MANDRAKE ANTHRAX - K.A. LAITY
“I know where to get you some.”
Hanley looked up. Nagle sat there, nodding a little too fast, knee jittering like a piston. Madman: he was on something hoppy again, overdoing it. Expanding his head, he always claimed; next he would be seeing giant moths. Again. “Get what?”
“Mandrake anthrax.” He breathed the words like an incantation.
A shiver wormed down Hanley’s spine. “It’s not real. Just a song, like.” Yet he could feel his tongue working in his mouth already, ready to taste it.
Nagle smiled. “Riley told me.”
“That fucker’s a liar.”
“Not that he had it, that it was real. He was looking.” Nagle leaned toward Hanley, bringing his scabby chops a little too close for comfort. “But I found it.”
“I thought you were going to help me move,” Hanley said, grabbing the empty Tennent’s box and sweeping some CDs into it. “The housing association won’t let me stay past this week.”
Hanley looked at him. “You all right there?”
“Sure, sure, sure. And yourself?” For a moment Nagle appeared to connect with this realm. His too blue eyes clouded over again and the hum returned.
“No, I’m fucking not. These arse-lickers have it in for me. I should emigrate.” He threw a few more CDs in the box then sighed. Moving made him feel fifty years old. I should be on the trail of some fine pilsner, Hanley thought, fuck this for a laugh.
“It’s not far,” Nagle urged, knee jerking even faster. “Just down the street, number 63. Decadence and anarchy, eh?” Nagle nodded more, seemingly unable to stop once he started.
“You will drive me insane with that,” Hanley said, irritation finally getting the better of him. “Could you stop feckin’ nodding for two minutes together?”
Nagle looked wounded. “Sorry, mate.”
“Mate.” Hanley kicked the Tennent’s box. He wished it were a dog. Or Nagle.
“Friend o’ my youth, brother in arms, ancestral sage,” Nagle crooned.
Hanley laughed. “Feckin’ eejit!” Anything had to be better than packing: a reasonable offer. “Right. How much you got?”
Nagle’s eyes flashed and he jumped to his feet. The man practically danced. “Plenty, plenty. Had a little visit home this week. Yourself?”
“I put a wee bit by.” It was no less than the truth. The crisp blues had been destined for Connolly’s or Garavan’s and a swiftly flowing river of lager. Perhaps a man ought to expand his horizons on occasion—not as far as Nagle, mind. “Right-o.”
“Go round there then, shall we?”
In the streets below the rain pelted down and the wind howled mournful. Hanley pulled his collar up. Nagle shuffled along beside him, the hum audible even in that din. How much longer would the Crimbo lights be up? Surely the city paid good money to unstring them even at the holiday rate.
“Here.” Nagle nodded but once. Lesson learned.
Hanley eyed the brick façade. The door proved to be a gothic affair, metal bound and painted all black. Seeing no modern convenience, he lifted the oversized bat knocker and clapped it to a few times. They both craned their ears but all around them it was suddenly as quiet as death as if all the people had walked hand in hand into the bay abandoning the city behind them. Hanley shuddered.
When he had just about surrendered all hope and began to get thirsty for a tall foamy pint, the door groaned open to reveal a disheveled looking eurotrash reject of indeterminate age. “What?”
Hanley found him off-putting. Nothing like a youngster thinking he was better than he was to rile him. Nagle must have sensed it. He swayed in and said, “We’re here to see your man.”
The dull-witted young man stared for a moment, as if he were about to refuse, then shouted over his shoulder, “Gregor, coupla pugs for ye.” He moved himself with the door to allow the two to pass.
“Thanks, pikey,” Hanley muttered. His mam woudn’t have held with such rudeness, but Hanley figured the kid ought to have been more humble to them. Unprofessional it was.
They walked along the corridor to the sitting room at the back. The afternoon light—such as it was—filtered in through the net curtains and lit a strange scene. Cholly Case sat on the mock-leather sofa, the parts of some fancy gun spread out before him as he polished a shiny piece. He nodded to Hanley, then went back to his work. At the table a Dutch woman sat there weeping and playing Solitaire.
Gregor raised his hands in greeting. “My friends, welcome!”
Nagle oozed obsequiousness. “Gregor, you’re looking lively.”
“It’s no less than the truth,” the dealer agreed. “What’ll you be having today? A little crack with your craic.”
Hanley grimaced. The joke was so old it had a beard in his grandfather’s youth. “None of your cut-rate Polish grinder.”
Their host smiled, a magnificent and beneficent beam. “May the cat eat you.”
Nagle intervened. “We were after some mandrake anthrax.” He managed to invoke the words without betraying the hunger behind them.
Gregor’s surprise could not be hidden, but he recovered quickly. “How quickly it spreads, the word.” He named a price. It was sufficiently astronomical to be convincing.
Nagle nodded at Hanley. This time he could not cease the jerky motion. “We’ll do it.”
Gregor looked from one to the other of them. The Dutch woman sniffled. Without another word, he turned and went to the cupboard below the sink. When he returned, Gregor held out a bottle. Its black letters spelled Hex.
“Mandrake Anthrax,” he cooed.
Somehow the bottle seduced. Hanley’s fingers itched to hold it. The dark green curves would fit his hand like an old friend. He couldn’t smell it, yet it tickled his senses. It had been the right thing. His tongue moved, lascivious.
Hanley handed over his folding money and swigged.
The effects came instantly. His belly boiled with its heat. His skull expanded. His mouth began to laugh. Nagle looked so small beside him. That seemed to be funny as well and he threw his head back to guffaw with abandon.
The room widened. The moon peeked in. How had the time passed? Nagle chattered, his arms stalks waving in the gloaming. For some reason it angered Hanley.
Gregor poked a finger at him, but Hanley did not let it dissuade him. His legs propelled him across the darkened room as if they were moving through meringue. Nagle shrank in the twilight. No more than a bug, Hanley thought. With both hands he grabbed the wee man’s ears. He pulled Nagle’s head off and watched it skitter up the wall. The eyes blinked at him from their perch. His humour returned. No point moving, he realised. I’m already in hell. Hanley laughed his own head off.
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