THIS IS THE PLACE
You sit in the back seat, damp with the warmth of four people in close proximity, all of them radiating waves of panic and excitement. If someone asked you where you were on that spectrum as you thrum, fuelled by two cups of coffee and an apple danish, you wouldn’t be able to answer.
This is a job, rather than a caper. You weren’t above capers, copper wire from new housing projects, an unattended briefcase or a dropped wallet. Back when you were using, you needed to get that high by any means necessary which you did a lot. But it was all harmless. You rode the needle until a bad batch killed six people you knew, and another twelve you didn’t. You got clean, found that the sour smell from days without washing didn’t suit your style anymore. You started to pull jobs.
You can’t stop yourself from wondering whether this is another high you were chasing. You’re good, though. Disciplined in a way that you fear most of the other people in the car aren’t.
There’s one guy that you are afraid might be disciplined. If he’s right, then you are breaking into somewhere that a smart girl would try and pretend never existed.
Derek wears goggles, mutters to himself, smells of cut grass and soil even though you’re all in fucking Detroit. He says that he used something called a hedgepath to get across from England. He complains how weak the beer is here and you can’t look at his buttery, broken teeth for too long. Still, they’re not tweaker black, but Jay trusts him and you sort of trust Jay.
Jay brought him in because the house has a security system without wires to cut or codes to punch in. Which is why he’s here, along with you, Jay and a brick wall with eyebrows called Hudson. Hudson has a soft voice for a big man and you have to lean in to hear him. It’s when you lean close that you listen to him talk about all the hurt he’s done and you wish you hadn’t.
It’s the abandoned cars in the yard, Derek told you all.
Witch bottles were first mentioned in 1861 as countermagic. Bottles buried in the foundation of a building to protect it from magic. When he says the word ‘magic’ you stifle a giggle.
He keeps talking, you stop laughing.
The four cars, covered in rust and moss, one up on blocks with it’s wheels taken off, leaving rusted holes like eyeless sockets. Derek says that ordinary things gain power due to their history. A car is a rite of passage, a symbol of economic regeneration but it can be other things.
A coffin, say.
Don’t necessarily think of the hose pipe and closed garage method, Derek tells us, and Jay nods like he has a fucking clue what he’s talking about. Suicide is a luxury when you’re a welshed bet or a bad day away from taking a bullet. People crash their cars, and it’s not easy to tell whether it’s someone taking a call on their phone or that it’s just a matter of touching on the brake, feeling the world race past you until you come to a dead stop. Pun intended. Sure, they’ll only be able to identify you by your teeth but it’s over.
Those cars don’t tend to suit, but there’s power in the charred and twisted remains. No, people who put a gun in their mouth, take pills and vodka like that comedian’s wife you read about, their cars are useful enough. AAA rather than the reactor that a crashed car gives off. There is one of those though, which is why Derek is here.
‘So, the house is guarded by ghosts?’ you say, hardly believing it yourself.
Derek looks at you, nodding and his eyes are a hard challenge that stops you saying anything further.
‘So, they’re not junked cars, they’re guard huts, in a way.’ he says.
He can sell what it is we are going to steal. Books, written in dead languages, bound in dead flesh and he’s got buyers drooling all over the world for what he can find in there.You don’t ask what the books are about, because he starts talking numbers and even with Jay’s cut, it’s still a good score.
Too good, but Derek is entertaining and Jay says it’s okay. There’s always been weird shit in the world, and it often hides out in the worst places, where no one who matters goes. Derek came to America because there was weird shit from all over, and England was no longer Avalon. This was the place, he said.
He tells you again and taps you on the shoulder, grinning at you as he waggles his eyebrows. Shit, time to go and you slip out of the seat, Hudson and Jay will come in when it’s clear. Derek saunters, hands in his pocket, twisted cigarette jutting from the corner of his mouth, pulling his goggles down so he can see what’s really happening.
He tells you to stop. Gets out a pouch and starts to throw it ahead of him, muttering something that sounds like an old car starting up and stamping his battered boots against the sidewalk. He smiles and gestures for you to go up and start the whole thing.
It’s an old man who lives here. Hudson says that he can scare anyone. Old men live with pain, but he says that he can break a POW with a rape threat. The lock is easy and with the cars inert, it’s back to things people like you can understand.
Felony burglary. Not murder-suicide fuelled security systems.
Hudson and Jay come over, you’re stood in the kitchen. It carries the wet, stale smell of damp sawdust, too many breaths taken in too closed an environment. There is a crusty plate on the table, a loaf of bread bejewelled with mold and you fight the urge to gag at how the stink coats your nostrils with each breath. Derek grimaces as he comes in, but Jay and Hudson don’t react to it. Hudson shuts the door and you all roll down masks, except Derek.
You creep into the hallway when it all starts to go wrong. You and Derek are halfway up the stairs when you see Hudson stood with his head bowed, shoulders heaving as he holds his hand to his face, weeping without making a sound. It’s when he pulls a .22 from his pocket and presses it to his temple that your stomach flips and you fight tears at how he doesn’t fall right away. He collapses in sections and Derek is dragging you up the stairs.
Jay punches the blade of his folding knife into the soft part of his throat, digging it in and smiling as blood drips down both sides of his mouth, spraying out through his teeth as he looks at you both. Derek is stronger than he looks so you’re pulled away but the image is tattooed on you now.
The laughter comes from the room at the end of the hall. A stained, ugly voice telling you that like any security system, it can be switched off. Or, in this case, on. Derek drags you by the collar and your heels skitter against the floorboards, he’s shouting in that awful language again and tossing nails before him in panicked handfuls. Everything is speeding up and when he starts to choke, your weight pushes him onto his front and you roll over. He is laid face down against the floorboards, a puddle of blood spreading out from him. You grab the goggles from his head, and slip them on.
She walks up the stairs, hands reaching for you, her wedding gown stained with bloody vomit and her lips pulled back over her teeth. Behind her, a pair of teenagers, holding hands point at you. The man has a flap of scalp that makes his perfect D.A lurch like Donald Trump in a wind tunnel but his face is adolescent perfection.
The burning man walks behind him, and you know what the wreck closest to the house was for.
The door opens and the owner sits there, slumped in his chair. His facial muscles are forever stuck in an unpleasant grin and you start grabbing books from the shelves, the oldest looking ones. There’s a Larry McMurtry paperback you’ve not read but there’s no time and you hug them to you as you kick out the window with a desperate swing of your foot. You’re athletic by necessity more than intention, but you move through that window, desperate to live.
The goggles stay on your face and you’re grateful Jay never locked the car up. You drive, realise that the buyers were all with Derek and Jay. Both of whom are meat in the house but you drive until the car dies and even then you walk until you find a motel and pay for a room with hands that won’t stop shaking.
You lock the door, take the goggles off and cry with agonised relief. The books are warm to the touch and you open them, careful not to damage the pages which are dense with symbols and words that you don’t recognise. A small sensation tugs at your stomach and you slip the goggles onto your nose. Your vision blurs but the words start wriggling, insects escaping from cocoons of dead languages, blind but known to you now.
There is power here, the means to talk to the birds in the sky and the worms in the ground. What you need to say to the Devil if he comes to you. These books offer you a chance to do things that would get you out of the trouble that has always dogged your steps.
Derek was right.
This is the place.
You open one of the books at random, and start to read.