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Then he pulled out a piece, and, with careful aim, he kneecapped all three men.
Either the killer or killers were amateur, or they wanted the corpse to be found, as a message or a warning or both.
The Dope Fiend|
by Lavie Tidhar
Mother's advice, and Father's fears,
Alike are votedjust a bore.
There's Negro music in our ears,
The world's one huge dancing floor.
We mean to tread the Primrose Path,
In spite of Mr. Joynson-Hicks.
We're People of the Aftermath
We're girls of 1926.
In greedy haste, on pleasure bent,
We have no time to think, or feel
What need is there for sentiment
Now we've invented Sex Appeal?
We've silken legs and scarlet lips,
We're young and hungry, wild and free,
Our waists are round about the hips
Our shirts are well above the knee
We've boyish busts and Eton crops,
We quiver to the saxophone.
Come, dance before the music stops,
And who can bear to be alone?
Come drink your gin, or sniff your 'snow',
Since Youth is brief, and Love has wings,
And time will tarnish, ere we know,
The brightness of the Bright Young Things.
"Women of 1926" by James Laver
· · · · ·
I'd known Edgar Manning for a number of years, and I was there at the event that introduced him, rather notoriously, to the rest of London.
I was at Lizzie Fox's restaurant in Little Newport Street. A group of us had been to the races the weekend before, Mrs. Fox having had a weakness to the laying of money on horses akin to mine. Lizzie won seventy pounds. I'd lost a hundred, and another hundred on champagne. Manning, who was also there, won, but not as much as Lizzie.
Which is what started it all.
I'd been sitting in my usual place by the window, reading the paper, smoking. Watching the door. Watching Yankee Frank come in, his ugly face made even uglier by the cheap cigar in his mouth. He came straight up to Manning and demanded a pound.
"I have not a pound to give you," Manning said. His manners have always been impeccable, and his voice stayed quiet and calm.
"You're a fucking thief," Frank said. "I know how you're earning your living."
There was a moment of silence. London may have not, by that time, heard of Edgar Manning, but the people at Mrs. Fox's had, and that silence should have served as a warning to the faux-American.
Manning merely shook his head.
"You're a fucking shitpot," Frank said to him. I saw Manning's handsome black face go blank as he contemplated Yankee Frank's future. He may have let him go at that, but then Frank turned to Molly O'Brien, an actress and a slip of a girl who was sitting at a nearby table. "You're a bloody prostitute," he told her, chewing on his cigar.
Mollie may have been slight, but she wasn't one to take insults from anyone, and certainly not someone like Yankee Frank. "It's a pity you don't go and work for a living," she said to him. "You're only a ponce."
It was true Frank's main form of income was from small-scale extortion of local hoodlums, an act commonly knows as poncing but it didn't mean he liked Mollie calling him that. Before I could move he threw the cigar at her and punched her in the eye. Blood swelled up over delicate, white skin. "If there wasn't so many people in here, I'd do something else to you," he said, and ran out.
I looked at Manning; his face had closed even more, unreadable as a fetish mask, but it was open and kind when he asked Mollie if she was all right, before leaving a short while after.
What happened next became a legend, and it happened like this:
Outside, Mollie O'Brien ran into Yankee Frank again, who was walking with his brother, Charles. As I said, she didn't take crap from nobody, and she let him have it.
In turn, he punched her in the stomach and ran off. The two brothers then met up with a friend, Robert Davies, another lowlife.
They were just turning down Shaftesbury Avenue when, outside the Palace Theatre, they met Manning.
They attacked him.
Manning ran around a passing bus. Then he pulled out a piece, and, with careful aim, he kneecapped all three men.
· · · · ·
This much is public knowledge. The News of the World delighted in the headline "Evil Negro Caught" and called Manning the "King of London's dope traffic." He was Jamaican, the son of slaves. A jazz musician who came to England from America during the war. He was always impeccably dressed, articulate, attractive.
In the event, he was sentenced to only eighteen months.
When he got out of jail he came to see me.
It was a cold November night; my apartment by the meat market of Smithfields was draughty. It was a bad night, and I did not wish to be disturbed. I had cleared the floor of all furniture and arranged half-melted candles in a Star of David on the floor, contained within a chalked pentagram.
I was about to begin when there was a knock on the door.
Outside wet lights blinked in the dark. On the steps stood Manning, hat in hand: the time in prison had bulked him up, and his face looked lined and worried.
"Tzaddik, I need your help," he said.
"Come in," I said. He followed me into the hallway. "Sorry about the mess."
Manning took only a desultory look at the arrangements on the living room floor. He knew my working methods. I led him into the small kitchen and set to making tea while my guest sat down.
"I didn't know you got out," I said.
"It was only two days ago," he said. "And I've been trying to lay low for a while. Luckily my network of employees is still mostly in place. Here " He reached into a coat pocket and took out a small paper packet which he placed carefully on the table. "For you."
I didn't need to look in the bag to know what was inside. Nevertheless, I did. I placed some of the powder with care between my thumb and forefinger and snorted it, feeling exhalation take hold of my brain.
"They don't call it joy dust for nothing," I said.
Manning nodded, but his face did not reflect my lightening mood. So, "What is it?" I said.
He looked up at me, his fingers wrapping around the mug of hot Earl Grey I had given him as if seeking to draw strength from it. "It's Billie," he said. "I've seen her. I don't know what to do."
I sat down opposite him and looked at his eyes carefully. His pupils were normal-sized, his eyes anxious.
"Billie's dead," I said.
Manning slammed a fist on the table, droplets of tea decorating the tabletop like liquid marbles. "I know that, Tzaddik!"
And then he started to cry.
· · · · ·
The World's Pictorial News called her "the very essence of English girlhood." Billie Carleton, with her short cropped hair and large eyes that hinted at both tragedy and joy. A small, perfect mouth and a voice to match. I saw her in her first big performance, when she replaced Ethel Levey in the lead of Watch Your Step at the Empire. Charlie Cochran, who gave her that first break, later recalled her as "a young girl of flower-like beauty, delicate charm, and great intelligence."
She was also a cocaine addict.
I thought of those beautiful eyes, closed in death, and of a certain gold box I had kept, out of sight, in the sea-chest upstairs.
"She's dead," I said again.
Manning's voice, when it came, was dangerously quiet. "You and I both know, Tzaddik, that death is not an entirely unknown country."
"Isn't it?" I said. "I've never been there to know."
And Manning slowly smiled. White teeth made his mouth look like an ivory gate into the dark. "No," he said. "You haven't."
It is dangerous to deal with men who know your secrets. So, "Tell me about it," I said, and waited.
"I started seeing her two months ago," Manning said. "She came to me in prison. At first only in my dreams. Her face, as beautiful as I remembered it to be. She was trying to tell me something. Her mouth moved, but if she spoke I couldn't hear her."
"You were dreaming," I said. He ignored me.
"I got to a stage I didn't dare go to sleep anymore," he said. "She haunted me until I feared sleep." His tea stood untouched on the table. I pushed the bag of snow on the table toward him, and he helped himself to a pinch and snorted it. "So she began to appear when I was awake. Eighteen months, man, eighteen months of hard labour. I thought I was losing my mind."
"You still have to convince me you haven't."
He laughed. "She gave me this," he said, and reached into his pocket. "One night she came into the cell and touched me. I could feel her skin, warm and alive, and I could smell her, the scent of French perfume and lilacs. She gave me this," he repeated, and put a small, gold box on the table, watching me.
"A snuff box?" My voice was steady, my hands weren't. Manning could see that.
Well, damn him. I reached for the bag and helped myself to another pinch of cocaine. Damn Manning, I thought, and damn Billie too.
"Her coke box," he said. "The one that was resting on the table beside the bed the night she died." His eyes searched my face like a snake charmer watching his cobras. He noted the hands but didn't comment, and I gave him credit for that.
"Can you raise her?"
It was a request, not a question, and I had seen it coming.
"Possibly," I admitted. "Not a good idea. Not tonight. Not on any night." I was babbling, and in his eyes I could see he was reading me, not knowing but still guessing the source of my anxiety.
"Will you do it though?" Manning's large hands rested on the table, palms open as if in appeal.
"Can you not get a houngan to do it?" I said. Manning laughed, a short, dry laughter that sounded like a cough. "I tried. The loa are refusing to communicate with me. Apparently." His tone of voice suggested he was not much pleased with the voudon priest, and I suspected the man was probably dispatched himself as a sacrifice to Baron Samedi. Manning was not a man to tolerate incompetence.
I needed to think. I needed to buy time to think. "I'll have to make some inquiries," I said. "Also, some preparations. Where are you staying at the moment?"
He measured me up. "At the Montmarte Café," he said at last.
"All right," I said, decided. "I'll find you there. If you need to contact me, leave a message with Motty in the sandwich shop."
Manning smiled unexpectedly. "Motty still there?"
"Still dealing to the tourists?"
I smiled back. "We've all got to make a living," I said.
Manning nodded. The smile evaporated as he stood up.
At the door, he turned to face me. The expression on his face was unreadable. His hand felt warm and heavy in mine as we shook. He looked like he was about to say something, thought better of it. I watched him disappear into the darkness.
I shut the door against the outside and raced upstairs, searching for the box. But it was gone, and by then it was too late, and the darkness had already filtered inside.
· · · · ·
At that time of the nightso late it was almost morningLimehouse was shrouded in fog; a pack of small dogs rooted through the garbage outside the Shanghai restaurant, and from a distance came the muted sound of a late-night reveler stumbling out of an opium den and throwing up on the pavement.
There were no lights behind the windows of the Shanghai. I watched the place for a while, unseen, but no movement was visible. After fifteen minutes I gave up my watch and progressed down the causeway until I reached a small, unmarked door at the end of a narrow alleyway.
"You no come in." It took several loud knocks before the door was opened by a young Chinese man who stared at me with hostility.
"I'm looking for Chang," I said.
The lad looked blank. "No Chang here!" he said, and tried to close the door in my face.
"Not so fast, butterfly," I said, and pushed the door open again. I reached into my pocket, watching him. "My card."
He moved his hand away from the knife hidden in his coat and accepted it. When his head came up again, he was grinning. "So you're the Tzaddik? Sorry about that, you know what it's like around here at this time of the morning."
His sudden cockney accent could have broken glass, and there was something familiar about the shape of his face. "Are you related to Xing He?" I asked as he closed the door behind me.
His entire face lit up. "He's my uncle. Says you're the best player of pai-ke-p'iao he'd ever seen."
"Don't believe everything he tells you," I said, and we both laughed. "Is Chang around?"
He shook his head. "You can wait for him here, if you like," he said. "I'll do you a pipe on the house."
He saw my face and lowered his voice. "From what I hear he's got a new lady friend somewhere near Seven Dials. Should be back before too long."
Brilliant Chang always had a new lady friend. The son of a wealthy family based in Hong Kong, he drew women to him: I believe the Sunday Express once quoted a group of flappers who enthusiastically referred to him as "the rich young chink." I knew the man, and knew his methods: he once showed me the pile of identically-worded notes he carried everywhere in his pockets, to hand out like sweets to women who caught his fancy:
"Dear Unknown" it said. "Please do not regard this as a liberty that I write to you, as I am really unable to resist the temptation after having seen you so many times. I should extremely like to know you better, and should be glad if you would do me the honour of meeting me one evening where we could have a little dinner and a quiet chat together. I do hope you will consent to this, as it will give me great pleasure, and in any case do not be cross with me for having written to you." It was signed, "Yours hopefully, Chang. PSIf you reply, please address it to me at the Shanghai Restaurant, Limehouse-causeway, E14."
"All right," I said to the young Chinese man. "I'll take you up on the offer." He smiled, and led me away into the main room of the house.
At this time of the morning few people were inside: two sailors in one corner, lying comatose with the glowing remains of a pipe still clutched in their hands; a man and a woman, with clothes that marked them out as members of the privileged class, sat together on large red cushions on the other side, similarly indisposed. Low-hanging lanterns cast dim light.
In yet another corner a man lay in shadows; the scent of incense wafted heavily throughout the room as did the pungent smell of burning opium. I took a seat on one of the cushions as my companion began preparing a pipe for me.
I let the sweet smoke fill my lungs and felt my eyes threaten to close as the drug took hold of me. As always when it did images of my expulsion from the Thirty-Six invaded my mind. What are drugs to an immortal? I shouted at them. They found me in the boarding house in Paris, in that other, even-dirtier century: I was lying comatose on the barren floor, my arms and legs bare and punctured, lying in my own excrement. The thirty-five other men and women of my circle, the hidden guardians of our people. Immortals, Guardians, Tzaddiks, call them what you will. In Hebrew the word means someone who is righteous: and they looked at me then with expressions ranging from pity to disgust.
Another breath of opium, and another, and the memory faded. The room receded into darkness, and I let my mind open, welcoming in a rare sensation of peace. There will be time, I thought, to tackle the problem of Billie Carleton. For now, let this be enough.
I watched the room with my eyes hooded. The toffs had finally got up and were escorted out of the room, a cab no doubt already waiting for them outside. The sailors, I decided, did not look like they were going anywhere in a hurry. My young Chinese friend was busy preparing another pipe for them.
And that person whose face I couldn't see… I watched the corner of the room and tried to guess at the features of the one who sat there. I felt a prickling at the back of my neck, as if I, in turn, was also being watched. I opened my senses wide, cast a net around the room. I felt the drug-induced haze of the two sailors, nightmares of raging seas and visions of monstrous creatures rising from the deep, felt the sweat forming on their skin, the taste of bloodied salt on their tongues. I tore myself from their shared nightmare and tried to focus on that corner of darkness I was after, but to no avail: it was as if nothing living was sitting there, nothing that could feel, or touch, or remember.
I rose from my seat and stepped toward the shadows, the pipe falling from my hand. But it was not my body that had stood: I was a pale, transparent form, a ghostly semblance of my body lying still and cold. I walked toward the darkness, my steps making no sound.
That corner of the room attracted and repelled me now. Its shadows thickened, became solid as walls. I thrust my hands into the darkness, drawing myself closer, intent on seeing the face hidden within.
My spectral hands formed shapes in the air, and a cold white fire burst from my fingers, penetrating the darkness.
There were not one, but two figures sitting there: two faces, clearly seen for the briefest of seconds, before a force I did not reckon on encountering hit my chest and pushed me violently back into my own body, where I lay, shivering and vomiting and no longer in the throws of delirium.
Two faces, glimpsed for the briefest of moments: I shivered again as I recalled Billie's beautiful diamond eyes looking into mine, and beside her, his hand on her thigh, a man with no face, whose body was shadow and bone.
· · · · ·
I had my fingers wrapped around Brilliant Chang's neck and I wasn't about to let go. He hung against the wall, the expensive fur coat flapping in time to his legs kicking the empty air.
"What the hell," I said, "did you get yourself involved in?"
I let him go and watched him fall to the ground, clutching at his neck and breathing hoarsely.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" he said.
"No?" I took the small gold box from my pocket and waved it in his face. "Do you recognize this?"
It was Billie's snow box. The box that had lain secure in my sea-chest since her death on that night at the Victory Ball in the Albert Hall. The box that, somehow, made its way into Manning's hand, given to him by a ghost.
Chang's eyes widened when he recognized it. "Where did you get this?" he said.
"Bill," I said, "let me ask the questions, alright?" I was breathing hard, the aftereffects of the opium dream hitting me in waves. "There was a man in your establishment earlier today. I want to know who he is."
Chang looked at me. We weren't friends, but we'd worked together in the past, and he could tell I was anxious and angry. I looked into his eyes and read understanding there, but also fear, a fear I was certain was not inspired by me. It was not an emotion I had seen in Brilliant Chang's face before.
I watched him think it through. Then, "Let me buy you a drink," he said, and rose up slowly to his feet. He looked at me and smiled lopsidedly. "You might need it. I know I do."
I had found Chang at Lily Rumble's flat off Holborn, alone and preparing to go out. I'd gone there straight from Limehouse: when I recuperated from the psychic attack, the mysterious man and his ghostly companion were gone, as if they had never been there. The young Chinese lad, Xing He's nephew, had also disappeared. A waiter at the Shanghai Restaurant finally gave me, after I coerced him, the address and swore Chang would be there. I left him to contemplate the prospects of the information proving incorrect and made my way to Holborn.
"Alright," I said. I felt tired and angry and the thought of a drink was appealing. We left Lily's flat and walked the short distance to the Princess Louise. I followed Chang into the dim interior; Big Vi and Brixton Peggy were sitting in a corner. Dealing. When they saw Chang they began to rise, but with a look from him returned to their seats.
"Business good?" I said.
Chang shrugged. "You know how it is," he said. "Everyone wants the dust my girls sell."
I said, "Let's go upstairs."
The upstairs bar was even dimmer than below, and mostly empty. I scanned the room, but there was only the usual crowd in there, the lowlifes and the permanent drunks.
Chang ordered two glasses of cognac, and we took a seat in the corner by the windows. Chang pulled out two packets of twisted paper from his pocket, offered one to me.
The cocaine perked me up; the cognac soothed the edge of my anger. "Start talking," I said.
"It's to do with Manning," he said, and looked to see my reaction. He nodded. "I don't know what he's been up to in that prison: some fucked-up shit, by the sound of it. Way I hear it, he met some crazy houngan there. Someone not entirely human. Some awfully powerful horse being ridden by Samedi." He took a deep breath. "You know how he's been about Billie," he said, and it was my turn to nod. Manning had never gotten over her death, but I suspected Chang hadn't, either.
Chang looked reassured, but his face changed when he began to talk, his eyes narrowing. His fingers drummed a nervous staccato on the tabletop. "A man arrived at my establishment two nights ago," he said. "He was tall, almost gaunt, with a way of moving that reminded me of a cat. I can't recall his face clearly: all I could see were his eyes, emerald green and hypnotic. It was like a strange elongated skull mask with two pools of burning light where its eyes should have been." He shuddered and swallowed the rest of the cognac. "He knew everything! Every detail of every transaction; he reeled out the network to me as if it were a family tree. Every connection, every shipment, everything."
"What did he want?" I said. There was a strange feeling at the back of my head, a warning, like we were being watched. I scanned the bar crowd slowly, but it had not changed and I felt exposed, my nerves tingling in anticipation of attack.
"What did he want?" Chang gave a low, bitter laugh. "He wanted me. My organization. To start with. I have seen things in my time, Tzaddik," he said, "but I have seen nothing like that man, if it was a man. He had power, and he held me helpless." He paused, and snorted more cocaine. His eyes were moving frantically in their sockets. "He told me you would come. He arranged to be there when you did. What did he want? Maybe he wanted you. I don't know. But I know this, Tzaddik: something Manning did brought this man here."
"How do you know?" I said. The sensation in the back of my head intensified.
Chang's fist hit the table. "Because I saw them! I followed him, you see, and I saw them! In Highgate cemetery, digging up the coffin of Billie Carleton!"
Something didn't ring true in Chang's narrative. "All right," I said. "Two questions. One, how do you know about Manning's houngan?" I didn't believe the story about the cemetery, but I wasn't going to interrogate him on that. There were more effective means at my disposal to ascertain the truth. They were never pleasant, but they were there and I knew I would have to use them.
"Two, if this man has the power you say he has, why did you follow him? And why are you talking to me now?"
Bill Chang smiled a slow, cold smile. "That's three questions, Tzaddik," he said. "Technically." He signaled to the bartender; waited for two new glasses to arrive.
"Cigarette?" he opened a slim silver case and proffered it to me.
He helped himself to a cigarette, lit it. Inhaled. The cold smile remained. "No one fucks with me, Tzaddik," he said. "No one. I don't care where that son of a bitch moshushi came from, he's not muscling in on my territory. I fulfilled my part of the bargain. He wanted to meet you. Knew you would come. If you ask me, it's you who needs to start looking out."
He took a sip from his cognac and sighed. I knew then that Chang was lying to me, that somewhere in the last few days I had unwittingly walked into a maze of danger and deceit, and had to step cautiously if I wanted to survive it.
Chang tapped ash from his cigarette. A cloud of pale blue smoke covered his face like a cloud heralding storm. "As for Manning's witch doctor? Uncle Lee is in prison, as you probably know. He told me the rumours. That's all they are. All I know is what I saw. That Manning is now free, and a grave-robber to boot, and that a Feng-Huang is set loose in London. Make of it what you will."
While he was talking I was watching his hands. Chang's hands were a lover's hands: Billie used to say that. Long, sensitive fingers that trembled now, sending smoke up in a crazy spiral. I watched his eyes, the quick twitch in one corner; watched the sweat form on that smooth pale skin. The feeling at the back of my head refused to abate.
I knocked back the cognac and stood up. "Thanks for the drinks," I said. "I'll be seeing you." He nodded at me slowly.
I left him there and walked out, feeling like a rabbit caught in the sight of an unseen gun.
· · · · ·
I was caught in a web of lies, and somewhereunseen but for a brief glimpse in Chang's opium densomewhere was a spider, spinning the threads that threatened to bind me. I sat down in my armchair back at Smithfields and thought about the situation. On the one hand Manning, haunted by Billie's ghost, carrying with him the gold box that I had thought secure in my possession. On the other, Chang, with a strange story about a man with fiery green eyes and the power of suggestion.
I had seen for myself the power of the stranger, and found in it something that I recognized. Manning's people may have called it a loa; Chang's word for it was Feng-Huang. And in my own long history I had known ones who were like this mysterious entity, glimpsed from beneath darkened skies and on the edge of worlds beyond time…
My people called such beings mal'achim: angels.
I felt forced into doing something that was perhaps best left undone. There was danger here, and no clear motives, no understanding of the deeper powers at work. To have an angel materialize on the human sphere, on Assiah… I thought of my time serving with the Thirty-Six, and of a day and a night long ago in the deserts of Kush. Specifics evaded me like water flowing through grasping fingers. I had seen this before, but the memory was weak and unreliable, as is always the case with beings from the higher Sephirot.
It was time to make a decision, and so I did. My living room was already prepared: I redrew the symbols on the floor and lit the candles and placed protection about me, the symbols and icons of long-forgotten religions.
The candles flickered as I began the summons, and the wind howled outside, sending leaves fluttering against the windows like moths drawn to a flame.
A darkness formed in the heart of my chalked star, a cold and empty darkness as of space itself. Pinpricks of light appeared and disappeared inside it, and I could feel my power being tapped, drawn to feeding the portal between the spheres, between the Sephirot.
The lights in the darkness slowly grew, resolved themselves into a being of light. As if from a great distance the sound of beating wings was heard, rattling the glass of the windows.
"Tzaddik…," a voice whispered from the star. Eyes the size and brightness of suns regarded me. "You are still alive… How disappointing."
Not taking my eyes off it, this thing summoned from the sphere called Binah, Wisdom, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a small packet of snow. The bright eyes regarded me with hunger. I took a small pinch between thumb and forefinger and snorted it. Then I blew the rest, gently, into the circle of light, and the being inside it made it disappear.
"I want to know what it is that had made its appearance on Assiah," I said, when it had quieted.
A slow chuckle like the death of stars. "The Emanations are disturbed," it said. "The path from Ketter has been opened, and the Tree of Life itself is in turmoil. What have you done… human?"
The apparition's words disturbed me. "I have done nothing," I said.
The chuckle again, grating like a nail against glass. "Then perhaps that is the source of the disturbance," it said. "When the guardians do not guard, who will guard the guardians?"
"Wait!" I said. The burning figure was diminishing, the darkness of space returning to the place of summoning.
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes...," whispered the voice, and the burning eyes closed, and were gone. The echoes of its mocking laughter resonated in the room, leaving me standing, alone and exhausted, in the thin light of candles.
· · · · ·
"Manning's been looking for you, boss," Motty said. He stood behind the counter of the sandwich shop, chopping onions.
I slid onto a stool and opened the paper. Life was getting much too complicated, and I wanted a rest. I also needed the kind of information Motty and his boys could usually be relied on to supply.
"Thanks." I accepted the steaming mug of coffee and sipped the hot liquid.
"You want a pastrami and gherkin on rye with it?"
I smiled and lit a cigarette. "You know I do," I said.
"Sure thing, boss."
For the next ten minutes we didn't talk; I drank the coffee and settled down to enjoy Motty's creation. When I was done, I lit another cigarette and sat there, enjoying the momentary peace.
"Did Manning say what he wanted?"
Motty shook his head. "Said he needed to see you. Urgent like. Said you know where to find him."
I did. I just wasn't sure I wanted to.
As I sat in the rare sunshine, a half-smoked cigarette in my hand and a new mug of coffee on the counter beside me, I found myself going back to the night on the twenty-seventh of November and the Victory Ball, when lights were once again allowed to dispel London's after-hours darkness.
Billie wore a frock designed by one of her cohorts, Reggie De Vaulle: she looked stunning in it, like a butterfly awakened from a cocoon all ready to fly and dazzle. In the early evening she appeared in Freedom of the Seas. I was in the audience that night, and when the curtain fell I had felt a premonition, a fear. The curtain was about to permanently close on Billie Carleton.
The Victory Ball glittered with the ladies' jewels; the Brigade of Guards played Rule Britannia. Then came the dancing.
It was a night that lasted forever. The dancing didn't stop and neither did the trips to the lavatories, where men and women separately took cocaine to fuel their dancing. Billie had her gold box with her, and by the end of the night it was nearly empty. I danced with her once, and then she disappeared into the crowd.
It was a night that women ruled supreme. A night to welcome in a new era and lay to rest the old. Too many men had been lost on the battlefields of the Great War, and the change this had wrought was profound and, for many, unsettling. Billie danced all night, and the women of London danced all around her.
"Boss?" Motty's voice shook the memories away like drops of falling water. "I don't know what Manning was after, but there is something you should know."
I picked up the cigarette but it had run too low to smoke. I let it drop and helped myself to another. "What is it?"
Motty scratched his dark beard. He looked at me carefully. "Last night the boys were down by the Isle of Dogs. Helping remove a late night shipment, if you know what I mean." He smiled to himself. "They were nearly finished when they heard a dog barking at the river, loud enough to raise the dead." His smile vanished. "Or so they thought. You and I both know it takes more than a bark to…"
"They went over to check what the noise was about. When they came close enough, they saw it. It was a corpse."
I sipped the coffee. Corpses were not an unknown cargo on the Thames. They came floating up, bloated with gas, and lodged themselves in the reeds on the bank amidst the rest of the rubbish thrown into the river. For a corpse to remain unseen, it would need to be weighed down; letting it rise from the depths meant one of two things. Either the killer or killers were amateur, or they wanted the corpse to be found, as a message or a warning or both.
"It was a black man," Motty said. "His body was covered in faint blue tattoos from head to foot. Serpents and dragons and lizards; the boys said they seemed to move of their own accord, the lines glowing faintly in the moonlight." He sighed and rubbed his chin. "Boys."
I tapped the ash from my cigarette and waited. I had long ago found that Motty was not one to be hurried along. "Go on."
He lowered his voice. "It was a sangoma, Tzaddik. A houngan. Alfy Benjamin recognised him, even though the face of the corpse was frozen like a mask carved with fear. Alfy said he looked like he screamed for a long time; he said he looked as if, even in death, he was still screaming."
"You say Alfy recognised him?" I said. Possibilities were resolving themselves in my head, worrying me. "Where did he come across a houngan?"
Motty's answer was the one I was expecting. "In prison," he said. "Two, three years back. This guy was doing life with hard labour for some muti that went very wrong. Three people died, and a baby."
"I remember." There were rumours of a cover-up, that it was someone at Cabinet level who ordered the botched ritual. The houngan, as far as I could remember, remained quiet on that front. "What did the boys do?"
Motty shrugged. "What could they do? They cleared out as fast as they could. But I don't like it, Tzaddik. He was a powerful sangoma, that one was. Alfy, he said he saw him draw a window once on the wall of his cell. Said the window came alive, that there were things on the other side of that window he never wanted to see as long as he lived. Someone like that… Someone like that doesn't turn up floating in the river, Tzaddik. Not unless…" He left the thought unspoken.
Motty had given me a lot to think about. It seemed the story Chang fed me was at least partially true, and that meant I had to find Manning and get the truth out of him in turn. What worried me, though, was that the houngan was sent down the river as a warning: as a message, addressed to me. The Feng-Huang was after me. I just hoped he would stop skulking in the fog long enough for me to kill him.
"Thanks Motty," I said. "You and the boys try and keep out of this, alright? Keep out of trouble for a few days."
Motty winked at me across the counter. "We'll keep our noses clean," he said, mimicking putting snow to his nose and snorting it. "Don't you worry, Tzaddik."
I shook my head and walked out, into the dregs of the sunshine. Shadows were gathering over the old stone buildings and the alleyways, and I wondered if it would ever be possible to be rid of them. London was such a city, in which light and shade were inexorably bound. I feared the darkness that was circling around me, stalking me in the shape of the Feng-Huang. And I feared the thought of Billie, a ghost forced to return to the scene of her death. The dead should be left alone, should be left to death. To force them into a semblance, a mockery, of life, that was a crime, and for that violation I knew I would have to act.
· · · · ·
The Montmarte Café was dark and smelled of vinegar and smoke. I came up to the counter and greeted Zenovia Iassonides, patron of the Soho Church Street establishment and Manning's unofficial business partner.
In the corner, two chorus girls were going over a script while blowing enough snow into their nostrils to kill an elephant. Cocainomaniacs, the papers called them, and they came to the café for Zenovia's true trade, not for her cooking.
She greeted me with a closed face. Zenovia was a hard woman to read.
"I'm looking for Manning," I said.
She snorted, and brushed a strand of graying hair from her temple. "Who isn't?"
I ignored that. "Is he here?"
Her hand took in the small, dank room and its shabby occupants. "Do you see him anywhere?"
I wasn't in the mood for games. "He wanted me to get in touch with him, and this is where he said he'd be." I paused, then added, "Please don't answer that with a question."
She unexpectedly laughed. "It's good to see you, Tzaddik. Where have you been hiding?"
"In broad daylight," I said, and she smiled and nodded. "Best place to hide, Tzaddik. Best place to hide."
I thought of Manning's story, of Billie Carleton's ghost, and of the Feng-Huang walking the streets of London. It was not I who was hiding but Manning, and in his place, I thought, wouldn't I be hiding too?
"Come with me." She opened the latch on the counter and I came through. She took me to a small door underneath a wooden staircase that looked riddled with worms. She pushed the door open and pointed me in.
"Watch your step on the stairs," she said. "There isn't much light down there."
I thanked her and stepped through, and she closed the door behind me and left me in darkness.
The steps were stone, and old. I could feel a chill coming off them and taste moisture on my tongue. It was damp and humid and yet increasingly cold as I descended.
At the bottom of the stairs I stopped and let my eyes adjust to the scant lighting. There was a table there, covered in a grimy red cloth, with a single candle on it. There was a small cabinet, with nothing but a handgun on it, and a narrow bed.
"Edgar…," I said.
The body on the bed jerked up, a hand grabbing the gun from the cabinet and pointing it at me.
He looked at me with wild, unseeing eyes before some sort of sanity returned and he lowered the gun. "Won't do much good against you anyway," he said in an almost inaudible voice.
"No," I agreed. "And it won't do you much good against a loa, either."
His head snapped up. "What are you talking about?"
"Put the gun away," I said. He hesitated, then put it back on the cabinet.
"Good." I scanned the small subterranean room. "Do you have any opium down here? Or some alcohol?"
He grunted and reached for a drawer in the cabinet, pulling out a bottle of red wine and handing it to me.
I uncorked it and found two dirty mugs under the bed, which, after some thought, I poured the wine into.
"Drink this," I said. "I need you calm." I waited as he gulped down the red liquid. "You look like shit."
Some of Manning's old fire came back to him when he answered.
"Ah." I lit a cigarette and offered it to him, lighting another for myself. I hoped the smell of smoke would help mask the mouldy, decaying atmosphere of the cellar, but in the event I can't say the effort was overly successful.
"Now," I said. "Tell me the truth. Tell me about the loa."
I looked at him and waited. His face changed, anger receding as a kind of dead man's hope crept into his eyes. Yet the overwhelming emotion on his face was fear.
"Tell me about the loa."
I did not want to use the word of my people, mal'ach. Angel. To do so would be to perpetuate a Christianised image of the word: of saintly, holy beings, granting peace and tranquillity and the touch of God. Those angels stared down at people from Church windows and from the pages of thousands of religious tracts, and I had no doubt it would have been a better, more just world if it were true.
"How much do you know?"
My patience was gone. It was not my job to play nursemaid to a man who had put me in danger, and it had been a long, long day besides. My fist hit his face and sent him reeling back, the cigarette dropping from his lips onto the floor. I grabbed him by the throat, lifting him up in the air and pinning him against the wall.
I watched as his feet tried to find purchase and failed.
"Don't fuck me about," I said. Each word was like a jagged knife I wanted to run across his neck. "You fucked up, Eddie. You fucked up big time. Now tell me what I need to know or you are going to find your skeleton in this cellar for the next hundred years with nothing by Billie Carleton's ghost for company. Do you understand?"
He was turning blue, but still he tried to nod.
I opened my fingers, let him drop onto the bed, where he lay holding his throat and coughing. He tried to reach for the wine, but I knocked it out of his hand. The wine spilled like a pool of blood on the decaying mattress.
His words when they came were barely more than a whisper. "Prison was hard. They treated us like dogs. Worse, because the English value their dogs. They treated us like cattle, like we were nothing more than animals destined for the meat grinder. The wardens beat us, and at night the screams of the weaker prisoners could be heard echoing throughout the prison. We didn't treat each other any better."
He coughed and this time I poured him some wine. He drank it quickly and continued. "There was one prisoner nobody else dared treat this way. Not the wardens, not the prisoners. His name was Beauregard. Saturday Beauregard." Manning drew a shape in the air with his hands. "He was a big, mean badman. A bull bucka." He saw my expression. "Someone who butts heads with a bull, Tzaddik. A bully, and that's exactly what Saturday Beauregard was. That, and a houngan, a horse for Baron Samedi. I saw him when he was possessed, and you knew then that the only thing keeping him in prison was that he liked it. He liked it! He enjoyed ruling the prisoners and the wardens. He had a good life, like a king. And he liked breaking the weaker men most of all. The loudest screams always came from his cell." Manning shivered when he spoke, and his eyes looked haunted by memories. I offered him a cigarette, and he took it.
"Anyway, I got on with him all right. There were few enough black men in that prison, and Saturday was our boss. He had strange powers, but he was still a man. He liked talking, and he liked to hear stories, too. Also, he was a heroin addict. I think that was one reason he didn't escape. He needed a regular supply, and once he had the drug he didn't care much for anything. I still had my contacts, of courseI was only sent down for eighteen monthsand so I ended up being his main supplier."
I listened. A strange feeling was forming again at the back of my head, as if we were being watched. I got up and checked the stairs, but we were alone. I sat back down and let Manning continue.
"One night I slept badly. I dreamed, and in the dream I saw Billie, not dead but alive, walking toward me across a stormy sea. She seemed to walk on the waves, her hands reaching out to me, but when she finally came close enough to touch, her hands were as cold as marble and her hug was ice. I woke up then, and couldn't return to sleep. In the morning, Saturday picked up on it, and I was forced to tell him about the dream, and about Billie."
The feeling in the back of my head intensified. I stood up but again there was nothing. The cellar was silent save for Manning's voice.
"He knew who she was, and he enjoyed my discomfort. I think that's when he had his idea, though he only approached me several weeks later. When he found me he was shaking. He needed more heroin, and he had a proposition for me." There was something in Manning's face that made me think of an old clock, badly broken. I gave him another cigarette, and he continued.
"He said he could bring her back from the dead. That he had the power to negotiate with the Baron. In exchange, I would supply him with all the heroin I could get hold of, for free. I thought he was mad.
"You might not know what it's like when you're incarcerated, though I suspect that you do. For me, trapped in that prison, racked with dreams and held captive by a constant, dull fear, the thought was soon too much to bear. All I could think of was Billie, Billie's warmth against mine, Billie's laugh that was like a spring garden, Billie's humour, Billie's touch...
"After a week of that, I went back to Saturday, and I said yes."
I didn't hear any more. When the last word left his lips a cold, damp wind blew through the basement and the candles were extinguished. I heard the door at the top of the stairs move on its hinges as if caught in a storm, beating out a rhythm as it banged against the frame.
Without conscious thought I pushed Manning down, reached for his discarded gun, and in one move turned around and shot the figure standing at the bottom of the stairs.
· · · · ·
He fell with a grunt of pain.
Human, then, and not the dark shape with the burning green eyes that I had half expected to be there.
More shapes moving on the stairs.
The gun rang out, once, twice, and two of them fell, but more kept coming in.
"Is there any way out of here?" I shouted to Manning.
One of the intruders reached the bottom and attacked. I felt a knife cut through my clothes and penetrate my skin. I twisted, broke the man's wrist, and plunged the knife into his eye.
More, jumping down from the staircase. There was a tattoo on the man's wrist, the one I had just killed.
A sword was thrust at my head. I ducked, kicked out at the attacker's face, and at his knees. He dropped with a scream, and I wrenched the sword out of his hand, using it to inflict wounds on two more of the attackers as they jumped down.
Then I was choking. Fingers were wrapped around my throat from behind, thumbs pressing into my windpipe. My elbow connected with the attacker's chest but didn't remove the pressure. I struggled, then found the pressure had lifted, and I could breathe again. Turning around, I saw my attacker on the floor, a bloodied gash in his head.
Above him stood Manning, and he was grinning.
"There's a way out through the sewers," he said. "If you could hold them for just a minute…"
He pulled the bed away from the wall. I turned back and into the whirling blade of another of the assassins. I broke his nose and watched him collapse. It was becoming difficult to move with all the bodies around, and more and more of the silent assassins were coming in through the door.
Manning removed the bed; below it was a rug and a wooden box, which he opened. He pushed the rug with his foot, revealing a trapdoor. I ran toward him in a crouch.
"Get down there, I'll follow you," he said. There was a stick of dynamite in his one hand, a lighter in the other. He must have had them hidden in the box.
Edgar Manning, Always Prepared.
I jumped down the hole.
· · · · ·
An explosion of heat above me and Manning dropped like a lead balloon, knocking into me. I fell into rancid water; a rat scuttled by, startled by the commotion.
It was a big rat.
"Who the fuck were those people?" Manning said as he got up. He looked dazed, but the grin on his face showed that, all of a sudden, he was enjoying himself.
I told him about the tattoo I saw. Manning let out a whistle. We were moving as fast we could through the sewers: the smell of excrement and waste was overpowering, and dirty water kept dripping on our heads and clothes from the metal ceiling of the pipe we were in. "Tongs? I didn't expect that."
"I did," I said. "I think someone wants you dead."
Manning turned his head: a man appeared behind us, and Manning shot him clean through the head.
"Or you," he said. "Which is the answer I find more likely."
I had thought of that, and the thought gave me no pleasure. Manning, on the other hand, seemed buoyant.
He led me through the glistening tunnels; there were no more followers. Our passage made the pipes reverberate and produce odd echoing sounds, and our feet splashed in the waste water.
"You don't want to be caught down here when they flood the sewers," Manning said and moved his index finger along his neck with emphasis.
"I don't want to be caught down here at all," I said.
I followed him, but a feeling of foreboding began to steal over me. I was used to feeling the connection with the ground, with the skies, and now I felt that connection disappearing, barred to me behind the lead piping and the layers of earth. Down here elementals ruled, in a simpler and more dangerous world, a world closer to the Old World, a buffer zone between this world of Assiah and the outer Sephirot.
"Chang told me you dug up Billie Carleton's coffin."
He stopped and pushed me against the wall of the tunnel, his breath hot against mine. I didn't fight him. His face was hard, like iron that was smelt and remade in the furnace. "Then he lied."
"Did he?" I said. "It seems to me you both have an unhealthy interest in the dead."
He lifted his hand to hit me. I shook my head. After a moment he lowered his hand and continued walking.
"I could say the same for you," he said over his shoulder.
I trudged after him without an answer.
We were walking, it seemed to me, for too long. We had descended in Soho; surely there would be a manhole cover somewhere nearby? Instead, I felt our path was leading us farther down, into the bowels of the city, and I was growing disturbed. I looked at Manning's back: he seemed to walk with a purpose in his step, leading me… leading me where?
"Stop," I said. The tunnels were getting darker and darker, and it was difficult to see. The air turned humid and hot, and deformed rodents ran in the murky water at our feet. "I said stop."
He didn't seem to hear me.
I watched him disappear into the shadows ahead.
I looked at my surroundings, sighed, and moved on to follow him. From a coat pocket I removed a small packet of snow and snorted it. I thought of Manning: he seemed scared when he came to see me, and scared again in the basement, and yet the fighting seemed to have revived him. And now he was leading me through the sewers like a Dybbuk, a man possessed. I thought of simply knocking him out, but then where would I go? I didn't want to leave him down here, and I had no idea how to get out. I was, literally, out of my depth.
Somehow, the thought made me giggle. I felt happier now, as if decisions and their making were no longer important. I followed behind Manning as we walked further and further into the bowels of the earth.
· · · · ·
We walked in silence, the only noise produced by the treading of our feet in water.
I followed Manning through turnings in the sewer system, into tunnels that were made of stone; clumps of moss grouped together for comfort on the cold walls providing a faint luminosity. There were writings on the walls, letters and drawings that I felt I should recognise and yet didn't.
The quality of light changed: as we journeyed I began to notice strange crystal globes set in the walls, emitting a clear, bright light.
After more time had passed the tunnel we were in began to widen, and at last came to an end in a cavern of white stone. Here the light was brilliant and yet comfortable. Crystal globes were set at regular intervals along the walls, turning the cavern into the semblance of a ballroom, or a temple.
On the floor of the cavern was a giant drawing, and when I saw it my mind returned to me. It was the Tree of Life.
A dark snake was coiled around the Sephirot. Its tail was touching Malchut and its head was by Keter.
Beside me, Manning's face slackened, then closed. Without a sound the big man fell to his knees and to the floor, where he lay with a look of peace on his face.
As he fell, the lights had dimmed. I kneeled down and took his pulse. Manning's heart was beating a strong, steady beat. He looked like a man in the throes of a deep, drugged sleep.
Nothing stirred amidst the newly formed shadows. I opened my mind and let it encompass the cavern. Slowly it expanded, and yet I encountered the presence of no living being, only a kind of ancient, drowsy solitude that seemed to emanate from the stones themselves.
I turned, my mind shrinking back to one focal point from which I tried to see the speaker. The voice was feminine, and somewhat familiar, like the taste of vintage Judean wine sampled a long time ago and never entirely forgotten.
She stood in the drawing of the Tree, in the heart of the Pillar of Equilibrium, over the sphere called Tiphe'ret, Beauty. Her hair was short, where I remembered long; white, where I remembered the blackness of strong coffee.
She laughed. I remembered her laughter, but it was buried deep, under the layers of memories that recorded every detail of her death, the screams as she fought the Leviathan in the old Egyptian kingdom and was pinned by the dying god into the mud of the Nile, her body broken and the magic whispering as it ebbed away… Amat al-Qadir, Servant of the Almighty.
Under her feet the dark snake came alive. It crawled from the Tree of Life and wrapped itself around her like a scarf. Reptilian eyes regarded me; a forked tongue hissed as it tasted the air.
"It hardly seems credible that you are alive," I said.
She nodded. A small smile caught at the corners of her mouth like a butterfly threatening to escape. "Hardly," she said, and we both laughed.
"Come here, fallen guardian," she said. I walked to her. She held her hands to me, but when I touched her I felt nothing, only whispering air. I looked into her face, no longer smiling. "You died."
She inclined her head in agreement.
"The paths between the spheres are disturbed," Amat said. "The passage of those seeking an end to death has unbalanced the twenty-two ways."
I stood back and looked at her, feeling both sad and annoyed. "Don't you think I know that?"
She shook her head. "It isn't a question of what you know, it is a question of what you do."
"Amat," I said. "You can drop the sphinx act. I'm too old for riddles, and I am no longer bound by the code of the Thirty-Six."
She smiled at that, and it brought back memories of her and Ma'ani and Sarwathe three golden girls of the hidden templein days long gone, when the sun seemed never to set and the waning and waxing of the moon were reflected in the Nile and in the lives of our people. Still, I felt the old bitterness rise in me again.
"You were always a rake," she said gently, and I felt the anger pass as swiftly as it materialised.
"I've come to deliver a message," she said. Her hands stroked the snake, and its tongue hissed against her skin, scenting her. "There is a thing let free on Assiah which is not meant to be so." She looked into my eyes and said, "And it is your problem."
"Strictly speaking," I said, "it's the Thirty-Six's problem."
Her eyes betrayed amusement. "Oh, they will probably move in if you can't solve it," she said. "But of course, you'd be dead by then."
"And wouldn't that be just dandy," I said. But I thought about her words, realised they had hidden a warning. There was something on Assiah that could kill a Tzaddik. No wonder the Thirty-Six were sitting it out, hoping I could do the job for them or, even better, finally die in the process. I thought about my old comrades and decided I'd rather stick around, if only to give them a two-fingered salute.
"Is that it?" I said, feigning a confidence I didn't quite feel.
That smile again, returning with its parasitic host of unwanted memories.
"That's it," she said. "No more 'sphinx act,' alright? You know the consequences of failure or success."
"Fine," I said. I had always found it difficult to argue with Amat. I reached out with my hand, wanting to touch her one last time, to feel her hair between my fingers, to say good-bye. But again there was nothing there, like a mirage painted on air.
I looked around me, at the cavern and the painting on the floor. "What is this place?" I said.
"A hiding place," Amat said. "During the riots and blood libels of Richard the First's rule, a group of rabbis -- with an understanding some say has never been surpassed since -- built this place as a refuge for our people, deep under the king's city."
"It couldn't have done them much good," I said, thinking of the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. I had never heard of a secret dwelling underneath London, or of the mysterious rabbis Amat talked about.
"Their understanding of the Zohar was unparalleled," Amat continued. "They utilised…"
I let her speak as I opened my mind again to my surroundings. In life, Amat loved to show off her knowledge, and it seemed she had retained the tendency in death. Still, I could not detect her presence. My mind moved over the curious crystals and their cold light, sensing nothing. Beyond one of the walls I felt space, and within it giant, hushed figures. My mind moved over them, sensing enormous bodies made of clay: statues, perhaps? My mind moved around them, then shrank back as I detected a slow, regular beat coming from them. Were they alive?
I looked at them in my mind's eye. They were enormous, each easily the size of ten men, and the clay they were made of seemed ancient. Their faces had no features, and their hands were closed into fists. Hard diamonds were strewn in a pattern throughout their body, a pattern I had just recognised.
They were imbued with the Tree of Life.
"Enough," Amat said. I returned to myself and stood facing her. On the floor beside me, Manning snored loudly. "Time is running out, and the angel is growing stronger. It will come looking for you. Be prepared."
"I thought you were going to quit the Sibyl role," I said, but her eyes mesmerised me. I was lost in them, seeing the faraway shapes of curious mounts and rivers, clouds that seemed like faces, and giant creatures gliding on the winds… I reached for her, a third and futile time, and felt pain explode in my hand like a grenade.
"Remember me…," she whispered as the snake's venom coursed through my blood: I felt a hot, searing pain, as if my brain were exploding.
Then I passed out.
· · · · ·
I came to on the floor of my living room. My hand throbbed. Two puncture marks were visible on the flesh between my thumb and forefinger. I stood up. Underneath my feet was my chalked Star of David. Around me, furniture and belongings lay in broken heaps.
I moved through the house, feeling weary: room after room had been smashed up and its contents scattered. There were pools of piss in the bedroom and human excrement left on the kitchen's floor.
I didn't care about any of that. I went down to the basement, not surprised to find it had also been ransacked. The false brick in the southern wall, however, was undisturbed. I slid it out and helped myself to its mysteries: a bottle of Scottish whiskey, a small bag of opium, and a curved wooden pipe, the shape of a wingless bird. There were also some vials I had left there for a day of need, and these I pocketed carefully.
Then I proceeded to have a party.
It went well as far as solitary parties go, and when there was no more whiskey and only a little cocaine I curled up into a ball on the floor and went to sleep, figuring a house that had already been broken into might just be the best place to lie low for a little while.
I slept, and in my sleep Amat's face returned to haunt me, uttering more nonsensical warnings; I saw the dark figure of the Feng-Huang stalking shadows, moving through my dreams, but he never turned back, never turned to look at me. I followed him through dreamscapes of torn memories, returning at last to the boarding-house in Paris, to a self centuries in the past, lying on the floor, choking on vomit, body wracked by drugs.
It occurred to me, then, that my life had not, perhaps, changed as much as I thought it had.
In my dream, the Feng-Huang loomed over me and laughed. Its eyes were burning emeralds, poisonous green, and its laughter was that of the hyena, a mad, deep sound that hurt my skull.
I tried to turn away from it, and in the way of dreams the scene was somehow gone, and I was dancing in the Albert Hall, Billie Carleton in my arms, the band playing music that made us soar together like two birds tied by a string. I could see Manning sitting at a table by the bar, Brilliant Chang opposite him. They were playing cards, their faces grim, and the pot was Billie's golden snuff box.
Their cards, I noticed, were Tarot cards, and I strained my neck to see who would win the game, but the swirl of dancing partners passed between us and when I looked again they were gone.
"You smell lovely tonight," I said to Billie, and she smiled at me and held me tight and so we danced, until the ballroom was gone and only the two of us remained, dancing in a perfect darkness, our lips touching in one blossoming, perfect kiss.
As I tasted her I felt her move away, become lighter. "Billie, no!" I cried, but her form began to melt in my hands, to ebb away, and I cried and tried to hold her, to keep her, all to myself.
Then somebody kicked me hard in the ribs and I woke up shivering on the basement floor.
· · · · ·
"You son of a bitch," I said. Motty put out his hand and helped me to my feet.
"Sorry, boss," he said. "We tried waking you up but you were gone. And time is something we don't have an abundance of right now."
He motioned for the boys, who were leaning against the walls of the basement. Aviel brought forward a flask of hot tea and a bag full of sandwiches, then retreated and lit himself a cigarette.
The hot tea washed away memories and dreams alike; I ate quickly, while Motty and the boys waited. Then, "What's going on?"
"We've been trying to find you since yesterday," Motty said. "Zenovia came to the shop screaming murder. Said that you and Manning had been attacked by tongs, then disappeared. We came to your house, but it was already broken into. I left Daniel outside to watch if you came back, but being the useless boy that he is it took him until now to let me know."
The boy foremost left shook his head. "It wasn't my fault, boss. This whole area is crawling with police."
"Why police?" I said. I had a feeling I would not like the answer.
Motty coughed. It wasn't a gentle cough, but the cough of a smoker who had pursued tobacco with a passion. "You're wanted for the murder of Saturday Beauregard."
I opened my mouth. Then I closed it. Then I said, "Fuck."
The boys all nodded.
"According to the papers," Motty said, ploughing on as if determined to unburden himself of the bad news as quickly as he could, "Beauregard escaped prison the night after Manning was released. And according to eyewitnesses he was seen in Limehouse, and later again he was seen having a fight with a man matching your description. Also," the cough stopped him again, but only briefly, "his body was found last night, downriver from the place we saw him. You're wanted for questioning."
"Very convenient," I said. I thought about the situation. The Metropolitan Police were not known for moving very fast, so their quick mobilisation must have had an external agent of some sort. It didn't take long to work out who or what was behind it.
"Any word of Manning?"
"No," Motty said, a faint note of surprise in his voice. "We thought he was with you."
"Clearly," I said, "he isn't."
There was a noise from upstairs, and Alfy Benjamin came rushing down the stairs.
"Looks like we were spotted," he announced. "There're pigs and tongs all over this area and they seem to be heading this way. Separately, of course, but this looks like trouble."
I motioned the boys, and they followed me as I climbed back up to street level. The time for running around and being pursued was over, or so I tried to tell myself.
Through the window a dull afternoon light cast a tired haze over Smithfields market. I had lost twenty-four hours according to Motty, though I suspected my time in the sewers and my time in the dream were somehow longer than that. There were plainclothes policemen milling about in the street, trying unsuccessfully not to look like policemen. There was also a large contingent of Chinese men, sticking to the shadows in the entryways of buildings. It almost made me want to find a way back to the sewers. But not quite.
"Where one sees only a problem," I said, "another sees opportunity."
"What are you going to do?" Motty asked. I turned to him and grinned. "I'm going to magic us away," I said.
"Oh. Good," he said. He didn't look reassured.
We left through the front door. Me in the middle, surrounded tightly by the boys. Alfy and Motty strode ahead, shouting for the crowd to make way, that a dangerous criminal was caught. The policemen were close, and were approaching us now, but we continued to move, directly toward the tongs.
It was a dangerous game to play, with me as bait and the boys with the very real chance of getting hurt. But it was a game worth playing.
I could almost see it in their eyes, the moment the decision was made. The tongs wanted me. And they hated cops. On the other hand, the cops wanted me. And they really hated the tongs.
I heard the shot go off as planned. Motty, soon followed by another, this one from a policeman. The tongs returned fire.
I watched the riot begin.
"Since when do the police have firearms?" I shouted and felt exhilaration grip me like a vice. "Watch out, boysit's magic time!"
I took out the two large vials from my pocket and broke them with a flourish against the ground. Rancid smoke enveloped us.
I hit out, as a manI couldn't tell which faction he belonged tocharged at me, and then we ran, me and the boys, while behind us smoke billowed and guns sounded and the whole of the street descended into a manic, wild brawl.
· · · · ·
A guy came through the door with a gun.
He put the gun into his belt as he came in, and took off his hat. The face leathery and tough and wrinkled and as pockmarked as the face of the moon curved into a smile.
"Shalom, boys," he said cheerfully. His voice was American, soft, well-articulated. I could see Alfy and Motty tense beside me.
"Adam," I said. "How are you."
He laughed. "It's good to see you too, Tzaddik. I hear you've landed yourself in trouble again."
I made a sign, and the boys got up and filed out of the door. When we were alone, I motioned for him to sit down and poured him a glass of brandy from the crystal decanter. We were in a safe house in Hampstead. At least, I hoped it was safe. In any case, I did not intend to stay long.
Adam Worth regarded me with a smile. He brought out a small silver case, opened it, offered me a cigar. When I declined he took one out, returned the case into the hidden pocket in his coat, and took great care in trimming and lighting it. Fumes rose in the room like an ill wind.
I watched him in silence and waited for him to speak. Adam Worth, the man Sir Robert Anderson, the head of Scotland Yard, once called "the Napoleon of crime"; the man who inspired Doyle to create his fictional Moriarty.
"I thought you were dead," I said.
"Did you?" he shrugged. "I am under that name. The Civil Warthough why for God's sake they call it that I have no ideaended some time ago. It was time to assume a new rôle."
"What do you want?" I didn't need this complication. And I didn't want anything to do with Worth, regardless of what he was calling himself in these more enlightened times.
"Do you know," he said, puffing on the cigar and looking at me keenly, like an interested father, "Pinkerton once said that 'in the death of Adam Worth there probably departed the most inventive and daring criminal in modern times?' he said that of all the men he had known in his lifetime, I was 'the most remarkable criminal of them all.'" He smiled and shook his head, as if remembering better times and better days.
"Did he?" I said. Then I had to smile. "You were always a great thief."
Worth waved his hand in false modesty. "You're not so bad yourself, when you put your mind to it."
"So what do you want?" I said again. He shook his head at me, admonishing. "You fucked up, boy," he said. "There's a ghost and an angel on the loose in your city, and you seem to think hiding here and drinking brandy is the answer to all your problems. Look how long it took me to find you. If you're trying to hide, you're not doing a very good job of it."
"I'm not trying to hide," I said, annoyed. "I'm trying to think. I don't understand what's going on."
"Don't you?" We were indulging in the Jewish Dialogue: trading a question for a question for a question. He dropped his ash carefully into the ashtray. "Or is it because for you, the ghost is more than a ghost, and you are reluctant to face her? No, don't answer that," he said. "I understand no one knows exactly what happened on the night Billie Carleton died, and I'm sure that's only right. I also know a small gold-plated snuffbox that she habitually carried on her person could not be found when the police got to her room, though I've heard it's been seen recently around town."
I watched him, this fat, immortal Jew, who sat like a contented spider in his web of information. I should have been flattered he was here at all, but I remembered Genoa, and the murder there. I was not the only one to be expelled from the Thirty-Six over the long, long years.
"The heart of the mystery," Worth said, "is at the heart. Cherchez la femme, ah?" He winked at me and blew a smoke ring that turned into Billie Carleton's face before ebbing away.
"Impressive trick," I said, but I was rattled. Worth had come here to tell me something. Time was running out, and I had to act.
"What do you mean?"
He stood up, drew out his gun, twirled it on his finger; raised it to his lips and blew smoke from the barrel. "I'll be seeing you," he said. "Or not. As the case may be."
He walked out of the room, putting the gun into his belt as he did so, leaving me alone to think of a woman, and her grave.
· · · · ·
Cherchez la femme, Worth said, and so I had come at last to find her: the night was moonless and the skies patterned in stars, and the tombstones projected, ghostly and grotesque, over the lengthening fog that lay like a thick residue on Highgate Cemetery.
I had taken some coke beside the gate to the cemetery, afraid of what I might find inside. Dubious of Chang's story of the desecrated grave and yet apprehensive. I felt my consciousness grow as the drugs took hold of me, and knew the ways between the Sephirot were wide open tonight. The Feng-Huang might not be the only thing to walk Assiah on this night.
Her grave lay, undisturbed and modest, beside two larger graves, one sporting an angel with wings unfurling, the other a curious figure: an innocent, androgynous child with eyes of stone that caught the distant light of stars. As I approached it, the feeling of dread at the back of my head intensified.
I turnedand found him. A piece of darkness detached from the night.
The Feng-Huang laughed.
It was a deceptive sound, full of the warmth of a spring day and the lucidity of lakewater, and yet it made my skin go cold, as if a skeletal hand had laid bony fingers on my wrist.
We stood facing each other without movement, without sound. He was tall and dressed in a black, flowing robe that formed a closed circle on the ground. His face was hidden in shadows: only the green eyes burned within the darkness.
The eyes found me and held. Finally, he spoke.
"You are like a ferret, set on a scent and left to run and run in circles until you reach its source," he said. "You are no longer dangerous, but you may be useful."
"Fuck you," I said.
The Feng-Huang laughed again. "I don't think so," he said. The fire in his eyes intensified.
Burning pain burst in the back of my head, and I fell to the ground.
Hands grabbed me. Hauled me to my feet. I felt my hands being tied behind my back.
"Your rivals for the affections of the delightful Ms. Carleton," the Feng-Huang said. As he did, two figures materialised in front of me.
"Hello, Tzaddik," Chang said. "You took your time getting here." He was dressed in flowing, vaguely oriental robes, his dark hair tied back in a ponytail. In his hand he held what seemed to be a very sharp knife.
But the man I was watching was standing next to Chang. Edgar Manning wore a calm expression, but the pupils in his eyes were abnormally large. In his hand, too, was a knife. I was getting a bad feeling.
"To bring the dead back to life," the Feng-Huang said, "can only be done at a perilous exchange. A normal human life would not do, as that exchange is only equal. You understand?"
Chang and Manning nodded, the motion mechanical like that of automatons.
"To give the dead life," said the Feng-Huang, "an immortal life must be sacrificed."
"You didn't think I came here alone, did you?" I said, trying for a bravado I didn't quite feel.
"That is exactly what I think," said the Feng-Huang. "Like I said, you were like a ferret, led on a leash. You believed Manning when he lied to you. You believed Chang when he, in turn, fed you the rest. And you believed them because each was telling you some of the truth, and you were too weakened by your drug habit to comprehend the whole."
"I've had a perfectly healthy drug habit for many years," I said. The Feng-Huang laughed. "Manning was the fool who asked Saturday Beauregard for help in raising Billie's spirit. And Beauregard was a fool for consenting, and for trying to take on powers far beyond his control. But we are all pawns in somebody else's game, Tzaddik. Even you and I. For Manning, there was another man who moved the pieces on the board."
The Feng-Huang moved the darkness that was his hooded head in assent. "Chang wished to have his mistress back. And so he used one of his men, a man by the name of Uncle Lee, to impress upon Manning the idea of the summoning. But he was useful, too: for all his bravado he is mine, now."
"And so," I said, "all the actions of mortal men led only to bring forth a creature like you onto this earth. Compelling stuff, I'm sure, but I do not play games with either mortals or angels. You will not be allowed to remain."
As I spoke my fingers moved, analysing the knot. The Feng-Huang had wanted me out of his way, wanted me chasing reflections in the fog as he waited for this night, the night when the spheres were aligned and the spirits of the deadas well as those of the livingcould travel across the Sephirot with relative ease. He set me on a goose chase, planting the seeds that would lead me here at last, to this lonely grave in this place of the dead.
"She meant a lot to you, didn't she?" he said. "Would you like to see her again?"
I didn't answer.
"No? A pity."
The Feng-Huang's eyes rose in flame. He extended his arms as if in an embraceand into the darkness of the night materialised the face of the woman I once loved, and lost.
"Billie…" The word was drawn from our collective throats. Chang and Manning and I, together, under her power still.
Her face was white and still beautiful. But her eyes were dark and vacant, the eyes of the dead, and when I looked into them I saw only the abyss between worlds.
"Release her!" I said.
My tormentor laughed again. "At what price, Tzaddik? Would you sacrifice your life so she could live again? Or would you have me send her back to death?"
"She is already dead," I said. "And what you have there is only a pale and empty copy of the woman that was Billie Carleton. You could never bring her backsuch a thing is beyond your power and mine. Listen to me, Chang!" I said. "And you, Manning. She is dead, gone, and you must let her be!"
Chang slowly shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "Why is it that I, the son of an ancient and powerful culture, am here in this city, in this place and time, treated like an animal? A menace? They call me a Dope Fiend, the Yellow Plague, when I am a man with a heart as good as any Englishman's. But they would never let me and Billie be. And you could say the same for Manning, Tzaddik. Or indeed for you."
"You don't understand," I said. "She is dead. Truly dead. This creature is preying on your desires for his own ends."
"Then so be it," Chang said with sudden anger. "I have made deals with worse and survived."
"Unlikely," I muttered.
And then, like in a nightmare one expects but dreads all the same, Billie spoke.
Her voice was flat, lacking the exuberance, the joy and excitement of her living days. It was the voice of a ghost, but a familiar one, and I knew what she would say before she said it.
"My box," she whispered, her dead eyes finding mine. "My golden snuffbox. Why did you take it?"
The Feng-Huang turned his eyes on me; there was malicious glee in their burning essence.
"What is she talking about?" Manning asked. "Billie, what do you mean?"
"She means," the Feng-Huang said, "that the Tzaddik is the one who removed her little box of poisons from her deathbed. Perhaps you'd care to ask him why?"
"Why, Tzaddik?" Manning said. There was real anguish in his voice, and I realised then, with a springing of hope, that he and Chang were not yet entirely under the Feng-Huang's control, that he was waiting to see if he could use them without destroying their minds. And it gave me a chance.
"He gave me the pills," the thing that was once Billie Carleton said. "The pills I took, after the ball. They made me fast and happy and filled me with energy."
"What did you give her, you bastard?" Chang said, and I was aware of the knife in his hands moving toward my face.
I sighed. My fingers worried at the knot, loosening it. I had to hope talking would keep me away from the Feng-Huang's ultimate purpose, at least temporarily.
"I gave her the pills she asked for," I said, suddenly weary. "I gave her everything she asked for."
"She didn't die of the cocaine, did she," Manning said, and his knife, too, was rising toward me. "She died of the pills you gave her."
"I died," Billie said. Her empty eyes looked into mine. "I died for you."
"You never loved me," I said. "You never loved any of us."
The Feng-Huang moved. It was like mercury, heated up and sliding on pure glass, the movement inhuman and frightening. "Enough," he said. "Gentlemen, I have offered you a deal. For your love to live, an immortal must be sacrificed. Please don't let me keep you from your job."
"Stop!" I said. The knot was nearly untied. Chang and Manning looked at me. Their eyes were still their own. I had hope. "Believe me. If there was a way to bring her back, I would gladly do whatever is needed to do so. But the dead must remain so. It is the law of nature. To undo it would be to destroy everything."
"He is lying!" the Feng-Huang said. "Kill him, mortals, and you will have your woman."
Would they do it? How much were they blaming me for? They raised their knives.
"Chang! Manning! Please!"
And then my hands were free. I raised them as the Feng-Huang howled, and I drew a symbol in the air. Chang and Manning blinked, looked around. When they saw Billie they both looked scared.
"Is that what you want?" I said. "A ghost? That is all she will ever be."
"No," Chang said. And again, "No!" And he moved the knife in an arc and sliced at the Feng-Huang's throat.
The Feng-Huang roared; he took hold of Chang and threw him in the air. Chang's head hit a tombstone with a sickening sound, and he lay still.
"Go, Edgar!" I said. "Go!"
Manning moved slowly away, the knife held in front of him.
"This is between you and me, angel," I said. "The road between the spheres is open tonight, and I suggest you take it back to where you came from."
"You," the Feng-Huang said, "are going to die."
"I don't think so," I said. While standing in the cemetery with my hands tied, my foot had been able to draw, again and again, a symbol in the ground. Now, I moved away from it.
On the ground where I had stood was a Star of David, etched deeply into the soil as if branded there. "Clay and magic," I said. "And the Tree of Life." There was a small leaf, half broken, embedded in the circle. I hoped it would work.
"What is this?" the Feng-Huang said. "This is nothing. Is that the best you can do?"
He didn't wait for my answer. The clothes containing him drew and tore, and out of them grew the true darkness of the angel. It was a darkness such as encountered in an underground river that had never seen the sun, the darkness of the inside of snails, of the other side of the moon, of death. It grew, threatening to absorb me, to touch Chang's unmoving body, to engulf Manning as he stood there, uncertain, the knife in one hand.
The earth shook.
It shook with the fury of an earthquake. The darkness that was the angel hovered above, suddenly unsure.
And from below the graves they rose: the beings I had glimpsed beneath the foundations of London, the buried, secretive giants.
They were creatures of clay, and yet the lifeblood of the Tree surged in them, the strongest I had ever seen or felt. They had arms like tree trunks, and as they rose out of the earth they took hold of the angel, the loa, the Feng-Huang, and held it.
He screamed for a long time as the great golems descended back into the earth; screams that could still be heard, echoing in my ears, from far below the ground.
"Tzaddik." It was Billie, and the voice was her own, that voice I had fallen in love with, the voice that commanded me and entreated me, and got me to supply her with the drugs that were to kill her.
I turned, and her eyes were once again her own, loving and happy and mischievous.
"I am sorry, Billie," I said. "I am so, so sorry."
"I know," she said, and she moved towards me, growing insubstantial as she did. "I know."
And then she kissed me. Her lips touched mine, for the longest second I can recall. And then she disappeared.
· · · · ·
"Was it a dream?" Manning said.
We were sitting in the upstairs bar of the Princess Louise. There were only the three of us: the Jamaican, the Chinese, the Jew.
"No," I said. "Though I wish it was."
Chang returned to the table, carrying with him a tray with three more glasses of bourbon on it.
"Future generations will judge us," he said, and cut three lines of snow on the table. We each snorted one. "And perhaps, after all, they will not judge us, nor Billie, too harshly."
"I'll drink to that," I said.
I am indebted to Marek Kohn's nonfiction work, Dope Girls, for the historical background and characters. Anyone who would like to know the true and fascinating stories of Edgar Manning, Brilliant Chang, and Billie Carleton, or indeed the secret history of the London drug underground, should consider it essential reading.
© 2005 by Lavie Tidhar and SCIFI.COM
Poem © copyright Estate of James Laver 1926, used by permission of David Higham Associates