Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 24

     Liam considered himself to be a wise thief in large part because he knew when it was time to throw in the towel. Usually, it was around the time you hit pay dirt. On the bad days, it should be preferably before you die. The best thieves are the ones who grow to a ripe old age and retire on someone else’s money and the worst ones die young. That latter part didn’t quite apply to Liam, because he couldn’t die, but that didn’t make the experience any more pleasant. Despite his self-declared wisdom, Liam found himself breaking the one rule no thief should ever break. Never follow a monster unless you’re trying to steal from him. Adrian Denavi wouldn’t even have anything worth stealing in the first place. Fanatics rarely do these days.

     Not that Adrian Denavi had done anything particularly monstrous to this point that Liam had seen with his own eyes. Liam had been killed by monsters too many times to ignore the hairs standing up on the back of neck when he stood too close to Adrian. Just because he had been passive thus far didn’t make him any less a monster. Once they reached the fourth floor, Adrian turned to the right and walked at a brisk pace, vanishing from Liam’s view. The fourth floor remained mostly a mystery to him. Besides being an unwilling participant in the Five Families conference and spying on the Aliway family, he hadn’t been around the floor enough to know what was up there. If he knew where Adrian stalked off towards in such a huff, he could have used the secret passages, but that left too much room for error. There wasn’t much point in spying on someone if you couldn’t hear or see what they said, and given the way everyone else reacted to him, it stood to reason that he wouldn’t be doing much talking.

     Reaching down and slapping his legs a few times to work the shakes out of them, Liam quickly got his bearings. The walls were well built, but plain. The Aliway rooms lay towards the left and directly ahead of the stairs, the hallway led towards the meeting room Liam wall flowered in so recently, feeling entirely out of his depth surrounded by important people. To the right, Liam had no idea what to expect. The hallway went straight on, turning left with no rooms worth noting. Taking a quick peek around the corner, Liam ducked back and pressed against the wall. Laid out on the ground, unmoving, in front of one of the rooms were two of the security guards Liam had been avoiding for days. There wasn’t been any blood that Liam could see, but the unnatural angles of their necks spoke volumes about their odds of getting back up again. Taking a deep breath and holding it, Liam turned the corner and skipped down the hallway, making as little contact with the floor as possible. The door the guards made their last stand in front of was made out of a dark iron, with enormous wrought-iron locks placed at the three separate places on the door.

     Examining the entrance to the room, it quickly became apparent how Adrian had entered. A portion of the wall to the right of the door had been ripped out, revealing the edge of the door. When he checked the door he could even see the indents where Adrian had simply gripped the door hard and yanked it open with brute force. Adrian, it turned out, was a thief as well as a monster. The contents of the room took Liam’s breath away. Many of the objects, he recognized because he himself had collected them. The dragon statuette he had retrieved for Simon graced a shelf, surrounded by other small statues that Simon no doubt referred to as “problem children” as well. The end of the shelf stood barren, however, and given that Adrian held a small figurine of a troll in his hands, Liam had little doubt as to who had taken the rest. Backing down the hallway, Liam took small breaths. The walls were covered with golden platters and swords made for kings with enormous jewels in their pommels, but all those treasures went ignored in favor of the small figurines on the shelves?

     As he watched Adrian, Liam knew the time to leave might have already come and gone. Many thieves would argue that bullets are their worst enemy, but Liam felt that sound was.  After all, how would the trigger happy guards know to shoot unless they heard noise? Since being quiet led to being killed less, Liam had taught himself how to breathe in small short breaths, which kept the sound to a minimum. This is a tactic that would work against rent-a-cops and most thugs, but Adrian didn’t fall into those categories. It took a special sort of psychopath to garner the sort of reaction Adrian got from the rest of the Five Families, and no amount of breathing techniques were going to stop him from noticing Liam for long. Slowly backing down the hallway, Liam did the one thing he least intended to. He took a deep breath. He must have been holding it longer than he had realized, and that breath caused a stir in the vault that sent Adrian out to investigate the slight sound.

     Rounding the corner into the hallway, Liam’s distant fear came roaring to the forefront of his mind. Twin streaks of red ran down from Adrian’s eyes, leaving small rivulets on his pale face. Despite being caught thieving from the Nair family, he seemed more curious about Liam than anything else, “Why exactly are you following me? This can’t be Varnes Nair’s doing, he knows better than to try and send spies to follow me.”

     It wasn’t loyalty that stopped Liam from mentioning Simon. Hell, Simon had told him to avoid this exact person, it had been his idea from the very start, “I…just wanted to see what exactly you were up to.”

    “And if I told you that what I was up to was stealing from the family vault for my own nefarious purposes, what would you do?”

    Liam’s tongue grew slightly numb, “I’m not sure that’s what I saw. Just saw a man taking his leisure as a guest in another man’s house.”

    Adrian cocked his head slightly, his eyes wide in what was either confusion or disappointment, “That was a better answer than the one those two gave. I’ll give you full marks for being smart enough to stand down. You just keep standing there and I’ll walk past you and leave this house and we’ll never mention this again.”

    Liam nodded, unable to move. Adrian walked forward, adjusting his dark red tie as he moved past Liam.

     “Still,” Adrian muttered softly, “I haven’t had enough to get rid of this feeling. I haven’t had enough to make it go away…can’t think clearly.”

     Liam felt the blow glance off the back of his neck, a hit intended to break and shatter, but his feet were suddenly swept out from under him at the same moment and he hit the ground unceremoniously, face first. Shifting his gaze up, there was a pair of familiar brown shoes directly in front of him. Looking up confirmed the identity of his savior. Simon Nair had saved his life. Liam’s gratitude was blunted by two things. Firstly, it’s not like he was going to die for real and secondly, Simon Nair never saved anyone for free.

     “Adrian, since when did I give you permission to kill my friends?” Simon reached down and grabbed Liam by the collar, lifting him to his feet and helping him stand to the side.

     Adrian tapped the side of his head, “That voice in my head needs no permission. It’s telling me I need to see some blood in order to make it quiet again. But why am I telling you that? You hear the same voice all the time.”

     Simon sagged back, “So it’s true what they told me. You just gave in to your bloodlust over and over and now look at you. You’re not some master villain, you’re an addict. I pity you.”

     Bowing mockingly, Adrian smiled, “I’ll be sure to take that pity with me, after I kill you.”

     Liam had watched Jenny fight with her cousin, Charles Beaufort. He had missed much of the action, he eyes were simply not trained for the speed of it. This fight was different. Simon didn’t seem to move very fast or with any real care at all, yet he countered every move with ease. It was like watching some graceful, delicate dance that could change form in an instant. Adrian was violence incarnate, every attack designed to rip and tear, yet every strike got brushed aside with ease. Somehow, in spite of the fear that Liam felt, it was beautiful to watch. The fight kept coming closer and closer, until a stray stabbing motion made it past Simon and ripped into Liam’s throat. Everything went black.

     When he came to, he was sitting against the wall with Simon sitting next to him, looking very embarrassed and apologetic, “Oh, you’re alive again,” he turned and shook Liam just to make sure.

     “I think I should have moved,” Liam felt his neck for the wound that would have already healed up.”

    “That certainly would have aided my cunning plan of saving your life. It’s been almost two years since you started working for me, I had no doubt in my mind that you were going to follow Adrian.”

     “So how did that saving my life thing work out?” Liam glanced at Simon pointedly.

     Simon laughed, “Ah, sorry about that. I still should have moved you out of the way. Thanks to your intervention, though, I was able to get him to give me back most of what he stole. I would imagine he managed to secret away a few pieces, but this is the best result I could have hoped for.”

    Liam staggered to his feet, “Wait, so you knew this was going to happen? Were you waiting just out of sight the whole time?”

   Simon remained sitting against the wall, a queer little smile playing around his lips, “I couldn’t possibly say. Go home, Liam. You’ve earned a break.

    Liam didn’t need any further encouragement. It had been days since he had gone home and he needed a good rest in a familiar place. By the time he left the Nair mansion, it was late at night and it took no time at all to get home. When he reached his apartment, he was greeted by the strangest sight he had ever laid eyes on. The Dirt Gremlins, unused to him leaving for such long periods of time, must have assumed that he had died. On the wall, out of crusted dirt and random pieces of trash, they had fashioned a likeness of Liam. He couldn’t tell if he should be horrified or flattered. Around this effigy, the entire tribe of Dirt Gremlins sat with lit candles made from misshapen and brown colored wax.

    At the front of the group, next to Liam’s image, sat one Dirt Gremlin who looked to be leading the memorial, “Dirty,” it declared in the closest approximation a Dirt Gremlin could come to solemnity, “Dirty! Dirty, dirty, dirty.”

    “Did I miss something?” Liam spoke softly, but the sound of his voice caused the Dirt Gremlins to scatter to all four corners of the room, vanishing into unseen crevices with one last chorus of “Dirty’s”.

    “Good…to see you too?” Liam made his way to his own bed and collapsed into it, falling asleep almost instantly. Within an hour, he was surrounded by a small pile of Dirt Gremlins, snoring away in one filthy, but mostly relieved heap. By the time Liam awoke, they would be gone. As Liam dreamt, part of him knew that his job had changed. He wouldn’t be stealing items for Simon anymore. It would be information that would pay for his freedom. It wouldn’t come cheap, either. What kind of thief worked for free?

Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 23

     After a life too long to be remembered from beginning to end, Liam thought he was done with surprises. Working for Simon Nair never ceased to prove him wrong. It turned out that spying on assassins and spies when they had no expectations of being watched was easier than getting a well-trained golden retriever to fetch. All you really had to do was stay out of sight and be very patient. The Aliway family turned out to be the thorn bush in the bramble patch this time around, because nobody is more paranoid than a master artist working on her latest masterpiece. Ironically, Liam wouldn’t have even bothered with the Aliway family, if the first day had gone smoothly. While the other families came alone, the Aliway family came with attendants. On paper, they were there to carry the luggage and art supplies. In reality, they were there to keep sneaky noses, such as the particularly sneaky one that belonged to Liam, thoroughly out of Aliway business.

     Two days had gone by since he had been given the assignment to spy on the guests at the Nair house. Those two days had proven to be quite eventful overall, and he had made some real progress. That just left the Aliway family and then he could knock off early to some well-deserved rest. The Aliway family was staying on the fourth floor of the house, a floor Liam had only been to once. The door to their apartment was isolated and towards the end of a hall. Sneaking towards it was quite impossible, and the first time Liam had attempted it he was given the gentleman’s rush by the attendants. A gentleman’s rush is much like a bum’s rush, except you don’t get tossed down a flight of stairs. Given that he was unfamiliar with the floor, he decided now was the time to use the secret passages around the house and let the architecture do some of the work for him.

     Having seen the plans for the mansion, Liam knew just how much of the building was comprised of secret passages and hidden nooks behind false bookcases. More of the building than he had realized was off limits by virtue of being secret. Even the stairwell he used to get up to the third floor was reserved for family members only. The more Liam thought about it, the more he realized how closed off from the world the Nair family had allowed themselves to become.

     Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Liam focused on the job at hand. The best secret passage was nearby in Simon’s study. It was one of the two central hubs for the secret passages that allowed quick access to most of the house. It explained how Simon knew exactly where Liam kept booze around the Nair mansion, if nothing else. At this hour in the day, Simon would be out meeting with some guy for some reason; Liam didn’t really care. Sneaking into his office, he scanned the bookshelves until he found the book he wanted. War and Peace. Liam wondered if Simon had picked that book himself as he pulled it gently, stepping back as the bookcase nearest to him clicked and slowly swung open. Closing it behind him, Liam paused and let scents and sounds sweep over him. In the distance, he could hear steps. He could hear many steps, which surprised him at first. If there were so many people wandering around these secret passages, than why did Simon need him to spy on these people?

     It didn’t take long for the question to answer itself. In all the time Liam had been in the Nair mansion, he had never noticed servants. Food simply appeared and then the plates would vanish just as mysteriously. After all this time, Liam had finally found the servants quarters.  Making his way back up to the fourth floor became a new and trying challenge because in the tight corridors, there was just no room for him. Once he reached the fourth floor, he found a perch above the fireplace in the rooms the Aliway family occupied.

     The small hiding spot above the fireplace lay right next to the flue and required Liam to contort his body in ways that screamed overtime and time off. Renata sat in the middle of the room in front of a canvas. She had her palette in front of her with a brush hovering in the air, but the canvas remained a stunning portrait of a snowstorm at noon on a sunny day.  She wore a dress very similar dress to the one she had worn at the meeting, but Liam could see a few old  paint stains on it.

     As she sat, hesitating in front of her easel, a young man entered the room, “Still having trouble, Renata?” He was short, with long black hair tied up loosely behind him. He had a sort of frantic energy that drove him when he moved, as though his passion for life were coming out of every pore. He shared Renata’s light blue eyes, but his mannerisms and his way of holding himself set him apart.

     “I’m sorry, Alexander. I know I promised you another painting, but I can’t seem to concentrate.”

     It finally hit Liam where he had seen that face before. He had been the Aliway attendant at the Five Families meeting.

    “May I join you? It’s been some time since we had a conversation.”

     Renata scooted over and made room for Alexander to sit. She smiled an extremely rare smile, “You’re such a sweet boy to talk with me, Alexander.”

    Pulling up a chair and a small box, Alexander set up a new canvas and began setting out a palette and some paint, “This is the only way we seem to understand each other.”

     With that, they began to paint together on the new canvas. The images flowed quickly. Alexander painted darkened windows onto a house, Renata added lights. Alexander painted himself, set far apart from the house and Renata simply linked him with alternating family and paintings. Alexander’s painting grew darker as time went on. Renata worked on the edges of his painting, adding stars and constellations above the house, twinkling beacons of hope in the darkness. With a shout of anger, Alexander broke his brush and the spell that had held Liam was broken at last.

     “Weren’t you the one that told me art is more important than people?”

     Liam blinked as he realized that the painting session had been the conversation. Renata put her brush and palette down and placed her calloused hands on Alexander’s cheeks, “Lovely child, you are my greatest work of art. You, and all my children. I have no regrets at all.   I would agree to your demands, but with your father out there our entire family is in danger.”

     “What?” Alexander’s voice was harsh and a little mocking, “Are you ashamed of me? I’m the most talented artist this family had produced in several generations. You have to hold up your end of the bargain so long as my father is out there. I’m the next head of the family, despite the order and origin of my birth.”

     Liam felt lost. He knew very little of the Aliway family. Squabbles on who would become the next head of the family were common amongst the Five Families, and Liam had heard they could be very intense amongst the Aliway bunch. Whatever Alexander’s father held over Renata’s head that could change the family succession must have been pretty hardcore.

     “I’m a lady of my word. You’ll be the next head of the family, regardless of what happens. I simply cannot condone your father George working with Adrian Denavi.”

     Despite his barely having met Adrian and never having met George, Liam could almost feel that the two working together was a truly terrifying thing. The next five hours were spent listening to a long, rambling conversation about art. Liam watched in rapt fascination, suspecting that the conversation could end in either a loving embrace or a knife fight. Passionate families are very strange. By the end of the day, well ahead of schedule, Liam felt he knew everything he was going to learn about the other families and their involvement with the Society for the Protection of Humankind.

    Making his way back to the study, Liam waited for Simon with his whiskey to keep him company. It was late by the time Simon arrived, locking the door behind him,

     “So? What did you find out?” Simon managed to sit at his desk in a remarkably relaxed fashion for someone who was awaiting information he desperately needed.

    “As you could have guessed, the Rever family is clean. The Neelan family is mostly clean, but it sounds like they have a mole and they know. Don’t count on the buggers to tell you about it though, they’re pretty tight lipped. The Aliway family has someone named George working with the Society, but I have no idea who that would be.”

     Simon put his head in his hands, “Oh, George. Why would you do that?”

    Liam perked his ears up at Simon’s reaction, “And who exactly is George? I feel like he’s someone I should know about.”

     “George Aliway was the third son of the previous head of the Aliway family by some mistress or other. Gifted, talented and he had three children as well. Renata’s attendant at the meeting was his son, Alexander. He’s much younger than George or Renata’s other children. There’s a pretty nasty rumor going around that he and his adoptive sister, Renata, got into a relationship after their respective spouses had passed away. They aren’t technically related, but that still makes Alexander a bastard by birth.’

    “That doesn’t really make a difference anymore, does it?”

    Simon let his head hit the desk, “It does when your son becomes the heir to the Aliway family over trueborn children. George hit the road awhile back. That was the deal. Alexander inherits the family and George gets the boot. If he’s really working with the Society then maybe he didn’t take his exile as well as I had hoped.”

     Liam rose to his feet and stretched out his aching muscles, “That sounds like an important person problem. I’m going home to get wasted. Call me if you need me…in like two weeks.”

     When Simon didn’t respond, he left the Nair mansion for the first time in days. Or, at least he started to leave. He made it as far as the stairs down to the lobby before Liam felt something akin to guilt. It certainly wasn’t his conscience that pricked him, more his professional pride. What kind of professional tells a man something he already knows and then leaves to take vacation? Screw Simon, he was going to earn that vacation. He was going to earn it by going right to the source. As Liam reached the stairs, his legs grew wobbly and he had to put a hand to the wall. Adrian Denavi walked by him, continuing up the stairs towards the fourth floor. Though he could scarcely get his legs to cooperate, Liam followed him at a very discrete and relatively safe distance. It’s hard to follow someone at a safe distance when you don’t know how dangerous they are, so Liam gave him enough room to get away if the need arose. Knowing his luck, it would.

 

Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 22

     Watching movies might give you the impression that spying on an assassin for information must be dangerous and thrilling. Liam’s profession as a thief meant his spying skills were limited to two things. Where do they keep the valuables and how do I take them? Spying on two assassins turned out to be the most stone cold boring job Liam had ever taken on. There were no thrilling cat and mouse games, no hushed whispers and furtive glances, and no exciting car chases. After they had eaten breakfast, they went to the records room on the second floor and remained there for the majority of the first day.

     The first two floors of the Nair mansion functioned in an almost public capacity. The ground floor maintained the clerks and their customers; creatures coming and going to get licenses and file spurious lawsuits. The second floor was split between guest rooms, servant’s quarters and the records room, which took up the majority of the space. The massive room smelled like old, musty paper and contained file cabinet upon file cabinet of detailed records. Spending the whole day skulking in corners and watching Jacob Rever pore over old volumes of public records while Jenny chased flies, left Liam with the smell of yellowed dusty books embedded in his brain.

     It was late in the day when Jacob Rever finally got up and gestured to Jenny, “We’re going to the third floor library. We have to meet with Isaac Neelan. He’s agreed to give us any information he has on printing presses for Old Bart’s Guide to the Black Market.”

    “Don’t wanna.”

    Jacob heaved a long sigh, one that any long-suffering parent would feel in their soul, “Why not?”

    Liam flinched. He had never been a father that he was aware of. He lacked the fortitude for it. Even he knew that reasoning with an eternal child, such as Jenny, was a time consuming fool’s errand. Jenny immediately proved him right.

    “Because he smells like funny meat and he’s rude.”

    “We’re going all the same,” Jacob grabbed a few books and headed for the door. Jenny followed glumly and Liam followed her at a safe distance. The Library on the third floor wasn’t technically off limits, but most people never made it up to the third floor. Liam had spent a sizable amount of time in the library, mostly because he kept an extensive hidden stash of alcohol behind a section of books for those days when he wanted to play hooky. The safest way to get into the library without being noticed would be to sneak through the special archives department and head to the back of the room, which had an entrance that led directly into the library for ease of access to researchers

     The special archives department definitely was off limits to most people. The records on the second floor came up from the clerks. It contained deeds, filed documents, birth and death certificates and so on. The special archives on the third floor contained information on those weapons and people that the Nair family tracked, which never sat right with Liam. When he had asked Simon about it, he had been told that it’s better to archive those sorts of things to make sure you know what dangers are out there. If there’s a dog collar that turns your average mutt into the Hound of the Baskervilles, you want to know about it. That’s the sort of nasty surprise you don’t want to find out about in the morning.

     The special archives department was therefore much smaller than the records room, and led into the back of the library in case the staff needed to do any research. Liam had cut through that room to reach his stash so often that the staff didn’t even blink an eye when he came waltzing through. Passing by his stash, Liam got as close to the front as he dared and lowered his eyes to peer through the books. Jackpot! At one of the tables towards the front of the room, Jacob Rever sat down in front of Isaac Neelan. Isaac’s expression had grown pretty sour, as though he had just sucked on a week old candy he’d found on the ground.

     “I know you possess complete records for publications sites of Old Bart’s Guide to the Black Market. After hours of searching through the archives we found no records of such sites, which implies you had one of your people comb through and remove any such records.”

    Isaac’s voice was steeped in the most insincere of apologetic tones as he responded, “I’m sorry, Jacob. We used to be friends and I can’t believe you would accuse me of such underhanded tactics.”

    “I don’t recall ever being friends and this literally wouldn’t be the first time you had records you thought of as “inconvenient” lost or waylaid somehow.”

     There was a long pause before Isaac responded, “Even if I did have the records removed, I think it was for the best. If Varnes Nair shuts that newspaper down, it’ll be bad news for everyone.”

     “What consequences could you possibly care about, except your profit margin going down?” When Jacob spoke, it was hard to detect any emotion much of time. That was, except for this last sentence in which even Liam could pick up on some wry humor.

    Isaac let out an exasperated sound that resembled a dying animal, “That newspaper functions as a centralized information hub for all the black market auction houses in the Tri-State area. They do my work for me. They tell me what’s up for sale, items soon to be on the market, locations, details and everything I could ever want to know. I don’t have to waste resources on it if they’re just going to conveniently tell me where and when to confiscate it. If that newspaper goes down, fifteen competitors will be up by the end of the week to fill the void. It won’t stop sales and I won’t be able to keep up with the really dangerous items.”

    “I checked the records for items brought into the Nair family vault by the Neelan family in the last decade. There wasn’t a single entry. Did you have those records removed as well or are you just lining your pockets?”

     Isaac’s smile remained plastered on his face while he spoke, “I’m sure I wouldn’t know what you mean.”

    “And I’m certain that Varnes Nair would be very interested to know where exactly those items went and why they were never reported.”

     Slumping forward in his chair, Isaac gave in, “Alright, Jacob, you win. We’ll do it the stupid way. I’ll have a complete list of publication sites to your house by the end of the day. It’ll take some time to get it compiled. It won’t change a thing either, might not even shut the paper down for good.”

    “I still want to try,” Jacob rose swiftly and left the room without another word, Jenny skipping along behind him.

    It was a safe bet to cross the Rever family off the list of potential spies. Jacob seemed driven and compelled to follow any Nair orders he received, so either he was a really good actor or he was just as loyal as he made himself out to be. That left him with the obvious decision to follow the head of the family dedicated to spying and see what he was up to. Really, the choice was so obvious that Liam was almost a little disappointed.

    Isaac stayed in the library for a long time after that meeting, hardly moving from the spot he sat in. He remained sitting at that same table until someone else entered the room. Liam was hardly surprised to see that it was John Neelan.

     John sat down across the table from the head of his family, still looking incredibly annoyed, “Alright, I’m here. What the hell are you interrupting my schedule for?”

    In spite of everything he had seen, Liam was still shocked by what happened next. Putting his handkerchief down, Isaac Neelan suddenly lost weight. The effect was instantaneous. His suit actually fit him, whereas before he had been bursting out at the seams. His sweating stopped and that oily tone of voice vanished as well.

    “We’re in a tight spot, John. I get the impression that someone in our family has been playing with fire.”

    John raised a brow, “Which fire exactly are you talking about?”

    “The Society, the reckless fools. Why is everyone so obsessed with killing when blackmail is so much more effective?”

     “I doubt the rest of the world would agree with you, uncle Isaac.”

     Isaac smiled ruefully, “I’ve made some tough choices, John. Some very tough choices. I’ve ruined people’s lives and reputations, but you know something? I’ve never killed a single person. When I fight, I use information and rumors and at the end of the day, everyone lives.”

     John opened his mouth as though he had something to say, but he shut it again after a moment’s thought. Liam couldn’t decide if that was self-delusion or self-congratulation.  In the context of the job, Liam didn’t care.

     “What do you want me to do? This whole mess is really outside my work.”

     “I’ll give you a team. Do an internal audit. Every piece of information, everybody who had access to it, where it went, the works. We may need to jump ship if this gets too ugly. The Five Families have had a good run, but every unsinkable ship springs a leak at some point.”

     Their conversation went on for a short while after that, but it was really more of the same. The fact that someone in the Neelan family was leaking information was hardly a revelation. The  fact that this was going on under the table and without consent was important information indeed.

    After they had finished their conversation, John rose and left with the curt excuse that his workload had been added to considerably and staying any longer was a waste of his time. Isaac waited until he was gone a few moments and then gave Liam another show when he gradually expanded to his former weight. Dabbing at fresh sweat, he rose and headed for the door with Liam in tow, unbeknownst to him.

    Isaac, as it turned out, was the consummate people person. He spent the rest of the evening wandering the building and chatting with whoever would sit down and speak with him. He talked with them about their personal troubles and their small triumphs and in return he got small pieces of information about the Nair household. No one piece of information was too damning, in and of itself, but taken as a whole even Liam could get a feel for how the household ran and when was the best time to sneak in and steal something.

    Towards the end of the night, Isaac ran into Samantha Goodbody, something he clearly didn’t want to happen. Samantha had a peculiar way of stopping people from avoiding her, however, and she cornered him before he could vanish down another hallway.

    “Isaac, I have a favor to ask you.” Samantha could always be counted on for getting to the point of a conversation.

    Isaac tried and failed to smile sincerely, “You and everyone else in this house, but I am not an endless font of generosity.”

    “I’ll make it worth your while, you old wind-bag. I’ll do one free hunt for you.”

    As disinterested as his face appeared, his eyes gleamed when he responded, “And what if I told you to hunt your brother?”

    Sam scoffed and turned away, “I thought the devil tempted people with things they wanted. That’s not how this deal works.”

    “Alright, alright,” Isaac waved his chubby fingers offhandedly, “I was just testing you. What did you want to know?”

    “I want to know everything you know about that cult out in California.”

    “The one the Goodbody family supposedly didn’t have a run in with about a decade ago?”

    Sam let out a deep sigh from the depths of her soul, “Yeah, that one. What do you know about it?”

    Isaac stroked his chins thoughtfully, “I know they worship the Old Gods of the Field, great monstrosities that cause madness and good crops. I know they’ve been gaining members these last few years. The last time I sent someone out to learn more, they never came back and I never found out what happened to them. Other than that, not much.”

    Liam had never heard Sam laugh so bitterly, “You don’t know much more than I do. That information will earn you one very small hunt…like an annoying house fly or something. Catch you later, scum.”

    Liam decided this was the point where he would leave as well. He knew Samantha well enough to know she wasn’t involved with the Society for the Protection of Humankind. As disconnected as Sam was, even if she turned out to be a mole she wouldn’t have much useful information that they would want. That left one family left to check up on and that would be the Aliway family. Spying on them promised to be fantastically boring, but that would complete his work on the Five Families early and then he could spend some time just watching the house. There were enough secret passages honeycombed throughout the building that he could have hidden there forever, if he so desired.

Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 21

    When a man asks you to spy on his own home, there’s usually a story behind it. In Liam’s experience, the story was never worth the trouble. It was something like question seven in the bathroom book, “Questions That Should Never Be Asked EVER.” Taking this job changed all that somewhat, because if Liam was going to be sticking around in the Nair mansion for a week spying on some of the most dangerous folks in the world, he might as well know why before he got killed once or twice.

     “I suppose you want to know why we’re doing this.” Simon spoke quietly as he spread out the map of his own house.

      “That had been on my mind for the last few minutes. It just feels like a strange request coming from you. Up until now we’ve been more or less strictly business.”

     Simon looked up sharply with his right eye, registering genuine hurt, “Really, Liam, just because I’m too busy to spend much time with you doesn’t mean I see you as a cheap flunky.”

      “No, by all accounts I’m a very expensive flunky.”

     Simon rolled his left eye and groaned, “Alright, you’ve had your fun, but seriously Liam, you are my friend. I kept you at arms-length because I didn’t want you to get hurt. I guess that’s out the window now. This meeting my father called was really about the last part of the agenda, the Society for the Protection of Humankind.”

     Liam hunkered over the map with Simon, “I got the impression they’re bad news. So you want me to spy on that Adrian guy? Everyone in the room seemed pretty shook up by him, but he didn’t seem like a big deal. Just a bunch of talk.”

     “Barring my father and Jacob Rever, Adrian could have beaten everyone in that room.”

     “What about Jenny or Sam?”

     “Ha, that’s right. I forgot Samantha was there for a moment. I couldn’t honestly say who would win that fight. I would love it if you could spy on Adrian Denavi, but I doubt that you would be there long before he would kill you. Someone in the five families is helping and that’s what we need to know.”

      “So what do you need me to do?”

     “Other than the official meeting, the Family leaders are staying in the house till the end of the week, maybe a little longer, to have meetings with each other and my father. I need you to vanish and spend a little time with each family. Listen to what they have to say and report it back to me at the end of the week, sooner if needed.”

      “Simon, I won’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

     Nodding grimly, Simon let Liam examine the map a little longer, “That’s the point. You just tell me what they said, no matter how much or little sense it makes. If you don’t know what you’re reporting, you can’t lie to me.”

      “And why would I lie to you?”

      “If you get caught, there would be…motivations.”

      Liam shuddered, “Oh.”

      “Yeah, so don’t get caught.”

     They spent the next few hours going over the map. Simon told him everything about the house. The secret passages, which guest rooms contained which family, which of the guards to look out for, vents Liam could fit into In short, he gave Liam everything a thief would need to rob a house blind or, in this case, spy on their house guests.

    Once he was done, Simon rolled up the map and tucked it back into his desk drawer. Walking to the door, he stopped and turned towards Liam one last time, “Really, Liam. Don’t get caught. I’ll expect you here in a week or so’s time, around nine at night. I’ll be here every night. Don’t knock just come in.”

    Without another word, he opened the door and slinked out into the hallway, making as little noise as possible. Liam padded softly to the door and waited for a small eternity, listening to the hallway. Footsteps passed the door at regular intervals, a patrol around the floor. Liam expected that, though. When the patrol passed the next time, he waited for a minutes and walked out into the hallway. Nobody expects an intruder to shadow the security guards. When you’re a thief or a spy, they’re the ones to follow because they tend to circle around important places like overprotective wasps with obsessive compulsive disorder.

     He followed the guards all around the floor, vanishing into dark corners when they stopped and doubled back. In the late night, nobody had bothered to leave the hall lights on, bathing corners in shadows and convenient hiding spots. Out of the four groups he was expected to spy on, only one of them was staying on the third floor, and that was the Rever family. Liam decided it was better to start with the floor that he knew than to explore the higher floor and find how lost he was while trying to work. Spying on a family renowned for their hearing would prove to be a difficult task. It would be hard to get inside their room, which meant Liam had to hope for thin walls or a duct.

    When the guards passed the guest room the Rever’s were staying in, Liam ducked into the guest room next door. It was spartan to the point of being utilitarian, only possessing a bed, and a desk with one chair. The bathroom faced the outside wall, but when Liam examined the vents, he hit pay dirt. The air vent leading into the bathroom connected to all the rooms to provide centralized heat. Since it was summer, the air conditioner was going strong on occasion, but when it wasn’t Liam could hear everything going on in both rooms on either side of him. What he heard, when he could hear the room, was nothing. Liam checked his watch. He had spent far longer between the meeting and talking with Simon than he had realized. It had gotten quite late, but surely not that late? Did people really go to bed before midnight?

     With a start, Liam realized that Revers may use hand signs when they’re in someone else’s house, in case someone like him was listening. Then, he heard a voice as clear as day.

     “I’m going out!” Thank you, Jenny Rever.

     “Where are you going?” Jacob’s voice was much quieter.

     “Out.”

     “You’re not done meditating yet.”

     “I’ll sleep later.” Liam choked back a small laugh and leaned against the wall. He had been on worse stake-outs. At least he wouldn’t be bored. The door opened and closed, leaving Jacob alone in his room. Maybe Liam spoke too soon, this could be a long wait. Jenny came across like a stray cat, she came and went whenever she felt like it. Settling down against the wall, Liam closed his eyes. Better to rest while he could, he would likely be following Jacob Rever and is daughter around the house for the next few days while they went to meetings. Drifting into a deep sleep, Liam fell into the dreamless sleep of someone expecting a long day of work.

Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 20

     Words are some of the heaviest things in this world. Smart-asses had discovered a mathematical formula for it sometime in the late seventies while working at a reputable college. It went something like this. “The importance of the person speaking multiplied by the length of time before they start speaking by the power of awkward coughs equals a whale.” They had been justifiably let go. Liam knew from experience that when a long pause occurs before words, it’s because their weight makes them difficult to get out the front door. From where he stood, Jenny still clutching him close, he couldn’t make out Samantha’s face, but he figured she looked bored more than anything.

     “I’m sorry we started without you, Samantha.” The Nair patriarch spoke quietly, forcing everyone to remain silent in order to listen to him, “We decided to start with matters pertaining individually to each family before you arrived so that issues having to do with all five families could be brought before everyone all at once.”

     Yawning, Samantha shrugged her shoulders, “That’s fine, it was my fault for being late in the first place. I didn’t want to be here because I don’t like any of you.”

     Isaac snorted into his sweat rag, “What kind of children did Varnes Goodbody raise? They certainly don’t seem like they’re worth much.”

     Sam rolled her eyes, “You could ask him, but he would just agree with you. I’m not sure what you would get out of it, other than setting up a bitching circle.”

     Varnes Nair raised a hand and silenced them both, “Before we get into the main portion of this meeting, is there anything you want to bring to the attention of this council on behalf of the Goodbody family?”

     Sam leaned her chair back further, putting her feet on the table, “We don’t have an official heir. The head of our family is too sick to do his job. None of the families attached to us are doing their jobs either and the house smells funny. Other than that, we’re peachy.”

     For the first time since they had entered, Renata Aliway lifted her head and regarded Sam coldly, “At least try and take these problems seriously, girl. This is the very reason why our family strives so hard to have many children in case some of them turn out like you.”

     Isaac wiped at his chin with his dripping handkerchief, “And having so many children always turns out well for your family. Why just the other day I heard that…”

     “Save your gossip mongering for your clients, Neelan It’s clear we’ll get no useful information out of her. Why don’t we just move onto this meeting’s real agenda?” Renata faced her sketch again and resumed her silence.

     Sam turned to Liam and winked, waving a thumbs up before turning back to the table, “So what’s first?”

     Liam smirked. So that was why Sam was so reluctant to tell them anything they didn’t already know. The first part of this meeting must have been the heads of the Five Families verbally sparring and attempting to goad each other into giving away sensitive information. She was so abrasive she caused them to give up within five minutes of making the attempt to pump her for information.

     Settling back in his chair, Varnes Nair began the meeting in earnest, “First order of business. Summer means migration for a multitude of species. I would like you all to remember that to cross the border, most of them need a signed passport. They also need to be a member of an approved herd, flock, tribe or pack that have an updated and distinct tracker. We don’t want a repeat of last year’s pixie parade sucked directly into a Boeing 707.”

     Isaac nodded thoughtfully, “Such a tragedy, if only they had thought to at least tell someone in my family, we could have directed them safely.”

     “If only they had told one of my people, we would have killed them before they even took off that morning. No pixies, no mess and no need for a detailed clean up.” Everyone froze at Adrian’s words. He wiped delicately at another red tear that slid away from his left eye.

     “Your opinions on the matter are well noted, Adrian. I would like everyone to present your notes on flight plans in your territories before you leave my house. Second on the agenda, the market district over at the gnome village in Grenwich Village remains in a state of deplorable disrepair. I would like to request repairs from the Aliway family before conditions become unsafe for the local population.”

     Without looking up, Renanta responded, her hand never stopping it’s sketching for an instant, “I can spare some workers to look over the damages and do repairs. I trust we will be compensated.”

     “Of course, Renata. By the gratitude of the gnomes and the pockets of my family, if the former aren’t enough to satisfy you.”

     “They are not. The repairs will be completed by the end of summer.”

     “Third on our agenda, please keep an ear to the ground for any reports of Old Bart’s Guide to the Black Market. I know we’ve been through this song and dance before, but the less people publishing that infernal magazine, the less likely it will fall into the wrong hands.”

     “And what qualifies as the wrong hands?” Jacob Rever leaned back and gestured to Jenny, who parted from Liam’s side and skipped over to her father, leaning her head close as he whispered to her.

     “Anyone who possesses hands are the wrong hands for that publication, Jacob. I would like you to talk with Isaac after the meeting and compare notes on likely spots for illegal printing presses. We allow the black market auction houses to function on the condition that they give us anything really dangerous, but this publication is crossing a line and they know it.”

     Jacob waved Jenny back and turned to Varnes Nair, “I have some leads already. We’ll manage it between the two of us.”

     Isaac Neelan’s expression soured, “I’m sure we will.”

     Varnes Nair cleared his throat, “Next on the agenda, the state of the West coast. All five families being clustered together on the eastern seaboard has given us a solid powerbase to work from, but I think it’s time to start expanding. I’m hearing some disturbing rumors of a cult worshipping some Elder Field gods out in California. I’m not willing to send anyone out yet, but if that sort of thing starts creeping into your territory, let me know. I’m not averse to knocking heads for answers if they’re in our backyard.”

     “I had heard the Goodbody family ran into them a few years back, “Isaac raised a brow at Samantha, who for the first time was listening intently,

     “I don’t know anything about that,” Sam spoke casually, as though it was no cause for concern, “And the two people who do won’t tell me anything about it.”

     Varnes Nair tapped the table heavily, “Lastly on the agenda, another old issue. We would like to hear what the Society for the Protection of Humankind plans on doing about the recent killing of our various mythic species. Adrian, we allow you to sit in on these meetings so you can report on your organization and what they’re doing. Your Society was formed at the request of the Federal Government to liaise between them and the council but it’s been months since we’ve heard anything.”

     Adrian straightened in his chair, “There’s nothing to report at this time.”

     “The borderline genocide of fairies around the Ohio area? Nothing to say about that?’

     “There is nothing to report at this time.”

     “The village of elves in Northern New Hampshire and the family of trolls in Maine?”

     “There is nothing to report…”

     Adrian only got that far before Varnes Nair leapt from his seat and raced to Adrian, lifting him from his own chair in one clean motion, “I know you’re associated with the government, but that doesn’t give you free reign to indiscriminately kill Mythic kind. If you’re organization can’t be controlled, or you won’t control them, then we’ll take you to war again.”

     Adrian regarded the much larger man as coolly as though he were still seated, and not being threatened by one of the deadliest fighters in the world, “Killing you is exactly what our organization was created for, and if you want to go to war, then bring it. Just remember who won last time.”

     Varnes tossed Adrian against the wall, “It was a mistake to let you into this meeting.” Without saying another word, he stormed out of the room.

     As soon as he was gone, the lights came on and Liam blinked at the sudden brightness, “I guess the meeting is over now. Do they usually end like this?”

     “Usually when meanies are here,” Jenny stood protectively between Liam and Adrian, as though she expected him to attack everyone in the room all at once.

     As his eyes adjusted, Liam noticed the posture of all the other attendants was much the same. Adrian, who must have come alone, sat against the wall he had been thrown into, making no moves towards getting up. The dark look on his face was enough to dissuade anyone from offering to help him up.

     Jenny idly pulled at her mask, Liam noticed it was drastically different than the one she had worn the night they robbed her cousin Charles. It was a bright pink color, unlike the plain undecorated cloth she had worn over her eyes then. Across the front was a butterfly in brilliantly cheap rhinestones that looked as though they had been yanked directly from a Lisa Frank catalogue.

     “You got a new bandanna.”

     Jenny bounced up and down a few times, holding Liam’s hands with an iron tight grip, “I did! I’m so glad you noticed. Do…you like it?”

     Liam coughed uncomfortably, “It’s very…you.”

     “I know, right!?”

     Sam got up slowly from her chair and walked towards Liam, only to have her path blocked by Jenny, “You stay away from Liam!”

     Sam slowed to a stop, unsure of what to do, “Liam, do you know this Rever girl?”

     Liam nodded, more than a little confused himself, “This is Jenny. Jenny, this is an old friend, Samantha Goodbody.”

     “I know who she is, she’s a bad woman and you shouldn’t be spending any time with her.”

     Sam raised her hands in mock surrender, “I was headed back home today anyways, Jenny. Our paths won’t cross again for some time.”

     “Good,” Jenny growled the next lines in a voice Liam hadn’t thought it was possible for her to make, “because if you hurt my Liam, I’ll come visit you in the night and put you to sleep forever.”

     Straightening from her defensive posture she rose up and pecked Liam’s cheek with a quick kiss, “Bye, Liam. I have work to do!” With that, she bounced out of the room following her father’s steady, measured pace, her mask’s cloth tail bobbing behind her.

     Samantha waited until she felt sure that Jenny had gone far enough down the hall to not hear her before turning to Liam, “You have your hands full with that one.”

     Liam shrugged, “She’s not so bad. Not any worse than you, at any rate. You’ve both almost gotten me killed this last week. Maybe take her up on that threat and lay low for a while around here.”

     Sam laughed loudly and walked towards the door, “You couldn’t get me to come back on a dare. Later, Liam. Don’t die too often.”

     Liam waved to her and then headed out himself, everyone else having already left. He only made it out into the hallway when he heard a voice call his name, “Liam, I need to ask you a favor.”

     Liam stopped in his tracks, corridor that led to freedom longingly, “Can’t it wait, Simon? I’ve had a very strange few days off.”

     “We’re going to have to talk about some of your more self-destructive behaviors later. For now, I need you to follow me. This job won’t even require you to leave this house.”

     Liam groaned loudly and followed Simon to his study. Closing the door behind Liam, he locked it tightly and leaned against the wall, “So you got wrapped up in this mess anyways. I’m sorry, Liam.”

     “You must be in a really tight spot, if you’re forced to rely on little old me.”

    “I am. That, and Samantha suggested you, so here we are in my study so I can ask you to spy on people in this house.”

     Liam ground to a halt in the middle of the room, “You want me to spy on people in this house? Since you haven’t asked me to do that before, I figure you want me to spy on the other family leaders in the house.”

     Simon rummaged through his top desk drawer and pulled out a map of the Nair mansion, laying it out on his desk, “It gets crazier than that. Say yes before you regret it. I’ll make it worth your while.”

     Liam groaned and trudged over to the desk, “Alright, let’s do this.” Leaning against Simon’s desk, he knew he would regret agreeing, even before he did. He had no idea how much he would regret this by the end of the week.

Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 19

    Every child has a day when something happens which disappoints them so utterly that a magical transformation occurs and they become adults. It may have been that one Christmas where you really wanted that Playstation and you ended up with a pair of woolen knitted socks. For Liam, it was the first time he had died at the age of six, though his memories of the exact events were vague and uncertain. The worst kept secret the world has is that adults experience those disappointing moments as well. Liam waited a good few minutes after the streak of cursing had ended before peeked into the room to find Samantha Goodbody watching her latest crushingly disappointing moment flit around the air invisibly.

     Sitting down next to her, Liam patted her shoulder, “Well, you won’t get paid for this one but at least I know what you did. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”

    “Not unless you have a million dollars shoved up your ass, and no offense Liam, you don’t.”

    Liam took in the enormity of the payday she had lost. That would have been a massive finders fee. Liam took a deep breath, but Samantha covered his mouth before he could start cursing. Putting a finger to her lips, she pointed at the former maze, now largely a smoldering wreck. The smoke above it formed tendrils that drifted through the air, ghostly hands at the end of each tendril picking up and letting go of books.

    “What’s that all about?”

    “I don’t know. I’m going to ask my father when I get back home. This is proof enough for me to get my room back.”

    “Wait, your father kicked you out unless you killed the Lich? What a dick!”

     “Glory is a bitter dish.” Sam rose without explaining her comment, patting her sides and her legs, stretching each leg and arm to test for damage, “We had better get going if we’re going to make that meeting.”

    Reaching down, she gave Liam a hand up and turned to leave. It was always such a whirlwind traveling with Samantha. Barely had they gotten out of the near-death frying pan when she was already rushing them into the fireplace. Thankfully, when they reached the top of the stairwell and exited the building, a familiar yellow cab was idling at the curb, waiting for them. It’s shadowy driver waved them over, the front of the cab entirely obscured in darkness somehow despite the sunshine beaming down.

    “How the hell does he do that,” Liam took a quick look around to see if there was any other form of transportation?”

   Sam laughed, a quick short laugh, “In this case, I think it might be because I’ve spent most of my time here beating the shit out of people and asking questions about where I can find the Lich.”

     Getting into the taxi, they were greeted with the usual level of brusque courtesy Liam had come to expect from Simon’s private driver, “You two are both late to the meeting. They went ahead without you so Simon told me where I could find you and pick you up.

    Liam scooted in next to Sam and tapped the back of the drivers seat, “Hey, you mean Sam is late. This isn’t really my tea party.”

    “I wish I could let you off the hook here, Liam…”

    “Sure, you do.” Liam snorted.

    “Alright, no I don’t. You’re Miss Goodbody’s plus one, which everyone is allowed. I had thought she would have told you by now.” Liam glared at Sam, who had already passed out in the seat, “I’ll take that as a no. We’ll make this a quick drive, then.”

    Grumbling under his breath, the driver pulled out and drove towards the Nair mansion. He got them there in record speed and impossible time given the afternoon traffic. Samantha slept the whole way. Liam occupied himself by counting how many near accidents they had on the way. He had never known Simon’s driver to be one for reckless driving so the situation must have been dire. Arriving at the mansion, Liam was unsurprised this time to find it mostly empty. The buzz of people coming and going remained, and when the cab ground to a slow, jerky halt in front of the steps leading into the building, he saw why. The security around the building had been doubled, making Liam wonder if they were expecting a small army to raid them during them meeting.

    Stirring from her slumber, Sam opened the door and almost tumbled out of the car, the closest to grace and elegance that she got when she wasn’t hunting. Liam hopped out on his side and crossed around to walk with her to the massive doors where they were met by a security team wearing black suits and sunglasses that swept them up to the fourth floor, a floor in the house Liam had never before been to, halting them in front of a set of dark wooden doors. While they waited to be let in, Liam examined the doors.  The handles of the doors formed a circle in the center and on either side, engraved meticulously into the wood, a crowd stood holding their arms out towards each other, smiles gracing almost countless faces. On the right side of the door, was a multitude of humans and on the left, every species Liam had ever encountered at the Nair mansion, and some he didn’t even think existed anymore. Across the top of the door was engraved the words, “Friends offer empty hands and full hearts”.

    The phrase confused Liam so he nudged Sam gently in her side with his elbow hard enough to cause her to grunt slightly, “What does that mean?” he asked, once he had after her attention and she had smacked him.

    Looking up, Sam smiled a rare, genuine smile, “It means you come here without weapons and ready to accept everyone for who they are. Got to love the Nair family.”

    “But you hate everyone and nobody took your weapons away.”

    “Shut up, Liam.”

     “I feel so accepted. I can feel the love, really.”

     The doors swung open from the inside, opened by two more black suited security guards and Liam instantly knew he was out of his depth. All four walls were entirely bare. A light shone down from the ceiling onto the one piece of furniture in the room, a circular table with chairs set for six people. It was so bright, it obscured the rest of the room in gloomy darkness. Five of the seats were occupied, and even though Liam had only seen one of them before, thankfully there was a plaque with a name in front of each person at the table.

     The only one Liam knew at the table was Simon’s father, Varnes Nair, the man for whom Sam’s father was named. He was a massive man with brown hair parted to the side. Towering above everyone else at the table, Liam figured his seat must have been custom made to hold his sizable frame. He shared his sons refined features and his bright blue eye, though his father still possessed both of his. He wore a blue suit with a pocket watch and a small cup of tea sat in front of his place. When he moved to look at Liam and Sam, he moved with a grace Liam wouldn’t have expected from such a large man.

     Directly to his left was the head of the Neelan family, a man named Isaac. He was portly, moving steadily towards obese, fairly bursting out of the suit he had chosen to wear. It didn’t seem hot to Liam, but the man was sweating and wiping at his brow generously with a damp handkerchief that had a date with a dumpster once the meeting was over. He had fat, pouty lips and dark green eyes that looked at nothing in particular, but clearly took everything around him in.

    To his left sat an empty chair, which belonged to Samantha and to her left sat the head of the Rever family, named Jacob. He wore a white suit with a white dress shirt. Around his face, covering the entire top half of his head, was the scarf his family was infamous for wearing. He had embroidered a cloud with seven red drops falling in a straight line from right to left across his face.  A series of pale scars on his chin stood out, even on his pale face. He had what could only be called a predatory smile, which confused Liam since he thought the Rever family was renowned for being emotionless.

     The last head of the family was by Renata Aliway who led the Aliway family. Simon had once gifted Liam with a flask Renata had made for him, but once Liam found out how much it was worth, he pawned it. She was a stunningly beautiful woman with periwinkle blue eyes and dark brown hair that cascaded down her back in a single braid. She wore a simple white dress with a red ribbon tied around her neck. In front of her lay a small sketchpad, which she was still doodling on as the party waited for Samantha to take her seat.

     “Enough of this nonsense, we’re not stopping the meeting just because our stand-in finally showed up. I have other matters to attend to.” Liam’s blood froze. He knew that voice, he had heard it before. The figure seated directly in front of Liam, facing away from him, turned around. He had soft features, appearing the perfect gentleman at first glance. He wore a black suit, a black dress shirt and a dark red tie that dimly reflected the light. What caught Liam’s gaze was his eyes, a shiny red color that made his eyes appear to be covered in fresh blood. When he looked at Liam, he could feel his skin crawl. As he watched, a drop of red slid down his cheek. A gloved hand reached up and wiped it away, leaving a small red streak. Liam had no idea who he has, but he knew the man got Simon worked up and that was enough to have him on edge. Best to keep an eye on that one.

    Varnes Nair spoke up, his voice deep and yet full of reassuring tones, “Calm down, Adrian. We allow you to sit in on this council, not to disrupt it. Please join us, Samantha. I trust your father is still recuperating.”

     “That’s what he keeps telling me,” Samantha took her seat at the table and leaned it back, balancing it on two legs, “Sorry I’m late, I had some work to do before I came here.”

     “So I’ve heard, from friends of course,” When Isaac spoke, he had a melodious voice that hardly matched his girthy form. He continued dabbing at his forehead and stealing glances at the man Varnes Nair had called Adrian.

    “I think everyone in the city has heard this story. I wonder if you took any joy in this killing? What justice was there in this hunt?” The head of the Rever house turned his face to Samantha, his smile never fading.

     “I would have taken far more joy in it if the Lich hadn’t dissolved into nothingness after I beat him,” there was a collective gasp from around the table as she made her way to her seat, “but I think we should get started, so please spare me your speeches on justice.”

    The council was about to begin when a voice rang out from the gloom behind the head of the Rever house, “Liam!” Somehow, even in the dark, a little white shadow detached itself from the wall and bounced over to Liam. It was Jenny.

    Varnes coughed politely. Jenny frowned for an instant, but grabbed Liam by the hand and dragged him over to stand beside her behind their respective houses. Once settled, Liam braced himself. When you show up at serious meetings like this without a reason to be there, you always end up hearing things you weren’t supposed to hear. It wouldn’t be such a problem if there weren’t so many people willing to do diabolical things to get that information from you.

 

Second-Hand Goods~ chapter 18

     Most people think of darkness as evil or a representation of evil, but every hunter in the Goodbody family knew better. Darkness is where you hide yourself in order to strike. Sam’s father had often told her and Jack when they were younger that a truly gifted hunter only needed one strike. She thought he was bluffing, until she went on a few hunts with him. The man was lethal, precise and elegant. Two of these traits were ones that Samantha was clearly not blessed with, but what she lacked in grace she more than made up for in ingenuity and a willingness for extreme violence. The Lich’s lair was almost entirely made up of a small maze of books in enormous shelves, and where there are brittle yellowed pages, there’s bound to be a fire someday.

    Samantha had spent the last four minutes scrabbling to get as many candles up and in books as she possibly could. The work had mostly been done, and now her efforts began to show themselves. The rest of the work would be done by the Lich. The most dangerous creatures in the world are the hunters who are completely unused to being hunted. Easing off the edge of the bookcase she was on, she climbed down about halfway before jumping off and hitting the ground with a soft thud.

     It didn’t take long to find the Lich. The soft sound of cloth dragging along the ground accompanied by the gentle rattle of bones moving under their own power gave it away. It rounded a corner to find itself confronted by Sam. It stopped suddenly, its black robes swaying slightly as it cocked its head to regard her curiously. The Lich’s movements were sure and steady, it hunted without any concern for haste since it knew whoever had come to kill it wouldn’t run. What passed for a smile crossed its face, but most of its expression was lost since the ravages of time had removed any skin, leaving a bleached white skeleton that looked so clean it could have been used as a model in a medical school.

    It raised a hand and pointed at Sam, who immediately whipped out her knife, flicking it open. She hardly had time to lift her arm up in a defensive posture when her entire left side went numb, the blade sliding out of numbed fingers and sticking in the ground. Raising his skeletal hand into a fist, the Lich still looked confused. Normally, when it showed its prey the overwhelming difference in power, they cowered in fear. This girl seemed to possess no such thing. Rather, she seemed enraged.

     Before Sam could collapse, she reached for her backup weapon, a small dagger, called a stiletto, that she hid under her leather jacket, tucked into the inside by small leather straps. It was a special weapon that disrupted magic of whatever it struck. Once upon a time, back in the days of the werewolf king Aldric Redtooth, it had been more necessary to have weapons like that. Magic had been slowly dying from the world, however, and so getting a hold of such a weapon had required pulling in a lot of favors from people she didn’t want to think about. Flinging the dagger underhand with unerring accuracy, it struck the Lich square in the forehead. The force of the blow rocked its skull back, even as one last blast of magic burst out from its hands.

    Turning to the left, Sam plowed into the books on the shelf, hoping to at least get out of the way of the blast. To her surprise, she went flying all the way through the shelves to another corridor, the blast missing her by mere inches. That still left her weapons in the corridor she had just left, under the watchful eye of her target. A small tinkling sound echoed through the books, the sound of the Lich dropping the knife she had thrown to the ground. Sam began to climb the bookshelf with a desperation she hadn’t felt for a long time. The portion of the bookshelf where she had just been standing blew outwards from the force of a spell. An enormous boulder thundered past, rolling into the next massive bookshelf and causing it to lean precariously away from Sam.

     In that instant, the inferno Sam had begun finally burst forth in brilliant orange. Pages of books likely irreplaceable in this world burst into flames along the edges of the maze and began to shower lit pieces of text down onto the books below, causing them to smolder and light as well. Sam decided it was time to get to a higher ground, lest she become a smear on the ground. She kept climbing to reach higher ground, even as the Lich stepped through the hole he had made in his own maze. Finding a spot about halfway up, Samantha rolled through the books and waited on the other side while they crashed to the ground. The Lich stepped back through the hole and looked around, seeing nothing. Raising a skeletal hand, he snapped his fingers and all the remaining lamps went out. Thankfully, due to the glow of the fire Samantha could still barely make out his form, a dark blur moving amongst the shadows visible mostly through its movement.

     Reaching down, the Lich grasped a book and held it up to its eyes. Opening the cover, it leafed through a few pages and suddenly whipped its head around to look up directly at where Samantha was hiding. Shit! The Lich knew exactly where every book in the entire maze was supposed to be and had figured out where she was based entirely on that? Hurriedly, she rolled backwards to the other side of the shelves, hearing a hollow thunk hit the wood near where she had been hiding. The air shimmered in the form of a spear, thrown hard enough to deeply penetrate the next layer of books. As she watched, it pulsed and glowed in the darkness.

     The Lich snapped its fingers again. “Crap.” Sam managed one word as she rolled off the bookshelf, barely managing to grab onto the edge. The air spear exploded, sending splinters and shards of wood flying everywhere, cutting into her fingers and causing her to let go, falling to the ground. She barely had time to get her bearings before she found herself face to face with the Lich again. Another burst of air blew her backwards into the boulder, knocking the wind out of her.

    Stepping through the hole in the bookshelf, the Lich cackled softly and raised its hand again. Sam raced through options in her mind as another air based spell gathered around the Lich’s fist. Can’t go backwards, can’t go to either side. The only option left was to move forwards. Sam got low and dashed forward, tackling the Lich around the knees. It went down like a sack of feathers, bones aren’t so heavy as all that. Sam wondered if the Lich had ever been tackled before. The tackle took them clean through the entrance and back into the corridor she had first run into the Lich. It angrily slapped a skeletal hand against the ground with a loud clack, and a gust of wind sent her flying up into the air.

    Samantha Goodbody had always been lucky. Her brother often said it was the devil’s own luck, though she objected because she wasn’t a devil. She wasn’t about to argue with the fact that she was lucky. Along with Sam, her knife was sent flying into the air, embedding itself in the bottom of a bookshelf above her. Grabbing desperately, she managed to grasp onto a bookshelf. Letting herself drop, she pulled her knife out on the way down. Sam found her descent arrested by an unseen force. Turning her haze down, her eyes were met with what she assumed to be the furious stare of the Lich.

    With a force she had never experienced, she got tossed through the bookcase. Without stopping, she blew through the next, and the next until she flew clear of the maze and hit the wall with a sickening thud, landing near the entrance to the room. The fiery embers from the fire Sam had lit earlier still rained down around the maze, setting enormous swathes of the library labyrinth alight. Getting up, she shook her head and tried to get her bearings.

    “So…how is it going?” Liam was still standing next to the attendant who had his arm around Liam’s neck.

    “You got taken hostage?”

    “Yeah, sorry. I guess it’s not going that well on my side either.”

    Sam cracked her knuckles and tested her balance. She was dizzy, but it was manageable. The pain in her side was more worrying, from where she had impacted against the wall. “Well, back to it then.”

    Bracing herself, Sam ran across the room and threw herself into the first bookcase. It tottered back and forth. Squaring her feet and planting herself firmly, Sam pushed upward against one shelf as the whole case tottered away from her as hard as she could. Slowly falling away from her with a ponderous groan, hitting the next bookshelf and started a chain reaction headed directly for the Lich. Taking a deep breath, she wiped at her brow. Got to work for that money.

    A sudden burst of wind blew past her towards the Lich and into the maze, almost sucking her through the bookcase in front of her. With a loud crack, the bookshelves around the Lich evaporated in a sudden burst of sizzling power that left the Lich standing in a wide circle of empty floor. Standing up on wavering legs, she shook her head back and forth, sending her hair flying. Somehow, impossibly, she had managed to keep a hold of her knife. Part of the labyrinth still stood tall, but the sudden wind caused the fire to spread inwards, roaring through books and creating a fiery inferno.

     Time to hide again. The only way Sam could fight an enemy this strong was from the shadows. The light from the spreading fire flickered over the walls, sending the shadows fleeing into nothingness. The edges of the maze were all alight now, leaving Sam no place to hide. As she watched, the wall of burning wood and books directly in front of her melted away revealing the Lich, who had made itself a path through its own hunting ground to reach her. Sam readied her knife, but was blown off her feet and back into the wall. The Lich continued its slow advance, a predator slowly closing in on its prey.

    “This may not be the best time, but how are we sure this will beat the Lich? I thought they had some special item you needed to destroy, but you really had no idea where it was, did you?” Liam had been released by the attendant. They were passing a small flask back and forth between themselves.

    “Not a good time, Liam.” Sam rose from the ground on unsteady feet to confront the Lich. There was a loud sound of wood hitting the ground in the distance and the floor shook, a slight tremor flowing out from where the wood had fallen. The Lich stopped and suddenly tumbled forward and remained still. Sam smiled the smile of a woman who knew her number had been up for a moment. The attendant collapsed forward, lacking any will to move without his master being alive.

    “He kept the one thing you needed to destroy him in his own maze? Why would he do that?”

    Sam wearily shrugged, reaching over to touch her left side and check for broken ribs, “A hunt is no fun, if you can’t get beaten. You can’t get any rush out of that. He just never expected someone to light the whole thing on fire. Now I just have to collect the skull and bring it to the Nair mansion and I get paid.”

    “You need a trophy?”

    “Yep. No skull, no paper.” Sam reached down and picked up the black robes. A rain of dust slid out of them and billowed into the air, lighting on fire when they reached a certain height. Sam stared, watching her glorious pay day go up in smoke. No skull, no cash. Sam took a deep breath. “FUUUUUUUUC…”. Covering his ears, Liam left the room. He may be practically immortal, but he still liked being able to hear.