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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
Keith found the old man in the public bar, seated in a dark corner with a half-full jug of beer at his elbow. It wasn't hard to pick the old man out of the crowd. The Dell was a working pub, the sort of place that catered to blokes in Blundstones and flannel shirts, tradies with skin tanned to leather after years spent working in the sun. The old man was milk-pale and narrow-shouldered, his feathery tufts of white hair giving him a kind of elegance. He drank alone, ignoring the boisterous conversations that filled the narrow room, and he fed salted peanuts into the satchel on his table. The cracked leather bag held a suspicious lump, and Keith swore he could see it twitch after every peanut was delivered.
The old man's name was Bruce Mim, and he wasn't entirely human. Keith wasn't sure how old that made Mim, and he preferred not to consider the possibilities. Age meant power among the Other, enough to elude the notice of the clustered locals drinking at the bar. People threw Keith odd glances as he threaded his way through the room, but they ceased noticing the moment he filled the empty chair at Mim's table.
The old man focused on peeling a peanut, working his thumb across a discolouration, scraping it free. "You came."
"Harmony said you wanted to see me." Keith flagged down the waitress and ordered a scotch, neat. The waitress blinked three times, as though unsure Keith was really there, before hustling back to the bar.
Mim remained focused on the peanut, scraping at a narrow discolouration. "I never want to see you," he said. His lips twitched, like he was fighting a sneer. "That's the damnable part of it. Sometimes it happens to be necessary, and necessity demands. Bruce Mim and Keith Murphy will meet, and Mim will deliver that which must be heard."
He examined the nut, nodding with satisfaction, and placed it by the open satchel mouth. A narrow, skeletal paw emerged from the bag's depths to claim the morsel, and the bag twitched. Keith lifted the mouth of the bag and peered inside. The creature who peered back was tiny, no larger than a newborn baby, an assemblage of bone and bad intentions with the cranium and oversized ears of a bat. It hissed and Keith spotted flecks of desiccated peanut caught between the needle-sharp teeth.
"Jesus," Keith said. "Are you crazy, bringing him here?"
"Lou likes to see the world," Mim said. "It's not my place deny him."
"He's a bloody menace."
Lou surged forward, dragging the satchel in his wake. The old man slapped his hand against the satchel, halting its progress across the table. "Sit, Lou," he said. "Be still. And you"?he glared at Keith?"pay attention. I'm saying this once, because it's my curse to be the one who delivers the news, and then I'm finishing my beer and you are fucking off to do things that need doing."
Keith met the old man's gaze and immediately regretted it. They were bloodshot, unable to focus, but the certainty shone through regardless. Bruce Mim was a seer, cursed with glimpses of the future. He saw things coming and he put things in motion, and there was never good news in anything he said. Keith looked away, made a show of checking on the waitress. He kept his voice low when he spoke. "Last time we did this, you said Harmony would die. She hasn't yet."
"She will. You'll try to save her, and you'll fail." Mim poured another glass of beer and drank. "I suggest you get used to the idea."
"It's been nine months," Keith said, "and I'm getting used to nothing."
Mim dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief, examining the flecks of beer foam on the cloth. The old man looked weary, beaten down. "If I were smart," he said, "I'd sign on with the assholes trying to do us all in. I'd leave you to your fate and make sure they succeeded."
"They're trying to end the world," Keith said. "Don't figure they have much use for soothsayers. If you do your job right, it means they're failing at theirs, right?"
"They haven't succeeded yet." Mim folded the handkerchief, returning it to his pocket before giving Keith a bloodshot stare. "Things can always fail, Keith Murphy, and not everyone treats this like a joke. They have purpose, plans that have taken millennia to implement. You have, what, guns? Sarcasm? Your motley band of low-rent demons, sorcerers, and other merry men?" Mim snarled, exposing his teeth, and the growing volume of his voice was met with eager hisses and clicks from the satchel. "You have your guilt and your hope and very little else, and they're going to win."
The old man stopped, lowering himself back onto the barstool. The rest of the bar stared, or blinked in surprise, as if they'd never noticed the strange old man in the corner before. Keith froze, caught between the awkwardness and the rush of adrenaline, the instincts that told him to get the hell out.
The barmaid came over, glass in hand. She gave them both the evil eye, whatever magic Mim managed broken by the outburst. "Scotch, neat," she said. "You can take your friend home once you're done."
"Yeah," Keith said. "Yeah, I'll do that." He dug a tenner out of his wallet and handed it to the girl, his eyes never leaving Mim's face. The old man leant back on his chair, eyes closed, his face drawn.
"I'm supposed to deliver a message." Mim's voice was low and weak. "The Fimbulwinter is upon us, the precursor to the end of the world, and any chance you have to stop it is rapidly disappearing. Find the other half of your little escapade in the south and you may have a chance. Do it alone and?well, we're all pretty fucked."
The old man staggered to his feet, pulling the satchel of the table. "My work here's done. I've said what needed to be said." He lifted the beer glass, swirled the dregs and foam around, then drained it. "I'd wish you luck, but you're beyond that now. Just try not to get us all killed and wish Harmony"?he took a deep breath, watching something play out on the back of his eyelids?"fuck, I don't know, tell her I'm sorry I couldn't help."
The old man limped of the pub, twitching satchel tucked under one arm. Keith sat and drank his scotch, ignoring the surreptitious glances thrown in his direction. He waited until no-one was looking before he skulked out, turned his collar up against the wind, and made the walk to Australia Fair a few blocks up the street.
Keith bypassed the shops on the ground floor, heading directly for the food court with the giant fig tree on the fringes of the mall. Years ago it'd been an outdoor eating area, the wide branches of the tree reaching skywards, but Australia Fair's slow expansion meant the tree was slowly caged. A sloped plastic roof secured the food-court from the elements, letting in just enough sunlight to keep the fig alive. Small birds nested in the high rafters and small children climbed on the fence around the fig, ignored by parents more interested in their coffee. Keith took the food-court clockwise, circling 'til he found the Harmony seated between the caf?nd a sushi train. She was nose-deep in a book, a half-eaten plate of salad on the table beside her, and the two kids at the next table along were staring at her tattooed wrists and facial piercings.
"I take it you found him?" Harmony turned the page on her book without looking, lips pulled into a tight line. Keith pulled the salad across the table, picking through the wilted lettuce and greying avocado.
"Down the pub, drinking," he said. "Should have looked there first, I guess."
Keith looked up, a fork-full of lettuce halfway to his mouth. "And what?"
Harmony massaged her neck with her free hand. She had a thin, bird-like face framed by a wild tangle of dreadlocks. It was the kind of face that struggled to hide irritation. "And what's the news?"
"Not good." Keith chewed and swallowed. "You ever heard of the Fimbulwinter?"
Harmony closed her eyes, lowering the book. "Norse myth," she said, "same as Ragnar?Winter comes, and it keeps coming, and it keeps getting worse." Her eyelids fluttered open again, meeting Keith's stare. "It's supposed to kill off humanity so the gods can go at it and Midgard can be destroyed."
"Yeah. I figured it was something cheerful like that." Keith went back to the salad, summoning what appetite he could. It was one the first rules of the job; eat healthy, and eat when you can, because tomorrow you might be on the run. "That's what Mim wanted to see me about. The Fimbulwinter's upon us and there's fuck-all I can do without tracking down Danny Roark."
"So it's good news then." Harmony closed her book, folding both hands across the cover. She looked older, Keith thought, and it was probably his fault. There were crows feet around here eyes, little creases at the corners of her lips. Easy to miss, between the dreadlocks and the piercings, but they were there. She'd been preparing for the end of the world ever since Keith drifted into town and she'd made the mistake of falling for him, and the stress had taken its toll.
Not that he looked any better, but Keith wasn't a sorcerer. When he looked worn down, it meant a lack of sleep. For Harmony exhaustion presented a much bigger problem, especially with trouble on the horizon.
"There are days," Harmony said, "where I wonder why I stuck around when you and I first met."
"Charm," Keith said.
"More like an affection for abandoned and homeless animals."
"Whatever works," Keith said. He grinned at her, but Harmony didn't join the joke.
"Have you got a plan? Some idea of how we'll track Danny down?"
"You didn't bother asking Mim?"
"He didn't seem open to it."
Harmony yanked the salad across the table. "Focus, Murphy."
"I'm focused." Keith put the plastic fork on the table. "Look," he said, "let's pretend, just for a moment, that Danny didn't go overseas. Let's pretend he didn't look for ways to vanish into the Gloom and hide out 'til things blew over. Let's assume that all we're dealing with is a guy who took off in a beat-up Ford nine months ago and didn't tell me where he was going. Australia's a big place, really big, and we don't know how long we have before this winter things claims us. How, exactly, do you plan on tracking down a sorcerer whose gone to ground and doesn't want to be found?"
"Easy," Harmony said. "We ask for help."
Keith frowned, pushing the plate away. "Sabbath?"
"You brought him on-board for a reason."
Keith considered that, then shook his head. "Not for this."
"This is what we need him for." Harmony stood. "Come on, let's get it over with."
It took twenty-three minutes to drive south to the Casino, nearly as long to find a park in the cramped lot hidden behind the hunched building. Harmony clicked her tongue as Keith parked the hatchback and locked it down, remembering their last visit. "If he sets fire to this car," she said, "you're catching busses from here on, yeah?"
"He won't," Keith said. "We're on the same side now."
"Yeah, that'll stop him." Harmony fell in beside him as Keith divested himself of weapons, squirreling the .45 and knife in the back of the car. "You sure you want to get rid of that stuff? Sabbath isn't exactly safe."
Keith slammed the hatch shut.
Harmony pressed close, weaving her fingers through Keith's. "You okay?"
"I've had better days." Keith closed his eyes and swallowed, memories of Mim's warning ringing in his ears. Your girl won't survive this, the old man said. The end of the world may take us all, but it'll take her first. It may be a mercy, by the end. In the absence of danger, he assumed everything was dangerous. There were few things on the Gold Coast more dangerous than Sabbath.
"You were the one who warned me against getting in bed with demons, remember?"
"You were the one who ignored me." Harmony squeezed his palm, eyeing the game floor. "We need help; he's the most powerful help we've got. You really think he doesn't know how to find Danny if he puts his mind to it?"
"Sabbath likes Danny even less than he likes me," Keith said. "I just walked away. Danny was the one who stole me."
"You cut a deal with him, right?"
"More or less."
"Then he's got to abide by it." Harmony smiled. "Everything has rules, when it comes to the Other. Sabbath's bound to his agreements, no matter how he feels about Danny personally."
"You really think that'll keep him from trying to screw us?"
"Not at all."
The Casino hunched like a vulture on the side of the Gold Coast highway, two hotel towers set behind a beak-like wedge of a structure that housed the Casino floor and a vast nightclub with views towards the ocean. It gave an illusion of space that the interior of building failed to live up to, the cramped quarters feeding into the open area where the gambling took place. Security lurked everywhere, tall men in dark suits with numbered badges on the chests. They watched Harmony with suspicion, whispering into radios as they eyeing her hair and piercings, the tattooed wrists that tethered her against the Gloom.
They made it to the foyer before they were intercepted. One of the faceless security guards broke off from the pack, stepping into their path with a wide grin. He was tall and good-looking, with the lean and muscular look Keith always associated with the tri-athletes that trained on the Gold Coast beaches. Blonde hair was cropped close to the big demon's skull, a faint fuzz that showed off the shape of his scalp. "Keith," the demon said, "Miss White. I'm afraid you'll need to wait a minute."
Keith rocked back on his heels, looking up into the demon's face. "We need to see Sabbath."
"Sabbath's busy." The demon grabbed Keith's arm, held it in a steely grip. "If you'd care to accompany me to the bar, mate, I'll comp you a drink."
Harmony scowled, fists bunching. "Let him go, Randal."
"Not the way we do things," the demon said. "Come on, have a drink."
He hauled Keith sideways, half-dragging him to the bar outside the Casino entrance. Harmony hesitated a moment, followed when it came apparent Keith wasn't going to resist. The demon leant across the bar and ordered while Keith scanned the room, spotted Sabbath deep in conversation with a Chinese kid in the corner. Sabbath didn't look perturbed by the conversation, but his victim was throwing cautious looks around the room.
"Shit." Keith pressed close to Harmony, nodded in Sabbath's direction. "He's recruiting."
"Looks like," she whispered.
"We should interrupt."
"You should stay put, mate." Randal clapped a hand on Keith's shoulder, another slapping down on Harmony's.
Keith tensed, unsure if he could break free of the iron grip. "Randy, you know I can't let him finish."
"Mate, you know you can't stop him." The demon was all smiles, showing off the sharp edges of his teeth. "I don't really wanna hurt you, but it's what the man pays me for." The demon's grip tightened and Keith heard the hissing intake of Harmony's breath. Randal's expression didn't change, but he lowered his voice. "Come on, play nice. Sit here and have your drink. It's daiquiri night. They come with umbrellas."
Keith gritted his teeth and met the demon's gaze. "He's trading souls."
"Sure," Randal said. "But he's already got yours, mate. It's not like you're in a position to offer him a better deal, and the bloke lined up to possess that body is another soldier in your little war." He started pulling them towards the bar. "You were still planning on fighting a war, right? The whole end of the world thing you're trying to stop?"
Keith swore and pulled his shoulder free. Randal let him do it.
It took Sabbath twenty minutes to conclude his deal, exchanging a handshake and a slip of paper with the Chinese gentlemen. Keith sipped his daiquiri, finger tamped over the cocktail umbrella to keep it in place, watching the demon work. Sabbath wore the face of a computer programmer, a cheerfully pudgy man with a neatly-manicured goatee and thin, wire-framed glasses. It was the kind of face people tended not to notice, chosen for ease with which the eyes would slide across its features, except for the moments when the light caught the hints of red in the corneas. The eyes, teeth, and talons were the places where the demon came to the fore, the only physical alterations triggered by the possession.
Keith didn't notice Randal signalling his boss, but the beeline Sabbath made once the deal was done made it clear he'd done so. "Keithy-boy," Sabbath said, dropping onto a free stool. "Once again you grace us with your presence, and you bring along the lovely Harmony to boot. It is, as always, a pleasure to see you both." The demon grinned widely and motioned to the bartender, summoning a daiquiri of his own.
"It'd be smart to avoid recruiting for a while, Sab. Your demons are likely to get irate once the world gets torn down around them."
Sabbath waved that off. "You've been in town for months, Keithy, and the song hasn't changed in all that time. End of the world. End of the world. Over and over and over, and every time you think the time has come, it turns out to be a false alarm." Sabbath smiled, all sharp teeth and menace. "Tell me, Keithy, have you ever heard of the boy who cried wolf?"
"We had a deal," Keith said.
"Indeed we did. My help with the apocalypse in exchange for your soul. Very fair, very proper, and in no way prohibiting me from doing business."
"I talked to the seer this morning," Keith said. "Bruce Mim. He delivered a message. Fimbulwinter."
Sabbath tilted his cocktail glass and watched the orange slush creep towards the brim. He sighed theatrically and placed the glass on the bar. "You're sure?"
"It's a weird word," Keith said. "You don't mishear it."
"Well," Sabbath said. "I suppose that changes things." He flagged down the barman and ordered a glass of bourbon. "I take it our esteemed drunken seer told you how we stop this impending doom."
"Kind off," Keith said. "We need to track down Danny."
"Roark?" The barman delivered the drink and Sabbath drained it. "There are days," the demon said, "that the daiquiri's an inadequate drink for the soothing of bad news. I suspect I should make that a rule with you, Keithy-boy. Whenever you're around, it's time for the hard liquor."
Keith shrugged. "Sorry."
"Fuck sorry." Harmony's voice was harsh with anger. She stood and looked Sabbath in the eye. "We need to find Danny and he's gone to ground. No phone, no internet, no means of tracking him down. He sent Keith here because the city's chaos makes it harder to trace him using magic. It's a safe bet to assume that he's gone somewhere similar."
Sabbath glanced at Randal, frowning. The bigger demon stood, impassive as ever, and nodded. "We have means," he said, "but it'll hurt."
"I can live with that," Keith said.
"Not us," Sabbath said. "It'll hurt you, Keithy-boy. And we're leaving the girl behind." The demon grinned at Harmony, showing off sharp teeth. "Nothing personal, love, but you're good at what you do and this is a trade secret."
"Fuck off, Sabbath." Harmony scowled, crossing her arms. "You're thinking about using the pool, aren't you." It wasn't really a question, not one that needed answering. Sabbath just kept grinning, hiding his disguise. Randal raised an eyebrow, watching his boss and waiting for a lead to follow.
"Well," Sabbath said. "How did you learn about that, then?"
"Research and hard-work," Harmony said. "It keeps surprises to a minimum."
Keith stood, looking down on both of them. "What's the pool?"
Sabbath and Harmony stared, waiting for the other to respond. The demon broke first. "It's a conduit," he said, "a permanent link between your world and the Gloom. A tangible one, not just a cluster of shadows. That's why it'll hurt, Keithy-boy. You're not built for that kind of exposure.
Keith watched Harmony, examining the steady set of her mouth and the glare focused on the demon. Slowly, imperceptibly, she nodded.
"Fine," Keith said, "but Harmony comes. It sounds like the secret weapon isn't so secret, yeah?"
"Yeah," Sabbath said, "I guess it does."
The demons applied blindfolds before taking them backstage, sharp claws digging at the skin as they escorted Keith and Harmony through the employee's only hallway. They moved through a kitchen, identified by the hiss of gas and the warm scent of boiling tomato soup, their footsteps echoing in the corridors that followed. Keith tried to remember the paths, mentally cataloguing the lefts and right turns, the creak of hinges as the doors opened and closed behind them. Sabbath and Randal ignored Harmony's questions, saying little beyond "this way" and "mind your head." After the forth left turn in a row, Keith gave up trying to catalogue the way out.
They'd been walking for fifteen minutes when Keith stumbled and found himself caught in Randal's arms. "Try not to take this personally, mate," the demon said. "Sabbath's just cautious about the pool, yeah? We don't really want either of you finding your way back."
Keith found his feet and kept walking. "Nice to know that we're still considered dangerous."
"You're not," Sabbath answered. The demon's squeaky voice echoed in the narrow corridor. "We're just not built for trust, Keithy-boy."
They stopped and pulled the blindfolds off. Keith blinked, letting his eyes adapt to the yellow light of the corridor. It was cramped and cold, pipes and wires running along the ceiling. A small door set into the wall was marked with a hazmat symbol, its surface covered with a thin layer of dust. Keith found it hard to focus on the details, as if his eyes simply slid across the surface. "Warded," he said.
"More or less." Sabbath fished beneath his t-shirt and pulled free a key on a necklace. He slid it into the lock. "I feel like I should be delivering the spiel," he said. "Usually this is the point where we sell people on what comes next."
The door swung open, hinges protesting the entire time. Warm, fetid steam seeped through the open doorway, curling around the doorjamb like nervous fingers. The pool sat in the centre of the small room, a circle of tile and dark water that gave of wisps of steam. Hesitant bubbles rose to the surface, like the last remnants of a spa, and the single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling cast long shadows against the concrete walls. The water shimmered, its wine dark surface rippling as though it were trying to pull away from the touch of the light.
"Christ," Keith said. "What the hell is that?"
"It's water." Sabbath dropped the key around his neck, hiding it beneath his shirt. "Or it was, once upon a time. We modified it a bit, mixed in a little Gloom and a little fire from our neck of the woods. Dip a corpse in there and a demon can possess it. Dip a live one in there and?well, you'll see how it goes. It won't be pleasant, but it'll probably work."
Keith blinked. There were dark stains on the concrete floor. "Corpses?"
"You didn't think we could just claim a body, did ya?" Randal clapped Keith on the shoulder, pushing him into the room. "Living souls are damn hard to shuck out of the skin, mate. You want to possess someone, you gotta make yourself some wriggle-room."
The demon knelt and dipped a finger in the water, testing the temperature. Keith found himself groping for the absent .45 at his belt. Harmony grabbed his wrist. "Relax," she said, her voice muted. "I don't think they're planning on cutting your throat."
"Nah, mate, not at all." Randal gave a toothy grin. "We'll just have to drown ya a little."
Keith blinked. "You're kidding."
Sabbath lit a cigarette, grinning around the filter. "More than once."
"Four times, actually." Sabbath closed the door to the small room, squeezing in behind Harmony. "We're playing this by ear, a bit, sorta going off rumour and hearsay, but I'm guessing it'll be four."
Harmony's head jerked sideways. She glared the demon. "Rituals are usually all about threes and sevens."
"Threes and sevens." Sabbath sucked on his cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke. "It's pagan stuff, love. My kind believes in fours. The father and son and the holy spirit."
"That's a trinity."
"Three things, four beats. One for each point of the cross," Sabbath said.
"Like you believe in the cross."
"We don't," Sabbath said, "but your kind does. We are but reflections, after all, and there's only so much belief to go around." He flicked a cigarette at Keith's jeans. "I suggest you disrobe, Keithy-boy. Rugging up isn't going to help you with this one."
"Explanations first," Keith said. "No way am I stepping in that shit until I know what's going on."
"Easy," Sabbath said. "We're sending you to hell."
Keith blinked. "Fuck off. There's no such place."
"No, I suppose not." Sabbath lit another cigarette, the air filling with the cloying texture and scent of the smoke. "But the Gloom doesn't forget things, Keithy-boy, it just shuffles them into the deeper skerries and shoals, far away from the places where it leaks into your world. Once upon a time, before the darkness was all we had, your kind believed in hell with enough fervour to make it real. Once upon a time, you kind dreamt of a place that served as a paradise and a beacon for entities like Randal and I. It's still in there, a pocket in the Gloom, and it's closer than you might think."
Keith looked at Harmony, searching for combination. She nodded once, her lips a tight line. "Jesus," Keith said. "So what happens?"
Sabbath rolled his eyes. "Randal?"
"Hell's all about the torment." Randal folded his arms, waiting. "It's time to relive some mistakes, torment you with 'em for a bit."
Keith didn't sound convinced, and both demons grinned. Randal took off his jacket and hung it over a valve. "Listen," he said, "it's like this, mate. Time's fluid in the Gloom, you see it every time there's a tide, and the future throws up echoes just like the past. Your mistakes don't stop being mistakes just because you haven't made 'em yet." The demon rolled up a sleeve. "If you feel the need to panic, mate"?he paused, considering it, then shrugged?"well, just panic I guess. It's not going to hurt any."
The demon moved, surging forward with speed that Keith couldn't counter. A hard grip wrapped around Keith's throat, lifting him off the concrete. He braced himself, waiting for the hard impact, but instead the water slid around him like a live thing, a cold and silken embrace that sought out pores and creases in the skin, searching for any way beneath the fragile living membrane and infiltrating the body. Keith struggled against it, lashing out in instinct, but the numbing cold stole the sensation of impact. If he hit Randal, how hard he hit him, was impossible to determine.
Keith's lungs burned, aching for air. He waited, struggled, tried to fight his way to the surface. None of it worked. None of it. He opened his mouth an inhaled, sucking in the shadows, and the world blurred around him.
Caught in the Gloom, back in Adelaide, walking through the frozen bodies of a hundred night-club dancers. Michael Wotan standing in the middle of them all, looking up just in time to see Keith coming. The kick of the SIG. Two bullets to the chest. That frozen moment, just before the fall. Like the world's holding its breath, waiting for permission to exhale. Wotan toppling, blood spilling from the wounds, pooling beneath his prone form. Keith Murphy knelt and put the third bullet through the skull, the SIGs muzzle pressed against the forehead, the point of the third eye. Following instructions. Always following instructions. Taking it as given that Wotan deserved to die, because that's what Danny Roark said. They'd been doing it for years, hunting sorcerers and Other, denizens of the Gloom. Keith doesn't ask questions, he does the job. He does the job and he walks away, blood on his hands, gun in his fist, a dead man lying in the middle of the darkness.
This is the way the end of the world begins.
The light hit him like sucker punch, sharp and sudden, Randal's face swam across his field of vision. "One down," the demon said. "Try not to breathe in too much. It'll only make things hurt a little more."
Keith swung on instinct, fighting back. Fists connecting with Randal's ear, his jaw, his throat. Randal didn't even flinch.
"Here we go," the demon said. "Back in for round two."
The Gold Coast. Home again, back, for the first time in years. Searching for a place to hide, a place to lay-low while Roark sorts out the fuck-up. Standing on a beach, Harmony walking into the light of the Ute's high-beams. "Are you Keith Murphy?" she asked. "Are you Danny's trigger man?" and Keith nodded, mute and suspicious, but the suspicion doesn't last.
The safe-house on Currumbin Hill, a little slice of luxury that looked out over the beach, Keith so used to having Danny Roark's back that he didn't even bother warding the place. Harmony White showing up to help, with her dreadlocks and her piercings. Harmony White with the serious eyes, the smile that creeps up on you, a history with Roark that meant she had to help Keith out, but didn't mean she needed to stick around once he was settled in.
Exchanging smiles. Guiding him. Training him to be better, to rely on his own instincts instead of his bosses.
The words of Bruce Mim echoing over and over in Keith's head: your girl isn't going to survive this.
And he never really told her, never gave her the warning about how much helping him would cost. Not until it was too late, not until--
The real world intruded, bright and cruel and hard-edged. Keith spluttered, choking, trying to heave air into his lungs. Randal's fingers flexed as the demon adjusted his grip, searching for purchase against the slippery skin. Keith felt the water pulling on him, a rip-tide trying to suck him under.
Randal plunged him back in again, water closing over Keith's head.
Gareth Cottee sat at the kitchen table, sorting through photographs taken on a cell-phone. "Your safe-house burnt down the day after you left," he said. "Took them a few hours to put it out, burnt half a stretch of the hillside down with it."
And Harmony pursed her lips, tense as a guitar string waiting to be strummed, the arguments about Sabbath still lingering in the air. She'd wanted him to get involved, she'd decided against it when she saw what Sabbath's help cost, and Keith was the one who made the final decisions. He was the one who finally left and made the deal, selling his soul in exchange for another soldier, another force to be mobilized in the face of the coming war.
Later, on the beach, a meet with Sabbath with Cottee at his side, Keith wondered what would happen with Harmony now. "She stuck with you this long, Mister Murphy," Cottee said, but Keith didn't really believe things would work out. Roark had always warned him about the dangers of falling in love, of letting yourself settle down in a world where moving on was a part of the business. Keith did a good job of listening to that advice, but his feelings for Harmony slipped through when he wasn't looking.
Keith burst out of the water, lungs heaving. He sucked down a quick breath, felt Randal's steady grip pressing down. "No," he gasped, the word coming out as a wheeze. "No, please."
"Sorry mate." Randal pushed. "We need to kno?"
The smell of salt in the air. Traffic noise waging war with the rumble of the surf. The mesh-covered window looking out over a half-empty car park, the vehicles clustered together just below the neon motel sign. Keith eased through the door with the .45 drawn, ghosting along the wall until he swept the room, searching for targets. Harmony rode shotgun, edging along behind him, her long dreadlocks touching the floor when she crouched.
It was Danny Roark's room. Keith recognised the wards, the scattered notebooks full of hastily scrawled notes, the bags full of silver crosses and jars of unpleasant herbs and carefully distilled ointments designed to protect against the Other. Danny's leather jacket hung over the open door to the bathroom, the right shoulder punctured by two bullet holes. There was blood on the bed, on the sink, on the bandages puddle on the floor. No sign of Danny himself and the roof locked from the inside. Keith scanned the desk, looking for the motel stationary, searching for the hand-scrawled codes that would be gibberish to everyone but Keith and Danny.
"Always one solution to a locked-room disappearance," Harmony said, and shadows shimmered as she reached out, forging a connection to the Gloom she could use to step into the other world. Keith turned way from the open drawer, saw her arm disappearing into the shadows, heard Mim's warning in the back of his head. She wasn't going to survive this and now they both knew it. She took it as permission, a reason to go forward when they both knew it was a bad idea.
"No," Keith said, "wait a minute, it might be?"
He sucked in air and tried to scream, managed nothing more than a panicked choke. Randal dragged him out of the water and Keith struggled the entire way, hands slapping against the tiles, desperately searching for purchase. Adrenaline ran through his system, a pure and energising panic that would turn to shivering nerves moments after the initial spike gave way. Harmony's arms looped around Keith's shoulders, pulling him close. She whispered into his ear, words that didn't mean anything, couldn't mean anything, but soothed him regardless.
Keith closed his eyes and shuddered. "Shit," he said. "Shit."
"It's okay," Harmony said, "you're done."
"For the moment," Sabbath said. The demon crouched, cigarette in hand, glaring at Keith. "We may put you back in there, Keithy-boy, if you didn't get anything out of it."
"No," Keith said, "I got it."
Harmony's hands stopped moving. "Danny? You found him?"
"Kinda," Keith said. "He's in a motel." He paused, trying to shake off the last of the memory. "I think, Christ, I think he's somewhere in town."
Keith knew the motel. It was one of seven in the city that Roark had identified for him, places that could serve as a temporary residence when passing through the Gold Coast. A two-story shit-hole on Eastern Avenue, fifteen minutes walk from the local airport. The kind of place where people stayed for one night, getting some shut-eye before an early flight out, a cheap and disposable room that eschewed any possibility of pleasant memories. Just another ugly transit motel in a street that's full of them, hiding behind a neon sign designed to instil a vague sense of grandeur.
Keith and Harmony sat in the car park, watching the place through the windscreen. The bored teenager working the front desk had already confirmed Roark's presence, spoke freely about the weirdo who'd rented the room for a week. Room five wasn't meant to disturbed under any circumstances, but Keith wrangled the key with fifty bucks and a charming smile, went back to the car to continue the argument he'd been having since they left the casino behind.
"I'm not staying in the car," Harmony said.
"I'm not saying stay in the car." Keith gripped the steering wheel with both hands, held it tight despite the quiet engine. "I'm saying, I don't know, let me check things out first. Make sure it's safe."
"Fuck that." Harmony folded her arms. "We left safe behind months ago. Your hands are still shaking from the bloody pool."
"They're fine," Keith said. "And this isn't about?"
"Let go of the wheel."
"If you're fine?"
"Fine." Keith let go. His hands shook a little, unsteady. He clenched them into fists. "I'm okay," he said, "I'm not expecting trouble, I just want to be sure."
"Jesus." Harmony opened her door and stepped out, hovering beside the car. Keith followed, scrambling to keep up, found himself meeting her steady gaze across the car roof. "You're twitchy," Harmony said. "What in hell did you see when Randy held you under?"
"Wish I knew." He held up the room key, ran his thumb along the smooth plastic tag on the keychain. "Just?let me check, okay? If there's nothing there, I'll call you up."
"And if there is?"
Keith opened the rear hatch, pulled the .45 from its resting place under the seat. "I'll slow 'em down 'til you get there," he said, "and you'll get plenty of noise to tell you I need help."
Harmony considered the gun, one arm resting on top of the car. Her dreadlocks swayed a little, accompanying the staccato tap of her foot as she considered the options.
"Fine," she said, "do what you've gotta do."
Keith didn't thank her. He just eased his way over to the stairs, heading for the room before she changed her mind.
There wasn't any doubt it was Roark's room, one of the false residencies he set up when trying to elude pursuit. The contents were neat and carefully ordered, a trio of black bags sitting beside the door, all packed and ready to leave on a moment's notice. There were candles lined up on the small bench running down the side of the room, each white stem carved with a rune or symbol that Keith vaguely recognised. The only sign of habitation was the bed, unmade and rumpled, the faint divot caused by a sleeping body still visible in the sagging mattress.
Keith closed the door behind him, sweeping the room with the .45. No signs of life, no signs of a struggle, no way out except the door. The dust-covered window that looked as though it hadn't been opened in over a decade, largely thanks to the security grill that obscured the view of the outside world. Keith padded across the sticky carpet, checking the bathroom. Nothing. No blood. No wards. No mess.
"Shit," Keith said. Unwarded and barely secured, it was the kind of room that suggested Roark would be an easy mark. It was a trick Roark used to lure in some of the stupider Other, lulling them into a false sense of security.
Harmony's footsteps squeaked across the landing, giving a few seconds warning before he knuckles brushed the door. "Keith?"
"Yeah," he said, "come in." He stood by the bathroom door, watched her enter. Harmony paused, frowning, as she surveyed the carefully ordered bags and candles.
"No wards," she said.
"Not his room," Keith said. "The little shit on the desk lied to me."
"Or Roark set the place up." Harmony knelt and pressed her palm against the carpet, whispering beneath her breath. Keith felt the shadows lengthen across the room, growing thicker and darker as veins of Gloom grew between patches of darkness. "Definitely a decoy," she said. "There's wards on a room three doors down, well hidden and hard to detect. If I didn't know him, I probably would have missed 'em."
Keith edged over to the door, opened it just wide enough to survey the car park. "Which room?"
"Fine," he said, "wait?"
"No." Harmony placed her arm across the doorway, barring his exit. "I know what I'm doing, Keith. I've been doing this a while. I can handle myself if there's trouble, and I can get us out of here faster than you can. Either pony up what's freaking you out or shut up about it."
Keith met her gaze, stared into the anger.
"Mim told me you were going to die," he said.
"End of the world," Harmony said. "We're all going to die."
"Sure," Keith said, "but you'll go first."
Harmony looked at him for a moment. Then she slapped him across the back of the head. "Idiot. Let's go."
Keith didn't move. "But when I was in the pool?"
"Idiot," Harmony said, repeating the word slowly and clearly. "I chose to help you, Murphy, and we were outgunned from day one. It wasn't like dying wasn't something I thought about. If it happens, it happens. I've come to terms with it." She leant in and kissed him, fierce and determined.
"Fuck," she said, "who knows, it may even have been worth it."
Keith lowered the .45, his lips tingling. "Don't joke about it."
"I'm not." Harmony flexed her fingers, grinning. "Let's go get Danny and argue about it later. I'd prefer to have him nearby so I can kick his arse for getting us both caught up in this."
"But?" Keith said, but she was already gone. He scurried after her, gun folded beneath the front of his jacket.
The second room matched Keith's vision from the pool. Blood, wards, discarded notebooks, the detritus of a hurried exit that no-one had bothered trying to cover. Keith lifted the leather jacket off the bathroom door and fingered the two bullet holes. When he lifted his fingers free, they were both stained by blood.
"This is it," he said. "This is what I saw when they drowned me."
Harmony glanced at the door, the broken chain hanging limply from the slide. "Locked on the inside," she said. "No other ways out."
Keith flipped through the notebooks, scanning the margins. "No codes, either."
"Something me and Roark worked out," Keith said. "Warnings, directions, instructions, that sort of thing. He'd scribble it on something innocuous when he had to abandon a room."
"Ah." Harmony crouched and checked beneath the bed, her dreadlocks brushing against the floor. "Nothing here," she said. She rose and wiped both hands on her skirt. "Someone needs to clean the carpet in here."
Keith stared the grill-covered window, the thin film of dust covering the glass. "I doubt it's high on the landlord's priorities."
"Guess not." She grimaced and reached towards the wall, gathering power as she extended her fingertips. "Anyway, there's always one?"
"Hold it." Keith drew his .45 and turned towards her. "I'm going with you."
"The Gloom. There's always one solution to a locked room when sorcerer's are involved, and you and Roark are both good enough to slip over without a tide."
Harmony frowned. "You've seen this?"
"Then don't fuck with it," she said. "That isn't how predictions work, Murphy. Whatever you saw, you saw."
"Screw it," Keith said, "I'm coming along. I saw you get ready to jump, not what happens after. That's just, you know, conjecture. The pool and Mim's warning, side by side."
Harmony opened her mouth and closed it, answering her own question before giving it voice. "Right," she said, "transport for two. Take hold of my hand."
Shadows pooled beneath her fingertips, spreading like a ripple across the wall, growing deeper and darker as the Gloom took hold. Keith adjusted his grip on the gun, braced himself for the slip. Harmony's hand disappeared, sinking into the darkness, and greedy tendrils of shadow writhed along her arm and prepared to pull her in.
It wasn't like the tides, slow and cold and ashen. Slipping into the gloom was like hitting cold water after leaping off a bridge, an impact sharp and hard as concrete that stole the breath from your lungs.
The motel room looked different in the Gloom, like an ill-conceived sketch rendered in murky ink and charcoal. The cold pressed against them like thumbs on the eyeballs, equal parts oppression and menace. Harmony produced a torch and coaxed it to life, whispering over the small device as its dim bulb waged war with the Gloom.
Roark's wards hung across the walls, ash-gray patterns amid the flat pane of shadows. Ordinarily sorcerer's tethered objects, shoring up their physical existence when mimicked in the shadow world, but the rear wall of the room appeared to grow less tangible as they approached it, it's black surface just a veil of darkness allowing passage to the outside.
"Easy escape," Harmony said, and the shadows roiled against the limits of the light, searching for a way in. "He ever jump off the deep end with you?"
"Not often," Keith said. "I wasn't a fan."
"Neither was he." She pointed to specks of blood on the floor, shimmering and led off. The Gloom was a dead place, a reflection of a dream that too few people believed in, and shed blood glittered like veins of silver against the darkness. "He just wanted to go somewhere fast, I think, and subtlety wasn't high on the list of priorities."
Keith grunted an acknowledgement. Things didn't sound right in the Gloom. Noise seemed to filter in at random, the soft scuff of their footsteps quiet and non-existent one moment, loud as a pounding heart the next. The click of the .45's safety became distorted, as if originating from a point just to the side of the actual gun. Harmony ignored it all and shone light across the black wall, watching the ripples pass through the surface every time the torch-beam brushed across its surface.
She looked at Keith and frowned. "If he's bleeding in here?"
"Yeah," Keith said, "I know." It was one of the first things Keith learnt when he started working with Roark. Bleeding in the Gloom was never a good idea. It attracted attention from unwanted denizens, the kind of Other they preferred not to engage on home soil. "You reckon you can track him?"
"Whether he's still bleeding," Harmony said. "It'll make things easier." She reached out and grabbed hold of Keith's hand, clutching it in a tight grip. "The wall isn't going to be pleasant."
She dragged them both through the wall, the darkness closing over them.
Keith blinked, seeing nothing. It felt like being caught in a rip, giving in to the tides and currents of the Gloom. Something pulling him along, stronger and faster than the rest of the water, anything caught in its grasp being drawn out into the deeper depths where the options were tread water or drown. Keith tensed despite himself, fought the sensation, refusing to give in. The Gloom that washed over them lost any connection to the world it usually mimicked, descending into a roil of formless shadow and chaos.
Then it stopped, an ashen landscape resolving itself, depositing them both on the dirt. Keith rolled, still blind, until he connected with a tree root. He heard the sound of wings, the steady thump of something large and feathered working to hold itself aloft. Keith reached out, found a warm hand amid the cold, dragged Harmony towards him. The .45 pointed towards the noise and Keith hissed beneath his breath, unsure whether he was aiming in the right direction. He heard Harmony whisper, fumbling with the flashlight as she tried to coax it to life once more.
"Shit," she said, "not good."
The torch flickered, coughing up a dim glow, and Keith caught a glimpse of the Valkyrie.
It wore a woman's face, cold and cruel as winter frost, luminescent against the Gloom's reproduction of a beachside car park. The valkyrie perched on the roof of a car, a long spear held in both hands, its broad wings spread wide as it considered Keith and Harmony, glaring at the dim sphere of light shed by the torch. Keith met its gaze and felt something pull, a seductive touch against the deep places in his subconscious, the places that courted death and adored its inevitably, the blissful endlessness of it.
The Valkyrie whispered, its voice like an imperfection the ear couldn't quite place, one word spilling past its lips. "Roark."
Both wings flapped, stirring the still, cold air of the Gloom. Keith heaved in a deep breath, saw it plume as he exhaled. Harmony clawed at his arm, trying to draw his attention away, but the Valkyrie didn't move. It smiled, teeth sharp and pale as ivory, the writhing worm of its tongue pushing past the corpse-pale lips.
The .45 kicked in his hand before Keith realised he'd pulled the trigger. The bullet caught the valkyrie on the hip, creasing the pale skin. A sloppy shot, panicked. The second one landed higher, in the stomach. Keith realised he was screaming, but the Gloom swallowed the sound.
The Valkyrie launched itself, pouncing forward. Keith fell backwards, eyes focusing on the spear flashing towards him, point like a gleaming icicle lashing out. It caught him the shoulder, cold spreading down his arm, numbing fingers that refused to fire a third time.
The spear rose, rearing back in preparation for a second strike. Keith felt Harmony's arms close around him, pulling him close and tight. She roared against the darkness, voice rising above the pitch of the Valkyrie's scream.
The speed of the transition hurt, Harmony dumping him back in the real world with all the force of a Mack truck. Keith bounced off the bitumen, gun skittering out of his grasp, and rolled twice before colliding with a car tire that bruised his ribs with the impact. He screamed once, giving voice to the pain and frustration, forcing himself to move. It hurt to stand, to breathe, but he crawled for the .45, trying to pinpoint his target. His groping fingers curled around the gun.
He swung it in a wide arc, found himself staring into the late afternoon sun. He swore and threw a hand across his face, watched the red splotches dance across the back of his eyelids.
There was no Valkyrie, not outside the Gloom. It was one of the ancient Other, a legacy of a time before the Gloom was turned to shadow, and the real world wouldn't bare it's presence. The Valkyrie couldn't touch him and Keith couldn't touch it, not until the Gloom Tide washed over the world and put them on equal footing again.
There wasn't any Harmony either.
Keith lowered the gun and screamed, crawling for the car park and the rows of vehicles sitting beneath the swaying palm trees. He smashed the butt of the .45 against a window and let himself in, hotwiring the ignition with unsteady fingers.
He ran three traffic lights on the way to Southport, speeding down the Gold Coast Highway in a stolen HR. A series of old punk bands screeched out of the tape deck, the fuzzy guitar noise filling the car. Keith found the discordant guitars and rage soothed his jagged nerves. He breathed in and out, pulse racing, the bitter taste of adrenaline in his mouth. He bypassed two cop cars, eluding the drivers through the simple expedient of a charm Roark had taught him, one of the few acts of magic Keith had ever learnt. It was the first time he'd found himself wishing, really wishing, that he'd pressured Danny Roark to teach him more.
He parked close the Dell and walked down the street, hands plunged into his jacket pockets. People stopped talking as he walked in, ready to stare the entire pub down. Keith nodded once and threaded through the Friday afternoon crowd, setting himself down at Bruce Mim's table.
"I told her," Keith said.
Mim gave him a dark, bleary-eyed look. "And?"
"She threw me out of the Gloom. She stayed there with a fucking valkyrie." Keith pulled his seat in, hunching over the table. "Where's your rodent this afternoon?"
"Lou is on a time out."
"Good for him," Keith said. He glared across the table, picturing a point just past Mim's forehead. "I want her back, Bruce. You've seen the future, I want to know she's really dead. I want to know this was it."
Mim sucked air through his teeth. The old man lifted a jug beer and poured, one for himself and another for Keith.
"Dead is a subjective term for a sorcerer," he said. "You should know that better than anyone else."
"Right," Keith said. "Then you're going to help me."
"Like arse." Mim nursed his beer, refusing to meet Keith's gaze. "This isn't what I do, not by a long shot. You want her back, more power to ya, but I'm content to wait this out. I'm content to see the world end."
Keith drew the .45 and thumbed the safety free, holding the gun beneath the table. "Don't have to wait that long," he said.
Mim drank, smiling. "Fucking arse," he said. "What've you seen?"
"The passage of centuries." Mim drained his glass and put it on the table. "The guns not enough to put me down and you know it. Why don't you put it away?"
"It doesn't have to put you down. It just has to hurt."
"For what? Torture? That isn't your style. You're a killer, Murphy, not a thug."
Keith met the old man's gaze, felt the cold eyes searching for something inside him. He swore and clicked the safety on, returned the gun to his pocket. "Fuck," he said. "FUCK."
The pub's patron's turned and looked, voices dropping to a whisper.
"You're a prick, Murphy. A prick and an idiot." The old man's thin fingers dug into a pocket, produced a set of keys on green frog keychain. "Go by the house and collect Lou. He'll take you where you need to go."
"Lou doesn't speak," Keith said.
"Improvise. I'm sure you'll think of something."
Keith looked at the keys for a long time. "Thanks."
"Don?t' thank me yet," Mim said. "I liked your girl, Murphy, but you're a goddamn prick. Tell Harmony she could have done better, if you ever manage to get her back in one piece."
Keith rapped a fist against the aluminium frame of Bruce Mim's screen door, heard the rapid scratch of bone paws against the lino inside. He was still fumbling with the keys when the small, bony face pressed itself against the window, the empty eye-sockets peering through the curtain. Lou bared his needle-sharp teeth, hissing through the glass. Keith held up the keychain, showing it off, before sorting through and unlocking the screen door.
"Bruce sent me," he said. "I need your help."
Lou's face disappeared, the curtain falling shut. When Keith opened the front door the bone thing sat, expectantly, in the middle of the kitchen. Keith knelt and offered the back of his hand, fingers curled into a loose ball, as if he were trying to befriend a strange dog. Lou sniffed. Keith wasn't sure what the bone-thing could smell, given the empty socket that served as his nose, but Lou seemed satisfied.
"I've gotta find someone," Keith said. "You know Harmony, right? She's friends with your owner?"
Lou hissed, baring teeth, displeased with the choice of words.
"Fine," Keith said, "your friend, your boss, whatever. Just, you know Harmony, right?"
The tiny skull bobbed, affirmative.
"Can you help me find her?"
It bobbed again.
Lou hesitated. The bone-thing crept forward and laid one tiny paw over Keith's hand.
"Great," Keith said. He sat on the lino floor, finger still caught in the bone-thing's tight grip. He felt exhaustion sweep over him, filling in the empty spaces as the adrenaline wore away, the flight or fight instinct giving itself over to a quiet emptiness. "Just great. Don't 'spose you can write directions or something, then?"
Lou shook his head. The bone thing scampered back a few steps, heading for the cramped living room. The walls were lined with bookshelves, filled to the brim with Bruce Mim's books and notepads, a cornucopia of predictions and reading material the old man had accumulated over the centuries. The bone-thing scampered to a low shelf, tugging on a battered copy of the local phone book. It was stuck beneath a pile of hardbacks, tomes bound in something Keith fervently hoped was ordinary leather, and the small bone-thing lacked the strength to pull it free.
Lou turned, clicking its needle-sharp teeth together. Keith pulled himself off the kitchen floor and freed the phone-book from its confines. "What? You want me to phone a friend?"
The bone-thing pulled the book open, riffling through the pages until he found the street maps. They were covered in notes and scribble, biro marks intersecting streets and city blocks, strange symbols unlike anything Keith had seen in use by Harmony or Roark.
Lou's bone-fingers traced their way across the page. Finally, he pointed. Keith squinted, trying to make out the street names beneath the layers of link. "What's there? Shallows?"
Lou's second gesture was emphatic.
"Right," Keith said. "Right." He found a scrap of paper and copied the streets. "Don't suppose you have a street number?"
Lou shook his head. The bone-thing scuttled after Keith, following him towards the front door. The needle-sharp teeth clicked together as Keith went to leave.
Keith turned. "What?"
The bone-thing clicked again. It pointed at Keith's shoulder.
"It's daylight," Keith said. "You want to come, you go find that bag Bruce carries you around in."
Lou just stared. Tiny bone fingers scratched against the lino, measuring the bone-things' impatience.
Keith sighed and knelt, holding his arm out. Lou clicked twice with excitement and scampered, clambering up to perch on Keith's shoulder. A bony finger pointed towards the door.
"Yeah," Keith said, "we're going."
Keith followed the map, heading for one of the back-streets in the heart of Surfers Paradise, a street filled with small motels and a series of towering high-rise blocks. Lou rode on the dashboard, perched there like a small dog, his tiny paws pointing towards a residential unit block cramped in between two eighteen-story holiday towers. Lou hissed and clicked excitedly, fingers scratching the stolen car's dashboard. Keith pulled over and opened the door, let the bone-thing guide the way. He followed it to the second floor, unit seven, and carefully picked the lock while the excited creature scamped along the wooden deck.
The room smelt, faintly, of magic. That sour, iron-heavy scent that came with warding a place with blood. The bone-thing clambered onto the bed, snuffling its way across the lime-green comforter until he found the spot he was looking for. Lou stared at Keith and patted the mattress. When Keith didn't move, the bone thing pointed and repeated the petting gesture, the message clear. You. Sit.
"Fine," Keith said, "then what?"
The bone-thing lifted Keith's left hand, traced a paw across the watch strapped around Keith's wrist. The bony fingers marked out a passage of hours and minutes. Keith frowned and did the math, watching the bone paw mark the same three repetitions. Three hours. A handful of minutes. Right in time for the next Gloom Tide.
"Shit." Keith sat, fuming. Lou scampered to the far end of the bed, curling up on a pillow like a skeletal cat.
The Gloom Tide rose quickly. Keith felt the chill settle over the world, a precursor to the slow bleeding of shadows. The room's fluorescent lighting came on automatically, bathing the room in a white glow that held steady against the darkness. Keith watched the windows, the roiling pattern of the Gloom flowing against the edge of the ward, shades of ash and shadow that blurred together like an after-image seen against the back of the eyelids. The steady tick of the clock paused, caught between seconds.
Keith went to stand. Lou raised his head, hissing like a cat, and Keith settled back on the comforter.
He waited. The un-time of the Gloom moved past, minutes and seconds blending together.
Then the right wall turned black, a film of shadow seeping across it like ink spreading through paper. Keith started. The .45 appeared in his hand, drawn and pointed towards the Gloom Gate in one smooth motion, searching the darkness for some sign of a target. Keith held his breath as the shadow bulged, swelling to the point of bursting, decanting a tall figure into the room with a heavy bundle carried in both arms. Keith aimed, ready to fire, as the tendrils of shadow peeled off the new arrival, reluctant to give way and allow entrance into the spot of normality staked out by the Motel's tethered lights.
Lou gave a warning click, followed by a gentle hiss. Keith watched in sack fascination as the familiar face appeared.
The figure was stick-thin, the back of his hands covered in tattoos, his dark beard streaked with white. Blood stained his shirt, spreading from a wound that tore through cloth and skin alike. He carried Harmony in both arms, her face pale and wracked with pain.
"Hey," Roark said. "What the fuck are you doing here, kid?"
Then he pitched forward, dropping Harmony into Keith's arms, breath rattling in his throat. Keith caught Harmony's limp form in an awkward grasp, trying to keep the .45 from going off, and barely noticed as Danny Roark hit the carpeted floor.
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011