Unidentified Human Remains & The True Nature of Love: Part 6
by Amanda Sichter
West stirred his coffee slowly, not looking up at Wisdom, seemingly more fascinated by the intricate whorls created by his spoon.
'I thought people saw the future in tea-leaves, not cups of coffee,' said Wisdom.
West looked up at him and smiled, slightly nervously. 'I'm not trying to see the future, Wisdom,' he said. 'I'm just trying to work out how you're going to react to the news.'
'What news?' Wisdom asked, surprised at his own eagerness.
'Aaah, that's the problem,' replied West, and chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. 'There's no news,' he said.
'None?' asked Wisdom, his tone incredulous. 'Nothing?'
'Well, that's the other problem,' said West.
'Oh, come on, West,' said Pete, somewhat exasperated. 'Surely you don't need to carry on with all this cloak and dagger shit with me?'
'It's not cloak and dagger shit, Wisdom,' replied West, stirring his coffee again. 'It's just - well, I have a hunch.'
'A hunch? Are you tryin' to sell me something, or what?' asked Pete.
West leaned forward until he was close to Pete and lowered his voice. 'You know how I've always got you something or nothing?' he asked and Pete nodded. 'Normally, I'd be telling you I'd got nothing. I've put out feelers, I've done a bit of snooping on the system and I'm not getting anything concrete back.'
'There's a but coming, isn't there?' asked Pete and drank deeply of his coffee. Normally it would have been called Irish coffee, but he'd flirted with the waitress hard enough that it was more than half whiskey. It could probably have been re-named rocket fuel.
'But,' said West. 'But - I don't think it is nothing. I think it's nothing because someone, somewhere is covering up a something.'
'Your grasp of the English language is astonishing,' observed Pete. 'So why'd you think that?'
'Normally I can ask the kind of questions you want me to ask and it's not a problem. It's not like the old days, Wisdom - the paranoia level's dropped down to something approaching sanity. I can do a bit of snooping on the systems and I don't have any problems. But now, looking for the answers you want - I keep getting flagged, Pete.'
'Flagged?' Pete frowned as he sipped his coffee.
'Yeah,' said West. 'When I put in a query it gets flagged. If I hadn't been down in the operating system first time I asked and seen the flag go up I never would have known - or I would have known and been caught and dragged up before the director in no time. I played around down there for a while and any queries I put through got flagged. At least the ones you asked for. I tried some control questions about other topics like mutants and they weren't flagged. But anything about demonology or grimoires was going to get sent straight to the boss until I deleted 'em.' He frowned and stirred his coffee harder.
'Would you just drink the sodding stuff?' said Wisdom.
'Can't drink it,' replied West, mournfully. 'Doctor's got me on a caffeine-free diet. Apparently my heart was going to explode if I drank any more of the stuff. All I can do is sit here and sniff it.'
'That's just sad, mate,' said Wisdom. 'Do you know how often I've been told I have to give up the fags? Whatever happened to living dangerously?'
'It's alright for you,' replied West. 'You haven't got a wife and kids looking at you mournfully every time you get a Coke out of the fridge. Go off to work with a weird paranormal agency, get sent on missions to strange and dangerous places and occasionally get shot, fine. Try and make yourself a coffee and you get "daddy doesn't love us" looks. Just wait until you have to deal with that sort of stuff.'
'I think it's generally accepted that the gene pool will be better off without me addin' to it,' replied Pete. 'So what about asking around? That get you anywhere?'
'I tried,' said West. 'Few discreet questions. Well, I found the one section where paranoia's gone back up to Black Air levels. No-one would tell me anything. Not even casual stuff. The whole supernatural section is sewn up tighter than Michael Flatley's trousers.'
Pete shuddered. 'There's a mental picture I didn't want,' he said. 'You got any feelings about what's going on?'
'Yeah, I do,' said West. 'It's the strangest thing, Pete, but I keep getting the feeling that they're - ashamed? It's like they've done something really, really stupid and they're not going to let the cat out of the bag because their mummy will spank them. Does that make any sense at all to you?'
Pete leaned back in his chair and downed the rest of his coffee in one. 'Yeah,' he said, putting his cup down carefully. 'Yeah, West, it does.'
* * * * *
'They're in on it,' half-shouted Pete, pacing angrily around the room. 'The bastards are in on it. They've started raising frigging demons again. Bastards! Stupid, sodding, frigging, wanker bastards!'
'That's not real swearing,' observed Kitty quietly. 'Logan can do much better than that.'
Pete turned to her, his hands upraised, his face a perfect red picture of rage. He drew in a deep breath to say something and then held it for a moment. Finally he let it out in a completely unexpected laugh. 'God, Pryde,' he said, and scrubbed at his face with his hands. 'It's just - when you think something is dead and buried - and then it turns around and bites you on the bum - I don't think there are words for it.'
'I don't know,' said Kitty, her face screwed up in thought. 'I've had a few dead things bite me on the bum. There's a few words for it. Most of them start with f.'
'What sort of dead things?' Pete asked and then waved his hands. 'No, I'd rather not know. With you it's liable to be literal.'
'So how do you know it's Black Air?' asked Kitty. 'Or whatever the remnants of Black Air are called these days.'
'Harrity and West both told me the same thing. Both got flagged for making computer enquiries - Harrity got dragged up in front of the director and told to write "I must not ask questions about grimoires" fifty times. Both of them are getting tight-lipped silence from the supernatural section. It's definitely something Black Air are in on. I don't know if they raised this demon but they damn well know something about it - and they're definitely covering up for somebody.' Pete grimaced.
Kitty's facial expression closely matched Pete's. 'How could you possibly cover up something like these murders?' she asked. 'There's no way - not even - you just couldn't,' she declared decidedly.
'Yes, you could,' said Pete. 'Just like you can cover up murdering civilians in covert ops and just like you can cover up trying to kill all mutants and just like you can cover up being associated with the Hellfire Club. And just like you can cover up your past links to the really nasty half of Black Air and get work in the new department. I think it's called the Paranormal Investigation Unit now. Better known as PIU.' He gave Kitty a sideways glance. 'See why I still call it Black Air?'
'So you think they're trying to get Black Air up and running again?' asked Kitty very quietly, ignoring Pete's last comment. 'Do you think they've raised this demon as the first step to getting back into power again? They seem to like using demons for that.'
Pete tugged at his bottom lip thoughtfully. 'No,' he said finally and abruptly sat down next to Kitty. 'No, I don't think that's what they're trying to do. I think - I think they fucked up. I think they've got some association with whoever raised the demon, but I don't think they intended anything like this. I think something went wrong and now they're trying to cover their tracks.'
'Cover their tracks?' Kitty said, stunned. 'Why not just lay the damned thing to rest - get it off the face of the earth, do whatever they can to kill it - or the demon equivalent of being killed.'
'Maybe they can't,' said Pete, frowning. 'They used Margali previously to raise the demon - they never had many good magicians in the ranks. I think we've either got a rogue magician out there who Black Air know about but can't stop, or we've got a demon on the loose. And whatever else you can say about Black Air, in the end they're a public service institution - their first instinct is always to cover their own arses. Until they can be sure there's no way this can ever be traced back to them, they're not going to show their hand.'
'So what are we going to do?' asked Kitty. 'I'm getting closer to getting into their systems but without anything to go on I'm going to get lost in there. We need some kind of clue.'
The look Pete sent her was, unexpectedly, pure savage delight. His words were even more unexpected. 'I think I'm going to have to go and beat up on Scratch,' he declared.
The look Kitty gave him was totally surprised. 'Scratch?' she asked. 'Scratch? Scratch is dead, Pete, you told me yourself. How are you going to talk to a dead person? Actually I don't know why I'm asking that,' she corrected herself. 'After the last couple of weeks I know lots of different ways to talk to dead people.'
'Scratch isn't dead,' corrected Pete. 'I thought he was but it turned out he wasn't. Seems like he escaped half of London falling down around his ears.'
'So what - you're going to visit him in jail?' asked Kitty, giving Pete a hard look.
'Ah, not exactly,' said Pete.
'What do mean - not exactly?' Kitty's voice was very calm.
'Scratch isn't in jail,' said Pete. 'Scratch works in the supernatural section in the new Black Air.'
'I - he - but - you -.' Kitty was nearly incoherent with surprise and shock. 'It's Scratch,' she finally burst out. 'How the fuck did he end up there? For Chrissake, Pete, he had the Black Air insignia tattooed on his forehead. He was an evil, murdering bastard. He was liaison with the Hellfire Club. What do you mean he works in the supernatural section in the new Black Air?' Her outrage was clearly apparent.
Pete put on his most soothing voice. 'They apparently dug him out of the building that collapsed on him after London burned down. He spent months in hospital. He got burned,' said Pete, his voice suddenly circumspect. He had never told Kitty what Lockheed had done - he had always let her think that he was responsible for killing Scratch. 'Badly burned. His face was - well, the half I left the first time isn't there any more. He doesn't have a tattoo any more - all he's got left is scar tissue. Kind of an improvement, actually.' He hurried on at Kitty's scathing look. 'Anyway, when he got his brain together enough to answer questions he told the cops his real name - and Black Air's records were sufficiently - doctored - that they couldn't link him to Scratch. So he got back into the department on some kind of compassionate grounds and now he's working in the supernatural section. Fairly high up, actually.'
'But why didn't you - you know who he is,' said Kitty. 'Why didn't you tell them he was Scratch? Why didn't you turn him over to the cops?' She turned a searching look on Pete.
'Look, Pryde,' said Pete. 'First of all, I didn't know it was Scratch until a couple of years ago. No-one who'd be likely to report him to the cops knows he's Scratch - and everyone in the department who knows who he is, isn't goin' to tell. I only found out by fluke that it was him - West mentioned his name once and I realised who it was.'
'So tell them,' said Kitty. 'The bastard deserves to be in jail.'
'He's in hell, Pryde,' replied Pete. 'Scratch loved Black Air, loved who he was, what he did. Now he's stuck in the shell of the organisation, with a desk job, pushing paper. He's got no real power and a face like congealed porridge. I can track him down whenever I want to get information out of him and he can't stop me. Besides,' Pete settled back in his seat again, 'I haven't exactly got a clean record. If I try and shop him it's his word against mine - and I have no doubt he can manage to pull up a few old files so the cops know exactly what I've done in my past.'
'But he - I,' Kitty's voice showed that she was close to defeat.
'I know what it sounds like, Kitty,' said Pete, softly. 'But I've got Scratch where I want him. He's useful now - I've got some information out of him before that's helped solved murders. He's no use to anyone in jail. Anyway,' his grin was savage again, 'he's just so much fun to beat up.'
'So when are you going to try and see him?' asked Kitty, giving in. She couldn't really muster an argument and she knew it. The morality of Pete's decision was definitely shaky but on practical grounds she didn't have a leg to stand on.
'I'll hunt him down tomorrow,' said Pete. 'I tend to bail him up in alleyways at lunch-time. He gets the best expressions on what's left of his face when he realises who it is.'
'You're enjoying this far too much,' accused Kitty. 'Hadn't you better be careful doing that, though? If he uses his volt-casting he's pretty powerful.' She looked down at her hands. 'I don't want you getting hurt,' she said in a small voice.
Pete patted her knee. 'It's okay, Pryde,' he said. 'Scratch's face wasn't the only thing that got burned.' He held his hands up in front of his face and Kitty realised he was indicating the posture of someone trying to ward off flames. 'His hands are almost destroyed. He can't volt-cast any more. The only thing he's got left to try and hurt me with is calling me names - and he isn't half as creative at that as I am.'
Kitty's face was horrified. 'It is hell, isn't it?' she said. 'He's lost - everything.'
'Everything, Pryde,' replied Pete, and his voice was hard. 'And I'll tell you, if there was anything else I could do to make his life even worse than it is now, I'd do it. Don't waste compassion on that toerag.'
'No,' said Kitty. 'No - not compassion. Just - I think what it'd be like if you were the one who lost that fight. I couldn't stand it - if you - had had to go through that.'
~What, instead of having to go through the hell of losing you to your imaginary boyfriend? I don't know which one is worse,~ thought Wisdom but he didn't say it out loud. He opened his mouth to make a smart-arsed comment instead when the phone rang. 'I'll get that,' he said and was gone.
Kitty waited for him, trying to work out what her own personal version of hell would be. She had come up with a few ideas when Pete walked back into the room, his face ashen.
'What's wrong?' she asked and didn't wait for an answer. 'They've found another victim,' she answered her own question.
'Wrong, Pryde,' said Pete, his voice horror-filled. 'They've found another two victims. We have to go.'
'What?' asked Kitty, sitting bolt upright, dismayed. 'You mean it killed two together - or they've found an old victim and a new one.'
'Neither,' replied Pete. 'They found two victims. It killed them within an hour of each other, just a few houses apart. It's getting faster, Kitty. It's getting faster.'
* * * * *
She dreamed of a garden of blood.
She walked down a garden path, and at each step blood oozed from between the flag-stones. She reached out and picked a flower from one of the garden-beds, a rose, rich-red, and smelled it and the stench of decay filled her nostrils. Shuddering she pulled the petals from it one by one and each one turned to blood in her hands until she was coated from finger-tips to elbows in its flow.
'Pretty,' said a voice, and she looked for the source of it, finally looking at the stem of the flower that she still held. A face looked up at her from the remains of the rose. 'Pretty,' it said again and then it changed in her hands, grew, formed, until a man stood before her and he reached out and grasped her hands and licked the blood from them. 'Tasty,' he grinned and his features metamorphosed into those of a demon and he leaned forward smiling and bit off her face.
Kitty tore herself from sleep with a terrified gasp, her heart shuddering inside her chest. She flailed madly at her quilt for a moment until she realised where she was and slowly sank back into her pillows. Her heart continued to thunder in her chest and sweat poured from her.
'God, I hate nightmares,' she whispered into the darkness. 'I think I need my teddy. Or Lockheed.' But both her teddy and Lockheed were across the Atlantic. Kitty stared into the dark for a long time before she made her decision. She needed comfort and there was only one source of comfort nearby.
She orientated herself in the room and then phased herself through the right wall and into Wisdom's bedroom. The faint light glimmering through his window showed that it was the same disaster area it always was - Pete managed to make a mess even in his sleep. His blankets were a twisted, tangled heap on top of the bed and he was sleeping in a strangely uncomfortable looking position involving being half under the covers and half above.
That was the strange thing. In the old days, in Excalibur, even her phasing through the wall would have woken him - his combat instincts had been that finely honed. But now, although a slight frown indented his brow, he was deeply asleep.
Kitty looked at him for a long time, wondering whether her presence would wake him, wondering if he would finally hear her breathing and wake so that she could talk to him. Pete never even stirred.
'You've found your peace, haven't you?' asked Kitty quietly, and even that wasn't enough to wake him. Remaining phased, she walked across the room and perched her insubstantial body on the bed beside him.
'I know you've got a shitty job, Wisdom, I know you have nightmares - I've heard the cries in the night - I know life hasn't been the best since I made you walk out. But I've never seen you - so - content? Peaceful? You even sleep properly now. It's been so long since I've slept properly, Pete. If you phased into my room I'd be awake the second you did it - but you can stay asleep. What does it say about my world, Wisdom? How come you're the one that deals with murderers - and I'm the one that can't sleep at night? How come my world is scarier than yours?' Her whispers glided out into the night but no answers came back.
'These murders are - revolting.' Kitty shuddered. 'Those bodies today - the others - what it's doing is just - I've never seen anything like it. Never knew there was so much pain in the world.'
'Your friends are ridiculous - that task force is amazing. You tell the DCI it's a demon and all he says is "okay, you keep hunting it down and when you get an idea where it is, we'll send out the magicians". A police force with magicians! And that'll accept the idea of demons. And who doesn't blame every single strange event on mutants. It isn't supposed to be like that, Pete. There should be horror and blame and hate and fear - and all you get is approval for a job well done. And a bonus payment.'
'There's all this dead stuff coming back to bite me, too. I thought Black Air was finished, Pete, thought it was utterly, totally dead. And Scratch, too. But now they're back and they're just as nasty as they've ever been and we have to face them again just like the last time. Bad times, Pete, bad memories.'
'And you look at me and you demand so much of me, Pete. You need me to find out information for you - and I do, because I know how much it'll cost if I don't find it out. You make sure I use every ounce of my skill - but I haven't had to fight anyone in weeks. And what I see in your eyes - I hurt you so much, Pete. It's all there when you look at me, when we get close - I see all that pain there and I know I caused it and if guilt really was a weight I'd be crushed to death by now. But you put it all aside and you trust me to help you and you make me want to help you more than anything else in the world - just so I can lessen the pain in your eyes. You make me - selfless, Pete.'
'I don't understand anything any more, Pete. I've never been involved in anything - anything at all - that hurts me more than helping you out with this. Demons and death and blood and bodies and Black Air and you always there in the background, not accusing me of anything. I'm having nightmares nearly every night - I nearly crack up during the day. It all hurts so much.'
She took a deep breath and finally asked the question that had been haunting her for weeks now.
'So how come I'm happier now than I have been in a very long time?'
There was no answer from the recumbent Pete but Kitty smiled down at him suddenly. She felt better now - comforted.
'You know,' she said, conversationally. 'My feet have never been warm in bed since you left,' and she leaned down and brushed a ghostly kiss on his cheek.
She walked back through the wall into her own room and curled back into bed and fell into a sleep that was both deep and dreamless.
* * * * *
'Looking good as ever, Scratch,' said the voice.
The man walking down the alleyway stopped but didn't turn around. 'Wisdom, you toerag. I thought you'd finally been taken back by the scum-beings from outer space that spat you out down here.'
'Temper, temper,' tsked Pete. 'Why are you never happy to see me, Scratch? Mummy would be so upset to see us fighting like this.'
'If you were related to me I'd kill myself just to make sure I'd never breed anything like you,' grated Scratch.
'Good thing we're only ex-colleagues then, isn't it?' said Wisdom and walked up close behind Scratch. 'Tell me,' he whispered into what remained of Scratch's left ear. 'How is Black Air these days? Defeated? Dismembered? Dying?'
The breath hissed through Scratch's teeth and he whirled suddenly. 'Don't you wish?' he snarled at Pete. 'You helped bring it down - I always told them you'd betray us. You were always too weak, Wisdom.'
Pete grinned, a suddenly manic grin. He knew he shouldn't be so happy - but he could never help himself when he saw again exactly how ruined Scratch was. 'It's been too long,' he purred. 'I'd forgotten just exactly how grotesque you really are. Yer outsides match yer insides now, Scratch.'
'Yeah well,' said Scratch and the scarred skin around his mouth moved in something that might have been a grin - if he still had a face. 'I'm just waiting for the day I get to see your insides sprayed all over your outsides, Wisdom.'
'And just exactly how are you goin' to make good that threat?' asked Pete. 'Not an easy thing to do when you're missing as many fingers as you are. Tell me, how good is voice-activated technology these days?'
Scratch turned a baleful glare on him. 'I'm goin' to watch you burn, Wisdom,' he said. 'Even if I've got to set fire to your Old Folks' Home - I'm going to see you burn.'
Pete grinned at him, a baring of teeth. 'Well, I'm one up on you there,' he said. 'I've already seen you burn.'
Scratch sighed. 'As much as I enjoy fighting with you,' he said, his voice heavily sarcastic, 'why don't you hurry up and get to the point? What do you want from me, Wisdom?'
'Can't I be here just for the pleasure of your company?' asked Pete.
'You hate me as much as I hate you,' replied Scratch, matter-of-factly. 'The only pleasure I could get out of your company was if you were trying to scream as I ripped your lungs out through your throat. So just tell me what you want. I have got to get back to work, you know.'
'The perfect corporate lackey now, are we?' asked Wisdom nastily and then bit back on his own anger. 'You know what I want, Scratch. You know about the murders. You have to know there's a demon involved. Someone in your department's been a naughty boy and I want to know everything you know. You've got to be in on it. I know you too well. What have Black Air done this time?'
Impassivity was easy for Scratch - the scars that covered the whole of his face made it practically immobile at the best of times. 'Dunno what yer talking about,' he said, his voice flat.
'See, that's just being stupid,' said Wisdom. 'I know that you know. You know that I know that you know - and I'm goin' to stop there before I get ridiculous. Just tell me what you know, you stupid little git.'
'Or what?' asked Scratch, managing a smirk. 'Not a lot you can threaten me with these days.'
Pete stepped in until he was only inches from Scratch's ruined face. 'Can't be easy for you to pick up birds with a face like that, Scratch. How about I make it even harder for you? How about I put a hot-knife through yer balls? We can stand here and listen to 'em sizzle if you want.'
Scratch laughed, startling Pete. 'Big, scary threat,' he said. 'I'm never goin' to have another bird in my life - not after what that flying rat did to my face. And with my other little problem,' he held up the twisted flesh that made up what was left of his hands, 'I can't even have a good wank any more. So don't think threats like that worry me, Wisdom.'
'Okay, if that doesn't work,' replied Pete. 'How 'bout this? How 'bout I get the names of every single person that works with you that used to be in Black Air and I get their records and I give 'em to the cops and I make sure that every single one of 'em gets put in jail? How would that be, Scratch? Everyone but you - gone. Black Air dead - beyond all hope of recovery. Just you - alone in the world with nothing but the pain and the hate and the whispers behind your back and the knowledge that your sick, perverted little dream of a new Black Air is utterly, utterly dead. Just you and a desk job for the rest of eternity until you gas yourself one winter's afternoon in yer bedsit because you can't handle being alive and helpless and utterly alone any more. I'll do it, Scratch. And don't think I wouldn't make up the evidence if I had to. Tell me what we're looking for.'
Scratch looked at him, long and hard, and knew that Wisdom was telling the truth. 'You're a bastard, Wisdom,' he said, his voice emotionless.
'I try and stay in practice,' replied Pete.
Scratch's shoulders slumped. 'Sethanek,' he said. 'It's name is Sethanek. That's what you and your little cop buddies have got to look for.'
'That's a start,' said Pete. 'Now how 'bout the rest? When, where, fucking why. Tell me, Scratch.'
'No,' said Scratch, his eyes suddenly defiant. 'I know what you've been doing, Wisdom. I know you're supposed to be the best. Fine. You're that good - you find the rest out for yerself.'
Wisdom caught Scratch's shirt in his fist, dragged him close. 'You tell me the rest,' he ground out. 'Tell me everything, or so help me, Scratch, I'm going to burn out your eyes.'
'You're not the only one with evidence,' said Scratch, quietly. 'Try anything - anything at all, Wisdom, and I'll have you on the wrong side of the bars, quick-smart. And just think how popular you'll be with the other inmates when they find out you worked with the cops.'
'People are dying,' said Wisdom, his voice deadly-soft.
Scratch shrugged. 'People are always dying,' he replied. 'Don't try and engage my sympathy, cause I don't have one. Sethanek. That's all yer getting out of me.'
'Kitty's right,' said Pete, his face etched with disgust. 'You should be in jail.' He dropped Scratch and walked away down the alley, his contempt clear in the lines of his body.
And in the alleyway, Scratch's eyes suddenly burned with a dark delighted glee.
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