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“It’s not the blowing himself up that’s the act,” Alex explained. “It’s the way he pulls all the little bits of himself back together again afterwards.”
“You mean he blows himself up over and over again?” I said.
“Every night, and twice on Saturdays. It’s a living, I suppose.”
“Speaking of which,” I said, “why are you still here, Alex? You always said you only stayed because Merlin’s geas bound you and your line to this bar in perpetuity. But now he’s finally dead and gone, thanks to Lilith, what’s holding you here?”
“Where else would I go?” said Alex, his voice flat and almost without emotion. “What else could I do? This is what I know and what I do. And besides, where else would I get the opportunity to upset, insult, and terrorize so many people on a regular basis? Running this bar has spoilt me for anywhere else. This…is my life. Dammit.”
“How has Merlin’s disappearance affected things here?”
“Will you keep your voice down! I haven’t told anyone, and I’m not about to. If certain people, and certain other forces not at all people, knew for certain that this bar was no longer protected by Merlin’s magics, they’d be hitting it with everything from Biblical plagues to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
“It’s your own fault for short-changing people.”
“Let us change the subject. I hear you and Suzie Shooter are shacking up together now. I can honestly say I never saw that one coming. How is everyone’s favourite psychopathic gun nut?”
“Oh, still killing people,” I said. “She’s off chasing down a bounty, out on the Borderlands. She’s got a birthday coming up soon; maybe I’ll buy her that backpack nuke she’s been hinting about.”
“I wish I thought you were joking.” Alex regarded me thoughtfully. “How’s everything…working out?”
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” I said. My turn to change the subject. “I need to talk to someone who can tell me all about the Griffin and his family. Very definitely including all the things people like us aren’t supposed to know about. Anyone in tonight who might fit the bill?”
“You’re in luck, sort of,” said Alex. “See that smartly dressed gentleman sitting at the table in the far corner, trying to charm someone else into buying him a drink? Well, that is no gentleman, that is a reporter. Name’s Harry Fabulous. Currently working as a stringer for the Nightside’s very own scurrilous tabloid, the Unnatural Inquirer. All the news that can be made to fit. He knows everything, even if most of it probably isn’t true.”
I nodded. I knew Harry. I caught his eye and gestured for him to come over and join me. He smiled cheerfully and sauntered up to the bar. Oh yes, I knew all about Harry Fabulous. Handsome, charming, and always expressively dressed, Harry was a snake in wolf’s clothing. There was a time when Harry was the Nightside’s premiere Go To man, for everything that’s bad for you. And then he got religion the hard way, through a personal encounter he still won’t talk about, and decided to become an investigative journalist for the good of his soul. I think the idea was to expose corruption and bring down evil in high places, but unfortunately, the only place that was hiring was…the Unnatural Inquirer. Which doesn’t so much expose corruption as wallow in it. Still, we all have to start somewhere. Harry says he’s working his way up. He’d have a hard job working his way down.
“Hello there, John,” said Harry Fabulous, showing off the perfect teeth in his perfect smile. He grabbed my hand and shook it just that little bit too familiarly. “What can I do for you? I’ve got a line on some genuine Martian red weed, if you’re interested. A very cool smoke, or so I’m told…”
“If you say it’s out of the world, you will receive a short but painful visit from the slap fairy,” I said sternly. You have to keep Harry in his place or he takes advantage. “I thought you were out of that line of business?”
“Oh, I am, I am! But one does hear things…”
“Good,” I said. “What are you working on at the moment, Harry?”
“I’m chasing down a rumour that the Walking Man has entered the Nightside,” said Harry, trying hard to sound casual.
“There have always been rumours,” said Alex. “Your paper pays for sightings, but all it ever runs are friend of a friend stories and blurry photos that could be anyone.”
“This looks like the real thing,” said Harry, absolutely radiating sincerity. “The wrath of God in the world of men, sent among us to punish the guilty. And he’s finally come to the Nightside! Which is a scary prospect for…well, pretty much everyone in the Nightside. A lot of people have disappeared from sight, no doubt hiding under their beds and whimpering until he’s gone again. If I could get an interview…”
“He’d shoot you on sight, Harry, and you know it.”
“If the job was easy, everybody would be doing it.” Harry considered me thoughtfully. “So, you and Suzie Shooter are an item now? You’re a braver man than I gave you credit for.”
“Does everyone know?” I said.
“You’re news!” said Harry. “The two most dangerous individuals in the Nightside getting it on together! Talk about a celebrity couple. The man who saved the Nightside during the Lilith War, and Suzie Shooter, also known as Shotgun Suzie, and Oh Hell, Just Shoot Yourself in the Head and Get It Over With. My editor would pay out some serious money for an exclusive about your living arrangements.”
“Not interested,” I said.
“But…everyone is fascinated! Enquiring minds have a right to know!”
“No they don’t,” I said firmly. “That’s why Suzie has been knee-capping paparazzi, and laying down man-traps outside the house. But I’ll tell you what, Harry, you help me with a case I’m working on, and I’ll tell you something about Suzie that no-one else knows. Interested?”
“Of course! What do you want to know?”
“Tell me about the Griffin and his family. Not just the history, but the gossip as well. Starting with how he became immortal in the first place, if you know.”
“That’s all you want?” said Harry Fabulous. “Easy peasy!” He started to give me a superior smile, then remembered who he was talking to. “It’s not exactly secret how Jeremiah Griffin became immortal. It’s just that most people don’t talk about it if they know what’s good for them. Basically, some centuries ago the Griffin made a deal with the Devil. Immortality, in return for his soul. The Griffin thought he’d made a good deal; because if he never dies, how can the Devil ever claim his soul? But, as always there was a clause in the contract; Jeremiah could pass on his immortality to his wife, and even to his children, and their spouses…but not to his grand-children. Should a Griffin grand-child ever reach society’s definition of adulthood, then the Griffin’s immortality is immediately forfeit, and the Devil would come to claim him and drag him down to Hell.”
“What about the rest of the family?” I said. “Would they lose their immortality, too? And their souls?”
“Unknown,” said Harry.
“So how did the Griffin end up with two teenage grand-children?”
Harry smirked. “Jeremiah never intended to have any children, let alone grand-children. Word is he took extraordinary precautions to prevent it, including condoms with so many built-in protections they glowed in the dark. But there never was a husband whose wife couldn’t out-think him in that department, and once Mariah was actually pregnant with twins, the Griffin reluctantly went along with it. Though he’s supposed to have taken steps to ensure there wouldn’t be any more.”
“He had her sterilized,” I said. “Mariah told me.”
“You got that straight from the woman herself?” said Harry. “Now that I can use! That’s a genuine exclusive…Anyway, after the two children had grown up, it didn’t take them that long to decide they wanted children of their own rather more than they wanted dear old Dad around forever. Both Melissa and Paul were planned, conceived, and born in strict secrecy, only a few weeks apart, then presented to Jeremiah as a fait a
ccompli. Word is he went mad, threatened to kill both his children and the grand-children, but somehow…he didn’t. Ever since, everyone’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop. But the grand-children grew up unharmed, even indulged…and a little weird. I suppose living with the constant threat of death hanging over you will do that. Because let’s face it, it’s either them or him, and he’s got a hell of a lot more to lose…When word got out that he’d made a new will, leaving everything to Melissa, you could hear jaws dropping all over the Nightside.”
“Hold it,” I said. “You know about the new will?”
“Damn, John, everyone knows! It’s the hottest piece of news in years! The information spread across the Nightside faster than a road runner with a rocket up its arse. Absolutely no-one saw that coming. The Griffin prepared to die at last, and leave everything to quiet, mousy, little Melissa? All the other Griffins disinherited, at a stroke? A lot of people still don’t believe it. They think the Griffin’s running another of his horribly complicated and very nasty schemes, where everyone gets the shaft except the Griffin. That man never gave away anything that was his in the whole of his over-extended life.”
“Except his soul,” I said.
Harry shrugged. “Maybe this is all part of a plan to get it back. There are rumours…that the Griffin is responsible for Melissa’s disappearance. That he’s already had Melissa killed and only set up the new will as a smoke screen.”
“Not with what he’s paying me to find her,” I said.
“Oh, Alex, before I forget. Look after this for me, will you? I’ll pick it up later.”
And I handed over my briefcase full of a million pounds to Alex. He grunted at the weight as he accepted it and stowed it out of sight behind the bar. He’d held things for me before and never asked questions. I think he saw them as surety against me paying my bar bill. He scowled at me.
“It’s not your dirty laundry again, is it, Taylor? I swear some of your socks could walk to the laundrette on their own.”
“Just a few explosives I said I’d look after for a friend,” I said blithely. “I wouldn’t let anyone get too near it if I were you.” I turned back to Harry. “If Melissa really was kidnapped…who would you put in the frame as likely suspects?”
“I think better with a drink in me,” Harry suggested.
“Get on with it,” I hinted.
“Oh come on, John, all this talking is thirsty business…”
“All right,” I said. I looked at Alex. “Get this man a glass of Angel’s Urine, and a bag of Pork Balls. Now talk, Harry.”
“When it comes to the Griffin’s enemies, I’m spoilt for choice,” said Harry. “I suppose you’d have to include the Jasper Twins, Big Max the Voodoo Apostate, Grievous Bodily Charm, and the Lady Damnation. If they all ever end up in the same room at the same time, it’s probably a sign of the Apocalypse. Any one of them could be a contender for Number One Scumbag in the Nightside, if the Griffin ever does actually pop his clogs. But I still wouldn’t rule out the Griffin as your main suspect. That man is more devious than you imagine. In fact, he’s more devious than you can imagine. Living as a complete bastard for centuries will do that to you.”
“Melissa will be eighteen in a matter of hours,” I said.
“Legal age of adulthood. If I don’t find her before then and take her back to Griffin Hall to sign some documents to validate the new will, then Mariah and the others will become legal inheritors again. Which gives them one hell of a motive.”
“If you take her back to her grandfather,” said Alex, putting a glass and a bag in front of Harry, “he’ll probably kill her right in front of you, to safeguard his soul. That could be why he hired you. Maybe…someone kidnapped her to save her from him.”
“If Philip Marlowe had had to deal with cases like mine, he’d have given it all up and become a plumber,” I growled. “There are far too many questions in this case and nowhere near enough hard facts.” I glared at Harry just because he was there. “How old is Jeremiah Griffin? Does anyone know for sure?”
“If they do, they’re smart enough to keep very quiet about it,” said Harry. He sipped his drink and made a surprised noise. “The best guess is several centuries. There are records of the Griffin’s presence in the Nightside all the way back to the thirteenth century, but before that the records for everyone get spotty. Chaucer mentions him in the unexpurgated text of The Canterbury Tales, if that’s any help.”
“Not really,” I said. “Look, the Nightside has immortals like a dog has fleas, and that’s not even including the Beings on the Street of the Gods. There must be someone or something still around who was there when the Griffin first appeared on the scene.”
“Well, there’s Shock-Headed Peter, the Lord of Thorns, Kid Cthulhu, and of course Old Father Time himself. But again, if they know anything, they’ve gone to great pains to keep quiet about it. The Griffin is a powerful man, and he has a very long reach.”
“All right,” I said. “Tell me about his business. I mean, I know he’s rich and owns everything that isn’t nailed down, but how, precisely?”
“The man is very very rich,” said Harry. “Centuries of continued effort and the wonders of accumulated compound interest will do that. Whoever does eventually take over the Griffin family business will own a substantial part of the Nightside and a controlling interest in a majority of the businesses that operate here. It’s no secret that the Griffin has been manoeuvring to take over the position left vacant by the recently deceased Authorities. So whoever inherits his power base could end up running the Nightside. Inasmuch as anyone does, or can. Would the Griffin really have put so much time and effort into becoming King of the Heap, just so he could die and hand it over to an inexperienced eighteen-year-old girl?”
“It doesn’t sound too likely, when you put it like that,” I said. “But I have to wonder what Walker will have to say. Last time I looked he was still running things, and I can’t see him stepping down for anyone he considered unworthy.”
“Walker?” Harry sniffed dismissively. “He’s only running the day-to-day stuff because he always has, and most people still respect him. But everyone knows that’s only temporary, until someone with real power comes along. Without the Authorities to back him up, Walker’s on borrowed time, and he must know it. The Griffin isn’t the only person working behind the scenes to take control, and any one of them could have kidnapped Melissa to put pressure on the Griffin to step aside or step down.”
“Names,” I said. “I need names.”
“They’re not the kind of names you say out loud,” said Harry, meaningfully. “Don’t worry, though, you keep digging, and they’ll find you. What is this I’m eating, exactly?”
“Eat up,” I said. “It’s full of protein. Now, give me the latest gossip on what the Griffin family likes to get up to when no-one’s looking. All the tasty stuff.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Harry, grinning nastily. “Word is that William takes his pleasure very seriously, and he takes it to the extreme. An explorer on the outer edges of sensation, and all that crap. You might want to check out the Caligula Club. His wife Gloria could shop for the Olympics, but of late she’s turned away from bulk buying in favour of tracking down rare collectibles. She’s the kind that would buy the Maltese Falcon or the Holy Grail, just so no-one else could have it. The only reason she hasn’t been conned more often is because most of the people who operate in that area are quite sensibly afraid of what the Griffin would do to them if he found out. Last I heard, Gloria was negotiating to buy a Phoenix’s Egg from the Collector himself. He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?”
“Not really,” I said. “More a friend of my father’s.”
Harry waited hopefully, then shrugged easily as it became clear I wasn’t going to say anything more. “Eleanor Griffin likes toy boys. She’s got through a dozen to my certain knowledge, and she’s always on the lookout for the latest model. Word is she slept with every member of a certain famous boy band
, and they were never the same afterwards. Their fan club put out a fatwah on her. Eleanor’s husband Marcel gambles. Badly. Most of the reputable houses won’t let him through the door because he has a habit of running up his debts, then telling them to collect from the Griffin. Which, of course, they would have more sense than to try. As a result of this unpleasant practice, poor old Marcel has to gamble in the kind of places most of us wouldn’t enter even if we had a gun pressed to our heads. How am I doing?”
“Very nicely,” I said. “Tell me about the grand-children, Paul and Melissa.”
Harry frowned. “Very quiet, by comparison. They each have their own small circle of friends, and they keep to themselves. No big public appearances or scandals. If they have a private life, they’re keeping it so secret that even the Unnatural Inquirer doesn’t know about it. And there’s not many can say that.”
“I see,” I said. “Okay, Harry. Thanks. That’ll do nicely. See you around.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” he said, as I got up to leave. “What about my exclusive? Something about Suzie Shooter that no-one else knows?”
I smiled. “She’s really not a people person. Especially first thing in the morning.”
I only had a moment to enjoy the look on Harry’s face before someone called out my name, in a loud, harsh, and not at all friendly voice. I looked around, and everyone else in the bar was already running or diving for cover. Standing at the foot of the metal stairway was a tall spindly woman in black, holding Kayleigh’s Eye firmly in one upraised hand. I didn’t recognise the woman, but like everyone else in the bar I knew Kayleigh’s Eye when I saw it. I felt a lot like running and diving for cover myself. The Eye is a crystal that fell to earth from some higher dimension centuries ago in the primordial days of ancient Britain. The Eye was a thing of power, of other-dimensional energies, and it could fulfil all your dreams and ambitions if it didn’t burn you out first. The only reason Kayleigh’s Eye hadn’t made some poor fool king or queen of the Nightside was that they didn’t tend to live long enough. The Eye was too powerful for poor fragile mortals to use. Most people had enough sense not to touch the damned thing, but of late certain fanatical groups had taken to using it to arm suicide assassins.