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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
The small crowd flowed around the wrestling ring, searching for seats. People gathered into tight knots as they searched: fathers with their kids, out for a night's entertainment; trios of ghost-faced Goth girls in their black jackets and fishnets; the hardcore marks in jeans and t-shirts, slinking to the back row where no-one could accuse them of taking the night's entertainment seriously. For a company that advertised itself as the Queensland Wresting Organisation, they weren't terribly organised. Two hundred fans milled about, none of them sure which reserved seat was theirs. Keith Murphy leant against the back wall of the community centre where he could watch it all happen.
"This is stupid," he said. He tried not to look at the man standing next to him.
"I've heard that before, from smarter men than you. They were wrong as well." Gareth Cottee was built like a wheelie bin, big, squat and thickset, with lank hair and an untamed beard that left the existence of his neck up for speculation. Two piercing green eyes squinted at the world from beneath heavy eyebrows, giving the impression of an unsettling intelligence hidden inside the body of a woolly mammoth. Apparently he worked at the local university, teaching classes on television and comic books. "Wrestling is spectacle, Mister Murphy, take it from Roland Barthes." He waved a fat, stubby hand towards the ring. "We're here to witness a morality tale, one of the few true passion plays left in our culture. The hero who suffers does so for no other reason than embodying the act of suffering, the villain who cheats does so for no other reason than embodying the act of villainy. The man who is defeated...well, you get the picture."
Keith shook his head. "What's it got to do with magic?"
"Everything." Cottee's eyes shone as he made an abundant gesture towards the crowd. "This is the Gloom as microcosm, a place where the symbol is everything. It's obvious in a way that's impossible anywhere else."
The heat in the small community was oppressive, the thick humidity pressing down on everyone. Keith hunched his shoulders, flapping the edges of the jacket, trying to cool down. "Fine," he said. "Whatever you say. Just so long as we're not wasting time, yeah?"
"Have faith, Mister Murphy. There's no better place for a demon to hide out and feed."
Keith glanced across the gathering crowd. "He's not exactly hiding if he's performing on stage."
"Ring, not stage," Cottee said.
"Like there's a difference."
"Trust me, Murphy. That's why you asked for my help." Cottee grinned. He dressed like just another one of the perpetually teenaged men in the crowd: green-and-black check flannel shirt over a vintage Batman T-shirt, scuffed green Chuck Taylor sneakers and faded blue jeans with a hole torn in the right knee. The sneakers squeaked on the varnished wooden floor. "The whole foundation of magic is simple semiotics, just like everything else. One thing stands in for another, the symbols connected to esoteric meanings, the signified and the referent drawing power from the signifier. You learn to decode them and poof--" he snapped his fingers in front of Keith's face "—magic. A stage is not a wrestling ring, a movie villain is not the same thing as a wrestling heel. The space shapes the performance, re-codes the symbols in slightly different ways."
There was an eager fervour to the big man's voice that grated against Keith's nerves. "I'm going to kill Harmony."
"Really?" Cottee's heavy eyebrows rose. "Do you mean literally or metaphorically?"
The lights in the community centre dimmed, the standing lights around the ring blooming into life. Keith cocked his head to one side, squinting against the eye-burning brightness. "You know, I'm still making up my mind."
The first match featured a pair of young, fast-moving kids who exchanged punches in the centre of the ring for several minutes before one gouged the eye and took the advantage. The crowd cheered every time the half-blinded victim fought back, but there wasn't much enthusiasm behind the celebration. Cottee lapsed into a quiet commentary, explaining the pattern as the wrestlers moved through the match: the shine where the hero controls the match; the heat when the heel cheated and took the upper hand. The comeback that's cut-off before the hero finally ends things, then a chain of big moves leading towards the end. There was a pattern to it, a rhythm.
Keith grit his teeth and listened, tried to pay attention. He didn't quite agree with Cottee's assertion that it was just like ritual dancing.
The second match featured a skinny kid, all sinew and bone, stepping into the ring against a bearded thug with a beer gut and a perpetual scowl. The thug hit harder and faster than Keith was expecting, raising welts in the skinny kid's chest with a series of slaps. The skinny kid landed one lucky punch, snapping the thug's head back with the impact, and the crowd's cheer sounded more genuine.
"The victory means nothing if the runt doesn't stand a chance," Cottee said. "You want people to believe that anything can happen, otherwise a monster isn't really a monster."
"So people believe in this?"
"No," Cottee said, "they know it's not real, but that's the point. They're not reading the contest, they're following the symbols, the ritual of suffering and pain and victory where the heel tortures the hero and brings purity to his victory."
Keith rolled his eyes and focused on the match. It was better than enduring Cottee's ramble.
The bearded announcer started hyping the third match, a tag-team bout featuring students from the local wrestling school. The four men in the ring looked young and awkward, and their offense consisted of elbow strikes that lacked the power or momentum to convince anyone they were really fighting.
"Some of those punches aren't even connecting," Keith said.
"Rookies," Cottee explained, "still hesitant in the ring in case they do someone injury. It doesn't matter. It isn't the reality we're worried about. Wrestlers are like clowns, Mister Murphy, a new generation of harlequin. It's the possibility of what they might be that makes them dangerous, not how dangerous they actually are."
Keith nodded. He'd hunted Other that dressed like Harlequin's once. They'd been a pain in the arse to put down.
During the fourth match Keith excused himself and hit the concession stand. There were older women working the counter, probably the mother's of those working in the ring, and they paused in the midst of preparing hot-dogs and pulling bottles of Pepsi from the fridge to scream obscenities at the ring. They were more enthusiastic than the crowd, watching the spectacle. The hot-dogs were cheap, and Keith's was still cold in the middle. He ate mechanically, heading for the doorway, and thumbed Harmony's number into his phone on the way outside. His finger hovered over the green dial button, wary of the consequences. He'd had it drilled into him time and again, text message only, but there were times where protocol didn't mean a damn. He dialled and waited for an answer. "This guys a freakin' lunatic."
He could hear Harmony's sigh through the crackling connection, her frustration coming out in her voice. "You said you wanted to learn."
"I figured you'd be the one to teach me. I figured this was important."
"I'm busy, Murphy. One of us needs to figure out how to stop the end of the world." She said something else that was lost in the crackle of the bad connection, then repeated it when the phone calmed down. "Just listen to him, okay? Cottee's a little weird, but he knows what he's doing. If he says there's Other working the show, there's something there worth looking into."
Keith glared at his phone and went back inside. Cottee was still pressed against the back wall, grinning widely as he watched the spectacle play out.
At the start of the fifth match the Other appeared.
There wasn't any doubt about its origins, not once it loped through the black curtain and stared down the crowd. Roark used to call them Demons, back when Roark was still around, and Keith knew from experience they were bad news. To kill a Demon you walked into the Gloom and fought them. To kill a demon you had to answer questions about where the bodies went, because their victims always had wallets and ID and leases on their apartments. Most Other were content to skulk, hiding in the shadows. Demons had too much legitimacy to go down easy.
This one walked like a predator, weight on the balls of his feet, an ebony forelock hanging over the gaunt face that was rendered in stark monochromatic make-up – bone-white skin, kohl-rimmed eyes, lips marked with black ink that bled into the pale white around the mouth. A noose hung 'round his neck, the knot dangling between the pectorals, and he rippled with lean muscle as he loped into the ring. Dark, shimmering eyes studied the crowd, ignoring their jeers. Keith resisted the urge to shrink against the wall, sliding away from the gaze. The Other's teeth were pointed when he finally climbed the ropes and roared. The announcer did his job, giving the crowd the name Hangman Jack Ketch. The Demon's low laughter seemed to fill the empty spaces in the room. It climbed to the top of the of the ring, head brushing against the low ceiling, and lifted the end of its nose into the air in a quick and ugly mimicry of a hanging.
The crowd booed with the kind of passion they'd lacked in the earlier matches.
Ketch's opponent was older, a tall blond with the physique of a front-rower, all jaw-line and intense focus. In a fair fight the blonde looked like the kind of guy who'd dismantle the leaner, sleeker opponent, and you'd be just as likely to be wrong. The Demon moved fast, all grace and quick bursts of power. They locked up, arms gripping one-another's elbows, and started forcing each other around the ring.
"Jesus," Keith said.
"Yeah," Cottee said, "he's something, isn't he?"
Something wasn't the word Keith was looking for. He'd seen demons before, killed a dozen in his former life as a trigger man for Danny Roark, but they seemed paltry compared to the creature gliding across the ring. They were dangerous shadows, just like the place they'd come from. Corrupt, powerful, but touched by mortality due to the reality of breaking free of Gloom. They were rare and they were always dangerous, but they could be defeated.
There was very little mortality in the wrestler in the ring.
They went through the motions, wrestler and demon. Shine. Heat. Comeback. Cut-off. Keith's breath caught in his throat every time the Demon slammed his opponent into the canvas.
"Wait," Cottee said, "it'll pass, soon enough."
Keith nodded and watched, tracing the rhythms of the match. He stared, engrossed, while the Demon fought and flagged and returned to dominance. The blonde made a mistake, got himself caught by a knee to the stomach. The Demon hoisted him upright, holding him upside down, and the blonde's face twisted in a fear. For a moment the Demon hovered, lips curved into a cruel line. It soaked up the derision of the crowd, feeding on it, ready to plunge the wrester head-first into the mat. The air of menace that surrounded the creature grew thicker, stronger. Keith could taste it, thick and bloody, in the back of his throat.
"Shit," he said. Cottee nodded.
The Demon spiked the rangy blonde into the canvas, crashing him head-first into the mat.
The wrestler sprawled across the mat, still as death while the Demon made the cover. Keith held his breath, fingers drifting towards the gun holstered under his jacket. Cottee laid a warning hand against his wrist. "Wait," he said. "Just give them a moment."
The referee counted off the victory, hand falling to the mat three times. The Demon stood, still smirking. It spat on its opponent and stalked off. As it past them, leaning against the wall, it flashed Cottee a mocking wink.
Two ambulance officers came to remove the wrestler. They got him to his feet, helped him stumble backstage.
"The embodiment of suffering, all part of the performance," Cottee said, "otherwise they'd be carting him out on a stretcher. Defeat is a performance, a sign played for everyone to see."
The fluorescent lights of the Palm Beach McDonalds were amped up to eye-bleed levels, a valiant attempt to distract onlookers from the spider-webs and dead moths littering the fittings. Keith found himself squinting, trying to focus. The last time he'd been through Palm Beach, the McDonalds hadn't even been there. Hell, the last time he'd been through Palm Beach, they hadn't even considered keeping the fast food joints running twenty-four hours.
Their coffee was undrinkable back then. Now they ran a café out in the corner of the restaurant.
Cottee sat on the far side of the table, wolfing down a cheeseburger and a large pack of fries. He's insisted on snacking on the way home, picked the McDonalds because it was the first thing they passed when he announced he was hungry. Keith stuck with his coffee and nibbled on a pack of biscuits. He checked his watch. "You sure we should be lingering? There's a tide due in an hour or so, and my place isn't the best spot to wait one out."
"Harmony's mentioned," Cottee said. He stopped chewing and sipped his coke, draining the dregs through a straw. "Fear not, Mister Murphy, I have no real intention of getting involved in your problems beyond the most basic instruction that the delightful Miss White requested of me. I'm un-tethered, thus far. I'll barely notice the tide rolling in."
Keith choked on his biscuit. "That's safe?"
"Safe enough," Cottee said, "I'm not a sorcerer, Mister Murphy. The creatures of the night don't come looking for my blood, and for the most part my interest in them is purely academic. One may choose to drag me into the shadows some night some night, but it's entirely possible I could be hit by a bus as well. More likely, perhaps, given the way drivers are around these parts. The thought of living through the tides wearies me, so I elected not to delve too deeply unless it became truly necessary."
"And if you need something done, Gloom-side?"
Cottee shrugged. "For the most part friends like Harmony are willing to do what need's doing for me, or I find the right person and entice them to do the job for me."
Keith closed both eyes and ground a knuckle into the plastic tabletop. "Entice," he said. "That sounds ominous.""
"Yeah," Cottee said, "I suppose it does." He grinned like a jackal, cheeks bulging around a mouthful of burger. Flecks of food were caught in his beard, licked away by an eager tongue. "Harmony's idea, really. She figured you could pay me back for helping you out, fleshing out your understanding of the lesser arcana. I want the demon…Ketch…I want him dealt with."
Keith chewed on a mealy biscuit, taking his time before answering. "Literally," he said. "I'm literally going to kill her."
"It's not her fault."
"The demon's dangerous," Cottee said. "He's restrained for the moment, but that can't last. He'll cut loose eventually, just for a second, and he'll taste the freedom of what he used to be. He's done it once before, an accident…" The big man paused and frowned, then shuddered like a dog trying to shake off water. "People wrote it off, just one of those accidents that happens in the ring. Spinal damage, enough to cripple, and, well, you know…"
He sipped his drink, waiting for Keith to fill in the rest of the thought. "Demons tempt, then they torture, then they kill," Keith said. "It's what they do."
"Indeed." Cottee nodded. "So I ask for you help. I mean, have you ever lost someone to the shadows, Mister Murphy? Is that why you do what you do? Surely you can understand this?"
Keith shrugged and looked out over the busy highway, the thread of cars moving beneath the streetlights. Everything on the Gold Coast revolved around the beach, the highway, or the ways out of town. Everything kept moving. "It's not that easy," Keith said. "I'm no sorcerer either, and you can't take down a Demon with a drive-by. Maybe if I'd got my hands on some silver bullets and he was weak, but not like he is in there. I can put him down, but I can't keep him down, you know? I need someone to strip down his defences, make sure he stays dead."
"You could ask Harmony."
"Harmony's already busy," Keith said, "it's why she sent me to you."
"She's already mentioned she'd be willing to help."
"She may be," Keith said. "I'm not."
"Well," Cottee said, "I guess that means someone's going to die in that ring, eventually, and we'll both have to live with that." He finished his burger and folded the wrapper into a neat triangle. "Unless, of course, you change your mind."
Harmony was installed on the safe-house couch when Keith arrived home, her lean frame supine on the expensive leather with notebooks spread across the kitchen table. He'd grown used to seeing here there in recent weeks, ever since he explained the chain of events he'd apparently set off in Adelaide, but for the first time he felt irritation at her presence. She didn't look up from her notes and he didn't intrude on her thoughts, disappearing into the kitchen to rummage through the dirty dishes until he found a glass that was easy to clean. He rinsed, scrubbed, and filled it with tap-water, drinking over the kitchen sink and staring out the window. The bulky shadow of the high rise disrupted the view, obscuring the beach from their vantage point. Gardens and pools glowed in the night, as though tethering the building against the dark. The sound of the ocean rose up the hill, waves rolling onto the shore. Keith checked his watch, counted down the seconds. The night sky grew darker, the bright-lit sign of the high-rise between him and the ocean growing dark. Shadows stretched and solidified. The pool lights around the resort went out.
Gloom tide. Darkness.
His footsteps seemed muted against the hardwood floor, same as they always did when the Gloom settled around them. Keith paced back and forth, checking the wards, then settled on the floor cross-legged to watch Harmony work. Stray dreadlocks hung over the edge of the couch-cushions as she worked, pencilling notes in the margins of notes she'd already taken. There were hollow pockets beneath her eyes, dark and sleepless. She didn't look over, but idle fingers twisted her eyebrow ring while she contemplated the problem. "So I'm guessing you're pissed," she said.
Keith curled one arm around his knee, pulling it close to the chest. "He took me to a McDonalds. Who the fuck asks you to kill something at a McDonalds after a wrestling show?"
"People with too much class to do it outside a KFC, I guess." Harmony tapped the pencil against her lower lip, a quick staccato rhythm. "Does it really matter where you're asked?"
"According to your professor, yes."
Harmony put down the pencil and sat up, planting both feet on the floor. She smiled at him. "Well, at least you learned something."
Keith reached under the coffee table, found the 9mm he'd taped there as a precaution. The weapon slipped free and he cradled it in his palm for moment before placing it on the coffee table. "I picked this up from a black-market dealer out the back of Coolangatta," he said. "There's a handful of others around the house, a few more I brought with me, and the knife Roark put together. That's not the kind of arsenal I'd need for a demon like this, not on its own. Cottee thinks you're part of this deal."
"Maybe I am." She stood up, walked over to the window. "It's been years since I stripped defences for a hit, Murphy. Not since Roark, I think, and even then I wasn't good at it. If the end of the world is coming, if you're the one fighting it…"
"I'm not asking you to do this."
She turned her head, glancing over one shoulder. "You're not ready to do it alone," she said, "and I need the practice. That's why I agreed to help him out."
Keith stared at her, tried not to think about the warnings he'd been given. The seer standing there in a decrepit Southport kitchen, draining a beer bottle as he gloated about his prediction. Your girl won't make it through this.
"It's dangerous," Keith said. "Roark always said it was dangerous, his part of the job."
"He's still alive," she said. "And so are you. I'll take my chances, Murphy. If it goes wrong, it goes wrong."
There were routines for tailing the Other, just like everything else. Find their hunting grounds, figure out how they were feeding, keep a ware eye out for pockets of Gloom where they could disappear into their own world. Set up surveillance on the hotels and motels, on the alleyways and the abandoned buildings. Figure out the routines and the best places to disrupt them.
The Gold Coast made all of that difficult, because the mortal residence liked moving on almost as much as the Other did. It took three days to trail the demon, following it from the small wrestling school to its host domicile, a duplex in the heart of Labrador. A little semi-furnished rental with a steep driveway that took a direct drop from the roadside to the garage door. Stubby palms grew in the steep slope of the yard, beige brickwork secured the building to the hillside. Keith sat in his Ute three blocks down, watching the narrow street.
He dialled Harmony's number. "You ready?"
"I've done this before, Murphy."
The connection went dead.
Keith sighed and opened the glove box, removed the 9mm. It disappeared beneath his shirt, tucked into the waistline of his jeans. The knife was already sheathed against the small of his back, the blade close to his skin. He started counting backwards from five hundred.
The Gloom Tide rose up the slope, shadows swarming over the duplex.
Roark would have yelled at him for taking the hit, yelled at him for putting three days planning into the job. The Other were dangerous, regardless of the breed, and the Demons were the worst of them. Roark put in weeks of research, regardless of the target, but they always came up with the same game plan. Someone sets up shop and chanted, stripping down the Other's defences. Someone broken in and fired, taking them down clean while they're just mortal enough to stay dead when you kill them. It felt weird, trusting Harmony to have his back. Keith found himself thinking of Roark, mind straying off the job. He swore and focused, felt the air humming as he sidled towards the duplex, half-sliding down the front yard to pick the lock on the front door.
It wasn't even fully closed. Keith eased it a little wider, slipped through the space. There was water running in the kitchen sink and he followed the noise, caught the Demon in the process of filling a coffee jug. Keith held his breath and watched the Demon spoon sugar into a mug. He exhaled and stepped in the room, the pistol kicked three times. Double tap to the chest, one to the head to be sure. Standard operating procedure. The Demon dropped forward, dark blood seeping from the wounds. Keith took a hesitant step forward, ready to confirm the kill.
He didn't get the chance.
The Demon rose, screaming and angry. Dark flecks of blood sprayed across the room, a momentary distraction, and the lean form blurred as it surged forwards. It covered the distance between them, sharp talons latching onto Keith's shooting hand and wrenching it sideways. Keith felt his wrist twist, turning too far in the wrong direction. The pain lanced up his arm and his fingers grew rubbery, the gun slipping free. He groped for the sheathed knife with his left hand, trying to pull it free, but the Demon leapt for the remaining arm and fired a series of elbow strikes into the side of Keith's face. Rattled and hurting, Keith went down.
A few seconds later a heavy dock-martin boot connected with his skull and ensured the pain in his wrist didn't bother him anymore.
The Demon threw water on Keith's face. Keith spluttered, fighting to return to the painless darkness he'd been lost in, but there wasn't any chance of that. His arm hurt. His face hurt. The water dripped off his nose. He wasn't dead, which surprised him, but there wasn't much beyond that to seem like good news. He was pinned, the demon crouched over him, its bone-white features swimming back and forth as he fought for focus. Black lips pulled away from sharp teeth, yellow and stained with stringy lines of drool. One knee pressed hard against Keith's chest, pinning him down, and his hand was trapped beneath booted toes. His other hand was held down with casual ease, the demon's thick nails digging into his skin.
"Coffee," the demon said. "All I wanted was a fucking coffee." It released its grip on Keith's arm, waving the clawed hand towards the counter. Keith took a desperate swing, connected with the Demon's jaw, but there wasn't much force behind the blow. The Demon responded with a sharp slap that left Keith's ear ringing. "Don't do that. It's bad enough you shot me."
Keith glared. "You should be dead."
"And I'm not," the Demon said. "You fucked up. Seems like you've been doing that a lot. You've got a reputation, gunman, after that stunt you pulled down south. The local boogie men are all a-twitter about your presence."
Struggling appeared to be useless, so Keith retreated into stillness instead. He steadied himself, focused on the pain in his wrist, matched the demon's gaze. It was one of Roark's rules, simple in theory and hard as hell in practice. Keep your cool, work the situation, keep talking until you get an opening. "I'm amused you have so little to talk about round here. There's so many of you, I figured it'd all be local gossip."
The Demon lowered himself down, getting in Keith's face. Warm breath pressed against Keith's cheek, touched with a brimstone scent. "When the local seer starts talking about a forthcoming apocalypse," the demon said, "people pay attention."
Keith flinched, despite himself, eyes screwing tight in preparation. Then the weight of the Demon's presence was gone. It was standing again, hoisted upright like a magic trick that disconnected its bulk from the rules of sinew and gravity and muscle movement. Anger burned through it, wisps of steam rising off the skin as sweat evaporated. The eyes were the worst of it, the pupils lit a soldering heat. "Get up," it said. "I've got no further interest in hurting you."
There were difficulties getting off the floor with one wrist hurt, even if the pain had settled into a kind of dull, throbbing irritation. Keith stumbled once, used the kitchen bench to steady himself. His eyes flicked across the floor, searching for the 9mm, but the gun was long gone. The knife was still sheathed behind his back, intentionally left there since there was no chance the Demon missed it. A temptation, a stupid invitation to make another attempt that could easily get him killed.
Keith reached towards it anyway, pulling it free in an awkward left-handed grip.
One of the demon's shoulders rose in a half-shrug, the burning fires going out in his eyes. The long, lean frame pulled itself back to full height and the Demon looked towards the window. It scratched at its chest with an idle hand, sharp nails running over the healed bullet wounds. "Shit," it said. "I mean, seriously, gunman, you really want to do that? I'm letting you go, you stupid fucker."
Keith's eyes flicked towards the front door, just visible from the tight confines of the galley kitchen. Blackheart stood aside, pointing. "Get out," it said. "I mean it, gunman."
The first instinct was to run, flee with all the speed Keith could manage, but that was the kind of instinct that got you killed. He dropped his weight into a steady stance, adjust the grip on his knife.
The Demon rolled its eyes. "You don't trust me."
"I tried to kill you."
"You failed. I'm not holding a grudge, not with the pain you've got coming."
Keith squared his shoulders, knife clenched in a tight fist at his side. "You're Other."
"Other." Its smile was sharp and cruel and exposed the points of its teeth. "A simple name made up by sorcerers to rob us of power. We used to be faeries and demons, things with proper names that commanded respect. We used to stand for something, abhorrent as you and your ilk found it."
It turned its back on Keith, setting the coffee pot back on the stovetop. "I almost wish you'd succeeded," the Demon said. "Get the fuck out, gunman, and tell your pet sorcerer she's sloppy. If you try again, hell, try harder. Make a fight of it."
Keith's eyes flicked from the broad shoulders to the knife in his hand.
"Don't," the Demon said. "Just, don't. I'm being merciful here, don't make me regret it."
Harmony sat on the edge of the bed, wrapping a tight bandage around Keith's wrist. He watched the curve of the high-rise, the soft-lit pools stationed around the building's bulk. Lights below the surface gave the water a blue sheen in the darkness, a break from the light. Still water, undisturbed, and the sound of the ocean still rolled in. Pain sparked up his wrist as Harmony tied off the bandage. He winced.
"Is that too tight?"
Keith rise the arm, flexed his fingers. It hurt, a little, but it could have been worse. "It'll do," he said. "Sprained?"
Harmony nodded, her dreadlocks shifting in the darkness. "You got lucky."
"No." Keith lowered him arm and lay back on the bed, stretching out. "Not lucky. Not this time. He could have broken it, could have killed me. It was a no-harm, no-foul kind of opportunity. Cops wouldn't come looking, you weren't much of a threat…"
He closed his eyes and listened to the waves, the irregular hiss of them rolling in and thumping against the shore. Blue triangles of light lived behind his eyelids, soft and glorious leaves left around the dark drunk of the high-rise. Twenty five feet from the beach and people built pools, expected them as part of the service. Keith shook his head, tried not to think about the waste.
"Tell me about Cottee," he said.
Harmony snapped the lid of the first aid kit shut. "He's a friend."
"And his beef with the demon?"
Harmony cradled the aluminium box in both hands, fingertips rubbing the red cross on the white surface. Moonlight caught the silver stud through her eyebrow as she glanced towards the window. "We kept them out for years," she said, "the demons. Our culture told story after story after story reinforcing the rules, refusing them egress from wherever the fuck they hide in the Gloom unless they get themselves a vessel to possess. It's all about the stories, Murphy, when you get right down to it. I mean, fuck, it may well be the point of organization religion. Roark should have taught you that much, at least. They don't get here unless someone invites them."
Things clicked into place. "So the demon's, what, Cottee's brother?"
"Lover," Harmony said. "Mistakes were made when they were twenty-one and too enamoured of comic books to know better, amateur occultists performing rituals in their parent's backyard. Cottee's holding a grudge for what he's lost."
Keith opened his eyes. He rolled over and looked out the window. Dim-lit pools. The dark mass of the Pacific Ocean.
"I really fucking hate this city," he said. "Nothing's ever easy."
Harmony retreated to the doorway, paused there with one hand against the doorjamb. "You made the attempt," she said. "You don't owe Cottee more than that. I'll call him in the morning, tell him we've got bigger things to worry about."
"End of the world?" Keith said.
"Something like that."
"Don't." Keith made a tight fist with his right hand, getting used to the pain. He rolled over and looked Harmony in the eyes. "Get him up here tomorrow," he said. "I'll talk to him, alone. See if we can figure something out."
The midday humidity had the safe-house in a slippery grip when Cottee pulled up in the driveway, stepping out of an ancient Honda hatchback that was half-rust and half green paint. Keith stood by the window and watched the big man shuffle towards the front door, throwing tentative glances towards the trees, hands twitching as he reached out to knock. The heat left a sheen across Cottee's forehead, the beginnings of a sweaty ring on his shirt. Keith peeled himself off couch and answered the door.
"Oh," Cottee said, looking up. His hands fluttered a little, unsure of where to go, then disappeared into the pocket of his jeans. "Mister Murphy. It's good to see you."
"In," Keith said, his voice little more than a growl. Cottee nodded once, eyes dropping down to the bandaged wrist, but he stepped inside and winced when Keith shut the door behind him.
"It's still alive," Keith said.
Cottee stood in the narrow lounge room, looking from Keith to the couches. "Oh."
"It chose not to kill me," Keith said.
"Oh," Cottee repeated, then settled onto the couch. "I should apologise, I suppose."
"Fuck your apology," Keith said. He planted himself in the couch opposite Cottee, focused his attention on the sweating academic. "Tell me what you were hoping for, sending me in there. Tell me what you wanted."
Cottee ground the ball of his thumb into the other hand. "Revenge, maybe. I'm not sure. Harmony mentioned what you'd done, prior to ending up here. I figured…maybe, this time…" Cottee's mouth opened and closed, saying nothing. He looked away. "It wasn't love," he said. "Maybe it was, once upon a time, and that was a long time ago and I'm not trying to get him back. Call it obligation, I guess. I owed it to him to fix my mistake."
There wasn't much call to believe him, and Keith didn't really care. He nodded and drew the knife left handed, transferred the blade to his right. "It left me this," he said. "Took the gun, left me this. I think it wants to die."
Cottee nodded. Slowly. "The demons have their own apocalypse," he said. "If what Miss White told me was true, then I'd be guessing it doesn't want to stand around while someone else's end of the world takes precedence over the end of days. It won't go easy, but if it's really eager to leave…"
"Then give me way," Keith said. "'Cause I'm out of my depth, and Harmony's too rusty with the kind of magic we need. You really want it dead, give me a way to take it down."
Cottee closed his eyes, breathing deeply. "The ring," Cottee said. "Attack him there, during the Gloom."
Keith put the knife on the coffee table, let the blade make a dull clink against the glass surface. "I thought we were looking for ideas that would work."
Cottee's eyes fluttered open, staring straight at Keith. "There's a tradition in wrestling," he said. "You want to get over a heel, you have them make an open challenge to the local boys, a last-five-minutes-and-you'll-win-a-prize kind of thing. 'Cept no-one really lasts five minutes, not when they're in there with the bad guy, and 'cause they're beating on the local boy it makes people hate them more. You run it for a bit, show after show, 'til people really want to see the guy beat, and that's when you bring in your new gold boy, the hometown hero whose sticking with the company. He doesn't get to win, not at first, but he lasts the five minutes and then he gets beat-down for his presumption. He's the one who feuds with the heel. He's the one who finally gets to beat the unbeatable arsehole and become a hero."
The big man paused and took a breath. "You've been beat," he said, "and you're still kicking. It's drawing strength from the same rituals. If we play it right…"
"Location matters," Keith said.
"Location matters." Cottee nodded, his hands growing still. "A little magic will do the rest. We can give you an audience, Mister Murphy, if you think you can beat him in the ring where it counts. You'll have to leave the guns at home, but it's got a chance of working."
Keith shook his head. "I don't think I can take a demon with my bare hands.
"Then we'll cheat," Cottee said. "Take the knife, use it. I'll cover the rest, if Harmony can help."
Keith sat in the driver's seat of the Ute, watching Cottee scratch the tattoos lining his right forearm. They'd been staking out the training gym the wrestlers used, waiting for the Demon's practice sessions to coincide with the Gloom Tide, and after a fortnight of watching a cramped shed in the heart of the industrial estate, Keith was largely sick of watching the doorway. Cottee fidgeted, unsure of how to lay low, but he kept his complaints to a minimum and watched the doorway.
After three weeks they were due to get luck. Keith checked his watch. "It's time."
Cottee nodded twice, his face pale. Keith didn't blame him, not really. Sweat prickled his neck as the shadows lengthened, merging together until the shadowy pall covered the street. The world laid out in darkness and ash, like a bad photocopy whose edges blurred.
"Ready?" Keith said, and Cottee's head inclined in the slightest of nods. He thumbed a torch to life, the red plastic scored with tethering runes that matched the newly inked symbols running down his forearm. Keith dug under the driver's seat, found a rubber torch that could double as a baton. It wasn't tethered, not like the cheap plastic, but its weight was comforting and it'd distract attention from the knife at his belt. Cottee led the way as they scurried to the gym, easing their way through the open doorway until they could poke through the dark interior.
The faint sourness of too much sweat clung to the walls and canvas. Cottee shone the flashlight wildly, searching for the hiss of breath that marked the only other living thing awake in the Gloom. The light fell on the Demon, lifting weights towards the rear of the room.
It looked up, arms still moving in a smooth rhythm, muscles bunching beneath its grubby single. "Gunman. I see you brought a friend."
Keith stepped into the dim beam of light, torch clenched tight in his fist. He could hear his heart hammering. "No guns this time."
The Demon glanced towards the ring, lip curling into a grin. "Gareth's been talking, I see."
"Light it up," Gareth said, his voice squeaking. The Demon actually laughed.
"Gareth, love, did you really just attempt an order?"
"Light it up." Gareth's voice was steadier this time, and he advanced to stand next to Keith. "You want an opponent, you want an audience, we're giving you both."
A bare bulb flared to life over the ring, illuminating the red and blue cables running from post to post. The Demon dropped its barbell and stepped forward, sneer growing deeper. "Is that true, gunman? You want to fight me?"
Keith raised an eyebrow. "You saying no?"
He registered Cottee's wince before anything else, the big man's eyes screwing shut. The Demon blurred. Something hard and unyielding smashed into Keith's jaw.
The impact rolled through him like the flash-wave of a bomb, a precursor to the pain that followed in its wake. Keith stumbled sideways until his groping arms hit the edge of the ring. Strong hands pushed him down and the rough canvas grated against Keith's cheek, forcing him to throw wild elbows to get some space. He pushed himself off, turning, half-stumbling to avoid the next punch. Keith swung the rubbery weight of the torch, tagged the Demon below the eye. Skin broke, blood seeping free.
The Demon just grinned and locked onto Keith's arm, twisting it into a knot. It jammed the wrist against the ringpost, knocking the torch free. "You're lazy, gunman," it said. "You're not built for this."
Keith twisted, shifting his weight, half-dragging the Demon into the ring.
The bare light bulb flared, throwing a yellow spotlight across the ring. The Demon winced, grip loosening on Keith's arm, allowing him to wriggle free. Keith scrambled upright, turning on the balls of his feet, pulling the knife free with his left hand. The Demon was faster. A heavy boot connected with Keith's stomach, knocking the wind out of him. An elbow to the neck sent him to the canvas, knife skittering free of his grasp.
The Demon dropped his weight down, holding Keith to the mat. Hot breath pressed against Keith's ear, a thick arm looping around his neck and proceeding to choke. "I like your persistence, gunman," It said. "It's worth more, killing you here. Far better than snapping your neck in my kitchen."
The world twisted, spinning as the Demon dragged Keith off the mat. Blood rushed to his head as he dangled, helplessly, in the tight grip around his waist. The mat hung over his head, dangerously close, harder than it'd looked when Keith watched the same move from the audience. He twisted, desperate to break free, but the Demon held tight, adjusting his grip.
Keith groped the mat, found the knife. He stabbed blindly, jabbing the blade over his shoulder until the point dug into a knee. The Demon snarled, stumbling backwards, dropping Keith instead of spiking him. It roared, blood staining the mat. Keith landed hard on his right shoulder, felt something pop that shouldn't have.
He forced himself upright, stabbing again. The Demon rushed in, caught the blade between the ribs.
The light bulb spluttered and went dim, the Gloom closing in. The Demon closed its eyes, smile withering.
Gareth Cottee's rapid breathing echoed in the darkness, the big man scrambling through the bottom rope. "Toby," he whimpered. "Shit, Toby."
Keith gasped for breath, hand still gripping the weapon. He tried to pull it free, to stab again, but the Demon's bloodied hand closed around his. "Not Toby," it said. "Not yet."
Cottee closed his eyes, tears spilling down his cheeks.
"Watch," Keith said. "You need to watch."
Cottee nodded, sniffling, shining the plastic torchlight across the ring. He pressed himself into the corner, forcing his eyes open. Keith shook off the Demon's grip, leaving smears of blood where its fingerprints had been.
He stabbed again, twisting the blade. Blood covered his fingers, his grip on the knife growing tenuous. Cottee winced, but he held steady, his puffy eyes focused on the mess Keith was making in the Demon's stomach.
"Enough." Cottee's voice was low, muted by the Gloom. Keith barely heard it.
"Enough," Cottee repeated, louder this time. When Keith glanced across the ring, there were tears dribbling into Cottee's beard. "It's done, Mister Murphy. It's done."
They took the Highway home, driving through the ordinary darkness, the sea to the left of the car. Cottee didn't say much. He huddled in the passenger seat, attention focused outside the window. Keith struggled with the gearstick, relying heavily on his left hand to steer. His right arm burned the entire way, aching every time he moved the wheel, shoulder protesting as loudly as the damaged wrist.
"Every instinct says I should get out of town," Keith said. "First rule of hitting the Other, get out before the death-curses start."
Cottee's voice was weak. "Demon's don't have death curses."
"No, but they leave corpses. They attract cops."
"Oh," Cottee said. "Yeah, I guess they do."
They drove three blocks. Cottee said nothing more.
"I'm going to die here," Keith said, speaking over the soft crackle of the radio that didn't really tune into a particular station. "The world's going end and I'm going to die here, fighting a losing fight. Harmony's going to die, because of me. Everyone is."
Cottee breathed in a long, steady breath. He nodded once. "Yes."
"Harmony believes there's a chance."
"Harmony believes a lot of things," Cottee said. "That doesn't necessarily mean she's wrong." He sniffled and wiped a sleeve across his nose. "Location matters, Mister Murphy. That's what she wanted you to learn. There's a handful of places in the world where you stand some chance of stopping this, a handful of places where the spectacle is more conspicuous than reality. You need to believe it if there's any chance of this working."
Keith nodded, shifted gears. "And you?"
"I believe you've done me a favour," Cottee said. "The rest of it is your problem. Pull over here."
Keith slid the car to the curb, pulling up short next to a bus station. The first signs of predawn were bleeding over the horizon, visible through the gap between two buildings. He blinked at it while Cottee climbed out of the car, trying to adjust to appearance of light.
"How many?" Keith said. "How many people did you entice into fighting the demon?
The big man still scratched at his arm, fingers absently grazing the tattoos. "It has to be here," Cottee said. "You're the local hero, Mister Murphy. Defying expectations is what you do."
Keith tried to smile, but it hurt too much. Cottee just nodded again and stepped away from the car, the door closing shut as he departed. He stood there, by the bus stop, until Keith pulled onto the highway and pointed the car towards home.
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011