A Filthy Night

She lay in the crumpled remains of the bed looking at the dark skin of the young watchman’s bare firm back and broad shoulders, marked by the red stripes of their recent exploits. He sat on the bottom edge of the bed, rubbing his hands through his short, wiry hair. The sounds of the wind whipping the window with the lash of rain lulled her into a waking dream. The smell of the overused bed, the seediness of the red-hooded lantern and the mechanical transaction of their recently completed coitus faded into her fantasy. He, her husband, a young, firm, practical watchman with a steady job and a gentle, loving manner. She, his dutiful wife, servicing him gladly and keeping their home. It was not always like this with her. But with certain clients…

They always came here to relieve their needs – the watchmen. The Gilded Lilly had a good reputation and was as clean as they come. It was a tough job being a watchman and often, when the adrenaline of their occupation overwhelmed them, they needed somewhere to expend their energies and forget their frustrations and angst. The girls did not mind. Watchmen were generally good men. Their lovemaking, whilst not gentle, rarely stepped over the mark where the bruises would show and treatment may be needed. She particularly liked this young watchman. Clay, that was his name, and she believed that he could be soft and malleable like his namesake. Soft and malleable, that is, until hardened in the fires of this city’s cesspit furnace of violence and despair. She did not think that he had been hardened yet. She hoped that he had not been hardened yet.

A knock at the door – three taps, pause, one tap. It was madam. Surely it was not time yet. Did she not have more moments to lay in this silent fantasy?

Clay reached over to gather up his pants and shirt as the door opened. The smiling yet hard face of Dolly, surrounded by the brazen curls of red and gold, peeped around the door. She felt a moment of jealous possession as Dolly appraised the young body of Clay. With a smirk, Dolly spoke, “Nice, sweety, nice. If I were twenty year younger I’d let you in me f’ free.” Her jovial tone changed, became businesslike. “But there’s a street brat here for y’. Been sent for a watchman to check out a body in a’ alley off Horsetether street. You been here the longest. Well, auld Trappy’s been here longer ’n you, but I’m not sending an old geezer like him out of my warm house on a night like this. And seein’ as ’ow the others probably haven’t finished yet, you’re up.”

Clay nodded. He was almost fully dressed now. Having fastened his wide belt, upon which hung his watch-issue short sword, he retrieved his regulation white cloak which he would need to protect him from the icy blasts of this filthy night. After fastening the clasp at his neck, he reached into his purse and pulled out three large coins. He only had to pay two, but Clay always tipped generously. He left them on the bedside cabinet without acknowledging her broad, thankful smile.

***

She was quick. After all, time was money and there would be another client waiting. She scraped her fingernails, then sifted through the bed, bedding and her own clothes and hair. She had done well. About a dozen hairs, at least half of them bearing the little white globules she had been told to get, and a decent scraping of flesh from his back. She had been deliberately rough for this, but he had seemed to like it. She carefully collected her hoard into one of the small, stoppered glass phials that madam had given her. She wondered, not for the first time, what madam needed these scraps of people for, but quickly moved her thoughts to something else. What madam did was none of her business, and the extra four coppers per client was more than enough for her to be happy to leave it that way.

***

It was morning, but the sun wouldn’t rise for a while yet, especially with sky as thunderously heavy as it was. Madam Dolly was sat in the kitchen of her large house – the only room that was ever private. Her red and gold curls sat on the table beside her as she sucked noisily on her cow-bone pipe, trying to spark some life into the slightly damp tobacco. After a few attempts there was a satisfying crackle, and acrid smoke filled her lungs. She let out one great cough, then went back to the pipe, taking in a controlled draw. She sat back contentedly, allowing the blue smoke to filter out through her nostrils.

Her contentedness was quickly disturbed by a knock at the door. Three taps, pause, one tap. It was him. She did not bother to rise or to call out, after a second he let himself in.

An old man stood before Dolly – although a bitter part of her considered that he was probably no older than she was herself. His dark cloak, impossibly slick and smooth even when it was dry, was pulled about him to protect him from the cold, wet night. He pulled back his hood to reveal his face, lined and pock-marked, yet somehow vibrant. He had a living colour to his cheeks that was shared by few in this desperate city. His face was surrounded by a wrap of grey hair and beard. Though not grey, she realised, but somehow silver. Almost shining. He smiled at her and, not for the first time, she found herself transfixed by the straight whiteness of his perfect teeth. She glanced to her right, where her own, yellowing, false teeth – a huge investment, crafted from the reclaimed teeth of dead soldiers – sat beside her bright wig.

He spoke. “Well, Mistress Dolly, what do we have from tonight’s enterprise?” His voice was deep, resonant, captivating – much like hers had been back when men paid to hear her sing and not to use her body.

From beneath the table she produced a wooden rack. It had spaces for twelve small, glass phials. Four of the spaces were empty.

“Only eight? It must have been a quiet night.”

She nodded. Another quick draw on the pipe before she said through the smoke, “Yes. Too many other houses opening that undercut us.” The course accent that she had used in the presence of the watchman was gone. Her tone was refined now, despite the slight lisp caused by the removed teeth. “They use unclean girls and have less rules. I am not willing to stoop so low in an attempt to undercut them.”

The man nodded. His pale, blue eyes showed compassion. “I know. That’s why you need me, and this.” He pulled a purse from beneath his shimmering cloak of darkness. He opened the purse, which chinked gently as he took out about a dozen small, silver coins which he tucked back inside his cloak. The purse was still acceptably full as he dropped it onto the table. In the same movement he reached for the rack of phials. Dolly pulled them back towards her, just a fraction. His compassionate eyes changed, narrowing to a questioning frustration.

Dolly drew another calming breath of smoke from the pipe and breathed it out deliberately, slowly. Their eyes were locked together: hers, dark brown and red-rimmed; his, pale blue and shining. She asked him the question again, the one that she had asked on six previous occasions since he had come into her life with a seemingly indeclinable offer. “So are you going to tell me what you do with all of this?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“But you guarantee that nobody comes to harm because of it?”

His nod was emphatic. “Absolutely. You have my word on it.”

“How can I trust you?”

He shrugged. “Have any of your clients come to harm?”

She did not shake her head, but held his gaze. “Not yet.”

He shrugged again. “Well, there you are then.” She still held the rack of phials, so he continued. “I give my absolute word that nobody has, or will ever, come to harm because of what we do here. Quite the opposite, in fact. I wish I could tell you more, but I cannot.”

Dolly gave a little nod of acceptance then pushed the rack of phials towards him across the table. He gathered them up quickly and stashed them beneath his cloak. He hesitated as he turned to leave and asked over his shoulder, “Speaking of clean girls, do you need any more of the ointment yet?”

She shook her head, then turned her face away. Nothing more was said and he silently left, retreating out into the last remnants of the filthy night.

***

The sun was struggling to break through the grey clouds of morning as Albert Forlanze trekked through the small, dripping wood. He was glad of his waterproof, black oilskin coat, padded with the latest technology in heat-regulating thermal fibres. TrekaTech really was the company to go to for high-quality outdoor wear. The fibres of this particular coat actually drove cold out into the surrounding atmosphere in order to maintain a constant temperature by the skin of the wearer. His boots were made of the same material and he had expended a sizeable portion of his monthly credit on them. They were worth it.

There, ahead, Albert saw what he was looking for: a small, seemingly random shape of stones that would have been easily ignored by any usual passer-by. It was the D-gate. One quick calculation on his D-hopper mobile and he would be back to vX1 – the prime dimension. He quickly checked inside his coat to ensure that the phials of purchased samples were intact. They were.

Back on his home dimension, in his government-sponsored and fully equipped laboratory, Albert would be able to run the DNA of these samples through the usual, rigorous range of tests. Eight samples. From his experience, that would give him four workable DNA strands. With a one in eighty-two thousand chance of finding what he needed, Albert was not brimming with confidence. But, he would return again to gather more samples.

Ever since dimension-hopping had been prevalent in his world, Albert had been tasked by the government to complete his current assignment. He had to find the cures for the diseases from the other dimensions for which they had no immunity on vX1. He had always managed it and even been ahead of the game. But this new strain was proving difficult, beyond difficult. But he kept at it. Eventually, surely, he would get what he needed.

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Birdseye

By Paul R. Green

As the black limousine made its stately way off the wasteland the man watched through rheumy eyes as the three idiots began arguing and hitting each other once more. They obviously hadn’t seen him when they’d made their half-arsed check of the place on arrival at the bit of derelict land; no doubt dismissing his huddled, dishevelled shape as just another piece of detritus on the pile of rubble at the edge of the abandoned site overlooking the grey northern river.
He waited until the men had got back in their own car and driven off before moving, joints screaming as much through his meagre diet as his age. His movement startled a couple of black headed gulls that were checking the heap for whatever it is they looked for on piles of old bricks and timber, and the man jumped as they suddenly took to the air with hideous shrieks. He shuffled over to where the idiots had stood, and was happy to find a discarded half-smoked rollie, which he didn’t hesitate in retrieving with grimy fingers and bringing straight to his eager mouth.
He drew deeply on the fag-end, determined to glean as much of a hit as possible. The smoke filled his lungs and he coughed violently, before being forced to hauk out a disgusting wad of phlegm.
The second draw produced the same reaction, but he still went back for more, sucking at the tobacco until there was nothing left, his eyes looking along to where the cars had returned to the road and back to the city proper.
From where he’d watched in the rubble he hadn’t heard much of what the men were discussing, but he had seen the man who’d been retrieved from the boot of one car and transferred to the limo after having his feet encased in concrete. Or at least he thought he had; he often got confused these days. No; the splashes of hardening concrete and the discarded cigarette suggested that what he had witnessed was no hallucination.
He wondered what to do now. He was a smart man, or at least he had been once, and he knew that what he’d seen meant something, and that if it meant something it had power. His problem was that without knowing who these people were he didn’t know how he could use it. He decided to talk to Jesus.

***

His lungs were on fire as he walked up Dean Street’s arduous slope and he had to stop to catch his breath before attempting the steep stairs up toward the cathedral. He was thankful that there were few people about at this time on a Sunday morning, just the occasional couple – no doubt on a romantic weekend break – hand in hand as they headed down to the Quayside: or the odd straggler from last nights debauchery, looking almost as dishevelled as himself, though their clothes were much more stylish. None of them looked at him; not really. The couples always just happened to cross the road before coming to him, and the stragglers were too drunk or hungover to see anything but the two feet in front of them in their quest to find their way back to wherever it was they’d come from.
At the top of the steps he stopped again to cough up another wad of phlegm and try and get his breath back before making his way to an ornate doorway that stood across from the majestic grandeur of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. Above this particular doorway a grotesquely carved rabbit, black as coal with blood red fangs sat and stared with baleful eyes at all who crossed its path. The man smiled; he liked the gargoyle, remembering the first time his dad had shown him it, back in that other life. Beneath the rabbit, sitting in the recessed doorway, nursing a cheap plastic bottle of wine, was the man known locally as Jesus.
“Captain Birdseye!” Jesus shouted as he spotted him approaching. He hated the name; it being taken from his vague resemblance to an old advertising character. He hated it, but tolerated it all the same as he didn’t feel he deserved his other name; the name belonging to the man he was before now.
“What news on the Rialto?” Jesus stood and beckoned him over to the stand in the shade of a tree that stood in the cathedral grounds, offering him a drink as he drew closer.
The bottle buckled slightly with a plastic crackle as the man accepted it and took a hearty swig. The red wine was cheap, but welcoming. He licked his white moustache and beard, savouring the tiny beads of alcohol he found before he handed the bottle back.
“I’ve got some news to trade, but I don’t know who with. Thought you’d be the man to see.”
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Said Jesus, spreading his arms wide as he spun around to salute the edifice behind him, before coming full circle to face the man known as ‘Birdseye’. “So ask away, my son. Ask away.”
“Dodgy bastard in a flash suit. Drives a limo; actually, a chauffeur drives it, but you know what I mean. Who is he?”
“And did this snazzily attired chauffeur driven gentleman of questionable birth wear anything distinguishable upon his feet?”
“Couldn’t see proper, like, but he might’ve been wearing them things gangsters wear. You know what I mean? Like socks, but that go over your shoes.”
Spats.”
“Aye, that’s them. Spats. He might have been wearing spats.”
“Their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; devastation and destruction are in their highways. Isaiah.”
“Isaiah who?”
“I was quoting Isaiah. The man you’re referring to is Keith Lawrence, calls himself The Don. Trying to make a name for himself. Whatever you want him for I’d say forget it. He’s trouble.”
“A man trying to make a name for himself has enemies. I’ve seen something they might find useful. Who are his?”
Jesus gave the man a sorrowful look.
“You don’t want to get in between men like these, my friend.”
“Want’s got nothing to do with it. We don’t all have the faithful leaving donations on our doorstep.”
The man known as Jesus raised his arms in surrender.
“It would have been remiss of me not to say, that’s all. The path you choose to walk down is your own. So seeing as you seem to know your way, allow me to enlighten you. Now the Don is enjoying, what you might call, a bit of a purple patch at the moment. Since Jimmy the Vampire got put away a few months back things have been fairly quiet. Well, except for a few internal disagreements, that is.”
Birdseye took a seat on the low wall. He’d been hoping for more than this. He’d thought about contacting Jimmy the Vampire, but even if he wasn’t in the nick there was no way Birdseye was going to go all the way to Sunderland to try and find him; and the Vampire never came to Newcastle. He’d earned the nickname due to his refusal to cross the river for fucks sake!
“There must be someone.” Birdseye said.

“Look, mate, the only one who’s anywhere close to the Don’s level at the moment is Sister Mary, but she’s been savvy enough to stick with nicking motors in Hebburn.”
“How do I talk to her?”
Jesus sighed.
“I’ll set it up.”

***

Even the hum of the electricity station didn’t spoil his walk towards the meeting place by the Tyne. The sun was out, and for once there was no wind blowing up the river to chill his aching body. As he made his way to the car park off South Shore Road he went over what he planned to say to Sister Mary. He needed to play this smart, think about the long game, but it was hard when he was so accustomed to concentrating on where the next meal was coming from. He just had to make sure he got a good trade for the information, and not just settle for the first thing she offered. He also had to trade smart; no fags, no booze. He wanted a job, or if not that then at least the chance to prove himself an asset. He had skills. Useful skills to someone with ambition. Or at least his other self did. All he needed was a chance. That, a hot shower and a real bed for the night.
As he approached the rendezvous point he began to sweat. It wasn’t just the exertion from walking all the way down here; he was nervous. What if she laughed at him? Would she even come? If she sent one of her cronies would they be able to make a deal?
He grew short of breath and had to stop. He bent over and drew in air in an attempt to sort himself out. He forced himself to clear his head of all the negative thoughts, finding the song of a small bird in the nearby trees to focus upon and blotted everything else out.
He let out a long, slow breath as he straightened and calmly walked to the car park.
There was already a vehicle there; a black something expensive. He was no good with cars; and what was it with gangsters and black cars? They always showed the dirt up, especially on sunny days like today.
The car flashed its headlights and he made his way toward it, feeling like some kind of spy in one of those films he’d watched back when he was someone else. He instinctively went to the back window which was, of course, tinted.

As he stood waiting he saw his reflection properly for the first time in as long he could remember, and chuckled to himself – He really did look like Captain Birdseye!
The window descended with a subtle hum and his face was replaced by the occupant’s.
“I believe you saw something you shouldn’t.”
All the warmth of the day leeched from his body as he stared into the eyes of the Don.

Ashes

By Paul R Green

Orland Clay hawked and spat out a blackened gob of saliva. Bent double with hands on knees he watched wearily as the spitball hit the street, and slowly oozed down the soot-stained cobblestone leaving a slick silvery trail like a deformed slug.
The crack of splintering timber brought the young guard’s head up in time to see the final death throes of the burning building. The main roof beam rent in two, each part crashing through what was left of the first floor and stirring a cloud of glowing embers to dance and swirl like fireflies in the night sky. The searing wave of heat and debris roiling out from the conflagration forced the young guard to turn away and cough up another soot-blackened gob.
“You alright there, lad?” A meaty hand slapped him on the back, startling Clay for a second. The deep, mellifluous voice belonged to Clay’s sergeant and mentor, Churt DePard. Clay pulled in a deep breath, the hot air tasting of burnt wood and, rather disturbingly, roast pork as he inhaled and straightened to answer his superior.
“Just getting my breath, Sarge.”
“We’ve stopped it spreading at least. Get some water in you then come find me, lad. I want your knowledge on this one.” The big man put a fatherly hand on Clay’s shoulder before striding away to bellow orders at the townsfolk who had stopped passing buckets to gawk at the building’s final collapse.
Clay watched for a moment, wondering what knowledge he could possibly possess that the veteran sergeant didn’t.

***

The fire had burnt out, reducing the warehouse to a smouldering ruin of smoking ash and charred, stunted beams that to Clay’s mind looked like a giant, twisted hand clawing at the grey winter sky. Scattered amidst the wreckage, though the bulk of them were near what should have been the exits, lay a number of burnt bodies; most seared to the bone, and none of them promising any means of identification. A disturbing number of the them were too small to be adults. Clay looked at his ash-caked boots and tried not to think too hard as to just what that ash consisted of. He’d been stood for a while now, waiting for his mentor to speak; knowing better than to interrupt him while thinking. At least his feet were warm, he thought, thanking the gods the cobbles had retained some heat from the blaze.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.” Clay was startled from his thoughts and forced to jog after his
sergeant as he strode away from the smoking remains.
“Where are we going? What did you see?”
“You’ve seen what I have. Tell me.”
Clay had half expected this, the gruff sergeant had for some reason taken the young guard under his wing; occasionally drawing him into investigations where other watch members would either not see the bigger picture or took the easy option and ignored it. Along the way DePard would challenge Clay, forcing him to think about his reasoning as well as his actions; teaching him how to be more than just a fight-breaker and a turn-key. For his part, Clay, quite liked the special attention and insight that his mentor was providing, though he could do without the occasional jokes made at his expense by his other more traditional colleagues.
“The fire was obviously deliberate.”
“Obviously?”
Clay smiled. This was all part of the game; he had to explain his reasoning.
“Yes; the warehouse was clearly being used as a doss house; with all the refugees arriving since Kerrigan started his crusade, they’re springing up all over town. And although it’s possible someone could have knocked over a lantern or candle or some such, that wouldn’t explain how the fire spread so quickly, nor why so many people were unable to escape. I spotted what looked like chains where the doors would have been, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the doors were fastened on the outside. You could argue that it was an accident and that the doors were regularly sealed this way to prevent either discovery of the unsanctioned dosshouse or theft of the warehouse contents proper,” he paused.
“But” DePard hadn’t slowed, another one of his quirks; he was of the opinion that it was always better to be going somewhere, even if he then had to change direction should new evidence present itself.
“I’m inclined to think that the killer either knew they’d be trapped inside or brought the chains himself and made sure of it. Either way, it’s murder.” He looked to DePard.
“Not bad, Clay, but without an explanation for the rapid spread of the fire you’re still relying upon conjecture as to it being a premeditated act of murder.”
“I’m no expert but looking at what’s left of the place, most of the damage is to the external walls. Agreed?”
DePard nodded.
“And, yes, the inside is badly burned, but the fire was fought from the outside in, which begs the question if the fire had started inside the property then why isn’t that where the worst of the damage is.”
DePard grunted.”Well then, lad, where do we go to act upon this deduction?”
“Seeing as the fire was on the edge of the Warrens; King B.”
The sergeant actually stopped. King B was a notorious criminal, running a city wide gang of
prostitutes, thieves, and assassins. He was also the de facto mayor of the Warrens. The watch, those of them not on his payroll at least, had been after him for years, but King B was a cautious man with a keen mind and had so far kept out of gaol. He was also very difficult to get close to, relying upon a chain of henchmen and go-betweens to act as buffers.
“You know where to find him?”
“He’s not hard to find. Hard to get to yes, but not hard to find.”
Clay turned back the way they had come, allowing himself the hint of a smug grin as his sergeant was forced to follow.

***

Churt DePard had seen a lot of things in his lifetime; been in some tough places, but there was something about the Warrens that he always found disconcerting. He tried to put it down to his watchman’s instinct reminding him that he was in an area of the city with a much higher than average crime rate, and a virtually nonexistent watch presence, but he knew deep down that it was something else; something much older and primal. It was in the way everyone moved; slow and deliberate, never turning their backs. It was the way everyone watched you, whether that be the bold stares of the bravos and street toughs, or the surreptitious glances of those lurking in the shadows. Even those that could be described as regular citizens, the merchants, smiths, butchers and beggars all seemed to stop what they were doing and stare balefully as the watchmen passed by.
For his part, DePard projected an air of calm authority, back straight, hand on sword hilt, though his eyes constantly swept his surroundings for any sign of trouble.
“In here.” Clay indicated a bakers and stepped inside. DePard followed.
The smell of fresh bread, a favourite of DePard’s at the best of times, was like an exotic perfume after the pungent smells of the city streets, and the heat from the ovens provided a welcome respite from the winter chill.
The bakery was busy as loaves were loaded into baskets to be delivered in time for breakfast to those as could afford it, the work overseen by a short fat man with arms that could shame a blacksmith. Seeing the two men enter he turned to face them as he continued wrapping bread. The broad, yet handsome face was marred by a scar running up from his chin through his lips and along one side of his nose; the light scar tissue vivid against his dark skin.
“Orland. How good to see you. If you’re here about my guild fees, though, you should know that I have strong views when it comes to extortion.” The deep baritone only slightly effected by the scar.
“Don’t worry, uncle, I’m not after your money.”
The baker mimed a relieved sigh. Then moved round to smother Clay with a powerful embrace; the young guard thinking it a good job his cloak was white as his uncle’s flour covered arms wrapped around him. The baker stepped back, affectionately patting Clay’s cheek.
“Well I know it’s not a social call. You rarely visit, and when you do you’re always considerate enough to come out of uniform.” He smiled and turned to DePard. “It’s not that we have anything against you Doves but the neighbours are apt to get nervous when a couple of white cloaks come visiting. Especially when one of them’s Churt DePard.” He held out a flour covered hand.
DePard was surprised at being identified but managed to keep his expression neutral as he
accepted the strong handshake.
The baker gave the sergeant an apologetic look.
“There’s a lot of folk round here still bitter about Goven Chandler.”
DePard sniffed. “Goven Chandler was a rapist with a taste for young flesh. I’d kill the bastard again in a heartbeat.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, sergeant. Don’t get me wrong. Folks round here wanted him dead. They just wanted to do it their way; make sure he suffered.”
“He suffered.” DePard’s eyes were ice.
The baker still gripped DePard’s hand.
“Of that I do not doubt. However, his victims’ families don’t think it was enough. I think they were hoping for a more protracted experience for mister Chandler. That, and for him to go to his death with fewer testicles of course.”
“You don’t get fewer than none.” DePard’s expression hadn’t changed.
The baker grinned, slapped a floury hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and released his grip on the other hand.
“Are you sure you’re not from the Warrens, Sergeant?” He rocked back on his heels before moving back behind his counter. “Now what can I do for you?”
Clay stepped forward.
“I’ll get straight to the point and not insult you by asking if you heard about the fire on Wagonway Road.” Clay said as the baker returned to wrapping loaves.
“Terrible news. I hear there were folk caught inside?”
“At least twenty; some of them children. And not caught, trapped. The doors were chained so they couldn’t escape.”
The baker’s chestnut eyes, the irises rimmed with a speckle of lighter brown, flicked up to meet Clay’s. For a split second fire seemed to flash from the hazel specks.
“We need to know who did it, Uncle, they need to be stopped.”
The fire was gone, tamped down to a less noticeable, but much hotter slow burn.
“There’s plenty talk on the streets and in the inns, especially those around the docks about how the refugees are becoming a problem. How the city should be housing them elsewhere. Not our problem, sort of thing. That’s just human nature, though; no one likes to share too much and some people have a different concept of what constitutes too much. This though, if it’s true,”
“It is.” Said DePard.
“Then this is something else.” He stared at DePard, judging him. “My business is fortunate enough to get a lot of customers, Sergeant; it gives me an understanding of this community. I’ll keep my ears open.” He shifted his attention back to his nephew. “Now, do you want a couple of stotties to take away?” He was already wrapping a couple of the flat breads.
“Thank you, Uncle. You don’t get them up our way.”
The baker handed Clay the warm parcel as he saw the guards to the door.
“All the more reason to visit us more often, Lando; out of uniform though, eh?” He said giving Clay a hearty slap on the back as he ushered them onto them outside and closed the door.

The wind whipping down the narrow street stripped away all warmth and the comforting aroma of fresh bread, replacing them with the rotten smells of decaying street waste and the biting cold of winter. Clay tucked the parcel into his tunic, enjoying the warmth it provided, before pulling his cloak tight and looking to his sergeant.
“So your uncle knows King B. Should I be concerned?”
“No. I’ve chosen my side.”
DePard nodded his approval.

***

Bokeem Clay watched his nephew and DePard as they walked away. He was angry, and the anger was building. He was angry that the boy had come here in uniform. He was angry that he’d brought the sergeant. He was also angry that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch. But that was nothing compared to how furious he was that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch without his say so.

***

The glow of the lantern threw light into the open warehouse space as Hero pulled the door open and stepped inside. He winced at the overpowering smell of fish, wishing his boss had chosen any of the many other buildings he owned as he pulled his kerchief up over his nose in a futile attempt to suppress the stench. His boss followed him inside, his face only flickering slight acknowledgement of the offensive odour. The five other men, King B’s employees all, were also employed as dock hands and therefore seemed immune to the smell.
One of the men, a tall, heavy set bruiser, pulled the door shut against the winter night and took his place by The King. He somehow seemed even larger when stood by his boss. The others split up to light more lanterns.
Suspended upside down from an overhead beam at the rooms centre, three naked men – none of them over eighteen – their hands bound behind their backs, slowly twisted at the end of the ropes lashed around their feet.
Bokeem Clay approached his prisoners until he stood just in front of them. Three of his men moved behind the captives and held them so they faced their boss.
“It has come to my attention that one, two, or maybe even all three of you, can assist me in my enquiries.” The King’s voice echoed around the large room.
The captives said nothing.
“Let me make this simple for you. I know that your group was responsible for the fire and
subsequent deaths at the warehouse on Wagonway Road. I know that you three boys were in the Tack spouting your vitriol just before the aforementioned conflagration. What I would like you to tell me is who started the fire, and who gave the orders. That’s all. Two names and this all ends for two of you.”
The King studied the three men as his words sunk in. Their faces a curious purple, a combination of the cold and the blood settling in their heads. None of them had the look of real killers about them, though he knew they were responsible for the fire. They were cowards; hiding behind the mask of their cause, bravado swelled by the group they belonged to, committing their despicable acts through fear of losing face in front of their so called mates. Never realising those very same mates were as like to be feeling the same peer pressure and fear of rejection. Bokeem Clay despised men like this, but he knew just how to use them.
“Hero.”
His man stepped forward.
“That one.” He pointed to the largest of the three prisoners, and walked off to the manager’s office in the corner of the building where one of his men was brewing a pot of coffee. There was no need for him to watch as Hero lowered the selected captive to the ground and manhandled him through a side door.

***

As Bokeem was pouring his third coffee Hero entered and nodded. King B joined his man and they returned to stand before the two remaining captives. He took a sip of his coffee before speaking.
“I know you’re curious as to the fate of your friend. Right now your limited imaginations
are conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios involving red hot tongs, bread knives and
toasting forks. All you need to know, however, is that your friend told us what we wanted.”
He took another sip of coffee, savouring the warmth as much as the taste as the hanging men’s eyes darted from him to each other and back. King B smiled; they were his.
“Now what many people fail to recognise about using torture to extract information is that the subject, in this case your absent colleague mister Reeves, is just as likely to tell his questioner what he thinks he wants to hear as he is to tell him the truth.”
Again, he gave the men time to digest what he’d said as he took another mouthful.
“So, what that means is, and I’m sure you bright young lads have already figured this out, is that we require some form of corroboration; a verification of your colleague’s claims so that we don’t act upon inconclusive information. I’m sure you understand.”
“It was Solomon Pitt made us do it.” Both men spluttering out the name almost instantaneously. “He said it would send a message.”
The King nodded.
“Pitt planned the deed no doubt. And he did send a message; just not to the people you boys
think.”
A look of understanding appeared on the face of one of the prisoners.
“It wasn’t about the Northerners. It was about the warehouse. The message was for you.”
“Clever lad. And he chose you boys to deliver it. Obedient young pups, blinded by hatred and fear.”
He said waving his mug in their direction.
“And you two,” he said, “went through with it. You two, and your friend back there, carried out his plan and burnt those women and children to death over geography. And that, that’s on you. Pitt might have sent you but no one made you do it. That’s just how lickspittles like you justify your cowardly actions to yourselves.”
He handed his coffee to Hero, trading the tin mug for a bread knife.
“A man is responsible for his own actions. Always.”

***

DePard pulled the last of the potatoes from the patch he kept behind the barracks, checked it for rot, and satisfied there was none, added it to the sack by his side. The crop was small, he’d been busy and hadn’t been able to tend his garden as well as he’d have liked; he was also late in harvesting. Still, he’d have some good compost next season, he thought, looking at the pile of rotting waste he’d fenced off in one corner. He stood, brushed dirt from his knees and turned to see Clay waiting by the door.
“We’ve been left a gift.”
“Oh?” Said DePard.
“A man named Reeves was bound and left outside the Tack. Roper and DeMarc found him this morning when they went back to help with seeing to the remains.”
“He hurt?”
“Broken nose, a few bruises. More scared than anything. Claims some upright citizens overheard him bragging about his deeds and took the law into their own hands.”
DePard chuckled. “In the Warrens?”
“Don’t be so dismissive of the Warrens, Sarge. The watch might not be welcome but the folk there do have a code.”
“Don’t fuck with King B?” De Pard chuckled again. “Don’t pout lad, I get it. Places like that, they breed closeness. A sense of community you don’t find in the likes of Park Square and Temple Grove. But whether they think so or not, they still come under our watch, and as much as I’d like to believe that some good citizens handed over this Reeves out of a sense of community and public duty, I think we both know that your uncle wouldn’t have delivered him to us unless there was something to be gained. I think we need to have a word with this Reeves.”

***

The forge was an old guard tower at the rear of the western barracks. It had been heavily damaged in the big siege over twenty years ago and was now mostly a hollow shell. About ten years ago the then head of the watch, a man named Thorn, had had the rubble cleared from the one ground floor room that still had four solid walls, if not a ceiling, and began using it for the questioning of prisoners. The room was an old store and therefore windowless; light, what little there was, came from torches in the wall sconces of the room above – or at least those that could be safely reached.
Reeves was strapped to a single chair in the centre of the room. The chair itself bolted to the floor, but the main feature of the forge wasn’t the walls, or the light, or even the chair; it was the smell. The room reeked of fear, as if every man who had sat in that chair had sweated a part of himself into the porous stone floor and over the years that essence, that physical manifestation of hopelessness and defeat had spread drop by oozing drop until it permeated the whole room and the very walls were now covered in a nervous sheen.
Reeves watched fearfully as DePard and Clay entered and took their positions. The younger guard moved behind him leading Reeves to naturally try and follow his movement. The thick leather restraints prevented him turning his head far enough leaving him to speculate on, or more likely worry about, where Clay was and what he was doing.
A noise brought his attention back to the big sergeant who set down a small table in front of the prisoner. Resting on the table was a cloth bag. DePard pulled a scroll from his belt, opened it up and read from it.
“Crispin Reeves. Of an above average height and stocky build with hair of a clean straw colour and eyes of blue. Tattoo depicting the sigil of Crispin the Defender on right forearm.”
“Nowt wrong with that. Crispin is a hero to this city. Me Mam named me for him.”
DePard ignored the interruption.
“Lives with parents and three brothers above the kilns off Artisan Square. A few overnight
detentions for drunken affray and common assault. All of them off the back of trips to the Warrens. Seems to me you’re the type of boy who likes trouble. There’s no other reason I can see for you to be straying so far from home.
“I’m a citizen of Stonelake; can walk where I please.”
“True enough, lad, and as a citizen you’ll know the punishment for murder.”
“I’m not of age as to be hanged without witnesses to the crime. I know that much.”
The boy tried to hold DePard’s gaze but couldn’t and squirmed in the chair as his eyes broke away.
“A lawyer now are you, boy? Well, just so you’re clear, how you’re tried is at the discretion of the magistrate, and the opinion of the watch weighs heavily upon her decision. Which, as far as you’re concerned, means I get to decide whether you’re tried as man or boy, and whether your future’s in chains or on rope. What say you, Clay? Is Crispin here merely a confused young boy lead astray by a wicked bigot, or is he a true grown man who knows his mind?”
Reeves jumped as two hands clamped onto his shoulders. He tried unsuccessfully to jerk his head away from the hot breath that suddenly spread across his neck.
“These are the shoulders of a man, sergeant. Broad and strong. I say he hangs.” The breath
disappeared along with the hands, as Clay slipped back into the shadows.
Before Reeves could gather himself DePard suddenly leant forward, bringing his face within inches of the boy’s.
“The way I see it you’ve spent your time playing at being a big man. Well congratulations, Crispin, you’re being treated like one now. And will be right up to the point of your execution. No doubt you’ve been to a hanging, lad; stood laughing with your mates as the
prisoner danced his last jig. Will they laugh at you I wonder? Point to your soiled britches and makecrude jokes as you gasp your last, and your mother pulls at her hair and wails.”
“It was Pitt. Solomon Pitt.” The words came through ragged, tearful breaths.
DePard smiled as he leaned back.
“And where would I find this Solomon Pitt?”

***

For the second time in as many days DePard and Clay found themselves standing in front of a burnt out building. This time it was the remains of an inn called The Phoenix. DeMarc joined them from where he’d been talking with an old man.
“Let me guess,” said DePard, “a tragic accident. No witnesses.”
“Actually plenty. The old man says there were about a dozen of them. They nailed the doors shut, doused the walls in oil and put torches to the place. Anyone who tried to leave caught a crossbow bolt for their efforts.” He indicated the charred remains of a figure draped through what was left of a window. “They were all masked though, of course.”
“Of course. Any survivors?”
“Not sure. The old geezer reckons he saw someone jump from an upstairs window into the canal, but he also says he caught at least a couple of quarrels. Roper’s leading a search along the banks to see if a body or trail turns up.”
“Good work. Let me know if he finds anything. And see if you can’t get a better description from the old man.
“Will do, Sarge.” DeMarc headed back toward the witness who was starting to slope away. “Oi, Grandad! I’m not finished with you yet.”
DePard turned back to Clay, “I’m hungry. Fancy a stottie?”

***

“I hear the good citizens hereabouts found you your arsonist.” Bokeem Clay said from behind his counter where he was pre-slicing a loaf – ‘For the widow Fens, you understand. She has trouble with her hands. Arthritis.’
“Seems we may have a copycat. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Phoenix.” Said DePard.
“A tragedy. One of the oldest inns in Stonelake. Well, the site is. If memory serves this is the third Phoenix to be built there. The original inn was called The Refuge, believe it or not; burnt down during the trout riots. Stood less than a year before taking a direct hit during the siege. The second incarnation lasted a whole decade before mysteriously burning down one night. Funny thing was the landlord’s wife just happened to be visiting her sick aunt that night, so only her notoriously unfaithful husband was killed.”
DePard actually laughed at that, surprising his protege.
“And now this. Maybe they should change the name.”
“Or find a new trade?” said DePard.
“Indeed. Something less prone to incident and accident.” Bokeem mused.
“Like baking?”
“Ah, but baking can be a hazardous profession,Sergeant; too many ways the unwary amateur can be burnt.” The baker juggled a hot loaf as if for emphasis.
“And quite a competitive business I would think.”
“Cut-throat.” He said with a smile as he drew the serrated blade of his bread knife through the loaf. “Was there a purpose to your visit, Sergeant? Or is this just a social call?”
“Oh, let’s call it a bit of both. I just thought that now we’ve become acquainted I’d keep you abreast of what’s going on. Think of it as a public service.”
“Well, as you now know, we’re a tight-knit community in the Warrens, Our Lando’ll tell you; so you needn’t have bothered.”
DePard smiled a grim smile. “It’s no bother. I’m quite happy to call in whenever I’m passing, which will be much more often from now on I think, due to all the recent trouble hereabouts.”
“Oh, I think that’s all blown over now, Sergeant. The arsonist is safely locked up in your very own cells, and his co-conspirators appear to have befallen a tragic, yet poetic fate at the hands of the very community they purported to have represented. I did try and tell you that the people round here prefer our own form of justice.”
“And I’m sure I don’t need tell you that I represent the law here. Me, your nephew here, and any other man wearing the White. Much as we appreciate the community’s assistance in the capture of Crispin Reeves, we’ll take a dim view of any vigilante actions. You break a law in my town, I take you down.”
The two men’s eyes were locked on each other.
“As a respected voice of the community you can spread the word at your next resident’s meeting.” DePard said.
Bokeem Clay held the sergeant’s gaze for a moment more before shifting his eyes to his nephew. The younger guard, didn’t flinch, causing his uncle to give a grudging shrug of respect.
“Until next time then.” He said indicating the door.
The two guards exited the bakery and slowly walked back to their barracks as a light snow began to fall from the grey sky.

Concrete Plans

The wheels of the sturdy, black Range Rover crunched over the cracked concrete. At some point in the past this would have been a factory floor or a car park, but now it was an isolated patch of weed-strewn, broken stone overlooking the unfashionable end of the river Tyne. Two disturbed seagulls pounded their wings up into the cool, early- morning sky as the Range Rover turned. A parked car swept into view through the windscreen. An elegant, equally black BMW. Stood, leaning against this vehicle were two men. Both of them were wearing black suits.

One, Richie, was tall and slim to the point of skinny. He was cupping the final third of a tightly-rolled cigarette in his right hand and was busily sucking as much smoke into his lungs from it as he could in one go. His already thin cheeks were pulled in, adding a haggard look to his already scarred and aggressive features.

The other man, Little Lennie, could not have been more different. Shorter and incredibly fat. Had he turned around then the strip of additional material, salvaged from a second suit jacket and used to increase his jacket size beyond the proportions of ordinary men, would have been visible. His face was red with the exertion of having to stand and hold his own body weight up. It would have been unfair to say that he was as wide as he was tall, only because this was a state that he hoped one day to slim down to.
As the two men watched the Range Rover complete its tight arc, the hard-faced Richie stopped sucking at his cigarette long enough to look down at the shorter, younger, wider Lennie and nod acknowledgement at the automobile saying, “About fucking time.”

Little Lennie replied. “Aye, isn’t it.”

Little Lennie’s almost comedic name was an accident of traditional baby naming. Every firstborn male of a generation of the Rogerson family was called Lennie. The dad would then be known as Big Lennie, and the son as Little Lennie. The occasional male Rogerson who lived to become a granddad inheriting the title ‘Fatha’. So, as there were three generations of firstborn male Rogersons still alive, this led to the happy accident of a young man who weighed in at somewhere just under thirty stone being referred to as Little Lennie.

The Range Rover crunched to a halt. Ritchie flicked the dog-end of his cigarette away, took out a pouch and immediately started rolling another. As he did this the driver’s door of the Range Rover opened and out stepped a third, similarly dressed man. Similar in that his suit was the same make and colour, but the way he wore it certainly was not. Despite the fineness and expense of the suit, on this man it looked dishevelled. In fact, every bit of him looked dishevelled, from his scraggy blonde hair, through his drooping, dark eyes and all the way to his laceless, scuffed, black trainers. Some people wear overalls, whereas some people make whatever they are wearing look like overalls. This man was the latter.

Little Lennie approached him. “All right, Carl?”

The scruffy man scratched at his belly underneath the untucked right side of his shirt. “Aye, Lennie, nee bother.” Carl quickly shuffled around to the boot of the car, opened it and started unloading equipment. “I got everything, like. Got the lot.”

Lennie nodded. “Good, good.” He joined Carl at the back of the car. A click and a flare indicated that Ritchie had lit his next cigarette. Lennie surveyed the items that Carl was taking from the boot of the Range Rover. A large water carrier, a spade, a plastic storage box, a bag of sand, a pair of wellingtons, a bag of cement. “Was B&Q busy?”

Carl shrugged. “A bit, like. The tills are a nightmare now with that serve yerself shite. I didn’t kna where the bar codes were on the big bags, like, an’ I had to turn them ower aboot four times.”

“Did anyone clock you?” It was Ritchie. He had walked round to the side of the Range Rover, which he was now leaning on nonchalantly smoking.

Carl looked up at him. “Wey, some bird what works there helped me on the till bit, but that’s all. I telt her I was laying a patio, like, so no worries.”

Ritchie spat. He did not seem impressed, but he did not enquire further.

Little Lennie pointed to the pile of Carl’s purchases. “What’s with the wellies?”

“Eh?”

“The wellies.”

Carl was in the process of taking a cigarette out of the battered box he kept untidily in his shirt breast pocket. “Aye, Lennie, man. I thought aboot that, like. You’d missed them off the list.” Lennie just looked at him, as Richie approached and gave Carl his lighter to stop his frantic patting and checking of every pocket in his already crumpled suit. “The wellies, man. We need the wellies.”

Lennie asked, “Why?”

Carl rolled his eyes and looked to Richie for support. Richie’s face remained hard, as he merely held out his hand for the return of his lighter. Carl lit his cigarette and did so. He then turned back to Lennie. “Concrete wellies, man. We canna chuck a bloke in the river with concrete wellies on if we haven’t got nee wellies.”

Lennie laughed as he turned to Richie, who remained impassive. He said to Carl, “We don’t need wellies.” Carl’s left eye twitched slightly as he tried to work this out. Lennie explained. “Concrete wellies is a metaphor, man. A figure of speech.” Carl’s facial expression had not passed beyond confused. “If you tried to use real wellies, you wouldn’t be able to get enough concrete in. They’d be full of the guy’s feet. He’d pop straight back up again and be floating around like a shit in a Jacuzzi before we got as far as Gatesheed.” He looked again to Richie to join him in his mirth at Carl’s expense.

Richie, who simply flicked the dogend of this finished cigarette at the offending wellies, muttered, “Prick,” and headed towards the boot of his and Lennie’s BMW. Lennie continued explaining to Carl how they were to use the box to create a concrete block, which Carl couldn’t accept should be called wellies unless there was one on each foot. Richie reached the boot of the BMW and opened it. This boot was not filled with DIY equipment, but was filled with weakly struggling person. Richie reached in and hauled the person out, dropping him heavily on the broken stone ground.

The man groaned through his gaffa-taped mouth. He started to struggle slightly more energetically against his makeshift bonds – a set of roof rack straps pulled tight around his arms, body and legs through the use of a ratchet. Richie kicked him hard in the stomach, which increased his groans but lessened the struggling.

Lennie and Carl came to join him. The three men looked down at their trussed up captive for a few seconds before Little Lennie spoke. “The Don’s coming later. We’ll have to get sorted.”

Richie glared down at him. “Who did you say?”

Little Lennie wilted a little under Richie’s glare. He knew that less than an inch beneath the surface of that glare lay potentially uncontrollable, anger-infused violence. “Erm… Don. You know, Keith? The boss?”

“Boss?” Richie’s voice rose a little. “He’s not a proper fuckin’ boss. And you called him The Don. What’s that shit about?”

Lennie kept his voice deliberately low and calm. “It’s a joke. ’Cos his middle name’s Gordon, I say Don for short.”

Richie leant in, his nicotine breath assaulting Little Lennie’s face. “You said The Don.”

“Did I?” Lennie hurried on. “Aye, it was a mistake like. Just with him always going on about Mafia shit and that.”

Richie’s anger seemed to be deciding whether or not it was pacified by this response, when the two men were disturbed by Carl. “Hey fellas.” He had arranged all of the equipment, filled the water carrier from the river and was in the process of pouring some of the contents of the cement bag into the plastic storage box. “How much sand and cement do we need?”

Richie held his face close to Lennie for two more heartbeats, before straightening up and saying, “Aye, well. Divven’t forget, he’s not some fuckin’ Mafia gangster, he just thinks he is. He’s not even a proper boss.”

The two men relaxed slightly, and looked over to a now sweaty and even more untidy Carl. It was Lennie who responded. “You have brought enough stuff haven’t you?”

“Oh aye, I’ve got loads. But, like, how much of each.”

Little Lennie shrugged. “I dunno. Loads of cement and a bit of sand?”

Richie shook his head. “Nah. There’s proper amounts what you have to use for concrete.”

“Aw, reet.” Lennie turned to Richie. “So how much then?”
“I dunno.”

Carl was still stood, cement bag in hand, waiting for an answer before he poured more in. Lennie turned to him. “Why divven’t you know, Carl?”

Carl put the cement bag down. “It’s not me job, is it? I just get the shit and do the legwork, like.”

Richie was shaking his head slowly, blowing noisily out of his nostrils. “This is your job, Lennie, you should know.”

“Well how, I’ve never done any…”

“You should have fucking found out!”

“Right, right, settle.” Lennie was determined to keep Richie calm. “I’ll just Google it, man. Give us a second.” He took out his smartphone and keyed in a code. He looked at the screen. He held the phone as high above his head as he could. He waved it back and forth a little. “Aw, fuck. There’s nee signal.”

“For fucks sake.” Richie was clenching his hands in frustration.

Carl saw the danger of Richie’s anger, and held his hands out pacifyingly. “Divven’t fret man, Ritchie. Me uncle’s a builder. I’ll get his number, Lennie, you can ring him.”

Richie’s anger was diverted to Carl, who he approached, slowly, hands held forwards in tight, pugilistic fists. “Ring him? You prick. Have you got a fuckin’ clue what nee signal means?”

Lennie interjected. “Halfy-half.” He was determined to waylay Richie’s seething anger.

Richie stopped. “What?”

“Halfy-half. I’ll make the decision, it’s my job.” Raising his voice more assuredly to Carl. “Halfy-half, Carl.”

“Aye, righty-o.”

***
Three minutes short of two hours later and a third black car glided over the cracked concrete. It was long, slick and smooth. A Limousine. It dwarfed the other two cars. Little Lennie, Carl and Richie were sat on a masonry block at the edge of the concrete floor; Carl and Richie smoking cigarettes, Little Lennie eating a Caramac. The captive was lying a few metres away, his feet embedded uncomfortably in an almost solidified grey-brown lump setting in the plastic storage box. He was desperately trying not to cry having received a jarring punch to the jaw for his earlier sobbing.

All four watched the Limousine glide to a stop, and a uniformed chauffeur step out of the driver’s door. He moved to the back door and opened it. From the angle at which the three non-captives sat, all they could see was the foot of the occupant beneath the door as it stepped out of the car. A brown wing tip, covered by an immaculate white spat, at odds with the dusty, broken concrete beneath.

“What the fuck? Look at them poncey shoes.” Richie muttered through an exhalation of acrid smoke.

Little Lennie was chewing noisily. “Aye, they’re lush aren’t they?”

“Eh? Fuckin’ rubbish.”

The shoe had been joined by its opposite number, as the occupant slowly exited the car to assess the situation.

Lennie swallowed. “No, man, no. They’re classics. Apparently they’re real gangster shoes. He bought them at an auction in one of them Speakeasy bars in Vegas.”

“What?”

“Speakeasies. They’re like illegal whisky dens from the thirties or something. Ran by real Mafia.” Little Lennie pressed on, despite Richie’s obviously unimpressed look. “They’re real Mafia shoes from a real Mafia boss in Vegas. He paid a fortune for them.”

The man from the back of the Limousine had walked round to the captive by now. He was in his late forties, balding and slightly overweight. His tailored, pin-stripe suit was immaculate, complete with button-hole flower and pocket square that matched both his tie and socks. He leant over the captive, inspecting his face, before turning his attention to the contents of the plastic box. He sucked his teeth noisily before turning to walk towards the three men.

Richie whispered to Lennie. “He might have paid a fuckin’ fortune, but it doesn’t mean they’re real and it still doesn’t mean he’s a real boss.”

Keith, The Don in his own mind, stood before them. He reached into his inside pocket and drew out a small, silver cigarette case. He opened it and removed a thin cigar. He replaced the case and was about to reach for a lighter when Richie jumped up, holding his own cigarette lighter out before him. It flared up. “Here you are, boss.”

Keith lit his cigar on the proffered light, puffed out a mouthful of smoke and then spoke. His accent was Northeast, but not broad, and he kept his voice at a low, gruff whisper. “Well, you got the right guy.”

Lennie stood up. “Aye, boss, we got him.”

“No complications?”

“No, none.”

Keith turned to look over his shoulder at the terrified captive, shaking in his metaphorical wellies. As he looked at him, Keith asked over his shoulder, “What mix did you use?”

Lennie responded. “What?”

Keith’s head turned slowly back to the three men. “The concrete. What mix did you use?”

It was Carl’s turn to jump up. “Halfy-half, sir. Just like what Lennie said, like.”

Keith’s hand, holding the cigar, stopped halfway to his mouth. “Halfy-half?”

“Aye, sir.”

Keith’s eyes moved to Lennie. His voice rose slightly in volume. “Halfy-half?” Little Lennie nodded. Keith continued. “Why, for the love of God, would you tell him to use halfy-half?”

Lennie shrugged. “I dunno. I just… you know… well I didn’t…”

Keith’s jaw set. “You should have found out. Halfy-half? You imbecile. I mean, there’s not even any shingle in that mix. It’s barely a mortar. Everyone knows, concrete is one part cement, three parts sand and three parts shingle. What sort of idiot wouldn’t know that?”

Richie, Lennie and Carl looked sideways at one another. Then Carl spoke. “Well, like, does it matter but? It’s setting hard, like.”

“Matter? Does it matter? Of course it bloody matters!” Keith exploded. “Concrete wellies. The clue is in the bloody title – concrete. Why concrete? Because it’s heavy, durable and waterproof. You’ve mixed a frigging mortar. It wouldn’t last five minutes at the bottom of the Tyne. I mean, the guy will be popping up at Dunston and be bobbing round like a turd in a hot-tub before the month’s out.” He flung his cigar at Lennie, where it bounced off harmlessly. “One job! I ask you to do one job. What’s going on with you youngsters that you don’t even know how to mix cement? You’ll be telling me you can’t paper a wall or replace a carburettor next.” Carl opened his mouth to speak, but Lennie prodded him into silence. Keith continued to fume at the world in general, pacing back and forth in front of the three men. “Concrete wellies. Bloody concrete. They haven’t even put in shingle!”

He stopped and turned to look again at the captive. He then shouted to the chauffeur. “Trevor. Get that guy in the back. And give him a bourbon, settle him down, I can’t be doing with that crying.” He turned back to the other three. “Help him, then. He won’t be able to lift that block of crap that you’ve produced on his own.”

The three men rushed forwards to help.

***
Little Lennie, Ritchie and Carl watched the Limousine glide out of the broken concrete square and up the dirt track away from the river. Carl turned to the other two. “D’yous reckon B&Q will give us the money back on them wellies?”

Richie punched him.

It’s My Turn

by Barbara Tsipouras

It’s my turn now. I know it. But where to hide? Where to seek help? There’s nowhere I could possibly go and nobody who could possibly help me. It is too late now. I’m deeply involved. He’s here right beside me in my bed.

Two years I waited for him. Two years I missed him, was faithful, always visited, brought him whatever he wanted and when he finally was released I embraced him with all my love and was glad to see him full of energy, ready to re-start life.

I didn’t see how twisted and screwed he was, took him back into my house and my bed, had big dreams.

He hates to be famous for that damned video. Hates being famous for being pummelled. That video was the reason for his suffering in prison. All the abuse.

I thought he had overcome all that. It was over. Nobody recognizes him anymore. The video is long forgotten.

Until he told me.

At first I didn’t take him seriously, thought he was joking. But he was not.

Today I saw it in his eyes, the desire to be finally caught, to be found, to be famous of his own accord. He wants to go back, respected and feared.

Two months have passed. In the beginning he always came home filled with joy, satisfied that he did it again. Seeking approval he told me in detail, how he bought the knife and stuck it into the next old guy passing the street or went to buy a gun and shot the vendor. Or the poor girl he strangled in the park. He was so proud of all these random kills.

I did nothing to stop him. Nor did I leave. I thought it would stop, but it didn’t.

The police never came. Now there is no joy anymore, merely exhaustion. He’s tired, disillusioned.

Nobody besides me knows what he’s done.

His thirst for fame is unbroken. I saw it in his eyes. And I’ll be the victim to send him back to prison as a celebrity. That’s his aim. I’m the target.

Now, after aggressive and passionate sex, appropriate for the last time, he’s lying by my side. Drunk as usual, breathing hard and snoring.

Torn between love, fear and hatred I look at him.

He still has the chance to wake up.

But he won’t.

The Man in the Alley

By Paul R Green

Sergeant Churt DePard squatted down to examine the body at his feet, his white cloak parting enough to let in the early morning drizzle that threatened to become rain with the approaching dawn. He gave an audible groan as he settled; a combination of age, the old knife wound in his back and general aches and pains from his part in breaking up a brawl at the Tanner’s Arms at the start of the night’s shift.

He turned to look up at the young watchman standing over him with sword gripped firmly in his right hand and a lantern held high in his left.

“Shift that thing where it’ll be some use lad.” He growled. The young guard looked confused, then when DePard raised a questioning eyebrow and nodded toward the naked blade he quickly sheathed his weapon with an apologetic shrug.

“Give me your thoughts, Clay?” asked the older man. Orland Clay swung his lantern closer, causing shadows to dance and flit around the body sitting propped against the wall, staring into the afterlife with a bemused expression through cold dead eyes.

“Looks like natural causes to me, boss.” He replied, swinging the lamp to better highlight the knife jutting from the corpse’s bare chest where it poked out between the open folds of a stained linen shirt. “That is, given where we are and the time of night”

The big sergeant shook his head, “Give me that.” ordered DePard, taking the lantern. “How long?”

“I’ve been here about half an hour waiting on you, sir, and I was only a few streets away when the boy found me, so I would say that he’s been here at least forty-five minutes.” Clay quickly answered.

DePard snorted. No doubt the boy had known exactly where to find the young watchman at such a miserable hour of an even more miserable night because he’d have gone straight to The Gilded Lily, a brothel on Perfume Street, known to the locals as the Dove’s Nest, due to its popularity with watchmen looking for a moment or twos warmth on a cold, wet night just like tonight. Which put the forty-five minutes estimate closer to an hour, if not more.

Moving the lantern closer with his left hand, DePard, pulled the man’s shirt aside with his right and stared at the well-worn bone handle and the two or three inches of thin, grey steel still visible before leaning in close to take a sniff. Was that fish? It was hard to tell over the underlying rotten stench of the alley. He gave the knife a gentle tug, but it was caught between two ribs and stayed put. Probably why it was still there.

Pulling the shirt open further there were no other stab wounds that he could see so he turned his attention to the shirt; a common enough linen chemise, nothing fancy, yet clean enough despite the obviously fresh stains acquired over the previous day or two. So, DePard mused, the victim was either married or still living with his mother. In DePard’s experience, discerning age was easier with a man, and the lines on the victim’s face, coupled with the streaks of grey in his lank mane of mousy hair put him in his forties. Married then.

He reached for the man’s wrist, noticing the absence of dirt where his ring would have sat. There were a few specks of blood on the cuff too, though none on his hands. No cuts either. He’d hadn’t had time to defend himself.

The big man leaned in even closer, this time taking in a hearty whiff of the shirt.

“You’ve got five senses, lad. Remember that. They all have something to tell you, if you’ve the wit to pay attention.”

“Sir?” The youth leaned in to watch as the sergeant continued to run his hands over the body, checking for any hidden wounds and humming an old maritime shanty quietly to himself as he ran his fingers through the dead man’s rain soaked hair. He smiled at something.

He turned once again to the young guard. “You think this was a simple robbery? That the poor sod simply passed the wrong alleyway while staggering home pissed?”

“It’s not like it doesn’t happen at least three times a week.” Clay responded, “Especially around here.”

DePard sighed. He didn’t blame the youth; the bulk of the watch was made up of ex-soldiers, mercenaries and tavern toughs, employed by the city as fight-breakers and turnkeys. They tended to see only what was in front of their invariably broken noses, looking for the simplest solution to any problem and a safe end to their shift. Give them something complex, or heaven forbid a true mystery, and they were hopelessly inadequate.

“I hear they’ve got a necromancer over in Barderput.” the young guard blurted out just to say something and break the silence. The older man simply frowned. “We could do with one here. Don’t you think sir?” Clay missed DePard’s contemptuous stare and continued talking, “It must be a piece of piss for them. All they need do is ask the bloody victim who did for them and arrest the bugger responsible.”

DePard snorted his contempt. “Lazy, expensive and un-bloody-reliable.”

Clay looked confused, “Unreliable, sir?”

DePard smiled a knowing smile. “Everybody lies, Clay. Even the dead.” He gestured back to the body. “Look for the evidence, lad. That’s the only place you’ll find any truth. Don’t you forget that.”

The older watchman took a long hard look at the young man stood before him. Drizzle gathered on the youth’s forehead beneath an iron cap that was probably half a size too big; it made its escape down his broken nose, before falling as larger drops to be caught in the muss of what was obviously the lad’s first beard. Orland Clay shifted his feet under DePard’s scrutiny but met the man’s gaze with determined eyes. The older watchman sniffed and made a decision. “Why’d you join the watch, lad?”

The young man’s face took on a strange aspect in the flickering lamplight as he considered the question. Eventually he shrugged. “I thought the uniform might attract the girls.” He said with a nervous laugh. DePard’s head dropped as he let out a depressed sigh. “But,” he paused, dredging up something more personal, “but since I started, the more I see, the more I do, the more I want to be good at my job. Like you, sir.” His face flushed at that last and he shifted his feet as DePard turned his gaze back up to meet his.

“Well spoken, son. Now if you actually mean that, and aren’t just trying to flatter me, allow me to enlighten you.” DePard said with a smile.

With another loud groan the big sergeant stood, stretched his aching legs and handed the lantern back to its owner.

“Tell me what made you think this was a simple robbery.”

Clay looked from DePard to the body and back again. “Well the location of the body for one. The alley’s dark and away from prying eyes in a district not known for its curiosity regarding occasional cries in the night. Then there’s the bloody great knife sticking out of his chest, and we all know how the footpads love a knife.” He paused a second for a flicker of amusement from the gruff sergeant, quickly continuing when none was forthcoming, “Also his purse is gone and he appears to be missing a wedding ring. It all points to a robbery.” Clay reasoned.

Orland looked at his superior with expectant eyes and DePard could see by his face that the boy had actually thought it all through and was convinced of his reasoning. Oh well, he hadn’t really expected the lad to see it all straight off. DePard stood a little taller before he responded. “Firstly, I don’t think this was a robbery at all. Footpads are a cowardly lot who generally hunt in packs. This bloke’s been stabbed once. A straight thrust to the chest.” He said miming a jab. “Which puts his attacker in front of him, yes?” Clay opened his mouth, as if to question the sergeant, then decided better of it and closed it. “If you have an opinion, Clay, don’t be afraid to share it. Same goes for questions.” The young guard thought for a second before speaking. “How do you know that the attacker didn’t come from behind and reach around to stab him?”

DePard smiled. “See. Now you’re thinking. If our killer had reached around then the blade would be more horizontal. Like this.” Again he mimed the action, making sure the youth noted the position of his hand. “This blade in our unfortunate victim here is nigh on vertical.” Clay inspected the blade again and nodded his agreement.

“How many victims of back alley robberies you seen, lad?” asked the big sergeant.

“About a dozen or so, sir?” Clay quickly replied.

“And how many of them were killed with a single knife thrust to the heart? Not to mention a thrust the victim didn’t even try and stop.” DePard asked. He could almost see the thought process acted out as the youth pictured previous crime scenes in his head.

“None”, he exclaimed excitedly, “even the tamest had been stabbed at least half a dozen times, and most of the time you can’t get near the body without slipping in about a gallon of blood.” Clay was warming up now, “I even saw a man who lost most of his fingers trying to fend off his killers. This is the first one I’ve come across where I haven’t puked my ring!” he exclaimed, with just a hint of pride.

“Quite.” said DePard, stepping back. “You’re right though, Orland, your average victim wouldn’t look out of place in a charnel house.” He studied the corpse again. “Like I said, footpads generally hunt in packs, but once in a while you do get a lone wolf.”

“But you said you didn’t think it was a robbery.” Clay interjected. DePard smiled. The boy was learning.

“True. True. A lone wolf is a cautious beast and would attack from behind, usually slitting the victim’s throat or jamming a dagger into the brain through here.” He explained tapping a point on his neck at the base of the ear. “And as you pointed out, where’s the blood? Even his shirt is devoid, barring a few older specks on his sleeve.”

Clay crouched down by the body and leaned in for a closer look, tentatively taking a sniff as he did so.

“Is that fish?” he asked.

DePard smiled. There was hope yet. “And what does that tell us, lad?”

Clay remained quiet for a good few minutes, the only sound the percussive fall of rain on timber, cloth, metal and flesh as the sky gradually lightened, albeit to a still oppressive grey. Occasionally he reached down to examine some part of the corpse as his sergeant watched on.

“It’s the knife as smells of fish, not the man. There’s ink on his fingers so he’s more likely a clerk as a fisherman as he’s not wearing a friars robes. So I guess the knife is the killers and has been used for filleting fish recently.” The older man nodded his approval encouraging the boy to continue. “He’s still got his dagger and boots, which backs up, but doesn’t prove your theory about him not being robbed.” DePard raised an eyebrow. “They could have been disturbed.” he quickly explained.

“Go on.” DePard replied encouragingly.

Clay flushed once more and couldn’t help but grin at the praise. “He probably spent his last hours in the Witches Hole.” He added.

DePard was taken aback. Where had that come from? “What makes you say that?” he asked.

The young watchman paused, gathering his thoughts once more before carefully explaining. “His hair smells of weed and the straw stuck to his boots suggest a tavern around the Hay Market. The ale stains on his shirt have a slight smell of liquorice, which if memory serves me is the speciality of Brewer Bede at the Hole.”

“Very good, Orland. Very good.” And he meant it, he hadn’t picked up the liquorice, and he tended to avoid the Hole, as it was the haunt of callow youths by night and professional drunks by day. Still, a good watchman should know his beat and he made a mental note to reacquaint himself with the inns and taverns on his patch.

***

The rain had stopped and the clouds lightened to the colour of wet slate by the time DePard and Clay exited the Witches’ Hole.

“Well?” the sergeant asked as they crossed the square, weaving through vendors and hawkers setting up stalls in the wakening marketplace.

“They’re a bunch of unscrupulous, work-shy pissheads and the inn-keeper has all the warmth of a northern summer, but I doubt they know anything more than they said.” Clay surmised.

DePard grinned. The boy had acquitted himself well; friendly, yet assertive. Give him a few years and he might even make a good watchman. “Still, lad, we’ve a name for the poor sod; and an address. Let’s go pay our respects to the widow Penn shall we?” he said, increasing the pace.

***

The Penn’s house was one of many crammed against the town’s west wall. Its lower stone floor was well scrubbed, but the upper timber floor was weather-beaten and in need of some repair. The neat shutters of the single window on the first floor were open, revealing a simple clay pot holding a primrose that craved warmth as much as the two guardsmen.

The burly watchmen nodded to his colleague as they stopped at the door. The young man straightened up and, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword, rapped the heavy iron knocker before taking half a step back. DePard noted the move and was impressed the youth knew enough to give himself room should he need to draw his weapon.

It was almost a full minute, and Clay had knocked twice more, before the door opened a crack to reveal a small, mousy woman. Downcast eyes flicked up from within a shadowed face framed with long dark hair hanging loose, contrary to the current fashion of braiding that had swept the town since the mayor had married that northern girl. Her eyes widened at the site of the watchmen, before dropping back to the floor, and then with her face still partly hidden behind her hair she seemed to gather herself up before speaking “It’s Geoffrey, isn’t it?” Her eyes darted toward Clay. “He didn’t come home last night,” Clay fumbled for the right words, but the woman continued. “I’m afraid if it’s a fine you’re after he’ll have to stay in your cells a while longer ‘cause any money he’s earned has probably been pissed up a wall by now.” The young watchman turned to DePard for guidance.

Before the senior man could speak a deep voice boomed from the street behind them. “Is everything alright, May?”

The watchmen turned as one, Clay automatically part drawing his sword until a touch from his superior stayed his hand. A short, stocky man dressed as they were in the white cloak of the watch, though the new man’s held a captain’s knot, was crossing the square toward them.

“Dicken. Do you know this woman?” enquired DePard, and then stopped as he looked again at the two. “Your sister?”

The captain smiled beneath a huge moustache, which swept up to join bushy sideburns, both of a colour with the woman’s hair, and strode toward the door. “Indeed. Mabel Penn, meet Churt DePard and” he paused for a second as he studied Clay. “I’m sorry, lad, I don’t know you.” he finally confessed.

“Orland Clay, sir.” The youth replied with a salute. The captain rolled his eyes with a smile toward DePard and gestured toward the door. “Then come inside and dry your arse, watchman Clay; you too, sergeant.”

The captain ushered them all through the door, his sister quickly disappearing into the back kitchen with a mumbled promise of mint tea as soon as they’d passed.

The warmth from the fire gave blessed relief to DePard’s aching back and he stood close, massaging his spine as an excuse to remain stood by the hearth as he examined the room. He inhaled audibly through the nose, filling his lungs and winking at Clay.

The room was small but well maintained, the furniture solid, but obviously second hand, as there were many signs of wear and repair. There were very few personal touches, just a hand woven rug by the fire and another potted plant by the window; a geranium in an old cracked pudding basin, too big for the bowl that would likely die if it wasn’t replanted soon, he thought. He didn’t have flowers himself, but tended a small patch behind the barracks where he grew a few tomatoes, carrots and spuds, along with some herbs. He found it helped him relax.

The window to the narrow back alley was open. There was little danger of much light getting in, let alone any rain, but the slight breeze stirred the wonderful aroma of freshly baked fish pie around the room. DePard smiled as he saw a glint of recognition in his young disciple’s eye.

“Now my old friend. What’s this all about?” asked the captain. No one had made a move to sit down so Clay hovered by the door, watching the two men like a hawk, but keeping an ear out for the woman, Depard was pleased to note.

“What’s that no good brother-in-law of mine done this time. I swear I seem to spend as much time keeping that drunkard out of gaol as I do putting others in.”

DePard glanced toward the kitchen where May had retreated to make the tea. He took one more good look around the room before speaking. “Your brother-in-law’s dead, old friend. Seems he had a run in with a gang of cut-throats on his way home last night. I’m sorry, Med.”

The two men stared at each other for a few moments before the squat captain turned and spat into the fire.

“He’ll not be missed. May’ll take it hard at first, but she’ll soon see she’s better off. I’ll break the news to her if you like.” He stated. It wasn’t a question. Clay looked to his sergeant, the question forming on his lips stalled at a subtle shake of DePard’s head.

The big sergeant turned to the captain and smiled, “Of course. I’ll have the brothers tend the body and contact you about seeing him buried, or whatever.”

Captain Dicken held out his hand. “Thank you, my friend. I appreciate it.” The two old warriors shared a look. “My sister appreciates it.”

DePard took the offered hand and solemnly shook it. “No problem, old friend.” He let go of the hand and nodded to Clay. “Let’s go, Clay. We’ll leave the family to their grief. ”

***

Outside the sun was struggling through the cloud as the two watchmen entered the now bustling street. Orland Clay strode through the mud, cursing as a cart splashed the bottom of his white cloak. He suddenly stopped in his tracks, hand gripped tightly on the hilt of his sword, and rounded on his mentor.

“What happened in there, sergeant?” His eyes were wide, his knuckles white. “I thought you said it wasn’t a robbery.” DePard simply stood looking at the boy, allowing him to vent the anger inside. “He did it. He stabbed his brother-in-law.” He continued. The older man said nothing. “Is that it? Is this the mayor’s justice? We just turn a blind eye when it’s one of our own?” The initial outrage was gone but still frustration dripped from every syllable. DePard sighed and started to walk away.

“I thought you were better than that.” Clay called after him, struggling to fight back the disappointment he felt swelling in his throat.

The old sergeant stopped. “You’ve got potential with the watch, Clay, but you’re still a novice when it comes to murder, and as such you don’t see everything you should. You’ve spent a few hours with me and you think you know it all.” He replied. “You made some good observations back in that alleyway and led us to the man’s family. Well done. Seriously, that was good work.” He paused for a second, taking a deep breath. “But as soon as we got inside that house you fell back on all your old habits and took everything at face value. You saw a fragile woman and a strong brother, you got a whiff of that fish pie, connected it to the knife in our friend back there and found your killer.” DePard turned to face the young guard. “Am I right?”

Clay shifted under the sergeant’s steady gaze, searching for the right words. “You never even bothered to ask them any questions.” Clay mumbled, dejectedly; his anger spent. “One of them must have done it. Either she killed him for pissing away their savings, or he thought to rid his sister of a boorish husband. But now we’ll never know, because you didn’t ask.” He accused. As he talked the anger started to rise again, straining his voice. “You asked me why I joined the watch.” DePard’s head cocked. “I grew up in the Warrens. The Warrens, sergeant. And growing up in that shit-hole meant you joined a gang. You had no choice; not if you wanted to survive. The way I see it, the watch is simply another gang; they’ve just got more territory and better weapons. I like living so I simply made a choice and joined the biggest gang in the city. It made sense, and I fit in. Until last night.” He said, deflating.

DePard studied the young man intently. “And what happened last night?”

“Last night I saw what being a watchman could be. You opened my eyes and made me look at things in a new way. You showed me that there was more to it than breaking up brawls and rounding up drunks. But then, just as quick, you go and show me that I was right all along; the watch is no better than any other gang and the law is just another way for the strong to control the weak. We claim nobility and the pursuit of justice and then close ranks when one of our own’s at fault. That’s not justice.” He hissed, his body trembling slightly in his rage.

DePard stood for a moment longer, seemingly studying the bustling city around him, before answering in a calm measured voice. “I didn’t ask any questions because I didn’t need to ask any questions. The evidence told me what happened, as I said it would, and I acted upon that evidence.” His gaze returned to the young guard, his eyes fixing him with a piercing stare. “What do you think would have happened if I had questioned them? Do you really think they’d give up the truth just like that? Confess all in a moment of contrition? Of course they wouldn’t; they’d have lied like any bugger else in their situation. But the evidence doesn’t lie.”

“Isn’t the knife evidence?” Clay enquired.

“Oh, I’m sure that the knife can probably be traced back to the widow, yes.” DePard admitted.

“Then why not arrest her? Or her brother? Or both? Given a few days in the cells one of them will eventually confess.” Clay demanded.

DePard scratched his chin, enjoying the feel of the stubble just starting to come through. “You said you wanted justice? You said something about the weak needing a voice?” Clay nodded. “We are watchmen. It is our job to uphold the Mayor’s law without fear or favour. But you’re right; we also have an obligation to protect those in need and sometimes the lines blur. It is our duty to make sense of that blur, read between the lines and dispense justice as best we can.” He explained. “And the best way that I can think to do that is to collect as many facts as I can and base my decision upon the evidence. Not on gossip; not on speculation; not even on confessions, because even a confession can be paid for, or be a lie to protect a loved one.” He paused to let the last sink in. “When all else fails, go back to the beginning and look again at what you know to be true.”

Clay stood in silence, blocking out the sounds around him as his mind went back to the alley and the dead man in the rain. Before long he opened his eyes with a big grin. “No blood. He was already dead when the knife went in, so it couldn’t have been the murder weapon.” He explained. “But that doesn’t change anything. It’s still likely to be her fish knife, which means he was probably killed at home and then moved.” He said looking to his mentor for confirmation.

“You’re right about the body, but wrong about the knife not changing anything; it changes everything.” The older man stated. “You’ll soon find on this job that very few deaths are planned. Most are accidents of opportunity or quirks of fate; a drunken man walking past the wrong alleyway, that sort of thing.” DePard began.

“Or an abused wife finally standing up to a drunken husband?” Clay suggested quietly.

The old sergeant smiled.

Encouraged, Clay went on, speaking his thoughts as much for himself as his mentor. “Her hair covered the bruises. Hair! You smiled when you felt his scalp. You found a lump. She hit him with something heavy. An iron or some such?”

“More likely a skillet. Irons tend to leave a narrower contusion. And worse if they’re hot.”

“I suppose there’s some justice to it.” Clay conceded.

“It’s not exactly the Mayor’s idea of it, I’ll grant you, but there is justice there. And it’s not like she’s got off easy. She’s a widow in her forties with no man to provide for her, ‘cept her brother, and our good captain has four mouths of his own to feed.” DePard said as he turned and started to slowly walk back toward the barracks. It had been a long night and he was looking forward to the end his shift and putting his feet up by the fire in the barrack kitchen.

“The way I see it, you’ve three choices, lad. One, find a new trade; my brother Brayden’s always going on about taking an apprentice, I can write you an introduction of you like. Mind you, he’s off following that fool Kerrigan on his crusade down south, so you might want to avoid that. Two, continue as you are; breaking heads and turning keys; running with the biggest gang in the city. Or then there’s three; you follow me, listen to what I tell you and maybe learn a thing or two along the way.” he said, stopping and turning to face the novice watchman.

Orland Clay stood before him, tugging at the wispy fluff he called whiskers, his white cloak rippling in the breeze as he considered the options.

“Well? Are you coming?” DePard shouted back over his shoulder as he turned and strode off.

 

 

Arms and The Mind

By Mark Barrett

Commander Topps turned away from the fading i-comms screen and relaxed back into his Ergomaster Recliner. Three-dozen micro engines whirred at the edge of hearing, easing the chair into the exact firmness and tension for Topps’s body in this position. It maximised comfort.

Topps was not comfortable. Being the commander of the Psytech arm of dimension vX1’s Law Enforcement Agency meant that Topps often was not comfortable. He was called upon to make difficult and dangerous decisions on behalf of his agents almost every day, and knowingly sending close friends and colleagues into unknown perils in little known dimensions was not conducive to often feeling comfortable. He had just acted on one of those difficult and dangerous decisions, and so allowed himself twenty-two seconds of forced relaxation before acting on the next.

Topps reluctantly sat forward, prompting a series of reversals of engines, and contacted his personal assistant. This was easy. He could recognise her pale, yet ordered thought-patterns from three rooms away. Her mind was a palish amber set in a rigid pattern, with only the occasional flurry of unrestrained imagination or unchecked thought path – on a work day, anyway. She was directly through the wall to Topps’s right, and it took barely a second for his own sharp, focussed, streak of blazing orange thought to touch her mind and deliver his instruction. Even though he was not looking for it, he could not help but notice the fiercely intense, walled mind of a trained psychic not far from his personal assistant. This mind was now moving towards the door to his room, as he had requested.

The door opened. The mind’s owner entered. She was tall, but not overly so, and though her body appeared slender, she had a straight back and square shoulders which told of fitness and strength. Her face was freckled, and framed by loosely tied hair, fading through browns to blonde in the current fashion. She could easily have looked safely plain, were it not for eyes which were every bit as fiercely intense as the mind behind them. She stood squarely before him. Her greeting was sparse. “Commander Topps.”

Velane.” There was a pause in which neither agent nor commander felt uncomfortable. Then Topps offered. “Would you like a drink?” indicating the Beverator set into the wall of his office. He subdued the urge to say, “at ease.”

“No thank you, sir.”

“Please, one day, do try to remember to just call me Topps.”

Velane relaxed in the shoulders, but did not change her stance. The briefest flicker of a smile flashed the gap between her teeth, which always made her appear younger than she was. “Sorry, sir – Topps, sir.”

“That’s better.” Topps indicated one of the chairs before his desk, not an Ergomaster, and kept his hand outstretched long enough for Velane to know that this was not a request, and so she sat. He smiled. “Good. Good to see you, Velane.”

“And you commander.”

Topps waited for her to correct herself, but she did not. He continued. “I understand that you are familiar with dimension cL14?”

Topps had intoned it as a question, but Velane did not deign to reply. She knew that Topps would be fully aware that she had been the Psytech agent attached to the original exploration party in that most newly-discovered of dimensions, and she did not think it worth either of their time to point this fact out to him.

Topps had worked with Velane for almost two years now, and knew her ways, so he did not push her for a response. “Well, we have an active case in that dimension…”

“Already?” Velane had not meant to interrupt him, but she was shocked. Dimension cL14 had not yet been fully explored and authorised jumps to and from it were scarce. Velane would not have expected a Psytech case to be opened there so quickly. Regardless of this she silently remonstrated with herself at so easily revealing emotion. She calmed her mind for the remainder of the conversation, glad that Psycops never read each other without express permission.

“Yes. Someone’s dealing arms.” Topps sighed. “The bigger we get, the harder it is to control.”

Velane nodded, emotionlessly. Arms deals. These were a regular problem for Psytech law enforcement. Dimension vX1, the prime dimension, had extraordinarily high technological advancements – hence it being the only dimension so far discovered that had developed dimension-jumping technology. Certain unscrupulous citizens of vX1 were not averse to selling some of that technology on to less-developed dimensions for a high profit. And as war was pretty much the one constant that seemed to tie together the civilisations of every dimension, it was generally weapon technology that was most profitable. Every Psytech Law Enforcement Agent could expect fairly regular cases of weapon smuggling. This was one of the dangers inherent in the job, as arms dealers tended to be well-financed, well-equipped and violently-attached to their trade. With the sort of money that was often involved, they were willing and able to take on a Psytech Agent, and in several cases had won. And Velane was a fairly new and relatively inexperienced Psytech Agent. She had not expected a case like this for some time to come. “Are you sure, sir?”

Even without a reading of her surface thoughts, Topps understood her reservations. “Yes, Velane, you’re ready.”

Velane swallowed hard. “Is it a Ricker case, sir?”

“Yes.” Topps read her hesitation as self-doubt. “Listen, Velane, you’re one of the best damned recruits we’ve ever had. I mean, the feedback Cassius gave about you from your training jumps with him…”

Topps trailed off. Mention of Velane’s old mentor was still a difficult topic for both of them. He felt sure that she was as upset as he was about how Cassius ended, and he read her stony silence as self-control not to show the emotion. Topps raised his voice and the positivity again. “You could be as good as Logan. Better! I am sure. You are ready.”

The gap-toothed grin shone. Velane knew that she was ready, too. She could not believe her luck that she was being given this case – a high-profile case in a dimension that she knew well, had explored and been there from the establishment of the first dimension hoppers. She wanted it. She needed it. She also knew that she would close this case, just knew it. She was ready.

Topps saw the acceptance in her eyes, and inwardly suppressed the dread shudder he felt whenever he sent an agent into a potentially life-ending situation. Outwardly he smiled, as happy as Velane in the rule about Psycops not reading each other. “Would you like me to initiate a psytrans of the case details now.”

“Yes.”

***

Velane wondered if she would ever get used to the wretched squalor that some of these dimensions accepted as their general standard of living. Especially the very low-tech dimensions like cL14. She was currently shuffling through the make-shift tents of the camp of followers, family and traders that formed the tail of a large army that was passing through this district. And it stank. Human and animal waste interspersed with discarded and rotting food was mixed in with the thick, sludgy mud that the ground had been turned into by the treading of thousands of feet. It sucked at Velane’s impractical sandals and splashed up her legs onto her coarse, tattered skirt. She was glad that she was up-to-date with all of her shots.

The dimension-jump had thrown her out dangerously close to this large congregation of people, and she was lucky not to have encountered anybody on her arrival or in that sickly, disorientated few minutes that accompanied the end of any jump. She had made a mental note to inform the technical arm of Psytech LEA to move the destination hopper to a more secluded area.

It was nearing dusk, but the accumulation of tents was as bustling as daytime in any city. By listening to snatches of conversation, Velane had established that the army had stopped only moments before and that the huge job of feeding, clothing and weapons repair, and bedding down was just beginning. She tried to navigate her way closer to the soldiers, where talk of arms and armaments was most likely. The shanty-town of tents was confusing, though, and she quickly realised that the only way she was likely of being able to find her way would be to touch the minds of the better informed people around her. This was a risk, because if she touched the mind of a psychic from her own dimension attached to the arms dealer she was tracking, then she would reveal her presence. But there was no alternative so she did so, gently and carefully.

Snatches of thought came to her: mistrust of other peoples, units and races within the army; fear for loved ones in the battle ahead; desperation at a lack of food and alcohol for the soldiers; worry at the whereabouts of a scouting unit not yet returned; confidence in the new weaponry. Velane latched onto that particular thought and sent a pale orange line of mental inquiry back along to the mind from which it came. She turned and followed the thought past an ageing woman slicing soft onions into a watery soup and on to a large, high-roofed tent with a fire beginning to rage in a stone hearth within.

Two men were talking. One was stood nonchalantly, picking his teeth with a piece of straw, whilst the other was powering a huge set of bellows, driving oxygen into the raging fire trying to drive it on to a metal-softening inferno. Beside him a number of chipped and broken swords and spear-heads were lined up neatly. In the front of the neat line, though, sat an old-fashioned – well, old fashioned from where Velane came – six-shooter. The first man spoke. “I dunno know why I’m bothering to get my sword fixed, Brayden. That skirmish the day? It’ll be the last action someone like me’s gonna see. Are you gonna bother fixing it?”

Brayden’s huge shoulders never stopped working the bellows. “Yes.”

“Hmmm.” The first man, in an habitual manner, went to lean upon his sword hilt, but almost stumbled as his arm slipped down to meet only his empty scabbard. Instead he stepped forward and picked up the gun. “I wish I had one o’ these. These things’ll win the war.”

“No. They won’t.”

“How? I’ve seen them kill men from a hundred yards away. Punch through armour. Bring down horses. How will these not win us the war?”

Brayden paused in the stoking of his fire, turned to the soldier and took the gun from him. When he spoke his voice was deep and soft, and his words came out with the slowness of deliberate thought. “Firstly, they won’t win us the war, because the other side have them too. Secondly, this one’s broken and that seems a common state for these things. Lastly, men win wars, and we have more men than we can arm with these,” the distaste in the pause was palpable, “things.”

The soldier nodded. “You hate them. So why have you got this un’?”

Brayden was turning the gun over in his hands, appraising it with his keen, blacksmith’s eye. “Because, I’m going to find out how they work.”

The soldier looked concerned. “I’m pretty sure Ricker would have something to say about that. He won’t want nobody trying to work out these things.”

Velane froze. Ricker. That was a name known throughout Psytech. A shadowy, little-known figure whose name had cropped up in arms-dealing cases in three different dimensions but had never been traced. Nobody had any idea who Ricker was, what he was, or if he even existed. Yet here was this common soldier from an underdeveloped dimension throwing the name around as if he knew him. Velane had to risk a deeper mind-delve to see what this soldier knew. She let her thin, pale trace of thought slide deeper into the undulating orange haze that was the mind of this soldier, and then slowly widened it. As she did so she accessed more and more of his thoughts, his memories and his mind. She learnt about the army, its movements, his unit, the death of his girlfriend, his recklessness. But she learnt nothing more of Ricker. It was a name that he knew well, that all soldiers seemed to know well, but he knew nothing more than a smattering of rumours and stories that seemed designed to increase reputation and instil fear.

She made a gentle tweak in the soldier’s thought patterns. He turned to the blacksmith. “Anyway, you’re busy. I’ll head off and pick up my sword first light.”

Brayden merely grunted in response. His reaction was more pronounced when Velane entered the tent. “What do you want?”

Velane smiled, the disarming gap in her teeth lending her an appearance of youth and naivety which she often exploited. “I have been sent by my new husband to get a weapon.” She liked the gruff Brayden, and could sense his strong-will, so she wanted to avoid attempting to enter his mind.

Brayden’s rough grunt was tinged with amusement this time as he went back to his fire. Lots of young women fled their villages in search of new husbands in the trail of an army. And they sometimes found them. But all too often those new husbands were already old husbands of another woman, and so the new marriage seldom lasted beyond the campaign.

“Please. He needs one of those.” She pointed to the gun that Brayden had recently put down. “I would be safer if he had one of those.”

He stopped. He stared at her. His eyes were deep and a dark, dark hazel colour. His voice was quiet, yet captivating. He possessed a sense of presence and a strength of mind that had nothing to do with any psychic prowess. If Velane did not know for absolute certain, she would have believed that he was looking straight into her soul and reading her thoughts. He said, “Go back to your man. Tell him that you could not help him. You want nothing to do with these, or where they came from.”

As he said it, his eyes twitched upwards, as if he were looking through the tent wall at a place much further back in the camp. To a trained psychic like Velane, it was unmistakable. She knew where Brayden had acquired the gun.

***

Any trail of army followers is, by its very nature, dense and crowded. Here, though, as Velane approached the area indicated by Brayden’s involuntary glance, the crowds thinned, and whilst far from deserted, people tended to keep their eyes down and business to themselves.

They seemed to come from nowhere. Four men, armed with swords and intent on killing. At least one of them was from Velane’s dimension, as their minds were being hidden behind a blank, psychic wall. It was actually the blankness that had alerted Velane, giving her the split-second’s notice she needed not to be caught unaware and killed with the first blow. In an encampment this full of people in heightened states of emotion, the lack of any mental activity stood out.

Velane moved quickly, stepping inside the path of the first man’s brutally swinging sword. From here she could easily assess the threat that each man posed, and she did so at the speed of thought..

The man into whose path she had stepped had the searing, coldly-focussed mind of a practised killer. His lack of any psychic ability, and confidence in his sword-arm, spoke of a mercenary from this dimension.

The next nearest man was moving in. He was dividing his thought-patterns between trying to read Velane’s mind and trying to focus on his unwieldy weapon. A neatly-trimmed beard and immaculately styled hair. So, a killer from her own dimension more at ease with a gun than a sword. Velane could only think that their desire not to rouse the whole camp had prevented this man from shooting her.

The next two men were slightly farther away, and so posed less of an immediate threat. There was the balding psychic, in an anachronistic leather jacket for the dimension. It gave Velane a leap of confidence to realise that he was still maintaining the psychic wall, despite her now being inside its confines: inexperience or inadequacy, either was good. And the scruffy local-thug type, casually swinging his sword left-handedly, clearly expecting this to be an easy job.

Easy it would not be, Velane would ensure that. But, as fit as she was and with her combat training, Velane knew that as a slightly-built, unarmed woman fighting against four armed and burly men, she had virtually no chance of survival. Her heightened psychic powers, though, gave her an edge. Even so, she would find it difficult to hurt, let alone overcome, these men.

Despite her proximity to the first attacker, the stylish gunman swung his sword towards her. Velane knew that he was skilled enough to resist hasty psychic suggestion, so she focussed her efforts on the mercenary. Lightning-fast suggestion pierced his focussed mind and persuaded him to shift his weight to his left foot in order to ready himself for a parry. This proved fatal, as the shifting of weight pushed him straight into the path of the oncoming sword-swing from the initial attacker, which bit deeply into his hip with a satisfying crunch of bone. The two men writhed in confusion as one tried to heave his sword free of shattered joint of his wildly-flailing comrade.

Velane stepped out of this confusion and circled the, now wary, two remaining men. The local thug supressed any outward show of surprise at the predicament of the first two attackers. His demeanour was still casual and nonchalant. His mind, though, gave him away. Half-a-second before acting, a haze of thought shaped into the form of a feint with his sword to the right, then a devastating kick to the abdomen. Velane’s physical movements were fluid, as she ignored the feint and stepped around the kick. The thug’s foot met no resistance, and his leg overextended painfully, leaving him unbalanced with a widely exposed groin. Velane took full advantage of this and crunched a sharp knee into it with pin-point accuracy. She was even able to select the testicle to crush. She went left.

Even as she did this, she was bombarding the balding psychic with a multitude of random thoughts, feelings and ideas. He blinked and fell back. A psychic, yes, but not an accomplished one. Behind her, Velane sensed the surge of satisfaction. The stylish, bearded killer from her own dimension had freed his weapon from the ruined hip of the swordsman, who slumped sideways, gurgling and croaking even as his life blood emptied, spraying out of a deep, arterial wound. Velane ignored him.

Oblivious to the spray of blood that had soiled his immaculately-styled hair the second attacker, the psychic, inched toward her. His mind was as bright and straight-edged as the blood-stained sword in his sweaty hand. Velane could sense the pale orange spike of his mind trying to read hers, barely a split-second in front of his physical assault. She did not reciprocate. Instead, she sent a clear indication of her intention to rush towards the man, in order to get inside his range in exactly the same way as she did with the first attack. He checked his onrush in order to compensate for this and, as he did so, she turned and rushed away. Straight at the confused, balding psychic who had been the source of the, now dispersing, psychic wall.

He was in the process of regaining his mental composure, but not enough to deal with a young, aggressive and physically fit woman careering into him. He had not even had time to raise his thin, razor-sharp weapon before Velane had driven her piston-straight fingers into his throat. There was a satisfying organic click as his windpipe cracked under the force of her blow, backed up by her full body weight at speed.

As he fell with a rasping choke, Velane turned. Two men faced her. One was slick, smooth and used to seeing combat conducted in this way, though uncomfortable with the weapons and setting. The other was cradling a painfully throbbing testicle, confused and anxious, unfamiliar with seemingly defenceless young women who could so damage a gang of armed and brutal men. Velane focussed on this feeling of anxiety, fed it, stoked it, and watch its orange glow grow and spread until it filled the local thug’s head. Her slick, fellow-dimensioner watched with interest – both physically and psychically as he too saw anxiety flare into fear before burning into terror. Seconds before the local thug turned and fled into the night, the slick man pushed his sword, point first, into the ground, briefly nodded respect at Velane and then turned and walked away.

Even as the thug fled, Velane combed his mind for evidence of the mysterious Ricker. Yes, he was aware of Ricker, but in the same way that the soldier in Brayden’s tent had been. A series of rumours, legends and stories. But this man had no connection with Ricker. No, he was working for somebody else.

Two arms dealers in one, underdeveloped backwater dimension? Whilst absorbing the mental anguish of the dying killer, and ignoring the croaking gasps of the man with the cracked windpipe, Velane chewed her lip thoughtfully.

***

This time it was Velane who was hiding herself behind a psychic wall. But, unlike her clumsy attacker from earlier, Velane was channelling the surrounding, mundane thoughts of others into her wall, making it a psychic wall of noise that was as impenetrable, yet less detectable, than the blank wall she had earlier faced. She had constructed this wall before her in order to surreptitiously enter a ring of carts that had been arranged on their sides in a circle in order to construct a large secluded area that had been roofed with tarpaulin. Knowing that she was close, Velane had merely allowed the thoughts of others to wash over her as they had passed, rather than send out potentially traceable mind probes. These thoughts had slowly, unerringly guided her towards this enclosure. This enclosure from which the guns originated. This enclosure within which she would find her target.

Velane pushed a curtain of thick canvas to one side and strode tall between low wooden packing crates and into the makeshift warehouse. Two men were within. They were shocked to see her, but clearly not surprised. A lupine grin crept across the face of the shorter, stockier of the two men who wore the trading garments and facial hair of a local dimension trader. He started to move slowly and steadily towards Velane and spoke.

Meanwhile, the second man – tall and slender, clean-shaven and hatchet-faced – started to construct a psychic shield for the pair, interweaving strands of pure hard knowledge and certainty into a thick mesh. Velane did not give him the opportunity.

The Bomb: Base Overwhelming Mental Bombardment. It was banned across dimension vX1. Only the most accomplished psychics could even attempt it without risking mental damage to themselves, and guaranteeing mental damage to their victim – or even death. It relied on the attacker having absorbed and stored the most base, primal thoughts and feelings of other, heavily traumatised people. The attacker would then bombard their target with these thoughts and feelings, overwhelming their mind to breaking point. Velane had had ample opportunity over the years to absorb and store a significant amount of these base thoughts and feelings, and she spared none of them now in smashing the mind of the psychic bodyguard before he had the chance to complete the mental shield he had started to construct. It was not a blood curdling scream, but a somehow more disturbing hissing sigh that he let out as his eyes rolled backwards in his head and his legs crumpled beneath him.

The bearded trader had barely managed to utter, “Well, hello…” as the opening to his planned monologue before his companion had fallen insensible to the ground. He peered back over his shoulder at the man, before turning again to look at Velane. “What…?”

Velane gave a half-smile, desperately trying to maintain her focus and composure as the after-effects of using The Bomb left her with a dizzying sense of nausea and confusion. “It looks like he has suffered from a mental overload.”

Clearly shaken by the loss of his psychic defence, the trader had not noticed Velane’s unease. He simply asked, “But, how? I mean, he was one of the best.”

Velane remained hidden behind her half-smile as her mind refocused and stomach settled. She slid an arm out of her coarse clothing to reveal her Psytech identification in her hand.

“Oh, a fucking Psycop.” The man’s grin and confident swagger returned a little. “What the hell are the fucking D-police doing here to bother me, eh?”

Velane deliberately placed her identification onto a crate beside her before she spoke. “I’m looking for an arms dealer.”

“Well, look around you.” He spread his arms wide. “We’re in a fuckin’ army camp. There’s arms dealers everywhere. But I don’t know why you’d want to get involved in it, cop. Isn’t this a bit beneath your bosses’ mind-fuck radar?” Velane did not respond, so he continued. “Listen, sweetheart, I’ve got a team of top-drawer, well-paid lawyers at home who would just love to get their legal teeth sunk into Psytech’s ass. Arms dealer? I import and export antiques, darlin’. Every item of stock that I’ve got here? Back home they’re fuckin’ museum pieces. So don’t give me any of your precious tech-dealing speeches about interfering with lower dimensions and all that shite. They’re not covered by your laws. I’m a dealer in curios at worst. So run on, little girl, because you’d be wasting your time arresting me. I’m not exactly fuckin’ Ricker!”

“I’m not here to arrest you.” Velane’s half-smile broke into a full, gap-toothed grin as she nodded towards the discarded Psytech identification on the crate behind her. “And I’m not exactly here as a fucking Psycop.”

The arms dealer’s slight resurgence of confidence dissipated into confusion. “What? Then what the hell are you here for?”

Velane’s other hand slid out from beneath her clothing, and in it was clasped the balding psychic’s thin, razor-sharp sword. “I’m here because you’re imposing on my business.” The man’s face formed into the very picture of confusion. Velane continued. “Those people out there,” nodding in the direction of the army that was at the head of this train of people, “are my customers.”

“Your customers? What the fuck are you on about? They buy from me! The only other dealer out here that’s even been heard of is…”

She allowed him to mumble into silence, and watched the patterns of his mind as it gradually made the connections towards understanding. She then absorbed his feelings as he mentally tumbled into a maelstrom of fear and desperation. His mouth barely formed the R of Ricker before the sword slid effortlessly through his rib cage, piercing his heart.

Ricker surveyed the physical remains of this arms dealer’s operation. It reeked of small-time poor organisation. That was how it had so quickly and easily found itself on the Psytech radar. Ricker sighed. This would put her own trade in this dimension back months. And now she had to devise a convincing case-closing story for Commander Topps.

Velane retrieved her Psycop identification.

Good Luck Charm

by Alister Davison

The engine stops, and I savour one last breath of conditioned air, drawing it deep into my lungs as if it’s my last.

The way my luck is holding out, that may well be the case.

Got to admit, I thought I’d escaped. Getting to grips with a new routine hadn’t been easy, but it was worth the sweat and tears if it kept me away from prying eyes and meddling hands.

At least they were subtle about it. I’d just entered my apartment building, looking forward to getting started on the pile of books I’d taken from the library, when a figure stepped in front of me, blocking my way to the stairs.

I knew the procedure, it was one to which I’d bore witness many times. I placed the books on top of the mailboxes, turned around and put my hands behind my back. In silence, I was cuffed and gagged, a cloth bag placed over my head. It makes for an uncomfortable car journey, that’s for sure; my arms cramped an hour ago and my fingers have gone numb.

Still, at least I’m alive. For now.

Doors open – one, two, three – allowing stifling air to force itself inside. The car rocks as the other occupants get out. The two goons either side have been keeping me upright, so I fall to my left without their support, lying there like a fish long out of water.

It takes a couple of seconds for them to haul me out like a prize catch. I hit dirt, dusty and dry, the brightness of the day evident even through the hood.

It blinds me when they pull it off. Takes my eyes several seconds to adjust to the crystal blue sky, the Nevada sand crushed and compact, an equally dazzling reflection of the sun from up above. Sweat wicks from every pore, a combination of the oppressive heat and recognition of the brown wing tips a few feet from my face. The immaculate white spats that cover them are a startling contrast to my dusty Converse.

“Get him up.” The voice is soft, almost melodic, but the goons hurry to do as instructed, lifting me up by the armpits. I sway a little on my feet, which are the focus of my gaze as I try to orient myself, almost falling again as they remove the gag, cutting it with a switchblade that sparkles in the sunlight.

I work my jaw, up and down and side to side, but say nothing. There are moments when being discreet will keep a man alive; this is one of them. Instead, I stare down at my trainers.

The spats move closer, but the shadow stretches out to the side, as if it’s shying away from me. “Jimmy the Boy. We meet at last.”

Jimmy the Boy. I’m closing in on thirty and they’re still calling me that, as if I was the same punk kid that tried to pick Big Sal’s pocket all those years ago. Sal gave me a thick ear, then a home, followed by a life. Whenever I think of him, I wonder how he’d have felt about my running away.

I look up at the man who’s had me brought here. Immaculately dressed in designer suit, shirt and tie; even in this heat, there’s not a drop of sweat on him, as if he’s still in New York’s corridors of power. His only concession is a Stetson, which somehow shades his face in a way that makes his dark eyes seem to glow. He swipes a hand across the brim of the hat, cuff links glittering.

“You’ve taken some finding, which has incurred much expense, as well as some slight discomfort to yourself, but our employer deemed it necessary.” He leans closer, mint evident on his breath. “Now here you are.”

In the movies, right now is where the hero would say something cool. Me, it’s all I can do not to piss myself. I’ve heard of this man, who rose quickly in the organisation, graduating from henchman to right-hand in a few years. Guessing why I’ve been brought here, to the middle of nowhere, I look frantically for a shallow grave, but there’s no sign of anything except cooked, hard earth.

“We’re not here to kill you,” he says, as if he’s read my mind. “One more task, James, one that will truly free you from the Organisation, if that is what you wish.”

He reaches into his jacket, taking out two photographs. Only one is handed to me; a picture of a casino, façade covered in glittering lights.

“The Seers?”

Spats moves closer, arm over my shoulder like he’s my best friend. I don’t like contact at the best of times, so it’s an effort not to shrug him off. “I don’t know how you do what you do, son. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s some kind of Rain Man voodoo.”

“There’s a pattern in the cards,” I whisper as if I’m imparting a great secret. “Some see it everywhere, in everything, but with me it’s just the cards.”

“I’m only interested in the results.” He’s so close, that minty breath is sickening. “Let me show you this, just in case you’re not fully motivated.”

The second picture is that of a woman and a toddler, at play in a park. Sal’s niece and her son, five years old.

“Call it added incentive.” Spats steps away.

His words are unnecessary; implying the threat has always been enough. There are things words don’t have to say, whereas my acknowledgement will save lives. I may not have seen them for years, but still; family is family.

I look away, see my reflection in a goon’s mirrorshades. Unkempt, tired, not the man I used to be, nor the one I want to be. One last caper, then out. Always tempting – how many times have I told myself just one more? – but now there’s no choice.

“All right. What do you want me to do?”

***

Win. And win big.

That’s my only thought as I stand at the entrance to the Seers Casino. The building’s lit up like a gold Christmas tree, the dancing lights creating a discotheque reflection in my polished shoes.

I straighten my tie, roll my shoulders and shoot my cuffs as I take the deepest breath of my life. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m happy enough in these expensive clothes, wearing them like a knight would a suit of armour, but my lucky tooth and silver pen are back home, and the only routine I’ve been able to go through is the folding of the handkerchief in my jacket pocket.

Three times. First with a triangle of silk tongue poking from the pocket’s mouth. The second fluffs it out, so it blooms like a white rose against the deep navy (my lucky colour). Finally, I fold it square again, place it to form a white stripe across the top of the pocket.

There. I’m ready.

To win, as instructed. Win big, like nobody in the Seers ever has. The place prides itself that nobody’s ever hit the jackpot enough to do it any damage. It’s completely independent from any criminal control; no group takes a skim, no single person is paid to look in another direction from time to time. Clean, when there’s no such thing.

So, I tell myself, I must beat the unbeatable.

Here’s a new thought; if I don’t, people I care about will die.

That’s what’s on my mind as I step through huge sliding doors, catching the eye and the smile of a blonde in a golden bikini, a huge set of tail-feathers rising up behind her. She welcomes me to the Seers Casino; the lingering look we share makes it sound more than a customary greeting, but I’ve been fooled before.

Still, I must admit I can’t help liking what I see. Golden curls, eyes the colour of a summer sky, a brightness to them that puts the glitter and glitz of our surroundings to shame. If they’re truly the mirror to her soul, then I doubt it’s anything short of wonderful. Just as I’m feeling a mental connection, one that almost has me believing in love at first sight, a voice shatters the moment.

“Hey, Kitty! Kitty!”

Her smile slips for a fraction of a second. “It’s Katherine, dammit,” she mutters. Then, all is as before, bar the fat man in a tux with straining seams, shirt collar so tight it’s turning his round head into a purple grape. He’s a heart attack waiting to happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Katherine is wishing for right now.

She opens her mouth, but doesn’t get the chance to speak.

“What was I saying before? You can’t just stand there like a dummy. You’ve got to work it!” He sneers at me, the lascivious tilt of a time-served creep. “Am I right?”

I slip my hands in my pocket. “I was hoping this beautiful lady would accompany me to the tables. I could do with a good luck charm.” It’s no lie; being kidnapped has made this all a rush, my usual tokens foregone in favour of haste.

Katherine smirks, slipping her hand through the gap between my arm and my body. Her perfume is like a sweet narcotic, and her touch, far from unpleasant, sends a spark through me. I feel good, like I could take on the world, even turn around and walk out of here a pauper. With her at my side, I’d be satisfied.

If it wasn’t for the whole death-threat thing, maybe I’d ask her.

We walk between rows of fruit machines, their single arms raised high like worshippers praising the gods of excess. An old woman pumps coins into one of them, while an even older woman hits the jackpot, leaping out of her seat as if she’s been healed by a miracle worker, coins spewing out into a plastic cup.

Katherine leans close to be heard over the noise. “What’s your game?”

Unable to decide if she’s asking me why I’m here or what I’d like to play, I give her answers to both. “Blackjack. I’m here to beat the unbeatable.”

She smirks at this, but I sense humour rather than disdain in her voice. “How does a private table sound?”

“I’m in your capable hands.”

Katherine guides me to the table. The croupier is a man as thin as the cards he deals, his construction all joints and angles. His clothes are expensive, tailored to fit like a glove, which doesn’t do him any favours.

He watches me sit. There’s a wide grin on his face, but still I feel like I’m being interrogated, examined for any tell-tale signs or ticks. There’s a moment of pressure in my forehead, like a flash of toothache, and his grin slips, quickly replaced by a smile as he starts rattling off the house rules.

They’re the same in most of these places, and I know them by heart. Still, I listen, eyes closed to take in every nuance of his voice. Sometimes, it’s the way people talk that give them away as much as a raise of the eyebrow or a rub of the wrist.

“All right,” he announces, opening a fresh deck of cards. “Let’s play.”

***

I’m an hour in, a few thousand up, when I first see it.

Nothing more than a glance, an exchange for only a fraction of a second, but I kick myself for not noticing it sooner.

I’m being played. Hustled at my own game. How, I don’t know, but I suspect this beauty at my side has something to do with it. Too good to be true, and I fell for it. I don’t know who I’m annoyed with more, her or myself. People’s lives are depending on me, and I let myself get distracted by Miss Tailfeathers here.

“I need a break.” I slide out of my chair and stride away, leaving the two of them. Let them stay in cahoots; I can move on, play another game.

Except I’m already deep in this one. The patterns are forming, and I can guess which cards will be next out of the shoe. I can do this. I have to do this, or people will die.

My heart pounds against my ribcage harder than a wrongful arrest. I lean against the wall and close my eyes, but all I can see is Spats’s face in shadow under that hat, eyes aglow as if he’s the devil himself. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what he is.

“You need to clam down.” I recognise Katherine’s voice, and the sincere concern within. Opening my eyes, I see she’s handing me a glass of water. “Drink this.”

I take a sniff, making sure it’s not vodka, then pour it down my throat. It cools all the way down to my core, but that fireball of irritation refuses to be put out.

“We need to talk.”

“About what? How you and your friend are taking me for a ride?”

Katherine looks from side to side. I’ve learned to read people, and she’s panicking. Genuinely afraid. “Not here.”

She walks away, not looking over her shoulder to see if I’m following. I do, and we end up at an inconspicuous door with a small keypad above the lock. Katherine closes her eyes, then keys in five digits; a turn of the handle, a wiggle of feathers, and we’re in.

The room is small, the size of an elevator, lit by a panel that glows in the centre of the ceiling. It’s very much empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to descend into some underground lair.

“There’s something you need to know.”

***

If she didn’t look so sincere, I’d laugh. As it is, I summarise.

“So, you’re telling me the reason the Seers always wins is because it’s run by psychics.” Put like that, it sounds simple and rational. The rest of it, though… “And these psychics, you included, are from one of many parallel dimensions.”

Katherine rubs her forehead, eyes on me. “In a nutshell. That’s how I picked up on you, and your desperate need to win. You’re doing this for Sal; even though he’s gone, family is family, right?” She smiles now, and I swear the small room brightens. “Besides, there are some people in here who need to be taught a lesson.”

I’m disappointed. I’d thought, hoped, there’d be more to it than that. Despite my suspicions of betrayal, I still can’t help feel a certain attraction to her. I look down at my feet, saddened when I have no real right to be.

Her hand on my chin, that same frisson at her touch. She lifts, so I have no choice but to look into those summer sky eyes. “When this is all over, how about we stay together for a while, see how well we get along?”

I know how it works, that this could be an idea she’s planting inside my head like a seed, but I also know there’s more to it than that; Katherine is offering me a choice, not an ultimatum. Besides, it’s something I’ve been thinking of from the moment I clapped eyes on her.

I put my hand over hers, relishing the warmth of the contact. “Read my mind,” I say.

I’m expecting the mental equivalent of a burglar raking through drawers, but there’s no discomfort, barely any sensation at all other than a shiver up the spine, like you get when you’re being watched, only now it’s from the inside. She’s never been in here before, never manipulated me.

I push aside the relief to focus on the faith I have in her, myself, in anyone who’s willing to listen and help me save those who have been like a family to me when I deserved nothing. They had faith in me, all those years ago, and now it’s time to return the favour. What goes around comes around, a cycle of karma like the patterns I see when cards are being dealt.

Tears glisten in Katherine’s eyes. I swallow my own emotion; now that she’s not in my head anymore, there’s a void in there, one that didn’t exist until only a moment ago. It’s a mental impact that makes me sway, but she steadies me with her hands on my shoulders.

“It’ll pass.”

I almost don’t want it to, but I nod. “What do we have to do?”

Katherine smiles. “I’ve persuaded you to go back to the table. Given your outburst, you’ll be allowed to win. Not quite as big as you’d like, but big enough to be tempting when he says the three magic words.”

“He loves me?”

“No, but you will be screwed.” The smile becomes a grin. “That’s when I come in.”

***

Katherine was right. I’ve lost a few hands, but overall I’m doing well. Too well to be true, beyond even what I’d been expecting. To say I’m being hustled is an understatement; I’m close enough to a huge prize that I’ve attracted an audience of around a dozen, being willed on by each and every one.

Katherine remains at my side, thoughtful throughout. I catch her and the croupier exchanging looks now and again, but that’s to be expected.

Then, as if from out of nowhere, the croupier delivers the three words that could change my life.

“Double or nothing?”

My crowd ooh and aah, offering me conflicting advice at various volumes.

Have faith, I tell myself as I look at Katherine from the corner of my eye. I sit up, straighten my back, and smile.

“Let’s do it.”

***

The blue and white Mustang roared along the road, Vegas and that old life further behind with every passing second. Occasionally, the car swerved, riding the white line or the outer edge of the Tarmac that cut through the Nevada desert like an infected wound.

The driver looked in the mirror, wiping away the last of the make up with a tissue. She steered with her knees for a moment, placing a long dress over her shoulders and letting it shuck down to her waist. The bikini, she vowed, would be shed once she got to a motel.

Katherine saw the gleam of sun on metal a few minutes later. The Cadillac, exactly where James has said it would be.

Looking at the briefcase on the passenger seat, she felt a pang of regret. It faded as quickly as it had arrived; she’d done what she had to, and lies were inevitable. Such was life.

She slowed, pulling off the road so the trunk of the Mustang faced the other vehicle, drawing to a halt with a plume of dust. Ignition off, the car fell silent and the world felt bigger.

Katherine had predicted no trouble here, but it paid to be careful. Trust no one; that had been her mantra since coming to this Dimension in pursuit of a new life, one that was close around the corner.

No trouble, but it always paid to have a back up plan.

She picked up the case, along with a tyre iron she’d stowed under her seat, and opened the door. The day was a couple of hours old, so the heat was already bordering on the intense. Shoes on, she got out of the car, smoothing the dress down to her knees and cursing the high heels as she negotiated the lumpy terrain, coming to a halt at the back of the Mustang, placing the case on the trunk.

As the Cadillac’s doors swung open, Katherine let her makeshift weapon hang down, knocking it three times against the Mustang’s fender. The sound of metal on metal was reassuring, ringing out like a bell calling the faithful to prayer.

As she’d expected, the two goons came first. Men more muscle than brains, she knew they wouldn’t be the problem. No; any issues she was going to have would be with the owner of the legs that were now swinging out, spat-covered shoes planting themselves into the dust.

Their owner quickly followed, exiting the car in one fluid motion. He adjusted cuffs and tie as he approached, coming to a halt close enough so their conversation couldn’t be overheard.

“This is a surprise,” he said, lifting his head so the shadow of the hat slid from his face.

Katherine smiled as if she meant it. “It’s good to see you again, Monroe,” she lied.

No mental probe followed the untruth. Her former boss was being unusually respectful.

“You look well,” he said.

He did too, but there was no way she was going to be drawn in. Monroe was good – hell, he’d been one of the best until he’d Gone Native – and was well-versed in extracting information from even a brief conversation.

Katherine patted the briefcase, cutting to the chase. “This is what you want.”

“And Jimmy?”

That regret again, a weight on her shoulders, yet blessedly brief once more. “Do you care?”

Monroe lowered his chin, letting the shadow fall like a veil. He said nothing, but took a couple of steps forward, stretching out his arm. “I’ll take the money, Katherine.”

“I’ll need some guarantees first.”

He sighed, that of a teacher whose prize pupil has proved a disappointment. “Must we?”

“We must.”

“Very well. Take a look.”

Katherine met his gaze, pushing her ability into the void of his pupils, then further back into the mansion of his mind. There were many rooms, but Katherine knew exactly where to go. A door was opened and – in an instant – she saw it all.

The images flooded her mind, but she was adept at controlling them, sorting through them to pick out the most important. It was the reason the owners of the Seers had hired her, but now she was using the talent for herself, making it even easier to sift through and find the nuggets, the how and why of everything leading to this moment.

She saw the child, born a year after Monroe first came here almost three decades ago; the boy who had to be given away for fear he’d be killed or kidnapped by his father’s enemies; the ‘orphan’ who somehow made his way back into the fold – fate’s wheel spinning – although it would be another family that took care of him while his father looked on, knowing the truth could never be told; a young man with a gift who would make his father proud and, ultimately, make him play his own son as a pawn in his ambitious game.

Overwhelmed by it all, Katherine staggered, the tyre iron dropping to the ground. She would have fallen along with it if Monroe hadn’t taken hold of her arms, kept her upright. In that moment of weakness, she let her guard down, and a sliver of his own talent slipped through to dip into her mind. A brief invasion, but enough for him to ascertain the truth.

He could have killed her, right there and then, but all he did was laugh. “Clever girl. I’m pleased some of my lessons stayed with you. Who else knows?”

“Just you and I.”

He let her go, clapping his hands with obvious delight. “Bravo. Very well done, indeed.”

Katherine couldn’t believe it. “You’re pleased? After what I’ve done?”

“My dear, I’m pleased because of what you’ve done.” He leaned forward, whispering with minty breath. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy, but let me make a suggestion.”

He did so, and Katherine found a smile.

“Now, I’ll take what’s mine and be on my way.”

Katherine stepped aside, Monroe striding to the case and clicking it open. “Hmm,” he said, “never looks as much as it does in the movies, does it?”

“What will you do with it?”

“This will have done The Seers some damage, as predicted, and I’m sure they’ll be grateful of the added capital.” He grinned, teeth bright. “It’s a foot in the door, if nothing else.”

“And The Seers has been seen to lose. It’s possible to meet their challenge, so more will try.”

Monroe nodded, clicking the case closed. “It’s a shame to lose you, Katherine. I fear your previous employers wasted your talents somewhat.”

He moved to shake her hand, but the move was impossible due to the bundle of notes in it. “That should be enough to get you started.”

Stunned, she could only take the money and watch him walk away.

Monroe paused at the car door, looking at her over his shoulder. “Let’s be sure both our secrets stay hidden, eh?”

***

It took a few minutes for the Cadillac to drive out of sight, after which Katherine popped the trunk.

“We’re good?” James asked as he clambered out.

“Fifty grand good.” She offered him the bottle of water she’d taken from the glove box.

Katherine watched as he guzzled it all, letting some spill down his chin. Yes, she could see his father in him now, that same bright gleam in the eye.

“So where do we go from here?” he asked.

Katherine linked his arm in hers and they walked to the front of the Mustang. “We find a motel and get better acquainted,” she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “And after that… I’m told Monte Carlo is good this time of year.”

THE END

The Dustman

By Paul R. Green

“You can go through now, George.” Christine said with a friendly smile. Doyle stood, fastened his suit jacket, and returned the girl’s smile with an added wink before opening the door to his CO’s inner office.

Topps’ heavy-set frame blocked out most of the light coming through the large window that provided such a spectacular view of the capital. He was out of his seat, which was never a good sign. Not that Doyle was ever called in for anything that was. He positioned himself before his chief’s desk, as if the man was sat behind it, stood at parade rest and waited.

“What do you know about vX13 George?” The big man said without turning.

“vX13. The thirteenth dimension our boys have discovered; back in ’08, I believe. They’re the first D we’ve come across that comes close to ourselves in both tech and psychic ability. We run a small team out of the capital as S.O.P. but migration has been rather limited, presumably due to them being so close to us in a lot of respects. Though obviously they haven’t learnt how to D-hop yet.”

Topps turned away from the window with a meaningfully raised eyebrow and lumbered across to his seat. He dropped into it with a sigh and made himself comfortable before looking back at his agent with steely eyes that defied his jowly features. “We think they might have rampart tech.”

“Who’s the source?” Doyle enquired.

Logan.”

“A good man. How’d he come across it?”

“The usual. He was working a case, tied most of it up but lost a lead on a tenuous link. Not enough to keep the case open, but enough of a niggle for him to mention it to me. And now, I’m mentioning it to you.” He nudged a hard copy file across the desk toward Doyle – the Dust Squad didn’t use electronic files. The file would be read and burned after reading. Doyle picked it up and turned to leave.
As he went to open the door his boss added, “Be careful, George” a note of genuine concern in his voice. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this one.”

***

The oppressive humidity hit Doyle the second he stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of the commercial airliner and followed the rest of the passengers, most of whom were clearly visiting the tropical island resort for reasons other than business. Once he’d collected his luggage and checked through customs – which included a discrete mind probe that he’d been half expecting and therefore prepared for – he hailed a cab and soaked in the sights on the short trip to his hotel.

Once checked in he unpacked and went through the ritual of leaving himself indicators should anyone decide to rummage through his possessions whilst he was out. Satisfied, he exited the room – leaving a hair stuck with a dab of saliva attached to the door and jamb – and headed downstairs.

From his place at the bar Doyle looked out at the pool as he savoured the rum he’d ordered. The alcohol nicely topped off the buzz he had received from the couple of vodkas he’d enjoyed inflight. He watched with barely disguised admiration as the lithe, sculpted figure of a man so white he couldn’t possibly be a local towelled himself dry as he approached the bar. The man smiled as he approached Doyle, and the agent returned the smile, greeting him with a hello and asking if he’d like a drink. The man, who introduced himself as Thorsson, took the stool next to Doyle and ordered a local beer.
Doyle took another drink and sighed contentedly. He much preferred assignments in the more advanced dimensions. Sure, there was usually more risk involved, and the locals weren’t so easy to impress, but advanced thinking tended to lead to more liberal attitudes, and Doyle was all for that. Especially, when Doyle considered fraternising with the indigenous population a vital part of his job. And the more intimate that contact, the more he could exploit that relationship towards advancing his mission.

Of course, Doyle’s chance meeting with Thorsson was anything but. He’d gone through the file Topps had given him and judged him to be the best route into Hart-Tek. Once he’d established that, it was simply a matter of having the local team knock him up some Bona-Fides, and book him a place at the seminar Thorsson was due to attend on tropical Tatimi.

“What’s your speciality, George.” The big man enquired. “I take it you’re here for the seminar.”

Doyle smiled, knowing he had the man hooked now. “I shouldn’t really say, my friend. Confidentiality clauses and all that. Let’s just call it data security, shall we?”

Thorsson grinned back. “Then I too am a data security specialist.” He ordered two more drinks and held his up in a toast. “To the unbreachable wall.”

Doyle clinked glasses. “May it never come and keep us out of a job” he replied. The two men knocked their drinks back in one, and Doyle signalled the barman for more.

***
They were back in Thorsson’s room; Doyle was searching through the man’s belongings whilst the big man slept away their afternoon’s excess. That and the mild sedative Doyle had slipped into the post-coital glass of juice he’d poured meant he had at least a couple of hours.

He had swept the room for bugs and weapons as a matter of course and was now going through Thorsson’s briefcase. He located the man’s ID and pass and settled himself on the end of the bed, stretching out his consciousness to touch the thoughts of the sleeping Thorsson.

The first time he’d tried to access the mind of a drunk and sedated mark, Doyle had been pleasantly surprised. He’d expected the thoughts to be vague and confusing, the thought paths to be myriad and clouded, leading to a host of dead ends and tangled threads, but he’d found the opposite to be true.

Thorsson’s thoughts were dominated by the bright golden rope of his subconscious dream state, making it easy for Doyle to follow to the nexus point of the scientist’s memory. From here Doyle quickly found the branch he was looking for and due to Thorsson’s state it was a simple matter to navigate the natural barriers and steal his passwords. He was just about to break the link when an associated thought strand gave off a slight pulse. Intrigued, he accessed the thought which led him to the image of an attractive looking man named Campbell, who was some form of consultant. The nature of the image suggested it to be part of Thorsson’s fantasy world rather than an actual memory and as there was nothing much else related to the man, just the letter ‘V’, Doyle put it down to some form of office crush. Still, he made a note of the name, just in case.

Before breaking the link he couldn’t resist slightly nudging the man’s memory of their time together, suggesting it had been even more pleasurable than it had been. That done he detached himself from Thorsson’s mind and pepped himself up with another stiff drink.

The ID and pass were sophisticated for this D but relatively simple for Doyle to replicate. Within half an hour he had one of his very own. Then, using Thorsson’s tablet and ID, he hacked into Hart-Tek’s systems and added his details to their personnel files. He also searched for Campbell, but came up blank. Once finished he returned everything to where he’d found it, poured himself a drink of rum, took a generous sniff to savour the aroma and sat on the balcony to await Thorsson’s return to the land of the living. After all, the thought, he might as well enjoy himself a little more before starting the next stage of his mission.

***

Dark skies and freezing cold weather greeted Doyle in Helso, home to Hart-Teks scientific division. He’d had no problems getting through security at the gate and was in the process of orientating himself to the large complex that they worked from.
Inside the main building he found a locker room and had to stop himself from laughing aloud at how easy it was to access the locker he needed. Earlier he had dropped into a security office that stank of stale coffee on the pretence of having found a mobile comm device in the rest rooms. Whilst there he had been able to catch a glimpse of the shift rota that was written for all to see on a white board at the back of the room. He’d made a mental note of a couple of names who weren’t on shift until next week and then searched their lockers until he’d found one whose uniform would fit.

Now, with most of the staff having left for the day, Doyle made his way to the executive offices on the top floor. Once inside he made short work of accessing the database, locating the information he was searching for, and replacing the files in question with a nasty little virus that would destroy any further copies on other systems, as well as any files that contained certain key words.
Now all he had to do, was destroy the prototype, that according to what he had just read was in a separate annex lab to the rear of the building.

***

Doyle crouched behind a large chrome machine, his psychic defences on full alert. He shouldn’t need them, but if these boys were fooling around with rampart tech then best be prepared. There were five of them, two pairs coming from opposite ends of the large lab building and a single overseer who was waiting by the main exit. Getting out was always the hardest part.

Adrenalin focussed their minds upon their task, making it trickier for Doyle to find an in. Tricky, but not impossible. One of the men approaching from the North was new, and every now and then a wispy thread of red fear would detach itself from the white line of his determination and attention.
Doyle bided his time, waiting for just the right thread to pop up. There! He was in. With a grasp on the strand it was a simple matter to tug on it; gently though, just enough to make the man nervous. More wisps appeared; bigger and more frequent. Doyle smiled to himself. Now for some fun.

A quick sweeping probe allowed him to place his opponents upon the map he had created in his mind. The two pairs of guards were getting closer and their leader still hadn’t moved. All he had to do was wait until they were in just the right place.

Now.

With a deftness that came through years of experience Doyle pushed through a thought to the new man, then cut off all links with his foes. The guard’s subconscious took the suggestion and reacted accordingly, telling his brain that his eyes were seeing an armed intruder up ahead. The brain responded by instructing his body to raise the pistol and fire.

The lab came alive with a cacophony of noise, lit by sporadic flashes of muzzle flare as the pent-up emotions of the guards were unleashed in a hail of bullets.

From the direction of the entrance he could hear the shouts of the overseer as he tried to ascertain what was going on and gain control of the situation. The distraction made it easy for Doyle to fix on the man and enter his mind. Orange sparks of confusion spun around a branching line of yellow light as the man fought over what to do next. It was a simple matter for Doyle to suggest he leave the door and go help his men.

With the man gone Doyle slipped unnoticed through the door. Behind him the gunfire had ceased as the overseer managed to convince his men they were shooting at each other.

Once outside the agent took a bracing sniff of the cool night air and walking calmly and casually away from the building triggered the explosives.

***

Doyle was back in Topps’ office, staring down the barrel of one his boss’s legendary disapproving glowers. He shuffled a bit, and became suddenly aware of just how uncomfortably sweaty he was feeling and how dry his throat felt. He could do with a drink. Shame that alcohol and other stimulants were banned on his home dimension.

“Industrial accident caused by faulty wiring; that’s how it’s been reported on vX13,” the big man finally said after what seemed an age as he dismissively dropped the file on his desk.

“Thank you, sir. I try my best.” Doyle acknowledged with a smile of relief. The smile soon dropped under Topps‘ stern gaze.

“You were lucky at best, Doyle. Careless at worst. That was bloody sloppy work. I expect better from my agents.”

Doyle knew better than try and make excuses, he simply stood quietly and waited to hear what his boss wanted to say.

The big man pinched the bridge of his nose as if bracing himself for something, then seemed to change his mind. “Still, you were ‘Jonny-on-the-spot’ and I hate to second guess my boys in the field, so we’ll let it go this time.” He picked up the file again and waved it at Doyle. “This time.” He stood with a grunt and moved across to a steel cabinet which he unlocked with a key attached by a chain to his belt.
Doyle took the cue and slipped quietly from the room.

***

Topps watched his agent leave then moved to stand at his window. He often stood here when he had a lot on his mind, or something bothered him. Right now it was a single letter:’V’. It could be nothing but Topps was a careful man. He liked to think of himself as an iceberg. On the surface huge, cool and imposing, but with a lot more going on beneath the surface. And dangerous, too, especially to the unwary.

“Are you one of mine, V?” He asked himself quietly, not really wanting to think it even may be true. After standing for a few more minutes he came to a decision and returned to his desk and hit the inter-com. “Christine, could you clear my schedule for this afternoon then come in please? We have work to do.”