Two strange men walked down a street in Darkside.
"I hesitate to disparage your manifest abilities, Mr. Muttley, but I would postulate that your confidence in your personal geographic mastery seems to be egregiously misplaced."
The speaker was very tall, about 6'6," and thin. He was stoop-shouldered, making him seem like a stick-figure caricature of an old man. A shock of bright orange hair was visible as the two passed under a flickering torch. His hands were deep in the pockets of his ground-length duster. The torch revealed a long, drippy nose; pouchy, sad eyes, and a long jaw missing a few teeth.
"Be not melancholic, Mr. Spratt! A temporary confusion; an inconsiderable impediment, no more!"
The man named Muttley seemed the opposite of his companion in every way. He a bit short, perhaps 5'8". He looked much shorter still, because he was built like a sumo wrestler. He was quite bald. His ears were pointed, and jingled with ear-rings; he also had rings through his left eyebrow, on the sides of both nostrils of a sharp, upturned nose, and through his lip. Other places he had pierced didn't show on the street. He wore a dirty t-shirt from the "Kick the Puppy" Zone tour two years ago, and it rode up enough that any passer-by could see that his bellybutton was pierced too. A pair of Bermuda shorts with a once-bright floral print and black combat boots completed his ensemble. His teeth were filed to points, making him look like an obese orc.
Jeffrey Spratt and Randall Muttley, to give their full names, were a pair of low-rent hitmen, usually called "Mutt and Jeff". They had aspirations to be more, but somehow their luck never turned quite good enough. They were dangerous men, to be sure; totally amoral, willing to kill, kidnap, torture, dispose of bodies, whatever you like as long as the wages were good. And even sometimes when the wages were only mediocre.
"What reason do you proffer for reassurance, Mr. Muttley?" asked the tall man, Spratt. "I confess, I am melancholic; my artistic temperment does not permit me to be phlegmatic, as we have been perambulating the alleys of Darkside for an hour now. Were I of a belligerent nature I would already be choleric; I certainly cannot be sanguine of our success."
"It disturbs me to hear of your exsanguination, Mr. Spratt, but your emotional journey through the humours is over. Yonder is the portal we seek."
The portal referred to was a battered door in a brick wall. A single bulb burned dimly behind an old, scarred piece of thick plexiglass over the door.
"I must confess," said Spratt, "to some confusion; mayhap even disillusionment. Are we not seeking the domicile of a disciple of Hippocrates, a business that deals equally in public relations and antiseptic environs? Surely this portal is too poorly illuminated to inspire confidence, and to call it antiseptic would be disingenuous at the least!"
"You are perspicacious as ever, Mr. Spratt. But I assure you most assiduously, yonder entrance is our destination. Your cogent analysis misses one crucial element, to whit—we are summoned not to the public facet of this gentleman's medical vocation, but to the private; perhaps even illicit. Ergo we find ourselves here, exchanging profundities in an alley, rather than taking our ease in the limited comforts of Dr. Ludwig's waiting room."
"Aha, then, Mr. Muttley! Further snippets of intelligence come now into view! Is this the same Dr. Ludwig who is famed throughout the Zone for his freedom from the moral and ethical strictures that often inhibit members of the medical profession?"
"The very same, Mr. Spratt. And as widely famed throughout the identical geography, I suspect, for making medical care and cyberware available at reasonable prices, through the simple technique of avoiding awkward questions about the origins of his samples, and not providing a warranty."
"That explains, Mr. Muttley, why we find ourselves at the rear entrance. Dr. Ludwig is attempting to eschew publicity for some less savory aspect of his business. Is it not true, Mr. Muttley, that we ourselves have sometimes eked out a financial low period by selling this same fellow cyber parts that had somehow become detached from their original owner?"
"Exactly so. And even sometimes cyber parts still attached to their original owner, although no longer of use to him. But now the worm has turned, Mr. Spratt—we are here to dispose of bodies, where once we visited here to sell them."
"The Doctor giveth, and the Doctor taketh away, I suppose. It has a symmetry, does it not? So long," Spratt said worriedly, "as we are being paid commensurate to our abilities."
"I would not go so far, Mr. Spratt, as to say the pay is commensurate to our abilities. Sad to say it is more commensurate to our current reputations. For you are aware, I am sure, how our stock with the various employers of professionals in our business has fallen of late."
"A tragic result of perfidious fate," Spratt shook his head sadly. "How were we to know that the guns tended to jam? It is a sign of the impending fall of civilization, Mr. Muttley, that one cannot even trust the Neo York Police Department to deliver reliable firearms."
There was a slight creak as the door the two men were standing in front of opened. "Bakayaro!" A voice hissed from the dimly lit interior, "Will you two get in here and stop yappin' like two old women?"
A moment later the voice's owner stepped outside. Short and slim, the woman's thick, black hair betrayed her Asian heritage. She was dressed all in black as well, although the white of a turtleneck sweater peeked above her jacket. Her movements were jerky and seemed to alternate between too quick and too slow - the all to obvious signs of poorly wired reflexes.
"Ah," said Spratt, "Ms. O'Hara, is it not? Please forgive our effusive discourse, we were about to knock, I assure you." Hiroko O'Hara was a street samurai. Wired and dangerous, but the word on the street was she had gotten shoddy wiring. Still, nobody to offend, especially at the beginning of a job.
Muttley and Spratt followed Hiroko to the door of a well-lit room. Inside Dr. Ludwig was examining a big, ugly, tough-looking fellow with green hair.
"Well, Payne," the Doctor said, "you've broken your scafoid, dislocated the wrist, and chipped several of the ancillary bones. I can pin you together again, but you're going to be in a cast for a few weeks, even with hormone shots."
"I didn't break it," Payne snarled, "that fuggin' enormous vatjob did."
"Dr. Ludwig?" Hiroko said quietly, "The help has arrived."
"Ah, Mutt and Jeff are here. Excuse me, Payne; I'll be back to finish up in a moment."
The Doctor led the way to a locked back room.
There was a big bloodstained table in the room, lit by a single large lamp. On the table were three orientals. Their clothing was in disarray, and it looked like someone had been playing Operation with them recently. They hadn't been dead for too long; the smell was of blood and feces, not the sickly-sweet smell of corruption.
"Gentlemen," the Doctor said, "I need these fellows out of here. They are an inconvenience if they should be discovered. I want them out, and vanished permanently. Don't be seen with them, and don't make a lot of noise getting rid of them."
"You may rely on us, Doctor. We are bastions of reliability."
Ludwig snorted and disappeared, followed by Hiroko.
Muttley and Spratt looked at the bodies.
"Perhaps the flooded buildings way down on Southside, Mr. Spratt?" Muttley asked.
Spratt shook his head morosely. "We are peripatetic, but that is a long perambulation without mechanical conveyance, Mr. Muttley."
Muttley nodded. "And perhaps inadvisable, given the recent peregrinations of the most infamous denizen of that region, as well, Mr. Spratt. I withdraw the recommendation."
Spratt stared at the bodies for a moment. "The storm sewers?"
Muttley smiled, then his smile fell. "Your mnemonic capacity fails you, Mr. Spratt. Do you not recall the most recent episode where we used the storm sewers as a convenient storage for bodies?"
Spratt's long face grew longer. "You are correct, nay edifying. My memory had wiped that embarrasing incident until now. How were we to know there would be a torrential downpour the next week? The sewer backed up, and a number of cadavers we had been paid to make invisible illustrated themselves most effectively by floating through bartertown in broad daylight."
Muttley's animated round face drooped, then broke out into a smile. "Epiphany!" he exclaimed, "the answer is no further than the littoral landmark nearby! We need only drop these fellows into the Fluvium Orientalis that divides the Zone from Neo York!"
"The docks are difficult, and the abode of several gangs," said Spratt.
"An inconsiderable impediment, easily avoided."
"The river flows slowly, and much garbage clogs the shoreline; do you not recall the last time we tried to dispose of a fellow in the Mafia manner there?"
Muttley's round face fell again. "Another embarassing incident, in truth. When you throw a fellow into the river with concrete shoes, you can do no more than expect that he will sink, rather than ending up lodged waist-deep in the muck."
Spratt nodded. "A fine plan betrayed by Luna; I am sure that he would have been drowned by high tide."
"Perhaps, but neither you nor I wished to wait for six hours to find out. Still, I think you were precipitate to shoot the fellow, Mr. Spratt."
"We attempted to dislodge him for nearly an hour, Mr. Muttley, covering ourselves with foul-smelling excreta and bruising ourselves on flotsam and jetsam, and were no closer to a solution. Absent a crane, I cannot imagine any way we could displace the fellow; the concrete block made our efforts Sisyphean. And it is quite possible that the tide would not have been high enough to inundate him; it would have been a black mark on our record indeed if he had remained alive for days or weeks sitting there."
"True, but our record was not enhanced as it was—his body was visible and stinking for two months at least."
Spratt nodded. "Let us draw the veil of time across the wound of reminiscence, then, and so escape that sad episode."
"I can but concurr, Mr. Spratt. But this debate has triggered another epiphany, whereby I can solve all our cadaver-disposal problems. Let us use the Brooklyn Bridge, that venerable landmark and fount of humorous mercantile chicanery! It sticks out a quarter mile into the river before abruptly coming to an end! Nothing would serve better as a delivery system into the river."
Spratt brightened. "You may have something there, Mr. Muttley! But wait—these bodies will float."
"Nothing easier solved, Mr. Spratt. A little concrete and they will become part of the seabed."
Spratt's face broke into one of its rare, gap-toothed smiles. "A brilliant solution, Mr. Muttley. We will proceed upon it immediately."
Two hours later the mismatched pair were on the elevated road leading to the Brooklyn Bridge, pushing wheelbarrows.
"I begin to harbor grave reservations about our endeavour, Mr. Muttley," Spratt panted.
"What aspect disturbs you, Mr. Spratt," gasped Muttley. His wheelbarrow was much bigger than Spratt's.
"Dismembering the bodies was an excellent beginning," gasped the tall man, "but I think we may have overestimated our endurance, or underestimated the distance to be travelled, when we poured the quick-setting concrete over the limb collections displayed in our barrows, Mr. Muttley. My wheelbarrow must weigh fifteen stone at least!"
"Mine is even worse, I assure you," panted the round man. "I take your point, Mr. Spratt, but it seemed like the quintessential solution at the time. Not only providing the additional mass required to inhibit flotation, but camouflage on the trip as well! What better to hide bodies then cement? And what more reasonable conveyance for cement than wheelbarrows such as these? And we had but to consider the olfactory advantages of encasing these parts in a solid shell of concrete."
"I do not contest these points, Mr. Muttley, but counterarguments now leap to mind. For example, consider the significant mass increase—where we were once wheeling bodies; we are now wheeling concrete. My blisters give dramatic evidence of the distinction."
"I am forced to agree, Mr. Spratt. And the manifold advantages of cement seem belike to betray us, as well. When we poured it, I think perhaps a little more forethought would have suited us better, or mayhap less concern for exposure to prying eyes. For the Stygian blackness which seemed ideal to hide our efforts also concealed the minor inaccuracies of our concrete-pouring technique."
The minor inaccuracies Muttley referred to were fairly clear in the moonlight on the elevated road. The two wheelbarrows were filled with concrete, true. But numerous body parts still protruded. A hand waved limply from Spratt's barrow, as did part of a foot and some large fleshy part—belly or buttock or thigh, it was hard to tell. Muttley's barrow was even worse. A whole leg to the knee flopped out over the front of the barrow, and two thirds of a head stuck out, face locked forever staring obliviously into the night.
"You are correct as always, Mr. Muttley. But I see no easy path out of these labyrinthine difficulties save the one we are on. My concern is this, however. Our burdens are preventing us from making good time, and the Goddess Aurora is touching her rosy-hued fingers to the horizon as we speak. My temporal estimation is that we have no more than an hour before, and at least another mile to go. Given our transit rate for the last hour, and the fact that the gradient from here to the end of the bridge runs against us, I cannot but worry that we are cutting it a little close!"
"Buck up, Mr. Spratt! Do not be so easily discouraged. Have we not overcome greater hurdles in the past?"
No sooner had Muttley spoken then a small pack of stray dogs came padding down the road, following their path.
"Behold, Mr. Muttley, we have developed an escort of the canine persuasion."
The dogs started nipping at body parts hanging out of the wheelbarrows, shifting from one barrow to the other as Mutt and Jeff tried to drive them off.
Panting with his exertion, Muttley pulled a huge revolver out. "Our exhausted state is insufficient to drive these curs off, Mr. Spratt. Perhaps a little target practice is in order."
"No, no, Mr. Muttley! Cease and desist! We are low on ammo, at least until we get paid for this enterprise. Moreover, let me remind you that a cannonade fits ill with our mission, as we are to avoid attention at all costs!"
Muttley frowned, but put away the gun. "We must proceed with alacrity, then, Mr. Spratt, for these minions of Cerberus are attempting to gain a free meal at Dr. Ludwig's expense."
As tired as they were, Muttley and Spratt managed nearly four hundred yards of double-time effort, kicking at and being trailed by yapping dogs, before exhaustion finally took its toll. Muttley stubbed his toe, tripped, and his wheelbarrow veered, smashed into a bridge stanchion, and tipped over with an amazing crunch. Spratt slid to a stop five yards farther on and also collapsed. Both men lay inert, sucking in deep breaths, too exhausted to even resist as the dogs swarmed over the two wheelbarrows, worrying at any bits of exposed flesh they could find; yapping and snarling at each other as they fought for scraps.
It was several minutes before Muttley could speak.
"I am undone, Mr. Spratt! Not another step, I implore you!"
"I, too, have exceeded my capacity at wheelbarrow-running with canine hanger's-on, Mr. Muttley. But what can we do?"
Muttley looked around. "Are we not at the third stanchion, then?"
"I believe so, Mr. Muttley. See, only one more stanchion exists before the bridge ends. But it is uphill all the way, and close to three hundred yards before the end of the bridge. I cannot make it, Mr. Muttley."
"But we are done then, Mr. Spratt! We need not go further than we have now—below us is the river! Two stanchions stand in deep water, Mr. Spratt, and only one remains ahead of us; the implications are clear!"
"Do you say so, Mr. Muttley?" The thin man was clearly much encouraged. "Well then, let us use what remains of our fading strength quickly, and lever these onerous burdens overside."
A dog ran by with a hand in its mouth, chased by another dog trying to get it. "I suggest we do it quickly, before this enterprise becomes a total fiasco!"
"Even so, Mr. Spratt!"
It took them a few minutes to get the two wheelbarrows arranged, ready to lever over the sturdy metal railing that blocked the view below. The dogs objected loudly.
"If we lever them over at the same time, Mr. Muttley, we will reduce the chance that the eye of some dockside passerby will be drawn to the first splash, then see the fall of the second wheelbarrow."
"You are lucid as always, Mr. Spratt. We shall endeavour to do that very thing."
With an enormous struggle framed by snarling dogs, the two men got the wheelbarrows teetering on the railing, and pushed them over together.
Three seconds later there was a tremendous crash.
Spratt and Muttley looked at each other, and then for the first time they looked below. The pre-dawn dimness was bright enough for them to see what had happened.
"Oh my," said Spratt.
There was no water below them. Below was the last dockside street before the water's edge. Muttley's wheelbarrow full of concrete and bodies had hit the roof of an old four-story brownstone building and disappeared entirely. Given the weight, and the fall of more than a hundred feet, it was likely now lodged in the basement.
Spratt's wheelbarrow had been more lucky, if you could call it that. It had hit squarely in the center of the street.
The two fellows looked at each other, eyes wide.
"I find my energy suddenly returned, Mr. Muttley. I suggest we beat a hasty retreat, lest we be associated with this contre-temps."
"I concurr completely, Mr. Spratt."
Off they ran back down the elevated road, ignoring the pack of stray dogs that ran with them, barking and nipping at their heels.
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