Read The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny Online
Authors: Simon R. Green
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Contemporary
“Welcome to my Secret Headquarters, John. My special place, from where I see and hear everything, hidden behind the perfect off-putting disguise. This is Argus. He makes what I do possible; don’t you, dear boy? Argus isn’t his real name, of course; it’s more of a job description. No-one remembers who he is; in fact, I doubt if even he remembers any more. It doesn’t matter. There have been hundreds like him, and no doubt there will be hundreds more. Computers and scrying balls can’t do everything; you need human input to pick out the things that matter from all the oceans of information that come pouring in at any moment.
“So, Argus. The god with a thousand eyes. Sees all, knows all, and no personality to get in the way. Though they do tend to burn out fairly quickly ... Still, not to worry; there’s never any shortage of replacements. Don’t worry, John; he can’t hear us. All his senses are focused exclusively on the Nightside. His higher functions have been surgically removed, so they can’t interfere with his observations. His mind has been surgically adjusted, so it can interface perfectly with the computers and watch thousands of situations at once, throughout the Nightside, and never once grow bored or distracted. Nothing happens that Argus doesn’t know about, and report on, and draw attention to, if it is red-flagged in his programming. Names and faces like yours, John. He always has an eye out for you.
“What do you think of my Secret Headquarters, John? Admit it; you always thought I had some great underground lair, watching over an army of secret informers and secret police, reporting back on everything they see. Well, in a way you’re right, but we’ll get to that later. Why are you scowling, John?”
I gestured at Argus. “He’s not a volunteer, is he?”
“Well, hardly. That would be cruel. Only the really nasty bastards get to undergo the Argus procedure. People who deserve it. Like Basil Carter out there; why waste time and money locking them up? There’s Shadow Deep, of course, but that’s for the out-and-out monsters like Shock-Headed Peter, who deserve to suffer. Everyone else gets to do useful things for the Nightside, in recompense for their crimes. This particular Argus ran an utterly foul con scheme, ripping babies from living wombs to sell on. Now he performs a useful function and is well provided for. He gets fed and watered and changed on a regular basis, and he’ll spend what’s left of his time helping to protect the Nightside from people like him. What could be more fitting?”
“You said something about secret police,” I said.
“So I did. Well spotted, John. Glad to see you’re paying attention. There are hundreds of other criminals, their heads as empty as Argus, walking up and down the Nightside, their minds linked to him through the computers. They’ve been programmed to look and talk like everyone else, even though there’s no-one at home in their heads. They go everywhere and see everything, and no-one ever notices them.”
“And these are more pressed men? More criminals being punished?”
“Of course!” said Walker. “Take your poachers and turn them into gamekeepers. A grand old tradition...”
He looked at me for some response, some reaction to what he was saying, but I wasn’t ready yet. I gestured at the hundreds of screens covering the walls.
“Ah, yes, those,” said Walker. “From here I can talk to everyone in the world.” He didn’t say it at all grandly, to boast or to preen. It was all just part of the job, to him. “From here I can call on any backup I need, to help me enforce my decisions. I can get armed men from the Church, the Armed Services, the Carnacki Institute, and any number of more specialised organisations. I can talk to the Authorities, the British Government, and places of power all across the world; and there isn’t a place on Earth where they won’t take my call. Because everyone knows how important the Nightside is, and how dangerous. Of course, only specially trained troops are ever allowed into the Nightside. You couldn’t expect ordinary soldiers to cope. I’d say that about the only people I don’t talk to are the Droods. They’re banned from the Nightside by long agreement. They don’t play nice.”
He broke off abruptly, as Argus began to rock back and forth in his chair. When he spoke, his voice was rough and harsh, as though he didn’t get to use it very often.
“Out of the dark, it’s coming. From out of the place that nothing comes from, it’s coming. And, oh, it’s so bright, so bright! ”
Walker moved quickly forward and put his mouth right next to Argus’s ear. “What is it? What’s coming?”
“So old, so ancient; far older than people think. But it never was what people thought it was. It is mighty and terrible, too ... and it shines so brightly it hurts to look at it. The only survivor from a Golden Age; because we were not worthy of it. Now it’s back. And God help us all.”
He stopped speaking, and nothing Walker could do could make him say anything else. Walker didn’t know what Argus was talking about, but I thought I did.
“You said he had no personality left,” I said. “But he sounded really scared.”
“They can always surprise you,” Walker said finally. “I wouldn’t worry about it. His condition makes him supersensitive to certain disturbances in the aether. He’s only repeating what someone else is saying ... I doubt it’s anything important. Bad things are always coming to the Nightside. It’s what we’re here for.” He turned his back on Argus, and spread his arms out wide, taking in the whole set-up. “So, John, what do you think of my Secret Headquarters?”
“Typical of you,” I said. “That all your influence and power should be derived from the suffering of others.”
“They suffer because they deserve to,” said Walker. “And through their penance they serve and protect the people they preyed on.” He smiled briefly. “One day, all of this could be yours. Or would you shut the system down and become blind to what threatens us? Let the bad guys go unpunished and let everyone else suffer? What would you replace this with? See? Not as simple as you thought, is it, John? I only do what is necessary for the common good. And so could you, John. All this could be yours to command. All the secret lines of influence, control, and power ... Tell me you’re not tempted.”
“Get thee behind me, Walker,” I said.
Next he took me to the Londinium Club, that most private and select of clubs, where the elite of the Nightside come together to dine and do business, and discuss the destruction of their enemies. You aren’t anyone in the Nightside unless you’ve been invited to become a member of the oldest club in the world. I am not a member. They wouldn’t accept the likes of me on a bet. Though I have been known to barge, trick, and intimidate my way in when I need answers I can’t find anywhere else. This has not made me popular with members of the club, but I’ve learned to live with that. The current Doorman saw me approaching and looked like he wanted to pull up the drawbridge and set fire to the moat; but I was with Walker, and no-one says no to Walker. The Doorman bowed stiffly as we passed, his face utterly impassive; but his body language suggested terrible things were happening inside him.
“You see what it is to have power?” said Walker, as we strolled into the elegant embrace of the club lobby. “You can go anywhere, and they have to smile and bow and let you in. No door is ever closed, and no-one is ever unreachable.”
“And you do so enjoy having the world by the throat, don’t you, Walker?” I said, and he surprised me by considering the question seriously.
“I try not to,” he said finally. “It gets in the way of getting the job done.”
Various liveried servants appeared to take Walker’s coat. They tried to take mine, but I just looked at them, and they gave up on the idea. The servants concentrated on Walker, smiling and bowing and asking if there was anything at all they could do for him; and as I watched them fawn over him, with their fake smiles and subservient gestures, I had to wonder if this was anything I wanted. Most people refrained from upsetting me because they were afraid of my reputation. They did what I told them because they were afraid of what I might do if they didn’t. Was that really any different?
Walker and I moved on into the dining room, where the great and the good, the movers and shakers and Major Players of the Nightside all sat down together, like so many predators sharing the same watering hole. A general truce prevailed because the place was so useful. Walker moved easily amongst the various members, greeting them all by name, charming and intimidating and persuading all the right people. All in the same calm, quiet, and utterly assured manner, never once raising his voice. Everywhere he went, good men and bad smiled just a bit nervously and agreed with whatever he said. They took it on the chin as the price of doing business.
Eventually, Walker and I ended up standing before a table set far too near the kitchens, an indication that the people sitting there might be members in good standing but were still very much at the bottom of the Londinium Club’s pecking order. Surprisingly, the old man and his wife not only didn’t look pleased to see us but made no effort to hide it. Walker tipped his bowler hat to both of them.
“John Taylor, allow me to introduce Dash Oblivion, the Confidential Op, and his wife, Shirley den Adel, once the costumed adventurer known as the Lady Phantasm.”
“Oh please,” said the grey-haired lady in the pearls and twin set. “Do call me Shirley.”
Dash just grunted something, concentrating on his meal. It was a curry, steaming hot, and the smell of it made my stomach rumble. Dash was a whip-thin figure in a smart blue blazer and white slacks. Bald-headed, his face was dominated by an eagle nose and bushy white eyebrows. He had to be in his eighties, but his cold blue eyes were still sharp and piercing. He sat bolt upright in his chair, and his blue-veined, liver-spotted hands didn’t tremble once as he shovelled food into his mouth.
Shirley gave her husband a look that was half-exasperated and half-amused. “Don’t mind him, Mr. Taylor. He hates being interrupted at his dinner. He’s always believed conversation should follow food, not interrupt it. Won’t change your ways for anyone, will you, darling?”
Dash grunted again, and she laughed quietly. Shirley den Adel was a well-preserved woman in her seventies, with a faint European accent I couldn’t quite place. Her gaze and her voice were both quite firm, and her easy manner did nothing to hide a sense of accustomed power and authority.
“Good to meet you at last, Mr. Taylor,” she said, with what sounded very like genuine warmth. “Tommy always spoke very well of you.”
“Tommy didn’t know his ass from his elbow,” said Dash, his voice still dominated by a sharp Chicago twang. He pushed back his empty plate and fixed me with a hard stare. “He should never have been a private eye. It’s not for everyone.” He glared at Walker. “And stay clear of that one. He’s bad news.”
“You wound me, Dash,” murmured Walker. “After all, it was your son Hadleigh who taught me everything I know. Before he ... stepped down.”
“Before he went crazy and ran off to the Deep School,” growled Dash. “The job broke him like it breaks everyone.”
“He left to save his soul,” Shirley said firmly.
“Or what was left of it,” said Dash.
“The job’s not for everyone,” said Walker. “It’s always suited me just fine.”
He looked at them both challengingly, and they looked away rather than meet his gaze. Walker glanced at me, to make sure I’d seen them defer to his authority.
“So,” Walker said easily. “What are you doing these days, Dash?”
Dash growled at him, apparently deeply immersed in the dessert menu, so Shirley answered for him. I got the feeling that happened a lot.
“Dash is retired now. We both are. He gardens, and I work on our memoirs. Oh, the stories we have to tell! Not to be published until we’re both safely dead, of course. It’s not everyone who were legendary heroes back in the thirties and forties, then made an even more successful comeback in the seventies and eighties! We could have gone on ... but we both felt we’d done our best. So now we just consult, on occasion, and let younger bodies do all the hard lifting. Isn’t that right, Dash?”
“Even done some work for you, Walker, on the quiet,” said Dash, grinning nastily. “I can still show these youngsters how it’s done.”
“But not too often,” said Shirley. “We’ve earned our retirement.”
“Don’t you ever miss the old days?” I said.
“Sometimes,” said Shirley, a bit wistfully. “We had a good war, really, chasing saboteurs and fifth columnists all over America ... And the villains were all so colourful in those days. They had style. The Vril Power Gang, the Nazi Skull...”
“And Wu Fang,” said Dash. “Put him away a dozen times, but he always got out. We should never have let him drink that Dragon’s Blood, back in ‘forty-one.”
“Oh, hush, dear,” said Shirley. “He was dying. And he wasn’t a bad sort. For a Chinaman.”
“Things were different when the Timeslip kicked us out here, back in the seventies,” said Dash. “Appalling place, then and now. So we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. There was a lot to do.”
“Never much cared for the seventies,” said Shirley. “Terribly cynical times. Though the eighties turned out to be even worse ... I was glad to retire. We stayed involved, though, helping train our successors. I worked with Ms. Fate, you know, when she started out. She’s done very well for herself.”
“What do you want with us, Walker?” said Dash. “You never show up unless you want something.”
“I’m looking into Tommy’s disappearance,” I said carefully. “Working with his brother Larry, not Walker. And it would appear that your eldest, Hadleigh, is also involved in some way. I was hoping you could tell me something about him.”
Dash and Shirley looked at each other, and they suddenly seemed older and more frail. Dash’s hands closed together on the table before him, and Shirley put her hand over them.
“Can’t say I approve of what Hadleigh’s made of himself,” Dash said finally. “Detective Inspectre for God’s sake ... We should never have left him alone, all those years. Not our fault, of course, but...”
“He fell in with bad company,” said Shirley, glaring at Walker. “We’d hardly been back a year, before he disappeared. And when he came back ... We don’t talk any more. We never see him. He does write us the occasional letter, now and again. But it’s not the same.”