The car’s windshield turns white as lightning washes the figures approaching it from view. When Taylor can see again the field’s gone, drowned in the downpour turning the windscreen into a river. He rubs his eyes and wonders if he’d imagined them. But the weather’s too foul to get out and check. He tries to squeeze his six-foot two frame into a more comfortable position as the phone comes to life.
‘What do you want?’ says Taylor and there’s a pause before his handler answers.
‘Taylor…I’m glad I caught you. There’s something you need to know.’
‘Now? I’m on the job already…’
Taylor turns the wipers on; but it doesn’t make any difference to the flood.
He winces as the house lights up.
‘She’s got plenty of company,’ he says trying to peer past his fingertips.
There’s no mistaking the group of figures sliding through the rain this time. Taylor can’t see the faces hidden in their hoods until the generator humming in the background catches once again. In the storm their eyes look like animals caught in headlights.
‘It’s worse than we anticipated,’ says his handler, as much to himself as Taylor. Taylor’s never heard one of his employers sound so worried. ‘We thought they were just another cult, but we were wrong.’ There’s another pause before it comes out in a rush, ‘Ciel’s in a lot more trouble than anticipated.
We’ve been short sighted. We should have seen them for what they are. They’re trying to call it here, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.’
‘You’re not making any sense,’ says Taylor, ‘call what?’ He lowers his voice as another late arrival appears. They probably couldn’t hear him, but who wanted to take chances?’
‘That’s why we’ve sent you to deal with this. If what they’re talking to answers we’re all going to be in the shit.’
The insult sounds unfamiliar like the man rarely uses it.
‘Is that right?’ answers Taylor. He’s got a maintenance payment due at the end of the month and they repossessed his car last week. What he’s driving now is a rental. He runs his hand over his scalp. All he had to do was make it through this alive. Half the time his employers got worked up over nothing. The last two jobs had been like that; spooked grannies complaining about noises in the night.
‘Anything else you need to tell me?’ say’s Taylor. ‘You’re not sitting here freezing to death with a bunch of loonies on the other side of the road.’
The rain hammering on the car’s roof can’t drown his employers sigh ‘They believe we lack a certain vision in the material world, Taylor. A necessary perspective if you like.’
‘Sounds like half the idiots on the planet.’
‘Yes, except these one’s think they can solve it with the correct sacrifice. They’re rather unpleasant and they have a tendency for violence that rivals any I’ve seen.’
Taylor looks at the rear-view mirror. The bags under his eyes are so deep they’re like trenches.
‘I’ll deal with it.’
‘I’m sure you will. They tell me you put the last cultist you met in traction. But that’s not all these fellows are about. We need your special skills for this one. They’re trying to tap into our subconscious and use something we first evolved when we were chucking spears. If they succeed, they’ll give it physical form.’ There’s a snap as the generator cuts out, and the car plunges into darkness.
‘It’s not a request Taylor. We want them wiped out, eradicated.’
The handler stops talking as he waits for a reply and Taylor listens to the rain drum on the roof. There’s still half a tank of petrol in the car.
‘Not part of the deal. I told you already; I’ve retired from that side of things. You can keep your bonus. I’ve shown you where she is. I’m leaving; you employed me for a straight forward retrieval, not a hatchet job.’
The sound of the storm is his only answer for a moment. Then there’s a click as a recording kicks in and screaming erupts from his mobile. When it’s over Taylor sits back and watches ripples in the torrent flooding over the glass. Sometimes he thinks his luck’s never going to change.
‘What was that?’ says Taylor quietly. ‘I just told you I’d finished with the door work.’
There’d been a name threading through the man’s agony. But every time Taylor tries to think of it his mind sheers away like its touched toothache.
‘One of the higher ups was looking through the keyhole so to speak. It’s not where those cultists think they’re going that worries us Taylor; it’s what they’ll let in when they do.’
‘What was he saying?’
‘Nobody knows; he’s receiving medical care right now, and the Doctors tell us he speaks in tongues when he can speak at all. We think he caught a glimpse of it.’
‘I thought the girl was supposed to deal with those sort of problems.’
‘That’s why they’ve taken her Taylor; they’ll use her to find the weak spots, draw it to them. But anything that shines like that won’t last long. It pains me to admit it, but we didn’t see that coming either. They used a shaman.’
‘A layman’s term to denote a program that pulls feelings from us and gives them form. Their victim’s upgrades don’t help. We had enough security installed to turn the house into a fortress, but we never thought they’d use the daughter. Her father only just survived. Stupid of us, all they had to do was wait. They were bound to have an argument sooner or later.’
Taylor nods, a broken man in a darkened hospital room had shown him a photograph of her once. The real one, although Ciel is real enough, anything with more RAM in it than a city block strikes him as pretty real these days. Taylor hadn’t been quick enough then. But he’d still been quicker than the police. The lodge liked to look after its own.
‘And that…what did you call it “shaman?” How long does it last?’
‘Not long, we killed the last living witch doctor centuries ago for precisely this reason. He was far too dangerous.’
Taylor thought for a moment.
‘I want hazard pay.’
‘Taylor, you’re already on enough, what we’re paying you could cripple China.’
There’s a whump as a few hundred decibels tries to blow holes in his ears, and the car fills with stark, blinding, light. Taylor scrubs his eyes, trying to massage damaged rod cells back to life and brings the photograph from his pocket. He keeps his family in his wallet now, as if storing them under plastic will keep their memory from fading. Lil stares back from the picture they’d taken last year, wrapped in her parent’s arms like she’d never leave. He supposed in a sense she hadn’t. Taylor’s finger strokes her cheek.
‘You’d want me to help; I know you would.’
Taylor gets out of the car and heads toward the derelict and he doesn’t stop till he’s peeling sodden chip board from its slats. When he goes through he does it hard, eyes darting for targets, gun up and ready. He finishes rolling to a halt the same time something squirms in the room’s shadows. There’s a smell like the bottom of a well’s been stirred.
Taylor’s getting the same feeling he has when he’s in the presence of one of the crimes men like his handler try to bury because they’re too ashamed to admit they exist. Something clammy brushes his skin and Taylor jerks back.
‘What the Hell?’
Pale figures are limping toward him and there’s something wrong about the way they move. It looks like their bones have been broken and stayed that way.
‘Ciel…where is she?’
Taylor backs away until he finds the door. He’s encountered the mutilated before; it’s amazing what people would do to be on the other side. He finds the door latch and light floods in along with the sound of people singing. Taylor almost wishes he hadn’t. Because now he can see the crowd heading toward him clearly and count the missing limbs and what’s been grafted in their place. For a moment the chanting leaking from the building’s depths is loud enough to make his head ache.
Where it’s not a mass of wounds marbled skin reflects the light from the open door. Taylor’s finger tightens on the trigger but he changes his mind. A shot here’s bound to bring people running. He slams the door shut instead and listens to the singing spreading down the corridor. It’s floating on something that tugs in his head like it’s done ever since he was a kid. It’s why they employed him; why he was the best bouncer on the payroll. Taylor knows when trouble’s coming before it even arrives. It’s not down they’ve taken her, but up; where the storm’s pressing against the roof. Taylor heads for the stairs; his intuition hasn’t failed him yet.
‘Always a first time Taylor; you know that.’
At least he’s heading away from the chanting bleeding its way behind his eyes. When he reaches the top spots dance in front of him. He’s sixty-five, and the owner of everything that means, wrinkles, piles, and guts that have seen better days. He shakes so bad when he gets angry now that he can barely stop. The usual price for a life spent not looking after yourself. As far as Taylor’s concerned he deserves it, he hasn’t always been good, far from it. He reaches out a hand to steady himself.
She’s up here; he can feel her. His nose wrinkles at the feral reek of blood and things better left inside a human body. He’s glad of the blindness and pain in his side now. It takes away the bite of what they’ve done to her as the room swims into focus.
The word’s a whisper; Taylor’s seen similar before, but not like this. What’s stretched on the table barely resembles anything living, augmented or otherwise. He’s silent a moment.
‘At least they left your face.’
But the rest of her’s a tangled mess of wires, electrodes, and soft wet meat. He turns away for a moment, bile rising in his throat, and the chanting from below grows loud enough to deafen.
The room feels like it’s been stretched tight as a drum, and the corners are full of gnawing. Ahead of the teeth and spit is something that moves too fast to catch.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ the voice is a girl’s. ‘It’s arriving soon.’
Taylor’s eyes search the attic’s depths.
‘Where are you?’
‘Right in front of you Taylor.’
‘Then why can’t I see you?’
‘Because I’m all around as well. I keep trying to consolidate but I can’t, not on my own. It’s stolen so much of me already. You came to find me, and you never asked yourself why they let you? It wants what’s left.’
‘I’m sorry Ciel.’
‘How long did you think I was going to last with them in charge? Taylor,’ she’s screaming now. ‘WHY DID YOU TAKE SO LONG? There’s a pause and the next time she speaks her voice is calmer although the words are not. ‘You’re the key Taylor. You’re the one that will let it in…will keep letting it in. Remember your family? What you did?’
Taylor’s can feel the blood vessels in his temples thump fit to burst as the room shakes. ‘No…,’ he doesn’t want to remember…can’t remember.
‘I’ll make it right. Maybe the rest of you’ll come back.’
‘It won’t Taylor, there’s nothing for me to come back too is there?’
‘What will you do then?’
‘It won’t work.’
‘It will Taylor if we use what you’ve got to help me; that’s why you’re here isn’t it? To help?’
‘I don’t have anything.’
‘Yes, you do Taylor.’
‘Show me then,’ but Taylor’s pretty sure he knows what she wants him to do.
They’re in the building’s bowels when Ciel speaks again, ‘Can you feel it? It’ll be here soon.’
‘I thought you’d left,’ says Taylor as he checks the bullets in his gun. The singing’s stopped, and Taylor glances along walls that have been strung with copper. There’s a machine tall enough to scrape the ceiling at the room’s far end and Taylor watches as its fins crawl with lighting.
The residents are present too.
‘You still with me Ciel?’
There’s no answer, but someone can hear him.
‘My daughter’s dead,’ the group’s leader drops his hood and Taylor’s left staring at Ciel’s father’s face. He wonders how her Dad knows he’s got a visitor, because someone’s been busy. Where his eyes were now there’s only ruins. ‘Unless of course, you’re going to try and do something about it.’
There’s so many teeth in his smile that Taylor’s surprised even part of Ciel was left behind.
‘You knew, didn’t you? That I’d come here?’ say’s Taylor.
‘We made sure, she even sounds like your daughter, doesn’t she?’
Taylor reaches for his gun.
‘I wouldn’t Taylor, this room’s as thin as paper. You don’t want to let it out, not until we’ve had a word.’
‘Why’d do you do that to her?’
Taylor hadn’t meant it to leave his lips, but it does anyway, sad, and empty, at the same time because deep down he knows the answer already.
The blind man smiles understandingly and gestures at the wall. ‘What’s on the other side doesn’t take coin Taylor. We had to give it something it would value.’
Taylor wants to tell them what they’re made of but there’s a weight pressing at his temples as the man speaks again.
‘You’re the same us Taylor,’ the room’s begun to shake and a weight’s bending him double, crushing him, bringing him to his knees. ‘You can welcome it now you’re here.’
The stones at the far end are shaking so much he can see mortar raining down. As Taylor watches they tumble into the void that’s opening beyond.
Her father’s empty sockets turn to look at him.
‘Not long now Taylor, and here we were thinking we’d have nothing to offer when we let it out.’
‘Whatever’s coming isn’t going to listen to you. You know that don’t you? What is it you think you’ve found?’
‘The real-world Taylor, the one stripped of all illusion and artifice.’
A wail grates its way into the room, ‘watch.’
Taylor supposes he should have been expecting something like this as the blind man puts his lips together and whistles like he’s calling a dog.
‘Christ, you think you’re its master.’
Around Taylor the throng begins to move. He’d thought they were so strung out on religion they’d forgotten his presence. But as their hoods slip from their faces his breath sucks between his teeth. Now he understands why they haven’t seen him. There isn’t an eye in the place.
‘Make sure he doesn’t run,’ says Ciel’s father.
Something hits the back of Taylor’s legs and he falls to the floor. He’s expecting more but with a crack that feels like his eardrums have split he realises they’re not alone. Ciel’s father’s talking, ‘Thank you Lord, oh thank you for gracing us with your presence…Lord?’
Taylor pulls his head up in time to see the blind man’s shirt bubble and twist like something inside is trying to get out.
Ciel’s voice sounds soft in Taylor’s ear.
It looks like her father’s sweating her. He’s vibrating so hard his skin ripples and the air around him looks like a mirage. Smoke spreads from his pores as she leaves his mouth and spits what’s left of him on the floor like old blood, black, and bitter. The last of the would-be dog keeper deflates like a balloon collapsing and Ciel turns toward the visitor.
‘You stole something of mine.’ She never raises her voice; instead she’s as calm as water after a storm. ‘I want it back.’
A hundred mouths move, and Taylor can see where all those eyes have gone; what’s climbed through the voids stitched with them. The wall tears wider, brick, and rubble falling into space as it grapples to pass the threshold. It’s howling so loud Taylor claps his hands over his ears, but not before Ciel says, ‘your family Taylor…now…use them.’
She begins to sing, and her voice is full of heartache and loss that sounds like it’s travelled through so much space its forgotten what words are. Taylor’s hands dig through his pockets. He wonders where she learnt the trick, maybe in the dark where they’d made her. He falls to his knees, photographs spraying from his hands like a gambler throwing cards in an arc, and the ground rises toward him harder than a fist.
Taylor wakes spread-eagled and alone. The wall is whole once more, and the congregation gone, the noise is too. He sits up. There’d been something he was supposed to do, a reason he’d come here if he could remember what it was.
Speculative fiction writer Tracie McBride talks writing. And book reviews. And dogs. And kids. And any other random thing that she feels like.
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