The Crooked Letter

Free The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams

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Authors: Sean Williams
didn’t want to be on his own in the echoing, silent city, even if the only company available seemed to be a weird religious dwarf.

    ‘Don’t leave me,’ he said, ‘please.’

    Pukje turned. ‘All right, then. I’ll stay a while longer, if you really want me to.’

    ‘Just don’t say anything. That’s what I want.’

    A malicious smile creased the ugly little man’s face, but he remained silent.

    * * * *

    Satisfied that he had won that particular battle, if not the war, Hadrian walked on. Fragments of broken glass covered the sidewalks, crunching underfoot and gleaming in the dull grey light creeping down between the city’s looming towers. He felt increasingly as though he was straying across an abandoned movie set.

    At one point, he checked an office building at random to see if it contained more than just a hollow facade. It did, but its interior was as abandoned as the hospital and the streets, the screens on the computers as lifeless as the traffic lights and cars. Its phones didn’t work either. Not just a power blackout, then, but a complete shutdown of all modern services.

    It wasn’t just the people and the machines who were missing: there were no cats, dogs, rats, cockroaches, spiders, or birds either. The leaves on the trees were browning, as though burned by hot weather. Grass and weeds straining through the crack; in concrete and tarmac lay in shrivelled strands. The air itself smelled lifeless, funereal. It was as though the city had died. Without power, people, machines and vermin, the buildings had become tombstones, their foyers mausoleums and their basements crypts. Cenotaphs for a missing population.

    But how, he asked himself, could you kill a city?

    The newspaper headlines gave nothing away; they talked of nothing more sinister than Middle East politics and the ailing economy — when he could find one in English, that is. If there had been a sudden military strike using neutron bombs — famed for killing people without damaging a single building — it would explain why the phones and power weren’t working, but there would be bodies in the streets, and he would be dead too. An earthquake would have left some sign of damage beyond the odd smashed window. Any sort of major evacuation would have explained the empty hospital and the abandoned office buildings, but it would also have left the wider thoroughfares empty of cars. The streets, on the whole, were hardly clear for emergency vehicles.

    A biological attack of some kind, then? That theory failed in the face of the same objections. And a false alarm would have brought someone back into the city, if only troops to stop looting. The Rapture? He seriously considered the possibility that everyone had been called up to heaven by God, leaving him behind, the world’s only sinner, to fend for himself. And if that wasn’t plausible, then perhaps an alien invasion instead ...?

    He told himself not to be stupid. There was no point looking for ridiculous explanations when there was probably a reasonable one just around the corner — or if not around that corner then the one after, or the one after that. All he had to be was patient and persistent and the answer would present itself eventually. It wasn’t as if he would starve any time soon. There was plenty of canned food and bottled water to be found. While he didn’t like the thought of stealing, in the absence of an alternative he happily resorted to it.

    As the morning grew old, he went into an open sporting goods store and stole a pair of sneakers and socks to protect his feet from the ever-present glass. Despite everything, he still half expected security alarms to ring as he hurried guiltily past the abandoned counter and out the door, but they were as inactive as everything else. Nowhere did he see any sign of looting or opportunistic scavenging, apart from his own.

    Through it all, he clutched Seth’s finger bone tightly in one hand, missing his brother more than he

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