I certainly felt like a joke. But I sure as hell wasn’t laughing about it.
“This is your fault,” said Mercer flatly. “I told you she’d have followed you.”
It was depressingly predictable.
Quiet Eyes sauntered forward, pistol casually dangling from her hand. She saw me glance at it.
“Oh, Jack,” she said sweetly. “You don’t think I’d use this do you? There’s no reason to be uncivilised. So long as you don’t give me a reason.” Vincent and the other henchman cracked their knuckles. “You know what I want.”
Mercer, to my surprise, gave up his egg first. I knew he’d managed to snatch at least one. He rolled it from his prone position across the floor. Quiet Eyes stopped it with the toe of her boot and motioned for Vincent to retrieve it.
“Now yours, Hansard,” she said to me.
Peggy looked around anxiously. She spied Vincent and said, “You’ve done it again, haven’t you? Taken all the people away. It’s so quiet. You wouldn’t dare do this otherwise.”
Vincent laughed cruelly. Quiet Eyes was classier, and merely smiled.
“The museum is closed, darling. All the people left hours ago.” She fingered the barrel of the gun. “We really are so terribly alone.”
I felt in my pocket and my fingers closed around the myrrh egg. I felt the weight of it in my hand.
“Hey Quiet Eyes,” I said. “Think fast.”
The egg arced through the air. All eyes fixed on it. Vincent made a dive. I grabbed Peggy and Ang and ran.
Behind us there was a loud crunch, the kind of sound I imagined a rock would make when cracked open. Then there was a shock-wave, a tremor that shook the whole building, and a blinding light that burned glowing after-images onto my retinas.
I fell against the wall, smacked my head on a lit-up display of carved scarabs. I half-turned and painfully opened my eyes. Through the spots I could see Quiet Eyes and her boys on the floor, rubbing their heads and groping for their scattered weapons. Mercer too, on the other side of the room.
But in the centre. Just in front of the benben stone, and hovering a few inches above the shattered remnants of a myrrh shell, the form of a naked woman hung, sublimely suspended in the air.
But I use the word ‘woman’ loosely. Her skin, or the surface where you would expect skin to be, was a fold of midnight blue, a blue so deep it was almost black. And within that blue – and within really is the best word, because there was a definite sense of depth and distance – tiny stars glittered, from the very tips of her outstretched fingers to the host of suns in her hair. Nebulae dusted the smooth curve of her thigh.
I found I couldn’t move. I was transfixed.
The apparition opened its mouth and issued a booming series of alien sounds. It rattled my eardrums.
It fell quiet and surveyed us expectantly. Its eyes were twin voids.
“Say again,” I said.
The eyes narrowed.
The mouth opened once more.
“HEAR ME, MORTALS.”
The sound left a high-pitched ringing noise in its absence.
Quiet Eyes struggled to her feet. Although she wobbled, she still exuded an air of self-assuredness that the rest of us had long since dropped.
“We hear you loud and clear, oh great one,” she said evenly. “We beg you tell us your name, that we might do your bidding.”
“Are you nuts?” I hissed. “We don’t want to do its bidding!”
“I AM SHE WHO HOLDS A THOUSAND SOULS. I AM SHE WHO BORE THE GODS. I AM MISTRESS OF ALL.”
Quiet Eyes, as far as I could tell, kept a perfectly straight face. “We might need a little more to go on than that, oh great one.”
“I AM NUT, COVERER OF THE SKY, SHE WHO PROTECTS.”
“She say she’s a newt?” I heard Ang mutter.
“Noot then, fine, ye daft sky woman.”
“How may we serve you, great one?” said Quiet Eyes.
“TAKE ME TO MY TEMPLE, THAT I MAY ADDRESS MY FOLLOWERS. I AM RETURNED.”
There was silence as we all exchanged glances.
“You’ve left it a bit late for that,” I said. The eyes centred on me. The stars flared.
“WHAT IS YOUR MEANING.”
How do you break it to a god that they’re no longer, well, all that? Still, a god’s a god, so you’ve got to be polite.
“My meaning, uh, great one, is that there is no temple, and there are no followers. They all died some thousands of years ago.”
“What he means,” interrupted Quiet Eyes, shooting me an exasperated look, “is that we are your only remaining followers.”
The eyes turned on her. For a daft moment I had the notion that they were reflections of each other; twin voids of space that my mind couldn’t fathom, two sets of unreadable eyes staring each other down.
“TAKE ME TO MY TEMPLE.”
“This is your temple, Holy One,” said Quiet Eyes. “This is where we worship you.”
“Ah, yes, we keep your treasures here,” I said, catching on. “We revere you with all manner of ancient monuments and amulets and . . . and . . . paintings. See your picture on the wall there.”
“All with holy texts to remind us of their worth, and your magnificence,” suggested Quiet Eyes.
“People make pilgrimages here every day,” Peggy chimed in.
“They comes in droves,” said Ang.
“Everyone makes an offering at the door.”
“No price is too high.”
“YOU SAID YOU WERE MY LAST FOLLOWERS.”
Everyone paused. There was a feeling of teetering on the edge of a precipice.
“Ye-es,” I said cautiously. “We’re your last, uh, priests . . .”
“Let me be direct, great one,” said Quiet Eyes, switching tack. “Your name has faded to little more than a whisper in this world. Your once hallowed halls have fallen to ruin. Aeons have passed since you last walked this earth and the people know you no more.”
“THIS CANNOT BE. I AM SHE WHO HOLDS A THOUSAND SOULS. I AM THE COVERER OF THE SKY, MISTRESS OF–”
“Yes,” said Quiet Eyes. “And it is unthinkable that you should remain unknown to these unworthy peasants. We are here to change that. I am here, great Goddess Nut, to make you an offer. I beg that you come with me, and I shall make you great again.”
“I AM ALREADY GREAT.”
The suns flared; a galaxy of stars spiralled around the goddess’ head like a crown. Heat radiated from her countenance.
“With respect, Great Nut, the world has changed,” said Quiet Eyes patiently. “Its people have changed. No longer are they impressed by simple acts of splendour. They are sceptical, challenging, and they are confronted by marvels daily in the normal course of their pitiful, everyday lives. Take this,” she brandished her pistol. It glowed in the blazing starlight. She pointed it at the suited goon next to Vincent, and in a breath pulled the trigger.
We watched as the body slumped to the floor. With a blank, vacant look of horror, Vincent slowly lifted a hand to wipe blood spatter from his cheek.
Quiet Eyes cradled the weapon. “I hold death in my hand and think nothing of it. Look at this, a man-made miracle. Mere steel and imaginatively applied physics. Only a flex of a finger to steal life away. This is what you are up against, Goddess Nut. Inventive, sceptical, cunning humans. They no longer see miracles; only a trick as yet unexposed. The world is ruled by science and men of logic now. Gods of all kinds have lost their place here.”
There was no expression on that barren vacuum of a face, but I got the feeling that the deity was uncertain, shaken maybe. Or perhaps that was just my own nerves talking. I tried to not think that I had just watched a man get shot. Peggy’s face was buried in her hands. The furrows around Ang’s eyes had deepened; her expression looked like a storm.
“Let me make you great again,” said Quiet Eyes with her snake-tongue.
The suns dimmed and the great goddess Nut bowed her head.
“I WILL CONSIDER.”
“Allow me to take you to my masters. They have much to discuss with you.”
I stared. “What do Baines and Grayle want with a god?”
“Hansard, dear. Don’t be obtuse.”
Movement caught my eye and Quiet Eyes followed my gaze. She raised the pistol to point at Mercer, crawling to the wall on the other side of the room.
“Where are you off to?” she said.
My ears picked up the low buzzing noise, growing louder and louder–
I tackled Ang and Peggy to the ground. With nose to the floor I noticed the creeping fog, followed by roaring noise and intense heat at our backs. Unable to resist, I turned on my side to see the pillar of flame in the middle of the room, searing through the floor and ceiling and licking at the walls. Inside, the benben stone was a glowing, molten mass. A winged shadow stepped forward, a silhouette against the flames.
Nut screamed, a bubbling cry of rage.
The column of fire subsided, though persistent flames crept into the corners. Nut and the phoenix faced off, two gods staring each other down for a duel. The humans in the room were inconsequential, and prone to become toast.
“We got to get outta here!” shrieked Ang.
The air became thick with black smoke; the fire was spreading fast. Smouldering plaster fell from the ceiling and smashed in front of my nose. The whole place would come down on our heads.
Ang flipped the catch on her lantern and out sprang the bluecap. It whizzed ahead, lighting the way.
We poured out into the foyer along with the smoke, spluttering and blinking soot from our eyes. I was dimly aware that I was soaking – a sprinkler system had kicked in – and an alarm was blaring overhead.
I caught hold of Mercer’s red sleeve and struggled to blink him into focus.
“Get off, Hansard!” We grappled for a moment until he shoved me off, winding me with a blow to the stomach. He staggered to his feet and lurched towards the glass the doors, the way out.
Peggy pulled me up and slung my arm over her shoulder.
“C’mon Jack, let’s go.”
“Hah. Hahahah,” I croaked.
“What could possibly be funny right now?”
“Look what Mercer had in his pocket.”
I raised my hand in a fist and uncurled my fingers. An amber egg of myrrh fit snugly in my palm.
Peggy gasped. “He had a second one?”
Somehow, over the sound of the rolling smoke and gushing sprinklers, our clever hind-brains re-wired themselves directly into our ears in order to take note of the simple click of a pistol cocking.
“Give me the egg, Hansard.”
Quiet Eyes plucked it from my grasp.
“Some miracle you’ve got there,” I said hoarsely.
“It grants my every wish.”
Vincent emerged from the smoke, coughing into his sleeve. Quiet Eyes motioned him to her side, keeping the gun level with my head.
“Don’t look so sad, Jack,” she said. “It’s not over. Why don’t you pull some hope out of your pocket for me? It’s been a long day.”
And then she was gone, swallowed once more by the smoke and the sprinklers. Vincent, too.
Ang tugged urgently on my coat. The bluecap blazed behind her.
“Forget ‘er, gwas. We gots to go now.”
All of that, for nothing. All of that, and it ends with a gun in my face. That’s how it ended.
“Jack?” said Peggy. “I think I hear sirens.”
I shook myself out of it. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure.” I felt dazed. Not enough oxygen. Too much heat.
That was when the phoenix and the sky-god burst through the wall. Sizzling fragments of plasterboard rained down on us, hissing as they hit the water.
Deity and bird-man wrestled in a coil of white fire and amber stone. Or . . . amber myrrh? The amber crept up the legs of the tortured Nut, while her coils of white fire lanced like chains across the phoenix’s wings.
They both bellowed, a sound beyond sound that left me with nothing but ringing in my ears. The phoenix reared, stretched open its burning wings, charred feathers and tendons tearing . . . and then the white fire blazed orange and red and consumed its whole figure until it was nothing but a bird-like shape made of flame. Nut screamed and writhed beneath it. And then the phoenix folded its wings around the form of Nut, pulling her into a tight, inescapable embrace.
Though I could no longer hear anything, the world roared around me. The very air was vibrating, juddering against the growing ball of fire. Then, in a heartbeat, the air quietened and the flames dwindled down to nothing.
Nothing but a blackened crater of tiles.
Ears still ringing, I stepped gingerly up to the edge. Nothing. Not even an egg. Or a feather.
Hands pulled at me and I found I had no choice but to yield. I was faced by an alien figure in a gas mask. It wore black with day-glo yellow stripes. I couldn’t fathom it, and allowed the alien to lead me through the smoke and out into the open, cool night air.
* * *
“We shoulda stayed with the amb’lance a bit longer,” grumbled Ang.
I passed her a cup of tea and sat on Peggy’s couch. “No chance. They were already asking questions.”
“They gave me biscuits.”
“They thought you were a kid. Besides, the police were on their way, and once you start looking like you’re feeling better, their questions become really pressing, if you know what I mean.”
“You mean like: Why were you trespassing in the British Museum in the middle of the night?” said Peggy.
“And: What were you hoping to achieve with this stupid, dangerous endeavour in the first place?”
“How about: Was it really worth getting your friends into so much danger, just to be outwitted at the very end by a woman you should never have trusted in the first place?”
“All right. I’m sorry, okay? I’m not happy about it either.”
What an understatement. I was fuming. I’d had it in my hand. An actual phoenix egg in my actual hand. Twice.
I’m used to failure. I make a living out of failure. But I’ve only ever failed small.
This time I failed big, big, big.
“You’re right,” I muttered. Self-loathing rose in me like bile. “I’m an idiot. A small-time loser. I’m fucking pointless.”
Peggy opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. We sat in silence, a scorched, bedraggled party of misfits staring into our ordinary cups of tea.
“I tell people I sell miracles,” I said. “The stuff of dreams and fantasy. I don’t do any of that. I sell . . . vague inclinations and petty malevolence. Vengeance past its sell by date. Quiet Eyes is right, with her awful miracle. Little, efficient weapon. Doesn’t go rotten if you store it next to the potions. Death in the palm of your hand. Grants wishes. She got that right.”
“Ast,” said Ang wearily. “She ain’t creative, gwas. Ain’t worth the space she takes up. Not like the likes of you an’ me.”
“The likes of you and me, Ang, belong in the gutter.”
She fixed me with a hard stare. Then she set her tea to the side and slid off the couch, and walked to the pile of books where her bluecap lantern rested.
“That was a poor thing to say,” murmured Peggy.
Ang laid a palm on the glass and the bluecap flared in greeting. She unhooked the catch.
“It’s the truth, is what it is,” I said. “I’m a little fish, swimming in the gutters. I don’t know how to get out of them. Fins are crap for climbing.”
“Self-pity don’t suit you, gwas,” said Ang. She stuck her hand into the floating blue flame. It looked more solid than I remembered. When she withdrew her hand it was curled into a fist, and a crooked smirk bent her mouth. “I’ll give ye one good reason why we ain’t gutter-sbwriel.”
She opened her hand.
“Oh my god,” said Peggy.
“That’s right,” said Ang gleefully. “Ye think there’s a god in this’un, too?”
We stared at the little amber egg in her palm, although in Ang’s small hands it looked as big as an apple. It glowed gently with some soft internal light.
“Hatching gods,” Peggy breathed, a little unsteadily. “So this is how they’re born?”
“No,” I said. “I think it’s how they’re trapped.” Ang set it on the coffee table, carefully nestled in a heap of Peggy’s un-filed shop receipts. “You got your bluecap to steal it? When?”
“Right after she put that dirty peashooter in your face. Tis’ a crime against metal, a thing like that. Ain’t what the ore is for. An’ she so in love wi’ watchin’ it gleam, she din’t even notice a little thing like a bluecap zippin’ through her pockets.”
I felt the unstoppable, inexorable grin spread across my face. All of a sudden I was back. Restored. We’d won.
And it was a colossal win.
“You’re right, Ang,” I proclaimed. I threw an arm round her skinny shoulders, and caught Peggy with the other. “Quiet Eyes isn’t creative. She’s lazy. She relies on her invisibility and her hired muscle. Us, we rely on our wits. We don’t need guns because we have cunning . . . and real miracles.”
“I ain’t sure that mouldy jar o’ hexes in the boot can be called a miracle, gwas.”
“It will be to someone.”
“The real miracle’ll be if ye can get anyone to buy it off yer.”
“Those count too.”
“Guys,” said Peggy. “There’s a phoenix egg in my living room. Could we talk about that, please?”
I tried to settle down. “What’s to talk about, Peg. We’ve got it!”
“And now what?”
“What are you going to do with it?” She saw my expression and held up a hand. “Don’t just say you’re going to sell it.”
“Jack!” she threw up her hands in exasperation. “I’ve known you for so long yet I still don’t get you. You are one of only two people in the world who have one of these eggs. Don’t you want to know more about it, before you auction it off like another piece of bric-a-brac?”
“I ain’t sellin’ it,” said Ang flatly. “Been too much trouble to get hold of in the first place. And it’s mine to do with as I likes.” She snatched it back off the table and beckoned the bluecap.
“Hang on a minute!” I cried, watching the flame fold round the egg like a mantle. “Aren’t we partners, Ang?”
“Are we?” she said, without malice. “You wuz meant to be findin’ missing coblynau for me, gwas. No coblynau been turned up so far, and none ahead that I can see.”
“Hey now, what about Baines and Grayle? We know Quiet Eyes had something to do with it – surely you want to stay and follow up our first big lead, Ang.”
She shrugged. “And what if it’s nuthin’? What if there’s no other clues aft’wards? How long does my payment keep you detectiving for?”
“Well.” I hesitated. “As I recall, I never agreed to a fixed term of service, as such. I suppose you would terminate our agreement when it was right. Whenever you reach your stop, as it were.”
“Mebbe this is my stop.”
Silence expanded between us for a moment. Ang was eyeing me carefully. Being a little fish, I reflected, wasn’t half so bad when you have good company in the pond.
“Maybe I’d like to offer you a position,” I said. “Official business partner, of sorts. Not like it’s been up to now, mind.”
“A proper partner does more than just scoff pies under the stall while I do all the hard work. It means thinking like a salesman and finding new angles. And it means putting your bluecap to better use: it’s done more for us in the past twenty-four hours than I even knew it could.”
She appeared to mull it over. But I suspect her mind was already made up.
“Throw in a pork pie,” she said.
I grinned. “Sure.”
“A big ‘un. Not one o’ them piddly pocket-sized ones. One o’ them that’s as big as your head. And at least half as thick, too.”
“It’s a deal,” I said, ignoring the jibe. “May I put the egg somewhere safe?”
She snapped the catch on the lantern, locking the bluecap inside. “Nowhere safer, gwas.” She raised an eyebrow, and I decided to let it go. It probably was the safest place for it. And it occurred to me, in a moment of startling revelation, that the little Coblyn had become a trusted friend. Another solid point, a fixed co-ordinate in an ever-changing sea of lies and loyalties. And next to Peggy, I was grateful to pin down Ang on my mental map.
“More tea?” said Peggy.
She re-boiled the kettle and dug out fresh teabags. We followed her into the kitchen. It was a small flat, but it felt light and roomy compared to my usual living quarters. Car seats aren’t the comfiest. I was already longing to sleep on her sofa again.
Peggy ran a hand through her hair and grimaced at the soot it pulled out. “What a day,” she said to herself. Then: “What do you suppose that woman is going to do with her egg?”
“Sell it to Baines and Grayle, I imagine.”
“You really don’t know who they are?”
“I wish I could tell you.”
“Baines and Grayle,” she repeated, as if she was tasting the words. “It sounds familiar, I think. Maybe. I can’t place it.”
I brightened. “Did you come across it in a book?”
“No. I don’t think so. But whoever they are, they sound like bad news.”
“That’s about the only thing I know for certain,” I said. “It’s not the first time they’ve tried to give me an early retirement.” I glanced at Ang’s lantern. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they come after us for this.”
“Then why you grinnin’, gwas?”
“I was just thinking . . . we’ve got an angle, here. Let them come after us. Let them send Quiet Eyes, their little lapdog. We won’t be strung along so easily next time. That egg there is our leverage. If they want it so bad, they’re gunna have to work for it.” And inwardly I thought, This little fish is going to learn how to bite.
“What if they open their egg, Jack? What if there’s another god inside?”
I shrugged. “Maybe there’s one inside ours.”
“Are you going to open it?”
Neither I nor Ang answered.
“When the time is right,” I decided.
“Which is when?”
“Whenever it is.”
“Ye think the bird-man an’ the newt-god destroyed each other?” said Ang.
“That’s what it looked like,” replied Peggy.
Which, I thought, is the problem. If there’s one fundamental thing you learn in this game, it’s that nothing is ever what it looks like.
Take Peggy, with her blue hair and her big beads and elephant fixation. She doesn’t look like someone who regularly wrestles with ferocious literature, but, to use a tired expression, you shouldn’t judge her – and you definitely shouldn’t judge her books – by the cover.
And there’s Ang, the naturally grimy little dwarf of a creature with the stone-cold stare; you wouldn’t believe she could fit a heart so big inside her scrawny ribcage. And she can pack one hell of a punch.
And me, I suppose, with my unkempt hair and my day-old stubble and my trench coat, which, all right, maybe you can say the trench coat is a dead giveaway for my lack of credentials, but I bet you’d never look at me and see a man who defied a god, crossed dimensions and stole a phoenix egg, if only for a very brief moment.
That’s what the little fish are all about. We blend into the background – Ang and I stick to the shadows, Peggy pays her taxes – and ultimately steal the sharks’ dinner from under them. Leave the bigger fish like Mercer (he’s one of those fancy angel fish with all the rainbow colours and the frills) to go head to head with the sharks out in the open. I like my shadows. I’ll keep to them.
And as for the future, well, it looks kinda grey and like it’s about to rain outside. But I’d bet you whatever you’ve got in your wallet that it’ll be one hell of an exhilarating storm; and if I’ve got anything to do with it, it’ll be packed with uncanny mystery and dark miracles.
For now, the real story behind the phoenix egg, the real deal with Baines and Grayle, and the real face of Quiet Eyes all lay somewhere in that future. And for now, I was content to let them stay there. For now, while I drink tea and laugh with my friends and feel glad to be alive.
And tomorrow, I’ll sink back into the shadows.
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Thanks for reading! This is the last episode of Season 1 of The Jack Hansard Series.
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