The Last Milliner in Madhattan
“There’s a dragon out.”
It wasn’t really a dragon, it lacked the grace and pomp of fantasy, but it was something like a dragon in that it was large, it could fly, and it vomited like a rocket launch upon whatever it wanted to eat. It was common knowledge that there was a colony of the things living in the downtown’s tallest tower and, if you wanted to risk the bat-flies, standing on a rooftop in the evening, you might see the dark shapes arriving at its upper floors. But that was all anyone knew about them. They could be modded sparrows. They could be just as they appear, a vagabond species that drifted in via a wormhole from an alien planet damaged by the modulation event much like Madhattan and the rest of the Earth. The explanation didn’t matter. They were here and they were another hazard among many on Madhattan, an energetic peak in the background radiation of threat that bathed the chewed up island.
Mercer pressed his cheek against a floor-to-ceiling window to keep it in sight. It was headed west, a dark silhouette flapping towards the river, stubby wings working hard, its body a short strand of corpulent beads dangling beneath the wings, its limbs, a pair per bead, just discernible. He felt about dragons like rats felt about fangers.
“Then I’m staying in,” said Stone from their couch, a bench seat they had hacksawed out of a dollar van and wrestled up six flights of fire stairs to place it dead centre in the square of grey carpet that demarcated their living room on the floor of the office building they called home. That they had a couch, among other comforts, like a roof and a complete set of walls, made it a home rather than a shelter.
Mercer kept watching the dragon, moving along the wall of windows, waiting for it to disappear behind the tattered skyline. “Aw, come on. I can’t do this delivery without you, man.” His breath fogged the glass.
The vacant building had escaped any damage, miraculously built upon a nodal point where the destructive frequencies that had played across space and time canceled each other out, its structure remaining exactly as the punch-out team had left it when they fled, leaving behind coffee cups, toolboxes, lunchboxes, phone chargers, and long rolls of carpet ready to be laid in preparation for the insurance company that would never commence its lease.
The pressure was too much for Stone. “Gaaaah.” He slapped a hand over his eyes and collapsed sideways across the couch. He was a big guy, six foot at least, with shoulders that had the meat to be called broad except they curved in like Madhattan was a fist permanently drawn back and he was frozen in a perpetual cower waiting for the blow to fall.
“I’m starting to freak just thinking about it.”
Mercer perched on the edge of the couch and patted a calf.
“Don’t freak, man. It’s okay. That dragon’s going fishing. It’s going to go poach itself a fat humanatee. That’s what it wants. It’s not interested in our skinny, meatless asses.”
Stone huffed out his nose. He wasn’t skinny and Mercer’s ass, courtesy of a fall through a mod at the age of three, his vigilant mother distracted by a squirrel refusing to be dinner, was far from meatless. Young Mercer came out the other side of the mod with the hams of a Greek wrestler—heavyset thighs and high, hemispherical buttocks carpeted with dark curling hair. The mod upset the toddler greatly, as the rest of him, above the pelvis, was unchanged, and dismayed his mother, as she was now nursing half a toddler and half an adult, neither of which were yet toilet trained. Over the years natural development brought his two halves closer in size, but he still had a pronounced pear shape that his elastic-waisted sweatpants accentuated.
“It’s the dragon,” said Stone, “and the camp and this shirt’s brand new. For me.”
“The dragon’s gone, the camp’ll be fine, no-one will bother us, and your shirt’ll be fine.”
“I still don’t want to go.”
“Yeah, but I gotta. The Crabmeister wants his hat. I can’t be putting him off. We’ll be getting some good cans for it. That’s food we could use. Food we don’t have to catch.”
Stone peered through his fingers. “Peaches?”
“I can’t promise. But I will definitely ask for some. You’ll be right there. Right? You’re not going to make me go on my own?”
Stone emitted a long, conflicted squeal from deep in his throat then took a breath. “Fine. For you. For peaches. Can you double double check the dragon’s really gone?”
Of course Mercer was going to check before stepping out, walking the length of the floor-to-ceiling windows that capped the street side of the floor, pressing his cheek at regular intervals to peer up into the sky to the east and the west. Then, once they had barred and chained the entrance to the fire stairs, traversed the maze of garbage blocking the ramp out of the parking garage, emerged from the side of the building into the access lane, he kept glancing at the sky, while Stone, eyes down lest he freak, carried the clear plastic tub lined with a curtain that served as a hatbox for the unwanted, fatal-to-refuse commission.
The Crabmeister was a dangerous psychotic before he plunged his arm into a pie-sized mod and pulled out a plum mutation—a chitin-encased, multi-jointed limb ending in an over-sized claw. Its serrated pincers met with a force that could cut through steel pipes. He used it mostly as a built-in can opener, and then, almost as often, as a neck opener.
“No sign of any dragons. You doing okay?”
Stone scratched under the rim of the baseball cap he was wearing. It was a Mets cap, but neither of them knew that. Nobody did. They just liked the faded blue and orange colours. “Yeah. Not many people about.”
Despite being the last milliner in Madhattan, skilled in the production of felt, using hair shaved from the bellies of over-sized squirrels with a weakness for crackers, or, rarer, bought in weightless tangled balls, the summer shearings from the cashmere-fleeced backs of the locals, and skilled in the needling and blocking, pouncing and raising applied to create the domes, the crowns, the idealised re-shapings of the skull’s silhouette, adding height to balance the face lengthened by genetics or an equine tinged mod, adding width in the brim to narrow a face left round and pitted as a cantaloupe, moulding simple geometric forms to soften a random jumble of features or an aesthetic arrangement of creases to complement the face stripped down to a reptilian minimum of lidless eyes, lipless mouth and nose slits, adept as well in the steaming and weaving of strips of reed, bark, straw, wallpaper, into similar but simpler shapes, he limited his own head wear to a simple beanie crocheted out of yarn hand-spun from fine slices of black garbage bag. He wore it tight against his head, the edge folded back upon itself just above his eyebrows in a style he had once glimpsed within a roll of crumbling paper, layer after layer showing a head in a similar beanie grinning up at lines of barbed wire and letters he couldn’t read. The image of the simple hat had stuck with him after the entire fat roll had vanished in the flames of the fire keeping them warm that day.
That was several winters ago. It was summery now and had been for weeks. They headed uptown along Broadway, one of the paths that was reasonably safe in the early afternoon, Madhattan’s unreasonableness, the universe’s irrationality, never far below the surface of the street or the skin of the people walking. There was peace at the moment between the larger camps, the winter desperation for food and fuel eased by the warm weather, reducing further incidents of ambush and theft that were already diminished by the shared memory of the recent raids, before the turn of the season, when everyone was miserable and going hungry. Upper East Siders had creeped around the central wilderness, hoping to harvest the second longest form of pork. The bickering camps had united, working together to corner and harvest in turn several of the raiding parties. It was a breaking of bread of sorts, because heads are sometimes called loaves, and the goodwill of a shared cause still lingered, though tapering off. The return to casual internecine violence would coincide with the first chill wind stirring everyone to complete the gathering and foraging they had neglected during the comparative ease of summer.
Operating far in advance of the masses in their reversion to conflict, a couple of seedy characters veered from their path to intersect Stone and Mercer.
“What’s in the tub?” asked the one that mods had twisted into a porcupine crossed with bucatini, that unlikely love child of spaghetti and donut.
His friend, unremarkable except his features were smushed over to the right side of his head, didn’t wait for an answer. “You heard Noodles. What’s in the tub?”
Stone’s arm trembled against Mercer’s. “I’m starting to freak out.”
Mercer rubbed his back, ignoring visions of a rakishly cocked beret attenuating Side-face’s mod-skewed appearance. These were not clients. “It’s okay. No need to freak out. Not while holding the tub.”
“We’ll give you a reason to freak out if you don’t show us what’s in the tub,” said Noodles, pushing some of his useless scalp tubes out of his eyes. He was in need of a beanie. Or at least a scrunchie. A six pack of scrunchies. The tubes continued down his neck and back, getting larger and longer, many dragging on the ground behind him, their surfaces filthy and calloused.
“Yeah, like this reason” said Side-face, pulling a hammer out of his belt.
“I’m freee-king,” said Stone.
“It’s just a hat,” said Mercer, rubbing away at Stone’s back, making quiet tutting sounds to calm him.
The two fellows looked at each other, at the tub, back at each other.
“What kind of hat? Noodles here needs a hat,” said Side-face.
“Everyone needs a hat, but this one we’re delivering to the Crabmeister.”
The would-be predators hopped to the side like they had been pinched, perhaps by a giant claw.
“Geez,” cried Noodles. “What are ya standing around for? He doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Get going.”
“Next time tell a guy you’re on Crabmeister business instead of wasting everyone’s time,” called Side-face after them.
Mercer kept his hand on Stone’s back until he felt him relax, which took about half a block. “See? No need to freak out.”
He didn’t point out to him the dragon passing overhead, the wide pale form of a humanatee held in its many legs.
There was no guard or challenge at the wall of compacted cars that barricaded the entrance to the Crabmeister’s domain, a lenticular stretch of the Upper West Side where the modulation event had bent the space and, along with it, the assembled matter on West 73rd between Broadway and Riverside Drive, pinching just before it met Broadway and halfway between West End and Riverside Avenues, expanding in between. Smooth convex curves ran from end-to-end, curves followed by brick and concrete walls, by the glass in the windows, by aluminium in the window frames, by flower pots on sills, by the bodies of cars, kerbs and the street itself. The inhabitants at the time, the employees of the local businesses, their customers, the tourists trying to get to the waterfront, the drivers and passengers fuming in their cars at the stationary traffic, discovered firsthand that billions of years of brute optimisation did not prepare their bodies for sudden changes of volume, be it an increase or decrease. For those near the centre, where effects were milder but expansive, life-sustaining processes reliant upon precise timing, pressure or flow failed. Those near the pinch points were pressed into lifeless ham. So it was across Madhattan, across the world. The warping that inorganic matter accepted placidly made organic matter throw up its hands and declare itself lunchmeat.
The Crabmeister was the current overlord of the camp that had accumulated along West 73rd, lording over it with a snap-happy claw and a zeal for retribution from the foyer of a three star hotel where he held court. Gaining entrance to the foyer brought Stone to the trembling edge of freaking out several times, various goons among the camp’s shelters hoping to be noticed by the Crabmeister’s by getting in their faces. They made it past them, Mercer murmuring and petting Stone, the goons blanching when Mercer uttered the same magic words he used on Broadway, withdrawing if they were stupid, taking up an escort position behind them if they were hopeful. Other goons, lower in initiative, distracted by the dirt under fingernails, talons, armpits, or the mysterious bugs inhabiting the clefts where their tentacles sprang from, joined the growing procession, unsure of what was going on but certain their absence would be noted and punished.
The short parade of freaks ended at the hotel entrance, where the two henchiest of the Crabmeister’s men, bison-chested, buffalo-thighed, cow-brained bouncers stood guard. Their snorting and pawing forcing Mercer to pull the front of Stone’s cap down to his nose before the journey ended at the last hurdle. Their glares were enough to disperse the minor goons, dashing their hopes, the tail end happily returning to picking at their nails, amputation and decapitation avoided again.
A henchwoman, Hannah, red-headed with a profusion of eyes snapping between Mercer, the tub in Stone’s hands, and the letters on Stone’s cap, came out and escorted them past the guards, through the gap where a revolving door had once turned.
“He’s busy. You can wait in here.”
Her words were thick and wet. For every eye she had a worm-like tongue shaping her consonants.
The vaulted foyer was bare except for columns and the marble-clad reception desk. A short stout figure, its arms reaching the ground, muttered in a far corner and rubbed a rag across the floor.
Hannah ignored Mercer’s questions, waving them off towards the middle of the foyer, and returned to a sofa chair out of sight of the entrance where she curled up, yawned wide enough to offer a glimpse of her tongue anemone, and closed all her eyes. She had seen too much. She was always seeing too much.
There was nowhere to sit but the floor. They leaned against the side of a column. Stone put the box between them and pushed his cap back up. It was a bit gloomy, the only light being what squeezed past the bodies of the bovine guards who were back to standing in front of the entrance. Deeper in, past the desk, were the bowed metal doors of the hotel’s dead elevators.
The marble floor was cold through Mercer’s sweatpants. The air had a whiff of burning plastic mixed in with smoke and the alien funk of someone else’s mods. This funk was sweet, nauseating, almost like rotting meat. A smell he associated with tentacles. They waited.
“How much longer do you think?” whispered Stone.
Mercer shrugged. Time was crawling. The cleaner, an old woman, had scowled at them before returning to mutter at a wall and slap her wet rag against the floor. Hannah appeared to be snoring, a noise like a simmering pot escaping her mouth. It was making Mercer sleepy.
“I think it’s getting darker in here,” whispered Stone.
The afternoon was getting late.
“Plenty of time to get home before dark.”
A nudge from Stone woke Mercer. He blinked in surprise. He was sure he had just been awake.
“I think I might be starting to freak out. It’s really dark.”
Mercer patted Stone’s leg, looked around the shadows of the foyer, at the patches of light between the hairy legs of the guards. It was dimmer. Walking home in the dark was too dangerous to contemplate. Stone wouldn’t endure a night sleeping on a patch of ground in the camp. And they hadn’t hoisted the heavy curtains, made from excess carpet, over the windows of their home. Had he left a lamp burning in the back corner of the floor after packing the hat?
“He’ll give us time to get home.”
He could sense himself getting tense, feeding off the jitters in Stone’s leg. If anything went wrong, it was going to go very wrong. “I think we should look forward to dinner tonight. What do you hope we get, besides peaches?”
“Maybe some of those chicken pieces in gravy?”
“Nice. I’m hoping for a salmon paté. Or one of those square cans of salty meat sponge.”
“Salty meat sponge is the best.”
“Fried salty meaty sponge.”
A door cracked open behind the desk.
“HANNAH!” a hoarse voice called out. “HANN-NAH!”
A pale claw, long as Mercer’s forearm, its pincers thick and heavy, extended through the gap and gave two percussive snaps that made Mercer’s ears ring, and made Hannah jump out of her seat. The door shut and Hannah regained her composure, smoothed down the front of her shirt, wiped a few of her eyes as she walked over to them and put her hands out.
Mercer climbed to his feet and lifted the tub.
Before he put it into her hands he said, “If there’s any chance of peaches we’d be grateful.”
Hannah shrugged and snatched the tub from him. She walked around the desk to the door, which opened as she approached, and disappeared within.
Stone stood up and crossed his arms over his chest, his signal that he was coping, but only just, still on the cusp of freaking out.
Hannah re-appeared moments later, arms pulled straight, the tub braced against one hip, her steps uneven as she rounded the desk with the tub full of cans.
Stone took it from her as if it now, at most, contained two hats. A quick glance showed a couple of square cans with chipped blue paint among the mostly bare metal cylinders, and among the faded labels a vague hemisphere that could be half of a peach.
“He likes the hat. He might want another one for the next winter. He will be in touch.”
She winked and Mercer almost missed it, the one eye off to the side hidden briefly under an eyelid.
The men thanked her and the Crabmeister profusely and trotted out, squeezing past the guards’ bristled flanks, through the centre of the camp, where they were side-eyed the entire way, but not stopped. Anyone flaunting a single can was looking to have it taken away by someone meaner or hungrier. A pair of strange men carrying a whole tub of cans had to be the Crabmeister’s business and no-one would fool with that.
They had enough time to make it inside before dark, but it was going to be close enough that Stone was on edge the whole way, and Mercer’s pats and squeezes and talk of dinner and dessert kept his freak-out at bay until Noodles and Side-face stepped out of a shadow.
“Told you they’d be back with a full load,” said Side-face, smacking the head of his hammer against the palm of his hand.
“Why don’t you put the tub of cans on the ground,” said Noodles. He had found a length of steel pipe since the last encounter and he was enjoying waving the rusted elbow end on its end at them.
“You know these are from the Crabmeister, right?” said Mercer, as Stone put the tub on the ground and started shivering.
“I’m freaking out, man.”
“Who’s going to tell him we took them?” said Noodles. “We’re not going to tell him. You sure aren’t going to tell him.”
“I’m really freaking out,” said Stone.
The hammer and the pipe were raised.
“Freak away,” said Mercer and ducked behind him. He didn’t like to witness Stone’s “freaking out”. The stick-like arms erupting through his shirt were unsettling. The hungry maw in his chest they surrounded gave him nightmares.
Back in their office block, the carpet curtains in place to hide the cooking fire and the lamplight from the world, the remains of Stone’s shirt in the trash, they found they had not one, but three cans of peach halves and four cans of salty meat sponge among the Crabmeister’s payment.
“You should have a whole can of peaches yourself,” said Mercer.
Stone held the can, turned it over. “I want it, I really want it, but I’m still full from those guys.”
“Maybe the day after.”
“It’s there waiting for you.”
“And tomorrow we’ll see about finding you a new shirt.”
“I really liked that shirt.”
“It was a great shirt. You looked good in it. What you need is one with buttons.”
“I’m not good with buttons.”
“Snaps. Snaps are what we need. We’ll go and see the seamstress. She’s weak for salmon paté.”
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