Read Dead Boys Online

Authors: Gabriel Squailia

Dead Boys (4 page)

“Ja-cob Camp-bell!” he burbled again, pronouncing the name as if it were an off-color joke. Drawing near, he tapped Jacob on the shoulder with the head of his cane. “Old boy, did you polish your hide today? You look rather less like a muddy quilt than usual.”

“Ah, is that the mighty head of John Tanner?” said Jacob, gracing his competitor with a condescending bow. “My eyes must be failing me: I thought a low-flying zeppelin was attacking the District.”

Tanner hissed, for though he began every conversation with such an insult, Jacob knew he couldn’t bear to receive them. “Perhaps it’s the sharpness of your tongue that’s been sending clients in droves to my side of the street.”

“Lord knows it isn’t your technique, unless drying one’s face on a beach ball has suddenly come into vogue.”

“Hahaha! Yes, quite!” Tanner brightened suddenly as a woman passed behind them who looked like she had centuries banked. “All jokes aside, Campbell, I’ve been searching high and low for you,” he said, rocking on his heels and clacking his hardened fingertips together. “I have a proposition that I’m positive you’ll find irresistible.”

“Spare me your machinations, Tanner; I’m in a hurry.”

“Now, hold on, don’t be so damnably paranoid! Dear boy, why must you always assume that I’m out to get you?”

“Your frequent threats to hire thugs to disassemble me and throw the bits in separate bogs do not inspire fraternal feeling.”

“Bah! Mere joshing. Don’t be such a stuffed shirt!”

This stung, for Jacob, in the early months of his death, had been unable to afford the same treatment he offered his wealthiest clients. His own preservation ended at the collar and sleeves of his night-black shirt, beneath which he was as shamefully decomposed as any alley-dwelling bone-bag.

“Let’s speak as colleagues rather than rivals for once,” Tanner went on. “But tell no one what I’m about to tell you. Do you swear? Do you promise?”

“Tanner, I simply haven’t time.”

“Oh, shush, it won’t take a moment.” John Tanner tapped his lips with a finger, causing his hollow face to echo like a drumhead. “Now, I have it on good authority that the Magnate’s river-rats have just dredged up two intact barrels of chemicals: one of acetone, one of epoxy resin.” When Jacob failed to react, Tanner did a kind of jig on the tips of his toes. “Acetone! Epoxy! The raw materials for plastination, old boy! We need only to pool the time we’ve saved, and we’ll introduce the underworld to the most expensive preservative treatment ever conceived.”

“I have no interest in becoming your junior partner,” said Jacob.

Tanner leaned in close and growled, causing his face to vibrate. “It’s the name you’re after, is that it? Very well. I’ll hate myself for it later, but I relent: we’ll call it Campbell and Tanner, Limited. But you can print the bloody signs all by your—”

Suddenly, Tanner’s jaw froze. Looking over Jacob’s shoulder, he pointed a shaky finger across the street. “That—that immigrant of yours—why, Jacob, he’s fondling the headless!”

And fondling them he was.

Remington, left unattended, had wandered over to the pair of headless corpses who’d recently appeared on the street below Jacob’s flat. They were a male and a female, both naked and just beginning to turn. How they got to the Preservative District without drawing anyone’s attention was a mystery, but the neighborhood favored a more fanciful question: whether they’d died with heads or stumbled out of the river without them. Because they never spoke and never moved, they’d been quickly adopted as a bit of local flavor, and had been nicknamed Adam and Eve.

Now Remington had hit upon the bizarre idea of helping these unfortunates with a massage they could not feel. Patting them on their shoulders and the stumps between, kneading their muscles with his bare hands, he hummed tunelessly into their nonexistent ears.

As Jacob staggered over, shouting Remington’s name, the crow launched itself from its bony nest and flew out of sight, cawing three times as it went.

“Remington! Unhand them at once!” he cried. “This is a breach of every kind of decorum Dead City knows.”

“But Jake, they can’t see anything. They’re frightened. I’m helping them, you’ll see.”

Jacob shot a look over his shoulder, where John Tanner had overcome his shock and was looking for a confidant. “In that case,” said Jacob as evenly as he could, “won’t you invite your new friends up to my flat? It’s just down the street, and the three of you can get better acquainted there.”

“That would be lovely!” said Remington.

Communicating to the headless through taps and nudges, he urged them to their feet. Surprisingly, the corpses stood, and though their motions were stiff, they took the hands that Remington offered and followed after. “They say they’d be delighted,” he said.

“He’s richer than Trimalchio,” whispered Jacob to Tanner as they passed, “and twice as eccentric. He’s paying me by the decade to preserve every downtrodden corpse he finds!”

Tanner simply gaped, but as soon as the company had passed him by, Jacob knew he would waddle off to spread the gossip: Campbell was in league with a groper of amputees!

Passing through the first of the many doorways that led to his flat, Jacob paused to ensure that Remington and the headless were following after, then walked on, muttering over the loss of his hard-earned reputation.

Because so few Dead City habitations stood on their own, it was rare that one could reach an apartment through its front door. To access his flat, Jacob and his visitors were obliged to tramp through a number of hallways, parlors, and anterooms before coming to a fire-gutted convenience store, where, respectfully skirting a group of lady corpses shouting in an extinct Eastern European dialect, they came to a wooden staircase rising through the store’s roof to Jacob’s flat.

Climbing with practiced ease, Jacob contorted himself through his open window, leaving Remington to get his headless followers through on his own, expecting it to take an hour or two and teach the boy a lesson in the process. Instead, he found Remington helping Adam and Eve inside moments later and closing the window after them.

“You have quite a rapport with those two,” said Jacob.

“Yeah, they’re easy to talk to.”

The flat was on the third floor of a skinny, four-story building known as the Leaning Dutchman. Its interior was bare but for a massive metal worktable bolted to the floor, a mirror on the wall, and a wooden rocking-chair in which a well-preserved woman sat perfectly still.

“Good even, Shanthi,” said Jacob, pushing gently at the back of her rocking chair. “My thanks for keeping the flat so well in my absence.”

Shanthi said nothing, nor did she move the smallest bone in her body.

“Is she your housekeeper?” Remington asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” said Jacob. “Shanthi died after a short, futile struggle with an undiagnosed disease, which left her corpse completely unmarked: a perfect death. Thus, while she might not have been a looker by the standards of the Lands Above, she caused a sensation as soon as she stepped onto Lazarus Quay, for comeliness here is nothing more or less than the semblance of life.

“Scores of men and women were propositioning Shanthi, not with sexual advances, of course, since the only stiffness the average corpse can attain ends with his mortis. Still, there are wealthy men who would pay unthinkable quantities of time to keep her, and everyone wanted to deliver her to one.

“Of course, to make a prize like Shanthi last, a man would have to be wealthy indeed, and bring her to the best, that is, to me. Toss her to John Tanner and you’d end up with a scarecrow stuffed with rags, who’d be lumpier than a featherbed in a few years. But dear Shanthi, who knows her apples from her oranges, decided to take matters into her own hands. She’d heard my name in their promises, and she came straight to the Leaning Dutchman.

“When she turned up at my window, she told me that she wanted to look this way forever, and that she was happy to give her body to me for the privilege. I told her the offer was timely and that I’d take her up on it for reasons which had nothing to do with conceptual lust: I needed a squatter.

“These flats, you see, are too mercurial for even the Magnate to rent out. What stands one day might collapse the next, and the floods could move them about at any moment, making the ownership of property a losing proposition. Instead, squatter’s rights are absolute, and any time there’s a flood, every room in the city changes hands.

“When Shanthi came to me, I was hobbled by this custom: when I wanted to leave the flat, I had to pay several weeks to a flat-sitter and hope they were as good as their word. But Shanthi, by staying in the flat at all times, solved my problem indefinitely, at the cost of the finest treatment time can buy.

“We agreed on a direct exchange of five years, cheap for the Campbell Treatment, but I liked her style. Besides, I needed the practice: Shanthi’s was the first human body-mold ever created.”

“But can she move?” asked Remington.

“She could if she wanted to,” said Jacob, unpacking his knapsack on his worktable and taking a full inventory of its contents. “Her joints are perfectly designed, and her five years are up, but here she sits. As to why, I doubt it’s strictly a matter of loyalty.

“Think,” said Jacob, removing a silver object from his floorboards and sliding it into the leather pouch on his wrist, “of a stone stairway in some populated avenue, weathering the dragging of footsteps for hundreds, even thousands of years. What happens to those stones over time?”

“They wear away,” said Remington.

“They wear away!” cried Jacob, striking the table with a metal scraper. “These solid stones wear away. And what becomes of the shoe? What becomes of its sole, made of simple rubber, dragging against street and sidewalk over the course of years?”

“It wears away faster,” said Remington.

“Even faster! What, then, becomes of dead flesh and skin, unable to heal, powerless to regenerate cells, more vulnerable to the forces of entropy than rubber, let alone solid stone; the bones grinding away in the sockets, unlubricated by blood and lymph; skin rubbing against skin for unmoisturized decades? What, Remington, becomes of our bodies?”

“They fall apart,” said Remington dutifully.

“Yes, Remington, they fall right apart. Even the best-preserved body decays, given time and motion, which is why Shanthi here remains so perfectly still.

“Now! Given what we know about the damage one corpse can do to itself just by moving about from day to day, what can we conclude about two, or, heavens, three corpses, all but fully nude, none of them having taken the slightest of preservative precautions, rubbing against one another in the most violent manner in the middle of the street?”

“They should not!” said Remington, who was enjoying the increasing volume of this discourse.

“They should absolutely, in the name of a reanimated God, not,” said Jacob, “nor should any citizen touch any other citizen, for the simple reason that it will do damage, however slight, to the integrity of that citizen’s flesh.

“The dead are a vain people, I don’t deny it, and contrary to whatever opinions you might have formed about me, I find it sad even in myself. This business of making mannequins of corpses—forgive me, Shanthi—is the baldest of farces. But whatever you may think of our vanity, I beg you to respect it, otherwise your time in this city will be hard indeed, and so, to be perfectly blunt, will mine.”

“No touching,” said Remington.

“No touching,” said Jacob, “and I thank you.”

“But what about Adam and Eve?”

“Actually,” said Jacob in surprise, “they seem to be getting on all right by themselves.”

While Remington and Jacob had been distracted by their conversation, Adam and Eve had begun to move, though very slowly. By now, after many tiny steps and tentative touches, they had identified their positions beside one another and were standing side by side, facing the window like they were gazing at the street with invisible eyes.

As if they’d been waiting for an audience, they lifted their hands to the pane, grasped its base, and pulled the window open. The reconstructed crow, who’d been waiting for such an opportunity, swooped into the room, settling on Eve’s shoulder with a cheerful squawk.

“How did they do that?” said Remington.

“They’re your friends,” said Jacob, “why don’t you ask them?”

CHAPTER THREE

The Hanged Man’s Laughter

J
acob watched them as he packed his things, vacillating between amazement and crawling unease. Remington had taken his sarcasm at face value and set about finding a way to learn how Adam and Eve could see. He and the headless marched around in a conga line; they played soldiers and tag; they struck poses and made speeches with their hands; but only when he taught them to play blindman’s buff did the truth emerge.

“Good lord,” Jacob said, “they stop moving as soon as you cover your eyes.”

“I know!” said Remington. “That’s why I keep winning.”

“But, Remington, can’t you see what this means? Somehow, though I can’t imagine how, it’s quite impossible and hurts my head to even contemplate, but somehow they’re—”

Other books

Die Tryin' by Stavro Yianni
Deceived by Jerry B. Jenkins
Foreigners by Stephen Finucan
Cottonwood Whispers by Jennifer Erin Valent