There is nothing quite so effective at putting your nerves on edge as the absence of sound.
There was the noise of the car engine. The presence of our breathing. The occasional creak as we shifted in our seats.
But no reassuring sounds of rubber meeting tarmac. No crunch of gravel under the wheels. Nothing at all to suggest we were driving on anything but air.
“I suppose there is a road under us?” Officer Neills said after a while.
“Best not to think about it.”
Moments passed, as we stared ahead into the grey fog. The world outside was formless, it was hard to tell if we were making progress. Neills squinted through the glass.
“Are you sure we’re moving?” she said.
I considered the possibilities. “I’m sure the wheels are turning.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
The woman was tougher than she looked. I suppose you have to be, to make it in the police force. She was a constable in a Lancashire Road Policing Unit – that, and her name, was all she had told me outright. I’d pried a first name out of her too, and it turned out to be as plain and straight-forward as I’d expected: Jo.
Although she looked to be in her mid-twenties, Jo’s slight build and young face were deceptive. I’d already learned from experience that a lot of strength was compacted into those lean muscles.
Her mind had turned out to be similarly tough. Once she’d gotten to grips with the situation – that she had been transported to the void between worlds and was surrounded on all sides by horrific, nightmarish creatures – she’d handled the rest of the information with a calm matter-of-factness which frankly put me on edge. She had even taken out a notebook and pencil and was jotting down notes.
As she shifted in her seat, her knee knocked an old carton of orange juice into the foot well.
“Leave it,” I said, as she bent to retrieve it. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Is this one of your business cards?” She waved a square of card which did, indeed, bear my name and esoteric profession in a fashionably gothic script. Jack Hansard. Purveyor of Occult Goods. “How are people supposed to find you? There’s not a phone number or anything.”
“Why would I want to be found?” I said, perplexed. “Sounds risky to me.”
“Then what’s the point of having business cards?”
“It looks good. Makes a statement.”
“You’re an odd man, Mr Hansard.”
“What gave it away?”
“You do know you have twigs and leaves and all sorts in your hair?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She frowned, and I could see the question she was framing in her head. I’d been stalling her interrogation with fanciful ramblings about the nature of reality and the cosmos, hoping to avoid this part altogether. But I knew she’d get round to it eventually.
“Hansard, what were you doing before I arrested – tried to arrest you?”
“Running very fast,” I said, staring dead ahead. “And then driving very fast.”
“Was someone after you?”
I sighed. “Look, miss. You won’t understand if I tell you, so it’s best not to ask.”
“I seem to be understanding the rest just fine. Black Market: occult marketplace. Nether: trans-dimensional cushion. Hansard: man who owes me answers.”
She fixed me with a grim stare, which I steadfastly avoided by keeping my gaze on the non-existent road. She pursed her lips and wrote another note in her book.
“Explain to me again how you got us here?” she said. “I understand about the bridge, and passing between realities. At least, I think I do. But I don’t understand how you do it. Surely this should be common knowledge, if it’s as easy as you suggest.”
“It’s not easy,” I pointed out. “And it’s called unfocusing. Oh, how do I explain this? So, think of there being walls that separate one part of reality from another, all right? Now, is it possible for a person to pass through a brick wall?”
“Sure. If you’ve got a big enough hammer.”
“Right,” I conceded, after a moment’s thought. “I suppose that’s one way. But you’d need a really big hammer. It’d be a lot easier if you just weren’t so solid, right?”
“You turn yourself into air?” Her tone was unimpressed.
“Sort of. Look, even a good brick wall will have some tiny, porous holes in it. So you need to think yourself unsolid, as far as reality is concerned, and then you can fit through those holes. Now this place, the Nether, is sort of like the gap inside the wall.”
“I see. We’re stuck in the insulation.”
“Okay. So let me get this straight. A bridge in our world is like a really thin wall, right? And you thought us unsolid in order to pass through that wall.” I nodded. So far so good. “So what’s stopping you from thinking us the rest of the way through to the other side?”
“Ah,” I said. “You might say I’m looking for a suitably sized hole.”
She seemed to accept this explanation, and I was really quite proud of it. There are lots of analogies you could use to describe the process of unfocusing, and none of them are wholly accurate. Still, you don’t need an engineering degree to pilot a plane; likewise no need to study metaphysics in order to traverse the realms of existence.
She tapped the pad with her pencil, staring keenly into the fog.
“I don’t understand why nobody’s been policing you people,” she muttered.
“We’re good at keeping a low profile. Being able to hop outside of reality helps.” The irony of my current situation wasn’t lost on me as I said this. “Besides, we police ourselves.”
“That’s called vigilantism. It’s against the law.”
“But we’re outside the law, do you see? You show me any law, any statute, that makes it illegal to sell potions that turn people’s arms purple.”
“I think Trading Standards would have something to say about it.”
“Sometimes people want their arms purple!”
I saw the pencil move again. I wanted to throw the thing out the window. Who did she think she was, coming into my world and trying to make it fit with hers?
“What happened to the goblin?” she said.
“What goblin?” I didn’t make the connection until she jerked a thumb to indicate Ang, still trembling under the moth-eaten blanket on the back seat.
“You said she was a friend?”
“Yes,” I said, peevishly. “And for the last time, she’s a coblyn. Look, we had a run-in with an unsavoury individual, all right?”
“Do you often run into unsavoury individuals?”
I pressed my foot down on the accelerator, willing the car to go faster. It didn’t.
“Do you often get into this kind of trouble, Mr Hansard?”
“Is this what they teach you in police school? Keep asking questions until your suspect pleads guilty out of frustration?”
“Do you often have friends dying in the back of your car?”
My knuckles whitened as they clenched the steering wheel. How dare she. This snotty police officer with her calm voice and her notebook and her pencil. How dare she be so aloof, so insincere. What was it to her if Ang lived or died? How dare she.
Jo carefully folded the book and pencil into a pocket on her hi-viz vest, then folded her arms and leant back in her seat. “Struck a nerve?”
“Just be quiet,” I said, and realised it had come out as a snarl.
She did, for a whole three minutes. And then she said, “Is there anything I can do?”
“I could look over her if you like? I’m a certified first responder, after all.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I have advanced first aid training. I don’t know anything about coblyn physiology, but there might be something I can do.”
I scowled. “You don’t have to pretend to care.”
“What makes you think I don’t?”
A snide laugh burst from my mouth. “You’re a traffic cop! Isn’t that the domain of the bitter and un-promoted? What kind of person chooses the spiteful career of needling people for being five miles over the fucking speed limit? Someone small who likes to feel big. I’ll bet you wanted to be a detective or something. No, worse! I bet you’re the kind of person who likes to write passive-aggressive notes and make up rules and hand out little tickets just because it makes you feel a bit more powerful than everyone else. You and your fucking tickets. All in the name of feeling more important than you really are.”
Jo didn’t answer at first. The atmosphere in the car was oppressive, like the fog had found a way in and was slowly suffocating us. When she did speak, it was in such an offhand manner that it caught me off balance.
“About one thousand and seven hundred people die in road accidents every year,” she said, as casually as if she was pointing out the colour of the sky. “And somewhere around twenty-two thousand serious injuries. Give or take a few hundred.”
“So what?” I said, suddenly certain I would hate where this was leading.
“We’re first responders.”
“And we carry teddy bears in our vehicles.”
“For when we come across an incident involving a child.”
‘An incident.’ I couldn’t help the way my gaze slid across to her carefully poker-faced expression. The self-righteous anger drained from me like blood from a wound, and left me similarly pale and queasy.
“Do you want to know the numbers?” she said. “Or would you like to tell me again why speed limits are petty?”
I had no words left.
Well, I could manage one.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. She nodded, and that seemed to be that.
My thoughts, still tumbling over one another, tried to re-focus on the road ahead. The lack of road ahead. The fog still rolled on by, featureless and grey. I couldn’t tell how far we’d travelled. Maybe we really hadn’t moved at all.
“Have you and your friend been in business long?”
“I thought we’d finished the interrogation.”
She shrugged and turned to the window. “Just trying to make conversation. It’s not exactly stimulating scenery.”
I rolled the muscles in my shoulders. I was stiff all over; sat at the wheel for too many hours on end. “Ang joined me a few months ago. We’re not in business together, exactly. Well, we are, in that she employed me, you see?”
This seemed to puzzle Jo. “Really? You’re working for that little creature?”
“Sort of.” I relented, too exhausted to find another lie. Talking seemed to ease the tension between us. “Ang’s searching for some coblynau who went missing from her home, you see. These friends of hers, they set out one day and never came back, which for a coblyn is like relocating to the moon without telling anyone.”
“So you’re like a private investigator, or something?”
I puffed my chest at that. Jack Hansard, Private Investigator. That would make a great business card. “Something like that,” I said, loftily.
“When you’re not scamming people with illegal magical sales?”
I deflated. But I did notice the shadow of a smile behind her lips.
My mood started to pick up. Just as well; it had been hovering down in the dirt for the past six hours. “Nothing illegal about it. I doubt you could find a judge willing to convict a man for selling nightmares in bottles–”
“He would if I could show you were selling a harmful substance, or under false pretexts, or if, as I strongly suspect, you don’t pay taxes…”
“All right, all right. But there’s far worse out there than me, and that’s the truth.”
I could feel her resisting the urge to ask. Her fingers drummed against the door.
“Go on,” I said. “I know you want to.”
“What kind of worse?”
Reflexively, I glanced up to the rear view mirror. Jo caught the motion.
“What happened to Ang?” she said.
I should have found a better blanket for her, I thought. Ang was just a heap of dirty cloth in the reflection.
I took a breath, working out how I should begin. “What happened, really, is that we stuck our noses into something we probably shouldn’t have.” Jo watched me attentively. This time she left the notebook in its pocket. “You see, there’s this big bad out there, going by the name of Baines and Grayle. We don’t know who they are, or what they are. But we do know that they’re behind the disappearance of Ang’s kin. And they stole something from me, as well.”
“What did they steal?”
“Bluecaps, not that you know what they are.”
“I would guess they are dangerous and illegal.”
“You keep using that word. I fail to see how something largely considered non-existent can be against the law–”
“Get on with it, Hansard.”
“Fine. Fine. Ang and I were in Bristol in the early hours of this morning.” Christ, was it only this morning? It felt like a week had passed since then. “We were waiting to meet a gentleman. A guy with some inside information on the old B and G. We’re in this car park, cooking a tin of soup over a camping stove at two in the morning, freezing our arses off because it’s one of those still summer nights where the stars are bright and the air is damn cold. And we’re both as grumpy as old men at Christmas, because our rendezvous was a no-show. He was meant to meet us at midnight, see.”
“Clandestine deals held at midnight? Original.”
“Midnight just happens to be a very convenient time! I do lots of business in broad daylight as well, I’ll have you know.”
“Anyway, just as we’re tucking into soup, this figure slides out of the darkness. Real quiet, didn’t hear a footstep. I notice straight away how much he’s sweating. Honestly, a whole river running down his face. And his eyes, sort of hollow and sickly. But he was damn quiet.”
“Was he the man you were waiting for?”
“I reckon so. Never got to find out for certain.”
“Well, first thing I did was throw the empty soup can in his face. Startled me so damn much. Ang shrieked, spat carrot everywhere. But this guy doesn’t even seem to notice. It’s like he’s not all there, and his eyes are looking at something far away. But then he says, in this strangled sort of voice: ‘Hansard.’ So that’s why I think he’s our guy, and I sort of relax, but not much, because my instinct for danger is buzzing like a wasp in a honey trap.
“So I say: ‘Sorry about that, friend. You made me jump, is all.’ Real calm and slow like. He doesn’t respond; it looks like he’s trying to get his mouth to work but is having trouble with the shapes. So I try: ‘How can we help you? Or perhaps you’re here to help us?’
“He nods, but in this strained, jerky way. Like his mouth, it’s as if he can’t get his muscles to work right.
“Then suddenly he lurches forward. Grabs my arm. And there’s his mouth, opening and shutting like a goldfish, but then I see his eyes and they’re filled with panic. Like a trapped animal. I thought he was having a seizure. I guess in a way he was.”
There was a whimper from the back seat as Ang shifted under the covers. Jo was staring at me in rapt fascination.
“Did he collapse?” she asked.
“Eventually. He sort of spasmed first, still clutching my arm. Thing is he knocked the soup over. Ang went ballistic. It’s been a tough month, you see. Things haven’t been going right for us for a while and, well, it’s my fault. We both got so wrapped up in chasing down the truth of Baines and Grayle– well, it doesn’t matter now. Point is, Ang starts raging and kicking this guy in the shins. He turns to her, clumsily tries to brush her off, while his mouth is still contorting into weird shapes. Then he spasms again, and it’s a shudder that travels from his stomach right up into his neck.
“That’s when I see the bulge in his throat. The skin was stretched taught over it, and I swear it was pulsing. I wondered how he was still breathing. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe the thing was breathing for him.”
“Thing?” whispered Jo.
My stomach churned with the recollection. “So at this point, Ang’s still kicking him, and I don’t know whether to sit him down or run the hell away. Next thing I know – and bear in mind all this happens in seconds – he’s doubled over and this bulge is sliding up his throat. His mouth forms a painful ‘O’ and then this oily red mass starts to wriggle out of it. Like a huge angry maggot, veins bursting under its skin.
“I don’t think Ang saw it til she looked up into his face and she’s already inches away from it. And then… Christ. It sort of lunges for her mouth. You could hear her trying to scream as it forced its way down her throat. Then I punch the poor guy – I don’t even notice that he’s already dead. I reckon that slug took the last of his life when it exited his body. He just crumples to the floor, looks more like a husk than a person. Like an empty sweet wrapper, discarded.
“Ang’s still struggling with this worm in her throat. I try to grab hold of the end still wriggling in the air. My hands just slide off, it’s impossible to grip. You squeeze and it just changes shape under your fingers. Ang’s turning an ugly shade of grey; I’m sure she’s choking. And then the slug disappears down her gullet and she’s breathing, but in a painful, rasping way. Then she collapses, starts to shiver. And I see the throbbing bulge at her neck. So I pick her up, wrap her in a blanket, and hit the road.”
Gratifyingly, she kept a solemn silence as my story sunk in. We both stared into the fog, and for a long minute I felt my world consisted only of grey mist and Ang’s raspy breathing.
I knew I had been talking because I was trying to put off the seriously distressing thought that I wasn’t ready to contemplate. I no longer had a choice, and the thought sidled into my head like a petty thief nudging an unlocked window.
I don’t know how to get out of here.
I was shot to pieces. There was no way I’d have the energy unfocus again. And even if I did, could I really pull all three of us back out of the Nether?
I wished I could think like Jo. If only taking a hammer to the walls of reality really worked.
“So where are you taking her?”
“Who?” I said, muzzily.
“Ang. Who else?” Jo scrutinised me. “Maybe we should stop for a bit, Hansard. You look awful.”
I bucked up and rubbed my eyes. “Can’t stop now.” Need to stay awake. Need to get out of here. Keep talking. “I’m taking Ang to a witch.”
I saw the thought glide across her face as she pursed her lips. The expression said: ‘so there are witches now?’
“The thing you’ve got to remember,” I continued, fighting the weight on my eyelids, “is that the world is always stranger than you think.”
“This is still ridiculous. How can things like coblyns and witches and demon slugs go unnoticed in this day and age?”
I gave her a long, incredulous look. “Just because you don’t know about them doesn’t mean that everyone else is in the dark. Sure, maybe the things in ‘my’ world have become harder to find over time, but only because the things in your world have pushed them further into the shadows. Take coblyns. It used to be common knowledge that they dwelt in the Welsh mines.”
“That’s like saying it used to be common knowledge that pixies were real,” she replied.
“Wha– no. No, Hansard. I don’t believe you’re about to tell me that pixies are real.”
“Let’s just say that it’s a bad idea to cross one, and leave it at that, eh? Anyway, did you know that miners used to leave out food for coblyns to eat? Hell, some of the little buggers were even on the payroll! But then the mines closed down, people forgot, and the coblyns moved on to pastures new.”
She glanced at the quivering blanket again.
“But it’s all just folklore, isn’t it? Bedtime stories and odd local legends. That’s what you’re really talking about.”
“Wasn’t folklore, once.”
“Oh, fine. Let’s say I’m willing to accept there were once all these weird creatures that were as common as rats, but have faded into history. Like an endangered species. But I’m not sure about witches. Are we talking magic? Like, spells and potions and pentagrams?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “You’ve happily travelled into the void between worlds, accepted the existence of mythical creatures, and believed my story about the evil red slug in Ang’s throat, but ‘magic’ is a step too far for you?”
“Yes, spells and potions and pentagrams. And again, witches used to be a thing of common knowledge. Still are, if you move in the right circles.”
“And how does someone get into your circle? Is there some super secret handshake I should know about?” she said, resentfully.
“Oh, Google it, or whatever you kids do.”
“What?” She glared at me, as if I was making fun of her.
“I’m serious. We’re not as far removed from ‘your’ world as you think. You’d be amazed the curses you can buy on the internet these days. They’ve probably got an app for it now.”
We both fell quiet again. Jo could no longer resist the urge and discretely pulled out her notebook. She sat pensively scribbling while I braced myself against the steering wheel. It was hard to stay upright.
The familiar scritching was oddly soothing, though it didn’t quite take my mind off the tension in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t remember when I had last relaxed. It was long before that calamitous tin of soup with Ang. The whole lead up to that disastrous encounter had been fraught with quiet unease at the best of times, and bowel-rending distress at the worst.
All that hard work passing whispers in dark corners, followed by bribes in those same corners to elicit the actual truth – which was rarely the truth in any case – all to eventually set up a meeting with a stranger in yet another dark corner who might be able to give me the tiniest amount of inside information on the nature of the names Baines and Grayle.
And this was the payoff: Ang, dying in the back seat of my car, in the middle of the Nether where I had trapped us both.
Jo had gone rigid, all systems suddenly on alert.
With a sinking feeling, I registered the thump, thump, thump now emanating from the rear of the car.
“It’s important to stay calm,” I said, carefully. Drat. How long had the tire been leaking? I slowed the car to a crawl. It just made the thump, thump, thump sound louder.
“I am calm,” said Jo. Her expression had returned to one of blank composure. “We should fix it, don’t you think?”
“That would mean stopping.”
“Things might become… interested in us, if we stop.”
“Oh. What if we’re quick? I can change a tire in five minutes flat.”
“I haven’t got a spare,” I lied.
“Are you scared?”
“Of going out there? Definitely.”
“Stop the car, Hansard. I’m taking a look at that tire. We might be able to patch it up at the very least.”
“No. Why bother? Leave it be.”
“Hansard, I could walk faster than this. If we get chased by something, I want to know we can get away from it. Fast.”
“Nothing’s going to chase us.”
“What about the thing that’s been following us for the past ten minutes?”
Ah, hell. She’d noticed it too. There was a large shape hanging behind us in the fog. It gave the impression of loping, like an animal not used to legs.
“Ignore it,” I said. And then realised I had said it to thin air. Jo had flung open the door and hopped out. I slowed the car from a trundle to a halt.
“What are you thinking, jumping out of a moving car?” I grumbled.
“I would hardly call it moving,” she retorted. I stepped out to find her crouched by the back wheel, examining it intently.
“All right, all right, if you’re going to be difficult. Just step away. All the way. In fact, go right round the front.”
“Why? What don’t you want me to see?”
“I keep all my stock in the back. Strange things, weird things.” I waved my hands vaguely. “I’m afraid it would break your mind.”
She snorted. “Try me.”
I hesitated. She had a sensible head on her shoulders, maybe she would understand. Ah, but sensible is the problem, the other part of me thought. A sensible person objects to the sight of a corpse. You need an insensible one to embrace it.
“How about–” She pushed past. “Hang on. Wait!” I tried to shove myself in front of her, but it was already too late.
Wide eyes stared out at us from the pallid face of a man wedged in amongst the pre-packaged curses. His head hung limply from a crooked neck. I should have put a blanket over him, I thought glumly.
Next to me, Jo stiffened. “Is he dead?” she said hoarsely.
“Don’t reach for the handcuffs just yet, all right?”
“Jesus, Hansard, I was just starting to trust you!”
I backed away. “Calm down! This is the guy, all right? The guy with the slug! I told you everything about him!”
“You didn’t tell me you packed his corpse in your car!”
“I thought I might need it!”
We were cut off by the low moan rising all around us. The fog seemed to become denser.
“You said you could change a tire in five minutes?” I said. She nodded mutely. “Make it thirty seconds.”
I struggled to roll the body out of the way. To my surprise, Jo dived forward and grabbed his legs. I shuddered at the stiffness of the limbs. It was a grotesque feeling, pulling on unyielding flesh. We manhandled him out of the boot and dropped the body to the ground. There was no thump – there was no ground, really – but I saw his neck contort to an even more gruesome angle as it hit whatever we were standing on.
I plunged back into the boot, frantically throwing boxes and bottles and the bloody stuffed owl out of the way. I heard the crack of breaking glass and vaguely hoped it wasn’t one of the expensive ones. As we uncovered the spare tire in its cubby-hole, the first of the shadows emerged from the fog.
“Hurry!” I croaked. Jo was already setting the jack under the car. There hadn’t been any sensation of heat in this place, but suddenly it felt like a tangible cold was wrapping itself around our throats, though I could still feel sweat beading on my brow.
The dark shapes were slow, stumbling, and they advanced with the wall of fog. There didn’t seem to be any body to them, yet they conveyed a sense of heavy mass condensed into shadow. I remember them with arms reaching out to us, though I’m certain they had no real limbs. I can’t even tell you if they were truly person-shaped.
There were no distinct silhouettes, just smears of darkness undulating forwards. Perhaps there weren’t hundreds of them like I imagined; perhaps it was all one mass encircling us.
Kneeling beside me, Jo wrestled with a corroded lug nut. I leant my weight to hers and together we wrenched it free. We rose to find the shadows, and the fog, almost on top of us.
Jo lashed out at a shape with the steel wrench. It passed right through. The shade didn’t even waver, but part of it, a bit like a hand, but definitely nothing like a hand, reached out and enclosed Jo’s wrist. She dropped the wrench.
Blue veins pricked up under the skin of her arm. Shock etched itself on her suddenly rigid features. She looked like the corpse, I thought.
I dashed to the boot and grabbed the one thing I hoped would work. I swung round, iron crowbar in hand, and thrashed blindly. There was some soft resistance, like slicing through a wall of butter, and the shadowy mass in front of me pulled back noiselessly. The low moan intensified, rising from below our feet.
I swung at the thing clutching Jo, and she collapsed to the floor gasping for breath. Her right arm, I noticed, was sickeningly blue. I hauled her upright and thrust the crowbar into her good hand.
“Just keep swinging!” I shouted.
I dropped to my knees and fumbled with the wheel. Old one: off. Spare: on. On, I said. God damn these things. Behind me, I heard Jo grunting with the strain. Just a few more minutes. Just a few more.
I jerked round again. “What is it?”
She pointed with the crowbar. I followed it to the large, loping shadow towering out of the grey haze. It was like a coiled storm cloud gradually unfolding itself in our direction. The smaller shadows scattered and merged back into the mist.
“Help me with this!” I cried, desperately screwing lug nuts back into place. Jo didn’t move, instead transfixed on the uncurling behemoth. I leapt up and shook her by the shoulders. “Don’t crash on me now! You were doing so well!” Snapping my fingers in front of her face, I realised it wasn’t fear that had set her features so firmly; rather, it was a look of intense concentration, though her eyes were glazed over. She muttered something under her breath. “What is it?” I pleaded. “Can you hear me, Jo? Jo!”
“It’s just a wall,” she murmured.
“Snap out of it!”
“We need a bigger hammer.”
I saw her fist clench the crowbar. She pulled it up, high above her head as if she was about to strike down the world.
The fog rushed forward to envelop us. My vision blurred, and for a moment I felt like I wasn’t really there.