Bamboo makes the best darts, or so Tolly instructs the others. They’re a group of almost-teens sitting around a brick fire pit cobbled together on the roof of a hotel less than a block from the famous, now submerged, Piazza San Marcos. It’s evening and the scent of cooking hangs in the air like a drug.
“It’s strong, and light, and holds a point.” Tolly unrolls a leather sheath. Arrayed like an executioner’s instruments are two dozen darts of various lengths, each bamboo spike fletched with a ball of colorful fluff. “You guys who use bike spokes ain’t got a clue. You miss? Your darts sink. I miss, which is like, never. But, if I do, my darts float.” She holds one up, slides it into the mouth-end of her gun, gives it a puff and sends it flying. It sticks into an embroidered cushion scavenged from the abandoned city.
“Yeah?” challenges Raej, a year older but shorter and with a nasty lip-scar that forces him to suck spit every time he speaks. “Maybe bamboo be good for pidg,” slurp. “I hunt mackerel. Give me roast mack any day,” slurp. Pidg ain’t but a bite. Shit bite at that.”
He mimics Tolly’s demonstration. His wire dart however, strikes a wooden panel with a thunk, while Tolly’s merely snicked.
The pair feign their war, but each knows how tenuous their lives are, how intertwined and interdependent, and that the ruffians who patrol the inundated coast of Italy are the greater enemy.
“Shit bite? Then you won’t mind me taking your share then will ya?” Sagiya, a child of indiscriminate gender, who shadows Tolly on every hunt, reaches through the flames to lift the seared carcass of a skewered pigeon.
Slurp, “Touch that and feel my wrath, you little imp,” slurp.
Laughter simmers for a heartbeat then bubbles up; the rooftop tribe busts up giggling.
“Shhh,” Tolly says harshly. “Cover the fire.”
A child grabs a metal hood and drops it noisily on the brick ring. “Sorry.”
The white gravel roof glows from starlight only, the moon has yet to rise. They run to the edge and balance on the ridge. Northeast they spot the Paolo Gang’s fire, the only light across the whole of the city. Then the murmur of a petrol engine pulses, slips away then pulses again.
“Rogues, running the streets in their boat.”
Sagiya inches closer to Tolly. “Will they find us?”
“How long we been in this spot?”
Whispers trade between them. A boy, ten, who always wears a set of overalls that drag when he walks, says, “This be our number four night here. We s’posed to move tomorrow.”
“Well, we watch these stronzi, see what they know ’bout us.”
“Let’s finish,” slurp, “our dinner first.”
Tolly hops down, grabs a stick and levers up the tin hood. “Ah, sorry, Raej, looks like yours got all burnt up.” She pulls out the skewer revealing a perfectly roasted bird. “Kidding,” she says. “Here, have your shit bite. I know you want it.”
In the night, the renegade patrol passes them by allowing the Barozzi de Morti gang to sleep well past sunrise. The girls knot themselves in a circle of gangly arms and legs, the boys encroach the nest of warmth, but none too closely.
Overalls rises to piss, out of sight. Leaning over the edge, his stream falls to the Mediterranean Sea, barely causing a ripple. Raej and another boy with long, nearly translucent blonde hair, join him. They watch as a pod of dolphins chase a school of mackerel up the channel directly below.
“Shit, that’s a big school,” slurp, “let’s go get ’em.”
They grab their gear and descend the open stairway to the flooded second floor where they can hunt from the luxury of a hundred different water-level windows. As they leave, they kick the girls awake. “Huntin’ macs,” says Blondie, who waves shyly at Sagiya.
Sagiya waves shyly back.
Tolly yawns and stretches. “Let’s try a new roof today.” She takes a turn in a corner that hosts a rooftop drain. “I saw a huge flock soar west last night. Maybe they’re still there.”
The weather patterns, altered with the climate, send storm clouds, even in the dry season. The gangs have learned to entrap fresh water—as they can. So far, they’ve been lucky.
From a bucket, Sagiya fills a hard-plastic water bottle, a treasure plucked from a locker in the flooded first floor of the hotel. She, like the rest of the crew, can swim like an otter. “Water’s about gone. Good thing we movin’ today.”
The four girls grab their own gear: blowguns, satchels of equipment to help in emergencies: rope, knives, fishing hooks and line, hats for the sun, jackets for the rain, and they walk east to a set of planks that connect this building to others around the Piazza. The pigeons live, as they have for ages, in alcoves, eaves, and in ransacked penthouses all over the drowned city. What they eat, Tolly can only guess.
“I thought we were going west.” a girl who calls herself Angel, says. Her matted snarl of dark hair and pronounced eye teeth make her look more devil than any godly agent.
“East, north, west. Can’t just jump the Barozzi canal.” Tolly drops onto the slanted roof next door and waits for everyone to cross. Angel teeters ungainly. “Pick it up, Angel. Christmas is waitin’.”
“Christmas, my ass,” the girl curses, nearly missing her last step. “Whoa. That… That’s just a myth. Never was no Christmas.” She peers over the edge. The water shimmers at least forty feet below and is about ten feet deep. Each of them has fallen more than once. They all avoid the plunge if possible.
The small troop skips from rooftop to rooftop, sometimes descending to lower levels where their bridge-planks have been placed over the years, some by them, most by others. The wooden timbers show the scars from where they’d been ripped from their place as rafters or joists. The footing is treacherous.
Six plank-walks later, Tolly holds a finger to her mouth. She leads while the other three girls follow. At the western face of the block of apartments they traverse, they look out the window and spy a line of grey birds sitting like gargoyles on the gutter of the far building. On this side, the windows have all been shattered. They each load a dart in their blowgun—some made from copper, others from PVC. They poke the ends through the jagged glass and wait.
“On my shot,” Tolly whispers.
The team are dead-eyes. It’s kill or go hungry, and hunger, they’ve learned, hurts—a pain deep and wretched.
“One, two,” pffffft.
Four plump pigeons twitch, one flaps twice, but all fall to the water below.
Across the way, the brethren nearest the victims take flight. But farther down, the line holds steady.
The girls shuffle over three windows.
The countdown restarts and the susurration of death flits across the gap. Angel misses, but three additional birds tumble and splash.
“Looks like lunch.” Tolly hustles from the Renaissance decorated room. “Nice shot, Angel. You miss, you pluck.”
They follow the floating bodies as the tide pushes them deeper into shadow. With a fishing net attached to their lethal tubes—slipped together, they’re able to collect their bounty. With the birds slung in a sack, the crew begins their return journey.
As they tightrope the first set of planks, sliding over a baluster and jumping through a pair of wounded-wing French doors, an unfamiliar voice, gruff with sly notes, wrecks their happy mood.
“Well, well, well. Four little girls out for a picnic. Got enough in that bag for us, too?”