As Large As Life

(Apprx. 8 min read)

by Kilmo

The kid clutching his Dad’s hand watched as the magician pulled a rabbit from his hat and promptly dropped it.
‘Dad?’
‘Not now Simon, this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages.’
‘But Daaad.’
Simon stopped pulling at his father’s hand as the performer chased after the escaping animal. Even at six years old he knew what the look in his eyes meant. He cast about for something else to occupy his attention. The magic show was rubbish anyway; the ones in shopping centre always were.
When he saw the man appear through one of the doors Dad had warned him about, the one’s marked ‘Exit’ where if you went inside you never returned, Simon had to stifle a laugh. It looked like someone had pulled on his face like it was string. They must have forgotten that they’d done it too because it had stayed that way, sharp and pointed like the prow of a ship designed to cut through heavy seas. Simon’s eyes widened.
Just before the door swung shut he caught a glimpse inside. But it was too dark to see much. Instead, there was the faint sound of fighting and the crack of gunshots, all regimented and neat.
‘I can see a funny man, Dad.’
Simon tugged at his father’s arm again.
‘I know, isn’t it great?’
His Dad’s attention stayed fixed on the chaos unfolding in front of him. He’d known his son would love it: magic tricks where his favourite.
‘He’s looking at us.’
The strange man had caught sight of them now, and for a moment Simon thought he was going to get into trouble because there was something about him that reminded him of Dad when he got into a mood. But all the stranger did was smile and put a finger to his lips.
‘Dad… look.’
Simon tugged urgently at his father’s arm again. Somebody else needed to see the strange man. If it was just Simon nobody would believe him.
‘For Go… what is it?’ said his father without looking down and this time there was an edge in his voice that made it sharp and brittle.
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 could be. Maybe it was what made the man look so angry as the shopping centre’s entrance slid open.

All the 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; and that visit had cost him his life. If he was lucky there’d still be a few Royalists around so he could show them how that made him feel. 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 much to be done and never enough time to do it in.’
He was still thinking where to start when the choice was made for him.
‘Spare a couple of quid, sir?’
‘I’ve a better idea,’ said All the Answers.
All the Answers had first realised the truth as a young man. He took in the street and the figures dotted along its curb. Some things never changed.
‘So many of you,’ he said to the man who’d asked him for change.
‘More every day, sir. These are hard times, if you’ve got a few pennies for a cup of tea you’d be doing me a favour. It’s freezing out here.’
‘I’ve something better than that.’
All the Answers squatted down and let the words that had sent him and so many other to their graves fall into the tramp’s ear. Soon the light of reason had dawned in his faded eyes.
‘Who are you?’ said the tramp.
All the Answers smiled, that one was easy.
‘I’m All the 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 All the Answers spoke again his voice was soft, bloody, and full of promises as sweet as a woman’s kiss. When it was done he sat back on his haunches.
‘You think we can do it?’ said the tramp.
‘Of course. I’ll show you how,’ said All the Answers.

The city’s homeless reminded All the Answers of a rookery. They bickered and scrapped with their puffa jackets and sleeping bags wrapped around them and the trailing feather’s from so many unmended holes made it look like a farmer had unloaded a couple of barrels of buckshot at them.
‘How many?’ said All the Answers gesturing at the crowd.
‘I don’t know, I lost count after I got past a hundred,’ replied Davey. ‘Some of them have even come from elsewhere. They say there’ll be more along soon. Word’s spreading fast.
‘Good.’
A rumble shivered through the ring road arching high above and in his head All the Answers could see its shipping container packed with starving eyes and the metal bite of raw nerves. He’d move onto the refugees next. Everyone should hear the promises he had to spread.
‘We start tonight,’ said All the Answers and the sound of his flock cheering through brew rotted teeth and nicotine whiskers brought dirt raining down from above. All the Answers smiled. If you ignored the coughing you could tell the dream was on its way: red and glorious like the dawning of a new sun. 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 the talk shows on the radio were filled with disappearances, and theft. Even the addicts picking up their scrips were more strung out than usual. You could hear it in every chatter of their teeth, and Answers didn’t think their habits were the only reason for their tremors.
By the end of the month the change was national.
‘Thank you,’ said All the Answers as pennies rattled in his cup. The footsteps stopped and kind words were said, but he kept his head down. He didn’t like to scare the punters with the look in his eye. 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 thousands.
‘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 six. Davey was drunk.
‘The others will pick him off before he reaches the centre,’ said All the Answers, ‘I thought we’d got most of the Samaritans.’
‘We have, but there’s all sorts in this city. We’re going to have to find somewhere else to put them all to you know. They say they’re getting loud enough to hear in the shopping centre. If it gets really bad what’s left of the shoppers will notice. Then the donations 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 All the Answers.
‘We’ll bleed them dry, won’t we? Just like those ‘mosquitoes we paint,’ Davey’s voice was full of satisfaction.
He never saw All the Answers looking at him like he was weighing up a slab of meat.
‘I wondered what those things were,’ said All the Answers. ‘They look more like bugs to me, and they make people nervous.’
‘That’s the idea, the young ‘uns like doing it,’ said Davey. ‘But if you ask me,’ Davey tapped a grubby finger against the side of his broken nose, ‘I think it’s the fumes they like best.’
‘Maybe so, but we have more important work to do. ‘Are we ready yet?’
‘Soon, let the whisperers get everyone. There’s still a few that haven’t heard.’
The end came quicker than All the Answers thought. By the time he next addressed the rookery its numbers had grown so big they spilled into the street outside.
‘There’ll be no ignoring us now,’ said Davey. He’d taken to wearing a rosette these days, one like a tricolour with a mosquito pinned at its centre.
‘That’s the point,’ said All the Answers.
‘I haven’t seen a policeman in days,’ Davey’s voice was full of surprise. ‘I never thought that would happen 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 women did that after we found out what they’d been up to.’
‘Then it’s time,’ said All the 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, and one good turn deserves another doesn’t it? Every vagrant in the land is upping sticks and moving here where it all started. Of course, if they decide to change their minds we can pay them a visit too. The rest will follow. Spreading the word’s fun.’
That night they marched; and it moved something fierce and proud in All the Answer’s chest to see his comrades lined up in neat rows. He’d forgotten what it had been like in the days when they’d done their dying on gleaming pikes. But at least the iron railings round the city hall weren’t a bad trade-off.

When they’d thrown the last of the squealing bureaucrats from his window and watched him twitch on the spikes Davey turned to All the Answers.
‘That’s what a bug looks like Davey,’ said the narrow faced man, ‘and there’ll be more, there always is. Roaches get everywhere.’
Davey stayed quiet, but he nodded sagely like he’d known it all along.
By the time the sun rose on the city’s fences with their crop of bloody pinstripe, all broken limbs and moaning, it was time to burn the Churches. 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.
All the Answers put a boot on the deceased Mayor’s huge rosewood desk and took in the view.
‘What are they burning now?’ he said.
‘Police stations,’ said Davey following his eye to the columns of smoke visible outside. ‘They’ve locked as many of the rozzers 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 the donations. None of us have had one in weeks. That wasn’t part of the deal.’
‘You don’t need them now,’ said All the Answers. ‘Things have changed. You’re free. 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.’No… more… do unto thy neighbour… ? But, I miss the sound of pennies going round.’
All the Answers kept his eyes on the flames, but you could tell it wasn’t them he saw.
‘Make them see sense Davey. They’re rich now, they’ve won. 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. It’s not normal, and they’re getting desperate.’

When they came for him All the Answers was smoking a cigar he’d found in a drawer of the Mayor’s desk right next to a book on justice. 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 a little in front of the others with a red gleam in his stare.
‘There’s a lot to do. I think we should expand.’
‘You can, but you’re not doing it with our help anymore.’
‘Why?’
‘Look at us.’
All the 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 beer belly in sight anymore. 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 all off.’
Davey had entered the room now, and up close you could see the damage the new utopia had done. Every pore sweated hunger as he spoke.
‘We want the people back. They say they might come if we give them you.’
All the 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 All the Answers. You owe us.’
Outside the window a crowd had gathered, and when they saw All the Answers appear they reached up their hands as if they wanted to snatch him away.
There wasn’t 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. All the Answers didn’t mind. It was a good way to go, and after all, he’d be back. There were other cities, and other populaces to rouse.
‘I give my life for you,’ said All the Answers to the crowd as the smell of charring flesh reached his nose.
‘Not fast enough.’ It was Davey who’d spoken; and the flames were painting his face black and red.
‘Goodbye All the Answers. We’ll take it from here.’

END

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