Despite the terrorist toxic gas story, not everyone had left Dodge, as I discovered walking down Lothian Road under a steely sky, head bent against the rain squall and vindictive, nipping wind freshly blown in from whipping up the icy, grey waters of the North Sea. I needed to clear my head and now my sanctuary had been invaded, the best place to do that was just to walk and see where it took me. I turned left at Shandwick into the city’s West End, normally a thrumming hub, but now a water sodden, wind-blown waste-land. The darkened windows of the Art Deco building that housed Fraser’s Department Store stared onto the street like the empty eye sockets of a long dead giant. A particularly vicious tug of the wind almost cost me my hat and by the time I had things under control the welcome orange glow of lights bursting out of the crepuscular gloom from a Starbucks at the corner of Palmerston Place caught my attention. I hurried towards it and to my utter amazement, found it was open for business.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, maybe no matter what happens, nuclear war, bubonic plague, return of the living dead, there will always be a Starbucks, staffed and ready to serve. It was housed in an imposing building, a bank in a former life with high vaulted ceilings and now was reduced to eking a living trying to pretend it was someone’s living room complete with comfy chairs where strangers came to drink coffee. There were two rooms connected by stairs and a long counter near the door, behind which a skinny young man with lank blond hair did the necessary. I sat in the furthest away room and sipped my drink, glaring unseeingly at the chocolate cake I’d also bought. There was around fifteen to twenty people in the place and they were all relatively young, bright eyed and feverish, the kind of vibe that I had always imagined would have been around during the war: trying to carry on as though the day was like any other, but knowing it might be your last.
If only I had looked for that damned voodoo doll of Lucille’s. It was too risky to have sent Keira to collect because I didn’t know where the damned thing was or what Viridian had done with it. Clearly he hadn’t done very much with it if it was Lucille who’d sent the Hand. But what death did it’s owner have planned for me? Well, not doubt I’d be finding that one out and soon, if memory served about these kinds of curses. I decided to call my old pal Stella. If she was in on it, it didn’t really make any difference, I wouldn’t be giving away any state secrets: someone had sent me a death curse and I was going to die. Simple. But her type were always grandiose, contemptuous of others and it was often their undoing. She might let something slip. If she wasn’t in on it, or didn’t at least know about it, she might be persuaded to give a handy hint about what on earth I was going to do to stay alive. I had done 1471 when she had called me at Lucille’s house and taken a note of the number. Very organised for me I thought.
I took the creased paper out of my wallet, my mobile from my pocket and dialled. No answer and there was no way in hell I was leaving a message, because the only thing I could think of was a long, profane and detailed list of what she could do to herself and with what.
I wondered how many people had stayed behind. The only other customers apart from me in the room I was in, was a huddle of young women at the table next to mine and they appeared to be pouring what looked suspiciously like whisky into their coffee cups and giggling with the manic intensity of people who clearly believe, like REM, that it’s the end of the world as we know it. Except feeling fine wasn’t even on the menu. Sad, fucked up, crazy, maybe, but fine was for lunatics and suicides.
Rain pelted down outside and a dark shape slid by the window blotting out what meagre light the day was willing to give up. Although I hadn’t seen anything much on the way down, the dead were becoming more substantial by the day it seemed. There was still that sense of waiting for something, an expectation hanging in the air that the world was going to come down upon your defenceless head. This was a pack of them hunting and I felt the heft of their attention, no, hunger was more precise. The weight of their desire was a leaden chain around my neck and I felt trapped and panicky. The barbed hooks of their wants trailed gently over my thoughts searching for a hold, something to anchor on to. I kept my mind a careful blank, something I had had a lot of practice doing.
The darkness slid by a second time like a crocodile circling an injured baby antelope that had fallen into the river. The girls fell silent, whisky consumption halted as they scented danger. What had they seen in last few days? I was about to find out what the lives of ordinary folk had come down to on Boxing Day in Auld Reekie.
I got up and stood by the connecting archway between the two rooms and wandered down the stairs, just to make sure. The Starbuck’s employee had obviously gotten the vibe too because he hurried to the door and quickly shut the outside one that led to the street, reassuringly huge and wooden, like it was guarding a fortress. He clanked the bolts shut and was just returning to the counter when the window imploded inward and a dark, sucking, jabbering whirlwind flew in uprooting chairs and tables and smashing the glass counter in a hail of glass, cakes, pastries and the blood and brains of the young man. Part of his head, mercifully minus the face rolled awkwardly into the corner of the room where it came to its final resting place.
One of the customers, a red head wearing a purple fleece that clashed with her hair, began screaming in a high pitched whine that sliced into the brain like a red hot knife through butter. I’d never not drink again if I got the chance. The older man sitting beside her tried to calm her down and move to the farthest away corner of the room without much success. One young guy trapped between the darkness and the window managed to get himself impaled an a huge shard of glass as he tried to force his way out the window and his blood ran like black rain and pooled, oily and viscous on the floor and down the remnants of the glass.
It was an enormous mass, a density of darkness that whirled and turned in on itself in a complex fascinating series of motions that held me transfixed. I was still spellbound when the entire building began to shake and the detritus from what had already been smashed was borne upwards, and then rained down on the terrified little crowd who all had the same thought: escape. But it seemed we had a sentient being on our hands because it snatched up the chairs and what remained of the tables within its reach and threw them at the door blocking the only escape route bar the hole in the window, but it was in front of that and the moaning man impaled on the glass shard illustrated the dangers of that particular plan with exquisite clarity.
The darkness boiled in on itself in an endless, sickening churn of billowing black. And then saw them. A multitude of faces formed and reformed, teeth bared, eyes wild, black on black and yet every snarl, every ferocious grimace appeared etched indelibly into the formless mass before it disappeared again. But then I noticed that it wasn’t just made out of darkness; this fusion of partial souls, ghosts and revenants had begun to grow flesh. I could see an oiled skin under the darkness as it moved in constant motion, another stage perhaps in its evolution. Was this the change that the thinning of the membrane between worlds was bringing about?
Two of the girls at the table next to mine for some incomprehensible reason had run past me into the room and had tried to jam themselves under a nearby table. The other three were rooted to the spot on the steps just behind me, crying and screaming for mercy and I didn’t blame them. A stinking, sulphurous smell radiated out from the heads and one of the girls was copiously sick from her perch under the table.
A high shrieking sound like a freight train being derailed rent the air and the darkness expanded becoming a vast ten foot pillar in the middle of the room, whirling like a dervish making the detritus dance with the power of it and radiating a fevered, humid heat. But the sound began to take on a rhythm almost as though…yes, it was talking, shaping words with whatever foul collective consciousness it possessed. I couldn’t make it out at first and then:
A long, snaking limb broke from the pillar and wrapped itself around one of girls behind me, a statuesque blond with dread-locked hair. Her screams had gone from terrified to ear splittingly hysterical within seconds and the smoke continued to coil around her until only her face was visible. It was almost a sensual motion, like a lover’s embrace. She stopped screaming and began to pray, snapping me out of my trance and reminding me forcibly of that little thing called priorities.
“Get to the next room, all of you. I’ll take care of your friend.” I shouted above the cacophony. “There’s a window there, break it and get the fuck out of here.”
None of them answered me, shock probably, but that wasn’t going to save their lives.
“Listen to me,” I shouted, “This thing will kill you. Go. Now.” A piece of glass struck one of the girls a glancing blow on her temple and that seemed to galvanise them. Without a backward glance at their trapped friend they fled screaming up the stairs into the other room and I heard the sound of breaking glass and wondered if Nick Lowe had really known what he was talking about.
“Go now, I’ll take care of it,” I screamed in what I hoped was a reassuring manner, but then another column of darkness went after the girls and I knew I had to do something and do it fast.