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Deals with the Devil
A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
Keith and Gareth Cottee ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant that sat above a store selling surf-boards. It was a quiet place to eat, devoid of customers. When their conversation lulled the traffic noise from the old highway alternated with the crash of waves from the nearby beach.
"You still feeling good about this?" Cottee abandoned at his enchilada, resting the fork on the side of his plate. He'd only ordered it to keep Keith from eating alone, and Cottee had spent most of the meal picking at the bites of chicken. "It's okay to be hesitant, Mister Murphy. It's not the kind of deal most people would have agreed on."
"Sure." Keith ate mechanically, eyes focused on the window. Dark, low clouds still hung over the city like a funeral shroud. They'd been sitting over the city for days, noticeable as hell, and people were starting to notice. "It's easier, you know? Get a target, go on the offensive, do what needs doing. It's my kind of game."
Cottee nodded. He started tapping out a pattern on the table-top, keeping his fingers moving. Keith chewed, forcing down another mouthful. He'd cut a deal with the demon Sabbath just a few hours earlier, during the timeless stretch of the Gloom Tide. The deal came with certain perks, including the knowledge of who was behind the Gold Coast's peculiar cloud-cover. Keith preferred not to think about his side of the bargain. He distracted himself with the name and location of Charles Locke, both written in Sabbath's spidery script on the back of a business card in Keith's wallet.
"It's cold out there," Cottee said, eyeing the storm.
"Yeah," Keith said.
"You want a coffee?"
The restaurant was small and cheap, with plastic chairs and gaudy menus. The bored waitress leant against the counter, a framed picture of the Virgin Mary visible behind her right shoulder. Mary's halo was lit with LED lights, a circle of pinhole-sized illumination that looked tacky rather than holy. Keith swallowed the last forkful of chilli and pushed his empty bowl away.
"So," Cottee said, "you planning on calling Miss White? You're going to need a sorcerer on this, someone who can provide you with backup."
"You're it," Keith said.
Cottee shook his head. "I'm not much of a sorcerer. Locke is, according to Sabbath's description."
"Welcome to the big leagues."
"I'm not that stupid." Cottee peeled back one sleeve, exposing the scabbing tattoos around his wrist. Tether marks. Twelve runes that kept Cottee moving when the parallelizing emptiness of the Gloom rolled in. "I did this to help, Mister Murphy, but I'm still better with theory than practice.
"You'll do, mate." Keith leant back on his chair. "You think Sabbath plan's will work?"
"It has merits."
Keith grinned. "Flaws, too."
"Sure enough." Cottee sighed, pushing his chair back. "I'll order the coffee's. You think things through, okay?"
Keith watched him go. Cottee wasn't built for dealing with the Gloom-born. He looked frightening, broad shouldered and dishevelled, with the heavy eyebrows of a b-grade movie Russian, but any menace was leached out of him by the slouch and the penchant for corduroy. Keith found himself wondering what could have possessed the slacker academic to overcome his natural aversion to engaging with the Gloom and tether himself, and he kept coming back to the same answer: Cottee felt like he owed Harmony White something, even if he couldn't say what it was.
It was a feeling Keith could identify with. Agreeing to work with Sabbath was the best plan they had for stopping Locke, and Keith still felt guilty about agreeing to it against Harmony's advice.
They gave up on talking when Cottee returned. Keith watched the traffic rush past, taking the turn-off that lead the highway West and behind the city. They'd worked hard to reconnect him to the place, Cottee and Harmony, but the Gold Coast wasn't his anymore. There were less cars on this stretch of road now, far fewer than there used to be. The old highway had been replaced by an unfamiliar route further inland, away from the beaches and the holiday blocks and the short stretch of shops on the Tugan thoroughfare. Now the intersection below the restaurant was just a threshold, a point where the tenor of the city seemed to change. The Gold Coast gave up on high-rises for a stretch, limiting its beachside flats to three or four stories, and the skyline grew even flatter as you moved inland from there.
It was a cold and miserable day. There would be nothing but cold and miserable days while Locke was in the city, doing everything he could to track down Keith and take him back to Adelaide. Keith figured Sabbath's plan for the sorcerer would probably work, but dealing with the devil was asking for a world of hurt.
The waitress brought the coffees. Cottee cupped his in both palms, waiting. Keith spooned sugar into his short black and stirred. "If things go to hell," he said. "Get Harmony out of the city, yeah? Tell her to go find somewhere as safe to wait things out."
Cottee lifted his mug and sipped, trying to hide the smirk. "It's that what brought you back home in the first place?"
"Yeah," Keith said, "but that was never my idea."
Everything Keith knew about killing, he'd learnt the side of Danny Roark.
It wasn't as much as it should have been. Roark practiced sorcery, mastering rituals and esoteric bodies of lore, concocting theories about the Gloom and the Other who emerged from the shadows and the Gloom Tides that rose and fell over the world, swelling forth from hidden pockets where the borders between the two worlds grew thin. Roark knew things for the sake of knowing them, found new ways to utilize each scrap of lore he accumulated.
Keith favoured the practical, the ways of taking down something dangerous and making it stay down. He'd learnt what he needed too and ignored the rest, the hand that executed Roark's plans, and he hadn't regretted it until the Adelaide job, the one where they killed a sorcerer named Wotan and set off the end of the world. They'd run, after that, splitting up for the first time in years. Roark went one way, heading west, trying to draw attention from their pursuers. Keith returned to the Gold Coast to wait for the end of the world.
They'd put time in the Wotan job, weeks of research and planning, figuring out how they'd kill the ancient sorcerer and keep him dead.
Charles Locke's place gave Keith a startling sense of déjà-vu.
The address Sabbath gave him was a high-rise out on the Spit, one of the towering unit blocks whose roots were plunged deep into the artificial sandbar appending to the Surfers Paradise coastline. There were dozens off them, looming monstrosities painted an ugly beige that some designer had probably convinced himself was the colour of sand. They were the kind of places that cost big money, fast-moving tourist traps with easy access to restaurants, clubs, theme-parks and the local marina. Keith set up on the roof of another building two blocks over, watching the penthouse from the shadow of a satellite dish, clenching his teeth to keep them from rattling every time the cold wind washed across the rooftop.
He felt exposed, thirty-stories up and far closer to the looming clouds than he was comfortable with, but they needed something discrete and there weren't many options that gave him an angle on Locke's apartment. Even looking at the place set his skin prickling, the heavy wards pressing against Keith's skull like an oncoming headache. It was strong work, secure as hell, and Keith found himself wishing he had Roark's extensive occult knowledge on tap so he could figure out a way through.
In Roark's absence, Keith watched. There wasn't much to see, just a steady succession of closed blinds and winders that shimmered with the silvery outline of warding runes, but patience came easily to Keith. He sat, waiting, looking for flaws. There were always flaws, Roark had told him, if you waited long enough.
Locke's team seemed to fall into the same routine. Every couple of hours someone would part a curtain, exposing the tether marks tattooed around their wrists, their attention focused on the dark sheet of clouds over the city or the ant-like specks of movement down on the ground level. The faces kept changing, even if the routine didn't. Over the course of three days observation Keith noticed at least a dozen distinct features.
It was unusual. Most sorcerer's tended to work alone, or with small groups of apprentices, but Keith figured Locke didn't believe in travelling light. It was the kind of detail that made things more difficult, but that wasn't surprising. Sabbath had explained Locke's habits, warned Keith that numbers made conventional approaches pointless.
Keith had hoped otherwise, but it was obvious he was wrong.
Four days into his vigil, Keith finally spotted Locke. The sorcerer was tall and lean, an immaculately tailored suit giving his skinny frame a kind of grace. Locke stepped onto the penthouse balcony and surveyed the horizon, cupping a hand over the good eye to ward off the sun. Locke's second eye was a milky colour, the skin around it puckered with scar tissue. It didn't seem to look at anything, just glared with baleful intensity at whatever Locke's face turned towards. Keith doubted it was that simple. Sorcerer's were rarely content to let their physical weakness hinder them, and he's met several blind men who could still see through occult means.
Locke's gaze lingered a moment as he stared at Keith's shadowy perch. Keith held his breath and waited, preparing for the worst.
It didn't come. Locke turned on his heel and retreated into the penthouse, the balcony doors sliding shut behind him. Keith exhaled, pulling the .45 holstered at his hip, waiting. The weapon wouldn't do any good against Locke—a sorcerer that old would be prepared for a simple bullet—but the crew working with him probably weren't quite so well-versed.
Keith counted to three hundred, saw no signs of movement from the penthouse. He counted off another hundred seconds, tensed and ready to move. Nothing.
He knew he wasn't that lucky. "Shit," Keith said. "Fucking Sabbath."
He packed his kit fast and disappeared, taking the stairs from the roof to the bottom floor of the high-rise in record time.
Sabbath used the casino as a base of operations, working out of the same rented room the demon had occupied for over two decades. It wasn't a good place for making contact—Locke wouldn't trust the demon any further than Keith did, and Locke had the numbers to make sure the casino was under surveillance.
It took Keith four hours of circling the casino before he spotted the gleaming HR Holden Sabbath used when he left for business. It was a beige monster of a car, full of blocky angles that had been smoothed out of the models built after the seventies were over. Sabbath pulled out of the casino car park, another demon behind the wheel. Keith fell in behind them, staying two or three cars behind. He could see their silhouettes as they drove towards the afternoon sunlight.
They kept going east, following the roads out into the hills that made up the hinterland, keeping a ware eye out for Locke's observers. It took the better part of an hour, but eventually Sabbath pulled into a rest-stop beside the road, a little-used scrap of park with benches and a run-down play set. The driver got out first; tall and clean-cut, one of the good-looking types Sabbath seemed to favour when he lined up bodies for possession. Keith didn't recognise the face, but that didn't mean a thing; demon's borrowed their physical forms, unable to leave the Gloom in their natural state.
Sabbath wasn't anywhere near as impressive. The demon's stolen body was short and dumpy, with full cheeks and plump mouth nesting amid a rust-coloured goatee. It tried to scowl at Keith, but the features were better suited to pouting. Only the eyes gave away a hint of the demon's anger, and they made up for the other handicaps.
Keith slid out of his car and approached, sneakers crunching across the gravel. Sabbath opened it's mouth, ready to say something. Keith slugged him, firing off a straight-arm left that caught the demon on the nose. Sabbath's bodyguard forward, then stopped, the barrel of Keith's .45 poking the big demon in the stomach. "We need to talk, Sab," Keith said. "I'd prefer we did it alone."
"You can prefer anything you want, Keithy-boy." Sabbath's nose bled, twin streams of crimson leaking over the demon's lips. "There's just you this time around, you and your oh-so-impressive gun. No Roark, no White, not even that little pest you brought to our last meeting. You really think that's going to be enough to stop Randal here if he decides to break you in two?"
Sabbath grinned, blood dripping off his chin. The demon ran a thumb up the side of its face and studied the accumulated splotch of blood with idle curiosity. Keith stared, gun-hand steady, and Sabbath rolled its eyes. "Fine. Randal, step back a few steps. Keithy and I are due to have a conversation. You can kill him afterwards, maybe, if he says the wrong thing."
Randal backed off, obedient as a well-trained puppy. It gave Keith a grin full of sharks teeth, all menace and promises of a painful future.
"Put the gun away, Keithy," Sabbath said. "I promise, if Randal gets the order, I'll make sure you get the chance to fire off a few useless rounds. If it'll make you fell better, I mean. It's not going to stop him."
"Obliged." Keith holstered the gun, tucking it beneath his jacket.
They glared at each other, trying to read the silence. Sabbath broke first. "Well? I don't have all day, Keithy-boy, and you're meant to be, what's the word? Surveilling?"
"I'm meant to be doing fuck all," Keith said. "Locke came out onto his balcony today, stood there for a couple of minutes while he took a good long look around."
Sabbath's grin looked more like a shark than Keith was comfortable with. "Surely that makes things easier, then?"
"I don't trust easy." Keith glanced over at Randal, keeping an eye on the big bodyguard. "Locke's got a team of guys in that penthouse, plus he's sure he's got you and your demons onside. Your kind don't usually sweat the physical stuff, 'specially when they're thirty floors up."
"There's rarely a need," Sabbath said. "But you did kill the man's mentor, Keithy. I'm sure he's got plenty of respect for your abilities."
"Roark killed Wotan. I just pulled a trigger."
"You did more than that." Sabbath pulled a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his nose, staunching the flow of blood. "But you're right, I gave Charlie a little nudge. I might have suggested you picked up a supply of C4 somewhere and made mention of your talent for demolitions."
"There's idiots doing window checks every fifteen minutes, Sab. It's not like I can fly."
"Paranoia is a wonderful thing, Keithy-boy," Sabbath said. "You should learn to embrace it's manifestations whenever they prove useful."
Keith scowled. The demon grinned, bloody handkerchief in hand.
"Fucking bullshit," Keith said. "There's no-one out looking for me, Sab. They're waiting for me to show up and meet them. The entire penthouse is one big lure; the regular routine, Locke coming out onto the balcony. They're giving me opportunities, making it easy to take shot at him."
"Certainly." Blood still stained Sabbath's lips and chin. It gave the demon's grin a ghoulish quality. "They're efficient men, these sorcerers, and you have an overdeveloped sense of heroism."
Keith stepped forward, fingers bunched. Randal moved faster, the big bodyguard covering the distance between them in the space of a second. The demon loomed over Keith, looking him in the eye. "Relax, mate" Randal said. "You're not that good in a fistfight."
"I'm sure, mate." Randal didn't look away. "Damn sure."
"Fine." Keith stepped back, opening his fist. He glared at Sabbath. "Just tell me you didn't suggest this to them, Sabbath."
Sabbath pocketed his bloodied handkerchief. "This was always the plan, Keithy-boy. You find him, you take a shot, you let yourself get captured and infiltrate the wards. I suggested a few things to expedite matters."
"And cover your arse, if things went wrong?"
"I'm a practical man."
"You're not a fucking man," Keith said. "Trusting you makes my teeth hurt, Sab. Things like this makes 'em hurt even worse. Fucking—"
Keith didn't see the demon move, not really. There was a flicker, a momentary distraction like getting sand in your eye, and in that moment Sabbath shifted. One second the demon was standing behind it's bodyguard, grinning like a foot. The next it was hoisting Keith upright with one hand, lifting him with an angry snarl.
"Look at the sky, idiot." Sabbath's voice snarled out, low and guttural and graceful as a garbage truck, any veneer of humanity stripped away. "This is my city, always has been. You think I'm going to let some petty sorcerer stake his claim on it? You think I'm interested in letting him humble me in my place of power?"
"I think you want the city back, Sab, and giving me to Locke gets rid of him as surely as letting me kill him does."
"Better," Sabbath said, voice returning to its usual tenor. "If I give you to him, I get rid of you as well." The demon let go of Keith's lapels. "Fortunately for you, we have a history. Don't worry, Keithy, your soul has value to me. Stop worrying about a double-cross and do your job. Unlike your friends with a penchant for sorcery, I know what I'm doing."
The demon nodded to Randal and climbed back into the beat-up HR. Sabbath rolled down a window and leant out. "Take a shot at him tomorrow, Keith. Lets get this rolling, yeah?"
Then the car disappeared in a cloud of dust.
There wasn't much space for pacing in the motel room, but somehow Cottee managed to find a way. The scruffy academic went back-and-forth in the narrow strip between the two beds, his breath pluming in the cold night air. "You sure this is worth it? We could contact Miss White, get some kind of back-up of our own. You could even take a shot at Locke for real, if you needed too."
"Sure." Keith sat on the bed, parts of a .45 scattered on a towel. He'd been cleaning each component since coming home, making sure the runes scratched into the guns parts were free of dust and gun-oil. "It wouldn't kill him, and it'll end up with three people dead instead of just me, but we could give it a go."
"I just meant—"
"I've seen Locke's wards," Keith said. "They're strong. Strongest I've seen since we tried to kill his boss down in Adelaide, and that went real well for all concerned. Sabbath's plan is win-win."
They were holed up in a Formula One motel down by the local airport, the kind of place where people came and went at all hours. The Gold Coast was like that sometimes, arrivals and departures, people shifting like tides. They picked the F1 because it embraced anonymity; the lack of ownership, of place, made it hard to detect their presence with magic.
Cottee's pacing brought him just short of the wall. He pivoted on one heel and stopped. "Win-win?"
"Sabbath's on our side, we kill Locke and buy us some time." Keith pulled a soft-bristled brush along the length of the .45's barrel. "Sabbath's on their side, I get sold to Locke and carted back to Adelaide for whatever ritual they had in mind for bringing back Michael Wotan. Hopefully that stops the end of the world, or delays it a little, or whatever. Either way, win-win."
Cottee started walking again. "I'm not sure Miss White would agree with your definition."
"Harmony's weird like that." Keith began to reassemble the gun. "She seems to think I'm some kind of hero."
"I doubt it's just her, these days."
Keith held the .45 at arms length. "I doubt it'll matter, if this doesn't work."
It was cold, on the rooftop. Cold, and dark beneath the low-hanging clouds. The looming storm-shroud was growing, edging outwards to claim more of the city. Keith huddled beneath the satellite dish and watched, keeping his breathing steady. At seven o'clock he did the final check: .45 loaded, the safety off; the knife he'd taken from the Adelaide job strapped to his hip; the rifle set, it's scope adjusted, it's slight tendency to pull to the right accounted for.
The rifle was a sleek weapon, high-calibre, designed for long-distance work. It wouldn't do spit against Locke, nothing except make noise and get Keith noticed, but that was going to be enough.
At seven-forty-five he pulled out his mobile phone and dialled Harmony White's number. It rang three times before she answered. "Murphy? Christ, Murphy, where in hell are you?"
He waited out the silence, expecting argument. It didn't happen.
"You need help?"
"No, not really. I mean..." Keith crouched down behind the rifle and looked through the sights, lining up the penthouse balcony. He could see movement through the crack in the curtains. Nothing distinct, nothing detailed, just blurs of colour and form as people walked past, their here-and-gone presence enough to make his eye twitch and register their presence. "Listen," he said, "me and Cottee met with Sabbath and—"
"I'm not stupid, Keith." He could hear the irritated pause in Harmony's breathing. "You've been gone for a week, mate, and it's not like Cottee's the soul of discretion."
"Yeah," Keith said. "Yeah, right, of course. Sorry." He checked his watch. Seven forty-six. "I guess I just wanted to say sorry, in case this didn't work. Sorry and, you know, thanks."
"Right," Harmony said. She sighed into the phone. "Moron."
"Cheers," Keith said. "I don't know what Cottee told you, but stay out of this one, okay? Don't try to help."
"Just do the job, Murphy." The phone reception crackled, her voice breaking up. "Try not to miss and let me deal with my shit."
Keith grinned and pressed his eye against the sight. "Missing's kinda the point on this one, you know?"
"Why? It's not like any of those bastards is going to feel it."
The gloom tide hit at seven forty-nine, long tendrils of shadow reaching out to leach colour from everything they touched, growing wider and thicker, clotting together until the world was a still life painted in ash and dark oil. Keith lit a small lantern, tethered and prepared, enough to cast a small circle of light around his hiding place. Locke's penthouse blazed, an incandescent ball of light amid the Gloom, and even through the murky darkness Keith could spot the silhouettes of the occupants.
The first shot punched through the balcony doors, catching one of the silhouettes in the stomach. Keith didn't wait to see the figure fall, adjusting his aim and firing twice more. Another silhouette dropped and the rest of the room cleared, the figures dropping out of sight like shadow puppets slid off-stage at the end of a scene.
Keith inhaled. Exhaled. Waited. A head rose, peering through a window. Keith adjusted his aim and fired. The head dropped away, fast and clean. Keith wasn't sure whether it was hit or not, but he took the fact that it didn't reappear as a good sign.
The Gloom swallowed noise, muting the sharp crack of the rifle. It made the stillness that followed the initial assault unbearable.
Keith doused the lantern and let the Gloom wrap around his perch, felt the cold caress of shadowy tendrils as they reached in to claim the location. The numbing cold swallowed him whole, pushing down on him like a weight that wouldn't relent. Keith wasn't sure how many seconds passed, how many minutes. Time stretched into long, interminable moments that never seemed to end. It hurt, but it had to hurt. They needed the attempt to look legitimate, a valiant, but failed, attempt to solve the problem of William Lock.
He sat in the darkness forever, seconds stretching into hours.
Then there was light again, and warmth, and the unmistakable presence of people looming over him. Keith blinked and stared at their shoes, trying to will himself upright, but the lingering cold robbed his arms of strength.
Someone knelt and shone a light directly into Keith's eyes. Keith squinted, eyes watering, trying to see who was behind the light-source.
"Well," the light-bearer said, "that was rather stupid, wasn't it?"
Someone kicked Keith in the mouth before he could reply.
"Bring him," someone said. "Keep him in one piece. Locke needs him whole."
Charles Locke didn't bother with threats and torture. Two of his sorcerer's dropped Keith into one of the penthouse' red leather couches, and Locke simply lifted an eyebrow and went back to surveying the damage. There wasn't much. A handful of bullet holes in the windows, two bloodstains on the white carpet, one shrieking henchman trying to hold his stomach in place while blood pumped through the cracks in his fingers. There were people tending the injured man, another pair moving the corpse of the only man Keith had killed.
"He must have been new," Keith said, nodding at the dead body. "I didn't really think I was going to—"
Locke sighed, softly. One of Locke's men turned and punched Keith in the face. Lights danced across Keith's vision and a warm, heavy flow of blood stained his upper lip.
"Better," Locke said. He had a faint accent, either English or South African, and his close-cropped hair was touched with grey patches. The sorcerer settled into a couch and crossed his legs. "I'm assuming you're Keith Murphy. It would be best if you confirmed that now, rather than waste time."
Keith pressed a hand against his nose, staunching the flow of blood. "Yeah, that's going to happen."
"I assure you, Mister Murphy, confirmation or denial will not hasten your demise in any way. There's a proper time and place for death, and yours is already set."
"Comforting," Keith said, "but I'm still going to tell you to get fucked."
Locke sighed and settled back into the couch. "Obstinacy is a painful character trait, and all too often its painful for both parties."
Keith shrugged. "It's not like it matters. Either way, I'm a dead man."
"Perhaps." Locke leant forward. "But I have concerns. We need Keith Murphy, and only Keith Murphy, and while you are a match for certain physical attributes, I wasn't aware that Keith Murphy was... stupid."
Locke waved the sarcasm away. "This isn't about insulting you. Keith Murphy killed one of the oldest, most powerful sorcerer's in existence. He eluded pursuit, he escaped the immediate effects of a death curse, and he hid for far longer than one would expected. He's spent ten years hunting sorcerer's and creatures of the Gloom. I expected better than a sniper's perch, a rifle, and no-one working to undo our protective wards. I expected foolhardy, rather than stupid."
The sorcerer leant back into the seat, mouth pulled into a grim line. "So the question becomes, if you are Keith Murphy, why you tried something that was destined to fail from the moment you fired the first shot?"
Keith crossed his arms and glared. The sorcerer met his gaze, refusing to look away.
"Simple, it wasn't his plan. He kinda expected me to have his back."
Keith twisted in his seat. Sabbath and the demon's bodyguard, Randal, emerged from one of the penthouse bedrooms. A broad grin split the demon's goatee, showing off a mouth full of incongruously sharp teeth.
"How you doin', Keithy-boy?" Sabbath strolled over and tapped Keith on the nose, sending a fresh blur of pain shooting across Keith's vision. "Looks like that hurts a lot," Sabbath said. "I asked 'em to do it for me, special delivery. Call it something I owed ya."
Sabbath frowned. "Course, it doesn't look broken yet. Not enough blood. Randal, if you'd care to do the honours?"
The big bodyguard stepped forward, grinning, and formed a fist. Keith kept his eyes open, preparing to roll with the punch rather than brace against the impact.
"No," Locke said. " I need him whole, Sabbath."
Sabbath raised an eyebrow, waving his bodyguard off. "Whole, as in, not dead?"
"Whole, as in, not injured," Locke said. "His blood is going to serve a purpose in three weeks time. I'd rather not shed any more than I have to."
"You're sure? We don't need to make him bleed. I could just let Randy dent the packaging a little."
Locke closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Well, that's disappointing," Sabbath said. "Lucky day for you, Keithy. I guess it's better him than me, eh?" The demon looked over his shoulder. "So, you've got him. When do you boys push off?"
"Four weeks," Locke said.
Sabbath turned, giving the sorcerer his full attention. "I thought your ritual needed to be done in three."
"It does. We're performing it here. Mister Murphy is connected to this city. His blood is more potent here, and my master's link to his home grows weaker." The sorcerer's smile was grim as he pointed towards the ceiling. A peel of thunder rumbled trough the penthouse at the gesture. "The ritual's begun, Sabbath. I placed considerable trust in your ability to bring our guest into place, and you delivered. Our thanks go out to you."
"I don't think he did it for the thanks," Keith said, nodding to the sour expression on the demon's face. "What were you getting, Sab?"
The demon fumed. Locke smiled. "Nothing that concerns you," he said. "William, Richard, would you care to gag our guest and transfer him to somewhere a little more secure?"
They deposited Keith in one of the penthouse en suite and handcuffed him to the towel rack. They left the door open, giving Keith a good view of the bedroom and the two men set to watch him. The handcuffs were the easy part of the equation—Keith figured it would take a half-hour to pull the towel-rack free—but Locke's men worked in shifts, two men teams, rotating fresh eyes in to watch every five or six hours. It was an effective system, better than Keith had expected, and he spent three days familiarizing himself with the routine.
Locke came to see him on the forth day, four of his sorcerer's crowding into the bathroom alongside the tall sorcerer. They held Keith down and stripped him, exposing his wrist and chest so Locke could paint runes on Keith's skin with a black, foul-smelling paint. Soft chanting filled the air as Locke worked, the unfamiliar language filled with glottal clicks and pauses, and when the sorcerer was done Keith's limbs were weighed down by the familiar numbing cold of being exposed to the Gloom.
He studied the marks, when they left him; a series of runes that mimicked tethers, but the paste gleamed with an oily light.
Keith tried rubbing it free and failed. The numbing sensation faded, but didn't go away.
On the sixth day he tried to escape, quietly edging the towel rack free of its moorings during the brief moments the guards weren't paying attention. It was a slow, painstaking process, especially once the rack became loose and he was forced to hold it in place to avoid suspicion. When one of the guards finally noticed, hours after Keith started work, the rack was barely connected to the wall. Keith pulled it free and used it as a weapon, catching the guard with a blow to the side of the neck. The second guard was slow to respond, lulled into complacency after days of seeing Keith docile.
Keith fought his way out of the bedroom and made it halfway across the lounge before Locke's men pulled him down. When they returned him to the en suite, they bound Keith's hands and feet together and left him lying face-down on the tiles.
On the eighth day Locke returned, inspecting the marks painted onto Keith's skin. More of the foul paste was produced and additional symbols applied. Keith didn't attempt to struggle.
On the tenth day, Keith heard Sabbath's voice on the far side of the en suite wall. The demon was arguing with someone on the far side, repeating Keith's name several times, growing increasingly irate with every response.
On the twelfth day, there was another argument.
This time, they let Sabbath's bodyguard into the en suite, and Keith exhaled a long sigh of relief.
Randal closed the en suite door and twisted the lock shut, pressing a palm against the wood veneer as it whispered beneath its breath. Keith twisted against his cuffs, trying to find the leverage to turn, but he wasn't able to manage it until Randal dug a toe beneath Keith's shoulder and flipped him.
"Right," it said, crouching down, "lets take a look at what they're trying to do, eh?"
Keith winced at the demon's touch, the rough hands grabbing and pulling skin tight, making sure the runes were clearly visible. "Shouldn't Sabbath be doing this?"
"The boss is otherwise detained," Randal said. "Relax, mate, the face looks dumb as a crate of bricks, but it ain't really mine. I know what I'm doing."
"You aren't worried about the guards opening the door?"
"Demon, mate," Randal said. "A little time and a coupl'a honeyed words, we can sell ice to Eskimos. Those two currently think you and I are having a nice little chat, and that door ain't been closed since they dumped you in here." The demon paused at one of the marks on Keith's shoulder, making a clicking noise with its tongue. "Right-o, mate. This is going to hurt a bit. Try not to scream, okay?"
The demon pressed both hands against the mark and whispered beneath his breath.
Keith made a strangled noise, clenching his teeth as he tried to hold the scream in.
"There," Randal said, patting Keith's shoulder. "Next time they come in, try to make sure they notice, eh? Give them a chance to fix it."
"Up to you, mate" the demon said. "But I'd recommend killing the pricks, just in case. The boss wants Locke, but the rest are fair game and we're not exactly sure how much of this place is Locke's work, you know?" Randal produced a gleaming handgun from its jacket, a silver SiG-Sauer with a red tinge to it's finish. "Where's the best place to hide this, then?"
"Pick a drawer," Keith said. "It's not like anyone uses this room 'cept me."
"Done," Randal said. "Spare clips with the gun." It turned and pressed a hand against the door, grinning. "Boss says to wish you good luck, Keithy-boy, and remember that all help comes at a price."
"Tell Sabbath to fuck off," Keith says. "I'm still surprised he kept his word this far into things."
Randal winked and opened the door. "You and me both, mate. I'm still waiting for the order to pull out your entrails and feast on 'em, right? This working together thing is just kinda eerie."
Long after the demon left, Keith could feel its presence lingering in the room.
Even longer than that, he could feel the altered rune burning a hole in his arm.
The brewing storm grew thick and heavy overhead, rumbling it's displeasure, and the penthouse sat close to the low-hanging clouds. The heavy noise grew insistent as the day wore on, growing sharper and louder. Even the rise and fall of the Gloom Tides didn't dull the noise.
Keith forced himself to wait, biding his time. He forced himself to remember the drawer with the gun.
It took close to twenty-four hours before one of guards noticed the altered rune. Keith grinned to himself as the man slipped away, heading off to report his findings.
Locke burst into the en suite like a man on a mission, kneeling beside Keith's prone form. "The demon's sloppy," he said, weary rather than surprised. "They're an obstinate race, you have to give them that. Like a dog with a bone once they're convinced you've crossed them."
"Tell me about it," Keith said. "Seems like he screwed me pretty good."
The sorcerer started, as though he'd forgotten Keith still existed beneath the runes. He met Keith's stare with a mild grin. "You amuse me, Mister Murphy," Locke said. "You and Sabbath playing game within game. None of them matter, not here. Sabbath likes to pretend he's a petty king, running his cabal, but he's been here too long. Worn the same faces too many times."
"Say something about your sanctum being impervious to his plans," Keith said. "Go on. I dare you."
Locke's grin faded. "You're not amusing, Mister Murphy, and you will not irritate me into hurting you."
"Wasn't really trying," Keith said. "I figured it more for a friendly warning."
"Shut up." Locke stood and gestured to the cadre of sorcerers waiting in the bathroom. "Hold him. I need to correct this before tonight's tide."
A dozen hands lifted Keith, slicing his bonds before stretched him out. Locke knelt and examined the altered mark, whispering beneath his breath. Keith caught the incantation, recognized the rise and fall. He grit his teeth and waited, hoped like hell that Sabbath and his bodyguard knew what they were doing.
Keith felt the rune burning, filling the air with the sound of burning meat.
"I'm afraid, Mister Murphy, this is going to hurt," Locke said.
Keith grinned. He'd never learnt much about magic, but he knew how to fire a trigger. "Hey Locke," he said. "Sabbath says it's time for you to fuck off."
He closed his eyes and braced himself, and hoped like hell that trusting Sabbath would be one of those mistakes he only had to regret for a very short space of time.
The flame that engulfed the en suite registered as a red glare on the back of Keith's eyelids.
The hands that held him down disappeared.
Then he heard the screaming.
Keith felt like he'd poured hot oil beneath the skin of his shoulder, then started using a nail-gun to pop the blisters as they formed. Closing his eyes had saved part of his vision, but spots still danced across his field of view and he listed dangerously as he pushed himself up onto all fours. He was dimly aware of the insistent beep of the fire alarm, coupled with the whimpering shrieks of Locke's men. He crawled forward, putting little weight on the wreckage of his left arm, searching for the drawer with the SIG and Randal's spare clip of ammunition.
One of Locke's men responded on instinct, latching onto Keith's leg with an angry shriek. Keith fell hard against the tile floor, breath rushing out. He twisted and rolled, kicking against the clawing hands that tried to secure their hold against his knee. Keith's heel caught the man in the face, pressing against the ridge of the eye. The guard screamed, his grip going loose, and Keith slid across the tiles to yank the bottom draw open.
Another guard dove forward, swinging wild punches at Keith's neck. Keith rolled free with the SIG in hand. The gunshots boomed in the tight confines of the bathroom, adding temporary deafness to the guards problems. The man swinging at Keith took a bullet to the chest, sagging against the tiles with blood pooling beneath his corpse. Keith kept firing, aiming as best he could with his bleary vision. Figures danced in front of his eyes, little more than shadows, but there wasn't much space to dodge and his targets saw even less than Keith.
He blinked away the last of the spots and realized Locke was gone, the tall sorcerer's British accent raised to shrill bark as he gave orders to his remaining men. Keith dug through the drawer, unearthing the additional clips. They burned his palm a little, touched with the same fire that fuelled the demons who'd prepared the weapon. Keith grit his teeth and reloaded, forcing his injured arm into service.
He measured the moments in heartbeats. Reload. Stand. Stumble out of the bathroom, bouncing off the doorframe as he went. Lurch through the bedroom until he found the wall, hitting it hard with his shoulder to keep himself upright. If Sabbath was keeping his part of the deal, there'd be demons waiting for their chance to storm the penthouse, waiting for a chance to cut through the sorcerer's wards and do some damage.
All Keith needed to do was open the way.
Keith braced himself against the wall, firing blind into the lounge room. Locke's sorcerer's didn't return fire, armed or otherwise. Locke's voice kept giving orders, but no-one rushed to obey them.
Keith pitched into the lounge room on unsteady legs, careening forward until he found one of the thick, high-backed couches to support his weight.
Locke charged. The tall man slipped across the room, disappearing into the Gloom and reappearing an arms-length from Keith. The sorcerer lashed out, fist connecting with Keith's ear, knocking him sideways. Keith listed, grabbing for the back of the couch with his injured arm. The burnt shoulder protested, a burst of pain running down the arm, forcing the fingers to open. Keith fell. One blue eye gazed down on him, paired with an empty eye socket that sat amid the burnt ruin on the opposite side of Locke's face.
Keith fired wildly, emptying the SiG's clip. Locke grunted once, a splotch of blood blooming in his stomach. The sorcerer barely seemed to register the injury. A booted heel stomped on Keith's wrist, jarring the pistol free. Locke kicked the weapon beneath the couch before kneeling and lifting Keith. The sorcerer wrapped both hands around Keith's neck and started squeezing.
"You need to be alive, Mister Murphy," Locke said, "not conscious."
Keith kicked at the sorcerer. He made contact, but there wasn't enough strength left to elicit anything more than a grunt. Clawing at the tight grip around his throat did no better.
"Pathetic." The sorcerer smiled and thunder roared behind him. "Fortunately, it's time you did something useful, Mister Murphy."
Keith bared his teeth in a rictus grin. "Already did," he croaked. He pushed the SIG into Locke's face, gave the sorcerer a chance to see the weapons' reddish tinge, the carefully etched rune running along its barrel.
Locke's eyes went wide, realization settling in. Wards were built and bound by blood, and you could undo them the same way.
The penthouse doors burst open and demon's emptied into the lounge room.
Sabbath strolled in, arms behind his back, idly looking around. "Randal," he said, "would you mind freeing Keithy-boy from his predicament?"
The big demon grinned and moved forward, talons extended.
Locke swore, dropping Keith to the floor. Thick tendrils of Gloom erupted from the shadows, wrapping around the sorcerer, pulling him in. Keith was dimly aware of a wild, angry peel of thunder.
Then the darkness reached out to claim him, and Keith didn't remember anything more.
Keith woke up in the back of Sabbath's HR. He moaned, felt the soft ache in his throat to match the tingling pain of the burn on his shoulder. Cautiously, he sat upright.
"About time." Sabbath turned and leant over the front seat, watching with bright eyes. "Just so you know, Keithy-boy, dying before we resolve this matter with Locke and Wotan isn't a loophole. If at any time before the resolution of our deal, etcetera etcetera, you're still locked into our agreement."
"Wasn't really planning on dying," Keith said. Speaking made him feel like something heavy was being scraped across his vocal chords.
"You don't really need to, mate." Randal glanced into the rearview, grinning. "I think death's just going to track you down all on its own."
The two demons laughed. Keith leant his head against the window, watching the city lights roll by. "We get him?"
"We ran him off," Sabbath said. "Bastard had a lot of power stored up here, Keithy-boy. More than I was comfortable with. He used it to step into the Gloom, and it carried him further away than any of my lot could go without sacrificing a body."
"Might have been worth it," Keith said.
"Might have been, maybe not," Sabbath said. "You wanted us in, Keithy-boy, well now we're in. The end of the world is coming, and we're on your side this time around."
"And when we're done, you get my soul," Keith said.
"Totally worth it." Sabbath beamed with pleasure. "So, Keithy, where can we take you?"
Keith grimaced. There weren't many placed that counted as home, so he picked the one place that seemed close. "Currumbin Valley," he said. "I'll give you the address once we're out there."
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011