3 An Appetite
"Hey there, girl, hey, wake up," the man's voice called, his words bubbling.
"Jack, you left the window open," Ruby growled as she opened her eyes, turning to the sound, shivering, her bare skin damp from the air.
Across the room, in the chair Jack had sat his jacket and baton on was the dead man. Drowned man, Ruby corrected in her mind as she stared at him, still bloated, his gray green skin splitting at his cheeks as he smiled revealing putrid pink and white fat underneath.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" she squeaked out through half paralyzed lips, her body shaking but the cold all but forgotten.
The man laughed, "Don't you remember me? Little grave robber, little ghoul."
She nodded slowly, "You're the man from the beach. You're dead."
"That I am, that I am. You can call me Mehrab. It's a suitable name. An old name. Can you remember that, little ghoul?"
"You were dead, you can't use what I took," she said slowly. This is a dream, she thought looking around the room, the low light of morning through the windows. Just a dream, I need to wake up.
"The dead can use all kinds of things but maybe you didn't know that. I didn't, till I was dead," he laughed, a sick, wet sound that filled the room for a moment until he stopped, suddenly. "But what you did to that metal man, now that, that was wrong. He was just getting started you know."
"What are you talking about?"
Mehrab shook his head, "Real shame. It couldn't happen to a nicer pile of shit than Gaudium, that's what they'll say." He laughed at his own joke, water erupting from his throat, spilling down to the floor. "We weren't even on our way here, headed out to Liberty but the Captain, she thought no, lets take 'er down out over the wet. The lady, the sea, you know she gives it all back to what she don't drag to the bottom. But really, a shame about you. About all of you. Couldn't happen to a nicer ghoul."
He laughed again, standing from the chair. His body jiggled, when he moved like he was stuffed to the brim with jelly, his stomach, unnaturally distended, spilled over his pants. He reached fingers, thick like sausages towards her.
"Get away," she stuttered but couldn't move, her body wouldn't listen as he wrapped his hand, the skin slimy and cold, around her bare arm.
"A kiss for the dead," he said so close now she could smell him. Rot and seawater and underneath that, that stench that had come from automotin, the metal man. He pressed his lips, rotten meat against her.
Shouting she woke up, kicking the blanket off.
"Bad dream, love?" Jack asked from the center of the room where he pulled on his coat, concern on his face. The window, closed, let in the weak, early morning light. There was no drowned man, no water. Just her and Jack.
"Yeah, just a bad dream," she said, rubbing her head. "It's after dawn, why are you still here?"
"Told the missus I was working a double," he said, sliding back into the bed with her, wrapping her in his arms. "Let's get breakfast."
"You're going to get caught," she leaned against him, letting him comfort her, this smell of his cigarette still on his clothes.
"My wife doesn't come this deep downtown," he said.
"I'm a wanted criminal."
"Not since I've been paying to have your warrants wiped," he said pulling himself from the bed. "Sides, you gotta unload that stuff if you want to pay the rent for this hole next month."
She glanced at the floor, the board was slightly moved, he wanted her to know that he knew.
"I'm still a copper, love," he said bending so his face was inches from hers, a smile on his lips. "So come to breakfast or else I'll be forced to take you in."
Sighing she climbed out of bed. He leaned against the door, watching her dress. A pair of pants and a loose sweater. She pulled on her boots and then her coat, before pulling her bag from it's hiding space.
He reached into his pocket and pullet out a money clip. Peeling a few bills from it, he handed them to her. "We're getting breakfast but before you go to market, stop and get yourself a new coat."
"You treat me so well," she said taking the money and hiding it in her bra.
Together they walked out of the room, Ruby locking up behind them.
Outside, the cold morning made her shiver and he put his heavy arm over her shoulder, pulling her close. "Let's go to Mickey's. Better coffee than most of the sludge they serve around here."
"Not by much," she shot back as they walked, the streets empty of onlookers. "Hey Jack, do me a favor," she said.
"I do you favors all the time, Rube."
"Nah, this one is for real. Let me know if Harvey pops back up. He took a walk and he owes me big for those gears."
"I don't understand you tinkerers. All this trouble for bits of metal," he said.
"We keep your world running," she replied. "And they were really nice gears."
"Sure I'll keep an eye out but just because you're my best girl," he said.
The easy response, the joke, 'Aren't I your only girl?' almost spilled out but she stopped herself. That's not us, she thought.
They reached the small coffee shop. Jack pushed through the door first, taking a seat at an empty table, Ruby sitting across from him, eyeing the customers. An early morning crowd, people on their way to work at the factories that hadn't filled in the positions with automotins. Dangerous, dirty work and the people who looked back at her showed it on their faces.
Weaving clumsily through the tables was the restaurant's own automotin, a tray for dirty dishes in its hands. Maybe once it had been top of the line but now it was old and beat up, no sheen on it's steel exterior.
"What'll be?" Mickey asked, his familiar form, portly and pale, appearing at the table, pad in hand for their order.
"What's wrong with the motin today?" Ruby asked pointing back at the automotin.
"That piece of junk? Sensor went bad. All he does is knock into things now. I'd get another but we don't pull that much here."
Before Ruby could respond, Jack waved her off, "Go about your business. We're all friends here." He leaned back in the chair. "Bring me the breakfast platter, a pot of coffee. I worked up a real appetite last night. Stack of pancakes for her."
The man scribbled down the order as she stood and crossed the room to the bot, looking at it's make and model. "Yeah," she called back.
"Get in the back, RK-4," Mickey yelled as he crossed the room the kitchen, set on his own duties.
Ruby followed the machine to the back. It bumped into chairs and diners as it went, the people uncaring hardly seemed to notice until finally it passed through the wooden door and then further, past the kitchen into a storage room where it stood in the corner and waited.
"What a sad life," Ruby hummed as she began to work. She reached her fingers under the base of the automotin's head and released the connection, pulling it off and turning it over. The older, cheaper models came apart easily.
She stuck her fingers into the space, finding the part by touch and pulling it out. The sensor was blackened, almost completely brunt. "The steam core must have gone bad in this one," she thought, making a note to check that next. She opened her bag and put her hand in the pouch for one of the sensors.
"Gah! What's that?" she pulled her hand out, something wet had touched it. In the bag, the parts had wriggling purple worms coming from them.
She gagged, at the sight, their bodies thick and oily like maggots searched blindly for something. Must be something from the sea, she thought as she looked around for something to remove them with.
She found a stack of old napkins and taking one, plucked the parts out of her bag, The worms seemed attached to the piece. She stood and looking through the boxes found one that contained empty glass jars. Picking up one she turned back to the work.
The napkin was empty.
The sound of scraping, metal against concrete, faint but there drew her attention. The worms pulled the parts towards the waiting machine head. She dropped to the floor and scooped them back up. Working quickly, she used a pair of tweezers to pluck the worms from the part, their long, fat bodies untwisting from the piece and she dropped them in the jar, one by one until the pieces were clean and ready. She screwed the cap on the jar and and stuck in her bag to toss when she left.
She pulled the second sensor from the head, this one still good but she knew Mickey wouldn't know that. Quickly she installed both of the ones she had pulled from the automotin on the beach, glad to be rid of them. I can sell this other one, a little old but it will be worth a few coins.
She opened the machine's chest and checked the steam core. As she expected, it had malfunctioned and steam leaked into places it shouldn't. She fixed it up quickly, replacing some parts with the ones she had salvaged, unloading what she could of the motin from the beach.
All finished, she closed it up. Mickey's problem now, she thought as she placed her tools back into the bag.
"RK-4, back to work," she said.
The machine heard and turned, moving smoothly, the sensors operating perfectly. Even his core sounded better, quieter.
She followed the machine back to the dining room, stopping in the dark hall to speak to Mickey.
"It's three doubles*, I replaced a lot of the pieces so it should run for awhile, no problem."
"I didn't ask for that, I'm only giving you cash for the sensors," he frowned at her.
She shrugged, "You could do that but then I'll have to tell Officer Edwards we're not such good friends after all."
The man grumbled and walked away. She walked back to the table, the automotin bussing tables smoothly.
"What took you so long?" Jack asked, his plate already half consumed.
She cut into her pancakes. "It needed more work than I thought," she said, the worms in her bag filling her thoughts. The way they looked dragging the part to the machine, their bruise colored bodies pulsing on their singular mission.
As they finished, Micky came with a folder. "Your change," he said dropping it between them and walking away. She picked it up, smiling at the stack of bills in it. She stuffed these next to what Jack had given her and smiled, happy to be done with it.
*Three doubles = three hundred dollars. Automotin work is expensive!