Pigs Get Fat
Under the cover of darkness, two men moved down the dock. The slender one was carrying in his arms what seemed to be a small body, wrapped in sheets. The heavier man labored under a large sack, slung over his back. At the end of the dock the two men put down their packages and the first man knelt and began to work. He uncoiled a long length of chain from the sack and wrapped it securely around the inert figure’s narrow waist and small torso, the pale skin of her still hand visible in the moonlight. The second man was near frantic, nervously keeping watch.
Finishing by pushing a padlock through the two tail ends of the chain and checking his work, the lean man looked up and nodded, “That’ll do. Now help me get her over the edge.”
As he and the other man pushed the heavily chained body over the side of the dock, Tai caught a glimpse of Krelle’s pale face and winced. The splash, though, was smaller than one might have expected.
“Come in and close the door behind you.”
The Southshore customs agent was a fat, balding man with a smattering of hair making a desperate last stand. He gave the merchant an oily smirk as he sat behind his desk, motioning for the dark-skinned man to have a seat. The agent, a lifelong civil servant by the name of Ruhfus Whitbarn, leaned back in his chair as the joints creaked under his bulk. He lit a cigarette, not offering one to the merchant, and inhaled deeply, pausing a moment for effect.
“You’re new here and there are certain facts you need to understand. You want to ship goods here, you need a dockage permit. I, as chief inspector, am the sole source of said dockage permits.”
Ruhfus paused, taking another drag. He licked his thin lips and a speck of wet tobacco stuck to the upper one. The smoke from the cigarette curled upward in the cramped office, adding to the hazy cloud already there. So far the man he was speaking to had not replied, maintaining a stony silence. Ruhfus tapped his cigarette, letting the ash fall to the floor as he considered the merchant.
“The cost of the dockage permit is 15 gold monthly. You will pay me 25 gold monthly. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Ruhfus said with a confident smirk. He’d been in this position a long time and this was his town, his dock. The man would pay. They all paid eventually …
Tai ran his tongue along the backs of his teeth, keeping his face a mask of neutrality. Tai was a reasonable man, and knew that a certain amount of graft was to be expected. But ten gold a month? Normally he’d lean hard on a pissant like this guy, but something wasn’t right. The agent was cocky, sure of himself. Treated this office and the docks like his fiefdom. No, he had to have someone backing him, someone with muscle. Tai couldn’t help but wonder who his partners were and what their cut of the squeeze was. He’d poked around a bit and had some ideas, but nothing solid yet.
Regardless, Tai thought, breaking the man’s knees might end up going down a very expensive road. Besides what was it he’d heard once about artists? A sculptor worked with the material he had. The artistry was not in creating the statue but instead finding the statue within the material … or something like that. And right now, Tai was looking across a paper-covered desk at an opportunity, a man who could be influenced.
The trick had been finding a way to be the one wielding that influence. Mur had been all for simply offing the man, but Tai had instead asked her to tail him, see what she could find out. Mur had grumbled, little patience for surveillance, but had agreed. It had paid off. It seemed Inspector Ruhfus Whitbarn indulged himself in the delights of the flesh, with an apparent preference for that flesh to belong to prepubescent girls – and he was none too gentle. A swine, Mur had called him. These days that likely wasn’t enough to hold over his head, but it was an opening, a weakness to be exploited.
With Ruhfus waiting, Tai finally smiled and nodded, “I understand completely, Inspector.” Now Tai leaned forward, seemingly eager to please, “Your dock, your rules. I’m a practical man and understand the costs of doing business.” Tai paused and grinned, “In fact, Inspector, I’m used to showing a bit of professional courtesy to men like you. I’d be honored if you’d accept my invitation to Booty Bay for the weekend to, uh, inspect our warehouse there as part of your official duties… all expenses paid, of course.”
Tai could see Ruhfus hesitating, so he pushed forward, “And what would a weekend trip be without female companionship? I am sure something can be arranged …”
Ruhfus’ eyes lit up as his face morphed into a fraternal leer, “Well, I suppose I should get a sense of your operation.”
Tai nodded, a simple merchant who was just happy to grease the wheels. Ruhfus quirked his lips, hesitating, before asking, “About female companionship - I’m a picky man, Jiang. A connoisseur actually… My preference is for the grapes that are just barely ripe, maybe even a bit green… Untouched. Do you understand?”
Tai feigned a look of sudden realization, as if he hadn’t known. “I see … well, that's not an uncommon preference. Booty Bay is an exotic place and I’m sure we can find a companion to suit you.”
Ruhfus nodded eagerly and the two finalized the arrangements.
Mariah gently drew the comb through the girl's raven hair, patiently working in the soft wax that would hold it in place. So young, she thought a bit regretfully, drawing the hair up and back, plaiting it into a french braid. It's for the best though. What else could she be doing?
Mariah did not speak as she worked since the mute girl would not be able to answer. She fastened the end of the braid in an intricate clasp that looked like small spring flowers and moved around the chair to examine her work from the front. She nodded, satisfied. Putting her hair up had clearly been the best idea - it brought out the girl's delicate features. Her high cheekbones and small nose made her look almost elfin
Such a pity she lost her sight, Mariah thought with a small sigh.
She had been told that a fever had robbed the girl of speech and sight when she was just a baby, leaving her eyes very sensitive to the light. The woman's heart had gone out to the poor thing - she'd lost one of her own children to the jungle fever when he was just a little lad - and she never questioned the need to keep the girl's eyes covered or closed.
Now that the girl's mother had passed away, she'd have to earn a living. This was one thing she could do.
The woman nodded, pleased with the effect, and moved in to finish her makeup. The girl smelt of lavender and the sweet smell of mint was on her breath as Mariah applied pink lip-dye.
"You'll do just fine, dear," she said softly, and gave the girl a little kiss on the forehead.
The girl gave her a shy little smile and held out her hand. Mariah gave her the strip of soft blue material that would keep the painful light from her eyes. She helped her to fasten it neatly behind her head then held the girl's hand as she stood up. The silk dress rustled softly as she moved.
She looks like a mystic. Or a faerie, Mariah thought as she led the girl back into the shoppe's waiting room
They were met with a low, appreciative whistle. Mariah grinned, flashing her dimples at the tall dark-skinned man who had brought the girl in this morning. He stood slowly, his face clearly registering how impressed he was. Mariah was secretly pleased to see that he even looked a bit shocked at the transformation
"You are a true artist, madam, to have made such a beautiful creation out of our little Clover," he said with admiration, taking Mariah's hand and bowing over it.
A little thrill went through her as his lips brushed her skin "Oh, it was nothing at all, Sir, really. She's a beautiful girl," Mariah managed
He gave her a roguish smile, his dark eyes flashing. "It must be that some of your own beauty rubbed off on her," he said softly. He took several shiny coins from a pouch on his belt and laid them quietly on the counter, a bit more than the agreed price.
"You're too kind, sir," she said, feeling the blush in her cheeks. She cursed herself for acting like a milkmaid. "She really is quite striking though. She'll be gorgeous when she's older."
Mariah was staring at the man's eyes and noticed the quick flicker of something - regret, perhaps? - as she spoke. He broke in to a wide grin though, and bowed again, and she wondered if she had just imagined it.
"Ah, but the important thing, Madam, is that she is gorgeous today! Come along, Clover," he said then, taking the girl's hand Mariah held the door for them with a "Good day, then, Sir."
She watched them go, looking like a father and daughter on a morning stroll. It was only after she closed the door that she stopped and swore. She had forgotten to ask the handsome man for his name!
Green titties! Ruhfus couldn’t believe his eyes. They were wonderfully round, deliciously soft to the touch … and above all … green! The troll woman, her skills honed by years of practice in smutty private clubs just like this one, continued gyrating in his lap, grinding her pelvis into his. This junket down to Booty Bay was turning out to be one of the best decisions Ruhfus had made in quite some time. Yes, sir, he thought, old Ruhfus was finally getting what was coming to him. With this, he triumphantly buried his face between the trolls’ plump breasts, leaving a trail of spittle across her emerald skin.
With Ruhfus’ attention otherwise diverted, Tai finally allowed a look of disgust to flicker across his eyes. Mur’s assessment had been right. The man was a swine. Tai glanced at Mikinda, and could see she was simply tolerating the man, a professional smile plastered on her face but her eyes distant. That was some small relief to Tai. He’d make sure he left something extra for Mikinda. She was one of his best earners in the Blowhole. This club had come in handy more than once.
As Ruhfus came up for air, his scraggly hair mussed now, Tai forced a smile and ordered another round. Ruhfus sat back and sighed heavily, reaching for his cigarettes and lighting one with one hand as he pushed the troll woman out of his lap with the other. He sent her on her way with a hard slap on her bare ass, taking a long drag on his cigarette. He looked over conspiratorially, and gave Tai a lewd smirk.
“Nice piece of ass for a jungle bunny… I just wonder if she’d leave a green ring around my pole …” he said, and broke out in a squealing laugh at his own crude joke.
Tai had come to the conclusion that he truly did not like this man and was beginning to wonder if Mur hadn’t had the right of it from the start. But on the trip down to the Bay Tai had gotten an inkling that it was the Syndicate who was pulling the strings on Ruhfus. As good as it would feel to give the order to have Ruhfus whacked, that would mean starting over in Southshore – and the Syndicate would be vying for any newcomer. No, Ruhfus was a known quantity. Best to stick with the plan. Tai smiled at the thought; it sounded distinctly like the advice Krelle had been giving him. She was worth listening to.
Tai discretely checked his pocket watch as the waitress brought over more drinks. Thankfully it was getting close to ‘show time’ so Tai could get some fresh air and be done with Ruhfus, at least for a bit. It was "Clover’s" turn.
Tai leaned forward, one elbow resting on the table. “Now, Inspector, as delightful as Mikinda was, I suspect you might be ready for bed, hmm?”
An eager look flashed across Ruhfus’ face, and he nodded, “I’m ready for bed, but not for sleep, Jiang.”
Tai smiled and nodded, motioning to one of the bouncers before looking back to Ruhfus. “Of course, Inspector. The Bay is a bit confusing, so perhaps you’d allow Clover here to accompany you back to your room…” Tai smiled and nodded to the small woman, a girl really, who had come up behind Ruhfus, led by the bouncer, “Ah, here she is now … a wonderful breath of fresh air, isn’t she?” Tai looked back to Ruhfus expectantly.
The man's eyes widened as a slow flush crept up his neck. He stared at the girl, his gaze raking over her. She stood before him, still as a doll, her skin pale in the dim light. Ruhfus wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, setting his tankard down hard on the table. He turned his piglike eyes to Tai.
"How did you know- ah, I mean, why is she blindfolded?" he asked, obviously trying not to sound suspicious. Tai cleared his throat and spoke in low tones. "Clover here lost her sight - and speech - to a fever. She finds light very painful, so keeps her eyes bound. You can have her take it off though, if it's dark enough -"
"Oh, no," Ruhfus interrupted hastily. "That's fine, Jiang. She can keep it on." His voice was thick with lust and sweat trickled down his temples. Tai nodded, repressing another surge of repulsion. Ruhfus stood, wiping damp hands against his pants. "And she doesn't talk? Hah - you've found me the perfect woman, eh?" he giggled, giving Tai a lecherous wink.
Tai laughed - but it was at Ruhfus, not with him.
The fat human led her ineptly towards the stairs. It's a good thing I can see through this thing, Krelle thought, careful not to show her irritation. I could have tripped twice already.
They reached the stairway at the back of the bar that led up to the "hotel" section of the club - the rooms were rented by the hour here. The red-faced man urged her up the stairs ahead of him, saying something in Common. She nodded with a smile and put her hand against the wall, pretending to feel for landmarks. Trailing her fingers along the rough wooden planks, she led him up the stairs to the top floor and down the hall to the room she and Tai had prepared. The tricky part would be the timing.
. . .
Tai waited until the two had disappeared up the stairs then discretely made his way to one of the private rooms in the back. He glanced casually down the hallway to make sure no one was watching and ducked inside, closing the door behind him.
"Oh!" came a startled voice. Tai spun around, surprised, then immediately lowered his eyes. Mikinda was getting changed
"Ro vlik, T'ai!" she said, her rich voice amused. "Chjek rik nilak'am - rel na hash kra vem?"
Tai didn't need to speak trollish to understand the offer. "Ah, no, thanks all the same, Mikinda," he answered urbanely, holding up his left hand and waggling his fingers to show his wedding band. "It’s a generous offer Miki’, but you know better. Now, I need to get to work."
"Wohkin," she said in mock scorn as she laced up a clean top. She looked up at him with a wicked little grin. "Ah be wohkin, T'ai. No be let me work?"
"My dear, your work is wonderful, but if I'm not mistaken that is your barmaid outfit. And the bar is that-a-way," he grinned, jerking a thumb at the door
She gave him an exaggerated sigh, but moved towards the door. She paused there, looking down at him with a peculiar mix of respect and amusement. "Choo wohkin be?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at him.
He decided to tell her. If he didn't convince her he was actually busy then she would probably be back just to bother him. He pointed up at the ceiling. "That pig is up there, I'm keeping an ear on things."
She considered that, working out what he meant. She snorted. "No pig, T'ai. Pig - smaht."
He grinned at her and she gave him a wink, leaving the room and closing the door softly behind her. Tai locked it and moved to the outside wall, pressing his ear against the wood. Ruhfus' room was above him, and sounds carried surprisingly well through the solid oak boards.
Messah, in Gutterspeak, translates roughly as "lifeblood" in the common tongue. The drug that Krelle wore painted on her lips had been given that name for two reasons: it was a thick, red liquid, and there were some Forsaken who took it to feel "alive again." Forsaken were not in the habit of applying warning labels to things, but if they had been then the small bottle she had purchased from Jarvik might have borne the words "Keep out of reach of humans" and "Do not mix with alcohol."
. . .
Krelle had applied the drug only minutes before Tai had signaled her into the bar and had been careful not to lick her lips. Still, it was impossible to avoid the effects entirely. Her heart was beating faster than usual and her cheeks felt warm. Colours seemed somehow more vivid, smells sharper, and the feeling of the silk against her skin as she walked was very distracting. She had to keep reminding herself to stay focused on her task - every sensation was magnified, as were her emotional responses to them.
Is this really what living is like? It's a wonder that humans can function at all, she thought as she led Ruhfus into the room.
The timing would be the tricky part. She and Tai had run through a laundry list of angles to play but had decided that in order to completely own Ruhfus they would have to convince him that he had really killed her. For the deception to be effective his last memories would have to be of losing control. Tai had not been too keen on the idea, but Krelle figured he was just being overprotective. She wasn't afraid of Ruhfus in the least.
She let herself be pulled along by the balding human. He sat heavily on the edge of the bed, making the frame creak, and pulled her over to sit on his knee. He started to talk to her, sounding like he was explaining something. She resisted the urge to turn her face away form his foul breath. He rubbed her back and his pudgy hand felt hot through her dress. He asked her something in the same tone of voice a teacher or parent might use when the only possible answer was "yes". She nodded, giving him a shy, trusting smile. His breath caught in his throat as his other hand tightened uncomfortably on her thigh.
This is easy, Krelle thought, pretending to listen. She let his hands roam over her, waiting patiently as he worked himself up. It was hard to see through the cloth in this dim light. She fought off a dizzying feeling of déjà vu, shrugging it off as another strange effect of the messah.
Ruhfus’ face was flushed, and he was sweating through his shirt even though the night was cool. He asked her something else, a hesitant, hopeful question. She wasn't sure if he wanted a yes or no, but it was time. She slowly turned her face up towards his, her expression grave. He repeated his question more urgently, one meaty hand closing painfully around her upper arm. She cursed the effects of the drug as she gasped. That hurts more than it ought to, she told herself, unable to keep from flinching away. He released her immediately, suddenly speaking very quickly, petting her softly as his words tumbled over each other. He's apologizing, she thought, and seized the moment.
She lifted her hand, running it lightly up his chest. His words faltered and his hands froze as she traced her fingers over his cheek. She left them there as she leaned up and slowly kissed him. He immediately kissed her back, his arms tightening around her. They both started to shake violently as the high dose of messah flowed into their systems. Krelle struggled to stay rational but her concentration was shattered as her pulse quickened. His hands were everywhere. It won't be long now, she told herself, but she couldn't remember what it was she was waiting for.
The man was panting. His eyes were bloodshot like the eyes of a crazed animal as he tore at her dress. It was made of silk, though, and had been sewn on. He roared in frustration, his spittle flying in her face. She tried to pull free but he grabbed her and twisted around, slamming her small frame onto the bed. She squeezed her eyes shut as the blindfold was dislodged but the darkness gave her another nauseating wave of déjà vu. She lashed out in a panic, her nails raking across one side of his head.
He choked in rage and smacked her hard across the face. The sharp taste of blood helped clear her head. She held her breath as his hands wrapped around her throat. Signs of a struggle, got to be signs, she remembered, frantically twisting beneath him. She grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled hard, ripping buttons off as she tore it open. She left bloody tracks across his chest with her nails.
His grip on her neck suddenly loosened. He coughed, a wet, choking cough, and foam poured out of his mouth, dripping down onto her face. She opened her eyelids, looking up. A bright spot of red bloomed in the white of his left eye as a blood vessel burst inside. Krelle gasped in a breath and twisted away from his hands, but couldn't move fast enough. He landed heavily on her, pinning her to the bed with his massive bulk.
The sounds of struggle had Tai grinding his teeth. If he’d had a better plan, he would have suggested it. It wasn’t so much that he was worried about Krelle’s safety – even unarmed, she knew what she was doing – but this plan had the distinctly unsettling (and not mutually exclusive) possibilities of, one, Krelle being treated a way Tai would rather not have her treated, and two, that Ruhfus would end up with his neck snapped. The latter outcome would make more work but was solvable. Tai was much less comfortable with the former possibility. Still, he reminded himself, he wasn’t her uncle; they were partners.
His heart skipped a beat as she called his name.
Krelle’s voice had an edge, a hint of panic. He bolted for the door.
. . .
Mikinda gave the bartender a friendly wink as he loaded her tray with four tankards of ale. She smiled as she wove gracefully between the tables, her mind busily speculating about what Tai could be up to tonight. Something sneaky, apparently. She wondered if she could help – the man was generous with his coin when things went his way.
Her long ears twitched as they picked out the distant shout of Tai’s name over the din of the boisterous tavern. She moved faster as she heard the human’s boots in the hallway below the hotel wing.
“Oy dere, ‘oo be orderin the- AH!” she yelped, pretending to slip and tipping her tray “accidentally.”
Tai sprinted unnoticed through the dark bar and up the stairs as everyone turned to watch four dwarves – one soaking wet – try to win a yelling match with a belligerent trollish barmaid.
. . .
Coming up to the door, Tai looked both ways down the hall, out of habit. He tried the door. Locked. Of course, the son of a bitch wouldn’t want anyone barging in, would he? Tai grimaced and pulled out the master key. Turning the key, and again glancing both ways, he opened the door just enough to slip in, then closed it, turning the latch. It was only then that he let himself look around the room.
“Krelle?” he hissed softly. Ruhfus was obvious, sprawled on the bed. They must have fought there, the sheets were half off of it. Tai felt his adrenalin surge at the thought. Where was…
“Tai!” came a strained voice. “Here!”
“Stupid”, he cursed himself silently. Krelle was so damn small. He moved across the room in three strides and grabbed Ruhfus by the shoulders, roughly hauling him off of her and letting him slide to the floor. He winced internally as Krelle rolled on to her knees, crouching on the bed and looking around quickly with her eyeless gaze. The pig had torn her dress and split her lip, and Tai felt a cold knot in the pit of his stomach.
Krelle ran a shaking hand through her hair, trying to calm herself down. Her heart was hammering in her chest as her gaze darted around the room. It’s fine, I can see, Italic textshe thought irrationally. Of course I can see. What am I talking about? Everything’s fine we just have to oooh Tai looks worried…
She looked at Tai and the pain in her throat intensified as sudden emotion welled up inside her. A small, rational part of her mind told her it was just the drug. The other, louder part was overwhelmed with feelings of relief that he’d come, a surge of irrational affection – look at how concerned he was! – excitement that their plan was working… Lady’s ears, I’m making an ass of myself. Focus damnit! What’s Tai gonna think!
She coughed once then spoke, her voice hoarse. “He’s gonna stroke out, Tai,” she managed. Her voice sounded strangely alien to her ears. She felt a sudden feeling of unreality, like she was just watching a play. Tai nodded and knelt by Ruhfus, putting two fingers to his jugular vein. She gripped the blankets, trying to shove away the effects of the drug by force of will alone. Took too much – much too much – better kill Jarvik, or didn’t he warn me, or did he? These blankets are soft but cheap but that’s ok cause we’re gonna ruin ‘em. Ruin Ruhfus. Humans shouldn’t be allowed to be so heavy and…. Ah, Lady, help me! She shut her eyes, bowing her head as she sought refuge in the calming, constant pull of the Dark Lady’s power.
Tai was frowning as he took Ruhfus’ pulse. Sure enough – through the roof. Put that much pressure on plumbing and there was a good chance you’d spring a leak somewhere. Tai glanced to Krelle. Her eyes – or the sockets where her eyes should have been - were screwed shut and her lips moved rapidly and silently, like she was praying. She definitely wasn’t alright, and he didn’t know if it was the drug or whatever had happened with Ruhfus. Right now, he needed to focus on the more immediate problem.
Tai opened a leather pouch on his belt, looking through the small bags inside for the ones with the blue edging. “Krelle, you alright?” he asked as he flicked through them.
Without looking up, he found the bag he was looking for, took it out and tore it open. Two tablets dropped into his hand and he glanced up at Krelle, not having heard a response. She was staring at him with her vacant gaze but she didn’t seem to be recognizing him. “Krelle,” Tai said again, his voice firm, “I could use a hand. Can you hold up his head so he doesn’t choke on these?”
She blinked at him, then shook her head as if trying to shake something off. She nodded, coughing again. She slipped off the bed, coming around to the two men and crouched down, lifting Ruhfus’ round head. Tai nodded, satisfied, and put the two tablets into Ruhfus’ mouth, careful to get them under his tongue. They began to dissolve immediately. Tai lifted one of Ruhfus’ eyelids and saw that his eye was rolled back and twitching rapidly. Tai exchanged a concerned look with Krelle.
She opened her mouth as though to say something, but gave him a smile instead and shrugged. The smile slid off her face as she looked back down at Ruhfus. His face was splotched with red, sweat pouring down his temples. She held his head carefully but her lips twisted momentarily into a sneer of disgust.
While they waited to see if Ruhfus lived or died, Tai glanced at Krelle. “You alright?”
Krelle looked up at him then nodded. “Yeah,” she said hoarsely. She cleared her throat and spoke again in a more normal, though still scratchy tone. “Just peachy.”
Tai let it go at that.
Krelle took Ruhfus’ pulse and her mouth curled into a small smile. “Maybe this wasn’t all wasted effort. He’s coming down. Got those sleeping pills? We’re gonna’ need a little time.”
Tai nodded, looking back to the pouch. Picking out a small black bag, Tai opened it and placed the large pill in Ruhfus’ mouth. Once he was sure it was dissolved, he nodded to Krelle, who stood up and let the unconscious man’s head fall to the floor with a meaty thud. She wiped her mouth, leaving a smear of blood on her cheek. She put her hands on her hips and looked around the room, as if sizing it up.
“Let’s get started then.”
Tai glanced at Krelle. She seemed better, he thought. Anyway, she was right. They needed to get started. Wiping his hands on his pants, he nodded to the bed, “Everything should be there.”
Krelle knelt, pushing aside the blankets with one hand as she reached under the bed to haul out a dark leather satchel. Dropping it on the bed, she undid the buckle and spread the contents across the sheets: a corked flask full of dark red blood, a small folding cosmetic kit, a padlock with two keys, and a gunmetal grey mechanical device, boxlike in shape with several levers and dials and a large rectangular lens dominating one side. She took the cosmetic kit to the mirror above the dresser and examined herself critically. Ruhfus had torn her dress at the neckline already so she pulled on the fabric harder, opening it down to her collarbone. The permanent bruises around her neck that she usually kept covered had the same slightly faded, two-day-old look to them that she remembered. She rubbed the little brush into the navy blue colouring and started to “freshen” them up.
As Krelle worked, Tai silently found her blindfold amidst the sheets. Glancing at her face as she carefully applied the makeup, he wondered again, mutely, what the fel had happened to her – and if the bastard who had done it could still be made to pay for it. Krelle glanced at him in the mirror, and grinned, obviously pleased with their progress. She flashed her happy, girlish smile at Tai as he came up behind her, mutely offering her the blindfold. “Ah thanks, Tai,” she said as she accepted it.
As Krelle refastened the blindfold, Tai knelt down, getting his arms around behind Ruhfus and dragged the listless man’s body to the side of the bed. Krelle grabbed his feet and the two of them hoisted him onto the bed, the old springs creaking under his bulk. They positioned him on the right side of the bed, his head lolled back, one arm draped over his face, and his torn shirt exposing his pale white belly.
The two stood there, inspecting the unconscious man like two art critics in a museum. Tai frowned skeptically while Krelle tapped her chin with one finger, her mind racing.
She spoke up first, “Think he should be naked?” She glanced at Tai and he paused, considering the suggestion.
Sighing slightly, he shook his head. “Might be too much – last thing he’ll remember is what? Hitting you?”
Krelle nodded slowly, “Yeah, ya’ got a point. But we gotta’ sell this to him as a night gone wrong.” She smiled now, and waggled her eyebrows at Tai, “Get his belt. We still need to do the blood and get the pictures.”
. . .
Ruhfus had the unsettling feeling that the he was at sea, the sensation of riding large swells making him dizzy. His head throbbed and his mouth was dry. Letting his arm fall off his face and forcing his eyes open, he felt at a loss for a moment, looking up at the ceiling. The construction was that of a building, not a ship. A sweet, slightly metallic smell filled his nostrils. What …
Ruhfus’ head lolled to one side, a confused look on his face, and then to the other. His eyes shot open and he sat bolt upright in the bed. Still too close to what lay beside him he scrambled madly away, half falling, half stepping out of the bed. How …His pants began to fall and he grabbed at them, pulling them back up and keeping them closed with a clenched hand.
Leaning forward tentatively, he looked at the girl and felt that sinking feeling of fear in his guts. Blood was all over the sheets, the pillows, her face. Her small body was sprawled awkwardly across the bed, her legs akimbo. Her torn dress was tangled about her legs, exposing the pale skin of her calves, speckled now with droplets of dried blood. Her arms were pulled over her head, lashed at the wrist - with his own belt, he noticed, feeling vomit rise in his throat – and tied to the headboard.
He swallowed hard, looking around the room and then to himself. His clothes were torn and he was scratched up, blood on him too. Ruhfus couldn’t believe how dry his mouth was. His fat tongue came out of his mouth, trying to wet his lips. Maybe she wasn’t …
He went around to her side of the bed, reaching out and touching her knee. She was still warm but when he shook her leg, nothing. He leaned forward, reaching for her neck to check for a pulse when he stopped. The bruises around her neck were dark, angry – and fresh. Ruhfus made a choking sound as he pulled his hand back quickly.
His heart racing, feeling nauseated, Ruhfus looked around the room. There was no way out, he realized, but back down the stairs he’d come up. His breathing shallow, Ruhfus realized he was shaking. Without looking at the girl again, he went to the door and undid the latch. Peeking in both directions, he called out in a hoarse whisper, “Jiang!” Getting no response, he cleared his throat and tried again, louder, “Jiang!” He couldn’t hide the note of desperation in his voice.
Tai took the steps two at a time, careful to have a look of consternation on his face as he came to the top of the narrow stairwell. Leaning out the doorway, Ruhfus looked a mess, his hair plastered across his forehead, his cheeks rosy with panic, and one hand clutching the top of his pants.
Tai got right into it. “Inspector, it’s very late to be yelling. If you wanted something …”
Ruhfus was shaking his round face, “No, no… Just get in here …”
Tai paused apprehensively, looking down the hall and back down the stairs before turning back to Ruhfus, “Inspector, if the girl doesn’t please you, I can certainly …”
Again the inspector interrupted Tai, his voice desperate, “Damn it, Jiang! Just get in here. I need help!” Tai furrowed his brow and then nodded, entering as Ruhfus left the door open for him.
He shut the door behind him, letting his gaze sweep the room as was his habit. Milo had once confided in Tai when he was a younger man that one of the tricks to lying was to believe the lie – and now Tai let himself do just that. The scene was tawdry and sad. A pretty little girl, crumpled, bloody and broken, her wrists lashed to the bed. Bloody linens strewn across the foot of the bed and onto the floor. A fat man with bulging eyes, wheezing softly by his side. Seeing all this, he let his face twist into disgust and then anger.
“Damn it, Whitbarn! What the Nether did you do to her?” Ruhfus didn’t answer and just stared at the floor. Tai moved to the bed and went to put his fingers to the girl’s throat. As he pulled back her collar the dark purple bruises were obvious and though Tai cursed softly under his breath Ruhfus couldn’t help but hear him in the closeness of the room.
Tai looked to Ruhfus, his eyes angry. “Fel, Whitbarn, I thought you just wanted to screw her, not kill her!”
Ruhfus stuttered defensively, “I don’t know what … We were … and then I don’t know. I blacked out …”
Tai listened, rubbing one hand over his face, as if trying to think. Ruhfus plopped down heavily in a chair, letting the fly of his pants flop open, exposing the curve of his belly. He closed his eyes, dejected, ruined … out of options.
Tai looked around the room, apparently thinking something through. Then he tapped his chin and nodded, as if to himself. He strode across the room and checked the lock on the door, then turned to Ruhfus. “I think we can solve this for you,” he said, careful to put a bit of uncertainty in his voice,
Ruhfus opened his eyes and looked up. Tai frowned as though working through details in his mind. “Clover was an orphan – and was pretty new here in town. I doubt if anyone will come looking for her …” Tai chewed his lower lip, nodding slowly as he continued, “So, if we could make her disappear, I could just tell folks around here that you decided to bring her home with you …” Tai trailed off, as if in thought, but glanced at Ruhfus out of the corner of his eye.
Ruhfus was now sitting up and leaning forward, smelling a chance at salvation “That’d work Jiang! I could leave on the early packet boat!”
Tai ‘hmm’ed’ softly and nodded, “That might work – it might very well work. We’ll have to buy out her contract,” he said in a warning tone. “And at the asking price – you don’t exactly have room to negotiate here.” He let a bit of scorn color his tone.
Ruhfus nodded desperately. “That’s fine, Jiang, I’ll pay it.”
With a somewhat dubious grunt, Tai moved to the bed. Undoing the belt, he looked over his shoulder at Ruhfus, “Clean yourself up, Whitbarn, and I’ll… take care of this.”
Ruhfus nodded, eager now, and got up to head to the washroom.
“And Whitbarn – here,” Tai called, throwing the man his belt. Ruhfus caught it awkwardly. “Get moving. We’ll want to get this sorted out before sunrise.” With that, Tai turned back to the bed and began rolling the girl into a bundle with the bloody sheets.
Sniffing along the edge of the trash barrel, the brown rat paused and sat up eagerly on its haunches, as the small door in the back alley opened a crack. This particular patrol was often rewarded with the cook tossing out the kitchen rubbish, but no such luck tonight. Seeing two unfamiliar humans carrying something other than table scraps, the rat opted to forage elsewhere, leaping up on the railing and scurrying off.
Tai glanced both ways. The alley was deserted. He looked back and nodded to Ruhfus, “Let’s go. Tick, tock.” Ruhfus grunted, trying to shoulder the heavy bag. The chain links shifted noisily, prompting a frown from Tai and a whine from Ruhfus, “These are heavy Jiang!”
Tai shook his head, “Maybe you’d rather carry the corpse, eh?” Tai held out the shrouded body, and Ruhfus took an involuntary step back. Tai narrowed his eyes, his disgust now only thinly veiled, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Let’s remember who’s doing whom the favor here.” Ruhfus bit his lower lip.
Tai began to move down the alley, looking over his shoulder at Ruhfus, “Trust me. You’ll be glad we have all that chain. Be lazy now and have a floater come in on the flood tide this morning? You prepared to start answering the questions that the Bay’s security would ask about that? I don’t think so.” Tai turned back, allowing himself a smile now. Krelle was light as a feather, and wouldn’t truly need that much weight to make her sink. Still, Tai had enjoyed loading up the sack with chain down in the basement. It was good to see Ruhfus sweat, even in the cool night air.
The two men continued down the side dock, a maintenance dock that was deserted at this time of night. At the end of the dock, Tai and Ruhfus put down their packages and Ruhfus muffled his groan. Tai hissed softly, “Just keep your eyes open, while I do this.”
Tai knelt down and began to work, uncoiling the long length of chain from the sack and then wrapping it several times around Krelle’s narrow waist and small torso. Her left hand flopped listlessly to the side, as Tai worked. Ruhfus kept licking his lips and glancing around, nervously suggesting, “That’s fine, Jiang. That’ll work.”
Tai ignored him and kept methodically wrapping the chain. Reaching into his vest pocket, he took out a large coal-black padlock and a key. He turned the key and opened the lock, hooking it through the two tail ends of the chain. Clicking it shut, Tai gave a satisfied smile. Looking up at Ruhfus, who was still nervously watching, Tai held up the key and winked – and then tossed the key over the side of the pier, where it sank in the dark waters; “Dead men – or girls – tell no tales, eh Ruhfus?” The fat man looked sick.
Tai brushed his hands together and looked back to down, “That’ll do. Now help me get her over the edge.” Ruhfus knelt down, eager now. The two of them pushed together, and Krelle, wrapped in sheets and tangled in the chain, rolled off the side of the dock and into the water. Tai caught a glimpse of Krelle’s pale face and winced. The splash, though, was smaller than one might have expected.
It was the shock of cold water hitting her face that broke her out of her trance.
Krelle’s eyes snapped open as she sank rapidly through the briny water. She shook free one hand – Tai had left one of her arms barely wrapped at all – and pulled off her blindfold, letting it float away as she twisted. Her feet sunk into the soft mud of the ocean floor, and her hand brushed against one of the solid pillars that held up the wooden walkway twenty feet above her. She glanced upwards. No chance that they’d see anything this far down – not at night.
She rubbed her face with her free hand, shaking off the last of her haze. Playing dead could be a useful skill in the right circumstances and Hakk had taught her many tricks to make it more convincing. It had been hard tonight though, with the drug in her system. She’d had to focus entirely on the constant, gentle pull of the Lady’s power, blocking out what was going on around her. She couldn’t afford to pay attention to what Tai and Ruhfus were doing – it was too exciting.
Looks like things are going according to plan, so far. I’d better get started on the last bit, where I don’t drown, she thought with a grin. With one arm and her legs free she quickly pulled herself into a kneeling position, and started gagging into her hand. As she moved, mud swirled up into the water, black and impenetrable already at this depth.
It was tricky doing this without taking a breath but she knew she could. While Tai had watched, stopwatch in hand, she’d practiced this over and over, keeping her face plunged into a water-filled barrel in the basement of the fish shop. Hakk had also taught her the value of preparation. Her throat ached as she carefully worked the key that she’d half-swallowed earlier back up into her mouth.
Unable to see a thing in this murk, she held the key in her teeth while she felt for the lock. It was, as she expected, right in front of her. Tai’s so thoughtful, she thought, grinning around the sharp taste of metal. She took the key in her hand and turned it easily in the lock. The chains loosened immediately as the clasp sprung open. She kept the lock and key in her left hand as she worked her way free of the heavy steel links and the encumbering linen sheet.
Soon she was floating, holding the chains to keep her down. She glanced upwards again, wondering if the humans were still there. She had a few minutes, anyway. She wrapped the chain around the post, locking it there. No sense in wasting a perfectly good length of chain – she could come back and get it later. Steel was expensive after all. Her dress had no pockets so she slid the key into her shoe. She wove the sheet through several loops of chain and tied the ends together so it wouldn’t float away.
Krelle had intended to stay down for a good ten minutes or so but strangely she was already feeling the need for air. Must be the drug, she thought as she slowly floated towards the surface. The messah sped up heart rate and breathing, so it made sense that it would interfere with something like this. No matter, I’ll just creep on upwards… She kept her hands on the support beam to guide her. Her ears popped as she neared the dock and she was careful to break the surface of the water slowly. She came up directly beneath the dock – no chance they’d see her. She grinned as she clung to the thick post, holding on tightly against the flood tide current as it brought in the cold, salty water from offshore.
The men were still there, talking in hushed, urgent voices. Ruhfus whined something, his tone verging on defiant. Krelle grinned as Tai spoke. She couldn’t understand his words, but his tone left the meaning crystal clear.
Tai glanced at Ruhfus as Krelle’s ‘body’ disappeared beneath the black water. Relief washed over the man’s pudgy face. Now, to finish this, Tai thought. He stood and glanced at the water, unable to suppress a pang of concern for Krelle. They’d practiced this ‘til they had it down to the second, but Krelle had seemed somehow a bit off up in the room. She’ll be alright. Have faith in her abilities, man, Tai thought to himself. He brushed his hands together as he turned to face Ruhfus.
The man gushed, almost effusive now. “Thank you, Jiang. I don’t know how this happened but I owe you.” Ruhfus reached out a pudgy hand and gave Tai a familiar pat on the arm.
Tai glanced at the hand like it was offal, and then looked back at Ruhfus, his eyes narrowed. Seeing the look, Ruhfus paused, unsettled. “We’re not done, Whitbarn,” Tai said coldly. “There’s the matter of buying her contract from her handler.”
Ruhfus nodded, and began to speak but Tai cut him off. “I know her manager, and the asking price for a girl like her? Seventy five gold, easy.”
Ruhfus blanched and then sputtered, “What? Jiang, seventy five gold is outrageous. She was nothing …”
Again Tai cut him off, putting up a hand and frowning, “I’m not done. We have no room to negotiate that down, do we?” Now Tai ticked items off on his fingers as he spoke, his tone cool, “Add in the last minute ticket on this morning’s sailing, the cost of the chains, the damage to the room …That brings the running total to, let’s see, ninety two gold.”
Now Ruhfus whined, “Damn it, Jiang – this is adding up fast. When I agreed to this plan, I had no idea that it was going to be so expensive. I can’t afford that.” Ruhfus saw Tai’s brow furrow, but pressed on, his voice growing stronger. “In fact, I won’t pay that.” He squared his shoulders and glared at Tai, thinking his problems were now far beneath the waves.
Tai considered the man a moment. His face spread into a dark grin, and when he spoke again his voice low, almost a growl, “You didn’t let me finish, you fat sod.” Ruhfus blinked, stunned. Tai reached into his vest pocket and took out a photograph. He handed it to Ruhfus with a smile, “It turns out that there’s another expense you need to factor in.”
Ruhfus’ cheeks drained. Even in the dim light cast by a nearby lantern, he could see that the picture was of him and the dead girl, splayed on the bed. Speechless and feeling his stomach fall, he listened as Tai continued, “It turns out that one of my girls heard the fight and went to your room. You’d passed out. She saw an opportunity and took it. Fetched a camera and snapped a few photos.”
Ruhfus swallowed hard. Tai muttered, more to himself, “Smart girl that one. I’ll need to remember that.” Then Tai looked to Ruhfus, continuing, “When I went to get the chains, she came to me and explained the, ah, ‘situation’. She said you can keep that one. She’s got more.” Ruhfus looked up sharply and Tai shrugged, “So, as I was saying before you began to run your mouth, there’s more. I got her to agree to fifteen gold to hand over the rest, bringing your grand total to one hundred and seven gold pieces.” Ruhfus closed his eyes, crushing the photograph in his sweaty hand. His shoulders sagged.
Tai laughed, cruelly, “That’s one hell of a night, man, even for Booty Bay.”
Ruhfus stammered, his voice desperate again, “I’m ruined then. I’d pay if I could but I could never come up with that kind of gold, Jiang.”
Tai’s mouth went into a thin smile, “It is a lot of money, isn’t it? Especially for a customs agent who was going to charge me ‘only’ ten gold a month to do business in his port…” Tai paused letting the last words hang in the night air, letting Ruhfus twist on the sword. “I can cover … forty seven of that for you if, and only if …” Ruhfus’ eyebrows had gone up at the offer, as Tai continued, “… we are both clear that my company and my employees will no longer have any issues in Southshore. In fact, for that much, you’ll be damn sure we get the best longshoremen and our customs fees are taken care of. Understood?”
Ruhfus paused for only a moment and then nodded. If he was worried about how he’d pull that off while keeping the Syndicate happy, he didn’t show it, likely eager to just get the hell out of the Bay. Tai smiled and nodded, “Just to make sure, I’ll hold onto the pictures. Sort of an insurance policy on this gentlemen’s agreement, eh?”
He glanced at the water surface, trying to hide his worry for Krelle, then looked back to Ruhfus. “Let’s get you down to the harbormaster’s office so you can be the first one on the ship when she boards.” Ruhfus nodded, still silent.
Tai put a hand on his shoulder, guiding him down the dock. “And Whitbarn? You can call me Mister Jiang.”
Down below the dock, Krelle smiled to herself. She’d get Tai for this on the next job. Next time? She’d be the one putting the hammer down and he’d be the one to end up in the cold water, with his fish nipping at his toes.
Never thought they’d stop jawing, she thought. She pushed off from the piling and began to swim, silently cutting through the water towards the familiar lights of her apartment. It’ll be good to be in my own clothes again. A dress … sheesh.
Krelle knelt by the large basin, scrubbing her hair furiously. She’d changed back into her usual dark leather pants but experience had taught her that it was easier to wash her hair without wearing the heavy vest. She wore a faded, sleeveless purple shirt instead. The rest of her gear was piled on a chair, her leather mask laid across the top of it in a neat ‘X’.
The water in the basin had been blackened by the dye that ran off her head. She grinned, enjoying the feeling of washing the job away. She squeezed handfuls of her hair, wringing the water out, watching it seep through her fingers to drip down her hands and into the dark water. It was beautiful.
Aaaand I guess the messah hasn’t worn off yet, she thought to herself, her mouth twisting in a sardonic grin. Ah well, job’s done. No harm in relaxing and enjoyin’ the last of it. She picked up an old cotton towel, wrapping it around her head as a knock came at the door. She reached quickly for her mask.
“Krelle?” Tai called.
She hesitated, then let the mask fall back on the chair. “C’m in!” she called over, sitting back on her heels. Tai entered the room, a small bag in one hand. He closed the door behind him as she vigorously toweled off her hair and smiled at her as she let the damp cotton fall about her shoulders.
“So?” she demanded eagerly as she stood. “Did it work?”
“First thing’s first. You ok?”
His concern was touching. She felt a swell of affection for the human – it was just the sort of thing Ivar would have asked! Focus. She sat heavily on the edge of the bed, bouncing a bit. “Eh? Oh sure, nothin’ to it! I’ll go get the chains tomorrow, I left ‘em tied around the wood bit,” she said, speaking rapidly. Part of her winced, hearing herself babble, but her mouth just kept going. “Nice job with the wrapping by the way, they were simple ta get out of, with the lock right there and everything. I heard the last bit of you and Ruhfus talkin’, too. He sounded pissed!” she finished breathlessly.
Tai shrugged, like it was nothing. “Whitbarn was pretty distracted.”
“Addled, too, I bet, after all the drugs we slipped ‘im.”
“He was… edgy,” Tai agreed cautiously, looking her over.
Krelle barked a short laugh. “I bet. This stuff is weird. It can’t really be what living is like. You guys would never get anything done!” Smoooooth. She winced at herself.
Tai smiled, moving a bucket of engineering tools off of a chair so he could sit down.
Krelle pulled the towel off of her neck and into her hands, hiding behind the dirty blonde hair that fell forward over her face. “Sorry,” she sighed. “I hear myself yapping but can’t stop.”
“It’s fine,” Tai said gently. “That stuff really hit you, eh?”
She fiddled with the edge of the towel, feeling her cheeks redden. She was momentarily embarrassed by how transparent and emotional she was being, but she told herself to relax. If she couldn’t let her guard down with Tai… “Yeah,” she answered honestly. “It’s intense. I think I used a bit more than I was supposed to.”
“That throw you off at all?” he asked, watching her from his chair. “Up in the room I mean?”
She lifted the towel in one hand, rubbing her hair absently as she thought back to the room at the Blowhole. “It was hard to concentrate – everything was so exciting,” she admitted. “I don’t remember anything between when I played dead and when I hit the water. I had to focus really hard on not paying attention to what you two were doing to keep up the act.”
Tai nodded, looking a bit relieved. “You pulled it off. Not sure he ever doubted you were dead.”
“It’s a handy skill, playin’ possum.”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Oh, I brought these, by the way,” he said as he opened a paper bag.
The smell of fresh pastries and melted cheese wafted over to her, making her mouth water. Her stomach made a very unusual noise – like it was growling, or something. She tossed the towel to the floor as she leaned forward, crawling across the bed towards the smell. “Hmm?”
“The baker was already hard at work. Cheese danishes. Still warm, too.”
“Ohh, yer a saint, Tai. My patron saint of cheese.”
“Heh. You – no, we – did good,” he said, holding the bag open so she could choose one. “It’s well-earned.”
Krelle happily took the biggest one, sitting back on the bed. She held the pastry in one hand, enjoying the smell. “So he bought the whole thing?”
“Yeah – you know, I thought the closest we’d come was with the photo,” Tai said, shaking his head ruefully.
“Yeah, figured it was over the top, but you nailed it. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And… the visual effect. Made him pause.” He took a pastry out of the bag for himself.
Krelle grinned triumphantly. “Hah! I bet. I wish I could’a seen his face... Was it bright red and angry?” she asked whimsically.
“Very much so. Puffed out like a zepp.”
“Mmm.” Krelle smiled, savouring the mental image.
“I wondered if his heart was going to give out for the second time tonight,” Tai chuckled, taking a bite of his danish.
“Heh. He had a rough night, eh? He oughtta lose some weight.” She took a bite of her own.
“You might have missed it but I made him carry the chains – what’s wrong?” he said, sitting up straight. Krelle had frozen, her eyelids wide open in shock.
She looked at him for a moment, startled, then spoke around the mouthful of pastry. “Ish GOOD.” She looked down at the rest of the danish in her hand as she swallowed, considering the food with a newfound respect.
Tai visibly relaxed. “Still feeling the messah?”
She nodded, bemused. You’re acting like a moron again, the dry, rational part of her mind informed her. She grimaced. “Sorry.”
“Heh… at this rate we’re gonna need to find you a steady supplier,” Tai joked.
“Oh FEL no,” she protested, wiping a bit of drool off of her mouth. “It’s too netherspawned expensive to get addicted to!”
He smirked at her, leaning back in his chair again. “Uh-huhn.”
She shook her head in protest. “Seriously. Mostly I’ve hated it! It’s so felblasted distracting… but, uh…Well. The cheese is good,” she finished lamely, taking another slow bite. “Thish ish th’ beft paht o’ mah nigh’.”
They sat in silence for a bit as they finished breakfast, the dawn light streaking into the room through cracks in the shutters. Krelle wondered if Tai was tired. He’d been awake for at least twenty-four hours, after all.
He caught her glance. “So what do you think, Krelle? Think this’ll solve our problems in Southshore?”
“Oh, I think so,” she said, wiping her hands on the bedspread. “That man sounded defeated, leaving the docks.”
Tai nodded. “Not one of his better trips, I bet.”
Krelle snorted unsympathetically. “Had it comin’. Ivar used ta say ‘Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.’ You can’t squeeze people for that kinda money for long before it comes back to bite ya.”
“Still…” Tai mused, looking thoughtful.
“Well we got him by the short hairs but… Wonder how his handlers will take it.”
“From his point of view, this is all his fault though, isn’t it? I doubt he’ll even tell them. I mean, what would he say? ‘I went to Booty Bay and killed a girl. Now the merchant is blackmailing me?’ They’d hardly be sympathetic.”
“Nah, I’m not worried about him talking. Takes a while to grow back a pair,” he said with a chuckle.
Krelle smirked at him. “So what’cha thinking about then?”
“Just wondering if the Syndicate will notice the change in traffic and cash flow.”
It was a valid concern. The Syndicate was well-organized, and notorious for noticing little things like “missing money.” Still… “If I was Ruhfus? I’d hide it.”
“Yeah… Anyway, we’ll have a good early warning if there’s trouble.” She arched an eyebrow at him and he gave her a dark grin. “We’ll hear about a dead customs agent.”
She laughed. “No kidding. Oh, there’s one more thing, though,” she said, her voice becoming serious.
She regarded him gravely, aware that the tangled hair dripping water down her nose was spoiling the effect somewhat. “You owe me thirty gold.”
He feigned an innocent look. “How do you figure?”
“Oh, did you swindle more out of him?”
“Whatever can you mean, Miss Krelle?”
She waggled a warning finger at him. “Don’t make me die at you,” she threatened.
He laughed at that. “Actually, thirty goes into the vault. The other thirty we’ll split fifty-fifty.”
She sighed, exasperated. “The costs of doing business. Fine. Fifteen then.”
“…Minus your share of the danish bill, of course.”
She gave him a dark look as he unsuccessfully tried to hide his smirk. “It was worth it,” she finally declared.
Tai winked at her. She grinned… and winked back.