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The Goldspinners: A Big Red Problem

 

THE GOLDSPINNERS: A BIG RED PROBLEM

By M. G. McCracken

Published by McCracken Publishing at Smashwords

Copyright 2015 M. G. McCracken

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

For Mom and Dad. Thanks for instilling in me a love of reading.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue

Chapter 1 – An Introduction to Tommy and Charles

Chapter Two – The Bounty

Chapter Three – A Big Red Mess

Chapter Four –Breakfast in the Brass Dogfish Pub

Chapter Five –Ms. Bella’s Reputable Business

Chapter Six – Three Left Turns

Chapter Seven – Jacks are Wild

Chapter Eight – Street Sweeping

Chapter Nine – On a Full Stomach

Chapter Ten – A Discerning Dartmoore

Chapter Eleven – A New Lead to Old Towne

Chapter Twelve – A Bad Day for Grog

Chapter Thirteen – Red Lights

Chapter Fourteen – Façade Fall Down

Chapter Fifteen– A Peace of Red

Epilogue

About The Author

Prologue

The barkeep flipped the sign in the window from “Sorry, We’re Closed” to “Come On In, We’re Open”. Soon the ringing of the bells above the door would announce someone’s arrival to Jim B. Quee’s Restaurant. All was quiet inside, save for the clop-clop of the barkeep’s footsteps. The sound of the bells used to be welcomed, but now, well, not so much.

The barkeep let out a long sigh.

The restaurant opened on hopes and dreams that happy patrons would come in, and this would be the place for celebrations with families. Bright lighting, bench seats in front of large tables, and an intentionally small bar promoted such an atmosphere. But yet, the reality of the world frequented. The lonely, the depressed, and the lost wandered in. After many years of failing to meet the barkeep’s ambiance expectations, the bells were now met with indifference.

The lanterns were talking to each other when the bells finally rang in the evening. The crackles of the flames paid no mind to the interruption and kept on whispering. The barkeep put down a clipboard and pencil and hurried out of the pantry.

The lone patron shuffled towards the bar. His bulging backpack was light compared to the weight of the world on his shoulders. A cloud of dust followed him like a lost dog. He dropped his backpack in front of the bar, and the clatter of metal sounded their objection to the harsh handling. He flopped his massive arms onto the bar, and he reached into his suitcoat for a bandana to wipe his sweating brow.

His raspy voice overpowered the whispering flames. “Barkeep! Ah! There you are. Gimme a double.”

The barkeep scurried to the bar and put on a big smile. “A double of what, fine sir? Are we celebrating something special today?”

“No. Not celebrating. I don’t care what you give me. Just make it strong. I don’t want to remember today.”

“Yes, sir. Give me just a moment. I know just the thing.”

The barkeep knelt down and perused the selection. A few seconds later a brown, glass cask of brandy appeared from below. The barkeep stood up and warmly said, “Alright, sir, I have just the spirit to brighten your spirit.”

The unamused patron cleared his throat and eyed the cask.

Undeterred, the barkeep’s voice sang out, “This, sir, is a V.S. brandy.  Twice distilled and aged 3 years in oak casks.  It’s called ‘Copper Flowers’.  Would this suit your taste?

The patron cocked his jaw to the side. He gave the cask a stink eye. “What’s the proof?”

“100-proof, sir.”

“OK.  Make it a double.  Don’t bother heating the glass.  It won’t last long enough for that crap.”

The barkeep brought forth an extra-large snifter. “Yes, sir.  Right away, sir.  One double of brandy, coming right up, sir.”

“And enough of the ‘sir’ crap.  Call me Pat.”

“Alright, one double of brandy, coming right up, Pat.”

The barkeep continued to smile as the wax seal on the cask was deftly removed. Its contents streamed into the snifter. With a flick of the wrist, the contents were swirled and presented. “And Ta-da! One double of Copper Flowers brandy for you.”

Pat eagerly snatched the snifter and flipped a gold coin to the barkeep. “Thanks.  Catch.”

The Barkeep bumbled the initial catch but caught the coin before it hit the ground. “Ah ha! Good thing I caught it. One minute, please. Let me go get you your change.”

“Nah, just leave the bottle, and keep the rest.”

The barkeep leaned onto the bar and held up the coin. “Pat, you could buy the whole bottle with this coin and still have many silver coins left over.”

Pat waved him off and took a sip of the brandy. “Yeah, I know.  Keep it anyway.  It’s nice to hear some decency for a change.”

“Oh?”

“You wouldn’t know.  You’re here.  Me?  I’m the one out in the world trying to make it.”

Pat downed the rest of the brandy in one gulp and wiped his dirty mouth with the sleeve of his suit. “Sorry, Barkeep, it’s not you.  I’m used to inflated prices and backstabbing buyers.  It’s nice to hear a small shred of honesty.  The small shops are the places to find good, honest people nowadays. You seem alright. The extra coin might be good for you.”

“Thank you. You’re always welcome at Jim B. Quee’s restaurant.”

Pat picked up the cask and inspected the label. “Thanks.  Say, this stuff is pretty good.  ‘Copper Flowers’ is it?  Where’s it from?”

“Yes, ‘Copper Flowers’ is a personal favorite of mine.  Nice and smooth.  It’s a great sipping brandy; meant to be savored over the course of an evening.  It’s one of the ‘Metal Flowers’ brand of brandy made by the dundeliths.”

“The dundeliths made this?  Them big rock people? Huh.  Who would’ve known?  They’re not a bad lot, but I didn’t know they made fine spirits.  I’ll have to head over to their lands and see what else they have to offer.”

“Say, Pat, have you ever met a dundelith before?”

“I did.  I’ve met a few, but only in business.”

The barkeep picked up a towel and absentmindedly wiped down the bar. “A few come in here every now and then.  They sell their spirits and then leave.  I don’t remember them ever staying for a drink.  I’ve offered them a few on the house, but they always decline.  Very polite, they are, and massively strong.”

Pat poured himself another drink as he spoke, “Now a drink on the house is something I’d stay for.  But I find myself paying for them more than receiving.  But you, you seem alright.  I guess those dundeliths aren’t all that smart if they turn down a drink on the house.  Speaking of a drink, time for another double.”

The barkeep watched Pat down another round. Right as the cask came off the bar for a third time, the barkeep quickly spoke up. “Hey, um… Pat, would you like to sample some of their other offerings?  Since no one else is here, I can use you as a judge on my presentation skills.  What do you say?  On the house?”

Pat set down the bottle and smiled for the first time in ages. The dirt and dust in the corners of his mouth fluttered to the ground. “Oh, a taste testing on the house?  Why sure.  Let’s get to tasting!”

The barkeep ducked under the bar and the clattering of glass bottles pinged through the air. “So what brings you here, Pat?  I’ve never seen you before, and I remember all of my patrons.”

Pat reached down and rummaged through his bag. He pulled out a gunblade and set it on the bar. “Business.  It was supposed to be a simple trip to buy some gunblades, but here, take a look.”

The barkeep popped up and quickly grabbed the oily gunblade off of the beloved bar. The mechanical mess was held gingerly by the barkeep’s finger tips. A half-hearted smile crept onto the barkeep’s face. Had Pat looked, a blind man would’ve noticed the barkeep was none too happy to be holding such a contraption.

Pat held up another one and turned to the barkeep. “So, what do you see?”

The barkeep wearily eyed the piece. There was the slightest of quake in the barkeep’s voice. “Well… um… Let’s see. Like all gunblades, this one looks mostly like a revolver. It holds six shots. Under the barrel is a retractable dagger. Ah… what else? Let’s see… there should be a button on the side to extend the blade. Oh! There it is. Here we go. Now the blade extends past the end of the barrel. Very handy for when you run out of shots and don’t have time to reload. And I’m no expect, so I don’t see anything wrong with it, but I don’t see anything special about it either.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem.  These were supposed to be crafted by Master Dwarven Smithies. Instead, they are nothing but mass-produced slag balls produced by humans. I got sold a bill of goods.  They fire, but no one knows how many shots. And to top it all off, they look horrible. They’re barely worth their weight in scrap.”

The barkeep quickly handed the gunblade to Pat and scooped up a towel. The next few seconds were spent quickly wiping down the bar where the gunblade had rested moments before. “Wow. That’s a shame. Well, you better put that away. I wouldn’t want you to lose this. Better put it back in your pack, there.”

“No mind. It’s barely worth the metal it’s forged from.”

“Well, let me go the back and get some of the crackers and cheeses to go with the tasting. I’ll be right back.”

The barkeep hurried back into the panty. Crackers and cheeses were quickly piled onto a plate. The barkeep gathered the final cheese wedge when the bells rang out. Another man’s voice was heard, and the barkeep quickly pulled out a cheese knife and haste fully sliced the cheese. The barkeep heard Pat and the other man talking but couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Right as the last piece of cheese was on the plate, gun shots filled the air. All thoughts of the taste testing fled from the barkeeps mind, and the barkeep fell to the floor looking for cover. Pat’s voice rang out. It sounded angry and almost maniacal. “Barkeep! Stay put back there! Things are going to get a little dicey!”

More gunshots rang out. The barkeep quickly crawled towards the back of the pantry. In the back closet there was an old cast iron bathtub. The barkeep crawled inside and listened.

Pat was yelling and so was the other man. The barkeep couldn’t make out what they were saying. Pat was yelling “how much am I worth” and “that’s not enough.”

More gunshots were fired, and the barkeep lost count of the rounds. Dull thuds rang out from the panty door as the door took direct hits. The barkeep’s head hit the side of the tub at the sound, and the barkeep began to rub the tender spot. Inspectors’ whistles filled the air. The barkeep curled into a little ball in the tub. How much more abuse will the bar endure tonight?

Then an eerie silence filled the air.

The barkeep stopped breathing and strained to hear any noises.

The other man’s voice called out, “Barkeep, you can come out now. I’m not here for you.”

Shaken, the barkeep crawled out of the bathtub. The pantry door had five bullet holes in it, and the walls on either side were peppered with lead. The barkeep swallowed hard and meekly emerged.

At the end of the bar stood a man dressed in a light gray business suit. He was armed with a rapier, though it was sheathed, and he had no firearm. His face was contorted in anger as looked up at the barkeep. “Evening, Barkeep.”

The barkeep inched up alongside of the bar. “Good evening. Umm… What is going on?”

The man in gray replied, “I am Tommy Dartmoore, bounty hunter.”

The barkeep swallowed hard again. “Are you here for Pat? Where is he?”

Tommy nodded. “That I am. He’s right here on the floor. He’s gone to be with his maker. Tell me, what did he tell you?”

The barkeep peered over the edge of the bar and gazed upon the patron’s lifeless body. “Not much. He said he was a business man, and he was supposed to be buying a bunch of expensive gunblades, but they were junk. He bought this cask of Copper Flowers and had a double-double before you arrived.”

Tommy looked over at the cask. “Copper Flowers, huh? That was his favorite drink. He knew it well. He lived with the dundeliths for a few years before he convinced them to start selling it to outsiders. I’m glad to hear it was it last drink.”

The barkeep’s face was awash with confusion. “But, Mr. Dartmoore, sir, Pat said he only knew the dundeliths professionally. Perhaps this was a different Pat?”

Tommy shook his head. “No, he said a lot, I’m sure. That was his nature. I know this was the right guy. I’m sorry about the mess. Here you go.”

He placed a gold coin on the bar. The barkeep silently watched as Tommy lifted the massive dead body onto his shoulders and walked to the door. Tommy paused for a moment as the bells rang out.

With the bounty hunter gone, the barkeep let out a long sigh and held onto the bar for balance. Nauseated and shaken, the barkeep suppressed the urge to vomit.

The glass snifter rolled next to the barkeep’s arm. Still shaking, the barkeep poured a double of Copper Flowers. The barkeep held onto the glass with two shaking hands as the contents were downed.

A second double was poured, and the barkeep raised a glass in memory of the fallen patron. “I’m sorry, Pat, but I need a double myself. I don’t want to remember today… I wonder what you did to incur the interest of the famous, Tommy Dartmoore?”

Chapter One – An Introduction to Tommy and Charles

Tommy Dartmoore and Charles Alexander were eagerly prying open a large crate in Tommy’s office. The two men were a strange sight to behold. Tommy was dressed in a clean and pressed gray business suit, and Charles was dressed in a dusty and worn leather trench coat. Both men were armed with crowbars, and they were trying to find a spot to cram their tools into the chest-high crate.

With a final slam, their crowbars found strong fulcrums. The nails screeched as they were muscled from their comfortable homes. The crate looked like an angry mouth as the top opened. Charles triumphantly discarded his crowbar on the floor as he watched the top teeter then crash to the floor.

He cupped his hand next to his mouth and bellowed, “TIM-BER! HA-ha! HO-ho!”

Charles slapped his knee as he smiled from ear to ear. He spoke so fast his words seemed to blur together. “There she falls, Tommy! You know, that’s what them lumberjacks say there when they knock off one of them trees. They yell ‘Timber!’ Just like that. They do like towards at ‘em.”

Tommy scooped up the discarded crowbar and leaned both of them against the wall. “How many prepositions did you just use? But yes, I have heard of that.”

However, Charles wasn’t paying attention. He was on his toes and elbow-deep into the sawdust packing. He flung handful after handful of sawdust into the air. Finally, he found a medium-sized leather bag and surfaced from the sea of dust.

Charles tried to wipe the sawdust off, but it was all in vain. He was covered in it like a second skin. He scrunched and contorted his face trying to suppress a sneeze. “Aaah-choo! It’s a conspiracy, Tommy, a conspiracy, I tell you. Aah-choo! They always pack these things with white sawdust. It sticks to my skin. I’m a black man, not a white man. Aah-Choo! You’re white. Why aren’t you in here? And why can’t it be packed with black saw dust? Now I look like a dirty snow man. And why does dirt have to be black? Why can’t dirt be white? This is a conspiracy like no other. Aah-Choo!”

Tommy rolled his eyes at his partner’s comments. “Why are you complaining? This just means you’ll have to take another bath today. I’ve never met someone who loves to takes baths as much as you. What does that make? Three today?”

“Oh, har-har! Yuk it up, Tommy. You’re just upset that I can roll out of bed and look this handsome. It’s taken years to radiate these good looks.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you radiate something, alright. But enough of that. Open the bag.”

Charles placed the bag on Tommy’s desk and undid the leather straps. Inside were two master-crafted gunblades with leather belts and holsters. Each man grabbed one and held it up to the lamplight.

Tommy carefully withdrew the gunblade and scrutinized the intricate details. “Well, Charles, this is the end result of a year of design and development between the humans of House Hadrian, the dwarves of the Heavyside Clan, and us, the Dartmoore Merchants. Here we have our first gunblades with an adjustable stock. Now the stock will move when you activate the blade, making the blade more manageable. This is a premium product, and soon every high-ranking dwarf in the city will want one.”

Charles strapped the belt around his waist and walked over to the full length mirror against the wall. He stared at his reflection for a few tense seconds. In a flash he drew the gunblade and primed the hammer. He relaxed as he holstered the gunblade. Then he quickly drew it again; then again; and again.

“Charles, what are you doing? You can’t quick-draw your reflection.”

Charles twirled the gunblade on his finger then holstered it. “Now come on, Tommy. I am the fastest gun in the city. No one can quick draw me.”

Tommy raised an eyebrow. “You know, some philosophers say a mirror isn’t a reflection, but a window into another world.”

Charles’ eyes got really big and he ran back to the mirror. “Whoa… so you mean to tell me, the other Charles is left-handed? That’s wild. Well hello left-handed Charles. How are you today? It’s good to see someone who has an appreciation of my style… er, our style.”

A knock at the door interrupted Charles’ fashion show.

“Come in,” called out Tommy.

Gerald, one of the young clerks, poked his head into Tommy’s office. “Begging your pardon, Mr. Dartmoore and Mr. Alexander, I know we don’t open for another half hour, but there are two inspectors at the front. They want to speak with the two of you.”

“Very well. Thank you, Gerald,” replied Tommy. “Please see them to the parlor room. We’ll be there in just a moment.”

After Gerald closed the door Charles started complaining. “Oh great. Just great. Two inspectors show up bright and early, and they probably have a stack of fresh bounties for us to go after, and here I am looking like a bowl of salt and pepper. I can’t go out there looking like this. I have an image to maintain. I look like… I don’t even know what, but it’s not good. Sheesh. Alright Tommy, you gotta go and talk with the two inspectors. I’ll stay here and unload the crate. I’m already a mess. No sense in you getting dirty, too. Though it’s just like a business to make the black man do all the work. Ha-ha! I’m just yankin’ ya, Tommy, just yankin’ ya. Besides, this is the only time I can make a mess in your office and you not say anything.”

Tommy could only shake his head and laugh. “I swear you are only happy when you are complaining. You could complain about anything. Though I suppose you are also happy when you go to the salon. I’ve never met another man who prims himself as often as you.”

Charles had climbed into the crate, and he popped up in a shower of sawdust holding another leather bag. He had a big smile on his face that gave away his true feelings. “Tommy, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, I’ve got an image to maintain. I can’t have humans or dwarves or dundeliths or elves or anything see me looking like this. So go help a brother out, and find out what them inspectors want.”

“Of course, Charles. Though I do find it ironic that you’re doing work for the Dartmoore Merchants and I’m doing work for the Goldspinners Bounty Hunters.”

Charles popped his head up again. This time he had another leather bag in his hands. He gently lowered both to the floor next to the crate. “Well, I don’t know about ironic, but I do find it funny in a weird sort of way. You know, just like how I’m doing what you’re good at, and you’re doing what I’m good at.”

“In this context, that’s what ironic means.”

“Oh. Well, that’s a tup in a cup if I’ve ever heard one. Now go find out what them inspectors want.”

“Alright. Oh, and before I forget, one of the gunblades is yours. Happy Birthday. I know it’s not until next week, but I’d rather be early than late. And these inspectors mean you’ll probably make good use of your gift.”

Charles popped up and laid another bag on the floor. “Well thanks, Tommy. And here I thought you were going to forget.”

“Ha-ha. I haven’t forgotten the past 8 years. What makes you think I would start now?”

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe old age or something? Ha-ha! I’m only yankin’ ya, Tommy. Only yankin’ ya. I know I’m older than you. But hurry up and go find out what them inspectors want. I smell a big bounty out there. A big one.”

Charles took a deep breath and sawdust filled his nostrils. “Aah-choo! Aah-choo! Aah-choo! Tommy! Aah-choo! I knew it! Aah-choo! It’s work. I’m allergic to work! Aah-choo! Aah-choo!”

Tommy shook his head and walked down the hall to the conference room. Inside stood two dwarven inspectors in full uniform. They bowed, and then one of them handed a stack of papers to Tommy. “Mr. Dartmoore, Chief Inspector Rockpick wanted us to personally hand this to you. It’s the largest bounty he’s ever offered, and he’s giving the The Goldspinners a one-day’s head start. He said you’ll understand. Now, let’s talk about what happened…”

Chapter Two – The Bounty

Rivers of sorrow ran down Tommy Dartmoore’s face as he returned to his office. Tears warped the world around him; and he was thankful his feet knew the path.  He opened the door and quickly closed it behind him. He heard Charles continuing to rummage through the crate.

“Tommy! That was a fast meeting. Must’ve been only a few bounties. So what are we up against? Wait a second. Are you… are you crying? Tommy! What’s wrong?”

Charles scampered out of the crate and fell to the floor.

Tommy opened a large armoire in the corner and pulled out a handkerchief.

“Tommy, what happened? What’s going on? Say something? I’ll stop talking, really I will. Just say something, ok? Something. Anything. What’s wrong? I’ll be quiet and listen. Really, I will.”

Tommy’s world was still blurred as he dried his face. His words came out surprisingly clear.  “Red broke his parole.”

Charles struck his forehead with the palm of his hand. He fell backwards into a nearby chair. A plume of sawdust reached for the ceiling. “Tommy, this is trouble; big trouble. This is Big Trouble with a capital B and a capital T and a few more capitals. This is Red we’re talking about. The Red. They haven’t even come up with a fearsome nick-name for him. Red says it all. That’s the color of his wake. Red with the blood of dwarves, humans, elves, dundeliths, you name it, if it bleeds red, then Red will get them.”

“Calm down, calm down. Yes, I am well aware of all of the talk around him. And he broke his parole last night, so there’s a bounty on him. But… but now I don’t know what to do. Red’s family.”

Charles spent a second picking up his jaw from the floor. “Tommy! Red ain’t family. All he done did was marry your sister. Anyone could’ve done that! Your sister is the most easy-going woman in the world. She could make peace with the devil!”

“OK, but what about little Faith? What am I going to tell her if it comes to blows? Red could snap either one of us in half without trying, so we’d have to use lethal force. That’s the last thing I need. I couldn’t look at her again if I knew I killed her father.”

Charles threw his hands up into the air as he sprung out of his seat. “Lord alive! You’ve been more of a father to her than he’s ever been! Little Faith, bless her heart, is 7 years old. Red’s spent at least 9 of them years up and down stream.”

“OK, granted I’ve been around more than Red, but as you’ve mathematically incorrectly pointed out, that’s not hard to do. I’ve just been keeping an eye on her, and from what I hear, so have you. She always talks about her favorite Uncle Charles.”

If Charles could turn red, he would have at that accusation. “Well, er… I uh… I just happen to be in the area sometimes. That’s all.”

“Ha! Well you just ‘happen’ to hang out in some pretty strange places. But enough of that. Let’s get back to Red.”

“Yeah, so what did you do? Did you turn down the bounty, and tell the inspectors to take a hike?”

“No… No. I took it. I’d rather it be us after him than a bunch of thugs or vigilantes. The Goldspinners are on the job.”

“Hey, so what did he do to break his parole?”

Tommy folded the handkerchief and put it into his pocket. “Over behind Riley’s pub in the East Artisans’ District , he killed a dwarf and made a mess of the alley; a big mess. And he shaved the beard off of the dwarf. I think that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Chief Inspector Rockpick definitely has his beard in knot over this one. We’ve got a one-day head start, then the bounty will be open to everyone.”

“Well this is a tup in a cup if I ever saw one. One day? One day! To catch Red? I know I’m the Do-er and you’re the Thinker, but you’re going to have to think of the mother of all master plans to find and apprehend Red in one day.”

Tommy plopped down at the table. He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “Yeah, I know. So, do you have any ideas?”

“Ha-ha! Me? You’re asking me? The great thinker, Tommy Dartmoore, is asking the former enforcer, Charles Alexander, for an idea? Ha-ha! I knew it. I knew this day would come. I knew you’d see I have thinking potential. I love it.”

“Charles, you’re the one who says you can’t think. You think fine without my help. And besides, you’re a Dartmoore Merchant just as much as I am a member of the Goldspinners.”

Charles sat down next to Tommy. He scrunched his face and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. “OK, so, as the thinking member of the Goldspinners, we need to arm ourselves. We need guns, knives, cannons, and an army or two to bring down Red.”

Charles stood up so fast the chair flew out from him and fell over. “Well, we don’t have that. We have me and you. And I… I…”

Charles looked down at himself and re-realized his appearance. “I… am still covered in sawdust. … I need to get cleaned up first. Then… then I’m gonna grab my belt with the shadow spell on it, and I’m gonna grab my new gunblade. Then… hmm… then it’s to the scene of the crime to investigate. See, Tommy? I’m the thinker now. I just thought, ‘What would Tommy think?’, and then it came to me. So how’d I do?”

Tommy walked over to the armoire and pulled out a belt with a rapier and dagger on it. “You did well, Thinker. You go get cleaned up. I’m going to clean up here and take inventory of what we have. We can meet up in an hour at the scene of the crime.”

“OK. But please tell me you’re taking one of the new gunblades, too.”

“Nah. I don’t need one. I’m-”

“Now wait you just a minute Tommy. You gonna need as much firepower as you can carry to take down Red; Brother-In-Law or not.”

“We both know Red won’t hurt me. But anyone else, well, it’s better to shoot first and ask for forgiveness later.”

Charles threw up his hands again. He counted on his fingers as he listed off his reasons. “Tommy, you’re married to a great woman, you got three kids, and Erma’s pregnant with a fourth. Oh, and don’t forget that you’re the owner of the Dartmoore Merchants. You know, only the most successful human business in the Dwarven lands. And you’ve got a standing invitation to join the Council of the House Hadrian in the human lands to the south. You know, only the most influential house in the Mid-Continent. It’s not that big of a deal, right?”

Charles had run out of fingers by now, so he threw up his arms into the air again. “You need to start thinking more. And when that comes from me, you know something’s wrong. When I say you are nuts for not arming yourself, then you are certifiably nuts. I don’t want to be knocking on your door telling Erma that her husband had to be all stupid and got himself killed. I’m not about to have that conversation with her. Nuh-uh. No way. I choose life.”

Tommy finished strapping his belt and looked up at the ceiling with closed eyes. “OK. I’ll consider it, but no promises. I… I just can’t believe Red actually did it. Those years in jail, and then these past months out on parole… I thought I was making progress with him. I meet with him only a few days ago. I thought he changed. Anyway, Red has to know we’re onto him, so, I wonder which way he’ll go next.”

Charles righted the chair with his foot, and then plopped back down. He kicked his feet up on the table. “Don’t know. Don’t care. He ain’t here, so we got to start looking. Hey, before I forget, let’s talk about un-pleasantries. How much are we getting paid for this? Any hazard pay?”

Tommy pulled out a folded piece of paper and threw it on the table. “100 gold. Dead or alive. This warrant is signed and sealed by Chief Inspector Tesso Rockfist. This one is your copy. We’ve been deputized for this one.”

Charles unfolded the paper and began reading. After a few seconds he let loose a long, loud whistle. “100 gold! Tommy, that’s what the Dartmoore Merchants pull in for a whole month. Dang. One month’s revenue? I tell you, if we get this, we’re on Easy Street. E, A, S, Y, S, T, period. Easy Street. I might even take a few days off and go south for a little vacation.”

Tommy smirked. The subtle smile didn’t go unnoticed.

Charles laughed as he called Tommy out on it. “Ah-ha! There’s a hint of a smile on your face. I saw it! Don’t deny it. See, I can make you laugh. But I don’t know what was so funny. All I said was I might take a vacation.”

Tommy inspected the guard of his rapier. “I laughed because you’re always on vacation. I haven’t seen you do any work for the Dartmoore Merchants since before the last bounty, and that was over a week ago. Am I right?”

Charles smiled larger. “Ah-ha! You caught me. I’ve been on vacation since I got back. I’m trying out a new thing. Instead of a vacation it’s called a stay-cation. It’s where I stay where I normally am, but I do as little work as possible. What do you think?”

Tommy laughed. “That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard you say. A staycation? You better stop thinking before you hurt yourself.”

Charles was happy to see his friend smile. “That hurts, Tommy. It hurts. That cut me deep, like a paper cut. Ha-ha! You get it? Like a paper cut? Because it wasn’t really deep? Oh come on, Tommy. This is gold. But speaking of gold, we better go check out the scene of the crime, otherwise we’ll never get paid. 100 gold! Wow! What a payday. I could do so much with that, I don’t know where to begin. See, I’m thinking again, Tommy. I’m always thinking now. Soon, you’ll be calling me the thinker.”

Tommy shook his head. “You go back to being One-Eye Jack and leave the thinking to me.”

Charles laughed, “OK. I’ll meet up with you at the scene of the crime. One-Eye Jack has to get cleaned up first. We’ll get Red before midnight.”

Charles stood up and slid the chair back into place. “Ta-ta for now.”

With the door now closed, Tommy stood alone in his office. The tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the corner took over the conversation. Tommy cleaned up and took inventory in silence. Every now and then he would shake his head slowly.

The grandfather clock sang out the top of the hour. Tommy closed his ledger and pulled out his silver pocket watch. He nodded in approval and didn’t adjust the minute.

As he got up, he looked over at his revolver displayed within a glass-front armoire. His fingertips touched the cool glass, but he didn’t turn the brass knob to open it. “Red, what happened? I thought you changed.”

He shook his head slowly and left his office.

Chapter Three – A Big Red Mess

Tommy exited the office building and stepped out onto the cobblestone street. He instinctively looked up to try to find the sun, even though he knew he was in the underground dwarven city of Auger IX. The inky blackness of the cavern roof glared at Tommy, and he quickly looked away. The city stretched for miles, and this part of the city was commonly referred to as the Old Artisans’ District. The name had long since lost its meaning. All manners of businesses, homes, and races were found here.

Tommy enjoyed this time of morning, even if there was no sun to greet him. He decided to walk instead of hailing a carriage, and he followed the wide road as it meandered along. He passed the occasional lamplighter tending a post, and he noticed a few shops opening for the day. By the time he made it to the East Artisans’ District, the cobblestone road was full of horse drawn cabs and pedestrians. A crowd had gathered at the entrance to the crime scene. Tommy spotted several beat writers combing through the crowds. A few of them approached him, but he walked on without answering any questions.

As he crossed over the inspector’s barricade, he scanned the groups of dwarves for Chief Inspector Tasso Rockpick. The Chief Inspector was easy to find, as he stood a half-head taller than his kin. He was a raging volcano crammed into a dwarven vessel, and it didn’t take much for Mount Rockpick to explode. Tommy worked his way through the groups and stood before the visibly agitated Chief Inspector.

“Chief Inspector Tasso Rockpick, may your forge be hot and your hammer ring true.” Tommy bowed low with his arms at his sides.

Chief inspector Rockpick straightened up and bowed in response. The numerous medals and awards jingled on his uniform in a stark contrast to his booming voice. “Mr. Dartmoore, may your forge be hot and your hammer ring true. I see at least some of my inspectors may have a future as messengers. They failed to prevent this atrocity, but they at least can find The Goldspinners. The city of Auger IX is in need of the Goldspinners’ skill. Red’s at it again. The magi have been here already. They were unable to commune with the dead. That means Red did something so atrocious that it shocked the dead into never returning to this world.”

“Or,” quickly added Tommy, “the deceased died of natural causes.”

Rockpick grunted so violently that a few gray hairs fell from his beard and the medals’ jingling laughed at the comment. “There is nothing natural about this death. You have helped the Inspectors in the past, and I will honor that relationship. We must solve this quickly. I’ll give you one day’s head start before I put this bounty out to the public. Take a look at this mess.”

Tommy followed Chief Inspector Rockpick to the front of the alley. Both of them picked up lanterns and the dwarf handed Tommy a handkerchief. Tommy accepted it, but his face was unable to mask his confusion. The dwarf explained, “It’s for the smell. It’s… pungent, even to us dwarves.”

Tommy said thanks and held it up to his nose. As the two walked into the alleyway, Chief Inspector Rockpick grunted, “Two of my former inspectors came back here and vomited. Otherwise, the scene has been untouched since we found it.”

Tommy held up the lantern and inspected the scrawling on the brick and wooden fences. This was definitely Red’s handiwork. Tommy could hear Red’s voice as he read the taunts, insults, and challenges.

“What’s the difference between a steaming pile of dung and an inspector? The dung heap will stop smelling after a few days.”

“Why are only dwarves inspectors? Only dwarves have the perfect combination of stupid and incompetence.”

“Inspectors are so nasty that when they go to the beach, cats try to bury them.”

A rustling was heard in the back of the alley. Both dwarf and human drew their weapons and investigated. Crouched next to an overturned garbage can was Charles Alexander. He held up a magnifying glass as the duo approached. His big smile seemed out of place in such a messy environment. “Chief Inspector Rockpick and Tommy! Glad you two could make it. Me? I’ve been here for a little bit now. I’ve already been to the front, and now I’m worked my way to the back. I’m just about done. Don’t mind me. I’m just trying to make the city a little safer and my pockets a little fatter.”

Chief Inspector Rockpick was furious. “Dammit Mr. Alexander! How did you get here? I have inspectors posted at the front and back of the alley, and they are under strict order not to let anyone by without my escort. So, how did you get past them?”

Charles stood up and wrinkled his nose. He dove into his pocket and withdrew a snuff box and took a pinch before saying, “Ah, much better. The odor here is not for the squeamish. But anyway, how did I get to where I am? Oh, that’s easy, I went through Riley’s. The door is right over there. I asked the owner if he saw Red at all. Unfortunately, he didn’t, but at least we can cross that off of our list.”

Chief Inspector Rockpick violently shook. “Through the pub?! That’s the one place I didn’t post any inspectors! There is no way Red would go through an area with potential witnesses. No one has seen him for days, so he’s obviously staying away from crowds.”

Charles nodded and cocked his head to the side. He stuck out his chin and then began to stroke the tip of it with his fingers. “Well, I can understand that logic, but I also know he likes to drink. And he likes the top shelf stuff. Riley’s would be on the lower end of Red’s taste, but maybe all of his usual watering holes are no longer friendly, and maybe this here poor dwarf ID’ed him. And before he could up and say anything, Red got the better of him.”

Chief Inspector Rockpick bellowed, “Preposterous. Your head is full of goblin vomit. Red sticks to the shadows and only comes out when no one is around. There is no way he is hiding out in the open.”

Charles continued to stroke his chin. “And I’ve yet to figure out why this is the ‘Thinkers’ pose; sticking my chin out like this kinda hurts. And why am I stroking my clean shaven face? I don’t have a beard. This doesn’t make any sense. Who would think like this?”

Chief Inspector Rockpick bellowed, “Dammit Mr. Alexander! Focus!”

Tommy continued to inspect the scene of the crime while the other two were arguing. Tommy stuck out his beardless chin and absentmindedly stroked it as he mused. Something was not right. This had Red’s flare, but something felt off. Tommy couldn’t put his finger on it, but his gut was telling him there was more to this than murder.

Charles’ voice snapped Tommy out of his thinking. “Tommy! Ahoy-hoy! Pick up the phone! Are you there?”

Tommy looked around and saw both dwarf and human staring at him. “Sorry, what were you saying?”

Charles responded, “Good gravy, Tommy! Are the fumes getting to you? I asked if you found anything.”

Tommy shook his head. “No, but something is not right. It feels like Red’s work, but this one just doesn’t add up. It’s almost as if he wants to get caught. Look how sloppy this is. He’s saying how there is no place like the Oboglin Lands, and there’s a pledge of allegiance to the Chieftain of the Oboglin.”

Chief Inspector Rockpick said, “We’ll there you have it. He’s been turned against us. No doubt the Oboglin have him working as an assassin. He’s feeling our noose get tighter and tighter around him, so he’s trying to bluster his way out. He’s hoping if he uses the Oboglin name, then we’ll approach him cautiously, because he’s trying to rally Oboglin sympathizers to his cause. Ha! Too bad no one sympathizes with the Oboglin way up here. No, we have to be close.”

Charles stuck a cigarette in his mouth and struck a match. As he held up the match he suddenly lowered it. “Hey, what you just said just gave me an idea. What if there are only a few Oboglin sympathizers, but he’s going to the port to pick some from the south. There are several cargo ships coming in this morning from the Deep South, and it wouldn’t take much to stow away a few of them. Ow! I just burned myself with the match.”

Charles quickly shook his hand to cool it. He then lit another match and finished lighting his cigarette.

Chief Inspector Rockpick’s eyes got big. “Twist my beard! Mr. Alexander, you might be onto something! I will wire the port to keep an eye on all ships coming in. We will garrison a full Regiment to the Port. Thank you, Mr. Alexander. Everything is so clear now.”

The dwarf saluted and hurried off to set up the defenses. Charles had a cat-that-got-the-canary grin on his face. He took a short puff of his cigarette as he sauntered up next to Tommy. “You see that, Tommy? That was me thinking just now. The Chief Inspector told me ‘Thank you’. I kind of like this thinking thing. No wonder you do it so much. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to Hammerfalls Port and go find Fat Tony. Though, that won’t be too hard. He’s always in the same place. Ha-ha.”

Charles trotted out of the alley leaving Tommy alone with his thoughts. He was very confused and mused aloud, “But Red, you hate the Oboglin. They killed your brother. You said you’d never forgive them. So why does it look like you’ve thrown in your lot with them? Unless… unless this is what you want us to think. That you’re headed to Hammerfall Port, when really you are someplace else. But if not there, then where?”

Tommy continued to inspect the alley. He combed over every square inch, and still could not find any decisive clues. One of the most puzzling things centered on the head. It was clean shaven, but Tommy couldn’t find a single whisker or hair anywhere.

Defeated, Tommy left the alley and checked his watch. The clock tower rang out the bottom of the hour right as he pulled on his silver chain. He nodded in agreement and didn’t adjust the minute hand of his time piece. His rumbling stomach reminded him that he skipped breakfast this morning. Now that he was after a bounty, Tommy decided to get a quick bite, and he knew just the place.

Chapter Four – Breakfast in the Brass Dogfish Pub

Tommy Dartmoore entered the Brass Dogfish pub. The dim lighting fit the early morning ambiance. Empty and dark booths lined the perimeter of the establishment. Footsteps from a burly doorman echoed through the main room as he lumbered over to the entrance. He wore tight clothing and flexed his muscles as he approached. “Halt! No weapons inside the Brass Dogfish.”

Tommy held up the bounty paper to the doorman’s nose. “I am Tommy Dartmoore of the Goldspinners Bounty Hunters. I am acting on authority from Chief Inspector Tasso Rockpick. I am armed, and armed I will remain.”

“Ch-chief Inspector Rockpick? Of course, Mr. Dartmoore, of course. We don’t want any trouble from the inspectors. Beg your pardon. The armed riff-raff that come in this time of morning are still trying to pick a fight with the night before, if you get what I mean.”

“Of course,” replied Tommy. He motioned a dismissive gesture as he briskly walked past the shaken doorman and scanned the empty room.

At the far end of the bar sat a dwarf with a mountain of food before him. His bald head reflected the lamplight, and his meticulously groomed brown beard covered the front of his ornate tabard.

Tommy smiled and increased his pace.

“Heavyside Lawrence, Grandmaster Smithy of the honorable Heavyside clan. May your forge be hot and your hammer ring true.” Tommy bowed low.

Heavyside Lawrence wiped his beard on his napkin and rose from his seat. He held his corded, muscular arms at his sides as he bowed so low, the tip of his beard touched the floor. “Mr. Thomas Dartmoore, may your forge be hot and your hammer ring true. Come sit. You are just in time to pay for my breakfast.”

“Certainly, Lawrence. It will be my pleasure.” Tommy sat down and motioned for the barmaid to come over.

“Miss, what’s the potluck this morning?”

“Coney stew,” replied the young girl.

“Wonderful. I’ll take a bowl of it. I’m also paying for this fine dwarf, so please put his tab on my account.”

“Right away, sir.” The barmaid curtsied and hurried to the kitchen.

“Lawrence, I received the shipment of gunblades. I couldn’t be happier with them. They are beauties to behold. Simply marvelous.”

Lawrence ripped off a hunk of bread and dunked it into his bowl. “Bah. The apprentices did them. They are miserable and barely serviceable. Piss-poor quality, they are. It is a cruel joke from the Forge-father that such inferior things had to see the light of day. It is a small wonder they function.”

Tommy paused for a second. “Are you… talking about the gunblades or the apprentices?”

“Both! They used the CJK design. It over-emphasizes everything. There is no subtlety to it. No, I made a dozen with the CJLP design. Now there is something worth your while. Direct and powerful, but a strong undertone of refinement and respect. But the apprentices cannot get the CJLP design right. Miserable lot they are. They cannot spot the difference between a hammer strike imprint and a strike hammer imprint. I will have to berate them for two more days when I get back to the forge.”

Tommy pulled out a stack of bank notes. “Well, here’s my end of the agreement. I am more than happy with them. Oh, and out of curiosity, how much do you want for the twelve you made?”

“5 gold each.”

“Sold!” Tommy pulled out more bank notes and laid them on the bar.

Lawrence eyed the notes, then reached over and pocketed them. “You know the price of gunblades better than some dwarves. I just gouged you, and you agreed very quickly to that price. Too quickly. What is going on in that human head of yours?”

Tommy held up his empty hands and gave a slight shrug. “You’re always miserable, and you’ve been even more miserable since we started this project. And I know you don’t offer anything for sale unless it passes your discerning eye. Your standards go up exponentially when you’re dour, and the mood that you’ve been in, well, I’m sure you could find fault in the crown jewels. So for these twelve gunblades to pass your evil eye, then they are indeed priceless. The 60 gold hurts, yes, but some things cannot be measured in gold.”

Lawrence grunted and nodded, but didn’t say anything as he continued to eat.

The barmaid came back with Tommy’s food, and set down a bowl of stew, a hunk of bread, and tankard of ale.

Tommy noticed the ale and replied, “Miss, water for me, please.”

“You do not want the ale, sir?”

“No, thank you. Water, please.”

Upon hearing the dismissal, Lawrence reached over and grabbed the tankard. He placed it in front of him and continued to eat.

The confused barmaid looked at Tommy.

Tommy shrugged. “Put it on my tab.”

After the barmaid left, Lawrence grunted. “You are armed. What bounty are you after?”

Tommy took a bite of bread. “Red.”

The intake of food abruptly stopped. Lawrence kept his mouth shut as he ran is tongue along his teeth. “Some things in this world cannot be measured in gold. Honor and family to name two.”

“We are in agreement.”

Lawrence drunk deeply from the tankard of ale and then turn to Tommy. “Mr. Dartmoore, I have known you for only one, measly decade. The Forge-Father may damn me for making such a rash judgment. I have determined: I do not hate you. This bounty hunter hobby of yours is not like your normally sound judgment. You are going after family; blood or not, this is family. Think long and hard before throwing your iron into this fire. Normally, I would not waste these words on a human, but you are prone to thinking more than the average human, which isn’t saying much.”

The barmaid placed a tankard of water in front of Tommy. He thanked her as she left.

Tommy took a drink. “So, what do you advise? That I not take this bounty?”

“There is no battle between honor and family. Both can be preserved. Always.”

“If I go after Red and get him, then I risk losing family and honor. If I don’t go after Red and someone else gets him, then I still lose both anyway. And even if no one gets him, then I still lose because he has an active bounty on his head. I’ll never be able to see him again.”

Lawrence looked at his food and then looked at Tommy. He drummed his finger tips on the bar top as he stared off into space. He slapped the top of the bar and cleared his throat. “When I was young, and my beard was but a shadow, I knew I would grow up to be the finest smithy in the world. I knew my goal. But, all of the ore I found was inferior. So I became a miner. I became the greatest miner in the history of the Heavyside Clan. But everyone knew I was destined to be a smithy. One day, I put down my pick, and I picked up the hammer. And everything that I was as a miner has served me as a smithy. But I am a smithy; not a miner. I refused to be great at two things when I could be legendary in one. You are an honorable merchant, and you are a skilled bounty hunter. You have your pick and your hammer. Which one are you?”

Tommy pondered for a moment. “Well, I was a merchant first, and I’ve always had a knack for buying and selling. But this bounty hunter profession has been very lucrative, and I’ve always been lucky in both. I thought I could flip from one to the other as needed.”

Lawrence eyed a loaf of bread next to him, but then turned his attention back to Tommy. “And how many times have you faced an honorable dilemma that you could not directly solve as a merchant?”

“Never. Sometimes it meant losing an order, but I chose to deal fairly and honestly.”

“Is gold worth losing all that you stand for as a merchant?”

“No. Not at all. But that’s the problem. I don’t know what to do. It seems like I can’t move forward, but I’m already in too deep to backup.”

Lawrence grabbed two empty plates from his growing stack and placed them next to each other on the bar. “Here are two plates. They are equal.”

Lawrence then placed two huge loaves of bread on one plate. The ends of the loaves went the full width of the bar. On the other plate he placed two hunks of bread. This plate was full but not overflowing. “Now, both have two pieces of bread. They are equal in words but only words.”

Tommy nodded. “I understand the analogy, but I do not see how this applies to the situation. If the plates represent the merchant and bounty hunter professions, and the bread represents honor and family, then how does this help me decide? I’ve already stated the merchant side is the correct side.”

“Bah! You are a human. Stop thinking like a human. Think like a dwarf! That is the problem with humans and apprentices. They think wrong. You have to beat them with an iron fist and hope they learn something before dying. Do not make me regret talking with you and letting my breakfast get cold.”

Tommy continued to stare at the plates and bread as he ate in silence.

Lawrence’s mountain of food turned into hill, and then it morphed into a valley of empty bowls, plates, and tankards. Lawrence let loose a small burp as he tapped his chest. “You do not give up easy. I will give you that. I thought about bonking you on the head with a plate. That would have cleared your head. But I don’t want to kill you. The other Heavysides are starting to become kind of fond of you. So, here is a hint. What are you looking at?”

“I’m looking at the bread and the plates.”

Lawrence burped again. “What did I say about the plates?”

“You said they were equal.”

Why did I say they were equal?”

“… You didn’t.”

“You are right. I did not. So think on that.”

“This analogy is lost on me.”

Lawrence rose and slid off of the barstool. “Bah! The answer is so obvious my apprentices could have figured it out. This was a waste! Nevermind. I will come by this afternoon and drop off the gunblades. I have spent too much time on them to risk a courier dropping them, or losing them, or even looking at them. Expect me promptly at two.”

Tommy rose and placed three silver coins next to his empty bowl.

Lawrence let loose another burp as he watched. “You are over-paying again, Mr. Dartmoore. You would make a terrible dwarf.”

Tommy turned and smiled. “The Forge-Father must have foreseen that, so he made me a human instead.”

Lawrence glared and then smirked. “You be careful out there, Mr. Dartmoore. I do not know what is going on in that human head of yours, and I do not want to know. But the Heavyside Clan stands ready to assist you when needed. Good day to you.”

Lawrence and Tommy bowed to each other before they left the Brass Dogfish.

Now that he was reenergized, Tommy decided it was time to stop in on an old “friend.”

Chapter Five –Ms. Bella’s Reputable Business

Tommy hopped out of a horse-drawn cab and walked up to an average-sized house. The foundation flirted with the neighboring district, but it was just within the Old Artisans’ District. He entered the foyer and was greeted with the stench of strong perfume that covered up faint undertones of body odor. He wrinkled his nose and reached for his snuff box.

At the end of the foyer sat the portly Ms. Bella. She looked up from her desk when she heard the door open. The threads on her formal dining gown creaked as they strained to contain her girth. She smiled through her pounds of makeup. “Ah, welcome Mr. Dartmoore, though you are a bit early for most of the girls.”

Tommy placed two copper coins on the desk. “Ms. Bella, you know why I come here. There’s only one lady for me and I married her.”

“Variety is the spice of life, Mr. Dartmoore. As a merchant, surely you can appreciate a broad selection. Even if you are very happy with what you have, there is no harm in sampling other goods.”

Tommy remained stone-faced. “Where’s Ms. Drake?”

Ms. Bella donned a pair of reading glasses and withdrew a small black book from her bust. She ran her finger through an entry as she squinted her eyes to read the writings. “Let’s see. Ms. Drake, Ms. Drake. Unfortunately, she’s not here today.”

Tommy smiled. “Ah good, so she is in. I was worried she wasn’t. I know the way, thank you.”

Ms. Bella desperately cried out, “Wait! No! You can’t go back there! She’s expecting someone in a few minutes!”

Tommy was already halfway down the hall. He spun around and walked backwards. “I paid my admission fee. I’ll just be a moment. But if it is who I think it is, then you better use your bag of tricks to stall him.”

“Mr. Dartmoore! You get back here!”

Tommy turned and sprinted down the hall and knocked on the door in a special sequence, announcing his arrival.

A woman’s voice called out, “Come in!”

Tommy entered the dimly lit room. There was a large bed, armoire, writing desk, and oil lamp in here. In a chair sat Marie Drake. She wore a red and black corset and black fishnet stockings. She was putting on lipstick and inspecting her handiwork at the mirror on the desk. She continued her preening and didn’t look at Tommy. “So, Red made a mess of things, and you come running to me for answers. What makes you think I have them? And even if I did, what makes you think I would give them to you?”

Tommy sat down on the bed. “What makes you think I can’t get what I want from you?”

Marie whipped around. “Get off of that. I don’t go making a mess of your office, so don’t go making a mess in mine.”

Tommy leaned back onto the bed. “So where is he?”

Marie stood up and stomped her high heel into the wooden floor. “I said get up. Don’t make me scream.”

Tommy quickly sat up. Then he overacted as he fluffed one of the pillows and then slowly reclined back onto the bed. “I know he didn’t run south, and I know the Oboglin thing is a distraction. So, why don’t we speed things up, and you tell me where he is, and I’ll leave you to your quote unquote profession.”

Tommy made quote marks in the air with his fingers as he spoke.

Marie stomped across the floor. “I don’t know where he is.”

Tommy closed his eyes and pretended to rest. “Now why would you go and lie to me like that? Haven’t I done a lot for you? And recently, too?”

Marie crossed her arms as she stood before Tommy. “I told you. I don’t know where he is. Now get up. I just made that.”

Marie withdrew a slender dagger from a secret sheath in the spines of her corset.

Tommy anticipated as much. He quickly sat up on the bed and grabbed her wrist as the weapon was silently drawn. He stood up and kept Marie an arm’s length away. “Now, was that for me?”

Tommy let go of Marie as she withdrew a second dagger and took a stab at him. He stepped back and centered himself as he drew his rapier and dagger.

Marie taunted Tommy. “No one uses rapier and dagger anymore. That’s archaic. Get with the times, Tommy. Where are your gunblades?”

Tommy’s smile didn’t expose his true feelings. The tiny room was no place for a duel, and he knew he had to get creative to end this quickly. He shifted his weight to one foot and put on airs. “Me? Archaic? And this wild accusation is coming from a mage? Hello, Kettle, this is Pot. You’re black! Fine, I’ll lay down my rapier and dagger when you stop casting spells.”

Marie made a deep indent into the wooden floor with her heel. “Oooohhhh! Tommy!”

Her hands and daggers were covered in blue flames. She let go of her weapons, and they stayed suspended in the air. With a flick of her wrist, they flew through the air at Tommy.

Metal kissed metal as Tommy parried the twin strikes. The daggers circled around again, and Tommy’s eyes got big.

He leaped onto the bed and held it hostage. He sheathed his dagger and pulled a glass vial out of his vest. The top flipped up and a small flame emerged from the top. “I am in no mood for our usual games, Marie. Where is Red?”

Marie held up her hands and the daggers froze in mid-air. “Don’t you dare drop that firewater on my bed. It will be the last thing you ever do.”

Tommy reversed his grip on his rapier and aimed the point at the bed. “We are both pressed for time. You have your big meeting any moment, and I have family to save. Tell me where Red is, and I’ll leave.”

Marie clenched her fists and her arms went rigid at her sides.

Tommy stared at her and began to tilt the vial of firewater. Tommy saw Marie flinch ever so slightly. She felt the involuntary flinch, too, and she knew the ruse was up. She motioned with her hands, and the blue flames disappeared with a wisp of gray smoke. Now free from the spell, both daggers clattered to the ground.

Marie stood there for a moment before she sighed and tucked her hair behind her ear. Her face was a tapestry of nostalgia and passion. “Oh, Tommy. Your Bounty Hunter persona is the most fun. It’s exciting and daring. Something your business side can’t understand.”

Marie scooped up her daggers from the floor. “I heard he was going to the Locks. But from there, I don’t know. The Obogolin thing is a ruse, but it was a good one. He’s also improved his assassination skill. I haven’t been able to figure out who he got last night. Now go save our friend. I have to finish getting ready.”

Tommy raised an eyebrow at the statement. He thought he could be exciting and daring in his business endeavors. He sheathed his rapier and flipped the top over the firewater vial. “Thanks. I’ll be going now. I’ll give your best to Red.”

He hopped off of the bed and walked towards the door.

While Marie was sheathing her daggers in her corset she asked, “Hey, Tommy, how did you know that I knew about Red? I had the area magically veiled when I got the news.”

Tommy flashed a sheepish smile. “I didn’t. I got lucky. I figured you would know, and my hunch was right.”

Marie’s mouth dropped open and bewilderment filled the mage. “Wait, so you’re telling me you were bluffing this whole time?”

“Ah… Yeah. Yeah, pretty much.”

Marie reached out and gently grabbed Tommy by the hand. Tommy froze. Marie looked up into Tommy’s brown eyes and touched his wedding ring. “We would’ve been a hell of a team.”

Tommy weakly smiled. “It’s not all your fault. I thought you were gone.”

Marie took a step forward and gave Tommy a hug. “I am glad for you and Erma. If I was going to lose you to anyone, I’m glad it was her.”

Tommy kissed the top of her head. “Thanks. That means a lot to us.”

Marie looked up at Tommy. “Hey, when you see Erma tonight, remind her to meet me at the Rock Garden tomorrow after lunch. We need to catch up and go shopping.”

Tommy broke off the embrace and slowly shook his head in disbelief. “OK. Now I need to get going. If you two are going shopping, then I need all the gold I can get my hands on.”

Marie playfully punched him in the arm. “I can’t help it you married a woman with good taste and who has a best friend with also good taste.”

Tommy rubbed the back of his neck. “Too bad good taste always means expensive.”

The duo heard the husky voice of Ms. Bella from down the hall.

Marie’s eyes flew wide open. “Oh no! That must be Mr. Benjamin. He’s here early. He wasn’t supposed to show up for another half hour. If he sees me in here with someone else, then he’ll suspect something. He thinks I’m smitten with him.”

Tommy’s mind raced. The hallway was straight, and if he dashed out then he’d be spotted for sure. There were no windows for him to use, and he wasn’t about to hang around to witness Marie in action. Tommy’s mind kicked into over-drive. “OK, we’ll have to improvise. How about we make it look like you threw me out of your room? I can say something about I’m looking for someone else. If we both play it up, it might work.”

Marie contemplated the idea. “I like it. It’s simple, but simple is good. I just don’t want him to get wise.”

Tommy shot back, “Do you have a better idea? Besides, the more outrageous the claim, the more unlikely it is false, right?”

Marie nodded. “OK. But, don’t mess this up for me. This is two months of hard work.”

Tommy flashed a big smile, “Hey, if this fails, you can only blame your acting. My acting is superb.”

Before Marie could object, Tommy pulled out a handkerchief and held it up to cover his face. He intentionally stumbled out of the room and fell into the hallway wall. His back was turned to Mrs. Bella’s desk as he slowly rubbed his face with the handkerchief. He masked his voice with a fake accent. “I’m sorry, miss. Beg pardon, beg pardon. Wrong room, that’s all. No need to hit a gentleman like that. Just a wrong room. Beg pardon.”

Marie stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip and the other pointing a finger at Tommy. “And stay out. I don’t care if you’re looking for someone else. You don’t go barging into my room like that. Now get going before I get Ms. Bella down here.”

A man in black suit was walking down the hallway. He stopped when he saw the scene.

Marie looked down the hallway and saw her mark. She smiled at him and opened her arms. “Ah, Mr. ‘Benjamin!’ There you are. Come on in!”

Tommy continued to hide his face behind his handkerchief and crawled away from Marie’s door.

Mr. Benjamin said, “Ah, there’s my Ms. Drake. Just as fiery as ever, I see. I see you got my message. There is much we need to discuss.”

Marie held out her arm and the two strolled into Marie’s room.

Once out of sight, Tommy quickly got up and quietly walked up to Ms. Bella. “Thanks for the warning. There’s hope for you in the espionage business. Please do reconsider Charles’ offer to join the group.”

Ms. Bella warily eyed the door to Marie’s room from her desk. She shook her head. “No, Mr. Dartmoore. This is as close as I want to get. I run a reputable business. That poor fool. He came in for a good time, and he won’t even get that. Marie isn’t a black widow, if you get what I mean.”

Tommy placed two silver coins on the desk. “Good day, Mrs. Bella. I was never here.”

Ms. Bella tucked her black book into her bust. “Your name isn’t in my book, so I must not have seen you today.”

“Thank you.”

Ms. Bella looked around aimlessly. “Who said that?”

Tommy smiled as he exited the building and hailed a cab. The clop-clop of the horse’s hooves rang out loudly in the quiet of the early morning. “To the Locks,” he called out to the cabbie.

Chapter Six – Three Left Turns

Deep in the lowest part of Auger IX, a few miles beyond the Subterranean Wall, was an extensive series of caverns known as The Locks. Massive stalactites and stalagmites dominated the pitch black landscape. Nestled between the rock formations were cesspools that stored all of the trash and sewage from the city. Few dwarves worked here, and only the desperate dared to call this place home. Though the clanless dwarves and outcast races lived here, they consoled themselves knowing this was a vital part to keep the city running smoothly.

A lone horse drawn coach crept up towards the carriage platform. The horse neighed and constantly weaved side to side. The cabbie rapidly clicked his tongue and nudged the reigns. Finally they made it to the carriage platform, and Tommy hopped out. All sorts of bubbling, hissing, and popping radiated from the inky abyss, and a nauseous stench gave him an oppressive bear-hug. The putrid stench of rotting garbage was thick enough to carve out of the air. Tommy paid the cabbie and surveyed the scene before him.

There were four oil lanterns on the carriage platform. Out in the distance, he saw that other lanterns were few and far in between. He could see a few spotlight beacons that lit the settling ponds, holding tanks, and waste piles, but other than that, it was dark.

Tommy withdrew a small key from his vest pocket and opened a locked chest at the end of the platform. He withdrew an oil lantern, lit it, and then descended the steps two at a time. There was a crude wooden signpost at the bottom of the steps, and the lettering was cracked and illegible. He ignored the sign and took a narrow dirt trail that snaked up along the ridge of a berm.

As he walked, Tommy nudged a few rocks to the side of the path. He was careful to use his shoes, as he was never 100% sure if something was a rock, or if it only looked like a rock. The ridge ended, and the area opened up past the light of the lantern. Tommy followed the dirt trail towards a beacon light positioned on top of a fallen stalactite.

At the base of the stalactite was a small shack made up of a plethora of trash. Scrap wood and rusty glints of metal glared back at him. Tommy crouched down in front of a large ring of rocks next to the shack. In the middle were hundreds of mushrooms. His fingertips touched one of the stumps. It was still spongy and his finger left a small indent.

Tommy rose and held up the lantern. He called out, “Hello? Alcorn? Are you home? It’s me, Tommy Dartmoore.”

A lamp was lit a moment later, and Old Dwarf Alcorn exited the shack. His bent and crooked frame appeared even more disfigured from the illumination from the oil lamp hanging on the end of his walking staff. He straightened up, or at least as much as his centuries of life would allow. His tattered leather attire gave him the appearance of a specter.

He adjusted his glasses and smiled a toothless smile once he recognized Tommy. His strong voice didn’t reflect his age. “Tommy Dartmoore. So it is you. What goes? It is a fine day for inspecting the Locks.”

Tommy bowed and then shook the old dwarf’s gnarled hand. “Alcorn, may your forge be hot and your hammer ring true. I do not have much time. Tell me, have you seen Red lately?”

Alcorn ran his fingers through his wild beard. “Red told me not to tell anyone, but I know I can’t keep the truth from you. I’m sure he knows that, too. He was here this morning. He grabbed a few of his things before he left. He said something about increasing his worth. He said a name, Forn Derst. Then he called for a cab and left. You can go check out his shack up on the hill. I haven’t been there since yesterday.”

Tommy bowed again. “Thank you, Alcorn. You will have to come have dinner with my family soon. It will be an honor to have you again.”

Alcorn coughed and spit out into the pond. “Nah, I’m too old for that city stuff nowadays. I’ll stick with my mushrooms and ale out here. I know if I invited you out, then you would come. That would not be a fun time for you or the misses. So I’m not inviting you. Keep coming by to visit this clanless dwarf, and I’ll keep giving you the information I can. ”

Tommy reached into coat pocket and pulled out a metal flask. “How about a trade, then? I have a flask of whiskey.”

Alcorn looked around. He shuffled a little closer and whispered, “OK, I’m interested. What do you want?”

Tommy reached out and placed the flask into Alcorn’s free hand. “Such is the price of information.”

Alcorn smiled again. “Good day to you, Tommy. I know my day just got a lot better.”

Alcorn began his lonely patrol around the cesspools as Tommy hurried back down to the carriage platform. He wired for a cab, and he received a message stating a carriage would be there in two hours. Tommy cancelled the carriage and jogged up the path towards Auger IX.

************************************************************************************

Immediately outside of the Southern Gate of Auger IX was a mass of tents, huts, and lean-tos commonly known as the Bazaar. A plethora of races called this stretch of the world a temporary home. Every merchant kept one eye on their wares and their other eye towards the city. Every day brought renewed hope that a clan would sponsor their business and they would be invited inside of the city.

The mid-morning sun was just peeking over the snowcapped mountains. It was spring in the valley, and Tommy’s breath hung in the air as the carriage wove its way to the station. Tommy hopped out and passed under two portcullises. He secured his belongings and put one hand on his rapier before stepping out from the shadows of the four guard towers. Merchants called out to Tommy as he walked across the heavy draw bridge.

“Sir! Sir! I have the finest spices this side of the Golden Brooke Mountains! On sale today!”

“Here’s a smartly dressed man. How about a hat to go with that suit, sir? Finest silk in the world.”

“Dried fruits for sale! Sweeten spring with a dried fig!”

Tommy navigated the cramped and dirty alleyways towards the heart of the merchant maelstrom. As he neared the center, the tents thinned out and then stopped. A white sand road served as a moat for the area known as Forn Derst. Sunlight hit the top of a massive multi-colored tent. Fixed atop were a multitude of glass prisms and mirrors. Tommy shielded his eyes from the visual assault as he strode along the winding path.

Two heavily armed and armored dundeliths stood guard at the entrance. Tommy identified their weapons as Mark IV Spitfire Cannons, and their armor as Crocodile Armor, Basher-Class. Both were designed for dundeliths use. Smaller races could barely lift such arms and armor, much less wield them.

“Halt!” Bellowed the guard on the right. “No one may enter without the password.”

“I am Tommy Dartmoore of the Goldspinners Bounty Hunters. I am acting on orders from Chief Inspector Tasso Rockpick. You will let me in.”

Both dundeliths leveled their weapons at Tommy. “No! No one may enter without the password.”

Tommy backed up a step. “I have the password. So which one of you is in charge? Only one of you should know it, and that one is in charge. So who should I speak to?”

The dundelith on the left spoke first. “I know password. I am in charge.”

The other dundelith turned and looked at the other. “I know the password. I am in charge.”

“No, I am in charge.”

“No! I am in charge!”

Tommy smiled. “Oh my. So, it looks like both of you are in charge. You, fine sir, must be in charge of this half of the entrance, and you, fine sir, must be in charge of this half of the entrance.”

The dundeliths nodded in agreement.

Tommy continued to smile. “Well, I will go in through the middle.”

The dundeliths closed rank and their armor clanked. “No password; no entry,” they both said.

Tommy backed up. “Oh, of course. How silly of me. I forgot to give you the password. But out of curiosity, were both of you given the same password? Or am I only allowed to enter on one side?”

The dundeliths looked at each other. The one on the left said, “My password is farce.”

The other one nodded. “Mine is farce, too.”

Tommy let out an over exaggerated sigh. “Whew! Well, that is good to hear. My password is farce, also. I was starting to get worried there. So, since I gave both of you the password, I will enter now.”

The dundeliths nodded and stood aside as Tommy entered the tent.

The inside of the tent was an assault upon Tommy’s senses. If a kaleidoscope and a tornado could have offspring, then the interior would be their firstborn. Mirrors and prisms hung at every angle with no rhyme or reason. The avalanche of rainbows gave off a happy and eerie appearance. An ethereal singing saturated the air. Song birds sang out, but their music was twisted and demented. A pungent stench of spices, incense, and perfumes clawed at Tommy’s eyes and punched him in the nose. He swore he could almost hear the smells.

In the middle of the tent was a rug with a multitude of multi-colored pillows. An elf with streaky blonde hair and sunken gray eyes sat in the middle. His attire was also patchwork to the point where he was perfectly camouflaged if it weren’t for his pale complexion and vacant eyes. His skin was almost translucent, and he was emaciated to the point of wonder. Next to the elf was an ornate window frame with no window in it.

The elf looked through Tommy as he sat halfheartedly munching on a biscuit. The elf labored as he spoke, as if each word was a great burden. His lethargic speech was difficult to understand. The syllables were skewed in each word. “YoUnG ThOmaS DaRtMoOrE, tHe gReAt rEsPeCtEr oF tHe dUnDeLiThS, aNd wElCoMeD nEmEsIs oF tHe FoRn DeSrT cOmPaNy. I hEaRd wHaT yOu dId oUt tHeRe. VeRy sNeAkY. ThAt’S nOt lIkE yOu aT aLl… oR iS iT?”

Tommy stood before the lump of a throne. “That was an usually warm reception by you, Mr.-“

The elf sprung up and instantly appeared a few inches before Tommy. “Why DO NOT you DARE TO say MY ONLY name!? I am THE one, THE only, THE indiscernible!?!???!!!”

Tommy held up his hands and lowered his voice. “As you wish.”

The elf laughed. Or maybe he cried. Tommy wasn’t sure.

The elf spread his arms wide and fell backwards into the pool of pillows. He swam back to his throne and resumed munching on his biscuit. “YoU mAdE tHe cOrReCt mIsTaKe oF gOiNg oUt oN yOuR oWn. If yOu wOuLd hAvE aCcEpTeD mY oFfEr, yOu cOuLd hAvE bEeN lIvInG tHe lIfE oF lUxUrY bY nOw.”

“Where’s Red? I know he came through here.”

“WhErE iS ReD? WhErE iS ReD? Oh, wOe iS mE. WhErE iS ReD?” mocked the elf. His voice turned sing-song, and the birds joined in the banter. “Oh wHeRe, oH wHeRe hAs mY lItTlE ReD gOnE? Oh wHeRe, oH wHeRe cAn hE bE?”

Tommy shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The swirl of colors disoriented him, and he nearly feel over. “So he’s not here anymore. When did he leave?”

The elf loudly munched on the biscuit and stared at his guest. “A sUmMeR bAy cAmE iN aCrOsS tHe bReEzE, aNd cLeArLy i sHaLl gO fLyInG nO mOrE.”

Tommy’s eyes narrowed and he furrowed his brow. “Unfortunately, what you are implying is impossible. Now, there is no need to feed me such lies. Where is he?”

The elf quickly rose and drew a rapier. “HoW dArE yOu mOck mE! InSuLt fOoL! I wIlL hAvE yOuR hEaD!”

Tommy drew his rapier and dagger. “Must we dance? You insist every time.”

The elf lunged at Tommy, and their rapiers sang in jubilee. The world swirled and tilted and Tommy swayed. Seizing the opening, the elf struck again. Again Tommy’s dagger was there, and the elf was forced to withdraw.

Rainbows played in Tommy’s ears, and off-pitch tones ran through his eyes. A pillow flopped to Tommy’s left. Something was there, but Tommy was unsure of what. He glared at the elf. He could not take his eyes off of his opponent, but he knew something was approaching his flank. He quickly weighed his options.

On the one hand, he could keep an eye on the elf and see what he does. But this plan of action left his flank exposed. He also knew he couldn’t full trust his senses in this brothel of demented senses.

On the other hand, something was definitely to his flank. If he didn’t address it, then who knows what it could be? It could be nothing more than a falling pillow from when the elf rose, or it could be one of his lackey’s. There was also the slim possibility the elf had never left his pillow until then, and his senses were lying to him.

Both propositions were risky. He needed his Dartmoore luck to hold up again. He blinked and turned to his left. The elf was there and in mid-strike.

Tommy’s muscle memory took over. He took a quick step forward and parried the strike with his dagger. He flicked his wrist and caught the blade in the guard of his dagger. He continued his follow through and disarmed the elf. The rapier hit the ground, and Tommy smelled citrus.

The elf imploded and hung his head between his knees. In a daze, the elf loosened the scabbard from around his waist and threw it at Tommy’s feet. He buried his face in his hands and wept bitterly. “… go? TaKe yOuR pRiZe aNd lEaVe! HaUnT mE nO mOrE, wIcKeD sPeCtEr oF sInS bEyOnD tHe fUtUrE!”

Tommy picked up the scabbard and rapier. “When dancing, the man always goes first; always.”

The elf crawled upon his throne and dried his eyes. He then began to laugh hysterically. “ThOmAs. YoU. ArE. A. RiOt. Do NoT eVeR cHaNgE… oR hAvE yOu?”

Tommy slung the weapon over his shoulder and shook his head. “No, you can’t join the Dartmoore Merchants. I won’t allow it.”

The elf smirked and munched on his biscuit again. “AdO, AdO, pArTiNg ‘tIs sUcH sWeEt sOrRoW.”

Tommy pursed his lips together and quickly exhaled through his nose. “Will you please knock it off? This place is the grandmother of all evil fun houses. The fact that you are masking your speech is even worse!”

Tommy drew a dagger from his vest and threw it at the windowless window frame.

The elf cried out, “… nOOo!” but was powerless to stop it.

The dagger hit the center of the window frame. It hung motionless for a split second before a rush of wind wailed from the middle of the room, and the faint singing stopped. The song birds’ beautiful music filled the tent and Tommy exhaled. “There, now we can have a proper conversation. I do not enjoy that new toy of yours. I couldn’t see or hear properly. That is no way to do business.”

The elf now looked young and vibrant. Though pale, he didn’t look unhealthy, and his eyes were filled with a mischievous glint. He plopped down on his throne again. He poured himself a cup of tea. His calm voice matched his demeanor. “Why did you have to break that? Do you have any idea how expensive that was? It took forever to get it here.”

“Don’t use your parlor tricks on me. I’m not amused.”

The elf sighed. “Well, I didn’t think you’d actually break it. I should charge you for that.”

“Put it on my tab. Oh wait a minute, you still owe me. A lot. I haven’t forgotten, nor will I ever.”

The elf crossed his arms and went humpf. “Fine. Just go. You ruined my fun for the day. I hope you’re happy.”

“No, give me my answers, then I’ll leave.”

“Fine. But only because I’m angry at you, and I don’t want to look at you anymore. Red bought one suit, one backpack, a dozen large caliber gunblades, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, all with explosive heads. He bought them from various merchants, and he used counterfeit coins. I figured you’d come here, so here’s a few for you to examine. I’ll save you some time. Grog made them. The other merchants haven’t paid me enough coin for this information, and I doubt they will. Now, you have your answers. Leave me be. I need to order another window.

Tommy scooped up the discarded coins. “Thanks.”

He walked over to the window frame and withdrew the still floating dagger from the middle. Wind rushed out, and the ethereal singing returned. Tommy sheathed the dagger as the scraggly looking elf went slack-jawed.

The grotesque elf scooped up his jaw, held it up to his face, and then erupted in mirthful laughter and applause. “A mOcKeRy oF lIfE! HoW rEpUlSiVe! We, lAdIeS aNd gEnTlEmEn, aRe wAtChInG tHe eVoLuTiOn oF ThOmAs DaRtMoOre, rIgHt bEfOrE oUr vErY eYeS. AnD tO tHiNk wE aLmOsT cAnCeLlEd tHe pRoJeCt!”

It was Tommy’s turn to smirk, and he exited the tent. He saluted the dundeliths as he left. “Good job. Both of you.”

The dundeliths stood a little straighter as they watched Tommy disappear into the crowded Bazaar.

************************************************************************************

The late morning found Tommy scouring the Forge District. This dirty part of the city hissed and popped at pedestrians and carriages alike. Furnace blasts belched into the streets, spooking horses and passersby. Long stretches of cobblestone roads lacked any lamplights, and instead relied solely upon the amber glows of the rows of forges and furnaces in the district.

Down one of the dark alleyways, Tommy spotted a crippled dwarf with a hunchback. The dwarf limped along as he pushed a wooden cart with a broken wheel. The humming of the blast furnaces masked Tommy’s approach. “So, Grog, how goes the scrap metal business? I hear you made a sale recently.”

Grog recoiled in horror as he recognized Tommy. “I didn’t want to! I promise! Red threatened to beat me if I didn’t cooperate!”

Tommy was partially obscured by the darkness and smoke. The red and orange hues bounced off of the haze that blanketed the alleyway. “Where is he?”

Grog was a huddled mass against the alley wall. “I don’t know. I don’t know! Please, have mercy upon me. I’ve always given you good information. Please, have mercy on me this one time.”

Tommy looked at the cart. “How many did he get from you? And tell me the total number, not just the ones he bought, swindled, stole, or acquired. I want the full number.”

Grog was wailing loudly. “1,000 copper pieces and 500 silver. No other coins or bank notes or anything. Just those fifteen hundred pieces. I promise. That’s all. No more, no less. He got them all from me two days ago.”

Tommy took a step towards Grog. The miserable excuse for a dwarf threw himself onto the alley floor and cried louder. “Please, Mr. Dartmoore. That’s all I did. I don’t know anything about the murders or robberies or other cons. I’m trying to be good. He threatened to burn my cart if I didn’t help him. I promise. That’s all. That’s all. That’s all.”

Tommy took a step back. “Did Red say where he was going?”

Grog composed himself enough to reply, “No. He didn’t say and I didn’t ask. The less I know, the better. I didn’t even want to help him with this one, but he said this was the last one, then he was going to be worth something.”

Grog wailed louder. Tommy sighed and shook his head. The disfigured dwarf was a weeping, wailing mess. Tommy put four copper coins on the floor. “If you see Red again, there are more where these came from.”

The hunchback dwarf composed himself and snatched up the coin with his two good fingers. “Oh thank you, Mr. Dartmoore. You are too kind. Thank you. Yes, yes. I will let you know. Thank you.”

Tommy quickly left the alley. With no other leads, Tommy hailed a cab back to the office. He wondered if Charles’s morning fared any better…

 

Chapter Seven – Jacks are Wild

Nestled within a natural harbor in the Golden Brooke Mountain range was Hammerfalls Port. Though technically its own town, many residents of both the port and Auger IX considered it to be a district of the city. There was a long standing agreement where Auger IX would provide protection to the port, and the city could use the harbor.

Down one of the many side streets in Hammerfalls Port was an old warehouse. Within this dilapidated structure was the headquarters of Boss Fat Tony. The dark blue paint was faded and large sections of the stucco façade had fallen away to reveal a red brick frame.

In the basement of the warehouse, Charles Alexander sat at a wooden table with a green velvet top. The lantern lighting offered poor illumination, and the thick cigarette smoke didn’t help things. Today’s card game was the local favorite “Last is Wild.” There were four other players. His stack of coins showed he was running in the middle of the pack.

Charles drew the top card off of the deck and placed the 8 of clubs into the middle of the table.

The guy to his left, Shifty, had a cigarette precariously perched in his mouth. He easily had the largest amount of coins at the table. He rubbed his salt and pepper stubble as he took a long drag on his cigarette. He placed his cards down in front of him. The silence was broken with him cracking his knuckles and tossing three silver coins into the middle of the table. “Raise, three silver.”

Rachel sat to the left of Shifty. She idly played with one of the buttons on her blouse. Her coin pile was about equal to Charles’. She hadn’t looked at her cards for the last two rounds of betting. She took a quick sip of her beer bottle and threw in three silver coins. “Call.”

To the left of Rachel sat Billy. Billy was the youngest of the lot, and he had a death grip on his cards. He slouched as he sat. His eyes darted around the table, and the rest of the group could feel Billy’s leg shaking. He stacked up his three remaining silver coins and slid them into the middle. “Call.”

Boss Fat Tony was next. His coin pile was a little smaller than Shifty’s. He shifted his weight in his chair, and the wood squeaked in agony. The fat man was chewing on a fine cigar. He rolled it from one side of his mouth to the other. He barked out, “Billy, that’s the last of your coins. You say, ‘All In,’ so we know we need to start a new pot if the betting goes up.”

Billy’s leg hadn’t stopped shaking. His voice was chippy. “Alright, alright. I’m sorry. I’m all-in. You happy?”

Shifty was playing with one of the stacks of his coins. “I’ll be happy when I finish taking your money. Experience and discipline will win the day.”

Rachel pried the top off another beer bottle. “Quit yer yappin’. Tony, yer up.”

Fat Tony threw 3 silver into the middle. “Call.”

Charles pushed his pile of silver coins into the middle. “All-In. 45 silver.”

Shifty furrowed his eyebrows at Charles. His scarred hands counted out 42 silver coins and placed it next to Charles’ wager. “What games are you up to, Jack? You’re a miser with your money. It ain’t like you to just give me your coin. I call.”

Rachel counted out 42 silver coins and briefly looked at the five remaining coins in front of her. She took a drink from her beer and pushed everything into the middle. “All-In, 47 silver.”

Fat Tony peeked at his hand. He took a sip from his double shot of whiskey, neat. He quickly counted out his silver. “Call.”

Shifty stretched his neck and the sounds his neck cracking made everyone wince a little. He plucked two more silver from his pile and threw them into the middle. “Call”

Rachel flipped over her hand first. She had two kings and two fours. “Read ‘em and weap, boys. Full house, kings over fours.”

Billy let out a loud groan. He flipped over an ace and a pair of ten’s and a six. “Three 10’s, ace, six…”

Fat Tony laughed and his body giggled. He flipped over a pair of queens and a pair of sevens. “You were holding out with a pair of tens? You got a lot to learn, kid. Full house, queens over sevens.”

Charles smiled so large his pearly white teeth lit up the room. “Well, this didn’t go as planned.”

Rachel was in mid-drink when she yelled out the side of her mouth, “Oh come on, Jack. Just flip over yer damn cards already.”

Charles flipped over his cards revealing three jacks and an 8. “Five jacks!”

Shifty threw his cards down in disgust. “Bah. Four aces, 9 high.”

Charles laughed through the smoke and the haze. He reached out and scooped up the pot. “One-Eye Jack, strikes again! I’m too good for you. Too good for the lot of you. I still got it. See? I told you my bounty hunter days ain’t slowed me down. Me? I’m just getting better and better. I’m like a fine wine.”

Rachel stood up from the table. She straightened out her blouse and walked over to the ice chest for another beer. “Yeah, whine with an h. God Almighty, Jack, you make it seem like you sold out decades ago. It was what, two years ago now?”

Shifty flicked his cigarette butt towards the spittoon. It came up just short and landed among a growing pile of cigarette butts around the brass container. He lit another one and took a couple of short puffs. “20 months. And it’s been the quietest 20 months the warehouse ever heard. I’m actually able to hear myself think.”

Fat Tony and Rachel laughed. Billy looked at Fat Tony and Rachel and then laughed, too.

Charles ignored the comments and flipped two silver coins to Shifty, Rachel, and Fat Tony. “So, how about some answers?”

Fat Tony reached into his suit coat and pulled out another long cigar. He chewed on the end of it while he spoke. “I already gave you your answers. My ships don’t go near Oboglin lands. It’s too risky. But if you want to search them when they dock, then it’ll cost you.”

Charles stacked his winnings. “The Paulina Gale is two days’ behind schedule. That’s a fast ship. She could’ve swung into the Oboglin lands and got out and be only two days late.”

Fat Tony kept chewing. “Listen, why are you asking about the Oboglin? They’re too far to the south to be any concern of us. What bee got in your bonnet?”

Charles looked around the table. His smile faded and he rested his elbows on the green velvet. “It’s Red. He struck last night. Killed a dwarf behind Riley’s and did it right. I’m out to get him. We think he’s thrown in with the Oboglin, and now we’ve got a two-headed hydra on our hands. Rockpick has every inspector in the city on the lookout.”

Shifty cracked his knuckles and flung a cigarette butt over towards the spittoon. He blew the cigarette smoke out of the corner of his mouth. “You’ve bedded and elf if you think you can go toe-to-toe with Red. When he went up river for his fiver, all of us exhaled. We heard The Rock is after him, and there’s going to be a bounty announcement tomorrow. But you know how much it’s for, don’t you?”

Charles lit a cigarette and took a deliberately long drag. “Yeah, yeah I do. But I also know that if I tell you, then before I leave this room, every Bounty Hunter in the country will be after him.”

Fat Tony shifted the remaining half cigar in his mouth from one side to the other. “Jack, you know what goes on in this room, stays in this room. Besides, if a couple of stupid bounty hunters want to try their luck against Red, then let them. It’ll serve as a good warning for the others.”

Rachel placed a beer in front of Jack. “So what’s it up to, 20 gold? That’d be a nice pay day.”

Charles took a drink from the bottle of beer in front of him. “You’re off by five times.”

Bill piped up, “25 gold? Wow!”

Shifty took one last drag on his cigarette. He flicked the butt at Billy. “The next job we do, I’m going to pay you using multiplication. The bounty is 100 gold. You do math like elves do music.”

Fat Tony bit down into his cigar. “100 gold is the highest bounty ever offered by Chief Inspector Rockpick.”

Rachel leaned back in her chair. “The Rock must really want him behind bars again or 6-ft under. Shifty, what do you think? Think you got this one?”

Shifty had just finished lighting another cigarette, “Nah, don’t look at me. I choose life. 100 still ain’t enough gold for me to go after Red. Not after what he did to Leggs and Slim. Those guys were scum, and they deserved every moment of their death. I don’t want to know what he would plan for me or any of us. Nah, Jack, this one is all yours.”

Charles threw his cigarette butt over to the spittoon. It bounced off the rim and fell onto the floor. “Red is going to be hard. Really hard. But One-Eye Jack is going to get him. The Goldspinners always get their mark.”

Billy piped up, “What about the time when-“

Charles’ piercing stare threw cold water onto Billy’s words. Charles repeated, “The Goldspinners always get their mark.”

Fat Tony looked at this empty whiskey glass. He set it down and pushed it away from him. “OK, you can search my ships when they come in. Each one you stop, it’ll be 4 silver. And don’t try to negotiate that rate. I’m cutting my throat with that rate, but you’re alright, Jack. Don’t make me regret my decision.”

Charles threw his hands up into the air. “4 silver each? I’d be better off just waiting for the crews to disembark than pay that amount. 4 silver? You make it seem like I’ve already got this bounty. 4 silver? 4? Each? That’s piracy on the high seas. Piracy, I tell you.”

Billy sprang up and drew his revolver. Before he could level it, a shot rang out, and he watched wide-eyed as his revolver hit the table.

Charles sat comfortably in his chair, a smoking gunblade in his hand. He pointed a finger at the young kid. “Now see there? You just did something stupid. You might as well have your portrait in the dictionary next to the word “stupid”. No one can quick draw One-Eye Jack. Maybe Shifty a decade or two ago, but that’s it. And you? You ain’t Shifty. So, therefore, you, are stupid.”

Billy went for the dropped gun, but Fat Tony cleared his throat, causing the lad to pause. “Billy, you got a lot to learn. Explain yourself. Why’d you try to draw out Jack?”

Billy scowled, “He was trying to negotiate, when you said no negotiating. I know the early sound of negotiating when I hear it. He was about to throw out a counter offer.”

Rachel popped the top off another beer. “Billy, shut up. The rest of us know Jack, and he’s just complaining. His mouth is like a cheap brothel. It’s always open.”

Shifty lit another cigarette, “And all of us know better than to quick draw Jack. He’s the fastest gun in these parts. If he wanted any of us dead, then we’d already be pushing up daisies.”

Billy looked at Fat Tony, “They talk as if Jack is more powerful than you.”

Charles rose and his chair darted away from him, looking for cover. He leveled his gunblade at Billy and primed the hammer. The click drained the color from Billy’s face.

Fat Tony held up his hand and loudly cleared his throat. “Jack. Charles. Listen to me. There’s no need to bring out the old One-Eye Jack. We all like this new version of you. You sold out, remember? You don’t have to be him anymore.”

Charles tensed up and stuck out his lower jaw. He shook his head and kept the barrel a few inches from Billy’s nose. “Boy. You… you better listen. And you better listen well. You got a lot to learn. There’s a thing called respect. Boss Fat Tony has mine. He and I go way back. Fat Tony took care of me. Now I look after him. Do yourself a favor. Shut up. Listen. Learn. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll live long enough to thank Fat Tony.”

Fat Tony drew out a cigar from a cigar holder. He bit into the end of it and started chewing. “Jack, those are kind words, and certainly not unwarranted. Billy does have a lot to learn. But sit down and put that thing away. I’m perfectly capable of defending myself.”

Charles closed his eyes and shook the cobwebs out of his head as he reloaded and holstered his gunblade. He scooped up most of the silver coins and dumped them into his pockets. He pushed the rest to Fat Tony. “I’ll be searching your ships. But I just realized something. Even if there are Oboglin on them, there isn’t a bounty for their heads. I’m after Red. And me shooting Billy made me realize that Red is probably with people he respects and likewise. It’s time for me to go. See ya, Shifty, Rachel, and Fat Tony. Billy, no hard feelings. It’s just business.”

Charles slipped out from one of the numerous holes in the “abandoned” warehouse and walked a good ways before he hailed a cab.

Chapter Eight – Street Sweeping

Crammed between the East Artisans’ District and the Minor Clan District was an unnamed alleyway packed with apartment flats. Narrow door after narrow door stood in attention down this dirty stretch of brick and mortar. Each doorway lacked gilding and clan markings, signaling human residence.

Alongside one of the gutters, an old human street sweeper hobbled along his route. He labored as he drug his right leg behind him. His dirty rags covered his dark skin tone. In spite of his appearance, he whistled a bright tune as he cleared the gutter. The sound was muffled by the thick scarf wrapped tightly around his head and face. His curly white hair poked out at odd angles of the scarf, and it only added to his disheveled appearance. His scarred hands reached down to inspect a piece of trash. He jerked as he nodded and pocketed the filthy trinket.

A door opened, and a servant girl emerged. The street sweeper bowed as the girl came down the steps to the street level. The raspy lisp of the street sweeper filled the air. “Good morning, Mish Penny. And a lovely morning it ish now dat I get to shee you.”

Penny curtsied and handed a message to a passing courier. “Good morning to you, too, Bertie. I haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks. You ok?”

Bertie nodded as his head shook with jerky spasms. “Oh yesh, yesh. Me leg washn’t working all dat well. Bed shtricken I wash. I couldn’t finish me rounds. But all’sh better now. Just a little shore today.”

“I’m sorry to hear you weren’t feeling well. It is nice to see you, though.”

Bertie leaned on his broom and nearly fell over. “Shay, did you hear ‘bout Red? He made a fine mesh o’ thingsh in the Artishan’sh dishtrict lasht night.”

Penny gasped and covered her mouth with her white apron. “Oh no! Goodness gracious! I didn’t know about that.”

Penny came down the last few steps and whispered to Bertie. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been watching their flat. Even since I heard Red was out on parole, I’ve been keeping an open eye for his return. Only the misses and the daughter have been around, though. I haven’t seen anyone else go near the place. I thought for sure he’d be creeping around here by now, but nothing, yet. I wonder if he’s already inside.”

Bertie jerked his head as he nodded. He responded with a whisper, “Maybe he came in da back way, perhapsh a window? Wouldn’t it be shomething if he wash peeking out da keyhole, looking at ush now?”

Penny shuddered. “Mr. Bertie! Don’t go scaring me like that. That’s the last thing I need to think about. Having Red watch me from a window, and me not knowing. That would be horrible.”

Bertie held up his free hand and kept clutching his broom. “Oh, I meant no harm, Mish Penny, no harm at all. I’ve sheen many a queer ding lately. Now da excitement ish coming closer dan I like. I can’t wait for shomeone to catch Red, and put him back behind barsh. I hear the Goldshpinners are after ‘em. Dat’d be someding ta see, now wouldn’t it?”

Penny looked around and something caught her eye. She turned to go back up the steps and inside. “Oh, we better move along. There’s Elizabeth now. Bye, Bertie. Take care.”

Bertie resumed his sweeping and whistling. He bowed as Elizabeth came by. “Good morning, Mish Elishabesh. How are you and da wee one?”

Elizabeth replied, “Good morning, Bertie. We are fine. Thanks for asking. I haven’t seen you for a few weeks. Was it your leg again?”

Bertie mumbled, “Oh, aye dat it wash, dat it wash. But I’m up and at it again. It’ll take more dan a bum leg ta hold me down. One day, I’ll be shweepin’ for da king, just you wait and shee. He’ll have da cleanesht hall in da world when I get done.”

Elizabeth smiled and adjusted the packages she was carrying. “And I can’t wait to see it.”

Bertie jerked as he spoke. “I don’t want to keep you. I shee your hands are full with packagesh.”

“Yes, just some stuff for Mr. Jenkins. He has me running errands all over the city. A new hat, new boots, a new coat, and a new cane.” Elizabeth paused and sighed. “It must be nice to have that kind of money. To have servants and maids and cooks. To travel and see the world.”

“Well, Mish Elishabesh, why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what? Have money?”

“No,” quickly interrupted Bertie, “Why don’t you go and travel and shee the world? You and Faish are young. Da world ish a-changin’. When I wash a young man, a woman couldn’t travel without a man. But lately, I read about women and even young girlsh doin’ all shortsh of adventuresh. You two should go and shee dat world. If nothing elsh, there will be time to do errandsh for other people later.”

Elizabeth glanced over at the door to her apartment. “No, Bertie. I can’t. I promised Red I’d wait for him. And I’m a woman of my word. But I’m sorry. I’m daydreaming with you instead of working. I need to get going. It was good seeing you again, Bertie.”

Bertie bowed again. “Good sheeing you, too. Give me besht to your wee one.”

Bertie kept sweeping long after Elizabeth turned the corner towards the home of her employer. He finally made it to the end of the street and hobbled down another alleyway. He slipped into a flat, and few minutes later, Charles Alexander emerged.

The clock tower signaled the hour, and Charles stomach rumbled in agreement. It was time to go back to the office. Charles hoped Tommy had better luck this morning.

Chapter Nine – On a Full Stomach

Tommy entered the side entrance of the company building and was greeted with the smell of strong cheese and dried fish. Charles was busy unwrapping various food stuffs on a table. Upon seeing Tommy enter, Charles perked up and smiled. “Tommy! It’s a little late in the day for lunch, but better to have a late tuck-in than no tuck-in at all. I heard you hadn’t come back, yet, so I figured you be on your way. I quickly ran out and got us some smoked white fish, aged cheese, some hard bread, and a couple of bottles of beer. The beer’s for me, of course, but I know you’ll have some of the rest. Come, sit. We need to catch up.”

The rumble in Tommy’s stomach voiced its agreement. Tommy got a pitcher of water and poured a glass for himself. He sat down at the table and tore off a hunk of bread. “Thanks, Charles.”

Charles sat down and cracked open a beer. “See, I knew you hadn’t eaten lunch today. And I knew you were too wrapped up to think about food, too. See? What would you do without me? Ol’ One-Eye Jack’s got your back, Tommy, just like you got mine. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Tommy grabbed some smoked fish and hunk of cheese. “So, I’ll go first. I thought I was onto a few things, but the trail went cold. Marie didn’t know much, except that Red went to the Locks. Alcorn saw Red this morning, but Red didn’t tell him where he was going. I do know Red is wearing a new business suit, a sturdy leather backpack, and is armed with a dozen gunblades and enough ammunition to level the city watch. He got those from Bazaar. Grog also sold Red 1,000 copper and 500 silver, all counterfeit. I believe Red has used very little of it. Unfortunately, that’s when the trail went cold, so I came back here to think.”

Charles had his boots kicked up on the table and was quickly eating. “I got permission to search the ships that come into Hammerfalls Port from Boss Fat Tony, but he says there are no Oboglin contracts running now. That makes me think the Oboglin thing was a ruse. Dealing with Fat Tony always takes a few hours. I barely had enough time to poke around his house, but no one’s seen hide or hair of Red.”

Tommy tore off another hunk of bread. “So, let’s recap. Red is probably not recruiting Oboglin, so we can rule out Hammerfalls Port. He’s not at the Locks, either.”

Charles added, “And he’s not home, he’s got a new suit, and he’s armed.”

Tommy stopped buttering a piece of bread. “Wow… well, I’m not sure where else he could be, do you have any ideas?”

Charles smiled, “Ah, the great Tommy Dartmoore, asking One-Eye Jack for ideas again. I love it. See, Tommy, I’m a thinker now.”

Tommy took a bite of bread. “So, ‘Thinker’ what do you got?”

Charles was hamming it up. He rubbed his temples and made a face of great concentration. “Sh, sh, don’t rush me. I’m onto something. I’m thinking… I’m thinking… I’m thinking I’m going to take a nice long staycation when we catch Red. That’s what I’m thinking.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “Seriously, come on, Charles. I know you don’t think much of him, but Red is my brother-in-law. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known you. And don’t forget, he is a member of The Goldspinners.”

Charles took a bite of cheese. “Yeah, I remember. Hey, do you remember the time when we were after those dundeliths? Red picked up the one and threw him over the bar. The other dundeliths were too shocked to fight back. They surrendered on the spot. I’d never seen anything like that before.”

Tommy laughed, “Of course I do. It took a day to get the dundelith onto his feet.”

“Oh! And remember the time when we were after that one elf, Viseek? Viseek thought he lost us when he boarded that clipper, but we caught up and boarded the ship. Then the stupid elf jumped overboard to escape, but Red jumped in after him.”

Tommy laughed again. “Yeah, I remember that. Don’t forget the ending. Red caught up to Viseek at shore, and he sat on the elf until we arrived. Remember, we had to take Viseek alive?”

Charles laughed, “Oh I remember. I’d never seen an elf so happy to get taken away by dwarves. Yeah, Red was alright when he was on our side. He was scary good when he was a Goldspinner. Now he’s just scary. Now, he’s out for blood. I feel bad more for Elizabeth and Faith more than anyone else. The Good Lord knows they’re hurting for money, and they could use some honest coin.”

Tommy nodded. “Elizabeth’s a good woman. For all the crap Red’s put her through, it’s amazing she still smiles. You know, I’m still conflicted about this bounty. I really don’t want to kill or apprehend Red. I wish there was a way for him to just go far, far away. But I know he won’t. Not as long as Elizabeth and Faith are here.”

Charles grimaced. “Hey. Umm… you know I’ve been thinking… and… and I can’t believe I’m even sayin’ this. But… but if you help him get away, I’ll understand. I know what I said earlier, but Red is Elizabeth’s family. I don’t like it, but I’ll respect it. Who knows, maybe he’ll leave, and she’ll follow, and wherever they end up, it’ll be the best thing ever for them.”

Tommy stopped eating and had to hit himself in the chest with his fist to clear his throat. “Wait, what? Do you mean it? Mr. Charles ‘I-need-at-least-2-silver-a-week-to-get-my-nails-done’ Alexander? You’re going to let a 100 gold bounty walk out of the city?”

“Hey, now! I said I wouldn’t like it. But, yeah, if it means that much to you, and I know how much it’ll mean to Elizabeth and Faith, then you do what you got to do.”

“And what are you going to do if you find Red before I do?”

“Come on, Tommy. I’m new to this whole thinking thing. I haven’t thought that far ahead. Maybe I’ll shoot. Maybe I’ll talk. Maybe I’ll do both. Who knows? I’ll think about it when I see Red.”

The conversation died as the two men finished their late lunch.

Tommy rose and pushed in his chair. “I need to stay here and do some merchant work. When I get done, I’m going back to the scene of the crime. Maybe I missed a clue this morning.”

Charles rose, too. “I’m going to go call on a few more contacts to see if they’ve heard anything on Red. We’re almost out of time. Chief Inspector Rockpick will start printing the bounty posters tonight, and you know a 100 gold bounty will spread faster than free ale in the Foundry. I’ll keep you posted if I find Red and it doesn’t come to blows.”

“That sounds like a plan. You may be onto something with this thinking thing of yours.”

“Haha! See? I knew it! I’m gonna be the best thinker in the Dartmoore Merchants, soon. Haha!”

Charles activated the shadow spell on his belt and he became a silhouette. “You know, I still can’t believe them elves gave this to me after we caught Viseek.”

“They did it because they don’t need to see you to know you’re near. They’ll hear you from a mile away.”

“Maybe, maybe. But it’s still really handy in my line of work.”

“Get going. I’ll catch up with you in a few hours. And thanks for understanding if we don’t end up cashing in on this bounty.”

Charles’ slipped out an open window and disappeared into the alleyway. Tommy closed the window and walked to the main part of the building. He received updates from the day’s activities and went into his office.

Chapter Ten – A Discerning Dartmoore

At precisely two hours past noon, every picture frame on the south wall of the Dartmoore Merchants’ building fell of its nail head as Heavyside Lawrence flung open the door. The stout dwarf rumbled into the office building as he puffed on his ornate pipe. His boisterous voice rattled every picture frame unfortunate enough to be still hanging.

“Come on now. Hurry up lads. When I was your age, I would have already delivered these crates, AND I would have been back to the forge by now. That is the problem with dwarves these days. Too slow and unmotivated. Back when my beard was just a shadow, I hallowed out mountains in search of ore. Then I would fill the mountains back up so that they would not collapse. Now that is showing initiative, which is something all of you severely lack.”

Right behind him four other dwarves, with much shorter beards, staggered into the room. Each one was carrying three large wooden crates. Sweat ran down their beards, and their faces were contorted and strained.

Right as the last dwarf closed the office door with his foot, Tommy emerged from his office. He bowed to Heavyside Lawrence. “Heavyside Lawrence, Grandmaster Smithy of the honorable Heavyside clan. May your forge be hot and your hammer ring true.”

Heavyside Lawrence held his arms at his side and bowed low. “Mr. Thomas Dartmoore. May your forge be hot and your hammer ring true.”

Lawrence turned and glared at the four dwarves. Each was still trembling under the mighty burden of the crates. “Well, lads, don’t just stand there and be rude. You are bringing great dishonor to your clans and to me. This human is Mr. Thomas Dartmoore, owner of the Dartmoore Merchants. He is the reason why you got paid today. He took mercy upon your miserable workings, and he decided to pay for them anyway. Show some respect and bow.”

One of the dwarves put down his crates and started to bow. Lawrence bellowed. “Lazy dwarf, I did not tell you to set down your crates. I said to bow.”

“But, Master Heavyside, how am I to bow while holding the crates?”

Lawrence reached out and grabbed the crates and held them straight out. His massive arms did not tremble as they remained parallel to the ground while he bowed low. “You bow like that.”

Lawrence handed the crates to the tired dwarf.

“Master Heavyside, we’ve been carrying these crates for the past hour. Our arms are tired.”

Lawrence took a puff on his pipe. “Ahh… maybe now you will see the wisdom in my words. I told all of you to hurry up. But did any of you hurry? No, all of you kept going slow. So now, it is your fault that you have been holding the crates for so long. If you went faster, then we would have been here by now, and you could have set down the crates. Next time, maybe you will listen to me when I tell you to hurry up. Now stop complaining. Start bowing, or I will start looking for new apprentices.”

A few exceptionally noisy seconds later, the floor to the office building was covered in tipped over crates and sprawled dwarven bodies.

Lawrence took a few puffs on his pipe and towered over the fallen apprentices. “Bah! You dropped the crates. It is a cruel joke of the Forge-Father than I am cursed with such weak and uncoordinated apprentices. I must be witnessing the downfall of the dwarf race as we know it. Dwarves that cannot bow properly are not dwarves at all. Bah! Now get up and bow properly. I am glad I secured each gunblade with 50 pounds of restraints. Otherwise they would have been ruined.”

Tommy stood next to Heavyside Lawrence. “Lawrence, it is OK. They do not need to bow for me. Or at least, they can do so without the crates.”

Lawrence took a few puffs on his pipe. “Lads. I do not know why the Forge-Father has decided to show such favor to all of you, but count your blessings. Mr. Dartmoore here, is letting you bow without holding the crates. Now get up and bow properly. Stop making me repeat myself.”

The apprentices struggled to their feet and bowed in unison.

Lawrence grunted an approval. “Better. But that is not saying much. I have seen drunken sea rats bow better than the miserable mess you made. Now stack these crates and get back to the forge. All of you are over an hour behind schedule. If I did not know better, I would swear none of you are berating yourselves right now. That is the problem with dwarves these days. They do not know how to berate themselves or how to grumble properly. Bah! Enough of this. Mr. Dartmoore, let us adjourn to your office.”

Tommy and Lawrence sat around the table in Tommy’s office. Lawrence repacked his pipe and took a few puffs. “My apprentices are inexcusable. Next time do not let them off so easily. They need to learn how to be proper dwarves. I have trained over 200 apprentices. I know what I am doing. Those four are headstrong and incompetent. They need to learn humility through failure.”

“I beg your pardon, Lawrence. I didn’t mean to negatively impact your apprentices.”

“You are a human, and you do not understand the ways of the dwarves. Perhaps with a few more decades of refinement you will see the errors in the ways of humans. The path of righteousness is lined with the dwarven perspective of life, the universe, and everything. By my calculations, it should take you a little more than 4 decades. But anyway, as promised, I have brought the gunblades.”

Tommy opened up a ledger and made a few notes while he spoke. “Thank you, Lawrence. You are punctual as always. The Dartmoore Merchants are in your debt.”

A few wisps of smoke circled Lawrence’s bald head. “The Heavyside clan stands ready.”

Tommy pulled out a new sheet of courier paper and began to pen a note. “I’m going to keep the twelve good gunblades here. I have a few plans and thoughts for them. The 49 of the 50 that arrived this morning are going to go south to House Besca. I telegraphed them yesterday. My contacts in House Besca have almost all of them sold for ten times what we could get here. Don’t worry about the last one. I’m going to swing a deal, and see if I can get that one to House Besca as well.”

“Excellent. That means I will never have to lay eyes upon those miserable scraps again. Good. Let them stay with the humans. They would not appreciate the CJLP design anyway. The CJK design is perfect for their untrained eyes.”

“I am happy to hear you are happy. When might I expect the next batch?”

“Hmm… that depends on how quickly my apprentices take in my beratings. Teaching apprentices is a lot like working the forge. You can strike perfectly every time, and they only budge a little bit. Even the best product is the end result of thousands of perfectly timed strikes. But, have no fear. I finished several projects, and I can focus on berating my apprentices again. Expect the next shipment of fifty in two weeks, or you can expect me to find new apprentices before then.”

Tommy finished his note and set the paper aside to let the ink dry. “Wonderful. Thank you for update. Now, you will have to excuse me. I need to head out and continue my search for Red.”

Lawrence stopped puffing on his pipe and snorted. Tendrils of smoke curled from his nose and cascaded through his beard.

Tommy ignored the comment. He opened the armoire and donned his belt with rapier and dagger. “Worry not. I have figured out the analogy from this morning, and in figuring out the analogy, I have solved my dilemma. Thank you. I figured out the plates were equal because both of them were resting on the bar. The bar represented compassion. So honor and family are dependent upon compassion. I am going to help Red escape Auger IX, and this will keep honor and family in balance.”

The dwarf was momentarily obscured due to the massive amount of smoke he blew out of his nose as he grunted in response. “Mr. Dartmoore, you are still horribly wrong. You are so wrong that your explanation has lowered my intelligence, and I will have to berate myself on the walk back to the forge to forget your reasoning. Think like a dwarf! Never mind! I do not know what I bothered.”

Tommy opened his mouth up Lawrence held up a hand, silencing the human. “If, and apparently this is a very large if, you figure it out, the answer will be so clear that your puny human brain might recoil at the flood of wisdom I have bestowed upon you.”

“Very well, Grandmaster Smithy Heavyside. Thank you for your time.”

Lawrence rose and emptied his pipe into the ash tray on the table. His head swayed back and forth, and a low grumble resonated from his core. He put away his pipe and glared at Tommy. “Mr. Dartmoore. Upon further consideration, I have come to another conclusion about you. If more humans thought like you, I would probably hate fewer humans. Good day to you. The Heavyside clan stands ready.”

“Thank you again, Lawrence. May your forge be hot and your hammer ring true.”

The two bowed to each other and both exited the front of the building. Tommy watched as Lawrence began his march back to his forge. His grumbling was heard for half a block, and felt even after he turned the corner.

Tommy stood there and wondered about the bar analogy some more, but no further explanations came to him. He sighed and hailed a cab to Riley’s Pub.

Chapter Eleven – A New Lead to Old Towne

Tommy hopped out of the carriage and quickly paid the cabbie. The crime scene was still roped off, and he was escorted through the inspectors’ picket line. He held up his lantern and scoured over every square inch of the alley. He looked at every loose rock and blood mark. Finally Tommy grabbed an empty crate and sat down next to the place where the dwarf’s head used to be. The head was gone, and Tommy knew the inspectors had taken the head to the station as evidence until further notice.

He mused out loud. “Red, something isn’t adding up. This has your flair, but something is off.”

Tommy looked at the mirror and razor on the crate. “Red, why did you go to such an extreme to shave the beard off of a dwarf? You know that will only anger the dwarves and… increase your bounty…”

Suddenly everything made sense. Red was trying to raise his bounty by pushing Chief Inspector Rockpick’s buttons. The location of the crime, the insults written in blood, and the shaven beard were all direct-assaults upon the Chief Inspector’s pride. But this was only one piece to a larger mural.

Tommy’s mind went into over-drive. He replayed his meetings with Red in his mind, and each meeting had a purpose. Tommy knew Red was crafty, and now all of the “Oh, I was just wondering” questions and “Hey, did you happen to hear if…” comments were all angles to get information. Red wasn’t trying to reform; he had been pumping Tommy for information.

Tommy buried his face in his hands and mourned. Through his weeping, Tommy’s mind continued to connect dots. Even though everything made sense, the one thing Tommy couldn’t figure out was the end game. Now that Red succeeded in his high bounty, what good did that do him? It’s not like he could turn himself in and get the bounty. Plus, Red had to know the Goldspinners would be sent after him. And the Goldspinners always get their mark. Unless… unless Red was planning on the Goldspinners to come after him. But that would mean…

Of course!

The last piece fell into place. Red expected Tommy to find him and take him alive. With Red in custody, the Goldspinners would get the bounty. As a member of the Goldspinners, Red would still get a piece of the bounty, and the way the contract was written, Red’s cut would go to his wife. It would be legitimate money that Elizabeth couldn’t turn down on moral reasons.

Tommy could only shake his head. He drew his dagger and slammed the point into the crate. “Dammit Red. This is just like you. You are a pig-headed, stubborn, self-righteous idiot. This sounds exactly like one of your elf-music schemes. Why can’t you realize that Elizabeth and Faith want you, not your money? If this plan of yours works, you won’t see them again for decades, if you ever see them at all. I can hear Elizabeth now. ‘I don’t want Red’s bounty. I want Red.’ Ugh. Red, what am I going to do with you?”

The box tipped over as Tommy withdrew his stuck dagger. Renewed with a clearer objective, he reexamined the crime scene. When he made it back to the box, Tommy picked up the polished metal mirror and simple razor.

As he examined the mirror, Tommy noticed his 5 o’clock shadow. “Red, it looks like I need a shave. Too bad this razor is the murder weapon. It’s a simple and sharp one, too. It’s too plain and ordinary for the dwarves. You must’ve got this from merchant row in Old Towne.”

Tommy bolted up at his words. He ran out of the alleyway and jumped into a passing empty cab. Luckily, it was empty. The cabbie didn’t get a chance to stop before Tommy stuck his head out the window. “To Old Towne, Fountain Square,” he yelled. “And I’ll double the fare if you get there in less than 20 minutes.”

The cabbie snapped the reigns and called out to his horses. Off they went tearing down the street, leaving a wake of angry pedestrians shaking their fists at the wild driver.

Chapter Twelve – A Bad Day for Grog

Charles stalked through the shadows of the Foundry; hunting for Grog. It didn’t take him very long to find his mark. Charles ended his shadow spell, and he manifested from the haze and mist of the alleyway. The deformed dwarf broke down into a puddle of babble onto the brick paved road.

“Jack! Jack! Jack! I don’t know where Red is! I don’t know where Red is! I don’t! I don’t! Please, please, please, have mercy upon me. Tommy already came and got his answers. Please, I promise I gave good answers. I told him the truth and only the truth. I didn’t hide anything from him. You must believe me!”

Charles drew his gunblade. “Quit your belly aching. I know Tommy already spoke with you, but Tommy didn’t ask the right questions. So let’s start from the beginning. What did Red tell you he needed?”

The blabbering wretch whimpered. “Red said he needed the money I make, and as much as I had. I sold him 500 silver and 1,000 copper for 10 silver. It was all I had. He wanted me to make more, but that was all I had. Red said he didn’t want to wait for me to get more scrap, so he bought what I had, then left.”

“Did he come back?”

“No, no, no. He only showed up once, and then he was gone.”

“Did you two talk about anything else?”

Grog was quiet for a moment. Then he quickly shook his head. “No. No. No. Nothing at all.”

Charles leveled his gunblade at Grog’s face. “Grog, you see there’s my problem. I believe you. But my trigger finger doesn’t. You see, when my trigger finger starts to itch, it means someone is lying. And right now, I’ve got a major itch to scratch.”

Grog started wailing again. “No, no, no. I’ve told you everything. He came once and got coins, then left. He didn’t want to stay for me to make more.”

Grog went silent and continued to whimper.

Charles primed the hammer of his gunblade. “Grog, my finger still itches. I know Red. He must’ve said something. Anything. Even if you think it was nothing, he always says something. Now spill it.”

Grog splayed out on the road. “He made small talk, while I got him his coins, but it was mostly to look like we weren’t doing anything. He asked me if I knew any new places to get a drink in Old Towne. That’s where I live. I said no. He said the smoke always looked the same in the Foundry. I said each area of the Foundry has its own blend of smoke. Then he asked if I wanted a cigarette, but I said no. I said those are bad for your health. And that was it. Nothing more. I promise. Not even a ‘good bye’ or ‘see you’ or anything.”

Charles holstered his gunblade. “Thanks Grog. I believe you, and my trigger finger isn’t itching anymore. Here’s two copper pieces. There’s more if you let me know when Red shows up again.”

Grog scooped up the copper pieces with his two good fingers. “Thank you, thank you, Jack. You are kind, and merciful, and generous. Thank you. I will not forget your generosity.”

Charles hailed a cab. “To Old Towne, Fountain Square.”

Chapter Thirteen – Red Lights

In the middle of Old Towne stood The Clock Spire of Marblechest. Torch lights erupted from hundreds of alabaster platforms. The brass and bronze workings appeared to flow and sway in the dancing lights. Darkness could find no refuge here. Indeed, when Lucas Marblechest finished his life’s work, he found enough strength to murmur, “It is perfect,” before collapsing and dying at its base. The dwarf never felt the 63-bell carillon declare the hour. Deep in his beard, he knew there was no flaw in his labor.

A black coach zipped through the pedestrian traffic and halted at the coach platform. The clock spire peeled out the top of the hour. The auditory assault tore through Charles, and he covered his ears as he paid the cabbie. He hurried off the platform and went towards Thunder Row, the nearest place to get a drink. He bounded off the platform and onto the crowded the streets of Old Towne.

Charles weaved through the pedestrian sea as he tried to make his way to the line of taverns. As he strode along the brick-paved roads, his nose caught a familiar scent of tobacco. His eyes scanned the kaleidoscope of bodies. There up ahead was Shifty. Charles smirked and ducked behind a pack of dwarves.

Less than a minute later, Shifty nearly jumped out of his skin when Charles slapped him on the back.

“Got you,” laughed Charles. His deep voice was barely audible above the street noise.

The old enforcer grabbed Charles and pulled him down an alleyway. He risked a glance over his shoulder before turning his back to the street. “Good Lord Almighty, Jack. You’re a tup in a cup for doing that to me.”

Charles lowered his voice. “Hey, what’s got you all worked up? Something going down? I knew it. Something is going down. All right, One-Eye Jack is coming back for one more go with ol’ Shifty. I still owe you a few. I don’t forget who’s been there for me, and now I’m here for you.”

Shifty lit a cigarette. “I’m glad it’s you. But you’ll never believe this. Billy’s out to double-cross Boss Fat Tony and the rest of us. I’m here to put a stop to it before things get ugly. I came in mid-stream, so I’m solo. I could use you as backup.”

Charles checked his gunblade as he spoke. “Wait, Billy? That boy doesn’t know anything. Plus, a Dundelith could quick-draw him. No one would suspect that waste of space to be up to anything. Then again, he would be the perfect mole.”

“Yeah, no fooling.” Shifty cracked his knuckles and took another puff of his cigarette. “I overheard him talking to someone out the window. Said today was the day to knock over Fat Tony. Then he left mighty fast after that conversation. I followed him out here. Fat Tony don’t know nothing about this. I knew I had to act fast, otherwise the next time we saw Billy, it’d be with a bunch of thugs.”

“Damn. I think Red is around here, too.” Charles scratched his head as he spoke. “Do you think Red has it in for Fat Tony?”

Shifty’s eye nearly bugged out of his head. “Dance like an elf! If Red is after Fat Tony, then this is a tup in a cup if I ever saw one. Come on, let’s hurry up and keep following Billy.”

The two quietly caught up to the lad and followed him into the Red Light district of Old Towne. The road changed to cobblestone, and the number of people on the street quickly thinned out.

“I don’t know about this.” Charles took a look around and rubbed the back of his neck. “The Red Light district doesn’t seem like Red’s MO. Then again, this would be the last place we’d look for him.”

Shifty pointed up ahead. “Look, Billy just slipped into The Barnstormer. Twist my beard. This is bad. Things just went from ugly to double ugly with a side of syphilis. That brothel is run by Ms. McLeaga.”

The two men ducked down an alleyway. Charles rested his head against the side of a crate. “Wait, Old Lady McLeaga? She got it out for Fat Tony, still? I thought that was all squared up.”

Shifty stuck a cigarette in his mouth and held up a match. Before he could light his cigarette, he dropped the match and put it out with the toe of his boot. “No time for a smoke. I don’t want to give away our position. But, yeah, I thought things were squared up, too, but apparently not. Seems like you can’t trust people; even those that shook the singer’s hand.”

Charles nodded, “Yeah, and if Red and Ms. McLeaga are in there, then we might as well have caught a dwarf and an elf in bed together. I wish Tommy was here. He’d think of something. I don’t know what, but something.”

Shifty put his cigarette away. He sighed as he stretched his shoulders. He lamented, “I’m getting too old for this. I never wanted to be an enforcer. I always wanted to be someone my kids could be proud of.”

Charles kept an eye on the building. “Hey, a bunch of us look up to you. I do. Rachel does. And Fat Tony would be lost without you. Could you imagine what Fat Tony would do without you and me?”

Shifty laughed at that image. “Ha! He’d become Skinny Tony with all of the running around he’d have to do. But we learned to survive when you sold out. I’m just getting tired of my kids not knowing what Daddy does. All they know is I work in at the docks, but they can’t ever come see me at my job. It’s for the best, but it’s hard to tell them to do well in school when you’re an enforcer, ya know?”

Charles put his hand on Shifty’s shoulder. “Hey, kids and marriage are yours and Tommy’s thing. I’m with Rachel on this one. I ain’t responsible for no one but me. But, if you are serious about selling out, you could become a Goldspinner. Bounty Hunter work is legit. As an added bonus, when you’re not a Goldspinner, Tommy will give you 10 silver a week to be a Dartmoore Merchant.”

Shifty looked Charles in the eyes. “10 silver a week? That’d be a pay cut for me, but it would be nice to show my kids their father is legit. Hey, you’ve been there for two years now. How much do you make?”

A sheepish smile crept onto Charles’ face. “10 silver a week. He’d pay me more, but I’m a straight-shooter not a straight-talker. I don’t have the merchant thing down. Too many numbers, and not enough shooting, I guess.”

“Ha, imagine that. Some things never change.”

“It’s not all bad. He really pays me to do nothing. On the bright side, I haven’t messed up a business deal in over a year. Then again, I haven’t started a business deal in over a year either, but you take the good with the bad.”

Shifty shook his head. “Only you, Jack, only you. Hey, wait a second. Echo and Press just came out of The Barnstormer. Duck.”

While their heads were down, Charles whispered, “Now what do you think those two enforcers are doing? And so far away from their turf? No way Ms. McLeaga has them on her payroll, too.”

Shifty shook his head. “You’ve been out too long. Boss Ram sold out about a month ago. Echo and Press are mercenaries now. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them on Ms. McLeaga’s payroll for a hit or two.”

Charles stared at Shifty. “Red, Ms. McLeaga, Echo, and Press. Well, now this is definitely a tup in a cup. This keeps getting better and better.”

Charles and Shifty watched as the two hit men walked down the street. Right as they turned the corner, Billy came out.

Shifty tapped on Charles’ waist. “Come on, let’s follow Billy. He’s by himself so we might get him to squeal.”

Billy made it back into the main part of Old Towne. Once they crossed Acorn Street, Charles whispered to Shifty. “OK, I’ve had enough of this cloak and dagger crap. Is this still neutral ground?”

Shifty looked around. “Yeah, it is. Ms. McLeaga doesn’t have that far of a reach; even with Echo and Press.”

Charles and Shifty ran and caught up to Billy. They grabbed the lad by the arm and pulled him down a dark alley. “Billy, fancy meeting you in Old Towne. What brings you here,” inquired Charles.

Billy was unable to mask his surprise. “Oh, I was just out doing some shopping.”

Charles gave an overacting nod. “I see, I see.”

Billy’s eyes darted around. “Well, I didn’t find what I was looking for. They must be out. I better head home. See you, One-Eye Jack and Shifty.”

“OK, sounds good,” nodded Charles. Billy had just turned around when Charles added, “Give my best to Ms. McLeaga.”

The lad froze in his tracks and didn’t turn around. “It isn’t what it looks like.”

Shifty lit a cigarette. “Then you better start explaining. Who were you talking to at the hideout?”

“You don’t understand.” Billy slowly turned around as he spoke.

Charles crossed his arms. “Oh yeah, I understand. Now who are Echo and Press after? Fat Tony? And after all he’s done for you?”

Billy angrily pointed a finger at Charles. “All he’s done for me? He hasn’t done a copper for me. Ms. McLeaga has done more for me the past week than Fat Tony did for me the past year. Ms. McLeaga even said I’m a made man.”

Charles pursed his lips. “Oh really? Who did she say that in front of?”

“She said it in front of me.” Billy pointed his thumb at his chest.

Shifty took a puff on his cigarette. “Anyone else?”

Billy definitely said, “Echo and Press just left the room, so they probably heard it.”

Charles mocked him as he laughed. “So, two hired enforcers heard this, and no one else? Sounds like you are getting played.”

Billy took a step forward and poked Charles in the chest with his scrawny finger. “I ain’t getting played. I’m not stupid. Fat Tony is the stupid one. He doesn’t see my high potential.”

Charles looked down at the lad. “You have a high potential of getting my boot up your ass.”

Billy took a half step closer as he poked Charles in the chest again. “You dirty elf. You’re just jealous. That’s why you sold out. Even at your best, you’d never be more than an enforcer. I got leadership potential. Ms. McLeaga sees it. Fat Tony doesn’t. So I went with the best offer. Or is that too advanced of a business concept for you?”

A cloud of smoke snaked out of Shifty’s mouth. “So if Ms. McLeaga thinks so highly of you, why did she turn you down when you first tried to join?”

Billy jerked his head as he looked at Shifty. “She didn’t make a mistake. I’ve been working for her the entire time.”

Shifty took a long drag and dropped the cigarette butt on the ground. “You ain’t never working in this town again. You’ve been a double agent the entire time. You’re a sober dwarf.”

Billy took a bold step towards Shifty and poked him in the chest. “So what if I am? Soon, Fat Tony will be gone, and then I’ll take over his turf. That’s what Ms. McLeaga said. She even has Ram on her side.”

Charles shot a glance at Shifty. “Echo, Press, and Ram will be more than Fat Tony can handle, even with Rachel. I’ll head over to the hide out to even things out. You ok here?”

Shifty pushed Billy backwards and he cracked his knuckles. “Yeah, I got this kid. I’m still an enforcer.”

Charles ran down the alleyway and hailed a cab. Billy and Shifty watched as Charles paid the cabbie and hopped in.

“So, what is your problem, boy? Did you think you could just leap frog everyone?” Shifty stretched his neck and his joints cracked.

“Go fly a moon elf.” Billy turned around and began to walk away. “Soon, you’ll be working for me. Hammerfalls Port will be my turf when Fat Tony is gone. I suggest you shut your mouth if you want to live to see tomorrow.”

“I’ll never work for you. You’re a blind, ignorant, no-name runner. You’ll only be the boss of the washed up women you pay for.”

Billy covered his ears with his hands as he began to walk away. “Shut up, shut up! I’m a somebody!”

“You are a pawn! You were born a pawn! You’ll die a pawn! And not even your two-bit hookers will mourn you! Open your eyes, kid! Ms. McLeaga is using you. Then she’ll throw you out like she threw out Legs.”

Billy yelled and drew his revolver. He spun around, but Shifty’s experience paid off in spades. The enforcer grabbed the kid’s wrist. A split second later, his fist introduced itself to the kid’s kidney area.

Billy cried out as he felt his side erupt in pain. The revolver clattered to the ground. He staggered back and used the brick wall to keep himself upright.

“So out with it.” Shifty cracked his knuckles again. “Who did you talk with at the hideout? Who else is in on this with you? If everyone else was at The Barnstormer, then someone else was outside the window. Now spill it, before I spill your brains.”

“Sod off!” Billy balled his fists and charged. Shifty dodged most of the punches, but Billy got lucky and landed a solid blow to the stomach.

Shifty’s years of smoking caught up with him. He flew into a coughing fit and doubled over.

“You’re useless, Shifty. Useless! See, I got potential. I don’t need you or anyone else. I’m a made man.” Billy easily pushed over Shifty and stomped into his the ribs.

Shifty summoned the last of his strength and rolled onto his back before he started coughing again.

“Has been.” Billy kicked Shifty again for good measure. He doubled back to the revolver. He held his side as he bent over for the weapon. “See, Shifty? I got potential. I don’t need you. You’re a spent enforcer. This is for your own good. It’s better for you to die now than suffer. I’m really doing you a favor. Yeah, a favor. It’ll be the best thing to ever happen to you.”

Billy came back and stood a few feet from Shifty. “Got any last words, you has-been?”

Shifty looked up at the dark cavern roof and saw stars. He took a breath, and he felt a few of his ribs grind into each other. The taste of copper hung in his mouth. He looked over at Billy and began to laugh, in spite of the pain.

Billy furrowed his brow, and his voice cracked in anger. “Stop laughing at me! Don’t you get it? You’re about to die! There’s nothing funny about this! Stop laughing at me!”

“Jacks are wild,” whispered a smiling Shifty.

The old enforcer’s crimson smirk hit Billy right in the brain. Billy paused for second. This wasn’t how someone was supposed to die. His eyes got wide as he leveled the revolver. “Th-those are the… the dumbest last w-words I ever heard.”

A gunshot filled the air. Billy spun around. Half of his face was gone, and he collapsed into a heap of blood and confusion.

Charles’ shadow spell deactivated. He knelt down next to Shifty. “Hey, sorry it took so long. I was hoping he’d talk more before I had to shoot him. Too bad he didn’t have much to say.”

Shifty nodded. “It’s OK. I was hoping he’d talk more, too.”

Charles helped Shifty stand up. “Come on. Let’s head back to Fat Tony’s. As much as I want Red, I ain’t about to abandon you or Fat Tony.”

Shifty winced as he straightened up. “Hang on. I need a minute. The boy got my ribs. Think something’s broken. Hurts to breathe and talk.”

“This ain’t good. This ain’t good at all. What do we do now? You’re hurt, but we gotta get to Fat Tony and Rachel.”

Shifty sat back down and leaned against the brick wall. His breathes were shallow. “Fastest way is coach. Go get one. I can still shoot.”

Charles shook his head. “You’re in no condition to fight or ride. One wrong bump or turn, and then your rib will be sticking out your side. And the kick from a revolver is more than you can take now, too. I think you gotta sit this one out.”

“I ain’t done. I’m fighting. Don’t you tell me otherwise.”

“Yes you are. You are done for the day. I’ll head to the hang out. You head home for a bit. Sorry Shifty, but you gotta sit this one out.”

Charles got up and quickly hailed cab.

Shifty held his sides as he got up and hobbled out to the street. There was a comfy looking carriage hurrying to the fountain square platform. He hailed it and the cabbie nodded in acknowledgement. Shifty winced as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. His hand emerged with a wad loose tobacco and bloodstained rolling paper. Among the mess was a salvageable cigarette. He took a long drag and wondered if this would be his last one.

“To Hammerfalls Port,” called out Shifty as he struggled to get into the cab. “And make it quick.”

Chapter Fourteen – Façade Fall Down

In Hammerfalls Port, Charles raced down a narrow, brick-paved alleyway towards the hideout. The evening breeze from the harbor cooled him as he ran, and his trenchcoat billowed behind him. “You know, I miss this part,” he confessed to the wind. A smile crept onto his face. “The thrill of the chase. The promise of action. I don’t get the same rush with merchant work.”

He came to the end of the lane and stopped at a wooden timber marking the corner of the building. Across the street, the evening sunlight clung to the smallest sliver of roof top of the warehouse. He poked his head around the corner and looked at the plaster façade of the hideout before he quickly drew back. Nothing. No Echo, Press, or Ram.

Charles looked back down the alley. The carriage was long gone, and no one else was in the alley. Twilight offered almost no illumination to this forgotten part of town. Still, he strained his eyes to make sure he was alone.

He guessed Shifty was still back in Auger IX, but Charles whispered back anyway. “Sorry, Shifty. I hate going ahead of you like this, but you are in no shape to fight. Besides, Ol’ One Eye Jack needs to show everyone that he’s still got it. Now, what am I going to do about Boss Ram?”

Charles checked his gunblade before popping his head out again. Still nothing. He ran his tongue along his teeth. “I don’t think I made it here before them. But everything is too quiet. Either I’m early or I’m late.”

Bang! Bang! Bang! Gunshots from the hideout beckoned him as a honey-lipped seductress. Charles smiled as he explained to the wind. “Well, looks like I was wrong. I’m not early or late. I’m right on-time. And it looks like One Eye Jack is about to make a grand entrance.”

Charles activated his shadow spell on his belt and merged with the surrounding darkness. Dusk was a great time to use it. The tall shadows twisted everything, and the red and orange hues gave him near perfect cover. He raced across the street towards a large hole in the wall. He dove inside and took in the scene.

Four men were on the opposite side of the room. The room was empty save for a turned over crate and some dust bunnies. The broken window let in some light, but otherwise the room was dark.

Two of the men were using axes to break down the thick, wooden door to the next room. The other two turned to inspect the noise of Charles’ entrance. They tilted their heads in confusion as they saw a shadow, but no one casting the shadow.

Charles drew his gunblade and squeezed off a shot at the closest thug. Before the first thug’s corpse hit the wooden floor, a second shot rang out. His shadow spell end as the two axe men turned around. Both were dead before either of them could yell a warning. In the dim light, Charles admired his handiwork. “You know, not bad. Not bad at all. 4 for 4 so far. I’m really liking this new gunblade.”

Charles looked back down the hall and didn’t see anyone. He reloaded his gunblade before resuming his hunt. As he ran towards the start of the labyrinth of rooms, he heard the muffled sounds of gunfire reverberating through the timber and reinforced steel structure. He peeked into a room on his right. Three fresh corpses lay on the ground with poison darts sticking out of them like porcupine quills.

Boss Ram’s thugs were figuring out what rooms were booby-trapped the hard way. Charles knew the way, but there would be many fire lanes he’d have to maneuver, and his shadow spell hadn’t recharged, yet. He looked up at the ceiling. “I could use some of that Dartmoore luck, if you could spare it.”

Charles snuck down the corridor, all the while looking for more thugs. He made it to a corner and looked down the hall. The hall split; one way going to the left and one way going straight. Straight ahead the hallway ended at an open archway and emptied into was another room. Through the empty room was another corridor filled with a bunch of Boss Ram’s thugs.

Charles squeezed off a few rounds at the thugs before he hid around the corner again. The thugs raced through the vacant room towards Charles. They broke a trip wire in the room, and poison darts buzzed and swarmed the occupants. Screams filled the air, and then all was silent. Charles waited a few seconds before poking his head around the corner. He counted five motionless bodies in the room. He reloaded his gunblade and took the left corridor to the main entrance.

An archway marked the end of the hallway. There were dozens of doors and hallways branching off of the main entrance. Fat Tony always kept four armed guards posted here, but they were nowhere to be found. Tables and desks were bolted to the ground and they were makeshift bunkers in case the main entrance was ever attacked.

Boss Ram setup a temporary command center here. The black man wore an expensive black suit and had a gunblade holstered to his leg. His jet black, braided hair swayed back and forth as he paced around. He pulled a cigarette case out of his breast pocket and selected a stick. He took a few short puffs and exhaled. “Curse this place and all who inhabit it! This phantasm of horrors goes on infinitely. Where is Billy? His tardiness is exacerbating the problem. Perhaps postponement was the correct course of action!”

A door on the far side of the foyer opened up. The thugs in the room leveled their shotguns at the noise.

“Don’t shoot, you morons! It’s me, Press!”

A middle-aged white guy wearing a trenchcoat entered the room. He had a gunblade in his hand and a sneer on his face. ““I found the way through. Give me some more men.”

Boss Ram threw his cigarette on the floor. He shook his head and stuck out his jaw. “Thrice you have returned, and thrice with nihility. My patience is spent. A dissertation is in order for me to relinquish additional men.”

Press reloaded his gunblade as he yelled. “Hey! I ran into Rachel and her squad. I don’t care if it’s a bunch of dames. They know how to pull a trigger just as good as man. I was lucky to get out alive. But now I know how to get to the lower level. I even found the stairs. But that’s when I got jumped. So layoff. Do you want this job done or what?”

“Acknowledged. Though I am not pleased by the news.” Boss Ram turned and looked around him. “You, you, and you; accompany Press.”

He turned back to Press. “Billy is the epitome of tardiness, and I have no illumination for why. Such actions are inexcusable. I am trying to avoid poor allocution. However, I am unable to divine or contemplate why a runner would intentionally furlough without a Boss’s approval. This is ridiculous and preposterous.”

Press nodded as he led his men back through the door. “It ain’t like the old times, Boss. Runners are getting too big. They need to be thankful we use them at all now.”

With Press gone, Boss Ram was left with a group of eight thugs.

Charles knew he had to neutralize the thugs before he could even think about taking on Ram. One-on-one, Ram would be a handful. Throw in some thugs, and the task became near impossible. Surprise would be his only advantage. He activated his shadow spell and crept into the foyer.

One of the thugs said, “Boss, you ever get the feeling that you was being watched?”

Ram lit another cigarette. “First off, it’s ‘were’, not ‘was’. Grammar is important. Strive for proper execution. Secondly, yes, but not now. Now, be silent and keep an eye out for anything.”

Charles primed the hammer on his gunblade.

“Boss, I swear I just heard someone pulling a hammer.”

Charles shot the nearest thug, point-blank range. He squeezed off five more rounds in quick succession. The handle grip responded beautifully, just like it was designed, as the gunblade transitioned from gun to blade. He cut down the two remaining thugs right as his shadow spell ended.

Boss Ram drew his gunblade and shot wildly.

Charles dove behind one of the reinforced desks and quickly reloaded. “You gotta do better than that if you’re gonna catch a Jack!”

Ram took cover and fired at the desk. “So the prodigal son of Fat Tony has returned.”

Charles popped out and sent lead streaking towards Ram. When he ran out of shots, he dove behind a new desk. “I dunno about prodigal, but I am back for a go. I kinda miss this fun. Sometimes it’s just more natural to shot instead of talk.”

From behind his bunker, Ram put his palm to his forehead. “Dammit, Jack! That’s what prodigal means in this context.”

Charles moved to another desk and reloaded again. “Well, Baa-Ram-You to you, too.”

Ram shot wildly down range without sticking his head above the desk. “Cease and desist such mockery! Stop, I say!”

Charles popped up and shot some more. He ducked again and reloaded. “But it’s so much fun to say. Come on, join me. Baa-Ram-You! Baa-Ram-You!”

Ram yelled and emptied his gunblade.

Charles popped up from behind another desk. “Come on, Ram. Don’t be sheep-ish”

“Really, Jack? Your puns are abysmal. Perhaps contemplate, ‘I’m bleating the competition,’ or ‘Gee, thanks for mutton.’ At least attempt to try to be original.”

Charles hid behind another desk. He reloaded but didn’t shoot. “Since we’re talking again, why does the old lady have it in for Fat Tony? I thought that was all square.”

Ram held his fire as he called out. “I concur, and the offer perplexed me as well. Lady McLeaga contracted me 150 gold to address Fat Tony. That proved to be an insurmountable cache of coins for me to deny. I harbor no ill-will towards Fat Tony. This is merely some of the hazards of the occupation both of us choose. It’s just business.”

“Business? Business! Ram, you’ve fallen a long way from your Boss days if you think bedding a sober dwarf is business.”

“Hey! Such accusations will not stand before me. Meritless and rubbish, they are. Lies, I say.”

“Oh don’t give me that. Stop playing stupid. Billy’s a sober dwarf. Well, he was a sober dwarf. Now he’s a dead man.”

“What? Wait a minute. That is incorrect. Billy isn’t a sober dwarf. His occupation is ‘runner’.”

“He was a sober dwarf, and he knew it.”

“Jack, you’re meandering ramblings have careened astray even more so than anticipated. Billy isn’t a sober dwarf. Even he’s not that mentally deficient.”

“…”

“By the way, ‘mentally deficient’ roughly translates into ‘stupid’ in this context.”

“Thanks, but I’m telling you, he was a sober dwarf, and he knew it. He actually liked the idea. Can you believe it? So me and Shifty up and offed him right before I came here.”

“… Jack, your adamant accusation has given me pause. … Do you remain steadfast in your pontification that Billy was a sober dwarf?”

“Listen, I don’t know nothing about any bonnets in cases, but Billy was a sober dwarf. That’s how you got the information for this hit.”

“… Well that’s a tup in a cup. Lady McLeaga assured me Billy was merely a runner, with aspirations to become a thug. She failed to provide any inkling that he was a sober dwarf. I retired from this business not too long ago. I sold out, as you put it. I have a reputation to maintain. Jack, do you remain steadfast in your allegation that Billy was a sober dwarf?”

“Hey now, I’m not standing on any fast alligators, but Billy was a sober dwarf. How many times do I gotta say it? That’s why me and Shifty offed him.”

Ram threw his gunblade to the ground and rubbed his stubble with his hand. “Jack, I promise, if you’re bluffing, then I will place a bounty on your head. However, I know Shifty’s word is true, and I am anticipating you wouldn’t use Shifty’s name to deceive me. I’ll honor my word to the singer.”

The Boss sat down on an overturned crate and lit a cigarette. “You know, something was… peculiar, weird even, with Lady McLeaga. Her behavior was most erratic and unconventional. Ever since she summoned me to The Barnstormer, I swear there’s an unnatural atmosphere in her abode. It’s like that place is tormented by an evil specter or something that is beyond this world. I felt as if every move was observed by some cloaked figured. Echo and Press concurred. I will inform Lady McLeaga to take a hike. I refuse to return to her domicile. She can pound sand for all I care. I sold out. 150 gold isn’t worth shattering my vow to the singer. Please seek Echo and Press and request for their presence. The password is national.”

A few minutes later, Echo, Press, and their thugs came back with Jack and Rachel. Press had his arm in a sling. “Goddam, Rachel, next time I’m going to get you, and I’m not going easy on you just because you’re a dame.”

“Oh shove it, ya big buffoon! Just be happy Jack was there to stop me from shooting you.”

Ram held up his hand and silenced Press. “Echo, Press, we have encountered a most unanticipated piece of news. Jack claims Billy was a sober dwarf.”

At that information Echo looked hard at Jack. “Are you sure? That’s a mighty big claim.”

“Yeah I’m sure, and that’s why he’s dead.”

Echo said, “Well, you better be right. I lost a lot of men today, and now for nothing. If this turns out to be one of your cons, then I’ll hunt you down for my own accord.”

“Yeah, I heard it, too,” said Shifty. He held his side and staggered into the doorway.

“Shifty!” Charles ran over to the hurt man. “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be here.”

“Look, Jack, I knew you needed back up, but I didn’t know you needed this much back up.”

“Ha-ha! Well, it looks like I do.”

Shifty and Charles told their alleyway encounter to everyone. At the end of it Ram said, “The matter is settled. Now I know Jack is telling the truth. If Shifty claims it’s true, then it’s true.”

Echo, Press, and Rachel nodded.

An indignant Charles said, “Hey, are you saying my word ain’t good enough? Sheesh, what’s a guy gotta do to earn some respect around here?”

“You could stick to bounties,” chimed in Press.

Charles lit a cigarette and offered one to Shifty. “Anyway, speaking of bounties, I need to get going. Shifty, Rachel, give my best to Fat Tony. I gotta go.”

“Hey!” cried out Rachel, “with Shifty hurt, who’s gonna help me clean up this mess?”

Ram, Echo, and Press beat a hasty retreat out of the warehouse, leaving an angry Rachel behind.

Chapter Fifteen– A Peace of Red

Tommy entered a little restaurant and bar on Thunder Row. The shop that sold the specific razor from the alleyway was closed. He got a tip from an urchin that the owner liked to go here in the evening. He glanced up at the ringing bells above the door before turning his attention to the interior. His eyes got wide as he saw Red sitting at the bar waiting patiently. He cried out in a mix of surprise and jubilation. “Red! There you are!”

Red jerked his head from admiring the cask of brandy to the dreadfully familiar voice of Tommy. A malicious smile grew on his face as he drew two gunblades and leveled them at his friend. “Come in. It’s time for a drink.”

Tommy had turned his back to Red, and he was unaware of the danger. He quickly closed the door and made a small barricade with one of the nearby chairs. He spoke as he worked. “Red, we don’t have much time. We need to get you out of here. It was sheer luck I found you.”

When he turned around, Tommy froze in his tracks. “Red, lower those things. There is a group of inspectors coming down the street. They’ll be passing by any moment. We have to be quiet, and they’ll probably move on. I don’t think they saw me come in here.”

Red scrunched his face up and shook his head over and over as he spoke. “No, Tommy. No more. It ends here. Let’s speed up the process.”

Tommy winced as Red primed the hammers. His eyes darted around the room, and his mouth hung slightly agape. His soul cried out, but no words formed on his tongue.

Red motioned with one of the barrels for Tommy to step out of the way.

Tommy shook his head. Words had failed him, but at least his neck muscles still complied.

Red pursed his lips together and opened fire.

Tommy stood firm as he felt the air recoil around him. A torrent of explosive lead tore past him and mauled the door. Wood splinters fell like blossoms in a wind storm. The sound of creaking and groaning wood filled the bar. He heard shouting and inspectors’ whistles from the street behind him. A knot grew in his stomach.

Red yelled over his shoulder, “Barkeep! Stay put back there! Things are going to get a little dicey!”

Tommy took a tense step towards Red. “What are you doing? Now they’ll coming running for sure. You need to run, not shoot. I’ve got a ship waiting for you in Hammerfalls Port. You can head to House Besca and hole up there.”

Red dropped the gunbaldes and drew two more from his bag. “No, Tommy. No. I’m not going to be worth much more. Now’s the time to end this. I’ve peaked. How much is my bounty worth now?”

Tommy held out his open hands. “That doesn’t matter. I promised I would help you. I promised I would help your wife and daughter. I’m going to make good on that promise.”

Red primed the hammers of his gunbaldes. The clicks tightened the knot in Tommy’s stomach. The defiant convict raged, “HOW MUCH AM I WORTH?!”

Tommy tried to diffuse the situation by using a calm voice. “100 gold, but you’re worth more to them than that.”

Red lowered his voice a little. “Is the 100 gold for me dead or alive?”

Tommy resumed his slow advance. “Yes.”

Both men heard shouting and more whistle blowing in the street. A voice came from behind the riddled door. “This is Inspector Goldrock. In the name of King Silverbeard, let me in.”

Red’s evil smile grew larger. “Let him in, huh?”

Tommy instantly recognized Red’s malicious intent. His eyes got big and he shook his head. “Don’t do it. Don’t you dare do it, Red.”

Red ignored his friend as he used the tip of a gunblade to scratch his head. “Hmmm… Let’s see… I’m way over here… But the door, the door is way over there. So, how do I let him in…? Hmmm…?”

Tommy inched closer. “There’s still time to run. I can talk my way out of this and stall for time.”

Red continued his musings, and a cold smile grew on his face. “Ah… I know how to solve this. If the rest of the door is gone, then he can just walk in.”

Tommy took another cautious half-step towards Red. “Listen to me. There are always ways out. Don’t go shooting anymore.”

Red looked Tommy dead in the eye. “The inspector wants in, and by order of the king. Let’s remove all obstacles for him.”

Red quickly rose and side-stepped for a clear shot at the door. Before the discarded barstool could finish falling, Red unloaded four rounds into the door. The barstool rolled away from the maniacally laughing man. He continued to laugh as he emptied his gunblades. The remaining half of the door fell with a clatter.

Red stood there and admired his work for a second. “Well, that’s half of the problem gone. I guess the inspector didn’t want to come in after all. Oh well, his loss.”

He dropped the gunblades and turned towards his bag.

Tommy saw his opportunity and took a few more cautious steps towards Red. The convict heard the footsteps and quickly turned around. He grabbed two more gunblades and quickly shot a bullet into the floor in front of Tommy. Surprised, Tommy froze in his steps.

Red sneered, “If you would’ve ran and dove at me, I wouldn’t have had enough time to turn around. But I knew you wouldn’t tackle me. You had an opportunity to tackle me and hold me in custody until the authorities came in, and you choose to negotiate instead.”

Red primed the hammer on the gunblades as he laughed.

Tommy was starting to panic. “Why are you doing this? Why did you have to kill so many? And for what? Just to increase your bounty?”

Red haphazardly shot at the door. “Yes, if you must know. Everything was a lie. Well, most of it anyway. I know the inspectors won’t believe me, but you will. I haven’t murdered anyone. No dwarf, human, dundelith, elf, nothing. My hands are clean. Even now, I’m sure the inspector out there got out of the way before I started shooting. See? So no one is dead.”

The proclamation startled Tommy, “What about all of the bodies? How do you explain that?”

Red smiled, “You’re the thinker, Tommy. Think. Just for a moment, assume that all of the unsolved crimes in the Artisans’ District were mine. Every petty theft, every break in, every missing item, all linked to me. Then assume that I’m right, and that I’ve never killed anyone in cold blood. Put that together. Or have I outmaneuvered the great Tommy Dartmoore?”

The air was filled with inspectors’ whistles and hard-soled boots running on brick. A few shots came flying into the bar, but none of them were even close to hitting Tommy or Red.

Tommy glanced over his shoulder. “The inspectors are here. You have to leave. Hurry out the back.”

Red laughed. “No. I keep telling you. I’m done. These inspectors will be the first blood on my hands. But it will be worth it. Every inspector will increase my bounty by 1 gold, and you know it. I’m at 100 now. Let’s see if I can get higher.”

Tommy quickly interjected, “No. Red, these dwarves have families, just like we do. Think about them for a moment. Do you really want to break apart a family? I said I would help, and I will make good on it. There are at least a dozen inspectors out there now. I’ll throw in 10 gold if you don’t do what you’re talking about doing.”

Red glared at Tommy. “10 gold for 12 inspector’s lives? You think that highly of them?”

Tommy lowered his voice. “I’m trying to save you. The 10 gold is nothing compared to saving you. I said I would pay it, and I will pay it.”

Red shook his head. “Tommy, I can’t accept that. That’s money coming from your family. That’s money coming from all of the things you do. No, society failed me, and now society will pay up.”

Inspectors’ whistles filled the air along with gun shots. Bottles on the wall exploded like fireworks. Holes on the bar appeared as if from miniature invisible gophers. Yet, all through it, Red stood there like a fortress in a storm.

Red emptied another gunbalde and drew another one from his bag. .

Tommy looked Red in the eyes. “Red, are you really that far gone? Have you forgotten about your family?”

Red laughed. “No, I’ve done all this for them. I’m worth 100 gold now. That’s more than I’ll ever hope to make working. There just isn’t a good paying job for the wrongly accused.”

Tommy pleaded, “Red, I said I would pay you like everyone else. No one else needs to know.”

Red roared, “DAMMIT! You aren’t listening to me. I’m not taking from you. You were the only one who’s ever believed in me. No! Everyone else is to blame, but not you.”

Tommy lowered his voice in a desperate bid to calm Red. “And what about your daughter? How am I going to tell her about this?”

Red shot at the inspectors and drew another gunblade from his bag. “Damn, they move fast for stout dwarves.”

Tommy took a bold step forwards while Red’s head was down.

Red quickly looked up and leveled the gunblades at Tommy. His eyes were wide, and his hand shook ever so slightly. “Tommy, don’t do it. Don’t make me shoot you. Just stay right there.”

Tommy took another step.

Red pursed his lips and looked around the empty restaurant. “Don’t take another step. I don’t want to shoot you. I haven’t killed anyone, and I don’t want you to be the first.”

Tommy took another step. He was so close. One more step, and then he could reach out and grab Red.

A fresh round of inspectors’ whistles filled the air and Red eyed the door.

The click of Red’s gunblades signaled Tommy his best chance. Tommy swallowed hard and took the last step. His hand touched Red’s wrists. They were cold and sweaty.

Tommy looked up at Red. The big mans’ eyes were crying. He dropped the gunblades. The clatter of the metal on wood was just what Tommy wanted to hear.

Red wept, “Tommy, let go of my wrists. I won’t get any more gunblades. You got me.”

Tommy exhaled and let go of Red’s wrists. He took a choppy breath and realized he had been holding his breath. He relaxed and risked a glance back at the door.

Right as Tommy turned his attention away, Red reached out and drew Tommy’s dagger. He turned the dagger on himself and plunged the blade into his side and left it there.

The attack happened so fast, Tommy didn’t get a chance to react. He reached out and caught the dying man. He staggered under the tremendous weight of Red. He did his best to lower him onto the floor gently.

Red lay on the floor staring at the ceiling. He groped until he found Tommy’s hand and held it. The taste of copper coated Red’s tongue, and his teeth matched his namesake. “I… I’m sorry…. I did this, all of this… for them… both of them.”

He rolled his head to the side. His eyes struggled to focus on Tommy. “I’m glad it was you… Thanks, Tommy, for always being there… Now be there for them. I know you will…”

Red’s body went tense and he shook for a moment. Then his iron grip went slack.

The remnants of the bar door burst open. Inspector Goldrock led the charge as several inspectors rushed into the bar with weapons drawn. They saw Tommy slouched over Red, and they lowered their weapons.

Inspector Goldrock surveyed the scene. “Mr. Dartmoore, are you hurt?”

Tommy closed Red’s eyes and then slowly rose. “I’m fine, Inspector Goldrock. Red is dead by my dagger.”

The dwarves crowded around him and inspected the body. Several of them claimed to have shot the convict, but seeing no bullet wounds on Red, they all turned away dejected.

Inspector Goldrock nodded as he ushered the rest of the inspectors out of the bar. “Good work, Mr. Dartmoore. The city is in your debt. I’ll summon a cart, and you can come by the station for your reward.”

Tommy nodded and waited until the dwarves left. He called out. “Barkeep, you can come out now. I’m not here for you.”

The barkeep came out from the back room and nervously looked around and surveyed the damage.

Tommy broke the silence. “Evening, Barkeep.”

The barkeep inched up alongside of the bar. “Good evening. Umm… What is going on?”

Tommy replied, “I am Tommy Dartmoore, bounty hunter.”

The barkeep swallowed hard again. “Are you here for Pat? Where is he?”

Tommy said, “He’s right here on the floor. He’s gone to be with his maker. Tell me, what did he tell you?”

The barkeep peered over the edge of the bar and gazed upon the lifeless body of Red. “Not much. He said he was a business man, and he was supposed to be buying a bunch of expensive gunblades, but they were junk. He bought this cask of Copper Flowers, and had a double-double before you arrived.”

Tommy noticed the cask and said, “Copper Flowers, huh? That’s his favorite drink. He knew it well. He lived with the Dundeliths for a few years before he convinced them to start selling it to outsiders. I’m glad to hear it was it last drink.”

The barkeep’s face was awash with confusion. “But, Mr. Dartmoore, Pat said he only knew Dundeliths professionally. Perhaps this is a different Pat?”

Tommy shook his head. “No, he said a lot, I’m sure. That was his nature. I know this is the right guy. I’m sorry about the mess. Here you go.”

Tommy placed a gold coin on the bar. He deftly withdrew his dagger from Red and placed it in its sheath. Then he slung the big man over his shoulder. Tommy paused again when he heard the sound of the bells above the remains of the door.

Outside, Tommy saw a cart being led by a group of inspectors. Even out in the street, Tommy could hear the barkeep exhale. Tommy mused out loud, “I hope that barkeep has a double for Red. He would’ve wanted that.”

Epilogue

The evening bells reverberated through a small alleyway between the Artisans’ District and the Minor Dwarven Clan District. A long shadow of a horse-drawn coach sauntered against the flaky paint of the apartment buildings. The driver clicked his tongue, and the horse considered stopping before doing so.

Out of the coach scampered Charles. He tugged at the edges of his suit as Tommy paid the driver.

“Really, Tommy, I don’t know why we have to wear these things. It’s just Elizabeth and little Faith. They wouldn’t have paid no mind if I would’ve been dressed in my usual. And how you convinced me to get up in this get up is beyond me. This thing grabs me in all the wrong places.”

Tommy silently closed his silver pocket watch as he stood before the apartment. “You enjoy complaining, so I wanted to divert your attention to something predictable for a moment. Though, thanks for coming. You didn’t have to come, you know.”

“Of course I had to come,” smiled Charles. “You’ve always been there for me, and I’ll always be there for you. Besides, without me, who knows what you’d think of? I’m the thinker now, remember?”

The two stared at the apartment building. The only sound was the fading clop-clop of horses’ hooves. Charles cleared his throat and scared the silence away. “You ready?”

Tommy nodded, and they entered the building. The landlady showed them to a small corner flat in the basement. She took her leave as Charles knocked on the door.

A little girl dressed in well-worn clothes answered. The faint light was no disguise for the two, and her eyes lit up. “Uncle Tommy!”

Tommy had to take a step backwards to catch himself as Faith sprung into his arms. “Faith! How are you?”

But the little girl wasn’t paying attention. She wriggled out and jumped into Charles outstretched arms. “Uncle Charles!”

“Oh-ho! Young Lady Cooper! It’s good to see you.” The three of them entered the foyer and Tommy closed the door.

Faith plucked the top hat off of Charles and stuck it on her head. “See, now I’m a big girl.”

“Oh-ho! One day you’ll be fair and lovely, and every single man in the northern lands will trip over themselves to see you. But that’s for later. Let us grown-ups do our grown up things. You’ll be here before you know it.”

Charles was unburdened from the extra weight, and the two entered a small parlor.

Tommy stayed behind. His eyes caught a shadow to his right, and he turned to face Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, we are sorry for disturbing you two so late, but we have news.”

The faint smile on her face vanished and Elizabeth straightened up. “This is about Pat, isn’t it? What has he done this time? I’m not taking his stolen money. We are poor, but we still have our dignity. Little Faith and I will continue to make it on our own.”

He crossed the foyer and took Elizabeth by the hand. Tommy grimaced as he shook his head. “It isn’t like that. It’s far from it actually. I don’t know how to say this, but Pat ‘Red’ Cooper is dead. He died earlier today.”

Elizabeth stumbled into the nearest chair. She gasped for breath and nearly sprained her wrist as she fanned her face. Tommy offered her a red handkerchief. She held it up to her face, “He died? No. It can’t be. He has to be alive. He said he was coming back. Are you sure it was him?”

“I’m sorry. Truly I am. I identified the body before I came here.”

Elizabeth stifled her cries and composed herself. “Please tell me it was you that did him in. I know you would be gentle with him.”

“No, it wasn’t me, but I was given credit for it. I was there when he died. His last words were that he did everything for you and Faith, and that he was sorry.”

Elizabeth wiped her face with her handkerchief. “I knew he was a good man. A bit energetic, but still a good man. I guess we won’t have to worry about him showing up with fake money anymore.”

Tommy nodded slightly. “No, no you won’t. And you won’t have to worry about money in general.”

Elizabeth looked up from her handkerchief. “Tommy, Red made me promise not to take your hand outs. He made me promise. And I’ve always kept my promises, no matter how hard they are to keep.”

“I don’t have a handout. I’m here to make good on the contract signed by Red. As you know, Red was a bounty hunter in the Goldspinners, and our contract clearly states that if a bounty is to be paid out, but the bounty hunter is dead, then it goes to his family.”

“Well, Red took his own life. In the process, he lawfully earned the bounty on his head. By contract, this is his money, and it is money he earned through action, not thievery. I threw my share in there and so did Charles. Before you tell me no, Red actually asked for me to do this. He knew what he was doing. And Charles threw his share in because, well, as crazy as he is, he does have a soft spot for Faith. I know this won’t make up for the loss of Red, but at least you can live a little easier.”

Tommy placed a stack of bank notes from the first bank of Auger IX into Elizabeth’s hands.

Her jaw went slack, and Elizabeth could only stare at Tommy. “Are you serious? This is real and not fake? I… I don’t think I can take this. This isn’t want I wanted. I want Red, not his money.”

Tommy nodded. “I want Red back, too. I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen to me.”

Elizabeth sighed and blew her nose. “I know you did your best. Even I couldn’t get through to him when he got into one of his moods.”

Tommy weakly smiled. “He was a crazy man, but he always tried to do what was right for you two. I am sorry for your loss. I speak for Charles and me when I say we will always be here for you.”

“Ta-da,” exclaimed Faith. Her infectious laughter filled the air. “Isn’t he pretty, Mommy?”

In the archway of the parlor stood Charles and Faith. Streams of yellow ribbons cascaded through Charles’ obsidian hair. His suit coat was draped around his shoulders like a shawl. His necktie was wadded up in his hand. “It’s my bouquet,” smiled Charles.

Elizabeth quickly rose. “Faith! What have you done to Mr. Alexander?”

“Oh-ho! She didn’t do anything wrong,” laughed Charles. “She has her uncle’s silver tongue. What’s worse is that she’s a lot more charming than that there one.” He motioned with his free hand towards Tommy.

Tommy could only shake his head. “Impeccable timing, Jack, as always. Come, let’s adjourn.”

Charles began to adjust his attire. “I don’t know about all that, but I do know how to arrive right on time. And now it’s time to go. Now Faith, I need to trade hats with you. You don’t need to wear these ribbons, but I do need my top hat back. Your Uncle Tommy wouldn’t like it if I came back without my hat. And I wouldn’t want to do anything to upset him. He’s a bounty hunter, you know. He might come and get me.” Charles laughed.

Faith stood before Tommy and put her arms behind her back. She stared at her feet as she quietly asked, “Uncle Tommy, you wouldn’t hurt Uncle Charles, would you?”

Tommy flopped his arms to his sides. “Charles! Now’s not the time for this.”

In a flash, Charles swooped in and scooped up Faith in his arms. “Oh-ho! Uncle Charles was just teasing. And it was a bad timed joke, too. Your Uncle Tommy is the best; the best uncle, and the best bounty hunter, and the best friend to Uncle Charles. So don’t you worry about that.”

“I’m just a lucky merchant, that’s all,” explained Tommy, but Charles and Faith weren’t paying attention to him.

A few minutes and a few goodbyes later, Tommy and Charles stood outside as a cab approached. Charles looked around. “Hey, Tommy, you ever get the feeling like you were being watched? Something just doesn’t feel… right.”

Tommy looked around. “Yeah, now that you mention it. Something does seem… off. Maybe it’s just the hour of night. It’s been a really long day.”

Charles instinctively placed his hand on his gunblade. “Yeah… maybe.”

The two got into a coach and headed back to the office. The coach turned a corner, and Charles leaned forward. “Tommy, I heard what you said to Elizabeth. Why didn’t you tell her about how Red never killed anyone? That it was all a façade? Red was no worse than a grave robber and petty thief of cow’s blood from the butchers. We looked at the records, and it’s definitely plausible about all of those unsolved crimes being done by him.”

Tommy pulled out his silver watch from his pocket and adjusted the minute hand to match the bottom of the hour. “I know Elizabeth, and if she found out that all of Red’s so called ‘crimes’ were nothing more than lies to get his bounty to be higher, then she would refuse the money. No, let her believe that Red’s last action was a last ditch effort at redemption. She’ll understand that more than another one of his crazy deceptions.”

Charles raised an eyebrow. “I’m not normally the moral compass, but that don’t sit right with me. Shouldn’t we tell her the truth? You know, honesty is the best policy? Any of that ringin’ a bell?”

Tommy leaned back in his seat and swayed back and forth with the jostling of the coach. “In her heart of hearts, she knows he was innocent. But she can’t accept that. Not yet, anyway.”

The coach passed a fountain, and Charles laughed. “You Dartmoores are nuts, you know that right? Me? I’m the only sane one around here. And when the do-er says he’s the only sane one, then you know everyone else is nuts. N-U-T-S. Nuts.”

Tommy raised an accusatory eyebrow. “Then why don’t you leave the looney bin?”

“Nah… That would ruin my staycation.”

Though he tried, Tommy couldn’t help but laugh along with Charles.

###

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, will you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer?

Also, go check out my website for behind the scenes information, such as “Easter Eggs” and author’s commentary.

Thanks again,

M. G. McCracken

About The Author:

Me?  You want to learn about me?  Hmm… well, I suppose it all started when my mom and dad got together and said, “Hey, let’s have a kid.”  So then I appeared.  Or at least, that’s how I remember it.

I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY.  Good times.  I ate a lot of Chinese buffet, beef on weck, and pizza and wings.  Two things to note: Yes, beef on weck is a real thing.  Google it if you want to get hungry.  Also, no one in, or from, Buffalo calls them “Buffalo Wings”.  They’re just wings; Get it right.

Now I live in South Jersey with my wife, two kids, and two dogs.  I have yet to find good wings in South Jersey, but there is half-way descent pizza.  I have found a Chinese buffet I like, but it’s a little far from home.  When I’m not working or writing, I spend my time wondering why there is such animosity over the supposed existence of Central Jersey.

Connect with Me:

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The Goldspinners: A Big Red Problem

You never know who will be your next mark. The Goldspinners are given one day’s head start to find one of their own before the other bounty hunters are set loose. Tommy Dartmoore is a well-connected business man and master fencer. He’s also incredibly lucky, and he knows it. Charles Alexander is a fast talking, ex-mafia hit man, who recently became a legit bounty hunter. Together, they are The Goldspinners: Bounty Hunters for hire.

  • ISBN: 9781310051319
  • Author: M. G. McCracken
  • Published: 2015-10-02 19:50:11
  • Words: 32816
The Goldspinners: A Big Red Problem The Goldspinners: A Big Red Problem