When a chance encounter sets the Watch after them both, Carcer and Teatime find themselves running for their unlives across the Unnamed Continent in a buddy comedy full of murder, mayhem, and maggots.
He was watching for the coach, just in case, when the hangman pulled the lever. The trapdoor opened, the rope pulled tight, and after a horrible moment of pain and confusion everything went dark.
It was still dark when, some hours later, Carcer woke up. He pulled himself upright, disentangling himself from the sheets as he moved, and waited for his eyes to adjust. He could already tell he wasn’t back home; his own bed was a hell of a lot more comfortable than the cold metal thing he’d woken up on. Could be the Tanty, though. It’d happened before, after all, and if he couldn’t remember how he’d got here he was probably too drunk when he did it for the charge to be anything serious. He’d be out in a couple of days, no trouble, and then he could forget the whole thing.
But he could see now, and in the faint light of the tiny windows overhead he could tell that this time it wasn’t that easy. There were cells in the Tanty this big, lots of them, but never for just one man. The cots were cold and metal, sure enough, but chained to the wall, not on wheels, and if they bothered to give you bedding at all the ratty old blankets were a far cry from the neat white sheet that he’d woken up under.
He reached up to touch his neck, felt nothing but skin, pressed harder, felt no pain. That settled it, right? All just a dream, if an especially strange one. And wherever he was now, he’d get out one way or another; he was good at that.
Carcer dragged himself into a standing position beside the strange bed. His boots were gone, too—he hadn’t noticed that until now. But he could deal with that later. Right now, he just needed to find out where he was.
A cursory inspection of the wall to his left revealed nothing but a row of cabinets; the wall in front of him contained only a few windows, up where the walls rose just above street level. He turned to the right, stumbled on the bad knee he didn’t know he had, and grabbed the edge of the bed to stay upright.
Trying not to make the damage worse, he sat back down on the cot and rolled up his trouser leg to examine the injury. He was sure kneecaps weren’t supposed to move like that, but even when he prodded at it the joint didn’t actually hurt.
So he stood up again, this time taking care to shift his weight to his left leg, and he limped around to face the other side of the room.
He’d been right about the door; it stood, closed and locked, a few yards away in the opposite corner of the room. And between Carcer and the door stood six more wheeled metal beds, six neat white sheets, and six human-shaped lumps beneath those sheets.
He touched his neck again, felt no pain, felt no pulse. He breathed in, giving instructions to muscles he’d never had to worry about before, and smelled formaldehyde.
“Oh, shit,” he said aloud.
It made perfect sense that the Assassins’ Guild mortuary should be smaller and more poorly equipped than the Surgeons’. While the next generation of doctors could hardly (at least in these Enlightened Times) be expected to learn their trade without the assistance of the Teaching Aids from the Tanty, the vast majority of the bodies the Guild produced stopped being its business as soon as they stopped breathing. For most of the year, only the occasional unfortunate student or over-ambitious member of the faculty ended up there; even now, in the midst of the graduation exams, Mr. Brown and Mr. Potter were only bringing two or three failures a day.
Mr. Teatime understood all of this—he understood, rationally, that whoever had designed the morgue and first provided for its operation had certainly not anticipated his unique situation—but nonetheless he thought the whole thing a disgrace. The Guild could provide the best education in the world; it was without a doubt the wealthiest Guild in the city; only the Watch and the Patrician himself held more political influence. If it had only put that money and power to use down here, he thought, his experiments would have been so much simpler.
As it was, he’d just have to make do with whomever it was that Potter and Brown were now trying to haul down the stairs. He could hear the men’s footsteps, magnified by their heavy boots and the stone of the staircase, as they echoed through the basement and into the morgue.
“’Ere, why do I have to take the head, anyway?” he heard Potter say when they reached the door.
“Have you got the keys?” said Brown.
“No. But what’s that—“ said Potter.
“’Cos if I got the keys, then it stands to reason that I’m gonna be the one what’s gonna open the door. And I can’t get a heavy ole door like that open if I got both hands busy draggin’ a stiff around, right? So unless you wants to explain to every poor kid’s mum what comes through here why her kid’s head’s all busted open on the floor, you can’t go haulin’ him by the legs, can ya?”
Brown’s explanation was punctuated by the sounds of metal scraping and sliding as the man fumbled with the door; it swung open, creaking a little, as he finished and took up the corpse’s feet again. The two men located one of the three empty gurneys, dumped the body unceremoniously on it, and left. There was another, shorter, squeal and a click as Brown closed and locked the door behind them, and they clomped back up the stairs and, presumably, home for the day; if the clock was still right, the boy they’d brought in would’ve been the last exam of the night.
Teatime crossed to the gurney and looked him over. Like all the casualties of the Run, the lad was about the age he had been; he had the same gangly, built-of-sticks look he’d had, though the boy on the table was rather taller. His face was a bit odd-looking, with a mouth too small and too high for the length of his jaw, and the stab wound in his chest, while neat, was a bit of a shame, but he’d do all the same. Teatime had always tried to be grateful for what he was given.
The final experiment went much like the ones before; the difference was more a matter of scale than anything else, and with over a year’s worth of practice it was hardly difficult. If he’d ever found reason to part with the advice, he’d have said: pretend you’re already solid, put it on like a jacket, make it part of you and not something you stuff yourself into, and it doesn’t matter whether the thing you’re trying to move is a chair or a cadaver.
It was the latter that, after a moment, sat up on the gurney. He flexed his left hand, then his right, marveling at the fingers as they moved under the pull of the tendons like marionettes; stared at them for a few seconds, trying to remember how to see with two eyes; lifted his arms over his head, stretching like a cat; cocked his head to one side, than the other; slid off the end of the table; felt the stone under his boots for the first time since last Hogswatch; smiled.
Yes, he thought, the experiment had most definitely been a success. Now he just had to put it into practice.
Carcer hadn’t set foot inside the Guild in ages, but once he’d realized that’s where he’d woken up he found that he still knew his way around pretty well. Gods, how long had it been since then—five or six years, right? He chuckled darkly under his breath as he began opening drawers and cabinet doors. It was funny, really, if you looked at it right. Who’d have thought, that last day, that the next time they saw him down here he’d be on the other end of the knife?
Well, he wasn’t anymore. They’d changed a lot since he’d left, but he’d found them in the third drawer he dumped out on the floor: scalpels and bone saws and the big knives that could take a man’s leg off before he knew you’d started. He’d always wondered, back in the operating theatre, what that was like; now he had his chance. Working as quickly as he could—the light from the windows was getting brighter, and he knew the porters would be in soon—he stuffed the tools into his clothes wherever they’d fit.
The footsteps started as he was slipping the last scalpel into his breast pocket. Carcer spun round, just in time to face the man on his way in. He grinned, broadly, like any other man who’d just run into an old friend.
“Bill Evans!” He held out a hand, in the universal sign of ‘look-no-weapons-I-promise.’ “Didn’t know you was still workin’ here, haha.”
Evans flinched when he heard the laugh, and didn’t take the hand.
“But I heard you was…” he managed.
“Dead,” Carcer said for him, in a voice far too cheerful for a man discussing his own demise. “Right?”
“And where’d you hear a damn fool thing like that, eh? I’m standin’ right in front of you now, ain’t I?”
“Well, the papers said—uh, they said you were gonna, you know…” the man gestured vaguely toward his throat.
“Yeah?” And here came the knives, out from under his waistcoat before Evans could see him reaching for them, and there went the scalpel into the side of his neck, not neat but a help for the embalmers all the same, and the bigger knife up under his ribs like this just in case, and good old Billy was down on the floor flopping and gasping like a fish out of water. Carcer laughed again. “Well, you were right, mate.”
When he’d got the knives back out and into his own clothes again, he lifted the body up onto the one empty gurney, draping the sheet over it like someone was still paying him to do it.
And, in a way, they were. Evans hadn’t had much money in his pockets, but he could sure use a good pair of boots right now, and the ones hanging off the edge of the table looked like they’d do the job.
When he’d got them on, he crossed to the door, out into the still-silent hall, and up the stairs into a world that had kept running even while he’d been gone. He’d find out what had happened in the meantime, get some money and some proper weapons; the surgeons’ tools, fun as they were, couldn’t measure up to real knives. And then…
He laughed to himself again and shook his head. Then didn’t need a plan. He’d know what to do—didn’t he always?—and it was always more fun when you made it up as you went along.