Home > Neverwhere(12)

Author: Neil Gaiman

Richard froze on the ladder. His hands clamped tightly to the rungs. His eyes hurt, somewhere behind the eyeballs. He started breathing too fast, too deeply. “Somebody,” said an amused voice above him, “wasn’t listening, was he?”

“I . . . ” Richard’s throat didn’t work. He swallowed, moistening it. “I can’t move.” His hands were sweating. What if they sweated so much that he simply slipped off into the void . . . ?

“Of course you can move. Or, if you don’t you can stay here, hanging onto the side of the wall until your hands freeze and your legs buckle and you tumble to a messy death a thousand feet below.” Richard looked up at the marquis. He was looking down at Richard, and still smiling; when he saw that Richard was watching him, he let go of the rungs with both his hands, and waggled his fingers at him.

Richard felt a wave of sympathetic vertigo run through him. “Bastard,” he said, under his breath, and he let go of the rung with his right hand and moved it up eight inches, until it found the next rung. Then he moved his right leg up one rung. Then he did it again, with his left hand. After a while he found himself at the edge of a flat roof, and he stepped over it and collapsed.

He was aware that the marquis was striding along the roof, away from him. Richard felt the rooftop with his hands, and felt the solid structure beneath him. His heart was pounding in his chest.

A gruff voice some distance away shouted, “You’re not wanted here, de Carabas. Get away. Clear off.”

“Old Bailey,” he heard de Carabas say. “You’re looking wonderfully healthy.”

And then footsteps, shuffled toward him, and a finger prodded him gently in the ribs. “You all right, laddie? I’ve got some stew cookin’ back there. You want some? It’s starling.”

Richard opened his eyes. “No thank you,” he said. He saw the feathers, first. He wasn’t sure if it was a coat, or a cape, or some kind of strange covering that had no name, but whatever kind of outer garment it was, it was covered thickly and entirely in feathers. A face, kind and creased, with grey muttonchop whiskers, peered out from the top of the feathers. The body beneath the face, where it was not covered with feathers, was wound round and about with ropes. Richard found himself remembering a theatrical performance of Robinson Crusoe he had been taken to as a child: this was what Robinson Crusoe might have looked like, if he had been shipwrecked on a rooftop instead of a desert island.

“They call me Old Bailey, lad,” said the man. He fumbled at a battered pair of glasses, on a string around his neck, and pulled them on, staring through them at Richard. “I don’t recognize ye. What barony do you give fealty to? What’s your name?”

Richard pulled himself into a sitting position. They were on the roof of an old building, built of brown stone, with a tower above them. Weathered gargoyles, missing wings and limbs and, in a couple of cases, even heads, jutted sadly from the corners of the tower. From far below he could hear the wail of a police siren, and the muted roar of traffic. Across the rooftop, in the shadow of the tower, was something that looked like a tent; an old brown tent, much mended, spackled white with bird shit. He opened his mouth to tell the old man his name.

“You. Shut up,” said the marquis de Carabas. “Don’t say another word.” Then he turned to Old Bailey. “People who put their noses where they aren’t wanted sometimes”—he snapped his fingers, loudly, beneath the old man’s nose, making him jump—“lose them. Now. You’ve owed me a favor for twenty years, Old Bailey. A big favor. And I’m calling it in.”

The old man blinked. “I was a fool,” he said quietly.

“No fool like an old fool,” agreed the marquis. He reached a hand into an inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a silver box, larger than a snuffbox, smaller than a cigar box, and a good deal more ornate than either. “Do you know what this is?”

“I wish I didn’t.”

“You’ll keep it safe for me.”

“I don’t want it.”

“You don’t have any choice,” said the marquis. The old roof-man took the silver box from him and held it, awkwardly, in both hands, as if it were something that might explode at any moment. The marquis prodded Richard gently with his square-toed black boot: “Right,” he said. “We’d better get a move on, hadn’t we?” He strode off across the roof, and Richard got to his feet and followed, keeping well away from the side of the building. The marquis opened a door in the side of the tower, beside a high cluster of chimneys, and they went down a poorly lit spiral staircase.

“Who was that man?” asked Richard, peering through the dim light. Their footsteps echoed and reverberated down the metal stairs.

The marquis de Carabas snorted. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? You’re in trouble already. Everything you do, everything you say, everything you hear, just makes it worse. You had better pray you haven’t stepped too far in.”

It was now completely dark, and Richard stumbled slightly as he reached the last of the steps and found himself looking for a step that wasn’t there. “Mind your head,” said the marquis, and he opened a door. Richard banged his forehead into something hard and said “ow,” and then he stepped out through a low door, shielding his eyes against the light.

Richard rubbed his forehead, then he rubbed his eyes. The door they had just come through was the door to the broom closet in the stairwell of his apartment building. It was filled with brooms, an elderly mop, and a huge variety of cleaning fluids, powders, and waxes. It had no stairs at the back of it that he could see, just a wall on which a stained old calendar hung, quite uselessly—unless 1979 ever came back around.

The marquis was examining the HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL? poster stuck beside Richard’s front door. “Not her best side,” he said.

Richard shut the door to the broom closet. He took his keys from his back pocket, unlocked his front door, and he was home. It was, he was rather relieved to see through the kitchen windows, night-time once more.

“Richard,” said Door. “You did it.” She had washed herself while he was gone, and her layers of clothes looked like she had at least made an effort to get the worst of the filth and the blood off them. The grime was gone from her face and hands. Her hair, when washed, was a dark shade of auburn, with copper and bronze highlights. Richard wondered how old she was: fifteen? Sixteen? Older? He still couldn’t tell.

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