Story 8: Gerald's Day

Every few days I sit and say, mostly to myself, 'What shall I write about today?' Nine times out of ten, my wife would say 'Write about a kitten!'.

So here goes.

Gerald sat on the chair and watched the action with increasing interest. There was every chance that, in a moment or two, weapons would be drawn and, if he just sat here and stayed quiet, he was well out of it. 

The big man with the missing finger whose beer had been spilt had turned and grasped the smaller man’s shoulder. The smaller man, who Gerald could see had at least three knives sheathed behind him, was nonetheless turning pale despite having the weapons advantage. 

“You want watch where’s you’s goin’,” Finger said.

Knives scowled “Well if you weren’t so fat-“

Then one of Finger’s friends clapped him on the shoulder. “Leave it alone, Finger. We’re not looking’ fer trouble, specially not from this streak o’yellow.”

Gerald blinked. The big man’s name was really Finger? Wonders would never cease to amaze. He stretched lazily and took a drink.

Finger held Knives’ gaze for a minute longer, then gave him a shove that sent him flying back into two other people, knocking over their drinks.

“Y’ain’t worth it,” Finger mumbled, turning away. Knives reached behind his back and pulled out one of the knives. The entire bar suddenly erupted into noise as one of the blades seemed to suddenly grow out of Finger’s back and the fight was on.

“Time I was gone,” Gerald thought, and leapt out of his seat. He darted through the crowd, weaving between busty courtesans and tall mercenaries; the clientele of the Whistling Dirk wasn’t exactly high-quality. A green glass bottle smashed on the floor immediately in front of Gerald’s feet and he lurched backwards, ducking under the falling bulk of Fingers. He quickly looked around; the doorway was blocked by a table that was suddenly flying through the air, and three men turned at the noise. Gerald’s eyes widened and he looked towards the nearest exit point. A small window, just large enough to let him through, was ten feet away. Gerald took two quick paces, slid across a table and then jumped through the open window. 

Outside, the air was cool and crisp. The sounds of the fight were almost immediately muted, the sounds of smashing crockery audible over the rumble of shouts and the occasional scream.

All perfectly normal for ten bells on a Thirdday night in Fjornik.

Gerald moved towards the central stairwell, keeping to the shadows. The sights and sounds of the city were still so new to him; it was very different from the farm on which he’d grown up. But the job of a rat catcher meant that you went where the business was, and when the entire family had picked up stakes and moved to the city, Gerald had gone with them.

The tower city was busy even at this time of night. The 49th floor, widely regarded as one of the roughest due to its distance from both the top and bottom floors, was almost a tourist attraction thanks to the wide range of entertainment on display, from taverns to clubs, from gambling joints to skin clubs. The streets were musty and full of rubbish, rags and sheets of newsprint leaflets blowing in the wind and gathering in piles. A small sound in an alleyway made Gerald look round on his way; Drunk Dave, something of a celebrity thanks to his incredible expository displays of flatulence on command, looked up briefly as Gerald’s shadow crossed his face, then turned over and pulled the ragged blanket around him more closely to shut out winter’s chill.

The central stairway was quieter, somehow; torchlit, the spiralling stairway ran the height of the entire city. A possible weak point, Gerald mused as he trotted up the stairs. Each step was broad enough to require more than one step at the outside and to encourage one to trip and fall at the inside. Not a day went by when some drunkard or newcomer didn’t trip and fall down several stairs if they were lucky, and several storeys if they were not. It was enough to encourage anyone to spend the money on the teleport service, but it was costly and not available to everyone. It could be dangerous, as well. Advanced prototype SIC technology encoded someone into an amber crystal, the signal from which was sent through copper conduits and reconstituted on any floor that was a multiple of ten. The process was costly; only the rich could afford not to use the effort to climb the steps. The process was time-consuming; it took almost as long as climbing ten floors anyway. And finally, the process was unsafe; several people every week were killed, reconstituted wrongly or simply lost in transit. They’d gotten better, but it was still amazing that anyone used the system.

And yet there was a queue at the station on 50. Gerald stared at the line of people, astounded that any of them would give up the opportunity to get some exercise, be out among the sights and smells of the city and generally not risk their life to advance several storeys in any direction. The person at the front of the queue was immensely fat, rings flowing off his fingers and wearing some sort of all-encompassing robe that looked like it was made of tea-towels and smelled like a camel, even at this distance. Gerald wrinkled his nose and moved on.

51 was quiet; mostly it was made up of residences which were low-rent, so far from the sunlight of the top floors and the regimented decadence of the lowest floors. Gerald had been in most of them and he stopped for a moment at the entrance to 51st west street, watching the passers-by. He spotted one of his favourite customers and walked over to greet her.

“Gerald!” she said, obviously on her way somewhere. “Do drop by at some point. I’ll have to feed you up!” She patted him on the shoulder and was gone before he could respond.

Continuing up the stairs, he looked in on every floor. 52nd north street had some sort of mummer’s play going on, apparently the story of a great dragon being slain by some manner of wizard. The wizard flew into the air, much to the amazement of the crowd, then battered the dragon over the head with a magical glittering wand. Gerald stopped for a moment, unsure as to what was holding the crowd of grown adults’ interest, but then the dragon gave up the princess it had been holding captive, and crude display of the reward the wizard gained from her began. The crowd’s cheers turned to whistles and catcalls, and Gerald moved on. It held no interest for him.

53rd east street was almost silent. Warehouses, mostly; there were several grain stores spaced evenly throughout the city, preventing a glut from developing anywhere, or a shortage. Most of Gerald’s work was here, though, and he smiled at the streets he patrolled daily. They were no more scary at night, still very much his territory.

Skipping the next two floors, Gerald trotted on to 56th south street. Laila would be here, he knew. Even as he walked smoothly along the street, moving as little as possible and yet still flowing down through the darkness, he could smell the alluring perfume that lead to her. A movement in the shadows under the window of a bakery - there! The flash of her hair in the mottled moonlight coming in, reflected off windows and puddles. She was heading back towards the stairs.

Gerald called out to her, expecting her to turn and come back, but if anything her pace quickened. He grinned. The chase was on.

Laila darted into the stairwell and upwards, turning as fast as possible to avoid people coming down. Gerald rushed after her, darting to the left and right. Occasionally he saw her flickering through the oncoming people, always too far away to call to. The he was out, onto 60th north, and she was nowhere to be seen.

Gerald sniffed. The smell of her was strong. She was definitely here. He began to move around, investigating the surrounding buildings, trying to work out where she had gone.

“Oh-ho, young lady,” came a voice. It was a high-pitched voice, quite at odds with the body that produced it. It was the fat merchant from 50th, finally finished transporting himself at incredible cost and risk a mere ten storeys. Gerald shook his head in disgust, then looked more closely. He started to press his body back against the wall, sink deeper into the shadows. He wasn’t so sure of these streets that his confidence was boundless, after all.

Laila had approached the man, was almost rubbing herself against him! Gerald took a step back. Was this, then, where she went when their time was over? Was she promised to another? He watched as she preened herself, dancing around the merchant and teasing him with her body. All this in the hope of a meal or a warm bed to sleep in, he thought sadly. Why not me? Why did it have to be this way, that she was held captive by this man? Enslaved, one could even say. If only she had stayed true to me. I could have shown her that a meal presents itself at almost every turn if you are just willing to pounce on the opportunities.

“Where have you been, my little lady, hmm? Off chasing mice again, I’ll warrant?” the merchant said, picking up Laila in his fat fingers. “Well now, let’s get you home. It wouldn’t do for nasty tom cats to find you out here.”

As the man passed Gerald, he looked up. Was it his imagination, or was there a slight hint of longing in Laila’s eyes as she was carried past? Then she was gone. Gerald shrugged and, extending his claws, began to carefully lick in between every toe. It mattered not, for he was simply a cat.