The midday October sun shone brightly over the city, birds were singing and people were milling about enjoying everything life had to offer. To anyone walking past I could pass as any other white man in his late thirties, white collared shirt hidden under a crumpled midnight black suit jacket, and trousers. Not even my matching plain black tie and simple black leather shoes would make me stand out in a crowd of lunchtime suits. Although my equally black fedora did get a couple of curious looks, and one or two smiles, despite being out of fashion for far too long. I watched the joy of the day file around me as I marched onward towards my goal. Out here on the street I felt out of place, like a dishevelled man on Savile road. This wasn’t my favourite time of day to be honest, there were far too many people out and about so I shielded myself from the bright sun behind dark glasses. My hat pulled down to block out everything else, and to hide, just a little bit.
I purposefully crossed the road and headed for the one place on earth that could make me feel welcomed. The door to the Black Raven resisted against me slightly as I pushed open its tired portal. Light temporarily flooded into the dimly lit bar exposing all its flaws in the raw light of day. I let the door shut noiselessly behind me as I descended the short steps that lead into the sunken bar area. The outside light faded quickly and my eyes happily began to adjust to the darkness around me.
Tall leather booths lined the outside of the large room, offering privacy and relative comfort while you drank your sorrows away. The rest of the space was taken up by the long, black wooden bar, lined by red topped bar stools that sat empty waiting to be filled by the desperate and the lonely. The middle ground between booths and bar was reserved for small, intimate tables. Being midday, the place was empty except for a few die hards or early starters. I nodded a greeting to Vern the bartender and decided to take a booth in the back corner while I waited for my usual to arrive, a bottle of cheep whiskey and a glass.
I eased back into the soft leather booth and started to relax for the first time today. The early morning hours had been spent tailing yet another cheating couple, except this time I managed to score both of them as clients, a coup for me. Twice the pay with almost half the work. Since they both had hired someone to tail the other, they were giving each other enough space to go out and do whatever it was they thought the other was doing. Sounds a little confusing but all I know is It made my life a hel of a lot easier. Two nights is all it took to get photos, recordings and phone logs. I didn’t even have time enough to run up a huge expense account, which was a shame really. This morning’s sojourn was spent following the young lady as she happily left her domicile, after her husband had gone to work for the day, and somehow managed to end up at the husband’s best friend’s apartment. Which I may or may not have bugged the day before. Within an hour I had more than enough evidence to call it a day. Two nights previously, similar events had unfolded with the husband. All that was left was to collate two reports, inform the lucky couple and collect my fees. Work was going well for once.
Vern came over and wordlessly placed an empty glass on the table and poured me some liquid gold, leaving the bottle behind. I nodded in thanks as he wandered off to clean glasses or whatever it was he did during the slow times. I sat back sipping my whiskey and lazily surveyed the room, a habit I had developed over the years due to a growing paranoia, and a lot of people actually trying to kill me. Apart from the handful of regulars that haunted this place day and night, I was the only other customer. Then again, it was just after noon on a school night, the real fun characters don’t wake up for a few more hours yet. I savoured the strong aroma of peat from my drink and let it fill my senses before I hurriedly downed the rest of the glass. I poured a second automatically and sat cradling it. I had almost reached that point of relative contentment before he walked in.
Even if he wasn’t wearing a perfectly pressed purple pinstriped suit, crisp white linen shirt and deep purple tie, I would have known he was looking for me. The guy had a look about him, a sense of purpose that you didn’t usually see in a man who frequents drinking establishments in the middle of the day. Gods know I lost my own sense of purpose and style a long time ago. The shaft of dust-filled light that dared to pierce the darkened room receded quickly as he let the door swing shut behind him, making his way over to the bar. I quickly racked my brain to remember if I had paid up my bar tab or not. By the shaking of Vern’s head at the stranger’s questions and the lack of accusing finger pointing I would say I was good for the month.
Despite the protests from Vern, the man looked around and searched the bar himself, his eyes eventually landing on me in my safe little corner. I turned my head away and sunk back as far as I could into the ageing leather, trying my best to hid behind my glass. A defeated shrug from Vern signalled he had tried, I gave a slightly annoyed nod of acknowledgement as the purple suited man approached. In the darkness of the bar he looked less awkward than I had pegged him for at the doorway. The way he carried himself suggested training of some sort, military maybe, but knowing my dumb luck, police. He was bald as they come and I was still deciding if he shaved it all off to hide the beginnings of baldness or whether it was a conscious decision to do so. Either way it told me he cared little for outside opinion. A man chooses to shave his head, he’s telling you something about himself.
He walked up to my booth and stood there, his tall frame towering over me. I did my best to ignore him as I slowly finished my drink, he shifted his weight slightly waiting for some type of acknowledgement of his presence. He was going to be waiting a hel of a long time if I had my way. Clearing his throat he asked, ‘Mr Carol I presume?’
I poured myself another drink and motioned to the bar for a second glass. It arrived quickly and I filled it, motioning for the stranger to take a seat. Sometimes I found it best to stay silent and let the other person do all the talking. More often than not they tell you things you wouldn’t have asked. It also had the handy side effect of being able to fully deny any wrong doing in the future.
The man took a seat, casually unbuttoning his suit jacket as he did so. He slipped off the matching purple leather gloves he wore and placed them neatly on the table. I looked at him and offered a friendly cheers with my glass before knocking back the drink in one go, letting the liquid wash down my throat, burning all the way. My new friend sat silently, not touching his drink. We sat for a moment, neither one wanting to break the silence first. In the end the stranger gave in with an exasperated sigh, leaning back into the booth’s seat and crossing his hands on the table.
‘Mr Carol,’ he began. His voice was strong and calm. I detected an ever so slight accent but couldn’t quite place it. ‘Mr Carol, I represent a certain party who has need of your, shall we say, unique services.’
I looked him in the eye and waited. So far he wasn’t telling me anything I couldn’t already figure out myself and I told him so. ‘Let’s just cut to the chase, yeah? Who, or what do you want me to find, and who’s signing the cheque?’
I had been bitten more times than I would care to admit and now asked for as much information about my client as I could without ruining the deal. What they didn’t tell me I usually found out easily enough. To his credit he didn’t look surprised at all. A small smile crept along his hardened features, the chin alone could cut someone if he looked at them hard enough.
‘You are everything I was led to believe, Mr Carol. The drinking, the wise guy routine, most amusing.’
I tried picking the accent again, while it sounded slightly German it wasn’t one I was familiar with. Something more Scandinavian perhaps?
‘I shall indeed, as you so elegantly put it, ‘cut to the chase’. I need you to find a woman for me.’
‘Plenty of them around, hang around here for a few more hours and you can have your pick. I’d stay away from sassy red-heads if I were you though, nothing but trouble.’
‘Not quite what I’m after Mr Carol. The woman I want you to find is very, distinctive. Pale, short, and she has black and white hair.’ He ran a hand over his head like he was parting non-existent hair.
‘You’ve got unique tastes, I’ll give you that.’ I said between sips of whiskey. ‘Look, take my advice and find someone who wants you to find them, it’s much easier on the heart in the long run.’ I finished my third or fourth drink and started on another. I offered the bottle over to the stranger but was met with a polite refusal. I poured myself a double and tried to focus on the job offer.
‘What’s so special about this girl then, apart from her hair and lack of a tan? Some rich kid’s brat run off to join the boyfriend’s gang?’
The man lent forward and lowered his voice slightly in an effort to gain a semblance of privacy. He glanced over towards the bar and at Vern, who had been listening from afar. He very unsubtly found something to clean at the other end of the bar once it became clear we were watching him. Turning back to me the man whispered in hushed tones.
‘She escaped. From Hel.’
I looked at him, trying to find any indication that this was a wind-up. His face was as unreadable as a elderly doctor’s prescription pad. ‘Hel?’ I asked, not believing him in the slightest. ‘The place or the goddess?’ Clarity was always good in these situations, especially when the gods were involved.
‘Place.’ He clarified. ‘Niefilehlm. Land of the Mists. The underworld, Mr Carol.’
I scoffed, no one had ever left Hel without getting her permission first, it was her domain and in it no one was more powerful than she. I told him as much and got a strange answer.
‘Who said she didn’t have permission?’ His face remained unreadable and I couldn’t tell if he was jerking me around our simply stating a fact.
‘You mean, Hel just let some woman walk out of her domain and back into our world without so much as a ‘how do you do’? I don’t believe you.’ I lent forward in my seat and folded my arms on the table, making a point to look him in the eye. He shifted uncomfortably but matched my stare.
‘I’m not in the habit of questioning mine or any other goddess’s actions. Unlike some people, Mr Carol, I value my mortal soul.’
I stifled a laugh, guy had me there. I’ve been cursed to eternal damnation more times than I’ve had liquid dinners. I wouldn’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice, at least not for people I like.
‘Just so I fully understand the situation here, you represent Hel in this transaction? Because last time I checked, the gods don’t have a lot of hard cash floating around and I’m over getting stiffed on the bill for these deity types.’ I said.
‘We have money to pay you Mr Carol, upfront and after.’ He said, reassuringly. ‘Look, to put you at ease let me show you something.’ He started to take off his jacket.
I had no idea what was about to happen and looked around the bar to see if anyone who mattered had managed to slip in unnoticed before this rather well built man started to take his clothes off. To be completely honest, I had been caught in more scandalous situations with far less attractive men. The jacket had been discarded neatly beside him as he removed a plain silver bar cuff link and rolled up his perfectly pressed shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo on the inside of his forearm. I had seen the marking before but never in person only in books or the occasional television show. A valknut. Three perfect triangles interlocked together. In this instance one was solid black, another a light grey, and the third simply an empty outline. While the symbol had various meanings, only one particular cult insisted their followers have it tattooed onto them.
‘You’re the real deal then.’ I said as he smoothed back the shirt sleeve, his demonstration over. ‘Worshipping a goddess of the underworld huh. Not a bad choice if you don’t plan to die a warrior.’ I put some snark on warrior just to see how he’d react. Either he didn’t get the subtle dig or just chose to ignore me.
‘I have my reasons, Mr Carol. Now, about the job…’
‘Five hundred a day, plus expenses. Two grand when I find the girl, half up front.’ I didn’t give him a chance to haggle. Personally I could stand to be seen as doing a favour for the goddess of the underworld. One way or another I was going to end up there, no warrior’s hall or Elysian field for me. Having something to count on my side after all this ends would be good for once. I topped up my glass and held it aloft. ‘Do we have a deal?’
He smiled and held up his own glass so we could toast to the deal. Mine disappeared in a second while he only sipped at the strong smelling whiskey. ‘So,’ I said putting my empty glass down on the table. ‘Where do I start?’
I don’t know where he pulled it from but my new employer produced a wad of bills bigger than my fist and placed them next to my empty glass. ‘I think you’ll find this will take care of most of your fee, plus any reasonable expenses for the next few days at least. If you don’t drink it all away that is.’ He eyed the three quarters empty bottle on the table but said nothing else about it. ‘You should start at the beginning.’ He said, sliding a match book across the table. I picked it up and examined it. The cover had a stylised gold ‘M’ on the front, offset by a rich red background and little else. I turned it over and read the golden fine print on the back. ‘Hotel Midgar?’ I said out loud.
‘London.’ He replied getting up to leave. ‘Ticket’s under the money, you leave in three hours. Best sober up quickly, Mr Carol.’ He looked me up and down with a harsh eye. ‘Well, as sober as you get any way.’ I watched him put his jacket back on, don his gloves, and fix his tie, ready to leave. ‘I’m sure you’re used to these arrangements, judging by how you never asked for my name, but we’ll contact you when the time is right.’ With that he gave a curt nod to Vern, who was still struggling with how to not look like he was eavesdropping, and left without further word.
Soon I was alone with a large pile of cash, a plane ticket to London, and a rather large mystery on my hands. I’d like to say this was just another Wednesday but those usually end with me being shot at or evicted. London, I thought turning the match book over in my hand. I sighed and poured as much of the bottle as I could into the glass.
‘What the hel.’ I sighed, downing the drink.