Edition 19: Night Blooming by Jason Nahrung
A teenager in love with the darker side of life has disappeared. Detective Shane Hall, struggling with her personal demon, follows the trail to parts of Brisbane’s seedier side, The Valley. She must keep control to find the missing young woman, and for her own self-preservation. SY
Deborah Brown—Jazmine Nocturna to her friends—had it bad for the unliving. Shane stood in the teenager’s bedroom, taking in the nu-vamp celeb posters, the black lace, the incense.
The girl’s mother stood at the bedroom door. Ms Brown wore a pencil skirt and heels, a crisp white blouse, but stray hairs were pulling free from her tight bun, and the shadows under her eyes showed through her makeup. Early to mid-forties. Gym toned, suntanned, a gold cross above her modest cleavage. No wedding ring, but a pale line where one had been. She radiated anxiety.
Join the club, sister.
On the phone with Cunningham that morning, Shane had almost said no to this favour. The demon in her blood had all but orgasmed at the thought of being outside, among the people. If Vikki found out, she’d go ballistic. Now, looking around Jazmine’s room, taking in the girl’s wreck of a mother, Shane was glad she’d forced herself to take the job.
Gothic was one thing. Bloodsucking was another. Ever since the Make Believe, there had been an awareness that the things that went bump in the night could bump mighty hard.
‘She was always into it,’ Ms Brown offered. ‘Fairies and unicorns. And then…this.’ She gestured to the pin-up fang boys from the rom-coms, the myth-pop bands in leather and velvet.
‘Did she say where she was going last night? Who she was seeing?’
‘I told her, we could go anywhere, do anything she wanted for her eighteenth. Anything to keep her away from those people.’
‘By “those people”, you mean Registered Paranormal Beings? It’s not illegal to associate with mythoes.’
Cunningham had used similar words himself, telling Shane why Special Branch weren’t able to act when Ms Brown had tried to report her daughter missing when she hadn’t come home that morning.
‘You think I’m paranoid, neurotic,’ Ms Brown said. One hand fiddled with the cross. The glossy lips quivered.
Shane gave a smile she hoped was reassuring. ‘It’s a mother’s duty to worry.’
‘Do you have children, Detective Hall?’
‘No, no I don’t.’
‘But you’re married.’
Shane reflexively touched the ring on her left hand. Given to her by Vikki’s mother, with her blessing. ‘Not officially. You said you’d been in touch with your ex-husband?’
‘Probably celebrating with his wife, now he doesn’t have to pay child support. Debbie didn’t get on with her dad. He never understood her, and when he left…’ She ended with a shrug of resignation.
‘I’ll need his number anyway. Please. Sergeant Cunningham explained I wasn’t here in an official capacity?’
‘On leave, he said.’
Shane nodded. Minimalist, as always, Cunningham. She hadn’t seen him since he’d visited her in hospital. She’d been filled with tubes, drugged out of her scone, surrounded by staff in hazmat suits. He’d brought her chocolates, saying he hadn’t thought a woman like her would appreciate flowers. She’d sent him and his chocolates away.
‘So what can you tell me about this nu-vamp crowd Deborah was caught up with?’
The woman picked a framed photo from a bookshelf and handed it to Shane.
Their fingers touched. Shane flinched, almost dropped the picture as the demon surged in her mind, like a moray eel darting from its cave. A burst of cloying sandalwood filled Shane’s nostrils. Her throat tightened.
‘This is the only picture I have.’ A group of young people in black and burgundy, crowded around a candle. Lots of red eye. Ms Brown clutched her necklace. ‘Please find my little girl. I just need to know she’s okay.’
‘Well, let’s have a look.’ Shane sat at the desk, propped the picture up and opened the girl’s laptop.
‘It’s protected,’ Ms Brown said. ‘And she’s blocked me from her profiles.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. You should stand back.’
Ms Brown looked puzzled, but gave her some space.
Shane fished a small silver case from her handbag and flicked the lid open. The pisacha stirred, like a cat stretching. Vikki’s familiar warning echoed: What if you get hurt? What if you bleed?
Shane picked the razor blade from the case, turned it in her fingers. What indeed? The pisacha growled. She felt its claws unsheathe in anticipation of a chance to flex its muscles. To take control. An image of Ms Brown licking blood from a cut in Shane’s wrist flashed across her mind.
Free. The word blew on a sandalwood breeze
‘What are doing?’ Ms Brown asked, stepping farther back.
Shane told her to trust her, that she needed quiet. Her voice was shaking.
‘Sweet Jesus,’ Ms Brown whispered.
She heard Manasa, telling her: ‘It won’t be without its benefits.’
‘Two heads are better than one,’ Cunningham had guffawed, but neither the department nor Vikki had agreed.
Shane recited the mantra that Manasa had taught her. When she’d stopped shaking, she sliced the tip of one finger. She winced at the sting, and then touched the bleeding digit to the keyboard.
The pisacha growled.
Shane groaned as the connection was made; the sensations hit her like a waterfall. Her stomach lurched. She tasted bile.
Ms Brown asked if she was all right. Shane held up one hand to shush the woman.
Jazmine’s excitement simmered in the plastic. Eighteen. Legal—finally.
Sensations, memories, feelings, all snapped through Shane’s mind, like someone flicking the pages of a book. A name, a face.
‘Do you know someone called Vlad?’
‘No, she never spoke about her friends.’ Ms Brown stood behind Shane so she could see the computer screen. ‘Who is he? What have you found?’
‘She was meeting him last night. They were going all the way.’
‘Oh, God.’ She was giving the cross a fair work out. It was likely to be worn down to just a straight piece of metal at this rate.
‘Had she…had relations?’
‘I—I think so. She never said, but a mother…I think so, yes. Wait. How can you tell? You haven’t even logged in yet.’ The woman tensed, hand on her necklace as though she were about to go all Van Helsing on Shane’s arse.
‘Are you a believer, Ms Brown? What about Jaz—Deborah?’
‘She stopped going to church when she turned sixteen. I didn’t want to force her.’
It seemed Deborah had found herself a very different blood cult. Although, perhaps not that different: transformation through the blood of a revenant saviour who promised everlasting life.
‘Did your daughter ever speak to you about conversion?’
‘Is that even possible?’
‘The Make Believe effect is still occurring. We’ve had three instances of spontaneous metamythosis in the past month. And there have been reports of voluntary transformation where such conversion is part of the mythos.’
‘Why? Why would she want to give up all this…for that?’
‘We don’t know that she has. Let’s see what else we can find out, hey.’ Shane turned her attention back to the computer. Maybe Deborah hadn’t yet gone all the way. Maybe it was just sex and eyeliner.
She gasped as Deborah—Jazmine—invaded her mind through the pisacha. Sitting here in this chair, her chest tight with anticipation, her special velvet frock hanging on the back of the door. Her skin was electric. Tonight. All the way.
A password appeared, hammered out by fingers with black-painted nails chewed rough. Fingers, long and slender like her mother’s.
The room grew hot, as hot and suffocating as a sauna; sweat beaded on her forehead, her back. Whispers filled her head. Sandalwood clouded around her. Her hand jerked on the mouse. She heard, distantly, like a background beat, surf breaking.
Ms Brown was at her shoulder, reaching but afraid to make contact.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked again. ‘Is it my cross?’
Shane shook her head, closed her eyes. ‘Just need a minute.’ She concentrated on the mantra. Gradually, the sound of surf dulled, the sandalwood lightened, allowing Jazmine’s room to come once more into focus. She breathed deeply, three in, three out, and applied a Band-Aid before spraying the keyboard with hospital-grade disinfectant and wiping away any trace of blood. ‘Holy symbols only affect some, you know. But it’s better than nothing.’
‘They say it’s all about faith. About belief. The Make Believe, I mean. That we wanted it so badly that we got it.’
‘New Age crap. That’s my professional opinion.’
The woman gave a fractured smile, released the cross. ‘But you aren’t here in a professional capacity.’
‘It’s still crap.’ She wiped her brow with the sleeve of her shirt. ‘May I have a glass of water, please?’
Ms Brown scuttled out.
Shane clicked through some photos, went through drawers.
Jazmine didn’t look happy in her selfies. She had the pout down pat, had managed to keep her eyes appropriately vacant of any emotion other than a suggestion of severe boredom.
But she hadn’t been bored last night. She’d been ready to go all the way with Vlad. How had that worked out for her, Shane wondered.
She knew about first love. Illicit love. She and Vikki had had quite the dance when they’d realised they were in deeper than a mere dalliance. Even in a world suddenly filled with the truly fantastic, old prejudices still prevailed. But they had pushed on, trusted their love to overcome. That lightning bolt they’d shared when they’d first met over a bloody stretcher in the ICU, it had burnt them all the way to the core. And now Shane was sleeping in a separate room, because her lover was too shit scared of waking up next to a stranger, or worse. Shane couldn’t blame her.
Ms Brown returned as Shane emailed herself a parcel of photos from Jazmine’s computer. A short browse of Jazmine’s social media had revealed her coterie of black-clad pals and a favourite haunt or three. Two Shane could trace easily enough—tagging revealed them as clubs in the Valley, naturally; where else would the creatures of the night gather but in mytho central?—but the third was more interesting: lots of curtains and candles and kids in robes. No tags there. The sight of razor blades and a very sharp knife made her vision lurch as the demon in her blood hungered for release.
Damn it, but she couldn’t face this bunch in her condition. She’d need to see Manasa.
Ms Brown offered her a glass of water. She drank, but it was nothing compared to what she really needed.
It was a frustrating afternoon, being cold-shouldered by those of Jazmine’s friends she could contact and boning up on vampire lore while she waited for Manasa to get back from whatever she was doing. There was a lot of BS, not a lot of science since the Make Believe had introduced the fantastic to the real world. Eggheads were still debating what had caused it, but that wasn’t Shane’s concern. Real-world monsters had been bad enough. Dealing with the dreams and nightmares of global mythology was all a bit much. Especially when one of them was in your head, and you were totally reliant on another to keep you…you.
Manasa Chalmers had a room in a boutique hotel on the border of the Valley and Bowen Hills. It was close to both burbs’ railway stations, but Shane always drove. Less chance of encountering the public that way. The station wagon’s air conditioning hadn’t done much against the late afternoon heat, and her cargo pants and shirt stuck to her like cling wrap as she made her way inside.
Manasa opened the door before Shane could knock. Perhaps she had a deal with the concierge. Maybe she’d been waiting, poised. They were linked, she’d said on one visit, holding up two fingers twined as though making a promise. The symbol had reminded Shane of two snakes on a caduceus—she had given Vikki such a brooch for their third anniversary, both an acknowledgement of her nursing as well as their relationship.
‘Namaste,’ Manasa said, hands together in front of her chest as she gave a small bow. ‘You look hot, Detective.’
‘Nicest thing anyone’s said to me all day.’
Manasa frowned. She didn’t do entendres.
She was wearing a sari, patterned in browns and creams. The room was dim behind her, white cotton curtains drawn against prying eyes, just enough sunlight to make out the maze of sanskrit tattoos covering her bald scalp, the glint of the gold stud in her nostril.
‘I have water, but that is not what you are here for, is it?’ She waited patiently in the small entryway while Shane fought with her boots before successfully adding them to the sandals and sneakers by the wall. ‘I had not expected to see you again so soon.’
‘I used the bloodrunner.’
‘Ah. I warned you: it might only be a sliver of the demon inside you, but calling on the pisacha’s power will give it strength.’
‘Worth the risk. I’m on a case.’
‘The police have let you resume work?’
Shane all but squirmed under Manasa’s studious gaze, the woman’s brown eyes lined in kohl under pencil-thin brows. She focused on the red bindi on her forehead instead.
‘Ah,’ she said again. ‘And how are you coping with the pisacha? Your control is improving?’
Shane made a rocking motion with her hand. ‘My partner’s not thrilled.’ The enforced celibacy and general atmosphere of paranoia weren’t thrilling her, either. Change of subject: ‘Man, it’s hot in here. You spoken to the motel about the air?’
Fresh sweat blossomed. She was aware of her parched mouth, of the tremble in her body. Of the writhing in her blood, the whisper in her mind. The demon did not like being here. She blinked away sweat and distraction.
‘I hadn’t noticed. I must be used to the warmth.’
‘I was born here and I’m not used to it.’
‘And when you bled. Did the pisacha tell you anything useful?’
Manasa offered her a chair. ‘How would you like your soma?’
A smile, a lick of lip. ‘Never as much fun as the first time.’
Shane quivered at the memory: Manasa leaning over her in the station as the pisacha tore through her mind like a red-hot cyclone. Then the pain as Manasa bit down, and the cool, soothing numbness that had followed as Manasa’s venom had stilled the attempted possession.
Her fingers massaged the spot on her throat, the flesh throbbing where the twin wounds had healed. ‘We don’t know each other well enough yet.’
Manasa got a glass from a cupboard, wiped it once with a cloth as though it weren’t already sparkling, and turned her back. But Shane could see in the polished aluminium of the fridge how Manasa held the rim under her top teeth, the two curved fangs sliding into view, and how thick, milky spittle ran down the side and into the glass. She saw a little of Manasa’s life with every dose. Her frustration at having had the SITI—whatever that was—stolen from the Bangalore lab during her watch. Of having had to let the thief, possessed by a pisacha, escape in order to save Shane’s life, her soma the only thing keeping the fractured entity in Shane’s blood at bay. The entity that had given her certain paranormal abilities that, ironically, had locked her out of her duties with Special Branch, whose task it was to police the city’s mythoes.
Manasa held out the glass.
This would be her fifth dose since Manasa had bitten her. The treatment had not improved with practice. Shane drank, gagging on the gluggy liquid, trying to close her mind to the sensations it provoked. Manasa’s frustration at not having tracked down the SITI, her apology for the pisacha having infected Shane—another failure of her duty.
The pisacha’s presence subsided, the stench of sandalwood drifting, letting in the ammonia scent of motel cleaning agents, a hint of cinnamon.
Shane gulped a glass of water.
‘Do you have time for a proper drink?’ Manasa asked.
‘I’m working, sorry.’ She held up her plastered finger.
‘Would you like back-up?’
Shane felt again the wave of frustration at being cooped up, cut off; at browsing streets of strangers, news reports, corporate records, hoping to pick up a trace of her quarry. And she recalled the picture of those black-clad acolytes and the vampire Vlad with his piercing eyes and self-confidence.
‘It’s off the books. If you get hurt, there’s no insurance or anything. You could be held culpable for damage or injury you cause.’
‘Is that likely?’
She hesitated. ‘A missing kid, fallen in with a rough crowd.’
‘Rough? My favourite kind. Give me a moment to change. You can tell me more on the way.’
Manasa returned in loose trousers, a thigh-length kameez and a headscarf, all in emerald with gold trim. As Manasa slipped on a pair of mirrored shades, Shane felt something in the woman uncoil, ready to strike.
They were approaching Abaddon, one of Jazmine’s favoured clubs, when Vikki called. They were in a Valley back street. It was lined with ramshackle cottages and rundown businesses waiting for a wrecking ball. Shane parked across someone’s driveway and took the phone from the rack.
‘I’m pulling overtime,’ Vikki said.
Manasa looked up from her phone where she’d been working the map and pointed to a boarded-up multi-storey brick building covered in graffiti and weather stain. ‘That should be the place.’
‘Who’s that?’ Vikki asked.
‘I’m out,’ Shane said. ‘Doing a favour for Cunningham.’
‘Jesus, Shane, are you crazy? What if you get hurt? What if you bleed?’
‘It’s not likely—’
‘Who’s with you? Cunningham?’
‘Steady down, Vik. I’m just asking around after a gothling who stayed out after her bedtime, okay.’
‘You’re unbelievable. The risk you’re taking. Not just to you, but everyone around you.’
Manasa leaned over to speak into Shane’s phone, her breath gusting past Shane’s cheek and lips.
‘Do not fret, please, Mrs King. I will protect your wife.’
Vikki’s curse was a shriek. ‘You’re there with her? She did a fine job of protecting you the first time.’ She swore again, and ended the call.
Shane grimaced at Manasa. ‘Did you hear that? Sorry.’
She made to hit redial.
Manasa stayed her hand.
‘Let her cool down. Your partner is concerned for your safety; that’s admirable … and understandable. But our task is to find this girl, Jazmine Nocturne.’
Shane leaned back into the seat, willing herself to fall into the fabric. She felt the pisacha chortling. Your time will come, she told it. She would find a way to exorcise its presence. And when she did, she and Vikki would go away for a very long weekend.
One thing at a time. It was still bloody early for a club, but maybe there’d be staff they could hassle. Action would be welcome. A whole month she’d been confined to barracks, considered compromised by the police force, and Vikki acting as though she was Typhoid Mary.
‘Let’s go check it out, Manasa. Looks like we’ll be having that drink after all.’
The bar looked more like some kind of barricade made from kegs and planks, the drinks served in bottles and plastic cups from tubs of ice. The place reeked of stale booze, some earthy incense. Bench seats, beanbags and cushions lay scattered around the concrete floor under a high ceiling of beams and floorboards. Naked bulbs hung from cables.
The barmaid stared at Jazmine’s photo from behind pierced brows and heavily mascaraed lashes and gave a shrug.
‘Ask the band when they slither in,’ she suggested. ‘The swampies love ’em.’
Shane ordered bourbon and nachos. Manasa stuck with water.
‘You know much about vampires?’ Shane asked.
‘Your pisacha is a kind of vampire,’ Manasa said.
‘I guess.’ She’d been reading up on the Hindu pantheon, since she’d become so intimately acquainted with one of its mythoes. Two, in fact. ‘Any thoughts on why something like that would come crawling out of the Make Believe?’
‘Karma? Who knows how, or why, some people were changed the way they were. The most important thing is what they do now.’
Shane wanted to ask, are you what I think you are? But there was an etiquette with the mythoes. She tried a softer option.
‘You’ve never told me what you were—what you did—before the Make Believe.’
Manasa answered with a smile, eyes unreadable behind her shades.
A delivery door opened with a squeal and a band started loading instruments onto a stage made of packing crates.
Shane stood. ‘Mind our drinks? I’ll go talk to the musos.’
Manasa licked her lips as she eyed the band. The slow, deliberate sweep of pink tongue sent a hot bolt straight to Shane’s groin. A month cooped up, definitely a month too long.
‘Start with the sax player,’ Manasa said.
As she approached, Shane wondered if she shouldn’t have put on sunglasses: the band members were a brightly clad bunch, shiny too: total eighties throwbacks.
A big fella, a real hard body under his mesh top and tight jeans, tooted on a sax as she arrived. He stank of patchouli and musky cologne. He had a thick leather collar around his neck, similar on his wrists, with charms dangling from chains.
A foot taller than her, he towered from the stage as she raised her phone to show him Jazmine’s picture.
‘You seen this girl?’
‘You a cop?’
‘Not today. Her mother is worried about her.’
‘That her mum?’ He nodded at Manasa.
Shane waggled the phone. ‘C’mon, you’re the house band. You seen her or not?’
He barely glanced at the screen. ‘All them nightcrawler wannabes look alike to me.’
‘Look harder. Hangs with a bloke called Vlad.’
‘You mean the Count?’ he sneered, a bullish shake of the head making his chimes rattle. One of his bandmates hassled him about not helping; he said he was talking to a fan.
Shane gave him a grimace. ‘The Count?’
‘What he calls himself. Big hit with the ladies. And some of the boys. But I don’t hang with the freaks. We just play the music.’
‘None of the freaks want to play with your sax?’
‘I have my moments.’
‘You have any with Jazmine?’
‘I told ya, I don’t do the nu-vamp scene, okay. Vlad was here last night. With the whole flock. We played She Sells Sanctuary for them, they left.’
‘You know where they might’ve gone? Another club, maybe? Kind of like a church-cum-drug den?’ She flicked through her phone for a picture, but he didn’t wait.
‘Not really narrowing the field, sweetheart.’ He pointed to the man in the fluoro pink muscle shirt and wristbands setting up the drum kit. How he could see through his wild fringe was anyone’s guess. The words ‘1984 with a Bullet’ were stencilled in bold primaries on the kick drum. ‘Thumper there is bonin’ one of ’em. Calls herself “Moonchild”.’ He shook his head again, as though the name was a mouthful of soda gone up his nose. ‘I gotta get set up.’
‘Give me a nod if she, or any of them, turns up, eh.’
‘Any more requests?’
‘Yeah, no Buck’s Fizz. We’ve got all the Make Believe we can handle.’
Thumper proved even less helpful than the sax man, although he did let slip that Moonchild was a local. Now, still fiddling with his kit, he kept throwing side-eyes at the bar where Shane and Manasa waited. Shane was considering ordering a new drink when a teenage girl came in through the band door. She looked nervous—overwrought, even. She wore frayed fishnets under a tartan skirt, a vinyl corset attempting to make mountains out of molehills, a mane of black hair, and more bracelets than a gypsy caravan. She threw herself into a hug with the drummer, but he pushed her back. She frowned, her kohl-rimmed eyes brimming. He pointed at where Shane and Manasa were walking towards them. She bolted.
Shane ran after her, Manasa close behind. A scooter buzzed into life. Shane reached the loading dock in time to see the girl ride off around the corner.
The drummer stepped up beside them. ‘What’s this all about?’
‘Where’s your girlfriend going?’ Shane asked.
‘I wouldn’t tell you, even if I knew.’
Manasa leaned in close, sniffed him, licked his cheek. He jumped back, wiping at his skin as he swore in double-time.
‘Come.’ She headed for the street.
‘I’ll get the car,’ Shane said.
‘No time. The scent won’t last long.’
And she jogged down the alley in the scooter’s wake. Shane followed.
‘The girl smelled of fresh dirt,’ Manasa said when they reached the corner. ‘And incense. Juniper. For protection from evil. Fortunately, we are not evil.’ Her head moved from side to side, her eyes looking into the distance, her nostrils flaring.
Shane looked away, but not quickly enough. Manasa’s tongue had grown forked, the twin tips darting out through a groove in her top lip that hadn’t been there before. And then it was solid again, the woman smiling as she said, ‘This way.’
They got lucky. The girl had driven only a few blocks before turning into a quieter side street and then down another, a narrow strip of tarmac smelling of stale water and unemptied bins.
Shane was sweating heavily by the time they arrived, the humid night closed in around her. Manasa appeared unaffected, her breathing untroubled by their jog.
‘This one,’ she said, a hand on an unsteady gatepost, the rusted iron gate held ajar by a thick growth of dandelions.
The two-storey house hunched under a sagging tin roof mottled with rust. The ground floor had been bricked in, much to the delight of graffiti artists who had tagged the walls and the boards in the windows with their urban camouflage.
‘Follow my lead.’ Shane reached for her holster, only to come up empty: her pistol was back in the car. Not even a vest. Should she call for back-up?
‘We should not be delaying,’ Manasa said. ‘The girl Moonchild will raise the alarm.’
‘Yeah, I know. Mind how you go.’
They stepped over broken chunks of brick, shattered bottles and other litter. Shane motioned Manasa not to stand in front of the downstairs door, and then, back to the wall, rapped on the flaking timber.
A bang. Running footsteps.
‘The back,’ Manasa said, and sprinted away.
A scooter started up.
Shane reached the backyard to see Manasa pull Moonchild by the hair from the scooter. Other goths were scattering into the side alley, over the back fence.
The riderless scooter revved and died as it toppled into the grass. Silence descended on the background hum of traffic and distant jets.
Moonchild hunched in Manasa’s grip, holding one arm. Her eyes were wet with tears. ‘Could’ve killed me, you bitch.’
Shane said, ‘We’re looking for Deborah. Jazmine. We just want to talk to her. Do you know where we might find her?’
Shane sighed. ‘Not tonight.’
‘I didn’t have anything to do with it.’
‘Vlad’s inside. He can tell you.’
They walked through a kitchen and laundry into the single room that took up most of the space under the house. It matched the pictures on Jazmine’s phone, a kind of altar surrounded by tattered sofas and cushions, the air warm with candles, tendrils of heavy incense. The pisacha twitched, detecting blood, and Shane clamped down, trusting the fresh infusion of soma to keep the bastard quiet.
A young man she recognised as Vlad stood by the altar—a kitchen table covered in a black sheet smeared with a painted pentacle. The way he held the katana suggested he didn’t know much about using it. A black plastic bag sat on the table alongside a half-dozen small screwtop bottles and a pile of black candles.
‘Leave now if you know what’s good for you.’ He waved the blade at them. Sharp fangs glinted under his top lip. His desperation filled the room, as rank as cat piss.
Manasa let Moonchild go. The girl stepped away, still favouring her arm. ‘They know, Vlad.’
The blade dipped as a look of confusion—of raw fear—flashed across his face.
As Shane dropped into a fighting stance, Manasa stepped in. She struck the sword from Vlad’s hand in a blur. The table shook as she picked him up one handed and slammed him down. Candles rolled onto the floor. A bottle smashed, releasing the thick, oily scent of patchouli. The plastic bag fell open, spilling dirt and a worm squirming into knots.
Shane straightened, breathed out her tension, felt again the soma cloaking the pisacha as the demon responded to the adrenalin rush. Part of her was disappointed; after all that had happened, getting to smack an arsehole around might’ve been therapeutic.
‘You aren’t even a vampire, let alone a count,’ Manasa said, easing her grip.
Moonchild sobbed, slowly slid down the wall.
‘Where is she?’ Shane asked.
Vlad pointed at the ceiling.
Jazmine was upstairs. They’d put her body in a bathtub and filled it with graveyard dirt. The bathroom was bright with candles, the air thick with dust. A savage tear in her throat was visible above the soil, a violent blotch of raw flesh against the waxen pallor of her skin. They’d closed her eyes, at least.
‘Is this what she meant by going all the way?’ Shane asked.
‘Her faith wasn’t strong enough,’ he muttered, a hint of petulance that made her reconsider slapping him around. ‘We’d begun the ritual.’
Moonchild said, ‘She saw the blood and freaked out. She ran.’
‘You sure it was the blood that made her think again, and not, say, your dark prince’s false teeth that tipped her off? Was she pissed that you didn’t sparkle in the sun?’
‘You can’t believe the fictions,’ Vlad said. ‘Vampirism is spiritual. Stoker–’
‘Spare me,’ Shane said. ‘She ran off. What happened next?’
‘She was like this when we found her.’
‘What? Covered in dirt?’
‘Bled out, I mean. Before I could give her the kiss of the night. I tried to get my blood into her—she might have enough of my essence to come back. If we perform the Rite of Amaranth.’
‘Dead is dead,’ Shane said, ‘and you’re no bloodsucker, pal.’
He sagged, rubbed his face in profound weariness. ‘I wanted it so bad. She did, too. The two of us together … eternity was within our grasp.’
‘What did you use to cut her? Not those.’ She pointed at his fangs.
‘A razor. On the arms.’
‘A razor didn’t do that.’ She indicated the wound on the girl’s neck.
‘It was there when we found her, but we didn’t do it. A rat, maybe, or a dog.’
She caught Manasa’s eye. The kid had probably been expecting two neat puncture wounds. So much for not believing the fictions.
‘Where did you find her?’
‘Slatter Lane. Near Abaddon. She’d crawled into a dumpster.’
‘Crawled in, huh. One way to find out.’ Shane reached for her razor case. She wouldn’t be game to use any blade she found here.
‘Wait.’ Manasa leaned over the body. She breathed in deeply. Licked the wound.
Moonchild made a choking sound. Vlad backed away till he hit the wall. He looked like he was about to puke. Shane recited the mantra under her breath, a roll in her gut matched by the excited writhing of the drugged pisacha.
Manasa wiped her mouth, a delicate touch at the corners. ‘We need to talk to the sax player.’
Shane phoned it in before they left. She wondered if Cunningham would ask her to tell Ms Brown the bad news.
‘Do you trust the children not to flee?’ Manasa asked.
‘I trust them more to be afraid of you coming for them.’
They rode Moonchild’s scooter, helmets be damned. Shane could imagine Vikki’s apoplexy. Manasa pressed against her, surprisingly cool, her grip firm but light.
When they reached the club, the sax player had already left.
‘Not long after you went tearing off after Moonchild,’ the drummer said. ‘Diarrhoea, he said.
‘Definitely something he ate.’ Shane ignored his enquiries, more interested in getting an address for the sax player, Hugo. Her badge and the words ‘accessory after the fact’ did the trick. Having Manasa peering at him over her shoulder probably didn’t hurt, either.
They took the car this time, but they didn’t have far to go: Hugo was another Valley dweller. They arrived outside a decrepit block of flats to see the musician standing beside a Sandman, the vehicle a patchwork of different coloured panels. He was talking to a woman on a motorcycle. Blue puffs of exhaust showed she’d left her motor running. Another woman, thin and pale and draped in black, stood on the other side of the car looking bewildered.
She didn’t move as Shane and Manasa got out of the car. Shane was slower than Manasa: she had to retrieve her service pistol from the glovebox. The weight felt comforting as she pulled back the slide to pump a round into the chamber.
The motorcyclist gave Hugo a thin envelope; he gave her a thicker one. She accelerated away. Hugo reefed open the driver’s side door.
‘Oi,’ Shane called, and pointed the pistol. He turned to face her. There was a lot of chest to aim for. ‘Don’t move, sunshine.’
‘Do you think that will be effective?’ Manasa murmured.
‘I’m fresh out of wooden stakes. But I reckon a 9mm through the brainbox should give him quite a headache.’
Manasa wobbled her head, a sign Shane took to mean agreement. She lifted her aim.
‘You never did answer my question about spending a moment with young Deborah Brown, Hugo.’
‘Your Unmade law does not interest me,’ he said, and stepped toward her. ‘But for what it’s worth, I didn’t mean to kill her. She was just a damned snack. She’d already bled, more than I’d realised.’
Shane’s finger tightened on the trigger. The words probable cause, justifiable homicide, came to mind. The pisacha was urging her to do it. Blood, it said. Blood for me.
A hot flush washed through her, left her panting, heart thudding even faster, at the thought of possessing a vampire’s body. At the thought of being free.
Hugo was closer, his face filling her vision.
From the corner of her eye, Manasa was shrinking, almost deflating.
Her vision tilted, the sudden flood of sandalwood overwhelming her.
‘I will drink you dry,’ Hugo said.
‘I will shoot,’ she warned, her voice a hoarse whisper as she fought the bloodrunner for control.
Hugo stopped, started to back away, his eyes off Shane.
She blinked free, actually stumbled, damn near fired, as a cold wave dispelled the heat.
Manasa was naked, her clothes in a pile at her … her tail. From the waist down, she was a snake, the tail metres long, the tip scribing an arc around Shane.
A forked tongue flickered from Manasa’s lips.
‘What about my law?’ she asked, her voice lisping but far from comic. More like a dagger leaving a sheath. ‘Does that interest you?’
Hugo ran to the panel van and reached in to the front seat. Manasa followed, her serpentine body propelling her at sprinting speed. Shane ran beside her, gun still pointed at Hugo as he emerged with a shotgun.
She paused, braced, fired. He barely flinched with the impact. She fired again, and again. The third round took him in the jaw.
Before he could recover, Manasa spat, like a spray from a squirt bottle. Hugo dropped the gun, hands to his eyes. And then Manasa reared above him, slick coils of honey brown and cream spiralling around him and pulling tight. Bones popped. Blood cascaded from his mouth. She took his head in her hands and pulled, muscles in her arms as taut as a bicycle’s brake cable. Full lock. Hugo’s head came off in a sharp spray of blood and tattered flesh, a wet balloon popping.
Shane turned away. The pisacha howled and she clenched her fists to her forehead, fighting the urge to vomit.
When she could see again, Manasa was a woman once more, fully dressed. There was blood on her face, her hands, smeared from where she had tried to wipe it clean. She handed over Hugo’s envelope: false IDs, credit cards.
Hugo’s squeeze was sitting in the passenger seat, feet on the road, head between her legs.
‘She’ll be all right,’ Manasa said.
‘Did you have to kill him?’ Shane asked.
‘Some might say he was already dead.’
‘The mythoes have the same rights as homo sapiens, pulse or otherwise. Guaranteed under the UN charter on paranormal beings.’ But she could feel her argument dying on her lips, even as she recited the mantra of Special Branch. Cunningham wouldn’t press the point, of that she was sure. Vikki, however, would be far less understanding.
‘I, too, was fresh out of wooden stakes,’ Manasa said. ‘Perhaps next time we will be better prepared.’
‘Next time.’ Manasa smiled.
Jason Nahrung grew up on a Queensland cattle property and now lives in Ballarat with his wife, the writer Kirstyn McDermott. He works as an editor and journalist to support his travel addiction. His fiction is invariably darkly themed, perhaps reflecting his passion for classic B-grade horror films and ’80s goth rock. His most recent long fiction title is the Gothic tale Salvage (Twelfth Planet Press), with his outback vampire duology Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke coming soon through Clan Destine Press. He lurks online at www.jasonnahrung.com.