Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Procession of the dead tct-2

Darren Shan

  Procession of the dead

  ( The City trilogy - 2 )

  Darren Shan

  Darren Shan

  Procession of the Dead

  If The Cardinal pinched the cheeks of his arse, the walls of the city bruised. They were that close, Siamese twins, joined by a wretched, twisted soul.

  He dominated my thoughts as the train chewed through the suburbs, wormed past the warehouses and factories, then slowly braved the shadows of a graveyard of skyscrapers. Enthralled, I pressed my nose to the filthy window and caught a glimpse of Party Central. A brief flash of monstrous majesty, then the gloom claimed all and it was gone. That was where he worked, lived, slept and decided the fate of his cringing millions. Party Central-the heart of the city.

  Stories about The Cardinal were as legion as the corpses buried in the city's concrete foundations. Some were outlandish, some cruel, some spectacular. Like the day he played a pope at chess and won a couple of countries. The president who spent forty days and nights prostrate on the doorsteps of Party Central in supplication for having angered The Cardinal. The actor who was guaranteed an Academy Award if he kissed The Cardinal's ass. The suicide bomber who froze at the last moment when The Cardinal shot him an icy look-they say he cried as he was led away, finger pressed hard on the detonator, unable to release it until he was alone.

  The one that came to mind as the train slowed and switched tracks was a minor tale, but entertaining, insightful and, unlike a lot of the myths, probably true.

  One day a messenger arrived with an important missive from a prince of some oil-rich kingdom. He was escorted to the fifteenth floor for a personal meeting with The Cardinal. This was no mere courier-he was a member of the royal's loyal cabinet, a carefully chosen envoy. He went in and started speaking, eyes to the floor, as was the custom in his country. After a while he glanced up at his host and stopped in shock. The Cardinal was listening but he was also being blown by a hooker. The Cardinal frowned when the messenger stopped and told him to continue. He did but falteringly, stuttering, unable to take his eyes off the naked whore going down on the big boss.

  The Cardinal quickly lost patience and told the mumbler to leave. The messenger took offense and launched into a scolding tirade. The Cardinal lost his rhythm and shot out of his chair, bellowing like a bull. He crossed the room, grabbed the messenger by the lapels and tossed him headfirst out of the window. He sent a note to the prince, telling him not to send any more fools his way, and an invoice to cover the expense of cleaning the mess on the pavement.

  It was the type of cheap story you heard at every newsstand in the city. But I loved it anyway. I loved all of the stories. They were why I'd come here-to emulate The Cardinal and maybe one day build my own sprawling empire of sweet, sinister sin.

  The sky was gray when I alighted from the train and was enfolded by the arms of the city and its guardian Cardinal. I stood my ground a few minutes, letting my fellow passengers stream past, a solitary rock in the river of disembarkation. I tried isolating specific sights, smells and sounds but my eyes, nose and ears kept flicking every which way, taking in everything, focusing on nothing. Only the taste stood out, of dry diesel, hot plastic and wood sap. Bitter but oddly pleasant at the same time.

  As the last few stragglers passed from sight I decided it was time to make a move. There were things to do, people to see and a life to begin. I hoisted my bag and ordered my willing legs into action.

  There was no guard at the gate. I stopped, looked around, ticket held out, a country bumpkin with an ironically unhealthy respect for the law. When nobody came to collect it, I pocketed the stub and kept it for posterity's sake, a memento of my arrival.

  I left the station and entered the grim, gray streets beyond. It would have been depressing any other time. Dull buildings fit only to be demolished, cloud-laden skies, cars and taxis suffocating in their exhaust fumes, pedestrians wheezing and grimacing as they staggered by. But to me, that day, it was vivid and fresh, a canvas to paint my dreams on.

  I looked for a cab but found a miracle instead.

  The crowd drew me. Against that gray, lifeless backdrop they stood out, huddled together, babbling and pointing. I could see the source of their agitation from where I stood by the station's doors, but moved closer to get a better view and be part of the gathering.

  It was an exact, concentrated shower of rain. It fell in a literal sheet, about five feet wide and a couple deep. The drops fell in straight silver lines. I looked up and traced the thin streams to the clouds as if they were strings hanging from massive balloons.

  A woman to my left crossed herself. "It's a waterfall from Heaven," she murmured, wonder in her voice. "More like God taking a leak," a man replied, but the glares of his colleagues silenced the joker and we watched in uninterrupted awe for the next few minutes.

  Just before the shower stopped, a man stepped into it. He was small, dressed in loose white robes, with long hair that trailed down his back and flattened against his clothes under the force of the water. I thought he was just one of the city's many cranks, but then he extended his arms and raised his face to the sky, and I saw he was blind. Pale white orbs glittered where his eyes should have been. He was pale-skinned, and when he smiled his face became one unblemished blob of white, like an actor's painted face in those old silent movies.

  He turned his head left, then right, as if scanning the crowd. I moved closer for a better look and his eyes immediately settled on me. His hands fell by his sides and…

  I'm not sure what happened. It must have been a shadow, or dust in the drops of rain, because all of a sudden his eyes seemed to come to life. One second they were pure white, the next there was a brown spot at the center of each, a spot that flared and spread until the eyes were full.

  He stared at me with the new eyes. He blinked and the brown was still there. His hands lifted toward me and his mouth moved. But before I could cock my ears he stepped out of the rain and back into obscurity. People moved between us and when they parted he was gone.

  Then the rain stopped. A last few drops made the long descent and that was it. The crowd dispersed and people went on their way like nothing had happened. I remained longer than the rest, first checking for the blind man, then in the hope of a repeat performance, but finally I gave up and hailed a taxi.

  The driver asked where I was going. He spoke strangely, accenting lots of words, grimacing whenever he stressed a syllable. I gave him the address but asked him to drive me about a bit first-I wanted to see some of the city. "Your money," he said. "What's it to me what you tourists do? I'll drive you till night if you like. Least, till eight. That's when I knock off." He was a sour sort and didn't make any effort to start a conversation, so I concentrated on the city.

  It soon started raining-ordinary rain this time-and everything was obscured and warped. Street names, houses, traffic lights, scurrying pedestrians-they all looked the same. They blended into an alien landscape and I felt my eyes start to sting. Leaving the sightseeing for another day, I asked the driver to take me home. Home meaning Uncle Theo's place. Theo was the man I'd come to the city to live with. He was going to teach me to be a gangster.

  Theo Boratto had been a gangster of great promise. He made his mark early on, and by the time he was twenty-five he commanded a force of fifty men and was the scourge of the respectable southwest of the city. He was ruthless when he had to be, but fair-you needn't fear him as long as you didn't cross him. Most importantly he had the blessing of The Cardinal. Theo Boratto was a man on the way up, one for the future.

  He was a good home man too. He loved his wife, Melissa, with a passion. He fell in love with her ears first. "She had small ears, Capac," he told me. "Tiny, thin, delic
ate. They broke my heart, just looking at them."

  He wooed her vigorously and, though she wanted nothing to do with his world of violence, he won her. Their wedding made the society pages of all the papers. He spent a fortune to give her the kind of reception she hadn't asked for but which he believed she deserved. The Cardinal himself provided the cake as a present, hiring the city's best baker to design the iced marvel. The band played flawlessly and there wasn't a single clumsy dancer to be found. The women were beautiful in their designer dresses, the men handsome in their tailored suits. It was a day that made you realize what living was all about.

  Their love lasted four wonderful years. Theo still went about his dirty business, burning down houses, breaking limbs, selling drugs, killing when he had to. But he was one of the happiest gangsters the city had ever seen. If you had to be bullied and beaten, there was no finer man than Theo Boratto for the job.

  The only thing missing was a child. And that was when it all went to hell.

  They didn't worry about it in the early days. They were certain a child would come in time. Melissa had faith in God and Theo had faith in the fertile Boratto testicles. But as the months became years, their faith wavered and questions were asked.

  Doctors said they were fine and advised them to keep trying, not to worry, a baby would come along eventually. But years turned, the world changed, and the nursery stayed empty. They tried faith healers, ancient charms and different sexual positions, read every kind of book on the market and watched the videos, prayed and made promises to God. Finally, when they'd almost given up hope, a sturdy seed broke through and made itself a home.

  They threw a wild party when the test came back positive. They moved into a bigger house and bought everything the stores of the city had to offer. Happiness had returned.

  It was a brief visit.

  There were complications with the delivery. A trembling doctor presented Theo with his options-they could save the woman or the child. No maybes, no mights, no false hopes. One would live and one would die. It was up to Theo to choose.

  He nodded slowly, eyes red, heart dead. He had one question-was it a boy or a girl? The doctor told him it was male. "Save the baby," Theo said, the last words he would utter for many months.

  His wife was buried before his child was christened, and Theo's soul went with her. He was a broken man afterward, prone to fits of depression. The child might have been his savior, the light to bring him through the darkness, but fate robbed him even of that. The baby was a weak, scrawny thing. It came into this world on the shoulders of death, and death hovered ominously over the child. The doctors kept the dark gatherer at bay for a fragile seven months, but then he was returned to his beautiful, cute-eared mother, having spent more of his short life within her womb than without.

  Theo let things slide. Money seeped out of his hands and into those of greedy, enterprising others. His house was repossessed, his cars, jewelry, clothes. The last deliberate act he committed in those days of descent was to give the child's toys away to charity before someone ran off with them. There was that much left in him that gave a damn. That much and no more.

  Starvation and harsh winters forced him back into work. He did enough to eat and pay for a moldy single room in the cheapest motel he could find. Nothing which required thought. He gutted fish in factories by the docks until the stench got him evicted from his most humble abode. He sold fruit and vegetables in a cheap street market, sometimes flowers. After five or six years, he returned to a life of crime, going along as an extra on thefts and break-ins. It was a long way from dining with The Cardinal and walking the hallowed halls of Party Central. But Theo didn't care. It kept him fed and warm. That was enough.

  Then, inevitably, a theft went wrong. He was apprehended, tried, sent down for eighteen months. Prison remade him. He took to thinking during his long days of incarceration. He saw where his life was stuck, what he had become, and made up his mind to change. He knew he'd never overcome his grief entirely. He doubted if he could ever be truly happy, or rise as high as he'd been before. But there was middle ground. He didn't have to be this low. If he wasn't going to do the simple thing and kill himself, he might as well do the decent thing and carve out a life worth the effort of living.

  He made contacts, talked his way into deals and scams, made sure he had something to go to when he left, jobs which would lead to others and start the ball rolling again. It took years to pull himself back up. The big guns didn't trust him-he'd cracked once, they figured, and might again. He was a risk. But he kept at it, moved from one job to another, proved his worth, clawed his way up the ladder until he was in a position to put forward ideas and initiate his own deals. He employed a few thugs, bought a couple of suits, invested in guns and was back in business.

  He built it up over the next few years, expanding his territory, crushing weaker opponents, advancing slowly but surely. When he felt secure, he decided to bring in an heir, someone to carry on when he was gone. In the absence of a son he chose one of his many nephews. He spent a few months sizing them up, then settled for one with a touch of the wicked in his features, with what might prove to be steel in his blood, with a will to succeed at any cost. The nephew he chose was Capac Raimi. Me.

  Theo wanted to be angry with me for arriving late, and he was scowling as the cab pulled away, stranding me at the foot of the house. But he was too excited to remain hostile, and by the time I was halfway up the steps he was grinning like a kid at a birthday party.

  He threw his arms around my body and clutched me tightly. For a small, skinny guy he had a lot of strength. When he released me I was astonished to see him weeping. That was one thing I hadn't expected from a hardened, twice-come gangster like Theo Boratto. He wiped the tears away with a trembling hand and sobbed, "My boy, my boy." Then, sniffling and smiling weakly, he led me into the house, shutting the door gently behind us.

  In the sitting room, with the lights up full and a real log fire spitting tongues of flame up the chimney, I got my first good look at him. It had been years since our last encounter. I could hardly remember what he looked like. It was as if we were meeting for the first time.

  There wasn't much to him. He was no more than five foot six, slim, very haggard. There was a part in his hair that Moses would have been proud of, a long stretch of skull with a few brownish spots. The hair at the sides was gray and smartly cut. He blinked a lot, eyes of an owl, and it was nearly impossible at times to see the globes behind the shutters. He was clean-shaven, with the shining skin of a man who shaved at least twice a day. His suit was conservative. Light leather shoes, a red handkerchief ornamentally placed in the upper left pocket. The perfect picture of a stereotype gangster. All he was missing was the slit-skirt moll with a sneer and a drooping cigarette.

  "What do you think of the city?" he asked when we were comfortable.

  "Couldn't see much of it," I admitted. "It was raining."

  "It's huge," he said. "Growing all the time, like a cancer." He paused, maybe thinking of death and Melissa. "I'm glad to see you, Capac. I've been alone so long. I always hoped I'd have a son to take over, but things didn't… You know the story.

  "Things have been bleak ever since," he continued. "I don't mean the business-that's grown nicely. I'm talking about family. Family's what really matters. I've been alone since Melissa. My brothers never followed me into the business. They went to college, got proper jobs, real lives. We were never close. My sisters… they write me now and again." He shook his head sadly. "I'm a lonely old man. Nobody to live with, nobody to live for." He leaned forward, patted my knee and smiled. "Until now.

  "What do you drink?" he asked, getting up. "Tea, coffee, wine?"

  "A beer if it's going."

  "Always!" He laughed and fetched a couple of bottles from the fridge. I gulped most of mine with one thirsty swig and sighed happily. It seemed an eternity since my last one. Theo went slower on his, making it last.

  "How old are you, Capac?" he asked shortly af
ter I'd started my second bottle. "Twenty-seven, twenty-eight?"


  "A good age. Not too old to teach, nor young enough to be a nuisance. One of the reasons I chose you. Not the only one-I wasn't about to pick my successor solely on account of his age!-but a factor.

  "It's a hard business," he said seriously. "I don't know what your expectations are, but it's not glamorous. The higher you rise, the glossier it gets. But we're at the lower end. Most of our money comes from protection. We threaten people-small shop owners and businessmen-and collect cash in return for not busting up their premises. If they don't pay, we have to make an example of them. It's about violence. Whatever else we profess to be, at the core we're violent people.

  "But although we're an illegal business, we are a business. We account to the taxman like everybody else, so we have to keep books they can find no fault with. Neglect the paperwork and they'll be on us like jackals.

  "There are employees to take care of. We've got expenses, overheads and legal fronts to maintain. It's a hell of a lot harder than running a legitimate business. The bigger teams can afford sharp lawyers to handle that for them, but not us-we have to do it ourselves, be everything, hood, lawyer, businessman, clerk. The profits can be high but only if you run things right, if you don't screw up and leave yourself open to attacks from the law or your opponents. Or The Cardinal." He stopped, cocked a finger at me and said, "Never fuck with The Cardinal, Capac. Never. Don't muscle in on his territory, don't challenge even his lowest lackey. If one of his men asks to be cut in on a deal you spent months setting up and perfecting, you agree like a shot, even if it means taking a loss. The Cardinal runs everything and owns everybody. A lot of young men get a bit of power, some money and start thinking, 'That Cardinal ain't so tough-we can take him.'

  "Those young men die. I'll say it again, so there's no confusion-don't fuck with The Cardinal. Steer clear of his crew as much as you can. If your paths cross, show them all due respect. Because if The Cardinal ever gets on your back, he'll ride you into an early grave. No surer thing."