First time in New Warped City? Read this.
New Warped City. When the first modulation hit everything changed, even the name.
The effects weren’t localised to Madhattan, or the Eastern Seaboard or North America or Earth. There’s no-one to tell anyone how extensive the modulation was. Science needs stability, lenses need precise curves, computers need logic.
The nights are dark in New Warped City and when the corkscrew moon isn’t dimly glowing you can finally see the stars, but you can’t recognise any of them. In the black sky there are clusters and voids, great blue and green sweepings of light, ripples, spirals, godawful confusions and nonstellations. Every night a wedge of an entire galaxy, cut like a piece of sparkle pie, sweeps overhead, disintegrating in a fear almost audible.
As above, so below. Nothing escaped the modulation.
Sal’s initial plan had been for Lemura, gorgeous Lemura with plump hands and long toes, to join him in the apartment, weaving her blankets out of rags, her hands and feet dancing and criss-crossing, while he traded the finished articles, collected the payments, and brought more rags. He knew a good source for rags. Lemura and those rags were going to be the first step in the creation of his empire.
There was no pause, no falter, in the rhythmic grace of Lemura’s movements. A blanket in scavenged strips of dark blue and grey fleece cotton grew magically as she listened to his stammering proposal.
Her comprehension grew along with the blanket.
“Eff off. I can do all that myself. I don’t need a sponge like you.”
That Lemura had not found his plan compelling, nor had Elizaboth, who made baskets out of wire, nor Gorellen, who could turn a bundle of soft plastic into a bowl or cup, nor Three-eyed Sue, who knitted, led to Pinky overhearing him fail to persuade Tessss, whose recycled cans of baked squidgeon were enjoyed by some, and his desperate, now lavish, promises had touched her indolent heart.
“Did I hear you say something to Tessss about a room?” she said, her tail curling like a question mark above her shoulder.
By his standards, which he himself did not measure up to, Pinky wasn’t in the running. But what her lack of productive capacity and absence of plump hands weighed against her, it was countered by her attention and her not driving Sal away with physical blows and peltings of trash. Maybe he could still make it work. Start from the bottom and claw his way up instead.
He talked fast, a fisherman pulling in his line as the hooked fish swam towards him. “…and a door with bars. There’s a tub, too. A complete bathroom, with white tiles. You can have a hot bath whenever you like.”
Bathing in the camp within the courtyard of the Apthorp was rarely more than a wipe with a damp rag. Any body of water large enough to immerse yourself in had a good chance of containing a beastie that wanted to eat you from the outside in or the inside out.
“But is it safe?”
“It’s got a pantry. A stocked pantry.”
Pantry was one of those pre-mod words that evoked images, known only from old magazines, of entire buildings filled with food. It made Pinky’s tail go dead straight and quiver.
“I don’t know. Sounds like a lot of bother.”
This was the most attention Sal’s offer had yet received. Pinky, he knew, was lazy, unskilled, and the antithesis of plump, productive Lemura, but he found himself promising her ease and leisure, food on demand. She looked down at his skinny legs and grimaced. He could feel her curiosity giving way to resistance. He promised her hot baths again. Her eyes travelled to his elbow, where a drop of the moisture his skin constantly exuded fell from its point, and followed its path to the ground where it made a fat spot. He promised her magazines, stacks of them. She stared at his shining neck and the wet fabric of his shirt and pursed her lips. Her tail whipped back and forth, back and forth, then drooped.
Triumph. The glow of success lasted long enough for them to walk out through the Apthorp archway together, loaded by bags filled with their tattered belongings, seen by everyone, chuckled at by the gatekeepers, but her first complaint came halfway down the next block. By the time they reached the stoop he was loaded down by all the bags. He nearly lost her at the third flight of stairs. She turned around on the landing and was looking back down the way they had come, her tail flicking. He explained the rooms were closer than the street and he wouldn’t carry her stuff back to camp. She huffed and kept climbing.
That night, after Pinky brushed her hair, her arms, her legs, her tail, wrapped herself in her blankets and fell into sleep, Sal crept into the bathroom and slipped into the cool murky water in the tub. It was a salve to the burn of Pinky pushing him away with disgust from her stained but dry bed, stains she added to by wiping her hands on them. All the plans and effort to launch his manufacturing empire had been reduced to getting a woman alone in the apartment with him. Now even that pitiful victory was pushed aside by the need to stop her from walking out. He twisted a limp, fragile ear for being so stupid. Boarding the windows, securing the door, gathering weeks worth of food and buckets, bottles and cans of water, that was just the beginning of his struggle.
“I want a bath,” Pinky said, standing beside the white tub.
Sal was on his back in the water, fully clothed, his knees bent so he could have most of his head submerged. He closed his eyes for a moment. Leaving the water for dry land was hard. He stood up, swept most of the water from his clothes and limbs with his hands and stepped onto the floor.
“Get in then. It’s all yours.”
“I’m not bathing in that.”
“Why not? It’s water. It’s wet, isn’t it?”
She touched the murky surface with the tip of her tail.
“It’s cold. And you’ve oozed all in it. I want clean water.”
“Dammit, Pinky. It’s water.”
“You said a hot bath.”
“I said a bath.”
“You said hot baths. Get clean water and make me a hot bath or I’m going back to camp.”
It was a bluff. They both knew her spot at the camp was gone before they had reached the gate and she wasn’t sure enough friends would impinge on their neighbours, pushing them back, giving up a little of their own ground, to make room for her. There was probably a man or lady-man she could tickle into sharing. The furry tip of a tail tickling behind an ear had landed her a bed in the past. It opened their mind to possibilities that were never thought through so far as to visualise her industrial snoring afterwards.
But it worked. He couldn’t let her leave. He would be laughed at in the street. He’d never talk Lemura, or even Tessss, into any kind of productive arrangement.
Heating water for her baths used up all the scraps of wood he had collected and forced him out to find more fuel. Then the weeks of food became dangerously low after only six days. For bored Pinky had never had so many calories so easily available nor so little else to do. But during this time, as she grew rested, clean, and well fed, there were stretches of time when she was pleasant, friendly, even prodding him in the shoulder a couple of times with her tail. He ignored how immediately afterwards, while hands moved food to her mouth, the tail reached out for a blanket and scrubbed its tip furiously against it.
But Pinky was bored. Sal was dull company and filled the apartment with his weird smell. Without Sal the apartment would be her little kingdom. She could invite X and Y to move in. He kept asking her to help him convince Tessss to join them, but she refused. Tessss was dull. Tessss would fill the place with feathers and the smell of burnt squidgeon. Anyone would trade their next dinner to live in an apartment in an empty building, what with the bars on the door and the boards over the windows. But not with Sal here.
“You promised I’d be eating better.”
“Gone to bed hungry since we left Apthorp?”
“Eating more isn’t eating better. If I eat any more rat I’ll sprout a second tail. You promised better. I want better. I want lintberries.”
“Lintberries? You’re kidding, right?”
“Garg never came back from getting lintberries and you expect me to get you some?”
Garg, monosyllabic in speech, massive in size and strength, her skin had been as thick and hardened as Sal’s was thin and moist.
“Filch and Bendy came back with lintberries once.”
“With Bendy missing a hand and carrying what the squirrels had left of Filch.”
“People are always bringing them back.”
It certainly felt that way to Pinky. There had been, it seemed to her, a constant influx of lintberries into Apthorp, but none of them were ever shared with her. Now here was a win-win situation: she would taste lintberries or get rid of Sal.
“You know where they grow, don’t you?”
“You promised ‘anything you want to eat I can get it for you’. I want lintberries or I’m leaving.”
“You’re sitting in the bath I promised you. Isn’t that enough?”
“It’s lukewarm. You promised hot. Hot baths every day, you said. Lintberries or I can leave.”
“What about the goddam squirrels? What do I do about them?”
Everything Sal knew about lintberries was secondhand, including how they tasted. Consensus was they liked deep shade and they had a flavour reminiscent of roasted nuts and a richness that was peculiar and so worshipped all the more.
The name itself, lintberry, came from a fading memory, corrupted in the retellings of what was lost that took place around evening fires and applied to a mutant fruit whose flesh was formed of layers of thin, crisp shell so thin and crispy they would have made the top Swiss chocolatier weep, but she was long gone, having survived the modulation event and the following years of confusion and depravity in Kilchberg only to throw herself into a vanilla scented wormhole, surrendering to hope and blind chance.
Cold and clammy as he was, always was, a chill ran up Sal’s spine as he crossed 59th, officially into Middletown. Here the rampant fraying of a convulsing universe had created a maze of lanes and spaces between buildings it had shifted, twisted, split and fused. Since the event, voids had chewed away at the walls and the ground while mod fields had mutated trees and houseplants into aggressive colonisers.
The result was the area around 11th Avenue and West 54th loomed like a green nightmare among the surrounding blocks. It was shrouded with a dense curtain of vines and the meandering branches and trunks of trees. The original trees lining the streets had been early victims of the mod fields. Mutated, they had split the pavement like gunshots, spewing out trunk and branch like spring snakes escaping a nut can. The accelerated growth sent them sprawling in loops and bends along the pavement unless they met the side of a building, then with support they might rise up two storeys, four storeys, eight storeys, to spread across a roof, sending out spongy, flaccid branches with wide leaves and burgeoning with rubber seed pods.
With them, around them, spanning light wells and streets, grew ivy, honeysuckle, and other creepers, normal and mutant. Honeysuckles with flowers the size of traffic cones cloaked entire buildings, patrolled by the most aggressive kind of bees, the organised kind, with flat caps, long stingers, and even longer memories.
Under the green canopy, within the waist-deep meadows that filled the streets and empty ground, wriggled and fought and birthed all manner of small creatures — furtive and aggressive, furred, scaled, fanged, clawed, and occasionally wielding primitive weapons. They were tiny, yes, but numerous and dangerous, death by a thousand cuts still being death. Some were alien imports, dropped in by transient wormholes peppering the universe. Most were descendants of the humble eastern gray squirrel, turned mutant carnivore, frenzied and now somewhat tribal.
Sal’s guts were twisting in his belly and his only protection, a cast iron pipe, was cold in his hands as he scuffed his way into the overgrown gullies that had once been streets.
While he was scanning the ground, the window ledges, and the tree branches for squirrels, a threat he knew and understood how to fear, he listened out for the sounds of the other common variety of deadly creature — people. He had the pipe but it was for show. His real advantage was the burst of speed fear gave him. A lot of mods slow people down. Sure, a mod field made you eight feet tall and turned your hands into bone hooks, but you can’t rip old Sal apart if ponderous stomping is your top gear. Once he was triggered there was no catching him. And why fight, anyway? There was always someone with a longer piece of pipe. Or trained attack squirrels. That wasn’t true. He was scaring himself now. You can’t train squirrels. They are mindless killing machines.
Up ahead, in a wall of vines punctuated by giant staghorns and fluorescent bromeliads, was the darker shape of a passage. It could be an alley or a channel through a building opened by the modulation event. It had the deep shade lintberries preferred. The temperature dropped and the humidity increased as he crept into it. If anyone had ever passed this way before, like him they must have moved carefully through the ferns, their swinging fronds settling into stillness to conceal any footprints marking the deep humus they grew in.
The passage led into a narrow gorge that had actually been an alley. The regular outcroppings of green-clad fire escapes led the eye up to the rooftops and a thick mat of interwoven vines that the sun glinted through, its rays descending like pinlights, set dancing and flickering over the ferns by a breeze that shifted leaves up there but could not disturb the stillness around Sal.
From the bottom of the fire escapes, dangling below golden leaves shaped like diamonds, hung round brown berries. The golden leaves were a good sign. He remembered those. But you couldn’t be sure about anything in Madhattan. He reached up and picked a berry. The brown came off on his finger. He dug his thumbnails into the fruit and pulled it open. Dozens of layers crunched delicately. The interior was the same brown as the skin, but viscous. The smell was delicious. He rubbed the inside of a half against his forearm, leaving a wide smear. There was no burning sensation. His sensitive skin didn’t redden or swell. He poked the goo in the remaining half with the tip of his tongue. It was sweet with no sign of bitterness and unaccompanied by burning or stinging. He popped it in his mouth and chewed slowly, careful not to swallow, but unable to stop a small groan from escaping. This stupid, dangerous, life-threatening appeasement of Pinky was suddenly worth the risk. His mouth flooded with saliva, but he held on, waiting, waiting for fire, constriction, blistering, but there was only a delicious sweetness so he swallowed and in quick succession picked and ate every single lintberry within reach. There was another patch of the berries under a fire escape on the other wall of the alley. He would take those back to Pinky. She would be nicer to him after this. She might relent and talk to Tessss about moving in. He had sources for cans and squidgeons.
He moved to the next patch, hanging like brown stars in a golden and dark green firmament, the dingleberries of heaven. Again it was impossible to resist eating them, but most were ending up in his bag. He had reached the edge of the patch when there was a thump behind him. He twisted and froze.
It was a giant squirrel, taller than him, broader than him, with black unblinking eyes so big he felt he could climb into them. He couldn’t speak, but he swallowed audibly. At least he had lived long enough to taste lintberries.
The squirrel glumphed back at him. It pointed in the direction Sal had walked in and drew a hooked claw across the pale fur of its throat. Danger was coming.
Despite the clear signal that if he didn’t leave the squirrel would kill him, Sal was frozen with fear and unable to look away from those black eyes. He was on the verge of pissing himself. The squirrel stepped closer, bared its long yellow incisors, and repeated the motion. Sal’s feet were locked to the ground. All he could do was lean away and whimper. He heard voices. Someone was approaching. He might be saved.
“Aye! They’re taking our berries!”
The squirrel slapped a paw over its face and shook its head at the stupidity of the damp human. Sal looked around and the three men hobbling and limping towards them with raised clubs were no-one he recognised. Their dirty faces, one bore a clutch of large noses, another had fangs protruding down past the chin, were bright with the cheery anticipation of murder. The nails sticking out of their wooden clubs were numerous, blunt, and rusty. They would kill him if the squirrel didn’t cut his throat first, and then they would kill the squirrel. Chances are, by their expressions, they were already planning to eat both of them.
Next thing he knew, he was hanging head down and his face was banging against the squirrel’s furry back as the ground receded and then disappeared behind a layer of vines.
When they reached a flat rooftop and the squirrel deposited him back on his own two feet, Sal was deep in a tearful catharsis that was intensified by the squirrel’s reassuring pats on his shoulders and the top of his pointy head. To think he had been afraid of this kind animal. His fear of squirrels, inculcated in all Madhattan children from a young age, was evaporating, reversed by the brave and kind actions of the giant squirrel. He was a full-body crier. Since the mod. His damp clothes trickled with streams of tears that formed a puddle around his feet.
“Thank you,” he said to the squirrel, who was still earnestly and thoroughly patting the top and sides of his head.
“You saved my life. I owe you.”
The squirrel stepped back and wiped his paws on the back of his legs. The human’s head would make a novel addition to his collection. It was good he saved it. The clubs of those other humans would have damaged it.
The squirrel seemed to understand Sal. At least it was paying attention. He pointed at his chest.
“Sal. My name is Sal.”
The squirrel pointed at its own chest and said “Collector of skulls.”
“Chor…Chorcha…chakacha? I’m going to call you Squirrelly. That okay? You’ve gotta come back with me and meet Pinky. She has a tail, too. She’s not going to believe this.”
A human tail did not fit the theme of his collection, but it might make for an interesting novelty or be useful for trade. Collector would view this human woman.
Back in the apartment, Pinky was bored enough to do some tidying. Sal had cleaned out the broken glass and filled in the empty windows with scavenged boards. The top half was left open to let light in during the day, but was covered over with more boards at night to keep out bat-flies, rappelling rats, squirrels flinging torches and other nocturnal Madhattan pests and threats.
The patches of sky were better than nothing, but a view of the street would have given her something to watch. Even with the advantage of a tail for balance, she could not get a perch on the narrow window sills to look down on the foot traffic she could hear passing below. It’s possible she heard voices she knew. It had been six days since she’d spoken to anyone but Sal.
She picked up a magazine to distract herself. The pile of magazines he promised was a disappointment. They were mainly pictures of men and the occasional woman standing on grass and touching eggs with sticks. But there was one with pictures of beautiful people. It made her sad. They were so happy. They stepped out of shiny, intact vehicles. Their clothes were clean and resplendent. And there were so many, many people around. And not a tentacle or claw or tail to be seen. Everyone had just two eyes and a single nose and mouth and they were all nicely arranged on their faces. It was incomprehensible that the world had once been like that.
Sadness gave way to calculation. Who would she invite to share the apartment with her now that Sal was out of the picture, and what she might demand for the privilege. Her excitement at the power and opportunities of her situation rose higher and higher, to be dashed by the sounds of Sal outside the door, telling her to let him in, to unbar the door, that he had returned triumphantly with lintberries, a friend, and a story she would not believe. The excitement in his voice made her disappointment cut deeper. A sulking Sal was a bearable Sal. A dead Sal even more so.
“Come on. Open it up.”
“I’m doing it,” said Pinky, prodding at the upper bar with her tail, kicking the lower one, thinking about how she never had to unbar any doors back at the camp. Her lean-to back at camp leaked when it rained and the floor was compressed garbage overrun with biting bugs, but it didn’t have any goddam doors to bother with or any goddam slimy Sal.
On the other side of the door Sal winked at Collector. “Won’t be any lintberries left at this rate,” he called.
What sorry person had fallen into Sal’s slippery clutches? Besides her sorry self.
“Yum-yum. These are delicious.”
She found the strength to lift off the bars and throw them aside.
The squirrel filled the doorway. Yellow teeth and black eyes filled Pinky’s vision.
Sal’s head popped up over a furry shoulder.
“I call him Squirrely. He saved my life. Well, I kind of saved his, too. We’re friends.”
Squirrely didn’t have to turn his head to stare at Sal, but he did anyway, for emphasis. Pointy-head was so pathetic it was almost endearing.
Sal held up his bag. “I got lintberries.”
Sal’s retelling was misrepresentative and tedious. Three became eight. Fleeing became combat. Rescuee became rescuer. Watching him include the squirrel as he divided the lintberries between them made Pinky fume with an anger four squashed lintberries could only temporarily extinguish.
“I thought you didn’t like squirrels.”
“Me, too! Squirrely here changed all that.”
“Squirrels are only good for hats and slippers. What’s he saying?”
Collector was saying humans were only good for ornaments and when nuts were thin on the ground.
“I don’t know. You probably hurt his feelings.”
“Look at his big empty eyes. He doesn’t have feelings.”
“He has feelings. Be nice to him. He’s my friend.”
Collector looked at Pinky. Pinky looked back. They both gave a little derisive puff that was laughter but could be misconstrued as mild surprise.
“Oh, I’ll be nice to him,” said Pinky, getting up to fetch her brush. She had a vision of strutting around the camp in a full length squirrel coat. But it was being marred by the creature’s clumped and unevenly parted hair. She approached him slowly, brush out, making short stroking motions.
“Just a little brushy-brushy.”
Collector froze, considering where he was going to bite the woman attacking him with a small spiked club. Then she ran the brush down his shoulder. Ah, grooming the dominant male, thought Collector. As it should be.
“I’m going to be real nice,” said Pinky, brushing more confidently as Collector slumped and his jaw dropped. A relaxed giant squirrel was an easily stabbed giant squirrel. “Real nice and warm in my little squirrel coat.”
She had a coat made from little squirrels? Meh. Outside of a loose, distant-cousin style affinity, Collector didn’t care what happened to the hyper annoying folk just as long as she kept brushing. It tugged and pulled and almost hurt, but nuts, the brush felt better than any squirrel claw ever did.
Pinky’s talk of making his new friend into a coat, her unsettling enjoyment of the brushing, she appeared to be close to salivating, made Sal feel compelled to come to Squirrely’s defence. He tried to push Pinky away, but she resisted, keeping him at bay by battering his face with her tail and smacking his hands with the stiff bristles of her brush when he got past her defences. It was no good. He had to retreat to his own bed on the other side of the room.
Collector was not surprised Pointyhead was jealous, but he was surprised Ratwoman fought back instead of fleeing and leaving Collector to bite him into submission. Any further contemplation of the randomness of human behaviour was short-circuited by the resumption of brushing.
“Dammit, Sal. You clogged up the brush with your goop. Now I gotta brush it out of his fur.”
Brush she did, with fury, dragging the shining mucilage through the fur and as she did both she and Collector felt the change. The pulling became gliding. The stiff hair softened, became glossy, silky. Pinky’s mental coat became dazzling, the hem rose a little to keep it out of the dirt, 7/8ths instead of full length, the tail a cloud of floating gossamer fibres.
Collector ran his claw through his shoulder hair. A sense of impending wealth washed over him. The landscape around him lit up with the glow of innumerable caches, all his, all full, a hundred winters’ worth. He turned and presented his back to Ratwoman, where he could feel the tightness of matted fur where Pointy-head had hung against him. It loosened and the brush glided. He pointed at his other shoulder. The brush pulled and tugged. He slapped her hand away and pointed at Sal, who sat on his damp blankets, sulking.
“Hit him with the brush,” Collector said. Pinky understood the gestures.
It takes a long time to brush a giant squirrel. The bulk of the job is the tail, of course. Both of Pinky’s arms were weary by the time she finished. For the first time in her life she could say she was well and truly all brushed out, but it was worth it. Sal was sulking. Squirrely was looking fantastic and could not stop running his hands through his chest fur and over his tail. Nor could Pinky. She wished her tail had such long, silky hair.
Sal was in the bathtub, traumatised, exhausted, soaking his raw arms and legs and back. He blacked out, to be woken by Pinky calling his name and a hammering at the door.
“He wants out,” called Pinky.
Anything to be rid of him. What was he thinking bringing that monster back to the apartment? That he had a friend? A squirrel friend? Those three guys at the lintberries could not have beaten him as mercilessly as Pinky had. He pulled himself out of the thickened water and slopped to the door. Collector watched him pull out the bolts and lift off the bars.
Squirrely pushed through the door and Sal put the bars back in place. There was no way Squirrely could force his way back in. He turned to Pinky. There was a moment of silent communication, in a glance, in a mutual sigh, Pinky lying on her blankets, a contented look on her face, rubbing her wrist, Sal standing, his skin stinging where the draft around the door washed over it.
Pinky, sure that Squirrely would return for more brushing, was enthralled by her own visions of striding into Apthorp in her squirrel coat. She realised Sal was staring at her. She sniffed at him and rolled over to face the wall.
Sal knew something had passed between them. He slopped back to the bathroom and slipped into the tub. Perhaps it was the first bud of intimacy or even just a seed of mutual respect. Maybe Squirrely had changed things for the better. She might be helpful going forward. Not that he would cut her in, but payment in kind might occur, minus room and board, of course.
Pinky’s voice drew him out of sleep. The wheedling rise and fall that did not stop, that set him holding his breath waiting for her to pause to inhale, dragged him back to consciousness.
“…and then Peggy says are you saying that she didn’t say she didn’t see my clippers and Dot says, can you believe it, that she isn’t saying she didn’t say she didn’t see her clippers. Well, that got Peggy’s feathers ruffled and she…”
A bark, a bark like a scream cut short stopped Pinky’s recital and made Sal sit up in the tub.
“Look at all the food Squirrely brought us!” said Pinky as Sal glared and dripped in the doorway of the bathroom. Squirrely sat across from her, chewing rapidly with his mouth open. Between them was a mess of food.
“You let him back in?”
Pinky rolled her eyes. She knew he was going to be like this. He didn’t care about her or squirrel coats.
“He brought food for us. I could see him through the gaps in the door. He had more lintberries.”
“They’re gone. Bad luck.”
On the floor between Pinky and Squirrely were a variety of nuts, fruit, the dark flat stars of dried rats he must have stolen from a camp, a stew pot that was a two-thirds empty, also stolen, and a bird’s nest with a clutch of small blue eggs.
Sal stalked over to the door and had the bars off and was about to step out when Squirrely reached past him and slammed it shut. A heavy paw turned him around and pushed him towards Pinky.
After slicking back the hair on the top of his head with the wet paw, Collector pointed at the door, drew a claw across his own belly, mimed evisceration followed by jumping up and down upon the spilled entrails then pointed at Sal and then at Pinky.
“Aww, he wants us to fill our bellies and then dance with him,” said Pinky.
“He said if we leave he’ll kill us.”
“That was definitely dancing.”
Collector touched his nose with one paw and pointed at Sal with the other. Pinky laughed.
“I know! He smells awful, doesn’t he?”
Sal sat down, grabbed a handful of nuts and shoved them in his mouth. Still chewing, he grabbed a rat by its stiff tail and bit off a shoulder. When Squirrely went out for more food he was leaving. Without Pinky. He shoved more nuts into his mouth and grabbed a second rat with his free hand.
His plan left him bloated and nauseous. Probably the third rat. It was softer than a dried rat should be. His suffering was for naught. There was a scratching at the door. Squirrely, after some fumbling, opened it himself to let in another giant squirrel carrying a black leather valise. Pinky and Sal exchanged looks while the squirrels hugged and chattered. Squirrely took the offered valise, peered inside, and chattered more.
Collector hopped over to Pinky and chattered and mimed.
“You will brush my friend with the wet one’s skin juice.”
“You want me to brush your friend? Sal, he wants me to brush his friend.”
Two squirrel coats. She was going to be rich.
Sal groaned. He was sick. His skin still hurt.
“I can’t do it.”
Collector dragged a claw across his belly.
Pinky patted the floor in front of her and grabbed her brush.
“Come on, he fed us. We owe him. Slide over here, Mr Squirrel.”
Despite Sal’s suffering, it stopped being fun for Pinky after the third squirrel, when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to be rich, that she wasn’t going to ever have a coat of her own, and that every giant squirrel in Madhattan was eager for the treatment. Collector, however, was getting rich while all she got was an unrelenting ache in both arms from wrist to shoulder.
When the first room was waist deep with every kind of nut the price went up to skulls, interesting skulls. Then it went up to favours. Collector had giant squirrel goons working the door, taking appointments, counting nuts and cataloguing gifts. He delegated his bullying of Pinky and Sal to an assistant because he was frantically buying influence, courting love, establishing orphanages, brokering an alliance with the chudlets.
Sal soaked his raw skin in the bath. Only his knees were visible to Pinky, who sat slumped against a tiled wall with her arm in a plastic tub filled with cold water. Squirrely had left for the night with a lady squirrel who had been freshly brushed. There was no room here for a tryst and it wasn’t nearly fancy enough for his new tastes. Two of his goons remained in the apartment to make sure Sal and Pinky didn’t try to escape and that no-one broke in to steal his immense squirrel wealth.
“This is all your fault,” said Pinky to Sal’s knees. “Bringing me here. Bringing that squirrel here.”
Sal sank deeper into the water, letting it fill his ears. Then deeper still until only his nose was out and the thick water threatened to run into his nostrils. Could he fully submerge and inhale? No. At least squirrels needed sleep just as much they did. Despicable creatures. Maybe there would be a chance for escape when the next winter blew in. Squirrels hibernate. It was going to be his only chance. But who knew when that would be.
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