continued from Chapter 1
Naarka stood on the dock of the ferry station on the east side of the river. He still held the hand lamp. He lifted it up again and pointed at the receding ferry until he could no longer make out the figure of the attendant leaning against the railing on its deck. Then he turned off the lamp and let his hand drop. He tapped the lamp thoughtfully against the thick woolen leggings wrapping his thigh. He drew a long breath in slowly, and let it out gradually, trying to make the exhale twice as slow as the inhale. He let his frustration drop like an instrument reading with every passing moment of this breath.
He turned and stepped back into the ferry station. In two long steps he was standing in front of the ticket counter. "You. Man. When does the next ferry come?"
The computer tablet on which the man had been reading his magazine no longer played any light across his face. It was resting dark and silent in the top drawer of the ticket counter. The man had put it away when he saw Naarka's darkly caped figure walking toward the station from his vehicle.
"Citizen, not for another four hours."
"Does it take two hours to cross the river? One way?"
"Citizen, it takes an hour to cross the river. However the ferry is not scheduled to leave the western bank for another two hours after it arrives there. The overnight schedule is not as frequent as the day."
Naarka dropped his eyebrows in a scowl. He looked down at the floor in consternation. He darted his eyes back up and to the ticket agent. "Can you call the western station and have the ferry leave from there earlier than scheduled?"
The ticket agent placed both hands palm down on the counter top in what was meant to be a gesture of resignation. He had learned to do that instead of raising his hands in a shrug. He could not raise his hand to a citizen. Not in any way. He had been punished, years ago, and he had learned. "Citizen, I cannot. I do not have the authority to do that."
Naarka put his right hand to his hip, resting it on his belt. He brought his left hand up to his chin, and rubbed his index finger back and forth across the little indentation between his lower lip and chin. He liked the smooth feel of the glove's leather. He liked the smell of it too.
He dropped both hands and strode evenly back to his vehicle.
The ticket agent turned his head to watch him go. He kept his hands on the counter and did not look away until the vehicle had turned off the access road to the ferry station and back onto the north/south road. He then calmly opened the drawer, took out the computer tablet and switched it on. He laid it down on the counter and put his elbows on either side of it. He rested his face on his fists, directly above the screen, and began reading again. Again the blinking advertisements colored his face like a candy wrapper.
Naarka decided to get something to eat. He drove north, back toward the city, where there was more chance of finding an eatery open this late. The night air was cooling off rapidly. The wind of rapid travel that whipped over the small windshield to roughly tousle his hair felt good, and the gentler breeze that reached his face felt good too. There were a very few people on the road. He started to wish they wouldn't step off the road to let him pass. He enjoyed swerving around them, because that gave him a chance to actually drive the vehicle, to feel it move in more than one direction, and to have it intimate to him what it could do.
After a time he saw an eatery that looked open. The road widened to meet a large intersection where the cross street was a major east-west thoroughfare to the east, and to the west narrowed to enter a residential subdivision. On the south-east corner was a small building with large brightly lit half glassed windows. The light rolled out of these windows and spilled across the building's open yard, glinting like dots of paint off of the small stones embedded in the tar.
Naarka swiveled the steering column to turn into the eatery's yard while pivoting his foot up and pressing his heel down and backward into the stirrup to ease the vehicle to a halt just in front of one of the windows. He brought his feet out and rested them on top of the stirrup housing, then pulled the four-pronged key out of the fuselage in front of him. As he pushed it up out of the locked position his vehicle's front light switched off. The glass spanning the bottom half of the window in front of him changed from opaquely white with reflected light to transparent, revealing the darkly upholstered booths inside. He could see the eatery's proprietor standing behind a counter on the opposite side of the room. From the unlock position he was able to pull the key out, then he lifted its cord off the steering column and lifted it over his own head to hang around his neck. He took the key itself, and as he looked down to slide it into the fitted pouch on the chest of his leather shirt, the gold wires running down its prongs glinted in the light from the window. He put his left foot on the ground and swung his right foot back across the seat to dismount. He walked to the screen door at the corner of the building.
By the time he had stepped into the room, the proprietor had moved from behind the counter and was standing by the door with a menu, waiting to greet him.
"Citizen, welcome and good evening. Where would you like to sit?"
Naarka ignored him and walked to the booth at the window that looked directly on his vehicle. He sat down, and the proprietor, who had followed him, set the menu on the table. "Citizen, what would you like?"
"Do you serve eggs?"
"Citizen, yes we do. How many would you like, and how would you like them prepared?"
"Bring me three eggs, scrambled," said Naarka, swinging up the pages of the menu. "Toast with jelly. And kaff with honey-water."
"Citizen, how many capsules of kaff?"
"Five," said Naarka, gazing out at his vehicle.
"Citizen, right away." The proprietor walked off and returned in a moment with a cup of honey-water. He put it in the middle of the table, and next to it he dropped five dark-brown kaff capsules. Naarka took a napkin from the table, folded it, and dropped two of the capsules into the crease. He then folded the sides of the napkin in, and the top down to make an awkward box, and put that in the left abdomen pocket of his shirt. He could pop those capsules straight, some time later. Especially if he stayed up looking for those three tonight. Maybe during a long drive. He grabbed the cup and dropped two of the remaining three capsules into the honey-water. He could feel the cup heat up in his hand as the same chemicals which gave the honey-water its sweet taste broke down the coating of the capsules, giving off heat and releasing the kaff into the water.
He picked up a stirrer and swished it through the cup's bubbling liquid a few times, waiting for the kaff to dissolve. He looked out at his vehicle, then at the road and buildings beyond. He took a sip.
He shouldn't have burned their house. It gave them warning. His father would not be happy to hear about it either. He could have damaged some one else's property, or so his father would lecture him. Naarka snorted a small breath out his nose and twisted his mouth when he thought of that lecture. He took another sip. The kaff was starting to hit him, driving his mind forward like a hammer hitting a brick through a tunnel. The sweetness of the honey-water coated the tunnel with oil to smooth out the rush and make it easy.
Burning their home was just something that happened to strike his mood. He was rummaging through their things, looking for some clue as to where they might be during the day - where they might work, or go to school. He overturned some baskets in their common room which turned out just to hold sewing projects in various states of completion. There was a small desk in another corner, and he pulled out the drawers and dumped the contents on top of the desk. He touched each paper lightly with his fingertips, briefly examining it for any relevance, then with a small motion of his knuckles flicking it off onto the floor. Homework papers - nothing with the name of the damn school. Pens, a small magnet, a compass, a protractor. Some pictures of children about the age of the younger boy, some with younger faces - and another picture, of someone he recognized. It was Dal, the father of the boys, the husband of Teres, the man Naarka had killed - what was it now, six months earlier?
He picked up the picture and looked at it more closely. Photographs had always struck Naarka as odd: people in them always seemed to be trying to say something. As if everyone, when a camera is pointed at them, instead of thinking "cheese" or whatever it is you're supposed to say to make you smile, have something else, something very specific to themselves, in their mind. They are saying "cheese", and smiling with their mouth, but with their eyes... they are clearly saying "I hope whoever sees this photo will get the message I'm thinking right now." And now, this small 2 centimeter-square photo of Dal was looking straight at Naarka, and the message was very clearly aimed just at him. The message was, "Citizen, I hope you will have pity on my family."
Naarka stared at the picture for two or three minutes with a blank, uninterested face. Finally he thought, No. No, man. That is not going to happen. He looked around and spotted a metal trash can at the side of the desk. He stuck his foot in its rim to drag it over in front of him. With his left hand he swept his cape back to undo the string on the small bag hanging off his left hip, then fished his hand in there to dig out his flame lighter. He flipped open the top and held it under the photo, over the trash can. He held down the gas release trigger with his forefinger and heard the satisfying hiss. He depressed the igniter with his thumb. There was a click, a small puff and then the tiny roar as the small blue flame sprung to life. He moved the bottom of the photo to the peak of the flame. Its colors went sick, it bubbled, then blackened. This effect moved up the picture, from Dal's shoulders, past his collar and up his neck. The face on the picture closed its eyes, and the burn crept to the corner where Naarka held the photo's edge. He dropped it into the trash.
Oops, there were other papers in there. They started to burn, and soon there was a good decimeter size flame in the trashcan. The mood struck him then, almost sweeping him away into euphoria. He looked around for other stuff that would burn. He shoveled the remaining papers on the desk into his arms, then dumped them on the flame. He stooped to collect all the papers he had already discarded, and fed them to the fire. That wasn't going to be enough. He looked around again, a scan that was one more layer deep. Wood. He lifted one edge of the desk, spilling the remaining detritus off its surface and on to the floor as it tilted. He hoisted it high enough to clear the edge of the trash can, then scraped it the little distance along the floor until he could set one leg down in the middle of the flames. He turned to the small chair that went with the desk. He grabbed it by the back, and hefted it above his head, then brought it down fast on top of the desk. It dented the desk's surface, but that was it. No, wait, the legs seemed a little looser in their braces. He raised it again, brought it down again. One of the legs was now loose. One more time, up, and down hard on the desk. None of the chairs horizontal braces was connected to more than one leg now, and the legs all shifted with the swing of the the chair. he didn't want to be hit by flying pieces of chair, so he stopped, put the chair down the floor and braced his foot against it to wrench off the legs with his hands. He blinked several times. He was a little stunned. Nothing he had done in their home had taken so much of his own physical activity, and he felt like he had just committed his first violence against them. Never mind breaking in to their home, going through their things or setting their house on fire. Never mind killing their father. Well, the first violence against them today. The killing was months ago. The first violence against them in this city.
After tossing the pieces of chair into the growing fire, he felt drained. Plus, the desk was starting to burn. The fire was starting to grow. He felt he should probably leave.
He stepped out into the alley and thought about his next move. Go back to the rented garage to retrieve his vehicle? Not yet. He started to walk with no particular direction, then turned north. He reached into the left abdomen pocket of his shirt and pulled out two folded packets of paper. He had one kaff capsule and three deppers. He already felt on edge, too adrenalized, and a little shocked from the physical and emotional exertion in the helots' home. He popped one of the deppers into his mouth.
He rolled it against the roof of his mouth with his tongue. If he bit down on it all of the drug would be released at once. He didn't bite. He let his saliva work slowly on the coating, looking forward to the unexpected timing of the upcoming drag on his mind, deliciously anticipating the wave of soothing prickly numbness. He walked through the neighborhood, which was filled with walled courtyards. However most of the gates to these were open. Small children ran in and between them. Women and older children were hanging laundry, or tending outdoor cooking fires. Seniors tended small gardens, shielded from the dust by fine netting or loosely woven cloth. No one noticed him. Which is to say, everyone assiduously avoided noticing him. Not one pair of eyes rested on him, or even glanced in his direction after first noticing his citizen's cape. Which was too bad, he thought. Some of the women were attractive, and he wished they did notice him. He swung his head gently from side to side, almost ready to swing into one of the yards and proposition some housewife. Yes, he was feeling more and very mellow. He tested with his tongue. Yes, the depper capsule's coating was wearing thin.
He turned his attention forward to the road, as his steps seemed to slow down. The edges of the houses seemed more distinct, while the walls and surfaces grew less so. Dust brushed off rooftops and met more dust curling up off the road, then froze in the air to hang unmoving for him to try to walk through it, like a curtain as thick as a city block, but which he could still part as easily as lace. He let his eyes drop halfway closed. A huge smile grew inside, from ear to ear, but only showed as half a smirk on his face.
He came to an east-west thoroughfare. Wide enough to have gutters cut into the pavement on both sides of the street. Men walked both directions, carrying packs, drawing carts behind them, even driving mules. Naarka stood at the side of it, and lost his attention in the traffic for a few minutes. In a burst of logic, he figured, or seemed to remember, that the center of town was to the east. He started walking that way.
After about an hour - maybe only forty minutes, maybe it just seemed like an hour - he was thirsty. He had reached an area with food stalls on either side of the street. He found one that sold puréed fruit. It had a counter, or bar, with stools. He took a large coin out of his right abdomen pocket and walked up to the counter. He placed the coin on the counter and ordered a large drink. He sat down on one of the stools and sighed, looking absentmindedly at the menu-cum-advertisement drawn in chalk behind the counter. The man behind the counter took his coin and nodded. Naarka slouched in the stool, raised one eyebrow and let his mind go completely blank. A couple of minutes later the man placed the drink and a group of smaller coins on the counter in front of Naarka. “Citizen, your drink. And change.”
Naarka scooped the coins into his hand and dropped them back in his pocket. He took the drink without acknowledging the server and turned in his stool to face the road. He leaned back on the counter and watched the traffic with a dull weariness as he sipped leisurely.
After he had drained the glass, he kept the straw in his mouth. He sucked it absently, then chewed it. He stared into the air in front of him, thinking nothing, letting the gears of his mind turn freely without engaging a clutch. And out of it popped an idea. He turned to the server behind the counter. "Man. Where is the main market?"
The server wiped his hands on a rag, drying them from the dish washing he was doing. He placed his hands palm down on the counter. "Citizen, the main market is directly east along this road. There are also two other smaller markets, in the south and north sections of the city."
"Thank you, man." Naarka yawned and rubbed his chin. Then he stepped off to continue down the road.
It took him slightly over an hour more to reach the market. It was large, and very crowded. He spent most of the day going from stall to stall, asking about the two boys and their mother. Most of the shop tenders looked like they actually didn't know anything about them, which was to be expected in such a large city. Some of them looked scared: they might have known something. Some of them seemed plain ornery, contrary - as if they actually wanted to stymie him. He thought about taking some of the last two categories off to a private area and dealing with them harshly. But he didn't want to mess with any citizen that might own them or the shops or stalls they tended, especially since this wasn't his native city.
Late in the afternoon, he came upon a stall that was closed, with an angry citizen standing in front of it. Naarka walked up and stood to the side of the citizen, and examined the front of the stall. According to the sign above the lowered screen, it was a cloth vendor. The other citizen suddenly turned to him, flaring his cape, and demanded angrily, "Do you know this store? Do you by chance own it? Or know the owner?"
Naarka raised his right hand palm outward. "Well met, friend. No, I do not."
The man sighed, calmed himself, pursed his lips - hiding them in his gray goatee, and raised his hand in return. "Well met. Forgive me, friend. My man here was to take delivery today of some tapestries for one of my dining halls. Tapestries that have already been paid for, you understand. When he told me the shop was closed I almost cut off his arm for a thief. The woman who tends this shop has always been so reliable, you see."
"She runs it alone?"
"She has her two boys to help her. Understand, she has only been tending the shop for a few months. But she has been such a help I almost came to rely on her as one of my own. I am very busy re-decorating several of my establishments. I try to keep up with the fashions, you see. My clientele would quickly go elsewhere if I didn't."
Naarka had raised his eyebrows, and his eyes almost popped out of his head. "I am sorry I cannot help you, friend. I am a stranger in the city myself. I wish you success." He turned and walked briskly away, heading for the streets leading south and west. They were already on the move. They had been warned somehow. Probably by the fire, dammit. His father was right, he was too impulsive. He had no-one and no-thing to blame - he had gotten in this mess in his own way. He had made the mess in fact. There was nothing for it but to get his vehicle out of the garage and begin searching the major roads. He had to hope they had decided to leave the city and weren't hiding somewhere within it. They might think his connections here, and thus his powers of investigation, were greater than they actually were. And in only a few months of living here there was a good chance they hadn't made any friends close enough or powerful enough to hide them and make them feel safe. He had to bet they had no one they felt they could trust with their lives. Well if nothing turned up on the roads then he could take his time searching the city. But if they did leave it was best not to let them get too much of a head start.
He walked quickly, but didn't run. He reached into his pocket and took out the folded paper packets again. He found the one kaff capsule and popped it in his mouth, tossing the empty paper onto the street. He bit down on the capsule's coating and quickened his steps slightly.
continued in Chapter 3