Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 24

As we walk through the streets I look around me. The city is busy and I can see people of every kind, including many more visk than you would see on an average Parnell street, coloured from grey brown through to green, all them wearing robes. I spot two echobacks by a shop opposite and I stop in my tracks.

"What?" The Captain asks as stare across the street at them.

"Look, echoback girls." I point at them. "I've never seen one before."

They notice me staring and one turns to the other, says something, and they both giggle.

"Come on." He puts his hand on my lower back and pushes gently. "Before you find yourself with a date."

A few streets later we arrive at a set of steps overlooking a large open square filled with hundreds of stalls selling everything imaginable.

"This is called Angel Square." Quint says, pointing up toward a statue of a winged man holding a sword standing high above the crowds on the top of a tall stone column. It's the same man as the picture on the coins I took.

"It's fairly safe here in daylight. I'm going to leave you here while I go and meet with our paymasters, I'll see you back here in one hour, there's plenty of clocks for you to keep track of time on." He points to the buildings around us. "Here's some money." He pulls a handful of coins out of his pocket and counts out five. "If you decide to buy yourself something to eat make very sure what it is first, the locals have a fondness for fried insects."

"Are you joking?" I ask.

"Unfortunately not. Don't go too far from here and don't go off with any strangers."

"I'm not a child, I've lived by myself in a city for the last year." I protest.

"I know you think you can take care of yourself but this is Kipp. Oh, and watch out for the street children, they're evil little buggers, rob you blind and stick a knife in you just to see you bleed given half a chance."

"Yes Captain, I won't eat any bugs, talk to strangers or go near the bad children."

He quirks an eyebrow at me but says nothing, then leans in and kisses me on the mouth, much to my surprise. When he's finished I look around, but no one seems in the slightest bit bothered, and he laughs at me.

"I'd have to do a lot worse than that to shock the locals. If you came down here at night you'd see things going on in public that aren't even legal in private in other places." And with that he's gone, shouting "Don't be late!" over his shoulder to me.

Waiting until he's out of sight I take Topher's money bag out of my pocket and add the coins he gave me to it. All together I now have twelve Kipp dollars, but what I don't know is how much that is worth.

I look around me, I can't imagine any of the numerous stalls in the square being a telegraph office, but maybe someone down there could tell me where the nearest one is so I descend the steps to start my search for somewhere to send a wire from. I feel a little nervous of just stopping a passer by, but if I purchase something I can ask the stall holder, at least I'll know they will be from here and I'll have a fair chance of them pointing me in the right direction.

There's an amazing choice of things to buy and services on offer, at one stall a woman sits behind a typewriter with a sign saying she'll type any letter or document for a fee, next to her is a tattooist with sheets of designs pinned up on boards around his booth, he smiles at me when he sees me looking at them. "What do you fancy lad? How 'bout a nice eagle on your chest, or a leaping tiger on your arm, show the girls how brave you are." He calls out, and I move on quickly. I find a stall selling sticky looking pastries, they seem safe enough and don't appear to contain any insects, but I ask the woman behind it just in case.

"No love." She laughs. "Just eggs, sugar, flour and butter. Oh, and worms of course."

I'm not sure if she's being serious.

"I'm pulling your leg love." She says grinning. "Which sort do you want?"

I point at one with white icing that looks something like the sort Vio brings into the office when she's in a good mood.

"That'll be a quarter." She says handing it to me wrapped in a square of paper.

A quarter of a what? I give her one of my coins, hoping it's enough, and that it's not far too much.

"Here you go." She passes me back a handful of smaller coins that I drop into my pocket. I turn to go then remember the whole reason I bought the pastry in the first place.

"Um...is there a telegraph office around here where I can send a wire?" I ask.

"You need to go up to Bridge Street for that, take the north steps out of the square, make a left at the crossroads, go over to the other side of the road, there's a small street between a restaurant and a shop that sells perfume, go down there, take a right at the end, walk about thirty yards down then make a left and you'll be on Bridge Street. Telegraph office should be about five or six buildings up on your left."

Huh?

"Which way's the north steps?" I ask, knowing I'm not going to remember all of that, she points to the far end of the square and I start walking, eating the cake as I go.

Several people try to part me from my money, a visk fortune teller in a beaded head wrap calls out from a stall telling me that she sees much confusion and bloodshed in my future and that she'll reveal all for two dollars, a beggar who smells like he's been dead a week grabs my arm and spins me a tale of woe about how he needs to raise cash for his aged mother's medicine and a young woman in little more than her underwear offers to make me a man, I refuse all of them. I also see a food stall advertising spicy fried grasshoppers, a small group are standing around it eating its wares out of paper cones as the owner stirs a huge shallow pan full of the things, and I can't help staring at all the bugs being cooked, legs, heads and all.

I remember the first part of the directions to the telegraph office were to go left at the crossroads then across the street, unfortunately I can't remember anything after that and when I get to the other side of the road I realise that I'm going to have to ask directions again. A young boy is selling newspapers on the corner and I approach him with my question.

"Well mate." He replies. "I could tell you, but you'll have to buy one of me papers first, I ain't here just to give directions to lost foreigners."

"All right, how much?"

"Fifteen cents, and I ain't got much change so it'll have to be exact."

I pull some of the coins I got from the woman on the cake stall out of my pocket and peer at them, fortunately they are marked up as either five or ten cents so I hand one of each to him and he gives me a paper.

"So mate, you go up there." He points to a turning off the main road. "When you get to the other end go right, then left at the second turning, then you'll be on Bridge Street." I thank him and carry on, tucking the newspaper under my arm.

The street I've turned into is not wide enough for carriages to get down but is bustling with people on foot. Either side of it are small shops and businesses, I'm passing one that seems to sell nothing but stuffed birds and animals mounted in glass cases when I spot someone who looks very much like Topher up ahead. He has his back to me so I can't be sure, but when he suddenly turns to go into a doorway I see his profile and am left in no doubt it's him. The Captain banned him from leaving the ship so he's very definitely not supposed to be here, but then neither am I really, I was meant to stay in the area around the square. I consider if I should go and surprise him, but think better of it as I'm still trying to get to the telegraph office, but I'm very curious as to what he's doing all the same. If the Captain finds out he left the ship he'll be in no end of trouble, and he hates it when Quint's angry with him, so he must have a reason to be here. He wouldn't have snuck out just out of boredom, I'm sure.

I duck into the stuffed animal shop and watch the doorway Topher went into through their window. It's hard to tell if the building he's gone into is a shop or not, the window is blacked out with nothing but the words "Fully Licensed" written across it in gold lettering. I watch for a few minutes until he comes out again clutching a small paper bag, heading toward the main road that I've just come from. I've decided to wait until he's out of sight to investigate when I hear the sound of someone clearing their throat behind me. I look round to see a short bald man with glasses peached on his head glaring at me.

"You stand there much longer and I'm going to charge you rent, or stuff you. Stuffed echoback would make a great display, some of my clients would pay handsomely for that, what do you think lad?"

I leave his shop very fast.

I approach the building with the blacked out windows, on closer examination it has a signboard above the door with a picture of an open eye inside a sun. This doesn't give me any more clues as to what it is and I push open the door and enter slightly nervously. The inside is lit by a couple of gas lamps as the painted out window means there's no natural light, I'm pretty sure it's a shop, although it has no shelves or things for sale. In fact the only thing inside one high, long wooden counter with nothing on it but a set of brass scales. Behind the counter is sat a greenish visk who is using the scales to weigh something out for a skinny looking customer. Behind the visk are a number of bottles and jars containing dried plants, mushrooms, pills, powders and liquids of assorted kinds. Another man, who I at first take to be a customer stands in front of the counter, when I glance at him again I realise he's some kind of guard, his size and bulk, along with the rifle slung across his chest and his general air of menace make it obvious. He stares at me until I drop my gaze and look back at the visk who is now pouring a small amount of powder into a paper envelope which he then passes to the skinny man, who grabs it quickly and leaves.

"Yes, how can I help you?" The visk fires at me once the door has shut.

"Um...I'm not sure, is this a pharmacy?" I ask looking around. Some of the things behind the counter remind me of the one near my flat in Parnell, but where's the toothpaste, soap and face cream? Not to mention the lube.

He laughs at me. "In a manner of speaking, depends on what kind of medicine you're after."

"I'm not, a Surosian boy came in here a few minutes ago, what did he buy?"

The visk shakes his head at me and snorts, fixing me with his black eyes. "We don't give that kind of information, now if you want to buy some of our top notch narcotics I can run you through the full range, all good quality and never cut with any of the shit other shops use, otherwise, get the fuck out."

It finally dawns on me what this shop is for.

"You sell drugs!" I say surprised, that kind of thing is very much illegal back home.

"Give the little monkey a prize." The visk drawls. "Now I'll say this one more time, either buy something or piss off out of here before I set Cleaver over there on you." He points at the guard who gives me a grin that reveals he only has half the number of teeth he should.

I leave even faster than I did the stuffed animal shop, and run all the way to the end of the narrow street just to put some distance between me and Cleaver.

I stop partly because I don't know where I'm going next and partly because I want to think. Why the hell is Topher buying drugs? I know he likes to drink, when we're on the island we always have wine with our meals and he normally gets through several glasses, but somehow I can't imagine him sitting by himself in our cabin getting high, and to risk getting caught leaving the ship for that? None of it makes any sense, if only the visk had told me what he had bought it might help solve the mystery, but I'd sooner eat a portion of fried grasshoppers than go back into that place. I suppose it's not really any of my business but it's still very strange.

I decide to worry about it later and carry on trying to find the telegraph office for now. I turn right out of the small street which takes me onto a larger traffic filled one, I walk along it slowly looking for a left hand turning, and finally see a street sign reading "Bridge Street". I turn onto it and look around, the buildings here are larger and mostly banks and more upmarket shops, finally I spy one with "Postal and Telegraph Office" written on the front in large brass letters.

Inside the prices are marked up on a chalk board on the wall, it's ten cents a letter anywhere on the Twin Islands, and it takes me quite some time to work out that I have enough money to send a message of up to one hundred and sixteen letters. I sit down at a table, grab a pencil and try to come up with something I can afford to send that says everything I need to but Isn't too clear to a casual reader, after several false starts I have it.

PEOPLE AM WITH DOING WHAT WE THOUGHT STOP DONT HAVE PROOF BUT MAYBE COULD GET STOP AM UNHARMED STOP EXIT STOP

I think this gets everything across, as I line up to send my wire I find myself thinking about home and wondering what everyone is doing. Are Vin and Vio working on a way to get me back? I hope my telegram reaches them and reassures then that I'm still alive and I hope they still care.

While the man behind the counter takes my money I glance up and notice a clock behind him and it tells me I've only got ten minutes to get back to the square and meet the Captain. As soon as I'm done I leave the telegraph office and start sprinting back the way I came, hoping I can remember the way and don't get lost.

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