The (not so) Graceful Act of Robbing a Ritualist

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI. It is also the start of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


Magic, madness, heaven, sin…

She is sitting in her car, the stereo blaring Taylor Swift at its loudest and outside the windshield night has brought with it a heavy downpour. The rain is beating furiously against the roof of the car and though the radio is maxed up she can barely hear the music.

In her hands she holds a gun.

It’s not any gun, mind you. It’s the one she took from the ritualist called Mike on the night she rescued Chino from him and his less intelligently endowed friend Pete. The same night, incidentally, as she first found out that maybe, just maybe, the notorious Enjoyment Club is not just midwife’s tales at all – but terrible reality. And after her recent talk with Devin Murdock she’s finally beginning to understand just how terrible, and just how real.

The gun is heavy and big, and it glows like silver in the sparse light allowed through the windshield’s cascading water from the streetlamps above. She turns it over, just as she has done so many times already. The signs and symbols engraved upon its smooth surface are many and delicately executed; a true master must have etched them there. The thought doesn’t calm her in the least, as the meaning of these symbols – at least the ones she is able to decipher – do not bode well for the enemies of the gunman in question. He doesn’t have the gun anymore, sure, but it is she who has stolen it from him, and she is quite convinced that this in itself adds her to his list of prioritized enemies.

She knows that Mike, the gun’s owner, works for the Club – maybe as a hired bounty hunter. They were taking Chino to them before Vahri intervened, and she harbours no illusions that they wouldn’t throw her into the bargain as well if they ever got the chance. Therefore what she is about to do next might seem like a really stupid thing – she’s well aware of that. But right now it’s the only option she has if she’s going to stay one step ahead and hopefully alive as well.

She’s going to use the gun to find this Mike.

Oh, she’s not going to kill him, mind you. Not just because it’s really not her style – she’s just only killed one person previously and didn’t particularly enjoy it – but also because he is only the most immediate incarnation of the threat that is the Club. If he is removed, they will simply send others, she’s sure of that. He might be a dangerously skilled ritualist, but he’s not unique. She’ll definitely have more use for him as a source of information than as an unpleasantly smelling corpse and a blotch on her conscience.

She closes her eyes and concentrates, all the while tracing the gun’s intricate patterns with her fingers. The weapon carries a deep, spiritual imprint of the person called Mike. She can feel traces of his essence just by touching it. Using her inherited magical ability of scrying with the gun as a sympathetic anchor it doesn’t take her very long to locate him.

She can feel the warding rituals he has cast upon himself as another might perceive a mesh across the eyes. They don’t stop her from seeing him, but still pose a slight, annoying hindrance. She can definitely see how his wards would pose a real obstacle for a less skilled magician – but he obviously hasn’t counted on being scried by someone of her aptitude.

He’s walking back and forth in an anonymous hotel room, gesturing with his free hand as he talks to someone on the phone. She’s not able to hear him through her mind’s window, but he is clearly upset about something. Suits you well, honey, she thinks to herself as she watches him aggressively stuff an assortment of items into a bag, phone still firmly pressed against his ear.

Then he throws the heavy bag over his shoulder, opens the door and leaves the room without turning off the lights. She knows that she can follow him outside, see where he goes, but she chooses not to. Because she has seen something else. Right before Mike left the room an object fell out of his overstuffed shoulder bag and onto the distastefully carpeted floor. It is a book, and she needs to know what’s inside it before Mike returns to the room.

Vahri opens her eyes, suddenly back inside the rain drenched Ferrari with the decorated gun in her hands. She has not just been able to see Mike inside his room; she also knows exactly where to find it.

She starts the car and turns back onto the road. Hopefully she will be able to find out parts of his secrets without even having to meet him tonight.

***

The hotel is not fancy. Not in the least, actually. If this says something about the ritualist called Mike it is either that he’s the kind of guy who goes out of his way to stay incognito, or that ritualists simply do not make that much money. Either way the low standard of the place makes it easy for Vahri to slip past the reception and up the stairs. The institution does not even come with an elevator.

She reaches the fifth floor without running into a single soul on the way up. Or, well, not counting the unremarkable apparition of a previous suicide victim hovering solemnly on the third landing, that is. It stubbornly ignores Vahri as she passes by, and she willingly returns the favour.

Getting into the room turns out to be a bit more tricky, but nothing she cannot handle. Apart from the mundane hotel door lock (which she picks easily enough using a couple of just as mundane tools) the ritualist has also cast some kind of arcane mumbo jumbo upon it. It takes Vahri a while to figure it out, but finally the door swings open before her. As she rises to her feet again she can’t help but feeling a spell of vain pride come over her. This ritualist might be dangerous, but his wards at least are no match to her.

She stands at the threshold and looks into the room. It is just as anonymous as she registered while scrying it, and the carpet is just as distastefully pink. And there lies the book, just as she knew it would. A part of her knows very well that this might definitely be an elaborate trap to lure her in – that the lock might have been easy on purpose and that the ritualist’s wards against scrying and finding might have been meant to fail all along. But as necessity knows no law, and as being careful is not really her game anyways, Vahri still steps into the room, picks up the book and quickly closes the door behind her.

It turns out to be a notebook bound in leather, the covers much more nondescript than what she would have expected from a guy whose everyday handgun looks like something drawn by a bored gothic monk on speed. But opening the book to its first pages she finds something else entirely.

Page after page is packed with scrawled notes, verses and illustrations, all done by hand in black and scarlet ink. The lets her eyes wander over the lines of the first few pages, but realizes almost at once that she will have to study the book more carefully and in peace before she’ll be able to make anything useful of it. She’s not a ritualist, after all, and many of the things that this Mike might find commonplace and self-evident she will have to decipher to understand.

She puts the notebook in her bag and starts investigating the room. The clean and impersonal state of it definitely lends credibility to the idea of a person who wants to stay under the radar, able to move on at the blink of an eye without leaving any trace. He has not left the room indefinitely just yet, however. She finds a laptop on the low table in front of the 90’s television set, and a small trunk of clothes and personal items next to the worn couch.

She opens up the lid of the computer and is surprised to see the screen immediately come to life. The computer has not been turned off by its owner before he left the room, but still requires a password to be unlocked. Not daring to sit down on the couch in fear of leaving traces of her visit, Vahri crouches beside the table and opens the screen all the way up. A yellow sticky note detaches from the slick surface where it has been sitting and falls onto the floor. Vahri quickly picks it up.

Boris Granger, the note says – and then a Nevada coded phone number.

She shrugs and puts the note inside the book in her bag, eager to get to work on the computer. The login screen has the picture of a dog in the background. Not your average stock photo, but what looks like a personal photography in slightly bad resolution. The dog is sitting on a porch and seems to be waiting for the photographer to throw it something. So Mike is a dog person, huh? Wouldn’t have guessed. She searchingly tries a couple of dog related passwords, but to no avail. This, however, comes as no surprise. This guy is not stupid. It will take more than that.

Instead she summons up the arcane forces to help her. She has done similar things before, magically “hacking” into Facebook accounts of high school enemies and internet haters, but she realizes at once that the ritualist has used more than secure passwords to protect his digital content. Just like the door, the computer is surrounded by some kind of magical ward that she cannot simply dispel using her own kind of magic. The powers practiced by ritualists are something else entirely from the forces used by mages, just as the powers of a Djinn are essentially different from those of a vampire. She’s going to need time to crack this protective spell – either that, or an exorcist.

Then, suddenly, she hears keys in the door. Someone is coming, be it Mike or somebody else. Either way it would be disaster for her to be found here. She flies onto her feet, reflexively grabbing the computer as she does. The door handle is pressed down halfway, then stops. Vahri doesn’t wait around to find out why. Instead she darts toward the window while thrusting the stolen laptop into her bag, together with the just as stolen notebook.

She pulls at the window handle, but it’s stuck. Vahri panics and forgets entirely about carefulness and magical principles stealth. She reflexively calls the magic to her fingertips as she bends the window to her will and forces it to yield. Just then she hears the door behind her start to creak open, and pulls at the window once more. This time, subdued by arcane forces, it swings up easily enough. She jumps out onto the rain coated metal landing of the emergency stairs and starts running downward.

The metal stairs rattle and shake at every step and the rain makes the stairs slippery. She hits her knee on a sharp edge but continues without pause. High above her she can hear a voice calling, but does not turn around. When she reaches the ground she continues running with unabated speed, the heavy bag thumping impractically against the back of her left leg all the while.

She does not know if anyone follows her, doesn’t dare to turn around and look. She also doesn’t dare steer directly towards her car, in case anyone actually does. Instead she takes a long and laborious detour, passing through several blocks before finally doubling back and returning to the obscured alley where she parked earlier.

Once she has thrown herself into the car and locked all the doors she hurriedly uses her magic to set up an obscuring shield around it. Anyone passing by the alley now will see nothing but crates and dumpster, and definitely not a burning red Ferrari with a terrified magician inside.

Shit, shit, shit.

She’s breathing heavily and her pulse just won’t slow down. Just thinking about what could have happened if the ritualist had caught her in his hotel room makes her want to throw up. Out on the field where she had beaten them and saved Chino, Mike and his companion had been on neutral ground. She had also had the element of surprise to her advantage there. She dares not think of the assortment of traps and advantages that could have been prepared in advance on their own home ground. Images from Devin’s horrible tale flashes before her, images of people like her being tortured, raped and eaten alive by the ritualist’s taskmasters. Images of those same things happening to her. She feels sick and has to sit there in the car for several minutes before the acute felling subsides.

She then starts the car and drives far away from the hotel. She doesn’t stop until she reaches a quiet suburb where she parks behind a closed down pizza restaurant. Not until now does she open up her bag to look at the items she’s retrieved from the hotel room.

She knows that all of the objects, but especially the computer, might be traced – if not by mundane means, then with the help of the arcane. Therefore the first thing she does is to secure and isolate them using the same magic techniques as those she has previously used on the stolen gun. The forces weave themselves around the items, one by one, and effectively shields them from scrying and tracking. Vahri hopes that this will prove to be enough.

Knowing that she will probably not be able to crack the computer tonight, she then picks up the notebook. The sticky note falls out, and she sticks it to the panel of the car for the time being. She’ll have a closer look at it later.

The notebook is, as she has already concluded, full of hand written notes, verses and messages – all to do, of course, with strange and complicated rituals. Vahri recognizes some of them, knows at least a couple of them to be warding and binding rites to be used upon the undead. On vampires, for example. She herself would not be able to use these rituals – not without long and extensive training, at least. Just like a fiddler will not be able to simply switch over to playing the cello – at least not Vahri, and she actually tried once – a magician, however talented, cannot just switch over to conducting the rituals of mortals. It just doesn’t work like that. Thus she is beginning to think that she won’t have much use for this notebook after all.

Well, I guess I could sell it back to him and earn some well needed cash, she mused sarcastically.

But then, turning through the pages at random, the suddenly comes upon a name she recognizes. Walter. There is a page in the notebook seemingly entirely dedicated to notes about someone who goes by that name – or Walter Isher, to be more precise. Stuck to the page with a paperclip is a black and white photo of a middle aged man dressed in coat and hat. It must be an old photo, she thinks. And when she turns it over she actually finds the numbers “1923” written in a faded, elaborate hand.

There is also a list on this page where every row is a piece of information about this man. “Grey hair, 7ft 20 tall, sharp nose, red eyes…”  Wait a second. Red eyes? Vahri realizes suddenly that this Walter must be a djinn, just like Chino. And she remembers now exactly where she has heard the name before, as well. The ritualist was pressing Chino for information about this man right before Vahri had rescued him. It must be the same guy.

So these people are really after an even bigger and badder djinn, and Chino and I just came in the way?

She relaxes slightly, daring for a moment to hope that this shitstorm just might pass above their heads if they’re really lucky. If the bounty hunters are after someone else, maybe they’ll leave once they find him. A disloyal thought, sure, but the Club really scares the shit out of her.

Beneath the list there is a short note, written hastily with another pen. “As soon as we have anything to report on this man, or if we manage to locate him, call B.G.” Then a drawing of a symbol that Vahri knows all too well by now – the symbol of the Club. Vahri’s eyes instantly go to the sticky note on the car’s panel. B.G. Boris Granger. So Boris works for the Club – or might he even be a member? Anyway he definitely seems to be the one who has hired these ritualist bounty hunters and sent them here.

An opening, finally. She has a name and a number to a person who is probably part of the Club in some capacity. This might be her way forward in her quest to find out more about this organization and hopefully outwit them before anyone she cares about comes to harm.

As she puts the book down in her lap and lets go of it to look at the sticky note, the pages fall open upon what seems to be the last entry up until now. Vahri reflexively looks down, and instantly freezes.

The entry is dated earlier this very day, and details a ritual with text and illustrations. But not just any ritual.

“We used the hair found in the djinn’s apartment. We mixed it with the blood of an early bird and murky waters from a restless sea. Then we said the secret words and drew the hidden symbols and uttered the djinn’s True name: Caesar Lino Salinas. It has been done. I will now be able to see and find him wherever he hides.”

Vahri starts trembling and the book falls back into her lap. The ritualist called Mike has performed a ritual directed at Chino in order to spy on him – not unlike the magic she used earlier to locate Mike himself. This is bad, really bad. Chino might lead the hunters to his friend Ivers, who will certainly in turn lead them to Neferthali and then straight back to Vahri herself. And her family. And in any case it’s just a question of time before Chino himself is attacked again. And this time the hunters will be prepared.

I have to do something. The ritual must be undone. Now.

And Vahri realizes that the only person she knows who might be versed enough in ritualist magic to actually undo it is in fact not that far away right now.

Gods bless you, Devin Murdock and your fucking ghosts, Vanessa thinks to herself as for the second time that day she dials the number to Seth Pascal.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-11-01


You can find the next part here.

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Into the Dark

Vanessa Riley’s problem wasn’t that she fell in love with idiots – it was that she fell in love with everybody. She only needed to talk to somebody for ten minutes to fall irrevocably head over heels. No wonder that the morons got to her; they were the ones that made the moves, after all. And to make things worse, she herself was not your average girl-next-door – nor was her family the most average of families. This fact, without a fault, tended to secure her the less-than-average moronic suitors as well.

The first one, not counting all the cute elementary school flings littering her back story like embarrassing piles of unicorn poop, had been a vampire. She had been fourteen years old, mesmerized by the writings of a certain Mrs. Rice and consequently swiped right off her feet by his charm, bottomless eyes and knowing, poetic voice as he spoke her name. It was an intense, crimson and incredibly sexy affair. She had given him her overrated virginity and lots and lots of blood. He had given her almost as much in return and promised to take her “into the night”, as he had so eloquently put it. The romance ended almost as swiftly as it had begun, with her mother finding out and chopping his head off with a rusty shovel – it being all that had been readily at hand in the heat of the moment.

Turned out, though, that he had a family of his own. Fierce old things that didn’t take lightly the death – much less murder – of one of theirs. The fact that his beheading, by some, was unfortunately interpreted as an escalation of the age old cold war between vampires and mages didn’t exactly make things better. The final price and outcome of this seemingly innocent high school romance thus became an increased enmity between two up until now passively warring factions, the violent death of her mother and the turning, as it was likewise eloquently termed, of her own twin sister. They haven’t spoken much since then.

After that she lived with her father for a time, long enough to finish high school. He and her late mother had already been divorced for some time before her death. However, due to him priding himself with having a werewolf somewhere far back in his lineage, nobody had deemed it necessary to intervene in the name of secrecy when their relationship ended. What this intervention would have meant, though, Vanessa didn’t learn until later – and then it was the hard way.

What she did learn at this time, however, was the complete, merciless and entirely uncensored truth about her unusual family tree. Vanessa had already been made aware of her mother’s abilities, that she had been a magician of some renown and that Vanessa herself was expected to someday develop some degree of powers of her own. She hadn’t been aware, though, of the fact that her mother’s family could trace their lineage as far back as ancient Egypt, and that as good as every generation up until now had sported their share of supernatural creatures. Those who never displayed any magical abilities of their own were quickly swept up by the vampires, changelings and ritualists surrounding the family at all times. Thus they had made themselves a name over the millennia, and thus the prospects of the normal life Vanessa Riley had always hoped for instantly seemed farther away than ever. But time had passed and Vanessa had made due and eventually learned to cope with the new state of her world.

Her second boyfriend, not counting all the high school one nighters littering her teens like secretly thrilling but forbidden cigarette buds, had been a magician himself. She had been almost eighteen and had fallen head over heels before his cunning eyes, sly smile and somewhat rough ways. Being finally together with someone who was actually allowed to know her family’s deepest secrets had been a great relief. Up until then none of her friends or partners – save for that one who “got away” – had been residents of the proverbial world of darkness that her own family of secret mages, werewolves and general misfits were a part of.

She could talk to him about all the things that confused and frightened her, and the fact that he was just two years her senior sat really well with her father. They shared one intense summer and then he went to prison. Not your usual, mundane prison, mind you. Rather it was the kind of prison where mages are sent if they, gods forbid, meddle with things more dark and dangerous than what is considered sound, safe and sane by the local coven leaders. The people who came for him made sure to perform thorough interrogations of Vanessa as well, but soon lost interest when it became clear that she hadn’t even awakened to her powers yet. Without them, it was impossible for her to have broken any arcane laws serious enough for them to care. She later learned that he had been exiled from the city, but by then she had already moved on.

Vanessa Riley’s third real boyfriend had actually been an ordinary, human guy. He was the same age as her and they met by chance through a language class they both took after finishing senior high. She was nineteen years old and had only three months earlier discovered that she could see people’s auras and read their minds. Her father had been delighted hearing about her powers, but also somewhat saddened. He had told her that before long the rest of the family would take interest in her and that she then might have to move on with her life – whether she wanted it or not. That this moving on would occur sooner rather than later, and that it would rip open the seams of a world she already believed entirely upside down, was nothing he had told her, though.

The ordinary guy’s name was Brian and when she was with him Vanessa could almost allow herself to believe in a normal every day life where the most groundbreaking thing that could happen would be the neighbours coming by for a cup of sugar. She stayed over at his place more and more frequently and was soon endowed with an empty drawer in one of his closets. They talked about enrolling to the same college, buying a car and skipping town, renting a flat and moving in together and many other things. It all felt so serious that one late and drunken night, as they lay gazing at the stars out on Brian’s balcony, Vanessa decided to tell him everything.

They were both drunk and when she began talking about telepathy, auras and mind control his first reaction was to laugh uncontrollably. She couldn’t help but to laugh as well, but when she realized that he thought the whole thing was a joke she stopped.

This is real”, she said. “I’m not fooling around.” She sat up and stared at him and eventually he stopped laughing as well – at least long enough to draw breath.

Okay, I hear you.” He had to fight back another fit of laughter before continuing. “So you can read minds and make people do stuff. And why haven’t I noticed this before?”

She sighed impatiently. “Because it’s a secret and I was afraid you would freak out. Besides, I learned to do these things only recently.”

At this he finally stopped laughing and managed a somewhat serious look. “Alright, babe. Show me. What am I thinking about?”

Me. You’re thinking about me.”

Well, okay, but that one was easy. What about now?”

You’re still thinking about me, stupid. But without clothes now. You’re also thinking about fish for some reason. Kinky.”

This made him pause, but only for a moment. “I don’t know how you did that, but come on babe, just admit that this is a joke so I can kiss you already.”

But it isn’t –” He reached for her and started pulling her closer, seemingly already haven dismissed the subject as a drunken prank.

She panicked. She had just opened herself up to him like she had never dared before, and here he was, on the edge of joking it all away. “Stop”, she said – and he did. Way to quickly.

Brian stared at her, frozen at an arm’s length’s distance. The terror in his eyes spoke for itself. “What the hell did you do?”

An icy hand gripped her spine. What did I do? What have I done? “I’m… I’m sorry, Brian. I –”

But he had already gotten to his feet and quickly backed away from her. “Don’t”, he said. “I don’t know what you did but I… I can’t…” He backed into the darkness of the apartment. She tried to follow but he held up both hands and shook his head violently. “No, please. Just don’t. I need to…” And with that he turned his back on her and fled out the door.

She stood in his dark living room for several seconds, just listening in shocked silence as his echoing footsteps disappeared down the stairwell and were finally cut off by the sharp sound of the main entrance closing far below. Not until then did she sink to the floor, collapsing in a sobbing pile and feeling the tears stream down her face.

They found Brian’s body the next day. She had fallen asleep on the floor of his apartment and did not awaken until she got the call. The policeman on the other end had gotten her number from her father and was empathetic but matter-of-fact when he told her that Brian was dead. He had been found in a park close to his home, lying under a bush with his neck broken. The police wanted to talk to her in person as soon as possible, seeing as she was possibly one of the last people who had seen him alive.

Vanessa was numb when the call ended and almost couldn’t bring herself to answering when her father called a few seconds later. He came to pick her up and the subsequent ride over to the police station was an eerily silent one. The investigators asked her about the night before, what they had done and why he had left home. She told them that they had fought over some trivial thing – couldn’t very well tell them the truth. They asked her many questions but in the end seemed to accept that she didn’t know anything about his potential enemies, debts or addictions.

On their way home in the car that evening her father tried his best to check on her, console her or at least make her talk. He failed on all three points. As they entered the driveway she still hadn’t spoken a word that wasn’t in reply to a direct question. She was in shock and walked through fog on broken glass. They walked into the house and her father went to the kitchen to make her some chamomile tea. Then he froze on the threshold. When Vanessa caught up with him and saw Her, the woman sitting on the couch, she wasn’t even surprised. She had never seen this woman before and still she knew who she was.

“Neferthali”, she said tonelessly. She didn’t have any tones left.

The woman nodded and rose. “It’s time”, she said and strode over to them, her crimson silk dress flowing behind her as she moved. Vanessa thought that her long raven hair reflected the darkness outside the windows.

“You, you can’t –” Vanessa’s father stuttered as he tried to speak.

“Yes, Jim”, the tall woman said. “I’m taking your daughter. It’s clear as day that you can’t handle her.”

And with that she grabbed Vanessa’s hand and walked her back towards the door. Vanessa tried to turn, to seek her father’s eyes, but Neferthali stopped and grabbed her chin. “You stupid girl, you don’t understand anything, do you? Running around and telling sleepers about the Family and all. Obviously you can’t even handle yourself.”

Her grip was firm as rock and Vanessa could do nothing but stare into those deep, dark eyes that had seen civilizations rise and fall. She shivered involuntarily. “I didn’t tell him about the Family”, she said, tears welling up in her eyes. Tears of shame that she didn’t herself know the origin of.

“No, but you would have”, the woman said. “It always starts this way, with a stupid little girl telling an almost as stupid boy about magic. The rest is history. That’s how it started with your mother and father, and that’s how it started for your mother’s parents before her. Were it not for your father’s animalistic heritage, I would gladly have killed him as well when that sad relationship ended. Yes, Jim”, she said and turned her head halfway towards Vanessa’s father for a split second. “That’s the truth and you know it.”

Vanessa’s father didn’t say anything, but Vanessa could see from the corner of her eye that he was gripping the door frame tightly and stared intently at them. She herself snapped out of her frozen state for a moment when Nerferthali took her ancient eyes of her.

“What… do you mean ‘as well’?”, she whispered.

Neferthali met her eyes again, absolute controlled calm emanating from her eyes. “Like I killed your sleeper boy last night, of course”, she said. No malice in her voice, no sadistic pleasure. Just coldly, calmly establishing a fact.

“You, you killed Brian?” Vanessa felt her legs go weak and her voice tremble as she uttered the terrible words. “You killed him. You.”

Neferthali nodded. “I did. He was leaving you and he knew too much. I had to.”

Vanessa felt the tears break forth again and could do, would do, nothing to prevent it. “He wasn’t leaving me. We would have worked it out. He would have come back, just needed… He just needed some time, that’s all.”

The ancient woman sighed – more as a rhetoric gesture than because she needed the air. “Maybe he would have. But he would have left again, he was a lost cause. Not made for this kind of darkness. You know this, Vanessa. You always did. And still you told him. This makes you the real killer, not me. I’m just protecting the family, like I have always done. I only wish your mother would have let me take you sooner. That would probably have left her alive to one day see you learn from your mistakes.”

So many thoughts, so many disturbing, provoking, heartbreaking concepts. Brian’s death her fault. Her mother’s murder and her sister’s turning just as much. Learn from my mistakes… Yes, she thought. Maybe they were all because of me. And the prospect broke her, pulled her apart with such force that she couldn’t even try to resist it. She would have fallen to the floor if her vampire godmother had let her. She who had, according to the family myths, guarded over her progeny for thousands and thousands of years.

Neferthali picked her up, cradled her in her cold, hard arms like a baby and carried her out through the door. Vanessa shook uncontrollably and her only anchor to sanity then and there was the vampire singing softly to her in a language lost to all but the dead and forgotten gods of yore.

And behind them inside the house her father let out a roaring bellow that was not of a human throat, but still dared do nothing to save his last living daughter from this creature older than modern time itself.

“His first change, finally”, Neferthali mused smilingly as she carried her young ward away. But by then Vanessa Riley had stopped listening to anything but blind panic a long time ago. And thus she was carried off into a night more dark and dangerous than what any coven leader, however hardened, would consider sound, safe and sane.

And that was only the beginning.


You can find part II of the story about Vanessa Riley here.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-05-24

Night Shift

It wasn’t really a party per se. More of a business like reunion between old friends with individual careers. And he wasn’t actually using as such – he just accidentally accepted some substances that were offered to him, that only later turned out to be slightly illegal. How was he to know that? He was frigging drunk for heaven’s sake. And last time he checked, that – at least – was something he was entitled to be whenever he so chose.

David tried telling all this to the police, but they didn’t listen to him and he was forced to spend the night in an embarrassingly small and unsanitary cell at the local station. Luckily, his feeling of hurt indignation at this didn’t last long. He fell into a drunken stupor almost right away and didn’t wake until morning.

He tried telling all this to his loving parents as well, but of course they didn’t listen either. Instead they told his older brother, who then called him for a long and provoking talk about life, choices and consequences. Then they sent him back to Edinburgh for the autumn semester in disgrace.

He would get no more money from them until he proved that he could make grown-up decisions, and they in no uncertain terms made it clear that they would send him to a boarding school in Berlin if he made one single mistake from here on. How unspeakably bothersome. Thinking about it, his current situation is actually all their fault.


There’s blood on David’s hands. Luckily, he’s professional enough not to have forgotten to bring the rubber gloves. Their blue surface stands in sharp contrast to all the red as he works the shivering flesh with his instruments. He’s read about this but never seen it being done – much less so done it himself. His heart races in pace with the man’s frantic breathing.

What’s taking you so long, man? He’s dying here, for fuck sake. What’s wrong with you? Glen told me you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” The short, smoking man pacing around with his gun drawn isn’t helping one bit.

Shut the hell up, can’t you see I’m busy?” He hopes his voice doesn’t give away his fear.

The man on the table screams. David can see the tall one, the inked muscle brute, stepping forth from the corner of his eye. “I’m not hurting him, I’m trying to find the bullet!” The fear is clear in his voice now and he is starting to sweat. Are they going to kill him if he’s not quick enough? But the man behind him stops. Towers just close enough that David can hear his heavy breathing. And then he sees it.

With a sigh of relief he starts working the bullet out of the injured man’s leg. The poor bastard should be given heavier sedatives, but this call was sudden and David didn’t have time to bring more than the very basics. Some aspirin and moonshine had to do. Now the man screams again and David is glad that the third guy is holding him down. Just as he gets a firm grip around the bullet and pulls, the doors of the warehouse are thrown open and all hell breaks loose.


Eddie whistles softly along with the music in his headphones as he makes his way down the corridor. He can’t afford Spotify so this is FM radio. He moves slowly, carefully. Wouldn’t want to miss a spot, this is a hospital and people would notice. Eddie is a helpful and empathetic person, everyone knows that. And hygiene and cleanliness are imperative in a place like this, he is doing important work. Or fuck it, who is he trying to fool? Everyone, apparently.

If people find out he works as a janitor here at night he will never hear the end of it – and that would be the end of it. Being a nightly cleaner at the same hospital where he does his medical training by day is not something he is proud about. The rest of his class come from wealthy backgrounds and probably have all their expenses covered by rich parents or impressive scholarships. Eddie has nothing, but they can’t know that. Can’t know that even though his school fees have already been paid by his parents, he’s forced to do this in order to afford living in Edinburgh at all. He has to make due and keep up the pretence.

He shivers as he thinks about what would happen if they found out – if David found out. David Cowen who is always so perfect, who has everything and knows everything. David who fits in so well and who has condescended to becoming Eddie’s best friend despite their severe differences. Eddie would die of shame if David found out about him cleaning toilets every night as the others study or party or do whatever it is the pretty people do when he’s not around. That would probably be the last drop that would make David give up on their friendship out of embarrassment once and for all.

Eddie quickly passes by the locked door of the main medicine storage. It has been cleaned once today already and doesn’t need another go. Only medical staff ever enter that door and the hospital is restrictive with giving out clearance to unlock it. And even though Eddie’s intern status gives him such clearance, as a puny janitor he certainly isn’t supposed to go there. He has heard rumours about stuff vanishing from in there the last couple of weeks, and he definitely doesn’t want to be connected with that.

He thinks about his parents as he doubles back through the corridor to get the cleaning supplies he left by the elevators earlier. A sting of shame always goes through his body when he remembers what they did for him. He can’t even relate to the size of the land they sold in order to pay for his education, to enable him to be here. It has been many generations since the Llwellyn family was actually wealthy, but this “investment” has probably sealed the line’s fate once and for all.

They say they’ll be able to buy everything back in time, but Eddie knows that’s just talk. They’re buying him a future and he’s too slow and stupid to make any good use of it. He can’t even read properly, for fuck sake. The letters just keep jumping around and he has to go over every page four times to make any sense of it at all. Thus far he’s made due in school by watching informative YouTube channels, but he knows they’re getting farther ahead of popular science every day. He’s already aware that there isn’t any video instructions online for the subject they’re going over next week. He’s screwed. He picks up the bucket and swears as dirty water sloshes over the edge and soaks his left pant leg. He’s really glad David isn’t here.


The pain is so severe that he can’t even think straight. There is chaos all around him and people are screaming in horror, anger and agony. The man on the table tried to rise, only to fall and hit his head on the concrete floor. He’s the only one not panicking right now. David certainly is. He’s been shot and the police are going to take them all away. Everything is over.

He pictures his parents’ faces as they find out about this. He can almost hear his brother William’s voice in his head, preaching to him about decency and morale. Hello, Berlin, he thinks bitterly as the short man with the gun is forced onto the floor by one of the armoured cops.

I am arresting you for armed bank robbery. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention…” David zones out, doesn’t want to hear the rest.

He crawls further in behind the stacked boxes he has thrown himself behind, hoping against all odds that they will not find him here. Then he sees the bloody trail his bleeding leg is leaving behind and all such hope dies. They’re going to think I’m one of them, a simple bank robber. The shame at the thought out voices the pain for a second and gives him new strength. And that is when he notices the door.

The crates have been stacked so high as to make the small back door invisible from within the room, but from this new vantage point it’s impossible to miss it. David crawls towards it as new gunshots echo on the other side of his fragile barricade. It’s only a matter of moments before the police get their maths together and realize one person is missing from the room. He has to act quickly.

He crawls the last couple of steps towards the door. It has a turning knob that looks rusty and he suddenly becomes afraid that he won’t be able to open it. He hears the muscle brute bellow something incoherent on the other side of the crates, followed by more gunshots. One of them goes straight through the crate to the left of David and burrows deep into the wall only inches above his head. His heart races and he has to collect himself before he even dares thinking about reaching for the knob. He has lost a lot of blood and his field of vision is shrinking with every shallow breath. I will go into shock soon and then everything will be over.

His brain starts replaying a myriad pieces of medical knowledge that he’d rather be blissfully unaware of right now. He doesn’t have a plan as he finally struggles into a sitting position and reaches for the door handle. It gives resistance as he tries to turn it, and for a moment he almost despairs. Please, please, please, open. Dying from blood loss outside would be a mercy compared to what will happen if the police catch me here, David’s exhausted mind contemplates. Then the knob gives in and he tumbles onto the wet asphalt outside.


He first met Glen Wilson at a bar. Not the kind of place that he usually visits, mind you, but none of the places he commonly frequents is the kind of establishment where he’d want to be seen drinking his brains out. The bar was called Alison’s and he’d found it by chance by following the sound of the loudest voices and the cheapest music from the old town square. He’d been desperate and lost and all he wanted then was to become so drunk that he wouldn’t remember why the morning after.

Alison’s was – is – a simple place for simple people. At least that’s the image the pub’s owner wants to uphold. But David didn’t know that back then – he didn’t know anything. This was six weeks ago and so much has happened since then. He got a table all for himself and the bartender – a fabulously beautiful girl with red hair with whom he would later fall hopelessly in love – brought him all the glasses he asked for without asking any questions of her own. Before the night was over he would be working for her father, as so many others in the bar. But, of course, he didn’t know that yet either. He just drank and drank, and then Glen Wilson showed up.

David can’t remember any more when he stopped paying for his own drinks that night, but somewhere along the way Glen took over the bill. Another thing he can’t remember is why he ever started telling this stranger in the grey beanie about his problems – but he did. Oh yes, he did.

“…and now my parents won’t pay for my medical studies any more. Or my apartment. Or my car. I’ll have to… you know, pay for it all myself. As if they were never high or whatever when they were young. Fucking hypocrites.”

And Glen agreed and poured him another drink. And another.

Must be hard on you, mate. I know how parents can be. Unreasonable, that’s the word. Wouldn’t you say?” Glen smiled crookedly and chewed on the unlit cigarette protruding from the corner of his mouth. David remember being fascinated by the fact that he did not light it. Everyone else at the bar was smoking openly.

Yeah, I know, right? As if I could work any common job, you know.” He laughed as if the mere thought of it was totally absurd. And it was. “Me, mopping floors? I don’t think so.” He downed another one and felt a brief surge of sulking satisfaction as he heard Glen laughing at his bizarre joke. At least someone understood the ridiculousness of his situation. When he lowered his glass he realised that Glen was looking straight at him, almost appraisingly.

What?”, David said, suddenly very aware of how drunk he really was.

I think I’ve got the perfect job for you, mate”, Glen said.

I’m not working at a bar”, David hurried to reply. “Or anything similar.”

No”, Glen said and his smile returned. “What I have in mind is something much more… in line with your current career choice, so to speak. I know my boss has need for that.”

This instantly caught David’s attention. He almost toppled over his glass as he leaned forward to listen. “I’m all ears”, he said and Glen’s smile broadened. And now he actually lit his cigarette.


He thinks about this meeting now as he floors the pedal of his too expensive car and wishes for the best. He knew so little back then, he was so naive. Somewhere he always knew this day would come – he was just stupid enough to think it was far in the future. Now he knows better.

Reality is a bitch and she was always out to get him. Life isn’t fair. He is being abused by everyone and still has to clear out this mess himself – even though he has done nothing to cause it. This isn’t fair. But so be it. If you want something done you’d better do it yourself. I’m obviously getting nothing for free here, he thinks as he turns to fast onto the parking area of the huge glowing building. And then the car crashes into the damn willow tree and the world grows even more painful.


Eddie walks slowly towards the basement locker rooms after leaving his supplies in all the proper places. The music in his headphones has been interrupted by a news broadcast and now they are going on about some kind of bank robbery and a police shoot out in the harbour. He turns down the volume.

He keeps all his clothes and things down here, even by day. No point in moving stuff around when all his days end in the cellar catacombs anyway. Sometimes he is forced to pretend using his upstairs locker like all of his class mates, but it still only contains his unused extra scrubs. The things we do for the guise of normality, he muses as he rounds a corner and sees the blood.

He freezes in his tracks. Forgets to breathe for a second or two. He steps forward carefully, his heart racing. This wasn’t here half an hour ago. Someone is here. The dark trail starts right in front of the emergency exit and stretches on into one of the basement’s many narrow corridors.

Apart from the apparent drops and slide marks there are also footsteps in that red substance. Dark hand marks on the left corridor wall jump out at Eddie in the eerily flickering halogen light, making him think suddenly of a thousand bad horror movies. Except this isn’t a movie.

He stares, realises that he has stepped in one of the red puddles and quickly takes a step back. His indoors slippers leave even more bloody marks on the floor and he wants to throw up so badly that he can barely hold it back.

But I’m a doctor, a part of Eddie reminds himself. I’m a doctor, and someone is injured. Someone who has come to the hospital but used the wrong entrance. Yeah, that must be it. Eddie starts walking carefully into the corridor, following the bloody trail. He’s going to help whoever is at the end of it. What kind of doctor would he be otherwise?

Or it is a junkie, another part of him counters suddenly. The same junkie who has been looting the medical closet for weeks has returned for yet another hit. But this time he has cut himself on something and is bleeding to death. He probably has a gun – and maybe Aids as well.

Eddie stops. Tries to breathe calmly. This was not what he signed up for when he started working these shifts. Not at all. He picks up his phone and dials the emergency number. Keeps his thumb on the green button that will hopefully connect him with all the king’s men – and their aunt – before whoever is down here jumps out from the shadows to drink his blood. But for some reason he doesn’t press it.

Instead he follows the trail around a corner and sees it end in front of the door to one of the old disused shower rooms. He slowly approaches the door. Now he can hear someone breathing heavily, painfully inside. This someone is in deep pain, maybe dying. Eddie is the only person here. He opens the door and then he can do nothing but stare.

He stares at the man sitting on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood, digging in his own leg with a pair of pliers. For a moment he doesn’t understand what he is seeing. Who he is seeing.

David?”, he stammers. This can’t be real. But it is.

David Cowen looks up at him with shock and fear almost outshining the expression of pain on his face. Their eyes lock for an eternal moment, both terrified about secrets finally out in the light.

Eddie”, David whispers finally. “Help me.” And then he collapses onto the floor, blood still pouring from the gunshot wound in his left leg.


David is dreaming about Bethan Carlingham. Her red hair is all around him and she whispers his name again and again. In this moment he feels completely safe and doesn’t give a single fuck about the stupidity inherent in secretly dating the one daughter of Edinburgh’s most dangerous mobster boss. He simply doesn’t care right now. He’s whispering to her that he’s going to save her. Take her away from all of this, far away. Just like that guy in “My Fair Lady”. She deserves so much better, he just has to sort out his economy and finish his studies. He’s not afraid of her father. Not now, not here. Trevor Carlingham can’t touch him here, because… Because…

David!” He opens his eyes slowly, groggily. That’s not Bethan.

Eddie stands over him with a worried look on his pale face. David can’t remember what has happened. He’s lying on a bed in a room he recognises all too well for Eddie to be here.

What are you doing in my apartment?”, he says and tries to sit but falls right back down, struck by a fit of nausea.

I saved you”, Eddie says sternly. “I plucked that bullet out of your fucking leg and patched you up. What the hell were you thinking? A bullet, David. A bullet.

David just stares at him. Doesn’t know what to say.

Eddie shakes his head. He’s angry, frustrated. “You’ve been shot, David. Who did this to you and why? And why the hell didn’t you go straight to the emergency entrance? Why did I find you bleeding to death in the basement?” He’s not pale any more

Things are starting to come back to David now. About the late night call, about the warehouse, about the four men. The bank robbers. He shivers, his head spins. What the fuck should I tell him?

He clears his throat and swallows hard. “Because I… I couldn’t risk it”, he says finally.

Eddie looks like he is inches away from hitting him across his face. “You couldn’t risk it? Oh, okay. But you could risk dying in a nasty shower hall, now could you? Well, in any case we’re going back to the hospital now. I don’t even understand why I let you convince me to drive you here in the first place.”

David doesn’t even remember convincing him, but he knows he can be pretty persuasive so that’s probably true. He definitely doesn’t want to go back to the hospital. He can’t. That would ruin everything. “No”, he says. “We can’t go back there.”

Oh, and why is that?” The question is rhetorical – Eddie is already reaching to drag him up from the bed. David feels the desperation welling up from inside. I can’t go there –

…because of the –


Eddie has stopped in the middle of a motion. I can’t have heard that right, right? “The… police?”

But David nods. Sinks back into the pillow with a defeated look on his face. “Yeah, the police.”

And why would the police be looking for you?”

A heavy silence drapes itself over the room, over the two of them. Eddie can see how something in David’s eyes gives in, surrenders. David takes a deep breath and then he tells Eddie everything. About the job offer from Glen Wilson, about the stolen drugs, about the shady medical services he has been performing for cash in downtrodden apartments, garages and back rooms the past six weeks. About tonight. He tells Eddie how Wilson called him around ten at night to order him out to the old warehouse where he met up with the fleeing bank robbers.

Eddie is speechless. “So you helped… the bank robbers? The ones from the news?” Of course it’s the ones from the news. How many frigging banks have been robbed tonight, stupid?

David stares at him. “Yeah, I helped them. They couldn’t very well drop by at the hospital now, could they? Oh, hello, I’ve just been shot. Nothing weird about that. A robbery? No, kind sir, we don’t know nothing about that. Now please stitch me up if you’d be so kind. We’ve got some stuff in the car that we’d like to get home with as soon as possible.”

Eddie shakes his head in disbelief. Was David always this stupid, deep down? “And then they shot you?” He holds up his hand when David tries to interrupt him. “David, we must get you to the hospital. You’ve lost a lot of blood and I’m not sure I’ve done all the right things with the wound. And we have to call the police. Seriously, David. You can’t go on protecting these people after they–”

They didn’t shoot me, Eddie. The police did.”

Eddie meets his gaze and suddenly he understands everything. All the pieces fall into place. The basement, the pleading, David’s crashed car at the back of the hospital.

Eddie can’t stop shaking his head. “You stupid mother fucker”, he says silently.

David hesitates. “And, Eddie, there’s another thing.

No, Eddie thinks. No, there’s not. But he doesn’t say anything. Just waits for David to spill the last of it.

I owe these people money, Eddie. I have to keep working for them, they expect me back tonight.”

You can’t work tonight, David”, Eddie says. “And you’re definitely not working for them.”

No”, David says and for a moment Eddie almost believes that he is listening to him. Then that delusion shatters. “No I can’t. You have to help me, Eddie. You have to step in for me.”


He sees Eddie go from shocked to angry to really fucking mad in just a matter of seconds. He listens as he argues, as he tries to reason with David. As he curses and pleads and finally runs out of things to say. And through all of this David is absolutely calm. The initial terror at having revealed his secret has faded, replaced by a feeling of relief at not being alone any more.

And he is entirely content with Eddie yelling at him, because he knows that he will help him in the end. That’s just who Eddie is. And no matter what Eddie thinks right now, David is actually doing him a favour by bringing him into his business. I mean, does he really work as a janitor? Bitch please, you’re going to thank me before this is over.

Then his phone rings.


Eddie falls silent as David answers his phone, right in the middle of his rant. Was he even listening at all? The anger wells up again as David ignores him for the caller, but vanishes in a heartbeat as he hears David utter his name to the person on the other end of the line. Then he hands Eddie the phone.

I think you’d better take this”, he says. “Wilson wants to talk to you about tonight.”

And Eddie wants so badly to kill David right now. To strangle him with his bare hands. To take the phone and throw it straight into David’s face. David can see this in his eyes, but they both know that Eddie won’t do it. He’s too caring for that. Too empathetic and helpful. Their eyes lock for a moment – then Eddie accepts the phone.

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-03-09

They Are Always Watching

This story has taken me several months to write. I’m going through a pretty heavy dip right now and inspiration is a scarce commodity. Therefore I am doubly happy with at long last being able to produce something creative. Feel free to comment, I’d love to hear your feedback.


She was singing when they found her. The forest was dark and the swamp was hungry. The small shape on the log almost blended with the humid and murky night crawling forth from beneath rocks and amongst drooping branches. But only almost, because murky nights do not sing pentatonic songs in seven disparate languages under perfectly aligned stars – and neither do they commonly come in the shape of a five year old child.

Later, the Pascal women always told her about the knowing darkness in her eyes as she watched them approach. Later they told her that the first words she uttered after she ceased singing and they stopped one man’s length away from her and asked for her name was a warning in perfect French.

“Fear”, she said as she turned to face them. “All of them are watching.”

Then she slumped from the log and into the water as if invisible strings had been suddenly cut from her naked body. When next she awoke in a warm bed and with seven silent and wondering women standing over her she did not speak a word of the languages they had heard her use in the midnight forest. She did not speak a word of any language at all.

They taught her French and magics and the ways of men and she was a quick learner. With the ease and efficiency of someone taking in knowledge for the second time she picked up on everything they told and showed her until she could barely be told apart from any other child her age in New Orleans – save for the magic of course.

But if her saviours had been hoping to learn the mystery behind this child when at long last she was able to speak, they were soon to be dreadfully disappointed. For at the very same rate as she was learning new words and names and customs, her memories of what had passed before drifted from her memory. In the end even she could barely tell herself apart from the other children – save, of course, for the magic and the fact that most other children knew at least one of their parents.

Her seven mothers slowly learned to be content with not knowing, with silently fearing whatever it was the child had warned them about but would apparently never be able to explain further. With time they almost learned to forget that she was more and less than other children, and that they had initially doubted whether or not she was really human at all.

Her seven mothers endowed her with many names, one at a time, but none of them stuck. They all glanced off of her like mercury poured on ice. They were all girls’ names and she didn’t listen to them because she was not a girl, and in the end her seven mothers gave up and let her decide. The name she chose for herself was Seth, and before long none of the seven Pascal women could even understand how they had ever thought of any other name for this child.

They wanted her to let her hair grow long, just like theirs, but she always kept it as short as the blade of a sharpened knife would allow. They wanted her to wear flowing skirts and ornate jewelry just like them, but she chose to dress simply and practically and never wore any symbols or signs that rigorous and concentrated study had not made her choose to really believe the meaning of. Some of the superstitious symbols worn by her seven mothers she made the choice never to don at all. She made her own choices and her own way and her only regret was her inability ever to remember what she had been before she was a dark eyed human with olive coloured skin.

That starlit night was long ago, but the dark eyed child was me.

I repeatedly catch myself thinking about stars as I make my way down the rain soaked pavement below oh so many blankly staring windows reflecting the cloudy night sky. I decided long ago that I am not a star, that I might once have been many things but never that. However, the stars have always fascinated me. If I were only able to hear their music and musings, I am positive that I would like it.

I see a glowing point rising on the sky before me like a shooting star in reverse, and from beyond the heavy clouds I hear the thunder of a roaring engine. My bag is not heavy but still I am weary of carrying it. I hurry to the waiting cab fighting off the warm rain with frantically dancing screen wipers. The airport behind me never sleeps, but I long to crash into bed and not wake for days.

The backseat of the taxi is warm and smells like too much subtle perfume. I need no psychic powers to tell that we are being followed. If I knew that I had something to gain from it, I would bet my left eye on the pursuer being the same man I have spotted several times on my journey here from Los Angeles. I don’t like his vibe, nor his suit, and would rather just return home, hoping for my intuition to be nothing more than paranoia this time. But I know better, and I’m not so stupid as to lead a fox straight into a rabbit hole. So I tell the driver to turn left and left again.

The forest is dense and the darkness is scraping against the sides of the car like soft, slender fingers clad in heavy velvet. Looking out through the rear window I can see the headlights of the other car illuminating the trees from behind a bend in the broken road. Not so smart, this one. That, or entirely confident in his own ability to take down his prey even without being in the least discrete. Possibly – probably – both.

I almost feel sorry for the driver, I know he didn’t sign up for this. But such is life, that you seldom or never get exactly what you bargain for or deserve. I calmly ask him to stop the car, pay him what he is due and then step out into the night. I leave my bag in the trunk and when the driver tries to remind me of it I give him one of those glances and he is off along the road again. I shouldn’t do that to people, I think. I really shouldn’t.

The light from the cab isn’t even entirely gone behind the trees before the road is again lit up, by a colder type of light this time. It is almost as if the headlight of the pursuing car reflect the aura of the man behind the wheel. I don’t know enough to estimate his abilities, but still I wait by the tree line a few more seconds to make sure that he spots me. Just before the anonymous car comes to a halt on the rocky forest road I start making my way into the woods.

There is no path here but I can hear the trees and the moss and the breath of the rocks on the ground. I need no light in this place, I don’t know why but I suspect it has something to do with me once having been born under these crowns and amidst these trunks. I am in no hurry, I can hear him too as he stumbles forward through the vegetation. He is probably armed but shouldn’t be able to get a good shot just yet. Maybe I should be afraid, but I’m not. Because somehow I feel I know something that he doesn’t.

He doesn’t gain on me and I keep on going. I wonder who he is, why he wants to hurt me. Because I can feel clearly that he wants to do just that. If he wanted to kill me he could have done so much more easily many times on our journey here. He wants something else, but it isn’t something good. Not for me at least. Then I wonder suddenly if he, too, can hear the song of the stars, or if it’s just me.

And then I step into the clearing and the darkness gives in to the soft illumination of the moon and the glowing clouds and the singing stars. I don’t know where I lost my shoes but now my naked feet tread softly upon the moist moss and the shiny rocks in the dark puddles. When I get to the middle of the clearing I can feel his eyes and his gun on me. I brace myself and turn around.

“Did you really think that you could run from me?” His voice is as neutral as his ashen suit and nondescript features. The only thing alive about him is the light reflecting off the worn silencer fastened to his weapon.

“No”, I say. I really didn’t think so. I watch him choose a better stance upon the porous ground without taking his eyes off me for even a second.

“Good”, he says. “Do you know who I work for?”

I shake my head. I don’t know. I want to tell him that neither do I care, but maybe that would be pushing it too much.

He seems to be looking at me, but in reality I know that he is looking down on me. He knows that I cannot run, he knows that he can afford to slightly prolong this finale of his victorious hunt.

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” I feel strangely calm and this is not really a question.

He laughs softly, falsely, imperiously and almost invisibly shakes his head. “No, I’m not. I am going to subdue you and put you in the trunk of my car. If you force me to I will hurt you, but I’d rather not. That would probably take away from the sum I can get for you. But make no mistake, damaged goods is much preferable to no goods at all.” And I can hear that this is hubris talking, in this place of all places.

“Goods? What is this, some kind of trafficking?”

He nods and smiles viciously. Takes one step forward on the swampy ground. “In a way, yes, you could say that. The people I deliver to pay well for exotic specimens like yourself – not entirely human but not entirely not, either. Or your friend in L.A. I’m sure you’ll want to tell me all about him in a couple of hours.”

I feel cold suddenly. Not frightened, just cold. “The Enjoyment Club”, I say.

He stops two men’s length away from me, a surprised smile spreading across his face and his gun still trained on my forehead. “So you have done your homework. Good girl”, he says.

“I’m not a girl”, I say softly.

“What?” But he doesn’t care for me to repeat myself. Instead he starts walking again, talking to me in a calm voice all the while. Like a mendacious predator striving to lure its prey into a false sense of safeness before going in for the kill. “The Club love their little treats of vampires or werewolves or maybe even the odd djinn every once in a while. The rarer the better – and the more expensive. You’re going to make me rich, little witch.”

“I’m not a witch either”, I say and start backing away from him.

“No?” He laughs softly and follows. “Not a girl and not a witch. What are you then?” He is so close now that I can see straight into his eyes and detect all the truths hidden in them about what he plans to do with me. The Enjoyment Club consists of ruthless humans with way too much money, time and arrogance on their hands. They feast on paranormal creatures in every thinkable and unthinkable way before disposing of them in ways that are probably just as unspeakable. This man works for them, and he is planning to make a fortune by selling me to those human monsters. I can hear the stars singing clearly now as the clouds are dispersing.

“I am Seth Pascal, a freelancing priest”, I say and stop. We are in the middle of the clearing now and both ankle deep in murky water. I can feel the cold mud and soil and moss beneath my naked feet.

He reaches me in one big step and puts his gun to my forehead. The metal is cold and resonates with anger and excitement. The look on his face is one of victory, he know that he has me now.

“Witch, priest, potato potato”, he smirks. “You have nowhere to run now, little girl. But don’t you worry, I’m sure they won’t eat you or make you into a rug. With those dark eyes and slim body you’re probably gonna be put to much livelier work.”

I meet his gaze along the barrel of his gun and see him flinch involuntarily. Underneath my cold feet the ground is stirring restlessly, boiling and throbbing deep down in the nameless darkness. He hasn’t felt it yet.

“Aren’t you afraid?” He tries on one of those patronizing smiles but it doesn’t quite go with the glint of sudden fear in his eyes.

I shake my head slowly, the barrel of his gun moving together with my forehead. I am cold, but not afraid. Because the ground is pulsating beneath my feet and a memory has come to me suddenly. I smile, broadly.

“What?”, he says and darts a glance around the clearing. “What’s so funny? Remember what I said, I will hurt you if you try to pull something.”

I form the long unused words with my mouth, trying them, tasting them. I realize that I like the taste and smile even wider. He knows so little about the world, this little man with the gun.

“What? What?” He is yelling now, his finger trembling on the trigger. “What did you say?”

I look up at the congregation of stars gathered above the clearing, listen to the last stanza of their thundering crescendo and then lock my eyes with his once more.

“Fear”, I say calmly. “Because all of them are watching.”

He opens his mouth to say something, but before he can form the words the heart blood of the clearing, of the world, boils over and gushes up to engulf him. He screams as smoldering mud and soil and water explodes all around him, melting his skin and crushing his bones. He fights for his life against the earth that crashes into his eyes and his ears and his mouth. It fills his lungs and smothers him. He whimpers, he cries and sobs as he is pulled down into the mossy water, before the pressure from inside his soil packed lungs becomes too much and they explode in a cascade of blood and mud spurting forth from his mouth and his nose. He struggles pathetically in the shallow water for half a heartbeat before finally he becomes still and the hungry clearing devours him entirely. The surface in front of me calms instantly and all that remains of him is a speck of oil and dark blood floating silently on top of the murky water, and the worn silenced pistol lying uselessly where he dropped it in the dark moss.

I pick up the gun and turn it in my hands. He was never going to kill me, but there are things worse than death and that was the fate he had in store for me. I wonder how many people and unpeople he has wounded or murdered with this gun. I put it in my deep pocket, not wanting to desecrate this place by leaving it here.

The clearing is silent, but I know that it is not empty. They are all watching. The memory that felt so lucid and clear just moments ago is slipping. I try to hold onto it, but I know that the struggle is useless. I remembered briefly because I was told to, by the stars or by the forest or the darkness, I don’t know. And I realize that the loss of this memory is perhaps what makes me human, what allows me to carry on this sort of existence. The thought strikes me that maybe my oblivion is a gift, and that without it I would become again the something that was once found here, in this very clearing, and was made human only through the care and love and teachings of seven mortal women. Perhaps forgetting was a choice I once made by my own volition, in order to become what they wished me to be. Perhaps I made that very same choice again just moments ago. I wouldn’t know, because I cannot remember anymore. I stare into the darkness between the trees and wait for an answer, but there is none.

With the gun weighing down my right pocket I then turn around and make my way back across the clearing. I don’t need to watch my footing, the ground tells me where to tread. I watch the stars, listen to them, but they are silent now. I enter the woods and feel roots and thorns caressing the soles of my feet. When I reach the road I seat myself behind the wheel of the dead man’s car and narrowly turn it around. The headlights cut like knives through the old darkness and I turn them off. I don’t need them right now. I floor the pedal and make my way back to the airport from whence I came. The man who got eaten by the world spoke about my friend in Los Angeles, and I know that I have to warn him.

My name is Seth Pascal. I am a freelance priest who wears no symbols that rigorous and concentrated study has not made me choose to believe the meaning of. Other than that I wear the mark of every plausible god and deity just to be sure, and I know the incantations and rites of every religion commonly known to man. I never curse, because you can never be sure who is listening, and I am up for hire by anyone who needs my services – whatever faith they might follow.

Apart from that there is much that I don’t know about myself, about who I am and what I was before I was human. But the thought doesn’t scare me as much as it used to and I don’t feel as lonely anymore. Because at least I know one thing, and what I know is this: They are always watching.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-02-06

#5.3

This is a short chapter from the novel I’m currently proof reading and editing. It’s originally in Swedish, but I translated this part. I know it won’t make much sense without a context, but I couldn’t help myself. Enjoy! 😉


 

The same kind of darkness, the same night. An entirely different room. The walls of the office: stained wooden paneling. The desk: dark oak, probably antique. The style otherwise: so super modern that the wooden details felt like stylish design decisions. Getting inside had not been difficult; the man who owned the office had paid well for his murderer’s education. Soon he, too, would be dead.

Malcolm hadn’t even bothered to hide. This time he had removed the light bulb from the lamp in the ceiling, and the shadows along the walls did the rest of the job. When the sounds of traffic from outside were joined by those of footsteps on the stairs and the rustling of keys, he didn’t even feel nervous. If any feeling at all pierced through his concentration, it was excitement.

The man who opened the door didn’t even look around. With hurried, purposeful steps he moved over to the desk and started unlocking one of the drawers. His movements were stiff, irritated. He had received a call about an hour ago, the higher ups wanted a report. Tonight. He didn’t like being ordered around like this – if they only knew who they were dealing with. He would have liked the situation even less had he known who was really behind that call – and who was now slowly shutting the door behind him.

A click. The man turned around.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Malcolm smirked at him from the shadows. “I’m here to report. Samuel Edmunds is dead, just as you ordered. In his hotel room after the conference. No surviving witnesses.”

The man just stared at him for several seconds. Then he took a step forward. “Are you out of your fucking mind? You cannot come here. You’re not supposed to come here. You know perfectly well how our communication is supposed to work. Are you aware of the risk you have put me in by –”

Malcolm calmly cocked the gun he was holding at his side. The man stopped dead. Something in his eyes changed.

“Take it easy”, Malcolm said. “I’m perfectly aware of the risk I’m putting you in by coming here tonight. The question is, are you?”

The man cleared his throat. Struggled hard to retain his authority. Failed fatally. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you threatening me? Do you have any idea what I could do to you? You are nobody, and I know everything about you. Everything. If you try to pressure me in any way, I will –”

“I’m not here to pressure you for money”, Malcolm replied. “But you do have a point. You know way too much about me, and that is why we are standing here.”

“Does Nicholas know that you are here?” Fear now, in his eyes and in his voice.

Now Malcolm laughed, he could not help himself. “I strongly doubt that.”

One second of silence. Hesitation, insecurity. He cannot read me. Has no idea what I am planning.

”Listen”, the man said finally. The voice was mimicking that of a confident man, but not very convincingly so. “Nicholas doesn’t need to know about this. In fact, nobody needs to know. If you want to talk retainer, then let’s do that. A phone call or a middle man would of course have been better, but now that we are–”

Malcolm slowly shook his head and the man’s voice trailed off. “We are not going to talk retainer. Actually, we are not going to do anything together at all. I am going to shoot you in the head, and you are going to drop dead on top of that overvalued carpet. Then I am going to take that sheet with account information that you are holding in your hand and walk away.”

The man swallowed hard. His eyes darted nervously. ”This is insane, and you know it. My colleagues will send people after you. You’ll not stand a chance if you do this.”

“Well, yes I will”, Malcolm said. “But only if I pay them a visit as well.” Then he raised his gun and did exactly as he had promised.

With the bloodstained and unbelievably valuable sheet of paper tightly clutched in his hand he then hurriedly left the office. He had two more men to visit before sunrise, and several bank accounts to empty. He still wasn’t entirely sure that he knew what he was doing, but it was too late to back out now. Come morning he would be free, but before that he would have to file a letter of resignation signed in blood. There was no time for hesitation – Nicholas had taught him that.