A blend of horror, the supernatural, and jazz. David Easter wakes up on a New Orleans streetcar with a suitcase full of clothes, some of them bloodstained. The last thing he remembers was working at a record shop in South London – where he also recalls falling in love with a girl from New Orleans.
Published by Gollancz (1994) – Currently Out of Print.
His nerves jangled as David placed his foot on the first step, his ears alert for the slam of a car door, the sound of approaching footsteps and muffled voices. If Broussard returned while they were upstairs, their escape would be much more difficult. The tension in the air was almost strong enough to taste.
They climbed swiftly, reaching the top and turning right. The darkness was dense, but the flashlight helped direct their way and David’s eyes gradually grew accustomed to the gloom. They were soon investigating a maze of bedrooms. The master bedroom, obviously Broussard’s, might have been prepared for Louis XIV of France, it was so gloriously and tastelessly overstated. An ornately-carved four-poster bed lined with heavy drapes dominated the room, a gold silk dressing gown lying across it. Broussard seemed to be obsessed with privacy. Thick velvet curtains covered the window and before them was a large Chinese screen with a red and gold floating dragon on black. No prying eyes would ever see what took place in that protected room. A private bathroom of white marble and gold lay off it.
In a flash of insight, David realised Fermay would have experienced all this richness and glamour as she grew up. Her childhood must have been pampered like a millionaire’s daughter in a world of anything she wants. How difficult would it have been for her to abandon it all? And what must she have thought moving into David’s small, grey world? Secrets. She had kept so much from him.
They progressed along an empty corridor, their breath sounding hoarse and laboured in the dead stillness. David could feel Broussard’s presence everywhere, hanging in the air like the smell of rotten meat. There were rooms for his lieutenants, spartan compared to his own, but still expensive. An office appeared at the end of the corridor, all the filing cabinets and desk drawers locked. David considered jemmying a few of them open, but it hardly seemed worth it. Records of Aidoneus’ drug deals and numbers rackets meant little to him. There was only one thing of value the mansion could hold. They covered the next floor quickly. Only the attic rooms were left.
“Do you still want to go on?” Ligios emphasised the question in such a way as to leave David in no doubt of the option the small-time crook preferred.
“Of course. I haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
“What are you looking for? You don’t give much away, man.”
“That’s right. And that’s the way it’s going to stay.” David was already thinking ahead. One more floor to go. Would there be enough time?
“Because if there’s something big here,” Ligios continued, “I want to be part of it.” David was already striding out towards the stairs. Ligios kept up a few paces behind. “I’ve taken all the risks here. I’m not going to settle for any penny ante stuff if there’s something more. What is it? Drugs? Guns?”
“Nothing you’d be interested in.”
“Don’t play me for a fool, Limey.” Ligios’ voice grew harder. David had pushed him as far as he could. “I’m no sucker and I’m no leg-man. I want a fifty-fifty cut if you’re looking at big money.”
“It’s personal. A missing person.” David stopped at the foot of the final flight of stairs. The shadows there seemed even darker.
“Missing person?” Ligios repeated incredulously. “Who is it? Elvis?”
“No, it’s not.” Ligios’ whining was starting to irritate David. “It’s a woman. Named Fermay Grey.”
At the mention of her name, a blast of icy air swirled down the stairs and past him. He shivered. And hadn’t there been something else? Something behind the breeze, on the edge of his senses?
From the top of the stairs.
David strained his ears to pick up any sound, stretching out one arm to stop Ligios from moving. Even the drop of a pin would have sounded like a cannonshot in that quiet. There was nothing. The air hummed with silence and that was all.
“What is it?” Ligios hissed nervously.
“Nothing. I thought I heard something.”
“Well did you or didn’t you?”
“No. It was just my ears playing tricks on me. Let’s go.”
They started to climb the stairs.
David’s heart was beating faster with each step. He could sense something in the way that some people know when a storm is about to break after a hot, still summer week.
Halfway up the flight, Ligios’ torch played over a door at the top, large and black and made of sturdy wood. It was unexpected and architecturally out of place, but it had obviously been installed to seal off the entire top of the house. It seemed to say: GO NO FURTHER.
“If we’re going to find anything,” David said, “it will be through there.” He tried the handle. The door was locked. “Couldn’t have expected any more, could I?”
“There’s something about a locked door,” Ligios said thoughtfully. The acoustics caused his voice to echo slightly, as if he was at the bottom of a pit.
“That’s because it represents secrets and there are two kinds of secrets. The good ones that you want to find out and they want to hide. And the dangerous ones that everyone wants to stay hidden.”
Ligios rattled the handle. “I think we can do this one,” he said confidently. “It wasn’t installed by a security expert. Look, the door is solid.” He rapped it. “Take you a day to get through that. But the jamb, that’s a different story. Cheap, soft wood.”
His bag of tricks provided a jemmy slightly larger than a tyre iron which he positioned where the door met the jamb at the lock. There was a splintering of wood and a few minutes later the door was ready to be wrenched open. Ligios stepped back to let David do the muscle work.
David took the cold, brass handle with both hands, braced himself and then heaved backwards. There was a crack, but the door did not budge.
“You’re getting there,” Ligios said. “Try again.”
“Who shot Clinton and made you President?” His sinews ached. He set his feet further apart, grabbed the handle again, and pulled. The crack was louder and this time the door moved slightly.
“One more time.”
“Shut up, Ligios,” David said breathlessly. And then to himself, “Third time lucky.”
He threw himself into it with such force that the jamb exploded like a gunshot, splintering wood in all directions. The door swung open, throwing David off-balance, and in that instant madness exploded out.
The dead rushed from the darkness towards him like a horde of screaming banshees.
Their faces hurtled towards him, bone-white or mouldering, mouths thrown wide with a screech ripped from their suffering souls, hands grasping in anguish ahead of them. There was a score or more, packed on the either side of the door, until it seemed like a tidal wave of death.
The shock almost stopped David’s heart. He threw himself to the floor in terror, his arms over his head, sure he was going to die. Their icy presence tore over him like an arctic blast as he clapped his hands to his ears to cut out the pain of their agonising, tormented howls. He could smell the grave and death hanging in the air like a shroud.
The roaring wind on which the dead were riding passed over him in a second and screamed down the stairs, the noise of souls in agony never relenting until it disappeared out into the night.
When silence finally returned, David sat up, feeling sick and shaken. He imagined the dead waiting behind the door as he and Ligios climbed the stairs, pressing in closer and closer to express their pain until finally they were released like steam from a pressure cooker.
What were they all doing there, in Broussard’s house? Lost souls who wanted to tell the world of their suffering, but doomed to speak only to themselves?
What were they doing there?
David became aware of Ligios staring at him in horror. Of course, David realised. He didn’t see them. All Ligios had observed was David opening the door and then falling to the floor and covering his head in fear. Shakily, David pulled himself to his feet.
Their faces. Those wide, dead eyes, those contorted mouths.
That hideous screaming.
He could feel their soul-destroying torment as acutely as if he had cut himself with a knife. He shuddered and tried to blank the image from his mind, but every time he closed his eyes he could see them rushing out of the shadows towards him. It seemed a potent warning of what lay ahead: danger, death and eternal damnation. A glacial chill ran through his veins.
“What the fuck happened there?” Ligios was aghast. David could see he was considering abandoning their mission. And why not? Who would want to be alone in the home of a dangerous gang boss with a certifiable lunatic.
“I’m okay. I’m epileptic,” David lied.
“Didn’t look much like epilepsy to me. Looked like you were seeing things. Too much acid?”
“It was an epileptic fit,” David stressed. “Very brief and uncharacteristic, but a fit nontheless.”
Ligios eyed him warily, still half-thinking about leaving. Eventually the greed returned to his face and he smiled hungrily. “Hey, I can’t wait to see what he’s got in here. It must be something valuable with a door like that. If there’s all those fine antiques downstairs, what’s important enough to be stashed up here?”
David was almost afraid to consider the question. They entered the top floor, one with growing fear and apprehension, the other with boundless greed.
As Ligios’ torch ranged along the corridor it seemed as if they had been transported to another building, devoid of the luxuriousness that characterised the rest of the mansion. The walls were bare to the plaster and that was cracked and damaged by age. No rich, deep carpet lay on the floor; it was rough boards. Overhead the lights were merely bulbs on the end of a flex. There was an odour of damp and dust.
The first three rooms were all empty and undecorated to the point of deterioration. According to David’s calculations, that left two more. The layout of the floor had been altered at some time and as they entered the penultimate room, David realised access to the final room could only be gained through it.
“Thank the Lord,” Ligios breathed. They were back in the world of money and power. The room was packed with antiques; a little too many so that it resembled an overstuffed junk shop. “I thought we’d been caught out,” Ligios continued. “This must be the storeroom.”
Like the library on the ground floor, the walls were covered by shelves of books. These seemed older. The bindings were cracked and decaying and they reeked of yellowing paper and age and years of use.
Despite the wealth piled high around them, David felt dismayed that they had discoverd no tangible signs of Fermay. He was almost afraid to try the final room. It was his last hope.
The centrepiece of the room was a sturdy glass case like the ones used in museums. David’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked Ligios to shine his torch inside.
Ligios, expecting jewels, perhaps, or rare coins, sounded disappointed when he said, “It’s only an old record.”
Something twinged in David’s mind, insistent, tugging him forward. It had to be, didn’t it, he thought. The coincidences, getting closer and closer, dragging him into the maelstrom.
He leaned over the case and peered at the disc which had been reverentially placed on a crumpled black velvet cloth. It was a 78, yet it looked almost brand new as the torchlight illuminated its shiny, unscratched surface. The label was handwritten in a spidery scrawl on paper discoloured with age. The twinging had turned into an alarm, growing louder.
Ligios turned his torch away to investigate some of the antiques nearby.
“Hey!” David snapped. “Shine it back here. I want to read the label.”
Ligios cursed under his breath, but he did what David said.
Nightime Blues. By Lionel Johnson.
The Lost Record. The final performance of Buffalo Marsayle before his brutal slaying. Another part of the mystery came back to Broussard and Aidoneus, another artefact harking back to the past, linked to the present by undiminished strands of blood and terror. Who was it who told him the past and future lived alongside the present in New Orleans? Here was the proof. All times were now, old horrors and new horrors intermingling. The weight of it made him feel sick and powerless.
“Okay? You seen enough?”
“Yes, but I want that record.” Apart from its significance in his life, the jazz buff inside him felt a frisson of excitement at the prospect of owning such a rare and valuable disc. And after all, it was a small price to pay for what Broussard had done to him.
He leaned forward and smashed the top of the case with his elbow.
An alarm shattered the silence instantly. David froze.
Then both he and Ligios moved as one. The alarm was deafening, but it was not any kind David had heard before. It was a deep, sonorous tolling like a funeral bell and it was answered by another somewhere far back in the house.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Ligios cursed. “You stupid bastard! We gotta get out of here! Fast!” He moved towards the door.
David started to follow him. He stopped three steps across the room and glanced back. “Hang on. Give me a minute.”
“You gotta be fucking joking!” Ligios yelled at him incredulously. “They’ll be all over this place before you can sing God Save The Queen, you Limey asshole!”
David ignored him. He ran back to the case, dipped his hand through the broken glass and pulled out the record. It felt warm to his touch, like the hand of a friend. Then his eyes were drawn to the final room. Could he leave without checking it? He looked back at Ligios. His pony-tail was flapping wildly as he darted around the room stuffing the smaller antiques into his pockets and pouch.
There was still time.
Clutching the record to his chest, David covered the rest of the room in a couple of bounds and yanked on the handle of the final door. It was locked.
More treasures and precious secrets, Broussard? he thought.
With a wish and a prayer he hammered on the door. “Fermay? Are you in there?”
There was no reply, but he was struck with a strange prickling sensation that ran along the length of his spine. It told him, as well as any voice, that there was someone within. He knew it.
He was about to try again when Ligios’ steel-sprung fingers clamped around his upper arm. “Get the fuck out of here!” he hissed, “or I’m going to pound your fucking skull in.” He was brandishing the jemmy with his other hand. “I’m not leaving you behind to set me up.”
David roughly threw him off and ran to the door, but Ligios pulled ahead of him, cursing loudly, his pockets bulging with loot. David clutched the record to his chest as gently as if it was a baby.
As they piled into the corridor, the first thing they saw was the silhouette.
Behind it, the window overlooking the street framed a few stars in a black sky. David’s blood ran cold.
The silhouette moved, shifting the weight of a body that towered up almost seven feet. The true outline was difficult to discern. There was something about it that didn’t look right. Something about the head.
“Shine your torch at him” David said. “Try to blind him.”
Ligios responded quickly. He clicked the switch and a beam of light cleaved through the darkness, slicing across the body until it settled on the head. It took a second for what they saw to register and then the shock hit them.
The figure stopped moving when the light hit it. A bird’s head flared in the spotlight, curved, cruel beak glinting, eyes black and beady. David recognised it instantly. It was the bizarre bird costume he had seen in the photo in the Mardi Gras Museum. The costume of the Krewe of Aidoneus. David marvelled at the mask, a myriad subtle colours shimmering and merging in the glare of the light.
Ligios fumbled and almost dropped the torch and as the light played downwards, David could see their opponent was wearing long, flowing white robes adding a regal, refined touch to the huge frame.
“If we both jump him he won’t stand a chance,” David whispered. “Dazzle him with the torch again.”
Ligios flashed the beam. The beak of the mask snapped open, emitting a sound so hideous David brought his hands to his ears. Then he saw it. Just a glimpse, but it was enough.
Inside the gaping, screeching beak he could see grey skin pulled taut with tendons like cables. Illuminated in the torchlight at the entrance to the throat was another mouth ringed with razor sharp teeth, opening and closing, snapping shut with sharp clicks of rage.
It wasn’t human.
Ligios must have seen it too for a small cry escaped his throat, a pathetic response in the face of something that should not be. “What is it?” His voice was dry and paper thin.
“I don’t know,” David replied. “But I think we’re in big trouble.”
A reek like a charnel pit radiated from the bird creature. David gagged, nauseous from the smell and the fear that had its hooks in him, but he wasn’t as scared as Ligios who had not had the benefit of David’s brushes with the unknown. Ligios was rigid, his pupils shocked black dots. David touched his elbow to prompt him into movement. Ligios rocked and his mouth dropped, but he stayed where he was.
The bird-creature screeched again, half-avian, half-human, high-pitched and keening, chilling the blood.
And then it moved.
It was faster than David could ever have imagined. Its bulk cleared the length of the corridor in a second, the screech rising higher and higher. David only just avoided the sweep of its left hand which seemed to sprout razored talons. He half-dropped to one knee, feeling the air whistle over his head. There was a rending noise and five furrows were ploughed in the plaster of the wall.
The bird-creature’s other arm swept round and plucked Ligios off the floor as if he weighed no more than a bag of sugar. For a moment he was still rigid and then a fearful awareness dawned on his face. He opened his mouth and shrieked a shriek of madness. It was mirrored by the bird-creature as it threw its head back in triumph, its beak opening wider than Ligios’ head.
David didn’t wait to see what happened next. His knees popped with the strain as he crawled quickly along the floor next to the wall. Behind him, the bird-creature’s noise had taken a terrible turn.
When he had passed the thrashing beast, David threw himself to his feet and ran to the end of the corridor, glancing only once over his shoulder as he turned towards the top of the stairs.
The bird-creature was in a blood-frenzy, rending and tearing at Ligios with its talons, his body jiggling before its onslaught like a puppet in a hurricane. Within seconds it resembled a tattered bundle of rags, hanging limply next to the blood-splattered walls. Then the beast opened its beak as wide as it would go, stretching the tendons on each side. David averted his eyes in horror before the final sickening tearing sound.
And then he was running, down the stairs to the next floor, his arms flailing to keep him from over-balancing, his lungs burning, his heart pounding, running, running to avoid that awful noise. As he rounded on to the first floor he realised the noise was drawing closer. It had disposed of Ligios.
And now it was after him.