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Dark Ink

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Dark Ink

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Alternate Title: Bad Blood
Author: Gary Kemble
Publisher: Titan Books, 2019
Echo Publishing, 2016
Series: Harry Hendrick: Book 2

1. Strange Ink
2. Dark Ink

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy / Horror
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Synopsis

Freelance journalist Harry Hendrick is beginning to realise that you're only as good as your last exclusive, and buzz doesn't pay the bills, when he's blackmailed by the police into investigating a series of bizarre suicides.

Those investigations lead him into the web of Mistress Hel, who plies her dark arts from her luxurious suburban lair. With continuing challenges in his personal and professional life, can Harry resist her seductive power? Or the thrill of danger itself?


Excerpt

PROLOGUE

He clutched the hammer and stared around the darkened room.

His eyes caught the mirror.

'What the fuck are you staring at, motherfucker?'

She was right. The fucker was trying to steal his soul. It looked like him, but it wasn't him.

Smash it!

She always knew what to do. He laid into the mirror before he had time to think about what he was doing. He squinted as the mirror shattered, pieces of broken glass cascading across his feet and the floorboards. He stood there panting as the sweat cooled on his bare chest. He scratched absently at the hairs there, reached around to his back. He could still feel her mark.

'How do you like that, fucker?' he muttered.

It's in the bedroom!

He strode out of the dining room, barely flinching as a shard of glass dug into the sole of his foot. He limped down the hallway but didn't stop to pull it out. With each step he painted the floor with blood. First a dot, then a smear, then a full footprint. He could feel the demon's eyes watching him through the walls. But not for long. Oh no, not for long.

He stopped just inside the doorway of the bedroom and saw the demon sneering back at him on the other side of the room. He looked down, noticing his foot for the first time. Blood on the carpet. Sienna will kill me.

He's going to eat your soul.

He let out a low grunt, flinging the hammer across the room. It glanced off the sideboard, missing the mirror entirely but knocking over a bottle of his wife's perfume.

'Fuck!'

Shh...

He closed his eyes and saw her staring back at him, the way she always did before she released him. His breathing slowed. He gained control of himself.

'It's just fucking carpet,' he muttered, limping across the room. He glared for a moment at the thing on the other side of the mirror, smirking as though he was some sort of fucking imbecile.

'Ugh!' He slammed his foot into the mirror. The antique dresser rocked back on its spindly legs, then came forward again. Drawers opened and fell to the floor, spilling his wife's lingerie and jewellery. How much had he spent on that lot, and then she still couldn't do it for him? Not like Mistress. He never knew why. Even Mistress kept the reason from him for a long time. It was the man in the mirror. No, not a man. A demon. Stealing his breath while he was sleeping. Draining him and then fucking his wife.

'Motherfucker!' he cried, voice breaking as he raised his leg a second time, smashing the mirror and cracking the backing. Don't make them like they used to, he thought, and hysterical laugher bubbled inside him.

'I'm going to burn you,' he whispered. His bare leg caught on the splintered mirror backing, tearing the flesh above his ankle. He fell back onto the bed, panting. Blood oozed slowly from his wounds. Dark spots danced before his eyes and pain lanced up his legs, but then the black spots became Mistress's eyes again, and the pain went away.

Your daughter's room. Hurry!

He leapt, ignoring the glass splinters that sliced into his feet. A pair of his wife's undies stuck to his bloody left foot and he dragged them down the hallway.

Carrie's Room. The sign was surrounded by flower stickers and topped with a purple unicorn dancing on a rainbow. He paused for a moment, trying to reconcile what he was doing with what it would mean. He'd never see Carrie again. Never read her a bedtime story. Never comfort her after a nightmare.

NIGHTMARE! YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT A NIGHTMARE IS!

He flinched, jamming his hands against his ears, waited for the sting of her crop across his back, the touch of her knives.

Get the fucking mirror and smash it. Do you want that demon reading your daughter bedtime stories?

'No, Mistress.' He pushed the door open, not realising his hand was bloody until he saw the handprint, black in the moonlight. He checked the bedside table. No. Under the bed. No.

Hurry!

'Yes, Mistress!'

He crawled around the room, searching. His bloody feet had dragged pieces of glass into the room, which now stuck in his knees. Splotches of blood dotted the carpet. He found the hand mirror in her wardrobe, picked it up and looked into it. The demon was showing its true self: a pale face smeared with blood.

'You don't scare me.'

He punched the reflection. The handle snapped and the shattered mirror bounced under his daughter's bed. He clawed it out. The thing was laughing at him. Laughing! He raised the small mirror over his head and slammed it against the corner of the white chest of drawers. Glass shards sprayed across Carrie's bed. The mess, the mess. For a moment, sanity pressed forwards.

They won't be back until tomorrow. And it will all be over by then. Now, collect the pieces and put them in the bath.

He nodded, supplicant, imagining himself kneeling before her. It would all be over soon. He scraped the shards of glass off the bed, not noticing the stings as they dug into his hands. He staggered through the house to the bathroom and dropped the bloodied diamonds into the bath.

By the time he'd collected the glass from around the house, the hallway was slick with blood. Little light filtered through the small bathroom window. He dumped the last of the glass into the bath, brushing his gut and driving a shard into his belly button. The exquisite pain drew him out of his stupor for a moment. He stood on the cold, bloody tiles, listening to wind in the trees. Wishing his wife would come home early. I don't have to do this. I don't have to do any of this.

Get in the bath.

He stepped in before he could think about what he was doing. When he did, he went to step out but her voice was close in his ear again. So close it tickled his flesh. He could smell her perfume.

He sat. A large piece of glass sliced into the fatty underside of his leg. He hissed in pain, but didn't get back up. His wounds pounded.

'No, please...'

Every piece of mirror has a piece of your soul in it. You need to reclaim it. You need to eat the glass.

'Please, Mistress... please...'

He stared down at the shards. A thousand eyes stared back at him. A thousand hungry mouths, tainted with his blood. He watched blood ooze from his feet, his hands, his belly. Without realising, he'd picked up a shard of glass. Just a small one. An appetiser. He snorted laughter. It turned to tears and he cried hard. He dropped his head between his knees and watched bloody snot drip from his nose.

EAT IT!

He cried, harder than ever. 'Sienna. Ca-Carrie. I... I...'

He put the first piece of mirror into his mouth and swallowed.

CHAPTER 1

Harry Hendrick saw the fist coming but was too slow to do anything about it. He pivoted, raising his knee in a futile bid to reduce his opponent's reach. His head rocked back and black stars bloomed behind his eyes.

He shook his head then backed off, bare feet dancing on the mat. Harry felt the Afghan tattoo on the back of his neck warm and welcomed the sensation. It was like an old friend visiting.

His eyes fluttered slightly. He shook the sweat from his face as Adrian advanced, looking to maintain momentum. Time slowed. Harry feinted a step-kick, drawing Adrian's hands away from his padded body, then switched his feet and drove into Adrian's ribs with a roundhouse kick, yelling his kat-ra to maximise power. Harry felt the force of the blow all the way up his leg. It would have floored a smaller man. But Harry's heavy-set opponent just winced, grunted, and pressed on with a flurry of punches into thin air; an obvious attempt to divert Harry from what was coming next.

A blur of movement. He felt the sweaty cotton of Adrian's uniform. Harry knew what he was doing, but only after he'd done it. It was instinct now. The ends of Adrian's red belt flailed, as did his arms and legs, as Harry took him down hard enough to drive the air from Adrian's lungs. Harry rolled to deal the final strike. The flat of his hand sliced through the air, driving towards his opponent's throat. He delivered another bellowing kat-ra, but managed to stay his hand millimetres from Adrian's Adam's apple.

'Break!'

Harry blinked. Jim, his instructor, stood above them, eyes darting from Harry to Adrian and back again, assessing the situation, possible injuries, the intent, the potential for this to flare up. Not for the first time, Jim's handlebar moustache and stocky build reminded Harry of a villain in a spaghetti western.

'Ade! You okay?' Harry asked.

Adrian nodded, offering Harry a wary stare.

Jim turned on him. 'Harry -- push-ups. No take-downs, remember?'

'Sorry, Jim.'

After class Harry and Adrian helped pack up the mats while Jim checked forms for new students and packed away his EFTPOS machine. The 'dojo' was transformed back to a state school room. Desks, chairs, whiteboard. Harry offered Adrian another apology as they carried the gear back to Jim's RAV4. Adrian waved it away. In ones and twos the students bowed their way out. Harry pulled on his jacket and went to follow them.

'Harry! Can I see you?' Jim shut his briefcase, gave him a penetrating stare.

'I'm sorry,' Harry said. 'Sometimes I lose...'

'It's not that. I just can't believe that someone who's been doing martial arts less than a year would know those moves. You sure you haven't been training somewhere else?'

Harry shook his head. 'Just a few taekwondo lessons when I was a kid, honest.'

Jim nodded. 'Uh huh. Well, I might see if I can bump you through the gradings a bit faster. You'll have to learn the forms but somehow I can't see that being a problem for you.'

No, Harry couldn't see it being a problem either. It was about a month after he almost died on the water tower that he saw the flyer for karate taped to a telegraph pole outside a school near his place. He'd been looking for something. And this felt right. Harry had arrived at the first class in his shorts and t-shirt, bought his uniform that night, and hadn't looked back. The techniques, the forms, came easily to him.

'Listen,' Jim said, 'don't get me wrong. You're one of the most promising students I've had come through for years. But it's potentially dangerous putting you up against other students like Adrian, who are technically senior to you, when you're pulling things like leg sweeps out of the bag.'

'Yeah. Makes sense.' Harry turned to leave.

'One other thing -- are you interested in fighting competitively?'

Harry considered. 'What? Tournaments?'

'Yeah. Mixed martial arts.'

'I'd never thought about it.'

'Well, do.'

'Okay. See you, Jim.'

At the doorway Harry bowed into the dojo, then went out into the cool July night. His breath plumed as he walked back to his car. A single floodlight shone on his battered Corolla. Wind rustled through the trees. Harry always felt good after his training sessions. It was the perfect blend of cardio and strength work, and also gave his brain a workout.

He pulled out his phone, switched it on to check for messages. The screen lit up. One message. He called messagebank and listened.

'Hi... Harry... It's Bec...'

Harry's stomach did a slow roll. He reached for the roof of the car to steady himself, then cursed. It had been almost a year since they split up. In a lot of ways he'd really grown as a person in that time. The martial arts was one aspect of the journey he'd taken. But he still hadn't let her go, not really.

'Just phoning to see how you're going. I'll try again later. Bye.'

Harry tapped the red button and stood staring at the phone's screen, cold wind gusting around him. He got into the car and slammed the door.

Jesus. Bec? In a way, it was because of her that he'd almost died. And also because of her that he'd broken the biggest story of his career. Maybe that's why he hadn't got back in touch with her after getting out of hospital.

He turned it all over in his mind. How he'd felt when Bec had told him she didn't love him anymore. All those tears. A mad rush to find somewhere to live, which ended up being a ramshackle old Queenslander in the shadow of the Paddington water tower. And then the tattoos. The first -- the only one that still remained -- was on the back of his neck. A grid filled with strange symbols. Harry remembered waking with the mother of all hangovers and with that tattoo on his neck, and how he'd passed it off as a drunken misadventure. But that was just the start. Over the next few weeks, tattoos had materialised all over his body, bringing with them vivid nightmares that weren't nightmares at all, but memories sent from beyond the grave. A few years earlier SAS trooper Rob Johnson -- a true-blue Australian hero -- and his girlfriend had been murdered after discovering a drug-running operation involving a prominent property developer, an outlaw motorcycle gang and Andrew Cardinal, a former army intelligence officer turned politician.

As the tattoos covered Harry's body, Rob's spirit exerted control over his mind, until he found himself hunched over a sniper rifle, peering through the scope at the back of Cardinal's head. Harry managed to regain control, then found Rob's dossier of evidence against Cardinal in the Paddington water tower, and Rob's body under the house. But in the process he'd almost died: first at Cardinal's hands, then from a lightning strike. Cardinal fell to his death and the lightning burnt all the tattoos from Harry's body -- all except the first one, the one at the base of his neck.

Harry thought he hadn't been holding it against Bec. But it was worse than that, he realised. He'd been avoiding her because he didn't want to have to relive everything that had happened. A feeling of deep melancholy washed over him. They'd been together six years. If the stuff with Rob and Cardinal hadn't happened, would they have tried to make another go of it? Probably.

Jim slammed the classroom door, drawing Harry from his reverie. He slotted his keys into the ignition and started the engine.

CHAPTER 2

Harry sat at the dining room table, laptop open, heater under the table warming his feet. Outside, wind whistled through the eaves and rattled the loose gutters. At least the landlord hadn't raised the rent. Although, given there had been a body found under the house and Harry had decided to stay on, maybe that wasn't so strange.

His fingers played over the keyboard, stopping every now and then while he referred to his notes. He tried not to think of the growing collection of bills on the fridge, and the growing list of debtors in his invoice spreadsheet. It would work out. He'd lasted this long, and his news blog was growing, the freelance journalism work slowly coming in. He clicked through the tabs on his browser to the link Dave had sent him. A YouTube video of a kitten riding on a dog's back. It had been viewed over twenty-five million times, which was about a lifetime's traffic to his blog, at current rates.

'You're only as good as your last story,' Harry muttered, wondering again whether he should have taken his colleague's advice to go solo.

After he broke the Cardinal story, Harry quickly realised he couldn't stay with the Chermside Chronicle. He tried going back after he'd recovered enough from his injuries. For the first month, the phone barely stopped ringing -- fellow journos still chasing the 'inside story' on the scoop of the decade. Many of these had some claim on Harry: they went to uni together; they saw him at the media awards; they always believed in him. Harry refused them all. He wanted to leave the past in the past. When the attention had died out, Harry found himself staring at his screen. He was working on the Community Notices section. He realised he just couldn't do it anymore. It wasn't all to do with the job -- he'd changed as a person. He'd been changed.

The phone rang.

'Hey, Harry, it's Phil, from Queensland Police Media Unit.'

'Hey, Phil! How's things? It's been ages.'

'Yeah, too long. I'm not bad, not bad. You?'

'Ah, y'know, keeping my head above water... just.'

The line fell silent, and Harry heard the traffic in the background. Phil wasn't calling from the office. Harry imagined him standing outside Police Headquarters on Roma St, trying to shield the phone from noise as cars and buses belted past. When Harry had been at the Chronicle, they used to talk every week.

'Erm... I may have some work for you... kinda...'

'Oh yeah? Always keen for some work.' Even though he was sitting in front of the keyboard, Harry reached for his notebook and pen. Old habits die hard. He flipped to a new page and put Phil's name and the date at the top. Despite being known for his investigative journalism, Harry half expected Phil to come out with a pitch for some Queensland Police fundraiser.

'I'm not speaking to you on an official level, if you get me.'

Harry was conflicted. If it wasn't official, that probably meant Queensland Police wouldn't be signing the cheque. But this sounded like it could be interesting.

'That's cool. What's up?'

'I don't really want to talk about it over the phone. Can we meet? I'll buy you a coffee.'

'Sure. Sure thing.' Harry checked his calendar. 'How's Friday for you?'

'Perfect. You right to come into the city?'

Harry laughed. 'Yeah, I can just about afford the bus fare.'

'I'll meet you at Java Coast. How's ten a.m.?'

'Yep, good. I'll see you then.'

'See ya, mate.'

Harry hung up and added the appointment to his calendar.

He checked his emails. Scanned social media. When he'd used up all his standard procrastination techniques, he returned to the story he'd been working on.

Harry had received an email a couple of weeks earlier from someone calling himself 'Johnny'. Every day, emails dropped into Harry's inbox. He checked out the ones he could. Most turned out to be cranks, or scams. Still others just went unread, because Harry didn't have time. But there was something about this one. Harry's hunches weren't always right, but he'd learnt to trust them anyway. Johnny said he'd been molested by the former headmaster of one of Brisbane's most prestigious schools. Multiple times. Johnny said the headmaster was involved in a paedophile ring that included several high-profile identities. He'd been spurred into action after hearing that the ring was still active.

Harry had started collecting notes about the headmaster. Not surprisingly, Johnny wasn't using his full name on his email. He could have been using a fake name, for all Harry knew. Harry cross-referenced what he could -- namely that the headmaster was at Johnny's school when he said he was victimised. That all checked out, but that wasn't saying much. He'd sent Johnny an email, but was yet to receive a response. Maybe his instincts were wrong this time. Or maybe it had all got a little bit too real for Johnny when Harry's email arrived.

Harry sighed, opened his paedophilia file again and stared at it for a moment. He pulled up his background notes on the school. St Therese, Brisbane, for years six to twelve. One of the richest schools in Brisbane. He scanned the website. Boys with straw hats and blazers grinning at the camera. Lush playing fields, kept green all year by artesian bore water. World-class IT and science facilities. Drama department headed by an Academy Award nominee.

Rowing club, of course, on the river. Shit, they even had a shooting range. Past students included business leaders, world-renowned scientists, politicians at the state and federal level.

Harry pushed the laptop away from him. He felt like a cup of tea. No, he felt like a walk. He switched off the heater, grabbed his keys and phone and headed out the door. The winter wind had a real bite to it. He thrust his hands in his pockets, staring at the ground as he strode up the hill towards the water tower. It loomed above him, fresh white paint against the blue sky. In the wake of his investigation, after the police had finished with it, the government had stepped in and finally granted it heritage listing. Harry's old mate's campaign to save the tower snowballed into a campaign to restore the tower, and now Paddington's old dame stood proud, peering down on the poor plebs below.

At the top of the hill, Harry turned left, away from the main road. He had barely raised a sweat. It was hard to believe that not even a year ago, when Bill had taken him up to the tower that first time, Harry had been gasping for breath at this point. He watched the pavement cracks disappearing under his feet. Weeds in the gutter. An old Coke can. Above him, clouds skated across the sky. He saw the water tower every day, and every day he thought of those last terrifying moments, when the wind howled and his life hung by a thread.

He walked into the park and found the bench that looked over the city. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and tapped the screen without looking at it.

'Harry Hendrick.'

'Oh, hi, Harry. It's Rebecca.'

'Bec?'

'Yeah. How are you? Are you okay to talk?'

'Um... sure. Yeah, getting there. I'm sorry I haven't returned your call. I...'

'That's okay. Really. I know you've... you've been busy.'

For a moment Harry thought that was going to be all it was -- a shallow conversation. Two people who'd once travelled together, lived together, ate and slept and fucked together, trying to find common ground.

'Did you hear that I split up with Paul?'

'No. I... No.'

good enough to get engaged to, right after she'd told Harry she couldn't see them spending the rest of their lives together. He should have felt angry, but there was no anger left in him.

'Yeah. A couple of months ago. We... I don't know...'

Another pause. Harry didn't know what to say.

'Harry, I miss you.'

Harry felt his heart lurch. He wanted to tell her he missed her

too, but worried it would sound shallow, coming right after her declaration. But he did miss her. He rubbed his face. Stared at the ground, where ants moved in sluggish circles in the weak winter sun.

He was lonely. There was the work, but there was little else. His best friend Dave was busy with his final year of med school, Sandy the psychic was taking on clients again. All the people who'd rallied around him in his time of crisis were getting on with their lives. And now here was Bec. Harry had thought it was all over until her message the night before.

'Do you want to go out for a coffee or something sometime?' Harry nodded, then realised she couldn't see him. 'Yeah. Yeah, I do.'

'Oh... oh, okay,' Bec said. She sounded surprised, like she expected the opposite answer -- expected anger. 'Um... are you still at Paddington?'

'Yep. In the shade of the water tower.'

'How about Black Cat? Ten. Saturday morning.'

'Okay.'

'Okay.'

'Okay.'

Bec laughed. Harry smiled. He'd missed that sound. 'I'll see you then, unless you want to keep saying okay to each other?'

'Yep. Okay. See you, Harry.'

Copyright © 2016 by Gary Kemble


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