sit, then notice the thing and recoil in horror.
“My father is here to teach me a lesson about gambling. So teach him“ it instructs the four hobs.
The rock hob starts dealing out a number of cards. “So what are the rules?” I inquire and get flat unfriendly glares in return. When I pick up my cards, I see that I not have traditional playing cards, but also a card from the tarot.
One of the hobs begins by playing some of his cards and relating the start of a tale, which is vaguely tied to the cards he just played. When it comes around to my turn, I have grasped the game. It is a bull-shitting contest, designed to ridicule and dispose of your opponents using a tale spuriously linked to what cards you play. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, so I quickly get the better of the hobs, when the thing reminds them that I am here to learn a lesson about the evils of gambling and they start to gang up on me. Just when they have backed me into a corner, the cards are kind and I spin a yarn to get me out of trouble and defeat all four at once. They glance anxiously at the thing but can’t do anything but concede.
“Guess you won” weasel-face tells me “what do you want from us?”
I am a little confused and have forgotten that there were no stakes involved that I could see. “What have you got?” I ask a little cautiously, not sure if I want to know the answer.
“How bout some claws?” it asks.
“Could come in handy” I reply dubiously.
The weasel slices his palm with one of the cards and hands the card to me. As soon as I take it, I find that I have indeed acquired retractable claws. From the other three I win a tree’s steadfastness in the form of rooting feet, a bent piece of wire that started life out as a paperclip and a pouch of knuckle bones.
We make our way back to the playroom where the thing declares that my new feet are not suitable for me, so it freezes me again and goes to work on my legs. It simply tears off my new feet, which is as painful as it sounds, but I am unable to even scream. The thing rummages in its toy chest and returns with a pair of feet that must have belonged to a large toy soldier or something similar and simply screws them directly into my leg bones. Once again this is exactly as pleasant as it sounds and I black out.
I awake on a bed to find Mother and the thing standing over me. “Oh good. You’re awake” it tells me “I thought you were going to miss my bedtime. Good night father. Get some rest. Tomorrow’s another big day” it leaves me alone in the room with mother who comes over and sits on the foot of the bed.
“Do you remember your name?” she asks.
“Of course...” I start, then find that I can’t remember my name.
Mother nods silently. “Thought so. I’ve heard that the only way to find the way out of here is to find to remember your name. These rooms move about. It’s rare for a door to lead to the same place twice in succession. With a bit of practice you can predict vaguely where a door will lead, but the only way out is to remember.”
“How long have you been here?” I ask her. She simply shrugs.
“Let’s make a start on getting out of here then” I swing legs over the side of the bed and to my astonishment I can feel with my new feet as well as I did with my real ones. “Does it ever sleep?” I ask Mother.
“Yes, in the box. It seems to have something important in there. I’m never allowed to look in there.”
“I’ll see if I can’t lock it in” I produce the bent piece of metal from a pocket and make my way towards the toy chest. As I bend over to insert the paperclip into the keyhole, the lid opens a fraction and I find myself staring into the thing’s empty sockets.
“Was there something you wanted, Father?” it asks innocently.
“I forgot to give you a goodnight kiss” I improvise quickly and give it a kiss on the forehead. The feel of the leathery skin makes me want to scream again.
“Thank you Father. Now off to bed with you” it instructs.
I back away from the chest and rejoin Mother who has been watching. “What now?” I whisper. She shrugs. Then I have an idea. It’s a slim hope but maybe one of the other prisoners has seen me before, so I go to ask them, but none of them know me.
Cursing softly, my next thought is to return to Hob town. One of the card players had mentioned something about trading memories, so there may be a slim hope that my name is available somewhere there. Mother and I make our way back to the shanty town and are soon lost in the maze of alleys.
“How the hell are you supposed to find your way around here?” I ask Mother in frustration.
“You need to think of where you want to go and you will eventually find a way” she tells me, so I try to picture a bazaar in my mind and set off again. Sure enough we arrive at a market of sorts and I find a Hob who claims to sell information.
“Can you tell me my name?” I ask him.
“Depends, what have you got?” he replies.
“Will this do?” I say, fishing out the paperclip.
“That must have cost you a pretty penny” he remarks, “that will do nicely.”
“No I can’t tell you your name.”
Shit. I should have known that you need to phrase your questions incredibly precisely here. Another trader is similarly unhelpful and we give up in frustration and return to the playroom. Before we can get there I hear a grinding as if part of the alley had just moved. When I turn around, Mother is gone. Torn between returning to the relative safety of the playroom and not wanting to leave the poor woman to her fate, I eventually set off in search of her. Wandering blindly at first, I remember what she said about thinking about where you wish to go and wonder if that also works if you wish to find a particular person. I summon her image in my head and set off again. Before too long I arrive at a wooden pier, complete with rotten wooden planks. One of these gives way and dumps me into a darkened room below. In the half-light, I can just about make out the shape that used to be Mother. Some bastard has dismembered the poor woman.
“Looks like we got us another one” a familiar voice says and four figures move closer. Shit. The Hobs from the game.
“Let’s show him what we do with smartarses who think they can outwit us at cards” dog-face says.
Backing away I try to think of a way out “The Princess will be most upset if you damage me” I tell them in desperation. They do pause at this and I bolt, trying to find the door to the playroom. The Hobs set off in pursuit and as I run it becomes clear that they are herding me through areas of their choosing, often containing blades and other traps. I finally find the door and haul it open with my one good arm, the other having almost been torn off by one of the traps, and stumble through.
“This won’t do at all Father” the thing says as I fall to the floor “you can’t go around damaging yourself like this. Now I have to fix you.” It goes to work fixing me like it fixed my feet, by replacing bits with pieces of metal and parts of dolls and other toys.
When finished, it regards me critically. “There good as new. Now all I have to do is find a new Mother. There was not enough of the old one left to fix” it gestures at what at first glance may have been a bust on which little girls practice applying make-up, but is revealed to be Mother’s disembodied head looking at me with terrified eyes. If she still had lungs she would scream. I go to bed in the hope of waking up somewhere other than here. When I wake, it has found a new Mother, this one a short matronly woman.
Our time is spent enduring nightmarish days during which the thing invents ever new levels of cruelty to inflict upon us or its toys. Occasionally we go to visit the Good Doctor, whose realm is reached through the hospital ward. He is another creature like the thing and is the furthest thing from a good doctor.
During the nights I try to find a way out of this hellhole, but in vain, until one night, after a seeming eternity has passed, one of the toys points out that the toy chest must hold something important; none of us are ever allowed near it. I suggest to Mother that she take the thing dress shopping or something similar, while I investigate the chest. She nearly faints at the prospect at being alone with the thing and pleads with me to reconsider. But I can’t see any other way, so we decide to attempt this the next day.
Before we can carry out our plan, I awake to the thing screaming.
“FATHER! Help, there’s a monster under my bed.”
I enter the playroom to find it standing in the middle of its bed it never sleeps in screaming its head off.
“Please do something. There’s a monster.”
While I enjoy seeing its discomfort, I am not keen on confronting anything that can scare it to this degree, but at this point I am cowed into obedience by what it might do to me if I displease it, so I look under the bed. It is dark under there. Unnaturally so.
“Now’s your chance” a voice from the dark says.
“To do what?” I ask, confused.
“To get out, of course. Take a look in the box. You might need this.” A tendril of darkness reaches out and passes me the paperclip the information trader swindled out of me a lifetime ago.
Bewildered, I stand up, then compose myself. “Got just what I need” I announce to the thing “in the toy chest.”
“NO!” it screams and makes to move to stop me, then thinks better of it as a dark tendril reaches for it.
“It’s the only way” I tell it in a calm voice.
“Alright. Just do something and hurry” it is pleading now.
I can’t say I’m not enjoying its discomfort as I cross to the chest. It is locked, but the lock springs open the instant I insert the paperclip. Inside is nothing but a mirror. I pick it up and look at my reflection. I can barely believe what I see. Large parts of me have been replaced by bits of toys. Around my neck something hangs. Not knowing why I never noticed it, I inspect it. It is a locket. Inside a picture of me and a woman. The inscription reads: “James and Rebecca. On the reverse it says “Torrance”. I suddenly remember.
I return to the bed. “What now?” I ask the darkness.
“I believe this is your cue to make an exit” the voice replies.
Straightening again, I walk over to the door. “I’m going to need my monster-killing rake” I tell the thing “it’s by the front door.”
“Hurry Father!” it says as I close the door behind me.
I walk down the stairs and pick up the rake I left in the umbrella stand all that time ago and open the front door to see the white road again. Almost weeping with relief I start out on the road. While walking, I see that some of the razor sharp thorns of the hedge have some strange things hanging from them, almost like thin black fabric made of liquid. I carefully touch one of the scraps and it falls to the ground at my feet. Only now do I realise that I do not cast a shadow and the scrap fell to the ground where it should have been. On my way, I pick up as many of these scraps as I can and have an almost complete shadow by the time I reach a low hatch at the end of the road, although some bits are still missing. The low hatch appears to be some kind of car boot, in keeping with the overall surroundings; for some time the hedge has been gradually replaced by rusting cars.
I open the hatch and emerge in to a scrap yard. Instantly, I know that I am no longer in its world. The colours are no longer as garishly vibrant and the noises are less sharp. Never have I been so glad to see a scrapheap. Leaving the scrap yard behind I set to find out where I am and find a map outside a police station, attracting some disgusted looks from passersby along the way, but nothing more than that. It emerges that I am in East London and I start walking toward Great Ormond Street, trying to thumb a lift along the way. Unsurprisingly, nobody picks up a dishevelled-looking semi-artificial man carrying a rake, so it takes me most of the day to reach the hospital. I leave the rake outside, where I find a recent newspaper. Looking at the date I discover that I have been gone for nearly two years. I head into the hospital where it takes a while to locate Janie as they have moved her to a different ward.
She looks different. Even though she has been in a coma for over two years, she looks more grown up. Fighting back tears, I place the locket around her neck and kiss her forehead.
Almost immediately, she opens her eyes. “Dad? Is that you?”
I can’t quite suppress a tear “It’s me, Janie. I’ve been gone awhile but I found Mum’s locket for you.”
“Really? Seems like I only just asked you for it.”
“It’s been a little while.”
“What happened to your face?”
“That’s a long story.”
At this point a doctor walks in, responding to the change in Janie’s vitals again. I have not seen him before.
“Who are you?” he wants to know.
“James Torrance. Jane’s father.”
“Really?” he looks sceptical “you haven’t been in for a while.”
“No I have been away, trying to find her mother’s locket she asked for.”
“Did you find it?”
“I did” pointing at where it sits around Janie’s neck.
“I’m going to have to run some tests, but your vitals look good” he tells Janie.
“Dad? Where’s mum?” Janie asks.
I look at the doctor and draw him to one side. “Is it a good idea to tell her in her state?”
“That’s a parenting decision. I’ll leave that to you.”
Sitting down at her side, I draw a deep breath. “What do you remember about the accident?” I start, still trying to think of a not terrible way of telling her.
“We were in the car when a horse ran out and Mum swerved. I remember thinking how weird it was that a horse made us crash when Charles had just given me that horse riding thing.”
I take her hand. “Janie... Mum didn’t make it. She died in the crash.”
She looks at me and starts crying. I hold her until she falls asleep and the doctor ushers me out.
“Visiting hours are nine til six” he tells me “you’re going to have to come back tomorrow.”
I look at him a little incredulously, refusing to believe he is throwing me out when my little girl has just woken up. I think of arguing with him, then think better of it.
“Does Sharon still work here? Sharon Twiss?” I ask instead.
“She does. She’s on duty in B wing, I think. Is she a friend?”
I nod “She used to look after Janie. Is it ok if I go tell her Janie has woken up?”
“Alright, but be quick. See you tomorrow.”
I hurry over to B wing and find Sharon. She is busily walking down the ward away from me.
“Sharon” I call, still walking to catch up.
She pauses to look, then stops and turns. “James? What are you doing here” she wants to know as I embrace her. An embrace she returns somewhat hesitantly. “I thought you said you were to busy to come visit any more.”
“I did?” I ask, genuinely surprised.
“You did. I thought it very odd, you barely left her side for six months, then you don’t show your face for nearly two years and now you turn up out of the blue looking and smelling like a tramp.” She looks around. “You need a shower. You can use the staff shower and I’ll find you some clothes.”
As she leads me to the showers, I tell her the good news. She hugs me again, this time genuinely. “That’s great. You get in there, I’ll see what I can find for you.”
The shower feels amazing and I exit to find that Sharon has found a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a Metallica T-shirt. “You’ve got to go now, before you get me into trouble” she says as she escorts me towards the exit.
“One last thing; can you lend me money for the bus?” I ask her.
She stops and looks at me. “Seriously?”
She pulls out a ten pound note and hands it to me.
At the exit I hug her once more. “Thanks for everything, Sharon. I’m back now. For good. See you tomorrow.”
She is a little bemused but returns the hug. “See you, James.” She turns, shaking her head in bewilderment and returns to her duties.
I retrieve my rake and go to wait at the nearest bus stop when a white van pulls up. The passenger door opens and the biggest man I have ever seen leans out. He has two small horns growing out of his forehead. I am about to brain him with my rake when he says “My name’s Paul Needles. I think we may be able to help you out. Hop in.”
“No offence, but the last time I saw a guy with horns on his face, I was in a place I’d rather forget.”
“You escaped though didn’t you? There are some people you should definitely meet. They seriously helped me out after I escaped. What do you say? We can give you a lift back here if it doesn’t work out.”
My options look severely limited. I figure that this guy could easily overpower me if I refuse, so I may as well go of my own accord.
“No funny stuff” I tell Needles as I get into the van...
I watch Needles pilot the van through the London traffic, ready to cave in his skull with my rake should I think he is up to funny stuff. He drives to Central London and pulls up outside a coffee shop. He dismounts and opens the passenger door for me. Pointing at a door to the right of the entrance to the cafe he says: “Through there, go on up and meet the others, I’ve got to park the van up.”
When he sees my reluctance, he adds “I’m not going to make you, but I think it will be useful for you, helped me a lot when I was in your situation.”
Left with little choice and not really anything better to do, I make for the door. As I open it, I notice a squat muscular guy coming up the road, heading for the same door. The weird thing about him is that his skin appears to be made up of a patchwork of different skin tones. He enters the door as I start to descend the narrow staircase that has opened up ahead of me, but the patch man never says a word.
At the top of the stairs, there is a largish room with a few tables and chairs and a large wardrobe. The latter is heavily reinforced with planks and chains. Between a few of the boards I see a greenish light shine through and shudder. Occupying this room are somewhat more than a dozen people of freakish appearance. If I was not aware of my own outlandish exterior, I might have made straight for the nearest window to escape to the street below. As I try not to stare at the assembled weirdos, a woman notices me standing by the door, evidently looking ready to bolt, clasping my rake tightly.
She walks over and introduces herself “I’m Poppy Cornwell, welcome to the Seven Dials.”
“About that... we don’t use our real names. It draws Their attention. We will need to find you another one” she smiles and I look her over properly for the first time. She has got a strange flower motif going on, with poppies seeming to grow from her red hair and slight greenish hue to her skin. I estimate that she is a little younger than I and is quite a looker, nice rack and arse, although starting to show the pull of years, but then I can’t really talk. These last few years, in particular have not been kind.
“How bout we call him Rake?” a voice says behind me “Seeing as he’s got a death grip on that one.”
I realise that I am still holding Poppy’s hand and have been staring. Embarrassed, I let of her hand and turn to face the speaker. It’s the short patchwork man.
“Name’s Azrael” he introduces himself “what d’you think to your new name?”
“Just as well, cos I was gonna call you Rake anyway.”
“So what is this place, some kind of Chuck Pahlaniuk-esque self-help group?”
“Something like that, except without the man boobs” another guy joins our little group. This one looks like a normal person. Except that he has been crushed to about four feet tall. “Call me Apprentice.”
“Good to meet you. So which one’s the guy who’s just along for kicks?”
Apprentice grins. We evidently have a similar taste in literature. “That archetype has not been taken yet. Maybe you’d like to fill in.”
“I think I’m probably the real deal.” I have started to relax a little, but must still be shaking a little as Poppy draws a hip flask from her pocket and offers it to me.
“You can probably do with a drink, after what you’ve been through” she says sympathetically.
I unscrew the top and take a good long swig, then hand it back to her. She declines “Keep it, you probably need to more than me right now.”
At this point, another of this circus troupe walks to the middle of the room, clears his throat and starts talking when the rest of us give him silence.
This guy looks like he’s escaped from Labyrinth and should be calling David Bowie “Your Majesty”.
“That’s Tweed” Apprentice whispers as Tweed starts talking in a bored, yet pompous tone of voice.
“Several things require our attention. First: we have a new addition to the group. As it is my season, it falls to me to assign someone to show him the ropes and fill him in on what he needs to know. You and you” he points at Azrael and Apprentice “since you are already firm friends, you will take him under your wing.”
“Brilliant” Apprentice mutters “any other menial tasks for me while you’re at it?”
“The kitchen needs cleaning” Tweed replies in his monotone voice employed by two types of people: Brilliant comedians with the knack of deadpan delivery and truly tedious types. I have only been here a short while, but decide that Tweed is probably not a brilliant comedian.
“Second” Tweed carries on “the equinox is only a week away and we are expecting another killing.”
I had forgotten about the Equinox murders and Tweed runs through what they know about it, mostly what’s been in the papers, but he mentions that fae magic was used, whatever that is.
“Third, we have received a letter addressed immediately to here” a small concerned murmur goes through the assembled oddballs.
“How the fuck did they find the place?” Azrael demands.
“How indeed?” Tweed responds. “In any case, it is from a bunch that call themselves Pax Anglos and they request a meeting. The way I see it we have three options here. One we respond formally and meet these people, whoever they are. Two: We send some people to do some digging.” he looks pointedly at Azrael and Apprentice. “Or, three: We pack up operations and move somewhere else, as it seems that we are compromised here” he glares around the room as he says so.
I raise my hand “Yes. I’ve got an idea how they could have found this place. I mean, you’re not exactly inconspicuous with a travelling circus, no offence, coming in and out of here.”
He glares at me in disgust “Normal people can not see us for what we are.” Turning his glare on Azrael and Apprentice “Please bring this fool up to speed, quickly so that he doesn’t waste my time any more. Anything else? USEFUL?” He glowers at me again.
“No? Good? Meeting adjourned.” he concludes.
Apprentice addresses me “So, any questions?”
“Yeah, what the fuck’s he talking about?”
He fills me in on the Equinox murders, but it turns out that they know little more than was in the papers.
On the Pax Anglos thing, they know as much as I do, Jack and Shit, so we get to work doing some basic research via their mobile phones. I say we; Apprentice and Azrael appear to know as much about computing as an autistic ape. Azrael hands me his phone after some painful floundering and I find out that Pax Anglos is pub just down the road from my place, as well as an obscure short-lived organisation in ancient times looking to preserve the Roman peace after Britain was abandoned.
Apprentice then starts going through the basics of being what they call “Changelings”.
“First off; did you have any family?”
I just nod.
“Well it turns out that they think that you’re still about. When you were taken, you were replaced by some kind of construct made of whatever crap was about where they abducted you from and that is now living your life. Not very well though, they tend to be a bit rubbish. Mine got me a divorce and moved house. So, to get your life back, you need to find where your fetch is and wipe it out.”
“There is also a part of you still in there” Azrael adds “you only get that back when you dispose of it. Gotta be careful though. When you get close, it will know you’re there and it gets a bit disorientating.”
“That makes sense. I’ve been told I’ve been saying and doing things even though I’ve been in Happy Happy Tortureland. Reckon, that’s my next move then” I muse “go to my place and shove my rake through its face.”
“We can help you out with that” Azrael offers “then you can do the same for me.”
“This is going to be easier if we can predict his movements.” Apprentice puts in “Did you have a schedule?”
“Well the six months before I was taken, I spent at the hospital.”
There is a silence and I do not supply any further details.
“Alright then. When we’re done here, I can drive us to your place, we take care of your fetch…”
“We can head over to that Pax Anglos place after” I interrupt Apprenctice “if you like.
“Sounds good.” Apprentice says and Azrael nods.
They tell me all about what they call hedgegates. Like the door in the antiques place and the boot of the car in the scrap yard.
“Why the hell would I want to go back there” I ask.
Tweed, who has wandered over with Poppy, butts in “Oh there are reasons. For one, it’s the only place you can get Goblin fruit, so we have to go now and again to collect them.”
Poppy has brought a cup of tea and a small tray of cakes. She hands me the tea and offers the cakes around. Azrael and Apprentice decline but I realise I have not eaten anything all day and take a couple after fortifying the tea with the remnants from the flask.
The cakes are good, with a distinctive, familiar herbal flavour. “Good cakes, thanks” I tell her.
She smiles at me and moves off to distribute more cakes.
“…leads straight on to the White Road, the thoroughfare into Arcadia.” I hear Tweed telling Azrael in response to the question on where the wardrobe leads to.
“Hang on a minute” I interrupt, remembering the place where I joined the road “you’re telling me, if I’d turned left instead of right on that road I would have ended up here, instead of in Tortureland?”
“What road? The White Road? Are you saying that you went to Arcadia willingly?”
“How the fuck was I supposed to know that ‘The City’ actually meant ‘Place where you will be tortured for an eternity and have parts of your anatomy torn off and replaced with bits of metal and plastic’. Maybe that just didn’t fit on the sign, or maybe the tourist board vetoed that one, cos it might scare off visitors.” Tweed is making me testy.
“Let me get this straight” Azrael interrupts my diatribe “there is a signpost on the White Road that points here?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying and if I’d followed the sign to Seven Dials, I’d have ended up in that wardrobe instead of spending two years in the hands of a deranged lunatic with a penchant for dismemberment.”
Tweed smirks and move off to bother someone else, of which I am quite glad.
“So what can you do?” Azrael asks out of the blue.
“Scuse me?” He has thrown me with that question.
“When we come back, we’re changed and can do certain things. You look like the T-1000, so can you shapeshift or something?”
“So you reckon if I tried I could look like that security guard form that movie?” as I say that, I can feel my skin, such as it is, shift about.
“Yeah that’s it” Apprentice says and gestures to Poppy who produces a mirror. I see that I indeed resemble Lewis the security guard. It’s not uncanny, but good enough at a quick glance.
“Think that’s about it” Apprentice adds, “anything else, just asks.”
Poppy produces a mobile phone and a small amount of cash. “It’s customary to loan new arrivals these things in exchange for a favour somewhere down the line.”
“No offence, but all this favour trading and vague promises of stuff to come is all a bit weird. Besides, if I can shove my rake through this things face, I’ll be back on my feet in no time. Thanks anyway, though.”
“No problem. You’ll also have to think about whether you want to join us or not. I do suggest that you do, there is much we can do for you.” She smiles again.
“And I get the club hat or something?”
She laughs “Not quite, we have useful resources at our disposal, which would be made available to you, in return for you performing certain duties for the court. Have a think, mull it over, but if you don’t, it will be suspicious. We need to be on the lookout for loyalists.”
“Yeah. You know Stockholm syndrome? Well there’s some of us who decide that all the horribleness that the Gentry inflict on us is actually quite cool and make it their job to hunt down those of us that don’t and drag us back.” Apprentice supplies
“I can see why you’re not keen. Is that all? Can we for a drive-by raking?”
Azrael laughs “Think that’s it. Let’s go give your fetch a good raking.”
I say my goodbyes to the gaggle of oddballs and we pile into Apprentice’s battered station wagon and drive to my place in West London. As we cruise past my place Azrael whistles. “Nice pad.”
There is a brand new BMW 5 series in the gravel driveway. At least my fetch has got some style. Driving by, my vision blurs and I see the ceiling of what looks to be my bedroom, then clears. Apprentice parks the car on double yellows and turns on the hazards and we walk up to the front gate. Of course I have not got the fob on me that opens the gate, as all I have in my possession at the moment are a Metallica T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms, hospital crocs, my brass rake and the 10 pounds I borrowed off Sharon, so we walk around the alley that leads to the gardens. Apprentice has a sword and gets to work on demolishing my rear gate, but makes little progress, so I simply climb the gate and male my way back to the front to press the button to open the front gate. As I do so, my vision blurs myself and I see myself from my study window. I look up and see my double. I let him know I mean business by making a throat slashing gesture. I let the others in and fetch the spare key from the key safe in the shed.
We enter the house, Azrael and I go upstairs, while Apprentice guards the stairs. As it turns out the latter is futile, as the fetch has evidently fled the scene through the backdoor. Azrael legs it after him out of the backdoor, while I try to head him off through the front. I hear a thump and some swearing, Apprentice has got his bag stuck in the gateway. I skid around the corner and see my doppelganger has turned left, away from me with Azrael in hot pursuit. Somehow, my other evades both of us and reaches the main road, where he flags down a police car. We decide that we can always try again later and get into Apprentice’s car as he pulls up and we drive the short distance to Pax Anglos.
It’s not a bad place, think I have been here once, on Stephen’s stag do and it seemed pleasant enough, from the little I can remember of it. We walk up to the bar, Azrael orders a whisky and Apprentice buys a pint for himself and gets me one, as well. As we sit down at a vacant table, I notice a large number of security cameras, one of which appears to be glued to Azrael. I am just about to urge my companions to drink up and leave, when the sturdy-looking door at one end of the common room opens and a tidy attractive young lady in a suit emerges. She heads straight to our table and addresses Azrael. “So good of you to come, my superiors would love to meet you…” she looks at Apprentice and me “ and your associates? If you would like to follow me.”
Azrael glances at us, we each give a small shrug, finish our drinks and rise to follow the young woman who introduces herself as Sarah. She leads us up a fairly wide staircase and I notice that the door boasts a number of heavy deadbolts. Sarah opens another sturdy door at the top of the stairs for us and waves us into a large room decorated with suits of armour and other military memorabilia. In the centre stands a large circular table at which sit four individuals, one woman and three men. One of the men wears an expensive-looking suit, John Philips, by my estimation, and is incredibly pale. The thing that gives me most pause though, is that he appears to be sporting fangs. He stands up.
“Welcome. Please have a seat. My name is Albert Lupus. You are probably asking yourself why we have asked you here. I represent a group of supernaturally inclined individuals who are interested in mutual cooperation to minimise undesirable attention to any of us. It has come to our attention that you are members of a group of such supernaturally inclined individuals, even if the precise details of your natures have escaped us. We would be most grateful if you could fill in a few blanks.”
We sit down “Well we can’t vouch for what our leaders will think of this, we will have to go back and put it to them.” Azrael starts “I’ve got ask, are you a vampire?”
“Indeed I am, Charles here is a shapeshifter, Oberon and Morgana here are… what do you call yourselves this week? Witches? Warlocks?” he smiles and turns back to us “I lose track of these things. Anyway, they are wielders of magic. I would be fascinated to know your natures.”
Azrael is about to say something when I interrupt “First off, can any of you see anything out of the ordinary about us?”
“What beyond your peculiar sense of dress?” Morgana says indicating my peculiar combination of trousers, band T-shirt and hospital crocs.
“See here,” I tell her “we all have been taken somewhere, where we are changed into our supernatural form and I have only recently returned. You could say it’s my first day.”
“What place is this?” Lupus inquires.
“Called Arcadia” Azrael responds and Lupus scribbles his response down in a notebook.
“Also known as Happy Happy Tortureland” I supply.
Lupus pauses in his scribbling “Tortureland…”
“Only known as that by a small number” Apprentice tells him.
“I see, would it be possible to give us a demonstration of your abilities?”
“Would love to, Mr. Lupus, but you see, I’ve got a rake I need to shove through someone’s face” I say.
“We have a strict no killing policy” he says stiffly.
“That’s fine, this someone is like some kind of construct or something like that anyway, but he’s stolen my life so I need to give him a good raking. Hey, maybe you and your friends would like to come along and we can gang rake him.”
Azrael snorts with laughter at that.
“Umm… I don’t think so. I don’t think this is something we should get involved with.”
“Suits yourself.” I shrug “We need to anyway, before that bastard gets away again. Nice to meet you guys.” I rise to leave. “We’ll put your suggestion to our guys and get back to you.”
“Please do. I hope to see you again soon. Good luck with your, erm… gang raking.”
Sarah opens the door for us again and we file out to dispose of my double.
On our way out, Azrael’s phone rings.
He talks to the person in the other end for a little while before stuffing the phone back into his pocket and announcing “Shit, guys, I’ve gotta go. The boss is offering me a few days work, but only if I head over there right now.” He looks a little apologetically at me.
“S’alright. You do what you need to do, reckon that Apprentice and I can take care of the other me, now I know how to not do things.”
Apprentice’s phone also rings. “That was Poppy. She says that John Potter over at Camden has got a problem with some unidentified thing. Well, I owe her a favour, so how ‘bout you and I and head over there once we’ve taken care of your ‘little problem’?”
“Sounds good” I shrug “anything for Poppy of the nice ass.”
Apprentice and I say our goodbyes to the patchwork man and head towards my place. Having learned the lesson form our most recent failure, I stay a safe distance away from my house, near the mouth of the alley, while Apprentice goes in to subdue my double. I give him my paperclip, having remembered that it came in handy in the crazy pain place. The dwarf evidently gains access to the garden as he texts me not long after with the news that I am in the house with a woman. Shit. He will have to wait until she leaves.
An hour or so later, I receive another text that Apprentice has subdued my doppelganger, so I move in, picking my rake up on the way. I enter my house through the open back door and make my way upstairs, where I find the fetch pinned to the ground by Apprentice.
“Who the fuck are you people? What do you want?” the terrified construct stammers and I feel a sense guilt. This thing really thinks it’s me. But I’m me.
Apprentice sees my hesitation “What are you waiting for? Get rid of it.”
I stand with the rake half-raised, not sure about the whole thing. As I do so, my other half has realised the danger it is in and throws Apprentice off.
That does it; I bring my rake down on its neck “That’s for not visiting Janie”
My neck explodes in a burst of intense pain, which quickly subsides. I bring the rake down again. “That’s for giving up on her.”
Again “That’s for making Sharon think I’m a deadbeat”
And once more “That’s for stealing my life, motherfucker.”
It is not moving. I’ve killed it. I’ve actually killed something. I feel horrible. Then, the corpse turns into pieces of paper draped over a framework of wire hangers.
That makes me feel a little less awful. It seems the freakshow I have fallen in with was correct, although I can not help thinking whether the same would not have happened if my opposite had done the same to me.
As I am thinking this, I receive flashes of memory of what my other has been up to. I remember walking out of Hedgeways antiques, feeling confused. I remember going back to work, thinking it more important than a daughter that will probably never wake. At this point I know I did the right thing in wiping the other out. Never would I have given up on Janie, but he did.
Other memories come flooding in; Claire. One of the secretaries at work. I am going out with her. She was at the house tonight.
What a mess. But it seems like I have my life back, such as it is.
Finally, I regain my composure and Apprentice suggests that we should head for Camden do look into that thing for Poppy. We have a bit of a discussion about the whole favour thing while I change into one of my suits and he explains that this was a formally agreed thing, that you can not accidentally owe favours.
While we do so, I see Apprentice eyeing up the suits in my wardrobe. “Help yourself” I tell him “not sure if they’ll fit, thought” Apprentice is a little shorter and quite a bit broader in the shoulder than I am. He looks disappointed.
“Listen,” I say “I know a few good tailors, reckon I can get you a good price, that’s the least I owe you.”
“Yeah, might take you up on that, thanks” the dwarf replies “we should get going to Camden, though. Your wheels or mine?”
“C’mon, I’m itching to try out that new 5 series.”
“K. But what about my wheels? They’re still in the pub car park.”
“Fuck it. Don’t think Lupus will mind. If you can’t trust a vampire, who can you trust?”
Fifteen minutes later we are in Apprentice’s Volvo station wagon on out way to Camden.
Despite the late hour, we have to park a fair distance and walk to the Market, where we eventually find Potter, who is a carbon copy of that dwarf played by John Rhys-Davies in The Lord of the Rings. Had to watch it because Janie wanted to. I met him briefly at the circus meeting chaired by Tweedy Pompouspants.
He shakes hands with Apprentice, then me and remembers where we met.
“Thanks for coming guys.”
“No problem” Apprentice tells him “I owe a favour to Poppy and she reckoned this was worth checking out.”
“Hell, just can’t say no when a girl like that asks you a favour” I supply, when Potter looks at me quizzically.
He smiles knowingly “Anyways; this thing came through here tonight, like six or seven in the evening. Vaguely humanoid, but loping around on all fours, with a massive mouth full of teeth. Disappeared into that wall there.” He points “If this is Loyalist activity, I’m finished here.”
“Don’t you worry me’n my new buddy here will take of this.” Apprentice reassures him, gesturing at me.
I, meanwhile, am looking at the wall he indicated. There are several areas of that horrible green light in it that look like something has been biting at the wall and I touch the wall. Immediately, the wall disappears to show me the horrible green hedge. As I look over to where Apprentice and Potter are talking, I see two drunken passers-by staring at me, incredulously. Not the gate thing I have opened, but me. Eventually, they stagger on and apprentice comes over to look though the hedgegate. It appears to be generic Hedge, with a copse a small way in. The leaves of the trees are of a peculiar regular shape.
“This anywhere you recognise?” I ask Apprentice
“Nope. But then, I’m fairly new to this, as well. Those leaves look interesting though. How about you go over there and grab one, they might be special to this area of Hedge and I’ll stay here and cover your back.”
“Is there any way how we can do this so I stay here and not go into that place?” I ask him hopefully, remembering my last time in the Hedge.
“There is, but that’s not the way we’re going to do it. Now get busy.”
Grumbling, I pick up my rake and make my way to the nearest tree.
“You’d best ask it if it’s ok to take a leaf” Apprentice advises from the gate.
Cautiously, I approach one of the trees and call out feeling a little stupid “Hello? Anyone hear me?”
When one of the trees replies I am only a little surprised. Very few things seem to be out of the realm of the impossible, regardless of how patently ridiculous they are.
“I can” it says in a deep, slow voice
“Oh right, say is it ok if I take one of your leaves?”
“I guess so” it leaves long pauses between each word and drags them out so that this short statement almost takes half a minute to complete. A leaf drops off one of the branches above me and I catch it.
“Are you here to take care of the bity thing?” the tree wants to know.
“Yeah, we’re looking into that and will do our best to resolve it. Did you happen to see…” I break off not sure if a tree can, in fact see anything “Say can you see stuff?”
“I can perceive” it replies in its dreary monotone. This thing could give Tweed a run for his money in the putting people to sleep racket, but would need to ramp the self-important pompousness up a few notches.
“Oh, I see. Where did the biting thing go?”
“It went left”
“My left or yours? What way are you even facing?” I am so confused.
“Mine and I am facing you. If in doubt just follow the trail of bite marks. For the first time I notice that whatever it is we are following has taken a bite out of the tree and has left a trail of chewed vegetation that leads down one of the hedge paths.
“Thanks…hey do you have a name?”
“My name is Wallace. I was once a gardener at Kew, before I was left here and turned into this.”
“Really? Man that’s harsh. I’ll talk to someone, maybe see if we can’t help you with that.”
“That would be nice, thank you.” Wallace says as I make for where Apprentice is holding the Hedgegate open.
I start to relate my conversation with Wallace when Apprentice stops me. “Yeah, I heard, I was like five metres away.
“Oh. So what do we do?”
“We’d better go after it.”
“Are you shitting me? I’m not going after something with teeth like that. I’ve just got my life back and I’m not keen on throwing that into the mouth of some kind of landshark or whatever that thing is. I reckon, we need to get some reinforcements and come back later. How bout that big fellow with the horns from the Seven Dials.”
Apprentice thinks about it. “Zach? Guess you’re right. I’ll give him a buzz in the morning.C’mon, I’ll give you a lift home.”
We leave the Hedge, give Potter an update on what we have discovered and drive back to me place.
“Catch you tomorrow” I tell Apprentice as I get out of the car “and thanks for all your help tonight. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you out sometime down the line.”
“No problems. That’s the kind of thing we do for each other. You know to keep the whole thing rumbling on? See you.” He drives off and I let myself into the house. It is good to be back. Even better is the feeling of sleeping in my own bed again and I sleep like I have not done in almost three years.
I awake feeling refreshed and better than I have for ages and go to work trying to make myself look more presentable. Finally satisfied, I put on smart casual clothes and phone the office. One of the secretaries answers.
“Tower Investments, how can I help?”
I think I recognise her voice. “Steph? Can you put me though to Dave? I need to have a word.”
“James? Are you ok? Claire said you had a break-in last night.”
“Yeah. Nothing serious, though. Just a bunch of crackheads looking for a quick quid. The police scared them off. It’s shaken me a bit though, so I don’t think I’ll be in today. Just need to tell Dave is all. Can you put me through, please?”
“Sure thing. Take it easy.”
She puts me on hold for a little while, then Dave picks up.
“James, are you alright? Have heard about what happened.”
“I’m fine. A little shaken and have got a few things to sort out. Is it ok if I take the day off?”
“Sure thing. You take as much time as you need. I’ll see you soon. Take care.”
I hang up, head downstairs, pick up the car keys and get into the 5 series. It’s as nice a drive as I thought and I make good progress as I head over to Great Ormond Street Hospital. I park the BMW up and make my way to Janie’s room. She is sitting up, eating breakfast and watching TV and looks over as I enter the room. I can not describe how good it is to see her like this and I cross the room and hug her tight.
“I can’t get used to how different you look” she says when I let her go and sit down “what happened to you?”
I had forgotten that she can see what Apprentice calls my ‘Fae appearance’. I try to think a way of explaining what happened in a way that will not send her running for the men in white coats, but fail to do so “I have been through a series of most peculiar events” I start cautiously “and I am still trying to make sense of them myself; I will let you know when I do.”
She stares at me “Wow, Dad. Could you be any more vague?”
“Please, just trust me on this. I’ll let you know when I’ve made sense of it. Promise.”
“Ok.” She says doubtfully, then she brightens up “I was chatting to a nurse about you. She’s really nice.”
“Sharon? Yeah, she’s nice alright. She looked after you after the accident, like a personal nurse.”
“Personal nurse, huh? I’ve never had a personal nurse before. She’s been filling me in on what’s been going on. It’s been a while.”
“It has.” There is a bit of an awkward silence.
Janie breaks it “Tell me what you’ve been up to” she demands cheerily.
I try to tell her without letting on that I really have no idea what has been happening. She seems not to notice and after a while she interrupts “You want to play some cards?”
Glad for the distraction, I agree and fetch the cards as I try not to recall the last card game I played.
Halfway through the fourth hand, the door opens and Sharon walks in. I had not thought the day could have got any better, but it just did. She comes over and hugs Janie and me.
“Good to see you two looking so cheerful.” She sits down and tells me about what she has been up to. She has been busy taking advanced courses and is in line for a promotion. She so deserves that.
“And” she continues “I have a new boyfriend. He’s amazing. You’ll totally like him…” But I have stopped listening. I feel conflicted. On one hand I feel like have been punched in the gut, on the other, it is so good to see Sharon so happy.
“Anyway” she gets up “I can’t stick around all day. I’ll check in again later.” She hugs Janie again and gives me a peck on the cheek. “See you soon.”
Janie watches me look after her and gives me a thoughtful, knowing look. “Come on deal” she instructs.
I spend the rest of the day with my little girl, until they throw me out when visiting hours are over. Pulling out my phone, I dial the number Apprentice gave me. It rings a few times, then my new associate answers.
“Oh hey, Rake. How are you doing?”
“Not too bad, not bad at all. Have just spent the day with my daughter, so it’s all good. Have you had any ideas about what we’re going to do about this biting thing?”
“Yeah, I got hold of Zach and he’s happy to lend a hand. I also gave Poppy a call, she might be able to help out the tree guy, Wallace.”
“Sound like a plan. Where are we meeting? I can do with a bite to eat.”
“No worries, I’ve asked them to meet us at the Queen’s Head, in Holborn.”
“I know it. Can be there in half an hour.”
“See you there.” He disconnects and I drive across town and head to the Queen’s Head. Apprentice has beaten me here and waves from a table by the window and I join him after buying a pint.
A short while later, Zach enters the pub. He sits down and we bring him up to speed on the current situation, as well as the whole Pax Anglos Magical Misfit club thing. No sooner have we done that when Poppy comes in, waves cheerily, buys a strong drink, then wanders over and gives me and Apprentice an affectionate hug. Zach only gets a curt nod, which he returns. She downs her drink “So what’s the plan?” she asks cheerily.
“Well, we figured that we introduce you to Wallace and see if there is anything we can do for him, while Zach, Apprentice and I go after this thing with all the teeth” I tell her.
“What are we waiting for, then? Drink up boys.”
We do as instructed then make our way to Camden, Zach and Apprentice in the latter’s Volvo, while I give Poppy a lift. Camden is busy, so we have to park up some distance away and walk the rest of the way. The place is busy, as always but that makes it easier to open the gate and slip through unnoticed. I introduce Poppy to Wallace and she sits down in the grass, as the rest of us set off on the trail of chewed vegetation. On the way, Apprentice spots a handful of what appear to be red and white striped limes, picks them and puts them in his bag. “Goblin fruits” he says by way of explanation.
We follow the trail, which ends in a fire-door. I open it cautiously and peer through to discover that it opens into a corridor that looks like is in a university dormitory or something like that. I cross through and wave Zach and Apprentice through. We attract a glance or two, but nothing out of the ordinary and we start searching the place. From behind one of the doors, I smell the stench of rotting food. After listening for a little while, I determine that the room is occupied and, for want of a better plan, I knock.
“Go…away” the occupant answers in a hoarse voice.
“We know about your…condition” I improvise “we might be able to help, but need to come in.”
The door opens a crack and the guy inside peers out cautiously from under a blanket.
“So hungry. Can you get me some food?”
I look at Apprentice and Zach.
“There’s a Spar on campus” says Apprentice who has recognised the place as one of the King’s College dorms “I’ll be back in a bit.”
The door opens and the guy beckons Zach and me inside. We comply and enter a typical student’s dorm room. Except that the place is filthy. Not just untidy, but repugnantly dirty, with discarded food wrappers everywhere. For the first time, I get a good look at what we are dealing with. The thing is humanoid but has pallid skin and has lost all but a few wisps of scraggly hair. His mouth is grotesquely enlarged and widened.
“You gotta help me” he pleads in his hoarse voice “I’m so hungry.”
“First things, first” I tell him “by the way, have you got a name, friend?”
“James. James Crisp.”
“Well, then James; good name by the way; do you notice anything out of the ordinary about me and my tall friend here?”
“Oh you’d know I think. Some people just think that my friends and I are odd-looking.”
“Can’t say that I do.”
“That’s fine. Just checking.” It looks like we can rule out our earlier hypothesis of him being a changeling who has slipped under the radar.
“To help you, we need to know as much about your condition. Is this something that you have always had or have you changed recently?”
“Do you think I would have got into here if I had been born like this?”
“Well, you never know. UCAS pride themselves on their equal opportunities. A change then. How long ago was this?”
Crisp shrugs “Can’t say. I noticed it some time ago and it has been a slow process since then.”
At this point, somebody knocks at the door and James lets Apprentice back in. He immediately wolfs down the assorted items Apprentice has purchased, wrappers and all.
“More” he demands when he has consumed the lot “nothing seems to help. Except sometimes…”
Oh shit. An idea forms in my mind.
Apprentice, who has been sniffing the air asks “Except some kind of special food?”
“Thought so. Thought I could detect that special aroma in the air.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I demand “Are you talking about what I think you’re talking about?”
“Fraid so” Apprentice nods. He gestures at some of the food containers from a Taiwanese take-away in Camden market. “That the stuff?” he addresses Crisp again.
“That’s it. That’s the only thing that even touches my hunger.”
I start to formulate a plan. “We know a few people who might be able to help, but they might need to see a picture of. Is it ok if I take a quick snap?”
Crisp reluctantly agrees and I take a picture of him on my phone’s camera.
“I’ll have a chat with our guys and we’ll have a look at that take-away and will let you know if we come with anything.”
“Thanks. But hurry. I don’t know how much longer I can carry on like this.”
We let ourselves out and put our heads together outside.
“Is there any way we can keep an eye on him, so he doesn’t do anything stupid?” I ask Zach.
“I’ve got a few errands to run in the area, so can’t help at the moment, but can keep an eye on him after” the big man tells us.
“That’s going to have to do” I look at Apprentice “and we’d better investigate this take-away.”
Big Zach walks down the corridor and uses the conventional exit, while Apprentice and I head for the emergency exit into the hedge. On the way I pull out my phone and phone Albert Lupus, who seems to be the authority on supernatural things in this time.
He is not much help, claiming that the closest he can think of if a type Philippino vapire called an Aswang but then rules that out as they are exclusively female and are born into this condition. He also mentions that they have specialists and ‘a facility’ to deal with such matters. That just sounds sinister, so I tell him that I will let him know if we need their assistance, hang up and phone Tweed, instead.
He answers almost immediately “Yes?”
“Mr. Tweed? It’s Rake.”
“Ah yes.” He sounds as if he has just remembered that he stood in a dog turd and needs to clean his shoes “What can I do for you?”
“We have a little situation here. We were looking into a matter for Poppy and have found that a student at King’s College has been turned into some kind of creature with a craving for human flesh and we thought you may be able to shed some light on this. The closest match we have so far is an Aswang, but that doesn’t match up very well at all. Oh yeah, now’s probably the time to tell you about that Pax Anglos thing.” I tell Tweed what we have found out the Pax Anglos group and my misgivings about them.
“What kind of people were they?” Tweed wants to know.
“Let me see… Lupus is a vampire, there were two wizards or something called Oberon and Morgana” I can hear Tweed scribbling notes on the other end “and a shapeshifter called Charles. Oh yeah, and a cute little thing called Sarah, who seems to a secretary or something. Although it’ll probably turn out that she’s the evil mastermind. Looks good in that tight suit though.”
Tweed seems impressed “Nicely done, it seems I have underestimated you.”
“Not just a smart-mouthed jackass?” I guess at Tweed’s estimation of me.
“Oh no, I have no doubt you are a smart-mouthed jackass” Tweed is unfazed “but you appear to be more useful than I gave you credit. Your vampire friend is correct in his estimation that this is not an Aswang. The closest parallel I can draw is that of the native American wendigo legend.”
“Wait, I think I saw that in the movie ‘Ravenous’. Really good film. Got Guy Pierce in it. And Robert Carlyle.”
Tweed interrupts “I have not had the pleasure. Besides the stellar cast, is there any point to your story?”
“Oh right. Yeah. Apparently, if someone willingly or unknowingly eats human flesh, they become one of these wendigo things and receives superhuman strength and stuff like that. This guy has been eating at a place that apparently sells the long pig.”
“Then why are we not overrun with these creatures?”
“How the fuck am I supposed to know? Maybe there needs to be something else, like the moon has to be in the first quarter when he eats it upside-down with a finger up his arse. Or maybe it’s like BSE or something, I don’t know, you’re sposed to be the expert.”
“I’ll have to do some research but it sounds like you may have hit on something with your ramblings. Well done.” he disconnects. I turn to Apprenctice “Wow, never thought I’d hear Tweed say that last thing. Let’s get going.” We return to Camden via the Hedge and I wave to Poppy on the way past. She has a large amount of notes by now.
The Taiwanese place is easily found and Apprentice walks up to the vendor “Have you got anything ‘special’ today?”
“All special” the man gestures “very good.”
“K. I guess I’ll have the number 36, then.” Apprentice selects a dish and is handed a small container with something spicy-smelling.
He tastes it, then wolfs the whole lot down.
“And” I ask “Is it the long pork?”
I feel a little sick at the delight in his voice. “So everything here has got dead guy in it?”
“Shit. What are we gonna do? The cops will just likely ignore us and that won’t help that Crisp guy. Maybe Poppy has an idea.”
Apprentice shrugs, looks longingly at the stall, then manages to tear himself away and follows me to the Hedge gate. I walk to the copse where Poppy is scribbling notes and notice that the ground around her is covered in flowers.
“Hey flower girl” I say as I approach “like what you’ve done with the place.”
She looks up and smiles “Thanks, it’s an involuntary thing, though.”
“Maybe you should come over and have a look at my garden. My gladioli are coming along nicely but some of the other things can do with a green thumb.”
“Is that an invitation?” she asks with a cheeky grin.
“If you like.”
Apprentice clears his throat. “The matter at hand?”
“Oh yeah, how are you doing with that problem?” Poppy asks him.
“Well, we have a theory. According to Tweed, this guy might be a wendigo and it seems that you can learn from TV. Rake here picked up some nonsense from a film that may not be all nonsense.”
“So, what’s your next move?”
“Well” I pick up from Apprentice “the way I see it we have a few options. If our theory is correct then, Mr. Crisp picked up this condition from this Taiwanese place in the market, which seems to sell the long pig.”
“What” Poppy butts in “to the general public?”
“Yes, including him” I point at Apprentice.
Poppy looks at him incredulously “You ate human flesh?” She looks nauseated and a bit freaked out and moves away from him and closer to me.
Apprentice just shrugs.
“Anyway” I continue “we can bust in there and see if we can’t find anything that can reverse this poor bastard’s condition.”
“That seem sensible” Poppy puts in “there is usually a way to reverse curses like this, but you need to find out the exact origin. The other option?”
I then remember that I have not told her about Lupus and the Pax Anglos, so quickly remedy that. “Our other option is to get Lupus and his crew to take him to their facility, which I still think sounds sinister. So I’m not keen on that.”
“It might give us an indication as to their intentions though” she says.
“True that. But I don’t really want to be experimenting with this kid’s well-being, so that should be our last resort.”
“Maybe we can put some kind of tracking bug on him” Apprentice suggests “and then find out what happens to him.”
“That could actually work. We might even be able to get a tracking thing on the market somewhere.”
“How bout we go have a look, now?” Apprentice proposes
“Can’t hurt” I concur, then turn to Poppy “Anything you need here?”
“Some food would be nice.”
“Anything in particular? Things you don’t like? Any allergies?”
“Not really. Something light like a salad or pasta would be good. Nothing from that place though” she shudders
Apprentice and I head back out into the market and do indeed find a place that sells spy gadgets. My short friend purchases a device that he estimates will do the job, the passes me his wallet.
Seeing my confusion, he explains “So I don’t give in and stuff my face at that place.”
On our way back, I pick up a pasta dish with Mediterranean roast vegetables for Poppy, which seems to be a popular choice. She appears pleased, anyway. Back in the market, Apprentice and I start to stake out the food stall in the hope of discovering some kind of routine or anything else that may give us an opening.
Not long into our watch Apprentice suddenly speaks up “I need to go somewhere.”
“Anywhere that’s not here. I can’t stand to be this close to this place. I gotta get out of here.” He abruptly leaves and walks off in the direction of his car. A little bemused, I continue watching, but can not make out any kind of pattern in the mass of humanity.
After almost two hours, I decide to stretch my legs and go to have a chat with Poppy. I find her still sitting in the copse surrounded by flowers and notes. I sit down next to her.
“So any progress?”
“Yeah, there’s at least something we can do for him. We can transplant him to a relatively safe place in the hedge, but that will take all of us.”
“Can you convince Zach and Tweed to help?”
“I reckon so” she shrugs “they’re usually quite helpful in situations like this. But how are you doing, seeing as this is your first day as one of us?”
I start to tell her about the fetch, some of the weird pseudo-memories, and Janie but I find I am distracted by her scent, especially when she sits very close. Even more distracting is when she puts her hand on the inside of my thigh and moves upwards. I realise I have not slept with a woman for almost three years and reciprocate. One thing leads to another and I decide that things might turn out ok after all.
Awaking some time later, my watch tells me it has been two hours, but I am unsure whether time works the same here, Poppy awakes when I stir.
She gives me a brief hug, “Azrael named you well, taking advantage of me like that” she smiles, sits up, packs a pipe and lights it. She takes a deep breath before exhaling slowly and passing me the pipe.I take a drag. It is not a flavour I am immediately familiar with, but can make a shrewd guess. Opium fell out of favour to be replaced by coke in my circles quite some time ago. She takes she pipe back and rests her head on my chest. “Feeling better now?” she asks.
I do, very much so. Even so, I have the feeling I am supposed to do something, but could not care less about remembering what that might have been right now.
It is late, so I put on my clothes to head home.
“Do you need a lift somewhere?” I ask Poppy.
“No thanks” she replies, also dressing herself, “think I’ll stay here for a bit.”
“K. I’ll catch you soon” I give her a kiss and leave the hedge, walk to my car and drive home.
Before I go to work the next morning I attempt to figure out what my double has been up to while I was busy going through hell. I put on a coffee, fire up my laptop and start going through my messages on my phone.
The whole Claire thing is easily found out. We have been going out for quite a while now, but it seems to be a mostly casual boss-sleeping-with-the-office-junior type scenario, which I estimate could be easily resolved one way or the other.
What I have been up to at work is more interesting. It seems like my other has been probing the boundaries of legality while short-selling small businesses and has been making the company large amounts of money. Not strictly illegal, but certainly highly immoral, but is that not what the banking industry is all about?
Armed with this information I drive to work, which has not really changed at all. All-glass front, reception desk with a good-looking working skirt. I get into the elevator and make for my office, taking care to avoid Claire for now. I have not decided what to do about her yet. My office has not changed much, except my fetch has thrown out my family picture. I quickly remedy that by propping the picture I have of Janie against the desktop. After a little while of catching up on what exactly it is I am supposed to be working on, I decide that I need to talk to Dave about flexi time or something, so I walk on over to his office and knock.
“James, have a seat.”
“Thanks, I need to talk to you about some things. Janie’s woken up, so I will need to be there for her.”
He interrupts “I’d love to, but you’ve been taking a lot of time off lately.”
“What with that trip to the Caribbean and all” he looks at me quizzically.
“I mean, I have. I know. But I’m not asking for time off. Is there any way you can put me on half days or something, or like a pay-as-you work deal for a few months?”
He looks at me as if I had just suggested raping his sister “You know that’s not how we work. If you can’t hack it here, we can find someone else who can.”
I briefly consider arguing, but he has got his ‘I have made my mind up and you had better not piss me off any further’ face on, so I murmur something and go back to my office to work on his precious Winchester accounts. Maybe if I rack up enough overtime… That’s not going to work; senior staff like me do not get overtime. I resist the urge to throw the machine out of the window and lose myself in what I am supposed to be doing.
Shortly after lunch, my Apprentice calls.
“How’s it going?”
“Don’t ask. I never realised what a bunch of arseholes these people are I work for.”
“Ermm… they’re bankers” he offers by way of explanation.
“Thanks for the implied insult. What’s up?”
“Oh it wasn’t implied. I got hold of Azrael and think we should get together and discuss our next move.”
“Yeah, whatever. How bout we meet in the ‘Swan and Tomato’ at seven? I need to go to the hospital before I can take up my alter ego as one of the Scooby gang.”
“Seven? Can do. But isn’t that a winebar? Are you sure.”
“Absolutely. See you there.” I put the phone down and go back to work on the accounts and actually manage to make some decent progress before knocking off a little early and driving to Great Ormond’s Street, where I tell Janie the bad news. She is disappointed but has met Dave, so is quite understanding. Even though I can only stay for a little while, she is so happy to see me, it makes up for the rest of the crappy day. She cheerfully tells about her day, who she has been talking to and almost everything that has been happening in the hospital. Way too soon, a stuffy orderly informs me that visiting hours are over and I have to leave.
The ‘Swan and Tomato’ is as I remember it; overly sterile, decorated with the latest fad and filled with suits. It’s like coming home again.
I sit at the bar, order a drink and have a nice chat with the pleasant young woman behind the bar when Apprentice and Azrael walk in. The latter stops just inside and looks ready to instantly turn round in disgust, but restrains himself and they both sit down at the bar next to me. They order drinks, Azrael muttering about how expensive and rubbish the quality is and I hand Apprentice his wallet back.
As I do so, my phone rings and displays the number I was given for Lupus.
“Hello?” I ask cautiously.
“Oh, hello. Is that the metal man?” it is indeed Lupus.
“Depends on who’s asking. What the hell do you mean by metal man?”
“Well one of my seers, you could say has described you as such to me.”
“I see. What do you want?”
“This same seer also has information pertinent to the Equinox murders, which may interest you. I would be pleased if you could drop by and discuss this at some point.”
“Yeah, maybe. I’m a bit busy right now, but will drop by when I’ve got time.”
“Please do. I look forward to seeing you.”
I end the call and put the phone back in my pocket.
Apprentice, meanwhile, has been updating Azrael on our movements the previous day, so all I need to do is to bring them up to date on my failure to find out anything useful at the market the previous night. Azrael has been staring at the collar of my jacket, then reaches over and plucks a red flower petal from my collar.
“I wonder what could have distracted you…” he remarks in a slightly mocking tone “well, at least you had a good reason.”
Slightly embarrassed, I try to change the subject “So where do we go from here? The way I see it we need to find a way in there and see what’s what.”
“So I reckon, we head back to Camden and see if there is another way into the place, maybe from the other side” I conclude.
“Sounds ok. I got nothing better” Apprentice agrees.
“How do we get there?” Azrael asks Apprentice “Your car?”
“I’ve got two words for you” I inform him “Five. Series. We’re taking my motor.”
We drink up, get into my car and drive to Camden, where, once again, we have to park a considerable distance and walk to the Market. The Market is still the Market, but we ignore the crush of humanity and walk around to what I estimate is the opposite side of the take-away.
We find a somewhat run-down building with double glass doors, behind which we can see a corridor with a series of padlocked rooms. I produce the bent paper clip out of a pocket and bring it up to the lock. The lock clicks open and I hold the door open for my two associates. Making our way down the somewhat grimy corridor, I stop the other two at the fourth door.
“This has to be immediately behind and above the take-away.”
I wave the paperclip at the padlock, which obligingly falls open. Azrael pushes the door open carefully and enters when he is satisfied that it is unoccupied. Apprentice follows him, while I stand outside, in case anyone comes in. The room is small and decorated in an oriental motif, containing a chest, a nightstand, a screen in front of the window and a bed with red sheets. Clearly, a place for a hooker to entertain her clients. Azrael notices a button near the nightstand and presses it. Immediately, one half of the bed tilts at a sharp angle. At the same time a trapdoor opens at the foot of the bed to slam shut soon after. Anybody in that half of the bed would have been dumped into what lies below the trapdoor. According to Azrael, this is what looks like a walk-in freezer. It seems we have found the source of the take-away’s meat.
Distracted by this development, I look up when I hear the front door close. To my horror, I see an oriental man and woman, the former carrying a sawn-off shotgun, the other a meat cleaver. The man starts to bring his weapon up but I am gone. I run into the room and dive behind the bed.
“Manwithshotgunwomanwithcleavercomingthisway” I blurt as I hide behind the bed.
As Apprentice struggles to bring his shield to bear, the man comes into the room and shoots the short man in the gut. He staggers back as the woman enters. She smiles and smiles and smiles. Her mouth is way too wide and is filled with row upon row of sharp shark-like teeth. She evidently decides that a helpless victim is more fun, as she vaults onto the bed and attempts to bit my head off but I manage to jerk my head to one side and I hear her jaws snapping shut inches from my face.
The man, meanwhile seems paralysed by Apprentice’s shield, which he has finally managed to bring to bear and Azrael walks over and plucks she gun from the man’s grasp, only for him to recover his composure, snatch the gun back and squeeze off the other barrel into the hapless Apprentice. Who goes to ground, bleeding profusely, but not without catching the man across the chest with his sword. I am still faced with shark woman. Thinking quickly, I press the trapdoor button in an attempt to dump her into the freezer below. Which turns out to be a terrible idea. She has cat-like reflexes, steadies herself by grabbing hold of me and sinking her teeth into my shoulder.
Screaming in pain, I heave her off with strength I did not know I had and bolt for the door to see that the man is no longer in the room.
As the sharkwoman goes to pursue me, she is confronted with an angry-looking Azrael who tries to wrap his bike chain around her neck but fails miserably.
I then remember the goblin fruit Apprentice picked up and that they supposedly have healing qualities. He looks as if he is reaching for them in his bag. I cross over to where he lies and take the three red and white limes from the bag and eat one. I instantly feel a little better and Apprentice has evidently recovered a little as he snatches a second from my hand and eats that.
Behind us, the fight between the patchwork biker and the shark woman is still going on and it seems as though our guy might be losing. I pick up the nightstand and smash it over the woman’s head, which distracts her enough for Azrael to land a solid blow on her with his chain. At this, the woman clearly decides she has had enough and flees the room. As she does, I hear approaching footsteps over her retreating ones. Shit. The guy has obviously reloaded and is coming back for more. I slam the door shut and push the chest from the corner in front of it. Not too soon either as the door shudders when a boot slams into it.
“What now?” Azrael asks.
“Shit. The trapdoor. We’ll need to take our chances down there.” I suggest.
“We can’t. The slide will kill him” Azrael points at Apprentice who is still oozing a little and is clearly in need of medical attention.
“The window, then” I point “we chuck the mattress out jump onto that.”
“That will also kill him.”
“Fuck. The Hedge. We can open a hedgegate and get out that way.”
“Are you crazy? We can’t take him through the Hedge in his condition.”
“Fine. Stay here then. I’m, out of here.” I tell him; by now frustrated by all the moronic objections “you stay here and give my regards to Shark woman and Mr. Triggerhappy.”
I turn and open a hedgegate where the trapdoor opens and jump through. Soon after, Apprentice also hauls himself through, closely followed by Azrael.
On the way down, I manage to prick my hand on one of the hedge’s razor thorns. Weirdly, I get sensations of where things are in relation to us. There are healing fruits about seventy metres away to our left and a gate fifty in the opposite direction. Deciding that Apprentice will not last much longer without help, I set off to gather the fruit and find four large blue mangoes, of which I eat one, pass one to Azrael and the others to Apprentice. These things really work, I am only bleeding a little and Apprentice actually looks like he might pull through. With large amount of professional medical care.
With that taken care of for now, we make for the hedge gate, only to find ourselves in the goblin market. But, keeping our heads down and not saying a word to anyone we make it across and emerge under a bridge near Camden Market. Apprentice collapses to the floor and I take his phone from his pocket and call 999.
“Emergency services. What is the nature of your emergency?”
She sounds exactly like the person when I called for help in the cottage who promised me that an emergency was on its way. I scream, disconnect and throw the phone at Apprentice, before walking off towards my car.
Poppy. She will be able to help, so I try to call her. It goes straight to answerphone. In the hope of finding her in the copse on the Hedge, I retrace my steps, giving the place where Apprentice and Azrael are waiting for an ambulance a wide berth and go into the hedge through the gate opposite Potter’s.
Sure enough, Poppy is still here and the clearing is almost entirely covered in her namesakes. As I stagger to where she is sitting, she looks up, smiles “Hey Rake” she starts, then notices my torn clothes and blood seeping from the bite wound and stands up “Oh my god what happened?” she asks as she sits me down.
I start to tell her as she hands me another pipe and takes off my jacket and shirt to inspect the wound.
“I’ll have this fixed in no time” she informs me and runs her hands around the wound, which I can actually feel closing up as she does so.
“Tell me what happened” she repeats as she carries on caressing my chest and back after the wound has closed.
I do as instructed, leaving out certain parts of the story. Then I remember what Lupus said. “An Aswang! That’s what that thing was” and realise that I have started returning Poppy’s caresses and forget all about the Aswang for now.
Some time later, now fully relaxed again I tell her “I can get used to this healthcare system.”
“It’s what the spring court does. Healing, I mean” she explains “It is something you would be able to learn if you join. And, there are certain fringe benefits” she adds with a grin.
“What about the other two? What do they do?”
“Summer are all about brute force” she says a little disdainfully “and Tweed’s lot can utilise some kind of arcane knowledge. Besides, none of them are anywhere near as inviting.” She stretches provocatively.
“I guess the other courts’ recruiting policies would be less easy on the eye” I laugh as I run my eye over her tidy form again.
I have a lot of questions, mostly about the courts and their politics. At the same time I try to find out more about this woman who is messing with my head, making my life more interesting and, in some ways more complicated.
I am still in the grove when I wake up, one arm draped loosely around Poppy, who wakes when I move slightly.
“Morning” she greets me “sleep well?”
I nod. Once again she has managed to pick me up when I really needed it.
“I need to head off, got a few things to do today” she stands up, shakes grass from her clothes and starts to dress herself.
Looking at my watch, I see that I need to be at work fairly soon. I estimate that I will just about have enough time to head home and change out of the suit that the Aswang ruined. Having clothed ourselves, we walk to the hedgegate and out into Camden Market, where Poppy turns to me and takes her leave with a kiss “Call me later” she says before turning and walking away through the already busy Market.
I set off in the opposite direction, retrieve my car and drive home. I change into a new suit and am about to head to work when I notice the message icon flashing on the house phone, so I dial 1571. It is a message from Sharon. She asks whether Janie has any history of inventing things and whether I could come in as soon as possible.
There is nothing I can do about that now without Dave busting my balls, so I delay the hospital visit until after work. Work is the usual tedium as I attempt to extricate myself from the mess of highly unethical business practices my counterpart has set up and concentrate instead on the more run-of-the-mill moderately dodgy ones. For most of the day, it seems five o’clock is a long time away, but it rolls around eventually and I hurry over to Great Ormond Street. I make for the nurses’ office and find Sharon there talking with a young female doctor I have not met before. They look over when I knock on the door.
“James. Meet Dr. Fiona Jefferies” Sharon introduces the doctor “Fiona, this is Jane’s father, James.”
“What’s this about?” I ask Dr. Jefferies as I shake her hand.
“Well, it’s mostly good news. Physically, Jane is close to a full recovery. With physiotherapy, she might be able to go home in two weeks time. However,” she carries on when she sees the joy on my face “she has apparently been hallucinating, which may be a sign of latent trauma following the accident or as a result of her long coma.”
“Hallucinating? What’s that supposed to mean? And could that not be normal? I mean, she’s been through a lot so why not confuse dreaming with waking for a while. You tell me I’m not a doctor.” I am struggling not to let my disappointment and anger at the latest lot of medical jargon show.
“Obviously.” She says dryly “Maybe it would be best if you have a word with her and better still, stay with her tonight. I have made the necessary arrangements to allow you to stay.”
My anger at this young woman disappears as quickly as it came when she says this.
“Thank you. That would be great. I’ll talk to her now.” I shake her hand again, this time with genuine warmth and walk down the ward to Janie’s room.
She is sitting up in bed and reading one of the ‘Twilight’ novels. I briefly wonder what she would say if she knew that I was in the pub with a vampire and a werewolf a few days ago. As I sit down next to her, she looks up, then folds down the corner of the page and closes the book.
“Hi dad” she says as I kiss her forehead “how’s it going?”
“Not bad. Dave’s being a pain in the arse at work but otherwise it’s going fine. How are you doing?” I ask, instead of telling her that I have been investigating a creature that eats human flesh, only to be attacked by a vampire and a Chinese man.
“Ok, I guess. It’s pretty boring here and there’s that weird nurse who’s been coming in and doing all the normal nursy stuff like checking my pulse and things, but his hands are all cold and he never says a thing.”
“What’s he look like?”
“Maybe a bit taller than you, five-eleven or something, dark hair, glasses and he wears one of those paper masks. There he is again.” She points a shaky finger at the far wall. When I look over, I fail to see anyone. “Are you sure?” I ask cautiously “What is he doing?”
“Of course I’m sure” she says irritably “He’s just standing there. Wait… he’s pointing at the calendar.”
“Is he pointing at a particular date, like the twenty-first?” I have a horrible sinking feeling that this might be linked to the Equinox thing.
She swings her legs out of the bed and I help her over to the wall. “Yeah, the twenty-first. You really can’t see him? I want him to go away.”
She leans on me as she walks back to the bed.
“They are letting me stay here tonight and I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” I tell her.
“Really? That’s great.” She hugs me “So what do you want to do with the evening?” She seems to have forgotten about the nurse already and is overjoyed when I tell her that she might be able to come home soon.
We spend the rest of the day playing cards, watching TV and talking about this and that when my phone rings.
“Hello? Is that the metal man?” It is Lupus again.
“Hello Mr. Lupus. What can I do for you?”
“My associate has reiterated her desire to talk to you about the murders. She is very insistent, I am afraid.”
“I’m kinda busy right now, you know, getting my life back on track?”
“It will only take a little while, no longer than half an hour. I will send for a cab and will send you a message when it has arrived, then it will take you straight back to the hospital. I assume that is where you currently are?”
I don’t see much point in arguing further, bit really do not like the way he seems to know my movements “I guess so. No longer than half an hour.”
“Of course. We picked up the student you were investigating, by the way. He had attacked a campus security guard. If you had let us move sooner, we could have prevented a serious injury.” He sermonises at me.
“Look, I feel sorry for the security guard, but we were on our best way to solving this when we ran into that Aswang of yours and a Chinese man. The former tried to eat my face and her sidekick filled my associate full of shot.”
“An Aswang?” he interrupts sharply “there are no Aswang in our society.”
“Yeah well, head over there and tell her that. It’s the Taiwanese take-away in Camden Market and they seem to have a lock up or something behind and above. Oh and if you go and kick her ass, can you bill her for the suit she ruined?”
“We will take care of it. Thank you for the information.”
“Just let me know when the cab gets here.” I hang up and try to think of a way to tell Janie.
Back in her room I start “I’ve got to pop out for an hour or so, Dave called. I need to head to the office for a bit.”
“But it’s the middle of the night” she objects.
“I know, but you know how he is.” At this point, my mobile tells me that I have a message, which informs me that Lupus’ cab is here already. “I’ve got to go. I’ll be back in an hour, tops. I promise.”
She looks a bit unhappy but returns my embrace before I leave the room to find Sharon in the nurse’s station.
“What’s up?” she wants to know.
“I’ve got to pop out for a while. Work need me to come in.”
“At midnight on a Friday night?” she asks incredulously.
“Yeah, my boss is a real hardass. Can you look in on Janie now and again? I’ve got to run. I’ll be back soon.”
I leave the office and head to the exit, as I do so I send a message to Azrael, Apprentice, Poppy and Tweed, informing them of where I have gone in the event of me ending up in the ‘facility’. Oustside I climb into the waiting cab. The driver is a young black woman who turns to look at me before driving off.
“Ah, the metal man. Finally we meet.” She sounds as if she has spent too much time imbibing Poppy’s herbs and spices.
“And you are the seer, I take it.”
“I am, although I do not like that term.”
“Whatever. What have you got to tell me?”
“The Equinox murders. They are being committed by someone like you.”
“What the fuck does that mean? ‘Like me’? Someone related to me? A banker?”
“No. One who has powers and an aspect like you.”
“Oh right. I’m with you. I think.”
“They gather the day before the murder in a cottage in the capital, in a place we can not reach. They receive their marks there.”
Shit. The cottage in the hedge. I have no wish to go back there.
“So we go there, lock them in set the cottage on fire or something and all will be well.”
“Maybe. I can not see that. What I do know is that such actions will be very dangerous for you.”
“I see. Anything else?”
“That is all. I sense you have a question for me.”
“I do. My little girl has been seeing a ghost or something. Is there anything you can tell me about ghosts?”
She abruptly pulls the cab over, opens the hatch between driver and passenger compartment and puts her hand through. “Give me your hand” she instructs.
I do as she tells me and her eyes roll back in her sockets “It is an echo. Something that has happened or something that will happen.”
“I see. But what does it want with Janie?”
“It is trying to tell you something.”
“I get that. But what? Something to do with the Equinox murders?”
“I don’t know that. You need to ask your friend about the man nobody else can see. I can tell you no more.”
She snaps out of her trance or whatever else it was she was in and swerves back into traffic, cutting up a Mercedes on the way and drives me back to the hospital. It has only been a little over fifteen minutes. I cancel my panic call to my fellow changelings and enter the hospital.
Janie is asleep when I look in on her so I walk down the corridor the nurses’ office and stick my head round the door.
“Hey, I’m back. Got a call en route that I wasn’t needed after all.”
Sharon looks at me “I don’t know what you’re up to but do you know how often I get lied at every day? I’ve got quite good at spotting them.”
“You’re right. That was bullshit. I’d love to tell you what’s going on, but in truth, I’m not entirely sure myself.” I try the same evasion I used with Jane and seems to work on Sharon. For now.
“Janie’s sleeping. How about you and I head over to the canteen and get a bite to eat?” I suggest “You look like you could do with a break from that paperwork.”
“Sounds good. I really need to get this done. Do you mind if I take this along.”
“Not at all.” I offer her my arm, which she takes and we and we head to the canteen, which is mostly empty.
We get a little food and sit down at an empty table.
“So what are your plans?” Sharon asks.
“I’m not sure yet, this is happening quite quickly. I’ve tried to get half days out of work, but they’re not going for it.”
“You need to stand to them at some point.” She says sympathetically.
Suddenly I remember what the seer told me “Does the phrase ‘the man nobody else can see mean anything to you’?” I ask somewhat out of the blue.
She thinks about it for a little while, the shakes her head “Can’t say it does. Why?”
“Just something someone said and I’ve been trying to work out why it sounds familiar.” As I say the last thing, I realise I am lying again. It just comes so naturally and I am convinced that she will have me committed if I tell her what is really going on.
We talk for a while, which goes a way to fixing the friendship with her my fetch ruined, she then says she needs to get back to her paperwork and I quietly let myself into Janie’s room and fall asleep in the chair in the corner.
I severely regret the decision to sleep in the chair the next morning as I struggle to work out the cricks in my back. I think I prefer the grove in the hedge to this chair. Janie is already awake and raring to go. We have a quick breakfast and then head outside for a bit.
Eventually, I decide reluctantly that my associates need to be informed of what I learned from the seer. Azrael is incommunicado, but Apprentice picks up. I quickly relate what the seer told me about the murders and the ghost.
“Well, your ‘friend’ Poppy may know about the ghost, so how bout we head to Seven Dials. We can see if Tweed or whoever else is there to help with the cottage thing.”
“Sounds ok. Are you good to travel? I mean you did nearly have your organs pulverised by a Chinese man.”
“I’ll be fine.” The dwarf informs me “Just come and pick me up.”
I stay with Janie for a little while until the physiotherapist shows up for her treatment and I drive to the address Apprentice gave me, where he is waiting on his crutches.
“Wow you look like crap” I tell him as he struggles into my BMW.
“Thanks.” He says dryly.
We drive to Seven Dials and head up the stairs to the main room. Sitting around a table are Tweed, Ng and Sarah Hollow.
“Hey guys” I greet them
“Ah, Mr. Rake.” Tweed returns my greeting “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
He somehow manages to make the word pleasure sound like ‘terrible inconvenience’.
“Well actually, I was looking for Poppy. You haven’t seen her have you?”
“Poppy?” he looks at me thoughtfully “She was here earlier, but said she had to pop out. She is not in the Hedge, so you should be able to contact her by telephone. She spends too much time in the Hedge.”
“Too much time?” Apprentice puts in.
“Indeed. It is all about striking a balance. Some time in the Hedge is harmless and indeed useful, but too much time can be harmful.”
“Umm, ok thanks for that information, would never have guessed” I thank him dubiously.
“That’s fine. But knowledge in itself is dangerous.”
“Brilliant. I should be safe then” I quip.
“An apt assessment.”
“I guess you don’t want the information we’ve uncovered on the Equinox murders.”
“Not really. I have uncovered many disturbing signs surrounding the murders.”
Both Sarah and Ng look a little uncomfortable at this.
“But surely, we need to stop these things from happening if we can” Sarah appeals to Tweed.
He looks from her to me and back again. “Very well, tell us what you have uncovered, Mr. Rake.”
I relate what Lupus’ seer told me about the cottage and how the perpetrators might be one of us.
“According to what I have seen, it would be incredibly dangerous to stop this ritual.” Tweed says when I have finished.
“Dangerous? How?” I ask him.
“I don’t know. I think there will be little danger to whoever goes to stop these people, but to us as a whole.”
“But surely we can’t let them carry on murdering and torturing people because of some nebulous threat to us.” I tell him. Apprentice, Sarah and Ng nod and agree with me.
“Very well. I won’t stop you. As I said it is a danger, rather than a certain catastrophe, but I would still advise against it.” Tweed says.
“Fine. I need to have a word with Poppy. Can I leave you to organise things here?” I ask Apprentice.
I dial Poppy’s number and she picks up almost instantly.
“Hi Poppy. Are you free to meet up? I’ve got a few questions I need to ask you and well, I’d like to talk to you in person. Can we meet somewhere?”
“Of course. I’m in Holborn. Do you know Sam’s coffee shop?”
“I do. I can be there in forty-five minutes.”
“I’ll see you then.” She hangs up.
“I’m going to meet Poppy in Holborn. I’ll catch you later.” I tell Apprentice, leave Seven Dials and drive to Holborn.
As I enter the coffee shop, I notice that a lot of the customers have got dreamy, blissful expressions on their faces. I spot the reason for this and sit down opposite Poppy.
“What can I do for you?” she asks after ordering two coffees.
“What do you know about ghosts?”
“Ghosts? Not much, I’m afraid.”
“Or echoes. I don’t really know. It’s just that the seer said I should ask my friend about it.”
She raises an eyebrow “Is that what I am? A friend?”
I reach over and take her hand “Well, aren’t you? Among other things, I mean”
That seems to mollify her as she returns my smile “I guess so.”
I tell her about what Janie saw and she thinks about it for a bit. “I don’t think I can help you sorry.”
“That’s ok.” My phone receives a message and tells me so. I quickly read the message. “That’s Apprentice. He wants to know how to use a plant called Amaranthine
Poppy smiles “That’s something I do know about. How to prepare herbs. He needs to make an infusion. Just pour some boiling water over it and let it stew for about two minutes, then drink and make sure that he drinks the petals, as well.”
I relate her instructions, then remember what I was about to say. “
The other thing she told me was about the Equinox murders.” I quickly bring her up to speed about the seer’s information and the plan to intercept the killers.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m having a hard time coping. I’ve only been back a short while and loads of crazy stuff has been happening to me ever since and I just don’t know what good I’ll be to them, I should probably sit this one out.” I bury my head in my hands, so I don’t notice when Poppy stands up, and sits down next to me.
She puts an arm around my shoulder and casually places her other hand in my lap.
“That sounds sensible. How about you stick around? I know this nice restaurant we can go for a meal and then see where things take us.”
“That’s the best plan I’ve heard all day.” I smile at her.
“Have you thought about joining the courts?” She asks.
“A little. I don’t think I want any of Tweed’s stuff. He seems to be having a hard time coping with the knowledge he’s gaining from his mojo.”
“That’s true. He is burdened by what he sees.”
“And the summer lot seem to little more than glorified thugs.”
“No argument here.”
“So I guess the healing thing sounds pretty good, especially if Apprentice gets himself shot up some more.”
“You’ll have to get some medical training.”
“What like first aid?”
“That would be a start. I have done a course for paramedics. You need to know about the bodies you are trying to put back together. We at the spring court can organise something for you.”
“Sound good, but I’d like to think about it for a little longer if that’s ok.”
“That’s fine” she says, then my phone rings. It is Apprentice again.
“Rake? We need you.”
“Forget it. The only thing I’d be good for would be to provide another target for the bad guys.”
“Yeah that’s what I was hoping, but we actually need your unique talent here.”
“So does Poppy.”
“That’s not really unique. Or useful.”
“That’s not what she says.”
“Enough about your wang. We don’t know how to get to the cottage. You’re the only one who knows the way.”
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. I really do not want to go on this one, especially not if it means retracing the steps I took when I first went to Arcadia, but I can not see a way around it.
“ I’ll meet you outside a place called Hedgeways antiques on Portobello Road” I tell him dejectedly, then hang up and turn to Poppy.
“Really sorry, but they just can’t do this without me.”
“That’s ok. I’ll be waiting for you.”
We kiss and make my way to a place I had hoped never to see again. When I arrive at Hedgeways Antiques, Apprentice is there with a number of other changelings, Zach, Sarah, Molly, Polish and Ng.
“We all here?” I ask. Zach nods “Fuck it let’s do this, then” I tell them unenthusiastically and try the door. Locked. Of course. I insert the magic paperclip and the lock clicks open. I push open the door to find the dusty room full of old rubbish I entered more than two years ago in search of Becky’s locket. Suppressing a shudder I lead the party through the three almost identical rooms and through the hedgegate on the other side. In the hedge, I pluck a thorn from the hedge and prick my finger with it. The thorn immediately sucks up the drop of blood that wells from my fingertip and I get a sense of my immediate surroundings. The cottage is not far away but there is no sign of the conspirators yet, although there are some hobs not too far away. It feels like they are merely passing through, though. I lead the band of oddballs to the cottage, where we find a variety of goblin fruits, one of which Sarah identifies as a fractal grape, which is a powerful healing fruit. Apprentice immediately consumes these and looks a little better instantly. The others Sarah can not identify beyond declaring an eggplant-like thing safe for consumption. I put this and the others in a bag in the hope that Poppy might be able to identify them later.
We survey the area. There are no good hiding places beyond the shed, which would be too small for all of us, so I suggest that some of us hide in the top floor and lower themselves down with ropes made of the bed linen when the murderers arrive. Molly and Polish head upstairs, while Zach, Apprentice, Sarah and I hide in the shed.
We do not have to wait long before a man appears. He is evidently a changeling, wearing jackboots and a winged helmet. His face is made up of strange angles and he appears to be made of metal as well. Apprentice told me about the boots. They are worn by loyalists and always return the wearer to their master.
The loyalist enters the cottage and spends a short time in there before leaving, supernaturally quickly.
After a short while, I make sure the coast is clear and head into the cottage to discover what he has left. In the cottage I discover a sheet of paper with two names and coordinates. I take a picture of the sheet with my phone and am about head back out to join the others when I hear a noise outside. Unsure about whether it was my companions in the shed or not, but unwilling to find out, I turn and make my way out of the cottage, heading to the door in the other side. I am almost at the door when I hear Apprentice call “Freeze motherfucker” before an ominous hum sounds, then a sound a tree might make if it was torn apart from within and I see a blinding light, like a miniature sun to the side of the cottage. That side of the building bursts into flame as I guess that Apprentice has let loose with his plasma gun. He has evidently hit who he was shooting at; I hear a blood-chilling scream that only stops when I hear a shotgun blast.
Molly and Polish. They are upstairs. I start to re-enter the cottage but see that the stairs are on fire. Thinking quickly, I wave Apprentice over and together we wrench the trellis out of the ground and lean it against the wall. I climb up quickly and start tearing at the thatched roof with my claws, calling out to Molly and Polish. Eventually, I manage to knock a hole in the roof and see their soot-stained faces. I give them a hand onto the roof and we manage to climb back down to safe ground. Looking around, we notice that Sarah is missing and we run around the cottage to find her lying on the ground in a pool of her own blood. Apprentice looks over her briefly. “She’s still alive, barely. We need to get her to a hospital. Now.” He picks her up and turns to me. “Lead the way.”
I start running towards the hedgegate. The hedge has only added one turn, so I manage to find the gate quickly enough. Molly opens it and we spill into the antiques shop. Zach calls 999 and Apprentice excuses himself. “Don’t think it’ll be a good idea if I’m found near another person bleeding to death” and he leaves the shop.
I make a similar excuse and arrange to honour my date with Poppy. En route Apprentice calls. “We’re fucked.” He starts without preamble. “I knew it. We’re fucked. That ritual was the only thing keeping the fae out. I’m gonna get blind drunk now. Have a good life.”
Before I can argue the bullshit of that assessment he has disconnected and my phone rings again. A voicemail from Sharon this time. “James? Can you come over? There’s been some weird stuff happening. I need to talk to you.”
Worried that something has happened to either Sharon or Janie I call poppy and let her know that I will be a little late and drive back to the hospital.
As soon as I set foot on the ward Sharon pulls me into her office.
“What’s up, Sharon. Is something wrong with Janie?”
“No. She’s fine. It’s… are you ok? You look terrible.”
“I’m ok. I’ve just…We… fuck it. I don’t know.”
“Wow, James, you’re really good at explaining things.”
Yeah. I have been abducted by sadistic freaks, been tortured for two years while a double fucks up my life, then I escape to find that I am somehow made of a weird metal and there is a bunch of weirdos like me out there and since I have returned I have met a new monster every day, some of which have tried to eat me. I have learned that vampires, werewolves, wizards, wendigo and fairies are very real and the latter might be coming back to drag me back to torture me for all eternity. So I guess I’m not very good at explaining things right now.
All this goes through my head.
“I guess not, I’ve had a lot going on” is all I say instead “so what’s the problem?”
“Well some of our blood stores have gone missing. I just don’t know how, but I need to figure it out and… well, I thought you might be able to help me” she looks at me imploringly.
“I’ll see what I can do” I tell her “can I have a quick chat with Janie. That nurse she says she’s been seeing might have something to do with this. She said he was about five eleven, dark hair, glasses…”
“Blue eyes?” Sharon completes the description. “That’s Ian Campbell. He used to work here.”
“Where is he now?”
“Don’t know. He left a while ago. You say Janie’s been seeing him?”
“Sounds like it. I’ll need to find out if she’s seen him lately.”
“Ok. I’ll walk you down there.”
We walk to Janie’s room together and find her still awake, watching TV.
“Oh hey dad, Sharon” she greets us as we close the door behind us.
“Hey, honey” I hug her “have you seen that nurse guy lately?”
“Only once. He was outside and wrote ‘too late’ on the door. What does that mean?”
“I don’t know” I reply and hope they haven’t noticed the blood draining from my face as I fear the worst.
We talk for a little while until Sharon declares that it is time for Janie to rest and ushers me out.
“I’ll have a think about your problem tomorrow” I tell Sharon “I’ll have to have a look at the logs though. Don’t worry, I’ll be very discreet” I add when I see the alarm on her face “but it’s the only way I might be able to find out what’s going on.”
“Ok. I’ll see you tomorrow” she gives me a hug “Thanks, James.”
I leave the hospital once more to finally keep my date with Poppy.
I drive to the address Poppy told me to meet her at in north London, climb the short flight of stairs to the front door and ring the bell. It does not take long for Poppy to answer the door. She embraces me and her greeting kiss lasts quite a while. When she lets me go I take a good look at her. She looks stunning and I realise that I am definitely falling for her. She leads me into her dining cum living area where she has a meal laid out. The place is itself has got a new age type feel about it with wall hangings and throws everywhere, as well as incense that even overpowers Poppy’s intoxicating scent. I recognise the signs of a date that point to the bedroom at the end of it, even if I would have done things a little differently. Most notable among these is that I would not have had Ginger there. For some reason, Poppy has asked her to perform waitressing duties, but I do not let that distract me from having a good evening.
The food is good, even though all-vegetarian would not have been my first choice. After the meal, Ginger starts to tidy up and disappears into the kitchen. Poppy opens a window, walks to where I am still sitting and starts to massage my back and shoulders. The combination of her doing this and the incense no longer masking her scent relaxes me so I barely hear her when she says “Have you decided whether you want to join the courts or not?”
“Yeah, I think so. What you said the other day sounded pretty good.” I reply distractedly.
“Good. It will mean that you will swear to the Spring court and its Monarch, which will give you access to our resources and the right to vote at our meetings.”
“Oh, ok. Yeah.”
She sits on my lap. “Welcome to the Spring Court then. Come this way.” standing up again, she takes my hand and leads me from the living room to a hedgegate, which she opens and starts through.
“It’s perfectly safe.” She says when she sees how reluctant I am to enter the hedge. “This is one of the Court’s Hollows. I told you about them the other day.”
Remembering that she did, I stick my head through the gate and take a look around. The small clearing is entirely surrounded by high walls and appears to have been furnished as an extension to the house. There are several beds and other pieces of furniture in here, as well as an area partitioned off with sheets of material, which has chains hanging from the wall. Poppy notices me looking at the latter but seems unperturbed, so I decide that it is probably nothing to worry about. One area of the room has been converted into a garden and it looks like Poppy is cultivating a variety of Goblin fruits here. Another area is given to her stash of drugs and paraphernalia. This is all I have time for to look at, as Poppy pulls me onto a bed and we start undressing each other.
After a session of amazing sex, I get up again and have a look at the little garden in the corner. “Wouldn’t it be useful to have some kind of field guide on these?” I turn to ask Poppy to find that she has wandered over, as well.
“Have a look at this.” From one of the shelves, she pulls a large book, which has been burned cleanly in half and opens the crackling pages carefully. Inside are beautiful illustrations of the fruits, as well as descriptions of uses.
I then remember the bag of unidentified fruit, I picked up and left in my car. “Hang on a bit” I tell her, pull on my trousers and shirt and go to fetch the bag from the car.
Back in the Hollow, I empty them on the ground “Any idea what these are?” I ask her.
“Most of them. This one. This one is interesting. Only eat this one when you’re in a safe place with someone you trust. Can I have this one? I’ll try growing it.”
“You might like this one.” She passes me a golden apple, which is a s heavy as if made of gold. “Try it. It can restore your Glamour.”
I do as she says. Despite feeling like gold, it feels and tastes like a sweet apple when I bite into it.
“It’s also an aphrodisiac” Poppy adds with a cheeky grin after I have eaten the apple.
She’s not wrong about that last bit, either. I pick her up and return to the bed.
Eventually we fall asleep, exhausted and when I wake up, it is a beautiful Sunday morning. Poppy is already moving about, dressing herself.
“I need to head off. Got some business to attend to.”
“Oh yeah. What is it you do?” I ask, realising that I have not bothered to find out, as I also start to pull my clothes back on.
“I trade rare commodities” she replies a little evasively.
“I see” I simply say, not really wanting to know any details.
Poppy sits down next to me and gives me a key. “That’s for the front door. Let yourself in, if I’m not around and you need the Hollow. I’ll catch you later.” she says as I leave the house.
On a bit of a high, I make my way to Great Ormond Street Hospital in the morning sunshine, park up and head into the hospital, where they tell me that Janie is in physiotherapy. The young man at reception gives me directions and I find my way easily, to find Janie, Sharon and a physiotherapist working on getting her legs moving again properly.
“Dad!” she greets me cheerily “they say I can come home in a week or two! Isn’t that great?”
It really is. I am not sure if the day can get any better.
“Will you be able to look after her during the summer holidays though?” the therapist asks.
“I’ll work something out. I’ve tried getting half days but work are being arseholes.”
“Have you considered a career change?” Sharon asks.
“Yeah, you could like, start your own business from home.” Janie suggests.
“Well, a friend of mine has hinted that it may be useful for me to get into the medical profession.” I say, choosing my words carefully.
“What like a doctor?” Janie wants to know.
“No that’s a bit advanced and involved.”
“A nurse, then?”
“Maybe. Or paramedic. Or something like that.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Sharon says “We’re always looking for good staff. It’s a pretty involved course though“ she warns.
“That’s ok.” I shrug “I reckon I’ve done well enough lately to not work for quite a while. I’ll have to look into it. The very least I can do is hand in my notice at work and if I really have to, I’m sure I can pick up a similar thing once you’re back on your feet, if nothing else” I tell Janie.
“That sounds awesome.” she gives me a hug.
The physiotherapist interrupts “I’m going to leave you alone now. I’d like you to practice catching and throwing, get those arms working again.” he tells Janie and hands her a small blue ball then leaves with Sharon.
We do as we are told for a while and I forget all about the rest of the world. Until my phone rings. It is Apprentice.
“Hey Rake, we need some Babel Gum.”
“Babel Gum. you know like the tower in the bible.”
“What the hell do we need that for and where the fuck would I get that?”
“You can probably get some off Poppy. If not, she’ll probably know where to get some.”
“No chance. I’m busy.”
“Now for why we need it. According to Tweed, we are royally fucked. Come sunrise tomorrow, the protection from the last Equinox murders will run out and the Gentry are going to have free run of the City. And they are going to go to town on this place. They’ve been kept from doing what they want here for three years. You fill in the blanks. Tweed reckons the only thing we can do is to either get out or ask these things he calls ‘Forerunners’ which sound like dragons to me if there’s anything we can do to keep those fuckers out that doesn’t involve horrible murder and mutilation. These things don’t speak English so we need some of that gum which will allow us to talk to them. Comprende?”
I nod in stunned silence, then remember that I’m on the phone “Fine” I tell him quietly and disconnect.
I return to Janie’s room “I’ve got a few things to sort out” I tell her “I’ll be back tomorrow” and sincerely hope that I will be.
She hugs me “See you tomorrow. Are you ok? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine” I say, then leave, wondering if I will ever see her again.
On my way out, Sharon says something but I do not hear her.
I try to call Poppy but can not get an answer, so drive to the house in north London. On the way it clouds over and by the time I get out of the car, it is pouring with rain.
There is no answer when I knock, so I let myself in. Calling raises nobody, either and I find the Hollow. I hear the rattling of chains and look behind the partition to find Ginger chained up there and I get the horrible feeling that I may have been played. Not that I minded the actual being played, but this...
“What the fuck...”
She simply looks at me and I realise that I have never heard her speak, although that is fairly common among the members of the various courts.
“Is this normal?” I ask her.
“Do you want me to undo those?”
She shrugs and shrinks away from me a little.
At a loss about what to do and feeling a little sick as one of the few people I trust is the kind of person who chains up someone I thought was her friend, I recall why I am here. The Babel Gum. I have no idea what I am looking for, so look in the almanac and find a dose of the stuff on a shelf. It looks as if someone has peeled old chewing gum from the pavement and rolled it into a little cylinder. I put in my pocket and return to Ginger.
“I’ll get to the bottom of this, don’t worry.” I tell her, reluctant to let her go as I still hope that Poppy had a good reason for doing this as this would mean that what little happiness I managed to find in the last two years would come crashing down around me.
Back on the street, it is raining harder than ever. I remember seeing a pub on the corner of the street and walk the short distance there. Here, I sit down at the bar, hand the man behind the bar a few twenty pound notes and instruct him to keep it coming, which he is happy to do.
I call Apprentice and Azrael “Got the gum. I’m in the Winchester in north London” is all I say before going back to trying to drink myself to oblivion.
My associates arrive together and sit down either side of me.
“Easy there” Apprentice tells me, looking at the empty glasses “What the hell happened to you?”
“Well, I’m having a hard time coping when everything I thought was good is turning out to a big pile of shit.”
“What’s that sposed to mean?” Azrael wants to know on the other side of me.
“Fuck it. Doesn’t matter. Looks like we’re all fucked anyway, with the Gentry coming to kick our asses by tomorrow. At least Arcadia doesn’t raise your hopes of things getting less horrible. You know what you’re getting with them.”
Apprentice and Azrael look at each other.
“Ok” the former says slowly “what are we gonna do now?”
“The vampire guy!” I say suddenly.
“Hey yeah” Azrael agrees “his bunch might be able to help. If not, they at least need to be warned.”
“What? No. He’s got a pub. We should go there. Get blind drunk, then find a rock to hide under until all this goes away.” I slur at him.
They exchange another look and assist me to Apprentice’s car to drive to the Pax Anglos pub.
Having arrived, I continue what I started in the Winchester, while Azrael asks the barman about Mr. Lupus’ availability.
“He’s not available at the moment. I will see if I can reach his assistant.” He talks on his phone for a bit, then nods at me “Is he alright?” he asks Apprentice.
“I’m fine” I tell him, “just keep them coming.”
He does so until the administrator, Sarah enters the pub about half an hour later.
“Oh hey. Sarah, right?” I greet her “Gotta tell you, you look hot in that suit of yours.”
She looks at me, then at Apprentice and Azrael who shrug apologetically, then at the barman and makes a cutting off gesture.
“You’d better come upstairs” she tells my companions, then addressed the barman “Coffee, please and water. Lots of it.”
Once again, Apprentice and Azrael help me up and manage to get me up the stairs without me collapsing and sit me down in a chair.
“What’s this about? What’s up with him?” Sarah asks Azrael as I slump in the chair.
“We’ve got a bit of a situation and he’s having a hard time dealing with it. And it appears he’s got some other issues that he’s not talking about.”
That is all I hear before I fall asleep for a while.
When I wake up, it is because a number of people have gathered in the room and are eating take-away. Some of them, I saw when I was last here and there are a number of others I have not seen before.
One of the guys has just responded to Azrael’s request to prove they are legitimate. As if that matters at this point in time, whether a bunch of supernatural freaks are actually what they say they are. Not sure anything matters right now.
The guy stands up and waves a hand in front of his face and it changes to match that of one of the other guys in the room.
“Big fucking deal” I struggle to my feet “can’t everyone do that?”
I rearrange my own features to match Sarah’s, at which the young administrator looks distinctly unimpressed.
Azrael looks at me in surprise. “Can we all so that?” he asks Apprentice.
“Don’t think so. I’ve never tried, anyway. Wouldn’t know where to start. Rake! Over here. Sit your ass down.”
I turn towards him and stumble.
“Are you alright, Mr... Rake is it?” Lupus asks.
“Oh I’m fine. Mr Vampire. Let me see. I lost my wife to a car crash, my daughter to a coma, my life to torturous fairies for two years. I finally escape to find that I’ve been turned into some kind of monster, then meet a new monster, no offence, every day of the week, am attacked by Asian vampires. And when my life finally looks like it might be on the up, I mean, my little girl’s woken up and things are going well with a hot redhead, I find out that by vaporising a man we might have ushered in the end of the world and I discover that my relationship might not be quite what it appeared. On top of that, as part of the end of the world, it looks like I’m going to be dragged to Tortureland again for all eternity and there’s fuck all I can do about it.”
There is stunned silence after my diatribe.
“Oh wow. It feels really good to let that out” I say.
Then there is a knock at the door.
“Shit they’re here already.” I look around in a panic for an exit and am about to try one of the strengthened windows when Sarah, who has walked to the door and peered through the spyhole says “Who ordered the pizza?” to which Charles, the shapeshifter sheepishly raises his hand.
I collapse back into the chair and pay little attention to the rest of the meeting as I try to distract myself from my thoughts by wondering what Sarah looks like under that suit.
“So what do we do now?” Apprentice interrupts my ogling.
“Fucked if I know. Looks like the only option we got is to find these dragon things and see if there’s another way to keep the arseholes out.”
The dwarf shrugs “That’s all I got.”
We take our leave from Lupus and his assemblage of supernatural oddities and head downstairs to the pub, where we open a hedgegate in one of the toilet stalls and step through.
We find ourselves in a non-descript area of the hedge and Apprentice produces a tin of shoe polish. I am just about to ask how shiny shoes are to help here, he opens it and a small mechanical insect takes to the air.
“Take us to the forerunners” Apprentice instructs it and the construct buzzes off.
“Tweed supplied it” Apprentice says in response to my inquiring look.
We set off down the maze of passages that form the paths through the hedge. About an hour into our journey, I start feeling uneasy about the way ahead. More uneasy, anyway.
“I think there may be trouble ahead” I tell Apprentice.
“What kind of trouble?” he wants to know.
“Dunno. It’s just... that way” I indicate the way the bug is leading us.
Apprentice pulls out his sword and carves a small hollow into the hedge itself.
“Guess we’d better hide and see what happens” he explains his plan.
Squeezing into the alcove he has made, we do not have to wait long until we hear shuffling footsteps. As we peer through the hedge, we can make out what appears to be four hobs leading two humans by chains.
“Goblin slavers” Apprentice hisses at me.
“Fuck. We can’t leave those poor bastards to them” I whisper back “Besides, they might come in handy. I’m going to try something. Just be ready to kick their asses when I tell you to. With any luck we can even the odds before they know what hit them.”
I step out of the hedge, assuming an authoritative air and employing my Mask of Superiority, which, in theory should convince the goblins that I am their superior.
“Halt!” I call as I step to bar their path.
The creatures do stop and hesitate momentarily, then the front two goblins are lifted off their feet by the chains connecting them to the ones behind them. Horrified, I realise that this thing is some kind of gestalt entity made of goblin and human corpses held together by animate chains.
“Change of plan” I yell at Apprentice. “RUN!”
I bolt past the creature to follow the mechanical invertebrate. Luckily the thing appears to be sluggish and does not give chase.
Eventually, when we are sure that we are not being followed, we slow down and continue to follow the bug, which seems to be running out of juice as the journey wears on.
After a further two hours, by my estimation, we have left any landmarks, such as they are in the hedge behind and are walking through a wilderness, when Apprentice stops me and points at an area of hedge. At first I can not make out what he is trying to show me, then I see it. A huge yellow eye with a slit pupil is staring at us from the hedge. Having seen is, I can make out the rest of the creature. It does indeed appear to be a giant reptile, at least twenty feet long. By now, I have gone past terror and have entered a strange sense of calm, so that I simply ignore the creature and carry on following Tweed’s insect, which is unerringly heading for a small grove ahead from which a plume of smoke is rising.
The dragon falls in behind us as we walk towards the copse, where we find another dozen of the creatures. No two are exactly alike. Some are covered in feathers, others snake-like, lacking wings, while yet others have no forelegs.
“Looks like the entire world’s dragon myths are gathered in one place.” Apprentice murmurs at me.
I was wrong about being beyond terror. The prospect of talking to a gaggle of giant lizards makes me want to run screaming from the grove. Instead, I retrieve the Babel gum from my pocket and start chewing on the disgusting wad. Almost instantly, I can make sense of the strange singing noises the forerunners have been making.
“Umm... so are you what are colleague calls the forerunners?” I ask, really not sure of how to approach these things.
“We are the last” one of them replies, not really answering the question. This, as I find out, is an irritating habit they have, not answering questions properly. Instead, they proceed to tell me the story of their species, which, if I was a cryptozoologist and not petrified with fear, might have been of interest. Slightly more relevant than the fact that the fae ousted them from their home in Arcadia is the fact that the fae are a common enemy and the dragons are happy to help with advice as they “Can not affect your world” as one of them tells me.
They explain a little of the contract that kept the fae out, but the details are neither here nor there as there is apparently no way to replicate it. Instead, they tell me that it is possible to kill the fae. In our world with cold iron to the heart. Simple. Even simpler as they are surrounded by minions and apparently have several bodies.
“So can we determine where they will appear, so we can carry out this simple task of deicide?” I ask the singing reptiles.
On of them presents me with a cube-shaped apple which it twists open. “Eat the seeds” it instructs. Eating seeds of strange fruit offered by huge reptilian creatures seems like a good idea, so do as I am told.
The effects of these things would have done any of Poppy’s substances proud. I am immediately surrounded by images and lights. No longer standing in the clearing, I see London from above. As I watch, three huge figures emerge from the ground. One of them looks like Janie with hollow eyes and I scream and try to withdraw from here. “They can not hurt you” one of the dragons whispers gently.
I continue to observe the three fae, who form a triangle, the sides of which catch fire. The fire spreads to consume the centre of the triangle and with it a large part of central London. From this fire rises a figure made of razorblades. A dragon swoops to attack this figure and is swatted aside like a fly. The vision resets, although this time the dragon attacks one of the figures on the corner of the triangle and consumes it. It then attacks the blade man and succeeds in bringing him down.
That is all I see as my vision turns black and I fall into a deep sleep.
When I awake, I see the forerunners have left and Apprentice sneaking around the clearing, clearly up to no good. I consider the possibility that he might have been in on the murders and was trying to save his own skin as we were getting close. Or worse, he is trying to turn me in to the fae to save his own worthless skin. I pick up a few rocks and throw them at him.
“Keep away, motherfucker” I warn him off.
He keeps his distance but I can see him lurking in the trees, ready for when I let my guard down.
Finally, the effects of the seeds wear off and I calm down. Apprentice cautiously approaches, gathers up the mechanical insect.
“You calmed down yet?” he asks.
“Guess so. Sorry about that.” I start to bring him up to date on what the dragons told me.
“Yeah, I know. After you blacked out, they filled me in. Sounds easy, right? Get some cold iron and then kill demi-gods in a precise order.”
“Not precise. It doesn’t matter which one of the three we murder first, as long as we do so before killing the blade man. Then we can despatch the other two at our leisure.”
“If you put it like that it only sounds mildly impossible. Let’s get out of here. Which way?”
The weird sense that usually guides me fails me utterly and I set off in what I hope is the direction we came from, also hoping that my directional sense will come back to me.
It seems like it has, as, after a while we come across stonework of Edwardian design and my sense tells me there is a gate nearby. As I go to move forward, Apprentice put a hand on my arm.
“Where the fuck have you led us? This is loyalist central” he whispers.
As he does, I notice a large number of people loafing among the masonry and barrels that are strewn around, all of them wearing the distinctive boots marking them as loyalists. We turn around to leave quietly when a shout goes up “Get them!”
I start to run when a searing bolt of pain tears into my back and I hear Apprentice swear. He readies his plasma gun and plugs the feed straight into his arm.
“Get down” he says as his rifle emits that ominous hum.
I need no second invitation and hit the deck. Some of the enemy behind me realise the danger and scatter into the hedge. Others are not as fortunate as the superheated ball of ionised air explodes among them, sublimating one and setting the others alight.
Apprentice picks me up and we hightail it out of there to find the white road after a lot of wrong turns. Arbitrarily, we turn right and hear a carriage approaching. When it comes into view, we see that it is being drawn by humans in straight jackets being whipped by a tall man in thick-rimmed glasses in a blood-stained doctor’s smock. I recognise this figure and immediately turn tail to run the other way down the white road, only to be tripped by an unseen obstacle. Looking at what might have tripped me, I hear somebody say “Boo!” and another straight-jacketed figure materialises out of nothing. I lash out at her with my foot but miss horribly. Upon which, she falls on me and starts tearing at the shoulder that the Aswang tried to consume with her teeth.
I almost pass out with the pain when I see Apprentice bend the woman’s head backwards and remove with one cut of his sword. He tries to drop it but the hair appears to cling to his hand so he skewers the head with his blade and flicks it sideways into the hedge before helping me up from underneath the still very lively corpse and I see that he too has been shot by an arrow fired by the loyalists. Together, we stumble down the white road and finally find ourselves in Seven Dials. The wardrobe has exploded outwards to expose London to the Hedge. The room is a mess of debris and broken furniture but we can not see any bodies, so stagger down the stairs, now weak with pain and blood loss.
We emerge into the morning sun to see that London is carrying on life as usual. Nobody pays us much attention until an old lady sees us and walks over.
“Are you alright?” she inquires.
“We’re fine.” Apprentice replies “You don’t happen to have a car we can borrow, do you?”
She looks at us suspiciously.
“Don’t worry love” I try to deflect her suspicions “We’ve been on a stag do and had few drinks too many. Oh look, there’s our car.” I point down the road and start in that direction “Thank you for your concern.”
We leave the woman standing there. As we round the corner I see that she is dialling on her mobile.
“Fuck. We need to leave. Now.” I tell Apprentice “We need to steal a car.”
“How bout that one?” he points to a battered BMW.
“Perfect.” I draw the paperclip from my pocket and try to insert in the keyhole but my vision blurs and I see three of them. With my last shred of willpower, I pull myself together and open the door. Apprentice goes to work hotwiring the car as I pull myself in to the passenger seat. Just before I black out again, I give him the address of Poppy’s safehouse.
As he drives I pass in and out of consciousness and hear snatches of telephone conversations he is having with at least two people about cold iron, fire and something about lead.
Apprentice shakes me awake “Is this the place?” he asks
I look out of the window to see the apartment block where I spent the night with Poppy only yesterday. Seems like much longer. We park the car and struggle up the stairs. I unlock the front door and lead Apprentice to the hollow where we find some green mushrooms the almanac says have healing properties. We eat three each and instantly feel somewhat better, no longer immediately at death’s door.
“What now?” I look at Apprentice.
“Fuck knows. Looks like we need to get hold of some meteoric iron. I’ve looked into some other possibilities but they seem a bit impossible.”
“K. Who do we know who might have some of that?”
“Zach hasn’t got a clue and Tweed isn’t answering his phone. Poppy?”
“I’ll give her a try.” I dial her number and, to my surprise, she answers.
“Poppy. You’re still alive. Good.” I proceed to describe to her the mess we are in but fail to do so in a coherent manner.
“Have you been at the hallucinogens, Rake?” she wants to know.
“Not since the dragons fed me some. We need your help.”
“I’m not in London. I’m safe, sorry can’t help you.”
“Safe? The fae are not going to be content with just London.”
“Don’t think so. Listen, we’ll talk again when I’ve had time to think and am not in the middle of a breakdown and have not been killed or abducted. in the meantime, have a good life.”
“No luck then?” Apprentice comments after I hang up.
I shake my head. “Only one place I know has meteorites. The Natural History Museum.”
“Are you insane? We can’t bust in there.”
“The way I see it, it’s that or go catching asteroids ourselves in space, so I don’t think we’ve got an option.”
“When you put it that way...” Apprentice reluctantly agrees “I’ve got no ideas that aren’t impossible.”
“Unless...” I start.
“Pax Anglos. They have some mystical kipple lying about.”
“Worth a try.”
I dial the number Sarah gave us. She answers quickly.
“Sarah? It’s Rake. You remember from last night?”
“Yes.” she sounds as is she would rather not remember “Your demonstration was... interesting. What do you want now?”
“You guys don’t happen to have any meteoric iron lying around do you?”
“Some what? Why?”
“Because we have to murder some immortals in order to avert everyone from dying or being enslaved.”
“What? I guess we had better meet up. Can you be at the pub in an hour?”
“Anything for you.”
She hangs up disgustedly.
“What now?” Apprentice asks.
“I dunno...pub?” I say off-handedly and we set off for the Pax Anglos in my car.
Sarah is already there when we arrive and leads us to the meeting room.
“What’s this about?” she demands.
We quickly sketch the details of the last half day or so.
“We might be able to help you” she starts slowly when we have finished “but we will need something in return. Can you get your leaders to pledge to our cause?”
“Let’s see...” I start ticking off on my fingers “one is incommunicado, another is busy evacuating the place and the third is probably on her way to Brazil by now. So no, we can’t get them to do that.”
“What then?” Sarah wants to know.
“Well or bargaining chips are small and few” Apprentice tells her “the most major among them the fact that the events that are going to fuck us over and also going to fuck you over if we can’t do anything about them.”
“Have you got any proof of these events” she asks.
“Well just wait a day or two and if we’re all dead, we were right.” I tell her.
“I will need to talk with the group. Can I get back to you on this?”
“Sure thing, sweetheart, just don’t wait too long, cos we might be dead if you do. Meanwhile I’ve got a thing or two to sort out and we’ve got a museum heist to plan.”
Sarah exits the pub and leaves me and Apprentice to discuss our movements.
“The Natural History Museum, then” the dwarf starts “What do we know about it?”
“It’s free to get in” I reply.
“Brilliant” Apprentice responds drily “at least we won’t be slightly poorer. Anything useful? Like where they might keep their space rocks?”
“Dunno” I shrug “don’t think they’ve got them on display, so probably in storage somewhere.”
“How are we sposed to get in there?”
“Maybe, I try my ‘hey museum worker, I’m your superior and have lost my key so let me in’ trick or we use the good old paperclip and then we leave through the Hedge.”
“Could work. But still way too much to go wrong. I’ve had a thought. Maybe Slim Jimmy knows where we can get our hands on some cold iron without resorting to robbing a public institution.”
“Who the fuck is Slim Jimmy?” I want to know.
“Zach’s sidekick and arguably the guy in charge of the Summer Court. Now shut up,”
He has dialled a number on his phone and is holding it to his ear.
“Jimmy? Hi, it’s Apprentice.”
“What? Zach gave it to me. Listen we need to get hold of some cold iron and word is you might be the guy to ask.”
“How about the Pax Anglos?”
“K. Fine. We can be there in an hour.” He disconnects. “We’re meeting him in a pub in Walthamstow. Says he’s not keen to appear here.”
“Walthamstow? Fine. But we’re taking your motor. Don’t want to come back to find mine up on bricks.”
Apprentice rolls his eyes, finishes his drink and leads me to his Volvo. We make good time across town and arrive in Walthamstow a little early. The pub Jimmy described is as ramshackle and dingy as expected.
We order a drink and are just about to sit down at one of the grimy tables when Jimmy walks in and joins us.
“What’s this about?” the short figure in the rumpled trenchcoat asks.
“Well”, Apprentice starts “I’m sure you are aware of the current situation.”
“What, you mean Seven Dials? Cos there’s some weird stuff going on there. Looked like a re-enactment society meeting or something. Three groups came out of there and headed off in separate directions.”
“That’s where the first three must be turning up.” I interrupt.
“What three? And who the fuck are you?” Jimmy looks at me.
“Name’s Rake. According to our sources, don’t ask who they are, it’s long and complicated, three fae are going to show up before Jack turns up and we’ve got to whack one of them before taking out Jack and then the other two. That’s why we need cold iron. Apparently we can kill the fae with it while they’re over here.”
“What? You can kill the fae?”
“Apparently. Only problem is, we haven’t got any cold iron. You don't happen to have lying around, do you?”
“Fraid not.” Jimmy says slowly “but I’ve been looking into potential sources as it’s sposed to keep the bastards away.”
“According to my sources a meteorite went down ages ago somewhere in northern Alaska and the natives there have been making metal tools out of it for decades.”
“Oh good. So we need to head to Alaska and ask if we can borrow some of their stuff” I mutter.
“Will you shut up.” Jimmy says irritatedly. “A collector here in London has acquired one of the knives. Name’s George Cannes. That might be your best bet, although word is that he’s got impressive security in and around his place.”
“Don’t you know that kind of high-society knob?” Apprentice asks me “Sounds like the kind of asshole you’d hang out with.”
“Never heard of the guy. I do know someone who might, though. Margaret Wong. She’s a wine collector and usually knows everyone who’s anyone. I’ll give her a call.”
It takes a little while for her to pick up and I hope I have not interrupted anything important as that might put the entire conversation on the back foot.
“Hello, Margaret. It’s James. James Torrance.”
“James!” she sounds pleased to hear from me “What have you been up to recently? I thought you had forgotten about me. We have missed you, you know. What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if you know an antiques collector called George Cannes.”
“George? Of course. Why?”
“Well I can’t go into too much detail, but some of client’s financial dealings keep coming back to him and I am just doing a little groundwork on the man, to make sure that he is above board. So anything you can tell me about him, in confidence, of course, would be much appreciated.”
“I see. Well, I can assure you that George is above board. A little eccentric perhaps and very proud of his collection... Tell you what, why don’t I see if I can’t get you an invite to a dinner party he’s throwing the day after tomorrow.”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
“Oh and maybe bring that delightful girl you were with last time. What was her name? Sharon?”
I briefly feel a sense of revulsion to think of my fetch and Sharon, then the fetch’s memories supply me with a face and a name.
“No, that was Janice. She’s gone, I’m afraid.”
“Well another one, then? You do have such good taste in girls.”
“I’m sure I can persuade someone to come along. As we’re on the subjects of plus ones, do you have anyone at the moment? Cos I know a guy who is looking to make a few connections.”
“That would be delightful, I will make the arrangements and contact you later. I do look forward to seeing you again. Until then.” she hangs up.
I put my phone back in my pocket and turn to Apprentice who has been on the phone, as well.
“At least we may have an in. Night after tomorrow, if all goes well. Sounds like this Cannes guy likes to show off, so we might be lucky and can perform a snatch and run, or at least get the lie of the land.”
“That’s good news. I managed to convince the wife to leave town for a bit, so that’s also good.”
“Fuck, I was going to try and get Janie out as well. Don't think they’ll let me though.”
I address Jimmy “Are you or anyone you know interested on keeping an eye on my daughter at Great Ormond Street Hospital and let me know if anything untoward happens?”
“You’re asking me to stake out a children’s hospital? Are you mad?”
“I’ll pay you a grand.”
“Done. I’ll let you know if anything happens.”
“Cheers. Now to related business. I need to make a will, I guess, considering it’s incredibly likely that I’ll either be horribly killed or abducted by torturous supernaturals.”
“That’s not a bad idea” Apprentice agrees.
“And I happen to know a lawyer who seems pretty keen on me. I can tell by the disgusted looks she keeps giving me.”
“What... oh you mean Sarah.”
I quickly give her a call and she invites us to her offices in the City.
A short while later we arrive and enter the lavishly decorated front hall of what appears to be a successful law firm and are shown to Sarah’s office.
She is thrilled to see us again so soon, I can tell.
“So what brings the sudden urge to make a will?” she asks.
“Well, you see, there is a large chance that we are going to get squashed when we take on the fae, so we kind of want to make sure that our families are looked after. That is if that is going to do them any good.” I tell her.
“Aren’t you being a bit pessimistic? I mean, there are seven billion humans on this planet to oppose them.”
“Let me tell you a little story. You know dragons right? Massive reptiles? Can breathe fire and all that?”
She nods a little dubiously.
“Well these dragons, they lived in a land called Dragonland...”
“Arcadia, you burke!” Apprentice interrupts.
“I’m telling the story and it doesn’t matter what it’s called. In any case, these dragons; did I mention they’re huge reptiles that breathe fire; were quite happily living in Dragonland, when along came the fae. I’ll skip to the end now where there are about a dozen of them left, stumbling about some wilderness waiting to become extinct. And you think we stand a chance?”
Sarah looks even more dubious.
“Whatever. I don't really care if you take me seriously at this point. We’re here to make use of your professional services.”
“That I can do” she says “for free, if you two join Pax Anglos.”
“What does that involve?” Apprentice wants to know.
“It’s quite simple really. You agree to cooperate with the group and, most importantly do not do anything that calls undue attention to the paranormal. And we will need to know who you have told about your natures.”
“What if we haven’t told anyone yet, but are almost certainly going to be doing so in the near future?” I ask.
“Then please provide details of those people.”
“There’s only two people I’m likely to tell and I’m pretty sure you’ve got a very good idea of who they are, spying on me as you are at the hospital.”
She looks a little uneasy. “Could you do so regardless? It would save us revealing our sources.”
“Fuck it “ Apprentice says “I’ll do it. Where do I sign?”
“Right here” Sarah passes him a sheet of paper and a pen.
I echo the dwarf’s sentiments and after perusing what looks to a fairly innocuous form sign when he is finished.
“Welcome to Pax Anglos.” Sarah says “you now have access to the group’s resources.”
“Good. How about some cold iron?” I ask.
“I am afraid we don't have any of that. Silver?”
“No use. Sod it, then. Can you just legalise these documents for us then?”
She does, copies and stamps them before showing us the door.
Outside, Apprentice turns to me “What are you going to do now?”
“The hospital, as usual. Need to ask someone a few things.”
“I’ll drop you off on the way home.”
At the hospital I find that Janie is asleep, so go to find where Sharon is. One of the receptionists tells me she is on break in the canteen. I head down there and accept her invitation to sit down.
We talk awhile about various things, while I think of a way to ask her to become the executor of the will I just made. I can not think of a good way, so just blurt out the question.
“What brought that on?” she asks.
“Well with Becky passing away, I thought I’d best make sure that Janie is looked after if anything happens to me and, well... I trust you more than anyone else.”
“Thanks. But this is a bit sudden. What would I need to do?”
“Not much. It’s all pretty straightforward. All of my belongings will go to Janie, anyway, so naming an executor is more or less a formality. But if something happens to me in the next two years, you would be in control of the estate until Janie is eighteen.” I add the last part somewhat quietly.
“What?! Are you asking me to become your daughter’s legal guardian?!”
“Nothing like that. Her aunt would be her legal guardian. You would just make sure that her inheritance is not mismanaged. I just can’t trust anyone else.”
“I just can’t work you out James. I mean, you seem like a nice guy, but then you disappear for ages and just when you’re starting to show an interest and we are starting to get along again, you pull something like this. What are you up to? Really?”
I look her in the eyes, tired of the constant evasions. “I’ll tell you, but you’ve got to be sure that you want to hear this. You’ll probably need a sit-down and a stiff drink. That’s if you don’t call for the men in white coats immediately.”
She returns my gaze. “I’m going to have to think about it. All of this.” She says slowly, then stands up, squeezes my hand and leaves me sitting in the mostly-empty canteen.
I look in on Janie before I leave, find that she is still sleeping, give her a kiss on the forehead and head home in the absence of anything better to do.
On the way home, I remember that I have not arranged for a date for the dinner party and, in the absence of any better ideas, I call Claire.
She picks up quickly. "Hi James. What's up?"
"Oh, hey Claire. Sorry for not calling for a while. I've had a lot of stuff on."
"Are you doing anything the night after tomorrow. I've got a plus one invite for a dinner party and was wondering if you might like to come along."
"Sure, sounds good? Where and when?"
I start to tell her, then get some more of my fetch's memories. He has really been a complete arsehole to Claire and, for that matter, the other girls at work.
"Can you come by mine at around six. I've got a few things to talk over with you, if you don't mind."
"Ok. See you then."
"Thanks Claire. See you."
...the final session
How much do you love your daughter?
That is what the note says. I am kneeling on the floor of Janie’s room at the hospital in front of a box that ‘some men in suits’ delivered for me. On the reverse is a postcode. The postcode is that of the Tower.
Other than the note, the box contains a police stab vest with most of the stitching undone. The reinforced areas have been replaced with what looks and feels like plasticine. Judging by the wires leading to a toggle switch it is not plasticine.
As I lift the vest out, I see an envelope in the bottom of the box. Inside are a series of photographs of Janie at the hospital, several of them including me, her detailed medical notes, the passkey to her room and a few other items hinting at how easily the ‘men in suits’ can get to her, as well as a bag of hedge fruit.
How much do you love your daughter?
I crumple up the note and pull on the vest. With a last look at my sleeping daughter, I head out of the hospital that is being overrun by people in need of medical attention. I can only speculate at what the target at the tower is, but can not hazard a guess at who the suited bastards are. Not that it really matters right now. Time is running out and it looks like I am out of options.
I call Apprentice’s phone.
“Where the hell have you been?” is the first thing he says when he answers.
“Busy” I reply evasively “Where are you?”
“Heading to the Pax Anglos. Would be nice of you to join us.”
“Fine.” I hang up, retrieve my car and drive to the pub.
In the car park, the gaggle of supernatural oddballs has assembled around a police riot van.
Apprentice is in the process of dragging the unconscious bloody form of Azrael out of the van, even though he is only in a slightly better state.
One of the Pax Anglos wizards, or whatever they are, rushes over and performs some pseudo-magical gestures at my fellow changelings, who look a little better once he has finished.
I join the group and dish out a few of the hedge fruits my mysterious ‘benefactors’ delivered to me.
“So what happened?” I ask when Azrael has recovered enough to sit up.
“Killed the Good Doctor” the patchwork man replies with a look of grim satisfaction.
“No shit? The dragon things were right then. Knife to the heart?”
“Just a scratch on the face did it. Fucker disintegrated.”
“Unless, of course he did the soul escape thing and jumped into his nearest escape body.”
“Maybe. We got no time for that now. Important thing is that his influence is lessened and we can go after Jack.” Apprentice interrupts.
“Jack, right. Have we got any idea where he is?” Although I fear I already know the answer.
“Best we can tell is, he’s in the Tower.” Apprentice replies.
I nod numbly. The postcode on the back of the note. How much do you love your daughter?
Pax Anglos have somehow put together quite an arsenal, including an APC, complete with .50 cal machine gun. I take one of the tasers out of the riot van and climb into and sit down next to one of the group’s weirdos.
After a while, we set the off. The delay was evidently caused by Azrael who, for some reason, started trying to punch a hole in the riot van, with moderate success.
We drive east, towards the Tower. The streets are eerily quiet, until we reach the immediate vicinity of the Tower. Here a seething mass of humanity has gathered with improvised weaponry and the APC is brought to a halt. A burst from the machine gun to disperse the rioters is answered from the walls by first one RPG blast which detonates among the crowd, scattering dead and dying rioters, then another. This one explodes with a deafening blast on the APC, vaporising whoever was sitting on top.
I quickly open the escape hatch in the side and jump out into the nightmare scene. The crowd that should have scattered in the wake of two explosions closes in on Pax Anglos and Azrael and Apprentice. I am not dressed in riot gear and am ignored by the crazed masses and manage to lose myself in the crowd. As I do so, I become aware that my hedgesense appears to be working and is showing me a way into the Tower through a small gate in the southern wall that appears to be unguarded.
As I move away from the fight around the APC, I wonder again who the men in suits could be and why they are blackmailing me into suicide. Another question I ask myself is what good explosives are supposed to be against Jack.
I have found no answers to any of the questions by the time I reach the gate. People are milling around in confusion here and it is easy to slip into the space between outer and inner wall. The scene here is similar to outside the walls, except that I can see a larger number of loyalist changelings here, some of whom are manning the heavy weaponry used to keep the others at bay.
I vault the ticket barriers that block the entrance to the inner courtyard and assess the situation here. Still chaotic, but more organised than outside, the percentage of loyalists is much higher here and I change my appearance to match the loyalist I saw sublimated by Apprentice’s plasma gun a few days ago. With any luck, a familiar face will see me through to wherever it is I am going. It seems to work. I make my way to the gates of the keep unmolested.
My good luck ends here, though. Two Loyalists in uniform bearing halberds bar the entrance.
“Password.” One of them demands as I approach.
This is it. This is as far as I go.
“The password is... Thermal detonator.” I declare as I produce the detonation switch from my pocket.
They are distinctly unimpressed. “Intruder” one of them yells and the crowd who had been moving towards the main gate, from where there is now the sound of automatic weapons fire, turns to follow the call.
As the guard is briefly distracted, I bring out the taser and bring it up to his jaw. He goes down twitching when I press the trigger. My sudden movement also takes me out of the way of the second guard’s halberd, which he thrusts at me but misses, burying the spike in another loyalist who is trying to sneak up behind me. In the confusion, I run past the surprised guard, changing my features to match the one I tasered.
I enter the main hall, which is also full of Loyalists. At the far end of the room sits a man made entirely of razorblades, surrounded by guards. From the rafters hand the corpses of various politicians. I recognise the Chancellor among them. So long George.
All eyes turn as I enter the room, pursued by a mob. I turn and shout “There he is” pointing at the man at the front of the group “Get him.”
My ruse works as someone shouts “Release the hounds” and I lose myself in the crowd, changing my features once more.
I have reached the back wall, when six dogs the size of wolves with teeth as long as carving knives tear into my pursuers. I pause to catch my breath when my phone rings. I do not recognise the number and so cautiously pick up.
“Get into cover. Support is incoming” the voice on the other end says and hangs up. I shrink further against the wall when three huge reports come from the direction of the river, followed shortly by three deafening explosions from the outer wall as the six inch guns of the HMS Belfast mysteriously come to our aid and I edge around the room towards the throne, still unsure of what exactly I plan to do when I get there.
I am still edging around the room when I hear commotion from the entrance. Apprentice has fought his way that far, but I can not see Azrael anywhere. The dwarf is about to be swamped and I carry on toward the throne, still hoping that inspiration will strike.
Inspiration is not forthcoming however. Apprentice has cleared some room around himself with his plasma gun but looks severely wounded and I can not see how he will make it past the bodyguards.
Taking a deep breath, I run at the guards, who take notice of me for the first time and lower their halberds to receive my charge. I scream in pain as one of them manages to lodge his weapon in my midriff, then again as the second strikes my side.
I muster the strength to pull my coat aside to reveal the vest.
“Surprise...cockfags” I manage, coughing up blood.
How much do I love my daughter?
Turns out, more than my own life.
I throw the switch.