Mr. Petharic coughed. Not the discreet, behind-your-hand kind of cough either, but a bent-double, spitting on the sidewalk kind of cough.
“You sound pretty bad,” I said to him onna counta I was right frigging worried. “Every bit as bad as them rheumy old duffers that hack and spit blood over at Mrs. O’Dreary’s Home for Wayward Consumptives. Maybe you ought to go see a doctor.”
“See a doctor in this town?” said Petharic, his voice, always on the raspy side, was strained and hoarse due to the irritation of the cough. It sounded like he might have tried to emphasize his point with a derisive snort, but his sinuses were so blocked it set him off on another coughing fit. After a moment he seemed to clear it. He straightened up and reached into a jacket pocket for an apothecary flask labeled laudanum —then scowled at me for doing nothing but noticing.
“Opium is a well known cough suppressant,” he tried to explain, and though I didn’t doubt what he said, he sounded a bit defensive.
Mr. Petharic took a sip, then another, and a third, before returning the flask to his jacket pocket so that he could focus his attention on those milling about the platform. The first of the early morning passengers were beginning to debark. Mr. Petharic stared down the length of the train, He was looking for a very specific individual—his doppelgänger, as he called him. The doppelgänger was always someone who looked exactly like Mr. Petharic, right down to the way he walked and talked. The doppelgänger was coming to New Babbage to kill me but even now I’m not sure why or what I done.
The doppelgänger would always arrive on the 8:45 express from the northern town of Bump and Mr. Petharic would always wait for him here at the station in New Babbage. Mr. Petharic liked to stand in the shadows or hidden by the crowd until the doppelgänger left the station. Mr. Petharic would follow the doppelgänger through the streets of the city, all stealthy, and at the right moment, pop him in the back of the head with a single shot from the Colt.
After that I’d come along. I kept a pretty fair distance behind him until I heard the shot. We’d bag the body and haul it to the catacombs in Clockhaven. At first we used to just dump them in the canals for the wiggyfish, but that got too messy. Inside the catacombs Mr. Petharic leaves the bodies lying in the open but the guns and wallets he hides in a hole. Lately we’ve had to sneak in through a secret entrance off the sewers onna counta the catacombs being sealed. The bodies always disappear before we came back with another. Until recently the guns were never touched. But about a hundred or so went missing around the holidays. We figure it was the Dunsany monsters that stole them, though why they’d need guns I have no idea.
Mr. Petharic coughed again a few more times then seemed to shake it off.
“You sound bad,” I said again, shaking my head in pity. “You know, I ain’t had a cold in almost four years, ever since that crazy doctor under Clockhaven shot me up with all his evil medicine.”
“He did you a favour,” said Petharic, turning and spitting a dark, phlegmy mess onto the train platform, causing two old biddies who happened to be strolling past to shriek in disgust.
“He did me no favour!” I snapped back right quick. “A snotty nose and a sad face is worth a dozen silver quats. Still, I guess he was a pretty good doctor, for a loony old git. He’s the one that made all them fearsome Dunsany buggers that live under the streets and eat people, so I guess I got off pretty easy.”
Petharic said nothing, but stood silently, scanning the passengers, his hand resting on the handle of his holstered Colt.
I got distracted by a bunch of church brothers from the Saint Jimothy order—Jimothies, they call them up where I come from. The order of Saint Jimothy is big in the northern farmlands, so I know a bit about them. You can always spot them straight off onna counta they all shave their heads and grow big, bushy beards—except for the women, they just look normal.
There were about a dozen Jimothies gathered in a circle chanting Pi. Most of them were men but there were three women in the group. The Jimothy adherents chant Pi as a show of devotion to the saint four times every day—three fifteen minute chants during sunlight hours and one final chant of precisely 2 minutes and 10 seconds before going to bed.
“It’s morning Pi for the brothers,” I said.
“Freaks with too much time on their hands,” said Petharic, glancing toward the Jimothies. I thought of all the hours Mr. Petharic sat by himself at the train station; seems to me like he had a lot of time on his hands too; but I knew better than to say anything. Instead I tried to educate him on how the followers of Saint Jimothy do a lot of good things for the farmers living north of the city.
“They ain’t freaks!” I let him know. “I have a couple of uncles up Dairy way who are right into their Jimothy worshipping and they are all hard-working and charitable.”
“I never took you to be one of those churchies,”
“I ain’t a churchie and Jimothy’s not my saint. I do my calculating to Saint Lilly, Jimothy’s mother. She’s the patron saint of lost sheep. The boy reached into his pocket and retrieved a small gold-coloured square with a ram’s head in the centre and handed it to Petharic. “The penned Ram of St. Lilly Beaupree. Doesn’t help an urchin’s cause to be seen with nothing fancy, which is why you never see me wear it.”
Mr. Petharic turned the pendant over. It was while he was reading the engraving that I noticed the man we’d been waiting for step down from the train to the platform. Maybe it was because I was staring, but the doppelgänger noticed me straight away, drew his gun and pointed it right at us. I tried to warn Mr. Petharic that the doppelgänger was right here but I didn’t have time before the familiar stranger fired his gun. The sound of the shot started like a pop, but then it stretched out, echoing off the buildings; reverberating like thunderous white noise until the sound dissipated into nothing.