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Dead Men's Boots
By Mike Carey
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You might think that helping a friend’s widow to stop a lawyer from stealing her husband’s corpse would be the strangest thing on your To Do list. But life is rarely that simple for Felix Castor.
A brutal murder in the heart of London bears all the hallmarks of a long-dead American serial killer, and it takes more good sense than Castor possesses not to get involved. He’s also fighting a legal battle over the body — if not the soul — of his possessed friend, Rafi, and can’t shake the feeling that his three problems might be related.
With the help of the succubus Juliet and paranoid zombie data-fence Nicky Heath, Castor just might have a chance of fitting the pieces together before someone drops him down an elevator shaft or rips his throat out.
Or not. . .
Also by Mike Carey
The Devil You Know
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Mike Carey
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Originally published in Great Britain in September 2007 by Orbit
First eBook Edition: July 2009
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I DON'T DO FUNERALS ALL THAT OFTEN, AND WHEN I DO, I prefer to be either falling-down drunk or dosed up on some herbal fuzz-bomb like salvinorin to the point where I start to lose feeling from the feet on up, like a kind of rising damp of the central nervous system. Today I was as sober as a judge, and that was only the start of it. The cemetery was freezing cold—cold enough to chill me even through the Russian-army greatcoat I was wearing (I never fought, but poor bloody infantry is a state of mind). The sun was still locked up for winter, a gusty east wind was stropping itself sharp on my face, and guilt was working its slow way through my mind like a weighted cheese wire through a block of ice.
Ashes to ashes, the priest said, or at least that was what it boiled down to. His hair and his skin were ash-pale in the February cold. The pallbearers stepped forward just as the wind sprang up again, and the shroud on top of the coffin bellied like a sail. It was a short voyage, though: Two steps brought them alongside the neat, rectangular hole in the ground, where they bent as one and laid the coffin down on a pair of canvas straps held in place by four burly sextons. Then the sextons stepped in from either side, in synchrony, and the coffin slid silently down into the ground.
Rest in peace, John Gittings. The mortal part of you, anyway; for the rest, it was going to be a case of wait-and-see. Maybe that was why John's widow, Carla, looked so strained and tense as she stood directly opposite me in her funereal finery. Her outfit incorporated a brooch made from a sweep of midnight-dark feathers, and staring at it made me momentarily imagine that I was looking down from a great height, the black of her dress becoming the black of an asphalt highway, the remains of a dead bird lying there like roadkill.
The priest started up again, the wind stealing his voice and distributing it piecemeal among us so that everyone got a beggar's share of the wisdom and consolation. Sunk in my own thoughts, which were fixed on mortality and resurrection to the exclusion of redemption, I looked around at the other mourners. It was a who's who of the London exorcist community: Reggie Tang, Therese O'Driscoll, and Greg Lockyear were there, representing the Thames Collective; Bourbon Bryant and his hatchet-faced new wife, Cath; Larry Tallowhill and Louise Beddows, Larry looking like a walking corpse himself with the white of his cheekbones showing through his skin like a flame through a paper lantern; Bill Schofield, known for reasons both complicated and obscene as Jonah; Ade Underwood, Sita Lovejoy, Michelle Mooney, all up from the beautiful South (Elephant and Castle, or thereabouts); and among the also-rans, a very striking, very young woman with shoulder-length white-blond hair who kept staring at me all the way through the service. There was something both familiar and unsettling about her face, but I couldn't place it. That uncertainty did nothing to improve my mood, and neither did the absence of the one London exorcist I'd been hoping to see at this shindig. But then Juliet Salazar never did hold with cheap sentiment. In fact, she probably didn't have any to sell even at the market price.
Meanwhile, seeing as how this was a cemetery, the dead had turned up in considerable force. They clustered around us at a safe distance, sensing the power gathered here and what it could do to them, but so starved of sensation that they couldn't keep away. It was hard not to look at the sad multitude, even though looking at ghosts often makes them come in closer, as though your attention is a gradient they slide down toward you. There were dozens, if not hundreds, packed so closely together that they overlapped, thrusting their heads through one another's limbs and torsos to get a better look at us and maybe at the new kid on the block. The ghosts of the most recent vintage still carried the marks of their death on them in wasted flesh, oddly angled limbs, and in one case, a gaping chest hole that was almost certainly a bullet wound. The tenants of longer standing had either learned or forgotten enough to look more like themselves in life, or else they'd started to fade to the point where some of the more gruesome details had been lost or smudged over.
The priest seemed oblivious to his larger audience, which was probably a good thing: He looked old enough and frail enough that he might not weather the shock. But people in my profession have the sight whether they like it or not, and it's not something you can turn on and off. At one point during the funeral oration, Bourbon Bryant reached into his pocket and half drew out the book of matches he always carried there—the particular tool he uses to get the whip hand on the invisible kingdoms, just as a tin whistle (Clarke Sweetone, key of D) is mine.
I put a hand on his arm and shook my head. "Not the time," I said tersely, speaking out of the corner of my mouth.
"I'll just torch one or two, Fix," he muttered back. "The rest will scatter like pigeons."
"I'll break your jaw if you do," I said equably. He shot me a surprised, affronted look, read my own expression accurately, and put away the matches.
Why hadn't I gotten drunk before coming here? Judging by the faces around me, I sure as hell wouldn't have been the only one. Exorcists often resort to booze to stifle their death perception, just as a lot of them use speed when they want to put a particular edge on it. But I'm careful about how I deploy my crutches. Today that would have felt like I was hiding from something specific I was ashamed to face, rather than just dulling unpleasant distractions. Bad precedent.
I defocused as far as I could, staring through the massed ranks of the dead toward the cemetery's high wrought-iron fence, which was topped with very un-Christian razor wire. No respite there, though; the Breath of Life protesters were pressed up against the bars like tourists at the zoo, shouting abuse at us that we were too far away to decipher. The Breathers, as we dismissively call them, are radical dead-rights extremists, and they view us ghostbreakers in much the same light in which staunch Catholics tend to see abortionists: You can always rely on them to break up the funeral of an exorcist if they get a tip-off that it's going down. Most likely, the priest or one of the sextons was a closet sympathizer and had sent the word down the line.
Things were starting to wind down now. Carla threw some earth into her husband's grave, and a few other people got in line to do the same. Then the sextons took over for the serious shoveling. Now that we'd made that ritualistic nod toward plowing the fields, we were free to scatter as soon as was decent. Carla's earlier plan for a post-funeral gathering at her house in Mill Hill had been canceled at the last moment for reasons that weren't entirely clear—and the service, which on the black-edged invitations had been set for three p.m., had been moved forward to one-thirty without explanation. Maybe that was why Juliet hadn't shown.
But just as I was congratulating myself on getting away easy, a shout from the main gates made me turn my head in that direction. There was a man there, running toward us at a flat-out sprint that sat oddly with his immaculately cut Italian suit. By and large, people don't wear Enzo Tovare to go jogging. All the muck sweat's not good for that delicate stitching.
This Johnny-come-lately looked pretty striking in other ways, too. His mid-brown hair was back-combed into an Errol Flynn–style college cut, and he had the Hollywood face to go with it—hard to get without plastic surgery or sterling-silver genes. He looked to be about thirty, but there was something in his face that read as either premature experience or some kind of innate calm and seriousness. He was old for his age, but he wore it pretty well.
He had a folded sheet of paper in his hand that he was holding up for our appreciation like Neville Chamberlain. That plus the sharp suit made it less likely that he was what I'd taken him to be at first: one of the Breath of Life guys trying to disrupt proceedings with a paint bomb or a noisemaker.
He slowed down as he got in among us, and I noticed as he passed me that he wasn't breathing hard despite the run. I wondered if he worked out in Italian linen, too.
"Mrs. Gittings," he said, offering the paper to Carla. "This is a warrant executed this morning by Judge Tilney at Hendon Magistrates' court. Will you please read it?"
Carla smacked the paper out of the man's hand so that he had to flail briefly to catch it again before it fell into the grave.
"Go away, Mr. Todd," she said coldly. "You've got no business being here. No business at all."
"I have to disagree," Italian-suit guy said politely enough, unfolding the paper and showing it to Carla. "You know what my business is, Mrs. Gittings, and you know why I couldn't just allow this to happen. What you're doing here is illegal. This warrant forbids you from burying the mortal remains of the late Jonathan Gittings, and it requires you to appear at—"
He ran out of steam very abruptly. He was looking into the grave, and he clearly registered the fact that it was already occupied and half full of earth. There was maybe a second when he seemed false-footed: all dressed up, writ in hand, and nowhere to go. Then he refolded his warrant and tucked it away in his breast pocket with a decisive motion, his expression somber.
"Obviously, I'm already too late," he said. "I was under the impression that this service was scheduled to start at three o'clock. I'm sure that was what I was told when I called the funeral parlor this morning. Perhaps there was a last-minute cancellation?" Carla flushed red, opened her mouth to speak, but Todd raised his hands in surrender. "I'm not going to try to interrupt a funeral that's already in progress—and I apologize for disturbing the solemnity of the occasion. If I'd been in time to stop the burial, it was my legal duty to do so. Now… I'll retire and consider the other avenues available to me. We'll talk again, Mrs. Gittings. And you can expect an exhumation order in the fullness of time."
Carla gave a short cry of pain, as if the words had physically wounded her. Then Reggie Tang—an unlikely Galahad—stepped in between her and the lawyer, fixing him with a look full of violent promise.
"Can I see your invitation, mate?" he demanded. At the same time I saw Reggie's deceptively scrawny-looking friend Greg Lockyear moving in behind Todd, looking to Reggie for his cue. I couldn't believe they were planning to lay some hurt on a lawyer in front of fifty witnesses, but the grim set of Reggie's face was impossible to misread. Like most of us, he knew John from way back, and like most of us, he'd teamed up with him a fair few times when there was nothing better on offer. That tended to be how it worked, and I guessed that maybe, like me, he was feeling some belated pangs of guilt that he'd only ever seen John as a last resort. So maybe beating up a man in a sharp suit seemed like an easy way to burn off some of the bad karma.
Stepping forward as much to my own surprise as anyone else's, I put a hand on Reggie's shoulder. He turned his glare on me, surprised and indignant to be interrupted when he was still warming up.
"Behave yourself, Reggie," I said. "You're doing no one a favor starting a fight here, least of all Carla."
We held each other's eyes for a moment longer, and I was half convinced he was going to take a swing at me. I took a step to the left to keep Greg Lockyear in view, because that way, at least, I wouldn't be fighting on two fronts; but the moment passed, and Reggie turned away with a disgusted shrug.
"Frigging parasites," he said. "Have it your way, Fix. But if he doesn't get the fuck out of here, I'm gonna put something through his face."
I gave Todd a look that asked him what he was waiting for. "Mrs. Gittings will be in touch," I said.
"I'm sure," he agreed. "But I really need to proceed with—"
"You need to pick your time. She'll be in touch. Leave it until then, eh?"
Todd looked at the grim faces ringing him and probably did some calculations. He glanced around for Carla, but she'd stepped back into the supportive crowd and was being comforted by Cath and Therese. "I'm prepared to wait a day or so," he said, "out of respect. A day or so—no longer."
"Good plan," I agreed.
With a wry nod to me, Todd turned on his heel. He took the path back to the gate a lot more slowly and stayed in sight for the better part of a minute, further dampening the already tense mood.
We broke up by inches and ounces, swapping halfhearted conversation at the turning circle by the car park because nobody wanted to seem in an indecent hurry to escape. I said hello to Louise, whom I hadn't seen in a year or more, and we played the "ain't it awful" game, trading stories about the Breathers.
"They're running ambushes now," Louise said in her lugubrious Tyneside drawl, igniting a cigarette with a gold lighter shaped like a tiny revolver. "Picking us off. Can you believe it? Stu Langley got a call in the early hours of the morning. Some woman saying she'd just moved into a new house and there was a ghost in the bloody downstairs lavvy. He told her he'd come the next morning, but she started crying and pleading. Laying it on thicker and thicker, she was, and Stu's too polite to hang up on her. So in the end he got dressed and went out there. I'd have told her to hold it in or piss out the window.
"Anyway, he gets to this place out in Gypsy Hill somewhere, and look at that. There's a house with a for-sale sign up, exactly where she said it would be, and the front door's open. So he went on in, like a bloody idiot. Didn't stop to ask himself why there were no lights on, or why the sign still said for sale if this whinging old biddy had already moved in.
"There were four of them, with baseball bats. They laid into him so hard they put him in a coma. He lasted for a week, and then they turned the machine off. I'm telling you, Fix, they won't be happy until they've killed us all."
"Won't do them much good if they do," I observed, shaking my head as she offered me a drag on the cigarette. "Exorcism is in the human genome now. Probably always was, only it didn't show itself until there was something there to use it on. Killing us doesn't make the problem go away."
She blew smoke out of her nose, hard. "No, but beating the shit out of a few of us gives the rest of us something to think about."
Another knot of mourners walked past us, heading for their cars. One of them was the acid-blond girl, walking alongside two guys I didn't know, and she gave me another killing look as she passed.
"Any idea who that is?" I asked Louise, rolling my eyes to indicate who I meant without being too obvious about it.
Louise expelled breath in a forced sigh, made a weary face. "Dana McClennan."
"McClennan?" Something inside me lurched and settled at an odd angle. "Any relation to the late, great Gabriel McClennan?"
"Daughter," said Louise. "And she's following on in the family tradition, Fix. Bigger arsehole than he was, if anything. When she found out Larry was HIV-positive, she backed off at a hundred miles an hour. You'd think he'd tried to give her a Frenchie or something. Or maybe she thinks you can catch it by talking about it, like my mum."
I didn't answer. The mention of Gabe McClennan's name had triggered a whole lot of very unpleasant memories, most of them dating from the night when I'd killed him. Okay, it was kind of by proxy: Actually, I just made it really easy for someone else to kill him. It wasn't like he left me much choice, either, since he was out for my blood; and the wolf I threw him to was one he'd brought to the party himself, so you could say what goes around comes around. Lots of great arguments to mix and match. None of them made me feel any better about it, though, and there was no way I'd ever be able to explain it to the wife and kid he'd left behind.
"So what's she doing here?" I asked.
"She came with Bourbon. I think he put the word out at the Oriflamme that John was going into the ground today—said he'd lay on cars for any exorcists who wanted to come along."
"She's a ghostbreaker?"
Louise shrugged. "That's what she's calling herself, yes. Following in her father's footsteps. I don't know if she's any good or not."
I took it on the chin, but it wasn't great news. If Gabe's daughter was in the same line of business as me now, and if she was operating in London, then we were going to keep running across each other's trail whether we liked it or not. Not a happy prospect. I watched Gabe's daughter down to the gates—saw her stop, her two escorts walking on without her, and exchange words with the Breathers on picket duty. Someone ought to have a word with her about that: It wasn't a great idea to encourage the lunatic fringe.
"How's the music going?" I asked in a ham-fisted effort to raise the mood. Louise played bass in a band that had had many more names than gigs. I had a vague feeling that their current nom de soundstage was something vaguely punk, like All-Star Wank, but it would be something different tomorrow.
"It's good," Louise said. "It's going good. We've got a new manager. He reckons he can get us in at the Spitz."
Larry Tallowhill came up alongside Louise at this point and slid an arm around her waist. "Felix Castor," he said with mock sternness. "Leave my fucking woman alone."
"Can I help it if I'm irresistible?" I asked. "How are the new drugs working?"
Larry shrugged expansively. "They're great," he said. "I'll live until something else kills me. Can't ask for more than that."
Larry was always amazingly upbeat about his condition, which was the result of the sort of arbitrary bad luck that would fill most people with rage or despair to the slopping-over-the-top, foaming-at-the-mouth point. He'd contracted HIV from a bite he got when he was trying to subdue a loup-garou—you might call it a werewolf, except that the animal component here was something leaner and longer-limbed and altogether stranger than that word suggests. It wasn't even a paying job; he just saw this monster chasing a bunch of kids across a Sainsbury's car park, and stepped in without even thinking about it. The thing was looking to feed, but it turned its attention to Larry as soon as it realized he was a threat, and like I said, it was sleek and fast and very, very mean. Larry took the damage, finished the job with one arm hanging off in strips, then walked a mile and a half to the hospital to get himself patched up. They did a great job: stabilized him, took the severed finger he'd brought with him and sewed it back on, stopped him from bleeding to death or getting tetanus, and eventually restored 95 percent of nervous function. About ten or eleven months later, he got the bad news.
For an exorcist, it all falls under the heading of occupational hazard. There aren't very many of us who get to die of old age.
I changed the subject, which sooner or later was going to bring us around to the even more painful issue of how John Gittings had died—locked in the bathroom with the business end of a shotgun in his mouth. I'm not squeamish, but I'd been shying away from that particular image all afternoon.
"Business good?" I asked, falling back once more on the old conversational staples.
"It's great," Larry said. "Best it's ever been."
"Three bloody jobs all at once yesterday," Louise confirmed. "He's fast." She nodded at Larry. "You know how fast he is, but even he can't do three in a day. They get in the way of each other. The second's harder than the first, and the third's impossible. So I did the middle one, and of course, that was the one that turned out to be an absolute bastard. Old woman—very tough. Fought back, and I lost my lunch all over the client's carpet."
"Your breakfast," Larry corrected. "It was only eleven o'clock."
"My brunch. And this bloke—company director or something, lives in Regent Quarter—he says, 'I hope you're going to clean that up before you go.' And I would have done, too, but not after he said that. I hit him with the standard terms and conditions and walked out. Now he's saying he won't pay, but he sodding will. One way or another, he will."
As changes of subject go, it hadn't gotten us very far away from death. But that's exorcists' shoptalk for you.
After a few more pleasantries, Lou and Larry strolled away arm in arm, and I walked back over to the grave to say my goodbyes. Carla was now standing in deep conversation with the priest—maybe a little too deep for comfort. At any rate, she took the opportunity as I walked up to extricate herself, thank him, and disengage.
"I'm heading out," I said. "Take care of yourself, Carla. I'll be in touch, okay?" But she was holding something out to me, and the something turned out to be her car keys.
"Fix," she said apologetically, "could you drive me home? I really don't feel up to it. And there's something I want to ask you about."
I hesitated. They say misery loves company, but I'm the kind of misery who usually doesn't. On the other hand, I'd missed Bourbon's charabanc, and I needed a lift back into town. Maybe a half-second too late to look generous, I nodded and took the keys. "Thanks again, Father," Carla called over her shoulder. I glanced back. The priest was watching us as we walked away, the expression on his face slightly troubled.
"He asked me if I had any doubts," Carla said, catching the movement as I looked around. "Any bits of doctrine I wanted to talk over with him. Then, before I could get a word in, he was pumping me for clues."
"Men of the cloth are the worst," I agreed. "They don't approve, but they have to look. It's the same principle as the News of the World." That was slightly unfair, but it's something you come across a lot. People assume that we're sitting on a big secret: We have to be, because how could we do what we do without knowing how it's done? But it's not like that at all. Would you ask Steve Davis for an explanation of Brownian motion, or Torvill and Dean how ice crystals form? We've got a skill set, not the big book of answers.
Carla's car was the only one left in the car park: a big, roomy old Vectra GLS in a dark gray that showed off the splatter stains of old bird shit to good effect. I let Carla in—no central locking—and walked around to the driver's side, taking an appraising look at her in the process. She was calmer now that it was all over, but she looked a little tired and a little old. That wasn't surprising: Having someone you love commit suicide has to be one of the nastiest low blows life can throw at you. In other respects, she was still very much the woman I'd known back in the early nineties, before she'd ever met John—when she was a brassy, loud blonde I'd met at a poker session and almost gone to bed with, except that my fear of intimacy and her preference for older men had kicked in at about the same time and turned a promising fumble into an awkward conversation about micro-limit hold 'em. There's a line in a Yeats poem where he asks whether your imagination lingers longest on a woman you won or a woman you lost. While you're puzzling over that one, you can maybe give him an estimate on how long a piece of string is. If things had worked out differently, Carla and me could have gotten a whole Mrs. Robinson thing going, although even in those days, I was less of a Benjamin Braddock and more of a Ratso Rizzo.
I started the car and pulled away, noticing that the priest followed us with his sad eyes as we drove by. I sympathized up to a point. It couldn't be an easy way to earn a living these days.
We eased our way out between the pickets, collecting a fair share of abuse and ridicule along the way but no actual missiles or threats. Most of the people waving placards and chanting rhythmically were in their teens or early twenties. What did they know about death? They hadn't even gotten all that far with life yet.
- "Every bit as good as Jim Butcher, Carey hits his stride."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Witty, sardonic . . . irresistible . . . leaves the readers breathless."—Kirkus (starred review)
- "The Felix Castor novels are splashed with color and texture, their characters are larger than life (or death), and the stories are, well . . . out of this world. Castor is a remarkably believable character... A wholly engaging blend of the detective and fantasy genres."—Booklist
- "Fast-paced . . . riveting . . . everything a paranormal thriller fan could want."—MonstersandCritics.com
- "The Devil You Know is a spectacular novel, one of the best supernatural thrillers I've read in years."—Douglas Preston, New York Times bestselling author, on The Devil You Know
- "A treat . . . Castor follows up his excellent debut with this even better sequel . . . Genre-bending at its best."—Booklist (starred review) on Vicious Circle
- "An imaginative spin on the hard-boiled detective . . . mixes horror and humor in a way that spells good omens for future Castor novels."
—Entertainment Weekly on The Devil You Know
—Kirkus (starred review) on The Devil You Know
- On Sale
- May 22, 2018
- Page Count
- 464 pages