Haven't we all come round in a bar late one night with cider down one sleeve and a man in the corner swearing he's going to kill us, once in our lives?
Trouble is coming faster and faster. Rupert apparently owes one god a death – it won't be the first time – and another one a lot of money. And there's a new player on the scene, who's either very new or very, very old. Every faction of gods, spirits, monsters and dead folk seems to be gunning for him, one way or another, and he has no idea what he's doing.
All the deals, all the contracts, all the bargains are going to come due at once.
I dare you not to fall in love with Rupert Wong, who moves across the pages of this trilogy like a classic hardboiled character in a magical Kuala Lumpur filled with gods and monsters. I loved it as soon as I read the first chapter, and I bet you will too! – Lavie Tidhar
"Isn't 'good' an illusion? Isn't Rupert doing the best he can, and shouldn't we applaud him for that? The answer is, of course, no. And it's a no that the novella weaves expertly... It is fun and funny and charming, but it is also subversive as hell and exquisitely pointed."– Nerds of a Feather
"Refuses to let Rupert off the hook, refuses to let him be the hero riding in on a silver horse. It fits, and it unsettles in a way that I think is important."– Quick Sip Reviews
"If you're going to throw good money down the drain, laddie, why not just give me the proceeds? Laywers won't save your wallet. Besides, it's not like the Boulder isn't stinking with them."
I blink. "Wha—aaaggggh."
The Body Train is gone. In its place, a raucous basement pub that looks like it was built in a crypt, capitalism gleefully feasting on architectural carrion. It teems with people and pustules of furniture, radial tables and high bar chairs. Thick stone pillars merge into the vaulted ceiling. Flatscreen televisions sprout between the joints, blaring sports commentary and beer adverts, both of which are indiscriminately booed by the patrons.
Somewhere in the crowd, glass smashes on someone's skull and the mob roars its approval.
"'Aaagh' what?" the Cat asks, still too close, his arm slung proprietarily around my shoulders.
I shrug myself free and shake my head, scanning the chaos for a glimpse of the bar. No luck. More crucially, no explanation for whatever had happened. The encounter with the nameless man feels so unreal now, a trick of alcohol poisoning. But I know better. Reality has a flavor, a metallic aftertaste, like a film of blood over your tongue, and it is unique to each individual world. Diyu, for example, is spiced with sulfur, and Banbudo—the in-between place, a marketplace for the myth-born—is pungent with odors that the piriform cortex can't translate.
The place where I'd been taken to was dry ice, old water, salt and time, like nothing I'd ever sampled. It lingers in my throat, a stillborn laugh, and I swallow again as I fight down the questions itching beneath the recollection. Later, I promise. For now, there are more immediate concerns. Like how we'd gone from public transportation to pub, and why my left forearm is dripping with cider.
"What's this?" I jab a finger at the damp limb, nearly dropping the beer stein I didn't realize I was holding.
"Your arm," the Cat offers unhelpfully, taking a swig from a martini glass, pinky extended in some blasphemy of courtesy.
"I know it's my arm. But why is it wet?" In times of doubt, I find it best to cling to irreverence. A second glance around the pub reveals the rest of our company, holed up in a side room, flinging dice across a table, aggressively entertained.
"Because you spilled cider on it, obviously."
"Yes, but how?"
The Cat lets fly a wailing laugh. "Wasn't me, laddie. But it might have been yon lad, who disagreed with you hitting on his lass."
"Really?" Slowly, I put together a map of the property. Chambers bud from the main space, cleverly obscured by angles of architecture. Every alcove is occupied by games of chance, some more identifiable than others. In some stand roulettes and blackjack tables, dealers in pinstriped uniform. In others, more esoteric paraphernalia, equipment that could be mistaken for sex apparatus if it wasn't for the bookies and the blackboards, surfaces chalked with odds.
Actually, who knows?
"Aye. You were on a kissing spree, you were." The Cat finishes his drink, his grin now spreading from ear to ear, teeth yellow and chipped. A single incisor is capped with gold, surface brocaded with glyphs.
"Kissed a lot of girls, did I?"
"Plenty. And also a few men."
"What about children?" I sip the tepid cider. It tastes better than I'd expected; flat, dulled by exposure to the air, but still a sweet enough cocktail of passionfruit and lime. I smile, slightly artificially, eyes ticking across the room again. The third inspection reveals the towering Jack, haloed by negative space.
The Cat doesn't miss a beat. "Hadn't seen you accosting the wee ones, but there's a kitchen boy who sobs for his marm when ye get close."
I stare at the Cat. "Jackass."
His grin grows manic.
I take it as my cue to leave, patting the Cat on a chunky shoulder, before setting off towards the awkward emptiness that Jack'd built. Swollen though the crowd is, it's easy enough to navigate, largely congenial, apologizing even when I'm the one to bump foaming beer from hands, or tread on unlucky feet. I imagine the appropriate response would have been to retaliate with yet more profound contrition, possibly even prostration, but I swagger on. Stereotypes are there to be exploited.
Eventually, I arrive at Jack, who sits nested at the corner of the bar, top hat upturned on the counter like a begging bowl. His face, now divulged, is generically local. Pinkly English, perfectly forgettable, mediocrity in the flesh. Even his hair follows the pattern, thinning along the firmament of his skull, a widow's peak gentled by the short cut. Just an average Jack. I think I might be disappointed.
"Yo." I flash the Vulcan salute.
Jack scrunches his face, perplexed; replicates the gesture. Then he sighs gustily and tips the brim of his hat forward, a bizarre little motion that nearly has me putting a coin into the velvet cavity. But I don't get far with the thought. A figure lunges through the crowd, black-haired, braids flapping everywhere. Veles doesn't pause before scooping me into his arms, and crushes any objection I might have from my lungs.
"Rupert! Glad you made it. Wasn't expecting you to show your face." Veles swaps his grip, clasps a hand around each of my arms, still somehow keeping me aloft the whole time. "How are you?"
I grin at him, sickly, feeling rather like a bullied nephew. "Peachy."
He kisses me sloppily on each cheek, moist smacks that curdle my expression. Veles looks worse for wear; a new scar bridging socket and jaw, the flesh inflamed, glossy. Fresh deformities aside, he seems happy.
"Come. You meet Sisyphus. He will want to get to know man who helped Veles win big."
"Who's Sisyphus?" I gingerly begin prying at his fingers; it accomplishes nothing, but I feel better for trying. The thick slabs of Veles' extremities might as well have been hacked from stone. "Any chance you could put me down?"
"Yes." Veles releases his grip, and I plummet three inches to the floor, thoroughly mugged of any remaining dignity. As I rub sensation back into my arms, he presses on. "Sisyphus is Lord of Boulder, Master of the Ring, Gambler Ki—"
"Er." I consider his testimony. On the edge of my peripheral vision, I see Jack signalling a frightened bartender for more whiskey. She leaves, comes back with a bottle of smoky emerald, no tumbler in sight. "What?"
"Sisyphus is in charge of our bets."
"Sisyphus." The word hisses along my tongue, trailing memories. I don't like where this is going. "As in the damned bastard king? Sisyphus, as in the Sisyphus? Of the Sisyphean ordeal."
"I"—I drag out the pronoun, scooting back a step—"don't think I want to meet him. I don't know what it's like where you're from, but where I'm from, people hate it when you make them lose money."
"Sisyphus understands fair play." Veles shrugs, leashing my shoulders with an arm. He doesn't push as much as he unthinkingly steamrolls me forward with his sheer momentum. In a fit of discontent, I endeavour to ping Bob but he, along with the other spirits, is unusually uncommunicative. How bizarre. I shelve away their silence for later introspection, too busy keeping tempo with Veles' long strides. He steers us towards one of the smaller rooms, the mob parting before us like a boozy, swaying sea.
Finally, we arrive. Two men, both about six feet tall and about six feet wide, freight trains gone vertical, stand on either side of the entrance, hand over fist over genitalia. Veles nods at them. They nod back.
Veles scruffs me like a misbehaving kitten, hand twisting into my collar, before ushering me inside. The room, similar to every other room in the Boulder, is packed beyond capacity. I breathe sweaty armpits and the sour, stinking aroma of human anxiety. Veles seems entirely unmoved by the rancidness. He resumes leading us through the throng, until at last we come face to face with a small-boned, smiling accountant of a man.
The only indication of Sisyphus' sovereignty is the crown that sits in his gray-stippled hair, a simple diadem of bronze, absurd in its plainness. His glasses are comparatively more interesting, magnifying pea-green eyes to give him the appearance of a Ren and Stimpy extra.
He doesn't acknowledge our arrival, focused instead on the floor. The tiles have been replaced by varnished pine, inlaid with a byzantine alphabet of pictographs, a syllabary that resembles nothing I've ever seen, all laminated with the faintest shimmer of gore.
At the heart of the board, a body—no, a living man, naked, penis a dessicated stub against a pale, bruised pelvis. Someone has opened him from throat to groin, flayed him, before pinning the skin to the wooden floor. His entrails glisten, frosted with gold ink, runes beyond counting. As I watch, Sisyphus creeps forward and pens another whorl, another character along the sinuous fold of an intestine.
The man moans, softly, orgasmically.
"What. The. Fuck."
Veles shrugs as he comes to stand beside me. "Just like normal man require motivation to work, prophet need motivation to see."
"Who is that?"
"That is Helenus," Veles explains, patient. "Cassandra's idiot brother. Several decades ago, we misplace his sister. So, Helenus must now serve in her place. Unfortunately, he's not as good. His spoken prophecies are eh. But Sisyphus discovered that blood cannot lie. What Helenus lacks in eloquence, his entrails make up for in effectiveness. So, we read the future in his offal."
"That is—" Sick? Repulsive? Coming from a cannibal chef, my revulsion would sound a bit rich; but bile coats the back of my mouth nonetheless. I swallow it back. Absently, I scratch at my neck, nails gouging into unexpectedly dry, scabrous skin. "Unusual."
Double entendres for every occasion.
"Da. But this millennium is unusual. We make do." Veles, as always, is disconcertingly chirpy. "Not long now. He is just auguring tomorrow's casualties. Few minutes. After that, Veles make introductions."
True enough, Sisyphus is done in a few minutes, rising to a ripple of respectful applause. A boy, maybe ten at most, scurries forward to proffer a steaming bowl, towel draped over an elbow. Sisyphus, with great care, dips his hands into the liquid. When he is done, he dabs a finger along the boy's forehead: a benediction of some variety, judging from the kid's radiant expression.
It is only after the ritual is concluded that Sisyphus strolls towards us, a peculiar moue balanced on a thin, almost lipless mouth.
"Huh." He announces, in place of a greeting, removing his glasses to wipe them with the hem of his shirt.
I blink, nonplussed, while Veles booms with laughter. "Well, hello to you, too."
"You're still alive."
"You say this like it's a bad thing."
His expression crystallises into a scowl, eyes ticking to Veles, less nonchalant now. Veles, for his part, seems jovially oblivious. "I hope you understand that I will be incredibly disappointed if he doesn't die tomorrow."
"Is unfortunate development." Veles pounds a fist on his sternum, grin feral. "Rupert is Veles' lucky rabbit. So he's going to stay alive."
I'm halfway through a nascent sense of camaraderie when Veles adds, broad palm clapping my shoulder. "But if he stops being lucky one day, eh. He can die then."
"How generous." I grouse and scratch at my arm, up through the sleeve. I find another encrustation, thicker, rougher than the first.
The two ignore me, Sisyphus tallying numbers or affronts under his breath, finally sighing as he taps a finger against his temple. "It'll cost me nine thousand ingots if he doesn't."
"Not Veles problem."
"You could have half of that, if you ensure he dies. Helenus saw room for your possible involvement."
"Tempting, but Veles can make bigger money the respectable way."
"Firstly, I don't know if any of this sounds respectable to me. And secondly, I don't know if either of you have noticed, but I'm..." Itch. Scratch. Had Veles passed on his lice? In exasperation, I begin to pick the rind gloving my forearm. Skin, or something similar, comes loose in a single sheet. I pull harder, more frantic, even as I snarl at the two men: "Standing right here. And I don't like the idea of dying unnecessarily."
I don't like the idea of dying for a reason either, but this isn't the occasion for semantics.
"What makes you think I'd let myself get murdered for a bet?" I wad the ribbon of dried blood into my palm, hands starved for a distraction, anything to divert from the enormity of what I'm likely to say.
Sisyphus widens his immense gaze, shucking indifference for something worse: piercing interest. "It's always about you, isn't it? In every timeline, in every reality, in every variation of now, you always make it go back to you. Aren't you ashamed, Rupert? You stand at the precipice of a maelstrom, a needle in the eye of time, a clot drifting through the veins of reality. With a single decision, you could change everything. Everything, in a world where reality doesn't care about you or me, or even the gods in and out of the machine. You, Rupert, could change everything, and yet: you make it about you."
There we go.
"Hate being that guy, if you know what I mean, but I have no idea what you're saying."
He sighs. Somewhere in the background, someone is spooning glutinous rice balls into Helenus' slack mouth. Peristalsis, much like many other bodily secrets, is something best kept behind whole skin. "What I'm saying is that your death is dependent on the temporal ecosystem. If you are fortunate and I am not, the timeline that keeps you alive will emerge triumphant. Inversely—well. Well."
"Look, seriously? You're still making no sense whatsoever. You—you're suggesting that I was some kind of chosen one, or something. An aneurysm of history, or whatever you want to call it. But now you're telling me that I have no choice but to hang around and see if I live or die? It really makes no fucking sense." I unroll the scab, review my find, finally conscious of what my hands had been doing. The air evicts itself from my lungs. I'd expected red-brown tissue, transparent flakes of epidermis, a few strands of hair, whatever you'd normally connect with an unnaturally cohesive scab—but there isn't any of that. Instead, it's one of the tattoo spirits, crumpled in my hand; eyes wide, lifeless, terrified.
"You are not the only playing piece on the board." Sisyphus tuts.
My vitriol robs the room of its voice. Everyone stares. In a surprise twist, Sisyphus proves the most tolerant. Instead of enlisting the crowd in my evisceration, he takes off his glasses again, wipes them on the corner of his shirt. Squints. His expression spasms into a grimace, delicate. "What did you say?"
I consider everything that'd went down recently, every aggression, every confrontation, every use of power to befoul, belittle, and break down. The thoughts churn poison. Coward. Poseidon's voice again, bilious, so thick with disdain that I choke on the memory. But self-preservation swells like an ill-timed erection. (The mind can crave heroism, ang moh, but the body's a sucker for survival.) I wet my lips with a dab of my tongue and grin, earnest, hoping it comes across as pliantly amenable, rather than just pained.
"I said fuck you. With greater emphasis on the first word. Fuck. You." The words surprise me even as they abandon my mouth, falling, cold as coins. "There is always a choice."
Sisyphus restores his glasses to their roost, face smoothing, bland. He taps the frame to the bridge of his nose with a finger—the middle one, of course. Blink. Stare. Crocodile smile, no heat, nothing but swampwater cool. In that moment, Sisyphus transcends into everything we associate with kings, terrible and absurd and full-on, fuck-you-peon swagger. "If that helps you sleep at night."
Before I can grunt an objection, he discards me, discards our conversation like yesterday's crusty boxers. I'm speechless as he struts into the crowd, Veles' fingers gouging a warning into my clavicle.
"Stay," he rumbles, although he still sounds amused.
"Not a dog." I jerk my shoulder, hoping to dislodge him, but the motion only compels him to strengthen his grip, nails cutting through fabric and into skin.
I let the tattoo spirit fall from my hand, to be mashed into the floor by passing feet. The urge to claw out of my shirt, check out how many tattoos have gone the way of the first, is overwhelming. But I don't think I want to cash in on that suspicion. I know what I'll find: indecency charges, and a spine beaded with dead ghosts.
An image of the man from the train resurrects itself, smile mild, head cocked, the apocalypse skinned in banality, a kid standing on a mound of crawling ink.
"Da. But is rude to talk about someone's handicaps." He chortles at his own joke; a whuffing, thundering noise. "Don't make ruckus, Rupert. Sisyphus has big ball."
"Don't you mean balls?" I fumble for wit, discover schoolyard humour instead, a vaguely acceptable compromise. Sisyphus has gone back to doodling pictograms on Helenus' entrails, each fresh inscription eliciting another rapturous shudder from the prophet. I avert my eyes as Helenus' pleasure grows carnal, flaccid cock rousing from its matted bed.
"That too." Hand anchored in my flesh, Veles walks me towards the bar, shouldering aside anyone unfortunate enough to intersect with our route. "Come. Veles will buy his lucky bunny a graveyard."
"Er, that doesn't sound so—" The thought of escape stirs to life, and is expunged the next moment. I'm not winning this one, not this far out of my element, not with a cloak of corpses on my back.
His grin is the moon, the smile of a wolf on the cusp of a kill. "Is great. One drink, and you won't just see two Veles, you'll see twelve."
"I swear, Veles, that did not sound as good as you think it did in your head."
Now, listen, ang moh. Listen. Forget everything you've learned about getting drunk. That bottle of Chivas, cut with bottles of cheap Coke, might get you there, but graveyards are a one-way ticket on the fast train to Knockoutville.
A trifecta of whiskeys, triple sec, equal amounts of rum, vodka, gin, and tequila. Mix with beer and stout. Consume. You won't know what hit you.
Actually, you will. Because unless you've lived a truly unfortunate life, chances are that first sip will be the worst thing you've ever put in your mouth.
I can't believe I'm standing.
More slumping than standing, to be fair, most of my weight hanging off the crook of a stranger's arm. But there is still a degree of standing. Somewhere. My toes scrabble for purchase on the rippling pavement. I push upright, tip sideways. Whoops. Someone catches me. I beam hazily, my world cottoned with daubs of orange fluorescence, and boxy shapes that only tangentially resemble a street.
It could be cold. I'm too numb to tell.
"Careful." Not Veles. Not Hildra, either. The voice is unfamiliar, bassy, straight from the gut.
I blink, blink again, crane my sight up and stare until the summit of a top hat comes into focus. "Jack!"
The glob of shadow crooks at its zenith, suggesting a nod. "Jack."
"Jack!" I repeat and totter in place, vinegary bile pushing against the underside of my tongue. The sliver of brain matter not otherwise committed to staying upright is racing with a hodgepodge of images, and impressions of tastes too vile to duplicate even in memory. I drank—something. Many instances of something. Pulped roadkill, most likely, left to ferment, essential oils reconstituted into a blasphemy of alcoholic reprieve.
"Jack," I announce again.
He pats my head, innocently paternalistic. "We will have you home soon. I just need to do one thing first—ma'am."
His voice cracks through the damp, piss-piquant silence. Out of the periphery of an eye, I catch movement, the lineament of a woman cosseted in dense, dark fabric. She stops, cigarette-cherry burning in the gloam.
"What." A French accent.
I feel a shimmer of power—asphalt, tar, alleyway-dust—as Jack gently deposits me in a corner and steps forward. The street empties. The air stills. And suddenly, it's just the three of us, strangled in sidewalks and silence, and something is not right. I reach out, snare the tail of his coat between my fingers.
Blood, arterial, boiling from a heart that refuses to quiet. Her pulse, a thunderstorm beneath its sheath of silken brown skin. If I made an incision here, I'd be able to—
"What the fu—" I bend over, throw up on his shoes.
Metal shaves through the air in a wide silver arc, nicking my skull, pares a curl of skin and hair from my scalp. Pain foams. My vision clarifies into a portrait of Jack, haloed in the street lamps, his face a slurry of nictitating meat. Flesh drools in gelatinous skeins, aligning into new jaws, fresh arrangements of teeth and eyebrow. Even the eyes saccade between colors, numbers, shapes and depths.
"Diu." It's amazing how quickly abject terror can burn through booze.
I fall backwards, hit the ground ass-first, scrabble across the cobblestones as Jack, Jack the Ripper, Jack the First, Jack the Trypophobe's Best Nightmare, advances. Lips extrude from swirling muscle fibers, wrap about the dentition, twist into a snarl. He blinks. Sixteen eyes. Four. Three hundred. Two.
Behind him, rooted in place, the girl, blank gaze refracting the light.
Then she winks.
She is on him before my brain stem can articulate a reaction, a blurring; her skin bunching, distorted, distended from a prize pack of auxiliary body features, barely elastic enough to hold under the rapid-fire mutations. A fan of mouths opens, bites down. Jack wheels, roars, claws at his back. He howls as she burrows deeper, chewing herself an access point between the span of his shoulders.
Slurping, audaciously loud. I see a tongue extend, snake across the gore dribbling from the planes of his back, see muscles half-masticated. The girl-thing nuzzles into his scapula. A crisp snapping follows, like twigs being halved, and Jack's right arm goes slack. He screeches, enamelled razor clattering to the ground.
In desperation, Jack flings himself backwards, crashing into the wall, maybe hoping it'd loosen her grip, but it doesn't. Draperies of wool animate, thrashing. Fabric attenuates into needlepoint; spears burst from his torso, six on each side.
Out of misguided loyalty, I stagger upright, shouting the first spell that wanders into the orbit of my consciousness. I shred my lip, spit blood into the incantation. It fizzles into confused life, quaking, as dubious of its existence as I am with its creation. On a whim, I extend an invitation to the tenants tattooed on my skin, only to find a rotting silence in my head. I forgot about that. Damn it.
"Let my, er..." Not 'friend.' Deranged, sustenance-starved chaperone, maybe? I pause, wilting with indecision, before finally concluding: "...coworker, who I have absolutely no personal ties to, go!"
She stares and she smiles, smiles with too many mouths and just enough teeth, alimentary canals snaking in the chilly air, a ruff of sinuous tubes and disembodied ligament. My stomach turns. One of her maws snaps forward, grabs my cantrip as it sings through the air. Swallows.
That's that, then.
"I tried. I'll be going now."
"No." Her voice is polyharmonic. As I watch, her mouths rear like cobras. I see Jack's features pulsate, consolidate into pure, animalistic fear. The air rankles with ammonia; he's pissing himself.
Then, just like that, it is over, and Jack's body is on the floor, face-down, throbbing periodically as the girl eats into his ribs, hollowing him out. It is only when she is done, when she's colonized the topology of his meat, when her eyes open behind his eyes, and she smiles again, that I wheeze out:
"I am very scrawny and would taste horrible, even if you fry me and dip me in ketchup."
She laughs at me, glides closer, and pins my chin in Jack's stolen fingers. Another tickle of power, an explanation transmitted through skin. And I think: oh.
If there can be a God of Missing People, scrapped together from a thousand parents begging pleasepleasecomehomeplease, there can be a God of Being Missing, a goddess of waiting for it to end, a deity of clenched teeth and knife wounds and prayers emptied into corners where no one will come, of a rage that holds on. All of the hurt in the world had to come together somewhere, didn't it? Makes sense that it'd coalesce here, gathering to gestate a killer of killers.
She pushes Jack's tongue into my unresisting mouth, and I hear her crooning, sleek and dark and gorged on his essence, coiled like an embryo in the womb of his bones. Of course she'd hunt things like Jack. Of course. Of course. Of course.
She breaks the kiss, a strand of saliva yawning between our mouths. I wipe it away, try not to think too deeply on what just transpired.
"Tell them they cannot prey on ours any longer. Tell them they are no longer wanted here. Tell—" A smile, incandescent and peculiarly girlish. The next words are sly, a joke hemmed between the pauses. "Tell them that we are coming for them."
And that is all she says before she walks away, wearing the body that Jack built, even as the world restarts in fits and London comes pouring through the cracks.
On the plus side, at least I'm sober.