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The Thing Behind


The Thing Behind
by Ken McGrath

“Then the wall erupted and tonnes of these Obliobites came flooding out,” Walt said. “You ever seen one up close?”

Brian shook his head.

“Oh man they’re horrible little things,” Walt continued, wiggling his fingers enthusiastically. “Like earwigs, but the length of your arm. Thick as a breezeblock with about a hundred little legs and a bunched-up face full of these tiny, pin-prick teeth. And they ooze this slime like a lubricant, probably to stop them getting caught by predators out in the Narrow Regions and Near Edges. Well this whole house was infected with the buggers and I’m there on the stairs, working reveals making sure all the hexes are lifted when the bastards burst through the plasterwork and down on top of me, trying to get away from the flames.”

“They were crawling all over you?” Brian grimaced but kept his eyes on the road ahead, as the mid-morning Dublin traffic crept along slowly. “That’s rotten.”

“Tell me about it. Luckily they’re only Level 1s, ‘cause medical told me I had something like twenty-seven bites. They all swelled up like golf balls, full of this mucus and stuff,” Walt said enthusiastically. “I was getting sick everywhere. It was like Damien out of The Exorcist, just ‘bleurgh, bleurgh’.”

“Damien was The Omen, not The Exorcist.”

“What?”

“The scene you’re thinking of, it’s the girl from The Exorcist, not the…”

“Ah yeah, whatever,” Walt sat back, bored now that the flow of his story had been broken. On his lap he held a little brass and wood box in which a clear glass ball was set. A thin red line, like a vein, ran through this, pulsing slightly. Walt tapped at the glass absently with a finger.

“Hey, don’t get all grumpy at me, dude.” Brian looked over to where his partner was slumped in the window-side passenger seat of the Crafter TDI van. “I’m just surprised a Dangerman doesn’t know the difference between his classic horror flicks, that’s all.”

“Don’t dude me. I spend my days fighting extra-dimensional monsters, Brian. The last thing I want to do when I go home is turn on a scary movie.”

Brian shrugged rather than concede the point. “Ah, binge on whatever you want. So, he says, changing the topic subtly, today’s your first proper day back, eh?”

“Yeah,” Walt tugged at where the seatbelt was digging into his side. “Well, first day in the field anyway. I’ve been back since last Wednesday. Just did a few days in the office, catch up on e-mails and procedures and all of that.”

“I hear you. How you finding it so far?”

“Honestly, it’s uncomfortable.” Walt fidgeted in his seat. “Either I’ve put on a lot of weight or these overalls shrank while I was off.”

Brian glanced over and noticed, not for the first time either today, how Walt’s stomach pushed out between the cross-body triangle of the seatbelt and how the new pencil-thin beard he was sporting seemed to be there to emphasize a chin that no longer was.

“Yeah well, all those bites aside, you did break a leg when they knocked you down the stairs. I can honestly tell you no-one expected you to be out running marathons while you were off,” Brian said softly. “Give yourself a break.”

Walt sighed and stared out of the passenger window. A bicycle courier zoomed by, weaving dangerously between the stalled vehicles.

“It was just crap. Five months sitting at home with my leg up, bored shitless. Nothing to do all day but watch box sets and eat,” he morosely poked a finger into the softness of his belly. “And eat and eat and eat some more. Then, to top it off, Anders walked out on me.”

Brian’s head snapped around, shocked. “What? When?”

“Just under three months ago. Apparently, he’d enough of my ‘morbid attitude’,” he waggled his fingers, “if you can believe that. Anyway, it turns out the fucker’d been cheating on me with his personal trainer. What a cliché.”

“Are you serious? That’s rough, dude.” Brian shook his head in disbelief. “What a dick. How long were you guys together?”

“Pushing two years.”

“Christ. Did he know you were a Dangerman?”

Walt shook his head. “Nah. I suppose it says a lot that I never felt comfortable enough to tell him. He thought I worked as a project manager for a financial institution.”

There was a momentary pause before Brian laughed, a big explosive eruption that came out like a sneeze.

“Hey, harsh much,” Walt snapped.

“Sorry man. But a financial whatsit, you? That was the best cover story you could come up with?”

“I did higher maths in school,” Walt scowled, but failed to keep the smile from his face. “Anyway, we’re not all as lucky as you and Lorraine, or Robbie Donovan and what’s-her-name, shacking up with someone from the job.”

“All I’m hearing there is that we need more gays on the force.”

“Shut up,” Walt grinned. “Although, it might not be a bad idea.” On his lap the glass ball had clouded over and started to glow a faint purple. He signalled to Brian. “Hey, go right up here. We’re starting to pick up a strong reading.”

Brian turned on the indicator and pulled into the next lane. “All these years on the job and I’m still fascinated by how you guys use those locator-globes.”

“It’s hardly a flawless system.” Walt peered into the glass. “I was hoping that while I was off sick someone would have come up with a better way.”

“Accurate to within a hundred-yard radius is good enough for me. Once it puts us close enough to whatever’s been snatching… seriously what’s this joker up to now?” Brian thumped the steering-wheel and gestured out the window to where a taxi had nudged itself half-way into a non-existent gap and was now stopped, blocking multiple lanes of traffic in the process. Brian leaned down hard on the horn, adding to the noise. “I don’t know where some people learned how to drive at all.”

“Good job we’re not in a rush to stop an invasion of demons from beyond the fifth dimension or anything,” Walt laughed. “Here, d’you mind if I smoke? I’ll blow it out the window.”

“Work away. Yeah, well the day Joe Public is notified of the existence of extra-dimensional demons living in Dublin is the day I demand all Department of Dangerman employees get sirens so they can cut through traffic and not have to put up with this shit.”

Walt, an unlit cigarette perched between his lips, patted himself down and frowned. “Fuck,” he looked at the empty space on the dashboard where the cigarette lighter should have been. “Double fuck.”

“Here,” Brian said and held out his right-hand in a thumbs-up gesture. Suddenly a tiny flame flicked into life on the skin. Walt leaned forward and pushed the end of the cigarette against the flat of Brian’s thumb, puffed and it lit up red-black.

“Thanks,” Walt blew a gust of smoke out the open crack at the top of the window.

The two men relaxed into silence as the traffic started to move again and Walt guided them through a labyrinthine estate while the cloud in the globe drifted from a purplish to a pinkish tint.

“Turn left and pull in there,” Walt said. Brian pulled the van onto a quiet residential street. “This is it. Somewhere.”

There was a long row of terraces down one side, a seemingly abandoned construction site on the other and a wall of flats, four storeys high at the far end.

“Typical Dublin planning,” Walt grumbled. “Mish-mash of everything.”

“It adds to the charm of the place, I think,” Brian said as he stopped alongside the building site, where a row of high metal fencing had been placed around the perimeter to deter trespassers. “Be a shame if everything was all the same.” He took his mobile phone from its cradle on the dashboard and sent a quick e-mail back to head office, to check in and confirm their location. “Guess it’s time to get to work.”

“Pity about the audience.” Walt indicated a group of around ten pre-teen boys and girls hanging around on bicycles and scooters outside the flats at the top of the road.

“Shouldn’t they be in school?”

Walt shrugged.

“Ah there’s nothing for them to see anyway. They’ll get bored and go away. I mean who wants to look at two men from the gas company doing a routine check anyway.” Brian winked at his partner. “So, what do you say? We start on the construction site and go from there? Remember this is just a recon job, looking for something out of the ordinary. We find anything, we take notes and we come back with a full crew and a plan later. Don’t you do anything to strain your leg, ok?”

They got out and went around the back of the van. Walt had opened the side door and was going through the tools when two young women pushing buggies walked by.

“Afternoon, ladies,” Brian smiled and saluted.

The woman with a hoop earrings and a bloke’s name in calligraphy scrolling up her left boob growled. From her buggy a grubby Minion teddy hung by a string. The other, wearing leopard-print leggings, just gave a vacant look.

“Charming,” Walt hissed, handed Brian a clipboard and camera, then slid the van doors shut.

Brian flashed him a massive grin. “Who, me or them?”

He thumbed the key-fob to lock the van. They were about to go look for an entrance to the building site when a voice like a crow in pain called out.

“Here. Mister.” They turned to see that boob-tattoo had paused. “Watch out for yer man in number eight. He’s a right weirdo.” Then she turned and continued on her way, while the little yellow teddy on her pram bounced and grinned back at them.

“Well that was ominous. Maybe we should start with the terraces after all,” Walt said.

“Works for me,” Brian agreed. “We’ll begin at the top of the road. Don’t want to be too obvious. You got your eyes on?”

Walt blinked and his eyes went blank white. A thin layer of what looked like glowing fog rose from beneath the edges of his eyelids and slowly filled the hollow around the sockets. From his pocket Walt pulled a pair of reflective, aviator sunglasses, which he donned.

“Excellent,” Brian said as they set off for the first house. “Let’s do this.”

Nothing out of the ordinary had happened by the time they came out of the gate of number 7 and completed a small half-circle to enter its neighbour. Number 8 had little to distinguish it from the other houses on the street. The front yard was a splat of uncut, crabby grass and the windows were grubby but no more than plenty of the others. With a nod from Walt, Brian reached out, rang the doorbell and then stepped back slightly. Down by his side he flexed his fingers, ready to flame on if he really, really had to.

From inside the house the sound of someone clattering about could be heard. When they didn’t come to the door after thirty seconds Brian pushed back down on the buzzer and held his finger there for what could only be considered an obnoxious amount of time.

Finally, the door opened.

The man who stood there was shirtless and looked like he’s lost a tremendous amount of weight recently and very, very quickly. He was painfully thin, emaciated looking, and his skin hung in loose folds from his frame, like massive curtains on a tiny window. His eyes and mouth drooped dopily. Brian thought he looked half-asleep or stoned or something.

“Hello sir, sorry for the interruption,” Brian began. He tried to resist the urge to scratch his eyes, which had started to itch terribly. The insides of his temples began to throb, like he’d just woken up after a heavy night out and the hangover was signalling its imminent arrival. He indicated the laminated badge he’d hung around his neck. “Yes, that’s right. We’re from the gas company.”

The man leaned across the threshold and a stink of rotten flesh rose up around him, like a wound gone bad. Off to his left Brian could hear Walt choke back a cough. He half-turned and saw his partner staring behind the man, into the dark recesses of the house.

“We’re checking for poor connections and possible leaks in the area,” Brian continued. Every word felt like he was chewing on tinfoil. “Old pipes and bad fittings and what have you. Do you mind if we come in and do an inspection of your property?”

The man moved backwards and blocked the door.

“Of course. That’s no problem,” Brian replied with a nod. He looked over at Walt, who had gone paper white. “Oh, him, he was out on a stag do last night and is still recovering. Can’t handle his drink anymore. Sorry for disturbing you. Oh, yes, that’s fine. We’ll call back a different time.”

The man moved backwards again and the door slammed shut with a rush of stinking darkness. Brian felt like he could finally breathe once more. Walt ran out the gate.

By the time Brian rounded the corner of the van, Walt was hunched over, pale and sweating, a pavement pizza splattered all over the road, his shoes and the ends of his overalls. From up the road the gang of children could be heard gagging and jeering and laughing.

“Jesus buddy, you okay?” Brian said, pulled a packet of tissues from his pocket and handed them to Walt. “I think it’s fairly obvious you picked up some bad vibes back there. Me too, I think? I can’t really remember.”

He rubbed the sides of his head. The hungover feeling had started to pass already.

Walt looked up, his face ashen and waxy. His eyes, the fog cleared, were wide and full of terror.

“Call Hideaway,” he whispered. “We need to get out of here. Right now.”

* * *

“Here she comes now.” Brian pointed to where a red Nissan Micra had pulled into the car-park. He hopped down off the low wall. Walt took one last drag, then trod on his cigarette butt.

Ellen ‘Hideaway’ O’Sullivan stepped out of her car, buttoned her blazer once and walked over to join her fellow Dangermen.

“How’s the best witch I know doing?” Brian asked by way of greeting.

“What about Lorraine?”

“Lorraine’s not a witch, she’s my wife,” Brian replied.

“Princess Bride reference, nice one,” Hideaway said and bumped fists with him. “How are things, Walter? First day back in the field and you’ve already got a nasty one for me to put in my queue, I take it.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Not at all. Hopefully you’ve found whatever it is that’s been tormenting the rough sleepers. We’ve been getting the run around from this demon, whatever it is, for the last month. Anyway, Walter, it’s good to see you back out and about. The beard is new since I saw you last.”

“Yeah, that and five or so stone I put on while I was off,” Walt said and tapped his protruding stomach, his voice full of biting self-deprecation. Hideaway and Brian shared an uncomfortable look. “Let’s just go inside and I’ll give you guys the four one one on the situation and we can see about putting together a plan.”

The three of them took a booth at the back of the restaurant, ordered from the waitress and talked about mundanities until their food arrived. Once they’d been served and left to it Hideaway poured a small hill of salt out onto the table. She drew shapes in the grains and whispered words that were more like guttural sounds, then the air around them shimmered, like they were looking out from within a child’s soap bubble. A woman at the next table turned towards them but her gaze drifted away and she ended up looking back at her plate, confused.

“Right then, this should give us some level of privacy.” Hideaway smiled and popped a sweet-potato fry in her mouth. She looked at Walt. “So, what have you got, Walter? Give me the lowdown on whatever it is we’re dealing with here?”

Walt took a sip of water and then, hands flat on the table, not looking directly at either of his workmates, said, “there was something behind what answered the door. The man who was standing there was empty, a literal skin-suit. It was as if everything inside of him and been sucked out and was using what was left as a finger-puppet. There was a darkness behind it though, a cloud of it, in the hall, so thick I couldn’t really make out any proper shapes. Whatever it is though, it’s got powerful psychic energy.”

“But that guy in the house, he spoke to me,” Brian said, confused.

Walt shook his head. “He didn’t, Brian. It was all in your head. I don’t think you even said anything out loud either. It was all being projected into your mind. It must be how this demon defends itself. All I know is that I was being battered by waves of psychic energy. It overloaded me. I think that’s why I got sick.”

“Fucking hell,” Brian whispered. “Wearing him like a skin suit? I’ll never be able to listen to Slayer’s ‘Dead Skin Mask’ ever again.”

“Whatever’s in that house, it’s big and powerful. But it caught me by surprise earlier, I wasn’t prepared. Next time though, next time I’ll be ready for it,” Walt said to Hideaway, a fierce burning in his eyes. “I didn’t see much physical activity, just this long, segmented arm, like a spider’s leg or a rigid umbilical that stretched out behind that man and away up the stairs. And the hallway was full of, like cotton candy, painted black. Clouds of it, fuzzing everything up. It’s proper powerful. We’re not dealing with a bottom feeder here. I think we’ve got a Level 4 demon on our hands. Maybe higher.”

“Do you think it’s mobile, Walter?” Hideaway asked.

Walt looked at her, confused. “Meaning?”

“Can it leave the house? Could it move around outside, do you reckon?”

Walt shook his head. “I’d seriously doubt it. Not without being conspicuous anyway. Something radiating that much big nasty to keep itself hidden, it’d end up drawing too much attention to itself if it was out walking about the place.”

“Well then, A, it’s not what’s been snatching rough sleepers from down by the canal or B, it’s not on its own, which means it’s sending something else out to bring back food. Meaning there’s already a shedload of info we don’t know.”

“Fuck,” Brian whistled.

“Yep.” Hideaway’s tongue clicked against her teeth. “My thoughts exactly.”

Walt sighed and looked down at the remains of his chicken salad. He lifted his shoulders as if he was about to say something, but then let them slump again.

“But hey, don’t worry about it,” Hideaway said. “It’s not the first time we’ve gone in somewhere practically blind.”

“We’re hitting it tonight?” Walt looked up.

“If you’ve got plans with Anders cancel them,” Hideaway smiled and Brian winced, “you’re back on the clock now. And we’re down to a skeleton crew. Big flare up near Limerick last night has got every spare person deployed down that direction. You were lucky to get me in the office even.”

“So that’s what that was,” Walt said softly to himself.

Hideaway had one last chip, then picked up the saltshaker and upended most of over the remaining mouthful of burger and few chips on her plate, making them inedible. She covered the remains with a paper napkin and sat back, then noticed the two men were staring at her, confused.

“What?” She put a hand to her lips and rubbed. “Do I’ve something on my face?”

“No,” Brian indicated her plate. “Why’d you do that?”

“Oh, I was finished so I poisoned the rest with salt. Stops me picking when I’m full. Sorry, did you want a chip?”

“Nah, it’s grand,” Brian shook his head and smiled. “So, back on topic, do you reckon the three of us will be able to take this on?”

They looked over at Walt, who shrugged.

“Between us we’re a Revealer, a Concealer and a Burner,” Hideaway counted them off on her fingers. “This is as tight and experienced a crew as you’d want on a job.”

“Cool,” Brian nodded then addressed Hideaway in his most serious voice. “More importantly though, are you going to keep us hidden while we leave or are we actually going to have to pay for this meal?”

A few minutes later, in the carpark, Hideaway slipped the purse into her handbag and headed for her car with a salute to the others.

“Hey,” Brian put a restraining hand on Walt’s shoulder. “Are you okay? You’re acting a bit off. That thing she said about Anders was an honest mistake, you know that, right?”

“Ah I’m just all out whack is all, from the house probably,” Walt replied. “Well, that and Hideaway. She always scares the shit out of me. Can’t believe it’s my first day back and I’ve had to call her in.”

“Fair enough,” Brian chuckled as he opened the van door. “Still, she hasn’t been on the force over twenty years for nothin’. You want anyone on your side, it’s her. Come on, let’s roll.”

Once inside the van Brian paused while buckling his seat belt and said, “Question for you, Walt. If Anders thought you were a financial adviser thingy, how did you explain what happened to you?”

“Honestly,” Walt said with a smile, “I told him I fell down some stairs.”

* * *

It was close to nine when the Dangermen van pulled up in the exact same spot it had been parked in that morning. The sky was purple-black and the typically Irish spattering of constant misty rain was enough to guarantee the streets were clear, the gaggle of kids from earlier on no doubt off mooching someplace more appealing.

The trio, dressed in unmarked grey overalls, got out and with practiced precision, Walt and Brian began to set up the sort of red-and-white-striped builders’ tent that was present at every building site and roadwork the length and breadth of the country. Hideaway removed two large, free-standing, diamond-shaped signs. ‘Danger Men At Work’ was printed on both in big black letters, over a dirty, burnt orange background. She set them up at either end of the van., rendering it immediately inconspicuous.

Inside in the tent, the trio stood around a small table. On this was a rough architect’s map showing the supposed layout of the house. Two futuristic-looking, drill-sized handguns were laid out, along with a box of ammunition that resembled thick, glass-tube transistors more than any regular bullets. They were filled with Demonsbane. In a sturdy, padded box the three Dangermen’s masks lay waiting.

Walt kept watch on number 8 through a clear plastic panel in the side of the tent while Hideaway finished casting hexes that would hide each of them from any accidental observers when the time came to move. Behind them the bottoms of the plastic flaps covering the entrance whipped about in the wind, letting the cold in.

“Hey guys,” Brian said as he passed out cups of tea, “what city in India has the most sex parties? Give up? It’s Bang-Galore, get it?”

“Sometimes I wonder if your attempts to lighten the mood actually do more to disimprove it,” Hideaway sighed.

Brian gave her a blank look that she wasn’t entirely sure was fully faked. “It’s ‘cause the city is called Bangalore, you know, like…”

“Hey, shut up,” Walt interrupted. “I see movement across the way. Something just came over the roof.” The other two shoved in beside him and squinted through the wet plastic. “Up there, by the chimney, it’s flapping, like a plastic bag, but bigger. Do you see it?”

“Not a thing, buddy.” Brian flexed the fingers of his right hand and little tongues of flame danced across the tips. “We don’t have eyes on.”

“Okay, now it’s gone over the other side.” Walt mimicked something climbing over the roof then looked over at Hideaway.

“Lock and load fellas, we’re going in,” she said.

Hideaway and Walt pulled on thin gloves and hung the dart guns hanging from their belts. Brian’s hands remained exposed, flames rising and dying on his fingers as he flexed and contracted, loosening up the joints. All three had on flat face masks, each with its own distinctive markings, except for Brian’s which was totally blank and looked like poured liquid paint.

“We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns here but between us we’ve got the experience and the skills, so we should be able to handle anything that comes at us,” Hideaway said. “If you need help just call out. We’re here to protect the people and to do it right, so let’s get to work.”

She turned to Walt. His mask was a sheer white flat nothing from which a crescent moon curved out sharply under each blue, glowing eyehole. These curves crossed over each other above his forehead, giving a shape almost like an inverted heart. Hideaway placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Are you going to be able to be okay?”

Walt nodded, the flat surface of his mask revealing nothing of his feelings, but one hand tugged at where the overalls pinched his waist. “I’m ready.”

“Good. Remember we need to watch out for each other on this one, guys. Tight and fast.”

Hideaway stepped back and bowed her head. Her own mask was blank white with two zig-zag protrusions that went from beneath the eyeholes straight down past her chin. There were no mouth or nose-holes. She moved her hands in an intricate pattern and the other Dangermen felt the air around them crackle as the zig-zags on her mask began to glow a faint yellow. She reached out and touched first Brian and then Walt on the chest, just below the neck. The yellow light flowed down onto her fingers and trickled across to them.

“That will keep you hidden until you get into the house at least. The demon occupying number 8 will probably have something to negate it once we step inside, but it’ll keep any nosey neighbours from spying us until then.”

Walt placed his hands over the eyes of both Brian and Hideaway’s masks, leaving a faint blue glow. “It won’t let you see everything, but it should help against most of the wards.”

With that, the three of them did a final check then stepped out of the tent. Anyone looking out their window at that moment might have noticed a rustle of wind, but nothing more.

At the front door Brian sliced his hand along the jamb and burned through the locks. The door swung inwards and the severed bits of bolts dropped onto the ground. He paused at the threshold while Walt inspected the entranceway for charms or triggers. Walt signalled the all clear and stepped into the house, weapon raised.

Brian paused in the hallway to watch the stairs, while the other two did a sweep of the ground floor; the living room, kitchen, under-the-stairs toilet, all came back empty. To Brian’s right, hanging from a hook on the coat rack alongside a rain slicker and a worn duffel coat, was the empty skin-suit, shrivelled and withered. The unfortunate earthly remains of Mr Ultan McCarthy, if the name on the unopened pile of post was anything to go by.

“Poor guy. No-one deserves this,” Brian whispered. He rooted around and found an old boot which he dropped against the front door to keep it closed. Hideaway and Walt emerged from the kitchen. She silently signalled the all clear then gestured at the stairs. Walt placed a foot on the bottom step with his back to the wall. His mask glowed faintly as he edged up the first few steps. He paused then shone a torch beam along the bottom of the balcony, scouring the length of the landing. Nothing but carpet and wall.

Walt gave the all clear then gestured for the others to advance up. Brian ran ahead to where the stairs took a right-angle turn. Flames glowed and danced on his hands. Walt swung the torch back along the length of the landing, signalling a further go ahead to Hideaway, then tilted it up towards the ceiling, where it illuminated a black, empty space where the attic door should have been.

There was a thud.

“Move,” Walt yelled as a vine-thick tentacle smashed through from above and whipped a hair’s breadth away from where he stood.

Brian dove onto the landing, his flames extinguished. Walt and Hideaway unleashed a barrage of gunfire at the ceiling as they ran forward. There was a sucking, slurping noise as whatever was up there moved back into the darkness.

Walt was at the corner when suddenly a tentacle whipped out again. This time it was tipped with a pincer-claw which gouged a deep, ragged slice in the wallpaper and would have taken the head clean off of him if Hideaway hadn’t grabbed him from behind and pulled him down. Somehow she managed to let off three rounds that sunk into the creature’s flank. They detonated with a pop, pop, pop like balloons bursting. Demonsbane flowed into the fresh wounds and from above their heads there was an unearthly howl.

“Move, move, move,” Hideaway shouted and shoved Walt up the stairs.

“Stay back, there’s something else here,” Brian called. He was on his feet, back to the stairs as he attempted to keep two of the bedroom doors in his line of sight. He’d seen a shimmer, like a piece of clear plastic floating in water. “I think it’s camouflaged.”

“Allow me.” Walt holstered his weapon and raised his hands to curve on his mask. There was a distinct smell, like chlorine, and suddenly the air flashed electric blue.

“Shit,” Brian cursed as three Labrador-sized wasp-shaped creatures were revealed, all stingers and legs. Before they could come any closer, he lit up his hands and filled the room with flames. Hideaway, at his side instantly, fired at the squealing, burning shapes.

“Gahhhh.”

Brian and Hideway turned to see Walt being pulled backwards into the far bedroom. The wasp-creature’s spindly black arms wrapped around his torso. From beside his right leg a stinger pumped furiously. Blue liquid seeped from it.

“Try to turn,” Hideaway shouted as Walt drove an elbow backwards, into where he hoped the creature’s head was. It connected with something and he kept doing it.

The ceiling above Hideaway and Brian cracked as a thick tentacle smashed through. Dust and plaster showered down.

“You help him,” Brian nudged Hideaway as he clambered onto the balcony railing and pulled himself up into the dark attic. It was immediately lit up by a momentary but ferocious blast of flame.

Walt smashed himself hard against the bedroom wall and felt the squirming, crawling creature on his back gasp. Memories of the Obliobites filled his head and vomit rose in his throat. His right leg flared up in agony as the edge of the stinger scraped him; then it went immediately numb. He felt like he was drunk or having a heart attack or something.

Without warning he fell forward, the thing behind him primed to deliver another jab, as Hideaway unloaded two rounds into it. The force almost knocked it loose. Then the bullets exploded and the creature howled like a kicked cat. Hideaway grabbed it off of Walt, threw it across the room, and fired two further rounds into its head.

“Walter, are you okay?” She lifted his mask to see his eyes had rolled back in their sockets and his already pale face had gone paper white. Sweat soaked him. “Fuck, come on. Keep moving. Don’t let the toxin take hold. Fight it off. Come on.”

She pulled Walt into a sitting position. His mouth sagged open.

“Come on, Walter. You gotta keep it together.” Above them, the thuds and thumps of fighting continued. Hideaway threw a concerned look upwards. “I need to help Brian. Who knows what the fuck he’s dealing with up there?”

Walt’s eyes crossed and his mouth moved slowly, like a fish’s in slow motion. Then he reached out. Hideaway followed his movements as his hand went to her side. She went to place a comforting hand on his but he brushed it aside, found her gun, turned it and pulled the trigger. Behind them a Wasp-thing hit the ground as the Demonsbane popped in its chest. Hideaway grabbed the weapon, spun around, aimed and fired off two more blasts at the bedroom door, where another of the creatures was perched.

Suddenly the ceiling to her left collapsed in a cloud of dust and noise, wooden beams and insulation. Brian crashed through, hit the single bed, and rolled off just as a tendril lashed from the new hole, a hooked claw on its tip. Hideaway emptied her clip into it and then grabbed up Walt’s weapon. Green-blue blood, thick as paste, poured from fresh wounds and there was another howl of agony from above as the tendril disappeared and there came the noise of something large moving to the far end of the attic.

“I think it’s hurt pretty bad.” Brian got to his feet. His hands were lit up and smoking. He ran out into the hall and lifted his arms above his head, letting loose a long stream of flame.

Above them, through a gap in the ceiling, the thing began to emerge. It filled out the space, its bulk shoved through the too-small cap like a beanbag being fed through a hole. Brian kept up a steady stream of flames, and the creature seemed to be just sucking it all in. Then, with a plop, its bulk fell onto the landing—limbs loose, still draped over the sides of the attic.

“Bloody thing was giving me hell up there,” Brian said, and with a flick of his wrists the fire went out. The heap of a thing lay there, smouldering. On the floor beside it, a partially melted smoke alarm lay silently by, its red check-battery light flashing lazily.

“Is that it?” Hideaway asked. “Nothing else up there?”

“Not that I could see. Just piles of clothes and more empty skins,” Brian replied, his eyes never leaving the creature. He took a deep breath. “I think we found whatever’s been feeding on our homeless people, anyway. How’s Walt?”

“Not sure.” Hideaway cast a look over her shoulder. Walt had managed to lift one arm in a thumbs-up gesture. “But I think he’ll be okay.”

“Any idea what it is?” Brian asked, when suddenly the demon hissed out a blast of green goo and lashed at them with a hooked tendril. The whip-like limb clobbered Brian across the side of the head and knocked him flat. Before Hideaway could react it had shoved itself across the floor. It moved with squelchy, farting noises. She fired off a flurry of shots just as it disappeared into the front bedroom and slammed the door.

Hideaway leapt over Brian’s prone form, shouldered the door open and went in low, gun held in front of her.

The window was already smashed. Outside she could see the creature was hauling its damaged body through the gate.

“Fuck,” Hideaway shouted. She ran across the landing, over Brian and down the stairs, feet thundering. She pulled the front door open and ran outside, a cloaking charm dancing on her fingertips, already ready to cast.

The demon was suspended in a cloud of lightning blue. Around it, in a half-circle, were about a dozen people in pyjamas and nightwear.

“What the… fuck?” Hideaway was about to cast her charm when she noticed the light was emanating from the people, not the demon. She stopped. “What’s going on?”

A young boy, about ten years old, looked at her. When he spoke his voice was flat, emotionless. “We had a promise. To live side by side. To protect each other.”

“But Galzur got greedy,” a girl who could have been his twin chimed in. “Drew attention. Then you came.”

“So you can take Galzur. But we won’t let you take Mother away,” the boy said, his voice rising in pitch.

“We won’t let you.” The girl’s blond plaits flapped as she shook her head.

Hideaway went to lift her weapon but found she was frozen in place. She watched in disbelief as the charm she was in the process of conjuring blew away in fragments, like sand off a stone. The children approached her.

As they did, a woman in the centre of the crowd stepped forward to approach the demon. The neck of the woman’s vest top was scooped low enough to show part of a breast tattoo. Her eyes were glowing pools of silver, her face empty and serene. She paused, then extended one arm towards the now mewling monstrosity and the other towards the metal fence that circled the construction site. With a twist of both wrists, the creature and the fence flew at each other. They connected with a wet thump and the creak of metal as the fence was wrapped around the creature like a net, then tightened into a ball.

Then squeezed some more. And further still. The captured demon popped and a gush of green-blue ickiness splashed onto the road.

“Mother needs us to mind her,” the boy smiled. “She needs us to help her forget all of this.”

“Mother gets sad when she remembers. But we keep her safe. We help her to forget and stop her from being sad. And we’ll make you forget too,” the little girl said, and Hideaway watched as all the colour faded out of the world, a paint-by-numbers in reverse. All of it being washed away. But then Walter Tinnel’s voice, from somewhere out there behind her.

“Hideaway, are you okay? Who are these people?” He stood at the front door, eyes blurred, chest heaving, leg still numb from where he’d been stung. The two children turned to look at him and behind them he saw Mother, the light dancing across her fingers and eyes. “Hey, I recognise you from earlier on.”

He went to step forward but found he was frozen in place. Panic flooded through him and then the colours ran from his world, too, as the clouds downed on his mind.

* * *

It was later when Brian came to on the landing, the bodies of wasp-things scattered around him. He hauled himself into a sitting position, pulled off his mask, and vomited. Tentatively he got to his feet and, using the unstable handrail for support, edged his way carefully down the stairs.

He went outside to find a crowd of people standing around an unmasked Walt, who was firmly but politely telling them to return to their homes. No-one seemed to be paying much attention.

Hideaway was on the edge of the crowd, near their van, speaking into her mobile. She signalled for Brian to come over.

“What did I miss?” He rubbed his shoulder and winced.

Hideaway slid the phone into a pocket and tilted her head towards the middle of the road, then placed a finger on Brian’s forehead. The blind lifted enough for him to see the remains of the attic creature wrapped up tightly and impaled on a portion of the building site’s fence.

“Christ,” he gasped.

“We got it. Job’s a good one,” Hideaway smiled. Behind her eyes the beginnings of a headache was laying down for the long haul. “I’ve put in a call for a clean-up and medical crew to come collect the remains. I just need to keep a lid on it until then. Walter’s currently trying to get everyone to go home. No-one saw anything, thankfully.”

“But how did you guys capture it?”

“It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest.” Hideaway rubbed her temple with a thumb.

“Sure,” Brian said, uncertain. “Happens sometimes, in the heat of the action. So, what are we telling the residents happened?”

“Gas leak.”

“Classic. Suppose I’d better help set up a cordon until the crew arrives. Then I think a shower and some breakfast is called for. Just need to drop Lorraine a line, let her know I’m okay.”

“Breakfast sounds good after that job alright,” Hideaway said and signalled at Walt, who gave a thumbs up. “Reckon we’ll all need to be checked out first though, cover the bruises and scrapes.”

Brian harrumphed and shook his head. “Yeah, well, fingers crossed tomorrow’s a smoother day. I wish I knew how it all went down tonight,\ though.” As he spoke, a young girl in a dressing gown with her hair in pig-tails and Minion slippers on her feet came up beside him. Brian gave her a friendly smile. “You go back on home there now, sweetheart. Go on and find your mum. There’s nothing to worry about at all here. You’re safe.”

The girl looked at the Dangerman with eyes blue as icy water and smiled. “I know.”

* * *

Ken McGrath lives, with his wife, in an upside house in Dublin, Ireland. His fiction has appeared in Cirsova Magazine, Liquid Imagination Magazine, K Zine, Tales From The Moonlit Path, Transcendent (Transmundane Press) and Daily Science Fiction, among others. You can find him online here if you want.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I always keep a notebook with me. Into this goes all sorts of snatches of sentences, bits of dialogue, interesting facts, new words and fragments of thoughts. I also find, at least once a day, that something from a conversation with my wife, friends, or work colleagues, some joke or pun, some turn of phrase, off-hand comment or observation, will find its way in there too. Nine Inch Nails have a song, ‘The Collector’, that goes “I pick things up, I am a collector” and I suppose when starting a story it’s a little like that, of just picking things up until some of them begin to click together in just the right way and make the beginnings (middle or ending) of an idea.

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