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The Winter Phoenix

Chapter Text

Why was it always the last customer?

Nicole spotted the young woman waving to flag her down. Gone eleven o'clock on a wet winter’s night in London’s West End, she hadn’t intended stopping for anyone else. As the woman opened the door of the taxi a sharp gust brought with it the rain, Nicole cursing under her breath as the person climbing in the back dripped water over the seat and the floor.

“What brings you out on a night like this?” Nicole asked, failing to hide her irritation.

“I needed to speak with the soothsayer,” the woman replied, the hood of a cloak covering her face.

“Where to?”

The woman lowered the garment from her head, Nicole glancing in the rearview mirror, struck by the delicate features of whoever was travelling on such a foul night. “The City of Angels, I beg you.”

Nicole’s brain whirred into action. City of Angels. Probably a pub, most likely a new one, drawing a blank on where it might be. “Sorry, I’ll need a road name. Not heard of that one.”

She wanted to ask her passenger why she needed an after-hours drinking venue. Then again, it was none of her business. Her job was to ferry people, not discuss someone’s life choices. She felt the woman’s gaze on her, looking again in the mirror. For a split second she could have sworn she recognised whoever this person was, like a face picked out in a crowd only to find they’re not the person you think they are. “Take me to the gate which is high on the hill,” the woman instructed. “The one to the west, where the many rest.”

“You don’t mean Highgate Cemetery? Bit late isn’t it. The place will be closed.”

“Yes, I wish to go there. Hurry, I don’t have much time.”

Nicole pulled away from the curb, the windscreen wipers flicking frantically back and forth in a bid to remove the water cascading down glass. Car lights glared, bedraggled pedestrians sought shelter under brollies, or in doorways, on a night when no living soul should be out, let alone a young woman wanting to be taken to a creepy Victorian cemetery on the other side of the city.

And, what was with all the poetic description? All she had to say was Highgate Cemetery please. And, step on it. Nicole’s gut told her she should have driven past, left the next taxi take this woman to wherever she needed to go. But no, damsel in distress and I'm there, every flippin’ time.

Nicole sighed audibly without meaning to, glancing again at her passenger. Early twenties she guessed, possibly five or so years younger, wearing what could only be described as a cape more suited to someone in their eighties, a badly dressed octogenarian at that. Not in the least bit fashionable, if such an outer garment ever was fashionable. Not that Nicole could claim the upper hand in the fashion stakes, her own clothes a mix of comfort and convenience, having to sit all evening behind a wheel.

As they neared the cemetery the woman pulled the hood over her head once more. Extracting a small purse from a pocket in the cape, she edged forward on the seat as if preparing to leap from the vehicle as soon as it stopped. An uneasiness pricked Nicole, wondering if this stranger might flee without paying, or worse ask her to wait. She did neither, handing over a twenty pound note, thanking Nicole as she opened the door. Before Nicole could give the woman her change she had exited, forced to lower her window despite the icy wind and torrential rain lashing the side of the vehicle.

“You forgot your change,” she said, holding out a handful of coins. “Is...is everything okay? You seem lost.”

The woman stared directly at Nicole, giving the impression she wanted to tell her something, something very important. Without uttering a single word she turned, running in the opposite direction, disappearing into the shadows.

All the way back to the depot Nicole’s mind remained on her final passenger. A woman on her own heading to a locked cemetery on such a night didn’t feel right. Leaving her there also didn’t feel right. Yet, there was something else tapping on the inside of her skull, a memory, a forgotten piece of information.

Xavier was in the small portacabin in the far corner of the parking lot, busy counting up that night’s takings. He was the one who suggested she supplement her meagre coffers by driving a taxi. He lived in the house where she rented a room, the third occupant a writer who mostly kept herself to herself, occasionally to be found in the kitchen gone midnight concocting some sort of power shake to keep her going through the night.

He looked up as she entered. “Strange night,” he said. “Usually take more when it’s this bad.”

“Dropped someone off at Highgate,” Nicole replied, plopping her takings on the desk, heading to the drinks machine. “Thought she meant a pub when she asked for the City of Angels.”

Xavier stopped counting. “What did she look like?”

The machine spat out one of Nicole’s coins. “Nothing special.”

“Young. Was she young?”

Nicole inserted another coin, the machine graciously accepting it this time, proceeding to make a watery hot chocolate. “Why would someone want to go there on a night like this?”

“Did she say anything?”

Nicole blew on the top of the drink, intense heat penetrating her fingers through the thin plastic. “Other than take me to the City of Angels. In a hurry too. Why is everyone always in a hurry?”

“Did she give you anything?”

Nicole slurped her drink, panting as the liquid torched her tongue. “Hot, hot. Twenty for a twelve ride. Wouldn’t take the change. Felt bad leaving her there, all alone.”

Xavier was already out of his seat, Nicole watching through the window as he headed to her taxi. He returned a few moments later shaking water from his hair. “Are you sure she didn’t give you anything, or say anything?”

“Okay, what’s going on here?”

“She should not be on this side,” was all Xavier said, returning to his seat. “If she is, there’s trouble.”

“Look, whoever she was, she’s a nut job being out in this weather.”

“Precisely. A young woman wearing a long black cape seeking sanctuary with the dead.”

“Err, I never said she was wearing a cape.”

Before Xavier could reply the lights in the portacabin buzzed then went out, the pair momentarily in darkness. “Get down,” he yelled, as the windows imploded.

She heard the muffled sound of someone entering, her ears still ringing from the deafening explosion of whatever struck the cabin, the floor of which she now lay. The contents in the plastic cup pooled on the dirty lino, a man’s boot landing squarely in the pale brown puddle sending a spray of brown liquid over her face.

The lights in the parking lot flickered back on, an orange glow illuminating the small space. How can he not see me? I’m right beside him.

“She’s got to be here,” the man shouted. “Check everywhere.”

Nicole held her breath, puzzled why this intruder couldn’t see her while mere inches from their feet. Or, Xavier for that matter. Where the hell was Xavier?

Shouts from outside gave her an opportunity to bring herself to a kneeling position, spying Xavier cowering behind the desk. “What the fuck,” she whispered.

“Shush. You need to leave. Now.”

“No shit.”

“I’ll create a distraction, you need to return to the house.”

“I can’t leave you here. These guys are trying to rob us.”

“You’ll be able to slip past. If you go quickly.”

“How am I supposed to just slip past them?”

“Take the keys to my car. When they leave drive home. Tell Trixie a crossing has occurred. She’ll understand.”

“Xav, what’s going on?”

“Not here. You need to go. Don’t look back. Don’t try to rescue me. You’re too important.”

Keys in hand, wearing most of her dropped drink, she crawled to the entrance, peering out into the parking lot where men in strange outfits were going from taxi to taxi, shattering windows with what appeared to be glowing blue spears. One called out. “I smell her. The consort was here.”

A figure emerged from the shadows. Thin faced, dressed in a suit resembling polished snakeskin, he moved towards Nicole’s taxi, taking his time to imbibe the air from the backseat where the caped woman had sat. “She has defied the treaty. Good, good.”

Nicole seized the opportunity to make a run for it, her hand shaking, her heart pounding against her ribcage as she crouched beside Xavier’s Fiat 500. Not the sort of car you’d usually associate with a hulking six foot man, especially since it was pink. She knew if she pressed the button to unlock the door she would immediately draw attention to her location. If she remained outside she might end up being found, even though one of these goons had practically stood on her without realising. She crawled on her belly across sodden ground to hide behind a pile of old tyres, praying to remain invisible. No amount of watching American cop shows ever prepared her for the real life, chips are down, kind of scenario in which she now found herself.

More shouts, this time from Xavier. “Hey, over here. So you found us.”

“Where is she?” the snakeskin figure snarled.

“I can take you to her. For a price.”

“I do not negotiate with your kind.”

“You have no choice.”

“Take him. Perhaps you might be of some value.”

Nicole watched as they dragged Xavier away, any ability to comprehend the situation gone, wishing she was sitting on her bed watching an episode of Jessica Jones while drinking a decent warm beverage. The area clear of intruders, the only sound remaining was that of alarms going off in taxis now missing their windows. Xavier was gone, as were the others, all that was left of him were his keys and his car. Her clothes soaked with muddy water, her body shaking uncontrollably, she drove the short distance to the house they shared, her whole world knocked off its familiar axis in the space of an hour.

Trixie was in the kitchen making herself a smoothie, sniffing the air as Nicole entered. Her relaxed expression morphed into one of concern. “Where’s Xavier?”

“I..I don’t know. There were these guys...with spears, they took him. Something about a crossing.”

Trixie rushed to the window motioning to Nicole to turn off the light. She stood perfectly still, listening, looking for any signs of movement outside. “Did anyone follow you?”

“What is going on?”

“We need to leave. It’s not safe here anymore. Grab a few things. Hurry.”

“Not until you tell me what the fuck is going on here.”

“There’s not much time. They’ll work out where you are. Or, extract it from Xavier. My liege your life is in danger.”

Nicole squinted in the darkness in search of a chair. “I’m not going anywhere until you explain to me what’s happening.”

Trixie approached the table, her voice low as if fearful someone might be listening. “If they’re here it can mean only one thing.”

“You realise none of what you’ve just said makes any sense. This whole night doesn’t make sense. What with the woman in my taxi wanting to go to Highgate cemetery.”

“She was here. My sister was here. Your wife.”

“My what?”