My beautiful retreat was violated. I left Emei Secondhand Books in a hurry, ignored the polite goodbye from the lad behind the counter as I rummaged for my phone with shaking hands.
Tenny backed out behind me.
Her presence offered a bizarre source of comfort, but I had neither time nor wit to stop and think about her. She hovered at my back, a good doggy, trying to hustle me on and protect me, though I knew she couldn’t even touch anybody except myself. Moral support was better than no support.
Out in the alleyway, tripping over my own feet, I cast glances back at the cramped bookshop doorway. Any moment a monster would emerge, unfold itself like a blossoming nightmare, and see me. My chest wrenched tight and my hands quivered, I couldn’t move fast enough, breath shaking in my throat.
In my panic, I’d turned the wrong way - away from the high street. Round a corner, down another alley, narrower and dimmer in the shadow of the buildings, between a dark-fronted jewelry store and an abandoned hairdressers.
Behind me: a grunt and a scrape of shoes on cobbles - footsteps, clacking fast, catching up.
Tenny surged out, tentacles wide, a cat making herself look big. I almost dropped my phone, fumbled and caught it again, clutched it to my chest and readied a scream.
Twil turned the corner, curly dark hair and stupid blue-and-lime coat and all. She hooked her thumbs into her jean pockets. I gaped at her.
“Yo, big H,” she said. “You know you’re being followed, right?”
“Yes!” I almost shouted. “By you! Oh my God Twil, you terrified me. Why didn’t you say something, you- you-”
“Not by me, you numpty. You’re being tailed by some skinhead bitch.”
My anger drained, along with the colour in my face. I hiccuped.
“W-what? Not you? F-following me?”
“Me?” Twil snorted a laugh. “If I wanted to stalk you, you’d never know I was there.”
Tenny was jabbing and feinting at Twil with her tentacles, blocking my view in the cramped cobblestone alleyway, a totally ineffectual attempt to menace a person who couldn’t even see her.
“Stop that!” I snapped. Tenny halted and bobbed back, tentacles drooping. She looked at me like a scolded dog.
“Not you, Twil,” I spluttered. “There’s somebody following me? There’s actually a person stalking me? You’re certain?”
“She’s been on your arse since the high street, followed you into that bookshop,” Twil said. “You didn’t notice?”
“I-I- sort of, yes.” I swallowed on a dry throat and peered over Twil’s shoulder. “She’s not- wait, you were following me too?”
Twil shrugged. “Well yeah, duh.”
Fresh fear crawled in the pit of my stomach.
I reminded myself what Twil was, who she represented; this teenage girl, short as me, with a face straight from a glossy magazine cover, fluffy dark hair and a bad girl attitude stamped over a middle class accent - she could clothe herself in wolf-flesh at will. I’d seen her pull a steel chain apart with her bare hands and crack concrete with a kick. She’d recovered in moments from a laundry list of broken bones and in half an hour from magical torture. She’d fought monsters when Raine and I had fled, and could catch me in a second if I tried to run.
And I’d turned down a secluded alleyway.
Stupid, stupid Heather.
Raine had bought me one last present when we’d gone out shopping together. She’d purchased it without my input or knowledge, then given it to me back at the house, so as not to spoil our fun day out. About the size of an egg, made for a quick and easy thumb-grip with an accidental-press-proof button right in the middle. Disarmingly and disgustingly pink. She’d made me promise to carry the thing.
I shoved my shaking hand into my pocket and pulled out the personal attack alarm.
Twil’s eyebrows climbed. “Woah, is that a tamagochi?”
“I … sorry?”
She frowned. “Wait, what is that?”
“An alarm,” I managed through my closing throat. “Why were you following me, Twil?”
Twil blinked through a moment of dumb incomprehension - then her face twisted, genuinely offended, mouth half open. “I- you- I can’t fucking believe you. Fuck you, Heather. I played fucking rearguard for you and Raine, got my fucking head split open, hurt like a bitch, and you treat me like I’m- fuck. Fuck!” She spread her arms and swore some more.
“You were following me! Twil, you scared the piss out of me! I’m-” I lowered the alarm. Twil did not possess enough guile to fake such outrage. “I’m sorry, okay? You terrified me.”
Twil dialled back and frowned, then cracked a thin self-satisfied smile. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Fair cop. I’m good at that.”
I took a huge, shaking breath. “I-I still don’t- just explain, okay? Why were you following me?”
“Caught Raine’s scent in the high street, didn’t I? I don’t know yours well enough. Thought I’d come say hi.” Twil sniffed the air as if to make her point. “Where is she anyway- oh. Ohhh.” Her eyes lit up with a dirty smirk. “You’re wearing, like, I dunno, one of her unwashed tshirts or something, aren’t you?”
“I … ” I hugged my coat around myself. “I am. And that’s none of your business.”
“Aw, come on, that’s awesome. I said you were her girl, didn’t I? She made it official and-”
“Why are you here in the first place?”
Twil rolled her eyes. “Don’t get like Saye with me, alright?” She pulled a plastic bag out of her coat pocket and showed me the contents: a video game box, still in the shrink wrap. “You try ordering stuff online in Brinkwood, dickheads’ll nick any package left on your doorstep. S’why I come up Sharrowford, release day, innit?”
My head swam. I huffed with exasperation. “Right. Video games. And- and somebody is following me?”
“Yeah, some skinhead girl. Bloody criminal, Raine letting you go off on your own. This city’s full of basket-cases and I figure you’re like a lamp to moths or some shit. Look, I’m here now, you want me to help or maybe like walk you home or-”
My mind filled with high-pitched whine: skinhead girl. Shaved head. Rare enough. What were the chances of a coincidence?
“Heather? Yo, Earth to Heather? Come in, cosmonaut girl?”
I blinked at Twil waving a hand in front of my face. Tenny had moved to my side, protective but useless against real flesh and blood.
“Is-” I swallowed on a dry throat. “Is she still after me?”
Twil frowned at the very real panic on my face; or perhaps she saw the other emotion underneath, a feeling I couldn’t process yet, new and smoldering and hot.
“I dunno,” said Twil. “D’you wanna find out?”
“ … what do you mean?”
Twil smirked again, dangerous and wolfish even without her transformation. She grabbed my hand. “I’ll show you some master hunting tricks in action. Come on.”
Despite everything Raine had once said about this crazy little werewolf, despite her very strict instructions to call her if anything happened, I let Twil lead me out of the alleyway, around a corner, and back into the high street among the afternoon shoppers. The crowd had thickened with groups of lads, young mothers with pushchairs, and a gathering numbers of secondary school kids. It was after three now, the schools had let out.
Twil was quick and snappy compared to my panicked confusion. She checked over our shoulders with casual ease and weaved through the crowd with apparently zero effort. She led me about forty feet up the high street and over a pedestrian crossing, toward the big department store wedged next to Sharrowford’s only indoor mall.
Squatting the open space before the department store and the mall, a very ugly and ill-considered piece of modern sculpture reached toward the sky, a fountain with a huge rotating steel ball planted on top, the size of a bus. No idea what it was meant to represent. Four stone benches ringed the exterior, dotted with a couple of old men sharing a cigarette and some schoolkids making noise. Twil rounded one of the empty benches and turned to watch the way we came. She scanned left and right, moving her eyes more than her head.
Tenny caught up with us and crouched in front of me. A lone tentacle brushed my hand and a word reached my mind: “Leave? Leave?”
“I-I have to call Raine.”
Twil frowned. “No time for that, gotta keep your eyes peeled. Come on, help me out here.”
I stared at the moving flows of people. “Why- why here? Why not wait in the alley?”
Twil pointed all her fingers out at the crowds. “Sight-lines, duh. You can’t see? This is the best place to watch for her, she can only come from there, there, or there,” Twil pointed.
“ … I don’t follow.”
Twil glanced sidelong at me, obviously unimpressed.
“I spend most of my life reading books, not environments,” I said.
She shrugged. “Short version: we’ll see her in a sec, cos’ if she tries to go all the way around behind us, she’ll risk losing your tail. Unless she’s doing some weird magic shit.” Twil muttered the last two words under her breath.
Waiting was impossible. My fingers itched, my head felt light with adrenaline. I glanced down at my phone, began to call Raine.
“Got her,” Twil said.
“What? Where?” I expected her to point, but she just nodded vaguely, eyes fixed and staring hard.
“Between the fat old guy with the awful shirt and the front of that coffee place. Right there, she’s looking up the street now. Amateur, totally lost us in the crowd.” Twil tutted and shook her head.
My blood froze; it was her.
Shaved head and whipcord tight. She was dressed differently from in the Willow House Loop, jeans and an open raincoat. Ears full of metal piercings, a tattoo crawling up the side of her neck. She turned and looked the other way down the street, not a subtle stalker.
“You know her?” asked Twil.
I swallowed, found I was shaking slightly, and forced myself to take a deep breath. “She tried to shoot Raine three weeks ago.”
Twil’s amusement did not linger. Her face darkened. “You serious?”
The Skinhead Girl turned and started up the street. At that angle, she’d miss us completely. She’d lost us. Twil turned and stared, wolfish predation in her eyes.
“Wanna fuck her up?” she muttered.
An unnameable, alien emotion burst into my chest in full colour. That woman, she’d tried to kill Raine. She’d very nearly succeeded, if not for my brain-math hell-magic that hurt my soul to use. I didn’t even know who she was, what she believed in, why she’d done it. She’d tried to kill Raine. I was afraid, almost shaking, but I’d lived with fear all my life, in a million different subtle shades and flavours. I lived fear inside out. It couldn’t stop me.
This was new.
Anger, bright and sparking.
“ … yes,” I hissed.
What’s worse than being stalked?
Twil did the planning, quickly and without explanation.
I didn’t fully trust her, but I also didn’t have time to second-guess. The Skinhead was going to get away. She’d walk to the end of Sharrowford high street and disappear for another three weeks or three months, and then maybe she’d come back and I wouldn’t have a convenient werewolf to sniff her out, and she would do something horrible to somebody I loved.
A small voice screamed panic in the back of my head, wailed that I needed to call Raine. I needed to call my knight in shining armour. I needed to get out of here, get back to the house - to home, and tell Evelyn what I’d seen. Call the cavalry and hide. Leave. Get Raine.
Instead I let a cultist werewolf girl tell me to walk down the street in plain view of a woman who’d tried to murder my lover.
“Try not to look back, it’ll tip her off. Just walk straight into the place.”
“What if you’re not- what if-”
“I’ll be there ten times faster than you. Go, before she reaches the lights,” Twil hissed. She pushed me forward. I staggered, feet and legs resisting this insane plan.
Then I put my head down, crossed my arms, and walked.
The first part was the hardest, to the pedestrian crossing and over the road with the trickle of foot traffic, knowing that the Skinhead girl would notice me at any moment. She’d see me in profile and recognise me, turn to follow, stalk me. The moment one comes under the eye of a watcher is always the worst.
I realised, with a slowly dawning shred of confidence, that’d I’d done this before, dozens of times, Outside. I’d slipped below the notice of terrible things a hundred or a thousand times my size, had to hold my nerve and creep past the gaze of much scarier creatures than one murderous bitch.
At least that’s what I told myself, as I turned my back on her line of sight and walked up the high street.
The pavement rose with a shallow incline, toward the cluster of roundabouts at the end of the high street. The shops thinned out and I took a left, exactly as Twil had told me, onto Grimmer Street. Fewer people here. Sad, leafless greenery wilted on a bank in the middle of the road. A multi-story car-park loomed in the middle distance.
A pub - The Dog and Duck - squatted another hundred paces ahead, tiny metal-latticed windows looking out between black beamwork and redbrick.
I’d never seen the place before. I walked up to the faux-rustic wooden door and pushed my way inside, over the scruffy old welcome mat and into the dark, warm interior, into the smell of stale beer and slate floor tiles. Shadows washed over me as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. I’d been into pubs with my parents a few times, when they dared take their unstable daughter out for the occasional nice meal of fish and chips, and I had vague memories of much happier meals with Maisie too, gastropub beer gardens in summer evenings in the south.
The Dog and Duck was not a gastropub.
It was rough and dingy and smelly, stained by decades of tobacco smoke and spilt beer. A couple of grey weathered old men propped up the bar, watching a football match.
Twil sprang to her feet from the nearest table and grabbed my hand.
“H-how did you get here so fast?” I asked
“Ran, didn’t I?” She grinned, a touch smug. “She behind you?”
“I assume so. I didn’t turn around to look.” My shoulder blades itched. I stepped away from the door. Twil got the hint and hustled me deeper into the pub. The bloke behind the bar raised his eyebrows at us.
“You two want a drink?” he called.
“We’re waiting for a mate!” Twil called back with a wink and a real laugh in her voice.
“Fair enough,” the barman said.
He wouldn’t have been half as friendly if he knew what we were planning to do in his pub.
“Here, you sit there and watch the door,” Twil said when we reached the booth table furthest in back. She hopped onto the opposite bench - hard, uncomfortable wood - and slid down so her head was below the level of the backrest.
“What … what are you doing?”
Twil rolled her eyes and smirked. “I’m hidden, duh. She’ll walk in, see you in the corner, and walk right up to you. Then I’ll clock her one and drag her out the back. It’s perfect!”
I lowered myself into the seat and pulled out my phone, hands still shaking and heart in my throat. My pulse was all over the place. The table stuck to my elbows, probably not cleaned in years.
“ … I need to call Raine.”
“Yeah yeah, good idea.” Twil nodded.
A figure stepped through pub’s door and I almost jumped out of my seat and dropped my phone again. Black tar-flesh and waving tentacles; I breathed out and rubbed at my chest, adrenaline strong enough to make my heart hurt. Tenny stalked halfway toward us and then circled the pub’s tables, as if looking for the right angle to help me watch.
The moment I’d jumped, Twil had peered over at the door. Now she frowned at me as if I was crazy.
“What is your deal, anyway?” she said. “I never got to ask proper, before.”
“I can see spirits.”
“Like … for real?”
“‘For real’,” I echoed carefully, then sighed and tried to steady my breathing. My chest felt tight and my head hurt. “I’m not cut out for this.”
“You gonna call Raine or what?” Twil asked.
“I … yes. I’m going to be in enough trouble as it is without further delay.”
Twil frowned. “Trouble?”
“With Raine.” I waved her down and focused on thumbing open my contact list. Pitifully few entries - my parents, Raine, Evelyn, the university medical centre.
“She giving you shit?”
“She’s treating you right, yeah? You and her are bumping uglies, aren’t you? She’s not like … a shit, is she?”
“No, no, she’s perfect. I’m just an idiot, I-”
The Skinhead girl walked into the Dog and Duck.
To my surprise, I didn’t jump this time. Some buried animal instinct of self-preservation told me to stay very quiet and very still, though I was sat right in her line of sight.
“She there?” Twil hissed in a stage whisper. I nodded, cold sweat down my back, pulse racing in my throat.
The Skinhead girl glanced around the pub. Her gaze slid over me, uninterested. She nodded to the barman, walked over to him and spoke, dropping a few pound coins on the counter. He poured her a half-pint and slid a packet of crisps toward her.
“ … what’s she doing?” Twil whispered.
“Uh … ” I swallowed; could I be wrong? “At the bar. She’s got a drink.”
Twil squinted in confusion. “You sure it’s her?”
I nodded. It was the woman who had shot at Raine, no mistake. Flint-eyed and cold-lipped, body like a marathon runner, all hard corded muscle. She picked up her half-pint and turned toward me; eye contact at last.
Her gaze asked a silent question: are you going to run?
“Ah, fuck it,” Twil grunted.
Before I could say another word, Twil pulled herself up and leapt out of the booth, skidding across the tiled floor. The Skinhead girl took a step back, surprised and wary but not shocked. Twil straightened up and growled.
All eyes in the place - the barman and the two old men - turned to look at Twil, startled and blinking.
“Gotcha, slag!” Twil shouted at the top of her lungs. She grabbed a barstool and swung it wide.
The Skinhead girl bowled her beer at Twil’s head. Glass shattered, Twil howled, blood splattered across the floor and down her face, but it took more than a barroom glassing to slow Twil down. She wound up the bar stool and hurled it after the Skinhead, who was already fleeing for the door. Twil slammed outside in pursuit before the stool had even finished clattering to the floor. The barman and the two regulars gaped after them.
It was all over in seconds, so fast I couldn’t react. Tenny flowed over to guard me like a faithful hound, I had to squeeze and bumble past her to get out, almost tripping over my feet with panic as I trotted for the door.
“What the blazes was that about?” The barman called after me. “Hey, you need a hand, love? Want me to call the police?”
“It’s fine.” I hiccuped as I pushed my way back outside into the Sharrowford afternoon.
Twil was already a hundred meters down the road, feet slamming the pavement, heading the opposite way from the high street. The Skinhead girl slid out of sight ahead of her, ducking into an alleyway.
“Twil!” I shouted, suddenly scared to be left alone, even though it was the middle of the day and the busy Sharrowford high street was barely two minutes walk away. A few pedestrians glanced at me, at the crazy shouting girl in the middle of the street, but Twil didn’t look back - she chased the Skinhead into the alleyway.
I picked up my feet, a few hesitant fast steps, then a trot, then ran as best I could, clumsy and heavy-footed.
Twil was so fast, there was no way the Skinhead could escape. She’d catch her in that alleyway and then-
And then what?
The alleyway was empty except for some metal rubbish bins and back doors. Twil was already hurling herself out the other end. I called her name again, hoping any witnesses would ignore me as I slipped in after her.
Seconds, minutes, no clue how long the chase took; after the first few heaving breaths I lost track of both time and my body, struggled to haul myself around these backstreet corners and across roads stuffed with parked cars. We plunged between iron-fenced industrial lots and dark moldering office spaces.
I finally caught up with Twil as she was dropping down the other side of a tall spiked fence. The Skinhead girl sprinted away from her, deeper inside the industrial property they’d both broken into. She ducked around a corner and vanished.
No way I could follow in there.
“Twil!” I shouted again and ran up to the fence, but she was off at top speed, bouncing around the corner after the Skinhead. I caught a final flash of wolfish claw and wondered how she dare use her transformation out in public.
Heaving to catch my breath, lungs pumping like bellows, I turned on the spot. Redbrick walls and dark windows stared down at me, damp pitted concrete spotted with lichen and moss, secluded from the world outside. A tangled conjunction of back alleys and abandoned buildings converged here in a wider space. Tenny padded up to me and stared - apparently pneuma-somatic life doesn’t suffer the vulgarity of an overtaxed respiratory system - but other than her and a few spirits on the rooftops, I was utterly alone.
And I had no idea where I was.
“Ah, oh God.” I put one hand on my aching chest and struggled to stay on my feet, reaching out blindly to grip the fence. “Twil, you idiot.”
Tenny nosed in closer. I raised my eyebrows at her.
“You think-” I started, then froze.
Running footsteps echoed down the tangle of alleyways, impossible to judge distance - then a young man burst into the little makeshift back-alley courtyard. He skidded to a halt at the sight of me, opened his mouth, and held up a hand.
He didn’t look threatening. Perhaps the same age as me. Perhaps a university student, with floppy hair and a compact build running to flab.
“Wait,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at me. “Wait right there, you, uh, just wait right there. You’re … you’re not supposed to be here. Yeah, that’s right, you’re in trouble. Just stay there.” He spoke with a slight lisp. He held a phone up to his ear, call already connected. “I’ve caught up to her, what do I do?”
Unathletic and permanently exhausted, with a supernatural bruise throbbing in my chest, out of breath and terrified, I found hidden reserves at the sound of those words. I picked a direction, any alleyway out of the tangle, and hurled myself away from the fence, away from this man.
“Oi, fuck, I said stay put!” he yelled and barrelled after me.
He grabbed a fistful of my coat.
Physical struggle is difficult to control, unless one is trained, and trained well - or like Raine. One becomes an animal, pure instinct and adrenaline, kicking, hissing, biting, clawing, even if one is naturally timid. Or you go limp, you can’t believe it’s happening to you, too shocked to react.
Luckily, I turned out to be the former, but I barely recall the details.
He stopped me, yanked me back. Didn’t hit me, but tried to hold me still, pin my arms. I gave him a bad time of it, I think, went for his eyes and his throat without thinking. He seemed reluctant to hurt me, awkward and unsure of himself at first.
Then he realised how much stronger he was than me, and started to laugh.
“Give it up, hey, he only wants to talk to you. I can’t let you run off now, don’t be stupid.”
Like this was all some big joke, as he grabbed my wrists and almost pulled me off my feet. I think I screamed, kicking and pushing and trying to get him off me. I landed a flailing knee between his legs. He let out a noise like a steam-whistle and wasn’t laughing anymore.
“Ooof, you fucking bitch, ow, Jesus Christ, fuck-”
He shoved me at the floor, sent me sprawling and pinned me down with a knee in my gut.
He was shouting into his phone when Tenny stabbed him in the head.
That I remember, very clearly.
She reared up behind him like an angry squid, tentacles bunched and arced back for a strike. Relief filled me, before despair as I remembered she couldn’t touch him, couldn’t touch any flesh, she was literally bodiless. She jabbed all her tentacles together at once, spikes and stingers and suckers passing right through the back of his skull like the touch of a ghost.
He jerked up and sneezed, shook his head. “What was that?” he blurted out.
Tenny’s distraction gave me the split-second I needed to muster a reaction beyond the pure animal - and to yank my arm free. I mashed my hand into his ugly, stupid face.
His eyes went wide.
Hyperdimensional math slotted into place, a spinning puzzle box in my mind, ratcheting spikes of pain behind my eyes. My stomach clenched, my body rebelled, but with my brain I gripped the black levers of reality and twisted them toward my own ends, along the angles of extra-dimensional physics.
The man vanished.
Instantly I rolled over and vomited, spewed my guts across the concrete and felt a nosebleed run down my face, coughing and spluttering. My chest was on fire and my head pounded like an expanding ring of red-hot steel lay beneath the surface of my skull.
No time to whine, no time for pain.
With more effort than I’d thought myself capable of, I struggled to my knees, then to my feet. Retching and staggering, I wiped my bleeding nose on my sleeve. My hands shook, my chest shook, everything shook. I spat vomit-flavoured saliva onto the floor. Over everything, absurdly, I felt terrible about my new pink hoodie getting spotted with stomach acid and flecked with blood.
My vision throbbed, edged with black, and I had to keep squeezing my eyes shut. Tenny stared at me like a concerned dog.
“It’s okay,” I mumbled through numb lips. “It’s- it’ll b-be okay.”
I fumbled my phone out more by touch than sight, and curled up around my aching chest as I listened to the ring.
“Heather?” The sound of Raine’s voice down the phone almost made me sob. “Hey, you heading home? Everything-”
“Raine,” I whined her name, couldn’t stop myself. “I need help.” I snorted back the nosebleed, then staggered as weakness gripped my knees. Had to hold myself against the wall.
“Heather? What happened? Heather?”
“I’m … I’m okay now, I’m okay. I had to … I think I killed a man … come get me, Raine? Please?”
“Where are you? Where are you exactly, right now?”
“I was- Twil showed up. It’s not- not her fault. It’s not. I-”
A hand plucked my phone from shaking fingers. Barely needed to fight me for it. I turned and gaped, so wracked with pain and nausea that I hadn’t even heard the footsteps approach. Raine’s voice, tinny and distorted, was carried away from me.
The Skinhead girl pressed the end call button.
She took a step back, away from me, beyond arm’s reach. We stared at each other, me bloody-nosed and wide-eyed, her cold and dispassionate.
“Heather Lavinia Morell?” she said. “My boss wants a word with you.”