In the dark days of January only locals walked beneath grey skies by the beach. Winter was their season, summer an interruption to be endured until autumn brought relief from the heat and hordes of tourists. Gales blasted the English Channel, and breakers crashed onto the sea wall separating beach from harbour, drenching the foolish who ventured too close. Seagulls hovered above the spray, their shrieks competing with the saurian honk of the Cherbourg ferry.
Narrow wooded chines ran from the beach to the cliffs upon which the town perched. Beach huts huddled in their shadows, sheltering gangs of restless, hormone-driven teenagers for whom vandalism, theft, casual sex, and brutality to the weak were a way of life. Every year huts were set alight, sometimes by accident, usually deliberately.
No one noticed a rippling by the edge of one of the huts, a wavering like a mirage in the desert heat. Then lights, forming a sparkling net in absolute blackness. For a moment it was if unseen hands tore the fabric of the world apart like a pair of curtains; through the gap, a watcher would have stared into absolute nothingness.
Then where there had been nothing, something stepped through, something that walked upright, but looked like a huge Great Dane.
The spellhound looked around, shook itself, yawned, lifted its head to taste the air, then loped away.
The first time I noticed the arcade it was because of the second-hand bookshop full of old fantasies and crime novels. Like the other shops, it needed a lick of paint, and the windows wanted cleaning, but then it wouldn’t have fitted in with its neighbours. But it was somewhere to spend my lunch hours, to retreat from the office and my divorce. My colleagues thought I was mad.
"Walk down that road in a suit? Begging to be mugged," they muttered, still resentful of our enforced relocation.
The six months since our move and my accompanying divorce had passed with my emotional life in limbo, and my finances haemorrhaging. A few of the women in work had hinted at interest, for I was tall enough, and lean enough, and they seemed to think the way my tie got blown over my shoulder like a scarf was cute, but I could only retreat like a wounded animal.
Then Sylvie blew in like a hurricane.
One of my women colleagues said Sylvie had a voice "like Donald Duck on speed," but she was just bitching because she was no longer the centre of attention.
Sylvia Maria De La Peña Baricaños was a foreign student on a work experience program. Some little deal had been done between one of our directors and one of his contacts in Brazil. Sylvie came to us, and in return our director’s son got some work experience next year.
We’d seen nothing like the five-foot dynamo from Manaus before. To the disgust of most of the women, men toppled like falling lumber in her path; dark-eyed and dark-haired, she moved voluptuous hips to some inner samba beat. So what if she had a laugh like a bullfrog?
I was as bad as the others: From the moment she shouted, "Ay Caramba!" when she dropped some files, and I almost fell off my seat laughing, I was doomed.
"Brazilians don’t really say that, do they?" I gasped, when I got my voice back.
"No, Jake. For one thing, that's Spanish. We speak Portugués in Brazil." She had a truly evil grin, and an eccentric use of the English language. "But jou all think we do. Us Latinos are all alike, no? I don’ wanna disappoint by not keeping up my stereotypes."
Three months passed with me half-jokingly asking her out, without success. I guess she’d heard on the grapevine what a mess I was, for her refusals were always gentle, and equally mocking. We did go out occasionally, but only as friends, and when she made other arrangements, I visited ‘my’ arcade.
One day I noticed a junk shop I’d never noticed before. It had clearly seen better days. The windows were filthy and cluttered, full of miniature cars, old annuals and cheap jewellery, while in the middle sat a black elephant nearly three feet high, missing a tusk and with a crack running down one side.
A bell rang when I opened the door. A wizened little man sat on a stool, peering through an eyeglass at the innards of a watch. He had a face like a crumpled paper bag, and had more hair growing out of his ears than on his head. He looked up at me, smiled, and nodded.
"Hello." I nodded back. There was nothing but junk here, but for some reason I got a funny feeling about the place.
"You look unhappy, sir." The owner’s accent was almost too precise. "A man as young as you shouldn’t look as careworn as you do."
I laughed, embarrassed. "Unrequited lust, mate." I joked, with no intention of unburdening myself to him.
He perked up. "Lust or love?" He smiled. "You look more the lover than luster, young man, in which case I’ve got the very thing for you."
I shook my head. "No thanks. I’ve got enough videos. They only make you go blind." I asked about a couple of things, but the prices made me flinch, so I nodded politely and left.
Back in the office, time dragged. Even the most moronic claims failed to amuse me as usual. Sylvie flirted desultorily, but her heart didn’t seem in it. Distant and preoccupied, I thought she seemed to be on the verge of saying something before she left, but either she changed her mind at the last minute, or I imagined it.
On the way home, I bought the Evening Echo. The front page was devoted to the horrific, apparently pointless slaying of a derelict in an alleyway. It carried lurid claims of mutilation, hints of even worse, and asked outraged questions about why the police were letting a monster roam loose. The alleyway was very near the arcade. I shivered involuntarily.
The tramp finally told the spellhound where to look, although he’d died snarling soon after. "You think your lord can keep his boot on our faces forever?" He’d spat. "He’s not the first to think so. You can’t kill us all."
The spellhound left his remains in the alley. One down; one to go. Those who handle my magic, die. The instruction was hard-wired into its brain, its very blood. Remorseless, it worked with no more qualms than if it were putting out the rubbish. Now for the second part of its mission...
Two days running Sylvie turned me down when I asked her out. She was uncharacteristically blunt, and I was a bit hurt. Maybe she noticed, because she apologised afterwards, something she’d never done before.
I haunted the arcade again, and ended up buying a brass butterfly brooch encrusted with emeralds, in the junk shop. It was expensive, but I paid without haggling. As I took the brooch, wondering what on earth I was doing, the owner pressed something into my hand. It was a paper bag with a lump inside.
"For your unrequited love." The old man smiled. "At my age, if my love were ever requited it’d probably give me a heart attack. So I thought you’d be better off with it than me." When I tried to give it back, he opened the packet and showed it to me, a glass jar with a wooden stopper, containing a silvery-grey powder.
"What do you do with it?" I didn’t really want to know. It looked singularly unimpressive, but I thought I’d better not say so.
"Put some into her drink and ensure she looks at you when she drinks it."
"How much?" I sighed, ready to protest no matter how cheap it was, but the old man shook his head. "It’s free." He said. "You paid a good price for the brooch, so this is my thanks to you. I bought it from an old tramp, and it cost me almost nothing, so I won’t lose much. I’m closing down at the end of this week and moving to Cornwall, to be nearer my daughter. Consider it a parting gift." He looked sad, and I wondered at the life he’d be moving to.
I thanked him, wished him well, and as I left I put the bag in my pocket and over the next three days forgot all about it.
The spellhound stirred in the gorse where it had spent the night, then went back to sleep. It was almost satisfied. It had completed another part of its instructions; the other thief was dead, and its belly was full. Soon darkness would fall, and it could resume its hunt for the missing spell.
Friday night: I switched off my terminal and called "goodnight" to the departing group, declining Dave Melvin’s offer to join them in the pub.
The invitations were less frequent now, but I didn’t mind. A couple of beers on a Friday evening always led to a curry house, and ended in a club. Even if I could afford it -- and I couldn’t -- I had little heart for the drunken attempts to pull some shallow teenager at the end of the night. I was unsure what was worse: rejection -- or success, and waking up next day to a total stranger trying to slink away with as little loss to her dignity as possible.
I could cope with Dave and his youngsters calling me an old misery. Dave was almost a decade older than me, but was desperate to play Peter Pan. I wondered how his wife felt about being cast as Wendy.
Sylvie wandered through with a long face and a pile of photocopying, which she dropped onto her desk.
"You’re not going for a drink with the others?" I was surprised. She usually did.
She shook her head, and wrinkled her nose. "No," she said. "Don’t feel like it."
I remembered that the manager whose family she stayed with was away that day. "How are you getting home?" It was none of my business, of course; I just wanted to know she’d be safe.
"I should get a boss." She meant a bus; her accent was as extreme as ever. "But I think I walk along the beach. Is cold but dry."
"Would you like some company, or do you vant to be alone?" My Garbo parody was always atrocious.
She smiled dutifully. "That would be nice." The smile faded. "But I’m not good company at the moment."
"That’s okay." I pulled my coat on. "I hate to sound like an old woman, but there’s a maniac out there, and I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to you."
She laid a hand on my arm. "That’s sweet."
The chine was only a hundred yards from the office, and we walked in companionable silence. I took her arm in the dark, as the path was slippery, and she didn’t seem to mind. When we reached the beach, the lights from the nearby pier were bright enough to light the prom, and I went to remove my arm from hers, but she held it in place around her waist.
"Is cold," she said. I said nothing but my blood raced -- though I reminded myself not to assume anything.
The night was cold, clear, our breath streaming in front of us, the stars hidden by the lights of the town and the promenade. There were street-lamps on the prom about every hundred yards, though nearly half were broken, so the waterfront was only lit intermittently. On the other side of the bay, occasional lights from farmhouses glinted in the dark bulk of the peninsula.
"Is magic," she whispered hoarsely, looking at the lights. "We have nottin’ like this in Manaus. Cold, magic fairy lights. You believe in magic?"
"No. Nor fairy stories, nor romances." I didn’t believe in anything any longer.
"She most’ve hurt jou real bad," Sylvie said.
I’d never admitted how badly, even to myself. "No." I laughed bitterly. "I hurt myself. I believed Julia and I had something special once."
"Before someone stole it?"
"No one stole it." I sighed. "It faded away. Leached away by bills, and shopping, and all the mundane crap that wears us down." The bubble of pain in my chest had been there so long, I’d stopped noticing it, but now it threatened to burst, and tear me apart. "You know what would’ve become of Romeo and Juliet if they’d lived?"
"They live happily ever after?"
"No," I said. "They’d have had nine kids, she’d have got fat and ugly, nagged him to death, and he’d have hit her whenever he got drunk."
"Oh," she said in a stunned voice.
"You meet the right woman, you think the magic will last forever." I couldn’t stop myself. "But no one has to steal it. No matter how good things are at first, it’ll disappear like water round a badly fitted plug." I finally ran out of steam, appalled at myself. She was just a kid; she shouldn’t have to listen to crap like this. "Sorry," I added lamely. She held onto my arm when I tried to pull it away.
"Someone say a cynic is a romantic who’s been hurt bad," She said. "Maybe they right. She most’ve hurt you really, really bad." She stretched, touched my cheek.
We walked on in silence.
"It’ll probably freeze tonight," I said. "Far too cold to be sleeping alone."
She laughed. "Jou don’ give up, do you?"
I shook my head. "Nope."
"Why, if life so bad?"
"Dunno," I said. Because you’re beautiful, I wanted to say, and I’d risk everything all over again, if I wasn’t too old for you and my ranting hadn’t scared you off. "Sorry about earlier."
"Notting to be sorry for. You need to get rid of the pain."
Curiously, I had, as if I’d lanced a boil.
On impulse, I fished in my coat pocket with my free hand. "I bought you something." I felt suddenly awkward, but gave her the brooch.
She held it up, light glinting on the butterfly’s wings. Her eyes were huge. "Is beautiful." She sounded awed. "But I can’t take it. I very sorry, Jake."
"Why?" I felt like she’d punched me in the chest.
"I just can’t," She repeated. "Please understand, is very beautiful, and so is the thought, but --"
"You can’t accept it."
"I so sorry." She looked it.
I shrugged. "Is okay." smiled thinly, trying not quite succeeding, to make a joke of it.
She bit her lip.
We walked on, passing a cafe at the foot of another chine. I opened my mouth to ask if she wanted a coffee, then shut it.
Big, silent tears were rolling down her cheeks.
With my free hand I felt for tissues, and handed her some. She wiped her eyes, and blew her nose noisily.
"Thanks." She shivered. "You a good man."
"But you’re not interested in good men."
"What makes you think that?" She frowned.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-one next October. Why?"
"I’ve never known a twenty year old interested in good men."
"I like my men to be a little dangerous." She laughed. "You’re nice; but too safe."
"When’s it due?" I asked.
She stared, and her colour rose. Finally she whispered. "July. How jou know?"
"I can’t think of too many things that’d have you in tears. It was just a guess."
We walked in time to the breaking waves on the beach, and after a long silence she said, "In a month, I go home, and will disgrace my family. Brazil is a Catholic country. My father is old-fashioned. If I say he kill me, okay, maybe not. But it be close." We sat on stone steps separating the promenade from the beach.
"What about the baby? Do you want it? Or will you have an abortion?"
"No!" She almost shouted. "I won’t kill it! Maybe I not a good girl, not a good Catholic, but I can’t do that."
"I was only asking," I chided gently.
"I know." She breathed deeply to calm down. "Is something I must face. But not with any pleasure."
"Alone?" I asked.
"Alone." Her voice was desolate.
She said finally, in a very small voice, "Yes."
"And, let me see," I said precisely. "He has to stay with his wife for the sake of the children?"
"Yes," She whispered.
It was a story I’d heard so many times before; she’d probably genuinely believed he loved her. Maybe he believed it himself. Until the crunch came. I could guess his name. For a moment, if Peter Pan had stood there, not all the Wendys in the world would’ve saved him from a broken neck.
We resumed walking on the beach, then, as the steps became a sheer wall, climbed back up onto the prom.
I rummaged around in my pocket, and produced the paper bag with the old man’s potion. I laughed bitterly. "I got this on Monday. The guy reckoned it was a potion that would help my love life. But when I walked back to the office with it, I thought at the time that even if such a thing existed, what a hollow triumph it’d be to use it. The fairy tales got it all wrong you see: if you need a potion to make the princess love you, it’d be like winning the lottery with a stolen ticket." I took a deep breath, blurted out, "You don’t have to go back to Brazil, you know."
"Yes I do," she answered. As I might have expected, her accent was much less noticeable when she was not playing at being a cliché Latina. "No avoiding it. I only have three months left on my visa."
"Marry me," I amazed myself by saying. "They’d have to extend the visa."
She shook her head. "Are you a Catholic?"
"No," I admitted reluctantly.
"As far as Papa is concerned, I still be unmarried."
I took a deep breath. "What if I convert?"
She stared at me. Then said, "You’re joking. Yes?"
I stared back. It suddenly felt right. "No." I couldn’t believe what I was suggesting. "And before you ask, I’m not on the rebound. You’re not a substitute."
"I never thought I was." She hadn’t taken her eyes from mine, all the time we’d been talking. "The baby is another man’s."
"Doesn’t matter," I said. "My step-father never had favourites in our family. He hated all of us. Only joking," I added hastily.
She grabbed the hair at the base of my neck, pulled my face down to hers, and kissed me hard, then said, "The answer’s still no. What happens when the magic fades?"
She was right, of course. "If you change your mind --"
"I let you know." She smiled, the old Sylvie back for a moment to banish the one of the last few days.
"Well, well," Drawled a voice. "Lovebirds." A youth stepped out of the shadows into the half-light cast by the nearest lamp.
When I first saw him I thought he was a remarkably brave mugger to be tackling a couple on his own. He was a scrawny little runt; pockmarked and acne-ridden, with glazed eyes that I guessed were the result of glue sniffing or something worse. For a moment I was torn between fight or flight, but as I whispered "run" to Sylvie, another boy behind us stepped out of the shadows, and another in front. I saw movement on the beach; we were surrounded.
"Hey --" I began.
"Shut up! I never said you could speak!" he screamed, confirming my worst fears. "Doggy," He panted. "Teach our friend some manners." He waved a flick-knife at Sylvie, said to me. "If you struggle, we’ll cut her."
The biggest boy lumbered forward. He was nearly as tall as me and probably a little heavier, though I guessed he was mostly fat. I swallowed: my mouth was dry, though my palms were damp with perspiration, and my heart was pounding, the blood roaring in my ears. I tried to relax as he swung his arm, but the impact still winded me, and I doubled up gasping.
"Now," The first youth drawled. "You speak when you’re spoken to. Understand?"
"Sorry." He giggled and cupped his ear. "Buzzy can’t hear you," He sang. "You want Buzzy to get Doggy to ask you again?"
"Not-" I gasped "-necessary. Understand."
"Good." Buzzy smiled.
A mile away, something woke the spellhound. It lifted its snout and sniffed the air. Those who handle my magic die. Then it rose, yawned, and stretched with a cracking of joints. It loped toward the beach.
"Now," Buzzy continued. "Money. Come on." He snapped his fingers. "Money, watches, rings."
We obeyed, though I wouldn’t give them the brooch, and slipped it into a pocket. Buzzy seriously worried me. He was either deranged, letting us see their faces, or intended to leave no witnesses. He was clearly the dangerous one, the organizer, vicious, but with the viciousness of the second-rate, the bully. On his own he’d be nothing, but I didn’t see how I could separate him from his tame muscle. I took the watch from my wrist, and Doggy noticed the bag in my hand.
"He’s got something."
"Gimme." Buzzy beckoned.
I saw our chance and threw the bag high in the air, kneed Doggy in the groin, and shouted, "run!"
Sylvie took off like a startled rabbit, but was tripped by another girl, an amazon who’d sneaked around to lurk behind her. Sylvie sprawled on the concrete, and I grabbed her, tried to lift her, only to be stunned by a descending fist from Doggy, who was less affected by the blow to his groin than I’d hoped. I staggered, and as I fell to my knees, a boot thumped into my ribs. They dragged us to our feet, Sylvie by a third boy, Doggy lifting me by my hair. I was close to fainting with pain, but I tried not to show how much it hurt.
Buzzy stood glaring at us, panting, his face a twisted mask of evil. "We’re going to cut you," he snarled. "You. Then your slag, when we’ve finished with you."
"You’ve got a foul mouth for a little -- oof!" Doggy’s fist drove the wind from me again, and I just managed not to throw up. Luckily Buzzy had a butterfly mind, and was distracted by the bag, so I was spared any further beating.
I thought I knew the true meaning of despair, when Julia took everything, but that was nothing to this: despair was a darkened beach in winter, miles away from help, facing the certainty of my death, and that of the woman I loved. I whispered "I love you," to Sylvie, shaken by the thought I might never get another chance to tell her. She flashed frightened eyes toward Buzzy; worried I’d provoke him further.
"What the fuck is this?" Buzzy opened the phial, and tasted some of the dust, clearly hoping it was a drug, but spat it out, pulling a face.
"Wass this Joe?" Buzzy tossed the phial to him. He caught it, spilling dust on his hands.
"Dunno." Joe shrugged. "Try some, Rebecca." He threw it to her. She pulled a face, and gave it back to Buzzy.
"Wass this shit?" Buzzy asked, spitting powder.
"Just that." A strange calm had descended on me, an acceptance of our fate, that if we were doomed anyway, I might as well go down fighting.
"What?" Buzzy stepped closer, trying to intimidate me.
"It’s shit," I said calmly, hoping to provoke him into losing control. "My grandmother’s ashes. That’s her blood and flesh and shit you’ve just tasted."
He shrieked, the knife flashed. Involuntarily I put my hand to my side. It was covered with blood.
"I’m gonna fuckin' kill ya!" Buzzy screamed. His eyes and face were both red, and spittle dangled from one corner of his mouth.
There was growling from the direction of the huts like the distant rumble of thunder on a summer’s day. Even Buzzy’s fury was checked by the noise.
Out of the shadows it strode.
I looked at something out of nightmare. Walking erect like a man, it had a muzzle instead of a face, and drool slobbered from the folds around its mouth. Eyes glowed like ruby coals in the darkness. The creature wore a tunic with pockets, and robes that sported designs I thought looked vaguely Chinese. For some reason, it reminded me of a bloodhound or some other big dog -- I’d never been good on dogs.
"Mãe de deus," Sylvie muttered, crossing herself.
The creature walked up to Joe, and gently took the phial from him, sniffing his palm, then walked toward me. It took my right hand, and licked it. On impulse, I offered it my left hand.
The creature looked at me for what seemed like forever, but was probably no longer than seconds. It licked my left hand. I thought it nodded, but it might have been my imagination. It leaned toward me. Its breath was warm, but didn’t stink, as I expected it to. I barely reached its shoulder, and I’m over six foot one.
Then it nipped my neck.
I yelled and jumped back.
The others shrieked with laughter, though the tension never eased at all.
My neck bled a little, but stopped unusually quickly - it had felt more like the stab of a needle. I swayed backwards like a drunk, suddenly giddy.
It moved toward Sylvie, who stepped back. "Don’t fight it," I urged her. "It didn’t hurt." I held her left hand out despite her palpable fear, for the creature to lick. It leaned over her, and a moment later she shrieked. It paused. Seemed to be deciding. Nodded. Those who handle my magic, die. I shook my head. My vision blurred. Who the hell said that?
I called to Buzzy, "I’d have thought you’d have legged it while you could."
He puffed out his chest. "Fuck that, man. We ain’t afraid of no fuckin' freak. Are we?" He looked at the others, who shook their heads dutifully.
-- And suddenly I stood on the side of a chine, in daylight. I saw the gang corner a pensioner near the beach huts, saw her totter to the phone box, but Buzzy got there first. He leaned inside and gleefully ripped the phone free of its socket, and smashed the glass with it, terrifying the poor woman. I saw the amazon look away, a sad expression on her face.
I returned to the present.
The creature licked Buzzy’s right hand, his left, then leaned over him. He flinched, but didn’t make a sound when it nipped. It repeated the process with each of the others in turn. It was called a spellhound. How did I know that? I had a memory of a sun grown red and bloated, and lines of men and women in shackles. I suddenly realised I was seeing what it had seen, sharing its memories.
My field of vision shifted again, and
-- I watched Buzzy, his face twisted with hate and rage, beat a boy around the head with the phone in the call-box. The others watched him, apart from the amazon, who looked away, misery written on her face. When he’d finished, Buzzy swaggered over to her and kissed her.
The spellhound approached each of the others in turn. Each time it sniffed, then licked their right, then their left palms. Then it nipped their necks. It was taking a sample. The amazon, Tanya, on the edge of the group was the last of them. How did I know that was her name? How did I know that tribal politics, rather than affection made her endure Buzzy’s clumsy attentions?
-- And I was fifteen again. I was Buzzy, The Man. Home was the rough estate at the west end of town, when I was there, which wasn’t often. I felt my parent’s complete disinterest in me when I was. Violence was better than sex, our victims cats or stray dogs, but sometimes we caught a lone pensioner, or walker. Violent sex with Tanya was even better. I wished I didn’t need Doggy’s brawn so much, but calling him ‘feeb’ and ‘spotty’ kept him in line.
-- Sometimes I’d wind Joe up: He was my real rival, but he was too useful to push too far. He had a big brother with a clapped-out Ford Escort and contacts with the local dealers.
-- Not like that fucking Adam. Only reason we had him round was 'cause his parents had so much money they wouldn’t miss a little. That bitch Tanya liked him better than me though. Still, I showed him I was The Man, that time by the phone-box.
I snapped back to now: edged closer to Sylvie, while watching Buzzy carefully. He stared at the spellhound, unable to take his eyes off it. He was close to panic.
"When I say the word," I murmured to Sylvie. "You run. Understand?"
-- Adam was still off school, he’d had thirty stitches, might even lose an eye. Buzzy blamed me of course. I shouldn’t have expected any different. He always blamed someone else. "Friggin’ tart," He sneered. "Maybe I should put you on the game. Not that I’d get sod all for an ugly bint like you."
-- Later we set fire to some gorse, watched the fire engines screaming along the prom, sirens wailing and lights flashing. But Buzzy muttered it was just kids' stuff. "I’m going to find meself some men to hang out wit," he muttered. "Not a load of kids. Shoot some pool. Score some coke." He leered at me. "And some real skirt." But the next night he was back, clutching a cat. He set fire to it, laughing at its shrieks of pain. I slipped away. He’d started to scare me.
Sylvie swayed. "Ready?" I hissed.
She nodded. "Feel weird," she mumbled.
Buzzy was distracted, watching the spellhound return to Joe, and I hit him with everything I had, felt blood gush, the crunch of small bones in his nose. He staggered, his head rocked back, and he shrieked.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the magehound lick traces of dust from Joe’s palm. I ran, staggering, while visions pulsed through me, of refugee camps, and battles fought in the night sky. I drew Sylvie into the shelter of the huts.
The spellhound opened its jaws wide, and bit Joe’s hand off at the wrist. Before he could draw breath to scream, it slashed his throat with unsheathed talons. Blood fountained from the wound, and it slashed again, in time to the screams of the other gang members.
I was sure we were safe from the spellhound, but I intended to get Sylvie away from here. "The old man was one of the untermensch," I whispered, ignoring her panic-stricken stare, while the gang scattered like starlings disturbed from their roost. I could see her thinking: just when I need him most, he goes loco. "It's a weapon," I said. "For hunting magic."
"What?" She whispered.
"The spellhound. The tramp," I said. "Guerrilla warfare. Magic. Science. It’s all the same," I babbled. "Clarke’s Third Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
"An that’s what this is?" She pointed at the spellhound, gaining on the terrified Rebecca.
I nodded. "It’s a cyborg. A bio-computer." I held my aching head. "Or both. I don’t have words to explain. Two spells stolen, one of them for time travel. The love-potion for rewiring the brain, not just love, maybe to recruit fighters. But the tramp had to sell it as a love potion to get rid of it. I only held the paper bag, so it spared me. You never even touched the bag."
Sylvie’s head lolled, then snapped up, and her eyes widened. "Jake Saunders," She whispered. "Your middle name --" she giggled "-- you never say it was that." I think things began to make sense to her.
While the others ran in blind panic, Tanya was the only one who ran for help. She sprinted the hundred metres to the phone-box as if lives depended on it -- which they did -- kicking her shoes off when a heel broke, heart pounding, lungs bursting: then wept with despair when she found the phone hanging, broken, like a dead man’s arm.
The creature chased Buzzy into the crashing waves and he screamed, "Help! Call the police!"
For a moment, I considered going to help, but the spellhound was inhumanly strong, and Buzzy had nearly killed me; I was still losing blood from the knife-wound.
"When it licked us, it was testing for magic." I held Sylvie close, stroking her hair. "When it bit us, it injected something that linked all of us somehow." I stared into her eyes. "Don’t be scared," I pleaded.
"So when it bit us, it caused this second sight?" Her voice only quavered only slightly. My brave, fearless girl.
I nodded. "It’s like telepathy. So I know everything it knew. And her. And you: How you felt." I stared at her, willing her to speak. "Make that leap of faith," I pleaded.
Buzzy’s shrieks intensified as he swam further and further out, but realised the spellhound was gaining on him. The shrieks became screams, then stopped, like a tape turned off. There was silence. Except for the little voices within. I wondered if they’d ever fade.
"It has no life except death," I said. "It has no family. No friends. Just centuries of pain and death. It half-hopes we may cause a paradox; that it might cease to exist if I know of its existence ahead of its time."
"But jou may cause it to happen," She said.
"I know." But I couldn’t live my life second-guessing the future. "So I’m not going to do anything I wouldn’t have done, and behave exactly the same as always. Stay, please. Marry me."
The spellhound departed as we huddled in the beach huts: it rose from the water like an orca, called once -- an unearthly cross between a wail and a bellow -- and vanished as abruptly as it arrived, with a small clap of thunder from air rushing to fill the vacuum.
I winced when I tried to move, and my hand came away sticky. I still had images of lines of men and women in chains running through my mind and an eternity of tyranny and repression. "Magic or science should be used for good." One of those little voices had once said that. Perhaps the soldier-poet, or the starship pilot. The immortal held in a four-year-old body. Or my friend, the junk shop owner.
Sylvie said, "We need to get to a hospital. Come."
"Not yet," I said. "Tell me you’ll marry me." I deepened my voice, like a cheap Boris Karloff. "Don’t forget. I can read your mind." I kissed her cheek, gently as a snowflake.
She laughed. My appalling joke convinced her that whatever had happened, I was still the old me.
"Poor little sods," I whispered. "They were only kids."
"Don' waste your sympathy. They no more than animals."
"You’re probably right." I sighed. "But that’s how its creators felt about their underclass." I laughed softly at her shocked look. "Dangerous enough for you now, am I?"
She said, "I tink so." She turned to me, her eyes large in the moonlight. "But what if someone steal the magic again?"
"One of the things about living dangerously is that you have to take risks," I said, thought of death camps, and added. "They took a chance, when they stole the spells in the first place. They died for it, but they believed in what they were doing. I believe in you." I kissed her nose. "So I have to believe we can make it work this time."
"Jake? If it’s okay ... if you want to risk it ... I stay."
I felt light-headed, maybe from relief, maybe from loss of blood. As our strange blood-brother fell back through the years, fell towards our future, we kissed, long and hard, down by the breaking waves.
© 2005 by Colin Harvey
E-mail: Colin Harvey
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