A Coup for Canned Food
“Dearie, dearie, dearie. Old Fang Face wasn’t so much trouble.”
Traditionally, scrubbers retired when their knees went, which is why Dolores was doomed to scrubbing floors until life evacuated her squat body. Where you would expect to find her knees there were instead her feet. The mod that truncated her legs had lengthened her arms so she didn’t suffer from stooping or bending as she scrubbed. When she was in a hurry she would plant her knuckles on the ground and swing herself along, the ancient primate style of locomotion, at a pace her stumpy legs could not match. Her arms and shoulders were burly, built up by impatient scrambling and years of half-hearted scrubbing for tinpot maniac after tinpot maniac. Despite her age their strength wasn’t ebbing, but damn she’d like to rest.
“I’m going to die with wet hands. I know it.”
She wrung the rag over the dirty water in a plastic tub, dipped it back into it, gave it another squeeze and turned to smear the dirt across another tile in the foyer floor. The foyer had once been the tacky entrance to a hotel, with a grand ceiling supported by columns, gilt chandeliers, overstuffed club lounges in brand livery, every surface clad in marble, including the reception desk. The chandeliers and lounges were gone, but the marble was still there and the Crabmeister wanted it kept clean.
“They always gotta have Dolores. Good old scrubber Dolores.”
The hotel had been the seat of power in the West 73rd Street camp since the first strongman, a young woman in the flush of youth with an impish giggle and a fluffy, venomous tail, decided she shouldn’t have to live in filth and go to bed hungry like everyone else. It was a common decision so her time at the top was short and so it has been for everyone who came after her.
Old Fang Face lasted a few years and he didn’t mind the odd scuff mark or a bit of muck in the corners or along the edges as long as Dolores looked busy.
“Gar!”, he would say, “If I catch you not scrubbing, Dolly, I’ll bite yer face off.”
That was his thing, biting faces off. But Old Fang Face did not get close enough to the Crabmeister to even nip him before his head was pincered from his neck by the infamous giant claw and the camp collectively sighed in disappointment. The leadership was getting crazier and more dangerous with every coup. A great time to be a goon, a heavy or a thug if your allegiances were loosely held, but a bad time for everyone else.
“There’ll always be floors, Dolores. You’ll never go hungry, Dolores. Pfft. You’ll never eat well, Dolores.”
She stirred the muck on another tile and judged the light coming through the entrance. It used to frame a revolving door, but that had been ripped out, replaced by wooden gates that could be chained and barred. Over time all the glass in the curved street front of the hotel had been replaced by a multi-layer patchwork of scavenged plywood, corrugated iron, car panels and refrigerator doors. There was barely enough light to see the dirt on the floor. A little bit darker and she could stop for the day, collect the pittance of food and fuel for her efforts and waddle back to her shelter.
A fish stew would be nice, Dolores thought as she stirred the contents of the pot steaming over the fire. But do I get paid in fish? No, I get squashed rat and dry mush.
The fire was at the entrance of her shelter, an old dumpster turned on its side, one of the safest and shortest constructions in her corner of the camp. It wasn’t going to collapse in the wind or catch fire, and it could take whatever Madhattan’s unpredictable weather could drop out of the sky. She could stand up in it just fine. It was an oven in the summer, even with both doors propped open, and it was noisy. Right now it was amplifying the grumblings of the oversized blowhards that lived behind her. Their mutterings rumbled and boomed deep in her earholes. If she wasn’t within earshot of the Crabmeister she was in earshot of people complaining about him.
They were still at it after she slurped down the day’s earnings from the lip of the pot, visited the cesspit in the bottom of a nearby row house, and rolled onto the bundles of rags stuffed in rags that were her bed, pillow and blankets.
Crabmeister this, Crabmeister that, someone oughta tell him, someone oughta oughta oughta.
How was she meant to sleep? She knuckle-swung out and around the dumpster and squeezed herself between two of the broad backs squatting around a fire big enough to provide warmth. Lucky them. They had the numbers and the size to venture out of the camp to scavenge floorboards and wall frames for fuel.
“What do you want?” said Frank. Mod-diving hadn’t given him the monstrous advantage he had hoped for, but he was big and he could count to forty on the fingers of his massive hands if you gave him enough time.
Dolores had intended to tell them to shut the hell up, but looking up at Frank’s wide chest and his huge hands hanging over his knees, a better idea occurred to her. Around the fire was quite the collection of muscle, tentacle, hardened skin plate and hooked, razor sharp toenail. It would be easier if it was all in one person, but four could work.
“What I want is sleep. Do something about the Crabmeister or shut up about him.”
Henry, the one with the tentacles, four fat ones where his navel used to be, glared across the fire. “You do something about him.”
Dolores mocked him in a matronising tone. “You do something about him. I would’ve done it already if I had your height and your tentacles. I wouldn’t be sitting around whining. And there’s four of you! Look at the toenails on him there. She’s armour-plated and the size of a bus. And you, Frank, with those hands you could tear that crab arm right off.”
“And suck out the meat!” said Tony, the guy with the toenails.
“But you don’t, because you’re cowards. All your big bad mods and you’re all too scared to do anything but whisper around a fire.”
That made them angry. They all started huffing and sitting up. Tentacles waved, toenails scratched grooves in the ground, fists clenched and so did jaws. Dolores was pleased with herself.
“We’re going to do something,” hissed Frank.
“Yeah,” said Candace, the one with the skin plates. “We’re just waiting for the right time.”
“Of course you are. It’s just never the right time, is it? Never ever. Funny that.”
“He’s always with his goons,” said Candace.
“We need to get him when he’s alone and off guard,” said Henry.
“Is that all you need?” said Dolores. “Is that all you’re waiting for? I can get you that.”
She could get them that. No-one knew the maze of utility corridors behind the hotel’s marble facade better than her, or the shortcuts created by voids as they sliced perfect spheres out of walls and floors during their infinitely brief existence, connecting rooms, floors and buildings with peepholes, crawl spaces and passageways the original architects had never envisaged. There was an overlooked backdoor to the hotel and the Crabmeister’s private domain and it was down the end of the block in the basement of a church that was currently filled with an angular tangle of bike frames, remains of a hoard collected by Wendy Whip-hand during her brief time as camp overlord about eight coups back.
“I’ll even lead the way.”
“Oh,” said Frank and drummed his fingers around the edges of his knees, rocked a bit, studied the faces of his friends. “Peeps? Yeah?”
There was coughing and foot shuffling. Tony crossed a leg and pulled a section of asphalt off the point of a toenail. Henry’s tentacles plaited and unplaited their ends.
“Sure,” said Tony.
“If you all are keen,” said Henry.
“I’m in,” said Candace.
“That’s the way,” said Dolores. “You’ll be heroes to the whole camp.”
“You think?” said Candace.
“For sure,” said Dolores. “Bumping off the Crabmeister? You’ll never have to scavenge again. And imagine how the men will look at you, and the ladies, the lady-men, the man-girls, just everyone.”
They went still, stared unblinking into the fire, all their facilities engaged in visualising within the darting flames the rewards and spoils, the life of ease and pleasure, waiting for them.
Tony stood up. “Let’s do it!”
The others started to get to their feet. The enthusiasm was great, exactly what Dolores wanted, but everything wasn’t in place yet.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Why not tonight?” said Tony. “Surprise him.”
Dolores looked at their eager faces. Why not tonight? Why not? Why not?
“Because,” she said, “the reason is this…he’s not alone. That’s right. His henchmen are going to be there tonight. All of them. And most of his goons. A meeting of some kind. You know, overlording business. A really bad time to go. But tomorrow he’ll be all by himself.”
Tony sat down. “Good reason.”
The next morning Dolores stayed close to the reception desk waiting for her chance. She worked her way around to the side to where she was between the door that led to the rooms, the secret rooms only a special few were allowed to enter, where the Crabmeister’s sweetheart, Cabrini, stayed and from where he now conducted all his business. Cabrini did not do stairs. Her tentacles could not be persuaded to carry her across a room in a straight line. Her pallet jack, how she got around, was no use either.
It was after midday and one side of the desk was noticeably cleaner than the rest before the door opened and the Crabmeister appeared, grimacing, striding purposely for the hotel entrance.
“Excuse me, Mr Crabmeister?”
The Crabmeister stopped mid-step, swivelled his head around, found nothing, looked down and snarled at her.
“WHY ARE YOU TALKING?!”
He was always like this.
“I know I’m just an old scrubbing woman…”
“YOU’RE STILL TALKING!”
“…with my ears too close to the ground…”
He slid up to Dolores, grabbed her shirt front with his hand and brought his claw up to her face. It was a very large claw and it did not smell nice.
“I WILL PINCH YOUR WRINKLED HEAD…”
“…but I hear things.”
“Things? WHAT THINGS?”
“Well, we all think you’ve been doing a great job leading the camp.”
The claw withdrew from her face. He rubbed the bottom of his chin with a rough edge of it and looked thoughtful.
“BETTER THAN FANG FACE?”
“Much better. Everyone agrees. Except for this one small group who, these are their words, not mine, they’re awful, but they want to rip off your crabby arm and beat you with it until you are lifeless and beyond recognition. And they plan to do it tonight.”
“THEY DON’T LIKE ME?”
He let go of her shirt and straightened up. Had he lost touch with the people? Had he been spending too much time with Cabrini? It’s true he wasn’t getting out of the hotel much at the moment, time away from Cabrini was time poorly spent, but when he did walk around the camp everyone always seemed happy to see him.
“No they don’t. They even say they hate you.”
“THEY HATE ME? HATE? ME? HATE IS A STRONG WORD! WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?”
Dolores named names, which drew a blank from the Crabmeister, tried descriptions of the their mods to no avail, moved on to drawing a map in the dirt on the floor with her finger to show where they would be sneaking in, sketched in the bottleneck in a stairwell where it would be easy to trap them between floors, making retreat impossible.
Tonight was Cabrini’s bath night, a mammoth undertaking of water heating and carrying, scented oils, soapy tentacles glistening in the warm glow of lamplight as they beckoned.
“In the wee hours.”
Oh. That was alright. He was likely to be up and about anyway, the bathwater would be cold and Cabrini would be sleeping like the kind of angel a Christian octopus would hope to visit. His claw had been getting a bit itchy lately and Cabrini insisted it was a rash, but he was sure it was the urge to maim and kill. There had been so little of that lately. This coup attempt would settle the debate.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“I don’t want nothing, I’m just tired of the scrubbing. I’m old and I don’t want to die with this wet rag in my hand.”
She gave the rag a weak little wave and did her best to look tired and despondent.
“IF THIS IS TRUE YOU WILL BE RICHLY REWARDED. IF YOU LIE…”
He snapped his claw in the direction of her neck like he was popping the yellow bud off a dandelion stalk.
It would have been nice if he sent her home after that, but no, he stalked off without a dismissal and she was too wary to simply walk out. It might be her last day scrubbing, so she might as well finish at the top of her game. Eyeing the dusty trim and the footprints on the floor, a solid couple of hours of rag swiping if she worked fast, she waddled to the far corner, squeezed the water out of the rag, and with it softening the floor under her right hand, braced herself upright next to the tub and dozed, looking as if you had caught her momentarily day-dreaming in the middle of her work, rousing occasionally to shuffle a small distance, staying near the walls, keeping columns in between herself and the door behind the desk and the entrance as best she could, until the daylight had faded into evening and it was safe to leave.
The would be revolutionaries were quiet around their fire, watching tonight’s meagre dinner cook, doing the math of food division, two small squidgeons and one pilfered eel split between four hulking bodies.
“Are you all ready?”
“We’ve kind of lost interest in the idea,” said Frank, his huge fists clenched in his lap.
“It’s a bit risky,” said Candace.
“He’s got quite a temper,” said Tony.
“Is that it? You’re not going to do it? After I risked my life finding you a way in?”
Lying had worked last night.
“You know he had me dusting the stockpile today. I worked the whole day and I didn’t finish the fruit room.”
“What’s the fruit room?”
That got some interest.
“There’s a room in there that’s just cans of fruit. Floor to ceiling. Cherries, pears, nectarines, peaches.”
“Peaches!” said Tony. He’d licked the syrup off the lid from a can of peaches once.
“Another room’s beans and vegetables.”
She was losing them.
“The best room is the meat room. You can’t even walk in there. It’s stacked to the ceiling with salty meat sponges, fishes, cats, dogs.”
“Salty meat sponge!” they said in a chorus.
“And guess what he gave me for all my hard work, all the dusting.”
“What?” said Frank.
“A can of peaches?” said Tony, because if she did get a can of peaches he could take it from her.
“Nectarines?” said Henry.
“Cherries?” said Candace.
She whipped out her closed hand.
“What is it?” said Frank.
She opened her empty hand.
“Nothing. He said to me, when I was dusting, Dolores, he said, I’m letting you in here because I know you’re too weak to try and steal from me. Everyone’s too weak and their weakness makes them scared of me. Like, it’s moulting time for my claw. Look at this loose skin. I can barely open the thing. Any two guys could walk in here right now, knock me over the head and just take all of these cans. But everyone’s too weak and scared and stupid.”
“Turn that squidgeon before it burns,” said Frank.
“Are you listening?” said Dolores.
“Tell us more about the cans,” said Tony.
“He’s moulting. He can’t even open his claw. There’s never going to be a better time than tonight.”
“How often does he moult?” said Candace.
“Look what you’ve done!” said Frank.
One of the squidgeons had rolled off the rack and into the fire. As Henry tried to rescue it from the fire, he overturned the rack, spilling the eel and the other squidgeon carcass into the ashes and the dirt at the edge of the fire.
“You all can go to sleep hungry tonight. I’ll find some other guys and split the cans with them,” said Dolores.
“You’ll save some for us, won’t you?” said Tony.
“You’ll get what you deserve.”
“Awesome,” said Tony.
“Which is nothing. You cowards. You can stay hungry.”
“I’m tired of being hungry,” said Candace.
“Fine. We’ll do it. Right?” said Frank.
“For the cans,” said Tony.
“Yeah, for the cans,” said Henry.
“Wait. Wait,” said Candace. “There’s only three rooms of cans and there’s four of us.”
“Five,” said Dolores.
“Five,” said Candace. “How’s that going to work?”
“We divide all the cans between us,” said Frank.
“I don’t want any vegetables,” said Tony.
“Except those,” agreed Frank.
Everyone seemed to like that idea. Their enthusiasm had returned.
“Who’s going to run the camp after we’re done?” said Candace.
“All of us,” said Frank.
“That sounds like work,” said Henry.
“I’ll do your bit for you, Hank,” said Tony.
“Do mine, too?” said Candace.
“I’ll do yours,” said Frank.
Having dozed most of the day, as per usual, not wanting to be asleep too much during the night, which is when bad things tended to creep up on you, Dolores had to wake up the would-be revolutionaries.
They padded through the sleeping camp, past the hotel, down the street to the empty entrance of the church, its doors removed and burned during the third winter after the modulation event, when piety gave way to desperation, and entered the maze of passages that connected one building to the next through holes sledge-hammered through brick and concrete, and holes where voids had left perfectly circular holes in walls and floors and past inhabitants had added steps or simple ladders to move through them.
At last they climbed up into a long service corridor that was part of the hotel. At the end was the stairwell that Dolores had marked out on the floor for the Crabmeister as the perfect spot for an ambush.
“Oh dear,” said Dolores, bracing a long arm against a wall and groaning. “All this walking and climbing. I think my old ticker is ticking its last.”
“How much further?”
“Just up those stairs. Uhhhhn. Third door. Just give me a second.”
Her eyelids fluttered and her eyes rolled up. “Cans! Cans!”
Her hand slid down the wall as she slumped forward and landed face down, her nose jammed into the corner where the floor met the wall. It was uncomfortable, and there was a chance the dust would make her sneeze, but the others seemed to be buying her performance. She kept still when a toe nudged her ribs and another gave her a kick.
“She’s out. What do we do now?” said Tony.
“We keep going,” said Frank.
“Without her?” said Henry.
“What? You hoping she was going to take out the Crabmeister for you?” said Frank.
“Nah. I was thinking we might throw her at him. A distraction, you know,” said Henry.
“Who gets her cans?” said Candace.
“She wasn’t getting any cans. Let’s go,” said Frank.
Dolores was back down the corridor, climbing through the hole that had been their entrance, when the yells and screams reached her. She shook her head and tisked a few times as she climbed down the ladder.
Dolores rubbed the rag against the floor for a moment before turning around to face the Crabmeister. He was leering.
“YOU WERE RIGHT. THERE WAS AN ATTACK.”
“I’m so glad I could warn you about it.”
“I SAID YOU WOULD BE REWARDED.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
“BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS.”
“I really don’t need anything, except to rest, you know, a long rest, maybe retirement, put down the rag.”
“TODAY YOU SHALL PUT DOWN THAT RAG. TAKE THIS EXCELLENT REWARD FOR YOUR LOYALTY.”
He tossed at her feet the head of a mop with a few inches of splintered wooden handle sticking out of it.
“I TRIMMED IT MYSELF FOR YOUR SHORTNESS. HAPPY SCRUBBING.”
“YOU DO NOT LIKE IT?”
The pincers of the claw started to quiver. She picked it up and held it to her chest, batted her eyelids at him, forced a smile.
“I love it. It’s more than I ever hoped for. Thank you. Thank you.”
“YOU ARE WELCOME, SCRUBBER.”
Dammit. It was going to be months, if not years, before she could convince someone else to attack the Crabmeister again. Maybe she had to stop limiting herself to the losers inside the camp. Maybe there was someone outside, at another camp, somewhere, who could do the job for her.
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