I’m always thankful for the rain on nights like this. Warm and heavy, it cleans away the pollutants that stick to your skin after a day on the streets like a greasy film of Vaseline. Seeking shelter I zigzag down the street from awning to awning, brief punctuations in the torrent until I reach the alleyway.
Down here in a maze of sodden litter, the pavement is pitted with potholes, miniature seas of black oily water swirling rainbow currents disrupted by islands of scummy froth and dog-ends. In a window above, bedsit silhouette of naked girl, smoking and weeping. Fluorescent light behind her throws a cone of dirty yellow beams down through fire escapes, a cage of light sketched onto the red brick walls scarring the babble of paint sprayed tags and slogans with no more meaning than territorial pissings.
“Voidboy”, “dave7”, “Nuthin is ultra”.
The door of Tartarus is unassuming, unmarked. Gateway of cracks in peeling red paint camouflaged against the crumbling grids of decaying mortar. Simple entry procedure; you knock, hatchway slides back and you’re fixed to the spot by a freezing gaze as she sizes you up. They call her Medusa, a ferocious muscular bull-dyke with eyes that would make a plague rat curl up and die. She welcomes me with a sneer of recognition, sharp tourettic twitch of the head wordlessly directing me upstairs. I abandon all hope and enter.
The kid’s already here. Sat at a table by the window, he’s staring out into the night, bottle of some chemical blue kindergarten cocktail in one hand, the other reaching up to tame a ragged piss-blonde fringe away from his eyes. Under the table, one knee’s bouncing along double time to the soft slow dirty beat of scratchy sampled blues that hangs in the air like a failing pulse.
No need to approach just yet. Check out the room, watch him react. Match subject with surroundings, map cause and effect. Take my time.
Above the bar, an antique print of a Doré illustration from the Inferno, a relic of the days Tartarus was a haven for the literati. The old gang of lettered rakes and dilettantes are now long gone, so the reference is as unheeded as the club’s name, but still Virgil and Dante stare down on the flatterers drowning in shit.
To get out of the boy’s direct line of sight, I move around the edge of the bar behind a group ofSohomedia bohos who are leaning against the chipped formica, braying and yelping. All Cahartt, Abercrombie and hair gel, they’re nothing more than hedonism tourists as full of saccharin and baby milk as the cheap cut coke caked in dried snot round their nostrils. They’re not regulars, but their tribe are always in here, wearing the same uniform, rubbing up against the underworld to attain enough of a taint to make them feel edgy but never really diving in.
“Found this great bar last night, full of whores and thieves. So real man, so real.”
They pause from knocking back candy coloured vodka shots as I pass, eyeing me with nervous suspicion. They may be fresh off the tit, but they can still taste the stink of a badge when it gets close enough.
The regulars know that I’m murder not vice, not interested in their petty deals and pleasures. Pills and powders, booze and skin, it’s all the same to me, just different commodities on one side of an equation of need, we consume therefore we are. But these kids don’t know that, and they turn the volume down to whispers, self-consciously flicking manicured fingers under their noses to shift the residue of Columbian Cow and Gate.
From my new vantage point I can watch the boy’s sepia tinted reflection in the nicotine-smeared mirror behind the bar. He’s looking round scanning the room for me, or maybe potential customers. A young entrepreneur is never off the clock. Unnoticed I’m now free to continue my observations.
Stick-thin arms poke from a faded blue t-shirt, and worn jeans a couple of sizes too big hang on his hips even when seated. But malnutrition hasn’t quite yet eaten away the puppy fat from his face and a cherubic roundness smothers all but the ghosts of cheekbones making him look younger than he probably is. It’s a look that goes down well with his target market. Even from this distance I can see him shaking. Withdrawal pangs are pinching at his nervous system.
I catch Denny’s eye. He’s been behind the bar at Tartarus about five years. Late twenties, used to be a street boy, one of the rising stars of the nocturnal economy, but then his pimp found out he was holding out on him and got him on the wrong end of a can of battery acid. From the right angle, in the right light, you can still see the beauty that made him the best cut on the Piccadilly meat rack, but now he’s only got one nostril, the other dissolved. An intricate web of scar tissue creeps like a skeletal hand across his right cheek and top lip. In truth he’s probably better off, he’s got a home now and a regular income which he supplements with tips and the occasional high price trick he turns for a select clientele with a taste for the grotesque.
No words spoken, but he sticks a double whiskey in front of me. I knock it straight back. Tastes like the air in the room smells. Old sweat, mildewed wood and pheromones. Catches the back of your throat, sharp and rough like drinking powdered glass and bitter aloes. Good kick, makes you focus.
With two fingers I beckon and Denny pours again, this time though I stop him with a glance.
“And a brandy”
He nods and turns back to the optics. A clank of glass against glass and he puts another tumbler in front of me. As before, no money changes hands.
I walk slowly across the room through the smoke to the table where the boy’s sitting. Standing behind him, I reach over and put the glass down on the table.
He looks back over his shoulder and up at me, curtain of fringe swaying over his red-rimmed eyes. A look of, what? Relief? A plea for help? Whatever, he’s trying to mask it with a thin skin of bravado.
I walk round to the opposite side of the table and sit directly across from him, mimicking the arrangement of the interview rooms back at the station.
He glances at the Star Wars watch that hangs loosely on his wrist in a tangle of wire bangles and plaited leather thongs.
“You’re late.” he says. Voice flat. Middle-class south eastern standard only slightly coarsened by his time in the city
“Got somewhere else to be?”
“No, it’s just.. I mean..” he trails off, not wanting to say what’s on his mind. Mask slips, frightened eyes cast down into his glass.
“Time is money yeah? Listen kid, you’re gonna earn more for half an hour talking to me than for ten turns getting your arse wrecked up against the wall in some piss drenched alley.” He recoils. It’s brutal and blunt, but there’s a strategy. Confront him with the truth of his existence. Punch a hole in the armour he’s built around himself.
He mumbles a “Sorry.” still not looking up. I soften my tone and reach out a hand to his.
“Look, what’s important is that we catch whoever sliced up your friend, and if you give me some decent information, I’ll double what we said, then you can take the night off and maybe even get yourself some new clothes. Wouldn’t that be good?”
This does trick. Mask falls to the ground. He looks up and meets my gaze with an almost smile.
“Yeah.” he lifts the brandy to his lips and takes a swig. He blinks, surprised at the strength of the spirit, but then relaxes as the warmth begins to spread, softening the gnawing bite of cold turkey and steadying his hand.
Up close, I study his face for more details. He’s not that long on the street, fresh enough that his eyes aren’t yet fully dulled, but long enough that they’re ringed with dark circles of exhaustion, the left with a slight tinge of purple fading to yellow. His mouth is slightly pushed out, the practiced pout of his profession now second nature. Thick as velvet ropes, his lips are kissed with crystalline scabs of drying blisters, marking him out as a hive of infection. A map of scars and tracks trail up his skinny arms.
“So then, tell me about Matt.”
He nods down at the table over the top of the glass.
“Aren’t you going to take notes, or record this or something?”
“Off the record. And I don’t think these guys would appreciate it anyway.” I flick my eyes round the room.
“Oh yeah.” He half-laughs into his brandy, ackowledging his naivety.
“So then. Matt?”
He draws in breath and looks out of the rain streaked window, thinking of what to say. Without turning back he starts.
“We lived together, in the squat. He was my… I…” Too quickly the sob catches in his throat, “I loved him.” He steadies his voice. ”We had plans. Saving money for a proper place” His head’s still turned, trying not to let me see the tears, but red, bar-lamp light glints on jewels of brine gathering in the corner of his eyes.
It’s a story I’ve heard before. It’s not love, just misrecognised companionship as a shield against the storm, just two souls stitched together by grasping comfort as they’re thrown about in the whirlwind. And the plans? Just fragile ghosts of hope that’ll dissolve over time in a tide of tears, spunk and blood.
But I play sympathy and nod reassuringly.
“Had he made any enemies on the street?”
He turns back from the window, but doesn’t meet my eyes.
“No, he was sweet, gentle, funny. He was never in any trouble, well apart from..” he hesitates, unable to give a name to it, that would make it just a bit too real, “what we do..I mean did.”, his eyes are glassing over again, ”Everyone loved him.”
Instinctively he hugs his arms around himself, a tight straight jacket embrace to hide the needle tracks. He shakes his head firmly.
“He didn’t do any of that. Not even weed. He hated it when I…” he stops himself before the admission.
A short staccato nod, and his arms unfold onto the table, no need now for concealment. Another layer of armour falls away and the tears flow freely. I pass him a fast-food napkin from my pocket.
“I need to go..” a tilt of the head towards to door to the gents. I wave a permitting hand. He wipes his eyes, gets up and crosses the room hitching up his low risers by the belt as he goes.
Cheap-suited guy on the table behind watches him, probably some suburban husband living a lie, picking up rough trade to make himself feel alive. As the boy goes through the door he sees me watching and hurriedly turns to the window.
I light a cigarette as the music changes to tinny piano backing track, in the corner, a haggard drag queen sways to her feet. It’s cabaret time, presenting the Siren, Miss Poison, as toxic as her name. Eyes turn as she starts to slur her way through a torch song.
“Come sail your ships around me, and burn your bridges down.”
She pauses for breath, lungs probably speckled with cancer cells biding their time. Practised showtune grin cracks open thick plastered render of whale fat and dusty powder to expose a row of pearl tombstones. Teeth so white you know they’ll be in her pocket later when she’s blowing the bloated businessman whose vulpine leer snarls hungrily out of clouds of cheap cigar smoke and week old body odour.
“We make a little history, baby, every time you come a-round”
Boy emerges from the door and walks back awkwardly trying to avoid the constellation of eyes that follow him, carnal gourmets checking out his back view. He sits and cradles his glass. I offer the crumpled Marlboro pack. He smiles his thanks and takes one, I lean forward with the lighter, flame illuminates a landscape of acne scars.
“You Ok now? Good. Tell me about the last night you saw him.”
“Said he had a job, good money. I was worried ‘cos we usually worked together, you know for safety and…” again the specifics of his work are too much for him to say aloud.
“Guys pay more for the two of you at the same time. The opposite of ’buy one get one free’”. He laughs, a string of snot escaping his nose, wipes it away with the back of his hand.
“I thought it was something…you know, specialist, but he said no, nothing like that, not even sex. We argued.”
Miss Poison howls over the pause.
“But when I crawl into your arms. Everything comes tum-bling down.”
The boy wrinkles his nose in distaste at the harpy, her song or both. I raise my eyebrows, urging him on.
“I was worried, so I followed him. Not that I didn’t trust him. Just…” he seems ashamed, “Went down to Soho Square, I hid by the Astoria, you know, where the stage door is. Watched him for a bit. Then this car comes up.”
“What sort of car?”
“I dunno the make, black, or maybe blue, difficult to tell with the rain and the lights.”
“Nah, not expensive. But not cheap, kinda…middle. Sort of..family car I guess.”
“So he gets in the car. Didn’t see the driver – no conversation, no….negotiation, and that was it. Didn’t see him again ’til..” the dam breaks and the tears start to flood. “I should have stopped him.”
I put my hand on his arm. Comforting.
“Nothing you could have done.”
When he’s stopped sucking in the foul air through his sobs, he looks up and grins bitterly through the tears.
“But I did.”
“Do something.” Leaning back, he reaches into his pocket and withdraws a scrap of crumpled paper. Smooths it out on the table between us. “The license plate.”
I stare at the seven smudged characters. The best lead so far.
“Nice one kid. This could be just what we need to stop this maniac. Anything else?”
An almost imperceptible twitch of the neck and he looks back down at his drink.
“OK. Get out of here.”
He blinks, surprised.
“But, you said on the phone…the money.”
“Yeah yeah. You think I’m gonna give it to you in here with all these guys watching. You wouldn’t get halfway down the street. You know the alley off Ferryman Square? Head straight there, I’ll meet you once I’ve picked up the cash.”
He looks unsure.
“Look it’s OK.” I fix him with a steady gaze “You can trust me Michael.” the first use of his name convinces him. He nods, downs the brandy in one go and heads to the door.
I light another cigarette, and draw on it slowly, marshalling my thoughts. Miss Poison’s song is reaching a crescendo.
“When I must remove your wings. And you, you must try to fly”
Nine boys dead, each on a rainy night. The psych guy said it was a ritual. Getting more complex with each kill. Said killing was like a language he was learning, each time a voice more sophisticated than the last. A new phrase added to a poetry of atrocities.
I stub out the Malboro, finish the whiskey and stand. My mind sifting facts and theories as I walk to deposit the glasses on the bar.
An educated man, the profile says, but not a high achiever. A man with an empty hole inside that could only be filled with murder.
I nod at Denny, who raises an eyebrow in farewell and I turn to leave the upstairs den. My eyes flick to the table where Mr Suburbia was sitting, but he’s gone, just shadows in his corner now.
Blood starts to pump, pulsing in my ears. Through the door and down the stairs, I break into a run past the stone-faced guardian, across the threshold of Tartarus and into the hammering rain.
I tear through the dirty streets, water soaking through my clothes, feet slipping on the wet pavement as I make the sharp turn into George Street. Dodging pedestrians and I charge on, the exertion starts to take its toll. Sparkling aura like migraine starts to cloud my vision, and my heart is thumping in the back of my mouth.
Ferryman Square is deserted as I race past the wrought iron fences, the offices of lawyers and film companies shut down for the night hours ago. Gasping I pause to catch my breath at the corner of the alley, propping myself up on the lamppost, stitch clawing at my sides and then I see him.
Sprawled amongst the puddles.
I walk to him and bend down to place two fingers at his neck. Pulse is still there but weak, slowed by the morphine and valium I’d put in his drink.
The voices in the rain start to sing now, the pain in my side vanishes and the physical exhaustion lifts, replaced by the first hint of ecstasy. I drag his body into position aligned North to South, spreading his arms like wings.
I pull the bundle from my jacket, unroll it and select two scalpels. I hold them to the sky in outstretched hands to receive their blessing in the water and then kneel in supplication. One swift movement across the wet fabric and I pull his shirt apart. The choir urges me on.
One cut down, one across. The cardinal points mapped. For Uriel. For Gabriel. For Raphael. For Azrael. I peel back the skin in four neat triangles and reach for the butcher’s knife. I hold it aloft, head bowed, muscles straining, tendons stretching to breaking point, shoulder blades touching.
Entranced, I wait as the song continues. Nine voices in rapturous harmony, nine Angels of the Rain.
“Now” they sing, and the blade comes down and pierces the boy’s sternum. He makes a slight burping sound and a rivulet of blood trickles from the corner of his mouth, blackened by the sickly orange light. Pulling the blade towards me, I saw up and down to free the bone from cartilage and pull back the ribcage with a wet crack. As curls of steam rise from the hole, his body heat dissipates into the downpour, and I reach in to take my prize.
I stand, and offering a prayer of thanks to the gods of the city and gods of the sky. I place the warm heart to my lips. As I sink my teeth into the sweet meat I feel his life slipping down my throat and a new voice joins the chorus as the others sing a joyous, triumphant canticle of welcome.
I finish the ritual, swallowing the last of the flesh, at one with the concrete, the air and the rain. My communion finished, I rinse my sacred tools in the stygian puddle, blood mixing invisibly with the water. I stand in silent contemplation, as the choir, now ten voices, fades. I wait as the storm washes the traces of my presence down the grate of a storm drain to be carried to the oceans in a river of sewage, then turn to leave the alleyway, cleansed and reborn.
I’m always thankful for the rain on nights like this.