Crikey, I’m pumping these out now, eh? Oh, and the reason the thing isn’t properly justified this time is a wordpress issue. Wasn’t letting me copy things across for some reason, but I’m sure you can make do 🙂
Any number of things can go wrong on a job, but by far the worst that I have ever experienced is a broken rib. As well as being unbelievably painful, that particular injury makes it almost impossible to move or breathe, leaving you suffocating in a cocoon of agony.
I remember the first time I snapped a rib. I was a young thief then, still running with a gang out of Pleasant Court, a group of young kids led by a very old man. Looking back on it, that may have been a somewhat shady situation, but at the time the old guy was perfectly genial to us. At least most of the time.
Old Jack (that was how we knew him) was a man of his generation, and he wasn’t about to modernise himself for anyone. If you failed Old Jack then you could be damn sure he’d have something to say about it. He did most of his talking with his fists too, as I found out when I managed to blow a carefully planned streak of burglaries by getting a bit too chatty with a target’s daughter. I was thirteen.
Because of that little event, I was familiar enough with the unique feeling of a broken rib to be able to diagnose myself with two, courtesy of my rather stupid leap from the top of the museum. I was lucky on two counts really, no three. I was lucky not to have been caught by the guards, lucky not to have died from the fall and, after a very brief look about the roof I was currently on, extremely lucky the building hadn’t collapsed.
My brief survey of the building from ground level had told me that the thing was damn near to falling down on its own, but once I saw the roof I reassessed and decided that it was a miracle the thing hadn’t already fallen. There was little roof left, all told, except for the patch I had landed on, and some of that had caved in quite worryingly. Despite my agonising pain I lurched off the roof and down a nearby ladder, just to get to some point of safety.
I made it halfway down the ladder, which was no mean feat actually, before the red hot pain in my chest caused me to let go and fall the rest of the way. Bloody ribs. You forget how closely connected they are to your arms until the pain kicks in. If I had been descending some stairs I could probably have dealt with the pain, but ladders require the use of your arms, which somehow means your ribs need to move. I’m not too good with biology. Of course, the pain I experienced as I landed at the foot of the ladder made me wish I had held onto the rungs.
I’m not ashamed to say I screamed.
It was a manly scream at least, pained and deep rather than a girlish shriek of fear. It was just as likely to get me noticed, however, and in my current state I couldn’t be dealing with that. I tried to ignore the fact that the conclusion of my job would require heavy lifting, and pushed myself to my feet. I couldn’t hear anyone running to check on the noise, so I assumed no-one had heard me.
The interior of the building was just as decayed as the exterior, perhaps more so. The walls had rotted away so completely that only the brickwork was left, itself missing a number of key components, and the wooden floor had seemingly collapsed in the centre, leaving a vast chasm that disappeared off into the darkness. Any lamps that had once been in the building were gone now, and while I couldn’t smell gas, I wasn’t about to risk blowing up and entire building just in case.
I carefully made my way through the dark and debris and found the staircase down. I doubted that anyone would risk camping out on these floors, so my target would most likely be on the ground floor, the only place with sturdy ground, which would mean a long and uneventful descent, which was something I could currently accept.
I could feel my ribs moving, the broken ones. Your body, for all the squishy bits, is so well put together that it tends to stay solid for the most part, so the sensation of something almost swaying about inside is distinctly off putting. It threw my balance out of whack a few times, and I stumbled down a few steps painfully fast, but eventually I worked it out. It’s amazing how easily you can train yourself to overcome a bone spear jabbing you repeatedly in the squishy bits when you have to.
The descent was remarkably easy, pain excepted. There was no-one, not even a trace of them, as I passed each floor. In fact, it was so quiet that I was starting to wonder if I had even landed on the right building. If I had gone through all this pain for nothing I was going to be extremely pissed off.
Thankfully, as I stumbled onto the ground floor, everything was justified.
A group of people, clearly foreign, were clustered around a small fire. Apparently the building wasn’t full of gas. They seemed to have built the fire out of the remnants of the floors above, which explained where all the floorboards from the chasm had gone and why the ground floor was considerably cleaner. Behind the men, the firelight dancing off the metal bars, sat a cage containing what I assumed to be my target.
The cage was full of children.
I couldn’t tell if what I felt was a pang of disgust or just a rib poking something, but all of a sudden I was conflicted. There had to be a line where not even a career criminal would cross. I had never bothered to define that line properly, theorising that I would know it when I saw it, and perhaps I just had. Children were supposed to be all innocent and naïve, given freedom from this horrible and dark world, weren’t they?
I hadn’t been. I’d been abandoned in the cold streets at about four, left to fend for myself until Old Jack took me in and moulded me into who I am today. Maybe the whole innocence of children thing was just something I’d picked up from a particularly soppy play. You have to take some women to soppy plays to get them in the right mood, and although I didn’t listen it was certainly possible my subconscious had picked up something from them.
When it came down to it, I had been contracted to steal these children out from under the foreigner’s noses, end of. I could try and moralise it all, claim that taking them to Wolf would be as good as setting them free, everyone knows how foreigners are with kids, but that would be pointless. Truth told, I had no reason to believe that Wolf would treat the kids any better than the Lendians before me would. The Lendians may have locked the kids in a cage, but God only knew what Wolf would do. The potential is always worse than the real.
As I observed the cage and the men, working out a way of stealing an entire cage full of children without anyone noticing, I felt something jab me in the back. At first I thought it was one of the loose ribs again, taking a grand tour around my innards and stopping for a rest by my spine. It took me far too long to realise that the pressure was actually coming from an external source.
The intelligent mind understands things about a blade that the more average mind does not, and will often take command of the body. Your conscious choices are pushed away, as are any other pressures upon your actions, leaving you with pure instinct. The instinctual reaction to something pointy being pressed into your back is to stand perfectly still, which is rarely the incorrect response.
My new captor seemed to agree. ‘That’ll do, mister Crane. Step forward into the light of the fire, if you please,’ a man’s voice rumbled from behind my left ear.
Naturally, I did as I was told. Each step was murder, my ribs were still sloshing about but now they were joined by whatever metallic instrument the foreigner was poking me with. It was sharp, which led me to believe it was a blade, probably a knife, judging by how close the voice was to my ear. I managed to make it into the flickering light of the fire, however, and all the men around it turned to stare.
I don’t like being stared at. Perhaps that comes from spending so long going unseen.
The blade retreated from my back, and a man built like a wall slipped past me, joined his countrymen around the fire, and turned back to face me. It was Th, which explained how he knew my name at least. I get very edgy when people know my name without having been introduced.
Th eyed me carefully for a while. In his hand he held a gold plated dagger, so well maintained that I theorised that Th thought it was made of genuine gold. He swished it around idly for a moment before dropping it into a sheath inside his jacket.
‘When you said you were going to rob the museum,’ Th said, ‘I didn’t expect you to make your escape through our building.’
‘Nor did I, to tell the truth,’ I lied.
Th frowned. ‘Yes, Mister Crane, tell the truth. I know why you are here, who you are working for, even what you intend to steal, and you can’t have them!’ He was getting remarkably aggressive for someone merely protecting their stock. ‘I won’t let you take them. We know what that Wolf man intends to do with these children, and we will not let him.’
‘Well I may not know the specifics,’ I spat, ‘But I’m damn well sure he won’t keep them locked in a cage!’
Th got right in my face. ‘No, he won’t keep them in a cage, not a real one at any rate. He has far darker things in mind for them. We’re trying to save them, don’t you see? We’re going to get them out of this cesspool and take them somewhere safe!’
‘Back to Lend?’
‘If we have to!’
This was madness. Th actually believe he was helping the children, the fire in his eyes said as much. He was kidnapping them, exporting them to a foreign nation, all while incarcerated in a metal box, and he still thought he was helping them. Wolf may have been a little shady, but at least he was sane. Besides, he was paying me, and the customer is always right.
With considerable effort, I unbuckled my new weapon. The collapsible sword unrolled into a shimmering serpent of death, and I snapped it erect with a press of a button. I stood there, shiny new blade held as high as my ribs would allow, intending to fight off ten able bodied Lendians on my own. Th looked me up and down, confused.
‘You’re actually going to fight for that man?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m fighting for the contract, for my reputation.’
‘But taking these children to Wolf will do nothing but tarnish that reputation!’
‘I fail to agree.’
Th sighed and snapped his fingers. One of the other men threw him a very old sword, which he caught deftly with one hand. The blade was stained brown with old blood and dented in numerous places. It was well used, ugly and deadly like a real sword should be.
‘If you insist on being like that, Mister Crane,’ Th said. ‘The others will not intervene. A gentlemen’s duel, if you will. But make no mistake, even if you win you shall not have the children.’
He readied his blade, and I did my best to ready mine. It was hopeless. I could barely move my arms, let alone swing a sword. Th would have been hard to best in a fair fight or, as is my usual tactic, an unfair fight to my advantage. With these injuries I was worse than a sitting duck, I was already dead. I would have to think fast.
Th lunged while I was thinking, and my damaged body was too slow to avoid completely. I dodged most of the blow but the blade still managed to open a deep gash on my thigh which, coupled with the bastarding ribs again, caused me to fall to the floor. It was going to be the shortest duel in history.
Then, as Th closed in for the kill, my saviour appeared.
The wall nearest the cage exploded in a hailstorm of masonry, and what amounted to a battalion of men marched through. They were dressed as Watchmen, with the exception of their leader who was dressed in a purple pinstripe suit with a red shirt and a navy blue fedora.
‘Captain Bridge Tepping, Rand City Watch! You’re all under arrest!’