Five – Angels, Bedlam Boys, and Nasty Jack Starlight

There were angels all over the Nightside, crossing the night sky in such numbers that they blocked out the stars in places. At first, people came crowding out onto the streets, laughing and pointing, marveling and loudly blaspheming, and more often than not discussing ways to profit from the new situation. And then the angels started dropping down into the Night-side like birds of prey, winged Furies in search of information and retribution, and God and the devil help anyone who dared refuse them. People were snatched up into the boiling skies, and after a time dropped screaming back into the city streets. Sometimes, only blood or body parts fell back. And sometimes, worse and stranger things were returned that were no longer in any way human. Angels are creatures of purpose and intent only, and know nothing of mercy. Soon anyone with a grain of common sense had disappeared from the streets. Suzie and I walked alone down deserted ways, and from all around came the sound of doors being locked and bolted, and even barricaded.

Like that was going to help.

“So,” Suzie said, after a while, “when are you going to use your gift, to find out where the Bedlam Boys are practicing their appalling trade these days?”

“I’m not,” I said shortly. “The last time I tried to use my gift, the angels ripped me right out of my head and hauled me up into the shimmering realms to interrogate me. I was lucky to get away with my thoughts intact, and I daren’t risk it again. We’re going to have to solve this case the old-fashioned way.”

Suzie brightened up a little. “You mean kicking in doors, asking loud and pointed questions, threatening life and property, and maybe just a touch of senseless violence?”

“I was thinking more of gathering clues, piecing together information, and developing useful theories. Though there’s a lot to be said for your way too.”

I took my mobile out of my coat pocket and called my secretary. Actually, she’s my secretary, receptionist, junior partner, and general dogsbody of all trades. I acquired Cathy Barrett on an earlier case, when I rescued her from a house that tried to eat her. I took her in, gave her a bowl of milk, and now I can’t get rid of her. To be fair, she runs my office in the Night-side far more efficiently than I ever could. She understands things like filing, and keeping an appointment diary, and paying bills on time. I’ve never had the knack for being organized. I think it’s a genetic thing. In the few months she’s been working for me, Cathy’s made herself indispensable, though God forbid she should ever find that out. She’s insufferable enough as it is, and besides, I’d have to pay her more.

“Cathy! This is John. Your boss, John. I need some information on the current whereabouts of the Bedlam Boys. What have you got?”

“Give me a minute to check, oh mighty lord and master, and I’ll see what I can dig out of the computer. Seems to me I heard something about them the other day. Do I take it it’s their turn for a good kicking? Oh happy day.” Cathy sounded bright and cheerful, but then she always did. I think she just did it to annoy me. “Okay, boss, got them. Seems they’re running the old protection racket again, down on Brewer Street. In fact, the computer’s getting updates from the crystal ball that they’re shaking down the Hot N Spicy franchise on Brewer Street right now. If you hurry, you should get there before they leave. If the blonde one’s there, feel free to give him a good slap on my account.”

Part of Cathy’s duties, when she’s not working tirelessly to keep my business solvent in spite of me, is to keep track of all the major players in the Nightside, where they are, and who they’re doing this week. Information is currency, and forewarned is definitely forearmed. Cathy makes a lot of contacts through her incessant clubbing, and her cheerful willingness to chat, drink, and dance with anyone still warm and breathing. It helps that she can chat, dance, and drink under the table pretty much anyone who isn’t actually already dead and pickled. Cathy seems to regard alcohol as a food group, and has the endless energy of every teenager. It also helps that she’s sweet and pretty and charming, and people like to talk to her. They tell her things they’d never tell anyone else, and Cathy feeds it all into the computer.

There was a time I’d have been doing the rounds myself, but I just don’t have the energy any more to drink and debauch till dawn. Especially since dawn doesn’t ever happen. It’s always night in the Night-side. Luckily, Cathy seems to positively thrive on a regular diet of booze, caffeine, and adrenaline, and is on a first-name basis with practically every doorman and bouncer in the Nightside. You’d be surprised what people will say in front of them, not even noticing they’re there because, after all, they’re only servants.

I do keep up my own circle of contacts, of course. Old friends and enemies. You’d be surprised how often they turn out to be the same person, as the years go by. Some movers, some shakers, and a few that most people don’t even suspect are major players. There aren’t many doors that are closed to me. People tell me things. Mostly because they’re afraid not to. And it all goes into the computer, too.

Between us, Cathy and I keep tabs on most things and people that matter. Cathy updates every day, and is always busy trying to spot upcoming trends and significant connections. Though we nearly lost everything last month, when the mainframe got possessed by Sumerian demons, and we had to call in a tech-nodruid to exorcise it. I’d never heard language like that before, and even after it was all over, the office still smelled of burning mistletoe for weeks.

And I might add that the computer Helpline people were no bloody use at all.

“I’m getting mass reports of angel sightings,” said Cathy. “Wings and blood everywhere, and several manifestation of statues weeping, bleeding, and soiling themselves. Either the Pholio Brothers are pushing a really potent brand of weed this week, or the Nightside’s being invaded. This got anything to do with you, John?”

“Only indirectly.”

“Angels in the Nightside … that is so cool! Hey, do you think you could get me a feather from one o their wings? I’ve got this new hat that could look absolutely killer with just the right feather…”

“You want me to sneak up on an angel and rip out its pinfeathers, so you can make a fashion statement? Oh right, like that’s going to happen. No, Cathy. Stay away from the angels, as a personal favor to me. Concentrate on the Bedlam Boys. Is there any particular reason why I should be annoyed with the blonde one?”

“He tried to chat me up last week at the Dancin’ Fool,” said Cathy. “Thought he could impress me because he and his brothers used to be this big boy band. As if! That is so nineties . . . Anyway, he wouldn’t take No, Get lost or Fuck off and die! for an answer, so I ended up smacking him right in the eye. I swear, he was so surprised he hit top C above A. Then he started crying, so I got all guilty and danced with him anyway. And I have to say his moves were complete rubbish without his old choreographer on hand to help him out. Then he pulled me in close for a slow dance, and stuck his tongue in my ear, so I rammed the heel of my stiletto through his foot and left him to it. Wanker.” She paused.

“Ooh, ooh! I just remembered! I have messages for you… Yes. The Pit’s management called to say you and Suzie are banned. Forever. And, they may sue for emotional distress and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. And Big Nina called to say Not to worry, it wasn’t crabs after all. It was lobsters.”

I hung up. Some conversations, you know they’re not going to go anywhere you want.

It didn’t take us long to get to the Hot N Spicy franchise on Brewer Street. We could hear the trouble half-way up the street. Screams and shouts and the sounds of things breaking; all the usual signs of the Bedlam Boys at their work. People were expressing a polite interest, but from a very safe distance. The Boys’ powers tend to leak out in all directions once they get started. Suzie and I threaded our way through the crowd and cautiously approached the franchise’s open door. We looked in. Nobody noticed us. Everyone had problems of their own.

It was a cheap place, all ugly wallpaper and over-bright lighting and plastic tablecloths. Plastic so that they could be wiped down between customers. You can wipe pretty much anything off plastic. The Hot N Spicy franchise specializes in fire alarm chilies, all variations, one mouthful of which could melt all your fillings and set fire to your hair. Chilies from hell. Three toilets, no waiting, and they keep the loo rolls in the fridge. We are talking atomic chilies, and I don’t want to even think about the fallout. For real chili fans only. A sign on the wall just inside the door proudly proclaimed Today’s Special, wasabe chili. Wasabe is a really fierce Japanese green mustard, which ought by right to be banned under the Geneva Convention for being more dangerous than napalm.

There was another sign below that, saying Free sushi; you supply the fish. Enterprise is a wonderful thing.

Suzie and I eased ourselves through the open door and watched the Bedlam Boys practicing their particularly unpleasant version of the protection racket. Though consumer terrorism would probably be a better description. Once upon a time, the Boys really had been a successful boy band, but it had been a long time since any of their saccharine cover versions had even come close to troubling the charts. On the scrap heap while barely into their twenties, the Boys had drifted into the Nightside in search of a new direction, and the Collector had supplied them with a useful psychic gift in return for their talent, which he apparently keeps in a jar. A very small jar. These days, the Bedlam Boys mostly worked as muscle for hire or frighteners. And when business is slow they pick up pin money by freelancing. Either you agreed to pay them regular insurance payments, or they guaranteed bad things would happen to your business. To be exact, they turned up on your doorstep and demonstrated their awful ability on whoever happened to be present. The Boys could psionically inflict all kinds of different phobias and manias on anyone in their immediate proximity. They were currently hitting the Hot N Spicy’s staff and customers with every kind o fear and anxiety they could think of, grinning widely all the while.

The place was full of screaming and crying people, staggering helplessly between overturned tables, blind to everything but the horrors that had been thrust into their minds. Staff and customers alike clutched at their heads, lashed about them with trembling arms, and pleaded pitifully for help. Some lay on the floor, crying hopelessly, thrashing like epileptics. And in the middle of all this horror and chaos, the Bedlam Boys, standing tall, looking proudly about them, and sniggering and giggling and elbowing each other in the ribs as they thrust people into Hell.

There were four of them, so alike they might have been mass-produced, with perfect bubble gum pink skin, perfect flashing white teeth, and immaculately styled hair. Hair color seemed to be the only way to tell them apart. They all wore spangled white jumpsuits, cut away in the front to show plenty of hairy chest. They looked almost glamorous, until you looked closely at their faces. Each had the look of a dissipated Adonis, their once handsome features now marked with lines of cruelty and indulgence, like the fallen idols they were.

The franchise had become Panic Attack Central. People howled and screeched and sobbed bitterly as they were suddenly and irrationally afraid of spiders, of falling, of the walls closing in, of open spaces of enclosed places. If they could only have gathered their thoughts for a moment, they would have known these fears weren’t real, but the hysteria that filled their heads left no room for rational thought. There was only the fear, and the horror, and no escape anywhere. Some of the franchise’s staff and customers were made terrified of really obscure things. The Boys liked to show off. And so there was the fear of genitals shrinking and disappearing, the fear of people suddenly speaking in French accents, the fear of people showing you their holiday photos, and the fear of not being able to find your jacket.

Some of that was almost funny, until I saw one customer digging long bloody furrows in his bare arms with his fingernails, as he tried to scrape away all the bugs he felt were crawling all over him. Another man tore out his eyes with clawed fingers, and threw them on the floor and stamped on them, rather than see what he was being made to see. On the floor, people writhed and cried out in the grip of strokes and heart attacks and convulsions. The Bedlam Boys looked upon their work, and laughed and laughed.

“This is too much, even for me,” Suzie said flatly. “Give me the Speaking Gun, Taylor.”

“Hell no,” I said immediately. “Save that for the angels. It’s too big, too dangerous to risk using on anything else. Don’t be impatient, Suzie. I know you’re eager to try the thing out, but it didn’t com with a user’s manual. We have no idea of the side effects or drawbacks.”

“What’s there to know? It’s a gun. Point and shoot.”

“No, Suzie. We don’t need the Speaking Gun to deal with cheap punks like these.”

“Then what do you suggest?” said Suzie, with heavy patience. “I can’t open fire with my shotgun from here. Too many innocent parties in the way. And we can’t risk getting any closer, or the Boys’ power will affect us too.”

“What do you have a fear of, apart from tidying up? They can’t affect us, as long as we shield our minds against them.”

She looked at me dubiously. “Are you sure about that?”

“Actually, no. But that’s what I was told. And we can’t just stand here and do nothing.”

But even as we stood there debating the point, one of the Bedlam Boys looked round and spotted us. He cried out, and all four Boys turned their power on us, reaching out to the very edge of their range. Their spell fell upon us, and fear stabbed into my brain like so many shards of broken glass. Concentration and willpower did me no good at all.

I was alone, standing in the ruins of London, in the Nightside of the future. I’d been here before, seen this before, courtesy of a Timeslip. A future that might be, of death and destruction, and all of it supposedly my fault. For as far as I could see in the dim purple twilight, I was surrounded by tumbled buildings and seas of rubble. There was no moon in the almost starless sky, and the still air was bitterly cold. And somewhere, hidden in the deepest, darkest shadows, something was watching me. I could feel its presence, huge and awful, potent and powerful, drawing steadily closer. It was coming for me, with blood and worse on its breath. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere left to go, nowhere left to hide. It was close now. So close I could hear its eager breathing. It was coming for me, to take me away from everything I knew and cared for, and make me its own at last. The terrible shadow that loomed over everything I did, that had dominated my life ever since I was born. Close now, vast and powerful. A great dark shape, threatening to unmake everything I’d so painstakingly made of myself.

I knew what it was. I knew its name. And that knowledge frightened me more than anything else. That finally she was coming for me, after pursuing me my whole damned life. It was almost a relief to say her name.

Mother… I whispered.

And in naming my fear, that unknown creature who had birthed and then abandoned me, I was suddenly so full of rage it was the easiest thing in the world to push back the fear, and deny it. My mental shields slammed back into place, one by one, and the dead world around me shuddered, becoming flat and grey and unconvincing. I pushed the Bedlam Boys out of my mind with almost contemptuous ease, and in the blink of an eye I was back in the Hot N Spicy franchise again.

I’d fallen to my knees on the grimy floor, my whole body shaking with the strain of what I’d been put through. Suzie was kneeling beside me, tears running jerkily down her face from wide, unseeing eyes, lost inside herself. I put a hand on her shoulder, and in that moment I saw what she saw.

Suzie was lying in bed in a hospital ward, held in place by heavy restraining straps. Her throat was raw from screaming. She lunged against the leather straps, but they were far stronger than her. So all she could do was lie there and watch helplessly as her fear crawled slowly, laboriously, across the ward floor towards her. It was small and weak, but determination kept it moving. It was soft and scarlet and barely formed, and it left a scuffed bloody trail behind it as it crawled slowly towards her. It was almost at the side of her bed when it painfully raised its oversized head and looked at her.

And called her Mommy

It took all my strength to wrap my mental shield around Suzie too, and drag her out of there and back into the waking world. She pulled away from me immediately, kneeling alone, hugging herself tightly as though afraid she might fly apart. Her face was a snarling mask of outrage and horror, tears still dripping off her chin. It was actually shocking to see her so vulnerable, so hurt. I hadn’t thought there was anything that could hurt Shotgun Suzie. I started to reach out to her; then her puffed-up eyes fell upon the Bedlam Boys, and she reached for the shotgun holstered on her back. The Boys gaped at us, amazed that we’d been able to break free from their power. I fired up the dark side of my gift. For a moment, anything could have happened.

And that was when the angel arrived.

A vivid, overwhelming presence suddenly filled the restaurant, slapping up against the walls and suppressing everything else. The Bedlam Boys’ power snapped off in an instant, blown out like four tiny candles in a hurricane. They just stood there and bunked stupidly at the angel. At first, it looked like a grey man in a grey suit, so average-looking in every way as to seem almost generic. You couldn’t quite look at him, only glimpse him out of the corner of your eyes. And then he grew more and more real, more and more solid, more there, until you couldn’t look at anything else. The angel lifted his grey head and looked at the Boys, and suddenly erupted into a pillar of fire in human form. His light was blinding, dazzling, too bright to look at directly. Vast glowing wings spread out behind him, sparking and spitting. There was a stench of ozone and burning feathers. The Bedlam Boys stared into the heart of that terrible light, mesmerized.

And turned to salt.

One moment they were living and breathing people, and the next there were four salt statues, paler than death, still wearing their stupid spangled jumpsuits. And all four fixed white faces were screaming horribly, silently, forever. The franchise’s staff and customers, freed from their imposed fears, now had something real to be afraid of. They screamed and howled and ran for the open door. I hauled Suzie back out of the way as they stampeded past us, fighting and clawing each other in their need to get away. I felt very much like joining them. The sheer presence of the angel was viscerally disturbing, like every authority figure you ever knew was out to get you, all rolled into one.

I’ve never got on well with authority figures.

The angel gestured with a brightly glowing hand, and one of the salt statues toppled over and shattered. Suzie slapped me hard on the arm to get my attention.

“The Gun, Taylor. Give me the Gun, dammit. Give me the Speaking Gun!”

Her voice was back under control, but her eyes were fey and wild. “No,” I said. “I get to try it first.”

I yanked the case out of my inner coat pocket. I felt unpleasantly warm to the touch. I snapped open the lid and took out the Speaking Gun. The case fell unnoticed to the floor as I stood paralyzed, unable to move even the smallest part of me. My skin crawled, revulsed at contact with the Gun made of meat. It was like holding the hand of someone long dead, but still horribly, eagerly active. It felt hot and sweaty and feverish. It felt sick and powerful. The Speaking Gun had woken up. It breathed wetly in my hand, and its slow heavy thoughts crawled sluggishly across the front of my mind. The Gun was awake, and it wanted to be used. On everything. It ached to say the backward Words that would uncreate all the material world. It had been made to destroy angels, but its appetite had grown down the many, many years. And yet the Gun was dependent on others to use it, to pull its trigger formed from a tooth, and it hated that. Hated me. Hated everything that lived. The Speaking Gun forced its filthy thoughts upon me, determined to control and compel me, to make me its weapon. Its thoughts and feelings were in no way human. It was as though death and decay and destruction had found a voice, and hideous ambition. It knew my Name, and ached to say it.

It took all my self-control, all my rigid self-discipline, and all the outrage raised in me by the Bedlam Boys, to force my fingers open one at a time, until the Speaking .Gun fell stickily from my hand and hit the floor, still howling defiantly in my mind. I shut it out, behind my strongest shields, and leaned back against the wall behind me, shaking and shuddering.

The angel was gone. It had seen the Speaking Gun, and that was enough.

The restaurant was quiet now. The staff and customers were gone, the angel had escaped, and the Bedlam Boys were salt. There was just me and Suzie. My whole body was shaking, my hands beating a noisy tattoo against the wall. My mind felt like it had been violated. I could feel tears running down my cheeks. Walker had been right. Some cures are far worse man the diseases. I looked down at the Gun on the floor, lying beside its case, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach down and touched the damned thing. So Suzie knelt and did it for me, closing the case around the Gun without actually touching it herself. She slipped the case into her jacket pocket, then stood patiently beside me while I got myself under control again. It was the closest she could come to comforting me.

Soon enough the shuddering stopped, and I was myself again. I felt tired, bone tired and soul tired, as though I hadn’t slept for a week. I wiped the drying tears off my face with my hands, sniffed a few times, and gave Suzie my best reassuring smile. It felt fairly convincing. Suzie took it in the spirit with which it was intended and nodded briskly, all business again. Suzie’s always been uncomfortable around naked emotions.

“I’ll carry the case,” she said. “I’m more used to guns than you are.”

“It isn’t just a gun, Suzie.”

She shrugged. “That angel. Do you think it was from Above or Below?”

It was my turn to shrug. “Does it matter, Suzie? When the Bedlam Boys had us, trapped in our fears, for a moment I saw what you saw…”

“We won’t talk about that,” Suzie said flatly. “Not now. Not ever. If you are my friend.”

Sometimes being a friend means knowing when to let things go and shut the hell up. So I pushed myself away from the wall and headed for the nearest of the three remaining salt statues. Suzie followed after me. The scattered remains of the shattered statue crunched loudly under our feet. I looked at the three white faces, trapped in a moment of horror, forever. Sometimes I think the whole universe runs on irony.

“Well, there goes our chances of finding the Collector’s location,” said Suzie, her voice and face utterly calm and easy.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Remember the first rule of the private detective, when in doubt, check their pockets for clues.”

“I thought the first rule was wait until the client’s check has cleared?”

“Picky picky.”

It took a while, but eventually we turned up a single embossed business card, proclaiming a performance by Nasty Jack Starlight at the old Styx Theatre, dated that very day. Or, more properly, night.

“So Starlight’s back in town,” I said. “Wouldn’t have thought he was the Boys’ cup of tea.”

“Has to be a connection,” said Suzie. “I know for a fact that Starlight’s supposed to have supplied certain items to the Collector in the past.”

“Let’s go talk to the man,” I said. “See what he knows.”

“Let’s,” said Suzie. “I’m in the mood to talk forcibly to someone. Possibly even violently.”

“Never knew a time when you weren’t,” I said generously.

We walked through the streets of the Nightside, through a city under siege. There were angels everywhere now, soaring across the night sky, plunging down to snatch victims right out of the street, spreading terror and destruction. There were screams and cries, fires and explosions. Dark plumes of smoke rose from burning buildings on all sides. People had been driven out into the streets, as homes and businesses and hiding places collapsed into rubble behind them. Everywhere I looked there were salt statues, and bodies impaled on lamp-posts. Burned and blackened corpses lay piled up in the gutters, and once I saw someone turned inside out, still horribly alive and suffering. Suzie put him out of his misery. Judgement Day had come to the Nightside, and it wasn’t pretty. There was gun-fire all over the place, and fiery explosions, and now and again I felt the fabric of the world shake as some poor desperate fool leveled heavy-duty magics against the invading angels. Nothing stopped them, or even slowed them down. Grey men in grey suits stood unnaturally still in doorways, or looked out of alleyways, or walked untouched out of fire-gutted buildings. They were everywhere, and people ran howling before them, driven like cattle to the slaughter.

Suzie and I hadn’t been out in the street five minutes before an angel came swooping down out of the night sky, brilliant as a falling star, fierce and irrevocable, blazing wings spread wide, heading straight for me. I gave it my best significant glare, but it kept coming. Suzie pulled the Speaking Gun’s case out of her jacket, and the angel changed course immediately, sweeping over our heads and flashing down the street behind us like a snow-white comet. Suzie and I stopped and looked at each other. Suzie weighed the case in her hand.

“Guess word about the Speaking Gun has got around.”

“So much for the element of surprise,” I said.

She sniffed. “I’d rather have the element of naked threat any day.”

We started off down the street again, walking unhurriedly while everyone else ran, and blood an chaos flowed around us. Suzie put the Gun’s case away again, then unconsciously rubbed that hand against her jacket, over and over, as though trying to clean it.

The Styx was an old, abandoned theatre, set well back from the main drag, in one of the quieter backwaters of the Nightside. There are enough dramas in the Nightside’s everyday life that most people don’t feel any need for the theatre, but we have to have somewhere for vain and bitchy people to show off in public. Suzie and I stopped outside the large, slumping building and studied it cautiously from a safe distance. It didn’t look like much. The whole of the boarded-up front was plastered with peeling, overlapping posters for local rock groups, political meetings, and religious revivals. The once proud sign above the double doors was choked with grime and dirt.

Property doesn’t normally stay untenanted long in the Nightside; someone’s always got a use for it. But this place was different. Some thirty years ago, some poor fool tried to open a Gate to Hell during a performance of the Caledonian Tragedy, and that kind of thing plays havoc with property values. The three witches killed and ate the guy responsible, but didn’t have the skills to close what he’d partway opened. The Authorities had to bring in an outside troubleshooter, one Augusta Moon, and while she sewed the thing up tighter than a frog’s ass, the incident still left a nasty taste in everyone’s spiritual mouth.

Even unsuccessful Hellgates can affect the tone of a whole neighborhood.

Unsurprisingly enough, the theatre’s double doors were locked, so Suzie kicked them in, and we strolled nonchalantly into the lobby. It was dirty and dusty, with thick shrouds of cobwebs everywhere. The shadows were very dark, and the still air smelled stale and sour. Dust motes swirled slowly in the shafts of light that had followed us in through the open door, as though they were disturbed by the light’s intrusion. The once plush carpet was dry and crunchy under our feet. The whole place reeked of faded nostalgia, of better times long gone. It was like walking back into the shadows of the past. Old posters advertising old productions still clung stubbornly to the walls, faded and fly-specked. The Patchwork Players Present: Marlowe’s King Lier, Webster’s Revenger’s Triumph, Ibsen’s Salad Days. There was no sign anyone had been here for thirty years.

“Odd name for a theatre,” Suzie said finally, her voice echoing loudly in the quiet. “What’s a Styx, when it’s at home?”

“The Styx is a river that runs through Hell,” I said. “Made up from the tears shed by suicides. Sometimes it bothers me that I know things like that. Maybe the theatre specialized in tragedies. We may be in the wrong place, Suzie. Look around you. No-one’s disturbed this dust in years.”

“In which case,” said Suzie, “where’s that music coming from?”

I listened carefully, and sure enough, faint strains of music were coming from somewhere up ahead. Suzie drew her shotgun, and we crossed the lobby and made our way up to the stage doors. The music was definitely louder. We pushed the doors open and stepped through into the theatre proper. It was very dark, and we stood there for a while till our eyes adjusted. Up on the stage, in two brilliant following spotlights was Nasty Jack Starlight with his life-sized living rag doll partner, singing and dancing.

The music was an old sixties classic, the Seekers’ “The Carnival Is Over.” Nasty Jack Starlight sang along cheerfully, stepping it out across the dusty stage with more style than precision. He was dressed as Pierrot, in a Harlequin suit of black and white squares, and his face was made up to resemble a grinning skull, with dark, hollowed eyes and white teeth painted on his smiling lips, all of it topped with a jaunty sailor’s cap. He was tall and gangling, and he danced with more deliberation than grace as his voice soared along with the melancholy song.

He danced a fiercely merry two-step with his partner, a living rag doll costumed as Columbine. She was almost as tall as he was, her arms and legs amazingly flexible as she danced, without joints to get in the way. She had a sadly erotic look, in her patched dress of many colors, and her face of tightly stretched white satin had garishly painted-on features. Her movements were disturbingly sexual, her dance provocative in every lascivious movement.

Pierrot and Columbine capered across the whole stage, making the most of the space, dancing and leaping and pirouetting in the two spotlights that followed them faithfully wherever they went. I looked back and above me, but there was no sign anywhere of a source for the spotlights. They just were. The music also seemed to come from nowhere. It changed abruptly to “Sweet Little Jazz Baby, That’s Me,” a staple from the Roaring Twenties, and Pierrot and Columbine came together and Charlestoned for all they were worth. Their feet on the stage made no sound at all. The music had a distorted, eerily echoing quality, as though it had had to travel a long way to get there and lost something of itself along the way. And for all the effort Nasty Jack Starlight and his partner put into their performance, it all had a dull, flat feeling. There was no appeal to it, no charisma or emotion. But the packed audience was in ecstatics, sheer raptures of emotion.

The audience.

Nasty Jack Starlight and his living rag doll were singing and dancing for the dead. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I could see the stalls were full of zombies, vampires, mummies, werewolves, and ghosts of varying density. Every form of undead or half-life the Nightside had to offer, all come together in one place under a strict pact of non aggression that wouldn’t have lasted five minutes anywhere else. But no-one would destroy the truce here; no-one would dare. This was the one place they could come to recapture just a little of their lost or discarded humanity. To remember what it felt like to be alive.

The vampires looked right at home in their formal tuxedos and ball gowns, daintily sipping blood from discreet thermoses, passed back and forth. In comparison, the mummies looked distinctly drab and dirty in their yellowing bandages, and dust puffed out when they clapped their hands together. The werewolves huddled together in a clump, howling along to the tune, their alpha male distinguished by an impressive leather jacket made from human hide, the tattooed words on its back proclaiming him Leader of the Pack. The ghouls mostly kept to themselves, snacking on fingers from a takeaway tub. The zombies tended to sit very still, and applauded very carefully, in case anything dropped off. They sat as far away from the ghouls as possible. The ghosts varied from full manifestations to pale misty shapes, some so thinly spread their hands passed through each other when they tried to clap along. Others had to concentrate all their sense of personality just to keep from falling through their chairs. But dead, undead, partly human, or mostly inhuman, they all seemed to be having a good time.

They laughed and cheered, sighed and wept, and applauded in unison, as though reacting to what was happening on the stage, though their responses seemed to have little to do with the performance.

Nasty Jack Starlight performed exclusively for the dead, or those feeling distanced from their original humanity. He remembered old emotions for them, evoked them through his singing and dancing, and made his audience feel them. He made them feel alive again, if only fleetingly. His patrons paid very well for the illusion of life he gave them, for a while … and while they wallowed in second-hand emotions, Starlight fed off their unnatural vitality, sucking it out of them as he danced, gorging on their inhuman energies like a happy little parasite. He had lived many lifetimes in this fashion, and intended to live many more. Long ago, he’d made a really bad deal with Something he was still afraid to name aloud, and now he couldn’t afford to die. Ever.

I had to explain all this to Suzie. She’d never had any interest in the theatre. At the end, she sniffed, unimpressed.

“So what’s the deal with the rag doll?” she said.

“The word is she was human once, and Jack Starlight’s lover. He needed a dancing partner, but he didn’t feel at all inclined to share what he’d be taking from his audience. So he had her made over into what she is now. A living rag doll, endlessly compliant, a partner who’ll follow his every move and whim, an never complain. Of course, that was a long time ago … She’s probably quite insane by now. If she’s lucky. Now you know why they call him Nasty Jack Starlight.”

“Who was she, originally?” said Suzie, glaring at the stage.

“No-one knows who she was any more. Except Jack, of course, and he’ll never tell. Nasty little man that he is. Come on, let’s go on up and ruin his day.”

“Let’s. I might even ruin his posture while I’m at it.”

We strode off down the central aisle, side by side. The dead in the seats nearest us didn’t even glance round as we passed, utterly transfixed by the performance onstage, and the old emotions flooding through what was left of their hearts. There was magic in the air, and it had nothing to do with sorcery. On and on they danced, Pierrot and Columbine, Harlequin and his rag doll, never stopping or resting as the music changed inexorably from one sentimental ditty to another… as though they had no need to pause, to refresh their strength or regain their breath. And perhaps they didn’t. He was feeding, and she… she was just a rag doll, after all, her wide eyes and smiling lips only painted on. Neither of them suffered from human limitations any more. They mimed love and tenderness for their audience, and meant none of it.

It was all just an act.

Suzie and I vaulted up onto the stage, and everything stopped. The music cut off, and Starlight and his rag doll immediately ended their dance. They each stood very still in their separate spotlights, as Suzie and I approached them. Nasty Jack Starlight struck an elegant pose, calm and relaxed, smiling his skullface smile while his eyes gleamed brightly from darkened hollows. The rag doll had frozen in mid move, her head turned away, her arms and legs interrupted at impossible angles, inhumanly flexible. The audience was still only for a moment as the performance was interrupted, then they burst out into a roar of boos and yells and insults, quickly descending into open threats and menaces. Suzie glared out at them, to little effect. I turned and gave them my best thoughtful stare, and everyone shut up.

“I’m impressed,” Suzie said quietly.

“To tell the truth, so am I,” I said. “But don’t tell them that. Jack Starlight! It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Jack? You still on your world tour of the Nightside?”

“Still playing to packed houses,” Starlight said easily. “And they say the theatre’s dead…” His voice was soft and precise, completely without accent or background. He could have been from anywhere, anywhen. His unwavering smile was very wide, and his eyes never blinked. “You know, most hecklers have the decency to do it from their seats. What do you want, Taylor? You are interrupting genius at work.”

“We found your card in the possession of one of the Bedlam Boys,” I said. “They worked for the Collector.”

“I notice you’re using the past tense. Am I to presume the little shits are all dead? My my, Taylor, you have become hard-core since your return.”

‘Tell me about the card, Jack,” I said, deliberately not correcting his presumption. “What’s your connection with the Collector?”

He shrugged easily enough. “There’s not much to tell. The Collector sent the Boys round to lean on me, because he’d heard I once very nearly got my hands on the Unholy Grail, some years ago in France. I was excavating at Rennes-le-Chateau, in search of the Maltese Falcon …”

I winced. “I thought you had more sense, Jack. Never go after the Maltese Falcon. That’s the first rule of private investigators.”

Suzie frowned. “I thought the first rule was …”

“Not now, Suzie. Continue, Jack.”

“Well, imagine my surprise when my companions unwrapped the contents of the hidden grave, and we found ourselves face to face with the Unholy Grail. It all got rather unpleasant after that. It’s always sad when friends fall out over money…. Anyway, after the dust had settled and the blood had dried, I ended up having to leave the chateau empty-handed, and at speed. But I still remain one of the few men who ha actually seen the Unholy Grail with his own eyes, and lived to tell of it.”

“What did it look like?” said Suzie.

Nasty Jack Starlight considered for a moment. “Cold. Ugly. Seductive. I wasn’t stupid enough to touch it, even then. I know evil when I see it.”

“You should,” I said. “You’ve had enough practice. So, what did you tell the Bedlam Boys, when they came calling?”

He laughed softly. It was a dark, unpleasant sound. “I didn’t tell them a damned thing. I kicked their over-padded asss and sent them home crying to their master. Teach the Collector to set his dogs on me. Their fears were no match for my emotions. I am a master of my craft, and don’t you forget it. And that is it. There’s nothing more I can tell you about the Unholy Grail or the Collector. Just ships that passed in the Nightside, that’s all. Now, do either of you happen to be in show business? Then perhaps you’ll both be good enough to get the hell off my stage. I am making art here. Why is there never a guy with a long hook around when you need him?”

“There are angels all over the Nightside,” I said. “They’re looking for anyone with any knowledge of, or connection to, the Unholy Grail. And they’re not playing nicely. They don’t have to. They’re angels. Now, impressive though your audience is, the whole lot of them put together wouldn’t be enough to even slow down an angel. Even if they did feel disposed to try and protect you, which I personally doubt. The dead can be so fickle. On the other hand, you help us track down the Unholy Grail, and/or the Collector, and Suzie and I will protect you.”

Nasty Jack Starlight shook his head slowly. “Just when you think it can’t get any worse… Angels in the Nightside. Right! That is it. I am out of here.” He turned to face the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s show is cancelled on account of Biblical intervention. Good night, God bless, hope it was good for you too. Form an orderly queue for the exits. Sorry, no refunds.”

He stalked over to his rag doll partner, snapped his fingers sharply, and she collapsed limply over his waiting shoulder, as though there was nothing inside her but straw and stuffing. And perhaps there wasn’t. Certainly she seemed no weight at all to Starlight as he headed determinedly for the wings. I didn’t see any point in trying to stop him. He didn’t have anything I needed, and an unwilling partner would only slow us down. But then Nasty Jack Starlight stopped abruptly, turned round and looked back, moving slowly, almost reluctantly. And that was when we all realized there was someone else onstage with us. We looked slowly at the back of the stage, even the rag doll raising her satin face. There, standing behind us, still and silent like a living shadow, was a grey man in a grey suit.

He waited till we were all looking, then he blaze like the sun, a light so bright it was painful to merely human eyes. Suzie and I stumbled back, shielding our faces with upraised arms. Starlight turned and ran for the edge of the stage. The rag doll hanging down over his shoulder was the only one to stare adoringly at the angel, with her dark-painted eyes. The audience was in a panic, shrieking and crying out in alarm, while the word angel moved swiftly among them like a curse. Ghosts disappeared, snapping out of existence like popping soap bubbles. Vampires became bats and flapped away. Those still burdened with material bodies fought their way out into the aisles and sprinted for the lobby doors.

The angel became a pillar of fire in human form, spreading wide his glowing wings, brilliant and terrible and incandescent with glory. There was a stench of burning flesh and melting metals. The rag doll hanging limply over Starlight’s shoulder burst into flames. They leapt up impossibly fast, consuming the doll from head to toe. And still she stared adoringly through the flames at the angel. Starlight cried out in pain and rage, and threw her from him. She flopped about on the stage, burning fiercely. She tried to crawl towards Starlight, but the flames were too hot, too eager, and she was only rags and stuffing. She burned up, and she was gone, and in moments there was nothing left of her but a scorch mark on the stage, and dark smoke drifting slowly though the air. It smelled of violets.

Starlight didn’t spare the burning doll a glance once he’d thrown her aside. He ran for the edge of the stage, and had almost made it when his clothes burst into flames. The sailor’s cap went up first, burning fiercely with a pale blue flame, setting his hair on fire. Then the Harlequin’s costume caught alight, flames leaping everywhere at once. He beat at the flames with his bare hands, but soon they were burning too. In a matter of seconds, his whole body was burning hotter than a furnace. He screamed once, and a long jet of yellow flame shot out of his mouth from his burning lungs. He fell forward onto the stage, and lay there kicking and jerking, while the flames leapt even higher. They quickly consumed Nasty Jack Starlight, until there was nothing left but a few charred and blackened bones, and sizzling melted fat dripping slowly off the edge of the stage.

By that time, Suzie Shooter had the Speaking Gun out of its case, and was holding it rock steady in her hand, aimed right at the angel. But I could see from her twisted features that she was feeling the same sick horror at the Gun’s touch that I had. Her iron self-control fought off its attempt to seize control of her mind, but her whole body was shaking from the effort of the struggle, even while the hand holding the Gun remained perfectly steady. All she had to do was pull the trigger. But she couldn’t spare enough willpower to do it.

The angel turned its gaze away from Starlight’s remains and looked at Suzie. It saw the Speaking Gun in her hand, and in a moment it was gone, flying upwards on wings of dazzling brightness, crashing through the roof of the theatre and up and out into the safety of the night skies.

Suzie didn’t move, still aiming the Speaking Gun at where the angel had been. Her face was pale, and slick with sweat. Her eyes were fixed and wild. Her whole body was shaking now, as she and the Gun fought for control of her mind, and her soul. And in the end she won, and threw the Gun from her. Perhaps because in the end she was Shotgun Suzie, who owned guns, and not the other way round. She won, and I never knew how much it cost her. I never asked. Because what she did tell me was so much worse.

She sat down suddenly on the stage, as though her legs had just given out. Her hands twitched meaninglessly in her lap, and she rocked back and forth like a troubled child. She wasn’t crying; she was beyond that. Her eyes were wild, desperate, feral. She was making a low, moaning sound, like an animal in pain. I sat down beside her, and put an arm round her shoulders to comfort her. She shrieked dismally, and scuttled away from me like a child afraid of a beating. I moved cautiously after her, careful not to get too close.

“It’s all right, Suzie,” I said. “I’m here. It’s over. Let me help you.”

“You can’t,” she said, not looking at me.

“I’m here… it’s me, John.”

“But you can’t touch me,” she said, her voice so harsh now it was almost inhuman. “No-one can. I can’t bear to be touched, by anyone. Not ever again. Can’t be vulnerable, to anyone.”

I knelt before her, trying to hold her darting gaze with mine. I was desperate to help her, to haul her back from the edge, but it felt like the wrong choice of words might shatter her into so many pieces, she’d never recover. I’d never seen her like this before. So… defenseless.

“When the Bedlam Boys brought out our fears,” I said slowly, “I saw what you saw. I was there with you, in the hospital. I saw… the baby.”

“There was no baby,” she said tiredly. “It has to be born to be a baby. What you saw was how the fetus looked, after I had it aborted. I left it so late because I was ashamed. Too ashamed to tell my parents that my brother had been abusing me since I was thirteen, and the baby would be his. It wasn’t rape, not really. Sometimes he’d buy me things, little presents. And sometimes he’d say he’d kill me if I ever told anyone. He used me. And when the truth came out, my parents blamed me. Said I must have led him on.

“I had an abortion, just after my fifteenth birthday. No cake and candles for me that year. They made me look at the fetus, afterwards. So I wouldn’t forget the lesson. Like I could ever forget. I killed my brother. Shot him dead with a gun I stole. My first gun. Pissed on his body, and then ran away to the Nightside. Been here ever since. Swore I’d never be weak and vulnerable, not ever again. I’m Shotgun Suzie now, death on two legs. But I can’t be touched. Not by anyone. Not even by a friend, or a lover. I’m safe now. Safe from everyone. Even myself.”

“You mean… there’s never been anyone in your life?” I said. “No-one you could ever trust enough to…”

“No. Never.”

“I had no idea how alone you really were, Suze.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said in a dead voice. “That’s what he used to call me.”

“Oh Jesus, I’m so sorry, Suzie. I am so sorry.”

Some life came back into her eyes as she looked at me, and her mouth turned down in a bitter smile. “I would trust you with my life, John. But I can’t bear to have you touch me. My brother won after all. Because even though I killed him, he’s always with me.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just said “I’m here, Suzie.”

“I know,” she said. “And sometimes, that’s enough.”

She got up, retrieved the Speaking Gun by wrapping the case around it, and put the case back in her jacket. She stood on the edge of the stage, looking out into the darkness. She seemed entirely composed again. I came and stood beside her.

“It’s just a gun,” she said, not looking at me. “I know how to handle guns. Next time, I’ll use it.”

I nodded. And after a while we walked out of the Styx Theatre together, side by side and miles and miles between us.

We’d only just got out into the street when my mobile rang again. This time it was Razor Eddie, Punk God of the Straight Razor. Or so he claims, and since he tends to kill people who disagree, not many people contest the point any more. Certainly he’s one of the strangest and most dangerous people in the Nightside, and that takes some doing. I suppose we’re friends. It’s hard to tell sometimes, in the Nightside. This time he had information for me.

“I hear you’re looking for the Unholy Grail,” he said, without preamble. “I know where it is. The Collector’s got it.”

“I’d pretty much worked that out for myself,” I said. “What makes you think the Collector’s got it?”

“Because I got it for him,” said Eddie. His voice was a ghostly whisper, as always. ‘To be exact, he hired me to take it away from the bastards who had it. The Collector got a bit jumpy after his people lost the Speaking Gun, so he came to me. Normally he’d know better, but this time he had something I wanted, so we struck a deal. The Unholy Grail was in the hands of the Warriors of the Cross, a bunch of hardcore Christian evangelists who planned to use the Unholy Grail’s power to launch a Crusade against the Nightside and slaughter everyone and everything that even smacked of magic. Anything that wasn’t pure, untainted human was to be exterminated as ungodly and unchristian. Since that definitely included me, I was only too happy to get my own pre-emptive strike in first.”

“The Collector hired you?” I said. “I didn’t think you had any use for money any more?”

“I don’t,” said Razor Eddie. “His payment was the current location of the Warriors of the Cross. I’d been looking for those bastards for some time. They’d been hauling teenage runaways off to their hidden base and brainwashing them, then sending them out to act as spies, and honey to trap more kids. They were going to be the cannon fodder of the Crusade.”

“So the Collector definitely has the Unholy Grail now?” I said.

“Put it into his hands myself. Ugly thing. But more and more it seemed to me that he is not a fit person to have such a thing. I can’t touch him. I gave my word. But I never said anything about you. So you come to me, and I’ll tell you where the Collector is hiding out these days. Then you can take the damned thing away from him and put it somewhere safe. Sound good to you?”

“Best thing I’ve heard all day. Where are you, Eddie?”

“Back at the Warriors of the Cross’s hideout, having a bit of a look round for anything else of interest.”

“You mean looting,” I said.

He chuckled dryly. “Old habits die hard. You know Big Sergei’s Warehouse, on Kaynek Avenue?”

“I know it. Be with you in twenty minutes. You do know that there are angels in the Nightside, from Above and Below, kicking the crap out of anyone they even suspect has any connection with the Unholy Grail?”

“I don’t bother them, they don’t bother me,” said Razor Eddie. He hung up.

I put my mobile away, and turned to Suzie. She looked as calm and composed as usual, ice-cold and perfectly poised. I filled her in on the parts of the conversation she’d missed, and she frowned.

“Why couldn’t he just tell you where the Collector is over the phone?”

“Because you never know who might be listening,” I said. “There’s no such thing as a secure line in the Nightside. You know Big Sergei’s place?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“He’s Russian mafioso. You want it, he can get it for you. Guns and armor a specialty, which is presumably why the Warriors of the Cross went to him. You’ll like him, Suzie, if Razor Eddie’s left anything of him.”

“You know all the best people, Taylor. Let’s go. I want to get this case over with.”

“Suzie…”

“Let’s go.”

So we went, together, once more side by side.

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