There comes a time in every man's life when he needs to make a decision: give up with grace, or go down for the count.
I'm not particularly fond of either. Especially not with Chas standing at my shoulder, giving me that bleeding puppy-dog look that he's so good at. I take a moment to finish my ciggie and pitch the last bit into the triangle chalked into the floor about four feet away; the man with the unicorn head stomping restlessly in the triangle snorts and sneezes.
nnnntaunt me nnnnot, magician, he says. You would think he'd have a horse-voice with a whinny to it, but it's more the sound of a cinder-block being dragged down a cobbled road. Chas's fingers sink into my shoulder and I shake him off; I don't have the time to deal with soothing his nerves. Strewth, it's his fault we're here in the first place.
But I'm getting ahead of meself. A good story starts at the beginning, doesn't it? So that's where I'll start.
I wake up because a foot connects with my shin, none too gently. "Get up," a voice says, and since that voice is soft and girlish I comply. My chest feels loose inside and my thighs hurt, and that tells me what I'd been up to the night before even before I squint up at the woman standing next to the bed.
"You got anything to eat?" she says, plaiting her dark hair in two long tails. "I could murder a good cheese salad buttie."
"Let's see what's in the larder, then." I grin at her and it feels skewed, lopsided, but she smiles anyhow and nicks a fag from my packet.
Inspection of the refrigerator turns up two cans of Scrumpy Jack, half a bag of wilted mixed pakoras, and a small cake of rendered dog lard. That's starting to smell sodding dreadful. I shut the door fast and offer her the cider and she takes it, downing most of it in a few pulls; Asian girls can't half hold their liquor, in my experience. I hover in front of the cooker and she finishes her drink and says, "Don't worry, John — I'm not expecting a marriage proposal."
"Right," I say, following her to the door. She smells good, like apples and sandalwood, and I'm feeling like I could go for another round when she turns in the doorway and leans in to kiss me, keeping the rest of her body angled away. I get the point. "Ta for the drink. And the ciggie."
"— Kamla," she supplies. She's still smiling, though, and some days that's more than I deserve, so I take it.
She's barely cleared the landing before Chas comes shooting into my flat, his hair disheveled and his clothes half-buttoned in places. "You've got to help me, John!" he rasps, slamming the door behind him and locking it. "Summat terrible's happened that's going to get me killed!"
"You can tell me about it while you're buying me some breakfast," I tell him, locating my coat under a pile of newspapers. "I could murder a cheese salad buttie."
We go for curries instead and Chas sits on his side of the booth all nervous twitches as I fill up on lager and poppadoms; at one point he jumps violently and stares at the flock wallpaper as though it's grown teeth. It's a mite cruel to just let him sweat, I'll admit, but if there's anything that years of being best mates with Chas Chandler has taught me, it's that you can gauge whatever's wrong with him better in ten minutes of observing his behaviour than you can in ten minutes of his roundabout blathering.
"So," I say finally when all the naan and butter chicken is cleared away, "crazy badness come your way last night, mate?"
Chas blinks at me, mouth dropped open. Half the reason I keep him around, this; who doesn't like it when their friends look at them like they're bloody Sherlock Holmes? "Yeh," he says. "John, it's bad, it's so bad."
"Tell me," I say, and he does.
It's been a good night. Chas Chandler's luck is finally looking up; after a string of losses, Arsenal's finally pulled it together and won him a few quid 'round the pub with the lads. He's been getting fares lately who don't fuck up the upholstery in his cab, that boil at the crack of his arse burst and healed up, and he's lost a bit of weight, even.
He stumbles out of the pub and up the road weaving, and he must've gotten turned about because he's in a shadowy lane now that's eerily quiet. Chas isn't a small man and he's won his share of brawls, but there's something about this alley that's making his blood freeze thickly and his ears are ringing. He turns, intending to get back to the pub and have another pint and maybe let the fellas laugh at him a bit before offering him a ride home.
But there's somebody there.
"Awright, then?" Chas calls to the figure, who emerges out of the scratchy black shadow more properly and he catches his breath, because it's a woman. It's a woman in a long, swirling white dress and a big flouncy broad-brimmed white hat, the sort that his mum used to wear on Easter Sundays, and he can just make out her red, red mouth smiling in his direction. She lifts one languid hand, and Chas swallows, hard.
"Need an escort home, luv?" he offers, haltingly, and she beckons him closer. He goes. It's not so hard to believe that a posh woman like this would fancy him, is it? It doesn't always have to be tarts and blowsy barmaids, does it? Her throat looks long and satiny, caramel-coloured where it rises from her white dress.
Chas steps into the aura of her perfume, flowers right on the edge of overly-sweet rot, and he thinks he might hear chains rattling when she sweeps her arms around him. She laughs, low and slow in his ear, and by the time Chase sees the cloven hoof poking daintily out from below the hem of her gown he's past caring.
"...and when I woke up this morning, I sicked up needles. Needles, John! A whole mess of them all over my floor." Chas drops his head into his hands, moaning. "There's something all wrong inside me, I can feel it." He raises his face and it's grief-stricken. "I'm going to die."
"Now now, old son," I say kindly, because I had a shag last night and I'm well-fed and I can afford to be kind. "Nobody needs to die just because you had yourself a little bonk with a girl who was half-goat." The waiter's picking up our dishes, and he doesn't even flinch.
"Funny oul' world, innit," the waiter says, and Chas sighs, "Too right," and dolefully sucks on a complimentary boiled sweet.
We head up to the area where Chas had his run-in and one look at the little gardens behind some of the buildings, each decorated with a cobalt-blue Milk of Magnesia bottle upended on a tall stick, gives me some idea of what neighbourhood this is and what kind of thing we're dealing with here. It's been a long time since I've faced down Caribbean magic, but the last time I didn't come out too badly. Maybe my luck will hold faster than Chandler's.
Miss Nancy's place smells of bay rum and something more ominous, powdery bone and decaying leaves. The obeah woman herself is short and fat and has a gap between her two front teeth, and greets us by saying, "Yuh want some tea, boy?" Chas nods and she brings us two mugs of strong tea, waving us onto a fraying settee while she settles in a wooden chair across from us.
"My mate here met up with a woman last night," I tell her. "One with a big hat and a goat-hoof."
She fans herself and looks at me with her dark, tiny eyes. "La Diablesse," she says, and points at Chas. "Yuh well get yuhself in trouble, young man."
"Why? What is she?" Chas asks, panicked — but I'm here to save his life, not calm his anxieties — and I ignore him. "I thought Diablesse lured blokes away and killed them?"
"Sometimes. But dat's what she did back home, oui. Tings change when you in a different country." Miss Nancy rearranges her skirts. "Dey say if you meet La Diablesse on de road, you mus' turn all yuh clothes inside-out and put dem back on again. But you jus' concerned wid takin' yuh clothes off wid she, eh?" She laughs uproariously, rocking back and forth, and I can't hold back a snicker meself at the shamed look on Chas's mug.
"So what's the deal with the local version?" I ask. "Why is he vomiting needles?"
Her face turns canny and she mutters something in patois, crossing herself. "beautiful creole woman," she says, and her voice is grating and hollow, lapsing into spirit talk, "swing she slim arms and hold she head high, she white dress hung wid zepingue tremblant and she hoof hid under de hem...allyuh mus sing she home, sing de name of god at she until she can' stand no more and de devil take she." She turns her gaze on Chas and adds, "and de mal ojo she leave wid dis boy as well. but she can see through yuh intent, so yuh mus' be well careful or she go take yuh down to hell wid she."
Chas turns green at the sound of this. He puts down his mug of tea on the table, and promptly throws up a double mouthful of dirt, shells, and bones all over the floor.
"Right," I say, hauling him up by the arm. "Out we go."
"She's still in a trance," Chas blubbers.
"Spot on. This way, we don't have to stick around and clean up your boke. Now shift it!"
"I don't understand, John," he says when we're firmly on the road again. "What did all that barmy gibberish mean? Can it really help me? How are we going to manage singing at her if she can tell what we're up to?"
I don't tell him anything. Man of mystique, and all that.
And this is about where you came in.
Amduscias is one've the Hell Set that I've never had any contact with, but from the look he fixes on me, burning-hot horse eyes rolling up to show white, I figure he's at least familiar with any of the bits of naughty I've been up to.
"Right then," I say to him, "I've got a task you're going to just love."
Chas makes a hacking noise and shifts closer to me. He's well protected in the circle (well enough as you can be, any road) but I don't blame the sad bastard for being scared. This isn't his speed, never has been.
nnnvery well, nnnmagus, the demon croaks. nnni see true nnnwhat you nnnmean to do. He seems faintly amused.
That makes two of us. Poor oul' Chandler.
We find her at the local disco.
Chas seems slightly embarrassed, as well he should be. What sort of pathetic twat gets cursed by some supernatural bint who frequents discotheques?
She senses Chas the moment we enter the place and makes her way towards us, her white dress swirling around her ankles and that one cloven hoof cleverly hidden with each fabric twirl.
She doesn't speak. She doesn't need to; I can see what made Chandler mad for her. It's that raw, dirty magic sexuality that these sorts've creatures possess, that smell of salt and sweetness that drives a man to the edges of desperation to get at her. Chas blubs up a mouthful of dust and I grab his elbow, smiling at La Diablesse, and lead them both outside. Sooner the better, as far as I'm concerned — the music here is total crap.
We get outside into the thick, soupy night and I reach inside my coat for my battered old electric guitar. Chandler's kept the thing in storage faithfully all these years, and while I can't imagine why there's no denying how right it feels in my hands and how easily my fingers poise on the frets. Amduscius is as good as his reputation; La Diablesse doesn't see a thing, is completely unaware of what I'm holding. I'll have to take back my opinion that 'being able to make musical instruments heard but not seen' is a naff power for a demon.
"From the chorus, then?" I say, and when I strike the first chord Chandler starts to bellow "Abide With Me" at the top of his lungs. I join in with my best Mucus Membrane howl and soon there's another yowl accompanying us, La Diablesse jerking and shrieking, her body snapping back and forth fit to break her spine. Chas is vomiting blobs of needle-studded mud in between verses, but his face is rigid with determination, oul' bulldog that he is.
Finally it's over, in a hot swirl of dust and strobing colours that knocks us arse over tit. There's a bang that rings in our ears when she disappears and a flash that leaves us blinking and dizzy, but she's gone.
Chas rolls over and blinks weakly at me. "Is it over?"
I pat down my coat until I find my packet of Silk Cut and screw one into my mouth. "It's over for me, squire," I tell him. "But I'm afraid you've now got a hell of a debt to a very musical demon."
He sits up, rubbing his belly as he mulls over the implications of this. "Well," he says slowly in an eminently reasonable tone, "that makes sense. Like my uncle Nigel says — you don't get owt for nowt."
I grin at him and it feels wide and comes easy. My oldest and best mate, and no mistake.