Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Chapter 11 Part 1

As usual, this is a first draft, so expect some errors. Thanks for reading!

Madame Rag breathed in the stale air of the derelict home. Every city, no matter where it was on the globe, had places like this. Places, that if not abandoned, were at least left deserted for long stretches at a time. Madame Rag and Mister Bone knew them all, and in the rare case one couldn’t be quickly found, they simply created the vacancies required. That was just part of the fun.

It wasn’t that they didn’t enjoy the modern perks of hot running water, warm food, and comfy beds, it was simply that things so often seemed to become complicated when they brushed shoulders with “the normal folk.”

They mixed less well with the public than sea birds did with ruptured oil tankers. The end result in both cases were rows of dead things, be they migratory sandpipers, or uniformed hotel staff. Their clients didn’t like these little complications, and they were above all else, professionals.

She’d decided years and years ago that to maintain a healthy breeding population of hospitality workers, that they would strictly curtail their contact with the world of the regulars—especially Mister Bone, who admittedly had impulse control issues. Whenever they were called in for a job that required more than an afternoon to complete, they would simply retire to the closest abandoned motel, condemned home, or recently-depopulated flop house to await their orders.

When their employer was Knox of the White, as it often was, this arrangement was even more desirable. Being around Knox made both of them feel as though they were walking on eggshells made of unstable high explosive. This was likewise agreeable with Knox, to whom the idea of any kind of familiar relationship with “the help,” was unthinkable.

This evening found the two of them sitting by lantern light on the mouldy cushions of decomposing deck furniture at the edge of a stagnant indoor pool. Emerald moss and black mildew clung to the tiled walls in streaks, and floating in the centre of the once-luxurious pool was a large hummock of brown stringy vegetation. The cold air was moist and held the dark stink of decomposing fungus. Both Rag and Bone were silent. It wasn’t a companionable silence. It was the tight expectant silence of an impending unpleasant conversation.

Rag looked Mister Bone over. In his time he’d been shot, stabbed, poisoned, drowned, and defenestrated. He’d lived through Cholera, Typhus, and Plague. He’d been set upon by hunting dogs and burned by acid. He’d been buried up to his neck in the hot desert sand and left for dead. He’d had limbs caught in steam-powered machinery, and been hung by the neck on no less than seven separate occasions. Being nearly crushed under a car though was something new, and judging from his sullen silence, the novelty wasn’t a welcome one.

As he sat, he marched a large brown spider across one set of his knuckles then the other. They’d once seen a street magician do the same trick with a coin, but he insisted that his way was better.

“Want to know something?” he finally asked Madame Rag in a dolorous voice, “Being run over really hurts.” He rubbed at his shoulder where tire rubber was still visible against his pale skin.

“It was a small car,” she said tightly. “I was crushed by an omnibus. Remember that Shillibeer in Westminster? Three times the weight, and three sets of pounding hooves. I had scars for a week and a day.”

Bone released the spider on a cracked resin table and peered down at her curiously. “Healed fine,” he said, fingering open a gap in the buttons of her top. He leered in an expression of happy lust down at her and attempted to squeeze a cucumber-sized finger between the gap in the buttons.

“That’s not the point,” she replied, slapping away his gargantuan hand. “We were caught unprepared and our quarry has gone to ground. Himself will not be happy,” she predicted.

 Bone’s expression fell limp as an overcooked noodle at her words. He shrugged and stared at her with an expression like a bucket of still water. After a moment, he began to try and relocate his spider.

There would be no help from that quarter. No, Bone’s main contribution to any conversation lay in being someone other than yourself to speak to while you ordered your ideas. One didn’t expect to a canyon to echo the answers to your questions back at you, and that was Bone, an immovable feature of the landscape, not a fount of sober advice.

Sometimes when Madame Rag was in one of her less charitable moods, as she was now, she imagined that Mister Bone’s brain as of those fattened veal calves farmers kept in those little plastic igloos. The meat all tender and wobbly from lack of use. It was well that Mister Bone’s mind was not the feature that most attracted her.

She flipped idly through an old back issue of Scientific American. If Mister Bone wanted to sulk, that would be his affair. She eventually came upon an article that claimed that the act of smiling itself could improve one’s mood. With all that had gone pear-shaped that afternoon, she felt that she could do with any quantum of positivity she could bring to the impending conversation.

She smiled, and her skin stretched tight as a piano wire across a bike path. After a few more minutes of reading, she looked up at her husband. “This periodical claims that the act of smiling itself can improve your mood. They believe it affects the chemistry of the brain,” she said with a lunatic grin. “You should try it.”

He stared at her, the spider on his hand seizing on the moment of distraction to escape.

She gave him and encouraging nod, her fleshless face contorted into a death’s head grimace.

Mister Bone’s lips curled up revealing his teeth and gums.  

She wasn’t able to give any more instruction because at that moment her pocket chimed in the digital imitation of an old telephone bell. She didn’t need to see the caller ID. She’d only given the number to one person, and after last October’s debacle, the surviving telemarketers had spread the word around that her number wasn’t to be disturbed.

Rag closed her eyes and assumed a smile that revealed so many teeth that if anyone had seen her they might have been forgiven for thinking that she was the product of an experiment meant to fuse Julia Roberts with a Great White shark.

She pressed to accept the call on the third ring. “Hello, Doctor Knox, and how are we on this fine winter evening?” she asked, face contorted into a rictus of manic joy, her voice the smooth obsequiousness of rancid fat. “Yes, yes, we did, in fact, catch up with him…” she stood and began to pace in a circle. “Sadly, no. I have to report that I was quite unable to detain him, another party interfered. They proved to be quite the handful of rusty razorblades…” At this last, she glared at Mister Bone who was too focused on his spider to notice a thing. “The Webmage, Dimitri Singh… Yes, the very one.” She took her seat again and sat completely rigidly while she listened.
“I’m afraid I have another small morsel of bad news,” she said, her eyes a-twinkle with enforced cheer. “Our quarry was able to escape with the notebooks that we’d procured earlier…” The phone’s metal casing began to indent and Rag tried to smile even harder. It wasn’t easy, the muscles in her cheeks began to twitch under the strain and her molars were becoming visible.

The smile was not having the desired effect on the conversation she had hoped it might. There might be a time in the not-too-distant future when the staff of Scientific American received an unexpectedly lively visit to discuss the veracity of what they chose to publish.

Bone finally looked up at her with the slack expression that passed for curiosity before going back to his spider. It appeared to have fewer legs than it had only moments before.

Rag stood so abruptly her chair zoomed and skittered across the tiles behind her before crashing into a wall with an echoing boom and the sound of shattering ceramic. She began to stalk around the stagnant pool. “Might I humbly suggest that taking the mark out for drinks and the cinema may not be playing to our strengths? We do ever so well with a spot of slaughter and mayhem… No, I would, of course, never presume to tell you your business, I simply refer to our past successes…”

The smile on Rag’s face slowly asphyxiated and slumped over into a snarl. “In three centuries of being in the business, we have never failed to complete a commission. We will complete this one. One has a certain professional reputation to maintain, you see… Yes, I know of it… Very well, I’ll ensure they are made aware… I must say that when that news gets out the cat will be among the canaries… Is there anything else?…” Rag’s face suddenly became blank and inexpressive. “All of them? You would like me to wake all of them?… No, I was simply making sure I received your instructions correctly… Very well.”

For the first time in the conversation, Rag’s expression began to slowly melt into genuine pleasure. Mister Bone knew that expression, it was the expression that let him know that soon, hopefully very soon, he’d be able to get his hands wet, red, and sticky.

Rag completed her phone conversation and joined him next to the pool. She looked down to the table where the spider’s dismembered body now sat neatly next to a row of twitching legs arranged from largest to smallest. The spider’s abdomen still moved in tiny shifting twitches, as though it could somehow wiggle away.

“Shall we go, my dear Bone? We have a good deal of work to be about.”

“Good work?” Bone asked.

“The very best,” Rag confirmed. “Murder and skulduggery, Mister Bone! Murder and skulduggery.”

Bone nodded solemnly in reply.

Rag paused a moment and carefully picked up the legless spider between a thumb and forefinger to examine it. After a moment of thought, she popped the dainty into her mouth, puckered her lips, and began to gently suck on it. They left the room without a backward glance.

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