Note (1) Gehenna is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew word (Gehinom/Gehinnom). It was this word(s) that the gospel writers used in the original Greek and Hebrew scriptures of the New Testament, and was later translated into the English word, 'Hell'. In modern Judaism, Gehenna is more a Purgatory-type place.
Note (2) As did C S Lewis in the foreword of 'The Great Divorce', I just want to state that this story is not meant to make anyone rethink their beliefs regarding Hell (Or Gehenna), or anything else.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT added June 2011: Thank you to Nike Johnston for being my grammar saviour and copy editing this entire novel. All your support and help is hugely appreciated.
Dead eyes stared sightlessly up at him as Michael Thane lowered the body to a sitting position, jammed between a cushioned bench and the mirrored wall. The occupants of the bench had been too busy sucking face to notice what was going on a few feet away. The table in front of them was littered with empty beer bottles. He snagged one and tucked it into the corpse’s hands. Finished, he stood up and walked away.
The nightclub was heaving and overheated bodies were crushed together in a smoky haze. Michael manoeuvred his way through the throng to the exit and stepped outside. He caught the eye of the doorman who’d tipped him off, and gave him a brief nod of acknowledgement. The street outside was noisy with revellers and people queuing for entrance into the club. The outskirts of Uruk always drew a crowd at night; the sector had a deservedly bad reputation, but the border was less dangerous and some people needed an adrenaline boost to jack-up their enjoyment. The nightclub behind him was ideally situated to take advantage of just such stupidity.
He inhaled deeply, taking in smoke-free air for the first time in hours. He’d just completed a complicated contract with minimum fuss. He should be feeling at least some mild satisfaction; instead, he was bored out of his skull.
Reaching nine-hundred years old had consequences. Boredom was a frequent, often debilitating malaise, and it got worse as the years piled up. This particular bout of ennui had been coming on for a while; he could feel it crowding the edges of his mind a little more each day. Maybe he should stop trying to fight it off and just let it come. He knew from experience that dragging it out never did him any good.
He was starving: he hadn’t been eating properly, and it was making him worse. He needed to go home, eat a lot and sleep. With the job done there was no reason for him to remain in Uruk, and only a fool would stay longer than strictly necessary in this sector. Michael didn’t move, standing in the middle of the street with his head tipped back and eyes closed. He was still in the exact same spot moments later when he heard them, and then smelled them. He opened his eyes and saw shadows slinking around the edges of the few functional streetlights. Ferals. Tension crawled up his spine. There were several of them, all skirting the slightest vestige of light and clinging to the darkness. They were heading for the alley running down the side of the club.
Michael watched them, remaining utterly motionless, preferring not to draw their attention. They were rabid, mindless beasts and easily spooked into attacking. He hated the sight of the ugly sons-of-bitches, mostly because they were his future. One day he’d be one of them, when he finally became more demon than man—if he didn’t shoot his brains out first.
The last of the pack disappeared out of sight. Michael took in another deep breath, and this time caught the scent that must have lured the ferals here. The reek of human bone and tissue reforming inside a sac of primordial soup was unmistakeable.
Some poor sap was regenerating in the worst place possible—a dark cesspit of an alley in the one quadrant of the city that no missionary unit would be dumb enough to enter. Whoever it was, they were as good as dead. The ferals would rip into them the moment they were clear of the cocoon. On the plus side, it would mean a brief experience of hell, and likely a quick death given the number of ferals all wanting a piece of him, or her.
Whatever. It was none of his business.
The street had gone too quiet, he realised. Where was everyone? Michael looked back over his shoulder, uneasy now. The doorman was gone and so was the queue. The doors appeared locked and he couldn’t hear a damn thing from inside, no heartbeats or whispers or music—nothing. All he could hear was the click of claws on stone accompanied by a heavy, dragging sound. Another feral came into view; this one was missing a leg, and was dragging its lower body along the ground. It saw Michael and snarled, displaying dirty, stained fangs. It didn’t look that old and probably hadn’t completed the change all that long ago. The head was bald and the body skeletal, but the skin was still slightly pink. Given its injuries, it wouldn’t live much longer. Michael was surprised the others hadn’t already finished it off.
It went down the same alley the others had taken. Nothing else in the street moved, even the wind had dropped completely. Everything was still—too still—as if someone had hit freeze-frame and forgot about him. It was surreal.
Impulse had Michael following the feral down the alley. He told himself it was curiosity: you didn’t get many novices forming this deep into the old quarter. Besides, he was no longer bored.
Bizarrely, the moment he stepped inside the dark, filthy confines of the alley, he could hear normally again. He heard chatter from the street he'd just left, and the primal, rhythmic beat of the nightclub’s music was fading behind him on his left. The wind whistled through the man-made, impromptu wind-tunnel, whipping up his hair. He heard screams in the far distance. Someone was weeping and the sound travelled from the basement windows of the squat, derelict building on his right. He passed by a brothel and gambling den, hearing the arguments, accusations and fist-fights, overladen by the slap of flesh-on-flesh.
Even hell had a set of norms defining what was natural; excluding vampirism, nothing much supernatural happened. What he was experiencing now was decidedly not normal.
The night was moonless, with just enough starlight to reveal the contours of his face in the few glazed windows he passed. Michael halted when he saw the cocoon, and stepped inside a conveniently recessed doorway. He was already regretting the irrational impulse to come here. On any given day in Gehenna, there could be thousands of new arrivals, hence the missions the Special Constabulary constantly ran into the old quarter to retrieve them. It was their job to find and help the vulnerable novices…just not in Uruk. Bad news for the novice. The sheer volume of decaying garbage piling up the alley walls was proof enough that even the automated disposal units didn’t come down here.
The cocoon was greyish in colour and opaque. The progress of regeneration looked to be advanced. Michael could see enough of the body inside to know it was a young female, and could almost pity her. Time made no difference—nobody forgot their first experience of Gehenna. Over a period of several hours, the body you had on Earth was recreated for you, cell by cell. If you were lucky, you remained unconscious for most of it. The luckiest ones of all were regenerated way clear of the old quarter.
Not so this one. She looked ready to emerge. He could see the increasingly fretful movements she was making as she gradually woke up. Saliva pooled in his mouth and his guts twisted with a sick craving so strong it made a mockery of mere hunger for food.
He shouldn’t have come. He'd probably imagined the crap before. Hallucinations were a symptom of the most dangerous stage of the change. Michael wondered if his willpower was weakening, if the cravings were finally getting the better of him. His brows snapped together in a frown. Bitter fury coiled in his gut. How the hell should he know? Most of the changes were so subtle that he didn’t notice, but he did know he wasn’t the only one with preternatural senses lurking and waiting; this part of the old quarter was thick with others like him, and much, much worse.
Despite the putrid stench of decay in the alley, the scent of fresh, living humanity managed to rise above it all. A dinner bell for demons.
He had to get out of here. Michael stepped out of the doorway and into the alley, intending to put some distance between him and the grisly scene certain to begin at any moment. The woman didn’t stand a chance and he didn’t fancy watching the show. He managed two steps before the rush of displaced air warned him of an attack from behind.
His reaction was instinctively aggressive. Dropping to his haunches, he sprang back up in a spin, leading with a powerful, arcing kick. The face his boot slammed into was barely human. It was an Old One. A full set of fangs were bared in a snarling mouth, and the vampire’s eyes contained not a shred of white. The rest of the gaunt face was puckered with healed scars. It had an abnormally long-limbed, skeletal body barely covered by a few ragged scraps of clothing. At several inches over six feet, Michael was used to towering over other people. This thing matched him in height, and it was incredibly powerful. The demon staggered only slightly from his kick, recovering supernaturally fast. It lunged with raking claws that Michael barely managed to duck under and spin away. If he’d been fully human, he wouldn’t have been capable of moving fast enough to avoid having his throat ripped open.
Thwarted, the demon gave a snarl and whirled to attack again. Michael grabbed the double-handed sword hilt from his belt and activated it. Three-foot, liquid-metal blades shot out from either end, hardening in an instant. Obviously blinded by rage and blood-lust, the demon didn’t pause to consider the situation. Jaws wide and bony claws ready to rake through flesh, it gave a guttural howl and attacked.
With the sword held one-handed behind his back like a lance, Michael waited until the feral vampire’s lunge brought it within reach. Metal whistled as he spun and whipped up the sword. The leading blade impaled it mid-torso, halting the charge on a scream of rage and pain. Not bothering to withdraw the imbedded sword, Michael separated the two blades at the dual-hilt with a twist of his wrist. The feral staggered backwards, shrieking like a banshee. It clawed uselessly at the sword still buried above its belly. Following up with a reverse-grip chopping swing, Michael decapitated it with the second blade.
Blessed silence fell. The confrontation had taken only seconds. The problem being it was only the first of many. Having taken his measure, the others all came at him at once, attacking as a pack. Retrieving the blade from the carcass of the first vampire, Michael adopted his favoured opening stance, dropping to one knee with the two swords held from the small of his back in a reverse grip. They rushed him. There was no time for finesse, just a brutal hacking and slashing tactic in an attempt to force his way through. Luckily, these too were Old Ones. The only remnant left of their humanity was their humanoid shape. They didn’t have enough rationality or intelligence left to make use of technology or weapons.
Still, they were cunning up to a point and beyond vicious.
He was surrounded by fully-fledged demons and heavily outnumbered. Claws stabbed and slashed at every part of his body. It was like trying to hack a path through a jungle of body parts and Michael didn’t dare put his back to a wall to gain any respite. The already foul and squalid alley floor turned slick with blood, adding to the stench. Bodies soon littered the narrow confines of the alley. Not good—if he lost his balance they’d be on him like jackals. Grunts and snarls, shrieks and howls rebounded off the ancient adobe walls.
Just when he was starting to hope the tide was turning in his favour, a swipe of razor-sharp claws slipped under his guard to rend the flesh covering his ribs. Fiery pain radiated along his left side. Molten rage flared bright and harsh. As Michael bellowed in pained fury, his own features changed. Fangs emerged and his irises expanded until there was no white left in his eyes. Executing a full body-spin, he took his revenge by killing the vampire that had wounded him, then, using the alley wall on his left, performed a flip that took him over the heads of the rest of the horde.
And saw the woman was emerging. Talk about crap timing!
She was already half out of her cocoon with her upper body sprawled on the alley floor. Viscous fluid pooled all around her. She was young, and sodden, naked and weak, and utterly helpless. The younger, lame feral was scuttling over to her, energised by the chance of food. Once it got close enough, it lunged for her. Michael hadn’t known he was going to act until he was already in motion; instead of taking advantage of the diversion she was providing, he hurled one of the swords like a javelin. The sword caught the injured vampire between the shoulder-blades, taking it down a few inches from her. The chase was on. Cursing in a dozen languages, both ancient and modern, Michael reached deep for speed and sprinted towards the woman. Whether he liked it or not he felt committed now. Plus, they’d pissed him off.
He reached her first. She was slippery, but he managed to grab her up and haul her over his shoulder. Then, wrenching his sword free from the still struggling demon, he started running.
(Twelve months later)
Elizabeth Grant stood at the back of the processing centre, watching the snaking lines of wretched human beings. 'Novices' as they were commonly called: hellslang for newcomers to Gehenna. Whether their suffering had been long and drawn out, or death had sneaked up on them in a moment, the lives they’d known were over and they’d woken up in a strange world. A world many had been taught to fear before disbelief set in.
Liz shuddered, recalling her own horror at the realisation that Hell was real. Just like these people, she’d expected to be dragged off in chains to a dark pit filled with fire-breathing demons and pitchforks. They’d soon learn that wasn’t the case—or not yet. The theologians on this side of death were still hotly debating whether everything will change come Judgement Day. Anxiety and depression were as common here as colds back in the living world. However, on the surface at least, most people preferred to live in hope. The media loved stories about mysterious disappearances. Many claimed these people had ‘been taken up’: redeemed and taken to join the Kingdom. Liz understood. Those who didn’t cling maniacally to the hope of forgiveness someday either went insane, committed suicide or wallowed in depravity while they could. Then there were the vampires.
The dead arrived in Gehenna as human beings, but if you stuck around too long, didn’t repent and get redeemed or simply die the second and final death, then you slowly turned into a demon—and then you really did belong in hell.
As if dying isn’t traumatic enough…
It was a lot for anyone to take in. Pity stirred in her heart, kindling frustration. Given a choice, she would have offered some comfort to the new arrivals, but there were strict rules about contact with the novices. Rule-breaking would be doubly frowned on for her, an empath. She sighed—a mistake as she was trying not to inhale too deeply. The air was ripe with sweat, vomit and urine. Many of the novices were dazed, wide eyes blank with shock. Others wept into their hands, or wrapped their arms tightly around their bodies. All were helpless and terrified. They were dressed in thin silver smocks, similar in style to her own, except she had a snug-fitting mission suit on underneath.
The smock was for modesty, and it was all they’d be given to wear until processing was complete. As a Special Constable, Liz knew the drill. After the databanks manned by expressionless operators, they'd be taken for a shower and a body scan, then a debriefing, before finally being given proper clothing and their allotted room number. The accommodation would be temporary, a means of giving them time to adjust and find their feet.
Cold mercy, but what else could you expect from a plane of existence entirely cut off from God?
Liz normally avoided the Intake section once they’d unloaded the survivors. Given her own peculiarities, the atmosphere in here was hard to take. Today was different. It was her first anniversary of arriving in Gehenna. Her very own DOD date. Streamers, cards and cake were definitely not on the menu. Still, she’d felt compelled to come here.
“Liz, I’ve been looking for you.” She turned to see Harry Gillespie, Commander of Operations, striding over with a preoccupied frown on his face.
“Then it's good you’ve found me,” she returned with an attempt at a smile.
“Yes. I erm…” He suddenly seemed to catch on to where he’d found her. “Is there something wrong? You normally avoid this place.”
Liz’s hazel eyes met his quizzical and enquiring blue. She shrugged and prevaricated, “I’m just doing my job and empathising with them." She twisted her lips wryly at the last bit. "I still remember my own arrival, how terrified I was. This place isn’t exactly reassuring.” A wave took in the bland, soulless centre. To preserve privacy there were no windows or glass, just an ocean of pale grey floor and paler grey walls. Overhead, monitors and screens scrolled hard facts or even harder warnings. The loud speaker system frequently called out names in an emotionless female voice. Last, but not least, armed guards in full body-armour patrolled the perimeters of the hall. Friendly faces were few and far between.
Harry was a tall, attractive man in his forties, quintessentially English and with a penchant for tweed and waistcoats. He was both boss and friend. He cast a frowning, yet pitying, glance over the lines of new arrivals. “Yes, I do know. We go out and find them and bring them here while they’re still suffering from a dreadful shock. Sometimes I think we don’t do enough for them, and other times I know we’re doing as much as we can.” He shoved his hands in his trousers pockets. “I just wish we could get them all.”
Liz grimaced at the oblique reminder of those who would emerge only to face a horde of rabid vampires—just as she had. No matter how many missions they ran into the old quarter, they always missed as many as they extracted. She’d been incredibly lucky.
Harry’s thoughts had been travelling along the same lines. “I know what you’re thinking, but your own experience was hardly a common one. I should know,” he added feelingly. “I was here when Thane walked in with you in his arms.”
“And dumped me on the floor at your feet,” Liz finished dryly.
“It’s a night I’ll never forget,” he assured her. “Thane bypassed our security with an ease that’s still causing shock-waves now—hence the need for armed guards. Hardly a surprise considering he’s an exceptionally dangerous individual, one on the verge of changing—”
“I know. I know. I’m lucky to have caught him suffering a rare moment of mercy,” Liz interjected with a half smile. Harry was always reminding her just how lucky she’d been. As if she needed the reminder.
He hadn’t finished yet. “Rare indeed. Even as a full human the man was notoriously ruthless, a mercenary who hired himself out to the highest bidder, and still does by all accounts. He lived and died in a violent and bloody age. I shudder to think what kind of vampire he’ll make once the change is complete.”
It was a well-worn subject and yet it occurred to Liz that Harry was being unusually intent on the subject. She knew her friend. He was trying to tell her something without actually coming out and saying it. He called it ‘preparing the way’. Liz called it waffling. He only acted like this when he knew she wouldn’t like what he had to tell her. Crossing her arms over her chest, she turned fully to face him. “Okay, Harry. Spit it out. Why are you so preoccupied with Michael Thane today?”
Harry didn’t deny it. He glanced around to ensure they couldn’t be overheard. “Walk with me,” he said low-voiced.
Bemused, Liz matched Harry’s casual stroll towards the bank of elevators on the far right of the hall. For the benefit of any onlookers, Harry’s face was as bland as if they were discussing the weather when he said, “I’ve heard some disquieting rumours about the recent spate of savage vampire attacks.”
Liz had heard, and read, numerous hysterical reports herself. The media had everyone convinced they could be a target, despite the fact the numbers didn't add up. The number of murders was still relatively small. Gehenna was filled with the lost, the damned. Outside of the old quarter, the general population were far more likely to be murdered by a human than a vampire, but headlines were headlines. "I read the news too, Harry. These murders are the current hot topic. Everyone and his neighbour has a theory. We're getting called out to 'feral vampires' every five minutes, only to find it's a bunch of squalling cats."
"Perhaps, but the general public don't know all the details, and it's not just a hot topic anymore, but something considerably more sinister. The situation is escalating hourly. The Privy Council have convened a meeting--but that's beside the point." He sent her a dark look to prevent any more interruptions, then continued, “The circumstances and evidence suggest the assaults are carried out by someone in full possession of their faculties—not a mindless demon no longer able to control itself. For one thing, the attacks are taking place in the victims’ homes.”
She knew this. It was one of the major reasons why these murders were getting so much attention and causing such hysteria. Vampire attacks outside of the old quarter were rare. When they did happen, they were opportunistic and normally took place outside. These killings were smashing all of the boundaries.
They’d reached the elevators. Pushing the button to summon one, Liz knew there was more so prodded, “Go on.”
“The assaults are also prolonged and varied, and the victims so far have all been female. Whoever is committing these atrocities is aiming for maximum pain and terror.” Harry turned to look at Liz just as the door pinged to indicate their wait was over. “This killer is not driven purely by blood lust, but something far more horrific and evil.”
The doors slid back to reveal an empty cage. Blindly, Liz stepped inside. A sick feeling churned in her gut. “So far you haven't told me anything new. What does this have to do with Michael Thane?”
Harry’s glance was pitying. “I've just heard he's the major suspect.”
Liz had a flashback of a brooding, fallen-angel face. She shook her head, dispelling the memory. “I don’t understand. Everything I’ve seen and heard suggests it’s only the old, feral ones who are a problem.”
As she’d forgotten to do it herself, Harry pushed the button for the administrative floor. “That’s the commonly-held view, but not entirely accurate. It’s also a well known fact that it’s the newer vampires who are the more powerful. For one thing, they can still look and act like a human being, as well as retaining all of their knowledge and skills. If this killer is Thane then it won’t be the first, or the last, time a young vampire has succumbed early to the sick hungers of their kind.”
One of the things that had most shocked Liz about Gehenna when she’d first arrived was how technologically advanced it was. The fact she was now riding in an air-taxi was just one of many examples. When she’d pictured Purgatory, as some insisted Gehenna actually was, she’d thought of Pilgrim’s Progress, not glittering glass towers and highways in the sky. Of course there were two sides to the city, she mused. Old and new were butted up together without thought to continuity. Landing docks could be found in gleaming towers, on top of ancient adobe structures or in the middle of a cobble-stoned square.
The city was a huge, sprawling mish-mash of time-periods, cultures and tastes, and as old as humanity. As for why the technology was more advanced than Earth—longevity. Engineers, architects and inventors didn’t have a mere thirty-or-so years to work: they could have centuries. Humans didn’t grow in Gehenna. They didn’t mature, grow any older or become sick. This wasn’t a natural world. People here had a heartbeat and respiration, but being already dead meant the rules were very different.
For a girl from the upper-middle-class of middle England, it was an eye opener. One moment she’d been driving home drunk after a party…and the next she’d woken up in another world. She couldn’t remember either the crash or dying—just the nightmare she’d woken up to.
The air taxi swerved into the inside lane, illegally undertaking a transit shuttle. Liz caught the driver’s eye on her in the rear view mirror and bit back the impulse to offer a caustic comment on the topic of attention to driving. Her stony expression must have given him a clue though. He shrugged and returned his attention to the busy skyline.
She’d received a few appreciative glances from him during the ride, and was frankly too tired to care. One lesson she’d learned in Gehenna was that having good skin and attractive features was more of a curse than a blessing. Liz pulled out the pins keeping the tight roll in place at the base of her neck. Brunette hair spilled around her shoulders and her scalp screamed a protest before throbbing with relief. Exhaustion crashed into her system. It had been a long, trying day. With her head resting against the taxi seat, she could no longer push the memory of her arrival in Gehenna, and her one and only meeting with Thane, aside.
It had been dark. She’d been dazed, weak and as cold as ice. It had taken a few minutes for her to realise the bouncing sensation was real. She was slung over somebody’s shoulder, someone who was running. She saw long legs and dark boots. Her stomach had roiled, not helped by panic and confusion. Planting a hand on the back of the person carrying her, Liz had lifted herself up enough so to see what was going on.
The first sight of old, rabid vampires was seared into her memory forever—human and yet inhuman. Madness shone in eyes that should never be seen staring out of a human face. The living world had it wrong: vampires weren’t forever young and pretty. The jaws were dislocated to allow for gleaming fangs and blood-curdling howls. Pasty white skin mapped with thick blue veins was stretched tight over the bones. As thin as they were, even in her dazed state, she’d recognised how powerful and vicious they could be.
She’d been about to scream only to end up gasping when the man carrying her came to an abrupt halt. The ground came up to meet her face, then just as swiftly soared away into the distance as they went airborne. She had a split-second, dizzying view of an alley from a rooftop that had to be four meters higher and then they were running again. She could remember thinking surely no one could jump that high. Who the hell was this person?
The flight and pursuit seemed to go on for hours. With the benefit of hindsight, Liz realised she must have faded in and out of consciousness a few times. What she could remember clearly was when he finally dropped her to her feet. It hurt in every muscle of her body, her head did a thousand revolutions a second and, to top it all off, she fell to her knees and violently threw up. By the time she’d finished retching, she was shuddering with a bone-deep chill that froze her blood. She’d looked up through the sodden curtain of her hair and saw him for the first time.
Of course, she hadn’t known his name then, or who and what he was.
She’d had to look up a long way and finally met eyes so dark they might have been obsidian, and just as cold. His hair and clothing was equally dark. He was speaking, but she couldn’t decipher the words over the buzzing in her ears. She’d been too preoccupied with her own misery to notice much more about him. The biggest impression was implacable hardness.
“Where am…I?—So…so… cold…” she’d said through chattering teeth. They were in another alley, although cleaner and better lit.
“Gehenna. That would be Hell to you English.” He’d had a deep voice and an American accent. She’d learned later that his death preceded the forming of the United States by roughly eight centuries. He’d grabbed her arm and pulled her back on her feet. “Get up. We have to keep moving.”
She’d sagged weakly against him. “C-c-cold.”
When he’d cursed harshly, she’d assumed it was at her. She’d been wrong. He’d pushed her away, whirled and produced an enormously long sword seemingly out of thin air. What the heck! It quickly became two shorter ones. Liz had screamed when the Old Ones had materialised in a blur of speed from the direction he was facing. He’d sensed them coming. Their guttural snarling reminded her of a pack of wild dogs fighting over a bone. Adrenaline shot enough energy into her system for her to crawl to the wall and crouch there. She’d never been more terrified in her life.
She’d seen sword fights in movies, but nothing like this. This was pure, brutal slaughter.
The speed of the fighting had convinced Liz her rescuer couldn’t be human either. Thane had used his fists, feet, even his elbows when the swords were busy slicing into one of the other vampires. Every move he’d made was flavoured with ruthless savagery. There was no wasted movement and no mercy shown. By the time the battle was over, she’d been every bit as scared of him as the Old Ones.
With a whine of engines and a bump, the taxi came into land, yanking Liz back to the present. When she opened her eyes, Harry’s statement came back to haunt her, “…It’s the newer vampires who are the more powerful. They can still look and act like a human being, as well as retaining all of their knowledge and skills.”
Liz’s apartment building was in the 3006th Cathedral quarter. The demographics were heavily Roman Catholic, but it was a reasonably commutable distance. Just as important was the fact that there were decent amenities within walking distance. The building sported its own docking bay, in addition to private parking for those in a higher pay bracket than her civil service salary. The security of the building was better than average. After paying the fare, she used the express elevator to take her from the landing dock to her own floor. The apartments ran from one bedroom studios on the lower floors, to a six bedroom penthouse at the top. Liz’s was a modest two-bedroom unit with separate kitchen, bathroom and living space on the nineteenth floor. Once inside, she shrugged out of the concealing smock and went to run a bath.
With the taps running at the temperature she wanted, she returned to the living room and the wall-mounted entertainment centre she’d scrimped and saved to purchase. The seventy-inch screen automatically showed the most viewed channel: in her case, the cross-denominational news channel. It opened in the middle of a debate on the exact nature of separateness from God. Leaving it running in the background, she stripped on the way to a long, muscle-relaxing soak. While the hot water worked its magic, she managed by stubborn dint of effort not to think about Harry’s warning or the reason he’d given it.
Afterwards, she settled on the couch and picked up the remote control. The mental tussle was short, resulting in Liz doing what she'd known she would from the moment she'd got home. It took only a matter of seconds to search the unit’s memory for the file she wanted. Her finger hovered over the ‘play’ button for several seconds before she gave in with a sigh. The screen changed from a prosperous looking Lutheran minister espousing with solemnity to a scene similar to what she’d just left at work. It was the processing centre, main intake hall and the date was twelve months earlier. The file was the security footage of the night Thane brought her in to the centre. She'd obtained a copy by shamelessly using feminine wiles after joining the Special Constabulary, a department within the Division for Civil Defence whose jurisdiction included the novice processing centres.
When Thane walked on-screen with her slumped in his arms and wearing his coat, she froze the image and zoomed in on his face. In the full light and without terror clouding the brain it was impossible to miss the fact he was exceptionally easy on the eyes. Just as obvious was the menace he so effortlessly exuded. If any man belonged in the shadows, he did.
Liz’s heartbeat kicked up a gear. It didn’t matter that Michael Thane terrified her, because he also fascinated her. No amount of praying or warnings from well-meaning colleagues made any difference to her secret preoccupation. He’d saved her life. If it hadn’t been for him, she’d have been demon-fodder, suffering an agonising second and final death within moments of arriving in Gehenna. Like it or not, it was impossible not be grateful, and feel indebted.
Then there were other memories, blurred and fragmented, of being carried, enveloped in the warmth of his coat. She’d been a stranger to him and yet for one such as he, known for his brutality, he’d treated her with incredible care. She wished she knew why. His was the first face she’d seen in Gehenna and, ridiculously, she couldn’t forget him.
It wasn’t just that he saved her from annihilation. It was rare but not unheard of for people to arrive in Gehenna with a new ability. Liz was one of those exceptions: she was an empath. Sometime during her ‘rescue’ and after that final battle, she’d sensed in Thane a microscopic regret, a self-loathing, a wish to be…better.
It was the perfect mirror of her own feelings. Liz longed to be a better person too. At twenty-nine she'd been a selfish, vain sycophant. To the living Liz, serving the community had meant the consequence of being caught speeding or some such thing; a sentence handed down by stuffy, white-haired magistrates. Since getting here, she'd been trying to change. Self-centeredness, paranoia and impatience were daily battles fought over and over again. She considered it a compliment that Harry often accused her of being too tender-hearted, but it didn't apply here. In this case she could admit to herself that her reasons were selfish. In her mind they were oddly connected. If Thane was destined to fail to achieve that likely unconscious wish, why would she fare any better?
And now they were saying he was going bad before he’d even fully transformed.