Category Archives: 4.04

Collateral 4.4

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What did it say about me and my situation when my first thought when I got dressed wasn’t what looked good, but what would serve me best in a bad situation?

I grabbed a pair of cargo pants from one drawer and frowned a bit.  Not my first choice.  Free clothes I’d gotten at a shelter, I hadn’t liked the pants then, I didn’t like them now.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful.  It was more… well, as Joel had gently put it, not long after I’d moved in, they had probably been out of fashion for a few years before their previous owner had bagged them up with a bunch of other clothes and dropped them off at a shelter.  But they would have been out of fashion in Ontario, which put us about two to four years behind the times.

By the time I traced it back to a time when it would have been in fashion, I was thinking the late nineties.

Bleh.  They were canvas, and consequently durable, and the extra pockets were what I was looking for.

T-shirt.  Knit hooded sweatshirt to get the two added pockets.

I slid the hatchet down the side of my pants leg, and found it didn’t sit nearly as well as it had with my jeans.  Too much room, the handle swung as I walked.  I held on to it instead, and I grabbed two spare belts from the hook in the back of my closet.

What else?  The locket was still uncomfortable.  Looking at it, I noticed the small wound on the back of my hand where I’d stabbed myself.  It wasn’t scabbed over, but it wasn’t bleeding either.  Tender.  Infected, or had I just washed away the scab while showering?

The Faerie hair was, I noticed, winding along the chain, maybe a little closer to the injury than elsewhere.  Closer to the wounds on my fingers where I’d sliced myself than it was to my arm.

“You okay, Blake?”

Hearing her voice coming from nowhere didn’t startle me anymore, I realized.  “I’m okay, generally speaking.”

“You look pensive.”

“I’m trying to shake the idea of this Faerie hair crawling into the hole in my hand and winding its way through my entire circulatory system.”

“That’s grisly.”

“It’s not impossible to believe,” I said.  “And if I let myself think it’s possible, then it’s going to become more possible, and once I get hair threading its way through my bloodstream, pain, physical changes, well, there’s no way I’m just going to meditate and convince myself it isn’t real.  So how would I stop it?  Even if I pulled it out, could I be sure I got all of it?”

“That’s… darker than I’ve come to expect of you.  Letting your imagination run wild.”

I looked over to see Rose in the mirror I’d stuck to the wall, an open book in front of her.

I sighed and turned my attention to my toolbox, putting things aside as I dug through the contents.  A box knife found its way to the kitchen table.  I found a set of small glass jars of acrylic paint, and weighed them in my hand before setting one aside.  Hole punch, good.  A few smooth-headed bolts, nuts…

I paused, before I could get lost in the mindless busywork.  “I guess I kind of woke up this morning and the plan doesn’t seem so hot as it did after way too much intensity and too little rest.  I’m thinking in terms of worst case scenarios.”

“Well, we’re stuck with it, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re committed.  Give me a sec to think this stuff through, then I want to hear what you’ve been reading.”

“Deal,” she said.

I took the small jar of paint to the sink and washed out the little paint that remained, making sure it was clear.  Then I took a pair of scissors and removed all of the hair that was crawling free of the locket.

Lighter, spoon, burning hair, some water…

I emptied the resulting ink into the paint pot and placed it in my pocket.

Box knife into the other pocket.  Handful of hook screws in a sealed plastic bag, some string, pencils, a compass and protractor from a math set, a marker and two pens.

I found a small knife with a sheath, put the knife aside and used the sheath for a pair of scissors.

It took me a minute to arrange things so it was comfortable, and so I didn’t have too many things that would rattle or click as I walked.

I put the belts on the table, and propped one foot on the chair.  I wrapped a belt around my leg, up the thigh, then marked the point where it crossed over.  I did the same halfway down.

Using the box-cutter, I cut up the belts.

“Don’t look, Rose,” I said.  “Taking my pants off.”

“M’kay,” she said.  “Not asking why.”

I pulled my pants off, took the sections of belt and looped them around my now-bare leg, then used the hole punch to get through the leather.  I had to force the bolt through, with the smooth side pressing against my leg, to fix it in place, but I didn’t apply the nut.

I used a remaining length of belt to form loops, slid the hatchet through a few times to make sure they were a good fit, and attached the upper and lower portions together.

I screwed the bolts on tight to fix it in place, pulled my pants back on, and experimentally slid the hatchet in and out.  In a resting position, the axe pressed against my hip.

In a pinch… I caught the underside of the hatchet’s head with two fingers and pulled it straight up.  I caught the handle.  A shift of my grip, and I slid it back into place nearly as smoothly.

I tried walking around with it, and it didn’t swing at all.

I donned the bike mirror pendant that had come with the stuff Rose had given me.

“Probably going to chafe the hell out of my balls,” I muttered.  Boxer briefs or no.

“I said I wouldn’t ask why,” Rose said, raising the book so it blocked my view of her face, and her view of me.  “I’m not asking.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Then tell me.”

“About?”

“Motes.  Or abstract demons.  Or goblins,” I said, as I headed over to the hall closet and pulled a jacket on.

“If devils are fires, motes are sparks,” Rose said.  “Best comparison I can come up with.”

“Works.”

“Most of the time they just drift.  They’ll burn you if they make contact, but they’ll also burn out.  That’s probably not the sort we’re talking about.”

“It’s lodged in a person,” I said.

“Something like that.  If a spark happens to drift to a person or place where things are more… combustible, you can wind up with a blaze that’s nearly as bad as the one that set the fire in motion.  I don’t think this is that sort, either.”

“No?  It’s bad enough he wants it dealt with.”

“The Lord of Toronto wouldn’t be content to leave things to unreliable and untrained diabolists, if things were at that point.  That leaves two options.  It’s either an organized mote, which one of the three books I glanced over call imps, which means it’s still linked to the one that made it, or it’s independent, a blaze in the making.”

“I assume they need to be handled in different ways.”

“The organized ones have a mission,” she said.  “The independent ones don’t.”

I thought about how I’d figured out why Conquest was operating the way he was, how things had fallen into place.  Knowing about the motivations driving my enemies made it a hundred times easier to interact with them.  It put everything into context.

Was it strange that I hoped the thing was part of some organized group?

“And the host?” I asked.  “I learned my lesson last night.  Fuck of a lot easier to deal with something that’s human at the core.”

“Conquest was human once,” she said.

“I almost forgot,” I said.

“Kind of similar, really.  Let a mote get carried away, you end up with something that isn’t recognizable as human.  Our advantage is if this thing isn’t that far gone, there might be something human at the core.”

“Can they be saved?”

A knock at the door turned both of our heads.

Conquest’s man, Fell?  With all the info we’d been promised?

I headed to the door.  Not a practitioner.  Joel.

“Hey,” he said.  “How are you doing?”

“Honestly, I don’t really know how to answer that question.”

I gestured for him to come in, and he made his way into my front hall as I headed for the dining room.

“I just wanted to check in.  You sorta disappeared on us last night.”

“I said I would.”

“You did.  I sent everyone home as soon as Tiffany got back, locked up your place, but I waited up a bit to see if you’d show, and you were late.”

Time apparently flew when you were in another world.

“Yeah.  Thanks for that.”

“I was talking with some of the others.  Goosh, Alexis, Joseph.  This fear you have, that someone’s going to kill you?”

“Oh yeah,” I said.

“I’m just wondering, where do you feel you’re at, mentally?”

That is a hell of a question,” I said.  “One I’m not sure I’m prepared to answer.”

“Because I’m going to be upfront.  I’m worried about your mental health.”

“You hinted as much before,” I said.

He nodded slowly, and I could see how he was watching me, studying me.  “Do you think you’re getting sick?”

“Mentally?” I asked.  I sighed.  “I’ve wondered, but no.”

“No,” he said, more of an agreement than a counter to what I was saying.  “You don’t fit many of the symptoms.  You’re not irritable, you’re not distant.  You know that’s sort of why I said I’d invite people over?  To see how you fared?  And because it looked like you really needed people?”

“I didn’t, but it makes sense in retrospect,” I said.

“It usually starts with something bad happening, like the death of a family member.  Which got me thinking.  But you didn’t seem too distant.  Alexis said you seemed pretty together when she talked to you on the balcony.  You didn’t get angry when I raised the idea that you might be losing it.  So when you say that people might want to kill you…”

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s not really an answer, baby,” he said, very gently.

“No, I guess it isn’t.”

“Family stuff?  I know you aren’t close to your folks.  If it’s people you feel you have to protect…”

“It’s… more that I don’t want you guys embroiled in it,” I said.

I could tell that saying as much annoyed him.

But he bit back the annoyance and asked, “Did you talk to someone last night?  Did you get help?”

“Less than I’d hoped,” I said.  Did massive understatements like that affect my karma like outright lies did?  Probably not, but it felt like they should.

“Police?”

“I don’t think that would achieve anything,” I said.  “And right now, I just need to do what I need to do, and try to find my own way through it.”

“You don’t need to do this alone.  Do you want backup?  We’ve got flexible schedules, for the most part.  If you need company, someone to watch your back, we could set it up, so you don’t have to go anywhere alone.”

I knew why he was being so persistent, I just wished he wouldn’t be.  “No backup, not right now.”

“Do you need anything?  Don’t jump to saying no, either.  Think about it.  Because if you’re right, and this is as bad as you’re saying, somehow, you can’t leave us feeling like there was something we could’ve done to contribute.”

I tossed all the extra stuff I’d placed on the dining table into the toolbox.  “I’ve got a bunch of… I guess you could call them errands, these next few days.  A few people I need to see, to try and make sense of it all.”

“Accountants?”

“In the loosest sense, maybe,” I said.  “I’m liable to be out late.”

“You want something in the fridge, for when you get back?  A waiting meal?”

“That’d be excellent,” I said.

He smiled.

“I owe you guys,” I said.  “Really.”

“You’ve always been too uptight about making things equitable.  Giving me your bike..”

“You gave me your car.”

Lean on us, Blake,” he said.  “You’ve damn well helped us out without getting paid back in kind.  If you’re in trouble…”

There was another knock on the door.

“Another favor, if you can, Joel?” I said, as I headed for the door, “If people are saying they’ll drop by, maybe tell them I’ve got my hands full right now.  Odds are good I’m going to be in the middle of something or I’m just plain not going to be here.  I don’t want to sound like you’re not welcome, but-”

“But you’ve got your hands full.”

I opened the door.

The nameless practitioner with a name.

I glanced back at Joel.  There wasn’t the slightest bit of curiosity on his face.

“The details you requested,” Fell said.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Hey Joel?”

“Yeah?”

“What if I told you this guy was one of the people who might be trying to kill me?”

He frowned a little, but it was very little emotion for what I was telling him.  “Is he?”

“I don’t know yet.  But maybe remember his face, and if something happens to me in the next few days, assume it’s him?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, frowning a bit more.

Fell reached out to put his hand on my shoulder, and I stepped out of his reach.

“Enough nonsense,” he said.

“Whatever,” I said.  “Lock up my place, Joel?”

Joel nodded.  “Of course.”

I popped into the kitchen, found the plastic container and grabbed a cupcake.  I offered one to Fell, and he shook his head.

I headed down the hallway with Fell.  When we were out of sight of the apartment, he reached into a pocket and threw a full handful of white sand onto the ground behind us.  It made a small cloud as it hit the ground.

I saw the connection between him and Joel disappear entirely, in the midst of it.

He glanced at me, clearly irritated.  “Don’t do something like that again.”

“Seeing what the limits are,” I said.

“You invite someone into our world, the costs are on your head,” he said.

“I wasn’t inviting him to our world.  I was telling him you might try to kill me, which you might.  If you use magic to fuck with him, then the costs are on your head.”

“Mm hmm,” he said.  “Do you really want to tempt me to go after your friends?”

“I’m thinking,” I said, “That if I already haven’t, I’m going to take steps to protect my friends postmortem.  You don’t want to see the sorts of traps I could set up.”

“I can see the connections around you,” he said.  “And I know bluster when I see it.”

“How does a guy like you wind up working for Conquest, anyways?”

He didn’t reply.

“Shadowy guy, going almost completely unnoticed, apparently good at manipulating connections.  What’s the rationale?”  I asked, before taking a bite of the cupcake.

He gave me a look, but again, he didn’t reply.

I swallowed, then responded, “Alright.  None of my business, maybe.  What is my business, is this info.”

He handed me a piece of paper.

C. Dowght.
1412 SunnydriveEtobicoke, ON

“That’s… not terribly helpful,” I said.

“This and this as well,” he said.

He handed me a large splinter of wood and a bone.  I held both in one hand and used the other to raise the cupcake to my mouth for another bite.

While I examined the items and chowed down on cupcake, the only noise were three sets of footsteps and the sound of a chain dragging on the floor.

The connections between the wood and bone and some distant location were rather strong.

“No details on what the enemies are?” I asked.

“I know very little,” he said.  “But I can answer questions.”

“C. Dowght.  The possessed guy, I presume?”

“Possession is the wrong word, but yes.  He’s cut himself off from friends and family, and neighbors have started to complain about smells and pests.”

“Pests?”

“In the past, the mote has touched other individuals.  Trash collected around them, and animals were drawn to the trash.  Stray dogs, raccoons, rats…”

“Other individuals, plural?” Rose asked, speaking from the mirror pendant.  “The mote hasn’t built up strength?  Catalyzed?  Become something more dangerous?”

I finished eating the cupcake while she took over the questions.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“What does the mote look like?  What are its behaviors?  Powers?”

“I don’t know.  The Lord kept an eye on matters, which is his responsibility, but things never reached a dangerous point.  It grew to a certain strength, then moved on, starting over.  We never had cause to act.”

“That’s all you know?”

“Essentially.  He’s been abusive, threatening neighbors, they’ve complained numerous times, but the mote travels, distracting, and intercepting communications.”

“Sounds more like an imp,” Rose said.

“I wouldn’t know.”

“And it’s interesting that it’s roaming.  That suggests something about it,” Rose said.  “It doesn’t need to micromanage whatever it’s doing.”

“So… it acts, and then it leaves things alone, focusing on damage control?” I asked.  “Keeping the authorities from stepping in?”

“Something like that,” Rose said.

“What are the other two?” I asked.

“The splinter is from an old factory you’ll find on the outskirts of the city.  You should phone me when you’re ready for me to drive you there.  The abstract entity resides there.  The same is true for the goblin.”

“Please tell me you have a better description for this thing than you have for the mote.”

“An imp, not a mote,” Rose cut in,  “I think.”

“Imp, right,” I said.

“It was identified by context alone, and it is very possible it has been in the general area for some time.  It was brought to our attention by a local group of practitioners, a collection of dabblers more interested in socializing than their practice.  They were looking for a place to set up shop, where they might be able to establish a set of demesnes well out of the Lord’s dominion.  You understand, I’m sure, that he doesn’t like demesnes being formed inside his city.”

“I can sort of see that,” I said.  “Conquest’s territory being claimed?”

“Exactly.  The unfortunate group shrunk to three quarters of the size before they started connecting dots, realizing that there were inconsistencies.  Gaps.”

“Gaps?” I asked.

“They scheduled people to check out certain possible locations on certain dates, while they were investigating.  One group exploring each weekend.  One weekend, they found they had nothing scheduled.  They repeated their research to find buildings they might explore, and the factory turned up, matching with the gap.  In further investigation, they found a very small, closely-knit urban explorer’s group in the area, but that group hadn’t logged any visits, despite the ease of finding the abandoned building.”

“Meaning people aren’t getting there,” Rose said.

“Or,” I said, “They’re disappearing.  Not just them, but all records of them?”

“And both groups that were intending to explore it had members walk unwittingly into the trap,” Fell told me.  “The practitioners, the Knights of the Basement, took every possible precaution and visited the location.  They found a being they identified as a demon.  We believe they may have lost more members in the ensuing retreat, but there’s no way of knowing.”

“Annihilated in every respect,” Rose said.

“You said this fucking thing was minor,” I said.

“It is.  A greater devil or demon wouldn’t have let someone escape.  There would be less limitations binding it.  It could move quickly, but had to draw close.  We assume.  All reports suggested it was more animal than anything else.  Feral, unthinking, acting according to its particular pattern.”

I nodded, frowning.  Erasure.  The idea sat uncomfortably with me.

But, I remembered, I couldn’t get distracted.  I had to remember our second objective.  Reaching out to other groups.

“We’ll need to talk to these guys,” I said.  “The Knights.”

“That’s inconvenient.”

“Direct eyewitness reports,” I said.  “You can’t expect us to go in blind.”

“No, I suppose we can’t.  How soon would you need to talk to them?”

“Tomorrow, maybe,” I said.  Give Rose some time to read up on entities like this.  “We’ll handle one of the other two today.”

“Very well.  I’ll let them know and arrange a time.”

“This bone belongs to the goblin, then?”

“Perhaps the most straightforward of them all,” he said.  “Locals call it the hyena.”

“The hyena?”

“Just as serial killers form patterns, many Others do too, and they find power in those patterns.  The hyena is a big enough threat that our Lord believes he could fit in among the demons and devils.”

“Why?” I asked.  “What’s the pattern?”

“It eats spirits and Others.”

“I assume that’s not the whole story,” I said, as we exited the stairwell and stepped into the lobby.

“It doesn’t eat all of them.  By which I mean that it doesn’t finish eating anything.  The park where the goblin resides is littered with elementals, spirits, ghosts, and other beings that have been maimed, left half-devoured.  They’re lashing out in blind pain, and everything they touch is being twisted in turn.  Their pain is causing them to attack fellow Others, which only perpetuates the problem.  Dealing with the hyena would be tricky enough, but it has goblin followers, and it’s a treacherous road.”

“Sounds like a whole lot of what Conquest was looking for,” I said.  “Not just this guy, but the pain and general suffering around this… Dowght’s place?”

“We’re not looking for commentary,” he said.  “You either resolve the situations or you fail, which suits my Lord fine.”

“Right,” I said.  “Forget I asked.  Who do I reach out to, if I want to do some research?”

“We would like you to remain in contact with us alone.”

“You have books?  Because I did mention that I don’t have access to my grandmother’s stuff.”

“We can provide you with the knowledge we have.”

“That’s not good enough,” I said.  We stopped at the front door of the building.  “We were promised resources.”

“You were, but we’ve already provided some.  He holds them.”

“Wonderful,” I said.  “Fulfilling the letter of the law, here?”

“Essentially.”

“Is this at your master’s bidding?” I asked, getting just a little angry.  “Should I pity you for having to serve an idiot or pity you because you’re one?”

“I’ll be reporting this to my Lord,” he said.

“Fine,” I said.  “Report all of this.  He put up a fucking big show, last night.  Lots of threats, an awful lot of time and energy into getting my partner and I to do as he asked.  So… is he too dense to realize he’s going to get us killed and lose everything, or are you the idiot who thinks he’ll let it slide if you don’t tell us anything?”

“You don’t know him as well as I do,” Fell told me.

“I- Isn’t sharing a fucking name with us bound to serve him better than shortchanging us?”  Have to stick to questions, rather than statements.  “Tell me where I can find someone with some damn knowledge.”

“I do not take orders from you, diabolist,” Fell said.

“No?  Because you take orders from him, and I can’t help but feel that it’s kind of pathetic on some level.”

“Keep this up, and I could leave you bleeding to death in this lobby.  A sprinkle of sand, and your body will sit here and rot.  Your friends will hold their noses and step over your corpse, but you’ll remain here until the animals take you to pieces.”

Touched a nerve.

But I couldn’t back down.  I needed to reach out to others, and there was only one person to ask if I was going to find some to talk to today.  The apparent second in command of the guy I was preparing to confront.

“You could,” I said, “But will you?  No.  Conquest wouldn’t let his second in command make calls like that.  It would make him look weak, having to rely on you, deferring to your judgment like that.”

Which the Lord of Toronto might well be.  Weak, delegating instead of taking action himself.

If Fell knew how weak Conquest was, he couldn’t risk cluing anyone into that fact.  If he didn’t know, he couldn’t risk his own hide.

The only snag was a third possibility.  That he knew, that Conquest knew he knew, and successfully killing me would keep anyone from figuring anything out.

I was tense, waiting for an attack.

“And letting another person make demands?” Fell asked.

“Requesting information and assistance that would allow me to better assist your Lord,” I said, trying to sound as respectful as I could.

“I’ll talk to my Lord and get back to you,” he said.”

“It’ll have to be fast,” I said.  “There are only so many hours in the day, and I’m working with a deadline.”

The look he gave me was a cold one, impassive.

Why didn’t I think he’d hurry to give me an answer?

We parted ways without any sort of farewell.  Fell climbed into a car he’d illegally parked in front of the building, while I headed for the subway.

“You aren’t making any friends, doing that,” Rose said.

“Making friends isn’t generally the point when you antagonize people,” I said.  “He had it in for me, throwing me in front of the bus a few times while I was dealing with the Lord.  Before the Lord decided that, hey, demon summoning might be a good idea.”

“You know I could go to Grandmother’s and get her contact book?”

“I… had almost forgotten about that,” I said.  “But maybe it’s better that we play by the rules, and avoid letting on that we have access to more books.”

“Unless we run short on time.”

“Unless we run short on time,” I agreed.  “Might have to pull an all-nighter to meet with some of the others.”

“Might.  You up for it?”

“I don’t have a choice,” I said.  I flipped up my hood to help against the cold wind that blew from behind.

“Where’s our next stop, if we aren’t talking to any of them?”

I held up the paper so she could see through the mirror.  “We’re catching a ride on the subway, so we can visit Mr. Dowght, the unfortunate imp-blighted man.”

“We’re not actually doing anything, are we?”

“Looking,” I said.  “If we’re going to talk to someone and talk mutiny, we might as well ask informed questions.”

“Sounds good.”

I heard the faint sound of a page turning.  I guess she didn’t need to worry about bumping into anyone as she walked down the sidewalk.  She was reading as she went.

I resented here just a little.  I knew she was helping, but the fact that she could sit back, relax and read kind of sucked, when I was the one watching out for trouble, my Sight in overdrive as I peered at connections for everyone around us.  I stopped at a ‘don’t walk’ signal, and half-turned to glance back at the people behind me.

Not that there was any guarantee that I’d be able to see the connections of anyone hostile that might be following me, but I had to do something.

I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and turned my head, but it was already gone.  A glimpse, a flicker.

A group of people crowded in a bus shelter, a flock of pigeons, all puffed up against the cold, a couple getting in their car…

Someone walked through the flock of pigeons, and they took off, scattering into the air.

Except for one, which lingered for a half-second before taking off.

I watched it as it flew, joining others in the air, weaving in and out, focusing my Sight.

No connection to me, but there was a cord that stretched between it and a distant location, some distance to the east.

Someone in Jacob’s Bell was keeping tabs on me.  Via Pigeon?  I couldn’t imagine it was Maggie.  It didn’t fit Laird, and it didn’t seem like it would be the Duchamps.

Mara?

Briar Girl?

I descended the stairs to the subway, paying and then pushing my way through the turnstile.  The train arrived quickly, and I braced myself, closed my eyes as the crowd pressed in, pressed close.

When the opportunity arose, I pushed through the crowd and moved back to the most open space, in a corner, bracing one foot against the wall so my knee jutted out.  A subtle discouragement against pressing against me, unless someone wanted a knee pressing into their thigh.

The doors whisked shut, the car kicked into motion, and we were on our way.

I checked over the car, found nothing suspicious, and let myself relax for a moment, watching the barely-lit tunnel pass by through the dark window.

The person nearest me bent down to grab his bag off the floor just as the car pulled to a stop.  He lurched, off balance, planting a foot on the ground, and banged against my knee.

I bristled.  I didn’t want to, but I tensed, bothered.

“Sorry, miss,” he said, as he caught himself, standing.

He straightened, then glanced at my face, and there was genuine surprise there.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Sir,” he said.  He looked genuinely embarrassed, but he smiled, showing me bad teeth, very white but in dire need of braces.  He glanced at the window, then back at me, and I saw momentary confusion on his face.  “Sorry sir.”

He hurried to make his exit from the train before he missed his stop.

No sign of anything suspicious, with the Sight.  An ordinary person.

I looked at the window, the same spot he’d just glanced, and I saw Rose, standing in the same spot I was standing, an open book in her hands.

Had he seen her?

It wound up being a bit of a hike from the bus stop to the street we needed.  Suburbs, extending this way and that.  Row and row of residential areas, dotted by the occasional park, patch of woods, or school.

Right away, I could tell that something was wrong.

Crows gathered by the dozens in nearby trees, making their characteristic unpleasant cries.  The homes were big, the cars in driveways undeniably expensive cars, as a rule.  But things looked just a bit unkempt.  Driveways weren’t shoveled, I noticed two broken windows, one BMW that had been plowed in and abandoned for the spring.

In several places, branches had been torn from trees by the snow, and they had been left there.

I passed a car where a pair of forty-something women were unloading bags of household stuff, having just finished a shopping run.

“Excuse me,” I called out.

If looks could kill.  I only got glares in response.  They shuffled back.  Almost afraid.

I pressed on.  “I’m looking for…”

They turned to leave.

“Fourteen-twelve?  C. Dowght?” I called out.

I got a look of disgust mingled with the fear and the abject dislike I’d seen in those glares.  “Craig Dowght?  You’re his friend?”

“No,” I said.  “No.  I’ve been asked to look into the situation there.”

That earned me a critical once-over, as she looked at me and apparently deemed me unsatisfactory.  “You’re with the city?”

“I was asked to handle this by someone who is,” I said.

“We already told them everything.”

“Tell me,” I said.

One of the women turned to the other, “My hands are getting cold.  I’m going inside.  Can you talk to him?”

“No, I’ll come with you.”

Ignoring me, the two women turned to head for the door.

“Hey,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t even turn to look.  Furtive, hurrying.

“Hey!”  I shouted.

That got a response.  They turned, obviously alarmed.

Too alarmed.

Even the way they held themselves, heads ducked down…

Was that the case with everything here?  With everyone?

The cawing of the crows carried through the general silence.  The roads here weren’t active.

One mote, or one imp.  Whatever it was.  It was up to something here.

“He’s left his place a mess, as I understand it,” I said.  “Some animals?”

“No, a lot of animals.”

“Rats, raccoons?”

“Stray dogs, cats.  Mangy things.  He feeds them, you know.  He’s a hoarder, but he hoards animals.”

“And, what, it’s getting to be enough of a problem that people won’t leave their houses?”

That earned me irritated looks.  A bad guess?

Something was keeping people from leaving their houses, abandoning their nice cars under several feet of snow.

They weren’t volunteering anything, here.

“Any specific incidents?” I asked.

“Incidents?”

“Attacks?  Strange behavior?  Anything about Dowght himself?”

“I wasn’t lying when I said I was cold.”

“If you help me,” I said, raising my voice, stern, “I can maybe fix this.  But it gets a lot harder if I’m flying blind.”

“We’ve reported it for months and nothing’s come of it.”

“We think someone’s pulling strings,” I said, “Stalling investigation by dealing with stuff behind the scenes.”

I saw them exchange glances.

“And,” I said, “You should know that if I don’t deal with it, there’s a good chance this will keep getting swept under the rug.  At least until it gets so bad there’s no choice but to address the problem.”

“It’s already bad,” one woman said.

“How bad?  Tell me.”

Another set of glances.

“Or tell me why you don’t want to talk about it?”

“You aren’t with the media?”

“No.”

“If this story gets out, nobody benefits,” the second woman said.

“If it gets out, they’re forced to take action.”

“And property values plummet, we get embarrassed, and they do the bare minimum necessary, procrastinating until someone else takes over and foots the expense.”

“Ah,” I said.  “But it’s the embarrassment, really?”

“Now you’re being rude.”

“What incidents?  What happened?”

“Someone, and I’m not naming names, had their baby attacked in its stroller, back in the fall.”

“By?”

“Mice.”

“Mice in a stroller,” I said.

“It’s not that we’re afraid to leave our houses.  You get attacked once, and you learn to be careful from there on out.”

“Attacked?”

“It’s that man.  He feeds the animals, and they get dependent on him, but then he stops, or he starts feeding different animals, and-“

“I’m getting the picture.  You wind up with a lot of hungry mice, stray dogs, cats, and whatever elses who are collecting in the area, dangerously hungry, and a human looks like a good target.”

“And bears,” the second woman said.  “No attacks, thank God, but I’ve heard they’ve been lurking.  We stopped putting out trash, stick it in the back of the car and take it to the dump ourselves.”

The other woman added, “The birds too, they attack.  Nobody talks about it, but you see the exterminators.”

I didn’t follow her segue?  “For the birds?”

“No,” she said.  She looked like she was caught between humiliation and annoyance.

“For the rodents?” I guessed.

“For the bugs,” she said, whispering the last word.

“For the bugs, I see.”

“They’re in the basements, the pantries.  If you seal it, the mice get at it.  If you don’t, the bugs get in it.  I can’t turn my back on a glass of orange juice without finding a fly drowned in it.”

“I’m starting to see the problem.  Alright.  I’m going to see what I can do.”

“There’s no easy fix for this,” the first woman said.  “Even if you deal with him, the infestations, and the upset to the ecosystem…”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, again.  I paused.  “Is he violent?”

“I don’t know.”

Have to assume he is, then.

My momentary deliberation seemed to be their excuse to make their exit.  I couldn’t think of another question before they disappeared inside, bags rustling.  The door slammed shut.

I checked the house numbers, identified the direction I needed to walk, and trudged in the slush along the side of the street.

The crows croaked, shuffling on branches, roughly half of them staring down at me.

A woman screamed, a bloodcurdling shriek.

Turning, I saw no woman.

A hare, or a rabbit, charging me.

Mouth opened wide, incisors ready to bite-

I shifted my weight and kicked.  It sailed over a snowbank and into a driveway.  Crows on nearby trees flapped wings and shifted to different branches.

“Rabbits scream?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “Startles predators.”

I moved around the snowbank, wary.  “I’m not the one who was attacking there.”

“No,” Rose said.  “Hm.”

I saw the rabbit lying there, on its side, breathing fast.

I thought about using June, then settled for using my boot instead.  “I know it’s not your fault, bunny.  Sorry I have to do this.”

I stomped on its head full strength, twice, then backed away, scuffing my boot in the snow and slush.

Graymalkin, Paddock,” Rose said.

“Hm?”

“Macbeth.  Twelfth grade English?”

“I didn’t take twelfth grade English.”

“Act one.  The three witches call out an invocation.  They call out the names of Graymalkin and Paddock.”

“Demons?”

“No.  A cat and a toad.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Humans paying obeisance to animals.  Back then, the natural order was that god ruled over all things, the king served just under god, all the way down the line to the lowest order of mankind, but mankind was given dominion over the earth, power over the animals.”

“Right, okay,” I said.

“But the witches, well, it’s a sign that they’re something twisted and wrong, that they reverse the natural order of things.  Animals on top, and the king brought low, as in Macbeth’s case.”

“You think that’s what’s happening?”

“Yeah.”

“And Dowght is at the center of it.”

“Has to be.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Not the word I’d use for it.  A rabbit just tried to hamstring you.”

I glanced up and around, taking in the crows.

Were more looking at me than before?

The caws had stopped.

I’d had feelings like this before.  Where my instincts told me nothing good was coming.

I bent down and picked up the rabbit with gloved hands.

“Blake?”

Crows took flight, a handful at a time.  This time, they didn’t just settle down on the closest branch.  They were flying around me, keeping a certain distance.

Coordinating.  Lovely.

“And here we go,” I said.

“Blake?”

“I saw this on TV, a bit ago,” I said.  I gripped the rabbit in both hands, one hand around the ribcage, the other at the base of the ribs.  The mangled head drizzled blood on me.

“What the fuck are you doing, Blake?”

I squeezed, forcing the contents of the rabbit’s lower body down.

The rabbit’s internal organs burst from its anus with explosive force.  They landed in a single mess on the driveway, steaming.

The first birds descended, swooping down.  I ducked low, shielding my head and face, and stomped on the organs, hard.

Turning around, I used my boot to drag them on the surface of the driveway.

When I’d turned a complete circle, returning the tattered remains, blood and rabbit shit to the point where they’d landed, I straightened.

The birds were veering off before they reached me.

“A circle,” Rose said.

“Like repelling like,” I said.  “Blood, fur, shit, freshly sacrificed life… holy fuck, I’m glad that worked.”

“We’re still in a bad spot,” Rose observed.  “You can’t leave the circle.”

“No,” I said, “Suppose not.”

The fluttering of wings filled the air.

“I’m open to ideas,” I said.  “Maybe using June?  Freeze them out?”

“I’m not sure we can freeze them before we freeze ourselves,” Rose said.  “They have feathers, you don’t.”

“I guess,” I said.  “I’ve got a hell of a lot more body mass.”

“They’ll just fly away and keep watch.  We need to address the source of the problem.”

“Source?”

“Imp!” Rose shouted.  Her voice rang out.  “I, Rose Thorburn, bid you to announce yourself!”

The tone of the fluttering changed.

“My line has dealt with others of your kind.  Announce yourself, or be diminished!  You are not so strong you can ignore me!”

I heard a growl behind me and turned.  A dog, so thin I could see its ribs sticking out.

A cat appeared at the edge of a gutter.

More dogs appeared on the fringes.

And, after the birds collected for a moment, then parted, the Imp made its appearance.

Two feet tall, proportioned like a baby, it was lipless, its mangled double row of fangs exposed.  The eyes were pale, like a blind man’s, the skin somewhere between ashy gray and black.

“Pauz, of the fifth choir, feral and foul,” he said, in a deeper voice that didn’t fit his frame.

Oddly cute, in a fucked up way.

“You hear what I said about Macbeth?” Rose asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Want to help take down a king?”

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