Chapter Seven


Foot Race and Suspicions


After the event had been declared won by William Deus and the Hoods, the judges informed the competitors that the next event would take place during the next day at four in the afternoon, and they were to gather at the city’s eastern gates.  The judges then all three excused themselves, striking off into the night.  Most of the guild members dispersed as well, but for the exception of Flint, Akimaru, Rage, Jefe Gabriez and Jake Zero.  Unseen in the darkness near the bench they sat around, Mr. Brady of the Tacha Forus machine shop listened intently.


“It just doesn’t fit,” said Jake Zero to the heavier set Wererat, Jefe.  “Your cousin and our Koby didn’t have anything in common except for their species.”


“I t’ink dat’s the whole point,” offered Rage.  “Makes the whole story of racist punks more believable, but I ain’t buying it.”


“Nobody is,” said Flint.  “That’s why we’re sitting here, because none of us believes that line of crap.  Akimaru, is there any way you can find out what precinct sent the investigation squad to the scene at the dump?”  Giving no reply, Akimaru leaped away from the table, dashing off into the darkness of Ja-Wen’s nighttime.  “I’ll see what I can dig up on these racist groups around town.”


“We’ve already started looking into that,” said Jake Zero.  Flint cast a suspicious glance his way, but judged the four-armed mutant to be trustworthy, at least insofar as these matters went.


“Alright, then, perhaps there’s something else you can suggest?”


“Well, whatever we’re going to do, we should do it separately,” said Jefe.  “By the way, how was your date with Steph, cousin?”


“Oh, she’s a great girl,” said Flint, smiling toothily.  “Seems a little shy, though, she don’t like to talk much about herself does she?”


“No, not really,” replied Jefe.  “She’s always been that way, though. There are some things that just don’t change overnight, you know?”


“If you gentlemen will excuse me, I must return to my fellows,” said Jake Zero, excusing himself and heading out of the park along one of the main cement walkways.  Before Rage left their company, he turned to the Wererats with a grave expression, his brows furrowed in deep thought.


“If dat guy and his buddies do find a bunch of racist punks, they’re gonna kill ‘em, ain’t they?”  Neither Wererat replied right away, and Rage nodded his large green head.  “Hey, dat’s fine wit’ me.  Species discrimination is one of those things that shouldn’t be around anymore.  It’s a, whats-name, anachronism.  Take care, fellahs,” he said with a wave of one pan-sized hand.


Jefe and Flint remained in the park, catching up on old family ties, while Mr. Brady slunk away, part of the shadows themselves.


“I thought you should know,” said Clarissa Weeks as she sat across from Mr. Twitch before his grand fireplace in the study.  Twitch sipped his wine calmly, never once taking his eyes off of the roaring flames in the hearth.  “And I wouldn’t send one of your goons or the butler.  Akimaru is well capable of handling himself in combat.”


“I’ve no doubts about that at all,” said Twitch, his voice low, mellow.  “He is but one more obstacle to be removed from our path.  But such removal needn’t come in the form of elimination.  We need only inform our friends at the constabulary about your Ninja friend’s intentions.  Wayne?”


“Yes, master,” said the butler from the doorway.


“Have Mr. Poe send a runner to the seventeenth precinct station, and have him take care of the issue.”  Wayne Traedo gave Mr. Twitch a sweeping bow, and then turned on his heel to perform his duties.  “How did you happen to find this out, Clarissa?”


“I happened to overhear him talking to Headmaster Fly about it, along with that obnoxious Orc,” she said, running a hand through her hair.  “And there’s something else that’s bothering me, Mr. Twitch.”


“Oh?  What would that be, my dear,” Twitch asked.  He took a sip of his wine, his eyes locked on the patterns the flames in his hearth played in their brick housing.  So lovely, he thought, how some things burn.


“Well, in general, it’s the Tacha Forus.  I mean, do they really belong at these Games at all,” she asked, tilting her head to one side as she thought over what was on her mind.  “They run a machine shop.  Sure, they may rely on some underhanded business practices sometimes, but they’re not like the Koikara Group.  The shop isn’t solely a cover for them.”


“The Koikara Group is not just a shell for Ms. Ridge and her board of directors, either,” said Twitch.  “I have taken great pains, Ms. Weeks, to ensure that those I want here for the Games are here, so that I might, as with you, convince them to come work for me.  If they don’t wish to work for me and mine,” he said, finally looking away from the fire and directly into Clarissa’s eyes.  “Then they are just obstructions to be pressed aside.”  Clarissa understood full well, then, that the death of Seth Logan and Koby Nellis lay at the feet of the charming but egomaniacal may seated across from her.


As long as the pay stayed good, she couldn’t care less what Twitch did to the other competitors.


Thursday, it’s just another Thursday, thought Ignatious Stockholm as he stalked the corridors of the Hoods’ headquarters below the streets of Desanadron back west.  No big deal.  Besides, it isn’t even my real birthday.  I don’t technically have one of those.  But one must keep up appearances, he thought.  A handful of agents crossed his path during the morning hours, and all nodded to him respectfully.  Hollister, the guild’s most obvious Sidalis (being a turtle-man gives one away pretty easily as a mutant), even went so far as to wish him a happy birthday when he turned over a report.


“Thank you, Mr. Hollister,” Stockholm said, standing outside of his office door as he took the report.  “I’ll thank you, however, to keep that sort of thing quiet.”  He was about to open the door when he noticed the way that the Sidalis was backing slowly away from him, guardedly, his reptilian eyes locked on the doorknob under Stockholm’s red furred hand.  “Hollister, what’s the matter?”


The turtle-man shook his head nervously and emitted a little gulping sound at the back of his throat.  “Well, it’s just that, um, somebody went in there a few minutes ago, while I was waiting for you, sir,” said Hollister.  “Some of the guys, they seemed like they knew what this particular person was doing, going in there.  Um, sir, do you have a girlfriend by any chance?”


“No.  Why?”


“Well, I just assumed that the lady who’s in there might be such. She’s a nice-looking Cuyotai woman.  I mean, I knew you liked them, sir, but I didn’t figure you to mate outside of your specific species,” said Hollister, his green, soft cheeks flushing scarlet.  Stockholm didn’t like the sound of this at all.  A Cuyotai woman, likely someone he didn’t know in the slightest, was waiting for him in his office.  As a messenger and servant of the gods for untold years, he might expect it to be a deity in the guise of a Cuyotai woman.  Or perhaps it was someone looking to join the guild, somebody who’d been directed to his office when inquiring about who was in charge at the time.  Or, it could be an assassin, though the odds of that, he figured, were relatively low.


Stockholm moved away from the door, taking Hollister by the shoulder a few yards away.  He whispered, as quietly as a man of his size could, “Can you describe her?”


“Oh, certainly.  She was about six-foot-three, very athletic build, but curvy, you know?  Large chest, which I must say, sir, was practically spilling out of that little halter top she was wearing.  Very pretty, sir, nice green eyes.  Oh, and she didn’t have any weapons on her except a whip, right in plain sight on her left hip.”  Stockholm, still confused, thanked Hollister and sent the turtle-man on his way.


“What the devil is going on here,” he mused aloud, throwing open his office door.  The Cuyotai woman seated on the edge of his desk was everything that Hollister had said and then some.  Curvy, agile-looking, and with a light brown fur coloration that made Stockholm involuntarily think of the sands of the Desperation desert.  Her eyes, a brilliant emerald green, shone at him as he closed the door behind him.  “Can I help you,” he asked.


“Actually, I’m here to help you,” said the Cuyotai woman in a sultry, husky tone.  She sprang from the edge of his desk and stood right before him. In a single fluid motion, she removed her shirt, baring her bare upper body to him and rubbing against his muscled front.  “Your friend Mr. Flint asked me to give you a birthday present you won’t forget,” she cooed, turning around and pressing her buttocks against his groin.


“Out,” he said, barely audible.  The woman ceased her movement, spinning around suddenly.




“Out,” he screamed now, his eyes showing bloodshot in an instant, his arms rippling as he clenched his fists to keep from ripping the woman in half. She took the hint, though, putting her shirt back on as she fled down the corridor and then out of the sewers altogether.  Stockholm waved his hand stiffly at the door of his office, and it slammed shut hard enough to splinter the wood.  Oh, he had been sorely tempted in the past, rarely as badly as this, but it had happened.  The Red Tribe Werewolf had enjoyed the company of more than his fair share of women over the centuries, but he ran a terrible risk every time.


Ignatious Stockholm, exiled god, would have his exile extended if he should procreate.  This had already happened to him once, back in the Third Age, and he would not do it again.  As a preventative, he willed himself to alter his sexual preferences, which took a damned lot of effort on his part.


And now, to have some prostitute thrust upon him on a fake birthday, and all thanks to the nosy little rat he had to call ‘boss’.   But he would not contact Anna or Flint with the enchanted mirror.  He would wait, and let his anger brew, until it could become fury.  With luck, that fury would not transform into rage before Flint Ananham got back home.  If it did, the Wererat might wind up in a healer’s hut or a hospital for several weeks after Stockholm was done with him.


Anna sat in a small diner booth with red velvet padding, across from a man who she would normally not associate with.  While she respected what Kimichi Kazuya and his Lenak Petara had done in the Fiefdom township of Ricco, it was relatively small peanuts compared to the workload the Hoods put in on a daily basis.  They were in two completely different leagues, possibly not even playing the same game.


But Flint, who now sat next to her ordering enough burhacha to choke a horse, had suggested she speak with the Lenak Petara’s leader sometime throughout the day, so as to check on the progress of his men with regards to the investigation they were undertaking.  Fact-finding could be difficult when one had to avoid the police at all costs, so Anna didn’t expect much in terms of results.


“Jake, Watari and Nobuo caught up with a handful of punks about two hours ago,” said Kazuya, stirring his tea.  “They were racists all right, but their grudge was not with the Wererats.”


“Then who were they,” asked Anna.


“Members of a group calling themselves ‘Normals Against Mutation’. Needless to say, the four of them were not regarded kindly by Jake.  They will be found and taken to a hospital by mid-afternoon, I am assured,” said Kazuya. “There is something else, though, that I would like to tell you.”


“What’s that, mate,” asked Flint, tucking into the first of his burhacha. The dish, little more really than some spiced meat, cheese, lettuce and onions sprinkled with sour cream and wrapped in a soft white flour shell, disappeared in seconds.


“There is a Psychic among the competitors,” said Kazuya.  Flint and Anna said not a word, but they were not overly surprised. There seemed to be all sorts of interesting characters surrounding the Games this year.  “I would not have noticed, if not for the itching at the back of my head I get when the groups gather for the event announcements.  It’s a common symptom of being ‘progged’.”


“Excuse me, but what sort of word is that,” asked Anna.


“It’s a slang term, Mr. Deus, meaning mind-reading.  If someone ‘progs’ you, they’re reading your thoughts.  The intensity of the itch lets you know how deep the Psychic is delving into your mind,” said Kazuya.  “I only know of this because we of the Lenak Petara have one such person in our ranks, though he is not very skilled just yet.”


“Any idea who’s doing the ‘progging’ then,” asked Flint, wiping his mouth on a white and black camo sleeve.


“Not as yet,” said Kazuya.  “Over a short period of time, however, as a Psychic continues to use their mental powers, blue vein lines appear on their foreheads, usually starting at the temples.  My goodness, Mr. Ananham,” said the Lizardman Ronin.  “You sure know how to pack it in, huh?”


“It’s a gift of growing up with about fourteen siblings and a half-dozen cousins always visiting at meal time,” said the Wererat Thug with a grin.  He leaned back in the booth, tossing one arm up on the backing between their booth and the back corner wall of the diner.  “So somebody’s trying to read minds, we’ve got Wererats being murdered from the competition, and we’ve got very little information on our host for these Games, Mr. Twitch.  Sounds wonderful.”


“You should not complain,” said Kazuya flatly.  “Your Hoods are standing in first place right now.  The Shades are behind you by three points, the Midnight Suns by four.  I should think you are pleased by this.”


“Not really,” said Anna, sipping her coffee.  “There just seems to be too much going on at one time, and not all of it is good for us.  There’s Calvin to deal with as well,” she said, looking meaningfully at Flint.


“What?  Esmerelda’s a great girl, and she needs a boyfriend who can handle her, quite frankly,” said Flint of his cousin.  “So he’s being a flirty-birdy. What’s the harm in that?”  He took out one of his throwing knives and began picking at his teeth with it.


“Is there any harm in your dealings with this Stephanie woman,” Anna asked.  Flint’s hand stopped as he stiffened at her immediate rebuke, the tip having gone awry and dipping a few millimeters into his gum.  Blood dribbled down his knife, which he sheathed slowly, calmly.


“Sorry, boss,” said Flint, keeping his voice low.  “But not all of us are in the happy situation you are in terms of our love lives.  Even Stocky has it rough, though, he should be smiling like the devil himself about now.”


“If you will excuse me, I must go,” said Kazuya, sensing the tension building up in the Rogue he thought of as William Deus.  He left the table, and Flint immediately swished around the table and took his place across from Anna.


“Why do you say that, Flint?  What did you do?”


“Oh, nothing much.  I paid a lady of the ‘professional’ persuasion to give our big red friend some company for the day, is all.”  Anna’s eyes bulged out of her face at her Prime, the foolishness of his actions completely lost on him.  She could not give away what Stockholm considered to be a secret he kept from the members of the guild, but she had to find some way to warn Flint that what he had done was going to get him hurt when they got back home.  Ah, she thought, subtlety.


“Um, Flint?  You know, he has certain standards does our friend Stocky,” she said, looking down into her coffee mug.


“What do you mean?  The woman’s one of the best in the city, cost me a bundle.  She’s very clean, very discreet, and quite skilled.”


“You’ve used her before, haven’t you?”


“Does that make a difference?”  Flint finished his soda and the last of his burhachas, then wiped his mouth and shook his head.  “And she’s not just some bimbo, either.  She can entertain the man in more ways than those available in the bedroom.”


“How much did you pay for her,” Anna asked.


“Five hundred coin for a whole afternoon and night.  Why?”


“Oh, no reason,” said Anna with a playful light in her eyes.  “I just hope the money was well spent.  That could cover a lot of hospital bills, after all.” Mystified by his boss’s last statement, when Flint left the diner ten minutes after Anna’s departure, he wondered what she could have meant by that.


It would appear that somebody has been more clever than I, thought Akimaru Tendo as he searched in vain in the last evidence containment trunk in the precinct’s police station evidence chamber.  No trace of the knife that had been retrieved from the junkyard murders remained.  A pair of photographs was all that remained in an envelope marked ‘Nellis, Koby,’ pictures showing the words spray painted on his hotel room walls.  Akimaru had no use for these; somebody had already removed everything he might be able to scry.


Being descended from a Psychic and an elemental being, Akimaru’s physical prowess and rarely exhibited powers included the ability to scry inanimate objects, looking back into their recent history.  If someone threw away a food wrapper and the white-clad Ninja was nearby, by taking hold of the wrapper with his bare hands, he could watch a mental playback of that person’s experiences while in possession of the wrapper itself.  If the object remained stationary, he could view its surroundings for up to five years back from the time he touched it.


It had been a very useful ability over the years, but with the evidence from the crime scenes gone, he could view nothing.  The dumpster bin, having undergone extreme amounts of damage, could not be scryed either.  And lastly, he could not go to Nellis’s hotel room to investigate because police officers were still patrolling the hotel itself.  As he slipped out of the police station through a series of air ducts that emptied out into a side alley, Akimaru tried to think about how to proceed.


“Find anything interesting,” asked an unfamiliar voice.  Akimaru spun to his left, a knife in his hand faster than the normal eye could follow and pressed against the nape of one Mr. Brady’s neck.  The man from the Tacha Forus was dressed in his mechanic’s blues, his dull brown eyes serene as he leaned back against the alley’s wall, his hands up to either side of his face to show he meant no harm.  “Easy, buddy.  I got no qualms with you.”  Akimaru drew the blade a few inches away, but kept it out and toward Brady.


“What are you doing here?  Should you not be preparing for tomorrow’s event?”


“Actually, I was listening in last night when you and those rats were discussing the late Seth Logan and Koby Nellis.  None of you believes it was a bunch of punks, and frankly, neither do I.  The boss, though, he doesn’t want anything to do with all of that stuff.”


“How did you evade my perception, Mr. Brady,” Akimaru asked, his usually calm demeanor wavering, his voice rising a notch to sound just the slightest bit testy.  “I think I would know if you had been nearby during my conversation last night.”


“Let’s just say that we all have our own unique talents, Mr. Tendo,” said Brady, easing down the alley a couple of feet to keep distance between himself and the Ninja’s blade.  “I can help you, if you’d like.  I may have noticed something that may be of great interest, in fact, to you and your Headmaster.”


“Information, I presume?”  Akimaru sheathed his knife and folded his arms over his chest.  He was skeptical, but if Brady had anything to tell him that was worthwhile, he might consider letting the man leave the alley without injury.


“You presume correctly.  It’ll cost you, though,” Brady said, rubbing his fingers together solicitously.


“Give me this information and you will leave here unharmed,” Akimaru said, not bothering to draw any weapons.


“Your threats mean very little to me, Mr. Tendo,” said Brady.  Akimaru blinked, and found himself staring at where Brady had been only a second before.  Where he had been there was now only an inky black shadow on the alley wall.  Tendo looked to the left and up, and found Brady standing up on an overhang from the police station, his shadow looming over the alley.  “As you can see, I can effect an expedient escape from any attack you may choose to level at me.”


“So you’re very fast, I see.  That does not bother me,” Akimaru said, leaping to the overhang.  But as his tabi boots landed on the roof tile, he found Brady absent once again.  Impossible, Akimaru thought.  How could he be faster than I?  He heard Brady clear his throat, and looked down into the alley.  The mechanic had returned to his post against the alley wall.


“So, you ready to talk price?”  Akimaru shrugged his shoulders and dropped nimbly to the alley floor in a three-point crouch, drawing up with not a weapon, but a small pouch full of gold coins.  “Ah, very good.  How much do you have in there?”


“Seventy gold coins,” Akimaru said.  “Is that sufficient?”


“Quite,” Brady said, reaching out and plucking the pouch.  Akimaru estimated that the man’s hand swipe could have been avoided three times, with room to spare.  So, if he wasn’t possessed of superhuman speed, how had he evaded Akimaru so easily?  A question for another time, the white-clad Ninja considered.  “It’s with regards to your Ms. Clarissa Weeks,” Brady said, tucking the pouch into his pants pockets.


“What about her?”


“I observed her earlier speeding off to the manor of one Mr. Twitch.  She didn’t break in, if that’s what you’re thinking, no.  She wasn’t after anything of the Shades’ possession.  The front door was opened to her by that butler fellow, Traedo.  He even gave her a little bow.  Mr. Tendo, I believe your group has a turncoat in its employ.”


Akimaru looked away for a few moments, and when he turned to question Brady, he once more found the man gone.  His eyes followed a thin line of inky blackness, however, up the alley to its mouth out on Persimmon Street.  There was no trace of the man, but Akimaru thought he saw a black tail whip around the corner, out into daylight.


Despite their best efforts to discover who or what killed Koby Nellis and Seth Logan, none of the contestants gathered at the city’s eastern gates who had resolved to look into the matter had anything solid to work with.  The only person among them, in fact, who had a clue aside from the members of the Shades, was Sally Ridge.  If she were to be honest with herself, the Human Psychic would have to admit that the hint she had belonged to her only by purest accident.


The Wererat Thug working with the Shades, known only as Wreck, was not the largest or most physically intimidating of the lycanthropes assembled at the gates.  That title would easily belong to Robert Saffis, the Tacha Forus’s Khan.  Nor was he the largest of the Wererats, to whom the bearing would go, in Sally’s eyes, to Jefe Gabriez.  But Wreck seemed to almost not be there, she thought, always standing just to one side of his fellow Shades, constantly in motion to stay out of clear sight.


As they stood at the gates awaiting the arrival of the judges, Sally caught a single errant thought coming from Wreck.  I certainly hope this turns out to be worth it, he was thinking.  Got to get to that cooler first, then get on over to the music shop.  The meaning of his thoughts was lost on Sally, and she didn’t dare risk trying to delve deeper into the man’s mind, not with the keen Wayne Treado so near him.


When at last a judge came into view, it was Lee Toren, and he approached the gathered agents of theft alone.  In his right hand he held what looked like a blue handkerchief, in his left, a cigarette nearly drawn down to the filter.  He tossed it aside casually, drawing a murderous glare from a nearby public works street sweeper.  When at last he came within twenty yards of the foremost competitors, he took a white piece of chalk from one of his myriad pockets, and proceeded to draw a long straight line right on the cobblestone street.


The gate guards, already gone thanks to the bribes and series of convincing conversations held by superior officers in their respective precincts, were not a factor in his actions, clearly.  “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s event shall be a foot race from this line to the western gates of the city,” Lee announced aloud.  “The trip from one end of the city to the other this way takes a normal person two hours to complete if they’re walking.  As we all know, most of you have quicker methods of transport, but there’s a few rules with this particular race.  Firstly,” he said, holding up one chubby forefinger, “you will not use means of magic or Sidalis powers we may not know about to get to the finish line. Secondly, you shall not use any means of transportation that is mechanical or animal-driven.  In other words, no stealing a horse to make the gallop or hopping on an autocart to get there.  No bicycles either,” he said.  “Lastly, and probably most importantly, you are allowed for this event to interfere with one another as you like,” Lee said.  His face turned somber as he looked at the competitors.  “But you must not kill your opponents.  That sort of thing gets frowned upon.


“Now, in order to see who gets there first, the other two judges are at the western gates already.  Again, no use of special abilities to instantly transport, and that includes scrolls or sutras, so if you’ve got ‘em, forget ‘em,” he said.  He pulled out another cigarette, lit it, and then stepped to one side of the starting line he’d drawn.  “Let’s have our competitors line up.  As for anybody not competing, you are not to interfere with the race directly or indirectly.  Only those involved can fudge an opponent’s chances.”


Once again each guild or group sent a representative to the line, and for both the Hoods and the Midnight Suns the choice was made with no conversation or deliberation.  Flint took to the line for Anna, while Akimaru Tendo stepped forth for the Suns.  The two men looked rather strange, standing next to one another and setting themselves in sprinters’ crouches at the line.  Lee strode over to Norman Adwar as the other groups sent their participants to the line.


“Oi, got a pistol I can borrow to start this thing,” asked Lee.


“I don’t care for them much anymore, you may recall,” retorted the Gnome Engineer from the Hoods.  Lee gave him a curious look, and Norman sighed wearily, producing a small pistol from the depths of his bag.  “Here, just give it back when you’re done with it.”  Lee took his post by the line, aimed the pistol in the air, and fired.  The machine, however, did not just emit a single low-calibur bullet.  It belched an enormous stream of fire and pitch black soot, much of which blew right down into Lee’s face, causing such a fit of coughing as to make on think the poor thief was choking to death.


As he returned the pistol to Norman, Lee Toren sorely wished he didn’t know the prick would beat the hell out of him if he should slap him for withholding on the fact that he’d now look like a small, bearded piece of charcoal.


When the participants in the foot race streaked away from the line, Wreck was one of the first agents to leave the area of the gates.  Sally pointed out his receding back to Norbert Channel, her Gnome Pyromancer.  “Follow him, and make sure he doesn’t see you.”


“That sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it?”  But he took off after the Wererat from the Shades as his boss asked, and soon both were gone from sight.  Sally looked around, and found that she was standing almost entirely alone.  The only agents still around now were William Deus, Thaddeus Fly, and Paul Stockton of the Tacha Forus machine shop.  Deus and Fly, no surprise to Sally, were talking off to one side of the street in hushed tones, while Stockton appeared to be staring off into the distance at much of nothing.  His thoughts, however, told her that he really wasn’t much in the moment of the Games.


Should really write to Fender, find out if that axial motor relay came in yet.  Wonder how many customers we’ve had since we left?  Oh, and I should get started on putting together the paperwork for the Tax and Excise Office.  All those forms, gah, I hate all that legal jargon.  Maybe I should spring for a lawyer this year.  It would seem, Sally thought, that these guys really shouldn’t be here.


Deciding to follow up on her curiosity, she was struck almost dumb when a loud surface layer thought slammed into her, unbidden, from Deus.  Damned wraps!  I swear my tits are never going to be the same, got them too tight this time around.  Ridge whipped her head to the right, staring at the slight man everyone called William Deus, and thought to herself, by gods, Deus is a woman!


It was quickly becoming one of the worst kept secrets on the thieves’ guilds circuit.


Stowing that bit of information away for the time being, Sally Ridge finished approaching Paul Stockton.  The Gnome Engineer and Pickpocket, his beard neatly trimmed, his horn-rimmed spectacles on his face instead of in his pocket for once, looked like your everyday Gnome.  Sort of intellectual, but with a hint of some hidden potential for mischief, Sally thought.  She cleared her throat a few feet away, and when he turned a bright smile up at her, Sally was surprised to find that he appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a truly innocent and amiable machine shop owner.


“Ah, Ms. Ridge.  G’day to you,” he said, offering a hand to her.  They shook briefly before moving themselves to a bench nearby.  “I’m actually glad you’re still here.  I’ve a few questions for you.”


“Oh?  About what?”  Stockton appeared to be considering his next words carefully, concentrating on his thoughts and thus amplifying their volume in Sally’s own mind.  How do I go about asking her this?  It just seems so awkward, she’s liable to laugh at me.  Sally could only imagine the many ways the little man could embarrass himself, but his actual question seemed to come from left field, at least until she thought back on earlier overheard ruminations.


“Well, I mean,” he began, fidgeting with his fingers.  “Do you have any good lawyers in your employ here or in Whistlie?”


“What,” she asked, stumbling mentally for a moment.


“It’s just that, with the Tax and Excise Office sending out all the forms pretty soon for the business sector in Whistlie, as well as the office here in Ja-Wen, I’m wondering if there’s any way to save some of me profits from the jackals.  Any idea who might be able to help me out with that?”  Sally absorbed his query, looking away and noting that Deus and Fly were gone.  Thankfully, a friendly face had replaced them a few yards away, and he appeared to be waiting for her to call on his help.


“I don’t normally deal with the legal questions within the company, actually, Mr. Stockton.  However, my associate and CEO Mr. Joelly here might be able to help you out.  Lester?”  The suit-wearing Wererat switched places with her seamlessly, flashing a solicitous smile at the nervous shop owner as he sat down.


“Let us begin by discussing the specifics of your situation,” Joelly said, popping open the briefcase he almost always carried with him.


I have to lose, Cailee thought as she sprinted down Vernon Avenue.  I have to lose, but I can’t make it too obvious.  The Cuyotai member of the Sisters of Night ducked quickly into a convenience store, hurrying to the back coolers to pick up a bottle of water.  Only a half hour into the race, and already her green shirt and black jeans were clinging to her with sweat.  This isn’t good, she thought.  I may not have to try too hard to lose.  How did I get this out of shape?


But she already knew the answer.  Helen hadn’t sent her on scouting mission in months, and without the rigorous activity required on such assignments she’d gotten soft.  But Twitch will make good use of my talents, she thought, paying for the bottle of water and stepping back out onto the street.  I know he will.


It was about that time that Robert Saffis, racing on behalf of the Tacha Forus, ran past with his fist out, delivering a punch to the side of Cailee’s head that dropped her unconscious to the street.  She wouldn’t have to worry about losing the race now, that was for certain.


Gabe Logan hopped over one stunned produce merchant, then slid along the dirt street under the wagon coach carrying one of the city’s Councilors to city hall for an administrative meeting.  All in all, he was making good time, but felt certain that he wouldn’t be able to beat his cousin, Flint, in a foot race.  Nor did he presume to be able to outrun Akimaru Tendo, who he’d caught sight of behind him only a short ten minutes ago.  The Ninja, he thought, could spell a lot of trouble for me.


So he wasn’t expecting it when Victor Flant, the Lizardman Thug working for the Koikara Group, stepped out from the front of a potion shop and swung a war hammer down at his left leg, crushing his knee and sending shards of broken bone ripping out the back of his flesh and pants.  Screaming in agony, Gabriel Logan dropped to the street, and Flant hustled along his way.  The Lizardman knew better than to try to win the event, but he would inflict some pain along the way.  Now, Flant thought, how to deal with the Ninja.


He felt confident that a solution would come to him as he turned and ran down the street.  Little did he know that Akimaru had moments before been bodily grabbed and thrown in front of a speeding autocart coming along a cross street.  Robert Saffis felt bad about the way Akimaru had grunted and the ragdoll effect his body made as he flew off of the front of the vehicle, but he had to win some points for his group.


Jake Zero could hardly credit the scene before him, but as he approached the intersection where a large crowd had gathered, he saw for himself the crumpled hood of the autocart and the limp form of the white clad Ninja lying in the street, face down.  The four-armed mutant listened to the shocked and horrified testimony of a witness telling a nearby police officer that a burly Khan had just come up behind the poor man, grabbed him up under the groin and by the back of the neck and hurled him right at the cart.  “That little guy didn’t stand a chance.”


That was the moment that Akimaru Tendo chose to roll over with a groan, and try to sit up.  Gasps of dismay and astonishment from the crowd rippled through the air, and Jake found himself among them.  How could the man even think about getting up, considering the sheer force that must have gone into the impact that had crushed the hood of the cart?  No matter, he thought.  This one will be distracted with the crowd for a few minutes.  Wasting not a moment, he took off down the street.


The important thing, thought Ridley Poe as he jogged along easily toward the western gates, is that you not get caught cheating.  Toren himself said that at the beginning of the Games.  As he came to a stop just outside of the western gates, the two other judges made notes on small yellow steno pads, and told him to walk off any cramps he was feeling or just have a nice lie-down in the grass.  Score one for us, he thought, dropping happily onto the soft soil.


He had used small bursts of wind as he jogged along, pushing himself dozens of yards with each stride.  None of the other competitors had seen him, as he had chosen to circumnavigate around the curving arc of streets from the eastern gates toward the northern gates, and then southward toward the western gates again.  Nobody spotted him in his cheating, so he was in the clear.


Unfortunately, sometimes cheaters do prosper.


Cailee Partridge felt pretty certain that she could take first place in this foot race event.  She even felt a little confident, because surely Mr. Twitch could understand if she wanted to win at least one event for her group.  It was a pride thing for her, because the Cuyotai were supposed to be among the swifter lycanthrope Races.


But as she loped along at a reasonable clip, she did not take into account the fact that Lee Toren had instructed the competitors that they could interfere with one another directly.  As a result, she couldn’t even utter a protest of surprise when Victor Flant fell to the ground at her feet, causing her to stumble and trip over him.  Flant lay groaning, holding his stomach as he tried to roll out from under the angular limbs of the Cuyotai woman.  What the hell happened, she wondered.  He came down from above and behind.  Cailee got to her knees and turned her head to look back up the road.


And there was Robert Saffis’s fist, each knuckle moving seemingly in slow motion as it crashed into her sloped forehead, pummeling her flat atop Flant. He wasn’t the fastest of the bunch, but he’d been good about pacing himself, and whenever he caught up to another competitor, he made sure to waylay them with an attack.  Flant had been a bonus of sorts, because the Lizardman Thug had been coming around a corner back onto Saffis’s street route after disappearing momentarily.  The burly Khan had simply elbowed him in the spine and then tossed him up the road in front of Parthridge.


A few minutes later, he stepped through the western gates to find that he was coming in second place.  Still, he thought, points are points.


“I lost him,” Norbert Channel informed Sally as he sauntered back into their corporate suite in downtown Ja-Wen.  “Can’t really say when, but he seemed to be a bit panicky, like he was expecting trouble.”


“I can’t blame him for being jumpy,” said Lester Joelly from his spot by the suite’s private bar.  He poured Norbert a clean scotch on the rocks, passing the glass down the counter effortlessly.  “There’s already been two Wererats murdered during the Games, and he doesn’t seem the sort who can talk his way out of an altercation.  Ms. Ridge, would you care for a drink?”  Standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows looking down upon the city, Sally was lost in thought, and not even her own.  She was allowing every stray thought within her range reach out and up to her, trying to filter through them until she could find the familiar inner voice of any of the competitors.  “Hmph.  Looks like the boss is ‘working’ things out.  Any idea where Turpin is, Norbert?”


“Oh, yeah, he’s off doing some digging around about some of the competition.  Trying to see if people know anything about our opponents that we don’t already have on file,” said Norbert.  He sipped his drink, carrying it over to his computer station and starting up his machine.  He performed a quick survey of the reports incoming to him for Sally Ridge, estimated that none of them required his immediate attention, and then left the system on standby mode.


Sally, meanwhile, located a single mental voice that she thought would be interesting to listen in on, and dove forward, her mind leaving her body to stand by the windows limply.


Flint pulled the crossbow bolt out of his thigh and glared at Cailee Parthridge, who had somehow managed to slide through the western city gates just ahead of him and Victor Flant.  In order to slow them down, she had turned her single-shot wrist crossbows back on them and fired.  Flant had dropped to the ground to take cover, and Flint had taken the shot right to the leg.  Such a small weapon would not normally bother him, but the tip of the bolt was pure bronze.


Wererats were not allergic to silver, but had a very bad reaction to bronze.  The bolt had seared through most of the meat in his thigh with ease, and in the process of pulling it out, he’d done enough damage to his leg muscles that he knew he’d need the rest of the day to recover from the wound.  Down on one knee now, he envisioned the various ways in which he could put paid to the scrawny little bitch, but for the moment, he’d let it go.


Turning away from the judges and the three point-scoring contestants, Flint limped back into town, making his way to the nearest available tavern. Stepping through the saloon-style doors, Flint saw that there weren’t many customers at this time of day, not yet, anyway.  The barkeep, a Dwarf with a shaggy red beard, poured him an ale, and Flint began downing it with gusto.


These fucking Games, he thought, scratching the back of his head. There’s too much going on outside and alongside of them this year.  Too many distractions.  The last Games were so much better.  Then again, Anna wasn’t with us at the last Games, either.  I was able to make some decisions then.  He didn’t begrudge Anna for her selection as Headmaster when Falco passed away, but sometimes, he just didn’t agree with her style of command.  It was too loose, and too sporadic.  If not for Stockholm, her system of governing the guild would fall apart in weeks, maybe even days.


But the Red Tribe Werewolf proved good to his previous performance. Always has, he thought.  Scratch, scratch.  Now that’s a damned thing.  Wonder if I picked up fleas from the mangy dogs in this city, Flint thought.  He finished his first mug of ale, and then ordered a second when a familiar face sat itself down next to him in a hurry.  Jefe stared Flint right in the eyes as the Hoods’ Prime turned to look at him.  The intensity in his eyes brought Flint back around to the present moment.


“What is it?”


“The rat from the Shades,” said Jefe in a whisper.  “The cops just found him.  He’s been murdered.”  Jefe went on to explain that while the police had not actually found the entire body of Wreck, they’d been asked to respond to a complaint of loud noises and possibly a violent altercation at an abandoned storefront.  Inside, they had found literally what looked like gallons of blood, and the Wererat’s tail, severed by a jagged blade left at the scene.  One officer on the scene, who’d arrested Wreck before, recognized a tattoo the Wererat had near the base of his short tail, and by that they were able thus far to identify the victim.  “I still don’t think it’s punks off the street, but I’m starting to seriously consider the possibility that we may have a racist at these Games.”


“You think it’s one of our competitors?”


“Si.  All three victims have been Wererats in the Games, cousin.  We need to start keeping an eye on those Sisters of Night and the Tacha Forus guys.”


“Why’s that,” asked Flint.


“Because, they’re two of the three groups here without any Wererats on their teams, and I don’t think your rivals over at the Midnight Suns would tolerate that sort of thing,” said Jefe, taking an ale from the barkeep.  “I’ll keep my ears to the street.  Peace, cousin.”  Jefe took down his drink in one long draught, wiped his mouth, and then left the tavern behind.  The barkeep came over to Flint, raising an eyebrow.


“What,” asked Flint.


“I assume your cousin is expecting you to pay for his drink?”  Flint grumbled as he produced the necessary coins, scratching his head as he settled in for a third drink.