Chapter Eight

 

Testing, Testing

 

As evening drew near the day of the foot race, a hulking man stalked the aisles of the bookstore on Eleventh Avenue slowly, running a thick, furry finger along the spines of the books he was currently checking through.  He sought books by a particular author, one of his favorites, a writer of mystery novels. The potential customer found great amusement in attempting to discover or figure out for himself the culprit before the end of the book, and thus far, he had been bamboozeled on all but four occasions.  But the author, Sigmund Frowler, had written thirty-eight such novels thus far, and the customer had only read twenty-four.  He sincerely hoped he might locate some of the harder-to-find titles in this store.

 

Finally coming upon Frowler’s selection of available titles, the customer took in a deep breath of the air in the bookstore.  Ah, the mellow scent of old parchment, he thought.  So calming.  Grinning more honestly than he usually let others see, he plucked out two titles he did not thus far own, and took them to the shopkeeper for purchase.  The Kobold working the register looked up at the customer from behind thick lenses set in his spectacles, his worn gray sweater not quite enough to stop him from shivering at the sight of the behemoth in front of him.  But the shopkeeper blinked a couple of times, and then recognized the customer.  With recognition came relief.

 

“Ah, good to see you again, sir,” said the shopkeeper.  He looked at the purchases as he tallied up the customer’s cost.  “After Frowler again, eh?  You know, I have an old pack mate in Showshun, he’s got a couple of the really hard to find titles at his store.”

 

“Really?  What’s the name of his store?”

 

“Bertrand’s Books and Collectibles,” said the Kobold.  He put the books in a small paper bag, took the five gold coins owed for them, and nodded his head.  “Yup.  He does pretty good for himself, dealing only in hard to find books and such.  Um, I think I may have another customer,” he said as a slight young man with the look of a hoodlum sauntered into the store.  “Keep an eye on that one for me,” he whispered up to the customer.

 

“Oh, always,” said the customer, moving to intercept the newcomer before the fellow could hide himself in an aisle.  But to his surprise, the newcomer walked right up to him, and their eyes met for a moment.  The newcomer cleared his throat, and planted his hands on his hips.  “Can I help you?”

 

“I certainly hope you can, bounty hunter,” Anna Deus said to Portenda the Quiet.  “Let’s us step out into my office and discuss the details.”

 

Anna led Portenda the Quiet into the nearest available alley, which, in a city like Ja-Wen or Desanadron, didn’t take too long.  The real secret was in making sure it wasn’t already occupied by other enterprising young miscreants prone to conducting their business in dark, shady and secretive locations. Luckily, she found an available such street corridor in minutes.  Leading him halfway down the alley, she stopped and leaned back against the side of an apartment building.

 

“I assume you’ve heard something of these murders going on,” she said.

 

“That would be affirmative.  Your point?”

 

“Well, don’t you think it’s a bit strange?  I mean, the only rats targeted thus far have been members of the guilds taking part in the Games.  That seems a bit too convenient for my liking.  What’s more, Flint tells me they didn’t actually even find Wreck’s body.”

 

“The rat from the Shades, yes?”

 

“Yes.  Now, I’m also going to assume that you’ve done research and background checks into just about everybody who’s at this competition.”

 

“Also correct.  There were two exceptions, however,” Portenda added. “I expected your Ignatious Stockholm to be here, so what little I could scrape up on him was pretty much useless, though thankfully your Calvin Licht has a record that I could track down pretty quick.  And then there is Mr. Brady of the Tacha Forus.  I couldn’t find anything on him.  Why?”

 

“Well, who do you think is most likely to go around doing something like this?  Are any of the competitors known racists?”  Portenda thought back on the files he’d collected, and it pained him to think that he was going to have to tell this woman he couldn’t help her.  But the fact of the matter was, he wouldn’t.  Not for free, anyhow.  After all, he was a businessman.

 

“There may be one or two of them that would do this sort of thing.”

 

“Well?  Do you mind sharing,” she asked, folding her arms over her chest.

 

“Actually, yes, I do.  Nothing comes for free,” said Portenda flatly.

 

“Oh, you greedy son of a bitch,” Anna spat, planting her hands on her hips again and taking a step toward the towering Simpa.  He wasn’t quite as tall as Stocky, though he was slightly wider.  But Anna had never let an opponent’s size or reputation scare her off, and she wasn’t about to have the first one who did so be a bounty hunter, regardless of the stories she’d heard of his skills. “That’s all you people think about, isn’t it?  Profit!”

 

“You’re not much different, little lady,” he retorted evenly.  Anna’s hand moved seemingly of its own accord then, and to her own horror, she had slapped him across the face before she could think better of it.  Portenda’s head twitched to the side from the unexpected blow, and he held his face that way, his eyes focused on nothing in the distance.

 

QUITE THE LITTLE HELLCAT, ISN’T SHE, asked a being whose presence only the Simpa bounty hunter perceived.  Anna took a step back toward the alley wall behind her, unsure of what to expect next, but what happened was certainly not in her calculations.  Portenda the Quiet did not strike her, did not grab her by the neck and hoist her up against the wall as she might have expected.  He didn’t even step toward her.  Instead, he only turned his eyes back down on her, and stared expressionlessly into her face.  In the deep gray of his eyes, she thought she could momentarily see the eternal abyss beyond all thought.

 

“As part of my contract for these Games,” he began, speaking slowly, his voice edged with barely contained fury, “I have agreed not to interfere with any of the proceedings.  However,” he said, his voice returning almost back to normal.  “If an average citizen or anybody not somehow involved in the Games comes to harm, I may take it into my head to investigate the matter, pro bono. I own property here, so as a taxpaying citizen, it would be my civil duty to look into matters if possible.  That I can promise you, and nothing more, Deus. Now,” he said, swooping in on her until the wet nose of his snout was pressed almost to the bridge of her own nose.  “Get away from me.”

 

Anna Deus fled as fast as she could.  Well, she thought as she ran away, at least he’ll look into things when they spill over into the civilian sector.  A symbolic victory, if nothing else.

 

That evening’s event for the Games turned out to be a written test, to be taken by one member of each guild or group.  The test, thrown together by Lee, the other two judges and a handful of constables who were willing to help with the Games for the right price, was administered to each contestant after they were led back to the basement of the toy store wherein they’d held their first meeting.  The question and answer sheets were provided, and Lee remained with the agents taking the test to ensure that nobody cheated.  Or rather, that nobody could be caught cheating.  Big difference, he thought.

 

As soon as the rest of the competitors went their separate ways, Mr. Twitch started sauntering towards his manor, Wayne keeping a dutiful three paces behind him, hands folded behind his back.  As they approached the main doors at the front of the building he called home, he stopped next to the monocle-wearing Sidalis.  “Wayne?”

 

“Master?”

 

“Tonight, you proceed with the cover.  Take the final step, and make sure nobody sees you at it.  I know I can trust you to accomplish this modest task.”

 

“Of course, master,” Wayne said with a deep bow of respect and duty. “Might I inquire about what you’ll be doing this evening?”

 

“You may, in fact.  Ms. Weeks is coming over this evening, and I’m going to while away some time with her in private.  When you’re finished with the job, go and check on Mr. Poe, ask him how he thinks he did on the test.  We’ve only a two point lead over the Hoods, and I’d very much like to see that lead stretch itself out a little.”

 

“Of course, sir.  Before I depart, shall I fetch you a nice vintage from the wine cellar for yours and Ms. Weeks’ enjoyment,” he asked, stepping inside behind Twitch.

 

“Yes, by all means.  Thank you, Wayne.”  The butler shuffled off to fetch the wine, and Twitch made his way through the main foyer and up to the second floor, winding his way back toward the study.  Using a small lighter in his pocket, he lit several candles, and then set a fresh set of logs in the fireplace before getting himself situated in front of a new and comfortably warm fire.

 

He had thus far secured an agent in the Midnight Suns, the Sisters of Night, and the Koikara Group.  He had eliminated a member of the Pack of Liars and the Lenak Petara.  The only two groups that had thus far gone unmolested were the Tacha Forus machine shop group, and the Hoods of Desanadron.  That had to change, and quickly, he mused.  With almost half of the Games completed, only those two groups were operating at full strength.

 

Wayne stalked into the study with a bottle of merlot, indeed a fine vintage, and then excused himself to go see to his master’s wishes.  A double purpose would be served with tonight’s activities.  Not only would it serve to keep up the cover of a racist murderer in the city, but it would muddy the waters slightly, since the rat being targeted as a victim was not, in fact, a competitor in the Games.  With the woman’s removal, however, Twitch would be taking a vital step toward securing the future of his guild in the city of Ja-Wen and the territories he intended to spread his influence out to as well.

 

Oh yes, he thought, grinning impishly, things are going quite well.

 

Ja-Wen City-State Councilor Sylvia Sado rested peacefully upon her antique fainting couch, an Office of Tax and Excise report in her hand, her eyes slowly moving down over the page before her eyes.  It was all perfectly routine stuff, for the most part.  It basically stated that the owner, one Mr. Artemis Twitch, had paid all back taxes owed on his manor and the grounds surrounding the building for the next few years.  Not many folks opted to pay in advance, unless they wanted to keep the government away from their doorstep.

 

In the last fourteen months, since her election to the open seat on the Council left by the passing of the honorable Stephen Cross, Sylvia, a brown-furred Wererat born and raised in the city, had been contending with the idea that she might want to hold a Council meeting with regards to the thieves’ guild known as The Shades.  Until a year and a half ago, she had herself been a member under Twitch’s command.  At the time, she had gone by the name of Rachael Marks, one of her many cover names.  Only now, as a member of the City-State Council, did she dare use her legitimate name.  After all, she had no criminal record under that title.

 

In the first couple of months of her tenure as a Councilman, she had worried quite a lot that Twitch or Poe would recognize her from pictures taken for the local papers of her in the Council Hall.  Her fears, however, came to nothing, as she had not once met with any sort of retaliation.  That surprised her, to be honest.  You didn’t just quit the Shades; Twitch had a policy against it, and that policy usually took the form of Wayne Traedo coming and taking care of you in a very permanent fashion.

 

Sylvia set the report down on a coffee table near the fainting couch, another antique she had acquired for her modest cottage near the heart of the city.  The house had been hers to take, as a Councilman, at no charge.  She paid taxes on it, which were taken from her wages, which she earned from the taxes collected by the Tax and Excise Office.  But she paid no rent, no mortgage, and no utility bills.  This was just one of the perks of being a legislator in the Council.  Unfortunately, if she were ever voted out, she would have to pay the city what was owed on the house, or move out within one-hundred and five days.  That was three standard months of thirty-five days, the standard set for a lot of legal precedents.

 

She rose from the couch and stretched, admiring the décor of her living room.  Everything she’d earned thus far in her time as a Councilor was fully, legally paid for.  Not a thing in this cottage could be dragged into the light of day to harm her political career.  Yet for some reason, Sylvia suddenly felt unsafe being in her own home, as though merely standing in her living room posed a threat to her.  It’s just paranoia, she thought.  You’re not yet used to things going well for you, and you know the Games are in town.  Twitch will be up to his tricks, and it makes you uncomfortable, but stay with it, girl.  They have no idea.

 

So she thought, until the very moment she stepped out into her kitchen to find Wayne Traedo standing there, a long, thin knife in one hand, and a hatchet in the other.  “Ms. Sado,” he said, giving her a grand bow.  “It is a pleasure to meet you once again.”  Before she could even loose a scream of shock, he was upon her, slashing and hacking, a butcher given free license to ply his trade.

 

The results of the test, the competitors were informed, would be announced at the next night’s meeting of the Games.  As the sun came up on a new day, Norman Adwar was just getting back to his rented room for some much needed rest.  When he stepped into his room, however, he found to his unpleasant surprise that he had received an unexpected guest in his absence.

 

Yvonne Wendil, the Gnome Alchemist with the Sisters of Night, was seated at the small card table in the far corner of the chamber.  She looked refreshed as she played a game of solitaire, not even looking in his direction. “Mr. Adwar, I presume,” she asked.  Her face clean of any mustache or beard, her hair thoroughly combed and colored, Yvonne looked to Norman’s tired eyes like a goddess.  He shook his head, reminding himself quickly that this woman was a member of the competition, and should not be trusted any farther than Norman could throw Rage, which was to say, not at all.

 

“You presume correctly.  Now what the bloody rogba are you doing in my room,” he spat, reaching back for the pistol in his waistband.  Yvonne looked up at him for a moment, then turned her eyes back to the cards.

 

“I know it’s a bit of an intrusion, but I felt it might be best to try and talk to someone with access to William Deus or Thaddeus Fly.  Your guilds hold the most prestige here, after all, and I doubt anybody else would want to hear me out on this, not even my own people.  Especially my own people, in fact. Please, sit down,” she said, gesturing to the other chair at the table.  Norman pulled his hand away from the mecha weapon at his back, and flopped into his seat across from her.

 

“What’s all this about,” Norman asked.

 

“It’s Cailee,” said Yvonne.  “She hasn’t been acting herself since we got into this city.”

 

“That’s uh, the Cuyotai lady with your group, yes?”

 

“Indeed.  Well, she’s been marvelously well behaved since we got here, which is something that is not very much in character with her.  She’s always getting’ herself into some sort of trouble, what with her pranks and her foolishness.  It’s in her nature, so we’ve always tolerated it to some extent.”

 

“So she’s being on her best behavior for the Games, big deal,” said Norman, dismissing this woman’s worries almost immediately.  Then he had an idea.  “Wait a minute, you don’t suppose she’s involved with this business with the rats, do you?”

 

“No, nothing like that,” Yvonne protested immediately.  “Though it’s true that we don’t have any rats on our team.  But no, I don’t think she’d do that.  If anyone of us would be like that, it’d be Harley, and that’s because she’s violent with everybody.  There’s not a prejudiced bone in that woman’s body.  She hates everyone equally,” the Gnome woman said with a sigh.  “It just seems like she’s being too quiet and too careful, and she’s always slipping off on her own. She does that a lot at home, too, but this seems almost like she’s trying to be sneaky about it.  If there’s any way one of your folks can keep an eye on her, it’d be much appreciated.”

 

Norman promised her he’d look into it, and then asked her to kindly leave so he could get some shut-eye.  When she had gone, he finished her solitaire game, which she’d left out on the table.  Huh, he thought, look at that. I finally win a hand of this, and I didn’t even shuffle the cards.

 

Akimaru and Rage stood before their Headmaster atop a high rise apartment building, the Black Draconus Ninja facing away from them, his keen eyes sweeping the streets below.  What his trusted friend and operative had just told him, while it did not surprise him as much as it might have, still burned his ass.  Weeks was a good Rogue to have around, very productive for the guild.  Her treachery could almost be commended, if she had been able to keep it secret.

 

But what bothered him more than her treachery was the fact that Akimaru had admitted that he was not the one who had discovered it.  “What do we know about this Mr. Brady,” Fly asked over his shoulder.

 

“Whole lotta nothin’,” replied Rage.  “I done asked everybody I could think to squeeze about him, but I came up wit’ nothin’.  The guy’s a phantom.”

 

“Rage-sama even took the risk of approaching the Bounty Office about him, sensei,” said Akimaru.  “They too knew nothing about the man.  I tried following him for a short while, but he eluded me.”

 

“Nobody can elude you, Aki,” said Fly, his eyes still looking out over the city.  “Not by any normal means, anyhow.  Brady is not our concern, however. Our concern is our own Ms. Weeks.  Hers is not a situation we can afford to let go without dealing with it.”  He turned to face his agents, a cool breeze blowing at his back.  He let his tongue whip out a moment, tasting the air.  He could detect no scent from Akimaru, and from Rage he only caught a whiff of soap and heavy loam.  “Akimaru, I want you to contact Flint Ananham of the Hoods. I know he’s probably busy still looking into the matter of his young cousin’s death, but something tells me that our current predicament may be linked to that,” he said, stepping down off of the ledge of the building’s roof.  “Have him track Ms. Weeks for us and render what assistance you can.  Rage?”

 

“Sir,” the Orc Berserker said, standing at attention.

 

“Hit the streets again, find out any local news you can.  There appears to be some sort of hubbub going on a couple of blocks north of here.  I’ll be at the Café Toulon up the road here when either of you have something for me. Remember to meet at the park tonight at eleven.”  With that said, he lead Rage down the building’s interior stairwell while Akimaru leaped from the roof of the building, off to take care of his assignment.  With any luck, the Hoods would be willing to help out.

 

“Calvin? Calvin?”  Calvin Licht slowly came awake, his vision locked on the interesting blur of white and brown that was the ceiling tiles of the room he’d stayed in the night before.  A voice was calling to him, a woman’s voice, it seemed.  Why was she whispering?  As Calvin sat up, he pulled half of the sheets on his bed up with him, mercifully keeping his lower body covered from William Deus, who stood next to the bed calling for him.  Why had he thought it was a woman’s voice?

 

And then he looked down to his right, at the other sleeping, prone figure in his bed, and remembered why he thought it must be a woman’s voice. Esmerelda Logan lay next to him, a flimsy undershirt covering what the sheets could not.  He whipped his head around to look at Will, who was giving him a coquettish grin with his arms crossed over his chest.  “Rough night,” Will asked him.

 

“Yeah, but not in a bad way,” he said, searching the floor next to his bed for his pants. He pulled them on under the covers, then got up out of the bed. “What time is it?”

 

“Almost noon,” said William Deus, walking over toward the hotel room door.  “We’re all meeting at the Three Brothers Diner over on Dovare Street. Hurry up and get over there once you’ve given your regards,” said the leader of the Hoods.  When Deus was gone, Licht pulled his shirt on over his head, and then turned to look down at Esmerelda.  She was already up, though, and mostly dressed on the other side of the room.

 

“How long were you awake?”

 

“Long enough to hear him giggle when he picked the lock and saw us,” the Wererat Ninja woman said, her cheeks flushing under her thin fur.  “Um, you know, I should probably tell Jefe where I’ll be staying after tonight’s event.”

 

“Is he gonna be okay with that,” asked Calvin, snapping up his brigandine vest and adjusting it to ensure the metal protector plates lined up correctly on his torso.

 

“Oh, he’ll be fine, Cal.  I wouldn’t worry about him.  If I were you, though, I’d try to make sure my cousin doesn’t catch wind of it,” she said, opening the window out onto the street.  “He’s very protective of his family.”  And without another farewell, she was off into the city of Ja-Wen.

 

“She couldn’t have told me this a little sooner?”

 

If not for his sheer size and ability to move people out of his way with a look or by brute force, Rage might not have been able to press his way to the front of the mob crowding around the small cottage over on Forty-Third Street. Constables had put up barricades, and a medical autocart wagon stood to one side, its rear doors open and waiting for the victim to be placed inside. Whispers, rumors and conjecture mostly, floated around Rage’s head, making him want to smash everybody around him so they’d shut the hell up.  After all, with their murmurings, he couldn’t listen to what the cops were saying to one another.

 

But after a while, he spotted a Goblin in the crowd with mottled green skin, a rumpled brown and black suit, and a press pass tagged to a round brimmed hat on his square-like head.  He was conversing with an officer to one side of the crowd, so Rage just bumped and battered his way over until he was in earshot.  He kept his eyes focused on the house, though, so that he wouldn’t attract their attention.

 

“So is there any hint that this might be the work of the same person or persons who killed the junkyard caretaker and an as-yet unidentified Wererat in a dumpster bin at the same location,” asked the Goblin.  The officer cleared his throat and kept his voice low.

 

“There’ s nothing to suggest that, not as yet.  And don’t you go around saying that there is, you little prick.  We don’t need a panic in this city.”

 

“But this wasn’t just some civilian or some criminal off the street, officer!  The woman was a City Councilor!”  Rage, hearing that, decided that he’d heard more than enough.  He moved away from the crowd, and started up the street toward the Headmaster.  He had to tell him right away, because from what he’d heard, this city had problems beyond the fact that it was host to this year’s Games.

 

Getting to the café itself presented no problems for Rage.  After all, when most right-thinking people saw a lumbering Orc stampeding down the road in their direction, an Orc almost as wide as a wagon, they got out of the way.  Rage was dimly aware that he rather rudely stamped a woman’s foot who was trying to evade him, but he had no time to go back and offer his apologies.

 

When Rage got to the café, he calmly swung the oak and glass panel door open, holding it for an elderly Human couple making their exit.  “Have a nice night,” he said to the pair, who smiled at him and gave their thanks.  He bull rushed through the doorway then, nearly knocking over a serving girl and coming within a hair’s breadth of knocking over a table en route to Headmaster Fly, seated in a corner booth.  The Black Draconus Ninja looked up just in time to see Rage coming, and he took the single precaution most advised when the Orc Berserker came huffing and puffing into an enclosed space that way.

 

He picked up his coffee and tensed the muscles in his abdomen.

 

When Rage splashed onto the bench across the neat little table from Fly, the Orc knocked the table forward right into Fly’s belly.  When Rage arranged himself, the table tipped back to its neutral position, Fly let his muscles relax, and sipped his coffee before setting the cup down.  “Big news, Rage?”

 

“Sir, you ain’t gonna believe this,” Rage said, shaking his head.  A waitress came over, and asked him for his order.  “Oh, um, lessee here, a cuppa, thick foam, plenty of cream, and a cheese Danish if you please. Thanks.”  He turned his smile away from the waitress, his distressed and excited expression morphing his features instantly once again.  “I mean, I heard it, and I don’t know if I believe it yet myself.”

 

“Oh, I’ve heard and seen some strange things in my years, Rage,” Akimaru said, thinking about his time spent in an Order of Oun fort prison with Deus.  “I doubt there’s much you can say that would rock my sense of reality.”

 

Jerry Norbit, the newest member of the Hoods and still not yet considered ‘one of the guys’ felt honored that he was now amongst his fellow guild members, including the boss and the second-in-command.  When he’d been asked to come to the Games, he’d been excited.  But now, as he sat listening to William Deus explain that the latest victim of the racial slayings had been a City Councilor, he suddenly wished he could be back home in Desanadron.

 

“This whole situation just got really messy,” Flint was saying.  “Every rat in the city is gonna be on edge after this.  My cousins and Stephanie may just decide to get the hell out of town while they can.”

 

“Well, that’d be one way of eliminating some of the competition,” observed Norman as he tucked into his late breakfast.  Though an off-hand remark, his statement left the other four Hoods speechless.  “What?  Did I say something funny?”

 

“No, you certainly didn’t,” said Calvin Licht.  His blue hands clenched into fists, not out of any frustration, but rather out of discomfort.  Flint kept eyeballing him, he thought, and though he was a Jaft, Calvin wasn’t stupid enough to not believe in the hunches some people like Flint sometimes caught hold of.  He hadn’t showered before coming to the diner, which was stupid. Flint’s hearing was legendary, but Calvin couldn’t say whether or not his sense of smell was just as keen.  Oh gods, he thought, does he smell his cousin on me?

 

But for his part, Flint did not.  At the moment, he was only eyeballing Calvin because the burly blue Thug kept fidgeting, and wouldn’t look him in the eyes.  Not that many folks looked him in the eyes, because Flint was pretty good at staying in motion.  Letting someone look you in the eyes meant better odds of a positive identification if you should ever get caught doing something that members of law enforcement wouldn’t find agreeable.

 

Calvin continued.  “But if you think about it, there’s only a couple of groups here at the Games without any Wererats on their team.  It certainly wouldn’t be inconceivable for one of them to do something like this to try and narrow down the competition.”

 

“Maybe so,” said Jerry, pulling out a small notebook he kept in one of his many pockets.  The Illeck Pickpocket’s right hand turned into a blur for a moment, and he placed the coin pouch from a passing customer on his way out of the diner in the middle of the table.  Habit, Anna thought, even in a place like this.  “But according to the figures I’ve got here, the Sisters of Night and the Tacha Forus would have to place at least second in every event remaining, on top of keeping us, the Suns and the Shades from placing third more than once, in order to win.  With those kinds of odds, I’d think they would want to keep the Pack of Liars around, to help pad their leads and throw a wrench in our works.”

 

“Besides, if that were the case, why the Councilman,” asked Calvin.

 

“To make a cover for themselves,” said Jerry.  “To make it seem more like a random serial killer.”

 

“There’s another possibility,” offered Deus, “though the matter of the Councilor still throws it out of whack.  It could be someone with a grudge against thieves’ guilds in general,” she said, taking a bite of her eggs.  “Flint and I discussed the possibility, but like I said, why the Councilor if that’s the case? She’s a government official with no record, to my knowledge.”

 

“And if it weren’t for the Shades losing Wreck, I’d be tempted to pin this all on them,” said Norman.  “There’s just something really, really off about that Twitch fellah.  But with them getting hurt with a death too, they’re out of my pool of suspects.  What this really comes down to, I think, is that we’ve only got until the Games are over to figure this out.  Once they’re over, the police officers in this city aren’t going to feel like looking the other way anymore.”

 

Anna thought that statement over, and finished her meal.  Deadlines, she thought.  I hate deadlines.

 

Akimaru Tendo waited until the Hoods dispersed, each member going their separate way, before approaching Flint Ananham.  There would only be five or six more hours of daylight in which to track Clarissa Weeks, and Akimaru had spotted her only ten minutes earlier at a farmer’s market two streets over. If he wanted to ask Flint for this favor, he would have to hurry.

 

The Wererat Thug turned out to be more amicable to the idea than the white-clad Ninja had hoped.  Wasting no time, Flint made his way to the farmer’s market, spotting Weeks amid the crowd in seconds flat.  Keeping himself tucked away against the doorways and alcoves of buildings, he kept a keen eye on her as she perused the wares on sale.  Flint scratched the back of his head, once again bothered by the itching sensation that would not seem to go away at times during his stay.

 

It was as he was digging his claws into the back of his head that he lost focus on Weeks, remembering something the leader of the Lenak Petara had said to Anna and him a few days before.  Psychics, when they’re progging you, leave an itch at the back of your head.  The deeper they try to dig, the worse the itch gets.  Hand frozen against the back of his head, Flint scanned the rest of the crowd around Weeks, and spotted the source of his discomfort almost without a doubt.

 

Near a fruit vendor’s cart stood Lester Joelly in a flawless three-piece suit, supporting his boss, the Human leader of the Koikara Group, Sally Ridge.

 

The last thing Lester Joelly was expecting on this sunny afternoon stroll with Ms. Ridge was violence, particularly against his person.  So when Flint Ananham came streaking down the street toward him, Lester put on his best ‘let’s be friends’ business smile, and started to extend a hand to the larger Wererat.  But when Flint took the hand, he didn’t pump it up and down in a gentleman’s manner.  Instead, he pulled Joelly toward him and downward, thrusting a hard knee up into the Koikara agent’s gut.  Flint followed this up by grabbing Joelly by the scruff of his neck, Ridge by the back of her power suit jacket, and dragging them both off into a nearby apartment building’s entrance lobby.

 

When Joelly had his breath back, he lost it immediately again as Flint tossed both him and his boss to the tile floor.  Flint drew out one of his short swords, pointing the tip right down at Joelly’s throat.  “All right, which one of you is it,” he rasped.

 

“What are you talking about,” asked Joelly.

 

“Don’t try to mess me about, old son,” Flint said, flicking the blade against the side of Joelly’s snout, loosing a small trickle of blood.  “Which one of you is poking around in my head?”

 

“I was,” said Sally Ridge, finally coming out of the stasis the extended use of her powers left her in far too often for her liking.  She rubbed her temples and started to sit up, but Flint planted the flat of his boot against her chest and pushed her back down with a thump.

 

“Care to tell me why that is,” Flint asked.

 

“Ms. Ridge was only attempting to discover if you’ve been able to find anything out about these slayings going on,” said Joelly, trying to scrabble a little away from the Wererat Thug.  “Cousin,” he added with a grumble.  Flint looked puzzled for a moment, and then sheathed his sword.

 

“Oh hey, yeah,” he said, snapping his fingers.  “I thought I recognized you.  You got a cousin married my sister Denise, right,” asked Flint.

 

“Indeed.  We met at the wedding a couple of years back.”

 

“That’s right, that’s right.  You were the only one in a suit that didn’t still have a price tag somewhere on it.”

 

“That’s because I actually purchased mine from a tailor.  I didn’t have to steal it,” Lester said.  Sally, utterly perplexed by this byplay, stood speechless to one side of the rats.

 

“Are all of you people related somehow,” she asked in a quiet voice.

 

“No, we just believe in big families,” said Flint.  “Not like we have a choice.  Wererats are born with five to twelve of us to a litter.”

 

“By the gods, not even the Werewolves bear that many children at a time anymore,” she exclaimed.

 

“Hey, that don’t mean that all of us survive,” said Flint.  “I got three brothers and four sisters.  When we were all born, I had five brothers and seven sisters.  Two of my brothers died within a few days, and my sisters, well, a few of them let’s just say weren’t the most careful of children.”

 

“That’s horrible,” said Sally.

 

“That’s life.  Now why the hell should I not be ready to rip your stinkin’ throat out right now,” he asked Ridge, planting his hands on his hips, his right hand resting only an inch from one of his scabbards.  “I’m none too keen on the idea of having someone prying around in my head, lady.”

 

“Look, I explained that,” said Lester.  He straightened his tie, adjusting his blazer, brushing dust from his sleeves.  “We’ve come across so many dead zones in this city, though, that we’re not making much progress.”

 

“Dead zones,” asked Flint.  One of the building’s tenants came through the outer doors, nodded to each of the thieves in turn, and then bolted up the stairwell.  People didn’t like their trouble hot, fresh and waiting for them at home.

 

“Dead zones are areas or people in general that a Psychic can’t tap into without a tremendous effort,” explained Sally.  “Some dead zones can’t be penetrated by a Psychic’s abilities at all, and they’re called ‘blank zones’.  Two of our hosts, for instance, are blank zones, those being Mr. Twitch and Mr. Traedo.  Then there’s the bounty hunter, Mr. Quiet,” she said, shuddering slightly.  “But what bothers me the most is the volume of general areas that are dead zones.  I’ve been able to penetrate a couple of them, but most of what I pick up inside them is useless thoughts and ideas from people lacking a lot of imagination.”

 

“Ms. Ridge has been taxing herself a great deal, and when I spotted you earlier, Flint, I thought she might be able to glean something from you.  Was I wrong?”

 

“For now, yes,” said Flint.  “But don’t you worry.  If I find out anything of value, I’ll bring it to you myself.  We’re working with the Suns right now, which reminds me, I got to get going, cousin.  It was nice catching up,” he said, sarcasm dripping like oil from his tone.  Out the doors and onto the street, Flint Ananham was out of sight in seconds flat.  Sally fixed her power suit jacket and cleared her throat.

 

“And now, Mr. Joelly, I’d like to go back to the penthouse to rest before tonight’s Games.  With luck, he’ll have found something out by then.”

 

When the competitors reached the park that night, they were all rather surprised to hear Lee Toren announce that the Games would be postponed until the next night.  Surprised, and in a few cases, not a little suspicious.  But with the evening free, many of the thieves set out about the city to do what they did best; they thieved.

 

But not the Tacha Forus.  At Paul Stockton’s suggestion, four of their five members headed to a gaming hall to do a little harmless gambling, though Robert Saffis grumbled the whole while that they would be ‘pissing our money away’.  Mr. Brady excused himself, saying that he’d like to get a decent night’s sleep instead of always sleeping in until noon, and Paul was more than understanding.  “Just don’t go over to the red light district on your way back to your hotel,” he chided.  “We’ve got a chance of catching a few wins with luck. All you’ll be likely to catch is a disease, sonny boy,” he joked.

 

Brady promised his boss that he’d not be getting a hooker, and kept true to his word.  He would not pick up a prostitute, no, he had other things to do this night.  And he would begin his evening’s work by heading right to the home of Mr. Twitch.  Brady stalked the dark, foggy streets of Ja-Wen’s fourteenth district, making his way north and east.  In the privacy of an alley, he unhinged a sewer grate near his feet swiftly.  A long, serpentine creature seemingly made of the shadows themselves slithered along its belly up to him, baring its slanted crimson eyes up in question.

 

“Go through and make sure it’s clear,” Brady said to the creature, and off it went, down into the depths of Ja-Wen’s public sewer works.  Brady leaned against the alley wall, lighting a cigarette amid the fog, its cherry the only nearby source of light.  It would be about twenty minutes until his mysterious emissary completed its task, and he could afford to relax while he waited.  Or so he thought, at least, until four minutes passed.  At that moment, he sensed a deep chill in the air around him, not so much a drop in air temperature, but almost the sudden intrusion of a deathly presence.

 

“That was an interesting trick, Mr. Brady,” said a voice almost directly above him.  The flat, deep rumble of that inflectionless voice informed Brady instantly who had been watching him, where from the sense of dread had come.  He found himself spinning away from the one alley wall to the other, looking up at Portenda the Quiet as the heavyset Simpa landed nimbly after dropping from the side of the building Brady had been leaning against. “There’s not many as could do such things.”

 

“Look, buddy, before you jump to any conclusions,” Brady started, stammering, backing away from the hulking bounty hunter.  The smell of his own sweat started to invade Brady’s nostrils, he could feel his blood pounding in his head, rushing past his ears.

 

“Take it easy,” Portenda said, putting his empty hands up to shoulder height in a show of peace.  “I was just curious, that’s all.  After all, I couldn’t find any data on you anywhere.  Mind you, I couldn’t access all of my usual resources, but that’s still relatively unusual.  And besides,” he said, pulling out a small metal artifact from one of his hip pouches.  “I’m not one to jump to conclusions.  If you were demonic, this would have started screaming at me.”

 

The object he held was, in fact, a small replica of a full cover helmet, the sort typically worn by Paladins.  The artifact used a form of magic which, in the presence of the demonic, caused the face plate on the helmet to open and a woman’s shriek to come crying out.  He’d had one on hand at his apartment here in the city, thankfully, and as he had hoped, it had not reacted at all to its proximity to Mr. Brady.

 

“A Bellowing Helm,” said Brady, grinning, calming down a little.  He didn’t sense the strange aura of hostility emanating off of the Simpa anymore, but he felt certain that, if he were demonic in nature, he would not have lived long enough to be afraid.  “I haven’t seen one of those in a few years.”

 

“So then, that leaves me with two options.  You’re either a Sidalis of the sort I’ve never heard or seen of, or you’re a shadeling,” said Portenda levelly. “Which is it?”

 

“The latter, actually,” said Brady.  “We’re almost extinct, you know.”  He lit another cigarette to replace the one he’d dropped in his surprise at the bounty hunter’s appearance, inhaling deeply on it.  “Not many of us get civilized, and we wind up being food for the wild Troke of the realms.”

 

“They’re your natural predators, aren’t they,” asked Portenda.

 

“That’s right.  I must say, you’re a very well read man, Mr. Quiet.”

 

“I try to be. Research has its benefits, that much is for certain.  Mr. Brady, believe it or not, I have a small favor to ask of you.”

 

“Oh?”  Brady tilted his head to one side, curious.  “What sort of a favor could you possibly want from somebody like myself?”

 

“It’s a simple thing, really, and it won’t take you out of your way, I think,” said Portenda.  “I want you to get yourself down to the coroner’s office over at the twelfth precinct house.  The late Councilor Sado, her personal affects should still be with her body down there.  I want a piece of jewelry, anything she might have been wearing at the time of her death.”

 

“Since when are bounty hunters grave robbers,” asked Brady.

 

“We’re not.  You’re not going to collect it for me.  You’re going to take it to Akimaru Tendo, of the Midnight Suns,” Portenda said, turning away from Brady.  “And by the way, Mr. Brady?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“This is not a request.  This is a favor.  Do you know what that means?” The shadeling sighed, hanging his head but grinning despite himself.

 

“It means I can’t charge you for it if I decide to go ahead and do it.”

 

“Precisely.  You may want to make your decision quickly.  The body will be moved in the morning to be prepared for her funeral.  At that time, since she has no family to claim her, her personal affects will become property of the state.  Get moving, in other words.”  And with that single encounter, Portenda the Quiet set in motion events that would change the Games in ways that had never been seen.

 

“I’m telling you, Mr. Twitch, he’s got her poking around.  Ridge is nothing without her lapdog, and he fits the profile for your little charade perfectly,” insisted Victor Flant.  The Lizardman Thug stood in Twitch’s study, blocking his view of the fireplace, which in and of itself he took as an offense.  For the time being, however, he would let it slide, because Flant had given him not only useful information, but an easy solution to the problem.  “He’ll never suspect me of anything, not until it’s too late.  Let me kill him.”

 

“You don’t like Mr. Joelly very much, do you,” Twitch asked in the calm, cultured manner he knew got under a lot of peoples’ skins.

 

“Truth be told, I’ve wanted to rip his whiskers out of his face for years now,” Flant spat, snatching at the empty air to emphasize his point.  “So even if I get caught at it, it won’t be any big surprise.  Besides, they can’t link me to any of the others you’ve had done in.  With this necklace you gave me,” he said, tapping the white gold links around his neck, “Ridge doesn’t know anything.”

 

“She could, though, if she tried hard enough,” said Twitch.  “White gold is a wonderful material, naturally imbued with magic, but that magic is not infallible, Mr. Flant.  She can break through its protection with time and effort.”

 

“But not in time to do anything about it,” said Flant.  “Just let me take this one chance, Mr. Twitch.  Sir,” he said, and that, as they sometimes say, won the golden goose.  It was the way he said the word, with honest deference to Twitch as his leader, as his master.  Twitch smiled widely, and peered at the small lick of the fire in his hearth that Flant’s body wasn’t blocking from sight.

 

“You may proceed, Mr. Flant.  In the event you are indeed caught, I shall have the city’s finest attorney brought to your defense, rest assured.”  Flant gave him a small bow, the best he could muster, and was out of the study and the manor itself in less than two minutes.  “What an eager young man,” Twitch said to the fire.  “Useful little pet.”

 

Jefe Gabriez sat at the craps table, watching Paul Stockton winning more and more of his money, and what bugged him was that the little Gnome appeared to be doing by sheer luck.  But after a few more rolls, Stockton appeared to do some quick tabulation, and then announced that he would be quitting while he was ahead.  “Good,” said Jefe.  “I don’t want to lose all of my money tonight.”

 

“Heh heh.  No hard feelings, mate,” said Stockton, getting down from his stool with Robert Saffis’s help.

 

“No, senor.  We will see you tomorrow night, when the Games continue.”  Paul waved a farewell, Robert helping him cash out since Paul had been given one or two too many complementary drinks on the house.  The gaming hall would be shutting operations in a couple of hours, and Jefe, annoyed by his losses thus far, was not too worried about the money.  He was worried about Esmerelda’s absence.

 

Of the entire group, Esmerelda was the one he depended on most to be stable, steady, and predictable.  But for the last couple of days, she had seemed distracted.  He would have to make a point to talk to her about this as soon as he could.  Maybe when they gathered for the Games the next night.  He presumed that the majority of her behavior was because of Seth’s unexpected murder.  He had no idea that she ascribed to a simple philosophy regarding that sort of grief, and that was this; if you want to get over something, you have to get under someone.

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