Hell Or High Water | 4-II

It took me a second to distinguish the corpse from the mud that surrounded it.

It lay face-down, on the very edge of the water, feet and calves being routinely submerged and then exposed again as the murky water rolled in and out. It looked like it had been underwater for a while: the flesh had the same pruney texture you get from staying in the bath for too long, but cranked up to eleven, and it was severely discoloured and bloated, purples and greens and browns and every other colour that instinctively made you think of bruises and decaying flesh. The suit it had been wearing was in marginally better shape, mostly just sodden and mud-covered, but it had begun to fray around the edges, and blood stained the top of the white dress shirt.

The shattered, half-missing skull, I was pretty willing to attribute to other causes.

“Jesus,” I muttered as we approached the second barrier of tape that surrounded the body. “What the hell did that?”

“If we knew that,” Terry replied tiredly, “then we’d be doing a lot better than we are.” He gestured at one of the two figures in the HVAC suits, and they began trudging through the mud over to us.

“Who were they?” I asked, gesturing towards the corpse. “Do we know?”

“We do,” he nodded. “Olympia Gianni. On paper, she’s an accountant for a legal firm called Heracles. In practice, she’s one of the Lebanese mob’s top people – not quite Family, but close enough.” That explained the suit, I guess. “We’ve had tabs on her for a while as a rising star, so to speak. A lot of involvement in bigger and bigger deals, a lot of money passing by her, and at least one disappearance that we can say pretty confidently she’s responsible for, although we couldn’t prove it in court.”

“And now she’s dead,” I said grimly.

“And now she’s dead,” he confirmed. “Like I said, the river’s covered up a lot of detail, but currently we estimate that she’s been in there for about six days.”

“So not off to a great start, then.”

“What? Why?” Sorayah asked. “I mean,” she clarified as we both looked at her, “I can figure out the basic shape of it, I’m not that stupid. I was just wondering specifically what you meant in this case. The details, I guess. The reasoning.”

“Yeah, I get you, don’t worry.” I glanced over at Terry, who made a little ‘go on’ gesture. “Okay, as we’ve already established, I’m not an expert or anything, so I might get some of this wrong. There’s a rule of thumb with… kidnappings, I think – if you get more than 48 hours from time of abduction, then it’s not really a kidnapping case any more so much as a homicide one.” Sorayah covered her mouth, looking sick.”Yeah. Murders are different, obviously, but the same principle still applies. The longer the gap between the time of death and the discovery of the body is, the more room the killer’s had to navigate, to get away, to clean up things or to shore up an alibi. Even beyond that, natural processes make the odds of getting usable evidence smaller and smaller as time goes on.” I clicked a few times, before looking to Terry for confirmation. “Did I miss anything?”

“Not bad,” he said with a small smile. “We’ll make a detective of you yet.”

“Ugh,” I groaned, “don’t even joke about that, please. I just want to get back to helping middle-aged white ladies prevent their dogs getting out and living off of Chinese takeout and bakery end-of-day sales.”

“Ooh, did I hear someone say ‘end-of-day’ sales?” The figure that Terry had waved over was now close enough that their face was visible through the plastic visor of the suit, and they gave us all a big toothy grin. “Me, I like the donut shops, cause honestly they taste a lot better when they’re a little stale.”

“June, Sorayah,” Terry said with exasperated humour, “this charming lady is our coroner’s assistant-

She stuck out a gloved hand. “Vimean Mak,” she said cheerily, muffled through the suit. “You can call me Vim, though.”

It seemed like it would violate some sort of procedure to shake her hand, so I just held up my hand in greeting instead. “June Young, like he said, and this is Sorayah Khan. Mak – that’s Cambodian, right?”

She winked. “Laos, but close! Most people guess Singapore. Sometimes Indonesia but like, white people, so.”

“Vimean,” Terry interrupted, “Wisemann and I have to attend to other cases, so these two are going to be handling this from here. Run them through what you have?”

“Oh, um, sure?” She seemed caught off-guard by that, but recovered quickly. “Yeah, sure, okay. Come on, then; lets get you suited up-”

I’d already begun to pull a pack out of my bag, and showed it to her. It was a disposable cap, pair of gloves, mask, and set of booties, all inside a sealed bag. “Will this do?”

“Let me check.” She twisted her head around, towards the other suited figure. “‘EY, TAFFY!” They turned towards us, irritation clear in their posture. “DO THEY NEED FULL SUITS TO COME HAVE A LOOK?”

We couldn’t hear it, but it was very obvious that they sighed heavily, then shook their head.

“Dope,” she grinned. “‘Aight, lets go get corpsed up! See you round, Terry?”

“Good luck,” he said, more to us than her.

I bit back on the snark that I’d almost gone for instinctively. “Yeah, you too.”

“So,” Mak asked as we trudged down to the shore, my plastic booties crunching strangely as I walked, “can I ask what your, like, job is?”

“One hell of a question, honestly. Technically, I’m a wardlayer.”

“That sounds like it’s got one hell of a ‘but’ attached.”

I snorted, waving a hand around us. “I’m at a crime scene, so yeah. How about you, then? A ‘coroner’s assistant’ doesn’t usually do this much talking, do they?”

“Oh, the verbosity is all me, baby. But yeah, nah, Taffy’s not really the ‘explaining things’ or ‘being polite’ or ‘interacting with other people at all’ kind of person, so I end up doing most of that stuff. They’re pretty good at the other parts, though, so I guess it all evens out.” The person in question stomped past us with a grunt, carrying sample bags as he headed towards the truck. “Love you too!” Mak called cheerily at him over her shoulder.

I decided not to push it, and instead leaned down to inspect the body. None of my early observations bore out false on closer inspection, and now I could see that not only had the head been shattered, but it was also empty. “What’s cause of death?”

“Well, it wasn’t heart failure, I’ll say that much,” she joked. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. Honestly, we’re having a bit of trouble figuring that part out. I mean, obviously, she died because a big chunk of her brain got removed, but like, how, you know?”

“…yeah? I know?” God, she was weird.

“…I definitely don’t,” Sorayah said, bemused. “It looks like she’s been shot, doesn’t it?”

“Man, you’re a great Watson!” Mak exclaimed, beaming.

“…thank you? I think?”

“So yeah,” she continued, “that’s definitely what this looked like at first. Some kind of high-calibre round, straight to the dome. Burrt, we checked up some ballistics tests we had on file, and the pattern of the fracturing doesn’t match any sort of ammunition or weapon we know about, and, when you start looking at the commonalities, doesn’t look like a bullet at all. Also, from the shards that we recovered, the fracture pattern is too… even, I guess. It doesn’t look like it splintered outward from a bullet, or even from a blunt force injury. It’s closer to what we’d expect from someone who’d fallen onto concrete, except that to get this result the flesh would’ve needed to be peeled away first.”

“That’s… not impossible,” I mused. “Corpse could’ve been mutilated, then dropped, then thrown in the river?”

“Mmm, it’s a possibility? But I can’t really think of how you’d get,” she pointed at some of the strands of muscle that hung away from the side of the skull, “this sort-of tell-tale splitting with some kind of high-velocity something, and I’m not sure how you’d do that without destroying the skull.”

“Something to consider, though.”

“Well, we’ll see. Have a look at this.” Very carefully, she used what looked like a beefed-up q-tip to roll the head over slightly, exposing the interior of the brain cavity.

“…what happened to the brain?” Sorayah asked. The skull looked like it had been hollowed out, and it was surprisingly clean considering the state the rest of the body was in. The only thing that wasn’t clean white bone was the small, rotting stub towards the back of the cavity.

“Good question!” Her enthusiasm would have been pleasant if it wasn’t about someone’s brain matter. “Obvious answer would be that it got kablooied out by whatever did the skull, but it’s pretty obviously not that.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Right, well, see how smooth the inside of the skull is?” She indicated the section, and it was, indeed, very clean.

“I see it.”

“Yeah, so…” she clicked her tongue against her teeth. “That’s cool, huh?”

“Wait, is it actually relevant?”

“No, I just think it’s neat. What is relevant, though, is,” she pointed with the scalpel, “this bit here.”

She was pointing at the bottom of the brain cavity, where the decaying brain stem sat. “What about it?”

“It’s a bit hard to see from this angle, plus the degradation from the water, but there’s actually a relatively neat cut across the stem to separate it from the brain. What we’d expect to see in a situation like this is sort of like… broccoli, I guess, with the stem coming up like normal, and then uneven chunks coming off of it where the water and sharks and stuff have gotten to it.”

Yes, there are sharks in the river.

“But instead,” Mak continued, “we barely have any brain matter at all; just the little bits that stuck to the skull here,-” she indicated the spots with a hovering finger, “-here and here.” They looked like tiny barnacles. “The rest is just, poof. Gone.”

“Did someone… did someone remove her brain?” Sorayah asked.

“Bingo bango bongo,” Mak said, with accompanying finger guns. “That’s what I reckon, anyway, cause we’re missing 95% of the brain matter, and even though the water’s degraded it a bit, the top of the brain stem is suspiciously flat. Like if it was, say, cut with a knife.”

“Why would someone steal brain matter?” Sorayah asked, baffled and disgusted in equal measure.

“Who fuckin’ knows,” Mak replied. “For eating? I’ve seen grosser shit.”

“Could be to use it as a reagent,” I suggested.

“You can do that?” For the first time, the seemingly-unflappable woman seemed to be… somewhat flapped.

“Yeah, mostly for pretty nasty stuff; ‘dark magic’, if you’re into labelling things like that.”

“Huh. Gross.” She stood up, and made the motion of brushing her hands off one her thighs, but without actually touching them. “Anyway, that’s the salient stuff. No other wounds, or signs of a struggle, no identifying documentation.”

“What about magical residue?” I asked.

“Pretty much nada, we think? I mean, she’s been underwater that long, it’ll have eroded most of it anyway, right?” She gave me a curious look. “I actually thought that’s what you were here for, tee bee haitch.”

I blinked. “Oh, um- right. Yes.”

“Unless I’m assuming, sorry. It’s just that normally when it’s outside-department, it’s Jones, so I kind of assumed you were here for specialist stuff.” She frowned, as if realising something. “Is Jones here, actually?”

“No,” I snapped, without thinking. “…no, she’s not.”

“..ooohkay, I can read signals, don’t worry.” She held up her hands, with a slight grin. “Won’t press. You wanna make with the magic, then?”

“Hrm.” It’s not her fault, June. “Stand back,” I said, raising my hands and beginning to cast.

Continue reading “Hell Or High Water | 4-II”

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Hell Or High Water | 4-I

The previous episodes took place in June, August and September of 201X, in order.

҉

February, 201Y

It is impossible to dress formally in Australian summer.

For the fiftieth time in the last hour, I tugged at the collar of my shirt, simultaneously irritated that I’d worn a button-up and relieved that I hadn’t also worn a tie like I’d been considering. My undershirt was already drenched, and I could feel the drops of sweat rolling down my back and dripping down. A large hat kept the sun out of my eyes, but did nothing to help with being boiled alive, and I didn’t have the time to shave my legs so I was wearing jeans.

If you’ve never experienced a summer down-under, it might seem like I’m being dramatic.

I’m not.

The heat alone is bad enough; 40 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit, for the Yanks) gets the streets so hot you can actually fry an egg on them, and walking on concrete feels like you’re standing above an oven. But that’s not the worst part, oh no. The worst part is the 60% humidity, minimum. You know how the air in a bathroom gets after a long, hot shower, thick and heavy with moisture? Imagine that, but everywhere, all the time, inescapable, awful, awful, awful, disgusting.

I hate it.

“I hate it,” I declared out loud, for probably also the fiftieth time in the last hour. “I hate everything about it, I hate this stupid country, I hate the stupid hole in the ozone layer. And most of all,” I turned to my companion, “I hate you.”

Sorayah floated beside me, wearing a practical, dark blue dress and leggings. In the blaring sunlight, her translucent form was barely visible, but I’d gotten used to finding her. “Oh,” she asked with a mischievous grin, “is it hot today? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Bite me,” I replied sourly as she giggled. “That wasn’t funny the first time.”

“Kath would agree with me.”

“Yeah, well…”

We both looked away. That had taken the fun out of it a bit.

We’d been called out to Tennyson, a bit further south than I’d usually go. The directions led us down a small, residential street, so we’d initially assumed it was one of the houses, but as we approached the end of the street, a large sign proclaimed that the area beyond was the playing fields and boatsheds of St. Marcus’s, one of the fancier private schools in Brisbane. We double-checked our path, but had become pretty clear that we were in the right place.

“I don’t…” Sorayah began to say. “I don’t think I can handle a dead kid, June.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Yeah, me neither.”

“Do we have a choice?”

“We do not.”

“Yeah,” she sighed. “Yeah, I thought so.”

We pushed open the gate, and began following the road.

There was a slight slope as we walked, and given the ‘boatshed’ part, it was a pretty good sign that we were headed down towards the river. We passed large, well-manicured fields on both side, interspersed with small sheds and covered benches. There was a large cluster of buildings about halfway down the road, but the empty parking lot told us that it wasn’t our destination. Sure enough, we rounded a turn in the road, lined with tall, broad trees, and found that the road ended in a small cul-de-sac just above the river, with a smaller boat ramp leading down into the water. Multiple police cars were parked there, and a cordon had been set up – not around the ramp, but to its left, down on the bank.

“Well,” I said to Sorayah, “good news, it’s probably not a dead kid.”

“…what’s the bad news, then?”

“Oh,” I chuckled humourlessly, “I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.”

As we drew closer, I realised that the police presence was a lot smaller than I’d expected. There were only two squad cars, a single dark grey sedan, and what looked like an equipment van of some kind. Normally, they didn’t call us in for anything less than a homicide, and this was not the numbers I’d expect for that.

Unfortunately, the smaller contingent hadn’t prevented an old friend from being there. A familiar, shaven-headed private stood at the edge of the cordon, looking as surly as ever. I took a little bit of comfort in the fact that she at least looked as uncomfortable in the heat as I was.

“Turn around and leave,” she snapped, as soon as we were close enough to hear her.

“Jackson,” I said flatly. Sorayah had disappeared entirely; she’d probably ducked underground, but with the glare it wasn’t impossible that she hadn’t moved at all, and had just made herself fainter. “They haven’t wised up and fired you yet?”

The private gave me a glare, but nothing else. She also, however, didn’t let us in. She just stood there, arms folded over her chest, looking like she was trying to kill me with her mind.

“Jeez,” I groaned, “I’m not even kidding any more, you’re just genuinely bad at this job.”

“We’ll see,” was all she said. Oh, that can’t be good. Rule of thumb, if someone who hates you gets very calm and confident, that’s, you know, not a great sign.

As was becoming increasingly common, Sorayah saved my bacon. I could see two be-suited figures walking up towards us, and a faint glimmer in the air beside them.

“Private,” Terry said, and Jackson’s head snapped around. “Would you mind going and giving the coroners a hand?”

“Yes, sir,” she said stiffly, and stalked off, with one last withering look at me over my shoulder.

“Thanks,” I mouthed towards Sorayah, before turning to greet Terry and his companion.

“Detective Phillips,” I said warmly, shaking his hand. “Detective Wisemann.” I didn’t offer my hand, and she didn’t go to take it. “You look like a plantation owner, Terry.” He was wearing a tan linen suit that, context aside, looked significantly comfortable than what I was wearing.

“I see you’re picking up the slack on being insouciant, then,” Wisemann said coldly. She also seemed to be quite comfortable in the heat, despite the fact that her suit, skirt, and tights were all deep black. It looked expensive; maybe they were charmed to keep them cool. I’d never admit it, but I was jealous if they were. A pair of dark sunglasses covered her eyes, hiding her expression, but I could read the context clues well enough.

“Asshole,” I spat back. “You’re really gonna-”

“Please!” Terry interjected, physically stepping between us with his hands up. “We’re all professionals here, aren’t we? Can’t we just do our jobs?” He sounded… just really fucking exhausted, beyond even his normal low-grade fatigue.

“I would contest that statement, Phillips,” Wisemann replied curtly, staring at me, “but prior evidence has indicated that it would be pointless.”

“‘Prior evidence has indicated’,” I imitated mockingly. “What, are you trying for the diverse reboot of Spock?” Her eyes narrowed, and I felt the air stir around us.

“June,” Sorayah said quietly, resting a hand on my shoulder. That alone was enough to give me pause; she wouldn’t use up some of her time unless she thought it was important, and joining those dots let me get outside the anger a little bit.

“…sorry,” I said grudgingly to Wisemann. “That was uncalled for. Let’s just… do the work, huh?”

Her lips tightened, but they gave a reluctant nod. “Indeed.” She turned, and began walking back towards the shoreline. Now that Jackson wasn’t there to try and body-block me, I could see two figures in HVAC suits, prodding at something just out of site.

“So,” I said to Terry as he lifted the tape for us, “I see they’re in good spirits.”

“You need to give her a chance, June,” he sighed. “She’s stressed and tired, and it’s not like she’s exactly wrong about a lot of things.”

I planted a thumb in my own chest. “I can think of at least one!”

“…she’ll come around on that one, I promise.”

“She’s had fucking long enough,” I muttered.

“Um, Detective Phillips?” Sorayah interjected, spinning around me to subtly interpose herself between us. “I’m sorry to ask, but… why are we here? Um, especially me. This isn’t a homicide, is it?”

“It is,” he replied, surprised. “What made you think otherwise?”

“Oh, the overwhelming crowds, obviously,” I answered for her.

“…you seem cheerier than usual, June,” he shot back.

I barked a laugh. “Touché.”

“As far Sorayah’s question,” he continued, loosing what little cheer he’d had, “I don’t think I need to explain that we have been… stretched thin.”

“And yet you did anyway,” I noted.

June,” Sorayah hissed.

“…sorry.”

“It’s alright. But yeah, in an ideal world, we really should be handling this as a high or even top priority. In a marginally-less ideal world, we’d be able to hand it off to, no offence, trained professionals.”

“None taken,” Sorayah said before I could reply.

“And in this world?” I asked.

He sighed as we reached the bottom of the bank. “You’re all we can get.”

Continue reading “Hell Or High Water | 4-I”

Hell Or High Water | Prologue

This is how it happens.

The boat has been swept, 50 times over. The windows are bullet-proof glass, the frame sturdy enough to withstand a bomb blast. The dock it floats at is owned by a neutral third-party, one who charges exorbitantly to remain as such. No-one takes any offence at it, mind: the easiest way to assure clients you won’t take bribes is to show you don’t need them. A woman stands at the helm, staring aimlessly into the distance, wearing a trim, unmarked uniform and cap. She is also provided by a third-party, and her neutrality is so deeply-set that one might even say it’s in her nature.

On top of all that, the boat has been imbued with a powerful set of wards; powerful enough, even, to resist the eroding effect of the river’s running water, at least for a while. It’s no mean feat, but none of it is.​

After all, when two crime families meet, it’s best to spare no expense.

Two dark cars pull up onto the backroad above the dock, nearly simultaneously. It shouldn’t be possible for cars to stare menacingly at one another, but these two certainly seem to be doing their best at it. Their lights tear thick beams through the musty half-dark, clashing in the middle to create a thick pool of blinding halogen. Neither turns off their engine, and for a minute, they simply sit there, rumbling and growling in competition.

After a short while, the door to one of the cars opens, and a woman steps out. She’s tall, lean, Mediterranean-looking, wearing a dark suit and a hat, and carrying a small bag over one shoulder. A dark crimson tie is one of the only spots of colour in the outfit, the other being a thin band of bright red metal around her right index finger. Her black hair is bound into a thick twist that drapes over one shoulder, and thin sunglasses cover her eyes. She closes the door, and rests one hand on top of the vehicle.

A moment later, the passenger door of the other car opens too. The man who steps out does not seem nearly as composed as his counterpart, or as well-dressed. He’s Vietnamese, more thin than lean, and his dark hair is cropped short into an undercut. His suit is expensive, and fits well, but the constant tugging of the tie that seems to serve as a nervous tic is working against him, as are the cheap, gaudy stud earrings he wears. In his non-tugging hand, he holds a slim, black briefcase attached at the wrist like a nuclear football, the handcuff jangling slightly with his movements.

He stands there, fiddling with the knot, until a soft cough echoes out from inside the vehicle, and he jumps, then hastily shuts the door. The woman covers her mouth with a hand, but seems to be doing an intentionally poor job of concealing her chuckling.

The man’s gaze narrows, and he drops his hand to his side, where it continues to twitch and drum against his leg with nervous energy. The woman clearly notices, and although she reins in the audible laughter, the corners of her mouth continue to quirk upwards. He does his best to pretend like he hasn’t noticed it. Unfortunately, his best is still not very good.

The woman gestures towards the pier with one hand, raising an eyebrow. Slowly, not looking away from each other, they begin walking, the woman shortening her stride to match his, taking diagonal paths towards where the bank meets the pier. They avoid it for as long as they can, but by the time that their feet start falling on the wooden planks, there’s no avoiding the reality, and they walk stiffly, side by side, down to the boat at the end.

The cars hover behind them.

A silent staring match ensues once they reach the boat, each one insisting as strenuously as possible without actually displaying any emotions that the other should be the one to step on.

The man looses, and steps heavily down into the boat, causing it to rock in the water. The woman follows, with a lighter step.

The instant they are both aboard, the uniformed woman at the wheel comes to life, stepping out from behind the console as her two passengers move to stand at the prow. She walks stiffly over to the side of the boat where they had just boarded, and quickly unties the rope that had held the boat to the dock, her motions so smooth and practised that they almost seem robotic. With the rope neatly curled and tucked away, she pushes lightly off of the wood, and the boat begins to float away, out into the river. The man starts at this, gaze darting around, but the woman fixes him with a withering glare.

Sure enough, the helmswoman quickly returns to the wheel, and within seconds she has kicked the motor into life, churning the dark waters into froth behind the engines and filling the air with a third source of rumbling. She turns the boat out towards the centre of the river, and smoothly pushes up the speed, cutting smoothly through the waves.

On the shore, the cars seem to watch them go. As the boat begins to turn, heading upriver, they both reverse, turn away, and drive off into the night.

҉

The boat comes to a stop in a small inlet, tucking neatly behind the short, rocky cliffs and cutting the engine. A pull of a lever on the dash drops an anchor into the water; it makes a small splash as it hits, and the rattle of the chain echoes softly off the cliffs. Once it ends, the woman flicks a switch, and then folds her arms behind her back, going completely still.

Her two passengers approach the small table built into the front of the boat, sitting on either side. The man rests the briefcase in front of him, fingers drumming against it.

The woman is the first to speak.

“Marcus,” she says softly, with a hint of a smile. It’s not threatening, not exactly. More… measured danger. A baring of steel, without fully drawing the sword. Her voice is smooth, and low, with the hint of an accent that matches her appearance.

“Olympia,” the man replies smoothly. He’s trying for the same effect. He’s failing, but he’s trying.

Olympia Gianni was chosen for this meeting to show a strong front, to project confidence and strength.

Marcus Lao was chosen because no one would miss him.

The Laos ended up being closer to the money.

“S-so,” Marcus says, adjusting his tie. “I have the proposals that we have agreed on here.” He opens the briefcase, pulling out a manila folder. “They seem like a good place to start,” he begins to open the folder, but Olympia laughs, and he pauses, looking up at her with narrowed eyes.

“Honestly,” she smirks, leaning back in her chair and folding one leg over the other. “Do you have little charts and statistics in there, too? Maybe a PowerPoint?” She quirks an eyebrow. “Oh, I know. Is that a laser pointer in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

“Funny,” Marcus says. “They didn’t tell me you’d be funny.”

“Really?” She raises an eyebrow. “They definitely told me that you wouldn’t be.” Marcus grinds his teeth, and Olympia laughs. “They also told me that you’d be easy to provoke, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad!”

“Are we,” he says with strained patience, “here to deal or not?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I certainly can’t speak for both of us.” She pulls out a slim, silver cigarette case and a lighter. “Do you mind?” she asks as she removes one and lights it.

“I do, yeah,” Marcus replies.

“Hmph.” She takes a drag and blows the cloud towards him. “Shame.”

He hastily covers his mouth, but some smoke makes it in anyway. “Put that out,” he chokes out between coughs.

“What’s the magic word?”

Fuck you.”

“I suppose it’ll do.” She tosses her cigarette off the side of the boat, a tiny flare of light that sizzles as it hits the water. “Not very civil, though.”

Are we,” Marcus snarls, “going to deal, or not?” ​

Slowly, deliberately, Olympia takes another cigarette from the case and lights it.

“Marcus,” she chuckles, through another cloud of smoke. “Marcus, Marcus, Marcus.”

“Stop that,” he snaps.

“You know, you’d be a lot harder to unsettle if you weren’t so obvious when something gets under your skin. Marky.”

“Your impropriety is going to reflect poorly on your family in these deals,” he says stiltedly, with the cadence of something practised in front of a mirror.

“My ‘impropriety’, ​Marky-mark, isn’t going to reflect poorly on anyone. In fact, I could take a shit in your lap right now, and you’d have to smile and pretend like you’re okay with it. “So how about you go ahead and just tell me what you’ve been approved to say, so I can throw it back in your face and get on with my life.”

He looks like he’s been slapped with a wet fish. “You’re not even going to pretend to negotiate?!” he demands.

“Believe you me, Mark,” she replies with a grimace, “getting on this horrid boat with you is pretending enough for me.”

“Then why?! Why even bother?!”

“Isn’t it obvious?” She leans forward with a grin. “To fuck with you.”

Why?!”

“What do you mean, why? Do you not- Ohh, okay. You thought I meant you specifically.” She titters. “You really are thick, aren’t you.”

“Insult me one more time and-” Marcus begins to say, hand reaching inside his jacket, but an icy stare from Olympia stops him cold.

“And what?” she asks quietly. “What will you do, Marcus? You’ll kill me? Start a war between our families? Try and threaten me into agreeing to a deal with you, knowing full well that it’ll last only as long as I’m on this boat?” As she speaks, she slowly rises from her chair, until she’s towering above him. “Or will you sit down and shut up, like a good boy?”

Marcus breaks, looking away.

“I thought so,” she says smugly. “Now-”

Olympia’s head explodes. Between blinks, it goes from normal to a ruined, bloody mess; a half-exploded watermelon of viscera that goes spraying across the side of the boat and splashes into the water. Her body wavers, then follows the viscera, tumbling back over the edge and into the water.

For a second, Marcus stares blankly at the space that she’d occupied a moment ago. Then, as if the signals from his eyes have only just reached his brain, he screams, springing to his feet and grasping at the gun hidden inside his jacket.

The woman at the helm stands there, staring aimlessly off into the distance.

“What the fuck?!” Marcus screams, barely coherent. He’s spinning around, pointing his pistol in every possible direction; his stance actually isn’t bad, all things considered. “What happened?!” One of his panicked jolts brings the woman at the helm into view, and his gaze locks onto her. “You!” he shouts, gesticulating with the gun. “You did this, didn’t you?!”

She stares into the distance.

Marcus twitches, and the retort of his pistol firing snaps out across the water. The pistol goes flying out of his hands as he flinches, clattering across the deck.

The woman at the helm has a bullet hole in her head. She doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it; her expression hasn’t shifted at all, even as blood begins to drip down her face and onto her clothes. Marcus stares wildly at it, mouth moving without producing any sound, then stumbles forward, almost as if pushed, and rounds the dash with a frenzied, uncoordinated speed. He shoves her to the side, and she slowly topples to the floor of the boat, without adjusting her posture at all. Her head knocks against one of the bulwarks as she falls, opening a thick gash on her forehead. Blood begins to spill down her face as she lies there, dripping across her brow and covering one eye before pooling on the floor. Marcus grabs the controls of the boat and hastily guns it, sending them shooting out of the alcove.

She stares blankly up at the stars.

Continue reading “Hell Or High Water | Prologue”

Stopgap 4

How Sorayah Changed Her Clothes.

Sorayah Khan has gotten into the habit of wandering at night.

It’s not like she needs to sleep anymore, not really. She… can? Kind of? It doesn’t feel exactly the same as sleeping when she was alive, but then again, nothing else does either, so she isn’t sure if that’s really indicative. Either way, it became fairly obvious quite quickly that it isn’t necessary the same way that it used to be.

Frankly, it’s a little terrifying to her, and she tries to avoid thinking about it. It does mean that she suddenly has a lot of free time on her hands, and not a lot to do with it. She can’t use computers anymore, for example; her hands just pass straight through, and apparently there’s some kind of reaction with the internal systems, because Kath’s laptop started smoking and spitting sparks almost immediately afterwards, and when they’d opened it up, it had looked like a silicon barbecue. Seeing as her job involved working with computers, it had been… frustrating.

Books are also out. She can watch TV but can’t change the channel. She can’t run because she doesn’t have a body, she can’t exercise because she doesn’t have a body, and it’s caused her more than few meltdowns, tucked away inside a wall so that no-one can hear.

Kath and June try to help, of course. Flipping pages or changing channels or acting as her hands. But they’re both busy, busy and distracted, and even if they were willing to pull all-nighters for her she wouldn’t ask them to. They’ve already done enough for her, she figures.

So, she wanders. At first, she would just float up to the top of the building, and watch the lights of the cars go by. Soothing, but not exactly engaging.

Once she finally managed to force herself beyond the confines of the building, things were a little better. The Parklands are only a few minutes’ walk- a few minutes’ float away, and although there’s people sneaking around, dealing drugs and having furtive sex, it’s peaceful. Until she unconsciously tries to run her fingers through the leaves or feel the soil underneath her bare feet, and the illusion of normalcy breaks down.

So she goes further, down the hills and into the city, where people buzz like ants and the lights flicker and spark and it’s too much for her almost always but there’s always a convenient wall to hide inside. She likes watching the people go by, observing their faces, but things tend to go downhill when they notice her. Mostly just glares or fearful increases in speed, but she’s used to those. The frequency and intensity, not so much. She learns pretty quickly to stay close to walls, and out of the flow of foot traffic, but in those busier places the walls and shopfronts are all warded, so she eventually gives up on them entirely; it’s just not worth it.

The Valley is noisier and shadier, but less well-warded. Try as she might, though, the latter isn’t enough to make up for the former, and after her third time being chased off by yelled obscenities and a rain of empty bottles, she’s just about ready to give up, and go back to…

Well.

After waiting behind the trash can for a few minutes more, just to be safe, she tentatively floats up to the edge of the alleyway and pokes her head out, checking if-

“Hey!” an unfamiliar voice snaps at her. She’s so surprised that she actually goes white as a sheet. “Get away from there!” the voice continues irritably. “Honestly. It’s like you don’t know anything.”

She’s shocked enough that she just obeys, darting back and away from the corner. A little too quickly, as it turns out, because she runs straight into something behind her, nearly knocking them both to the ground.

“O-oh gosh, I’m so…” she trails off, the reality of the situation catching up to her.

“Watch your step, asshole,” the other ghost says. They’re taller than Sorayah, but significantly more translucent, and are dressed in a suit and coattails that look a hundred years old.

They’re also a skeleton.

“I’m-” she stammers desperately. “I’m sorry, I’m just-”

The skeleton sighs. “Trust me, I’ve heard it before. Don’t fucking hang around here, kid. You’ll get worse than bottles thrown at you, and I don’t know if you’ve figured it out yet, but you can very much still get hurt.”

“…oh,” she says slowly. She’d been planning to anyway, but somehow hearing it from someone else stings a little more. “…okay, yeah.”

She’s apparently not hard to read, because they sigh again. “You’re really fresh, huh?” they ask.  She frowns, which is answer enough. “Yeah. Listen, there’s a… hm. Okay, I’m busy, and also lazy, so fuck off so I don’t have to deal with you, but also…” They seem reluctant, but continue anyway. “Queen’s Wharf. Look for the sign. And don’t go there on a full moon.”

Before she can even begin to ask for clarification, they float backwards into the wall. The warded wall. “And for god’s sake,” they add as they disappear, “don’t ask about the dog.

҉

Kath slammed her hand on the table. “I’m gonna ask about the dog,” she declared, rising from her seat.

Without looking away, June grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back down into the seat.

҉

It takes Sorayah a few nights to work up the courage to follow the strange directions, but once she does, it turns out to be more difficult than she’d imagined. Queen’s Wharf isn’t really so much an address as an area; it covers a significant chunk of the riverbank in the city centre, and goes from being barely above the water to being perched on top of steep hills and concrete pylons; shifting from colonial architecture to modern steel and glass along the same axis, with plenty of amalgams along the way. Cars rush by on the elevated highway above the river, creating a stream of lights and wind that’s almost hypnotic as it passes by, and bounces off the dark, calm waters of the river below. The streets and paths buzz with people of all kinds, over-dressed for the mild Brisbane spring. It’s not a comfortable environment for her, but having a goal rather than wandering helps somewhat. She spends quite a bit of time just wandering around, going in loops, looking for the “signs” the other ghost had mentioned. There are a lot of physical signs around, but somehow she doesn’t think that they were being quite so literal.

Eventually, though, on her third loop around the area, something catches her eye. At the top of the hill, near the bridge over to Southbank, a railing glints oddly in the light. She almost misses it, except for the fact that it isn’t in the light. The entire area is, not shrouded in shadow exactly, but only illuminated by the ambient lights, and not in the path of the passing headlights. She floats over to investigate, barely noticing as a truck blasts its horn at her and shoots straight through her.

As she gets close, it resolves itself into a small symbol, painted onto the tarnished metal. It looks like a rounded triangle, with curved thorns coming out of the points. Two of the lines are thicker than the other, forming an arrow that points…

Towards a set of stairs.

She starts to get the picture.

The symbols keeps reappearing as she follows them, down the stairs and across a bike path, and then along the street for a little while until she reaches a maintenance ladder, and then down onto the banks of the river.

It’s dark, and strangely quiet; the thick concrete mutes the noises of the cars, and the sloshing of the water is gentle and soothing. Wiry plants grow around and between the thick supporting pillars, dark brown twists with only occasional spots of green. It feels… liminal, she decides; as if she’s in the backend of the real world. Even if the whole affair ends up being fruitless, it will have been worth it to find this spot.

And fruitless it might just be. She can’t find another instance of the symbol, no matter how hard she looks. Was this what the skeleton was talking about? She doesn’t think so, but she’d been wrong before.

Like before, though, something in the distance catches her attention. Not a symbol, but a faint glow, coming from just beyond a slight outcropping in the cliff face. And now that she’s paying attention, she can also hear the faintest sound of voices. Multiple voices.

Multiple voices that turn out, when she rounds the corner, to all belong to other ghosts.

The first surprise is that they don’t look like her. They don’t all look like her, at least. One of them does, pale and translucent but otherwise… human. Others, though, not so much. One is a vague swirl of colours in the vague shape of a person, shifting and changing in the light. Another is almost like an abstract painting; all her features are somehow visible at the same time, from every angle. Another still is a caricature, all exaggerated, bold lines, and while they’re solid, they don’t quite line up with the surrounding geometry in the right way.

Those are all bizarre, but manageable. Harder to deal with are the others that, she realises after a moment, are actually like her after all. The reason she didn’t recognise that at first is that they still bear the wounds that presumably killed them. But not simple gunshot wounds like her, oh no. A man talks through a mouth that start disintegrating halfway along its length, along with the rest of his face and most of his body. Another woman smokes a spectral cigarette, and the smoke curls out of the holes in her cheeks. And in the back of her head, and through one eye. Her entire body is riddled with holes, like a cartoon character who’s been shot, but the sprays of blood and bone that hang, frozen, just beyond the exit wounds dispel any illusion of farce. One is halfway through the process of being burned alive, skin charred and blackened, eyes leaking down their face.

Not for the first time, Sorayah wishes she still had the ability to vomit.

After a moment, the group notices her. The abstract one, to be precise. “Hey!” they say, in a voice that somehow perfectly matches their appearance. It shifts through multiple pitches and tones and timbres within just that word, as if it’s… she knows there’s a better word, but all she can think of is “crowd-sourced”. “Haven’t seen you around before!”

The rest of the group turn to look at her, and she feels like she’s going to burn away under the gazes. They’re not even hostile, not all of them, it’s just too much, in a way she hasn’t really felt since… recent life changes. She squeezes her eyes closed, and leans over so that her head is inside the cliff. It’s instantly better, the rock cool against her skin despite the fact that she doesn’t have any, the noise muted despite… actually, she isn’t certain if that makes sense or not. Either way, it’s better. “Yes, sorry,” she replies, her voice echoing oddly. “I’m, um… I’m… new? I don’t know what the terminology is.”

“How new?” demands another voice. “How did you find this place?”

“Relax, Holt,” the multi-layered voice replies easily. “No need to be aggressive. I think we can assume they were given directions. That, or they’re looking for a spot to get high.”

“She,” Sorayah clarify, still from inside the wall. “And, the second one. I was given directions, I mean. There was a… skeleton? Ghost? In a suit?”

The group give a collective groan. “Of fucking course it was,” Holt spits.

“O-oh,” Sorayah stammers, caught off-guard. “Are they… not… liked? Or…”

“Nah,” a different voice drawls in a distinct American accent, “Vachon is just, uh.”

“Complicated,” the multi-layered voice finishes. “Not something you need to worry about. You okay there, though?”

“…yeah,” she replies slowly, and is surprised to find that it’s true. “Yeah, I’m alright.” Tentatively, she floats back out of the wall and into view. A few of the group are still looking at her, but most have returned to whatever conversation they were having before.

Unfortunately, Holt isn’t one of them. “Gross,” they say. They turn out to be the abstract one, looking at her with an exaggerated expression of disgust. “Yet another one.”

“Another-” Sorayah starts, but the multi-colour ghost gets their first. They raise their free hand, and slap Holt upside the head.

“Asshole,” they say, but there’s no menace in it. “It’s obviously not deliberate.”

“Er…” Sorayah ask tentatively. “What’s not? Deliberate, I mean.” They tap their chest, then flick the fingers forward at her. She looks down at her chest, but doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “Your cod.”

“…my what?” What do fish have to do with anything?

“Cause of death,” Holt snaps. “C-O-D. God, honestly.”

“Holt,” the American woman says, “shut your g-damn trap, okay?” She hasn’t spoken since Sorayah returned, but now that she does, it’s easy to match up the voice to the woman with holes through her head. “COD’s a shorthand,” she says to Sorayah, “but it kinda sucks. I like mortifacient, personally.”

What Holt was referring to,” the multi-coloured one cuts back in, “was something of a… cultural divide, I suppose?”

“It’s not a f-king cultural divide!” Holt jumps in. “It’s just f-king basic decency, and-”

The American woman punches them in the mouth, and they go staggering backwards.

“Look,” the multi-coloured ghost sighs, “I’m really sorry about him. It’s probably easier if you just head inside, yeah?” They thumb over their shoulder, at a small nook in the rock wall. “I think things will be fairly self-evident from there.”

“…okay, yeah. Thank you.” She begins to float towards where they gestured. “Oh, um. I’m Sorayah, by the way.” She goes to stick her hand out, but then realises and jerks it back.

Somehow, they give the impression of a smile. “Inge. Nice to meet you.”

The American woman looks up from where they’re holding Holt in a headlock. “Rose. Charmed.”

҉

“That’s them over there, actually.” Sorayah pointed over to another corner of the bar, where the two other ghosts were sharing a drink with what looked like a re-animated corpse. Inge noticed her, and gave a small wave. “They’re nice.”

“What are we,” Kath grumbles, “chopped liver?”

҉

“Inside” turns out to be… dark, for one. Sorayah’s eyes take a moment to adjust, and she barely even has a panic attack over the fact that they still need to despite not actually having real, physical pupils. Once they have, they reveal a medium-sized room, with low ceilings and plentiful support beams. Tables are interspersed between the latter, and small booths line the walls. At the back of the room is an unassuming bar, staffed by two people in server’s clothing, and above it hangs a sign that says “Second Constance”.

There’s also a heaviness to the room; she can sense it, somehow. A solidity that feels strangely familiar, almost… homely? Tentatively, she reaches out to touch the nearest support beam, and, sure enough, finds herself resting a hand against smooth, dark wood.

҉

“Just to be clear,” June asked, “it’s this ghost bar, right? Not a different ghost bar.” She paused. “…that is also named First Constant, I guess.”

Sorayah gave a soft laugh. “It’s this one, yeah.”

“Oh good.” She tipped her bottle back and drained the rest of her mostly-full drink in one go. “Cause after Kath’s story,” she continued, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “I’m on edge for that shit.”

Kath shrugged. “Fair.”

“Also, though, I thought I felt some funny shit on the way in. Do you reckon they’d let me have a look? When I’m less sloshed, I mean.”

“I, ah, I really couldn’t say.”

“Bet they won’t,” June said sourly. “Everybody’s always ‘ooh, our security, our special super-secret formulas. Everybody’s doing the same goddamn thing these days! It’s all fucking Grantchester! You’re not special just because-”

It was Kath’s turn to restrain June as she began to half-rise from her seat, volume increasing steadily. She’d attracted a few looks from the other customers, which she met belligerently.

“I’m just saying,” she grumbled as she sat back down, her righteous fury deflating. “It’d be nice.”

҉

The clientele inside the bar turn out to be just as diverse as the ones outside. More so, in fact; while the outside area seemed to be a mainly spectral group, at least at the moment, inside is another story. There are a few more ghosts, sure, but there’s also… well, everything. Everything Sorayah’s ever heard of, anyway. Vampire (she thinks, but maybe they’re just a goth albino), check. Werewolf, check. Various different types of zooeys, check. A… actually, she has no idea what that is, but it certainly looks interesting.

A few looks start to turn her way, and she realises that she’s been standing awkwardly in the doorway for over a minute now. Hastily, avoiding eye contact, she descends onto the main floor, weaving awkwardly between tables and pillars towards the bar. She’s out of practice at actually interacting with physical objects, though, so she ends up leaving a trail of bumped elbows and annoyed glares in her wake.

“Um,” she says, arriving at the bar. There are two staff working behind it; a female ghost, and what appears to be a living man. “Hello. Hi. Um, how do you order… a… drink?”

“Kind of like that,” the male bartender chuckles, “but with more nouns. What can I get you?”

“Um.” Panic actually helps her for once, forcing the words out before she can second-guess herself. “Shirley Temple?” A moment after the words leave her mouth, of course, she immediately realises that she doesn’t even know if she can drink anything, and how’s she going to pay for it anyway, and-

He grins, and grabs a few bottles and glasses. “Sure thing.”

“Alright,” the other bartender says as he begins to mix and pour, “I’m out. Have fun, Ray.”

“Yeah, you too.”

She floats out from behind the bar, tossing the towel back onto the bench. She stretches, and as she does, her form comes apart, motes of light scattering like dust in the wind. Sorayah gasps in shock, but the dust doesn’t blow away; it slows, then comes to a stop, hanging in the air for a brief moment, before swirling back together into the woman’s body. Only now, instead of being dressed like a bartender, she’s wearing casual clothes and a jacket, with her hair down. And instead of looking normal, the left side of her head is halfway through the process of being blown apart by a bullet, fragments of bone and muscle frozen in the air.

As Sorayah gapes, the woman notices and groans, then waves a hand over the area. It comes apart again, then reforms, this time looking uninjured like before. She rolls her eyes, then notices Sorayah staring.

“Take a photo,” she says dryly, “it’ll last longer.”

Sorayah flushes. “N-no,” she stammers, burning up, “I w-wasn’t- I d-don’t- I’ve just never-”

The other woman relaxes a little. “Oh, sorry, mate. New?”

She glances away. “…really wish it wasn’t that obvious.”

“Trust me,” the bartender replies with a grin, “it really is. Everyone gets it, though. It’s a big adjustment.

“…that’s putting it mildly,” she replies, surprising herself. “H-how did you do that, though?”

“Which part?”

“Um. All of it?”

She laughs. “Damn, you really are- …okay, yeah, I see what you mean. Anyway, it’s pretty simple…”

҉

“So it’s just…” June waved her hands incoherently around her head. “Zippity, zoppity, whatever? As easy as that?”

Sorayah chuckled awkwardly. “It’s, ah, a little bit more complicated than that? Mmm… here.” She squeezed her eyes closed, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, and waved a hand over her head. In fits and starts, the whole area blurred, becoming obscured, before snapping back into clarity. The style hadn’t changed at all, but now the tips of her hair were a deep sea blue.

Kath whooped loudly, applauding, while June raised an eyebrow. “Damn,” she said. “Wish I could do that.” She considered it for a moment. “Probably not worth it, huh?”

“Ah, heh. Yeah.”

Kath paused in the middle of her fist-pumping. “Uh, Ray Romano? You’ve got a bit of a… situation.”

“Hm?” She glanced down, to see the bloodstain spreading across her shirt. “Ah, darn,” she swore, before scrunching her eyes closed again and repeating the process on her chest.

“Sooo,” June said, as the shirt resumed its unbloodied state, “lemme guess. Your, like, ‘default state’ is always gonna be how you looked when you, grkk,” she stuck out her tongue and made a face. “But you can change that through effort, but the actual wound that killed you- sorry, malfactor, is, like, stronger or whatever? So unless you’re specifically concentrating on hiding it, it’s gonna come back first.” She bit her lip, thinking. “…that made sense, right?”

“…actually, yeah. That’s pretty much exactly right, well done.”

June held up a hand, and Kath high-fived it, entirely too hard.

“So,” she asked, as June cradled her hand and tried not to whimper, “how much can you change? Could you change into an animal? How about a chair?” She gasped dramatically. “Could you change into me?”

“Kath,” June said tiredly. “Don’t be such a complete asshole all of the… time…” She trailed off, glancing across the table to where a slightly translucent copy of her was now sitting, imitating her movements and echoing her words.

“…that’s gonna get really annoying,” she said sourly, and the double imitated her perfectly.

Kath laughed so hard that she began to choke.

Continue reading “Stopgap 4”

Stopgap 3

How Kath Burned Her Hair Off

This probably isn’t how it happens.

“Well, boys,” Kath Jones drawls, thumbing the brim of a non-existent hat, “looks like we got ourselves a regular Italian standoff.” Her other hand points at the left-ward one of the two men in front of her, index and middle fingers extended, thumb raised, pinky and ring fingers closed against the palm.

The men are pointing very real handguns at her.

They’re both wearing nondescript clothing in dark colours. Both are white, but one has a healthy glow to his skin, while the other is unhealthily pale.

“…do you mean a Mexican standoff?” one of them asks, the pale one. His voice is reedy and thin.

“No, dude,” Kath protested, “Italian standoff! You know, two slash three slash four slash whatever people, and they’ve all got guns or whatever, and they’re pointing them at each other but they can’t fire cause then the others will fire?”

“…yeah,” the other replies, “that’s a Mexican standoff.”

“We-ell,” Kath says, a smug grin creeping across her face, “if it’s not an Italian standoff, then why are they called spaghetti westerns? Checkmate, atheists!”

“…I’m… Catholic?” the pale one says slowly, before his colleague punches him in the arm.

“It’s a fucking internet thing,” he snaps. “Lady, where the fuck did you even come from?”

Kath grins. “Well, when two people love each other very much…” His eyes narrow, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Okay, that’s not technically true. More like, when two people have an unhealthy mutually codependent semi-abusive relationship very much… but that isn’t as snappy!”

The pale one looks like his brain is about to overheat. “Bu- you- I don’t-”

“Alright,” the tanned one snaps, “I’m fucking done with this crap. Let’s just shoot her and-“

The ‘hammer’ of Kath’s finger-gun snaps downward, and with a pop, a large shower of sparks shoots from the ends of her fingers. The men yell, flinching backwards, and their shots go wide, sparking off of the walls. They recover quickly, but she’s already in between them, whacking the tanned one’s gun aside with a flailing forearm and shoving the other backwards. She’s not quick, exactly, and she’s far from precise, but there’s a frantic, frenetic energy to the way she moves that seems to make up for both. The guns come up again, but she throws herself to the ground, and the two only just realise they’re pointing their weapons at each other in time. Their aborted shots ping off of the ceiling this time, and then the pale one lets out a shocked yelp as Kath rolls across the ground and knocks his legs out from underneath him with her body. He hits the ground nose-first, and there’s a crunch, followed by muffled screaming.

“You fucking-!” the tanned one yells, bringing his gun around to point it at Kath as she rolls up into a crouch, but her hand flicks out, sending a blur of grey shooting through the air. It impacts with the gun as he brings it around, and they both bounce off each other as if made of rubber. The one in his hand impacts him in the face, but there’s no bounce to this impact, just the heavy thunk of metal impacting flesh. His head goes flying backwards, blood spraying into the air, and as he falls Kath spins around towards the other one, a small bottle in her hand.

“What-” the pale man begins to say, but she gets there first.

“Paste-Pot!” she yells, squeezing the bottle and sending a stream of thick white paste at him. He splutters as it lands in his mouth, closing his eyes to protect them, and then Kath bicycles kicks him in the chin and he-

—–

“Bulllll-shit,” June called, pointing her beer bottle at Kath. Her cheeks were slightly rosy, and her voice had acquired the loose quality of the happy drunk. “I’ve seen you try that fucking kick and every single time you end up spraining your groin.”

“Don’t interrupt my fun story with inconvenient truths, Gal Gore!”

҉

-and then Kath manages to flail her foot into his chin and he goes down like a sack of bricks.

She stands over the two limp bodies, panting heavily, and then wipes a bit of spittle from her chin. “Now,” she says in a comically gravelly voice, pulling out a piece of paper out of a pocket, “tell me everything you know about- this!”

“…I can’t see,” the thug moaned, trying to peel his hands away from his face. “…is this Krazy Glue?”

“Answer the question, punk!”

҉

“Anyway,” Kath continued, taking a sip of her beer, “turns out they didn’t know anything about the cat.”

“Because they were standing guard for a major illegal gun deal?” June asked.

“Because they were standing guard for a major illegal gun deal,” she confirmed. “…I think.”

“What do you mean, you think?!”

҉

The man in the dark suit opens the briefcase slowly, and pulls out a dark, chunky machine gun. He gives an appreciative whistle as he turns it over, and raises an eyebrow at the man opposite him. “You weren’t kidding.”

The other man, much more shabbily-dressed, bares a crooked, yellow grin. “Y’doubting me now, heh? I always come through.”

The man in the suit grunts appreciatively, taking hold of the gun’s handle and swinging it up into a ready position. The shabby man’s cohort react with alarm, drawing handguns and knives, which causes the other man’s escort to do the same, until the whole alleyway is filled with the echoes of clicking slides and shifting grips.

The man in the suit chuckles, lowering the gun slightly. “Jumpy, huh?” he asks.

The shabby man smiles, but there’s no humour in it. There is, however, some spinach. “Jest a precaution. You know.”

The man in the suit nods with a smirk, and waves a hand. Slowly, his men lower their weapons, and a moment later, the other group does the same. “The rest?” he asks, as one of his subordinates approaches, a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist.

The shabby man spits to one side, and as if it was a signal, his group parts, to reveal a large crate on a rolling trolley. “As agreed-” he begins to see.

“Kiiii-ttttyyy!” a crooning cry interrupts him.
The entire group spins, weapons snapping upwards again, as Kath bursts out of a doorway further up the alleyway, skidding and bouncing off the opposite wall.

“Have any of you seen a cat?” she demands, seemingly unafraid of the wall of firearms. “About this big, black and white?”

“Miss,” the man in the suit says calmly. “You should leave.”

“Might respond to,” she continues unabated, pulling a crumpled sheet of paper from somewhere, “…Concrete?! Who calls their cat concrete?”

In response, a soft mroww echoes out from a dumpster, about halfway between her and the group.

“Kitty!” She sprints forward, causing muffled grunts of alarm from the groups, and drops into a baseball slide, coming to a stop just in front of the dumpster. “Here, kitty kitty kitty,” she croons softly, reaching out one hand towards the cat in question, which shies back with a hiss.

“Who the fuck are you?” one of the men demands.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kath grunts, straining to reach further underneath the dumpster. “Kiiiittttyyyyyyy! Come on, I’m a friend.”

The cat hisses again, more intensely this time, and swipes at her hand, but she pulls it back just in time.

“Well, shoot,” she says. “Any of youse have any fish? Do cats like fish?”

“We have guns,” the shabby man spits.

“Mm,” she hemms, “I don’t think cats like guns, no.” She sighs. “Okay, fine.” She reaches down her shirt and pulls out a can of tuna.

҉

“For snacks,” she added, as if that explained anything.

҉

As the group watches, she fumbles with the pop-lid on the tin for a moment, then slides the newly opened can back underneath the dumpster. “Come on,” she mutters, as Concrete begins to cautiously sniff at it. “Come onnnnnnn…” In a flash, she dives forward, arms reaching out. “Gotcha!” she yells triumphantly. “OW!” she yells immediately afterwards. “You little-!”

There’s a yowl of protest, and the sound of claws scratching against metal, and then she topples backwards, clutching a writhing mass of black-and-white fur in her arms. “Success!” she yells, shooting to her feet and holding Concrete above her.

The moment is marred slightly by the cat’s yowling and scratching, but Kath doesn’t seem particularly concerned.

“If this is some sort of play-” the man in the suit begins to say, but the shabby man cuts him off with a snarl.

“It isn’t.”

“So,” Kath says slowly, “not particularly impressed with my cat rescue, huh?”

The two men look at each, then raise their weapons, and-

҉

“And then?” June demanded, leaning forward in her seat.

“Yeah!” Sorayah seconded. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, and she was holding a half-empty translucent bottle, filled with a glowing liquid. “How did you get out?!”

Kath grinned, steeping her fingers in front of her. “We-ell…”

҉

“Look!” Kath yells, pointing up at one of the rooftops. “Tony Fitzgerald!”

They spin to look. Not for long, barely a moment, but once they realise there’s nothing there and turn back, there’s just a brightly-coloured blur disappearing around the corner, and the echo of yowling.

҉

“So then,” she finished, downing the rest of her beer, “they chased me a bunch, so I tried using the storm drains, and then there was this weird cult thing-

҉

“The old gods will rise once more!” the man in the robe screams, glowing ominously and illuminating the sewer around him. “We welcome them to-”

҉

“-but I managed to shake ‘em, and then I went home!”

“…wait,” Sorayah said slowly, “did you say ‘cult’?”

“Also!” June cut in, “how the fuck did you burn your hair off.”

Kath sucked in a breath. “So.”

҉

Kath sits in an armchair, laptop open on her lap, arms covered in bandaids. In one hand, she pets Concrete as it rests on her lap. In the other, she holds a brulee torch. Open on the computer is an article titled “How To Singe Your Hair At Home”.

҉

Sorayah and June stare at her for a moment. Then, abruptly, June let out a loud, sharp guffaw. “You-” she choked out, doubling over with laughter. “You fucking asshole! You- stupid motherfucker!” Sorayah clutched her stomach, eyes watering as her chest shook with silent laughter.

Kath grinned. “In my defense, it would’ve looked really cool!”

“It definitely,” June wheezed, “definitely wouldn’t.”

Continue reading “Stopgap 3”

Two’s Company | 3-XV

By the time they finally came to get me, I’d had to resort to show-tunes, which I’m fairly certain is a violation of some right or another.

The same private from before entered the room, unshackling me from the table and undoing the cuffs. For a brief, naive moment, I thought they’d be gone for good, but then she pushed me around roughly, grabbing my arms and re-cuffing them behind me. My shoulder burned with pain, but I bit my lip and tried not to show it, as she led me out of the interrogation room and down the narrow corridor.

“Hey, look-” I began to say as we walked, but a slight jerk of the cuffs cut me off as my shoulder spiked with pain again. “Fuck!” I yelled, twisting around to look at her. “What is your fucking-”

“Shut it,” she snapped. I caught a glimpse of her name badge, though, and for whatever reason, I finally managed to remember where I’d seen her before. The wraith thing, at the skatepark. Jackson, a private. She’d been guarding the perimeter, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t set off this level of animosity then. What had changed.

Whatever it was, I didn’t want to provoke it again, so I stayed quiet for the rest of the walk. We ended up back at the holding cells, which looked pretty much exactly like you expect holding cells to, but unlike before, there was already someone in one of the cells.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” Marcelas said, but the barb had no weight behind it. She sat on a bench, leaning back against the concrete wall, one hand over her eyes. Apparently, they hadn’t found her another pair of sunglasses. Maybe she hadn’t asked them to. “You know I blame you for all this, right?”

“Funny,” I said, as Jackson shoved me into the adjacent cell and slammed the bars behind me, “I was about to say the same thing.” I presented my hands through the slot, and almost grudgingly, she undid the cuffs. “Did you get the Wiseguy experience too?” I asked as I rubbed at the chafing on my wrists.

“Wise Guy? The detective I spoke to was polite; in fact, it’s probably the only positive about this whole experience.”

I sighed, dragging myself over to the bench and flopping down. “Let me guess. His name was-”

—–

“Phillips.”

The detective in question drummed his fingers on his leg as he stood outside my cell. “Hello, June.” He looked like shit, but that was pretty normal, so I didn’t comment on it. “I feel like I should apologise, but that seems unprofessional.”

I’d spent the last hour stewing in my rage, so his straightforward admission took the wind out of my sails a little bit. “…maybe so,” I allowed. “What’s the deal with the new detective? Doesn’t read the monthly bulletins?”

He sighed. “Out-of-towner. Thinks we’re all a bunch of corrupt hicks.”

“To be fair,” I pointed out, “the precedent is there.”

“Trust me,” he said flatly, “we’re all well aware. And I’m not saying that the department is squeaky-clean, but they seem to think we’re all taking fifties for our coke habits.” He flicked his head at someone out of view, and a moment later, an officer appeared with a ring of keys and unlocked the cell door. “Couldn’t make anything stick to you in the end, though, at least not for this, so you’re free to go. Don’t leave town, yadda yadda.”

“Ah, nepotism,” Marcelas drawled as I stood and stretched awkwardly. “Saving the day once more.” I’d honestly thought she was asleep.

“Ms. Marcelas,” Terry began to say, “I promise you-”

“She’s as innocent as me,” I said grudgingly as I exited the cell.

“Is that really an endorsement?” she sniped, but after a moment, Terry gestured for the officer to open her cell as well. She strode out, sniffing disdainfully down at me as she passed. “Don’t think I’m grateful or anything like that,” she said. “You’re still responsible for this whole mess in the first place.”

“You’re welcome,” I called after her as she walked away. She flipped me off over her shoulder, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.

“So.” Terry and I began walking together down the corridor after her. “What happened with Slate?”

“Hasn’t said a word,” he replied, “but we have enough evidence that she’s gonna go away for a long time. Some of those bodies…” he shivered, and I thought about the silver cylinder. Again, I was suddenly aware of it pressed up against my side. Had it been there the whole time?

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “She was fucking terrifying.”

“Yeah,” he admitted, “I’m honestly not sure if prison will be worse for her, or anyone else who ends up in there with her.” We reached another desk, and he gave the officer sitting behind it my details. She disappeared, and reappeared a moment later with a bag full of my personal effects. “Listen, June,” he said. “Wisemann… they don’t have anything yet, but… maybe don’t be surprised if you start getting some unexpected visits or phone calls, yeah?”

I sighed. “Just like old times.”

He gave a grin, but it was forced and humourless. “At least you have experience?”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’ll really make a difference. Say hi to Amal for me, yeah?”

“Will do. I think you’ve got a welcoming committee out there, by the by.”

I gave him a little half-salute, and he returned it. “Once more unto the breach.”

I did in fact have some people waiting for me, once I cleared the back-end of the precinct and emerged next to the front desk. “Hey, guys,” I said tiredly, muffling a yawn. “What are you dowwwwwhat happened to your hair?!”

Kath stood there, beaming, with a completely shaved head and a burn scar on one side. Her duster – which she wore over a pair of booty shirts and a crop top that had a neon-orange skull and crossbones on it – was also singed around the edges, and blackened with ash in spots.

“Burnt off!” she replied happily, pointing to the scar.

“I think she probably guessed that much,” a soft voice added. Sorayah hovered nervously behind her, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a black Punk’s Not Dead shirt with the word “Not” crossed out with red marker.

I looked at her. Then I looked back at Kath, who beamed and gave me a double-thumbs up. Then I looked back at Sorayah again. “How,” I said slowly, “the fuck. Did the two of you manage to do this in one day?”

“We-ell,” Kath replied, “first of all, how dare you malign my ability to get into trouble like this. Second of all, I’m just as shocked as you are! I think it’s pretty darn rude of her to go and do that on the very same day that I was planning to get my hair burned off by a syrup-smuggling ring! Very rude!”

I saw the officer at the desk trying very hard not to stare at us, and failing pretty miserably. “Are you going to elaborate on the syrup-smuggling ring?” I asked.

“Nope!” Her smile cracked slightly after a second, though. “Okay, I made the syrup-smuggling thing up.”

“Yeah, I thought so-“

“They were actually just smuggling firearms, but that’s boring.”

“You fought gunrunners?!” Yeah, the officer at the desk was definitely staring at us now. And reaching for the phone, so I grabbed Kath by the forearm and began leading her towards the exit before we got arrested. Again.

“Not intentionally!” she protested as we cleared the doors. “I was trying to find someone’s lost cat.”

“People really hire PIs to find their pets?” Sorayah asked.

“…you said ‘hire’, not me.”

“So then, did you just see a lost pet poster and decide to investigate it?”

Kath clapped a hand over her heart. “I plead the Fifth.”

“That’s a yes,” I added, as I spotted her ute in the parking lot and began dragging her towards it.

“And,” Sorayah continued as we approached, “the cat was with… gunrunners.”

“It wasn’t with with them, it just also happened to be there. Also, on an unrelated note, be very careful when opening the doors, because-”

A loud mrow came from the slightly-open back window.

“Is that the cat?” I asked her flatly.

Sorayah poked her head through the door. “It’s the cat,” she confirmed, slightly muffled. “Hey, no! Don’t you- no! No! Ow!” She yanked her head back, to reveal two thin lines of red on her cheek. “It scratched me!”

“I rescued a magic cat!” Kath whispered, eyes wide.

“I think that’s just a cat thing in general,” I noted. Sorayah was rubbing at her cheek, looking equal parts hurt and confused. It was surprising enough that I almost didn’t notice that-.

“…’Raya, did you- did you change your hair as well?” It had been tied up in a loose crown on top of her head, except for two thick ringlets that hung down on either side of her face. “You did, right? I’m not going crazy?”

She gave a sheepish, apologetic grin. “Yeah, I did. It’s… kind of a long story? Well, not really long, but kind of intricate, and I kind of need to give background, and-”

“Okay, yeah,” I said, holding up my hands, “I get it, I do. Honestly, same. And…” I looked at Kath questioningly.

“Oh, I think I’ve covered mine!” she said, hopping into the driver’s seat.

“You definitely haven’t,” I replied, climbing up into the passenger side. “Over drinks, then?”

“That doesn’t seem fair to Ray-Ray,” Kath pointed out. The person in question was hovering over the back two seats, back up against the roof while the cat, a black-and-white tabby, tried to scratch her.

“Actually,” she said, dodging a swipe, “I- eep! I might know a place- no! Don’t!

I glanced over at Kath as she pulled out. “We should probably drop that back first, though.”

She winced. “A-bout that…”

“I’m a friend!” Sorayah protested. “Friend! Please- please stop hurting me.”

The cat yowled.
Continue reading “Two’s Company | 3-XV”