The Bride Wore Black Leather
In the secret heart of London, under the cover of endless darkness, the Nightside caters to anyone with any unusual itch that needs to be scratched. But enter at your own risk. The party animals who live here may be as inhuman as their appetites...
My name is John Taylor. The Nightside is my home. I didn't plan it that way. In fact, I once tried to get away. But I came back. And now it seems I'm settling down, with a full-time job (in addition to my work as a very private eye) as Walker-the new Voice of the Authorities in the Nightside-and a wedding in the offing.
I'm marrying the love of my life, Suzie Shooter, the Nightside's most fearsome bounty-hunter. But nothing comes easy here. Not life. Not death. And for certain, not happily-ever-after. Before I can say "I do," I have one more case to solve as a private eye-and my first assignment as Walker.
Both jobs would be a lot easier to accomplish if I weren't on the run, from friends and enemies alike. And if my bride-to-be weren't out to collect the bounty on my head...
There is a night that never ends. Hidden deep in the dark and dangerous heart of London lies the Nightside; an empire on which the sun has never set and never will. A business empire of sin and corruption, wonders and marvels, and every kind of dream come true, all of them at very reasonable prices. The thrills and chills of the hidden world, laid out before you in all their sleazy glory . . . but none of it for the faint of heart or those of a nervous disposition. In the Nightside, where it’s always three o’clock in the morning, the hour that tries men’s souls and finds them wanting, the dawn never comes . . . You can find the baddest clubs and the maddest music, parties that will never end as long a someone’s got cash in their pocket or credit on their cards, and the fun goes on forever. Put on the red shoes, of your own free will, and dance till you bleed. And don’t ever complain that no–one warned you.
In the night that never ends you can find heroes and villains, gods and monsters, angels and demons . . . and you can be sure that somewhere, someone is always singing the blues. Hot neon burns like warning signs in Hell, while men and women with bad pasts and uncertain futures swarm up and down the rain–slick streets, in pursuit of pleasures that might not have a name, but most certainly have a price. Temptation winks from every street–corner, and there’s always a quiet back room where you can sell your soul. Yours, or someone else’s. Dance in the streets, run wild in the night, bet your soul on a roll of the dice . . . and then grin at the dealer and ask if you can go double or quits. You can chase every dream you ever had in the Nightside if it doesn’t end up chasing you.
There is a night that never ends. Or at least, that’s the smart way to bet.
One Last Case
I went walking up and down the packed streets of the Nightside, making my way through all the desperate conversations and dodgy deals, through all the damned and the disgraced, and all the lost souls searching for something they could buy, then call love; and everywhere I went, people nodded quickly and politely to me, out of respect. I still wasn’t used to that. John Taylor has always been a name to conjure with in these dark streets, a name to inspire fear and hope and disapproval, but the kind of reputation I’d built, through years of taking on the kinds of cases no–one else would touch, was more designed to keep people at arm’s length. My rep has always been about striking terror into the hearts of the ungodly and keeping everyone else at a secure distance, for their own safety. I wasn’t used to people actually sticking around long enough to smile and nod respectfully. I kept wanting to glance over my shoulder, to see who they were really looking at.
I strode purposefully down the crowded streets, and people moved quickly to get the hell out of my way. At least I could still rely on that. The streets . . . looked as they always did. Hot neon signs to every side, gaudy as Hell’s candy, and just as bad for you; multi–coloured come–ons for every sucker who thought the Nightside was only another playground for those with more money than sense. Oh, you could find all the usual tourist traps here; but our traps have teeth and an endless appetite for fools. I strode past questionable enterprises and houses full of sin, all of it shop–soiled and marked down but still bright and shiny as any tinsel. Past dark alleyways where darker figures made the kind of deals that cannot be made in the light. Past women wailing for their demon lovers, and men crying their hearts out over the ones who got away; past golden boys and golden girls with heavily mascaraed eyes and cold cold smiles on their lips. Love for sale; love, or something like it.
The street traders were out in force, lined up along the curb, selling their cheap and cheerful wares from flimsy stalls or open suitcases propped up on stools. I slowed down enough for a glance here and there, despite my better instincts. Most of it was the usual tourist trash. Brightly hand–painted Toby jugs with knowing smiles, which would shout a warning if someone poisoned the drinks they were holding. Joan the Wad figures, to guarantee good weather. Bottles of Lourdes Cola, the Real Deal! All the latest sex films, from celebrities on their way up. Or down. On DVD, Blu–Ray, 3D, and 4D. Some so hot their jewel–case covers were sweating. And any number of steaming stalls offering food so fast it could give you indigestion while you were still eating it.
Pigs in blankets! Toad in the hole! Jugged bears! Eel pretzels with just a squeeze of lemming! Something wriggling on a stick!
All the usual cries. I once saw a pie jump off its stall and walk away on its own. I’ll never eat from a food stall again.
The street traders dealt in all the lesser flotsam and jetsam that turns up in the Nightside, through Timeslips and dimensional doors, or from tourists forced to empty their pockets and sell everything they own, in return for a ticket home. High–tech artefacts and baffling personal items, treasures and curiosities, from out of the Past or any number of possible futures. From all the worlds that ever were, and some that might never be. Rarely with anything remotely like an instruction manual, or any kind of provenance, or guarantee. Or a refund. Buyer beware, and please don’t open that until you’re a safe distance away.
The night was hot and sultry, the air more than normally close. Out of open doorways of a dozen different ethnic restaurants drifted savoury smells strong enough to bring tears to your eyes and a spark to your step. All kinds of music from the kinds of clubs that never close; from hot saxophone breaks to heavy bass lines that shuddered in your bones. Trouble on the air, danger in the night, sex and violence tugging at everyone’s elbows. Business as usual, in the Nightside.
The traffic roared up and down the road, never slowing, never stopping. There are no traffic lights in the Nightside; vehicles that defy the laws of physics every day have no time at all for the rules of the road. Anything and everything travels through the Nightside, from places best not considered to destinations beyond our comprehension. From horse–drawn carriages to deep–freeze super–tankers, to black taxi–cabs that dart back and forth, duelling with swivel–mounted machine–guns over disputed territories . . . Super–streamlined cars from alternate futures, ambulances that run on distilled suffering, and articulated transports carrying unknown loads on unknowable journeys. While overhead, something the size of a dozen planes sweeps slowly by, its grotesque shape blocking out the stars in the sky, with not even a murmur of flapping wings.
So if you want to cross from one side of the road to the other, you either have to do something quite appalling to a chicken . . . or do what everyone else does, and use the underpass. Walk down a flight of steps, travel through the simple concrete tunnel that passes beneath all the havoc and horrors of the traffic above. You’re a hell of a lot safer in the underpass than you ever are up on the street because all the underpass tunnels are monitored and protected by the Authorities, in the general interest. Can’t have the tourists coming to any harm before our many and voracious businesses have squeezed every last penny out of them.
I strolled through the brightly lit corridor, and unlike on the street above, everyone was calm and polite and not in any way violent, and gave everyone else lots of room. Because each and every underpass is patrolled by unseen trained poltergeists. Courtesy of the Authorities. You’ll never see them coming, but if you make any kind of trouble, they’ll turn you inside out in a moment. And leave you that way. It’s surprising how long you can live in such a condition though that’s not necessarily a good thing. And that’s the standard punishment. Really piss off a poltergeist, and it will demonstrate that not only has it got a really nasty sense of humour, but also absolutely no restraints when it comes to experimenting with the human form in appalling ways.
But they can’t be bothered to do anything about the graffiti artists. Apparently they consider them beneath their dignity. So the walls are covered with overlapping scrawls of names and boasts and urgent messages from the subconscious of the Nightside. Meet the new Walker, same as the old Walker. Razor Eddie does it with surgical precision. Supersexuals of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your inhibitions. Where have all the elves gone and who do we go to to say thanks? And, a bit intriguingly, Let the sunshine in.
And, of course, the inevitable buskers. I think the poltergeists let them hang around to brighten up their endless job. But only as long as the musicians maintain a professional standard. The untalented and overambitious can often be seen hobbling out of the underpass with their instruments stuffed where the moon doesn’t shine. I dropped the odd coin in every other cap or outstretched hand I passed, on the grounds that the wheel turns for all of us, and karma can be a real bitch. The only difference between any of us and the homeless is one really bad day.
The usual buskers lined the way, giving it their all, such as it was. A trio of Greek Muses were singing a ska version of the “Ballad of Eskimo Nell,” in close–part harmonies. Complete with gestures. A ventriloquist with vampire dummy had the dummy singing “Love You Till The Sun Comes Up Again,” while drinking a pint of blood. An old–fashioned ghost with its head stuck underneath its arm was singing “I Got You, Babe,” in a duet with itself. And a punk barber–shop quartet were making a real mess of that old punk favourite, “She Fucked Me with a Chain–saw and It felt Like a Kiss.” A little style can be a dangerous thing.
I came up out of the Underground on the other side of the street and headed out of the naked jungle and into the expensively suited jungle of the business section. People started giving me even more room than before, often actually stepping aside to let me pass. Of course, they weren’t stepping aside for John Taylor, PI, but for the new Walker, representative of the Authorities. Those powerful but shadowy grey eminences who ran the Nightside, inasmuch as anyone did, or could. Some people faded back into dark doorways, or disappeared down even darker alleyways, and a few actually turned around abruptly and headed back the way they’d come. Part of me thought I could get used to this.
I stopped for a moment, to consider my reflection in a shop–window to see if my new authority had changed me in any way. But the same shabby face looked back at me, a little more battered and hard–used as I headed towards the end of my thirties. The same long white trench coat, traditional armour for a tarnished knight–errant. Tall, dark, and handsome enough from a distance, that’s me, with cold eyes and a colder smile. And perhaps only I could see the beaten–in tiredness, from carrying so many burdens. I made a face, to keep me from getting above myself, and continued on my way.
It does help that I have a special gift for finding things, and people. Whether they want to be found or not.
There was a time when the burdened and the disenfranchised, the desperate and the hag–ridden, would have approached me in the street and hailed me as a King in waiting. The rightful ruler of the Nightside. But I declined that dubious honour; and for my pains ended up as the new Walker, both more and less than a King. I had become the Man; the very thing I spent most of my life fighting against. I suppose we all grow up to become our parents, in the end.
I headed deeper into the business sector, thinking of many things. I was going to my office, a thing I rarely do, if only because it intimidates the hell out of me. I could have used the Portable Timeslip contained inside my gold pocket–watch; one last gift from the previous Walker, before I killed him. It would have teleported me right to my office door, but . . . I felt the need to walk, to tread the familiar streets, and feel the Nightside turn slowly beneath me.
My office is located in a pretty up–market, almost respectable area, where no–one would even think of fleecing the tourists. They dealt in high finance and stole millions from the defenceless every day, without a second thought. The buildings were all much of a muchness, official soulless affairs with little style and no character. You could always tell when you’d reached the business area because the tourists and the punters and the seekers after forbidden knowledge seemed to disappear, replaced by smart–suited functionaries with enchanted briefcases, snapping orders into their mobile phones, to let everyone else know how important they were. Hurrying to their next meetings, to screw someone over before they got screwed. And then there were the rent–a–cops, professional security men and bully–boys, in their private and very gaudy uniforms, carrying all kinds of weapons. They were there to enforce . . . well, if not the law, at least the vested interests of their employers. A business man might steal millions with a straight face but wouldn’t stand for having his pocket picked on the way to work or his office burgled while he was out.
All the rent–a–cops knew who I was, but none of them so much as stepped forward to challenge me. They hadn’t had the guts to face me down while I was just a private investigator, and now that I was Walker, all it took was the occasional cold glance to put them in their place. Some of them actually saluted me as I passed, though none of them could bring themselves to smile. I had history with most of the companies that supplied rent–a–cops to the suits, and it was the kind of history where the cops tended to shoot first and ask questions afterwards, through a medium. They hated me, and I despised them. They were only standing their ground now because Suzie wasn’t with me. If Shotgun Suzie had been striding along at my side, they’d have run away and hidden until we were gone. Though to be fair, most people do that when they see Suzie heading their way. If they’ve got any sense.
Up above, the gargoyles leaned a little further out from their perches on top of the older buildings, to get a better look at me. I made a point of sticking to the far side of the pavement. Gargoyles have very basic humorous urges and a complete lack of restraint when it comes to making use of their bodily wastes. Statues shuffled a little further back into their niches as I passed, their stone eye–balls moving slowly to follow me, with the faintest of grinding sounds. Doors quietly closed and locked themselves, and windows turned suddenly opaque. Good to be the Walker . . .
And then I had to stop suddenly, as the B9 Presence appeared out of nowhere, right in front of me. The B9 is a shimmering white shape of roughly human proportions and obscure scientific origin. Someone did try to explain it to me once, but I fell asleep the moment they used the word quantum, in self–defence. Suffice it to say that the B9 Presence is a thing of twisted energies and appalling power, driven by a conscience not easily understood by mortal men. It roams the Nightside freely, because no–one’s worked out how to stop it, appearing to this one and to that one, dispensing words of wisdom and warning, and irritating the hell out of everyone. It moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform, such as they are, and gets on everyone’s tits big–time. Somehow he or she or it had become unstuck in time, and apparently now saw Past, Present and Future as simply different directions to look in, and now it seemed to feel a duty to apprise certain people of upcoming significant events. In the most obscure, meaningless, and upsetting ways possible. People only put up with the B9 Presence because, well . . . any edge is better than none. The shimmering, almost human shape bobbed and sparkled before me, its voice a rasping whisper.
“What is the one experience left, for the man who has everything? Why, losing it all, of course. Beware the Ides of the March Hare. The Past is never over; it lies in wait, to ambush us. And even the longest night must someday give way to the dawn . . .”
It was gone before I could come up with an appropriate response, so I shrugged, and continued on.
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