One, two, three, four.
Beat, two, three, four.
A dirty beat, a lazy beat, a beat to settle itself beneath your skin and wriggle around for a while. The homeless guy beneath the spreading jacaranda was smacking out the rhythm on a homemade drum—an ice-cream bucket, family-sized. Vanilla.
I’d been watching for two hours, almost. Listening just as long. Hadn’t been watching the homeless guy, though I’ll admit I’d given him a glance. Decided he wasn’t quite right, then turned away. There were a lot of not-quite-right things going on, however, he wasn’t one of the ones on my list. If he wasn’t making trouble—the drumming was quite soothing—then I wasn’t going to poke around.
Meanwhile, back to the watching. I’d been staring at a space above the Brisbane River as it churned by, displaying all its forty-eight shades of brown. I couldn’t help but notice that the rapidly thinning banks were restless with animals that usually stayed in the water: frogs, toads, fish, some snakes. All looking as distinctly unhappy as such critters are able. They didn’t want to stay in their element. Something was coming and they knew it.
But it wasn’t the river I was supposed to be paying attention to and I had to remind myself of that every so often. Raise my eyes not quite skyward, just up until I could see the fracture in the hot-blue air. Not really noticeable, unless you knew what to look for. It had the vague purple blush of a healed-over scar, in fact, as if it was no longer active, no longer a threat. Like someone pretending they hadn’t produced an especially fetid burp and then taken a few steps away as if to say, It wasn’t me.
I’d have had a better view if I’d gone into the library, sat quietly in the weird viewing platform that is the Red Box, but sitting and waiting for two hours requires coffee and cigarettes. Coffee, I could smuggle in, but it’s the getting of the coffee that’s fraught—if you’re lucky, you get the good baristas, if you’re not you get the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of beverage-making. I figured my odds weren’t good.
And the cigarettes, well, speaks for itself. Next to me was a tiny mountain of butts, each with a faint imprint of pinkish lip gloss around them, as if they’d had a kiss before dying. Now all I could smell was smoke from the Alpines—which tasted a bit like chewing a car freshener made from pine needles and tobacco—and my mouth was not happy with me. Smoking was a recent affectation and I wasn’t good at it—the nicotine tended to do a tarantella under my epidermis—but it seemed like the fastest way to lose the extra kilos that had been making my relationship with my jeans combative. Me, I like fast solutions. Hey, I didn’t say it was a smart solution.
Over the bridge, in the city streets, sand was piling up. Not so you’d notice immediately, but it was definitely there. Every morning it got washed down the gutters by the street cleaners as they hummed and bustled their way through the skew-whiff checkerboard of Brisbane, down into the sewers and then into the steadily-rising river. But eventually there would be too much, too much to sweep under the carpet, so to speak. Too much to ignore. The city was shifting, shrugging, struggling with what was happening to it, but no one was really paying attention. Like most big inconvenient events, there were always warning signs and always people to pretend there weren’t. Always people to shriek in the aftermath about the things we didn’t see coming. I wondered what else was on its way.
Whatever it was, apocalypse big or small, Armageddon or not, life still went on. The place still breathed and so did we—we existed, we moved, we rose and went to work, came home, ate, hugged our children, and went to sleep. Stuff still needed doing, lost items needed to be found, cases that confounded the cops still needed to be investigated by someone. And yours truly still needed to pay the bills.
The click of heels got my attention although it took me a moment to locate the source. Long legs, muscular and sun-bronzed, feet jammed into a pair of shoes that probably cost more than my entire outfit. Who am I kidding? More than my entire wardrobe. I’m not a fashionista—basically, clothes are just there to cover the horrible nakeds as far as I’m concerned—but I could certainly appreciate the footwear and the way it didn’t clash with the soft folds of the equally expensive dress, a triumph in golds and greens and smoky blues. There was a handbag to match the shoes—if I owned a handbag like that I’d have to live in it to justify the cost. I looked up and took in the face: all sheer angles, blonde shoulder-length hair, make-up applied so perfectly that you almost didn’t know it was there. The woman gave me a smile as she breezed past, her perfume wafting along on the wind and blood-warm air. On its heels was a stink of decay, regurgitated up from the river, I thought. I breathed shallowly for a while.
My natural low-level jealousy was tempered by the knowledge that I would never have the energy required to go into that level of personal maintenance. Or the money. I didn’t begrudge her and she was a bright relief on an otherwise bankrupt kind of a day.
The rhythm of the drumming had picked up and I pitched a glance towards the homeless guy. Nope, nothing happening there, just a burst of enthusiasm for the tune. He shook his head from side to side, a dog distracted by nothing in particular, the shredded scarf he’d wrapped around his bearded face flapped gaily like ribbons on a maypole. His lips had curved into a slight smile and his eyes were closed. Yep, transported.
‘Fassbinder, I’m fairly sure,’ came a clipped voice, ‘that you’re not supposed to be here.’
‘I’m a member of the public,’ I said evenly. ‘This is the State Library, belonging to the people of the state. I’m one of them. Until I get a repo notice, I’ll continue to visit as and when I please.’
She was young, Sammi Bernhoff, new to her position of authority and she hadn’t quite worked out how to deal with people like me. I wasn’t going to make it easy on her. To be fair, she’d been very new at her job a few months back and had witnessed an incident in which I was involved; books were damaged, people were slightly singed and the tea cup collection on the Queensland Terrace was irreparably, errr, diminished. Back in the old days, librarians had been able to turn evildoers to ash with a single glare. Apparently no one was left to teach the new ones the knack. Bernhoff tried for a good few seconds to get the upper hand, but it was never going to work—an old school book ninja would have kicked my arse in the blink of an eye. Amateurs.
I looked upwards to the Terrace, imagining I could see one of the few pieces of porcelain that had survived my activities, a large vase, willow pattern blue and white. Once upon a time, it was as ubiquitous as steak knives in Australian households; now the leftovers of Nanna’s crockery were as scarce as hen’s teeth. I suspected if the vase hadn’t remained intact, I might not have made it out of the library alive.
An added complication: we’d dated the same guy at the same time. The relationship didn’t stick, but the animosity did.
Sammi did something with her mouth that in a three year old would definitely be a pout, but in a twenty-something just looked pathetic, and leaned against the wall I was sitting on. Fidgeting with her security pass, she looked at me sideways. Her hands, on the pass, used its sharp edge to clean the dark moons of dirt from underneath her nails.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Detecting. It’s what I do.’
‘Person or thing?’
‘Dead or alive?’
‘Well, what do you know? I’m trying to be helpful.’
I blew out a breath. ‘Sorry, that’s just such a new thing, I’m not sure how to react.’
She swore and pushed herself off the wall, made to stomp away. I put out a hand, gave her forearm a light touch and she stopped. I couldn’t quite bring myself to apologise—not my forté, so I just told her straight, about the scar in the sky, the changes in the city, about the rising river, the call from the cop who’s a little dirty, a little useless, and the disappearing families. I told her I was looking for clues and I was coming up empty.
‘Whole families?’ she asked and I nodded.
‘Except one—kid was away for a couple of weeks over the holidays. Came home to an empty house.’ I’d spoken with the girl but she had nothing to offer, so whatever happened had been done after she’d left home.
‘Nothing’s been found?’
I shook my head, then lifted my chin towards the break above the water.
‘But someone saw the rupture, saw it tear and saw something tumble through. Something gleaming and fast and formless that bolted out of sight very quickly.’
‘Who reported it?’
‘Came up in the daily dispatches, some drunk got moved along by the cops while he rambled and ranted about this light, star in the east, et cetera. No one worried about it until the disappearance came up—five families that they know of so far. Your friend and mine, Detective Constable Burleigh decided there might be a link—it was beyond his ken, but someone should do something about it.’
‘You’re on his speed dial?’
‘I don’t imagine much Burleigh does involves speed, but yeah. He’s caught up in this little girl lost case and, I’m quoting, “Doesn’t have time for this weird fricking shit.”’ I thought about sparking up another cigarette but decided I was already sufficiently twitchy. ‘And look at you, all interested in the super-unnatural.’
‘You think you’re the only one noticing oddities? You think freaky shit isn’t happening here?’ She cast a look up at the library’s strange bulk, then leaned over to whisper, ‘The books are moving.’
‘And they’re changing. The text—it’s shifting. This morning I found chunks of Pride and Prejudice in Patrick White’s The Vivisector.’ She shook her head. ‘I just don’t know what to do about them.’
Privately I thought the change could only improve White’s work, but kept that to myself. Bernhoff was being helpful and I should try really hard not to alienate her, at least at the moment. I pulled out my wallet and flipped through the collection of cardboard slips, then handed over a sepia-toned one. The librarian took it as if it might bite.
‘Maybe they can help.’
‘“The Library of Lost Books”,’ she read out, eyebrows shooting up so high they disappeared into her hairline.
‘Sometimes they can . . . fix things. Find books, reset books that have gone out of whack, make others a bit more . . . fluid in their contents. Tell Sukie I sent you.’ I stood, resisted the urge to knead my backside, which had gone to sleep during my watch. ‘Good luck with it.’
‘Your problem? Go to the Security Office—they’ll have the tapes from around the library. Tell them I sent you.’ She winced a bit at that. ‘You might pick up something there. Probably not.’
‘But maybe. Thanks.’
If it hadn’t been for the coffee I wouldn’t have seen it.
I’d watched the tape five times, seen the flash and split of the rent in the air, seen the silvery birthing tumble and streak away along the river bank until it disappeared under the boardwalk, heading in the direction of South Bank. I reached out to hit replay yet again, caught the side of the coffee cup and almost sent it over. I managed to save the situation with only minimal brown splodges on the desk and keyboard. And looking down, trying to mop up, I caught sight of her in the lower right-hand corner of the monitor. A flicker of a red dress passing, not hers, and then the face.
Lucy Faith Armistead, the girl who came back to nothing.
The little girl, all alone.
I checked the date stamp on the screen—just over two weeks ago, the day before she went to camp. She was just in shot, walking along, her face turned towards the river, just before the flash. Smiling at someone just out of sight—family member? Someone else?
At any rate, I needed to talk to her again.
Lucy’s aunt answered the door.
We’d met the last time I spoke to her niece and she didn’t seem to mind letting me in. In fact, she did it so unquestioningly that little cold fingers touched my neck and darted down my back. I shook them off, tried for a name. Anna. Anna Armistead, Lucy’s father’s sister. Her eyes were underscored with dark circles. Ordinary loss hits people hard enough, but the kind of eldritch loss she’d suffered . . . well, recovery wasn’t easy and took a long time. The little girl would never see her parents or three siblings again. There might not be time enough in the world for her.
‘Lucy’s out the back, playing,’ she offered. ‘The police woman’s there too.’
‘I need to talk to her again. I’m really sorry—I know you’re trying to help her forget and move on.’ And I was sorry—I’d been through enough myself to know that forgetting was an unlikely balm. ‘I need to ask her about the day she went to the library.’
Anna blinked, nodded. ‘They went there the day before she left for camp. They always did family stuff before anyone went away. Just in case . . . ’
‘Has she said anything? Remembered anything?’
She shook her head. ‘She just wakes up crying in the middle of the night.’
I gently pushed past her, uncertain what to say, and made my way along the carpeted hallway that opened up into a kitchen, which then spilled out onto a wide back deck. I walked to the edge of the deck, leaned against the rail and peered down into the yard, picking out the bright green and yellow swing set—too new, screaming of trying too hard to be cheerful.
In the deceptive dusk light, I could see Lucy sitting on the swing, not moving any more than the merest hint of a sway. She was staring, staring down at someone crouched in front of her, someone with long, long reddish-blonde hair, jeans and a floaty crème top. On the ground beside the figure, a large orange handbag, big enough to fit a few small, yappy dogs in. Not police-issue.
I started down the stairs, the cold fingers making themselves known again. ‘Lucy?’
I know that yelling out when you’re sneaking up on someone is counterproductive, but something primal forced the noise out of me, even though immediately afterwards I wanted to swallow the sound. Sometimes, we do dumb things. Sometimes we just want to give the darkness a chance to run away from us. The figure shot up, not tall, turned around and gave me a brief glimpse of a pale face scattered with golden freckles, thick-rimmed glasses, a slash of a mouth pulled into a snarl. Her features were pretty enough in a geek-girl kind of way, but with an almost-round head perched on wide shoulders, barely a hint of a neck.
Then a bend of the knees, long fingers curling around the handle of the tote and a leap towards the fence, a scramble of boots and arse and legs, until she disappeared over and into the next yard. The sound of a dog barking, then whimpering in fear, then more scrambling over another nice middle-class family-home fence, and so on until the sound of something tidying up loose ends dropped away.
I crouched in front of the little girl, taking up the space where the visitor had been and looked up into the child’s face.
Eyes dark as death, the skin of her face wrinkled as any British Museum mummy, lips parted, striated like dried figs, cheekbones standing out like a relief map, nostrils gaping wide. The breaths issuing from her mouth were shallow, hot and arid. I felt my heart turn small in my chest, constricting at the idea that there was nothing I could do. I held her tiny hands and watched, watched for I don’t know how long until the exhalations became moist once more, the skin smoothed, the features filled out, and she struggled to pull her fingers away from my grip. I let her go, waiting for the horror to die in her eyes, for her to calm down and remember me well, and not as a threat.
When her lips, pink and full once more, opened and she began to cry, she let me gather her up and hold her while she shook, wiping her nose on her pink Hello Kitty t-shirt.
Up on the deck, immobile and lost, Anna watched helplessly.
That was okay.
I had a scent. I had an idea. I needed an ally.
‘Is the kid okay?’ Burleigh sounded like he’d been drinking for a while. I kind of hoped that was just the effect of long hours looking for the lost girl, Charlie, and not from hugging a bottle. Charitable isn’t my default setting, but I decided to give it a go.
‘Yeah. Got her and her aunt stashed in a safe house and I’ve got people watching the place.’ Strictly speaking, the Ottoman Motel wasn’t a safe house, but it did have a lot of occupants who (a) owed me, and (b) had more than one eye in the back of their collective heads. And those folk weren’t the sort to run in the face of a possible mini-apocalypse—in fact, an apocalypse was likely to make them feel right at home, so I felt fairly sure that Lucy and Anna would be safe from any second attempts on the kid’s life.
I’d questioned her closely, but she’d had nothing more to tell me. I’d been coming at it all wrong—I thought she’d seen something, but that wasn’t it at all. What had come through—and I knew what it was now—had seen her. Had seen the whole family and worked out that that was the place to start. Followed them home, waited, and watched, but in waiting it had missed Lucy. Then moved on to other families—just how many we couldn’t be sure—and gone back for Lucy. Say what you will, but cuckoos are thorough; it’s all or nothing. It only takes one to work its way through a city, tunnelling through the population as efficiently as a mole undermines a field.
And it shouldn’t have been here. Shouldn’t have been able to get through. Apart from the fact they were supposed to be extinct—a quick call to Sukie told me that. But whatever was going on in the city was weakening the walls between, making the barriers thin, making a breach between us and the space in-between, the howling void where bad things live, easier and easier.
‘Okay. That’s okay then.’
‘No, Burleigh, it’s fucking not okay.’ Which was what I’d been explaining to him for fifteen minutes. ‘This thing eats its way through families.’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, like one of those succubus things.’
‘No, not like that. This thing isn’t after sex. It wants attention. All the attention anyone might ever focus on anything—this thing wants it all. It will sit in front of a person and suck everything out of them just for the buzz of utter, concentrated, undivided attention. That’s why their mothers leave them in other nests. Get out of your fucking concrete midden and get moving!’
‘But there’s just one. It’s going to have to wait, Fassbinder. I’ve got every bastard breathing down my neck about this lost kid. Even that arse of a Premier was on the phone, trying to tell me my fucking job. Chances are, I’m here today, gone tomorrow. This thing, this weird shit, is just going to have to wait in line.’
I was silent, long enough to reign in my temper and long enough for him to think twice about pissing me off too much.
‘Look,’ he said, paused, started again. ‘Look: you take care of this. Do whatever you have to and I will cover your arse. Just make it go away, okay? Just do it.’
I hung up without thanking him for the carte blanche. Burleigh wasn’t a bad guy, and he wasn’t the worst copper I’d dealt with. He was just lazy and unprepared for the kinds of bizarre he was having to handle. Like most people he just preferred to ignore the things that didn’t fit into the everyday. I, apparently, had no such option. I was the go-to-girl for weird shit.
I headed back towards the library precinct. As I got closer I could hear the rhythm of the ice-cream bucket drum, still going strong. It gave me hope and I picked up my pace.
‘I can’t believe you talked me into this.’
I’m not a patient woman, and hearing this for the tenth time was wearing away at my nerves. Still, I gritted my teeth and said, ‘And I appreciate it. And you won’t regret it. You’re helping me and you’re helping Burleigh, and you’re helping the city. It’s all good.’
‘How is this all good? How the fuck is this all good?’ she hissed. ‘If anything happens to that thing, my boss will skin me alive.’
I knew her boss, and yeah, there was a good chance Mona would do precisely that and use the skin to cover a book. Beside Sammi was the blue and white vase, recently liberated from the Queensland Terrace by her own fair hand; next to it, a Collins diary, A5, to act as a lid when required. On the concrete expanse between us (crouched down behind a combination of drought-resistant shrubs and some brickwork barriers) and where the land drops away to the boardwalk and the black ribbon of the river, was a small figure, standing solitary in the pool of light from one of the street lamps.
A tiny piece of dangling bait, tethered by the circle of yellow, and wearing a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt.
Christ, I hoped it worked.
Normally at that time there’d be people wandering around, stealing the wi-fi in the library atrium, stealing kisses in the shadows that embrace the building, but not then, and not for a lot of nights in a row. People might have been pretending everything was okay, but that didn’t mean they wanted to venture outside into the darkness. I was listening so hard to the silence that my ears ached.
Then, click, click, click.
My tiny scapegoat’s head tilted, just a little, but she kept her face down, shadowed. I think I saw her shake, but couldn’t be sure; maybe just my imagination.
From the opposite direction, click, click, click.
And the smell: expensive perfume with an undercurrent of rot, a limning of decay. I recognised it from the elegant woman that morning and from the backyard of Anna Armistead’s house. Two women, one scent. It was how they recognised each other, mother to daughter. Two of them; it was how they could cover so much ground, so quickly, so many families.
Terrible, horrible efficiency all converging on one fragile lure.
The clicking sound was doubled; quadrupled. Not just the tap-tap-tap of heels, but voices, clicks and whirs of greeting and greed, anticipation. I elbowed Sammi, breaking her out of her staring trance, and she passed me the vase, whispering ‘Be careful’.
I mouthed fuck off but it was too late. Even her softest whisper had alerted the cuckoos, their heads swivelling, searching. It didn’t slow them down, though, they kept moving towards the bait, faster and faster, long fingers reaching, eyes growing larger, gleaming yellow, lips sliding back, ready to begin the process of draining every last drop of attention out of their victim. A few more steps, a few more steps, that was all I needed.
That’s when the scapegoat’s nerve broke and she released a high-pitched scream that stopped the cuckoos in their tracks. Biting down on a curse, I stood and aimed the mouth of the vase at the pair of them, hoping they were both within range of the aperture. I could hear the fetish rolling around inside the jar, anxious for company. First the mother, then the daughter, both pulled and elongated as if caught in a wind tunnel. Clothes torn and shredded, handbags and shoes flew towards me like weapons, but the vase swallowed them whole, its maw expanding to receive whatever came its way. The two cuckoos didn’t go quietly but they did go.
Bernhoff held the Collins diary over the mouth of the jar and I struggled to hold the whole construct steady as it kicked and bucked, the thing inside it warring with the captive meat, doing its work as the Maker had assured me it would. He’d stake his life on it, he’d said. Mostly I hung onto it because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to listen to the librarian whine if it got broken.
Eventually, the storm subsided. The shaking stopped and all I could feel was something slushy and heavy swirling about inside. I sat heavily on the cement; the heat of the day was still radiating up through it. Bernhoff was doing something that appeared to be a snoopy dance. The scapegoat came towards me, stubby finger pointed at me like a weapon, profanity pouring from lips that usually wore a lurid shade of purple lipstick. Sukie had agreed to forego the make-up this time and shrug on Lucy’s clothes. The scent, I had bet, would bring the cuckoos out. Sukie might only have been three foot five tall, but her temper was six foot seven. I owed her big time.
‘That was too fucking close, Fassbinder! What were you playing at?’
I thought she might just kick me while I was down, but she restrained herself, which I appreciated. Behind her the darkness split and the homeless guy loped up, grinning from ear to ear. He pointed at the vase.
‘Your ju-ju worked, so as promised, whatever’s left is yours,’ I agreed and as Sammi began to protest, I dropped the makeshift lid and gently upended the vase. A pungent mix of fleshy sludge hit the concrete, smacking like wet frogs on tiles. The smell was unique to say the least. A crop of spiders with more legs than I could count, crawled out of the meaty mess. My new friend sat down next to the shifting stinking mass and began to eat. His hands, now that I looked at them closely, had only three spade-like digits, each tipped with a shiny sharp nail.
I stood and handed the vase back to Bernhoff, who held it as far away from herself as she could as she sputtered, ‘That’s disgusting.’
I wasn’t sure if she meant the meal or the state of the vase.
‘All I promised was that it would be in one piece.’ I pulled out my phone and dialled Burleigh.
It rang out. I gave up. I guessed it could wait.
He’d probably still be here tomorrow.