The sun beat down, white and searing as the drought continued for its hundred and tenth day. Waiting out the heat of the day in their cabin, listening to the overworked air conditioner rattle and hiss, the six Brotherhood soldiers listlessly discussed their trip into the Outback. There was a problem with Alvaro under this sun, but the need for both secrecy and to avoid the heat of the day would explain away their desire to travel by night. Shelter for the daylight hours would come from a tent with a reinforced roof. Unfortunately, Alvaro would bake as the sun heated its interiors.
Near sunset, they began to pack up the gear they would take with them into the Outback. With hours still to go before they would meet their guide, they headed out to tuck into what they expected to be their last decent meal in some time. At least the last one that did not come from a can, eaten while sitting on a rock beside a campfire. The diner was surprisingly busy for a Friday night when they expected the locals to be at one of the bars, or whatever else they did for entertainment on the weekend. For someone from a large metropolitan area, like Drake and Jaime, the town was rather tame and bland. Neither could imagine finding anything to do in a community that had fewer businesses than a typical block of their home cities.
The crowd in the diner was lively. Most of the people here had been neighbours all their lives, and even the newcomers had been here for at least a decade. Some of the jokes and teasing were so old and so inside – shouted across bar and diner for many years - that the words began to fossilize. Some of the locals shouted ‘G’day’ or some other trite phrase from the Crocodile Dundee movies at the strangers, inciting laughter from the crowd. Taking it in good grace, Jaime put on his thickest Cockney accent and gave back as good as he got.
“A bloody Pommy,” someone shouted. “Good on you.”
Angel frowned. After this performance, they would be remembered, but would they be missed? They did not want the authorities to find out before they got many miles into the Outback. They had created a cover story, asking the proprietor of the cabin to hold it for a week, telling him they were off to visit a few of the small towns in the area.
After a leisurely dinner, they returned to the cabin. Those who slept, as a rule, stretched out for a nap, leaving Angel and Alvaro to finish up preparations for their trek. Ayers Rock was a tourist trap. What they were after would be found in one of the aboriginal communities further out in the Outback. One of the smaller settlements made up of maybe one or two family groups, too isolated to attract tourists. And the closer to the old ways they lived, the more likely the Brotherhood agents would find an elder with the knowledge they were seeking.
At a quarter after eleven, they slipped out of the cabin in ones and twos. They were meeting Dizzy at midnight in a grove of eucalyptus and gum trees, and while few people were about at this time, in the recent heatwave, it was not unusual for people to take a stroll to cool down. Angel and his companions were counting on this to hide their escape. The car was a problem, and earlier that day Angel had Dizzy drive it away – supposedly to have it serviced – and hide it at a friend’s station, a sheep ranch about twenty miles away.
In the trees, Dizzy gave the call of some local bird. It meant nothing to the strangers, and still, it worked well as a signal.
“G’day mates,” he greeted, walking out of the deep darkness under the trees.
“Dizzy.” Angel nodded. “It looks like a good night for it.”
“It come good,” the aboriginal replied. “I’ve divided the tuck and such into seven packs.”
“We’ll get that sorted right quick,” Jaime suggested.
“Yes,” Alvaro agreed. “If we want to cover any ground before the heat, we should get started.”
Dizzy led off, sure-footed even in the darkness. While rocky, with the dirt baked hard by the sun, it was easy going. They did not push too hard, no matter how anxious to put some miles between them and the town. The terrain would grow rugged soon enough, especially while hiking well off the beaten track, away from any roads or even trails laid down for the tourists. It was truly wild country they were heading into, and because they could not be sure of the watering holes in this heatwave, they carried all their water supplies with them. A billabong was a quaint name for a pond, a dry one was a mud hole in any language.
Wildlife in the Outback was very active at night, especially in the drought, and mice, rabbits, and feral pigs were dark blurs against the night as they retreated from the interlopers. Once Drake startled a kangaroo. He had always thought kangaroos were larger, and that the smaller ones, the joeys, lived in their mother’s pouches. Dizzy laughed at him. Roos came in all sizes, and there were other species, like the wallaby he had startled, that looked like kangaroos but were completely different animals.
Their first stop was ten miles west of Ayres Rock, a homestead of a family of seven, where they planned to wait out the day. It was doubtful they would find anyone here who could answer their questions, although Dizzy claimed to have a grandfather here – and if you took his claim at face value, that would make this old fellow one hundred and seventy plus. Of course, like his tales and his traditional dress, his claim to great age was meant to add colour to the tourists’ experience.
It was close to dawn when they topped a small rise that overlooked the farmstead. The terrain over the last two miles was rougher and explained why the collection of three buildings was so isolated. In a pen in front of the house was a flock of sheep, maybe a dozen in total, and something that looked suspiciously like chickens scratched in a garden to one side of a second house. Long shadows covered the farmyard beneath the greying light, and everything was sharp angles and indistinct shaped as they looked down from the top of the ridge.
“Good water here,” Dizzy commented before leading the way down. “Dry as a dead dingo’s donger, some, but not here.”
It had to be an artisan well, surrounded by rocky hills as the little valley was. Angel saw signs of limited subsistence farming and suspected they made most of their living either hunting or odd jobbing. The closer to the traditional ways they kept, the better it was for these visitors. Especially if one or two had a habit of going on walkabouts, and had a wider connection to the Aboriginal community. These were more likely to hold onto the beliefs of their ancestors and remembered the oral traditions of their people.
As they neared the houses, Dizzy shouted a greeting in the local Aboriginal dialect. Despite the early hours, the door to the main house opened, and a large woman stepped out.
“Dizzy,” she scolded. “You blunger. You run off on a walkabout and leave me with the chickens again. No more use than that father of yours.”
“Cook my love,” Dizzy soothed, “with a tongue as sweet as yours, what man could stay away.”
“And who be these blow ins?” She asked suspiciously.
“Friends come to speak to grandfather,” Dizzy placated. “Be gone quick like.”
“Just how quick like?” She demanded. “That last bunch of blow ins stay until the dirt was old.”
Inside, it was cool and smelled of the breakfast cooking in the kitchen. Grandfather was in the front parlour and invited them to take seats and a cup of coffee. The parlour was furnished in a mixture of traditional Aboriginal and European styles. There were mats for sitting on, some woven from wool, others from natural fibres, all arranged around Western-style end tables. A fireplace, which probably saw very little use in this hot climate, had a European style mantle crowded with aboriginal carvings.
“G’day Dizzy,” Grandfather greeted. “You blokes caught me home. Tomorrow I walkabout south of here.”
“Just a walkabout, Grandfather?” Dizzy asked easily. “Come good, anyhow. These blokes come long time to speak of Dream Time.”
“Dream Time not for the likes of swagman.” Grandfather rebuked sharply. “Not to be sold like trinkets to the blow ins.”
“Not Dream Time stories, Grandfather,” Dizzy complained. “Only make-believe to keep the blow ins happy.”
“One hundred seasons and still he acts like an ankle biter,” the older man complained.
“We are seeking Wandjina,” Angel interjected. “Our need is great, and the danger is a ripper.”
Grandfather frowned. He did not know what to think about blow ins who came asking for Wandjina hours before he was to journey to a secret place, where he would meet twelve others to call upon Wandjina. All through the land, singers and dreamers could sense that this drought was not natural. Prayers for rain went unanswered, and the heat that parched the land reached everywhere. A drought in one region, even several regions on this continent, was a bad patch – this was something different. Gubbah could blame Global Warming and reach for the cold comfort of his white science. Those who lived closer to the land knew different.
Whether these blow ins were a sign, or demons come to disrupt their ceremony, he could not tell. Whatever the truth, he decided to bring them with him. There were places in the Outback where even demons could disappear, and if Wandjina was speaking to him through these blow ins, this was not the time to grow deaf.
“Come good now. I will take you on a walkabout, and maybe Wandjina will find us.”
“I think they are going about this the wrong way,” Alex said to Aiko as they lounged in the attic. At least she was lounging, her feet stretched out, her head resting against the wall. Aiko sat cross-legged, meditating.
“How so?” The vampyre opened one eye.
“If Todd is the one Shax possessed, we should be looking for him, and not the demon,” Alex suggested. “The article they gave me said he had been arrested and was being held for observations at a psych ward. The police or the court records should have an address for him.”
“And how would we access police records?” Aiko asked.
“If I could get five minutes access to one of those laptops from a police cruiser,” Alex replied, daydreaming, “I could hack into their network. Only, I don’t think Helmand or Crystal would approve.”
“So we don’t tell them,” Aiko replied flatly.
Aiko thought about it for some time. There were two options – the police station or a donut shop where officers often stopped for a coffee. The doughnut shop was hit or miss and tended to be busy, the parking lot as much a hangout as the coffee shop itself. Besides, the thought of dough fried in fat turned her stomach. So the police station parking lot it was.
“I know the perfect place,” Aiko offered. “I can promise you five, ten minutes at most.”
Leaving the house unnoticed was a bit of a stretch, so at the door, Alex simply announced that she and Aiko were going for a walk. Assuring Miss Sweider they would not go far, she pulled the vampyre out of the door with her. The direct approach was far more practical than jumping from a window, as Aiko had suggested. Sometimes she got the impression the vampyre thought of herself as a prisoner among these humans.
It was about four or five blocks from the house to the police station, a walk of no more than fifteen minutes. Along the way, Aiko collected a pocket full of stones. Wordlessly, Alex raised a questioning eyebrow, and Aiko shrugged as if to say ‘ask me no questions, and I will tell you no lies.’ The ghost accepted the other’s silence. There was a strange trust growing between the two former enemies, and Alex did not need to know what she was going to do, only that she could rely on Aiko.
At the corner of King and Adelaide Streets, the two parted company. At the vampyre’s nod, Alex crossed the street. Aiko waited for a breath and ran full-out. At the front corner of the police station, she began chucking stones through the windows. A blur not visible to the human eye, she wove a path through the pedestrians at the front of the building, not missing a single window with her missiles.
Inside, duty officers heard what one would later say sounded like the report of rifle fire and breaking glass. Their first instinct sent them diving for cover. Slowly, they worked their way to the front of the building to investigate and then out the shattered front door.
At the rear of the building, Alex watched the few visible police officers race inside. She targeted a cruiser recently vacated by its occupant, finding its door slightly ajar. Inside, she lay stretched out on the seat, keeping a low profile as she pecked at the keyboard of the laptop. Inserting a thumb drive into one of its USB ports, she let its on-board program hack the laptop password. Biting her tongue in a nervous habit from childhood, she watched a series of numbers and letters scroll across the screen. After what felt like centuries, but she knew it was less than ninety seconds, one number after another popped up, and she was on the system.
Searching the police intranet was a little different from the regular internet, but after a few moments of trial and error, she found a database search engine that was its equivalent of Google. Typing in Todd’s full name brought up several listings, and she narrowed these down using his middle initial.
MIDDLESEX COUNTY, INVESTIGATOR'S REPORT,
LONDON POLICE DEPARTMENT
Weinham, Todd, E.
Det. Michaels (659-5959)
At scene investigation
666 King Street, London
09-03135 Weinham, Todd E.
The first officers found the suspect in the attic of 666 King Street covered in blood
According to Detective Sergeant Michaels, at or about 0510 hours Constables Sanchez and O’Brien responded to a noise complaint at 666 King Street, London. Earlier that evening, the same two officers responded to an initial noise complaint. Thirteen occupants were at the residence at the time. The suspect was the lone occupant found during the second visit. The attic was covered with blood that was later determined to be human.
The suspect was remanded to the St. Thomas Psychiatric ward for observation and is still there as of this date.
Case Status: Open
Shutting down the computer, she pulled out her thumb drive and wriggled to a sitting position. With a quick scan of the parking lot, she climbed out of the car and quietly closed the door. Across the street, she found Aiko waiting for her, a smug grin on her face.
“Got it!” Alex said.
The walk home seemed interminable, Alex bursting with news. The four blocks stretched on endlessly, and she would swear in any court that someone had added a couple of extra blocks while they were out. And then the house was there all too soon, and Alex found herself suddenly nervous. It was not like she had done anything overly wrong, only she found herself hoping Helmand was gone already. She did not want to disappoint him and felt certain he would not understand. By the cat-who-ate-the-canary expression she wore, Alex could tell Aiko was thinking the same thing.
Walking into the living room, Alex simply announced, “we’ve found Shax.”
“Where? How?” Crystal demanded.
“Well,” Alex hedged, “at least Todd, my Todd. And if he’s possessed, it amounts to the same thing.”
“Where already?” Gwen demanded, rolling her eyes.
“In the St. Thomas Psychiatric facilities,” Alex replied, sharing a look with Aiko.
“How do you know?” Cantara asked sharply.
“I hacked into the police database,” Alex replied evasively.
“From where?” Cantara press, knowing police databases were internal, and accessible only from within the system.
“From a laptop within a cruiser.”
“And how - ?”
“Aiko tongue-raped a cop,” Alex retorted, earning a sharp elbow to the ribs from the vampyre. “You’re only mad because you got him pregnant, and now you have to marry him.”
Seeing she would get no more out of them, Crystal and Cantara called the other girls down for a meeting. Miss Sweider suggested it was a good time to start supper, and that so many hands would make short work of it. They had some pork chops thawing in the fridge, some fresh corn on the cob from Lucan, and Jade thought she could do something with the apples and the fresh vegetables to make up for the lack of apple sauce. Bread and butter and a tossed salad, and they had enough to feed any group that did not include Alex.
During supper, they discussed what to do about Alex’s information. After a rather stormy debate, it was decided that Crystal, Aiko, Cantara and Alex – because she was the only one who could recognize Todd – would scout out the facility. Gwen, Ember, and Morgana would watch the van. The rest would stay at the house and watch the Summoning Circle. Now that Alex had the Wiccan Apotropaic, they were expecting a pre-emptive strike from Shax. Since it was brought to the house, they had prepared some nasty surprises for any intruders – a real arcane Home Alone that could only come from the minds of a djinn and a vampyre
With the dishes in the sink and being griped over by the three girls with KP duty, those who were leaving made their way out to the van. It was still early yet, too soon to make a trip out to the psychiatric facility. Cantara and Crystal, however, wanted to circle the block a few times to flush out anyone waiting by the house. If Shax planned to make an assault here, they would wait until the succubus, and other demi-humans were gone. Hopefully, their circuitous route through the neighbourhood would flush them out, and if not, would shake loose any tail looking to follow them.
Nothing. After two hours of driving, keeping close to the house, but never along the actual street, Cantara instructed Morgana to take them to the highway. If there was anyone following them, they were very good – too good for even a Brotherhood trained agent to detect. It would still be early when they reached St. Thomas, only about ten-thirty, but Cantara wanted to make sure any surprises were waiting for them inside and not out. The last thing she wanted was to be trapped in a demon’s lair with her escape route cut off.
Jean-Claude used to have a homey expression about bearding a demon in his lair that never quite translated from the French. As they made their first drive past of St. Thomas Psychiatric, Cantara thought she finally understood the part about the plucked chickens. She was feeling decidedly naked and vulnerable. At first glance, everything seemed normal – a well-lit facility settled in for the night – until the glamour wore thin beneath the true vision of the four demi-humans. What waited for them was a horror.
Things had only grown worse. Not one window remained unbroken, and the corpse hanging from the second story window had become a bloated, fly-infested mass. Some unfortunate had been crucified on a cross made from a dismantled picnic table and fence posts, their entrails hanging down, where two rats fought over the choice bits. The front doors were completely gone, the alcove and its lake of sewage exposed to the night air. The parking lot had become a graveyard of burnt cars and was looking decidedly like a war zone.
After a second pass, Cantara had Morgana park the van beneath a nearby overpass. She turned to discuss what they had seen.
“Gwen, what did you see when we drove by?”
“Um,” Gwen replied. “Nothing unusual. A two or three-story red brick, industrial building in an elongated Tee formation on an acre of lawn. Hard to tell in the dark, but I would say well-kept manicured grounds. There is a six-foot chain-link fence around the perimeter, security screens on the windows, but no bars, and from the number of cars in the parking lot, eight to ten staff members on duty.”
“And Aiko,” Cantara held up a hand to forestall any questions, “what did you see?”
“Most of the fence has been torn up,” Aiko began. “Those posts not used to smash windows were used to knock holes in the cars. I counted four bodies: one hanging from a second-story window, a second crucified and eviscerated on the front lawn, and two floating in an unknown liquid in the front lobby. I saw no visible signs of light.”
“I don’t get it,” Morgana complained. “What is Aiko smoking, and where do I get me some?”
“A glamour,” Crystal explained. “Two separate realities. Only a demon-spawn like myself and Aiko, the dead like Alex, or those from another plane like Cantara can see through the illusion.”
“I’ve heard a scientific explanation for the phenomena once,” Cantara offered, “something about the psychology of reality maintenance mechanisms and the psychotropic effects of a demons pheromones.”
“Or you four are whack and belong in a rubber room,” Gwen suggested.
“There’s that too,” Crystal admitted.
“Always stick to the theory that it’s the rest of the world that is insane,” Ember advised. “Straightjackets are so not in this year.”
“Keep a sharp eye out,” Cantara warned, “and the doors to the van locked. And no matter what, don’t shut off the engine.”
There was definitely a reason crooks kept the engine of their get-a-way car idling, Cantara thought as she led the other three away from the van. The first time you have to hoof it from a demon’s lair was the last time – one way or the other. She had no plans to become anyone’s dinner, and she wasn’t sure if she could outrun her companions. Aiko could become mist, Alex was a ghost, and when she had her inner demon on, Crystal could race a hurricane and beat it by a country mile. Cantara was not sure that escaping into limbo would necessarily protect her from a demon, not after her trip with Angel. Demons were, after all, twisted angels.
This was Alex’s first real mission, but she had a lot of experience pulling break and entries. She waved her companions off their approach through the front doors and circled the building. Why go where you were expected? There was always a less obvious way in, somewhere where security would be lax, and the path more open. An unbroken ground floor window was her choice. That it was unbroken meant no-one had been there since this had all begun, and maybe that the room lay in a forgotten part of the hospital. Perfect, in her opinion.
“Good eye,” Cantara complimented.
Alex did not wait for Cantara and Aiko to remove the security grate. Removing the ring, she slipped through the wall and stepped inside. Aiko, seeing her disappear, became a mist and crept in through a crack in the window. It was never a good idea to enter the demon’s lair alone, especially if you were untrained and unskilled in the way of stealth.
“Do not become too anxious,” Aiko hissed. “This is not the home of a human, and a demon can sense any intrusion into his domain.”
“I wanted to check if the room was empty,” Alex whispered. “I figured I can get out the fastest now that I can walk through solid walls.”
As if to prove her point, she stuck her head through the closed door, looking in both directions. Beyond this little room was a long hallway. It ended ten feet to her right and ran the rest of the length of the building on her left. Above, the ceiling was lined with pipes and ducts and electrical wiring.
Crystal and Cantara joined them in the small utility room. It looked like they were in the service portion of the hospital’s basement, and since these same services had been long ago trashed, no-one had been down here in months. Alex picked the lock on the door, and the four stepped out into the corridor. Aiko scooted off to check the right-hand arm of the corridor and their rear, and Cantara took point. It ended in a blank wall, and the vampyre rejoined her companions. At least for the moment, nothing would come up behind them, but that would change quickly as they moved deeper into the hospital.
At the foot of the stairs, they ran into the first sign of the previous or current occupants, depending on how you looked at it. The gnawed upper torso of someone wearing an orderly’s uniform marked this as the lair of an Eater of the Dead. How long since it had returned to feed here? The putrefaction of the body part had begun to liquefy, marking it as past ripe, even for an Eater of the Dead. At the same time, some of the blood on the upper stairs looked fresh. It was six of one and half a dozen of the other, and Crystal would rather have the six than the half-dozen.
The first floor was an insane abattoir. The smell from the front lobby was unmistakably raw sewage with the subtle undercurrent of an open grave. Several people had been slain in this hall, their blood painting the walls and ceiling a scabby brown. Something had cocooned two bodies in black webs. Good thing Gwen was not here, Crystal thought as she edged her way beneath the first of these gristly piñatas.
The overall impression of the hospital was emptiness. It felt abandoned. Neither Aiko nor Crystal sensed the presence of a demon, Shax or otherwise. Still moving cautiously, they explored the entire first floor – including a room that could have only been used as Shax’s throne room – before moving up to the administrative office on the second floor. A few rats were the only living creatures they encountered.
“It’s going to take the Brotherhood months to clean this mess up,’ Cantara breathed.
“Years,” Crystal countered.
In the administrator’s office, they found the records in disarray, strewn and ripped and even eaten – all except one file lying neatly in the centre of the desk. Todd Weinham. In the initial pages, the doctor talked about delusions of demon possession, and periods of despondency followed by periods of manic activity. The further they read, the more disjointed and irrational the writing became, the pen and typewritten reports replaced by crayon.
“Shax left this here to taunt us,’ Aiko commented.
“Well,” Crystal sighed in defeat. “It was a good thought. Let’s leave the way we came. I’d rather not wade through shit if I have to come away empty-handed.”