CHAPTER NINE: HEX (2/3)

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It was raining. Not a gentle, pattering rain, but the hard and heavy downpour of a storm delayed.

Sol had emerged under a grand arch not all that dissimilar from the one in Washington Square Park. It was about the same size, though this one was several feet deeper and had doors in each of its inner walls. Above the doors were two large carvings depicting crowds of people with swords and flags, swarming towards winged women with serene expressions.

No sooner had he stepped through than Goone went limp and heavy under his arm. He scooped him up in both arms.

"Goone?" he said.

Nothing.

Sol stared out into the night but struggled to see anything beyond the darkness and rain which seemed to be falling harder by the second. He was lost and alone but for the dying man in his arms. Fear was swelling inside him like an inferno trapped in a small room, burning up the oxygen in his lungs, when he suddenly spied a small white shape in the distance. It emerged from the night like a dim candle, very low to the ground and moving right towards him. It took Sol a few seconds to realise it was a cat. The animal ran straight up to the arch and stopped in front of Sol, soaked through to its bones. It meowed.

"Are you talking to me?" Sol said.

The cat meowed again, then turned and padded back the way it had come into the wet night.

"Do you want me to follow you?" Sol asked.

The cat didn't reply, leaving Sol to make his own mind up whether to follow or not. Securing his grip on Goone, Sol stepped out into the open.

The rain fell on him like a wet blanket, weighing on his shoulders and smothering his face like it was trying to choke him. The cat was not moving very fast, but Sol found it hard keeping up with Goone in his arms; the detective seemed to be growing heavier with every step. He glanced back at the grand arch and could just about make out the inscription at its top:

A LA RÉPUBLIQUE

MARSEILLE RECONNAISSANTE

"Marseille," he said aloud. Part of him already knew he was in France; the other part just didn't want to admit it. Old memories tugged at his consciousness like a loose thread, threatening to unweave the frayed fabric of his mind. He turned away and focused all his thoughts on the white cat.

It led him into a town lined with low-rise buildings where they soon lost themselves amongst the rich shadows of the side-streets. Unlike Manhattan, the spaces between the buildings were narrow and their paths uneven. Twice, Sol almost tripped over a loose slab, barely stopping himself and Goone from slamming into the sodden ground.

The further they ventured, the more Sol became aware of a familiar yet unpleasant smell that had stained the air. It was the stench of poverty, so potent that all of heaven's rain could not wash it away. Some parts of the Bowery smelled exactly the same.

After several long minutes, the cat turned a corner and darted up a steep hill whose heart was a fast-flowing stream of watery filth. Sol looked up at it and stopped. His legs and arms and shoulders were burning from bearing Goone's weight, and just the mere sight of the hill had drained the last few shreds of strength he had left. He wanted to collapse in the nearest doorway and catch his breath, but then the cat stopped halfway up the hill and looked back at him. It meowed and waited. Sol looked down at Goone's torn face which was now deathly pale. Sol tightened his grip on him and marched upwards.

The cat did not move while it waited for Sol to catch up, but just as he was about to reach its side, it turned and slipped through a tiny hole in the wall of the nearest building and disappeared.

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