The bus screeched to a halt outside the Museum of Immodest Antiquities, locally known as the De Havilleau museum because it's where the De Havilleau collection is housed. The collection is a favourite amongst all the good burghers, whether for scaring their children into a semblance of good behaviour by showing them the strange, inhuman skulls brought back from the cold north, or for eyeing up the jewelled crowns uncovered in plague pits on the Plateau of Leng and wondering if there's a fence alive daft enough to try moving them on. There are several stuffed animals in the exhibition room that look as though they died of being stuffed, and a glass cabinet containing several bloodied blades where the blood never dries. That one spooks me just a little, and I'm hardened to the sight of most people's blood.
I stepped off the bus and heard the door slam behind me and the engine rev. The bus burned rubber as it pulled away, blue smoke rising up from the squealing tyres, and I knew that any further passengers were in for a rough day. Maybe I shouldn't have switched the bus driver's Ibuprofen for abattoir-grade ecstasy, but old habits die hard. I looked up at the marble facade of the museum, seeing the seven statues standing in their niches over the lintel of the huge pairs of oaken double doors, and felt something well up in my chest. I leaned forward, hawked, and spat. My sputum sizzled when it hit the pavement flags; my heartburn was playing up.
Through the doors is the atrium, a huge foyer where the pay-desks are and the museum attendants stand guard over spiked, floor-to-ceiling turnstiles. You heard children asking parents from time to time why the turnstiles are so dangerous, but you never hear the answer: there are things the museum curators are more worried about keeping in than they are about keeping people out. I bought a ticket, because I knew from experience that the guards carry tear-gas, tasers, and moebius handcuffs.
"McArthur," said the gate-guard I approached, nodding cautiously. "What do you want here? I thought we'd turned down the offer to buy you and put you on display?"
"Funny guy," I growled, my voice gurgling deep in my chest like a blocked drain in a cess pit. "I'm doing some research, Marv. I'm looking for a baptismal church that'd prove the Cathars right. There'd be something unholy about it, somewhere Old Nick would feel right at home. It probably looks Catholic."
"I'm not an egghead, Mac," said the guard in a reasonable tone of voice that made me suspicious. "I'm just here to keep the pieces. I watch people go in, watch them come out, and sometimes beat the crap out of them and take our property back. It's a sweet job."
"Simple things please small minds," I muttered wetly. I wanted to cough, but I was worried about what would come up. "Is Doctor Siff in?"
The guard nodded, and then raised an eyebrow. "Is that a gun in your pocket, Mac, or are you just pleased to see me?"
"It's a shoe."
I'd put the stiletto in my pocket and not thought how it must look. I pushed past the guard and slipped my ticket into the slot on the turnstile. There was a delay of a couple of seconds and then the turnstile started to turn slowly. I hurried in, and limped my way through, past spikes, poisoned spikes, and over some loose-sounding floor tiles.
On the other side, I ignored the signs for the exhibition halls and walked over to the small Employees only door and leaned on it. It was locked. I leaned more heavily and still the door didn't move. I leaned a little more heavily again and still nothing. I got the feeling that the chipboard might be a veneer over something more solid.
"MacArthur? Good lord, are you still alive, or have we embalmed you and you've not noticed?"
"Dr. Siff?" I said, I turning to confront an enthusiastic young man with a beard and a canadian accent.
"You can call me Louis," he said, holding his hand out. I eyed it with suspicion, not even my own mother wanted to touch me after I turned five, let alone shake my hand. Eventually he took his hand back.
"I have a question for you," I said. "I need a church that would baptise a monster."
"You'd better come to my office," said Dr. Siff, his face paling and becoming drawn. "That's not a good conversation to have in public."