“My Daniel’s out there.” Mother Beet crossed her stick-thin legs, lit a cigarillo, then offered me one. I shook my head, staring into the black hollows where her eyes should be. Black hollows that held my measure, nonetheless, and stared back. Tiny brown cockroaches nested in the right orbit. They bubbled and hissed, irritated by the smoke perhaps. “I can feel him, sure’s the memory of spittin’ the bastard, bloody and blind-eyed, out of me womb.”
I sat, and her smoke-bound mutterings washed against me. Folk like that, their words are weighty. You listen and not without fear.
The plastic chair of her hospitality dug into my legs, and the cave’s stale air closed round me, stung my failing eyes – the nubs of my cataracts burned. I’d seen too much, and this day lacked any assurance that such sights were done with me. I hungered for my city, grand old Wish, and that bone-cruel hunger cut deeper than any centuries-hardened chair.
Shaky and without my fix of Wish, I still managed a smile when she finished.
Mother Beet pursed her lips. “What the hell you think’s funny?”
She snorted and swatted, claw-like at my knees. “Got the cancer scares in ya? Frightened of this witch’s ganga?”
A shudder ran through me, at the touch of her fingers against my knees, but I held her gaze. “Maybe I am. But then again, maybe I’m not.”
“Mother Beet knows you are. Killed plenty of men, but you’re scared of an old Lady. I know it, just like I know Daniel’s still out there.”
I bowed my head a little. “I’m respectful of the old ways. I know which Powers to fear, and my city’s more miles from here than I care to think of. Here a man should be afraid.”
“But not too much, eh? Too much can eat your heart. Like it swallowed my boy’s,” she said pointedly. “Mr. Grieve, Daniel ain’t no man any more.”
“We both know that.”
I drove the car down that winding mountain road, Mother Beet’s laughter ringing still in my ears. “You better be careful, Mr. Grieve. Better be damn careful.”
She hadn’t laughed after that. Didn’t scream, though. Most of them scream. She’d just stared, the cockroaches hissing, till the piss had run down her legs and her breath rattled in her throat.
I felt sick; my hands shook. I had never wanted to kill any of them. But I’d made my deals. Wish had me now. And I did what the grand metrop demanded.
Such a long way from the city, and the further from Wish the more terrible it grew: the shivers, the craving that’s all burn and emptiness. There’s ways of settling that hunger, or if not settling, then reducing it. All of them are worse — cost too much spiritually, physically. But I’d got what I’d come for — a piece of Daniel’s caul. I could race back across the shattered land.
Every mile homeward was a salve to my ache and a whip stroke across my back.
My nose burned with the old woman’s reek, and the smell of her death. Cloves and tar. Her lungs must be ash; her skin knitted together with spider webs and nicotine stains. That eye socket boiling with hissing cockroaches.
Hardly human herself, but her son. He scared me.
Daniel was a killer; all he was good at was wrapped in death and blood. But there were many like that, in city and out. I’d only gotten involved when he ate a nun’s still beating heart in Gaskel. That kind of thing has too much power. Gets the city involved because Wish holds its power to itself jealously. Daniel had finished his tucker, then torched Gaskel’s convent, burnt it to the ground, and shot anyone who tried to escape or help the screaming folk caught inside.
I drove up from Wish a week later, the devastation everywhere. Not just the buildings, but in the people’s eyes.
Daniel had grown bored. Done with his killing, he’d just upped and left. Does a community no good to know they couldn’t have done a thing to stop him. The Sheriff and one of his deputies were dead. The other, a thin, reliable man, if a trifle cowardly, told me what happened.
“Daniel took two bullets to the skull, Mr. Grieve. I put one there myself; he just shook them off and shot Sheriff James in the eye. I thought it was time to get distant then myself.” He grimaced. “You know, not all folks are like you. Not all of us can face the bleak ones, and I’m all that’s left of the law round here. I’ll most probably be suckin’ Death’s teat ‘fore the year’s done.”
I shrugged. “You did all right. You’d be sucking Death’s teat right now if you’d done otherwise. Now stop that shit, I ain’t your counsellor.”
The erstwhile deputy, now sheriff, regarded me sourly. “My counsellor’s dead. Half Gaskel’s rotting in the ground. You gotta find him. Find him and kill him.”
I nodded my head, distracted, and waved the sheriff away. My time here was done. Wish called, nay she screamed and howled, and I was set to answer it with my presence.
I am an addict, yes. But a peripatetic one. Suitcase and sweats. I could still travel, despite its agonies. Those that can leave the city find themselves its agents and guns. Better suited to anything else, I’d become a lawman, because Wish demanded it, and I hungered for her.
I’d scarred myself in all the right places, and to the right gods, and was afraid enough to dance with the right devils and to worship the appropriate Wrongs.
And I got by.
Icabus picked his teeth and farted through the window at the clamouring city. His black corpse-eyes considered me from above a terrible grinning mouth. He pointed after the sun. “West is where you’ll find him, past the shattered mountains, past the Heave.” The demonkin’s tiny hand shook. “Round Gunneda. Have you cartography?”
I took the caul back from him. “I know the area. I was raised out there.”
Icabus shook his head. “Ha, I would have never taken you for a country boy. You stink of Wish, city addict.”
“There are more things about me that you do not know than there are stars in the heavens,” I said and blew smoke in the demonkin’s face. For a moment Icabus wavered on the air, his existence grew all tenuous, then steadied as the smoke thinned.
Icabus glared at me. “Once, Mr. Grieve, long ago, before cities made addicts of folk, that would have been a considerable number of things, for there were indeed, many, many stars. Now but Seventy grace the sky. Makes horoscopes easier, though.” He nodded heavenwards, squinted, and intoned, “He’s gonna eat you up, because you’re already weighted with Death. It’s put a bend in your spine and painted shadows on your eyes. Those cataracts keep tumblin’ and soon you’ll be blind or washed up on Death’s shore, and it’s a bleak coast for the likes of you.”
I swiped at him, caught a handful of flapping pallid skin and threw the creature against the wall. “I’ll drag him with me.”
Icabus’ breath came fast and hard. “That shore is his. She’s already there, waiting and hungry. Can you afford such a hurt?”
“I’ve got no choice.” I could already feel the city pushing me, forcing me along another road, an outbound road. The highway stretch and slide that led to Gunneda. “As for the cataracts. They’ll be mine to fix once this job is done.”
Icabus nodded. “Then be sly, wickerbones. Be all that is cruel, all that is sly.”
I smiled tightly. “How do you think these bones got so old?”
It’s a long hard drive to Gunneda, past the Whispering’s Holdings with their flaming ramparts, and Keepit’s Thirst, and I was tired of my cds almost before I began. My Wish-grown car could run a thousand years. I could chase my vicious prey a dozen lifetimes without needing to refuel, but surely I would need new-old music for the cd stacker.
I chain-smoked on the way, as much to confound any demons that might take it upon themselves to manifest inside my cabin as to still my nerves. Out here you learnt the little tricks, the small magics that tripped up the big. You learnt such or you died. I knew most of them, not all, because something new always came along, and I hunted these down almost as voraciously as the murderers and haunts Wish assigned me to.
But there was no small magic to aid this hunt. Which scared me because the big stuff always came at a cost, as demanding as any city.
I chewed the caul and let it guide me. The caul piece, dry and bitter, ate up my spit, but I kept chewing. It was all I had, and I needed it soft and wet and supple. Done long enough I might fix it to my will.
I drove the car into the Golf Course Hotel, passing down into the bunker-bowels of its car park, the air cool and damp, stinking of sweat and spoiled concrete. My boots crunched on the powdery floor. There were no other cars, so I took the time to light up another fat cigarette: burning cloves and tobacco that soothed and shielded.
The hotel was run down, but cleaner than most of the places I used in Sydney or Melbin — those cities were old, cockroach-cloaked, and fog-decked rotten. Only Wish did not display the gaudy marks of time, fresh as a newborn babe and as clinical as the hospital that caged it.
A man in a cracked brown leather jacket waited behind the counter. “Nice car,” the hotelier said, rubbing his thick beard, the growth another demon foil.
“Not so nice if someone steals it.” I breathed out a plume of smoke, shaped it into a skull. “There’s magics there. Dark and venom-toothed to all but me.”
The man just grinned. “How many nights will you be staying?”
“As long as it takes.”
Silver exchanged hands and the man pushed a key across the counter.
“Second floor. Room 24.”
Three hours and I was done.
Crosses put up, rightwise and reversed-silver, platinum, and plastic. The tooth of a demon — whisper-thin and as sharp as death — glued above the window. The hair of an angel above the door and two mirrors beneath the bed, with all the incantations said, and a handful of dust thrown before the entrance to the room.
None of these precautions were for Daniel, just a little peace of mind. In the field, you were prepared, or you died.
I walked back to the front desk, the hotelier looked like he hadn’t moved.
“Where can I get a drink?” I asked.
“There’s a bar off Whisper St. Name of the Jiggered Spit. Sells okay piss. So does The Stoned and Flaming Crow.” The man’s eyes flashed. “You’re spoilt for choice, I reckon.”
Daniel comes in here and you will be screaming for my help, I thought. But then, Daniel comes in here, and we’ll most likely be both screaming.
I lit up and walked outside.
Sunset pulled my shadow thin and long before me. Even so, I pushed my hat down and gathered my coat around me: out of habit and out of respect. Sun’s a cruel master, but the nights were crueller still. My footfalls rang loud on the road. Not a single car passed me, nothing but a few dour-faced travellers, smelling of spirits, stumbling back to the hotel. These days a lot of people liked to get their drinking in early, before it got dark.
The Jiggered Spit had life in it yet that night; raucous laughter spilled from the doors, heavy with the smoke of cheap cigars and the blusterings of even cheaper hoodlums. I did not take off my coat, just strode to the bar and ordered a shade of Bourbon.
“You new here?” the Barkeep said, pouring his shade.
I smiled. “Old new.”
The Barkeep squinted at me. “Why’d you leave?”
The Barkeep chuckled. “We all leave somewhere, but not all of us come back.”
“It isn’t permanent. I don’t intend staying here all that long,” I said. “Got business to attend to. Powers to redistribute.”
“Oh, so you’re a Wish man. The city got its hooks in you, got that monkey on your back. Should’ve took you for one of them. Don’t see your kind here that often.”
“Not much happens here to warrant it,” I said and ordered another drink. Just finished that when I saw him, and was glad I’d taken some bravery to my gut. Daniel sat at a table across from me, smoking a cigarillo; if he’d noticed me, he’d made no sign of it.
“Two more,” I said, sliding the money across the counter, when the drinks came I took them over to Daniel.
“I know you,” I said.
Daniel looked up, his nostrils flared, and his pale face creased and darkened. “That makes two of us, I know me as well. But who are you?”
I placed the drinks on the table, casual, careful, and sat down. My heart, which had quickened, slowed, until it seemed to beat, maybe twice a minute. Boom. Boom. Deep loud beats that were painful as they were strong. “You want a drink?”
“My ma said, don’t talk to strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger; I know you, and I know your Ma. She was a fine lady.” I put out a hand and Daniel ignored it.
“You reek of Wish,” Daniel said. “I don’t want that stink on me. Not here, where I can’t do anything about it.” But he didn’t have any trouble taking my drink.
Daniel swallowed it down, eyes narrowing. “You know I went to Wish once. All them pleasures, all that lassitude. Thought I could make a killing there, but I saw through my hopes and dreams, saw through to the city itself. It traps you, holds you.” He shifted in his chair. I could see emotions fluttering across that heavy face. Fear, anger, then a sly cruelty.
“You’re here to kill me, ‘ain’t you?” His tone mocked me, and that hard face. For a moment I didn’t believe I had a chance, that he had me beat before we’d even begun.
“Maybe,” I said, in a way that made no trick of it not being maybe at all. “I got a piece of you, Daniel.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow, his muscles tightened, his lips twisted. “Then you’ll be seeing me anon, I reckon.”
Daniel got up and pushed his way past. His arms thick and hard. Where he touched me, I bruised. I watched his broad back and tried to imagine him ever sliding bloody and blind-eyed from anybody’s womb.
I took a tincture of sobriety from my pocket. Not that I needed it, but then, sometimes when you don’t think you need it is when you need it most. It went down sharp and bitter, and I had to piss. At the trough, I shivered and choked up, thinking of what I’d come here to do, thinking of what that had already required. The urine finally came, pale as my skin, and I pissed for a long time, cursing all the while.
A long piss is unlucky, but to break the flow’s unluckier still.
I yearned a moment for Wish. A moment. Hah. I yearned for my city all the time, but this rose above the levee banks of my discipline.
All that wonderful machinery, the settling of inclement justices, the prayer maps, and the croissants hot and jam-bloodied. There was no ozone burn here, no verities that remained, just desperate hopes and awful cruelties. I looked in the mirror, as I washed my hands, and saw little to give me hope. I flashed a smile, but it was a monkey smile, a false, fearful thing that made me all pissy again.
I left the bar, walked into the night, the shadows grown watchful and jagged — though not sharp enough to pierce the smoke I wreathed myself in. I slid the caulpiece back into my mouth and chewed. It stung my gums with a nasty electricity. But the caul was softer now, quick to take up my spit and my will.
I felt his presence through the smoke. The prick of magics, and the weight of terrible eyes.
Because running only prompted hunters to speed — encouraged a steady, predatory lope — I strolled.
Halfway between the Jiggered Spit and the hotel stood a solitary streetlight, haloed in bugs, pitching out its circle of dusty brilliance. I waited there, lit up a darker, heavier smoke. Special smoke, the stench of which I knew he’d recognise.
“Heh, heh, got the cancer scares in ya, frightened of this witch’s ganga?”
Maybe, but not now.
I could taste her blood on the cigarillo, thin, bitter, dreadful. I could hear her dying breaths. Blood of the dead.
“You coming into the light, Daniel?” I asked of the shadows. “You coming to get me? I’m a patient man; I can wait a long time.”
And there was a silence as long and cruel as any I had ever known, contaminated with dust and insect flight. But it ended. As I knew it would.
“You killed my Mama!” Daniel lunged at me, out of the darkness. And he was quick. Quicker than I’d dared to fear. I dove to the left, and still his fists found me. I felt a rib break.
Then he was clutching me, hugging me bear-like, his breath washing over me, his eyes dark as hell, and I saw death in them, and the cruel, horrible joy he found in such killing.
“You killed my mama,” he repeated, and squeezed, till wraiths danced black in my vision. I struggled in that grip, thrashed and bucked, slammed my forehead into the bridge of his nose, his cold blood splattered against my skin, and still he did not loosen his hold.
I felt the distant drumming of a distant shore, the chill place Icabus had spoken of. Against my will, because all things have a limit, my muscles relaxed, my eyelids closed, as though to speed on death and that crashing shore.
And then I was choking; the caul stuck and burning in my throat. It came back up, washed with bile and my lost hope. It came back up, and with it a moment’s breath.
I opened my eyes, he was near enough, and me with that new breath in my lungs, and blood still pumping in my veins.
So I spat the caul in his face.
“I killed her,” I said. “Yes, I did.”
The caul stuck to his brow, a flap of accusatory skin, and, for an instant, he was stilled. Just an instant. His hands fell away, he stumbled backwards, fast. But I was faster, my gun already out.
I shot him, aimed point-blank at caul and skull, and released a bullet into his brain.
Daniel stopped, swatted at the tiny hole in his skull like it was a fly. He even stood up, and I thought I was done for, that even my magics, my slyness wasn’t enough. Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he crashed back, broken, to the dusty ground.
I pulled out my chopper and separated head from neck; better to be safe than sorry. “I killed your mama, and I killed you,” I said to Daniel’s corpse. “Got a lot of blood on my hands.” I brought the head in close, I was feeling chatty. “But you’re the last one, I promise you that.”
Daniel’s eyes flicked open, and his lips pulled back, and he spat a burst of bloody spittle into my face. Bloody magics, magic of blood, and a dead man’s blood at that. Poisoned, and that was just the beginning.
I dropped the head, rubbed at my eyes, and my cataracts tumbled, and I tumbled with them. I fell, and the shadows swallowed me whole. For a while all was dark. No thought, just night.
Until a foot buried itself in my ribs.
I coughed. Spat out blood.
Opened my eyes. Nothing. Blind, my fingers gripped chill, wet sand.
Waves crashed in nearby. I could hear them. In and out, like breathing. But there was no breathing here. Not on this shore.
“He’s dead,” I cried into the darkness. “It’s done.”
And there was no answer.
“Where is he? I’ll hunt him through hell if I have to,” I said, because that is what people like me say, and that was all I had left.
Mother Beet cackled. Her rank breath washed against my face.
“Why, Mr. Grieve, this isn’t dear Daniel’s hell, it’s yours.”
I felt the darkness then, felt its infinite chill, and its great emptiness. Just her and me. Just my guilt and me. And something so much worse. Something I’d never considered. I howled my misery into the void.
Wish was so distant it roared in my bones. I yearned for it across the endless space. My teeth clamped with agony; my lips ran with the spit of my hunger.
Fingers brushed my cheek.
The city called.
Lips pressed against mine, then pulled away.
The city called.
Cockroaches hissed and spat.
The city called, and I could not answer.
“Welcome to eternity,” Mother Beet said.
Trent Jamieson lives in Brisbane, Australia, with his wife, Diana. His first collection of short stories Reserved for Travelling Shows is due for release by Prime Books in November 2005.
I love cities. Absolutely adore them, even though I grew up in a small country town. The idea of people being addicted to a city appealed to me. The idea of fusing it with the imagery of a western was doubly appealing.