Betrayal encroaches in the form of five stooped shadows. Through the smoke they come. Betrayal. Itís the only thing that makes sense. Who, is academic. Why, is the question? From the darkness and smoke they ooze, stinking of gin and whores and rotting flesh. Of dog. Cheap canine grafts growl in the steam mist. Rotting, those grafts, but the men attached still breathe, for now. Thereís a difference, albeit small. In the city of Mortise Locke, even dead things creep, and the way things look, Iíll be creeping shortly.
Gut knives and garrotes are all I see as I scramble through the cramped labyrinth. Offal and stalagmites of refuse avalanche as I smash through them. The girl stumbles over a rigid corpse, but I have her by a fistful of hair and drag her on. She screams, vomits at the stench. I register it, barely. At least the corpse isnít moving. Small miracles.
They donít want her dead. Thatís the only reason Iím not scurrying through a horizontal hail of bullets and barbed steel. Or serrated steel. Or knackered steel. On the contrary, and as always, Iím strapped. A Webley-Colt pneumatic fletcher loaded with eight broadhead fletches, which means the first one in dies, horribly. Providing my aimís good, of course, and with the way I bloody shoot, I must be due. Those reinforced great coats wonít even slow the Webley-Colt. My Derringer, certainly, but thatís academic as itíll be in my left hand if I have the time to draw it from my trousers. So. Iíve got the first one taken care of. The other four? Why, theyíll bum rush me, of course, smash my skull, and stab me, repeatedly. Garrote me? Only if thereís anything left. Iíll die more horribly than the first one, you bet your life on it.
These arenít small time knuckledusting thugees trawling for a clip of burnished steel. And they certainly arenít the brothelís guards. Wish they were. Drop one and the restíd scatter. But these? I can read nothing in their eyes. Vacant, empty they are. And in a way more horrible than the empty of the dead. Theyíre Kalighat, professional killers whoíve graft-altered their aspects to that of their demon mother god. Murder to these men is mundane, nothing. I envy them. I consider too much, as Iím sure you can tell by now, but I play the part of the paper tiger, my sole recourse. The Webley-Colt helps in this regard. My blind grandmother could clutch one in her trembling arthritic claw and you would respect it if not her. Of course, my grandmotherís probably still a better shot than me, but hang it. I suck deep on the Diegritte cigarette and blow a murk of azure acridity toward the lead toughís face and say the words I must.
"Fuck you," I say, and I mean it. But why the betrayal? The door is not far. It stands at the end of the hallway. ThinkóNoóSurvive. Escape lies but feet away. What gain was there? But it doesnít matter.
An electrik charge sparks for an instant in the eyes of the Khalighat, all five. I know that look. Blood in the water. Sharks. Thatís all. A momentary glitter or glisten akin to the twinkle of a star on a black night. Not the black ash-throttled nights we know now, but those of the twinkling stars blinking above. From before. Yesteryear. Orion. Cassiopeia. Scorpio. To compare such things of forlorn beauty to these husks of men is criminal and it is in this moment I know my bluff has failed. Theyíve read my intent. Escape, to live, is all I desire. Those twinkles emulate some aspect of life in these men but in actuality foreshadow nothing so much as my own death as they burst into action. The hallway is claustrophobic and should not by rights or logic be capable of containing their cold ferocity.
A wave of crashing graft altered flesh thunders toward us.
The hallway must expand to accommodate them. Somehow.
The girl was between the five and myself. Quivering, sheís crouched in a puddle of her own piss. I canít blame her. Iíve done the same on occasion.
The lead Kalighatís left forearm and hand is some hellish graft. Itís a pit bull or some such beastís snout and slavering jaws, covered in a brown film emulating human skin. No eyes, but Lords, teeth. Up close I see itís drooling a spittle of Brahma knows what. And as this thing of nightmares nears, I surprise you. And myself. I yank the girl behind me rather than do the intelligent maneuver, which is to use her as a shield. Or projectile. It would buy me a second, maybe two.
But I grant her a momentís reprieve from those ghastly chipped teeth and horrific tomorrow and thrust her behind me as I squeeze the trigger and take the lead Kalighat in the neck with a shot that severs his spinal column. A spurt and a twang. Bone blows out the back of his neck and his marionette strings are clipped. His stumbling carcass tumbles jelly forward. Dead and doesnít even know it. His arms flip like uncooked bacon.
His legs pump him into me, his last will and testament, this vestigial motion.
The girl screams as I stumble backward, crashing into her and then the wall. I recover by shoving back the gibbering Kalighat Iíd just killed. The hallwayís tight, but not tight enough as two abreast meet their dead comrade and smash him back towards me. The carcass flips back and forth like some hellish metronome. His head is nearly severed from my shotómy lucky shotóand this game might be droll were I viewing it from some vantage point more distantÖlike Australia. But, alas, Iím here. The Machine City. The Gear City. The Dead City. Mortise Locke.
I fire twice and it seems my timely accuracy has run out. How can I miss so close? You try it. A Khalighat smashes me back into the screaming girl. Dimly, as though listening through a drunken haze I can feel her fingers pop like twigs under the grind of my boot heel. Pulverized. She screams and my ears buzz, but Iíve matters of more import to consider, namely the door.
Iím not made for this. Iím the grease, the talker, the tumbler tickler. I can get into places you wouldnít think I could. Like here. There. You motherís Sunday dinner. Iím smooth. Iím funny, Iím rude, courteous, silent as the serpent. Iím whatever I need to be, but this is a battle and Iím overmatched. I canít fake this through pomp or circumstance or bristling hackles. I could pipe a broadhead into the girl and save her a great deal of pain. Might even squeeze one off into myself but I donít. I hesitate an instant, willfully. Iím a man of faith but more so of cowardice.
Lord Ashford Strake, he calls me wog and smiles whilst doing it. Thrice so far heís done it, and Iíve smiled at each. Worthy. Oriental. Gentleman. A title of respect, obviously. Iím of the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, which means in my own city borough of Malabar I could murder this man without blinking and the colonial magistrates would applaud my aplomb. But weíre across town, in Amber Torque, and so I smile and play the sycophant.
Strakeís clockwork mech is top shelf, no doubt. The whirr and ratcheting of gears is barely audible beneath the sound of his smooth voice. His jaw and right half of his handsome face shine with some riveted alloy, freshly polished. A gold bas-relief display of his family crest is sculpted into his right cheek. His headís probably worth half of Malabar. Bad ideas involving decapitation and various smelting processes course through me. MmmmÖI wouldnít have to work for a decade. I file it under plan B and then nod as Strake explains in unnecessary detail what it is heís hiring me to do, which is locate and return his kidnapped daughter.
"Öand so of course you must understand that no one can know a wog shall be in charge of conducting the search." Thatís four. "My wife and self are loathe even to hire someone of youíreÖHrrmmmÖdisposition. But I must admit we both have been accused, on more than one occasion, of being forward thinkers." Strake talks with a hollow metallic lisp and he brandishes smirks like stilettos. For emphasis. Heís slick, nauseatingly handsome. His suit once must have been immaculate but is now threadbare in spots, which he tries to conceal. His wife sits by his side. Neither are her clothes immaculate, but in their wearing they cling to her body like a second skin. I take a moment to appreciate this and Strake appreciates me appreciating. Our eyes say more in an instant than our entire conversation has.
"Iím a man of discretion," I say. My voice conveys respect, deference. My offense is no offense because I am not a man to him, not human. But of course no one can know a Hindi is in charge of the investigation. To have some brown skinned sepoy leading the charge of gleaming white Englishmen to save the maiden fair would be as impossible to them as a Bantu cur leading the charge of the Light Brigade.
"Iím doing you a favor giving you this work." Strake smooths his hair back and sits so straight Iím sure a flagpole has been surgically grafted up his rectum. "There are others Iíve considered. Many others. Far more qualified, even. You should thank me. A wog such as yourself might incur much more business and prestige were Lord Strake to give you a favorable reviewÖ"
What he means is Iím doing him a favor. Itís been three days since the abduction, so all the others heís hired before me have failed. He needs me. None of his English cronies can set foot where Iím going, which is Malabar. We both know it. Even the Pinkertons canít, not quietly at any rate, and this will require quiet. And I know Strake tried them because it was Alan Pinkerton himself who recommended me, after his agents failed. Strake continues on with all the enthusiasm of a London moneylender reviewing an Australian in need of a loan. StrangeÖ
"Youíre certain she was abducted, yeah?" I raise an eyebrow. "Didnít just up and bang off like so many do? Mortise Locke is a big city. Many young ladies haul off for romance, adventure." I address Lady Strake. She sits stiff, as though she sits upon splinters. I could make her more comfortable. Our eyes meet and she softens an instant. I glance at Strake, who scowls. He caught it. Perhaps he considers me human after all, forward thinkers, indeed.
"Lucy would never leave us." Lady Strake dabs at her eye with a handkerchief. "She loved me. Us. She was content. She had everything she ever wanted." Lady Strake has been crying recently and holding back now only by the barest of margins. Strake fixes a metallic glare upon her and clears his throat. She stiffens her upper lip and wills her tears away. The English, so proper, so fake, soÖcontent. Her daughter has disappeared, snatched, presumably, and these two worry about appearances. But then their audience is a lowly wog.
A rash of abductions has struck Mortise Locke. Itís never happened here in Amber Torque, only the poorer boroughs, which encompasses the whole rest of Mortise Locke, barring the Gear Cities. Young pretty women are being snatched and sold, a lucrative trade nigh on par with opiates and alcohol. It happened in India for millennia and here in Mortise Locke for centuries, but the populace only takes exception when the girls are white. And Lucy Strake is that.
"Öyouíll apprise me of your course of action." Strake smirks like the wolf. That smirk. "Your intentions. Methods. Plans. Contingency and otherwise. Can you do that?" I nod. "Youíll start immediately. Iíll expect updates."
Their story stinks. I could smell it from the start. Itís not the ladyís fault. Sheís not lying. She believes what sheís saying, but Strake. Heís selling something and if he werenít paying as much as he is, I wouldnít be buying. Strakeís a swine, a dog, a mechanized whore, but Iím going to work for him.
So whatís that make me?
We caterwaul through the doorway and plunge into the twilight dusk of noon. The rooftop is wide and flat as a straight razor. Plague walls and the gear cities tower over us. The sun is naught even a smudge of dogstar in the black sky. Theyíre upon us. Ash whips across my face, blinding me an instant, but I keep moving, girl in tow, Lucy Strake. Sheís malnourished, which is good, for me. Sheís light. Like a cricket ball I pitch her ahead through an ashdrift a meter high. A blizzard of black whips through the air. Footsteps pound behind so close that the muscles in my back tense and my balls crawl north. I turn and know Iím going to die.
"Run!" I scream but itís choked off and if Lucy is so cowed that she doesnít on instinct flee then she deserves her fate. I squeeze the trigger on my Webley-Colt and a fletch disappears in the trunk of one of the Khalighats, then another. Neither slows him as his iron steamjack fist connects across my jaw. It dislocates or breaks or both, but I feel no pain yet, only a hotness and shattered teeth. I donít lose consciousness. Worse, I lose my Webley-Colt.
Iím on the ground and heís on top of me.
Theyíre on top of me, crushing me.
I feel the impact of a fist in my chest and dimly realize itís actually a knife, and heís stabbing me. Again I feel no pain, only impact. Pressure. Iíll be dead before the rose of pain blossoms. I aim a blow at the Kalighatís head, a feeble attempt as my arms are suddenly lead flopping about and the Khalighats are impossibly small and distantÖ bendyÖwavy. But another head appears behind them, and I squint and whisper a sharp prayer to Brahma that it is true, that my cowardice and faith have been rewarded.
He has come.
My brother Nikunj has come.
The man atop me is dead an instant later in a manner I can neither follow nor comprehend. He is simply split. Then Iím on my feet, yanked up as though Iím a disobedient five-year-old. The five Khalighats lie dead upon the rooftop of the tenement and Nikunj drags me past them to Lucy. Poor Lucy, huddled like a babe against the precipice. An eighty-foot drop she huddles against without recourse or even the levity of a parapet to staunch the vertigo. Nikunj lunges like a panther, grabs her before she jumps, and hauls her back to the roof. I can hear nothing as Nikunj roars. The dead lie scattered about. Lucy writhes in Nikunjís grasp. Red pools consume grey ash. Heís screaming at me, face to face, imploring me to some action but I canít hear.
Nikunj is aces at killing, but they never would have let him in here for that very reason. It had to be me. Heís pointing, grabbing me by the shoulder. I donít feel it. Itís freezing out here but I feel only warm. Lucy is crying, shivering, covered in ash. Nikunj seems concerned. Something trickles down my chest.
Then Iím falling.
Calcutta Flats. A massive multi-tiered slum that sits like a cancer in the center of Malabar. Like a tumor metastasizing, the miasma of the Flats has crept beyond the slum and infected the boroughs beyond the suffocating plague walls. One hundred foot walls forty feet thick could not contain it, and thank the Gods because thereís no money in Malabar and I need to eat. Whores are nice, too.
Iíve found Lucy, or located her, rather.
Word spreads faster than the Walking Death in Malabar, in certain circles. Certain grim circles I monitor if not frequent. A pretty rich girl from Amber Torque has been abducted. Thatís information Iíll always pay to know and my junky snitches know it. Iíve noted the buzz for a day now, kept tabs, overpaid my junkies to remain informed, and finally pinpointed its source.
I glance down at the adjacent slumtower and pull up the collar on my great coat. The ash drifting down is mercifully thin and I can see two faces of the building from my perch atop an adjacent slumtower.
Two men, positioned correctly with monocular optics, at opposite corners, can adequately monitor most buildings. Nikunj commands the opposite corner. Iíve even paid some untouchables to keep watch in the sewers, just in case Lucy is moved that way. Iíve also a few in the alleyways on the ground. Dangerous work. I certainly wouldnít do it, not for what I pay, anyways, but untouchables work cheap, which is why I use them. That and no one else will interact with them other than other untouchables. Closed communities means minimal information leaks. Another of the caste systemís many blessings, for me, anyways.
Lucyís been in this tenement for near a week now. And Iíve got it on good authority sheís still alive, if good authority is a sewer rat named Santil who dwells beneath this slumtower. Heís keeping watch in the alley below.
Thereís an auction tonight and dead girls donít fetch as much as live ones.
I chew a stick of cat jerky and watch. The Strakesí received no ransom note so thatís not the game. Revenge? Iíve considered it. Strake has no shortage of enemies or debtors, but thereís no clear connection to Johnny Shakespeare, the man who engineered the abduction. Heís most likely an intermediary for someone, but Iíve not had the time to untangle the knots. Shakespeareís a professional gangster and heís holding the auction today like he does every month. Why am I not in there right now bidding on Lucy? You know the answer. My cowardice precedes me. Itís a closed auction and Shakespeareís security is first rate. His men would kill me if they recognized me, and Iím rather recognizable. Ask Lady Strake. She got lost in my eyes. So we wait and watch, which is boring and uncomfortable, but if you can maintain focus long enough, and not miss your one opportunity, rewarding.
As it is this time.
Around two in the morning groups of men begin to pour out of the door in the north face of the slumtower. I signal Nikunj with two quick tugs on a fishing line strung across rooftops. He sends back three, which means he sees nothing. Theyíre all exiting on my side, it seems, but I can make out nothing in the darkness. My optics have frozen. I keep watching, waiting for a signal from Santil.
A few minutes pass and then I see it, a bullseye lantern shining directly up at me. It winks its orange eye, one, two, three times. I give four yanks on the line to Nikunj and watch in horror as he leaps from his slumtower roof to the one adjacent to mine and then does likewise onto mine. Itís an eight-foot jump across. Not much you say? Itís an eighty-foot fall and the roofs are a slurry slick with ash and ice. Nikunj is insane.
We descendóI insist on taking the stairsóand slink out into the alleyways of Calcutta Flats.
I canít move and not for lack of trying. Iím on a table in our safe house and my arms and legs wonít work. The doktor leans in close to me.
He whispers. Even through my dying haze his breath stinks of ale and cheese.
"Are you ready to meet your gods?" Heís an Englishman and true concern is in his voice, though whether itís for me or himself is in dispute.
"Are you?" I sputter. My meaning is not lost on him as I glance at my brother.
My mouth, my eyes, these parts alone work.
The doktor demands to be paid before he operates. At least half. I canít say I blame him. Same deal I demanded before I took the Lucy Strake job. In all, I donít like my chances. But I have one ace in the hole. As usual, itís Nikunj. If that doktor walks out of here without operating on me, heíll be a foot shorter and eight pounds lighter when he does. I blink and watch and it seems that the doktor gathers this as well. He turns to me with pursed lips and shakes his head. "Iíll be wanting five hundred." His voice is a quivering timbre, but he has balls. The price is exorbitant, but Iím in no shape to bargain.
"Five hundred," Nikunj says, "if he lives." His voice is not a snarl, nor is it harsh. Rather it is smooth and sinuous and nigh on lyrical, but carries with it all the innuendo of a jungle cat bargaining with a hamstrung hare.
Her skin is copper with a golden hue that somehow glows from within. I sit still as she slides her stocking down, slowly. Her legs are crossed. I swallow. Itís part of the show, an appetizer. It works. The women of Malabar are its sole facet of beauty, and this whore is no exception, though woman might be a bit strong. If sheís seventeen, Iím Shiva. I take another eyeful of skin and curve, inhale her perfume and underlying musk, and wait another momentÖand then anotherÖbefore I stand and slide towards the door. Sheís too good for this place. This place should belong to the amputees and lazy eyed whores its facade would indicateóto be sure it houses its fair shareóbut this surely isnít one of them. Lords, Iíve found a diamond in the rough and Iím bound by a timetable.
"Is something wrong?" She stands and her rolled stocking holds tight in place to her firm thigh. Her robe lolls open. A lick of hanta swirls painted on her smooth brown flesh. Her jeweled navel sparkles. I freeze in place and try to focus on my missionÖand my vision. Her eyes are wide, watery. Thereís fresh hurt there. Pain. Brahma, sheís good, but Iím not looking into her eyes. I seem to have misplaced my voice.
"Donít leave me," she whispers.
Focus, yeah. The door beckons, and my mission beyond, but it can wait. But it canít. Lucy canít. Clockmechís ticking. I try again not to stare and again I fail, impressively. "Iím married," I say, because I am. "Iím sorry to have troubled you, miss. IÖI just canít do this. My wifeÖ" My lie is steeped in regret and thatís not faked. "For your time." I sling a purse of steel onto the bed and its weight and clink instantly evaporate any vestige of hurt remaining on her face. My regret only grows as I watch her count itóI tip wellóunmindful of her sudden wardrobe malfunction. Or is it its function? Her thick hair cascades in rivulets and itís my last glimpse of nirvana before I step stiff-legged into hell. My cane taps on the cold concrete floor.
The brothel is a ten-floor maze but as luck would have it, Iím familiar with its layout. Preemptive scouting. A lot of it. Years worth. Ravi Raveis owns it. He sells a necessary product at a premium. Hair of the Dog he calls it. Clever? Repugnant? I donít know. The name carries with it a certain connotation that in my experience will be forever associated with whores both dead and living. Customers, too, on occasion. Raviís a businessman, just like Ghengis Khan was.
The walls on this floor are covered in graffiti. Moans filter into the darkness, muffled. I try to ignore other sounds. Iím in the heart of Calcutta Flats, a scab on the taint of Malabar, in a brothel, and Iím running away from the one thing in the whole joint I donít want to. My life in a nutshell.
Instincts. I duck as enter the room, some sixth sense embroidered into my being from the throwing arm of my beloved wife. A ceramic flagon shatters inches above my head. Shrapnel pierces my neck. Lucyís standing behind a bed, reloading with what looks like a dinner plate. Sheís alive. Not in a good humour, but alive. I can feel the weight of my promised steel in hand.
"Iím here to rescue you," I say. What the hell would you say?
"Piss off, you raghead wog!" she screams. He voice is shrill, rattle your brains shrill. She reminds me of her father somehow. Is it the shape of her eyes or simply her syntax? Perhaps both. Sheís dressed like a whore, most likely not by choice.
"Lower your voice. Drop the plate. PleaseÖ" I close the door behind me, sneaking a quick peak out while hoping not to end up with dinnerware imbedded in the back of my skull. The hallwayís clear as far as I can see, which isnít far considering the cloud of choking steam. "Youíll bring the guards. We donít have much time." Iím at the bed now and I toss my cane on it. I unscrew the handle and slide a variety of metal pieces from it, not the least among them fletches. My Webley-Colt, disassembled. NowÖif I can just remember where everything goes. Screw A goes into hole B. I think. I hope.
"Who are you?"
"Avinash." Slide the pneumatic piston in. A dab of oil first. "Your father sent me."
"He certainly did not, boy." She manages some demeanor of command despite her circumstances. I try not to stare.
Boy? But I ignore it, or at least push it back for now en lieu of more important matters. Like the handle and trigger. My hands shake with fury but really mostly fear. What would Nikunj do? Break her neck and forgo payment. But Iím not the breaking the neck type, and I certainly am not the forgo large amounts of steel type. A door slams outside. Damn.
"My fatheríll pay the ransom. He will. He has men on it as we speak."
"Yeah, Iím him." Screw in the barrel. "And thereís no ransom."
"Nonsense." With such surety she says this. The entitlement in her voice and manner sickens me reflexively despite that itís a playact. She has nothing else. "My father will pay the ransom and Iíll be released. Released. Thatís how it works. You can go now, boy." She smiles and holds her hand out as though I might kiss the nonexistent ring on her grimy finger. Her hand is quivering. I can smell her fear. "My father will pay the ransom."
"Theyíre going to continue raping you until you die." Too harsh, you say? Iíve no time to mince words.
"Why, youó" Her shock is evident. Not shock at what I said but that I said it. Itís simply not done in her world, and certainly not by someone like me. Well, this isnít her world, but because Iím a breath of civilization amongst the horror and sheís English, she immediately tries to control it. "Get out." She rises up regal. Queen Victoria wouldíve been proud, if she werenít a shambling corpse.
I ignore her. The Webley-Colt is complete and thank Brahma thereís no parts left on the bed. A good sign. I load it with eight broadheads just as footsteps pound in the hall. Shouts follow. Another door slams. Seconds tick as I spin the housing and make sure everythingís running smooth.
"Get out!" Lucy screams.
The footsteps outside stop. Damn.
Lucy glances at the door, eyebrows raised, arms akimbo, in full expectation of my acquiescence to her demand. Instead I cross the room in three strides, grab a fistful of her hair, and drag her out the door. Nikunj would be proud.
The explosion deafens. The building spasms an instant. Iím almost at the top of the flight as the roiling column of white smoke claws up the stairwell like some rabid beast. I close my eyes as it envelopes me in its soft cool embrace and ghosts on past.
Iím alone in a sheen of white blindness.
Cool mist kisses my skin.
I drink in the silence. The peace.
It wonít last long. It doesnít.
Muffled roars echo from above, below.
Guards. Theyíre generally reluctant to relinquish their post, good guards at any rate. And Raveisí pays his well. Iíve perused his booksódonít tell him. So I am obliged to assume theyíre good. To assume otherwise is to invite disaster. Thatís why I detonated the charges. Guards need some prodding from time to time to abandon their post. Explosives often help in this regard.
And if the charges fail to distract, them being blinded by steam wonít hurt. Me, that is. Of course, I canít see a damn thing either, but at least Iím prepared.
Before you think me mad or homicidal, the bomb wasnít incendiaryÖmuch. Just a couple ceramic two pound arc-bleves with clockmech fuses to blow a couple three-foot holes in one of the brothelís main steam manifolds. Donít ask me how I snuck them in. The explosion and steam creates quite a stir, but donít you worry, the whoresíll be just fine. Cleaner, too, in fact.
A long fuse. A short walk. A big boom.
I keep my right shoulder and arm pressed against the wall for orientationís sake and continue up two more flights until I find the door I want.
Voices scream and feet pound by. Shoulders slam as bodies rush past but no one stops me. No one sees me.
Then Iím through the door I shouldnít be through.
The drugs have adelpated my senses, and the doktorís dead.
Cruciform he lies dead across my legs. Rolled white eyes glare at the ceiling. His tongue lolls out. A third eye, a red dot, has blossomed in the center of his forehead and for an instant I almost laugh, but no damn it, heís not my wife. The medication has left me twisted and the surgery has robbed me of what little strength Iím privy to. I elbow myself up into some semblance of a sitting position and push the doktor off me. It takes some doing but he slides off the operating table. Itís cold in here. Iím naked from the chest up. I can feel my stitches growling as I move. They donít like it and neither do I. And thereís not enough of them. The doktor died before he finished. IímÖunzipped from mid sternum to neck.
Below, Lucy Strake is dying as well. She has to be. This canít get out. The word. That he sold her to Hindi scum for a hundred clips of crooked steel. Him. The man who killed her stands before me, Lord Ashford Strake. Daddy. He stares as he reloads his fletcher. His eyes course over the shivering body of his daughter with as little regard for her as a dying mongrel. Sheís a pincushion.
"The money." Strakeís voice is clipped, harsh, aimed at me. Heís taken aback by my astonishment at his daughterís demise. "Itís not as though she were a son. DaughtersÖuseless. Burdens. My wife loved her. Women can afford sentimentality in such things." Yes, his wifeís name carries the familyís prestige. Itís holdings. It wouldnít do for her, or anyone else, to know of this. And here in the basement of a slumtower steeped in the dregs of Malabar, no one will. "At least I garnered some steel before her end. Which brings me to you. Twenty-five clips you owe me. Tell me where it is and you might live. I can get a doktor here. Heíll finish what this one started. You might even walk again some day."
I tell him where to shove his doktor and his offer, but itís bubbling slobber and Iím doubtful he can understand it. He cranes his neck and then frowns at the expression on my face. He didnít need to hear what I said to know what it was. My hand is near my crotch, my secreted Derringer lies but the breadth of woolen fabric away.
"Your will." He shrugs. "Turn this ratís nest inside out." Three men set forth from the shadows and tear apart the safe room. Thereís not much to tear. Itís nothing more than a tenement basement apartment. Itís secure. Cheap. They wonít find the steel and they donít. Nikunj took it, but Strake doesnít know about him, canít know. Nikunj is my silent partner. Comes in handy to have a blade up your sleeve and Nikunj is mine. Strake watches from the shadows like a spider. He steps into the light. And Iíve another blade up my sleeve, the Derringer. If I can but reach it.
"Your brother." His face gleams with gold gilt steel. "He has my steel, yes?"
How can he know? I underestimated him. He notes my surprise with a smirk. That smirk, that fucking smirk. I vow then and there that he will die by my hand. I vow hard. True. My fingers tingle as they touch the grip of the DerringerÖalmost.
"Iíve friends in low places as well, wog. Did you think I wouldnít check your background? You told me your methods? I wanted to know your allies as well." He opens the magazine on his fletcher and glances at it and raises an eyebrow. "Your own people sold you out. For a quarter clip. For twice that I hired five killers. Youíre all animals." He fiddles with his gun. Something must have jammed in it or he just doesnít know guns. "Your brother will be joining you shortly, have no doubt. Iíll get my steel."
Let them find Nikunj then. Itíll be their funeral. Iím only sorry I wonít be in any shape to attend. Plan A didnít work, should I remind you of plan B? With all I have left I reach my pants, grasp the Derringer, tear it out, and fire two shots at Strake. We dead have no time for failure. My aim is true. Just as my vow. The first bullet strikes him in the face and the second in the arm.
He screams and he drops like the sack of shit he is. The other three are upon me in an instant. They hold me down. An ogre of a man shoves his fingers into my open wound and I scream. The Derringer is torn from my grasp. Reality wavers. Ogre raises a huge Colt pistol overhead but freezes just shy of smashing me deadó"Wait. Donít kill him, yet."
Strakeís still alive. He rises. The right half of his face, the metal side, is dented in, ruined. The bas-relief and family crest are shattered. Gold leaf hangs in strips, but the bastardís still alive. "Break his arms." Strake orders Ogre to do this. He seems capable. "I want him alive. But no more tricks. No more guns."
"Not sure the fellerís gonna be kicking in five minutes, boss."
"Vermin like him wonít die so easy."
Iím not so sure.
"I can see his ribs and the squishy shit underneath," Ogre glances down at my wrecked form and then at Strake. His teeth are like huge gravestone slabs. "Heís bloody finished. Ainít going nowhere but hell."
"The last thing I want him to see before he dies is his brother walking through that door. Is the haymaker positioned?" Strake pulls steel teeth out of his wrecked face and tucks them in his pocket. Those teeth are worth a monthís pay at least. The haymaker heís referring to is the bomb Ogreís now sliding underneath the table Iím spread eagle upon. Itís a five-pound canister of grape shot rigged to the door via a black powder sparkline fuse. Itíll blow my body to many small and very dead pieces. I wonít feel a thing even if somehow Iím alive when it happens.
"Haymakers live." Ogre dusts his hands of and stands.
"His arms." Strake reiterates.
"Sorry, guvnor." Ogre shrugs. "Excessive, but business is businessÖand all. You understand, eh? Heís the boss and all." I say nothing. What is there to say? What would you say? He breaks my arms in two clean snaps, with his bare hands. The sound is sickening, but Iím so far gone I barely feel it, only a vague sense of newfound wrongness in my body. Scraping bone. Twisted sinews. I barely grunt as the world goes grey and wavy. The men shiver and wobble and fade, a mirage.
Strakeís wife didnít know of her husbandís scheme. Or did she? I sift through it all. Everything I know. All the pieces. Again and again and again. But the noise. The dripping. It saps my resolve twofold. Itís my blood, you see. Everything I know is a fractured mosaic in a hurricane. Facts, I canít grasp them and if I could I wouldnít be able to fit them together. Make sense of them. The drugs tainting my blood have knocked my wits to slum chutney. Everything Iíve heard. Everything I know. Put it together you fool. Do that, at leastÖ
Okay. Women. They can playact realms of emotion, believe me. My bank account and I are well acquainted with this phenomenon, but Lady Strake was not. She was ignorant of her husbandís schemeóBrahma this hurtsóIíd have read it in her eyes had it been otherwise. Or was I blinded by her beauty? Fuck that, she was blinded by mine. She didnít know. Strake acted alone. The reason? Greed. Yes, certainly. He needed to buff his gold face or buy a new suit. Heíd incurred debts to men no one wants debts to, that much was clear. Desperation drives such men to dark destinations, and this is dark indeed. But why hire me if he didnít want Lucy found? Why the sham? Why risk the money? To appease his wife, of course. He had to make an effort to find her, or at least look like he did. Exhaust every avenue. And when Pinkerton offered my name to them, he had to acquiesce for his wifeís sake. Hire the Hindi boy to complete the job. It was a small risk from his point of view. Weíre all incompetent simpletons destined for failure, anyways, right? And if the brown boy did somehow find his precious Lucy, well, heíd just do what he did.
Murder us both.
Iíve tried to scream but I canít. I can barely breathe. Bubbles froth and then pool in a quagmire of pink chest-swill as I do so. Itís not pleasant. The spume overflows and trickles down my arm to my wrist across the table and then to the floor.
DripÖ DripÖ DripÖ
I can only lie and stare at the doorÖ
At the spark line fuse running across the roomÖ
Attached to a clockwork detonator on the haymaker stowed beneath meÖ
A coming home present for me and Nikunj, who should be returning soon. I hope he doesnít. Brahma, I beg he smells this trap. Forget me. Strike out on the warpath. Kill that bastard fuck. Kill Strake. Take his head. Plan B. Live long, large. Nikunjís too smart, too slick, to fall for something this obtuse.
Shadows moving underneath the door strike me like lightning. Whirling thoughts coalesce instantaneously into plan. Keys jingle outside the door and the first lock is unlocked an instant laterÖand then the second. "Nikunj! NO!" I gurgle. He canít hear me, and if he could? But thereís still a chanceówith everything I have left in this world I force my body wriggling off the table. The third lock scrapes open now and Iím cascading like a river of flesh off the table, gurgle grunting as bone shards scrape in my arms and my chest unzips popping like fireworks to my navel as I literally pour onto the floor while the door opens and the sparkline fuse sizzles instantly gone all the way up to the puddle of me that has doused it about two feet from the haymaker.