Oathquest (Part IV)

Ironsmith ran a hand across his face and let out a sigh. “All right, all right. Can we just go over it again?”

I tapped the board with my chalk. The map of the casino was a lot more detailed now, thanks to Poppy’s insight. “Again? What’s the problem?”

“I got plenty of problems…but I think we all just need to get everythin’ straight in our heads, y’know?”

Everyone seemed in agreement with that. I had to admit, I hadn’t really won them over to my scheme yet and, even though they all had good reasons to wanna hurt the casino and the drow who ran it, I was still asking a lot of them. “Okay,” I said, “so, everything starts on Wednesday night. That’s when we slip Broga some cash to throw a brick through a window in the casino. A simple act of vandalism. Not a big deal.”

Broga was a low-level orc snitch; an opportunistic, streetwise kid who’d worked with Ironsmith for years. He was real useful for jobs like this where someone who wouldn’t seem suspicious sneaking around alleyways was required. In the dead of night, he’d smash a window and that would trigger the next part of the plan.

“That’s when the casino brings in a glazier. Now it’s on you again, Harl – your people control almost all the skilled labour in this city. You send in your fella, the one who was workin’ in the temple the other week.”

“Mr Biteaxe,” Stormgate filled in.

“Right. Him.”

Biteaxe was a good guy and wouldn’t ask no questions. He’d head in to the casino on Thursday night with a big bag of tools and an assistant. That assistant would be Ironsmith, keeping his head down. They’d go to the broken window – which would be in a quiet back room – and wait for a little while.

“Poppy,” I continued,” you swipe a janitor’s uniform from the lockers.”

“A dwarf-sized uniform,” Ironsmith added.

“Yeah yeah.” Poppy was the least happy about this whole thing. She was legitimately employed by the casino and, as much as she hated the job and the drow, she was smart enough to see that getting her hands dirty with a heist like this wasn’t exactly good for her career prospects. “We got some dwarf janitors. No one’ll notice.”

Poppy’d bring the uniform to where Ironsmith and Biteaxe were stalling, and he’d get changed. Then he’d grab the tool bag – there wouldn’t actually be no tools in it – and follow Poppy to where the laundry carts were kept.

“While all his is goin’ on, Mrs Stormgate is leadin’ Lessien through the dwarf tunnels underground.”

New Atlas was built on a complex network of dwarf foundations. All the old buildings in the city were connected up by their secret tunnels and doors that opened into basements. Most places were savvy enough to block them up, but the drow had made use of the tunnels themselves, and Poppy didn’t think there’d be any problems getting into the casino that way. Even though it was a new building, it was built on older foundations, and the door would still be there. The only problem with this bit of the plan was that the only way to navigate dwarf tunnels was by reading the dwarvish runes on the walls which told you where you were going – dwarves ain’t make maps, except in their heads – and that’s why I needed Stormgate. She and Ironsmith were both a little uncomfortable about having Lessien down there, but it was the lesser of two evils.

“So, I push the laundry cart to the entrance to the basement when they come up,” Ironsmith said.

“Right. An’ Lessien, you hop right in there.”

The elf woman had her arms folded and didn’t look in the least bit impressed by this part. “You want me to ride around in a cart full of filthy laundry?”

“It can be clean laundry – right, Poppy?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, probably. No promises.” She gave Lessien a funny look, but I didn’t think the magician noticed.

“Right. Now, the trick is getting into the counting room. It’s across the casino floor, but janitors come and go there, right?” Poppy nodded and I carried on. “Leave the guards to me.”

This was the part I was most confident about. Poppy had filled us in on the security arrangements in the casino. There was a corps of security guards, with a few milling around at all times near the tables and slots. Then there was the guy who stood outside the counting room. My plan was to go into the casino openly, attracting as much attention as possible. I especially wanted to be noticed by the manager. Poppy’d filled us in about him. “His name’s Herax, a drow. He ain’t show his face on the floor much, but when he does he likes to throw his weight around. He thinks he’s a big shot ’cause Lilith put him in charge of the casino, but we all know he’s been put there ’cause he’s more trouble’n he’s worth on the streets. The casino practically runs itself. He’s a nasty piece of work though, always talkin’ up the waitresses an’ dancers. He’d do anythin’ to impress the Mafiatrix, but he’s also terrified of her. Deep down he’s a coward. If he sees you on the floor, Ragnar, he’ll see an opportunity all right. But, if you pull this off an’ swipe all that cash from under his nose, he’ll keep it as quiet as he can. He knows Lilith’d replace him in a heartbeat if he screwed up.”

So all I had to do was start getting a little drunk and surly, cause a little trouble and wait for Herax to get up the courage to seize the opportunity I’d present him with – to get even with Ragnar Ulrichson. I’d need to pick a fight with the guard outside the counting room, then Poppy was sure Herax’d have me dragged up to his office. I’d just need to keep everyone busy for long enough for Ironsmith to do the next bit.

“So I push this cart – with Lessien inside,” he added with a gesture towards her, “to the countin’ room.”

“Meantime,” Poppy said, “I’ve paid a visit to the cashier, Mac, who always has a whisky soda on his break. I get a little somethin’ from my pop’s supply cabinet an’ slip it in his drink before I bring it to him. It’s harmless, but it’ll knock him out for a good fifteen minutes an’ when he wakes up he won’t remember nothin’.”

“We go into the counting room,” Ironsmith went on, picking up the story, “me with the cart still an’ my empty bag.”

“I got fifteen minutes to crack the safe,” Lessien said, “before the cashier wakes up.”

“An’ before the guards get bored teachin’ me a lesson,” I added.

“Thursday night’s when the countin’ for the week’s done,” Poppy explained, “so the safe’ll be full. There’ll be a million there easily.”

Ironsmith nodded. “It goes in the bag, an’ Lessien goes right back in the cart. Then we head back to the basement. I drop her off with Stormgate, they make themselves scarce. I take my bag, rejoin Biteaxe, an’ once he’s patched up the window we walk out with the money like nothin’ happened.”

I grinned. “See? Simple.”

Poppy shook her head. “There’s a lotta ways this could go wrong, Ragnar. Fifteen minutes ain’t exactly a big window of opportunity.”

“Is it enough, Lessien?” I asked her.

She flicked her cards out of her sleeve like I’d seen her do before and fanned them out. “Easy.”

“If you say so,” Poppy said quietly. “Look, Ragnar, I wanna help you…”

“Good.”

“But…this is my job. If this goes wrong, they gonna throw me out on the street. My dad’s too sick to work. This is all we got, y’know?”

“It ain’t gonna go wrong,” I promised her. “An’ how long you plannin’ to work in that joint? You hate the mob as much as anyone.”

“I know…”

“If we pull this off, we gonna make a serious dent in the drow’s dominance of New Atlas. Who knows what changes might come about ’cause of that? Maybe the cops can finally break free of the mob.”

“How exactly are we makin’ a dent?” Lessien asked with a frown. “‘Cause, the way you explained it, your plan is to give that million dollars right back to them.”

“Yeah…but they ain’t gonna know where it came from, are they?” To tell the truth, Lessien was right. It wasn’t gonna make a damn bit of difference and I didn’t really know what the heck I was gonna do once I had this money. All I could really do was go meet Lilith in that warehouse and try to bargain for Zrit. I coulda just not told Lessien anything about that, but if I’d done that she’d have wanted a share, and I couldn’t just steal like that, even it was from the Mafia. As it was, it was enough to just make sure she didn’t know we were trying to save a drow kid.

“Well I’m in,” Stormgate said.

“An’ so am I,” Ironsmith said with another sigh. “This is hardly the stupidest thing you’ve ever got me involved with.”

“I hate the drow,” Lessien said, “an’ even if I ain’t agree with your plans for the money, anythin’ that gives them a bad day is worth it. Besides, no one’s even gonna see me if this plan works.”

If it works,” Poppy pointed out. “If they lose a million dollars, I could be out of a job anyway.”

“We can’t do this without you,” I told her.

“I know. An’ I wanna help you.” It was the second time she’d said it, and I knew she was mostly trying to convince herself. “I just want everythin’ to be good again…”

“So say you’re in, Poppy. Help me beat Lilith an’ these goons one more time. Help me show ’em they can’t push folks in this city around. We let ’em get away with this, it’s all just gonna get worse. But I think I can win. Hel, I know I can win. I’ve won before. Lilith wants me to walk into a trap, but I ain’t gonna do that. I’m gonna give her her money, just to see the look on her face. Then what happens after that is up to her.”

She still looked doubtful. “You really think this plan’s gonna work?”

“Fifteen minutes. You’ll hardly know we were there.”

“An’ you think you can keep Herax an’ the guards distracted for that long?”

I glanced at Lessien. I liked her confidence about the safe. She knew her work. Well, I knew mine. I was a Northman, and we only did a couple things well. This kinda thing was one of ’em. “It ain’t gonna be a problem,” I assured her, “not if what you told me about this Herax guy is true.”

“An’ how’re you gonna get away?” Ironsmith asked.

“They’ll throw me out on my ass soon enough,” I said, “just as long as I can stay on my feet for fifteen minutes, right?”

Poppy crossed the room so she was standing close to me. She looked up and frowned. “I’ll do it, Ragnar, but you gotta watch yourself. You ain’t as young as you used to be.”

“None of us are, toots.”

“Yeah, just don’t do nothin’ stupid.”

“It never seems stupid when I do it…”

“I know. See you Thursday then. Make sure you’re all in the building at eight pm.”

She left, and Ironsmith and Stormgate followed afterwards, promising to do their part of the preparations ahead of Wednesday. Ironsmith needed to track down Broga and get Biteaxe on side. All Stormgate had to do was familiarise herself with the dwarf tunnels. Her job was probably the easiest of all, since she was a little older and was still suffering the effects of the drow’s attack on her temple. Lessien was the last to leave. She sauntered up to me. “What’s the deal with you an’ the waitress, Ulrichson?”

“Huh? Oh, you mean Poppy?”

“Yeah, the gnome girl.”

“We’re old friends,” I said carefully.

“I see. She ain’t seem to like me much.”

“She’s had a bad time recently. I guess she don’t much trust anyone these days after everythin’ that’s happened.”

“She seems to care about you.”

I frowned at her. “Like I said, we’re old friends.”

Lessien got a little smile on her face. “Is that all?”

“Not exactly. But that’s the past.”

“You sure about that, Northman?”

I nodded. “Pretty sure.”

“Well good.” She put a hand against my scarred old cheek and smiled. She was pretty up close. Real pretty. “I wouldn’t want you to get hurt in this little heist neither, Ulrichson. You’re bold an’ brave. It’s a rare thing in this city.”

I cleared my throat and stepped away from her slightly, trying to be as casual as possible. “There’s still good people around. I just had four of ’em in this room.”

She tilted her head. “You think I’m good?”

“Well…I dunno yet, to be honest. But I guess I get a good feelin’ from you or somethin’.”

“Ain’t you sweet. What I’m wonderin’ about though, is this person you’re plannin’ to rescue.”

“What about them?” I had to be real careful not to let too much slip now.

“At first I figured it was a girl. But then I saw that gnome an’ the way she was with you. Made me think she wouldn’t be agreein’ to anythin’ if that was what this was about. Maybe family?”

“Ain’t go no family left alive, miss.”

“Sorry to hear that. A friend then?”

“Kinda.”

“Who is it? Why’s he so important that you’d risk so much to save him?”

“Does it matter?” I asked. “The drow have him. That oughta be enough for anyone to wanna mount a rescue mission, right?”

“They ain’t exactly the most pleasant hosts, no.”

“Exactly. An’ like I been sayin’, I can’t let them win. I let this go, New Atlas is theirs.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly at that. “You think the actions of one man can make so much difference?”

“Ask Lilith. This ain’t the first time she’s targeted me.”

“An’ now you’re playin’ right into her hands?”

“Or she’s playin’ into mine.”

She didn’t return my smirk, just looked even more suspicious. “Brave an’ bold,” she said, “or dumb as heck.”

“I think the only thing that separates those two things is success, Lessien.”

“You’d better hope you pull this off then, Ulrichson.” She gave me another odd look, then swaggered outta the room. It was hard not to watch her as she left. She gave me a little glance over her shoulder as she got to the door, enough to notice that I’d been watching, then left with a smile I didn’t like one bit. I rubbed my jaw and wondered what to make of all that, but then figured I had more important things to plan. Like just how the heck I was gonna pull all this off. It seemed real easy when we were talking about in my apartment, but I knew when Thursday came around things wouldn’t be so simple. I looked at the chalkboard with its map of the casino covered in arrows and scribbled notes and times at all the places where rendezvous were supposed to take place. It was simple, wasn’t it? A real simple plan, that just relied on a couple of little things falling into place. As I went into the kitchen to pour myself a shot of whisky, I wondered which of them would go wrong on the night.

*

Of course I’d never been in the casino before. I didn’t know quite what I’d been expecting but it was really not my kinda scene at all. No one even looked twice at me as I came in. I’d dressed up a little, got my suit laundered, had a clean shirt and tie on. I kept my fedora pulled low over my face, but I was a big guy, and people’d notice me just from the width of my shoulders. Plus I wore my hair long the traditional Northern way, so there’d be no hiding what I was. Thankfully I was banking on that to a certain extent. I needed to be noticed, but that wouldn’t mean nothing if I got dragged outside straight away. I had to stay around long enough to cause a little trouble. The casino was real fake inside. No windows, exits that weren’t easy to find, a lotta horrible carpet and plastic pot plants. It was noisy and smoky. The drinks were expensive, so I just got a small whisky and skulked around the place for a little while. As I think I said before, I ain’t really a gambling man. Money was so hard to come by when I was a kid that even the thought of giving it away brings me out in a kinda cold sweat. I had to play the game tonight though. I hoped I looked like someone a little down on his luck, maybe hoping to win big and solve all his problems. If I got recognised, that’s what I wanted them to think. I wanted them to see Ragnar Ulrichson, a broken down gumshoe so down on his luck he’d come to a mob casino to drink and gamble his worries away. I wanted them to see a man about to break, and maybe have the idea they could be the ones who’d get the glory of breaking me all the way.

I was just leaving the bar and I tipped my hat up so I could see two short figures being shown around the edge of the casino floor to a side door. Biteaxe, the glazier and, shuffling behind him, head down and a hat pulled as low over his eyes as mine was, Ironsmith. He glanced up and just caught my eye. I turned away and headed for a craps table.

Now, I ain’t much for cards or roulette, but I knew a lot about dice. If there was a time in my life when I did gamble, it was when I was running the streets as a kid. There’d been a whole lotta craps games in those days. The dice were always crooked as Hel and the stakes were as low as you could get, but it passed the time between whatever no-good we were up to. I sidled up to the game, watched a few rolls, then bought myself a stack of chips and interjected myself. The stickman slid the dice over to me and I scooped ’em up. I thought about it. I wanted to look desperate, but not too desperate. I shook the dice in my fist. “Easy nineteen,” I said. I threw the dice, watched them bounce off the back wall of the table and wobble to a halt in the centre. Eighteen and one. I was lucky, but I was hoping that wouldn’t last.

Despite my struggles with my accounts, I actually got a pretty good head for odds. The dice were fair I figured out, which was something, and I just played smart. As the dice went around the table I put safe bets on other rollers, kept an eye on my chips and, after a little while, I was starting to get ahead. I ordered another whisky from a waitress and started to act a little cockier. I slid a small pile of chips across the table as the dice came to me. “Hard eighteen,” I grinned. Somehow I got lucky as two nines stared up at me from the dice. People cheered. The others at the table were all humans – a good smattering too, Cimmerians, Stonelanders, even a couple Easterling tourists. My drink arrived as I collected my winnings and I gulped a big mouthful before putting it down. “All right,” I said, letting my voice get a little too loud, “let’s go hard eighteen again. I feel lucky!” And I was, somehow. More cheering, more chips. “Hey, can you get me another drink, toots?” I asked the waitress. I winked at her, which everyone else would read as me getting more cocky but Poppy, who was the one bringing my drinks, would understand to mean I was in control. At least, I hoped she understood that. She still looked pretty worried. “Hey, bub,” I said to the Stonelander standing next to me, “you want a drink?” I pointed to my increasingly large stack of chips. “On me.”

So that’s how we spent the next half hour or so. Me alternating playing it safe with making crazy bets, buying the other players drinks, sending a few chips the dealers’ way, generally rolling like I was a small timer getting his first taste of the big time. I saw the guards noticing me too. I put on a show, leaning against the edge of the table like I couldn’t keep my balance too good and gulping my drinks even faster.

“All right, all right,” I said as the stickman slid me the dice again. I went to scoop them up and missed. Everyone laughed. “I need another drink,” I said. “Where’s that pretty waitress gone, huh?” My new buddy, the Stonelander, said he’d pay now, but I waved him off. I pointed at the dice. “I gotta good feelin’ about this roll. Let’s…let’s put everythin’ on forty. An’ then I’m gonna…I’m gonna buy everyone a drink!” There was a raucous cheer and I eyeballed the boxman blearily. “You heard me, pal.” I moved my piles of chips. “Everythin’…everythin’ on forty.”

“Right you are, sir.”

“You ever seen a streak like this?” I asked the stickman.

“No, sir.”

It wasn’t a streak, actually, and he probably knew that. I’d played smart and only taken risks with small amounts but, to anybody who didn’t know the game and the odds, I probably seemed like I was on a hot run. I picked up the dice on my second attempt and shook then theatrically in my fist. Poppy showed up with my drink and I took it without looking at her and downed it in one before slamming the glass back down on the tray. I probably made her wobble a bit with that, but I had to look like who I was pretending to be. I made sure I had the guards’ attention and lifted my hand up. This had to all go horribly wrong, or I was gonna have to push things even further. “Forty or bust!” I shouted.

I threw the dice. They careened across the table, bouncing hard off the back wall. Everyone stepped back a little way as they pirouetted around and all eyes were on those numbers. The first spun on one of its points and came to rest: twenty. There was a big whoop. I laughed, but secretly I was getting worried – what if it really was my lucky night? Heck, I didn’t wanna use up all my good fortune on the craps table, not with what else we had planned. The other dice was still rolling. It twirled and jumped and then, slowly, wobbled to rest…on twenty. “Dang!” I shouted, before I could help myself, but it was swallowed up in the noise from everyone else at the table. I slammed my fist onto the edge of the table as if I was celebrating and the dice jumped, rolling neatly onto nineteen.

“Thirty-nine!” the stickman announced, gathering up all my chips smoothly.

Everyone stared down at the dice in disbelief. They knew they’d seen forty and that was gonna play perfectly into my hands. “What the Hel?!” I demanded. “That was forty!”

“Thirty-nine, sir,” the Stickman said, holding a hand out to the dice. He was a small guy with a nasty little smile on his face.

“It was forty!” I pointed around the table. “We all saw it! Tell him!”

Everyone agreed it’d been forty. “Pay him!” my Stonelander friend demanded.

“Dice reads thirty-nine,” the Stickman repeated. “You got a problem, take it to management.”

“I got a problem all right, buddy,” I growled. I made a lunge towards him across the table, and that was the trigger for the guards to step in. One of them, a big Cimmerian, had a hand on my shoulder.

“Is there somethin’ we can help you with, sir?” he asked me calmly.

“Yeah,” I pointed at the stickman, “your pal’s tryin’ to cheat me outta my winnin’s.”

“Dice read thirty-nine. He bet on forty.”

“It says thirty-nine, sir.”

“It said forty before. Right?” I looked around at the other players, but now they were less interested in backing me up. There were other guards hovering on the tables nearby, keeping an eye on things. I was big. They knew my type.

“Sir, you’re gonna have to leave.”

“Not without what I’m owed I ain’t…”

“Sir…” He started to pull me away from the table and I shrugged him off.

“I ain’t leavin’,” I told him firmly.

Two more guards were here now. Everyone was looking the other way. No one wanted to get involved with the drunken idiot who was making a scene. “Let’s go outside, sir,” the first guard said again, more confident now his buddies were there.

I turned to them and squared my shoulders. None of them were bigger’n me, but they did have the advantage of numbers. “You gonna make me?”

They looked at one another. The first one had a mean little smirk on his face and I decided I didn’t feel in the least bit bad about what was about to happen. “I know you,” he said.

“Yeah?  Well I ain’t know you.”

“You’re Ulrichson. The private dick.”

“What about it?”

“Nothin’. You used to be a hero. Guess times have changed.”

“Yeah, whole city’s gone to Hel. Look at this place.” I held my hands up.

“Okay, that’s enough outta you, Northman.” He stepped towards me and I let him have it. It only took one right hook. I might be old and broken down, but I’ve always packed a mean punch. He went right down, out cold. The other guards stared down at him and then charged me. I went right back into the craps table and all my new friends, who’d deserted me just as things went south, went running. The second guard I lifted up over my shoulder and dumped right into the table. Chips went everywhere. The third tried to get a baton out, but I slammed my forearm into his face and sent him down to the floor with the first guard. More of them were heading my way now and the whole casino floor was in uproar. I’d purposely picked a table close to the counting room, off to one side, and the guard who shoulda kept to his post there ran in to join the fray. That’s when it was time to get serious. I shoved one guard outta the way and squared up to this newcomer. He tried to wrestle me to the ground but, big as he was, he wasn’t a match for me. “Sorry about this, buddy,” I said to him under my breath.

“Huh?” He didn’t say nothing else though as I balled my fist and punched him as hard as I could in the gut. He doubled over with a gasp and I broke his nose with a neat left hand. He fell onto the horrible carpet in a spray of blood. They were all on me then, piling on, pulling me down to the ground: I’d pushed them too far, got them angry.

“What the heck is goin’ on here?” I heard a voice ask, and then I was being pulled up to my feet to come face to face with a drow in a suit. He wasn’t too big, and he looked like a pretty greasy customer. His white hair was waxed back into a little tail and his red eyes were watery. His suit didn’t fit him too well – it was bigger than it needed to be. I figured he thought it made him seem larger, but actually it made him look like a kid in his dad’s clothes. He frowned at me as he got up close. I was being held firmly by two guards. “I know you,” he sneered.

“So does everyone, it seems,” I said, spitting a bloody tooth out at his feet. My head was ringing, but I felt pretty much okay. I still had some fight in me – about fifteen minutes of fight, if I’d timed it right.

“Ragnar Ulrichson,” he said with a predatory grin. “The detective.”

“That’s me, pal. An’ you are?”

“I’m Mr Herax. I think me an’ you oughta have a talk, Mr Ulrichson.”

“What about?”

“You’ll find out. Bring him up to my office,” he ordered the two guards. Then he looked around. Everyone was staring at us. The other guards were just dusting themselves down. “Get this place straightened out,” he barked. “An’ get a janitor in here to clear up the dang mess.” The guards did as they were told. But Herax hadn’t noticed the door to the counting room was now unprotected. I figured until he realised and came back to give some more orders, it’d stay that way. My job was now to keep him occupied long enough for everyone else to do their bit.

*

They sat me down in a chair in Herax’s little office. I could tell from the place that he was a small man who took hold of any little bit of power he could get. Stuff like his desk being a little too big and grand, his chair being leather with a high back. Unlike Stormgate’s office, there weren’t no books either. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything. Like Poppy said, the casino more or less ran itself. They didn’t need no crooked dice or people cooking the books. Folks with more money’n sense just had to walk through the doors, get a little drunk, make some bad decisions and the house came out on top. Easy money. But someone had to be seen to be in charge, push the guards around, keep a general eye on things. So Lilith put this worm here, outta harms way, let him think he was a big shot. It was exactly what I’d been hoping for.

“Ragnar Ulrichson,” he said as he circled the desk. He poured himself a drink. It smelled like the cheap stuff I used to drink. Either he didn’t know no better or Lilith didn’t let him help himself to the bar. “Funny to see a guy like you here.”

“Why’s that?” I asked. I was sitting opposite in the much smaller chair. There were still two guards at the door.

“Not your usual kinda haunt, that’s all.” He sipped his drink and watched me over the glass. I could see how much he was enjoying being in control.

“S’a free city, ain’t it?”

“No. It’s our city. We run it now.”

“‘We’ bein’ the drow, right?” I turned slightly to the guards. “Y’hear that, boys? This is a drow city now.”

“Don’t talk to them,” Herax snapped. “They know who the boss is.”

“An’ that’d be you, would it?”

“This is my casino,” he said, with a curl of his lip.

“No it ain’t.”

“Who the heck do you think you are, huh?” I could see he was getting real angry already.

“I’m Ragnar Ulrichson. You already said that. Now what you gonna do with me, huh?”

He leant back, swirling the cheap whisky around. The ice cubes in the glass clinked in the silence. “Well, I been thinkin’ about that…” In other words, he had no idea.

By my count it’d only been a few minutes. I had to string things out a little longer still. I hoped that, downstairs, everything was going to plan. “Seems like you got two options. Either you send me on my way, or you don’t.”

“Yeah,” Herax said, latching onto my not-so-subtle suggestions. “That’s about the size of it. Now, I wonder what the Mafiatrix’d say if I brought you to her, huh?”

“I dunno, pal. What do you think she’d say?”

I could see his eyes lighting up greedily. He knew damn well that I’d be one heckuva prize. Just then, there was a knock at the door. Herax looked a bit put out, but he nodded to one of the guards and then another drow poked his head around the door. “Hey, boss, you got a minute?”

Herax pointed at me with his glass. “I’m kinda busy, Jex. The Hel is it?”

“You know that glazier?”

“Huh?”

The other drow, Jex, walked into the room now. He gave me a confused look, then turned to Herax. “That glazier. The dwarf, y’know?”

He waved a hand. “I guess. What about him?”

“Well, he’s real talkative.”

“So what?”

“He said he came in with Harl Ironsmith.”

Herax looked at his henchman, then he looked at me. “Ironsmith? The fence? Where is he now?”

“No one can find him, boss.”

“You’re Ironsmith’s friend,” Herax said, using his glass to point again.

“More of a business associate.”

“What the heck’s goin’ on?”

“Beats me,” I said, spreading my hands.

He chuckled slightly. “Now that’s the best idea I’ve had all day. Jex, go get Gor an’ Slar. I’m gonna send this piece of shit to the Mafiatrix, but I want him softened up a little first. An’ if Harl Ironsmith is in this buildin’, get the guards to find his punk ass an’ bring him here.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

I watched Jex leave and turned back to Herax. “Gor an’ Slar?”

The drow drained the last of his crappy whisky and gave me an evil grin. “Yeah. You think these humans are my only security? Sometimes you need real muscle in a place like this.”

I was formally introduced to Gor and Slar in a narrow yard outside where they stored all the trash before it went out to be collected. You wouldn’t think elves would get on too well with gnolls, but more often’n not, they seemed to use them as muscle. I guess ’cause they were uncomplicated creatures, as a general rule. They did what they were told, and they did it well. Gor and Slar mighta been brothers for all I knew – I ain’t like to admit it, but most gnolls looked alike to me. It was probably all the fur. I’d been bigger’n all the human guards, but these two towered over me. Jex shoved me towards them and stood back with Herax to watch the show. I licked my lips as I raised my fists. I’d had plenty of run ins with gnolls before, but I didn’t like my chances – the two drow were standing in front of my only escape route, and I’d need to stay on my feet for at least ten minutes to give the others the time they needed. I wasn’t sure if things were going exactly to plan for me, to be honest. I’d planned to take a bit of a beating, but I didn’t know there’d be gnolls, or that Biteaxe would blow our cover by running his mouth. But I was determined to stick to what we’d agreed.

The first gnoll – heck if I knew which was which – took a swing at me. He was slow and I ducked his fist and planted one of my own in his gut. It was like punching a sack of potatoes. He let out a noise which I guess was a laugh and swiped at me with his other hand. His claws raked across my face and I could taste blood. I staggered into the wall and he hauled me back into the yard. His buddy jabbed me in the ribs and I almost went down. I kicked out, caught him in the knee and then shoved a thumb in the first gnoll’s eye. That just made ’em more angry really. The one I’d got in the knee limped back towards me, batted aside my blows and grabbed me under the arms. He hurled me right into the wall and I could hear the drow laughing as I sank to the floor. That pissed me off so I got up and came back swinging. I ploughed into the one who’d thrown me and shoved him into the wall opposite. The other one grabbed me from behind and lifted me up but I threw my head back and caught him in the muzzle. He dropped me and I stepped on his foot as hard as I could and was pleased to hear a yelp of pain.

I took a second to get my breath, but it was a second too long, because now the gnoll in front of me was pissed off and he punched me square on the jaw. I staggered sideways about four feet and tried to shake the ringing out of my ears. Nothing doing, ’cause they’d had about enough of playing games now. They came at me with everything they had, and soon I was on the floor getting the every-loving crap kicked outta me. They really laid into me and soon I was coughing blood. I managed to trip one and get up to my knees, but it didn’t do no good. All I could do was put my arms over my head and try to take it. I dunno how long I held out, but for some reason the drow’d stopped laughing. Between punches that drove me down further and further, I risked a glance out. That’s when I saw the door open and Poppy’s face peering outta the gap. What was she doing here? I couldn’t signal to her, and she was keeping outta sight of Herax and Jex who were absorbed in the fight. They had odd expressions on their faces.

What did Poppy want? Suddenly I realised that something musta gone wrong and she’d come here to find me. Stalling didn’t matter no more – I needed to be back in the game. I saw a big hairy fist coming towards me and caught it in my hand. “Sorry, pal,” I said through gritted teeth as I pushed myself up to my feet, “party’s over.” The gnoll stared at me with his little beady eyes as I crushed his fist in my hand and then drove my foot into his gut and sent him crashing into the wall in a shower of brick dust. I could sense the other gnoll behind me and I ducked his swing and then caught him on the jaw with an uppercut. He went down like a felled tree. His pal was just pulling himself up, but I didn’t give him the chance. I grabbed his head and slammed it back against the wall so he crumpled into a heap on the concrete floor.

Now for the drow. They were staring at me with fear in their eyes. Herax was smart enough to shove Jex towards me and run, and I floored him with a straight shot to the face. Poppy had slammed the door and I guess she was holding the handle desperately from the other side ’cause Herax couldn’t get it open. I yanked him away and threw him straight into the opposite wall. He landed bad, but I thought he’d be okay. As much as I hated the mob, I didn’t wanna kill a man in cold blood like that.

I knocked gently on the door. “Poppy?”

She opened it slowly and then stared around at the carnage in the narrow yard. Two unconscious gnolls, two unconscious drow. Me on my feet, swaying a little, but basically okay. “How did…?”

“What?” I shook my fist. “This ain’t my first rodeo, toots. You know that. Now what’s goin’ on? You wouldn’t be here if everythin’ was proceedin’ accordin’ to plan.”

She gathered herself. “It’s Lessien.”

“Huh?”

“She’s…uh…got cold feet…”

*

The casino floor was still pretty chaotic. The guards had been sidelined trying to find Ironsmith, but they hadn’t checked the counting room – why would they? I walked straight through the crowds. No doubt I was a damn bloody mess, and I got a few stares, but now wasn’t the time for that. We ducked into the counting room when no one was looking right at us and inside I found the cashier, out cold still right at his desk with his ledger open and a dwarf counting machine at his side, and Ironsmith standing at the safe, arguing with Lessien. “What the heck’s goin’ on here?” I demanded.

Ironsmith turned to me. “Ask her,” he said, jabbing his thumb at the elf.

I looked at her. “Well?”

“You didn’t tell me you were gonna use this money to save some drow.”

I glared at Ironsmith. “You told her that?”

“Not in so many words…”

“So you were keepin’ it from me on purpose?” Lessien asked.

“Not exactly. You told her, Harl?”

“It was Stormgate,” Lessien said, “she only told me his name when we were on the way here. That made me suspicious an’ Ironsmith told me the rest when I asked.”

I ran my hand across my face. “Does it really matter?”

“It matters to me. I thought you were helpin’ out a friend.”

“I am!”

“This is drow politics,” she said, shaking her head, “I ain’t gettin’ involved.”

“You’re standin’ in the counting room of their godsdamned casino!” I yelled. The cashier made a noise and I grimaced. “You already involved!” I said in a whisper.

She held up her hands. “No, I’m walkin’ away.”

“Are you kiddin’ me? I just got my ass kicked by two gnolls!”

“Guys, the drug I gave Mac ain’t gonna last much longer,” Poppy said. “Can we maybe make a decision here?”

“Stay outta this, half-pint,” Lessien snapped at her. “You ain’t want any part of this either – if it weren’t for your boyfriend, you wouldn’t even be here.”

Poppy stared at her. “The heck is that supposed to mean?”

“Lessien,” I said, “we runnin’ outta time here. Just crack the safe an’ we’ll deal with this later.”

“Only if I get a cut. I’m gonna need compensation now if this is mob business.”

“It was already mob business!” Ironsmith protested.

“Before it was the mob gettin’ involved in your business. But if you tryin’ to take a drow hostage back, it makes it you gettin’ involved in theirs. Very different story.”

“Whatever,” I said, “just open the safe.”

“I want twenty percent.”

“Fine. Take an extra two-hundred k, if it’s there.”

“No, I want twenty percent of whatever I take.”

“Oh for Crom’s sake,” I sighed. “My head’s ringin’ too much to work this out.” I pointed at the adding machine. “Someone do the sums for me.”

“We ain’t got time!” Poppy wailed. Mac was starting to mumble in his sleep now.

“Take the million,” I told Lessien, “an’ I’ll deal with your share later, okay? You got my word, all right?”

“Your word?” She cocked an eyebrow at me. “What’s that worth?”

“Look at me!” I roared. “I swore an oath to get that kid back an’ now I’m standin’ here, in enemy territory, strugglin’ to breath because I got about three busted ribs by my count! What’s my word worth? Don’t try me, elf! I’m Ragnar Ulrichson, son of the North. That’s my word, understand?”

That shut her up, and it turned out she was as good as she’d said she was. The safe came open easy and we shovelled the piles of bills into Ironsmith’s bag. No one spoke, they just got on with their work. Lessien climbed back into the cart without saying anything and Ironsmith wheeled her away. I looked at Poppy. “Can you help me get outta here?” I asked her quietly.

“Sure,” she said in a small voice. “I know a back way. C’mon.”

I nodded and followed her. I was starting to feel the bruises from the gnolls and the earlier fight with the guards now my anger was wearing off but, even though everything had kinda gone to plan, I had a strange feeling the real hard part was yet to come.

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This entry was posted in Noir, Novella, Oathquest, Ragnar Ulrichson, Urban Fantasy. Bookmark the permalink.

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