Johnnie stood in his garden and tried to see the hills. The fog was up, making the western boundary a towering dark smear in a light grey wall. Between him and the hills were a hell of a lot of other buildings, but his family’s place was taller than most and the hulking view from the rooftop garden was good—in better weather.
Ignoring the misting damp, Johnnie sat, straddling a bench. Though the garden was food-producing enough to justify their solar voucher, it was mostly ornamental. Greenery swarmed in arbours and grottoes, sheltering tables and benches that filled on warmer days.
With the view from the roof, the luxury of the solar inside and privacy for both, the Tip-Top Teahouse wooed customers and did brisk business. Johnnie’s grandfather had seen the need for pleasure spots even in the Five Cities’ infancy, beating most of his competitors to the punch by half a decade. When his daughter took over she refined the business, getting her fingers in the spreading trade.
Unlike most of the buildings in their nook of the Hound, Tip-Top, now technically a hostel and café, used all their floors; each themed and designed for different purposes and clientèle. Though, of course, each served tea.
His grandfather started the garden, but Johnnie had maintained it from the moment he could weed. Under his care the place became a merging of bounty and beauty. People meeting in the arbour could snack on berries or cherry tomatoes directly from the vine while the family harvested herbs for the kitchens unseen and unheard by guests.
Behind him, Johnnie could hear the soft murmur of voices. The fog and mist that shrouded the hills folded another layer of privacy over the garden. Johnnie kept his eyes west, digging into his memory to plot what land lay beyond.
There were first more hills, gently sloping with plains and clusters of trees that weren’t quite forest. Herds of dead buildings whose bulk and surrounding expanses of tarmac were overgrown and dug up by time and villagers. The trees continued to grow thicker, interspersing with pasture, until the woods surged up into vineyards, then forest, the dark expanse of the coastal range. Forest reluctantly faded into sand and then the sea.
Johnnie had never been to the sea. He’d never left the Five Cities. With its trees and gardens and river port it appeared much the same as the pictures and maps of the land that lay west. Talking with people from the coast, traders and clients of Tip-Top, Johnnie knew that other than salt water and sand the west held nothing that wasn’t readily available in the Five Cities. He knew this. And he knew that the desire to Go West was something best reserved for the protagonists of yellowed and crumbling adventure books, not the young bachelor heir to one of the more powerful families in the Hound. Nonetheless, Johnnie was old enough to know that he was young enough for the desire to chafe.
Behind him the murmuring was replaced with rustling. Johnnie held his gaze on the fog-blurred hills and tried to think of how to better dampen sound in the arbours. The mist and fog grew thicker, becoming a steady drizzle of rain. Johnnie sighed at the dark wall of the hills and went inside.
Johnnie was pouring wine for an importer who sidelined in cuttings when one of the employees brought him a message from his mother. Excusing himself, Johnnie climbed the fairy-lit stairs to her rooms. The boy who’d brought the message led with an oil lamp, flickering yellow shadows over the tiny white lights.
His mother decorated with drapery and rugs, strewing them in even profusion over walls and floor. It always looked to Johnnie like a cross between the tent of a Mongol war king and a French boudoir. Which, he was sure, was most likely the exact effect his mother was going for.
The woman waited for the servant to leave, curtains falling back over the closed door, then stated baldly, “There’s a dead woman in your garden, Johnnie, Grotto Two.”
“Wait, what?” He was not sure if she was accusing him or making conversation. Rolling her eyes, his mother lit a pipe.
“Boy, you heard me. One of our guests did not pick up their trash when they left.” Blue smoke wreathed her features in the dim lights and Johnnie wondered if she did that to hide her age. Most things she did were very deliberate. “It’s not slim and clean-shaven, so I know it’s not yours, don’t dither. Besides which, I raised you better than that.”
“You’d like me to remove it then?” He tried to keep his face neutral. Though she’d leaned back in her pillows and closed her eyes, Johnnie had no doubt she was watching from under her lashes.
“I have engendered a genius. Yes, everyone else is busy. Be a dear and go dump the girl somewhere else or bury her”. Nodding a slight bow, Johnnie left.
The fog from the day before had solidified into rain. Johnnie wrapped the soggy corpse in sacking and hauled it over his shoulder. A fireman’s carry would have been easier and more balanced against the backpack he was wearing, but it also would have been more obvious. With a grunt, Johnnie navigated to the service stairs, knocking his shin against a bench and nearly dropping the body in the process.
The trip down was not one Johnnie wanted to make again. It wasn’t the weight, he’d made similar trips before with produce, it was the shape. A human body does not fill a bag as evenly as potatoes.
In the large garden lot next to Tip-Top Johnnie dumped the bag into one of the holes dug for the new cherry trees. He shovelled a few inches of dirt on top and rested his hand on the wet-black trunk closest to the hole.
“I hope she doesn’t make you sick.” He patted the bark, turned up his collar against the rain and walked south.
The man who answered the door wasn’t slim, so much as he was sinewy and lean. His otherwise smooth cheeks were weathered in that salt-scoured way particular to sailors. He smiled at Johnnie and drew him inside.