|Publisher:||IFWG Publishing International|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
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SLEEPING DOGS KIRSTYN MCDERMOTT
Ghost has the start of a headache, the start of what she hopes won't morph into one of her colour-soaked migraines. Even if this job doesn't pan out, she hardly has the time to lay up in bed for a day or two with a cool washcloth over her eyes. She rubs at her temples. Squeezes her earlobes. Someone once told her that worked. Sometimes it does.
It's been at least a quarter hour, maybe more, since she was escorted into the room by the tall woman with the artfully expressionless face and asked — instructed, more like — to take a seat. Ghost doesn't reach for her phone to check her messages. She doesn't tap her foot on the polished wooden floorboards. She doesn't pick at the skin around her fingernails. She's been asked to wait, and wait she will. Patiently. Visibly. She suspects that might be part of the interview. She suspects there's at least one spy-cam somewhere in the room, feeding its sneaky live report back to whoever wants to see just how much patience Ghost is able to summon.
"More than you know," she whispers through unmoving lips.
The room is half-office, half-library, and the ultra-tidy desk before which Ghost sits would be long enough for her to use as a bed. It's made from a dark, reddish brown wood, most likely mahogany — most likely real mahogany, maybe even antique mahogany — that matches what she can see of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls, as well as the rolling ladder in the corner, and the exposed wood on the pair of lion-footed Georgian armchairs over by the window. Their flawless, cream-coloured upholstery must of course be the result of more recent renovations; no way could such fabric survive the ravages of almost a century unscathed.
Still, the room oozes wealth. This job should pay well.
Ten more minutes pass before the door finally swings opens and a woman in a modest but finely tailored suit marches into the room. Her hair is steel grey, cut into a sharp, chin-length bob, and her fingernails sport well-manicured French tips. She looks exactly like the sort of person who belongs behind that neat mahogany desk and, indeed, behind the desk is precisely where she sits herself.
Keeping a few paces behind, the tall woman who escorted Ghost previously closes the door before taking up a position at the older woman's side. "Ms Thurston," she says, "this is Ghost."
"Not your real name?" Ms Thurston's eyes are a blue so pale they're almost grey. She doesn't blink.
Ghost shrugs. "Real enough for me."
The older woman holds her gaze for a moment longer, then nods. By her right elbow, resting on a small stack of papers, is a polished green-black stone roughly the same size and shape as a boiled egg sliced in half. Ms Thurston picks up the stone and places it right in front of Ghost.
"Did you notice my paperweight?" she asks.
Ghost nods, not looking at the stone. Of course she noticed it, just as she noticed the empty in-tray where those papers had probably lain, sans weight, until five minutes before her appointment. Just as she noticed the Art Deco lamp with the inlaid mother-of-pearl shade, and the Montblanc fountain pen that likely cost more than a month's rent in the crappy Marylebone studio where Ghost has been living for almost a year, as well as the complete lack of framed photos or uniquely personal items anywhere in sight. It's her job to notice things. To see what others might overlook.
"Pick it up," Ms Thurston says.
"I'd rather not." Ghost doesn't know why she refuses. It's dumb, but she doesn't feel like even looking at the stone too closely, let alone touching it.
Clenching her teeth, Ghost reaches out and takes the stone between finger and thumb, like it's something dead, or worse. Nothing happens. It's a little heavier than she expected, smooth and cool and polished so highly she can see her silhouette reflected in its surface, and now she really, really wants to put it down. The pressure in her head has intensified and she wishes she had a glass of cold water.
After a minute that feels like an age, Ms Thurston holds out her palm. Ghost drops the stone so quickly it almost bounces, but the older woman catches it gracefully. She opens a desk drawer and retrieves a small black bag — like velvet, but darker somehow, less lightful — then drops the stone inside.
"Our missing artefact is crafted from similar material," she says. "I needed to know how you would react before we proceed."
"Well, I won't be asking for a free sample."
She smiles, lips stretched thin. "In some people, it can arouse rather ... covetous emotions. You, however, sat here for thirty minutes with scarcely a glance in its direction. A passing grade, Lavinia, don't you think?"
Beside her, the tall woman nods. "I believe so, ma'am." Her face has softened somewhat, relaxed, a corner of her mouth twitching upwards. Ghost reckons she would be the type to unravel delightfully after a few drinks down the corner pub, spilling crude jokes and cider until the early hours. Though she doesn't suppose she'll have a chance to find that out for herself.
"You're not as old I expected," Ms Thurston is saying.
Ghost swallows a sigh. She's short and has always looked much younger than her age — she was being regularly carded well into her twenties; sometimes still gets asked — and turning thirty last month didn't seem to magically gift her with the kind of face that signalled, hey, I'm an actual grown woman, please take me the fuck seriously.
"Is that a problem?" she asks, her tone carefully neutral.
"Merely an observation." Ms Thurston pulls a large envelope from the stack of papers and slides it across the desk. "This is what we need recovered. It's an artist's impression, drawn from the memories of two people who've seen the object firsthand, albeit some time ago now."
The drawing gives Ghost the creeps. Sketched from three-quarter view, it looks like some kind of weird gargoyle, winged and crouching on a low pedestal, with an octopus in place of its head — if an octopus could have as many as a dozen or more tentacles writhing around its face. The creature's two hands — paws? — are resting on its knees, with huge claws curving downwards, and its body seems to be covered in scales. The pedestal itself is covered in squiggles that might be meant to represent inscriptions of some kind, but there's a question mark next to it. Ghost taps the page. "What's this about?"
"One of the gentlemen described a plinth with sigils. The other swore the figure was carved without a platform of any kind, but with markings underneath." Ms Thurston sighs. "They are quite elderly, you understand, in their nineties. Their recollections may be somewhat fallible."
"How long ago did they see this thing?"
"Approximately sixty years."
Ghost raises her eyebrows. "There's no one else?"
"Anyone else who claims to have laid eyes on the artefact is dead. It has been missing for quite some time." Ms Thurston leans forward, her hands clasped tight together. "Will you be able to find it, or not?"
In the corner of the page, the artist has scribbled 5"/12cm. At least the thing is small. "Can I keep this?" Ghost asks.
Ms Thurston glances at Lavinia, who nods. "We've made several high res copies, ma'am. Print and digital."
"The original would be best," Ghost says.
The older woman regards her silently for several seconds. "We will need it back, once you're done."
"Of course." Ghost slides the sketch into its envelope. "So whereabouts is this thing anyway?"
"If we knew that, you wouldn't be here."
"I just mean, do you have a city? A country even?"
"We do not."
"Okay." Ghost gnaws on her lower lip. "You know I only find lost things, right? Not stolen, not given away and regretted, not belonging to someone else. The lost or forgotten, that's my jam."
Ms Thurston pushes back her chair and stands. "Oh, it is definitely lost."
The old woman laughs. "Do I seem so ancient?"
"You might look, ah, younger than expected."
"Touché, Ghost." She extends her hand for Ghost to shake. "Not lost by me, no. But the organisation I run has a claim."
The woman's hand is dry and warm; her grip is firm. Ghost likes that, but still. "I don't know if I can take the job," she says. "There isn't a lot here to work with."
"You might find there's more than you think."
"I'll let you know in a couple of days?" Ms Thurston nods. "Lavinia will escort you out."
As Ghost follows the woman past the bookshelves, she feels it. A faint, familiar twang in her belly, like an elastic band pulled tight. She pauses. There, somewhere there. She reaches out, runs her fingertips across several nearby spines. Twang. That one, the dark blue. Blue as the darkling sky, blue as the collar on a four-year-old's first school uniform, blue as drowning.
"Was there something else?" Ms Thurston calls.
Ghost turns around, book in hand. "Maybe," she says, returning to the woman still standing behind the desk. "Maybe something for you. In here, I think."
The older woman glances past Ghost, making a silent exchange with Lavinia, no doubt. Then she takes the book and flicks slowly through its pages. When she finds the piece of paper, loose and lined, clearly torn from a spiral-bound pad, her face comes close to crumpling. But only close. She turns the page around, so that Ghost can see the little boat drawn in a child's hand, its sail a bold triangle coloured in blue ink. "My grandson's work. We were taking him sailing that weekend." Ms Thurston clears her throat. "Quite the party trick, you have there."
"I'm sorry," Ghost says. "I didn't mean —"
"No." Waving her hand in dismissal, even as she turns toward the window. "I've been missing it. Thank you."
Lavinia taps Ghost on the shoulder, ushers her wordlessly from the room and down the hall to the elevator. "Jesus," she says once they're inside. "You're the real fucking deal."
"I guess I am," Ghost replies, noting as she had when Lavinia had brought her up, the lack of names next to any of the buttons. Just floor numbers. Her mouth feels dry, but at least the pounding in her head seems to be retreating. "Tell me the truth, Lavinia. If I'd been ... what's the word she used? Covetous? If I'd been covetous back there, with the stone, I mean ... would I even have been allowed to leave?"
It's an odd smile that quirks the tall woman's mouth. Like a predator thwarted, yet somehow glad of it.
"But you weren't covetous," Lavinia says. "So you needn't worry about that."
In the lobby, she passes Ghost a business card. It's white, with a capital L written in a fancy black script, along with a mobile number and —
"A Gmail address?"
"You don't need to know who we are just yet."
"Okay." Ghost takes the card, tucks it into her back pocket. She stares out at the busy, oblivious street, waiting just a few steps beyond those glass sliding doors. There's a question she wants to ask, even though it already sounds stupid in her head. For some reason, she needs to ask it. "You're the good guys in this, though, right?"
Lavinia laughs. It would take a long time to get sick of a laugh like that, maybe even forever. "Seriously, Ghost? Who on earth doesn't think they're the good guys?"
* * *
When 3am ticks over and she's still wide awake, Ghost kicks off the blankets and rolls out of bed. Half a dozen steps carry her to the cabinet next to the sink where she keeps the Chartreuse, and she swigs a mouthful straight from the bottle. It's ghastly stuff, but she trusts it to give insomnia a solid punch in the guts. She shouldn't have taken the job. It's too weird, even for her, and she doesn't have the slightest lead about the creepy little statue. Not even a whiff of intuition. She told Cassidy as much that afternoon, calling in while she waited out a sulky London shower beneath an awning several blocks away from her meeting with Ms Thurston.
You need to wrangle me out of this one.
They already wired a down payment. For expenses.
When Cassidy told her how much, as well as the additional finder's fee she'd negotiated for successful completion, Ghost slumped back against the wall. It was more than she'd been paid for any job before, more than she'd been paid for a year of jobs. Cassidy had earned her cut on this one.
Still there, G? Want me to bounce it back?
Fuck, no. Tasting the folly in her words even as she spoke them. Tell them I'm in.
Ghost takes a second swig of Chartreuse and grimaces. Across the room, stuck to the pinboard above her desk, the sketch from Ms Thurston mocks her. There's enough moonlight coming in through the window to illuminate the pencilled outline of the creature squatting — — on the ground, head turned in her direction, tentacles writhing about a maw that opens —
Ghost blinks and takes a lurching step toward her desk, then laughs. The sketch is unchanged, the octo-goyle-thing still perched on its pedestal, looking off to the left through wide lidless eyes. She's tired, running a sleep deficit she feels like she'll never pay off, seeing trouble where there isn't any. Maybe after this job, she can rest. Go somewhere there's lots of sun and no lost things begging to be found.
The voice a whisper more in her head than her ears, and Ghost swivels around to see a shadowy figure sitting on the edge of her bed. No, not shadowy — dark, as if no light can touch it, though she can make out the sheets tangled around it well enough. The figure stands, fluid and sinuous, taller than a human should be and thinner, willowy, one too-long arm stretching out as it slides a pace in her direction and —
Ghost hears again, feels again, and she stumbles back as the figure unfurls its elongated hand to reveal a sigil glowing so bright it hurts to look at: an eye cold and fathomless, reptilian almost but no, not reptilian, not anything that belongs on this earth. In a breath, the figure is right before her, that impossible hand on her chest now, pushing hard —
— and now she is falling, icy water closing around her as she struggles to find the surface, but everything is dark now, an utter blackness that has never known the touch of light, and her throat clogs with mud and silt, and still she is falling
— falling, awake with a jolt. Gasping for air, Ghost rolls over and promptly falls again, a short drop this time from couch to floor but the landing is hard enough to bruise. She lies there, blinking in the grey morning light for a few moments, before registering the liquid soaking into her shirt and the sickly-sharp smell of Chartreuse filling the room.
"Fuck." Ghost spots the bottle under the coffee table, most of its expensive green contents now spreading over the floorboards. She rescues it anyway, wondering where the hell the cap wound up, and gets to her feet. The eye sigil is scorched onto her retinas and not even a tentative sip of Chartreuse can wash the taste of river mud from her mouth.
Ghost shudders. Her phone's on charge by the bed but her hands are shaking so much it takes three attempts to send Cassidy a coherent message. Need flight to Melbourne, Aus, she finally taps out. ASAP.
Biz or econ? Cassidy responds in less than a minute.
Business, Ghost texts. Tell Thurston I have a lead.
* * *
It's only been seven or eight years since she was last here, but the city has changed so much Ghost has trouble fighting the dislocation that seeps in every time she takes a walk. Her sister still lives nearby, nestled into an outer, outer suburban housing development with her husband and two little kids. Ghost has called her, once, without letting on that she's home. Jem would've insisted she come and stay with them and Ghost has a feeling it wouldn't be good to bring this particular job anywhere near people she cares about. They can catch up when it's over — if it's ever over.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cthulhu Deep Down Under Volume 2"
Copyright © 2017 Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira & Bryce Stevens.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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