Nobodys home an anubis g.., p.1
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       Nobody's Home: An Anubis Gates Story, p.1

           Tim Powers
 
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Nobody's Home: An Anubis Gates Story


  Nobody’s Home Copyright © 2014 by

  Tim Powers. All rights reserved.

  Dust jacket and interior illustrations

  Copyright © 2014 by J. K. Potter.

  All rights reserved.

  Interior design Copyright © 2014

  by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

  All rights reserved.

  Electronic Edition

  Electronic Edition ISBN

  978-1-59606-672-4

  Subterranean Press

  PO Box 190106

  Burton, MI 48519

  subterraneanpress.com

  “Eternal process moving on,

  From state to state the spirit walks;

  And these are but the shattered stalks,

  Or ruined chrysalis of one.”

  —Tennyson, In Memoriam

  Over the clatter of rain on the canvas awning above her head and the more remote background hiss of it on the pavement of Cannon Street in the darkness below, she could hear a faint, repeated crunching splash, as if someone were laboriously plodding down the narrow, gravel-paved street; but the sound didn’t change its position.

  Jacky Snapp shifted forward on the stone ledge and peered down. A streetlamp raised yellow gleams on an umbrella a dozen feet below her and to her left, out in front of St. Swithin’s Church, and the umbrella was bouncing up and down as it moved forward eight steps, then stopped, whirled and jumped eight steps back.

  Midnight was long past, and the London streets were quiet except for the occasional rattle of a carriage and horses, or a distant bell from out on the river. Jacky had spent the evening tracking down a beggar who was rumored to have fur growing all over him like an ape, but when she had cornered the man in the basement of an old pub off Fleet Street, her hand tense on the flintlock pistol under her coat, he had turned out to be only a very hairy old fellow with a prodigious beard—not the half-legendary man she had devoted her life to finding and killing.

  Another false trail.

  Her cold hand went to her chest, and under the fabric of her shirt she felt the glass cylinder she wore on a ribbon around her neck. I won’t give up, Colin, she thought—I promise.

  The umbrella below her was still hopping back and forth on its eight-step course, and it occurred to her that the person holding it might be playing hopscotch, jumping through the pattern of squares in the children’s game. Alone, at midnight, in the rain. Jacky had only arrived in the city a couple of weeks ago, but she was sure this must be uncommon.

  She pushed her wide-brimmed hat more firmly down onto her cut-short hair and prodded the false moustache glued to her upper lip, then leaned out from the first-floor window ledge to grip the wet drain-pipe by which she had climbed up to this perch; it still felt solidly moored, so she swung out and slid down the cold metal till her boots stopped at a bracket. From here she could stretch a loose-trousered leg sideways onto the granite sill of a ground-floor window, and a moment later she had dropped lightly to the street.

  The figure under the umbrella was a girl, facing away now, her wet skirt flapping around her ankles under the hem of a dark coat as she hopped forward on one foot.

  Jacky had decided simply to steal away in the other direction, toward the dim silhouette of St. Paul’s cathedral dome, when the umbrella abruptly began to glow; in the same moment it was tossed aside and Jacky saw that bright flames had sprung up on the girl’s shoulders and in her hair.

  Jacky leaped forward and drove her shoulder into the girl’s back, and when the girl tumbled forward onto her hands and knees on the wet gravel, Jacky pushed her over sideways and leaned in over the burning coat and tried to roll the girl’s head into a puddle. The heat on Jacky’s face made her squint and hold her breath, and her hands and wrists were scorching, and the glass vial had fallen out of her shirt and was swinging in the flames.

  And another person was crouched beside her, trying to push her hands back; Jacky swung a fist in the person’s direction, but it connected with nothing but cold rainy air. Finally she was able to roll the girl over onto her back, extinguishing the coat, and with stinging hands splash water onto the girl’s head.

  With the flames put out, the street seemed darker than ever; Jacky flinched to see glowing spots on the pavement, but at a second glance she saw that they only shone a dim green. Even as she blinked at them they faded, but not before she noticed that they had been arranged in a long row of foot-wide rectangles.

  Hopscotch! she thought. She leaned back, gasping in the wonderfully cold air, and quickly looked around, but whoever it was who had tried to interfere in her rescue was gone. The girl lying on the street was panting and moving feebly.

  On its now-charred ribbon, the vial that hung around Jacky’s neck was too hot to touch, so she let it swing free for now. She started to get to her feet—

  And with a start she noticed figures standing in the dimness of an alley on the south side of the street, scarcely a dozen feet away from where she crouched. She couldn’t tell how many.

  They wavered in the rainy breeze, as if they were silhouettes painted on an unmoored canvas, but their hands were moving and their heads turned back and forth, perhaps in whispered conversation.

  Jacky’s face suddenly felt colder than the rain, and her ribs tingled. As cautiously as if the alley figures were a pack of feral dogs, Jacky took hold of the girl’s still-hot lapels and pulled her to her feet.

  “He was supposed to go,” the girl was saying, but Jacky put one hand over her mouth and gripped her elbow with the other.

  “Walk quiet,” she whispered, and took a tense step away, toward St. Paul’s.

  But with a flutter like birds the shadowy silhouettes came spinning out of the alley. They seemed to suffer in the rain, squeaking and ducking and cringing, but Jacky yanked her companion around and shoved her toward the drain pipe and yelled, “Climb!”

  To her relief, the girl scrambled rapidly up the pipe, bracing her feet in the gaps between the blocks of the wall, and Jacky followed so closely that her head was between the girl’s ankles until they had both scrambled onto the window ledge under the awning.

  For several seconds neither of them spoke as they caught their breath.

  Then, “You knew not to just run,” panted the girl. “Away down the street.”

  Jacky was hugging herself and shivering. One of the things down there had been in profile for a moment, and the shape of the face, and the angle of the elbow and shoulder below it, had jarred her.

  She touched the glass vial that dangled on her chest, and it was still too hot to tuck into her shirt.

  The girl was sitting to her right, a foot away on the three-foot-wide ledge. “I should have let you burn,” said Jacky bleakly as she flexed her stinging hands.

  She looked down—the shadowy crowd was milling aimlessly on the narrow street between St. Swithin’s on one side and a dark chemist’s shop on the other. She looked away quickly.

  The girl pulled her knees up and clasped her arms around them. “Can we get up to the roof from here?”

  “Why? Those are…ghosts, aren’t they? Whatever you are, catching fire in the street like that.” Jacky was trying to fit into her experience the idea that she had apparently actually seen ghosts, and even perhaps one particular ghost, and she hoped she wasn’t going to giggle or start crying. “Ghosts can only see footprints, I’ve heard,” she went on, remembering the girl’s earlier remark. “That’s why I didn’t run.”

  The girl nodded. “My name’s Harriet. Living folk will be drawn to this, and living folk are likely to look up.” She turned toward Jacky, and even in the deep shadow Jacky could see Harriet’s wide eyes and pinched mouth. “And it’s not a kindly sort of living fol
ks who’d be drawn to it.”

  Jacky took a deep breath and exhaled, then nodded and touched her false moustache to make sure it was secure against more rain. “I’m Jacky,” she said. Then she got up on her knees and leaned out to grip the drain-pipe again. “On up the pipe for two more floors. Don’t slip.”

  She led the way this time, pushing herself upward with the edges of her boots between the blocks and letting the cold wet pipe slide soothingly through her linked hands and trying to peer upward through the rain, and after two welcomely distracting minutes of the strenuous exercise she had swung a leg over the cornice and rolled across the coping and landed on all fours on a tar-papered roof.

  A moment later Harriet landed on top of her.

  Jacky pushed her off and then leaned back against the low wall, scowling. The night was not as dark up here above the street, and she could see that Harriet was not much older than herself—perhaps nineteen or twenty.

  Jacky dug a pewter flask out from an inside pocket of her coat—the back of her hand brushed the glass vial, which was still hot—and unscrewed the cap gingerly with her burned fingers.

  After she had taken a long swallow of the warm brandy, she passed the flask to her companion, who was now sitting cross-legged a yard away. The rain was abating, and a less-dark patch in the clouds overhead might have been the emerging moon.

  Harriet tilted the flask up and took a long sip. “You saved me from burning to death,” she said hoarsely, exhaling. “Thank you.”

  Jacky shrugged. “I don’t think you’d have burned to death,” she said, “with the rain and all.” She wagged her hand for the flask, and Harriet passed it back to her.

  “Oh he’d have made sure of it,” said Harriet with a visible shudder. “My husband’s ghost—he even tried to push you off me when you were trying to put me out.” She shook her head, her wet hair flapping around her narrow face. Perhaps talking to herself more than to Jacky, she went on softly, “I don’t know what I’m going to do! That hopscotch in front of the London Stone was supposed to send him off to Purgatory. Or Hell.”

  Jacky recalled that a round piece of rock called the London Stone, about the size of a watermelon, was mounted in an alcove beside the front doors of St. Swithin’s Church. “Why did—” she began.

  But Harriet had been peering at Jacky’s face, and now interrupted her. “Why’ve you got a sham moustache on?”

  Jacky felt as if her life were unravelling tonight. The wrong hairy man at the pub, the disturbing ghost in the street, and now her necessary disguise seemed to be useless.

  “Sham?” she said, belatedly remembering to speak in her usual assumed lower pitch.

  “And the short hair.” Harriet touched a bristly patch on her own scalp. “Though I’m one to talk, now.”

  “Er…I don’t know what you—”

  “Go on, I watched how you moved when you were climbing,” Harriet said. “And your voice, till just now. You’re a girl. Why the fakery?”

  “Oh, hell.” Jacky sighed and abandoned the pretense. “I, uh, have to mingle with some rough folk, in bad places. A girl would be…at a disadvantage.”

  “Have to?”

  Jacky took another mouthful of brandy from the flask instead of answering. Then she bust out, “What—happened, down there?”

  “Your waked-up ghost got tangled with mine,” said Harriet, “my husband, when you knocked me down. And that pretty much got a whole lot of ’em waked up.”

  “My waked-up ghost?” Colin, she thought, does she mean you? Don’t have been that ghost in the street, please! Stay—remote.

  “Somebody whose ghost you’re tied to,” said Harriet. “Husband?”

  “I’m not married!”

  “Well, common-law, or any sort of, you know, informal but consummated. Your body is where you…overlapped with him.”

  “I—we—never did. That. We were engaged to be married. He was a poet,” she added.

  “Oh. Somebody else then?”

  Jacky shook her head.

  “You’re a virgin? Then you must be carrying around a piece of him…?” She stared at Jacky curiously.

  “No! Wait—” She touched the glass vial, which was impossibly still hot. “I—took his—dottle.”

  Harriet’s eyes were wide. “You took his head?”

  Jacky couldn’t help barking out one syllable of a laugh. “Not noddle, dottle. The ash from a clay pipe of his.” She pointed at the glass vial. “Ceneromancy, it’s called. Magic you do with ashes. It’s kept him near me, since…since he was killed.”

  Near enough for me to feel his presence, at least, she thought, and for him to put up lines of his poetry into my head when I’m nearly asleep—but not to appear in front of me, looking at me!

  Harriet reached out hesitantly, and when Jacky warned her that it was somehow still hot from having swung over the fire, she only brushed the vial with the back of a finger.

  “Well that’s how come your man’s ghost got awake,” she said, leaning back. “That fire on me was lit by my mad dead husband. He was a lascar from Dumdum in India, a sailor. We were married two-and-some years ago—Spring of 1807—and he couldn’t go back to India because marrying me broke his caste, and he’d be killed for it. He was a decent enough husband, though our two babies were born dead, but after he died he turned horrid—he wants me to do sattee, do you know what that is?”

  Jacky thought it might be some sort of curried Indian stew, but she shook her head.

  “That’s where they burn the widow of a dead man. He’d never have wanted such a thing when he was alive, and I think it’s really for higher castes than what he was—but his damned ghost thinks he’s a brahmin or something now, and fancies a proper escort to his, his heathen hereafter.” She looked anxiously toward the edge of the roof as if she expected to see her husband’s ghost come clambering over the cornice. The only sounds from the street, though, were faint echoes of someone running, clearly not a ghost.

  Jacky handed her the flask, and when Harriet had finished it and handed it back empty, and Jacky had opened her coat to tuck it back into the inner pocket, Harriet sat back suddenly.

  “You’ve got a gun?” she said.

  “Oh. Well, yes.” Jacky buttoned her coat self-consciously. “Like I said, I have to associate with some bad sorts sometimes.” She stared at Harriet, then went on, speaking more rapidly, “I mean to find the man, the creature, that murdered Colin, my fiancee, and kill him. It’s why I left home and came to London, it’s why I can’t be a girl while I’m here, looking for him in the low sort of places he’s likely to be found. It’s…” She rubbed her eyes, lowered her hands, and shrugged. “Well, to tell you the truth, it’s all I’ve got left.” She gave the other girl a frail smile. “Revenge.”

  “You know who he is, the man who murdered him?” Harriet seemed glad to be distracted from talk of her husband.

  “Not in any…lasting sense.”

  “You know what he looks like?”

  “Sometimes. But a description of him is only good for a couple of days. And sometimes he’s covered with fur, like an ape.”

  Harriet’s eyes were wide. “Are you joking?” When Jacky shook her head, Harriet went on, “You mean that werewolf, Doggy Joe? I thought he was made up.”

  “Dog-Face Joe. And no, he’s real enough. He’s not a werewolf—he grows fur all over himself, because of some curse, but then he can switch bodies with you, so you’re suddenly in his old furry body and he’s in yours—” She paused to catch her breath, “—and just before he leaves his old body, he eats poison, so you—” Her voice faltered to a stop, and she looked away over the rooftop chimneys, blinking and biting her lip.

  “And that’s how your fellow died, this Colin?”

  Jacky nodded.

  “Well…damn. It’s no use talking to his ghost, though. A ghost’s just not the person it’s a ghost of.”

  Jacky shuddered. “I don’t want to talk to him. It.”

  Harriet seemed surprised by he
r vehemence.

  Jacky stood up, a bit unsteadily. “Let’s get down from here. There’s bound to be an easier way at the back.”

  They descended one floor on an iron ladder bolted to the north side of the building, and then a fire escape with ornamental iron balusters led them to another ladder, which extended down to the pavement of a narrow alley. By the yellow glow in a couple of smoke-fogged windows they were able to pick their way over the wet cobblestones, around a right-angle turn, and then a silvery rectangle ahead showed them a moonlit segment of Cannon Street.

  “I hope they’re gone,” whispered Jacky as they moved forward.

  “Has your dottle cooled off?”

  Jacky touched the pendant. “Maybe a bit. I should have let you burn.”

  Harriet exhaled shakily. “You might get another chance shortly.”

  But when they stepped out of the shadowed alley mouth onto the crushed gravel pavement of Cannon Street, it wasn’t ghosts they met. Jacky saw a man sprint heavily past from right to left with a puppet jouncing on strings clutched in his fist, and then two men came loping along right behind him, their coats flapping. The men passed Jacky and Harriet standing in the alley mouth, but a moment later Jacky saw the jiggling puppet’s head swivel around to face backward. Its little face was as sunken and folded as a dried apple, and moonlight glittered on a pair of spectacles attached over the withered nose.

  One of the men behind apparently noticed the action, and his boots scraped on the gravel as he stopped and turned to look in the same direction.

  “It’s looking at those two,” the man barked.

  The one with the puppet looked toward Jacky and Harriet and nodded, then immediately sat down in the wet street and began crooning to the puppet and stroking its patchy scalp. The other two ran directly toward Jacky and her companion.

  Jacky caught her balance and spun to run back down the dark alley, but a loud boom shook the air, and she looked back over her shoulder as the echoes batted away between the close building-fronts.

 
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