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Bittersweet and Strange

Drinking Becks. Well, someone has to or it'll just take up all of the space in the kitchen. And since I'm the only one here, it'll have to be me. I'm doing this while writing. Not another detective story, not really. The title was from nickys. Hopefully this sort of thing isn't turning into my niche genre. I think I may need to hurry up and edit Strange Future just to remind myself of what else I can do.

Overmind theory is first defined elsewhere. Reference this for starters, full explanation can be provided if needed.

Bittersweet and Strange
by Stewart Wilson

The dead girl's eyes are closed. That's the first thing I notice. Not the sucking hole where her chest used to be, but that she looks like she died in her sleep. The room's been painted in blood and filth, but her face is ivory-white. Either a stroke of luck, or the killer wanted to keep his trophy looking perfect. I don't want to work out which.

"Who did it?" My eyes are transfixed as I ask.

"We don't know. That's why we got crisis intervention involved. This one's yours, as far as we care."

"So much for the police being any bloody use," I mutter.

The room outside's cold, but at least it's clean and doesn't stink of brimstone. Back in the scene, the half of the body that remains looks calm. Composed. Happy, almost, like a lover in arms with her beloved. Give or take that she's got no arms and not much below the shoulders in general, it's a fair enough comparison.

There's nothing I can do at the scene, not now at least. In the morning, I can get some scene of crime guys to go and work their magic, give them their chance to play at being CSI, but not at this time of night. Now, the world is too off-kilter. There's something broken, I know the feeling and I can't shake the knowledge that somehow this is all my fault. Again. I always get like this. I can't help it. Doesn't mean I have to like it. I go reacquaint myself with my old friend Mister Alcohol, and tell him to bring some friends.

* * *

Staggering home. It's half three and the city is dead. A big city can't be dead, not really. There's always too much going on. But that's what it feels like as I walk (never a taxi, you should see what those bastards get up to) the streets and see nothing and nobody. Got the place all to myself, whether I want it or not.

The headlights of an oncoming cab throw a shadow up and upon the sandstone wall behind me. The shadows of age-worn stone show me faces through the booze. Old friends, old family. People I loved, people I've killed. Try as I might, I can't bring myself to cry. I've gone past them. Worked off the loss, worked off the grief and hurt. Their faces remind me why I'm a workaholic. As well as an alcoholic, says a nasy voice in my head, right before I turn away.

I head for the office. It's closer than my flat, and a hell of a lot cleaner. I let myself in with the spare key and head down to the break room to sleep off my state. There's paperwork on my desk, must have been put there after I left last night. Always is. Nobody wants to leave. I head down to the break room, light a cigarette and collapse in one of the worn out sofas.

There's half a kebab from last night in the fridge. Someone else's. Their loss. I've drank myself hungry again and it vanishes into the haze. The old clock (digital ones are nightmares) is showing five in the morning when I finally give in to my urge to pass out.

* * *

My mouth tastes like hell. Clock's showing nine. Office hours are in. I stagger upstairs in a short and trousers that have definitely seen better days. From the feel of this morning that includes yesterday, corpse and all.

There's someone sat on my desk when I get to it. Barely more than a kid. If he's the new YTS lad, someone's in trouble (we don't show work experience the practical side, most places prefer they return with sanity intact). Not at it, perched in my chair and using my ashtray, but sat on my desk. I hope he didn't fart or I'm going to hate the paperwork on there a lot more than usual. If that's possible. I don't stop, just drop my jacket on the back of my chair and make for the boss.

The boss is female, blonde, thirtysomething, and God. She's not just professional, she's the head of the practical arm of crisis intervention. To the rest of us, she is the Power and the Glory both. She has the power to fire any of us, if ever the number of people who quit or die ever drops low enough that she can afford it, but there's never that threat. We'd never make her do it.

"Who's the sprog on my desk?"

"I'm sorry?"

"There's a sprog. On my desk. Must be all of fifteen. Eyeing up my chair like he wants to move in."

"James isn't a sprog, Mick. He's highly recommended."

"I'll bet." I leave the question hanging in the air.

"He's the new recruit. You're on the rota just like everyone else. He gets a month, then he's out of your hair."

"A bloody trainee?" If I had a cigarette it would have fallen out of my mouth.

"Fully trained in physical and electronic forensics. Used to be with the police."

"Experience?"

"Not in our line of work. Yet."

"I need to talk with someone about that bloody rota."

"And I need to talk with you about using the break room as a hotel, Mick. I can do that now, and see how much of your wages our files say you can stand to lose, or I can see how well you do with your new toy, and perhaps have forgotten by the end of the week." Power and Glory. Nobody said anything about subtlety. Then again, with me right now it'd probably bounce.

I leave. No point bothering with an argument.

He's still at my desk. Bastard looks like an Open University professor on day release. "Forensics boy?"

"Yeah?" He looks up, expectant. Been bullied since he was six years old, and never learned to keep his head down. I can see it in his eyes, that faint glimmer of hope.

"Your scene of crime any good?"

"I graduated. You won't get anything like you see on telly, though. It's not like that."

"I know. Good. You might be able to talk some sense into the SOCO arseholes who are going to be crawling all over our corpse."

"Our corpse?" He''s frowning.

"Stand up and look in the folder three down in the pile. Preliminary reports. The only pictures are blurred, but it's what we've got."

"Any clues?"

"Place stank of brimstone. I think it's another Nick, but I want you to show you're useful and prove me wrong."

"Is this some kind of test? Like a hazing ritual?"

"No. This is crisis intervention. The rituals we deal with are a lot more old-fashioned. If you prove me wrong, we might just be looking at a flipped serial killer with a Satan fixation and just enough occult knowledge to create the mess in that photo."

"If I don't?"

"Get your kit and hope you do. Got a light?"

"I don't smoke."

"You will.

* * *

I call in at my flat on the way. I need to change. Last night was fine because the officer on scene had called us, but now we had to deal with a professional, a career cop. Show up with your tie askew and he thinks you're a conman, rather than someone charged with looking after the immortal souls of the uplifted monkeys on this rock he calls home.

The sprog — who finally admits to being called James, not that I doubted the boss — carries a big metal briefcase, which looks to weigh a ton. Fortunately, there's space on the bus for it.

"I thought you'd have a car?"

"Fuck off. Deathtraps. Bus and tube. Fucking taxis are bad enough. Taxi once ate a friend of mine."

He's clever enough not to ask.

* * *

The scene's much the same, and the officious git in charge of it now is much as I expected. I almost borrow his phone to call the boss (I don't like being traced, and that goes for most of the people in the office). In the end, he relents and lets us in.

Nothing's changed. The smell's faded, but they've not moved the girl. I leave the sprog to his work and decide to grill the officer in charge.

"Howcome the girl's still there?"

"We can't move her."

"Surely your SOCO have already been over the place."

"No, we can't move her. Her back's fused with the... altar-like object. Or at least, that's what it looks like to everyone who's tried."

"Right. Nobody notice anything strange?"

"Apart from part of a dead girl welded to a lump of stone that used to be her bed."

"Fuck off and answer the question, my hangover's not in the mood for this." He glares at me without saying anything. "I was here last night. Before the blood had congealed."

"Nothing. The brimstone smell faded a few hours after the event, but other than that, nothing."

"No cold shivers, strange lights, people losing time, electrical items exploding or speaking in tongues, digital clocks or watches exhorting people to kill or physical manifestations of obviously nonhuman entities?"

"What the fuck are you on about?"

"Crisis intervention. I have to be sure what I'm dealing with."

"No, none of that shit."

"Good. Means it's likely isolated."

"That's good?"

"Yeah. The perpetrator's been summoned, done some serious messing around with the local atomic structures, and fucked off again."

"This is a murder." A glare, this time.

"You want to arrest someone who can make a bedroom into a hellish rocky cave, replete with the bed as an altar, then go ahead. Oh, and it can also cause about eighty percent of the human body to explode violently."

He says nothing, and I sense that my welcome has run out. Fortunate for me, the sprog has returned. He gestures outside and I follow. All credit to him, he's not looking as bad as I did on my first time out.

"One set of footprints. Plantigrade. Looks like a goat, or maybe a sheep, if either of those were bipedal."

"Like Pan. Goat-legged old god."

"That sort of thing, yes. But more. The girl's remains and the altar are bonded together somehow. It doesn't look to be artificial, but any lab tests would take days to get back. And there's signs that part of the, err, cave was melted."

"Melted?"

"Intense heat. Directed."

"Firey breath, maybe?" My heart sinks as I light a cigarette.

"It's a possibility. I couldn't say."

"Fuck. We've got a Nick."

"Who's Nick?"

I find a wall to lean against. "Old Nick. One of the names for the devil. Demons are the repressed thoughts and urges of humanity given form outside them in the hidden parts of the overmind, right? Most of them remain weak, all the best can do is move small things, like electrons."

The realisation of why I don't trust gadgets dawns in his face as I continue. "The devil is the most symbolic figure of all: Anger, lust, jealousy, unjust violence, all manner of sexual taboos. Everything in one. That's why they're a populous breed. Give one a sacrifice and it can manifest. The waveform's collapse generates enough energy to repattern the immediate area to the demon's archetypal expectations — thank you once more, overmind — and it wreaks a bit of havoc in return for the sacrifice's soul."

"I found fibres. Hairs that didn't come from the victim. Or you, or anyone present. Unless the police officer last night had bleached hair?"

"No."

"Then it wasn't from anyone in the room since. And not the victim."

"So there was someone else. Boyfriend, maybe. Plays at summoning something without knowing what's going to eat his brains, and squicks it or legs it soon after the results."

"But there was only one set of footprints," he interjects smoothly. I don't break in my rant.

"Or the boyfriend had his brains eaten and his soul possessed by a Nick. I'll let you say it."

"Oh, fuck."

He's got potential after all.

* * *

I convinced James that the Blue Posts was the right pub to phone the boss from while he got a round in. Soon after we're joined by Andy, looking like a refugee from goth night at CodeCon, all black PVC and NTK shirt, expensive laptop etched with sigils in a bag across his back. Unlike the kiddies, his magic works.

James brings him up to speed while I get the drinks. Harry's brow creases, and James hands over the file he must have been carrying all the way from the office. Resourceful lad.

I hear hollow laughter as I approach the table. "What?"

Andy cracks a grin. "The devil's a bloody brickie. Not a hotshot lawyer or a dropout kid, a brickie. Currently under investigation for benefit fraud." I can grin at that. Talk about playing against type.

"And with a demon inside him." James brings us back to reality with a thump.

I light up and offer one to James, who takes it without a word. Andy waves the pack away.

"He's signed on yesterday, then an inspector saw him checking in this morning for a workgang doing up some cheap houses close by. None too bright isn't our lad. Looked a bit the worse for wear."

"Because something's wearing him."

James looks confused. "What do we do about this? Arrest him?"

I frown. "The police arrest people. They arrest murderers and wife-beaters and the like. What would they do with a manifestation of denied human urges from the darker recesses of the human superconsciouness? We exorcise him."

"That doesn't sound good."

This time it's Andy's turn to explain. "Often, it's not. We have specialists for that sort of thing. As field agents, you detain the bastard and get him to a secure facility. From there, it's someone else's problem."

* * *

The houses around here are cheap and shit. Every one of them is falling in, and a row of six were burned out six months ago. Five people died. Now, there's workmen tearing down the insides and refuerbishing them. Good luck to them. There's a couple with bleached hair, but now I've got a drink inside me I can't miss the bastard. He's practically glowing. I point him out, and me and James go for the softly, softly approach.

Or we would, if James didn't get it in his head to do something really fucking stupid.

"You're under arrest!"

Right there, right then, I could see it all unfolding in front of me. Slow motion. Just like they say it happens in films, but worse, because you have to do something and you can't. The boyfriend turning and growing six inches, exhaling something with a stink of brimstone and all the heat of a furnace. Me diving towards it. James sat there as hellfire washed over his face and torso. The rest of the workers looking on in shock. Me being way, way too late.

I may not do tech, and I may not do scene of crime, but I can batter the shit out of something that just burned my trainee. I don't waste time checking on James. If I did, there'd be two corpses. Instead, I grip Nick's arm and twist it all the way up his back until I hear the shoulder pop and bones crunch. I slam his head into a wall for good measure until he stops struggling. Killing him would be a bad thing, but right now it'd feel so good.

Only once he stops moving do I look around.

"One of you bastards call for an ambulance. Now." I drop their mate in a bloody heap for emphasis, and there's a general scramble for mobile phones. I grab one in the chaos and dial the boss.

"It's all gone tits-up."

"How bad?"

"James is down. Dunno how bad until the ambulance gets here."

"The demon?"

"The host was injured being taken into custody pending a full exorcism."

"Not too badly, I hope."

I look back at James, his skin blackened. In the distance, sirens wail."

"Not in the circumstances, boss." I hang up and wait for the ambulance.

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( 6 informants — We want information! )
the_seraph
Apr. 13th, 2005 04:28 pm (UTC)
Pretty cool.

One of these days I'm going to have c/p a bunch of these into text for use as handouts to some of my gamers.

Of course that would necessitate me having 1) time on my hands and 2) more than one gamer who actually gives a rats ass for the subtleties of Story. Playing down to the plebian masses and their nearly strict diet of hack-n-slash gets tiresome and a bore. I've been weaning them slowly... slowly... but never seem to get much past the idea that a Story has a plot line of some sort and that "Bad Guys (tm)" actually have some reasons for the things they do. That last one still catches 'em up sometimes.
digitalraven
Apr. 13th, 2005 05:04 pm (UTC)
I'm working on an engine to collate any of the stories on digitalraven.org into tailored short story collections, text to start with and then PDF when the format stops making my mind bleed. Doable on the fly as well. Should be ready in a few months, though if that's too long to wait or you want stuff from the LJ as well feel free to steal it beforehand. That's the point of me being a creative commie, after all.

Here's hoping they can be of some help, any road.
the_seraph
Apr. 13th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've ganked some of them in the past.

Only to have someone ask me who "Stewart Wilson" was... trying to explain the hows and whys and wherefores of the internet and modern philosophy to non-techno-savvy 40+-somethings is tough at best.
digitalraven
Apr. 13th, 2005 11:58 pm (UTC)
"He's a writer. He's English. He works for a bank. I like some of his stuff, he puts it online. Here's where you can find more."
(Deleted comment)
digitalraven
Apr. 13th, 2005 11:57 pm (UTC)
A different degree of silly jokes. One section ripping off a Madness song, and random BOFH-ery do not a non-silly story make. And the Devil as a brickie was deliberate.

Good to write again. I just have too much going on not to.
( 6 informants — We want information! )

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