A failed Apocalypse wasn’t the worst thing ever to hit this universe, though you wouldn’t know it from the pissing and moaning Downstairs. The old-school-tie boys down in the lowest places didn’t even notice the bottom was dropping—or is that, the top was rising?—out of the hellfire-and-damnation market for hundreds of years.
Once Mr. Newton and Mr. Darwin and, bless him, Monsieur Voltaire really started getting their propaganda out there, we really should have known to kiss the good times goodbye.
So what was I doing still dwelling Earthside? Well, a demon has a certain standard of living to maintain, regardless of matters on the mothership. I might as well put my talents to work up here, where they’re more appreciated.
Back in the old days, I think people like my consultant Fell would have found some excuse to avoid or banish the likes of me, at least when the Church was watching. He had that seminary-school bearing about him, right down to the tweed and the pudge and the smell of incense and old books all over him, as if he rolled in them naked like a dog---and maybe he did. He was the type who thinks that fashionable clothes are a sinful indulgence but top-shelf brandy is just the natural order of things. The sort who thinks that working folks’ magic is demonic, but happily goes to the society ladies’ séances.
I know that’s unkind of me, but I have to think demonic thoughts on occasion, don’t I? Truth is, Fell was as close as it gets to a friend in this business—I know he didn’t have it in him to knife me in the back, though he very well might someday in the front.
He ran a no-name little specialty bookstore in Soho, and it wasn’t quite what “specialty” generally means in Soho. The place managed to give off an air of stifling antiquity – and for such a flammable, shabby little place sitting on that kind of real estate, well, Fell had to be more than met the eye.
As if I didn’t already know that. He was my consultant when I needed to know things. Things that were closed to me. And I didn’t like to admit that anything was.
He was an odd bird. It wasn’t just that he made my gaydar shriek like it was the Blitz all over again. I mean who, of any bent, even the bentest, dips snuff with a pinky nail out of a silver box anymore? No, it wasn’t that that had all my small hairs standing up (and I do mean all of ‘em). It was the way he set off my everythingdar. My ‘dar-‘dar. The sense that there was something I should be sensing.
The deeper one’s secrets go, the more layers it’s better to pile on top of them. For example, I don’t really care if anyone susses out that I’m queerer than a tree full of monkeys eating three-dollar bills—which is pretty friggin’ queer in London—it’s just another layer that anyone who senses something odd about me has to get through. Which is why I stay so far in the closet that I was once almost eaten by a talking lion.
I know that part of this business is the dames, and I’ve seen some fine ones. This one looked like some eccentric inventor’s prototype. The kind of inventor who’d be known as a crackpot in his own time and a far-seeing genius five centuries later (and I’ve been around long enough to have known a few of those).
She had soft, shiny ginger hair that should have clashed with her scarlet dress, but didn’t, and freckles that let you know she spent a lot of time in the sun, and from the way they spilled over her shoulders and cleavage, a man couldn’t help but wonder if she spent a lot of time outdoors in her birthday suit.
At least, I assume a man would wonder that. I’m not technically a man myself, but I’ve watched them a lot.
She had splendid gams. Well, even after all this time as a hardboiled gumshoe, I’m still not entirely sure what gams are, but I’m sure hers were excellent.
“You’ve got to help me, Mr. Crowley,” she said.
“Got to?” I said.
“Got to,” she repeated. “Seems like, from the things I’ve heard about you, you have a soft spot for a lady in a fix.”
I knew how this movie goes. She was going to bribe me with first money, then sex, then an appeal to my well-hidden heart of gold and nobly anti-heroic code of ethics. Sometimes they reverse the order of the first two, but the one that comes last is always the most embarrassing. While I literally do have all the time in the world, I’m not one of those who enjoy humiliation, particularly when it’s my own.
I sighed, theatrically, and lit a cigar. She didn’t wince or feign coughing. Good; fragile flowers are always more work than tough dames, despite the conventional wisdom. “Well, Miss—“
“Pepper,” she said quickly. I thought that was implausible, but it suited her.
“Pepper, why don’t you just tell me what the problem is and I’ll see if it’s something that matches my area of expertise.” I held up my hand to forestall any protests. “I take cash only. No credit cards.”
She looked noticeably relieved at this. Obviously, the name on her credit card wasn’t Pepper. That’s all right. My name in Hell’s Bad Books isn’t Anthony J. Crowley either. But the name on my office door is.
She looked like she was trying to turn on the waterworks, but didn’t quite have enough force behind it. Or maybe she was just dehydrated. I got up from behind my desk and poured two fingers of Scotch for her and three for me. She took it gratefully and threw it back like her tonsils had a bullseye. “Thank you,” she said, and she started to tell me a story.
“It’s about my friend Adam,” she began. She cut me off with a look – “it’s not like that”—with the kind of inflection that told me immediately that she wanted it to be like that. “We grew up together. Little village in Oxfordshire, you won’t have heard of it. My friends and I, we all moved to London, went to uni, got jobs…and then he started to change. Bit hard to put our finger on at first, but he didn’t tell me things like he used to. Even when we went down the pub and tied it on, he wouldn’t talk straight anymore. I started to worry. Thought he might have fallen in with a bad crowd—worse than ours, I mean—but we still had a good time, we were friends…I thought.”
Then her pretty, ginger-lashed eyes got a faraway, sad look. “And then he disappeared. I haven’t heard from him in days. He won’t answer his phone. Won’t hit ‘like’ on Facebook. Haven’t seen him at the pub. I went to his door and he didn’t answer.”
I sat back with my arse on the desk as if I were contemplating all the mysteries of the universe. Most of which I’ve been over many times. But it’s a useful look, from a theatrical point of view; I’ve seen it in a tonne of movies. I even tugged on my shades, as though I were going to give the girl a glimpse of my eyes. Which I wasn’t.
“And you think perhaps he’s fallen by some foul play,” I said. They always think that, poor doves. Never want to even consider the possibility that he might have just found her tiresome.
“I don’t think that,” she said fiercely, jumping to her feet, and from the look in her eyes, I knew she was not fooling herself, that she fervently believed it. “I know he’s in trouble. Or is causing trouble. I just need to know the truth, Mr. Crowley, and I have word from the finest of sources that you are one of the very few who could help find it.”
I stepped back just a little bit. She was very much in my face, just a little tiny bit between my legs, and I was hungry enough that the faint scent of her lunchtime curry on her breath was making my mouth water. I would only have to stick my tongue out a little bit further to smell her perfume as well, but I managed to refrain.
“Soundsss to me like you have a theory, Miss Pepper,” I said.
She drew back and gathered up her strength, her peaches-and-cream cheeks beneath the freckles growing first red, then pale. “I’m afraid to say it, but the truth is, I suspect that he was taken, for reasons of their own…by The Them.”
I blinked behind my shades. I don’t think I had done that yet that day. “The Them,” I said, swallowing.
“Yes,” she said.
I drew in breath I didn’t need, and saw the numbers on my mental invoice change by a few decimal points. “Well, that’s a serious matter. You’ll have to tell me everything you know about why you think this is the case.”
“I thought about that,” she said, and reached in her purse (which wasn’t really a woman’s purse, per se, it was more like one of those bags that both genders carry nowadays and men get really upset if anyone calls it a purse, but it’s a purse nonetheless) and pulled out a very thick padded manila envelope. “I’ve written down some documentation. Oh, I didn’t stalk him, exactly. I just put together some observations. And some things from his flat. And his chat logs and baby pictures. Perfectly normal.” She flashed me an odd little smile, and there was something admirable about her imperfect teeth. One, at least, was a crown. She’d been in fights. That could be another decimal point, possibly. “So can I trust you, Mr. Crowley?”
I did my best to smile like a snake, but I fear the best I could do in that moment was a gecko. “You can trust me to try my best, milady, and to respect your privacy. All I ask is 30% up front.”
She sighed, theatrically, making her chest heave, theatrically. Out of courtesy, I pretended it had an effect on me. She reached in her gender-neutral purse, and pulled out another envelope. “This is all I have right now. I hope it’s enough.”
I took it, looked at the large-denomination notes inside, and nodded. “It probably is. Hard to say, though. Things might get complicated.”
She nodded as though she’d expected nothing less, and sashayed out of my office just like a high-class, curvy dame who was wearing sexy high heels like that for the first time in her life.
Now, I’m a man-shaped being of the world, so my first impulse was to look at that envelope full of cash in my right hand, and obey that fine Marxist principle to follow the money. (Call him a moonbat all you like, he certainly understood capitalism). Where would a lady like “Pepper,” who probably worked for a NGO devoted to pacifism or women’s advancement or saving the whales (and wore dark stockings so I wouldn’t notice her unshaven legs) and played for a brutal women’s rugby side on the week-ends, get the kind of lucre I was holding? One valid avenue of exploration, for sure.
But as soon as I saw the first piece of paper—at least I think it was paper; it might have been parchment or papyrus, I was no expert—that fell out of the envelope in my left hand, I knew I was going to have to call Fell. Whether he’d be glad to hear from me or not.
Fell’s Rare Books was not welcoming. It never had been. With its layers of dust, its unattractive window displays, its completely random and unpredictable hours, and the generally surly mannerisms of its owner, one didn’t have to be a supersleuth like me to deduce that Ezra Fell really, really did not like customers very much.
Unfortunately, much the way cats will always gravitate to the ailu—alur—person who doesn’t like them, customers seemed to be rather fond of him, or at least intrigued by the mysteries his shop presented, which were probably mostly of a scientific nature, to do with whether dust bunnies are capable of evolving complex civilisations if given ideal conditions.
So there were usually a few browsers risking death by bookslide in his unfriendly stacks, and watching Fell dispatch them into the friendlier environs of the filthy alley outside and the shop’s pornographic neighbour was both fascinating and rather chilling.
Of course, unlucky me, I tend to find all too many things about him fascinating. “Why hello, Crowley,” he said in an unnervingly chipper fashion. “Would you like a cup of tea?’
I would. Even the cups of tea sitting around various odd places on his massive reading-table, long since gone cold and some starting to grow in their winter coats on top, didn’t put me off it. He did make good tea.
“I have…a conundrum for you,” I said.
“Of course you do, dear boy,” he said, laying a perfectly manicured hand on my arm just to make me jump, I’m quite certain. He did that all the time, and played it off with a dithering, distracted innocence. “I quite like your conundra.”
“Look, this might be a little bit…I mean, it does seem that there could be a very handsome payoff…but I ought to warn you…this does have the potential to be…dangerous.”
“I would expect nothing less,” he said, looking at me with his benign little half-smile that made him look like he was conversing with the world’s biggest idiot and made me wonder what it would take to wipe it off. I bet if his mouth was full of my cock he couldn’t do that…and oh Somebody did I just think that out loud?
Paranoia comes with the territory. Just because I’d never seen any evidence that he could read my mind was no reason to assume that he couldn’t—all too many people and not-quite-people I’ve encountered in this business can and will. He still, perfectly calmly and mildly, handed me my tea and said, “Now, start from the beginning.”
I supposed I could have gone on about the garden and the tree and the apple and the woman and all that, but I didn’t, I started with the contemporary dame, the ginger with the trouble that she probably knew was above my pay grade, so she decided to increase my pay grade. I told him the gist of her tale, and finished up with, “Never expected to see a bird like that where I keep my office. Well, unless she was in a football riot.”
“I thought your flat was in Mayfair,” said Fell, with great precision.
“It is, but my office isn’t. I have to keep down appearances.”
He just nodded. Perhaps he knew a little bit about that himself. He took a long lingering sip of tea, with a delicate little slurping noise that gave me more untimely ideas, and then looked a bit puzzled. “Well, the Them are a rather legendary presence, but I don’t think this is necessarily going to be more of an ordeal for us than that business with the counterfeit bird statue.”
“I don’t want to discuss that,” I said.
“Or the three dead Russians wearing ice skates.”
“Or the crazy girl who looked just like the dead girl, who wasn’t really dead at all…”
“Water under the bridge.”
“And I have to say, Crowley, even in my line of work there are certain superiors whom I must answer to, and that zombie dinosaur incident really did come close to stretching my position to the limit…”
“I thought I said we don’t talk about that. Ever.”
Did I mention that Fell has actually been fairly invaluable as a consultant? So much so that I am very careful about ever exposing him to possible violence. It’s not that I feel protective for any squishy reasons, it’s that the brain inside that poofy exterior is sharper than a porcupine orgy, even if it’s just as busy and cluttered. I don’t know how he knows everything that’s ever been in the British Museum, even uncatalogued, and can rattle off the contents of centuries of tedious legal documents that every historian knows for a fact were utterly destroyed in the Great Fire. To be honest, I don’t care how he does it. I’m not a blackmailer, so I don’t need to know things like that. I just need to keep him safe, and on my good side.
Well, of course all sides are my good side. Particularly my backside, which I am fairly certain he doesn’t mind glancing at from time to time.
The soft gasp that came from Fell wasn’t anything to do with me, it was at the contents of the envelope. With a shocking speed, he jumped up from the table and rummaged in a drawer of a ratty old bureau, and came out with a pair of latex gloves. Oh yes, I remembered just in time. Nerdy antiquarians use them too.
I came around behind him to see just what had him so enraptured, and the particular piece of grungy vellum looked at first like a huge blob of spidery lines, but peering really close, closer still, so close I could smell Fell’s hair, I saw what had evaded me before. It was a map, and a map of more-or-less London a very long time ago…and yet not. There were rivers in the wrong places. There was a faint outline of Tube routes on a map that had to be at least three or four hundred years old. There were too many bridges, and not enough slums.
“And you say…that girl brought you this?” Fell demanded, in breathless disbelief. I felt a bizarre flash of something that I would, under any other circumstances, call jealousy.
“Yes. It belonged to Adam. The man we’re looking for, remember?” I drew an object of much more recent and less arcane vintage out of the envelope—a photo of a young man with curly golden hair and a face so beautiful it should be illegal and probably was in some countries.
Fell let out a low whistle. “Well, I can certainly see why she wants so much to find him, then.” All right, that was definitely jealousy. But blessit, I’m a professional. His curiosity about the picture settled, Fell turned back towards the map, the real object of his lust.
“What’s the point of those extra rivers?”
“Those aren’t rivers, Crowley. They’re ley lines.”
He was almost oblivious to me now, muttering to himself, “…was almost certain all copies of this were lost. Major convergence at the Tower, of course, and another…right here, just about where St. James’s Park is nowadays.”
“And those streets that never existed?”
Oh. My badness! It seems the missing Adonis was involved in some rather deep business indeed, or why else would he possess a copy of a map of supernatural London, one commissioned in the murky depths of history for unknown purposes, and full of information that even those of my affiliation—and my occupation—didn’t really have much need to know.
See, the bottom dropped out of the demon racket back in the so-called “Enlightenment,” and we weren’t the only critters displaced. You can think of it rather like urban renewal; when all the old gangs that used to keep some modicum of thuggish order in place on their traditional turf get displaced and pushed onto other peoples’ traditional turf, that’s when all Hell tends to break loose, even if Hell isn’t what it used to be. Next thing you know, gentlemen from good families start carving up prostitutes, Anne Boleyn gets sighted playing footie with her own head, and the whole blessed city starts tilting towards the sea. You have to be careful with this kind of thing, and mortals never are. I don’t even want to go into what the Blitz stirred up, so I won’t. I’m not supposed to be old enough to remember that anyway.
“Do you think this Adam might have been involved in…occult activities?” Fell said carefully, as if he might be afraid of offending me. Not for the first time I got a shock looking into his eyes, and started to get the creepy feeling he might know more about me than I thought he did.
“Looks like a distinct possibility, doesn’t it? When I find him, I’ll be sure to count his nipples,” I said, just to watch Fell turn pink and then chuckle. Fell wasn’t my only consultant, just my best. I’ve hired some retainers best forgotten, including that one with the very odd fixation. They have specialty films even for that in Soho.
“I could probably be more helpful if we were to visit some of these locations with the greatest convergences,” he said.
I nodded. Clues don’t show up on maps most of the time. If they did, my job would be a lot easier.
“Shall we start with the one at St. James? Or were you really hoping to have an excuse to visit scenic Brixton?”
Fell turned a little pale. “St. James’ please. Pity Newgate’s gone, I’m sure there were good resonances there. Useful ones, I mean.”
And here I’d thought he had a weak stomach.
“What are you doing?” I asked as he rummaged about in the broken-down stack of shelving he called a pantry.
“I have to bring bread for the ducks,” he said.
Fussy old bird. This was going to be a long case. Every sleuth has a little bit of the ol’ black magic that helps us see things. I don’t have cocaine-fueled clarity like Holmes, or an endless parade of men who get chatty while being fucked like Mitchell, or a much-smarter spouse like Monk or Wimsey. What I do have, I suppose, is a certain patience. As superpowers go, it’s not impressive, so it’s highly underrated.
When Mr. Crowley came to my shop this time, it was painfully obvious the dear lad had no idea what he had or what he was getting into. That’s to be expected, I suppose, since, although tooting one’s horn simply isn’t done, the fact remains that I do have access to certain social circles that he does not, and that is where such things are likely to be spoken of.
All gentlemen’s clubs are founded on a certain affinity of course, and there is a rather exclusive one in Pall Mall that I used to attend much more frequently in more romantic times. Still, although I fear I am nowhere near so welcome as in olden days, I have still stopped by for a tipple often enough to hear the already rather tippled Mr. Gabriel with his feathers quite ruffled, telling a garbled and nonsensical tale about how the human criminal enterprise The Them had managed to face down the Gang of Four and send them whimpering like puppies back into the minds of mankind.
Gabriel was not pleased about this. For all their unpleasantness, the Gang of Four are at least—how did he put it?—at least related to Our Kind. By which he meant, they may be mass-murdering planet-destroying psychopaths, but at least they weren’t common. At least they belonged to his level of society, and had a certain pedigree, and a Destiny.
As for me, I no longer have a taste for apocalyptic grandeur. I saw quite enough starvation and disease and death at Ypres—oh, I’m not supposed to be old enough to remember that, but I’ve been pretending to be my own son for centuries now—and I find the Thames polluted aplenty without putting blood in it and boiling it as though it were the grand finale of a Scottish cooking show.
Perhaps this taste is what led me to form my tolerant alliance with Mr. Crowley and his predictable cynicism. I worry about my kind, as it were, becoming isolated from the mortal world once again—so that when the next crisis arises, we will never have seen it coming. Crowley intrigues me, because, for a human, if indeed he is one, he is remarkably, how shall I say, charged with incongruousness.
He tingles my nose, to the point where I am starting to wonder if my usual performance, which I’m told is just like one of the Stately Homos of Old England, is starting to sink a little deeper. He is quite lithe, after all, and blessed with rather good cheekbones, and I’m quite certain he wears those dark glasses at all times so no one can see where his eyes are resting. Oh yes, he claims it’s a disability, the poor dear. Sensitivity to light. I may be an angel, but that doesn’t mean I have to be a fool.
Our excursion to St James’ Park did not seem to be immediately fruitful, though I did see a very rare king eider at the duck pond, a nice addition to my life list. Mr. Crowley’s temper seemed to heat as we wandered the faint lines of the old map. The old boy really needs to learn patience. It soon became clear that the convergence led in the direction of the Carlton House, where that old Cold War drop-off point used to be.
Or, possibly still is. But the “war” that the KGB man and the gentleman from MI6 seemed to be engaging in had taken on a distinctly warm quality, judging by the speed with which they went from nervous glances to a rather athletic embrace on the grass. I experienced a bit of nostalgia for the park’s heyday, and it does seem as though Crowley blushed when I pinched his wrist to remind him it was rude to stare.
The shock was yet to come. When I peered down into the once-forbidden drop box, a pair of eyes stared back at me for a just a moment. Tibetan eyes.
“Well, that was queer,” I said. “And strange as well.”
“Are we on the right track, then?”
“I doubt it.”
Well, a day in the park with Fell isn’t the worst stretch of time in the world, but it’s hardly the most productive either. He left me with a promise to study the other documents, and I promised to ply him with good wine the next time. In private. This is not the kind of business to discuss at the Ritz.
Returning to my dour little office in frustration, I turned over Pepper’s card in my fingers as I therapeutically menaced my philodendron. I wanted to call her to ask more questions. But that would have to involve admitting I’d spent a whole day on her shilling and I didn’t have jack, much less a clue about Adam. That’s not a smart thing to do, especially if you’re not sure your client’s been as straight with you as she might have been.
I looked at the address. I knew the street—almost painfully diverse little strip of Spitalfields, her flat itself probably over a vegan curry shop or the studio of some third-rate graffiti artist. I’d stick out like a sore thumb down there unless I scruffed up a little—or, to make things easier, just be invisible.
So I went there, and I found Miss Pepper herself—and now I had a more benign explanation for not knowing her real name, thanks to a quick nose through public lease records. Put your hands up and step away from the Tolkien, Pepper’s Mum. There are only two ways a child can go with a name like that, and it looks like Pippin Galadriel Moonchild was trying to hit them both.
I found her exiting a grubby little club blasting reggae in the company of two young men about her age, one a little skuzzy and the other as stiff as any Harrod’s mannequin, even with the flush of booze on his cheeks. They ducked down some awfully dark alleys, and even I was hard-pressed to keep up, and I started thinking it wouldn’t do for such innocent village kids to go stumbling about in their condition at this hour of the night---
--so you can imagine my surprise when I was the one who took the cosh to the head.
Stars of pain going nova in my eyes, I lay there on the concrete thinking I was probably just being mistaken for someone with money who couldn’t fight back, and if I could remember how, I was going to gather up my wits and give them a really Hellish what-for…and then my eyes focused again, and I froze.
A voice like all the flies of the oldest boneyards buzzed in my ear. “Thiszzzzzzz izzzzzzz a mezzzzzzzage…from Hazzzzzzzzzzzztur Duke….Thizzzzzzzzz is Lurker turf. Go to ground, little zzzzzzzznake.”
In a sheer panic I rose from the ground, leaving hair and blood behind me, and curled up into a column of scorching smoke, cooking maggots as I went.
“Your laazzzzzzzzzzzzt warning,” said Beelzebub, a pillar of vibrating wings and staring compound eyes. Then he turned into a real swarm of flies, and buzzed around me before dispersing into the London night.
I had lost the trail of Pepper and her companions.
I had a new sense of urgency. The Lurkers didn’t get involved for just any reason. This had all the hallmarks of the sort of turf battle I didn’t need to be anywhere near, especially considering that Hastur Duke was a nasty piece of work, and he and I had history.
He’d been a copper once. That is, what passes for a copper on our side of the equation, which translates more to ‘enforcer.’ And he was dirty even by Hell’s standards, where it’s an entry-level requirement. And it was personal, because he hated me personally. And for a not totally worthless reason—I had killed his partner once. Now, granted, the death wasn’t permanent, but it was messy and embarrassing, and a literal loss of face, and you just don’t do that to the Lurkers if you can possibly avoid it. Status and hierarchy matters to them, and if you make them look bad—I mean, worse than usual—it’s not something they’re going to forget.
So I did not panic. That doesn’t happen to me. I might have been nervous on occasion, in some extreme situation or other, but I have nerves of steel. I have a decal of a bullet hole on the window of my car to remind myself that I do not panic. My car is a 1926 Bentley, which reminds me that slow and steady….well, it doesn’t necessarily win the race but it’s a lot less likely to drive itself off an overpass. I did not panic. Now, I may have set Fell’s phone number to autodial on my mobile and let it call him about 217 times, but that was only for something to do while I worked on my master plan.
Which, at the moment, consisted mostly of wondering why he wasn’t answering.
I should never have let him keep the only copy of the map. I should have torn it out of his quivering hands and if I couldn’t get it away, at least burned it. Fell was addicted to old papers and old writings, and I had walked right into the trap of being a first-class enabler.
The best I could do was try to remember. I don’t have a photographic memory, but I do have one like a really bad draughtsman, and I’m fairly certain there were two major convergences left- at the Tower, and at the Isle of Dogs.
I stared at my mobile phone so hard it started to smolder.
I went slowly back in the direction of Soho, dialing all the way there. I was pretty sure Fell didn’t have a mobile, that he stuck to the old wall phone that had been gathering dust in his store since at least the 1960s. Considering that he’d seemed on a few occasions to not even know how an ansaphone worked, much less voicemail, I had good reasons to think that. Blessit, I don’t even remember what people did before mobiles existed, but I did know how many plots of thrillers would be utterly ruined if people had had them and, Someoneforbid, answered them.
I don’t know what I expected to find when I got there. Worst-case scenario, the whole place in flames. Best-case scenario, Fell sitting there with a cup of tea and an invitation to come to bed.
As I could have guessed, it wasn’t either. The shop was locked and dark and empty, but otherwise perfectly intact. Locks are a mere suggestion to me, and I rejected this one utterly.
There was no sign of any struggle or anything misplaced that I could see, but then a herd of stampeding bison could have charged through the place without making much difference in the general clutter level.
But I could see the place where Fell had been sitting. And I did not see the map, which was gone. And I could feel that the skimming-over cup of cocoa sitting beside it still had a hint of warmth.
I blessed. Hard.
Then I called my only other ally on this case – Pepper. She answered right away, and didn’t sound nearly so drunk as I thought she might. She was fine, in fact. More alert than me. There were other voices around behind her, probably her two incongruous boyfriends.
I tried to keep my voice calm. “Pepper,” I said, or rather squeaked. “I believe I have a lead. But I need to ask you some questions. Immediately.”
“All right,” she said, a little hesitantly. “Like what?”
“Not over the phone,” I said with a little more conviction. “Meet me…at…” My mind raced. Pepper knew more than she had told me, I had no doubt. I was starting to think now that she knew more than she knew she knew. In my not-panic, in the shivery aftermath of an involuntary shape-shifting, all sorts of occultsiness I usually keep tamped down was starting to come to the surface. Now. How far could Fell have got, and how fast? I knew he didn’t drive. Which would he choose first? Tower, I decided. His historian’s gut would lead him there, since there wasn’t much of historical Isle of Dogs left, and this was Mr. Village Green Preservation Society we were talking about. “Tower Hill. Where the scaffold was. There’s a plaque, you know the spot.”
I heard her draw in breath, and I heard her reservations take hold. “Er…why there?”
“Because, Miss Pepper. Because you know more than you told me, and you know this is not purely mortal business or else you would have gone to the police, not to me. There are things you know that I don’t, and vice versa. Do you want to find him, or not?”
“Right. I’ll be there. Do I need to come alone?”
“Not if you’ve got friends who are in on the problem. And if you trust them. I don’t trust them, but we have common goals here, don’t we?”
Not to mention I was pretty sure Pepper and her friends weren’t anything but human, and I had no doubt I could take them. Silly me.
So by the time I got back east and saw Pepper and her friends shivering in that miserable little square that couldn’t possibly hold all the centuries of bad vibes it contained, I was starting to figure that I had underestimated just about everything to do with this case. Pepper was quaking in her Doc Martens, but she held a big kitchen knife in one hand and an American baseball bat in the other. Her friends, even more nervous, didn’t seem to be armed at all, but there was something about them that would make me hesitant to mess them about too much.
“Pepper,” I said, placing hands on her shoulders and letting her feel just a little bit of what I was feeling. “Tell me about Adam. Tell me about a time when you thought he was very strange.”
“It’s not his fault!” she cried.
“I know! I believe you! But you have to tell me!”
“I can’t remember!” she said, and from the pained look on her face, I knew she was sincere. Didn’t stop me from wanting to slap her.
“Why did you leave Tadfield?” I demanded.
“Because it never changed,” she said. “I felt like life was leaving me behind.”
“And why did Adam go?”
“Because I did!” she blurted.
“And why do you think the Them took him?”
It was the dirty one who finally broke the spell. “We are the Them!” he blurted with a fierce sense of pride. “And we showed that Greasy Johnson what’s what!”
Oh ho. At least Pepper had somewhere else to aim her wrath now.
“I should have known,” I said, because I really, really should have known. The Them had been the talk of Hell’s secretarial pool for a little while some years ago, and supposedly this vast criminal enterprise that held half of supernatural England in thrall was…just a bunch of kids. Who didn’t remember very clearly what had happened. Who might not even remember who they were, not fully, not in any way that made sense to them. And then I knew who this Adam was, and why that picture had given me such a chill, and why the Lurkers were so desperately interested.
The only thing I didn’t know was where he was, and I grabbed Pepper by the collar of her leather jacket with all the punk-band patches, and I tried to read it in her mind, because if anyone had a clue, it would have to be…
“He was always the leader,” she said softly. “When we were kids, I mean.”
Of course. And he still was. And I realised why I couldn’t see him from where I was standing. It was the same reason why I couldn’t see England.
And I had been so terribly wrong about Fell. He had gone on the case himself, without me, seen some vital piece of information I had missed, and, impossibly with his pokey old ways, had beaten me there. And he was going to be in trouble, had to be in trouble, of the very worst sort.
I thought for a minute. Yes, I know, I should have started thinking a good time before then, but better late than never. Tadfield never changed. Adam loved it there.
Well, the Tower of London had changed, but yet, it hadn’t. It had gone from nightmare to tourist attraction, it had had buildings added on and torn away over its nearly a thousand years—but its main Norman edifice didn’t look much different from the days of William the Conqueror.
The Isle of Dogs, on the other hand….
“Come with me,” I barked, and then turned and ran without looking to see if they were behind me.
I have to be honest. By the time we reached the Isle of Dogs, I wasn’t even pretending to be human anymore. I wasn’t scouring the landscape, with its desolate council estates and its new gleaming skyscrapers at Canary Wharf, with human eyes. I was staring into layers of psychic echoes – ships built with high hopes, criminals taking those hopes down a peg. I saw poverty and disillusion; I saw bombs tearing the wharfs and shipyards to rubble; I saw factories falling silent; I saw the Thames overflowing and flooding; I saw hunting dogs in marshland.
I hoped that Pepper thought that my panic (all right, all right, yes it was) was for Adam’s sake. It wasn’t. If Adam was who and what I thought he was, he could take care of himself. I wasn’t even going to waste the time to be in denial – I just didn’t want to think about fussy, gentlemanly Fell falling into the hands of the foul and sadistic Lurkers. They were rightfully my problem and I didn’t want anyone else taking the fall. So to speak.
There was so much energy of change all over the island-that-isn’t-really-an-island, it was nearly impossible to focus. Until I heard a sound I’ve been all too well-trained to fear terribly, and I knew I was going to have to run right towards it.
It was the unmistakable subsonic quiver in the barking of a Hellhound.
Hellhounds don’t generally use that particular sound unless something really exciting—from their point of view—is happening, and it usually means there are other high-powered supernaturals involved. Then it hit me, once the glands (I guess they are) that enabled me to smell such things were activated.
I ran off with unerring certainty in the direction of the Museum of London Docklands, center of the last remnants of 19th century adventurism and industrial supremacy. Sure enough, on a lovely old tall ship reconstruction, was one hell of a supernatural light show. There were puffs of smoke, and loud cries of rage, and that incessant barking.
I don’t remember leaping off the dock onto the boat. I don’t remember my shades falling off or my wings tearing through my shirt and coat. I don’t remember how I got a crowbar in my hand or when it started to burn with furious red flames. I only remember I burst onto the deck of that ship in a pulsating stench of brimstone, aiming straight for the flickering supernatural light.
And I saw Ligur Duke, the lurker I’d taken out years ago temporarily, looking in a bad way again, lying in a puddle of ichor. I saw the Hellhound—which was a scruffy little mutt with one turned up ear—circling him and growling.
And I saw Hastur Duke, with a nasty flaming machete and his filthy mackintosh torn and his eye blackened and maggots dropping off him and squishing all over the ship.
And I saw Ezra Fell, as I had never seen him before. He had a sword in his hand, flaming bright as anything, and he was swathed in a light that hurt my eyes, and he was sparring at Hastur from a privileged position, because he was actually flying several feet above the snarling Lurker, on a pair of glorious wings about the same size as my own.
I confess, dear reader. I boggled. I even, dare I say, admired. He’d hardly needed my help at all. But since I was here anyway, and I had to put my anger at myself somewhere, I brained Hastur a good one with my crowbar, and looked up at Fell as the greater demon collapsed between us.
I still had my wings out. I didn’t have my shades. I probably was starting to sprout some scales on my hands and face. Fell made no attempt to conceal himself either.
“Well,” I said. There wasn’t much of anything else to say, now was there?
“Quite so,” he said, for which I was grateful.
It took a ridiculous amount of commotion for us to stop staring at each other, I’m afraid. What it took was the missing Adam himself, emerging from the hold of the ship, petting his adorable little crotch-sniffer of a Hellhound, and looking with disdain at the fallen demons.
“I’m sorry,” he said, scuffling the boards with his sneakers and looking down. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“You had Pepper really….” I started to say, and stopped when a red blur emerged from somewhere behind me and punched Adam square in the mouth.
“You louse!” Pepper shrieked. “You lying scumbag! You rat!”
“I deserved that,” said Adam.
“You fucked with my memories. My mind! And Wensleydale’s and Brian’s too! We all only remembered half of it, that we were in The Them, but we didn’t know what we did.”
“I didn’t do that, Pep. I don’t know why we weren’t allowed to remember. I didn’t remember everything either. So I had to hide out for a little while, just me and Dog. Figure things out. Decide how to keep…bad stuff from happening. Remember how you used to say Tadfield never changed? And you felt trapped and stuff?”
“Yeah,” she said guardedly. Her two friends had reached us by this time, and were ready to hear the rest of the confession.
“That was…because of me. Because I loved it so much just the way it was. You’re starting to remember now, I know. The way I can…change things. Or not let them change, either way. And when we moved to London, I started to love it here too. But London isn’t like Tadfield. It moves around too much, all the time, it’s always changing, it’s never the same. Look at any ol’ map, you’ll see how diff’rent it is, how much cool stuff is just gone now, and it makes me sad. But all the new stuff is exciting too, it’s somebody’s dream even if it ain’t mine, and I was afraid if I got to love it as it is too much, then I might somehow make it stop. And there’s just too much energy goin’ around all it once and if someone tried to stop it—it might blow up or somethin’. Take everythin’ with it. So while I was tryin’ to figure out how to stop this from happenin’, those creepy guys started followin’ me. Sayin’ they knew who I was and they wanted me to take my Kingdom back, and I just knew they were gonna start hurtin’ my friends so I had to lead ‘em off and hide. I knew they’d come after me, figured I could take ‘em, but…” here he nodded at Fell. “He said I didn’t have to.”
Fell tried not to look like he was proud to be the hero of the moment. “Well, you never really do forget how,” he said as his plump fingers flexed on the hilt of his sword.
“Don’t get too cocky,” I said. “They’re easy to kill. Not so easy to keep that way.”
As if on cue, the unconscious and ugly bodies fizzled and vanished. Only a few stray maggots still humped their way across the deck, and the little dog licked them up one by one.
“Gross,” said Adam affectionately.
“I wanna thank you, Mr. Crowley. And your friend too. I wish I’d known more ‘bout what’s goin’ on.”
“That’s all right, Pepper.” I let her look at my snake eyes and thrilled just a little bit in her shudder, because I’m evil like that. “Remember that 30% I asked for? Three times my usual. Just so you know.”
“So you’re paying at the Ritz next then,” said Fell, gloating.
“You always go for the most expensive things whenever I do that.”
“Well, I wanna thank both of you,” said Adam. “I’m…not going to hide from who I am anymore. I’m goin’ to try to never forget again. It’s always worse when I don’t remember.”
“I’ll keep you honest,” said Pepper, catching him in a headlock and dragging him away, the friends and the dog following behind, towards the nearest Tube station.
That left me and Fell, still staring at each other. I rippled my spine a little and tucked my wings back into my back, under the shreds of my shirt. He sighed, a little sadly, as though he’d wanted to keep looking at them. He locked eyes with me, and I froze like prey. I felt my skin twitch as his soft hand started at the small of my back and moved upwards, slowly, all four fingertips registering independently, lingering at my shoulderblades.
I groaned. It was shameful, and I should have flinched away, but the last of the adrenaline had me hypersensitive, and I wanted it. And with my shades off, I felt as naked as I was ever going to get. His sword dropped, and his other hand cupped my chin and turned my eyes up to his.
His eyes were darkened, to that cobalt colour the sky has right before night falls completely. He looked into mine. He saw them for what they were, yellow and slitted and probably scarily wide. “Serpent,” he said with a smile, in a husky voice.
Someone help me, although there’s no one to help me. Someone helped me, I kissed him. Hard. I locked my hand behind his head, in his cornsilk hair, and I pressed my lips against his until I felt his breath catch and his mouth open and then my tongue did all the rest of it, and I could taste and smell him at once—tea and cocoa and snuff and angel spit.
He pushed me away a little, panting. His hand was clutched in the waistband of my trousers. He was pushing me up against the wall of the ship.
“Yes?” He was very interested in my neck and my collar. I let him have them.
“Shouldn’t you be…smiting me? Natural enemies and all that?”
“Mmmm, no, dear boy. I’ve become rather fond of you.”
“But I lied to you.”
“I was secretive too.” He wasn’t anymore. Not with his nice solid thigh in between mine like that.
“I used you!”
“You served your purposes for me as well.” I know I yipped when I felt his teeth on my throat. Worst part of being a demon is that you can’t blaspheme properly when something feels so bloody heavenly good.
It was my turn to push him a little. Forehead to forehead, holding him close, divining motives and meanings clicking away in his weird little angel brain. Finally I whispered, “So do you want to bugger me senseless right here?”
“No,” he said. “It’s rather damp.” And he touched his fingers to my forehead, and I clutched at his back, and then I found myself straddling him on the ratty sofa in his bookshop.
“It’s too dry here,” I murmured.
“Fix that,” he whispered as I slithered down to my knees and made short work of those hideous trousers he wore. I liked having him more than half-naked before me, wearing only the rags of his shirt shredded both front and back; I liked the memory of his huge wings stretching over us, I liked his plump thighs and his pale curly hair and his rather magnificent equipment clearly ready for a full night of hard use. I liked his hands in my hair and his cock in my throat. I liked him in any way he wanted to give it to me, and I got a lot of variations that night, each more scorching than the last.
We’re not perfect sex machines, we demons and angels, mind you. We get our elbows in each others’ eyes and sometimes slip up with the teeth and fall off the sofa and land painfully, and discover the hard way our legs don’t bend like that, just like everyone else. We’re not perfect sex machines in the sense a 1926 Bentley is not a perfect car. It has those little flaws, see. Those little quirks that you get to know. You get it to fit you like a full-body glove, and that makes it better than perfect.
He made me his, and I made him mine, and we started to learn how to fit. And all of London breathed a sigh of relief to feel that Adam was letting things change. Which is by no means always for the worse, as my natural optimism has always insisted.