When Talli arrived home with replenished cigarettes, a bottle of cheap wine and Chinese, she found her Mum sitting in the front room, watching a nature documentary. Talli pocketed her keys and hung in the threshold of the hallway for a moment. Her Mum had poured a glass of wine but was drinking from the bottle. Talli moved into the light.
‘Grubs up.’ Talli motioned to the white plastic back, prawn crackers almost spilling out the sides.
‘I’m not hungry darling, you eat,’ her Mum waved her away without looking.
‘You have to eat, Mum.’
‘I said I’m not hungry.’
In the kitchen, Talli grabbed two plates and she dished up the Chinese and placed it on the kitchen table. It sat there in front of her, not being eaten. She made a strong coffee with five sugars. Talli shifted awkwardly in the uncomfortable dining chairs. She kept thinking she saw things; shadows moving at the edge of her vision. Objects around her seemed misplaced or peculiar. She couldn’t put her finger on why the salt cellar looked as bright as it did. Something lingered behind the enchanting aroma of Chinese. It was like a mixture of petrol and burnt hair.
Something clattered out in the garden. Talli rose from her seat and stared out, over the sink and into the garden. The security light had flickered on. Her Mum joined her by the sink, she stared out.
‘What was that?’ She moved to the back door, poised to unlock it.
‘Mum…’ Talli warned. They peered through the kitchen window and at the cans of beer and wine bottles that still littered the tables in the garden. ‘It was probably just a cat, Mum.’
Talli put an arm around her Mum’s waist. They pulled each other close and held each other silently. Her Mum cried. With her head on her Mum’s shoulder she continued to look out into the garden. As the security light switched off, the kitchen window pane merely offered reflection. Talli stumbled out of their hug as she thought she saw something move past the door way in the front room, in the reflection of the window.
‘What’s wrong honey?’ Her Mum asked, dabbing her face with the cuffs of her dressing gown.
‘Nothing, I just…’ Talli rubbed her eyes, ‘nothing.’
The next couple of days passed slowly. Talli didn’t sleep well and she stayed at home. She received several texts offering condolences from old friends or from her work. Her director had text her saying, ‘take all the time you need, Claire is standing in for you, and you’ve been missed. Neil x.’
She scrolled through her other texts, until she came upon “shitface”. What did it mean?
‘…Halo behind my head.’ Talli read out aloud, ‘shit. Halo.’ Her thumbs moved quickly across the small keyboard as she text Jayce. ‘Gt ure sori ass ova ere nw boi – Taz xxx.’ She smiled to herself.
‘Calmed down a bit now have we?’ Jayce said as Talli let him in the front door.
‘No. Shut up and listen.’ Talli grabbed his hand and he rolled his eyes. She dragged him up the stairs and into her room. He’d never been in there before. He looked around at the posters of motorbikes and punk bands, action and horror films lined her shelves, action figurines and shoot ‘em up games were scattered across the floor.
‘You’re such a tomboy.’ He regarded her room with awe.
‘It’s a fucking a Halo, ain’t it?’
‘What is?’ Jayce frowned.
‘The stone is, you dick. The disc shaped stone – it’s a Halo.’ Talli paced across a patch of carpet near the window. Jayce stood uneasily in the doorway.
‘Have you been smoking something different?’
‘What. No. Don’t treat me like those police do, Jayce, or I swear by all that’s holy, I will kick your arse,’ Talli glowered. ‘That guy, Corke, whoever he was, said that the stones are thought to be symbols of heaven. Jade Bis he called them or something like that. She gestured, wide eyed, with her hands behind her head in a big circle, ‘If you put it behind your head, it’d look like a Halo. I thought I saw it glow. It’d look like one of those old religious paintings, y’know of Jesus and Mary and that bollocks. What if they had these things too?’
Jayce stared at Talli. His eyes flittered across the room and he rubbed his neck. ‘Look, Nat.’
‘Don’t “Look, Nat.” me, Jayce. I’m telling you there is something to this.’
‘I think you’re too close to this Talli. I think you’re thinking about it too much.’
‘Are you being serious, Jay? It’s all there.’
‘You have been a devout atheist all your life. Are you telling me that you now suddenly believe in angels? Take a minute to think about it.’
For a while, they were in silence. Talli paced backwards and forwards. She leant back against the wall and slid down an old radiator that was warm against her back. She pulled her legs in to her chest again and pulled her too-big hoody over her knees. She rubbed her face hard, trying to scrub away the memories that haunted her beneath her eyes. Every time she closed them she pictured the one eyed Corke approaching her, his meat scented breath clogging the air.
Jayce carefully stepped over a variety of debris that was scattered across the floor and sat near Talli. He pulled his phone from his combat short’s pocket. It was a newer model phone than Talli’s.
‘I found something, anyway. Whilst you were busy being pissy with me,’ Jayce smiled as Talli shot him a glare. ‘I asked around to see if anyone else got that text that we got in Hyde Park. I started with the people that know Evie. Then as it unravelled I found that it kept going, to people that haven’t even heard of her. Even my Mum got one and nobody messages my Mum. Each and every one of them sent from the same number. Evie’s phone.’
‘Let me see that.’
‘All I can say is that is going to be one hell of a phone bill.’
‘What the hell is going on?’ Talli pushed herself up off the floor and scrolled through the messages, each one was from someone confirming that they had received a strange text message. Talli let herself fall back onto her bed. She looked up at the ceiling. She watched the shadows move across the room as the occasional car drove past, its headlights throwing shapes through the net curtains. From time to time she thought she could see the shadow of a person standing in the window, but when she checked there was no one there.
Jayce pulled himself off the ground and sat next to where Talli lay, staring up at the ceiling. She sat up and sidled in closer to him. He put a comforting arm around her and she cried. She cried deep, long sobs that Jayce never thought he’d see her cry, but she did for nearly ten minutes. He tried to comfort her. He held her close and told her it would be alright.
‘I just don’t know what to do. I have to do something. I can’t just sit here. That’s not who I am. I have to do something.’ Talli said, smearing dark blotches of mascara across her face as she rubbed her eyes.
‘You look like a panda, Nat.’ Jayce smiled and thumbed the smudges on her face. ‘I know you want to, but this isn’t your place to do something.’
‘She’s my twin sister for god’s sake. Of course it’s my place to do something.’
‘You don’t even like her,’ he laughed. ‘Leave it to the police; you’ll only get in trouble if you get involved.
‘I know I don’t, and that’s what makes it even worse. I love her to bits but I can’t stand her.’ Talli’s expression weakened, her voice wobbled. She took control, ‘I want to go to the museum tomorrow. See if I can find anything about a Jade Bi.’ Talli looked pleadingly at Jayce.
‘Listen Talli, I know this means a lot to you, but we both know this is ridiculous. Halos?’ Jayce looked into her eyes wistfully.
‘Jayce, it’s the only lead I’ve got. I’m going. I’d appreciate it if you’d come with me.’
Jayce took Talli’s hand in his and smiled. They lay back on the bed together and drifted into sleep.
As she woke, she remembered the black hands. There were oily, leathery, sunless hands that crept through the night and grasped for her, and pulled her into this place. She remembered her vision fizz in a whirr of black dots and feeling her legs give way, but never hitting the ground.
Something was trickling down her head. Was it blood or water? Where was she?
Darkness spun around her. The shadows seemed organic, like black racing horses stampeding around her in a phantom equine whirlwind. Other creatures seemed to move against the starless backdrop of eternal night that surrounded her. The wind in her ears was screeching. There was faint laughter; horrible, evil laughter.
This place was strange, she was engulfed in darkness yet she could see her hands clearly. There was no light source around her. She wanted to see her surroundings. She wished for light, and it came. Something hummed around her and a beam of light flooded out from behind her head. The shadows didn’t appear but intensified, as if they fed on the pitiful light. Their new presence was a sense of depth. Black overlapped black in a origami masterpiece of shadow folding. Each fold revealed something new. They were so dark that they were almost featureless. Some of their faces were contorted into permanent screams. Some of them laughed silent laughs.
She turned to see where the light was coming from but she was disorientated as it moved with her. She reached behind her head and there it was. A ring of hard stone, markings carved in its rough, hot surface. It floated there of its own accord, directly behind her head. What was happening to her? Was she dead?
Talli woke. It was still dark outside but the lights were on in her room. She noticed Jayce’s arm laid across her. She lifted it slowly and placed it down as she slid aside. She watched him sleep for a moment. She shook her head and got up.
Downstairs all the lights were off. Her Mum must’ve gone to bed. The bottle of red wine sat on a coffee table in the front room, empty. The glass retained the last slithers. Talli checked the time. It was 4:48am. She flicked the kitchen light switch on and poured herself a glass of water. She rubbed a hand over her face, trying to stretch the stress out of her muscles. She peered into the dark windows that looked out into the garden but saw nothing but her own reflection staring back at her. She stood for a moment and touched her face, ran a hand through her hair. The reflection seemed to linger, then falter. Talli blinked to clear her eyes. The nightmare was flooding back into her mind; the swirling darkness; the screeching, and the Halo. Talli swallowed hard. The reflection smiled.
When Jayce woke up in the morning, he found Talli sat in a chair by the window, looking out and down the street. A cup of coffee was waiting for him by the cabinet on the bed. Talli held a cup in her hands. Jayce shifted, he rubbed his neck and moved out of his position lying horizontally across the bed without a pillow.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,’ his words drifted off. ‘When did you wake up?’
Talli didn’t respond. Her fingers curled, uncurled and picked at the wicker frame of the chair. She sighed.
They went downstairs. Talli made breakfast. She ate a tiny bowl of cereal and made toast for Jayce. In her dressing gown, Mrs Reamer entered the kitchen, mildly taken aback by Jayce’s presence. She busied herself with making tea briefly.
‘Did you stay the night then, Jayce?’ She finally asked. Jayce swallowed too much of his toast and choked. Talli glared at him.
‘Yes. Yes he did.’ Talli answered.
‘Fair enough.’ Her Mum spoke quietly, more to the kettle than to them.
‘I’m just going to have a quick shower and get changed,’ Talli said. ‘Then we’re going into the city.’ Talli informed her as she left the room. Her Mum watched her as she went.
It was a few minutes before Mrs Reamer spoke again.
‘There has been far too much heartbreak in this family,’ Jayce could already tell where this was going. He swallowed his last mouthful of toast and jam and washed it down with a flood of far-too-strong coffee. ‘You had better not break her heart too, Jayce Michaels. You’ve already caused enough hurt in this family. I don’t know if Natalie can take it.’ She didn’t look at him as she spoke.
‘She’s stronger than you give her credit for.’ Jayce avoided the obvious stance of compliant boyfriend and steered towards loyal friend.
‘That doesn’t mean she can deal with heartbreak. She wouldn’t make it. Especially not now. Especially not with you.’
‘Good job she doesn’t want me then, isn’t it.’ Jayce went to drink from an empty cup.
Silently, Mrs Reamer poured the hot water into her tea and walked out into the living room without meeting his eyes.
The tube train rattled and tilted through the underbelly of the busy metropolis. Like a worm wriggling through the earth, the trains swayed and rose into different stations for air, bringing with them the hot humid oxygen, unlocked from deep inside the city’s womb. Talli and Jayce stood on a busy carriage, holding the handrails above them as the motion of the train tugged them in different directions.
They were late enough to miss the majority of the daily commuters into London, yet the trains were still packed with people that worked less usual shifts. Business men looked awkward, sitting up straight on the small train seats, plugged into some unknown music via their white earphones. Talli liked to imagine they secretly listened to punk. Tourists consulted the colourful underground map, a plethora of different brochures clasped in their hands. Mothers of crying children looked bedraggled and fed up. Other city-goers all sat next to each other in the uncomfortable silence as they shared their journey together.
They alighted at Tottenham Court Road. Talli led the way over the busy cross road junction and away from Soho, sex shops and theatres.
The seventeenth century building was set back from Great Russell Street, beyond a heavy set of black, iron wrought gates. Guards were stood at either side. The entrance was beyond an impressive set of Romanesque pillars.
Inside the building, the roof opened out into a great glass ceiling that curved in a great spider web motion above the huge main court.
Talli tugged at Jayce’s top and him as he stared, awestruck by the impressive structure. They found an information desk near the front of the museum. A woman sat in a box shaped hut and was speaking to a group of tourists. Talli waited impatiently behind the foreign group that were struggling to ask whether they had to pay the information receptionist. Once they had wandered off, not entirely sure they had understood what they were told, Talli stepped up to the booth.
‘Erm, hi. My friend and I are looking for Chinese Jade? We were wondering if someone might be able to tell us more about it?’ Talli felt awkward feigning interest in anything in a museum.
‘Well there are plaques attached to every piece that we have explaining in detail what we know about the artefacts. However sometimes you might be able to catch a curator and ask if they know anything more about a specific object.’ The receptionist smiled widely showing off a set of perfectly white teeth. She pointed them in the direction and gave them a map.
The Chinese artefacts were kept in a room near the back of the museum, but it didn’t take long to get there. The room was full of Chinese Jade artefacts but there was only one thing Talli was looking for.
Talli actually found herself taken in by the beautiful old art work. There were elegant carvings of dragons and pendants in the shape of numerous animals. There were ornaments and masks, bowls and other objects all made thousands of years ago out of beautiful jade.
Then she found two. Two dics described as Jade Bis. One was thicker and bulky looking, a highly polished piece of jade. The other was flat and matt with Chinese encryptions encircling a slightly larger hole. A plinth explained that the Jade Bis were often used as part of a burial ritual and were associated with heaven, though their exact purpose was unknown.
Now that Talli thought about it, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to accomplish by coming here. Jayce had been right. They were hardly about to list any magical properties the discs had, even if they knew themselves.
‘Beautiful, aren’t they?’ A voice said from behind them. The man that spoke had long gunmetal grey hair, yet he wasn’t old. He could have only been ten years Talli’s senior at most, she thought. His skin looked clean and smooth. He was very pale. He wore peculiar clothes; they were mostly grey, black or white.
‘Very.’ Talli eyed him suspiciously. There was something mysteriously alluring about him. Jayce put an arm around her shoulder.
They stood there for a while in awkward silence. They looked at the jade. Jayce glanced at Talli as if to say, ‘what now?’ Talli could feel that the man behind her was still watching them.
‘What do you propose you do now? You can’t just walk out the front door with them, can you?’ His voice was like running water. ‘No. You couldn’t possibly do that, but they are beautiful, something beckons you to take it. You do want one.’
‘Listen, mate…’ Jayce turned to him impatiently.
‘No. You listen. You are both drawing far too much attention to yourselves and you’re going to get yourselves in trouble. I am here to help. So, you listen. Closely.’ Talli was transfixed by his eyes. They were blue, but not bright. They were ocean like, a silvery blue that seemed to sway like the tide. ‘Leave, now. There are a lot of people looking for you. Stay together. Stay safe. Go somewhere no one would look for you, lay low for a couple of weeks. You’re pissing all the wrong people off.’
His glare was like a monsoon of metal splinters as he narrowed his eyelids.
‘Who the hell are you?’ Jayce stepped up towards the mystery man. ‘What makes you think we’re going to do what you want, freak?’
‘Who I am, is of no importance. Unlike other people you may have met, I am not in the business of throwing my name around to gain notoriety. I am here purely to warn you. I’m trying to help, it is my duty.
‘Did you know the other people that came for me?’ Talli pushed Jayce aside and grabbed the man’s arm. It was cool to the touch. Something like static electricity fizzed between them, and she retracted her hand. The silver haired man regarded her pensively for a long moment.
‘I know of them,’ he said eventually. ‘I know there will be more.’
‘Is that a threat, pal?’ Jayce stepped forward again.
‘Chill out, Jayce.’ Talli put a hand on his shoulder.
‘I have no use for threats, I can assure you.’ He didn’t take his eyes off of Talli. He continued to look at her with deep thought in his face. ‘You had best go, you had best hide. Now.’ He turned.
Talli was frozen. Who was this man? What did he know? Maybe he could give her answers. She pulled herself free of Jayce’s hand and jogged up behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder. She felt the buzz of electricity again, lighter this time.
‘Please. I need to know what’s going on. I need to find my sister. If you know something, please tell me.’ Her eyes pleaded with him.
‘I can’t help you Natalie,’ he said. ‘Just stay low.’ Talli looked back to Jayce, begging him to help, but he had turned back to the Halos. When she looked back towards the grey haired man, he had gone.
He knew her name. How could he have known her name? She walked back to Jayce. They stood for a while then decided to leave.
Something cracked. Talli spun on the spot to see what it was but there was nothing there. Then it happened again. She didn’t just hear it, but she could feel it too. Something in the air shifted. Something slowly creaking and splitting, it was like bones in a vice.
Talli watched, as other people seemed to notice it too. It wasn’t just her. They stepped away from nothing, looking in all directions. The museum rumbled. The ancient, priceless artefacts shook unsteadily on their stands. Then there was a ripping. It was like the sound of a huge curtain being torn. A long, bright silver claw emerged mid-air, like the blade of a scythe. It started ripping slowly downwards through the air and parting reality as if it were just material.
Talli and Jayce stood frozen watching, jaws dropped as the blade lowered itself effortlessly through the fabric of reality. The sight of it made them feel dizzy and sick.
‘I think it’s time to go Jayce.’ Talli, wide-eyed, grabbed his hand and they walked quickly away from the Halos.
When they were around the corner, they heard screams; both human and inhuman screams that split the air. Whatever it was chattered and rattled as it screamed, like marbles rolling around in a metal pan. Talli and Jayce broke into a run. They heard thing smash and clatter behind them as they ran, not looking back.
When they got outside the museum, they stopped and panted.
‘What the fuck was that?’ Jayce said. Talli looked back the museum.
‘I don’t want to know.’