She entered to dull green carpets, beige wood shelves lined with books shining under harsh fluorescent light. Tables with slim wood and metal chairs lay scattered around the room.
All in all, it looked like a public library – the dull modern sort. It even had the ancient computers sitting in a corner, monitors flashing with the world’s most basic screensavers.
A desk sat, solid and unbearably prosaic, on one side of the room. A woman with the blonde hair of a supply teacher and the slightly desperate makeup of someone entering middle age looked up from their asthmatic white cube of a computer.
‘Hello dear. Can I help you?’ Her voice was deep and penetrating. Almost incongruously so. Maybe she was some sort of a – she couldn’t get to thinking like that.
‘I’m good, thanks.’ Viv wandered over to the first shelf of books, hoping that they were more interesting than they looked, that there was some sort of sign over at least one of them saying recently deceased? – look no further! that she could exploit.
‘Are you sure? You look a little lost.’ There was an embarrassing note of pity in her voice and Viv was suddenly aware that she looked a shambles, hair knotted, face pale and unmade, eyes narrowed with lack of sleep. She kept on looking at the bookcase.
‘I’m good, thanks.’ She a put a bit more edge in her voice to make her position clear. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern Europe…Witchcraft and Magic in the Middle Ages…The White Devil. Every book seemed drearily academic or such an obvious hoax simply from their titles.
She eyed the long shelves with something approaching despair. She’d searched on google. This place was meant to be an occult bookstore not an…academic library for gullible idiots. She just wanted to know what was going on. To have something to come back to Andy with.
She turned and forced herself to march across the stiff blue carpet to the desk. The woman looked up expectantly and hmmed.
‘I –’ God, this was so hard, she was going to think she was insane –
The woman pulled up a large set of thin framed glasses and pushed them onto her nose, eyes fixed on Viv.
‘Well, you see – ’ The words stuck in her throat again. Fuck it, barrel through like you do everything. ‘IdiedandnowI’mbackandIwaswonder-’
‘You’re a revenant, aren’t you?’
They both registered what the other had said. The woman behind the desk paled.
She lunged sideways, a scrambling panicked dash that ended with her brandishing some kind of burnished letter opener in Viv’s direction. The hand holding it only had the slightest of trembles, but the woman’s eyes were wide. ‘I’m warning you. This is flamesteel. Thrice blessed. So much as twitch in my direct –’ She stopped speaking, frowned. ‘Hold on. You’re not a revenant. Well.’ The letter opener was placed back upon the desk. ‘Well. That’s much better.’
‘What’s a revenant? And – ’ no, don’t get distracted. ‘Wait, this shit’s real?’
‘Undead. Nasty things. And a bit much for me. More of a phylum than a particular species, honestly. And yes, to an extent.’ She extended a hand. ‘I’m Glass. Mrs. Glass. Welcome to my shop.’
‘Thanks.’ Viv tried to suppress any wry notes in her voice.
‘No problem. So – you mentioned being recently deceased. Is there anything I can do for you?’
‘You seem remarkably…blasé about this.’
‘I’ve seen stranger. So what are you then – reincarnated, possessing a relative or what? You’re not a ghoul – not enough rot and too much brains. Not any form of basic necromantic construct.’ Glass was scratching little notes on a notepad that had somehow ended up in her hand.
‘Uh…I just, woke up in my coffin and –’
‘Sounds more like a ritual then. Did you participate in that sort of thing much?’
‘No! No, I was stabbed, then I woke up and – look, are you sure you know what you’re doing?’
‘I’ll put you down as other or unknown. Maybe a bloodline back to before the Flood, or to a deity of some sort.’ The scratch of writing stops. ‘Though the stabbing…it sounds like you were the victim of some sort of ritual. Can you tell me any more?’
‘I died again.’ There was a moment of awkward silence, then Viv coughed. ‘Uh, I was shot in the head, but my murderer was there trying to kill me as well. Earlier today. My first murderer. The one who stabbed me.’
Glass pursed her lips. ‘Well. That changes things considerably.’ She sprung with remarkable sprightliness from behind the desk. ‘Right then, let’s try and get a read on the path ahead of you.’ She moved over to a desk draw and began rustling through it.
‘Hold on, what do you mean by read –’
‘Ah, here we are.’ She turned, holding a heavy pack of cards in her hands that she began shuffling vigorously. ‘Tell me a little more about yourself.’
‘Are those –’ Viv’s suspension of disbelief was being strained. ‘Are those Tarot cards?’
‘Would you prefer to do this in a darkened room with a shawl draped over me and a crystal ball?’
‘Uh…fine. My name is Vivien Carpenter, call me Viv, I died…five months and something-or-other days ago. The first time. Then, like, three hours ago the second time. I was stabbed on a crowded street four or five times. Favourite colour, blue, eyes are now weird white as you can see but they used to be swamp coloured – anything else?’
‘Mother’s maiden name. Also money. I’m not a charity.’
‘Stephenson. You accept card?’
‘Sure, why not. Pay after the reading. No need to be fussed.’ She finished shuffling, and laid the deck down on the countertop. ‘Let’s go with the Two Paths. Decisions should be important to you given all this, and it might give some insight into what exactly is going on for you.’
She pulled out a card and stared at it for a moment, then sighed. ‘I should hardly be surprised this crops up given your situation. The first outcome – Death.’ The card depicted a titanic lumbering black skeleton, crowned with some Egyptian headdress, arms spiralling into geometric curves as it advanced into a landscape of fractal colours and desolate rock.
‘I’m going to die!?’ It was bizarre to be so alarmed by that. She’d already died twice.
‘The Tarot isn’t literal. Not always. It’s possible that that’s what will happen, but all it means is a change – a traumatic, major change in your life, unexpected, a death of…your old way of thinking, perhaps.’
Viv shivered. That seemed horrifyingly likely – having to give up the comfort of detachment and discover what had happened to her. And learn to enjoy it… ‘What’s the other outcome?’
Glass drew. ‘Well. Seven of swords.’ Indeed there did seem to be seven rapiers, arrayed across a background of fractured glass. ‘An opportunity to withdraw and fight another day, or succeeding via trickery or diplomacy – or simply withdrawing from a situation that never should’ve involved you.’
That sounded much better. Withdrawing from all this was what she wanted. ‘Ok, so how do I get there?’
‘Driving force behind the first outcome…The Knight of Wands. A great and daring figure who inspires others, who can take an idea and make it reality through bold action, forceful, charismatic and honest, magnetic, swift and graceful.’ The card depicted a figure with flaming sword upon a rearing black horse.
That could be…lots of people actually. She knew nothing about her murderer. It certainly seemed pretty daring to stab someone in the stomach in a crowded street, but not really very inspiring. Andy also seemed possible, given the way she was driving her towards all this. Or maybe she was reading too much into the situation.
‘Driving force behind the second – ah. The Reversed Hierophant.’ She placed the card upside down, and Viv craned her neck to look at it. It appeared to depict some sort of priest in orange robes, bearded and surrounded by masks and bulls and holding an iron key. ‘Inflexible, dogmatic thinking. Bad or incompetent advice. Inability to listen.’
That sounded alarmingly like her preferred way of thinking. Surely it wasn’t that bad…
‘And the key card, the critical factor which will decide what actually happens. The – ’ Glass stared at the card she’d drawn. ‘Well. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re kind of fucked.’ She placed the card beneath the two columns of two, also upside down. It was blue, a deep cerulean with a golden wheel in the centre, various beasts perched upon it.
‘The Wheel of Fortune, reversed. In essence, bad luck.’
‘So the entirety of this situation will hang on –’
‘Bad luck. Outside influences beyond your control. No need to pay, I think you’ll need the money.’
‘It’s what the cards say!’ Glass’s voice was a hiss. ‘I wish I could tell you differently, because you seem…no, you know what? I’ll help you.’
‘I said, I’ll help you. I run an occult bookstore, and I am bound to have something in here that’ll help. From the sounds of it, you’re the victim of some sort of necromantic ritual, probably some kind of cyclic death curse where each one of your deaths inflicted by the necromancer enhances their dread power, etcetera. Advice: don’t die, and come back soon. I’ll find something useful.’
‘Really.’ Mrs. Glass smiled. ‘Now, run along, and whatever you do, don’t die again. Get going. I can’t look through my books with other people around.’
Andy was just bidding goodbye to her psychiatrist when Viv ran up. She nodded as politely as she could muster at Cannelis.
‘Hey – uh – Nimue! How’re you?’ Andy seemed weirdly wired, jittery almost.
‘Just, uh, peachy, Andy.’ Her smile felt bizarrely fixed.
‘Actually, Andrea, I wanted to talk to your friend for a moment – you can sort out the payments with the front desk while I do that.’ He smiled. Andy smiled too, but with a hint of nerves beneath it. Then she was running back indoors leaving Viv and the psychiatrist in the darkening street.
He laughed then, high and clear. ‘Nimue? Really?’
Oh shit, he knows. ‘It – it was –’
‘Merlin. Nimue, Vivien. Your name’s Vivien. Just like Andrea’s hallucinatory friend.’ His smile was sharp. ‘And of course, you knew this, and were concerned lest I think Andrea’s friendship with you was a sign of a relapse and do some horrendous thing to her.’
Viv’s stomach boiled with anger. ‘Or maybe my name’s really Nimue and you’re just drawing ridiculous conclusions to support your goddamned job.’
‘I don’t think you like me much, do you?’ His voice was rueful, and Viv felt suddenly ashamed, the anger fleeing as quickly as it had come. She opened her mouth to deny it, but he waved one long-fingered hand. ‘No, no. It’s understandable. The media has quite a harsh image of our reaction to schizophrenia, and I won’t deny it contains some morsels of truth.’ He smiled, with strange shyness, and for the first time Viv saw how young he was. ‘But I really am trying to help her.’
He nodded, and turned to step back into the building, collar of his coat turned up by the wind.
‘Thank you,’ she called after him. ‘Thank you for looking after her.’
He turned and smiled over one shoulder, a strange crook-mouthed thing with a twist at the edge.
‘It’s my job.’ Then he was through the glass doors and gone.
A huff of air at her shoulder. ‘What was that about?’ Andy’s voice was bright.
‘Just…misjudgements. Mistakes. How was the headshrinking?’
They turned to walk down the street. Andy drummed her fingers against her cane. ‘Alright. I don’t – I’m sorry, I don’t really talk about it. It’s nice. It was harder, because I couldn’t talk about you or anything. But it was good.’
‘What do you actually do in there?’ She had a sudden image of Andy lying on a leather couch reciting details about her mother while a bewhiskered Cannelis nodded sagely. She brushed some hair aside which had blown into her face. Persistent, the wind dragged it back across her eyes.
‘Talk. Just about…stuff. Feelings. The past. And, you know. My thoughts about the massive illogical conspiracy to conceal your existence from me.’
They both chuckled at that. The trees above them clattered their branches in shared amusement.
‘I found a shop.’ Viv paused for a second after the awkward non-sequitur. ‘Um, it was weird and the woman there read my fortune. Mrs Glass. With Tarot. And said a lot of stuff about darkness and veils.’
‘Tarot?’ Andy’s voice was positively Saharan. ‘Really?’
‘Well…it all made sense in context. And she did it very matter-of-factly, no fancy presentation. And she knew I’d been dead, though initially she thought I was something called a revenant, which clearly I’m not – why are you laughing?’
Andy was laughing, a deep sawtooth noise that drew glares from passersby from the pleasant middle eastern man in the puffy navy jacket to the old woman in the hideous floral cardigan.
‘You got fleeced Vivien,’ she finally managed in a break in the laughter. ‘You got fleeced.’
‘What?’ She stood, slackjawed and aghast for a second before diving back in. ‘No – I – I found her on Google, she had a bookshop and everything. And she used words like – like necromantic, and ritual, and stuff.’
Andy began roaring vast wheezes of breathless laughter. ‘Trust – oh, oh dear – trust you to head out and find the first bookshop possible. Not a check on credibility or likelihood or anything at all. Oh, oh.’ The laughter died away. ‘That was better than ten thousand sessions with Hugh.’
‘It’s not funny.’ Viv couldn’t quite supress a twitch of a smile. ‘She said that I was likely part of some necromantic sacrifice, and each time I died I further empowered my killer.’
‘Each time – ’
‘I may or may not have died again earlier today.’
‘Vivien – ’
‘I was only shot in the head, no big deal – besides, as it wasn’t my original murderer, Mrs Glass said it wouldn’t have had any real effect, it might even have robbed him of some strength – ’
‘You were what – ’
‘– and anyway,’ Vivien continued, trying to steamroll Andy’s outrage, ‘anyway, I got all better, and Mrs Glass said she’d look up similar incidents and see if there was any way to break the link to my killer, so –’
‘Vivien, stop.’ Andy’s voice was ice cold. ‘You. Were. Shot. And you didn’t tell me.’
‘Well – well –’ All the perfectly good reasons she’d had earlier for doing this seemed to flee at the light of day.
‘Jesus Christ Vivien! What the fuck!’
‘You seemed really upset and I couldn’t think of a good way to bring it up!’
‘How about “Hey, I died again,”? Or is that too easy?’
‘Well – ’
‘I know you’re annoyed – ’
‘Vivien, stop.’ Andy’s voice had a note of terror in it.
‘What –?’ Then Viv noticed the light.
It had been a late grey day, fading swift to the deep blue of early evening, a faint striation of pink and orange layered across the edge of the skyline.
Now the light was a thick gold. More than that, the air seemed amber, rarefied, each breath tasting harsh and heavy with iron, flecked with a faint sweetness like syrup that had been left to rot.
But more than that, every pedestrian on the street had faded into still, indistinct shadows, their forms wavering blue-green as if seen from under deep waves. A bus stood stock still in the street, a vast cliff of shimmering verdigris.
‘What –’ her throat was suddenly dry, a terror holding her akin to that which grips after a nightmare of wolves, though there are none in the city, and they aren’t like that really, but the mind still sees teeth in the darkness –
That was when it stepped round the corner, bathed in the selfsame amber light.
Viv knew enough of dinosaurs to know that Jurassic Park had gotten velociraptors wrong, that it had shown their far larger cousins, the deinonychi. This thing dwarfed even those, standing a full head taller than her, claws gently rubbing together like an old woman washing her hands.
It was feathered, light yellow green, forming a ruff and trailing down the vestigial patches of skin that connected from body to arm. Its scales were smooth and dark in contrast. Its crest fluffed.
Its grinning mouth opened and it chirruped, a light happy noise of a chicken who’s found a particularly juicy worm. Its pupils weren’t the ophidian slits she would’ve expected, but round and inquisitive. Its tongue was thin and pink.
Another chirrup from behind, and there a second stood, tapping its long scimitar of a claw against the pavement, almost as if it were waiting its turn in line.
She realised the mistake she’d made – she’d taken her eyes off the first –
She barely ducked in time. The utahraptor whistled overhead, landed, skidded, rounded. Almost instantly it was circling, head cocked, wide dark eye fixed on her.
Andy limped into the edge of her vision, cane extended like a sword. Her face was very very pale.
‘Run – ’ and then they both sprang and she smacked one aside with the cane, the other passing over her, feet growing in Viv’s vision as she desperately raised her arms to intercept.
The claw caught on the arm of her jacket and she punched it square in the jaw, sliding aside from its terrible weight. It flapped to stay balanced.
She kicked out, feeling something give under her shoe – hollow boned, of course, birds – saw from the corner of her eye Andy dancing back and forth with surprising grace, cane extended like a sabre, beating across the creature’s snout.
A twist from her foe and one three fingered hand stretched out, raking across her leg, slicing through denim and skin with contemptuous ease. She pulled away before it could latch its teeth into her, limped backwards till she and Andy stood back to back.
‘Dinosaurs.’ She panted the words. ‘Motherfucking dinosaurs, what the hell?’
‘I told you fencing would be handy.’ Andy’s grin was wide, maniacal. ‘Did dear Mrs Glass have anything to say about these delightful beasts?’
‘Oh fuck y –’ and then they were leaping again and there was a tumble of scales, feathers and claws, hard impact with the pavement. She thrashed – where were its toes, shit shit shit, teeth brushing against her arm and pulling it back before they could fully close, kicking wildly, something giving, tearing, a chime like a distant bell –
A dead pigeon, crushed and mangled, fell onto her, twitching feebly. She brushed it aside with involuntary disgust before realising that it had been the utahraptor, what –
Andy was still duelling hers, back and forth with lightning ferocity. One of its arms was cradled against it, and a long gash across Andy’s forehead spilled crimson. Her grin was fixed, her eyes wide, and Viv realised her friend probably was insane, at least in part. She was screaming, howling, words faintly visible in the incoherent morass of noise as she struck the creature again and again – fuck shit motherfucker cunt – but she never used those words as frequently, never so throwaway, she sounded like –
She sounded like her.
The utahraptor stepped back and someone filled the gap, striding calmly forward, knife in hand. His tan coat flapped at his ankles.
Andy hurled herself at him, cane raised. ‘En garde, cocksucker!’
It wasn’t a knife that parried the strike.
Somehow in her murderer’s upraised hand he held a sword, long and dull and heavy, shattered pieces of her cane falling about it. His other hand still held the knife and it drove up into Andy’s arm, what was left of the cane falling from her grasp, but she pushed herself forward. Hand clawing at his face, at his red scarf.
He spun the sword and hit her in the throat with the cross guard, his knee sinking into her stomach. She collapsed, wheezing, choking, blood sputtering from her lips.
Viv screamed then, and hurled herself at him, one fist crushing the pigeon-dinosaur’s skull in a fountain of white light, the other drawing back –
He stamped on her knee and her world disappeared in pain. Then he was above her, one hand on the hilt, one hand on the blade, drawing it back above her head ready to guide it down, hazel eyes implacable above the scarf.
A distant chime. His eyes widened and the sword came down as she struggled to crawl aside and then –
The distant roar of traffic. The black-grey sky. The orange of the streetlights.
Andy – ‘Andy –’ croaked, tried to stand, blinding searing pain in her leg. Crawled across the pavement.
Andy, foam and blood flecked, eyes rolling. Her shattered cane lying under her.
‘Andy!’ The eyes focusing for a second, bloodshot and desperate and dying, must save, she couldn’t breathe –
Her hands grabbed, desperate.
And for a second time, there was light.