The dock-side markets used to smell of rotted fish no one had bothered to buy earlier in the day. They'd lump it all up in the back and let the birds take it or cut it for bait to make the night's haul. Maybe it still smells that way... it's not like I'd know the difference. Nah, my whole world carries the scent of copper and machine oil with a chaser of whatever sludge they use to tint the gaslines to let you know when there's a leak.
Maybe it was the morphine they pumped into me for the sake of comfort, or maybe I was the sucker born at the right minute, but a metal body to replace failing flesh sounded good at the time. And I guess in the long run it's better than taking the usual road for a guy who lost one fight too many, but how great can my life be when I spend my nights longing for the stink of a rotted haddock?
I turn down Water Street, into what the locals call the Chapels, but there's no church about them. Tiny shacks and pitched up tents around buildings that would fall without poles and posts to hold them up, and each one of them lit with a red lantern to show business is in session. Queen over the place, the Abbess stands outside the main hub, one hand clutching her shawl round her shoulders and the other wound into the shirt of some ponce who tried to run out without payin' his fee.
From the sound of it, he didn't like the look of his dolly once he got her up close... wasn't put off enough to leave elsewhere, mind, just enough not to pay.
"I want a nightmare, I can stay home with my own," he says. "Don't gotta pay there, won't make me do different here." He's trying to pull up his trousers as he goes, but the suspenders are tangled in his feet. "Call a cop if you want to make a deal of it. A'int no blue bottle gonna step into the wasp's nest on account of any of you hags. Chapel's no man's land, and this man's leaving."
He's not the first to call the Abbess a hag, and it's true - she's a fair bit of nightmare, all bones and scabby skin, barely any hair left on her head. But she takes care of her girls, and even if I still had heart to claim there'd be no pity in it for the berk still caught fast in her fingers.
"Don't need no blues," she says, smiling into the shadows where I stand across the street. I don't know how she knows where I am, but her eyes find mine no matter the distance between us. "We got one better."
The Abbess lets go, and the deadbeat tries to run, not realizing that the spider only lets go of the fly if it's sure the fly's not going anywhere.
And that's my cue.
There's a whoosh and whine as the pistons that pump my muscles respond a little slower than my own legs used to, but once they're going they're more than fast enough to make up for the gap. I hear the ground below my feet but don't feel it, hear the iron fingers riveted onto my hands cut the air with a whistle, but there's sense of cool on my skin. I don't have skin, not anymore.
I catch the man up as he runs, lifting him off the ground with one hand to hang by his collar, and he begins to choke from the pressure. I give him a little shake to loosen my grip and make it easier, but instead of curses or blubbering or anything else, I get a tiny snap before he goes rag-doll limp. It wasn't intentional, but I'm still not used to the strength.
"Not 'ow I'd've settled up, but done's done," the Abbess says. She reaches into his pocket for her girl's due, and takes the rest of his money along with it. "No sense lettin' it waste. Once you dump 'im someone's gonna lift it, so it might as well be me, eh?" She actually laughs, showing off surprisingly straight teeth. Then she dips back into the man's coat for his gold pocket watch. "Don' guess 'e'll be needin' to know the time where 'e's gone, either."
She hands the watch off to the red-faced dolly who'd been the man's company earlier in the night. The girl's older than she's painted up to look, with pancake white and baby-doll braids
"For your tears, dearie," the Abbess says, and the girl goes back to her tent, clutching the watch to her bare chest.
I sling the corpse across my shoulders and turn to take it back to the fish dump. The birds can have what they want, and whatever's left by morning won't be much to speak of. If the smell's still what I remember, no one's likely to notice him anyway.
"You shouldn't wait for trouble for an excuse to come to Chapel," the Abbess tells me. "Plen'y of the girls round here miss seein' what's left o'your face. You're good people, more or less."
As close to a compliment as anyone gets out of the Abbess, so I remind myself to chuckle.
She gives me a kiss on the cheek with her leathery lips, but I don't feel it.
I don't feel anything. I guess it's still better than dead.