The City That Never Sleeps
New York, New York
Spector knew he was being followed. The tail was a young man who clearly wasn’t up to the job. His dumbass shadow was well groomed, had a nice blue suit, and was keeping in back of him by about thirty feet. Spector paused at the corner of Second Avenue and Tenth, the cold wind whipping his lank hair. New York City at Christmastime wasn’t as bad as it was in January, but it was still no picnic. A trio of Salvation Army folks sang “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but not very well. There was an A&P a couple of blocks away. If the person following him came inside looking for Spector that would be his mistake; if not, Spector would do some grocery shopping.
He’d been back in the city for less than two weeks. After Wild Card Day he’d decided Manhattan was just too dangerous for him. Lots of people wound up dead that day, including big-name aces like the Howler and the Astronomer and some lesser known ones like the dino kid. Spector had done the Astronomer himself, feeding his former boss’s his death memory hard and fast, and leaving the old bastard’s corpse fused inside a brick wall. That helped him sleep a little easier, but there were still plenty of people who wanted him dead again, not to mention the politicians and cops who were howling for the blood of the aces who’d brought terror to their fair city.
So Demise had gone back to Teaneck and laid low for a couple of months. Still, he needed a roof over his head and food on the table, so he’d done a few random jobs for the local mob. He’d told them he was a chemist with a drug that could simulate a heart attack. His employers weren’t particularly curious about his methods and paid on time. The rubouts weren’t enough for Spector to live well, but he kept them on a scale small enough that he didn’t draw much attention, either.
He ducked into the A&P and moved quickly to his left and down an aisle. The place wasn’t crowded, which suited Spector to a T. He heard the door squeak open and knew the man had been dumb enough to follow him inside. Spector headed for a corner of the produce section where the lighting was poor. He heard slow, uncertain footfalls the next aisle over. Spector couldn’t figure why anyone who knew who he was would follow him, much less confront him. Unless the guy was an ace; that could be big trouble.
The man turned the corner.
“Can I get a light?” Spector asked.
“Uh.” The young man seemed surprised to see Spector pop up in front of him.
“Following me is a bad idea.” Spector pushed his horrific pain inside the man’s mind. The agony of Spector’s own death from the black queen took hold. The man’s eyes rolled up in his head and there was a fresh corpse on the floor seconds later.
Spector glanced around and saw no one. He heard the squeak of a grocery cart closing in and bolted around the corner. No one noticed as he exited the store. Still, someone knew he was back in town. Maybe they wanted to hire him; maybe they wanted to kill him. He’d know for sure soon enough.
Spector bought a mask at the first vendor he saw. In Jokertown, masks were easy to come by. He was tempted by a really ugly Santa mask, but instead picked out an angry-looking bird head. Spector didn’t particularly like birds, but the eye holes were large and gave him a decent field of vision. He’d downed a pint of Jack Daniel’s Black Label the night before to help with the pain. It took the edge off, but that was it. Pills would be better if he could find some.
He felt reasonably safe looking for drugs in Jokertown, where they were as common as misery and deformity. Spector ducked into an alleyway and shoved a couple of wadded-up tissues under his mask, giving the appearance of a misshapen face underneath. He heard a wet, unhappy noise behind him and moved back out onto the sidewalk before it could close in.
The sky was clear and blue, and there was only a hint of a chilling breeze. He decided to stretch his legs and take a long walk through Jokertown. Most people, other than jokers, would be scared to take a stroll here; too much ugliness and potential danger. Spector wasn’t nervous though. He might well be the scariest person in Jokertown at the moment. He didn’t like it here, but Jokertown was comfortable in a smelly-old-shirt kind of way.
He hit Jube the Walrus’s newsstand first, not for any particular reason. The Walrus was one of Jokertown’s oldest citizens. There was a large joker under a pair of stitched-together coats picking up a newspaper with a pink, furry hand. It tossed a coin at Jube and wobbled away as Spector approached.
“Want a Cry, friend?” the Walrus asked.
Spector picked it up and scanned the headlines. “What? No ‘Hideous Joker Baby Eats Own Head’ story? Must be a slow day.”
The Walrus shrugged, his skin rumpling around his neck. “That’s yesterday’s news. Got to keep current. Everything you want to know is inside.”
Spector set a quarter down and picked up a paper. “If you say so.” He tucked the Cryunder his arm and turned away.
“Do I know you? Something about you seems kind of familiar.”
“Probably not,” Spector replied. “Better if you keep it that way.”
He headed for the Crystal Palace, in spite of the fact that it was a long walk. The Victorian décor wasn’t to his taste, but a man could get a drink or two there and generally be left alone. He’d keep his distance from Sascha the bartender, though. Sascha was an eyeless freak who could get into your head and pick up some thoughts.
A joker crossed the street in front of him. It looked like someone had thrown a greenish-purple tarp over a group of giant scrubbing bubbles. The thing had more legs on either side than Spector could count in the short time he saw it, like a centipede. Other than the noise of legs on the sidewalk it didn’t make a sound. Yep, he definitely needed a drink or three…
Original Fiction from Tor.com