THE MAN WHO MELTED
By JACK DANN Prometheus Books Copyright © 2007 Pyr
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59102-487-3
Raymond Mantle took a flyer to Naples, the fallen city. It looked as grim as he felt. Nemesius, one of Mantle's many sources, said that a woman fitting Josiane's description had been located here. He couldn't be sure, of course, because his informatore
had mysteriously disappeared. After all, Naples had become a dangerous place since it had fallen to the Screamers.
But Mantle had to find his wife, Josiane. Nothing else was important.
He had lost her during the Great Scream, when the screaming mobs tore New York City apart, leaving thousands dead and countless others roving about like the mind-deadened victims of a concentration camp. With the exception of a few childhood memories, he couldn't remember her after the Great Scream. It was as if she had been ripped from his memory. Mantle's amnesia was not total; he could summon up certain incidents and remember every detail and everyone involved except Josiane. She inhabited his memory like a shadow, an emptiness, and he was obsessed with finding her, with remembering. She held the key to his past. She was the element that had burned out, plunging his past into darkness.
Nemesius' man, Melzi, met Mantle in the crowded Piazza Trento e Trieste, and they walked north on the Via Roma, past a gang of sciuscias-half-naked street arabs with implanted male and female genitalia on their arms and chests. It was not yet dark, but the huge kliegs were on, illuminating the alleyways in harsh whites and yellows-as if bright light could prevent a Screamer attack. Police vans passed back and forth through the noisy crowds of elemosina, those on the dole. They lived in the streets and on the beltways, in gangs and clans and families. During the rush hours, this street would look like a battle zone. But even here, even now, old, familiar scenes caught Mantle's eyes: the shoeblacks and hurdy-gurdies and glowworms; the refreshment kiosks where a narcodrine could be sniffed for a few lire; the holographically projected faces of the holy saints which hung in the damp air like paper masks; and the ever-present venditores who sold talking Bibles and varied selections of religious memorabilia blessed by the Pope and sanctioned by the Vatican Collective which ruled the country. There were still strings of lemons hanging in shop windows; and lemon ices were being sold, as were jettatura charms, the coral horns and little bones everyone used to wear to ward off the evil eye. Now they were worn as protections from Screamers.
Here beat the heart of Naples, along the narrow, broken streets and crowded piazzas. Not far from here, though, small bands of Screamers still roamed, the last remnants of the mobs that had almost destroyed the city.
"We're going into the Old Spacca Quarter," Melzi said. He was a small man with thinning gray hair and a very clean-shaven face; he looked more like a clerk than a bodyguard. Most of the other men and women Mantle had to contact in the past were more obviously sleazy; they had the psychic smell of the streets all over them. "The woman who may be your wife is near Gesu Nuovo, off the Via Capitelli. Not a safe neighborhood. But we should not have any trouble finding the building. It is the only one that is not burned on the outside."
"Another one of Nemesius' whorehouses?" Mantle asked.
"We might as well walk," Melzi said, ignoring Mantle's sarcasm. "The beltways are not in good condition hereabouts, and we won't find a cab that will take us into Spacca."
Although they were still in a relatively safe area, Mantle was nervous. His whole being was focused on the remote possibility of finding Josiane; everything else was white noise. He was as haunted as the street arabs around him.
"You can still turn around and go home," Melzi said. "If the woman is a phony, I will know it." Mantle did not respond, and Melzi shrugged.
After they had worked their way through the crowds for several more blocks, Mantle asked, "How much farther?"
"You'll see, we are almost there," Melzi said. He carried his heat weapon openly now. Mantle kept his hands in his pockets; he always carried a pistol when he had to be on the streets.
The Via Roma, along which they were still walking, became less crowded. When they crossed over into Spacca, they found the alleyways and narrow buildings almost empty. Everything was dirty; ahead were the burned buildings scourged by Screamers.
A small, dangerous-looking crowd gathered behind Mantle and Melzi. Mantle took his pistol out of his pocket.
"Not to worry yet," Melzi said. "They're not Screamers. As long as they are behind us, we are relatively safe. They're nothing but avvoltoio." He spat the word.
"Stinking birds. Scavengers."
"Vultures," Mantle said.
"Yes, that's it," Melzi said. "Now, if we engage a crowd up ahead, then we might be in trouble. But we are armed, and I would burn the lot of them. It would not be worth it for them to attack us. Some of them know me; they would not get anything of worth. You see"-Melzi extended his free arm and fluttered his fingers-"not even a ring. I have beautiful rings, that is my weakness. Especially diamonds, which are my birthstone. I wear one upon every finger, even the thumb." He made a vulgar gesture. "I might feel naked, but I'm not worried yet. Would you like to see them? My rings?"
"Yes, perhaps," Mantle said, annoyed. The crowd following Mantle and Melzi was unnaturally quiet; it unnerved Mantle.
"Maybe later," Melzi said. "If we do not have the luck to find your little bird."
Mantle fantasized smashing the little man's face. God, how he hated them all. All the filth from the streets. But if he could find Josiane tonight, it would be worth all the Melzis in the world.
"If the trash behind us were Screamers, then I would be worried," Melzi said. "You never know with them. They walk about in their little groups, looking just like the filth behind us. Then all of a sudden they decide to scour the street and you're dead. They're like junkies; you can burn them, fill them up with bullets, but nothing seems to stop them. And you can't even find them again, they just disappear. They're like centipedes, all those legs and one head." Melzi laughed at that, as if it were an original thought. Again he laughed, almost a titter. "I can smell them, you know. They smell different from elemosina or avvoltoio. Not like trash, just sick. You smell all right, of course. But there's a whiff, I don't know-"
"Shut up," Mantle snapped.
"Oh, I am sorry if I have hurt your feelings. Certainly, I did not mean any disrespect. Will you forgive me?"
They turned onto the Via Croce. A group of prostitutes, all hideously fat, sat on the steps of a palazzo and shouted, "Succhio, succhio," as Mantle and Melzi passed. Melzi shouted obscenities back; he was more animated, nervous. There was much slave-marketeering hereabouts. Whores and old people, and especially children, were kidnapped and sold to those who would pay to hook-into their brains and taste their experiences, their lives. The black market catered to the rich. The dole was virtually nonexistent here; survival was the business of the day. Police and the other arms of government would not be found in these parts. This was free country.
"Now we must be a little careful, because this neighborhood is not so good," Melzi said. He made the gesture of being shackled by crossing his wrists. "Many slavers hereabouts; they look just like anybody. We would fetch a good price," he said preening himself. "I can imagine that you would be delicious to hook-into."
Someone shouted; there was another scream. There was a fight ahead in the square of Gesu Nuovo. Men and women and children were brawling, it seemed, over small metal canisters of some sort-perhaps food or drugs. Mantle glanced behind him; only a few avvoltoio were following, but still they made him nervous.
"We have a stroke of luck," Melzi said. "The fight will draw the avvoltoio and we can attend to our business."
"How close are we?" Mantle asked, excited.
"We are there, you see, that's it." He pointed to a palazzo which actually looked whitewashed, a miracle in these parts.
"It is quite famous," Melzi said. "Like the Crazy Horse near where you live."
"I don't think you can compare-"
"What's the difference, except for the neighborhood? This palazzo is an attraction because of the neighborhood. Here you can find interesting pleasures; polizia do not make problems here." Melzi looked at the women fighting in the square and made a clucking noise of disapproval as he watched a young woman being disemboweled in the quaint broken fountain. Mantle hesitated, but Melzi took him by the arm; the little man was deceptively strong. "We are here to find your little bird, that's all."
As they neared the palazzo, the streets became crowded once again. It was like stepping into another, albeit dangerous, country, into an international oasis amid the lowlife of the street. Mantle could see well-dressed, and well-guarded, men and women stepping quickly among the street arabs, hawkers, pimps, and other assorted street people. One dignitary was actually enclosed in a glassite litter that was shouldered by four uniformed men.
A woman approached Melzi, and he burned a hole in her throat. Mantle lunged for Melzi's weapon, but Melzi deftly pulled it out of reach and continued to walk. Elemosina stepped over the dying woman as if she were a rock in the road.
"Scum," Mantle said, drawing away from Melzi. His flesh was crawling. "Murderer!"
"Now calm yourself," Melzi said, as if he were a bank clerk explaining why he couldn't accept a customer's credit. "That was just a precaution. She had evil thoughts in mind."
"Could you smell those, too?"
"You are not in Cannes, Signore," Melzi said. "And do not think you are safe here or now. Without me, it is doubtful whether you would ever get out of here alive, much less find your wife. Now do you forgive me? When last I asked, you ignored me." Melzi was playing him, and Mantle knew it. But he was so close. All that really mattered was Josiane. "Well ...?" Melzi asked.
"I forgive you," Mantle said, as if he were spitting up raw meat. Nemesius will pay for this, he thought.
"Thank you," Melzi said, not pressing it further.
Mantle followed Melzi, who walked past the white palazzo. The building was high and imposing; it was formed in the style of a Florentine palace, complete with rich embossing, curved frontons, projecting cornices, and ringed columns, most of which were broken or cracked.
"Where are you going?" Mantle asked, noticing that it was growing dark. They walked along a cobblestone close, which Mantle was afraid might also be a dead end. Could Melzi and Nemesius have set him up? Mantle felt a touch of panic. No, he told himself. He had dealt with Nemesius for too long.
"This is the best way to get in," Melzi said, "although I must admit, this alleyway does look dangerous." He pounded on a heavy, inlaid door. The door opened, but not before Mantle glimpsed that the shadows under the broken klieg at the end of the alley were moving.
"Meet Vittorio," Melzi said to Mantle as they entered a large pantry filled with canisters of foodstuffs and, from the look of it, rats. Vittorio was swarthy and as short as Melzi. He had almost transparent green eyes; waxed, curly hair; a kinky, short-cropped beard; and he wore a stained serge suit. He was missing a front tooth. Yet he bore himself as if he were presiding over a parliament of rich and respected nubiluomo.
"Buona sera." Then Melzi slipped him a package and Vittorio nodded to Mantle, mumbled, "Mi scusi," and walked off, presumably to hold court with the rats and kitchen cats.
"Well, come on," Melzi said. "He's going ahead to prepare her."
"Who is he?" Mantle asked.
"He's the proprietor, a very famous man. Don't be fooled by his teeth, he has many affectations. He owns this place and many more. And as you can see, he watches over his interests. That's the secret of success, is it not?"
Mantle followed Melzi out of the room and into a long, well-lit corridor. There was almost a hospital smell hereabouts, and Mantle shuddered, thinking of what might be going on behind closed doors. Josiane must be here, he told himself. He had to find her this time.
"We're taking a shortcut," Melzi said. "We're safer here than in the main rooms, which are, of course, much more interesting. But then that's the allure of a place such as this, is it not? I'm willing to bet you'd run into a pal in one of those rooms. You'd be surprised who risks the streets for a night at Vittorio's."
They took an elevator to the top story. Mantle was afraid of elevators; they symbolized his life, which he could not control. They were driven, it seemed, by unseen forces. Once inside the box, you had to trust the machine. And the machine didn't care if it worked or not.
"You make it very hard for Nemesius, you know," Melzi said. "He has nothing but a few hollies of your little bird."
"The records were burned."
"Yes, how lucky for you Americans. Most of you got a second chance. Wiped the slates clean, so to speak. What I wouldn't give for such an accident."
"Come on, Melzi."
"One last thing, Signore," Melzi said. "You must remember that Vittorio is just a middleman, just like Nemesius. Just like me. It seems we've all become middlemen in these times." Melzi smiled at that, obviously satisfied with his philosophizing. "And you must also remember that there are no guarantees."
"I'll know if it's her," Mantle said.
They stopped at the end of the hallway and Melzi rapped twice on a metal door, which Vittorio opened. "She's right in here."
The room was a cell. It smelled of urine, contained an open toilet, a wall sink, a discolored bidet, a filthy mattress on the metal floor, a computer console and a psyconductor with its cowls and mesh of wires, and a wooden folding chair. On the pallet lay Josiane, or a woman who looked exactly like her. She was naked and perspiring heavily. Mantle almost cried, for her face and small breasts were black and blue. Her hair was blonde and curly, although it was matted with dirt and clotted blood. She looked up at him, her limpid eyes as blue as his own; but she was looking through him, through the walls and the world, and back into the dark places of her mind.
"Well," Melzi said, sharing a glance with Vittorio, "that certainly looks like your little bird."
"Here are her papers," Vittorio said to Mantle in an American accent, which was the current fashion; and then he passed Mantle a large envelope. But Mantle just held it; he was lost. His memory was jarred, and he slipped back to the first time, in the old house in Cayuga, when there were still spruce and fir covering the mountain. But he didn't care about trees then. He was fourteen and Josiane was eleven-but developed for her age-and she came into his room and they lay on the bed and talked and she jerked him off as she had done since she was eight or nine, and he rolled over on top of her, stared steadily into her face and entered her. Then stopped, as if tasting some kind of delicious, warm ice cream, and they just stared at each other, moving up and down, breath only slightly quickened. It was more a way of talking.
Another memory came back to him: the face of a young woman in a crowd. The same face as the woman on the mattress.
"Signore, come back to the world," Vittorio said, and Melzi chuckled.
Mantle shook his head as if he had slipped from one world to another and mumbled, "Josiane." Then he rushed to the psyconductor, grabbed two cowls from the top of the console, and lunged toward her, intent on hooking into her thoughts; but Melzi caught him and pulled him away. "Are you that determined to burn your brain?" Melzi asked. "At least let me look at her first."
"We have many customers who wish to hook-into Screamers," Vittorio said. "But they must pay first. It's a policy of the house."
Melzi squatted beside the woman and examined her with an instrument that projected a superimposed holographic image of Josiane over her face. After several minutes, he raised the magnification and disappeared the holographic image.
"Whoever did this work was a real artist," Melzi said. "Her face corresponds exactly to the hollie. But you see, right there?" He indicated a dry area just below her earlobe. "You see, the pores are open everywhere else but in that tiny spot." He raised the magnification several more powers. "There you can see the faint thread of a suture. A recent job. He should have been just a little more careful and covered that up."
Excerpted from THE MAN WHO MELTED by JACK DANN Copyright © 2007 by Pyr. Excerpted by permission.
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