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The Scalding Rooms

an extract from the novella
by Conrad Williams

Rhind Shallows lost his footing up on a gantry and pitched into a vat of boiling pig fat. They fished him out with gaffes but his skin came slithering off his body as they did so. He was supremely The Scalding Rooms by Conrad Williamsdead. Gable Tench would lose a hand after relexively dipping in to retrieve his shell. He was standing there trying to cradle Rhind's outers in his arms like a pile of wet, steaming guts, screaming in pain until someone -- Junko didn't even register who -- punched his lights out to save him from shock.

Throughout the rest of the day, Junko found himself wishing, unforgivably, that he was Rhind, cooling slowly in a body bag down in the chiller, waiting for the death train to pull up at the station. He went to see Gable in the sick bay when he realised he had been mopping the same square foot of floor for the last half hour. Gable, a man famed for his speed with a debeaking clipper -- a hundred birds an hour, or more, it was said -- would debeak no more. He was sitting up in bed with his arm in a sling and a waterfall of spit rolling out on to his shoulder. His eyes were glassy with painkillers, probably the type used on horses, and wasn't that a laugh in this place? They had the best cure for a headache right down on the slaughter floors.

He thought of Boa Cleethe and excitement surged through him. He felt absurdly safe, able to plunge ahead and do Krave Wheaste's bidding, somehow secure in the knowledge that everything would pan out okay in the end. He felt untouchable with Boa as an ally. Her sass, her confidence, her way with death had rubbed off on him like the gold powder that creeps on to the fingers when a moth is touched.

Gable sitting there, staring through his narcotic torpor, fear widening his eyes. He knew what was coming to him.

That evening he batted back the soft questions from Meaw with a metronomic rhythm born of familiarity. He was saying yes-no-maybe without even properly registering what it was she was asking. On his mind was the lymph-soaked sack in which Rhind had been carried out and the crimson swelling that passed for Gable's hand, so much like the peeled claw of a boiled lobster. On his mind was the misfiring of bolt guns and the shrieks of cattle ineptly slit.

Thirty metres away, in an unknown room, she was sitting warm under those woollens with her notes and her spyglass and his face somewhere in the creases of her mind.

When Meaw was asleep, he sat in his son's room for a long time, watching the rise and fall of Klue's small chest under the sheets, the calming tide of his breathing. Junko retrieved his gun from the false bottom at the foot of Klue's toy chest. It sickened him that it felt so good in his hand, that it made him feel more of a person. Complete.

Within the hour he was standing on worn floorboards tacky with spilled ale, the muzzle of the gun wedged between an ear and the skull it was attached to. It angered him that he was being tested and it was made worse that the test involved this invertebrate from a gene pool nothing ever should have crawled from. He had a deep, thick jaw that could have doubled for a shovel and eyes with a ledge over them, making him seem perpetually confused. He was Urticus Phale, a resurrectionist who inhabited the broken down homes of the dead people he harvested in Fairway Catholica, a small village that could not rid itself of white plague.

Now, Phale was saying: 'I can give you ninety heads, right this minute. And we can go back to my rooms where there's fifty more.'

'I'm not interested in your toilet paper. I've had orders.'

'Orders?' Through the tip of the gun Junko felt Phale shudder. 'This is Wheaste, then?'

'I'm not at liberty to say,' Junko said. 'It would be best if we continued this outside.'

People were beginning to turn their way. Junko's face was being committed to memory. Phale stood up, slowly. Junko had to find a new location for the gun muzzle; he was very tall. He shepherded Phale outside into a shadowed space behind the bar where the land suddenly took off into a sheer cliff of weathered redstone. Their boots crunched through the fallen scree.

'You have something that belongs to Krave Wheaste.' Not a question.

'You are going to kill me.' Neither was that.

The two men stood opposite each other. Junko wanted very much to look around, to see who was observing his mission, assessing how rusty his talents had become. Phale smiled, an awful, creeping deepening of the black in his face. Junko wondered if he was in on the test. He wondered if he hadn't already failed it. The thought of returning home to find two empty beds inspired him.

He cracked the butt of the gun across Phale's temples; blood from the blow instantly made his grip on the weapon uncertain. He released his finger from the trigger so that it wouldn't go off accidentally and calmly wiped the fluid with his shirt tails.

'Big man, tough, hitting me with a noisy gun like that.'

Junko ignored him. 'Krave Wheaste wants it back.'

'Wants what back?'

Junko shot off his left hand. A black slam of regret came piling into his body, like dirty water filling a vacuum. He could have cried to his mother, screeched with rage and frustration, yet his voice was cool and sassy, almost matter-of-fact. 'So anyway,' he said, hating the way it came back so easily, so readily, 'Krave Wheaste wants it returned. Think about what you say next because it could mean you wiping your arse with your teeth for the rest of your life.'

Phale was not listening, or was no longer capable. His face, even in this fractured light, had turned grey and lines of torment were being drawn all over it. The mangled nub of his wrist was clamped under his right armpit; his top teeth were hiding his bottom lip and he was doing all he could to roll his eyeballs out of sight.

'Faint on me you swine,' Junko said, 'and you'll not see daylight again.'

'And then what happened?'

'Ah, you know.'

'If I knew, I wouldn't be asking. I might seem special, but really, I'm just a pig's head on a gurney that could do with a hose down.'

Junko stopped mopping and rubbed a gloved hand across his brow. The pig's head had been inexpertly removed from its body; the decapitating stroke had been the third or fourth blow. A chunk of the pig's face was missing. A deflated eye sat in this overgrown socket like a badly poached egg.

The pig noticed his scrutiny and said: 'You should see the other guy.'

'Phale took me to his hovel,' Junko said. 'He showed me where the parcel was that Krave Wheaste wanted, and I took it and left him to bleed to death.'

'Tough guy,' the pig said. 'I don't believe you.'

'Phale took me to his hovel,' Junko said. 'He showed me where the parcel was that Krave Wheasts wants, I apologised for hurting him, we kissed, and spent the rest of the evening dancing. Tomorrow we fly to the coast.'

'If I had a heart, it would be bleeding for you. Hey, where is my heart, anyway?'

'Linton Groarke had it with crumpets for breakfast.'

A fly crawled from the pig's snout, dabbled for a few seconds and went back inside.

'What really happened?'

'He wasn't as badly injured as he was letting on.'

'You've gone rusty.'

'I don't think so.'

'This gurney's gone rusty.'

'My aim was true. Phale's hand isn't going to be winning any pretty fingers contests. But he was faking the pain.'

'Part of the test,' said the pig. 'He was nerveless. Wheaste would have wanted to see how you react to a surprise. Wanted to see how quick you could get your guard back up.'

'Something like that, yeah.'

'But you were equal to the task.'

'Something like that.'

'You stand before me, a complete man. No cuts, abrasions, bruises or chafing. He didn't trick you. You aren't injured. I mean, look at you. It's not as if you're dead, or anything.'

'No.'

'And this parcel. You retrieved it?'

'Yes.'

'What was in it?'

'Nothing. Shredded paper.'

'But you passed the test?'

'With flying colours.'

'So why so glum?'

Junko slowly turned his mop this way and that across the floor. 'I passed the test.'

...continues


© Conrad Williams 2007.
The Scalding Rooms is published by PS Publishing.

The Scalding Rooms by Conrad Williams

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