by I.A. Watson
It turned out that pub quizzes were something like being tutored by a daemon pedagogue, except that one wasn’t caned with a wicker stick when one got the question wrong. And there was more alcohol.
Penny was impressed with her date’s contribution to the evening out. “Wow, Vin. How did you know what a quadrennium was?”
“It’s basic Latin for ‘four years’.”
“And which country Quito was the capital of?”
“The Great Occult House of Herzhog owns quite a bit of Ecuador. Father often rants about it.”
“And when Neptune was discovered?”
“Astrologers everywhere had to update their charts in 1846.”
“Right. Well, you’re on the team any time, boyfriend.”
Vinnie was glad to make Penny happy. “I’m sorry I didn’t know which England football manager was born in Torsby, Sweden in 1948 though,” he apologised. “I know that Torsby is in Värmland County in West Central Sweden, where there are Nøkken, drowner spirits that lure people to their deaths with their fiddle-playing.”
“Vinnie has a very specialised knowledge-set,” Celia Covchek explained from the other end of the table where she was writing down the answers. “I never thought of applying it to the Crown and Pig’s quiz night.”
“I can’t believe he’s never been to a pub quiz before,” Penny told Vinnie’s neighbour. “He had a very sheltered upbringing.”
Celia looked at the jobbing occultist sympathetically. “Were you brought up in a strict family? Temperancers?”
“Necromancers, mostly,” Vinnie answered without thinking. “Um, I mean… I was home-schooled.” By daemon pedagogues, he didn’t add.
“I think we’re doing pretty well tonight,” Celia told her companions. “Even with Mario on the team.” The masseuse’s date for the evening had lost interest in the competition and had headed to the bar for another round and some peanuts. He’d been gone for twenty minutes.
“Glad to help,” Vinnie assured his remaining team-mates.
“You’re brilliant at the anagrams too,” Penny encouraged him.
“Oh, that’s just basic survival tactics. If you can’t parse encoded conjugations then your brother and sisters will… er, I mean, I’ve had a lot of practice at unscrambling words.”
“We need someone who’s better at sport,” Celia judged. “I had big hopes for Mario but he’s failing the dating game. Shame your big muscly friend couldn’t make it tonight. I imagine he’s really fit.”
“Tanner had to work. He said he might drop in before closing time.”
Celia perked up, weighing the relative interests of Mario and Tanner.
Penny was also pleased to hear that Vinnie’s old friend might show up. She hadn’t met much of Vinnie’s social circle, except for a brief encounter with his ghoul ex and a medieval souvenir vendor in the ruins of Ys.
“Hush for the final round,” Celia warned her team. “Here goes.”
Vinnie got the questions about seven dwarfs appearing in which 1812 fairy tale written by The Brothers Grimm, about the festival dates of Yom Tov, and about which fictional Scottish village appeared only once a century, although the young magus insisted that Brigadoon was quite real and somewhat horrifying. He had no idea with which toy-inspired single the Europop band Aqua topped the UK charts in November 1997 or at which racecourse the Grand National was held.
“Third place isn’t bad,” Penny assured him at the end. “I’ve never got as high as third before.”
“We could have won,” Celia said ruefully, “if it wasn’t for our lame duck Mario. He better… Oh, there’s Tanner!”
She waved the tall, Celtic newcomer over to their table. Tanner stalked across to them, frowning mildly.
Vinnie did the introductions. “Tanner, this is Penny. You might remember Celia.”
“Alright,” the Laundry of Doom staffer greeted the ladies. “Sorry to interrupt, but I need a word with your lad here.”
“In private?” Vinnie saw that Tanner looked serious. His jacket was torn.
“Well, over there,” Tanner suggested, indicating a space somewhere beside the slot machines.
“And then a drink?” Celia suggested.
“Nice thought. Might not have time, love. Might have to rush off.”
Celia turned to Penny. “Am I losing my touch?”
Vinnie excused himself from Penny and followed Tanner across the pub. “What’s up? You’ve been in a fight?”
“Nothing much to speak of,” Tanner assured him. “Bit of a dispute over a laundry bill with a Debtmason oathchanter, all sorted out on account of me tearing his head off. That’s not the problem.”
Tanner looked like a buff thirtysomething manual labourer, but he was actually well into his second millennium – and he was a practicing werewolf. As an Elder Lycanthrope created by curse not infection, he was extremely hard to kill.
He rolled up the sleeve of his torn donkey jacket to show a hairy muscled forearm. There was a band aid1 stuck on it. The plaster had a sticky black stain.
“I’m having a first aid malfunction,” Tanner pointed out. “Watch this.”
He extracted from his pocket a cardboard packet of small generic-brand adhesive plasters. He peeled the backing off one, scratched the back of his hand, and attached the bandage.
The new plaster blackened in the centre, stained.
“That’s not usual,” Tanner clarified.
“No,” Vinnie agreed. “How did you…?”
“I was a bit scratched up after the Debtmason. An attractive receptionist that I saved happened to have a first aid kit and offered a bit of medical support.”
“Oh, well, if she was an attractive receptionist…”
“Hey, I’d just torn my way through death by a thousand paper cuts. I was grateful for a bit of sympathy. Also, that oathchanter didn’t even sign for his laundry before he tried to stiff me on the bill. So I allowed myself a bit of T.L.C.”
“So she gave you an elastoplast.” Vinnie suggested dryly.
“Amongst other support, yes,” Tanner agreed with a sly grin. “I had saved her from some very rough language that was going to rip her throat out.” Debtmason oathchanters had some unpleasant supernatural attacks. “And we don’t all have your disastrous hang-ups about women, De Soth.”
Vinnie examined the innocent-looking sticking plasters on the werewolf’s forearm and hand, utilising arcane vision magics. He frowned.
“The thing went black as soon as she slapped it on,” Tanner continued. “Same with a second one, and a third. Rather spoiled the moment, to be honest. I worked out that these things only reacted like that when they touched blood. So in the end I took the packet of plasters, took my leave, and took myself off to consult with you.”
“What did that oathchanter hit you with before you, um, subdued him?” Vinnie wondered.
“Nothing that stuck, no pun intended,” Tanner was sure. “Some Words of Chastisement, Written Censures, the usual. Nothing that explains this.”
“And the receptionist was just… an attractive human receptionist?”
“Yeah. My senses are usually good enough to spot the fakes, and I got to check her out very close up.”
“So the mystery lies with the sticking plasters.”
“Looks like. I’d take this to Mr Lye, except he’s going to be a bit sharp about the lack of a laundry receipt. So what’s the story, Vin?”
The jobbing occultist added some additional diagnostic dweomers, trying to understand the nature of the blackening effect on the polyethylene strip. “Your band aid is cursed,” he suggested. “It’s not getting on with your big-C Curse.”
Tanner’s Curse really deserved a capitalised C, being a pagan high priest’s death revenge upon his slayer, backed by the power of a dark and sinister god. It had transformed Tanner into a ravening beast for centuries, a monster of nightmare and legend, and haunted him even now, long after he had learned to manage his feral condition through laundry delivery.
Tanner produced the rest of the packet. Vinnie was able to verify that all the little strips were similarly affected.
“Was the receptionist in on it, then?” Tanner puzzled. “She seemed nice enough. Enthusiastic, really.”
“I doubt she was part of it. This is some strange, rather complex spellcrafting. Not something someone could conjure up on the spot, especially not while grappling you. I’ve never seen a combination like this.”
Vinnie peeled the little plastic bandage away from Tanner’s arm. The wound underneath had already vanished, leaving nothing but a faint smear of blood on the surface of his skin. The Curse kept the elder werewolf from permanent harm by all except a few specific means.
“I have to run some proper divinations,” the young magus decided. “For starters, I need to find out what these things are meant to do if they’re used on someone who hasn’t got a big old werewolf doom upon them. Then, is it just this one packet or are there others? If so, how many more? Just how widespread are these –” He checked the label. “– Pureheart Adhesive Bandages?”
“Okay,” Tanner agreed. “Sorry to screw up your date night.”
Vinnie remembered he had a girlfriend and a neighbour waiting at a table across the room. Penny and Celia were chatting, possibly about him, which did not make him feel comfortable. He did not want to fail his date like Mario.
“I’d better explain that duty calls,” he sighed. He and Tanner threaded their way through the busy Crown and Pig to rejoin the ladies.
“I’m messing up your evening, girls,” the big Irishman jumped in first. “Don’t blame the conscientious humanitarian. He can’t help himself.”
“Is something the matter?” Penny guessed, reading Vinnie’s expression.
“Maybe. Not sure. I need to do a bit of divining.”
“Like… dowsing? Or Tarot?” Celia had a limited idea of Vinnie’s actual work.
“Not really. Tanner’s found some, um, some infected sticking plasters, and I have to discover a bit more about them. Because they’re sort of… cursed.”
Vinnie laid the half-empty packet on the table. Penny regarded it cautiously. “And when you say cursed…?”
“Not sure what, exactly,” Vinnie admitted to her. “But I intend to find out.”
“Do we need to head back to the bookshop?” Tanner asked. “Do I have time to get in a pint?”
“You have a little bit of time,” Celia assured him, still hopeful. “Mine’s a Bacardi and O.J.”
“Actually, I think I have everything I need right here,” Vinnie considered. “This place might actually be better for my detective work than an empty library.” As Tanner took orders from Penny and Celia for a round of drinks, Vinnie added his order for a packet of pork scratchings, 2 a pickled egg, prawn cocktail crisps, and a handful of cocktail sticks.
Penny checked that it was safe to handle the box of plasters, then examined it. “Some brand I’ve not heard of,” the legal secretary discovered.
She dug into her training and added, “According to Human Medicines Regulations 2012 – SI 2012/1916 as amended – all medicine packets must display certain essential information: name of the medicine, expression of strength (where relevant), route of administration, posology for self-medication, and required warnings, batch codes, and the name and registered address of the manufacturer or licence holder. Medical supplies have similar requirements.”
“Oh yes,” Celia saw. “On the side of the box: ‘Procured from within the EU. Product licence holder: Albion Pureheart Pharmaceuticals Ltd, Oakleigh Business Park, London NE11.”
“We might need that information,” Vinnie considered.
“But first the pork scratchings and the pickled egg,” Penny noted. “And again I have to ask: why?”
“Is it some kind of conjuring trick?” Celia ventured.
“No,” sighed the jobbing occultist. “And that’s not all I need here. I’ll also require some empty glasses. I mean used glasses, that people have drunk from, that have trace saliva in them. Would you mind, um, collecting some empties?”
Celia’s brows rose. “Seriously?”
Penny, who had survived other Vinnie investigations, only said, “How many?”
“Couple of dozen?” Vinnie ventured. “Maybe more.”
“I temped as bar staff a few times in college,” his girlfriend confessed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Me too,” Celia agreed. “I have got to see this.”
By the time Tanner returned with the drinks tray, Vinnie’s collection of used glasses was beginning to grow.
“Okay,” the jobbing occultist said, ostensibly to Tanner but actually to simply get his reasoning out there, “So these plasters are enchanted to react to blood. There’s all kinds of things magic can do with blood. Question is, what is it this time? Now, I’m not about to experiment on people, so instead we have to fool these band aids into thinking they’re absorbing blood. In actual fact they’ll be absorbing beer.”
“You’re trying to get the curse drunk?” Tanner suggested.
“Little bit. But mostly I’ll be stimulating the trace saliva at the bottom of these glasses to make the plasters react to them as if they were blood. And for that we need those nice absorbent pork scratchings, which we just impale on these cocktail sticks to swab the glasses then introduce to these antiseptic pads. Then I watch what the curse is supposed to do.”
“That… almost makes sense.”
Penny and Celia returned with more used drinks. Celia tucked a tip into her top. Times were hard.
“Why is Vinnie drowning pork scratchings?” Penny dared to ask.
“It’s occult,” Tanner told her.
“Why is he eating prawn cocktail crisps?”
“I like prawn cocktail crisps,” Vinnie explained. “As for the rest, it looks like the dweomer on these bandages is triggered by blood, and that it’s meant to do three things.”
“Really?” Celia was still half-sceptical.
“Oh yes. First off, it’s sending off a little signal to its caster, a sort of blood-signature record, like a sanguine fingerprint. The blood is the life.”
“Wizards can do bad things of they have someone’s blood,” Tanner remarked.
“Secondly, they’re picking one of two curses to put upon the individual who wears the plaster. Rather minor ones, and not that well formulated.”
“What sort of curses?” Penny was compelled to ask. “And why a choice of two?”
“Well, that’s the third spell, which is complete rubbish,” the jobbing occultist criticised. “You can’t tell from someone’s blood what ‘race’ they are. There’s no difference between the blood of someone who’s White or Black or Asian or whatever. Not unless you root down to one specific bit of the DNA, and this magic’s nothing like that clever. But someone believed that they could enspell such a divination.”
“Racist magic?” Penny muttered.
“Yeah, rather. Y’see, if the plaster-wearer is White, the curse makes them rather dislike people of other skin colours. If the wearer is any other ethnicity, it’s supposed to make them stupid and unlucky.”
Celia, who was a complex multi-ethnic tangle of genealogy, frowned. “For real?”
“The attempt is for real. The part that discerns race is absolute bollocks. So everyone who’s affected gets the ‘Don’t like non-Whites’ curse. Without knowing why, without realising it, everyone who has one of these bandages slapped on a bloody wound gets hit with a prejudice.”
Penny didn’t like that. “Vinnie, you’ve got to stop this! Who knows how many boxes like this have gone out?”
Tanner, with a longer and deeper understanding of things supernatural, asked, “How’s it powered? I mean, this many mass-produced items, all cursed? That’s a curse factory. The arcane resources required would be pretty major.”
“That’s the clever bit,” the young magus admitted. “That first spell, the one creating the blood link, that’s allowing a tiny syphoning of arcane potential from each contact. I think that’s what’s powering the next generation of curses. A psychic pyramid scheme.”
Whatever Tanner was about to reply was interrupted by Mario shoving him on the shoulder and saying, “Oi, are you chatting up my girl?”
The big Irishman turned round to Celia’s slightly-drunk date and answered, “Not yet. Probably later.”
Celia gulped a quick swig of her Bacardi and Orange.
Mario took a moment to parse what Tanner had said to him, then took a belligerent swing.
Tanner caught the incoming fist and returned a swift head-butt. Mario went down.
Everyone was barred, for either fighting, trying to steal glasses, pocketing tips, or, in Vinnie’s case, being weird about attaching elastoplasts to a pickled egg and refusing to explain why.
Penny awoke the next morning, having survived Vinnie’s deathtrap of a bed (a more literal description in her case than she cared to remember) and discovered that he had left her an apology coffee and had already headed through the hatch to his office. She took a mostly-cold shower, peeled on her clothes, and emerged to look for him.
Down the back corridor, Celia was also just emerging and gave her a vague morning-after wave. “He’s outside the front of the shop,” the masseuse mumbled and retreated with her delivered pint of milk back into her own chambers. Celia’s part in this adventure was concluded and she had a business to run.
Penny picked her way through the clutter that was Alto Tumour’s Occult Bookstore’s back room, a.k.a. Vinnie’s business office, then through the shabby second hand book repository that fronted it. Alto Tumour spared her a wistful glance, as if he felt that Vinnie had far too much unwarranted luck with “nailing hot chicks”, then returned to his eBay bidding and chat room argument.
Vinnie was indeed out in the grimy forecourt of St Jude’s Row, chatting affably with the owner of the gaudy tourist memorabilia handcart.
“Hello, Mr Endelby,” she greeted the bluff scourge of visitors to the capital. “Nice to see you when we’re not trapped in a minotaur labyrinth.”
“And pleasant it is t’ see you, young lady,” the Union Jack-hatted entrepreneur responded. “If I may say so, young Vinnie, retaining the affections of this ’ere lass is one of your smarter accomplishments, lad.”
“I like to think so,” Penny agreed, clutching her boyfriend’s arm and giving him a toothpaste-and-caffeine-flavoured kiss. “What are you two plotting?”
“Oh, just passing the time,” Vinnie avoided the question.
Edward Endelby tutted. “Now then, Vin! That’s no way to be treating your connubial commensal. Take it from me, your special lady will always be expectin’ to know what you is about, an’ worrying if you don’t explain it. I knows as you didn’t grow up with a great many what-you’d-call ’ealthy role models when it comes to relationships, but take it from me ’oo’s survived a few and even some without regrets save as ’em ending, honesty is the best policy. Save the deceptions for when she asks you about fashion an’ whether she looks fat in ’er gown.”
He treated Penny to an exaggerated and avuncular wink and handed her a newly-baked and hot Cornish pasty.
“Thank you,” Penny told him. She noted that the pastry was the flaky kind that inevitably left crumbs as it was eaten. Endelby liked London’s pigeons, and indeed had some kind of business deal with them.
Vinnie gave up. “I’ve been doing some calculations about that spell on the Pureheart plasters. I was just going through some arcane options with an old hand at city-wide craftings.”
The street vendor crammed half a pasty into his own mouth, chewed it, then answered in a spray of flakes, “Y’r too kind.”
“What do you expect to do, Vin?” Penny asked.
“Well, before I resort to Tanner’s plan of visiting that business park where the manufacturers’ offices are and giving them all a proper smacking, I need a way to reverse the curses that have already been distributed. It’s not enough to stop more of them. I need to unhook all the nasty barbs that are out there now.”
“Major working, that is,” Edward considered. “Ipsissimus stuff.”
“It just needs a bit of spin, that’s all,” the jobbing occultist responded defensively.
“Bit of spin, that’s what being a magus ipsissimus is all about. Sorcery at the sharp end.” The street vendor sighed nostalgically. “Your fellah ’ere, Miss Bennett, ’e was just convincing me to contribute what you might call a distribution system for ’is working.”
“I was actually reminding you of how you dragged Penny and I into a Troy town subdimension and put us in mortal peril to save you,” Vinnie corrected him. “And how that means you owe me.”
“And this would be payback in full.”
“This would be payback in part.”
Endelby looked incredulous. “Part? Offering a means of promulgating a countercurse over a vast geographic an’ conceptual range without access to Great ’Ouse magics or Principality authorities?”
Vinnie shot an appealing glance at Penny. “Don’t forget that you also owe Miss Bennett.”
“Aye, well, ’tis true as I do feel a convivial obligation to your bright sweet lass. If that’s ’ow she’d like to receive it, for public good not personal benefit.”
Penny felt a twinge of greed. It would be nice to get a little personal benefit for once. But she crammed the unworthy thought down and nodded. “Please help Vinnie to do the right thing, Mr Endelby.”
The barrow-man grinned broadly. “There now! What a lassie! I knew ’as you were the right sort, my diamond princess! Oh Vinnie, you lucky bugger – pardon my French, Mistress Bennett. And do call me Edward.”
“And I’m Penny. Thank you for your… kind words? Does that mean you’ll help us out?”
“I believe as it does, Penny.” Call-me-Edward reached into his tray of Union Jack flags and selected one that was a mere piece of thick paper half the size of a postage card on what looked like a kebab stick, which he handed to her. It was one of the most humble of the array of patriotic flaggage available amongst his offerings, bereft of any additional adornment such as images of members of the royal family, of a British bulldog, or of the Prime Minister with added pithy comment.
Penny glanced at Vinnie. “That’ll do fine,” the jobbing occultist agreed. “Thanks, Edward.”
“Will anybody explain why we need a toy flag to overthrow the evil hordes?” Penny appealed.
“I ’spect as ’e will,” Endelby assured her, “but you ’as to let a young magus ’ave a few mysteries and revelations. I must admit as I’m rather curious myself to see what ’e’s going to come up with when the time occurs.”
Vinnie remembered some of his and Penny’s pillow talk after their date night. “Penny, you said you might be able to track down the owner of that pharma company. The directors, it’s history, that sort of thing.”
“I can do that,” the unemployed paralegal secretary promised. “A reference to Companies House public records, a leases database, some council tax returns, that sort of thing, and I can find out quite a lot. And then I’ll simply ring the firm up and ask for their catalogue and web address. I did that sort of research a lot when I was at… when I was in my last job.”
“Amazing what some folks can do without a single cantrip, innit, our Vin?” Endelby marvelled.
“Those would be very useful contributions,” Vinnie assured Penny. “Could you find out what you can before this evening? That’s when Tanner will have finished his day shift and be available for us to pay a call on Pureheart Albion.”
“I shall do my very best,” Penny promised. “In one pasty’s time.”
Oakleigh Business Park turned out to be a shabby ghetto of storage sheds and seedy double glazing firms, lurking in the shadow of the more prestigious and modern North London Business Park. It was a geography of mysterious lock-ups and unmarked transit vans.
Pureheart Albion Pharmaceuticals was a squat corner unit of portacabin and warehouse behind a barbed-wire topped chain-link fence. A grubby Union flag fluttered dispiritedly atop a stubby flagpole.
“The standard of evil mastermind bases is going down,” Penny complained. “On our first date, Vinnie took me to a huge underground complex in the Everglades. Now it’s this. Where has all the romance gone?”
“Sorry,” the jobbing occultist told her, just unsure enough that she was joking that it made her smile affectionately. “Of course, it’s possible that this is just a front, or that the company has no idea what it’s actually distributing.”
“Maybe. But I traced the ownership to a man called Sylvester Cordway, who is also a leading light in several neo-fascist organisations and has an online blog called ‘Purity of the Nation’.”
Tanner snorted. “How can anyone think Britain’s pure? It’s a mongrel mixture of every race that ever invaded, plus a bit of every place they ever invaded themselves. It’s one of the best things about it.”
“Tanner has a long view of history and genealogy,” Vinnie told Penny.
The little team’s primary researcher was determined to contribute more. “The company was only established about a year ago, which is when this place was leased. They’re a company limited by guarantee with just two directors, so they don’t need to make their annual report and returns public, but they did make substantial charitable donations to… well, to a list of possibly-dodgy causes that seem to like the idea that Black and Brown people should live somewhere else.”
“So Nazis then,” Tanner concluded. “It’s allowed to beat up Nazis. Maybe compulsory.” Tanner had lived through the Second World War. He had views regarding master races.
“Well, they’re very careful to avoid using language that would get them in trouble under Race Relations regulations,” Penny briefed. “They use euphemisms, like ‘cultural’ instead of ‘racial’. They like ‘traditional values’. Mr Cordway writes a lot about his theories of ‘the blood superior’.”
“And does he happen to have some of that?” Tanner asked. “Never mind. I can find out for myself.”
“There’s more to this than just some racist rhetoric,” Vinnie cautioned. “I’m not spotting any arcane wards or other mystic activity from out here, so either that place is a totally mundane front or else it’s really well shielded, a professional job.”
“Our appointment is for 6pm,” Penny told him. “I told them that we were interested in distributing their product, but we couldn’t get into town until this evening because you were flying in from Manchester. They’ll be expecting us in about quarter of an hour.”
“Oh, I hope they’re not expecting us,” Tanner growled.
Vinnie, Penny, and Tanner were sitting in the back of an old-fashioned beetle-black London taxi, the sort that had once been ubiquitous to the capital before newer, sleeker, hybrid models had become the norm. This was a classic 1950s model, the kind with the odd backwards-opening door and the missing front passenger seat for luggage storage. The driver was unusually silent, because he had died in 1968 and had been serving his penance in his Ghost Taxi ever since. Most passengers didn’t notice.
Vinnie passed him his fee and a little karmic tip towards his eventual retirement and disembarked. As soon as the fares had exited, the cab drove off and faded away.
The jobbing occultist did not immediately enter the Pureheart Albion premises but instead circled the perimeter, deosil, 3 pausing at the corners to plant pairs of bright one pence coins in the dirt.
“What’cha doing, boyfriend?” Penny asked brightly.
“Insulation,” the jobbing occultist replied. “What goes on here stays in here.”
“Because of the coppers?”
“Because the people inside are only worth tuppence,” Tanner guessed. “Commentary and occult diss track all at once.”
“I’m a magus on a budget,” Vinnie insisted.
It was close to six when the perimeter sweep was complete. Vinnie paused at the security board that warned of CCTV observation, of guard dogs loose, and that Trespassers Would Be Prosecuted and entered at their own risk.
“Deal,” rumbled Tanner.
Penny hefted her clipboard and led the way towards the portacabin.
“Full disclosure,” Vinnie told the heavily-tattooed man in the cheap business suit. “I’m a jobbing occultist here to shut down your blood magic workings.”
“Aaand there goes the diplomatic approach,” Penny sighed.
“What?” Sylvester Cordway snarled at the young magus.
“Full disclosure,” Tanner agreed. “It’s pointless messing about when I can smell the blood you’ve been jacking up with your magical steroids.”
Penny would have liked to ask about that, but right now it was go time. The occupants of the portacabin seemed to think so, anyhow.
“They’re not here to buy the stuff!” one of the other six burly young White men present in the front office realised. He was presumably the smart one.
“No,” Vinnie agreed. “We’re here to stop the stuff. The stuff is bad.”
Penny positioned herself behind her two companions and her clipboard, for safety.
Violence ensured. One of Cordway’s associates hit Tanner on the chin. Tanner took the hit and returned one of his own, harder and faster.
Tanner wasn’t toppled, but neither was his opponent. That was unusual for the big werewolf, even in his human shape. And there were six more adversaries closing in.
As if a switch had been flipped, all of the Pureheart Albion staff grew six inches and put on sixty pounds of muscle.
“Blood magic!” Vinnie warned. “They’ve been prepped for combat. Those tattoos and talismans, and the energy sapped by those dodgy elastoplasts.”
Penny nodded, glad of the explanation for who was threatening her now, and for the clarification of Tanner’s earlier comment.
She was distracted when Tanner also swelled, splitting shirt seams with the same wardrobe carelessness as the portacabin staff and Mr Cordway himself. It was going to be new outfits all round for the survivors.
“Werewolf,” Penny whispered to herself. Vinnie had warned her, and now all hope of that being some kind of metaphor was shredded like Tanner’s t-shirt.
Jacked up to inhuman levels of strength, muscles twisting and tearing into fierce new configurations, the Sons of Albion turned on the intruders with a territorial fanaticism.
Tanner the half-wolf was bigger and nastier, with centuries of fighting experience. The odds weren’t seven-to-one; they were one-to-seven.
“Now,” Vinnie told Penny. “Time out!”
Penny cautiously raised the clipboard that Vinnie had asked her to bring. “Um… hello. This is an official checklist, and – evidently, for some reason – you all have to stop fighting while I go through it.”
The combat stopped. None of the fighters seemed to have expected it. They all stood there, trying to balance as if their feet had suddenly been pinned, looking confused.
“Regulations,” Vinnie footnoted. “You can’t fight the system. It has too much narrative momentum. Also, I buried pairs of copper pennies around the site, in tribute to Pluto the Wealth-Giver, who is also the Law-Giver, which makes this a legal dispute.”
“What he said,” Penny insisted. She looked down at the list she clutched.
“So when do I slaughter them all?” Tanner enquired.
Vinnie shook his head. “We’re reserving any massacre for if the other plan doesn’t work, remember?”
Tanner glared at the quivering thugs-on-arcane-steroids who were surrounding him and gave them a wolfish smile. “I’m pretty sure it won’t work.”
“We’ll see,” Penny pressed on. “First up, health and safety checks. Is the premises up to code?”
“What the f…” Cordway objected, struggling against his sudden inhibition. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Failure to display certification,” Penny noted down. “Lack of properly displayed evacuation procedures. Blocked fire exits.” She made a cross on her checklist.
“What is this?” the proprietor of Pureheart Albion demanded. “What’s holding us in place?”
“Well, it might be Item Two,” Vinnie suggested. “Import/export procedures. Do you have a licence for tainting human blood with extradimensional matter? This stuff you idiots are pumping into yourselves, for example?”
“We are the Sons of Albion! The Hounds of Aryas!” the cleverest of the blood-brotherhood insisted. He had definitely read the website.
“Hounds?” Tanner snorted. “Bitches.”
“No licence,” Vinnie cut in quickly. “I’d know if one of the Great Houses had sanctioned this. There’d be a Dweomer of Imprimatur to warn off people like me. Which makes this a strictly off-the-books operation by a lesser outfit.”
“We are the Blood-Pure! We are the…”
“Yes, I filled that in on my form,” Penny assured the frothing fanatic. “If I’d brought a red pen I’d have used it, I promise. But that brings us to Point Three, sale of goods standards.”
“The what?” Cordway shouted. He was having trouble keeping up.
“Very important regulations,” Penny Bennett assured the Sons of Albion. “They kept me out of hell, once,”
“Your bandage product is not fit for its advertised purpose,” Vinnie instructed the Blood-Pure. “In fact it’s doing harm instead of good. Which, since this area is presently consecrated Arena of Hades, which therefore culturally translates to an arena of Norse Hel, and since Hela is both the icon of healing and harm, well… there’s a lot of concepts sloshing around for a jobbing occultist to plait together.”
Tanner snorted impatiently. “Hurry up with being clever, De Soth. Then I can tear ’em up.”
“No need,” Vinnie apologised. “They listened long enough for me to spell out the elements I need to use. Rookie mistake, which just adds to my theory that these people are newbies, being instructed by someone bigger and more clever who was able to do some of their heavy lifting.”
“That’s the end of my clipboard list, Vin,” Penny mentioned.
“Yep. Clipboard magic has its uses but in the end it only lasts as long as its red tape. But that’s long enough. Here.”
Vinnie produced the tiny paper Union Jack that Edward Endelby had given him, and the pickled egg from the Crown and Pig to which he had pincushioned beer-and-saliva-infused pork scratchings with cocktail sticks. He turned to the Pureheart Albion thugs and cried, “Behold!”
There had seldom been a less impressive-looking magic artefact.
“Um…” Penny tried to think of a diplomatic way to ask about it. The opposition seemed so baffled as to be still held in place whilst they tried to understand the composition.
Tanner groaned. “The egg is life turned to nutrition, holding together all those blood-links caused by the bandages, all the cursework that went into them. The flag is representing actual patriotism, the actual land, symbol reclaimed from these fascist idiots who don’t really understand what their country’s all about. And De Soth’s doing it all in this sacred space he’s established with all that clipboard rubbish and loose change, right here in the place where the curses were begun and distributed, only place they can be broken to get all of ’em at once. Do you know how much I hate that I’ve been at this long enough that I can follow what he’s doing?”
Vinnie gave his friend a how-did-you-get-it-so-easily look, much as Sherlock Holmes might have given Watson if the good doctor had just chipped in to explain whodunit before the Great Detective could speak.
“What?” Tanner objected. “I work with Mr Lye and the Laundry of Doom. You keep up with this stuff or go under.”
“What?” Sebastian Cordway also said, though his was another statement of bafflement. “Never mind. Lads, kill ’em all!”
“What?” Vinnie added to the pronoun’s present popularity. “They’re supposed to still be…”
He realised that his latitude for talking through the problem was exhausted. It was going to be Tanner’s method of solving the case after all.
The Sons of Albion swelled even more, muscles twisting into bigger knots, flesh tearing as they grew. The blood-rage swelled to overcome the feeble administrative magics that had halted them before.
Vinnie passed the pickled egg to Tanner. “Eat it.”
The big bad wolf gobbled it down.
Seven ultra-muscled fascists suddenly found their blood-magic enhancements had been devoured.
Tanner hurled two of them into walls, with bone shattering impacts. He chuckled as if he was going to Blow Their House Down. He licked a claw.
The rest of Cordway’s henchmen turned and fled into the warehouse.
Cordway drew a gun.
Tanner crushed it, and the hand that held it.
“Don’t kill him,” Vinnie cautioned the werewolf. “He was the one who cast the curse-magic. Now it’s broken it has to splash back somewhere. We don’t want it to be on us. While he’s alive, he’s the lightning rod.”
“When you say lightning rod…” Penny began, but before she could ask, the Chief Executive of Pureheart Albion Pharmaceutics began to swell again, growing and muscling up.
It had looked unhealthy before, grotesque and disproportionate, but this was much worse. This time swellings suppurated and burst, spraying black goo over the cheap carpet tiles. Cordway screamed as the prejudice curse returned to him.
Then the second malediction also slammed back, the ill-health and misfortune of any who were not of pure blood. By then, whatever Cordway had become was not enough to register as even human.
Vinnie ventured a minor cantrip so that the blood spray from the bursting neo-Nazi did not cover him and his companions as it painted the portacabin walls.
“Well, yuck,” Penny said, shocked to be in the middle of a box of gore. It was an absurd comment when a man had just exploded before her, but what was the right phrase?
“Yeah, welcome to a typical Vinnie de Soth mission,” Tanner grumbled. “At least it’s not sewers. Yet.”
Vinnie checked with arcane vision, hastily calculating whether all the interplaying forces had been properly balanced to really undo the pyramid-scheme curse.
Penny had another question. “Where has the exit door gone?”
Vinnie and Tanner looked to the way out. It wasn’t there any more. The only egress from the Cordway-covered room was through the link into the warehouse.
From that way came a croaking, rasping, angry voice that called out, “Interlopers. Irritants. Come now and face my wrath.”
“Ah,” said Vinnie, “the puppeteer.”
“There’s more?” growled Tanner. “I ate the bloody egg. Those pickled things give me gas.”
“There’s more. I imagine the ‘more’ who did the clever spellwork on those bandages, not the botch-job bits these Sons of Albion tacked on.”
“So… the most dangerous part,” Penny concluded.
“Well…” Vinnie grinned ruefully, “The most interesting part. Come on!”
He led the way into the warehouse.
The first thing they encountered were the remains of the four fled henchmen, who had been punished for their lack of morale by summary and gory dismemberment.
Vinnie felt Penny flinch beside him. “This is turning out to be a bit more visceral than I expected,” he apologised to her.
Tanner glared into the gloomy space. Tall racks of product ready for shipment filled one half of the darkened metal box. The open area was laid out with benches for packing.
One part of the dim warehouse was darker than the rest, darker than it should have been.
“Well,” the creaking voice came from that place, “a magus, a werewolf, and a wench.”
“Hey!” objected Penny.
Tanner took a deep breath, scenting the air. “A Goblin?”
“Maybe once,” Vinnie judged, seeing more than the others with his arcane sight. He didn’t like the massive accumulation of spellwork that covered the area like cobwebs. This was someone’s place of power. “Saying it’s a goblin is like saying you’re a bit hairy sometimes.”
“What is it, then?” Penny asked, unhappy. She was wondering why she’d volunteered for the adventure. It had seemed like the thing to do, up until the violence and the exploding person. Now, in the presence of the thing in the darkness, it seemed worse.
“I…” the cackling, mocking voice announced, “am the Haemogoblin!”
Vinnie halted. “Wait… that’s what you’re going with? That’s the name you want to be known by?”
“Why not?” The speaker in the shadows sounded offended. “I am the Pure Blood, the Untainted Strain of Gramarye. I am the last of the Old Ways, who shall lead this nation into a New Future.”
“A villain who can speak in capitals,” Tanner sighed.
“A fascist… Goblin?” Penny tried to keep up.
“‘Goblin’ can be a kind of catch-all term,” Vinnie informed her. “They’re like goldfish. They can grow to fill their environment, until they become very large.”
“That’s true,” the Haemogoblin agreed. “And when that environment is the yearning of True Britons to dwell in a land free of the Stain of the Other, of the Contamination of Miscegenation, of the Heresy of Multiculturalism, then that environment is vast and fertile indeed.”
Vinnie realised that he had seriously underestimated the threat level behind the Sons of Albion. He wasn’t the only one that could harness the forces around him.
“I’ve finished your nasty band aid scheme,” he told the monster. “The backlash will seal the conceptual route you used. You won’t be able to do it again.”
“Yes. That’s annoying,” the Haemogoblin admitted. “That was quite a profitable enterprise. A setback. Also, the mortal Cordway was useful in promulgating the message. His replacements will require careful grooming.”
“There won’t be replacements,” Tanner told the creature, “on account of me ripping your throat out.”
“Really?” the Haemogoblin didn’t like being challenged, but he could find uses for a truebred Celt. “You should be with me, not against me. You and the wench. Stand with your race.”
“My race is the human race,” Penny told the darkness. “We grow and we get better – gradually – and we learn that we’re stronger together than apart, and that different isn’t the same as bad. And haters, well eventually we get wise to them and then they go down!”
“Yeah. What the wench said,” Tanner gravelled; Penny hadn’t been aware that ‘gravel’ could be a verb until she heard that tone. “Vin, you got any important mystical reason for me not to rip this ‘Haemogoblin’ into little pieces and piss on ’em?”
“Hygiene?” the jobbing occultist suggested.
Tanner lurched at the darkness. The shrouding gloom flexed and swallowed him. There was snarling and the sounds of vicious combat. The shadows heaved.
“Vin?” Penny looked to the expert in these things for a lead.
“The physical fight won’t do it,” he told her, staring around. “That Haemogoblin has hooked himself into a very potent power-source. He can renew himself at will. Tanner’s in trouble.”
The darkness shifted. The battle smashed through some of the storage racks, sending them toppling. Penny could glimpse impossible limbs and flashing claws. The smell of blood was sickening. Screeches and growls echoed through the warehouse.
“You are strong, werewolf,” the Haemogoblin complimented his adversary. “You are fit for the Golden Age to Come, when the Unfit are Cleansed and the Alien is Vanquished. Join me!”
Tanner was never big on small talk, especially when he was trying to kill someone, so he simply kept on tearing.
“Your ferocity does your credit,” his enemy admired. “But however you fight me, I am renewed. The more you rage, the stronger I become. I am the Future of a Cleansed Nation. And I am very much enjoying hurting you.”
Penny watched the turbulent terrifying darkness swirl around the warehouse, wrecking as it spun. “Vin, Tanner doesn’t sound to be winning. What can we do?”
“Well, that depends,” Vinnie answered, thinking furiously. “Tanner’s doing a good job of keeping that thing occupied for now, but even he can’t last forever against every racist bastard in Britain. Plus, he’s Irish, and that’s another old argument. So…”
“So what? Vinnie!”
The battle in shadow lurched in another direction, caroming off a shutter door, crumpling it, then demolishing the packing stations. In its wake it left a trail of blood, clumps of fur, and an unpleasant residual ooze that smelled like rotting fish.
“Penny…” Vinnie began, then hesitated.
“Yes?” she answered urgently.
“Do you really believe what you said about the human race? Do you think that there are more people who want to do right by others than who would support the Haemogoblin?”
“Yes. At least, I hope so. But yes. There has to be, or what’s the point?”
“Right then. Um, may I prick you?”
“You mean with a needle?” Penny checked. “Like when you made me Sleeping Beauty?”
“Similar but different. Please? It’s urgent.”
Tanner tore off the Haemogoblin’s arm and hurled it away. The monster grew another one and fixed it around the werewolf’s throat.
“Our Race tamed the wolf,” the Haemogoblin pointed out.
Penny nodded assent to Vinnie.
“Okay. So here’s what’s happening,” the young magus told her. “The baddie has woven all kinds of spells around us. Really powerful ones. That’s why he can stand up to a curse-spawned elder lycanthrope like Tanner; why he’ll be able to kill Tanner in the end. But amongst those spells is the array he used to imprint the sticking plasters. I’m just going to borrow that one.”
Vinnie produced a fresh sticky-backed bandage from his pocket, along with a small sharp penknife. “I need to make a little nick on the ball of your hand, like this. Sorry. And then I put this dressing on it.”
“Another magic bandage.”
“Yep. Only this one isn’t channelling prejudice and hate. This is transmitting your values.”
“Yours and the people who think like you, who feel like you; who have realised that skin colour and customs aren’t things to fear or hate but to celebrate. The Haemogoblin is using all the racists. We’re channelling everybody else.”
The snarls and shouts of combat changed pitch. The strands of magic that laced the warehouse glittered a livid sinister red.
“What do I have to do?” Penny asked.
“Well that’s it,” Vinnie told her. “You’re already doing it. You did it when you chose to come here and face down bad people. You did it when you took your stand against what they believed in because of what you knew was right. Now look at what that’s causing.”
The lurid crimson spell-strings were burning away with a bright white flare, like magnesium ropes. The flames divided at junction points, burning through the complicated weave around the Haemogoblin’s place of power.
“Stop that!” the Haemogoblin demanded. “Whatever it is you’re doing… I’ll kill you for it!”
“Whatever you’re doing, De Soth, keep doing it,” Tanner shouted from the fight in darkness. “Do it more!”
Sounds of rending and snapping came from the roiling shadow.
“No!” screeched the Haemogoblin. “No!”
Penny looked at her hand.; A little cut didn’t seem too much to defeat something like that, and what it stood for. Much more blood had been shed for that noble cause, and would be again.
Vinnie led her to the side, as far away from the battle as possible. “Brace yourself. Any minute now, the monster will work out what’s wrecking his power-base and he’ll try to stop it. He’s going to – here he comes!”
The Haemogoblin wrenched Tanner away and rocketed at Penny, howling malice. If she died then he might still win.
For a moment the creature was not shrouded in shadow. It was a gangling, palsied thing with overlarge jaw and bulging eyes, sallow flesh torn where a wolf’s claws had done their work, blazing with hatred. It came straight at the legal secretary who was thwarting him.
Vinnie got in the way. He raised a conceptual shield and demanded a passphrase. “Ah ah! Not so fast. With which toy-inspired single did the Europop band Aqua top the UK charts in November 1997?” 4
The Haemogoblin slammed hard into the mysteries of the pub quiz. By the time he had rended that conundrum, Tanner was upon him again.
And now the battle was much more even.
The Haemogoblin did not care for even fights. They hurt and he might be destroyed.
He reached to the last of his network of magics – the efforts of many months ruined and wasted – and jumped away from the mortal plane. He left great lumps of his flesh behind, hooked on the werewolf’s claws.
Vinnie couldn’t prevent the Haemogoblin from leaving, but he was able to twist the destination co-ordinates in a fashion that amused him. The monster might come back, but it would be by the long route.
The darkness evaporated, leaving Tanner in the dim wrecked warehouse, slowly reverting to a human shape. “You owe me a new shirt and pants,” he growled at Vinnie.
“I have some band aids,” the jobbing occultist offered.
Footnotes: 1 Technically, Band-Aid is a brand of adhesive plaster manufactured by Johnson and Johnson since 1920. Like Hoover, Xerox, Google, and Escalator, the specific trademark term has become co-opted as wider vocabulary. 2 That is deep-fried, salted, crunchy pork rind with fat produced separately from the meat, served in bags like potato crisps, a traditional British pub snack. The American equivalent is pork cracklings. 3 That is ‘clockwise’, the direction of the sun’s apparent rotation in the skies. The Gaelic term’s counterpart for anticlockwise is ‘widdershins’. 4 The answer is ‘Barbie Girl’.
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