Copsing Smith wasn't being yelled at because fertile acres of prime dreamland weren't sprouting the babies Mrs. Clutterback planted last year, or even because dark matter had been rattling through the corridors and keeping everyone awake; but because somewhere in the Sleeper's memory, there was a bathtub in an attic that just kept on overflowing, flooding all the worlds downstairs.
“You know she's been for counselling already? They think it's some childhood trauma issue.” Smith was gabbling all laid-back on the phone to the irate tenant, despite the lateness of the hour. He rolled his eyes at me as I entered his office.
“No, my dear Mrs. Clutterback, it's a long procedure, the Guild of Psychic Plumbers is on serious overtime with all the burst waterworks around here…”
I dumped my sack on the floor, slipped off my wet overcoat and settled into the chair opposite him. I lit a cigarette and watched him through the smoke. His face was tired and drawn. Perched on his long, bony features was the trademark Panama hat, parrot feathers of wild colours shoved haphazardly into the band. He raised his eyebrows at my pack, and I drew out another. Thin fingers topped with nails of pure silver plucked it from of my hand, I lit it for him and he inhaled with an obvious satisfaction.
“Listen, I don't like it anymore than you do, but until things are a little less crazy my hands are tied. Imagine some more sandbags or something. How're the babies growing..? Oh, she hung up.”
Copsing Smith replaced the clunky old phone receiver, tossed the panama into a corner and ran his fingers through his hair, tangled as it was, like long, black wool. Giving up, he took a deep drag and blew the smoke into little birds that flew to the ceiling and disappeared.
“How're the babies growing?” I said, making my face into a question mark.
“Yeah, she's been trying for a while now,” Smith choked briefly on stray smoke. “Nothing wrong with the seeds, they're from her first love—some biker guy—who was prolific enough, I tell you, but the land won't bite.'
“You mean, she's been putting spunk in the ground and waiting for kids to sprout?”
“Catch on fast, eh, Bag Man? Makes as much sense as anything else in this world, she got the beginnings of a first crop, fingers and toes and everything...”
“A hard frost.” Smith sighed. “Honestly, this girl is like the ultimate problem tenement—faulty electrics, false walls, bad plumbing—the whole gutter got blocked up with Guilt last week, and who do they call?”
“Of course me, I'm their landlord.” Smith crushed the cigarette into his ashtray, a human hand that spasmed every time a butt-end burned out in its palm. “So, what have you got for me?”
I grinned and reached into my coat pocket, throwing the polaroids on his desk like a cocky gambler. The first was nothing special to look at: some old guy, wrinkled and sad. But I knew that deep in his REM was a tasty mountain range worth a fair bit of bread. The other one, Little James, was the big fish; the stuff going on behind that angel face was going to keep me in my old age. Literally.
“The veteran's got half the Alps in there, used to be a skier.” I paused as Smith nodded slowly, already thinking of mountaineers and anxiety complexes and CEO's needing a really well-hidden piece of dreamtime to keep the bodies in. Slowly, deliberately, I turned the severed hand over and stubbed out my cigarette on the back. Smith scowled at me as it went rigid and started to shake.
“It doesn't like that. Bag Man.”
Smith leaned back in his chair, turned his head towards the window, watching the rain spatter against the glass. The alley beyond was badly lit by the neon sign of the meat joint across the way. I thought it was some kind of strip club till I walked in and saw the people crowding round tables piled high with ham slices and processed chicken breast. This guy comes up to me, big and barrel-chested. “Out late, little boy? What ya after? We got all kinds of pressed luncheon meats...” And with that he peels off a slice of something thin and reformed, runs it over his face like a cool can on a summer's day.
Smith tilted his head towards me, “What are you asking?”
“Half a crown?”
“Okay, I'll take it, and the other one?”
Now I smiled, slow and lazy, a shark in bloody waters. “You got any booze in here, Smith?”
“You're not usually one for drinking.”
“I know but I'm in the mood for celebrating tonight.”
Oh, that needled him. Copsing comes across like he's on ice but really he's a little boy in a sandpit of crushed glass. And now he was looking at me like a poker player with all four aces up my sleeve. Still, he kept it cool as he fetched a little dark rum from under the desk.
“You take it straight?” He asked, pouring it out into two silver beakers, fourteenth century if I'm any judge.
“What have you got?”
“Not much, some flat coke and the tears of the antipope Anastasius.”
“I'll have it straight.”
I threw the rum back, felt it tingle and burn its way down my gullet, gorgeously. Smith twisted his long, pale fingers around another cigarette.
“So what's the occasion?”
I smacked my lips and gestured towards the polaroids. The kid was cute, just like a fairy-tale child with bright eyes and cherubic curls of corn gold. His sweet little face was marred with fading bruises and unhappiness; I'd caught him at a bad time.
“You want to know what he dreams about at night?”
Smith went blank, turning his eyes to little emerald chips set in fine china. “No.”
“You've been in this city long enough to know how it works, hazard a guess.”
He sighed, pushing the black hair out of his eyes. “At first glance... I suppose he creates fantasy worlds, escape places, beautiful lands where his tormentor can't touch him. Seen it before, Bag Man, I'm not interested.”
I reached across his desk, a priceless relic from the Protestant Reformation Furniture Swap Disaster, and poured myself a little more rum. “No, and no.” I paused to take a swig. “Sometimes, sure, he creates fantasy lands and all that, if he wants to. Somewhere else to go when Daddy—who is the best Daddy in the whole world until he's had a few, mind—comes home all anger and fists, sometimes not.” I drained the beaker. “The important thing is, he can do it at will—what I've got here is a bonâ fide grade A lucid dreamer.”
“I thought you might say that. I'm not talking about the occasional lucid dream here and there, it happens almost every night, do you have any idea what that's worth? Because if you don't, I can take him somewhere else... the Nutcracker, maybe.”
Copsing Smith bent his head in thought, face perfectly still. Outside the rain lashed down on the roofs of the warehouses and factories that make up this unsavoury bit of the Hypnagogic City. It's all crumbling ruins, filthy alleyways with junk; canals of stinking, brackish water.
Smith poured a little rum into his cup. “I'm not into exploitation.”
He raised a warning brow as I chuckled, the laughter turning into coils of noxious brown steam like the spendings of an ugly kettle. “And you might be lying.”
“Sure, but I'm not and I can prove it. You're my first port of call but if you don't want it... you honestly think I'd try and palm a fake off to the Nutcracker?”
I watched him as he chewed it over; I'd always had a soft spot for Smith, in the same way you might feel affection for a cute but stupid dog: a bit of a stickler for morality in his own twisted way. That's why he was down here with the other little fish still haunting this cramped and dingy office full of knickknacks scavenged from the edges of reality. Finally he shrugged, his pale ivory suit turned a nostalgic sepia in the dim light.
“Why didn't you just go straight to the Tin Soldier, if he's worth so much? You must know I don't have that kind of money.”
“I'm not thinking of what you've got, I'm thinking of what we could make together, I'd rather invest than sell outright, and I'd hardly want to open a joint account with that fucker. Go on, show me what you've got in the box.”
He stared at me me for a few long seconds then rose from his chair and walked swiftly to his safe. It was a painting of Narcissus. I never knew exactly what Smith did over there, but Narcissus would scream and rip himself out of the canvas in horror and run off leaving a human-shaped hole in space. Right at this moment it contained four wholemeal rolls, a crusty baguette, muffins of various flavours, and half a crown.
“Blight me Sideways, Smith, is that it? You weren't joking when you said you needed the dough.”
He smiled then reached into the hole and brought out the half crown. It was a little tarnished and some of the precious stones had chipped over the ages but the metals were ones not found on Earth-plane and it was stunningly decorated in whorls and spirals of green ivy. With jewelled leaves that gleamed a pure, shimmering gold.
“Whose was it?”
“Angharad, a princess of the Metallic Fleet before their ships crashed from the sky and became lost under the desert sands a thousand years ago. Is it payment enough? For the mountains?”
“Yes. Does Narcissus always come back?”
“I installed a mirror at the top of the stairs, I'll go and get him later.”
Smith took another meditative sip of rum. The phone rang. A desperate hunted look fired in his eyes and he nodded at me, “Please take it, tell them I'm not in.”
“Hello, Daydream Estates, can I help you? No, I'm afraid he's not at the moment, would you like to leave a message? Okay, I'll make sure he gets that... thanks for calling... yes, thank you... yes, goodbye... goodbye now.”
“And?” Smith had a hand over his eyes.
“That was one Maria Exstacias Phillipinadagio, who would like you to know that the photographs you took of the Gingerbread Cottage made it look bigger than it actually is.”
“Oh, my giddy aunt.” Smith exhaled, long and slow like a hiss. “Of course I fudged the photographs, the bloody kids had eaten half of it.”
I watched, amused, as Smith muttered expletives into his drink. But time, tide and the Hypnagogic City wait for no bipedal, and frankly I had other business.
'The boy, James, our little lucid goldmine... are you buying?”
Fetching his panama and pulling it firmly onto his head, Smith frowned. “Sorry, Bag Man, I'm going to have to turn you down... it's just, kids aren't really my scene, you know?”
I eyed him coldly across the desk. “Don't start, I saw you rent out a LARPer's imaginary sex life once.”
“That's not the same, he's just a boy and he's in enough trouble already.” He took the polaroid from the desk and handed it back to me. “I'm not saying I'm above taking advantage of some. But kids have got enough going on to fuck with their heads, they don't need me and the team wallpapering over the cracks and shipping in a bunch of medical students from the other side of the cosmos, it's plain wrong.”
I sighed, inside I was seething—now I'd have to take the brat to the Nutcracker, who'd drive a bargain harder even than his tin heart, the old bastard.
As I got up to leave, Smith coughed and fiddled with the wild parrot feathers on his hat. “You know, I think maybe you should back away from this one, Bag Man.” A lock of matted hair fell into his eyes and for a minute the conniving shit looked almost vulnerable. “I've got a feeling about it... if the Law got word...”
“Are you threatening me, Smith?”
He put his hands in the air, all contrite, “No, no I'm not threatening you. Quite the opposite. Just making sure you take care of yourself.” He fiddled with the matches, striking one and watching it burn all the way down to his silver nails. “You know I wouldn't threaten you, even if I wanted to.”
I weighed the half-crown of the late Princess Angharad in my hand. “Because you don't know anyone else who'd buy your little antiquities?”
He half-smiled, dropping the spent match onto the ash-hand; it twitched. “I can honestly say I don't know anyone else like you, Bag Man, end of.”
I shrugged my overcoat back on my shoulders. “You missed out on a pretty lucrative deal here, you know that?” I said, giving him a huge grin, one that showed all my beautiful iron teeth. “Don't go accidentally opening your mouth too wide.” I tipped the brim of my cloth cap to him and swung the hempen sack up and over my shoulder. “It would break my heart if anything were to happen to you. I know you can keep a secret, sweetheart.” I blew a multicoloured kiss to him, and watched it float light as a bubble over the desk and shatter against his rigid cheek. “Sleep tight.”
I left Smith, silent and furious, his head bowed against the window, and bumped straight into pale naked Narcissus. I elbowed him viciously and danced down the rickety stairs, out into the rain. The sound of raucous laughter spilled out into the night from the processed luncheon meat club’s cellar door, and I shuddered.
I touched the edge of the polaroid safe and sound in my pocket, and hissed a little curse that took shape in my misted breath as a tiny crippled ballet-girl turning broken pirouettes in the cold air. I caught her in my hand and threw her towards Smith's lighted window. Her fading scream and the tinkling of breaking glass was shrill and pleasing to my ear as I folded myself into the shadows and winged it into the city's perpetual night.