He was smiling.
Had he ever not smiled?
He stood under the umbrella in the chain gateway to the junkyard, and smiled.
Mr Pinner, the death of cities.
After all, if the ravens and the river and the Stone and, God help us all, the Midnight Mayor protect the city, then that should suggest there’s something you need to protect it from.
We stopped ten paces from where he stood, and hoped our jellytrembles would be mistaken for the cold of the pouring rain. Our hair itched where the water had dragged it down towards our eyes, our stomach felt like it had been sucked clean by a hoover that someone had forgotten to switch off after. We wanted to speak, and found we couldn’t.
Then he said, “Hello. My name is Mr Pinner. I am the death of cities. Did you want to talk about something?”
I nodded numbly.
“I’m all ears.”
His voice was polite, level, well educated, with just a hint of something more aggressive, something that deep down loathed the good grammar he used, loathed the sharp suit and the expensive watch, and dreamed of Friday night down at the pub, and the old farting motorbikes the kids used to use.
“Well?” he prompted, as we stood and stared for too long.
I licked my lips, tasted the falling rain, clutched our piece of fishing rod so tight it burnt in my hand. “Why are you here?”
“To kill you and your lady friend,” he replied easily. “Somewhere in here there are some men who had no luck. Or some of their bits. I don’t concern myself with the details.”
He looked slightly confused. “Because I am the death of cities,” he repeated. “I’m sorry; didn’t I make my position clear?”
“Just . . . just to clarify . . .” I stammered, “you are using it in he literal sense, right? I mean, you’re not just some twat who spent too much time playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, you’re the actual, I mean . . . the literal . . .”
He beamed. “When the bomb fell on Hiroshima, I saw the sky blossom above me like a flower, saw the beauty of the flames, the majesty of it. When Dresden burnt, I breathed the smoke – the night has never been so bright! When the levees broke during the storm, I let the water run through my fingers, washing away corruption and a surplus of time; when the plague came to this city, I stroked the backs of the black rats as they ran off the ship. When the baker in Pudding Lane left his oven open, I was the customer who took the last loaf before the ashes scattered onto the straw and ignited. The bread was the sweetest food I have ever tasted. When Rome burnt, I stood on the tallest hill to watch the temples tumble; when Babylon fell, I licked the dust off my lips to taste on my tongue. I stood on the walls of Jericho, danced on the lip of the earthquake when it shook down the Bosphorus, bathed in the burning rivers at Pompeii, drank vodka on the rooftops of Stalingrad, and when the order was given, spare not man, woman, or child, I raised the standard high and gave the battle cry that mortal men were too afraid to utter. I am as old as the first stone laid beside its neighbour. I feast on the fall of walls, on the shattering of roofs, on the breaking of the street, the bursting of the pipes, the snapping of the wires, the bursting of the mains, the running of the people. I have come to this city half a dozen times before, to watch the cathedrals burn and taste the terror on the bridges just before they sink beneath the weight of runners. And now I’ve come again, to finish what was started when the first stone was laid.” He smiled. “Does that answer your question?”
“Yup,” I squeaked. “Pretty much.” He reached up to close the umbrella. “Although,” I said quickly, “it seems to me, in an academic way of things, that you didn’t actually cause all those things. You encouraged them, maybe, you rejoiced in them, you found . . . beauty in them, sure. No one would deny that a mushroom cloud is magical, outrageous, obscene, beautiful. Whatever. But unless you’re telling me you stood next to Truman’s shoulder and whispered, ‘press the red button’ or told Bomber Harris that it would just be a little, little fire, you seem to be more of a consequence, not a cause. A feeding parasite who finds magic in life, life in death. So I gotta ask you: what brought you to London this time?”
He seemed almost to hesitate. Then he smiled. “You must be Bakker’s apprentice,” he said. “The sorcerers are dead, which saved me killing them. The Tower has fallen, which saved me destroying it. When you killed Bakker, you made my life so much easier. I would not have come here had he still been alive. I should thank you for that, sorcerer.”
The vacuum cleaner in my stomach turned from suck to pump, filled it with ice and vomit and dust.
So I said, just to see, because if I didn’t ask, I’d never know, “‘Give me back my hat’.”
His face darkened, his fingers tightened in his trouser pocket. We grinned. “Come on,” I said. “Like it was never not going to be important.”
And for a moment, just a little, little moment, Mr Pinner, the death of cities, was afraid.
Then I felt the first slither of blood run down my face, felt the first sting of the paper cut. We drew back our right hand, behind our shoulder, and then flung it forward, throwing the snapped end of fishing rod like a dart, like a spear. It slammed dead-centre into his chest, pointfirst through the place where there should have been a breastbone. He looked at it, a little surprised, then back up at us. “Nothing can stop me,” he murmured. “You cannot begin to comprehend.”
I shrugged. We opened our palms out to our sides, felt the electricity crackle through our blood. “Waste not, want not,” we said. He reached to pull the fishing rod from his chest, utterly unconcerned to have it sticking from his paper flesh; and as he did so, we pushed.
Not at him; we pushed sideways, backwards, down, closed our eyes and twisted our fingers towards the great piles of discarded junk, remembering the smell of it, the rusted touch, the slime, the rot, the stink, the decay, the dead cat in its cardboard box, the fungus oozing over rotted things, the torn stuffing, the biting wire, the razored shattered edges, the tumbled glass, the melted plastic, the burnt steel, the broken pipes, the shattered cans, the twisted hinges, the abandoned everything. Everything we didn’t want to see and didn’t want to know, thrown aside; didn’t care, didn’t think, didn’t need, didn’t use, didn’t work, tossed and discarded and abandoned and forgotten and alone.
Life is magic, magic is life. It’s a conundrum sorcerers have always worried at. So much that had once been alive, so many abandoned forgotten things that had been a part of life. It was only logical, only natural, only the most sensible conclusion in the world that with so much association and neglect piled up in one place, there would still be a shard of forgotten life, waiting to burn. And it, being lonely and abandoned and left to die, was angry.
Mr Pinner pulled the piece of fishing rod from his chest, and looked at it with an expression of surprise. Small scraps of paper drifted down from the wound, caught in the wind and billowed upward for a moment, before the falling rain cast them down into the puddle at his feet.
Then, quietly and off to our left, something went thunk.
He looked up sharply and, just a bit too late, realised. Something else went eeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiicccccccckkkkkk . . .
A plastic bottle tumbled from a pile and bounced away. A piece of rotting brown string snapped free from a Gordian knot. A sprout of purple buddleia twisted and shrivelled, its roots dislodged. Then came the scuttling. It started as a distant tap dance performed by a flea circus, rose into a tumbling of meltwater, the ice still in it, became a high chattering noise, and only at the last moment did we understand. The rats were coming out of the junk: hundreds of fat brown rats. They slithered from inside the humming piles of twisted debris, plopped down onto the earth, onto each other and scuttled for the exit, worming past my ankles, brushing against my legs, flowing over my feet and past me without even bothering to slow down, streaming around Mr Pinner and away, tumbling into the street and gutters, searching for a way out.
Then I felt something move past my head. I ducked instinctively, shielding my face with my hands. Through my parted fingers I could see what it was. A fishing rod, the end snapped off. It spun past my ear and struck Mr Pinner across the side of the head, too fast for him to dodge. A broken umbrella flew point-first from a pile of rubble and embedded itself in his shoulder; a deflated plastic football spun from the ground and tangled around his feet, a blackened barbecue spun past me and knocked into him; and now it wasn’t just one thing, it was a dozen, a hundred, the whole yard spinning and screaming and rattling and twisting and rising and turning and falling, all falling in, tumbling down from the great pyramids like iron filings drawn to a magnet, like a rocket into the sun.
We threw ourself on the ground as the tarmac cracked and splintered beneath us, covering our head, tucking our arms into our ears and our hands over our eyes and willing fury and life still into the old dead things left to rot around us, pushing every drop of fear and anger and strength we possessed into the rust and mould and telling it, him, get him. Somewhere nearby I was vaguely aware of running; I half thought I heard Oda call my name; kept my head down and started to crawl on my belly, the last rats running over my spine and the back of my neck in their desperation to escape, as I headed for where I thought the exit might be.
I couldn’t see; the air was too full of spinning broken objects that, even as they travelled, shed spare parts, clattering to the earth around them. A thick orange dust of metal shavings, sawdust, sand, rust, old spilt chemicals, shattered moulds, ripped-up mosses and bits of thick purple fungus and thin green slime filled the air, turning clear lines of perspective into a maddened oil canvas painted by a drugged-up loon. I breathed through the sleeve of my coat, and even that hurt, my nose burning with the rust that tried to slash and tear the soft tissues, my eyes running and every sense overwhelmed with so much information all at once that I could barely register any thought at all. Just crawl, keep it simple, too much thinking, too much trouble, too much of too much, just keep crawling . . .
I bumped into the chain fence, bent back like a clifftop tree in a storm, and crawled along it, feeling my way to the edge. I half thought I heard Oda again, but it was hard to tell, beneath the tumbling of a thousand dead bits of steel, iron, plastic, brick, concrete, rubber, glass, plexiglas, clay, tin, plywood, chipboard . . . a hand closed over our ankle and we whimpered, glancing back into the storm and halfblinded by the blast of everything that hit our eyes, so weak, small, frail, mortal,
his hand was paper
for a moment we blinked and pushed back against the storm and saw the skin torn away. It was just white paper, covered in tiny illegible writing and the suit, his suit tearing in the wind, was sewn into the paper; I could see the tiny stitches as the cuff was pulled back by the whirlwind. His eyes were full of blue ink; his hair was unravelling, each strand unfolding into a tube, a receipt or a bus ticket or some small marker, that flew away and unfurled behind him. His teeth were rubbers, tiny white rubbers set into a broader rubber gum; his tongue was some sort of thick moleskin or leather, dry, like the kind used to bind an executive diary. It occurred to us quite how much he looked like a thing summoned, a creation of someone’s fury: consequence, not cause . . .
His other hand came up, holding a not-quite-gold-nibbed pen, the end dripping black ink drops that were snatched away into the whirlwind. He was on his belly, an arm, part of a head sticking out from beneath a falling tonnage of rubbish and scrap, which writhed and twisted above him like a great angry worm, bits of old fridge and shattered chair rising to the surface and falling into the depths, like a liquid creature, not a thing of solid mass at all. I kicked at the hand that seized my ankle, grabbed the strength in my chest, the heat and the fear and sent it blasting down my leg, smoking and spitting electric anger off his fingertips. His grip relaxed for just a moment and I crawled free, staggering onto my hands and knees even as Mr Pinner shrieked in frustration and a wardrobe, the doors gaping like jaws, tumbled down on him from out of the whirlwind.
I turned away from the storm and ran, sparks flashing off the surface of my skin as I struggled to control it, too much, too much magic, too much electricity, too much of anything that was too too much . . .
And there was the street, the road, the cars, alarms wailing in furious distress, the windows opening in streets around, the telephone lines swaying and jangling uneasily, and Oda, already halfway up the street and headed for the station, Mo slung across her shoulders, not looking back, never looking back. I staggered after her as behind me the great mound of scrap that had upended itself on Mr Pinner heaved and warped, buckled and screamed and
it was going to go.
I ran down the street, staggering and bumping against the sides of the cars, heard the little jangling sound of the iron fence giving out behind me, heard the whooshing of the telephone lines as they tore free from their moorings, heard the distant screech of some passing train slamming on the brakes and an almost sad, gentle, whumph.
I threw myself down into the gutter, crawled underneath the bumper of the nearest car and put my hands over my head as behind me, the scrapyard blossomed like a mushroom cloud. It went up into the air, spread out in blissful photographic slow motion, and fell. It rained stuffing, wire, broken pipe, rusted metal, old fridge and split tyre. Half a dresser smashed through the bedroom window of a nearby house; a truck found its roof caved in by an upside-down van, the engine, tyres and windows gone, that fell from the heavens like a burning bush. An armchair managed to catch itself on the sharpened antennae of a rooftop TV aerial; a chimney pot smashed down on a garden gnome. Everywhere there was dust, and dirt, and rust, shimmering like orange snow down onto the ground. It seemed to take a lifetime to settle; it probably took less than five seconds.
I looked around me. A grandfather clock had landed half a foot from my hiding place, top-down, and spilt its ancient blackened gears across the pavement. An old crowbar was buried like King Arthur’s sword in the bonnet of the car in front of me; a sheet of thin insulating foam drifted from the sky to land at my feet. Wherever there was an alarm, it was wailing, on every house, and in every car. I crawled to my feet and looked back at the scrapyard. Black smoke obscured everything, but it seemed like most of the contents of the yard were now spilt across an area roughly five times wider and five times shallower than before. A piece of paper drifted past my feet, turning rapidly grey in the rain. It said:
Gas bill in the period 06-07 to 12-07 – £257.13
I looked up.
There was a man standing in the smoke.
Smoothing down his suit.