A Desperate Gambit
My fingers curl around the cold hard glass. Better than a cold, hard dame, a quiet memory echoes with the ghost of a sneer. Or have you gone sap-soft already? The half-empty drink doesn’t add anything to the conversation as I stare into the uncaring swirl of blood red and midnight black that comprise my poison of choice. There’s a light fuzz hovering at the edge of my vision, a comfortable buffer that holds the harshness of a stark, pitiless reality at bay, if only for a little while. I don’t think about the headache I had waking up this morning or the one I’m likely to have tomorrow. Shut up, I tell the voice in my head. You talk too much. A grimace curls one corner of my mouth. And I’m thinking too much, which means I’ve haven’t drunk nearly enough yet. Well, there’s a way to fix that. I lift the glass to my lips and knock it back.
“She’s gone, Jack.” The words come out without my meaning them to, but I’m beyond caring at this point. The empty glass makes a hollow sound when I clunk it on the bar and I frown at it for a moment. “Gimme another.”
The murky atmosphere of Perdido’s is even more hushed than usual. A familiar malaise lies on the dimly-lit space like a wet blanket, but the typical haze of low-quality cigarillos is noticeably absent. Probably because I’m the only patron here and I haven’t bothered to light one up yet. Been too busy wallowing in my self-pity.
There’s no immediate response to my request, but I don’t bother to look up, keeping my eyes squarely on the empty glass. Not like I’ve got anything else to do with my life.
A hand slaps down on the bar, right next to that empty glass, the fingers long and the skin a brown that reminds a person of well-tanned leather. Then I do look up, right into the face of one Jacquin des Jardin, proprietor of this fine establishment. His hawk-like eyes are hard, dark and hard like obsidian, and his expression is harder. Hell, even that beak of a nose looks like a wedge of flint. Don’t let the barkeep’s apron fool you: get crossways with this man and you’ll find a blade in your kidney soon enough. And you’ll make the next day’s news when your body gets fished out of the bay. Lucky for me, Jack’s a friend.
A very pissed-off friend.
“See here, Nick,” he says, his syllables sharp like the knives he uses on both vegetables and enemies. “You’ve been muttering that crap for the last three days.” He jabs the forefinger of his other hand at me. “And for those three days, you’ve been coming in here, sitting your ass down on that stool, and drowning yourself in more bottles than I care to count.” He pauses pointedly. “The first night, I had to carry your sorry carcass back to your place just to make sure you didn’t wake up dead in some back alley.”
I wince at the memory. Or, more specifically, at the non-memory. So that’s how I got home, I think to myself. I’d been wondering about that. I recall coming here after discovering Mel had left and I remember diving into the task of trying to forget everything by drinking the strongest stuff I could get my hands on. And I remember waking up in my bed, still in my suit, with a buzz-saw cutting through my brain and a throat on fire. It was like a construction zone going on in my head, with a million hammers clanging away all at once.
“Now,” Jack continues, “I’ve told you more than once that your money’s no good here, on account of what you did for my Priscilla.” His stony expression gets even stonier somehow. “But if something doesn’t give, I’m going to have to lay down the law and tell you that you’re no good here until you straighten your crap out. Don’t make me do that, Nick.”
That hits home. That hits home damn hard. I close my eyes for just a moment, absorbing the verbal blow, steadying myself. Then I open them again.
“You’re a better friend than I deserve, Jack,” I tell him plainly. It’s a hard thing for a man to admit he’s acting a fool, no matter how little self-respect he’s got. “Okay, no more sauce.” I give the empty glass a shove and it slides a short distance down the bar top. “Would you be willing to give a man a cup or two of hot chikrey, though, before you cut him off completely?”
The right corner of Jack’s thin mouth twitches upward, which is about as close as he ever comes to a belly-laugh. “Tell you what, Nick,” he replies. “You promise me you’ll fix up whatever’s eating you and straighten out your crap, I’ll set you up with a whole pot. On the house, of course.”
I’ve made far worse deals in my life. “Done,” I nod.
Jack makes good on his promise and a short while later I’m two cups into a full pot of some damn strong chikrey, the kind that’ll wake you up even if you’re stone-cold dead. The thick, pitch-black liquid is punching me good and hard in the face, which is exactly what I’m needing at the moment, so I take the punishment with a grimace of a smile and like it. The dried and roasted root of this Venusian hybrid of good ol’ American chicory packs twice the wallop of Old World coffee, a fact which I’m appreciating right now, and I think Jack made this particular pot stronger than usual. He’s a good friend, Jack.
The haze at the edge of my vision disappears by the middle of that second cup. I take another sip, put the cup back down, and take stock of myself. The sense of helplessness that had been clinging to me these past three days is gone, too. Fallen off like an old, threadbare coat that just can’t stay together anymore.
After the pot had been brought, I’d asked Jack if he could whip me up some grub and scrounge up a copy of the day’s paper. Perdido’s doesn’t have a fancy kitchen, but Jack’s a mean knife handler in more ways than one, and he serves up regular pub fare on a consistent basis. What gets set in front of me is anything but regular pub fare, though, and I give Jack a questioning look when he arrives with an impressive sandwich of marinated fungus and a side-dish of roasted tubers, well-seasoned and still steaming. He doesn’t answer, aside from a shrug, and places a folded newspaper next to my plate. By this time, some of the early regulars have begun to filter in by ones and twos, so Jack leaves me to myself and drifts over to take their requests.
The aroma of my food reminds me how incredibly hungry I am. The first bite of that sandwich erupts in my mouth and it’s all I can do to chew it properly before swallowing. The tubers are just as delicious, but I can only take a small forkful as they’re too hot to eat yet. I take another bite of the sandwich to satisfy the immediate demands of a very insistent hunger, then push everything aside to allow the tubers to cool a bit. The food isn’t going anywhere, I tell myself, and I need to see what’s been happening. I turn my attention to the paper. More pointedly, I think as I unfold the broadsheet, I need to see what I hope hasn’t happened.
With no small amount of trepidation, I scan the headlines of the front-page stories and let out a low sigh of relief. No giant letters in bold type announce the sudden death of the imperial viceroy or an attempt on his life, so at the very least that particular point of no return hasn’t yet been passed. I work my way through the lesser stories and inside pages, looking for anything out of the ordinary, or even anything that might otherwise be ordinary but nonetheless bad news. No mysterious bodies of young women have shown up, anyway. The one body fished out of the river yesterday, according to the brief account, turns out to have been a middle-aged banker who had been about to be arrested for embezzlement when his little pyramid scheme had blown up spectacularly. That’d have been something which might have interested me on any other day.
But not today.
So there’s nothing. And nothing’s a good thing in my book. As I close the paper, my eyes catch a short follow-on story about Miss Roberts--the main story having gone to print a day or so earlier, by the references here--recapping her dramatic dive onto the cobblestone streets in the middle of an upscale neighborhood. There are comments regarding an “on-going investigation,” but the casual mention of drug-use and indications of needle-marks on the body’s arm make it clear as to what the conclusion of that investigation is going to be, regardless of the hunches of a certain chief inspector. Politics conquers all, baby. And everything’s politics in the end. The wealthy and the powerful live by a different set of laws than work-a-day slobs like you and me.
Doesn’t mean those laws can’t be rewritten, though. Doesn’t mean that at all.
My first and foremost concerns settled by the absence of news, I fold the paper back up and set it to one side, then slide my plate of food back towards me. The tubers are cool enough now that I can eat them without scalding my tongue, so I dive in and make short work of the meal. I wash it all down with one final cup of chikrey and pull my wallet out as I stand up. Down at the far end of the bar, I see Jack shake his head, but I drop a few bills on the counter anyway. He’s just going to have to deal with taking my d’argent this time. I owe him a hell of a lot more than that.
A moment later, I’m leaving the pub. The vague outline of a plan has started to form, dancing in and out of my awareness like a woman flirting with her date. If Mel hasn’t done anything stupid yet, then maybe, just maybe, I still have time to head her off.
Now, I use the word “plan” very loosely, of course, because the term generally connotes a coherent course of action and the idea coming together in my brain is nothing of the sort. Lots of other descriptors come to mind, though. A hare-brained scheme? Sure. Downright insanity? Quite likely. A desperate gambit? Most definitely. But a desperate gambit is all I’ve got to work with at this particular moment, so that’s what I’m running with.
With my brain clear and my stomach full of something other than liquor, a certain sense of purpose begins to coalesce and focuses my energy in a way I haven’t experienced in a very long time. A dust-covered memory surfaces and I realize when I felt like this before: right before that big bust that made a name for myself back in Phillie. It’s that sense of being on the hunt. I smile that not-nice smile and the various things that need doing map themselves out in my mind’s eye. Yes, I say to myself as I glance over the mental list. Exactly.
I hail a cab and tell the driver to drop me off at the edge of the financial district. The ride is quick, in part because the traffic is still light and in part because the financial district is large. But the outskirts are not too distant and that’s where the humble institution housing my meager accounts resides.
The bank lobby isn’t terribly crowded and I’m only waiting in line for a few minutes before a teller window opens up. A fresh-faced young man greets me with a practiced smile, the light fuzz clinging to his upper lip expressing an obvious yearning to be taken seriously. The effect is unfortunate, but I feel like being nice today so I don’t say anything about it.
“How may I assist you, monsieur?” he asks in only slightly accented English. I must have one of those faces that screams “American!” or something. Brits are mostly bilingual these days. We Yanks not so much.
“I’d like to speak with a senior clerk,” I reply.
The kid does his best to not look affronted and succeeds about halfway. “If you’ll permit me, monsieur,” he says in his best professional manner, “I’m quite sure I can see to your needs.”
“No offense, son,” I answer, leaning in with the full weight of all five of my standard decades, “but I don’t think so. I’m here to close my accounts.” Not that it’s a planet-shattering occurrence of anything, but the young teller’s eyes open a bit wider at that. “So, a senior clerk. Please.”
I get a quick, jerk of a nod in response. “Yes, monsieur. Of course. I will return momentarily.” And he sort of skitters away. I glance about the lobby, taking in the atmosphere and the barely-audible hum of conversation from the other teller windows along the counter. Get a good look, I remind myself. You won’t be seeing this again, not for a long while.
The kid’s not gone for more than a few minutes though, so I can’t fault him for his efforts. I see him coming back my way, accompanied by a middle-aged man with a pin-striped suit and the kind of officious expression one finds plastered on the mugs of self-serious petty bureaucratic types. I hope this isn’t going to be too terribly painful. At least his mustache isn’t a joke. The pair halt on the other side of the teller window and the man, who I’m assuming to be the senior clerk I requested, gives me a cursory examination before speaking.
“I understand, monsieur,” he says in the professional tone you’d expect from middle-management with dreams of someday making partner, “that you wish to close your accounts with us.”
“Have the services we’ve provided been inadequate in some way?” he inquires, almost but not quite keeping his expression from illustrating what he thinks of that notion.
“Not at all,” I reassure him with a shake of my head. “This institution has served me remarkably well.”
“However…?” He trails off into a question.
“However,” I explain, “I am going to be relocating. Off-planet, you see. And I would prefer it if my funds relocate along with me.”
I mean it as a joke, but he either doesn’t get it or doesn’t find it funny. “Ah,” he replies, still serious but at least apparently satisfied by my answer. “I understand.” He reaches for the drawer behind the counter. “Would a cashier’s cheque be adequate for your needs?”
I shake my head again. “The details of my relocation are still being worked out and I may need a fair amount of flexibility. Cash, if you would please.” A short pause. “A mixture of bills. I’d like some petty cash on hand if needed.”
It’s not like I have a hoard of d’argent to begin with, even with my better fortunes with clients in these last months, so the request isn’t too far out of bounds. Even with the smaller denominations, my savings amount to a single fat envelope. Still, that’s a good amount to be carrying around in a person’s pocket.
“If you would, monsieur,” the clerk slides a couple of forms at me along with the envelope. “Please sign these where indicated. This will complete the closing of your accounts.”
I nod and pick up the pen I’m given, signing my John Hancock on the lines he’s marked. And that’s that.
A minute later, I’m out the bank’s double doors and getting into another cab to take me back home. Those stiff shirts in the bank may be arrogant snits, but they’re efficient enough at what they do. Can’t complain about that. I give the fat envelope resting in my breast pocket a soft pat and settle back into my seat, running through my mental checklist. There’s a number of things to get done before nightfall.
My brilliant scheme, such as it is, amounts to little more than a gamble, a wild gamble on any number of fronts. First, I need to intercept Mel before she commits herself to anything that she can’t back out of. Second, I have to be able to convince her that my alternative might actually succeed and that it would satisfy her thirst for revenge. And third, pulling the gambit off.
And what is that gambit, you ask? Nothing less than knocking that prick Diego off his high pedestal and sending him plummeting into humiliation and disgrace. Ruining his reputation beyond repair. And possibly, just possibly, getting him arrested for treason. If I’m really lucky, they’ll shoot the bastard.
If I’m really, really lucky, Mel and I might be able to slip away with our hides intact.
It’s a crazy idea--so far beyond crazy that you can’t even see the normal kind of crazy from where I’m standing--and it has an iceberg’s chance on the Fireside of Mercury of actually working. But it’s all I can come up with and my choices are taking a crazy gamble or watching Mel throw her life to Diego’s dogs. And that’s not a choice in my book.
But for the plan to have even that iceberg’s chance, I need leverage. I need that document that the late and unlamented Simone Roberts tried to seduce me into getting for her. Once I’ve got that letter in my hands, I’ll be in business. For one thing, it’ll show Mel that I’m serious about this fool plan of mine. And for another, if it’s anything like Miss Roberts intimated, that letter just might do the job if it gets put into the right hands with the right context. Court intrigue is a deadly game. I’m no courtier, but a man doesn’t wade through the muck of Aphrodite’s underbelly for half his life without getting some sense of where the political bodies are buried. Diego’s got his fair share of enemies. It’s all about finding the right one.
The cab slows and I give my head a sharp shake--I’m getting way too far ahead of myself and that’s dangerous. I need to focus on the present and get done what needs doing. I’m trying to set a trap for some very dangerous prey, and the best way to set a trap is to have some understanding of how your quarry thinks.
And if there’s something I know something about, it’s how that man thinks.
There’s more to be done before evening, though, and I step out of the cab onto the walk in front of my building. Without hesitating, I’m through the street entrance, up the stairs, and to my office, locking the door behind me. Tossing the envelope on one side of my desk as I take my seat, I reach into the top desk drawer and pull out a pen and blank sheet of stationery.
You might be wondering what I’m up to at this point. You might also be wondering exactly how I plan to get my hands on that letter Miss Roberts was all hot and bothered over, given that the map she provided to me has been reduced to a pile of ashes and thrown in the waste bin days ago. These are excellent questions.
I’m good at my job and I’m a good snoop. Scratch that--I’m a damn good snoop. And one of those little things that makes me a damn good snoop is the fact that yours truly has the kind of memory that stores pictures in his head, particularly things that I can have a few moments of concentrated effort examining.
Like those few moments before I held a lit match to Miss Robert’s little map.
So I have all those details in my head--the map of the grounds, the notes, the marked doorways, the patrols--and I quickly sketch it out again on the sheet of paper. When I finish, I give it a good looking-over, making sure it matches what I remember, then nod in satisfaction. I stand, grab the envelope of d’argent, and head for the door, leaving the map sitting on my desk. Think of it as window-dressing in case I need to go with my contingency plan. But right now, I’ve got to take care of a few more details before tonight’s adventure.
A little while later, I’m leaving Perdido’s one last time. Jack and I have something of an understanding and the small bag he’s keeping for me will serve a purpose one way or another. I gave him a bit of the d’argent, but knowing Jack, he’ll just put it right back in the envelope with the rest of it. Jack’s like that. Stubborn as all hell.
The hour’s slipping into late afternoon by now and I’ve got some time yet before it’ll be late enough for me to get on with it, so I decide to treat myself to a dinner at Flo’s. I haven’t been by her place in a little while and odds are that I won’t have an opportunity to go by again anytime soon, so I figure I should take advantage of the opportunity while it’s here.
The dinner crowd is only now beginning to trickle in, so the diner’s not too full yet. I sit myself on a stool at the counter instead of taking a seat in a booth and Flo comes by a few moments later. I go for my favorite--that faux-Phillie cheese steak that tastes damn close to the original--but decide on a glass of water rather than a cup of chikrey. I had enough of that this morning and I don’t need to be making myself jittery this evening with too much caffeine.
Flo and I chat while I eat. It’s a good kind of casual without being too intimate. I happen to mention in passing that I’m going to be going away for a while. She takes that in without comment, but seems to get the message. At least, I think she does. It’ll have to do, regardless.
By the time we’re done, evening’s come and the streetlights have been lit. I stand and toss a few bills on the counter, leaving a nice fat tip for Flo. She deserves it, putting up with me all these years. I pull on my reversible trench coat, still with the black side in, and plop my fedora on my head. Then I’m out the door, into the night. I give the brim of my hat a sharp tug, pulling it a little lower over my forehead.
Time to get to work
I set out on foot, my pace leisurely, blending in with the trickle of pedestrian traffic. No hurry, nothing to see here, folks. It may be evening, but I’ve got to allow some time yet for the bustle of the household I’m about to break into to settle down for the night. Regardless of whether or not the master is in residence, there would be staff keeping up the place. No need to call attention to myself. I plan on being a ghost.
Plus, it wouldn’t do to bust in on someone’s dinner. That’s just not polite, you know.
The address Miss Roberts had noted is in the area and the distance is easily walkable. I meander a bit, taking something of a circuitous route. Not that it’s likely anyone is tailing me, but an extra layer of precaution doesn’t hurt and a habitual paranoia on my part has kept my skin intact on more than one occasion.
The very thin stream of traffic thins even further, both the kind with wheels and the kind with feet. The wet air, in contrast, thickens as evening slips into night, a light haze creeping in and draping itself over everything like gauze. Not circumstances I’d planned on, but hey, I’ll take any help I can get, even if it comes from sheer dumb luck. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Eventually, I near the neighborhood of my target. The buildings here exhibit that genteel kind of decay, nice digs gone to seed, a decrepit ostentation. More than one sits vacant by the looks of it, closed-up windows and overgrown lawns. Those that show signs of habitation look to be used far below previous standards, with whole wings shut down. That’s the way of it. Everything rots at some point, whether you’re talking about bodies or cities or empires; it’s only really a matter of when.
But I’ve got other things on my mind right now and no time for pondering the fate of humanity. Much more important things, like the present whereabouts of a certain hot-tempered young woman from the back hills of Nuevo México. I wish I had a clue on that particular front, because once I get my mitts on that letter of Diego’s, I’m going to need to find Mel pronto and have a heart-to-heart with her before she makes any irrevocable decisions of her own.
That’s step number two, however. Step number one involves breaking into the imperial viceroy’s hidey-hole, nicking the letter hidden by the woman he’s just had killed for taking said letter, and getting away--all without getting caught or killed, and preferably without anyone knowing I was there at all.
So no problem.
About a half block from the address, I slip into a narrow alleyway and take that opportunity to reverse my trench coat so that the night-black is on the outside. A dark cloth covers the lower half of my face and I’m all set for the night’s business.
A quick glance around shows an empty street in both directions, so I step out of the alley and move quickly but quietly the rest of the way down the block. Streetlight maintenance has been slack in this neck of the fungal forest, as the saying goes, with something like one in three functioning. The deeper-than-usual shadows help me considerably. Again, I’m not going to complain.
The address in question proves the basic outline of Miss Roberts’ sketch to be accurate. The grounds are walled, with a large metal front gate and a smaller rear service gate. The main building possesses the same faded grandeur of the general neighborhood. Several smaller buildings are scattered about the compact grounds, which I guess to be a combination of guardhouses and storage sheds. The notes Miss Roberts had added to her sketch mentioned patrols but I don’t see evidence of any. Perhaps those are only for when the master of the household is around. The whole place is pretty damn quiet, in fact. A small part of me doesn’t like that quiet, but nobody asked my opinion, either. And I don’t really have a choice here.
I climb to the top of the brick wall along the backside of the estate, but still far enough away from that service gate so as to not be too near the walkway leading to the back of the main house. I don’t pause to take in the scenery, though, and drop quickly to the ground on the far side.
Freezing in a crouch, I scan the scene, waiting for a sound, any sound, which might indicate that someone’s been alerted to my presence. I’m ready to clamber right back up the wall if there is, but there’s no hue and cry, no growling of guard dogs, no lights coming on. Only the beat of Aphrodite’s bitch-heart far away in the distance. So far, so good.
The murky glow of the streetlamps doesn’t reach beyond the wall and the lighting on the grounds is even sparser than in the street, like a feeble afterthought. Makes my job here far easier than it should be. I slip through the shadows, crossing the stretch of ill-maintained lawn and reaching the main house without incident. Still no sound from inside.
Based on the layout in Miss Roberts’ sketch, there’s a patio on this side of the house, along with a set of doors providing access to the grand hall where she said she stashed the letter. My plan at this point is simple: get in, get out, get gone.
I peer ahead through the gloom and spot the outline of the stone terrace further down, half swallowed by the haze of the wet night. Sliding along the wall, I reach the patio and climb the two steps from the lawn. The glass double doors would prove no barrier to anyone intent on getting inside, but I’m not exactly trying to announce my presence, either. The lock only argues with my picks for a moment before giving in with a soft click. One door swings open noiselessly.
I don’t pause, but step through, quietly pushing the door to without latching it. I can take care of that little detail on my way out and having one less step in case I need to beat a hasty retreat isn’t a bad idea. But the goal is for no one to know I was even here in the first place.
By the map in my head, the open space in front of me is a short connecting corridor which opens into the grand hall just ahead. I creep forward. Maybe ten feet or so and I come to the doorway I’m expecting. So far, at least, Miss Roberts’ sketch has been dead on target. I’m hoping everything else is just as accurate.
The woman’s former suite would be to my right from that doorway. The fireplace, however, is supposed to be on the far wall to my left.
I slide leftward, keeping to the perimeter wall for the time being. A short ways in, I can make out the mantle and stonework of the massive fireplace through the shadow. At that point, I cross the open floor, making a beeline for the far side of the hearth, to the outermost corner flagstone on the right hand side.
My luck continues to hold as the house remains silent. I crouch down, feeling along the edge of the flagstone. There’s a subtle groove along one side which offers a grip for my fingers, so I dig them in and give the stone a tug upward. Sure enough, the thing is loose, though not so loose as to arouse suspicion if someone were to walk over it. I prop the flagstone with one hand while I grope about underneath with the other. After a heartbeat, my fingers touch paper, an envelope of some kind. I’ll look at it later. Taking the envelope, I lower the stone carefully back down. This has been too easy, I think to myself.
Which, of course, is precisely the moment the electric lights flick on, flooding the hall with brilliance and momentarily blinding me.
“Lévez-vous, monsieur,” a cultured voice behind me says with that casual kind of command that makes it clear he’s used to being obeyed. “Stand, if you would.”
Like I said before, the best way to set a trap is to get inside your quarry’s head and know how he thinks. So much for my crazy scheme.
Looks like I’m going with Plan B.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE OCTOBER 2020 TALES TO ASTOUND.