Original Fiction: ‘The Girl Behind the Glass’ by Gavin G. Smith
London, June 28th, 1987
Neren used to love the band. She’d never spoken to anyone who knew who or what they were, not even Meg, and she was the oldest of the Trinity. Tall, spindly musicians with distended bodies and six arms, they used to play real instruments, often several at once. Now they hid behind banks of synthesizers. Neren had seen Hendrix play with them back in ’69; Bowie had sung for them; there were even rumours of a jam with Jim Morrison that had caused hallucinations. Now, they seemed to have embraced Muzak like the rest of the world.
A film of stale alcohol covered the top of the table she was resting her head on. It was clammy and damp, but there was something wretchedly comfortable about her position. It also meant she didn’t have to watch the death of music out on the island, though it seemed she had to listen to it.
“Oh, you’ve come as Joan Jett, how very nineteen seventy-six.” The voice was educated, refined even, very English and not quite dripping with sarcasm. Neren groaned into her puddle of stale alcohol.
“Go away, Sabin,” she managed over the music. She still hadn’t moved or opened her eyes. She felt the comparison to Joan Jett was unfair. Sure, she was wearing jeans and an old Suicidal Tendencies T-shirt, but she had a suit jacket on, though it was a little frayed and torn. She opened her eyes and sat up.
“You want to talk about the seventies, you fucking hypocrite?” she asked. Sabin was tall, slender and beautiful like every elf she had ever met, just like one of her parents must have been. He had sapphire eyes and long, straight, platinum-blond hair secured with a silver raven’s head clasp, and a pearl earring dangling from his right ear. He was wearing a shirt, cravat and a purple crushed velvet suit. Neren had to admit he was just about pulling it off without looking like he was trying too hard. He was leaning heavily on a cane. Despite his beauty, he was considered a monster by his own kind. He walked with a limp, some said as a result of a duel with Rafique Quinto himself. Elves valued beauty and perfection; in their eyes, Sabin was less than whole. Deformed. She could only imagine what they thought of a half-breed like her. Once wiry and athletic, she was now gaunt, thanks to the ravages of her bad habits, though there was still a hardness to her, the result of Lord Razor’s training. Her elven parent hadn’t given her much: her ears were pointed but not to the extent of a full-blood elf like Sabin. She aged more slowly than humans; she was forty-two now, but she barely looked out of her teens despite her habits.
“Of course you mean the seventeen seventies. I fear elegance died with the eighteenth century,” Sabin opined and then took a good long look at Neren, a pained expression creeping across his features. “I take it back. You don’t look like Joan Jett. You look like shit.” Neren gave him the finger.
“You look like a game show host,” she told him, making him frown. She could see his watchdog, an unassuming, bearded man. Sabin’s bodyguard was probably the only human in the London Underground. Normally Neren was the most human person in the supposedly ironically named club. You had to know how to get here to get here, and most humans instinctively knew to stay away. It wasn’t just the more common races that came here: the dwarves and the elves, refugees from the Nine Worlds; the broonies and the ogres, descendants of the first peoples in Britain; or the orcs, who had come from their home in the north and settled in the East End. Some of the creatures that stalked the labyrinthine passages of the club were legendary and saw humans as significantly beneath them on the food chain, often literally.
Neren and Sabin were sat in the main bar. A subterranean split-level grotto, part natural cave, part Roman temple in marble. There was a surprisingly clear – for London – pool of water in the centre of the main bar area. The band performed from a rock island in the pool. Behind the banks of synthesizers was an alabaster statue in the classical style of Janus, the two-faced god of transitions, endings and deceit. One face looked to the future, the other to the past. The club positively reeked of the magic now denied Neren since she had turned her back on the gods and run away from home.
Sabin was looking at her sympathetically. Neren sighed.
“Let me guess, you’ve come to give me another lecture on how I should live better. Or are you just trying to send me back—” She almost said “home”.
“Lecture you? No! That would be terribly judgemental of me. Besides, you’re doing so well now. A Razor Girl, one of the Leper Messiah’s lackeys, a murderous thug working for her next fix.” He met her eyes. She wanted to be angry with him, hate the elf, hurt him, but his words were far too close to the truth. Lord Razor watched over and protected the less fortunate in the city, the homeless, the drug users, but he put the more capable of them to work. The anger and nihilistic need to eradicate all rational thought, to care about nothing but self-gratification that had driven her when she had escaped America, that had made the drugs and the violence that paid for them all right, was gone. It had left bad habits and guilt in its place. That didn’t mean she could go home. Sometimes she was just about able to pretend that she was still enjoying herself.
“Is this elf bothering you?” Neren broke away from staring at Sabin to look up at Rafique Quinto. Like Lord Razor, Quinto was one of the Trinity that controlled organised crime in London. He looked like a very attractive human, olive skin, black salon-styled hair, dark eyes, and he wore his Savile Row suit well. Like Sabin, he carried a cane. Unlike Sabin, Quinto’s cane had nothing to do with an old injury. The cane contained a rapier. Quinto may have looked human but Neren had heard him say that he had come to Britain with Rome’s legions. He had a reputation as a ruthless duellist. He was the vice lord of London. Every prostitution, gambling and drug operation in the city paid tribute to him.
“Rafique!” Sabin cried. “How are you, you old pimp?” Neren inhaled sharply, holding her breath. Nobody spoke to Rafique that way, not in the Underground anyway. The vice lord’s face hardened but Sabin had already turned back to Neren. A business card had appeared in his fingers.
“This month’s telephone number,” he told her and offered her the card. Neren hesitated. She could feel Rafique’s eyes on her. Finally, she took the card and tucked it into the pocket of her suit jacket. Sabin stood up.
“Always a pleasure,” he said to Quinto. The vice lord said nothing as the elf started towards his human bodyguard standing by the bar.
“Why do you care?” It was out of her mouth before she could stop it. It was just about the last thing she wanted to say in front of Quinto. Sabin stopped and sagged, leaning heavily on his cane.
“I’m not your father,” he told her over his shoulder and then limped away.
“I don’t like your relationship with that treacherous peace of shit,” Quinto said quietly, once he was sure Sabin was out of earshot.
“He’s just a friend,” Neren said. She didn’t have many of them left.
“He’s Sub Rosa,” Quinto spat. Neren knew that Sabin was a member of England’s secret intelligence service, though he had always struck her as too flamboyant to be a spy. “Victoria’s lackey.”
“Like I say, he’s just a friend. Do you need something?”
“I have a job for you,” he told her. Neren’s heart sank. Of all the Trinity, she liked working for Quinto the least. Working for the vice lord she saw people of all races at their most desperate and pathetic. It was a little too close to home.
“Nobody else around? I was hoping…” she started. A bag of white powder hit the table.
“Pharmaceutical quality, very pure, certified by my alchemists. Only the best for one of Lord Razor’s girls.” It was quite a big bag. She made it disappear into one of her pockets.
“Have you got your knives on you?” he asked.
“Always,” she told him. Razors always carried their blades with them. She wore both the kerambits in a horizontal sheath at the small of her back. The curved Indonesian blades were known as the Sisters, named because they had power: they were infused with magic.
“Meg’s got something for you at the bar,” Quinto told her.
Charon’s tube train was decorated with a graffiti mural depicting Orpheus’s descent into Hades. Neren and Quinto travelled the ghost lines through London’s underground rail network. The train took them over the broad subterranean river that was the Fleet. Neren had once been told that the Fleet was a tributary of the Styx. She wasn’t sure if it had been a joke.
The something that Meg had for Neren was actually two somethings. She felt the weight of the twin Browning Hi-Powers in the double shoulder rig under each armpit, extra magazines clipped to her belt. It was the matching suppressors, designed to quiet the two pistols, which suggested to Neren that she might be expected to kill tonight.
“You going to tell me where we’re going?” she asked Quinto when they emerged into the sweaty, fume-filled, gritty London summer night. It was just after midnight, but the streets of the West End were still full of people. They made their way along High Holborn and onto Oxford Street.
“A simple business negotiation, nothing to worry about,” Quinto told her. That explains the twin shooters, Neren thought.
Soho was even busier. The sex shops, clip joints, adult cinemas, and strip clubs were still open for business. Little of the prostitution the area was famous for was in evidence on the street as they mostly worked from ‘walk-ups’, rooms above the clubs, shops, pubs and bars. Neren found herself jostled by leather-clad dwarves, elven drag queens, punk broonies and skinhead orcs, and of course the many human revellers spilling out of the gay bars and pubs onto the street. It was somehow seedily beautiful, alive. Neren would have loved Soho if she hadn’t been so painfully aware that you didn’t have to look too hard to find abject misery and degradation.
Quinto had said very little, though she noticed that even the tourists knew well enough to make way for him. She wondered if it was some kind of subtle magic, or just sheer force of personality. They snaked their way through Soho to Berwick Street. The narrow street, little more than an alley, was lined with the seedier sex cinemas and more dangerous clip joints. A few red-lit doorways held some of the more desperate-looking prostitutes of all the genders. Quinto didn’t seem to notice; he might as well have been out for a gentle evening stroll.
They stopped by an unassuming doorway. Neren glanced up. The windows were painted black. It looked like a walk-up. She glanced over at Quinto.
“Want to tell me what we’re walking into? The more I know, the better I can protect you.”
“Do you really think you’re here to protect me?” he asked and pressed the buzzer. A tinny voice demanded to know whom it was. Quinto told them.
Neren didn’t like this. She didn’t like this at all. The door had opened onto a dark stairwell, painted black and lit red. They were met at the top of the stairs on a dark landing by East End orc muscle in a half-decent suit. He gestured to Neren to raise her hands so he could search her. Further along the landing she could make out a half open door. Through it she could hear the forced giggling of women trying to make paying customers feel comfortable. It was a brothel. They were actually rarer in Soho than people thought. They encouraged too much attention, which made the police’s utterly corrupt vice squad’s life difficult. So if you were going to run one you had to pay through the nose, which meant that you had to be really profitable, which meant you needed a special draw. Often it was elves. Humans loved fucking elves; it was how she came to be, after all. She was pretty sure the orc was carrying a shooter. She didn’t like that, either. Brothel muscle were there to keep the girls in line, sort out unruly johns. They didn’t need guns, or the risk said guns represented under English law. Neren finished looking around and turned back to the orc. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t raise her hands either.
“Are you out of your mind?” Quinto asked, just the slightest undercurrent of threat in his words. “You know what she is.” Not who, mind you, Neren thought, but what. The orc muscle raised his hands and took a step back. Quinto rewarded him with a smile.
They were shown into the main parlour. The furnishing and decor wouldn’t have been out of place in any upmarket Mayfair flat that belonged to a pervert. The working girls were all in their late teens to early twenties and very attractive. Many of them sat on the laps of the older, reasonably wealthy-looking humans, and one elf who seemed vaguely familiar. Neren thought he might be a member of the House of Lords. There was another orc in the parlour, obvious muscle. Neren reckoned both the orcs were members of the same East End firm. The orc in the parlour was armed as well. As brothels went, it looked like a nice place and seemed to command a moneyed clientele who presumably enjoyed the thrill of slumming in Soho. Right up until the tabloids discovered them, or Quinto started blackmailing them, anyway.
Neren noticed one of the girls was a half-elf – there but for the grace of the gods, she thought – but that wouldn’t be enough of a draw. Then she followed the eyes of the men. All of them were ignoring the pretty young things twittering away in their laps. They were staring at some fixed point. Part of one wall was a water-filled tank. There was a woman inside it. She was naked and perfect. Neren was reasonably sure she herself was heterosexual, but this woman took her breath away. She was statuesque, athletic, with a swimmer’s body. Her waist-length auburn hair flowed around her as though it had a life of its own. She had strong cheekbones, and her freckled porcelain skin hadn’t lost its lustre despite being submerged. But it was her eyes… green like the sea, ancient somehow, and so bright they all but glowed. Now Neren understood the draw. She was only nominally aware that Quinto was looking at her, smiling.
“The clientele bid for her services,” Quinto whispered.
This isn’t right! a voice screamed in Neren’s head. It was like looking at a goddess in chains.
Whoever they’d come to see had some balls, Neren decided. They had kept Quinto waiting. It was a bold move. They sat in the parlour, making the johns nervous until Quinto engaged them in conversation, putting them at ease. He had politely but firmly waved off the attentions of a number of the girls. Neren had to force herself not to think of them as consolation prizes for the losers in the auction. For her part, she was transfixed, and couldn’t take her eyes off the girl swimming around in the cramped tank. She had tried to catch her eye, but the woman seemed intent on not looking at anybody in the room. Perhaps that was part of the allure. Neren didn’t feel attraction towards the woman. It was more like seeing a work of art, a stunning landscape, or a beautiful wild animal in captivity. Finally, she forced herself to look away and sat down beside Quinto.
“She’s not breathing,” Neren said.
“No,” Quinto agreed. He seemed a little surprised that Neren had sat down next to him on the sofa.
“There’s no gills, so she doesn’t have mer-blood. She’s holding her breath. She’s fae, isn’t she?” Neren asked. As Quinto opened his mouth to answer, a door next to the tank opened and another orc poked his large, shaved and tusked head out.
“Mr Fisher will see you now,” the orc growled.
If the parlour had been decorated reasonably tastefully for a place where bodies were sold, the same couldn’t be said for Fisher’s office. It screamed ostentation. The desk, chairs, sofa, dark wood panelling and the frames of the sexually explicit oil paintings all looked like a collision between the worst excesses of 80s interior design, and a masturbatory attempt at a tribute to Versailles. The office’s only saving grace was that the tank took up part of the wall on this side as well.
“Thank you, Butcher,” the human, presumably Mr Fisher, said. He was a squat man in his fifties. Something about his appearance made Neren think he’d lived a hard life initially, possibly outdoors, but turned to a life of decadence in his later years. He was jowly, running to fat. The skin on his face was a mass of burst blood vessels, but his eyes were alert and there was still power in his frame. He spoke with a strong Scottish accent.
Judging by the cut of his suit, the gangster jewellery and scar tissue on show, Neren reckoned that Butcher was the leader of the orc muscle. There was another orc in the room, leaning on the wall behind Neren. Quinto had made himself comfortable in the proffered chair in front of Fisher’s desk. Neren stood just behind the vice lord’s left shoulder. Neren guessed that the extra muscle, the shooters, were for Quinto’s benefit, a misguided attempt to negotiate from a position of strength.
Fisher turned to look at Neren, eyeing her up with the beady, expert eye of a pimp. Neren resisted the urge to hurt him.
“One of Lord Razor’s ragged sparrows? I must be in trouble,” he said, smiling. There wasn’t a trace of humour in his eyes. Neren wondered if he was smart enough to be afraid.
“No sparrow, Graham,” Quinto said. “Neren here hails from your homeland.” Neren managed not to flinch. She didn’t like to think about Scotland, what she’d left behind when she’d run, when she’d needed to see and experience more than her responsibilities would allow.
“Oh yeah, I though that when I heard her accent,” Fisher said. There was chuckling from the orc behind them. Neren hadn’t said anything yet.
“She was once a druid,” Quinto added.
Neren swallowed hard. She felt cold. She hadn’t been expecting that. She was very much aware that she had Fisher’s full attention. Butcher shifted a little. He was leaning against the wall just to the right of Fisher’s desk.
“Oh, I see,” Fisher said, turning back to Quinto and pointing at Neren. “Trying to put the fear of the gods into me?”
Quinto smiled, holding his hands open.
“Nothing of the sort. I just thought you might want to meet a fellow countrywoman. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Two hundred years,” Fisher muttered. That didn’t make any sense to Neren. He looked human. Her awareness of magic had atrophied in the years since she had turned her back on the gods, but she wasn’t getting any sense of power from the pimp. “And I thought you were here to discuss business?”
“The only business I’m here to discuss is our polite request that you refrain from skimming from your take.” The orcs tensed, Butcher pushing himself off the wall with a low growl. Quinto didn’t look the orc’s way, but Fisher held up a hand.
“That doesn’t sound terribly polite,” Fisher said. He pointed at his desk. “In fact, here, in my place, that sounds downright disrespectful.”
“Your place is in our city,” Quinto explained. He sounded tired, as though he’d had this conversation time and time again. “Twenty-five per cent is a fair cut for the services we provide. It’s a nice simple, easy figure that everyone can remember. It’s been that way for more than a thousand years. We make sure no disreputable elements interfere with your business. We pay off the police, the press; finesse the government, the crown; take care of the odd mess you might find yourselves in; cut you in on any tangential profits arising from your business—” by which Neren was sure he meant blackmail “—and we are there when some fool falls in love with Arianne,” Quinto pointed at the girl in the tank, “and hires mercenaries to steal her from you. Or had you forgotten about that?” Fisher said nothing. “If you don’t want to pay, then leave the city. We won’t stop you.”
“Everything’s open for negotiation,” Fisher started. “I’m one of your biggest earners… Hey, where are you—” Quinto had stood up.
“We do not negotiate because we don’t have to. If you skim again, it won’t be me who will visit you.” Fisher looked furious. As Quinto turned around, the orc who had been behind them stepped forward and opened his jacket, showing Quinto the sawn-off shotgun hanging there on a makeshift sling. Neren was of the opinion the orc was either very brave or very stupid.
“I don’t think Mr Fisher had finish—”
Neren hadn’t really been conscious of drawing both the Brownings. One was pointed at the orc in Quinto’s way, the other at Butcher.
“It’s all right,” Quinto said to her, motioning for Neren to lower her pistols. She did so, but didn’t re-holster them. Quinto hadn’t taken his eyes off the orc blocking his way. “The last person to pull a gun on me was Ronald Kray. You may want to think about that.” There was a moment’s hesitation, then the orc lowered his eyes and stepped out of Quinto’s path. Neren backed towards the door, keeping an eye on Fisher and the two orcs. Butcher was staring at her. Fisher looked apoplectic. She caught a glimpse of a coat stand in the corner behind the desk. It seemed out of place. It was only when Neren saw the single coat hanging from the stand that she understood: the girl behind the glass, Fisher’s apparent immortality, all of it. She glanced at the water-filled tank. Green eyes looked back at her.
Back out on Berwick Street, Quinto politely thanked her and walked off. Neren watched him making his way through the thinning crowds. She slipped a hand into her pocket, felt the bag of powder. Quinto telling Fisher about her past had been the last thing she needed, a reminder of what she had left behind some eighteen years ago. Nights of excess, the music, the sex, the drugs – it had been worth it in the beginning, but it had all gone wrong, poisoned somehow. For her it had been in LA, in the 70s. Neren looked up at the blackened windows of the brothel, knowing the on-going crime that was taking place up there. She forced herself to walk away.
Neren vacuumed an enormous line up a nostril. She sat up on her decaying sofa in her squat, waited for the electric jackhammer hit of the cocaine. Her head went numb. In a good way. She took a belt of the Scotch, downing at least an eighth of the bottle whilst she still felt numb, pouring smooth liquid fire down her throat.
Fuck Quinto! Fuck the Trinity! Fuck Sabin, that sanctimonious double-dealing prick! And fuck the druids! It wasn’t like she’d had a choice. She’d been a foundling. The unwanted progeny of human and elf given to the druids to care for, to bring up as one of their own. To brainwash? She told herself that at her angriest. When she needed to justify her actions. And fuck Fisher! But that brought her up short. She thought about what he was doing over there. It’s just a residual sense of responsibility, she told herself. The druids were the conduit between the gods and the people in her homeland, unlike in England where the Olympian pantheon dominated. The druids’ dealings extended to the children and grandchildren of the gods, the fae. What was happening a few streets away from Neren’s squat couldn’t have happened back home. That was presumably why Fisher had left Scotland.
It’s not your problem anymore, she told herself. Do some more coke. It was true, shit like this happened all over the city, the country, the world. What difference did it make if it was an immortal fae or some poor human girl?
You can’t save the world. She did another vast line. Quinto hadn’t lied. It was good stuff. Her heart felt like a wild bird in a cage, like it was battering against her ribs, desperate to be free. She grabbed the bottle of Scotch. She had some vague idea of counteracting the coke with the whisky. It was good stuff, single malt. Only the best for one of the Razor Lord’s little girls, she thought bitterly as she tried to empty the bottle down her throat. After all, she was one of the murder aristocracy. She saw all their faces. Illuminated by the muzzle flashes, or painted red with the Sisters. The whisky just gave her heartburn painful enough to make her cry out. Pain shot up her left arm. She dropped the bottle, its expensive amber contents running down into the holes in the attic’s floorboards. She slumped back onto the sofa, looking up at the dirty, cobweb-shrouded ceiling, and faintly wondering if they would find her body before the rats ate it.
Ghost London burned with all the fires. The flames of Boudicca’s sack, when London had been called Londinium, mixed with the purifying flames of the Great Fire, mixed with the flames of the Blitz.
“Hello,” the god sitting on the windowsill of the ghost-representation of her attic squat said. He was looking out over the broken skeletal buildings, the city’s history of destruction, at the cold flames. He wore simple dark trews and a shirt. His musculature looked like it had been exquisitely carved from cold, dead marble. His skin was covered in intricate, swirling spirals, black in colour. Long silver hair ran down his back in complicated braids. A candle burned on the sill next to where he sat.
“You’re not Hades,” was all she could think to say. He turned to look at her with silver, utterly alien eyes. His beauty was different to that of Arianne’s in her tank. His was terrible to behold. She wanted to flinch away from him, but it had been a day.
“I let the followers of the Olympian death lord pass through my lands on their way to his realm, but I am inexorably tied to this land.”
“You’re Arawn?” Neren asked. She wasn’t sure if she dreaded the answer or would welcome it.
“And this is Annwn?” she asked. He nodded. “And I’m dead?” He considered the question.
“You certainly should be,” he finally said, “and you did not die well.”
“Oh, fuck off!” It was out of her mouth before she could stop it. She hated all the ‘not living up to your potential’ bullshit all the priests, priestesses and druids she had ever met spouted. At some level they were all death cults serving needy and venal gods. Still, you probably shouldn’t tell a god to fuck off, she admonished herself. She was starting to feel a little frightened now. Not of death; she had come to terms with that as a possible consequence of her work and lifestyle a long time ago; but of the amount of power Arawn had over her here.
“You should have died in such a way as to make you a queen in my kingdom,” he told her. He didn’t sound angry. If anything, he sounded sad.
“At the risk of pushing my luck, I’m guessing you don’t personally welcome every overdose who appears in your realm?” His silence was answer enough. “What do you want?” He looked straight at her with his quicksilver eyes. She felt funny.
“Serve me,” he said simply.
“Those days are long gone.” Then it hit her. “You need something from me, don’t you?” she asked. He looked away from her. “Is this to do with the… with Arianne?”
“A favour has been asked of me.”
“You wish me to set her free?”
The god didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he held up the candle.
“I will hold your life here,” he told her.
Neren narrowed her eyes, wondering if her ‘death’ had been assisted.
“You give me the power I need and I’ll do you this service,” she said, trying to keep her eagerness at the possibility of wielding magic again under control.
He turned his eyes on her again and Neren forced herself to ignore the way they were making her feel.
“And afterwards?” he asked.
“Sacrifice, veneration but no worship, no slavish adoration. I will respect your power, appreciate your gifts, but my will is my own.”
“You would bargain with me?” he asked. He sounded more amused than angry.
“It’s all commerce, isn’t it? Worship and sacrifice for the power of magic, however mortals and gods dress it up.”
He stood and turned to look out at burning ghost London.
“You amuse me, but I will forget you, forget our agreement.”
“I will obey the forms, the rituals,” she told him. He nodded and bent down to pick up the candle.
“I will return this to you if you succeed.”
Neren opened her eyes but she didn’t suck in air. She was lying on her sofa covered in her own vomit. She would need to change, then take a quick trip to a crematorium out Kensal Green way. The ghoul who ran the crematorium helped dispose of bodies for the Trinity. He would have access to the grisly items Neren would need to wield death magic in Arawn’s name.
London did sleep. At four o’clock in the morning, the sunrise was still little more than a faint hope. The living had mostly left the streets of Soho, abandoning it to those who’d made poor choices, the half dead, like her, and the ghosts. She wondered how many of the people she brushed past in the streets on a daily basis were actually dead. Here, now, with her heightened awareness from living in the borderland between life and Annwn, they stood out. The dead legionaries, victims of the Iceni’s brutalities; the plague victims; the burned, broken-necked thieves still wearing their nooses, still dancing the Tyburn Jig; children crushed beneath the rubble when Thor had sent his storms to batter the city during the Blitz; she could see all of them. The ghosts were superimposed on the land of the living, their forms painfully, heartbreakingly clear to Neren.
She reached the door to the brothel and drew both the Brownings, screwing the suppressors onto the barrels of the pistols. Normally she wouldn’t have been comfortable doing something like this out in the open, but she was all but a ghost herself now. She held both the suppressed pistols in her left hand as she pulled the first of the items the ghoul had given her out of her pocket. She held the thief’s finger bone against the door’s lock and whispered a prayer to Arawn. Her half-life condition muted the feeling of power as the magics coursed through her. It was a small working, the bone reconfiguring to slide into the lock’s mechanism, but it was still enough to give her a thrill of anticipation, to make her want more. As she turned the finger bone and unlocked the door, she whispered her thanks.
The bone back in her pocket and a gun in each hand, Neren pushed the door open with her shoulder. One of the orcs was halfway down the stairs. It seemed to take a moment for him to see Neren. Then he looked surprised, reaching for his own gun, opening his mouth to shout a warning. Two little red holes appeared in his face. Everything seemed so quiet. Neren heard the shell casings tumble to the floor. The orc fell face first and slid down the stairs as Neren closed the door behind her. She didn’t even look down at the body as she stepped over it and made her way upwards.
Neren reached the top of the stairs and almost walked into a burst of automatic weapon fire. Even in her half-dead state it sounded really loud. She suspected that nobody was sleeping in Soho now. Bullets chewed away at the corner she was hiding behind, where the stairs met the landing. She could hear screams from the girls and the johns alike. Neren fired blindly around the corner, squeezing off the remaining rounds in her right-hand gun. The automatic fire stopped. She swung round the corner, stepped up onto the landing. Whoever had fired had presumably taken cover. She marched forward, her left-hand gun outstretched. The orc appeared round the corner holding a submachine gun. Neren fired, and fired again. She kept firing as she marched towards him. He collapsed to the floor.
Neren stopped by the door to the parlour and quickly reloaded both pistols as the girls and the remaining john crawled past her, almost tumbling down the stairs in their eagerness to get out of there. With them gone, the parlour was empty, except for Arianne in her tank. Neren rolled into the room. A chair exploded, hit by a shotgun blast fired from the office doorway. It had only narrowly missed her. Back on her feet, Neren found herself on the opposite side of the tank from the door. She risked a glance at a frightened-looking Arianne. She pointed one of the pistols at the closest corner of the tank and fired three quick shots. Cracks spread across the glass and then the tank exploded, water flooding into the parlour. Arianne spilled out onto the sodden carpet. Neren spun out into the parlour, bringing both pistols up as one of the orcs exploded through the glass on the other side of the tank, catching her in a flying tackle, carrying her to the wet floor. She saw a huge meaty fist powering towards her face.
Neren almost passed out from the sheer force of the blow. Her nose was spread all over her face. He raised his fist again. Arianne hit him with a chair. It looked like he’d barely felt it, but he turned to look at the other woman. It was enough. Still somewhat dazed, Neren managed to grab one of the Sisters from its sheath. She stabbed the kerambit into the orc’s arm and tore the curved blade upwards, rendering the limb useless. He howled in pain. Neren kicked up with her right leg, hooked it round his neck and pulled him to the ground, stabbing him repeatedly in the kidney. She wriggled out from under the orc as he crawled away holding his side, blood leaking through his fingers before collapsing and lying still. Neren tried to blink away the lights in her vision and resist the urge to throw up. She managed to push herself to her feet. Something hit her wrist, hard. She felt and heard bones snap. The kerambit fell from nerveless fingers. She saw the Butcher backhand Arianne, picking her up off her feet and sending her flying across the room. The orc dropped the sharpening steel he’d struck her wrist with and used his free hand to grab Neren. Strong, thick fingers circled her neck and rammed her into the wall. She was nose to nose with the orc, drool running down his chin, his eyes wide and angry. She tried to break his grip, but it was no use, he was too strong. He raised the massive cleaver he held in his other hand. He could have killed her already, but he clearly wanted to savour this. Neren felt herself rapidly losing consciousness as it was choked out of her. She was only vaguely aware of her lost kerambit suddenly appearing on the Butcher’s shoulder. If anything, the orc just looked surprised, but he loosened his grip on her throat enough for her to draw in a ragged breath. She grabbed the other gift the ghoul had given her and smashed the bag of ash into the orc’s face, hoping Arawn was listening as she mouthed a prayer to him. The ashes forged a sympathetic link to the funerary flames of their birth and Butcher’s face burst into flames, the fire eating into the howling orc’s flesh. He let go of Neren and she kicked him away. She was faintly aware of Arianne watching the burning orc as he staggered around, seemingly appalled at the pain she’d helped inflict when she’d grabbed the dropped kerambit and stabbed Butcher in his shoulder. Neren let him burn as she drew the remaining Sister, felt the hungry magic through the ancient blade’s hilt as she staggered across the room and climbed through the hole in the wall where the tank had been. A terrified Fisher whimpered in the corner, cowering away from her. Neren ignored him. Instead, she took the sealskin coat from the stand. Arianne was stood on the other side of the broken tank now, watching. Neren carried the coat back to the beautiful otherworldly woman.
“No…” Fisher begged.
“She doesn’t belong to you,” Neren told him. She handed Arianne the coat. The other woman put it on. Then they both watched Fisher age in front of their eyes. Outside there were sirens.
When Fisher was dead, Neren called the number on the card Sabin had given her.
“I’ve killed some people,” she said into the receiver.
Neren held Arianne in her arms in the back of the Bentley. Sobs racked the fae woman’s frame as Sabin’s bodyguard drove them to the river.
“The johns won’t say anything. They’re already on the phone to their expensive lawyers. I can make sure the girls forget what they saw before the Trinity bail them out,” Sabin said from the front passenger seat.
“It’s probably for the best. Look after them,” Neren told him. Sabin nodded. He should be angry, having to clean up her mess like this, but he sounded worried. He kept glancing back at Arianne. The last thing the crown wanted was trouble with the fae.
By the time they reached the river, Arianne had stopped sobbing. She opened the door and let herself out. Neren climbed out after her as though to follow, but Arianne motioned for her to stay. Sabin and his bodyguard climbed out of the car as well.
“I’m sorry,” Neren told her. The fae woman just shook her head as though Neren had nothing to apologise for. Neren knew otherwise. It was mortals that had done this to Arianne. The fae woman turned and walked to the edge of the embankment and just kept walking, dropping out of sight. They heard the splash. Sabin and Neren followed her to the edge and looked down at the murky waters of the river. A seal looked up at them, its eyes dark, soulful pools. Then it ducked its head under the surface and was gone.
“She was a selkie?” Sabin asked. Neren nodded and tried to remember the lore she had learned in the groves during her training.
“Sometimes they come on shore to dance under the moonlight, or they fall in love with a fisherman. When they turn human, their fur becomes a coat they can take off. However it happened, Fisher took the coat and that gave him control over her…” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t want to think too much about that. Quinto would be able to work out who had destroyed one of his valuable operations. She wasn’t sure she had much of a future left in London.
“And imparted some of her immortality to him?” Sabin asked. She nodded. “Will she be okay?”
“She’ll travel the wyrd tides back home. Her time here will be like the blink of an eye to her. She is immortal and they figure time differently, but something like this stays with you.” Neren was staring out over the river. The rising sun’s reflection was a spear of fire in the water. Then pain shot through her chest as her heart started to beat again. Sabin steadied her as she staggered.
“Are you all right?” he asked. Neren looked at him.
“Why do you care?” she asked. She knew, somehow, that he wasn’t her father. He looked sad, but only for a moment; it didn’t really suit him. He helped her back towards the Bentley, leaning heavily on his cane.
“There’s a band playing at the Marquee tonight. Would you care to accompany me?”
‘The Girl Behind the Glass’ by Gavin G. Smith