Light Touch

[Coming soon!]

Leander Crane, self-professed master thief, has had a run of bad luck recently. He’s convinced, however, that all it will take is one good job to turn it all around, one expert bit of derring-do and pilfering to break the cycle. But when his foster father comes to him with a job offer — to track down something someone else has already stolen — he finds himself dragged kicking and screaming into the world of subterfuge, spies, cowboys and, worst of all, politics.

Below is an extract from the start of the novel.

Searching for a good beer in Rand City is not a particularly gruelling task. Any city with an underclass that outweighs the social elite needs a way to keep that underclass far too pissed out of their collective head to be a threat, and beer is a pretty good way of doing that. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a bad beer that you need, a glass of muddy river water with an effluence head. Oddly enough, there aren’t that many places that serve those.

Thankfully, being one of the premier vagabonds in the city, I knew exactly where to go.

As for the need for such beer, well, there’s a long and not particularly flattering story behind all that. I had bungled a job, even the best of us have our bad days, and come away a smidge more affluent and with only a set of bruised ribs as compensation. Crime is a learning experience, and only very recently had I learned that certain women move like snakes.

I had been running the job through my fuzzy and bleary head as I drank. I am an introspective drunk, which saves on the fines for being drunk and disorderly. Trying to avoid remembering the painful bits alone, however, was tricky so close to the event. Glorious beer was helping with that, however.

It is a rather simple enough thing to rob one of the many criminal gangsin the city. What passes for their security comes from fear rather than sophistication – you don’t need much in the way of sophistication when any potential thief is too afraid of waking up in the river to act – but when the front was an orphanage it kicked up the odd moral question. Now I’m not often at home to mister and missus Jason Q Moral, since that would somewhat impede my chosen profession, but robbing from children is something that even I find it difficult to justify most of the time. Difficult, but not impossible. Once you break through the hardened crust of morals you are free to do what you like, and I don’t mind telling you that my subconscious has one hell of a sledgehammer.

I had planned the job oh so carefully. Days had been spent casing the place, I’d even gone in as an interested party just so that I could get a glimpse at the insides. I’d picked the best day, the best time of night, worked out the most streamlined route in and out. In short, I had constructed a fool proof plan.

Which is probably why it went a bit wrong.

I was already inside the vault when the woman found me, searching through the various birth certificates and adoption papers that had been hand-picked as candidates for the various unpleasant gangland events the orphanage supplied. A generous backhand payment could bag you a child of more or less any age, and I was doing my utmost to avoid reading too much into that as I went through the records. Perhaps that was why, as she came at me with a sword, I had been a little too slow to react.

Despite the invention of black powder firearms, swords still have a fair amount of prestige in Rand. You can’t be a proper gentleman in the city without a fine blade hanging from your hip, and even some of the more enlightened women have started to wear them. This does not, however, mean that you have to know how to use it. The woman had no clue how to wield it, which is probably what saved my life.

She swung and I dodged like a drunken faun, taking the flat of the blade directly across my ribs. The woman was strong, I’d give her that, and the blow sent me sprawling. I was certain she had left the blade in my ribs, that was how hard she had struck. In earlier days, my understanding of pain might have been enhanced by the breaking of my ribs, but having already experienced such injury relatively recently – I had fallen off a building, not something I would recommend you emulate – I had developed the ability to function despite it all.

I killed the woman, of course, before she had a chance to deliver a second blow, a swift knife to the eye putting her down silently. If you don’t have a knife to hand regardless of position, you’re just not trying hard enough. Then I found the cash if people are going to bring out the sharp things for defence, there’s cash around somwhere – poorly hidden behind a false panel at the back of the vault and scarpered.

Ordinarily I would be ecstatic to have completed a job, but any time I’m caught short leaves me more than a little grumpy. It wasn’t that the woman had found me, things often go awry on jobs and you have to adapt on the fly, but that she had managed to get the drop on me. I hadn’t heard her coming, hadn’t even known she was in the building, and I’d let my guard down. That wasn’t like me, and it was that train of thought that led me to the tavern.

If I had a regular, the Drum and Noose would be it. Dark, secluded and monstrously cheap, the tavern was the sort of place you expected to find thieves, which is why the Watch rarely bothered to check it; as far as they were concerned, no criminal worth his salt would be dumb enough to hide somewhere so obvious. The law had never been the brightest bunch. It was also a damn good place to get drunk and forget about your troubles, as a tavern should be, the beer being competitively priced and, above all, possessing near-fatal levels of alcohol.

When drinking in a thieves’ stronghold it is always a good idea to avoid getting too drunk. The inebriated make fine targets for any dull-witted mugger or pickpocket, and some talentless thieves even made a living out of exclusively robbing drunks. You learn quickly that it is imperative you develop a new way of drinking, a way that would allow only one half of your brain to get drunk. I was still working on it, but I had it developed to such a point that I noticed the boy just as he finished removing my wallet from its pocket.

I caught his hand without looking and twisted it till I heard a snap. Grabbing the wallet as it fell from his limp fingers, I pulled the boy by the arm and threw him into the seat opposite me. It all happened so fast and quietly that no-one had noticed, not that they would have done anything if they had. As a group, we’re not big on the whole community spirit thing.

‘What’s your name, boy?’ I asked as I pocketed my wallet.

He rubbed his wrist and said nothing. Tears were welling in his eyes, but he was courageously holding them back. I knew something of the look that accompanied such an action, and I could already guess who he was.

‘It’s a clean break,’ I said. ‘Give the thing a week or two and the pain will be more or less gone. A month before you can use it again, tops. Old Jack will understand.’

His eyes flared at the mention of the name. ‘I never said nothing about Old Jack!’

‘You didn’t have to, your eyes gave it away. You’re used to the pain of a broken bone, too much so for a normal kid. Sure, kids break bones all the time, but they still cry. They don’t when they work for Old Jack. He’s got a mean disposition, and you get used to pain pretty quickly around him. I should know.’

And I did know. Old Jack was the lord of the street urchins, any kid that found himself on the street would fall under his protection before long. This tended to mean that if you stole what he told you to steal, and if you did it without getting caught, he wouldn’t break your arms. I’m not particularly nice, but Old Jack makes me look like a saint. In fact, given the knowledge that I had been raised by Old Jack myself, it’s amazing I am as well balanced as I am.

The boy was well on the way to being one of Jack’s fanatical enforcers. Kids don’t stay kids for long, and they eventually get to an age where they can fight back. When that happens, Old Jack takes the ones whose spirits he’s broken and turns them into enforcers, using them to keep the others in line for as long as possible before they eventually run away. It prolongs his talent pool for a few more years, and gives him a small army of adults for the more difficult jobs. Worst of all, Old Jack trusted his enforcers, which made them dangerous to mess with. Mess with an enforcer and in all likelihood you are messing with someone Old Jack actually liked.

The kid used his good arm to dry his eyes. ‘Father weren’t sure if you’d remember him. He’ll be over the moon to hear you do.’

Yup, definitely enforcer material. ‘You should know he doesn’t like his kids plying their trade on former wards, kid, no matter his feelings for the person in question. It’s bad form.’

‘I wasn’t really robbing you, just a test of me skills is all,’ the kid said, tilting his head to one side. ‘I was supposed to deliver a message, but I thought I may as well see how well I shape up to the great Leander Crane. Father’s always talking about you, you know?’

‘Is that so?’

‘Well, shouting mostly,’ the kid laughed. ‘It depends what sort of mood he’s in. On a good day he’ll sing your praises till the hookers come home, on a bad day he’ll take to calling the failures after you. You know how he is, yeah?’

That sounded just like Old Jack. We hadn’t parted on the best of terms, but give the man his due, he was always proud of me. Still, I was never very fond of him.

I nodded to the kid. ‘Yeah, I know how he is. Or how he was. What does he want?’

‘Oh, the message?’ the kid said, frowning. ‘He said… er… oh yeah! He said that he wants to meet with you, he’s got a business proposition for you, something big.’

It was always something big when it came to Old Jack. ‘I suppose he wants me to march right into his lair, does he?’ I asked. ‘Well he can forget that. I’m not big on the whole ambush thing, and I’m already nursing more than enough injuries, thanks.’

The kid shook his head. ‘No, pal. Father says he’ll meet you some place open, like the Dark Market or the docks or something. He said he knew you might be a bit… er… apprehensive about coming down to the Hostel.’

Apprehensive was a little generous, but understandable. The Hostel was a veritable fortress, which was impressive for something built out of rotten wood and rusty nails, very hard to infiltrate and very easy to defend. If I was going to meet Old Jack I’d want somewhere well lit and with plenty of escape routes just in case, and he’d known that.

‘The Dark Market then,’ I said. ‘I suppose he has a time in mind?’

‘Midnight.’

‘Of course, always the dramatist. The Dark Market should be in full swing by then too, making it all a little bit more private.’

‘Private? But there’ll be hundreds of people around you!’

So the kid was loyal, but not too bright. ‘The more people around you, the less likely they are to be listening. You stand out like a sore thumb in a crowd if you try and listen to someone. You’ve got to be close, usually looking at your target and stationary, almost impossible to pull off. Nice and private, and makes for a good getaway if Jack gets ahead of himself and goes for the old ambush. I know how he works, boy.’

‘Father was right,’ the kid scratched his head. ‘You are clever. I don’t like it –’

‘Thank you.’

‘– But Father says he needs you, so I’m to come get you. Are you going to come to the meeting?’

It was a difficult question. Old Jack was a bastard, plain and simple, and had made my life hell growing up in the Hostel. He’d broken bones and generally beaten me black and blue on a whim, but I couldn’t deny that part of my success as a thief had come from his tutelage. In a sense, I owed him. In another, more real sense, however, what I owed him was a punch in the face or a knife in the gut. Maybe both.

‘I’ll come,’ I said after a disconcertingly long silence. ‘But I’m not promising anything. If I don’t like what I hear, I’m gone. I don’t do work for hire.’

The kid nodded. ‘Father said you’d be like that. He wants you to know he understands, and if you want to walk away again he won’t stop you.’

The last sentence had been a trap to try and get under my skin, and it almost worked. Luckily, I reined myself back in before I had the chance to snap at the kid. This was, for all intents and purposes, a business negotiation. The kid would have been given a series of acceptable outcomes and told to play it by ear. So long as the outcome was one of the ones specified by Jack, the kid would make it out of this smelling of roses. The trick was to make me think it was all my idea, then I’d be vulnerable. Snapping at the negotiator just gets you to vulnerable that little bit faster.

‘That’s nice to hear,’ is what I managed to say, albeit a little more snide than I had wanted. ‘So, the first ring of the Dark Market, midnight.’

‘Yes, that should be all right by Father.’

I had to hand it to the kid, for an urchin he didn’t give much away. Kids are normally easy to read, even the ones indebted to Old Jack, but this boy seemed to have diplomatic language perfected already. It’s not always what you say, but the way it is said that matter, and this kid was very good at speaking in that special political monotone when it was required.

‘Want to hang around for a drink?’ I asked.

The kid shook his head. ‘Still got a few people Father wants me to see. Backup plans and that, you understand?’

Made sense, Old Jack was never one to put all his eggs in one basket. He was more likely to invest in numerous baskets of varying size, then deliberately overload the small ones with ostrich eggs. It was more entertaining that way.

I took a sip of my beer. ‘I’d get that arm set first, boy.’

The kid made an expression somewhere between a frown and a smirk, stood up and walked away. I watched him leave, mostly to make sure he didn’t have another go at my wallet, then polished off what was left of my beer. Owing to the quality of the drink, that turned out to be a mistake, and I spent the next thirty minutes in the toilets, on the blurry border of vomiting.

Still, that gave me some time to think. Silver lining and all that. If Old Jack was after me, the job was going to be big. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I’m pretty well known amongst the criminal fraternity as the best all-round thief in the city. You could possibly argue that there are guys better at a specific type of heist than me, but I’m more than capable of handling anything that’s likely to occur on any given job.

The problem with specialists is that, by their very nature, they specialise. Specialising can certainly make you extraordinarily good at one thing, but it leads to atrophy of your other skills. People like to throw about the phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but they haven’t quite worked out the context to go with it. A jack of all trades is a master of versatility, which more than makes up for any specific short comings.

While I had told the boy that I didn’t do freelance work, that was more or less a lie. Even the most prolific thief had to contract himself out to other people occasionally, if only for a quick bit of cash. While self-planned jobs will give you more cash, it will always need fencing and laundering, both of which take time. Selling your services to a third party gives you a quick financial boost, and helps improve your reputation, and reputation is what it’s all about.

Taking on a freelance job was always a pain, however. The sort of people who wanted to hire me were always egotistic swine, and being that I am an egotistical swine, there was usually a clash of personalities. It never stopped me getting the job done, but it always led to an atmosphere.

Working for Old Jack though, that may have been more trouble than it was worth. When I was an urchin, I was the best he had, and he knew that. All that afforded me, however, was perhaps one fewer beating per year. I wasn’t sure Old Jack knew how to deal with people without hitting them, but I was sure that he had beating down to a fine art. I wasn’t exactly relishing the chance to see the old bastard again.

It was quite a boon, then, that the Dark Market was one of the better places for the meeting. Both crowded and isolated in equal measure, it had its own independent guards, and was pratically designed for a quick getaway. But Old Jack knew this, everyone in the underworld did. This meant variables, and I hate them more than anything else you could care to name.

As the sickly feeling finally left me, a clock struck in the street outside. The council of Rand have an unusual understanding of time, and have invented clocks that can strike at any time except on the hour. The idea behind it is that everyone will always want to be wherever they are going before the hour actually strikes, and that clocks should remind people that now would be a good time to set off. Remarkably, they seemed to be correct if the lack of complaints was anything to go by.

It was a quarter to seven, judging by the specific twang of the clock, which meant I had plenty of time to get my ribs sorted out. I knew a decent enough doctor who would wrap them for me, no questions asked, and get me enough painkillers to anaesthetise a rhino, something I’d need if I wanted to run at all in the next three weeks. Hopefully I wouldn’t need to, but hope is even less trustworthy than me.

*

Billowing steam and clanking its way over the cobbles, the autocart sped down the main street and turned into the depot. It was a new model, big enough to carry a few passengers, and its owner had taken to offering passage to and from various towns along his route. The owner was a courier, and seemingly the world’s first bus driver.

It had been business as usual for the most part, the outlying villages were never any trouble, and even the coastal town of Mere, docks and all, could be counted on to afford some pleasantries. In fact, Mere was the place most likely to provide passengers, so it was worth putting up with the odd vulgar sailor for the extra coin.

Today’s passengers were a strange bunch. He often had to drive foreigners about, usually Lendians or Tollishmen, but it was rare that he would encounter a party of Surese. Sur was the new world, after all, why would anyone want to come back?

In truth, the people who emigrated to Sur often wanted to come home, but couldn’t afford it. Moving across the world is an expensive endeavour, and once you’re there you can’t always afford to get back. It’s the ultimate gamble, which explained the character of the sort of people who tended to emigrate.

There was a lot of adventure to be had in Sur, the driver had been told, and judging by his passengers he decided that was true. There were five of them, three women and two men, all clad in leather. The driver hadn’t been aware that women could buy leather clothes that didn’t come from special stores devoted to things described by acronyms, but these women had shattered that notion. Their clothes weren’t tight, but also not baggy, and consisted of a pair of trousers with a sort of skirt over the top and a vest, topped off with a wide brimmed hat. The men had allowed themselves canvas trousers and vests, but had met the leather quota by having long brown coats that hung down to their calves.

The driver wanted to call them cowboys, but that didn’t seem right. If anything, they were cowmen, as if someone had taken a cowboy and distilled it, removing all the youth and wanderlust that normally characterised them, replacing it with granite. They didn’t look like troublemakers though, although he dared to say they could finish what other people started, and so long as the coin was good the driver wasn’t about to start caring who he carried.

The Cowmen had wanted to go to the centre of Rand City, and had paid him extra for something called expediency, which they told him meant no stops. It was difficult to find a speed that was fast enough for the Cowmen, yet not so fast the engine would burn itself out before they reached their destination, and he had been forced to rely on the clockwork reserve engine for the last mile or two. Still, he made it, and the Surese disembarked without a word.

One of the men took the women and disappeared off into the city, leaving the other with the driver.

‘Was the journey okay?’ the driver asked.

‘It was acceptable,’ the Cowman said. ‘You got us here ahead of schedule, in fact. That deserves a bonus, I believe.’

A weathered hand disappeared into a canvas pocket, and the driver caught just a hint of polished metal hanging from the Cowman’s waist. It was true then, black powder weapons really were more affordable in Sur, they must be if the Cowman could afford one. The polished metal disappeared back into the leather folds of the coat as the hand was withdrawn, however, and in it’s place the driver’s eyes were drawn to a small stack of coins.

The big cities had started using paper money now, but the rest of the country hadn’t quite received that little memo. The big banks couldn’t print enough banknotes for everywhere, so it concentrated them to the places most likely to use them, the cities, leaving the rest of the country with coins. In Rand City, the coins the Cowman were offering amounted to a modest amount, but in the country they would be the equivalent of a small fortune. He took them gladly.

The Cowman watched as the giddy driver jumped back into his autocart. Dealing with locals was easy if you had a few coins on your person and knew how to dissuade muggers, which he did.

He scanned the depot for a map of some description. Despite being of Rand descent, the Cowman had never actually been there before, being one of the first generation to actually be born on Surese soil, and only had garbled directions from old men to guide him. This wouldn’t do, he’d need a firm and accurate map, no substitutions.

He found one nearby, behind a pane of thick, yellowed glass. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have dreamed of taking this map, the glass clearly indicating it was for public use only, but time was pressing. He cracked the glass with a quiet punch and carefully removed the map. If anyone had noticed him, they didn’t approach. A long leather jacket can do a lot to deter nosey locals.

 A quick glance at the map, and the Cowman had pinpointed his destination. He folded the fragile paper and tucked it into his coat, then merged into the flow of pedestrians on the main street.

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