Roland Srafek had been up until five a.m. watching American Football on Channel 5. The intrusion of baseball into the NFL season had resulted in the Monday Night match being shown live in the early hours of Tuesday morning, GMT, instead of delayed twenty-four hours to the early hours of Wednesday morning. It had been a close-run thing and the Chicago Bears had held on to a slender, three-point lead in the dying stages of the fourth quarter, avoiding overtime and an even later finish.
Being dragged out of bed at nine a.m. to answer a doorbell which refused to stop ringing did not go down at all well. Wearing yesterday's underwear, pale blue chinos, a sweatshirt and no socks and shoes, Srafek opened the door and just looked at the woman standing there. She was fairly tall, around thirty, dressed casually in an anorak, jeans and trainers, and she was from West Indian or African origins. Also, she was clearly used to people giving her intimidating stares.
"Detective Inspector Eigan, sir," she said in a local accent, holding up a police identity card. "And this is Detective Sergeant Pauling."
Srafek continued to look at her, waiting for her to say something that he might want to hear.
"I'd like to ask you some questions, sir," the inspector added.
"No chance of you coming back when I'm awake?" Srafek suggested.
"The matter is urgent, sir." The inspector was not going to be put off. She was on the large side in both height and bulk, and not to sort of person who was deflected easily.
"I suppose you'd better come in." Srafek stepped back from the door.
The inspector and her silent sergeant, a dark-haired man of around forty, who had a lean and hungry look, negotiated the left/right turns which brought them around a room divider at the front door and into the flat's main room. They perched on the settee when Srafek had dropped into an armchair.
"What can you tell me about this man?" The inspector passed a Polaroid photograph over to Srafek.
"He's white, male and dead?" Srafek suggested.
"What makes you think he's dead?" said the sergeant.
"He certainly looks pretty dead in this picture," said Srafek. "Hang on. This is Mike Ray."
"So you do know him, sir?" said the Inspector.
"Sort of. I've not seen him for about fifteen years, though."
"He's not been in touch with you recently?"
"No phone calls? Letters?"
"Not even an email, a fax or a voice-mail. Why?"
"When his body was found, he had nothing in his pockets but a piece of paper with your name and three addresses on it. Two crossed out and your present address. This is a copy."
The inspector produced a sheet of A4 paper from a side pocket of her anorak and unfolded it. In one of the quarters was a photocopy of a smaller scrap of paper with three ragged edges.
"Yeah, I used to live here and here." Srafek pointed to the hand-written addresses which had been crossed out. "Before I lived here."
"But you've not seen him for fifteen years? Mr. Ray?"
"And you have no idea why he was looking for you?"
Srafek shrugged. "Not a clue."
"No unfinished business from fifteen years ago?"
"What, you're hoping I'll tell you I owed him a bundle of cash and when he came looking for it, I killed him?"
"That would be very helpful, sir. But you're not going to tell me that, are you?"
"No, I'm not. And no, we didn't have any unfinished business. Certainly nothing that would become urgent suddenly fifteen years later."
"You wouldn't have an address for him? That's Michael Ray, R-A-Y?" the inspector added for the benefit of her sergeant, who was taking notes.
"Correct. No, he zapped off to the States in about nineteen eighty-seven and that's when we lost touch."
"Fifteen years ago?"
"Okay," sighed the inspector. "The only other thing we have is this tattoo. Does it mean anything to you?"
Roland Srafek frowned over the next Polaroid photograph, which showed a man's forearm and a densely black drawing depicting a circle with what looked like buckles, strange symbols and two snake heads facing to left and right. After a moment, Srafek's face cleared, as if he had solved a mental puzzle.
"Sir?" the inspector prompted.
"Yes, it's the mark of the Eighth Circle of Acurthin."
"Excuse me?" The inspector put on an expression of bafflement.
"A-C-U-R-T-H-I-N." Srafek spelled out the name for the benefit of the silent, note-taking sergeant. "A demon of House Klad. That's K-L-A-D."
"You believe in that load of bollocks, do you?" the inspector asked with a frown.
Srafek shrugged. "Hey, you asked what it is and I told you. If you don't like the answer, tough."
"Was Mr. Ray interested in that sort of thing? The occult and weird stuff like that?"
Srafek shrugged again and looked down at the photograph. "Apparently."
"When you knew him?"
"Yes, I think we read a few of the same books and we discussed them."
"You're interested in that sort of thing too?"
"I've done a bit of reading in that area."
"But you don't go out sacrificing virgins at Halloween, or like that?"
"Raising the dead and conjuring up the odd demon is about my limit," Srafek said with a smile to say that he was only joking. Then he pulled up the sleeves of his sweatshirt to show that his own forearms were free of tattoos.
"So how serious was Mr. Ray about this?" said the inspector.
Srafek shrugged. "It's impossible to say after a gap of fifteen years. And I can't say if that was the cause of his death. Some sort of cult thing getting out of hand."
"Pity." The inspector glanced around the room. It contained plenty of books but they were piled up one on top of the another against two of the walls rather than filling bookcases.
Most of the book titles were out of her view. In fact, the whole room had an air of impermanence, as if the occupant had just arrived and he was still working out where to put everything. The other thing that screamed for attention was how neat and clean everything looked, as if the occupant had no interactions with the fabric of his home.
"So anyway," Srafek prompted, "is that it? Because some of us have only had about three and a half hours' sleep and we'd like a bit more."
"Work nights, do you?" said the sergeant.
"Sometimes." Srafek gave an accurate but uninformative answer.
"Okay, we'll see where our dead man's name takes us," said the inspector. "And you have no idea why he was trying to contact you?"
Srafek shrugged. "If he had my address and he didn't phone me, I suppose he must have been planning to drop in on me as a surprise."
"And you've lived here how long?" said the sergeant.
"A couple of years," said Srafek. "I moved in at the start of the bogus millennium. February two thousand."
"And you're not planning to move on in the next few days?" the inspector said with a smile.
"All I'm planning to do is catch up on lost sleep," Srafek returned.
The inspector gathered up the photographs and the detectives left. "What's your take on him, Mr. Roland Srafek?" the inspector asked as they approached their car. "And what sort of a name is Srafek anyway?"
"Sounds a bit Czech to me," said her sergeant. "Although Roland isn't."
"So what do you reckon to him?"
"My mother would love him for a son. She'd swap him for me any day of the week. Did you see how neat his place was? It looked like the decorators and the cleaners went out the back door as we came in the front door."
"They did a great job with his piles of books," laughed the inspector. "All nicely lined up. I'd bet a fortune there isn't a bigger one on top of a smaller one."
"I bet he's even got his socks lined up in parallel rows in his sock drawer." Sergeant Pauling unlocked the car and took the driver's seat. "Do you reckon he was taking the piss with that demon stuff, boss?"
"I'll tell you when we've been on the Internet and done a search for Mr. Acurthin. And what was that other thing?"
"The House of Klad. With a K."
"Right. I mean, we've come across stranger stuff that people believe in, Doug. But it's also possible Michael Ray got himself tattooed for a bet. Oh, well, let's press on. Back to the factory."
Sergeant Pauling set a course for the police station, wondering just what the search of the Internet would turn up, and confident that it would not take the case forward one single step.
Back in the flat which they had just left, Roland Srafek found himself temporarily wide awake. He wondered whether to have breakfast or go back to bed. He decided that sleep was more important than food at that moment. Mike Ray's sudden death was worrying, however, and he realized that sleep might not come too easily.
Two days later, at ten past nine on Thursday, morning, Detective Inspector Eigan and her sergeant returned. The inspector was looking annoyed when Srafek opened his door to her. This time, he was fully dressed and fully rested. He had having arrived home at midnight the previous night and he had gone straight to bed.
"I've been trying to contact you for the last two days," the inspector complained as soon as the door was open.
"And some of us have jobs which take us away for a couple of days," said Srafek, unrepentant. "And before you ask, no, I've not had a letter from Mike Ray which was held up."
"Are you awake?" said the inspector.
"Okay, you can invite us in and answer some questions, then."
"I suppose you want some coffee, as well?"
"If you happen to be making some, sir," the sergeant said quickly, detecting the odour of freshly brewed coffee in the air. "Milk and no sugar for both of us."
The sergeant stayed behind in the sitting room with his notebook at the ready. Inspector Eigan followed Srafek into the compact open-plan kitchen area. She noted that it had a fresh, unoccupied look even though Srafek had been living in the flat for two years. In fact, everywhere still had that unused look as if most of the time, there was no one around to create dust and leave dirty marks on the paintwork.
"Before you start telling me you don't know anything, I'd just like to remind you that you're our only lead to Michael Ray," Inspector Eigan announced.
"I didn't see anything about a ritual murder in the papers," said Srafek.
"Probably because he's only a suspicious death at the moment. But we have a coroner who's waiting for us to come up with something to explain how he died." The inspector looked on with approval as Srafek heated milk for the coffee in a black, non-stick saucepan. "And I have the big problem of not even knowing where he lives."
"Like I said," Srafek pointed out, "I've not clapped eyes on him for fifteen years."
"What did Mr. Ray do for a living back then?"
"He found things."
"Like what?" the inspector asked with a frown.
"Valuables lost and stolen, lost property which had been misplaced or stolen. Like that."
"By the way, what do you do that makes you so hard to find? It must be a problem for your employer. Or your clients."
"I don't know about you, Inspector, but I don't have to be here to get emails or voicemails or to replay my answerphone messages. People with jobs for me find it easy to get in touch. For which my bank manager is eternally grateful."
"Maybe you should give me your mobile number, sir."
"Maybe I don't have a mobile, Inspector. Maybe I prefer not to be at everyone's beck and call. Maybe I prefer to get on with the job in hand without distractions and choose when I want to be in touch with other people."
"Sounds a great way to do business," laughed the inspector. "I wish they'd let me get away with that. What is it you do for a living, by the way?"
"Like Mike, I find things."
"Maybe we should have offered you a job as a means of getting your attention," the inspector said in a sarcastic tone.
"I lost my spare back door key a while ago," her sergeant remarked.
Srafek looked at him thoughtfully. Then he stared at the ceiling through half a minute's silence. "Try checking a garment you don't wear all that often," he said eventually.
"So anyway," said Inspector Eigan, "we have the possibility Mr. Ray found something someone else didn't want found? Or he failed to find something and the client took violent exception?"
Srafek shrugged. "It's as good a guess as any."
"Or there's the black magic angle. I tried looking up your Circle of Acurthin on the Internet. All the websites seemed to think it's just been a story since about seventeen thirty. When the last three members of the Circle were found torn to pieces in Bohemia."
"So much for the World Wide Web," laughed Srafek.
"Unless your friend Mr. Ray was having you on about being a member of this Circle. The Eighth Circle? Again, all the sites on the Web said there's only seven."
"The Eighth Circle is what you reach after you've passed through the first seven levels and reached a state of enlightenment. And no, Mike wasn't having me on. About his membership."
"How do you know that?" the inspector asked with a frown. "Are you a member too?"
"An interesting question, Inspector, which has only one answer."
"If someone says yes, they're lying because no member would admit being a member to an outsider. A bit like Masons in the police in the bad old days."
"So the only possible answer is no?"
"Correct. Which means either I'm not a member or I am a member and I'm lying to you."
"That's very helpful," said the inspector.
"Not," her sergeant added in an undertone.
"True," said Srafek. "But the rules allow you to lie to anyone who asks impertinent questions about your membership."
"Okay, let's start again," said the inspector. "All we know about this character is that his name is Michael Ray, he had your name and address on a piece of paper, along with some previous addresses which he'd eliminated, and we don't even know if that was in his handwriting ..."
"No, I couldn't tell you that," said Srafek.
"No, I didn't think you could. And he had nothing else in his pockets when he was found. But he does have a tattoo showing he's a member of the Eighth Circle of something that no longer exists, according to the Internet. Oh, yes. And he's dead."
"Cause of death?" Srafek prompted "Or is that still a big secret?"
"Crushing injuries to the chest and other areas of the body."
"Don't tell me. The pathologist was unable to explain how they'd been inflicted."
"How did you know that?"
"I deduced it from the look of puzzlement on your face, Inspector."
"Really?" Inspector Eigan let the remark pass. "So what we need from you is everything you knew about the late Mr. Ray."
"Even though it's at least fifteen years out of date?"
The inspector shrugged. "If we can't work back to him from now, our only option is to work forward from his past."
"What about all the stuff in the government's computers? I thought they were supposed to know absolutely everything about everyone these days?"
"We tried the name and a likely age range on our own police records, the Inland Revenue, the DSS, the DVLC, the passport office and a whole bunch of banks and credit agencies."
"And zip. Nada. So here we are, talking to you, hoping you'll give us a lead."
Detective Sergeant Pauling poised his pen over his notebook and put on an expectant expression which contained an element of a challenge.
"Okay," said Srafek, "I first met Mike Ray in about 1982. August, I think."
"You'd be pretty well straight out of university then?"
"Pretty much. I graduated in 1980. So I'd be about twenty-three and he was a couple of years older. Twenty-five or six."
"And where did you meet?"
"He was living in Harrogate then. Somewhere near the rugby club's ground. I was there for a conference and he was one of the organizers."
"A conference about what?"
"Finding things. As I said, that's what we both do. I think the conference was called Strategies of Location or some such American bullshit. But the speakers were sound enough."
"You don't have an address or anything? For Harrogate?"
"No, I just phoned him when we had to talk. I don't think I ever went to his place. But I may still have the phone number. Twenty years old, remember."
"Better than nothing, sir," said the inspector.
"Maybe you could find it for us, sir?" the sergeant added.
"Is this a paid job or a freebie?" said Srafek.
"One guess," laughed the inspector.
"Right." Srafek gazed at the ceiling for about twenty seconds, then he headed through the kitchen area and into a room at the back of the flat. He returned with a tattered address book. The edges were worn away on the index pages and most of the letters were no longer visible.
"I was wrong," Srafek said. "There's an address in Harrogate to go with the phone number. And three more phone numbers, presumably for where he lived after that. No addresses with them, though."
The sergeant copied the information into his notebook.
"So what happened fifteen years ago?" said the inspector. "When you lost contact? A falling out?"
"What, was Mike the sort of bloke who got up people's noses and got into fights?" scoffed Srafek. "No, it was nothing dramatic. We met at conferences mainly. And we worked together on jobs occasionally. Then I went to Germany for six months on a job. And he'd bombed off to the States when I got back. And our paths never crossed again."
"What about correspondence?" said the inspector.
"None," said Srafek. "Most of the time, documentation is discouraged in our line of work. And that gets to be a habit. We just got out of touch and there was no obvious way to get back into touch."
"Not at conferences?"
"They'd dropped out of fashion by then. The whole business went through a revolution of sorts and, well, it's a bit too complicated to go into now."
"Well, at least we have an address and a few phone numbers to check out," the inspector said with a smile.
"Immigration and whoever issues Green Cards for the States," said Srafek. "They may have some more out-of-date info for you. Mike was on a working trip over there. Possibly in Chicago, but I wouldn't rely on that."
"Another staring point," said the inspector. "Well, we'll let you get on, Mr. Srafek," she added, her tone suggesting that she didn't think Srafek was overloaded with things to do.
Detective Inspector Eigan and her faithful satellite were back after the weekend. Both of them looked less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on a Monday morning. Srafek, in contrast, was looking well rested.
"As far as we can tell," the inspector said as she watched Srafek making coffee in the kitchen area, "your friend Mr. Ray has no close living relatives. And no business associates who'll admit knowing him. In fact, we can find no trace of him after October, 1987."
"That would be the year he went to the States?" said Srafek.
"Right. And he did go to Chicago. He left there on the last Saturday in October, flew to New York for a transatlantic flight, landed at Heathrow and just vanished. Passport not renewed. He's not paid any income tax or national insurance under his own name in the last fourteen and a bit years. Not taxed a car. Not lived anywhere we can trace. And not left the country, as far as we can tell."
"Sounds like you've got a real problem, Inspector," Srafek said as he poured hot milk from a non-stick pan into the mugs.
"Another problem I've got is the post mortem report. The pathologist has compared Mr. Ray's injuries to those described in some occult literature he's been studying. His conclusion was that the match was excellent. Mr. Ray, apparently, was executed by a demon. Our friend Acurthin."
"I can just see a coroner going for that," laughed Srafek. "Death by demon."
"Which is why I came back to you again, Mr. Srafek." Inspector Eigan accepted a mug of coffee and followed Srafek back into the sitting room.
"Oh?" Srafek put the third mug on a silver-plated coaster in front of Sergeant Pauling.
"Well, you were able to identify the tattoo right off so you must know something about these demon worshippers. In fact, I've been wondering if I should get a search warrant to check you for tattoos in places you didn't show us."
"Except, it wouldn't do you much good."
"That's not a tattoo on Mike's arm. It's the mark of the Eighth Circle of Acurthin."
"So the only reason you can see it is because he's dead."
"How do you know that?"
Srafek shrugged. "I've been refreshing my memory."
"How? There's nothing like that on the Internet."
"There is if you know where to look. And there are also lots better places to look for information on demons than the readily accessible bits of the Internet."
"So where would you suggest I look next?"
"Hallan's Registry is probably the best place. It must be mentioned in lots of other books but Hallan is probably the least inaccessible."
"That sounds ominous."
"Well, it is and it isn't. If you go to a major library and ask for it, they'll deny they've got a copy. So you'll have to insist. Then they make you fill in ninety-nine forms and supply samples of your hair and fingernails, then they let you have ‘supervised access' at an appropriate fee."
"Is that bad?"
"It means there's someone from the library in the room with you all the time. Basically, looking over your shoulder and making sure you don't rip any of the pages out of the book."
"Oh. Well, that sounds reasonable if the books are rare. What was the title again? Of this book?"
"A Registry by Geoffrey Hallan. Originally published in the Seventeenth Century, I think, but there were a lot of high quality Nineteenth Century reprints done by the Rixborough Press. That's a good starting point."
"Got it, boss," said the sergeant, notebook open.
Detective Inspector Eigan asked more questions around sips of coffee. Srafek found himself giving a string of fairly unhelpful answers. After about five minutes, a call to her mobile phone gave the inspector somewhere else to go. As the detectives were leaving, Sergeant Pauling turned to Srafek and said, "By the way, sir, I found that key I lost."
"Oh, good," said Srafek. "So I'm not a total quack?"
"I thought you were for a while. Then I found it in the lining of a jacket I don't wear all that much. It had gone through a small hole in the corner of the pocket."
"Life is full of little mysteries," said Srafek. "But we do solve a few of them."
Her superintendent was pushing on the Michael Ray case but, Detective Inspector Eigan began to realize, not necessarily to have it solved. Her impression was that Superintendent Bax wanted her to stay on the case for some other reason.
Hazel Eigan's suspicion that something was going on was turned up a notch on Tuesday evening. She was off duty when she visited the Ryandale Hotel, the second poshest in the immediate area, with a friend who was planning to hold her wedding reception there. Marge wanted her mate Hazel along for moral support. Hazel had the size and manner of someone who was not to be messed around.
Inspector Eigan felt in need of a break from reality and a trip to the hotel, around a natter with Marge, filled the bill nicely. She was even more glad that she had gone along when she glanced from the function room into an adjacent bar and saw Superintendent Bax having a drink and a chat with Roland Srafek.
The inspector made a connection as she gave her attention back to Marge and the wedding plans. Finding things was something which the police service had in common with Messrs. Ray and Srafek. Hazel Eigan spent the first part of Wednesday morning on the phone. She soon learned that a few senior coppers had heard of Srafek, none below the rank of chief inspector, and the name Michael Ray seemed vaguely familiar to one of her contacts.
Detective Superintendent Martin Cale was on sick leave, recovering after surgery on a back problem, and he seemed willing enough to have lunch and a chat with Eigan. They met in the Midi Bar of the Orient Hotel, which was the third poshest in the area. They had last met two years before. Eigan had supplied local knowledge to a team led by Cale, which had spent three months in her area, solving a complicated murder. They had established a good working relationship and realized that they were kindred spirits in many ways.
"I rang a couple of people about the late Mr. Ray," Cale announced when they were sitting in the bar, waiting for their lunch table. "Apparently, one of them knew Ray because he was brought in on a major case in Hampshire about sixteen or seventeen years ago."
"Finding things?" said Eigan.
"Yes, the loot from raids on country houses. They got a whole lot of stuff back with his help. A veritable human bloodhound, was our Mr. Ray."
"How did he do it?"
"I think he had some excellent sources of information. Who were paid off generously by the insurance companies involved, I suppose."
"So Ray was involved in major recovery operations for insurance companies fifteen or twenty years ago?"
"Pretty much. A bit like your friend Mr. Srafek, his primary goal was to recover stolen property so the insurance company didn't have to pay out the full whack. He wasn't restricted by rules of evidence and the need to get thieves locked up, so he had far greater freedom of action than we did, according to my source."
"Access to resources we don't have?"
"A bit like black magic at times, Freddy said. In the sense of the stuff the CIA and people like that can pull off when they put their minds to it," Cale added in response to Eigan's startled expression. "And Congress puts their wallets to it as well."
"And Srafek is the same?"
"Never worked with him myself but I gather Mr. Srafek is so good at finding things that he's been suspected of being in league with the devil at times."
"Or at least a demon who knows his stuff," Eigan murmured.
"Your table is ready, sir, madam." The receptionist arrived at Cale's elbow to speak over Eigan's remark.
Superintendent Cale and Inspector Eigan took their drinks into the dining room and studied the menu. They agreed that the Stilton and leek soup looked interesting as a starter.
"How would I go about finding out which insurance companies Mr. Ray has been working for recently?" said Eigan, getting back to business. "Is there anyone who would know? To save having to ring around?"
"I got the impression from Freddy, my source, that Ray dropped out of sight a long time ago and never resurfaced."
"He went to the States for several months in nineteen eighty-seven."
"That explains it. Chasing the almighty buck."
"But he came back here afterwards."
"In that case, he'd probably signed up with some Yank outfit. I suppose we were too poor to keep his interest. And I suppose friend Srafek will go the same way eventually. He charges a small fortune for his services. But always on a no find, no fee basis."
"So Ray could even be working for the CIA? Trying to find things stolen, say, by terrorists and their sympathizers? Or the KGB?"
"Possibly. It could be that he was bumped off as a warning by some bunch of freedom fighters. Or the KGB. If so, I shouldn't count on a tick in the clear-up column on him, Hazel."
"On the other hand, I don't have even a sniff of proof that he was killed by terrorists, the CIA, the KGB, MI5 or any of that lot. I don't even have proof that he was killed."
"Accidental death?" Cale said sceptically.
"There was no out-of-place forensic from a potential killer where his body was found. There was nothing to say it wasn't some sort of accident which we can't explain. So I can see Mr. Ray getting filed and forgotten in due course."
"I'm sure the CIA or whoever will be very happy to hear that."
"And I'm equally sure some ferret will dig the story out of the archives sometime in the future and slag me off something rotten in a book," Eigan said with a wry smile as the soup arrived.
Detective Inspector Eigan was alone when she arrived at Srafek's flat on Thursday evening. He held the door open for longer than was necessary and looked out into the hall before closing his front door. "No witness tonight, Hazel?" he remarked.
"How do you know my first name?" The inspector stopped to frown at Srafek as she was headed into the living room area.
"I might have been checking up on you. Or I might know a few senior coppers from my work, one of whom was able to tell me that Detective Inspector Hazel Eigan is going places. Mainly because she never gives up and she's not bothered how big a nuisance she makes of herself when she's after information."
"Sounds like you're not expecting an apology for having your home invaded by the police again." Inspector Eigan parked herself on the settee and sighed heavily.
"I thought issuing apologies was a normal part of the daily routine for public servants," Srafek remarked.
"And to answer your question, this is an unofficial visit so I can't justify overtime for my sergeant. And I'd prefer what we say to be off the record."
"Sounds ominous," said Srafek. "Can I offer you a drink if you're off duty? Or are you driving?"
"I think I can risk a drop of gin and a lot of tonic," the inspector said after glancing at a display of drinks and mixers on a cupboard unit.
"We're still on Mike Ray?"
"Oh, yes. Cheers!" The inspector accepted a glass of fizzing liquid.
"Has it occurred to you that there might not be a murderer for you to track down? I take it this is a murder case now?" Srafek said as he reclaimed his armchair.
"Officially, it's still a suspicious death."
"Because no one can think of an accident which would explain his injuries and we can't rule out murder yet. Even though we don't have anything in the way of suspects or motive. So things are likely to stay up in the air until someone can say exactly how he died."
"Can I suggest it's likely you'll never know that? So you might as well cut your losses and call it a bizarre accident."
"It could well come to that. But my superintendent has got his teeth into this. He doesn't like mysteries. But he may have to swallow one for the sake of his budget if something doesn't give soon. Superintendent Bax?" Eigan added with a note of question.
"Ronny?" Srafek nodded. "Yes, he likes a good moan about his budget."
The inspector filed away Srafek's free admission that he knew the man in charge of the police station where she worked.
"How's your research going?" Srafek added.
Eigan shrugged. "Hallan's Registry, Cobb's Formulary, Sadrannen. I can just see me putting names like that in a police report. Did you know some archive in Croydon has reprinted a lot of these old books? They're in the normal reference section of the library now."
"No, I didn't know that. I've not looked at them for fifteen or more years."
"And yes, the answer to your unspoken question: Was it a demonic possession that went badly wrong? is yes. The injuries Mr. Ray received are an exact match to what I've read."
"But Ronny Bax wouldn't buy that?"
"Too bloody right, he wouldn't!"
"Then you may have a real problem, inspector."
"Do you really believe in demons or are you just winding me up because I look like a humourless copper who needs the piss taken out of her?"
"People believe in things that are a lot stranger, Hazel."
"In that case, what do you believe in, exactly? About demons?"
"You want Demon One-Oh-One? Well, the first thing to do is forget what you think you know about demons. It's all black propaganda by one religious interest or another. Demons do exist. That's your starting point. Although what they are, I couldn't say. I think they may exist in parallel dimensions to ours but I don't know if that's true or just something borrowed from science fiction."
"Sounds like my cue to get a sanity check on you."
"As long as you do the same on everyone who believes in an invisible, omnipresent God, who's largely indifferent to the fate of suffering humanity. When she's not being thoroughly vindictive, of course."
"Not an argument my granny would appreciate. Okay, I'll accept demons for the moment. What are they if they're not, well, demonic?"
"Creatures with abilities which transcend ours in many ways. Creatures with motives which are unfathomable to us most of the time. But on the other hand, most of what we do is equally incomprehensible to them. But they do like to visit our set of dimensions. To look around, kind of thing."
"We're on to conjuring up demons now?"
"In part. That's just the first step. They need a vehicle in our world when they arrive."
"Like what? This vehicle?"
"Like us. A human taxi."
"You mean, we're talking about demonic possession?"
"Actual demonic possession as described in the old books?"
"Well, the human host is still in there, on the back seat as it were, offering advice. But the demon does get to ride around in the human body and interact with our world."
"Until someone exorcises it?"
"Yeah, right," laughed Srafek. "Some nerd with a bell and a book and a candle going up against an actively possessing demon. Sure! I can see that happening!"
"What about burning the human host at the stake? Wouldn't that slow the demon down?"
"That would never happen. The demon wouldn't permit damage to the host. No, if anyone gets burned at the stake for being possessed by a demon, you can be sure they ain't."
"Is that what the human gets out of the deal? Invulnerability?"
"Not really. Well, only incidentally. For as long as the possession goes on."
"What else, then?"
"Demons have powers. They can help you win friends and influence people. They can make you lucky. Or they can help you find things and make yourself incredibly rich."
"That's what your demons do for you?"
"My demons, Inspector?" laughed Srafek. "I'd like to hear that on a tape out of an interview room. That'd be your job up in smoke about two seconds later."
"Except, I've been doing a bit of checking on you, Roland, and you're incredibly rich by my standards. You don't just own this flat, you own the whole block. And the one next door to it."
"I could have won the Lottery. Or it could be down to honest hard work."
"As a copper, I'm not used to seeing honest hard work paying so well."
"It works for footballers. And pop stars. And government cronies."
"Okay, not admitting I believe anything, how does the system work with a demon? I assume you contact a specific one out of the range in the old books?"
"Correct. But before you do that, you have to climb the seven steps to enlightenment, which are preparations for possession. You have to learn what will happen while you're being possessed and how to handle it so you won't freak out permanently when you give yourself over to a demon."
"When he flags the human taxi down?"
"Then the human takes a back seat while the demon cruises around the world for a while? And in return, you get paid in luck? Or you can find things?"
"Correct. Both sides give a little to mutual advantage."
"Would I be wrong in thinking your friend Mr. Ray was ahead of you on this? And he was the one who initiated you into being, well, a cabby for demons?"
"If we're still off the record, no, you wouldn't be wrong."
"But you haven't been in touch with him for fifteen years?"
"No. Not by any means. Including sending messages through a hypothetical demons' Internet. It doesn't work like that."
"Okay, assuming you wanted to initiate me, what would the first step be?"
"How would you feel about having sex with me on the altar of an abandoned church on the night of a new Moon?"
Inspector Eigan put on a mocking smile. "For one thing, I don't think you fancy me that much. And for another, if the books I've been reading aren't having me on, all the sex associated with black magic is purely for recreation rather than business."
"You're right," laughed Srafek. "It's the mental exercises and meditation that really count. And I'm much too afraid of being nicked by you to dare fancy you."
"That from a bloke who's used to working with coppers?" scoffed Eigan. "Okay, suppose I get through the seven levels. I still don't understand how the eighth level works, by the way. I read two different accounts of it but the words just didn't seem to make all that much sense."
"If you'd got to Level Seven first, they would have. There's something about the way they're written that only releases their meaning to a Seventh Level."
"Assuming Mr. Ray was at the Eighth Level, what went wrong with his possession?"
Srafek shrugged. "As I've not seen or heard from him for fifteen years, I can only guess. But people do get greedy. They make a deal but they don't stick to it. They shave the odd corner off here and there, and when they find they're getting away with it, they shave off bigger and bigger chunks. The little they give gets smaller."
"And they get away with it even once? With a demon?" the inspector added sceptically.
"The demon isn't wholly in charge of the deal, Hazel. There's scope for short-changing them. Most of the time, they let it go. Supply and demand, and human taxis don't come along all that often. But if someone short-changes the same demon for long enough, it's inevitable he's going to get pissed off and say to himself, ‘Bugger the consequences, this guy ain't going to get away with it any more.'"
"Know the feeling," laughed the inspector.
"And if the demon gets that mad, the injuries to the human taxi will all be inflicted from the inside out rather than the other way around. Like a bloke with big boots kicking the shit out of the inside of a taxi. I guess that's pretty much what the post mortem report said? His body was broken from the inside out?"
The inspector nodded. "Broken from the inside out was exactly what the pathologist said. Off the record, of course. He couldn't put anything like that in his report. What about the tattoo? Which you said isn't a tattoo?"
"It's more like the sign on a taxi that tells you if it's in use."
"And the mark's invisible except while you're in contact with the demon? Or if you get kicked to death with a demon inside you?"
"An excellent deduction. I can see why you became a detective, Inspector."
"So the fact that Mr. Ray has got the mark of Acurthin on his arm, that tells me who dunnit? Because if Acurthin hadn't been riding around inside him, there wouldn't have been a visible bookmark."
"Right. And all you have to do now, Inspector, is get that past your superintendent, the local coroner, the press and a sanity commission."
"If anyone ever tells you, life's a bitch, then you die, believe him," sighed the inspector. "Do you really believe all this stuff, Roland?"
Srafek smiled. "What you have to ask yourself, Hazel, is whether you can come up with any other explanation that will stick. And if your dead man has injuries that exactly match ones described in several books which were written centuries ago, injuries inflicted from inside his body, you have to ask yourself how a human killer could have simulated them. Or even if it's possible for a human killer to have done that."
"Even if it's true, I can't put down that he was killed by a demon."
"I know. And you know now that Mike Ray's death is going to be written off as an accident."
"So what am I doing sitting here, drinking your gin and wasting your time?"
"That's something else for you to think about, Inspector. Come back for another drink when you've worked it out."
Inspector Eigan found herself drawn to Srafek. She was curious about him. Everything around him was too perfect. He was the opposite of the expression he looks like an unmade bed. Roland Srafek was a made bed. And so was his flat. But it was not made-never-to-be-used. No matter how much use his body and his flat received, they would always be made.
When she called on Srafek again the following Monday evening, the inspector had an idea why Superintendent Bax was pushing on the issue of Michael Ray's death. But she needed a few more answers. She started her data-gathering, after receiving a mug of coffee in preference to a gin-and-tonic, by asking to look at Srafek's left forearm again.
"You know it's there but you can't see it?" Srafek said as he peeled back the sleeve of his pullover.
"The Mark of Acurthin?" said the inspector.
"No, that was Mike Ray."
"You mean, you serve another demon?"
"I don't believe you just said that, Inspector."
"No, I don't believe it either. So what's your demon called?"
"I'm not authorized to give out that information."
"But you do admit you serve another demon?"
"No comment. And where do you get this serve business from?"
"Isn't that what people do? Serve demons?"
"You're just quoting propaganda from religious interests, Hazel. Gangs which promise the universe, take all your money and don't deliver. The whole deal with demons is way simpler than you think."
"Okay, I'll buy it, what is the deal?"
"Just what I told you last time you were here. And I'm pretty sure you confirmed it with your research. Your only problem in that area is likely to be sifting out the deliberate disinformation. Basically, what happens is that you do the training, you get the knowledge, in effect, while climbing the seven steps to enlightenment. And then you let yourself be ridden around in like a human taxi."
"And what do you get out of it again?"
"You're thinking of health, wealth, happiness and any woman I fancy as a basic package? Plus extras? People like Mike Ray and me went for the ability to find things. To know just where to go to lay our hands on something. Others choose something else which suits their personal goals better. Plus a few other fringe benefits."
"Such as always looking neat and tidy? And the same for your flat?"
"Or being permanently slim, no matter how much you eat?"
"You might even be able to make yourself as pale as Michael Jackson if you feel so inclined."
"I don't have a problem with my colour, Mr. Srafek."
"I'm please to hear it, Inspector. But I'd have thought having a bit of weight on your bones to put behind a punch would be quite an asset for a copper."
"Except we're not allowed to go round hitting people like the cowboys in The Sweeney on digital TV."
"I hope, for your sake, that the bad guys have also signed up to this non-aggression pact."
"Maybe someone who's made a pact with a demon can arrange to be left out of the punch-ups."
"Sounds like a very reasonable rider."
"So what would be the advantage for me of a pact with a demon?"
Srafek shrugged. "Depends what you want to do with yourself. Your life goals."
"I quite like being a copper."
"In that case, you need a demon who can help you to do your job."
"In what way?"
"Okay, suppose you could look at someone and know for sure if he or she did something?"
"Knowing is one thing but proving is another. I know who did lots of stuff. But all it does is make me feel like screaming because I can't prove it in court."
"What if your knowledge goes further? What if you start asking yourself where this guy would have put the murder weapon and suddenly, you know exactly where to look for it? Or you ask yourself who else was in on a robbery and where the loot's been stashed, and the answer just pops into your mind?"
"Or suppose you can go to the scene of a crime and ask yourself, who did this?"
"Don't tell me. Suddenly, the answer pops into your mind?"
"That would be good, wouldn't it?"
"A bit too good for the spur of the moment. This conversation has a pre-programmed feel."
"Oh, for a pact with a demon right now. One who could help me read your mind."
"Mind-reading. Yes, that would be something else good for a successful detective to have. In addition to certain other qualities."
"Qualities like what?"
"Have you ever watched someone who looks quite ordinary do something extraordinary and thought, ‘How the hell does he do that?' Or, being more specific, watched some copper get an extraordinary result with nothing much to go on?"
"Because he's in league with a demon? Yeah, right."
"Not just one big result. Or even two or three. Year on year on year. Solid success. Someone like your Superintendent Bax, for instance, who was quite a high flier before he decided to slow down for his last couple of years before retirement."
"Sound, conventional policing does get results, Roland," Eigan said, refusing to admit that her suspicions had been confirmed.
"But some people, like Ronny, can get results much quicker than others. And make them stick where it counts, in court. I bet his arrest record is in the Guinness Book of Records."
"And some people can tell a good story, Roland."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Hazel, but you keep coming back here and drinking my coffee. Which suggests either you really like my coffee, you fancy me something rotten or you like the story."
"My problem is that if I say I believe the story, these blokes in white coats will bob out from behind the settee and drag me off to the loony bin."
"Only if you say it to the wrong people. But if you say it to me, or to whoever steered you to me, the way I was steered to Mike Ray all those years ago, that's pretty much putting yourself on the first step to enlightenment."
"Heading for possession by a demon," Eigan said with a frown.
"Heading for a working partnership which has mutual benefits for both parties. A type of partnership which humans and what we're calling demons have enjoyed for hundreds if not thousands of years. A partnership freely entered into by both parties. No arm twisting, no blackmail, no nothing. Your choice."
"And you really think I could do it?"
Srafek shrugged. "Someone who knows you a whole lot better than me does. And having you sitting here, drinking my coffee, suggests you're pretty much convinced."
"Talking about the late Mr. Ray, do you have any idea why he wanted to contact you? Or is that another secret available only to Seventh Level people?"
"About the only thing I can think of is that he was looking for someone to broker a deal for him. He could have realized he'd gone too far and he wanted help to square things."
"With Acurthin? He wanted to give a lot to make up for all his short measures in the past?"
"Possibly. But it looks like he ran out of time a lot sooner than he expected."
"He got his demon too pissed off to care about reparations?"
"But that won't happen to me if I play things straight?"
"Probably not. Unless you pick a demon who's not bothered about cheating his hosts and who screws you on every deal."
"How comforting!" laughed the inspector. "So how long does it take to climb the Seven Steps?"
"Six months to a year, depending on how much time you can give the study process."
"This isn't an elaborate joke, is it?"
"I tell you what," laughed Srafek, "why don't you think about it, sleep on it and decide in the morning. Over breakfast, you decide if you're going to forget you ever heard my name or if you're going to become an outstanding copper, one the criminals go in fear of. Your choice."
"So if I come back here tomorrow, I'm committed?"
"No, you're never committed until you go for the Eighth Level. It's always your choice, every step of the way."
"Okay, I'll think about it." Inspector Eigan responded to Srafek's knowing smile. They both knew what she would do the next day. It was her destiny, apparently, to be a super-cop. ■