Second-Hand Goods

Chapter 1

     Given enough time, all luck was bad luck. Fortune never smiles on an individual for long before the wheel turns again, returning things to the status quo. Some blessedly fortunate ones learn this early on in life. This made them unfortunate people in the opinion of others, but Liam saw them as enlightened. Liam Boggan had been born under a bad sign. Long ago, he had given up on catching a break and these days he actively avoided them, with limited success. Liam knew that no opportunity came along that didn’t include an immediate pitfall for the unwary. He worked as a thief, and if he were inclined to boast, he would say that he was a very good one. At least, he wasn’t a bad thief. Most people would argue that being a thief isn’t hard work. You do one job and you’re set for a year of vacation in a tropical country, preferably one with lenient views in extradition. That might be true if you rob museums or high rise apartments but Liam had more sense than ambition. The best thieves never get caught because the best thieves only steal enough to get by. They aren’t greedy, they just have empty bellies and a skill set that can get them through the next day without their hunger tearing a hole through them. Of course, that was Liam’s working theory while he was self-employed.

    Most of the time, he got away with his thieving without coming close to getting caught. That was until the day he tried to pick-pocket the man with a yellow left eye and that little fiasco had netted him a job he couldn’t be fired from, no matter how hard he tried. What an odd world. He had been caught and given a choice; work for the man named Simon Nair or go to prison. It seemed an easy decision at the time. He should have given it a second’s thought, or any thought at all. It turned out Simon ran with a dangerous crowd. Liam rolled over in bed and pulled the covers closer around him. No, Simon WAS the dangerous crowd. All those stories he’d been told when he was younger, fairy tales, fables, creatures from his nightmares turned out to be real. Strange to think so many of them lived in New York just like him. And he had been hired by a man more dangerous than any of them to steal from these creatures. The worst part was, he wasn’t just stealing knick-knacks or curious, but honest to God world destroying heirlooms and the like. If their caretakers didn’t kill him, the things he stole would.

    Liam had spent the better part of his life bouncing from job to job, struggling to fit in. Now that he had a job solely his own, all he could think about was getting out of it as fast as humanly possible. No, faster than that, because as fast as humanly possible would still get him killed a few more times. This crazy job would have been out of the realm of his meagre abilities even if he were trying, which he wasn’t. The job was liable to get you killed on your first day. In point of fact, it had already gotten him killed. That didn’t stop the jobs from coming, despite his abysmal success rate.

    Brushing at his spiky black hair to knock the loose pieces of dirt out, he sat up and stretched  his arms. Liam was short and wiry, with hard features. He had a small nose that twitched when people talked about money, a less than useful trait in his line of work. He had sharp brown eyes that took in a little too much for his own good, slightly pointed ears and a weak chin. His features often gave the impression that he was up to no good, which wasn’t nearly as true as it was convenient to believe.

    Swinging his legs out of bed and testing the floor for damp spots with the tips of his toes, Liam hopped to his feet and stretched again. It was only upon taking his first step that his foot touched something wet and springy, “God damned Dirt Gremlins!”

    When Liam had scored a sweet apartment with borderline free rent, utilities included for good measure, and in a good neighborhood to boot he had felt the fates smiling on him. It was in an old brownstone building in the Bronx that looked like it had sprung directly out of a gangster movie. In the summer, the windows were often open with laundry hanging out over the street to dry. No matter how he had worked it over in his head, he couldn’t see a downside to taking the offer. For once, lady luck had glanced his way. That feeling lasted for fifteen minutes.

  Then he learned the reason why the rent was so low. His newfound apartment sat right on top of a nest of dirt gremlins. Dirt Gremlins are nasty, thin limbed creatures obsessed with creating a mess wherever they went. They wore ragged, thread bare smocks and often carried small painter’s pallettes to tote around a sampling of the filth they worked with. In short order, Liam gave up his feeble attempts to keep his apartment in any state of cleanliness.

   Scanning his room, Liam could see his bad luck everyplace his gaze rested. The sun streamed in through his windows and lit up the wreck his apartment had become. From where he stood, Liam could see everything in his room. The walls presented a patchwork of grime and filth, impossibly seeping into the wall itself, causing the walls to slowly begin to close in, growing from layer upon layer of muck. Liam did not envy whoever had the task of cleaning his apartment when he moved out, because no deposit was worth the amount of cleaning required to get it returned. Liam had become glad he had so few pieces of furniture because none of the pieces he came in with were going wherever he went next. They all had a date with the incinerator, and that might not even get the stains out.

     He’d considered moving, but he’d been a little down on his luck for the last fifteen years. Being gifted in an art, a profession that wasn’t strictly speaking legal made it hard to keep any kind of regular legal job. Liam had worked as a waiter, a bar tender, a night stocker at a grocery store and one particularly unpleasant stint working for a hospital as the official bearer of bad news. Every time, he would fall back into his old habits and his old work. It kept body and soul together, but that meant he was stuck in this awful apartment until the whole building fell down or he died, whichever came first. Liam’s money was on the building.

    Stumbling into the hallway, knocking over a pile of empty bottles on the way and scattering a few dirt gremlins, Liam headed for the kitchen. Rubbing the sleep and hangover out of his eyes, Liam stumbled into the kitchen. Maybe an empty stomach was for the best. Given the state of his hangover, any food in his stomach was likely to attempt an escape. The cabinet drawers hung loosely back and forth, most of them barely hanging on by one screw. The floor of the kitchen lay strewn with a minefield of clumps of dirt and fur, even though Liam had never owned a cat or any other animal. He stumbled into the kitchen and flicked on the switch to see spindly limbed creatures scatter into various cupboards and drawers, leaving only the evidence of their work; fresh stains on the counters and floor.

    Liam rose no earlier than noon daily. That left him with a powerful hunger for breakfast when most people had already eaten lunch. It was a rare day that left Liam desperate enough to paw through his own cupboards, bringing food into the house was a futile effort, but nonetheless he tried. Opening the only cupboard not occupied by Dirt Gremlins, the first thing he found was a bag of rice. Liam investigated it and was surprised when he found rice. And then he found lint. And dirt. And fur. And a human ear. Liam put the bag down and closed the cupboard. In his haste to get food, he had forgotten to give the Dirt Gremlins time to get out of the kitchen. Breakfast on the road today, then.

    Sunlight and warmth streamed into the kitchen through an open window that led out to the street in front of the apartment complex. Roger shielded his eyes and stumbled over to the curtains, desperately pulling them shut. Brilliant golden rays still lit the whole room up, allowing Liam a good look at the Dirt Gremlins handiwork on his kitchen. The white counters were entirely covered with brown streaks. The cupboard doors hung loosely without fail, barely hanging on by one screw each. The refrigerator door was shut tight, glued to the rest of the frame by caked on and gummed up filth. Most of the mess was surprisingly new, since Dirt Gremlins are nothing if not industrious.

    Liam’s stomach growled as he steadied himself, the eyes of a small horde of Dirt Gremlins peered out at him from the shadows of his kitchen. While he contemplated food, his next job came in, literally. The letter fluttered in before Liam could close the window. It looked like a butterfly made from paper, the lettering creating a distinct pattern as it fluttered gaily around his kitchen.  Liam groaned out loud, sending a ripple of giggles through the gathered dirt gremlins in the room.

    It landed on the table in front of Liam, who squashed it flat before remembering it’s sender would find out if he touched it. In for a penny, in for a pound, there was no way out. Picking up the letter, Liam looked it over and held it up to the light, unfolding it as it struggled weakly between his fingers. It simply read, “Come at once. I have work.” Work meant one thing and one thing only. Stealing from somebody who would rather reach for his piece than call the cops. Magic was inconvenient for those who wanted to remain unfound.

    Liam knew he had to go, though, or his new employer would find him, and given the choice Liam would rather take his chances meeting his employer without the Dirt Gremlins tittering at them both from the shadows. Going in for work meant being presentable and being presentable meant clothes that hadn’t been in his place. It took significant effort to keep clean when your apartment was infested with tiny Picassos of filth. Liam dressed quickly and pulled on a thin jacket before heading for his door. On the way out, he caught a dirt gremlin, with paint brush in hand, smearing some black paste all over his walls. It smelled terrible, and Liam could’ve sworn he saw an eye ball in the mix somewhere.

    They stared at each other for a good long while before Liam managed to speak, “I’m going out for a few days. Don’t touch my stuff.”

    The gremlin stared at Liam for what felt like a small eternity before finally blinking. “Dirty.” It said simply before going back to painting the wall with filth.

    Liam left his apartment, not even bothering to lock it. Nobody would get far enough inside to steal anything before they turned around and left. Whoever broke into his place would be lucky if they got out before they threw up. Liam kept his clothes and most his valuables several floors down. When he got to that apartment, he showered and changed before heading out to the street. Without the manager being nice enough to lend him use of an empty apartment for his good clothes, there was no way he could have lived there, good rent or not. Time to get to work. It could be worse, but Liam honestly couldn’t figure out how.

Chapter 2

  Life in Liam’s apartment complex was quiet, contemplative and squalid. These were words Liam preferred to use, as opposed to phrases like “hung over” or “piercing headache”. Those words vanished when he left the safety of his own dingy cocoon. As soon as he opened the front door, he was assaulted by the sounds of life. New York, as far as Liam could tell, was the best city in the world. It was alive and moving all the time. Even late at night, when Liam looked out the window to the street there were always a few stragglers from the nearby bar and trashcans practically alive with rats the size of small dogs.

     The place Liam needed to get to was clear on the other side of town. Most New Yorkers would have looked for a taxi, but Liam knew better. Sure enough, sitting outside his apartment complex idled a taxi just for him. When his employer went around the city, he used his own private driver who drove a taxi, claiming it got less attention from the wrong sort of person. Opening the door, Liam got into the back seat and let out a deep sigh, “So, how is he?”

     The driver turned to look over his shoulder at Liam, “Simon isn’t happy with you. Let’s leave it at that.” Shadows hung impossibly over the drivers face, so Liam couldn’t make out his features. He wore a green button down sweater over a white collared shirt. Turning back to face the road, the driver pulled out and started toward their destination.

     “Well, did you put a good word in for me like I asked you to?” His employer trusted his driver with his life. Liam did as well, because when you’re a mess of an employee, you need someone to speak for you to the boss.

     “Even if I wanted to help you get out of this, which I don’t, you would still be the one doing the job today. Don’t ask me why he does, but Simon likes you, Liam.”

     Liam expelled a deep sigh from the depths of his soul and stared absently out the window, “Well, shit. It’s that bad.”

     “Certainly isn’t your manners, I can say that much.”

     “Oh, come on! We’re doing this again? People swear in this country You get pretty worked up about that for a guy who drives a yellow toilet on four wheels.”

     “Liam, you know damned well I only drive one person around. You’re the exception to that rule and you know that too. Are you trying to tell me Simon Nair urinates in public because I’m sure he would like to hear that.”

     Liam perked up at this, “Would that get me fired?”

     “No.”

     “Well, shit.”

     The taxi merged into heavier traffic and headed toward their destination at a speed that Liam would have considered inadvisable on a speedway. Somehow, they arrived at their destination in one piece. The gates opened to greet them, swinging open without a sound. The guard tipped his hat to the driver and they pulled within view of the house.

     If mythical creatures in the United States had a de facto king, that man would be the head of the Nair house. The current head of the Nair family was Varnes, but Liam worked for his golden boy son named Simon. That made the house Liam was about to walk into the central hub location for mythical creatures all over the tri-state area.

     It was an enormous house, standing at five stories. It’s white paint shone like a beacon in the afternoon sun, reflecting its glory and light to the rest of the world. With its titanic stones, the front wall could have been part of a castle. The complicated layout of the upper floors certainly qualified it as a fortress. The cab pulled up to the front steps and Liam stepped out, bracing himself. The steps led to a set of massive front doors with an enormous stone face looking down over the lintel. It’s massive stone beard hung down slightly into the doorway. Liam thought the face looked angry, but he had been told it was supposed to be happy. Taking in the severe features, Liam decided he didn’t want to know what the stone relief was supposed to be happy about.

     Steeling himself one more time, Liam pushed open the heavy double doors and walked into complete pandemonium. When Liam had started working here, he hadn’t even known such creatures existed and yet here they were, getting marriage licenses and taking out health insurance policies. It’s not like an elf could just walk into city hall to get an assessment on his tree house. That elf would need to come here. The first time he had come into this room, it had taken him a good five or ten minutes to pull his jaw off the floor. This house, the home of the Nair family, was ground zero for everything important going on in the city for this cross section of society. The room had an incredibly high ceiling, with paintings of the founders of the so-called Five Families across the top. The well-polished white marble floor produced a beautiful reflection of the fresco on the ceiling. In the middle of the room sat row upon row of dark wooden benches, filled from end to end with all sorts of creatures. There were trolls, pixies, brownies, elves, and beings Liam didn’t even recognize. On the far-left side of the room, a line of clerks peering out from behind glass partitions. To the right of that, requiring Liam to cross the entire room, was a small white door that would lead him to his employer.

     One thing Liam had quickly learned since he started working here was that the path to that door led him past almost every row of benches and to a thief, that meant it was time to do a little free-lance work. Even though these were creatures of fantasy and myth, apparently their existence was a lot more mundane than he would have thought. Mundane enough that a little goblin, who was dressed in a smart business suit, never even noticed when Liam filched a small gold coin from his pocket. A lace handkerchief here, an expensive looking pocket watch there, Liam picked his way across the crowd towards his goal.

    Just as he reached the end of the rows, he brushed heavily against an enormous man. At least, Liam thought he was a man. He towered over Liam, even sitting down. His ears were slightly pointy and his features were slab-like, with a wide nose and clear vacant eyes. An enormous cigar dropped from the left side of his mouth, curling smoke up towards the ceiling. Reaching up with a massive hand, he scratched his scalp, which was covered with a matte of thinning black hair. He wore a dark woolen suit, despite the heat, but under that he wore a plain white undershirt.

    “Watch where you step, you punk.” The creature rolled his shoulders and Liam had to  move fast in order to keep from being bowled over.

     “Sorry, just headed up to see Simon.” The creature shrugged and went back to staring at the wall, and Liam headed for the door and up the stairs. Simon Nair. This was the man Liam had been stupid enough to try and pickpocket once upon a time. The heir to one of the most powerful families that nobody knew about. It didn’t matter that he was a second son. Liam often took that as a sign that even he could move up in the world, if a second son could inherit the family fortune in such a rigid world as his.

     The stairs didn’t take nearly as long to climb as Liam would have liked. The deep red carpet muffled his steps as he slowly trudged up, trying to find a balance between getting to his destination and  going as slowly as he could get away with. The walls were lined with candles that flickered from slight breezes when any of the doors into the stairs were opened. This stairwell belonged only to family members and to people who were unfortunate enough to be invited, such as Liam.

     His stop was on the third floor, down a long corridor and straight into the office. The door opened far more easily than Liam expected and the room he found himself in was exactly as he remembered it. Walls were covered with bookshelves from floor to ceiling and a large desk sat directly opposite the door. Sitting behind the desk waited the man who had summoned him this morning. He was busy writing on a piece of paper, so Liam closed the door behind himself and stood in front of the desk. It never boded well to interrupt a dragon at work.

     Simon was tall and quite muscular, towering over Liam’s slight frame. He had shaggy brown hair that obeyed its own laws and defied control. Despite his refined features, Simon’s most striking aspect was easily his eyes. One eye, the brightest blue Liam had ever seen, was focused on his work. His left eye, yellow and possessing a slitted pupil, was pointed directly at Liam.

     There was a long silence before Simon finally spoke, “Liam! I’m glad you could come on short notice…

    “Not that I had a choice,” Liam muttered under his breath.”

     “Doesn’t mean I can’t be grateful,” Simon gently chided him, “Sorry to keep you waiting, I just wanted to send out another note before I tell you where I’m sending you today.” Finishing his note, Simon quickly fashioned it into a paper butterfly and got up, walked over to a window and opened it. Letting the butterfly go, it floated down for an instant before its wings started fluttering on its own.

    “No matter how many times I get those notes from you, that still amazes me.”

    Simon turned around, a slightly incredulous look on his face, “This is what impresses you? Not all the creatures downstairs or your own special talents? It’s the paper butterflies that do it for you??”

    Liam shrugged, “Not everyone is amazed by the same things, Simon.”

    Simon laughed and walked back over to his desk, seating himself behind it, “Speaking of amazing, I have someplace really fun to send you today.”

    Liam hung his head. He had walked right into this one, “Alright, lay it on me.” And so, another day’s work began.

Chapter 3

     One of the most frustrating pitfalls in the workplace is communication. There’s nothing more infuriating than having a conversation with someone and realizing that they’re hearing something very different than what you’re saying. Working for a powerful man meant that Liam had to learn an entire new lexicon of words. Powerful men spoke the same language he did, but he was starting to learn all the shades of meaning. Surprising, interesting, and fascinating are words that don’t mean good or bad. When Simon told Liam he had located something surprising, interesting, or fascinating, Liam read this as a sign that he was going to die. To his credit, Simon usually tried to tell Liam what exactly he was going to steal and why it was important. He tried, but Liam didn’t care and had no plans to change that attitude. He only cared about three things. Where, what and who.

     “…and it’s been lost since the thirteenth century.  My sources tell me it ended up in New York, courtesy of some Russian mobster and I don’t need to tell you that a statue of a dragon that can be turned into a real-life, honest to goodness fire breathing dragon won’t mix well in down town New York. It’s a miracle nobody’s figured it out yet. We’re catching a break here. That won’t last in this city, so I need you to steal it for me.”

     “So where exactly can I find this thing?”

     “It’s being sold at an auction house in Queens. It’s not exactly a fancy place. I actually think it’s right next to a Japanese steakhouse.”

    “Does this auction house have a name?”

     Simon shuffled through his papers and a laugh snuck out as he held up a piece of paper and handed it to Liam, “Someone needs to talk to the owners about the name.”

     Liam took the paper and looked it over, “Crazy Eddie’s Discount Magical Ephemera. Find us in Old Bart’s Guide to the Black Market.” On the bottom of the note, it listed an address. Liam tucked the paper into his pocket and swore under his breath.

     Simon cocked his head, “And what was that reaction for?”

     Shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, Liam tried to conjure up the words to explain the dilemma, “Security comes in three flavors. Conspicuous, highly trained and crazy. The name of this damned auction house literally contains the word crazy. Their so called “security” will just be nut job killers that don’t look good in suits looking for an excuse to cut someone up.”

    Simon shuffled the papers he had on his desk and returned them to their folder, “What do you care? It’s not like you’re going to stay dead or anything.”

    Liam winced, “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, jackass. Last job I pulled for you, the security guys thought it would be fun to do things to my body. I don’t even want to tell you where they put the…”

     “Alright, alright. You’ve made your point. After this job, I’ll let you rest up a bit. I’ll even give you time and a half if you get it done right. Remember, small dragon statue, made of stone. Looks entirely ordinary.”

     Liam mentally tucked the information away and nodded, “Dragon statue, stone, small, not very ornate. Got it. Given the type of place we’re talking about, this job will take me around a week.”

     Simon raised a brow in genuine shock at this, “A week? That seems a suspiciously long time to me.”

        Liam scowled and headed for the door, “It’s not like I can just walk in and take the damned thing. I’m not you, Simon. You wouldn’t break a sweat dealing with the staff. But me? I would be lucky if I got a punch in and even luckier if the first punch didn’t do me in. I’ll need a week to stake the place out and make sure I know the routine better than they do. I’ll get it for you, just you wait.”

     Heading out the door, Liam found his way back down to the lobby and out the front doors. The taxi still sat out front, waiting for him to arrive. Hopping into the back seat, Liam handed the piece of paper with the address to the mysterious driver, who took off. A stake out meant an excuse to spend time away from home and that meant less time dealing with the Dirt Gremlins.

     Once they reached the destination, it didn’t look like anything special. If it weren’t for all the cars parked in front of the place, Liam would have assumed it was ready to be condemned. There were a few giveaways, things that Liam had become quite good at picking up. The building had a lot of structural damage, but there were signs that the building had undergone renovations. The front wall looked like shit, but it looked like new shit. The decorative pieces on the building, including a faded red dragon, looked like they were about to fall off the building. Whoever owned it cared less about how it looked and more about the building not falling on the patrons.

    The steady stream of customers going in and out meant that Liam was unlikely to get bored. The Japanese steakhouse right across the street meant Liam wouldn’t be getting hungry either. Thankfully, there was a cheap motel situated on the end of the block. It had a serviceable outdoor swimming pool with a wonderful vantage point of the auction house. The taxi pulled up on the other side of the street from the auction house.

    Liam hopped out of the cab and turned to frown at his driver, “Why don’t you just blast out who I am on a megaphone you twit. What kind of moron parks a thief right across from the place he’s going to be robbing?”

    “But I thought you didn’t want to do the job. Hope you don’t die, Liam.”

    “Get bent.” The taxi pulled away from the curb and rocketed off, leaving Liam alone with his job.

     The next four days were a blur of Japanese steak and people watching. Despite the auction house being on the smaller side, there was an almost endless stream of people coming and going. From the conversations Liam overhead, it would have been more accurate to call it a flea market than an auction house. Most people heard about the place from a local publication that let people know what was up for sale. It was infamous in most circles of the mythic underworld. It was called, “Old Bart’s Guide to the Black Market” but to hear Simon talk about it, it was mostly a collection of trash and shit that didn’t work anymore because it had been rightly broken long ago. That didn’t stop people from paying exorbitant amounts of money for what amounted to useless curios.

     The patrons wandering away from Crazy Eddie’s discussed everything about the inside, loudly and frequently. The inside sounded like it was the Fort Knox flea market. There were cameras in every room covering every conceivable angle, security guards practically outnumbering the patrons and an automated security system that would lock down the building at the slightest suspicion of foul play. By the time three days went by, Liam knew every guard by name and what their favorite foods were, as well as relationships and who they voted for in the last two elections, which is to say nobody. Convicted felons can’t vote.

     Security dressed nicely enough, but none of them were wearing fancy suits. During the late afternoon shift, just when the sun was going down,  was when Liam was going to head in That was his best chance to walk straight in without getting noticed. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s entirely possible to become invisible, you just had to know how to walk where people weren’t looking. Liam didn’t doubt there were people who really could vanish into thin air. A few weeks ago he had suspected he was sharing his rooms with an invisible pervert who watched him while he slept. It turned out to be a spider the size of a large football wearing a Yankees baseball cap. He couldn’t even get too mad, because the spider had been very apologetic about the whole thing. Mostly because it had gotten caught.

    As the sun went down on the sixth day, Liam put his plan into action. The crowd got the thickest around dusk, and that was when she arrived. Liam had watched her for the last four days, and who could blame him? She was a blonde number that wore a red dress so short it came across more like a classy nighty than something to be worn out on the town. Liam knew damned well he didn’t have a shot with a woman like that and she was taken anyways, by one of the young guards who worked the late afternoon shift. When she wasn’t there, he looked intensely bored, but when she arrived his face lit up and one whole half of the entrance might as well have been unguarded.

     Like clock-work, she showed up and it was time to go to work. Liam crossed the street calmly and mixed himself in with the crowd. He matched the pace of the people in front of him and vanished into the middle of a large group of patrons. Everyone was supposed to be checked out, but with Liam being so small it was easy for him to get lost into the mix. With careful quick steps, he danced into the building and shifted immediately to the left and out of sight of the doorway. The auction house was larger on the inside than Liam would have thought possible. The entirety of the building was one large room with a hardwood floor. It smelled like a museum and the auction pieces were in full view standing on podiums. After scanning the room, Liam realized why they could afford to be so liberal displaying their items for sale.

     Guards stood along the walls, in the corners, in the crowd and even behind the concession booth and in the coat check room. Cameras had been placed in every possible corner, it wasn’t possible for Liam to scratch his ass without being seen in hi definition through one of the cameras. That meant Liam would only be in the room for a short time before security realized he wasn’t supposed to be there. He had known before he walked in that this was going to be no cake walk, but the amount of security on display was nothing short of insane. He meant that both in term of both numbers and mental disposition. Liam shuddered as one of the guards licked his gun menacingly. Time to get to work.

Chapter 4-

     No plan in the history of the world has ever gone off like clock-work, except in the movies. That turn of phrase sounds nice until you realize that all it takes to throw your ridiculously complex plan off is for one security guard to stay on the can too long because he’s got stomach cramps that day. The best plans end up being the ones that can be adapted on the fly to new situations and difficulties. Liam walked through the room and wherever he went, items vanished. Some of them vanished into Liam’s pockets and some of them vanished into other people’s pockets. At the very back of the room was the statue of the dragon. It was a small statue, barely larger than a chess piece, but the eyes were made of emerald and the workmanship was master level, at the very least. The statue would never be taken without some serious effort. Liam knew he would have to get inventive.

     Finding a patron whom Liam had stealthily recruited into becoming a thief, he pointed at her and yelled at the top of his lungs, “That lady stuck something in her purse, someone stop her!”

     Total chaos broke out. Apparently, Liam’s efforts had not gone completely unnoticed by the security or the patrons he had volunteered for his plan. It seemed like most of the patrons ascribed to the belief that, sometimes, fate just plops things in your lap, or your purse, or your pocket. Since it was out of your control in the first place, that gave you total license to just take whatever you found and run. People dashed for every exit. Security did their best, but people can get squirmy when they know that getting out fast is the only way they’re leaving on their own two feet at all. Liam casually walked over to the dragon statue and crammed into his pocket. It made a small jangle noise as it hit the other items that Liam had in his pocket.

     It never paid to follow the crowd. Liam thought individual people were quite clever. Crowds possessed the hive mind of a rotten fruit and given his slight stature, he had learned early on not to follow the crowds. The other downside to following crowds is that if you’re being chased by angry men with guns, they tend to aim for the crowds first. Whatever else could be said for the security at Crazy Eddie’s, you certainly had to admire their enthusiasm for their job. If Liam hadn’t started the panicked rush towards the door, he might have stuck around, but in the back of the room, a large set of black double doors called to him. Ducking inside, Liam melted into the shadows behind some heavy looking cardboard boxes.

     A cold drip of sweat crawled down his back as Liam snuck a peek at the rest of the room. It was poorly lit and filled with boxes stacked three or four high. A quick scan of the ceiling revealed no cameras of any kind. Most thieves would be tempted to bolt for the door right away, but that was a fool’s errand. The guards were all on high octane alert and it would only take one guard coming back for a clip-board or some ammo and Liam was toast.

     He waited in the shadows, but he didn’t have to wait long before two security guards came bursting in through the doors, “He came out this way, make sure to watch this door and I’ll do a sweep of the storage area. Shoot to kill.”

     Liam couldn’t help it. He snorted a little That turn of phrase always struck him as funny. Whack jobs with guns like these bozos didn’t shoot to kill, they shot to obliterate. The last time Liam had run into this type of goon, they shot him so many times he wouldn’t have been surprised if his progeny were born with lead poisoning.

    Of course, even a quiet laugh echoes in a storage area. Both goons trained their guns on Liam and opened fire. He died. He had died many times before, but for whatever reason it never stuck. He just woke up around thirty seconds later, in blinding pain and in need of a good stiff drink. When he was younger, he had tried to find out more about this particular ability. Nobody had ever been able to give him an answer and in the years since he had been young, Liam had stopped caring.

    When he did wake up, his pockets were being rifled through with no particular care by one of the security guards. This was the worst part of playing dead when everyone thought you really were dead. They handled you like a piece of meat, making Liam feel like he needed to start yelling, “bad touch!” However it would have given him away slightly, and since Liam didn’t feel up to getting shot again, he waited. He waited until all the items in his pockets had been cleaned out. He waited until the security guards made all their stupid jokes. He waited until they started dragging him out to the dumpster and then, when they had reached the back door, he picked the pocket of the guard who had taken the dragon statue from him.  Nobody would ever suspect a dead man.

     They tossed his body into the dumpster, leaving it for the trash pickup later that day. The dumpster smelled as though it had seen its fair share of bodies in the past, and not all of them had been very clean when they had been thrown in there in the first place. Liam kept on waiting while the guards came out a few more times and added a dozen more bodies to the dumpster party. Hours went by. When Liam was finally sure he was in the clear, he simply hopped out of the dumpster and walked to the end of the alley. Only an idiot would walk right out past the security guards, unless that idiot happened to know exactly when neither one of them would be paying attention to much of anything. Liam was that kind of idiot. He didn’t even have to rush, he just went back to his motel room to sleep off being dead. Liam was never sure whether to call jobs like this easy or hard. It wasn’t exactly back breaking labor, if you don’t count the dying part of it.

     Humans can adapt to all sorts of crazy things. As Liam had recently learned, so too could creatures of myth and legend. Nothing brought the miracle of adaptability home for Liam like waking up in a motel after being shot and killed the night before. It felt like waking up in a cleaner version of home, which is how Liam knew he wasn’t home. There were all kinds of tell-tale signs. No scurrying noises, beyond what one would expect in a cheap motel. The room smelled like cigarettes and cleaning fluid, not the best smell in the world. In comparison to his own apartment, it might as well have been a rose garden.

     The first thing Liam did upon waking up was check his pocket for the dragon. His fingers closed around the stone, Liam could feel the weight of it in his pocket. If the auction house was going to find him, they would have done so already. That didn’t mean they never would, most auction houses that sent notices in to Old Bart’s had at least one employee on the ball enough to know when they had been ripped off. The first thing to do was to get clean and grab some new clothes and that meant going home, or at least taking a shower. Given that Liam’s own shower had official become a hazmat zone within weeks of his moving in, even the motel shower held its charms. At least Liam could count on no Dirt Gremlins popping out from the drain, getting stuck and squealing “Dirty!” over and over for the hour it took Liam to unstick the creature.

     Once he had showered, Liam checked out of the motel and started the trek back to the Nair mansion. He knew he could have sent word to Simon and got a ride from his personal yellow taxi, but that would have tipped off a lot more people than he would have liked.

     By the end of the day, he had found his way back to the Nair estate. The sun had long sunk below the skyline. The lights from the mansion shone out brightly in the darkness, drawing Liam to it. Entering the front door, Liam could hear his footsteps echo as he crossed the now empty main room to the door that led upstairs. Despite the hour, he knew he could count on Simon to be in his office. So Liam strode up the stairs and down the hall, to the door that led to his temporary freedom.

    Before he even reached the door, Simon opened it and waved him in, “Liam, thank God! My people on the street told me there was a riot at Crazy Eddie’s. I wasn’t sure you’d been able to make it out.”

     “Yeah, about that,” Liam trailed off and looked around the office, “I caused the riot. I had to do it in order to get out.”

     “Did you get the statue?”

     Liam rifled through his pockets until he found the statue, “It’s such a little thing and it’s just like you said, it’s not bad but it’s no work of art.”

     Simon took it from him gently and held it up to his left eye. In the dimly lit office, his eye glowed and the statue’s eyes glowed in return. Putting the statue down on his desk, Simon began to rummage around in one of the drawers, “Sadly, people don’t want it for purely artistic reasons. It’s a good thing you managed to get that for me, because it’s clear that we have a real problem child on our hands here.”

     Scratching his head, Liam looked incredulously at the small figurine, “A problem child? How can you tell?”

    Pulling a bottle out of the desk, Simon shook it at Liam. The liquid sloshed gently and gained his attention, “It’s a dragon thing. I can tell this one has a really poor attitude. Care for a drink to celebrate?”

    “Wait a minute,” Liam had done some drinking with Simon before. His head protested at the thought of the future hangovers, “Is that wake-up juice?” Wake up juice, in spite of its name, was a concoction made primarily of troll whiskey and goblin spirits with some other ingredients mixed in for good measure that Simon wouldn’t tell him about. It hit you like a run-away freight train but it did make you feel great until you crashed. It was made for sipping. Between Simon and Liam, they had sipped a whole bottle and a half last time, a decision they both thoroughly regretted the next day.

     “I just thought maybe we could have a little nip before I send you home.”

     Liam eyed the bottle, “Let’s get wasted.”

      Simon slammed the bottle down on his desk and pulled out two shot glasses, “Now you’re talking my language. Prepare yourself, Liam. I’ve been training for our next drinking contest since the last one. I am going to drink you under the table.”

    Liam sauntered over to the table, “Good luck. I’ve been drinking like this my whole life and I can’t die.” Simon poured the first shots while Liam watched intently like a man dying of thirst. This job might have some perks after all. Liam took the first shot. His head felt like it had been kicked by a professional soccer player.

Chapter 5-

  The only thing worse than waking up with a hangover in an unknown place with no idea how you get there would perhaps be waking up with a hangover knowing exactly where you were with no idea why you hadn’t left yet. Liam pressed his hand into the surface beneath him. It was soft leather and smelled of fresh cinnamon cleaner, so this clearly wasn’t his apartment. A brief attempt to sit up and open his eyes confirmed Liam’s worst fear. God, he’d never even made it out of the office. The whole room was bathed in soft shadows, but beyond the heavy curtains Liam could catch clear glimpses of Mr. Sun, waiting to ambush him when he left to go home.

     Memories of the previous night flitted in and out of his head, memories that left Liam with more questions than answers. It had started off simple enough. Liam and Simon had drunk until neither one of them could see straight. Around an hour after they started, a leprechaun showed up looking for Simon’s signature on a delivery of one pot of gold. Liam admitted to himself that he might be remembering that wrong, but if you learned anything working with the Nair family, it was this. Never drink with leprechauns. They could, and would, drink you under the table every time.

     Through his hangover, he could hear rustling and stepping around him. Sitting up, Liam shook his head and felt the pain rocket through his brain, rebelling at the sudden movement, “How long have I been out?”

     The scent of coffee filled his nose. Opening his eyes blearily, Liam found himself face to face with his employer’s left eye, “It’s only two in the afternoon, here’s a small bathtub of coffee for you.” Simon handed him what could generously be called a mug. It was brilliant white with a giant handle meant for larger hands than his and it resembled a giant soup bowl.

     When he had started working for Simon, his left eye often made him recoil. To his credit, Liam simply took the coffee and sipped loudly, “Did I die? I don’t normally sleep that long.”

    Simon straightened up and twisted his neck to get a lingering crick out of it, “I think you died twice. Once when we were just about finished drinking and once more before the leprechaun left for his flight.”

     “Oh God, I was hoping I remembered that wrong. Why the hell did you let me drink with a leprechaun?”

      Chuckling softly, Simon crossed the room to the window behind his desk, making sure the curtains were closed tightly, “You were quite insistent on it, as a matter of fact. The subject of who could drink more came up and after that point, there was just no stopping you. You couldn’t be dissuaded.”

     Liam downed the entire mug of coffee in three burning swigs, bracing himself for the pain, “That sounds like me. Drunk Liam is pretty belligerent from what I’m told.”

      “Drunk Liam tried to take a swing at me when I stopped him from punching his new drinking frenemy.”

     “Wait, does that mean I’m fired?”

     Simon sat back on his desk and held out a sheaf of papers, “No, that means you get another job.”

     Sagging back to the ground, Liam covered his eyes and tried to ignore the searing pain in his mouth, which was the only thing distracting him from the blinding pain in his brain, “Well, shit.”

    Sitting down at his desk, Simon shuffled some papers and looked up with his right eye, his brow creasing slightly as he watched Liam deal with his self-inflicted pain, “I’m so sorry, Liam. I really wanted to give you some time off, but you’re the only part timer I can count on for this kind of work and I got a big tip today from the Goodbody family. As much as you need a break, I can’t just let this tip go. It seems New York is host to a serial killer named Charles Beaufort. I feel ashamed to admit we had no idea he was here and he’s been in plain sight the whole time.”

     Liam sat up at this statement, “I’m a thief, not a killer.”

     Simon waved a hand apologetically, “I’m sorry, Liam, but you couldn’t kill Charles Beaufort if he were tied down and the knife were already in him. I want you to steal from him.”

     Time stopped for an instant and Liam’s hangover cleared up instantly, “You want me to steal from Charles fucking Beaufort?”

     “Why? Do you know of him?”

      Taking a deep breath, Liam started in, “Charles Beaufort? Yeah, I know about him. The man was a born predator, the first of his kind. Most whack-job killers on the streets view murder as a hobby, for him it’s a job. It’s a paycheck. The guy might as well be a shark in a nice suit. All the man does is kill people.”

     Simon pulled out a pen from his desk, writing down a few notes as Liam spoke, waiting for him to finish before looking up at him with both eyes, “And I need you to steal something from him. And you can take anything else you want, I’m giving you free reign on this one.”

      Liam felt his ears twitch, “Anything? No holding back? No stealing just what I need?”

      “Yes. Anything.”

     Liam weighed the options in his head. Simon always let him know up front that it was alright to walk away. A younger, less wise Liam would have taken that as a challenge, but the older, more bruised Liam knew better. Still, no self-respecting thief would turn down the chance to do a little free-lance work while getting paid. In the end, it wasn’t an easy choice, but it turned out to be a quick one.

     “Fine, I’ll get your piece and then acquire a few of my own. What do you need me to steal?”

     “A paint brush.”

     “A what now?”

     Simon laughed loudly, leaning over so far he almost hit his head on his desk, “One of my best friends is an Aliway, the family that does all the building and painting for the Five Families. He had a brush his father gave him that was brilliant for hunting magic. I don’t want Charles Beaufort to have an instrument that powerful in his bloody hands and I want my friend to have it back. You can’t miss it when you find it, it’s a bright red color with the Aliway motto, “Amant opera manuum tuarum” on the side. If you get that for me, I promise I will make it worth your while.

    Liam rose to his feet, swaying back and forth gently as he tried to steady his mind, “I can do it in about two weeks.”

    Simon’s face fell at this news, “Can you do it in maybe one week?”

    Liam stroked his chin, closing his eyes for a moment, “Why the rush order?”

    “I wanted to get it in time for his birthday…”

    “Go to hell. Two weeks is going too fast already.” Liam headed out the door and towards the stairs leading down. He could hardly believe he was going off to rob Charles Beaufort, one of the few things that never made an appearance on his bucket list. The main hall was as full as ever, the bustle penetrated straight through to Liam’s brain as he struggled to move past a gaggle of fairies on their way to one of the clerks to get their passports stamped.

     Two weeks meant at least a week of stake outs, and this one would be much less fun than the last one. Charles Beaufort might have a lot of faults, including killing people for a living, but his poor taste wasn’t one of said faults. He lived in a mansion that cost more than Liam had made in his entire life. His neighbors also lived in mansions, and that meant no cheap hotels and probably no expensive ones either. That meant classy security with cameras and big dogs and a direct line to the local police, who would show up in a heartbeat if there was so much as a tramp wandering outside their houses. Once he had the pattern of the neighborhood down, it was time for a trial run. If that went well, he would move on to the real deal.

     Reaching the front door, Liam stepped outside and immediately had to screw his eyes shut tightly. The revenge of Mr. Sun had started. Once he was finally able to open his eyes, Liam found a familiar yellow cab idling at the foot of the steps. The door was open and the shadowy driver waited for him with one hand on the wheel. Well, Liam had signed up for this one, might as well get started.

Chapter 6-

    Contrary to popular opinion, the weather outside when one sets out on an adventure rarely holds any bearing on how the story will end. Liam covered his eyes and stumbled down the steps to the private yellow cab waiting for him at the curb. Only when he reached the door of the vehicle did it dawn on Liam that the presence of the private cab and its mysterious driver meant Simon had known all along Liam couldn’t turn down a chance to do a little free-lance work.

     Being read so easily spoiled the trip a little. Liam got into the cab grumbling to himself and slammed the door behind him, laying down across the backseat, “That bastard’s pretty quick, isn’t he?”

     The shadowy driver turned to look over his shoulder at Liam’s prone form, “You could say he needs to be given his family…,” the driver trailed off, his nose wrinkling at the scent, “You smell like the floor of a seedy bar that someone died in.”

     Liam wrapped an arm over his eyes in a vain attempt to block out the offending sun, “That sounds accurate. Drop me off at home and I’ll clean up before I head off to work.”

     The taxi started off, headed for the front gate with gradually increasing speed, “I could drop you off in the neighborhood Mr. Beaufort lives in if you would like.”

    His headache started to gradually fade into the distance as sleep began to slowly overtake him, “I know you could, but if I showed up in that neighborhood looking like a mostly dead wino, I’ll get kicked out and if Charles Beaufort gets one look at your cab he would bail. I’ve heard he’s a regular subscriber to Old Bart’s and there’s a good chance he’ll know your cab on sight.”

    Simon’s driver retorted, but Liam missed it, having already drifted off to sleep. As the cab sped along the road, he slid from one side of the car to the other without ever waking up. They arrived at his apartment in wonderful time, and somehow, in one piece.

     The cab slowed to a crawl, finally stopping outside Liam’s brownstone apartment complex. They sat there for a few long moments, Liam’s snores punctuating the time, before the driver finally turned around and yelled at Liam, “Wake up, you lazy drunk! Earn your keep for once!”

      Liam shot awake at being yelled at, “I didn’t take anything, I swear!”

      The driver jingled some change, counting it, “That checks out. This is your stop, sir. Get out.”

      Grasping for the door handle and locating it after a few futile attempts, Liam slumped out of the cab and onto the pavement before pulling himself upright, “Thanks for the ride, jerk.”

      A small bottle flew out of the window and smacked Liam in the face before tumbling to the ground, “It’s a bottle of wake-up juice, seems like you’re going to need it.

     Liam plucked the bottle off the ground and held it up to his eyes. The vial looked like something that belonged in a mad scientist’s nightmare lab. It certainly kicked like something distilled in a mad science lab. Liam trudged up the stairs and into his apartment building. This job took him to so many varied locations. The clothes he was wearing now, though normal streetwear, would stick out too clearly in Mr. Beaufort’s classy neighborhood. Liam smelled villainous enough that most cops would have run away from the stench alone, so a wash and a change in clothes was in order.

     As he ascended the steps inside, Liam gradually became aware that his floor was creating a racket that echoed down the stairs. His storage apartment lay on the floor below his own, so with more than few misgivings, rather than just stopping for his things and cleaning up, Liam peeked up the stairs over the railing. From that vantage point, he could catch a glimpse of his door.      He shouldn’t have been able to see it and that it was open meant some brave, foolhardy soul had gone in to attempt to root around in the mud for whatever pearls Liam might have possessed. Liam didn’t have any friends and if he did, they certainly wouldn’t have been the type of friends who would stop by unannounced and invite themselves in while he was out.

     While Liam debated what to do, a chorus of “Dirty’s” rang down the hallway, dissuading him from investigating. He had a job to do anyways. Ducking into his apartment, Liam took a quick shower before picking out a white button-down shirt and a pair of black slacks with dress shoes so shiny, he could see himself in them. A sweater with a Harvard crest embroidered onto it completed the outfit and Liam checked himself out in the mirror. With his wet hair, he looked like a drowned rat that had somehow found itself a nice set of clothes, along with an Ivy League education, but the real disguise lay in a shoebox hidden away with the rest of his emergency tools.

     Every thief who was worth their salt knew that money meant security and the prospect of getting more work might vanish at any moment. That being the case, it was better to squirrel away as much as possible for the dark days when thieving was no longer an option, or you needed a lawyer to get you out of a pinch. Liam’s box was hidden under the sink in his spare apartment, buried under a pile of heavily soiled underwear, courtesy of the resident Dirt Gremlins upstairs. That insured most people wouldn’t look in that spot too hard. Liam went to the bathroom and dug it out, retrieving a wad of cash and taking around ten thousand dollars from it.

     In most circumstances, Liam would have found this a risky venture, but he was going to rob the one and only Charles Beaufort. He would make the money back and to blend into such an upscale neighborhood, he needed the last part of his disguise, a little paper to spread around. Liam knew that he looked like a drowned rat that had come into some money, but when you have a lot of money, people mostly stop asking questions about who you were and where you came from. At that point it was all, “Yes, sir” and “No sir” and “I’m sure we can arrange for that, sir.” The other benefit was the people who didn’t immediately stop asking questions were the ones Liam had be wary of for the most. This way, Liam could stakeout the neighborhood and also learn who he needed to be aware of all in one go.

     Walking down the steps to the front door, it occurred to Liam that he couldn’t just show up on his own two feet. He needed a way to arrive that would get the locals talking, or at least not in a bad way. A call to an old friend brought Liam the appropriate mode of transportation.

     Charlotte Gills went way back in the New York underground. She owned a limo service that catered to some of the best and brightest and, as good fortune would have it, some of the worst as well. Cops don’t pull over a limo following the rules of the road often, and Charlotte had made a killing transporting some of the most high-profile criminal lords across the city. Simon Nair knew her by name, and what surprised Liam even more was that she knew Simon by name as well, though she hadn’t seen him since he was six.

     He didn’t have to wait long before the limo showed up. It was long and black with tinted windows, but the detailing on the car had been painted a brilliant royal purple. Liam watched the limo idle in front of him for several minutes before he remembered. Payment up front, always. Pulling the money out of his pocket, he waved it around at the window and the driver’s door opened. Charlotte had been in the business for a long time, but she was still beautiful. Her long auburn hair had grey streaks through it, but since she was at work she had it tucked under her uniform cap.

     In the years since she and Liam had met, she had lost some of the bounce in her step and she had more wrinkles than Liam remembered but she was still a breathtaking sight, even in her fairly standard driver’s outfit. She had a slim figure and was only slightly taller than he was. Liam maintained, often and loudly when drunk, that attractiveness came down to how you used your assets more than what assets you had. For reasons Liam could never put his finger on, Charlotte mesmerized him.

     Opening the Limo door for him, Charlotte put her finger on his chin and gently pushed it closed, “Liam, you’re going to make a girl blush. Just get in the car and tell me where you need to go.” Without another word, she snatched the money out of his hand and Liam got into the backseat of the car. Without intending to, he sagged into the car seat. The air conditioner was on at just the right temperature, a glass of champagne sat next to him, bubbling lightly, classical music filled the back seat. The door closed behind him and Charlotte made her way around to the driver’s seat, sliding in and lowering the window to look back at him expectantly.

     “I’ve been hired to rob from Charles Beaufort. That’s where I’m going.”

     Charlotte’s expression never changed, “And how long do you need for that, hun?”

     Liam shrugged noncommittally, “Around two weeks or so. Any less than that is taking too much of a risk.”

     “So you’ll need me every day until the day of.”

      Liam smiled from ear to ear, “I wasn’t expecting you every day, but if you can spare the time.”

     Charlotte smiled, her eyes sparkling in the afternoon light, “For you, Liam? Anything. I just like you that much.”

     “You like the color of my money is what you like.”

      The glass that separated him from Charlotte started going up, “I would prefer to call that your sunny disposition. Sit tight, my lovely, we’ll be there safe and sound soon.”

     Liam picked up the champagne glass and took a sip. The dividing window retreated down again, “And Liam? No throwing up in my limo. I’ll make you clean it up.” Liam put the glass down as the window slid up once more. Better safe then sorry.

Chapter 7-

     When Liam stole from someone in high society, it became his window to seeing how the other half lived. You would never guess, based on his shabby appearance and poor luck, but Liam had sampled some of the finest foods the world had to offer. Liam generally hated spending the money going to fine dining establishments. That was the price of admittance, though, in order to steal from the other patrons. The neighborhood that Charles Beaufort lived in was a different story from other jobs. If realty could be compared to human rights violations, this neighborhood was a blood diamond. Not a single house in the neighborhood didn’t have blood money somewhere in its foundations or extensive renovations.

     Stepping out of the limo, Liam checked his outfit for specks of dirt in a grand show and took a quick peek around. Charlotte bowed and Liam flicked his hand vaguely, “Thank you, Charlotte. I’ll require a ride out of here in say, six hours. Same location, if you please.”

     Charlotte closed the door behind him and whistled softly, “You’re putting in some real long hours for Simon. Did he make a legitimate member of society out of you?”

     Liam suppressed the excitement in his voice and strolled away from the limo a few steps, “He also said I could do some freelance work for myself.” The street stretched out in front of him, the relative safety of a public park lay directly behind him.

     Charlotte nodded and her eyes widened at the realization that Liam was about to come into some serious money, “Well, that explains your being so serious about this job.”

     Liam had already tuned her out, his eyes scanning up and down the road. He never even noticed when she got back into her limo and drove off down the road, taking a right turn and vanishing into the distance. The houses up and down the lane all looked so different, each one a unique monument to greed and the overly grandiose spirit of mankind.

     What really mattered to Liam were the ways they looked the same. The street he started on was called Courvin Avenue, but the street Charles Beaufort lived on was several over and one or two up towards the main shopping center. Better to start off from a distance and work yourself closer, it’s easier to rob someone when they see you walk by their house every day, studiously ignoring it. Liam corrected himself, it would be easier to steal from Charles Beaufort this way.

     Walking down the street, Liam found himself shockingly unconfronted. The houses up and down the street were surrounded by high stone fences, but Liam didn’t let that fool him. The most houses had cameras on the corners, many of which panned up and down the street to follow pedestrians. One of them kept its lens on Liam the entire time he walked down their street. It took fifteen minutes of slow walking to reach Charles Beaufort’s house, and this was where Liam’s training kicked into high gear. When you made a living as a thief, you learned to take in details while apparently not looking at things. Liam assumed Charles Beaufort learned a similar skill, where you learn to appraise a person as a wallet and slab of meat while not openly staring at them.

      What he found on Charles’s side was very encouraging. The grass was finely manicured, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The entire front yard showed no signs of any equipment. There was a good chance Charles had someone come on property and take care of it. Less encouraging was the sight of his vibrant rose garden, which clearly got a lot of attention and fertilizer. More troubling still was the house directly opposite Mr. Beaufort’s house, which Liam could only assume belonged to a former Bolivian dictator. The house had a stone fence surrounding it, much like the other houses. Unlike the other houses, however, it had a barbed wire coil wrapped around the top. The entrance on this property was more than an opening that led to the five-car garage, it was manned on both sides by a guard with a gate that filled the whole opening and went up almost to the top of the fifteen-foot wall. There were more cameras along this wall than other houses in the neighborhood and most of them were moving to follow Liam the entire time he walked past. Liam vowed then and there that if he had enough time, he was going to check out that house as well. Simon had told him he could steal whatever he wanted to. He never specified from where those things had to be stolen.

    The property looked like it could withstand a small siege, not that Liam was interested in whoever lived there. He was interested in what whoever lived there might own. Given the security all around the place. That did mean that there were eyes all over that property and some of them would be pointed outwards at the street, and by extension the other house. In the five minutes Liam took to slowly walk past the houses on either side, he felt as though he was walking through a small valley of killing intent. It could have been his imagination, but he could feel guns being pointed at him from both sides of the street, which didn’t bode well for his thieving efforts.

     The next five minutes of the trip were mostly uninterrupted and quiet, the path led to the shopping center adjacent to the neighborhood that Charles Beaufort lived in and this also required some grace and time. As the day wore on, people from the neighborhood would come and go, the laborers who had been in the area for the day would likely drive past here and pick up a few things on their way home. It was a good place to sit back and take the pulse of the place. A neighborhood this opulent had two pulses going at the same time, that of the owners and the owned. The worst thing that could happen to a thief in a neighborhood like this was the unexpected. Since Liam hated being surprised when he was working, he wanted to know what the flow of traffic looked like going in and out of the neighborhood.

     As the sun began to set, Liam started his trek back through the neighborhood. A job like this was easier performed at night, but that didn’t mean it would be a cakewalk. A slow stroll through the streets worked best at night when Liam could find out how long he could loiter in one place, where the lights shone the brightest and most importantly, who asked questions. Unluckily, that first night on the streets went by with ease and at the appointed time, he found himself waving another handful of cash at Charlotte’s limo and going back home.

     Once he arrived home, he set a time for Charlotte to pick him up and he made his way up to his current storage apartment and changed back into his street clothes. Locking up his storage apartment, he looked up the stairs apprehensively. Some poor burglar overlooked his storage apartment and went right for the one apartment in the whole complex it would have been smarter to avoid. As he walked slowly up the stairs, Liam finally realized this was why he dreaded going home. He never knew what he was going to find. When he did reach the top of the stairs, he couldn’t help but click his tongue in disgust. Thieves used to have standards. Sure, you’re robbing someone, but that doesn’t mean you break their stuff, just their spirit when they realized all their prized possessions are gone.

     Reaching his door, Liam peeked his head into his apartment. The hallway leading into the apartment looked like a warzone had broken out. Chunks of oily black muck covered the walls and dripped from the ceiling. Liam had to keep looking up the whole time to avoid being hit by falling bits of trash that had been stuck to the ceiling. The living room looked as though it had taken the brunt of the fighting, if one could call it that. The would be thief lay slumped against the wall next a half open window.

     Liam was thoroughly certain he could see visible stink fumes leaving the apartment. The thief himself was covered in hairy looking dirt and pieces of debris that dirt gremlins had collected in their travels through the sewers. He wore a woven necklace of teeth, some of them sharp and some of them clearly human in origin. Liam leaned down closer when the necklace showed a glint of silver, but it just turned out to be a small collection of can openers. Heaped in a small pile around the thief lay a pile of Dirt Gremlins, clearly exhausted from their efforts at making over the thief.

     Liam poked the man gently, quickly pressing him back down and holding a hand over his mouth when he jerked awake with his mouth open wide, “Calling the cops would be a little hypocritical of me, considering I’m in the same profession as you. That and you’ve clearly been punished already, and nobody should get it twice for the same crime. Just get out and go while they’re still asleep. Nod if you understand.”

     The man nodded frantically and Liam slowly removed his hand. Any features of this would-be thief were completely obscured in grotesque face paint. Liam wouldn’t have been able to pick him out in a line up, unless all the people in the lineup had been previously used as a canvas by dirt gremlins. The thief left a trail of goo behind him leaking slowly from his pants legs, and Liam could hear him slump down the stairs for a couple of floors. Turning his attention to the pile of dirt gremlins, Liam had a sinking feeling that he would wake up in much the same state is his new friend. Once the Dirt Gremlins got riled up, sometimes it took days for them to calm down again. That just meant he needed to wake up earlier the next day, which was the worst punishment Liam could imagine. Turning to his bed, Liam was gratified to find that it had been mostly ignored in the dirtying frenzy of the afternoon. Curling up under the blankets, Liam closed his eyes and drifted off to the land of dreams.

Chapter 8-

     Over an extended career of thieving, Liam had learned one very important thing. It always paid to have three pieces of information on you. Identification, a newspaper and a reason to be in the neighborhood. The more upscale the neighborhood, the more Stalinesque you could reasonably expect the help to be. One day casing a rich, upscale neighborhood is the most Liam would be able to get before people started asking questions he wouldn’t know the answer to. Before he made the trip back to Charles Beaufort’s side of town, he did a little research on houses that were for sale. Even if he slavishly saved up every cent he possibly could, Liam could never have afforded to rent a closet in those houses, much less purchase one. Knowing this, Liam chose clothes that said he could buy multiple properties in the neighborhood. The ensemble screamed the message in all bold letters lit on fire and made out of hundred dollar bills. He wore a sports blazer with khaki pants and a white button-down shirt with a matching blue ascot.

      The ride to the neighborhood was an uneventful affair and Liam arrived unscathed and with a complimentary breakfast in his stomach as Charlotte drove off into the distance, leaving Liam in the same park he had been dropped off at the day before. Under his left arm, Liam clutched a copy of the New York Times and a listing of real estate up for sale in the area. In his right hand, he held a cup of coffee from Starbucks he had picked up on the way. The identification he needed was a little thin on the ground, namely he didn’t have any, but he was hoping that the goods and his manners would dissuade anyone from asking him to produce identification in the first place.

     The street was far busier today than yesterday, which meant a trip down the streets would hopefully provide more information than the day before had done. Liam strolled down the street and stopped at every house with a for sale sign peeking out over the stone fence in front of the property. He stopped and pulled out his real estate pamphlet, examining the price and humming loudly to himself as though he didn’t care if he bothered anyone, a common trait he had observed in rich folks who lived in this kind of neighborhood.

     As Liam walked down the second street towards his goal, he found his thoughts increasingly interrupted by high pitched yipping noises. Looking up from his work, he found himself confronted by one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She had long auburn colored hair and wore a plain black dress that ended just below her knees with low black heels. Her sun glasses that obscured her eyes entirely. Over her hair, she had a brightly colored scarf wrapped tightly to keep her hair from waving around too much in an errant breeze. What caught Liam’s eye, however, was her enormous purse which dangled from over her shoulder down to her waist by long straps. It wasn’t the purse that interested him, it was the occupant of the purse.

     The opening of the woman’s purse was occupied by a small teacup Yorkie that bounced around excitedly, yipping and attempting to leap from the purse to accost Liam. It wasn’t even the dog that interested Liam, it was the diamond choker around the dog’s neck that bounced up and down, repeatedly smacking the dogs chin, every time it yipped at him. The woman had stopped her walk to observe him, she didn’t seem too suspicious yet, but that could easily change.

     Tucking his papers back under his arm, Liam walked straight up to her and smiled, “Good morning, miss. I hope you don’t mind my saying, but that’s a lovely dog you have perched in your purse.”

     That look of vague suspicion vanished from her face as soon as he mentioned her dog. Tiny dogs are supposed to be adorable, kind hearted little angels. Her dog was now hopping frantically up and down in her purse, making small jingling noises that caused Liam’s ears to twitch slightly, though the intense look the dog eyed him with made him give up on getting into the purse.

     Holding out her hand, the woman smiled graciously, “Oh, thank you so much. We’ve had our Adolph for around four years, but he’s still a little puppy at heart.”

     Deftly taking her hand and avoiding the small jaws that lunged frantically for his arm, Liam kissed her hand and gently let it go, “I think it looks like he needs a little living space.”

     The woman laughed and waved a hand vaguely at Liam, “Oh, you’re as bad as my mother. What brings you to the neighborhood Mr….” she trailed off and smiled. It always paid to get to know future neighbors.

    Liam scooted in next to her and gently guided her to walk with him, “You should never give your name on a first stroll, it ruins the mystery. Let’s just say I’m looking for a house in the neighborhood.”

     The woman allowed herself to be guided along by Liam. This was the most intriguing thing that was going to happen all day. Shifting her purse to settle between herself and Liam, her dog lunged at him with the movement requiring Liam to give her a little space.

    “Do you have any properties that you’re interested in right now, mystery man?”

    Liam shrugged, “It’s too early to say. Right now, I’m just looking at the properties, or rather the wall around the properties. This certainly seems like a safe neighborhood.”

     The woman he walked with slowed her pace a little, her smile fading away for a second, “I suppose it would seem that way to someone moving into the neighborhood,” she caught the concerned look that Liam shot her, “and it IS a nice neighborhood, but everyone around here is so very odd sometimes.”

    Liam cocked his head slightly, “Odd how?”

    The woman pulled Liam to a stop in front of a stone wall, “The people who live here are nice enough. They play their music too loudly on the weekends, but once someone puts out a noise complaint they stop immediately. I think they’re in the flour business, because there are always trucks coming in and out of here. It must be really expensive flour, because one day the back of the truck opened and a bag of flour hit the street and burst open. They cleaned it up so fast, most people weren’t even aware it happened.”

     Liam looked up at the top of the stone wall as though he could peer over the top, “Flour, you say…”. He wasn’t sure if she was being naïve, or if she genuinely believed it was flour. The slight smirk on her face told him she knew what the “flour” had been.

     They walked down the streets towards his destination and every couple of houses, she would stop and point out a house owned by what she termed, “Interesting People”. It turned out that Liam’s initial thoughts on the neighborhood were correct. Most of them were thieves of varying sorts, drug lords perched on high or white-collar criminals slumming it in a neighborhood where asking questions could get you into a world of trouble. Liam sighed with relief upon remembering he would only be in the neighborhood long enough to get the job done. His disguise would work that long, any longer would be pushing it. It was already like skating on thin ice over a lake of sharks.

      She walked with him all the way to Charles Beaufort’s home. They stopped across the street and she turned to face Liam, “Well, this is me. I’ll be going for a walk tomorrow if you want some more dirt on my neighbors.” With that, she started towards her house, entering through a small door that Liam hadn’t even noticed in the corner of the gate. Mysteries never come one at a time, they usually travel in packs. Liam had never been so intrigued by a house in his life. If he had been the romantic sort, he would have said he had one more thing he wanted to steal from that house, a lady’s heart.

     Liam was not the romantic sort. Romance is the great thief killer. Romance wouldn’t have stolen her dog’s diamond choker. Romance can suck it. Liam jingled the diamond choker in his pocket and turned towards the Beaufort house. This was going to be easier than he thought. The next week passed in much the same fashion. Liam would get dropped off at the park. At some point in his walk, he would run into this mysterious woman and she would tell him tales of the neighborhood that nobody but an insider could know. If she noticed her dog was missing yet another expensive choker at the end of the day, she never mentioned it.  Liam, of course, never brought it up either.

     The first eight days had gone by, the time for walks in the sunshine was nearing a close and Liam found himself regretting more and more that their time had to end. It wasn’t love, Liam wasn’t entirely sure what love was, except that it seemed to involve lots of yelling and chocolate. It was a rare thing in his line of work to run into a woman who tolerated him, even though she barely knew a thing about him. That night, when Charlotte had dropped him off at his apartment, he stopped outside her limousine and rapped on the driver’s side window.

     The window rolled down and Charlotte looked up at him, “Tomorrow, I’m starting the next part of this job. I have to see how the place looks at night, so I’ll be taking the day off and I’ll need you to pick me up at dusk. I’ll be waiting.”

    Charlotte smiled and waved before rolling her window up and driving off down the road. That just left getting his equipment ready for tomorrow night, and Liam would be one step closer to robbing Charles Beaufort. On the way up to his apartment, he stopped and grabbed his mail. Stuffed into his box was a copy of Old Bart’s Guide to the Black market. On the front cover, where the picture of Old Bart should have been, a round circle of black permanent marker had been inked over it. This was the typical notification the black market gave that a hit had been put out on you. So shitting melodramatic. Liam walked the steps towards his apartment, feeling safe in the knowledge that whoever came to get him would have to go through all the dirt gremlins first. Not like they could put up a fight, but they made a lot of noise which could give him time to escape. Still, better to notify Simon in the morning rather than risking it going alone. When you have a dragon as a patron, you should never hesitate to ask for help.

Chapter 9-

     Waiting is the longest thing you will ever have to do. Waiting to do something illegal feels even longer because part of you keeps wondering when the cops are going to break the door down and start asking awkward questions about that funny smell your neighbors noticed. Liam had the longest day of all because he wasn’t even waiting to do something illegal. He was waiting for a ride to go prepare to do something illegal.

    Liam finally roused himself long after noon, he spent the rest of the day watching the Dirt Gremlins with rapt fascination. Somehow, he found an open spot on his couch and observed their daily activities. A crowd of seven or eight Dirt Gremlins were watching, wide eyed, as one of their peers frantically painted on the wall, using large and energetic brush strokes. Bits of dirt and unidentifiable garbage splattered onto the surface and held there as though they had been stuck by magnets. Each new brush stroke was followed by a hushed chorus of appreciative, “Dirty’s”.

     The process went on for some time, until Liam felt the need to ask a question. He cleared his throat gently, which ground the art show to a sudden and uncomfortable halt, “How do you know the difference between your new work and the old stuff?”

     The Dirt Gremlins surrounding their genius looked horrified at the question. The artist who had worked up quite a sweat threw his palette down in disgust and scurried off for the kitchen. The other Dirt Gremlins followed at a slower pace, leaving Liam alone in his living room with his thoughts and a new piece of art he couldn’t sell, both because it was part of the building and nobody in their right mind would want it. As the time to leave approached, Liam walked down to his storage apartment and changed into some black clothes. The first night was always the worst, staking out a new neighborhood. He didn’t bother cleaning up, but he wasn’t trying to impress anyone, so it hardly mattered.

     Charlotte showed up right on time, thankfully in a subtler limo than the one she had been driving. This must have been her stealth limo, since it was painted a matte black. Shortly after, Liam got dropped off in the park he had been dropped off and picked up at every day thus far. Charlotte left him there and for a long thirty minutes, Liam stayed right where he was. A neighborhood this paranoid was bound to have some weird security measures that nobody could predict. After half an hour, Liam got up to start his journey towards Charles Beaufort’s house when an alarm sounded near one of the houses. Liam squinted to see if he could figure out who or what set the alarm off only to find himself blinded when a whole myriad of varied colored lights shone down into the street while Disco music played at astoundingly loud volumes.

    It took around fifteen minutes for the alarm to stop, a sound that was punctuated by a single ominous gunshot.

    Liam waited another half an hour after that before crossing the street and climbing the nearest wall. Cameras are eyes that don’t require a physical presence, but they do have a drawback. They were all intended to watch for people in the street, and most houses in this neighborhood had placed relatively stationary cameras atop the walls for keeping an eye on their front doors. Once atop the wall, Liam could simply walk right over the cameras and take a look at the interiors of one side of the street. The lawns were empty at this hour, bright light from many of the houses illuminating most of the yard and some of the wall. In some cases, the lights from the house covered right up to the top of the wall. In those cases, Liam watched the house carefully and timed his crossing when he felt sure that nobody was looking.

    It took most of the night to reach the Beaufort house. The whole purpose of this exercise was to observe the neighborhood and night and nothing could be gained by rushing this. Rushing might be required on the night he went live, so it was better to be careful on the preparation nights.

    When Liam reached the end of each street, he would spend a long time watching the streets from the top of the wall before he moved again. Never surrender the high ground when there’s no need to yet. The best part of this neighborhood unfolded itself like a beautiful flower before Liam as he worked. Each house was so concerned with keeping their neighbors out that hardly anybody seemed to pay more than the barest amount of attention to the road.

     It was only when Liam was one street away from Charles Beaufort’s house that he ran into a beautiful snag in his plan. “What are you doing out so late at night and dressed like a burglar, mysterious stranger?”

    The voice sounded so close to Liam, he could feel the breath on his back and smell the scent of cinnamon and lilacs. It startled him so much, he slipped off the wall only to find his downward motion brought to a halt by a hand around his ankle. With some effort between the two of them, they managed to get Liam back on the stone wall. Liam was shocked to find the beautiful yappy dog lady on the wall with him. She wore a white sundress with two thin straps over her shoulders that came down to just above her knees. Even in this light, Liam could tell she was lean, wiry, and fit and much stronger than he was. The strangest part of her attire was the bandanna she wore over her eyes. It also was a brilliant white and Liam couldn’t quite make out how she was seeing around it.

     After a very long pause, she coughed slightly and gestured with her hand, holding it towards him. In her palm was a sparkling diamond choker clearly made with a small dog in mind, “I missed you this morning. I was afraid I wouldn’t see you again.”

     Liam struggled to put together everything he had just heard. The first question he had to ask was the most obvious one, even though Liam suspected he knew the answer, “You know I was stealing those chokers?”

    The woman laughed softly, sounding like music being played in the distance, “Of course I knew! How could I not notice when my sweet baby was missing her birthday present? But you managed to do it without my even noticing, which is hard to do. I thought it was cute, so I wanted to see it again. Then I got used to having you around and suddenly you were gone. Fancy meeting you at this hour. Are you still looking for property, Mr. Thief?”

     “Liam. And yes.” He had turned a deep red in the dark, which he hoped she wouldn’t notice. Her growing smirk suggested otherwise, “I have an employer who asked me to steal something from Charles Beaufort.”

    The strange woman put her finger on her chin and whistled, “Wow, your employer must be crazy to send someone alone to steal from Charles Beaufort.”

     Liam pulled his hand out of his pocket. He had already stolen the newest choker, “I suppose he thinks I’m the only one that can do it. Besides, I owe him pretty big.”

    Looking down at her hand, the woman giggled softly, “You naughty boy, you didn’t waste any time with that one.”

     “You were offering and I missed robbing from you as much as you apparently missed being robbed. Why wait?”

     The woman twirled a lock of her auburn hair around her finger, looking away slowly, “So when are you planning on doing it?”

     Liam chuckled softly, “Why, so you can warn your neighbor?”

     “What!? No way, Charles is gross! I wish he wasn’t my cousin, otherwise I would help you. I just…” she trailed off and covered her face, “I just wanted to watch you and cheer you on, not loudly of course.”

    Liam blinked a few times, letting what she had said sink in, “I was thinking about doing a dry run in four days, the real thing two days after that. That’s not set in stone, obviously.”

     Holding out his hand, Liam hesitated for an instant, “My name is Liam Boggan. I’m a professional thief.”

     The woman took his hand and squeezed it gently, “I’m Jenny Rever, an assassin.”

     The wind suddenly blasted through the trees and over the wall, almost knocking Liam off again, “I’m sorry, did you say you’re a Rever?”

     Jenny hung her head and let out a deep sigh of regret, “Since you say it like that, you must know something about my family. I guess I’ll go home now.”

     Looking back, Liam could never explain how he managed to grab her hand before she vanished. He often chalked it up to fate, though he would never be able to say whether that fate was good or bad, “My employer is Simon Nair. I’m not scared of your family.”

    Out of the Five Families, the Rever family could be called the trash family. Most people would prefer the term assassin. When you wanted a hunter, you called a Goodbody. When you wanted a negotiator, you asked for a Nair. When you needed something built or improved on, you got yourself an Aliway and when you wanted someone dead, you called a Rever because they took out the trash. Even for the Five families they were extreme. They wore cloth masks that covered their eyes, making Liam wonder how he had ever forgotten that fact in the first place. He had heard their hearing and other senses were purposefully sharpened from youth by denying their eyesight. During the day, she hadn’t been wearing the mask which led Liam to believe that she only wore it when on duty, or that she was still in training and had to learn to fit into normal society without her mask. Of course, Liam wasn’t scared of the Rever family because Liam couldn’t be killed.

    “I would love it if you were there the night I rob Charles Beaufort.”

    Jenny lit up with the brightest smile Liam had ever seen, “Oh, thank you so much! I’ll be ever so quiet, you won’t even notice I’m there!”

     “I’m going to have to ask you to stay across the street.” Her smile faded a little at this, Liam continued, “You’re not like the other Revers I’ve met in the past. They all seemed so quiet and reserved. Weren’t you all supposed to be emotionless? I thought that’s what Simon told me about you all.”

     “Yeah, I don’t really fit in with my family most of the time.”

     “Clearly not, but that’s why I need you to stay across the street.”

     Jenny cocked her head, her confused expression coming through her mask, “Why’s that?”

     “Because you clearly don’t know how to be quiet. That’s not a very good trait in an assassin.”

     “You sound like my father. Isn’t there anything I can do? I want to help you.”

     Liam hummed thoughtfully, “Well, why don’t you keep showing me around for the next few nights? I’ll need more chokers as well.”

    Jenny smiled a genuinely happy smile, “If you can steal them without my noticing, you get to keep them.” With that, she led Liam off down the wall towards Charles Beaufort’s house. This was going to be way easier than he had thought. The night got deeper and Liam’s goal got ever closer to him.

Chapter 10-

     The phrase “too good to be true” had never made any sense to Liam, because people usually used it to talk about things that were never going to happen. It made even less sense when people used the phrase to talk about things that really were happening. It made perfect sense to Liam that nobody ever used the phrase, “too bad to be true” because he doubted anyone could imagine such a thing. The night he had met Jenny Rever on his way to Charles Beaufort’s house was the first time Liam understood that something too good to be true does exist.

    Jenny had offered to continue showing him around the neighborhood, an invitation Liam had gratefully accepted. The tour she had given him of the neighborhood during the day had been comprehensive and useful. Annoyingly, now that she knew who he was, she was showing him things that had nothing to do with him. Their latest stop was her favorite spot for smelling flowers. Liam couldn’t smell anything, but she had seemed absorbed enough by it, so he had sniffed a few times to humor her. Even though she constantly said otherwise, Jenny was capable of stealth but not quiet. That was mostly because she never shut up. Liam hadn’t noticed it before, because he was taking in all the information that she had for him. Now that it was a quiet night, her voice practically echoed across the street, and no matter how many times he asked her to be quiet, she refused.

     That all changed when they reached her street. She went deadly quiet as they worked their way forward. As soon as she could, she crossed the street to the Beaufort house and scaled the wall with Liam close behind. As Liam had suspected, the wall led into an empty yard that looked quite nice, but clearly had no security. Liam could practically walk in tonight and take what he was looking for.

    “Cousin Charles has always been a little careless. He thinks because he’s a serial killer, people won’t try and break into his house and I’m all, “But what if they really want your stuff, Charlie.” He’s so dumb.”

    “He does have a good point. If you’re trying to break into this house, you’re doing it because you’re truly unfortunate or you know who lives here. And I do really want his stuff.”

     “But that’s what I’m saying, he’s so careless. Either way, your timetable works great because he’s going out of town for a week around the time you want to rob him.”

     Liam’s ears twitched slightly, “He’s going out of town? This keeps getting better and better. Now I just have to make sure I can get in and out quick and I’ll be golden.”

    Jenny reached out and caressed his left ear, “You’re like an adorable little rat with kleptomania.”

    Brushing her hand away gently, Liam steadied himself on the wall, “Knock it off.”

    The next four days went by in a blur. Every night, Liam and Jenny would capered all over the neighborhood and Liam learned everything he needed to know. He knew when the trash was taken out, he knew when the cameras were actually being watched and he knew which houses were most active in the late-night hours. He grew to enjoy their time together under the street lamp’s glow far more than the one they had before. Now they knew each other’s names and even what they did for a living. This was the first time Liam could remember that a woman had treated him like a human being despite his appearance and occupation.

    Wherever Liam went, he could count on Jenny to follow him like a lethal lost kitten. The next four nights flew by and when they had come to an end, Liam knew the streets at night far better than he did in the day. It was time for a dry run. Liam knew that most thieves thought dry runs made no sense. Why break into a place and leave without taking anything? Liam had a myriad of reasons, but had never had anybody to explain it to. That is, he never had anyone until the last night of their reconnaissance work rolled around.

     “Liam,” Jenny tugged on his sleeve and almost pulled him off the wall outside the Beaufort house, “why exactly are you doing a dry run? That doesn’t make any sense.”

     Liam’s ears twitched once, “You never know when you’re going to run into a house that has security so tight you need to bugger out quick. I might jump down to the grass and have an alarm go off immediately. Maybe we didn’t notice some cameras closer to the house and the cops get called. I want to know what I did wrong the first time, then I wait for two days. Two days later, the tension has worn everyone down and they all give up and go back to their normal routines.”

     Jenny paused for a long time before she spoke again, “Wait, so does that mean I won’t see you for two whole days?”

     Liam was surprised by the sound of genuine concern in her voice, “Well, yeah. I can’t show my face around here after I do the dry run. I need to give them time to calm down and once I come back, I get what I wanted and then I leave. I thought you knew that’s how this was going to work.”

    Jenny curled her knees into her chest and hung her head, “I wasn’t really thinking about it.”

    The rest of the night passed in silence and before either one of them knew it, the night and the next day had already passed. The night of the dry run arrived and Liam tailed Jenny, as he had every other night that week, to the Beaufort house. True to her word, the entire house was dark for the first time since Liam had started coming to the neighborhood at night. Jenny stayed where she was on the wall while Liam slipped off and hit the grass softly.  For a long few minutes he waited, and then he started the trek to the house. The grass was wet, even though it hadn’t rained in days, which meant an automated sprinkler had been turned on some time during the day.

     Reaching the front door, Liam tapped it gently. Testing the handle, he found it locked. It wasn’t a good lock, though, and took Liam no more than a few moments to pick. Stepping inside, he was pleasantly surprised to find there was an alarm system, but Charles had left it off when he left town. What he saw inside took his breath away. Charles Beaufort really needed to turn his alarm on.

     If Liam were a dying sort of man he would have sworn he had died and gone to thieves heaven, which likely didn’t really exist. The front foyer was stuffed full of things he could sell and live off for the rest of his life. Forget working for Simon, he could pay that debt ten times over just by handing over half his booty from this haul. What caught his eye immediately was a golden apple that sat on a pedestal in front of the grandest stair case Liam had ever seen. One look around told Liam everything he felt he needed to know. The owner of the house was out and he was overconfident enough to leave his house entirely unguarded. Liam left the way he came, locking the door on his way out. A dry run only served a purpose if there were any obstacles, and Charles apparently thought nobody would dare steal from him. That didn’t mean Liam was willing to give up his schedule. An overconfident thief dies a thousand deaths, a truism in his case. Two days more and he could live a free life again.

Chapter 11-

     Liam held the firm opinion that nerves on opening night were the result of not having prepared enough. When he had started out as a much younger man, he had the jitters that first night because he hadn’t prepared enough. More than not having planned and practiced enough, Liam hadn’t been mentally ready. That lack of preparation had almost gotten him caught. As he sat in his living room, pointedly ignoring a Dirt Gremlin art symposium. He found his hand shaking. No amount of mental preparation could prepare you to rob someone like Charles Beaufort. If it weren’t for the prospect of freedom from servitude to Simon, Liam would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. His mind kept racing through all the ways this could go wrong.

     Normally, in the land of the serial killers the man who can’t be killed is king, but Charles Beaufort didn’t kill for some illicit thrill. Beaufort killed for money and the prospect of being killed over and over until Liam paid him enough to let him go was not a pleasant one. Looking down at his hand, Liam realized it was still shaking. As he watched his hand, the shaking came to a stop. On the back of his hand, he could feel a brush running frantically over his nails and his fingers.

     Pulling his hand back quickly, he turned it around and found the back of his hand had been beautified with grime. His nails were black, and specks of white fur had been attached to his knuckles. Sitting in front of him was the smallest Dirt Gremlin he had ever seen, “Dirty?” It said as it shuffled its tiny feet nervously.

    Liam examined his hand again, “No, I do not like it. It smells and its ugly.”

    The Dirt Gremlin lit up as though it was its birthday, “Dirty!” It scampered off to the art circle to share the news to a smattering of applause from the other Dirt Gremlins. Liam had the sinking feeling something had been lost in translation.

    Eventually, the hour of truth arrived at exactly the time it was supposed to and Liam knew there was no putting it off. Waiting wouldn’t make him less nervous and the longer he waited the more likely it was that Charles would return from his trip sooner than planned. Charlotte waited for him outside the apartment complex and the ride in her stealth limo felt shorter than it had in the past. Before he knew it, Liam was watching Charlotte drive off into the night and the neighborhood sprawled out in front of him.

     As usual, Liam waited for half an hour before moving anywhere. It was always important to watch the rhythm of things, especially on the night you went live. Across the street, Liam could make out the form of Jenny, here white sun dress flickering gently in the breeze as she pranced along the wall across the street waiting for him. Patience was apparently not an important attribute for assassins who don’t fit in with their family.

    Eventually, Liam crossed the road to join her, scaling the wall with practiced ease. He had barely reached the top of the wall when Jenny wrapped him up into a tight hug, crushing all the wind out of his lungs, “Liam, I missed you so much! I’ve been so bored so I spent all my time waiting for you! Are you happy to see me too? Liam?” She trailed off and looked at his face. Her grip on Liam was preventing his breathing and he was starting to turn a light blue color. She let go quickly and covered her face.

    Liam took a deep breath. Now, more than any occasion to this point, Liam was grateful that he couldn’t die. “No worries. Let’s just get this over with.”

    Jenny nodded happily, sending her auburn hair flying around her, “Ok!”

    The trip from there on was taken in complete silence. Every sound was treated with suspicion, as though they had already been found out. The night was eerily quiet, not that the neighborhood had ever been particularly busy. They only ran into two people on the street, arguing over how many bodies could fit into a trash can. Liam knew the answer. It was more than they thought. This was hardly the time to flaunt his knowledge though, Liam had bigger things on the agenda tonight.

     When they reached Charles Beaufort’s house, something felt wrong. Liam’s ears twitched slightly as he sat on the wall overlooking the property. Nothing had changed, but Liam somehow knew this was going to get messy. Charles was clearly still gone. The lights were out, he could still barely make out his tracks in the grass from where he had landed the night before. Slipping down the wall, Liam worked his way slowly to the door. It opened easily on his touch. That was not how he left the house. The third rule of successful house entry is to leave everything except the things you take in exactly the state you found them in. This way, even when the occupant of the house noticed something was gone, they wouldn’t assume they were robbed. People steal from family all the time.

     Not that Charles even believed anyone would rob him in the first place. The thought never apparently occurred to him, which left Liam in the strange position of feeling like a kid in a candy store. This was an assumption on his part, since Liam couldn’t really remember being a kid and he had a suspicion that his childhood had been a little low on candy stores. Walking through the first room, Liam had three criteria for what he took. Would it fit in his pocket? Did it look valuable? Did it look like it belonged in a flea market? The last might have seemed out of place, until you remembered Charles only collected priceless curious and masterpieces. If it didn’t look expensive, the item in question would be worth a princely sum despite it’s looks. Somehow, Liam knew that every instant he spent in the house put him at great risk. What bothered him was that he couldn’t figure out why the hairs on the back of his neck were all sounding the red alarm.

    The second room in was worthless to Liam. It was full of clocks, covering every wall. Some of them looked to be worth a king’s ransom, but no thief in his right mind would steal something that constantly gave away his presence. It took around half an hour to dart around the first floor, picking up every small knick-knack and curio that caught his eye. On to the second floor. This was easily the least troublesome job Liam had ever pulled. Directly to the left of the grand stair case was a door the very sight of which caused Liam’s ears to twitch like a dousing rod. The room was Charles Beaufort’s office. It was surprisingly understated for a house that literally only existed to hold his collection of random junk. On the desk was the prize he had been sent for, the brush of a genius. The best birthday present any artist could ask for.

     Liam secreted it into a hidden pocket and turned to leave. Sticking around any longer was pushing his luck. Then everything went black and Liam died. When he came to, he felt an immense pain in his side. Reaching down, his hand grasped a spear that had been rammed straight through him and into the wall, pinning him to one place, “Ah, shit.”

     Liam’s vision hadn’t cleared yet, but he could hear a voice, “Oh! You’re still alive? I could’ve sworn I stabbed you right through the spine, along with some major vital organs.”

    As his vision swam back into focus, Liam found himself face to face with the one person he hadn’t wanted to meet tonight. Charles Beaufort. He had neatly combed brown hair and his eyes were a sort of rheumy white, though underneath Liam could still see traces of a soft brown. He looked like the host of a television show. He wore a red robe, but when he grabbed Liam’s arm, he felt the strength born from a lifetime of hunting

    Charles pulled Liam’s face up to meet his eyes, regarding him with genuine curiosity, “How exactly are you still alive? I’m not out of practice, am I?”

    Liam scowled, “Hey, you ass. I’m not asking you all sorts of personal questions, am I?”

    Charles took a step back from Liam and looked around his office, “You broke into my house, you jangle with every step because your pockets are clearly full of my belongings and yet you’re somehow mad at me for asking you “personal questions”?”

    Liam patted the spear he had been gutted with, “Also a little mad about this. It hurts like a sonvabitch.” While he spoke, Liam edged himself towards the edge of the spear.

    “Well, I’m sure we’ll have time to ask you some more personal questions while I take back all the things you stole from me. I’ll also need to ask you who sent you to steal from me in the first place. Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle…ish.”

     Liam cursed under his breath. This was supposed to be his ticket out. Sometimes, being unable to die really is incredibly inconvenient after all. Charles pressed closer to him, a little smile playing around the corners of his mouth. Liam had never heard of Charles being a sadist, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t play the part in order to get some information he needed. This was going to be a very long night.

    The feeling of dread was interrupted by the tinkling sound of glass hitting the ground. Liam couldn’t see who, but had the feeling he wasn’t the only who had broken into Charles Beaufort’s house that night. He didn’t have to wonder long as the new intruder instantly started speaking in an endless stream, “Liam! I talked to daddy and cousin Charles came back last night. You’re in so much danger…” there was a long pause as she took in the situation and then tried to introduce the two as though they were mutual friends who met at a party, “Uh. Liam, this is my cousin Charles.”

    Liam groaned, “Kill me now.”

    Charles tapped the spear stuck through Liam, sending ripples of pain through him, “I just tried to.”

    Grabbing the spear with both hands, Liam started pulling himself off the spear, “Try harder, this is way too awkward.” A blank expression came over Charles, who clearly had less experience dealing with Jenny than he did. This night would never end at this rate.

Chapter 12-

  Chance meetings rarely happen for no reason. The trick was finding out why they came into your life before they got in the subway and rode away from your life forever. That was how Liam met his true love and lost her in less than a minute. This meeting was hardly the work of fate though, for the life of him, Liam couldn’t figure out what sinister force worked it out. Jenny stood defiantly in front of the window, framed by the hole she had smashed through it. Charles stood close to him, his slack-jawed expression and blank stare betraying an inability to deal with the situation as it developed. Liam realized that, for the time being, he was the one being paid the least attention to in the room.

     Liam couldn’t recall the last time he had cocked up a job this badly. The nearest Liam could recall was an attempt to pick-pocket a Russian mobster, which had ended with mixed results. Once the mobster had killed him and he came back to life, they spent the rest of the night curled up against the wall of a public restroom drinking vodka and crying while the mobster sang Russian folk-songs. This was worse than that, because Liam knew Charles Beaufort was far less likely to invite him out drinking as the Russian mobster had once their altercation was over.

     The air around Liam grew steadily colder. The muscles in Liam’s chest tightened in unexplainable terror. For the first time that he could recall, Liam felt genuinely afraid of dying. Even a man for whom death is a casual acquaintance knows the icy touch of the reaper when he sees it. Charles Beaufort raised a hand and moved it to press into Liam’s chest. Every instinct Liam possessed screamed out to get away from him. Wriggling back into the spear, Liam pressed himself against the wall, bracing himself for the end, struggling to breath. The animal part of Liam’s brain frantically denied the notion that this time was for real, there was no coming back from this one.

     There were a lot of things that Liam never could explain. Some things will always be shrouded in mystery. He had no idea who his mother was, he had no idea why sunsets made him so sad, and he could never explain why Jenny saved him at that moment. She moved so fast, Liam lost sight of her entirely. Even in that moment, with his senses honed to their utmost, he could only guess where she was by following Charles’s eyes. She kicked his wrist and sent his hand flying into the wall over Liam’s head. Inky darkness radiated out from where his palm had struck, spreading out into razor thin lines over the surface.

     Charles reached out with his free hand to grab Jenny. The same dark energy covered the palm of that hand as well. Jenny grabbed frantically for any weapon she could get her hands on, settling on the spear Liam had been stuck with. She gave him a brief apologetic glance before tugging the spear out in one motion and shoving the shaft of the spear into Charles’s solar plexus. He doubled over making a soft wheezing noise. Liam, no longer held up by the spear, slumped over to the ground, coming eye to eye with the now prostrate Charles.

     “Thought…this was…a private party.” Charles wheezed out, sparing an accusatory glance at Liam before focusing on getting his breathing under control.

    “I am so embarrassed. I swear this never happens,” Liam gestured weakly to Jenny, who was breathing heavily from the sudden exertion.

     “It’s…no problem,” Charles responded, still gasping for every breath, “She can be…your plus one.”

     The alarms went off in Liam’s brain again and he looked down to see Charles inching a hand towards him again. Liam’s body refused to move, still recovering from its injuries. Jenny smashed the butt of the spear down in Charles’s hand, pinning it in place. Reaching down, she grabbed Liam’s shirt by the collar, and threw him out the window. The last thing Liam saw before he flew out into open space was Jenny kicking Charles in the head, barely dodging a frantic attempt to hit her with that strange move he used, and dancing in to attack again. Everything went black.

     Three seconds later, Liam woke up curled against the wall to the property. He had been killed many times in the line of work, but Liam felt sure this was the first time he’d been killed by someone trying to save him. It took a long time for his body to start moving again. From where he lay, he could see the precious items he had stolen from Charles Beaufort strewn across the lawn. They must have been blown out of his pockets when Jenny through him from the window. Given how spread out over the lawn they were, it would take ages to gather up again, time he no longer possessed. All those weeks of planning gone down the drain because of one man. In that instant, he felt a pang of regret, but he was genuinely surprised at the cause. He had led Jenny into this mess, and unlike him, he was certain she would never leave that house. She had been such a good girl, so kind, so giving. Liam’s thoughts trailed off as he felt a harsh tug on his collar.

     “We’re going to have to run. I think I should carry you.”

     Jenny was such a pain, always getting in the way. Now she planned on dragging him away from a life of ease. She was about to just drag him away from all those beautiful goods he had worked so hard to steal. There were some he could have grabbed on the way out. He couldn’t stop her either, that became clear when she hefted him over her shoulder, with ease, as though he were a bag of potatoes. Placing one foot carefully on the wall, she ran straight up to the top, almost flinging Liam into the street in her haste, before barely catching him by the collar. Trailing Liam along behind her like a streamer in the wind, she ran towards the park where Liam had been dropped off every day. Houses whizzed by and what few people were out this late hardly even had time to notice something from the corner of their eyes, a blur of white and black, before they were gone. When they finally reached the park, Jenny climbed a tree and laid Liam out across her legs, holding him close and keeping her eyes on the road.

    “We left all that stuff behind,” Liam sighed in regret.

    Jenny hung her head, “I’m sorry I screwed things up for you, Liam. I know how important this was to you.”

     Liam coughed and tried to sit up, only to find Jenny’s arms holding him down impossible to move, “I screwed tonight up for myself. You saved me. A thief never lets go of something he’s trying to steal once he has it.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled back a flap of cloth and pulled out the paint brush, “At least I managed this much. It wasn’t a total loss.

    Jenny smiled, but kept her eyes on the road between the park and Charles the whole time. At the appointed hour, Charlotte showed up and Jenny hopped out of the tree with Liam in tow, gently depositing him on the ground before stepping back a few feet. From his position on the ground, Liam raised a fistful of cash.     Charlotte opened the door and hurried around the car to check on Liam, “Hun, are you alright? I don’t recall the last time I saw you looking that bad. And who is this little minx? I thought you didn’t make friends of the female persuasion.”

    “Her name is Jenny Rever, so maybe don’t call her a minx.”

    Charlotte looked up at Jenny with a newfound respect in her eyes, “Don’t belittle the assassin. Duly noted. My name is Charlotte, thank you for taking care of Liam.”

    Jenny sighed and put her hands on her hips, looking down at Liam as though he were an errant bunny, “Someone has to keep him out of trouble.”

    Liam slowly rose to his feet on shaky legs, “I almost got killed there. I never thought that would happen.”

    Charlotte opened the door for him, “You get killed all the time, Liam. It’s like winning a scratch ticket for you, sometimes it just happens.”

    Liam stopped at the car door, “It does. This time it almost stuck.”

    As Liam sat down in his seat, he felt a gentle tug on his shirt, “Liam, will I see you again?”

    “I couldn’t honestly say. Maybe someday you can come work with me again?”

    Jenny bounced around a few steps, her sundress dancing wildly with her, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Liam likes me!” Without giving him a chance to explain in how many ways she was mistaken, she darted across the street and up to the top of the wall. Skipping down the wall at manic speed, Liam soon lost sight of her. Getting into the car, he sat back and tried to push the feelings out of his mind. He held up his hand to check. It shook in front of him, tremoring slightly.

    “Wow, he really must have gotten to you. Any idea what he did?”

    Liam shook his head, “No clue. I know someone who will, and I have to see him tomorrow anyways.”

    Charlotte closed the door, leaving Liam in the back with his thoughts. The limo headed back to his apartment and Liam let himself out, slowly trudging up to his quarters. Reaching the door, he let himself in and barely made it to bed before he collapsed. Dying really took it out of a guy. Within minutes of laying down, Liam drifted off into a deep sleep from which no amount of Dirt Gremlins could wake him.

Chapter 13-

   When most people talk about miracles, they talk about the life-saving, Earth shattering miracles. Liam’s experience with miracles was quite different. Miracles are unexpected graces in everyday situations. The late bus you catch just on time, that day you brought your umbrella with you by accident and then it pours on the way home, these are the miracles Liam appreciated the most. Liam wouldn’t consider himself to be a religious man, but there were times in his life when he could easily recognize the hand of some higher power in his life. When he woke up the morning after his narrow escape from Death, the fact that the paint brush requested by his employer was still in his pocket counted as a miracle. It was such a miracle that Liam didn’t even care when, during his morning stumble, he looked into the mirror and found that the Dirt Gremlins had used his face as a canvas for a tribute to Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. Staggering down to his storage apartment, he cleaned himself off and got dressed for the day, keeping the brush on him the whole time. Liam had earned himself a little rest and time to himself. Life with Dirt Gremlins was often interesting, but never restful.

     Even though Liam had robbed one of the most prolific serial killers in human history, no sign could be found of Charles Beaufort awaiting him outside his apartment building when Liam emerged into the daylight. He wasn’t waiting for him on a bus, or around any busy street corners with a smile and a hidden blade. Liam didn’t even run into him through pure luck on the way to meeting his employer. He pressed a hand to his chest while he waited for another bus. Maybe saying Liam had gotten away scot free would be a stretch, but he had fulfilled his contract and gotten the item in question. Sometimes, that was enough.

     The Nair mansion felt different that day than it had on previous visits. Liam couldn’t tell if he was just being overly wary after his scare the previous night, or if there really was something wrong. He stood at the entrance to the drive, examining both the house as it stood and the one in his memory. It took him a few moments to start noticing what had him on edge, but once he started noticing inconsistencies, he couldn’t stop. The front gates were closed, something he had never seen. Normally, when he came to get a job or to return from when, the outside buzzed with a quiet hum. The Nair mansion was the hub of the Mythic World, so Liam only noticed the sound by its absence. Something strange was going on. Liam didn’t care, he just wanted to drop off the brush and leave.

     What finally brought Liam to a halt was the presence of an actual guard at the entrance to the Mansion. He stood next to a guard house Liam hadn’t even noticed in his previous visits, even though he had walked by it innumerable times. As he approached the gates, the guard held up a hand and gestured for Liam to stop. Liam slowed and held his hands up to show he was no threat, as though his slight physical build weren’t enough of an indicator of that. The guard wasn’t wearing what Liam would have thought of as a uniform. He wore a white hoodie with the Nair family crest on the left side. His chest bulged oddly where the bullet proof vest was, but he wore a normal pair of jeans and sneakers.

    “What’s your business, sir?”

     Liam raised his hands a little higher, “Simon sent me out to grab something for him. I was just going to drop it off and head out.”

     “Hold on, I’ll have to check with the main house.”

     Liam snorted and waited. He had been in and out of that house dozens of times. If they said no, it would only be because someone at the house was in a pissy mood.

     “I’ve been given the all clear to let you up. I’ll warn you now, though. The Nair family’s got some meetings with the other five families going on. Just giving you a heads up in case you wanted to come back another day.”

     The gates opened for him and Liam headed in, stopping for a second to ask the guard a question, “What exactly can I expect to see that’s so different from all the other weird things I’ve seen in there?”

     “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

     Liam had always hated that response. Nothing he had ever seen was a cop out response that told him literally nothing about what to expect. The front doors opened easily at his touch, echoing through the empty hall. That was new for Liam. Getting married, buried or any other type of license, they all came from here in some capacity. From what Simon told him, it was impossible to own any magical items legally without them having been approved in some capacity by the Nair family prior to its first usage. He had never seen the halls empty. The benches stretched out across the cavernous room, totally unoccupied.

     Even though Liam couldn’t see anyone, he had the feeling he was being watched. Familiarity with the unknown makes it even more unnerving when the familiar becomes the unknown again. Pacing quickly across the floor, made his way to the door that led to Simon’s office. Up the stairs with the padded carpets to the third floor, down the hallway to the door that led to his well-earned vacation when he was brought to a halt by the sound of voices coming from the office.

     Simon, like most dragons in fairy tales, was a solitary creature most days that Liam had seen him. That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t friendly, Simon was a good man in his own way, his blackmail of Liam notwithstanding. Amongst those who ran in his circles, Simon had a reputation for horrific violence which Liam had never witnessed, but had heard too many stories to doubt their truth.

     “You can’t just sweep the truth under the rug like that, Adrian! Too many people will ask questions. The wrong sort of people. We already have the government breathing down our necks as it is.” This was the first time Liam had heard Simon genuinely angry, and the tone of his voice  left Liam with a sense of dread. He started backing down the hallway slowly, careful not to make a sound.

     “It’s not my problem which people are asking questions. Your investigations into the actions of the Society for the Protection of Humankind is no longer acceptable. You’ve been digging through the dumpsters of some very powerful people already for the information you’ve gotten.”

     “While we’re talking about that Society you’re so proud of, why exactly did they ask one of my clerks for a map of the Goodbody family home? What are you hiding from me? It’s not like I could support them anyways, they’re all monsters. The wholesale slaughter of people that aren’t human, just to make the powerful feel safe, is completely abhorrent. This conversation isn’t over. I’m going to tell my father about this and…”

     “Isn’t that just the way? Go to your daddy and tell him what you know. You’re such a big fish in this little pond.”

     Simon’s response made Liam’s skin crawl, “That would make you the scum. Go float with your own kind.” It wasn’t so much the words, but the tone which implied immediate violence against whoever happened to be close. Maybe today wasn’t the best day to be here after all.

     Just as Liam turned to leave, the door opened and a man Liam had never seen before waked out and down the hallway past Liam. He wore a black suit, with a black dress shirt and a dark blood red tie. His dark brown hair was cut short and slicked back, but what caught Liam’s attention were his eyes, which were a solid red color and shone in the dim light of the hallway as though they were covered in liquid. As he passed, a small drop of blood slid out of his eye, leaving a faint trail below his nose, which the man ignored.

     “Liam?” Simon stood in the doorway watching the man leave. Liam didn’t attempt to move, nor did Simon wave to him until they could hear no longer hear the man’s steps going down the stairs. Once the coast was clear, Simon waved him into the office and sat down behind his desk.

     Liam fished around in his pocket and held out the brush for Simon, who took it gingerly and put it down on his desk, “So I guess asking questions about that little fight is off limits?”

     Simon grabbed a glass ball that had been placed on his desk and gripped it in his hand, “Not unless you want a really bad day.” As Liam watched, the glass ball shattered in his grip, splintering into pieces that fell to the ground.

     “Well, I think that’s my cue to leave. I hope I’ve earned some rest and relaxation. Call in a week or two. At least.” Simon lowered both his eyes to his desk but didn’t respond. Liam took that as a sign to go and left while he was still capable of leaving under his own power. Never anger a dragon already in a foul mood. Liam left the Nair mansion feeling as though he had gotten away from something awful.

     The trip from the mansion back home nearly always left Liam disoriented. This was worse than usual because when he came home, he usually felt a wave of despair but today he felt relief. Something about the canvas walls of dirt made him feel at home. In his bedroom, just above the nightstand, was what could only be described as a portrait of Liam undergoing some serious neurological disorder. He really needed to do something about those Dirt Gremlins, but first came more important things. He was flush with cash in the form of over a dozen diamond chokers. Most of the money from fencing them would go to his emergency fund, the rest would supply a drinking binge to end all drinking binges. No matter how many times Liam said that, he meant it every time. The bar down the street knew him by name, and Liam was pretty sure there was a stool there reserved just for him. It was the moldy seat at the end of the bar where the bad example sat. He had belonged in worse places.

Chapter 14-

     Liam was one of those rare souls blessed with the ability to do nothing. Where others might have struggled with the question of what to do with their time but Liam was not that guy. Liam knew exactly how to occupy himself. The first two days Liam had off, he never left his bed except to collect booze and food from a corner store nearby. On the third day, he started to feel a little antsy so he decided it was time to visit the neighborhood bar. His restlessness led him out, and being stuck in his apartment for two days solid had him hallucinating from the smell.

     On his way to the door, Liam briefly considered eating before realizing that anything he ate would adorn the floor at The Red Lagher. The Red Lagher had been a local establishment long before Liam had arrived in the neighborhood. It opened back in the sixties, when this particular neighborhood had been a drug addled mess. The surrounding area had classed itself up, but the Red Lagher remained thoroughly trashy, much like Liam himself. When he had first moved into the area, he had found himself drawn to the garish neon sign in the front, like a drunken moth to a whiskey fueled flame. The cheap rate of his apartment and the Red Lagher were the two reasons he stayed.

     On the way down to his storage apartment, Liam’s path was blocked by the enormous caretaker of the apartment building. He was a burly man, whose black shoulder hair bristled around his thin wife-beater like an army of wilting spears. When he was younger, he could have passed for a strong man, but most of that muscle had gone to fat. Even today, he was burly and thick and likely spent his free time lifting old timey round dumbbells and doing squats while holding several large dogs. He had a round face with a thick black moustache that refused to point downwards, preferring to stick slightly out to the front. This rebellious attitude must have spread to what hair remained on his head, which appeared to be desperate to escape the gravity of Earth via any means necessary, sticking out at various random angles.

    Waving his hand at Liam, the mam shrugged apologetically, “The ol’ lady says I have to move your stuff, Liam. Someone asked for that apartment.”

     Liam bristled, “Where am I getting moved to?”

     A shrill voice from behind a door downstairs yelled up at him, “Up two flights of stairs, you leech!”

    “She does know my apartment is infested with Dirt Gremins, right?”

    The attendant shrugged again, “I’m sorry, Liam. We all have to listen to the boss.”

     Liam blinked a few times, “But I thought you were the…nevermind. Will you help me take my things up to the new place?”

     The attendant grabbed at various places on his body as he spoke, “I’m sorry, Liam. I got a thing. A bum…something.”

    Liam brushed past him towards the ground floor, “A bum something is right.” He groused all the way past their apartment and into the street. He groused all the way down the street and into the bar. This day could not get any worse. Pushing into the bar, Liam found himself confronted with a rare sight at the Red Lagher, a woman.

     The Red Lagher would only qualify as a hole in the wall if the wall was made from asbestos. It had a grand total of ten naked bulbs swinging from the ceiling, one of which was still out. It’s pool table was missing several balls and someone had long ago stripped the green felt off the table for a makeshift putting corner, which had also been abandoned after that one health inspection. The actual bar ran across the length of the room and had no entrance from the public side to get into where the bartender stood. They only served one type of beer, colored with red food coloring, which the bartender refused to identify. Liam assumed this was because it would break some sort of honor code amongst bartenders, or that the people who made the beer were being prosecuted for war crimes. They certainly should have been, given the quality of their swill. A woman in this heap was, therefore, an extreme rarity.

     She wore leather boots and tight jeans that showed off her curvy figure. Completing the look was a leather biker jacket, “Hello legs, ass and…” Liam trailed off at the sight of her long sandy blonde hair and the words, “Veraciter Vivimus” across the back of the jacket, “DOOR! I suddenly remembered a place I needed to be!”

    He only managed to get his hand on the doorknob before she called out his name, “Liam Boggan, I thought I smelled you! You still come around here?” She turned around and Liam realized all over again that he couldn’t decide whether she was a vision or a nightmare. Maybe a little of both. She was stunning, with the refined features and sky blue eyes that marked her family. Out of the remaining two siblings, she was definitely the wild child. Her younger brother had retired from the hunting business and started some cleaning company.

    “Sam! I thought you were never going to come back after the last time you were here.”

   “What? Where else could I find my little ferret faced friend? And what exactly were you doing headed for the door without saying hello to your old flame?”

    Liam grimaced. Once upon a time, a younger and dumber Liam had put the moves on Samantha Goodbody and somehow, against all odds, he had succeeded. He often felt that when they had been together, she had been slumming it. Eventually, she got restless and stopped coming around. He still wasn’t sure what to call their time together, but she seemed fond enough of him. Samantha Goodbody was like a bad cat. She showed up without warning, bringing her luck with her and then she left with just as little notice.

    “Why…I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing!.” Liam kept moving towards the door. He had never really stopped moving towards the door. Sticking around with Sam could only lead to bad things.

    “Then why are you still inching towards the door, Liam?”

    Caught. Sam was a whirlpool. Once you got caught in her current, it was really pointless to struggle. She would pull you under, no matter what you did. Liam never could catch a break. This was supposed to be his vacation. It was supposed to be restful. A vacation with Samantha Goodbody would be anything but restful.

Chapter 15-

  Everyone has someone come into their life that changes it forever, for better or worse. There are people who lift you up and people who tear you down. One of the most important life skills you will ever learn is figuring out which is which, something Liam desperately wished he could do with Samantha Goodbody. Around a year ago, they had been inseparable for weeks. Liam tagged along with her wherever she went, at her request. He liked to think he had been helpful. One morning, she vanished and left only a note on the pillow next to Liam. He still had that note stashed away in his storage apartment. The experience hadn’t really changed either one of them. Sam simply moved on, as she had before, and Liam’s only had his feelings on relationships and love painfully confirmed once more.

    The last person he wanted to spend any time around was Samantha Goodbody, so Liam had no idea how he found himself once more sitting across a table from her with a pitcher of red swill between them.

     Sam twirled a finger along the edge of her mug, touching it to her tongue to get a taste for the beer. She grimaced at the flavor, “This beer is so awful it must be homemade. Nobody would willingly sell this in stores if they knew what it tasted like.”

    “So why did you come back? It’s not like the flavor of the beer was going to miraculously get better.”

    Samantha grabbed the mug with both hands and chugged the contents, slamming the mug back on the table and wiping the foam from her lips, “The flavor kind of grows on you. When you’re gone, you start to miss it and then one day you’ve just got to come back. So…how have you been, Liam?”

    Liam poured Sam another mug of beer, placing the pitcher back down gently, “About the same since you walked out of my apartment to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back.

    “I didn’t want to go. You just can’t say no to Father sometimes.”

    “I wouldn’t know.”

    “I guess you’re still the negative Nancy you used to be. I’m happy some things never change.

     “I’ve been working for Simon Nair. He’s got me running errands for him, picking up things he wants to add to his collection.”

    Sam downed another mugful of beer, “I’ve heard he takes himself very seriously.”

    Liam nodded slowly and sipped at his own mug of beer, “He does, until you’ve been drinking with him once or twice. I wouldn’t recommend it, the man can hold his liquor. The Five Families are having some meetings this week, so I’m on forced vacation. Not that I’m complaining or anything, I needed the break.”

    “Funny you should mention the meetings, that’s why I’m in town.” Sam raised a hand and waved at the bartender. The pitcher was empty. The bartender and owner of the Red Lagher had been there since before Liam had moved into the area. He had inherited it from his father, whose father had founded the bar. He was a short, stooped man whose bald head shone even in the low light of the Red Lagher. He had empty, vacant eyes whose color Liam could never figure out. In contrast to the clutter and rot around him, he wore a black vest and black pants with a white shirt and a red bowtie. When Sam waved, he bowed and went to put another pitcher together.

    “So if you’re in town for the meetings, why are you playing hooky to sit here talking to me?”

    Sam shrugged and looked at the table, “I only came because father is too sick and Jack refused to go. The real reason I came is there’s a hunt I wanted to take care of in town. I’ll go to the last meeting and listen to what the overblown windbags have to say, but the rest of my time here is my own, and that means I’m going to spend it doing what I want or with people I care about.”

    Liam snorted, “Cut the crap, Samantha Goodbody. You’re here because you want help you with your hunt.”

     Sam gasped in mocking surprise and covered her mouth with one hand, “Liam, I am shocked! Just shocked! Do you really think I would show up just to use an old flame like that?” Liam stared at her blankly until she broke, which didn’t take long, “Can’t it be both?”

     Liam chuckled, “It never is with you, but go on.”

    Reaching across the table with both hands, she latched onto his hands, pulling him close, her breathless enthusiasm shining through each word she spoke, “So there’s rumor going around the Goodbody house that there’s a real life honest to God Lich living in New York City! Not a single hunter in the Goodbody family has killed a Lich since…well since that one time a long time ago, and that didn’t go well for us.”

    Liam tried, and failed to pull away, “From what I heard, it didn’t go well for any of the Five Families that went.”

    “Yeah! so I thought I would be the first to get it right. The problem is, I’ve spent the last three days talking to everyone I knew in town, and punching some others in the face, and either nobody knows where this thing is, or I’m really up shit creek on this one. So I thought maybe you could help me.”

     There was no real point in thinking about it. He had already been caught up in her story, so there was no reason to fight it. Even though that little gnarled organ that masqueraded as Liam’s heart ached something fierce, there was no point in saying no. When he looked into her eyes and remembered that she had come to see him, out of all the people she could have gone to see, he allowed himself to believe a lie he hadn’t even been told out loud.

    “I know someone who can help, but you’re not going to like the answer.”

    “I don’t care, this is a payday that’s too big for me to turn down.”

     Liam’s thoughts returned to his last payday that was too big to turn down, “And what do I get out of it?”

    “My undying gratitude?”

     “That’s not going to cut it.”

     “All the beer you could ever drink?”

     He weighed the price against the work. Likely, his involvement would be minimal. Help her get the info, help her find the Lich and cheer her on as she rammed her blade into inconvenient places, “Fair enough.”

     The second pitcher arrived and Liam picked it up, chugging until the whole pitcher was empty, handing it back and waving for another one.

    “Liam, I’m not paying you until we find the Lich.”

     Liam hiccupped and covered his mouth, “This isn’t for that. To find out where the Lich is, we’re going to need go visit the Neelan family house.”

    Sam shivered and pulled a flask out of her jacket pocket, taking a swig before handing it to Liam, “You’re going to need more than beer. I’m paying up front.”

Chapter 16-

  Every neighborhood has that one establishment that causes people to continually scratch their heads at its very existence. Certainly, the Red Lagher qualified as one, since the health inspector should have shut the place down with a can of gasoline and some matches a long time ago. The curious thing about the bar was that once you started drinking there, you got tugged into an inescapable whirlpool of drunken despair that kept you coming back for more. The Red Lagher wasn’t just a bar for people who had hit rock bottom, but for people who had been aiming for rock bottom the whole time with pin point accuracy.

    The rest of that night was a blur of beer pitchers and swigs from Sam’s flask. When the morning sun pierced a crack in his bedroom window’s blinds, Liam was left with a mighty headache and many questions. How did he get home? Where had Sam gone? What was that soft, warm feeling next to him? Shifting in bed, what he found almost shocked him enough to cause his hangover to vanish altogether. Somehow, Sam had come home with him last night. Her leather jacket hung precariously from the edge of the bed and her t-shirt had rolled up in her sleep to reveal the lower half of her back. The shadows played over the scars that ran up and down her skin. Most of them, Liam knew intimately, but there were a few new ones that must have been earned since the last time he had seen her. One scar Liam remembered fondly was from a knife wound. It was still a vivid red, and around the scar was a tattoo that read, “Better luck next time, jackass.”

    The truly amazing thing was that, despite the Dirt Gremlin infestation, Sam remained untouched. Leaning over the bed to examine her closer, he figured out why. Clutched in her hand was a tiny Dirt Gremlin, also passed out. Occasionally its leg kicked and its nose twitched, but the struggle to get free must have been a fruitless effort. Liam traced a few of the newer scars with his finger, and then he got up.

     Breakfast is the meal of champions, which meant that Liam didn’t deserve it by default. From his recollection, Samantha Goodbody wasn’t much of a breakfast person either. She would take a light drink in the morning, as far as Sam did anything lightly, but Liam had spent the last couple of days drinking himself into stone cold oblivion, so his house was bone dry.  Struggling into his clothes, Liam did something he hadn’t done in a very long time. He went out to buy something for someone else. The corner store nearby had just what he was looking for. Jack Daniel’s and a gas station sandwich. Anything fancier than that and she would have rejected it out right. When he got back to his apartment, Samantha hadn’t woken up or even stirred from where she lay, though the Dirt Gremlin she had clutched in her hand was awake and weakly attempting to struggle loose.

     Waking Samantha Goodbody up had never been a pleasant task. Much of her time was spent out on the road, hunting down monsters, so when she woke up she often went in for the kill from sheer instinct before she managed to calm down. Liam didn’t worry about dying, he couldn’t do that, but he did worry about getting hurt because he did do that quite frequently. Laying down next to her and switching the gas station sandwich to the hand that held the bottle, Liam gently traced his hand along the curve of her back, “Wake up, buttercup.”

    Samantha moved quickly when she woke up. She always had. It made Liam wonder whether she had been asleep at all. Her jeans and boots were on the other side of the room in a jumble, but her knife had made it to the bed and in the instant she woke up, she pressed the blade against Liam’s throat.

    Liam shook the bottle in his hand, “Still a light sleeper? I brought you some breakfast, you psychopath. Now stop scaring the children.” He gestured to the small gaggle of wide-eyed Dirt Gremlins huddled around the night stand.

    Sam looked around Liam’s apartment blearily, her blurred vision catching glimpses of Dirt Gremlins scattering into the shadows, including the one she had been clutching, “Your apartment sucks, Liam.”

    “Just eat your damned breakfast and we’ll get going.”

     Snatching the bottle out of Liam’s hand, Sam opened it and took a swig, “I’ve never been to the Neelan family house before. I’ve never met a Neelan I wanted to spend more time with than I had to, and I have lots of Neelan cousins. Have you ever been there, Liam?”

    “The Neelan family does things very differently than the Nair or Goodbody Families. You both have one major house that makes a centralized home for the family. The Neelan family has dozens of apartments and houses all over the country, and they’re all in use. I’ve been to the one we’re going to before, if that’s what you mean?”

    “And…?”

    “My place is a shithole because of the Dirt Gremlins. That place is a shithole for all sorts of worse reasons.”

     Sam slipped out of bed and got dressed quickly, not bothering to brush her hair or readjust her jacket. Without another word, they left the apartment. The Neelan house in question was in Queens, too far for walking. Keeping the lead, which remained a strange feeling while he was walking with Samantha Goodbody, he led the way to a major street and hailed a cab. The trip across town took a small eternity, but that was part of the price to pay for information. The Five Families existed as an organization that thrived because each family had a focus. The Goodbody family focused on hunting, the Nair family focused on diplomacy and ruling and the Neelan family focused mostly on being shit, if the rumors about them held any merit. In fairness, they focused on intelligence and they were willing to do some pretty shady things to get information.

     Liam always felt that thieves were more gentlemanly than spies, because thieves have the decency to leave your unmentionables in your hidden desk drawer whereas a spy would ruin you with them. Once, a long time ago, when he had just started working for Simon, he had asked a member of the Neelan family for help. The Neelan he met reminded Liam of something he had once stepped on, if it had somehow become predatory in a very passive-aggressive way. Since the Neelan family traded in information, most of them spent little to no time in caring about their appearance. It was a sort of twisted logic that Liam could have potentially gotten behind. If the rest of the world already considered you entirely scummy overall, why care what people thought about your appearance? Liam thought that this theory was flawed because people didn’t need another reason to dislike the Neelan family, but that didn’t stop them from focusing entirely on their own work.

    It took them around an hour to get across town to the one Neelan house Liam knew of. It was a ratty apartment in a private house that functioned as an information hub for the Neelan family in the area. The house itself was two stories. It was painted a stately off-white color that once upon a time must have been far more presidential. A few of the windows were cracked where someone had thrown rocks at them. What passed for a front lawn had a stack of newspapers overflowing onto the sidewalk. Liam led Sam to the front door and let himself in, stopping just inside the entrance to the house, “This guy is not going to want to give us information, so feel free to get physical.”

    Sam cracked her knuckles gently, “Jack always said you should never make the Neelan family mad because they’ll ruin your reputation.”

    Liam stopped to think that statement over, “Who exactly do you care about your reputation with right now? Anyone who matters to you already made their minds up about you years ago.”

    ‘Good point.”

    They made their way up the stairs and Liam knocked twice before opening the door and taking a step inside. The lone occupant of the room sat in front of a myriad of computer moniters. His chair faced the door, hiding the occupant from view. Some of the moniters showed camera feeds from around the neighborhood, some of them had documents displayed and one had a music program open with some classical piece playing quietly to provide focus.

    “I saw you coming from cab, Liam. I thought I told you never to just walk into my inner sanctum.”

    “And I can’t believe you still call this hole in the wall an inner sanctum.”

    Sam snorted and covered her mouth, “That is a little hard to take when your inner sanctum smells like Cheeto dust and five hour energy drinks.”

     The chair slowly wheeled around to face them. Calling its occupant a man would have been generous. He was short and thin, wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt with a black bathrobe over it that had a hood. The occupant had the hood pulled down over his face in an ill-conceived attempt to provide his visitors with a sense of dread, but Sam doubled over laughing at the sight of him. Liam wished he could laugh too, but he knew this man. John Neelan was a dangerous combination of pathetic and vindictive that most people sadly overlooked.

    John pulled his hood back, revealing his messy, stringy brown hair and a pair of mismatched eyes. His left was a deep blue and his right a dark forest green, “What the hell do you want, Liam? I’ve got shit to do and my uncle has really been breathing down my neck about deadlines lately.”

    “What, not keeping up with your blackmails?”

     “As a matter of fact, I’m not. You can’t stay here either, I’ve got a three o’clock with some local peacock of a politician who wants to buy back some phots of him doing positively dreadful things on a miniature golf course with a small terrier and a couple of…”

    Liam covered his ears, “I don’t want to know what you do for a living.”

    Sam spoke up, answering John’s question, “We’re looking for information on the Lich that’s in New York City.”

    “Oh, him. And why the hell should I give it to you?”

    “Because if you don’t, I’ll break every computer in here and light all your hard drives on fire.”

    Liam couldn’t be sure, since John was already very pale, but that was quite the effective threat. Whirring his chair around, John tugged on a pair of headphones with a mic attached and got to work, typing away at lighting speed. Sam peered into the darkness, looking for a place to sit down. Every flat surface, including the bed, was covered with wrappers and empty cans of various sodas. She decided she didn’t want to sit down after all.

    All told, it took John around an hour to find the information they needed. His typing slowed and drew to a stop. He scribbled on a piece of paper before spinning around to regard them again, “I’ve got the address and the directions for how to get to him…” Sam reached for the piece of paper, only to have John pull it back out of reach, “But I need more reason to give this to you than destruction of my property. What else is on the table?”

    “If we mess this up, we die.” Liam smiled, the kind of smile that suggested giving Sam the piece of paper was the safest course of action he could take at the moment.

    “Sold. Get the hell out of my room.”

    Sam snatched the paper out of his hand and walked out the door with Liam close behind her. He left his door open, knowing that it would bother John until it forced him to get out of his chair and actually close it himself. Sam had the piece of paper, so Liam had no idea where they were going in the city. He wasn’t even sure he was happy that the rumors about a Lich were true, but for now he was on this ride whether he liked it or not.

Chapter 17-

   The mundane is so easy to overlook, which is such a shame because that’s where the magic hides. Ordinary doors, ordinary houses and ordinary people so often house extraordinary things, but since so many people live such full and worthwhile lives, they never notice. Most of the time, that was for the best because magical does not equate to goodness or kindness. The lich they were hunting lived in downtown Manhattan, holed up somewhere in an apartment complex near Central Park, according to the information they got from John. The apartment they sought lay deep in the basement, which got Liam’s skepticism up about their information until Sam assured him that made perfect sense. A lich would want more space for his undead servants than even the ritziest New York apartment building could afford, and even the most boring people would start to ask questions about the smell and the constant shuffling and moaning sounds.

      The address they were sent to sat right next to 55 Central Park West, which put it squarely in what Sam had once called the creepy wannabe cult side of Central Park. Not that it stood out in the same way as the more infamous building that stood next to it, at first glance it was just a normal apartment building. The red awning out front and the burly doorman set it apart as ritzier than some, but it was just your average building all the same. The stone façade gave no hint as to its potential occupants and the window decorations that Liam could make out spoke less of occult horrors and more horticultural nightmares. The doorman tried to block their entry, an obstacle that a swift chop to the neck from Sam brought to a quick and crunchy conclusion. When they reached the door, they found it locked from the inside. To enter, they would need a key or they would need to trick some other occupant into buzzing them in. Liam scanned a list of apartments next to the door, looking for clues that would lead him to the best sucker. Sam pushed past him and simply yanked the door off it’s hinges, placed it against a nearby wall and stepped inside.

     Liam examined the door as Sam stepped into the foyer, her boots echoing in the empty room, “Wasn’t this locked?”

    Sam turned around, a slightly puzzled expression on her face, “Well duh, it’s an apartment complex for the rich and insecure, but what was I supposed to do, buzz our target to let us in?”    Liam gave up arguing with Sam. He was never going to win one argument with her and she knew it. Exhaling slowly, he crossed into the apartment building and followed her.

     Sam ignored the elevator and headed for the stairwell. They descended the stairs, which led down three flights. One level was the parking garage, the next was a laundry room and storage rooms for the cleaning staff, the floor below that seemed to be dedicated to the resident’s pets, but at some point, the pets must have taken over. The door was locked shut and the padlock had started to rust. Inside, Liam could make out a pack of feral cats wandering the large room with menace in their eyes. The stairs went down one further flight and then ended in a black stone wall that looked like it had been recently painted over in a dull grey color.

     “Well, we have the right place,” Sam intoned gravely as she pressed a fist into the wall.

     Liam took a few steps back up the stairs, watching her wind herself up, “It’s like he’s taunting you. Not even the worst architect in the world. builds a stairwell to nowhere. Pointless stairwells are incredibly expensive. On top of that, no single color discourages exploration like boring grey.”

     Pulling back her fist, Sam punched the wall as hard as she could. An echo rocked through the wall to the other side and some cracks spread away from her fist, but that was the only reaction she got.

    “Maybe this wall looks boring because it’s really just a boring wall.”

    “Shut up, Liam. I could have sworn I found the switch.” Sam punched the wall a few more times, with the same effect.

    They were about to give up when they heard a voice on the other side of the wall, “Alright, already! I’m coming! I swear to God, when the New York Times finds out what one of their delivery boys did to Master’s wall, you, my little friend, are out of a job.” A section of wall nowhere near where Sam had been punching slid open, “And you had better have the magazine portion you left out of last Sunday’s newspaper or I’ll tan your hide right here!”

    Neither Sam nor Liam, for all their experience, knew what to make of what they found were confronted with. It was a man, or it had been a man, but he was an ashen grey color and his eyes had started to turn yellow. He wore dark black robes with a hood, but over the robes he wore a pink apron with a bright yellow daisy printed in the middle that came down to just below his knees. What hair he had left was white and stringy, and some of that was in the process of coming loose from his skull.

    It took a long time before any one of them could react, “Oh Christ, not again.” The thing moaned to itself, a talent Liam would learn that the creature was very good at.

     “Don’t you dare shut that damned door!” Sam yelled out, holding up a fist.

     “Oh, what’s the point. Now that you know where the door is, you would just knock it down anyways. Come in. Can I get you some refreshments? Tea? Mints? A bath?”

    The last comment caused Sam to creak to a complete halt, “Do you normally offer your guests baths?”

    “Only the exceptionally smelly ones. Come in.”

     The creature stepped back and left the path open for them. Sam led the way in with Liam following close behind. As soon as they were in, the door closed behind them and they found themselves in perfect darkness. That only lasted for a moment, however, before the torches on the side of the wall leapt to life, sending cheery light flickering up and down the stairs. Liam had assumed that the lair of a Lich would be cold and decorated like a tomb, but the stairway down was surprisingly full of life. A railing stuck out from the stairs, which spiraled down ahead of them, and on the inside of that hand rail a series of garden boxes planted with varying types of roses and lilies. Most of them were doing quite poorly from the lack of sunlight, but obvious signs of effort had been put into keep them alive as long as was inhumanly possible. They walked down the stairs for what felt like a small eternity before they reached a simple black door with a golden doorknob right in the center of the door.

     Reaching past them, the creature grabbed the handle and turned it. The whole door simply fell out of its place and hit the ground with a loud crashing sound. The undead attendant smiled apologetically, “You’re not the first, but most get through the wall on their own. I’ve had to repair this door more than a few times.”

    Sam stepped past him into total gloom. The room alone appeared larger than the floorspace of any other floor in the hotel. The length and breadth of the room was impossible to determine, because all Sam could see was bookshelves as far as the eye could see. Leather bound tomes filled the shelves from the bottom to the top, which vanished into the oppressive darkness. The enormous bookcases formed a foreboding entrance into a long hallway. At regular intervals, small oil lamps hovered at roughly five feet from the ground.

    “It’s a maze. Master gets bored easily, so when someone comes to try and kill him, he makes them hunt him down. It’s just his little hobby. Master has plenty of spare time.”

    Liam choked back a laugh and waved Sam on, “Go ahead, this is your playing field.”

    Sam paced back over and shoved a small book into Liam’s chest hard enough to push him back onto the floor, “Hold that until I get back. Don’t lose it..or “lose it.”

    “What? I would never wait fifteen minutes, assume you were dead and then go sell whatever the hell this is at the nearest pawnshop.”

     “Good boy, because it’s going to explode if I die.” With that, Sam turned and began to scale the nearest bookshelf. Within moments, she was lost to their sight.

    The attendant turned to Liam, a sour smile plastered on his face as he patted Liam’s back, “I can’t tell if she likes you or not.”

    Liam nodded, “Yeah. Me neither.”

    Sam scaled the bookshelf until she reached the top. From here, the bookshelves spread out all around her. A hunter never takes on her opponent head to head unless she has backup. If Jack had come along, she would have felt more comfortable with a frontal assault, but she was more than capable of doing this the hard way. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small plastic case that had a fishing line and a hook at the end. First step, illuminate the situation by lighting everything on fire at once. Gently, she lowered the hook until it snagged one of the floating lamps. Once she had it secured, she pulled it up and snatched it out of the air. Taking the candle and snagging a book from the shelf, she opened it and gently tugged the candle from the lamp, wedging it into the spine of the book and closing it. In around five minutes, the candle would reach the book. Its pages were yellowed and brittle. They would make nice kindling indeed. When in doubt, light everything on fire.

    Thankfully for Samantha, the Lich was quite loud. Every step he took made a soft rattling noise, which a hunter like Samantha couldn’t possibly miss. So far, so good. Now to just set up as many candles as possible before a fight broke out. The difficulty in killing a Lich lay in their durability. Each Lich possessed an item they had bound their soul too, in order to cheat death. Destroying its body would prove nothing. With any luck, this lich kept its soul box in this room and the fire would light it up. Sam one, Lich dead. Scooting forward around ten paces, Sam started pulling another lamp up. Surely it couldn’t be this easy, and yet here she was about to get the biggest payday of her life. Wait until she told Jack about this one. He would never believe it.

Chapter 18-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You got taken hostage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You need a trophy?”

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

Chapter 19-

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

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

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

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

    “What’s that all about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Sure, you do.” Liam snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Shut up, Liam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 20-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “There is nothing to report at this time.”

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

     “There is nothing to report…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “You got a new bandanna.”

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

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

     “I know, right!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 21-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “What about Jenny or Sam?”

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

     “So what do you need me to do?”

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

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

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

     “And why would I lie to you?”

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

    Liam shuddered, “Oh.”

     “Yeah, so don’t get caught.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Out.”

     “You’re not done meditating yet.”

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

Chapter 22-

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

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

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

     “Don’t wanna.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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