Chapter Ten

 

Closing In

 

While Sally Ridge was having her revelations in the form of a future-based Flash Sight, Esmerelda Logan and Stephanie Claudis came back up the broken walkway toward Jefe and Gabriel.  Stephanie, immediately sensing that all was not right with the boss and Gabe, looked back and forth between the two of them.  “What’s wrong,” she asked.

 

“I found Lester Joelly,” said Jefe.  “He was dumped in there,” he said, hooking a thumb toward the decrepit church to their side.  “Whoever did it probably didn’t think anybody would find him there.  We should wait until later in the day to try and contact Ridge and tell her.  Her head of security, what’s his name?  Flant?  He’ll need to know too.”

 

“That’s terrible, but we should stay focused,” said Esmerelda.  She held up a small object between thumb and forefinger.  “There were three of these,” she said, handing it to Jefe.  He turned it over in his hand, and found that he was looking at a small ivory Pok-chi game piece.  “I say we get this to the man the instruction sheets told us to right away, so we can move on.”  Jefe agreed, and the Pack of Liars moved out.

 

It had been Gabriel who had known right away what the ‘Great Book’ mentioned in the instructions meant.  The Wondrous Read was a small rare books dealership on the south end of the city, and if one simply used a synonym, they could come up with Great Book.  Behind the shop they discovered a civilized Imp, dressed in the garb of a high class waiter, his wings folded up behind him as he leaned back smoking a cigarette and scanning a magazine.

 

“Um, sir,” asked Stephanie hesitantly.  The tiny creature, its glowing red eyes lighting his black, scaly features, turned its attention on her.  “We, um, have something for you.”

 

“Oh, do ye now,” rasped the Imp, puffing out blue smoke.  Jefe stepped up to him, kneeling down and offering up the Pok-chi piece.  “Ah, yes, Lee said someone might be bringing these around.  Very well.  Your instruction sheet, what does it say next?”  Jefe looked over his sheet, and scanned the next clue. ‘Ask you then for the key to that which must be used for bargaining’, it read. He read this back to the Imp, who nodded.  “Right, right.  Now, I’ve got three keys here,” said the Imp, producing three metal keys, each painted a different color.  “You get to pick, either red, blue, or yellow.  You get one choice, and no changing your mind.”

 

“We’ll take the red one,” said Esmerelda.  Jefe glared at her, but nodded, and the Imp passed the key over to him.

 

“Very well,” said the Imp, pulling a small pocket notebook from his vest. He flipped a few pages, cleared his throat, and proceeded to read aloud. “Ahem.  ‘If the key be red, then you shall use it in the place of the dead.  There shall you find, from time out of mind, a fellow who tells you where next you should go’.  And that’s all, folks.”  The Pack of Liars all looked to one another, and every one of them knew right away what next they had to do.

 

“Let’s check those cemeteries,” said Gabe.

 

“Ma’am,” said Norbert, calling Sally Ridge’s attention from the futon, where she was enjoying a read through a romance novel.  She set the book down and crossed the room to his work station.  “One of our people just spotted them.  He says they look kind of busy.”

 

“Where are they?”

 

“Brookwood Cemetery.  Our man said he just saw them unlock a crypt of some sort and head inside.”

 

“They’re concentrating on the treasure event right now.  Have him wait for them to exit the grounds and then he’s to approach them.  Make certain he knows not to come at them with any hostility.”

 

“Oh, I think he knows better, ma’am, or he wouldn’t have checked in first,” said Channel.  “I’ve got three other operatives moving in to provide support.”

 

“Excellent.  And Flint?”

 

“No word as yet on him, ma’am,” said the Gnome, tapping away on his keyboard.  “We’ve been able to locate Harley Morerock and Yvonne Wendil as well, but they’re with Parthridge.  What should we do about that, ma’am?”

 

“Nothing for now.  Keep an eye on them, and tell our men that the moment the Cuyotai breaks company with the other two they’re to move in and invite them up.  We don’t have time to waste.”

 

“Understood, ma’am.”  Sally returned to the couch and opened her book, taking up where she’d left off.  For just a moment, she wished she could be like the woman in her novel, wrapped up in the arms of some burly man who would protect and ravish her with equal ardour.  But such fiction, she thought, is never so easy to achieve.

 

“You say he used a hatchet and a long knife,” Portenda asked Akimaru as the two men sat in the office of one of his apartment buildings, a maintenance checklist in front of him on the desk.

 

“Yes.  If those weapons could be located, they could be brought to the authorities.”

 

“While that’s true, we’d need to get a hold of them.  As a bounty hunter, I can go pretty much where I like, but if I’m working directly with the police, I can’t just go busting into somebody’s home.  Not without a good reason,” he said.  “Of course, that doesn’t stop you, now does it?”

 

“No, it most certainly doesn’t, but I am not sure where he would keep such objects,” admitted Akimaru.  “Supposing he lives in Twitch’s manor, how do I locate his private quarters?”

 

“That much you can actually leave up to me,” said Portenda, pushing his rolling swivel chair over to a tall filing cabinet.  He rummaged around in the bottom drawer for a moment, and then brought back a construction blueprint for Twitch’s estate.  He unrolled it, and pointed out to Akimaru what the Ninja could already see for himself.  “All of the private suites are located on the outer perimeter of the manor.  You should be able to locate Traedo’s chambers relatively easily with that arrangement.  You’ll have to wait until tonight to check it out, though, and there’s an event on, isn’t there?”

 

“Sensei Fly has given me leave to pursue this,” said Akimaru tersely. “This takes precedence over the Games.”

 

“Never thought I’d hear a guild member say such a thing,” said Portenda, putting the blueprint back.  “But then again, you’re absolutely right.  Traedo’s fingerprints are on file with the city, thankfully.”  Akimaru gave him a curious tilt of his head.  “About twelve years ago, when he applied for a bartender’s license so he could put a private bar in the manor.  That was before Twitch’s time, so I doubt he’d know.”

 

“Very useful.”

 

“Yes, and the sort of thing anybody could easily forget about.  Now, you should get to it, and I have work to do around here today.”  Akimaru stood, gave the Simpa a bow of deep respect, and left the apartment building. Portenda looked over his checklist and shook his head.  “I’ve got to start hiring some helping hands around here.”

 

The Pack of Liars, the Sisters of Night (minus Cailee), and Flint Ananham sat in the conference room at the Koikara Group’s private corporate housing building in the center of the city a little after noon, none of them pleased to be there.  Each of them had been approached by men in black suits wearing blue and white armbands, and asked to kindly follow them to Ms. Ridge’s building. They had been rather heavily armed, and though they weren’t holding their weapons when they asked for those gathered her to come with them, the implied threat had been obvious.

 

“Nice table,” commented Gabe, if for no other reason than to break the awkward silence.

 

“Nicer paintings,” commented Flint, looking around at the genuine masterpieces gracing the walls of the conference room.  He tallied the low end values in his head quickly, and figured that he could fence all of these paintings for around five thousand coin, total.  If they were genuine, and from what he could see, he had no reason to think otherwise.  “What do you think,” he asked Stephanie, who had seated herself next to him.  But Flint saw that her eyes were locked on Helen Vanik and Amanda Setine, who were being a little too friendly with one another, considering they were among company.

 

The doors at the other end of the meeting room opened and Sally Ridge, along with Turpin, Norbert Channel, and a waifish Half-Elf woman in a paramilitary outfit, came striding into the room.  The Half-Elf closed the doors behind them, and then stood with her hands behind her back against the doors.  Flint saw no weapons on the woman’s person, but could sense the faint crackling of mana coming off of her.  A mage, then, he thought.  I wonder what sort.

 

“I’d like to thank you all for coming,” Sally Ridge began.  “As Mr. Ananham already knows, I am a Psychic, and I am privy to certain knowledge that may become useful to us all in the near future.  I have, this very morning, had a vision.  Before I go on, though, do you two think you could cool it for a few minutes?”  She planted her hands on her hips, and was glaring daggers at Helen Vanik and Amanda Setine.  Setine got up off of Vanik’s lap and seated herself right next to her, but they seemed to have received their scolding well. “Thank you.  Now, this vision I had concerns everybody in this room.  Before I proceed, though,” she said, now turning her eyes on Jefe Gabriez.  “There’s something you’re itching to tell me, isn’t there?”

 

“We found your man,” Jefe blurted out.  All eyes swung toward him. “Lester Joelly.  Looked like he’d been beaten to death, bronze hole burns in his head and neck.  Maybe spikes.”

 

“And that, as they say, would be the deal breaker,” Norbert Channel sighed behind Sally.  The Human Psychic nodded.

 

“Well then, I’d like to first introduce you to my new head of security staff, Ms. Victoria Lepash,” said Ridge.  The Half-Elf woman gave the room a general nod of acknowledgement.  “She’s a very capable mage, studying several forms of magic so as not to pigeonhole herself.  She will be replacing Victor Flant in the Games, and in the post of my Chief of Security.”

 

“Wait a minute,” said Flint.  “Why’s that?”

 

“Because, Mr. Ananham, I believe it was Victor who killed Mr. Joelly,” said Sally.  “And until we can locate him and I can dive into his mind, we won’t know for sure why.  I know he has never cared for Lester, and Victor has always had a temper, but I think it would take more than that for him to kill one of our own.  I have questions for him, and I want answers.  Now, let me tell you about my vision.  You’ll all understand why I called you here when you’ve heard my story.”

 

And so she told them, over the course of the next half an hour, exactly what she saw in store for them all.

 

Paul Stockton, excited though he was, was not looking forward to this next step in the treasure event, but it was absolutely necessary.  Tired, confused and at a loss for what step they should take next, the Tacha Forus split up and headed back for their separate hotel rooms.  They all needed to get some sleep before meeting up again and continuing forward.  That meant time for somebody else to potentially catch up to them.

 

Kenneth had turned out to be quite the surprise for him and the others of the group.  Already with his assistance, they had deciphered three of the clues on the list of instructions, and he felt confident that within the next forty-eight hours, they would be able to locate the gold-rank treasure and thus win the event.  They could use the points toward the competition.

 

Across town, situated in his own cozy hotel suite, Brailor was not feeling so tired.  But that was owed largely to the fact that Ridley Poe, the Shades’ second-in-command, was seated at the dining table in the den of the rented chambers, sipping idly from a goblet of wine that he’d helped himself to from the bar.  Brailor remained standing by the doorway between the den and his bedroom, having crossed all the way to it before even taking notice of the Illeck Aeromancer.  Not a single word had passed between the two men for ten long minutes now, each one holding his position.

 

“Won’t you join me in a drink, Mr. Brailor,” Poe finally said, indicating the other seat at the table.  “I’ve already taken the liberty of pouring you a glass.”

 

“I don’t drink.  Well, not often.  And not that stuff.”

 

“Ah, not to your liking?  I admit, it’s not the very best vintage, but I could always ring room service for a finer sampling.”

 

“I meant wine in general, Mr. Poe.  It’s a bit too fancy for my liking.”

 

“Yet you’ve rented quite the expensive little suite for yourself,” said Poe. He sipped his wine and smiled like a demon completing a contract for somebody’s soul.  “Surely you enjoy some of the finer things in life.”

 

“I like having space is all, Poe.  Nothing more,” said Brailor, yet he made his way to the offered seat and settled in.  Under the table, he slowly reached his left hand toward his ankle, where he kept a small caliber revolver, his only concession to mecha weaponry.  Yet when his fingers touched the weapon, probing the chambers, he found them empty.  Poe put his own left hand out over the table, and with a clinking of metal on wood, deposited the six bullets he’d used his wind magic to remove.  “I see you have me at a bit of a disadvantage,” Brailor said with mock politeness.

 

“That’s an understatement of the highest degree, Mr. Brailor.  So, you’re probably wondering why I’m here, I imagine.”

 

“The question crossed my mind, yeah.”

 

“Well, Mr. Twitch insisted I keep an eye on your little group.  Apparently your Mr. O’Toole used to be an accomplished student of Literary Arts and History at Ja-Wen University.  We believe he has the best chance of deciphering the clues for the gold-rank treasure in our current event.  And so I have been asked to come and ask you where you’ll be taking your next step.”

 

“Ah, that’s what this is about,” said Brailor, relaxing a little.  He leaned back in his chair, and thought over his options.  He had a few knives hidden throughout the suite, and while the rules of the Games forbade him from killing this stuffy little prick outright, he wasn’t disallowed to bring him to grievous injury.  It might even be fun, if he could figure a way around the man’s wind magic.

 

“Indeed.  Mr. Twitch doesn’t have the time or patience for this sort of game, and we of the Shades do all that we can to keep our master happy.  So, tell me what your next step is, and I shall leave you in peace.”

 

“I somehow doubt that,” said Brailor.  He tried to remember if he’d strapped any weapons within his reach right now, and remembered the serrated combat knife he had taped to the bottom of the table.  “But you know, I wouldn’t feel quite right, betraying my co-workers and my boss like that.  I’d have to be compensated appropriately, so that I could justify that sort of breach of trust,” he said, leaning with his elbows on the table like a greedy miser.

 

“Ah, I had thought as much,” said Poe, exuding the sort of confidence that always made Brailor sick.  Hoity-toity society bitch, the Human Rogue thought.  They’re all alike.  Think they can buy anything and everything they set eyes on.  Poe set his glass down after draining it, and started reaching for his belt to untie a coin pouch. The moment his eyes moved down to the belt from Brailor, the Tacha Forus employee reached under the table and hauled it up and forward, bringing it down on top of the surprised Ridley Poe.  The Illeck landed on the floor with a dazed ‘Hoompf!’  Brailor snatched the knife from its spot on the bottom of the table and rounded it in a couple of short steps, kneeling next to Poe and holding the blade to his face.

 

“Now you listen to me, you pointy-eared git,” he breathed at Poe, who lay prone under the table, unmoving.  “Your sorcery is real impressive, and you’re clearly a man of taste.  You’re a man of pretty lies and false promises. Me?  I like a beer and a loose woman willing to sell herself cheap on a Friday night, and I like folks who speak plain,” he continued, pressing the tip of the knife against Poe’s cheek, just next to his hawk-like nose.  “I like the mates I work with, and I appreciate hard work.  In short, Mr. Poe, I don’t like people like you.”  He twitched his hand downward, opening a deep gash in Poe’s cheek. The Illeck squealed at the wound and thrashed out from under the table, getting to his feet and holding his wounded face.  But Brailor had kept right with him, and now had the tip of the weapon pressed an inch from Poe’s gut. “Go ahead, try your magic.  I’m free to defend myself from you, and if need be, by lethal force.  So try something,” he said with a horrible smile.  “I’ll send your Mr. Twitch one hell of a corpse.”

 

Poe did no such thing, taking a wary step back toward the suite’s front door.  Brailor watched him go, hustling away once he had the door open.  The Human righted the table, put the knife in a new location (under the chair), and picked up the bottle of wine.  He took it with him to his room, and enjoyed a single pull on it before dropping into the peace of slumber.

 

Lee Toren sat in his usual spot in the Goo Jaru Tavern, enjoying an ale and contemplating the immediate future.  Judge Armand Tortulona, the Human lesser judge for the Games this year, had failed to mention that he had formerly been a member of the Shades after his own syndicate had gone belly-up.  It only came to Lee’s attention after asking Portenda to do a background check, which, of course, the Simpa had already performed.  Tortulona had jumped around quite a few places, in fact, but the fact that he’d been a Shade was significant to Lee’s thinking.  It meant the man might be biased in their favor and decide to turn a blind eye to breaches in the rules of the Games.

 

But that, of course, would explain how the Shades had always managed to stay in third or second place throughout the Games.  Of the points the Shades had accumulated thus far, Lee held the highest amount of suspicion for the Foot Race, which Ridley Poe should not have been able to win in a million years, not without cheating.  The problem therein lie with the wording of the Games’ rules, though.  ‘Don’t get caught cheating’ was all it basically said, and nobody had caught him at it.

 

Added to that as well was Lee’s sneaking suspicion that he’d seen the purportedly deceased Wreck not two hours earlier, securing a train ticket out of the city at the station.  If it had indeed been the missing Wererat, why wasn’t he taking himself back to Twitch and the Shades, to assure them that he was all right?  But Lee was getting on in years, and couldn’t always trust his eyes to tell him what he needed to know.  He couldn’t be sure it had been Wreck at all.

 

The suspicions roiling around these Games were heavier than any he’d ever experienced in the twelve times he’d attended them, either as a sign-on operative and competitor or as a judge.  Nobody trusted anybody not in their own group, and Lee was starting to see proof that the guilds and groups were starting to possibly suspect their own people too. The only ones who seemed to be keeping a completely clear head about everything were the Shades and Helen Vanik and Amanda Setine of the Sisters of Night.  Not much of a surprise there, though, he thought dismally.  They’ve got each other, and not much else seems to really make a dent in their little reality.

 

After heading to the barkeep for another ale, Lee returned to his table to find himself in company with a guest in the form of Turpin, the Ninja agent with the Koikara Group.  “Ah, Mr. Turpin,” said Lee, offering him a handshake. Turpin accepted, pumping his hand briskly, and then peering around the tavern to ensure that nobody was eavesdropping.  “Somefin’ I can help you wif?”

 

“Yes, High Judge.  It’s with regards to a replacement in our group.  We’re going to be pulling Victor Flant from the Games, and replacing him with Ms. Victoria Lepash.  She will also be assuming his post within the company.”

 

“Ah, I see.  Making unreasonable demands, was he,” asked Lee, drinking off some of his ale.

 

“No. We have reason to believe he murdered Mr. Joelly,” said Turpin. Lee sprayed foamy ale all over the table and himself, gasping as he tried to recover his senses at this development.  “With the assistance of the Sisters of Night and the Pack of Liars, we are going to apprehend him and turn him over to the police.  So long as that’s not against the rules.”

 

“No, no lad,” said Lee, visibly shaken.  He’d taken Flant for an asshole, capable of great violence, yes, but butchering one of his own?  He didn’t think it possible before this.  “A guild or group is fully allowed to deal with its own members in any fashion they deem necessary.  I’ll inform the other judges of this change in circumstances.”  Turpin gave him a small nod of the head, and then eased his way through the crowded masses piling up in the tavern as afternoon rolled toward evening.  Lee Toren paid for one more drink, and then decided he needed an early night’s rest for once.  There was just too much going on for him to keep track of.

 

Watari Ichigo, the Human Fallen Knight working for the Lenak Petara, stood transfixed by the sight before him.  The group’s boss, Kimichi Kazuya, held a small metal globe in his hands, affixed with various strange occult symbols.  It was, without any doubt, the third-place ‘treasure’ the event called for.  “So, what do we do now, boss,” he asked.

 

“Now?  Now we make sure nobody thinks it’s gone just yet, because somebody else is bound to realize that the first two prizes are being heavily hunted for,” replied the Lizardman Ronin.  He handed the object to Jake Zero, who instantly grasped the object with his lower set of hands and applied his mutant power.  A shimmering flash of light coalesced between his upper hands, and an exact replica of the globe appeared there a moment later, steaming slightly.  Jake handed the copy to Kazuya, who put it back snugly in the niche in the wall.

 

Following the scavenger hunt instructions, the Lenak Petara had ultimately found themselves in the old equipment room of a high school gymnasium.  The building was slated to be demolished the following summer, and so it had served as a nice hiding place for the third-place ‘treasure’.  Now, as they exited the building via the gym’s back doors, they stepped out into the darkness of early evening.  “Well, we should go to the judges’ hotel suite and deliver this for our points,” said Jake Zero.

 

“Indeed.  Give it to Ichigo,” said Kazuya.  “Ichigo, you take it to the judges while the rest of us go fetch some rest.  We already have our ‘high value’ event entry at Kentaro’s place, so we don’t need to work ourselves needlessly,” said the Lizardman.  The others agreed, and the four men went their separate ways.

 

Stalking down the cobblestones of Bennett Avenue, Kazuya kept his eyes down and forward, his hands in a loose cloak, ready to draw his blade at a moment’s notice.  The night felt full of tension, an aura of bloodlust creeping out of the darkened places he strode through and past.  His tongue flickered in and out of his reptilian mouth, sniffing the air for any trace of something amiss.

 

But it was his ears that picked up the first clue that there was to be real trouble for him this night.  Approaching the corner of Bennett and Rope Street, Kazuya came to a stop, pressing himself flat against the side of an apartment building.  There weren’t many people out and about at this time of night, not in the fourth district.  It was a grubby portion of the city, often the hunting grounds of the less reputable sort of street agent.  Around the corner, he could hear the approach of thundering foot beats, heavy boots clomping down on loose cobblestones.

 

Then came the sound of a collision, no more than ten feet from the corner around which Kazuya stood.  There were the grunts and swipes of some sort of scuffle, which came to an end with a horrible series of wet, smacking, crunching noises.  “This is ridiculous,” he heard the winner of the combat grunt.  “These people used to work for me.”  There was the sound of someone sniffing hard and panting.  “Good thing I never showed them all of my tricks.”

 

The owner of the voice stepped into Kazuya’s view, his right profile revealed for a moment.  Victor Flant, his hands covered in bloodied, spiked gloves, strode past confidently.  No police officers would be patrolling out this way, not unless they came in force.  Risking a quick glance around the corner, Kazuya spotted a mauled Human in a business suit of sorts, his left arm bearing the white cloth band of the Koikara Group’s Security Division.

 

So, he’s gone turncoat, thought Kazuya.  And they exposed him.  This is none of my business, he thought.  But no sooner had he thought that than he turned and found Flant glaring at him, his hands clenched into fists.  “Hey, you’re that Ronin from the Fiefdom, aren’t you,” asked Flant.  Kazuya stepped away from the apartment building, nodding silently.  “Do yourself a favor and piss off.  This is none of your business.”

 

“Why are your own men after you,” Kazuya asked, his hands and body concealed within his cloak.  Flant pressed one flat finger against a slitted nostril and blew a wad of snot onto the street, as if dismissing Kazuya’s question altogether.

 

“As I said, none of your business.”

 

“Have you somehow interfered with the Games,” Kazuya asked, voicing a mere suspicion.  But the reaction in the other Lizardman’s eyes told him that he’d hit the mark straight on with his question.  “You should do the honorable thing and just turn yourself over to your security division.  They used to work under you.  I’m sure they’ll go easy on you if you just surrender.”

 

“I don’t surrender,” growled Flant, stepping toward Kazuya, bringing his fists up.  “And you should have kept your nose out of it!” The Thug charged at Kazuya then, his right fist coming up and crashing toward the smaller reptilian warrior.  Kazuya easily ducked and sidestepped away from the blow, one hand coming up out of the cloak to hold his straw farmer’s hat in place on his head. Flant adjusted himself after the missed blow, squaring himself with the Ronin. “Fancy footwork, friend, but it isn’t going to save you.”  Once more he came at Kazuya, using a jab-cross combination, but the Ronin once more displayed his agility, backing away from the jab and rolling aside from the cross.  The entire time, he kept only one hand out, on the brim of his hat.  “Hold still, will you?!”

 

Finally, Flant charged at him with a series of wild swings, hooks, jabs, crosses and uppercuts, all falling short or missing by mere fractions of an inch, the spikes of his gloves scraping against the thick leather of Kazuya’s cloak. After three such exchanges, as Flant prepared to launch another offensive, Kazuya tossed his straw hat deftly onto Flant’s blunted, reptilian face, blinding him.  The Ronin dashed forward, and there was a single flashline of silvery light in the dim twilight of evening.  Kazuya’s cloak fluttered about him, his left hand finally snapping his blade back into its hilt as the straw hat and Victor Flant’s face both split apart, cleanly cleaved in half.

 

“I don’t surrender so easily either, Mr. Flant,” he said.  As several Koikara Group Security men came rushing down the street, the Lizardman Ronin just hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the corpse he’d left behind.  The last of the men approaching he stopped with a single gesture of his hand, putting it gently on his shoulder.  “Inform Ms. Ridge that I would like a new straw hat, that same style, for helping you gentlemen.”

 

Twitch sat in his study, staring into the fire, wondering where Victor Flant was.  The Lizardman Thug was supposed to be helping him keep tabs on the movement of the Koikara Group, particularly for the ‘Treasure’ event. Ridley Poe had been embarrassed already that morning with Brailor of the Tacha Forus, which had enraged Mr. Twitch far more than he would have suspected it to.  He didn’t seem to be getting the sort of results he wanted. Thankfully, however, Ms. Cailee Parthridge had come through for him, letting him know that Yvonne Wendil was getting close to figuring out just who had written the instructions for the first-place item for the ‘Treasure’ event.  The moment Wendil found out who it was, Cailee would tell Twitch.

 

That would be where Wayne would come in handy once again.  He would use his own unique ways of getting information from the man or woman, and then dispose of them discreetly, so that the Sisters of Night could not duplicate the trick.  Yes, things were going well for Mr. Twitch.

 

Or so he thought.

 

“Like I said, it wasn’t anything personal, Headmaster.  I was just looking out for myself,” said Clarissa Weeks as she sat strapped to a chair in Thaddeus Fly’s rented hotel room.  Rage stood behind her, his hands clasped in front of his gut and his body rigid, at attention.  By the window stood Akimaru Tendo, leaning against the glass nonchalantly.  By the door into and out of the room was Niles Potts, one of only five Gnomes in the employ of the Midnight Suns. Seated on the edge of his bed, only a few feet away from the bound Ms. Weeks, Fly rolled a gold coin over his knuckles, back and forth, back and forth.

 

“It’s always personal with me, Clarissa,” said Fly.  “Now, the severity of your punishment is going to depend on a few factors.  The first of those factors is going to be if you want to tell me who else Twitch has managed to snag for himself from the other guilds. The second is going to be if you know what, if anything, he’s had to do with these slayings around town.  We may not have suffered any losses, but it is disgraceful to be so dishonorable among one’s peers.  And the last factor is going to be what you’ve told him about us, and what you agreed to do for him.”

 

Clarissa swallowed hard, because to her knowledge, Twitch hadn’t been directly involved in any of the slayings around Ja-Wen.  Certainly Wayne Traedo had been, but there was no way to prove it.  She didn’t know that Akimaru already had his suspicions, but the city’s police would not move to investigate the deaths of any contestants in the Games.  She assumed it was safe to tell the truth about that much, and so she did.

 

“Interesting,” said Fly when she was done.  “Anyone else working for him?”

 

“Victor Flant from Koikara, and Cailee Parthridge from the Sisters of Night,” she said.  “That’s all that I’m aware of.  And let’s not forget that the Shades lost Wreck, so I doubt they had anything to do with the other contestants.  I think Traedo was using those events as a cover to take care of some political obstacle with the Councilor.”

 

“That’d be pretty accurate,” said Rage, stumping everybody in the room. Fly cocked his head to one side at the lumbering Orc, who grinned widely.  “Like you said, boss, I kept my ears to the street.  Found out da Councilor used ta be a Shade herself.  She left da guild a few years back, went legit, got inta politics. But it turns out dat nobody leaves da Shades anymore, not without Twitch’s blessing.  If they try to, he sends Traedo after them.  Maybe not right away, but he gets around to it, eventually.”

 

“Well, that certainly is interesting,” said Fly, leaning back on his bed. “Akimaru, take Rage to Mr. Portenda the Quiet and share this new information with him.  I believe he will be interested in knowing that he can affect an arrest on Wayne Traedo, based on this third-party information.”  The white-clad Ninja and the Orc exited, leaving Weeks with just Fly and Niles Potts.

 

“Well, um, I suppose you can let me go now,” she asked meekly.

 

“Oh no, no, that won’t do at all,” said Fly, shaking his head.  “Mr. Potts, would you be so good as to take care of this?  I don’t wish to filthy myself with this traitor’s blood,” he said, moving to replace the Gnome by the door.  Potts walked over toward Weeks’s seat, and she began blubbering.

 

“Wait, wait, what are you going to do?  What’s going on?  Have you no mercy?”

 

“Mercy is for those who do not dishonor themselves, Ms. Weeks,” said Fly, stepping out into the hallway.  As Weeks bucked and struggled against the ropes binding her to the chair, Potts drew a pistol from his belt, fitted a small rubber device to the end of the barrel, and pressed it against the back of her head.  With a single pull of the trigger, the world went dark and silent for Clarissa Weeks, whose life had come to a very abrupt end.

 

Donald Pargas, Sergeant First Grade at the Ja-Wen Police 14th Precinct, sat at the duty desk, a relatively quiet night allowing him the time to enjoy his latest book purchase, a bloody little murder mystery by a fellow by the name of Graham.  The Dwarven Soldier never took it into his mind that anything exciting would happen when he worked the night shift, especially not in his precinct.

 

That changed in a manner of minutes, and the entire fracas was so hustled and to the point that he was left confused and befuddled afterward. First there was a crash as the front doors of his precinct house were battered aside by a Simpa so broad he could only think of the man as house-sized.  In the Simpa’s hands was a writhing, struggling man who appeared to be possessed of a broken face, multiple lacerations, and a stab wound in his left leg.  Said leg, or rather ankle attached to the leg, was what the Simpa (who appeared to be armed to the teeth) carried the man into the building by, and he was followed swiftly by a group of no less than ten other constables from various police precinct houses across the city.

 

The thrashing man twisted this way and that, and appeared for a moment to morph his leg into some sort of gelatinous goo, slipping out of the Simpa’s grasp to the floor.  One of the other officers, an Aeromancer, hurled a small cone of tornado force at the monocle-wearing weirdo, throwing him clear across the check-in station and through a bench reserved for citizens waiting for the release of someone being put out on bail.  The bench splintered apart, leaving only the groaning butler-looking fellow on the floor, slowly rising.

 

“Stand back,” roared the Simpa, and there was no mistaking the command in his voice.  He pulled some sort of small, rounded device with bumps all over it from his hip, pulled a small pin from it, and hurled it at the butler fellow.  A grenade, thought Pargas, in a police station?  Is that bloke insane?  He ducked down behind the duty desk, and heard a brief popping sound, followed by sharp, metallic clinking sounds.  When he popped his head back up, the butler fellow was encased in some sort of block of ice, and the constables were all arguing over who would have the honor of tossing the blighter into a secure cell.

 

The Simpa stalked over to the highest-ranking man in the chamber, an Elven gent bearing the cluster of a major, and shared a few mumbled words with him.  Then the big werelion was gone, and the officer in charge directed the other uniforms to the duty desk.  “Directions to the repression cells,” he said.  Pargas thought for a moment, then realized that the suspect encased in the block of ice was either a magic user or a Sidalis.  He remembered the way the man’s leg had turned to gel when the Simpa had been hauling him toward his work station.

 

“Um, down the west hallway, first basement level,” said the befuddled Pargas.  It wasn’t until almost an hour later that he learned that the man currently occupying that repression cell had been named as a suspect in the murder of Councilor Sado.

 

“This is not good, old friend,” said Lee Toren as he put a fine-toothed comb through his beard.  “It goes against the spirit of the Games entirely.  We haven’t had a single competition go unfinished in three centuries, do you understand?  Three hundred years, mate,” he said, looking into the mirror over the sink in his hotel bathroom.  Off to one side of him stood Flint Ananham, leaning against the wall and cleaning under his claws with a dagger.  “How did you come upon this bit of information anyhow?”

 

“I have a source, and that’s all you need to know for now, Lee.  Suffice it to say, I think she’s trustworthy.”

 

“A woman, then?  How did she happen to get to know you, if I may be so bold as to ask,” he asked, pulling the comb through his beard hard, yanking out a few thin gray hairs.

 

“Actually met her when I went to visit with my cousins earlier today, see how they were doing on their hunt for the second-place treasure prize.  They’ve come along quite nicely, actually, and I suspect they’ll be taking the points for the event.”

 

“That won’t matter much if what you’re telling me is true,” said Lee.  He opened the medicine cabinet, set the comb inside, and swung it shut hard. There came a knock on the front door of the hotel suite, and Flint tucked himself into the bathtub, drawing the curtain half shut as Lee nodded to him and stepped out into the main den.  The Gnome Pickpocket drew the door open and found himself looking up into the pinched features of one Mr. Ridley Poe, second-in-command of the Shades of Ja-Wen.

 

“Mr. Toren, if I may have a few words with you,” he asked brusquely, shoving his way past Lee despite getting no immediate reply.  He spun on his heel near the dining table set in the middle of the room, and crossed his arms over his narrow chest.  “There has been a regrettable incident, Mr. Toren, and we require that you and the other judges intervene.  It appears that someone has falsely accused our Wayne Traedo of murder in the case of Councilor Sylvia Sado,” he said.

 

“What’s the problem with accusing somebody of somefin,” asked Lee neutrally.

 

“He has been hauled off to the police by the bounty hunter you hired for these Games, Mr. Toren, that’s what the heart of the problem is,” groused the Illeck Aeromancer.  “We were told that the bounty hunter was under contract to absolutely not interfere with these Games!  And there is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Traedo did what he is accused of!  We of the Shades demand that his release be negotiated immediately, so that we may continue with the ongoing events taking place.”

 

The door of the suite opened quietly once again, and in the doorway just behind Lee Toren now stood the hulking Simpa bounty hunter.  His lips twitched with a smile, and he held I his right hand the ancient death engine he had been carrying for nearly thirty years now.  “Actually,” said Portenda, gaining both men’s attention.  “There was plenty of evidence, now that the right police officers have retrieved a sample of your mutant’s hair.  They went back over the Councilor’s house with a find-toothed comb after I turned him over, and they found a matching sample by the kitchen window, over the sink. He sometimes leaves a little behind when he pulls that mutant stunt of his, doesn’t he?”

 

Poe stood rooted in place, unable to even so much as breath properly. His master’s plans all appeared to be crashing down around their ears, and with Wayne locked up and Wreck already on a train to the Fiefdom of Lemago until the Games were at a close, their group was pared down to just himself, Mr. Twitch, and Tania Hardin.  He had to think frantically before formulating a proper question.

 

“And how did you come to question the involvement of Mr. Traedo in the first place, Mr. Quiet?  Unless the police had reason to suspect him, they could not sic you on him like the dog you are.”

 

“Actually, I’m feline, in case you hadn’t noticed,” said Portenda, taking one large, heavy step into the room.  “As for your man’s involvement, I received an anonymous tip, and that’s good enough for the Bounty Hunters’ Association to move on.  You should read your charters more carefully, Mr. Poe.”

 

Poe decided then and there that the only thing for it now would be to ask for a replacement voucher.  “Honorable judge Toren, since we have lost one member of our guild to murder and another to the legal system, I would like to petition for replacement members allowance into the Games,” he said reasonably.

 

“Denied.  You can replace Mr. Wreck, but Traedo made his own mess, Mr. Poe,” said Lee, turning away from the Illeck.  “Now get out of my chambers, lest I have Mr. Quiet remove you by force.”  Portenda thumbed back the hammer on his revolver, and Poe made a mad dash out of the hotel suite and then the building itself in a matter of minutes.  Lee sat down heavily in one of the chairs at the dining table, and sighed heavily.  Portenda put his gun away, and Flint came creeping out of the bathroom.

 

“Mr. Ananham, who is your information source,” the Simpa asked bluntly without looking at the Wererat.

 

“Like I told Lee, that’s to be private for now.  The woman is in a difficult position as it stands, and she shouldn’t be brought into the light until things become more clear on her end,” said Flint.  “But she has an idea about what’s really going on around this city, and if it weren’t for Akimaru, Rage and myself, we might not be able to figure any of this out.”

 

“Explain, if you would,” said Portenda.  Flint sat down with the other two men and told them that a certain woman, to remain nameless for the time being, was secretly investigating the Shades, had been for a couple of years now.  It had been Rage who had spotted the woman at first, and he had followed her back to a police station, despite the fact that the woman did not wear a uniform or appear to even be a plainclothes.  After several hours inside, the woman came out and Rage followed her to her home.

 

Telling Akimaru what he’d seen, the Orc left it to the white-clad Ninja to sneak into the woman’s home and lift something from her belongings that would allow him to scry the truth of her purpose and her activities with regards to the Games.  After receiving a ‘certain revelation’, as Flint put it, Akimaru immediately reported his findings to Flint himself.  From there, it had been a simple matter of making contact with the woman, and finding out what she knew and what she intended to do in terms of her investigation.

 

“To be very specific, she’s snooping on Twitch himself,” Flint finished. “She’s the one who issued the bounty ticket on Traedo and made the motions for a second sweep of the Councilor’s home.  And that isn’t all, Lee.  She informed me that there’s a problem with one of the judges, Tortulona,” said the Wererat.

 

“Let me guess, he’s still working with the Shades?”  Flint nodded, remaining silent.  Lee let out a long, exasperated sigh.  “Very well, then.  When this event is finished, we’ll have a big meet at the park, and we’ll hopefully get things resolved there.  You’re sure you can’t tell us who this informant of yours is?”

 

“No, Lee. Like I said, I don’t want to jeopardize her already precarious position,” said Flint.  He rose from his seat, making his way out of the suite. Portenda remained sentinel in his chair, staring off into nothingness for a moment.

 

“Oi there, you all right,” Lee asked him.  He went over to the bar and poured himself a drink.

 

“I’m fine.  I’ve just been thinking about all of the murders and backstabbing that have gone on throughout the Games this year.  It’s never been this bad, has it?”

 

“Not in all the time I’ve been judging for them,” said Lee.  He took a swig of the whiskey he’d poured, pinching his face up as it burned down his throat. “I think this is going to put an end to the Games altogether, mate.  And not just because of all of this bad business going on,” he said, leaning against the bar.

 

“Something else?”

 

“Yeah, but I can’t quite put my finger on it,” said Lee.  He looked up at the ceiling, taking in the scent of his drink and letting his thoughts slide loosely around in his head.  “It just feels like things are going to go through a big change, and that change isn’t too far off.  You ever get that feeling?”  But Lee looked to where Portenda had been seated, and found him gone like a spirit in the night.  “Talking to myself again.  That’s a bad habit, old boy,” he said.

 

Twitch had ever been a clever boy.  His mother had told him so, just before he’d struck the match and thrown it on her gasoline-soaked head all those years ago.  He had for years been able to manipulate his surroundings, make people do what he wanted them to do, and maneuver himself into ever-greater positions of power and authority in the underworld.  Now, though? Now things appeared to be turning quite sour on him, and in a rush.

 

Flant was dead.  One of Twitch’s spy agents had seen the Lizardman Thug cut down by Kimichi Kazuya.  He’d been found out by the Koikara Group, at least insofar as his murder of Lester Joelly was concerned.  They probably didn’t know that he’d been working for Twitch, but still, a broken tool is a broken tool, even if nobody can trace it back to you.

 

Poe had failed spectacularly yet again when trying to convince Lee Toren to allow them two replacements to be back at a full five agents for the Games. Therein he was surprised, but only because Lee had the assistance of Portenda the Quiet, the interfering bastard bounty hunter.  And then, lastly, there had been no word from Clarissa Weeks, whose company in the bedchamber he’d come to rather enjoy.  What could have happened to her?  He didn’t know, and lack of knowledge was ever the worrisome foe for a man like Mr. Twitch.

 

Sitting in front of the fireplace in his study, Twitch found that he was no longer concerned with winning the Games.  If they could finish in second or third place, he would be happy.  The added prestige of even placing would garner him more agents, and he would be able to spread the guild to other towns and cities, gaining even larger influence in the underworld.  He had worked tirelessly to get where he was now, and in a few short years, if things played out right for him, he would have an empire strong enough to completely dominate the criminal world he belonged to.

 

Perhaps a career in politics could follow on those coattails.

 

But that was getting ahead of himself, he thought.  For now, he had to perform some damage control.  He knew Wayne Traedo was a strong Sidalis, his will unshakable.  They could not get him to talk, not anytime soon.  But every man, no matter how strong, will eventually break under certain forms of pressure, and they needed to ensure that Wayne would not do that.  Calling down the hall for a runner, he sent a brief letter to his best of friends inside the Ja-Wen military police.

 

Some three hours later, the runner returned, coated in sweat, looking as nervous as he possibly could.  “What happened,” was all Twitch could think to ask as he stood before the hearth, his back to the flames.

 

“The lieutenant has been jailed, milord,” gasped the runner, a scrawny Human boy no older than twenty.  “He’s on suspected charges of corruption, sir.”  Twitch barely moved, but when he did decide to get his body under his control again, his first actions were not kind.  He drew a long knife from the back of his belt, buried it to the hilt in the runner’s throat, and pushed him to the floor.  All of his plans, falling apart.  How could it have come to this?  He’d been so careful, laid out his strategies so meticulously.

 

When he had a few of the boys finish cleaning up the runner and the mess he’d made, he asked one of them to go fetch him one of their other Sidalis operatives.  The mutant was brought to the study in short order, and Twitch gave him the simplest instructions he could.  The underling agreed and set out to cause some mischief, and Twitch seated himself before the fire once again.  He needed only to improvise, that was all.  He could bring these problems back under control.

 

After all, he was Mr. Twitch, Headmaster of the Shades.  Nothing was beyond his power.

 

Flint sat with Anna Deus, Helen Vanik, Kimichi Kazuya, Paul Stockton, Jefe Gabriez, Sally Ridge, and Thaddeus Fly, all of them gathered around a long table in the reserved section of Chez Gusteau, one of the most prominent restaurants in the city.  Seven guilds were represented, all of their leaders present for the meeting that Flint had arranged after speaking once again with his informant inside of the military police.

 

“You see, it’s all been about getting a leg up on all of you,” said the Wererat.  “And this isn’t the first time he’s done this sort of thing, either.  A few years back, he systematically dismantled another guild that used to run out of Ja-Wen here, the Brudwuk Brothers.  They were a Greenskin gang predominantly, and he had them all poisoned.  Well, most of them.  By the time he was done, none of the Brothers trusted each other, and they disbanded altogether.  He wound up getting a few of his biggest muscle from the remains.

 

“From the information I was able to get from my little helper on the inside, his real name isn’t even Twitch.    It’s Arthur Longly.  He’s from Palen originally.  Had a brief scrape with the law under that name, he was accused of killing his mother, Sarah Longly, by setting their house on fire.  But they couldn’t gather enough evidence against him, and they sent him on his way.

 

“He’s been watched ever since his second scrape with the law, when he was twenty,” said Flint.  He pulled a beige folder from his bag and passed it to Anna, who reviewed the first few sheets in the file and then passed it along. “He got into a throw down with a handful of toughs over in Whistlie, wound up shooting two of them to death with a mecha weapon he claimed he bought from a Wayfarer band in the northeast.  Served six months in Ja-Wen State Minimum Security Prison.  While he was in, he put together a gang of his own, and over the course of the next five years, as they were released, they came to Ja-Wen to wait for him.

 

“So here he comes along after his release, and pledges himself and all of his mates to the Shades.  Apparently, he made some sort of power grab with the help of Traedo, and the old Headmaster became so much chum out in the ocean, because he was never heard from or seen again, and Twitch suddenly had control of the guild.  He’s a real piece of work,” said Flint, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it.  “Apparently he’s already had a number of spy agents inserted into other groups and guilds around the continent.”

 

“What is he after,” asked Kazuya.  “Expansion?”

 

“More likely he wants to be the biggest boss of the underworld,” said Jefe Gabriez, reviewing the contents of the folder.  “This kind of puts a damper on the Games then, huh?”  He passed the folder on to Ridge, who was the final recipient of the file before she handed it back over to Flint without a glance inside.

 

“Not necessarily,” said Helen Vanik.  Without Amanda present to distract her, she was in top form in terms of thinking critically.  “We can continue on with the Games, but we have to just make sure that we don’t let on that we know anything.  There are plenty of skilled pretenders in our midst and our employ,” she said, looking around the table.  “But the purpose behind the Games has definitely changed.  We aren’t here to win anything anymore,” she said.  “We just need to keep the Shades distracted for now, until we can figure out a way of taking care of them permanently.”

 

“That’s already in the works,” said Flint.  “We just don’t know how long it’s going to take.”  The guild leaders gathered around then fell into casual conversation, and the waitresses eventually came back to take their orders. Flint slipped out of the restaurant, taking in the night air of Ja-Wen.  He longed for his hometown now, more than ever he had.  But the trip home wouldn’t be all doom and gloom.  Stephanie Claudis would be coming along for the trip back as well, and if he played his cards right, she would be sticking around with him for a goodly time to come.

 

Portenda handed the small device to the mutant before a pair of constables came and took him by the arms.  “You remember what to do, right?”

 

“Oh yeah, not a worry there,” said the Sidalis only a couple of hours ago charged with an important task by his Headmaster.  “But I want to be certain that those papers are completely legal and legit, first.  I’ve had a bad time trusting cops with anything.”

 

“Not a worry there, old son,” said the Elven major who’d helped bring in Traedo earlier.  “You’ll have a new identity, a guaranteed job with benefits, and a one-way ticket to Palen. Everything has already been seen to.”  The Sidalis, whose physical mutation didn’t make him unique (his arms were not attached to his body), nodded, and then let the officers carry him down to the repression cells.  He was tossed into the empty cell across from Traedo, who was sitting patiently on his cot, staring at the wall.  When the constables were gone, the butler adjusted his monocle and approached the bars of his cell.

 

“Ah, Mr. Peabody,” he said to the other mutant.  “I see you’ve been getting yourself into trouble again.  Whatever will the master think?”

 

“I’m not too worried about that right now,” said the man named Peabody.  “I only caused a ruckus so I could get in to make sure you’re okay.”

 

“You’re here to eliminate me, aren’t you,” Traedo asked flatly.  Peabody flinched, as that had been part of the instructions that Twitch had given him.

 

“Well, yeah,” he said sheepishly.  “But I gotta know something before I do it.”

 

“And what is that, dear boy?”

 

“Well, I mean, why did you kill the Councilor,” Peabody asked.  “I know you did it, and that’s why the boss sent me here, to make sure you didn’t squeal about anything else.  I just gotta know why you did it, you know?  I mean, not just her, but the others, too.”

 

“They were necessary steps to be taken, Mr. Peabody,” said Wayne, calm in the face of death.  The other mutant had already used the key given to him by one of the guards to unlock his cell, and was now approaching with a small two-shot firearm in his left hand.  “Master Twitch couldn’t have me just go and eliminate Rachel off the bat.  That would have aroused too many suspicions.”

 

“So he had you off Nellis and Logan first, huh?  What about Wreck?”

 

“Oh, pish, he’ll be on his way to the Fiefdom by now.  He’ll come back when the Games are over.”

 

“I see.  Well, this is nothing personal,” said the agent, leveling the gun at Traedo.

 

“No, I understand completely. Do what you must,” he said, closing his eyes and standing bravely at the ready.  He heard a click, but did not feel the bullet.  He also heard a beeping sound, and opened his eyes.  In Peabody’s right hand, Wayne saw to his horror, was a digital voice recorder, a device recently developed by the Gnome Scientific Front and put on the market for purchase. He had never suspected that such a simple device would be his master’s downfall.

 

“Thanks for the info, Wayne.  It’s been a real treat working with you,” said Peabody, sauntering back up the steps and into the main police station.

Comments

comments