Orphic Phantasia

20: Poison

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Beyond the V.I.P door was a long corridor painted a sterile white, which was such a contrast to the foyer’s dark colours that Dante thought he’d stepped into daylight.

“You can thank the old geezer for this,” said Joel, leading the way through a maze of identical passageways and up several unremarkable staircases. “He gives them beer, they give us star treatment. Way of the world, in’t it?”

Three flights of stairs later and the thumping beat reached its crescendo when Joel flung himself through a pair of unmarked doors. He might have said something, but Dante could hardly hear him over the noise. The bass beat at his insides like huge fists of rock, threatening to knock him off his feet, and yet the paper-thin Joel swaggered into the warzone without a flinch.

They had arrived at a lively alcove, which looked out over a smoke-filled pit of dancing lights. Dante counted at least thirty people from the bar on the left to the booths opposite, some of them younger than him, others as old and weathered as Joel’s father. One man, slouched across a sofa with a bare-chested woman on his knee, must have been pushing fifty. He plucked a cigar from his drooping moustache and raised it in salute of the newcomers. He seemed to know Joel by name, or at least his surname.

“That,” said the raven, “is the Duke. You respect the Duke, all right? He runs the Necko-matter.”

“The what?”

“It’s a brothel, mate. Now, what’s your poison?”

Dante shrugged. It didn’t really bother him, so long as it worked — Haldor’s concoction was wearing thin.

“Leaving it in my capable hands, ‘ey?” The lights from the pit danced across Joel’s maniacal eyes. “Go get us a table by the balcony,” he said. “We’ll see if we can spot the others.”

While Joel attracted the attention of the young girl scrambling back and forth behind the bar — she looked about thirteen, barely an adult, but at total ease with the surrounding debauchery — Dante retreated to the balcony. It was one of several dotted around the club’s perimeter, each one a bastion of tranquillity against the throng of chaos below. Dante thought he was looking down on a battlefield, a clash of vibrant armies thrashing to the beat of war drums. A frantic array of lights swept across the crowd, leaving a trail of quarter-second faces burned into his mind. He saw men and women, men who could be women, and women who could be men. He saw every outfit imaginable, and a fair few that were not. He saw a mob, unbridled and unhinged, worshipping at an altar of anarchy, where a group of all-female dancers twisted their bodies into impossible shapes while a young man spun his way around a complicated control console. How Dante was supposed to find Arachne in all this, he did not know.

“You another one of those Seelie kids?”

Dante turned; it was the old man Joel called ‘the Duke’. He perched himself on the seat opposite and stubbed his cigar into the recess at the centre of the table. With a tight leather get-up that accentuated his chest, dark glasses that covered half his face, and a wide-brimmed hat to put Byron’s to shame, it seemed age had done little to stymie his fashion sense. “You’re not hard to spot, you know? It’s all in the eyes. You any better at it than that googly eyed ginger twat?” He had a strained, gravelly voice that sounded like he had spent half of his life shouting at others, the other half berating them.

Joel was still gathering a tray-load of drinks at the bar and, without the alcohol for inspiration, Dante wasn’t sure how to handle his current predicament. “A little better,” he said, thinking of the Second Class tables and his own lacklustre position.

The Duke laughed. “A kid could do better than him. Not that he’s a bad lad, of course, he’s just not Seelie material. He bribing you for help?”

Dante shrugged. “Maybe.”

The Duke’s eh, establishment is called the Nekomata, in case you’re wondering.