Smoke and Ashes 2
Clusters of pigeons flapped at their feet as they tanked along the pavement, a seething mass of feathers, until Tori thought the stupid things would trip her. Several circled above; wings dark as soot, and swooped past so close Tori ducked out of their way.
“This is not good,” Ash muttered, and sidestepped them both around the homeless man with his copies of ‘Streetwise’. Cutting too close, the poor sod dropped the magazines in the puddles, and a barrage of verbal abuse followed. With ‘you effing wanker’ ringing in their ears, they raced down the steps and through the barriers, just managing to hop onto the train pulling out towards Euston.
“What’s all that about?” How they’d managed to get through the barriers, Tori hadn’t grasped. One minute they were nowhere near them and the next they’d gone through without a hitch. No one seemed to have noticed either. “Really, how… I mean, what the hell?”
The comment dragged Ash’s attention back to Tori who stared up at him. A ghost of a smile curled his mouth, but then he moved them both to the far exit where there were a few empty seats.
“You should call your work,” he said, pulling her down beside him. “Tell them you’re not well, that you’re going to the doctor’s.”
“Before I do anything, sunshine -” Tori leant into him so her voice wouldn’t carry to the other passengers – “you’re going to tell me a bit more about what gives.”
“Let’s wait until we get somewhere less public.”
Whatever else she had been about to say froze on her tongue, and for a moment she gaped at him like a fish. A middle-aged guppy, if there had ever been such a thing, only with fewer pretty scales. “What?” She goggled for few moments longer. “Are you freaking mad or something?”
“Tori,” he said, patient, as if explaining to a stupid child, “did you really think I don’t know where you live?”
Snap. Like a proverbial bulb switching on, obviously not halogen because she-hadn’t-managed-to-put-one-and-one-together-never-mind-two-and-two, it all clicked into place. Where she’d seen him, how often, when, a veritable slide show running into a great big ugly whole.
“You,” she said, a tad squeaky. “You…” A frown directed at her from across the narrow aisle made her realise she had witnesses. She could scream now, get the help she needed. Provided at least a few of those in the carriage would do their civic duty, and move past typical Londoner couldn’t-give-a-crap. She forced a swallow past her dry throat and opened her mouth…
“I’m sorry -” Ash murmured, and slipped his arm across her shoulders, squishing her towards his side – “but I really can’t let you do that, my love.”
Nothing came from her throat. Whatever she wanted to spit out froze solid in her throat. The cry for help hung like a flashing exit sign on the very tip of her tongue, but the people, the other passengers, noticed zilch. See no evil hear no evil speak no evil. Three dozen wise monkeys, every sodding one of them oblivious.
Tori turned her head, fixed with horrid fascination on his features. Regret flitted over them like a cloud, but passed so fast she couldn’t be certain if she’d seen it. Too stunned to protest, she allowed him to herd her out into the station. As usual the station heaved with bodies, but they parted like the red sea before a force of god. Back out in the open, he sped them along the pavement, threading through the crowd without any friction at all. Fast. Faster, faster.
Ground opened in front of them; gaped like a black maw… and no one saw it. Sightless, they moved round it, sheep lead by instinct, and Tori screamed as they hurtled into the earth. Pipes, sewers, electrical connections, million different artefacts that made the city work. She dissolved into a tiny point of light and stretched, thin as wire, while fire and razor blades ripped nerves, skin and bone, every joint snapping while her howl of agony raged, a swirling cyclone around her consciousness. Light burst into her fractured awareness, and whole again, the pain receded from her fast, pins and needles in every cell. Tori puked, and Ash held her while she chundered the admittedly small contents of her stomach onto the ground.
“Sorry about that,” he said, and fished in his pocket.
Embarrassed, she accepted the pressed, clean, white cotton handkerchief he gave her, used it, grateful to clean her mouth and blow her nose. Second thoughts stopped her giving it back, and she screwed it to a tight ball in her hand. After her sterling performance, Tori found herself bereft of conversation, and resorted to taking a ganders. Her mouth dropped open.
“I live there.”
Voice squeaky with shock, she stared at the familiar building. Perhaps he wasn’t giving her a line about being a demon after all? How else could they have got there? Shaking like a leaf, she felt him stroke her back, a gentle touch meant to calm, she felt sure. Except, calm? He expected her to manage calm? How the hell was she suppose to manage that? Tori’s knees buckled like a paper straw, but she found herself caught tight.
“Yes,” Ash agreed, “You live there. Let’s go in, and I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Tea? A bubble Tori recognised as hysteria began to wend its way up her oesophagus for release. They’d just stormed through half of London via some kind of mystical thingy, whatsit, which turned her inside out, and he said he’d make tea. How mundane. How preposterous a suggestion could you get in the space of a couple of seconds?
Somehow, she managed a weak agreement. “Sure, let’s do that.”
Keys in hand, she led the way up the chipped red steps of the rather dilapidated Victorian conversion where her flat sat. Opening the door off the common area, she struggled to keep the cat in as he made a bid for escape, winding round her legs while she toed him back. Until he spotted Ash and his tail turned into a bottlebrush.
The yowl of disapproval and loud hiss as a hairy ginger and white backside disappeared into the kitchen made it pretty obvious to Tori Mango disapproved of her visitor. Instincts shouldn’t be ignored, she decided, and managed to wrench herself free of his arm.
“Thanks for seeing me home,” she managed, false cheerfulness colouring her tones, and tried to slam the door in Ash’s face.
“It doesn’t work that way, Tori,” Ash murmured, and stepped over the threshold, through her. Her brain stuttered. Through her. “I don’t need permission to come in – I’m not a vampire.”
Gobsmacked, Tori stared after his retreating figure and, when loud growls told her he’d found his way to the kitchen, she shut the door, too stunned to do more, brain still undergoing a can-can of flips, and high kicks, certain she had hallucinated the entire event. Maybe it was time to knock off alcohol altogether? She checked the door, the pane of glass in it, wobbled the door knob and peered round the hall, but it all seemed pretty solid, and so she bent to pick up the post on the floor. A fur torpedo shot past into her bedroom, and scrambled under her bed, complaining loudly, as she placed the envelopes on her side table.
“Mango isn’t keen on me, I’m afraid,” her very own personal stalker announced from the kitchen.
Of course the bloody cat wouldn’t like him. Mango didn’t like anybody, pretty much, so what a stupid thing to say. Another yowl echoed from her bedroom, and Tori checked her phone again. Nope. Still dead as the proverbial.
“Did I mention your mobile won’t work until I allow it?” The sound of the kettle going on echoed around the statement. “Oh, and the windows won’t open either. Call it a safety measure if you like.”
Tori headed into the bathroom to clean her teeth and repair some of the damage made by throwing up. Shutting the door behind her, she plonked down on the lid of the toilet, and scrubbed at her eyes. Mascara came away on her fingers and staring at it, it occurred to her she must look a lot like a panda. Hysterical… Here she was bothered by a bit of runny make-up and she had a lunatic in the kitchen making tea? A kernel of panic crept up her throat, but she pushed it back into a small box, ruthless and determined, and grabbed her face wipes. Peering into her mirror, Tori swiped at the streaks until she got a result she could cope with. It would have to do. Taking a deep breath to fortify her courage, Tori opened the door to scuttle into the living room, keeping her back to the wall. Not that she thought it would do any bleeding good if he decided to murder her.
Ash had made himself comfortable and sat on her sofa, two of her best mugs on the coffee table with a plate of gingernut biscuits arranged between them. He patted the seat next to him, and she eyed him with deep suspicion.
“I don’t bite,” he said, and Tori deliberately took the chair opposite.
The bastard had the nerve to chuckle, and Tori felt hysteria make way for fury. That she could work with.
“What the fuck are you?” she snapped, beyond caring any longer.
“A demon,” Ash said calmly, undeterred by the sudden change of temperature from icy to absolute zero. “I already told you that.”
This was true, Tori couldn’t deny it. “Yeah, yeah, my personal demon.”
“Yes.” Dunking a biscuit into his mug, Ash bit off a chunk and chewed. “And I need your help.”
“You told me that too.”
“Indeed.” He gave a small huff of breath, and narrowed his eyes. “Tori, my dear, you’ve been having one or two disturbances over the last few months.”
The sheer certainty of the statement gave Tori a start, and once more she couldn’t really develop a proper reply. Steam from the tea grabbed her attention, and she watched it curl up from the mug in phantom wisps, eddy into little ghosts and dissolve to nothing. Leaning forward, she took the mug in her hand, heat from the pottery welcome against her fingers, with the sincere hope it might give her an opportunity to order her thoughts.
“You’re being watched, Tori.”
“Yes.” This was the first time he’d said something that made sense. “By you.”
“Ah, no…” He turned it over in his head, and looked rueful. “Well, yes, I’ve been keeping an eye on you, that’s what we’re supposed to do, but I haven’t been really watching, not until recently.”
“Right.” She took a sip, a million things churning about in the grey stuff. Did she believe him? An uncomfortable question she didn’t have an answer for, but as he’d installed himself in her home, she would try to make him give her a straight answer. “So who is?”
“The other side.”
The tone sounded way too nonchalant for Tori, and she pursed her lips. “Could you actually be a bit more vague?” At the raised almost non-existent brow, she qualified her statement. “You’re not inspiring any trust here, you know.”
The man claiming a demon identity smirked, and took another gulp of tea. “So, how we got through the barriers, and back here doesn’t convince you?”
“How do I know,” Tori said, ever rational, “if you haven’t slipped me some kind of drug in that coffee and I’m hallucinating this while you’ve got me tied up in a cellar somewhere?”
“Do you want to be tied up in a cellar somewhere?”
Exasperated, Tori sat back in her chair, and fought back the urge to throw her tea at him. Ordinary enough to look at, two arms, two legs, the preferred number of eyes, but with an annoying, overall superiority she would love to kick out of him. A part of her speculated she wasn’t the only one with that particular itch, and a ticket machine churned out numbers somewhere. But there had been the whole getting to the flat thing, which couldn’t be explained. A shiver went through her. “OK, say I can’t quantify this business, and everything you’re telling me is real, it doesn’t explain what you’re doing here?”
“They’ve been watching you because they want me, and right now, if you look out of your window, you’ll see the street is far too quiet.”
A lack of noise did strike her then, just as he said it, unusual any time, but especially in the middle of the week. Trotting over to the window, Tori pulled aside the thin muslin drape, and peered out. Not a living soul could be seen along the pavements, but a line of pigeons perched on the eaves of the houses, grey sentinels. Even they were silent, deeply ominous as the stupid things were always flitting about and being a general nuisance.
“They want you too,” he said.
She frowned and turned back to look at him. “Why would they want me?”
“Well now, that’s a really long story and has to do with your great grandmother who shouldn’t have done what she did.”
As far as Tori knew, neither of her great nans had done anything in particular to mark them as out of the ordinary… though maybe there could be something? She ran the family stories through her head. “Dad’s side or mum’s?” she asked.
Nanny Brown, by all accounts, had been a bit of a bugger in her day, so the story went, but as far as Tori could recall nobody mentioned about her mixing it up with the likes of Ash. Not that it would be common knowledge, she thought. Not the kind of thing you’d chat about after church on a Sunday, with a nice bit of roast beef lunch. However, Grandma Righteous, or the ‘old cow’ as she was less than sympathetically remembered, on mum’s side, had been a interfering busy body with too much self-importance. Those stories ranged from irritated to downright furious. Martha Greerson had done everything in her power to prevent the marriage of her boy, and a good job she hadn’t succeeded because otherwise her mum would never have been born.
A faint look of satisfaction came over Ash’s face, with a certain amount of self-satisfaction in his voice. “Oh, your mother’s.”
“The very same, my little love,” Ash said, definitely smug. “You didn’t know she was a witch, did you?”
“We called her a few things, and witch was one of them,” Tori scoffed, and took another sip of tea.
“The title is real enough,” Ash assured her, and grinned at the stupefied expression Tori felt spreading across her face. “Yes, and when I knew her, she was a pain in my arse.”
“Well…” Uncertain how to respond to this fascinating news, Tori reached for a gingernut, snapping it in two and taking a nibble from one half. A witch? Gathering her wits, she asked, “What sort of witch.”
“The worst kind,” Ash said, and placed his empty mug on the table with a click. “She tried to get me to stop the marriage of your granddad to Molly Plume, and that would never do.”
“Well, we knew about that,” Tori said, relieved it hadn’t been something worse.
“You wouldn’t have been born,” he continued, and settled back against the sofa, making certain a cushion sat at the middle of his back. “I couldn’t have that.” Taking a long, hard look at her, he continued, “You’re a witch too.”