He sat, arms folded, at a cheap plastic table under a café awning. Eyes closed. He sucked humid air through his nose. Slowly his chin sank onto his chest. But he wasn’t sleepy. He was scheming.
The Riverside Café on the busy corner of two main streets was Rome Shackleton’s favorite haunt. “Riverside” a reference to the last river in the city, which had been filled in to make room for building developments. All the water was underground these days, and no one missed it. The mosquitoes had nowhere left to breed.
Thick lily blooms dotted every shop front and every window, yet the district reeked only of heat and people. Rome called it “the slum,” but this was his home — New Hanoi. A dangerous edge had developed here over the past five years. A familiar mix of low prospects and high ambition drove an underground element increasingly above ground, and the first public punishment was due tomorrow. The public had voted; a thief would lose a finger.
Rome opened his eyes and felt he was being watched. He peered down the intersection. A tangle of wires joining the dots of buildings swayed in the breeze. High above, a dark, titanic cloud heaved its belly over the horizon, where it was slashed into ribbons by the sky-scraping City Center.
He leaned forward, keen to gauge the reaction of the people. Some ran for cover, while others stopped and gawked. It hadn’t rained in the city in living memory. Rome knew how the cloudless skies were maintained. Measures had been taken long ago to prevent clouds from forming over the city, but now this storm’s dark fingernails were scratching up his street. The breeze picked up. The street lamps, sensing the deepening dark, flickered on.
A thick gray mist veiled the end of the street as the cloud dragged its gut toward him like a wounded animal. Even the most curious of spectators began to step back under the shop awnings and scaffolding platforms, screaming or laughing as they took cover.
Then, the beast swallowed the street whole. It hammered and pounded its millions of fists into the concrete and corrugated-steel roofs. A tremendous noise, a noise like war, ricocheted between buildings.
The rain roared up at him faster than he’d expected. It brought a coolness that he embraced. A relief he’d never known. He walked out from the shelter of the café and into the street with a smile, feeling the rain hit his skull while ripples of sensation moved through him, massaging his bones. Puddles and little rivers formed and meandered through the imperfections of the street, through abandoned food carts, and toward the bemused spectators.
After a few moments, Rome stepped back under the shelter of the café and sipped his coffee. Down the street the first adventurer stepped out, staring directly at him. People started sticking their hands out to feel the rain. Within minutes, the street was full of people. Children were pushing each other into puddles and laughing so loudly that he felt like he was watching a sentimental movie
Almost as quickly as it had come, the downpour moved on. The long tail of the monster slithered over the intersection, and dim patches of sunlight picked their way through the breaking clouds. The street sighed, then groaned under the weight of the water that had nowhere to go. And with that, Rome knew that his allegiance had shifted. He knew that he would make the trade. Your senses never lie—but people do.