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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
They killed the mark in Adelaide because Roark said it was necessary. Keith didn't ask questions before hand, that wasn't his job. When Roark said the sorcerer had to die, Keith took it as gospel and did what needed doing. He walked into the pub on the cusp of a tide, fired three times, and walked out. Roark stayed in their rented hotel room, slicing up his palms and chanting the proper chants.
It always came down to that: blood and ritual and darkness. But Keith preferred not to dwell on the cost. Like Roark always said: "Do it right and we'll both be safe. Do it wrong and we run, hard and fast, before the death curse gets us."
They'd done it right a hundred times, making the world a little safer with each one. They did it wrong once, but that was all it took.
Keith parked the Ute around three AM, six days and two thousand kilometres away from the fuck-up that was the Adelaide job. His instincts said he should have kept running, but Roark left orders and Keith obeyed. He dug the map and the compass out of the glove box, checked the latitude and longitude were right. Roark had been clear on that, the same way he'd been clear on everything to do with the escape: take the back roads instead of the highways; dump the ammo and assorted parts of the shattered SiG-Saur at specific places at specific times; avoid people as long as possible; be on the Gold Coast by January third; let the Gloom of the city swallow you and cover your trail.
There was still an hour before the meet, so Keith climbed out the car and waited, arms spread to catch the rare gasp of breeze that gave relief from the muggy heat. At least the beach was bearable at night, the long stretch of the northern Gold Coast arcing away from him, the shore visible thanks to the ever present lights. They were thicker than Keith remembered, but he'd prepared himself for that. There were always more high-rises, even when he was kid, and it wasn't like the world stopped just because he'd buggered off to do other things. What got him were the familiar sensations: the sea air and the quiet rumble of the waves, the way the bright glow of Surfers Paradise served as the fulcrum against which the city seemed to pivot.
There was comfort in the familiarity. It was enough to make him feel ill.
By four twenty-three there was sand in his shoes, tiny granules caught between the sock and the sneaker. They were little irritants, one of the myriad of things that he'd hated about growing up by the beach. Keith checked his watch, cast a glance towards the Ute, thought long and hard about knife stored beneath his seat. He didn't like the idea of sitting through the Gloom unarmed, but the knife wasn't built for subtlety. It was meant to be an ugly, fuck-off kind of blade, built for intimidation, and it did its job well.
Roark hadn't mentioned who was coming to meet Keith. That made things complicated. Keith turned away from the Ute, sighed as he waited.
At four thirty-nine the Gloom settled over the beach and Keith was still unarmed.
It started slowly, the shadows growing thicker and longer, sliding into one another until they formed a single mass. The colours faded, bleeding away, leaving the breach rendered in tones of ash and darkness. Two of the streetlights hanging over the car park gave up and went dormant. The third held steady, dim but lit, the battered red of the Ute still visible within the yellow circle of its light. Keith climbed off the table turned on Ute's high-beams. He didn't know who tethered the street light, but he knew the Ute was Danny Roark's work and that much, at least, he trusted.
He couldn't hear the waves anymore, or the high-pitched whine of mosquito wings. Few things moved in the Gloom. Roark always called it the world that existed in space between seconds, had theories and speculations as to how it interacted with the temporal flow of the real world. Roark was smart like that, interested in being precise. Keith just knew the Gloom was trouble. He checked the notes on the map, started counting off the seconds that weren't really seconds.
At four thirty-nine and a count of forty two, the girl stepped into the circle of light, tendrils of darkness clinging to her as though the Gloom were reluctant to let her go. She was tall and rail-thin, her bare arms inked with familiar layers of tattoos, tethers that kept her moving through the Gloom when the rest of the world froze solid. The heavy dreadlocks made her seem even thinner, almost spindly, and that was enough to make Keith nervous. The Other were always thin, always beautiful, always touched by dark grace.
The Gloom roiled in her wake, searching for equilibrium. The girl studied Keith, pulled a notebook out of the bag looped over her skinny shoulder and started flipping through. She found a page, looked up. "You Danny's trigger man?"
Keith caught the flash of metal in her tongue when she talked, spotted a stud through her eyebrow when she turned towards him. Both were steel, not silver. Human, then. A sorcerer. Like Roark, or the dead man back in Adelaide, like a dozen others Keith killed over the years.
"Hey," the woman said, clicking her fingers in his direction. "I'd prefer not to loiter here. Are you Keith Murphy? Yes or no?"
Keith nodded, keeping his mouth shut.
"I'm Harmony." The amused curl of her lip gave it away as an alias, but Keith didn't hold that against her. Roark's real name wasn't Roark, and Keith hadn't been Keith in over a decade. It was one of those old habits that stuck around. Names might not have power anymore, but the Gloom hadn't always been the Gloom, and once upon a time it was a place where true names were the stuff of death and glory.
Harmony offered Keith her hand. When Keith didn't shake, she shrugged and put her notes away. "I've got a safe-house lined up for you. Leave your car. We can come back for it."
Keith eyed the darkness, a flutter of nerves in his stomach. He knew the Gold Coast, knew the things hiding out in its shadows. "I'd rather drive."
"I'd rather not."
They stared at each other. Harmony raised an eyebrow.
"Fine," she said. "We loiter. I'm not the one trying to run away from things that hunt in the dark." "
The tide ebbed quickly, giving way to dawn. The safe-house wasn't far. It sat halfway up Currumbin Hill, nestled high on the slope amid the thick foliage. The balcony dominated the space, using vast windows facing the East to keep the narrow rooms from feeling cramped. It commanded an impressive view of the beach, marred only by the two high rise blocks built between the hill and the sand. Keith preferred not to think about how much the place must have cost.
"Belongs to some friends of mine," Harmony said. "Not what you were expecting?"
"I was expecting something cheaper," Keith said. "This lacks…"
He groped for the word. Harmony found it for him. "It lacks the air of squalor," she said. "I've worked with Danny before. I know his routines."
Keith tried not to smile. "He's not that bad."
"The man lives for dingy hotel rooms. It's a wonder the bedbugs haven't killed him by now." Harmony crossed the room and started opening windows, letting breeze into the stuffy lounge room. "Sit," she said, pointing at the plump leather couch. "Start talking."
Keith sat, waited. "Talking about what?"
"Whatever crap Danny's gotten you into," she said. "I've owed him a favour for sixteen years and he wasn't planning on cashing it in. That means he's in trouble or you're in trouble, and either way I'm here aiding someone I'd rather not. I'd like to know what's coming, yeah?"
Keith shifted on the couch, unable to find a comfortable position. "We hit this guy in a pub, standard operating procedure. Then we fucked it up."
Harmony's eyes narrowed. "Your fault or Danny's?"
Keith shrugged. "Roark didn't say."
"You weren't curious?"
"Not really. Roark thought it was one of my better qualities."
Harmony shook her head. "Maybe it was. It isn't anymore. Danny Roark isn't here to play general and give you orders. If something comes after you, it's your problem, get it?"
Keith processed that for a moment. "Yeah," he said. "Got it."
"Good." Harmony slid the last window open, stared out at the sunrise. "Can you tell me who you killed, at least? That might give me some idea of why he's freaking out."
"Some local sorcerer, big with the necromancy. Michael something." Keith swore and scrubbed both hands across his face, trying to wipe away the fog of exhaustion. "Wotan," he said. "Michael Wotan."
The laughter stopped.
"You know him?"
Harmony's nod seemed awkward, weighted down the heavy locks of hair. "I know enough."
"Roark said he was old."
"Very. Wotan's old enough to remember the Gloom before it became corrupted, a follower of the old gods that sleep in the darkness. Rumour says he cut deals with giants, back when there such things." Harmony stepped away from the window. "I mean, shit, rumour had it the old crow was immortal, you know?"
Keith shook his head. He hadn't. He wondered if it would have changed anything.
"You got a plan," Harmony said. "You know, in case if his Shade shows up looking for vengeance?"
Keith glanced at the map in his hand, wrinkled and battered after weeks on the road. There were only two instructions left: lay low and wait for my call. "I dunno," he said, "Try not to die, I guess."
"Yeah, good luck with that." Harmony rolled her eyes and fished a set of keys out of her bag. "You're officially on your own, Murphy. The moment I let go of the keys, I'm done. My debt to Danny is paid and I don't need to mess around with someone else's problems."
"Sure," Keith said. "I get that."
Harmony dropped the keys on the coffee table, but she didn't move towards the door. She just stood there, studying Keith like some optical illusions she couldn't quite work out. He felt the beginnings of a flush rise up his cheeks.
"What?" he said.
"Nothing." Harmony shook her head, dreadlocks twitching against her shoulders. "I'm just trying to work out which of us is dumber. You for following Danny into this mess, or me for helping you out of it."
Keith yawned and sank into the couch. "You got an answer?"
"Not yet," Harmony said, edging towards the door. "Give me time."
Keith spent three weeks killing time, doing his best to stay indoors and away from other people. Boring as hell, but that was the nature of laying low, just an endless succession of days filled with television and whatever entertainment he scrounged from looking out the window. Sleep proved a temporary reprieve, filled with unpleasant dreams that woke him early and often. Eventually he started heading to the beach in the early hours, trudging down the hill to watch the sunrise.
He found Harmony waiting there on the fourth Monday, leaning against the wooden fence between the park and the sand dunes. A line of surfers jogged past her, boards under their arms. She cradled a cloth-covered bundle clutched in her arms. "Here," she said. "You'll need this."
She tossed the bundle in his direction, caught him in the stomach. The bundle was heavy and hard enough to bruise. He unwrapped it. "Paint?"
"For wards." Harmony chewed on the silver stud piercing her bottom lip. "You do know how to set wards, right?"
"Roark taught me the basics."
"That's something, at least." Harmony lifted the fabric off the ground, wound it around her waist. "Defence is easy. You bleed a little, you paint, you try not to piss off your landlord by making them too big a mess. I assume you've got your own knife, at least?"
Keith nodded. "I don't have brushes."
"Improvise." Harmony fluttered her fingers, tracing patterns in the air. "It'll work better if it's done by hand. Trust me."
"Right," Keith said. "Thanks, then. I owe you one."
"More than that, before this is over." Harmony grabbed his arm, guiding him back to the hill. "I've been asking around, Danny Murphy. Guys like you need all the help you can get."
He spent the better part of the day constructing wards, slicing the knife across his palm, bleeding into the paint to forge the connection between heart and hearth. His stomach turned each time he daubed his fingertips against the wall. The rituals and chanting were Roark's domain, the necessary evil required to the do the job, and Keith's attempts were clumsy and lopsided more often than not. Harmony supervised, refusing to touch the walls herself, and she surprised him by lingering when the job was done.
"There's a Gloom tide coming tonight," she said. "We can see how well you've done."
She stood on the balcony to watch the darkness roll in, unperturbed by the familiar view transformed into shades of black and gray. The transformation was slower at sunset, giving them time to prepare for the tipping point where sound became silence. Keith chose to retreat and watch through the kitchen window. Harmony whispered into the Gloom, inviting things he couldn't see to throw themselves against the house.
It took an hour, maybe more, before she nodded and her shoulders sagged.
"You're almost solid," she said, "a little weak on the on the south side, but easily fixed. It'll hold."
Keith pulled two beers from the fridge, the last of the stash he'd brought with him from Adelaide. He handed one through the window. "Thank you," he said.
"Don't get used to it. Danny should have taught you all this, if he's using you in the crusade."
"He tried. I wasn't particularly interested." Keith drank and stared into the darkness. The beach looked different through the Gloom. The frozen waves achieved a kind of menace they didn't have while they rolled in and out.
"You have a unique talent for avoiding elaboration," Harmony said. "How in hell did Danny put up with you this long?"
"Practice," Keith said. "And he likes having an audience."
They spent the next few hours shoring up the wards, fixing the sloppy markings around the southern windows. Keith painted with his left hand, tried to ignore the stinging pain of the knife cuts in his right. Harmony pointed out the incorrect lines, waited while his shaking fingers made another mess. Eventually she took pity on him, stepping in to finish the last of them. Her fingers were lithe and graceful, steady as they smeared pain with practiced ease. Keith found himself watching the curve of her back, the way her spine was visible through the dreads and her tank-top. "So," he said, "you and Danny?"
"That's only half a question." Harmony kept working, stooping to reach the bottom of the ward. A few drops of red paint dribbled from her fingers, staining the floorboards.
Keith cleared his throat and tied again. "You and Danny," he said. "Who trained who in magic?"
"Who said it was either."
"Oh," Keith said. "I figured, you know?"
Harmony straightened and smeared paint-covered fingers across her jeans. "Danny Roark doesn't look like much, but he's a crusader," she said. "Danny and I worked together, back when he started his crusade. Eventually he kept working and I didn't.
"The Gloom coughs up goblins and demons, the real world coughs up people like Danny to fight them, then people like you and me to help out. The whole thing used to be prettier, everyone decked out in black and white, but the Gloom became the Gloom and the shining knights grew tarnished." She paused and scrawled a final line on the wall, daubed three dots below it with her fingers. "How long's it been since you were out on the town? For fun, I mean, not work."
The change in tack caught Keith off-guard. He fell back on honesty."A while," he said. "I mean, maybe even longer than that."
"That's what I thought." A thin web of red paint spread from the three dots on the wall, the ward seeping into the paintwork until it was barely visible. "We're done," Harmony said. "Or as done as we're going to get, with your level of expertise."
Keith studied the wall. His palm burned. "You really think they'll hold?"
"I'm taking you out," Harmony said. "Saturday. I'll pick you around eight."
"If Danny said that, I'd assume he meant no."
"When I say it, it means they'll hold 'til Saturday," Harmony said. "Saturday, eight o'clock. Be ready.
Roark left strict instructions about not making contact. Keith tried calling Roark's mobile regardless, hoping for an answer. The first time he got routed to message bank, the second told him the number was disconnected. The following morning Keith took his own mobile down to the Alley and walked out onto the rocks, sending the phone flying into the water in a fit of quiet anger.
He thought about leaving, packing the Ute and baling on the city despite Roark's orders. The Gold Coast wasn't a place, not really. The Gold Coast sank its roots into sandbanks, built the foundations of its giant towers on an eroding shoreline, an entire city composed of beach and theme-park and suburbs full of retirees, the population swelling and dying off during the tourist summers and the winter flu.
No one stayed on the Gold Coast, not really. They moved there to wind down, or to work at the casino, or to spend a few years surfing and partying before getting bored and heading back to wherever home really was. It wasn't a place where people stayed; it didn't encourage you to put down roots. The Gold Coast was built on transience and impermanence, the belief that nothing really mattered.
The city got inside Keith's head, the same way it did when he was younger. He hated the feeling, the way it made him sloppy.
He walked back to the safe-house and tried not to think about Harmony. It wasn't as easy as it should have been.
When Saturday came he got dressed to go dancing. He forced himself to wear a jacket despite the relentless heat. Harmony grinned when she saw it.
"It's thirty-six degrees," she said. "You look like a goddamn idiot."
Keith lifted the side of the jacket, showed her the knife sheathed in the small of his back. "Precautions," he said. "You have yours, I have mine."
Harmony rolled her eyes, but she didn't tell him to leave it behind.
The Surfer's Paradise nightlife was a cramped T-intersection of clubs, cafes and strip clubs. All reinvented themselves every five years or so, but there were still familiar names, places from Keith's younger days transformed into something less familiar. It didn't really matter, Surfer's never changed, not where it counted. Keith sat in the sprawling café, ate dinner while the crowd cycled past, doing the circuit between the McDonands sign and the Hard Rock that anchored the busy street.
"It's all about the icons," he said.
"That's one of Danny's." Harmony picked at a salad, eating the cherry tomatoes. "He used to say it a lot, when I first knew him."
"The man loves to talk," Harmony said. "Part of his problem, I think. He used to have another one—"
"Myths flourish in the places where people don't take root," Keith said.
"That's the one," Harmony said. She watched the people mill about. "Sure as hell explains this place, though. We've got more sorcerers and Other per square kilometre than anywhere else in the country."
Keith bit into his hamburger, spoke around the mouthful of bread and meat. "We should find somewhere quieter."
"I thought you'd be sick of quiet after a month laying low." Harmony angled her smile at the table, a few stray dreadlocks falling over her bare shoulders. She curled her fingers around the longest, idly toying with the tip.
Keith concentrated on his food, refusing to meet her eyes. Harmony laughed. "Shit, Murphy," she said. "How long have you been doing this?"
He felt himself blush. "Depends which this you're asking about."
"Take a guess."
He guessed, blushed harder. "Ten years, give or take."
"You blush well for a killer." Harmony pushed her plate away, wiping her fingers on the paper serviette. "Let's get moving. We're here to get our drink on."
She held out her hand, palm up and fingers open. Keith took it and let her lead him into the crowd.
Harmony led him from club to club, returned from every bar with bourbon and beer. Bouncers scowled as she entered, eyeing off the dreadlocks and exposed tattoos. There were fairy lights in the palm trees running through the centre of the mall, neon advertising bolted to the side of buildings, strobes in the club that flicker in time with the music. All of it designed to draw attention rather than beat back the darkness. Keith tried not to notice, tried not to flinch at the close press of bodies on the dance floor, tried not to pay attention to how close Harmony danced and how close she stayed during the breaks. Midnight passed and he leant in, yelling over the music, asking the question now in case he didn't want to hear the answer. "What changed your mind?"
Harmony pointed towards the ceiling, mouthing the words too loud. Keith jerked a thumb away from the dance floor, assumed she'd follow him as he turned and left. Outside, in the street, he repeated the question: "You gave me the keys, you were ready to bolt. What changed your mind?"
"Yeah," Harmony said. "I was wondering how long that'd take. You're slow with the questions, Murphy, but you get there eventually."
"That's not what—"
"Because you fucked up." She said it low, a harsh whisper beneath the hubbub of the street, but he heard it clearly despite all that. "You and Danny, you fucked up bad in Adelaide. One of you is going to die because of it and it's probably going to be him." She put her hand on his arm, leant forward to look him in the eyes. "There's always crusaders, Murphy, people who keeps the Gloom in check. Danny figures you're it, the replacement after he's gone, and he's done a shit job of preparing you for the gig. You're not built to lay low and wait things out, and he's not around to make sure you do."
"Bullshit." Keith pulled himself free of her grip. "Roark believes, I pull a trigger and do what I'm told."
Harmony shook her head. "You helped out. Past tense. What are you planning on doing if Danny doesn't show up again? Go out and get a real job? You have a destiny, Keith Murphy. You're a crusader, I'm your helper, and the denizens of the Gloom should quake in fear at your coming."
Keith glared at her. Harmony cracked a grin. "Okay, where did I lose you?"
"Destiny." Keith smiled despite himself.
"Yeah, I figured that was pushing it." She looped a dreadlock behind one ear. "Stop taking it all so seriously, Murphy. You needed help, and I figured it'd be nice to be owed a favour for a change. The rest was just messing with you to see the look on your face."
"I trust it was worth it."
"More than," she said. "You're an easy mark, Keith Murphy, but you're good value for money. Come on, I'll buy you another drink."
He opened his mouth to object, but there didn't seem to be much point.
They were still drinking three hours later when the unexpected Gloom tide rose, the shadows in the bar reaching out to swallow the patrons. Keith grabbed Harmony's arm, dragged her through the frozen crowd, heading for the corner with the Hard Rock Café and its shimmering neon guitar. The shadows chased them, tendrils reaching out to wrap round Harmony's heels, trying to drag her away. Keith sprinted for the small island of light, praying it still held. His stomach registered its objection to the exercise and the cold, emptying its contents over the frozen door of the café.
He spat saliva in the aftermath, trying to clear the taste from his mouth. Harmony sagged to her knees beside him, breathing hard, swearing beneath her breath. She glanced up at the guitar. "How'd you know?"
"I grew up here," Keith said. "It's not like this is the first time I've been caught 'round here by an unexpected Gloom tide." He reached beneath his jacket, found the rubber grip of the knife. The blade shimmered a little beneath the neon.
Harmony shook her head. "You really think that's going to help?"
"Can't see how it'll hurt." Keith adjusted his grip on the knife, keeping it loose and ready to use. He eyed the long shadows, searching for signs of movement.
"I take it back." Harmony's laughter was bitter and weary. "I can see why Danny kept you around. The two of you would've been quite a team."
"And the two of you weren't?"
Harmony shook her head. "I never had the stomach for it. I can see the purpose, Keith, the need to keep people safe. I just didn't like having the blood on my hands."
Keith turned a clumsy pirouette, his feet unsteady. Too much beer. Too much bourbon. Too much that needed thinking about "It's got to be on someone's hands," he said. "May as well be mine."
The tide was long and dark and quiet. Keith saw things moving in the midst of the darkness, but that was nothing new. There were always things moving through Gloom in Surfer's Paradise, goblins and demons and things that were worse. Sometimes that darkness touched people. That's why he let Roark drag him into the business.
He held out a hand, helped Harmony to her feet.
"Fine," he said, "teach me."
Harmony's mouth opened, just a little, in surprise.
"Just in case," Keith said. "Roark might still show up again."
"Just in case," she agreed.
And they waited there beneath the neon guitar, both of them pretending that saying it made it right.
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011