Mike Carey was born in Liverpool in 1959. He worked as a teacher for fifteen years, before starting to write comics. When he started to receive regular commissions from DC Comics, he gave up the day job.
Since then, he has worked for both DC and Marvel Comics, writing storylines for some of the world's most iconic characters, including X-MEN, FANTASTIC FOUR, LUCIFER and HELLBLAZER. His original screenplay FROST FLOWERS is currently being filmed. Mike has also adapted Neil Gaiman's acclaimed NEVERWHERE into comics.
The third Felix Castor novel, Dead Men's Boots, will be published in 2007.
Somehow, Mike finds time amongst all of this to live with his wife and children in North London. You can read his blog at www.mikecarey.net.
This chapter of Dead Men's Boots reproduced by kind permission of Orbit Books, with thanks.
I was staring down the barrel of another long night, and I knew it. I had the ultimate ordeal of dinner with Juliet and the lovely Mrs Juliet to look forward to. But first I was going to get some errands run.
I got to the Paragon at about six, which according to the desk clerk, Merrill, was when Joseph Onugeta’s shift began. Merrill was sitting at the desk reading the Evening Standard when I walked in. He gestured with his thumb, backwards over his shoulder. “He’s in the cupboard,” he said, and went back to his paper.
The cupboard turned out to be a room on the ground floor, the same size as the bedrooms or at least the one I’d seen, lined with shelves and stacked with boxes of cleaning materials. Joseph Onugeta was changing into his work overalls when I knocked and entered. I was seeing Onugeta as an East African name, but his skin was the rich, near-violet black of the Orissa Dalits. He had a frizz of ash-grey hair, so tightly curled that it almost looked sheer, which came down to a widow’s peak above intense, brown-black eyes with heavy lids. His mouth was set in the dour line of someone who’s seen a lot of shit and expects to see a lot more. But then again, I have that effect on a lot of people.
I introduced myself and told him what I was there for – that I was interested in what he’d seen and heard on the day of the murder. He listened with gloomy indifference, his mouth tugging down at the corners as though it made him very sad to have to listen to me.
“I told the police already,” he pointed out.
“I know that,” I agreed. “I’m just checking the details. Especially this thing about you hearing a woman’s voice from the room…”
At the word “woman”, the man’s whole demeanour changed. A tremor went through him, which he seemed to still with some difficulty, clenching his hands into tight fists.
“Can you tell me anything about her?” I asked. “You didn’t see her go into the room?”
Silently, he shook his head.
“Can you remember anything she said?”
Another jerk of the head, which I took to be a negative, but before I could throw another question at him Onugeta was speaking, in a tense, urgent monotone. “I hate you,” he muttered. “I fucking hate all of you. If I could kill every rat bastard of you, one after another after another, I’d do it.” It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking to me but quoting from memory. “I want it to fucking hurt you so bad, so bad. I want to see in your eyes how much it hurts. And when you’re dead, I wish I could bring you back and make it hurt some more.”
He fell silent, turned his back on me and took down a pair of marigold gloves from one of the shelves. “Like that. On and on like that. And the one man, he was saying you don’t mean that, you don’t mean that. Scared. Really scared. And then the other man said ‘make her stop’.”
I had to be careful with the next question: careful not to let it sound like an accusation. “You didn’t think of going into the room?” I asked.
Joseph shot me a bitter look. “I hear worse than that every day,” he said. “Much worse. I-love-you-I-hate-you-I’ll-fuck-you. Everyone say that here. Or think it. I kept on walking. None of my business. All I do is empty the waste bins. There’s nightmares enough for anyone right there.
“But then when we turned the key and looked into that room…” He was staring at nothing now, and his face was set hard, the gloves dangling forgotten in his hand. “It wasn’t any kind of love that did that,” he muttered. “Love can turn into a lot of things, but - - there wasn’t a square inch of him that hadn’t been - - ” He gave up on that sentence, shaking his head rapidly like a dog trying to get itself dry. “It takes a lot of hate to do that. To keep on hating someone after he’s already dead.”
He discovered the gloves in his hand, put them on and wriggled his fingers into them one at a time with repetitive, robotic care. His eyes were hooded, his mouth twisted slightly as if in pain. I got a glimpse of the truth, then, about what had made him too sick to come into work. He was talking about a sickness of the soul.
“Joseph,” I said, although I wanted to stop now and get the hell out into the fresh air. “You didn’t see her? You never got a glimpse of her, going into the room or coming out?” It was a question I’d already asked, but given his state of mind it was worth one more throw of the dice. Since he couldn’t get away from these memories, maybe if I kept hovering around the edges of them some kind of enlightenment, some kind of clue, would come to me.
“I’ll know her if I see her,” Joseph said, tapping his gloved finger against his right temple. “I dreamed about her that night. Dream about her most nights. My daddy had the sight, and I got it too, whether I want it or not.
“She’s not a woman, though. Not a real woman. It sounds stupid, but I don’t care. I’ll say it anyway. She’s got a devil face. Long red hair. Tall as a man, strong as a man. And a circle, here, over her eye, like a crater. Like a little bomb hit her and left a crater. Or like someone shot her and the bullet bounced off.”
The hairs rose on the nape of my neck as he talked. He was describing Myriam Kale: he’d even got the chickenpox scar. But the look on his face told me that carrying on with this line of questioning was going to lead to some ugly eruption that I probably couldn’t handle.
“Joseph,” I said, switching tack, “your boss, Merrill, said something to me that didn’t get a mention in the police evidence. He said another man came into the Paragon, a little later than Barnard and Hunter. An old man. By himself. Does that ring any bells with you?”
“Yeah.” Joseph nodded. “I bumped into him, on the corridor. I was coming out of a room, with an armload of sheets and stuff. Next thing I know, I’m going backwards instead of forwards. I hit him and bounced off.” He picked up a plastic bucket, hung two j-cloths over the side of it. “He wasn’t an old man, though. I don’t know where Mister Merrill got that idea from. I didn’t get a good look at him, but he was solid. Very strong. And he walked like - - you know - - like a big strong guy walks. All swaggering. That wasn’t any old man.”
Something stirred in my mind as he said that, but I didn’t try to drag the thought up into the light. Not yet. It would come in its own good time if I didn’t reach for it. I thanked Joseph for his time and offered him a twenty from my dwindling stash. He took it without even looking at it. Where he was living right now, money couldn’t bring much solace.
I had to get out to Kingsbury next, for my dinner engagement with Juliet and Sue Book, and the easiest way to do that was to hoof across to Baker Street and change onto the Jubilee. That was what I was going to do, swear to God: but I had that locker key of John’s burning a hole in my pocket. How long would it take to open a locker and pick up the contents? Five minutes, at the outside. I could still do it and get to Juliet’s in plenty of time. So I found myself heading South instead, without any recollection of making a decision about it.
The left luggage lockers at Victoria are scattered randomly across the whole station, but the densest concentration is next to the Prêt a Manger at the Northern end of the concourse. I tried there first, but locker number 167 wasn’t among them. I zig-zagged back towards the escalators that lead down into the underground, going from one row of lockers to the next, and finally struck paydirt on the fourth or fifth. But paydirt is a relative term in this case, because when I opened 167 it was empty.
I felt the sudden prick and slow deflation of bathos, but only for a moment. Then I thought about how John had played the earlier moves in this game. There was the plastic bag, for starters, taped to the space in back of the desk drawer; then the backwards phone number, written on the matchbook of a café which turned out not to be his rendezvous point with Chesney, but a place from where the rendezvous point could be spied on. Always that extra, paranoid little wriggle: like the innovations of a mind determined to catch itself out as well as everyone else.
Going down on hands and knees, and mentally consigning the trousers I was wearing to the dustbin of history, I took a closer look inside the locker. Still nothing to be seen, but when I stuck my arm inside and felt over all the inside surfaces, there was something there – something fixed to the top of the locker space, which gave slightly under my hand and was the wrong texture for metal.
I managed to get hold of a corner of the something and pull it free. It was a big, chunky envelope, fixed to the roof of the locker with duct tape.
I carried on looking, wanting to make absolutely sure that I wasn’t missing anything, but I didn’t unearth any further treasures.
I left the key in the locker and took the package over to the station bar, where I ordered a whiskey and water and then opened the envelope while I was waiting for it to come.
After the A to Z, the matchbook, the key, I was expecting something else with an aura of cheap dime-store mysteries about it, but the envelope was full of music. At least, it was full of sheets of music paper: the notations that were on the paper, though, made no sense to me at all. The sequences of notes – if that was what they were – had been set down as mere vertical strokes of a felt tip pen, with no indication of how long they should be sustained, and they ricocheted all over the scale without rhyme or reason. If they looked like anything, it was the way Woodstock speaks in the Peanuts cartoon. It sure as hell wasn’t music. And in among the thickets of vertical lines there were letters of the alphabet, asterisks and horizontal dashes.
It was going to be another code, I realised wearily. Another stupid secret message from John to himself, which when decoded would probably reveal the secret location of another secret message, and so on to the goddamn crack of doom.
My whisky arrived and I studied the sheets as I drank, trying to figure out if there was any way they could be laid on top of each other or read from an odd angle to yield actual words. It didn’t work: the letters that were present were all Ds, Ts and Ks, and they were sprinkled around the page seemingly at random. As far as I could tell, there was nothing there: which just meant that I was still missing too many jigsaw pieces to guess what the picture was.
Missing pieces. Yeah, there were a lot of those. The other death row souvenirs, for starters: the ones that Chesney had swiped for himself after he heard about John’s death and before I scared the shit out of him by calling him up.
An idea dropped into my head out of nowhere. I was reaching for my phone when I realised that I hadn’t managed yet to recharge the goddamn battery. I delved into my pocket instead, fished out my remaining small change and sifted it for silver. Enough for a local phone call, surely: and this was very local.
I crossed to the payphones. It was stupidly late, but hadn’t Chesney’s colleague – Smeet – said that they worked until ten o’clock? There was a good chance that Chesney would still be at the lab. Good enough to be worth a try.
I dialled Chesney’s mobile number – the one from John’s matchbook. He picked up on the third ring.
“This is Vince,” he said brightly. “What’s up?”
“Funny you should ask,” I said.
“Castor!” Not so bright, suddenly. I seemed to have this effect on him every time we talked.
“Hi Vince. Working late at the office?”
“Yes.” He sounded surly and defensive now. “So?”
“So I was wondering when it would be convenient for me to come over and collect the rest of John’s stuff.”
“What rest? I gave you all there is.”
“Please, Vince.” I did my best to sound world-weary and bored. “Don’t make me read you a fucking itemised list. For one thing, Barbara Windsor’s knickers would be on it, and I don’t want casual passers-by to think I’m some sort of pervert. I’m assuming you kept the stuff you thought was going to bring the highest prices. I’m also assuming – because I like you and I’d hate to see pieces of you twisted or broken off – that you’ve still got them. Now if both of those assumptions are correct, the next word you say should be yes.”
A long pause, during which I had to feed the phone the last slender remnants of my small change. “Yes,” Vince said finally, with flat, tired resignation.
“Good. Thank you. Now here’s another question for you.” I tried to keep my tone casual, but this was the big inspiration that had come to me just now as I sipped my whisky, and the real reason why I was calling Chesney now rather than tomorrow morning. I phrased it as a bluff, because my instinct was to give him as little room to manoeuvre as possible. “Did you get anything useful out of the Myriam Kale piece?”
Silence from the other end of the line, which stretched. I waited as long as I could bring myself to, but in the end I had to prompt him. “Well?”
“I’m just checking,” Chesney snapped back sullenly. “I gave you the disc, remember? All I’ve got here are the back-up files, and I didn’t index them all that - - oh. Okay. Yeah, here it is. Just a fingerprint. The stain wasn’t blood, it was lipstick or something. Carnauba wax, lanolin, petrolatum… yeah, it was just lipstick. The print’s pretty good, but then her print’s on record anyway. Why?”
I didn’t answer him. The implications of it blinded and deafened me for a moment or two. Paydirt. It wasn’t just the fact that we now had the Kale artefact we needed to do a summoning. It was the link: the proof of what had been looking more and more likely ever since Doug Hunter let slip the word inscription when we dropped in on him at Pentonville. John’s dead killers and the born-again Myriam Kale. Not two things, but one. It was hard to imagine what unlikely chain of skullduggery or coincidence could tie a bunch of East End hard men from the sixties and before to a dead American gangster’s moll surfacing for a last bite of the cherry in a King’s Cross hotel room: but some massive, subterranean chain of cause and effect was there, had to be there, just out of my line of sight. I felt like I’d been strolling along the banks of Loch Ness and I’d just glimpsed one coil of an unseen monster breaking the water in front of my startled eyes.
“Castor? You still there?” Chesney’s voice brought me out of my trance. “I said, why did you want to know?”
I checked my watch. Okay, it was going to be a tight squeeze. Tighter than tight: I’d turn up at Juliet’s late, and Sue Book would look at me with reproachful tears in her eyes and a burned casserole in her oven-gloved hands. Then Juliet would rip out my intestines for making Susan cry.
“Because I need it right now,” I said. “Have it ready for me, okay? I’m at Victoria, so I should be with you inside of ten minutes.”
“No!” he protested. “I’m not on my own here. Smeet’s in the lab doing a dissection. This is a lousy time.”
“Chesney, I don’t care. I’m coming over.”
“Fuck! Okay, I’ll be waiting on the stairs. Outside the porno studio, yeah? On the first floor?”
“Fine. See you there.”
I hung up and headed for the exit. Belatedly I realised that I should have called Juliet too, and told her I was going to be late. But I could do that on the return arc – and at least then I could tell her, with my hand on my heart, that I was on my way. And maybe the trophy I’d be bringing back with me would take the edge off her demonic strop.
I left the station and crossed the road, looking behind me by force of habit. No tails – and no sense of a tail: no premonitory prickling at the back of my neck or the back of my mind. If something dead had been sticking close to me over the past few days, it was gone now.
I turned into the small cul-de-sac where Nexus Veterinary Pathologists had set up their shingle: I could see from the other end of the street that their door was standing open, presumably because Vince had already come downstairs and left it ajar for me.
But hadn’t he said that there was a security guard on at night? The bare foyer beyond the door was brightly lit and it seemed to be deserted.
I was a little wary as I approached the door and stepped inside. I’m prolific with threats but I didn’t want to get Vince disciplined or sacked if there was nothing to be gained by it.
The security post was empty, but the monitor behind the counter was switched on, showing a stretch of empty stairwell. Perhaps the guard was on his rounds.
Or perhaps not. As I came forward past the security post, heading for the stairs, I caught a glimpse of something dark behind the counter, close to the ground. It was a slicked mass of hair, the top of a man’s head. I stopped and leaned over the counter, looking out and down.
The guard was lying on the floor, his back propped against the rear wall of his narrow domain. It was hard to see his face because his head was bowed forward onto his chest: but the sheer amount of blood dribbling down onto his torso and spreading across the floor around him suggested that there might not be that much face left to see in any case.
Still dribbling. Still spreading.
This had only just happened.
The urge to run away from danger is one of the hallmarks of sanity, and I like to think I’m as sane as the next man – although in London that’s probably not saying very much. There were two reasons why I sprinted up the stairs rather than back out into the street: one was the conviction – maybe unreasonable – that whoever had done this was the same whoever who’d tried to drop me down a lift shaft; the other was that I wanted answers, and sticking my head into the lion’s mouth seemed to be the only way I was going to get them.
The thought that Vince and Smeet might still be alive up there occurred to me as I hit the first landing, so I can’t say it was part of the initial impetus that launched me. Maybe it kept me moving as I took the next flight, running towards the door of the vet’s office, which was not only open but off its hinges.
I slowed on the threshold as a wave of stink hit me – hot, sharp animal pheremones, so pungent they thickened the air. A loup-garou: it had to be. Nothing natural smells like that. I reached inside my coat for my tin whistle, turning slowly as I advanced into the room to minimise the chances of an attack from behind. But whatever it was, this thing would probably be quick and ruthless: the guard downstairs had died at his post, and seemed just to have fallen where he stood, with no sign of struggle or flight.
There were plenty of signs of struggle up here, though. The lab had been trashed with spectacular thoroughness and violence: desks and cabinets upended and thrown around the room, splintered shelves sagging and bleeding books and files onto the floor. Broken glass crunched under my feet as I circled.
I saw Vince first. Or to be more correct, I saw his head, staring blindly down at me from the coatstand onto which it had been embedded. A trickle of blood traced a thin straight line from the corner of his mouth to his chin, and his expression was one of mild consternation and puzzlement. The rest of his body was a good few feet away, under a ruptured radiator against which it had been thrown with casual violence.
A second after that I caught sight of Smeet: she was crouched underneath the only desk that was still upright, and both of her hands, balled into fists, were pressed to her mouth. Her impossibly wide eyes were staring at me in uncomprehending shock. It took me a moment to realise that she was still alive.
“It’s okay,” I said, inanely, going against all the evidence. Before I could think of anything stupider to add, the lights went out, plunging the room into absolute blackness.
There was a sound in the darkness, a few feet away from me. A hiss? Yeah, let’s call it a hiss. That probably makes you think of snakes, but this wasn’t like a snake. It was the kind of hiss that a big carnivore – say a tiger – makes involuntarily when it opens its jaws as wide as they’ll go.
It wasn’t a very comforting sound to hear right then.
(C) Mike Carey 2007
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.