“How many kids now?” I asked.
“Twenty-five we can identify for sure. But that’s out of a couple of hundred a week. Not all those are ours.”
“Don’t say ours, Bela. They’re nothing to do with me.” I looked out the window. My reflection stared back. Beyond that I watched the night speed past. I should have been at my next-door neighbour’s eighth birthday party, pretending I didn’t like children; I shouldn’t have been here.
It was a gypsy cab in every sense of the word: battered and beaten, any white surface reduced to grey, the vinyl of the seat a little sticky. The rubber mats on the floor were so thin as to be almost transparent. I imagined they were the only thing stopping me from seeing Wynnum Road’s bitumen beneath us. Instead of an air freshener, a gris-gris hung from the rearview mirror. It wasn’t minty fresh, but then again it didn’t smell bad; cinnamon-y if anything. Scratched along the inside of the doors were protective symbols and sigils even I couldn’t read. I did the dumb thing and looked a bit closer. Some of them were actually fingernail marks. I didn’t want to think about that too much. Bernard Fanning howled out of the speakers behind my head, wanting to wish everyone well yet wondering why someone gave up on him too soon.
There weren’t too many cabs like this in Brisbane, although as the population grew, so did the demand. The general clientele covered Weyrd, wandering Goth, and too-drunk-to-notice Normal. Most times even the drunks thought twice about getting into this kind of vehicle, snapped out of their stupor by the strangeness it exuded.
The eye in the back of the driver’s head examined me through thin ginger hair, while the two on his face dealt with the night-time traffic. Ziggi and I knew each other, kind of; nodding acquaintances. He and Bela had taken me to hospital a few months back. He’d help save my life and I guessed I should be a bit more gracious. The pain in my leg didn’t make me feel gracious. It made me feel grumpy that I couldn’t drive myself anywhere anymore; at least not for a long while.
So I was a regular victim of public transport. Buses and trains might have been environmentally friendly, but sometimes my fellow commuters were creepier than the Weyrd drivers. Instead of being independent, I was now a chauffeured invalid with a foul temper. Some might argue that my temper wasn’t so sweet beforehand.
I wanted to think this wasn’t my usual kind of job; Bela assured me it was, really. There was a time, not so long ago, when I swore I wouldn’t work for him again, but then again once upon a time I didn’t ache inside and walk with a limp. I didn’t wake up sweating, thinking something was at my window, and I didn’t dream of claws reaching through the gaps in the stairs of that house and tearing so much flesh from my leg that I looked like I’d been ringbarked.
I needed money. Not for rent or anything, because the house, at least, was mine, but I still needed to eat and pay for the electricity and phone. Maybe Bela felt guilty, although it wasn’t an emotion I associated with him. It was just another job to him. But I wouldn’t have been there if he hadn’t asked me to be—I kept wondering when the “ex” part of ex-boyfriend would kick in.
Bernard changed tack, wishing for buttons to push.
“I should be eating ice cream cake,” I announced to no one in particular. “I should be watching Lizzie open her presents. I really should.”
“What did you get her?” asked Ziggi, which elicited an annoyed noise from Bela.
“A book of fairy tales. The proper ones.”
“Verity, if it’s—” interrupted Bela.
“It’s not,” I said shortly.
“If it is, then maybe it’s like your dad.”
He waited for me to speak, to defend myself. I rewarded him with silence, so he went on. “If it’s a kinderfresser like your father, then we need to get him quickly. He won’t stop by himself. I can’t keep this out of the papers for too long, even if they’re only street kids going missing.”
“Do you really think I don’t know that?”
My glare was enough to make him look away.
He cleared his throat. “Where are you going to start?”
“I’ve got some ideas,” I said, refusing to give him anything more. I could feel his gaze, even though I was looking out the window again. I thought he might be staring at my neck, at the pale curve, at the spot where the vein beat blue close to the surface. I thought he might be remembering what I tasted like.
“Ziggi,” he said abruptly, “keep an eye on her.”
And he was gone, just like that. I turned and the seat beside me was empty, smelling vaguely of his expensive aftershave. Things were quiet, except for Bernard’s strumming, for a few beats.
“I hate it when he does that. Freaks me out,” said Ziggi.
Bela made even other Weyrd uncomfortable. I felt kind of proud.
“It is a bit creepy,” I admitted. “He used to do that in the kitchen all the time. I dropped a lot of dishes.”
I bit down on my lip. Hadn’t meant that to slip out. Ziggi was polite enough to ignore it.
“So, where to? You said you got some ideas.”
“I may have exaggerated. I have one idea. Let’s start with Little Venice.”
“Probably should have told me that three seconds ago when I could have taken the turnoff,” he said mildly. He cut off a dully gleaming four-wheel drive to change lanes. As we drove onto the Story Bridge I glanced out. The lights of the city, down and to the left, and those of New Farm, down and to the right, swam in the blackness.
“It’s okay. We got nothing but time,” I lied and hunched into the upholstery.
West End’s filled with Weyrd. Everyone thinks it’s just students, drunks, artists, writers, a few yuppies waiting for an upgrade, junkies, and the Saturday markets for cheap fruit and veggies. There’s also a metric buttload of Weyrd, who do their best to blend in, generally successfully. They fit in fine in suburbs that already have a pretty bizarre human population—places where it’s difficult to distinguish the wondrous-strange from the nut jobs. The old guy who yells at the trees on the corner of Boundary St and Montague Rd? Weyrd. The kid who keeps peeing on the front steps of the Gun Shoppe? Weyrd. The woman who asks people in the street if they can spare some dirty washing? You get the picture. The smart ones use glamours to hide what they are. There are a few spots, though, where they can go and just be themselves. Little Venice is one of them.
The place looks ordinary enough. It’s cute: dingy little entryway lapping the street, long thin corridor that’s dim and cool leading into four big rooms filled with shadows and incense. Out the back is a walled, stone-paved courtyard that’s generally not used during the daylight hours except by stray Normals. Above is a tightly-twined roof of leaves and vines, enough to keep the sun and rain out, but not quite enough to hide the snakes that lurk there. I could see through the wide archway: The space was packed in the bruised evening. A man with a sitar was accompanied by another playing a theremin and the seated crowd swayed along contentedly. Two emo-Weyrd waitresses sloped between tables delivering drinks and finger food.
Little Venice does good coffee and amazing cakes (fat moist chocolate, rich bitter citrus, and a caramel marshmallow log that will stop your heart). The three sisters who own the place, the Misses Norn, take turns reading palms, cards, and tea leaves—each has her preferred method and each tells a different thing: One genuinely lays out your choices, one will make your future with her words, and the third simply lies. Problem is this: You can’t really tell which does which. They’re not malicious; just Weyrd. It’s what they do.
Aspasia was working the counter in the main room, which wasn’t too full, but the low hum coming from the other rooms told me they might be a different matter. Behind her was a mirror that looked like lace made of snowflakes. She gave me a smile as I limped in. Ziggi was driving around and around—it’s easier to find a good park in Hell. This sister was all dark serpentine curls, obsidian eyes, and red, red smile. When her lips opened I could see how sharp her teeth were.
“Verity, my sweet. Come to hear your future?” Her smile widened, and I re-thought my malice assessment. She gave a shimmy and gracefully extended her hand. “Cross my palm with silver, girly.”
I shook my head. “My answer’s the same as it’s been for the past ten years. But I will take a long black, some information, and a slice of that caramel marshmallow log. And a latte and a piece of mud cake to go. Make the latte super-sweet.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You got a new boyfriend?”
“Hardly.” I shook my head at the idea of Ziggi-as-boyfriend and sat carefully on one of the tall stools, rested my elbows on the fossilised countertop, and smiled. It’s a good smile, nice and bright, disarming. “Kids are going missing.”
“So sad.” She wasn’t fooled, and began to make the coffee, caressing the machine into doing her bidding. There was the bubble and spit of it all, a comforting buzz that made me salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Efficiently she sliced away a chunk of the deadly dessert and plated it in front of me. I took a glutton’s bite then had to wash it down with the coffee. So much sugar my heart did a little jig. She started making Ziggi’s takeaway, slower this time.
“Street kids thus far, so under the radar pretty much. Still,” I said, “it’s only a matter of time before some little Normal goes astray and people in high places start looking at our kind. Well,” I paused, “your kind.”
“Half-breed,” she hissed before she could stop herself. I watch the hair on her head curl and twist, vipers forming there and writhing until she got herself under control.
I gave a cold smile around another mouthful of caramel mush. “All I’m saying, Aspasia, is if you know anything now would be the time to share. And I would be the person to share it with. You know me: I’ll do things quietly. Do you really want Brisneyland’s Keystone Cops traipsing through your place? If word of this gets out, not even your connections will stop them from coming down here. Then where will all the Weyrd go?”
Her shoulders shook with the effort of not hitting me. She didn’t like being threatened and truth be told, I didn’t like threatening—it was cheap and easy. But I didn’t stop. “Although I’m sure Shaky Jakes would pick up the slack, were Little Venice no longer able to guarantee its clients refuge from the ordinary.”
“It’s not about flesh. We haven’t seen a kinderfresser since . . .” she said, which was what I’d figured. “But I’ve been offered—wine.”
That sat me back on my arse. Wine? My confusion must have shown because she leaned forward. I did the same and felt one of the hair-snakes brush my left ear, soft as a kiss. It was kind of nice.
Aspasia spoke low. “Kids cry, right? I mean, they’re kids, there’s always something to cry over. But enough to fill two, three, four wine bottles? Like, wouldn’t that be a lifetime of tears?”
I stared at her.
“I was offered a case. A case, Fassbinder. That’s a lot of kids, a lot of tears. You take that . . .”
You take their tears and you rob them of all the tears they might ever cry. You steal their ability to feel joy, compassion, pain. You remove what makes them human. You take their lives. Not a kinderfresser, no, but something somehow worse.
“Who?” I asked. “Who’s been offering?”
She jerked her head towards a table in the corner. I didn’t turn around but watched in the mirror. A thin young girl sat there, badly made-up, her pale floss hair twisted back in a clip, her limbs so sharp they looked like they might make a break for it, given half a chance. She wore a grey singlet top with an irregular pattern on the front—whatever the design had been was gone along with the sequins. Beneath the table I could see stick legs and a far-too-short denim skirt.
“Why is she here?”
“She pays,” said Aspasia flatly.
“When did she offer you the case?”
“Two, maybe three weeks ago.” She shrugged.
“You didn’t think to tell anyone about this?” How many lives lost in that time?
“You think a couple of the Weyrd Council haven’t taken her up on the offer?”
“The Council hired me.”
“No, princess, Tepes hired you. He’s only one of them.”
Again, I sat back, digested that. The problem was bigger than we thought. I wouldn’t be reporting back too soon. I needed to finish this off-radar, and it needed to be fast; then the Council could get purged, weeded, whatever Bela thought appropriate. I flicked my eyes to the girl in the corner; she was looking at me. We stared at each other for maybe five seconds, but that’s all it took. She was up and out of her chair and haring down the long corridor before I could so much as turn around. There was no way I was running after her; no way I’d even bother to try.
“What’s her name and where do I find her?” I asked Aspasia who was casually putting the lid on Ziggi’s takeaway latte and snapping the chunk of cake into a polystyrene coffin. She pushed them towards me, and I handed over a twenty. I had the feeling she didn’t want to tell me any more and just as her hand retracted clutching the cash I grabbed at her and held on tight. I felt her wrist bones grind against each other beneath my grip. I may look Normal, I may be a half-breed, but it doesn’t mean I’ve got nothing of the Weyrd about me. I thought about wrapping the other hand around her throat and risking a few nips from the snakes, but decided she might find it hard to talk.
“Sally Crown. Lives on the streets. Sometimes she sleeps behind the West End Library. Sometimes in the derelict flats on Hardgrave Road. Now let me go and get the fuck out.”
“You need to work on your customer service skills, Aspasia. Keep the change.”
The whole way down the corridor I could feel her eyes boring into the back of my neck. Verity Fassbinder in action: winning friends and influencing people.
“I’ll see you tonight.”
Ziggi waved a hand in my general direction as he drove off; it was probably a “yes.” Those drivers play hard to get. Dawn had crept over the horizon about an hour ago and we’d given up watching the West End Library for any sign of Sally Crown. Admittedly, in the first place we tried—Hardgrave Road—I’d nearly been spitted on the umbrella of an especially grumpy old lady whose wings unfurled in shock when she found me in the flat she was using as a squat.
I made my way up the cracked path to my ramshackle cottage. The jasmine was thick on the front fence, lushly green with white-star flowers like icing. The scent was heady. I felt for my keys in the pockets of my jeans.
“Verity? Verity! Can you get my ball?” High and fluting, the voice came over the side fence. Between the palings was a small face, sharp-chinned, snub-nosed, wide-eyed, with a shock of mousey hair even messier than mine. A little hand pushed through the gap and pointed to a soccer ball lying under my front steps. Lizzie wasn’t allowed out of her yard without a parent in tow. She hated it, but I thought it a good idea and told her so at every opportunity—those were the days she decided not to talk to me.
I limped over and picked up the ball. It was really, really new. “Birthday present? Sorry I couldn’t come.”
“Uh huh. I like the book best.” She smiled and the edges of the crescent went so high that the break in the fence wasn’t wide enough to display them. The book of real fairy tales, the ones with little girls who were eaten by wolves and bears with no rescue; boys who got lost in the forest and weren’t found again ever; where your brother is a danger to you and your sister cannot be trusted; children whose greatest enemies were their own parents. Lizzie’s mother had frowned, but I told her that forewarned was forearmed. Lizzie loved the books in my house, so I knew I was on a winner.
I reached up and dropped the ball over.
“Thanks, Verity. Can I come and read later?”
“Not today, my friend. I’ve had a very long night. Maybe on the weekend?”
“Mmmmm-huh.” The tone told me she wasn’t impressed.
“Have a good day, sweetheart,” I said and headed to the door.
Inside, the hot air was smothering, so I opened all the windows and the double doors onto the back verandah. The breeze did its thing and soon the place was bearable. I carried a glass of cold water and a collection of painkillers out and sat in one of the faded green deckchairs.
I stretched my leg out and rested it on the top of the table. The pain eased. In the gigantic jacaranda tree that took up most of the back yard an extremely fat kookaburra perched. I gave him a nod; he stared, unmoved.
I needed a nap. I needed to do some research. But most of all, I needed the nap. Just a few hours.
I had to dig up the past; exhume my father. I didn’t want to, I really didn’t, but I had no choice. I closed my eyes, dropped my head back until there was a satisfying crack and things sat a little more comfortably.
My father. His murders.
My mother was Normal and gone before I knew her. The everyday things of my childhood were salt in the corners of a room to soak up the curses that might come our way; to keep away the worst of the shades, blood was baked into the bread and left as an offering once a week; dust was swept from the footpath towards the house, as we chanted “for all the wealth of the city to come home to us.” Took me a long time to work out there were two cultures and I could walk between them. That I could fool the Normals. And I could step into the Weyrd—they’d talk to me, but were wary.
Truth was, with one foot in each world, I didn’t belong anywhere.
Twenty years ago my father was jailed as a paedophile and child killer, but that didn’t even begin to touch the skin of what he was.
Most folk, Normal or Weyrd, are law-abiding. But there’s a market for everything, and the law of supply and demand, and some tables demanded the most tender of flesh. Small groups, private parties—it was a particular taste indulged in by the very few, a leftover from the past, when stealing children was an accepted practice; a hobby and a habit. Someone had to source and butcher that flesh.
My father. Kinderfresser. Child eater. Butcher to the Weyrd.
He never touched me—that needs to be clear—and he got caught like so many of them do. He got sloppy. He got lazy. He didn’t take the hunt far enough away from his home. All those fairy tales and my father was the monster.
Grigor lasted precisely how long you’d think a child killer would last in prison. He was a big man, but no match for the six prisoners who held him down. With him gone, my maternal grandparents brought me up; I learned “normal” from them. They loved me, cared for me, left me the house. Some days, though, I’d catch them looking at me as if I were something awful and fascinating, a cuckoo in the nest. It hurt at first, but in the end I accepted it. I let my father fade from my memory as much as I could.
The people Grigor had been supplying just faded into the background—that part never came out, that he was a kinderfresser and that his employers had disappeared without a trace, although the flow of child disappearances seemed to stop for a long, long time—at least, those connected to Brisneyland’s Weyrd. The Normal justice system isn’t really designed to cope with stuff like that. Hell, it can’t cope with its own mundane crimes.
Now, though, something had changed. Something new was on the market.
The State Library was cold, the air-conditioning set to arctic breeze. The microfiche reader made a slight buzz and gave off a lot of heat. I was tempted to rub my hands in front of it and maybe try to toast a marshmallow or two.
There was surprisingly little about Grigor’s murders; Weyrd influence in the corridors of power, I supposed, keeping things on the lowdown. But there were pictures of him being taken to and from the Supreme Court: a large handsome man in a bad suit, with hangdog eyes and a loose-lipped grin that showed off sharp teeth.
I hadn’t looked at these things before; hadn’t wanted to, had chosen not to, as if none of it had happened. But I think some days, when my thoughts turn that way, that everything I’ve done as an adult has been a kind of penance for what my father did. I try to be an atonement for him.
Where Grigor went wrong was to take a cared-for child, one from a happy home, a rich neighbourhood; a child loved and for whom someone would look. Had he stuck to the guttersnipes, the unwanted children, who knows how long he might have continued undetected?
I kept scrolling through the black and white projections of words and pictures: glamorous women smiled out from the social pages, their shoulder pads taking up much of the space; school kids celebrated for dux of their school; public outcry over the knocking down of yet another historic building; rubber duck races on the river of brown; writers and film festivals. Other crimes just as awful but not linked to me. Ah, Brisneyland.
When my fingers went numb, I gave up. Nothing there, a wasted afternoon. The need for more sleep buzzed in my head like a determined fly. And I was meeting Ziggi at my place at six. Sure, he could have picked me up from the library, but I was independent and didn’t plan to rely on anyone. My leg told me I was an idiot. I had to agree as I hobbled out the sliding doors and into the last of the stinking summer heat.
Lizzie’s mother stood on the patio of my house, pale and shaking in the late afternoon, knocking hard on the door.
She turned and looked at me with desperate hope. I just knew I was going to disappoint her.
“Is Lizzie here? She said she was coming over to read with you.”
“No, Mel, she’s not. When did she leave?” My heart thumped. No! I told myself, wrong neighbourhood. A cared-for child. Another part of my brain chimed in with Grigor did it.
“Have you checked the tree?” Lizzie liked to hide in the hollow of the jacaranda tree in my backyard. She had comic books in sealed plastic bags, a blanket, and a couple of dolls. Her mother and I pretended we didn’t know about it—every kid needs a secret spot.
She shook her head. “Not there—it was the first place I looked.”
“Okay, playing with friends in the street? You’ve called school friends?” She nodded, trying not to cry. “Okay, don’t mess around. Call the cops.”
“I don’t want to overreact . . .” she said, but I knew that’s exactly what she wanted to do, like any mother. She wanted to scream until her baby came back. She wanted to kill the person who’d caused her this tearing fear. I pushed her gently away from my door.
“Go. Call. Better to be safe than sorry. I’ve got to go out,” I said, eyeing the gypsy cab as it pulled up. “But you’ve got my mobile number if you find anything, if you need anything, okay? I can’t avoid this appointment, but I will be back later this evening, I promise.”
She nodded again and the movement was enough to spill the tears over. I hugged her hard and gave her a nudge in the right direction. I stumbled as I headed towards Ziggi and his chariot. Bernard was keeping him company again and at volume, worrying about paper cuts or something. How many times was he going to play that CD? I’m a big Bernard fan, but everyone has their limit.
If it had been me, I wouldn’t have gone back to my usual haunts, at least not that soon. I’d have waited maybe a week for interested parties to give up. Maybe I’m smarter than most people.
But Sally Crown—now Sally Crown was young and dumb.
Ziggi killed the engine and we rolled to a stop outside the West End Library. Out the front was a community noticeboard covered with flyers for self-help groups, book clubs, writers groups, sewing circles, and one enlargement of a newspaper article. A perfectly coiffed matron’s smiling face gleamed out from a photocopied feature about her handing over a substantial cheque to some charity or other. Someone had drawn a moustache across her top lip.
“You okay on your own?” Ziggi asked around a mouthful of day-old chocolate cake.
“Only Bela said . . .”
“He’s not my type.”
“If I yell then you come running, okay? Otherwise, finish your cake—it was expensive and I may not be able to go back there again for some time. And I cannot believe you still have some left.”
I got out and made my way around the back, surprisingly quietly, all things considered. I was tired enough to cry tears of self-pity, and my leg ached so much it felt like the wounds might have opened again, even though they were well-scarred over. There she was, tucked up like a dirty angel on a clapped-out sofa, a grubby old chequered picnic blanket pulled up to her chin. Mozzies buzzed enthusiastically, but wisely left me alone.
I gently lowered myself to sit beside her and cooed her name. She came awake with a start and slashed at me. Luckily, I was ready for that, suspicious type that I am.
“Okay, unfriendly and counterproductive,” I told her, snatching away the blade and tossing it over the fence. “So, Sally, tell me everything you know.”
“Fuck you, bitch.”
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
She let loose with a few more choice profanities and in the end I lost patience, grabbing at her face and squeezing the corners of her jaw so she whimpered.
“Now, you will notice that I am freakishly strong, Sally. I can and will pop your head if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
She tried to say something. It sounded like half-breed, so I squeezed a little tighter. Tears trickled down her cheeks. I felt bad and let her go. I stroked her hair and that made her flinch.
“Okay, let’s try again. Sally, I’m looking for a friend of mine. She’s young and she’s innocent, and if anything happens to her I swear I’ll be back for you, and you will not enjoy our reunion. Now, I suspect you’ve been leading children astray. No, don’t say anything—if I only suspect things, you’re safe.” I waved a finger at her. “If I know for certain then I will not be able to turn a blind eye. I will tell Tepes.” The fear in her eyes told me she knew about Bela. “But I am willing to ignore all the other things you’ve done if you tell me where I can find my friend.”
“She’ll kill me,” the child whined.
Beneath the rat-like demeanour I could see a little girl who’d been ill-used; who did what she could to survive; whose humanity had been stripped away until she thought of no one but herself. I felt sorry for her, but it didn’t stop me from saying, “And if you don’t tell me, I’ll kill you.”
“Sally, tell me and I will stop her. She won’t hurt anyone again. She won’t be a danger to you. I promise.”
She seemed to weigh the odds and the scales dropped in my favour. “House at Ascot.”
She reeled off the address and I stood up, anxious. I pulled whatever notes I had in my pocket out and gave them to her, thinking they might keep her from doing anything awful for a night or two at least. “If you’ve lied to me . . .”
She nodded I know, I know.
And then I had a thought. “Did you take her?” Lizzie wouldn’t have gone to an adult. She would have gone to another child, though, she would have wanted to play.
The hesitation was enough. I felt sick but I turned and walked away.
“Aw, Ziggi. How did we not know about this place?”
The house in Ascot was a big, old architectural layer cake. I didn’t remember seeing it before and looked askance at my sidekick. I mean, I like old houses, I spend a lot of time in them, and I know Brisneyland pretty damned well.
He shrugged. “Glamoured.”
He was right—it was kind of hard to look at. My eyes kept sliding to the side and I had to concentrate for the first few minutes we sat and watched. It got easier after a while, but still the building seemed, well, slippery. I leaned against the body of the cab while Ziggi hung out the window. “Right. Big trees, too.”
The block of land was huge (even for this area) and the house was set far back from the road, in the middle of an overgrown garden. Camphor laurels led up the driveway and grew so tall and close that they formed a canopy above the gravel path on which the taxi was parked. Flying foxes squeaked overhead, heading off for an evening of stripping people’s fruit trees and crapping on their laundry. They were darker patches against the moonlit sky, like shadow puppets.
“Aw, Ziggi,” I repeated. “Shit.”
“What? You don’t think it looks right?”
“I think it looks too damned right.” I pushed myself away from the grimy duco. “You’re not going anywhere?”
“I ain’t going nowhere,” he said, then added hopefully, “Hey, if anyone comes, you got a secret signal you want me to give?”
“Fuck no. I want you to make a really big noise so I hear you. Who knows, maybe you’ll scare them away. And I want you to listen out in case I start yelling for help. Help would be good. You know, cavalry, etcetera.”
“I got it. Big fucken noise.”
I gave him a thumbs-up and walked down the drive.
This would have made sense in West End, but this . . . this was Ascot. Home to the important people; property prices so high they could give you a nosebleed. If the car in the drive wasn’t a Jag or a Merc, then you knew it belonged to the cleaning woman. And here was this house, gigantic, glamoured, and seemingly empty.
The wood creaked under my feet as I went up the five steps to the verandah. A swing-chair sat beside the double front doors. There was a doorbell. I pushed it, hard, swung on it for a long while. What if Sally lied? Hell, what if Sally had told the truth? If anyone answered, I’d ask if they were interested in a pyramid selling scheme. That ruse had gotten me out of trouble more than once. People tended to back away, like you had a spare eye or a secondary nose. Of course, it had also gotten me into trouble once or twice.
No one came. I tried the handle—no joy. I peered in through the windows. They were clean, as was the upholstery on the swing-chair. So. Not deserted, and someone was concerned enough to keep the place spick and span.
I tapped my foot. Maybe Sally had lied and this was just a normal house. Then, why the glamour? I might have given up but that was the kicker; that and the sick feeling in my gut. Something was off. Where do you hide a whole bunch of kids? How do you make them disappear without a trace? Take them somewhere no one would look. Hide them away.
I couldn’t see too much further inside: dark, tidy rooms, some expensive pieces of furniture, a chandelier catching stray streaks of moonlight, thick curtains on most of the other windows. I listened hard for the sound of someone moving about inside. Nothing.
I broke a panel of the frosted glass in the front door, then reached through and let myself in. Ziggi studiously ignored my break and enter. I wasn’t too worried about making noise. The cops I could deal with. Dead kids, I couldn’t.
The long hallway had a thin Persian carpet running its length and that muffled my footsteps. I didn’t know what I was looking for, not exactly, but something like a door to a basement would be a good start. Eventually, I found it in the kitchen; in the pantry to be exact, right next to a shelf stacked with salt, sugar, and water crackers. Plain as day. I guess when you’ve got a glamour around your house and you live in Ascot you think you’re bulletproof.
The door wasn’t locked and the stairway that led down was brightly lit. My sneakers were soft on the steps, but not quite silent because the ache in my leg meant I brought one foot down harder than the other.
At the bottom of the stairs I found a large white room, the floor dark grey polished concrete. The house was old, and the basement must have been dug at the same time as the foundations were laid, but it wasn’t some dingy old cellar; it was pristine, industrial. One wall was lined with wine racks, half of them full. There was a row of steel tables, a large furnace in the back corner, a round vat with a screw-down lid and pipes running into and out of it like a moonshine still. Stark against the floor next to the furnace was a tumbling stack of small shoes and the air ached with a faint smell of cooked flesh.
In the middle of this stood a woman.
For all intents and purposes, she looked like an Ascot matron; in fact, she was the Ascot matron who’d smiled out at me from the community noticeboard. She didn’t look much different. Maybe in her sixties, but her true age was concealed by a combination of expensive cosmetics, a little glamour and a lot of Botox. Not overly tall, but with a good figure; a little thick around the waist. Her pale blue dress was impeccable, and her hair an elegant mix of grey and blonde. The ensemble was completed by an expensive gold watch, pearl earrings, and knuckle-duster rings probably worth more than my house.
“Yes?” she said. Didn’t say, What are you doing in my house, peasant? I’m calling the police. She was holding a pair of thick black gloves maybe made out of that same stuff they’re using to make muffin trays nowadays. They were at odds with the rest of her outfit.
I must have looked dumbly at her when I said, “You’re not eating them.”
“Oh, no. If you take their tears,” she told me quite tenderly, “you can’t use the meat afterwards. It’s too dry, tough. Really, it’s either wine or veal.” She smiled. “You’re Grigor’s daughter, aren’t you?”
I swallowed and peered around, noticing at last that on one of the tables lay a child. She was still dressed; her chest rose and fell. The woman nodded toward her. “Isn’t she lovely? I was very happy with Sally for this one—it’s much nicer when they’re clean and content.” She smiled. “She smells a little like you, you know—my, what a vintage you would have made, my girl, when you were young! What grief, what unadulterated heartache! Oh, what wouldn’t I have done to take the tears from you? The wine tastes so much sweeter when it’s born of sorrow.”
“Lizzie,” I said. She didn’t stir. Louder: “Lizzie!”
“She can’t hear you, dear. I keep them under, just a little sleeping spell, right up until I’m ready to put them in the press. You don’t want too much panic; that sours things. It’s the grief you want, the pain. Best taken fresh; giving them time to worry just makes things, well, stale.”
“Wake her up,” I said. “Wake her up and give her to me and we walk out of here. I tell no one about you. Just give her to me.” I wondered how many deals like this I’d try to make.
“I knew your father. Wonderful butcher. Reliable business partner. Talented kinderfresser, but sometimes so stupid, so rash.” She shook her head.
“Bela Tepes knows I’m here,” I lied. “You mess with me, you mess with him. You mess with him, you mess with the Weyrd Council.”
“I can handle them. Two of my best customers are on the board, lovey,” she confided.
On the table, Lizzie moved. The woman tut-tutted. “Oh, look you’ve broken my concentration. She’s waking up.”
And she came at me so quickly I didn’t have time to think. In my head, she was still the sort of woman who was only dangerous if you took the last friand at her favourite coffee shop. But she was older than that, infinitely stranger, and stronger. She punched me in the chest with both fists. I felt her rings rip the thin cotton of my overwashed t-shirt and pierce my skin, into the flesh. I fell straight backward. She cackled like a fairy tale witch. I hit my head on the concrete and black welled across my eyes.
Next thing I knew I could feel myself being dragged along the smooth cold floor. She had hold of my ankles, the agony of her pulling on my bad leg having woken me; that and the pain in my lacerated chest and my aching skull. She reached the furnace and let go—that hurt too—and I lay there trying to get my brain in order, trying to make my body work, trying to get to my damned feet and fight. I turned my head and looked into Lizzie’s open, terrified eyes.
I heard the door of the furnace clank open and felt the heat whoosh out. I raised my gaze and saw the old woman had finally put her gloves on, and yes, they did indeed clash with her outfit.
“Now,” she said, tilting her head to consider me, “you’re quite tall. How am I going to fit you in? Might be a bit of a squeeze.”
She leaned down to grab my hands so she could pull me forward. She was hideously strong; she was Baba Yaga, the witch in the forest, the stepmother with a poisoned apple in her hand. She hauled my top half up and for a moment our faces almost touched. She smiled and laughed and her breath was like rotten meat. I got my hand around her throat and she laughed again, kept laughing until she felt my grip tighten.
Then she was gasping and taking me seriously. I felt her nails against my back as they burst through the heatproof gloves and tore into me. I screamed and kept squeezing, watching her face turn purple. Her nails slid further in, closer to organs that would not react well to puncturing.
And then she was gone; the talons tore bigger holes in me as she was pushed aside and I fell to my knees.
Lizzie and my attacker fell back against the open maw of the furnace. I heaved myself up and pushed Lizzie out of the way. The old woman, smoke already rising from behind her head, started to scream. I punched at her torso just as she had done to me and she overbalanced, silver-grey hair becoming red and gold with flame. I grabbed at her ankles and lifted—the top half of her disappeared into the furnace and Lizzie and I jammed the rest of her in after. We pushed the door shut and locked it.
Welcome to the Gingerbread House.
The cab rolled across the Story Bridge in the soft darkness. I felt every bump and dip in the road, a regular rolling rhythm of thud thud thud. My t-shirt was sticky with blood; my wounds ached and itched. I wanted to get Lizzie home to her mother before I went to hospital. Sleep called, but I fought it. Ziggi looked at me, the back eye intent and the two at the front flicking to my image in the rear view mirror. I gave him a weak grin and a wave.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m a human pincushion.”
“When are you gonna tell Bela?”
“When I stop bleeding.”
I looked down at Lizzie. Her little body was curled on the seat beside me, and her head was in my lap. She sucked her thumb. My hand was on her shoulder, and I could feel the occasional tremor running through her, like a dog that dreamed it was chasing a rabbit.
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of all the kids who weren’t. “She’s okay.”
Ziggi pushed a CD into the player. Softly, Bernard sang about being washed clean. The sun came up.
© 2010 by Angela Slatter.
Originally published in Sprawl,
edited by Alisa Krasnostein.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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