Chapter 5 - The Present
Wind blew across the train yard, pulling Amanda back to herself. Skeebs was arriving with the new Abra, the jeep he’d taken to the airport weaving its way through the rusting scrap toward them.
Nine months later, almost everyone who had been in that room was dead, killed by Reeves as she’d predicted. The only reason they hadn’t run that day was Jamison had convinced her not to. If they’d run then AK would have chased and that would have been that.
The tyres of Skeebs’ jeep sent a wave of stones and dust ahead as it slammed to a halt. The low sun turned the windscreen white granting only the vaguest impression of the figures inside.
Skeebs was out of the car as soon as the engine died, slamming the door so hard the whole jeep rocked.
“Did you know about this?” the boy thundered. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
The jeep was silent. The silhouette in the passenger seat hadn’t moved.
“You told me this was important. We had to do this your way. And now you expect me to swallow this as well?”
“Let’s get going. Caleb, show him the new set up.”
“No,” Skeebs shook his head. “I’m not getting on that. Not until you explain to me…”
The boy faltered. In every way possible. Words died on his lips, his pacing slowed to a stop, his taut expression slackened. He’d looked over the supply crates scattered around the door, the empty bags, the packing material drifting in the breeze.
The empty steel box.
Amanda looked down at her feet, fists closing in her pockets, readying herself.
They’d tried to tuck it out of sight. The lid was propped up beside it, revealing the defective protective wards etched into the interior.
Skeebs let out a small cough. The colour and anger had drained from his face.
“Weren’t any other choice,” said Caleb.
“But…” the boy’s eyes were wide and disbelieving. “We’re not taking the box?”
“We don’t have time for this,” said Amanda.
Skeebs was rubbing at the back of his neck. “Fuck, I can feel it. Can’t you fucking feel it? I’m not getting on there if we’re not using the box. You can just go without me.”
Amanda heard Caleb jump down from the carriage, the big man joining her at her side.
“Caleb,” said Amanda. “Tell the drivers that we aren’t moving an inch until that man’s on-board.” Her cigarette jabbed at Skeebs, ash swirling.
“You’re bluffing,” said Skeebs.
“We’ve got to go,” said Caleb.
“You want to go?” said Amanda. “Then get him on-board. In chains if you have to.” She let that hang in the air a while, the boy trying to suss her out. But she was deadly serious.
“Man!” Skeebs broke, imploring. “We don’t go, we all fucking die. Don’t you get it? I’ve seen that thing in there kill a hundred people like it was nothing. Think it’s going to care about us?”
“Then you’d best get on, hadn’t you?” said Amanda, acting like she had all the time in the world.
“C’mon,” said Caleb, a flick of the wrist to Skeebs. “Box wasn’t working. Come have a look. Sewn up tight. You’ll see.”
Across the yard came the grinding sound of a train starting to move, the scrape of steel working against steel.
There was that moment again, when all the cards were dealt and all there was left was to maintain composure. If you’d done your job, you could just sit back and watch your opponent defeat himself. She was back thinking to Camberley again – of how that had worked out.
She could see the struggle in Skeebs’ eyes. His jaw set and he glared at Amanda one last time. “You’re a real fucking bitch.” He made sure to knock Amanda’s shoulder on the way past.
Amanda took it, breathing an inner sigh of relief.
Caleb picked Skeebs up into the container without a hint of effort. Arms crossed, the boy took a chary step inside and disappeared.
“Don’t worry,” said Caleb. “All safe as houses. Real easy…”
Something clicked in Amanda’s neck as she stretched, gave herself a moment.
Was this how her father had felt, all the time? This boiling anger simmering just under his muscles?
“You’re not him,” she said to herself, pushing the thoughts away.
She walked over to the jeep, motioning the passenger to come out.
The vehicle door opened. Music spilled out after the passenger, some singer-songwriter pop song.
Amanda stared, stared far too long.
She couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, Amanda’s youngest daughter’s age. Long, straight brown hair. Thick glasses, too small on her round face, set over a grimace.
One of her shoe laces had come undone, looping around her ill-judged Converse trainers. She had no scarf, no gloves, a thin denim jacket. In a few moments, the cold would begin to gut her.
The girl folded her arms under Amanda’s scrutiny, her chin already wobbling with upset.
“You’re the new Abra?” Amanda couldn’t keep the cold from her tone. She didn’t like Abras at the best of times but a girl the same age as her dead daughter made her blood curdle. Who had any business filling a girl’s head with that stuff?
The girl nodded, swallowed, realised that wasn’t enough. “Yes. But… if you don’t want me. I mean, I can…” the girl put her hand to the door.
“No,” Amanda heard herself snap, making the girl recoil like the metal had flashed red hot. Amanda shook herself, clawing back a little self-control. “We don’t have time.”
“Well, I can call a taxi,” she pleaded. “If you just gave me a bit of money–”
The girl faltered mid-sentence. “What?”
“Your ink. Show me.”
“Do I have to?” the girl pleaded.
“OK. Um…” she looked at the ground, casting around for something. “What would you like me to…?”
“Anything. Just make it fast.”
“OK. I…” She set her feet, furrowed her brow in concentration, clasped her palms together, fingers interlocked, one atop the other.
She pulled her hands apart, the movement taking effort like they were magnetised. A spark appeared in the space between them, seemed to leech the light from the surrounding air, focussing it into a single point.
The taste of magic was sharp like a bitter apple.
Amanda’s mouth flooded with saliva, her stomach churned. The scars up her arms and legs began to tingle. In an instant, she was in her childhood living room, back hard to the wall, her father eclipsing her as she–
“Fine!” she said, louder than she intended.
The girl jumped, the light winking out.
“Come on, let’s go.” Amanda strode over, shaking herself from the grip of the memory. The girl backed out of the way as Amanda rounded the car door. “You know why you’re here?” Amanda asked.
The bag in the foot well was bright pink and pathetically small, barely room for a change of clothes.
“Yes, I mean the old man–”
“Can you do it?”
“I know scrying and a few–”
“Can you do the ritual, yes or no?”
Her chin wobbled again. Her breath began to huff with the onset of tears. “Are you going to kill me?” The words came out in a choked whisper, high as a mischord on a violin.
Amanda sighed. She didn’t have time for this. “Depends if you can give a straight answer.”
“But it’s not a fair question! No one’s ever got this far before. I… I know some of the theory. But until I see the notes… It’s all hypothetical. I’m not even sure my–”
Amanda scowled at the sky.
The girl was right. If capturing a wild demon was meant to be impossible, which it was, killing it was more so. The fact that they’d even made it this far was one for the history books. The ritual, the stone circle, it all amounted to fingers-crossed because every other Abra who’d tried it through the centuries had ended up dead just trying to get the thing they’d summoned locked in a box. The safest bet was to never summon them in the first place. They almost hadn’t managed to capture Reeves themselves… and it had cost them all so much already.
Amanda could feel the weight of her playing cards in her breast pocket.
The girl was clamping on her misery, gumming it between her lips.
If this was the best AK could do then things were desperate.
But then so was she. That sound of Michaela’s chair scraping against concrete was like a splinter in her heart. What was her little girl thinking right now? What would she think when AK found out that Amanda hadn’t taken this girl with her? Amanda wanted to waste no time imagining. Every second wasted was another moment for AK to do something terrible to the one good thing she had left.
Keeping her bag, Amanda swept an arm around the teenager, herding her towards the carriage. “Come on. Go.”
The girl moved with all the speed of someone in a daydream looking up and down the train like she’d never seen one before. She tripped over her trailing lace but didn’t fall.
“We’re actually riding in this?”
“All the way. Now come on.”
“How long will it take?”
“A few days. Ninety-six hours.”
Caleb was waiting in the doorway of the carriage. Amanda could see the disapproval in the man’s eyes as he watched Amanda frog-march the girl forward. The added height of the train only served to make him look even more menacing, like an approaching meteor.
The drivers were watching, hands in pockets, postures identical.
Caleb stepped forward, a smile stretching his face in an effort to welcome her. He hitched his trousers to kneel so that he was closer to her height.
Caleb’s face wasn’t suited to smiling, it only added an unnatural leer that didn’t sit true.
The girl stopped short.
“Come on,” Amanda gave her a nudge. “He’s not dangerous. Just ugly.”
“Come on, sweetheart,” Caleb reached out a shovel-like hand.
“The box is open.” The girl hadn’t been able to see it from the car.
“That’s right,” said Amanda. “Box didn’t work. If it did you wouldn’t be here. New set up’s better, you’ll see.”
The girl turned, accusation in her eyes, the first thing Amanda had seen from her other than ‘stunned’.
“You didn’t ask me my name. It’s Steph.”
She nodded like she knew already. AK had probably already filled her head with all sorts of shit about her.
Amanda half lifted, half pushed her up and inside, letting her use the iron wheels for footholds.
Caleb grunted deep in his throat, disapproving, and again he and Amanda locked gazes over the teen’s head.
This is how it has to be, she tried to tell him, this was for Michaela.
The indecision wrestled across the big man’s face a moment before he stepped away, allowing the girl to scrabble her way inside.
At least she’d be easier to control, Amanda thought with a twinge of self-loathing. She should know, her father had kept her under his boot heel for so long that obeying had been easier than thinking.
Knees clicking, Amanda followed her, throwing the bag in at her feet.
She took one last look around, taking in the sky and a few final breaths of fresh air.
The drivers were backing towards the engine having watched the whole show.
Amanda held her hand up and brought it down again. The left driver threw back a salute. He turned to his partner, said something and Amanda heard laughter on the breeze as they made for the driver’s cabin.
If all went well, she wouldn’t see them again until the end of the line.
Her crew were all staring at her.
“This is fucked up,” said Skeebs.
“This is going to work. Four more days and this will all be over.” She pulled the door closed with a thunderous rumble. The last cut of natural light shone like diamond before it was mugged by the dimmer, artificial lamps inside. Four travel lamps had been set hanging along the ceiling, obliterating all shadows except those cast by the occupants themselves and those were faded and fractured, each person standing in the petals of their grey, pale mimicries.
Skeebs turned back to the supplies, distracting himself by rummaging through each box in turn.
The four padlocks that had once sealed the box were now set in the thick deadbolts that secured the carriage door from the inside. Amanda snapped them shut. The bolts were still warm from the blowtorches.
A jolt staggered them as the train started to move, the supplies shifting in their boxes.
Amanda patted her pockets to make sure she had everything. She kept her head down, delaying the moment she had to look toward the front end of the carriage.
Steph, backed against the nearest wall, had no such problem. The girl’s eyes were wide and try as she might, Amanda couldn’t stop the image of what the girl was seeing in her mind’s eye.
The chains were thick and bright in the lamplight, three on each side twisted together like seaman’s rope before fraying once again, ending in one of three brackets set into the thick manacle. The only thing holding them taut was the unconscious naked man suspended between them, his arms stretched across the width of the carriage, his knees almost but not quite touching the floor.
Hard to believe how much pain and suffering this thing, Reeves, had caused, seeing it like this. It looked like a man, had been one once, but truth was the thing inside was wearing that skin like a sock-puppet. There were hundreds of deaths at this thing’s feet, who knew how many thousands more if they failed and it got back home.
Caleb had stripped him once he was in chains. Their caution at his concealing something, anything, overriding their worry about keeping him warm. If things got too bad they’d give him a blanket, they’d decided.
The train was picking up pace, each jerk of the tracks coming quicker than the last, flattening into a permanent rumble.
Amanda frowned. There was no turning back.