After only moments, Vicki stumbled out of the boy's protective grasp and into a quiet diner, where fluorescent lights flickered down from a puckered, Styrofoam ceiling and onto the worn, weary faces of just a few regular customers. Nathaniel stood calmly as his companion looked around her, puzzled and almost stung by the horrible brightness of it all, and simply brushed himself off with a small, precise flick of the wrist along his pure white tunic.
"They can't see you," he said, pre-empting the question he knew she would ask – the one they always asked. He still marveled at the simplicity (or, even, stupidity) humans could display even when the answers to their inane questions were right in front of them. "We are as ghosts in this reality; we cannot be seen, heard or felt among these images."
"So these are just…images," Vicki replied, feeling her stomach finally settle itself as her balance returned. "In other words – this isn't real?"
"Not quite. This is a vision of the future, and whatever you see here will occur if you continue to allow Coreen to work for you. The important thing to remember is that, currently, you have the choice to change whatever you see."
"Well, what am I looking for exactly? A needle in a haystack?"
"More obvious than that – try a fox in a chicken coop," he replied, a sense of tired sarcasm lilting through his young voice.
At that moment, the fox appeared; Coreen – or, at least, what looked like Coreen – walked into the diner, her long, dark hair covering her face that appeared even to Vicki to be more pallid than usual. She looked drawn out in her now aging clothes riddled with small tears and dangling threads, and her trademark happiness, in the face of anything and everything, seemed to have evaporated completely, hidden behind sunken eyes surrounded by dark circles. She said no word to the other waitresses as she rushed behind the counter, avoiding eye contact with anyone; burdened with automatic guilt and a fierce curiosity, Vicki followed, flowing through the imagined air as a boat through still, placid waters, feeling the very room around her ebb and flow like a living, breathing current.
She watched Coreen as she silently stuffed her tired clothes into a sparse steel locker, noticing the complete disdain with which she treated her employer's fixtures as she roughly slammed the door shut, turning away briskly to complete her first mundane activity, emptying the trash, treating everything around her with the same disdain with which she had treated her locker. It was almost as if she were impatient, as if she were waiting for something to happen or angry about something not happening, perhaps. Either way, as Vicki stretched out a ghostly hand to touch the various, deepening dents in the locker door, she assumed Coreen's impatience had been with her for quite some time.
Vicki watched for what seemed like hours as her assistant went about her usual duties conscientiously, yet without enthusiasm – and who could blame her, working in such a depressing, cheap diner? – but simply could not understand what this had to do with firing her, considering that at least a waitressing job was a lot safer than helping to fight Astaroth. The job sucked, which she would totally agree with; but what was causing Coreen to look so tired, pale and haggard when she had been so youthful and happy even in the underworld with her?
"You know, this looks a lot safer than working for me," she said, letting her head slip into her hand with facetious and overly dramatic boredom. "Are you sure you're not showing me what would happen if she didn't come back to work for me instead? Maybe we need to retune you or something…"
"As you're mocking me, I'll assume you don't understand why your friend is being forced to work here. Have you even thought about what would cause her to have to get a job somewhere else?"
"Well, I'm not paying her at the moment, so I guess she would have to earn money elsewhere. I'm still not buying this though – what exactly does this have to do with me?"
At that moment, as if a switch had been casually flicked in some unknown control room, the whole scene seemed to fizz and dissipate around them, leaving Vicki in a very familiar place – her dusty, messy office. Her map of the city was still pinned stubbornly to the wall, yet this time it was littered with more pins and tiny scraps of paper than could possibly be read. She walked over, feeling drawn to the map without exactly knowing why, and began to read the tiny notes fastened to it, noticing that they all seemed to be in Coreen's looped, pristine handwriting.
In all of them she was searching for a woman – about 5'7", blonde hair, grey eyes, in her early thirties by the descriptions she read. Every single one of these notes followed a dead girl, in every sector of the city; in parks, alleyways, outside clubs, construction sites – everywhere. Anyone who remotely matched the description was duly noted, with lines of paper stapled across the whole map as she vainly attempted to link them together. There seemed to be no link to Vicki's well trained, experienced eyes; the whole thing reeked of desperation, of a poor, vengeful vigilante trying their hardest to track down an elusive and dangerous criminal. It was far too messy, and too much insignificant detail had been thrown on with the hope of a breakthrough – it was the kind of thing she used to laugh at in the good old days of working Homicide, especially when the young, eager new detectives were trying to earn their stripes.
The mess, and sheer frantic desperation of the additions to this map was what worried her the most, as she scanned it to try and find something other than a description that could possibly tie up the tangled loose ends spreading themselves, vine-like, across a sprawling city. There seemed to be nothing that led to another and, as she stared at the tiny streets with a piercing and well-trained glare, the office door slammed as Coreen walked in, throwing her coat unceremoniously on the messy desk that used to be her own.
Coreen now walked towards Vicki, who moved away quickly without even taking the time to think about it, and began to stare at the map herself, drawing potential connecting lines between unsolved murders, attempting to create connections that did not exist as she murmured to herself incoherently, a stream of consciousness flowing from her that only she could understand.
"She was there, then she wasn't – and he hadn't seen her in days, which was weird," Coreen mumbled quietly, thinking things through as she touched several different places along the map almost habitually, reciting the same chain of events she did every night after her silent shift at the diner. "Then she turned up here but it wasn't her; he said she wasn't the same any more, and his power just increased within her…"
Vicki did not like what she was hearing. "What is she talking about Nathaniel? What is all this?"
"See for yourself," he replied, his voice serene as a meandering stream, as he gestured to some slightly larger writing scrawled along the top of the map.
Vicki walked closer to the sprawling metropolis staring at her blankly, her eyes focusing on the writing above her head as she came to an unknowing Coreen's side:
'Vicki Nelson – taken 21st March 2012. Wherabouts: unknown. Considered possessed and extremely dangerous – " here the writing seemed to scribble out into some unintelligible characters, shapes filled with pain and sadness that still only made sense to the young girl that wrote them. She stepped back, away from this terrifying premonition, her stomach lurching with fear, guilt, pain – every negative emotion whirled sickeningly in her mind as a realization came to the fore of her thoughts; Astaroth would take her for his own by possessing her. He coveted her marks, and somehow would find a way to turn the strange and ancient magic she essentially kept safe into his own, destructive weapon, or something – after all, why else would he want to actually possess her?
Coreen would be left on her own to confront the demon lord, and would almost definitely be killed. The thought of it was enough to send her into a spasm of guilt and self-loathing, though this time she allowed herself a step back and onto a more realistic grounding, away from the bias of subjectivity and into the calm, clear waters of informed objectivity. This future had not happened yet, and was more than enough to convince her of her original conviction to keep Coreen as far away from her as possible; then there would be no need for her to stand in front of a pinned-up map for hours at a time, eyes wide awake all night with fear for what could kill her in her sleep – no need for her to worry about the PI's health, or her engagements with the murky underworld of the city. Life could be simpler, less dangerous and altogether more normal, something she had wanted for far too long for her eager protégée.
"So," Vicki began, attempting to come to some sort of rational conclusion as Coreen now began to furiously flick through heavy, leather bound tomes. "If I keep Coreen by my side, somehow I'll be possessed by Astaroth and she'll be left on her own?"
"Coreen, as you will have found out by now, can be a little presumptuous when it comes to fighting the dark creatures of this world," Nathaniel stated, with an angelic solemnity far beyond his physical years. "She is naïve; in this situation, she simply 'got in the way' of you destroying Astaroth, as it were. As you can see, this had disastrous consequences."
Vicki looked once again at the painful line of writing scribbled upon the top of the board, figuring that to be considered as taken or possessed she may well have been pronounced dead – in fact, she was fairly certain that the latter would have been preferable. "What if I kept her with me but just told her to stay out of the way in terms of Astaroth?"
"It won't work," he replied flatly. "It's very simple Vicki – if you don't cut her out of your life, this will happen; you are privileged with a glance into the future and therefore have the ability to stop this before it even happens –"
"But why?! Why me, why on my own?" she asked, raising her voice with pure anger, frustration and guilt running ceaselessly through her mind. "What the hell have I done to deserve this?"
"Nothing. You must do this – the marks on your wrists are an unfortunate burden, but they have made you responsible for safe guarding mankind." His voice did not waver in the face of Vicki's fury – rather, it became stronger, more resolute and incredibly self-assured, instilling a confidence in the PI that she did not know she possessed.
"I'm sick of safe-guarding mankind when I didn't ask for this," she replied through gritted teeth. "Who decided this for me? Who or what thought that I could ever be responsible for this whole damn mess?!"
"Nobody asks to be a saviour," he sighed, and she knew it was the honest truth.
Henry hadn't asked to be her go-to guy for all things supernatural, and she had put him in danger more times than she could actually remember; Mike had not asked to be her inside man in the Police dept, but he did it for her and was paying the price.
"Why aren't Henry and Mike here?" she asked, now unsure why they would not be helping Coreen with such an impossible endeavour. "Has something happened to them?"
"That, I believe, takes us nicely to the end of this particular vision, Vicki," Nathaniel stated, allowing the illusionary office to melt around them with the wave of his tiny hand as they found themselves in the more familiar, present surroundings of Vicki Nelson Investigations, the whisky decanter still winking slyly at them from her dark, wooden desk. He allowed her to sit for a few moments, breathing in heavily the atmosphere of fear, guilt and apprehension as Vicki paid sole attention to her aching, painful feelings; her emotions, he thought pleasantly, were intoxicating - the strongest he had had the privilege of consuming in quite some time – as he felt a warmth grow deep inside of him. A wonderful sense of power flowed through his small, ancient body as he savoured the moment of despair like the first sip of a fine wine; how lucky for him, he reflected, that there was so much more to come.
* * *
Coreen hurried down the darkened stairs from Vicki's office, which flickered violently with the intermittent fluorescent light of the hallway, and out into the street, filled with the bustling nightlife that she had once been a part of. She stole glances of others as she walked along, noticing the usual groups of giggling girls her own age, walking arm in arm, the couples walking hand in hand and then the younger ones – the ones who really should have be back at home doing their homework – loitering around bars with fake IDs. The monsters that lurked in dark corners, the demons that would cut out your heart and make you bleed from the eyes were pure imagination to these people; after all, they didn't exist in their world. The sweet sound of laughter around her turned bitter as it flowed into her subconscious and, for a fleeting moment, a feeling of resentment blossomed, then wilted within her. She quickly shook her head, willing the thoughts to disappear – the important thing, she assured herself, is that the world can go on like this, that people can be safe in their naivety. After all, would she really want to drag others into the strange world she had been thrust into? What began as 'no case too strange' had morphed into something else entirely; when she first started working for Vicki, it was almost like a hobby. Now it was dangerous knowledge that she couldn't ignore and, if she was honest, didn't really understand. Maybe, she thought, ignorance really is bliss.
She turned a corner and found herself covered with the glare of bright neon lights, approaching the entrance to the bar where she had agreed to meet Henry. She clambered down the steep staircase into a fairly empty room, where a few leather-jacket wearing bikers were noisily playing pool. The air stank of stale alcohol, and a visible film of cigarette smoke hung close to the low ceiling, giving the room a dark, hazy look as Coreen attempted to walk through the thickening fog. She looked around the clouded room and finally spotted Henry at a booth in the far corner; resisting the impulse to wave, she walked over to him quickly, and found a glass of coke waiting for her when she sat down. Neither of them spoke as she sat and sipped her drink slowly.
"So," she began, setting the misty glass back down on the table. "You heard everything, right?"
"Yes," he replied. "She thinks I don't care about her."
"…and don't you think you should correct her?"
"It doesn't matter, she'll be better off without me in the long term – maybe this way she'll stay away from her more unusual cases."
"You know as well as I do that she doesn't give up on things that easy. She's searching for him right now, you know. Haven't you thought that maybe Astaroth wants her to be alone?"
"No, Coreen. He's a demon, he won't care who he has to go through to get to her. He's demonstrated that already," he replied bitterly. He watched her as she took another sip of her drink, admiring her fragility as a powerful, protective feeling overcame him. He heard the heart murmur as her eyes met his; fierce and strong, but somehow a little frayed around the edges, slowly unraveling, one of the small details that disturbed him to the very core. He hoped she hadn't remembered the horrific montages of the demon lord's handiwork since he had wiped as much of that terrible encounter from her memory as possible. He knew, still, that there would always be things so terrifying, so inconceivably frightening that they would remain forever ingrained on a human's normally fragile memory – something he was not keen for this tired, half-destroyed girl to have to deal with for the rest of her life.
"If something happened to one of us, it would destroy her," he said gently. "Besides, she's more than capable of looking after herself." A nagging doubt threatened to overturn his mind as he awaited her response.
"Fine, okay, let's say you're right about Astaroth – although I disagree entirely," she emphasised, giving him a pointed look. Henry returned a weary, but accommodating smile. "Even if you think he doesn't care who is in her way, did you not hear a word Vicki said? She needs you. She said it herself."
"I've spent a long time trying to figure out what Vicki wants and what Vicki needs, and it's not this. She doesn't need to feel responsible in the event that something happens to you again, or to Mike, or to me. You know as well as I do that it would destroy her. That's Astaroth's style, believe me – he needs something to bargain with, and I wouldn't want her to be faced with the same impossible choice again."
"What happened to me…it wasn't her fault."
"I know that, we all do – and it's not your fault, either," he affirmed, noticing the girl's faltering tone. "But if you hadn't come back to us, she would've blamed herself."
"Yeah, I know. It's true though, she does need you. And I do too," she said quietly.
"I'm not staying permanently. I can't."
Coreen paused for a moment, staring down at the cold darkness of her drink, refusing to let Henry's words sink in. There had to be more to this – surely he couldn't just leave them now, not with a powerful demon on the loose with a penchant for pentagram-marked PIs. She looked into his cool, grey stare imploringly.
"It feels like you're running away from this," she said, standing up as she saw nothing but sorrowful regret in his eyes. "I've always respected you – you were always there for me and Vicki…and you helped me when I needed you the most. But you know something? I never thought you were a coward."
With that, she turned her back on him and began to walk briskly out of the bar, only to be stopped by a strong hand gripping her arm as she neared the doorway. She turned to face him quickly, a sort of frightened defiance crackling in her dark brown eyes, her beautiful, painful fragility in plain view as he instinctively loosened his grip.
"I'm not a coward. This was a very difficult choice, you couldn't possibly understand," Henry growled, angered with her flippant comment, but quickly stopped himself as he was reminded of the broken girl in front of him.
She turned around to face him, arms crossed and lips pursed. "Try me."
Before he could stop it to save face, he breathed a long sigh.
"It's…difficult to explain. I'd rather not go into it just now, Coreen. In any case, I'm still here – for now," he added, noticing a hopeful smile flit across the girl's formerly stern features. "But I can't stay around forever."
"That's just it," she persisted. "You can."
This time he smiled kindly, more aware than ever of Coreen's rose-tinted view of his life. "Literally speaking yes, but in every other sense…I don't think I can. Now," he said, eager to change the subject as he gently maneuvered the girl towards the entrance. "I've got to go. There are…things I need to attend to."
She looked at him for a moment, puzzled, until he raised his eyebrows, giving her a pointed look.
"Oh…right," she said as the penny finally dropped. "You've got to – um," she stumbled, struggling to find an appropriate euphemism.
"Exactly," Henry replied. He looked at her with a serious expression once more. "Are you going to be alright getting home?"
"Sure, I've been home a lot later than like 8.30 you know."
"Well then, take care of yourself."
"As always," she said quietly as they ascended to the street above. "But remember, I'm still not –" She looked around to find that Henry had vanished into the dark night air. "Why does he always do that?" she whispered to herself as, with a long sigh, she began her journey along the brightly lit sidewalk and headed home.