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In her dreams, Conrad was still alive.
They were banal, domestic little scenes: she could still smell whatever dinner he’d cooked, and she’d be washing the dishes when he’d slide his arms around her waist. She’d feel the brush of his lips against the nape of her neck, The Archers low in the background. The oddest fragments returned to her: Sunday morning toast crumbs in bed coming back to haunt them on Sunday night; leaning over him to look out of the plane window as they were coming in to land at Dublin; walking the dog through Hardcastle Crags on a lazy Saturday afternoon - that smell of damp mulch and wild garlic.
Other times she’d simply dream she was listening to him breathe. He always fell asleep the second his head touched the pillow, like he had narcolepsy or something, and so Niamh, a fitful sleeper at best, would often fixate on his peaceful tide to quiet her chatty brain.
Awaking now, she reached for him, only to feel the cold side of the bed.
It was like pressing a thumb on a bruise every single time.
Why am I awake?
Her phone. Her phone was ringing. She remembered she was on call. Shite.
She kicked off the duvet and pushed a nest of auburn hair out of her face. Her phone vibrated on the nightstand, the display reading BARKER FARM. It was 00.53. Still the Witching Hour, she thought ruefully. A common misconception; any hour’s grand for witching.
Niamh cleared her throat. She always thought it seemed unprofessional to sound like she’d been sleeping while on call, although it was rare for someone to phone this late.
‘Hello? Mrs Barker?’
‘Oh hello, Dr Kelly,’ Joan said in her best telephone voice. ‘I do hope I didn’t wake you?’
‘Not at all,’ Niamh lied. ‘Are you OK out there?’
‘It’s Pepper again . . .’ No further explanation was necessary.The horse was old. Old and tired.
‘I’ll be right over in ten,’ Niamh said.
She threw on whatever mismatched clothes were piled on the back of her dresser chair, and pulled her hair into a ponytail. Tiger barely stirred from his basket as she tiptoed through the kitchen, offering only a nasal huff to express his irritation at being awakened. The Border Terrier was quite used to her nocturnal comings and goings.
It was a cold night for late March, not quite cold enough for a frost, but not far off either. A shame, she’d hoped to file winter away for another year. She wrapped a scarf– a gift knitted for her by one of her clients – around her neck as she walked. Niamh reached her Land Rover and, checking in the rear-view mirror, pressed her eyes with the pads of her thumbs, trying to look less bleary. It didn’t entirely work, needless to say.
The Barker farm was only a short drive away, on the other side of Hebden Bridge. Niamh knew the route in her sleep, but thought it best to play the radio real loudly, just in case. The road from Heptonstall village towards Hebden Bridge town, in the gutter of the valley, was winding and perilously steep, slick with earlier rain. She drove carefully, windows open wide to wake herself up. Normally bustling, Hebden Bridge was almost eerily quiet. The pubs, bars and restaurants had kicked out hours ago and Market Street was dark. Niamh drove until the cottages and old mills opened out into the dark sprawl of Cragg Vale. On the horizon, the farmhouse was the last light for miles.
The gates were open, ready, and she swung the Land Rover down the bumpy dirt track towards the riding school. Joan Barker was waiting, a wax jacket over her flannel pyjamas, tartan legs tucked into her wellies. Niamh turned off the engine and stepped out of the car, dragging her kit bag off the passenger seat as she went. ‘How’s she doing, Joan?’
‘Oh, Dr Kelly, she’s not in a good way.’
A familiar dread in her stomach. ‘Let’s go take a look shall we?’
As soon as they were in the stable, Niamh didn’t need to use any arcane skills to see Pepper was in a bad way. ‘Oh dear,’ Niamh said, kneeling alongside the old Cleveland that rested in the hay, her breathing shallow.
‘Do you need anything, doctor?’ Joan asked.
It might be best if Joan was out of the way for a moment or two. If she saw what was about to happen, Niamh would find it very difficult to explain. ‘I’ve everything need for Pepper, but you’ve not got a black coffee for me have you? It’s some ways past my bedtime.’
‘Of course. I’ll be back in two shakes.’ Joan turned onher heel to head back to the farmhouse. It’s true what they say about Yorkshire folks: they’d do anything for you and the kettle is never cold.
When the coast was clear, Niamh placed her hands on Pepper’s flank. ‘Oh my poor sweet girl.’
With animals, it wasn’t that she could hear whole thoughts in the way she could with humans. Thoughts, like light and sound, travel in waves, and she was able to tune in to a frequency if the mood took her fancy, but animals communicate on a pure emotional level. Right now, Niamh could feel mournful weariness, sheer exhaustion, coming from Pepper. In short, she’d had enough. It was like looking in a mirror and recognising it on your face, rather than hearing it.
Niamh was a far better sentient than she was a healer. She could locate a problem, feel the angry reds in an animal’s body, but wasn’t gifted enough to make it go away entirely by herself the way a healer would. She could absorb some of the pain though, soothe the poor thing.
Niamh sent her thoughts clear into the horse’s mind. You’re hanging on so hard, aren’t you? Just let go, my girl, you can go now. Rest. You’ve done ever so well, and been ever so good.
From Pepper, there was a last stubborn push, and a twitch of her hind legs. She whinnied softly. Niamh understood. Pepper didn’t want to let her mistress down. Oh, you aren’t. Joan loves you and doesn’t want you suffering, now, does she? Lean back into it and drift away, old girl. There’s nothing left to do here, and Joan is made of stern stuff. She’ll be overcome at first, but then there’ll only be love.
And with that, from Pepper, she felt blessed relief. Like she’d been given permission. ‘I can help you go,’ Niamh said aloud. She reached into her kit and produced a vial of Eternal Repose: a tincture of valerian and hemlock Annie had taught her to make not long after she graduated. Pepper was in pain, this would ease her off. It’d be like falling asleep with the heating on. She unscrewed the cap of the little brown bottle. Open wide, she told Pepper and the horse obliged. Niamh placed a couple of drops on her tongue. ‘There you go, sweet girl.’ Niamh rested her head against Pepper’s and almost heard her gratitude, so strong it was.
Joan came back into the stables carrying a steaming mug of coffee. ‘How is she, doctor?’
Niamh stood and took the drink from her. The worst part. ‘She’s dying, Mrs Barker. I’m so sorry. This’ll be her last night.’
Her lip wobbled. ‘There’s nothing you can do?’
‘I’ve made her comfortable, she won’t feel any pain.’ Niamh wrapped an arm around her and steered her into Pepper’s bay. ‘Here, let’s be with her as she falls asleep. She knows we’re here.’
Niamh and the farmer knelt at Pepper’s side as her breath ebbed out like low tide was coming.
The ceiling had more holes in it than a colander. Their vantage point, a derelict warehouse, was bitterly cold, and Helena had been standing on a crust of pigeon shit since dawn. She didn’t complain. That wouldn’t do at all in front of the others. She had to lead by example, and didn’t tolerate whiners.
She had to be so mindful, in an organisation made up almost entirely of women, to snuff out little fires of dissent before they sent smoke signals to the warlocks or, worse, the government. That meant no gossip; no bitching and definitely no whining. Her Majesty’s Royal Coven was strong, impenetrable and united.
Helena frequently referred back to Eva Kovacic’s keynote speech at CovCon 18: she spoke so eloquently of how the patriarchy, above all else, fears women coming together, so internal female division only succeeds in greasing that machine. Helena had adopted it as a personal mantra since.
She raised the binoculars to her face. The street outside was quiet, rush hour petering out. The odd straggler, now late for the office, hurried past the red brick safehouse, latte in hand, but that was about it. Helena turned to Sandhya and – following her own credo – kept her irritation at bay. ‘Do we have anything?’
Sandhya lifted her fingers to her temple and wordlessly spoke to the sentients waiting outside in the van. ‘Nothing yet, ma’am.’
Bird shit landed about a centimetre in front of Helena’s Prada loafers. She felt it whizz past her nose and took a step back. The pigeons in the rafters cooed, mocking her. ‘For Gaia’s sake,’ she snapped, turning on Ella, the young oracle on her team. ‘Ella, has the intelligence changed?’
‘No ma’am. He will come today. We have seen it.’ Like many of the younger oracles, she made no attempt to hide her baldness with a wig, wearing it as badge of pride. All well and good, but where was he?
‘Did you happen to see a time at all? Could I bob out for a croissant?’
‘Ma’am,’ Sandhya interrupted. ‘We might have something. Someone on the street is using a glamour.’
Peasant magic, thought Helena. Had he stooped so low? That meant he knew he was being surveilled too, if he went to the effort to disguise himself. ‘Can the sentients tell who?’ She looked again into her binoculars. On the street opposite the old chocolate factory, it was a perfectly normal day in Manchester. Helena saw a woman with a pram, a couple of older women with overflowing grocery bags, a man who wore the tell-tale salmon-pink tie and shiny suit of a letting agent, and some Chinese students most likely on their way to their first lecture of the day. They were only a few streets away from Manchester Met. ‘They’re working on it,’ Sandhya said, touching her temple again. Helena wished she wouldn’t do that, it was most annoying, and sentients didn’t need to poke their faces to relay messages. She was only doing it to signal to her that she was working, but it only succeeded in making her assistant look like she had an oncoming migraine.
Helena looked down to the street again. One of the students – a young man with bleached hair – hung back a little from his group, playing on his phone. He looked like tween fodder from the K-Pop bands her daughter liked. Was he with the group? Or trying to get lost in a crowd?
The boy dallied, looking directly at the nondescript townhouse they were guarding that morning. After a moment, he looked over his shoulder and then back at the safehouse. He was not with the others.
‘That’s him,’ Helena said, throwing the binoculars to one of her aides. Sometimes you don’t need to be psychic, you just need to be observant. ‘The kid with bleached hair. Mobilise and cloak the whole street.’
Flexing her fingers, Helena surged the air in the room forwards, blasting the final remaining shards of glass out of the skeletal window frames. She swelled an air cushion underfoot, letting it lift her up and carry her out of the exit she’d created. She was not letting Travis Smythe get away again. She’d waited a long time for this little reckoning.
Her heart raced, almost giddy.
No. She had to put personal vendettas aside.
As she plummeted towards street level, her overcoat billowing, she saw her team leap out of their fake DPD van and sprint towards the mark. She was right. As soon as Smythe saw what was happening, he let the glamour go, reverting to his usual appearance: lithe and lanky, with dreadlocks almost to his waist.
He clocked the intercept team first and, with a flick of his wrist, tossed a parked car into three of her witches. It barrelled through the air towards them. He’d grown more powerful since the war. Luckily, Jen Yamato’s telekinesis was more powerful, and she caught the vehicle mid-air with her mind before it hit them. She held the car, a Fiesta, aloft, so that Robyn and Clare could duck and roll under it. Again using his powers, Smythe knocked Clare clean off her feet, slamming her against the steps of the safehouse. She landed with a pained cry.
Behind him, a little further down the road, Helena landed gracefully. Stray pedestrians strolled by, blind to what was happening. Sandhya’s cloaking spell was evidently working. They weren’t technically invisible, but mundanes wouldn’t see them either. Sandhya, high above them, was implanting a very simple instruction in their minds over and over: nothing to see here. ‘Give it up, Smythe,’ she barked. ‘We have you surrounded. You’re done.’
At the same time, she channelled as much wind as she could. Soon, an icy gale tore down Bombay Street. ‘Fuck you, Vance!’ Smythe screamed against the wind, staggering backwards.
‘Why would you come here? Right under our noses?’ Helena expertly manipulated her field, charging the ions in the air. A storm brewed at her fingertips.
Smythe snatched the car out of Jen’s grasp and hurled it overhead in an arc towards Helena. She discharged her self-made lightning, a hundred million volts streaming from her hands into the sad little Fiesta. It exploded around her, but she felt nothing. She cooled the air around her to freezing, creating a safe cocoon for herself. Stepping through the fire as if it were nothing, she saw Smythe wince. She’d grown more powerful since the war too.
He went to make a run for it, but Robyn intervened. ‘Stay where you are,’ she stated calmly, and he froze like his feet were superglued to the tarmac. She was a Level 4 sentient and he was only a man.
‘Get out of my head, you cunt,’ Smythe snarled.
‘I don’t like that word,’ Helena said, reaching his side. She charged the air around her again, just in case. Robyn couldn’t hold another sentient for very long, even a male one. ‘Why did you come back, Travis? You could have laid low in Italy for the rest of your pathetic life.’ Bologna was getting quite the reputation as a hot bed of dissidence, a focal point for the growing unrest across Europe.
Every decade or so, a witch or – as was more likely the case – a warlock had the bright idea of rising up against their mundane oppressors as if they were the first to conceive the notion. Helena checked herself. Was she still meant to call mundanes HOLA? Humans of Limited Ability. She recalled Snow telling her that acronym was now distinctly un-PC. Mundanes have lots of abilities, after all, albeit not very interesting ones.
The coven was aware of pockets of simmering discontent in Eastern Europe, Russia, but no one was in a hurry to repeat Dabney Hale’s civil war. And now she had Hale’s most vicious accomplice in custody. Let that send a message to anyone who thought about rocking the boat. Smythe had so much witch blood on his hands. He deserved the Pipes for what he did.
‘I’m waiting,’ Helena hissed, blue electric cracking between her fingers.