Cedric leads me down more stairs into the restaurant. It feels like a refuge of the past – its sunken floor is pitted with pools and miniature waterfalls. A waiter leads us courteously across stepping stones. I cannot resist giving Cedric a quizzical smile: this is not the sort of place either of us have ever haunted. The waiter deposits us at our pavilion where two men wait for us. One is the inspector from years ago, I sigh inwardly. The other man is large and perhaps in his twenties. I find him immediately aggravating.
“Old neutrals are new friends now,” Cedric offers as we take our seats, “you remember Clement.” I barely notice him. Cedric and Clement accept their drinks from the attentive but unobtrusive waiter and settle back on the other side of the table. I stare at the other man. There’s something in him I recognise. He stammers, makes some attempt at conversation. Then he finally meets my eyes and I know what he is, and why Cedric wanted me to meet him.
The second my eyes met hers the restaurant seemed to fall away. I’d been here with the inspector for perhaps half an hour, chatting quietly and enjoying my beer. When they arrived I felt my heart stir and I knew they were Clement’s guests. They approached us with a sense of inevitability. An older man, and a slightly younger woman. At first I thought she was old because of how she dressed, then young when she sat down, quickly and sullen. She sat in silence while the other man greeted the inspector.
The woman just stared at me, without a hint of feeling. Her eyes bored into me. I try to strike up a conversation but she totally ignores me. The waiter lays the table between our moments of awkwardness and leaves. The inspector and the man in the hat have arranged themselves on the other side of the table and are just watching us. Me. I’m sitting right next to the strange woman. It makes me nervous. The edge of the world shudders.
That’s when I notice that the water around our pavilion is receding from us and the air feels darker and heavier. I look into her eyes and they’re like black holes – the darkness in them devouring the skin around her eyes. Tendrils of night stream out of her face. I lurch backwards in alarm as black cracks striate her face and clothes. I seize the knife from the table and slam it into her chest. She screams, and doesn’t stop screaming.
The skin in her face unravels becoming just one terrible mouth lined with teeth all the way down the back of her throat – the teeth hum at me hungrily. I rip the knife back out and plunge it in again as she bucks and twists in my grip. She gets too hot to hold down, the fires within pierce her smouldering flesh and she bursts into a flaming corpse. She won’t stop screaming, I can feel it tearing at my mind.
The restaurant is gone, fallen into the darkness that has enveloped us, it is just me and the screaming. With a brutal and impossible contortion of her spine her back rotates to face me and splits; a black carapace ridged with blue and red spines forces its way out of her burned flesh and swells in size. Her limbs stretch, crack and reform into a nightmarish crab-like thing that becomes enormous, looming over me dripping ichor and shaking with hatred.
With one claw it tears the roof away and the gloom clears a little – we’re standing on the roof of an old church. The monster that the woman has become squats with its hind legs gripping the steeple, its fore-claws and mandibles still shriek the horrors of the world at me. I dive under it and jab upwards with the knife again, under the jaw where I can reach. The creature involutes itself impossibly, its jaws opening underneath me. I fall down into the night.
The restaurant is quiet save for the distant chatter of other diners. I take a small sip of water and glance at my boss. He raises his eyebrow. I straighten the dinner service. “Good instincts,” I say. The man next to me is shiny with sweat, eyes wide and shaking. I hand him his knife back. He looks terrified, justly. “Don’t worry,” I say, “you get to choose”. The dark-faced man nods. “He’ll do,” I say.
I left the city that same night, the same way I came in. It feels like the last time. I don’t think there will be anything to come back for. One more point of force inside the city won’t help it now. Together, perhaps, we can stop anything getting out when the city finally does die. Until then, I’ll be here. Watching.