I thought once I dealt with Alastor, my problems would be over. He was the one playing me, revelling in my misery. But his parting comment sits like a bruise on my brain: They’ll get to you. They’ll get to all of you.
I shouldn’t have gotten so cocky. It enabled him to escape. And there’s no way he’ll let his guard down around me again. He mentioned a new order, and I’ve been racking my brain, trying to think of what he could mean. Another attack on the Pantheon? The last one didn’t work out so well.
And who would orchestrate it?
Atë was behind the last one, freeing the Titans from Tartarus to cause mayhem. She tried to involve me, and it would be a lie if I said that her idea didn’t tempt me. My thirst for revenge almost blinded me to sense, but her ultimate aim was nothing more than destruction, and we couldn’t win a war on such pretence. Caution won out, but I refused to side with Zeus after what he did to me, so I disappeared. If I had sided with Atë, perhaps she would have won. I could have been sitting on the throne right now…
But Atë lost, and for her part in the plot, they threw her into Tartarus. A spell in that pit of torment and suffering is enough to dull anyone’s thirst for war, so whilst she is free now, I can hardly see her staging a second attempt any time soon. Even she isn’t that crazy.
This has to be something else. Something is coming, and I can feel it like a sharp wind before the rain. I need information. And I know where I can get it.
The Double Deuce is a seedy bar on the outskirts of town, frequented by low-life scum who spend their lives sucking the soul out of society rather than contributing to it. We’re not talking major players here. They are too rich and too sensible to be associated with such a place. Nor are we talking about their second-in-command or their cronies. We’re talking about the bottom feeders. Those that are desperate to rise up the criminal ranks and make a name for themselves.
A few years ago, two rival gangs shot the place up. Police turned up to calm things down, and suddenly the gangs joined forces. There was carnage. Ten dead, fifteen injured, one of them a young girl who was paralysed. No-one knew what she was doing there, but when they took the bullet out her spine, they said it came from a police firearm. There was a media frenzy, with eyewitnesses claiming the police open-fired on innocent civilians. Now the police stay well clear, and their absence has allowed the place to become a criminal hideout.
If someone intends to make a scene, someone in the Double Deuce will know about it. And someone who hears everything is Blind Bill.
Bill’s been around a long time. Eighty years, maybe. Probably closer to ninety. He spent his youth in and out of prison, taking the blame for petty crimes he didn’t commit, and getting paid handsomely for it. It was a tactic to take the focus off the main crooks, and the police lapped it up, happy to win the small victories rather than go after the big boys.
Bill’s well liked. Everyone knows him, and everyone talks to him. He’s like a second granddad to most of the people at the Double Deuce. So, when a brawl resulted in him being blinded by acid, the culprit was hunted down and made to suffer. I heard that it involved power drills and nails. That’s the calibre of sadistic scum we’re talking about. Since the incident, Blind Bill has become part of the furniture at the Double Deuce. There’s always a drink in his hand and an ear for anyone who wants to talk.
I’ve been to the Double Deuce once before, and I vowed never to return. But needs must.
It’s early evening, and music is already blasting from inside the bar. Heavy metal, but I don’t recognise the band. Five cars are parked out front, all of them huge gas-guzzlers. An obese bouncer with a tiny, spherical head stands at the entrance. His eyes are popping out as though someone is squeezing his head, and he looks vacantly at me as I walk in.
There are thousands of beer mats stuck on the walls amongst posters of bands and album covers. A Stratocaster takes pride of place behind the bar, apparently once played by Jeff Beck—whether the Jeff Beck, or just his namesake, is debatable. Three men in their forties with baseball caps and unkempt facial hair are sitting at the bar, slumped over their beers. Two more are playing pool. They eye me cautiously and then return to their game. Another four men are sitting around a table, deep in conversation.
I order a beer and get what I’m given. It’s dark and thick and disgusting, but this is not the sort of place where you complain. There’s a toilet next to the bar, and I hear it flush. Blind Bill stumbles out, fiddling with his fly whilst holding onto whatever he can grab hold of with his spare hand. He stumbles onto his barstool and continues drinking from his bottle. He’s sitting in the same seat as last time I was here, drinking the same type of beer. He looks thinner than last time, though. The tendons on his frail hands are pronounced, and his nose and ears are taking over his face. He’s wearing brown corduroy trousers, with a rope for a belt, and a stained mustard shirt which is two sizes too big. He’s missed a hole as he’s buttoned it up, and his stomach is on show.
He lets out a loud burp, and I make my presence known.
“Bill,” I say into his good ear. He can’t hear through his right.
“Zee,” he smiles, using the fake name I gave him last time we spoke. “Didn’t think I’d see you again. Well, obviously not see…” His voice is hoarse, like someone who’s spent a lifetime smoking heavily.
“Thought I’d call by Bill, see how you are getting on.”
He coughs into his hand. Talking is an effort for him. “Did you get sorted?”
“The issue you had, did you sort it out?”
“Not yet.” I look away and sigh. That’s one for another day. “How are you holding up?”
“Oh, you know, taking it day-by-day.” He takes a swig of his drink and then scratches behind his dark glasses. He looks as though he wants to tell me something, but then changes his mind. “Something tells me you’re not here for a friendly catch-up,” he coughs.
“No. I might need your help with something else.” I keep my voice low. I don’t want to draw attention to myself.
“What’s it this time, boy? I’ll help you if I can, but my brain doesn’t work so well these days. Too much of the devil’s nectar.” He raises his bottle in explanation.
“You heard anything about an uprising, or a new order, or anything strange? A whisky, please,” I add, giving up on the beer. The bartender gives me a scathing look and reluctantly plods off.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t hear about an uprising, boy. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“I’m talking big, Bill. Explosive. Someone must have said something. Anything unusual?”
“Come to think of if,” Bill says, leaning in, “one of Jim’s lads said something strange the other day…”
Bill turns his head to the side as though it will somehow help him remember.
“What?” I urge. The four thugs sitting at the table are looking over at us, and I don’t like the way they are staring.
“I’m trying, boy!” Bill complains. “Like I said, my brain doesn’t work like it used to. It was something about the Piano Man, and an engineer, or mechanic, or something. I don’t know, but he was excited. Said it was his big chance to prove himself. Thought it’d make him a real player. Said something about a prophecy.”
“When was this?”
“I don’t know. Every day is the same here, boy. Could have been a few days, could have been a few months. They all merge into one. I’ve not heard anything since from Jimmy’s boys. They’ve been quiet, which I guess is unusual.”
The bartender slams the whisky down, and it splashes on the table.
“Another beer for Bill,” I say, noticing he’s finished his bottle. I probably shouldn’t, but one more won’t hurt. The horse has already bolted on that one. The four thugs have gone back to their conversation, but I can still feel their eyes on me.
“You mean Jimmy Crease?” I ask, and Bill nods, saving his voice.
Jimmy Crease is a nasty piece of work. He and his brothers own a casino, but everyone knows he’s at the head of a drug cartel. He has an uncanny ability to maintain control whilst keeping his hands clean.
“Who’s the Piano Man?” I ponder.
“How should I know?” Bill grumbles as he takes a swig from his fresh bottle. “Told you all, I know now, boy.”
“You alright there, Bill?” one of the four thugs shouts at us. It cuts across the room, and everyone looks in our direction.
Bill struggles to raise his voice over the music. “He’s fine,” I shout back, saving him the effort.
“I wasn’t asking you,” the thug threatens and stands up. He’s wearing a red chequered shirt and jeans. His gut hangs out, but he looks like he could throw a punch. And take one.
“Sit down, Wiley.” Bill waves at him, having found his breath.
The man called Wiley gives me a look, and I know our conversation isn’t over. I turn back and take a sip from my whisky, mulling over Bill’s information. Could it be linked to Alastor’s riddle?
The door slams open, and there is a marked change in the atmosphere. My senses tingle, but I refrain from looking at the newcomer. A frosty silence hangs in the air. I’m sure there was music playing a few moments ago. I hear stilettos crossing the floor. Slow and steady. The entire bar holds its breath. Then a shadow falls on me. I see curves and long flowing hair, and I smile inwardly.
“Well, well, well,” says a familiar voice.
“Hello, Atë,” I reply.