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The 31 Days of Hallowe'en - Straight to Hell

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  • brent wodehouse
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2011
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      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
      us.
      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
      breaking glass.
      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
      European tour.


      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
      the star.
      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
      down.
      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
      knife.
      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
      them.
      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
      fervour.
      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,"
      Davy said.
      "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
      Koshchei's wrist.
      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
      road."
      "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
      things, Clint."
      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
      novel.
      The boy looked at me, looked at Davy. He
      said, "You don't know what you're asking. Give me
      time."
      "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
      you do."
      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
      friend.
      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
      them all.
      "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."
      "Absolutely."
      Our stares locked. We both knew then that
      we would do anything necessary to get rid of
      Koshchei.
      I said, "I'll call the hotel manager."
      "Get Roy to do it. That's what we pay him
      for."
      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."
      "On newspaper."
      "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
      window."
      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,
      anyway."
      I said, "He was such a sweet kid. Crazy, but
      not insane."
      "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."
      "*Chews* them?"
      "He told me that saliva helps the fermentation."
      "Some kind of Russian _Masato_," I said.
      "_Masato_?"
      "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 others?"
      "The twins. Normal Norman. The rest of Vor's . . .
      people."
      "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
      tonight."
      "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."
      Koshchei smiled.
      "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
      me."
      "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
      die."
      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
      the bath.
      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
      Pinocchio-like puppet.
      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
      a confession.
      "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
      disappeared.
      "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
      it."
      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
      his voice.
      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
      overpowering.
      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
      nailed shut.
      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
      either."
      "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
      inshore edge.
      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
      water.
      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
      eager audience.
      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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