Eyes closed, Annabelle rubbed her thumb over her smooth skin and the tiny square of rubberized plastic. A fresh zoomie felt like an old friend holding her hand. The cold wind stopped bothering her, and a thousand whispering voices in the dark came and went. Light hit her in the face like a solid object. She cringed, eyes open.
A quarter mile away stood Old Bill’s blockade around The Ruin. Someone on an armored truck had spotted her. By the time she raised an arm to shield her eyes, the searchlight had moved on. She had no weapons and nothing of value. To the police, she had little use, merely another throwaway. The operator panned the spotlight over the debris field. Shiny black corners of the police van gleamed, a polished onyx brick. She stared at it, that they ignored her stirred both relief and anger.
She cringed away from imps and scuttling fiends dancing around the shattered brick and glass rubble. A grey creature two feet tall with an oblong head and floppy ears, ran up and clung to her leg. She looked down at its black banded tail coiling around her boot. A mouth full of needle teeth opened in a creepy smile. She pressed a hand to the side of her head. With a grunt of concentration, the creature turned into a loose piece of windblown debris fluttering against her. She kicked it aside.
Anna ignored the various sights and sounds she knew to be false, and stumbled toward the only building here. The voices continued, their source circling about and changing at random. At least the raindrops had stopped screaming. A patch of paving offered refuge from the mud and she wobbled up onto it, standing between two slabs of wall that used to be the façades of shops. She ventured a glance at the shattered window frame and a thin figure drawn of shadow staring back at her.
A slow blink chased it away. With zoom fresh in her blood, she found it difficult to stay on her feet. Knux had given her a potent batch this time, not to mention it was almost two in the morning. The voices got louder. She wobbled toward Coventry tower, ignoring creatures that prodded and picked at her.
Hands seized her and wrenched her about. Another demon stared down at her, so tall she felt like a little child. Glowing eyes of fire widened in amusement. Two others, with flaming hell-spawn wings, held her by the arms. The massive one leaned back and laughed a scorching breath into the sky. He spoke in a tongue she couldn’t understand and reached a clawed hand at her. Annabelle struggled to get away, but the demons held her in place. Oddly enough, the demon appeared to want money. She had none; they’d take the zoom.
“Oi, that’s plenty enough you lot. Sod off!”
An amorphous humanoid shape of smoke coalesced at the source of the deep baritone. She knew the voice. The mass of shadow split down the center, revealing a man. The smoke rolled behind him as he walked, murkiness sent to oblivion by her recognition of Ol’ Jack.
He had installed himself as the doorman of Coventry Tower, a protector of sorts, a role he’d fulfilled soon after she arrived. Despite his height and muscular build, he moved with the grace of a prowling tiger. Hands poised, his body language gave a warning absent from his calm face. She grinned at rain trailing over his dark skin, the droplets crying out in glee. She forgot the demons holding her; oblivious to everything aside from the singing raindrops on his leather coat.
The voice came from the creature in front of her. “Back off, chap. This li’l pikey’s ours.”
Her limp body hung by her arms; she stared up at the burning demon. In an instant, it vanished; morphing into a thug, some random piece of street drek prowling The Ruin. His scarlet hair soaked to his cheek in the rain, adhered to the jet-black of a wild beard.
When Ol’ Jack pounced, he released her. She fell, bouncing once before rolling to her side. Landing ass to pavement should have hurt, but the zoomer turned the hard ground into padding, and she gawped at the air. Above her, a beating commenced. Meaty thuds interspersed with growls and ‘oofs.’ The scarlet-haired man hit the ground in front of her, face down for an instant before something dragged him out of her field of view. She curled fetal, grinning at the splash crowns the rain made in murky grey puddles inches in front of her face.
A firearm chirped to life. Anna looked up, searching for the birds.
Ol’ Jack brushed the side of his nose with his thumb. “Bad move, mate.”
Four hits came at the pace of a machinegun, then the unmistakable crack of a broken arm and a howl. Something fell onto her back and slid to the ground. After peeking, she rolled away, petrified by the mud-splattered pistol next to her. It seemed to stare back; somehow, she felt its heartbeat. It reminded her of the thing in the back of her mind. A well-dressed man who seemed somehow familiar faded in before her, not a speck of mud on his suit. He shook his head at what she had become.
Terrified of the feeling and of what Old Bill might do if they thought she owned a firearm, Anna kicked the gun away into the muck, shrieking, and crawled toward the building.
Behind her, an uncoordinated barrage of wet footsteps splattered off into the night. A hand clasped her about the arm. She screamed and fought until the presence of Ol’ Jack’s cologne flooded over her. Her panic ebbed and she looked up, raking her nails down his sleeve in a feeble attempt to cling. Skin wrinkled about his eyes. A faint green light blinked in a slow cadence between his left ear and his neck. Beads of rainwater on his shoulder caught the light, glinting in the dark with each pulse. A weave of amber threads appeared out of nowhere, glowing superimposed over his arms for an instant before they faded. She stared at the lines of his face, thinking he had to be about fifty or so, and cuddled against him.
“Bloody hell, Pix… What are you doin’ out here alone at this hour?”
She tried to speak, but only managed to spit bubbles into the air. His age made her feel younger, what he had done for her made him feel like her father.
With a childish giggle, she cooed. “Daddy.”
He shook his head and pulled her to her feet. “You’re feckin’ legless aren’t ya. That shit’s gonna kill you.”
She tried to walk, clinging to him, but wound up doing little more than twitching. He picked her up and carried her like a bride through the open archway into the tower. At the cessation of the pelting rain, she gasped and looked up at the ceiling as if the world had fallen apart.
“I dunno what gets inta ya, girl. Why do ya do this ta yourself?”
She rested her head on his shoulder while he carried her past blurry images of red letters painted on walls, the shadow of a stairwell, and a chain of dangling lights. The corridor became forest. She flew, arms out to the sides, the glow of blue pixie wings above her.
Ol’ Jack sighed. “Let’s get ya ta bed then.”