“I’d rather know why you guys sent Maurice,” I responded calmly. And then less calmly, “That and why the fuck are you in here when I’m trying to take a nice relaxing bath? Can’t I have one moment to myself without someone assuming it’s their turn to drive the last remnants of my sanity out of my head?”
“Yo’ really aren’t interested in what Jenny’s been up to?” Flossie seemed disappointed, like her favourite soap on TV had been rescheduled because of a football match without warning.
Brad was about to find out if he was the father of Chelsea’s baby, and now some swarthy foreign types were going to run around a field in shorts while wearing gloves to keep warm. It made no sense. Surely they could put on some jogging bottoms.
I didn’t actually know how women’s minds worked, but I felt I had to be close.
“Jenny isn’t interested anymore. Frankly, I can’t say I blame her, but I do intend to check one last time when I get a chance, okay? You know, when the world isn’t in the middle of trying to kill me.”
Flossie pouted. “Yo’ can’t give up on her.”
“I didn’t. She gave up on me, as is her right, which, as a feminist, I support wholeheartedly. Now, can we adjourn this intervention while I’m trying to wash my unmentionables, namely my cock and balls? Sheesh, look what you’ve done, you’ve made me mention my unmentionables.”
“Go ahead, Ah’m not stopping you. Nothing Ah haven’t seen before.” Flossie was being all casual and nonchalant like she was some medical professional making her rounds.
“Well, thanks for the green light, but I’d rather not put on a show for you. Your familiarity with cocks of all shapes and sizes doesn’t make you an expert in the field, it just makes you a garden-variety slut.”
“Why does having seen a lot of cocks make me a slut?” said Flossie, like this was a riddle of some sort.
“I don’t know, because the dictionary?”
“Slut-shaming is illegal,” said Flossie with quite a lot of intensity behind her sudden judicial claim.
“No,” I said, “it isn’t.” This is what happens when people get their news from the internet. “For some people, it’s the only contraceptive they have access to.”
“Actually,” said Dudley, who I hadn’t noticed standing on the other side of the bathtub, making me jump and send water cascading out, revealing even more of me to Bathsheba, “we all have pasts. Nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what makes us who we are.”
I examined Dudley’s inscrutable face with suspicion. When someone throws out a free pass like that, offering amnesty to someone before they’ve even done anything, it can only mean they’re hiding some dark secret of their own, right in the very back of their deepest closet. Pre-forgiveness is just setting up the balance books for a large drop in profits the shareholders don’t know about yet.
I grabbed a washcloth from the side of the bath and was about to place it over my face to block out these two fuckwits when I saw Dudley suck in his breath and do a little shake of his head. I put the washcloth back down. Whatever it had been used for, my face wasn’t the place to perform an autopsy.
“Ah don’t know why they sent Maurice. It were a big secret mission, need to know, hush-hush kinda thingy. Me and mah Dudley weren’t on the list.”
It didn’t really surprise me that they would keep these two out of the loop. They were useful in a fight, Dragon Lady and off-brand Hawkeye, not so much in the planning of world domination. Too easily distracted by puppies.
“I expect Peter told them not to tell you,” I said, sinking down into the water while trying to keep my junk from floating to the surface.
“Peter’s dead,” said Flossie. “Yo’ were there when he was killed. Don’t you remember?”
“It was a trick,” I said. “He used Maurice’s power to fool us all.”
“Oh,” said Flossie. She turned towards Dudley. “Did you know?” He shook his head. They were like two geniuses who had just discovered you could cook bread a second time and make toast. Nothing would ever be the same again. “What about Maurice?” she said, returning her wafer-thin attention to me. “Does he know?”
“Maurice is dead.”
Flossie looked at me a long time, no expression or emotion. After what seemed like forever, during which my fingers shrivelled up like prunes from being so long in the water, she said, “How do yo’ know?”
“Because I killed him.”
She nodded, still no reaction. “Why?”
To be honest, I’d expected a bigger reaction. Some tears, waving of fists and so on. She was taking it very well. “Because it was the only way to stop Peter using his power. That’s what Peter does, hijacks other people’s powers. Not mine, because I’m untouchable, but everyone else’s. Didn’t you wonder how you got changed into a dragon? He boosts people to their ultimate level of power so he can use them for his own purposes.”
“He didn’t make me a dragon,” said Flossie. “That were Dudley and—”
“Yes, yes, his scaly penis. Thank you for putting that image in my head. But I don’t think so. Whatever the reason for Dudley’s skin condition, I don’t think it was what changed you. Peter pushed you to your limit, but I don’t think he could control you as well as the others because you’re…” How do you say simple-minded in a nice way? “...too simple… minded.” Close enough.
Flossie pulled a face at me, a pained expression filling her eyes. Not because she was offended, but because she was thinking. “He made us all think he was dead, but he wasn’t?” Glaciers had faster response times.
“Once Maurice’s power matured, his ability to rewrite reality would have made Peter unstoppable. I almost think Maurice came to the island so I would kill him.”
“Of course he did,” said Flossie.
“Of course he did what?” I said.
“Of course he came here so yo’ would stop him. If Maurice decided to come here, he knew what would happen. And he would prepare for it. If yo’ killed him, that was what he came here for. He’ll have had a plan to come back.”
The same thing had occurred to me, that everything was going to plan. Somebody else’s.
“He’s dead,” I said. “Really.”
“Are yo’ saying it’s impossible for him to come back?” said Flossie, very calm and straightforward. That’s the thing about the simple-minded, doubt is just an unnecessary complication.
“Of course it’s possible, this is a world where anything—”
“Then he isn’t really dead. Not permanently. Where’s his body?”
“I destroyed it.”
“Oh. I suppose he’ll need a new one.” Very simple, nothing to worry about.
Was she in denial? She really did believe Maurice was coming back. She might even have been right. I couldn’t see how, or what the point of it all was, but Maurice was quite capable of seeing things in a way I couldn’t.
There was no point thinking about it now. Nothing I could do. If Maurice had a plan to come back to life, good luck to him.
“If Peter is still alive, couldn’t that mean he’s controlling Jenny, too?” said Flossie.
“So, yo’ could cut her free of any connection to him. Make her yours again.” Flossie’s eyes were glistening.
“Yeah, not quite that simple. Cutting her loose wouldn’t make her interested in me.”
“You’re afraid. You’re afraid you’ll give her back her mind and she still won’t want you.”
“No,” I said, “that isn’t it. I’m serious.” She was giving me a strong look of disapproval, although the head of my penis kept bobbing out of the water, so that might have had something to do with it. “Peter doesn’t brainwash people, he makes them an offer they can’t refuse. Seduces them with power and promises of whatever it is they want.”
“He never tried to seduce me,” said Flossie, like she was disappointed.
“He probably did and you didn’t notice.”
She nodded like she understood what I meant. “She loves yo’.”
“No,” I said, “she doesn’t. I can see love. The wire got cut. I cut it.”
“Yo’ don’t know. Yo’ don’t know anything. Want to know how I’m so sure? She never talks about you, never even mentions your name.”
“And how does that—”
Flossie held up a silencing hand. “She’s afraid to use your name. She knows it’ll weaken her to think about yo’. People think love makes yo’ stronger, but it don’t. Yo’ need to be selfish to get what you want, that’s what selfish means, yo’ should look it up in that dictionary. She can’t afford to think about yo’ right now, that’s why she’s keeping away from yo’.”
It was tempting to believe her. It was completely possible, but it was also possibly nowhere near the truth. Facing an amped-up Jenny while she was allied with Peter was not what I was looking for at the moment. Later, maybe.
“Ah’ll tell you one thing for free. If Ah had my mind changed or seduced or what have yo’, Ah’d want mah Dudley to drag me out of there and knock some sense into me. Ah know what’s good for me, and it’ll always be him. Always.” She could get quite aggressive when she felt like it.
“What if the new you doesn’t feel the same way?” I asked.
“Fuck her. The new me hasn’t earned the right to make mah decisions. The old me is boss number one, she calls the shots.”
“Well, I don’t have the luxury of knowing what Jenny really wants. I’ll be sure to ask her next time we bump into each other at a gallery opening or opera recital. In the meantime, I have a city to run.”
“They’re going to seduce you, the city people. Don’t run off cos they offer yo’ a cottage in the mountains where yo’ can be on your own forever.” The warning was heartfelt and serious. She had a pretty good idea of my weak spots.
“Hey, can we ease off on the hermit-shaming? Wanting to be on your own so you can sidestep responsibility is perfectly healthy and natural for someone of my age and social ineptitude.”
“When they make yo’ an offer yo’ can’t refuse, yo’ better refuse it.”
It was making my head spin just listening to her. I was in danger of passing out and drowning, but my luck was never that good. “They’re just the local businessmen, not the Mafia.”
Flossie stood up and shook her head, her long red hair bouncing around, as well as other parts of her.
“We’ll help yo’ get this dead hero out of the temple, but yo’ will have to confront Jenny eventually.”
She bounced out of the bathroom. She wasn’t wrong, but there were no good answers when it came to dealing with an ex. The thing to do was to ignore everything to do with Jenny, and deal with something more reasonable and grounded. Stealing a corpse from a temple full of fairies seemed like the ideal project.
“That girl’s a fucking idiot,” I said.
“Yes,” said Dudley, sighing. “But she’s so damn sexy, it’s hard to care.” He smiled like a fucking idiot and followed her, as he no doubt would for the rest of his life. Probably in the two to six week range.
I was no longer in the mood to stay in a tepid bath and fiddle with myself. At least my body was clean. Shame I couldn’t give my mind a good scrubbing and forget the last twenty minutes.
By the time I got dressed and came back down, Grayson was deep into an explanation of Gorgoth city politics to Flossie and Dudley.
“The guilds basically represent the workers, protecting their interests and promoting their advancement. The backing of so many citizens, operating throughout the city at all levels, gives each of the guilds a massive influence in daily life. They use this power to benefit their members and themselves, often circumventing the rules they themselves demanded be put in place.”
He paused to see if his words were getting through.
“Uh huh,” said Flossie. Dudley nodded seriously beside her. Neither had a clue what he was talking about, but were doing their best to mislead Grayson into thinking they were smart people.
“So the Warehouse and Teamsters Guild,” said Grayson, speaking slower, “which is responsible for storage and transport of goods, also delivers to suppliers off the books to avoid paying taxes and customs duties. The Wealth Guild, which runs the banks, also functions as a money lending service at punishing levels of interest for the desperate and needy. The Waste and Sewages Guild will dispose of more than your rubbish, it will make entire bodies disappear, including bones and teeth. The War Guild will protect your premises, but if you don’t pay an additional premium, you will find your windows routinely broken and perhaps a fire in your cellar. And the Welfare guild will provide you with entertainments you wouldn’t want made public.” He looked into Flossie’s gormless face. “Prostitutes and narcotics.”
“Oh. Right. So you mean they’re like the Mafia?”Flossie pointedly looked at me as I walked over to them.
Grayson had basically listed the guilds’ services as smuggling, loan-sharking, protection racketeering and what sounded like assassination. And for the weekend, whores and crack.
“Mafia? I don’t know what that is,” said Grayson.
“It’s a criminal organisation that operates outside the law to make money.” I sat down at a chair that made it hard for Flossie to give me her ‘told you so’ look of self-satisfaction.
She was probably right, they would try to bribe me into doing what they wanted — they’d already given me a cart full of gold — but their illicit activities made it much more likely that I would be the one making them an offer they couldn’t refuse. I was the boss, after all. They wouldn’t want me enforcing the laws or anything.
“They aren’t strictly speaking criminals,” said Grayson. “None of them has ever been held to account, and they do provide the city with services it requires, even if it pleases the citizens to act like they would never approve of such things.”
Gorgoth sounded like it was a schizophrenic. Everyone knew what was going on, but they allowed it so they could also get in on the action. Why not make it all legal and above board if they were doing it anyway? People’s need to condemn the things they enjoy the most has always baffled me. I guess they figure if they speak out against it, they’ll be less likely to be accused of doing it.
“Dave’s always going on about how he hates gays, there’s no way he’s shagging men in the park late at night.”
You can’t keep pulling the same trick and expect to get away with it, though. Dave, of course, thinks he’ll be able to keep everyone fooled by doubling-down.
“Did you hear about Dave? Murdered all those male prostitutes in his basement. No one could be more against gay sex than him. Heterosexual bachelor, confirmed.”
“This is all very interesting,” I said, “but why are you discussing the internal mechanics of Gorgoth?”
“The guilds have access to the temple,” said Flossie, like I was the simpleton. “They can go in and out without anyone batting an eyelid.” She fluttered her eyelids at me. I got the distinct impression she didn’t really know what the expression meant.
“The guilds are responsible for providing basic services to the Church of the Shrine,” said Joshaya, sitting at the other end of the table like he was chairing this gathering of the Gorgoth Body Snatching Club (we meet every first Tuesday of the month, cadavers get in for free). “They deliver supplies, remove waste, help keep the place clean and tidy. It’s a very big operation.” He sounded proud of himself. “The Fairy Queen is sitting at the top, but there is a whole organisation beneath her that needs to be kept running. Now that my devotees have been redistributed, the guild workers will be more vital than ever.” He sounded less happy when talking about the new regime in place.
“And we can use them to get Deathreaper Caim out?” I asked. That was the point of all this. “You think we can convince the guilds to sneak us in?”
Grayson tilted his head from one side to the other in non-committal fashion. “It might be possible to disguise yourself as one of them. Possible, but a fairly high chance of discovery.”
“Unfortunately,” said Joshaya, “I won’t be able to accompany you. My presence would be detected immediately. The rest of you, however, attract a very high level of disregard.”
I wasn’t sure, but that felt like a diss. He probably thought we were too dumb to realise. He wasn’t totally wrong.
“Ooh, we can wear disguises,” said Flossie. “Ah could be a prostitute.”
“It would probably be easier to pretend we were there to collect the garbage,” I said. “Less chance of having to fuck our way to our objective.”
Flossie didn’t actually plan on fucking anyone — I’m not sure she even connected the services provided by whores to the concept of dressing as one — she just got excited by the idea of dolling herself up.
“Ah suppose that might work better.” Her disappointment at not being able to wear fishnet stockings was palpable. Dudley seemed a little saddened, also.
The most shocking part was that it did feel like an almost credible plan. Sneak in as lowly workers, grab the body and put it in a bin bag, carry it out with no one giving us a second look.
“I can have a group of my more trusted men do it,” said Grayson. “No point any of you taking unnecessary risks.”
Getting others to do the dangerous part? Having my orders carried out by professionals? Staying at home and waiting for the results in my slippers? What was this parallel universe I had been transported to?
There was a strange vibrating sensation in the middle of my chest. It was hard to tell because of my lack of experience, but I think it might have been joy.
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Afterword from Mooderino