It was past eleven by the time Mona made it home from the diner. Her heels hurt, her head hurt, and she could feel about four layers of grease sticking to her skin. Piece of shit Last-Minute-Joes. Everybody gotta have one more minute, one more smile. Like it wasn't gonna be hard enough gettin' home. Fuck's sake. At least tomorrow was her day off. She could go to bed now and sleep 'til noon. She snorted, fumbling her key in the lock. Yeah. That sounded like one hell of a plan, right enough.
She heard the shuffle down the end of the alley just as the lock clicked. The shift-thump of somebody walkin'. Dragging something. The hairs stirred on the back of her neck, but she made sure not to turn her head. She pushed the door open silently ahead of her. Put her hand back down by her side, curled the key up between her knuckles. She could feel the other thing, the darker thing, wake up and writhe at the back of her mind. She didn't let it out. Not yet. Let's do this so the cops might listen later first.
Something showed in the corner of her eye. Comin' up out of the shadows down the end of the alley, showin' up bright and clear. White. Pure white, and all the way wrong. A human figure, slight and limping, mottled black and white and almost glowing. Ah hell. Hell and damnation. What the flying fuck was she doing here?
"Mona," said Ellie Lime, shift-thumping up to stand beside her, her weight on her good leg and her twisted foot listing out to one side. "I need your help. I'm sorry. I know we ain't supposed to anymore. But I need you, need the crew. I need it now, and I need it bad."
Mona blinked. Looked at her, letting the key slip out from between her knuckles and dangle loose in her hand. Ellie glared up at her, tight-faced and desperate, the lime white on her skin and the bullet hole black in her chest. She looked like a horror. She always did. Now, though, she looked scared too. She looked hard and mean and ready to kill somebody. Nothing ever ended well when Ellie looked like that. But then, nothing ever started well to make it happen, either. Somebody made Ellie desperate, somebody needed puttin' down. Easy as.
"What's wrong?" she asked, letting the thing in the back of her skull slip loose a bit. Letting the shadows swarm down over her greasy skin and tired uniform. Letting them turn her, letting them make her somethin' else. Letting it stand as Ellie's answer. "What happened?"
Ellie held out a hand. The lime was pulled away from it, leaving only the grey-black pallor of her skin. There was a glint of gold there. Hard to see in the alley dark. A medallion, Mona thought. One of them little ones, like for saints. There was dark on it. Dirt, maybe. Or blood.
"A friend of mine got taken," Ellie said, voice rough and ravaged and tight. "Good friend. Proper friend. Hurt her to do it. I need to find her, Mona. I need to find her, see her safe. Need to fix them what took her. She ain't got nothin' worth takin' her for. Soon as they figure that out, they gonna do more than hurt her. Need to find her before then. Need to make sure that doesn't happen. Y'understand me?"
"Yeah," Mona said. Reaching out, taking the little bit of gold in her own hand. A saint, yeah. St Jude. And blood too. "I understand, Ellie. Who is she? Ain't figured you to have many friends. Not normal, anyway. She must be something special, huh?"
Ellie looked away. "Her name's Mama Belle," she said, real soft. "She's special, yeah. She's an angel. Works down the morgue. Cleaner. She was there ... she was there the night I came back. She was talking to me. Talks to all us dead folk. I was lying there. I was scared. Rememberin' pain. Then there was her voice. Talked to us like we was people still, even though we lyin' there naked in the dark. Got scared when I came out. Me all shinin', all deathly. She got so scared. She kept talkin', though. When she saw I was hurt. Crying. I come back from the dead, and she done talked to me. Made me feel halfway right."
Made her feel halfway right. Some murdered girl, shot and buried in lime, crawling outta her grave, and some lady with a medallion to St Jude talked to her and made her feel all right.
Okay. Okay then. She could call her crew for that. She could stand to make that right.
"Where they take her from?" she asked, pullin' her door gently closed again. The shadows sealed shut across her, making it so it weren't Mona standin' there no more. It was Umbra. She curled the medallion gently in her palm, and handed it back. "Her home? The morgue?"
"Her home," Ellie said, standing straighter, the lime rippling across her skin. "Top o' Brewer Street. You call the others, I'll meet ya there?"
Umbra nodded. "Sure thing. Ned and Porter oughta be free. You think that'll be enough?"
Ellie grinned blackly. "Oughta be," she said. "Oughta be."
Brewer Street was dead and empty when they drifted in. Wasn't normal, that, even for goin' on midnight. Lotsa people worked nights around Brewer Street, lotsa people worked early mornings. Always somebody comin' and goin'. Or there was meant to be. It was quiet now. The whole place was hushed. Waiting. Couple of curtains twitched closed when they landed. Couple of light switched off.
"Well then," said Porter, balancing on his toes. His voice was low, contemplative. "Guess places know when somethin's wrong, huh?"
"Guess they do," Mona agreed, nodding shortly. "Come on. Ellie oughta be waitin' here somewhere."
"There," Ned said. Hissed. His form flickered, writhed, a coil of smoke and amber rippling out to point the way. A building, further down the street. Tired. Small. Ellie was standing on the doorstep, under the washing from the first floor windows. Her lime shone bright. The door behind her was dark and empty. Smashed in.
"... Yeah," Mona said quietly. "I see it. Ned? You wanna head over and do your thing?"
He didn't answer. Flickered forward instead. A vaguely man-shaped thing, loping across the street. Ned Steel. Mr Nightmare. A demonic thing, with the echoes of pain and horror writhing up beneath his feet. He looked right, movin' in by Ellie. He looked a match for her. She nodded when he passed. Inclined her head, let him through. It'd been a while since the Night Shift had run together. Didn't look to be slowin' anybody down too much.
"Anything?" Mona asked, her and Porter comin' up more slowly behind them. She said it soft. Easy. Didn't do well to bother Ned when he was working. Echoes were twitchy things. Needed to be pulled up slow and careful, right? Ned didn't seem much bothered, though. He turned to her, amber eyes shining in a black skull. Then he blinked, and turned to Ellie.
"They're angry," he said, standing in the splinters of the smashed-up door. There was blood on one of the door posts. Like somebody'd smashed a woman's head into it to daze her, slow her down. "They're afraid, and they're angry. They think she's done something. Raised something. They think she knows something she shouldn't know. They want her to tell it to them. Gonna take her out where the bodies are. See what she knows. Make sure she ain't gonna tell no one."
Ellie stiffened. Straightened. The lime on her face grew so thick it made it hard to see. The wound in her chest pulsed blackly. Her voice, coming out of it, was a growl.
"She ain't raised nobody," she snarled. "She ain't one of us. She don't know nothin' like that!"
Ned looked at her, sad and silent. 'Cause, well. Mama Belle sure knew somethin' like that. At least one thing. One body, standing there snarling at them all. And Ellie realised, after a second. Ellie clocked it. Her heart broke, what was left of it after the bullet. They watched it happening. Her heart broke, and then her whole body hardened. Sheathed over in white, in lime, bright white and burning. Her eyes shone black as the wound in her chest. Them boys was gonna be dead by the end of this. They gonna see what Mama Belle done raised.
Mona drifted to her. Touched her shoulder lightly. It burned, even through the shadows, the shield of Umbra's darkness. Didn't matter, though. Mona'd been burned one whole lot worse than that before. Didn't matter a damn.
"No time to waste, then," she said, soft and sweet and cold. Turnin', looking at her boys. "You get us to them, Ned? You and Porter. You know where they are?"
Ned nodded. A black cloud of smoke and misery. He coiled himself around Porter, seeped a tendril of himself inside his partner's mind. Porter didn't flinch. Reached out instead, gently took hold of her and Ellie's hands. Ellie remembered herself enough to shed the lime from hers. Porter hit hard, but he weren't as tough as the rest of them. She could do him a lotta damage, if she was minded to. She wasn't, though. Never was. Porter was always the kindest of them.
He held to them tight as his eyes filmed white, his hands goin' grey at the knuckles. Big hands. Warm hands, full of power. It hummed through him, curled his lips, Ned dark and cloying at his back. The power rippled, flashed. And then, between one breath and the next, the four of them was someplace else.
Waste ground, Mona thought coolly, letting Porter go to look around. Industrial, abandoned. The old steelworks. Well then. She wondered idly if there were any portable lime pits lurking around. Seemed like the place for 'em.
"They're near," Ned whispered, coiling free of his partner. "Over there. Behind the water tanks. Three ... Four. Four of 'em. And Ellie's friend. They're hurting her. She's angry. She's hurt, but she's angry more. They hurt people. They buried 'em. She begs forgiveness for the sin, but she'd bury 'em all alive. All those girls. They murdered all those girls. Lord forgive her, but she'd strike them down herself for that. They don't deserve no better."
Ah, thought Mona. Well. If the lady so wished.
"Porter," she said softly. "Take Ellie. Get Mama Belle clear, let Ellie make a start. Ned and I will finish the rest."
Porter looked at her. Placid, calm. He was kind, always had been, but kindness had its limits. He nodded, sweet and serene, and took both Ellie's hands in his. Ned flickered a coil lightly across his cheek. Porter smiled. Softly. And vanished, taking Ellie with him.
Umbra moved the instant he was gone, cold rage and shadows flowing forwards towards the water tanks, Mr Nightmare a loping demon at her back. They kept a steady pace. Took their time. No need to rush. The screams and shooting started up ahead as Ellie landed. They didn't worry about it too much. Weren't a lot bullets could do against a revenant.
There were two already down by the time they made the scene. One on the ground. Crying, screaming, his arm seared clear to the bone. The other in Ellie's hands, his throat turning black under her grip. Of the other two, one was behind Ellie, beating at her with a length of steel. The last was scrambling backwards. Running. A coward. Pissing himself, running for his life.
That one for Ned, then. He caught the thought nearly before she'd finished having it, the nightmare already loping forward. Casual. Leisurely. Ain't nobody ever ran fast enough to get away from Mr Nightmare. Ain't nobody ever goin' to. Umbra sneered, and turned to finish the last few by herself.
Darkness coiled. Rippled. Moved. Reached up, reached over. Flowed across shoes and clothes and skin. The one on the ground, first, hunched blubbering around his arm. Shadows reached up, flowed across his face, into his mouth. Down his throat, past the screaming. Ignoring it. Choking it. Finishing it. The second one, still on his feet, took a little bit more doing. Only a smidgen, though. Only a touch. Blinding. Choking. Smothering. The steel bar hit the ground with a ringing clatter. The body followed it with a muffled thud. Easy. Easy as.
Ellie dropped hers a second later, his throat a black and bubbled ruin, blood flecked through the froth at his lips. Ned ghosted back to them not too long after, licking his lips, his eyes glowing a brighter orange. The body he'd left over in the scrub and the grass might still be breathin', for all the good that was gonna do it. Mr Nightmare didn't feast on the physical. They stood there, the three of them. Let themselves settle a bit. Let themselves wait.
Porter came back the old fashioned way, walking back across from behind the tanks in a steady, careful manner. Not for his own sake, that. There was a lady on his arm. Limping. Bleeding. Walking, though. Holding her head up high. Ellie made a noise in her throat. A crying, tearful sound. Mama Belle held out a hand to her. Ignoring the rest of them. Ignoring the bodies at their feet. She came to a stop, let Porter hold her up, and held out one hand towards Ellie.
Ellie ran to her. The lime drew back as far as Mona had ever seen it go, writhed back to mottle her torso and her legs, but left her arms clear. Her face. Her expression. Mama reached up to cup her hand to Ellie's neck. Not a hug, the lime would never go far enough for that, but as near as could be managed. She tugged Ellie in. Rested their foreheads together.
"It's all right, darlin'," she whispered, holding Ellie close. "It's okay. I'm okay. You did good, honey. Them other poor girls gonna rest easy now. You done good. It's okay."
And yes, Mona thought. Yes, that was right. Those other girls would rest easy now. They'd need to be found, need to be dug up and put somewhere proper, somewhere peaceful. But they'd rest. They wouldn't have to climb up themselves, not like Ellie had. They wouldn't have to pull themselves out of a grave, or a fire, or the echoes of old blood. They could lie easy. They could rest in peace.
She'd have to think about that some, she thought. She'd have to think about what it meant. They weren't supposed to run anymore. The four of them, the others around the city. The night shift, the graveyard crew. They were supposed to stop, supposed to lie quiet before some cop or some daylight hero started coming for them. They left too many bodies behind them. The night shift was supposed to be over and done.
But sometimes people needed help. Sometimes live ones, needing help to be safe, and sometimes bodies, needing help to rest easy. And, too, sometimes bodies needing putting in the ground. Like the lady said. Like Mama Belle had said.
At the end of the day, God forgive them, some bastards didn't deserve no better.
Two weeks later, the papers were full of the Steelworks Slayers. Seven bodies had been found buried up in the waste ground there. An intended eighth victim, a cleaner at the city morgue, had managed to escape the killers when they stumbled across another group at the burial site. She wasn't too clear on what had happened exactly, who the other group had been, but there'd been shots fired and the killers had been distracted and she'd fled in the confusion. She'd run to a police station, staggered in trying to tell her story. When police had returned to the site, there'd been signs of a gunfight, a struggle, but no bodies. One man, still alive, but blank-eyed and unresponsive. On further investigation of the scene, and testimony from the cleaner, the police had discovered evidence of burial at various points around the site. Seven bodies, all female, had been removed in various states of disrepair. Police were working to identify the victims, and track down the rest of the killers.
Mona hadn't read the story herself. She'd heard it on the news, heard patrons at the diner discussing it. Heard from Mama Belle what she'd been telling the police, and what she hadn't been telling them too. She'd heard from Ellie, heard from Ned. Heard from Porter, stopping by to look after Mama Belle.
She'd heard from a few other people too. People like Umbra, and Mr Nightmare, and Ellie Lime. The city and its surrounds had a lotta graveyards. Lotta waste grounds and lime pits, too, some of 'em one hell of a lot older than others. Burnt out buildings, bloodstained alleyways. Run-off drains, landfill sites. She and hers weren't the only ones who'd come crawling out of them at one point or another. Not that there were many of them, exactly. But there were some. Old friends. Old companions in arms. The world had a lot of daylight heroes, but the night shift had its numbers too.
Numbers, and maybe a job to do. Maybe, when it came down to it, still some jobs to do.
Hell, Mona thought. Putting her key in the lock, looking forward to taking her shoes off, showering the grease off her skin, and sleeping in until noon tomorrow. Feeling the shadows tickle at the back of her skull. Hell. At least it beat a diner full of Last-Minute-Joes, huh?
'Cause something sure had to.