I came to my senses again. Must have been caught with… with another one… or something…
Whoever the hell it was must have got some artificium or something backing them up to keep this number of hex… Or maybe there was another…
Check the time.
Check the… phone (it’s called a phone I reminded myself) then get back in the weave and keep batting and picking and blocking and whatever the hell you can.
Phone – no bars, no surprise. Time. If I was any judge, fading befuddlement aside, I’d lost less than a half minute and…
I was back into the weaving and now was just knocking them around because it was a lot quicker and apparently all I needed to do was keep this going for a few minutes more and…
And while I was doing so the thought it hit me and…
And why had I spent a second wondering if it was the art student? Or the roadie? Or the camdenite? Or Mo or any other bastard for that matter? Why had I been looking at anyone else when the bloody suit had been talking into his bloody phone all this time? Because it’s not a case that Orange mobile has a signal when fuckwit mobile can’t get one, not when the cause of the disruption is the channelling from elsewhere of enough esoteric energy to super-charge half a dozen hardcore hexes. No it fucking is not.
Had I made him earlier, knowing who it was I could perhaps have traced back the threads and made shorter work of his maleficium. But as I was then, fuddled if only mildly and my focus caught up in the aetheric drama… I just had to keep knocking those hexes on and around.
But I was trying to work out if I could lob something over at the bastard and knock his concentration and…
Could I? (Could it be that Saviour – thy name is Bic?)
I waved the biro absently back and forth, back and forth, back and… I let it go with a flick of my wrist and all I knew was that it would be sailing in a parabola of some vaguely potential usefulness somewhere in his general direction… Then I was back in the abstract, back in the weave, sending round the curses and jinxes and round and round and round they go – where they stop nobody…
And then I had sense at where the threads were heading, where and to whom, who the victim was going to be in all of this and… Mo, foul old Mo, had a right to live whatever the hell this was about, at least I thought it was Mo and…
And I could ‘see’ into one of the hexes, and then another… See how to pull it apart and… And that’s what I was doing. Must have disrupted his concentration… not enough to stop them but enough to do this and that and that was another down and…
And suddenly there was a big surge of aaaaaeeeeettthhh…
And suddenly it was over: whatever had been going on had been played out.
I felt woozy for a moment – and then I didn’t.
Wall. Wall with tiles.
I was staring, total tunnel vision at a portion of wall between Mo and the possible builder, Mo on the blurred left periphery of my vision and…
And I was coming back to myself.
How long had I… had I been out? Long enough, apparently, for drool to pool and puddle and dribble from the corner of my mouth. I wiped my hand left cheek to chin, got rid of the spittle before it fell. How long…
Phone. Check phone… I couldn’t remember what the time had been beforehand but… Minutes maybe? Minutes. Bars – I’d got bars on my phone. And it was after four.
No one seemed to have keeled over. No one was panicking. Did that mean I’d done it, that everyone was all right?
I was suddenly aware of the café door closing and that certain folk were no longer there. I wasn’t looking around manically mind, the lingering befuddlement leaving a slow calm in its wake. The suit had gone. The art student had gone. The builder had gone…
And I needed to go. Like, pee go. I was aware I needed to go for a pee.
I bagged my stuff and headed into the cupboardly excuse for a khazi. Time had passed, I reminded myself while doing what needed to be done. My phone buzzed in my pocket as if in affirmation. I took it out. Two missed calls… new message. It was Alex. Then my dialling tone went off, Alex again.
‘Marwood? Marwood? Marwood are you okay?’
‘I’m… fine Alex. Your mate was right, something did go down…’
‘When I couldn’t get hold of you I was worried and I knew it might be magic disrupting the signal,’ (Alex paused for breath; I was rather touched by all the concern) ‘but then that would mean that there was something going on and…
‘Marwood – Marwood are you… peeing?’
I guessed I was. Yes, well, to be honest there was no guessing about it. ‘Um… No?’
‘Oh for… heaven’s sake Marwood… Phone me back when you’re not!’
She hung up and I was aware that the child in me was grinning his ass off so, feeling too tired not to, I followed suit.
I walked back through, realising the more direct path to the door took me past Mo. Given her earlier… words I’d have preferred to walk around. But it would have looked stupid – too obvious, too feeble – if I were to do that. Besides she’d had her fun. She had no reason to speak to me. And if she did I’d just keep walking past, keep on walking the short distance to the door and then I’d be outside, outside in the blessed bloody rain and I’d just keep walking and not look back…
But she wasn’t going to speak to me, I told myself. And what if she did? I was a magician. I dealt with dark shit. I had nothing to fear from a pervy old woman.
I felt her address like a jolt in the pit of my stomach.
‘I been watchin’ you,’ she said. ‘Watchin’ you watchin’ me; just like Jeremy fucking Beadle. But mostly I been watchin’ you.’
That strange feeling washed over me again, some kind of echo of the befuddlement, and I looked across the table to her and the leering grin I knew she’d be wearing.
And thoughts ran through my mind, thoughts that had begun stupidly when I’d looked back to her knitting in the middle of it all, thoughts I’d abandoned as stupid in the moment, disparate thoughts that now disappeared into obscurity leaving the truths that had been there all along. The kid – the little boy my thoughts now firmed – the one the other… Ladies had taken with them.
He wasn’t important in all this – and yet he was. It wasn’t a teenage pregnancy (a vaguely prejudicial half-presumption on my part), wasn’t the girl’s with the Croydon facelift. He was the other woman’s – the Mother’s.
Oh. Crap. This was serious shit – this was old pagan shit on the table here.
Not worshipping the great goddess or the goddess within, not buying books from the MBS dept of Waterstones or yer local Smiths. Not growing herbs, or going on retreat with your sisters (not that there weren’t a few genuine practitioners and covens amongst the modern Wiccan types). No this wasn’t any of that.
This was proper old tradition – perhaps the oldest: from when the men went hunter-gathering and learned what they learned and the women stayed behind and passed on mysteries that men could dismiss in disdainful jest (for they wanted knowledge only of pleasure and not the blood of the moon). This was lords and kings, rulers of counties and countries, humbled at the door to the birthing chamber and sloping off with their tails between their legs. This was healing and pelling and sour milk, brews and salves, flaccid cocks and remedies, spindles and distaffs and spinning wheels and weaving. And this was knitting needles off the books and away from the watchful eyes of unknowing men to preserve the lives or dreams or outward virtue of the woman who asked.
This was true old school cunning stuff, migrated from country to town and flavoured by brick and stone and mortar, the crap in its air and running in its streets, and working in its buildings and living in its homes, flavoured by it but unbroken in its transmission; Maiden, Mother and Crone, a coven of three, wyrd sisters and daughters and granddaughters thereof, true wicce of the big city.
The urban Wise.
I thought I’d been sent here to keep someone safe. And I had. That was probably all that truth-hack of Alex’s had divined, but knew it as cold iron truth.
It had to be me here, he’d told her, or someone was going to get hurt or worse and something bad would happen.
I didn’t know about the something bad. I’d thought I was here to keep ‘Mo’ safe, or one of the others. But I knew now which person in this café had been at risk during these hours.
And she’d been the one keeping me from harm.
‘Ah now y’sees the truth of it, Marwood,’ Mo grinned.
I felt a shiver at the sound of my name, and at the realisation that I’d had to be here to be as safe as I had been. If I hadn’t taken the job, dismissed the diviner… If I’d been elsewhere, elsewhere out there, in the open and exposed… How would I have fared then against a pro who’d got me in their malefic sights?
‘Maybe you’d ‘ave preferred the young un,’ Mo mused, closing up her handbag. ‘She might’ve set the blood rushing to them dogs cocks too much for them to work their maleficium.
‘Or maybe her mam, my eldest – her with the babe. She’s potent that one, especially just now with that lad. With her you got all that rage at the thought of some fucker dipping his finger in the brew and spoiling her gift to her ugly offspring – something like that anyways. But you got me and I’d say you been lucky either way.’
No, I’m all right here, Mo’s words to her younger counterparts came back to me as I stood there dumbly. She put away her knitting, the pattern of which I could feel the cat-curious part of me keening to see but which the wiser part (stronger on this occasion) studiously avoided in case I saw it, saw it properly, and discovered some truth therein from which I’d never properly recover.
‘Mind that weren’t bad, yer own workin’s. Y’managed to keep yer head for the most, kept yer focus in the fuddlement, kept those hexes and cursings on the move. Made me wonder…’
‘I… I thought I was the one keeping you safe… Lady.’ I said the word not as an American would, not as some unspecific term of address and possibly expression of bemusement and frustration as to a woman’s behaviour. No it was said with… respect. Because that was how you dealt with her like – well if you’d been properly trained and had the slightest bit of common sense about you. Not with fear, just respect. ‘Well someone here safe anyway,’ I finished.
‘Hah.’ She said. It was somewhere between a hah or a huh, between a grunt of hollow mirth and an utterance of the mildest surprise. ‘That so.’ She squinted then, in thought perhaps, her lips twisting into some new kind of ugly smile.
I said ‘I honestly thought… I saw the hexes going for you…’
‘Oh they were. They picked up on me in the end and one o’ them thought he’d ‘ave a go. Burned his fingers for him I did, burned them proper and left him with something to think on for a good long time…’
‘One of them?’ I queried then and Mo, still grinning, nodded. That had been the other thought that had begun to occur. This could have been a one man job but they in the plural hadn’t been fucking around. A collective effort of one or more maleficers: a hexer and a spotter, the latter being also a secondary on the hexing front, perhaps an artificer to handle the magical hardware I didn’t doubt was present. Well with the number of hexes and the aether-levels… ‘I made the suit in the end. The Polish guy… with the paper?’
I kind of wanted to get this right, recover a bit of propriety or something in this whole caper. I nearly picked the art student as the second, part from some undue sense of equality, and similarly from a sense of unlikely plot twist, just like I’d had a check on the waitresses. But life’s narrative is a little less clean and often a little more obvious…
‘Nah – builder; came in earlier, returned in his civvies.’ Dammit. ‘Like I says – some good work. Who knows, even by yourself maybe you could’ve… Well you wasn’t and that’s that.
‘Anyway… Came ‘ere as a favour I did – and don’t you go botherin’ that brain of yours with oo asked or why they wanted to make sure your tight arse was out of the fire. And I wouldn’t bother wonderin’ about them folk who set the fire going neither. Maybe you’ll one day know who sent them or maybe you won’t. It’s likely bigger than them and bigger than you.
‘You’re a pawn boy, just a pawn. But I gets the sense yer not that many checks from the other side o’ the board. You could change up, if you got there – if you wanted.
‘You could become a queen,’ she mused, all cunning and crafty and shrewish and shrewd. Then she cackled, throwing her head back in mirth: ‘Just like that Julian Clary!
‘I likes ‘im,’ she said: ‘‘e’s a dirty bastard.’
She settled back in her seat and put the rest of her things away.
‘You’ll be alright to go now. They knows they failed and they won’t try again and neither will the bastard what sent ‘em. They’ll look for an easier in for whatever they’re doin’ or wantin’ or whatever.’
She got to her feet and I thought she was going to go.
Then she said ‘Pass me yer mug. Don’t worry: I’ll take nothin’ from it and nothin’ from you, not knowledge nor anythin’ I’ll use against you. And what I give I give for free and with no obligation.
‘Not just anyone what can read tea leaves proper, Marwood. Not in these days of tea bags and what little escapes ‘em, and as for fucking pyramid bags…’ She rolled her eyes then looked straight at me. ‘Call it somethin’ for yer good manners an’ intentions – and from someone a lot older and wiser to a daft young bastard who’s going to get ‘imself in some real shit if e’s not careful.’
And she told me. And I listened.
‘Right, that’s me then,’ she said when she’d finished. ‘Got to get me lottery tickets for the big draw – double rollover this week.’
Frankly I pitied the National Lottery if this lady wanted something from them.
‘Julian fucking Clary,’ she cackled to herself as she stepped over to the doorway. ‘You don’t see ‘im so much these days. Not like that Frankie Boyle.
‘I likes that Frankie Boyle – e’s a filthy bugger.
‘Stay lucky boy,’ she said from the doorway, putting her brolly up. ‘Stay lucky.’
And then she was out and into the rain and gone, leaving me in some random greasy spoon in East London, somewhere in the metaphoric shadow of the metafucking Gherkin with the other flotsam and jetsam that had washed in. I didn’t follow suit, or follow her to the doorway to see her off. If I had she wouldn’t have been there, disappeared in some occult fashion into the rainy greyness and the weft of the great urbanity that is London; and if she had been there it would have been some anticlimax I couldn’t right then have taken.
They call me Marwood.
Don’t ask me – I haven’t a bloody clue either.