S t r a i g h t t o H e l l
by Paul McAuley
THE BOTTLES CAME SAILING out of the
roaring dark. One and then another and then
too many to count. Beautiful for a moment as
they tumbled lazily in the black air like so
many spent rocket stages, catching glints and
sparks of light from the spots as they fell towards
Then the first shattered on the stage, a
yard from where Vor slumped under the black
puddle of his cloak, breathing loudly into his
antique microphone, the one that looked like a
miniature robot head. Glass splinters flying
everywhere, and Vor too far gone to notice as more
bottles fell, hitting Toad's drum riser with
percussive thumps, hitting everywhere amongst the
cables that snaked across the stage, smashing
against the speaker cabinets. One knocked a baby
spot around, the light scything across upturned
faces; another slammed into Davy's keyboards and
spun away into the wings. Davy's ornamental
arpeggios cut off as he stepped back, although the
taped effects were still playing. I sidestepped a
bottle, still strumming the lazy, circular riff we'd
settled into when Vor had collapsed into his fugue
a long five minutes ago, and felt a sharp bite in my
calf where a shard cut through my leather jeans.
The crowd's blood was up, its roar like the
ocean turning under a storm, and now more than
bottles were flying through the air: plastic cups,
programmes fluttering like wounded birds, shoes,
a crutch. As if the crowd was tearing itself to bits
in its fury. A cup heavy with greasy yellow liquid
splashed at my feet: the sharp stink of piss.
Someone darted past me - it was Koshchei,
dodging as I swung the body of my guitar at him,
smiling right at me for a moment, ropes of hair
swinging around the pale blade of his face. He
plucked a bottle from the air and hurled it back,
then knelt over Vor and tenderly cradled him.
I had stopped playing now; Toad had
abandoned his riser.
For a moment all you could hear was the
sound of Vor's wet, hoarse breathing, the birdsong
on the tape loop, and the clatter and smash of
Then the crowd's roar rose up again as
two bouncers came forward, big men bulging
out of their T-shirts and jeans, hunched shyly
under the barrage of noise and flying stuff, passes
swinging from their necks as they got their hands
under Vor's shoulders and dragged him backwards,
the heels of his boots bumping over cables. Koshchei
scampered beside him, for all the world like a dog
by its master.
Davy stepped up to his mike, his black
duster dripping beer, welder's goggles gleaming
blankly, and said, "Fuck you and goodnight."
I pulled the plug from my guitar and ran.
Stockholm, 15 September 2001. The first
and last gig of Liquid Television's second
It wasn't the first time Vor had pulled shit like
that. Even before he'd fallen under Koshchei's spell,
he'd played head games - with himself, with the
crowd, with us. Turning away from the mike mid-song
to watch us drive it home without him, arms folded
and a little smile tucked into his face. Striding out
at the opening of concert and reading page after page
of Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," ignoring the crowd's
impatient heckling. Launching into a song only to
suddenly bring it to a halt, starting another and stopping
that too, as if searching for the perfect groove. Singing
a chorus over and over until his voice gave out, then
holding the mike out to the crowd and letting them take
over. Davy and me, we put up with it, because although
we'd brought the band together, this skinny little
twenty-year-old kid, young enough to be my son, was
I never wanted to be anything other than a
musician. I spent the seventies in a squat in Camden,
the caretaker's house of a disused school. I lived in
one room with my guitar and a couple of reel-to-reel
tape recorders. LPs in cardboard boxes, a bed made out
of a couple of palletes. I was a sort of post-hippie
hippie, doing a tab of acid every day, living on Mars
bars and leftover fruit that I scrounged from the
market. Drawing the dole, sometimes going down to
Kent to make some easy cash apple- or hop-picking.
And always playing, sometimes hooking up with one
of the bands on the local pub circuit but mostly doing
my own thing, using the two tape recorders to
experiment with layering and splicing of sounds. In
the mid-1980s I hooked up with Davy, a public-school
drop-out and electronics genius whose best mate had
started a record label, XYZ. Dave was tall, blond, and
intensely serious, a perfect foil to my nervous
unfocused energy. We made trance music before anyone
knew what it was (we didn't know either - we thought
we were a kind of Fripp and Eno deal). We sold enough
twelve-inch mixes to DJs to make a living, even had a
minor chart hit, its riff lifted from the opening of
Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. XYZ grew too fast,
developed cash-flow problems and folded; Davy and I
started our own label and set up a studio where we
recorded our own stuff and mixed and re-mixed tracks
for other people. We were famous in our own circle,
but never hit it big until one day this scroungey kid
who'd been hanging around the studio dumped a sheaf
of papers on the mixing desk and said he'd just
written twenty songs and we should quit fucking
around and make him a star.
That was Vor. That was two years ago.
He got what he wanted in six months. Then he
met Koshchei, and now he was tearing everything
I don't even remember when Koshchei
appeared on the scene. Somewhere during our
first European tour, between Berlin and Kiev. Vor
always had people hanging around him, a gang within
the gang that was our band. Davy and I tolerated it,
but the heavy partying and the heavy-duty drugs were
beginning to affect Vor's performance. We were
scheduled to record the crucial second album as soon
as the tour ended, and as yet Vor had no new songs.
"They'll come," Vor would say, whenever
Davy pressed him. "They'll come when I'm ready
for them." Once, he said, with the shy smile that girls
fell for, "They're all around us. You can just pluck them
out of the air, once you know how."
My first memory of Koshchei is of seeing
him talk with the army captain in charge of a
border crossing. Our two coaches and three
pantechnicons head-to-tail on a steep mountain
road with pines crowding the slope above them,
concrete blockhouses beside the toll gates, everyone
standing in the road, shivering in the fresh cold wind
and thinking about all the illegal shit stashed in their
belongings, watching the very young and very nervous
soldiers armed with machine guns walk up and down.
And this tall man in a fur coat, greasy ropes of hair
tumbling down his back, drawing the army captain
aside, talking to him in a low soothing voice. Koshchei
and the captain talking for about two minutes, then
Koshchei coming over to the tour manager, who was
standing with Davy and me, and saying that all was
fine, we could go through, nothing to pay, no inspection.
"I know that man's family of old," Koshchei
said. His smile was as quick and sharp as an assassin's
He looked about forty then. At other times he
looked twice that; at others, he could have been Vor's
younger brother. He was even taller than Davy, wire-
thin but immensely strong, his skin like paper, very
white and coarsely textured, his eyes blue, with veins
like little red ropes, his nose hooked. Although he
doused himself in perfume, his personal odour was
strong: spoiled butter, foul mud, fresh meat. I smelt
it then, tainting the clean mountain air.
After the border incident, I started to notice
that Koshchei was always close to Vor. He was in
Vor's dressing room before gigs, stood in the shadows
at the side of the stage and hustled away with him
while the last chords of the last encore hung in the
air; stood beside him at parties, stooping down to
whisper something in our singer's ear, or performing
some conjuring trick for the amusement of Vor and
his entourage. Card tricks, mind-reading stunts -
Koshchei was good at them, and at pebbles and light
bulbs too, crunching the glass and letting people see
the fragments on his red tongue before he swallowed
Vor looked like hell. He was mixing coke and
'ludes and, I think, experimenting with heroin. And
he was drinking heavily too, a bottle of Jack Daniel's
a day plus swigs from whatever the people around
him were drinking. We bought a case of foul plum
brandy in Albania; Vor got through it in a week. On
stage he was still on fire, burning with messianic
Off stage, he looked drawn and weary, and
he often fell asleep in some corner, Koshchei covering
him with a fur wrap and tenderly rubbing his wrists.
Towards the end of the tour, I learned from
Normal Norman, one of Vor's entourage, that Vor
had given up snorting coke and heroin, was into this
stuff Koshchei made. "Really thick and evil-smelling,
like bad yogurt. Vor says it takes him to very strange
places," Normal Norman said, adjusting his thick
glasses with a forefinger, "but I wouldn't know where,
because Koshchei doesn't give it up for anyone but Vor."
Whatever it was, it didn't stop Vor drinking,
and he still looked terrible. He had a flare-up of acne,
and permanent circles inked under his eyes, which
he disguised with make-up before going on stage. He
was throwing up a lot, too, blaming bad food and
refusing all offers of medical attention, saying
stubbornly that Koshchei was taking care of him.
One time, in Bucharest, a roadie went into
the backstage bathroom and saw Vor kneeling in front
of Koshchei, who was pissing in his mouth.
"It really creeps me out," Davy said, after he
had told me about it.
"Different strokes," I said, although I didn't
like it either.
"If it was a sex thing I wouldn't mind so much,"
"Maybe that's all it is. An S&M deal."
"It's more than that," Davy said.
I shrugged. Although Davy was terrific with
any kind of electronic gear and drove his mixing
desk with a subtle yet alert touch, he didn't know
shit about people. But just this once he was right.
Koshchei was still with us when we finished
the tour and went straight into the studios with no
idea of what we were going to do. That didn't worry
us much - Davy and I had been working together a long
time, and we had a deep box of tricks to draw on. But
while we developed a couple of basic tracks by
noodling about, adding this, taking away that, Vor
either nodded out on one of the couches of the control
booth, with Koshchei beside him, or didn't turn up at
all. We racked up a couple of weeks of studio time
and spent about a hundred thousand pounds, and still
didn't have a single lyric or hook from Vor, and that
was when we went around to his house and told him
to get his shit together, taking turns to talk while
Vor looked at us with a kind of dazed bafflement.
We were in the cavernous master bedroom,
and Vor was stretched out under the canopy of his
eighteenth-century four-poster, which he'd bought
because Mozart was supposed to have slept in it.
He was bare-chested, and his thin white frame was
marked with livid scratches and the knots of old
cigarette burns. Someone was asleep under the
heavy red velvet throw, curled up so that only a
cap of dirty blond hair showed. Candles burned in
front of mirrors, a glass half-full of thick white
liquid stood on the bedside table, and there was a
stack of dirty plates on the Turkestan carpet.
"He is able to do what you want," Koshchei
said, when we had run out of breath. "More than
that, you will be amazed by what he does."
"This is business," Davy said sharpy. He
was exasperated by Vor's dumb stoner act. "You
keep out of it."
"This is my business," Koshchei said. "I
cannot keep out of it."
"Fuck you," Davy said, and made to grab
It was three in the morning. The air was
grainy and stale, and I had a headache from too
much dope and nicotine and coffee, so maybe I only
thought that I saw Davy's hand pass right through
the sleeve of Koshchei's fur coat. Maybe he
misjudged his reach, or maybe the man leaned back.
That's what I thought then.
Davy swore, and shook his hand as if it
had been burned. Vor giggled and said, "He's with
me. I need him. You leave him alone."
"You need to get to work," Davy said.
"I don't know if I'm ready to go down that
"You are ready," Koshchei said.
Davy ignored this, and said to Vor, "What
happened to just plucking them out of the air?"
Vor said quietly, "The stuff I did before isn't
even bad. It's trivial. It's nothing. I want to go
deeper than that. I *know* I can go deeper, but it's
scary. Worse than scary."
Koshchei said, "You have it in you to do great
Clint was Vor's real name: Clint Kelly. A
half-Irish kid who'd grown up ragged and strange
amongst the tower blocks of Hackney, a naive genius
who'd taken his stage name from some old sci-fi
The boy looked at me, looked at Davy. He
said, "You don't know what you're asking. Give me
"We have to get the album out before
September," Davy said. "That's when the next
tour starts, and we don't even have a single track yet."
I said, "Maybe you should go away for a
week. Rest up somewhere warm, away from all
the pressure. Then come back and get started."
Vor laughed. "You don't get it. It isn't the
contract. It isn't the fucking rock-star thing. It's
in here," he said, and pressed the heels of his hands
against his eyes. "It's in here. I want to go deeper than
anyone ever has. I'm on the brink. I can feel it. But I
can't let go."
Koshchei said, "But you want to. I know that
Vor looked at Koshchei, and something
passed between them. He said, "Yes. Yes, I want
it so much. But I'm so afraid."
"I will be with you," Koshchei said, with
such tenderness and such hunger that I shivered.
Davy took off his glasses and knuckled
his eyes and said, "Does this mean that we're
going to get to work?"
Koshchei stood, very tall and very thin
inside his black floor-length fur coat. His
eyes seemed full of blood. "Leave now. He does
not need you. I will help him. We will give you
what you want."
Vor took his hands away from his eyes
and looked up at Koshchei, and for the first
time he seemed truly frightened of his strange
Vor was away for five days. He did not
come to the studio; he was not at his house. He
vanished. Davy was ready to cancel everything,
convinced that Vor had run away, when the boy
came into the studio and dumped a DAT cassette
and a folder full of paper on the mixing desk. He
was wide awake for the first time in months,very
engaged and very serious, hovering at our shoulders
while Davy and I read through the lyrics and listened
to the voice guides that he'd laid down over a basic
keyboard accompaniment. "Test Meat." "Throw Me in
the Fire." "Nest of Salt." "Spook Speak." You know
"I want a heavy beat," Vor said. "Something
very fundamental, like the heartbeat of the world."
We got to work. Vor was on fire, roaring
and wailing those extraordinary lyrics into his
favourite antique microphone as if the studio was
a stage in front of an audience of millions. He hardly
ate, drank only a kind of tea that Koshchei made from
aromatic bark, yet he exhausted us as he listened to
the mixes over and over, making intense and detailed
criticisms and suggestions as we layered drums and
keyboards, guitar and orchestral and ambient effects.
We did forty takes of the basic rhythm track for "King
of Illiterature", so many versions of "Close as Cancer"
that even Davy lost count.
And Koshchei was always there, watching
Vor with an avid tenderness as the boy went
deeper than did ever plummet sound.
I ran straight through the backstage maze into
a limo. I still had my guitar; its head bumped the
roof every time the limo hit a pothole. I got to the
hotel inside ten minutes and went up to the floor
where we had our suites. Davy was already there,
sucking on a Beck's as he paced up and down outside
Vor's suite, stopping every third or fourth pass to
slam the flat of his palm against the door. Dressed
like me in a long black duster coat, leather jeans,
leather vest, silver boots, his hair dyed white. It
was our patent space-cowboy look.
He saw me and thumped the door and
yelled, "Come out, you fucker!"
"Is he in there?"
"He's in there."
"And - "
"He's in there too, the piece of shit. Christ,
he must have slipped Vor something bad this time."
"Vor didn't ever need anyone to find bad shit."
Davy looked at me. He was still pumped up
from the gig, his hair soaked in sweat, his eyes
wide and staring. He said, "He was on another
planet, man. He couldn't even speak."
Roy Menthorn, our manager, came out of
the adjoining suite - mine, as it happened. He was
in shirtsleeves, his tie at half-mast. He saw us
and said, "The promoter is going to sue us," and
might have said more, but then his cellphone rang
and he disappeared back into the suite.
Davy sucked down the last of his beer,
and used the heel of the bottle to bang on the
door of Vor's suite.
I said, because it had stuck in my mind,
"Did you see when Koshchei came on stage?"
"I saw it."
"He caught a bottle and threw it back."
"I don't care if he's Vor's guardian angel, his
lover, or his fucking muse. He has to go."
Our stares locked. We both knew then that
we would do anything necessary to get rid of
I said, "I'll call the hotel manager."
"Get Roy to do it. That's what we pay him
Roy Menthorn made the call and told us
that the manager would be up in ten minutes,
then retreated to one of the bedrooms to play dykes
and little Dutch boys with his cellphone. Davy and I
paced up and down, making a serious inroad on the
rider. Toad stumbled in with two girls, snagged a
couple of bottles of the Polish vodka he liked -
Terminator, half battery acid, half rocket fuel - and
vanished. Toad had a Ph.D. in astronomy, a bad coke
habit and a salary, just like Roy Menthorn. We were
a very post-twentieth-century band. In the beginning,
Vor was one of our employees too, but when the
royalties started pouring in they made his salary
seem beside the point.
"Remember those first songs," Davy said.
"Written in crayon."
"Yeah, all different colours."
"They're still around somewhere."
"He said it was the only paper he could find."
"I guess they're worth a fortune," Davy said.
He shucked his beer-stained duster coat and dropped
in on a sofa. "Christ, this is so fucked up."
"Yeah. I feel like throwing a TV out the
Davy looked at me. Sweat had left a kind of
tidemark of white dye along his hairline. He said,
"Has the significance of this reached you yet, man?"
I was working on my third or fourth beer.
I said, "I mean it about the TV. If there was a
swimming pool down there I'd do it."
Davy actually went to the curtains and
parted them and looked down. "A car park," he
said. "We probably couldn't get the windows open,
I said, "He was such a sweet kid. Crazy, but
"Do you think he is now? Insane, I mean."
"I don't know. Maybe. That stuff Koshchei feeds
him . . ."
"The fucker offered it to me once," Davy said.
"Did you take it?" I was genuinely interested.
"Fuck no. You're the one who does drugs."
"That's why he offered it to you."
"Probably. He makes it himself. Boils up these
roots, chews them and lets them ferment."
"He told me that saliva helps the fermentation."
"Some kind of Russian _Masato_," I said.
"Amazonian Indians make it from boiled manioc."
"Well, I never did think he was Russian."
"Wherever he's from, I think he's some kind of
shaman. Remember the time he was caught pissing
in Vor's mouth? I read later that Siberian shamans
get high by eating fly agaric mushrooms, and anyone
who drinks their piss gets high too. Their bodies
purify the drug, and it comes out in the piss."
Davy ignored this and said, "How much will
it cost to get rid of him, do you think?"
"No more than cancelling the rest of the
tour, I suppose. Roy would know."
"It'll be worth it."
The hotel manager came up with a couple of
security people, and insisted on unlocking the door
to Vor's suite himself. Davy pushed past, and I was
right behind him. The room was very dark, and stank
of sweat and incense. The only light came from a
lamp covered in a skull-and-crossbones scarf, and a
sliver shining at the bottom of the bathroom door.
Vor lay on a sofa under a heap of fur coats,
naked and sweating. His eyes were rolled back,
showing mostly white, but he was breathing normally.
His face had lost all its baby fat and his skin was as
bloodless as parchment - a skull with cheekbones by
Dior. There was a glass half-full of a thick milky
liquid on the floor; Davy picked it up between thumb
and forefinger, sniffed, made a face. We both knew
what it was, and what we had to do. Roy was still
sweet-talking the manager as we closed and locked
the door and went into the bathroom.
Koshchei was wallowing in the huge
scallop-shell bath, dreadlocks spread amongst
a snow of iridescent bubbles. Their lavender scent
didn't do much to disguise his strong odour. He was
watching a portable TV hooked up to an extension
cable and tuned to CNN.
Davy shut the door, leaned against it and
said, "Where are the others?"
"The twins. Normal Norman. The rest of Vor's . . .
"I have sent them away. They are gone back to
the house, or they are gone to where they first came
from. It does not matter to me."
"So now it's just you and him," Davy said.
"Nice and cosy under those furs."
Koshchei said nothing, his narrow face still
turned to the TV.
Davy said, "We want to know what happened
"The boy is resting. When he wakes you ask him."
"He was as high as the moon," Davy said.
"He didn't sing a note. Just howled through two
numbers and then collapsed."
"We want you to go," I said.
"I make him what he is," Koshchei said. "You
know that. So you also know you must put up with
"Not any more," I said.
"I think very much so. We are barely begun."
"You're killing him with that shit," Davy said.
"You have what you want, and he does not yet
Davy started a rant about lawyers,
restraining orders, illegal entry into the
country. "We'll get Vor into rehab," he said.
"We'll get him away from you any way we can."
"I think not."
"Quit watching the fucking TV and look at me!"
"I do not think you would like that."
Davy pushed away from the door and reached
for the remote, which lay on the edge of the bath,
but Koshchei snatched it and held it up for a moment
before dropping it into the bubbles and smiling at us.
"Fucker," Davy said, and kicked the TV into
A fat blue spark filled the room, filled the
inside of my head. All the lights went out. A fire
alarm started somewhere and a moment later one
of the security men burst through the door, his torch
swinging wildly across white tiles and the smoke
which hung over the bubble-filled bath.
Koshchei was gone. So was Vor.
"They're at the house," Davy said.
It was two weeks later. Vor had placed ads in
the _NME_ and _Rolling Stone_, a single line of tiny
white type centred on an all-black page announcing
the death of Liquid Television. Davy and I had a big
fight about it - Davy wanted to sue for breach of
contract, I wanted to let it go. I was in London, in my
flat. It was the middle of the afternoon, and Davy's
phone call had woken me.
I said, "I know. It's over, Davy."
"No. No way is it over. We have a number one
album in five countries. We have a video in heavy
rotation on MTV."
"I still feel bad about that video."
"It saved us, man."
I had known that Vor wouldn't or couldn't
handle a video shoot, so I had surreptitiously
filmed him at work in the studio, using a couple
of cheap web cameras. The director of the video for
"Spook Speak" - fresh from an award-winning ad
campaign for some Belgian beer - had used computer
trickery to patch footage of Vor's face over a
Davy said, "I need more of your foresight. I
need your help to get him away from that creature."
"You tried to kill Koshchei. If he wanted,
he could press charges."
"He won't, for the same reason Colonel Tom
never let Elvis tour outside the States. Because he
isn't supposed to be here."
My flat was a penthouse overlooking Tower
Bridge. I looked down twenty floors at the Thame's
brown waters and said into the phone, "We have a
number one album. We had a number one single for
two weeks, before that boy band knocked us out. We
had a good run. We should leave it. Move on."
"So why have you been keeping tabs on him?"
"I don't want Vor to get hurt," I said. It was
"Neither do I. And he's going to die it we don't
get rick of Koshchei. So what are we going to do?"
"I'm seeing Toad tomorrow. Come with me."
"What does Toad know?"
"He's been hired on for Vor's new project.
And he's been hanging around the house."
Davy laughed. "You never cease to amaze me,
man. When and where?"
We met in a restaurant at Chelsea Harbour.
Davy gave Toad the third degree, and Toad answered
every question with his usual amiability. He told us
that being in the house was like being on the set of
the remake of 'Performance' as directed by Aleister
Crowley, that the Twins were down in the basement
and never came up, that Normal Norman had snuck a
drink of the white stuff and thrown a fit and then
"People come and go all the time,
auditioning for this mysterious big project,
and Vor just lies there on the bed. Stuff disappears.
He buys more."
Davy said, "And Koshchei is there."
While Toad and I ate our steaks, he was
working his way through a bottle of Chablis.
"He comes and goes," Toad said. "I think he
got all he wanted from Vor."
"What did he get?" I said.
Toad shrugged. "I dunno. But he isn't as
attentive any more. I know he doesn't think
much of Vor's big project. They had a fight about
Davy said, "Call me when Koshchei is there.
We need to talk."
"I don't think it'll help," Toad said. "Like I
said, him and Vor aren't so close any more."
Vor's house was a big, white neo-Palladian
pile in Belsize Park, screened from the road
by tall chestnut trees. The gravel drive was
covered in their wet, hand-shaped leaves; the
house seemed dark and deserted. I parked the
ancient Escort van (Davy had bought it that
morning from a dealer in High Barnet, cash, no
names, no pack drill) and, carrying the tool bag
between us, Davy and I slouched through the front
door, which stood wide open.
The entrance hall and its marble staircase
went up three storeys. The huge chandelier lay in
ruins on the floor; the air was dark and freezing, and
stank foully. Something moved in the far corner, and
Davy swung the beam of his torch around, spotlighting
the Twins. They hunched together, naked, in a matted
caul of their own hair. They were sucking each other's
fingers down to the bones, and whimpered and mewed
until Davy turned the light away from them.
I whispered, "I have a bad feeling about this."
"Just back me up," Davy said, and called out
loudly, asking if anyone was home.
No sound came back except for the echo of
I said, "He isn't human. No one lives through
having a TV dumped in their bath."
"It was a trick," Davy said.
"We should wait for Toad."
"It's all a trick. Sleight of hand. Come on."
We started up the stairs.
Toad was on the second-floor landing.
He lay on his back in a circle painted with
his own blood. A drumstick protruded from each
eye socket. When I saw him, I dropped my side of
the tool bag, and things clattered noisiliy down the
stairs. Davy grabbed what was left and went on. I
took a deep breath, and followed.
Vor's bedroom was lit only by a big lava
lamp shaped like a space rocket, bubbling redly
in one corner. Vor was lying in the four-poster, under
a sheet stained with urine and spilled food. He must
have been there for days. Incense tapers were
burning in bunches, layering the air with veils of
acrid blue smoke, but the stink from the bed was
The windows were tented with heavy black
drapes, the glass painted with thick silver paint.
When I tried to pry one open, I found that it had been
Perhaps the noise woke Vor. He giggled and
said, "I'm dreaming. He wouldn't let you in here."
"He's gone," Davy said. "He took what he wanted
and now he's gone."
"Not quite," Koshchei said.
He stood in the doorway to the bathroom, thin
as a Live Aid extra, piss-elegant in an electric-
blue _shaitung_ silk suit and sequinned cowboy
boots. Smoke eddied around him in the gloom as,
with a conjuror's grace, he plucked a live chick from
his tangle of dreadlocks. For a moment, he allowed
it to stand on his open palm - a yellow ball of fluff
that cheeped hopefully as it looked around with
bright black eyes - then he stuffed it into his mouth
and devoured it with a wet crunching noise. A thin
rill of blood ran down his chin when he smiled.
He said, "I always come back. I always finish
what I begin. I like to think of it as a duty."
Davy said, "We're taking him away from you."
Koshchei dabbed chick blood from his
chin with a black handkerchief and shook it into
nothingness - or into the dark, smoky air. He said,
"I'll stay, I think. The boy deserves nothing less."
"We're taking him to hospital," I said.
My mouth was dry, burning with the taste of the
incense smoke, and I was getting a headache.
"Oh, I think not. You see, you have come
at just the right moment."
Davy said, "You fuck people up, you drain
them of everything they have - and then what?
You walk away? Not this time. We saw what you
did to Toad. You can't walk away from murder."
"The Twins killed him," Koshchei said
calmly. "They have grown very protective. As
for the boy, I admit that I used him - but then, so
did you. You're not interested in the boy, only in
what he can do for you. You're jealous of me
because I went to the source directly. And without
me, he would not have gone where he did. Without
me, he would have been no more than one more
silly, vainglorious child with a talent for
delivering bad poetry with utter conviction. With
me, he has been to a place few have even glimpsed."
"I could have got there by myself," Vor said.
His voice seemed to come from a pit far
beneath the bed. The room was so full of smoke
now that the walls were disappearing. My sight
throbbed with headachy red.
"You could not have gone there without
me," Koshchei told him. "And I could not have
gone there without you. That's the deal. That's
always the deal." He stared at Davy and me through
the gathering murk. "I get so little, compared to what
I give. Surely you two gentlemen do not bedgrudge me."
Vor said, "I chose to do it. I wanted it so
much, and he showed me how. Fuck off, both of
you. You don't know what he did for me."
"You're too stoned or ill to know what you
want," Davy said.
"I don't want anything any more," Vor said,
and closed his eyes and drew the sheet over his face.
His bed was like a catafalque, receding
through red-lit smoke.
"You see," Koshchei said. "There is nothing
you two gentlemen can - "
Davy shot him. The muzzle flash lit up the
room, made everything solid and distinct for a
moment. Koshchei slammed into the door and Davy
shot him again and he sat down, blood on his white
face and blood on his hand when he took it away from
his chest. He looked up at Davy, smiling, and Davy
shot him five more times and threw the gun down.
He'd bought it that morning, too, in a pub in Dalston.
Koshchei coughed a little spray of blood,
brought his hand to his mouth and coughed again.
Something moved in his white throat and he spat the
bullets into his palm and held them up and dropped
them to the floor and laughed.
We both went for him then, driven by anger
and fear and desperation. Davy stabbed him so hard
that the blade of the hunting knife went through his
shoulder and stuck in the door frame; I hit him a
roundhouse blow with the lump hammer, and that
laid him out.
We looked at each other, both of us breathing
hard, both of us speckeld and spattered with Koshchei's
blood. Then I turned away and was sick.
"We should finish him off," Davy said, without
conviction. "Cut his throat. Smash his skull."
"I'm not up for it," I said. "Besides, shooting
him didn't work, so stabbing him probably won't work
"Yeah. So we'll try Plan B."
We worked the knife out of Koshchei, got him
onto the bed and wrapped him in a sodden red velvet
throw, binding it tightly with electrical cable. Smoke
swirled around us; we choked on its acrid fumes. Davy
threaded the hose down Koshchei's oesophagus and
jammed the plastic funnel between his teeth; I poured
in the mixture of weedkiller and bleach until it ran
back out of his nose, mixed with bloody chyme. Then
we finished wrapping him in black plastic sheeting
and rolled the heavy bundle downstairs.
The damp cold air outside began to clear my
head. As we were lifting our victim into the back
of the van, I said, "We should go back for Vor."
"I'll call an ambulance," Davy said. He dialled
999 as I started the van, gave Vor's address as I
tore out of the driveway, threw the mobile out of
the window as we cut through the heavy traffic at
Swiss Cottage. We kept the windows down as we
drove, and my head began to clear as I navigated
stop-go traffic along the Euston Road. "The ambulance
men will find all the blood," I said. "And they'll find
Toad. They'll find his body."
"A break-in. A struggle, the villains long gone."
"Vor saw us."
"Vor is out of his head. Nothing he says will
be believed. When we get back I'll start damage
control, get Roy on the case. But first we have to
dump this sack of shit."
We headed east across Shoreditch, through
the City (there was a horrible moment when a
policeman on duty at one of the checkpoints stared
hard at our van, but he let us past), and along the
A13, the four-square tower of Canary Wharf
pirouetting past tangles of slip roads and Georgian
terraces, traffic heavy on the sodium-lit dual
carriageway and roundabouts of Dagenham, growing
lighter after we passed the Blackwall Tunnel and
the blister of the Millennium Dome.
We talked, reliving the moment of the attack,
joking about putting everything behind us, although
we knew that Liquid Television was over, and knew
that our partnership was probably over too. The
man-sized bundle of black plastic sheeting rolled
heavily back and forth behind us, like a punked-up
Egyptian mummy. We drove through Hornchurch and
turned down a service road that stretched across
the heaths of Rainham Marshes, drove past grim
depots fenced with tall wire to a lonely jetty at the
The river was flat and dark under low clouds
still underlit by the dying glow of sunset. By the
van's headlights we wrestled the heavy bundle to
the end of the concrete jetty and let it drop into the
It splashed, sank, and floated back up, turning
in the current. And the the trapped air that buoyed
it blurted out, and the black plastic wrapping fell
away from the corpse's face as it sank.
It was not Koshchei. He had played his final
trick. The pale face that blurred and faded as it
sank into the black water was Vor's.
Davy and I drove back in silence. We
abandoned the van near Bow Tube station, the
keys left in the ignition for the benefit of any
teenage joyriders who might be about, rode into
town in silence, parted in silence.
I have not seen Davy since.
I have been holed up in my flat for more
than a month now, living on groceries and booze
ordered over the Internet and delivered to my door.
I ventured out only once, to a local corner where I
bought every wrap of coke and heroin that the kiddie
dealers were carrying.
I don't think I'll outlash my stash.
I've seen Koshchei twice.
Once while idly flicking through TV channels,
on an MTV news segment about a hot new folk
singer. He was standing to one side of the pub
stage, solitary amongst the press of the girl's
And once yesterday, on the terrace of my
flat, the security lights shining on his white
face as he smiled at me before stepping away
into the darkness beyond the rail.
I know he'll be back. He always comes back
to finish what he has begun.
STRAIGHT TO HELL copyright © Paul McAuley 2000
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