The Sockdolager

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from the Summer 2016 collection

The Spark Will Travel

by Alter S. Reiss

The nearest cops were in Ambeth, more than eight miles down the Lattigen line. Not that it mattered. Anyone from the shantytown went to the cops for any reason, the cops would ignore them or arrest them, so nobody did. Maybe most of the people in the shantytown didn’t have much worth stealing, and maybe they’d fight like wildcats to keep what they had, but at least Keilan didn’t have to worry about cops. She went down Slop Row, headed for the junkman’s shanty.

Cops or not, there were some folk who were too dangerous to cross, but the junkman wasn’t one of them. An old guy who talked funny and who lived by himself. If he had anything worth taking, Baxter’s boys would take it, so really, Keilan was just keeping it out of their hands.

The junkman’s shanty was old boards and tin sheets, same as most, but he’d done up a window, with a bit of calico for a shade, and he’d cleaned out a little patch for vegetables out back. Keilan ghosted past the cabbages and carrots over to that window. It was real small, but so was she. A quick look through showed that nobody was there, so she went over and in, slick as a snake.

It was dark and crowded inside. Boxes and crates and wires. Junk. But she’d done this sort of thing before, and it didn’t take her long to find something worthwhile. A radio, a real radio, with a speaker and everything. If it worked, she could get a week’s worth of bread for it. Or she could keep it, and hear the shows she wanted, rather than what Old Jeir wanted, and wouldn’t have to pay Old Jeir’s price to listen, either. Hell, she could start charging for—

“It’s not a bad set,” said someone behind her, and Keilan damn near jumped out of her skin.

“Just needs to get the speakers connected again, and it’d work fine. A good project to start on.” He didn’t pronounce his ‘r’s right, and cut his words off too quickly. The junkman.

The door was closed, and he had gotten between her and the window. Keilan looked for an out. A thief caught in someone’s house? Suddenly, the fact that the nearest cops were in Ambeth wasn’t so great any more. Maybe if she was missing for a few days, Da would do something about it. Unless he was drunk, or sick, or figured she’d left.

“You want to learn, yes? Why else would you be here? Come, then, I show you how to splice two wires.”

The junkman gestured forward, toward a bench. After a few moments, Keilan went where he directed her. He was old, but he was still bigger than she was, and wiry. He could do whatever he wanted, and she couldn’t get away. Maybe this was a way out, and maybe it wasn’t, but it was worth pretending.

“Here,” he said, taking a screwdriver and holding it toward her, handle first. “Take; you need to get the housing off.”

Warily, slowly, waiting for the trap to close, Keilan took the screwdriver. And unscrewed the back of the radio. Inside, it was a mess of tubes and wires and tiny little screws that she’d never be able to find in a hundred years, if she dropped them.

“There, there you see? Where the wires are all up… they are all chewed on, and the spark will not travel? Yes. Good!” He handed Keilan a pair of pliers. “Take the rubber from outside, yes?”

Against her instincts, Keilan was interested. She knew that electricity would go through wires, and if they were frayed, it wouldn’t work, but she hadn’t known how to strip the plastic sheath from the copper, how to twist the ends together so that they would stay spliced. He taught her.

“Done,” said the junkman, when it was finished. “Now the spark will travel, and all will be well.”

It worked, too—the radio worked when she finished with it. They could hear Maritz the Marvelous clearer than on Old Jeir’s set, for just a minute. Then the junkman’s flat, square finger snapped it off, with authority. “Very good work,” he said. ‘I get old, you see, and less nimble. Come back tomorrow, and maybe there will be more work.”

He walked over to the door, opened it. “But next time, not through the window? Or perhaps I will be scared, and will hit you with a three pound hammer in the back of the head. And bury you down by the creek, at night, like one does with thieves and night demons. Would be bad, I think.”

It would. Keilan headed for the door.

“Ah,” he said, just as she was about to leave. “Wages!”

Keilan hesitated. The door was open; she’d gotten caught, and he’d let her get away with it, but it was still stupid to stay inside a stranger’s shanty. Bad things happened in stranger’s shanties.

There was a little stove in the corner of the shanty, with a drain-pipe chimney. The junkman unlatched it, swearing softly at the heat, and took out a lumpy loaf of bread, which he ceremoniously tore in half. “Here, take,” he said. “Find me a buyer for my little radio, and next time, it will be the whole loaf.”

Keilan took it, and ran. It took her a while before she was hungry enough to try it, but it was good; chewy, with strong-flavored little seeds scattered through the dough. There weren’t a lot of people in the shantytown on the Lattigen line who’d give bread to someone who they caught trying to steal from them. But the junkman was foreign. Maybe they did things different back where he came from.

Either way, it took her more than a week before she worked up the courage to go back. Could be he was just playing with her, and it was safer away. Only it wasn’t safer anywhere she knew, especially not when her Da was drinking, so she went back. And the junkman taught her how to track down a short, and how to spot when a clock was worth trying to fix, and fed her soup and bread.

It wasn’t the only stuff that he taught her. Everyone else knew him as the junkman, but she learned his name—Beorlo Verik—and enough to say “hello” and “goodbye” and a few other things in his language. And a bunch of other stuff about his homeland; they still had kings there, and princesses, and all kinds of stuff like that. Which made her wonder why Beorlo’d left, but he didn’t talk about that.

Also, he’d sometimes get a bottle of wine in trade for his junk, and when he got some wine in him, he’d tell her about monsters. Wasn’t just kings and princesses where he came from. There were night demons, who needed to be buried by water, or they’d walk again; ghosts who’d eat people’s hearts, but who couldn’t cross a line of salt; werewolves, who hated silver and wolfsbane; and vampires, who could kill a man with a punch, and who feasted on blood, and who could only be killed by fire or wooden stakes.

It was radio-show stuff; good for scaring little kids, but Keilan wasn’t little, and knew that it wasn’t true. She did her best to keep Beorlo from noticing that she didn’t believe, but unlike her Da, he didn’t get upset when he found out anyway.

“You think it’s nonsense, yes?” he said, after explaining that chrome wasn’t enough like silver for werewolves, but electricity was enough like fire to kill a vampire.

Keilan tried to deny it, but he just laughed. “Good,” he said. “Good to grow up without that! Still, maybe know it, even if you don’t believe. Just in case.”

Despite believing some stupid things, Beorlo was a nice guy. Too nice to get by in the shanty on the Lattigen line. So when a couple of Baxter’s boys stopped by in the middle of a werewolf story, Keilan did the smart thing, and was out through the window almost as soon as the door opened.

She expected to hear gunshots, or the sound of fists on flesh, but there wasn’t any of that. Keilan hesitated for a second, torn between running as far as she could, and staying and listening. Curiosity won. She crouched down amidst the cabbages, and listened at a crack.

“You’ve been drinking, junkman,” said one of them.

“Is Beorlo!” he said. Which showed that they were right. Sober, he had made Keilan promise not to tell anyone his real name, because it gave witches power. “Beorlo Verik! And why are you here, then? You wish to purchase a radio, yes? Or a clock, or maybe—”

“You know why we’re here.”

“You and he are bloodsuckers,” grumbled Beorlo, over the clanks and bangs of him going through his cabinets. “Take always, give never.”

“Now, be polite, junkman. We’re paying customers.”

“Here you are, then, here you are. A four pound tin of red opium, still with the stamp on, pure as rain. Now where is my pittance, so that I can have another, next month?”

“Pittance.” One of Baxter’s boys hawked and spat. “One of these days, Baxter’s going to find a cheaper source, and then you’ll see a pittance.”

“Until then, though, you pay what is agreed, yes?”

There was the thump of something being put down on the table. “We need another tin next week, junkman.”

“So soon?”

There was a short laugh, and then the door closing behind Baxter’s boys as they went on their way.

Keilan tried not to cry. Everybody had to pay their dues to Baxter, maybe. But she hadn’t thought… she’d never have believed that the junkman was selling opium to Baxter. That’s what the boys used to get people in, and to hold them once they were in. It was—

“It is a good thing,” he said, right next to the wall. “That the child Keilan left in time, yes? Or else she could go to the police in Ambeth, and tell them where a sale of opium would take place, and when. That would be a great tragedy indeed, for an old man to spend his time in a prison, with a doctor and regular meals. And even worse for the gentlemen who came to purchase the opium! It would take them from the community in which they live. So good, that the child Keilan has not heard any of this.”

Keilan crept away, as quietly as she could. That Beorlo sold opium to Baxter came from one side, and that he wanted her to turn him in came from another—it was too much, at once. And to go to the cops? Willingly? If Baxter found out she’d squealed, he’d kill her. But the reward for squealing on a drug dealer would be enough to get her all the way out of the Lattigen line shanties, to somewhere Baxter’d never be able to find her. Only maybe they wouldn’t pay her out, and then she’d be in for it. She wished she could talk to her Da about it, but only idiots shared secrets with drunks.

It took most of a day, but eventually Keilan found herself waking alongside the Lattigen line, out towards Ambeth. Fact was, the junkman sold opium to Baxter, and she could stop that. Whether or not Beorlo wanted her to do it, it’d ruin Baxter’s day, and get her on the road out. Hell with everyone.

Like she expected, the cops in Ambeth would’ve been just as happy to arrest her as pick up a dealer, a couple of Baxter’s boys, and four pounds of opium, but she was clean. She’d been doing legitimate work for Beorlo, for legitimate pay, and as soon as she’d found out about the opium she’d gone straight to the nearest police station.

And whether or not they cared about the people in the shanty, they didn’t like Baxter. Unlike city gangsters, he didn’t pay them off, and one of his boys had shot a cop a few months back. So they listened to what she said.

The cop she was talking to was big and pale-skinned, with a big yellow mustache. He frowned down at her from across the desk. “You know that it’s against the law to make false reports, right?”

“Yes,” said Keilan.

“And if your idea of a joke is to get us to come out to some shithole and watch an old pervert all night, you’re going to regret it.”

Keilan shook her head. Now that they got what they needed, they were going to shake her loose, so she didn’t get the reward for turning them in. Hell with them, too. “I’ll go with you,” she said.


“I’ll go with you. You think that I’ll run and hide, and waste your time. So I’ll go with you when you make the raid.”

The cop shook his head. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “If you’re not lying, there’ll be—”

“It’s just a shanty kid,” said one of the other cops, who’d been standing on the side, drinking coffee. “And she wants her money.”

“Fine,” said the cop. “In a week, you say? Be here before sunset then, and you can show us where the dealer’s shanty is. But damn if I’m going to fill out any paperwork if you get shot.”

Keilan didn’t care about paperwork being filled out, and she didn’t intend to get shot. She was back there a week later, an hour before the sun went down. There weren’t any trains due, so six cops went out with her on the Lattigen line in a handcar. If anyone spotted her with the cops, she’d be killed before there was any reward to claim, but nobody did, and by the time they got there it was dead dark, the night lit only by the stars and the cookfires, with a sprinkle of lights here and there, scattered among the shanties.

It was dark, sure, but Keilan knew her way around. And even if the cops smelled wrong, they went quietly enough, and didn’t get lost following her. She led them up to the back of Beorlo’s shanty, and they settled in along the back wall, near the little window, with the scrap of calico.

Light leaked out through the window and all the cracks. Beorlo was there, sitting at his bench, working on a gramophone. He looked happy, happy enough that he’d probably been at the wine again. If this was all some trick on his part, some drunken joke, she was going to be so damn mad… .

There was a knock at the door, and Beorlo let one of Baxter’s boys in. No. Not one of his boys; Baxter. He was wearing his cream and light blue suit, with the big lapels, and there wasn’t anyone else with him. The cop who was crouching next to her tensed up when he saw Baxter, and some of the other dark shapes moved away, to go around to the front.

“Eh?” said Beorlo. “You are…”

“It seems I was remiss,” said Baxter. Keilan had heard him talk. Most nights, he was in the stone house, and sometimes she went there too, to listen to the music, or the radio shows. And he’d talk to his boys, or to the girls who worked there, and then he sounded … well, he sounded just like Baxter. But there, with only Beorlo in the room, it sounded to Keilan like Baxter didn’t get his r’s quite right, and that he cut the words off a little too quickly.

“I should have paid you a visit sooner, given your importance in the community, Mr. Verik.”

Beorlo shook his head, took a step back, but didn’t say anything.

“They’re good fellows, my boys, but sometimes they miss things. You really shouldn’t have given them your name, you know. Bad practice. Have you got my opium, Mr. Verik?”

Beorlo still didn’t say anything. But he pulled a tin out from under a cabinet, put it on the bench, next to the gramophone.

“Very good. I’ll need that later. But first, ah, first, Beor lo-Verik III, slayer of monsters, right hand of the king. It’s good for immigrants to see others from the old home—let me welcome you to this country.” Baxter smiled, breathed in deeply. “It is a wonderful place, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Beorlo. “It is innocent, for a country.”

“And free of the shadows of the old world.”

“No,” said Beorlo. “Not completely.”

There was a change in Baxter’s face. He had been looking friendly, and then it all hardened up. “It never will be,” said Baxter. “A couple of my boys are ready for promotion, Mr. Verik.”

“Ah,” breathed Beorlo. “I had been worried; none yet, then?”

Baxter laughed. Long, and hard. “You were still hunting me, then? You still have some plot? Is that why you were patching radios in a godforsaken shanty, rather than enjoying your wines and your gardens? This isn’t the old world—you can’t call up the army, or a mob. It’s just you, and all your hunter’s cunning has gotten you is a shack full of broken crap, and a connection for opium. You can’t do anything, Mr. Verik. You won’t stop me from filling up this country with my children. You were never a match for any of us. Not without a half a hundred armed men.”

“Not—” started Beorlo.

With a sudden, backhanded slap, Baxter knocked him down. And just as quick, his hand went down, and came back red. “No more destroying monsters, Mr. Verik,” said Baxter. He smiled, and licked his hand clean.

“One more,” said Beorlo. Then he died.

The cops were in, all in a flurry, and Baxter let them handcuff him, take him back to the handcar. He had a smile on the whole time, despite the fact that they’d got him for murder, not just buying opium, or having his boys buy opium. An open-shut murder like that would mean the chair.

He didn’t know. Beorlo had known, and he’d taught Keilan. But Baxter didn’t know.

Beorlo had taught Keilan a lot of things. More than she’d realized when she’d learned them. At the trial, she faced people straight on, like Beorlo had, rather than looking off to the side, like you did in the shanty. She answered clearly, and wasn’t afraid, not when Baxter gave her his best smiles, or his lawyer tried to rattle her. Beorlo had set everything up perfectly, and she wasn’t going to ruin it with a poor splice or a blown tube.

Keilan was a key witness. They needed her to explain how the cops were there to see the murder, and because juries liked witnesses who weren’t cops to confirm what the cops told them. There were the cops, and the doctors, and there were even photographs of Beorlo’s shanty, which looked strange and shabby in the black and white. But she was the one who sold it; she was the one who sent Baxter on to the deathhouse.

Baxter didn’t know. If he had, he’d have gotten someone to kill him, and gotten out by playing dead. But he didn’t. He passed on all appeals, and demanded his rights to a quick execution, which made everyone happy.

Because she’d been the key witness, and because she was the one that gave them Baxter in the first place, Keilan got to be one of the witnesses to the execution. She had to push for it, but in the end, they let her.

It was dark in the deathhouse. Dark, and grim, and frightening. Baxter was frightening too, watching her with cold eyes, and giving her smiles that showed that he hadn’t forgotten what she’d done, and that he intended to pay her back for it. It was a smile that said that he knew something that she didn’t. But she knew it, and she knew something else, as well.

The safest thing to do would’ve been to say nothing, and let him learn by experience. But once he was strapped in, once the electrodes were in place, she couldn’t stop herself. “Beorlo told me something, once,” she said, right out loud. Everyone looked at her. “Electricity, he said, was also fire.”

The cops and the jailers and the preacher and the other witnesses—they didn’t understand what she was saying. Baxter did. He jerked at the straps, and snarled, and howled.

Then he burned.

Alter S. Reiss is an archaeologist and writer who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows.