When she got to work, hours later, Isobel hadn’t even thought of cleaning and covering her wound. She’d noticed when it stopped bleeding, but that was about it. Dave took one look at the gash on her hand and her reddened shell shocked eyes and ushered her ‘backstage’ as he called it, to his office. There he cleaned the wound with TCP and bandaged it while Isobel stared into space. She didn’t even wince at the sting of the antiseptic solution as it seeped into her wound. Too much had happened too quickly and her mind was in free fall, still trying to process it all. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts, she only dimly registered that Dave had spoken. “Sorry,” she blinked. “What was that?”
“I said, are you gonna be okay to work?” Dave frowned at her.
She smiled. “I’m fine.”
“The hell you are.” Dave stood and handed her a glass of whiskey.
Isobel sipped, the amber liquid burning a trail of fire down her throat; her throat that still ached from Ramona’s attack.
Dave swigged from his own glass and leaned back against his old wooden desk, glowering down at her. “What the hell happened to you Isobel?”
She stared down into her glass, swirling the whiskey round, watching the light play off the surface of the liquid and the glass.
You show up bruised and bloody and expect me to believe you’re fine?” He was annoyed, “Damn it Isobel, talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong, because I know damn well something is.”
“You know nothing” she said softly, still staring down.
“Yeah and a hell of a lot of it too.”
Isobel couldn’t help but smile. Her smile turned to a wild kind of laughter, the word hysterics sprang to mind. After a minute she started to cry. Her shoulders shook as she broke down. She covered her face with one hand. “I’m sorry,” she said through the tears and gave a loud sniff. “Everything’s just such a mess.”
“It’ll be okay, Iz.”
“No it won’t,” she said meeting his eyes with a tearful, steely gaze. “It never will be. Never.” She went back to staring into her whiskey. Dave too, was silent. Eventually she asked: “Do you believe in redemption?”
“Yeah. The idea that you can make up for past sins by doing good deeds.”
“Yeah,” he rustled his greying hair. “Yeah, I believe that.” He chuckled, “I’d better, God knows I’ve sinned enough.”
“Well, it doesn’t apply to me.” She met his gaze, ignoring his good humour, “Whatever I do I can never make up for my sins, sins I haven’t even committed, I can never be redeemed, never, because of my blood. And it’s not my fault Dave, it’s not.” She started to cry again and took a breath trying to compose herself. She failed, fresh tears pouring down her face.
That’s my make-up ruined.
She clasped a hand over her mouth to stop from crying out. After a minute she continued; “That God can let something like this happen and not care or even notice is sick. It’s fucking sick! He should be fucking judged not us. Not me!” She knocked back the glass of whiskey. “If I go to Hell even if I try to do what’s right, he is going to fucking pay, I swear. I’ll see to it personally. He’ll pay and so will she.”
“That bitch Ramona.”
“What bitch Ramona?” Dave was confused, “Who’s Ramona?”
“Jake’s new playmate.” Isobel held out her glass for a refill. Dave gave her a worried look and poured the whiskey. “She’s an angel… and she did this to me.” Isobel indicated the bruising on her neck.
“He wasn’t there. Hell, from what she says he probably never is.”
“You’re not making any sense, Isobel.”
She shrugged, “Doesn’t matter. None of it does. Not anymore. Not that it ever did.” She stared into her glass and sighed wearily, “Not to me anyway.”
She tipped her head back and emptied her glass.
Dave honestly didn’t know what to say to this. He just poured her another round. Finally he asked, “So you and Jake are fighting?”
“Not exactly.” She sighed again and took a long sip of her drink, “Good whiskey.”
Dave wasn’t about to be distracted by discussing the quality of his liquor. “How does this Ramona fit in?”
“Nosey aren’t you?” She smiled ruefully, though her heart wasn’t in it. Mostly she just felt tired. It wasn’t just her body that felt bruised and battered, Isobel’s spirit had taken a beating too. Her life felt like disaster after disaster, punctuated by the odd day where she wasn’t plagued by nightmares, terrible memories or life’s more mundane catastrophes leaving Isobel exhausted to the pit of her being. She was growing tired of fighting all the time.
“Just looking out for my employee, like a good boss,” he smiled.
Isobel’s return smile was a little more genuine this time. “She’s this girl,” she began, “Jake fancies her, like really obviously fancies her. Can’t blame him really, I mean she’s beautiful.”
“Hard to say. She might be. She certainly likes him more than she likes me.”
“You gonna press charges?”
“You sure?” Dave pushed. “I mean you like crap Isobel. You really going to let her get away with this?”
Dave shook his head, unhappy but accepting this as her business. He knew Isobel well enough not to push the headstrong woman too far before she was ready. Maybe he’d try and talk some sense into her later when she was less upset. “So is that what’s wrong?” he asked, “This Ramona?”
She shrugged, “It’s just been a weird few days.” Necking her glass she again extended it out for another refill.
“You sure?” Dave asked sceptically, holding the unscrewed bottle. “You know I can’t let you behind the bar if you’re drunk, right?”
“Yeah.” She sighed and looked him in the eyes, “I can take it, Dave, don’t worry.”
“Last one,” he told her firmly.
“Last one,” she nodded.
* * *
By the time she hit the bar Isobel had sunk five decent sized glasses of whiskey. She’d barely eaten all day and her stomach was doing strange little somersaults, the strong spirit intermittently threatening to eject itself from her body.
Dave watched her as she snatched down a packet of pork scratchings and began munching them as she served. He was aware that she was a bit drunk and perhaps shouldn’t really be working, but was too worried about her to send her home in her current state of mind. Whatever it was she was going through was obviously weighing heavily upon her and he saw no benefit in sending her away. Better she was here where he could keep an eye on her.
For her part Isobel worked like a beast all evening. She served beer and took food orders while she nodded along to the music. Her mind, however, kept flitting around, like a bug that couldn’t settle for fear of predators. She kept wondering what Jake was doing with Ramona. Jumbled images of them hunting the demon and making love tumbled through her mind. She couldn’t help but imagine Jake on top of Ramona, thrusting into her, the angel arching her back in ecstasy as Jake pleasured her. Though knowing Ramona it would probably be the other way around; she seemed like the girl on top sort. In some of her fleeting visuals Isobel saw the pair covered in blood as they made love. Isobel recalled the lady who had slammed Ramona into the wall and couldn’t help but smile; it was best thing that had happened all week.
Apart from being with Jake.
A twinge shot through her at the thought and her smile wilted. She already missed him and prayed to God that the images of him with Ramona flashing through her brain were just paranoia. Her thoughts turned again to the woman they had hunted. Had she really been a demon? If not how had Isobel held her in place with only her bleeding hand? A hand that stung continually now that spilt beer had soaked through the bandage.
That needs redressing she thought vaguely, unable to summon the enthusiasm to care too much.
Once or twice, Isobel thought she glimpsed a slim brunette in a white floral summer dress. Each time she looked however the lady in question wasn’t there.
Just the stress she told herself and kept working.
Hours passed without her notice. Isobel glanced at the clock surprised to see the time closing in on eleven. Jake still hadn’t shown. He was usually in by now. Alarm bells rang distantly in the back of her mind.
He’s blown me off for Ramona. The thought made her throat feel tight. She could really do with Jake’s support right now. Instead he was off gallivanting around with that psychotic bint; an angel who laughed at the idea of being chaste. What kind of purity was that? It flew in the face of everything Father O’Leary had taught her in Sunday school. She sighed, no wonder Jake preferred Ramona to her; she was so confident and edgy, whereas Isobel was so insecure.
Yeah, she mused, but only because Ramona’s a threat. She touched her neck, the bruises had turned a nice dark purple that stood out in violent contrast to her pale skin and were tender to the touch. Isobel made no attempt to cover her bruises, wearing them like a survivor’s badge of honour. What she’d told Ramona was true, her mother had once tried to strangle her, but it had been a long time since her mother’s abuse.
* * *
Isobel was sixteen, almost seventeen, when her mother somehow found out her only daughter wasn’t a virgin. A devout woman, Myra had never believed in sex before marriage and, outraged, tore into her daughter, her fury raining down like brimstone. Isobel held her own in the argument, which quickly descended into a screaming tirade between the two, with Myra fast to point out Isobel’s flaws and Isobel returning fire. The fighting turned physical when Isobel sarcastically proclaimed: “Of course I’m not a virgin! I’m not an angel like you!”
Seeing red, Myra had grabbed Isobel by the throat and slammed her into the brick wall of their grimy flat; just as Ramona would do eight years later. Her mother had called Isobel a slut, a whore, jezebel and a few other choice names Isobel hadn’t even known existed. She half suspected her mother had invented them especially to torment her. Myra forbade Isobel to go on anymore dates and from contacting boys outside of college altogether. Isobel laughed at the unworkable punishment earning herself a harsh back-handed slap. Her face stung and she tasted blood. Furious Isobel pointed out that waiting until she was wed hadn’t exactly helped her mother.
Blazing with fury, Myra hit her daughter again, the punch knocking Isobel to the floor.
She regained her feet as she crawled quickly away, with no coherent plan, just needing to escape. Myra threw a saucepan at her daughter, launching into her tirade again with renewed zeal. Taunts and insults filled Isobel’s ears as crockery smashed into her, bruising her; a plate shattered on her arm, ceramic shards cutting her skin as she fled. Something metal struck her in the head sending her careening into a wall, but she didn’t stop. She had to escape! She screamed as something sharp and metallic bit into the base of her spine. Warm blood soaked through the waistband of her jeans and she realised her mother had thrown a knife!
Finally, Isobel reached her room shaking and crying, aching and bleeding in a lot of places. She barely had time to close the bedroom door before her mother slammed into it, screaming in rage for Isobel to come out, but Isobel held it shut, pushing her back against it with all the strength she could muster.
To this day Isobel believed, knew, that if her mum had gotten into her room that night her life would have been over.
Myra swore that Isobel would never have contact with boys again and stormed off slamming doors, banging walls and drawers. She left the mess of all the pans and broken plates for her daughter to clean up.
The day she turned eighteen, Isobel made a deposit on a bedsit with money earned from her part time job and moved in the next day. She seldom saw her mother after that. Her first home was a bug infested one room dive in the worst part of town, but it was hers. And it was peaceful.
* * *
Peace wasn’t something Isobel had known a lot of; it certainly wasn’t a big factor in her life lately. She’d seen some horrible stuff in her time, but starting the day looking at severed body parts was a level of disturbing that Isobel had never expected. It was like something out of a bad horror movie. Ramona’s phrase “partially devoured” sprang to mind, calling forth images of savaged hands with missing digits. Isobel shook her head to dislodge the thought. She really didn’t need that shit in her head right now.
Her shift had gone okay, although she had noticed Dave keeping an eye on her. His concern was sweet, but he couldn’t do anything for her. Isobel was at the point where she was starting to believe no one could.
All hope is gone, she thought as she unlocked her front door. Stepping into her flat she went straight to her tiny kitchenette and poured herself a glass of wine, filling it right to the brim. She knew it wasn’t healthy, after Dave’s whiskey and her almost complete lack of food intake, but a big part of her just didn’t care anymore. She’d always been a pessimist but lately... it was different. All this stuff with the Taint and now Ramona… it was worse than she’d ever imagined and some part of her mind had snapped. Detached itself, she guessed, so she could stay remotely sane. Hell, so she could function. Isobel could feel things boiling inside her, everything beginning to crash down. Thoughts rose and fell, breaking like waves in a stormy sea. Her hands had been shaking all night. She’d told a couple of punters that she’d drunk too much coffee, but the truth was Isobel was scared. She was deeply, deeply frightened by everything that was happening to her… and she was close to breaking.
She took her wine through to the living room, sipping as she went, trying not to spill any. Now was not the time to be wasting wine. Ignoring the TV she flicked on the stereo and cranked up Alice in Chains. She crossed the tiny living room to the windows and stared out at the sea, watching a distant ship drift by on the horizon.
Jake had never shown at The Black Swallow. Isobel missed him. He’d been a comfort over the last few days and she wanted him here with her. Instead he was... she sighed and let her mind drift in another direction entirely. What was the point dwelling on it?
“He’ll choose her,” she said out loud. “He’ll choose her.” She took a long sip and turned from the window. Isobel didn’t want to see her reflection right now. Instead she wandered to her bedroom, shedding clothes as she went and flopped onto the bed. She fell asleep before the album had finished, the dead singer’s voice echoing in her mind.
* * *
The building was on fire. This didn’t surprise Isobel; it was always on fire. Tongues of flame roared from the windows, red hot razor sharp glass glistened on the ground, the inferno inside multiplied in a surreal mosaic of flames. Isobel’s gaze travelled up the smouldering facade, heat and smoke stinging her eyes. Her hand throbbed beside her. Raising it she saw it was still bleeding, deep scarlet drops falling from the self inflicted wound. In her other hand she was holding the knife Ramona had given her before. It was covered in blood. Her whole hand and forearm were covered in blood right up to the elbow. Isobel gasped, mesmerised by the steady stream of gore dripping from the bend of her arm. Her eyes widened in shock as she saw something else. Beneath the layer of gore fine black veins trailed and pulsed. She watched, breathless with wonder and horror as the dark lines slithered under her sleeve of blood.
This is fucking freaky.
“Isobel,” a voice rasped from nearby.
Her ears pricked, she recognised that voice, but it was distorted somehow; warped by pain.
“Isobel,” it came again, closer now, to her right. A male voice, clear even over the crackling of the fire and the screams from inside the building.
The screams of the damned.
A chill ran through her, making her shiver as she realised that that was her – the damned.
Her head flicked round towards the voice. Her mind initially refused to let her see the awful sight. Less than four feet away from her was Jake.
He was on fire.
She could feel the heat from where she stood. Could smell him as he burnt alive. Flames had peeled away his skin to a blackened husk, leaving only his eyes recognisable inside the charred shell of his body. He stumbled forward toward her, coughing fire. A trail of black flakes blew behind him, floating like devilish confetti. “Isobel,” he moaned in pain, reaching a smouldering hand toward her. The scent of burning flesh filled her nose, overwhelming her senses.
* * *
Even by her standards Isobel’s screams were extreme. She bolted upright, screaming clutching soaked sheets to her naked chest, the smell of Jake’s burning flesh filling her nose. She kept screaming until her throat gave out, seeing the terrible sight from her dreams before her, seared onto the inside of her eyes. Every shadow in her empty bedroom contained an image of Jake.
Jake on fire.
Her mind reeled from the terrible image, she couldn’t stop screaming. It was too much. She had to get the horror out. When she could no longer scream, she sat knees huddled to her chest, shaking her head over and over, rocking back and forth. After a while she started to cry. Her choking sobs, made her hoarse throat feel like it was on fire, conjuring back the images of Jake burning. She cried harder, making her throat hurt even more.
A while later, still crying and sniffing back snot she walked naked to the bathroom and ran water into the empty wine glass from her bedside. She didn’t bother to turn on the lights. She didn’t want to see her blackened eyes in the mirror over the sink. If she saw them tonight, she thought whatever shred of sanity she may have left would be completely obliterated, sending her spiralling down into madness.
And then I still have Hell to look forward to.
She laughed at that, a chuckle at first, then a full on belly laugh. She laughed until her stomach hurt and tears began again. Then she screamed. Over and over she screamed wordlessly at her own reflection. In fury she smashed her glass into the mirror. Shards of glass flew in all directions, several slicing deep into her palm. For a moment she just watched her tainted blood drip onto the worn linoleum floor.
God, life would be so much easier without that fucking blood.
The thought made her scream again, not just in pain; the horror of her curse washed over her anew and Isobel sank to the floor, pressing her bloodied hands to her face. She knew she was cutting herself more, the shards embedded in her palms piercing skin as she pressed them into her cheeks, but she didn’t care. Not anymore. Not even when blood began to drip from her chin.
She didn’t fucking care.
Nothing mattered anymore. She was lost. Nothing mattered.
She pressed her bloody hands harder against her face and wept, eventually lapsing into a quiet, near catatonic state, punctuated by the occasional sniff and sob. Her throat hurt too much to scream.
* * *
She awoke to the feel of a soft hand brushing against the skin of her face, tucking her hair behind her ear, or at least trying to. Isobel’s hair was very thick and getting it to behave was the devil’s own job. The hand caressing her was warm and friendly, inviting even, and Isobel was dimly aware that it had been touching her for some time.
“Jake?” she asked, the voice from her damaged throat croaking and fragile.
“No,” a soft, feminine voice replied.
Isobel knew that voice... “Ramona?”
Isobel sighed. She wanted to back away, but had no strength to move her aching, exhausted body. Her throat felt like it had been scoured with sandpaper and soaked in acid.
God, that burns.
“Here.” Ramona pressed something cold and damp into her hands, the condensation stinging her cuts. “Drink this.”
Isobel raised the glass of water to her lips. Her hands were shaking so badly she spilt some of it down her front. When she was surprised not to feel wet on her skin she looked down and found herself wrapped in her cold, sweaty bed sheet. She didn’t remember wrapping herself in it. Shrugging the thought off, she drank. Swallowing hurt, but the water eased the dryness in her sore throat and helped her speak. She coughed once, winced then rasped: “What the hell are you doing here?”
Ramona smiled, “Taking care of you.” She stood up and extended a hand down to her ward.
With a reluctant sigh Isobel took that hand, feeling the uncanny strength in Ramona’s grip and let the angel help her to her feet. She swayed momentarily and closed her eyes, putting a hand on the wall to steady herself. Ramona squeezed her damaged hand encouragingly. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
* * *
Ramona sat Isobel on the sofa with her back to the windows and a glass of wine while she gathered supplies. Dawn was breaking over the sea outside, but Isobel wasn’t interested. Much more interesting was the red wine she had insisted on. Ramona had advised against it, but Isobel had gone ahead and poured herself a glass regardless. She needed a drink. She really needed a drink. Either not wanting her patient to overdo it or in a gesture of solidarity Ramona had helped herself to a glass too. Isobel didn’t mind. She had plenty of wine to go around.
“Fuck diamonds,” she said, sipping her wine. “This is a girl’s best friend.”
Ramona laughed coming back from the kitchen with the last of her medical supplies; antiseptic creams, bandages and tape.
“Yes, I never cared much for diamonds.” She knelt in front of Isobel and tried to catch her eye. “Hey,” she tapped her on the knee.
Isobel didn’t look up.
“Hey,” she said louder, repeating the gesture.
This time Isobel looked up.
“I need to get those slivers of glass out of your hand before I bandage them.” She picked up a pair of tweezers. “I’ll be as gentle as I can, but it might sting a bit, some of these are embedded pretty deep.” She smiled reassuringly and said: “Left hand.”
Isobel just stared at her, still traumatised, for a minute; her fractured brain slow to process Ramona’s request. Finally she took a long swallow of wine and held out her the hand.
Ramona gave her another reassuring smile and grabbed the tweezers. As Ramona bent to her task Isobel asked simply: “Why?”
Ramona looked up, “Why what?”
“Why are you taking care of me?” Her voice was hollow. “You rammed me into a metal doorframe not twenty-four hours ago.”
“And now I’m playing nurse?”
Isobel nodded, “What’s that about?”
Ramona smiled. “I’m an angel, looking after people is sort of what I do.”
“Yes, well you let a demon escape,” she chided. She scowled at Isobel’s smile, “What?”
“That’s the Ramona I know,” Isobel’s smile grew. “Angry.”
“You’re obviously a bad influence.”
Isobel laughed, despite herself she was starting to like Ramona.
“Now hold still.”
Isobel winced a couple of times as Ramona extracted bloody shards of glass from her hands. The antiseptic stung as the angel dabbed it on. Isobel gulped wine during the painful bits, pouring herself a second glass halfway through. She felt better once the bandages were wrapped snugly round her hands. Though legion, none of the cuts were deep enough for stitches. Hell, they weren’t even as bad as the wound she’d inflicted on her palm yesterday. There were a few superficial cuts and scratches on her head and upper body too that Ramona had also disinfected. With the antiseptic sting fading and a second glass of wine in hand Isobel was beginning to feel better.
“So you want to talk about it?” Ramona said leaning against the wall opposite Isobel. She crossed her legs at the ankle, drawing Isobel’s attention to the fact that she was still wearing the same outfit Isobel had last seen her in; the short low cut dress and biker boots.
“What do you mean?” Isobel asked.
“All the smashed glass in the bathroom.” Ramona leaned back and sipped her wine, “What happened?”
Isobel looked down, “I snapped.” She looked up, meeting Ramona’s gaze with angry eyes. “I snapped okay? I had a fucking breakdown. That what you want to hear?”
“It’s the truth at least,” Ramona said. “No one should be ashamed of the truth. Besides after what you’ve been through you’re entitled to a freakout.”
Isobel smiled wryly, “A freakout?”
“Yes,” Ramona held her gaze, “A freakout.” She sipped her wine, the silence stretching between them, each woman watching the other. “I’ve seen it before,” Ramona said at last, “in other tainted souls. Though none had your background.”
Ramona nodded. “That’s what makes you so strong. Everything you’ve been through. But even the most resilient of us have our breaking point.” She sipped again, “What tripped yours?”
Isobel considered not telling her.
She eyed Ramona steadily, weighing whether or not to confide in her. Did she really want her rival for Jake’s affections as her trusted ally? Of course she had come to Isobel’s aid and despite her surly demeanour genuinely seemed to want to help. She wrestled with the decision for a minute longer, then sighed.
“I had a dream about Jake,” her eyes looked nervously to the angel, praying she was right to trust her. “He was on fire. He reached out to me and I woke up screaming.”
“Jesus.” Ramona’s eyes widened, only slightly but Isobel saw it. It was nice to know something could shock her.
Both women drank.
Isobel blinked back tears, not wanting to start that again. She’d thought she’d cried herself out. Clearly she’d been wrong. The dream about Jake had really gotten under her skin. “So have you seen Jake?” she asked an accusatory note in her voice.
She saw Ramona bristle. “Not since last night.”
Last night. When he was supposed to be meeting me.
“And what did the two of you do last night?” She didn’t bother trying to disguise the heat in her tone. Hell, she didn’t want to. She wanted Ramona to know she was angry with her for running off with Jake. Granted it was Jake’s choice to follow her, but still…
Ramona just looked at her flatly.
“Well?” Hostility coloured her voice.
“We didn’t have sex,” Ramona replied cooly.
“Really?” Isobel poured scorn on the word. She didn’t believe it. After all, Jake had clearly been interested. Ramona had to have noticed that.
“Then what the hell were you doing together?”
Isobel smiled ruefully, “All I’ve got on that is your word.”
“Then that’s all you’ve got.” Ramona was getting annoyed now, a thread of anger creeping into her voice. “We broke at 8.30. He said he was going to see you at work.”
“Well he didn’t.” Isobel drank.
“Men,” Ramona commented.
Isobel couldn’t quite suppress the tiny smile that quirked her lip at the familiar comment, so often echoed by herself. Damn it, she didn’t want to start liking Ramona. “I guess he’s still asleep,” she said, disguising her mirth, “it is pretty early.” Nonetheless unease crept into her mind. Jake was always in The Black Swallow and Isobel hoped their relationship would inspire more regular visits. Not less. Frowning she reached for her mobile on the coffee table and flipped open the battered old contraption. She quickly dialled Jake’s number and put the phone to her ear as it began to ring. She glanced at Ramona as the dial tone continued until it finally ended in the familiar clipped mechanical tones of voicemail.
“Jake it’s me,” she said. “You never showed last night. Call me.”
She didn’t add that she was worried.
Flipping the phone shut Isobel tossed it unceremoniously onto the table before casting a nervous look at Ramona. Something was wrong. She could feel it.
The angel stared back. “You got plans today?”
“No,” Isobel admitted with obvious reluctance.
“You have now.”