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Writing Challenge #2

invisible_man

Writing Challenge #2: The Invisible Man
Introduce a character in 200 words or less. The catch: direct references to physical appearances are prohibited!

Post your babies in the comments. Good luck.

———-

PS: You may have noticed the site is undergoing some changes. It’s hit puberty fast and hard, and has been forced to choose between content relating to this author, and content pertaining to other authors. Over the next few weeks, anneque g malchien.com will become my author site. You will, however, be able to find all the old content, and plenty of new stuff for writers, over at the Writers’ Bar.

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The Killer Thighs: A Story About Something, Probably

Lately I’ve been doing so much researching heavy topics (re: Chernobyl, death by acute radiation syndrome) that tonight I just wanted to unwind and do something conventional, like write a half-assed story. So here it is. I guess if you can say anything about it, it’s that it is exactly 1081 words long.

***

Okay, so, there’s this elf. Dark elf. She’s an assassin. Not just any assassin: she’s a political assassin from an ancient clan of assassins, also some accountants. These assassins are like an official department of government. Like M-15, they’re licensed to kill. Anyone can hire them, and they’re traditionally used to settle feuds between oligarchies.

I know what you’re thinking: you stole that right from James Bond. Well, you’re wrong. I stole it from the Elder Scrolls. Just deal.

Our assassin’s name is Iachilla, which means little spider, and boy does it suit her. She’s got moves you ain’t never seen, because you seen these moves, you’d be dead, and you’re not dead, you just wish you were so you could get out of reading this. Iachilla: deadly government assassin. That short blade she has? It won’t just cut your flesh. It will drink your soul. She’s a dark elf, she’s into some messed up stuff. She’s also single. Isn’t that hard to believe? When she’s so wonderful, you should see her thighs, like bridge pylons from all that running through the shadows, she could probably crab-walk up a wall with thighs like that. The rest – just imagine it. Small face, bright yellow cat eyes, teeth – she’s a woman with everything.

Everything … except a boyfriend.

One day Iachilla is assigned a mission from the Torag Mong (I stole that) requesting her deployment to another city. Iachilla slides her trusty blade into her boot, grabs her bag of poisons, cashes a ticket to the clan treasury for travel funds, and hires a carriage to the next city over. In all honestly she’ll be glad to get out of this rat-infested slumheap for a couple of days. Iachilla might be a spider but she’s not crazy about fleas and she’s even less crazy about getting shanked by a street urchin in an alleyway. That sort of thing happens here. It’s all hush-hush but the street urchins are out of their goddamn minds. There’s some sort of brain-rotting disease in the water and the urchins of course have to drink from the canals with no option of boiling beforehand. It’s a sad circumstance but not what the story is about.

Iachilla helps herself to the empty back of the wagon, feeds the driver a couple of silver bits, and listens to him talking to himself about how much he hates street urchins as the wagon winds through the dirty city streets into the clean relief of the hills. The ground under the wagon wheels is mud infused with gravel shovelled into the worst potholes. The wagon still bumps up and down enough that conversation is a constant game not to bite off your tongue. Iachilla doesn’t know how to talk to people so she’s content to listen to the driver.

“-ouch!” he says some twenty minutes from the city, and Iachilla knows she’s in for a period of relaxing silence.

A while later, just as the swelling in the driver’s tongue is coming down, the wagon happens over a steady rise capped by a crumbling watch tower. It’s double storey and wood, and it stinks of mildew and earth. There’s a long skinny figure standing half in and half out of the tower’s late morning shadow, and having apparently long listened to the wagon crunching and bumping through gravel and mud, now raises his long arm in greeting.

The wagon squelches to a halt.

“You got money?” says the driver, or rather, “Oo dot moogey?”

“I’m but a priest,” says the fellow. Indeed, he’s in a dark purple robe trimmed in white fur at the collar and silver lace brocade on the cuffs, though his brown gumboots are rather more perfunctory. His face, Iachilla finds, matches the hands slipping the knapsack from his shoulder, that is, marginally too long and thin to be handsome, but with a gentleness and precision that makes Iachilla think more of a doctor than a priest. She lets her hand fall away from her blade.

The driver gives a shrug. “I’m but a driver. I still need to make a living, mate.”

“Of course,” says the fellow, with a quick, uneven smile that amplifies his long mouth and bent nose. He is too tall for an elf, but his skin is  a purplish blue, a few hues lighter than Iachilla’s. He takes a purse from his knapsack and presses some coins into the driver’s waiting palm. He’s tall enough that he leans over the horse, look, don’t get ridiculous about that image, I mean over its back, as in he was about a height with the horse, if you think the horse is only up to his knees and he leant over it then you’re being absurd, absurd enough you should be writing your own story, but you’re not, you’re reading this one, so just stop hassling me and listen.

“To the city? That’ll be enough, won’t it?”

The driver peers at the bits of ore in his palm, and then sniffs them, and then jerks his head. “Get in the back.”

The fellow does so. His face lightens upon witnessing Iachilla, though it was not the thought of her thighs, but rather the thought of what he might sell her, that lights it. He takes his seat and leans forward gently as the wagon sloshes off on its journey.

“Brodil’s the name,” says the fellow. He doesn’t look like a Brodil, but that’s the best I could come up with in five seconds. “I’m a holy man of Namy. You are…?”

“Uninterested,” Iachilla replies. She draws her legs up to her chest, so that she might better reach her dagger. “I don’t want any of your Namy tokens, preacher.”

This was not as vulgar thing to say as it appears, as Brodil has unbuckled both straps from his knapsack and is rolling it out on the wagon floor. Wooden engravings of Namy on leather thongs and little elephant avatars carved from troll teeth litter the roll. Iachilla fondles her own amulet, which is in ode of the god of death, Traboox.

“That so?” says Brodil, cocking his head, and blinking at her with those long-lashed orange eyes. As he moves the scent of smoked cherrywood drifts from his robes. It’s an inviting scent. Iachilla shifts in her place. She watches the thin, quick hands peel back a layer of the knapsack, pushing away the holy trinkets to reveal an impressive array of small, dull-coloured powders and knives

***

There you have it. A story exactly 1083 words in length. I wonder what would happen if it were 1500 words long?

Spoiler alert: they bang and it is CRAZY.

Ever write stories like this? Share em!

The Last Night in Pripyat – Audio Preview

Hello everybody. What have I been doing lately? Amongst coding and running a writers’ group, I’ve also been delving into some serious research on the Chernobyl disaster. In fact I did so much research that I ended up writing a short story about Chernobyl, and will probably write a novel.

The following, for your ears only, is an excerpt from the short story. Blow me down! The story is actually going to air on local radio and will also be streamed online next week. I’m working hard on getting this story to you, so please enjoy the excerpt, and let me know what you think.

tlnip

The Ivory God by J. S. Fletcher

Originally published in 1907, The Ivory God combines parlor-style detective mystery with a casual racism you just don’t see any more. The author has also evidently being paying attention to the Bram Stoker school of ominous ill portents: I couldn’t help but laugh when his protagonist ripped the crucifix from its triptych.

What on Earth am I talking about, you inquire like someone who has never heard J. S. Fletcher’s The Ivory God? Listen and see…

A Very Odd Time: Researching a Slovakian Dracula

For some reason, I love writing historical fiction. Or I must, because it keeps happening. At the moment I’m up to the elbows in research for the semi-sequel to The Vampires of Bifurquer Veine Marais, set in France in 1905. The semi-sequel, The Gourmet (or maybe The Gourmet’s Curse? Or The Orange Duck? Not sure yet.) starts that same year in Paris, as Vamps protagonist Hannibal du Noir takes an interlude to research his next job.

But it’s not du Noir who’s starring in this one. Rather, du Noir is staying with a friend, Monsieur Roland Lambert, a chemist. Lambert has heard rumours of a cursed chef. This chef, the Gourmet, is the star attraction of Orava Castle Hotel in the far north Carpathian Mountains (modern day Slovakia) and his cuisine is renowned. His curse? Well, some  may say it’s a blessing: anyone who criticises the Gourmet’s cooking is killed or maimed in a horrible way.

Intrigued, and thinking there may be something supernatural behind the deaths, Lambert urges du Noir to travel to the Carpathians to investigate. Du Noir isn’t interested; rather, he suggest Lambert go himself. If Lambert wants to solve the mystery of the cursed chef he has no choice but to agree … and confront the horrors of Orava Castle alone.

I’m chomping at the bit to get started on this story. It’s been a fortnight of Slovakian cooking, Slovakian castles, Austria-Hungary history, sensationalist horror (think Dracula) and the physics of falling. If it all sounds good to you, here are some pictures to further whet your appetite.

Paris-Place-du-Louvres-4th-June-1906

Firstly, Paris fashion. This is Place de Louvres on 4th June 1906.

Paris, 3rd June 1906.

Paris, 3rd June 1906.

Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, 5th June 1906.

Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, 5th June 1906.

Pre-WW1 Europe.

Pre-WW1 modern Europe. Note the huge territory included in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Slovakia is at the north, bordering Poland.

An ethnicity map from 1910, clarifying the layout of Austria-Hungary.

An ethnicity map from 1910, clarifying the layout of Austria-Hungary. The Slovaks are in brown.

Finally something we can understand! The lovely, intimidating Carpathian Mountains.

Finally something we can understand! The lovely, intimidating Carpathian Mountains.

An artist's impression of our main setting, Orava Castle.

An artist’s impression of our main setting, Orava Castle.

1342436751_foto_web_castle_orava_P5034336C

Orava Castle today. In 1868 the castle was turned into a public museum. My alternate history turns it into a hotel instead. Ah, the corruption of greed. As a side note, much of the footage of the 1922 film ‘Nosferatu’ was filmed here. I thought it was quite fitting for another Dracula rip-off.

Bryndza pirohy, traditional Slovak cuisine. Bryndza, sheep's cheese, is one of the most important ingredients in Slovak cooking.

Bryndza pirohy, traditional Slovakian cuisine. Bryndza, sheep’s cheese, is one of the most important ingredients in Slovakian cooking.

Another sheep's cheese dish, and Slovakia's national dish, bryndzove haulsky.

Another sheep’s cheese dish, and Slovakia’s national dish, bryndzove haulsky.

This country has some seriously delicious desserts. This is buchty na pare, a steamed plum dumpling dusted in crushed poppy seeds and sugar.

This country has some seriously delicious desserts. This is buchty na pare, a steamed plum dumpling dusted in crushed poppy seeds and sugar.

And finally, here are two very odd pictures that appeared during research.

The first is this photo, taken in 1916, of a suffragette on a scooter.

The first is this photo, taken in 1916, of a suffragette on a scooter.

And then there's this much weirder news piece for the Paris Baby Raffle. I can't help but think adoption was much easier a century ago.

And then there’s this much weirder news piece for the Paris Baby Raffle. I can’t help but think adoption was much easier a century ago.

So that’s been some of my adventures in historical research. There’s a bit more to do, and then, yippee! The writing can finally begin. It’s true what they say: writing is the easy part. It’s the research and planning that takes major brain work.

The Hostile Takeover of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse

I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy bend lately. And when you’re in the mood for an epic quest, nothing sates that thirst quite like an Elder Scrolls game.

For reasons unknown, instead of old favourite Skyrim, I hit up Oblivion, starting a new game with a new character: Eren Moop, the 14 year old Imperial blondie, terrified of everything and yet surprisingly competent on the battlefield.

All this got me to thinking that Oblivion’s main storyline would be perfect as a thriller set in a high-flying business world, a la Disclosure or Company Man. Just perfect. And so Moop got his own story, set not in Cyrodiil but in London, in the final, alarming days of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse (PTY LTD.)

If you’re keen, here it is.

 

I made this and I don't even know.

I made this and I don’t even know.

 

Uriel Septimus gazed from his teacup to the view of London through his sixty-first floor office window.

“So it’s come to this.”

Thirty years as company president, no heirs, and as the letter on the desk said, his last attorney was dead. The agents of O’Blivion were on his doorstep.

The age of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse was at an end.

 

 

Moop sat behind the desk of his tiny cubicle, staring into the eyes of the man across the hallway.

The florescent lights striping the ceiling were green with age, dim and flickering like sunlight filtered through algae. They turned the skin of the man opposite into something gross and nightmarish, a grubby little man blotted with budding plant life.

Moop shook his head and the impression dissipated, but not before he had the chance to ask himself: just how long had the man been down here?

“Hey, Englishman.” The grubby man was Australian. His accent was nasal and grating. Moop imagined he was there on a transfer, but had no way to know for sure. “You better hope they fire you. Else you’re gonna rot down here. Rot.”

Like vegetable matter.

Moop shivered. He looked away from the grubby man. On his desk was a small computer cased in grey-white plastic and a monitor box with an eight inch display. There was a floppy disc in the single desk drawer, but Moop had been born some years after floppy discs went out of fashion and had no idea how to use one. There were several blank sheets of paper with the company header beside the computer. Beneath them was a manila folder and a couple of bull clips. There was also a stuttering pen, a large, greasy keyboard, and a mouse on a very tight cable.

It was the end of Moop’s second week of work for Tiber Septim’s Teahouse Propriety Limited (TST PTY LTD.) He still had no idea what he was doing.

And, he feared, now that there were only forty five minutes left of his trial time with the company’s head London office, he would very soon be fired.

Of course, he also wasn’t sure why he had been hired, or if he wanted to work in a green basement for the rest of his life, or to forever stare into the beetly eyes of the grubby Australian transfer. So maybe being fired wouldn’t be all that bad. A slap on the shoulder, and they’d let him go.

The grubby man lifted his head, one ear tilted to the ceiling. “D’you hear that, Englishman?”

Moop’s eyes slid involuntarily sideways. Footsteps. One tread belonged to the floor supervisor, Mr Barry, heavy but sharp. There was at least one other set of feet, and Moop didn’t recognise them. He glanced at the grubby man.

“They’re coming for you,” the grubby man said, with a smirk that showed off his cancelled dental plan, “this is it for you. Fired. Guess at least I can’t complain they show favouritism to their countrymen.”

Then again. Moop was also dirt poor, and whatever bag of coins the office job paid, it was more than the paper round had done. He looked around the cubicle for somewhere to hide. There was nowhere. Nor was there any way to hide his lack of work. Urgently, he pushed his chair back against the unpainted concrete wall and sprung up and peered over the plastic cubicle divide.

He and the grubby Australian had the honour of the last two cubicles in a very long row of tiny cramped basement cells. A thin corridor snaked down the middle of what might have been a hundred cells – cubicles, accessed by a single, rickety elevator at the opposite end. Any footsteps on the central aisle were huge, claps of thunder banging around the concrete press of the office sublevels. Three people marching in smart business shoes, and it was the war gongs bearing down on those banished to the basement.

Moop had a glimpse of a hundred other heads peering over their cubicle walls, and then the huge angry face of the supervisor appeared in front of him and he fell backwards with a yelp.

“Back up against yer desk!” Mr Barry barked, blocking Moop’s skittering escape from his cubicle. He was surrounded by two concrete walls, the plastic divide and the desk, on which rested Mr Barry’s beefy hip. “You! Intern, yes, you! Get back up against your desk!”

Moop cowered against the desk, then cowered under it. He peered fearfully over the desktop as Mr Barry strode into his cubicle, fierce face burning, staring this way and that. The huge man stepped closer to Moop, turning his back to the wall. Mr Barry was dressed all in black, black suit, black tie, black shirt, shiny black shoes, slicked back black hair and close-to black skin. The one colourful thing about him was his bloodshot eyes. He bowed stiffly to a frail old man in a burgundy suit and suede loafers ambling into the cubicle.

Some of Moop’s apprehension gave way to curiosity. He recognised the old man. He was in that video they made you watch before they sent you down to the basement. He was the – the – the company President! Mr Uriel Septimus himself!

“Sir,” said Moop gravely, from under the desk, a hand to his breast, “it is my honour and privilege.”

Septimus looked around sharply. “What was that?”

“One of your desk monkeys, sir,” said Mr Barry dryly. “He’s under here.”

“Oh, well,” Septimus peered under the desk. He said to Moop’s terrified smile, “Hello lad. What are you doing under there?”

“I was asked to move aside, sir, and this was the only place left to go.”

There was another pair of legs beside the desk now. These were also suited. Female. Moop heard the waxy clicking of his keyboard and assumed it was being hacked. He also assumed that if the fifty thousand MS Paint dicks he’d drawn were found that he’d be fired immediately.

But it seemed Moop’s dicks were safe for another day. The second suit,  the woman, said, “Protocol initiated, sir. Stand by for escape hatch opening.”

From somewhere very close by came a heavy clunk and a harsh grating, and a rush of musty air into the cubicle. Moop watched through a grove of legs as the concrete side wall indented and then was dragged roughly aside.

“The assassins have come for me,” Septimus said to Moop, stooped over the desk.  “O’Blivion Beverage International has been after my company for years. Now I’m old they think one push down the stairs will do me in. And today’s the day, lad! I saw it in my tealeaves. With me out of the way, the company will be put to auction and no one will stand against O’Blivion’s takeover. It’ll be the end of us.”

“Yes, sir,” said Moop. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Assassins, lad! They’re onto me! Make it look like an accident, they will. They’re all through the building, imposters posed as ordinary office girls. But I won’t let them take me. I’ll fight them to the bitter end.” The old man bared his teeth.

“Sir,” the female bodyguard laid her hand on Septimus’s thin shoulder. Behind her, Barry was slipping on a pair of shades. In that swift motion he went from supervisor to bodyguard. “We have to go. The hitmen will be down here any moment. We can’t keep them from committing manslaughter forever.”

“What are you waiting for?” called a voice from across the aisle. “He hasn’t done any work in two weeks! Fire him!”

Moop could not see the grubby Australian transfer’s face from his position under the desk, but he imagined it wore an expression of both horror and wrath.

The bodyguards, alarmed at this threat, caught the President by both arms and whisked him away into the escape passage. Moop rose cautiously from under his desk. He took one look at the madman across the aisle, shouting threats and jabbing a finger a Moop, then to basement employees crowded around his cubicle, muttering in a low drone about what was going on.

“Fire him! Fire him – kill the Englishman!” the transfer roared.

Moop took one last frightened look at the crowd and darted into the escape passage. He tried in vain to close it behind him. The concrete wall was porous and poorly made but still too heavy for him to budge. He ran into the darkness after the President.

The passage was narrow, lined with pipes and lit a sicker shade of green than the basement. It was four sides concrete. Their footsteps slapped up a storm in the small confines.

The female bodyguard reached an iron door and ushered Mr Barry and Septimus in ahead of her. With a backwards glance she noticed Moop. “Oh, hold up! The kid followed us.”

Mr Barry squeezed past Septimus and joined the other bodyguard.  He pulled a handgun from the breast of his jacket. “Mr Septimus, Lisa; you two go ahead. I’ll shoot him.”

Moop turned back towards the basement.

“No!” cried Septimus. He laid a hand on Mr Barry’s arm. “The lad’s face is familiar. I have no doubt he will play some role in this.”

“He works here,” said Lisa. “Of course he’s familiar.”

His heart fluttering like a caged thing in his chest, Moop risked a few sideways steps towards the President. “Yes, ma’am,” he tried to avoid seeing the gun. “But I’ve only been here for two weeks. And I’ve never met the President before.”

“Sir,”

Septimus silenced Mr Barry. “I see. And what do you do here, young man?”

Moop dared take another step. “I’m an intern, sir. My name’s Eren Moop. I’m here on a two week trial basis. Today’s my last day. I hope I do all right.”

“But what do you do here?”

Oh, that. Moop couldn’t think of any lies, and so, unfortunately, he said, “I was hoping you could tell me, sir. Because I have no idea.”

The President treated each of his bodyguards to a particular stare. Neither of them dared speak a word. “Is that so. Why are you working for me, Mr Moop?”

Moop scratched his head. This was a little easier. “I was doing my paper round in town the day they were running the recruitment drive. They recruitment people said I belonged in a cubicle. And so they gave me a desk in the basement and a meal ticket, sir.”

Septimus nodded slowly. “Yes, I see. And any signs of promotion or performance reviewal in your future?”

“Yes sir,” Moop answered more confidently. “That was going to be at the end of today sir. In about thirty five minutes. Mr Barry was going to do it.”

“I was going to shoot him,” said Mr Barry.

Septimus raised a white eyebrow. “I’m sure you mean ‘fire.’ Never mind, Mr Moop. Consider yourself promoted. I’d like for you to be my personal assistant.”

Moop shook his head. “Oh no, sir, I couldn’t. I haven’t any experience-”

“It’s not a request, Mr Moop. It’s rather a demand.” Septimus gazed down his nose at the intern. “You will be my PA. There are certain things I cannot do, especially since I am so soon for the grave. You will do these things for me. It’s destiny. I know where I saw your face now. It was in my tealeaves.”

“Sir?” said Moop, while they bodyguards coughed. “Your tealeaves, sir?”

“Of course. I do all my business by tealeaves. Here. I even brought the cup along. See for yourself: your own face, drawn by the hand of fate.”

Septimus prompted Mr Barry for a briefcase, and from it removed a fine porcelain teacup. He extended the cup to Moop. Moop peered in, and indeed there were tealeaves in the bottom of the cup. But unlike Septimus, Moop did not see his face. All he saw were tealeaves.

“That’s very nice, sir,” he said, valiantly rallying against all odds, “but perhaps we ought to be evading your assassins?”

Septimus put the teacup away. “Indeed, young man. You are already proving yourself invaluable.”

Tight-lipped, Mr Barry guided him through the iron door, and Lisa allowed Moop to follow before shutting the door heavily behind them. They had not gone twelve paces when shadows darted across the passageway ahead. Mr Barry drew his gun.

“For the President!” he bellowed, and charged in firing wildly at the shadows.

One of the dark figures went down. Moop pushed desperately ahead, trying to cover the President. A bullet ricocheted off the wall and buried itself in Lisa’s heart.

“Ah,” she said, and dropped lifeless to the floor.

“You bastards!” Mr Barry roared, discharging his pistol into the one remaining figure. Moop grabbed the President in both arms and dragged him to the ground.

“Cover your head, sir!”

“Covering, lad!”

A few bursts later, it was over.

Mr Barry limped panting to the President and Moop. He reached down a hand. His other hand, resting against his thigh, held the smoking pistol.

“Sorry about that, sir. The bastards got Lisa.”

Septimus took the proffered hand. He gently dusted off his burgundy coat. “That’s not your fault, Barry,” he said, despite the evidence, “we must press on without her.”

Mr Barry nodded. He caught Moop’s eye as the boy lifted himself carefully from the floor. “You, intern. Take Lisa’s gun. Protect the President with your life.”

“Yes, Mr Barry.”

Moop lingered over Lisa’s body. He could still feel the heat radiating from her. He could also see the spreading pool of blood underneath her, and the small, fatal hole in her chest. Where did she keep her gun? Under her jacket? Moop had never stolen from a corpse before.

“Jacket,” said Mr Barry, as Moop debated the morality of looting for the greater good, “just feel her up and you’ll find it.”

Moop blanched. He squeezed his eyes shut and felt around Lisa’s belly until he grasped the edge of her jacket, then he flipped it open and grabbed the gun without looking. Mr Barry slapped him so hard on the back he almost fell onto the corpse.

“That’s the stuff, kid. Now, you ready to kill with that?”

Moop just tried not to be sick. He stepped gingerly over the fallen hitmen. Strangely enough, they weren’t bald or wearing black, as he had always imagined. They both had the red hats and T-shirts of O’Blivion Beverage International. They weren’t hitmen, he realised: they were PR men.

He followed Mr Barry and the President through a maze of passageways, which sounds trite but is actually very daunting when it’s happening to you. Mr Barry kept talking about attorneys; surely the President had one tucked away he’d forgotten about. But Septimus denied it. The one that had died that morning had been the last. And it was no one’s guess who had killed him.

Moop was feeling altogether in over his head when Mr Barry opened another iron door and the trio spilled out into a parking lot.

It was underground, of course, and there were no lights aside from the few artificial ones dotted around. There weren’t many cars, either. It must have been a private parking lot, as the floors were rather clean and the lot was quite small. They had almost a clear run to the pair of elevators sitting in the middle of the lot.

“This is it,” said Mr Barry. “In those elevators and we’re home free. Sir, I called ahead to make sure there was a limousine waiting for you.”

“Cancel it,” Septimus said. He started for the elevators. “I’ll be dead by then. No use endangering my valet.”

Mr Barry nodded, the lines on his face growing deeper. “Yes, sir.”

They reached the elevators with a growing tension between them. It was quiet in the lot, not a mouse nor a roach nor a driver stirred. And empty; Moop had anticipated by now they’d have encountered more assassins. Perhaps the President was wrong. Perhaps they really would be all right.

It struck him that there was no music. Usually, in these kinds of posh lots, and always near elevators, there was some nothing kind of music playing. Here there was only silence and their feet squeaking against the polished concrete.

As their footsteps fell silent, Mr Barry removed a key from his pocket and inserted it into the panel by the elevator. A few seconds passed. The lights above the elevator did not come on.

“Damn it,” Mr Barry hissed. He glanced at Septimus. “They may have overridden the lot’s security. We can take the fire stairs. I’ll make sure they’re safe.”

He jogged off to the yellow-lit door on the other side of the lot.

Septimus turned grimly to Moop. “I fear my time has come. This is it, lad. The end of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse. What a glorious two centuries it’s been. This business has been in our family even since old Tiber kicked it off with a mule, a cart and a hundred pounds of stolen tea.”

Moop wasn’t sure he should agree to that. “I don’t think you’re going to die, sir,” he said instead. “We’ll take the stairs. You’ll be in that cab in no time.”

The President managed a smile. “You’re a sweet PA. If I weren’t on my last breath I’d probably actually promote you. But here. I know I can trust you. You’re strong of spirit, you’re a man of the old ways. You spent two weeks in a bloody basement on an internship you didn’t ask for. That’s what overseas pressure has done to our company. We used to be a family. Now we’re a corporation.” Septimus held one gnarled finger in Moop’s face, and Moop noticed that the finger was bound in a gold and purple ring. “I don’t know if it’s possible to bring back the old ways, Mr Moop, but I want you to promise me one thing.”

Cross-eyed on the ring, Moop stammered, “Y-yes sir?”

“Don’t let the company fall into the hands of those O’Blivion bastards. Promise me you’ll fight them to the bitter end.”

“I- I can’t shoot everyone in Beverage International, sir,” Moop protested. He jumped at a shout from across the lot. A gun went off. Moop’s hand fluttered to the pistol in his pocket, and Septimus’s hand clamped around his wrist.

“Listen! This is it!” the old man cried. “I’m going to tell you something I never told anyone. Largely because it would have been hell for my reputation. Well, that doesn’t matter any more. Let them not speak ill of the dead. When I was a young man,” he began pulling frantically at the ring on his index finger, “I played college football. I lived in a frat house, all of us lads there were on the team. We all got one of these to celebrate the spirit of men coming together over a couple of posts and a ball, and a lot of beer and some women. The spirit of brotherhood is in this ring. The thing is,”

“Sir!”

Figures in red shirts and caps were spilling from the fire stairs into the shadowy lot. Moop pulled the gun from his pocket and fired into their ranks. A bullet glanced off the ceiling and struck one in the knee. The PR man dropped jerking and screaming to the ground.

“Listen!” Septimus slapped Moop open palmed across the face. “Take this ring, and seek out an accountant named Jeffrey in Lancashire. Show him the ring. He’ll know immediately that I sent you. He used to be my frat buddy back in the day – and about forty years ago we used the same solicitor to get out of some trouble with a waitress. She had connections with the mob; it stood to get quite prickly. You don’t need to know about that. But if you can find that solicitor-! His name is Martin. In light of the case at the time, I gave him legal permission to act on my behalf in event of my death by murder. Find Martin, and stop the takeover!”

Moop stuffed the ring into his pocket and screamed, the gun firing continually into the PR men now firing on them, “What the hell is a solicitor you knew forty years ago going to do about this?

The last of the PR men fell. The elevator behind Septimus dinged, and B2 lit up in yellow.

“Martin can act as President until a replacement is found,” said Septimus, as the doors opened behind him, “he can stop the company from going to auction. He can stop the takeov-agh!”

The PR man stepped from the elevator, clapping a hand to either side of Septimus’s withered head. With one sharp twist, it was over for the President.

“Oops,” said the PR man, “guess he tripped getting onto the elevator.”

“No! You bastard!” Moop smashed the gun into the PR man’s face. He stumbled back, spat blood and a tooth onto the concrete.

“Why you!” he snarled, lunging at Moop.

A shot exploded through the parking lot. The PR man jerked aside, brains bursting through his ear, red cap spiralling into the air. Moop lurched backwards and the PR man dropped bodily into a puddle of his own grey matter. His cap pattered to the concrete.

Mr Barry rushed across the lot. “Finally, I got rid of those suckers. Is the President – oh my God!”

He dropped to his knees by Septimus. The old man would have looked almost peaceful spread out on the polished cement, if it wasn’t for the encroaching pool of blood and the ungainly angle of his neck.

“I’m sorry, Mr Barry,” Moop choked. “I thought I got the last of them.”

Mr Barry shook his head, the dim light catching on the tears sliding down his cheeks. “No, I’m sorry. This never should have happened. But he knew this was the end. By whatever fate, he knew.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Moop repeated what the President had told him. He showed Mr Barry the ring.

“He saw something in you,” said Mr Barry, passing back the ring. “He knew you were someone to be trusted. I’ve never heard of this illegitimate solicitor, and maybe the old man just had bats in the belfry.  But if this Martin can really stop the takeover, then we need to find him. O’Blivion won’t stop at this.”

No, thought Moop. O’Blivion wouldn’t stop until everyone on Earth was drinking their beverages.

“I’m going to wait here with the body,” said Mr Barry. “I want you to go upstairs and ring the police. If we both leave the scene of the crime it’s only going to look like one of us murdered the President.”

“And then, Mr Barry?”

But Mr Barry shook his head. “No more Mr Barry. Just Barry is fine. Mr Septimus trusted you and that’s enough for me. Once you’ve called the police, I want you to go straight to Lancashire and find this Jeffrey. Make him help you track down Martin. Don’t rest until you find him.”

Moop nodded slowly. “Yes, Mr Barry. Yes, Barry. I’ll find Martin. You can trust me.”

He left the elevators, Barry, Septimus and the fallen PR man behind, crossing to the fire stairs, to freedom, and to destiny.

-*-*-*-

Take it, leave it? Sugar, milk?

 

 

Fictionarama: Blood in the Air

A Brisbane theatre troupe has adapted George Orwell’s 1984, and guess who has a ticket to see it? That’s right, my mother. It’s her mother’s day present from yours truly. And as much as she said she wanted to see it, I’m really not convinced she knows what it’s about.

Oh well. She’ll find out soon enough. :{}

1984_14_event

 

And now, it’s time to strap on your seatbelts, because this week’s episode of Sunday Witch Hunters is about to be served hot straight onto your lap! There was too much imagery in that sentence! Last week we joined new exorcist Joe and his mentor Knox in the gym for a practise session and a bit of trivia about demon hunting. This week Joe plunges into his first real job with the Muraluna Witch Hunters – but is he in over his head?

If you haven’t yet experienced the paranormal action drama hullabaloo that is The Sunday Witch Hunters, you can find the previous episodes here. Regular readers, survivors should gather at the end of …

The Sunday Witch Hunters

Episode 12: Blood in the Air

 

 

bloodforest1

*

Night fell early and the breeze was hard and cold when the Mustang rolled into Joe’s street. Joe climbed gladly into the purring vehicle, not even minding that he had to sit beside Drake if it meant being out of the frigid night. His school uniform had turned out to not only be the best clothes he owned, but also the warmest.

Lily was in the co-pilot’s seat. She gave Joe a wink which sent his pulse racing. This week her platinum ringlets were streaked with pink. She was pushing the boundaries of cute in black and white petticoats and leather boots over her stripy pink knee socks. The details of her figure were obscured by a shapeless knot sweater, but Joe was confident he’d memorised them. She looked good. He wished he looked half as good for her.

“I hope you’ve got your combat boots on,” she told him, grinning. “This is nothing like the jobs you took last week. These are extremely hostile demons, likely acting as a pack. They’re running riot in the National Park. A park ranger was killed a week ago, another yesterday. Apparently the rangers were found strewn across a hundred metres of forest. It’s a matter of finding the pack before they kill again.”

“People died?” Joe choked. “I never heard anything about it on the news.”

“You probably heard a different story. There was a witness to the first killing. The witness reported a big black tentacle monster bursting up out of the ground and tearing the guts out of the ranger. The witness was held in custody, but the crime scene confirmed the ranger’s injuries were not consistent with the physical limitations of a human being. The killing, in conjunction with numerous sightings of inexplicable creatures, prompted National Parks to call us.”

“But still …”

“Besides,” said Lily, “if I had the choice between saying to the media that two park rangers were pulled apart demons, or two park rangers tripped over their own shoelaces and fell off a cliff, I know which I’d be going with. Don’t you?”

Joe conceded her that. Lily turned to fiddle with the radio. Knox was humming and hadn’t said boo since Joe stepped into the car.

“You want to be careful, kid.”

Drake, meanwhile, was seething attitude, sprawled across the back seat like he was Vlad the Impaler poised on a throne of skulls. He caught Joe’s eye and sneered. “What these two won’t tell you, I will. You’re bait, kid. You go out there tonight, you’re gonna be totally defenceless.”

Joe’s face flushed red. Had Drake heard about the gym? Pleased his comment had the desire effect, Drake went on, “I can make you an exorcist, like I did with Lily. We’ll cut a deal. Give me your kidneys and I’ll make sure you survive tonight.”

Lily twisted in her seat and smacked Drake’s knee. “Stop going on about Joe’s kidneys! It’s all you ever talk about. Not to mention that it’s extremely rude, especially when he’s here in the car with us.”

“She knows she has the power, y’see,” Drake said amicably, putting his shoulder to Lily. “Most demons we face don’t have a hope against a real exorcist. Lily doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, or she’d tell you how pathetic you are. And Knox, he’s no better. You’re demon bait, boy.”

“I’m not sure I follow you,” Joe replied, with a glassy sort of calmness. He checked the doors, but the doors were locked.

Drake smirked. “You go out tonight, there’s a damn high chance you won’t be coming back.”

“Goodness gracious me, Drake,” Knox tutted, finally tuned in to planet Earth. “I never imagined you were so compassionate. For a god of death to show such consideration towards a mere mortal is truly astounding. You must be the butt of every joke in the realm of fates. Don’t tell me your deal with Lily is making you human.”

Drake could barely muster the sharp flinches and facial contortions necessary to convey his displeasure. He huffed, and sneered, “You wait, you insignificant reaper scum. You and I will fight one day. Your disrespect will be your grave.”

By now the Mustang was cruising outside the city limits. In the distance plains gave way to mallee forests, the scrubby eucalypts blanketing a series of low, rolling hills. Joe recognised the pig farm as it flashed by his window. They were the only car on the road for a long while.

After an interminable drive without much conversation the Mustang veered off the quiet main road, onto a single lane dirt track winding through the scrub. Trees rose up around the car; dark, scruffy mallee gums blanched in the cone of the headlights. The hills kicked up and less defined tracks crisscrossed the road. Joe had to wonder how anybody could know which way to go in such a maze of tracks, but the Chief never hesitated for a second.

High in the hills, the Mustang crunched to a halt. It sat with its engine plinking while the three Witch Hunters unloaded their gear from the boot. Drake stood in the shadows and brooded. He didn’t offer to help, and he didn’t ask Joe for his kidneys again. For this at least Joe was somewhat thankful. Knox had left the headlights on and there on the roadside they were trapped in a narrow bowl of light. Above them, so far from town, the stars were a blaze of glory. All around them, the trees held only darkness in their gently groaning branches. Joe shivered, pulling his jacket tighter around him.

Knox was going through the job details again when a whooping, blood-curdling wail tore through the forest.

“Take this.” Knox shoved an EM cannon into Joe’s arms and strode off up the hillside like an iron filing sucked up by a magnet. Dressed all in black he took only seconds to disappear into the trees.

Lily looked sideways at Joe. “We should follow him.”

Joe gulped. He was glad of the EM’s weight in his arms. “Do we need anything else?”

Lily took a short iron rod from the Mustang, wedged a silver revolver under Joe’s belt, and slammed the boot. “This is it. Let’s go.”

She whistled to Drake and spurred off across the gravel. Joe lurched after her. She’d brushed his skin when she stuck the revolver under his belt and he could feel her touch all the way to his toes.

A second wail split the night. Joe faltered on the gravel hill. The EM cannon was heavy in his arms but not nearly heavy enough for comfort. Lily vanished in the trees ahead of him. He gritted his teeth and pushed on. His kidneys for survival. Talk about inflation. A few weeks ago it had been his kidneys for eternal life.

Joe hit a crest and plunged down the far side into a wide gravel gully, a dip between two buttresses flowing down from the peak. The gully was littered with ferns and infant gums and dead grass and bisected at its lowest point by a lightning bolt creek. Gums soared on either side, their gnarled claws groping at the stars, haze of leaves forming a sardonic mimicry of cover.

Tearing down the crest on skidding shoes Joe had a dim glance of Knox and Lily meeting a vast moving body of shadow rising from the creek bed. Vague forms detached from the main body, dark demonic figures dancing and howling, insatiable blood-lusting howls that tore through Joe and turned his blood to ice.

“Lily!” he cried, slipping on a rush of loose gravel towards the creek, dark figures flashing all around him. God, he wanted to run. Run towards the darkness, run away from it, God, he just had to run. He couldn’t make out Knox or Lily or anything other than the demons dancing all around him. He was alone in a forest of noise and shadow. “Knox! Where are you?”

Something leapt out of the darkness at him, and Joe swung the EM cannon into its chest. The thing reeled away, a jiggling amalgamation of gruesome parts, some dark liquid squirting from its busted chest catching on the starlight and the illumination of its dull red eyes. He stared at the creature as it danced for balance, his fingers groping for the cannon’s ON switch. Tusks bit into his side and he bit back a yowl. Another demon slammed into him and he lost his grip on the cannon. It rolled under a cloven hoof and was gone. The air was thick with the rank stench of the creatures, blood and matted fur, the putrid odour of sulphur and an unearthly heat that leapt from beast to beast, beating down on Joe, closing in on him. The ranks closed around him. A demon lashed out. Joe flinched. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t run. Nowhere to run. Teeth like a fistful of syringes sunk into the back of his calf. There was a ripple of movement from the demons surrounding him as they tensed to strike. Joe gathered every last bit of courage and desperation within him and swung his fist at the nearest demon.

He danced back as its lopsided skull exploded in front of his face.

“Need a hand?”

Joe mopped at the dark bits of flesh and bone on his face. He glanced at Knox over his shoulder. “D’ya coulda,” he stammered, “d’ya coulda hit me!”

Knox grinned. He kicked a demon aside and picked his black baseball bat from the midst of a bunch of hastily retreating hell spawn. The demons ruptured, wailing, beneath the bat.

“Stay calm and focused they won’t hurt you too much. If you’re afraid, stay close to me.”

Then Knox was off, chasing the demon horde. Joe figured he would stay where he was if it kept him away from more demons. He fetched the EM cannon from the gravel and had just flicked it on when a warning growl sounded several yards away. He whirled on the noise, cannon at the ready.

A wall of hellspawn faced him from across the narrow creek. Black on black, horns and hoofs and tentacles and dim red eyes. All piled on top of each other, quivering with the need to strike. It was like being watched by a bowl of offal.

“Um,” said Joe. “Hold on.”

He pawed at the trigger. He found it as the wall of demons dissolved towards him. The EM cannon bellowed in his hands. A streak of thunder ripped a hole right through the horde, taking off limbs and hollowing ribcages without discrimination. Demons it hit smacked the ground wetly, writhing and shrieking as their dark blood boiled and their flesh dissolved to dust.

Joe gaped in dull horror at the beasts dying in front of him, watching breath suck against ribcages for the last time. The recoil from the cannon had knocked him ass over. A few demons stopped to pick at their dying brothers; a taste of an arm here, a lick of a tentacle there. The rest fell shrieking over Joe. At last he got a hold of himself and fired at chest height. Demons exploded around him. A stray hand slapped him across the cheek. Heads banged at his feet. The air buzzed with the cacophony of death.

For a minute, maybe two, he managed to thwart the endless horde. He let the EM cannon fall smoking from his numb arms. The plan was to find his feet and run for cover while the demons’ ranks were thin. He rolled onto his feet and thunder boomed on the hill above him. Joe was so preoccupied that it took him a handful of seconds to realise it was the earth shaking, and not him.

The shaking rose to a violent tremor, rocking Joe from his feet. The zigzag storm gully wrenched open with a sickening crunch. Driven as a nest of spiders before a fire, demons poured from the wound in the earth. Joe heard Knox cry,

“We’ve hit a hive!”

and the demons surged over him.

The demons of the hive were hulking, lean, insectile, reptilian things of ill-fitting skin and toothless mouths and mouthless teeth. Their eyes sat as dead as moons in their dented skulls. Their knuckles dragged the wretched earth. Smoke curled from their backs and excited chitters ran back and forth through their ranks, up and down Joe’s spine. From brain to bowel. He groped blindly for the EM cannon.

“Buchanan!” Knox roared, somewhere higher on the hill, fighting his way through the gully towards Joe, “Take care of these! I’ll find the hive tyrant!”

Lily waved a hand and at last Joe found her. His heart pounded harder than ever to see she was all right, some sickening chemical slogging through his veins until he felt ready to collapse with relief. She drew the short iron rod from her petticoat pocket, and pressed the end to her side.

“Thunder rumble, vagrant sword!”

There was a flash of lightning, a brilliant haphazard streak from earth to clouds, followed by a squeal of thunder. The iron rod became a snarl of lightning in Lily’s hand.

She leapt into the gully, her weapon a jagged streak of light. She tore through the hive demons, sword humming like a chainsaw, sending bits of demons flying in every direction. Bodies tore beneath the savage blade.

Joe took his cue. He grabbed for the EM cannon as the demons scrambled for him, driven towards him by Lily. His breath coming in terrified gasps, he pulled the cannon into his arms, plastered his back against a fallen tree and fired madly into the crowd. The recoil knocked him hard against the tree, but Joe didn’t dare consider not firing again.

“All right?” Knox crouched at Joe’s side as the cannon smouldered and hissed. Joe was afraid it was melting. He peeled his eyes from the demons to Knox’s pale face, the only part of him readily visible in that darkest night. The black bat was slung over his shoulder, slick with blood and undead flesh. “I suppose the hive tyrant is in the middle of that lot- gak!”

His words were punctuated by a tentacle of inky blackness and telegraph pole thickness snaking from the shadow of the mallee forest and slapping around his waist. The tentacle withdrew with a snap, pulling Knox with it. Only his hat and his baseball bat remained in the storm gully. Hat and bat pattered to the gravel. The rest of Knox cleared the fifty yards between the gully and the forest and crashed into a sapling. The sapling snapped and Knox rolled to a stop on the forest floor.

Across the gully, Lily and Joe exchanged a glance. Mutually dumbstruck, they turned to gape at the mallee forest.

“Oh, um,” said Joe, lamely, “Shouldn’t we-”

Too late. Lily was already running. Even then she was too late to do anything about the mass of glistening black tentacles and snapping beaks that clung to a towering gum tree at the forest’s verge. And what a Lovecraftian horror it was. Some dread beast from the depths of the sea, dredged onto land and made nimble and supple. Starlight gleamed dully from its rubbery black form. It dropped from the gum, slipping into the cover of the trees with cuttlefish speed, tentacles slipping and smacking wetly through the scrub. The suckers on its tentacles shredded the bark from every tree it touched.

Knox crawled upright against a tree. He picked a branch from the ground for defence. Feeling a wetness on his chest he patted his jacket front. It was gone. His shirt hung in tatters, all that was left of his jacket were the sleeves. He also seemed to be missing a fair amount of skin. Blood slogged in his ears, making it difficult to gauge if the rhythmic slosh was his pulse or something heavy dragging itself across the forest floor.

Something heavy, he decided, raising the branch with half a second to spare. The squid wrapped one tentacle around the branch and squeezed it to pulp. End of branch. Knox grabbed for the squid with a bloodied hand, and a tentacle against slapped his unguarded shins, ripping his feet out from underneath him. Before he could fall  another tentacle slapped around his midriff and hurled him deeper into the forest. He went flying, hit a tree, this one sturdier than the sapling. He had no chance to catch himself. He hit with his shoulder and bounced off the trunk and crashed bonelessly to the earth.

Joe, running as hard as he could up the slope, Lily bounding beside him, searched desperately for Knox’s body. Lily shouted for Knox to give her some answer. Reserve demons were clawing from the open creek. The scent of blood was thick in the air. The demons were wild. Lily was wilder. She ran down the black squid as it chased the scent of blood, driving her lightning sword into the creature’s thick hide. A tentacle wrapped around her waist and slammed her into the earth.

Joe saw. He screamed. He couldn’t help it. This wasn’t the shadow play he’d witnessed with Knox. This was Lily. This was his. He hit the dirt on his knees beside her, pawed furiously at her face, patting her cheek, her name falling from his throat again and again.

“Lily. Lily. Lily. Lily, get up!”

-*-*-*-*-

Continued in The Sunday Witch Hunters, episode 13. Out next week!

Really though, what is it about forests at night that just make you go, “Nope.” I see a forest during the day, I’m all over it. A forest at night, nope. Not going in there. No way. Not me. Not this primate. Nope.

Anyway. I’ve been stuck for a while wondering what I should do with the site and with reviews and how to help people and stay motivated. What I thought was I might move the book review from a podcast to a video. Subscriptions and managing files is certainly easier on YouTube than it is podcast sites. Plus video. I was thinking even it would be neat to film some footage relevant to the book.

For instance, D. James Fortescue’s Sayeh and Zia is set in Arabia about 2500 years ago. Sorry if I don’t have the time exactly write, D! But certainly it is set in a desert. A wooden mask also plays an important role in the story. I don’t think it would be too difficult to film some robed women in nearby stone ruins, and maybe also some footage with a wooden mask.

A friend has an idea as well, and that is if I’m reviewing a space opera, we could make a campy space set and have spaceships on strings. Hey, Plan 9 From Outer Space did it. And that is surely one of the greatest movies of all time … surely.

The review videos would be 5 – 10 minutes long, and each one would focus on just one book. This is opposed to the podcast covering 5 books in under half an hour. It might come out once a fortnight. I really want to do readings as well. Gosh. Well, let me know what you think. I won’t apologise for this year being like it has been, but I will say I’m happy it’s getting its act together. Too much imagery again.

What do you think?

The Sunday Witch Hunters: Where Four Roads Meet

Good evening and welcome to episode ten of the Sunday Witch Hunters! Whoo! Whoo!

The Sunday Witch Hunters follows new exorcist Joe Malone and his adventures with a gang of backwater exorcists. In episode nine, it seemed to Joe that the more he learns about his fellow exorcists, the more questions he has. But even as Joe makes fast friends with the eclectic Balthazar Knox and the very lovely Lily Buchanan, and faces the scourge of the night, his inexperience blinds him to a far greater plight going on beneath his feet: Hell’s infernal war machines are on the move, and the Muraluna Witch Hunters may be all that stands between Hell … and hell on earth.

If you haven’t already, you can read the first episode here. For everyone else, please keep hands inside the carriage at all times, and enjoy tonight’s episode of…

The Sunday Witch Hunters

 Episode 10: Where Four Roads Meet

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crossroads

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Monday was school as usual.

Joe had one friend in Lochan Key High, and that Campbell “Kammy” Kelleher. Kammy had one interest in school, and that was as somewhere quiet to play his PSP. Or, less often, his little sister’s crumb-filled DS. The first time Kammy laid eyes on Joe he’d said, “Our eyes have met. We must do battle.”

The ensuing arm wrestle had proved them so evenly matched that they had strained and sweated for an hour before the vice principal strode into the science lab and told them to get into his office, now. They spent the next three weeks in detention together, surviving all manner of wannabe tattooists, aspirin dealers, Kamasutra illustrators, spray-taggers, actual artists, pyromaniacs and men too old to be in school.

It had been rough. But that three weeks made them thick as thieves. Or in Kammy’s case, maybe just thick. Joe didn’t like to think that about his one friend, but nor could he deny the undeniable air of thickness surrounding Campbell Kelleher.

Not that Kammy wasn’t smart. He was obviously really clever at bleep-blooping on his portable games systems and he was ingenious when it came to skipping last period. It was more that he never asked questions. Whenever he came up against a boss fight where the solution wasn’t immediately obvious, he would undoubtedly consult the internet. And when Joe mentioned Drake, back in the days before Joe had known Drake was a shinigami, Kammy had accepted Joe’s weird observations about a guy he couldn’t see, immediately and  without question.

In that sense, Kammy was a good friend. A very good friend. It is easy to speak your mind around someone open to suggestion. So easy, that when Kammy dropped into his usual seat beside Joe seconds before rollcall and casually demanded where the hell Joe had been all weekend, Joe very nearly told him.

He stopped himself just in time. “I was at a – at a shop with my grandparents.”

Kammy pulled his PSP out of his bag and propped his boots on the desk. “Yeah? Musta been some shop if you missed out on Sunday ice cream parlour night.”

“It was great.” Joe could have slapped himself. Idiot! What kind of moron went to the shops with their grandparents? Well, probably a lot of people did. But they didn’t have to boast about it! Hastily, he added, “What did you do, then? Aside from Sunday ice cream parlour night.”

Kammy shrugged. “Dunno.” He shook his PSP. “Bleep bloop, you know, it’s the life.”

Mr Jervis risked lifting his head above his desk to call roll, and Kammy forgot Joe in favour of his PSP. Joe regarded Kammy from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but feel he was betraying Kammy by lying to him. The problem was, thought Joe, it was weird enough that he was seeing ghosts and demons and having meetings with exorcists; telling people about it would land him a one way ticket to Crankville.

And maybe it would be worse than that. Kammy was such an unquestioning friend that he would probably believe Joe, but then he might believe Joe so much that he went and told everyone else about what Joe had said. Then what would happen? At the very least, Joe supposed he would be kicked out of the Witch Hunters. Worse? Hauled off to the mad house, maybe?

Probably since there were no proper mad houses these days, Joe would just be forced to live with the Chief. That would be quite mad enough.

The idea bothered him so much that instead of catching the bus home after school as he’d planned, he got off at the second stop and walked down the street to the library.

Even in the mid-afternoon the May sun was pallid and mocking from behind a scrap of dishwater-coloured cirrus clouds, colours robbed from the buildings until they were as bleak and grey as the concrete footpath. The library hunched like a wet black cat on the corner of the block, its yellow windows glaring out at the drab street. Joe pushed aside his reservations and jogged through the thin rain, beads of freezing water curling under the collar of his jacket and sliding down his neck.

He slowed to a halt in the warm air soaking the library’s foyer. Ahh. It was like standing in a river of magma. He stood between the theft detectors in the warm breeze as the heat was sucked out onto the cold street behind him, the automated doors wide open, and scanned the rows of shelves around the front desk for any sign of Knox. A polite, stern cough summoned his attention to the fore.

Neila Speer, a femme fatale in her grey skirt suit and silky beige stockings, looked Joe up and down behind her wireframe glasses. “Malone,” she greeted without warmth. “Do you have business here aside from letting out the heat?”

“Uh.” Joe shuffled into the library. “I’m looking for the Chief. Is he here today? Um. So you work here too?”

“I do. I’m sure I mentioned it to you before. And yes, Knox is here. His office is on the third floor, behind the archives.”

Joe figured he might as well go ahead on up. Neila waited for him to crabwalk away before she swept outside to join the rest of the icy breezes. She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t look back. She never did.

At this time of day, the library was quiet. The throngs of seniors and mothers with young children had left, and the teenagers with their contraband Mars Bars and smart phones had yet to wander in. Barely a soul flickered between the shelves. Joe’s footsteps echoed on the stairway.

But if the ground floor was quiet, the first floor was a cemetery, and the second floor was a ghost town. By time he reached the third floor, where the archives and microfilms were kept, Joe’s ears were straining against the silence. Dust motes hung in the few weak lances of sunlight filtering through the high, grimy windows. The shelves seemed to hum with the sensation of too many books gone too long unread.

“Hello? Chief?” Joe called. The silence dwarfed his voice. He went to call out again, and the shelf beside him spat a row of microfilm to the carpet. Joe yelped and scuttled sideways.

The Chief’s unruly black mop stuck through the space on the shelf. He checked the aisle away from Joe, then towards him, and smiled in recognition.

“Hallo, Joe,” he said, oblivious to Joe sucking in breath through his gritted teeth, “could you fetch those microfilms for me? I thought you were a gremlin. Only way to catch a gremlin is to sneak up on it, you know.”

“Oh yes? Er. Gremlin?”

Bloody hell, thought Joe, I’ve only been up here fifteen seconds and he’s already talking about things that don’t exist.

“Yes. They’ve been stealing the archives on the topic of raising cattle.” Knox scowled. “Silly bloody creatures. We’re in a library; where are they going to put livestock?”

Joe wondered where he should go with this and decided he shouldn’t. “Er, anyway. If you’re busy, I’ll go, but er, if you’ve got a minute, I wanted to ah, ask you about the club.”

“Shoot,” said Knox, and settled in place on the shelf.

Disturbed at the prospect of conversing with a disembodied head, Joe ducked around the shelf into Knox’s aisle.

“You’re no fun,” Knox grumbled good-naturedly, retreating from the bookcase. “I was going to scout for gremlins from there.”

“I’ll help you look,” Joe said, without having the slightest idea of what he would be looking for, or at if he saw it. Tiny cattle ranchers, maybe? Knox seemed satisfied with the offer however, so Joe steadied himself with a breath and asked his question. “Can I – what if I – what’ll happen if I tell someone I’m a Witch Hunter?”

There. Out. Now the pause like the silence after the bomb is dropped.

“Boom,” Knox grinned. “I suspect they’ll know.”

“Who?” said Joe.

“Whoever you tell about being a Witch Hunter. Unless they’re deaf and not in a position to lip read, or an animal incapable of grasping the concept of exorcism. If you manage to avoid that, then I’m quite certain that’s what will happen; they’ll know.”

Growing desperate, Joe demanded, “Is that a problem?”

“If it is, maybe you should have considered that before you ran your mouth.”

“I haven’t told anybody yet!”

Silence prevailed between Joe and Knox. Joe was ready to run at any second. Knox appeared equally tense. There was a shrill giggle from further down the aisle.

“Ah! I knew it!” Knox whirled on the sound. “Here, Joe! We’ve a gremlin to catch!”

Fifteen minutes later, panting and exhausted, the men regarded the fruits of their labour. A scrawny brown gremlin crouched sulking in its jam jar prison. Its eyes were slitted and entirely red, a bit like Bliss Van Hook’s when she was mad, which was always. The gremlin looked a bit like a human and a lot like a lizard, was covered in wrinkled skin with a handkerchief wrapped around its waist, and standing straight was about as tall as Joe’s hand.

“It really is exceptionally similar to Van Hook,” Knox remarked, tapping the jar. “I think I’ll call it Kilturney.”

He and Joe sat slumped in the armchairs in the third storey office, a small space walled off from the archives. Books of no common variety were stacked in haphazard towers around the room, and there was a radio buried somewhere, droning so softly that Joe couldn’t make out the words. The ceiling bulb was bare and the light it cast was amber. Directly opposite Knox’s crowded desk was a poster for fire safety. It was the only poster in the room. There were no photographs. Joe could almost see Neila stomping up the stairs and tacking the fire safety poster to the wall in ire at the state of the office. He smiled at the image. Knox caught his eye, raised his eyebrows in question.

Joe nodded to the gremlin jar on the desk instead. “Will it go to Canberra?”

Knox peered over a stack of papers at Kilturney. “Oh no, Canberra is overrun with gremlins as it is. I’ll find him a new home where he can’t thieve my agricultural archives. Hm, Kilturney?”

Kilturney fixed its red glare on Knox, then wrenched one hook-clawed finger in a hard line across its throat. Knox laughed.

“Oh, he thinks he can kill me. You’ll rue the day you try, creature. Now, Joe. You asked a question. Did I answer it?”

Joe searched for any hint of humour in the other man’s face, found none. “Not particularly. I mean, I wouldn’t mind a different answer.”

“Can I hear the question again? I’ve got gremlins on the brain this afternoon.”

Resigned, Joe ventured, “I have a friend at school, and I want to tell him about the Witch Hunters. Does that make problems for you?”

He was stunned. He’d asked a question without stammering or delving into absurdities even once. Maybe Kilturney had a calming presence. Joe glanced at the gremlin. It caught his eye and flicked a booger at him, then returned to rooting around in its loincloth.

Above acknowledging such ignoble behaviour, Knox said, “That really depends on your friend. There’s no shame in telling people, but you have to be prepared to not be believed, or even worse, have them believe you. If that happens, and your friend is possessed of a big mouth, then it creates no end of headaches for us. I for one have no desire to be called upon at all hours by media, sceptics, protest groups, religious groups, wannabes and weirdos. We must also have respect for the privacy of our fellow Witch Hunters. Forget that, and you will soon raise the hackles of all involved. Believe you me, that’s the last thing you want.”

Joe nodded. “That’s what I thought. Maybe it’s better if I don’t say anything.”

“Use your discretion, whatever you chose to do.” Knox thought for a moment. On a whim, he said, “Say, Joe. You’ve told us already that Ms Buchanan tricked you into the dread pits of the Sunday Witch Hunters. What about before that? Were you always able to communicate with the undead?”

“I dunno. Maybe. I never paid them much attention before.” Joe frowned. Inspiration struck. “I thought maybe it was just, you know, made up. Like maybe I was just dreaming things. You see that stuff on TV, and magazines and stuff run your horoscope, and I guess most people have their superstitions. Sometimes it’s spooky stuff. But unless you’re home alone, you never really think of it being anything other than made up.”

“What changed your mind?”

“It’s sort of a story,” said Joe, squirming.

“Well I’m not going out there until that mob clears off,” Knox gestured rather savagely to the teenagers filtering upstairs in packs of three and four. “So if you’re inclined to tell it, it’s a story I’d like to hear.”

Joe knew he was had. He settled into the armchair, his eyes on Kilturney as the gremlin chewed on its skinny arm. After a few moments of meditation, Joe thought he knew where to begin.

 *

I was on my way home from school (he said), and I’d been walking for about a fifteen minutes and had another five to go before I reached the hospital.

My mum is a nurse there, you see, and she finished her shift at five, so if I hung around the hospital for an hour or so then we would go home together. Otherwise it was two hours on the bus. I was still on my learner’s licence then so I never drove to school.

The cicadas were having a fine time of things. It was December, and hot, and there was barely anybody out. Even the cars were all up at the school end of town. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Hume’s Cross but it’s a gateway to nowhere. I’d walked blocks without seeing anybody when I reached the crossroads of the old highway and the main street, though no one uses the highway now the bypass is in place, and that end of the main street is a torn-up track with a few buildings per block. After the hospital, the street empties out into the dust, and that’s it for Hume’s Cross.

So in light of all this I wasn’t surprised to see a lady lost at the intersection of the old highway and Main Street. It was weirder to see someone new in town than it was to see them lost. I could tell she was lost the way she was looking at the corner sign and then up and down the street like she didn’t know what to make of it. She had a sort of floaty look about her. I thought she was pretty without needing to see her face. White dress, hat in her hands. She looked like she should be sweating in the heat, and as I crossed the street towards her I could see strands of hair sticking to her cheek, but she didn’t seem all that bothered by it.

The street sign she was looking at was bent so the arm to the hospital pointed to the sky, and the arm to the highway was guiding her into the house across the road. I tapped her shoulder and said,

“If you need ’em, I can give you directions.”

I startled her, though I figured she would have heard me by then. She turned around with a hand on her heart.

“Can you really?” she said. “I’m terribly lost. I’d so appreciate a your help.”

Man, she was gorgeous. Full figure, this long, dark, straight hair, shiny as silk. Cleavage a man could drown in. Too nice for me. Anyway, I told her, “The hospital is that way, another five minutes’. Town, shops, post office are all fifteen minutes that way.”

Then she gave this laugh, bitter like, maybe a little frightened. She said to me, “I’ve walked through this crossroads three times now, and I’m afraid if I walk through again I’ll be stuck here forever.”

On any other day I might have laughed. But I could tell by her tone she wasn’t kidding, and that outright killed my humour. She went on to say that she was trying to get from the hospital to town, but every time she walked straight along the main street she wound up back at the old highway. Her voice shook as she spoke, her pupils dilated under the bright sun. Sweat was beading on her forehead now, and I was worried she was going to faint.

“How about I walk with you to the hospital?” I said. “I know it’s not the way you want to go, but at least if you wind up here again, you’ll have me with you.”

Not much of an offer. I didn’t know what else I could do. The mercury must’ve been pushing 38, and coming off the pavement it felt double that. She couldn’t just stand in the crossroads all afternoon in that heat. She agreed she would go with me. She smiled as she said it. She even put her hand on my arm as we crossed the old highway and went north towards the hospital.

We walked for a block, not saying a word. I can’t tell you how tense I was. Her fingers were digging into my arm harder than was comfortable. I kept track of the houses we passed. Each one I recognised, I checked it off my mental list. As absurd as it seemed, I was dreading seeing that old highway up ahead of us, like the lady said she had. She didn’t let go of my arm.

Next thing I knew, there we were. Main and Hospital Street. A car went by on Last, like none had done since a block before I met the lady. I saw people walking further north on the main, where there’s a park right before the hospital, and I realised it had been a long while since I’d seen anyone other than the lady.

I couldn’t feel her fingers on my arm, but when I looked down, I could see her hand squeezing tight on my elbow. She met my eyes. She was my height, tall for a woman. Her eyes were shining softly, beautiful. She smiled at me and I wasn’t game to smile in return.

“We made it,” she said, and she sounded as relieved as I felt. “How can I thank you?”

A braver man might have asked for her phone number, or at least her name. I just said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m glad to help.”

She laughed at me. “Don’t be silly. I would have been trapped there if it weren’t for you. And I’ve messed with this plane so thoroughly already that no one will notice one tiny favour.”

My heart skipped a beat. Maybe she would give me her number without me even asking her. I was thinking too hard about that to notice her words didn’t make much sense. I mean, we don’t even have an air strip in town. She took my left hand and pushed it against my chest. She kept smiling. I thought maybe she was going to kiss me.

“There,” she said, without the kiss. “To make up for the one that was lost.”

I felt a coldness spread through me, starting at my head and chest, and then the rest of me, and it wasn’t a coldness of a cloud shadow or a chill breeze, but of something inanimate, of cold things deep beneath the ground. And there was this noise, the clanging of a bell. A big bell, not pretty sound but a brutal one, and it made my heartbeat quicker to hear it.

Then it was gone. The cold, the noise, the lady; all gone. I was alone on the corner, sweating under the sun, hearing people and cars up the road, and of the lady there was not a single hair. My hand was up against my chest, so I pulled it up to my face to see if I’d been dreaming.

I heard a whisper then, from behind me and maybe above, and maybe not at all. “I’ve changed things. Feel free to choose the rest.”

When I turned, I was still alone. I began to think I had been all along. Anyway I was looking a fool standing on the street searching for nothing, so I crossed the last road and went on to the hospital.

I thought a lot about that lady, mainly because she was a babe, but also because she had disappeared in such a strange way. But a week passed and then another, and nothing was solved, and so I didn’t think about it anymore.

Plus, then I had something else to think about, that I couldn’t help but feel was related, and was in my opinion the most out of place part of the whole weird episode. A few days after I met the lady, Mum and Dad called me into the kitchen, and Dad said,

“We’ve made up our minds. Joe, we’re sending you to the city. To Muraluna. It’s about time you got a proper education.”

 *

In the library, Joe fell silent.

Knox mimicked him for several seconds, before stirring from his trance.

“Well,” he said, and stretched cat-like in his comfortable chair, “crossroads are notorious for being haunted, by demons and spirits both. I agree it’s fascinating is that so soon after meeting your lovely lady, you were sent here. Where you met us. Or at least, where you met Drake.”

“I think that’s what she meant by change,” said Joe. “She sent me here so I could join the Witch Hunters.”

“That would be an exceptional favour,” Knox mused. After a few moments’ though he jumped up from his seat and stalked to the door. “Thank you for that. It’s an intriguing case indeed. I’ll take it you’re still keen for Thursday’s mission.”

Joe rose, taking the hint that his stay was over, “Yes, sir.”

Knox offered him a brief, fluttering smile. It was clear by the dreamy quality of his tone that his mind was anywhere but Thursday. “Good, good. It ought to be interesting; we’ve been enlisted by National Parks to see to a disturbance. There are rumours there are monsters involved.”

Monsters? Joe gulped. “Sounds great. What time should I meet you?”

“Any time, boy. Any time is a good time for hunting demons,” Knox smirked. God only knew what he was thinking. “As for a practical time, six o’ clock will do nicely. I’ll pick you up from your place. Also, schedule in an hour of training for tomorrow afternoon, if it isn’t too much bother; you can meet me in front of the Welfare Centre. As for telling people about the Witch Hunters … as she said, Joe, it’s up to you.”

Laughing, cackling, Knox slammed the office door in Joe’s face.

 *-*-*-*

How’d you like it? I hope you did!

There is certainly a lot of editing to be done with this series. Even though the book is written, and the flow of events is basically good, I feel the writing is very poor. I go through each episode three or four times, changing virtually every sentence and trying to make it tighter. There is, then, plenty of room for typos in the new material. But it’s a story I really enjoy, and so I hope my fastidious editing has brought the writing up to a standard that you, too, can take pleasure from.

That said, please join  me again next week for episode eleven. Knox and Joe duking it out in the Welfare Centre – don’t miss it!

Spontaneous Book Review: The Wary Traveller by M. C. Dulac

The Wary Traveller by M. C. Dulac

 Naturschönheiten im Überfluss: Das Berchtesgadener Land

Paranormal, novella.

Jim has always been attracted to the mountains. As a child he dreamt of scaling the mountains behind his grandpa’s house in Colorado. As a young man he’s lured by a more dangerous dream – a lonesome traveller looking to get off the beaten track in the German Alps.

Jim’s spending his days in Ferienstadt drinking beer in a pub that doesn’t seem all that German and talking travel plans with a few other wanderers he’s met along the way. There’s a beer festival coming up and Jim’s friends are excited – but to Jim it seems like just another party.

It’s not until he meets a German traveller by the name of Gunther that he learns the truth – the beer festival is sponsored by a Dutch brewing company, and is put on purely for the tourists. Not to be completely disappointed, Jim asks Gunther about accessing the nearby mountains, in particular the daunting Himmelberg.

Gunther is intrigued. There aren’t many like Jim, seeking something deeper than the stock standard tourist experience. He invites Jim to the real festival, the one held high in the mountains at the foot of Himmelberg. The only access is via a small train that leaves once a day and takes hours to reached the village at the mountain’s foot, a place called Himmeldorf. Jim realises that Himmeldorf must be totally isolated from the world outside: in Himmeldorf, there are only the mountains.

He agrees readily to go, and joins Gunther on the small, slow train into the mountains. Jim feels a surge of doubt – he hardly knows Gunther, and none of his travelling friends were the least bit interested in accompanying him. Can Jim trust Gunther? He doesn’t know, but he’s compelled towards the mountains, towards isolation, towards Himmelberg in particular, and his doubts are quelled soon enough. He find Himmeldorf is an almost medieval town, stern dark wooden buildings built on a steep slope, lost in a maze of mountains and valleys.

Jim is charmed despite his misgivings about Gunther. His charm only grows as the festival begins, and the masks are whipped out. Fierce visages depicting demons and skeletons, and a hell of a parade; it’s just the festival Jim’s been craving. Gunther explains that the festival is to assuage the spirits of Winter, to prevent them from stealing the unwary away from the village.

Gunther says nowadays it’s just a party, but to Jim it still feels like more. His doubts rise again, and our doubts rise with them – the Wary Traveller rides on this beautiful rhythm of Jim’s caution and recklessness. The pacing is intensely good. There are times I wanted to shout at Jim to stop and think about what he’s doing, as Gunther leads him further and further away from his friends and the safety of modern society. But just as often were the times I was completely convinced that Jim was onto a good thing, he should keep going, pushing deeper into the mystery of the Himmelberg. It’s a fatalistic story, but in a totally different way from usual. There are ill portents everywhere, and moments of great clarity where we see exactly where Jim is headed – but at times Jim sees it too and leaps joyfully towards his destiny. His constant dip and soar from unreality back to mundanity is so deftly done, the writing technique has an excellence on par with the story itself.

Add to that a deeply ingrained sense of wanderlust and that haunting, starkly beautiful setting, and you have one incredible story. The Wary Traveller had me itching to travel. It was a story that got me excited about a whole bunch of things; Jim’s obsession with the Himmelberg is infectious, and I could almost see that huge white-capped mountain and the austere wooden houses of Himmeldorf. There’s this air of expectation, and always the faintest sense of something sinister. Dulac does a brilliant job of bringing Himmeldorf’s mythology to life. The festival, wow. The winter spirits, which would have been lame or laughable written by anybody else, were vivid and exciting and wonderful and I just couldn’t wait to hear more about them.

The Wary Traveller is like Studio Ghibli made a horror movie. I loved it so much. There is nothing about it that could be better. It is shockingly good. It is a taste of perfection in short story form. I recommend you read it immediately. I’m giving it five stars.

 

Afterwards, I wondered if I could have changed things, and at what point I could have turned back. I guess the warning signs were always there, but curiosity is a powerful thing. Like a kid setting off on a journey from his grandpa’s back yard, I was guided only by a sense of destiny, and such small details as to whether I should have gone or what I would do when I go there, did not cross my mind. Maybe real life was never going to be enough for me. Maybe I’d always felt the desire to explore, to question, to find out the truth. Maybe it was all set in motion long before I saw the Himmelberg. Although, from the first time I saw those white-blue snowy slopes, everything that followed seemed inevitable.

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You can find M. C. Dulac here, and the Wary Traveller on Amazon here.

The Sunday Witch Hunters: Second Contact

Good evening witch hunters 😀

Back after its hiatus is episode 9 of the Sunday Witch Hunters, for your kick of demons, ghosts and sexy exorcists. Sexorcists? Let’s not even go there.

The story so far…

17 year old Joe Malone is the newest member of the Muraluna Witch Hunters, a ragtag gang of exorcists. As Joe struggles to find his place in the complex net of romances and rivalries, he is blissfully ignorant of the demonic war machines churning under his feet; and that the Muraluna Witch Hunters may well be all that stands in the way of Hell on earth.

Characters in this episode:

  • Joe Malone (17): student at Lochan Key High. New to Muraluna, Joe joins the Witch Hunters as much to make friends as explore his powers. He’s fond of Lily.
  • Lily Buchanan (22): law student. A blonde bombshell with feelings for Knox. Lily is possessed by the shinigami (death god), Drake.
  • Balthazar “The Chief” Knox (28): librarian and demonologist. The Chief of the Muraluna Witch Hunters, and Joe’s mentor. Seemingly oblivious to Lily’s affections.
  • Presley Holloway (68): retired, ex-Navy. A veteran exorcist with an enviable repertoire of war stories.
  • Bliss van Hook (84): retired senior citizen. Probably that “nasty old bat” your grandmother always bickers with.
  • Iluka Wright (26): paramedic. Self-effacing and reliable, Iluka isn’t an exorcist, but plays a vital support role in larger demon hunts.
  • Neila Speer (30): librarian. A straight-laced suit whose life’s anguish is to have Knox as her boss both at the library and in the Witch Hunters.
  • Erin Ireland (18): shoe shop assistant. Probably a nice girl, but who knows? She’s easily overlooked. Lately she has taken to driving past Joe’s school in the afternoon, hoping he will need a ride home. So far he hasn’t.

And now for our feature presentation…

The Sunday Witch Hunters

Episode 9: Second Contact

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SWH9

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“Last one to shut up shouts the next round!”

The conversation bundled to a halt. Attention swung to Presley. He let out a raspy chuckle and pulled his spectacles over his beetroot-textured brow.

“I thought that would get ya. Before we start, has everybody answered the roll?”

The conference room door was thrown open, and Joe staggered to the table, red-faced and panting, his jacket knotted around his waist. He slid bonelessly into the solitary spare seat. “I haven’t,” he gasped, “Sorry. Car trouble. Had to run here.”

Lily whistled. “That’s got to be five kilometres to here from your place.”

“Five and a quarter,” Joe nodded, apparently melting. “I counted.”

Presley plastered the role to the table and obligingly scratched off Joe’s name. The reins of the meeting were handed to Knox, who was too immersed in his first beer of the evening to notice. Bliss Van Hook gained his attention by smacking her cane into his shins. Knox dropped his beer. The glass struck the table and spilled across it, soaking the job sheets and running in rivulets to the carpet. Knox stared wild-eyed at Bliss.

“Have some sense, Van Hook!” he barked, leaving Sylvie and Iluka to mop frantically at the beer, “Don’t you realise it’s seven years’ bad luck for spilling beer?”

“Pup like you oughtn’t be drinking in front of all these wimmin and kiddies to begin with!” Bliss spat in return, “You deserve every minute of bad luck in that whole seven years!” And she rapped her cane over Knox’s shins again.

From the opposite end of the table, the svelte if stern Neila Speer adjusted her wire-frame glasses in no uncertain manner. “Ahem,” she went, and both Bliss and Knox glanced guiltily at her. “If you are unprepared to do so, Knox, then perhaps I will open the meeting?”

Sylvie, who was beside Joe, paused mopping beer to elbow him. She waggled her eyebrows. “Oh, isn’t this exciting – diplomatic rivalry!”

“Um.” Privately, Joe didn’t see the diplomacy of hitting someone with a cane.

“Listen, Bliss,” Knox was saying, “Hit me with that cane again and you’ll be wearing it as a hat. Understand me? All right, Ms Speer, I’ll start. Apologies for this meeting?”

He ignored Bliss as she continued to mutter and fume, and looked brightly over the gathered Witch Hunters. His keen black eyes settled on Joe. “Ah, Joe. I see you’ve deemed fit to join another meeting. I was afraid Miss Ireland’s expectations may have chased you away.”

“I put his shoes in his mailbox,” Erin retorted haughtily, as if this excused any transgressions she could have committed.

“Yes, thank you, I found them on Wednesday morning,” Joe told her. He decided against mentioning that although beautifully cleaned, his shoes were also frozen solid from the late autumn frost, and he’d had to wear his grandfather’s loafers for the second day in a row. Boy, didn’t his classmates have fun with that.

Presley coughed. “Moving on. Apologies. Last meeting we had all the regulars here plus Joe. This week Lee sends his apologies on account of a potty calf what’s got the flu, also Harvey on account of he isn’t here. All the rest of you lot are here plus Joe. Where’s that damn shinininny?”

This was spat out as one long unpunctuated sentence, in monotone, punctuated less with a question and more with an expectant glance at Lily.

“Ducky’s playing pool in the main room,” Lily said, interpreting quickly. “He’s possessing that Stevenson man, the one with the limp and the monobrow.”

“I hear he’s picked to win the tournament,” Knox said.

Lily smirked. “Sure is. Ducky wouldn’t back a loser.”

Presley raised his eyebrows as if not entirely in agreement with shinigami possessing people over a game of pool. He raised his eyebrows and continued, “A’ight then. Someone want to do the credo? We don’t hardly ever do it, Joe, but since you ain’t heard it before than you may as well know what you’re missin’ out on.”

“I’ll do it.” The strikingly beautiful Iluka Wright raised her hand. Joe had been so busy sneaking glances at Lily that he had barely noticed Iluka. He was noticing her now.  Face the shape of a heart and skin as dark as molten chocolate, complemented by soft, clever charcoal eyes. She was taller than Lily, and looked stronger, with almost Amazonian curves. Her voice was as soft as the breeze. Joe thought he might have to check his chart again. “The Sunday Witch Hunters pledge to stem the rising tide of the ghastly undead, the demonic, the hell spawn, and the malevolent; the blood we shed and the comrades we lose will serve only to strengthen our resolve as our hearts are unified in the ether of the soul, a wave of light to crush the darkness. Amen.”

A murmur of “Amen” circled the table, until it reached Bliss Van Hook, who bashed a gnarled hand to her pigeon chest and bellowed, “AY-MEN!”

“And glory be!” Presley thundered, and saluted the picture of a fox hunt on the back wall.

“Alleluia,” Neila muttered.

“Anyone got any questions about the last meeting?” Presley demanded, relaxing. No one dared venture any such questions. Presley nodded, satisfied. “That’s me done. Take it from here, Chief.”

“Ad why not? I must earn my title and nominated role somehow.” Knox gazed fleetingly towards the door, as if the spirit hadn’t quite left the bar behind. He picked at the soaking papers in their puddle of beer. “First item of business: correspondence from Canberra thanks Ms Speer and Master Gasper for their participation in the annual OH&S training weekend. They especially thank Ms Speer for her suggestions for improvements to their program. They say that they will,” he sighed, “overlook Master Gasper’s indiscretions as a favour to Ms Speer. Honestly, that fellow. Caught trying to pedal codeine to somebody’s grandmother? Is that why he isn’t here tonight?”

Neila’s eyes narrowed. “With any luck, he’ll never be here again.”

“Amen to that. We do also have quite a few jobs here. They’re a touch on the soggy side. But if you don’t mind…”

He peeled the papers up and splattered them into the centre of the table. There was a brief, chaotic rush to shovel up as much damp paperwork as possible. Joe was surprised by the work ethic until the reasons for the hurry dawned on him: they were scrounging for the good jobs. Anyone who didn’t throw in would be left with, oh, say, slaying ogres in a lava pit or contending with haunted bed pans.

Seated slightly back from the table, Knox watched the other Witch Hunters idly. As usual, O’Roarke appeared to be a sleeping straggler left over from a previous meeting. He yawned and stretched as the job rush continued, and Knox glanced his way.

“Busy week?”

O’Roarke nodded. “Standard.”

“Did you try that album I sent you?”

What was this? Joe, who was far too intimidated to partake in the job rush, was suddenly all ears. The Chief, owning an album? O’Roarke, listening to music? Okay, so O’Roarke was wearing an Arcade Fire T-shirt over his worn jeans, but Joe had taken that for co-incidence.

O’Roarke nodded again. He faced away from Knox. He was wearing his Ray-Bans. Maybe he was a cool kind of guy. Or maybe he was a total snob. It was impossible to say.

None of this deterred Knox in the least. “Has it helped at all? There’s that track, six, I think, and as soon as I heard it I thought of you. Did it solve anything?”

“Hm.” O’Roarke yawned, and stretched, and dropped his languid posture so that he was finally looking at Knox over the tops of his Ray-Bans. His aqua-coloured eyes slid to Joe, then back to Knox. “It’s a good song. Good album.”

Joe found himself wishing that O’Roarke would say more. His voice was just … mesmerising. Such a gravelly, sweet drawl, a whisper on the verge of breaking into speaking volume. It sounded like it could get louder, much louder, until it shook the heavens and rolled like thunder across the Earth. Well, that was Joe’s impression. Maybe he was just being pretty. It was true O’Roarke’s voice was as languid and aloof as the man himself.

“I’m glad you think so. Anything I can do to help, you let me know,” Knox smiled. O’Roarke replied with a grin and leant back in his chair.

The job rush was over. Six or seven stray bits of paper were left sitting on the table. Knox pulled the soggy papers towards him and threw half to O’Roarke. They hit the table with a splat. With an expression of amusement Knox checked the scumbag jobs he’d landed. He looked at Joe.

“How’s your schedule this week? Are you available on Thursday evening?”

“For a job? Sure,” said Joe with a shrug.

Lily raised her hand. “I’ll be in on that.” She scrutinised Knox. “You are going, aren’t you? You wouldn’t let poor Joe go by himself.”

“It could just be me and you,” Joe told her.

“It could be,” Lily agreed slowly, “But it could also be you and me and the Chief. Wouldn’t that be better?”

Oh, I see what you did there, Joe thought. He forced himself to smile. “Of course that would be better. It’ll be a threesome I mean an outing.”

“A foursome, technically,” Knox provided, “I assume Drake will be along.”

Lily tipped her head and smiled at Knox. “You’re so cute when you’re being innocent.”

O’Roarke sniggered. “Who says he’s innocent?”

“You can go instead of me, if you like.” Knox told him, “We’ll see how innocent you are after a night with Miss Buchanan.”

So many thinly-veiled references were giving Joe chills. The good kind of chills. The image of Lily equipped with a thunder cannon blasting away at wisps, wow, magnificent. Although whether Lily was actually in the habit of going into battle in a camouflage-print bikini and combat boots remained to be seen. Oh, and Iluka beside her, blue bikini, plasma rifle. Did they even have those here? Did it matter? On a cloud of dreams Joe drifted through the rest of the meeting, smiling the whole while. Before he knew it the Witch Hunters were filing out of the conference room, taking Lily with them.

“Um, Chief?” Joe ventured, stirring from his daydreams. He waved brightly to Lily as she called a goodbye, then turned back to the table without so much as hearing Erin’s softly-uttered farewell. “Can I get a lift home with you?”

Knox was chatting rather idly to Presley when Joe broached the question. The three were alone in the conference room. Knox glanced up. “Oh, of course. I’ve my car back, so I can drive you anywhere you please. Except Tasmania. The state revoked my license there.”

“Thanks. Though just to my grandma’s house will be fine.” Encouraged by his lingering Lily-induced euphoria, Joe added, “What’s up with O’Roarke?”

It was the kind of question he immediately wished he hadn’t asked. All of his questions should have been limited to Lily, Iluka, and maybe Erin. End of story.

Knox exchanged a look with Presley. Presley started to laugh.

“He’s all right, him,” Presley snorted, capillaries flaring across his fleshy red face, “Dunno if I’d want to live like he does, but he gets on all right.”

Smiling and frowning at once, Knox asked, “What brings this on, Joe?”

Heat leapt into Joe’s face. He knew it! He should have just shut up. He stammered, “Sorry, I don’t mean to pry. Only you made it sound like his girl had left him or – or – or something.”

Now Presley really started laughing. He wiped tears from his eyes, his glasses perched on his quiff bobbing every time he snorted. “Holy, holy! I never heard the likes!”

“It’s not quite that sort of thing,” said Knox, eyes shining. “O’Roarke has a certain talent, well, problem, which causes him no end of trouble. I’d like to help, yet I’m rather limited. As are we all. The problem must be left to O’Roarke and O’Roarke alone. In the women department, however, I believe he’s doing swimmingly.”

Joe did his best to ignore Presley. “What kind of talent? Like a demon hunting power?”

“That does come into it.” Knox gave Joe a strained smile, and Joe knew he wouldn’t be hearing the answers he wanted. Well, Joe wasn’t about to be brushed off as some kid.

“You have powers like that,” he told Knox, and Presley abruptly stopped laughing. “I know. I know you do.”

Knox stole a glance towards Presley, who was staring at Joe, his face flushed but the mirth evaporated. Knox gave his trademark bark of laughter, and for once it killed the tension rather than sending it through the stratosphere.

“Oh, no, I assure you’ve I’ve nothing like the powers possessed by O’Roarke,” Knox said with a grin, “My meagre abilities couldn’t hope to match his.”

“Nor can mine,” Presley grunted, and Joe had the impression this wasn’t an admission he made lightly.

“No, no. O’Roarke’s talents far exceed our own. And yours. And everyone else in the Witch Hunters, probably even were we to combine our talents into one sort of giant demon-hunting chimera.” Knox smiled, pleased with this analogy. “It’s rather bothersome for him, but it does earn him a living. You can take a job with him one day, hm?”

“Hm,” said Joe, knowing he’d missed his answer.

Knox and Presley tried to return to their conversation, but Joe’s interruption had derailed it completely. Within a few minutes the three men walked together from the conference room. Presley grunted a goodnight and headed for the poker machines. Still wondering how he could get some answers, Joe tagged Knox into the parking lot. The night was crisp and cold. Joe opened his mouth to ask something when Knox stopped in front of a huge black shiny beast of a car.

“This is a 1969 Boss 302 Ford Mustang,” Joe breathed, gazing numbly at the beast of hard, meaty curves and fierce, boisterous lines. His questions slipped away. “Raven Black, if I know my colours.”

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Knox slid into the driver’s seat. The locks were manual. The gearbox was an overhauled six-speed manual. The interior panels were red-washed walnut. The interior was cream and smelled of polished leather and fuel. It was a good smell.

“Is this really yours?” Joe wanted to know, climbing delicately into the machine, fingertips lingering on the upholstery.

“She’s a hobby of mine. One I rarely have occasion to indulge. I suppose she’s rather too splendid for me, but I do enjoy her.” The car roared to life with a rumble like distant machinegun fire. It snarled as Knox toyed with the accelerator, impatient for Joe to get settled. Knox’s fingers drummed the steering wheel. He glanced fleetingly at Joe. “Um. About the club.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s…” He sighed. “I’m sorry you can’t hear more about O’Roarke. I realise it’s frustrating, and you likely feel we don’t trust you. Please don’t assume that’s the case. You must realise one thing about this club and its members; we’re all here for a reason.” He seemed to struggle for the words. “You must understand people born with our kind of power don’t always necessarily become exorcists. It’s only some of us, and there is always a reason we gravitate towards it.”

“Sir. Everyone does everything for a reason.”

Knox conceded him that. “Yes. And, you will learn, if you stay. You will learn what it means to be an exorcist. To have that power. The more demons you face, the more demons you have. None of us are afraid of the night. All of us are afraid of ourselves.”

Sensing Joe had nothing to say, Knox flicked the gearstick into reverse. But he was wrong. Joe did have something to say.

“I’ll stay.”

-*-*-*-

 

That’s all for tonight. I hope this has been a nice kick back into the realm of the Witch Hunters. Join me again tomorrow for the all-important reading list as well as an update about the various goings on at the House of Malchien.

Until then, goodnight, and … happy hunting.