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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
There were ravens sitting on the powerlines, the yellow light of the motel sign sliding off their oil-slick feathers. Keith eyed the two birds cautiously, doing his best to make it surreptitious. It wasn't like he hadn't seen birds after sunset before?the Gold Coast was rife with ibis that rummaged garbage bins for food, the occasional seagull or magpie foraging in a fast-food lot?but Keith couldn't remember seeing ravens specifically and certainly not so few in number.
The motel sign behind the birds was pure Southport class, all green neon and yellow plastic depicting the silhouette of a bikini-clad woman leaning against a palm tree. The legacy of an earlier era, back when Southport was a tourist town instead of the dodgy northern suburb of the coast. The motel bore all hallmarks of its vintage?beige brick; pink pastels; a strip of green neon lights giving it an alien-abduction glow. A forgotten set of holiday flats turned into a cheap flophouse. Three surfers lounged in the open stairwell, their conversation peppered with references to bodily functions, procreation, and reproductive anatomy.
Two of the surfers were shirtless, their tattooed chests toned from endless mornings spent combating the ocean. The third was the worry, a kid in a grubby t-shirt that bulged suspiciously at the waistline, heavy tattoos on his bare arms that favoured a skull motif. The kid was stiff, armed, and dangerous. All three watched Keith trudge up the pebbled path with the kind of bored disinterest that was never truly genuine. The one in the T-shirt stood and leant over the rail, his shoulders blocking the stairwell light. "Can we help you, brother?"
Keith took a step back, shading his eyes with one hand. He'd elected to come without a firearm, a half-arsed attempt at diplomacy given his history with the Other. It seemed like good idea at the time. "That depends," he said. You Bruce Mim? Unit 4?"
"Nah, mate," the surfer said, "not me."
"You know where to find him?"
The surfer's smile was missing a few teeth. "Not round these parts, aye? Bruce's out, brother. Been out for a long while, yeah?" The shirtless surfer laughed, bumping fists, and the T-shirt cut them off with a quick hand movement.
Keith went along with it, smiling like he got the joke. "Maybe I'll knock anyway," he said. "Just in case you're wrong, yeah?"
T-shirt stepped away from the railing, waving his left hand towards the bottom of the stairs. The other hand stayed close to the gun at his waist. "Free country, brother. Do what you want."
They made Keith climb over them to reach the first floor. The surfers grinned like jackals from both sides of the aisle. Keith chose to ignore them. It was safer that way, showing no fear, and they chose not to hassle him as he stepped past the last of them.
It wouldn't have been hard to pick Bruce Mim's apartment, even if Keith hadn't known the address. There were runes scratched into the door frame, old and secure. When Keith knocked he could feel the energy seeping through him, tingling like static when his knuckles made contact with the wood.
No-one answered the first knock, or the second.
"Told you, brother," the surfer said.
"Yeah, you did." Keith checked his watch. Five eighteen, the seconds passing fast. A quick glance towards the parking lot confirmed what Keith's stomach already knew. Shadows were growing longer, spreading like oil-slicks until their edges bled into one-another. A Gloom tide rising fast.
One of the shirtless surfer's rose, taking a step along the narrow landing. He was bigger than the others, heavy with muscle. "We said he was out, ya cu?"
The Gloom tide hit. The world froze around him, everything but the door and the light and Keith Murphy swallowed by the creeping darkness as a second world asserted itself over the first.
"Yeah," Keith said. "I guess you did."
He turned and knocked on the tethered door, grateful for the overhead light holding back the ashen darkness. Amid the colour-leached world of the Gloom, its faded pink paint-job on unit 4's door seemed more vibrant than any Southport neon could hope for.
The knock was cold and muted.
"It's open," someone called from inside the flat. The voice sounded hollow and scratchy, the tone similar to the old blues records Keith's father used to play on a turntable. Old and hollow and strangely compelling, as though there were some strange power hidden amid the crackle and distortion of the skipping needle.
Keith opened the door and entered. That's when he heard the music.
On a good day you could have mistaken Bruce Mim for a sprightly man in his late eighties, but Keith knew better than to trust in the easy assumptions. The old man sat in the middle of his apartment, a long-necked guitar resting gently on his knee, fingers dancing across the strings as he played a forlorn tune. One of Mim's legs was withered, covered in livid scars that matched the angry line at his throat.
One of the smaller Other sat at the old man's feet, something skeletal and childlike with the bone-faced features and oversized ears of a bat. It leapt to its feet and hissed, scuttling behind Mim's chair to find cover. Keith walked through the cramped kitchen, avoiding the ancient fridge. He held both palms high to show he was unarmed. "I believe you were expecting me."
Mim kept playing his guitar. "Why? Did you make an appointment?"
"I'm told it's your thing to know. I'm?"
"Keith Murphy." The old man spat the name, then nodded. "They say you're either Danny Roark's pet killer or Harmony White's latest conquest, depending on whether you believe the rumours about a white knight turning sorcerer."
"I wasn't exactly conquered."
"And yet you're here," Mim said. "Which certainly means you're something, even if we're not sure what."
The apartment was small, the galley kitchen splitting space with a narrow lounge stuffed with bookshelves. Keith leant against a small Formica table, watched the old man pick chords on the guitar. The skeleton-thing crept forward and snarled, exposing a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth.
"Your friend doesn't like me," Keith said.
"Don't take it personally. Lou doesn't like anyone." Mim's fingers danced along the guitar frets, setting the soft tones of his song spiralling around each other. He finished with a flourish, a sad smile on his face. "You're here for information."
"Harmony says you're the man for it."
"I am." Mim stooped and lifted the skeleton-thing onto one shoulder, then stood to his full height. He was old and lean and far taller than Keith expected. There wasn't any sign of age in his movements, just the stiffness of the bad leg. "You're here to find out about Roark? Whether he's still alive?"
"Among other things."
"Yeah. I figured as much." The old man limped into the kitchen and rummaged through the ancient refrigerator. He unearthed a beer, twisted the cap off, then retreated back to his chair. "Tell me why I should help you."
"Harmony says you have too. She says?"
"That I am the best goddamn seer you're likely to find in this godsforsaken city?" Mim necked the beer, offered the rest to the skeleton-thing thing. It chirped and wrapped tiny claws around the bottle, emptied a dribble of beer down its throat. Liquid drained through the tiny ribs, stained the old man's shoulder. "I am. I know the past and the present and the future, Keith Murphy. I could tell you what you need to know and what's coming. That isn't what I asked."
Keith held his ground. "No, I guess it isn't."
The skeleton-thing burped and Keith winced. Mim simply smiled. "If you still had Roark at your side, you'd be in here trying to kill me."
"If I still had Roark at my side, I wouldn't need what you know."
"Honesty. How droll." Mim limped back to his chair. "You don't like the Other."
"Do you even know why?"
"I have my reasons."
"Poor ones, and misinformed besides. You don't understand us."
"Like it matters. Harmony says you're honour bound to help," Keith said. "Pick a question, any question, and you have to answer it or your gift is forfeit."
"Your conqueror is well-informed." Mim yawned, stretching his narrow arms. "My gift doesn't compel me to give a straight answer, or a true one, or even an immediate response. You really going to trust what I say?"
"If I don't think you're lying."
"Then you're screwed, Murphy." Mim picked up the guitar again. "Bugger off. Some of us are trying to enjoy the quiet of the Gloom while it lasts."
"I heard you had your own trouble with Wotan," Keith said. "I heard he stole your gift from you and returned it as a curse. And you know there's ravens...."
The old man nodded. "I know."
Keith stared. At the old man, then at the skeleton-thing. He tried to force himself to use the old man's name for it. Lou.
Lou hissed again from his perch on Mim's shoulder. Keith fell back a step. "I'm sorry to have bothered you," he said. "If you change your mind."
"I will," Mim said, "In three days and seven hours. I'm not yet sure why that happens, but I suggest you come back then."
The surfers were gone when Keith emerged from the apartment, along with the rest of the night. He went downstairs and climbed in his Ute, checked the passage of time. Six hours lost in the real world, one hour gone in the Gloom. Even after a decade working on the fringes, Keith still hadn't gotten used to it.
He fished the mobile phone out of the glove compartment and turned it on. It was small and pink and decorated with cartoon cats, the cheapest option they had when he'd inquired about pre-paid phoned. The decoration didn't really bother Keith that much. The phone would be lucky to last a month, and there were only two people who knew the number. Burn phones were a way of life, just another precaution in the litany Keith practiced every day. The phone beeped twice and Keith checked the message.
Harmony's number. How did it go?
Keith thumbed in a short description and the timeframe Mim had given him. The texting was another precaution, just like the burn phone. The absence of inflection and body language stripped most of the emotion out of communicating, and that made it easier to keep its contents secret from the other. The Gloom mirrored the real world in far too many ways, and it fed on emotions, negative or otherwise. A trained sorcerer could hear the echoes of a single angry phone call for weeks after it happened, and a talented sorcerer could use that emotion to find the other participant. Roark might not have taught Keith magic, but he'd taught Keith that much.
Roark had taught Harmony that too. She just didn't particularly care.
Keith's phone rang before he had the key in the ignition, the electronic tones attempting to mimic a Brittney Spears song Keith couldn't quite place. He stared at the phone for a long minute, debating whether to answer, before thumbing the green button and holding it to his ear. "What?"
"You pissed him off."
"He said I could come back."
"You pissed him off." Harmony's sigh was audible through the phone line. "You've got a talent, Murphy, I'll give you that."
"I asked the question," Keith said. "That's it. It's all I had time for."
"It wasn't exactly a short tide, Murphy."
"I spent most of it camped out beneath the light on his doorstep," Keith said. "I told you this was a bad idea. The Other don't owe me anything. His skull-monkey thing hated my guts on sight."
"Lou hates everyone," Harmony said.
They said nothing for a while. Keith watched the traffic flow past.
"So," he said, "you coming around tonight?"
It worked. She hung up on him. Keith flipped the phone closed. Morning. Rush hour. It'd take him an hour to make the twenty-minute drive to the safe house, longer if he fought the traffic working its way through Surfer's Paradise.
He checked the rear-view as he pulled away from the gutter.
Both ravens still sat on the telephone wires, right where they were when he first walked in.
Harmony sat cross-legged on the floor of the lounge room, her steaming cup of tea left to cool on the coffee table. Her dreadlocks were pulled back and bound together, exposing the sharp angles of her cheeks and jaw. She wore a brown velvet singlet with a pentacle on the chest, accompanied it with a loose, flowing skirt. There were dark smudges on her arm, and she smelt strongly of kerosene. "You're sure they were ravens?"
"Really sure? I mean, we have crows here, Murphy. It'd be easy?"
"We spent six weeks planning Adelaide. Roark made sure I could ID a raven, and I went to a library and looked the damn things up. I don't get any more certain than this."
She picked up her teacup and blew across it, wincing a little when she pressed a lip too close to hot ceramic. Keith drained his coffee and toyed with the mug, twisting it back and forth with both hands. He studied the dark soot on Harmony's arms. "You taking up arson in your spare time?"
"You always this focused?"
Keith went to shrug, then stopped himself. "You were the one who wanted me asking questions."
Harmony rolled her eyes. She had a thin, bird-like face and two silver rings through eyebrow. "It's Sunday morning," she said. "There's fire-twirling down on Burleigh Beach every Saturday night, a bunch of kids doing their best to fight back the Gloom."
"That'd take a lot of kids."
"There's enough," Harmony said. "Some of them even know what they're doing. The rest are all drums and kero, in it for the rhythm and the energy."
Keith cracked a grin. "Not really my scene."
"That's 'cause your self of self-preservation is woefully depleted." Harmony pulled a Tarot deck out of her bag, started shuffling through the dog-eared cards. Keith watched the swift movement of her hands, the nimble twist of the lithe fingers. It was one of those things you got used to, on the Gold Coast; people did stints at the casino, dealing blackjack and poker, drifting on to new jobs the same way most people drifted through town. Roark always said it was how you told the difference between a sorcerer and the more subtle natives of the Gloom. The sorcerer's started human and picked up skills to pay rent.
Harmony held the deck towards him. "You want to pick a card?"
Keith shook his head, tapped a finger against the deck. "Roark says the Tarot isn't a real thing. Just a game that grew into a parlour trick and picked up a little traction."
"More wicca than witchcraft." Harmony grinned. It was one of Roark's phrases, dismissive and easy conjured. "Roark took a narrow view of things, but he might be right when it comes to the card. Pick one. For fun."
Keith lifted the top card, placed it on the coffee table. It depicted a plain-looking man carrying a staff in a defensive pose, six more weapons on the hillside around him. The seven of wands. Harmony's index finger tapped the edge of the deck as she considered the result.
"The beleaguered man defends his position," she said. "The card of courage and stubborn tenacity.'
"Too late for that," Keith said. "I gave in the moment I agreed to see your seer."
"Pick another card."
Keith flipped the second card. A man hanging by his heel, missing his left eye. Two ravens sitting in the tree he dangled from. The illustration was gilded in silver and gold, its black lines dark and rich like velvet. Harmony sucked in a breath, held it as she frowned.
"At least it's not death," Keith said.
"It's not the hanging man I'm used to either. Those your birds?"
Keith picked up the card, studied the raven's in the background. "Not so wiccan, then?"
"No," Harmony said. "Not at all." She picked up her teacup, sipped it cautiously. "Ravens are Wotan's birds. Want to take a guess what it means?"
"Three days and eight hours is too long to wait for answers?"
"That might be wishful thinking," Harmony said. "Three hours and eight minutes might be too long to wait."
"Like it matters." Keith stood and walked his coffee mug back to the narrow kitchen. "I'm a dead man walking," he said. "It's all been wishful thinking since Roark told me to start running."
There weren't any surfer's the second time Keith showed up at the motel. The skeleton-thing perched on Mim's front step, empty eye-sockets focused on the stairwell. It hissed at Keith, needle teeth exposed, then backed over the threshold and mewed for its master. Keith squinted at the sunset, adjusted the pistol holstered against the small of his back. It was almost dark, all the reds and oranges bled out of the skyline, nothing but a purple ribbon against the mountains. No tide for a few hours. The open door wasn't a good sign.
Mim limped into the kitchen, an ancient fob-watch clenched in one fist. He flipped the lid and coughed up blood. One eye was dark and growing puffy. "Three days and eight hours," he said. "You're prompt, Mister Murphy."
Keith stood in the doorway. "Apparently."
Mim wrenched the fridge open. There were rust-stains on the front, very little besides beer and raw meat inside. The old man pulled two cans of VB free and offered one up. "Drink," he said. "It'll help."
Keith took the beer. He didn't open it. "You picked a fight."
"Not as such." The skeleton-thing, Lou, laughed from its hiding place beneath one of the kitchen chairs. Mim cut the horrid noise short with a hang-gesture, went back to draining his beer. "It's time to take Lou for a walk."
Keith glanced at the growing darkness, all the ordinary shadows between the streetlights and the motel signs. He looked back at the mess that used to be the old man's face. "Are you sure that's safe?"
"It's safe enough," Mim said. He unearthed a walking stick from beside the fridge, clicked one finger at the skeleton-thing. "Come on, Mister Murphy. Let's talk."
"You're bleeding," Keith said.
"Trust me, no-one is going to notice."
Mim strode along the river, cane clicking against the concrete. Lou ran before them, sniffing at tree roots, dodging the legs of wandering pedestrians. Keith wondered what the normal humans saw when they glanced at the small skeleton creature. A dog of some kind? A slightly undersized human child? It was hard to imagine, having never had the luxury of normal sight. There were always demons in Keith's world, always Other lingering around the fringes. He'd grown up with the awful silence of the Gloom tides, empty moments that weren't really moments, stretching on forever while his mother was frozen in place. He'd seen people assault the Other before, recklessly and with intent. It rarely ended well for the mortal half of the fight.
"I want three people dead," Mim said. "Kill them and I'll answer your questions."
"Not happening," Keith said. "Not unless you've got more than that."
"I find them objectionable, and vengeance gives me pleasure."
"I don't target humans."
"Now that," he said, "is so much bullshit." Mim's laughter was like the rustle of dry leaves. "You have no problems killing sorcerers. That's why you're here."
"Those kids weren't sorcerers."
Mim grinned and petted his skeleton-thing. "They stole my blood," he said. "They plan on sacrificing it to something. They may be amateurs, untethered and unsure of what they meddle with, but they're on the path. There's no ethical danger in your killing them."
Keith looked the old man over. He'd heard stories about the blood of the Other, the uses it was put too that were less than savoury. "You remember what it was like, don't you?" Keith said. "The Gloom, I mean. It's been darkness for years, all ash and shadows, but you knew what it was like before it was a wasteland?"
"I do," Mim's hands shook on the cane. "This wasn't something that we took lightly, Murphy. We chose to do it as a very last resort. We destroyed our home, transformed it into something dark and deadly and pitiful. We chose to become less than we were, because the alternative was to become extinct. We are reflections in a darkened mirror, Keith Murphy, and pitiful shadows of what we once were."
They wandered in silence, turning the corner that put them level with the local McDonalds.
"Do you want to know why we burned it?" The old man glared at the golden arches, jaw growing thick and tense with anger. "They did, them and their ilk. There's no smaller mysteries anymore, no space for belief. Meaning accretes to monoliths, becomes a source of power." He grunted and spat into the gutter. "Fuck 'em all," he said. "Fuck all the goddamn branding. You deserve what you get."
He turned and walked away. Lou made a short, mewling sound.
"What," Keith said. "What do you want?"
The skull-monkey mewed again.
"He wants a cheeseburger," Mim said. "I don't recommend watching him trying to eat it."
Keith studied the skeletal creature, the absent space between its ribs. He tried not to shudder.
The surfers were riding a wave off Burleigh Heads, easily visible from the lookout overlooking the water. Kids paddled in the shallows, families gathered on the sand. Keith sat at a picnic table with Harmony, watching the water through binoculars. All three were out there, shirtless and wiry, padding against the swell. Keith studied their tattoos, trying to pick the tell-tale markings that'd tether them against the rise of the Gloom.
"Surveillance." Harmony spat the word out. "I thought I was done with this, Murphy."
Keith handed her the binoculars. "Mim was your idea."
"You were the one with questions. I just gave you options." She peered at the water, the pierced side of her mouth lifting in wry amusement. "Ah," she said. "I know these guys. Richard Bannock and his buddies."
"Not in the league you and Roark used to deal with. All minor rituals and lesser sacrifices, idiots too green to realise what they're cutting deals with."
Keith reclaimed the binoculars and watched the surfers. One of them, the chatty one from the stairwell, caught a wave and rode it towards the beach. His friends sat on the boards, out beyond the break.
"The smaller one's Bannock," Harmony said. "He's an arsehole, and he's trained, but he's lightweight. You know more about the Other than he does, and you've cut more deals with the things that live there."
Keith lowered the binoculars and stared. "I never cut deals."
"Sure you did." Harmony grinned. "Why do you think they all stayed dead when you and Roark killed them? There's always sacrifice, Murphy. It's always a deal. You give up something so they don't come back. Placate and eradicate."
"Placating was Roark's department."
"Luckily for you, these idiots are too green to cut deals with the Other," Harmony said. "Odds are, all you'll need is a nine millimetre slug. Whatever blood they shed will be enough to placate their patron."
The Barretta was too loud for public work, so Keith picked his spot.
He stood out the front of a Seven-Eleven and downed a bottle of diet coke, letting the fizz hit the back of this throat. Southport mall, four blocks from Mim's motel. There where shallows of Gloom nearby, puddles where the darkness of the other place never truly went away. Places where wild things hid, Other less inclined than the human form worn by Mim. Keith watched the surfers duck into an alley behind the bus shelter, a space where recovering junkies tried to offload their methadone in the wee ours. Richard Bannock and his friends were gathered around the shallow Gloom, draining courage from a bottle of rum. One of them laid a blood-stained cloth against the concrete wall.
There were ravens sat on the powerlines, watching the surfer's prepare. They were far too interested in the goings-on for Keith's comfort.
Killing experienced sorcerers tended to be difficult, the result of endless planning and research. Amateurs were easier. Stake them out, wait for the ritual, interrupt while they were in the middle of something stupid. Bannock led the chanting. Three surfers kneeling in an alleyway, candles melting wax on their hands.
At least they were wearing shirts.
The raven sidled along the wire, pulling closer to the alley. It cocked its head to one side, cawed into the night air. Keith finished his coke and clenched the bottle in one fist, gauging its weight.
He counted off the seconds, listening to the rise and fall of the surfer's chant. A tentacle pulled free of the darkness in the alley, worming out to caress the side of Bannock's cheek. Keith wound back his arm and pegged the bottle. It went wide, shattering against the alley wall, and one of the surfer's flinched from the rain of broken glass. The tentacle shivered. A high-pitched squeal sliced through the air.
Bannock kept chanting. He stepped towards the Gloom, caressing the tentacle as he went. The raven fluttered its wings, glared at Keith and the Seven-Eleven. Keith sprinted towards the alley, pulling the Barretta from its holster. He fired three times, hit one of Bannock's flunkies.
The tentacle writhed and withdrew into the Gloom.
Bannock went with it. He didn't seem afraid of the darkness and the things that lived behind it.
The remaining surfer lay shrieking on the concrete.
Keith fired twice and shut him up. He thumbed the message into the phone. It's done.
The reply came back. Bring something to drink.
Keith cradled a six-pack of beer in one hand and knocked, waited a few minutes for Mim to open up. The old man was bare-chested and half-asleep, a round belly hanging over the top button of his ragged jeans. Thin lips pressed tight as the seer looked Keith over, eyes lingering on the cool cans of VB. "First, don't get too attached to your girl," Mim said. "She's got even less chance of surviving this than you."
"Harmony can take care of herself." Keith thumped the beer into the old man's chest and pushed his way into the apartment. "And that's not why I'm here."
Mim closed the door and peeled a tinnie off its plastic ring. "Call it a freebie," he said. "Friendly advice."
Lou hunched in the corner of the lounge room, skeletal face snuffling through an empty cheeseburger wrapper. The small creature froze at Keith's presence, empty eye cavities locked on the intruder. Mim grunted an order, set Lou back to the task of licking grease of the paper. Keith gave the homunculus a wide berth, didn't bother sitting. Mim's bruised eye socket looked ghoulish under the dim light. He opened the first can. "Roark isn't properly dead, but I doubt that's news to you."
Keith opened a beer of his own. He tapped it against Mim's drink, avoided the question.
"Three dead surfers says you owe me more than that."
"True," Mim said. "Then let me tell you this: it didn't work."
"The warding your boss pulled over the hit, the one that's supposed to keep you safe." Mim drained a beer, smacked his lips with satisfaction at the end. "That's the good news. The bad news is even worse: you're doomed. So's Roark, so am I, and so is the whole damn world."
Keith nodded and drank. "I've been doomed before. It comes with the territory."
"Not like this. Wotan cut deals with giants and races, things that existed before my world was burned. They demanded very specific repayments if his blood was spilt and left unavenged. If his shade doesn't kill you, you and Danny Roark, you can expect his old patrons to deliver on what they promised."
"Yeah?" Keith waited.
The old man took his time replying. "Ragnarok," Mim said. He opened another beer and drained it. His eyes were bleary, his words slurring together. "End of the fucking world. You're going to end up dead because the alternative is far less palatable."
"I'm not." For a moment the old man tensed, summoning strength that seemed incongruent with his skinny frame.
Keith kept a tight grip on his beer, made sure he kept breathing steadily. "End of the world," he said. "That's going to be a problem."
Mim's whispery, dry-leaf laughter echoed in the small room. "Just don't get attached to your girl." He belched and slumped into a chair. "And make sure your affairs are in order."
Keith nodded. He finished his beer. "Thanks," he said.
"Whatever," Mim said. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to get drunk."
Two ravens sat in the trees, watching Keith put the keys in the lock.
The kettle in the safe-house kitchen whistled as he opened the door. Harmony stood at the counter, humming and spooning instant into the bone-white mugs. She didn't look at Keith as he entered, but the tarot deck sat on the bench. The seven of wands sat face up, its beleaguered guardian holding ground.
Harmony handed him a warm drink. "Well?"
Keith put down the card. He glared at the ravens. Harmony slid into the couch, cradled her tea cup and blew across it. There wasn't much safety in the room anymore, the comfortable anonymity of it dissipating as he contemplated Mim's warning.
"Trouble," he said. "And lots of bad news."
"That's all you got?"
He took the teacup out of her hands. He kissed her on the cheek. "Not tonight," Keith said. "I'll tell you the rest in the morning."
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011