The floor creaks loudly as I get off the bed. The boards squeal under the heels of my feet even when I exert the slightest bit of pressure.
“Quiet up there!” Mister Nomura shouts from downstairs, banging at the ceiling with a broom handle. I mumble ‘sorry’ then try to step more cautiously, trying to find some footing for a good minute. I finally decide to shift my feet so that I am walking on the sides of the soles and stumble awkwardly across the floor to the bathroom.
My morning shower and tooth-brushing lull me into a false sense of security and I find myself once again stumbling about on the creaking wooden floor of the room, struggling to reach the closet. To avoid making too much noise as I dress up, I jump on the mattress and dress as quickly as possible, then grit my teeth and jump halfway across my room to the door. The jump makes the entire surface of the boards thunders.
“What the hell are you doing up there?” Mister Nomura shouts again. Cheeks flustered, I make sure to avoid any unnecessary stunts and walk across the floor as slowly and carefully as possible. It’s not as noisy, but the creaking still grates my ears.
Five minutes later, I’m eating breakfast from another dish that’s been laid out with care, the omelette cubes and steam-boiled rice and the bowl with the forks arrayed before me. I make sure to struggle a little bit less with the chopsticks this time. Mister Nomura shoots me a disapproving look and then proceeds to read his morning paper. The headline reads: FREAK EXPLOSION CAUSES FREAK DISCOVERY! A picture of a charred rat-thing is set dead center on the front page.
“They really need to work on their headlines.” I attempt to joke.
“Tonight, we go on recon. You need to know the tunnels better.” Mister Nomura tells me, not taking his eyes off his paper. “But before that, there is work to do. How good are you with a knife?”
Bowie, bayonets, gerbers or push-knives? I’m about to say but settle for raising my eyebrows, acting perplexed. “Can’t say I’ve had too much experience with…”
“What about cooking? Dicing, slicing? Precision-cuts? Can you fillet tuna?”
“I…no.” I say. “Haven’t had much use for that, to be honest…”
“Shame. You need it. Need to teach yourself some control. Might help you with your clumsiness. Besides, I will need help in the store.”
I turn around, check the dust-caked interior of GoodSushi, look at the stacked chairs and the thrifty, grimy tablecloth. Behind Mister Nomura, rows on rows of wine glasses, shot glasses, sake glasses and unused water bottles are lined up on their shelves. Aside from the bench that I am now eating on, not one millimeter of this place has ever been cleaned or even used.
“I’m sorry Mister Nomura, but this place looks, well…”
“Yes?” he says, peeking over his newspaper, giving me a wolfish grin. I am setting myself up for a trap and realize that I have no way to go around it.
“Well it looks kind of abandoned. I mean, has anyone ever cleaned this place up?”
“Oh yes, five years ago. Grand opening. I served free sushi samples. Then I locked the door for good. Haven’t done a thing here since. You think this place needs some cleanup?”
I nod. Mister Nomura folds his newspaper, reaches under the bench and produces a bucket, mop and a score of detergents, chlorine, a half-full bottle of ScrubIt™ and withered, ruffled broom.
“Suggest you start as soon as possible. Five years worth of grime. Could take you the entire day just to finish the dining area. You can do the tablecloths tomorrow. When you are done, we will do some basic cutting exercises. I’ll do the dishes. Least I can do, what with you being so generous and all.”
By the time I’ve mustered the courage to protest, Mister Nomura has disappeared in the kitchens and let the water run at full blast. Gritting my teeth, I dunk the mop and I’m about to start scrubbing the floor, when Mister Nomura calls out:
“No! Sweep first or else you’re just going to make a whole lot of mud!”
I roll my eyes, grit my teeth and start sweeping. The bristles of the broom fight a losing battle against three layers of muck, dust and what I can only assume is dried, flaking mud from Mister Nomura’s boots, when he’d find himself treading into the dining area at the break of dawn. The broom haft is crooked and splintery in places, the mop is old and unyieldy and when I am done, two hours later, I am choking on chlorine and ScrubIt™ fumes.
I sit on one of the chairs, hands shaking from the effort when Mister Nomura walks up to me with a small dish packed with perfectly arranged pieces of french toast, a side of what looks like diced dark chocolate and green tea soda.
“You took too long. Never done housework before?”
“Never really had to.” I manage through a mouthful.
“Momma’s girl, huh? Bet you didn’t lift a finger around the house. But you have good hands. Good enough not to fumble with chopsticks, even when they’re shaking.”
It’s only then that I realize I’m holding the chopsticks perfectly straight and that my shaking has ceased. I make an attempt to fumble, but it’s too forced and way too late. Mister Nomura smiles.
“Hard work is good for little girls. Get your feet wet, that’s what I told Emiko and she turned out just fine. Finish up here and then come to the kitchen. Wash your hands well.”
Mister Nomura is turning to leave with my empty plate. Gulping down some green tea soda, I ask without thinking:
“Is Emiko the girl that lived in my room? The one with the Hey There Kitty toothbrush?”
Mister Nomura halts mid-step. His shoulders sag. When he turns to look at me, he has that expression of carefully controlled, seething anger that Dad got that time when I almost put my own eye out on the first day or archery practice. The sight of it freezes me in place.
“There is a delivery that needs to be made. Mister Pettus wants his lunchbox. Don’t be late, this time.” he tells me and the rage just evaporates from his face. The sight of it is unnerving; the thought that somehow anyone could just turn his feelings on and off like a faucet. Makes me wonder where does all this pent-up mess goes afterward and if that place where he seals it in is strong enough to hold it.
This time, I head straight for Mister Pettus’ little fort in the middle of the town, taking extra care not to look at the bookstore where the girl with the piercing blue eyes works. I cross Ellisson almost without looking, eyes fixed ahead, when she jumps out of an alley way right in front of my path. I try to shift in order to avoid her, but she blocks my way again in the blink of an eye. I bob and weave for a while, clumsy and awkward. She matches my motions with quiet grace. When she realizes that I am done struggling, she smiles and offers me her hand.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Gunda.”
I hesitate for a second, then offer her my hand. Gunda takes it, ever so delicately, in hers.
“I saw you the other day. In the bookstore. You were talking to Ralphie Cross.”
“Yeah, I mistook him for a friend of mine…”
“You have friends in Orsonville? I’ve never seen you around here before.” Gunda says and squeezes my hand just a little bit tighter. “And I know everyone.”
“Just arrived, barely been here a couple of days.” I tell her and I stop struggling, put in just enough resistance to give her the impression I’m submitting. I could twist her arm, pull at her thumb just so she’ll have to let go but then I’d be showing my teeth. And if I picked up anything from Dad, it’s never to let anyone know how strong I really am.
“Yes. I’ve seen you skulk around in the old Ellis place. And Billy’s told me a lot about you, too.”
“What old Ellis place?” I stutter.
“You know; that old prefab that blew up and they found all those mutant rats? Wanda May saw you skulking there last night. Hope you found what you were looking for.” Gunda says and starts gripping my arm tighter, hurting me. I give her exactly half an inch, then start squeezing right back into her hand, so hard my knuckles turn white and her eyes go as wide as saucers.
“Yeah, we did. Only thing I’m missing is my money. Billy lifted them from my pocket, first day I came here. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that?” I tell her, just as I twist her arm slightly, release from her grip and grasp her wrist. “When you see him, tell him I want it all back. I’ll be coming over to collect really soon.”
I push her aside, just enough so she’ll know to get the hell out of my way. Gunda nods, her eyes staring right into me, shooting daggers at my back. I’m barely a dozen steps from her, when I hear a growing, rumbling noise that turns into a deep guttural growl and there’s the smell of fear again that sets my teeth on edge.
I turn around, one hand balled into a fist but Gunda’s gone. Something big shuffles in the alleyway, snarls and then crashes into the trash cans before finally bounding off. By the time I’ve gone to check, it’s already gone. I run the rest of the way to Mister Pettus’.
“You’re late again.”
“I’m only off by a minute.”
“Long enough to put spider-eggs in my rice.”
“Well, if the last batch didn’t hatch, then I guess you’re just immune.”
Mister Pettus stares at me with sheer horror through the slit in his reinforced door. I watch as he goes white as a sheet.
“I’m joking.” I reassure him. “I didn’t really…”
Mister Pettus clanks the slit on his door shut, fumbles with his locks as quickly as possible, drops his keys with a jangle before finally managing to get it open.
“I don’t appreciate bratty little girls.” He grumbles, as he hands me the money.
“And I don’t really have the stomach for paranoid old men who accuse me of stuffing spider eggs in their rice.”
“You probably chicken out halfway through.”
“Oh please. If I wanted to make you eat something gross, I’d just blend some cockroaches, mix them in your wasabi. You’d never even know the difference.”
Mister Pettus stops, considering this eventuality. He nods, finding this answer satisfactory.
“You are pretty ingenious, for a delivery girl. Could I interest you in a soda?”
“Mister Nomura is probably waiting for me.”
“Mister Nomura is a grumpy old restaurateur who knows better than to give his only paying customer any lip. Come inside. Shoes off, first. Need to make sure you haven't stuffed any shivs in there.”
I shrug and take off my shoes, making sure to wipe them thoroughly on the GO AWAY mat. Mister Pettus scoffs when he sees the brownish mess that I have left behind. He seems downright giddy with excitement, as he walks inside, dancing past stacks of used bento boxes and discarded delivery crates.
“I only have grape soda. Also, cherry but that’s for personal consumption only, understood?”
I nod and follow him, making my way through the hallway into the corridor. Mister Pettus enters the kitchen, slamming the door shut behind him. “Make yourself at home.” he says from behind the kitchen door.
His living room is also a mess, cluttered with piles of discarded, dog-eared books. An ancient computer with a monochromatic screen purrs silently in the corner. Tanks made out of steel and glass, each of them filled with miniature tropical ecosystems are lined up along the length of the living room. Leaning close, I notice motion among the ferns and the carefully-arranged tree bark. Spider webs, each of them a silken fractal work of art fill every nook and corner, laden with doomed flies and foolhardy roaches struggling against their bonds. I move a stack of textbooks on bioengineering from a stool and sit down to watch. Behind the glass, a panicking grasshopper kicks at a strand of webbing that’s snagged its hind leg. The grasshopper then proceeds to flutter its wings, trying to break away from the webbing with brute force but the effort just seems to make it worse. The strands grip at its hind leg even tighter, before it finally snaps with a very tiny but distinct k-tchak.
The sight of the grasshopper futilely rolling on the ground of the tank, wriggling its antennae in what I can only assume is the closest insect approximation to a scream makes me shiver. Without thinking, I reach into the tank, so I can grasp at the grasshopper and set it free as soon as possible. My fingers move clumsily through the spiderweb, tearing at the silky constructs. By the time I’ve nearly reached the grasshopper, I’m wrist-deep in the mess. Only then, when I’m barely a centimeter away from saving the trapped insect do I realize that I'm trapped.
I struggle against the webs, of course, for all the good that does. But the silk seems to posses a mind of its own, whipping around and gripping me tighter and tighter until finally the pressure around my wrist becomes almost vice-like, holding me fast. I breathe through clenched teeth and fight against it in vain. Looking into the tank, I look for any signs of movement, see the crippled grasshopper finally untagled, coiling its legs to make a jump when…
A bone-white head with eight solid black eyes rises from the miniature foliage, wriggling its pedipalps to reveal a row of hidden teeth underneath, dripping poison. In a single fluid motion, the spider bounds out from the foliage and sinks its fangs into the grasshopper’s carapace, expertly finding the chinks in its prey’s armor. The grasshopper goes still as the spider pumps poison into its body, the clear fluid and grasshopper blood spurting out of the wound. Its prey held fast, the spider disappears into the foliage without a trace.
It takes less than two seconds.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mister Pettus snarls.
“I was only trying to…” I say, doing my best to fight back against my rising panic. Mister Pettus reaches up from behind me gripping my arm in his hand, twists it and then finally gives it a hard tug. It causes the strand to wind even tighter around my fingers, bite into my flesh but it is enough to tear me free from the spiderweb. I hold out my hand, picking at the silky, sticky mess that’s gripping my fingers.
“Why the hell did I ever let you in?” Mister Pettus grumbles, as he reaches under the tanks and starts kicking away at the mess, producing a first-aid kit. “What the hell ere you thinking, sticking your hand in there, hm?”
“I just…I wanted to help the grasshopper…” I mumble, as if that would make any sense. Mister Pettus stares at me for a moment, trying to gauge if I am completely brain dead.
“Did it bite you?” he asks me, pair of scissors in his hands, slowly but carefully cutting through the strands.
“Did. It. Bite. You.” He repeats, staring into my eyes.
“No, it just…the grasshopper…”
“That thing in there, that’s the Orsonville Death’s Head spider. Its fangs contain a very potent neurotoxin. Paralyzes its victim’s nervous systems.” Mister Pettus says. Cutting across the length of my index finger, he pinches the exposed flesh so hard I can’t help but let out a yelp. “Good. That hurt. Means you’ll live. If it had bit you, you’d be dead in a minute flat, about as long as it would take to reach your heart.”
We’re both very quiet, as Mister Pettus carefully snips around the silk, unspooling the threads around it until finally, my arm plops down free. My fingers feel prickly, but at least I can move them.
“So you do keep spiders, after all.”
“Yes. To keep smart girls away, mostly. Apparently they aren’t foolproof. Wiggle your fingers, let me see.”
I raise my arm and move my hands until I’m sure it’s working. Mister Pettus nods.
“Why would you keep those things here?”
“Pest control, among other things. I also extract their poison and the silk. For personal use.” He says, thrusting the grape soda can in my hand.
“What sort of personal use?” I ask, sipping at the lukewarm soda, flexing my fingers. Mister Pettus sighs.
“Don’t you have to go back to work?”
“I’m sure I can spare a few minutes to listen to what use could someone find in killer spiders.”
Mister Pettus cocks his eyebrows. “You’re a nosy little girl, aren’t you? Cocky, too.”
“Only way I can get through to paranoid shut-ins, I guess.” I joke. That makes Mister Pettus grin.
“What do you know about anti-venom?”
“I know about Kamba and Tithonia diversifolia.” I reply without thinking, reaching back to the long hours when Dad would make me pore over the Helfwir botany guides in the library, making me memorize every possible antidote, antivenom and useful herb that I might need in the field. Mister Pettus nods. “Read about it on the Internet. School project.” I add, quickly.
“Those are useful, if you have some egg yolk and you’re quick enough about it. Might even save you from a cottonmouth’s bite or from a cobra, in a pinch. But the Orsonville Death’s Head kills in a matter of instants. There is no way the antivenom would have time to react, before you are already dead. The only way to survive it, is by possessing some sort of resistance to it. By having taught your body to deal with it in smaller doses.”
“You…you let those things bite you?”
“No, of course not.” Mister Pettus says, pushing over a stack of books to slump on an armchair. “I collect it and inject myself with gradually larger doses. Oh don’t give me that look, it’s not as terrible as it sounds. People used to do this since ancient times. Mythridates, the King of Pontus was said to have developed such formidable resistance that he could not even commit suicide, when the Romans came banging at his door.”
“So what does it feel like? Pumping yourself with poison?” I ask. Mister Pettus shoots me a look full of daggers.
“It is exceedingly painful. Imagine someone driving spikes into your heart and the back of your eyeballs as your body goes numb and you flop down on the floor. It gets worse, when the fever sets in. The kind that makes you feel like you’re boiling alive in your own skin and fills your mind with carnivorous dreams. Then there’s a brief spell of paralysis, a fit of unadulterated ape-like rage and then finally, a long and peaceful slumber. Well worth the trouble, if you’re preparing yourself to survive an assassination attempt, in my opinion.”
“Who could possibly want to kill you? I mean, no offense, but you don’t seem to have too many enemies.”
“Not too many are still alive these days, that is true. People don’t usually make it to retirement in my line of work.” Mister Pettus remarks off-handedly, his gaze drifting away for a moment. I try to read it, to no avail. “You want a bit of advice, girl? Learn to compromise. It will do wonders for you, farther down the line.”
Mister Pettus changes, as he starts talking again. His features harden, his gaze focuses on me as he appears to shed some of the excess years of him. Suddenly, he looks younger, saner than before as if the shut-in elderly man has gone and been replaced by someone else. Someone sharp and keen and utterly vicious, almost predatory.
“You probably left home, didn’t you? You left the place where you grew up in because it was old and dusty and because your parents made no sense. I don’t know how you ended up in Orsonville and I won’t tell you to go back; that’s your own business. But here’s all that I can say: don’t make friends with old men. Don’t ever think that you will be young and sweet and curious forever. In a month, two months, perhaps in a year, you’ll find some other place to go to. Somewhere less quiet, where you’ll think that people make more sense. Except they won’t. Neither will they do so in the next, or the one after that. Sure, your life will be an adventure, but when that adventure is over, twenty or thirty years from now, you’ll be…well, here.” he says, his arm showing me the entirety of the choked living room, the tanks, the walls plastered with a thick layer of post-it notes. “Alone and sad and so very, very tired. And you won’t have the strength to run anymore.”
I want to speak out, to tell him that he is wrong; that there is no place for me to go but here, but I the words stick to my throat: I hadn’t realized how strange Orsonville had been to me so far. How distant and sparse and hostile, at times. I couldn't admit it, but if I could find Billy and get my money back then I guess I would run, go anywhere else but here.
“When did you start running?” I ask, without thinking. Mister Pettus snaps back into reality, landing clumsily into his thrifty armchair. The spell is broken. He’s crooked and creaking like an old house again.
“I think it’s time you went back. Hiro probably needs you.” he says. I thank Mister Pettus for the soda and turn to leave, when I hear him call out “Stop over some time. Whenever you feel like it. I'd like to share some stories from the road.”
When I return, Mister Nomura calls for me from the kitchen. There’s the smell of fresh sea air. Rows of knives, carefully arranged on hooks across the tiled marble on the walls glint under the fluorescent lamp light.
“So you know your knives, little girl?” he asks me, as I walk in. I sneak a glance at the blades arranged around me each so carefully polished and sharpened that I can see my reflection flowing into the edge, disappearing across the narrow ridges. Kanji ideograms adorn each blade, the words carefully etched at the base of each blade, near its handle.
“Ever seen kasumi knives?” Mister Nomura says, flicking his fingers at the blades. They make a soft, whistling noise as they jingle against the marble, like wind chimes. “Two types of steel, folded into the blade.”
“Like a katana?” I ask, beaming. This much I can admit to knowing. It makes Mister Nomura nod.
“Yes. Like a katana. But not like in the cartoons. They can’t cut through stone or a tank, but they can go through flesh like a hot knife can go through butter.” He says, picking one from the shelves seemingly at random, presenting it with flourish. “There are a hundred knives here, each for a hundred jobs. But for now, we will start with this.”
I take the knife in my hand. It’s very light, barely larger than a switchblade. I finger the kanji, tracing the edges of the ideogram etched into the steel trying to divine its meaning, when Mister Nomura smacks a tuna fish as big as his head on the cutting board. “Filleting knife. Good for beginners. So you won’t lose a finger the first couple of tries.”
I smile politely, making sure to avoid eye contact and grip the knife the wrong way on purpose; thumb sticking out, fingers gripping the handle too tightly. Mister Nomura corrects it with his maimed hand until I am holding it correctly, the way Dad taught me to. With the stumps of his fingers leading my hand, he presses the edge of the blade against the tuna’s flesh near the gills and glides it down. A very thin, almost impossible to make out gash forms in a semicircle around the salmon’s head, exposing the layers of flesh underneath.
“Around the head, as close as possible. Don’t waste the meat.” He tells me and lets go. I follow the line all the way around, until the tuna’s head is nearly severed, holding on to the rest of its body by the tip of its spine. The edge hisses as I run the edge across the grooves of the bone. I’ve had my share of cutting and I know exactly how a push-knife feels when you press it against the sides of a ghoul and miss its heart. When Mister Nomura makes me lay the edge against the bone and pushes my hands down, severing the head with an audible crack, I bite my lip to hold from retching. “Careful.” He tells me, snapping me back to reality. When he takes the knife in his left hand to show me how to properly scale the fish, I can’t help but look at the glistening flesh. None of the other creepy-crawlies ever looked so alive. Even the dead rat-things, with their huge numbers didn’t feel half as real. It was funny, how it had all seemed like a game to me before.
“Are you paying attention?” he tells me, tapping the knife against the sink. I look as he drags the blade against the fish with hard, fast motions, peeling the scales in a few quick strokes. His right hand is shaking, struggling with its grip on the tail. “Now you.”
I’m bumbling halfway through scaling the rest of the tuna, Mister Nomura looking over my shoulder, when I ask:
“After you’ve shown me around the tunnels tonight. Can I go on patrol? On my own?”
“Why would you want to go out at night on your own? Looking for a boy?” he jokes, reching down to correct my grip when I slip.
“I see. Is he pretty?”
“Yes. But I don’t want him for that.”
“Bad sort, then.”
“Yes. He stole my money right after I came here. That's why I had to squat in that place.”
“I see. Careful there, you’re going to graze the flesh.” Mister Nomura says, taking the salmon away from me. He runs his fingers over the skin, checking for leftover scales, and preens it. “You are planning revenge, I take it?” he tells me, grasping my hand and pushing the tip of the knife against the fish’s belly. It goes in, effortlessly. “Cut across, straight line.”
“Yes, I want…I want my money back.” I manage, wincing as I watch how effortlessly the blade slides across the belly. The fish’s innards open up and I blink, trying not to focus on the pink and brown mess inside.
“If he is a thief, your money is probably long gone. Used to pay off some debt or spent on frivolous things. Two days is a very long time, among thieves.” Mister Nomura says, reaching in to pluck the guts. He takes the knife from my hand to cut at the mess, removing the liver and kidneys with expert ease despite his maimed fingers.
“I still want it back. Or at least, I want whatever he’s got. I can’t let him get away with it!” I tell Mister Nomura, who tosses the guts into a bin, then hands me back the knife, leading my hands down to its tail. He places the edge at a sharp angle against the fish tail.
“Cut across again. This time, along the spine.” He nods, as he watches me struggle to move the blade along in a straight line. “And when you have beaten him up and taken his things, won’t that make you a mugger?”
“No!” I say, pushing the blade along so quickly, the top part of the fish nearly flies off. Mister Nomura takes the knife from my hand, tutting. “I won’t…I’ll be…I’ll just be doing what is right! Getting back what’s mine!”
“Orsonville is a small town. And if that boy is a thief and you beat him up and you take what’s his and he decides to get revenge, how long do you think it will take him before he finds you? Before he decides he needs to pay you back for what you did?” Mister Nomura says, laying out the flesh, turning the fish around on the cutting board.
“He won’t. I’m quiet and I’m strong and he won’t know what hit him.” I say, cutting again, my motions quicker and more careful this time.
“What if he does? What if he brings a few of his friends to rough you up then? He’s already a thief and you’re already a mugger. He won’t have any reason to hold back now, will he?” Mister Nomura says, laying out the other piece of flesh. Picking up the remaining fish by the tail, he tuts and takes the knife from my hand, cleaning off any bits left over across the spine.
“I can take him and his friends. I took care of his little girlfriend today, when she tried to scare me off.”
“His girlfriend?” Mister Nomura says, nodding as he turns the spine this way and that, bringing the fillets close and running his thumb along the edges of the flesh to check for any leftover bones.
“The girl from the bookstore. Gunda or something. She…” I stop, realizing I might have said too much. “She said she’s seen me around.”
“So they know you. Which means they are waiting for you. That rules out any chance of you being able to answer with force. So where does this leave you?” he tells me, as he places the used knife in the sink and picks another. This one has a finer, serrated edge. He uses it to slowly cut the fillet into stips.
“It…I can still…” I stutter. “I don’t know.”
“When force is no longer an option, the only approach left is subtlety. What do you know about biological warfare?” he tells me, laying out the pink fish-flesh on the cutting board, as he begins to work on the next fillet.
“Not much, I guess.”
“Used to be, in Ancient Greece, the world was divided into city-states. Microscopic nations each of which controlled just a small bit of land and resources, constantly at war with each other. Athens is the best known one. Motherland of democracy and all that. Back in 590 BC, they had set up a little alliance with nearby city-states. They called it the League of Neighbours. This League, in time, found itself at odds with another city; a walled-off little place called Kirrha, near Delphi. The war had gone on for too long, bleeding the League of its resources and its men. Summer had long since drawn to an end and autumn was slowly fading. By wintertime, the League would be forced to fall back, give Kirrha plenty of time to raly its allies to their cause. They needed to be rid of that eyesore and fast.” Mister Nomura says, making a slashing motion in the air with his knife. “So what they did, was maintain the siege; play up the fact that they were planning to fight this fair and square. Keep the people of Kirrha thinking they were safe behind their walls, while a handful of men made their way behind the walls, reached the wells and then dipped a whole lot of hellebore in the water. Black hellebore, specifically. Hippocrates is said to swear by it, as a cure for fits. The flower's extract would relax the afflicted muscles and in controlled doses, it could help cure the insane. But in large doses, like the ones used to poison the waters of Kirrha, the extract caused the muscles to go limp. It paralysed the populace, made them feverish; caused their throats to swell shut and made them choke on their vomit, when it came. The lucky few that finally died were the envy of the living who were left to suffer at the hands of the League.”
“You are saying I should poison Billy?”
“No. But salmonella would sound like a damn good alternative.” Mister Nomura says. Walking to the fridge, he takes a whole tuna, still wrapped in transparent film. It seems to be alright, except its eyes are all cloudy and its tongue is sticking all the way out. “This one went bad a long time ago. Make sushi out of this. Pass it off as a peace offering, then sit back and watch the fireworks.”
I gag, as soon as I pull out the plastic film. It doesn’t smell rancid, but there is something downright sinister clinging to my palate after taking a single wiff.
“You might need a lot of wasabi to cover that up. Or salt. It’s what they usually do, in business.” Mister Nomura says, as he cuts across the fillets, turning them into long strips of fresh meat. “Make sure you wear gloves. The smell won’t hurt you, but if you get yourself infected brushing your teeth, that’s your own damn fault. We can go tonight, after our patrol.”
“Really?” I ask him, grinning. Mister Nomura takes the chopping block with the fillets all the way across the kitchen, giving me as wide a berth as possible.
“Yes, really. Be quick about it.”
The fish doesn’t smell all that bad until I start gutting it. That’s when the really nasty, gooey mess spills out and I nearly lose it. To cope with the smell, I stop every half minute, turn my head around and do my best not to spew. The gloves are thin latex so they won’t hinder me, but a single misstep and I could slice them open, maybe cut my finger and expose the wound to the film of mucus that’s been developing under the skin.
The flesh is the color of watered-down wine. Smells like feet that have been marinated in grave-dirt. The head comes off easily and I toss it in the bin, doing my best not to look into those misty, staring eyes. The spine comes off no problem. I don’t bother with the rancid, leftover meat. The flesh is the hardest part to get rid off. It comes out in clumps, like packaging foam and clings everywhere. Even when I am done and I’ve cut it into strips, tossed away the gloves and cleaned my hands with scalding hot water until they are red and raw I can feel them on me.
Mister Nomura brings me a bowl full of rice and sheets of seaweed that will form the sushi. A porcelain bowl nearly overflowing with wasabi, too.
“The rice is extra salty. Should mask the taste.” he assures me. I can no longer smell the fish-flesh. Perhaps I've adapted to the rancid smell. But every time I look at the strips of flesh, even after I have dunked a quarter of the wasabi sauce in the rice, I can taste something oily and rubbery in my mouth.
“They only need to have one, right?” I ask Mister Nomura “One will do?”
“How will they have one, if you haven’t even set the trap right?” he tells me from across the kitchen. “To catch a shark, you need plenty of fish-meat, yes?”
“Is this your idea of ancient Japanese revenge wisdom?”
“No, just stating the obvious.”
After what seems like an eternity, it is done. For good measure, Mister Nomura drizzles the contents of the box very lightly with soy sauce. “To mask the smell,” he says. “Now, rest. Tonight, you will have your revenge.”
I take my leave and heave in the bathroom for a while. It helps a little, but I still can’t get that phantom taste out of my mouth.
That night, Mister Nomura brings me a pair of thick galoshes and a disposable mask, along with a battered little hard hat with a headlight.
“Bento box drop-off first. Then, the rest of the tour.”
“Won’t we stick around? To see if it worked?”
“Training comes before petty vengeance. Understood?”
We slip back into the tunnels through the basement trapdoor, moving northeast at a steady pace. Mister Nomura doesn’t take any detours. Probably wants to get this done as soon as possible. I’m feeling giddy, at first, then scared.
“Has anyone died of salmonella?”
“Plenty of people, yes. Mostly up until the 19th century. Are you getting cold feet?”
“Yes” I say. No point in mincing words.
“Good. It means that you are sane. But you have already nocked the arrow, haven’t you? Taken aim, too. We can go back, toss this poisonous stuff in a dumpster so no one gets it. But then Billy will walk away.” He says and the sound of his name makes my blood boil. It makes me want to pounce him and kick him when he’s down and…
And then what? Laugh as he’s writhing on the floor with everyone knowing he was beat up by a girl? Take his place as the Orsonville bully? I doubt if there’s anyone else that could take me. I know how to fight. They don’t know how to set up an ambush and I can take any one of them, every last Billy but what would that make me? And when would it stop? How far was I willing to go?
“Better the devil that you know.” Mister Nomura says under his breath. I follow without thinking. When we reach the hidden grate that leads to the backyard of Billy’s house, I can finally take a look at who he is really is:
It’s a small, prefab place that Billy lives in. Two storeys, paint stripped in places. The backyard is littered with discarded toys. A broken see-saw, half of a dismantled BLOKO castle left to bleach in the sun and soak in the rain on a tree-stump. Stacks of bricks, left in a corner. Garbage that used to be spoils from a family barbeque strewn all about.
Someone is screaming from the first floor. Two shadows fight against the bedroom light. I hear Billy’s voice, shouting at the top of his lungs:
“Pillow fight!” before he smacks the other with the pillow. There’s laughter, children yelling at the top of their lungs as they overpower Billy.
“I need to take a look.” I tell Mister Nomura. Before he can stop me, I’m moving through the backyard, dodging trash, grab an awning and climb my way up to the first floor in half a minute flat. Peeking through the window, I see a cramped, crowded bedroom. I count three, inside: Billy, one of the younger boys from the bookstore. In the back corner of the room, bouncing on her little bed so hard the spring mattress is squealing with delight, a girl that’s four years old if she’s a day. Billy is backing down, as the younger boy batters him-clumsily-with his pillow. He pretends to crawl into a fetal position.
“You give up now, Billy?” the little girl squeals. She has hair the color of sputtering embers. Billy nods, head bent low. He crawls, only to rise up at the last second, grabbing his little sister and driving her into the bed. She kicks and screams as he holds her down under one arm, reaching around with the other to take away her pillow, batting the other’s weapon away.
“I win!” he roars and the children shout how it’s not fair and how Billy cheated again but he’s too busy doing a little victory dance to care.
“No Billy you cheater, you cheated again, you cheater!” the little girl says, pummeling him with her little fists fists. Billy pretends to go down, raising his arms to shield himself, pleading for mercy. The little girl stops after a while, laughing, enough for Billy to grab her and turn her upside-down in his hands, holding her by the ankles.
“First rule of fighting: never stop de fighting.” Billy tells her, in a thick Russian accent. “Now I have you and I will sell you to the market, like lamb. Get good price for legs.” He says, shaking her down. Glass marbles and spare buttons come trickling out of her pockets, spilling down all over the floor.
“Noooo!” the little girl says, struggling to free herself, giggling the entire time.
“Maybe good cook will let me make your belly into stew, yes?” he says, as he begins to drag her across the floor. The girl stands with one her hands.
“Shut the hell up in there!” a hoarse voice comes from the ground floor. The children stop for a while, exchange worried glances. What magic was there is gone now. I start inching my way away from the window, when I hear Billy shouting back:
“Shut the hell up, old man.”
There’s a rumbling, thumping sound as something massive runs up the stairs. From the corner of my eye, I see a shape bursting in: it’s large and hairy and it towers over Billy. I catch a glimpse of a sweat-stained wife-beater, gold rings on his right hand, as it delivers a backhand blow to his face, sending him reeling. His eyes are polar-ice blue, radiating hatred.
The beating goes on for a while. I don't stick around to look at it. When the door slams shut again, Billy’s face is bloodied from a split lip. I hear the man going down the stairs, moving slower now. He pauses every couple of steps, listening in for any peep, any sound that Billy might make that would give him a reason to go back in there.
I guess my priorities just changed.
I slide down the side of the house, check the ground floor windows. The one leading inside the kitchen is unlocked, so I slip in through the opening, balance on the kitchen counter for a second, land on the soles of my feet. To my right, I see the living room. A thrifty, overused couch is set up in front of the TV, nonsense programs babbling at the empty beer cans littering the carpet. In a folding tray, the leftover mess of a TV dinner. I take out the lid of the bento box, spread the tainted sushi all over the tray. To make it look less conspicuous, I break it up with a fork. At least this way, it looks like part of the re-fried microwaved mess that’s left behind.
Behind me, I can hear the man coming down the steps. I turn and see a pair of feet dressed in thrifty pyjama bottoms, hairy beer gut spilling out from the wife-beater shirt. No way I can move away without him seeing me. His chin peeks out from the top of the stairs. I’m about to jump into the couch, hide in plain sight, when the four-year old upstairs starts sobbing. He goes back a few steps, shouts:
“Shut the hell up or I'll give you something to really cry about!”
It’s only for a couple of seconds, but it’s enough to get me in the kitchen. By the time he’s reached the armchair, I’ve squeezed through the window and I’m in the backyard, running toward Mister Nomura.
“Go, go go!” I whisper hoarsely, before jumping in through the grating.
“Is it done?” he asks me, as we half-jog through the darkness.
“Was it worth it?”
“Every second of it.”
The network of tunnels runs like a spiderweb under Orsonville, twisting and turning and converging at regular intervals in its perimeter and every quarter of a kilometer, breaking into intersections and cross roads that Mister Nomura knows like the back of his hand.
“Follow a single path to any one direction and you will find yourself somewhere in Orsonville. Make one wrong turn, however, and you will never get out of this place. There are hidden pathways here. Tunnels that branch out underneath or twist in on themselves. Didn’t use to be this way.” Mister Nomura says, as we reach a dead-end near the western outskirts of Orsonville. We take a breather as we ascend from the grating set against the cemetery fence. Somewhere in the distance, the Marsh house creaks and groans like an old man. “When the workers got together and expanded on the tunnels, they came out on the night of Thanksgiving and caught their foremen unprepared. There wasn’t a shot fired. Sure, they had to crack a few heads but no one was killed. Local legend has it that there were some hotheads, though. A few radicals and troublemakers who didn’t really intend to make peace with the foremen. Those bad apples wanted blood. But more than blood, they wanted the silver. All of it. There’s no way to know for sure, but I could bet you money none of those people had lost anyone in the mines. On your feet.”
“Why would they do it? If they didn’t have any reason to actually get revenge, I mean.” I ask, as Mister Nomura leads me back into the tunnels, makes a right and we start moving along the outskirts of Orsonville, heading toward the old interstate.
“Because grief tempers the spirit. It puts things in perspective. When you lose someone close then the world comes into focus and you have very little to be angry about anymore. Greed, which is a natural human reflex toward anything valuable, loses its grip over you. That is what caused that bloodless takeover to go sour. Half the workers just wanted to shut the mine down, start their lives over and put this nightmare behind them. The rest wanted to take everything from the city’s coffers and make the foremen to suffer for their own gain. Sure, they put on streamers and packaged it in a nice, big speech but it was cold, calculated murder anyway. This way.” Mister Nomura says, moving south. The tunnel makes a sharp incline and I have to watch my step so I won’t slip down and fall. The walls begin to close in around us. “And so it was that the bloodless takeover turned into a bloody nightmare in barely a forthnight. The foremen sided with the peaceful workers, armed them as soon as the hotheads started lynching people. Tensions grew. Soon enough, both sides were taking potshots at each other through these very tunnels. Fights erupted on the streets and it wouldn’t be long before someone would call in the Marshalls. That would turn this entire mess into a bloodbath. Stop.”
Mister Nomura halts and I nearly bump into him. He sidesteps just enough to let me take a look at what’s in front of him: a large chamber, a kilometer wide. A yawning, gaping hole that seems to going all the way down to the center of the Earth. It howls and whispers into my ear, beckons me to come closer, to jump.
“This is where the silver storage used to be. The foundry, where they would smelt and purify the ore before sending it out into the world. The workers had found a chamber here. No one knew what it was for, but the accounts claim that is was something ancient, perhaps a temple. Someone packed this place with explosives, wanting to just destroy the foundry. Except those people didn’t know much about geology or rock formations or perhaps even demolitions, for that matter. It caused the entire ground to disappear all around the foundry, punched a hole in the middle of Orsonville, sent a thousand people plummeting down to their deaths to be buried here for good.” Mister Nomura says, then points up at the ceiling. “Above you, there is the hospital and the city hall and the school and Mister Landsdale’s pet shop. People like to think that the sinkhole never happened. They set up the heart of Orsonville to plug up that terrible place in their history.”
“But what was the temple for? Who’d built it?”
“The people back then didn’t know. Most of the things I told you are hearsay, bits and pieces of Orsonville’s history, put together by the survivors and a few honest historians. The workers had found this place, used it as a refuge and then finally used it to destroy themselves. Their takeover ended that same day. Those that were left made peace with the foremen so they could rebuild. But that hadn’t been the worst of it.”
We skirt along the sinkhole until we reach an intersection. The takes a right and spend the rest of the night making the rounds of Orsonville, popping our heads through gratings to check around us. I make sure to remember all this.
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and we’re heading back to GoodSushi, when I ask Mister Nomura:
“There are tunnels leading back into the mines, aren’t there? Can we go there?”
“No, not right now?”
“No, never. I forbid you to go. If you go there on your own, you will be lost and no-one will ever find you. Simple as that.”
“But I need to see it. I need to see every inch of this place. It’s only fair, isn’t it?”
Mister Nomura looks at me, sternly. Something flashes across his face but it’s gone in the blink of an eye.
“There is nothing there.” He tells me “nothing but old ghosts, dead ends and crushed and rusted canary cages.”
I nod, trying to read his expression but his face is like an empty space, blank and indecipherable. He won't say a word the rest of the way. When I’m back in my room, I close my eyes and try to retrace every last step just like Dad taught me, try to feel the ground under the soles of my galoshes, try to remember every turn and strange coloration on the walls until they are etched into my brain.
I sleep that night and I dream of the strange hole at the heart of Orsonville, at the whispering thing that beckons for me in its depths, crushed under tons of earth and bits of ancient masonry, a helpless god reaching out its hand in supplication.