The clock struck thirteen. Mr Underby looked up from his reading as the last superfluous toll rang. The clock had been running strangely ever since Tenk had left town, slightly more eccentric as each day passed. The Skuebnderbej; the City Hall Tower clock; commonly known as ‘Tenk’s Clock’, but known privately to Underby as “That Damned Thing”. The clock struck thirteen, and the lift rattled up to a slow stop.
The door creaked open, a fat boy stepped out, while a shadowy figure lurked within the car. Tubby waddled toward the desk, sweating. Underby said: “What did I tell you, Maxwell? No visitors.”
“Yes missa Undaby, but this here lady she says she knows you.”
“They all say that.” Underby snarled, looking around the rotund child at the figure standing within the shadows. He suddenly recognized her. Here?
“Mrs Foxhouse?” he asked, standing. “Poppy?”
A small woman with jet black hair and large eyes clouded by cataracts stepped forward. A large snake was wrapped firmly around her shoulders, watching the round boy with pleasure. “Osgoode, I bring ill tidings.”
Underby swallowed. “That’ll be all Tubby.” he said.
“Hey!” called the boy, but Underby was shooing him into the lift and pulling closed the cage door. Turning, he said: “You came all the way to New Babbage to give me bad news?” Crossing back to the desk, he opened a bottle and poured himself a glass. “Yuu might’ve wired and spared yourself the fare.”
Mrs Foxhouse watched him pace about. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.” she said. “It tolls for thee.”
He turned, annoyed. “Oh, cut the theatrics Poppy, I’m not a tourist.”
The snake hissed, but the old woman’s face remained placid. “You know my talent.”
Underby nodded. “Fleecing marks.”
The snake coiled around her, seeming to search for higher ground. “Your facetious words are aimed at your own uncertainty, Osgoode.” She rubbed her hands together. “You are still much the same as you were at the age of seven.”
“At the age of seven I had only killed once, Poppy.” he said sharply. “I’ve improved, trust me.”
The old woman nodded once, then pressed the call button with an old gnarled finger encrusted with ancient jewellry. He drank, watching her wait. When the car arrived, she stepped inside, closed the gate, then said: “He returns.”
The car shuddered into motion, sinking, as Underby’s stomach sank.
For a while Underby simply sat alone at the desk, drinking. He thought of Morningtown, and the chaos of signs. He thought of the Gangplank being named as a sattelite state. He thought of the Bucket of Blood now called Bucket Land. Underby turned, looking out the window. Dark pendulous clouds rolled in from the Fells in the north.
The old battered deck of tarot cards was still on the shelf where Underby had left it, long ago. He was out of practice. As a lark, he decided to try a one-card deck cutting reading. He shuffled thoroughly, thinking of Tenk, his return, and the chaos in the city.
Did the tower rumble slightly as he shuffled?
Placing the deck onto the old oak desk, he cut, and held up his half to see which card was revealed. The Broken Tower. In the image, lightening struck a tower, and a figure was seen to fall. Was that figure bald? He squinted at it. How had he never noticed before?
“Malarky.” he said out loud, without meaning to. Underby looked around the empty office. He suddenly wished he had some of the probability readings Tenk used to ask the urchins to roll around the city.
Sitting down, Underby lit a cigar, and shuffled again. It was generally considered unwise to read two spreads on the same question, but he was going to do just that. He puffed, thinking of Tenk, shuffled, and then cut the deck by knocking on it. He spread out three cards. The first: The Magician, upside down. Second: The Broken Tower.
Turning the third card, his heart froze: Judgement.
Fifteen minutes later Underby was stepping over the boarders of Morningtown, on his way to see Mr Morninton… they had an entire city to clean up.