(Apprx. 8 min read)
The kid clutching his Dad’s hand watched as the puppeteer got one marionette’s lines entangled with the other.
‘Not now Simon, this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages.’
Simon stopped pulling at his father’s hand as the performers stand collapsed. Even at six years old he already knew what the look on Dad’s face meant. He cast about for something else to occupy his attention instead. The puppet show was rubbish anyway; shopping centre ones always were.
When he saw the man, he stifled a laugh and glanced at the new comer out of the corner of his eyes. It looked like someone had reached inside and pulled on his face like it was string. They must have forgotten that they’d done it too because it had stayed that way. Simon’s eyes widened. The strange man had come through one of the doors Dad had warned him about. The one’s marked ‘Exit’ where if you went inside you never returned.
Just before it swung shut Simon caught a glimpse inside. It looked as if the walls were trying to drown themselves in the floor, and nothing was staying still at all. There was the smell of damp earth and growing things like the patch behind the shed; the one that never got any sun.
‘I can see a funny man, Dad.’
Simon tugged at his father’s arm again.
‘I know, isn’t it great?’
His father’s eyes stayed fixed on the disaster unfolding in front of him. He’d known his son would love it; puppets where his favourite.
‘He’s looking at us.’
The strange man had paused as if he were sniffing the air while the door clicked shut. For a moment Simon thought he was going to get into trouble because the man was looking straight at him now. There was something in his eyes that reminded Simon of Dad when he got into a mood. But all he did was smile and put a finger to his lips.
Simon tugged urgently at his father’s arm again. Somebody else needed to see the funny man. If it was just Simon nobody would believe him.
‘Simon, what is it?’ said his father without looking down and this time there was an edge to his voice.
His son stared after the receding figure. You could see shoppers dodging out of the way as if he were carrying something contagious and Simon wondered what it was. Maybe it was what made the man look so angry as the shopping centre’s entrance slid open.
Answers watched as the crowd barrelling down the pavement split around him and reformed. The last time he’d been above ground in England there’d still been a King in Parliament; that visit had cost him his life. If he was lucky there’d still be a few Royalists around to thank. But as he took in the garish signs and the countless sparkling shops, he got the feeling he’d been below too long for that.
‘No problem, there’s too much to be done and never enough time to do it in anyway.’
He was still thinking where to start when the choice was made for him.
‘Spare any change mate?’
‘I’ve a better idea,’ said Answers.
Answers had first realised the truth lying on his back staring at a storm drain’s mouth. He liked to listen to the run off’s and sluices. The songs that gurgled in the dark spoke to him, of rain and weariness, and how it was time to get up and do it again. They’d been right too; you only had to look at the new world to see that. Answers took in the street and the figures dotted along its length, some things never changed.
‘So many of you,’ he said to the man who’d asked him for change.
‘More every day mate. These are hard times, if you’ve got a few pennies for a cup of coffee you’d be doing me a favour. It’s bloody freezing out here.’
‘I’ve something better than that.’
Answers squatted down and let the words he’d heard below fall into the tramp’s ear. Soon the light of reason had dawned in his faded eyes.
‘Who are you?’ said the tramp.
Answers smiled, that one was easy.
‘I’m Answers, pleased to meet you.’
He didn’t tell the tramp his first and last names, not yet, he wasn’t ready for that.
‘I thought they died years ago.’
‘Maybe, it’s difficult to keep track sometimes, but what I’m called isn’t important. It’s the message I carry you should listen to. It’s been with me a long time. I think its hungry. You should hear it moan when it doesn’t get fed. Will you help me?’
The tramp looked like he’d glimpsed the light through a prison window and seen enough of it to want more. This time when Answers spoke again his voice was soft, bloody, and full of promises as sweet as a lover’s kiss. When it was done he sat back on his haunches.
‘You think we can do it?’ said the tramp.
‘I’ll show you how,’ said Answers.
The city’s homeless reminded him of a rookery when Answers thought about it. The hustle and bustle of so many jackets trailing down even made it look like they’d been pecked.
‘How many?’ said Answers gesturing at the crowd.
‘I don’t know, I lost count after I got past a hundred,’ said Davey the tramp. ‘Some of them have even come from elsewhere. They say there’ll be more along soon, word’s spreading fast.
A rumble shivered through the ring road sweeping by overhead and Answers pictured freezing containers. Each artic packed with refugees, starving eyes, and the metal taste of raw nerves. He’d move onto them next, even if there was less to feed on. They should still hear the word he had to spread.
‘We start tonight.’
The sound of his flock cheering through brew rotted teeth and nicotine whiskers brought dirt raining down from above. Answers smiled if you ignored the mess it was getting as good as the dream. It wasn’t all the way there, not yet, but it was close.
That night the first pedestrians went missing. The Tabloids were full of it, and all the local DJ’s talk was of disappearances and theft. You could hear it in every chatter of their teeth, but Answers didn’t think the cold was the reason for their tremors.
By the end of the week the change was national.
‘Thank you,’ said Answers as pennies rattled in his cup. When the footsteps stopped kind words were said but he kept his head down. He didn’t like to scare the punters. There was so much to worry them these days. It was in every side long glance they gave you when they approached. Most of them had taken to travelling in packs now the vanished had begun to number in the hundreds.
‘He was a brave one, you don’t see many on their own anymore,’ Davey’s voice leaked from the shadows as the punter disappeared down the street. It was eight in the morning and the first offies had been open since five. Davey was pissed.
‘The others will pick him off before he reaches the centre,’ said Answers, ‘I thought we’d got all the Samaritans.’
‘We have, but there’s all sorts in this city. We’re going to have to find somewhere else to put the rest you know. They say it’s starting to smell down there. If it gets really bad what’s left of the shoppers will notice. Then the drops might stop, it’s already bad enough as it is.’
There was genuine fear in Davey’s voice. The thought of no more pennies in his cup was a terrible one. Sometimes it woke him early in the morning and tortured him until the shops opened.
‘I think some of them are starting to wonder about the tags too,’ said Davey.
‘They’re important. I want them to know what’s coming,’ said Answers.
‘We’ll suck them dry just like those ‘squitoe’s we paint,’ Davey’s voice was full of satisfaction.
‘I wondered what those things were. They look more like bugs to me. They make me uncomfortable just looking at them.’
‘That’s the idea, the young ‘uns like doing it,’ said Davey. ‘But I think it’s the fumes they like best.’
‘Are we ready yet then?’
‘Soon, let the whisperers get everyone. There’s still a few left that haven’t heard.’
The end came quicker than Answers thought. By the time he next addressed their Parliament its numbers had grown so big they swallowed the street outside.
‘There’ll be no ignoring us now,’ said Davey. He’d taken to wearing a rosette these days, one with a mosquito fastened in its centre.
‘That’s the point,’ said Answers.
‘I haven’t seen a policeman in days,’ Davey’s voice was full of concern. ‘I never thought we could do that either.’
‘They’re still there, they’re just hiding. We’ve taken enough of their families to make them scared of their own shadows.’
‘The last one I saw was hanging from a lamppost,’ said Davey proudly. ‘I think the kids did that.’
‘Then it’s time,’ said Answers. ‘There’s been plenty of play, but the real prize is still hiding in the government buildings thinking it’s safe. We have to change that.
‘Won’t they send for help?’
‘No, the other cities have had plenty of time to think about it by now. They won’t want to get involved. One good turn deserves another doesn’t it? Every vagrant in the land is upping sticks and moving to where it all started. Of course, if they decide to change their minds we can pay them a visit too, spreading the word’s fun.’
That night they marched; and it moved something fierce and proud in Answer’s chest to see them all lined up neatly in rows. He’d forgotten what it had been like in the days when they’d done their dying on sparkling pikes. At least the railings weren’t a bad trade-off he decided. They threw the last of the squealing bureaucrats from his window and watched him try to crawl off the points.
‘That’s what a bug looks like Davey, and there’ll be more, there always is.’
Davey nodded sagely like he’d seen it all before.
By the time the sun rose the city’s fences had grown a crop of pinstripe, all blood and moaning. They burned the Churches later. By the day after that there was a new tide in the City – one taking all the clean steam pressed workers to sunnier climes. Their home had finally gotten too fond of destruction for the sane to stay.
Answers put a boot up on the table and took in the view through the shattered window.
‘What are they burning now?’ he said.
‘Police stations,’ said Davey. ‘They’ve locked as many of them inside as they could find before the cells got full, but they’re getting worried now. It’s not the law, or the freedom we’ve won, it’s our drops. None of us have had one in weeks. You didn’t tell us that would happen.’
‘You don’t need them now,’ said Answers. ‘Things have changed, tell them the City’s theirs. They can do what they want.’
A shudder ran through Davey and his eyes rolled back in his head.
‘It isn’t the same,’ said Davey. ‘I miss the sound of pennies going round.’
Answers kept his eyes on the flames. They’d learn.
‘Make them see sense Davey. They’re rich now, they don’t need to beg.’
‘I’ll tell them, but some of them say they don’t know what to do with themselves. There’re no shoppers to watch or policemen to move them on. They’re bored.’
When they came for him Answers was smoking a cigar. He’d found the box in the Mayor’s desk right underneath a book on Liberty. He stubbed it out on the cover and swung his boots off the wood.
‘What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy?’ he said to the rabble at the door.
‘You always are these days,’ said Davey from where he stood.
‘There’s a lot to do. I think we should expand.’
‘You can, but you’re not doing it with our help anymore.’
‘Look at us.’
Answers had to admit they did look bad. The ragged crowd in the doorway was more gristle and bone than anything else, and there wasn’t a pot belly in sight. You could see it in every hollow cheek and sunken eye.
‘What do you want me to do about it?’
‘There’s nothing you can do is there?’ said Davey. ‘You made us scare them off.’
Davey had entered the room now. Up close you could see the damage the starvation had done; every pore sweated hunger as he spoke.
‘We want the people back. They say they might come if we give them you.’
Answer’s eyes flicked left and right, but he knew what was coming. It wasn’t the first time he’d paid the ultimate price.
‘You won’t find a way out, Answers. You owe us.’
Outside the window a crowd had gathered. When they saw Answers appear they reached up their hands as if they wanted to snatch him away. He didn’t have long after that.
They used the big square to do it in; the one where they’d finished off the last of the nation’s heretics and malcontents many years ago. Answers didn’t mind, it was a good way to go. There’d be other cities, other populaces to rouse.
‘I’m honoured,’ said Answers to the crowd.
‘You should be.’
It was Davey who’d spoken; and the flames were painting his face black and red.
‘Goodbye Answers For Some.’
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