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NOTE: These stories are
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The Edge of Propinquity

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Underpass
A Flotsam story
By
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series


He would hear them whisper as he ran along the path. There were dozens of them in that neck of the Coast; shadows filled with ghosts and sprites and goblins, the lesser entities of the Gloom running free in the normal shadows. Occasionally he'd spot them, puckered faces peering through palm fronds or lurking beneath the cars parked in the lot. Keith tried to ignore the steady repetition of his name, the accusing whisper that followed him everywhere. It never truly worked. The chant would sneak in through the steady hammer of feet on concrete, between the thump of his heart and lungs.

For three weeks he'd been hearing them and pretending he didn't. For three weeks he'd been trying to lose himself in the research, in the training, and in the steady fretting about the things that were coming because of the mistakes of Adelaide. For three weeks he heard them and pretended he didn't, kept pretending until the ravens reappeared and started following him on the daily run.

On the forth week he broke down and told Harmony.

"He's sending me a message," he said. "I'm going to the tunnel."

#

Even as a kid he'd known about the Underpass. He remembered the cold shakes he suffered the first time he saw it, the lingering fear of the tunnel that remained for years. Of all the things he hated about the Gold Coast, the Underpass was the thing he hated most. Bad things happened there; accumulated like the layers of graffiti that covered the concrete walls. Local legends spoke of fights, then rapes, then murders, and finally all three merged together, the stories growing more brutal as the years went on. The Underpass was a thin inlet in the shoreline between the world and the Gloom. Most people failed to understand why it attracted such a bad crowd.

It stank of piss and blood, and Keith preferred not to think about how fresh either might be. Three in the fucking morning and the highway overhead still wasn't dormant, the steady hiss of tires on bitumen rolling past with monotonous regularity. The thin row of lights running down the tunnel's centre cast yellow circles against the walls, illuminating the years of graffiti and shards of shattered glass. Keith stood at the mouth and lit a cigarette, watched the lighter flame flicker and die. Harmony knelt on the concrete, drawing a chalk circle around his feet.  "You're the one who should be doing this," she said. "It's safer if you do it yourself."

"It's safer if we get it right," Keith said. "Who do you think's more likely to make a mistake?"

"Your works improving," Harmony said, but it was more polite than anything else. Keith watched her scuttle, crab-like, around the ward. Her dreadlocks touched the ground as she crouched, tips dragging through the dirt, and he found himself wondering how she kept them clean. Magic, most likely, if shampoo didn't do the job.

"Lighter," Harmony said, holding out a hand. She'd placed candles at the compass points, double-checking the precise location of each. He gave her the Zippo and she went back to work. "Be sure you've got the call down," she said. "Give him an opening, any opening..."

"I've got it. We practiced it enough." Keith checked his watch, counted down the minutes to the Tide. "Get yourself somewhere safe, yeah? I don't want you around for this."

Harmony stood, frowning at the candle flames. "Make sure you keep them lit."

"I got it."

"I'm serious, Murphy. I know this shit isn't you're thing, butó"

"I got it," Keith repeated. He passed her the half-cigarette smoke, exhaled slowly. "Get going, okay? I don't want you here when he arrives."

She hovered, finishing the cigarette. She studied him and returned to a familiar opening gambit. "You realise this is stupid, right?"

Keith cut her off. "Fuck off," he said. "You're not standing in for me."

She nodded, once, and flicked the cigarette into the tunnel. The shadows swallowed the red ember, devouring the light in an instant. She looked him in the eye and he could see words forming inside her head, some final argument she figured she could deploy to talk him down. Finally she shook her head, resigning herself to the lack of viable reasons to talk him out of it. 

"Fine," she said. "Good luck, I guess."

#

The worst part was the waiting, standing at the mouth of the Underpass watching four candle flames flicker in the wind. There was too much time to think, to remember. He replayed the possible missteps they made in Adelaide, teasing apart the threads in the search of what went wrong. He replayed his teenage years on the Gold Coast, running scarred with the other freaks that were unfortunate enough to brush against the Gloom. He replayed the moment when he first met Danny Roark, the thin-lipped smile as the old man looked Keith over and figured he'd do.

Occasionally he checked his watch, letting the minutes tick by. At three-fifteen he crouched and checked the candle flames. At three seventeen he began the chant, wrapping his mouth around the awkward syllables, trusting in the repetition done under Harmony's watchful eye to get every inflection right.

Keith replayed the night in Adelaide one last time. The summer air that was hot and sour and dry, so unlike the muggy humidity of the northern states. The crowded pub with the aging juke box, the opening riff of Sweet Child of Mine playing over the loudspeakers. The rapid beat of his pulse as he anticipated what was coming, the low buzz of Roark's chanting audible beneath the din of the crowd thanks to the bloody symbol daubed beneath Keith's shirt. The pull of the dark shadows, just outside the circle of light coming from Keith's tethered torch. The heavy weight of the Sig beneath the jacket, eager and ready to be used. The Gloom tide rising, the crowd frozen, all the cover Keith would ever need to get in and out without being spotted. Two bullets in the chest, one in the head. It should have done the job right, sidestepped all the curses and ghosts and apocalyptic aftermaths.

He'd pondered the same question for months, and he still had no answers. They'd fucked up, imperceptibly, and Keith didn't know how.

#

Keith watched the line of fluorescent lights inside the tunnel start to flicker and die, turning off one-by-one as strands of shadow spread from wall-to-wall like spider web. One light exploded, shedding sparks across concrete, and the darkness reigned in the tunnel, growing thicker and blacker until the very presence of it sent chills down Keith's spine. Grew thicker and blacker until the darkness was replaced by a veil of Gloom, the darkness spread outward of its own accord, cloaking the world in magic.

The candles flickered, threatening to go out, but the steady repetition of the chant kept the small circle of illumination safe. Keith stood in the middle of the light, staring down the Gloom-filled length of the tunnel, and watched the shadows spill out.

The hiss of car tires stopped, time frozen in place. The edge between the light and the darkness became a physical thing, a border where the eddies and currents of the Gloom were visible. Keith repeated the name a third time, speaking over the steady whisper of Harmony's chanting.

The face that appeared in the darkness was lean and haggard, hollow cheeks covered in three-day growth, the right eye-socket empty even in death. It floated just beyond the warding circle, features blurred and indistinct beneath in the murky shadow. It was like trying to identify a corpse floating beneath the surface of the water; possible, but hardly ideal. Keith studied it for several minutes, trying to be sure. Feeding the wrong ghost was rarely a good idea.

He pulled a small knife from his pocket and nicked his thumb, pressed the cut until a bead of blood appeared there. He reached into the Gloom, hand going numb as he pushed against the limits of the ward, and pressed the blood against the pale lips. They twisted, suckling the small wound like infant, the features growing solid as it fed on the stuff of life. The ghost of Michael Wotan opened its single good eye and stared at Keith. It spat out his thumb with a grimace of disgust. 

"It didn't have to be your blood," Wotan said, a measure of disgust in his voice.

Keith folded his thumb beneath a handkerchief. "I don't kill stray cats for magic," he said. "So that's all you're getting until I hear something worth the blood loss."

The ghost considered him carefully, the red point of its good eye boring into Keith.

"I've come to make a deal," Wotan said. "That ought to be enough for another drop, at least."

#

It would have been something small, Keith acknowledged that. Every fault in magic came down to small mistakes: an incorrect marking; a mispronounced syllable; an exhalation that sets a candle flame flickering when the need for light is constant. They removed much of the threat by leaving the magic to Roark, because Keith never possessed the talent for precision that magic required. He was patient enough for ritual work, small incantations where time and careful double-checking meant more than the ability to memorise and repeat. Over the years he learned enough to identify mistakes, to register flaws in a pattern even if he couldn't articulate what they were.

His memories of the Adelaide ritual space were dimmed by the rush that followed the job, the terror and the adrenaline of getting out of town, keeping the Ute one step ahead of the things following behind him in the Gloom.

Mostly, he thought they'd done things right. Mostly, he chose to trust Roark and the decades of experience. He couldn't pin down the mistake and that niggled at him.

#

The ghost hovered on the fringe of the ward, grinning at the impassive expression on Keith's face. "Another drop," Wotan said. "One more and we'll talk. I'll make my offer and you can say yea or nay. It's not so great a price, really. I know your friend who drew the circle will have uncovered the side-effects of my pacts by now. You know what's coming, yes?"

"We know," Keith said. "Can't say I'm a fan of the idea."

The ghost of Michael Wotan laughed. "Understandably not. It was one of those things that made sense at the time." The single eye stared at Keith expectantly. "So," Wotan said. "Blood?"

Keith squeezed the cut on his thumb once more, pressed it against the darkness. The ghost's tongue brushed against his flesh, cold and feathery and unpleasant. The features grew more distinct, closer to the face Keith remembered from the bar.

"So," Keith said. "You mentioned a deal."

The ghost nodded. "You'll notice," it said, "I'm not holding a grudge. You killed me, more or less, and that's inconvenient, but you get used to these things in my line of work. You outran the initial death curse, which suggests you're moderately adroit and aware of how dangerous the path you're on can be. You've consulted seers and tapped sources of power, so you've prepared yourself for a fight. Your circle is weaker than it should be, and I choose not to probe or attempt to break it down. I choose not to fight you, Keith Murphy, brief as our struggle would be. I want you to understand that."

"Fine," Keith said. "Understood. None of that's a deal."

"I wish to enlist your aid," Wotan said. "Death, for all its enlightening qualities, is not a state I'm prepared to embrace just yet. My associates can take steps to rectify this, should they have the proper tools and components for the ritual."

"That'd be unfortunate," Keith said. "I shot you for a reason, you know."

"Misguided reasons," Wotan said.

"You live in a place and it has the worst murder rates in Australia," Keith said. "How much of that was your influence?"

"A little." Wotan's lips twitched into a grin as he acknowledged the point. "Less than you're led to believe, but I won't deny the influence. The Gloom corrupts, yes, but surely a little corruption is preferable to the end of all things. You and I, for now, we are reasonable men."

#

There were nights when he'd swear he could still hear Roark's chant running through his head, the dull tone buzzing against skull, the pressure of it pressing hard against his temples. The white noise of magic calming him, lulling him to sleep. Roark didn't make mistakes when it came to rituals. He was too careful, too precise.

Between them they'd stripped down the defences. They'd made the hit. They'd done everything right. Keith walked out there, through the darkness, wading his way towards the safety of the care. It never made him feel good, taking down a target, especially not the ones who'd started off as human, but there was still the pleasure of doing the job right. There was the comfort of knowing that no-one else would have to suffer because of what they'd done.

They'd rented a room on Rundle Street, used it as the base of operations. When Keith returned, Roark was waiting on the doorstep with chain-smoked cigarette butts littering the ground. The nicotine-stained mouth was drawn tight. "We have to run," Roark said. "Instructions in the glove box, they'll tell you where to dump the gun. Good luck, mate."

And he was gone, just like that, with only two words to say in parting. "I'm sorry."


#

"You should be talking to Roark," Keith said. "I'm just the trigger man."

"Your partner's more adept at laying low." Wotan's grin shows a hint of teeth. "Besides, you were the one who was there, who looked me in the eye as I started to bleed out. I need the killer, for the ritual to work. All you need to do is come back to Adelaide and meet with my friends."

"And if I don't?"

"You die. Your friend who drew the circle dies. Your friend Roark dies. Your family dies. Every woman you ever loved, ever friend you ever had, all those people you pass in the street every day. Everyone, everywhere, ends up dead or wishes they were. I made pacts with ancient things, elder gods and giants, the kind of Other that lie dormant in the heart of the Gloom because humankind no longer believes in anything that terrible. When I died, they stirred. If I stay dead too long, they wake."

Keith patted down his pockets, searching for the lighter. When he couldn't find one, he knelt and lit a cigarette in the candle pointing towards the north. "Say I'm in," he said. "What's the cost?"

"Comparatively little." Wotan looked down his beaked nose, looming over Keith. "Pain, blood, the sacrifice of a memory or two. A suitable host for my spirit to reside in, once they've tattooed the symbols to bind me there. I have associates who are adept at the process. They can address the more unfortunate aspects of my current state, although it's unlikely to be pleasant for you or me, and once it's done you can stop worrying about when the end is going to come. All we need is your presence and the murder weapon."

Keith blinked. "You need my gun?"

"We need a conduit," Wotan said, his voice adopting a wheedling tone. "The weapon served as the catalyst for death, and it can serve as the catalyst for its reversal."

"You can't find the gun?" Keith felt like laughing, or unleashing a stream of profanity that darkened Danny Roark's name. There were dozens of things involved in their work, hundreds of them, that Keith never understood, but the aftermath of the Adelaide job snapped into focus. "The guns in pieces," he said. "Scattered and lost. First thing we did after realizing things went wrong." He took a deep breath to keep the laughter from seeping through. "Standard operating procedure, apparently. Roark drilled it into me, right from the beginning. Once you're done, you dump the weapon in as many parts as possible."

Wotan's eye gleamed in the darkness, catching the flickering dance of the candle flames. Blood gave him substance, gave the pale form a colour and tangibility. One hand reached out to test the ward, fingertips hovering at the fringe of the darkness. "There are alternatives." Any pretence of civilization dragged out of the ghosts' face. "Less pleasant alternatives, but still effective. I chose to be magnanimous, Mister Murphy, and it is not my usual mode. It would be safer for you to avoid making me regret that decision."

Keith exhaled a cloud of smoke into the Gloom, watched it flow through the ghost's face. "Yeah," he said, "it probably would."

He closed his eyes and hoped the call was as firmly lodged in his brain as he'd boasted, hoped he had enough right to call light into the darkness. He whispered beneath his breath, felt the candles flare, heard the ghost's withered scream echoing through the tunnel. One sneaker lashed out, kicking the candle closest to the tunnel, and the flare of light that followed was a bright sunrise against the back of Keith's eyelids.

When he opened his eyes, he could see very little. The Gloom wrapped around him, pulling against him as he crouched low. He pulled a knife from his pocket and held it at the ready, too scarred to scuttle away from the broken remnants of his ward.

He counted seconds, one by one, inside his head. He waited for the tide to end, praying he waited alone.

#


Harmony found him like that six thousand seconds later, crouched low and his pulse racing, shivering against the lingering cold of the darkness.

"I told you to find somewhere safe." Keith hissed the words between chattering teeth.

Harmony knelt beside him and helped him stand, guided him back to the Ute in the car park. "I felt the circle give," she said. "Figured you were in some kind of trouble."

"Pissed him off," Keith said. "Needed the light to chase him off."

She wrapped a blanket around him, put him the passenger seat. "What'd he want?"

"A deal."

Harmony blinked. "Did you?"

"No," Keith said. "I wasn't in a position to. Roark made sure of that."

"Yeah. Danny did always think ahead when it came to things like that." She shook her head, lips pulled tight. "Not one of his finer qualities."

She twisted the keys in the ignition, firing the Ute's engine. Keith huddled in his seat, watching the city roll past. The streetlights were on again, the motel signs burning, the neon over nightclubs and the roll of lights down the casino roof. The Gold Coast built itself on light, sparks of life amid the darkness, always looking up instead of focusing on the things beneath its feet.

He turned back to Harmony. "How many people owe you favours?"

"Depends on the kind of people."

"Sorcerers," Keith said. "Local Other. Anyone who could help if it came down to a fight."

"A handful," Harmony said. "Nowhere near enough."

It wasn't an unexpected answer. Keith nodded a few times, forcing himself to sit straighter. "Tomorrow we'll have to start fixing that," he said. "I don't think hiding out's an option anymore."


Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011

Last updated on 4/15/2011 11:17:47 AM by Jennifer Brozek
Return to the Library.
Go to Flotsam 2011.

Other documents at this level:
     01 - Paradise City
     02 - Warnings
     03 - Local Hero
     05 - Sabbath
     06 - Crusade
     07 - Deals with the Devil
     08 - Destinies
     09 - Coil
     10 - Sunlight
     11 - Fimbulwinter
     12 - Aftermath