Sunday, November 15, 2009

As Black As Hell


As Black As Hell
By John Lambshead
Illustrated by David Daniel
"For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night."
Sonnet 147, William Shakespeare

Gaston was used to waiting. The unofficial motto of the British Army was 'hurry up and wait.' Gaston had reached the rank of sergeant in the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment—the Queen's own Royal goon squad, not bad for the illegitimate son of a Charing Cross streetwalker. He had joined up after his mother's pimp had beaten her senseless with a red-hot coat hanger. Gaston had taken a white-hot poker to the pimp in retaliation. The local police had found the incident hilarious but a kindly bobby had suggested that Gaston should join the Queen's colours for a while to keep him out of circulation. The pimp was connected to one of the more vicious Kosovan white slaver gangs that imported teenage girls for the sex trade in Central London.
In Afghanistan, Gaston had come across something much older and far more dangerous than the Taliban, something that stalked and killed his section, one by one. Gaston had survived and even fought back. The Commission team that finally put down the beast had been impressed enough to recommend that the soldier be recruited. His mother was dead by then so Gaston was footloose and free. He was quietly discharged from the ranks on health grounds and disappeared into the Commission's tender arms.
Gaston sat on the floor in the back of a battered van with three others. "For Christ's sake stop drumming your fingers, MacDowell," he said.
"Sorry, Sarge," MacDowell said. He guiltily placed his hand in his lap.
Gaston closed his eyes again. The one thing a soldier learnt was to sleep when he could. You never knew when the chance might come again. The spearmen who followed Achilles knew this, as did the legionnaires who marched behind the Caesars. The important things never change.
The mobile vibrated in Gaston's pocket. He pulled it out and checked the message. It read simply 'She's in.' "Okay, boys," said Gaston. "It's on." He would have preferred to wait for daylight to deal with a Code Z but his orders were precise.
The van might have looked old and battered but the side door slid back in well-oiled silence. The four men debussed and moved purposely towards the cottage carrying bulky equipment. Two of them moved to the front door while the others knelt down in the garden. Gaston inserted a device into the door lock. A light flashed on the equipment, briefly illuminating black body armour, topped by a helmet with a reinforced visor.
The door lock opened with a noticeable click and the men froze, listening. When nothing happened, they pushed open the door and crept inside. Inside, the cottage was in darkness. The men opened the doors to each room with the barrels of bulky guns, scanning each room before entering. They moved confidently and silently through the darkened rooms, using the light enhancement technology in their visors.
Eventually, they had searched all the ground floor without finding their quarry so they clustered around the base of the narrow staircase. Gaston silently designated an order by pointing at each man and indicating a number with his fingers. The men filed up the stairs behind Gaston in the indicated sequence, keeping one metre's distance apart.
Gaston stepped on a loose board that creaked underfoot. All the men stopped and waited but the cottage remained dark and silent. Finally, they started moving again but each of the following men stepped carefully over the treacherous stair.
They stopped at the first bedroom door on the top landing and repeated their room opening ritual. The door was ajar. Gaston and a partner stood each side of the door and pushed it fully open with their gun muzzles. When there was no reaction, they moved inside, the second two members of the team taking their place at the entrance.
The room was empty except for some basic furniture. The bed was solid and the wardrobe door open, so there was no possible hiding place. Gaston started to back out when, for some odd reason, the second team member looked up.
Chaos theory insists that a single flap of a butterfly's wing in China can change the direction of a hurricane in the West Indies, sparing one island to devastate another. This may or may not be true. Certainly Chinese butterflies continue to irresponsibly flap, giving absolutely no thought to the welfare of their relatives in the Americas.
Human beings consider themselves to be inestimably superior to mere butterflies because they have created opera, organic vegetables and the Oprah Winfrey Show but in terms of irresponsible body movements they may not have advanced much further than the Lepidoptera.
The second team member looked up, changing several lives. It certainly changed his own life. Orange streetlight leaking through the window gently illuminated a lady all in black, crouching against the ceiling. She wore black leather trousers and jacket like a biker babe. Long black curly hair trailed down over her face. Her face was starkly North European pale. She crouched, hands and feet against the roof as if gravity was reversed.
The woman dropped down on the team member before he could move. Somehow, she twisted in mid air so that she dropped astride him as he fell to the floor. She grabbed his helmet with both hands and jerked hard. His neck broke with a noticeable crack.
Gaston hit her hard across the shoulders with his gun, driving her back. She hissed at him, opening her mouth to show impossibly long fangs. There was a great flash and crack of discharging capacitors that filled the room with indigo light and ozone. Invisible ultraviolet raked the woman's face causing her to moan in agony. The whine of recharging capacitors filled the room with high pitched sound. As she dropped, disorientated onto her knees, Gaston stepped up to her. He had not fired yet. He placed his gun muzzle directly against her face and discharged it. The flash flipped the woman onto her back.
"Quickly, get the restraints on." Gaston spoke for the first time since they had entered the cottage. Working with polished speed, the men slapped heavy silvered restraints around her wrists and ankles. One of the team pulled a thick leather bag over her head and fastened it at the neck.
A team member knelt to check the pulse of the man down on the ground. "He's dead."
Gaston unclipped a mobile phone and triggered a number. "Send a clean up crew. We got her. We have one friendly casualty, terminal."
The woman on the floor sat up.
A soldier walked over to her, "You killed Frank, you bitch." He kicked her in the face, as hard as he could.
****
"There's the Code Z," said Farley. "She's already had the preliminary treatment. Only the oaths are left."
"What do we know about her?" said Jameson.
Farley opened a file. "We know she has been using the name Karla. We are not sure who she really is or how old she is. She can still pass as human well enough to function to a limited degree within human society. She has made at least five kills in the red light zones. Three clients and two prostitutes have been drained to our certain knowledge over the last two years. Given that she would need regular meals, the low frequency of deaths must mean that she mostly stops short of a kill. That suggests she hasn't yet descended into animal irrationality. Frankly, I never thought that R&D would ever find a suitable candidate. It certainly took them long enough."
Jameson did not comment. Code Zs became more dangerous as they aged. Young suckers were more malleable but the old ones were the real prize for the experiment. Mental deterioration set in past a certain age, though. That was why immortal Code Zs did not overrun the world. Some became twisted obsessive maniacs that were too damn dangerous to do anything but destroy–if you could. Most shut down mentally and retreated into non-sentience to become the basis for monster and demon legends.
The two men stood behind a shield of one-way armoured glass. The woman in black leather was chained to a heavy steel chair that was itself bolted to a concrete floor, like it was in some demented dentist's surgery. She sat with unnatural stillness.
The interrogator pulled the hood off her head. She didn't move but blinked in the bright, artificial lights, watching him.
"Can you understand me?" the interrogator said.
She looked at him without speaking. The man sighed.
He raised his hand and a guard in body armour walked around him and pointed a weapon at her torso. It looked like an assault rifle but had a much thicker barrel and magazine.
"That is a Model YR03 rail gun. The electromagnetic coils accelerate a steel cored wooden bolt up to 200 miles an hour. At this range it will punch clean through you."
She still did not respond so he spoke again. "You are useless to me if you refuse to cooperate or you are too far gone to comprehend instructions, and we might as well use you to test the gun. So for the last time—can you understand me?"
"I understand you," she said. "What do you want?" Her accent was impossible to place, like one of those Eurotrash playboys who had lived in so many places that they had picked up something from all of them.
"That's better. We want you to do something for us," he said. "Are you willing to cooperate?"
"You need me for something?" She spoke without emotion.
"You will undergo a magic ritual. You will be required to do this voluntarily and to make the appropriate actions and response when prompted." The man looked at her intently.
"Yes." She licked her lips.
"If you do anything to interrupt or corrupt the ritual then you will be immediately destroyed without a second chance. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she said, again.
"You don't say much do you," the interrogator said. She did not answer.
The man got up and left the room but the guards remained watching her.
A woman approached carrying a bag of arcane objects and herbs.
"Witch," whispered Karla. For the first time she looked apprehensive.
The woman set out her magic paraphernalia on the floor. She lit scented candles, dimming the lights. She put various herbs in a bowl and ground them up in Buxton spring water from a plastic bottle. Closing her eyes the witch recited an incantation sitting cross-legged on Karla's right.
"I think this is your cue, old boy," said Farley.
"Yah." Jameson opened the door and walked in. He knelt down in front of Karla.
The witch paused while Jameson found a comfortable position, then she started the ceremony proper.
"Tied in chains that can't be seen,
Tied in chains that can't be parted,
Tied in chains that bind her being,
Hecate, Queen of night,
Hear me, Hecate, hear my summoning
She offers body, mind and heart,
Come Hecate and hear her promise,
Bind her body, mind and heart,
He is here and waits possession,
An open channel for your purpose,
On his head the geas falls,
Hear her, Hecate, work the magic,
Bind her body mind and heart,"
The witch chanted on and on until Karla's eyes dropped. Little will-o-wisps danced in green and white and blue around the three and the candles flared. It looked like a clip from a soap advert dreamt up by a planner who had pushed too much white powder up his nose. Jameson couldn't move. The witch arched her back and sighed deeply.
"Hecate, Queen of Darkness, she comes, she comes."
Then she slumped forward as if exhausted. The candle flames subsided and the will-o-wisps faded. There was a long pause and Jameson's hands and feet tingled with "pins and needles" as if the circulation had been temporarily cut off. The witch sat up and snapped her fingers, waking Karla up. She offered Karla a bowl. Yellow vapour flowed gently from it onto the floor.
"Drink and say 'With all my heart I offer,'" said the witch.
Karla hesitated, took a sideways look at a guard, then bent her head forward.
The witch put the bowl to her lips and Karla drank. "With all my heart I offer," she said.
Jameson took the bowl in turn and drank "I accept the responsibility."
The witch blew the candles out slowly and ceremonially. She said a small incantation as each flame was extinguished. When the last was out, she left the room. The guards followed and closed the door.
"Hello Karla, my name is Jameson. Well here we are, all alone."
Jameson had done some hairy things for the Commission but this was the most dangerous. He feigned casualness out of some personal sense of pride. There was no real point. He knew Karla could smell his emotions and he must reek of fear.
"We will soon have you out of all those chains." He chatted amiably and pointlessly as he worked.
He unclipped her ankles first, then her arms and wrists. Karla shot out of the chair and moved warily to the back of the room. Jameson stood still, turning to watch her. She tested the armoured glass and walls with the heel of her hand. She hit like a pile driver but the room was reinforced. Then she tried the door without success.
"I have the door key." Jameson showed it to her then put it in his pocket.
She walked up to him and opened her mouth, revealing elongated canines. He wanted to run, oh boy, how he wanted to run, but he was locked in with her. There was nowhere to go. She stopped and looked puzzled.
"I feel your fear," she spoke to him for the first time. "I don't . . . I don't like the feeling."
He pulled a rail pistol from under his arm. It was a three shot weapon that could be easily concealed as a last ditch defence. Jameson's weapons instructor had always said that if you needed to fire a second time at rail pistol range then you were already dead. So the three shot magazine was a luxury.
Jameson held the pistol at arm's length pointed at her heart. "Pay careful attention, Karla. I will kill you if you feed on a human being. I will kill you unless you kill me first."
She made a half-hearted move towards him, claws and teeth extended, but hesitated. He slapped her across the face, causing her to recoil. "What have you done to me?" she whispered.
"I will kill you if you ever feed on a human being unless you kill me first. Do you understand me?"
She then did something utterly unexpected. She backed away from him to the corner, curled up into a ball and shook. What was he supposed to do now? He squatted down beside her and put his hand on her shoulder. She shrank away.
"It's alright, Karla. It's alright," he said softly stroking her arm. "You don't want to kill me, the magic won't let you, and I don't want to kill you. You will tell me when you need to feed and I will get you blood." After a while she stopped shaking.
"Come on, get up," he said, cajolingly.
"What have you done to me?" she repeated.
"You've been bound to me," he said gently. "The witch's magic has bound you. Come on, get up."
This was ridiculous; he was treating a man-killing monster as if she was a frightened woman. The trouble was that she looked like a frightened woman, albeit one with metallic green eyes. She allowed him to haul her to her feet.
"Now we are going to leave this place. You will stay close to me and remember, attack a human being and I will kill you."
Jameson unlocked the door and walked out. He didn't look around but he heard her follow him. They walked down a corridor and into another room full of people. Everyone in that room was a volunteer and everyone was scared. They were all dead if she went into a killing frenzy. Jameson held his pistol inconspicuously at his side. Karla looked in and opened her mouth, showing long teeth. She looked at Jameson and then backed out into the corridor.
"It's okay, Karla. Follow me." Jameson grabbed her hand and pulled her behind him. She looked rigidly ahead as he paraded her through the room. He took her to a door that opened out into a courtyard.
"Well, Karla. You passed the test. I guess the spell works, or at least it has so far."
Jameson walked to where his car was parked. The blue Jaguar two seater sports was his beloved. He clicked the remote and the car chirruped a welcome, flashing its amber indicators. He opened the left-hand door. "Come on, Karla. Get in."
She shrank back. "Smelly, noisy."
Jameson held out his hand to her. "We have to use the car to go home. Come on, I've even fitted darkened windows," he said, encouragingly. Home was too far to walk and it was too late for the tube. The thought of taking her on a tube train was–disconcerting.
She climbed into the Jag and perched on the edge of the seat. Jameson got in the driver's side and clipped his belt on. He tried to attach hers but she stopped him and shook her head. "I guess the seat belt laws don't apply to you," he said. Actually, very little of the United Kingdom's legal code had been written with her in mind.
He started the engine. She seemed fascinated by the parade of lights that flicked across the dashboard. "Karla, have you been in a car before?"
She shook her head.
"I suppose the technology has only been around for a hundred years," said Jameson, with heavy, and wasted, irony.
****
He pulled out of the bay and up to the security barrier. His chipped identity card lifted the bar. At this time in the morning, even the streets of London were empty and the big Jag ate the miles. Jameson was a fast, confident driver and, as he got into the mood, he swung the car through the wet streets, letting the back step out as he used the accelerator to steer. He flicked the player on.
The Jag had a state of the art MP3 system. Jameson downloaded the latest CDs into it every month. He had the system rigged to random mood selection. Theoretically, the system analysed his driving and the weather to select appropriate tracks. Jameson also had set it to favour recent recordings.
Katie Melua's perfect, crystal-clear voice infiltrated their air space.
"Piece by piece is how I'll let go of you, Kiss by kiss, will leave my mind one at a time."
A hand gripped his thigh.
Karla gripped the roof handhold with one hand and his leg with the other. "Fast," she said. "Go fast."
Good grief, thought Jameson. Jaguar sports cars had a well-deserved reputation as totty-magnets but this was ridiculous. But her enthusiasm was infectious especially to a man who still possessed a strong boy-racer streak.
He pulled the gear selector down and across to drop it two gears and he opened the throttle as they joined the Cromwell Road. The bonnet lifted as the V12 dug the rear wheels into the tarmac. The Jag shot past the gothic cathedral-like building of the Natural History Museum. Not only the dinosaurs watched them pass, a trail of flashing speed cameras winked in their wake, like photographers behind a Hollywood starlet parading up the red carpet. The car was registered with the diplomatic plates of a small African country so the traffic police could only sigh and tear up the tickets.
She gripped him hard as the Jag accelerated. "Um, Karla, you're hurting my leg."
She turned shining emerald eyes on him and released him fractionally. "I can feel your blood pumping."
There was, he thought, no answer to that. He turned off the A4, southwest to Richmond.
****
Jameson lived at the top of a small, modern block of flats half way up Richmond Hill. The building was wonderfully tasteless, and quite out of keeping with the rest of the area. He had often thought that the builder must have had serious black on the head clerk of Richmond's Planning Department to get permission for such a monstrosity. Nevertheless, the view from his flat took in the Thames and half of Richmond below. After only fifteen minutes, he found a bay to park the Jag a bare five hundred metres from his flat. It was a good night. Sometimes he needed to get a taxi home from where he parked the car.
The deadlocked door opened with a click and he punched his code into the elaborate security systems. "I will need to teach you how an electronic alarm system works," he said. "What are you waiting for?"
She stood outside. "I can't come in. Something stops me."
"Ah, I forgot the magical shield around the flat. It obviously regards you as hostile. Hang on." He reached out and held her wrist. "You are welcome in my home. That should do it, try again."
She walked in. "The kitchen is here. There are blood bags in the fridge and a microwave." She looked blank. "I will teach you how to use them. The sitting room is in here. My bedroom is at the end and this is yours."
He opened the door on a well-appointed room. "It's a little small, I'm afraid, but you know London prices."
He was gabbling, he knew. How could she possibly understand property prices? But the situation was stressful He paused but she said nothing. "It'll be dawn soon. The window is double blinded and I have drawn the curtains in the other rooms to give you the run of the flat. I need to sleep, so I'll see you later."
She did not speak or even move as he let himself out. Jameson was tired but sleep eluded him. He had total faith in The Commission's magic geeks when they assured him that Karla couldn't possibly attack him. Yeah, right. They gave the assurances but it was his neck not theirs. How the hell had he volunteered for this? You killed suckers, as quickly and safely as possible, before they killed you. What you didn't do was have them over as houseguests. He listened intently but all he could hear was his heart, thump, thump, thump. Come to think of it, she could probably hear it too. Jameson checked his rail pistol was charged and rolled over.

When he woke, it was mid afternoon. The flat was as silent as the grave. Jameson winced; the metaphor was unattractive. He put his robe on and knocked gently on Karla's door. There was no answer so he pushed it open. The room was just as he had left it, the bed unruffled. There was no evidence that she had ever been in it. Where the hell was she?
He found her in the lounge, sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the darkest corner, to the side of the window. He almost drew the curtains; cursing himself gently, he turned on the light instead. She had a book open on her lap. She must have been reading in the dim light. He made a note that her night vision was extraordinary.
Reading was a good sign. It suggested her mind was functioning. "What attracted your interest, hmm, the complete works of William Shakespeare. You like the Bard, then."
Jameson had read English Lit. at Cambridge. He had obtained a good rowing blue and a poor third class degree. Two sorts of people went to Oxford and Cambridge in Jameson's day. The first group was state school geeks with oversized brains; they generally got firsts. The second group was the public school educated sons and daughters of the cream of society, that is the thick and the rich. They spent three years networking and clubbing, and got thirds. It was very unfashionable to get a second since it implied that you were too geeky to enjoy the social life and too dim to cut the academic mustard.
He had kept his course books after graduating. Many of them were still unopened, but they filled the spaces on his shelves nicely. His Shakespeare, however, was well thumbed.
"What are you reading? The Sonnets? You have a taste for romanticism, then." She did not answer but it was important that he keep communicating with her so he took the book from her hands and read from the open page.
"In the old age black was not counted fair, or if it were, it bore not beauty's name; but now is black beauty's successive heir, and beauty slander'd with a bastard's shame."
He flicked down the page. "Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art, as those whose beauties proudly make them cruel; for well thou know'st to my dear doting heart . . . Thy black is fairest in my judgement's place, in nothing art though black save in thy deeds, and hence this slander, as I think, proceeds."
"The Dark Lady Sonnets!" he said. Jameson had a soft spot for these poems. His one attempt at amateur dramatics had been a part in Shaw's play based on the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. His girlfriend of the moment had played The Lady so he had been persuaded to play the Beefeater. He had a scant dozen line of dialogue. The only one he could remember now had been something like "Halt, who goes there?" The girlfriend had dumped him right afterwards for the smooth bastard who played the romantic lead, young Will Shakespeare, himself. But Jameson's interest in Shakespeare had been awakened and had never quite died.
"He was so young," she said "but his words hung in the air."
"You were there?" he said. "You heard the Bard?" Jameson gazed at her in astonishment and increasing excitement. The rational side of his mind insisted that coincidences like this did not happen. But the romantic part whispered that it was not impossible.
"Are you really that old, Karla? Could you have met Shakespeare?" he said, doubtfully.
"The poet's words were like quicksilver, like fire in my head," she said, "and he loved me."
"He loved you?" said Jameson, in astonishment. He paced the room, excitement mounting. Could she lie in her current state? Why would she lie? Do suckers fantasise? He knew so little about her kind. Mostly, he just killed them.
"I wish I had paid more attention to Gimpy Harris' lectures," Jameson said. Gimpy Harris was Professor Auberon Harris, an eminent Shakespearean scholar. Jameson had slept off several hangovers through his lectures.
"What did Gimpy say about the Dark Lady?" Jameson ticked the points off on his fingers. "She was older than Shakespeare. She was probably not an aristocrat. He called her black because of both her colouring and the wickedness in her heart. She was devious and unfaithful. Loving her was wrong in some way. The Bard was almost vicious in his denunciation of his love for her and the damage it would do to his soul."
He thumbed through the Dark Lady arc with a new eye. "Then will I swear beauty herself is black, and all they foul that thy complexion lack."
"So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men, and death once dead, there's no more dying then."
"Read in one way, that could have come straight out of the Necronomicon–the Book of The Dead," whispered Jameson. Oh this surely was not possible.
"For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night."
"He's talking about the undead, the creatures of the night!" said Jameson, belief starting to overcome scepticism.
"In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn . . . For I have sworn thee fair; more perjur'd I, to swear against the truth so foul a lie."
"Oh my God, it's all here. The Dark Lady was a black-haired vampire, the undead who feed on death so that they never die, a creature of the night. His soul was foresworn for loving her." Jameson was stunned. He had read these passages a hundred times and seen them simply as the record of an unfortunate love affair. That was the problem with Shakespeare. There were so many ways to interpret the words, depending on the reader's mindset.
He knelt down beside her and pushed the hair out of her eyes. "What do you remember, Karla? What secrets are locked in your head? Gimpy would have sold his soul for an hour with you." That might have been literally true but Gimpy would still have paid the price.
"It's been so long," she said.
"Do you understand what was happening to you, Karla?" he said. "You were regressing fast. Soon, you would have been completely animal. Then you would have made a fatal mistake. Well, you are going to be kicked out of it now."
****
Jameson gunned the Jaguar up the North Circular. London's north western inner ring road is a driver's delight. Large roundabouts connect stretches of urban duel carriageway, offering a constant challenge. Karla was a particular temptation as speed thrilled her and she urged him on, not that he ever needed much encouragement.
The player had selected Franz Ferdinand. "You see her, you can't touch her. You hear her, you can't hold her."
Tonight he was barely getting into his stride when a large Ford attached itself to his tail. Jameson dropped a gear and accelerated away from it. The Ford followed and deployed hidden blue flashing lights and a familiar bee-boo noise.
"Damn, I seem to have picked up the only patrol car in London. Let me do the talking," Jameson said.
"You want her, you can't have her. You want to, she won't let you."
He pulled over, killed the player and lowered the driver's window. "Who do we think we are then, sir, Michael Schumacher?" Only London's Metropolitan Police could make the word "sir" sound so deeply insulting.
"No, Officer. I think I'm a diplomat. My passport." Jameson handed it over. The bobby examined it with his torch. It was a perfectly good passport that declared Jameson to be an attaché of the Republic of Hamrandi. "As you see, I have diplomatic immunity to prosecution."
"Where's Hamrandi, when it's at home?" the guardian of the law asked.
"Africa," said Jameson succinctly.
The policeman sniffed, eloquently. "Amazing how diplomats from the poorest countries have the flashiest cars. And what about her? Is she a diplomat too?"
"No, Officer. She's just a colleague. And as she is simply sitting there she doesn't need to prove anything, does she?"
The policeman shone his torch at her. "Would you mind removing your sunglasses please, madam?"
She just looked at him.
"Take your glasses off, love," said Jameson.
Karla removed the shades. Her eyes flashed metallic green in the torchlight. She hissed at the policeman, who jumped.
"Amazing what women can do nowadays with coloured contact lenses, isn't it?" said Jameson, cheerfully.
The policeman was so rattled that he failed to reprimand Karla for not wearing a belt. Nevertheless, he rallied manfully. "Yes, sir. You may be a diplomat but keep your speed down, or we will find reasons to keep pulling you over and making your life miserable."
"Absolutely, Officer. I shall certainly be more careful in future," Jameson assured him.
"See that you do." With that parting shot, the guardian of the law reasserted his dignity and strode back to his motor.
"We had better be more circumspect for the rest of the evening," said Jameson, propelling the Jag at a sedate pace.
"Slow," said Karla, succinctly. She had improved immensely in the last fortnight and now even initiated discourse. But she was still not one would call a sparkling conversationalist.
Jameson pulled into the rear car park at the Brent Cross shopping centre, leaving the motor tucked well away in a dimly lit corner. He opened the passenger door for Karla and handed her out. As he wanted her to behave like a lady, he elected to treat her as one. She took his arm, as he had trained her. He had put a lot of effort into training her and the more he tried the faster she learnt. He escorted her to a shop that had one dress in the window, a dress with no price tag. Simpsons was a ladies outfitter, not a dress shop.
"Are you up to this, love? You will have to maintain control out of my sight. Can you do that for me, Karla?"
"I can do it," she said.
"Mr Jameson?" said the personal shopper. "We are expecting you." The lady—Simpsons does not have shop assistants, they have ladies—looked somewhat askance at Karla's tattered leathers.
"My friend," Jameson gestured at Karla, " has just flown back from a spiritual odyssey to Nepal. Her luggage is believed to have been rerouted to Bangkok via Istanbul. While the airline looks for it, she will need daywear, business wear, an evening outfit and something suitable for bike riding; she favours leathers. I expect you to make appropriate suggestions as she is somewhat out of touch, fashion wise. Charming place, Nepal, but somewhat rural." Jameson indicated Karla's outfit, which spoke for itself.
"Does sir require an account?" said the lady. By way of answer, Jameson laid a Coutt's Classic Card down on the counter. Coutt's were the Queen's bank. Liquid assets of one hundred thousand pounds were required to open an account.
"Charge it to that," Jameson said.
"Madam will require underwear to match?" said the lady. From the look on her face, she was estimating her commission on the sale.
"I would imagine so," said Jameson, vaguely. He retreated hastily from what was clearly becoming a male no-go zone.
****
The lady raised a hand and a younger version materialised at her elbow. "Madam will need luggage to carry away her selection. Go round to V&J and pick up a set."
She seized Karla by the arm and led her determinedly into the racks. Karla gave him a look of desperation over her shoulder so he smiled encouragingly. Jameson, preparing for a long wait, took out a packet of Dunhill. One of the staff frowned at him and pointed to a sign indicating that the whole arcade was a no-smoking zone.
Cursing Blair's nanny government, he trooped out to the car park and joined a small huddle of pariahs camped around the main entrance. The rebellious "enemies-of-the-Blairite-state" sucked on their burning weeds and stomped up and down to keep warm. He flirted for four cigarettes with a charming girl from Hackney, any difference in social class submerged in their common exile. They were the dispossessed in the new politically correct society.
Reluctantly, for the young lady from Hackney was a very nice girl who had admitted to certain interesting fantasies regarding Jaguar sports cars, he dragged himself back to the shop to see how the wardrobing of his pet creature of the night was proceeding. The personal shopper was standing outside the changing area talking to Karla, who lurked within where Jameson couldn't see her.
"Madam wears it well. The gentleman wished you to have eveningwear and that is eveningwear. Look, he has returned. Why not show him?" She reached in and hauled Karla out into the shop.
The personal shopper had dressed the Dark Lady in a wisp of a little black dress with matching strappy sandals and clutch bag. "I feel ridiculous," muttered Karla, sulkily.
"You look fabulous," said Jameson, simply. "We'll take it."
Karla elected to wear her new black leathers out of the shop. Jameson let her have her way as he thought she had received enough fashion shocks for one night. She was definitely starting to look mutinous. Jameson insisted on carrying the luggage. He was intellectually aware that she could carry him and the luggage with one hand but, dammit, a gentleman carried the bags for a lady. And back there in that shop, she had looked every inch a lady.
Four youths hung around the Jaguar. "Nice wheels, mate," said the largest. "We've been looking after your motor for you to make sure it don't get damaged. Might still get damaged unless you pay us a pony."
"Sod off," said Jameson, succinctly. "Or I'll set my girlfriend on you."
The youths straightened up and closed on him. Jameson ran through the options in his head. Karla was well fed so shouldn't be hungry. The magic spell would probably force her to intervene if the yobs attacked him. That could rapidly get out of hand. Perhaps better to have a more controlled situation. It would be a good test of how well he could control her and how well she could control herself to please him.
"You have been very patient tonight, Karla, so I give you these four. No killing or maiming but other than that, have fun. Oh and Karla." She looked at him. "No feeding."
"Really," said Karla, happily. "I can play with them?"
"Sure," said Jameson. "Have a ball." He hoped he wasn't making a terrible error.
"Hold on a min—" a yob started to say.
Karla grabbed him, picked him up and heaved him horizontally across the car park.
"No," said Jameson, in genuine anguish. "Mind the Jag." Too late, the yob crashed into the wing, leaving a dent.
The gang leader produced a knife and ran at her. He thrust viciously at her face. She caught him by the wrist and twisted. Something broke with a crack. Karla kicked his legs out from under him and rabbit punched him as he fell. The last two made a run for it, but she was on them, like a cheetah running down rabbits. She grabbed them, one hand on each neck, and crashed their heads together. Then she tossed them casually aside.
The leader groaned and rose to his knees attracting her attention. He would have done better to have stayed down. She moved over to him. Jameson noticed that she slid like an ice dancer. She really was extraordinarily graceful, a beautiful man-killer who moved like a tigress. Karla hauled the leader up by the front of his denim jacket. Blood ran down his face and neck. She stared at it in fascination, opening her mouth to reveal long canines. He fainted dead away, becoming limp in her grip.
"No feeding, Karla. Remember," Jameson said softly.
She licked the blood from his face and shuddered. "No feeding," she repeated, retracted her teeth and dropped him.
Lights appeared.
"Oh no, not plod again," said Jameson.
A "jam-sandwich" pulled into the car park and made its way unhurriedly towards them.
"Well, well," said the Keeper of the Queen's Peace, emerging from the police car. "If it isn't the diplomat from . . . where is that place?"
"Hamrandi," said Jameson.
"Hamrandi," repeated the bobby, with satisfaction. "The attaché from Hamrandi."
The gang leader revived and groaned. "As I leave and breathe, Chippy Jones," said the policeman, with a grin. "The North Circular's answer to The West Side Boys. Working the old 'guard your wheels for you mister' were you, Chippy?"
The policeman applied first aid with the back of his hand across Chippy's face, knocking him fully awake.
"We was attacked," said Chippy.
"No, attacked eh, how shocking," said the bobby, looking utterly unshocked. "Have you been beating up the local wildlife then, ambassador?"
"Not him, her!" Chippy wailed.
"The young lady." The bobby laughed. "She hammered you! All together Chippy, or did you line up one at a time, like gentlemen?"
"She ain't yuman," said Chippy.
"What would you know about being human, Chippy?" said the policeman, scornfully. "Do you want to press charges, sir?" he asked Jameson.
"Against this shower?" said Jameson. "I can't be bothered."
"You had better be off then." He looked at Karla, thoughtfully. "Interesting bodyguards you Hamrandi people use. Good night, sir."
****
Jameson noticed that Farley was nervous, very, very nervous. He fidgeted, he sweated, he adjusted his laptop and he adjusted his tie. He was an analyst not a field operative. His job involved collating, analysing and interpreting data. He planned operations and briefed the agents. He might have worked for an insurance company or been the bloke who determined the optimum failure rate of light bulbs to maximise profits but, amongst other things, he was a financial expert.
The Commission still had people who hung out in Gothic cemeteries and ancient temples but in London, you followed the money trail. Farley had antennae sensitive to the smallest sniff of bad money on the move around the merchant banks and clearing houses of The City.
Often, the Commission's analysts found illicit transactions that had no paranormal interest at all. But that was all right too. The Commission could always use additional funds and the original owners of the loot were in no position to complain.
Jameson knew that Farley had briefed too many field teams for the danger aspect of the work that the agents did to bother him. He had acquired the essential knack that all staff officers need, of emotionally disconnecting himself from outcomes. He did his very best to prepare field operatives for their task but if it subsequently went pear-shaped and people died–well, he had done his best. But Jameson was willing to bet that Farley had never sat on a sofa next to a demon, hence the nervousness.
"I first noticed the movement of money, through an account at CBJs. Large sums are being laundered from the trade of Aztec grave goods. Someone has access to unknown burial grounds in Mexico."
"And the money is being used for?" asked Jameson.
"No idea," said Farley. "It's just accumulating at the moment. We traced the movements to a banker and put a watcher team on him."
"What makes you think we have a Code Z?" asked Jameson.
"The people who bought the grave goods. Some just had breakdowns but others. . . ." Farley shrugged and pushed a London Evening Standard clipping over to Jameson. It read "Islington dad slaughters baby twins and partner before cutting his own throat."
"There was something else," said Farley. "One of the watchers disappeared, a young woman. She turned up in the Thames, drained of blood."
"The banker?" said Jameson.
"He's taken to working at home during the day and only comes into the office after dark," said Farley.
"So he's been possessed by a sucker. The best time to take him would be at midday, when he's torpid, at his home. Why are you briefing us? Karla is also . . . not at her best in daylight." Jameson smiled at her."
"Oh, I agree with your analysis, Major Jameson. But we don't know where he currently lives."
"The dead watcher," said Jameson.
"Must have followed him to his new lair, yes. We do not want to risk any more watchers so you will have to take him at night when he leaves the office. He uses a laptop; we want the hard drive."
Farley produced a picture. "We also want him destroyed." He looked at Karla. "Will that present you with a conflict? You are of a type."
"He is not of me," said Karla.
Farley looked at Jameson, who shrugged. He was not exactly sure what Karla meant but there would be little point in asking her. If she wanted to tell them then she would, cross questioning her would be unproductive.
"This laptop has software synched to CBJ's communications. It will tell you when the banker goes online.I suggest you pick him up when he leaves the office."
"Someone will have to shut down the flow of artefacts at source," said Jameson.
"That is in hand and none of your concern," said Farley, pompously. "The Texas office is sending in a team."
"Oh really, rather them than me. Aztec blood magic is nasty." Jameson shuddered. "Who are the poor saps assigned to that piece of fun?"
"I believe Pitts has taken the job on," said Farley.
Jameson had met Pitts, a tough, slow talking Texan, who he remembered as a first rate shot. "Best of British luck, mate." He whispered a quiet blessing.
"If there's nothing more?" Farley snapped the lid of the laptop down when no one answered. "I'll see myself out," he said, with what could only be described as relief.
****
The sun was setting as the Jag headed north up the South Circular. The Pagoda at Kew Gardens stood out against the setting sun. The sky was a streak of red as the light filtered through the pollution of twenty million people. Jameson switched on the car player as they crossed the river. Spookily it selected When the sun goes down, the Arctic Monkeys hit. The player had been selecting eerily appropriate music lately when he drove with Karla on board. He suspected he had a "a god in the machine,"—or at least a small demon in the chip.
"They said it changes when the sun goes down, over the river going out of town."
The song was about Sheffield but it could be London or any British city. The Monkeys sang how the streets change when the sun goes down and the day people hurry home to their TV dinners and suburban warmth of their double-glazed, centrally heated lives. The night people come out. The girls with pinched faces shivering in skirts that are too short and blouses that are too thin. Housewives that need a bit extra to pay the lekky bill, addicts who owe their dealer or just students whose loans have run out. And then there are the punters, the middle aged, middle management, middle class, middle of the road men slowing down their company Ford Mondeos and Vauxhall Vectras to walking pace, kerb-crawling so that they could assess the talent and hire a friend for an hour. Jameson reflected that he and Karla were in no position to cast stones. They too were of the dark, people as black as night.
Over the river he connected with the A4, to follow it into The City. The player seemed to favour the Monkeys tonight.
"All you people are vampires, all your stories are stale."
Jameson killed the autoselector and manually restricted the machine to old sixties numbers. It retaliated with Waterloo Sunset. He sighed and let it run. The damn machine was trying to tell him something.
Relying on his diplomatic plates, Jameson parked on the double yellow lines opposite CBJs. He plugged his iPAQ in to the car's power supply and jiggled with the software that he had downloaded from the laptop.
"Yeah, our target is definitely in there, doing whatever merchant bankers do to earn their million quid bonuses."
"A million pounds sounds such a great deal of money," said Karla. "They used to run the whole country on less than that."
"Yah, well. Some day let me explain inflation to you. I'm going to get some sleep. Watch that display and tell me if anything changes."
Jameson pushed the seat back and propped himself against the door. He couldn't get comfortable but must have dozed because Karla was shaking him awake. "He's coming outside."
"What? Why didn't you wake me earlier when he logged off? Oh, I see. Bloody computers." According to his iPAQ the banker was still online. Karla gestured to a shadowy figure getting into a BMW. He carried a computer case. "Are you sure that's him, Karla?" She did not answer. "Yes, of course you're sure. You can feel him, can't you?"
The Beamer pulled out of the bay and Jameson followed. The banker drove steadily through the streets east and north, turning into smaller and smaller side streets. Soon they were driving through dimly lit narrow alleys. Jameson hung back as far as he could to avoid detection. Every so often, he changed the pattern of the light array on the front of the Jag, to make it look like a different vehicle in the banker's rear view mirror.
The BMW stopped outside a run down warehouse. "That's odd," said Jameson, pulling in. "I thought all these old buildings had been pulled down years ago."
The banker locked the Beamer and vanished down the side of the warehouse. "Come on Karla, we are losing him."
"No," she said. "I know where he is going. Follow close to me."
She followed after the banker. There was a narrow footpath between two buildings. Jameson could hear footsteps in the distance but the lighting was terrible. Karla pushed on. The pavement gave way to cobblestones. Jameson just hated walking on cobblestones. They turned your ankles with every step. As they went deeper into the alley, the buildings closed in on both sides.
"I don't know why they have bothered to put up lights disguised as Victorian gas lamps," said Jameson. "It's not as if this was a prime tourist site. Mind, you could make a great theme park here. See the Whitechapel ripper murders re-enacted," he said theatrically.
Curls of fog drifted along the alley. "Fog, in London?" said Jameson, in astonishment. "I don't remember that being forecast." London was a dry city. Fog was as rare as snow.
Jameson felt that he was on a film set. "Those imitation Victorian gas lights, Karla," he said. "They aren't really imitation, are they?"
"No," she said. "This is a special place for my kind. You must stay close to me, Jameson or I will lose you."
Jameson heard piano music up ahead through the mist. They entered a small square with a dirt floor. An old pub lined one side. A door opened spilling lamplight out. A man in a top hat pulled a giggling woman in a Victorian dress after him. They kissed and made their way unsteadily out of the square.
"This way," said Karla, pulling Jameson after her.
As they left, Jameson heard a woman scream behind him. He turned to look.
"No!" She warned, pulling him back. "Here things are seldom what they seem." She walked on to a cul de sac with another Old London pub at the end. Jameson went to push the door open but Karla stopped him, one hand on his chest. "We have to blend in. In there, you belong to me. You walk directly behind me. You obey me without question. I won't be able to protect you if you don't." There was a pleading element to her voice that he had not heard before.
He touched her face lightly with his fingers. "You're the boss. I'll follow your lead."
They entered.
Inside was a twenty-first-century nightclub, with neon lights, chrome fittings and giant fish tanks. Modern rock hammered from hidden speakers so loud that you could feel it in your chest. Jameson couldn't understand why the sound did not penetrate outside. She walked down a corridor and out onto an open warehouse-sized area. In the centre was a dance floor
Karla found them a table just off the dance floor. She held out her hand to him and clicked her fingers. Her lips made a small gesture. Taking the hint he pulled out the Dunhills. She leaned forward and he put one in her mouth and then one in his own. Jameson had an old battered steel lighter that he had used in the Guards. It ran on petrol so could be recharged from the nearest Land Rover wherever he happened to be based.
Karla leaned forward so could light her. "The target is sitting at a table on your left."
Jameson lit his own cigarette before glancing casually around the room. The banker was sitting with two men, well, two man-sized things. He had the case open and was trading something.
"Yeah?" A waitress in a 1950s usherette costume appeared at their table and chewed gum.
"Malt whiskey, two large ones," said Karla, without consulting him.
"That'll be eighteen quid," the waitress said, shifting the gum around.
"Pay her twenty," said Karla.
Jameson handed over a twenty-pound note.
"Gee thanks," said the waitress, with total contempt, before flouncing off.
Karla shrugged. "They can't get the staff these days."
A blonde in an exquisite evening gown sleazed up to their table. She drew deep on a cigarette holder and blew the smoke to the ceiling. "'Lo. Karla. I'd heard you were losing your mind, darling."
"I wonder who starts these rumours," said Karla. "You look well, Rosanna, considering your age."
The two women planted false smiles on their faces and air kissed at least two feet apart. Rosanna stood right in front of Jameson and stared at him. She took him by the chin and moved his head from side to side. "You have a new pet, I see. You do collect waifs and strays, don't you? Mind you, this one's rather cute. I wouldn't mind trying him myself." She parted her lips to show elongated canines.
Jameson let his jacket fall open far enough to show his bolt pistol and grinned back, showing his teeth. They locked eyes.
"He has spirit, Karla. I think he could be dangerous." Rosanna touched his face again. "He has strong bonds to you. I don't understand, magic is involved."
Karla seized her hard by the wrist and pulled her hand away. "I don't share my possessions. You know that, Rosanna. They're too fragile and you like to play rough."
The blonde smiled enigmatically, blew more smoke and slinked off without another word. Jameson checked out the banker. He was locked in some interminable negotiation. His briefcase was open and the laptop was inside. The waitress brought the drinks. Jameson took a sip. It was good stuff but he couldn't quite place it.
The music poured around them again. The Kaiser Chiefs opened with Every day I love you less and less. "Come on," said Karla. "I want to dance."
"I can't believe once you and me did sex."
She strutted to the dance floor in a walk that made Jerry Hall seem introverted. Jameson was a pretty good dancer. He would not win many marks for elegance but he was fit and strong. But Karla was just incredible and she exploited the driving beat of the band with great skill. Her body seemed to bend in ways unknown to man. She danced as if she had not signed up to the law of gravity.
"It makes me sick to think of you undressed."
In the end, Jameson gave up trying to match her and let her use him the way a pole dancer uses the pole. When the song ended, she draped herself on him, wrapping one leg around his.
"I thought you said that we had to be inconspicuous," said Jameson.
"No, I said that we had to blend in," said Karla. "We are blending beautifully, my pet."
Then Katie Melua sang how the man with the power who was a charmer with a snake took her half way up the Hindu Kush to show her things she had never seen.
Karla held her arms out straight, palm up, and rested them on his shoulders. Then she undulated against him. Jameson kept his mind on the job and watched the banker. He leaned forward and whispered in Karla's ear. "Matey is leaving, so we need to follow. After your performance, what could be more natural than we should leave? But I warn you that I will definitely shoot you if you try to carry me out over your shoulder."
She laughed. The first time he had heard her laugh. She was recovering fast.
They exited, looking unhurried but covering ground quickly. "Okay, Karla, he's on his own. Pick a place to take him."
They followed the banker through the archaic streets, the fog allowing them to keep close. After some minutes, Karla accelerated up to the man and kicked his legs away. Before he hit the ground, she punched him twice more. Once he was down, she put the boot in. It was quick, clinical, and he never laid a finger on her. When Jameson reached the scene, he kicked the briefcase away. Taking the rail pistol from under his arm, he fired one wooden bolt into the banker's heart. The gun thumped, but the slow acceleration of the bolt compared to a bullet made the kick manageable. The banker collapsed in upon himself and his body flowed into dust.
Karla's eyes flashed metallic green and her lips parted to show long canines. She shook with excitement. She pushed Jameson up against a wall and moved her mouth towards him. He jerked back, shocked. She hissed and her eyes flashed. "So I'm good enough to fight for you but not good enough to kiss."
He had the rail pistol between them, muzzle jammed into her heart. She looked down at it. "If you're going to shoot then shoot," she said, calling his bluff. Then she kissed him savagely on the mouth. A tooth cut his lip and she watched the trickle of blood with fascination. She put out her tongue and licked it, shuddering at the sensation. He still did not fire.
"Karla, it's not that you're not attractive," he said. "But we put a love geas on you. I can't take advantage. It wouldn't be right. . . ."
"I know what you did," she said. She let him go and walked away from him. He picked up the briefcase and hurried after her. It seemed to him that her hips swayed far more than was strictly necessary.
The way back seemed much shorter. The streets quickly normalised. They had barely started when Jameson saw the Jaguar on the other side of the road. Somehow they seemed to have come round in a circle. He turned to look back, to see from where they had come, but behind was a high brick wall. He went to check but the wall was real. Karla had reached the car. Jameson took out his electronic card, but before he could trigger it she put her hand on the Jag's roof. It made a friendly chirrup and flashed its amber lights, the doors unlocking with a clunk. How the hell had she done that? That damned car had taken a shine to her.
When he reached the Jag she was already inside. She had dropped the back of her seat down and was curled up on it like a kitten. She flashed metallic green eyes at him when he got in and stretched her legs out. His mouth was suddenly very dry.
****
Farley stood at the front of the small lecture theatre operating the PowerPoint display. "The information on the lap top was most helpful," said Farley. "We have an address. The distribution centre for the Aztec grave goods is a storage unit in Hackney. You go in, see what you can find, and bug the place."
"Why aren't we doing this in daylight?" said Gaston. "Where there's one sucker there could be more."
"The place is full of workman during the day. The streets are awash with people. It isn't viable, Gaston, it has to be at night. You do have back up in the event of a Code Z incident." Farley waved vaguely in Karla's direction. "You know her capabilities."
"Oh yes," said Gaston, softly. "We know what she can do."
They all rode in a Commission battered transit van with the logo of a plumber on the side. These motors looked rough but were mechanically sound. Karla amused herself by playing with the combat team. She yawned and showed her teeth. The troops grasped their rail guns in sweaty hands. She enjoyed feeling their anxiety. Gaston nudged Jameson.
He whispered in her ear. "Behave yourself. Leave the men alone."
"I'm bored." She pouted and closed her eyes.
The wait went on. "Hurry up and wait," said Gaston. "You remember, Major."
Jameson sucked on a Dunhill. Yes, he remembered. Waiting on the Falls Road in support of the police in a Pig, a light armoured personal carrier that rode on six wheels. The politicians would not let the army use heavy tracked armour for political reasons. After all, it might look like a real war if they used "tanks." The car bomb went off in front of them, incinerating the drivers instantly. Jameson was right at the back to be first out of the rear troop deployment doors, in the time-honoured way of a British officer. This time the tradition saved him. Half his section was killed, most of the rest horribly burnt. He got away without a scratch.
He inhaled deeply from the Dunhill and blew the smoke up into the van. "Yes, I remember," he said, unemotionally. Karla looked at him, uncertainly; she was sensitive to his moods.
Gaston's phone uttered a soft bleep. He checked the message. "Okay, move out."
He pulled open the door and they jumped out. The team walked quickly to a side door of the building. In the dark, their combat gear might not be noticed but running was the surest way to attract unwelcome attention. The technician knelt down at the lock and inserted the electronic key. Gaston and the technician went in first. Inside was a corridor with an alarm system on the wall. The technician inserted a probe and ran diagnostics. He turned the alarms off within a few seconds.
"A good system," the technician said, "but no match for the software that I threw at it."
"Move back," Gaston said to the technician. "I'll take point."
"Karla and I had better be alongside you," said Jameson.
It was then that the butterfly flapped its wings.
"Okay, you come up front," said Gaston. "But she stays at the rear to guard our backs."
Jameson was not sure whether Gaston genuinely thought that they needed a rearguard or whether he simply did not want Karla too close to him. But Gaston was the team leader, so Jameson indicated that she should comply. She did not like being separated from him and expressed her displeasure openly with bared canines. Jameson ignored her.
The team moved down the corridor in single file to a door at the end. Gaston tried the handle; it was unlocked. He pushed the door open with his gun barrel. Nothing moved inside. Jameson slipped in and moved to the right away from the door. He dropped on one knee and covered the interior of the warehouse, while Gaston slipped in and took up a position on the left. Inside was an open area, filled with palettes and boxes. Two forklift trucks stood up against the wall. Nothing moved.
Gaston stood up warily and signalled that they should move in. He and Jameson led the way, the rest of the team followed in single file through the door. Karla was the last in. The world exploded at the moment that she crossed the threshold.
Jameson saw a bright flash that left him with after image on his retinas, like the negative filming that they used in old TV programmes to indicate that an alien had fired his ray gun. He had a brief sensation of floating, then something thumped him in the back and it went dark.
He hurt. Jameson hurt all over. His cheek was on concrete and his helmet was missing. The warehouse was lit when he opened his eyes. He could see a wire mesh. He'd lost his helmet. One sat upright the other side of the wire and Jameson wondered if it was his. No it couldn't be. The helmet opposite still had a head in it. Jameson was fairly certain that he still had his head attached because it hurt like hell.
"I thought that you were a goner," said Gaston. The man helped him sit up.
"What happened?" said Jameson.
"Some sort of bomb went off behind us. Killed everyone but you and me, major."
"It wasn't a bomb," said Jameson. "There was a flash but no heat. Look, nothing is burnt and the damage is localised."
It was true. Most of the interior of the warehouse was surprisingly undamaged, if you ignored the blood and body parts sprayed around.

"It went off when Karla was entering the room," said Jameson. "There must have been a trigger in the door frame."
"So why didn't we set it off?" said Gaston.
"Because the alarm was there to deter humans. The booby trap was set up to kill something else. Something like Karla, a creature of the night."
"I don't want to worry you," said Gaston. "But someone has put us in a cage."
"Someone like him," said Jameson.
"Yeah," said Gaston.
A man appeared in front of them. He looked Mediterranean, not just in features but in the way he sported moustaches and a wide brimmed hat. His smile said "insane" the way a letter from the tax office said "gotcha." He casually picked up a large wooden crate and dropped it back on the palette from which it had been blown.
"I suppose your appearance is connected with my banker's sudden disappearance. But I bet that you are keen to tell me everything you know." The man's accent was unplaceable, smeared by many too many regions and times—rather like Karla's, Jameson reflected. He opened his mouth to show long curved canines.
"Is that what I think it is?" said Gaston.
"Depends," said Jameson. "If you think that it's the tooth fairy then, no. But if you think that it is an evil mad old sucker then I think you could be right."
"Manners," said the man. "You are in no position to annoy me."
"And if we are polite and helpful then you will let us go and all will be well, will it?" said Jameson.
"Well, no actually," conceded the man.
Jameson slipped his hand inside his jacket, looking for the rail pistol.
The man noticed the motion and held it up. "Interesting toy. When did you stop using crossbows? You cattle so love innovation. Every time I turn around, why you are at something new." He tossed the gun aside.
"Shit," said Jameson. "Go to Plan B"
"What was Plan B?" said Gaston.
"I had hoped that you could tell me," said Jameson.
"You two are such fun," said the man, delightedly. "I wish I could keep you around for a while but duty calls."
He walked to the cage and unlocked the door. Jameson and Gaston shrank back but it was a small cage and there was nowhere to go. The man reached in and effortlessly hauled Jameson out. Jameson tried hitting him but it was like striking iron. His head was pushed aside and the canines descended.
"Would you mind unhanding my property? I don't recall offering you a bite." Karla was just there, head up, hands on her hips, a dark-haired angel in black leather.
"Karla. I heard that you were back. So it was you who set off my little trap. You should have been dissipated to the winds by my little surprise, my sweet."
"I have a strong sense of self identity," she said
"I must admit that it was not intended for the likes of you. I would have doubled the power if I had known that you were dropping in." The man looked at her almost fondly.
"You are still holding my pets. Let them go and we'll be off," Karla demanded.
"Karla, get out. Save yourself," Jameson said.
The man slapped Jameson quiet and threw him back in the cage. "I don't think I can let you leave, Karla my love. Not now."
Without warning, the man snarled and threw himself at Karla, clawing with both hands. He moved so very fast. She backed up, blocking each blow, then kicked him in the kneecap. It sounded like a wreaking ball hitting a wall. He didn't move.
"You always were a fast little thing," the man said. He swung without warning and backhanded her across the face. Karla spun into a stack of heavy palettes, knocking them over.
Jameson pulled on the cage door, which had self locked. "We have to help her, Gaston. She can't win."
Karla picked herself up and squared up to the man. He waited for her with that insane grin across his face, apparently content for her to take the initiative. She moved in and caught him with punches and kicks. She was much faster, but her blows weren't hurting him, at least, not hurting him enough. He did not even bother to try to dodge or block her attack but traded punch for punch. She evaded his swings with the speed and grace that she had shown on the dance floor, but her luck ran out in the end. A punch caught her in the side of the head sending her tumbling over the floor.
Jameson and Jackson kicked the cage door but they couldn't break it down.
The man closed with Karla as she tried to get up, hitting powerful blows into her body before she could dodge. She dropped to her knees and he kicked her in the chest. Karla went down and stayed down. He grabbed her by the shoulder and picked her up. His left hand elongated into vicious dinosaur-like claws. He hooked them in her shoulder and slowly ripped down, tearing her body open. Jameson saw her ribs come apart, the broken ends poking out. The man chuckled the whole time, like someone enjoying a really good Mel Brooks comedy.
There was a thump and the man jerked.
"What? No!" he said.
There was a second thump and a third. Jameson saw the head of the third bolt stick out of his back. The man let her go and fell over backwards. Dissolution started at his hands and feet and spread, until there was nothing but a greasy stain on the floor. The instructor was wrong. Three shots are not a luxury, reflected Gaston. Sometimes you needed back up.
Karla dropped Jameson's rail pistol. The whole front of her body was ripped out. She toppled forwards onto the floor.
Jameson knelt at the wire mesh. "Come to me, Karla, come to me," he said.
She was only a few feet from the cage but it took agonising minutes for her to crawl the distance.
"I can't break the wire, Karla. You have to. One more effort, old girl, come on," Jameson said, gently.
She twisted her hand in the mesh and pulled. It bent out of shape and snapped like cotton. Jameson took hold of the jagged wire in his right hand and slashed his left wrist open. Red blood dripped out.
Gaston grabbed his wrist. "Is this a good idea, Major?"
"Did you learn to leave wounded comrades to die when you were in the Paras, Gaston? In the Guards, we looked after our own."
"The Paras learnt at Arnheim that the Guards aren't much cop in a fight, sir," said Gaston, who, nevertheless, released him. The Parachute Regiment had never forgiven the Guard's Armoured Regiments for failing to relieve them at the Bridge at Arnheim in Montgomery's doomed WWII offensive. But this was hardly the place to discuss ancient history so Jameson let the comment pass. He put the bleeding wound on his wrist to Karla's mouth and let his blood run inside. After a few seconds, she began to suck. "That's it Karla, suck it down."
"Surely, she's too badly gone," said Gaston.
"I don't know," said Jameson. "But I'm hoping that the magic connection between us has made my blood special. She reacts strongly when I cut myself."
Gaston gave him a strange look but held his tongue.
Jameson's wound in his wrist began to clot but she reopened it with her teeth. It didn't hurt him at all. Gradually her body knitted itself back together. Ribs bent down and reformed. Tissue flowed across them to recreate her chest.
"I think that you ought to stop, Major," said Gaston, after some time. "You have lost too much already." He pulled Jameson's wrist back inside the wire mesh. Karla hissed and tried to push her head though the mesh after the blood, then she seemed to catch herself and her teeth retracted.
"Your blood," she said. "It burns in me like fire. I have never tasted anything so—"
She shook her head again. Jameson was feeling giddy. "Can you open the cage, Karla?" said Gaston.
It took her two attempts but she managed to break the lock. Then she sat down with a thump. Jameson opened the door and got out but he was weaving as he tried to keep his balance. Gaston put one arm around Karla and the other around Jameson. He half carried them to the door.
"The Commissions elite death squad. Huh! What a couple of crocks you two really are. I think it's time I asked for some leave. Fiji, I fancy Fiji. Ever been to Fiji, Major? We had some Fijians in the Paras. They always said that I should look them up one day. Now seems like a good time to me. What do you think, Major? Major? Come on now, don't pass out on me."
****
Jameson slept most of the next day and into the night. He rose only to eat and take his iron tablets. It was the early hours before he felt rested enough to take an interest in life again. Karla was nowhere to be found in the flat. She had not gone out because the door was locked and the key still in the lock. That only left one place.
His lease included access to the roof. It was probably intended that he should set up a dinky little roof garden, with shrubs in pots clinging desperately to life in the polluted London air, surrounded by mock hard-wood furniture from B&Q. Jameson was hardly the green fingered type, however.
The door to the roof was unlatched, indicating that she had passed that way so he mounted the narrow stairs. He had to stop half way for a rest. His blood fluid had been replaced by means of a drip but it was going to be some time before his body replaced all the red blood cells. He easily became breathless.
When he emerged, it took a few moments for his eyes to adapt to the gloom. Karla was sitting on the edge, legs hanging over the side. He went and sat down beside her.
"His name was Vexillo," she said.
"What?" said Jameson.
"The old one. He was called Vexillo. He was very powerful. He said he would live forever. But I killed him." Her voice rang with satisfaction.
"Make sure your people know. Have them record it in their books that I killed him," she said. "You don't need to mention the gun in your files, do you?" she said, anxiously.
"No," he said. "That's unnecessary detail."
There was a pause before she spoke again.
"Your people are becoming truly dangerous, Jameson," she said. "Once you only had stakes and fire. Now you hunt us with terrible weapons. I am not sure my kind has a future."
Jameson could thing of nothing to say so he sat with her in companionable silence for some little time.
"Do you intend to do it yourself?" Karla asked.
"Do what?" he said.
"Will you put the bolt into my heart, yourself?" she said. "You hardly intend to let me go, do you?"
"No, we couldn't do that. You would start killing people again, Karla."
She nodded in acceptance of his analysis. "So would it have been you?"
"Yes. I owe you that. I would have done it myself. How did you work it out?"
"It was easy enough, once you awakened me. I really am quite clever. That was how I lasted so long."
There was another long silence.
"I was nearly finished when you awakened me. The last one to rouse me when I had reached dormancy was the poet. His words filled me with such passion that I lasted another four hundred years. He never forgave himself when he realised what he'd done, but he loved me so much."
"I know," said Jameson. "It's all there in the Dark Lady sonnets, the passion, the love, the hate and the shame."
They faced east, looking across the city. The dark indigo of the sky was turning blue and the first hint of pink stained the horizon.
"It will be dawn soon. We had better go indoors," Jameson said.
"I have not seen the rising sun for such a long time. This morning I shall," Karla said, with quiet determination.
Jameson looked at her in astonishment.
"What are you talking about? You won't see it. The ultraviolet will burn out your eyes before incinerating your body. Come indoors now." He grabbed at her arm but she easily broke his hold.
"I don't want you to have to destroy me. I want to leave with dignity. Oh don't look so sad, Jameson. I am long past my time. The poet got me four hundred more years and, thanks to you, I end on a high note. I killed Vexillo," she said, triumphantly. She tilted her head up to the sky and showed her long canines. Her eyes flashed metallic green. She had never looked more like a monster. She had never looked so desirable.
Jameson seized her by the arms. "You are not listening, Karla. I said it would have been me, not it will be. It took me too long to realise the meaning of my oath but I do now. Come inside with me. I can't promise to save you but I promise to try."
He kissed her hard on the lips. Her razor sharp teeth lacerated his tongue but he did not care. She did not resist when he lifted her in his arms and carried her off the roof. She was light, no heavier than a woman of the same size, which was just as well considering his physical condition. Somehow he had expected her to be heavier.
****
Jameson knocked and entered the council chamber. Lord Harwood, a senior Commissioner chaired the meeting.
"Ah, Major Jameson, come in."
"Thank you, My Lord." Jameson nodded at the other members of the room.
"I believe you know Sir James, who heads special operations, Mr Benson, and Miss Arnoux of R&D."
Hung on the wall over Lord Harwood's head was a painting of an Elizabethan race built galleon, of the sort commanded by Drake or Hawkins. Lord Harwood was not descended from the old aristocracy. He had acquired his peerage recently for services to the arts; he had bailed the Royal Opera House out of an awkward financial hole. That was for form's sake. In the hallowed traditions of England, his peerage had really been awarded for substantial campaign contributions to a political party. However, he had researched his family thoroughly and had found an ancestor who had sailed with John Hawkins.
"I believe most of you know my secretary, Miss Sonnet." Jameson indicated the prim woman in a business suit behind him.
Jameson took a seat at the table. Miss Sonnet sat on a seat against the wall and took a notebook out of her bag. She would record, but not contribute, to the meeting.
"The purpose of this meeting is to evaluate Project 139 and consider termination procedures," said Lord Harwood. "As this was essentially an R&D operation perhaps you would start, Miss Arnoux."
"The project was the culmination of a programme to test various geas spells on paranormal entities. It was decided to evaluate a love geas as a method for binding a paranormal to one of our operatives. R&D are pleased with the results. The spell worked perfectly, with one small reservation about the principle of reciprocation that we are still evaluating. As far as we are concerned, the project has been a great success and can now be shut down. We would like to debrief Major Jameson, of course."
"Thank you, Miss Arnoux," said Lord Harwood. "Could I have a summary of your report on the subject's utility for special operations, Sir James."
"A bit of a mixed bag, My Lord. Leaving out all the bullshit, we ran into two problems. One is that the operations team found it unsettling to work in close contact with an unrestrained Code Z. The second is that the main mission was completely compromised by a device set specifically to attack paranormals. That we might have to defend against such an attack had, understandably, escaped the planners. We will have to learn to think differently if we are to utilise paranormals within our combat teams. Other than that it was a success. Our agent, Major Jameson retained command control of the paranormal at all times. I concur; we have the information we need. The experiment may now be terminated."
"How very neat," said Jameson, who had heard enough. "She has served her purpose so she can be dumped. No matter that she fought and bled for us."
"She's a monster, Jameson. She doesn't matter," said Lord Harwood.
"Yes, she is a monster but she does matter. She is not an unthinking animal. She thinks, she feels, she laughs. She is a person. 'If you prick her, does she not bleed, if you tickle her does she not laugh and if you wrong her will she not take revenge?'" Jameson had taken the trouble to look up the quote even if, under the stress of the moment, he did not get it quite right. "I promised, on our behalf, to accept responsibility for her."
"That is what we were worried about," said Miss Arnoux, sighing. "There is reciprocity in the spell. Tell me, Major Jameson, are you sleeping with her yet."
Miss Arnoux was a dried up prune of a woman. In Jameson's view, having a man would vastly improve the blasted woman. "I don't think my bedroom habits are any of your damn business," Jameson said
"Yes, I thought you might be. It's the spell, Jameson. Once she is eliminated, we will reverse the spell and you will feel quite differently," Miss Arnoux said.
The woman was so damned smug and sure of herself. Lord Harwood looked puzzled, then he looked at Jameson's secretary and his eyes narrowed. His hand slipped below the table. Jameson casually unclipped the flap on his soft leather briefcase and put his hand inside.
The door opened in response to the silent alarm and Gaston walked in wearing full combat gear followed by three troopers. "Hello Karla," Gaston said to Miss Sonnet and pointed his rail gun at her. The troopers followed his example.
Miss Arnoux gaped like a fish then looked at Karla and paled. Jameson slowly pulled his briefcase off his hand to reveal an automatic pistol pointed at Lord Harwood. "It seems that we have a situation," he said.
Lord Harwood took his glasses off and polished them. "Gaston's men will gun her down whether you kill me or no, Major. I was very impressed by your stage magician's skills. 'Most of you know my secretary'– neatly done. Actually, none of us in the room knew her but we all assumed that someone else must. Masterful misdirection, my boy, it took me some little while to work it out. How did you disguise her eyes?"
"Dark contact lenses, a policeman gave me the idea," said Jameson.
"Indeed," said Lord Harwood
"Why not hear me out, My Lord? Then Gaston can kill me and Karla right after I kill you," said Jameson. "This is not about a spell or reciprocity. This is about integrity. We either have it or we don't. We can't have a little bit of honour, an integrity constrained only to people we approve of. Once we draw a line and impose limits on our integrity—why, then we have none at all."
"We are not talking about how we treat people. She's a monster. Think, Jameson," said Lord Harwood. "She will be tied to you all your life if we let her survive. You will never have a girlfriend, a wife or children. It won't be you she would kill when she got jealous."
"Yes, she is a monster. But we used to think that we did not have to treat some people fairly either, people who were the wrong class, or the wrong nationality, or the wrong colour skin. She may be as black as hell, My Lord, but once my ancestors despised yours for much the same reason."
Lord Harwood froze. He resumed polishing his glasses with long dark brown fingers. Lord Harwood's ancestor had sailed with Hawkins to the Americas all right, but not on the deck. Harwood's ancestor had been chained in the hold.
"He has a point, My Lord," said Gaston. "And she did save our lives." Gaston had joined the Paras because that regiment was already commissioning black officers when the fashionable Guards Regiments still had a colour bar against even black private soldiers. When your mother came from Cameroon, as Gaston's had, then these things mattered.
Harwood sighed, "I know that I am going to regret this but . . . Benson."
"Yes, My Lord?" said The Commission's administrator.
"Add Miss Sonnet to the payroll as a secretary."
Jameson relaxed and carefully clicked the pistol's safety back on. "Thank you, My Lord."
"A trial period, mark you Jameson. She's as black as hell."
Jameson looked across at Karla who gazed back at him with an utter lack of expression. He wished he knew how this was going to turn out. The risks were immense but he just couldn't kill her out of hand so he was stuck with the situation. His lips curled; at least it wouldn't be boring. He looked around the meeting. Gaston grinned at him, gun muzzle pointed at the ground. Miss Arnoux looked as if she had been goosed by a Royal Marine. Jameson made an observation so softly that the others had to strain to hear it. "Let's not kid ourselves, people. She may be as black as hell but all of us in this room, we are as dark as night."
****

10 comments:

matapam said...

Well, that sent me running off to Amazon.com. :( Please tell me it's in the works, somewhere!

MQH,Himself said...

More! More!

C Kelsey said...

John,

You keep writing these stories that I like. More please! XD

Anonymous said...

Where's the book?

Tom M.

John Lambshead said...

I wrote this story just after Lucy's Blade was finalised. Jameson and karla had minot walk on parts in the novel but I thought they were interesting and deserved their own tale.

It was actually published first in Universe and then republished in Best of Universe Vol 1.

A colluage here in southern England is rewriting it as a TV script (does not mean it will be ever made).

I look back at it now and tend to see the poor line by line and structural errors.

Nevertheless, I still think it is a good story.

At one level it is a simple adventure story but at a deeper level, I saw it as about integrity and loyalty.

But other people read quite different issues into it, such as slavery.

I do have a novel in the pipeline with Jameson and Karla as primary characters.

John

matapam said...

It's about the length to make a good movie. I hope you and your friend can sell it.

John Lambshead said...

Dear matapan

I believe he is cutting it down to one hour.

John

Anonymous said...

What I liked: the characters, the action, the sex. Can't wait for the prequel/sequel

What I disliked: The first three paragraphs; and the ending went off at a tangent, kinda weakened the finish.

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