This excerpt of my unedited draft is a little bit longer, so I’m going to keep the preamble short. If you’ve been following along, you’ve already met the magician Pavel Fell, and we pick up his story in the first of these two chapters. In the second we meet a new character, and if you haven’t been following along I suggest you skip forward to that, since it is (hopefully) a fun read just by itself.
A Sticky City Story — Excerpt
by Marcus Carab
10. The Magician Fell (2)
Pavel was badly shaken: he had spent the past two hours asking, then pleading, for a response from his captors—any response—but they remained silent, holding him still on the seat with hands of stone. The van was dark and they had hooded him immediately, so he had glimpsed little more than their forearms, and his magic powers of observation and deduction were useless without raw material from the senses; for the first time, he envied the true telepaths and their flimsy but genuinely superhuman abilities.
He had been listening, of course, but one cannot navigate the city by sound alone. He strained to pick out something unique, but there is nothing of the sort in a city of parrots: he might hear the distinct hum of an East 1308th generator one minute, and the chime of the Pinwheel clocktower the next. The two were hours apart, and there was no way to tell which was real—assuming either was. It was all just the formless dialogue of the city and the birds, while the van lurched along through the stop-and-start game of Sticky traffic.
Distance: that was one thing he could gauge. Two hours doesn’t get you far in the middle of the day, and by his estimation they couldn’t have made it more than a couple of miles. Direction was more difficult, as Sticky streets are full of unusual turns and forks, and this combined with their constant lane-weaving course past the other cars produced a strong disorientation. Nonetheless he thought he sensed they were headed east, out of Liplock—towards King’s Creek, perhaps, or maybe the crater.
Finally the van took a sharp turn and stopped, and Pavel heard the sound of a rolling metal door before they moved forward and down a steep incline. The noise of the traffic became suddenly distant and muffled, and when a nearby parrot squawked “Welcome home!” its voice echoed off concrete. Though he was still frightened, Pavel’s found his nerves starting to settle, and he realized how powerful the effect of disorientation had been on him—Sticky City, he thought, must be a terrifying place for the blind. The van continued downhill for several minutes before it leveled out and came to a stop. The engine cut, the door slid open, and finally someone spoke: “Come on, get out.”
The stone hands guided him out of the van and he heard a door unlocked and opened. All was still for a second, then all at once the hands released him, shoved him forward, plucked the hood from his head and slammed the door shut behind him. He blinked at the tall and narrow hall he found himself in—it was unfinished concrete, dimly lit with cheap stick-on BioGlo strips and inexplicably floored with one of the finest carpets he had ever seen, long and red, stretching down the entire thirty-foot corridor. There was another door at the far end, and seeing little other choice he walked towards it.
He was halfway there when it flew open and a young man darted through. He wore cheap clothes and had undercurrents of stress coursing visibly through his face, and he stared at Pavel for a moment before striding forward eagerly, both arms extended.
“Ah, you’re here! Excellent. They don’t like to be kept waiting you know,” he said. His hesitation at the word ‘they’ might have been missed by many, but to Pavel it was clear and unsettling, amidst the already puzzling nature of the situation.
“Who—who doesn’t?” Pavel asked, with fear giving way to suspicion.
“Your new patrons, of course!”
Pavel’s eyes widened. Patrons! None of this was what he thought—those weren’t spies, they were talent scouts; and this wasn’t retribution, it was an audition! And what important patrons they must be to go to such lengths for secrecy. Paranoid, with money: exactly the type to spend half their time traveling. This could be his ticket to A.D.
“Who are they?” he asked, becoming visibly excited despite himself.
“They prefer to remain anonymous, for the time being,” the man answered as he squeezed past Pavel and began to usher him towards the door. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
They reached the door and the man gestured for Pavel to enter. He straightened his jacket and patted his pockets to double check the locations of his various loaded coins, then stepped through into a large chamber that was almost entirely shrouded in darkness. The exception was a spotlight cast from the distance that knocked out the featureless silhouette of two men, arms about each others shoulders, seated on a high dais. It fell at his feet in a bright circle, inscribed with the hard lines of their shadow, and with a discreet cough he stepped forward into its centre. Pavel found the whole setting unnecessarily theatrical, but knew that dealing with such eccentricity would be the price of entertaining those who could make him rich. He was about to introduce himself when one of the men spoke.
“We have heard you are the finest magician in Liplock, perhaps even in all of Sticky.”
Pavel considered this. “I know only that what magic I perform, I perform flawlessly,” he said.
“No need for modesty, Mr. Fell, and no time for it either,” said the man. “We require your services at an engagement tomorrow.”
“A private party, sirs?”
“No, an assembly. I will be speaking to a crowd in Crater Park, and you will be the opening act, as it were.”
Pavel’s shoulders sagged. “I must tell you up front that I’m probably not the right man for the job,” he said. “My performances are personal; on stage I am an amateur.”
The two men looked at each other for a moment, then the first spoke again. “Nonsense! We know of your successes and we are confident you can fulfill our needs. We have booked the central stage and procured considerable supplies, which are here in a warehouse for your perusal.”
Pavel frowned. No doubt this warehouse would be full of hoops and sheets and boxes and other gimmickry. “Sirs, I—” he began, but the man cut him off.
“There will be a sizable stipend involved and, potentially, an arrangement of ongoing patronage.”
Pavel Fell was an ambitious man, but he was confident he would fulfill that ambition in his chosen path. Though his mind briefly flirted with a return to his childhood plans—he’d drawn up ersatz schematics for all manner of elaborate magic masques back then—he knew in his flitting fingertips that this opportunity was not for him. He drew a breath and spoke in his most formal tones. “Sirs, I sincerely appreciate your interest—indeed it flatters me as a magician and as a professional,” he said. “But to take this job would do ill-service to us both. I am no expert in, and in fact not even a fan of, stage magic. I would recommend you approach the conjurer Don Sola, whose tent is always thronged with revelers for his evening act.”
“We are afraid you misunderstand, Mr. Fell,” said the man. “We have selected you.”
There was an extended moment of uncomfortable silence, and Pavel stared at the flat black shapes that were all he could see of his captors, who had become clients, who now it seemed had become captors again. He heard a faint shuffling, and from the corners of his eyes he saw that he was now flanked by two expressionless guards in grey security uniforms. He gulped, and the man spoke again.
“You will be escorted now to review your equipment. Though time is limited we will make every effort to acquire anything you feel is missing,” he said. “And please, Mr. Fell: consider yourself our honoured guest, so that we may continue to do so as well.”
The threat in these last words was not lost on Pavel, and he quickly resolved a new course of action. He looked up at the men with a smile. “Perhaps I have been too rash. After all, it is always good to expand the horizons of one’s art,” he said. “By tomorrow I shall be prepared with enough wonders to awe a crowd of millions.”
The men did not answer, but Pavel saw the slightest shift of the shadow as one waved an arm, and the guards at his sides stepped forward into the light, gesturing for him to follow them. Pavel could read the disappointment written all over their faces: this was not the only outcome they had been prepared for. In fact, the threat of violence lurked beneath every surface in this place: the uniforms of the guards, the curious nerves of the man who showed him in, the menacingly aloof voice of one of his captors and the unbroken silence of the other; even the red carpet in the hall had felt like a thin veil between earth and a teeming underworld. He was in danger, there was no doubt of that, and the longer he cooperated the harder it would be to escape, though becoming uncooperative at the wrong time might cost him his life. Pavel followed the guards with eyes wide and ears finely tuned—the first chance he saw, he had to take it.
11. Sticky City Cleaners
Mercer Kick swore under his breath as he heard his suit tear for the dozenth time. The last time he had squeezed through this duct was as a much younger man, and though drugs and a self-cannibalizing metabolism had kept him slim, his aging joints were proving less accommodating than they used to be. His scrunched shoulders ached, his elbows and knees throbbed with hollow pain that resounded, somehow, in his teeth, and his bones popped and creaked at every exhausting shimmy forwards. Finally he reached the end and punched through the flimsy lint screen, then lowered himself down into the drum of a quad-load commercial dryer. He pressed his face to the round glass door, girded with a ring of metal like a submarine porthole, and looked out at the banks of washing machines along the opposite wall. He closed his eyes and put both hands against the door, one with fingers crossed—this was the sixth drier he’d tried, and if it too was latched from the outside he’d have to climb back into that damn pipe and shimmy along to the next.
He counted to three and shoved, and the door swung open in a full arc and hit the adjacent drier, causing a steely clang that echoed up and down the laundromat. Kick swore out loud this time, having already lost the element of surprise. He swung his legs out of the opening and sat on the lip, kicking his heels noisily against the drier, whistling and watching the window to the back office as the light came on behind the half-open blinds and two figures loped about in panic. He reached into his waistcoat and fished out a slender meerschaum pipe, sculpted in the shape of an alpine horn and nearly engulfed by the rich, red stain of heavy use. He poked at the charred lump of tobacco and hash inside and lit it with the laser igniter in his fraternity ring from Northeast U, which he had stolen from an unconscious meathead after a bar fight. He took a deep first draw as the office door flew open and the Clean Freak came bursting through.
The Clean Freak was just what Kick called him, because he never could remember his real name and he didn’t really like him enough to try. Besides, the name fit: he was a freakish little monster, and never was that more clear than now, with him panting in boxer shorts and an open housecoat, trying to balance a shotgun on his one good arm. With his stubby feet and little knotted fists, his bulbous knees and elbows, the perfect orbs of his head and belly and nothing in between but barely-concealed bone, he looked like a series of balls on sticks—a classroom model of an unstable molecule. Kick nearly threw up on his pipe when he spotted the grossly spherical tip of his cock poking out the leg of his shorts, then gazed beyond it through his bowed legs to the face of the whore hiding under the desk. He gagged and looked up at the ceiling, trying to think of anything other than this goblin and the poor working girl who was that hard up, when the Clean Freak finally caught his breath and shouted.
“Mercer you muckswaddled fuck!” he screeched. His voice had an accent all its own, one that borrowed the most scornful tones and phrases from every dialect in Sticky. “You haven’t been here since parrots were pets—you couldn’t fucking knock?”
“Nice to see you too,” said Kick, calmly.
“Nice? You look like Samedi’s anorexic daughter and you smell like his outhouse. I’m still thinking about shooting you. A corpse would stink less.”
“Well the years haven’t changed you one bit,” said Kick, pausing to take another draw from his pipe. “I suspect there’s an upper limit an how vile any one man can become, no matter how hard he tries.”
“What the hell do you want?”
“Why so jumpy?”
The two men stared at each other. Kick reached into his jacket and pulled another lump of hash and tobacco off of the sticky mass that sat loose in his breast pocket, then stuffed it into his pipe. He lit it slowly, and when no answer was forthcoming, he spoke again.
“Come on, Freak, who did you think I was? They might still be coming, you know, and I might be able to help.”
The Clean Freak spat on the ground and lowered his shotgun. “You? Help?” he said with a sneer. “I wish it had been them, Kick. Or anyone else, really. Now get out of here.”
With that he backed into the office, slamming the door shut as he went. Kick sighed and continued to smoke his pipe as he walked down the length of the room and noisily unlocked the front door. He drew it open slowly as it scraped along the vinyl floor, then let it swing shut with a bang and walked back to the open drier. He climbed inside, drew back into the drum and waited, still puffing his pipe and carefully blowing the smoke towards the ventilation shaft above. After a few moments he heard the office door open again, and watched as the Clean Freak slogged wearily past him, muttering. He listened as he moved down the aisle, locked the front door, then began walking back up between the rows of silent machines.
As he passed back in front of the opening, Kick leapt with all the force his stiff knees could still muster and caught the Clean Freak in a flying tackle that left them both sprawled on the floor. Despite shooting pains in all his limbs Kick managed to rise first, grabbing the tiny Freak by his scruffy black hair and the waistband of his shorts and hurling him face-first into the open drier. He scrabbled to right himself, but before he could turn around Kick slammed the door shut and pulled down the latch, grinning at him through the glass. Kick bent down to pick up his pipe where it had fallen in the scuffle, then looked around until he spotted the still-smoking lump of fuel a few feet away. He gingerly replaced it, taking only a slight burn to his well-calloused fingers, and drew deeply with the beginnings of a chuckle. He turned back to the captive Clean Freak, dramatically patted his pockets, and raised his voice.
“Hang on a second, I’m going to see if that fine lady of yours has any quarters.”
Ignoring the Freak’s sudden frantic pleas, he strode into the back office where the girl had returned to her hiding spot. In his younger days, he realized, he would have simply tipped the whole desk onto the floor and possibly gotten her number for later. But today either of those things was likely to throw his back out, so he simply crouched down and met her eyes.
“You’d best be running along, sweetheart,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill him or anything—you can come back to collect tomorrow.”
Without hesitating, the girl snatched her purse and shoes from the corner and dashed out through the office fire exit. Realizing that he actually did need change for this, Kick began rummaging around in the desk drawers. He found the false back in one and removed it, revealing several small bills and rolls of coins, three passports and a small leather pouch. Kick raised an eyebrow at the last and pocketed it, along with a couple coin rolls plus a tenner for coffee later, then shut the drawer and returned to drier.
The Clean Freak was dangling from the mouth of the ventilation shaft, his feet pushing futilely at the metal wall of the drum while one gangly arm strained to lift his meagre weight and the other hung, limp and useless, against his side. Kick rapped loudly on the glass with one of the rolls of coins.
“If you climb into those vents, so help me god I’ll turn on every drier in this place and roast you alive.”
The Freak dropped back to the floor of the drum and stumbled, then lunged at the glass with teeth bared. He focused his yellow eyes on Kick and snarled.
“Let me the fuck out of here you ratsticking streetstain! What the fuck do you want?”
Kick rolled his eyes and fed a coin into the slot. He pressed the button for the lowest setting and the machine shuddered into motion, rotating the Freak’s feet out from under him and trapping him in an awkward perpetual tumble against the moving bottom of the drum. Kick took another draw on his pipe, chuckled, and watched for a moment longer, then pressed another button that brought the drier to a halt. The Freak groaned and turned to lie on his back, staring up at Kick with impotent fury.
“Let’s have a conversation without all the name-calling, shall we?” said Kick, waving the roll of coins in front of his face. “Remind me—how much time does each of these buy?”
“You never were one to do laundry, were you Kick?”
Kick flipped the machine on again and watched the Freak resume his struggle for a few seconds, then turned it back off. “There’s no need for this,” he said. “Like I told you, I’m pretty sure I’m here to help.”
“Pretty sure?” asked the Freak. “What in Sticky is that supposed to mean?”
“Does this mean you’re ready to listen?”
“Listen to this, fenceweed!” shouted the Freak, extending a bony middle finger at Kick.
Kick laughed. The Clean Freak was cracking: his crudeness was losing its artful edge. He pressed the button for the medium setting and walked away, yelling “Just a sec’—toilet!” over his shoulder as he went. He wedged himself into the back office’s tiny bathroom and began exploring the medicine cabinet, stuffing plenty of pills and dermals into his jacket before returning and shutting off the drier. Several blue bruises were materializing on the Freak’s leathery skin, and he was slick with sweat from the heat inside the drum. He staggered to his feet and fell against the door, his palms leaving wet streaks on the glass.
“All right you— all right, Mercer.” he said, exhausted. “Let’s talk.”