“You don’t want to have a peek at it, boss?” Flint drawled, waving the jewel airily.
“No, just put it back. And don’t touch anything else.” As he spoke, John’s radio gave a horrendous screech before crackling into a dead silence that echoed strangely in his ears. He rapped the casing with a knuckle, but it didn’t even buzz. Dead. At least that solved that issue.
John spared a quick glance up at the security cameras, trying to make it as surreptitious and casual as possible as he wondered what its electronic eye saw. He never saw signs of the bank’s least-known trio when he manned the cameras, but without having a second person who could confirm where they were, he didn’t know if that was due to a failing of the technology or simply inactivity. The ghosts didn’t seem to need to be active in the same way as living people, but it seemed odd they would only be active when he was around. Which raised the question: what would Mitch see if he looked at the screens right now?
John apparently talking to himself, certainly, but that was easy enough to explain away. Or lean in to, if he wanted that sort of reputation. Would he see a gemstone apparently floating in mid-air, though, or would Flint’s proximity mask it?
Cowboy hat tilted jauntily atop his ragged chestnut hair, Flint whistled cheerfully and turned back to the door. The gem glittered as he tossed it from one hand to the other, and John found himself watching it as it flashed and danced hypnotically.
“Darn!” Slipping between Flint’s deft fingers, the crystal dropped the the floor and skittered across the concrete towards John. Some distant part of his mind worried that the stone might get scratched, that the owner would notice and raise a fuss. That someone might review today’s security tapes, notice his strange behaviour, get him reprimanded. Or fired. But this John, the rational, normal John, seemed to be behind a thick glass partition, muffled and inconsequential. The John in the driving seat of his body had much simpler thoughts.
He wanted to pick up the gem.
“Sorry, sorry!” Flint wrung his hands as John bent, reaching for the stone. Threads of gold ran through its deep brown sides, gleaming brighter than could be put down to reflection from the overhead lights. In fact, that wasn’t the only thing odd about the crystal. It seemed to John, still far away and detached, that there was some heaviness to the rock, a weight that had nothing to do with its size and everything to do with presence. It distorted space around itself like a gravity well, drawing him in closer and closer—
Eyes wide, John’s head snapped up as the two halves of his mind smashed back together, leaving him dizzy and with a dull, throbbing ache behind his right temple.
“What are you looking at?” Mitch edged past him to peer at the stone. John quickly straightened up, wiping his hand on the bottom of his shirt in an attempt to dispel the sudden slick, oily sensation that coated his hand. With a flick of his foot, praying that it wouldn’t further damage the customer’s property, John sent it skidding across the floor. Sharp pain and a searing sensation of cold deadened his foot for a moment as it made contact with the stone, and he was momentarily distracted from answering Mitch as he tried to stand on a foot that felt totally numb.
“Oh, uh... just a pebble. Nothing important.” The stone passed straight through Mack, who shot him a dirty look through a fog of cigar smoke, and clattered to a stop against the corridor’s skirting board.
Mitch clapped a hand onto John’s shoulder, making the smaller man wince with the force as his shoulder-mounted radio bit hard into his shoulder.
“I’ll pick it up anyway. God forbid old Senior-Security-Sir-Grumpsalot find a single thing out of place when he comes in for opening.”
“Haha. Yeah...” John’s eyes flicked between the stone and Mitch, an uneasy feeling rising in his gut. Possibly his lunch, the tuna being just the wrong side of fresh, but his mentor kept telling him to trust his gut and his foot still felt tingly.
“I’ll grab it. Don’t worry about it, Mitch.”
Face clipping distressingly through Deidre’s lace-ruffled chest, Mitch gave him a sardonic smile from where he was half-bent over the stone, hand outstretched. For the barest of moments, John could have sworn the gem looked pitch black, but when he blinked cheerful golden highlights once again played over its auburn surface.
“But I’m already all the way over here,” he said as he scooped the stone up.
John couldn’t have properly articulated what he expected to happen as Mitch’s fingers closed around the crystal. Something horrific - fire, light, an inhuman cackling from another dimension. Certainly something more foreboding than the vast expanse of... nothing much. The gem glinted as Mitch tossed it up and caught it again, sending shards of golden light dancing over the walls. Instinctively, John pressed himself a little closer to the wall as Mitch approached, walking straight through a growling Thunderbolt. John half expected to feel the stone’s icy aura surrounding Mitch as he headed past him, towards the stairs and freedom from the suddenly claustrophobic closeness of the concrete walls, but all he felt was the slight warmth of Mitch’s hand and the roughness of his uniform fabric as they brushed past one another.
Mitch was examining the stone, tilting it to catch the light, then returning to casually tossing and catching it. “It’s pretty, isn’t it? Looks a bit like tiger’s eye.”
“Maybe?” John leaned against the wall, hoping that it looked nonchalant. His chest felt tight and worry was still chasing adrenaline through his veins, making his heart stutter and race. “I’m no geologist.”
“So it’s not one of your... uh, occult thingies? No special significance to tiger’s eye?” The tail end of Mitch’s question carried a grating, harsh tone that John put down to thinly-veiled mockery. He bit back a sigh; he supposed it had only been a matter of time before Mitch started making fun of him too. Well, it had been nice while it lasted.
“Oh, you know. Good for protection. Holds good luck. Focussing the mind. Stuff like that.” He did his best to sound airy, lighthearted, to hide the combination of residual anxiety and betrayal roiling in his gut. “If you clear out any stragglers upstairs, I’ll finish up down here, okay?”
“Sure, sure.” John breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the conversation that caught in his throat when he realised he hadn’t heard any retreating footsteps. He turned to see Mitch still standing in the middle of the corridor, rolling the gemstone idly in his hand. Back and forth, back and forth it went, golden-hued galaxies shifting in its depths.
“Mitch?” John felt a cold sweat break out on his back, and the hairs on his arms prickled to attention. His heart, just returned to its normal cadence, jumped back to a rapid staccato rhythm. “You going to lock up upstairs?”
“Sure.” There it was again, a gravelly, rough undertone to Mitch’s usual lilting voice. Some hard, sharp edge hidden in the velvet softness. It wasn’t disdain. John glanced at the stone again. Pulled his gaze sharply away from its hypnotic movement.
His body shied away without conscious intervention as Mitch raised his head, revealing eyes with slit pupils set in ocean-blue irises. Blackness crept inky tendrils from the edges of the sclera, until the whole white was consumed.
John stepped backwards.
“That is not normal.”
“Yes, thank you for your insight, Flint, but what is it?!”
Mitch stepped towards him, matching John step for step.
“We should stop bumping gums and try laying a patch before he gets his elbows greased for some grabbing. Flint, you got your piece?” Mack’s impenetrable vernacular was a mystery for another day, but John felt he’d mostly got the gist of it. Maybe it was the adrenaline spiking through his brain improving his thought processes, or maybe he was just hearing what he wanted to hear, but he couldn’t have agreed more with Mack’s suggestion.
He could also see a problem.
“I’d love to, Mack, but he’s between me and the door.”
The click of a round being chambered in an old-fashioned hand-gun echoed down the corridor. A chill rattled down John’s spine as he stepped backwards, through Mack, and he found himself staring at pinstriped shoulders pulled tight and tensed. Her feet were spread just enough to steady herself, and she didn’t turn her head to acknowledge him at all.
“You lotta wisenheimers cheese it, and I’ll see how he feels about lead shot.”
“You can’t shoot him!”
Mack snorted with laughter, a billow of smoke furling around her head. “What, you think the cowboy here’s gonna do it? Couldn’t handle a shot of whiskey, let alone a gun.”
“Hey now, you can’t just go insulting people like that!” An affronted Flint spluttered at Mack’s back as they took another step backwards. In the cowboy’s arms, Thunderbolt was yapping with all the might a tiny fluffball dog with no lungs to speak of could bring to bear, his beady eyes fixed on Mitch’s approaching form. Blackened marks appeared where Mitch had stepped, spreading out from the imprints like tarry water seeping across a floodplain. Tendrils were snaking up the walls and oozing beneath the door to the security deposit box room.
“I mean, you can’t shoot him! He’s— I mean, would it even work?!” John had seen the ghosts move things and had seen them pass straight through walls, people, and, in one case that resulted in an especially stern talking to, bathroom cubicle doors. But he’d never seen anything they weren’t actively engaged with respecting the physical constraints of the mortal world. Playing cards were one thing, but bullets...
“Looks like a spiritual issue to me, you ninny. Or does your pal routinely secrete what looks like a port-side sailor’s bilge water vomit?”
“No, but-“ Any attempt to explain that he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of allowing anyone to shoot anyone else, regardless of the tangibility of the bullets, was cut off by a harsh whisper from Deidre.
“Shush young man, and you just let Mack do what she needs to do while we get out of this predicament.”
“Hate to admit, ma’am, but the sheriff does have a point. That there varmint does appear to be slap bang between us and the nearest exit, and while I’m not so keen on being labelled a yellow-bellied craven I’m also not gagging to be touching that there thing. And all things aside, can’t say I’d want to be between the city-slicker and her target either, in case of wild fire.”
“Shove it, ‘Quickdraw’,” spat Mack, the sarcasm imbued in the nickname so thick it was nearly visible in the smoke swirling around her head.
“That’s not the only door here, lovies.”
John’s brow furrowed. “Uh, I’m pretty sure it is.”
“Nonsense. I’ve been here longer than you, dearie, and I think I know a thing or two about this old place. After all, I did help my husband build it. Come along now.”
John cast a look back at the shuffling Mitch, whose body moved in a jerky, stop-motion kind of way as he shambled towards them. His mouth hung open, needle sharp teeth too long and too numerous, the jaw hanging loosely almost down to his chest. The lips stretched too far, almost round the sides of his head, but the slitted eyes were focussed and burned with intent. He met John’s gaze, and a blast of winter chill helped John make his decision.
“Lead on, Deidre.”
Moving with shocking speed for a lady that would have been on death’s doorstep had she not crossed the threshold and made herself comfortable in a rocking-chair by his fireplace, Deidre scuttled away down the corridor away from the monstrosity that was Mitch. Flint and John raced after her, nearly piling face first into the wall as they rounded the corner.
Regaining his bearings, John made to continue but stopped dead at the sight of Deidre standing sedately by a small green door set in the wall. Even compared to her stoop-shouldered frame, the door was short, and it seemed to be covered in a deep material that, weirdly, put John in mind of pool tables. The most striking thing about the door, though, was that it hadn’t existed before now.
“Come on, come on, dearies. Let’s get on.”
The door swung open at Deidre’s touch, releasing a slightly damp, mouldering smell like old brickwork and wet iron, accompanied by a momentary impression of movement, skirts rustling, and the subdued murmur of many voices chattering. Beyond the door was darkness.
John hesitated. “Where did this come from? Why is it here?”
Flint passed through him with a momentarily chill, his voice sounding oddly muffled as he stepped into the darkness. Nonetheless, John made out his words clearly enough. “It’s coming.”
Beside him, holding the door open, Deidre gave John a small smile. Her dimples nearly vanished within the creases of her face, and behind the thin metal rims of her glasses her eyes sparkled.
“We needed them for the servants, of course.”
A sensation of cold fingers dragging claws down his spine, rattling along his vertebrae and seeping ice into his bones, announced the approach of what had once been Mitch. What might still be Mitch. John didn’t know if his friend was still in there or not, if he could be rescued. What he did know was that if he didn’t take this chance, whether Mitch was still alive or not would be moot.
As the green door swung shut behind him, the first gunshot echoed in his ears.