Bitter 290

“You’d better wait here,” said Dad.

“Why?” said Britta. She didn’t want to go running into a house where the halls were dripping with blood, but she felt an instinctive need to resist Dad’s attempts at coddling her. “It isn’t real blood.”

“No, of course not. But we don’t know what’s in there. It might be disturbing.”

“You made me and Marisa watch Psycho when I was eight.”

“That’s different,” said Dad. “That’s a classic. And it was in black and white. You don’t get psychologically damaged by grey blood. Oh, such a shame your mum made me turn it off. Imagine the kind of artistic vision you’d be capable of if I’d been allowed to expose the two of you to the greats of cinema from such an early age.” He seemed to have forgotten about the small matter of murder in the house opposite, and became nostalgic for the social engineering he’d been barred from enacting. “I had a whole list of amazing experiences lined up. None of that sentimental Pixar dreck. Apocalypse NowTaxi DriverJaws… You would have minds unlike any children your age.”

Britta could only imagine how traumatised she would have ended up if Mum hadn’t stopped him experimenting on her and her sister with his Bluray collection.

Mind you, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was still her favourite movie, and had been since she was seven.

“The important thing is to be able to differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t,” he said. “Which is why you have to be careful in a place like this. There’s a big difference between watching people stabbing each other with rubber knives on a screen, and actually being in the movie with the killer.”

He had a point. It was a lot more creepy being here, feeling the night breeze, hearing the rustling of leaves, smelling… whatever that smell was.

“Maybe we should wait for the guards,” said Britta.

“Doubt they’ll be here anytime soon,” said Dad. “Somebody would have to raise the alarm, and the neighbours probably have no idea anything’s wrong.”

The houses here were separated by walls and railings encircling the grounds. It would be a fair hike to borrow a cup of sugar.

“Looks like it’s up to us. Wish me luck.” He took out his sword.

In a movie, especially the kind where women were getting into all sorts of trouble while trying to take a shower, people would have immediately gone running into the house, calling out to see if anyone was hurt or needed help. Which would, of course, alert the killer to their presence. Britta didn’t fancy taking the traditional route.

“Wait,” said Britta. “I’ve got an idea.” She cast Shadow Agent with a wave of her hand. The shade would be able to search the house in a flash, and let her know who was inside. If there was a killer hiding in a closet, the shade would be able to tell.

A dark, smoky form took shape between her and Dad, like a genie very reluctantly emerging from its lamp. Then it shot upwards, into the branches of the tree they were standing under.

“Hey,” said Britta, staring up, not sure where to look. “Can you stop messing about and go have a look in that house over there?”

The problem with this spell was that even though it was ideally suited for the task at hand, it had become very uncooperative. Britta wasn’t entirely sure what had turned the shade so averse to doing its job  —  something to do with the changes from the last upgrade was all she’d managed to figure out  — but she felt she’d been patient enough.

“Come on, it’ll only take a second.”

There was no response from the tree.

“What are you doing?” asked Dad, also looking up.

“It’s hard to explain. It’s a spell. Like a scout.”

“Oh, can it go look in the house for us?”

“Yes. If it wants to.”

“Temperamental?”

“Very.”

“Who is this?” a scratchy voice hissed down at them.

What was the best way to handle this situation? Shout and scold? Bribe and cajole? It would be a lot easier if the spell wasn’t so erratic, and did the thing it had been built to do. It was the sort of bug you got rid of by turning your computer off and on again.

Britta frowned to herself, under a tree at night with the fake breeze blowing through non-existence branches. This was the underlying problem to everything here. How did you treat something as real when it was so clearly not? The shade was upset about something. Who cared? They weren’t real concerns.

It irked her that she could be so casually dismissive. It was that kind of thinking that was holding her back. Whatever the issue, it was real to the shade.

“This is my dad,” she said. “He thinks I should stay here and not risk getting hurt.”

“It’s just a sensible precaution,” said Dad, sounding a little put out to be painted as the overbearing parent. He was the cool Dad who wanted his kids to watch The Evil Dead (for the production design).

“There might be people who need our help,” said Britta.

“Which I’ll find out when I go in there,” said Dad. “I’ll call you over when I know it’s safe.”

Britta let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m not a baby, Dad.”

“Both of you wait here,” said the shade. “I’ll go see.”

A stream of smoke poured down from above and settled into a vaguely humanoid form. It drifted across the street, although Britta caught sight of something inside it. Something more solid, and covered in hair.

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