Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 21

     In the school of hard drunken knocks, one lesson gets beaten into most learners early on. Bar fights are maelstroms of fists and feet. You can’t avoid getting pulled into those vortexes of violence if the gods of light beer have your number that night. The convention center that the blackmail gala took place at definitely wasn’t a dive bar, though the Dwarf King Gorge certainly smelled like one. Liam knew from experience that turning his gaze away from this fight for even an instant would draw him into it. The thought of getting killed certainly acted as a deterrent against any sudden heroics, but that wasn’t the only complicating factor. Fighting while protecting your incompetent friend was nigh on impossible. Liam decided it was all around better to leave the fight to real fighters.

     A sharp yelp from the other end of the room drew everyone’s attention. Christopher Goodbody, pinned to the wall by the scrabbling claws of the giant wolf set on him by Gorge, had opted to resort to force. He simply bopped it once on the nose with incredible force.

     The wolf’s front paws remained steadfastly pressed against his chest as Christopher raised a fist to bop the wolf on the nose again, “Bad wolf!”

     Liam winced in sympathy as the wolf pulled its nose away from the offending fist. While Robert’s eyes were on the wolf, Gorge grew bolder. Grasping his captor’s elbow, he yanked hard and twisted Robert closer to him, pulling the blade away from his throat. As Gorge tugged him around and threw him to the floor, Robert rapped him once on the temple, staggering him and causing him to collapse in a heap. Robert hit the ground next to him hard and gasped in pain. They lay on the ground facing each other, both unable to move for the moment.

     The wolf shook its head and started to attack Christopher again. Liam felt sure that giant wolf would be the death of them, until he heard a shrill voice exclaim, “Fluffy!” Jenny came flying in from the other side of the room and tackled the wolf around the neck, crushing it into a wall. With her arms wrapped around the wolf, she resembled a small child cuddling a wolf plushie into nightmarish oblivion. The wolf’s pained expression told Liam it was reevaluating the pecking order in the room.

     Turning a pained gaze to Robert, Liam asked the question on everyone else’s mind, “What exactly am I supposed to do with that?” He pointed a finger accusingly at Jenny, who was now cooing sweet nothings to her newest pet.

     Robert appeared mortified at her actions, “Don’t ask me, you brought her to the party.”

“She’s killing the mood!” Gorge somehow managed to get to his feet. Dwarf folk are stubborn, after all. With a roar, he made a charge at Jenny, but found himself unable to reach her. She still had her arms wrapped around the wolf’s neck, which had risen to its hind legs in a determined effort to shake her off. Gorge’s proximity ended up backfiring when a particularly spastic movement sent Jenny flying into him, sending them both tumbling backwards.

     Gorge rose on unsteady feet, his balance completely thrown by now, “I’ll not let you ruin my fun, you crazy girl!”

     Liam marveled at Gorge’s restraint. He was sure Jenny had been called worse things in the past. She was an acquired taste, one which Gorge likely couldn’t appreciate. The fight slowed for a moment, as the respective opponents sized each other up. The wolf wanted no part of Jenny, and eyed Christopher warily. That left Robert, but when the wolf edged closer to him, Gorge cut it off and grabbed it by a foreleg, spinning around and tossing it into a wall. The wolf rose on unsteady feet before collapsing once more. It didn’t get up again, but it was still breathing.

     “Not him! That one is mine!”

    That moment of selfish determination, along with his lack of balance, is what led to Gorge’s death. Jenny struck, moving so suddenly that Liam was hardly aware she had begun her attack before it was over. Gorge might have dodged well enough, had his balance been good. As it was, when she stabbed at his neck with a hitherto unseen tiny knife, he pulled towards her when he meant to pull away. Grabbing at her wrists with his hands, he let his wound bleed. Pulling her down, he grabbed her around the neck and began to choke her. His focus on her took his attention from Robert, who joined the fight again to break one of Gorge’s wrists. With the force of one arm alone, he was unable to hold on to Jenny. Using the palm of her hand, she punched his jaw and sent the king sprawling.

     Even though holding a hand to the wound of his neck might have saved him, or at least prolonged the inevitable, he kept his arms at his side. At the sight of the dwarf king humbled on the ground, Liam ran to his side. He felt compelled to ask him a question, partially from pure curiosity and partially because he knew Simon would want to know the answer. Cradling Gorge, he pulled close and whispered softly, “Why did you do it? What could possibly have convinced you to help someone like Adrian Denavi?”

     Gorge coughed and whispered into Liam’s ear for a long time. It was hard to understand some of the things he said, but that happens when you’re talking to someone whose throat was just punctured. Liam’s face fell, the more he listened. Rising to his feet, he knew that had been the right decision. Gorge Doomsayer had certainly earned his name, only time would tell how much.

     “I don’t like it.” Christopher walked over to Liam and nudged over Gorge’s body to look at his face.

     “What? We killed the king, we got everyone out, and once I check that the Dirt Gremlins did their job, we can go home and get wasted.” Liam inched towards the door. The longer they stayed, the more dangerous this job got.

     “I don’t like that we didn’t get the job done, and I don’t like how long it took me to notice him.” Christopher pointed to the far side of the room. Standing next to the punch bowl, wearing an expression Liam couldn’t quite place, was Adrian Denavi.

     “Oh, don’t mind me, “Adrian purred as he helped himself to a cup of punch, “I was just watching you all congratulate yourselves on a job well done. I wonder if you would be so happy if you knew you’d played directly into my hands.”

     Liam cocked his head. This had to be a bluff. “How the hell did we do that? We stole your investors out from under you and got rid of the information you had on them as well.”

     “Bravo, you held up your end of the job. I knew gathering all my little wage slaves in one place would be too tempting a chance for Simon to pass up. I counted on him coming to kill them all, but I never dreamt he would want to save most of them.”

     Christopher scowled, “Unlike you, Simon isn’t a monster.”

     Adrian took a sip of punch, “More’s the pity. Not one of the people who left here tonight will ever make it home. The party game of the evening was everyone signing over their property to me in their wills. I am now funded for life. As a fun little bonus, I get to kill the one person who’s been a thorn in my side. Liam, I was hoping he would send you.”

     That look of recognition in Gorge’s eyes suddenly made a lot more sense. Liam backed up a few steps. Christopher stopped him from running, “I wouldn’t dash just yet. If he’s had all those people killed, he’s got teams all over the area. Even if they don’t kill you, they can still capture you.”

     Adrian tossed aside his cup, “Drat. My plans are foiled again. Now, I’ll have to go through all of you to kill him.” Removing his coat and tossing it aside, Adrian slowly started rolling his sleeves up.

     Jenny stepped between Liam and Adrian, “I’ll never let you lay a finger on my Liam.”
Adrian tucked his tie into his shirt and cracked his knuckles, “I was hoping you would say that.”

     The whole mission was a stunning failure. From start to finish, they had been played, and now Liam was in real danger himself. From the way Adrian was looking at him, it felt as though he was the primary objective the whole time. Robert and Christopher edged closer to him, attempting to insert themselves between him and Adrian. With a sudden clarity, Liam knew exactly what he needed to do. It would be considerably more difficult to take money from their blackmail victims if the blackmail were common knowledge.

     “Christopher, hold him here for just a bit. I can still ruin his night!” Liam turned and ran for the room his Dirt Gremlins had been sent to. Maybe, if he were very lucky, they had gotten lost. His directions had been poor, after all.

     “Oh, sure, “Christopher watched Liam’s back retreat around a corner, “I’ll just stay here and fight the murderous psychopath with my friends, then, shall I?”

     Liam raced towards the door which led up to the blackmail material. Seizing property would be impossible for the Society if Liam could prove it was deeded against the owners will. When he finally reached the door, he paused just long enough to catch his breath before opening the door. The Dirt Gremlins were playing with reckless abandon, and nothing useful remained in the room. The papers had been clumped together in a massive pile of grime and spit. It resembled a dung beetles prized possession. The digital equipment had fared even worse, having been smashed against the wall repeatedly to the point where Liam couldn’t even tell what they had been smashing. The Dirt Gremlins stood in the center of the room, looking towards Liam with expectant faces shining full of hope.

     “Uh,” Liam faltered. He had never been a father, but it was hard to dash the smiles on those tiny faces. They would just have to take the hit on this one, “Good work, guys.”
Listening for any movement, he could hear boots approaching. The Society killers must have finished their work and come back to support their boss. As he looked down the stairs, the murder brigade ran by at full tilt, presumably headed for Adrian’s last known location. Liam waited till he could no longer hear them. While he waited, a thought occurred to him. It wouldn’t be a fair fight, even with Jenny, against Adrian. With all those ex-soldiers running it, it would become even more one sided. If they were going to escape, they were going to need a distraction to get out of there. Liam was no good in a fight, but if it was a distraction they were looking for, Liam had the perfect plan right in the room with him.

     Racing back into the room and pointing to the ball of paper, wadded up and gross as it was, Liam turned to his Dirt Gremlins. “I’ve got a job for you,” that got their attention amazingly fast, “I need to take that thing downstairs and light it on fire. I’m not sure this is covered by the Geneva convention, but if it’s not, it really should be.”

     One of the Dirt Gremlins struck a pose, his arm pointing dramatically towards the door, “Dirty!” It exclaimed once.

     The ball looked incredibly flammable, but Liam suspected it also might be highly corrosive. It never seemed to bother the Dirt Gremlins, but his hands couldn’t always take it. Grabbing the ball, which was about as tall as they were, the Dirt Gremlins rolled it down the stairs and towards the hall where he had left his friends. His return went unnoticed by Adrian, who was squaring off with Christopher and Jenny. They were both panting, though, Adrian looked as though he had hardly exerted himself. Robert had his back pressed against the wall, taking in deep breaths to get himself back into the fight.
Fishing through his pockets, Liam found a lighter and lit the ball on fire, giving it a kick towards the center of the room. It’s wet sounds drew the attention of everyone in the room. Even if it had been completely silent, the noxious fumes the ball began to belch almost immediately would have done the trick. Liam gestured to Christopher and mimed putting his hands over his mouth. Who knew if that little trick would be enough, but Liam had to try. Nobody had enough lifetimes to live down letting their friends die.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 20

     Honor amongst thieves wasn’t entirely the myth most people assumed it was. In Liam’s limited experience, it had a higher sliding scale for calculating costs than most people’s sense of honor did. That honor to cost ratio was yet another reason why Liam tended to work alone; because he usually ended up regretting it. Somehow, Liam’s priceless value wasn’t as apparent to your average thief as a diamond the size of his fist. His current cohorts weren’t in it for the money, which meant they were in it for honor or some such nonsense.

     As though to confirm his understanding of the situation, his buzzing phone taunted him with the knowledge that this train was about to go off the rails in a big way. Answering the call, Liam pressed the phone to his ear, “You’ve got Liam.”

     “Hey, Liam.” It was Christopher Goodbody, “I had a thought. JJ told me about one of the Fourteen Kings being here. It’s the dwarf king. Let’s just kill him now.”

     “That’s a terrible idea.” Peering down the hall, he could hear glasses clinking and voices chattering away. It sounded remarkably civil for a party of elites being held hostage via blackmail.”

     “Hear me out, Liam. If we start a fight with the King, everyone will bolt. Our two Revers can catch the bad ones on the way out, and we can destroy the blackmail material before we leave. It’s fool-proof.” Christopher sounded incredibly pleased with his plan.

     “And what happens when someone calls the cops?”

     “All the better. If someone calls in the cops, it will be almost impossible for the Society to call in more goons, and the King won’t be able to escape without attracting attention.”
Groaning, Liam hoped his Dirt Gremlins did their work. His original part of the plan was to help escort innocent party goers from the group, their records expunged by his tiny helpers, “Stick to the plan. I know I’m spitting in the wind, but how exactly do you plan to kill the King?”

     “If I start a fight in the middle of the party, everyone will run. While we go at it in the chaos, Robert will find an opening and strike. I don’t seriously think I can win a straight up fight with him, I just need to give Robert the chance he needs. We can leave during the aftermath and get out before anyone knows what happened This way, we don’t need to escort people out one by one. We can just catch up with them later, and we get to kill one of the Fourteen Kings.”.

     “What do you plan on doing about Adrian Denavi? He’s not just going to let you kill the one guest who probably wants to be here.”

     There was a long pause before Christopher responded, “He’s not here, at least not at the main party. Of the guards I’ve asked, nobody seems to know where he is. Look, I talked it over with Robert, so I’m getting started. Trust me, Liam.”

     The phone went dead. Liam knew one thing. He didn’t want to miss this fight. Not out of some morbid curiosity, but from a genuine fear that everything was going to go wrong. Adrian would never miss a Society event this important. From his limited exposure to the man, Adrian seemed obsessive compulsive about his work. His apparent absence meant he was either somewhere more important, or somewhere out of sight at the hostage party.

     Taking a few turns, Liam found himself standing on the outskirts of the gala. Art pieces had been set up along the walls to provide a veneer of class to the event. Two long rows of tables lay along each wall, most of them filled with finger foods everyone was too polite to eat. High ceilings looked down over the attendees, with murals of cherubic angels losing their cloth diapers in hopes of becoming the next sunscreen baby. The height of the ceilings allowed everyone’s voices to echo around the room, which was having a strained effect on the guests. The attendees had split off into groups of twos or threes, slowly circulating around the room in strange social avoidance patterns. When the groups ran into each other, they would split off and two new, but different, groups would emerge and head off in different directions.

      Liam didn’t know where the King was, so he decided to imagine he was parched and needed to find all the alcohol in the world. If their target was as drunk as Christopher said he was, he would be within standing distance of the largest concentration of alcohol in the building. Even without that mental exercise, the King was easy enough to spot, because he was the only one with a large, and ever-expanding space around him. If the dour sounding name, or the proclivity to drunkenness didn’t give away whose king he was, his stature and appearance certainly sealed the deal. He was short, though not as short as Liam might have expected. He wore his beard in thick braids and twined through it were trophies of past conquests. As a fellow drinker, Liam could certainly see the appeal of his decorations. They were silver and gold decorations taken from exorbitantly priced alcohols he had defeated in the past. Even from across the room, he could hear the Kings booming voice regaling anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot of further times when he had become inexcusably drunk and done dreadful things to the upholstery.

     Gorge Doomsayer wore his name on his sleeve. When presented with impending destruction, people react most commonly in one of two ways. They either eat, drink and grow merry for they know their death approaches, or they give everything up and set about destroying the world. Those were not the clothes of avarice. There was something utilitarian about his black suit which set Liam on edge. The muscles which bulged out from under his suit weren’t earned in leisure, that’s for sure. The only sparkly thing about him were the bits of silver and gold twined through his expansive brown beard. Though laughter hung around the edges of his voice, like a surprise party about to break out at any second, he had a haunted expression in his eyes which Liam had seen all too often. It wasn’t that he just wanted the world to burn, he had already seen it somewhere in the past.

     Liam didn’t have long to contemplate this before Christopher showed up. He had never been more grateful to know that two Revers lurked in the background, watching and waiting for an opportunity. Christopher hadn’t changed for the party. He still wore the same ratty clothes he had been wearing when he left the apartment. If anyone noticed him, and his ratty clothing, they were too polite to mention it. Abandoning any pretenses of subtlety , Christopher simply walked up to Gorge and punched him in the face.

The punch rocked Gorge back and almost pushed him straight off his feet into a table covered with bottles of hard liquor. Regaining his balance, Gorge blinked a few times and shook his head, an expression which must have crossed Liam’s own face many times when reality interfered with his drunken stupor.

     “Ha!” That one laugh, barked out loud enough to echo from the walls of the ballroom, was not the reaction Liam had expected. Christopher took a step backwards and raised his fists. His confused expression told Liam that he hadn’t expected the King to react so quickly to that punch, despite his status and reputation.

     “Now this is more like it! Who sent me the party favor!?” Gorge ripped his black coat from his shoulders and tossed it to the ground. His massive shoulders bulged as he rolled the sleeves of his shirt up, random alcohol trophies jingling with every move.

     Christopher smiled, the excitement of a good fight overtaking his common senses, “Does it really matter? I’m going to kill you.”

     Gorge nodded appreciatively, a smile dancing around the edges of his lips, “You must be a Goodbody. Those blue eyes and that absurdly sturdy body give you away. I hope you can show an old dwarf like me a good time.”

     Having said that, he launched himself at an impossible speed towards Christopher, like a human battering ram with a beard. Gorge must have been more drunk than he realized, however, because Christopher was able to step to the side and grab the dwarf by his arm and leg as he hurtled past. Using Gorge’s own momentum against him, Christopher spun around in place and whipped his cargo towards a wall. Hitting it at full speed, he broke through the wall and into the next room. If Liam hadn’t been so worried, it would have been comical when Gorge popped his head back through, his beard slowly popping back out like a glittery brown flower blooming in spring.

     “Oh, you’ll do nicely. I hope you’re ready for what’s coming.” Gorge hardly waited before attacking once more. Rather than slipping back through the hole he had created, Gorge simply walked through the wall. Liam was no stranger to violence. He had seen, and been on the receiving end, of some barbaric acts which still made him shudder to think of it. He had seen fights so fast, his eyes could hardly keep up with them. This fight was entirely without class. It was brutality personified. Christopher, being a Goodbody, must not have been used to fighting someone who could go toe to toe with him. Gorge’s fighting style focused mostly around body blows, as one would expect from a dwarf. When he punched Christopher hard enough to send him flying back a few feet, Liam could feel it in his bones.

     Christopher doubled over and coughed. When his hand came away, it was slick with blood. Gorge wasn’t about to let him rest, however, and ran back to the table he had been standing near. Liquor bottles make convenient rockets in the right hands, and Gorge was a skilled Makers Marksman. Bottles whirred into Christopher, shattering into sparkling showers of glass and high-end liquor. Turning his back to Gorge, Christopher huddled down on the ground and made sure only his back could be hit.

     That wasn’t the worst idea Liam had ever seen. Getting killed by a random bottle to the face felt like an anti-climactic way to go, but that tactic did require him to take his eyes away from Gorge, and the dwarf proved incapable of ignoring such a taunt. Rushing his opponent with a speed which Liam found impossible to believe, given his stubby legs, Gorge leapt into the air, a hitherto unseen dagger in his left hand. He was speeding downwards like a dwarven bullet when he suddenly swung forward gently. Grasping at his neck, Gorge dropped his dagger and swung backwards. Squinting his eyes, Liam could make out the barest glint of metal hanging from the ceiling. He had been alive long enough to notice an assassin’s handiwork.

     That wasn’t the only metal noose hanging from the ceiling. The longer he looked, the more he could see, darted around the ceiling and hanging towards the floor, just waiting for someone to occupy them. Liam wondered whose work that was, Jenny or Robert’s. Given their impracticality, Liam decided that it was likely Jenny’s work. Gorge turned a bright red color and started to bounce up and down. Breaking that filament would be impossible, but the ceiling was less prepared to deal with the exuberant death rattles of a dwarven king. With a resounding crack, a large portion of the ceiling came loose and rained down all around them. With the tension loose, Gorge managed to get the wire from around his neck. Breathing heavily, he was in no state to do any fighting.
Christopher rose to his feet and brushed the glass from his shoulder in a care-free manner which reminded Liam of Sam. Turning to face Gorge, he started advancing slowly, watching him carefully and noting his every move. Reaching into his pocket, Gorge produced a figure of a wolf from his pocket. With a start, Liam realized that figure looked incredibly familiar. He had seen a very similar one amongst the figures in the Nair family vault. That was around the time when Adrian had managed to rob the vault of a few figures. He had no idea what was going to happen, but he knew it wasn’t going to be good.

     Gorge tossed the wolf figure onto the floor and it sprouted, growing rapidly into a living wolf with razor sharp yellowed teeth, about the size of a large grey hound. It stood between Christopher and Gorge, allowing the King a few moments to catch his breath. When Christopher took a step back, it lunged at him, chasing him across the entirety of the room and pressing him into a wall, snapping at his face.

     In his moment of triumph, the dwarf king had failed to watch his own back. Robert, appearing from thin air, materialized behind Gorge and tugged him roughly to his feet. Pressing his own dagger to his throat, he held his captive close and yelled, “Call the wolf off! Now!

      Liam’s blood ran cold as Gorge began to laugh, “Now we’re having a party!” Taking a step back, Liam tripped over nothing and fell to the ground. The sudden movement caught Gorge’s eye, and his eyes registered an expression of recognition which Liam hardly liked the look of. This job was over. Everyone needed to get out right now.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 19

     Liam knew he wasn’t exactly leader material. He lacked some of the most basic, and yet most important requirements to become one. He didn’t have a white cat to stroke, or a fancy chair to sit in while doing it. He lacked the ability to safely incorporate people who couldn’t die into his plans. Most glaringly, he wasn’t exactly able to stop his team from killing each other, which is a pretty sound leadership skill which doesn’t appear on most people’s resumes. It’s not a skill you think about, though, until every person you’re working with is crowded into one room, glaring at each other.

    Scanning the rogues gallery assembled in his dingy apartment, Liam mentally recalculated for the glaring smiling exception to the ill feelings in the air. Jenny just looked happy to be spending time with him, completely oblivious to the murderous face Robert Rever was shooting her. If looks could kill, he would have already done so and been on the road back home. Christopher Goodbody and JJ were also picking up on the dangerous mood in the room, though of the two, Christopher seemed the more concerned. He looked ready to step between Jenny and Robert in an instant, should the need arise. Liam was, quite honestly, surprised it hadn’t arisen already.

     “Is there a reason why you didn’t tell us Jenny Rever was coming to this meeting too?” Christopher spared a sympathetic glance at Robert, which went entirely unnoticed though his haze of anger.

     “Because I knew you wouldn’t show up if I told you she was coming,” Liam responded matter of factly, as though he had just stated the obvious.

     “Sounds legit,” JJ flipped through her phone as she spoke, “Why are the Dirt Gremlins here?”

     “They live here.”

     “And why are you still here?”

     “Because this apartment is dirt cheap.”

     Christopher ran a finger along a wall. It came away black, and when he tried to rub the material off on something, it stubbornly refused to come off, “It’s certainly dirty, I’ll give you that.”

     “Everyone just shut up,” Jenny’s voice had an edge to it that Liam was unused to hearing, “I want to know what the job is so I can help Liam.”

     Liam was slowly gaining an understanding of why Simon lost his temper with Liam so often, “I agree with Jenny. Let’s please focus on the job. You can kill each other and complain about the state of my personal life later. This job was too big for me to focus on alone, so I asked for some help. A week from today, the Society for the Protection of Humankind is holding a blackmail banquet gala.”

     JJ raised a hand, “What exactly is a blackmail banquet?”

     “It’s pretty much the same as a normal banquet, except nobody wants to be there. It’s supposed to be a fundraiser, but really it’s just a bunch of poor suckers the Society has dirt on. They show up, cough up money, and presumably take home some saucy pictures of themselves.”

     Jenny swayed back and forth happily from where she was seated on the floor. A Dirt Gremlin was curled up her lap, snoring peacefully, “And we kill’em all!”

     Liam stuttered to halt, “No! Well, not all of them. Some of these people are good, wholesome folks with families and also people who care about them. They get to go free, once we’ve torched whatever info they have on these people.”

     Christopher ran a strand of his hair through his fingers, “That sounds like two jobs, Liam.”

     “It’s three. Get rid of the info, save the good eggs and smash the bad ones. Oh yeah, and don’t get caught or killed. Simon was strangely specific on that point.” It occurred to Liam that the last instructions were more for anyone who helped Liam, rather than himself.

     With the details and complexity of the job out in the open, the mood in the room changed drastically. JJ got on her laptop and started looking up plans for the location of the blackmail gala. She also worked on getting her hands on a finalized guest list. Christopher was in charge of saving those people worth getting out. He worked on putting together a route to take them out with minimal interference. Liam, despite his protests, was relegated to the position of errand boy. Once JJ knew where the information was being held, Liam would break in and steal it, or render it unusable via Dirt Gremlin.  He couldn’t be seen at the main party, because too many people knew his face. Robert and Jenny were in charge of killing the bad eggs, and Robert worked hard to make sure he knew exactly who his targets were, their habits, their nonverbal tics, anything which would help him kill faster. Jenny helped by putting on plays with unwilling Dirt Gremlins as puppets, which kept her from distracting anyone else. Work went on like this for days. They met at Liam’s apartment, ignoring the Dirt Gremlins who worked on a full sized mural of them all working together.

     With only two days before the gala, they began to rehearse their plans until it felt like a well-oiled machine. The day before, they rested and got all their gear together. Liam sat on the lone couch in his living room and looked around at the maps and the notes, the hours of work they had put into making sure the operation went smoothly.

     Liam generally worked alone, because when one person makes a plan, it’s hard to blame  anyone else if it screwed up. The more moving parts you have, the harder it is to figure out who screwed up. People don’t make multi-billion dollar movies about a row boat crashing, they write them about the Titanic. It’s not that Liam wanted to involve this many people, but there was no way he could get it done alone.

     JJ left first, with her laptop tucked under her arm. She wore a pair of jeans and a hoodie for Long Island University. Nobody ever paid attention to college students. She would monitor their progress, contacting them if something changed. She had access to the security cameras and the building layout for the gala, and she was their eyes on everything. Christopher left shortly after that and headed for the gala. His job was the most complicated out of all of them. He needed to get his list out, in the proper order and not until Liam had erased any information the Society had on them. A few minutes after that, Jenny left, with a disgruntled looking Robert Rever in tow. They merely had to find a small handful of targets and kill them, without anyone seeing it happen, and make it look like the Society did it.

     His apartment felt so empty without people in it. For the first time in his life, Liam felt lonely. Grabbing a backpack from his storage apartment, he opened it up and whistled. Several Dirt Gremlins excitedly hopped over, looking up at Liam expectantly.

     “This is not going to be a regular thing. I just need your help with this one job, then…”

     “Dirty,” one of the Dirt Gremlins said candidly.

     “Yeah, that was an exception too.”

     “Dirty.”

     “Just shut up and get in the damned bag.” Liam zipped his bag up and started for his own job.

     The convention center the gala was being held at looked like a high society fortress. The building was small and squat, with floor to ceiling windows taunting passing pedestrians with a window into opulence. Liam circled around the building and found his way to the back of the building. Unsurprisingly, it was guarded by two Society thugs holding machine guns.

     Slipping a hand into his backpack, Liam snagged a Dirt Gremlin and tugged it out, “I need you to distract those two guards, buddy.”

     The Dirt Gremlin nodded and gripped it’s paint brush, already dripping some unidentifiable black liquid. Liam decided after this job, he was throwing this backpack out. The Dirt Gremlin raced under a car, a small blur in the darkness. Poking its head out from under the car, it flung its paint brush at one of the guards head. That, apparently, was all it took to turn on the murder switch. The guards ran off into the night, chasing after their illusive graffiti artist.

     Liam slipped up to the backdoor. It was locked, but it didn’t take long for him to pick the door and get in. The computers he needed access to were on the third floor. The convention center kept a small room for valuables, and that was where Adrian would stash his things. It would make more sense to keep it somewhere else, but Adrian Denavi was a sadist. He would keep all his knives as close as possible. Liam kept away from the sound of people talking and glasses clinking.

     As he tried to picture the layout of the building in his head, his phone buzzed in his pocket. Slipping his phone out, he answered, “Liam, what’s up?”

     “Liam, we’ve got some complications. Well, potential complications.” JJ’s voice sounded different on the phone, though maybe she was changing the pitch of her voice on purpose.

     “What’s the problem?” Liam eyed a set of stairs as he waited for her to respond.

     There was a long silence before she responded, “Liam, one of the fourteen kings is on the guest list. It was a late addition, they just put it on right now. Gorge Doomsayer. The only information I can find is that he’s the Dwarven king. He must be working for the Society, or with them somehow. “

     “Shit, I thought you said those kings were legendary. You didn’t even know who they were until you found out about this one. We can’t add any more changes to this job. Tell everyone else to get out. We’re bailing, right here and right now.”

     “I never expected to find out them. I wasn’t even sure they existed. Once I got the name, I double checked with my contacts in the Neelan family, and he’s the real deal. I told Christopher, and he just told me he was earning an extra five dollars tonight. What do I do now?”

     Standing outside a stairwell which would have led him up to his own job, he stopped short. This job had just gotten too dangerous. His instincts kicked into high gear. A good thief knows when to give up, but a great thief knows when plans have changed dramatically. It wasn’t anything Liam could put into words. Unzipping his bag, Liam unceremoniously dumped all four Dirt Gremlins on the sidewalk, with their gear.

    “I’ve got another job to do. I need you little hellions to go up to their safety room. It’s on the third floor, it’ll have a red door. Get in there and just destroy everything.”

     The Dirt Gremlins raced for the door. It wouldn’t be long until they were in and doing the work he should have done. At that exact moment, Liam’s phone buzzed again.

     One of the fourteen kings meant all kinds of bad news, and he wasn’t going to let his first real co-workers get killed because they were idiots. The fourteen kings could come later on, once Liam was no longer involved. He just hoped the Dirt Gremlins had enough common sense to destroy all the computers.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 18

     Of all the skills Liam had acquired over a long career of picking pockets and failing to make friends, he considered knowing when to give up to be at the top of the list. It was an important survival skill, knowing when something had gone tits up and legging it out of there. He rated it, alongside never using public restrooms and not eating food handfed to you by insistent, suspicious strangers, as one of those skills non-thieves can use as well. What he needed to learn now was how to say no to his new friend, Simon. Turning friends down wasn’t a skill he’s needed very frequently, and so it was an often unused skill. The job Simon gave him was too big, something that quickly became apparent as they discussed the details. Liam immediately utilized his skill of giving up and admitted he needed help on this one. That was how he found himself standing in front of the Rever family house, atop the wall, and waving his arms frantically in order to gain Jenny Rever’s attention.

     He could see her through the window to her room. She was assassinating her stuffed animal collection. As he jumped up and down on the wall, eyed suspiciously by the massive terriers on the ground, he could almost make out what she was saying.

     “Tell me where the pink unicorn is and I’ll let you live, Mr. Frog.” She held a knife to the throat of a giant stuffed frog wearing a fancy waistcoat and shirt, but Liam found himself fixated on the fact that it wore no pants. As he waved his arms, it occurred to Liam that trying to get her attention while jumping around on a high wall was hardly the safest idea.

     Jenny stopped her attack and suddenly peered out the window, her bright pink mask sticking out like a glitter covered thumb in her pink nightmare of a room. Suddenly, she flung her stuffed prisoner aside and leapt towards the window. In a single bound, she was crouched on the window sill, her legs tensing for another jump. Liam opened his mouth to protest and braced himself for impact. Before he could say a word, she launched herself across the open space and crashed into Liam, sending him tumbling from the wall with her on top. He hit the pavement head first with a grunt of pain. Everything went black. When he came to, Jenny was still cuddling him, an enormous grin on her face, as she hugged him tightly enough that he could hear his ribs cracking slightly.

     “I missed you, Liam!” She pulled back and sat next to him, waiting for him to recover.

     Quickly checking to make sure all his bits were still in working order, Liam could feel his ribs slowly recovering from their hug attack, “Jenny, I missed you too. I came because I need your help. I was asked to…”

     “Yeah, sure. When do we go? Do I get to kill someone?”

     Liam blinked in surprise a few times. Her breathless enthusiasm shouldn’t have caught him off guard anymore, but it still managed to somehow, “Don’t you want to know what the job is before you take me up on the offer?”

     “Do I get to spend time with Liam?”

     “Well, yeah. Several weeks of planning and then one hectic night of execution.”

     “Then I’m in. Just tell me what you need me to do.”

     That she said yes so readily was inspiring to Liam, though the moment was ruined slightly when she grabbed his cheeks and squished them around in a circle, “I could never say no to cute ratty Liam.”

     Reaching into a pocket, Liam handed her a piece of paper, “We’re meeting up tonight at my place. Show up and be ready for a long night. We’re only going to get one shot at this, so I want everything to be perfect.”

     Rising to his feet on entirely unsteady legs, Liam headed off to his next destination. The first stop was easy, but the next one was going to be much more difficult. This job would require more than killing, it required smarts. Thankfully, Liam knew three ne’er do wells who had recently been hired by Simon Nair, and they worked on the cheap. Out of respect for the three killers he himself had been tracking recently, he wove a trail around New York and took care to make sure he wasn’t being followed before he headed to their home under the bridge. Walking past the invisible wall and into their home, he couldn’t help but feel nervous. He might have shared a meal with them, but he did it while they discussed killing him.

     To his surprise, they were all up and they were all working. Christopher Goodbody wore the same, threadbare clothes he had been wearing when they had met. He was working in their garden, tilling the earth and planting new seeds. JJ, as her friends called her, sat in front of their home, leaning a chair against a wall. She was wearing a black sleeveless skirt with a hood, which she had pulled over her head. She had a laptop balanced on her knees and she was busily typing away at it. Robert Rever sat close by her, fiddling with some netting. A large wooden bucket lay on the ground right next to him, filled with dead pigeons.

     “I hope I’m not intruding,” Liam said as he walked closer to them.”

     Christopher stopped what he was doing, his hoe held high over his head, “Oh, Liam! What brings you back to our neck of the woods so soon?” Robert eyed him suspiciously through his sunglasses, but JJ ignored him entirely.

     “Somehow, I thought you would be madder at me after what happened last time we met.”

     Stabbing the shaft of his hoe into the ground, Christopher laughed, “Yeah, me too. It turns out working for Simon saved our lives.”

     Now Liam was even more confused, “You mean after he beat you to a bloody pulp?”

     “Pretty much immediately afterwards. You weren’t the only ones getting close to finding us. When the DeLuca’s sent their goons in to grab us, Simon showed up and told them to keep their grubby mitts out of his business. Now we’re safe, and it’s all thanks to him.”

     “And to you, Liam,” JJ spoke without looking up from her laptop, “after all, if you hadn’t found us, we never would have this kind of protection to do our work.”

     “Speaking of work, I got a job from Simon recently and I was wondering if I could get your help.”

     Robert turned his eyes back to his work, “We don’t work for free, you know.”

     Liam rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a note wrapped up in a five dollar bill, “For your time.”

     Christopher snatched them from his hands and walked over to JJ, reading the note as he went, “He picks up on things quick, JJ. Let’s give this a whirl.”

     JJ read the note before returning to her laptop, “I’m still against this. We’ve all left the Five Families for our own reasons. Even if I accept that Simon isn’t the same as the rest of them, I don’t like it.”

     “We can’t expect him to protect us if we’re not willing to do some work. I get the impression he would do it anyways, but I don’t like ignoring the hand that feeds you.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Robert finally spoke, “Liam is the one actually paying us. Technically, the job is coming from him.”

     “Fine,” JJ snapped her laptop shut and rose to her feet in one motion, “We’ll take the job.”

    “Oh, thank God. That was far more painless than I thought it would be. That’s my address I gave you, and some instructions. Don’t wear anything white.”

     With that, Liam left that and went to get help from one more person. Gramps and his work board. The job Simon gave him was simple, but it wasn’t one which Liam could do on his own. The Society for the Preservation of Humankind was holding a gala to raise funds. Liam was sure there were other funds being gathered, but this was a big pay day. It was what he called “high society smash and grab” and the way it went down was pretty simple. Someone like the Society gets all thier supporters in a room and reminds them that you have the majority of their balls over a fire. Donation to the cause was optional, but so was staying out of jail, not to mention every gossip rag in the country. Liam’s job was surprisingly complex. Find out who was being coerced, and also wasn’t a homicidal, xenophobic maniac, and get them out of a bad situation.

     That alone would have been complicated enough, but the second part of the instructions was why Liam definitely needed help. In the case of the aforementioned homicidal, xenophobic maniacs, kill them. Kill them and make it look like an accident, or like the Society actually followed through with their threats. Liam had never been a fighter, though he had lost his fair share of scraps. He certainly had never killed anyone, though recently some deaths could be laid at his feet. That experience, being responsible for someone’s death, had taught him something. Just because you caused someone’s death doesn’t mean you’re always going to feel bad about it.

     Liam had a guest list to the gala, and he doubted very highly that all of them were squeaky clean. In fact, he was certain of it, because otherwise there wouldn’t be anything of note for the Society to blackmail them with. Liam wasn’t interested in the small fries, though, he wanted to find out which ones were truly villainous and which ones were just idiots who got caught in the wrong time or place.

     This sort of dilemma was where the Job Board shone the brightest, and Liam had been there recently so making another stop was hardly a big deal. The shop smelled exactly the same as it had last time. It felt strange, going back to Gramp’s place after his life had changed so much. Making his way to the Board, Liam was relieved to see smoke curling up from behind the massive piles on the desk in front of the board.

     “Hey Gramps, I need to look at the Board.”

     There was a loud coughing from the other side of the board, “Are you looking for the big one, Liam? Finally moving up in the world? I said it to all my friends, Liam is the best. You shouldn’t be swimming around in the little ponds. Get out there are strike it rich!”

     “Sorry to disappoint, Gramps, I just need some information for a job I’m working with some friends. I’m not sure I’ll be getting much out of it, though.”

     Crossing around the desk and standing next to Gramps, Liam scanned the board quickly, looking for names which matched up with the guest list Simon had given him. He found a smattering of names which sounded right and unpinned their information one at a time.”

     “Hey, Liam,” Gramps kicked his leg gently, “Since when did you become so altruistic?”

     “Since I learned that I can steal more than cash or credit. I can steal myself a home, too.”

     “Guess I won’t be seeing you around anymore, Liam. If you’re on the straight and narrow, don’t let me see you around here anymore.” The smoke in Gramp’s eyes was clearly causing him to tear up.

     “Don’t worry, Gramps. Just because I’m working on the side of the angels doesn’t mean I’m just yanking off my horns. I’ll be back around more often for information. Catch you later.”

     With that, Liam left him to deal with his sensitive eyes and headed in the direction of home. He wanted his help to meet at his apartment, because he would have known if it had been bugged. He also wanted them to meet there in case there were any fireworks when Jenny met Robert. He really had no idea why two of the three had left their respective families, and he had no idea how Jenny would react to seeing Robert again in person. With that last stop, however, the wheels were in motion and the planning phase could officially begin.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 16

     Though your average passerby might doubt it, due to his rugged, rat-like exterior, Liam occasionally dabbled in friendships. Friends were a rare currency in the big city, and good friends were even rarer. A good friend who also happened to be your boss, who took you out drinking and then took you for a cup of coffee the next morning, was the best friend in all creation. He had even bought Liam a muffin, which his stomach eyed with the suspicious disdain of a career drunkard. Liam mulled these thoughts over as he downed his cup of scalding hot coffee, wondering how Simon had managed to talk him into a drinking contest with two half goblins and a rather inebriated talking rabbit. Simon was speaking to him, but Liam wasn’t catching most of the words.

     Liam adjusted a pair of dark sunglasses his friend had given him to combat his skull splitting headache. Simon sat across the table from him, also wearing a pair of dark sunglasses and looking much worse for wear than he normally did.

     “I’m being followed. I can see something, someone, out of the corner of my eye. It starts when I leave the house and it follows me wherever I go. I need you to watch my back today, Liam.”

     “Are you sure you’re not being paranoid?”

     Reaching across the table, Simon snatched the glasses from Liam’s face, exposing his red streaked eyes to the vengeful gaze of Mr. Sun, “Because I’m kind of a big deal. I’m honestly surprised that nobody’s tried this before and also that you still haven’t picked up on that yet.”

     Following the sound of his voice, Liam knocked his employer’s sunglasses to the floor. He was rewarded by a sharp intake of breath, “I know you’re a big deal, that’s not what I’m getting at. Why don’t people just spy on you in your study? It’s kinda stupid to follow you around when even I know roughly where you’re going to be about half the time.”
“Do you want the job or not?”

     Liam hesitated for an instant, “Sure. I’ve wasted days doing dumber things.”
Resting a hand on Liam’s shoulder for an instant, Simon rose to his feet, “Thank you, Liam. I can’t trust anyone else to figure out what’s going on. It might take a couple of tries, even with your help. “

     Turning towards the front door, Simon suddenly turned on his heels and headed behind the counter. Grabbing his sunglasses and slipping them over his tortured eyes, Liam called out to Simon, “Wait, we’re starting now?”

     Simon stopped at the door into the kitchen, “What? Of course we’re starting now. I’ve got work to do, and we don’t have time to waste.”

     Darting through the kitchen door, he was gone. Quickly cramming his uneaten muffin into a pocket, Liam desperately followed. This was hardly the Simon which Liam had been working for over the last few years. Something had changed, either in their relationship or in Simon himself. He was careful, crafty and he planned several steps ahead whenever he took action. This spontaneous Simon was something new and that scared Liam a little. Spontaneous got people killed, usually the spontaneous ones and sometimes, the people around them.

     Striding from the coffee shop’s back door, he took a left immediately. Liam waited a discrete amount of time before following. If Simon was being followed, Liam couldn’t stay too close. When you’re tailing someone to find out if they’re being followed, you need to remain unseen, but keep your target in your sights at all times. As the morning wore on, Liam started to feel uneasy. Simon never overreacted to anything, the privilege of the truly strong, and if he thought he was being followed, he was. From that moment on, to Liam’s eye, every man in a dark suit eyed them carefully. Every random bump and encounter seemed forced, as though Liam was being tracked or warned off following his employer. Sometimes, he thought he could make out a creature following Liam, but it always darted out of his own vision so quickly that Liam dismissed it as his own imagination playing tricks on him.

     Whenever possible, Simon stuck to alleys and stayed off the main roads entirely. The path he took was more erratic than the one Liam vaguely remembered taking the night before, and he had been six sheets to the wind, with one sheet not on duty on account of drunkenness. As they travelled, Liam wondered if this was what Simon’s life was like when he wasn’t around. He always seemed so at ease, but Liam and Simon rarely met outside the Nair mansion. If this tension, this unbearable tension, was true power than Liam wanted no part of it.

     As the sun rose high above them and the shadows in the alleys ceased to provide any relief from the heat or the piercing light, Simon came to a stop in the middle of a small alleyway. Liam paused at the end alley’s entrance to watch him carefully. Whether someone had been following them or not, Liam could hardly say. If someone was following him, they were invisible, or they were doing it from a distance. Focusing on Simon again, Liam realized he was gone. Reaching the end of the alley should have been impossible, but he was gone. Walking cautiously to the center of the alley, Liam turned to look at what Simon had been examining.

     It was a door, but unlike any door Liam had ever seen in New York. It was made of wood, and was miraculously free of any dents or graffiti of any kind. On the door was an engraving of a tree. It reached upwards with branches full of leaves towards the top of the door, and towards the bottom of the door with its roots. If Simon went anywhere, he went into this door. Opening it, Liam discovered a set of stairs which went on endlessly into the darkness. Before taking the first step, Liam briefly wondered where Simon was leading him.

     The moment he placed both his feet on the steps, the door slammed shut behind him. No matter how hard he tried, Liam couldn’t get it open again. Quickly giving up, Liam started down the steps. It wouldn’t be like Simon to get them both killed so easily. Ahead of him, torches hanging along the walls lit the way ahead of him. For what felt like hours, Liam walked the steps. The torches ahead of him lit up, chasing away the darkness and revealing more steps. Behind him, torches would extinguish themselves, hiding all traces of the path back upward from his sight. Once, in an act of desperate frustration, Liam threw his muffin into the darkness behind him. He never heard it land, and there was a loud chewing sound for a few minutes after that.

     Just as he was beginning to wonder if he was going mad, another door appeared in front of him. It also had a tree engraved on it, but this tree’s branches bore no leaves. Instead of leaves, all the branches were filled with birds. What concerned Liam were the roots, which each bore a skull at its base, deep below the earth. Pushing the door open, Liam’s eyes were again assaulted by the brilliant light of the noon day sun. It took his poor eyes a minute to adjust, after the long darkness, but he could hardly believe what he saw once he opened them.

     Most Mythic peoples lived in plain sight. The old ways were dead, magic was dead, and those who lived on the Earth did so in fear of their human counterparts. This underground paradise bore no resemblance to the Mythic world Liam knew. This was the old ways, the manner in which Mythic People lived before humans became so dominant. High above Liam was the closest approximation of the sky Liam could imagine. Mist covered the impossibly bright blue earthen ceiling, approximating clouds. Beneath his feet, grass swayed in the breeze. What took his breath away was the city laid out in front of him. The grass at his feet quickly gave way to stone pathways, which led away between buildings and off into the distance. Rising up above the city, looking down over the city, was a massive tree which reached into the artificial sky. Far ahead of him, Liam could make out Simon. His suit was an instant giveaway in a city filled with point eared elves wearing tunics.

     The city was surrounded by an enormous market, filled with wooden stalls. They swayed in the light breeze which ran through the streets. The smell of cooked food wafted through the winding pathways the stalls created, and while Liam couldn’t understand Elvish, he got the gist of what the vendors were saying. “Buy from me, it’s better and cheaper here.” As he followed Simon, with his eyes only on him, he bumped into a child and knocked him over. Leaning over, Liam was surprised to find fear in his eyes. Liam had never been feared before, but he had never knocked an elven child over before either. Giving him his hand, Liam helped the boy to his feet. Smiling, the boy offered Liam a candy, which he took and put into his pocket.

     Many of the elves ignored Liam as he followed Simon through their streets. Those who paid him any mind, viewed him through suspicious, narrowed eyes. He decided against trying to steal from anyone. It’s best not to steal when you have no idea how you’re going to get out of a bad situation. Instead of working, Liam took the time to observe his surroundings as he followed his boss instead. Every city had a story to tell. If cities are living things, the streets and people are it’s lifeblood and veins. The city told Liam a story, and he didn’t fancy it.

     The majority of the buildings had stone first floors, but the floors above them were wooden. Every building was ornately carved with the faces of previous occupants, or famous family members from bygone ages. Some houses were completely covered in such faces, their regal features looking down on the streets. Some of them only bore a few, and their houses looked newer as well. Planted between the houses were tall Elm trees. Some of the trees were being used for housing or shops. Some of the shops bore carvings, ornate works of the sun or the stars, which Liam couldn’t understand the meaning of.

     Even though the city looked prosperous, the lifeblood, the people were a little thin on the ground. Many of the houses were empty or boarded up. Having worked around Simon and his life for a while, Liam had assumed the elvish population in New York was steady. All the empty houses made Liam wonder where they had gone. It didn’t take long to reach the center of the city. Towering above him, four massive trees grew together into one, having been gradually coerced through generations of careful tending. The intertwined trunks shot up towards the ceiling, where they had long ago pushed through the earth and upwards towards the city.

     Underneath the trees, two thrones sat surrounded by elves. Their occupants made no motion to rise as Liam’s friend approached. Simon strode confidently up the two thrones and bowed. Liam would have gotten close enough to hear what they had to say, but the glares he was shot dissuaded him somewhat. He waited until Simon was done talking.

     Returning the way he came, Simon stopped to check on Liam, “You, my friend, are one of the few individuals who have seen the one of the World Trees and lived to tell about it.”

     Arching his head back to look at the ceiling, Liam cupped his hands over his eyes, “Where does the tree go from here?”

     Simon looked up with him, “Some of the branches go to Central Park. I don’t know about the rest. Now, I know I was being followed by someone since before I got to the coffee shop with you. Are you absolutely certain that nobody followed me?”

     Liam rubbed at his eyes, “Maybe? I couldn’t tell. You’ve got me a little freaked out right now.”

     Nodding thoughtfully, Simon resumed his walk, “I trust you, Liam. Let’s give it another shot. I’m not sure you’re going to like where we’re going next, though.”

     Liam perked up at that, “And where is that?”

     Simon’s next response sent a shiver down Liam’s spine, “The gnome village in Grenwich Village. This is your world, now Liam, and these are your people, even if they aren’t. You’re going to have to see them at some point.”

     Liam waited for a good few moments before following Simon. He wanted to help his friend, but nobody likes walking back into their mistakes. Maybe, after all this time, Liam had to grow up a little and stop running away.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 15

     Liam considered himself to be reasonably accomplished and worldly. He’d lived in, and stolen from citizens of multiple large cities over the course of his life. Somehow, he’d even managed to take in some culture. Usually, it was whatever he could fit into his pocket while a crowd of wealthy socialites waited for an intermission to end. There were, however, times when Liam clearly saw the flaws of his upbringing. This occasion was certainly one of them. Nobody had ever taught Liam how to politely refuse an invitation from a new acquaintance. It suddenly became an especially pressing issue when confronted with the food he had been invited to eat.

     Liam stared mournfully at the bowl in front of him. A pack of scraggly, funny shaped carrots poked out of the stew to stare at him. When he dipped his spoon in, he found a small bounty of meat, but it looked grey and smelled diseased and gamey.

     “It’s pigeon. The other dark-white meat. They fly down under here all the time, so we put out nets on occasion. It took some getting used to, but it really hits the spot.” Christopher had already finished two helpings of mutant carrot and flying squirrel. He had a third in front of him.

     Liam ignored him and slowly took in his surroundings. They weren’t at all what he expected. The hidden base of these rejects turned out to be incredibly cozy. With a little help from an Aliway, who remained nameless, they had managed to hollow out the hills under each side of the bridge. That meant each floor was a little cramped, but there were a lot of them. A spiral staircase lead to the higher floors. The main floor had a table, a roaring fireplace with a large tea pot hanging over it, and something which passed for a kitchen.

     His three captors turned hosts watched him avoid eating his soup. Christopher seemed the most carefree of the group, as Liam expected of a Goodbody. He’d taken his hair down, but other than that his attire remained unchanged. He leaned back in his chair, his attention mostly focused on the meal in front of him. Robert Rever had spent the meal thus far staring at the table. He had changed out his disguise into a white t-shirt and shorts. The one Liam was having a hard time reading was JJ, as her friends called her. She still wore her coveralls, though she had unzipped the top and tied it around her waist. She seemed petite for a Neelan, not that Liam was complaining.

     Finally, he returned his gaze to his three hosts and asked the most pressing question, which had been burning away in his mind since he first took the job, “What could possibly be worth this lifestyle? You’re a bunch of rejects with no social prospects, who smell bad, and…”

      “We could still decide to kill you, mister.”

     “Point made. It just seems like you’re making a lot of enemies, and I don’t see what you’re getting out of it.”

     JJ chewed her soup thoughtfully before she responded, “Hopefully, we get a better world. Even a petty thief like you should be able to see this world is going mad.”

     “So you’re telling me you’re all rejects from your families and suddenly, you grew a conscience? You want me to believe you’re making the world a better place? Ok, fine. You’re killing some real bastards, and doing it for nothing.I’m sure Christopher killed his brother with the same noble intentions.”

     Robert Rever rose from his seat, but in that same instant Christopher tugged his arm hard enough to slam him back into his seat, “I refuse to let you kill anyone in our home. It may not be a Goodbody home, but we’re still family. Let’s call calm down and act like it.”

Crossing his hands across his chest, Robert leaned back away from Liam, “If he makes another remark like that, I’ll kill him for sure.”

     Christopher reached across the table towards Liam, who flinched away, but he only grabbed his bowl and pulled it over to dig in. Between bites, he responded to Liam, “My brother was a mad dog who deserved to be put down. Killing him quickly was more a grace than he deserved and the world is a better place without him.”

     “Why Simon wants to meet you, I have no idea. I’m just a messenger, but I’m not convinced at all. You’re just cut-rate vigilantes with delusions of grandeur.”

     Shaking her head, JJ poked at her bowl, “We’re not interested, either way. The Five Families grow corrupt and bloated with every passing generation. It’s pointless to…”

     JJ trailed off as a small paper butterfly floated past her face and perched on Liam’s shoulder. Grabbing it, he pulled the paper open and read the note. It only had one word. “Duck.”

     Liam didn’t have time to duck. Nobody would have been able to react to such a ridiculous note on time. The door blew open, pushed inward by thousands of tiny paper wings. More butterflies than Liam could count flew into the room and circled around him, landing on him and all around his chair.

     “Well, it was a nice run while it lasted,” Christopher Goodbody intoned as he rose to his feet.

     “That’s remarkably fatalistic of you, Christopher,” Robert Rever joined him, stretching his arms in preparation for a fight.”

     “I thought that was your thing, Rever.”

     “I’m a realist, not a fatalist, Goodbody.”

     A voice called from outside their home, “I want everyone in there to come out with your hands up, Liam included!”

     Liam perked up at the sound of Simon’s voice, “Wait, why am I being treated like a criminal?”

     There was a long pause before Simon answered, “Really? I need to answer that question?”

     Without any more arguing, to Liam’s surprise, all three killers exited the building. They didn’t put their hands above their heads. They left without grabbing any weapons, which said a lot for their confidence levels. Walking over after them, Liam could hardly believe what he saw. Simon stood under the bridge, and he was all alone. Liam had just witnessed the idiot killer trio taking out a high profile target all on their own. Any one of them could have done it on their own, if they hadn’t cared about working clever.

     Simon wore a suit, as he often did, but he had removed his jacket. It lay on the ground in front of him. As Liam exited, he was rolling his sleeves up, “I hope none of you hurt my friend. I would hate to have to hurt you anymore than I’m already going to have to.”
“What happens now?” Christopher cracked his knuckles and watched Simon’s every move.

     “I thought I would start by beating you all to a bloody pulp, and then I was going to offer you a job.”

     All three killers seemed thoroughly confused by this direct declaration, “Is this how he normally makes job offers?”

     Thinking back to his own hiring, Liam nodded, “Pretty much, but you better get started.”

     Thieves don’t often have to fight. In Liam’s mind, if you’ve been caught, you’ve already failed. Still, he had seen plenty of fights and his hosts certainly impressed him with their teamwork. They began by surrounding him. No point in taking on a heavy weight like Simon Nair head on. Christopher Goodbody, as the heavy hitter of the team, took up a position directly in front of him. Robert Rever circled around behind him. JJ vanished, or at least that’s what Liam thought, until he noticed Simon looking right at her. She seemed confused too, as though she hadn’t expected to be seen, even though she was standing in plain sight.

     Christopher made a sudden dash at Simon, “You shouldn’t take your eyes off your opponent like that!” Directing a punch at his head, Christopher looked the very picture of confidence.

     Without turning his head, or removing his left eye from JJ, he turned his right eye to look directly at Christopher, “I didn’t.” Brushing aside his punch, Simon guided him to the left and drew him directly into the path of Robert, who had been rushing up behind him. They collapsed in a heap. Raising his foot up, Simon brought it crashing downwards towards their heads. A shot rang out and he was forced to abandon that in order to dodge backwards.

     “I won’t let you hurt them,” JJ held a smoking pistol in her hand. Liam was fascinated, because he always thought members of the Five Families avoided firearms.

     Simon closed his right eye and gazed at her with his yellow left eye. It’s slitted pupil, which had always given Liam the heebie-jeebies, thinned to a small line, “You don’t have a choice.” JJ wobbled for a few seconds before collapsing forward.

     Seeing their comrade fall for no reason touched a nerve in the other two. They rushed at him with a clear intent to kill. It wasn’t much use. Two members of the Five Families facing off against one Nair, and they couldn’t even touch him. Whatever they threw at him, he dodged it as though he could see it coming. Their fighting grew more and more vicious, and for once Liam saw the temper Simon was infamous for come out. He was hitting them a little too hard, but not in places which would end the fight. He wanted them bruised and bloody, but still capable of fighting so he could hurt them more.

     “Any time you want in on this, let me know Liam,” Simon threw Christopher to his left, directly into Robert’s path, who was again attempting to sneak up on him.

     “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just enjoying the show,” Liam wasn’t getting involved in whatever Simon was trying to pull.

     Long after the sun had gone down, they were still fighting, but Simon was gradually gaining more and more of an upper hand. Finally, the fight came to an end, mostly because his opponents couldn’t move anymore.

     “Alright,” Christopher wheezed, “You win. Do whatever you want to. We have no right to complain.”

     Simon cocked his head, “I though Liam told you I wanted to offer you some work. I wasn’t using some fancy euphemism for murder.”

     Robert coughed up some blood, “We’re never working for the Five Families again.”

     “Not even if I asked you to kill the Fourteen Kings?”

     The two conscious members of the trio went silent. Liam coughed, “Fourteen what now? Why didn’t you just as me? I could at least find them for you.”

     “Oh, Liam. That’s so sweet of you to volunteer for something so terribly dangerous.”

     “Dangerous? I unvolunteer.”

     “That’s what I thought.”

     Christopher Goodbody raised a hand, “Hold up, you seriously want us to kill the Fourteen Kings? Are you mad? They’re the pillars of Mythic society! Hell, I’ve never even seen one so they might as well be myths to me!”

     “One king for each race,” Simon intoned, “Fourteen kings who meet once a decade to decide the fate of Mythic peoples, with the Five Families. They are pillars of Mythic society, but they’re rotten to the core. With all the tension going on between us and the Society right now, the last thing we need is war. That seems to be all the Fourteen Kings want. I need them dead.”

     “What if we say no?”

     Simon reached down and grabbed his suit coat, pulling an envelope from one of the pockets and handing it to Christopher, “Here’s payment up front. Five dollars for each king. You wanted to make the world a better place, but you’re snuffing out small time crooks? Get real, you haven’t made a difference. Pull on your adult undergarments and head up to the big leagues.”

     Liam slowly rose to his feet, “It’s over?”

     Simon nodded, “Yeah, it’s over. Did you die?”

     Brushing the dirt from his knees, Liam shook his head, “Almost, but mostly that was your fault.”

     “I told you I was sorry.”

     “Buy me booze.”

     Liam followed Simon as he headed home. It wasn’t loyalty, really it wasn’t. It was that Simon offered to buy him booze to water his wounded ego. He totally wasn’t becoming good friends with his employer. He hadn’t been worried about him at all during that fight. He wasn’t about to ask him how his day was going, “So, what have you been up to today?”

     “Not much. I spent most of it with my father, then I came to get you.”
Shit. Somewhere along the line, they’d become friends. The worst part was that Liam realized it.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 14

     Liam was about to witness a murder, and that’s why he wanted to stay out of the way. It’s not that he was frightened. Death was an old passing acquaintance and Liam had been confronted with deaths other than his own before, a fact his mother could’ve attested to were she still alive. Liam hadn’t been hired to stop this murder, and he couldn’t have stopped it either way. When Mark Noble woke up this morning, though he didn’t know it, the sunrise was the last he would ever see. Liam kept his head down because the messiest part of public murder is the aftermath. The atmosphere is like the logical opposite of Black Friday, where everyone stampedes away from the violence, regardless of obstacles or personal injury.

     As the immovable objects lined up against the unstoppable forces, Liam resorted to his one tried and true tactic. Snacks. A handy corner store allowed him to avoid the brewing warzone across the street. He bought a pack of gum with money and a bag of chips with his master five-finger discount card and watched from just outside the store as the waves of opposing sides began to crash against each other.

     It never paid to make a deal with someone like Adrian Denavi. Good business sense says that both parties come to a deal with something to offer. Goods or services are exchanged and both parties leave happy. Adrian hardly seemed to understand basic polite social interactions that didn’t involve murder, much less the art of the deal. He was like a shark, always moving and always the aggressor. Even though Liam hated to admit it, this real estate steal was the right move to make after being forcibly defunded by himself and John Neelan. That aggressive nature was why the deal was taking so long, because a consummate shakedown artist like Mark Noble would be really horrible at admitting when he was being taken for a ride.

     While the two men talked over their differences, with Adrian becoming increasingly agitated and aggressive, Liam realized he had lost sight of the Rever. Robert had vanished into the crowd of shifting cronies and bodyguards. It was only when the killing started that Liam could pick him out. Violence always starts suddenly. Even Liam, who was watching for it, got caught off guard. With everyone in the small crowd of bodyguards so focused on their respective employers, not one of them noticed when an extra body guard slowly pushed his way to the front. Nobody noticed, until he’d already killed three of them. Liam popped a chip into his mouth. It was a clever move, gunning for the bodyguards first. Good on his targets for their meticulous planning and lack of discernable morals. If there were no bodyguards, then there would be nobody left to protect their target, his RoyalAssness.

     The red sea parted, guns blazing, leaving Robert Rever tangling with a handful of bodyguards from both sides. It quickly became apparent that guns were useless against their assailant. His rapid movements made it hard for Liam to follow his path. Up close, it would be nearly impossible to hit him. The smarter guards holstered their guns to be effective and the crazy ones holstered them for fun. Adrian was whisked away towards the opposite end of the street, while Mark’s bodyguards rocketed him along towards Liam. With a Rever making short work of his opponents, Liam wondered how far he would get. He got so distracted by Robert Rever that he failed to notice Christoper Goodbody until he plowed into the remaining bodyguards around Mark Noble like a freight train. Goodbody’s were built tough, and Christopher was clearly no exception to the rule. Most of the remaining bodyguards pushed back against him, while one lone bodyguard whisked Mark away to safety. Christopher toyed with them, tossing them around and giving gentle knockout love taps. Watching him made Liam realize what they were gunning for the whole time.

     In two quick moves, they had separated their target from the one person who could have saved him, gotten rid of all his bodyguards, and slowed his movements. The one remaining bodyguard moved Mark along slowly, as though he expected an attack from any direction. A single gun-shot rang out over the chaos and Mark slumped over, dead. It occurred to Liam that they might try and kill Adrian while he was right in their sights for good measure, and that sounded like a good idea to them too, because another gunshot rang out. Impossibly, Adrian reacted by pivoting and grabbing one of his guards, pulling him into his place and ducking away at the same time. The bullet intended for him killed his bodyguard instead. The remaining Society thugs closed ranks and whisked their leader into a car, which drove off with a screech of tires. Ah well, live and learn.

     Sirens sounded in the distance, and the crowd truly began to disperse. Even if you clearly didn’t kill the victim, the cops ask all sorts of questions that nobody on that street wanted to answer. The trick was leaving in an inconspicuous way, because cops are like cats with badges. They chase after things that run away from them. It’s a trained hunting instinct that’s hard to get rid of. All Liam needed to do was pick out one of the three and follow them, wherever they went and no matter how long it took. Christoper’s long hair swayed, and Liam had already lost sight of the Rever, so Liam followed him. He turned down the street Liam was on, before taking an abrupt left into an alley.

     Cutting through side paths, he left the crime scene in remarkable time, and did it calmly. After that, Christopher Goodbody spent the rest of the day panhandling. It was unreal, watching a member of the Goodbody family beg for change on a subway platform. He even got warned off by a cop once, and even that was genius. He was taking the long way home, and why would a hobo kill a man? Even if someone could place him at the scene of the crime, nobody would believe he was involved.

     Liam followed him no matter where he went. He was Christopher Goodbody’s shadow, always present and never noticed. As the sun went down, Christopher finally started heading somewhere with purpose. They reached a small bridge, and rather than crossing it, he went down below it. At first glance, it all seemed so ordinary. It was just an underpass, with giant concrete pillars. It was the sort of place graffiti artists went when the cops were chasing them. As Liam watched, Christopher Goodbody vanished. It wasn’t as though there was any warning, he just vanished into thin air. Clearly, Liam was missing something. Carefully stepping forward, he slowly caught up to where Christopher had vanished. Poking his head forward, a hand reached out from the aether and dragged him forward.

     The scene that lay before him was completely different than the one had just seen. The concrete walls beneath the bridge had been hollowed to create a small living space. Tiny red doors led into their homes on either side of the bridge. From where Christopher held Liam, he could make out a cozy living room with a roaring fire. A tea kettle hung above it, keeping the water piping hot for tea. Some of the cement under the bridge had been pulled up and replaced with earth for a small garden. It seemed to be flourishing in the summer heat.

     A slap to the face snapped Liam out of his reverie, “What were you following me around all day for, you little creep? Who are you working for?”

     “My name is Liam. I don’t work for anyone, and I wanted to pick your pocket.”

     Christopher tossed him towards their home, “What you think, JJ? He’s lying, but he volunteered that information awfully quickly. There’s something strange about him.”

     JJ emerged from the left house, pausing in the door and leaning against it. Her hair was tied up in a tight bun, and there were grease stains on her face. She wore goggles that covered her eyes and coveralls, which contained multiple burn marks, “Oh, that’s Liam Boggan. He works for Simon Nair. That’s why he followed you.”

     Christopher walked over to Liam and helped him up, “Simon has you working for him? That sounds like a dangerous job. Are you just crazy or bored with life?”

     “I think the operative word is blackmail.”

     “That sounds like the Nair family. We should just kill him and be done with it. We don’t want anything to do with the Five Families,” Robert entered their little home space, none the worse for wear than when Liam had last seen him. He hadn’t even broken into a sweat.

     “Whoa, there Rob. Just because he’s working for a Nair doesn’t mean we have to kill him. We could just maim him,” Christopher suggested helpfully.

     “I prefer an option where I don’t get killed or maimed.”

     “Also,” JJ interrupted her two friends, “He’s good friends with Jenny Rever. If she finds out we killed him, and she would, there wouldn’t be anything that could stop her from finding us and killing us.”

     Robert shuddered, “Anything but Jenny Rever!”

     “So how about we invite him to dinner then?” Christopher peered at Liam curiously.

     Liam knew he wasn’t going to get a better deal than this, “I could eat.” When three killers with an agenda ask you over for dinner, you just sit where they tell you to and compliment their cooking. It hadn’t exactly gone the way he wanted to, but it had worked out in the end. Mission accomplished felt a little too optimistic, but Liam hadn’t been killed yet. That was a good start.