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.