by Stewart Wilson
It never just rains in this place. There's always something more, screaming for me to get involved. When it started raining that Saturday I knew I should have stayed home, turned on the TV and done my best to ignore the world for a night.
Instead, I went to meet my date.
In my defence, it was my first date in five years. We'd met the night before in a lonely coffee shop far enough away from the main strip for me to ignore all the beautiful people who didn't live in the real world. It was a coincidence, but we got talking, everything set up. She thought my work sounded mysterious, that I was some kind of reclusive genius with a knack for mystery. I hadn't the heart to tell her I was a reclusive idiot who finds himself in too many weird situations. We arranged to meet at a Kurdish place off Moorcock Place, and I set off home wondering why I didn't kiss her goodnight.
They say that dreams never match up to reality. There's always one little difference that stops the dream from being so good. In my case the one little difference was a nine-millimetre hole in the middle of her forehead. I found her, half-lit in the orange glow of a streetlight, long hair scattered and blood leaking from a semi-automatic trephination. She'd been dragged there from the street, the wall behind her covered with strange symbols that didn't look like normal graffiti. Her blood was still warm.
In my heyday, I used to charge people in situations like this. Had an ad in the paper and my name on the frosted glass of my door, business cards with "Paranormal Investigator" under my name. I gave that up a couple of years ago, but it looked like tonight I was back in the same job. Tonight, though, I was working pro bono.
I took pictures of the scene with my smartphone. People don't expect me to bother with technology, but it saves a lot of problems down the line. More, of the wound and the wall and the street. And one of her face, even though I'll never forget the hidden accusation in her vacant stare. I sent everything off to my backup at the office, just to be sure. I wasn't sure what the story was, but too many people who could be involved know who I am.
I didn't call the police. They were under the thumb of some Russian thug with dreams of being a crimelord and a psychic at his side. it'd be too easy to pull me in and lock me up for good. So I hit the street, feet pounding and rain slicking my hair down against my face. Trying to work out who had any reason to kill her. I hadn't been digging, there was no reason for anyone to use her to get to me. And even if there was, why would they shoot her straight through the third eye? It didn't make any sense. There had to be a reason for it and I wasn't it. Always the same.
Babalon's the kind of guy I really can't stand at the best of times. Always high on some cocktail of mind-blasting drugs, trying to break the barriers of human perception. Reaching for the stars while other people die in the gutters and his body falls apart. He doesn't care, he's got through three already. For a junky psychonaut he's good in a fight. He runs a shop that's open all hours, bongs and pipes and the God only knows what else in the window and on top of all the shelves, covered in a thick layer of dust, and Babalon himself behind the register with a fat reefer that smells like the bottom of a gas can. He told me what was in those once and I quit smoking the same day.
"Babalon." I try to keep my voice neutral, and mostly succeed. He looks up, winks, and goes back to packing something unspeakable into a pipe. Despite everything, he's a smart, button down shirt kind of guy.
"What is troubling you, Chris?"
"I need a favour." I hate it. Every time I come to see him I want something. We were friends once, before I figured he was just too much. Time like this, a guy could use a friend rather than an informer.
He set the pipe aside and motioned to a spare chair. "Who is it?"
"Her name was Julia Morgan. We were supposed to be on a date."
"Have you a picture?"
I handed over the phone. To his credit he didn't ask, didn't comment on me finally being with a woman. He just frowned. "The writing behind her looks familiar. Hidden letters, linguistic keys or Some such thing. Definitely a language of some kind. Have you any idea why it happened?"
"No. No idea at all. Not anyone wanting to get at me, anyway. They could have shot me any time."
"And the bullet goes right in at the chakra, I see. It was planned for her, and no medium is going to bring her back now. But I do not recognise her. She is not part of the scene around here."
"For what it is worth, I'm sorry."
I left without saying another word. Back to the office, another night of bad coffee and no sleep, nothing until I had some kind of clue. If the symbols were something to do with a language I could figure out what was going on. Track something down online, find someone else who'd come across the same thing. Get some kind of lead.
Things are never that smooth. Back at the office my door had been smashed in, frosted glass crunching under my boots. They were long gone, that was for sure. The whole office was smashed up, the desk in five pieces and the computer strewn all over. Symbols spray-painted on the wall, the colour of dried blood. They must have seen me looking at the body, and they knew who I was.
Looking around the office again, I was lucky. One drawer in the desk hadn't been opened, was still part of the frame. Evidently whoever did this only cared about trashing the place. That drawer had my gun, a seven-shot revolver specially cast with septagrams connecting each chamber. I'd shot everything from Scientologists to Schichiriron with this gun and nothing had got back up. My computer was also good, whoever trashed the place was an old-fashioned thug who still though a monitor was the real brain of a computer. I didn't know if it had the backed-up images, but I could hope. When I cleared this up I could find out.
I was on my fifth cup of coffee, back in the same coffee shop where I met Julia, when dawn started creeping up on the sky. I walked, heading for the docks in the early mist, to the skeletons of old loading cranes and rusting ships long-since abandoned. Warehouses converted to apartments before they were left to rot at my back, murky water in front of me. The one place nobody bothers going any more.
The wind from the sea stank of engine oil and raw sewage. Rusting chains clanked in the wind as I tried to think. Someone had killed the first girl to so much as smile at me in five years and left some weird language at the scene. Someone had trashed my office and left the same weird language painted on my wall. Someone wasn't every up with modern technology, and wore dress shoes around size ten. Spray paint is a giveaway on a faded carpet like the one in my office, flecks of paint falling to the ground before they hit the wall and leaving a neat outline.
That ruled out the Russian, then. His men weren't bright but they would go through drawers on principle, looking for money. And they would have taken the computer. Not the Immaculate Dawn either, none of the five left ever used a gun when they could summon something else to do it for them. It was the right style for the Grail, but why the strange language? And why let me know that they wanted me out of the picture?
On a hunch, I hit the net on the phone. It's too expensive for me to use most of the time, but this time I had good reason. The language was the only real clue I had left, and I had to see what there was. It took a while, breathing in the foetid air and tapping at too-small keys as the sun comes up and boils away the mists. Lots of possibilities, but no certainties. The secret language of angels. Hidden letters that are the alphabet of the subconscious. Antiwords, destroying ideas in the minds of all who read them. Linguistic wards projected into the informational context of reality by the act of reading. Too much bullshit, as usual.
It looked like I wasn't going to get very far working out what they were for. but there was something else, a link to a page on the guy who discovered them. A lunatic out in Boston who'd scrawl them around the dead people he found on the streets. Apparently he'd been doing it since the Strangler was stalking the streets for no real reason anyone could tell. A pack of chaos magicians out that way picked up on it and it spread from them. There was only one group in this city would use something like that as a warning, and it all fit. With the sun high in the sky and the stench of human waste clinging to my coat I set off for the Mayor's office.
City hall was big and imposing, a fortified penis extension for the city politicians so they could stroke themselves happily while they fucked the place. There was a back way in, service tunnels that ran from under at least two warehouses. Rumour was that the warehouses were where the police delivered the young runaways that the Mayor selected, and they were smuggled in to the main building to be sacrificed.
Why the Mayor's cult wanted to kill Julia I didn't know. But even if they didn't really sacrifice kids they did steal a whole mess of invocations, runes and strange technology from just about everyone else. The city administration ran on a mainframe sanctified in the blood of sacrificial programmers, and their employed muscle were forbidden from using anything newer than twenty years old. They'd be the only ones mad enough to think some crazy-writing would work. And they wore their damn suits all the time.
I didn't have evidence. I didn't have a motive. I just had a hunch and a chain of mad ideas. I couldn't go in there and shoot the place up. I'm not a nutcase, I had seven bullets and they had automatic weapons. So, I did what I always did. I cheated.
The Mayor himself wasn't going to be involved. He was an idiot figurehead, nothing more. A pleasant face for people to blame things on and claim he was possessed. The real power was behind the scenes, a nasty piece of work by the name of Edward Irons. He'd got in my way before, but never this close. He'd always been a small figure in a far off part of the city, bothering the really high-profile players. A friend on the other end of my phone promised to get me face to face with him "sometime tomorrow" as I stood out front of the building.
My stomach growled, I hadn't eaten in more than a day. I headed out to a Mickey-D's, flashed the signal Babalon had told me about, and got two meals to go without paying a cent. Apparently looking through the omnimind of corporate conspiracies has its benefits. I walked back to the office, threw the sheets back on top of my slashed mattress in the bedroom, ate, and finally let myself sleep.
I didn't sleep well. She was in my dreams, every scene turned into me finding her body or seeing her face, over and over again. A psychedelic swirl of images, her body overlaid with the chakras, the third eye gleaming with a fresh bullet hole. Her stood there, waiting for me, checking her watch, and as the gun cracks from a car window everyone on the street screams at me for being late, for not doing what I should.
I awoke feeling worse than I had before. The food was churning in my guts, and even though Babalon was sure no medium could contact her I could feel her in my head. She didn't want me to rest before I dealt with the men who killed her. Or was it just me projecting my own self-loathing onto them and overlaying it all with her face? I couldn't tell. Everything in my head was upside down and inside out. The phone rang.
It was my ghost in the machine. "Chris. I managed to get you a meeting."
"Eight. You're lucky, Irons is working late tonight."
"I'll be there. Thanks."
"Be careful. The black satellites have caught some of what they're carrying out of those warehouses."
"It's not a rumour, and it's not the worst they get up to."
The line went dead.
I had a couple of hours left so I went back to the coffee shop where this whole thing started. I didn't know what I'd find, but everything was building up. There was an itch in the back of my head and something told me that I might be able to scratch it there. I'd not thought to ask what Julia did, why she was there on that night when we first met when nobody knew who she was, and I was kicking myself for it.
I didn't really know Kat, the woman who ran the place. She just served the coffee and I drank it, but we talked a bit and she knew something about everyone there. Hell, she knew some of what happened, why I stopped doing this professionally, and not said anything one way or another. I figure if she knew that she must know something about everyone in the place. I got a coffee and sat at the counter.
"There was a girl in here, night before last."
"There sure was. You two were hitting it off well that I saw."
"We were." Past tense. Not very past, but very tense. From the look on her face she hadn't heard.
"One of your things."
"Yeah. At least, I think so."
"You think so?"
"I can't explain it better. I just need something to click."
"The least you could do is ask."
"I'm not going to go telling you about her because you're all maudlin."
"Fine. Why was she here? Not just this coffee shop, this city? What made her come here?"
"She ran a place in Chicago, a shelter. Homeless kids, the kind people don't see. That was going good and she found out just how many kids were vanishing here. So she came to start something for them here."
"I thought it might be something like that." I finished the coffee and hit the streets. It was going to be a long walk to city hall.
The receptionist had gone home, the only people left in the offices were late workers like Irons and the security guards. Even the cleaning staff had gone home. Irons' office was on an executive corridor, plush carpet underfoot and brass handles on hardwood doors. I felt like I should wipe my feet before going in, but I ignored the feeling and knocked anyway.
Irons was sat behind a mahogany desk, pen scratching out lines of accounts in longhand. He wasn't the big, imposing man in a sharp suit that I expected. Instead, he was just a man, fairly nondescript, sat behind a desk and just... doing his job. The same as anyone else. The idea that this man could be an occultist, that he could order Julia's death, was just plain nuts.
That's when I noticed them on the walls. Framed prints of the same meta-alphabet that had lead me here. The alien letters seemed to shift when I looked at them, but he started to speak before I could get a good look.
"Sit down, Mister Sullivan. What can I do for you?"
"My office didn't tell you why I was coming?" I didn't look like someone who had an office. I looked like some kind of crazy homeless guy who screams about occult conspiracies before passing out in some alley.
"Your, ah, office told me that you wanted to interview me for a book, but we both know that's not true, is it?"
"It's not. It was a ruse to come and see you." My mouth worked without me willing it, something commanding me to answer him.
"Why is that, I wonder?"
"Because I need to know why you had Julia Morgan killed."
He didn't look up from the ledger. "What makes you think I had her killed?"
"The writing. Both at her death and in my office."
"Surely that's a little tenuous, isn't it?"
There was something in his tone of voice. Subtle hypnotics to reinforce the symbols in the pictures, breaking past my conscious control to force the plain truth straight to my mouth. I had to regain control of the situation before it got too out of hand. I pulled my gun and shot one of the prints in a single motion. It screamed when the bullet went through, shattering to a thousand tiny shards.
"Not when the writing's on the wall, Mister Irons." I kept the gun trained on him. "Nor when your thugs decide to trash my office. So let's try this again. Why did you have Julia Morgan killed? Every answer that I don't like, I'm going to shoot you."
He was looking up now, confident but with just an edge of uncertainty to his voice. "Security will take you down long before that."
"They won't. These offices are soundproofed. I cut your phone line before coming in here, and nobody else is working anywhere near this part of the building. So we're here alone, and you are going to tell me because I am sick of not knowing!" I was shouting. Letting it all out, all the hurt and the anger amplified by tiredness. I shot him in the leg. Make the bastard squirm.
Irons screamed in pain, clutching the wound. This was it. I wasn't going to make it right, but I was going to make it up to her.
"I'm being fucking serious. Now tell me, because if you don't I'll make sure your still breathing nearly-corpse is alive enough for the Russian's pet psychic to flay your brain."
His face was white, voice rising an octave in panic. "No! You can't! We need the rituals, we need-"
"I don't care."
"You're mad! It'll all fall apart without them-"
I shot him clean through the head. Blood, bone and brains decorated the wall behind him.