My brother was hanged on a Monday and two days later I followed him.
When the trapdoor opened for the short drop, the sharp stop never came: instead, my soul slithered loose from my body and I fell through darkness, landing with a crash atop a mountain of junk. Odd battered shoes, gimmicked dice and prosthetic notes—the cheat’s cast-offs, the swindler’s knick-knacks. It all reeked of piss.
I pulled the sackcloth off my head. A square moon in a black sky shed some light, but not much. It was actually the light from the trapdoor, a whole world away. I’d’ve seen the two black soles of my feet dangling there if I’d had the wits to look.
“Hi!” came a muffled cry from behind me. I tried to stand, but the junkpile shifted under my weight; a set of cup-and-balls went skittering down the slope. I settled for rolling onto my belly and stared dumbly at the figure making their wobbly way towards me. They wore greyish prison clothes too, though theirs were slashed and daubed with handprints in white and red. They’d cut eyeholes into their sackcloth and stitched a smirk into the stiff weave. They raised an arm in greeting. “We saw you fall!”
“Where—where am I?”
“Crook’s Landing,” they beamed (I could hear the smile in their voice), gesturing at the view from the mountaintop. “You’re dead!”
I followed their hand. A city grew out from the base of the mountain, buildings dipping and then rising again in the middle distance, their shingle roofs overlapping like scales in the dim light. A stiff breeze dragged the stench of the canal behind it, bringing sluggish brown water to mind; and if I squinted hard, I could make out the millions of scurrying bodies in the streets and back alleys, like a plague of ants.
So, this was Crook’s Landing. Journey’s end for the street grifter, the slick confidence man, and everyone in between. I’d heard about it all my life. How could I not, growing up above the corner pub. When my brother and I stood at our dad’s graveside, his mates clapped our shoulders with tattooed, signet-ringed hands and said, “He’ll be in Crook’s Landing now, lads.” It was an afterlife, a prize, a club; but it weren’t real. No more real than Heaven.
I turned back to the figure on the mountaintop. They’d pulled off their sackcloth mask to give me a chipper wink: underneath was a boy hardly older than my brother who’d probably got caught up in his local pick-pocketing racket. I’d seen kids like him before. He pulled me unsteadily to my feet. “Bit of a shock, right?”
Bit of a shock to be in the afterlife I always took for bunk, and I threw a right fit over it, I can tell you—I thought the moment before death must’ve sent me round the twist—but it’s much easier to say I simply nodded, shook his hand, and said, “Yep.”
“I’m Noosie,” he said. “I’m with the Brecanek Boys. We saw you fall so I came over to say hello. Better than letting them Thrashers get at you first. You look like a Brecanek, I reckon.”
By then, the rest of the gang that called themselves the Brecanek Boys had joined us on the mountaintop. They wore prison clothes too, slashed like Noosie’s, and had decorated their sackcloth masks with sneers and smiles. This mountain was their patch, they told me, and they saw all the newcomers-by-scaffold fall out of the sky. They’d made it their mission to welcome them, recruit them if possible, and at all costs keep them out of reach of their rival gang, the Thrashers, who lived on the next mountain over.
“Did you see someone fall two days ago?” I asked. The question came so easy, I didn’t stop to wonder that I could remember to ask it. “My little brother, Charlie. He’ll be scared shitless by all this.”
Noosie scratched his head in amazement. “Days up there don’t mean much to us down here. We haven’t had a new Boy in a while, anyway. I can’t speak for that lot over there.”
By “that lot,” he meant the Thrashers. Their mountain was smaller, darker, more of a dune. The gang members gathered along its spine like crows, watching us. They’d seen me fall too. Perhaps they’d seen Charlie. I told Noosie and the Boys that I had to ask them, and Noosie agreed to show me the way.
“Will you join the Brecaneks when you get back?” said one of the Boys, and I had to shake my head: if Charlie hadn’t joined the Thrashers, then he must’ve gone down into the city, and as the older brother I’d always sworn to look out for him. “Oh,” said the Boy, crestfallen. Then they perked up. “Well, can we have your togs? Some of us need new ones ’cos we got a bit carried away. . .”
So, with me dressed in whatever scraps I could get from the mountaintop, we headed over to the Thrashers, skidding down the junkslopes and slashing our forearms on the edges of gamed card decks.
“You must really love your little brother,” Noosie said, pinching together the bloodless but no less gruesomely parted flesh near his elbow.
“Yeah,” I said, winded, as we climbed the next peak, “I really do.” And I grasped then for a memory of him, something to make Noosie laugh, and found it was hard, like sinking my hands into tar. A month after my dad had died I couldn’t remember the sound of his voice or the colour of his eyes, and I reckon it must work the same way when you’re the one who’s dead too. Already I couldn’t even remember my mam, and her face had been the last thing I’d seen before they put the sackcloth over my head.
I clapped my hands around my skull like I was trying to stop it breaking apart.
Noosie flinched. “Sorry. It’s just, you must really love him ’cos most people clean forget as soon as they come here. You all right?”
Layer by layer, by texture by smell by sound, I dredged up an image of Charlie: a boy of thirteen with a buzzcut; hard eyes and a loud mouth; dirty fingernails; surprisingly delicate tendons at the nape of his neck, the soft hollow between them. I hadn’t seen him hanged, didn’t like to picture the rope chafing him there, where the toughness fell away and he looked like a little bird.
It’d been me who’d talked him into working that last scam, and all the others before it. Mam lost the pub when Dad died; she’d lost one home and we were going to lose another. She didn’t tell me as much, but I’d seen it in the single slice of bread-and-jam she gave Charlie for supper while we went without. Dad’s mates were still hanging round, and I was a tough kid who looked older than I was—it didn’t take much to fall in with them, work some short cons. Mam didn’t like me doing it but pretty soon she relied on that money, relied on my building it back up from scratch, rent-day after rent-day. Charlie started skipping school to help me out because it was just like Dad always said—real work, not passing some poncy exam, was what put food on the table.
So, it was my fault Charlie’d been with me when our sting stung the wrong mark at the poker pits. It was my fault they prosecuted us, the only sons of the late, great Mackenzie Foster, with the full force of the law. It was my fault they slipped a noose around his bird-like neck.
And it was my fault Mam was alone.
• • • •
The Thrashers said the same as the Brecanek Boys—that is, time passed differently in Crook’s Landing and “two days” was impossible to peg, but they grudgingly brought their newest members forward for inspection. I don’t know what I feared more: not finding him, or finding a boy who wouldn’t remember me. But none of them were Charlie, so I shook the gang leader’s hand and turned cityward.
Noosie spat at their feet and hurried after me.
“Where would he have gone?” I asked him as we drew closer to the murky lights. The mountainside slowly turned to scree.
“Dunno,” he said. “Newcomers just slip in where there’s space. He might have ended up at the fighting rinks, I s’pose.” At the startled look on my face, he added, “Not to fight, I mean. It’s where all the big business happens. Old Kenzie Foster holds court there.”
“I bet he does,” I said grimly. My old man had come to Crook’s Landing and set himself up with a racket then, eh? Old habits. I didn’t like the idea of meeting him again, but it was the most likely place to find Charlie: the dolt idolised our dad almost as much as he did me. “Where are these rinks?”
“You wanna head towards that spire—that one, with the crow, not the one skewering that man; blimey, that’s an unlucky place to fall—and keep the mountain at five o’clock. You’ll find it. Can’t miss it.”
Noosie nodded and toed the scree like he had something else to say, but when I asked if he wanted to come along, he said, “Nah, gotta protect my patch. See you around, I guess.”
As I crossed the bridge that spanned the canal, I glanced back at him. Dwarfed by the mountain of junk, he looked tiny and lost, like a boat snipped loose of its moorings. He’d probably never missed his memories, never spared a thought for them or the aimlessness of life in Crook’s Landing, until I came along. Even on that bridge, conmen went through the motions of Find the Lady, beckoning me to “Come place ya bets!” while over by the railings beggars feigned twisted limbs for coppers just as they must’ve done when they were alive. With most of their minds scoured away, it was all they knew to do; but there were no gullies to perform for down here. There was only the rest of us, and we knew all the tricks.
Noosie jammed his sackcloth over his head and went back to his Boys. I pressed on towards the spire, cradling my memory of Charlie close like a cutpurse cradles his loot. It was the only thing keeping me me.
The streets clogged up the closer I got to the fighting rinks. Noosie was right to say you couldn’t miss them: I was carried along like blood in a vein as the citizens of Crook’s Landing surged towards the city’s heart to do business—pay levies to my old man, probably, or settle rows—and be pumped back out again afterwards, refreshed and ready for trouble. The alleys and side doors around our pub had worked the same way. Pinned between a one-eyed hag and a tall, dark-skinned hawker, I had no chance of finding Charlie in the crowd, but the hawker soon noticed my restlessness and stood on tiptoe to scan for my brother’s buzzcut. I described for her the twin tendons of his neck like a swallow’s tail.
“Can’t see ’im, sorry,” she shrugged; then she said enviously, “You must be fresh, to remember someone like that. I don’t remember nuffink. This old lady could be my gran for all I know.”
The one-eyed hag huffed and turned her face away.
“I just came from the . . .” I realised I didn’t know what to call the mountain of junk looming over the city, but she caught on to my vague gesture.
“By scaffold, eh?” She lowered her voice. “How come you ain’t got your togs?”
“The Brecanek Boys took ’em.”
The hawker nodded. “That’s just as well if you’re going to the rinks. Kenzie Foster and his lot don’t like ’em what come by scaffold. They says a good crook don’t get caught.” She offered me a slim hand to shake, though by now we were crushed so close that the formality made us laugh. “I’m Jag,” she said.
I went to say my name, but nothing came out. I just gripped her hand tighter.
“Ah, so you don’t remember everything.” Jag elbowed me the way I often elbowed Charlie. “That makes me feel better.”
While I tried not to panic about forgetting my name and the tiny part of myself that goes with it (was I Bill? Barry?), we turned with the crowd into the gawping entryway of what looked like an old meat market. The roof was made of ironwork that would’ve let in a fresh breeze and some pigeons if Crook’s Landing had any, and stalls had been squeezed in along the walls, upper walkways, and across the floor, peddling—what? What d’you peddle to people who don’t eat or sleep or remember anything except how to wring money out of an unsuspecting mark? Some stalls sold clothes or wigs, others upcycled the kind of junk I’d crash-landed on. Others ran transparent scams like games at a fair or hawked dodgy ointments for things like baldness or athlete’s foot; they weren’t fooling anyone, especially Jag. I felt again the same hollowness I’d felt on the bridge, that we’d all come to Crook’s Landing to blindly chase our own tails forever.
This petty street stuff was below my dad anyway, so I sliced my way shoulder-first through the throng of anonymous bodies towards the centre where the noise was loudest. Jag followed me, muttering something about collecting a debt, but I reckon she simply didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Noosie said Charlie probably hadn’t come to the rinks to fight—most people didn’t—but a fight was happening regardless: I could hear the meaty thunk of fist meeting face, of feet squelching in a slurry of ancient shit. A rowdy audience penned the fighters in a circle, shoving them together when they broke apart. Hands were everywhere, waving coins and betting slips like little flags for the bookies to snatch up. I avoided an elbow to the face and climbed up the side of someone’s stall, ignoring the “Oi!” from inside. From the striped canopy, I had a better view. The fighters were still fresh, though one had a swollen eye, and the other a limp I guessed must be fake. I watched the men trade blows despite myself, and even whooped when my guess proved right and the limping man shifted his weight to kick the other man in the balls. But the swollen-eyed man just laughed it off and pulled a leather guard out of his trousers. It was a game of trickery. A straight fight hardly passed for entertainment between crooks with nothing better to do.
Me and Charlie weren’t idle long enough to watch the boxing down in the warehouse district. I promised him I’d sneak us in one day when Dad weren’t looking. I never did. He would’ve loved this.
More spectators watched from the walkways above. The mood was quieter up there, like they had bigger fish to fry. I recognised my dad in the middle, but he didn’t match the image I had of him in my head. He was smaller in person, slimmer; death had made him a giant to me. His long brown hair was all plaits and wooden beads, and his two gold front teeth gleamed, just the same way they’d gleamed in the dark of our room when he came to kiss us goodnight. His breath had smelt of copper, of blood. Of palms and dirty coins.
Jag followed my gaze with a frown, then shot me a warning look as I hopped to the next stall and the spiral staircase nearby. Two lackeys blocked the way up, but I knew them.
“I need to see my dad,” I said over the roar of the crowd.
“Who?” They snorted when I told them. “Old Kenzie don’t have no brats. Clear off.”
My chest was tight. “But he does! Charlie and—and me. He died when we were just kids and you,” I pointed to the one on the left, “you died in the shootout with him, right? Your name was, your name was. . .” But it wouldn’t come. Their expressions turned odd. I looked at the right-hand one, who flinched. “You used to collect rents for Dad and drink pints of bitter in the pub afterwards. You used to—you used to peel all the designs off the back of our coasters and my mam went mad ’cos we got them printed specially. Charlie liked picking the scabs off your knuckles to see if you’d react. Oh, come on!”
There was no dawning recognition, no smile of acknowledgement, but it was like I’d smacked them with words, because they let me through in a daze and took me to my dad. He brushed me off too, until I told him about Charlie’s thin flannel pyjamas patterned with ducks, the silver studs he bought me when I turned eleven that stained my lobes green, and how the pub carpet always got gummed up with spilled beer and fag ash. I knew then that Charlie couldn’t’ve come to him or he’d remember all this already, wouldn’t he? I trailed off.
My dad was still looking at me like I was a stranger, but he gripped my shoulder and took me with him when he and his racket finally left the rinks.
• • • •
He’d made the harbour his stomping ground, on the far side of Crook’s Landing. The journey there felt as long as the walk from our flat to the square where I’d been hanged (and Mam had moved as far away from that life as she could afford). Distance made the mountain of junk look half its height, but space worked strangely here: if I stood on the jetty out to sea, the farthest I could go from the mountain without wetting my heels, and squinted really hard, the miles would fold in on themselves and suddenly Noosie and the Boys would be right there, waving to me. My square moon, my entry point, still hung in the sky above them.
Time hurt my head too, because how can you mark time when the light never changes? When there’s no tide, no ticking clocks, no pulse? I explained to Dad that Charlie arrived two days before me, but the longer I spent here the more I understood his confusion. Never mind Charlie, how long had I been here? A month, or a moment? Crook’s Landing, for all it seemed real, could be a dream playing out in my head in the second it’s taking for my neck to break.
“How’s your mam?” my dad asked vaguely while eyeing a fake diamond. I don’t think he remembered her, really. He was just asking because he supposed, as his son, that I must have one and he should ask; it’s not like he remembered her when he was alive either. He’d valued his name more. “She’s fine,” I said. (She’d lost her sons and her main source of income within a week, and before that she’d been left a penniless widow; but yeah, sure, fine.)
He grunted. “You both followed in my footsteps, then?”
“Yeah.” (He hadn’t left us much choice.) “Charlie’s real smart though. He should’ve stayed in school. Might’ve even won a scholarship.”
He and his cronies got a laugh out of that. “You can’t be too smart, neither of you, snuffing it so young. What happened?”
Jag had warned me about my dad’s dislike of newcomers-by-scaffold. I sketched out that final sting in the poker pits for him, the one that got us caught. The look on the guy’s face when he realised we’d duped him, the look on Charlie’s face when we realised we had the wrong man. The back doors of the poker pits that opened inexplicably onto kitchens or cold dry rooms full of hanging pig carcasses. We got lost, had to fight a few bouncers off. I think Charlie hit one round the head with a chair. Then I made up some stuff about being tackled just as we got clear of the pits and getting shot later at a sleazy clubhouse, and sat quietly while my dad listed everything we’d done wrong. We’d aimed too fucking high, he said. He flung the fake diamond across the room in disgust, hitting a lackey in the face.
His temper hadn’t changed, then. I used to cover Charlie’s ears at night when he really got going, when Charlie grew old enough to be scared. I was scared too, but unlike now, I had a little brother to distract me.
“Shot though, eh?” He cooled and leaned back to look out of the window overlooking the harbour. “Same moon as me then.”
“Same moon, idiot.” He jabbed a finger towards the sky. “A bullet hole. Your moon’s the way you come in, right?”
But he was a shade of the man he’d been, for all his raging. Pity replaced fear pretty quick once I’d hung around long enough to see him go dead-eyed like the rest of Crook’s Landing. He only looked lively when someone said his name, but in a way like he didn’t quite know why.
I lingered on the edge of the world in case Charlie turned up, killing time by watching the dark boats pass by far out to sea, but he didn’t, and the longer I waited—the longer this place worked on me—the less I cared. I still remembered the details, the duck pyjamas, the bread-and-jam, but they were becoming as random and disconnected from me as the bits of shell and seaweed scattered across the shore.
Jag drifted into the harbour eventually. “You din’t tell me Kenzie Foster’s your dad.” She sat with me on the end of the jetty. “You ain’t looking so fresh now. Did you not find ’im?”
Her mouth thinned. “Your brother. Charlie. Got a neck like a swallow’s tail?” When I looked blank, she walloped me. “Don’t you go feather-brained on me now, kid! I been going round asking after ’im and all. Don’t tell me I been wasting my time!”
Charlie. Yes. How could I have forgotten? Had he fallen in with some scruffy kids by the canal? Got picked up by a slum-lord with wandering hands? Wherever he was, he was dead at thirteen. I was right: he should’ve stayed in school. My fault. I’d liked it, us Foster boys working together. Handing our combined spoils to Mam at the close of each con felt like giving Dad the finger. But if Charlie had stayed in school, he’d be alive. Educated, able to hold down a proper job. He’d have kept our mam much better than I ever did.
Some brother I was. Some son.
My square moon still hung over the mountain, with my limp feet dangling halfway between that world and this one. I told Jag how they’d hanged him. We might’ve shared a noose.
Jag listened, watching her own private sky. “You know, asking after Charlie’s given me noggin a prod or sumfink. I remember someone taping rocks to me ankles and tipping me in the river. I sank and sank and never hit the bottom. I just fell out, here.” And she didn’t sound sad, but happy. Happy to remember something about herself. She sniffed wetly.
Water slapped the stilts of the jetty. The harbour had always been silent. I leaned over and watched the water bob and curl against the wood where before it had been as still as glass.
“What’s that?” Jag said, pointing out to sea.
A boat was sliding towards us, one of the dark ones from out where water met sky. Its passenger was cowled, and something in my gut told me this weren’t no human soul, but a native creature of Crook’s Landing. The prow bumped against the jetty and the creature turned its face to us. Its gaze was cold.
“We heard you calling for your brother,” it said, tapping its chest. “We are touched by your bond.”
I was still on my hands and knees. I gripped the end of the jetty. Salt stung my palms. “Do you know where he is? Is he all right?”
“Charlie Foster fell far. He landed in Cutthroat Cove.”
I glanced up at Jag. She gulped. “Cutthroat Cove is to murderers what Crook’s Landing is to us. You ain’t told me he killed anyone.”
I scrambled up, fists clenched. “He hasn’t!”
The creature lifted a finger. “He took one man’s life before the end of his own. He has already told us how he struck them down. They died shortly after.”
The frantic escape from the poker pits; the bouncers. I heard again the dull crack of the chair hitting the guy’s head. A sound I’d taken for breaking wood had actually been bone. I raked my nails down my face. “But—but listen, he don’t deserve to be lumped in with murderers. It was an accident! He’s just a kid!”
Mam had let me feel her belly the first time he kicked. He was strong. With him, it wouldn’t be just me and Mam against my dad anymore. I was only four, but I swore to look out for him, didn’t I? Since then—since then, I’d done anything but. So I thumped my chest. “I’m responsible for that man’s life. I’m the reason Charlie was there. I’m the one who should’ve known better. You have to let me take his place.”
“You can’t!” Jag cried.
“We accept,” said the creature.
The creature inclined its head. “Charlie Foster is young. Cutthroat Cove does not suit him, yet a life has been taken and his place must be filled. Come with us, so he may be restored to the living world.”
“Living world?” I frowned. “How is that possible? He was hanged two days before I was. He died.”
“Did you hear the bones of his neck snap?” the creature asked. “Did you watch them cut his body down?” I had to admit I hadn’t. We’d been kept apart in prison and my cell had no windows. The sight and sound would’ve driven me mad otherwise. Small mercies.
“All times exist at once in death,” it said. “Charlie Foster’s neck did not break. His breath has been stopped but a moment, although that moment has been enough. We will arrange for a last-minute reprieve on account of his age. He will be cut down, and he will soon forget us.”
“You can do that?”
The creature nodded. “How else would people know to take the name of this place back with them?”
As I tried to breathe (I don’t need to breathe, it’s just habit—I’m dead), Jag gripped my arm. “I started remembering myself and it’s you what done that. I don’t wanna forget again. None of us do.”
I held her hand. Over on the mountain, the thought of Charlie was spreading through Noosie and his Boys like wildfire. In the darkest corners of the fighting rinks, my dad’s cronies muttered about a boy who picked at the scabs on their knuckles. In his workshop, Mackenzie Foster recalled the day he hammered a nail through his oldest son’s lobes to pierce them. On the bridge spanning the canal, a one-eyed hag whispered about a swallow-tail neck. She would soon peer up at the sky, her head tilted to favour one side, and think: swallows. Birds. Remember those?
Crook’s Landing was waking up.
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that ever again,” I told Jag firmly, and something about my tone told her it was okay to let me go.
I climbed into the boat. As we slid away from the shore, sinking deeper into death, I turned to the creature. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”
“Think about the last thing you saw.”
The last thing I saw. . .
I’m standing on the scaffold, looking down at my bare feet and the huge iron hinges of the trapdoor, trying not to be sick. My toenails are broken. The hangman moves behind me and my head jerks up—is it happening? I’m not ready, I’ll never be ready. The square’s packed. There’s my dad’s mates, the ones who’re keeping quiet right now so they don’t hang too. There’s my teacher, and the man who bought the pub after we left, and the baker’s wife who slips Mam an extra loaf every once in a while. Before the too-large sackcloth goes over my head, I see Mam herself, and I hold her gaze until she starts to cry.
She bows her head and kisses the crown of a buzzcut boy. Her arms cross his chest, pulling him close. His neck’s raw, same as his smile.