Death’s Apprentice – Part Twenty-Two

Joe followed Mrs Crow through the door at the back and down the long corridor that seemed to grow darker the further we went. Mr Crow, the fat man, and the tall man all followed behind. Lola, who hadn’t wanted to enter the first time I’d entered the home, was now trotting beside Mrs Crow quite happily. Joe, although he loved Lola with all his heart, couldn’t help feeling a little bit betrayed.

Mrs Crow entered an open doorway at the end of the corridor. Joe followed but stopped still in the doorway frozen not by fear but by a strange sense of foreboding which he couldn’t quite explain.

There was a large oval oak table polished to within an inch of its life with a large skull etched into its surface. A long scythe ran along the back of it which reminded Joe of the table used in one of his favourite programs, Sons of Anarchy. There were thirteen chairs arranged around the table.

‘Hello,’ said Mrs Crow to the room. She turned to Joe and said, pointing to an old woman wearing an oxygen mask, ‘Joe, this is Febris.’

Febris nodded.

Joe said hello to the old woman who looked like she was only inches from dying.

‘Next to her is Limos.’

‘Hello,’ said Joe.

Limos looked up, said hi, then went back to playing with his belt over which his large belly hung. Joe could see his stomach poking out from under his Metallica t-shirt. Joe couldn’t tell you why but he really took a liking to Limos.

‘And this is Marcus.’

Marcus stood up, shook his blonde hair and held out a hand to Joe. Joe took his hand in his and shook it. Marcus’ handshake was loose and his hands were very soft.

‘Hello,’ said Joe.

‘And I’m Lucifer,’ said a husky voice.

‘Lucifer?’ asked Joe, turning to where the voice had come from. He was sure that somehow all of this was a big fat joke and that at some point someone was going to jump out at him and shout “Surprise! Got you!”

Lucifer, if that was who he was (and Joe doubted this very much), was huge, both in width and height and he had a great mane of orange hair with a bushy beard and moustache. When he took Joe’s hand in his, Joe thought he was going to crush his hand to dust.

‘Yes. Pleased to meet you. And you are..?’

‘The answer to our problems. Hopefully,’ said Mrs Crow. Joe also doubted this very much. At no point in his life had he ever been the answer to anyone’s problems.

‘Sorry, but I didn’t quite catch that,’ said Marcus taking his seat.

‘Come and sit down, Joe,’ said Mrs Crow pointing to the seat at the side of her.

Joe did as he was told.

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Dragon Rider – Part Four

Chapter Three Continued

Willow

Drake closed his eyes and exhaled deeply.  ‘Don’t be stupid, if you’ve got to go-’

‘And so said the Faery,’ replied Gizmo, his eyes still glued to his computer screens.

Drake winced at Gizmo’s reply, but tried, all the same, to ignore it.  For now.

‘No,’ said Willow unclasping her legs, ‘we’re not going anywhere.  We’re going underground,’ said Willow, the conspiratorial defiance clear in her voice.

‘We’ve been keeping an eye on the Authorities,’ said Gizmo pointing to his screens, ‘I use this to track their movements so that we can stay one step ahead.’  Gizmo began to flick at the screens in front of him again.  Once he’d found the one he wanted, he tapped a code into the virtual keyboard.  ‘Say hello to Ailsa.’

Drake opened his eyes.  There was a crackle in the air in front of him, a flicker of blue light as a small child-like figure appeared in three-dimensional form.

‘Wow,’ said Drake, his eyes wide as he leant forward to run his hand through the holograph.

‘Do you mind?’ said the figure, its nose pointed in the air, its arms firmly crossed over its chest.

‘Sorry,’ said Drake, jumping back in his chair.

‘She’s Gizmo’s creation,’ said Willow, ‘Ailsa is an Artificial Intelligence.’

‘We use her to munch through the Enforcerer’s Systems.  She searches for any information we can use.  But we’re having trouble,’ continued Gizmo, ‘The Enforcerer’s Department has installed some new Demon-ware that’s doing a damn good job of keeping us out.  We should have it sorted soon, there’s bound to be a back door-’

Ailsa spoke to Gizmo, her eyes still locked onto Drake, a distinct look of disgust on her face.  ‘Route 2267 is blocked, we need to try another path.’

‘Okay,’ said Gizmo, ‘we’ll try route 3345 now.  Report back as soon as you can.’  And with that Ailsa disappeared.

‘And how do I fit into all of this?’ asked Drake.  Just as he had expected, this conversation was beginning to go down a long road that he had no desire to travel on.

‘We need you to help us find something-’

‘Willow, I-’

‘Just hear me out,’ said Willow putting her palms up to pacify him.  ‘We need to find a book for a friend-’

‘How’s finding a book going to help?’

Gizmo stopped flicking through the screens and finally looked at Drake.  ‘My father is friends with the Chief Law Enforcerer-’

‘The guy who runs the Law Department?’ asked Drake.

‘Yeah,’ said Gizmo nodding.  ‘He approached me a few days ago, said that he knew what we were up to, but he promised he’d keep quiet if we did this little favour for him and find the book-’

‘Must be some important book,’ said Drake, unable to keep the scepticism from his voice, ‘if he’s willing to protect you in exchange for it.  You know, a man in his position wouldn’t usually help if there wasn’t something really good for him at the end of it.’

‘Funestus isn’t like that,’ said Gizmo.

Drake rubbed his hand across his chin, the desire to tell the rich kid – in his expensive leather jacket and designer glasses – the truth, was almost too much to bear:  Men like Funestus were always out for themselves.  ‘The guy is in charge of the Department that is kicking you out of Devilsgate and blocking Ailsa with Demon-ware-’

‘To be honest Drake, I don’t care, I just need to find the book because I’m not leaving Devilsgate,’ said Willow, her face full of steely determination.

‘I’m not a treasure hunter Willow,’ said Drake.

‘I know, but I thought you might help…you know…for old times’ sake.’  Willow stared off into the distance as she said this, and Drake was sure he could hear a trace of bitterness in her voice.

‘I don’t know.’

‘We’d let you have a percentage of whatever we make; 60:40.’

Drake laughed.  ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Please Drake,’ said Willow, but it was not a question.  ‘I’m going to find it anyway, with or without you-’

Drake crossed his arms over his chest.  ‘This isn’t what I came back for-’

‘You’re more experienced than us at finding things-’

‘Yeah, people and creatures, not books.’

Willow looked straight into Drake’s eyes.  ‘Just meet the guy and talk to him.   He’ll be able to explain what he wants better than us, and then you can make your mind up.’

Drake rubbed his forehead.  This conversation had definitely had gone down a route he didn‘t want to take.  He hadn’t come back for this, to take on other people’s problems.  He’d got enough of his own and doing this for Willow would only delay him.  But there was something pulling him towards her.  Guilt for leaving her alone in Devilsgate all those years ago?  Shit.  What the hell was he going to do?

Drake leaned back on the sofa and ran his hands through his thick black hair. ‘Okay, let me ask you this; if everyone else in this City is in Fenrik’s pocket, what’s to say Funestus isn’t?  I mean, chances are he’s the same as everyone else who gets in power; they turn into greedy, power-hungry gits who’ll do anything to make more money and get more power-’

‘No, he isn’t.  I’ve known him for most of my life and he’s not the power hungry type.  He hates what’s going on here as much as we do, he’s just trying to change things from the inside out, that’s all,’ said Gizmo.

‘Just meet him?’ asked Willow.

Drake sighed loudly.  ‘Okay, but I’m not promising anything, right?’

Dragon Rider – Part Three

Dragon Rider

Chapter Three

Willow

Drake had handed Pyro into the Enforcerer’s Department, coming away with a small wad of cash for his trouble, enough to keep him going for a good few days anyway.  He’d spent the rest of the night holed up just outside the City, a few miles north of the reservoir that supplied Devilsgate with all of its water, under the wings of Falkor, as he had done every night since he had rescued him from the clutches of the dwarves.

At nine o’clock in the morning, Falkor had dropped him just outside the City walls and had disappeared into the thick cloud cover that strangled Devilsgate like a noose.  Drake had continued on foot to the warehouse that was home to the orphans, or the Lost Souls as they were now known.  The old orphanage, Drake’s home for six years before he had fled its walls, was now a burnt out shell, just another victim in the wars between humans and Faeries.  Not that Drake was sorry to hear of its demise; it held too many painful memories which he’d hidden at the back of his mind, locked up so tight that he wouldn’t be able to unlock them again.  Or so he hoped.

The warehouse was a relic from the human era, a four-storied Victorian red-bricked building which was rumoured to have once housed mental patients.  Most of the windows were boarded up from the inside; the glass smashed by the bullet fire that rained down on Devilsgate during the Appropriation Riots, the shrapnel still embedded in the holes peppering the front wall.  As if those human weapons would have held back the tide!

The air was thick with the smell of congealed blood from the adjacent meat factory where fresh animal carcasses hung from great steel hooks, waiting to be transported around the City, and the clogged up drains that were full of the detritus of life.

Drake didn’t really know why he was here; when he’d got the note from Willow asking him to come to the warehouse to discuss a proposition, he knew instinctively it was a bad idea, but even so, he found himself stood at the front steps of the crumbling building wondering.  Wondering how the years had treated her since he had left, whether she was the same person or if she had changed like he had.  He really hoped not; she had been the only thing in Devilsgate that had been good in his life.

He meandered through the corridors of the once magnificent warehouse, its walls now covered in graffiti and posters of missing people, the floorboards bare and crumbling.  Every corner seemed to be crammed full of kids, battered sofas, mattresses or books and the air sang with the shouts and laughter of the kids that now called this place home.

A small boy with fuzzy blonde hair and an oversized grey t-shirt had reluctantly shown him up to the top floor where Willow hung out.  His small blue eyes only moving from the tattoo, the Devil’s Mark, on Drake’s right cheek when Drake had placed a green note in the palm of his hand.  Even so, the kid did a runner as soon as he’d shown him upstairs, not wanting to be alone with Drake for any longer than he had to, not even if Drake had offered him another crisp green note.

Drake stood at the doorway.  He could hear the rise and fall of voices from inside.

‘What time is it?’ asked a male voice, full of exasperation.

‘Don’t worry Giz, he’ll be here,’ came the reply.

‘Nine-thirty,’ said Drake stepping into the room, ‘just like we’d agreed.’

Willow threw the book she had been reading onto the floor and leapt over to Drake.  ‘Drake-‘

‘It’s been a long time, trouble,’ he said, as she flung her arms around him.  ‘Wow, there!  I need to breathe, you know, it’ll help keep me alive.’

‘Sorry,’ she replied, relinquishing her grip on him, a huge smile lighting up her face, ‘it just seems like it’s been-’

‘Forever,’ finished Drake.  He looked at her and his heart felt heavy.  She looked exactly the same as when he had left, except that now she was a young woman with several piercings and bright pink hair.  For a second he could still see the sadness, the reality of life, etched in her almond-shaped eyes, then it was gone, replaced by a hardness which was unfamiliar.

Willow’s companion rose from his swivel chair.  ‘I’m Gizmo,’ he said, offering Drake his hand.

‘Drake,’ said Willow, gesturing at Gizmo, ‘this is Gizmo, Gizmo Chetana.’

‘Nice to meet you,’ replied Drake, taking Gizmo’s hand firmly.

‘And you,’ replied Gizmo smiling, but Drake could tell the guy was tense, almost uncomfortable in his presence and the smile didn’t extend to his amber eyes.  Interesting, thought Drake.

‘Why don’t you take a seat,’ asked Willow, pointing to the nearest threadbare sofa, the arms black with dirt.

Drake took the Zephyr from his back and propped it up the side of the sofa, before slumping onto it.

Willow jumped into the seat next to Drake, her eyes drinking in every part of him.  ‘It’s been so long, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Neither have you,’ replied Drake, knowing that they were both lying to each other.  He could feel an invisible wall between them, built by the years of separation.

Gizmo coughed.

Drake looked over to him; Gizmo was now back on his chair, three virtual computer screens flashing in front of him.  ‘This is some set up you guys have got,’ said Drake, his eyes lingering on Gizmo’s desk which was crammed full of cables, black boxes and circuit boards.  ‘So, I’m assuming you didn’t just ask me here so we could go over the good old days,’ he said, turning back to Willow.

‘No,’ she replied, pulling her legs up onto the sofa and curling her arms protectively around them.  ‘We’re in trouble Drake, we need your help.’

‘What kind of trouble?’

‘Major league,’ she replied, picking at the frayed sleeve of her black hoodie.  ‘I don’t know how much you know about what’s happening in Devilsgate-‘

‘I know Fenrik’s still in charge, so if I were a betting man, I would say things are still the same as when I left.’

‘No, they’re not the same,’ said Gizmo, casually flicking boxes of text on his screens away, back into cyberspace, ‘they’re much worse.’

Drake could hear a trace of bitterness in Gizmo’s voice.  ‘Worse how?’ he said, turning back to look at Gizmo, but Gizmo ignored him and continued flicking through the text and images.

‘Drake, the University is planning a purge of humans.  They want all of us out of Devilsgate.  We’ve got six days left and then we have to pack up and leave.’

‘And go where?’ asked Drake, bouncing around in his seat to face Willow.

‘They don’t care as long as it’s not here.  Anyway,’ said Willow, her eyes looking off into the distance, ‘it doesn’t matter what they want because we’re not leaving.  This is my home.‘

Death’s Apprentice – Part Seven

‘Too skinny,’ she said, holding my arm in the air.

‘We can’t be too choosy,’ said Mr Crow, ‘he’s the only applicant we’ve had.’

‘He’s too skinny. He won’t be able to do the lifting,’ she replied.

‘I’m strong,’ I said.

‘You’ll be carrying dead weights, you need upper body strength for that.’

‘Corvina…’ said Mr Crow, with a slightly desperate edge to his voice.

‘What!?’ Snapped Mrs Crow.

‘We are a little short on time, and you’re not yourself at the moment, what with…you know,’ he said, with a flick of his head.

Mrs Crow snorted.

‘Although, having said that, he’s not, you know…,’ said Mr Crow, with another flick of his head. Joe was beginning to think he was having a fit.

‘He’s not what?’

‘You know…’

‘No. I don’t or I wouldn’t be asking, would I?’ She placed her bony hands on her hips. ‘Well? Out with it!’

‘The Chosen One -‘

‘Of course, he’s not the Chosen One. How can he be when we buried the Chosen One two weeks ago?’

‘Corvina, darling, we’re out of options. We’re never going to find the perfect candidate, not when the Chosen One is indisposed of, are we? Beggars can’t be choosers, isn’t that the way the saying goes?’

‘Thanks,’ said Joe, unsure whether he should be offended or not.

‘And he’s the only applicant we’ve had…’

‘Doesn’t mean we have to accept any riff-raff off the street, does it?’

‘Wow,’ said Joe.

‘We’re running out of time. We’ve only got 33 days left and…’

‘No.’

‘But Corvina…’

Joe turned to leave. He’d had enough of this shit. He needed the money, yes, but not enough to deal with this crap. He heard Lola whining for him from outside. And yet, he needed to look out for her. He needed to leave the shithole that was home. He spun on his heels.

‘Give me a trial.’

‘What?’

‘A trial. One week, for free,’ said Joe, unsure of why he was saying he’d work for free, ‘and then, if you like what you see and you want to hire me, you can add the week’s wage onto my pay after -‘

‘But that’s not working for free then, is it?’

‘It is if I don’t get the job.’

Mrs Crow swept over to him, faster than a lady of her age should be able to. She pushed her rimmed glasses up to the top of her nose and stared at him for a few moments before spitting on her palm and holding her hand out for Joe to shake. ‘Deal,’ she said.

Joe cringed inside. There was no way he was going to spit on his hand too, that was just too disgusting. ‘Okay,’ he said, taking her hand. Her grip was unusually strong for such an old woman. ‘Deal.’

She let his hand fall.

‘Good. Although, I think we’ll start the trial tonight. Be back here at midnight -‘

‘Midnight?’

Death’s Apprentice – Part six

Mr Crow had a slight limp which I found myself replicating as I followed him. We walked past a room with two cream sofas, and a half-dead pot plant on a small coffee table, and down a long corridor that seemed to get increasingly darker the further we went. There were lots of closed doors with small plaques tacked on to them, saying intriguing things like; embalming room, coffin workshop, and Place of Rest. We turned right into another even darker corridor lit by lamps that looked like they belonged in the last century. The air was hot and humid and smelled of paraffin and mint imperials.

Finally, we came to a square waiting room lined with wood panelling. Mr Crow directed me to sit down on one of the mahogany chairs. It sounded as if I’d farted when I sat down.

‘I’ll be back presently,’ he said, with a quick nod of the head before he disappeared behind of the two doors in front of me.

I looked up at the large chandelier hanging low above my head. It clearly hadn’t been dusted in a long while as a grey spider’s web trailed from it onto the far wall. I followed the trail with my eyes to where it reached the top of the left door frame. The mahogany door had a plaque which read; Hell. I smiled. They sure had a sense of humour.

Despite the fact I was there for an interview, I felt calm, although I wish I’d had more time to make myself look presentable as the big hole in the toe of my trainer wasn’t the greatest look.

Mr Crow emerged from the door which read; Mrs and Mr Crow.

‘If you’d like to come this way,’ he said, standing by the door and gesturing for me to enter.

‘Josiah,’ screeched a female voice from behind the door, ‘stop acting like a prick and get the boy in here.’

I watched as Mr Crow’s eyes narrowed, and his lips pursed.

‘Shut up woman, will you,’ he shouted back to her.

‘You better come in before she loses her head,’ he said.

I did as I was told.

I entered the office of Mr and Mrs Crow. The room was quite small but I guessed it would be a lot bigger if it wasn’t for the stacks of paperwork overflowing from every surface. There was a large desk in front of me, covered in ledgers and piles of paper that looked like it had come from a historical movie set. There was a rotary dial phone in black, an ink well, a quill and a wooden blotter. There was a wooden chair behind the desk, and behind that, the wall was covered floor to ceiling with a mahogany filing cabinet. From the few open drawers, it looked like it contained index cards, rows upon rows of yellowing index cards arranged in alphabetical order. In the left corner, just in front of the cabinet, sat an old woman in a rocking chair. She looked like she’d died because her mouth was gaping open and her bottom set of false teeth were producing from her mouth. She was dressed all in black and her grey hair was arranged in a neat bun on the top of her head.

‘Is she okay?’ I asked, pointing at the lady. She reminded me of nanna the day she’d passed away.

‘Depends,’ said Mr Crow, sliding in behind the desk. He opened the ledger before him, picked up the quill, licked the nib before plunging it into the thick black ink.

‘Name?’

‘Joe Bones.’

‘Okay,’ said Mr Crow, sticking out his tongue as he wrote my name onto the ledger in beautiful cursive script.

‘Age?’

’17.’

He looked at me over the top of his glasses. ’17, eh?’ He nodded as if answering some internally asked question.

‘Address?’

’51 Moon Lane,’ I said, in little more than a whisper, knowing that this information alone would make them not want to give me the job.

‘Mmmm,’ he said, looking at me over the top of his thick-framed glasses, ‘Moon Lane, eh?’

I jumped as the old lady, who looked like she’d been dead only a few minutes early, was now standing by my side.

She grabbed my arm and began feeling it.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Five

My heart gave a start as the door to the back was flung open. Several things happened at once; a tall man with a large hook nose and wearing dark blue overalls covered in soot burst into the room just as Lola yelped and disappeared behind my chair.

‘Lola!’

‘No dogs! No dogs! We don’t do dogs!’ called the man, flinging his arms in the air like he was swatting flies.

The receptionist jumped up. ‘No, Mr Black, he’s here for the job. His name is Joe Bones. I told you about him -’

He stopped his arms still high in the air. ‘You did?’ he asked, turning to look at the receptionist.

‘Yes, just now.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he snapped, ‘how am I supposed to remember everything?’ He turned on his heels to look at me. ‘Mmm,’ he said, looking over his thick round glasses at me, ‘you’d better come through then. But not the dog!’

‘Okay, I er…’ I looked a Lola. I didn’t think she’d want to go anyway.

‘Leave with me,’ said the receptionist, who was now standing beside me although I hadn’t seen her move at all.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘She’ll be fine with me here,’ she said, taking Lola’s lead, ‘now go on Mr Bones, go and do your interview before you miss out.’

I followed Mr Crow through the door and into the back of the funeral parlour. There was a funny smell, of acid and melted wax, lavender and something that reminded me of a fly spray my nanna used when she was still alive.

‘Down here,’ said Mr Crow, taking a dirty handkerchief from the top of his greasy overalls. He wiped his forehead with it then stuffed back into his pocket.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Three

I’d got no cash on me, so I ran down to the cash point on the corner of Archer’s road, leaving Lola at the vets in case I “did one” without paying. I punched my pin number into the machine and groaned as it flashed back that I was now only five pound off my agreed overdraft limit. I clicked on the thirty-pound button and waited for the machine to vomit out my cash. I needed a job, and quick, especially now that I’d been kicked out of school. And I needed to get Lola out of that shit hole.

Somehow.

Easier said than done when you had the surname Bones and the shithead for your stepdad.

I stuffed the money in my pocket and turned to go back to the vets just as the sky gave up its load again. Shit. I began to walk down the street as bus trundled past, its wheels hit a pot hole and sent a shower of filthy water all over me.

‘For fuck’s sake!’ I said, jumping to the side as the water cascaded over me. I was red hot inside, boiling anger simmering in my belly. Water had collected in a dip on the path. I aimed a kick at it and water shot into the air and splattered on the window of Crow’s Funeral Home. There was a small sign sellotaped to the inside of the glass which read:

Help wanted, hours variable, apply within.

Maybe God did exist after all.

I had to get Lola first. Couldn’t take the chance of the vet reporting us; that would mean a good kicking for Lola if the RSPCA came round and talked to shithead. He’d probably go for Mom too now that he knew I’d fight back.

I ran down the street as quickly as I could, handed the money over to the receptionist and waited for the printer to eventually churn out the receipt. And then waited for the vet to bring Lola out. Her tail started to wag as soon as she saw me. I thought it might fall off. She looked brighter now, but even so, the vet seemed reluctant to give her back. His hand hovered mid-air, holding her lead tightly.

‘Joe.’

‘Yes?’

‘A dog isn’t a toy. They’re not playthings to take our frustrations out of, do you understand?’

I stared into his blue eyes. My heart ripped in my chest. Tears threatened to spill like the rain outside.

‘I would never hurt her,’ I said, ‘she’s the only thing that’s ever shown me love.’ I grabbed the lead from his hand and ran out of the door before I betrayed myself any more. Real men don’t talk. Real men don’t feel.