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The Edge of Propinquity

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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series

They fled the empty safe-house in van Keith boosted from the beachside parking lot at the bottom of the hill. Keith kept his face in neutral as he drove, refusing to the let the nerves show. Harmony curled up in the passenger seat, giving Keith directions, sending text messages one by one. The initial plan was simple; they rented a motel room in Tweed Heads, as far south as they could go in the city without leaving the limits, using clumsy aliases to make their departure easier to trace. Keith slept against his will, pistol sitting on the nightstand. Harmony graduated to phone calls, making sure things were in place when the demon finally came for them.

They left the city, heading south, taking no real precautions until they hit Byron Bay a few hours later. From there they turned and went inland, heading west and north until they crashed in roadside motel in a small country town. In Warwick they traded Keith's stolen hatchback for a second car, paying in cash to keep the salesmen from asking questions.

They spent a week on the road, much of it on dirt roads and narrow lanes, avoiding any highway leading back to the Gold Coast until they hit ocean far further north than they'd begun.

On the eight day they returned under the cover of the gloom, the newly tethered car slicing through the ashen darkness until they reached the small shack that served as Harmony's home.


The Gloom Tide receded, the unnatural chill replaced by the cool morning air. Keith turned off the headlights and stared at the small shack, a ramshackle Queenslander made of weatherboard and corrugated iron. Harmony lived out in the Valley, her property nestled up against the rainforest. If Keith hadn't been following directions he probably would have assumed the lot was just another part of the national park. Gum trees and ferns ran riot in the wide yard, hiding the house from the road, and the only real indication that the forest wasn't claiming the property for its own was a sagging barbed-wire fence partially hidden by long grass.

The faint tingle of Harmony's wards still pressed against him, although the goosebumps were dying down. "Someone's taking safety first to a whole new level," Keith said, rubbing at his right arm. "What kind of defences did you put on this place, anyway?"

"The kind that's barely adequate, given the situation." Harmony stepped away from the car and closed her eyes. Her thin, birdlike face turned towards the sunlight and she gave the light a faint smile. She rose both arms, the sleeves of her jacket falling away to expose the tattooed tethers around both wrists. Keith studied the movement of her fingers, the precision and grace of their movement, but he couldn't follow the pattern. He wasn't even aware there had been one, but the insistent push of the wards lessened as she finished the short ritual. Harmony turned, smiling broadly now, her lip ring catching the morning light. "Grab your stuff. It's time to move in."

Keith hitched up the jeans he'd been wearing for a week and pulled an armload of bags from the boot of the car.

The interior of the house bore no traces of the dilapidated exterior. The varnished floorboards squeaked a little beneath his sneakers, and the faint smell of lavender hung in the air. Harmony pointed him towards a small room off the main hallway, a bedroom containing a stout bed and a window looking over the road. "Make yourself comfortable," she said. "I'm going to contact Gareth and see how deep we're in the shit."

Keith watched her go, trying to work out exactly how pissed off she was about the way things went down with Sabbath and Amber Walker. In the end, he figured the fact he had his own bed probably answered that better than anything Harmony had or hadn't said in the week of driving and hiding-out that had followed the debacle.


Gareth Cottee was a short, bearded man with the look of a perpetual student and a degree in semiotics he never got around to finishing. He arrived clad in a Hibiscus-print Hawaiian shirt, threadbare jeans, and a pair of beat-up sneakers. The gaudy ensemble almost distracted Keith from the network of tattoos covering the academic's arm. Tether marks, fresh, the ink barely faded.

"Your safe-house burned down the day after you left." Cottee pulled a cell phone from his backpack and flicked through the buttons, finding a photograph of the blaze. He tossed it across the table and Keith caught it, thumbing his way through the sequence of shots. Cottee kept talking, forging onwards through his notes in the same lecturing tone. "Took them a few hours to put it out, burned out a stretch of the hillside with it."

Keith half-listened, studying the grainy image, the blur of reds and oranges visible behind the dense silhouette of the hillside foliage. He passed the phone to Harmony, who looked at the screen and nodded once. Her lips were a tight, tense as a guitar string waiting to be strummed. Cottee continued speaking. "There's been movement among the local demons, a bunch of Other out and about trying to pick up clues about your location. There were rumours you'd left town until..."

Keith exchanged a long look with Harmony. "Until?"

"Sabbath got some outside help." Cottee shrugged a little, flipping the page on his notebook. "Everything I've got is second hand, courtesy of a friend who works security at the casino, but it appears to be someone human. A sorcerer. Forty-eight hours after he made contact with Sabbath, the guys he had searching for you were back in the city."

"Fuck." Keith leant back on his chair. "So much for that plan, then. I was hoping we'd get more mileage out of time on the road."

Harmony leant forward, fixing Cottee with the intensity of her stare. "The sorcerer got a name?"

"Locke. Charles Locke. You heard of him?"

"Old guard. Disciple of John Dee, once upon a time. These day's he's one of Wotan's." She stood and walked over to the sink, emptying the contents of her coffee mug. " If he's here, he's here for Keith. Looks like we got you out of the safe-house just in time, Murphy. Turns out pissing off Sabbath might have been a good thing."


The storm appeared on Wednesday evening, a thick blanket of angry clouds that sliced across the sky with the finality of a guillotine. Just looking at the coverage made Keith's teeth hurt, an dull ache that started in the back of his molars and radiated through his entire jaw. The occasional flash of lightening cut through the sky, brilliant and wild. Harmony worked in the kitchen, dicing garlic and onions on a worn marble cutting board. Keith stepped away from the window and paced a little, trying to ignore the brewing storm. Finally he stopped next to the kitchen bench. "Weird looking storm out there."

Harmony nodded, the knife a blur as she chopped. The steady churn of blade against stone stopped abruptly and she scraped the garlic into a pot.

"Getting dark, too." Keith lifted half and onion off the chopping board and started peeling the papery skin off. "The whole thing makes me feel weird."

"Me too." Harmony took the onion off him and sliced it into four wedges before dicing it. "Try go ignore it."

Keith walked back to the window. The ache in his teeth grew worse. "Magic, you think?"

All movement in the kitchen paused, the steady hiss of frying onions filling the silence. "Nothing I could do," Harmony said. "I doubt Roark could summon something this bad either. You don't mess with the weather. It's one of those things, you know? The guys who do it are?"

"Old and powerful," Keith finished. "You think it's something this sorcerer's doing, the one working with Sabbath."

"I think we're safe enough here," Harmony said. "Five generations of my family have warded this place. Nothing gets in without my permission."

Keith didn't respond and she went back to cooking. She hadn't cooked, back at the safe-house, and watching her slice and dice unsettled Keith almost as much as the storm. There was a fluidity as she moved around the kitchen, an easy awareness of where everything was. He'd spent ten years on the road, working with his old boss, and there was always something bewildering about seeing someone so comfortable and familiar with a place.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"For what?"

"For dealing with Sabbath; for compromising the safe-house; for ending up here, I guess."

"It's cool." She pulled a handful of mushrooms from the fridge and spread them over the cutting board. "There were other options, Murphy. I didn't have to bring you here."

"You didn't really want too, though." He shuffled his feet and dug his fingers into the pockets of his jeans. "I can go, if you want. It'd be safer for you, not having me here."

Her attention stayed focused on the mushrooms and the steady rhythm of the blade. They too were swept into the frying pan, swirled amid the onions and garlic with a few twists of the wooden spoon. "Pasta for dinner," she said, "assuming you've got no problems with that."

"No," Keith said. "No problems."

He left her to the cooking and went outside to watch the brewing storm.


Keith's mobile rang, the cheerful beep cutting through the pre-dawn darkness. He groped the small table beside his bed and lifted it, staring at the lit-screen that displayed no caller ID. That wasn't exactly a surprise. He replaced mobile phones every couple of weeks, cycling through names and numbers. The only people who knew his current line were Harmony and Danny Roark, the man who'd trained Keith to hunt the Other.

The odds of either calling him at four AM were significantly less likely than he was comfortable with. Harmony slept on the far side of the hall, and Roark never called unless there was no other option. Phone calls made connections that resonated in the Gloom, forming a bond that thrummed with potential for those who understood magic.

Keith stared at the ringing phone a long time before flipping it open and holding it against his left ear. "Hello?"


Keith blinked. It definitely wasn't Roark. "It's four in the morning."

"That sort of thing never used to worry you." Sabbath's jubilant tone held the faintest threat of future malice. "We've been looking for you, Keithy. For some strange reason we thought you'd left town, but it appears that was just a ruse. I expected better from you, Keithy. You and your girlfriend."

"How'd you get this number, Sabbath?"

"Really, Keithy, that's not the right question. You should be asking, 'Sabbath, what are you planning on doing with this number now that you've got it?'"

"Okay. Tell me that."

"No, I don't think so. It'd distract us from the conversation at hand." Sabbath's tone grew serious. "Charlie Locke."

"I've heard the name."

"You've heard more than that, Keithy. Whatever else you and you girlfriend might be, you're capable of being very thorough. Mister Locke is in town to claim your blood and take you back to Adelaide. He made me a very attractive deal regarding your demise after you deep and terrible betrayal regarding that Walker business." The demon gave a theatrical pause. "How is Miss Walker, anyway? I gather you saved her, in the end?"

Keith transferred the phone to the other ear. "I'm hanging up now, Sabbath."

"No, you're not," Sabbath said. "I called to make you a deal, Keithy. Short-term, one time only, but a deal nonetheless."

"Isn't that what led to my deep and terrible betrayal this time around?"

"Shush," Sabbath said. "Listen. I find Mister Locke's presence in the city...distasteful. His interests and not my interests, and his displays of power are ostentatious and overly vulgar."

"You live in a casino."

"True, but beside the point. Mister Locke is a problem, and I wish it solved. I'm offering you a d?nte, Keithy, while we sort this out. I'm willing to be the bigger man and admit I underestimated you, assumed you were still the man who left my employ all those years ago. You're not, anymore, and I find that intriguing. And, right now, potentially useful, if you're willing to turn your talents towards a more productive end?"

"No," Keith said, and the silence on the end of the phone said volumes.


"No d?nte," Keith said, "not for this. I came to you because I needed your help, Sabbath, and you're the one who demanded I jump through hoops I was never going to jump through. Locke is a symptom of a larger problem. You want my help with him, you give me a d?nte until after we've stopped the end of the world. Do that, and I'll help you out. If I survive the damn thing, you can even torture me in the aftermath 'til your stolen heart's content. Hell, I'll even let you possess me, if that's what it takes."

The second silence went even longer than the first. "You drive a hard bargain, Keithy," Sabbath said, his voice full of wheedling malice, "and I'd want that in writing."

"Whatever you want, Sabbath. Just call off the manhunt for a couple of months, at least."

"Keithy-boy," Sabbath said, "I think we might come to an accord. You and I should meet to hash out the final details. Bring your girl along, to make sure I'm playing fair."

"You're a demon, Sabbath. You're never playing fair."

"Touch?Keithy, touch?quot; Sabbath said. "I shall send you the details for the meet and see you anon."


Keith watching the looming storm-clouds through the window after breakfast, listening to Harmony pace across the lounge room.

"You're a fucking idiot, you know that?" Her voice remained cool and even, controlled despite the anger. "Even if this isn't a trap, you've basically given Sabbath everything he wants."

Keith sipped coffee, let the warm liquid soothe the ache in his teeth. "Does it matter, if the world doesn't end?"

"Of course if matters." Harmony hovered by the kitchen bench, butter sliding off the knife in her hand. Her toast cooled as they argued. "At best you're giving yourself up. At worst, it's am ambush. Fuck, Murphy, if I'd known you'd pull this kind of shit?"

"You did," Keith said. "Crusader, remember?"

Harmony dropped the knife onto her place. Her voice sounded small and far away  "I was joking when I said that, Murphy."

"Yeah," Keith said, "that's what I thought. Turns out, not so much, hey?"

"Damn it, Murphy."

Keith nodded. "If that's what it takes," he said. He walked over and put an arm her shoulders, pulling her close.

She hesitated a moment before allowing him to hold her.


He met Sabbath on the beach, driving down a little before sunrise and parking alongside the rows of cars with roof-racks whose owners threw themselves into the cold morning surf. Cottee was sitting on a rock, one of the many stacked up against the edge of the parking lot so the erosion claiming the beach wouldn't take the bitumen as well.

Cottee wore a heavy jacket and nursed a paper cup full of coffee. His breath plumed in the cool morning air. "Couldn't convince her to back you with this, huh?"

Keith slammed the car door and crouched down next to the academic. "Thanks for doing this," he said. "I know this isn't your thing, not since, well, you know."

Cottee sipped his coffee. "I got recruited, same as everyone else Miss White knew. She painted a pretty big picture and got me onboard."

"Guess she won't be doing that anymore."

"Who do you think rang me and told me to second you, Mister Murphy?" Cottee pointed across the beach. "We're heading that way, I think."

"How can you tell?"

"Footsteps, Mister Murphy." Keith followed the direction of Cottee's finger, saw the single sets of footprints running through the sand. They disappeared halfway down the beach, a long way clear of the waterline. "Someone disappeared into the Gloom," Cottee said. "Odds are, it'll be your friendly neighbourhood demon."

Keith nodded and unzipped his jacket. He adjusted the .45 holstered at his waist and looked up, watching the thick clouds. They ended a few kilometres out from the city, a sharp delineation between bad weather and sunlight. It still hadn't rained, but the anticipation of it was like an ache, as thought everything felt the bloated discomfort of the cloud-cover. "So, you got an opinion about this?"

"The storm?"

"Making a deal."

Cottee drained the dregs of his coffee and tossed the cup towards the council bin. It fell short by a half-meter. "You were always going to deal with Sabbath, one way or another," he said. "You're the local boy, Mister Murphy. No-one owns this city, not really. No-one except Sabbath and his ilk, things willing to entrench themselves like rocks against the shifting tide. They aren't local, not by a long shot, but they've made the city theirs."

"That's not terribly comforting," Keith said.

Cottee scratched at his forearm, nails dragging along the tether just above his wrist. "Magic is all connection and metaphor, and you're one of the handful connected to the city by blood. If you hadn't run, once upon a time, you could have owned this city more comprehensively than Sabbath does."

A cold wind cut across the beach. Keith shivered a little beneath his jacket, checked the time on his wristwatch. "Ten minutes to the tide."

"Miss White will come around," Cottee said, "eventually. With time. She's pissed because she scared, at your last engagement with the Demon scared her more than she's willing to admit." Cottee stood up, brushing sand off his jeans. "Really, what other options are there?"

"Walking away," Keith said.

Cottee gave him a mocking salute, acknowledging the point. "You, or her?"

"At this point," Keith said, "it'd be a smart move for either of us." He watched the web of shadows spread across the beach, staining the sand the colour of ashes. The air cooled and darkened, and the Gloom Tide rose. Keith pulled a torch from his pocket and clicked to light, enjoying what little illumination it offered.

"This will suck if she leaves," he said. "I mean, the end of the world isn't a good thing, but it'll be worse without her help."

"She's stuck with you this long, Mister Murphy."

"Yeah," Keith said, "I guess so."

He considered the row of the footsteps, scanned the beach for light a little further down.

"Right," Keith said, "let's go make a deal."

Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011

Last updated on 6/15/2011 4:39:40 PM by Jennifer Brozek
Return to the Library.
Go to Flotsam 2011.

Other documents at this level:
     01 - Paradise City
     02 - Warnings
     03 - Local Hero
     04 - Underpass
     05 - Sabbath
     07 - Deals with the Devil
     08 - Destinies
     09 - Coil
     10 - Sunlight
     11 - Fimbulwinter
     12 - Aftermath