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"I ain't no clerk, but I'll do my best."
"My brother Pierce, has he stolen away half my wage. Not knowing what to do, be I."
I heard pride in his voice, and the strain of a man's hard work being taken. I been there, I knew what he felt. I knew what they told me before, too. Listen up, and help out. "You got an agreement with Pierce, or a contract?"
"No." He hung his head. "Was Pierce to hold my wage and his, he was, to buy us out. Took he my wage and bought himself, and left me in the work with no way out."
"That's a hell of job you took on, friend. Seems to me Pierce owes you a buy out on your contract, too. It's what's right."
"Thank you, sir." He bowed, backing toward the door, and bowed again. "I will tell them what you said."
Them? Them who? Scalpel and Gloves and their little crew, I'd guess. The door clicked shut on my thoughts.
A while later a little fat boy comes in. He was crying, wiping snot on arm. "They said you could help me."
"Don't know how," I said. "But I'll listen. I guess that's why they call me the Nice Man."
He sniffed, wiped his nose again. "The other kids from my stirps say I'm never going to make it."
What the hell did that mean, I wondered. "What's your stirps?"
"Blue Devils." He smiled. "We manage the water supply."
Okay, a stirps was a union or something like it. Never had no truck with them, neither. God damned leg breakers, bad as cops. "What ain't you gonna make?"
"They say I'm never going to make devil, be a waterman like them."
I laughed. "Listen to me, kid. Fat people float best of all. You'll be a great waterman 'cause you're never gonna drown."
He smiled, shuffled up to me, and offered to shake my hand.
I took his, snot and all, because I figured he needed it.
The third one was worse, a lot worse. She was a woman, blonde as sunlight and taller than me. She wore a ragged red robe, more like one of them Romans in the movies than any dress I ever seen, and she carried a little bundle of cloth that I didn't like the look of.
"You are the Nice Man," she said. Her voice was bleak as winter wind.
"Yes, ma'am," I said slowly. I really didn't want to be, not right then.
"I was sent by, by some friends."
"I know those friends," I said.
Tears gathered in her eyes. "Two of the Sheep's Cheese stirps did this," she said, offering me the bundle. "I am a gray feather, no stirps to stand for me, so their gang boss just laughed when I asked for justice."
I hesitated, then took the bundle when she didn't back off. Flipping over the cloth, I saw what I figured. It was a baby, blue as an ice cube and not much warmer. He'd been dead a day or two, I'd guess, one side of his head all messed up. Somebody'd cocked him a good one.
"Whoever did this don't deserve nothing," I said. It caught in my throat. I ain't never had no kids, never wanted them, but there ain't never no call to hurt a child. "They need a beating of their own, right upside the head just like this one got."
I had my own tears when I gave her back her baby. She spun on her heel and walked away.
I ain't cried in forty years or more. This place was killing me.
Mr. Scalpel and Mr. Gloves came back shortly after, with the other four twins dragging two big fellers in messy smocks between them. I knew this wouldn't be good, but that cold little baby crowded into my thoughts like a cigarette does a week after your last pack is gone.
"How's the work, Nice Man?" asked Mr. Scalpel.
"You tell me."
He smiled. I saw his teeth were pointy. Then Mr. Gloves nodded at his four twins.
They swept those two big fellers onto the floor by kicking the backs of their knees, then laid into them with a righteous stomping. It like to made me sick to see it. After a few minutes, the four twins stopped.
One of the big guys crawled out the bathroom door on his own. The other just lay there and wheezed, blood bubbling out of his mouth.
"There's a cancer here," said Mr. Scalpel. "Eating at the heart of our world. Triune Town, Dee Town, Cui-ui, Ooze, all of them. None of the Dark Towns are untouched. Having lost sight of our souls, we can no longer judge ourselves. Only someone from outside can do so. You, Nice Man, you're our judge."
"God damn you to hell," I shouted, jumping up off my bench. I realized what they done to me, what they made me be. "And take me with you for a patch-brained fool. Ain't nobody making me no judge. They ain't nothing but misery and hard luck for an honest working man!"
"Too late," said Mr. Gloves. He walked over to the wheezing guy on the floor, nudged the big feller with his boot. "You're here."
"You're one of us now," said Mr. Scalpel.
All six of them closed in on me.
"You have to see what becomes of your work," said Mr. Gloves, "or you'll be the kind of judge you hate."
"We'll keep you honest," Mr. Scalpel said.
I knew what the or else was. Their twins' bloody boots were proof enough of that.
I always said I'd rather die than be set in judgment on another man, 'cause something steals a judge's soul and makes him hard and mean. I looked at the big feller bleeding his life out between his lips and realized Mr. Scalpel and Mr. Gloves weren't never going to let me get hard and mean. I'd have to live with everything I did, up close and personal.
Maybe there's a cancer at the heart of the world, or maybe there's just stupid, mean people. It don't matter. I'm the Nice Man now, on my little marble bench with the water dripping around me, and fog walking across the bathroom mirrors when I'm in here by myself, like the cancer's looking back at me from inside the walls of the city. People bring me food and booze and cigarettes, and sometimes Mr. Scalpel and Mr. Gloves and me play three-handed rummy, though I don't never cheat.
Beats hopping freights, I guess. Long as I'm an honest judge, I ain't gonna get my head busted.
But some days I miss the railroad dicks with their batons and the cold wind under the bridges and drinking soup from a tuna can 'til it cuts my lip.
At least I can listen to the freights rumble by in the cave outside.
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