Saturday, 14 September 2013


We finally reached another open stretch of ground. Past it was the hugest of the mausoleums so far, in pink marble, like the Taj Mahal. There had to be about a couple hundred angels carved into its walls, and all of them were weeping.
One of its big iron doors was open, just like Willets had assured me. I could make out nothing but impenetrable dark beyond.
But standing in front of them, as tall and immobile as an upright tree trunk, was Harker Eastlake’s butler.
He had the same lack of expression as he’d worn when I’d first met him, and was posed like he was on a parade ground, his broad shoulders squared and both hands tucked behind his back. His gaze was lowered. He seemed lost in thought, and didn’t notice us at first.
But then his face came up, his eyes glittering coldly. His features remained flat and bland. His lower lip came pushing out.
“Hey, there!” I called out, stepping across to him. “Like to take me to your boss again?”
Donald’s hands came in view, clenching into hardened balls. So I guessed not.
“Okay, then,” I told him, moving closer. “You stay where you are. I’ll find him by myself.”
            That was when his eyes both turned a searingly bright yellow from lid to lid. His mouth sprang open and he bared his teeth. And most of them were sharply pointed.
Dammit, this guy wasn’t even human.

Instinctively, I dropped my weight onto my back foot and then lifted my own fists. Which turned out to be no kind of defense against what happened next. Because Donald abruptly turned into a moving smudge.
I don’t mean that he blurred, like the adepts, transporting himself. I mean that he began to move so very fast, my eyes could barely follow him.
I had a split-second to tense, as though there were a cold wind rushing up at me. And after that, I caught a glimpse of a fist homing in on my chin. I let my neck go slack so that my head rolled with the punch. But I was still lifted off my feet. I hit the manicured turf, cursed and spat, then stared around.
See – this was precisely what I’d been talking about a moment back. If Cassie had been here, she would have let out a loud oath, turned her shotgun around in her grasp, and more than likely clubbed this Donald squarely in the face.
Instead of which, Doc Willets and Emaline were standing rigid on the spot, apparently rendered powerless again. Lauren yelled and stumbled back, then pulled her Walther out. But her fingers were nerveless, and she dropped it.
There was blood seeping from one side of my mouth, and the pain was starting to kick in. But I ignored that, rolled to my knees and panned around again. Donald was some ten yards off, staring at me and grinning harshly. With those eyes and teeth, it didn’t make a pretty sight.
I pulled out my revolver, firing at him. But he turned into a smudge again, dodging the slug. And kept on doing that the whole while that I blasted off round after round. Every time I thought I’d got a bead on him, he moved off when my finger tightened.
“You won’t achieve anything that way!” Willets was shouting at me. “It’s probably much better if you get in close!”
Yeah, great. Thanks a bunch. What I really needed, right now, was a spectator’s advice.
Only that Donald took it before I was able. He came rushing in at me again, but from the left-hand side this time, so that I didn’t even get the chance to aim. I tried turning, but far too late. His shoe smashed into my chest and I stumbled down again.
Beyond which point, breathing got extremely difficult. God alive, what was this thing? I tried to fire in the direction he had disappeared, but realized I had dropped my gun.
And there were other footfalls headed in toward me. Only this time, it was Lauren.
“Get back!” I yelled, genuine panic rising in me.
But she didn’t even get the chance to do that. Donald’s blurry form came hurtling across. Her gaze was fixed on me, and so she didn’t even see it. The next instant, she went spinning through the air herself. And when she landed, she was barely conscious.
And that made me furious. The rest of us don’t have too much choice in the matter – we are stuck here, and have to take whatever bizarreness the Landing throws us. But Lauren was here of her own choice. She’d opted to help us out. I genuinely liked her – far too much, to be honest about it. And seeing someone that I cared for getting hurt that way … it made my blood boil.
I climbed back to my feet and started scrambling over to her. Her Walther was still lying by her hand, gleaming silver on the verdant turf. And I was reaching down to grab it, when another blur went past. The automatic disappeared like it had never been there.
And when Donald stopped again, he had it in his grasp. He peered at me, shaking his head, then pitched it far off where I couldn’t reach it.
And when he started closing on me this time, it was way more slowly, with a grim air of finality.
Whatever he was, I hoped he didn’t know too much about the working habits of most plainclothes cops.
I deliberately feigned dizziness and slumped down on the wet ground, making sure my shoulders wound up fairly level with Lauren’s foot. Put one hand to her right leg, out of my attacker’s line of sight, and pushed up the hem of her black pants.
I felt rather than saw Donald crouch over me. His huge hands closed around my neck. He wasn’t trying to strangle me. No, he was going to snap it.
So I swung my right hand round as quickly as I could, shoving my fist into his stomach. And my trigger finger kept on jerking, pumping lead into his gut at point blank range.
His expression was horribly surprised, those last few moments before he departed this world.
So maybe he had not considered the idea that Lauren might be carrying a back-up pistol strapped around her ankle.

When a man dies, his face goes slack. His eyes grow dull as tarnished coins. His upper lip recedes after a little while, giving him a faintly geeky look.
But Donald did none of that. He stumbled away from me and then exploded in a ball of flame. His body broke up into tiny embers, and then even those vanished, crackling as they fizzled off. Not so much as fine ash rained down on the sodden grass.
The next thing that I was aware of was Doc Willets making his way over to me.
“I told you you needed to get close.”
But I ignored that.
“What was that thing?” I managed to get out.
“I think it’s called a ‘servitor.’ The servant of a major demon.” The doc looked slightly awkward. “I’ve been doing some reading up on this satanic stuff, ever since this business started.”
I nodded, and let him help me up.
“You’re not claiming that Eastlake senior is a demon, are you?”
“No, I’d doubt that. It’s far more likely Donald was on loan. But if that’s the case, then what it tells us is that Harker Eastlake has some powerful friends in low places. You need to be really careful around that guy.”
Then he transferred his attention to Lauren, who was still down on the turf. Her chin was swollen, and her eyes weren’t opening properly. Willets felt round gently with his fingertips, concluding that her jaw was broken.
But I’d noticed something else about him that had not been so apparent from a distance. His pupils were no longer red, his stare not quite so fearsome as before, his eyes plain brown and rather damp. And he acknowledged that embarrassedly.
“Since the first moment I stepped into this cemetery, my powers have been draining away. It has to be because of where we are. And as soon as that thing came in view, they failed me altogether.”
He tipped his head at the pink mausoleum off in front of us. Somebody was going to have to go in there. But first, we had to deal with Lauren.
We got her sitting up and held her steady till some color came back to her cheeks. A little sharpness returned to her gaze. When I held my index finger up and moved it off from side to side, her pupils followed. And so we hauled her carefully to her feet, Emaline joining in.
“See that store down there?” I pointed, indicating the third one along. “It belongs to Lawrence L. DuMarr, and he specializes in healing. Uses something he calls ‘chi.’ And he’ll get her fixed up.”
“You’re not coming?” Willets asked.
“You’ve already said it, haven’t you? You don’t have any powers at the moment, so I’ll probably be better off without you.”
It took a few moments for that to sink in, but it certainly got a sharp response.
“I was wrong,” the doctor snorted. “You’re outdoing Cassie when it comes to rudeness.”
That’s not usually the way I am. But I’d taken enough punishment, the past couple of hours, to leave me feeling in a real bad mood.
I waited till the rest had started moving off, and then I turned around and began heading for the mausoleum.

I paused at its entrance, staring into the blackness beyond, listening. Trying to sense what kind of danger might be waiting for me in there, which direction it might come from.
But I could make out nothing. Not a footstep. Not a murmur. I was so keyed up, I should have been able to hear if there was someone breathing, but I couldn’t.
I already had my gun back in my hand. I took a deep, steadying breath, and went inside.
Nothing shifted. Nothing leapt at me. I’d been dealing with the supernatural for long enough, though, that I didn’t let myself be gulled.
Ever since that whole incident with the Dweller in the Dark, I’d always carried a small flashlight with me. I fished it out of my pocket, clicked it on, then ran its beam around the circular space that I was in. It was entirely empty.
There was no coffin, no sarcophagus. Not so much as a brief inscription on the pinkish walls. So where was Davina Eastlake’s body?
I angled the light down at the floor. And saw that I was standing on an engraved poem.
It read:
After death,
We know not where we go.
Up or down?
To Heaven or the heated caves below?
But this we understand.
The ruler of that lower space
Makes no apologies,
And speaks the words that tell of pride in place.
I got the fact, almost immediately, that it wasn’t merely a rhyme I was looking at. It was some kind of riddle. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out who the ruler of that lower place might be. Were he and Eastlake personal friends?
But it was that final line I reckoned might be the important one. ‘Speaks the words that tell of pride in place.’ What phrases was the Devil famous for?
I might be an ordinary guy, but I’ve always enjoyed reading, and have done that thing extensively. And that included Milton.
Was it another password that was being asked for here, like underneath that chandelier back at the Deth House? In which case …
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” I recited quietly.
And I thought I heard a distant laugh. Perhaps I was imagining that.
But then the stone around the script began to darken, and I found myself stepping quickly back. Within a few more seconds, it had turned even darker than the blackness I was in.
And after that, it was no longer pitch-black stone, but a hole. An opening.
And there were steps beyond it, leading down.


Copyright (c) Tony Richards 2013. Cover art copyright (c) Steve Upham 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment