(abt.10 mins read)
The profanity spits from Taylor’s lips without him being able to stop it as, for a few painful seconds, his windshield turns white. But it’s not the lighting hammering down nearby that makes him sit bolt upright. As night turns into day what’s stalking through the field is picked out like doomed soldiers scurrying through no man’s land in a forgotten war. If the nearest had looked in his direction the coppice would have been no protection.
Taylor rubs his eyes trying to resurrect damaged rod cells. When he can see clearly again he tries to find the group of cowled figures behind the downpour running over the glass. For a moment he entertains the thought that that he’s imagined them, but deep inside Taylor knows he isn’t that lucky.
Beyond the trees all has vanished once more.
He reaches for the passenger seat as his phone comes to life.
‘Taylor. . . I’m glad I caught you. There’s something you need to know.’
It’s his current handler: a man whose every syllable drips with privilege and selective breeding. Before he can begin another round of instructions Taylor will pretend to listen to the lodge’s foremost bouncer squeezes his six-foot frame into a more comfortable position in the tiny car. With so many cuts even the perks sucked these days.
‘Again? I’m already on the job.’
In the distance the house he’d driven so far to find is lighting up. Whatever’s powering it appears to be struggling. In one of the bursts of illumination he catches sight of himself in the mirror. Old these days, thinks Taylor, certainly too old for the last round of evictions he’d been asked to perform. Hence his recent decision on the relationship he holds with the lodge. He starts counting scars and makes himself stop. Regrets are pointless he has time to think before darkness closes in once more.
‘Looks like she’s got plenty of company,’ he says as another group of figures slides through the rain.
Taylor can’t see the faces hidden in their hoods. But, as wherever the generator is it finally manages to catch, their eyes look like animals caught in headlights.
‘It’s worse than we anticipated.’ It sounds like the lodge’s representative is talking as much to himself as his contractor. ‘We thought they were just another minor cult, but we were wrong.’ There’s a pause before the rest comes out in a rush, ‘Angelle is in a lot more trouble than anticipated. We should have seen them for what they are, but we’ve been so stupid, so blind. 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 a late arrival appears. He doubted they could hear him over the sound of the storm, 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. . . errr. . . shit.’
‘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 loan from the lodge’s meagre carpool. It could be the dawn of the Apocalypse and his bills still haven’t gone away. Taylor smiles wryly and runs a hand over his scalp. All he had to do was complete this job without getting killed and both problems would go away. Besides, half the time his employers got worked up over nothing. The last two gigs had been like that: spooked grannies complaining about noises in the night.
‘Anything else you need to tell me?’ says Taylor. ‘You’re not sitting here freezing to death with cultists on the other side of the road.’
The rain hammering on the car’s roof doesn’t drown his employer’s sigh.
‘They believe we lack a certain vision in the material world Taylor. A necessary perspective if you like. It makes them extremely violent.’
‘Sounds like half the idiots on the planet.’
‘Yes, except these one’s think they can solve it with the correct sacrifice. That’ll be Angelle. It’s all rather unpleasant.’
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. What they’re trying to contact is something we haven’t been able to get rid of since we were chucking spears. If they succeed; they’ll give it physical form.’
Somewhere the generator cuts out, and the car plunges into darkness again.
Taylor curses. Cults. . . they might be able to contact places whose names the living were wise not to mention, but know anything about practicalities? He snaps back to the voice in his ear.
‘This is not a request Taylor. We want them wiped out, eradicated, and what they’ve called barred. Of course, there’ll be additional rewards for completion of your task.’
The handler stops and waits for a reply.
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 found where she is and you employed me for a straightforward retrieval, not a hatchet job, or another bouncing gig.’
The sound of the storm is his only answer for a moment. Then there’s a click as a recording kicks in on the phone other side and screaming erupts from the handset. When it’s over Taylor sits back. Sometimes he thinks his luck’s never going to change.
‘What was that?’ says Taylor quietly. ‘I just told you I’ve 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 contacting that worries us Taylor; it’s what they’ll let in if they succeed.’
‘How long have I got?’
‘Nobody knows. The victim might have been able to inform you but he’s receiving medical care right now, and the Doctors tell us he speaks in tongues when he can speak at all. It must be getting close because we think he caught a glimpse of it.’
‘I thought the girl was supposed to deal with those sort of problems.’
‘That’s one of the reasons why they’ve taken her Taylor. But they won’t leave it there. They’ll use her to identify the spots between this world and the next that she can’t reach. When they draw it to them anything like her won’t last long. It pains me to admit it, but we didn’t see that coming either. If they hadn’t used a shaman she would have been safe.’
‘A layman’s term to denote an outcome package that pulls feelings from us and gives them form. Those on the receiving end don’t stand a chance. We had enough security installed to turn the house into a fortress, but we should have known they’d use the daughter. It identified her as a threat. Her father barely survived, she didn’t, at least not in the form she’s used to. Stupid of us, all they had to do was wait. They were bound to have an argument sooner or later.’
‘And that thing. . . what did you call it? A “shaman?” What happens when its source runs dry?’
‘It fades like all nightmares do. But if things get exciting in there and they use it again you could have problems.’
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 ears that are still ringing with the lodge master’s screams. The storm’s battering the earth in earnest now and lighting is stalking a lot closer than the horizon. Taylor brings his lucky charm 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 just like the other girl he’s supposed to look after. Taylor’s finger strokes her cheek.
‘You’d want me to help; I know you would.’
He gets out of the car and heads toward the house, and he doesn’t stop till he’s peeling sodden chip board from one of its boarded-up windows. When he goes through he does it hard, eyes darting for targets, gun up and ready. He finishes rolling to a halt as something squirms in the shadows. There’s a smell like a morgue that’s been abandoned so long even its ghosts have grown stale.
‘Anybody th. . . .’
Taylor’s getting the same feeling he does 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 rises through the shadows and Taylor jerks back.
‘What the Hell?’
Gaunt figures crowd toward him and there’s something wrong about the way they move: it looks like their bones have been broken and stayed that way.
‘You,’ Taylor waves his gun at the nearest. ‘The girl. . . where is she?’
He backs away. No one’s in a talkative mood, although he doesn’t like to think why not. Taylor’s encountered the more extreme adepts before, but it’s still amazing what people would do to themselves once they’d found a cause like theirs. Light floods in along with the thump of distant machinery as he finds the door. It sounds like it’s coming from below and it’s far heavier than any simple generator.
Taylor glances back and wishes he hadn’t. Now he can see what’s heading toward him clearly and count the ribs and gifts they’d given for their spot in the dark. Where they’re not a mass of wounds pallid, mutilated, skin reflects the light. For a moment, the noise from the engine in the building’s depths is loud enough to make his head swim. He slams the door shut and concentrates on something only a few can feel spreading down the corridor. It sets his teeth on edge like it’s done ever since he was a kid. That was why they employed him. Why he was the best bouncer on the payroll. Taylor knows when trouble’s coming before it even arrives.
He cocks his head. There’s something else. . . .
Taylor’s eyes widen as certainty hits him. It’s not down they’ve taken her, but up. Where the storm’s pressing against the roof. He heads for the stairs and when he reaches the top spots dance in front of him. He’s sixty-five, and the owner of everything that means, and his guts have definitely seen better days. He shakes so bad when he stops drinking now he can barely stop. The usual price for a life spent not looking after yourself. Taylor reaches out a hand to steady himself.
She’s up here though. He can feel her. His nose wrinkles as he becomes aware of a smell that takes him back to bygone school days and echoing swimming pools. He’s glad of the pain in his side now. It’s a distraction from what they’ve done to her as the room comes into focus.
Taylor can feel the hair on his arms stand up. What’s on the operating table looks like lightning bound into the shape of a girl.
As he watches Angelle’s head move. Even after what they’ve done to her she can still sense the material world. He’s silent a moment.
‘Can you hear me?’
Around her is a grid of surgical steel like the bars of a gibbet. They’ve been using her as a battery, and he can see that for her there is no way out. He turns away for a moment, bile rising in his throat.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ Angelle’s voice sounds like its coming directly from between his ears. ‘It’s arriving soon.’
Taylor’s eyes search the figure flickering in its prison.
‘Can you feel anything?’
‘Not much and too much at the same time. Don’t worry it’ll be over soon.’
‘How can you be like that?’
‘Because it’s only fair. I keep trying to remember my father, you know? But I can’t, not on my own. It’s stolen so much of me already. I suppose I should be glad. You came to find me, and you never asked yourself why they made sure it was you? It wants you too.’
‘I’m sorry Angelle.’
‘What did you think was going to happen with the lodge 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 last key they need Taylor. You’re the one that can let it in. . . can let in others like it. Remember your family? What you did?’
Taylor can feel the blood vessels in his temples thump fit to burst. ‘No. . . ,’ he doesn’t want to remember. . . can’t remember.
‘I’ll make it right Angelle. Maybe the rest of you’ll come back if I plug the gap.’
‘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 if we use what you’ve got to help me. That’s why you’re here isn’t it? To help?’
‘I’m not strong enough.’
‘Yes you are Taylor. You just have to trust yourself.’
Taylor nods, once, and carefully brings the flask his wife gave him on their anniversary into the air.
‘I’ve got an idea.’
They’re in the building’s bowels when he hears Angelle again. The silver container he’s used to hold her bounces against his hip, but he knows what’s in there is just a fingerprint. The rest of her is woven through his surroundings like a thread.
‘Can you feel it? It’ll be here soon,’ says her voice in his head.
‘Yes,’ says Taylor as he checks the bullets in his gun. The machinery’s stopped, and Taylor glances along walls that have been strung with cables as thick as a man’s arm. There’s an engine that looks like the pictures he’d seen of a machine scientists use buried under France. It’s tall enough to scrape the ceiling at the room’s far end and Taylor can see its fins crawl with lighting.
The cult is present too.
‘You still with me Angelle?’
There’s no answer, but someone can hear him.
‘There is no Angelle anymore Taylor. We drained the last of her a few moments ago. ‘She’s no longer needed: not now we’ve finally reached our goal. It won’t be long now. The group’s leader drops his hood and Taylor stares. Where his eyes should be there’s only ruins and there’s so many teeth in his smile that Taylor’s surprised even part of Angelle lasted this long. ‘The alignment is so far along now it’s gained its own momentum.’
‘You knew, didn’t you? That I’d come here,’ says Taylor.
‘We made sure, she reminds you of your daughter, doesn’t she?’
Taylor reaches for his gun.
‘I wouldn’t,’ a ghastly smile stretches across the cult leader’s face. ‘This room’s as thin as paper. You don’t want to let it in, not yet. Not until we’ve had a word.’
‘Why can’t you leave the other side alone? It causes nothing but harm.’
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 nods understandingly and gestures at the wall. ‘What’s on the other side still has power in our world Taylor. It’s where your family are now, but you know that. Why don’t you try bringing them back? You know you can, don’t you Taylor? With the way open anything is possible. That gift you’ve got is better than any bait. Just let it show when it begins.’
Taylor’s jaw’s clenched as he judges the distance between them. Too far. The man doesn’t know how lucky he is.
‘What’s on the other side belongs on the other side,’ says Taylor although he doubts the fanatic has the wit to listen. ‘They can’t return not without changing our world into something that would suit them. You understand what that means? They don’t belong here anymore just like that thing you’re after.’
‘You fail to see the whole picture, Taylor. With it on our side of the wall we can learn about it, control it, bring an end to its hunger.’
Taylor wants to tell them what they’re made of but there’s a weight pressing at his temples. It feels like the pressure’s dropped: as if they were in a diving bell and it’s plunging into the deepest part of the sea.
The cult leader is speaking again.
‘You’re the same as us Taylor,’ the room’s beginning 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 now he can see mortar raining down. As Taylor watches they tumble into the void that’s opening beyond.
The cult leader’s empty sockets turn toward him.
‘Not long now, 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. At best you’re deluded, or insane. What is it you think you’ve found?’
‘An emissary of the real-world Taylor – one stripped of all illusion and artifice.’ A wail grates its way into the room as the cult leader flings out his arm. ‘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’re as bad as the rest of them. You think you’re its master.’
Around Taylor the throng begins to move. He’d thought they were so strung out 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 their leader.
Something hits the back of Taylor’s legs, and he falls to the floor. He’s expecting another blow but with a flash of agony that feels like someone’s drilling a hole in the top of his head he realises they’re not alone anymore.
The madman’s talking again, but not to him.
‘Thank you Lord. Oh, thank you for gracing us with your presence. . . Lord?. . . help?’
Taylor pulls his head up in time to see the cult leader’s shirt bubble like something inside is trying to get out. Whatever it is its wrapping itself around him like a lover with charged coils that crackle and spit.
It looks like the cult leader’s sweating her. He’s thrashing so hard it’s surprising he doesn’t come apart as beams of light shoot from the fissures opening in his skin. As she leaves his mouth and spits what’s left of him on the floor like old blood, black, and bitter the silhouette of a man caught in the heart of an explosion winks out of existence.
The blazing tornado whirling into the form of a girl turns toward the visitor.
‘You don’t belong here.’ She doesn’t even raise her voice. Instead, she’s as calm as a mill pond. ‘I want you to leave.’
A hundred mouths move, and Taylor can see where all those eyes have gone now; what’s climbed through the void is stitched with them. The gap 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 Angelle 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 it has forgotten what words are.
Taylor’s hands dig through his pockets.
He wonders if it will be enough. The pictures seem old now, taken so long ago that he can barely remember how he felt at the time. He falls to his knees, photographs spraying from his hands like a magician throwing cards. There’s a sound like an anvil being split, and the ground rises to meet him harder than a fist.
It hurts less than their loss.
Taylor wakes spread-eagled and alone. The wall is whole once more and the congregation gone, the noise too.
He sits up and stares at the flask in his hand. It feels full.
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