Read Drake Online

Authors: Peter McLean


A Burned Man Novel
Peter McLean

For Diane

All the way around

and back again

Chapter One

e saw
my warpstone and raised me an angel's skull, and there was no way I could cover that bet. I had a Knight-high flush and the Tower, which is a fair hand in Fates, but that warpstone was all I had left. My palms were itching like badgers in heat. I looked down at my cards and the face of the Knight of Cups looked back up at me. He looked drunk and happy in his painted tarot world, the lucky sod. I was just drunk, and in London.

Someone laughed, away on the other side of the smoky club. I heard glasses clinking together and the rattle of dice at another gaming table. Across the table from me Wormwood was starting to look impatient. He poked another cigarette between his thin, grey lips and lit it with the butt of the last one. He mashed the old one out in the overflowing ashtray beside him without looking and coughed a streamer of acrid smoke into the already thick air. A strand of his long hair was stuck greasily to the three-day growth of stubble on his cheek.

He rested his free hand on top of the skull and stroked it with fingers that were nicotine-stained to the colour of dark mahogany.

“Well, Drake?” he said. “I ain't got all bleedin' night.”

I cleared my throat, and the waitress wiggled up beside me with the bottle and poured another generous slosh of whisky into my glass. Very expensive, very old single malt whisky. I nodded a thanks at her. She was pretty, I thought. Nice tail. Another night I might have tried it on with her, but this was proper serious now and I needed to concentrate on the game. I knocked the whisky straight back and set my glass down on the table.

The Tower, again. This was the third hand tonight that I'd drawn it as my trump, and if that didn't suck for an omen I didn't know what did. I glanced at the two decks of cards on the table, the thick one for the suits and the slimmer deck of major arcana which were the trumps in the game. I half wondered if Wormwood was cheating somehow, but that was a dangerous kind of thought to be having here. I reached up to loosen my tie a little, and stretched out my aching neck until it cracked. Wormwood was drumming his fingers on the skull now, and his huge, horned minder was starting to give me that look that said I'd better not be taking the piss. I found myself wondering where exactly you bought a dinner jacket to fit a nine foot tall demon, and what sort of tailor wouldn't think that was a bit odd. I realized my attention was wandering again and forced my eyes back to my cards.

“Right, look,” I said, trying to put the enormous minder out of my thoughts. “I'd be about ready to call you on that but, um…”

“But you're skint,” Wormwood finished for me. “Aintcha?”

He grinned at me. Wormwood had one of the most repulsive grins I've ever seen, and he stank to high heaven. I could smell him from where I was sitting, with three feet of card table between us and enough cigarette smoke in the air to kill a beagle. It wasn't that unwashed body stink like homeless people get, it was much worse than that. Wormwood smelled of rot somehow, of disease and other people's misery. And cheap cigarettes, I thought. Mostly he smelled of lots and lots of cheap cigarettes.

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I'm afraid you've cleaned me out.”

“Tosser,” he said, and his mean little eyes glittered as he looked at me. “Now I might,” he went on, “be able to do something about that.”

That made my gambling muscle twitch. I started to reach for my glass before I remembered it was empty. I glanced around the club instead, trying to play it cool. There were maybe twenty punters in tonight, a mixture of us and them. Mostly them. Wormwood's club was private, obviously, and certainly not open to the general public. Hell, it wasn't even
to the general public. You'd walk straight past it if you didn't know exactly where to stop in the alleyway, and precisely which bit of damp, graffiti-covered brickwork was the glamour that covered the front door. Even if you did know, Wormwood's place was strictly invitation only.

“Oh?” I said. “How's that then?”

“I might sub you,” he said. “Enough to finish this hand, anyway.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “I know you're good for it,” he said. “Anyway, I like you, Drake.”

No you don't
, I thought.
You don't like anyone

I had a Knight-high flush and the Tower, and I really, really wanted that skull. There were all sorts of things I could do with an angel's skull. I met his eyes, trying to feel him out. If I folded now I'd lose the warpstone anyway. If I went for it, if I won, I'd walk away with both and a good pile of cash besides.

What've you got, you little bastard?

The waitress was filling my glass again. She really did have a cute little tail, I thought as she wiggled away. Demons weren't really my thing as a rule, but in her case I'd be more than happy to make an exception.
Idiot. Like she'd have you
. I swallowed the drink and coughed, feeling the shot of ancient whisky burning its way down my throat to chase all its little friends deep into my guts. There were a fair few people watching us now, I noticed. Well I say that, but
might be stretching it a bit. This was Wormwood's club, after all.

I looked around again, taking my time. The crowd had shifted and the only ones of “us” I could actually see now were an elderly hoodoo man I recognized, his black face glistening with sweat under the brim of his silk top hat, and a woman in her fifties wafting a peacock feather fan slowly up and down in front of her face. I didn't really know the hoodoo man but I'd seen him around a lot and I had always liked the look of him. He was such a cool old guy, you know? I didn't know the woman at all. Other than that it was all “them”, horned or scaled or feathered or spiny or some nasty combination of any of those. All of them were very well dressed and various degrees of drunk, but in that well-behaved sort of way that only posh people seem to be able to manage. The club was invitation-only to them as well, and Wormwood didn't let just any old demon in. There was a bar downstairs for the hoi polloi.

My gaze drifted back to the hoodoo man in his white tie and tails and his silk top hat. He had a glass of rum in one hand and now his other arm was around the waitress with the tail, I noticed. I wanted to be irritated by that but somehow I just couldn't quite bring myself.
Good luck to you mate,
I thought instead. He was stroking her hip with fingers that glittered bright with diamonds. He winked at me, and I found myself grinning back at him.

Ah, if my old man had just been a bit more like you,
I thought.
Oh sod it, why not.

“All right,” I said at last. “Sub me then, and I'll call.”

Wormwood nodded. “Deal,” he said.

I laid my hand out on the table. Wormwood took a long, careful look at my cards, and slowly shook his head. He turned his own hand over to show a full house and Judgment.

“It ain't your lucky night, Drake,” he said.

I shoved my chair back from the table and lurched to my feet, feeling the hot rush of the whisky hit me all at once. I wobbled on my heels, holding on to the edge of the table to keep myself upright.

“Easy now,” said Wormwood's minder.

I took a deep breath, my guts twisting into a sick knot as it sank in. I'd lost the hand, I'd lost my warpstone, and now I owed Wormwood big time.

“I'm all right,” I muttered. “I just need some air.”

“Right you are then,” said the minder, affably enough for a nine foot monster with horns.

“Go home Drake,” Wormwood said as he lit yet another cigarette. “I'll be in touch. Like I said, I know you're good for it.”

f course
I wasn't good for it. Not by a long way I wasn't. I was so not good for it, in fact, that I had to walk home from the club. It comes to something when you can't even afford a pissing taxi. I hate walking. I'm pushing forty after all, and that ought to be enough exercise for anyone in my book.

South London is bloody awful at three in the morning when it's cold and raining, but at least this part of town is sufficiently bad that even the muggers don't dare go out after midnight. The Veils are so thin here that all sorts of things can slip through from the other side, and frequently do. Wormwood's club wasn't situated where it was for no reason, after all. Damn but it was cold out there after the snug warmth of the club.

At least I had the pavement to myself. I weaved my way down it with my hands buried in my coat pockets, the collar turned up and my hair stuck wetly to my forehead. The cold rain was starting to sober me up, and that was the last thing I wanted just then.

“Bloody Fates,” I muttered to myself. “Bloody Wormwood. Arsehole.”

I stumbled into an alleyway to take a piss, huddling out of the rain behind some big industrial-sized dustbins. For some reason I can never go properly when I've been drinking whisky, and I must have stood there longer than was sensible. I realized it had got very, very dark. Something cleared its throat behind me.

“Go away,” I said.

The darkness shifted around me, feeling as thick as treacle now as I zipped up and turned to face the throat-clearer. I couldn't see a thing anymore but I knew roughly where it must be, and I knew damn well it was looking at me.

“Are you going to keep to our deal, or are we going to fall out?” I asked it.

The darkness shifted once more, wavering, and then began to clear until I could see the opposite wall again. I watched the patch of gloom slouch off down the alley, if a patch of gloom can be said to slouch. It was just a cheap glamour of course, but it was preferable to having to look at the thing that was hiding inside it. I knew that from personal experience.

I'd made my deal with the night creatures of this part of South London when I first moved here, and the terms of that deal were very simple. So long as they didn't bother me, I wouldn't come and bother them. They knew they wouldn't like it at all if I did, and they had been more than happy to accept my deal. Sometimes I just had to remind one of them who was boss, that was all. That would be me, in case there's any shadow of a doubt. I shook my head and headed back into the street, bumping my shoulder on the wall as I went. Maybe I hadn't sobered up that much after all.

I made it home in the end. Home was my office, above the Bangladeshi grocers on the high street. Classy, I know. At least I had my own front door at street level, with my own sign on it and everything. The sign said “Don Drake, Hieromancer” in nice big gold letters. Well it had done anyway, until some wag had spraypainted out the word “Hieromancer” and written “wanker” underneath it instead. I kept meaning to do something about that, and I kept not getting around to it.

I leaned my forehead against the door as I fumbled through my coat pockets for the key. It went in the lock at the third attempt, and I stumbled though the doorway and half-crawled up the bare wooden stairs to my office, dripping water as I went. I had a couple of rooms out the back where I actually lived, and another where I worked, but I kept the booze in the office. I threw my sodden coat over the sofa, sank down into my scruffy leather swivel chair and opened the bottom drawer of my desk.

There was a half-empty bottle of whisky and a couple of relatively clean glasses in there. The whisky was much cheaper stuff than Wormwood served, but it was a hell of a lot better than nothing. I ignored the glasses and drank it straight out of the bottle, which, when you thought about it, was glass anyway so what fucking difference did it make? It's not like I had anyone to share it with.

I swallowed and let my eyes close.
Fuck it!

he phone jarred
me painfully awake. I was slumped forward over my desk, my fingers still curled around the empty bottle. I fumbled out with my right hand, realized that was the one holding the bottle, and winced as it rolled off the edge of the desk and shattered on the hard wooden floor. I groaned and let the machine pick up. There was a beep and a little click and rattle as the old-fashioned cassette tape mechanism came to life.

“Good morning, Mr Drake,” said a woman's voice. She sounded very professional and a bit pissed off, as though phoning the likes of me was somehow beneath her dignity. It probably was, to be fair. “This is Selina from Mr Wormwood's office. Mr Wormwood would be pleased if you could telephone him this morning to discuss the repayment of your debt. Good day.”

I frowned. Wormwood? What the hell did he want...
Oh no...
My sodden memory turned over in the throbbing mess of my head, and I felt like crying.
My warpstone
. I had gambled away my warpstone, I remembered now, and not only that, but I owed Wormwood the equivalent value of an angel's skull as well. I dreaded to think how much that might actually be, and if we'd agreed a price last night I'd been too drunk to remember it now. That warpstone had been the last artefact of power I had left. The rest… yeah. Let's just say I've always been better at drinking than I have at playing Fates.

I slowly hauled myself up into a sitting position, and had to clutch a hand to my stomach as an acid rush of half-digested whisky burned its way up my throat and into the back of my mouth. I gave serious consideration to throwing up before I winced and swallowed it back down again. Maybe I've never been that good at drinking either, come to think of it.

Of course the warpstone wasn't quite the
artefact I had left, but if I ever consider gambling away the other you have my permission to shoot me though the head on the spot. I dragged myself to my feet and shuffled through to the workroom to look at it.

My sign downstairs wasn't entirely truthful, of course. Well, the wanker part might be, I suppose, but not the hieromancer. Hieromancy is divination through reading the entrails of a sacrifice, in case you didn't know, and while I could do that, it wasn't exactly my main line of work. Even a man with my talent for bullshit would struggle to earn a living from interpreting the insides of a pigeon, after all. No, the real money is in sendings. Summoning and sending is one of the oldest disciplines of magic, and it's always been the most dangerous and the most taboo. It's also, it ought to go without saying, the most lucrative. That was what really paid the rent and bought the booze.

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