First published in
The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic, Alchemy Press (2013)
Douglas was expecting us. I’m willing to bet he’d had an eye on the door every half-minute in case my lads showed up, with his other eye on the back way out. They always think they can run.
It was a poor place he’d chosen to spend his last night in, some wretched pasta dive that turned into a card den after dark. He had enough money to play cards, did Douglas, but not to pay his debts.
We caught him between half-minutes, me and my boys. The place went quiet. Douglas had been dealt a good hand. He was halfway through sliding some chips forward. He stopped: a lean, shaven-headed man in an old suit, aces and eights dropping from nerveless fingers.
He ran. I called the old magic about me.
He stopped. Every eye in the house was on him, because they didn’t want to look at me. We cut between the tables like sharks. Douglas was trembling, now, though I’d heard some of the things he’d been saying, about him not being afraid. About how old Tarrant didn’t scare him, not hardly.
“Outside.” The trick is in how you say it. A good, clear diction, for the magic to work. A click of the ‘t’ and the ‘d’, not a lost letter. Douglas turned and left the back way, just like he’d planned, only in company. In the acid streetlight he stood, shaking. I wondered what he’d been hoping to gamble the money together for. A ticket out of town, no doubt. Should know better. If he’d been any good with cards he’d not have had to borrow from me in the first place.
“Douglas,” I said. My lads were all around him now, so I let him go by speaking his name.
“Mr Tarrant- I- have the money-“ he got out.
“But you don’t.” I stood outside the circle of my boys, arms folded. There was a gap, in that circle, leading to me. There always was. It’s been a while since anyone tried to take it. Six-foot-six and broad and bearded am I, but more than that. The magic leaks out of me, I know: the magic that commands. I remember, six years before, when some mad-eyed junkie tried it on me, rushing me with a knife. I told him to stop and he stopped, the point inches from me. Plenty of witnesses to that one, and to the price I took out of his hide.
“Do you know what we call your kind, in the trade?” I asked him. When I’m not using the magic I have a very pleasant voice, soft and low and rich. I could sing Sinatra and charm the birds off the trees, but what tyrant ever charmed where he could command.
Douglas was displaying his ignorance, so I told him, “We call your kind ‘lemons’, Doug. It’s because I squeeze you and squeeze you, but all I get is bitter.”
He said something. It might have been, “Please.”
“Thirty thousand quid’s a lot of juice, Douglas the Lemon,” I told him, and lucky for him I was Tarrant, and not my brother Winston, whose names stuck when he gave them.
“Mr Tarrant,” he said, but I knew my own name, here on this side of the fence, and no need for some walking dead man to remind me. “Just a week,” he croaked on. “You gave Jimmy Sarker a week. Come on, Mr Tarrant.”
“Jimmy Sarker was a lemon like you, Doug. He used his week to fly to Spain,” I said reasonably. “Which forced my boys to mail him back home in a number of shoeboxes. Since then we’ve changed the way we cut lemon wedges. It’s cheaper on postage.” I nodded to my boys, and Douglas at last began to scream. I heard the radio in the pasta place turned up, loud enough to drown him.
We drowned him. You can do it, if you know which arteries to cut. My lads were good at it now. I didn’t get a drop on me.
“Good work,” I told my boys, when it was done. “You two wrap him and dump him. Then...” No pressing business tonight, so why not? “Let’s get inside and see how Dougie’s luck would have run, shall we?” And we’d better come out ahead, or the owner would be explaining to me why someone on my hit list was playing at his joint without him tipping me the nod.
It was about an hour later, with Douglas safely out of mind, when I heard it. I stood up, cards still in hand. It had been a long, long time. Memories rushed in: the war; the silenced voices, suddenly, mid-cry; my family, those that hadn’t made it. The Call. The Call to Arms.
I started for the door. The lads were jumping up all over, reaching into the coats, knowing there was trouble but not what. I waved them down. “Stay here,” I told them. Some of them protested. “Stay here,” I commanded, and that did it. I left.
By that time, I had an idea where it was. I hailed a taxi. “Embankment,” I said, and Embankment he took me to. I walked upriver until I saw it.
A handful of bystanders. An ambulance. Not so surprising for London in the small hours. I’d have walked right past, if not for the Call. The paramedics were standing round uselessly, come too late. A handful of drunks, insomniacs and homegoing party girls were standing to stare. One figure stood alone, a thin, pale man with sandy hair and gaunt cheeks. He wore army surplus and a long, stained coat. He could have been any tramp from any city in the world, but I knew him. Even in the Old Country, Trevor had never been much to look at.
“Traveller,” I said, and, “Tyrant,” he replied.
There was a pause. We had never been enemies, never been friends. Our paths had not crossed often enough, back on the other side of the fence. I suppose that made him as close to an ally as I was ever likely to get. I was never interested in popularity contests.
After the pause had, in my opinion, ended, I said, “I hope you didn’t call me here just to talk about old times.” Just because he wasn’t an enemy doesn’t mean I liked him.
“I didn’t call you,” he said. “I called everyone.” He nodded at something on the ground. Somehow I had overlooked the body, amongst the onlookers. Their very focus on it had drawn the eye away to themselves. A body, saturated, pooling river water on the pavement, dumped here at the head of the steps they had dragged it up. The Thames’ latest victim. I hunched closer to see the face.
“Yes.” Trevor was at my side. In this we were brothers. The cold shock that went through me came from a world away, another time.
Pallid, dirty, a young man whose hair had been golden but was now murky, long and tangled like water weeds. Thin, frail, he looked starved: I could see the skull through the skin.
The sunken eyes were closed, at least. It was Winston, my brother, as Trevor was my brother. Winston was dead.
It had been over a decade since I had lost family. I did not have so very much family left to lose. Many of them were my enemies. Many of them hated me, and were hated right back, but that didn’t stop them being family. I had never liked Winston, but I liked him being dead a good deal less.
The crowd moved. Another brother had arrived. He was still in uniform, and that helped: a big, handsome man who straight away started moving people along, speaking to them, convincing them. He shone. The people couldn’t see it, but he glowed with his own light: about his head was the glittering radiance of an invisible crown. They did not see it with their eyes, but their minds did. Every word from him was reassurance and authority. He spoke to the paramedics, and they packed up their ambulance and left the body there. I could have done the same, but they would have remembered me for it. I command, Lorne inspires. We’re natural opposites. Before the war we’d tried to kill each other a dozen times. That was then, before blood became too precious to waste.
He shot me a dark look, but I had all the dark looks in the world, and I didn’t need to borrow any from him.
“You,” he said. “You did this. You killed the Wishbringer.” There was such conviction in his blunt, stupid face. I swear he used his powers on his own reflection, sometimes.
“I called. I was here first,” Trevor said. “He’s just arrived, like you.”
“How did this happen?” Lorne asked, still not letting me off the hook. He had the weak, baffled eyes of a man for whom the world must move only a slight distance to become too complicated for him to understand. Just as well our magics fell out the way they did, or his stupidity’d have ordered whole armies to their doom.
“Is it the Other?” I said what was on all our minds.
“No way of knowing,” said Trevor.
Lorne was shaking his head. “Surely we’d know. Surely we’d know if they’d found us. We’d feel the fence break, surely.”
“If they were that knowable we’d never have had to run from them,” I said, looking at Winston’s sad, hollow, dead face.
“We must do something,” Lorne stated. His crown of lordly might sparkled and shone impotently. He could have destroyed me long ago if he wasn’t such a moron.
“We must have a wake,” Trevor pointed out. “Everyone will come. We’ll see if anyone else is missing, or if anyone has felt anything. There are those better placed to know than any of us.”
Lorne nodded sagely, making the crown dance. His turned his eyes on me again. “And if I find that you have anything to do with this,” he warned me. “I shall not rest-“
“I’m sure,” I cut him off. “Whatever.” He ground his teeth in frustrated anger and grief, and then turned and stormed away, stalking into the dark, a golden man in a crown of lights dwindling into insignificance under the streetlamps until nothing was left but the hat, like a dying firework.
I headed back to reclaim my lads. They did so worry about me, when I went off. Looking back I saw Trevor, the Traveller of Worlds, walking alone along the Embankment with the body of the Wishbringer in his arms.
The Call had gone out, and we would all answer. Only Lorne and I had been close enough to reach the scene, but they turned up over a week, one by one, until the whole family was in town. The witless Londoners went about their business, perhaps with more headaches, more bad dreams. To me it was as though there was a storm always about to break. It had been ten years since all seventeen of us had been in one place. Not since the War. Not since we ran from the Others, since we jumped the fence. I spent most of the week out of town so as not to bump into anyone unexpectedly.
We let Lorne make the arrangements. It kept him out from under my feet and made him feel useful. He got us a place in Temple, one of those old Masonic-looking buildings with coats of arms on the walls. No doubt he felt it was something like home. It was nothing like home, not for me, not for pretty much everyone.
They all dragged in, singly or in small groups, according to their nature. They had been catching up, those who cared for company. Winston’s wake had become the social event of the decade. When I arrived they were mostly there. I saw brother Warren’s broad-shouldered bulk in one corner, a can in his hand, cropped hair and scarred face. I’d heard he’d been in the Middle East, or maybe somewhere in Africa, propping up a tinpot dictator or brawling over oil. I almost liked Warren. He was so refreshingly unjudgemental.
Sarah was there, in her dark glasses. She had looked over the body, Trevor told me, but said nothing. No mystic pronouncements, no warnings of the Other, like those warnings we had all ignored before the War. Now she sat, looking washed-out and old, stroking one of her cats, holding onto it to make sure it stayed with her. The cat would rather have investigated sister Anthea, who was standing in a corner looked more like a strung-out hippy than ever. Sleeping in ditches and up trees, and with the stinking animals she was so fond of.
They had laid Winston out in state, like the Old Country. They had washed him, and combed his hair until it was golden again, and dressed him in blue and white, that had always been his colours. With his hands crossed over his chest he looked beautiful again, the youth for whom dreams came true on request, best loved of all of us: unselfish, gentle, generous, dead. If I had been of a mind I could have watched for who grieved and who stayed back, who shed real tears for the loss of our brother, and who had simply turned up for the booze. I wasn’t of a mind. I didn’t grieve. Winston had never granted any of my wishes, after all. Besides, Lorne was standing by the body like a huge imbecilic honour guard, and I didn’t want a scene.
I knew when Tessa was at my elbow: she was impossible to overlook. I turned on my best smile for her, and she swapped it for one of her own, no more sincere. She was like Warren. We understood each other.
“My dear,” she said. “How dreadful it is. Our poor Winston.” She had never much liked him either.
“Indeed,” I rumbled. She was still a feast for the eyes, the Breaker of Hearts. She had adjusted well, I’d heard, here where it wasn’t de rigeur for men to fight duels over her. She had other ways of leading them into ruin. I could chart her career in high-profile suicides and stock market crashes. “How’s the minister?”
“Which one?” she asked, bored as always with her current lover. It was the chase, with her. I could appreciate that. “You know I can barely tell them apart. Cars and shares and credit cards. Not like you.” She gave me one of her top of the line smiles. “It’s almost worth poor Winston dying just to get to see you again.”
“Never again,” I told her, still smiling. “We tried that once. Let’s give it a wide berth.”
“You’re boring,” she taunted me. “And of all of them, you had the most potential to stay interesting. You’re becoming like Lorne. Set in your ways.”
I remembered our liaison. The memories had lost none of their power to thrill. A year of my life given over, five years before the War, to Tessa. The heights of ecstasy and the depths of anguish, and the loss of control of my mind and feelings that I could never again allow myself. Especially not now, not if They had found a way to follow us, after all.
She saw the thought on my face. “You don’t think that... The Traveller said there was no way...”
I looked across the room at Trevor who was standing beside Sarah’s chair, neither of them speaking. “And he knows?”
“Well what do we do then? Do we run? Can we stand?” She put a hand on my arm. “Tyrant, many of us will look to you. I will look to you. You will protect me, surely.”
Her old strategy, in time of danger. When the Other had come, it had been Lorne’s arm she had clung to, I remembered that well enough. My own strategy in such times is not to encumber myself. I forced myself to look her in the face, beyond the magic.
“You would inflame the passions of a priest,” I told her, “But not mine. Not any more.”
She pouted, still not giving up, and I frowned.
“You’re wearing make-up,” I noticed. She hadn’t been sparing with it, either. “So?” she asked. “It’s done, here. It’s the done thing.”
“You’re wearing make-up,” I repeated. She stared at me, and I thought I saw her lip tremble.
“So?” she repeated, but I said nothing. The Breaker of Hearts, the Temptress, perfection of woman, driver of a thousand jealousies, and she had caked it on like an old woman. Plastering over the cracks.
I left soon after. Lorne had got rowdy, drunk on grief and scotch. He was calling for vengeance. “My brother lies slain!” he cried. “The Wishbringer, the greatest of us, lies slain! Treachery! Some ill hand has struck him down!” I knew it was time to go. I had no worries. He would not turn the rabble onto me. When I got out into the cold air I realised how thick with fear the atmosphere inside had been. Fear in sixteen hearts, fear that the Other had found us at last: that those who had torn our halls down and slain our people and driven us from our world were coming to finish the job.
A busy few days. I’d not been to the office in two weeks now, what with business, and then Winston. I couldn’t concentrate with all the family in town. I’d taken a holiday from it all, left it with the lads to handle the money and the beatings. They knew the trade.
I knew there was something wrong as I stepped through the door. It was a pokey little place, fourth floor of an old tenement. I only used it to have somewhere to send the paperwork. Three rooms: office, bathroom, storage. The office was mostly my desk and chair. When I walked in the lights were out, only the flicking red of the answerphone flashing a dim beat in the gloom, that landline I didn’t even use any more. The blinds were down but the breeze rattled them. I never opened the window. Someone else had done me the favour.
That someone was still in the room. I could sense him. I singled out their breathing, felt my fists clenching. “Come out,” I snapped, using all my voice. I heard movement, slapped at the lightswitch.
“Tyrant.” Trevor stood there, in all his shabbiness. Locked doors and closed windows would not stop the Walker of Worlds.
“Traveller,” I got out. “Explain yourself.”
“We need to talk.”
“Do we? This is about Winston?” I could never bring myself to call the man by his proper title. It felt too twee on the tongue. “In part. But more than that.”
“They find out who killed him yet?”
He looked from me to the dingy office walls. “Let’s go somewhere, to talk. Please, Tyrant.”
People said ‘please’ to me a lot and I’m seldom feeling generous, but recent days had been anything but typical, so I led him to a little restaurant that owed me. Never pay for anything, that’s the key to a good life. I had steak, rare. Trevor had a salad, to my disgust. It looked like his first chance for a good meal in months, from his thin face and ragged clothes, and he had a salad.
“So talk,” I said. The waiter brought some halfway decent wine, compliments of the house.
For a long time he stared at me, searching for something, and then he said, “No.” “Don’t play games.”
“No. You must have seen it for yourself at the wake. All of us together, and what? What were we? Shadows.”
Now it was my turn to be silent.
“We’re losing it, Tyrant. We’re losing what makes us who we are. Our heritage.” “Speak for yourself.”
“When did you last use your magic?”
“All the time,” I told him flatly.
“For real? For life and death? When did you last trust everything to your title and your power? Last year? Five years ago?”
I thought of the junkie’s knife frozen before my face. Six, six years.
“You saw them all,” Trevor’s mournful voice droned on. “The Warrior could rend steel and slay armies bare-handed. Now he wears body armour and carries a gun. The Huntress still talks to animals, but do they talk back? Sarah’s second sight is blinder than her first.
Tessa paints her face, I thought, but I said nothing.
“It’s this place,” Trevor said. “This place I led us to. We’re not meant to be here. It’s poisoning us. We’re losing it all. Eventually we’ll be just like them. We won’t even remember the Old Country. This dead place, this soulless, godless world.”
“Not that I believe you,” I told him slowly, “but what do you propose to do about it?”
He stared at his plate as though salad leaves had just got interesting and mumbled something.
“Speak,” I commanded. He looked up at me sadly.
“I’m going back.”
I was speechless. I’d been living with the memories at arm’s length since Winston died but they forced themselves on me then: that last frantic flight, the Other tearing down the walls of our palaces, so many of us lost to its cruel oblivion. The loss of all my dominion, my slaves and servants and power. All of us, we family, enemies and friends together, running for the door that the Traveller held open, and many there were who did not make it in time.
“If there’s a cure, it will be back in the Old Country,” Trevor went on. “The Other holds the Old Country,” I pointed out.
“We don’t know even if it’s still there.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I’m going back,” he said again. “While I still can. I will bring help, if help is to be brought. If the Other catches me, I’ll be gone.”
“Leaving us trapped here.”
He stared at me, suddenly angry, in his miniscule way. “Much longer and everyone’s trapped here. This is our only chance.”
“And if the Other killed Winston, if it’s hunting us here already?” “I don’t believe that. Neither do you.” And he was right. I didn’t. “You haven’t thought this through,” I said.
“No, because even if the Other hasn’t found us, if you go back that may be all the trail They need, and then what do we do?”
“I’ll be careful.”
“No, you won’t, because it’s the Other and there is no being careful,” I snapped. People were looking at us now. I stood up and shouted, “Mind your own business!”, and they did, just like magic. It’s amazing how magical a huge shouting man can be.
Trevor was standing, his salad half-finished. “I’m going,” he said. “I thought you’d understand. Goodbye, Tyrant.”
He turned his back on me and walked out. In my throat rose the words to bring him back, the commands that would bind even family.
I left them unsaid, and told myself it was not because I was unsure whether they would still work.
I had little time, then. On my way back to the office I called up all my lieutenants. By the time I stepped out of the lift they were waiting for me.
“What’s the deal boss?” asked Larry, the best and brightest of them. “Making omelettes?” because you can’t, you know, without breaking things.
“A special hit,” I told him. Lorne would try to kill me, after this, but I was ready for him. I’d cut that crown off his head with a bandsaw before I was done. I’d had time to plan. “I can give you a description, but not where he’ll be.” Anywhere, he could be anywhere, but I knew somehow that he would not have gone far, would not have gone yet. “Larry, trust me on everything I’m about to tell you.” I pushed my way into the office and through to the storeroom, Larry and his goons crowding behind.
From the bottom draw of the back filing cabinet I took them: the lodestone and the clay ball. The clay was crumbling slightly, revealing the texture of what was beneath, fibrous like coconut husk. I stared Larry down, fixed him with all my presence. “Listen,” I commanded. “Ask no questions. This stone on a string, just follow the pointed end. Take a car, he travels fast, but there’s nowhere he can go that this won’t find him out.” Except one place, which is why there’s no time to lose. Larry was looking as if the world had slipped a gear, but he was nodding. Good lad.
“He’s a skinny guy, thinning hair, wears camos, looks like a tramp. I want him dead. Really dead. He’ll be tough as hell, but no fighter,” I said. “When you’ve got him down, break his head open with this.” I passed over the clay ball. Larry was easier with that. He was used to killing people in odd ways. It was part of the trade. He wasn’t to know that in that ball was the minced up skull and brains and hair of one of our own. Only we could kill each other. Larry on his own wouldn’t have had a chance.
Unless Trevor was right. I thought of Warren, in his bullet-proof vest. How much had we lost?
“Go,” I said. “Call me when it’s done. Don’t screw this up, Larry.”
Larry was reliable. In twenty seconds he and his boys were legging it for the stairs. I sat at the desk and thought, and thought, and the tenor of my thoughts was not pleasant. At last the blinking eye of the answerphone recalled me to myself. I didn’t even give that number out, these days, mobiles being as handy as they are. Frowning, I pushed the button, took the message.
A minute later I got on the phone to Larry again.
“Not found him yet, boss,” was his terse report.
“Give up,” I told him. “Come back.” I felt utterly empty, sick at heart, and some of it came through in my voice.
“Everything ok, boss?” asked Larry.
“It’s fine, Larry. Just testing you, you know how it is. Congratulations, you pass. Have a drink on the way back. Take your time.”
“Right boss.” The relief in his voice showed just how mad he’d thought I’d gone.
I sat there in my office and stared at my hands, thinking many things. I was thinking of all the times I’d let my magic off the leash, the last five years. How many times? How many times had I given the command, and had it obeyed not from any power of my own, but because of my reputation, because of mere fear, because of the mundane authority I could put into my voice. I thought of all the times I’d faced down someone who wanted to kill me, because I knew no mortal hand could strike my death-blow.
The bitter thoughts: What have I got left, and do I dare put it to the test? And when did I lose it? And, like poor relations at a will-reading they flocked in: Did I ever have the magic? Was there ever such a place as the Old Country, really? I wondered for a moment whether Larry would have followed the lodestone in circles through London forever.
Mostly I thought of that message, that last message that had been sitting patiently in my answerphone for over a week: Winston’s last words, his last day, probably his last minute judging from the sounds in the background, the traffic and the noise of the river. I had no idea who he thought he was calling.
“I can’t cope,” he had said. His voice had been ragged, raised above the cars. “I can’t live like this any more. It’s gone, all of it.” The Bringer of Wishes had been weeping into his phone. “I can’t do it any more. I can’t make people happy any more. I can’t even help myself.” I remembered how starved he had looked, even after they cleaned him up. “Help me,” he had said, and his voice would have echoed in my empty office. Then, quiet but unbearably clear, like a child’s voice: “Was it ever real? This game we played? I used to be able to grant wishes. I used to be able to...” And the traffic receding, and then static and the call’s end as Winston’s last wish was denied him. Or, perhaps, was granted.
Let Trevor go. And if he brought back the Other, into this dead place, then perhaps even the Other would regret it, would dwindle and pine and find a job serving hamburgers. If the Other consumed this place and tore down its high halls of glass in a hail of splinters, I could not bring myself to feel sorry for it. Not now.
And if Trevor brought back the Other to destroy all the rags that were left of our family, it would still be better than one day seeing the Traveller, the Walker of Worlds, hailing a taxi, or crowding into a commuter train, or waiting and waiting for a bus that would never come.
© Adrian Tchaikovsky 2020