Oathquest (Part V)

I put my finger in my mouth and probed the place where my tooth used to be. It felt a little sore. “Bastards,” I said as I wiped the finger off on my shirt, open to the waist where Dr Goldstrumm was checking on the bandages taping my ribs up. The little dwarf leant away and nodded silently before starting to pack his bag. “I wouldn’t mind so much,” I said to the other occupant of my suddenly crowded office, Ironsmith, who was sitting across the desk from me, “but it wasn’t even the gnolls that knocked it out! It was the damn guards! Humans!”

“You’re lucky to be alive,” Ironsmith said.

“Huh?”

Goldstrumm adjusted his glasses as he peered at me. “Hm. Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I think you nearly punctured a lung.”

“See? Fine.” I reached over to pour myself a glass of whisky, but Goldstrumm picked the bottle up before I could and moved it across the desk out of my reach.

“No alcohol for a while, Mr Ulrichson.”

“It’s medicinal.”

“Not in the quantity you imbibe it, it isn’t.”

“Hey, c’mon, doc…”

At that moment Willow, my secretary, walked in. She was a dryad, and the reason I kept finding leaves on the floor for half the year. She was smart and a useful girl to have around the place. Especially when she was bringing me coffee, like now. “Here you go, Mr Ulrichson,” she said, but Goldstrumm took it right out of her hand as she tried to pass it to me.

“Just water, please. You need hydration, not stimulants.”

“I been tellin’ him that for months,” Willow said.

I looked at them flatly. “You kiddin’ me? No booze, no coffee? You always say that…”

“You need bed rest, Mr Ulrichson,” Goldstrumm said, finally closing up his bag and perching his hat on his big bald head. “Bed rest and plenty of fluids. And soup. Soup is good.”

“My mother always swears by soup,” Ironsmith said. I noticed he’d retrieved my coffee and was drinking it himself. “I’ll get her to make you some.”

“I ain’t like soup.”

“Who doesn’t like soup? An’ you never tasted my mother’s gravel soup.”

“Gravel…?”

“It’s just a name.”

“Well, it was nice to see you again, gentlemen,” Goldstrumm said. He turned to me as he reached the door. “Mr Ulrichson, you have quite a remarkable constitution, but if you intend to enjoy any more fistfights with gnolls, may I suggest you invest in a suit of armour?”

“I’m a Northman, doc.”

“That much is abundantly clear.” He looked at Willow and lifted his hat slightly. “Ma’am.”

As he left I shook my head at Ironsmith. “Can you believe that?”

“He has a point, Ragnar,” he said over my coffee. “You took a real beatin’ back there.”

“I was fine.”

“You could barely walk when you found us in the countin’ room.”

“I felt fine.”

“Well you looked a complete damn mess.”

He was probably right. I’d looked in the mirror when I got home and hadn’t exactly liked what I’d seen. I was never the most handsome guy, but I had bruises all over my face and I think my nose mighta got broken again. Hardly made no difference, and I’d sure as heck had worse in my time, but I wondered at the price I was paying. At the time, surviving it had been second nature, but it hurt now. That’s how it always went with me, and with most other Northmen I knew. When your blood was up, you went to a different place, became a different person. Something got inside you, something from the mountains, and you were unstoppable. But it all had to come crashing down sometime, and that’s when you paid the price. Talking of which…

I kicked the big toolbag sitting next to my chair like it was nothing important in particular. “We gotta figure out the next step, Harl.”

He looked down at it. He’d got it out of the casino no problem and, Crom bless him, he’d taken that bag home, hidden it under his bed and then brought it here all the way through New Atlas to my office this morning. Part of me’d felt bad about opening it to check the money was still there, but Ironsmith was this city’s most well-connected legitimate businessman, and we were talking about a million damn dollars. It was all there though. I could hardly believe I was sitting there with a bag full of that much moolah, and thinking about my plans for it was even more difficult to focus on right then.

Ironsmith seemed to read my mind. “You sure about doin’ this, Ragnar?”

I looked down at the bag. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I really am. I swore an oath, didn’t I?”

“You said you’d get him back. Not that you’d give up a million dollars to do it. There’s gotta be another way…”

“You sayin’ we should just keep it?”

Ironsmith looked conflicted. He went to say something, then stopped. Then he tried again. Finally he just held his hands out. “I’m not sayin’ that…not exactly…I just…a million bucks…”

“C’mon, pal, you’re a fence not a thief, right?”

“Right, right. But it’s sittin’ right there…”

“An’ it ain’t ours. We’re givin’ it back to its rightful owner.”

“Except she won’t know we’re givin’ it back.”

“True…”

“An’ the guy she left in charge is gonna be too scared to tell her what happened. He let Ragnar Ulrichson knock him out in his own damn casino.”

“Also true…”

“If you boys start spendin’ money, people gonna notice,” Willow said from the doorway.

“She’s got a point,” I said.

“A million dollars buys a lotta silence, Ragnar.”

“In this city?” I shook my head. “C’mon, you got no intention of keepin’ this money.”

“No, I guess I ain’t,” he admitted. “Still, a million bucks, y’know?”

“I know. But we gotta do what we set out to do. It ain’t ours.”

“So what is the plan?”

I picked at my bandages and gave it some thought. A glass of whisky sure woulda been good now to help me get my thoughts in order, but I thought I should follow some good advice for once. Problem was, no plan really sprung to mind at that moment. I guess figuring out the heist had took up all my inspiration or something. Lilith had set a trap for me – given me an impossible ransom to pay and a place to pay it, and hoped I’d be dumb enough to try to sneak in. Like she’d be keeping Zrit in the same place she wanted to meet. She thought she knew me too well. But what would she do when she saw I had the money? I knew her too: her red eyes’d light up and she’d agree to almost anything. Zrit didn’t mean a damn thing to her, but even her pretty head’d turn at the sight of a million dollars in cold, hard cash. So, basically, I just had to show up and pay the ransom. What more was there to do?

“We just gonna…walk in…”

“We?”

I nodded. “You an’ me. You think I’d go on my own?”

“No, but why you gotta take me?”

“Who else am I gonna take?”

He turned in his chair to look at Willow, but she’d already wisely disappeared. I could see him thinking. “Poppy?”

“You kiddin’ me? I’m gonna put her in danger like that?”

“Right, course. Um…”

“Stormgate? She’s banged up worse’n me. Plus why’d I put a Matriarch in harm’s way?”

“Maybe…”

“Lessien? After what she pulled back in the casino?”

“Dang.” He idly banged his fist against the arm of the chair. “You need more friends.”

“Why, when the ones I got are so generous?” I leant forward a little. “Now hows about you pour me a glass of that whisky?” I was feeling reckless all of a sudden, ’cause I’d just got half an idea.

“Don’t push it,” he said, pulling the bottle further away.

*

It was just a warehouse. There were dozens of ’em along the docks, and in lots of other places all over New Atlas. Nothing special about it at all, except this one had some bad memories attached for me. Last time I’d seen it, I’d broken in like a damn fool, trying to track down a good man who I knew was in trouble. My stupidity that night got that same man killed, and the whole city went to Hel. Would it have happened anyway? I had no way to know. You only get to walk one path in this world, and those other forks in the road are forever a mystery. If I’d done the smart thing, waited for help, come up with an actual plan instead of just going in with my fists cocked, spoiling for a fight, would the Mafia have done what they did? It was a trap, a trap for me, and by springing it, I plunged New Atlas into anarchy. It had all been about me, see. All along. The drow were a distraction, a way to move the right pieces for a grand plan that woulda seen New Atlas ruled over by a cabal of monsters, with me as their damn figurehead. A barbarian becomes a hero becomes a king. That was the path they’d set for me, and there were thousands of other folks in this city who, given the same opportunities, woulda taken it in a heartbeat. Smart folks who thought they could change a city like this, who’d see a crown as a ticket to real power. But that was a trap too. I woulda been more of a pawn than ever that way. But now here we were, with things worse’n ever. So who won in the end? Not me, that’s for sure.

We were sitting halfway up 12th Avenue in one of Ironsmith’s cars. He ain’t got a collection or nothing, just the construction company he was part owner of had a little fleet. Why he needed a non-descript black sedan with plates that slid right off for putting up apartment blocks and digging sewers, I’d never quite been able to figure out. I was grateful for it though ’cause it was a cold night. Spring just didn’t show no signs of arriving any time soon. We were parked not far from the warehouse in question, one of the mob’s known hideouts. They weren’t subtle – their black spiders were daubed on the walls all over the place. The cops knew exactly where to find the drow, but what were they gonna do? They had the whole city in their pocket. And it was all my fault. I mean, maybe it’d been inevitable, but I just couldn’t shake that feeling lately. That’s the whole reason I had to beat them tonight. I had to show that New Atlas wasn’t ground into dust just yet.

“C’mon,” Ironsmith said to me from the driver’s side, “let’s just get this done an’ go home.”

“Right.” The money was on my lap, still in the toolbag. I hefted it up – a million dollars is pretty heavy if you ain’t know – and we got out the car. It was dark. That’s when the drow came out to play and remember we were trying to play their game tonight. We hadn’t called ahead or nothing, but I was sure Lilith’d have her goons keeping a close enough eye on our movements that she’d know well ahead of time that I was about to pay her a visit. We crossed the road and walked towards the warehouse. There was a chainlink fence around the yard but the gate was open. There was nothing to steal in this place anyway and, besides, they had the best security money could buy: pure fear. As we crossed the yard to the warehouse, I saw the little pier they had jutting out into the North River. I could hear the dark water sloshing up against the struts as the wind howled down from the rugged country upriver and a memory came back to me. I ain’t remember much of what happened the last time I was here – not after Lilith revealed herself for what she was anyway – I’d had to piece it all together afterwards, ’cause the Black Lotus she’d poisoned me with had taken me almost to the edge then and only a lucky intervention’d kept me alive long enough to do what needed to be done. But up to that point it was all real foggy. Just hearing the sound of that water again though brought a snatch of memory back suddenly: being carried outside by tall, dark men with glowing red eyes, the sensation of falling as they dumped me in the river, the shocking cold, the stink of sewage, the sound of those creeps laughing. They’d left me for dead. I dunno if it was part of the plan for me to die then, not really, but I ain’t think they’d have lost a whole bunch of sleep if I’d gone to meet my maker that night.

To the mob, people were nothing but things. Just like this city. They’d tear down the things that made it what it was and put up something ugly and cruel – something designed to suck the money and the life outta hard-working folks – and they wouldn’t blink twice. They’d sweep up their own kind from the streets of Svartheim, another city they’d turned into a ruin of crime and corruption, and they’d bring them here to be cannon fodder in their nasty schemes. They’d twist things so badly that Poppy had to do a job she hated just to keep the crappy apartment their vandalism had forced her to live in. They were a poison, and they were killing the city that was the only home I knew. I looked up at the warehouse, a big square shadow against the dark clouds and I knew that, whatever happened, it wouldn’t end here, tonight. I could give Lilith her million dollars, I could get Zrit back, but they’d find some other way to hurt me another day. If I beat them, they’d never forget it.

“You okay?” Ironsmith asked me in a low voice.

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s get this done.”

The door was open, but it was dark inside. I knew we weren’t alone though – not just ’cause I could see them moving in the shadows pretty well anyway, but also ’cause they didn’t make no effort to hide. We could hear ’em moving around, laughing in the darkness, letting us know we were surrounded. Ironsmith was no coward, but I could tell from the way he was breathing that he didn’t like this one little bit. Neither did I to be honest, but this is the path we were on. We walked into the centre of the warehouse. It was exactly how I remembered it, now my eyes had adjusted enough. A big open space, concrete floor, narrow windows high up near the sloped ceiling. It was a cloudy night, no moon, so there was hardly any light coming through. There was a kinda walkway all ’round the walls with a couple ladders, and that’s where they watched us from. Tall, dark shapes, prowling back and forth liked the predators they were.

The light directly above us came on – a harsh, bright glare that made us blink and instinctively lift our hands to our eyes. There was more laughing. I couldn’t see into the shadows no more ’cause we were fixed in that spotlight dead above. They coulda killed us right then, and no one woulda known a thing about it. That’s why I held up the bag. “I got what you asked for,” I called out.

“Show us, Northman,” a man’s voice replied from high up. I could heard scuttling, and I figured someone was coming down one of the ladders over to my left.

I turned slightly and then put the bag on the floor. I moved real careful, just letting them see I wasn’t there to cause no trouble. I unzipped the bag and pulled out a wad of bills. “See?”

“Over here,” the voice said from just outside the circle of light. I hadn’t heard him come so close. Elves could be real quiet when they wanted, especially this kind. I scooted the cash across the floor, so it was sitting just on the edge of the light.

“You armed, Northman?”

“No.” That was the truth.

“What about your little buddy?”

“He ain’t packin’ neither. It’s just the two of us an’ a million dollars. We gonna have a deal here tonight?”

A drow stepped out of the shadows and into the light where we could see him. I recognised him: he was the bald guy who Lilith had brought to my office, the one who kicked over all my files. He stooped down to pick up the money, not taking his beady red eyes off of me as he did it. He straightened and flicked through it, checking it was as real as it looked. He smiled. “We weren’t introduced last time…”

“I guess not.”

He put a hand to his chest. “I’m Rath.”

“Nice to meet your, Rath. You speakin’ for your boss?”

“The Mafiatrix is on her way. She just asked me to keep a lookout for you.”

“I see. So until then I guess we’ll just shoot the shit, huh?”

His smile got wider. I didn’t like it one little bit. “You got a reputation in this city, Northman.”

“Just one?”

“People say you a tricky customer.”

“I’m the least tricky man in New Atlas, Rath. Ask anybody.”

“I keep an ear to the ground, Northman,” he said, tapping a long finger against his pointed ear for emphasis. “You think I’m stupid enough to think you’d come here without some kinda plan? I know what you are. Show me the rest of the money.”

I nudged the bag with my toe. “It’s all in here. You ain’t trust me?”

“I ain’t trust anyone. You live as long as I have, you learn that.”

“Come take a look if you ain’t believe I got what I say I got.”

“Dump it on the floor.”

I snorted. “This money don’t leave my side until I’ve seen the kid.”

“The kid’s fine.”

“Let me see him then.”

“He’s comin’.”

“Right.” I pointed at the bag. “An’ the money stays right there till he does, understand?”

Rath’s smile was starting to drop a little now. “I ain’t much like your bargainin’ position, Northman. You know how many drow I got in this buildin’?”

My eyes had adjusted by now and I looked up, picking out their red eyes. “Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Right. The odds are against you.”

“I’ve beaten worse. More recently that you might think too.”

Rath just stood there, staring at me, then he snarled something in a language I didn’t know and stalked back into the darkness. Ironsmith sidled up next to me and beckoned me down so he could whisper in my ear. “What game you playin’, Ragnar?”

“No game. I’m just seein’ where this goes.”

“He’s gonna kill us.”

“Not unless he wants to piss off Lilith.”

“You kiddin’ me? These guys are sharks. They’ll turn on her in a second. He wants the money.”

“Right,” I agreed, “but he’s too scared to take it, an’ not ’cause of us. He knows he gotta bide his time. These drow, they’re vicious cannibals, but they ain’t fools.”

“You think you can use that?”

“Heck if I know, man. Let’s just wait an’ see what happens when she gets here.”

We didn’t have long to wait. After a few minutes, all the lights starting coming on, starting with the ones closest to us and moving outwards to the walls until we saw her standing at the door. She brought more drow with her and, shuffling along behind, with his hands tied together, was Zrit. I caught the kid’s eye. He looked sullen and defeated, and I could see his limp had got worse. So they hadn’t been treating him so good. “How you holdin’ up, son?” I called across the warehouse.

“Don’t talk to him,” Lilith snapped. She was more practically dressed than the last time I’d seen her, in a knee-length skirt and a pale blouse that contrasted starkly with her charcoal-black skin. She wore a whole lotta ostentatious jewellery, but that was just her style. Her lips were as bold and red as ever. “I had to see this with my own eyes to believe it, Ulrichson.”

“Believe it, Lilith.” I picked up the bag. “What you asked for. Every damn cent.”

She stopped halfway across the floor and folded her arms. I didn’t like the look on her face – I felt like a mouse caught by a cat. She ground one sharp stiletto heel against the concrete floor as she watched me, considering. “Where’d you get it?”

“I got my resources.”

“You musta called in a whole buncha favours.”

She didn’t believe I had the money. She thought this was a trick. I yanked the bag open and turned it upside down so all the wads of cash poured out onto the floor. It made a pretty big pile. “Actually,” I said, “I lied. You’re a couple grand short.” I pointed at Rath. “He’s got the rest.”

Rath took out the money I’d given him earlier and threw it on to the pile with a half-smile at Lilith. “Just checkin’…”

I smiled at the Mafiatrix, ’cause I could tell I’d caught her off-guard. She’d been waiting for some crazy scheme to unspool, and all she’d got was the straight trade she’d asked for. But she wasn’t prepared for it. She put her hands on her hips. “I got twenty made men in this room, Northman,” she told me. “We can just take the money.”

“I’m givin’ you the money. Just give me the kid. That was the deal, right?”

“That was my offer.”

“Ah, but now you seen the money, right? Honestly, I thought this wouldn’t be that big of a deal for you, Lily. Ain’t you got that big casino uptown? What’s a million bucks to the mob?” I knew I was flying a little close to the sun with that, but I had to make it sound like I was in control. If I didn’t believe it, why should she?

Lilith’s eyes were still on me, but she reached out and grabbed Zrit roughly by his arm and pulled him towards her. He stumbled, and I could see now how tired he looked. I didn’t wanna think about what they mighta done to him over the past week or so. “Why do you want him do badly?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“He’s drow. He’s ours. He belongs with his people.”

“Why don’t you ask him what he wants?”

Her lips curled upwards, but it wasn’t a smile. “I’m takin’ that money.”

“Take it. All I want is the boy. Let us leave with him, an’ we’ll all move on with our lives.”

“Why should I do that? You were dumb enough to come here an’, money or not, there’s no way you coulda imagined you were walkin’ outta here alive, Ulrichson.”

“I survived last time.”

“That was different.”

“You’re right: there wasn’t a million dollars at stake. Harl?”

Ironsmith reached into his jacket and took out a slim metal tube. Those glaziers’ tools that had been in the bag had to go somewhere, right? He did whatever he had to do to activate it, and a blue flame flickered to life. It woulda looked better if the lights were still off, but I could see it had the desired effect. Ironsmith held the tool over the big pile of cash. “Just say the word, buddy.” He was sweating, but whether it was ’cause of the flame, his perfectly sensible fear of the drow or the fact that someone was asking him to set fire to a million bucks, I couldn’t say.

Lilith’s eyes were real wide. “Are you crazy?” she hissed at me.

“The kid,” I said. “Send him over, an’ we’ll walk away. You got your money. What’s the problem?”

Her lips twisted and suddenly she looked ugly. A snarling, feral thing, beaten at last. She wanted this money. She’d had no expectation of getting it before tonight, but now she saw it, and now she thought about it going up in flames, everything had changed. “Fine,” she finally said. She grabbed Zrit’s arm again and shoved him towards me. He stumbled down to one knee, but then picked himself up and walked slowly across to us. As he got close, I could see the bruises and swellings on his face.

“It’s gonna be okay,” I told him in a low voice.

He shook his head. “No it ain’t…”

He reached us and I grabbed his hands and pulled the cords that bound them together free. Then I took him by the shoulder, mostly to take the weight off his feet, since I could see he was about ready to collapse and I looked up at Lilith. “None of this had to happen,” I told her.

“I agree.”

“We’re goin’ now.”

“Go.”

She and her posse sauntered out of the way, circling around the centre of the warehouse where we still stood with the pile of money. When there was a clear path to the door, we started to walk. It was slow progress but once I figured we were outta earshot, I leant in to Zrit. “She tell you to stick that knife you got tucked into the back of your pants into me once we were outside?” He didn’t say anything, but we kept walking. “How’ve they been treatin’ you, huh?”

“You can’t beat ’em, Ragnar,” he said hoarsely.

“I know, kid. But is it worth bein’ on the winnin’ side when it’s theirs?”

“She said…she said…”

“What?”

“She said I gotta do it before we’re outta the door.”

“Ah.”

“She said she wants to see me do it.”

“Sure.”

“An’ if…if I don’t…”

We were at the door, and as hard as I tried, I just wasn’t fast enough. I shoved him away the second I heard the gunshot, but it caught him in the gut and he went down without a sound except the dull thud as his body hit the concrete. He wasn’t dead though. A bullet to the gut’s better’n one to the back, an’ I stared down at him as he pressed his hands to his middle, looking like he was just trying to hold himself together. There was blood though. A lotta blood.

I whirled around. It was Rath who’d fired the shot, and now he was lowering the gun with a sick smile on his face. Lilith was next to him, looking at me coldly. “Why?” I bellowed. “It’s me you want!”

“I wanted him to do it, Northman,” she answered, “so you’d know he betrayed you.”

“But he didn’t!”

“No. So instead, you get to watch him die before we kill you an’ your little dwarf friend.”

I went down to one knee and cradled Zrit’s head in my hands. His face had gone an ashy grey now, and his eyes looked dull. Ironsmith crouched down next to me. “He’s still got a chance, Ragnar,” he said. “If we can get him outta here…”

But the drow were advancing on us, weapons drawn. “You gotta take him,” I told him.

“Why? What you gonna do? Hold ’em off?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

There was another story my grandpa told us when we were kids. Sometimes, in the old days back in the North, the barbarians would experience something strange, something the skalds said was a gift from Crom. Often it was on the Oathquest, when things were at their worst. They used to say that, when all else failed, a Northman could enter an altered state, a berserker fury in which there was no exhaustion, no fear, no pain. Maybe they channelled the power of some beast of the mountains, or maybe they were just pissed off drunks pushed to the edge of sanity who were finally driven to madness by something. Either way, it was something from a forgotten Age, from a time long before we came to New Atlas. Maybe the drow knew about it, maybe they didn’t, but that didn’t matter right now. It was an ancient thing, a powerful thing, even more fundamental to my people than oaths. It was the rage. The raw, unstoppable barbarian rage.

I stood up slowly and clenched my fists. I didn’t bring no weapons with me. I didn’t expect to need any, but I never coulda guessed this’d be why. Ironsmith shouted something, and maybe I shouted something back, but I knew he heaved Zrit onto his shoulder and got out while the going was good. Rath fired his gun again and, on some level, I guess I felt it. It was just a numb impact against my side, and a wet feeling where the blood started to pulse out, but that was it. No pain. No fear. It didn’t even slow me down. I was on Rath in the blink of an eye, tearing the gun out of his hand and then lifting him into the air and hurling him across the warehouse to land in a crumpled heap twenty feet away. A couple of them stayed to fight, but I sent them flying too. One I punched in the gut so hard he lifted right into the air and came down hard on his face. Another got his arm broken in about three places and damned if I could tell you exactly how I did it; I just knew he was on the floor screaming before he could even think about defending himself. I turned and fixed my gaze on Lilith. “You,” I said.

She ran. She was an elf, so she was quick, but she was in heels, so I thought I could catch her up. She reached the door just before me and kicked her shoes off before racing across the yard. I hoped I’d bought enough time for Ironsmith to get Zrit back to the car, but I couldn’t be sure. Truth was, that wasn’t really what was on my mind at that moment. In the rage, there’s only one thing that matters. Lilith had a car of her own parked right by the gates and she threw the door open and tried to clamber in. I was right behind her though and I yanked the door outta her hand. It tore off one of its hinges and she stared in disbelief at the crumpled metal in my hands. I went after her and she crawled across the seats and opened the opposite door before tumbling out the other side. “DRIVE!” she screamed. I was still in the car as it started moving, but I threw myself back and fell out onto the road as the car screeched away. He wouldn’t be coming back. I picked myself up and I could hear the sound of splashing and feet pounding down asphalt, fading into the distance. Her henchmen were running. They’d seen the writing on the wall. Lilith was standing in the middle of the road, staring at me, bleeding and furious. It’d started to rain sometime while we were in the warehouse. It was just me and her. No one to get in the way. The sedan I’d arrived in was gone too. It would end tonight. I took a step towards her, and she spun around and ran.

I could just let her go. That woulda been the smart thing to do. But I was way, way past smart now.

*

The docks were never completely silent, even in the middle of the night. There was always a light on someplace, always a big container ship unloading something, cranes swinging through the darkness, men shouting, foghorns blaring. But here and there were pools of total blackness, yards where, for one reason or another, no work was going on that night. Plus this was a union city now – dockworkers weren’t no different from anyone else and if they could stay at home with their wives they would. So that’s where we found ourselves, running through a labyrinth of blank shipping containers, stacked up high like pinnacles of rock. The rain was coming down in sheets, it was completely dark, but I had no problems seeing. To me, it didn’t even feel like I was running: I just kept doggedly following Lilith as she stumbled ahead of me, not even feeling the limp I’d been carrying for over five years now. She was getting tired, but I wasn’t. I lost her for a moment and, when I rounded a corner and tried to catch sight of her, I got a straight kick to the jaw that actually knocked me back. It stood to reason the Mafiatrix’d be a tough cookie, and not just for a dame. I went to grab her but she slipped away and drove the point of her elbow into my back with an animal snarl. It hurt – worse than the bullet had – and I went down to one knee. The rage was fading. She’d led me on a dance, and maybe that’d be what saved her. “C’mon, Northman,” she said through gasps for breath. She danced away and then beckoned. “You want someone to hurt, huh? You want to take revenge for your little piece of shit stray?”

I pulled myself up and walked towards her, and then she was on the run again. I knew she was leading me on, trying to get me into a position where she could take advantage. She naturally figured she just had to wear me down, let the bullet wound – and everything else slowing me down for that matter – take its toll. She was smarter, faster and, Hel, probably stronger if it came to it. She was still an elf. Elves are just better’n humans, or that’s the way it always seems to be.

There was a crane. Damned if I knew who owned this yard – probably dwarves – but someone’d built a squat crane outta metal-girders by the water for unloading cargo from the ships. It looked like an insect or, Hel, like a spider, looming outta the sheets of rain that poured from the dark sky. Lilith made for the rickety ladder that ran up the nearest crooked leg and started climbing. I guess she was looking for the high ground, or maybe she figured I wouldn’t be able to follow her up there. But no, I thought, she wasn’t trying to get away. She wanted me dead. She wanted this to end tonight too. Up there, in the rain, she’d have the advantage. I didn’t care. Maybe I thought my god was watching, maybe I was angry and half-delirious with pain and tiredness, but I just knew I didn’t have no choice. I went up after her.

The crane wasn’t that tall, but there was an evil wind coming in off the river and it buffeted me back and forth as I tried to clamber up the metal ladder. The rungs were real slippery and my leg didn’t work as well as it oughta. It was slow going and, when I tried to scramble onto the gantry around the cab at the top, I got a foot to the face for my trouble. I nearly let go then, almost fell damn near twenty feet to the ground. Not too bad a fall, but it was solid concrete down there, and as banged up as I was with no prospect of help coming, what chance would I have? And of course she’d come down and finish the job and, no doubt, it wouldn’t be any kinda end that I’d hoped for. But I held on and I shoved her away so I could climb up.

She leant against the cab, breathing hard. The rain had soaked her to the skin, but the thought of her pale blouse clinging to her skin didn’t even penetrate the fog of hate in my mind. She was my enemy. She’d been enemy for a long time, it seemed. She’d poisoned me, then she’d poisoned my city, and now she’d had Zrit shot. The kid might still die. And what then? Then she’d have won. Then there’d be no stopping her.

“You gonna kill me, Ulrichson?” she called out. The rain was pattering down loudly on the rusty steel crane so she had to shout over it.

“That’s the general plan, yeah,” I yelled back.

“Just over that kid?”

“Over a lotta things. We got history.”

“It was Amandil. I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Bullshit. If you had nothin’ against me, you’d never have kidnapped Zrit.”

“I told you: he’s ours.”

“No. It ain’t work that way. He wanted out.”

She bared her teeth. Maybe it was as close as she could get to a smile right now. “Not his decision.”

“He made a choice.”

“He don’t get a choice! No one does! You get a path, an’ you walk it!”

“No. This is New Atlas. Everyone gets a choice.”

“You’re so godsdamned naive,” she spat, “you think you got a choice, a loser like you? I know your story, Ragnar. You grew up dirt poor in some crummy neighbourhood, got told stories your whole life about the North, tried to be your own man, but you ended up a private detective, an’ what’s that except a mercenary thug like all your ancestors were, huh? You think Wulfang an’ all the other barbarians didn’t think they were fightin’ for justice too?”

I shook my head. I was soaked through too now, and water splashed everywhere. “It ain’t like that. I ain’t them. Amandil thought it was like that, but it ain’t.”

“No? Then what’re you doin’ here, huh? You gonna kill me, ain’t you? You gonna have your revenge. You gonna do it like they did it back in the mountains. You’re a savage; a barbarian. You always have been.”

“No!”

“So walk away! Be the civilised man you pretend you are! Go an’ comfort Zrit before that bullet wound kills him!”

I let out a roar and threw myself at her. The rage was on me again and there was no way she coulda got outta my way. I bowled into her and we both fell down onto the hard metal of the gantry. It shook with the impact. The crane was built sturdily, but this flimsy walkway wasn’t built for fighting on. Lilith tried to scramble free, grabbing onto the railing that ran around the side and dragging herself towards the edge. Could she survive the fall? I wouldn’t have bet against her. I crawled on top of her and reached for her throat. She raked at me with her long fingernails, left gashes on my cheeks, but I ignored it as I wrapped my hands around her neck. Up close like this, she was a flimsy thing, skinny enough to snap in two like a twig. Her eyes bulged as I squeezed.

In the distance I heard the faint sound of sirens. Someone musta seen something. Or maybe Ironsmith had made the call. I hesitated and my grip loosened. “Do it…”

I stared down at her. “What?”

“Do it, Northman!” she screamed. “You know you want to! Give in!”

I gritted my teeth and tightened my hands again, pressing down. She gurgled helplessly at me as I felt my fury build up. She poisoned me, she poisoned my city, she corrupted the police force, she cost Poppy a job she loved and made her serve drinks to rich, dumb assholes. She muscled Lessien out. Her thugs trashed a temple to my god. She left Stormgate with a busted eye, a broken arm and a limp at least as bad as mine. She kidnapped and tortured an innocent kid. She turned me into a common thief. She shot Zrit. He could be dead already.

Her eyelids fluttered closed as her breath rasped.

She turned me into this. She left me scarred and ruined, and she broke me as bad as my city. She was gonna win. She was always gonna win.

No. Not this time.

I let go and fell back against the wall of the cab. I could see the flashing lights by the entrance to the yard now. The rain was still falling and, as it poured down on me, I curled up against the metal and buried my face in my hands.

“Why?” Her voice was an uneven rasp. I looked out at her, lying on the edge of the gantry where I’d left her, but now she’d rolled onto her stomach and was staring at me with hate in her eyes. Her white hair was plastered to her face and her makeup was running. She looked half dead, which I guess she was.

“You ain’t gonna break me,” I said.

“I already did.”

“No. I ain’t just some barbarian. I got a choice.”

“You’ll always regret letting me live,” she said. Her wicked smile was back.

“No.” I pointed weakly across the yard. “The cops are here.”

“So?”

“So I’m gonna hand you in. You’re the Mafiatrix. You’re a wanted criminal.”

“I own the cops, you damn idiot.”

“There’s still enough good ones left. They’ll arrest you. You mighta bought them, but they still gotta be seen to follow the law, or this is just another Svartheim, an’ we ain’t that far gone yet.”

She laughed at me, but it caught in her throat and she started coughing. She banged her fist against the gantry and then stared at me with watery eyes while she got her breath back. “Idiot,” she snarled, “what they gonna charge me with?”

“Murder, or attempted murder I hope. Plus any number of other things. I’ll tell ’em as much as I can. About McKinley too, in case you forgot about that. Plenty of boys left on the force who worked under him. They ain’t forgot.”

“Who’s gonna testify?”

And that was where I had her, at long last. I pushed myself up into a sitting position and stared down at her. “You think the mob’ll stay loyal when they see you in the dock, Lilith? Your boys, they’re sharks. They’ll turn on you in a godsdamned second, an’ you know it. You’re done, Lilith. I’m gonna hand you over to the cops right now an’ you’re gonna go to jail.”

“I’ll be back on the streets in less than twenty-four hours,” she told me with a sneer. “I just gotta make bail.”

I stood up and staggered over to her, then crouched down close. “Honey,” I told her with the nastiest grin I could manage, “I’m countin’ on it.”

I ain’t normally like to hit a dame, but I figured I could make an exception. It wasn’t a hard punch, just enough to knock her out so’s I could pick her up and take her down to the police officers who were just at that moment running towards the foot of the crane.

*

I ain’t think Lessien expected to see me again, but there I was, knocking on her dressing room door. She gave me a shocked expression as she let me in. She still had her magician’s outfit on and that little greasepaint moustache. She’d just got off stage. “Ragnar?”

I limped into the little room. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your act tonight. I only just got here.”

She stared at me. “I heard you were…”

“Dead?”

“Or halfway.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I was.” I tapped my side. “Got me another bullet hole, Luckily they managed to dig all the lead out this time. I guess the busted ribs those gnolls gave me ain’t seem such a big deal now.”

“Sit down,” she said, trying to help me to the only chair.

“Nah, I ain’t stayin’ long.” I took an envelope out of my jacket. “This is for you.”

“What?”

I waved it at her. “Your money.”

“I…” She didn’t know what to do. Her hand was poised.

“It’s fine. Take it. It ain’t all of it, mind, but I’m good for the rest. C’mon.” I waved it harder.

She took it at last and peeked inside. “Dang…”

“Yeah, you wanted twenty percent, right? Only fair – it was a five man job.”

“But where did you…?”

“It’s mine. Turns out when I finally got ’round to lookin’ at the books I was a better off than I thought. You’ll get the rest in a month or two, I hope.”

“Ragnar…I ain’t want…you know, back there, I was angry an’…”

“It’s fine. You said what you said. You got your word, an’ I got mine.”

She sighed and put the envelope down on the dressing table. “What happened to your friend? The drow kid…Zrit, right?”

“He got a bullet hole of his own now. But he’s okay. Restin’. He’ll be on his feet in a few weeks.”

“Then how are you…?”

“I’m a Northman,” I shrugged.

“What…what happened with the mob? I been hearin’ all sortsa crazy stuff…”

“I handed Lilith over to the cops. They were only too happy to take her into custody.”

“But I read in the papers she made bail…”

I let myself smile a little. “She sure did. An’ it was set at a million dollars. Lucky she came into some money recently, huh?”

Lessien laughed out loud. “So they lost everythin’?”

“Pretty much.”

“It’s a shame she’s still got the casino though. They turn that much over in a week.”

“C’mon, ain’t you know nothin’ about business? The overheads on that place are crazy. They barely even see a fraction of that as profit. A million dollars is a million dollars, even to the Mafiatrix. An’ that’s what they lost in this little gamble. That a whole lot more – when she comes to trial, she’s gonna find a whole lotta hostile witnesses who used to call her boss.”

“She’ll be vulnerable, an’ they’ll all pounce,” Lessien said, shaking her head.

“Right. An’ who knows what the future of the mob’ll be once she’s gone? I ain’t think much of the guys she had workin’ for her. She was the brains – you can tell because the others are gonna be dumb enough to sell her down the river.”

Lessien folded her arms and watched me. Even with the moustache, she looked real nice. “So you won.”

“I guess so.”

“I knew there was somethin’ about you…”

She looked real nice, yeah, but I still remembered her in the counting room, and the way she’d almost left us all to hang. The way she’d blackmailed me. I wouldn’t let on what I’d had to part with to pay her what no one in their right mind would agree I owed her. But my word was my word. “If you ain’t mind, I’ll send the rest of your money over by courier. I just thought I oughta come by an’ explain the situation in person.”

She tilted her head, and I could see her reading me, turning me inside out with that elvish stare. They couldn’t read minds, but I was never the most subtle guy around. “Okay,” she said.

“Right. Well, I’ll let you get on with your evening, miss.”

“Sure.”

I stepped out the dressing room and she was right behind me. She had a hand on the door as she looked at me. “Y’know, if you ever need another safe crackin’, or anythin’ like that, you know where to find me. Just ask for The Great Belgareth.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” I tipped my hat to her and walked away.

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

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