The Broken Sky
Allison Hull is in the lobby of the Broken Sky Hotel, smoking her first cigarette ever. The concierge spots her there by the stone fireplace, coughing through a little smile. Her arms are decorated with new tattoos, curved Japanese waves flowing from shoulder to wrist, sea monsters and flying fish, galleons and longships. To the concierge, who’d never seen the ocean, never been outside of Colorado, it looks alien and unsettling, much like the girl herself.
“Ms. Hull,” he says softly, leaning in.
She coughs and nods.
“We just received a wire for you.”
Allison glances up at him through the smoke, squints. “We received what now?”
“A telegram,” he says, handing her an envelope embossed with the Broken Sky logo.
She clumsily files the cigarette between her fingers and accepts the envelope. “Now how could I get a telegram when nobody knows I’m here?”
“They did not learn of your whereabouts from the hotel, I assure you.”
“Uh huh,” Allison says. “Remember when I gave you five bucks to tell me which bellboy your boss was—” and she makes the finger in hole gesture, dropping her cigarette in the process. The concierge picks it up and takes a puff.
“If you’d like,” he says, “I could throw your message in the fire. You could wonder what it said for the rest of your life.”
“You do that all the time, I bet.”
“I offer,” he says, exhaling, “but no one ever takes me up on it.”
“Those things’ll kill you,” Allison says, opening the envelope and unfolding the fragile paper inside.
UM GN CN 72
WUX FT HOOK 259 PM 10 OCT
MS ALLISON HULL
C/O BROKEN SKY HOTEL
BOX 166 NEEDLELEAF COLO.
DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR BROTHER HUGO DIED 8 OCTOBER OF WOUNDS RECEIVED IN THE PERFORMANCE OF HIS DUTIES FOR FEDDEMA GLOBAL. OUR RECORDS SHOW YOU AS HIS ONLY LIVING RELATION THEREFORE I REQUEST YOUR PRESENCE IN FT HOOK TO SETTLE AFFAIRS. FIRST CLASS TRAIN TICKET WILL BE HAND DELIVERED TONIGHT. ONCE YOU ARRIVE PICK UP ANY TELEPHONE AND DIAL CLARION 8-2893. PLEASE ACCEPT MY HEARTFELT SYMPATHY &C.
The Last Bit
The concierge knocks, waits. A minute or so passes but he doesn’t move. Another minute, then Allison opens the door. She looks a good five, ten years older than the last time he saw her.
“You done crying?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says. “Forever.”
“This came for you,” he says, handing her a second envelope.
She slices it open with a fingernail, examines the ticket inside. She says: “Looks like I’m leaving in the morning.”
“We’re sorry to hear that,” the concierge says. “Will you be needing a valet for your belongings?”
She says: “Are you sorry to hear it?”
Allison rubs the heel of her hand against her eye. “Do you want my pine cone collection? I was going to throw it out the window.”
“I would be honored.”
“Do you maybe need a hug?” she asks.
He opens his arms and she falls into them. He says: “I thought you were done crying forever.”
Allison says: “This is the last little bit.”
The Malus Line
The locomotive travels west through black mountains, then red stone, then white desert. Allison’s clothes smell like oil and gin. She has maybe a half dozen thoughts, tops, during the entire journey. And one more than any other: Not I can’t believe he’s dead, but I can’t believe I didn’t know he was dead.
(God damn her arms are on fire. She told that sketchy ex-con militia tattooist nutjob — only a couple days ago but it felt like forever — that she wanted the ocean with her wherever she went. She was convinced she’d never see it again. She wanted to be able to raise her arms and tear a hole in whatever dead prairie or landlocked suburb she found herself in, revealing the churning sea that flowed beneath it all.)
She falls asleep in the sunlight and awakens in darkness, the sky blotted out by an endless expanse of pine. She’s only been to Fort Hook a handful of times before but knows these woods right away. They choke this whole stretch of coastline, all the way down to La Garra where she and Hugo—
She bites the inside of her cheek, watches the trunks blur together. She wishes she had a cigarette not really.
Seems like the last place he’d want to settle, that city trapped between the forest and the sea, surrounded on all sides. He’s the one who got all the Texas blood, that need for wide open, the empty curve of the horizon. All those long clean lines that gave her the creeps.
The whistle blows and then the forest vanishes and in its place are factories, refineries, power stations. Absolutely no transition. It was as if the city had fallen from the sky and crushed the trees beneath it.
And then come the train yards, and then Board Street Terminal, looking like a great white temple, swallowing her up.
Brakes squeal. The man next to her gets up and reaches for his bag, his shirt lifting up to reveal a crooked scar. She looks out the window and sees the salarymen glance at their watches, steam ruffling their pant legs. She doesn’t want to move. She doesn’t want to be in this city, the city that killed him.
How could I not know?
Allison elbows through the crowds onto the cavernous main concourse. The echo renders all broadcast announcements useless. She heads past cracked wooden benches, clacking departure boards, and a giant white statue of a buccaneer called Icewater Bellamy
(The plaque reads: A skirmish over three dollars ended in tragic decapitation! And a cold stream of water flowed from Bellamy’s neck instead of the expected bloody gore!)
and finds a free phone booth. She forces the folding door shut, pulls the telegram from her coat pocket, finds the number and dials it. Nothing happens, no ringing or anything, and she’s about to hang up when she hears a woman’s voice, low and steady, say: “Ms. Hull?”
Allison says: “Uh, yeah, yes, hi. How’d you know it was me?”
“No one else has this number. I appreciate your calling. I trust your trip was uneventful.”
“We didn’t hit anything big enough to derail the train.”
“I’m relieved,” the woman says. “Ms. Hull, I know this is a difficult time for you, a difficult time for all of us—”
“Yeah so who is us, exactly.”
“Hugo worked for us and—”
“Got that part.”
“And I take full responsibility for his death,” the woman says. “And I need to discuss a few issues with you.”
Allison twists around in the booth, the phone cord cutting off the circulation in her wrist. “What issues,” she asks.
“Will you agree to see me in person?”
“Let’s just settle whatever needs settling right now.”
“Will you agree to see me, yes or no?”
Allison hangs up the phone. She rests her head against the cool glass of the little porthole set into the door. She does the thing that she and Hugo both do (did), which is bite the flesh of her hand between thumb and index finger as hard as she can, leaving behind a smallish arc of bloody dents.
Allison dials the number again and the woman says: “Yes or no?”
“OK,” Allison says.
“Good. Please excuse what’s about to happen. I’m afraid it’s a necessary evil in this business.”
The door squeals open and Allison feels a sharp jab in her neck. Then she’s dreaming of a little boy skipping rocks off the dunes of a terrifyingly huge expanse of desert.
The Land of the Dead
She comes to in a canopy bed in the center of an overdecorated room, thick with cheap antiques and floral patterns. It’s cool and dark, with a kind of livid moonlight seeping through a crack in the curtains. Dominating the far wall is a framed painting of a capsizing schooner, the sea aboil, the sky filled with a tangle of faces.
She assumes she’s dead, maybe in some sort of purgatory. It smells like wood, mothballs, sweetened dust, and what is that, chlorine? That seems about right.
She notices her black travel suit hanging from the door, looking newly pressed. She peeks under the covers and is relieved to find herself clothed, though in unfamiliar silk pajamas. Her suitcase is there on a little folding luggage rack. Her toiletries — including tampons and birth control pills — are arranged on a bureau with eerie precision.
She slides out of bed, yawns, stretches, has to admit she feels terrific. She is in absolutely no hurry to start the day, start her new life here in the land of the dead.
She moseys to the curtains and slides them open. On the other side of the glass is water. Ocean. Silver schools of anchovies, rockfish, crabs, drifting forests of kelp, orange coral, algae, various stars and anemones, columns of speckled light flowing down from the surface.
The door behind her opens just a second before she hears knocking. She pivots, already in a defensive stance. In comes the most handsome man she’s ever seen in real life, or whatever this is. Like, the handsomest. Not even close. It’s ridiculous.
“Ms. Hull,” he says gently.
“And he knows my name,” Allison says.
“My name is Anthony,” he says with a little bow.
“Is that a fucking British accent?”
“Yes, miss,” Anthony says. “I shall be attending to your needs during your stay with us.”
Allison nods slowly. She jabs a thumb at the canopy bed and says: “So, should we just get started, or…?”
“Er, beg pardon?”
“Sorry, I don’t know how these things work,” Allison says. “Maybe you like to talk about stuff first. The … I dunno, the events of the day? Some girls like that. Sometimes I like that.”
Anthony gives her a smile that makes her despise herself. “I’m sorry, Ms. Hull,” he says. “I am not here to pleasure you carnally.”
Allison turns back to the window. “OK then please leave? Because you’re filthy. You’re disgusting. You bring depraved thoughts into innocent people’s heads.”
“I’m just sitting here, minding my own bee’s wax, here in my underwater bed and breakfast, my feminine products arranged just so, OK, and I don’t really need you coming in here and making me want to debase myself with you, immediately, now. I don’t need you making me want to have children with you. I’m not ready to have children, OK? Maybe not ever, I don’t know, I’m not even thinking along those lines yet, or at least I wasn’t until you and your goddamn face and your goddamn whatever exactly is going on under that suit of yours came sashaying in here.”
Anthony fiddles with a cufflink in a theatrical fashion. He says: “I mean no offence, Ms. Hull. Perhaps I could make it up to you with a fine selection of fresh fruits, juices, tea and milk, oatcakes, pastries, rashers, kippers, omelets made to order, black pudding, a mimosa, perhaps, un croissant, a large bowl of Froot Loops…”
“Oh so now you’re a gourmet chef, too.”
“Not at all. That is Gustav’s bailiwick.”
“Thank god,” Allison says. “Who’s Gustav? Your life partner?”
“He does the cooking here, ” Anthony says. “He is a loathsome man.”
“But sometimes, late at night, sometimes maybe loathing turns to lust.”
“Who can say what the night holds,” Anthony says. “It cloaks all things in an inky, decadent darkness.”
The Causes of Death
A woman elbows past Anthony, and by the way he slumps and withdraws, Allison is pretty sure this is the boss. Coiled silver hair, but she could be anywhere from 40 to 70. Severe grey suit. Skin a little too tight. Delicately scented with lavender and—
“Ms. Hull,” she interrupts, extending a hand. “I’m Margaret Feddema. We spoke on the phone.”
“Oh yeah,” Allison says.
“I apologize for drugging and kidnapping you. And I apologize for the beauty of my valet. It is one of my six weaknesses.”
“Margaret,” Allison says, “he refused to pleasure me carnally.”
“It is forbidden. I hope the accommodations were otherwise tolerable. We don’t have many visitors here.”
Allison glances out the window, says: “And where is here, I’m wondering. I’m just super curious.”
“Telling you where we are is a little complicated,” Margaret says. She sits on the bed and pats the comforter.
Allison looks for anywhere else to sit, ends up shoving her suitcase onto the floor and squatting down on the luggage rack, which lets out an alarming creak. “So this isn’t the afterlife?” she asks.
Margaret doesn’t laugh but says the word ha. “Not exactly. But everyone here is dead, at least according to city records.”
“Fuck does that mean.”
“According to city records, your brother died just about a year ago. I believe the official cause of death was disembowelment by demonic scimitar.”
Allison gets up and the luggage rack collapses. She shuts the door for some reason and then turns and says: “So Hugo’s not really dead.”
“The first death was faked, to get him off the records,” Margaret says. “It’s a prerequisite for working here. The second death was, unfortunately, all too real.”
Allison’s voice shakes a little, but there are no tears, not now, not ever again: “And what was the cause of death this time?”
Allison places a hand against the cold glass of the window, right where a starfish has adhered itself. “Hugo was terrified of drowning,” she says. “I suppose that’s why he came to work at the bottom of the fucking ocean.”
“Here’s the problem,” Margaret says.
“Here’s the problem,” Allison says.
“The problem is, our work lives or dies on secrecy. I could give you a list of a hundred people who would kill a hundred people to find out where we are right now. I have the list in my pocket. But in order to tell you about your brother, I need to tell you about his job. But telling an outsider about the job is extremely problematic.”
Allison breathes on the glass, draws a little smiley face in the fog. “So whatcha gonna do.”
“I’m going to tell you everything you need to know. And then I have two ideas for what happens next.”
“Let me guess—”
“No guessing,” Margaret says.
Margaret Feddema stands, smooths out her slacks. “Smoke?” she asks, pulling a mother of pearl cigarette case from nowhere.
Allison takes a cigarette and looks at it. “I just started.”
“I just quit,” Margaret says, lighting Allison’s and then her own. “I recruited Hugo a year ago. I’d heard about what he called the Hull Family Adventures.”
Allison wants to cough so bad it feels like there are insects birthing baby insects inside her chest, but she refuses to give this woman the satisfaction. She tilts her head, encouraging Margaret to continue.
“In my circles, the Hull family has some renown.” She places the cigarette case on the bureau, picks up something small that Allison can’t make out. “The fortress of Doctor Nice. The battle for the Blue Omphalos. The thousand robot scorpions. And I was saddened to hear about the incident in the Indies. Your parents were — at least according to the tales — strong and capable people. Deserving of longer lives.”
Allison coughs and coughs until she thinks she’s going to throw up, then stands back up and takes another deep drag. “So nice of you to say,” she wheezes. She spies something that looks close enough to an ashtray and stubs out the cigarette.
“Hugo told me that after their passing, you and he became estranged.”
“Yeah he used the cunt word,” Allison says.
“Well, he came to regret not having you in his life,” Margaret says. “Or so he said. He was wandering, too, when I found him. Lost. But I thought the skills and experiences he’d acquired while traveling with your parents would be a good fit for my team.”
“Yeah, team of what?”
“Couriers,” Margaret says.
“We take things from Point A to Point B.”
“Oh, couriers,” Allison says. “Yes I know what couriers do. But I don’t think bike messengers make you fake kill yourself and then go live at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Bike messengers don’t move what we move,” Margaret says. “We move dangerous things to dangerous places.”
“And Hugo was up for this? Hugo Hull? Who would burst into tears if he saw a bug a little larger than he was comfortable with?”
“Your parents were excellent teachers, Allison. Hugo could become whatever he needed to become to get the job done. It’s an extremely rare gift. And it’s exactly what I need in his district.”
“The red light district.”
“We work Fort Hook,” Margaret says, pointing a finger heavenward. “I have five couriers — four, now. Each one handles a district. There’s the ports on the westside. The Palaces in the east. There’s downtown and there’s Old Town. And then one courier to handle everything else. I don’t admit this to the others, but that one’s the hardest. You need to be ready for anything. You need to be ready for Doctor Nice. For the robot scorpions. For the Indies.”
“Doesn’t sound like Hugo was ready for anything.”
Margaret takes Allison by the shoulder, hard. Allison tries to pull back but this mean old hag is stronger than she looks. “Hugo was very good at what he did. His death was not a failure on his part.”
Allison peels off Margaret’s hand and backs away. “I want you to tell me how my goddamn brother died,” she says. “And then I want you to put me on the submarine or the dolphin or whatever the hell it is you use to get back to civilization.”
Margaret flicks her cigarette to the carpet. “The resemblance is uncanny,” she says.
Allison sighs. She points at her forehead. “You ever notice the little scar he has right here?”
“He said he got that in Honduras, fighting somebody called Donny After Dark.”
“That was from my foot. Wedged in his head while we were in the womb together. He’s never been to Honduras.”
“No,” Allison says. “No, I’m not sure of anything.”
The Second Death of Hugo Hull
Hugo was aboard a schooner called the Black Bee. They were floating adrift, sails lowered, lines belayed. He’d long lost track of how far offshore they were, or even in what direction they were heading. He’d learned the basics of celestial navigation during the travels with his family, of course, but the clouds were low and heavy and anyway no sextant.
It was Frank Muto’s boat, the client on this job. He apologized for all the rigmarole but he had to be somewhere safe before opening the Item, somewhere isolated. There were a lot of interested parties. Hugo said he understood, not a problem, and handed him the black envelope. Muto turned it over in his hands, shook his head, laughed, said something about this being the result of a hundred years’ work.
He pulled out a small knife, slit open the envelope, and then his hands were on fire, and then his face was on fire, and then Hugo found himself sprawled out on the deck, deafened, burning, and then the ship keeled over and Hugo shouted but only sickly bluish bubbles came out. Saltwater crept through his closed eyes and wormed its way into his head, biting. A starry blindness. Roars became faint, his hair licked upward, his heart beat furiously but then slowed, slow—
The Paper Clip
“You don’t know who sabotaged it?” Allison asks.
“I had some theories,” Margaret says, “but all dead ends so far.”
Allison lets a few tears trickle down her face. She allows it. And she allows Margaret to wipe them away, and she doesn’t get mad when Margaret says: “Goodness, Allison, you are freezing.”
“Yeah,” Allison says.
And she doesn’t flinch when Margaret puts a hand around her neck and leans in close and puts an uncoiled paper clip up to her left eye, absolutely steady, just barely touching the cornea. “I can’t kill you,” Margaret says, “but I can blind you. And if you’re blind, you’ll have a hard time retaliating.”
Allison does a quick inventory and remembers she’s in borrowed pajamas covered in tiny airplanes. There is nothing but her body, and this moment. She says: “You’ll only get one eye. I’ll be able to see well enough to do some damage.”
“You need to be more specific that that,” Margaret says.
“It’s seven steps the door. There are no other ways out—”
“That you know of.”
“That’s enough time to get a kick in. For someone of your advanced age, I’m sure tearing the ligaments and dislocating your knee won’t be a huge deal.”
The paper clip doesn’t budge. “Go on,” Margaret says.
“You’ll go down, my fully functional knee goes on your throat, I’m probably driven by a kind of, you know, a primal rage thanks to the eye gouging, my adrenaline’s up, I’m young and strong and healthy, basically healthy, and I pin your fragile little body down and break your teeth for you.”
“Then? Then I leave.”
“You just walk out.”
“I drag your battered body behind me. You’re probably only, what, a hundred pounds? Thanks to the osteoporosis? I tell any goons out there to escort us both to the exit or I break the boss lady in two. I maybe try to convince Anthony to come along and give me a back rub.”
Margaret gives her a good long look, then tosses the paper clip to the floor. “Eh,” she says. “Maybe there’s something to work with, maybe not. I think you’re overestimating your strength of will. You should always be able to find something to hurt somebody with, something besides your bare hands. There’s that decorative urn. Your mascara over there. The splintered remnants of the luggage rack. A quickly broken light bulb. And I’m not fond of the take a hostage and shout your way out method. It’s sloppy and noisy. It can only—”
Allison flings the ashtray and hits Margaret square in the throat. Allison locks her thumbs and goes for the face but Margaret pivots to one side and lets Allison tumble into the bureau.
“Good,” Margaret wheezes. “Better. I apologize for lecturing you, but I wanted to give you a moment to come up with a plan.”
“I didn’t come up with anything,” Allison says, panting, a bright new cut along her forehead. “Seems like you’d be able to read it.”
“Excellent,” Margaret says. “Never have a plan. That’s my motto. One of my mottos.”
The Two Ideas
Margaret helps Allison up and again gestures for her to sit on the bed. They sit and Margaret dabs at the cut with a handkerchief.
“So,” Allison says, “Miss Never Have A Plan. What are your two ideas for what happens now?”
“I need a replacement for Hugo,” Margaret says.
“You kidnap me and now you’re offering me a job.”
“Yes. Although I haven’t made an offer yet. There are hoops. But I’m thinking about it.”
“Yeah well I’m not thinking about it.”
“My brother and I are not interchangeable. Margaret. He’s a little dumber than me. Was. A little more likely to sign up for a job that’d kill him. I got plenty I want to do before getting killed.”
“Like what? You leave here now, where do you go? What do you do?”
“Wherever and whatever, you don’t need to know.”
“Back to the mountains? The desert? The plains?”
“Yeah sure maybe.”
“The tenement? The restaurant you worked in for six weeks, with the buffalo heads on the wall?”
“Probably not there, no.”
“Will you just keep wandering? Until you think of something to look for?”
“OK, god, fine.”
“You’d have a home here. Money would not be an issue. Direction would not be an issue. Eventfulness would not be an issue.”
“And if I say no?”
Margaret gives the cut a final look, then pockets the handkerchief. “Then you can leave.”
Allison gets up, walks to the window, watches a school of zebra perch go by. “I just walk right out the door.”
Margaret joins her. “Nobody’s ever made it to the surface from here. But you’ve got a lot of hot air in you. I bet you could be the first.”
Allison crosses her arms, looks around. “Tell me this isn’t my room.”
“You can have Hugo’s old room.”
“You got a good dental plan?”
“I’ll introduce you to Dr. Manz,” Margaret says. “And the other couriers. And the archivists, the rest of the staff. But I want to tell you something first. People want what we carry. They want what we know. And that’s why sometimes people lose their lives. Your brother was just one in a long line, unfortunately. So, I need you to be ready for what’s waiting for you. I’ll do what I can to prepare you, but you’ll be on your own up there.”
Allison laughs a little to herself. “Yeah,” she says.
“The good news is that we run Fort Hook,” Margaret says. “It’s afraid of us. And that means you can go anywhere, do anything. And every day you’ll walk into a room without a plan. And that gets fun.”