24. Everything Could Always Be Worse

I got to the portal a few minutes before eight.

When I opened the door Duke was already there. He bounced on the balls of his feet, impatient.

“The boys are waiting,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“We’re going where?”

“Where you think?”

“The underworld, last time it wasn’t so great.”

“Different situation. They had Doris. The whole ransom thing. The signing in blood. Stressful.”

“I can still taste the dust in my mouth.”

“Sure. The dust. Nothing we can do about that. But this time, you get the royal treatment. First client. Everybody on their best behavior. Trust me.”

Duke clapped me on the shoulder, gave me a wink.

“What about the door?” I asked. “We going to leave it unlocked?”

“Pull it shut for now. I put out an NUE.”

“What?”

“No Unauthorized Egress.”

“The dead care about authorization?”

“Everything always could be worse, Fatman. On that you really can trust me. You ignore an NUE, things get worse.”

I followed him down a gray slope cut through the rock. There wasn’t an obvious source of light, just a dim glow that seemed squeezed out of the rock.

I don’t know how long we walked. Your mind empties out in the underworld. It’s hard to concentrate. Ten minutes, an hour, two days? I didn’t know.

“We almost there?” I asked.

Duke didn’t bother to answer.

Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the walls widened out, then opened into a room as broad as a soccer field. Mumbles and murmurs came from all sides. The buzz of a hive, but whoever made the noise was hidden in the gloom. I saw a table made out of a pair of wooden cable spools and a sheet of plywood. As we got closer I made out figures standing and squatting around it.

“Creative!” Duke announced. “Meet the team!”

“These guys look like they’re dead,” I said.

“Of course they look like they’re dead. They’re dead.”

“I was hoping for… I don’t know… more energy.”

“Plenty of energy here. You take away all the distractions. Sex. Food. Liquor. Breathing. These guys don’t need a thing themselves. One hundred percent, they’re focused on you. Laser beams, baby.”

Duke gave the table a sharp rap. “Boys,” he said. “Meet Fatman.”

Tomorrow: Everyone calls me Brimsnod

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