Shown on Page (things clearly told to the reader):
Frequent swearing, sexism, blasphemy, casual sex, binge drinking, speculative and unconventional biblical interpretations, toxic masculinity, frank references to masturbation, urination, farting, fouling ones clothes, anxiety, feelings of disorientation, panic and claustrophobia, public vomiting, horrific human transformations, people being killed, magic, air travel, fantastical monsters, portrayals of angels, blood, urine, faeces, vomit, aggressive interrogation of Christian doctrine and that of other Abrahamic religions, guns, flippancy about the egos of divine beings, misogynistic language
Gore, gratuitous violence, bleeding from the eyes, ears, anus and mouth, exploding / harm to animals, tattooing / needles, contemplation of suicide, supernatural creatures killing and eating humans, murder, dead bodies, mutilation, torture, car crashes, people being shot, graphic injury detail, shooting and gun fights
Alluded to (things only mentioned in passing or hinted at):
References to drug use, mugging, falling down stairs, nails being dragged down a blackboard
References to human trafficking, injury and unpleasant deaths, brief references to the 9/11 and 7th July terrorist attacks, references to cruelty to animals and animal sacrifice
A secret organization is losing the battle to maintain the empathy levels that sustain our planet’s barriers against the nightmare worlds.
Meanwhile, a young aristocrat safeguards a terrible secret, sponsoring an archaeology graduate obsessed with biblical artefacts. An all-knowing orphan worshiped by a cult joins a textbook exemplar of toxic masculinity and an introverted librarian. Together with a retired demon hunter, they’ll face the apocalypse.
Well, That Escalated Quickly • Debunking Time Team • Demons, Found Family and Nando’s
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0BYB931R6/
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Ben: Places Betwixt
I buy Matt dinner in a cheap Thai restaurant that we both like. It’s one of the things I love about London – you can get good food, cheaply, if you know where to look. The other week I came across a Nicaraguan restaurant and popped in for an awkward solo dinner. I mean, I had to look up where Nicaragua was when I was browsing the menu, but the food was delicious. Anyway, the staff in this place know me, or at least recognise me because I tend to bring my generally abortive first dates along and order pints of apple juice because otherwise I drink too quickly when I’m nervous. It’s decent, affordable, café-style and for some reason the noise doesn’t bother me as much as in other places.
That’s the thing about familiarity. Once you know a place, everything feels a bit safer.
Matt slurps his way through a noodle soup and some Pad thai, demolishing three beers in the process. The owner, a tiny, elderly, wrinkled matron laughs at him and whispers in my ear at one point when he’s in the bathroom.
“Your friend has great energy,” she says, eyes glinting. “We like him.”
“I’m sorry,” I laugh. “I think you’re in a minority.”
“He is a good man,” she insists. “But too big, I think, for this place.”
And with that, Matt crashes out of the bathroom proving her point. Despite being in central London, which is usually well-equipped with facilities, this place has a toilet the size of a shoe cupboard and I also usually end up banging my head or my elbows before, during or after peeing. Matt sits down, making the chair creak as the proprietor slips back to the counter.
“What was that, Ben? Is she going to give us free fortune cookies?”
I sigh theatrically. “Matt, fortune cookies are Chinese. We’re in a Thai restaurant.”
“They’re actually American,” he says, giving his best Ben Kingsley impression.
I laugh in spite of myself and shake my head, turning back to my spicy beef. Once we’ve finished up – and after I thank the staff profusely for their general patience and the distinct lack of kicking us out however close it is to their closing time – we find a shitty chain bar for a quick drink. Or rather, we stand in a queue with tourists and students for longer than anyone should, for overpriced craft beers lacking much in the way of ‘craft’.
It gets close to midnight and I pull Matt away from a girl he’s bothering, despite him swearing blind that he’s ‘making progress’ and ‘they could be soulmates’, the latter claim much less serious than the former.
Outside, he shuts up and we head north up Charing Cross Road before reaching the relative quiet of New Oxford Street.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, this part of London has always seemed like a place betwixt to me. The British Museum looms not far away, the law districts of Holborn and Temple to the south and east. Tottenham Court Road, with its bright lights, Soho with the aforementioned food and its bars, both lie to the west, but this part of town is a bit of a limbo. We pass a Travelodge, a family standing outside looking at a paper map. There’s a cycling shop, a super-healthy café, some offices, but nothing binds it all together in the way that other parts of London seem to have coherence.
I’m nervous. It’s a perennial condition, but I’m more nervous than usual, even with Matt next to me. I have to keep stopping myself from worrying at a hangnail.
I turn the corner, the street lights a bright orange against the stark white strip lighting of the serviced office next to me. The next building is the one I want. A grand reception, high ceilings, polished wooden beams overhead, a variety of fabric chairs and sofas contorted into what I can only imagine to be an awkward and uncomfortable foyer to wait in, unless you’re the kind of smoothie-guzzling hipster that these places were built to house, MacBook and iPhone at the ready.
I have neither, obviously. Not really my vibe.
I hesitate for a moment before pushing on the revolving door.
I glance down to the other end of the room where a bored-looking security guard sits at a desk. Spots me. Hits a button.
I push again and this time, get through.
The walk to the front desk is long and awkward. I glance around. There’s a small café on the left-hand side, magazines arranged neatly on the tables.
The guard is middle-aged, male, and has thinning brown hair and a moustache. He’s got the logo of a security company emblazoned on his regulation jacket.
“Uh, no,” I start, my voice feeling thin and inadequate for the distance still between us. “I’m here to see ... uh ... I was given this?”
I fish the golden token out of my pocket and, closing the distance between us, lay it on the desk. The guy behind the desk looks at it as if I’ve deposited a small turd there instead of the coin.
“First floor, room 105. You’d better hurry up, you’re late.”
He jerks his head to one side and I follow his gaze to a sign for stairs, then awkwardly try to retrieve the coin, my sweaty hand unable to prise it off the desk until I give up and sweep it into my other hand.
Without turning to look at Matt, I hurry through the door.
It’s barely closed before he guffaws behind me.
“Shit, Ben,” he says, too loudly for my liking. “Congratulations. Honestly, I thought you were going to freak out and shit yourself.”
It sounds nasty, but actually, that’s a compliment coming from Matt and in all honesty, his ‘business as usual’ behaviour calms me down a bit. If he’s ever sensitive, then I know I’m in serious trouble.
Halfway up the regulation office stairs, I turn and give him the finger.
“Wasn’t far off,” I admit. “I thought he was going to tell me to fuck off and call the police.”
“He was going to tell you to fuck off and call the police?” Matt screws up his face. “Am I still hungover or something? You usually make more sense than this.”
I shake my head and laugh. “Wanker.”
“More often than you know.”
Yuck. Trying to push that image from my mind, I open the door to the first floor and look around, seeing a door marked ‘105’ just down the hall. It’s not a terrible office block; some of them are small and awfully dull, but this is fairly light and looks like someone has actually paid attention to the decor.
I pause outside. Should I knock?
Fortunately, Matt’s patience with my high-functioning anxiety expires and he pushes in front of me, powering through the door into the room beyond. I crane my neck to see around him, then hurriedly follow him in.
It’s a classroom. Or at least, it seems to be a classroom. There are desks, with a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds sat at them, and an older guy sat behind a table at the front. It reminds me of the one time I took an Open University course and went to a tutorial at the college near my parents’ house: awkward. Course was great, mind you. Criminology – would recommend it.
I babble when I’m nervous. You might have noticed that already.
“Good, good,” the guy at the front says. He’s tall and well-built, with black hair in tight curls. “Welcome. I’m Luke. You must be Jack’s friends. Please, have a seat and we’ll begin.”
Thankfully, everyone has done the decidedly non-British thing and sat at the front, so Matt and I slink in without too much fuss and sit at the back.
“Welcome,” Luke begins. “You’re all here because you’ve been chosen for the second stage of a recruitment process. I apologise if some of this seems esoteric and obscure, and some of you will have been told more than others, but I assure you, by the end of this evening, you’ll have a good idea if this is the kind of career that you’d be interested in. And trust me – it is not for everyone, so if that’s you, thank you for attending, be discreet, and don’t take the leaflet.”
There’s a ripple of laughter, but I’m more confused than ever.
“Two weeks ago,” Luke begins without further ado. “A young woman took a wrong turn on the way to meet her Uber driver and ended up in a small park off an alleyway not far from here. She was sexually assaulted and eventually killed.”
A collective sound of concern ripples through the room and Matt looks at me. I realise that he still thinks this is an art thing like I told him, then find myself grinning. It’ll make up for one of the many times that he’s pranked me.
I shrug and try to make out this is all as it should be.
“A team of Gardeners was dispatched three days later and closed the small rift that the act caused. Unfortunately, they missed the Darkling that was left behind. Now, can anyone tell me what a Darkling is?”
A team of what? Did he say Gardeners? A Darkling?
This is strange.
A guy at the front in a black jacket puts his hand up. He’s really much too pale to wear a jacket like that, especially under these lights, but if I was feeling uncharitable – which I am – I’d guess he thinks it makes him look like a badass.
“Yes, thank you,” our teacher says, pointing at him.
“It’s a spirit,” he says with an accent that I’d place somewhere near Southend.
“Yes, quite right. A spirit that feeds off terror, more to the point. In self-defence, Darklings release some of that terror, allowing them to flee. They are generally non-corporeal, meaning what?”
“They have no physical body,” the pale guy says again.
“Good. So, whatever happens, they cannot touch you, only make you feel afraid. So tonight, as part of your induction, we’re going to capture and contain the Darkling. Any questions?”
He doesn’t pause for very long. “Good – now, you’ll leave the actual capture to me, but please consider this your welcome into a different world.”
And with that, he heads out of the door, grabbing his coat. Who is this guy? What is this? And perhaps more importantly, thank you so much Jack for telling me everything I needed to know before coming along to this thing.
We’re the last people out of the room as everyone else processes down a fire escape. I get the feeling that we missed a fairly significant part of the seminar, but I swear the coin said five past twelve, and Luke did say it was the start of the session.
Matt catches my arm as we follow behind.
“Ben, this is fucking weird,” he says. “I mean, it’s like that time you took me to that Gresham thing on witchcraft. If there hadn’t been those hilarious lesbians there it would have been so boring.”
“Uh, just bear with, ok?” I stammer. “This next bit should be good.”
“Sure,” he says. “But you owe me again, ok? And if there’s one more word out of smug fucking Essex Edward Cullen, I swear to god I’ll go team Jacob on his ass.”
I think for a moment and habit takes over.
“You mean, become the eventual husband of his child? Matt, I think you should lay off the weed for a bit because that’s weird even for you.”
Matt sniggers, then I break into a snigger as well and we barely make it down the fire escape stairs behind everyone else because we’re shaking with laughter by the bottom, a girl in a fur-lined hood giving us a really, really filthy look as we catch up.
I try and focus as we pad along the side street in pairs, before hitting High Holborn, which is full of people getting lost on their way from Covent Garden to Tottenham Court Road. We cross in front of a church and for a moment I wonder where we’re going because we’re going to hit Soho soon, and nothing mysterious happens in Soho. Matt would tell you otherwise, but his definition of mystery is pretty different to mine, and usually involves women with no clothes on.
But then Luke heads down a side street and I frown. I don’t think I’ve ever been down here before and I pride myself on a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of London side streets, at least in zone one. They’re good for avoiding crowds, you see.
We all bunch up around an iron gate, which – along with a tall brick wall – bounds a small park. Luke twists a key in the padlock and unwraps the chain from around the gate. He pauses and turns around.
“Now remember,” he says in a whisper. “These things feed off terror, project consumed terror at you, and are very good at what they do. But ultimately, terror itself cannot hurt you, it cannot touch you, and within a few seconds, it will be contained. Stay quiet, stay still and everything will be fine.”
And with that, he pulls the hood of his coat up and it somehow morphs into something else. I swear he’d had a fairly regulation jacket on, but as he pulls the hood up, the change sweeps up and down the coat, lengthening it, turning it into more of a, well, kind of a cloak. It looks like there’s something underneath it, like shoulder pads, only more shaped. Everyone else does a double take, but Luke is already pushing into the park.
“Woah,” Matt says, forging ahead. “That was cool! This was worth it after all!”
Everyone except Matt forms a semi-circle around the edge of the park, and he stands in the middle, basically in front of Luke. I can’t help but feel like everyone knows quite a lot more than we do. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, other than it’s not an art class. Why on earth did a homeless guy get me into this?
A small part of my brain that I try to keep alive, despite the humdrum of London, is telling me that this is pretty cool.
I hold onto that part. Matt is always telling me I should do new things.
No-one – except Matt, of course – really wants to get too close to Luke as he slowly walks around the park, stopping in front of a cardboard box in the corner. It looks big enough to contain a homeless sleeper. Or a body.
Matt is a couple of metres away from Luke, then glances around and realises that everyone but him is a lot further back. I see him about to give a trademark ‘whaddup, dickheads?’ shrug, but then pauses and takes two steps back instead.
I kind of miss exactly how the next bit happens because I’m watching Matt, not Luke, but I do see Luke lean towards the box, hand outstretched.
Every single light around us goes out.
There’s a wave of swearing, gasping and muffled screams.
Only, it’s not just dark. It’s disorientating. I don’t know if you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night, not knowing where you are, because you’re still half in a dream. You think you’re in a hotel room, but you’re in your bed at home; you think you’re playing cards at a table with friends, but you’re in a hotel room. You feel a rising sense of panic because the geography of what you can see with your eyes doesn’t quite match up to what you can see with your mind. It’s a lot like that. I know I’m in a park, in zone one, not far from one of my spiritual homes – Forbidden Planet – but I can’t see anything. In fact, the only thing I can feel is the paving beneath my feet. I can’t breathe.
And then something rises up from the box. I can’t explain how I can see it, because it’s pitch black, only that whatever the thing is, it cuts a hole in the darkness by somehow being heavier, thicker, more present than the darkness. It’s a lengthening diamond of slick ebony, rising into the air above us. Two glowing red slits for eyes, a grim slit below for a mouth.
Two thuds to my left.
Have you ever seen that video where someone boils Coke, and what gets left behind is this black, tar-like ooze? Or that Dorothea Tanning picture, Home Light? That’s what it’s like, only airborne, spreading like an oil slick in the air.
My chest starts to tighten. A sick feeling rises in my throat and I start to get that sensation like when you’re on the verge of falling down the stairs, when you lose your balance and know you’re going to break something. Or when you’re walking home and see two guys walking towards you and you know you’re going to get mugged and there’s nothing you can do about it. It was like that, only slower, more awful. Impending disaster and complete powerlessness in the face of it.
Then the thing, the Darkling, roars, its mouth widening to show white fangs, eyes glowing more fiercely. I’m breathing in short, sharp pants and I can’t move.
The lights around the park crackle and flicker dimly, an orange haze illuminating the park. A guy and a girl on the ground not far from me push themselves up, gibbering, and run, sprinting as fast as they can, away, almost impaling themselves on the spikes of the gate in their haste. Another figure, I can’t make out who, isn’t far behind.
The Darkling grows, swells, becoming taller and broader and I feel warm piss running down my leg.
Then the Darkling freezes. There’s a sharp gesture from Luke and it suddenly disperses, fading to nothing in a second. All at once the streetlights and the lights of the buildings around us come back on.
I can’t believe it’s over. I can’t speak. I can barely breathe.
I’m glad I wore dark jeans.
“There,” Luke says, pushing his hood back; it’s a plain old jacket after all, no tricks, no shoulder pads. “The first one is always the worst. Sorry about the lights, I should have mentioned they can do that. Now, who’s still here?”
Matt is the first to get his breath back. “Fuck,” he breathes. “That was fucking awful. You guys do this for kicks? That is some ill shit.”
Luke gives him a smile. “I think you’ve got some homework to do if you want to come along again,” he says, reaching inside his jacket. “Here, have a leaflet though – you made it to the end, so you’ve passed the first two tests. You’ll be contacted again shortly as a matter of procedure.”
Wordlessly, Matt takes it. It is actually just a leaflet, a shiny, glossy, printed leaflet like you’d get from a National Trust place or a tourist information centre in the Lake District.
I look around – it’s just us left, along with the pale guy, who is busy wiping vomit off his chin.
“Great,” I say, keen to get the hell out of this place. “Uh, right, well I guess we’ve earned a drink then?”
“Sure,” Luke says, handing me and the other guy a leaflet as well. “Whatever helps best. See you around.”
And with that, he saunters out of the park and vanishes around the corner. The goth guy glances at me and spits into the flower bed, shrugging and walking out of the park and up the road in the other direction, leaving behind a vague smell of faeces. I wrinkle up my nose.
“Come on,” Matt says. “You definitely owe me a drink for that. No more art exhibitions for at least a month, ok? And I want to chain-smoke a little bit before we get into the bar. I need to get Team Edward’s shit smell out of my nose.”
Jolted back into reality, I nod. “Yeah,” I say, stumbling out of the park, trying to regain a vague semblance of poise, wondering how visible my piss-stain is and where I can find an aggressively hot hand drier. “Definitely.”
Two shots, three cigarettes and a pint later, Matt’s good humour has recovered a bit, and we stagger towards Charing Cross to get the last train. I was thankful that we’d managed to find a relatively quiet cocktail bar. I’m exhausted.
The stark brightness of the station lighting is a sharp contrast to the street, a hen party’s raucous screeches startling me. I can see Matt working up to some kind of witticism, but thankfully my train is in the platform already.
“Uh, sorry about that,” I start. “Good to see you?”
He’s looking into the distance and for a moment I see the boy I became friends with in the first week of secondary school, before he started drinking heavily, smoking and discovering the things you can do with girls. He’d been a bit nerdy, like I still am, loved Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy books, gaming, Warhammer.
“Hey Ben,” he says, with what I can only describe as a thousand-yard stare, looking both older and younger at the same time. “That was real, wasn’t it?”
I nod, not really sure of how it could possibly have been real, or what it means for almost literally everything I thought I knew about the world and how it operates. “Yeah,” I say. “Uh, yeah it was. Let’s talk in the morning, ok? I’m wiped out.”
“Sure,” he says. “Are we fucked?”
I cough and look at the train indicator.
“Usually are,” I admit, starting to head off. “Later.”
“Yeah, later,” he says softly, still a million miles away, then more loudly. “Hey Ben?”
I turn back to him from across the concourse.
“I’m in, ok? You know I’ve got your back.”
I nod and feel my eyes misting up a little. I wish I didn’t do this. “Thanks man,” I say. “I’ll catch you tomorrow.”
As my train pulls out of the station, he’s still standing there on the concourse, the eleven-year-old boy somehow staring out of the twenty-four-year-old man that he’s become.
Author Bio & Information:
I’m Matthew Samuels, a science fiction and fantasy writer based in London, UK. I’m the author of the Sci-Fi Hopepunk adventure books Parasites and Dusk, the first two books in the Navigator Series, and urban fantasy title, Small Places. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, gaming, running, walking, EDM, and oddly, also quiet.
Author Website: http://theabditory.co.uk/
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