All the hard work was coming together. The only thing left to do was make sure that it paid.
With a final twist, the last screw sank into the soft plaster. A quick check of the plate with thumb and forefinger confirmed it was secure. Coleman traced the runes etched into its surface, checking for scratches. She’d learned the hard way that one mark in the wrong place among the lines and whorls of magical notation rendered these things useless at best, dangerous at worst.
Satisfied that the protective coverings had done their job, she stepped back as much as the cupboard would allow. Using the torch on her phone and the diagram on-screen for reference, she ran an eye over all three plates now embedded into the wall before her, double checking her work on the runes she’d chalked onto the plaster around them.
She sucked at her lip, uncertain, unable to step back far enough to get perspective. Filled with moth-eaten barstools and folded, scratched tables, she did her best in the coffin-sized space left to her. One wrong movement, a jerk of the elbow or flick of her foot, would kick-start a clattering commotion, attracting the attention of the two hundred staff and punters laughing and hollering on the other side of the wall.
Leaning back, , she squinted.
The three, hand-width plates shone dully in the torchlight as she tried to compare her set-up with the diagram.
Satisfied as she was ever going to be, she zipped open the bag strapped across her chest and reached in for the tubes.
The rubber lengths wobbled in her hand, threatening to catch on wooden limbs. Trapping them in an armpit, she worked slow to keep them under control, attaching the first in its bracket in the centre of the highest plate, screwing the clamps tight to hold it in place.
‘This way is it?’
She was just finishing clamping the final tube when she heard the thick Brummie accent. The door handle down by Coleman’s hip squeaked, a hand grabbing it from the other side.
Heart in her mouth, Coleman braced herself, muscles bunching so hard they hurt.
‘No. No, Gavin,’ someone replied. ‘This way. This door.’
‘Just follow the fucking noise, you twat,’ came a third voice, laughing.
‘Now, do you want me to announce you?’ asked the second, the only voice that was female. ‘Or do you want to just head out?’
‘Let’s just get out there.’ The handle squeaked back into place, the voices disappearing under the sound of the crowd.
Coleman swallowed a sigh of relief, wiping at the sweat on her forehead. She had locked the door, of course, but now was not the time for even that to be discovered.
Gavin had sounded nervous, she noted. Gavin Knox (because that’s who it was), lead singer of Vox Obscura, still got pre-gig nerves. The knowledge, and finding it out the way she had, gave her a small illicit thrill. That was something to tell Jared later, when she handed the product over.
But it meant that she was running out of time.
The crowd on the other side of the wall had been loud before, but now the band were taking the stage, they went wild.
‘How you doing, London?’
Coleman used the cheers and first vibrating guitar chords to cover the sound of her final preparations. A few more moments and the tubes were all feeding into the funnel, and the specially charmed gauze was in place. She touched the chalk rune with a fingertip and charged it with some power, the energy flowing from her with the sensation of warm water running through her nerves.
Runes beginning to crackle, the apple-sharp smell of magic began to fill the tiny room. Though nothing visibly flowed down the tube, the filter was dripping a clear, viscous liquid into the waiting flask.
She nodded to herself. Nothing left to do now but switch out the full flasks for empties, and think on how she was going to spend the money.
But as the drums quickened and the bass kicked in, she realised relaxing wasn’t going to be an option. The speakers, little more than arm’s reach away on the other side of the wall, began to make the room vibrate around her. It was a noise more felt than heard, like it was melting her bones.
A few minutes and the first flask was already full, prompting her to set up a fresh one. Fingers in her ears, she smiled to herself. These new plates were already worth the investment. She’d had to save up to afford the engraved plates and the equipment, then spent more weeks studying the online manuals. Now it looked like she’d made the money back with just a handful of operations like these.
Excitement at a job well done starting to fizz in her breast, she raised her hands above her head, shimmying her hips in time to the music. Closing her eyes, she began to move her feet. She knew this song, she realised, enough to mouth along to the words. The big finish was coming and it was brilliant. There was probably enough room here to jump when it—
She stopped, shaking herself. Those weren’t her feelings. Shit. The seals on the tubing were leaking. That or the yield was so large that it was hard to channel all the raw emotion coming through the plates. Hugging herself tight to keep her untrustworthy limbs under control, she fought the random surges of excitement, the urges to sing along, to jump, to live in the moment.
She checked the equipment. The three plates were humming with the crowd’s emotions, channelling those feelings into the tubes, where the filter converted them into a liquid for the flasks to catch. Pure liquid feels. The kind of stuff that, for the right price, people would happily buy by the shot to get that ‘going to see their favourite band’ feeling in the comfort of their armchair, or at a party, or in the bedroom.
But the set up was perfect. The problem was the yield, overwhelming the plates, psychic effluvia filling the air around her. There was nothing she could do except make herself comfortable and try not to let them get to her.
Leaning back, inserting herself carefully among the stools, she clamped her hands under her arms and locked her ankles. It was a strange sensation, excitement that wasn’t yours, closer to a heart attack than anything else when it was unexpected. The only way through was to accept it for what it was rather than fight it.
Eyes closed, she imagined herself swaying to the music, leaping in the air.
It was going to be a long wait. She’d have to sit tight until long after the gig had finished before she packed up and left. But as she’d been taught, the best jobs took effort, especially the not-getting-caught part.
She had this under control, she reassured herself. Crime was in her blood. She pushed away that bitter thought, concentrating on the job in front of her.
It was another couple of flasks before she started to realise that something else was wrong.
It was the emotions washing over her: each song they were stronger. No longer content with swaying to the music, the urge to leave and wade out into the crowd was becoming unquestionable. She was striking it rich, making six months’ worth of rent in a night – why shouldn’t she head out and celebrate?
Starting to sweat, the excitement of the crowd turned to an itch under her skin. Her heart was beating a mile a minute. Checking again that the plates were secure, she found to her dismay that there was some give to them. The vibrations of the bass, the force of the emotions were making the plates hum. It was all too much for the old wall. As she touched the lowest metal disk, flakes of plaster came away under her fingertips. Eyes straining in the torchlight, she thought she could . She was certain they hadn’t been there before.
It was only a matter of time before the plates fell out. Or that someone passing the cupboard caught an errant wave of emotion and got suspicious.
‘Let’s hear you make some noise!’ The call made Coleman wince. There was an edge to Gavin’s voice, almost feral.
The band were already getting the backwash, feeding off the excitement of their fans in more ways than one. And, as they got more manic, they drove their audience to greater heights, creating a feedback loop that would only end in tears.
She had to shut this down.
Back on her phone, she swept through the pages of the manual she’d downloaded. It was cheap – the diagrams accurate but hand drawn, the text poorly written.
There was no mention of what would happen if she just ripped the plates from the walls while the gig was in full swing.
Was there an order she had to pull them out in? Or should she rub away the chalked sigils first? And in what order? Do it wrong and most likely it would stop working, but there was a slim chance the thing could go off like a bomb. It had only taken one small thing going wrong to realise that she didn’t truly understand how this device worked at all.
Something creaked on the other side of the wall. Another wave of excitement made her giddy, potent as five shots of tequila. Her head swam as she fought the urge to scream and shout and whistle. Clenching her fists, she opened her mouth wide to let out a silent bellow, relieving some of the pressure.
She heard the stage door opening and closing, the music taking on new shapes in the corridor outside. Jabbing off the torch on her phone, she dulled the screen and held it to her chest.
‘I told him, he’s not allowed to swing off that. It’s not safe.’
‘Well what do you want me to do? You tell him. Listen, the crowd are fucking loving it.’
They were right outside, shadows dancing in the crack of light under the door.
The emotions emanating from the plates were constant now. She trembled with them, pressing her lips tight, afraid of what would happen if she stopped fighting. The door would be no barrier. Any moment now it would start to get to the pair outside. If they realised the feelings for what they were…
Another roar burst from the crowd.
‘Fucking hell. What’s with them tonight? Right, if you go and get…’ The voices drifted away as they headed off down the corridor.
But Coleman couldn’t relax. No. This was getting too dangerous. Abort. Abort.
Cursing herself for being so stupid, she made sure that the bottles she’d already filled were secure in her bag.
Thumbing the torch back on and slipping it into her breast pocket, she strained her ears, trying to tell if the pair were coming back. But with the noise of the band and the crowd it was hard to say.
Waiting to make sure they’d left only meant more time for them to discover her. She couldn’t leave the equipment here either, the amount that she’d paid for it.
The only way out of this problem was through it. Resolved, Coleman began to unscrew the highest of the plates. It took less than half the time it had to set it up. The crumbling plaster came away easily, sprinkling around her feet as she fought to balance the screws in their brackets, slipping the whole contraption, tube and all, into her bag. No time for finesse.
The emotion in the air began to stutter.
For a moment, the music stopped, the silence thudding like a blow to the chest. The drummer had missed a beat, Gavin’s voice faltering as he forgot the next lyric.
She swore to herself as the feelings flickered over her brain. The faltering flow was more noticeable than the constant stream. Where before the punters had thought they were just having a good time, now they might spot their feelings as induced by her tampering.
‘Fuck,’ Coleman hissed grappling at the second plate, every noise amplified in the silence as the crowd’s roar faded, the fans just as confused as the band.
Come on. This plate was tougher, refusing to budge.
The door handle rattled. She froze. Maybe they were just—
‘Someone in there?’ a voice called.
She swallowed, her tongue dry and trying to choke her. Tears were threatening. It was all going wrong, all the work, all the planning, how was she—
She jumped as the door rattled again, biting her tongue against the squeak of fright that tried to escape her.
The band kicked up again, the music blasting to life. But the roar of the crowd failed to follow it.
‘I think someone’s in there. Is there a key?’ the woman on the other side of the door. ‘Well it is locked… I know… Will Simon have the key? Go fetch him. We’re getting a key,’ she called through the door. ‘You’d best come out.’
Forgetting the screwdriver, Coleman fought to dig her fingertips between the metal and wall. When that didn’t work, she tried twisting the screws with her fingernails. Managing the barest millimetre with each effort, she went back to prying.
The thing came free all at once. Stools wobbled and rattled behind her as she fell back, screws scattering around her feet.
‘There is someone there. Simon!’
No time. First came help, then came the police. She had to be gone before they even considered calling them. She forced the plate into her bag. But its tube had stuck to the filter, pulling it from the half-filled flask. Tipping over, raw emotions dribbled out onto the floorboards. Raw emotion dribbled onto the floorboards, soaking into them. The scent of it was near overpowering, bypassing her olfactory senses and flooding her with feeling, sending a shudder through Coleman’s frame.
The woman on the other side of the door gasped. She’d felt it too, the emotion too obvious now to be felt as anything other than what it was.
The band had stopped playing again. She could hear Knox at the microphone umming and ahhing, trying to collect his thoughts as strange, errant emotions surged through him.
With the drop in sound, Coleman could hear more of what was happening in the corridor outside, the distant shout of voices, more people approaching. Simon with the key.
The crowd were shouting now, confused. The momentum and magic of the gig had stuttered to a stop as the feedback loop was broken, the audience’s spirits crashing. The mixture vibrating the final plate was now just a mixture of confusion and disappointment. The merest dribble ran from the flailing tube.
But Coleman was thinking more clearly, her blood no longer rushing with other people’s excitement. Trying to ignore the rattle of the door handle, the bang of the woman’s fist, her demands of ‘Answer me!’, Coleman worked on releasing the final plate.
Fingertips smarting from the bite of the screw heads, she pried it away. Shoving it into her bag, she gathered up the tubes and filter.
‘, there you are. Have you got the key?’
‘Right here, right here.’
‘I can hear them moving around. I don’t know what they’re doing…’
With the side of a fist, she scrubbed away at the runes. The less evidence she left behind the better. Though most cops these days turned a blind eye to small uses of magic, being caught doing this kind of shit came with a nothing short of a hanging. The last thing she wanted was to have to explain anything to them.
Her boot found the screws that had dropped at her feet. No time or the room to pick them up, she kicked them through the stool legs toward the side of the cupboard. She hoped that if they bothered to check the crime scene after this, they wouldn’t make the effort to remove the stools. Even if they did, in a room like this? What was a few screws? Or a few fingerprints for that matter.
The door banged again, right by her ear. The strike had been higher up than the woman’s. So hard that the door rattled in its frame. She could already picture the size of the fist that caused it. ‘Hey.’ A man’s voice. ‘Come out. Don’t make this difficult.’
Twisting her bag, hands shaking, she groped for the emergency pocket, the one in the back that she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to open. If you brought a gun to a job, she’d been taught, you were planning to fail.
Well, she hadn’t brought a gun…
She tucked the small aerosol into her bra for safe keeping while she pulled out the filter mask and paper bag.
The mask went on first, over her mouth and nose. It was a proper bit of kit too, could protect against all sorts.
‘All right then,’ said the man outside. There was a rattle of keys. ‘One of these,’ she heard him mutter.
The paper bag was backed with card to prevent the runes drawn on every square inch from creasing in the wrong way, or worse, tearing. The paper shivered as she unfolded it. She checked that she was holding it the right way around before slipping it over her head, careful, careful not to rip it as she pulled it over her ponytail. The sound of her own breathing closed around her, a hot cloud against her face.
Zipping the backpack closed, making sure it was secure on her shoulders, a key began to scrabble at the lock.
She squared with the door, twitched the paper bag so that she could see through the eye holes. Trying to take a deep breath, she found that she couldn’t. She couldn’t go to jail, she didn’t want to hang. She didn’t want to end up like—
She plucked the spray from her bra, adjusting and readjusting it in her hand, trying to ignore how sweaty her palm was. And how close she was to literally shitting herself.
The lock snapped, making her jump. The door jerked open and there was nothing but light, threatening to blind her, with a monolith of shadow in the middle.
The guy was big, well-built, hair cut close, a real bouncer’s bouncer. Aziz, she presumed.
She barely had time to register his expression of stern concentration had only a moment to turn to confusion before Coleman brought up the aerosol and sprayed. He gasped as it caught him full in the face – big mistake – taking in even more through the nose and mouth.
She only had enough for a few seconds, but fear kept her index finger squeezing the trigger, emptying the tiny canister. Aziz staggered away and she followed as he spluttered and tripped over himself, falling with a hard thud onto his back.
The pair of event staffers behind him, a boy and girl, jumped back with a cry.
Their shock turned to as they took her in. The bag was working. Coleman had cut her teeth on glamour magic and this was a simple but effective little trick she’d perfected.
Later, when they were sat with the police, all they would each be able to describe of her would be, ‘It was, well… me.’ It was the perfect disguise, a mirror glamour that reflected their own faces back at them, something so confusing, so strange that they wouldn’t take in a single other detail. Not what she was wearing, the bag she was carrying, height, skin tone, nothing.
It bought her a couple of seconds, too. The element of surprise in action.
Aziz had blocked their view of the spray but they saw it now as she brought the near empty capsule up and prayed there was enough. The boy took a half-hearted puff that made him cough, the girl got even less than that.
The bouncer was already sobbing on the floor, oblivious to what was happening above him, tears streaming as he tried to curl up.
The boy let out a bark of laughter, his grin widening as he started to convulse with mirth.
The girl shook her head at her feeble spritz, gasped and pushed herself back against the wall. The colour drained from her face.
‘Get in the fucking cupboard,’ Coleman snarled and the girl tripped over Aziz to comply, slamming the door behind her.
Astounded that it had worked, Coleman hurried down the corridor. The girl’s fear would only keep her in the cupboard a few seconds, but that was all Coleman needed. The spray was a little bit of everything, a mix of all the emotions she’d collected when she’d been experimenting with the apparatus. There was anger in there, depression, sadness, glee, boredom. It never struck someone the same way twice, the spray simply colliding with their psyche. For some, the flurry of so many emotions at once was so overwhelming it knocked them out.
Leaving the bouncer crying and the boy laughing, Coleman was through the door.
Knox and the band had rallied, launching into their most popular track, the music hitting her full in the face.
People barely looked as she started to push her way through the crowd. The music thumping, the air thick with the heat of two hundred bodies, she headed for the exit at the back.
Removing the paper bag, she crunched it into her fist. The filter mask that had protected her from any back spray went into her pocket.
The bag now was the giveaway. It was big enough to hold many flasks, and looked out of place on the dance floor.
It was slow going: the crowd were wild, desperate to hold onto their good time. The room was packed, the gig sold out. Why she’d picked it in the first place. What would they have made of their excitement sloshing around in the dozen flasks squeezing past them in her bag?
She had no idea how long it took for her to cross the room, panic making time elastic. It wouldn’t be long before the alarm was raised. Aziz was probably down for the night, the boy, who knew, the girl less than that. Could be she was shouting for help right now.
Coleman didn’t turn around, she didn’t dare, her eyes fixed on the green glow of the exit light.
There were stairs beyond the door, narrow stairs and she had to apologise her way down them, past a couple arguing and another guy in his massive hands. She kept her head down, tried not draw attention.
There was the bar downstairs, the queues long, every table packed.
More bouncers at the door, radios clipped to their jackets, waiting to spark to life with the message to hold her. Slipping her phone from her front pocket, she held it to her ear.
‘Hang on,’ she said, ‘I can’t hear you. I’m just stepping out.’
The bouncers stepped aside to let her pass, too busy in their conversation to pay much attention beyond thumbing the clicker.
Heading out into the night, hands in pockets, she strode determined on the route she’d chosen the night before. She could swear she heard an excited burst of radio chatter as she turned the nearest corner, and picked up her pace.
She pounded the pavement, every turn felt like another step away from them finding her.
Saturday night was in full swing, men and women wrapped in their good times against the chill, spring air. A dealer or two offered them help: cocaine, ex, emo. She thrilled at the thought that the stuff in her backpack was no doubt a hundred times better than what was being offered. Cars thumped past, songs competing through opened windows. Buses growled behind them, their windows bright, ads declaring that the new TV show ‘Rune Watch’ would give people exactly the excitement they were looking for – a crack team taking down illegal magicians wherever they hid, and looking good while they did it, naturally.
She passed dark alleys where magic crackled, the homeless straining the old magic-infused foundations of the buildings until the wards glowed, using the runes for warmth. Nearby police turned a blind eye.
So many of the buildings here were from before the war, before magic was declared illegal. As much as people hated the stuff now, there was little they could do about the magic that held up the ancient buildings of London’s older quarters. Even Big Ben was held up on magic, its bell amplified by old spells that needed constant renewal from licensed caretakers. The House of Lords chamber was the same, a huge room that would crumble back to its proper dimensions if the spells that kept the space expanded collapsed – an ancient feat of Empirical magic that couldn’t be done without, despite the prohibition. Magic still had a toehold in places like this, too engrained to be rousted by technology just yet.
She was just heading up Redchurch Street, the pubs making way for trendy design shops and graffitied shutters, when her phone began to buzz in her pocket. It was Jared, her contact with the dealers. Coleman didn’t mind making the product, but preferred to keep the real criminals at arm’s length.
‘Hey, what’s up?’
‘You got it? I swear, Davey’s called three times already. He says if he doesn’t get it soon he’s going somewhere else.’
‘Then tell your boss he’ll get it and it’ll be worth the wait. I’ve got twelve bottles of it right now. Just got to get it distilled. We can meet tomorrow.’
‘Ok. Cool. I know this great little place—’
‘No. This isn’t a date. Just bring the money.’
‘Sure. Whatever. Look, he’s asking again about meeting you.’
‘Then disappoint him. I don’t want to get any deeper than I already am. You tell him the product’s enough to be worth a bit of mystery.’
‘He’s starting to think you’re a cop. The purity—’
‘If he wants to complain about the purity being too good then that’s definitely a first world problem. And if I was a cop, then surely that means he shouldn’t want to meet me. It’s not happening. Tell him and I’ll see you tomorrow.’
She hung up and sighed, the high of the adrenalin wearing off.
A half hour she walked, past Bethnal Green, past Mile End. She walked until her shins ached.
Figuring she was far enough away to avoid any net the cops might throw out, she called herself an Uber. Waiting outside the tube, she tried her best to look like a backpacker on the final stretch of a long journey.
The driver wasn’t the talkative type and that suited her just fine. The hard part was not bursting with relief as she sank back into her seat, watching the city slide by beyond the glass.
It was starting to look like she’d got away with it.
There was no telling, of course. No way of knowing what the police would unearth, what kind of evidence they’d find that Coleman hadn’t thought to look for, but she knew well enough that it wasn’t like in Rune Watch. The police would have a look, but odds were they’d conclude she’d just been some crazy groupie waiting to jump Gavin Knox.
The comedown for the adrenalin was really kicking in now, her limbs growing heavy and a tension headache approaching under her knitted brow. The terror came back to ambush her. What had she been thinking? She could have been caught. She could have been in cuffs right now, heading for the gallows in the morning.
She put her hands up to her face, hiding from the memory. She’d got away, hadn’t she? And the money was going to be good. The leak had been a setback, but she could fix that.
But all it would take is one bad day. One thing she didn’t see coming. If anyone should know that, it was her.
Next thing she knew, she was out the car and into an off-licence buying a bottle of wine. She didn’t remember thanking the driver. But the memories and grief were setting in. The things that had happened to her family and the fallout that had come after it. The fallout that was still coming from it. She wouldn’t sleep tonight without the booze, she knew that much. Between the dark memories and her brain still grasping at what had happened at the gig, having her relive it over and over, she needed something to numb her, if only for a little while.
Getting back to the flat wasn’t the relief she’d been hoping for. The lock snapped shut and the chain was secured against the outside world that was out to get her. But the flat was empty, leaving her alone with herself.
Well she had the cure for that now.
She’d planned on spending another hour or two studying wards on the dark web. The more she knew about them the better, especially if she wanted to expand the business. But after all the excitement, that certainly wasn’t going to happen tonight.
Throwing the keys on the kitchen counter, she avoided her reflection in the wine glass as it filled dark red. Raising it with a one-fingered salute towards the window, she took a sip.
Liquid sprayed the glass as she first inhaled then coughed the wine across the silhouette of the figure standing in the doorway behind her.
In an instant she knew he’d been waiting for her, lurking in the dark living room.
He was tall, white, bald, middle-aged. Chinos and rumpled shirt, the collar crooked, gut spilling over his belt.
Just seeing him there struck like a blow that sent her reeling, so much so that she had to lean against the wall, her ears ringing and sparks eating at the edges of her vision.
‘You need to see this,’ he said and disappeared into her living room.
A lamp switched on, casting his shadow across the wall. She could see him sitting down in her armchair.
She stood frozen, only jerking back to herself when wine dribbled from the glass tilting in her hand.
‘If I’d wanted to hurt you, I’d have done it,’ he called, impatient. ‘And if I’d wanted to call the police, they’d have been waiting for you instead of me. Those can still happen but if you would prefer neither, then you need to come in here.’
Her blood felt like it had turned to ice water. Her hands and face were cold as she set the glass down, snatching up the corkscrew and setting it between her fingers.
Stepping out into the hallway, her weapon held out in front of her, she eyed the door, wondering how quickly she could get out.
‘You don’t need that,’ he spat. He’d turned the armchair to face her.
At his feet, he’d laid out all of her glamour ingredients, everything she needed to make passports, driver’s licenses, ID cards. Her emotion experiments were laid out on the battered coffee table like a shop display, bottles in rows, old homemade plates stacked in columns. And all across the walls there were photos. She didn’t need to look at them for more than a moment to know what they were. There were pictures of her dealing the fake IDs, shaking hands with Jared. There were even pictures of her performing a couple of robberies from her early days when she’d started to need the cash and decided to follow the family business.
‘Starting to understand?’ the man asked as she turned back for the door. ‘I could have the police on you in minutes. Anything you have in that bag in the hall you’ll be selling at bottom dollar because I’ll have contacted your buyer to tell him the predicament you’re in. You’ll be in prison by the end of the week. Stop crying.’
Tears were already streaming down her face. If she had been trembling before she was shaking now from head to toe, like she’d stepped out of an ice bath.
‘I’m not here to hurt you,’ he snapped. ‘I’m not some… Just sit down. Sit down now.’
She inched into the living room, keeping the corkscrew between them, fuck how it made him huff like he was the one with the right to be offended. Unable to trust her legs, she settled on the arm rest of her sofa.
His eyes never left her. ‘Good. Now’ he leaned forward, ‘Michaela, I want you to put me in touch with your mother.’