Under the Shell:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Bandar sneered and gave a short bark that I realised was meant to be a laugh. “Don’t be taken in by his lies, bogman. Those weren’t muggers. That was the Cat’s Eye Crew. And they only work on commission.” He turned to the boy. “Come on kid, why were they really after you?” He nodded at the thing in the boy’s hands. “What was it you stole?”
“That doesn’t look like nothing.”
“I didn’t steal it.”
“Didn’t steal what, eh?
“Didn’t steal nothing.”
“So you won’t mind us taking that nothing off your hands, right?”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t mine.”
“So what is it?”
The boy looked about. “Ey, look. I’ll tell you everything. But not out here. Okay?”
“He’s right, Boss,” I said. “Those men might return at any moment. We should get inside somewhere.”
“Not till I find my purse.”
“If the kid’s got it, he’s not going to leave it here. If it got lost in the fight, then it’s gone by now.”
“No. I want it.”
I fought down the rising of my blood, took a deep breath, and resisted the urge to slam my fist straight into Bandar’s face. “Kid,” I said, “where do you live?”
“Ghost Walkers Lane, near Milk Canal.”
“That’s quite a way from here.”
“Too far to go by foot. Let alone at night.”
“I don’t have any money. How else am I supposed to get there?”
His voice choked off and he sniffed a big snotty wad up his nose.
I shook my head. “Sorry kid. We can’t take you that far. Not right away. Do you know anyone in this quarter?”
He looked at Bandar, wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I know him.”
“Then you can stay with him tonight.”
“Hey,” Bandar said, “wait a minute.”
“Boss, this kid’s in danger.”
“That’s his problem.”
“Afraid not. The code of the Rickshaw Runners insists we get him to a safe place. The nearest safe place is your house. You have to board him for the night.”
“No, no, no. That’s completely out of the question.”
“I can pay you,” the boy said.
“With what,” Bandar said. “My fifty marduks?”
The kid leaned in close and said, “Sleen info. But not out here.”
He looked around again. The lamp had stopped swinging and the darkness had settled about us, thick as old syrup. I felt unseen eyes upon me, and ghost hairs prickled on the back of my scalp.
Bandar was frowning.
“Come on,” I said. “Whether he can pay you or not, we can’t stick around here.”
I began to walk. The boy followed. A moment later Bandar began to follow as well. He had to canter to match my stride.
“This better not be a trick between the two of you to get into my property.”
“It isn’t,” I said.
We came to Apothecaries Lane, a small winding street with shopfronts hunched over like eager sellers.
“Which house is yours, Boss?”
“I said, which one’s yours.”
“It’s that one,” the boy said, pointing toward a large shape up ahead.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I told you. I know him.”
I wondered if I’d been too quick to trust the boy, but Bandar, walking beside me, no longer seemed to care. The frown still lingered on his face, but if any part of him truly believed that we were planning to rob him, it had retreated somewhere deep into that furrow between his eyes.
We came to a small shop with a potion maker’s sign over the door. I drew the rickshaw aside and tied it to a ring post.
Bandar looked around, then set to unlatching the door. The boy stood nearby. I waited a moment then flicked the shutter down on my lamp. As I reached them the door slid open and a wave of strange smells hit me at once. My head swam, and my nose tingled. The two figures disappeared inside. I ducked my head under the lintel and brushed something which instantly set my forehead aflame.
“Careful, you oaf,” Bandar said. “Wait, let me make a light.”
I stood in the door and vigorously scratched my forehead. It was already beginning to swell. After a moment, Bandar came back from a side room with a candle. I looked about. The room was small. Shelf after shelf of glass bottles lined the walls. A cat skull grinned at me from a corner. The ceiling was crowded with dried roots that hung down in clumps like moss from the Bearded Caves.
Bandar placed the candle on the table. “Welcome to my abode,” he said.
The boy stood nearby, his face a mask. At that moment they seemed almost like father and son. What had changed back there? I recalled a word. Sleen.
I coughed and cleared my throat. “Will you be all right?”
The boy nodded.
“Then I’ll be off now.”
“Hold on,” Bandar said. “I might still have need of you. Come in.”
He shrugged. “Then wait outside in the cold, if you like.”
“No, I’ll follow you.”
A second later I heard a click.
I looked back at the now closed door. “How did you do that?”
“I didn’t. It’s self-closing. Never can be too careful in my line of work. Come on back. I’ll be with you in a bit.”
The back room was even smaller than the first, and spartan as a monk’s cell. A single table occupied it, a couple of hard stools and an unmade bed. I sat without waiting for an invitation. My legs were tired, and I didn’t much care about good manners after all that had happened tonight.
The boy leant against the wall, still cradling the object in his arms. Bandar was in the front room, rummaging around for something.
“What’s your name, kid?” I asked.
“Torgelik. But everyone calls me Toggy. And you?”
“Cattle Bruiser! Now that’s a name I want!”
He looked me over the way Bandar had done, the way everyone in the city did, though there was nothing condescending about his manner. Only curiosity. “Those black swirls on your arms and chest, are they paint?”
“No, they’re tattoos.”
“Set! That must have hurt.”
“It’s a rite of passage among my people.”
“I guess they mean something cryptic. Am I right?”
“They’re the story of my life, from birth to death.”
“So they can tell the future?”
“If you can interpret them correctly.”
“And what do they say?”
“Many things.” I pointed to one of the images of a pair of bars bent open. “This one means I will be free or the agent of someone’s freedom.”
“Hey, if you’re going to spring someone from jail, I know a few people.”
“I don’t think it’s quite that simple.”
Bandar came through and set a lamp on the table. “All right, Toggy. You promised me information, so give me information. Or you’re out on your ear, got it?”
“Okay. First up, why were the Cat’s Eye Crew trying to kill you and, second, what the hell is that thing you’ve been hanging onto all this time?”
“It’s a krokothule’s egg.”
Bandar’s mouth opened then closed.
Toggy said, “I reckon that answers both your questions don’t it?”
“Let me see it.”
Toggy unwrapped the egg and placed it on the table. It was about the size of a large man’s head and mottled like a serpent. In the lamplight, its surface seemed to shift and swirl in a myriad of changing colors.
“Set!” Bandar’s eyes were wide as prayer discs. “Where did you get this?”
“Do you promise not to turn me in if I tell you?”
“Yes, yes, anything. Just tell me.”
“I stole it from Robis.”
“No, Robis the dung heaver. What other Robis is there?”
Bandar said nothing a moment. Then he exclaimed, “Oh rats!” He began pacing the small room.
I watched him for five turns then asked: “Who’s Robis?”
Bandar glared at me a moment, then threw up his arms. “Who’s Robis? Who’s Robis, he asks! Only the most bat-crazy sleen dealer in the whole of Zodom, that’s who. You do know what sleen is, don’t you bogman?”
“Sleen is a drug,” Toggy said.
“Not just any drug,” Bandar said. “Oh no. The most dangerous and profitable black market drug in Zodom. Snakes alive, Toggy, do you even know what’ll happen to us when Robis finds out I’m sheltering you here?”
“If this object is stolen, we’ll have to return it,” I said.
“And get ourselves tossed in the Zod for our trouble? Shem’s sake, man, think! The Cat’s Eye Crew were hired to get back his egg, and we stopped them.”
“We didn’t mean to. It was self-defence.”
“You think Robis cares if it was self-defence or not?”
“We could say it was a misunderstanding.”
“Fat lot of good that’ll do us once we’re fish food. No, we keep quiet and hope no one got a good look at us. On second thought, best if you hurry back. Tell your boss if anyone comes snooping around asking questions we were nowhere in the area. Maybe if we’re lucky—”
“Wait!” I said. “I still don’t understand.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Bandar said.
“I mean about this whole set-up. Toggy, tell me straight, why’d you steal this egg in the first place?”
“To give to Gamelin.”
“And who’s Gamelin?”
“A man who’ll pay a right tasty sum for a living krok’s egg, that’s who. Wants to set himself up in the sleen business. Has the birthing pools, cages, teat clamps, everything arranged. All he needed was the egg.”
“This Gamelin,” Bandar said. “How much was he willing to pay you?”
“Eight thousand marduks.”
“Eight thousand!” Bandar whistled. “No wonder you ran such a risk. I don’t suppose the thought ever crossed your mind that he would ever actually pay you that. Not to a little runt like you.”
“Hey!” Toggy said. “I’m no runt. Go poke your eyes out!”
“Quiet, both of you,” I said. “Toggy, the old man is right. I don’t know this Gamelin from the crone next door, but I doubt he’d be willing to pay out that much money for that egg when he can just take it from you by force.”
“You think I don’t know that? I’m not a foghead.”
Bandar sneered. “Then how were you planning to ensure you got your money?”
“I have my ways. But I ain’t telling you.” He gathered up the egg and made to leave.
“Bogman, keep him here!”
“I’m not your slave,” I said. “He can leave whenever he wants.”
“Oho! You soon changed your tune. What about all this danger he’s in, eh? Rickshaw Runners’ code and all that tosh.”
The boy’s voice wailed from the other room. “Open this door. I want to leave!” He began to bang on the boards.
“Damn that little brat. He’ll bring the whole neighbourhood down on us.”
He hurried into the other room. I heard glass smash, heard an explosive curse.
“No! Let me out!”
“Put that down! That’s very expensive!”
“You little fiend!”
I listened to them back and forth then stretched out my leg and tried to get some blood flow. My whole thigh was starting to stiffen up. The place around the wound was swollen and raw and oozy with blood. I wondered how I was going to get back. Then I wondered how long I’d be laid up till I could run again. A week at least, maybe more.
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North