"Of course. I don't think you appreciate exactly how much money I stand to make out of this, Mr. Taylor."
"Why are you here?" Bettie said suddenly. "Why reveal the truth about yourself now, to us?"
Du Rois smiled on her almost fondly. "Still asking the right questions, Bettie, like the fine reporter you are. A pity you'll never get to write this story. Sorry, my dear, but I am here to protect my interests, and my paper's. And your story, of the truth behind the Afterlife Recording, can never be allowed to see print. I report the news; I have no wish to be part of it."
"You want the DVD?" I said. I took it out of my coat-pocket and threw it at him. "Have it. d.a.m.n thing's just a fake anyway."
He made no attempt to catch the disc, letting it fall to clatter on the stage before him. "Real or fake, it doesn't matter. I can still sell it, thanks to your involvement. You really have been very helpful to me, Mr. Taylor, spreading the story and stirring up interest, but that's all over now. I have my story. And since every story needs a good ending...what better way to convince everyone of the DVD's importance than that you should be killed, acquiring it for me? Nothing like a famous corpse to add spice to a story." He looked at Bettie. "I'm afraid you have to die, too, my dear. Can't have anyone hanging around to contradict the story I'm going to sell people."
"But...I'm one of your people!" said Bettie. "I work for the Inquirer!"
"I have lots of reporters. I can always get more. Now hush, dear. Your voice really is very wearing...Don't move, Mr. Taylor. I've already taken the precaution of shutting down your gift again, just in case you were thinking of using it on me. And you don't have anything else powerful enough to stop me."
"Want to bet?" I said. And I took out of my coat-pocket the Aquarius Key. I activated the small metal box, and it opened up, unfolding and blossoming like a steel flower. A great rip appeared in reality, right in front of g.a.y.l.o.r.d du Rois. He only had time to scream once before the void swallowed him, then he was gone. I hung on grimly to Bettie as the void pulled us forward, then I shut the Aquarius Key down again, and that was that.
It was suddenly very quiet in the empty club. Bettie looked at me with huge eyes.
"I really should have handed the Key over to Walker, after that nasty business at Fun Faire," I said. "But I had a feeling it might come in handy."
"You've had that all along?" said Bettie. "Why didn't you use it before?"
I shrugged. "I didn't need it before."
She hit me.
I phoned Walker and arranged to meet him at the Londinium Club. Now that I'd used the Aquarius Key, Walker was bound to know I had it. And he'd want it. I could have hung on to the Key if I'd been ready to make a big thing out of it, but I wasn't. The Aquarius Key gave me the creeps. Some things you know are bad news for all concerned. They're just too...tempting. So back to the Londinium Club Bettie and I went. Plenty of time yet to take the d.a.m.ned DVD to the offices of the Unnatural Inquirer. Where Scoop Malloy would have to decide what to do with it, and the news that his paper no longer had an Editor. phoned Walker and arranged to meet him at the Londinium Club. Now that I'd used the Aquarius Key, Walker was bound to know I had it. And he'd want it. I could have hung on to the Key if I'd been ready to make a big thing out of it, but I wasn't. The Aquarius Key gave me the creeps. Some things you know are bad news for all concerned. They're just too...tempting. So back to the Londinium Club Bettie and I went. Plenty of time yet to take the d.a.m.ned DVD to the offices of the Unnatural Inquirer. Where Scoop Malloy would have to decide what to do with it, and the news that his paper no longer had an Editor.
"But how would Walker know you've got the Key?" said Bettie, skipping merrily along beside me. She was back in her polka-dot dress and big floppy hat look.
"Walker knows everything," I said. "Or at least, everything he needs to know."
"I still can't get over my Editor being the Bad Guy in all this. I wonder who'll replace him at the Inquirer?"
"Oh, please! I don't think so!" Bettie pulled a disparaging face that still somehow managed to look attractive on her. "Scoop's only Sub-Editor material, and he knows it. No; the new owner will have to bring in someone new, from outside. But you know what? I don't care! Because for the first time in my career I have a real story to write! The truth behind g.a.y.l.o.r.d du Rois, the Removal Men, and the Afterlife Recording. Real news...which means I'm a real reporter at last! Right?"
"I don't see why not," I said. "The Inquirer might make you the new Editor on the strength of it."
"Oh, poo! I'm not wasting a real story on the Inquirer!" Bettie said indignantly. "Far too good for them. No; I'm going to sell it to Julien Advent at the Night Times; in return for a job on his paper. A real reporter on a real newspaper! I'm going up in the world! Mummy will be so pleased..."
"What about your other story?" I said. "A day in the company of the infamous John Taylor?"
Bettie smiled and hooked her arm familiarly through mine. "Let someone else write it."
We came at last to the Londinium Club, and Bettie and I stopped at the foot of the steps to stare at the black iron railings surrounding the club. Impaled on the iron spikes were three recently severed heads. Queen Helena, Uptown Taffy Lewis, and General Condor. Helena looked as though she was still screaming. Taffy looked sullen. And the General...had a look of sad resignation, as though he'd known all along it would come to this. I'm sure enough people warned him. The Nightside does so love to break a hero.
"Admiring the display?" said Walker, unhurriedly descending the steps to join us. "It makes a statement, I think."
"Your work?" I asked.
"I ordered it done," said Walker. "They disturbed the peace of the Nightside and threatened to plunge it into civil war. So I did what I had to."
"And not at all because they challenged your authority," I said.
Walker just smiled.
"But...why kill the General?" said Bettie, staring fascinated at the impaled heads. "I mean, he was one of the good guys. Wasn't he?"
"There's no-one more dangerous to the status quo," I said. "Right, Walker?"
He put out a hand to me. "You have something for me, I believe?"
I handed over the Aquarius Key. Walker hefted it on the palm of his hand. "You didn't really think you'd be allowed to keep something as powerful as this, did you, John?"
I shrugged. "Be grateful. I could have given it to the Collector."
He nodded to me, tipped his bowler hat to Bettie, and went back into his Club. Leaving his handiwork behind him, pour discourager les autres.
"You could have kept that Key," said Bettie. "He's not powerful enough to make you do anything you don't want to."
"Maybe," I said. "Maybe not. All depends on where he's getting his power from these days...But anyway, I'm not ready to go head to head with him, not just yet. Certainly not over a glorified magical waste disposal. We're still on the same side. I think."
"Even after this?" said Bettie, gesturing fiercely at the severed heads. "Look at them! Killed by one of his pet assassins, just because they threatened his position! You liked the General. I could tell."
"Walker's done worse, in his time," I said. "And so have I."
Bettie took both my hands in hers and made me face her, her eyes holding mine. "You're better than you think, John. Better than you allow yourself to believe. I know you've done...questionable things. I've seen some of them. But you're not the cold-blooded killer your legend makes you out to be."
"You're the way you are because of her! Because of Suzie Shooter, Shotgun Suzie! She wants you to be a killer, just like her. Because that's the only way you'll ever have something in common instead of what everyone else has. You don't have to be like her, John. I can show you a better life."
"Hush, John. Hush. Listen to me. I love you. I want to be with you, want you to be with me. You can't throw your life away on Suzie Shooter, simply because you feel sorry for her. She's cold, broken...she can never be a real woman to you. Not like I can. How can you have a real relationship with someone when you can't even touch her? I could make you so happy, John. We could have a home, a life, a s.e.x life."
She moved in close, still holding on tight to my hands, her face so close to mine now I could feel the breath from her words on my mouth.
"I can be any kind of woman you want, John. Every dream you ever had. I'm exactly the right kind of woman for you, one foot in Heaven, one foot in h.e.l.l. Come with me, John. You know you want to."
"Yes," I said. "I want to. But that's not enough."
"What else is there? I can help you! You don't have to be a killer, don't have to be so cold...With my help you could be a better person, a real hero!"
"But that's not me," I said. "And never was. I am what I have to be, to get things done; and that includes the bad as well as the good. Suzie understands that. She's always understood me. She accepts me, all of me. I've never had to explain myself to her. She's my friend, my partner, my love. I love her, and she loves me as best she can. And she cares about the real me, not the legend you still insist on seeing when you look at me. I want you, Bettie. But I don't need you, not the way I need Suzie."
"Perhaps because...monsters belong together," I said.
I looked at her until she let go of my hands. She was breathing hard.
"h.e.l.lo, John," said a cold, steady voice above us. "Is that girl bothering you?"
"Not any more," I said. "h.e.l.lo, Suzie."
She was standing at the top of the steps leading down from the Londinium Club, a tall blonde Valkyrie in black motorcycle leathers, one hand tucked into the bandoliers of bullets criss-crossing her chest. She came unhurriedly down to join us. Bettie looked at her, and then at me, and then tossed her head angrily.
"You deserve each other! I never want to see you again, John Taylor!"
She strode away, her high heels clacking loudly on the pavement, her head held high. She didn't look back once.
"Nice horns," said Suzie. "Did I miss something?"
"Not really," I said. "You finished work now?"
"Yes. Just picked up my payment from Walker. A little private work." Suzie looked at the three severed heads. "Didn't take me long."
I looked at her, and then at the heads. I could have said something, but I didn't.
"Come on, Suzie," I said. "Let's go home."
It's the Nightside.