Small Town in Northern Europe
THE DEAD COCKROACH TWITCHED AND went still.
Hamish Haddad witnessed its demise with quiet satisfaction. That thing had crawled into one of those potent roach traps and emerged slowly, drunk on toxins, and crawled along agonisingly until it finally flipped on its back. Hamish would kick it over the platform later.
He yawned as he zipped up his coat against the biting draught. God, he loathed these graveyard shifts. He loathed them even more now that the weather had turned upside down. It was July, and it was a freakin’ nine degrees Celsius. What the hell was happening? Last year at this time, he was surfing on the hot beach with his girlfriend Clara, and for weeks afterward his tan lines stood out so much he mates called him “la vache”. French had never been his strongest subject at school, but even he knew “the cow” wasn’t meant to be a compliment.
Well, that seemed a lifetime ago. When he’d gotten laid off at the auditing firm, Clara promptly dumped him for some buff Spanish guy whose name he couldn’t pronounce, but who seemed to be the spitting image of Cristiano Ronaldo. Well, who could beat that? Soon after, Hamish was back grovelling at this job he used to hate during university, and he found himself having to sign up for more shifts just to cover rent and groceries. His parents had retired and moved to Malta last year, happily filling up their days with lawn bowling and gardening and high teas with those stupid mini cucumber sandwiches. He had insisted he was a man now, two years out of university, and surely he was gonna make it by himself with no help from them, thank you very much.
He had spoken too soon.
He glanced at the clock and sighed. Time had a way of crawling by when you wanted it to go fast. It was nearly five in the morning. Rather than waking up with the rest of the civilised world at seven, he had already downed two strong coffees to keep himself awake until his shift ended in two hours. He rubbed his bearded face wearily and swiped at his phone. No messages, no Likes on his Facebook or Instagram.
Honestly, if he vanished overnight, nobody would notice until his mail started piling up and spilling out of his rusty mailbox. The thought depressed him, and he sighed and dipped his right hand inside his deep coat pocket and fingered the smoothness of the small glass bottle. At least he still had his Jack Daniels to keep him sane. He had gotten a half dozen for a bargain. Alcohol had a way of smoothing out the sharp edges of reality that often came biting at this time of the year.
A low, raspy voice broke the silence. “Two tickets to Helsinki, please.” Coins and some notes dropped in front of him. Hamish blinked and looked up. He gulped.
Standing before him was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She was tall and slender, and her face reminded him of Grace Kelly’s, but her face was even more refined than that of the gorgeous actress-turned-princess. Her long blonde hair cascaded down past her shoulders, and she was wearing a spotless white dress and flat white shoes. The only thing that seemed out of place was her horrible, raspy voice that reminded Hamish of fingernails screeching down a blackboard.
Wasn’t she cold in that wispy thing? She could have passed for a bride on the run, but it was the cold look in her wide- set blue eyes that made Hamish pause, and a chill went down his spine. Then his gaze shifted to the person beside her, and Hamish narrowed his eyes.
The man was short and bald, and he was wearing some sad, ill-fitting tweed brown suit, his white shirt stained and blotched with sweat and God knows what. The tall blonde woman was clearly with the short bald man; there was something about the way they stood together that made them look...bound, somehow.
There was absolutely nothing remarkable about the short bald man, and yet here he was, in the company of a beautiful Grace Kelly doppelgänger. Hamish sighed.
Life just wasn’t fair.
Hamish swept the money into his hand, then took two tickets and placed them on the counter. He plastered on his biggest and phoniest smile. “Good morning, folks. Have a wonderful journey! Helsinki’s great.” He slipped his hand back into his coat pocket and fingered the Jack Daniels again. God, he desperately needed a drink.
The woman and the man walked down the platform side by side. Their lips were barely moving as they spoke, eyes fixed on nothingness.
“Master. That one should do nicely, don’t you think?” The Veronika Waldorf impostor raised an eyebrow and cocked her head pointedly towards the ticket counter. “He reeks of loneliness, resentment, despair. He certainly fits the bill.”
“He could be useful, I suppose.” The Beta pursed his lips. They had to lower their standards. There wasn’t much time, after all. They had to recruit as many of these minions as they could get in the next several days. Maybe a half dozen. Pathetic, but they must work with what they had. They would benefit from a little help defeating that wretched Guardian Cephrin, no matter that he was trapped – he was still incredibly powerful.
It was a good thing his most loyal and capable servant, Gutz – now transformed into this tall, beautiful-looking human resembling the dead woman named Veronika Waldorf – was here with him. The Beta was still weak, and this human body he had taken over was far from ideal. It was too bad that the man named Truman Mayer who had sold his soul to the Beta had not taken good care of his body while he was still alive.
There were still ten minutes left until the next train. At this hour, the platform was nearly empty. Truman and Veronika turned around slowly to look at the red-haired man at the counter, appraising him.
It was several moments into his brooding that Hamish noticed the staring. He blinked, bewildered. “Umm, how else may I help you?” he asked politely, sighing inwardly. God, what more did this weird couple want?
The tall blonde woman walked up to him, hips swaying. She really did look like a catwalk model, and Hamish wished he had bothered to brush his hair and shave. The short balding man stayed where he was, expressionless.
“Excuse me, mister,” she said sweetly, and her voice didn’t sound quite so raspy any more. “Say, have you ever been to Helsinki?” She flashed him a dazzling smile.
Hamish felt his face growing hot under the woman’s bright blue gaze. “Umm, I’ve visited several times, I know how to get around. I mean, it’s so easy to get around the whole of Europe by train, you know? Some of my Finnish university friends are from there –”
“Splendid,” she interrupted. “We really could use a guide.”
And the woman suddenly took his hand and Hamish gasped, jolting forward, his pupils dilating in sheer terror. He could barely breathe as he felt something like a clawed hand reach into his head, and then he was paralysed, unable to scream, unable to escape from whatever monstrous thing was standing before him. Then a moment later, the short man came up to the counter, and that was the last memory Hamish had before his world turned black and a strange silky voice slithered into his head. He would never know that he was being recruited in much the same way that the real Veronika Waldorf and Truman Mayer had been.
There was a low laugh, sleek and confident. “Hamish, my friend. You could have everything in the world. I could make your dreams come true. Just name it.”
Half an hour later when the station guards received multiple complaints that the ticket booth had been left unmanned, and a couple of yawning security guards went to view the security camera footage, they would watch in bafflement as the tall blonde woman leaned over and pulled the twenty-four-year-old Hamish Haddad by his shirt; they would stare with wonder as the man walked slowly from the counter and joined the short bald man and tall blonde woman at the platform; then the three of them stood together side by side until the train came and they departed on it.