Gray led me to a dilapidated block of flats somewhere in the mass of buildings. (I wasn't ashamed to admit that I was completely lost, this place was a labyrinth!). I also wasn't entirely sure why I was here. The rambling monologue that Gray had kept up for the entire walk hadn't covered that point.
"And our purpose here is?" I asked as we entered.
Gray blinked at me, and for half a second I wondered whether he'd forgotten I was there - which, I could admit, would not have been difficult given that I hadn't managed to get a single word in edgeways.
"You're really quiet," he said. "Like Caracal quiet. Except not, because, well, you can actually speak. Where was I?"
"About to explain why we were..."
There are many experiences in life (or death, as this seemed to be) that I had no desire to, well, experience.
Coming face to muzzle with a shotgun had been firmly on that list and I couldn't help the startled little shriek.
"Jumpy," the woman behind it commented, flipping her soaking hair to one side, and lowering the shotgun ever so slightly.
Now that my head wasn't in immediate danger, the adrenaline surging through my body made a quick u-turn from 'flight' (or as was in this case: stay still and pray she doesn't shoot you), to 'fight'.
"Well how calm would you be if some bitch greeted you with a gun to the fucking face!"
While I was yelling, there was a small part of my brain jumping up and down, waving its arms for attention and screaming that shouting at the woman with the shotgun was really not my wisest idea in the world. I ignored it.
The woman chuckled. "I like her, Gray. Can we keep her?"
"Not so sure she's dead," Gray said with a shrug. "But I think we've got her for now."
"Don't I get a say in this?!" I demanded, well aware of the trembling in my hands, clenching them into fists to try and hide it.
"By all means if you think you can deal out there on your own..." By now the woman had the shotgun broken over her arm, and she gave a mocking little bow.
"Uh," I stammered, "on second thoughts..."
I blinked as the woman's hair seemed to shimmer (and hadn't it been blue a few seconds ago?).
"Cyrano," the woman stuck out her hand bluntly.
I accepted it carefully, shaking firmly before quickly dropping my grip.
"Guilty." I remembered to introduce myself this time.
(Although at least the hair thing had now been explained, if this was the Cyrano I was thinking of...)
"Now that we're acquainted..." Gray started.
"Oh, hush," Cyrano said. "I'm not going to let you ramble the poor girl into staying put."
"I wouldn't!" He protested.
"Mhmm. That's what you said about the last stray. C'mon," she said, jerking her head. "Let's go see Coroner."
"Oh, no. No way, not a chance in-"
"Oh shut up," a new female voice entered the fray as someone swung down from some conveniently placed rafters. "Big baby. You don't have to go, we'll take her."
I didn't need introduced to this one. I knew who she was, and I needed to know how it was that all my characters appeared to have come to life. (Or death, because that seemed to be a common factor here.) There before me, in full glory, was Jay Carson, possibly the oldest of my characters – at least in terms of being conceived and written.
“There's rumours Coroner was up to something,” Cyrano said, taking my silence for confusion.
(It was, just not about that.)
(...Not entirely about that.)
“Something about bringing mortals in according to a few people who've managed to have 'chats' with Death,” Jay added while looking me up and down critically. “You're really small.”
“I know,” I agreed fairly unsurprised by that assessment. (I remembered writing her meeting Aida.) “You're really thin.”
It was a slightly petty and pointless retort, as Jay just looked down at herself and shrugged.
“You got everything, 'Seph?” Cyrano asked, almost absently.
“If by 'everything' you mean 'weapons', then yeah,” Jay stated evenly. “Lesgo.”
I double-checked that I still had my bad – needlessly, it wasn't as though I'd let go of it since I'd stepped off the train. (Oddly enough, it was still slung over my shoulder.)
Then I followed Jay and Cyrano out into the street, giving Gray a half-apologetic smile as he went back to protesting.
“What's his problem with this?” I asked.
“Coroner's a scientist,” Cyrano said, almost as though she didn't really know what the word meant, but as though that explained everything.
I guessed it did – the scientists in Gray's world, the ones he'd had the most experience with, weren't exactly...nice.
“This way,” Jay said, turning down a side-street abruptly.
It was with a slightly worried heart that I resigned myself to being completely lost again with my life (fate) in the hands of these two.
It turned out Coroner was living in a medium-sized building beside a sprawling building site. Jay and Cyrano had changed as we got closer, both going on the defensive, bringing their guns out and holding them casually at their sides. The fact that they both still looked more dangerous that I could ever dream of was neither here nor there. (It helped, I thought, that Cyrano was dressed in a leather outfit that honestly seemed like something out of the Old West, and Jay was in dark coloured combats, and both moved with the silence of freaking ghosts.)
“Expecting trouble?” I asked quietly.
“Eh,” Cyrano made a slight dismissive gesture with one hand. “Not really, just...Coroner's kinda...unnerving.”
I didn't query that, too aware that Jay looked slightly annoyed at the conversation.
Five minutes later I really wished I'd queried that.
Looming over me was a rather annoyed looking man with burning red eyes (half-concealed behind glasses) and rather large red horns, teeth curving slightly from his lips.
“Uh...” I stammered. “Sorry, for, y'know, uh, interrupting? I was just, uh, wondering if maybe you could...”
He was still staring at me, unblinking, and I really didn't like the feeling of being an insect trapped under a microscope.
“IwashopingyoucouldtellmehowIgothere?” I babbled out eventually, then paused, reconsidering. “Or maybe how to get back out? I could really do with getting back out right about now...”
And he was still staring at me.
I wasn't sure why exactly I was saying please. A huge massive demon (even one dressed as your stereotypical scientist) was unlikely to respond to the niceties.
“Find,” he said, throwing a piece of paper at me. “You've got competition.”
“Uh, thank you.”
“Get out,” he snarled.
I jumped slightly, but supposed that was as close to a 'your welcome' as I was likely to get, and promptly hurried out, Jay and Cyrano following me.
(It only occurred to me after we'd left that not only had the note been writing itself on the desk beside us while he glared at me, he hadn't actually touched it to throw at me.)
“What's it say?” Cyrano asked curiously.
I looked at the note, taking a long moment to decipher the sprawling handwriting.
“Uh...” I said, rereading the list. “Vials of toxic sludge, sewers, eight,” I read. “Ectoplasm, 'H-M', bowl. Hairs, vampiric, three...” I stopped, shaking my head and handing the page to Cyrano, who immediately handed it on to Jay.
Jay studied it for a long moment. “Well, at least he's told us where to find most of it,” she pointed out calmly.
Cyrano ran her fingers through her hair, ruffling them through and combing the wet strands into something resembling neatness. I blinked, trying to figure out how I'd missed the fact that she was completely soaked through – despite the fact that she'd been wandering around with me for a good hour, probably more.
“I drowned,” she offered, almost coldly – surprising really, I hadn't expected she would. “...I think. I'm not entirely sure, and none of the rest of my crew are here, so I'm half hoping that the Shard survived.”
Oh, so that was how that story ended. I'd been hoping the Shard would pull off an amazing come-back, but apparently that had been a futile hope. Probably. Cyrano obviously didn't know one way or the other. (On the other hand, from what I remembered, at least half the Shard's crew actually had beliefs other than Cyrano's bizarre 'Dead Gods in the Sky'.)
“C'mon,” Cyrano said after the pause stretched from being reasonable to 'just that side of too long where it started being really uncomfortable'. “We've got work to do. Where do we start?”
“Well, there's sewer access about three blocks away,” Jay reported calmly.
“How...” I started, then cut myself off. “Actually, y'know, I don't even want to know.”
Jay took the lead, and sure enough, three blocks later there was one of those small, round, metal access panels.
We all stared at it.
“We should've gone and got Gray,” Cyrano said after a moment. “He'd probably have been best for this.”
We did eventually manage to get the several vials of toxic sludge, and a few more for 'redundancy', because I really didn't want to risk the possibility of not getting whatever help Coroner was willing to provide because one of us had accidentally shattered one of the vials.
“So, ectoplasm next?” I suggested, struggling to get the stench of the sewers out of my nose. (I had a horrid feeling it was going to linger there for days.
Cyrano considered it. “Nah, the mansion's on the other side of the river, may as well get the rats tails on route.”
And didn't that just turn out to be as gruesome as it sounded. With no real skill for shooting (apart from a shotgun, and Cyrano was not giving that up) or throwing weapons (my aim was shit, okay? And normally my target was bigger than a rat, even if these rats were a bit larger than average), I was relegated to the joy of cutting the tails off.
Still, with a sniper and...well, Cyrano, it didn't take long to gather the dozen tails.
“Why does he want tails anyway?” I asked. “I'm not seeing what possible use they could be to him!”
“It's not really our business,” Jay said smoothly. “And it's not like I really want to know why the psychotic demon scientist wants rats tails and sludge and ectoplasm. I think we'll all sleep easier if we don't know.”
I could...almost agree with that. But I wanted to know. (Okay, I'll admit it, I have this bad habit, something can be the most gruesome thing in the world, but, if things aren't obvious, if things are odd I'll want to know how it works, how it's pieced together, what makes it tick.)
“Now the mansion,” Cyrano announced grandly, gesturing towards the mansion that was somehow managing to lurk on top of a hill.
“Now that looks like it's going to be haunted,” I grumbled.
“Well, it's supposed to be, from what I've heard. C'mon.”
Well, didn't that just make my day?
Still, I followed them up the hill to the twisted and rusted gates. We stared at them for a second before we all started to squirm through.
This promised to be oh so much fun.
I would've sworn to it that my hair was standing on end and futilely tried to flatten it to my head. At least, it felt futile, I couldn't be sure, it wasn't like there were any mirrors. On the bright side, we had a bowl of what we thought was ectoplasm. (And if we'd still been alive, probably ten years off our lifespan.)
It had almost felt like something straight out of Ghostbusters, and I wasn't entirely sure that it wasn't somehow being shaped by my expectations of a 'haunted mansion'. Although the presence of a Morticia-Addams-esque woman in the library had been...unnerving. But helpful, which was something.
Jay was busy wiping the remains of the goopy ectoplasmy stuff off her rifle, grumbling to herself as she did so.
"Well, what does that leave us with?" I asked - I'd never recovered the sheet of paper, I realized.
"Vampire hairs, rusted bolts and half a farthing."
Seriously, what did this guy want with all this junk?
"Well, there's a couple of fire-escapes that'll have the bolts," Cyrano mused. "And the farthing, well..."
"Half a farthing," Jay corrected.
"Where the hell are we going to find that?!" Cyrano demanded. "...What the hell even is it?"
"Form of currency," I replied, rooting through my bag in search of my purse. "C'mon, c'mon," I grumbled, because I could've sworn... "Ah-ha!" I yelled triumphantly as I pulled my purse out.
"I'm not entirely sure how that'll help us," Jay said blandly, "because judging by your attire, you're definitely not..."
I made another excited sound as I pulled a coin out. "No, I'm not from the time it was used, but I did get given one in my change today, yesterday, someday, whenever."
"So that leaves bolts and hair," Cyrano surmised. "Alright, let's get on this."
The bolts, as predicted, were fairly easy, although I felt slightly bad for removing them from a fire-escape, even if Jay didn't seem to have a problem with it - and given Jay's, uh, feelings on fire, and people being possibly trapped in fires, I had a feeling that it was a moot point.
"We should take a break," Cyrano suggested. "There's a new place just down the road from here that I've been meaning to try. The Underpass - Bar and Grill. We can grab a bite to eat and see if any of us can figure out a way to get vampire hairs."
My stomach chose that moment to grumble loudly.
"From the sounds of that, the motion is carried."
Which was how we found ourselves in the dim restaurant just down the road.
Even with the dim twilight-esque light of Nothing, stepping into this was dark. We managed to get to the counter without incident (mostly, I suspected, because the way was marked by some sort of ribbon or rail...). Behind the bar was a woman (girl?) who (to my mind) was much too thin to be working in a place that smelled this delicious. She was pale, whether by make-up or naturally, I couldn't quite tell, and her dark lipstick, hair and glasses (and how was she seeing?!) accentuated that.
She attempted a smile, all pressed lips and forced curving of the lips. (I knew that expression, I'd worn it one too many times myself, for different reasons, I hoped.) Then she gestured at the board behind her – clearly the menu. I squinted up at it, and wondered whether or not my sight had got worse since the last time1.
“Grilled chicken salad,” Jay ordered.
“Uh, same,” I said after a few minutes futile squinting.
“Make it three,” Cyrano agreed.
“And to drink?” she asked, almost sullenly.
“Scotch, chocolate milkshake and absinthe,” a voice from the kitchen called.
In a somewhat clichéd move, all three of us leant to the side at once to see who was speaking. A tall, well-built blond guy. A very tall guy.
“Why is everyone so tall?!” I complained petulantly.
“You're just really small,” Cyrano commented.
“He is pretty tall,” Jay put in, looking the man up and down with wary eyes.
“I'm more impressed that he knew at least my drinks order.”
That...was quite impressive, and from the look on Jay's face was only just occurring to Jay now.
“Call it a gift,” the man grinned – and it looked much more natural on his face, like he was someone who smiled a lot. “Katie?”
“The deal is made,” the girl (Katie?) said, nodding. “All parties bound.”
She indicated the price on the till and we found ourselves digging through our pockets until we'd scraped together enough to cover it. I waved off the change, indicating the tip jar.
“TJ!” Katie yelled. “Table.”
And yet another giant waltzed into view. (Well, not waltzed, walked, like any normal person would if I'm being completely honest.) This one though, was scrawny and he was slouching, but even that made Jay pull herself out of her perpetual slump to stand at her full height. (The guy behind the counter wasn't a threat like this one possibly was, even I could tell that, there was a counter in the way, and she knew that looks could be deceiving when it came to strength.)
“This way,” he gestured.
We followed him, me having to quicken my stride and Cyrano's normally laconic pace being replaced by a quick half-jog. He paused for half a second frowning.
“Table!” Katie repeated loudly, before muttering a series of not very flattering comments.
TJ nodded and quickly lead us to a table in the corner. (Which I was mildly thankful for, that meant Jay could keep her back to the wall, and have easy in and out, and I was perfectly willing to deal with the discomfort of having my own back2 to the restaurant so that her and Cyrano weren't craning over their shoulders for the entire meal.)
A few minutes later, TJ came back with our drinks.
“Cheers,” I said, picking up the milkshake (which had made him twist his face for some reason).
Cyrano and Jay took their drinks silently, scanning the restaurant casually.
Cyrano's gaze kept coming back to the kitchen, and she kept frowning.
“Something the matter?” I asked eventually. “I mean, if you don't mind me asking, you just...don't seem comfortable.”
“Oh, I'm perfectly comfortable,” Cyrano assured me. “Just... There's something about the chef that's...”
At which point said chef appeared juggling our plates.
Cyrano and Jay's eyes zeroed in on the stained apron, and they shared a look.
“I hope you enjoy,” the man said as he put down our meals.
He sounded sincere about that, and his smile was almost hopeful. As he turned away, though, I could've sworn that – just for a second – his eyes glowed red.
I glanced to Cyrano and Jay, both of whom nodded.
“What?” I hissed quietly.
“I think we just found our final piece of the list,” Cyrano said calmly. “Our cook is a vampire.”
“What?!” I repeated.
“I could be wrong, the blood-stains on his apron could've come from somewhere else, it's likely, he is a cook, but...”
“Well, I guess we need to figure out a way to get his hair off him without ending up on the menu ourselves,” Jay said without preamble, checking one of her handguns underneath the table. (And it was only just occurring to me that there'd been no issue made about the fact that both Cyrano and Jay were visibly armed.)
Of course, that was the moment that we were all forced to duck by a table flying at our heads.
“What the hell?!” I yelled as I ducked under our table for cover. (Not that it was really going to be much cover.)
Peaking out, I could see Katie from behind the bar grabbing for another table.
“Hey!” I yelled. “What the hell? We were trying to eat!”
Apparently, however, the cook put things together much faster.
“Well, your realization of my...uh, state of undeadness combined with the checking of a weapon... This wouldn't be the first time we've had a lynch mob after us.”
“Do we look like a mob?!” Cyrano protested. “I've seen mobs, we are not it!”
“Besides, we're not looking for anything much!” I added. “Just some hair!”
That gained a quick glance at each other from the two of them – and then back to TJ who was behind the counter.
“Vampire hair?” the cook asked.
“Yeah!” I said. “I just want to go home.”
That, apparently, pinged something for them all.
“I mean, we have everything else we need, we just need the three hairs!”
“You got anything to trade?” Katie demanded harshly.
“Uh...you don't happen to need any toxic sludge do you?” I offered, half jokingly.
“Uh, yes!” TJ said from behind the counter, sounding surprised by that fact. “Yes we do!”
After that, it was a surprisingly short amount of time between us managing to get out from under the table, and Katie declaring “The deal is made, all parties bound.”
Still, we had three hairs folded carefully into a napkin, and we were heading back to Coroner's.
“Do you think he meant for it to be a race?” Cyrano mused.
“Probably?” I hazarded.
Coroner looked us up and down and made a displeased sound in the back of his throat.
“Here,” I said, laying out everything he'd asked us to get. “As requested.”
He spent a moment looking over each item, before nodding slightly, and going over to a desk. A few seconds later, he'd produced a few sheets of paper which he handed over, turning his back.
I looked down at the technical diagrams. “Uh, let's get these back to Gray. I think he might have more of a chance of understanding them.”