Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Devil You Know



Sean approached the Dancing Dove Saloon and climbed the few stone steps up from Andrews Street. There was a man slumped unconscious against the door frame. Inside, a stage show was going on—freckled dancing girls flashing just enough color to get the men going upstairs for more.
Sean stopped just inside the door, and Valez came up behind him. They were looking the room over together. Sean shook his head. “I don’t see Dunne.”
“He’s here somewhere,” said Valez. “According to Niro, there's a game.”
The Dancing Dove was one of the biggest saloons in Moorhawk City—certainly the biggest in the Warrens District, and it was packed. The two men stood there searching the bewildering array of sweaty intoxicated faces, until Valez nudged Sean and pointed with his chin. “Back wall. Near the kitchen.”
Sean started forward.  He could see Dunne now, the tall figure crouching over his cards like a mantis.  Mulroon was with him—a thick-faced thug with a flaming mop of hair. He was leaning back in the seat next to Dunne, watching the crowd, no interest in the game.
“Hey, Sean.” He looked down and it was Narci.  She swung back a little to show off her curves.  “You decide to treat yourself?”  She placed a hand on his chest and conjured an innocent look, pushing back waves of light brown with a thumb.  The attention of all the nearby gamblers was shifting to her.
Sean said, “Where’s the boss?”
“Upstairs.  Like always.”  He pushed past as she added “Why?” and didn’t look back.  The drunk on her left was gazing down at her derriere, which was pressed against the edge of the table, then looked up with an exuberant smile.  Narci folded her arms and rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother.”
Sean and Valez were coming on through the crowd toward Dunne’s table, and people were starting to pick up on it, getting out of the way.  Mulroon stood and came around front on the left.  There was a heavy on Dunne’s other side, a half-orc with a square jaw who pushed his chair back but didn’t stand.  He put a hand out, gesturing for the two of them to keep back.
Dunne placed his cards face down and glanced up at Sean.  “What is this?”
“This is Mill Street kicking you out.”
The humorless expression on Dunne’s waspish face didn’t change. “What did they do? Take up a collection?”
Sean nodded. “Something like that.” He shifted his weight and let his arms hang at his sides. "They don't want you there."
Dunne sneered. “So, they got up the nerve to hire some muscle. The guy. The runesword guy and his sodomite sidekick. I must be moving up in the world.” Dunne eyed the swordhilt peaking at him over Sean's right shoulder, then reached for a bottle on the table and tilted it forward, pouring whiskey into an empty glass.  There was a sheen of sweat coming up on his face as he shot his drink and returned the glass to the table. His eyes on the pile of cards, he sighed and added, “But you know that I can pay you ten times what those pissants cobbed together—right now!” He slammed a hand down to punctuate it, then breathed and lowered his voice. "Right now, out of the pouch on my belt.”
Sean’s eyes strayed from Dunne to the half-orc, then returned to Dunne. “That would save me the trouble of bending down and picking it up off the floor.”
Dunne cracked a watery grin, then cocked his head and in a musical voice said, “Have you lost your mind? You know who I work for.”
“Yeah. Roarke? I just got finished talking to him.”
Darkness filled Dunne’s eyes. It was sinking in now. He was resigning himself to it, licking the resentment and desperation from the inside of his mouth, his cheeks tightening and flattening, the skin of his face going white as the blood rushed to his core. He pushed his chair back slowly and stood. Looking around at his guys, he leaned forward with his arms on the table and ground his teeth. "Why don't you explain something to me, then. Why would a Kettish mercenary come into a saloon with a Cabrillan faggot?”
Valez placed his right hand on the back of the nearest chair, tightening his grip, the muscles in his arm standing out like islands at low tide.
Sean shrugged.  “It's easier just to show you.”

*  *  *

Cavanaugh stared at Sean with stern, tired eyes.  He rubbed the shiny bald spot at the top of a bulbous scalp encircled by a thin ring of snowy hair.  He shook his head and snorted. “You’re not even bruised.” He lifted the lid of a small cedar box, removing a cigar. “Where’s Valez? I’m surprised he didn’t come up to gloat.”
“He went to find a healer.”
Cavanaugh lifted his brows. “What? Was he hurt? There’s justice after all.”
“His knuckles,” said Sean.
The older man walked to the window and looked down into the street, a sour grin in the corner of his mouth. “You must really be enjoying this. Sitting there...drink in fucking hand.” He turned around, pointing angrily.  “Think you can just come in and beat one of my customers half to death? The money that guy drops in here…”
Sean was watching with impenetrable eyes of green, the coppery sheen from the bristles of his shaved head reflecting in the warm glow from a pair of expensive desk lamps.
Cavanaugh scoffed. “You’re something, you know? Really something. By the way—and take it from an expert—you should have killed Dunne. A guy like that? He’ll be a big problem as soon as he can walk. And talk. What got into the Cabrillan, anyways? I’ve never seen so many teeth on one floor at the same time, and that’s coming from me. Let me tell you, a beating like that causes a man to take umbrage.” He pointed at Sean again. “Umbrage.”
Sean was looking down, swirling his drink. “It’s hard to be afraid of a guy with no teeth. Besides, right before it started, he called Valez a sodomite. Made a big scene. Next thing he’s got a chair in his mouth. That's hard on a guy's rep. I'd say he's done.”
Cavanaugh raised a finger. “And while we're on such a delicate topic, what kind of mind games are you playing with Narci? Don't you like girls or what's your problem? You’re ruining her for the tables. Why not simplify things? For me, I mean. Call it a favor after busting up my place. How bad could it be? That soft cascade of yankable hair. Those enthusiastic eyes and that mean little mouth. Don’t you think she’s a torch? Everyone else does.”
“I think she’s sad. This whole thing.”
Cavanaugh stopped and actually laughed. “Mr. Above-the-Fray himself. Do you ever stop and take a look around? For that matter, have you taken a hard look in the mirror lately? We live here. This is us. We’re the ones upstairs drinking the expensive brandy. We don’t get to look down on this situation. We are this situation. You weren’t the hand of God out there tonight. You took some coin to break a few legs. You beat up Dunne who’ll be replaced in a week and you made Roarke a little stronger at my expense. That’s it. No cathedral bells sounded, boyo.” 
“If it makes you feel any better, Roarke doesn’t like me working for you, either.  Playing both sides doesn’t make me popular.”
“Yeah, just rich,” said Cavanaugh. “I get it, believe me. It’s great news, too. Well done.” He went over to the bar and poured himself a drink, and another for Sean. “So, don’t you want to know why I asked you to stop by in the first place?”
“I figure if I sit here long enough you’ll tell me.”
“Well, I could get to the point a whole lot faster the less jaws you cave in on the way up my stairs. Pardon me if I stop to comment. Tearing a man's livelihood apart requires remonstration where I come from...which is the same place you come from in case you forgot. You know that we’re on the same side in this city, right? That whole Kettish blood thing? Remember? You, me, Roarke, Dunne—we’re all going about this the wrong way if you ask me. In a perfect world all of us are cutting throats in the same direction. One big happy family. Don’t we have enough enemies without you thinning our resources?” He handed Sean a full glass.
“You could get to the point a whole lot faster if you just got to the point.”
“See? That's exactly what I'm talking about.” Cavanaugh walked slowly back to the window, his hefty body framed against the dark shapes of the city at night, the guard tower lights of the distant wall amber beacons beneath a canopy of stars. “You aren’t in the game legitimate. Not the way the rest of us are. You come in here, and you drink, and you laugh, but when the time comes for hard choices, you follow your whims.”
“Who’s laughing.”
“You’re like a girl, Sean. When the chips are down, there’s no loyalty. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Sean tilted his head back and emptied his drink.
Cavanaugh turned his head, looking down on the people strolling along the boulevard.  “I’ve got a job for you, a job that is…what's the phrase I'm looking for?" He waved a hand vaguely in the air as he felt his way forward. "A job that is…meeter for your lofty sensibilities than the paltry mercenary fare available to you in Moorhawk. It’s like that thing you did…that thing up in Russe. And that business last month at the ferry. Yeah, I heard about that too. Think about reining in your emotions, will you? Anyways, it's the same kind of deal. A town in peril. Bandits putting the squeeze on the locals. The oldest story there is and so forth.
Sean raised an eyebrow. “What’s your interest?”
Cavanaugh opened his hands. “They’re the competition.”
“The town or the bandits?”
“That’s low,” said Cavanaugh. “That’s beneath us both. I was born of common folk same as you. Anyway, what do you say?”
“Where and when?”
“Right away,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s way up north on the borderlands. The Mistmarches. A little town called Wheedol. Rustlers taking their ponies. They can't get their cattle to market. The whole nine yards. Immediately I thought of you.”
“What’s it pay?”
“A lot more than what you got for that beating you just delivered to Dunne. Five gold. Their two when you get there plus my three when you get back.”
“Why so much?”
“You’re a hell of a conversationalist. I'll give you that. Maybe because I need it done right. Maybe because I had a couple extra gold sitting around. Or because that’s just what it pays. What’s it to you? You want the job or not?”
“What about Val?”
“No. No you don’t. That’s not necessary. This job only needs one. It’s country roughnecks putting the boots to some farmers. You think a place like that is prepared for a guy like Valez? They’re God-fearing people in Wheedol. Valez will be out of place. He's the wrong color, the wrong…affiliation. He’ll attract a lot of attention. He’ll—”
“He’ll cost the same as me. Or you could hire what’s left of Dunne’s crew. I hear they’re looking for work. Send that half-orc. He's still got one good eye.”
Cavanaugh bit down bitterly and flashed his teeth. “A man works his entire life to build something in his community. Then he tries to do a little good. He tries to give back—"
Sean rolled his head to the side and gave Cavanaugh a look.
"Yeah. Okay. I can't pretend I wasn't expecting this. When you get to Wheedol, there’s a guy named Patterson. He’s the one you talk to.”
“And Valez—“
“The same as you. All right? What, do I have to beg? Patterson knows you might be bringing help, but I didn’t say a word about your partner having a…a…light foot…so maybe you can just keep a lid on that. It’s a frontier town and they don't have diversification, cultural whatever-you-call-it. They don't have any of that. Up there, men are still men.”
“Except when there’s bandits.”
Cavanaugh pursed his lips, loosening his collar as if he needed air. “Look, this doesn’t need to be a big deal, does it? I don’t know what goes on with Valez and I don’t want to know. Neither do the citizens of Wheedol. That’s all I’m saying. Are you in or out?
Sean stood up, walked across the room, and stopped at the door. “I’ve got to check on a few things.”
Cavanaugh smirked. “Oh, I knew this part was coming. Boy, did I know. You remember something Sean: Roarke is a boss, not a god.”
“And you’re a whoremaster,” said Sean, “not a boss.” With a sweep of his arm, he pulled the door closed behind him.
“No.” Cavanaugh admitted it to himself in a low growl with Sean’s footsteps fading away down the stairs. “Not yet.”