THE NICK OF TIME
(and other abrasions)
Acquainted With The Night
Al Bruno III
A blind alley
The cry still rung in his ears.
Alone in the half light, he stared down at the tiny form between his boots. Its mouth was frozen in mid hiss, its almond shaped eyes were cold and accusing. Raindrops matted its sleek, black fur; its front paws were stretched out, the muscles locked in mid rake. Somewhere, a few blocks away, a band began to play the pounding of drums and blare of trumpets counter-pointing the incessant rhythm of the rainstorm.
He thought again of the sound that had brought him here – so terrified, so human.
Flicking wet hair from his face, he knelt. Bad enough the poor thing had to die here among garbage; he would make certain that it was not disposed of as garbage. He tried to take the tiny corpse in his hands but the kitten crumbled into nothing at a touch.
Once this had been part of the great redwood timberland, now all that remained was a maze of wide rotting stumps. Armored, tattooed Sentries patrolled the deforested zone, killing anyone who dared to approach the gates with hostility. The bodies of those that had tried were left to rot where they had fallen.
The great wall was broken by a series of well-defended portcullises. Baneful figures paced the parapets. Strange music and the susurration of crowds and machinery rose above the gambrel rooftops and lofty minarets that clustered together in the shadow of a great tower that had come to be called the Spire.
In a cafe on Nooker Street a man sat at a table by the widow and watched the Spire's shadow slowly devour the houses and storefronts. In a short while he would be engulfed. He sipped at his drink and waited. He was tall with a thick mane of white blond hair, he scanned the room from behind a pair of gold framed octagon rimmed glasses.
A stooped, muscular man stood approached him, naked from the waist up and sporting a brutal smile. “You are him aren’t you? Dr. Flesh?”
Dr. Flesh nodded, “Yes."
“I heard you can do anything.” He pulled a chair from another table and straddled it. “Even more than the Monarchs. My cousin Jack says they’re real scared of you.”
A horse drawn carriage clattered its way up the street, its speakers blaring rock and roll. Dr. Flesh cocked an eyebrow, “I’m not here to talk about the Monarchs, are you?"
The smile dimmed, “No.”
“So what do you want? An autograph?”
“No.” The satyr like man turned away, for a moment diverting his attention to the trio of intricately scarred Sentries in their bodysuits of Kevlar and chainmail passing on the opposite side of the street. “I want… I want…”
“What is your name?”
“Well Gaylord, please tell me what it is I can do for you or let me finish my drink.”
“I want to be bigger.” He blushed, “You know, down there.”
“Ah, that.” Dr. Flesh smiled thinly. It was usually that. “My fee?"
Gaylord pulled a sweaty envelope from his pocket and slid it across the table, “This is everything I got.”
“I’m sure.” Sipping at his tea, Dr. Flesh let the darkness overtake them before he spoke again, “I don’t think I need to get into the entire matter of what might happen if I find you tried to cheat me. After all the sideshows are littered with examples of that.”
“My buddy Terrel said you turned a guy inside out once but he didn’t die.”
The waitress came over and placed a candle in the center of the table. Dr. Flesh watched her and then slipped off one of his leather gloves. “Shall we get started?”
“Do we need to go in the bathroom so I can take it out?”
“Thankfully no.” The candlelight glittered off Dr. Flesh’s spectacles, he held out his bare hand, “Give me your wrist.”
“Just my wrist? I mean…”
“Just your wrist…”
Gaylord’s wrist was trembling, Dr. Flesh asked gently “How big?”
“Pretty big… but not too big.”
Dr. Flesh gave the other man’s hand a tight squeeze. Gaylord flinched and then his eyes widened in astonishment.
When he was finished Dr. Flesh called the waitress over and ordered another cup of tea.
“Wow.” Gaylord shifted in his seat, “You really did it.”
“If there is nothing else, I’d like to have the table to myself again.”
“Oh sure.” Gaylord got up, smiling and unsteady on his feet. “Thanks and Merry Christmas.”
“What?” Dr. Flesh shouted, nearly extinguishing the candle.
“Christmas… its five days till Christmas if you’re into that sorta thing.” Gaylord said, “No offense.”
The waitress came by and deftly re lit the candle. “None taken.” The cool expression of Dr. Flesh’s face had slipped a little, “I’d just forgotten.”
When Gaylord had left Dr. Flesh took a moment to peek into the envelope; his mouth watered a little at the sight of the little pills in their little baggies. He finished his tea in three quick gulps. The shadow of the Spire was just beginning to lift. Paying the bill Dr. Flesh drew his long dark coat in around him and walked out of the cafe.
Across the road a swarm of cats made its way along the sidewalk, he watched them flow around and between the legs of Nooker Street's pedestrian traffic. The orange tomcat leading the pack was scarred and limping, it paused to look at him.
A black Monte Carlo SS rounded the corner, its engine roaring. For a moment it engulfed his field of vision; the gold Mag wheels, the vanity plates and the masked driver that was honking the horn to clear stragglers from the road. A moment later it was gone, a trail of acrid exhaust in its wake.
Dr. Flesh glanced back across Nooker Street to see that the cats had gone.
The Spire was one of the Greater Western Council's crowning achievements, through a combination of architecture; geomancy and sorcery the tower had been created from a single slab of bedrock and anchored in the center of the City. The Spire was almost seven hundred feet in height and until recently it was an institute for magical study. Students of the thaumaturgical arts from around the world and beyond came here to study with the great Mystagogues, as well as sample the City of Olathoe's catalog of unearthly delights. Students who graduated from this institute were ranked among the most promising in the field; many went on to become great Magi in their own right, others still went on to become legends.
It was all overseen by Sandor Perth. Sandor Perth was a study in contradictions. On one hand he was the Grand Pontiff of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues and Lord of the First Circle. He was by some accounts the most powerful man in the City. On the other hand he was blind, confined to a wheelchair and prone to fits of uncontrollable drooling. A pair of Rectors from the Second Circle attended the venerable old Maestro; two Preceptors of the Third Circle attended them each in turn. Those members of the Third circle had brought along a retinue of eight Deans from the Fourth Circle and each of those Deans had a pair of Sub-deans from the Fifth Circle to accompany them.
Whenever he visited here Dr. Flesh felt his stomach twist in knots from the tension in the air. Even now as he stood in an alleyway near the kitchen talking to a pasty looking Sub-dean he wanted nothing more than to leave. Was any amount of money worth this?
“Are you sure,” the Sub-dean asked, “that you’ve never heard of me? The name is Polonius. I wrote a treatise called Daemons of the Maelstrom. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
Dr. Flesh shook his head, “Can’t say that I have.”
Of course Dr. Flesh knew he had no choice, his lifestyle had left him with creditors in two worlds howling for his blood. This job might bet him started back on the road to respectability, he could buy his way out of debt and work his way back out of the trailer park.
“I knew you would be the person to talk to. You can make it look like natural causes can’t you?”
“To the untrained eye yes.”
“Capital.” Polonius grinned, “It is so hard to find an assassin willing to take on an assignment of this nature.”
“Most people aren’t stupid enough to get involved in the Council’s feuds.”
“Well put! Ah, if only we had that kind of progressive thinking in the Council. Sadly a great many of the members of the Preceptors are a pathetically reactionary.”
“You don’t say.” Dr. Flesh replied. Reactionary was an understatement. For all their power, the members of the Council did little more than plot and scheme against each other. Political assignments like this always left a sour taste in Dr. Flesh's mouth; he much preferred killing feuding cousins and jilted lovers to partisan bickering like this. Still, the money was always good.
“If only I didn’t have to resort to such crude methods but once my faction has ascended to the ranks of Deans there will be changes.”
How many times have I heard that in the last 200 years? Dr. Flesh thought, I still can’t believe I forgot about Christmas.
“Who is it you need killed?”
“His name is Morgan and he has a taste for powdered wigs.” Polonius explained, “He doesn’t live in the Spire, no one knows exactly where he lives. He likes to go to Haruspex Boulevard, usually he preaches but sometimes he just listens. Sometimes he goes to Pexley's Emporium, though he hardly ever buys anything.”
“Is that it?”
Polonius leaned forward conspiratorially, "He's been a regular customer at Madame Regal's for quite some time, and apparently she has a girl who will satisfy his...needs.”
“Got it.” Self-consciously Dr. Flesh patted the envelope of pills. As soon as this was over he would treat himself to one. Just one he promised himself. “You know my rate for this?”
“Of course.” Polonius handed him a velvet bag with knotted drawstrings.
“It feels a little light to me.”
“There are some small specimens I admit but it was the best I could do.” Frowning Dr. Flesh unknotted the drawstring and drew out one of the black rubies and held it up to the light. Polonius shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, “Do we have a deal?”