Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

The Infiltrators

p={color:#000;}.

This book is a work of fiction. All names and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Lawlis

 

All rights reserved.

 

The Infiltrators (volume six of the series The Republic of Selegania).

 

Stock photo © sidneybernstein

(Adjustments to photo made by Daniel Lawlis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Infiltrators

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Eat your food while it’s hot!

 

It had been a long time since Righty heard those sagacious words issuing from his mother with all the love and affection of a drill instructor. Once, a scrawny, awkward kid needed to hear them in order to overcome his lack of enthusiasm at emptying his plate.

 

But just as the child had grown to be a ravenous hulk of a man who could clean several plates with the alacrity of a tornado, so too had the application of his mother’s wisdom evolved far beyond its sweet simplicity.

 

He had murdered the chief of police, killed two federal agents, dispatched several politicians, and blown the city’s police station into about five million splinters. He could almost see the storm soon to emanate from the nation’s capital, moving towards the city of Sivingdel like a swarm of locusts thick enough to blot out the sun and ready to devour any and all responsible for the recent outrages.

 

Whether he would survive that storm was not a prospect he himself would have cared to place a bet on, which meant the next several days might be the last he would ever get to spend in peace with his family.

 

Thus, while every instinct urged him towards commencing the meticulous steps necessary to weather the merciless tempest headed his way, those ancient words from his childhood reverberated in his ears, assuring him that he would forever regret not taking this opportunity to spend a few days of bliss with his wife and daughter, during which he would store a treasure trove of happy memories to sustain him during the black days ahead.

 

Chapter 2

 

Many a man has remarked with sullen perspicacity that few moments live up to the grand expectations preceding them. An adherent to this philosophy would have sourly witnessed the replete happiness of Mrs. Simmers, who proudly defied this unwritten law of human nature.

 

Absent were the quizzical stares Righty had uneasily expected from his wife regarding the grandeur of her and their daughter’s new home. Perhaps his belief in the justness of this moment’s happiness gave his words an irrefutable conviction when he explained that the new store in Sivingdel was succeeding so wildly as to make possible the purchase of this remote estate without so much as a penny of debt.

 

A house roughly two hundred times the size of their measly shack at the edge of Ringsetter greeted them with open arms, assuring Janie she had not ruined her life by following her heart into marriage with a savage boxer. The immaculately kept garden, the gently blue sky, and the proudly tall pine trees added to the chorus singing to her that she had finally reaped the rewards of placing her life’s bet on Righty Rick.

 

Yet while Janie reflected on the many signs surrounding her as proofs of the correctness of her life’s course, Righty appreciated far different aspects of the ranch. It was no hop, skip, and a jump from here to the nearest town. And he had previously found time to make clear in no uncertain terms to the several servants Righty had permitted to stay at the ranch that not one newspaper was to arrive without his express permission.

 

Righty had whisked Janie and baby Heather away from Ringsetter the same morning the first news of the unfortunate events in Sivingdel began to reach local ears, so no troubling questions were to spoil these three days of bliss.

 

Righty spent many a moment bouncing Heather up and down on his knee and listening to her giggles as gratefully as if they were medicine in acoustic form, traveling down the corridors of his ears into his soul to remove the blackness of deeds recently committed.

 

As he looked into her innocent blue eyes, he promised her silently that he would one day fix this situation. He would get out of his current trade. He would cut all ties with crime. He would be a legitimate businessman.

 

But he also asked her to understand that Daddy had made a bit of a mess and even daddies have to clean up their messes.

 

Life as a legitimate businessman will only be possible after far more blood is spilled.

 

But he was beginning to formulate a plan—a plan that would ensure far less blood would be spilled than what he was thinking just days before. It was in scattered pieces, but a rough outline was beginning to form.

 

He almost jumped as he felt his wife’s fingernails suddenly stroke the back of his neck. He was initially relieved he had not done so, as this may have caused her to ask what had him so apprehensive. Then, he felt alarmed at his failure to detect her approach.

 

You’ll have plenty of time for jumping at every shadow soon enough, friend, a rather unpleasant voice told him.

 

“I love seeing you happy with her,” Janie said softly. She looked deep into his eyes. Those were the looks that had been leading to a lot of amorous exercise the past couple days, so much in fact he justly forgave his temporary relinquishment of sword practice.

 

At this pace, Heather will soon have company, he told himself, as he continued to look into Janie’s eyes.

 

The thought left him confused more than anything else. Heather brought him so much joy, but he feared he would one day cause Heather twice that amount of pain. Could he rationalize bringing another creature into his world?

 

“What’s on your mind, babe? Something’s got you worried,” Janie said, her blue eyes searching his dark ones tenaciously.

 

He paused, searching for a story.

 

“Is it because this can’t last forever?”

 

He couldn’t help looking up at her a bit abruptly, wondering what was the basis for her uncannily accurate guess.

 

He held her eyes, preferring to wait for her to elaborate, rather than betray his own sentiments while attempting to extract more details from her.

 

“It’s not meant to, honey,” she said, grasping his hand warmly. “That’s what makes this paradise.”

 

Her eyes seemed to say much more than that, reinforcing the display of her firm understanding that Righty had meant for this to be a special time that they would never forget, and he almost sensed in her eyes that she knew there were things he wasn’t telling her but that she would gladly ignore them, provided he could make her feel the way she felt right now.

 

He slid towards her, feeling as if he were gliding across the stone bench in front of the sparkling lake before them like some kind of mythical creature. He kissed her passionately, and it seemed as though she knew tonight would mark the end of their three days in paradise.

 

Chapter 3

 

Harold’s tight-lipped demeanor would have worried any other passenger perched atop this formidable, yet beautiful, creature cutting through the early morning sky headed for Sivingdel. A different passenger may have interpreted the silence as the icy preface to a cruel death to be bestowed upon the hapless victim, unless he had the guts to jump and travel several thousand feet to the ground below.

 

But Righty was no ordinary passenger, and to him, under these circumstances, silence was a good thing. Harold was quick to warn of danger, and thus his refusal to discuss the current circumstances in Sivingdel meant, at a minimum, things weren’t half as bad as what Righty had been bracing himself for.

 

Harold set him down in the forest of the city’s small park and then flew off without a word.

 

Righty was beginning to feel Harold was overdoing it with the mystery, but he quickly changed his mind as he found nothing he had expected to encounter. Absent were the checkpoints every stone’s throw. Absent were the scowling policemen with suspicious eyes patting down everyone in sight and asking them their business for daring to move about in a war zone. Absent were the even more formidable faces of federal agents dashing to and fro atop large horses with an arrogant smirk on their faces and swords dangling brazenly from their hips, just waiting for the first excuse to lop someone’s head off in furtherance of peace.

 

Instead what he saw was what he had seen during every other visit to his beloved city. Men walking about quickly with business on their faces. Women scanning the meats and fruits they were buying with the severity of a detective at a crime scene. Children running about. And an occasional bum begging for change.

 

Righty handed a hundred-falon bill to first one he saw, thinking it only proper to reward the surreal scene with a surreal tip to a man whose immediately bulging eyes served the purpose of informing Righty there had been no dramatic inflation during his short vacation.

 

With a singular purpose, Righty walked at a pace that blurred the line with jogging until he reached the first newspaper stand. He paid for copy of The Sivingdel Times and marched to the nearest bench, sat down, and began devouring.

 

A RETURN TO NORMALCY

 

Though a few misanthropic naysayers suggest Governor Sehensberg should have continued the state of martial law a bit longer in order to ensure the evildoers be completely annihilated, the hardworking men of this city have spoken with their feet and rejected such ludicrous suggestions of ongoing danger by returning to their businesses and getting this city back up and running.

 

The absolute lack of any violence since the bold mass execution of our city’s foulest criminals several days ago leaves none but the most inveterate pessimists thinking that there is any reason to doubt that the governor, with his muscular yet judicious response, succeeded in stomping on all of the cockroaches responsible for the dastardly deeds.

 

The governor promises to replenish the police force to normal levels as soon as funds are available. He thinks the city’s surplus can cover most of the cost but believes Sivingdelians will prove with their wallets that they believe in their city. Reports of donations have been received, and it is this paper’s belief that they will only increase, proving to the rest of Selegania, and to the rest of the world, what kind of mettle we Sivingdelians are made of.

 

Righty almost left the paper on the bench, but thought better of it, tucking it away inside his coat as a souvenir. With a smile on his face, a whistle on his lips, and a spark in his step, he headed towards the city park. There would be a donation tonight, all right.

 

Chapter 4

 

Senator Hutherton was in a black mood. The reports of a return to normalcy and suspension of martial law in Sivingdel were not exactly the ingredients for this senator’s happiness. Here he was dragging his feet through interviews while the crisis in Sivingdel was already yesterday’s news, and the governor’s unexpectedly assertive actions had already sapped the political will out of everyone in the senate and out of the president himself to go in there with a heavy-handed response.

 

Hutherton’s sole comfort was that The Two for Two Act was law, and that was a reality regardless of whether the cowards in government had lost the guts to go into Sivingdel and find out who was really responsible for the recent crimes. Hutherton didn’t believe for a moment that the guilty had been captured and punished, at least not all of them.

 

He would get his two hundred new agents, bide his time, and then find out what really happened. He could sense that he had a powerful nemesis. He could almost see the man, perhaps seated and gloating. Perhaps sitting pensively and thinking about his next move. But of one thing he was sure. There was a bold leader behind the recent attacks, and he was going to bring about the arrest and execution of this individual if it was the last meaningful achievement he accomplished in this life.

 

A profile of his foe began to emerge. He was no seasoned criminal. No twentieth-generation crime boss, this man. The crimes were far too brazen for that. They were the acts of a madman. A man who thought no rules applied to him and that he could crush anyone in his path.

 

An in-betweener?

 

Yes, he bore all the traits one would expect from an in-betweener. True crime bosses knew their place. They came to an agreement with the police, and the police set the terms. And when there were disagreements, they were handled delicately. No professional crime boss would ever think he could box the ears of the state and expect a good outcome. This man had to be a newbie, no doubt riding a wave of riches brought about by the illicit drug market, something whose profits made the old rackets of extortion and loan-sharking look like a child’s lemonade stand.

 

But this newbie is winning.

 

Hutherton groaned aloud, then braced himself for his next interview.

 

“Come in!” he barked.

 

Chapter 5

 

Zelven and Hutherton had far more in common than they could have realized, though their current perspectives on the situation could hardly have differed more drastically.

 

They shared the same foe and just a very short time ago had been on top of the situation. Then, they had seen their fortunes reversed in the blink of an eye.

 

But while Hutherton lamented the cruel twist of fate, Zelven relished it and saw in it deliverance from over a year of cruel boredom.

 

Life “at the top” for Zelven had turned him into little more than a courier overseeing the delivery of large amounts of Smokeless Green to wholesaler George Hoffmeyer each month. The death of Heavy Sam had crippled the once seamless money-making machine atop which Mr. Hoffmeyer sat, leaving Hoffmeyer with considerable difficulty moving the incoming product through his distributors.

 

When Hoffmeyer suddenly disappeared, that meant things were going to get interesting for the Metinvurs in Sivingdel. Two of Heavy Sam’s former distributors had subsequently killed each other in a mutual ambush attempt, taking out around thirty of their associates with them. Most of the surviving elements of Sam’s organization had already dissipated or outright switched over into Mr. Brass’s organization.

 

Thus, there was going to be no attempt to rebuild the once formidable group that had ruled Sivingdel’s underworld with an iron fist. The upstart Mr. Brass had taken over.

 

Zelven had already sent his swiftest messenger back to the king to acquire detailed orders, but he knew that at a minimum he had full authorization to do whatever it took to heavily infiltrate Brass’s business and impose surveillance upon him so that Brass’s fate would be henceforth no safer than that of a man standing head in noose atop the gallows with the Metinvurs’ hands on the trapdoor lever.

 

It was a cool night, and Zelven had already spotted a pack of four street peddlers whose furtive glances, menacing scowls, and quick movements suggested they were not selling silverware.

 

Zelven walked up towards the tallest of the bunch, a mean-looking cuss with a scar on his left cheek. His eyes turned predatory as Zelven neared, and he shot at least three wild-eyed glances back to his compatriots, no doubt assuring them to ready brass knuckles, switchblades, and clubs, should this unrecognized patron prove himself less than a Grade A customer.

 

As Zelven got closer, the man’s chin lifted, and his eyes grew as they looked down the slopes of his cheeks towards his mysterious guest. As Zelven got closer still, the man took no pains to hide the fact his right hand had gone back towards his waistband, and in fact a smug grin communicated that he hoped this had been noticed.

 

“State your business, friend,” the man said in a voice that was calm but with thinly concealed aggression.

 

“This spot’s taken,” Zelven replied.

 

“That’s right. It shooooore is,” the man said, almost singing his words.

 

The man took two steps towards Zelven. When he took his third, Zelven’s two hands shot up towards the man’s shoulders quicker than a cobra strike, pulling him towards him and delivering a knee to the groin with the power of a sledgehammer. As the man doubled over in pain, Zelven brought his right forearm under his chin, placing it directly against his windpipe, reinforced his right hand with his left, and then jerked upwards.

 

The man’s windpipe collapsed, and then Zelven quickly lifted him up and smashed him down on top of his head.

 

It was at that moment one of the man’s friends approached from Zelven’s right. Zelven stepped forward at an angle and sent the knife-blade edge of his hand flying into the man’s throat like a rock from a slingshot. He then grabbed the man’s left hand—which by this point had grabbed Zelven’s shoulder—and pinned it against his shoulder with his left hand while suddenly lassoing his right arm around the trapped arm.

 

He then let go with his left hand and clasped his right. He then stepped backwards with his left foot and torqued viciously with his hips, ripping the man’s shoulder out of socket.

 

He then swiveled back towards the man, bringing his knuckles against the back of the man’s neck in the process. He then punched him in the throat with his left hand, seized his throat, and then kicked his left leg out from under him with a vicious chopping motion with his own left leg. He slammed the man’s head against the ground, crushing his skull, and then immediately did a roll across the ground to avoid what he knew was an attack from behind.

 

A club smashed into the stony ground, and the noise reverberated throughout the street as if from a nasty firecracker. A knife slid from Zelven’s wrist to the palm of his right hand quicker than a card into the palm of the most accomplished cheat.

 

He blocked the large overhead swing by grabbing the man’s right wrist. He then brought his knife into the man’s bicep, slicing it to the bone. He then brought the double-edged knife up onto the other side of the man’s arm and pulled down viciously, slicing his tricep to the bone. He then quickly reversed the grip of the knife from blade up to blade down and brought it against the man’s throat in the same motion as throwing a hook punch.

 

He gave a stiff sidekick to the man’s chest and avoided most of the ensuing blood geyser.

 

Before him, he saw an emasculated, wide-eyed man sitting on the ground, pushing himself away, looking like a child trying to escape a belting.

 

“I hope you’re more reasonable than your associates,” Zelven said calmly, tossing him a small bag filled with Smokeless Green. “The night’s still young, and there’s money to be made. You just introduce me to your customers and let them know there’s going to be a fifty percent discount sale all week.”

 

The man nodded uneasily, his eyes still a quarter the size of the full moon above.

 

Zelven extended his hand. “Let’s get to it!” he barked.

 

The man grabbed it and stood up promptly, nodding but mute.

 

Chapter 6

 

“There’s a new ranch hand that’s been earning quite a name for himself,” Tim Sanders said.

 

“They say he has his way with people no matter what the contest—boxing, sword play, wrestling . . . you name it.”

 

“Well, it sounds like he might be a good man to consider for inclusion in the Ranch Guard. What do you think?” Righty inquired of his most-trusted rancher.

 

“Usually, that’s only an option after a fella’s proven himself for several months, but I’ve gotta confess I’m itchin’ to see Halder—that’s his name—prove himself. And, if he can, then, yes, sir, I’d like him to become part of the Ranch Guard. I’ll make him one of the thirty contestants this afternoon.”

 

“How long has he been on the ranch?”

 

“Just a little over one month.”

“How big has our Ranch Guard gotten to?”

 

“A hundred and forty-five, sir.”

 

“Well, let’s go have a look.”

 

An hour later, thirty contestants lined up, looking like soldiers presented for close inspection. Righty walked down the line and eyed them all closely.

 

“If I like what I see, I’ll pick the top ten of you.”

 

Some nervous gulps ensued. It was well known that the Ranch Guard was the place to be if you wanted to move up in Mr. Relder’s organization. That was the name he was known by here, and although the original ranch hands had once known him by a different name—Richard Franklin Simmers to be precise—he had long ago told them that was an alias and that due to his growing trust in them, he was going to henceforth use his real name: David Relder, but “Mr. Relder” as far as they were concerned.

 

He knew full well some of the ranch hands might rightly suspect his story was the inverse of reality, but they kept whatever suspicions they had private as far as he could tell, and even his konulans—who had been instructed to alert him anytime anyone on the ranch used the names Richard Franklin Simmers, Mr. Brass, or Righty Rick—so far had not heard one instance of these names.

 

The ranch hands continued to stand straight and tall, but a few slight fidgets betrayed their eagerness to prove themselves. There were stories that those in the Ranch Guard earned several times the salary of the regular ranch hands—or even more—and there were rumors too that these men got to engage in action or at least would at some point in the future.

 

Righty had Tim make the matches, since he was far more attuned to which would be the most even lineups for the opening bouts. The bouts were randomly chosen by Tim to consist of either sword play, grappling, or empty-hand striking. The swords were wooden, but close replicas of the real thing. Protective gear was used for these matches, and while Righty normally had empty-hand striking done with protective gear also, he ordered it off for these matches. If he was going to count on any of these men having his back, he had to know if they could take a punch, but he wasn’t interested in seeing any of them having their heads split wide open from the heavy wooden swords.

 

If Righty had managed to survey the contests in an even manner, he would have been happy at what he saw. There were now hundreds—almost a thousand—men working on the ranch, and getting a job at the lowest level was no picnic. He depended on the original ranch hands for that. He had them scour rural communities for men that were tough as nails, but honest workers, enticing them with double the wage they could earn anywhere else.

 

From there, everyone became an aspirant to the Ranch Guard. Tim and the other original ranch hands did a good job of watching the men’s nightly combat classes and picking the best to vie for the chance at the Ranch Guard.

 

But Righty was unable to recognize the overall high level of martial prowess that was beginning to emerge in this laboratory of violence. Because from the moment he saw Halder move, he was as enthralled as if he were twelve years old again watching Jason Sevden thrash Harry “The Cat” Beld. It had been said that no one could hit Harry The Cat, because his damn reflexes were like lighting rubbed down with oil.

 

But Jason’s powerful legs had enabled him to sprint after the rascally Cat and douse him with body blows, something The Cat’s quick head movement did little to mitigate. The Cat had been carried from the ring looking like a cat that had a head-on collision with a wagon wheel, and it was at that moment that Righty’s passion for body blows and explosive leg movement had been born.

 

Boxers at the gym laughed as he sprinted at the bag from eight to ten feet away. But there was one who didn’t—Coach Ryler.

 

Here, kid; you wanna build up your sprintin’ muscles, you better add a little resistance.

 

The next thing young Richie knew he had a rope tied around his waist, and a twenty-pound bag of sand attached to it. Undeterred, Richie had charged and charged at the bag, telling his brain there was no weight behind him and that he had to run faster and faster.

 

By the time he was starting to earn a name for himself—in his mid-teens—he was regularly sprinting at the punching bag dragging a hundred pounds of sand behind him. Once that rope was untied, and he charged at the bag “naked” (as he often put it), he sometimes looked like a blur to the other fighters gaping at him uneasily in the gym, fearing that at any second they were going to hear Coach Ryler barking that it was there turn to spar with Righty Rick.

 

But Righty now found himself thinking that not even Jason “The Legs” Sevden (as he became known after laying waste to The Cat) could have so much as laid a finger on Halder’s head.

 

It was like one second Halder was there, and the next he wasn’t. Righty watched beautiful, technically sound jabs and crosses whistle by Halder’s head, as he moved just ever so slightly out of the way—so slightly it seemed as if he wasn’t moving at all, as he appeared to never move one millimeter more than what safety required.

 

When his opponents tried their luck with body shots, he did odd-looking blocks with his forearms. It looked like what Coach Ryler used to call “Fancy Stuff.” No Fancy Stuff was ever allowed his gym, but Righty was aware of a few people at his school who had practiced it. He had gotten into a fight with one of them, and while to this day he still couldn’t be sure whether he had perhaps antagonized the classmate into fighting just so that he could see how much Fancy Stuff was worth in a real fight, what he did find categorically proven was that Fancy Stuff didn’t work in a real fight.

 

The classmate had blocked one punch, but as soon as Righty began throwing fakes he quickly worked his way around the classmate’s blocks and hit him wherever he wanted. Righty had hit him with around ten percent of his normal power, since the fight was more of an experiment—at least in Righty’s mind—than an actual fight, but when the classmate had landed a shot to Righty’s nose that drew blood, Righty responded with a body shot that cost his adversary a month of school.

 

Righty had never given Gicksin any serious thought after that and considered his coach’s summary of it as Fancy Stuff to be more than adequate.

 

But here, in this place, at this moment, if long-since-deceased Coach Ryler had been here with Righty, they would have shared an intense moment of disbelief. Halder’s blocks hit his opponent’s arms with enough force to practically end the fight all by themselves. He could see the brave fellow wince in pain every time the curious Halder slammed the blade of his forearms into the incoming arms of his pugilist opponent.

 

And even when his opponent threw quick combinations of punches, Halder delivered his series of blocks with so much speed and grace it looked like nothing but a series of blurs emanating from the catlike figure. Coach Riley had always taught Righty that those fancy blocks were never good except when going against street thugs who threw wild, looping punches and explained that against technically sound punches only evasive movements with the head and feet and covering movements with the forearms would do any good.

 

But beyond even these amazing feats there was something else that caught Righty’s attention, though it was only a hunch. It seemed evident to him that Halder could at any point devastate his opponents with a single punch, and yet he only delivered light punches while putting on this spectacle of speed.

 

Next up were the grappling matches. Once again, Righty had tunnel vision and kept his eyes peeled on Halder. The opening match practically floored Righty, as Halder’s aggressive opening was like nothing Righty had ever seen.

 

Halder ran up to his opponent, jumped up into the air, wrapped his legs around his head, brought him to the ground, and simply stood up and walked away. Had Righty not seen Halder’s earlier magic, he would have yelled at him to go back to his opponent and keep fighting or to get the hell off his ranch and never come back. But, prior magic show still in his mind, Righty awaited curiously to see what happened.

 

The man on the ground was motionless. Tim walked up to him and looked closely and then put his hand under his nose. He gave a thumbs-up to Righty and then lifted the poor fellow’s legs up in the air. About fifteen seconds later, like a man emerging from a deep sleep, he looked around him and struggled to make sense out of what had just happened.

 

“You okay?” Tim asked.

 

The man nodded uneasily, got up, and walked towards the combatants who had been eliminated, looking ashamed.

 

“I’m next,” Righty announced, catching not only Tim but himself completely off guard, and immediately wishing he could go back in time and take back those words. But while he did have a bird the size of several eagles put together that could fly him a day’s journey in a matter of minutes and a large army of konulans that could perform the surveillance duties of ten thousand spies, a time machine he did not have.

 

“You’re the boss,” Tim said, shrugging.

 

Halder looked at him calmly, his gaze betraying neither arrogance nor fear. Not even curiosity could be seen. His eyes were impenetrable.

 

“Even the chef’s got to get into the kitchen,” he said, immediately questioning whether his attempt at humor made sense.

 

Halder smiled lightly.

 

As they faced off against each other, Righty found that while he had not lost his apprehension about facing this enigmatic ranch hand, he had at least lost regret. Though there was no time for deep analysis, subconsciously he wondered whether he had been watching some kind of fraud in progress and felt he had to experience this man’s skills for himself.

 

Righty had never considered himself a natural at wrestling, but his regular sword practice sessions with Pitkins had included empty-hand techniques for quite some time, and Righty was slowly making progress at grappling.

 

He lowered his stance considerably, which Pitkins had taught him to avoid leg attacks. But after what he had seen happen to his predecessor Righty wasn’t so sure Pitkins’ lessons were going to do him much good.

 

As Halder came towards him and Righty reached out for him, only to grasp a handful of fresh, empty air, his mind was unable to even slightly comprehend the dizzying movements that followed, but his subconscious turned briefly to tales he had heard as a child about seafaring folks.

 

It was said that at sea—which took many months by land to reach, out to the east of Selegania—there was a creature that would sometimes grab a net full of fish being lifted and hitch a ride up to the deck. Once there, though slightly smaller in its torso than a human, it would begin attacking everyone on the ship with its large number of rope-like legs that it could flick away from its body rapidly like a whip or lasso around its prey and drag them towards its bloody mouth.

 

There were stories of powerful men attempting to overcome the beast, but in vain they grabbed at its legs only to find themselves grabbed by its free legs as it wrapped around and encircled them, rendering them all as helpless as children against an angry lion.

 

When Righty had grasped empty air, Halder had rolled onto the ground in front of him in what looked like a silly, foolish position, but before he knew it, Halder was in a different place, his feet acting like hands, grabbing Righty’s legs wherever they willed, while Halder’s equally dexterous hands assisted his legs, and the next thing Righty knew the man was out of sight.

 

His first clue as to where the magician had gone came when Righty felt himself being elevated up into the air. The next clue came when he felt himself falling backwards and falling right on top of the man.

 

Before Righty could even momentarily appreciate the fact that he at least knew where his opponent was he felt a death grip around his neck, surely worse than that of the tightest noose.

 

He was sure he would soon be choked unconscious or perhaps killed right then and there in front of his many ranch hands, who looked up to him tremendously. Ignominiously, he would die at the hands of this demon who had crept out from some hole Kasani knew where—or perhaps was an assassin sent by some rival drug organization he had not even heard of. Not even Harold would have a chance of plummeting from the sky quick enough to prevent the poisonous serpent with which he had so foolishly chosen to interact.

 

But before his mind could torment him any further he heard a calm whisper into his ear. The speech was rapid, but Righty caught every word: I needed to get your attention. We talk in private afterwards. Now, escape and beat me.

 

It took more than a second for Righty to process what he had just been told, and while he had always reviled faked outcomes, he didn’t feel he was in much of a position to argue with this man.

 

Righty quickly began attempting an escape, something that just seconds before would have seemed the height of folly. He could hear the man grunting and gasping—perhaps as a show of effort—but at the same time the death grip had softened. Righty grabbed the man’s forearm, pulled it down, and began moving towards the choking arm’s thumb, as Pitkins had taught him to do from that position.

 

A long series of reversals followed, every one of them masterfully acted by Halder, whose grimacing face suggested he was fighting for his life. Righty had to do little faking, as even this new version of Halder was leaving him gasping for air and feeling like he was going to throw up at any second, due to the tremendous exertion. He tried to perform every counter he could that Pitkins had taught him, as Halder assailed him with a flurry of grappling attacks, every one seeming to fail by a hair.

 

When the time for the match expired, Righty surprised Halder by grabbing his arm and lifting it, announcing him as the victor.

 

“This man has made it into Ranch Guard. Tim, I’ve seen some good fighting today. You pick whichever are the best nine after Halder,” realizing the best nine probably wouldn’t be able to take Halder at the same time.

 

“Yes, sir,” Tim said quickly.

 

“This way,” Righty said to Halder, and they began walking towards Righty’s cabin.

 

Chapter 7

 

“We almost there, Sonny?”

 

“Over this way,” Sonny said.

 

Sonny was a son of a whore, but that was no epithet. His mother was Rosie Culvendale, and she had worked both the streets and bordellos of some of Sivingdel’s roughest areas. When he was born, she named him Chris, but the ubiquitous sight of the young tike running around the bordello playing with toys while other kids his age were at home playing with their siblings became quite a sight.

 

Who is he? many would ask.

 

Oh, the son of some whore . . . Rosie, I think her name is.

 

As Chris got old enough to go to school it didn’t take too long for the little secret to reach the ears of his classmates, but it wasn’t until middle school that Son of a Whore practically became his proper name.

 

Those were sad years. Many lonely lunches, many black eyes, and many nights full of brooding.

 

Chris left school at age twelve, thinking he could outrun his past. He found odd jobs pickpocketing and serving as lookout for some of the town’s more nefarious bandits while they entered businesses and even private homes. Somehow, the past caught up with him, and though he did good enough work that most of his bosses wouldn’t say it to his face, he would hear them chuckling and saying it behind his back.

 

But the real problem was with his peers. They said it to his face all day long, but oddly enough, not always in a mean way. It seemed as if they wanted him to accept that name and not take it personally.

 

The first time Chris drew blood was when he was fifteen, and he had spent that entire night chanting aloud that he would either kill the next person he heard call him that or he would kill himself if he lost the nerve.

 

The next day, as if fate were testing him, Freddie Big Ears, greeted him with a warm clap on the back and a “Good Morning, Son of a Whore!”

 

No sooner had Freddie turned his back than Chris let a butcher knife slip from his sleeve—a move he had practiced in unison with his chanting—and then plunged it somewhere in between the spine and the shoulder blades, and Freddie let out a howl that could have been confused with a wolf’s.

 

Once he crossed that line, there was no turning back, and Chris began hacking and slashing away in a frenzy and then finally caught Fred right in the throat with a poke. Around that point, Joshua Evans had said, “Sonny . . . calm down, man!”

 

Like a beast calmed by some magical incantation, Chris’s countenance immediately lost its ferocity. He put the knife back inside his sleeve after a quick couple of wipes against his boot, and looked menacingly at everyone as it went up his sleeve, as if saying, I can just as easily pull it back out.

 

The effect of the sound of “Sonny” on Chris had not been lost on the other two hooligans together with them that day, and within a day or two more and more people began testing it out on him.

 

Over the next several years, Sonny had to reinforce his preference for the abbreviated form of his name by attacks even more vicious than the one against Freddie, but as of the present moment, it had been a good five years since the last reminder had been necessary.

 

Sonny was no tough guy in a fair fight, but he had an uncanny ability to ambush. Ryan Sims, the next man after Fred to call him “Son of a Whore” to his face, had found this out the hard way.

 

After saying it to him, he had stood on guard, staring Sonny down.

 

Sonny seemed as calm as a blade of grass on a windless day. Fifteen minutes later, however, when Ryan turned his back just slightly to demonstrate how he had climbed into a window the prior day, the knife had fallen into Sonny’s hand too quick for anyone’s notice, and a half second later he jabbed it halfway to the hilt into Ryan’s armpit. The scream he emitted passed into legend, but it was short-lived.

 

There was no wild hack and slash attack this time. The knife had been pulled out and traveled the full distance of Ryan’s throat in less than a blink.

 

Sonny was pondering these happy memories while he strode down the street with Jack Hillmeyer, the man in charge of five blocks of Sivingdel street corner real estate, and he aimed to put on a good showing today. Being around Jack was kind of like being in the light of the brilliant sun after a few days cooped up inside the house with the flu.

 

He oozed energy, confidence, and charisma in a way that made everyone standing around him feel a few inches taller. Sonny hadn’t exactly held too much love in his heart for his slain compatriots, and he was hoping that with a good performance today Jack just might put him in charge of the next crew.

 

“We’re close,” Sonny said in a half-whisper.

 

Jack stopped and spun around to look at him.

 

“Here’s the deal,” he said with those powerful eyes boring into Sonny’s skull—“You make it quick—wham, bam!!” he finished, his lips smacking together in a way that made it unnecessary to drive the point home by clapping, one of Jack’s favorite tools of emphasis.

 

There was no need to go over the finer points of the setup. They had drilled it to the point of agony last night, and if Sonny didn’t have it down by now, he never would.

 

Sonny gulped and began walking in the lead position, Jack just inches behind, and several other toughs behind them, sundry weapons barely concealed within their long coats.

 

It was around 9 p.m., but the lights of the surrounding businesses—most of which were of a nocturnal nature—prevented the men from being shrouded in complete darkness.

 

“Mr. Sonny,” a calm voice exclaimed.

 

Sonny turned around quicker than a cat.

 

Zelven was there, just finishing the task of lighting an unusually long cigar, his back resting lazily against a building, his eyes full of energy.

 

“Mr. Ritmer,” Sonny replied uneasily.

 

“You’ve brought some colleagues, perhaps even your wholesaler. Fantastic. If he can beat my buying prices, I’ll gladly become his retailer. If I can beat his buying prices, I hope he’ll see reason and become my buyer.”

 

Zelven blew a large, perfectly shaped circle of smoke towards Sonny, and as it passed his head, he couldn’t help but feel he was seeing a noose approach and wrap around his neck.

 

“Well, won’t you introduce your friends?” Zelven asked. “I see you are rather popular.”

 

The men had stretched out in a line long enough to block most of the alleyway.

 

Sonny’s heart was beating so loudly, he almost wanted to yell at it to shut the heck up because he was sure Mr. Ritmer could hear it thundering inside his chest.

 

Without even intending to actually drop the knife into his palm, he made the slightest twitch with his right fingers, as if wanting to make sure they had not gone numb and lost their ability to do their deed. A hundred witnesses scrutinizing Sonny would have seen nothing, but no sooner had they moved than Mr. Ritmer said, his eyes never having left Sonny’s, “Ohhhh, you don’t want to do that now, do you?”

 

A twinkle danced in his eye. Sonny felt like he was about to throw up.

 

“Oh, just do it, would ya?!” Jack said. “He’s alone for Kasani’s sake!”

 

Somehow, Jack’s contempt overrode Sonny’s fear, causing the knife to drop into his palm.

 

No sooner had it dropped, than he felt a sharp sting in his eye. Jack, standing next to him, heard a slight “whoosh,” but what caught his notice more than anything was the sudden spurt of blood that went flying out of Sonny’s right eye and his quickly crumpling body.

 

Jack prepared to yell and then charge but immediately felt a sharp sting in his throat. The words didn’t come out. He brought his hands up to his throat, and they were immediately showered with spurts of blood.

 

WHOOT! WHOOT! WHOOT! WHOOT!

 

The sounds came out in quick succession, and one by one the line of men began to crumple over, blood jetting from their eyes or throats.

 

A minute later, a wagon filled with hay came by. The driver got out and began to inspect one of his horses’ hooves, while three men slid out from underneath the hay, picked up the bodies, shoved them under the hay, and then hid themselves back under the hay. A few people took notice, but paid little attention, as the nonchalant nature of the men’s movements seemed so natural despite their abnormal actions.

 

Zelven extinguished his cigar and put it carefully into a coat pocket. He had sold quite a few pounds of Smokeless Green tonight, and at the prices he was selling, he knew his corner was going to become very popular quickly.

 

This would no doubt lead to another visit. Perhaps the next one would be with more reasonable people. There were ways of dealing with those who preferred violence to negotiation.

 

Chapter 8

 

Righty felt an odd sense of anticipation as he and Halder neared the cabin. He was worried by the fact it seemed his curiosity was greater than his fear of his overly capable guest, thinking perhaps he was little more than a moth being drawn to the flame.

 

He breathed a sigh of relief as to Halder’s intentions when he offered no qualms about being the first to walk through the door which Righty now held open for him, though another part of him wondered if he had not made a fatal error by declining to send a coded message to Harold to have this man taken out during their stroll over here.

 

He made a mental note that following this meeting, should he survive it, Harold would be given a code word for precisely such an attack.

 

Halder readily sat in the chair that Righty pulled out for him, and Righty walked quickly to the chair seated across from Halder, barely suppressing the urge to run over to it.

 

He sat down and looked Halder squarely in the eye. Halder’s gaze was as calm and impenetrable as before. No twinkle, no sneering glare of triumph; just calm, indecipherable energy.

 

“Well, let’s get to it,” Righty said. “I’m not used to sitting across the table from a man more dangerous than myself. I can’t exactly say I like it. But here we are, and I’m dying to know just what in the hell a man with your skills is doing as a ranch hand and not working in the service of some luxurious king who can shower you with riches for your unrivalled services. Just what in the hell do you want with me, stranger?”

 

For the first time, a flash of emotion came across Halder’s eyes. It was difficult to interpret, but it seemed like a bolt of lightning breaking the calm of a clear day followed by the arrival of thunder and ominous rain.

 

Righty felt more than one hair lift itself just a tad off the back of his neck, and he again questioned the wisdom of not calling for Harold to dispatch this monster while he had the chance.

 

Halder leaned forward on the table, his eyes boring into him like a pair of sharp drills.

 

“You’re in danger, Mr. Simmers. Real danger.”

 

Righty gulped. Somehow he couldn’t muster the false indignation in attempting to tell this man that his real name was Mr. Relder, not some Simmers alias he had used ages ago.

 

Lies, it seemed, would be incinerated by this man’s gaze as easily as dry hay by a fiery torch.

 

Righty leaned forward, holding the man’s gaze steadily.

 

“I know that, Halder,” Righty began, allowing a little derision to adorn his guest’s name so that he did not think this alias was any more believable than Righty’s, which he had so blatantly refused to recognize. “I knew that from the moment I sold my first bag of this stuff, and the lesson has been reinforced many times over. Danger is the very ether surrounding my entire existence. Do you think I don’t realize that everything I have out there could be taken from me at a moment’s notice? Do you think I don’t realize I’m in constant danger from the forces of the state, the agents of rival gangs, or even the treachery of my own men?

 

“Are you here to lecture me on the dangers of this business to which I have risen to the top, while you’re no more than a damn ranch hand?!!” Righty thundered.

 

“Huuuuuuuu!”

 

Air whistled out of Halder’s mouth as though a punch had gotten past one of his catlike blocks and delivered a powerful blow to his solar plexus, knocking the wind right out of him. But the quickly appearing smile on his face immediately showed he had been levelled by some unintended humor.

 

“THE TOP?!!” shouted Halder, now standing and looking down at Righty like a schoolmaster with some fool student.

 

Righty felt a combination of powerful anger and shame wash over him, as he immediately sensed this man excelled him in all things and that he must somehow kill him right now, even if he had to unabashedly summon the help of Harold and all the konulans to aid him in the process.

 

Something—perhaps a sincerity, but Righty couldn’t put his finger on it—in the man’s gaze soothed his anger just enough to prevent an all-out battle from taking place at that moment, but his face and neck still burned red.

 

“THE TOP?!” Halder repeated, with as much emphasis as before but less derision.

 

Halder leaned forward towards Righty several more inches and told him, “You’re nothing more than a pawn for forces whose power and methods are as unknown to you as their existence!”

 

“And I suppose you’re part of those mysterious forces, or otherwise you wouldn’t know, would you?” Righty shot back angrily. “Look, stranger, say what you’ve got to say, or get the hell off my land!!”

 

“I could do that,” Halder said calmly, stepping away from the table and sliding the chair underneath it. “I could step outside that door, disappear from sight in minutes, and you’d never hear from me again. Is that your wish?”

 

Righty paused. Halder’s matter-of-fact tone convinced Righty he was serious.

 

“Your ability to disappear from me isn’t as absolute as you might think, stranger,” Righty said, in a matter-of-fact tone of his own.

 

Halder’s gaze seemed incredulous for a moment, but when it was replaced by a certain degree of credulity, Righty felt perhaps he should not have made even a veiled reference to the one ace he held up his sleeve.

 

“Sit!” Righty said affirmatively, pointing to the chair, and then he himself resumed his seated posture.

 

Halder, studying Righty’s face and eyes in so intent a manner it made his skin crawl, walked back to the chair, pulled it out, and sat.

 

“So—what do you say we both cut the crap. You’re a killing machine. No doubt about that. Hand to hand, and perhaps even with weapons, you could take anyone on this ranch, probably myself included. But you want something, and you want it from me. You didn’t just crawl out of some hole and sniff me out in order to spit in my face and move along. There’s something I have that you want, and there must be something significant you think you can offer me in order to obtain it.”

 

“Sorry for the drama, Mr. Relder,” he began, inserting no sarcasm into his use of Righty’s alias, instead saying it as naturally as if he had known Mr. Relder by that name for years. “I never feel I’ve fully measured a man until I see him angry. I was pretty sure you were the right man before I ever set foot on this ranch. Now, I have no doubt.”

 

Righty’s quizzical expression urged him to continue.

 

“You are right. I do need you for something. And you need me even more, even though you don’t know it. You need me for survival. I need you for revenge.”

 

“Survival?”

 

“Your entire country is being subjected to high-intensity covert warfare for the purpose of exploitation and possibly outright invasion. It is being carried out by the organization I was once the head of. They export the Smokeless Green here for the purpose of money and to wreak havoc inside your country. Selegania is being used as the base from which other countries are supplied, making it look like Selegania is the ultimate source. Selegania will eventually become a pariah nation. Within Selegania, powerful men such as yourself are being allowed to rise but only for the purpose of one of them eventually being chosen as the national monster, against whom all police and military resources will be directed without mercy.

 

“I’ve closely watched your rival kingpin in Selegania, and he is without a doubt being supplied directly by my former colleagues, though he doesn’t know anything about them. Every other kingpin amongst Dachwald, Sodorf, and Selegania is either being supplied by your rival, directly by my former colleagues, or by yourself.

 

“You’re the only one who has managed to become fully independent, due to this ranch. My former colleagues may not yet be aware how you have managed to achieve such high status without being supplied directly by them, but I can assure you that the price of your success is that you are going to be the man they ultimately turn into the national monster.

 

“But even these things are only preliminary to larger ambitions.”

 

“So, there’s a highly sophisticated organization in a foreign country behind the arrival of Smokeless Green, and they’re using it to finance themselves, create disorder, and eventually do something bigger.”

 

“You’ve understood well enough.”

 

“So, what are you offering me, and just what in the hell do you have to gain by going against your former comrades?”

 

Chapter 9

 

It had been an okay night on the streets, but Zelven knew something was awry. The first night he had sold Smokeless Green at half the going rate, he had run out after just a few hours and had to go resupply and come back.

 

Here it was after midnight, and he had only sold half his stash. He considered the possibility other dealers had lowered their prices to compete, but his men had snooped about, and no one could sell at his rates without taking a stinging loss. No, something else was afoot.

 

He had already sniffed out the problem with sufficient certainty to formulate a plan of action, but when his thoughts were suddenly interrupted by an approaching buyer, he thought of a new plan.

 

Though pretending to be calm, the buyer betrayed to the hawk-like eyes of Zelven that he was glancing around a bit too much to just be checking for police.

 

“What will you have, my good man?” asked Zelven cheerily.

 

“A-an ounce, man. That is—well, you know, if the discount’s still good tonight, man.”

 

“Oh, it is indeed. But I tell you what, how would you like to have two ounces if—”

 

“TWO?!” the haggard man said with childlike enthusiasm.

 

Zelven had a nasty temper when interrupted, but he could conquer it when the prize was sufficient.

 

“Yes, my friend. Two. Exactly two.”

 

“Ha . . . haha,” the man said nervously, running both of his hands through his hair like combs, considering the proposed trade-off. “Well, how much you want fer it?”

 

“Oh, it isn’t money, friend. It’s something far easier, just a little information.”

 

The man’s eyes grew wide, and he looked around furtively, as if he were a bandit who had already spent five minutes in the bank vault and expected the sheriff and an army of deputies to arrive any second. He looked up at Zelven with shiny, mischievous eyes.

 

“Shoot.”

 

“Well, business has been a little slow tonight . . . a little too slow, and I suspect perhaps someone has given the very bad advice to customers that it would be a mistake for them to come visit me.”

 

“We ain’t supposed to,” said the man, with delight in his eyes. “That’s what they say.”

 

“You know, friend, there’s a lot of monkey business that goes on with this beautiful plant from the time it comes from someone like me until the time it reaches someone like you. Have a little whiff of this.”

 

Zelven extended the palm of his hand with a fair share of green powder in it and poured it into the man’s hands, outstretched like those of a beggar.

 

“Mmmm, smells sweet,” said the man, before sucking it up his nostrils greedily. He then gave a couple of quick shakes like a wet dog drying itself and said, “Okay, here’s what I know—anyone who buys from you’s gonna wish he didn’t. That’s what they say.”

 

“Who’s ‘they’, friend? I’m a man of details. Specifics are to my mind what colors are to the painter’s eye.”

 

“Well, I know where they stay at, but I don’t know their names. They’s the bosses of this section of town.”

 

“Well, friend, here’s what you’re going to do. You walk towards the place, and when you’re there, stop and have another whiff of this,” Zelven said, extending an ounce to the man. “No one will know I’m following you, not even you. Once you’ve done as instructed, you’ll find the second ounce in your pocket before you count to a hundred.”

 

The man’s face grew solemn for a moment, ageing him twenty years in the process, but then that mischievous gleam came back, and he turned to walk off down the street.

 

Zelven’s hand shot out like a mamba and went around the man’s shoulder.

 

“One more detail, friend. Play me like a fool, and I’ll be very cross.” As he said that, he pinched a nerve in the man’s shoulder he never knew he had but released it just as a howl of pain traveling up the man’s throat was about to depart. The quick cessation reduced it to a soft whimper.

 

Soberly, the man said, “Yes, sir,” and took off down the street, practically trotting.

 

Zelven disappeared behind several barrels and appeared no more than a minute later looking like an unshaven, greasy-haired vagrant. He took off down the street, guide in view.

 

To the careless observer, the unrecognizable Zelven made perhaps a slightly excessive number of stretches and adjustments of his hat as he stealthily walked down the street eyes glued to his guide. But to the thirty Varco agents watching closely with small telescopes atop the roofs, Zelven was speaking to them quite clearly and succinctly.

 

The slight adjustments of his hat, the movements of his fingers camouflaged by his decoy stretches, and last, but not least, the grinding of his right fist against his left palm communicated to them fully what they needed to know.

 

Zelven was beginning to think he was going to have to break the drug addict’s neck, toss him aside, and formulate a new plan, when suddenly the druggie stopped, took a sniff of something from his lifted palm, and then even tilted his head slightly towards the left.

 

Zelven gave another of his disguised signals, and just when the now-accountant drug addict reached number ninety-eight someone bumped into him and apologized. The distrustful druggie checked his pockets, having forgotten about Zelven’s promise and thinking instead that he had just been pickpocketed.

 

Then his face changed quickly from abject despair to that of a child opening a birthday present as he discovered his precious ounce now had a twin brother. A mean, suspicious look then spread over his face, and he trotted off down a dark alley, perhaps headed towards some hole where he could sniff at pleasure for a couple months with no thieves to sully the fun.

 

Zelven surveyed the building. It was quite a bit taller than the others, at six stories. Three men stood scowling at the entrance looking like a collection of granite statues. There was an alley on just one side of the building, and it was a narrow one and seemed fully within view of the three guard dogs.

 

Zelven extracted a different cigar from the one he had used to fire steel darts into the throats and eyes of his late would-be assassins and lit it calmly.

 

As he approached the three guards, the nearest one turned towards him, an even meaner grimace now on his face, both arms crossed revealing forearms meatier than most men’s thighs, and with a sneer on his lips that looked so exaggerated Zelven wondered how he could wear it without laughing at his own ridiculousness.

 

“What the f--- do you want, old man? Walk around, would ya.”

 

“Got any greeeen?” Zelven asked, a rasp coming out of his mouth along with a cloud of smoke thick enough to be confused with a forest fire.

 

“F—-, man,” the scowler said with supreme annoyance, swatting at the smoke as if it were a swarm of hornets. “Get lost, would ya, or I’ll break you in half, fool!”

 

“Eeee . . . nice to meet you, feller,” Zelven said, belching smoke out of his mouth, and turning to cross the street.

 

“Ah, hell naw,” groused the scowler, taking a step and a half towards Zelven with what looked like the intention of belting him across the mouth with his right hand, but the four glaring eyes of his compatriots seemed to quickly draw him back to his post as effectively as though they had been four lassoes.

 

Some of the smoke was drifting towards them now as well, though Scowler had certainly borne the brunt of it.

 

“Fu’s crazy,” Scowler continued, as he resumed his post. “Man, he like to smoke though, HAA!” he suddenly exclaimed with what had been his first good-natured laugh in approximately three months, though as far his two compatriots knew it was his first ever. They looked at him suspiciously, frowning deeply.

 

They then looked back to the front, hoping the night would get back to normal.

 

“FU . . . LIKE . . . TO . . . SMOOOKE!!” Scowler suddenly sang out at the top of his lungs and then began laughing uncontrollably.

 

“Hey, Kyle, get real, fool!” his adjacent guard told him with a vicious punch to the tricep to drive the point home.

 

This brought forth more laughter than if he had tied Kyle down and tickled his feet with a feather. Kyle collapsed into a ball of howling laughter and began writhing on the ground. The third guard now joined in on the lecture by kicking Kyle right in the ribs.

 

“Yo, Ky, snap out of it, man. I know somethin’s got you cracked up, but you’s gonna get all three of us killed, PUNK!!”

He then gave another vicious kick to Kyle’s ribs, after which he began convulsing terribly.

 

“Hey, man, suck it up and get up, you feel me?!” the man said hunching over his friend, now appearing to express some genuine concern.

 

As the two huddled over their fallen, writhing compatriot, a now well-dressed Zelven slipped behind them and into the building.

 

Kyle was now beginning to writhe in a manner that seemed exaggerated even for having been kicked by Big Gary. Sure, Big Gary had killed men before with a kick to the ribs, but those were normal-sized men, not muscle-bound sycamore trees like Kyle.

 

“F—-, Gary. I think you wasted him, hommie!”

 

“Naw, man. Yo, Kyle! KYLE!!”

 

Quite a few heads began to turn. Even for a seedy part of town, this could count as a spectacle.

 

“Sh—, man. We gotta bring him inside, fool.”

 

Kyle began writhing far worse as they dragged him towards the doorway, blood spurting out of his nose and eyes, and he began vomiting uncontrollably.

 

He breathed his last at the very moment he crossed the threshold. He only beat his compatriot Jerry to the afterlife by a couple of seconds. As soon as Jerry crossed the threshold, a knife punched into the back of his right lung up to the hilt and then slit his throat from ear to ear with so much speed Big Gary didn’t even see the attack.

 

By the time Big Gary turned to see his friend falling to the ground in a shuddering heap with blood gushing out of his neck he felt a small noose enclose around his neck and the tip of some sharp weapon poke against his ribs.

 

“There will be plenty of time for crying and mourning later, young fella.”

 

Gary started to turn towards his attacker, but the noose around his neck immediately tightened to the point he could feel blood trickling down his neck.

 

“Easy there, fella. This ain’t a noose like one you’ve ever seen. One more squeeze with this lever I’ve got in my hand, and you’ll be with your two friends there in less than a blink.”

 

Gary fumed, and tears strode down his face. Kyle and Jerry were his best friends. Perhaps he ought to join them.

 

The unpleasant poke of the dagger convinced him life might be worth living after all.

 

“Now show me where your boss is. The one who doesn’t believe in free markets.”

 

“He’ll, he’ll, he’ll KILL you, man!” Gary said, struggling against the noose.

 

“Do I seem like the risk-averse sort to ya?” Zelven asked in a singsong accent he sometimes used.

 

Zelven gave another squeeze. He heard the gag reflex and released the noose just enough to let Gary vomit out a couple eruptions before warning him with a few tight squeezes to wrap that business up or choke on his own vomit.

 

As soon as Zelven was convinced Gary had sufficiently cleared his airways, he resumed the pressure with the noose, lest he do something foolish like cry out.

 

“March me to them, mate, or I’ll kill you right now,” Zelven said without any bluff, sticking the knife a full inch into Gary’s back, just shy of any vitals.

 

Gary answered with his footsteps, which began moving quickly forward.

 

Zelven heard a peculiar, but very familiar, rapping sound. He turned around slightly and noted with approval as he saw ten men spilling into the room from the street outside. He had no concerns about whipping a few punks inside, but the contents of this particular building had not been previously reconnoitered, and Varco training demanded preparation for the worst-case scenario.

 

“Let’s get going,” Zelven told Gary. “If you’re no good to me as a guide, I’ll send you to join your departed friends.”

 

Gary paused only the briefest of moments to consider his options before moving his large frame forward reluctantly like a stubborn plow horse that realizes its owner will cave its skull in if it refuses to budge.

 

“Don’t even think about sneaky warnings,” Zelven instructed. “Whistles, knuckle-cracking, signature footsteps—they’re all plain language in highlighted bold caps to me, son.”

 

Zelven thought he could see Gary’s bull-like neck turn a couple shades redder and almost feel the heat rising off of it.

 

They continued walking up the stairs until Gary stopped and lightly rasped something.

 

Zelven released the noose just enough to let him speak in a whisper: “The men you want to see are on the top floor. There are guards on every floor until the top, starting with the third floor. It’s because we keep a lot of . . . stuff here.”

 

“Thank you, friend. You would only be a burden from here on out.”

 

Zelven clamped down on the device holding the wire noose around Gary’s neck. It penetrated through the voice box almost instantly, severed a couple major arteries, and sent the large statue of a man tumbling towards the ground.

 

With catlike reflexes, Zelven squatted down and slowed the man’s fall, permitting almost no sound to issue from the hulk’s demise.

 

Zelven immediately gestured to his compatriots that the target was on the top floor and that every floor hereafter had guards.

 

Zelven took out what looked like a flimsy rag but that fitted perfectly to the contours of his shoes, providing him with excellent grip and a very soft step. He led the way down the hall, and as he neared the end, he pulled out a reflection-free periscope and sought out his adversary.

 

Atop the steps slouched a young man, dozing off with a half-finished bottle of whisky next to him. Zelven extracted a cigar, put it to his mouth, and blew. What could have passed for a sewing needle while stationary expanded substantially at the tip as it sailed through the air, two razor-sharp wings unfolding, before the missile buried itself in the drunkard’s throat.

 

As Zelven approached the fourth floor, he wasn’t particularly surprised to see several guards through his periscope.

 

The closer to the target, the meaner the obstacles.

 

He signaled appropriately to his assistants to inform them of the situation and announce a countdown.

 

Five seconds later, in a move that some observers may have confused with top-level synchronized dancing, eleven Varco agents rolled across the ground in unison. Perhaps an artistically minded bystander would have expected the man in the center to stand up, send a ripple through his body in pantomime fashion, and then be joined by his cohorts in a well-rehearsed display of spins and acrobatics. But any such expectations were dashed when the men, crouched low to the ground, fired darts in unison at their preselected targets with a lethality that mimicked dance only by its impeccable timing and accuracy.

 

Each guard got a dart in the throat and at least one other vital area, but in spite of this synchronized kill there was no way to avoid the sound of several large men crashing to the ground.

 

Yet, no sooner had the Varco fired their darts than they sprinted up the stairs to where Zelven, after a quick peek through his periscope, led them onward.

 

Coming down from the fifth floor was a skinny runt to check on the noise he thought he had heard. A dart through the throat prevented a scream, and Zelven caught his body as it stumbled towards him.

 

Zelven hopped up the next several steps like a rabbit, and just as he was putting his periscope to the corner, it got knocked out of his hands by a vicious kick. It went rattling against the ground and made more noise than any of the late guards combined had been able to.

 

Zelven grabbed the man’s foot before he could retract it and sliced the tendon behind the heel. Zelven immediately regretted it, as the man let out a howl of pain that made the recent racket with the periscope sound like a feather landing on silk.

 

Zelven quickly threw his knife into the man’s throat, but just barely missed the voice box. He was gurgling blood but managed to let out a couple more howls before falling into shock.

 

There was no need for Zelven to give any instructions to his agents this time. This scenario was dealt with exhaustively in Varco training. Any time a stealth mission with a known target lost its element of surprise, there were only two options—abort or race ahead every man for himself.

 

Zelven decided for them when he moved ahead. As soon as he reached the fifth floor, a bat came hurtling towards his face. He wasn’t sure what tipped him off—a sudden blurry movement or perhaps the breeze from the swing—but some instinct took over, and he let his body drop to the ground immediately.

 

The bat missed his head by two inches as he plummeted to the ground. A brute of a man stood before him and raised the bat with a grin on his face that suggested he was already visualizing the geyser-like eruption of Zelven’s brains.

 

Zelven smacked his feet together hard, causing a knife blade to come out the tip of each shoe. He arched backwards and sent his right foot directly into the man’s groin.

 

He yelled like an enraged bear, but, to Zelven’s dismay, he appeared not to be dissuaded by this injury from continuing with his geyser show.

 

As the bat prepared its descent, Zelven saw the tell-tale redness around the man’s nose that bespoke frequent Smokeless Green usage, and he had no doubt the man had had a grown-up’s dose sometime recently.

 

Zelven rolled to the side a half blink before the bat buried itself into the floorboards, sending splinters flying.

 

Zelven stood to kick the man in the throat, but—almost to his disappointment—saw his agents finish the man off with a quick series of slashes that made the most seasoned butcher appear slow and sloppy.

 

“SHUT THE HELL UP DOWN THERE, MOOSE!! THAT’S THE SECOND TIME YOU’VE GOTTEN HIGH TONIGHT!”

 

Zelven wasn’t sure if it was a ruse, but his spirits leaped at the prospect of paying a surprise visit to his target after all.

 

He quickly motioned to his men that they were back in stealth mode and to follow his lead.

 

Zelven was surprised when the peek through his periscope on the sixth floor revealed no one. With quick motions, he communicated to kill only when necessary, as he wished to speak to whomever they could restrain.

 

Zelven turned left, five men following quickly behind him, and the other five veering off towards the right.

 

He had only taken a few steps when he heard laughter.

 

“You really shut Moose up, now didn’t ya, hahahaha?!!”

 

“If Moose was any dumber, I’d cut his head off and attach it to a club. It would be more useful.”

 

Someone howled at that response, and the unmistakable sound of a glass being filled with liquid emanated from the room. A couple more steps, and the tell-tale smell of alcohol permeated Zelven’s nostrils, letting him know he was going to be crashing one hell of a party.

 

“HEY! Go check that there telescope, now won’t ya? I like to know about myyy . . . competition,” a man said, appearing to have struggled to put together the sentence.

 

“He’s gone, I told ya!”

 

A loud sound like a slap across the face echoed, followed by, “HEY! Who’s the boss here, anyway?”

 

A sigh was emitted, and the sound of more liquid being poured sounded somewhat like a bubbling brook.

 

“He’s gone, Lefty! Sheeesh!”

 

“What did I tell ya? Did it work, or din’t it? You ain’t always got to use violence to win the game!”

 

“I know, Lefty. It’s like you said. If there ain’t no fish in the pond, ain’t no one gonna stick around too long.”

 

“Yep,” came the reply with the satisfaction of a teacher whose dumbest student has finally grasped a basic concept.

 

Zelven could tell based upon the voices roughly where each man was situated, but he was suspicious about there being only two voices. He quickly signaled for the other team of Varco agents to kill everyone they came across. He had already decided which one man would survive in this room.

 

He motioned to his nearby Varco agents which man was to be spared, and on the count of three they burst into the room.

 

Zelven sent a small throwing knife spinning through the air and buried it cleanly in Lefty’s neck as he downed the last glass of hard liquor he would ever enjoy on this side of eternity.

 

A thin man looked in horror at the team of assassins, his right hand still clutching the telescope with which he had been peering down into the street just moments earlier.

 

Two other bodyguards were in the room, but his agents took them out before he even had time to register their presence. A few stifled screams echoed down the hallway, and then he turned to the now petrified man still clutching the telescope.

 

Taking a chair next to Lefty, Zelven said, “Please, sit. You’re in no danger. Quite the contrary, tonight your life has taken a lucky turn.”

 

The petrified man stood still, but as it appeared to be from fear rather than defiance, Zelven told him amiably, “Sir, please do as your bid.”

 

The man glanced quickly at Lefty, and while he seemed a bit unnerved by the grisly sight, not even Zelven’s scrutinizing eyes could spot a hint of mourning. Cautiously, he sat down.

 

“Lefty didn’t call you by your name, so would you do me the courtesy of introducing yourself.”

 

“Tim,” the man said so timidly it almost sounded like a question. “Sometimes Thin Tim,” he added uneasily.

 

“Well, I admire a man who keeps his weight under control. It’s a sign of not just physical, but also mental, fitness. My name is George—George Ritmer, at your service.”

 

Thin Tim took the extended hand uneasily, his fear of displeasing Mr. Ritmer only slightly outweighing his fear of getting near him.

 

“I feel much better now that we have been properly introduced. Do you know why I’m here?”

 

You’re a robber and a killer, Tim wanted to say, but shook his head, afraid he would surely join Lefty if his answer was unsatisfactory.

***

Visit: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/596409 to purchase this book to continue reading. Show the author you appreciate their work!


The Infiltrators

Kingpin Righty Rick believes a few days of vacation at his new ranch are in order while he awaits the fallout from his recent rampage in Sivingdel, hoping that the public hanging of the traitors he recently served to the governor on a platter will convince law enforcement and the public that the brazen perpetrators have been duly punished. Upon return, he discovers a new problem. A shadowy group of men are murdering their way through his organization, climbing quickly up the ladder, and with no clear motive. When his sword instructor’s wife is kidnapped by his largest foreign client, matters become further complicated, as opposing her will put him at war with an organization possibly stronger than his own, and the kingpin of which happens to be the sister of his right-hand man.

  • ISBN: 9781311534422
  • Author: Daniel Lawlis
  • Published: 2015-11-28 05:20:09
  • Words: 57933
The Infiltrators The Infiltrators