Intellectually, she knew there was a woman in a black dress. She knew the woman must be fairly tall, since she was more or less the same height as Sam… and that was it.
“Hello,” Sam said, beaming. “I don’t think I’ve introduced you to my friend Penny. She’s one of the Silent Ones – they’re not really from here, but they’re very nice once you get to know them.”
Hesitantly, Alice offered Penny her hand. “Hello,” she said, trying to blink away the sensation that there were two things trying to occupy the same space at once. “I’m Alice, I work with Sam. Umm… I’m sorry… but are you alright? I mean, I’m sure you are, but I can’t quite seem to focus on you, although that’s probably me.”
Sam gave her a look that transitioned from confusion, to how you’d be if you’d had a visitor and forgotten to offer them a cup of tea.
“Sorry,” he said, fishing something out of his pocket. “I’m so sorry – I forgot to play you the thing.”
“What?” Alice said, momentarily distracted from the hole she was digging.
Sam held up a pewter box that fit in the palm of his hand. He raised an eyebrow to Penny. “Is it okay if I…?”
Penny nodded. At least, Alice somehow knew that she’d nodded. Or, at the very least, that she’d somehow agreed.
Sam turned a handle on the tiny music box. It made a clearer, more soulful sound than she would have expected for its size, filling the busy London side street.
And she could see Penny. No wonder the human mind tried to protect itself. Penny was taller than Sam – at least six foot two – with a Victorian-style dress made of dark grey silk. It was a beautiful piece of work, that almost distracted her from the fact that Penny had a horned, defleshed skull for a head. Some sort of deer, probably.
She waved her hands in the air. As the shock abated, Alice realised it was British sign language.
“Ah, yes,” Sam said, watching the creature’s rapid-fire signing. “Penny says hello, and hopes you won’t be too disturbed. The Silent Ones are very friendly really. They’re also good at hiding, which is why they don’t really appear in much mythology.”
“Right,” Alice said, almost managing not to freak out. “How did the two of you meet?”
“Crosswords,” Sam said, without missing a beat. “We used to go to the same café, and I noticed that someone was filling in crosswords in Enochian. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“Right,” Alice said, doing her best to change mental gears as Penny loomed over her. “So, why are we here?”
Penny signed again. Sam nodded, the humour draining out of his expression. “Yes,” he said. “Oh dear. Alice? Have you been keeping up with the exercises I gave you?”
“Umm, yes, mostly,” she said. “There’s one where I keep falling asleep, but in general, I’m getting there.”
With a flourish worthy of the least-worst Covent Garden street magicians, Sam produced a necklace on a long silver chain. “You’d probably better put this on. Better safe than sorry.”
Before she could ask anything else, Penny turned and opened the padlock on the gate. She grasped it, as the air filled with a barely audible whisper, and what felt like the faint echo of the music box. Unsurprisingly, the steel padlock popped open.
“That whispering,” she asked, leaning into Sam for fear of being rude. “Is that what it sounds like when she speaks?”
Sam raised his eyebrow. “You can hear that?” he asked, with a look that might have been slight admiration. “I’m impressed. Yes, although it wouldn’t be good for you if she spoke much more. Their voices can alter reality, and human bodies are particularly vulnerable.”
“How did she contact you then?” Alice asked.
“Come now.” Sam gave her a look of mild reproach. “Almost everybody knows how to text.”
Beyond the gate, the building site was more or less as you’d expect it to be – they’d started taking up whatever the floor had been made of and replaced it with duckboards everywhere they’d needed to walk. Various machines stood inert without men to work them… and there wasn’t a soul around. On a dry, sunny Tuesday.
“They closed it down,” Sam said, keeping his voice low. “They were going to call the authorities, but Penny has a friend who has a friend and we’ve managed to get a day or so of grace.”
“How bad is it?” Alice asked.
Sam grimaced. “Well, this is the problem – from Penny’s body language, fairly bad, but… well, my BSL isn’t actually as good as it used to be. I’m not a hundred percent sure what we’re going to find.”
They were coming up on what looked like it had been a garage. The builders had taken out the vehicle doors and all the windows in the course of their renovations, leaving only a large room with grubby pink walls.
If they were pink. Alice couldn’t see the glow of any lightbulbs, but there was reddish-purple light coming from somewhere.
Penny turned to sign something to Sam, who nodded slowly, and whispered something to himself. “Alright,” he said, after a moment, “here we go,” and stepped into the room.
The next few seconds held a number of unpleasant surprises. Firstly, there were massive holes in the floor, one of which Alice almost walked straight into. Secondly, the light seemed to be coming from faintly glowing gratings made of rusted metal. They reminded her of something in a book Sam had given her, but she couldn’t quite call to mind which one, because of a third thing. At the back of the room, standing over an unsealed hole, was a creature from Alice’s literal nightmares: It had the head of a white porcelain baby doll standing on spider legs. Where the doll’s eyes would have been there were just holes into blackness, and in place of its mouth was a cephalopod-like mouth with five writhing tentacles.
This would have been disturbing regardless of its size, made worse by the fact that it was the size of a small car.
“Oh,” Sam said, deceptively cheerful for someone facing down a genuine horror. “That’s what you meant. Sorry, I didn’t know the sign for that.”
Penny signed something. Sam sucked air in through his teeth. “She says it’s something from her world, but it’s very young. The parents are sealed up in the other holes, but the builders broke the seal when they started taking the floor up.”
“Does that mean they’re going to escape?” Alice asked, wondering if it was unfeminist to stand behind Sam.
“Probably, plus the baby one looks like it's about to attack,” Sam said.
Mild panic was something Alice had gotten used to, but that didn’t make it any better as her heart revved in her chest and the familiar ice-water wash of adrenaline went through her. They’d survived worse, even if she couldn’t think of anything just now.
“How long before the parents get out?” she asked.
Sam’s brows knitted, he watched Penny sign something. “Five,” he said, looking at his watch.
“Five what?” Alice asked.
Sam took a deep breath. He started making a pattern in the dirt with the toe of his boot.
“Four…” he said.
There were a lot of things about working with Sam Hain that had changed Alice’s life: Halloween would never be the same again, she knew what Ember Days were, and there were several places in London she could never go to again without thinking about various forms of supernatural horror, but a sunny spring afternoon was one of the last times she expected to be watching something that looked like it had crawled out of her nightmares.
Usually, this would have been shorthand for something mundanely terrible, but the thing they were facing was more or less surreal enough to literally have come from one of her nightmares. In fact, it was a lot like one she had after her card got declined at a Greek seafood restaurant.
She’d met Sam at the back of an old bank that was being redeveloped into shops. He was on time, which was odd, and there was someone with him… which was odder. Not that Sam was continually alone… but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what was wrong with the woman he was with. Or what was right about her, actually. Or anything else.
by Jon Kaneko-James