Two – The Gathering Storm

Strangefellows is the kind of bar where no-one gives a damn what your name is, and the regulars go armed. It’s a good place to meet people, and an even better place to get conned, robbed, and killed. Not necessarily in that order. Pretty much everybody who is anybody, or thinks they are or should be, has paid Strangefellows a visit at one time or another. Tourists are not encouraged, and are occasionally shot at on sight. I spend a lot of time there, which says more about me than I’m comfortable admitting. I do pick up a lot of work there. I could probably justify my bar bill as a business expense. If I paid taxes.

It was still three o’clock in the morning as I descended the echoing metal staircase into the bar proper. The place seemed unusually quiet, with most of the usual suspects conspicuous by their absence. There were people, here and there, at the bar and sitting at tables, plus a whole bunch of customers who couldn’t have passed for people even if I’d put a bag over my head as well as theirs… but no-one important. No-one who mattered. I stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked around thoughtfully. Must be something big happening somewhere. But then, this is the Nightside. There’s always something big happening somewhere in the Nightside, and someone small getting shafted.

The bar’s hidden speakers were pumping out King Crimson’s “Red,” which meant the bar’s owner was feeling nostalgic again. Alex Morrisey, owner and bartender, was behind the long wooden bar as usual, pretending to polish a glass while a sour-faced customer bent his ear. Alex is a good person to talk to when you’re feeling down, because he has absolutely no sympathy, or the slightest tolerance for self-pity, on the grounds that he’s a full-time gloomy bugger himself. Alex could gloom for the Olympics. No matter how bad your troubles are, his are always worse. He was in his late twenties, but looked at least ten years older. He sulked a lot, brooded loudly over the general unfairness of life, and had a tendency to throw things when he got stroppy. He always wore black of some description, (because as yet no-one had invented a darker color) including designer shades and a snazzy black beret he wore pushed well back on his head to hide a growing bald patch.

He’s bound to the bar by a family geas, and hates every minute of it. As a result, wise people avoid the bar snacks.

Above and behind the bar, inside a sturdy glass case fixed firmly to the wall, was a large leather-bound Bible with a raised silver cross on the cover. A sign below the glass case read In case of Apocalypse, break glass. Alex believed in being prepared.

The handful of patrons bellying up to the bar were the usual mixed bunch. A smoke ghost in shades of blue and grey was inhaling the memory of a cigarette and blowing little puffs of himself into the already murky atmosphere. Two lesbian undines were drinking each other with straws, and getting giggly as the water levels rose and fell on their liquid bodies. The smoke ghost moved a little further down the bar, just in case they got too drunk and their surface tensions collapsed. One of Baron Frankenstein’s more successful patchwork creations lurched up to the bar, seated itself on a barstool, then checked carefully to see whether anything had dropped off recently. The Baron was an undoubted scientific genius, but his sewing skills left a lot to be desired. Alex nodded hello and pushed across an opened can of motor oil with a curly-wurly straw sticking out of it. At the end of the bar, a werewolf was curled up on the floor on a threadbare blanket, searching his fur for fleas and occasionally licking his balls. Because he could, presumably.

Alex looked up and down the bar and sniffed disgustedly. “It was never like this on Cheers. I have got to get a better class of customers.” He broke off as the magician’s top hat on the bar beside him juddered briefly, then a hand emerged holding an empty martini glass. Alex refilled the glass from a cocktail shaker, and the hand withdrew into the hat again. Alex sighed. “One of these days we’re going to have to get him out of there. Man, that rabbit was mad at him.” He turned back to the musician he’d been listening to and glared at him pointedly. “You ready for another one, Leo?”

“Always.” Leo Morn finished off the last of his beer and pushed the glass forward. He was a tall slender figure, who looked so insubstantial it was probably only the weight of his heavy leather jacket that kept him from drifting away. He had a long pale face under a permanent bad hair day, enlivened by bright eyes and a distinctly wolfish smile. A battered guitar case leaned against the bar beside him. He gave Alex his best ingratiating smile. “Come on, Alex, you know this place could use a good live set. The band’s back together again, and we’re setting up a comeback tour.”

“How can you have a comeback when you’ve never been anywhere? No, Leo. I remember the last time I let you talk me into playing here. My customers have made it very clear that they would rather projectile vomit their own intestines rather than have to listen to you again, and I don’t necessarily disagree. What’s the band called… this week? I take it you are still changing the name on a regular basis, so you can still get bookings?”

“For the moment, we’re Druid Chic,” Leo admitted. “It does help to have the element of surprise on our side.”

“Leo, I wouldn’t book you to play at a convention for the deaf.” Alex glared across at the werewolf on his blanket. “And take your drummer with you. He is lowering the tone, which in this place is a real accomplishment.”

Leo ostentatiously looked around, then gestured for Alex to lean closer. “You know,” he said conspiratorially, “if you’re looking for something new, something just that little bit special to pull in some new customers, I might be able to help you out. Would you be interested in… a pinch of Elvis?”

Alex looked at him suspiciously. ‘Tell me this has nothing at all to do with fried banana sandwiches.”

“Only indirectly. Listen. A few years back, a certain group of depraved drug fiends of my acquaintance hatched a diabolical plan in search of the greatest possible high. They had tried absolutely everything, singly and in combination, and were desperate for something new. Something more potent, to scramble what few working brain cells they had left. So they went to Graceland. Elvis, as we all know, was so full of pills when he died they had to bury him in a coffin with a childproof lid. By the time he died, the man’s system was saturated with every weird drug under the sun, including several he had made up specially. So my appalling friends sneaked into Grace-land under cover of a heavy-duty camouflage spell, dug up Elvis’s body, and replaced it with a simulacrum. Then they scampered back home with their prize. You can see where this is going, can’t you? They cremated Elvis’s body, collected the ashes, and smoked them. The word is, there’s no high like… a pinch of Elvis.”

Alex considered the matter for a moment. “Congratulations,” he said finally. “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard, Leo. And there’s been a lot of competition. Get out of here. Leo. Now.”

Leo Morn shrugged and grinned, finished his drink, and went to grab his drummer by the collar. His place at the bar was immediately taken by a new arrival, a fat middle-aged man in a crumpled suit. Slobby, sweaty, and furtive, he looked like he should have been standing in a police identification parade somewhere. He smiled widely at Alex, who didn’t smile back.

“A splendid night, Alex! Indeed, a most fortunate night! You’re looking well, sir, very well. A glass of your very finest, if you please!”

Alex folded his arms across his chest. “Tate. Just when I think my day can’t get any worse, you turn up. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you paying your bar bill, is there?”

“You wound me, sir! You positively wound me!” Tate tried to look aggrieved. It didn’t suit him. He switched to an ingratiating smile. “My impecunious days are over, Alex! As of today, I am astonishingly solvent. I…”

At which point he was suddenly pushed aside by a tall, cadaverous individual, in a smart tuxedo and a billowing black opera cape. His face was deathly pale, his eyes were a savage crimson, and his mouth was full of sharp teeth. He smelled of grave dirt. He pounded a corpse-pale fist on the bar and glared at Alex.

“You! Giff me blut! Fresh blut!”

Alex calmly picked up a nearby soda syphon and let the newcomer have it full in the face. He shrieked loudly as his face dissolved under the jet of water, then he suddenly disappeared, his clothes and cloak slumping to the floor. A large black bat flapped around the bar. Everyone present took the opportunity to throw things at it, until finally it flapped away up the stairs. Alex put down the syphon.

“Holy soda water,” he explained, to the somewhat startled Tate. “I keep it handy for certain cocktails.

Bloody vampires… that’s the third we’ve had in this week. Must be a convention on again.”

“Put it from your thoughts, dear fellow,” Tate said grandly. ‘Tonight is your lucky night. All your troubles are over. I will indeed be paying my bar bill, and more than that. Tonight, the drinks are on me!”

Everyone in the bar perked up their ears at that. They never had any trouble hearing the offer of a free drink, even with King Crimson going full blast. It wasn’t something that happened very often. A crowd began to form around the grinning Tate, pleased but somewhat surprised. Frankenstein’s creature pushed forward his can for a refill. Alex still hadn’t uncrossed his arms.

“Absolutely no more credit for you, Tate. Let’s see the color of your money first.”

Tate looked around him, taking his time, making sure he had everyone’s full attention, and produced from inside his jacket a substantial wad of cash. The crowd murmured, impressed. Tate turned back to Alex.

“I have inherited a fortune, my dear boy. Taylor finally found the missing will, and I have been legally proclaimed the one and only true heir; and I am now so rich I could spit on a Rockefeller.”

“Good,” said Alex. He neatly plucked the wad of cash out of Tate’s hand, peeled off half of it and gave the rest back. “That should just about cover your tab.

Hopefully once you’ve paid Taylor, he’ll be able to settle up his bill too.”

“Taylor?” Tate said disdainfully. He gestured grandly with what remained of his wad of cash. “I have creditors of long-standing and exhausted patience waiting to be paid. They come first. Taylor is just hired help. He can take a number, and wait.”

He laughed loudly, inviting everyone else to join him. Instead, everyone went very quiet. Some actually began to back away from him. Alex leaned forward over the bar and gave Tate a hard look.

“You’re planning on stiffing Taylor? Are you tired of living, Tate?”

The fat man pulled himself up to his full height, but unfortunately he didn’t have far to go. He glared at Alex, his mouth pulled into a vicious pout. ‘Taylor doesn’t scare me!”

Alex smiled coldly. “He would, if you had the sense God gave a boll weevil.”

He looked past Tate, and nodded a hello. After a moment, everyone else looked round too. And that was when Tate finally turned around, and saw me standing at the foot of the stairs, from where I’d been watching and listening. I started towards the bar, and people who weren’t even in my way hurried to get out of it. The crowd around Tate quickly melted away, falling back to what they hoped was a safe distance. Tate stood his ground, chin held high, trying to look unconcerned and failing miserably. I finally came to a halt right in front of him. He was sweating hard. I smiled at him, and he swallowed audibly.

“Hello, Tate,” I said calmly. “Good to see you. You’re looking your usual appalling self. I’m pleased to hear the inheritance is everything you thought it would be. I do so love it when a case has a happy ending. Now, you owe me money, Tate. And I really don’t feel like waiting.”

“You can’t bully me,” Tate said hoassly. “I’m rich now. I can afford protection.”

His podgy left hand went to a golden charm bracelet around his right wrist. He grabbed two of the bulky, ugly-looking charms, pulled them free, and threw them onto the floor between us. There was a brief lurch in the bar as a dimensional gateway opened between the worlds and the two charms were replaced by the two creatures they’d summoned. They stood glowering between me and Tate, two huge reptiloid figures with muscles on their muscles and great wedge-shaped heads absolutely bristling with serrated teeth. The reptiloids looked at me, and I looked at them, and then they both turned to look at Tate.

“He’s why you called us?” said the one on the left. “You summoned us here to take on John bloody Taylor? Are you crazy?”

“Right,” said the one on the right. “We don’t do lost causes.”

And with that, they disappeared back to where they’d come from. Tate tried all the other charms on his bracelet, in increasing desperation, but none of them would budge. I just stood there, looking calm and relaxed and not at all bothered, while my heart slowly returned to its usual rate. Those reptiloids really had been worryingly large … Sometimes it helps to have a reputation as a dangerous and extremely ruthless bastard. Tate finally gave up on the bracelet and looked, very reluctantly, back at me. I smiled at him, and he seemed very, very upset.

In the end, he gave me every piece of cash, all his credit cards, all his jewelry, including the charm bracelet, and basically everything else he had on his person. And I let him walk out of the bar alive. He was lucky I let him keep his clothes. I settled down to chat with Alex, and everyone else went back to what they were doing before, vaguely disappointed because there hadn’t been any blood.

Alex poured me a large brandy. “So, John, where are you living these days?”

“In the real world,” I said, deliberately vague. “I commute into the Nightside to work. It’s safer.”

“You’re not still sleeping in your office, are you?”

“No, now I’m getting regular work here, I can afford a decent place again.” I checked the money I’d taken off Tate. “In fact, it may be time for an upgrade.”

“Stick to the real world,” said Alex. “Now you’re back on the scene again, there are a lot of people out there looking for you with bad intent in their hearts. Some of them have looked in here. You’d be surprised how much certain people are willing to pay for hard information on where you rest your head. I take their money and give them all different lies.”

“I sleep more soundly in the real world,” I admitted. The Harrowing are always out there, somewhere. It was why I’d stayed away from the Nightside for so long.

“Glad to be back?” said Alex.

“I don’t know yet. It’s good to be working again. I do my best work here. It might even be where I belong. But…”

“Yeah,” said Alex. “But. This is the Nightside, the dark side of everyone’s dreams.” It was hard to tell past the sunglasses, but there was an expression on his face that in anyone else I would have said was concern. “Word is, a lot of people want you dead, John. Lot of people. You know . . . you’re always welcome to crash here, for a while. If you need a place. Somewhere you could feel safe.”

“Thanks,” I said. I was touched, but knew better than to show it. It would only embarrass him. “I’ll bear it in mind. So, what’s new?”

Alex considered. “Surprisingly, not a lot. Jessica Sorrow, of course, but you know about that. Don’t know if it’s connected, but a lot of the usual players have dropped out of sight just recently. Keeping then-heads down and hoping not to be noticed. Or it could be connected with the latest hot rumor, which is that angels have come to the Nightside.”

I had to raise an eyebrow at that. “Angels? Really?”

“From Above and Below, apparently. No-one’s reported any actual sightings as yet. Probably because no-one’s too sure what to look for. It’s been a long time since any angel manifested in the material worlds. Demons, yes, but they’re not in the same league as the Fallen …”

“I encountered … something, at St. Jude’s,” I said thoughtfully. “Something very nearly as upsetting as the Unbeliever herself… Angels in the Nightside … That’s got to be a Sign. Of something.

“They’d better watch their step around here,” Alex said briskly. “Some of the scumbags in this locale will steal anything that isn’t actually nailed down, electrified, or cursed. Wouldn’t surprise me if I looked out of here one morning and found St. Michael himself propped up on bricks with his wings missing.”

I looked at him thoughtfully. “You don’t know much about angels, do you, Alex?”

“I do my best to steer clear of moral absolutes,” said Alex. “They tend not to approve of establishments like this. And they leave lousy tips.”

He didn’t mention his own ancestry. He didn’t have to. Alex is famously descended from Arthur Pendragon on one side, and Merlin Satanspawn on the other. Merlin himself was buried somewhere under the wine cellar. He still manifested on occasion, to lay down the law and scare the crap out of everyone. Being dead doesn’t necessarily stop you being a major player in the Nightside.

“Forget all your usual notions about angels,” I said patiently. “All the usual images of angels as nice guys with wings, long nighties, and a harp fixation. Angels are God’s enforcers, his Will made manifest in the world of men. The spiritual equivalent of the SAS. When God wants a city destroyed, or the firstborn of a whole generation slaughtered, he sends an angel. When the Day of Judgement finally comes, and the world is brought to an end, it will be the angels who do all the dirty work. They are powerful, implacable beings. I don’t even want to talk about the Fallen kind.”

And then there was a voice behind me. Polite, well-spoken, and tinged with an accent I couldn’t place.

“Excuse me, please. Would you be John Taylor?”

I took my time turning around, careful not to look startled, even though my heart had just missed a beat. There aren’t many people capable of catching me by surprise. I pride myself on being very hard to sneak up on. In the Nightside, that’s a survival skill.

Standing before me was a short, stocky type with a dark complexion, kind eyes, and jet-black hair an beard, both carefully shaped. He was wearing a long flowing coat of a very expensive cut.

“I might be,” I said. “Depends. Who might you be?”

“I am Jude.”

“Hey, Jude.”

He frowned slightly. It was clear he didn’t get the reference. I smiled patiently.

“I’m Taylor. What can I do for you, Jude?”

He glanced at Alex, then took in the other beings lining the bar, all pretending not to listen with varying amounts of skill. Jude turned back and met my gaze steadily. “If we could talk in a private place, Mr. Taylor. I have a commission for you. It pays very well.”

“You just said the magic words, Jude. Step into my office.”

I led him to one of the private booths at the back of the bar, and we sat down facing each other across the table. Jude gazed around the bar. It was clear this was all unknown territory to him. He didn’t look like the kind of person you’d find in a bar, though on the other hand I wasn’t sure where I would place him. There was something about the man… He didn’t fit any of the usual patterns. He looked like someone with secrets. He fixed me again with those warm brown eyes, as though willing me to like him, and leaned forward across the table to address me, his voice low and confidential.

“I represent the Vatican, Mr. Taylor. The Holy Father wishes you to find something for him.”

“The Pope wants to hire me? What happened? Somebody steal his ring?”

“Nothing so trivial, Mr. Taylor.”

“Why didn’t he send a priest?”

“He did. I’m … undercover.” He glanced around the bar again, and didn’t seem at all pleased or comfortable with what he saw. It wasn’t so much that he looked judgemental, more … mystified, and perhaps even uneasy. He looked back at me and smiled almost shyly. “I don’t get out much, these days. It’s been a long time since I was out in the world. I was chosen to approach you because I have . . . some special knowledge of the missing item. You see, normally I’m in charge of the Forbidden Library at the Vatican. The secret, hidden chambers underground, where the Church stores texts too dangerous or too disturbing for most people.”

“Like the Gospel According to Pilate?” I couldn’t help showing off a little. “The translation of the Voynich Manuscript? The Testimony of Grendel Rex?”

Jude nodded slightly, giving nothing away. “Things like that, yes. I am here because an object of great power has suddenly resurfaced in the world, after being missing for centuries. And, of course, it has turned up here in the Nightside.”

It was my turn to nod and look thoughtful. “This object of power must be something really important, if the Vatican’s getting personally involved. Or … something really dangerous. What exactly are we talking about here?”

“The Unholy Grail. The cup that Judas drank from at the Last Supper.”

That stopped me in my tracks. I had to sit back in my chair and consider that for a few moments. “I never heard… of an Unholy Grail.”

“Not many have,” said Jude. “Luckily for us all. The Unholy Grail magnifies all evil by its presence, encourages and accelerates evil trends and events, and utterly corrupts all who come into contact with it. It is also a source of great power… It’s passed from hand to hand down the centuries, previous owners are said to include Torquemada, Rasputin, and Adolf Hitler. Though if Hitler had possessed all the mystical items rumor has gifted him with, he wouldn’t have lost the war. Anyway, the Unholy Grail is currently on the loose and up for grabs, somewhere in the Nightside.”

I felt like whistling loudly, impressed, but I didn’t. I had a reputation to maintain. “No wonder there are angels in the Nightside.”

“Already?” Jude leaned forward sharply. His eyes didn’t look kind any more. “Are you sure?”

“No,” I said calmly. “So far it’s only talk. But the word is, we have visitors from Above and Below.”

“Shit,” said Jude, startling me just a bit. You don’t expect language like that from a priest and librarian.

“Mr. Taylor, it’s imperative you locate the Unholy Grail for us, before agents of the Lord or the Enemy become directly involved. Make no mistake, if agents of the Principalities go to war here, they could level the Nightside.”

“If the Unholy Grail is here, I can find it,” I said, giving Jude my best confident smile. He didn’t seem impressed or reassured.

“It won’t be easy, Mr. Taylor. Even with your famous talent. A lot of people are going to be searching for the Unholy Grail, for all manner of good and bad reasons. And in the wrong hands, its power could conceivably upset the balance between Above and Below. The Last Days could come early, and we’re not nearly ready yet.”

“So if the angels don’t destroy the Nightside, whoever gets to the Unholy Grail first could do the job too? Wonderful. I just love working under pressure.”

“But you’ll take the commission?”

“I can find anything. It’s what I do. That is why you came to me, isn’t it?”

“You came highly recommended,” said Jude. “Though for the sake of your ego, I don’t think I’ll say by whom. Now, the Unholy Grail was being kept in the House of Blue Lights, one of the hidden complexes deep under the Pentagon. But a guard somehow got past all the defenses and protections, and smuggled it out. He couldn’t hang on to it, of course, the poor fool. It had just used him to escape.”

I remembered the man in black at St. Jude’s, and what had happened to him. The awful voice(s) had mentioned a Grail. But I didn’t say anything. I had no reason to keep things from Jude, but I still wasn’t ready to trust him entirely either. I was pretty sure he was keeping things from me.

“If it’s here, I can find it,” I said flatly. “But I’m not so sure I should turn it over to the Vatican. Your reputation’s taken a series of knocks recently. Everything from banking to the Ratlines.”

“The Unholy Grail would go straight from me to the Holy Father,” Jude said earnestly. “And he would ensure it would be locked away and properly contained. Until the End of Time, if necessary. If you can’t trust the Pope to do the right thing, Mr. Taylor, whom can you trust?”

“Good question,” I said. I wasn’t convinced, and he could tell. He thought for a moment.

“We only want to preserve the status quo, Mr. Taylor. Because Humanity isn’t ready yet for any of the alternatives. I have been authorized to offer you a quarter of a million pounds. In cash. Fifty thousand in advance.”

He placed a stuffed envelope on the table between us. I didn’t touch it, though my fingers were itching to. A quarter of a bloody million?

“Danger money?”

“Quite,” said Jude. “You’ll get the rest when you place the Unholy Grail in my hands.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. I picked up the envelope and tucked it away, giving Jude my best confident smile. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Jude.”

And then we both looked up as three large gentlemen loomed over us. They took up positions standing as close as they could get without actually joining us in the booth. I’d heard them coming, but hadn’t said anything because I didn’t want Jude distracted while he was talking about money. The three gentlemen glared at us both impartially. They were the best-dressed thugs I’d seen in some time, but the attitude gave them away. They might as well have been wearing I am a mafioso hit man T-shirts. They looked slick and heavy and dangerous, and each of them had a gun. All three were professionally calm, forming a semicircle to cover both me and Jude, while efficiently blocking us off from the rest of the bar. No-one could see what was happening, and we wouldn’t be allowed to shout for help. Not that I had any intention of doing so. The largest of the three gunmen flashed me a humorless smile.

“Forget the pew-polisher, Taylor. From now on, you’re working for us.”

I considered the matter. “And if I prefer not to?”

The gunman shrugged. “You can find the Unholy Grail for us, or you can die. Right here, right now. Your choice.”

I smiled nastily at him, and to his credit he didn’t flinch. “Your guns aren’t loaded,” I said.

The three gunmen looked at each other, confused. I held up my closed hands, opened them, and let a stream of bullets fall out to clatter loudly on the table-top. They pulled the triggers on their guns, and looked very upset when nothing happened.

“I think you should leave now,” I said. “Before I decide to do something similar with your internal organs.”

They put away their guns and left, not quite running. I smiled apologetically at Jude. “Boys will be boys. You leave the matter with me, and I’ll see what I can turn up.”

“Soon, please, Mr. Taylor,” said Jude. He fixed me with his deep brown eyes, positively radiating sincerity and earnestness. On anyone else, it would probably have worked. “We’re all running out of time.”

He rose to his feet, and I got up too. “How will I find you, when I have something to report?”

“You won’t,” he said calmly. “I’ll find you.”

He walked off through the bar, not looking back. Interestingly enough, people moved to get out of his way without even seeming to notice they were doing it. There was more to Jude than met the eye. Mind you, there would have to be. The Vatican wouldn’t send just anybody into the Nightside. I went back to Alex, who was refilling the hand in the top hat’s glass. Frankenstein’s creature was moodily tightening the stitches in his left wrist. Alex nodded to me.

“Got yourself a new client?”

“Looks like it.”

“Interesting case?”

“Well, different, anyway. I think I’m going to need Suzie’s help for this one.”

“Ah,” said Alex. “One of those cases.”

There was a crack of thunder, a flash of lightning, a billowing of dark sulphurous smoke, and a sorcerer appeared at the bar right next to me. He wore dark purple robes and the traditional pointy hat. He was tall, dark, and imposing, with long black fingernails, a neat goatee, and piercing eyes. He gestured dramatically at me, while fixing me with a ferocious glare.

‘Taylor! Find the Unholy Grail for me, or suffer an eternity of my wrath!”

While the sorcerer’s attention was fixed on me, Alex calmly produced a heavy bung-starter from behind the bar. He plucked off the sorcerer’s tall pointy hat and hit him over the head with the bung-starter. The sorcerer yelped once, and collapsed. Alex raised his voice.

“Lucy! Betty! Time to take out the trash!”

Lucy and Betty Coltrane, Alex’s body-building bouncers, arrived and cheerfully hauled away the unconscious sorcerer. Alex glared at me.

“Unholy Grail?”

‘Trust me, Alex. You really don’t want to know.”

He sighed. ‘Taylor, get out of here. You’re bad for business.”