THE LIARS OF THE LAUGHING CITY - RICHARD GODWIN
I waited for the sound to die down. The screaming had gone on all night, my first night in the Laughing City. I was there on a job, the remit to assassinate Artemus Lime.
No one had heard of him, and he had not been sighted since his murder of the president. Their lies dripped from their tongues like semen from a hooker. Not that I cared, another lying politician out of the way.
The case had been chewed over and effectively buried by the press, since it had coincided with the leak about the missing millions.
Yes, the president had siphoned off a sizeable chunk of the economy. So sizeable that the hungry mobs on the streets committed more murders in yet more savage fashion. Women were raped and mutilated, their body parts sold off to fast food chains that had no other supplies for the hamburgers the soup kitchens fed the workers on. The lies here were worse than those back home. The whole place stank of dead flesh and cover up.
The city was a mess. Anyone out after dark risked dismemberment. And thanks to the president, there was no police force. Only the extremely wealthy were protected by private security firms who shot on sight.
As the cold grey dawn rose like a leper, I looked out at the horizon of the Laughing City and wondered how it had got its name. I hadn’t heard laughter in years. Back home it was bomb blasts and bullshit.
I poured a protein drink and ran through the quickest way of finding and killing him.I’d start at the downtown bars. Lime had a reputation for liking prostitutes and there were some really tasty ones, I heard. The mutations which resulted from the last dirty bomb were endless and threw up some surprising sexual combinations, for those with a taste for that kind of thing.
Artemus Lime, bounty hunter and killer, space nomad and politicians’ whore. If the money was right he’d do it.
I’d heard he was a multi-hole man. I guess it beat golf.
I hired a shuttle downtown and watched as the light changed to that opaque, colourless fog that characterised the poorer parts. The stench of rotting flesh was overpowering. They still hadn’t cleaned up many of the body parts after the last explosion. Silver crows and lizard dogs scavenged in the trash for human parts, chasing each other for bits of spleen and ruptured kidney. The crows usually won, tearing strips from the dogs’ balls.
I found the place I was looking for, my only lead.
‘Horny Holes Fuck House’ loomed out at me beyond the spare rib kitchen. The carcasses hanging outside certainly didn’t look animal.
Felix Baw had been typically unforthcoming with me. I’d worked for him before and he came across as if he despised everyone he employed, giving them only the barest of facts about a case and expecting them to get on with it. Baw, child of the Laughing City.
I got out of the shuttle and a pimp in a white suit walked up to me.
‘Hole or hat? We got em all, juicy hole, multi-hole, can do a hat job if you like, drugs, have you tried free spurt? Come in, we got some inside, want to see my ladies?’
‘I’m looking for someone.’
‘Yeah, I got. Free spurt?’
‘I don’t need it.’
‘You try, you like. Guaranteed.’
I wasn’t about to blow my brains on a plutonium enriched smoke that would give me cosmic come and turn me into one of the gibbering wrecks I now saw walking toward me.
‘How about hat job?’
‘I thought it was illegal, even out here.’
‘We don’t blow all brain into hat for fuck, just some of it, use smaller hat so some brain go on floor, and dancer can do dirty stuff to em.’
I felt like hitting him. ‘Might as well sell a bag of warm vomit.’
‘I do good deal.’
‘I’m going in there,’ I said and pointed to the fuck house.
The pimp switched on his really upset look, but I wasn’t buying.
‘No. I got better ones, come see.’
I walked on, dodging the beggar.
Inside, it was dark and stank of mustard for some reason. Someone or something grabbed my arm.
Adjusting to the light, I made out a hybrid lady with several eyes and tits the size of rocket launchers.
‘I’m looking for someone,’ I said.
‘You find her,’ she said, wiggling her arse at me.
I showed her the picture.
‘Ooh, he real ugly. I no fuck with him,’ she said. ‘Come on, I give you good one.’
She was trying to drag me upstairs when a man dressed only in shorts and with a belly the size of a large animal kicked her so hard she jumped several feet in the air and crashed against the bar.
The blind barman dropped a glass and the only customer sitting there tried to help her up, grabbing hold of one of her tits by mistake.
‘Get off me, you fuck. You pay touch.’
‘Can I help?’ Fatso said.
‘I’m looking for this man,’ I said, and showed him the picture.
He rubbed his chin. ‘Mmm, look familiar. Yes, I have seen this man before. Now, where was it?’
I put a hundred then another one in his palm.
‘Much more for address,’ he said.
I kept throwing them at him, all expenses of course, and eventually he wrote it down on a slip of paper.
‘0 Screech Avenue.’
‘Sure, why not?’ he said. ‘You go. See if I give you bad dose, come back fuck my ladies.’
‘Just one question.’
‘What’s that smell?’
He sniffed the air and then held his arms up. ‘What smell?’
‘Smells like mustard.’
He snorted. ‘Not mustard. P2.’
I was out of there and in the shuttle.
P2 had been developed by Panacea Drugs, which had a monopoly on all medical supplies. It was a chemical specifically designed to wipe out the smell of rotting flesh.
Horny Holes Fuck House should have had ‘Necrophiliacs Welcome’ in neon lights underneath it.
As it was, Screech Avenue turned out to be a good lead. Fatso had been worth the talk. Number 0 was harder to find, located just at the intersection of a shop selling weapons parts and a derelict house. From the street you couldn’t see it, camouflaged as all zeros were, hence their popularity. But when you looked from the air, there it was, all gleaming pole and glass metal.
I took the flier up and saw it the first time. That’s always the way with zeros, if you don’t see them straight off, they use their programmed disguises to throw you off the scent. Popular with all killers and politicians, they had been snatched up when first built and were prime real estate.
I wasn’t going to waste any more time than I had to.
I assembled an A1 bomb back at my hotel and returned at nightfall, just as the tribes were crawling out of the sewers.
The smell of shit and menses was overpowering and after checking to see if any lights were visible from the flier and deciding that even if Lime was in, he wouldn’t be that obvious, I just blew the door off.
Shards of glass and burning metal swept across the street like a tornado, catching in the flesh of the tribes who had now surfaced. Heads and limbs flew through the air as their mouths, stuffed with scraps of human meat, dropped their goodies on the floor and salivated long thick shreds of drool onto their wasted hands. They shrieked like slaughtered animals and ran back into their shelters.
I put out the blaze and entered his place.
Typical assassin’s pad: metal furniture and nothing on display. I mean nothing. Like a display hotel room. No pictures on the wall, no personal effects, save one: a monitor on the wall giving read outs of activity across the city. I flicked the screen: it was focused on the spaceport.
He knew I was here.
Back at my hotel I considered my options and knew that the lead was squandered. I decided to check out in the morning and go underground. This was going to take longer than expected, and I would need more expenses.
I tried Baw, but it was a no go.
Black-out had fallen down below: another terrorist strike.
Except that night, Lime came looking for me.
He obviously wanted this out of the way.
I knew he was a busy man and his services much in demand. I was in the bathroom when I heard the door open.
Through the crack in the sealant I saw his shape move against the wall. He was making his way into the bedroom. I engaged my weapon and crept out after him.
Just as I lined his head up, he turned and the blast caught his ear, shooting it off and making him jump. He leapt through the window and landed down below without difficulty. From the window I saw him disappear.
He had dropped something, a scrap of paper. It made interesting reading. It was a job sheet, ordering my assassination, signed by Felix Baw. Agent: Artemus Lime.
I knew what I had to do.
Staying underground was easy. Second nature. Finding Lime was harder.
And all the time the laughter got louder, more insistent.
At times as I paced the city I wondered whether it was more a cackle than a laugh. At other times it sounded like a guffaw, then it would trill into a melodious giggle, like a little girl’s. Sometimes in the middle of the night you would hear a booming laugh, then in the morning a gentle titter. The noise started to drive me crazy and I was no nearer to finding Lime.
Baw was inaccessible. No surprise there. I kept trying him so that he wouldn’t suspect I knew. The lies mounted up like spare flesh.
Then, one day, one of my leads paid off.
The owner of a weapons shop Lime used called me. I gave him the money and he showed me straight to him: in an apartment at the back of some government buildings.
Artemus Lime was a government man.
It all made sense.
The ease with which the President’s assassination had been forgotten, Baw’s sudden interest in hiring me. He’d made a lot since the assassination, and there was something I obviously knew which bothered him. What?
Meantime, I took care of Lime.
My source said he often took delivery at nights and after a few hours waiting, I watched as an armoured van arrived and two guys went in. After they left, I silently walked down the government corridors and stopped outside his flat. This time I would use a blaster. I had no questions to ask.
The A1 blew the door off, and I saw Lime jump up at the back of the flat and race toward his weapon. I shot him from the blazing doorway, a good first shot that took his head off, spraying brain matter and tissue right across the hallway. It was a pointillist effect and quite becoming to the apartment, which needed a little cheering up, all metal surfaces and nothing homey about it.
As I walked over to him, Lime lay twitching like an insect in a pool of blood. One arm reached uselessly across the wet floor. I think he was looking for his head, which lay in bits several feet away. You only get one shot at me, and he failed. His neck was still showering the flat and it was a little messy, so I just burned him up and looked around the place for any evidence which might be useful, but found nothing.
‘Bye, Lime,’ I said. ‘Can’t shut your door, but I guess they’ll find you in the morning. Hope the tribes enjoy what’s left of you. I don’t know if they like it barbecued.’
I spent one more night in the Laughing City, convinced that the noise was getting louder.
That is, apparently, one of its effects, the volume.
It’s personal, you see, a strangely hallucinogenic experience.
Some people hear a titter, some a whine, but it’s different every time. It doesn’t always start with laughter, as with me. After the screaming, the laughter came at first as a welcome relief. But then it got louder and louder until by the last night it just sounded like an audience roaring at a joke I’d missed.
I went out for dinner and every road echoed with it. At times obscene, at times gentle, it followed me like a beggar.
The waiter must have noticed my disquiet. As I paid, he said, ‘Everything all right, sir?’
‘That obvious?’ I said.
‘Food no good?’
‘Food was fine. It’s the laughter that’s getting me down.’
‘Oh, you get used to it. Tribes are out tonight.’
‘How do you get used to it? Why the Laughing City?’
‘You don’t know? Oh, well, after the war, you know the old one, when the first wave of mutants were created, the noise at night was terrible. Screaming, choking, all night, drove you mad. When people first heard them scream, they didn’t know how they could make so much noise. You take a good look at the tribes tonight when you leave here. Most tourists don’t see them, but have a good long look at them. The noise was terrible, the screaming as they found survivors and dismembered them, tore them apart, flesh scattering everywhere, disgusting, never have that in my restaurant. So they keyed it in.’
‘They run it on a loop. Sometimes, when the tribes are quiet it go down. And sometimes, it get louder and louder when they really tear bodies apart. Then the noise is much worse, you prefer the laughing if you stay here, believe me.’
‘It’s a disc,’ I said.
‘We need tourist. Tourist like it.’
On my way back to my hotel, I saw a tribe descend onto the street like a pack of animals. Their teeth were red with the proceeds of their night’s feasting, blood dripping from their fangs and splattering the road. They’d obviously been on a feeding frenzy, and must have found fresh supplies, even though I hadn’t heard any blasts, but then the laughter would have covered it up. Chunks of flesh were scattered around the street like debris, and as I got into the shuttle, I had a good look. I’d seen the fangs, but there was something I’d missed: not obvious, especially since you only ever got to see them in the gloom of nightfall.
It was as the shuttle sped away that one of them turned its head and that was when I saw it: they had no ears. The mutations had left them without hearing. Only something stone deaf could scream like that.
Now I knew why it was called the Laughing City.
I spent a final night in it, driven mad by the noise and left the next morning.
The silence back home was a welcome relief, and as I got the news, Baw’s plan made sense.
He had financed his own army, a bunch of renegades mostly, and was rounding up all vagrants and criminals and sending them off to the camps. That was why he wanted me dead: I’d worked for him before and he was always a satisfied customer, inasmuch as satisfaction was discernible in the limited range of his human responses. But my criminal record from the old regime was the blot in my copybook and he wanted it to go away.
Baw had plans, all right, and the President had been sitting in his chair.
I knew most of the recruits, having trained and worked with them. I also knew they were mercenaries and only wanted the money. The army was in its infancy and hadn’t even got running yet. But it needed to be stopped.
I knew these guys and knew they had no loyalty to Baw.
And so I took him out.
Guys like him are easy. They never see it coming. He didn’t even know I was back.
I marched right into his office, past the secretary who always waved me on, and found him seated at his desk. Looking up from his computer, he let out a gasp. Even his shock looked like a lie.
‘Surprise,’ I said, and blew his brains across the four walls, leaving them to dry a little.
I collected my pay from his bank account, which took a little hacking into to get, and then proceeded to issue instructions from his office to disband the army.
They all got paid, of course, with a little bonus.
And that’s how I got to keep my friends on my return from the Laughing City.
BIO: Richard Godwin lives and writes in London, where his dark satire ‘The Cure-All’, about a group of confidence tricksters, has been produced on the stage. He has just finished writing a crime novel.
From UNDER THE SKIN
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