Display a printable version
A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
Keith Murphy had been drinking since eight o'clock and he wasn't in the mood to stop. He opened the second-last stubbie in his six pack, flicking the bottle cap into the sand, and sank half the contents in one fell swoop. The glass sweated moisture, cool against the scar tissue covering his palms, a momentary respite from the muggy heat that accompanied that preceded the Summer storms.
He'd been perched on the picnic table overlooking the Alley for the last few hours, ambling down from a bar further along the beach, his six-pack tucked under one arm. Now he watched the handful of surfers that weren't deterred by the potential downpour, waiting for dawn and the beginning of the storm.
The flash of headlights gave away Roark's arrival, and Keith listened for the sound of a car door clicking shut. "You know what I hate about the Gold Coast in summer?" He twisted the top off the second-last beer, eyes focused on the long shadow of the Gold Coast shoreline. "It isn't the heat exactly, the whole city's pretty good with heat. They build places to catch the wind, and they funnel you towards the water, and no-one who wants to make money does without air-conditioning."
Roark limped over to the picnic table, the collar of his jacket turned up against the rain. The old sorcerer moved slower now, his lean frame edging closer to the withered end of the spectrum. He'd sacrificed a demon to save the world and used Keith's blood to achieve it, but everyone involved seemed to pay a price. Keith's jaw tightened, a momentary flicker of anger, but it passed. "The thing I hate about this city in summer," he said, "is all the fucking tourists. Always hated 'em, even as a kid. They come, they surf, they spend too much money, and then the fuck off to places that aren't here to live their real lives."
"Yeah, it seems that kind of place." Roark liberated the beer from Keith's grasp, glancing down at the row of empty bottles running along the sand. "You been at this a while, kid?"
Keith shrugged. "A couple of hours."
"No," Roark said, "it wasn't a question. You've been at this a while, kid. It's time to stop grieving and get on with the job."
It was enough to make Keith laugh. "I'm not your sidekick anymore, Danny. You get to go hunt monsters now, I get to stay here—" He waved an arm towards the view of Surfers Paradise "—in all its charming glory."
Roark said nothing. He finished Keith's half-drunk beer and claimed the final stubbie.
Keith blinked, watching the first thread of light break through the murky pre-dawn. "You said she'd wake up when the Valkyrie's were gone."
"It was a theory, kid." Roark circled the picnic table and settled down on the seat, eyes drifting towards the water. "Nothing's certain in these things, you know?"
Keith snorted. They'd killed the mark in Adelaide because Roark said it was necessary, and Keith hadn't asked questions until their actions had started the end of the world. He'd spent years trusting in Roark's certainty, knowing that it meant the monsters could be fought. Harmony had called it one of Keith's stupider traits, and it galled him to learn she'd been right.
"I found her sunglasses in the kitchen," he said.
"It's her place," Roark said. "It's not unreasonable her stuff is there."
"I was thinking I should look for somewhere else."
"You shouldn't." Roark nodded towards water. "It's warded, heavily warded, and you're not going find many places as secure as that."
Keith stood and kicked a beer bottle into the sand dunes. "What happened to always keep moving?"
"Its advice for a man who keeps moving from city to city," Roark said. "You're stuck here, kid, and that place is fortified. She'd want you to stay there, to stay safe."
The old sorcerer finished his drink. Keith stood at the edge of the shadows, glaring at his mentor. "I take it you're leaving?"
"Tomorrow morning." Roark knelt and replaced the beer bottle Keith had kicked with his own. "That's the deal I cut with Randal."
"You're still taking Cottee?"
Roark's left shoulder rose and fell, a half-hearted shrug as he searched his pockets for cigarettes. "He still thinks he wants to learn, and there's not a lot of locals I'd trust to teach him the ropes."
"And you'll still need a trigger man," Keith said.
"That too. The fight goes on." Roark found a battered pack of Winnie Blues and stabbed one into his mouth, igniting it with a plastic Bic. "It'll take time to get him there," he said, "and he's not, you know..."
Keith's fingers tapped a crude pattern against the tabletop. "You drank my last beer," he said.
"Yeah," Roark said. "Look, kid, I'm sorry." He paused, considering the words. "For everything, you know? The fuck-ups, what it cost to fix 'em. For Harmony—"
"Danny." Keith barked the name and stood, anger filling the spaces the beer hadn't reached yet. He looked Roark in the eye, searching for any sign the apology was genuine, but Roark locked things away better than anyone Keith had ever known. It came with the territory when you practiced magic.
Keith shook his head. "Jesus, Danny, just go," he said. "We fucked up, we fixed it, it cost us both pretty bad. You've still got a job to do. Wotan wasn't the last fucker that needed stopping, right?"
"Right." Roark smiled. It almost looked like relief. "You know you can't trust Randal? I mean, he isn't Sabbath, but—"
"Go," Keith said. "I'll be fine."
"Right," Roark said. "If you say so."
Keith's anger faded as he watched the old man go. Roark didn't look back, didn't wave goodbye. He just turned the key in the ignition and left.
Keith turned back to the water, watched a handful of surfers fight over the next wave. It bothered him that a wave was important enough to fight for. That was the world they'd saved.
Fine, Keith thought. Fuck that.
He fished Harmony's sunglasses out of his pocket, studied them for a few seconds. They were cheap, plastic frames with dark lenses, dark and bulky. She hadn't worn them often, back when they were together, but they were hers.
Fine, Keith thought. Fuck that too.
The glasses followed the beer bottles out into the sand dunes, and Keith left fast before the surfers came back to shore and gave him grief about littering.
Two weeks later he ate brunch in a Broadbeach Café, a place with a view of the Casino on the far side of the highway and tables left exposed to the morning sun. Keith slumped into his chair, blinking at the bright light, an untouched coffee at his elbow. "Why the fuck are sitting in the sun?"
Randal shrugged, attention on his food. "It's called alfresco dining, I think."
Randal picked at salad. The demon had dressed down since taking over Sabbath's position in the casino, eschewing the black suit for an outfit of beige linen. He ate quietly, smiling, watching the world go past.
"If you don't mind me saying, mate," Randal said, "you look like shit."
"Cheers," Keith said.
"I mean, hell, look in a mirror." Randal waved his fork in the direction of Keith's face. "Get some sleep some time, eh?"
Keith wrapped his fingers around the coffee cup. The contents were lukewarm, but be sipped the coffee regardless. "I thought demons were all about temptation, not advice."
"We're adaptable." Randal chewed thoughtfully, lowering his utensils. After swallowing he removed his sunglasses and looked Keith in the eye. There was fire in the demon's gaze now, a harsh glow of potential and power that hadn't been there before Sabbath's death. "Right," he said, "to business. You friend Roark is gone?"
"Left a week ago."
"Good." Randal picked at his teeth with a thumbnail. "It would have been inconvenient if I had to kill him, given what I'm about to ask."
Keith's grip tightened on the coffee mug. "I'm not going to work for you, Randal."
The demon laughed. "No offense, mate, but I wouldn't want you too. Sabbath was the one obsessed with your soul, not me. I've asked around about you, you and your old mate Roark, and shit sticks to you two like you wouldn't believe. You're meddlers, the pair of you, and I'm guessing that’s not going to change just because we nailed your foot to the Coast and got rid of the old man."
Keith grunted. Randal went back to picking at his salad, spearing tiny tomatoes with his fork. "I liked you better when you had a sense of humour," Randal said.
"I liked you better in a black suit, drinking shitty beer."
"Perils of being in the world, mate," Randal said. "Everything that was Sabbath's belongs to me now. Rites of succession and all that shit."
Keith hid behind his coffee cup, attention drifting to the rest of the café. Broadbeach attracted decent crowd in the mornings, particularly during the summer months when the nearby high-rises were trotting out their no vacancy signs. Families, retirees, men and women who bore the trademark tans of morning joggers and surfers and beach-dwellers; Keith felt pale and unpleasant, a haggard remnant of a culture that didn't quite belong this close to the water.
He'd been drinking too long, gone too long without sleep, and the hang-over seemed perpetual. He found himself considering a stronger drink than the coffee. Instead of ordering one, he rubbed a thumb into his itchy right eye and considered Randal once more. "What do you want?"
"I want to make you an offer," Randal said. "A job—not working for me—but a job anyway. It's Mim's idea, him and your friend Roark, and they seem to think it'll suit your...unique abilities."
Keith rolled his eyes and stood, pushing back his chair.
"Hey." Randal reached across the table and grabbed Keith's arm, holding it in a steady grip. Keith felt the tips of the demon's talons digging into his arm. "Sit," Randal said, his voice low and threatening. "You're going to listen to this."
They stared at each other. Keith's eyes itched, fighting against the bleary irritation that accompanied his hang-over. Randal didn't have any such problems; when the demon's pupils turned red, it was a sure sign of anger.
Keith sat, quietly, and removed the demon's hand. "Talk."
"Sabbath's gone." Randal shrugged, pulling his jacket back into position, any sign of rancour disappearing with the gesture. "I have his casino, and I have his position, but I'm not him. For years this was his town, and the only thing holding him in check was the presence of things like Monty up in Southport, things that lurked in the shadows and liked things kept quiet and didn't want any ripples in the surface. He would have been worse if they weren't there. People come and go in this city. We like it that way, it keeps it civilized. Take away the checks and balances, and there's the potential for a lot more chaos."
"So keep things civilized," Keith said. "You're the top dog, now."
"I'm also a demon." Randal stroked his chin, idly reaching for a goatee that wasn't there. "We're hardwired for ambition, mate. I could keep the city under control for a few months, maybe even a year or two, but eventually I'm going to buckle and give into the temptation to fuck things up for everybody."
The demon took a deep breath. "Basically, we need someone who isn't blessed with my kind of background."
"Bruce has his own problems," Randal said. "The Other aren't good at truces, mate, we're not built that way. We're all impulse and dark thought and mirrors of your worse nature, and you can bet there's going to be new blood drifting in to fill the empty spaces."
"So you have a reputation," Randal said. "The kind that deters visitors."
Keith didn't have the energy to be shocked. He drained his coffee and glared. "Fuck off."
"You're call," Randal said, "but I think it's the wrong one." The Demon stood, collecting his sunglasses. He considered Keith for a moment. "You still going to the hospital?"
"Every tide." Keith hissed the words through clenched teeth.
"You should stop," Randal said. "It's fucking with your head."
Keith made it to the hospital an hour before the Gloom Tide, sneaking his backpack full of lanterns and torches past the wary eyes of the nurses who wore blue jumpers and tended the forth floor ward. Harmony's room was the third door on the left, a communal ward shared with a rotating cast of elderly patients, the long room filled with the syncopated harmony of beeping heart monitors.
Keith settled in next to Harmony's bed, one hand resting on the steel rail. She slept peacefully now, even when the Gloom washed over her, but there were still no signs of her waking. Keith checked his watch, counted off the minutes, waiting until the very end before setting up. And when the darkness bled out of the hospital walls, congealing into the steady mass of Gloom, there were tethered lights in place to keep Harmony safe.
There were two .45s in Keith's bag, hidden in bottom beneath a beach towel he never used. Once the Gloom Tide rose, Keith dug them out and waited, listening for signs of trouble. He whispered out of habit, counting off the seconds, trying to secure a sense of time passing in the place where no time existed.
He'd counted to three hundred when Bruce Mim appeared, stepping into the lantern light with tendrils of darkness clinging to him, trying to pull him back into the Gloom. The bone-thing, Lou, perched on Mim's shoulders and busied itself swiping it's bony paw are the more persistent strands of shadow.
Keith whirled, guns pointed in Mim's direction.
"Shit," he said, "you."
Mim coughed and limped across the pool of light, settling into the second chair beside Harmony's cot. Lou leapt onto the bed, scuttling forward to run bony fingers through Harmony's tangled dreadlocks, and Mim unearthed a beer from his jacket pocket and opened it with a satisfied grin. It was cheap beer, XXXX. A hangover in a gaudy yellow can with the four red X's emblazoned accross the side.
"I knew we'd meet here," the seer said, tapping the beer can against his forehead. "I don't see the future so good since you stopped your apocalypse and tangled the threads, but I see enough. I knew we'd meet here, I just hoped you'd come find me beforehand."
Keith sighed and lowered the guns. "I could have shot you."
"And wouldn't that have been unfortunate." Mim took a long slug of beer, then tapped the can against his head a second time. "And I was sure enough you wouldn't to risk it, right? We were always going to have this chat."
"I talked with Randal," Keith said. "I told him to fuck off with this peacekeeper shit, I'm telling you as well."
Mim shrugged and drank. "Okay.'
"I'm not kidding."
"Don't give me that I know the future shit either."
"You should have a beer," Mim said, fishing a second can of XXXX out of his pocket. "And I don't know the future anymore, not like I used too, it's all just...bits and pieces. You saved the world, Keith Murphy, and things get a little tangled after something like that."
He held out the beer, and Keith took it. He nursed the yellow can for a seconds, thumb tracing the red line of the final X before he pulled the tab. It wasn't good beer. It barely qualified as adequate. His eyes went back to Harmony, the narrow face with its bird-like features that seemed strangely bare after the hospital staff had removed her piercings.
"You're thinking about her." Mim nodded towards Harmony. "Wondering if my being unable to see the future means I may have been wrong all those months ago."
"I was thinking your taste in beer sucks," Keith said.
"Then you don't get a second can," Mim said. "And I wasn't. I told you she wouldn't survive, one way or another, and there's no getting her back."
Keith looked up. "You're sure?"
"Mostly sure," Mim said. "There's no way that I know of, and I know a great deal. It's one of the drawbacks of great age and prescience. You could hope I'm wrong, I suppose, but I wouldn't count on it."
"Hardly worth it then, was it?"
Mim raised an eyebrow. "Saving the world?"
"Maybe not." Mim drained his beer can and put it on the bed, whistling to get Lou's attention. The small bone-creature immediately scampered down the blanket, leaping on the crumpled can like it was a pet toy. "I didn't think so, before it arrived, but I find myself strangely relieved that this world continues."
Keith glared at the seer. It was easy to think of Mim as cantankerous, an old man who wore his age like an too-heavy overcoat, but the ancient Other wore a slight grin as he opened his second beer.
"You're a prick," Keith said. "All that shit you gave me about duty and wanting the other side to win..."
"Was perfectly true at the time," Mim said. "Prescience is wearying, but I always forget the pleasure of doing something real in the aftermath. For a time I get to ask things that need asking without knowing how they'll end."
Keith met the Other's gaze, studying the mismatched colour of Mim's eyes. "Give me another beer," Keith said.
Mim complied, and they sat there, drinking, listening to the steady sound of Harmony's heart-rate monitor filling the small circle of light. Keith counted the beeps out of habit, made it twenty-nine before Mim spoke again.
"This city still needs a hero," he said.
"Maybe that's the problem." Keith leant forward, resting a hand on Harmony's thin wrist. "I'm not a really a hero. I'm a crusader, and I've fought my war, and all I want to do is fade away."
"That'll happen, eventually," Mim said. "Plenty of ways to disappear on the coast."
"It was a joke," Keith said. "Something she told me once."
"Oh," Mim said.
They finished drinking. The heart-monitor kept beeping.
"So," Keith said, "what happens next."
"With her," Keith said, nodding to Harmony. "What happens to her, if she's not coming back?"
Mim knelt and collected Lou, returning the bone-thing to its perch on his shoulder. "She dies," he said. "Eventually."
"Then you grieve," Mim said, "and you get one last chance to make a choice."
The seer started walking towards the perimeter of the darkness.
"I'm not a sorcerer," Keith said. "I'm the guy who pulls the trigger. What the fuck am I supposed to do against Other who come in her looking to disrupt the peace?"
"If you're a hero," Mim said, stepping into the embrace of the Gloom, "I guess you'll figure it out along the way."
Three weeks later Keith stepped out of a cab and walked into the Saturday night crowd packed into Surfers Paradise. He wore a jacket despite the muggy heat, sweat soaking the black t-shirt beneath it, but the jacket covered the pistols holstered beneath each shoulder and sweat was preferable to an awkward conversation with the cops. He wasn’t there to 'cause trouble. Surfers Paradise was a place to drink and disappear, and Keith figured he'd do a little of both.
He checked his watch, counted off the handful of minutes until the next tide rose, figured it was best to hurry. Three steps into the crowd he collided with the girl, her shoulder catching him hard against the stomach. Keith went down, winded and gasping, and she hit the concrete beside him.
The panicked rhythm of her swearing cut through the buzz of the crowd. She pushed herself upright, blood dripping from the grazes on her knee, looking for a way through the crowd. Keith caught her arm as he rose, pulling her up short, and caught the flash of tether tattoos around her wrist. A sorcerer, then. Probably trouble.
"Hey," he said.
"Fuck off," the girl yelled, trying to work her arm free of his grip. Keith clamped down, forcing her to stop, and she spun to face him, hand coming up in a futile attempt to slap him. He leant out of range of the first attack, blocked the second.
"Hey," he said, "hold on. What's—"
He stopped and frowned. "I know you," he said. "Amber, right?"
The girl's eyes went wide. She had a surfer's build, tall and lean and built for balance, her blonde hair cut short to make it easier to rinse the salt water free. She blinked rapidly as she tried to place Keith's face.
"You're the guy," she said. "Harmony's friend, the one who saved—"
"Yeah," Keith said.
She threw a nervous glance at the densely packed crowd. "Look, I gotta go."
"Go where?" Keith said. "Look, I can—"
She shook her head and pulled her arm free of his grip. "Not really what I heard," she said. "I came looking for your friend, when they started—"
"Demons," she said.
She saw an opening in the crowd and bolted, heading for the road and the rows of taxi cabs. Keith watched her go a moment, turned his attention towards the crowd. It wasn't hard to spot her pursuers, two demons who obviously weren't locals. For years the Gold Coast's demon population had been selected by Sabbath, a broker who preferred vessels to be non-descript or heavyweights ready to start working security.
The two pursuing Amber Walker were more ostentatious, dressed in leather and feathered jackets, pushing their way through the crowd with a strength that belied their skinny rock-star frames. Keith tracked them as they moved, making a beeline for the cab rank where Amber was frantically order a drive to go. He swore beneath his voice and fished a mobile out of his pocket, thumbing Randal's number into the keypad.
It rang three times before the demon answers. "Mate," he said. "What's up?"
"Two demons hunting in Surfers," Keith said. "Dressed like rejects from a goth band. They yours?"
Randal snorted. "Not fucking likely."
"Yeah, that's what I figured," Keith said. "Do me a favour: contact Mim and give him a message."
"Yeah," Keith said. He sidled through the crowd, eyes on the demons. His skin prickled as he felt the Gloom Tide coming, the shadows growing thicker. "Tell him I'm taking the job."
He shut the phone down before Randal could start laughing, ducking into the shadows of a short alley looking over the cab rank. He drew one of the .45s and watched the shadows get thicker, pulling a torch out of his jacket pocket in preparation for the Gloom.
Amber Walker's cab made it half a block before the taxi was forced to break, stopping for handful of drunk pedestrians that stumbled onto the road. The girl looked panicked in the back seat. The demons burst out of the crowd and started running down the road, clambering over cars as they want.
Keith counted down the seconds, clicking the torch to life.
The shadows congealed, growing colder and darker, and he found himself smiling.
It was time to go to work.
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011