BOTH The Order Of The Throne (~Both, ~Nonbinary ~Pulp/Noir/Thriller, ~SciFi, ~XXWG, ~Stuffing, ~Squashing, ~Stuckage)

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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
(~Both, ~Nonbinary ~Pulp/Noir/Thriller, ~SciFi, ~XXWG, ~Stuffing, ~Squashing, ~Stuckage) --- Are You sitting comfortably?

The Order Of The Throne
by Jimbob

First Phase: Invitation

In which You go through some guy's pockets

You always thought you'd see it coming.

But let's start where it began: the day some knuckle-dragging stoneage holdover Mook came crashing into your office.

He'd been pretty insistent that he wanted to see you. Or rather, he wanted to see "Big Shot Investigator", your name not having crossed his vocabulary.

"You are Big Shot?" he'd slurred, peering at you from underneath the shadows of his Karloff brow. The sway on his feet seemed to betray that he'd been a boxer once upon a time - or maybe he'd just lost too many matches to a whisky bottle. His clothes had hung on him like dust sheets on the lost masterpiece of a disgusted former prodigy, unable to look anymore at the work they'd abandoned. Seams were ripped, buttons hung on strings. You suspected if you did a 360 around him, you'd see a pair of heart-print boxer shorts exposed by the long-abandoned seat of his pants.

"Sure, I'm Jackie," you'd said, tapping the name-plate on your desk with one hand and opening the drawer in your desk with the other.

"They send me find Big Shot," he continued, as though you'd said nothing. As he swayed, his belly wobbled underneath his desperate shirt, a dangerous movement, lke the gut was getting ready to knock your lights out and the shirt was his poor sober buddy holding him back.

After a moment, you stood up, slipping a trusty blackjack into your trouser pocket as you approached.

"Listen Mister, I don't know who sent you, but they must not have told you I ain't a mentalist on the side," you said, quietly joking to keep him distracted, keeping your tone low to prevent him getting spooked. "What exactly did you want from me? And who's they? You got a mouse in your pocket?"

The Mook blinked a couple times, looked at You curious, as though for the first time.

"Mae-Linn? Baby, zat you?"

"Negative, soldier. It's your pal Jackie Cardinal. Why don't ya sit down and let's chat about old times, huh?"

He'd taken a lumbering step back, and then another forward, and all of a sudden his legs turned in their pink slips. The mook wasn't unlike that ol' gag about the 400-pound Gorilla. Which direction does he fall? Any direction he cares to.

"Big shoooo--" he'd groaned, and good little Samaritan you are, you couldn't help but reach out those arms of yours for support, ain't that so? A move you instantly regretted. Pianos falling down staircases have put less strain on a body twice as strong as yours.

"They send me, find you. Take care." He was still slurring, glassy-eyed, a seasoned traveller in the Land of Nod. You sensed it would do you well to try and make sense of him before he checked into the Slumbertown B&B.

"Who sent you, champ? Who've I got to bill for the dent in my carpet?" (And in your joints, you rued to yourself.)

"Is...are...the Throne. Offer me everything. They try to...I did not want to...and now I am this. To be. To be is to know," he'd whispered, over his more implicit threats to break every bone in your spine if someone didn't help prop him up.

"To know what?" you'd said, but it was too late.

The mook's eyes had rolled back, the first line of a battalion of Zs escaped those flat nostrils of his, and he slid mercifully out of your hands, bumping off your desk and onto the carpet and taking care to upset every single paper you'd had piled there for many months.

So there you'd been, lighting a ciggy to soothe your suddenly aching body and surveying a much larger body in front of you. From a secondary investigation, the fading shiner on his left eye and the red marks across his torso (that shirt had given up the ghost somehow during your exchange, inviting his tummy to let 'em have it) seem to indicate he might have been a top-class muscleman. In another life, maybe; he wasn't so much "running to fat" as he was sprinting right through obesity, and he'd gotten there a little quicker than the average bear.

Turning out his pockets, all you found in the left was a faded tram ticket stub and one half of a business card stained with coffee and ketchup, too soggy to ever be legible. And in the right...something else.

A regular mystery man, huh? And looks like fate had earmarked you to be the lucky so-and-so who gets to solve that mystery.

Sometimes you wish you could climb up Mount Olympus and knock on Lady Fate's exquisite marble door yourself, just to thumb your nose and tell her "Nuts To You". Freshly single, no good leads in a month and the Landlord hefting his baseball bat at you whenever your eyes met, you were in no mood for mysteries.

You're not even a detective, for cry's sakes. Your editor, Joey, never gets tired of reminding you. That's in fact what he did a minute later, when the print guys had stopped staring and fetched him to your desk.

"Aw Jackie," he'd sighed as he came across the scene. "You know you can't keep doing this."

"Oh, I'm supposed to tell the pachyderms they can go into hibernation in the lobby?"

"They'd do it in the lobby if you just took the assignments I give ya."

"The stories come when they come, Joey. I'm not covering the new boutique store opening at the Mall if there's gunshots happenin' in the slums."

"How many times have I gotta tell ya, this ain't that kind of paper!" The chief waves his cigar at you as though to imply that the larger nicotine quantity per unit signifies his eminent authority. "The Tribune is a local rag, not the god damn Enn Why Tee. The day I need you to bring down City Hall is---"

"Yeah, yeah", you'd replied, waving your own smoke in his face as you turned away. You've heard Joey's protestations about your 'methods' some five thousand times, and he's gotten used to you ignoring them five thousand and one times, since your stories just so happen to move units. You like to think he's encouraging the interns to follow your example. Or not to.

Doesn't matter, anyway. What matters is the other little thing that the Mook had in his pocket.

An envelope. Stuffed. So thick with cash it was practically glowing green, and sealed with an ornate little wax seal depicting a gorgeous-looking medieval chair, the kind typically adorned with cushions to keep the derriere of a despoiler of nations from getting too many little brusies. Wax isn't usually a medium for detail, but you could swear you see oak-leaf patterns and heraldic bears. Not to mention dragons.

The chair's upside-down. Not like everything else - the bears and dragons and all that have their feet on the ground, but the feet of the chair are waving in the air. The labelling is right-side up too.

Above the seat, orbiting it in ornate wax letters, are the words:


Sedd Peryglus

Below it:

Come And See.

And that's why you take the job.

-- (End of First Phase) --
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
Second Phase – Knights Errant

In which You brush up on your education.

Later that afternoon Joey has one of the newsboys put down a set of story leads among the still-untidied avalanche of paper across your desk. It’s his little way of saying “I’m too tired and pissed to even talk to you any more.”

Too bad, because as always, you’re one step ahead of him. You were getting groggy in the office. The oddness of your mid-day encounter had left you jumpy and staring at shadows, and the comedown not twenty minutes later seemed more than the roasted-in dregs at the bottom of the office coffee pot could handle.

The warm cinnamon-coloured light is a balm after so many hours inside the office. You light a cigarette in the misty late August afternoon, breathe it in, and let the streets swallow you.

“Weiners heyah! Everybody gotta have a weinah!”

Lunch rush hasn’t begun, not that it’d ever discourage that hot dog guy, or any of his counterparts on the blocks surrounding. But you don’t have time to trade the petty cash in your pocket for lunch on the hoof. Most days lunch has to be kept waiting until dinner, which is more than likely just what you didn’t finish at breakfast.

A little red wax seal is burning a hole in that same pocket, and curiosity is rushing to fill it.

It’s been a good six or seven years since that miraculous first week as a cub reporter, the one that ended with you sweating in front of Joey’s predecessor, Sammy Salvitar, as he growled “You’re screwy, kid, but you write material hotter than my wife’s pot roast. Hell, maybe even hotter than my girl’s ass.”

(You miss Sammy’s forgiving attitude when it came to deadlines. Not so much his passionate enthusiasm for telling everyone about his latest ‘bust’ in the bedroom. He’s happier at his family’s place in Naples since the last divorce. You assume.)

Six or seven years since he handed you your first cigar and given you your first serious assignment, covering the union-busting operation happening up at the lightbulb manufacturers’ plant. You made a name for yourself back then, sure, so good that Sammy was able to look past your...fluid presentation choices, and by the time Joey took the reins no-one batted an eyelid when you started coming in with lipstick and a flat chest under your trenchcoat.

That’s right, you ain’t exactly one, and you ain’t exactly the other. Now and again one of the cub scouts loses the bet and decides to pointedly ask, and you always say “I’m a Jackie, kid. Ever heard ‘You don’t know Jack’ about so-and-so? Well, I do. Now scram before I find you something to do.”

So nobody looks at you in the office when you don't want 'em to. You learned a long time ago that controlling your image is paramount, not just in this business but in life. Nobody's going to find the smart-ass red-head askin' questions about the bookstore robbery if she was wearing a wig, and usually goes about in dress shirt, smart suspenders and stained slacks instead of a sun-dress, and doesn't usually call themselves "her" or "she".

Nobody's going to look at you on the street today, either, because subtle disguise and blending into a crowd are all part of the canny reporter’s playbook. You make a quick march to catch one of the mid-day trams, and all you can think of is “Big Shot”. When you're not thinking of "Come and See".

The name Jackie Cardinal is known to a few in this town, and you knew you’d start getting more attention sooner rather than later. Your plan was always to turn a wall of newsprint into the fortress around you, carefully locked shut with a thousand dull pseudonyms.

You aren’t there, yet, though, and that’s what puzzles you. You thought that step into superstardom and side-step into anonymity was 10 years away, maybe 5. You’re good, but you don’t have the chops to garner so much attention.

Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe the Mook was looking for somebody in a different newspaper building.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve gotten someone’s attention.

Ridiculous. You shift uncomfortably in your seat to watch the skyline from the tram’s back window. The city seems so much taller and grander from this perspective, especially wedged between somebody’s snoring grandma and somebody else’s two-days-unshowered mechanic.

The indigo-purple of the sky runs and mixes with the greenery of the park as the tram crests a hill. Kids chase each other over the tramline to try and get a free ride on the back plate while the ticket guy ain’t looking, and automobiles scramble awkwardly in their wake like confused, gargantuan stag beetles. There’s folks hanging out their laundry in the breeze, folks deciding which greasy spoon to have lunch at.

No way anyone thinks of Jackie Cardinal as “Big Shot” reporter. No way anyone’s paid enough attention to your career to single you out. This must be a mistake. All of this, it’s so big, and you’re...so small.

You shift back in your seat, start to record your thoughts in shorthand on your latest weather-beaten notebook. You doodle in the margins while you’re thinking. After all, no-one's paying attention to you now, either.

Or so you’d like to think.

-- Cont'd --
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
You stop in at the shady side of the North Village, the particular district of City where comedians, stage magicians, poets and other...career-challenged individuals somehow manage to scrounge together enough loose change to keep the landlord’s pockets jingling. That type does tend to favour big, heavy sofas, in your experience. Maybe that’s how they always find the coins.

The tram-car’s worn leather seats have a tendency to leave your lean behind with enough sores to make you partial to such a cushioned seat, and that makes you doubly glad you’re visiting the Perfesser.

You don’t need to buzz. The buzzers in this neighbourhood barely work, and an enterprising thief can find ways in through the similarly unlocked windows. It’s a solid bee-line from the door to her fifth floor apartment. You flop onto the reading chair with a sigh of bliss.

“Make yourself at home, Jackie?” she says, not looking up from her desk.

You sigh, allowing the marshmallow folds of the second-comfiest sofa in the city envelop you and make you one with its’ worn-out softness. You pull a blanket over you and mumble: "Gimme a break. I almost got sat on by a sleepwalking rhino at the office today."

“Presumably you met at Sleepwalkers Anonymous,” the Perfesser replies, quick as a whip.

She’s still not looked up from her work: her desk is overlaid with a creaking second-hand artist’s drawing board, clamped to which is an overhead lamp that’s somehow brighter than the sunlight streaming through the windows and another overhead lamp stand with three different magnifying glasses soldered to it. Underneath them all is some kind of...salamander, which she’s painting in watercolours, from life; a live specimen is lazily brooding at the bottom of a goldfish bowl on her right.

Her given name is Megan Brody. They call her “The Perfesser” because she’s got a mail-order encyclopedia plus change locked inside that noggin of hers, and the revisions are ongoing. But it’s always Perfessr, not Professor, because nothing has ever been enough for Megan – no single field of academic study, no single strain of Chinatown’s finest teas, no single hair-ribbon. When the Perfesser finds something interesting, she finds all of it interesting. Why limit the appetites of her mind?

Megan speaks with an accent she assures you originates in a far-off realm known as “Lancashire”. Shewears whatever clothes she can throw on for a period of three to four days a week, perpetually ties her caramel-blonde hair into a messy bun fastened together with pencils and finances her semi-bohemian lifestyle by providing reliable information to anyone who’s too bored to bother with a library. This is also why she dislikes being called a Professor – she’s a cut above the academic body of this entire city, and half of the graduates in the past 5 years owe their success to her pin-point accuracy in predicting the next year’s essay questions.

Aside from the goldfish bowl and various rigged-up equipment that was not there when you called last week, her desk is overlaid with the usual canopy of half-finished books from libraries and campuses all over the State, most of them overdue. Stacks of notebooks and uncleaned plates sit around the place along with the smell of pipe-smoke and burnt coffee. Heck, you knocked over a dusty stack of knitting needles and wool when you crawled onto this...inviting couch...

"Ahhh..." You could fall asleep here. Better not, though. Before your eyelids droop "I got questions for ya, Perfesser. And a mysterious seal."

"Interesting opener! 'Hey sweet cheeks, can I buy you a drink?' is more of the traditional method."

You sit up and meet her gaze. She's smirking, catlike, and her eyes tell you that you're the cream.

You have fallen asleep here, on occasion.

“Get the kettle on, shall I?” she says, cleaning off her paintbrush.

--(Cont’d)--
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
You tell her all about Your mysterious visit over tea and cheap, slightly stale shortbread cookies. The Perfesser nods and “Mms” the entire time, alternately taking notes in shorthand and longform. She gasps in intrigued delight when You show her the seal. The gasp that probably makes You blush. You get a little warmer, anyway.

Rather than say anything, she rushes into the ‘Archive’ – a bedroom that’s been used for sleeping maybe twice or thrice for actual sleeping, and no wonder considering this couch – and You get a minute to appreciate the pert wiggling of her shapely behind, where it shows through the outsize, egg-and-breadcrumb stained shirt she’s been wearing. Like Yourself, oftentimes the Perfesser’s clothing choices will hide the sensual curves she sports. Her brain is the priority, of course. The body takes a back seat.

She comes back out humming a dissonant variation of “Get Your Kicks On Route 66” and seats herself down next to You, thigh to thigh. Your hand moves of its own accord towards her lap and is swiftly swatted by a leatherbound volume entitled Brief Delves Into The Symbolic Annals Of The English Church.

“You get two of these for free, darling,” she trills, “because they’re dead simple.”

“Two outta how many?” You ask. Perfesser’s overcharged You before, and though You don’t mind paying with Your lips, Your tongue or Your fingers, it’s still the middle of the day in a building with walls like wadded-up tissue paper and far too many neighbours. Plus, You locked most of Your “fee” for this scoop in Your safe back at the office, the rest saved for Your expenses.

“Just four,” she replies. She sneaks a hand under the blanket - ! - and into Your jacket pocket, fishing out Your own notebook to scribble in as her other hand flips to the relative sections of the book. “Firstly, ‘Come And See’. This is a dead giveaway, Jackie. They’re trying to scare you.”

“They sure are,” You reply, in the voice of someone who knows what they’re talking about. She treats that with a stifled guffaw.

“It’s a Bible verse, which I’m sure you didn’t know. The words ‘Come And See’ appear four times in the 6th chapter of the Revelation of John of Patmos. ‘And I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, come and see’.” Her right hand rests on her breast as she recites these words, then rises to display every finger except her curled-in thumb. “Four times. One for each of the four many-eyed Beasts that John meets around the Throne of God, on the sea of crystal; one for each of the four Horsemen who ride out to destroy the world. Do you see what your...new contacts have done, though?”

She likes to set them up for You, and You like being smart enough to know where she’s going.

“It’s the words, but not the chapter or verse,” You guess, correctly.

“Ten out of ten! They want you scared but interested. So you don’t know if they’re inviting you to your Death, or toward War, or Famine--”

“Or Pestilence, yeah, I get it.”

“Uh-uh-uh, not so! ‘Pestilence’ is a common translation, sure, but it’s more directly called ‘Conquest’. A sort of...open position for whatever else might be particularly bothering us at the end of days.”

“You talk about that like someone who believes in it.”

She laughs. “Or like someone who’s actually read it, Jacks. The two don’t get confused too often.”

You take another sip of tea, and rub her hand. “OK. I appreciate the detail on this potential death threat, Perfesser. What’s my next freebie?”

“The Sedd Peryglus, of course. It’s Welsh – “The Siege Perilous”, or I suppose you’d say a dangerous seat. That’s something you’ll find in any kid’s section of any corner bookshop, my love. King Arthur and all that. Very holy.”

“Huh. So I’m at the mercy of a squad of angry Sunday School teachers?”

“Or you’re being sent on a quest!” She trills.

You’d love to share her enthusiasm. It’s just that said ‘quest’ began with an overweight wrestler almost squashing you to unconsciousness. If this is how Your new bosses hire people, how do they get rid of’em?

“So what’s a Sedd Peryglus when it’s at home?”

“Glad you asked.”

Her hands flip closer to the start of the book, wherein are laid black-and-white illustrations in fine cross-hatched detail, depicting the infamous round table. At the right sits the crowned Arthur, nobly kissing the hand of his fair wife Guinevere, who is blithely flirting with the handsome Lancelot somewhere in the foreground. As though there wasn’t enough romance in this room already.

The Perfesser’s thumb guides your eyes to the left of the ancient monarch, to a seat left empty by his side – draped over with a parchment, on which is written “SIEGE PERILOUS”. Behind it stands an ancient bearded man in a white robe, unmistakably Merlin.

“On the day Guinevere gifted Arthur his round table, so that no knight would sit before his fellow or his King,” she explains, “the faithful Merlin enchanted the seat nearby to Arthur so that it could only be taken by ‘The Best Knight Of The World’, and that any other who sat on it would die.”

“Wow. Tough break,” You say, for lack of any better answer. “And what’s the connection to ‘Come And See’?”

“None whatsoever, excepting that both might equally be threats, or just there to get you interested.” She takes a second bite of shortbread and offers the plate to you. You take one yourself, regretting that missed hot dog.

"And here’s where it costs. This is not the insignia of any existing Order of Knights," she says. The Perfesser is always definitive about these matters. If it's not in her memory, odds are it doesn't exist anywhere else either.

“Insnugnah of the whosis of whats?” You ask anyway, somehow managing to feign an ignorance that is very real. She rolls her eyes.

“An Order is a religious society of Knights clubbed together to protect, ugh, Christian ideals. They come with a nice picture like this one, to carve on your armour or decorate your stationary. Some of them were military, like the Order of the Dragon that lent its name to Vlad Dracul – and his son, Vlad Dracula – and others are equestrian, or made around chivalry. Most of the higher-up toffee-noses back home are connected to the Order of the Bath, which has existed...hrm. I see,” she says, noting your eyes glazing over.

“To the chase, then: this seal is clearly meant to invoke an Order, but it’s not one that exists in England. And it’s not as though anyone over here can get knighted. Not properly.”

"There’s nothing like that in all of the Empire? You're sure?" You ask, half-teasing. She looks up and flicks a drop of lukewarm tea at you.

“If there were some ‘Order of the Seat’ or ‘Order of the Throne’ formed even as soon as last week, I’d know, darling. Information flows in and out of this flat quicker than salmon upstream in the spawning season.”

Now her hand finds Your lap, and there’s no books in easy reach to shoo it off.

“A girl has to ask, Jacks...are you safe?”

You snort. Of course the Perfesser’s getting sappy. You might be one of the five people she ever gets to talk to, even counting her Mom begging her every fortnight to marry some nice boy and start learning how to cook a brisket.

“Aw Meg,” You coo. “You’re not getting...soft on me, are ya?”

She huffs, blowing her hair out of her eyes, but her hand isn’t off Your lap yet. In fact, it’s drumming her fingers.

“An envelope of cash, delivered to you by a gentleman short of his wits, covered in potential threats...that’s not worrying to you? Don’t get me wrong, a quest is an exciting thing, but when there’s Crusades and Apocalypses mixed in...I can’t help but make connections…”

Her breath is warm on Your neck, and even unbeknownst to herself, she’s starting to shrug off the shoulders of her outfit, exposing the gorgeous, ever-so-slightly sweaty hills of those lovely shoulders. How well suited that tight collarbone is to Your hands on a day like this…

“Well, if you’re worried how long I’m gonna stick around”, You breathe, her hand beginning to tease at Your zipper, “Maybe...maybe I --”

BRRRRRIIIIII--

The telephone sees an opportunity to be the hero of the hour and seizes it with enthusiasm. Instantly the Perfesser is up and bristling like a cat – no matter how steamy it gets in this apartment, any new job or unfinished essay is bread on the table.

You breathe easy. Temptation was there, but You’ll appreciate that weird comic-book artist guy next door not getting another chance to sneer as You button up Your collar on the way out.

Curiously, the Perfesser waves you over and puts the receiver to your ear.

Jackie? It’s Joey,” he says, as though You couldn’t mistake that too-many-hours-in-the-office wheeze. “And how’s it I knew you’d be here, uh? You gotta broaden your Stoolie portfolio, kid.

“Uh, kinda busy here Chief,” You say, politely meeting the Perfesser’s eye. “If it’s about that charity gala, sorry to say I’m not gonna--”

I know, I know, you got a hot new lead. That’s why I’m callin’. Your...visitor is awake again and he’s asking for “Big Shot” again.

Damn. The chase is on.

You get the name of the hospital from Joey and grab your hat, despite the Perfesser’s disappointed look.

“Duty calls, then? The quest ongoing?”

“I’m sorry, Perfesser. We’ll go to the movies some time this week, my treat, howzat sound?”

“Abominable. They haven’t made a plot I couldn’t guess. But if you felt like a stroll in the park one of these days...”

“Sure thing. And, uh, Megs, I gotta ask…"

She looks up hopefully from her tea. That sofa’s cushy warm seat next to her still looks so damn inviting…

“Yeah?”

No, Jackie. The story is calling.

“...uh, what’s with the newt?”

She sighs and begins finishing off the shortbreads, likely the only thing she’ll remember to eat today.

“Mmf, ‘s a Ash-o-lot.” With one hand she scribbles the word in a notebook, and holds it up: Axolotl. “Mesoamerican salamander found solely in Lake Chalco, in Mexico. They don’t look like this one, though.”

You bend down to peer at the wriggling black critter. It doesn’t look so different from the ones you used to fish out of the park river when you were a kid, only scaled up. It grins stupidly at you.

“Looks like any salamander to me.”

“In the 1830s, Auguste Dumeril sent off for a box of these to study them live in his lab. They typically look like this…” she thrusts into Your hand another painting, of a pale white salamander, smaller than the one you see before you, its grin more benign, its head ringed by a mane of pink fronds, like fern leaves. Pretty little thing.

“Like a fairy,” You say.

“True enough. But when Dumeril opened his box, he found big dark salamanders like this one. They’re Peter Pan lizards, Jacks. Instead of egg--tadpole--frog, they don’t ever grow up. Evolution found it more convenient that They sit at the bottom of the lake living in these child-like bodies, and it’s only when things get too warm and dry for them that they turn into adults. And then, shortly afterwards...they die.”

The Axolotl in the bowl keeps wriggling, and smiles at you again. It probably doesn’t know any of this. It seems better off for that ignorance.

In her painting, still half-finished, it's rounding a circle with its' juvenile form, chasing at it; between them is a single egg. A cycle that the creature broke, but also one that can be forced on it any time.

You wonder about the Perfesser, sometimes.

“So you...you made it grow up, just to die?”

She throws her hands in the air. Clearly this is beyond ordinary understanding.

“Experiment. The pet shop in Humber Street would have thrown it away into the park for not being sold, and it’d have died. This way someone...someone gets to remember it.”

She’s not so certain. You’ve pierced the little world she’s made for herself in this apartment, where her actions are all for the good.

“Forget I said anything, Perfesser. All of us gotta grow up sometime, I guess.”

You kiss her cheek goodbye – she sighs – and head out to go and meet the Mook.

(Cont’d)
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
Something peculiar happens to You on the way to the hospital.

As You're scouting out the next tram, you find yourself getting light-headed...no, light-footed. As though the ground beneath you were a conveyor belt moving in a hundred different directions, and the sky a dozen set of colours.

When it's over, You're on the tram heading back toward the East Side, where the more affordable hospital is located, but You don't quite remember how you got there. It's not like a drink-haze, or a symptom of tiredness - You know how those feel and this ain't it.

It's like...like one of those times at the movies. "Reel Missing" or some such. One minute, on the street in front of the Perfesser's building; another, on the tram, with twenty-five minutes distance between you.

You sit up, groggy. Something's clutched in each hand.

In the right is a hot dog. Still warm, messy lines of red and yellow criss-crossing it like lazy rivers, a snug bed of roasted onions and pickles nestling it in the bun.

You could focus your attention on what's in your left hand but somehow you know that this hot dog is going to hit the spot. You shove it in your mouth with wild abandon and chomp. It's greasy, salty, a wad of processed beef and cheap bread that somehow the angels have blessed as the only thing on this blighted world that comes anywhere close to the food of Heaven. You moan unconsciously and practically swallow it whole, eyes closed in ecstasy, and make sure to lick out the stray onions lost in the napkin, and the grease of your fingers for good measure...

And just as suddenly as that, the frenzy is over. More suddenly than waking up from that period of lost time. A woman across from you stops staring and uncovers the ears of the sleeping toddler on her lap, shaking her head at your own bleary confusion. From the look on her face, you'd assume you'd lured another kid of hers into a gingerbread house.

What...what the Hell? You find yourself wondering. Appetite, or lack thereof, is something you've always had in common with the Perfesser. Food is not Your biggest priority. But that, there was something else. That...really did hit the spot, didn't it?

You look at your left hand, finally. It's crammed with warm, grease-stained, onion-embedded napkins.

A lot of spots needed hitting, apparently.

You look down at your shirt. The buttons are straining a little, and there's ketchup and mustard stains on them...You check, and yep, sonuva bitch, there's some on Your collar and Your cheek as well. You pull Your coat to try and hide most of it.

Huh. Whatever that was...You're scared. Are You losing your goddamn marbles, or did something...happen to You just now? The thought makes You belch. It's not the most familiar feeling, not something You do often. A good journo is hungry for the story, and plenty else besides.

Maybe the Perfesser was on to something.

The hospital building looms in the distance and You become awfully aware that it's Your stop. You attempt to wrestle what feels like an extra bowling ball's worth of street-corner food out of your seat, cursing mildly despite the frowns of the other passengers. Your heart is pounding, but never mind. This'll be...motivating. This'll make it way more likely you can get some answers out of that there Mook.

You're still burping and hiccupping lightly when you get out, wondering if you might be sick. You're avoiding eye contact, stumbling under your stuffed gut. Hopefully the nurses will get you a glass of water, or better yet a cup of coffee, to help settle this...new development.

So You don't see Me on the other side of the tram car as you get out, tracking your every move.

Scared is not what you should be feeling.

Not yet.


(Cont’d)
 
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JimBob

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You're sipping at a fine cuppa joe - just fine, not good - when You shuffle into the Mook's hospital room, coat buttoned all the way up. The nurse's at St. Martha's are used to You questioning their charges, or turning up as one of them on a bad weekend.

Another dixie cup is in Your hand, and he takes it willingly from You.

"Figured you might need it. And that you'd take it black, same as me. One hard-ass to another," You smile. It's a little forced. You still taste beef dogs. You don't even like beef dogs, You suddenly remember.

The cup is a thimble in the Mook's hands. He sips, swills it around in his mouth. Sighs with satisfaction, a big heartfelt sigh that emanates from deep in the diaphragm. Looks up at you.

"You are Big Shot," he says.

Your smile stays frozen.

"Who told you that?"

He sips at his coffee again.

“When I wake yesterday, I was lying in gutter on Damocles Alley. No memory. No uhh...aspirin. Very…” he puffs out his cheeks and mimes a balloon around his torso, puffing up.

It’s cute. You smile, a little.

“No memory?”

“Remember nicht. All he could remember was deep voice, saying find Big Shot. From newspaper.”

“‘He’?”

“Excuse please. Me.”

You sit down next to him in the chair by the hospital bed and fork out a portion of cash. He blinks placidly at it, big eyebrows rolling over like lazy cats.

“This – some of it – was in your pocket. Do you recognise it?”

“Everyone in city recognise money.”

"True enough. Why was it in your pocket, champ?"

The lazy cats roll over again, and he sits up in bed with a huff.

"This is being...mystery to me."

Troubling. This fella’s sounding more and more like some kind of stooge. You remind yourself you’re a newspaper professional, and that interviewees are better at ease with their friends than their interrogators.

Also that you’ve got a troubled stomach that needs sleeping off. It gurgles to remind you.

“So...remember, uh, nicht. Is that down to the essentials?”

“Oh, before that night is good. I remember Mother Russia, and coming to the city to be boxing champion. Big-Shot like you, uh? Remember luck running out, going on ‘rest break’. Gamble much, alcohol much. Then...days gone. Wake in gutter. Find Big Shot.”

“And how about Mae-Linn?”

“Who is?”

Blank. Just as much as when you asked him about the cash. You wave a hand to dismiss the thought, hiding the way it’s turning circles in Your head. He’d clearly mistaken you for this “Mae-Linn”, whoever she was, and now he’s so confused at the name it’s clearly a waste of Your time prodding further. You don’t want him falling on You again, anyhow.

So someone’s willing to go to enough trouble to put down a guy this size, just to get Your attention with a creepy message. Who’s that well connected, and has you on their radar? You cast about in your own long memory for a story that might have ruffled the wrong feathers. You come up blank. Everything You’ve done so far has been about small-scale: corrupt factory bosses, neglectful councilmen, the occasional money laundering biz disguised as a legal trader (once, an actual laundry). They hadn’t enough scratch between them to stuff that envelope, let alone throw it away on a bug like Yourself, nor did any of their rivals. A dead end, and You know it ain’t Your last.

And You don’t like this memory lapse of his. Too like Your own. Whoever’s on Your tail, they clearly like to play games, and it’s been a long while since Sunday chess tournaments at the rec centre. You always got it confused with checkers anyhow.

Maybe You oughta buy some kind of offensive weapon, at last. Switchblade or somethin’.

“What’s your name, hot-shot?” You ask, sticking out Your hand. This guy’s going nowhere, time to wrap it up and regroup at the old homestead.

“His name is...excuse, my name is Dimitri.”

“Sure thing, Dimitri,” You say, immediately forgetting. What’s in a name? When it came to passing out labels, God clearly scribbled The Mook on the back of this fella’s shirt collar and probably regretted not spelling the first word Duh. “Listen, I gotta take off, but you have my word that whoever did this to you is gonna hear from my accountant - ” (You tap the notebook in Your coat pocket) “ - or, if it comes to it, my legal representative - ” (You hold up your left fist) “ - and we’re going to get the story you need.”

You pat him on the cheek in what you hope comes off as reassuring. It’s...nice, actually. His stubble feels closer to fluff than the sandpaper You were expecting. He doesn’t smile nor look reassured.

Wait, he’s getting up. That’s not meant to be happening.

“Hey, whoah there hoss!” You caution. “Don’t think they’ve signed You off yet...”

He shakes his head, making those soft cheeks wobble like an old bulldog, attempting to get to feet that are clearly full of pins, also needles. He groans, winces, and looks back at You with renewed attention.

“Dimitri comes – uh. Excuse me. I coming with You.”

You hold up Your hands, halfway to the door.

“Not a chance. I work alone, bub. Reporter’s privilege.”

(That’s something You made up, of course, to hide the fact that while scared and paranoid and alone, You’re happiest when you can at least control one of those things. You’ve used the excuse many times.)

“Let me be muscle for You, then! Or what, I sit here think about no remember, no good for nobody otherwise? You are Big Shot, but You are also little...er...Patzl,” he says, patting Your shoulder. (You charitably assume this means “Trooper”, or perhaps "Professional".) “You are need help.”

Your next words come with free icicles attached, and you’re inviting him to keep the change.

“My Ma passed in two days of deliverin’ me into this world, Pally (Godrestersoul), and ain’t nobody carried me since. I ain’t gonna get manhandled by no Mook, neither.”

He smiles, no more troubled by Your words than a mountain by a sharp, cool gale. “So you stay on ground. He -- I stay on ground with you. Provide fist, or choking grip, or sit on...bad guy if he try to run. Like, uhh, Bodyguard, yes?”

That’s a tempting offer if ever You heard one. You cross the room and look out the window so he doesn’t see You considering it. You’ve had a few scrapes in recent years, sure, and Your disguise kit could do with some sprucing up...but you think back to what the Perfesser asked You before.

Are You safe? Not so long ago You lost twenty five minutes of Your life that ain’t never coming back, and part of that was apparently eating the equivalent of one-tenth Your bodyweight in processed Pork and Beef (or so You hope).

Can You rely on Your wiry fists and concealed blackjack to keep You out of trouble forever?

Can You rely on Your mind at all?

Did You ever think about this, Jackie A. Cardinal?

Ya big dunce?

You’re sweating, breathing shallow breaths, but a comforting hand lands on Your shoulder. The Mook has lumbered to his feet and is standing behind You, reflected in the half-light of the window before your eyes. He's not gonna try and fall on You again. In fact, that big heavy warmth in his hands is like a comfort blanket or a cloak, soothing out the knots that have sat under Your skin for God knows how long...

“So is deal, then? Only, you do not smoke, please. Is not good smell, and my chest no longer so strong.” He pats his sternum. “Too much broken.”

That clinches it. To hell with protection, if it means You’re even slightly inconvenienced. You shake Your head and pat his warm, downy cheek in a way that’s as patronising as it can be while you’re stood on tiptoes. (Or maybe just because You couldn’t resist the temptation. It’s like a big warm duckling.)

“Not no way, not no how. My decision is final, bub,” You say.

You don't want to hurt his feelings, so You give him a pleasant wink as You close the door.

(End of Second Phase)
 
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FFAscinated

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OMG How did I miss this? I'm studying noir at the moment (i.e. reading The Annotated The Big Sleep which I highly recommend.) This mix of genres is terrific. Hope you have LOTS more up your sleeve, Jim Bob.
 

JimBob

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OMG How did I miss this? I'm studying noir at the moment (i.e. reading The Annotated The Big Sleep which I highly recommend.) This mix of genres is terrific. Hope you have LOTS more up your sleeve, Jim Bob.

Aheh, thank you so much! This was meant to be a done-in-one like "Andi's Chest", but my fascination with the genre (and some kind feedback from the wonderful Stevita) encouraged me to make it a longform piece with seven "Phases".

I'm playing fast and loose with setting - thought it'd be a proper 1920s Noir but now it's looking to be closer to mid-1950s, but expect a couple of anachronisms? Especially as the (very very loose) inspiration was playing through "Bioshock" a week ago for the first time ever.

(Oh, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which *I* recommend if you're studying noir. It's more contemporary but still very much of the genre.)
 

JimBob

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Third Phase – The Prize

In which You’re not so careful what You fish for

You meet the Mook on the sidewalk at 5:30 AM, Monday. He’s got a couple of aluminium-wrapped bagels in a bag and two cups of piping-hot Joe resting on the newspaper box next to him. Damn straight. You didn’t lock every last ciggie You had in the office safe last night for nothing.

He cleans up well, this Mook. Somehow he’s found a trenchcoat and suit combination that simultaneously fits a 6-foot former boxer with a spare tire that could rescue a freight truck, and makes him look entirely inconspicuous. Even his however-many-day growth of beard is neatly trimmed, framing his red round cheeks with a rakish charm.

“Black, with nothing. For tough guys, uh? Hard of asses.”

You don’t correct him. He hands You Your coffee. It’s a cold morning, and it feels just right.

“I am hope you like salmon,” he winks.

You grunt, hoping the caffeine rush will make You more pliable. In truth, You’re damn grateful to be biting into the cream cheese, salty lox and pleasing onion-rich bagel bread this morning, because of the other big change.

You’re...bigger, wider. Zaftig. More solid. More sturdy.

You have put on weight, Jackie.

Now that ain’t regular, is it? You’re getting older, and Lord knows You’ve seen many a faithful newshound turn into a pampered pooch the minute he hits his 40s and starts to afford the expensive hooch and big gala lunch assignments.

They say a gal putting on a couple pounds is downright attractive; in a fella, it's a sign of success. You're not one or the other, and this sudden development is nothing but an unwelcome mystery.

But it’s like the “Big Shot”. This wasn’t something You anticipated hitting You just yet. You’re past the quarter-century mark, sure, but it’s not like You’re not even faintly attached to the desk, it’s practically greased to make a quicker getaway. And You’ve only just started quitting the cigarettes.

So it has to be something else.

Ah, to hell with it, You know what it is.

That's probably why You changed Your mind. In the flurry of anger that took You from the hospital back home on Wednesday, You forgot all about Your little lapse of memory...and surge of appetite for street foods...and by the time You got home, You'd chalked it up to a stressful week.

Called the office, and Your Pa. Told 'em both You'd be taking the next few days to chase some leads. Maybe You meant that. Maybe it was even true.

You don't know, 'cause You don't remember.

What You do remember is waking up sprawled across the bed like a lizard in the sun, clad in nothing but boxers, socks and Your wristwatch. All of them...suddenly very painful. Pinching.

You are not someone who takes care of themselves, Jackie.

You live a sparing, Spartan lifestyle. Always on the move, so anything You have to prepare for Yourself is going to be pre-packaged or easily reheated. You deign to own a freezer for those nights when a complicated story needs chewing over, and even then half Your dinner gets forgotten in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Occasionally some Dame will breeze into Your life and try to fix things up. Now and again, rarer but not impossible, that Doll is a Guy.

Whoever they are, they'll try their hardest. Get regular meals in You, get to the launderette every week, You know the drill. Never does it work out. You can't be slowed down. Inevitably they realise what they saw in You wasn't nothin' but a reflection of what they wanted in themselves, and they go back out into the world, dabbing at their eyes with a handkerchief.

And You get to live for a while in the spotlessness they left behind, before Your bad habits muss it up again.

Yeah, once in a while, along the way, love's been good to You.

This was the opposite, Jackie. Pure carnage.

When I heard, I did feel sorry for You.

You'd tried to roll over and found an unfamiliar obstruction. Some sticky residue was left on Your face and stuck to the pillow, and when You'd wiped at it the acidic taste of citrus was left behind. Marmalade. Somehow...yes, on the side table, a jar of marmalade. Empty.

When did You even buy marmalade?

"Hiccup," You'd said to Yourself, by way of explanation.

Clambering slowly, gingerly against the ball of uncomfortable pain under your ribcage, You'd stepped over pie tins, licked-clean wrappers, empty beer and liquor bottles, discarded forks and spoons, into the harsh light of the bathroom to inspect Yourself. You don't own a scale - You don’t need to be told Your worth - but the results of Your "chasing the leads" sabbatical were clear.

It wasn't a one-off, that "Reel Missing" moment with the hot-dogs. This time both reels had gone on the lam and carried away the projector with 'em.

Jackie Cardinal has a sleepwalking problem.

Jackie Cardinal has a gluttony problem.

Jackie Cardinal has a gut.

That moment at the mirror had felt like something out of a horror movie, a Jekyll/Hyde screecher complete with 3-D effects. You'd turned around, the full 360, to survey the way Your figure had changed from a straight-edged l to a paunchy b.

The damn thing had been...red with strain, and impossibly round, like a globe or a cannonball. You'd poked at it with a finger and regretted it, doubling over in pain as best You could until the gas left with a relieving "Brrraaaapp".

Somehow Your cheeks were rosier, Your eyelids puffier. A quick prod at Your armpits and neck showed no swelling, so not glandular fever.

Your chest...well, You were relieved to see only a subtle development there. Just some little...whadayacallit...bee stings? They bounced when You pressed them in, but only subtly. A tight shirt would keep them in check.

A little relief. You'd always taken pride knowing Your disguise kit need not contain "tucks" for both top and bottom so long as Your trousers were loose.

Were loose. A glance over Your shoulder tested out that theory. Huh. Those cheeks were rosier too; Your 'seat' was reinforced; there was a little less definition to those stick between it and Your feet.

You had become...Plump.

In two days?!

How?

How in two days?!?

"Hic," You'd said again, for want of a better word.

"Uhh...rrurrarp," even.

Picking Your way through the wreckage of Your apartment, You'd found Your fridge to be totally empty, Your freezer likewise, a graveyard of pots and pans left in Your sleeping self's wake.

Even the hole in the wall where You left a tin of red velvet cupcakes had been raided. Figures, since it was You doing the raiding. A shame, though, since You'd been planning on eating one for a treat when You made Your next headline.

You'd turned back, sluggish, to Your simple little kitchen table, enough room for two chairs. One of them the clean centre of a crater of grease stains, ketchup, other splatter.

On the other, a revolver You've never seen before, new from the store, innocently perched in its box with the chamber out. Only four bullets in there.

Four bullets. Four horsemen. You can’t help but notice patterns.

Underneath it, a note, carefully typed.

AND I HEARD, AS IT WERE THE NOISE OF THUNDER...

Underneath that, a wax seal You’ve seen before. The mark of the Throne.

Spooky shit. Putting the fear into You. Bible stuff again.

If You'd had it in You, You'd have screamed all the rage out and bashed the chair against the wall until it was firewood. As it was, all You could do was burp and feel ridiculous about it. And maybe a little lucky that Your...other self had been considerate enough to line Your stomach and avoid that hangover.

You'd thrust the gun in Your pocket, kicked a path thru the wreckage and found the telephone, on-the-hook and not sticky with anything, thank Christ.

Dialled the hospital. Asked for that room.

"My body needs guh, hic, guarding," You'd begrudgingly admitted, over the gurgling strains of your overstuffed middle. "My place, brap, 5:30, tomorrow. Don't make me regret my sudden flights of fancy."

Working alone is a matter of pride, but only if You're sure You are alone.

You always thought a partner would hold You back. Maybe that's why You have one now. In case You need restraining.

Plus, bagels are a nice bonus. Maybe Your bodyguard deserves a bigger cut.

You feel Your thighs rubbing up against one another in what You thought were outsized pants. The result of sleeping through Your food-bender is, impossibly, a layer of thick pudge around Your middle, Your thighs, Your neck and cheeks. Parts of You jiggle now if You turn too quick. Your body, moving of its own accord. Downright disturbin' is what it is.

You really wish it was the stress.

“What now?” asks the Mook.

You slurp back the dregs of Your coffee. Feels good. Oil for the engine. You adjust the brim of Your hat the way Bogart used to do in the movies, stretch out Your shoulders.

“Now...we go to work.”

--(Cont’d)--​
 
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JimBob

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[NOTE: the story of "Order of the Throne" is fluid - i.e., I know the big beats from beginning to end, but the details can and will change as the story is written. Where necessary I will update the tags, and in fact already have]
 

JimBob

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Fifteen minutes after he found the second chair, the Mook gingerly lowers his feet onto it and settles back.

“He is not expecting work to be...well. ‘Work’, like this,” he says.

You sigh, not looking up. “It can’t all be like in the movies.”

Nobody likes heading into the microfiche department, least of all You. Every wordnik who gets sent here is either wise enough to bring along a pack of cards or a yo-yo or something, or...goes into it with thrilling dreams of fitting together the pieces of the jigsaw only to find that God himself has carefully placed every single piece in a separate box and then thrown half of them in the river.

Bottom line: newspapers need every sheet filled, every single day, even a cheap circus sideshow like the Tribune. And despite what all the editors and board members and wise-asses in journo college will tell You, news does not happen every day.

So inevitably Your broadsheets are going to be filled, stuffed to the brim with...air. Letters from outraged housewives about the short socks girls are wearing, or demands that the Mayor send more cops to Little Italy (keep dreamin’, pal), or latest updates on the price of coffee beans.

The kind of stuff You read when You’re stuck waiting for something You don’t want, like the train to work, or a root canal. Distractions. Trivia. Fluff.

Your middle gurgles, soft and low, and You sigh.

Newspapers ain’t the only thing getting filled up with fluff these days.

Relax, Jackie, focus on the work.

So it’s been like this. File thru the filing cabinets. Find the little teeny slices of film. Examine them in all their garish preserved glory through what feels like a 7-goddamn-thousand-watt projector in a room with no other source of visible light.

Make notes while the Mook shifts backwards and forwards on an already decrepit office chair and nearly breaks his neck before You carefully suggest a footrest might be in his near future.

Come up with bupkis.

So far You’ve been here through the morning and into lunch, with nothing turning up about no throne, no order, no doomsday cults. That-all makes enough sense. The doomsday cult that’s stupid enough to get exposed by the local papers ain’t worth the dough they dropped on candles. But nothing else is turning up either.

You thought You’d start with the Mook’s boxing career. No dice. Somehow Dimitri Belyaev, a healthy, strapping stack of junger mann with (he assures You) seven consecutive knockout matches in a row, “World Champ, this is true”...doesn’t show up in the sports page once, in a year? Two years? Not even that lousy “Any Other Business” column that they kept running, even when Sammy said he’d love to put out his cigar on the thumbnail of the fop what writes it?

You moved on to the records of immigration. It’s only ever name, origin and date-of-birth, and most of those are made up anyhow. Anything to get cheap hired hands. But the coastal offices always copy in the newspapers so they can chase up leads if need be. You hear they have a similar deal with the cops, so it always felt pretty slimy.

(Now and then one of the cub reporters points out to Joey or one of his cronies that arrangements like this seem at best half-legal, and goes home early to rub a package of Rosebud-brand frozen peas against his ear for no apparent reason. Or, when they’re a girl, gets patted on the head and told not to worry about it, darlin’. The sweat content in the average news editor’s palm trickles into the lifeblood of local department stores, specifically the fedora, headscarf, ribbon and hairband divisions.)

Either Dimitri Belyaev is the “Jimmy Jones” of the Russian diaspora in the city or in the last year of foreign arrivals he’s somehow been seventeen different guys at once, and at least one dame who’s incurably bad at paperwork. Heh. There’s plenty of him to go around, but not that much. Not one of those new arrivals weighed much more than 120 pounds, according to records, either.

Stats, marriage records, landlord records (where You can find ‘em)...there isn’t even the hole where a person would be, should someone try to scrub those records out. So maybe whoever knocked out Dimitri Belyaev and shoved him into Your office is really good at keeping people hidden. So good they also knocked him out of public records and shoved him into the role of an amnesiac Mook.

That’s the explanation You oughta go with, because the other one is that he just isn’t real, and You’re trusting a total stranger with Your wellbeing.

You turn to ask the Mook what else he might remember, or maybe when his birthday is, or what animal he’d turn into if he could do it in a minute, anything to keep Your brain from puddling out Your nose. He’s not there any more, but You can hear lumbering out in the archives. Probably patrolling the perimeter.

Bodyguard stuff. You try to forget he’s as long in the job of bodyguard as You are in having one.

Maybe it’s time to switch track. Look for other leads, better patterns. You pull open another filing cabinet drawer and begin again with front pages from the past six months.

Forget about boxing matches, Russian emigres, apocalypse cult nonsense. Just take a punt. Join those puzzle pieces. See if “Big Shot Reporter” can’t earn that nickname. Look...for...patterns…

You should be proud. It only takes twelve or so minutes before You’ve got something solid.

For an unspecified number of weeks, at an irregular pattern that nobody would go looking for – people in this city have been...disappearing.

It’s not always kidnapped-type disappearing. One or two missing person notifications in the back pages, sure, but more often it’s an announcement of layoffs, transfer to a new workplace out of state, or even retirement. No set pattern of person – young or old, ladies or germs, creed or colour or name, it don’t matter, they ain’t there. (Never kids, for some reason, but maybe thank God for that.)

Sometimes it’s a pioneering businesswoman who’s dropping out of the glorious world of work to raise 2.6 kids in Bemidji with the charming owner of a salmon fishery; or sometimes it’s an overachieving college kid getting snapped up by the military to start work on efficient new ways of converting a thriving township somewhere into a slightly-scorched property development opportunity.

Little by little, Your paperwork grows from a simple sheet of names to a multi-page map of connections and coincidences, spread out on the side-table of this cramped room and clustered like pigeons and crows around an overturned bread truck. Every single name makes it into the paper and then goes away, seemingly forever.

No updates, no public records. That businesswoman never gets a new forwarding address in Bemidji; that college kid isn’t listed on any government record of new admissions. The rule seems to be: pay ‘em off, make up a story that no-one would question, put it on the public record.

Swallow ‘em up.

You’re amassing a collection of ghosts.

And You know it’s a pattern, because one name is always at the centre, and it’s a name You’ve seen before.

(You don’t see the other pattern, of course, because these messages are rarely notable enough to come with pictures. That’s rather the point, the writers need them to hit that sweet spot of noticeable but inconsequential. But You will see it, soon. I promise You, Jackie. You will.)

The only detail You haven’t squared is the Mook, because neither his name nor any variation seems to show up recent. Which isn’t discouraging, but certainly distressing: it seems entirely possible that whoever is doing this, “The Order of the Throne” or whatever, was going to put Dimitri Belyaev on their next list of abductions or murders. And then something got in the way. Maybe he fought back. Maybe he wasn’t what they were looking for. If they can mess with a guy’s memory...maybe he saw too much.

Adrenalin is pumping through Your veins, heartbeat filling up Your ears as You buzz between the Microfiche, the books of records that rest atop the filing cabinets, Your new set of leads, and Your own mile-a-minute inner monologue. You aren’t fishing any more, You’re harpooning and netting with ease, working up a sweat as You take down catch after catch. Six months of convenient disappearances are lifted out of the archives and into the pattern.

So it’s understandable that while You’re bent over the machine once again, absorbing the (faked) details of a notable author heading into a writers’ retreat in Scottsdale...You don’t notice the footsteps behind You, and the object that is suddenly thrust under Your nose and into Your gasping mouth.

--(Cont’d)--​
 
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JimBob

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Goddamnit, You realise in a fraction of a second. It’s a donut.

Sonuvarrrmmpph!”, You scream, the picture of dignity.

At the other end of the donut now shoved awkwardly between Your lips is the Mook. He grins back at You like the kid with their fist around the pickle at the bottom of the jar. “I uhhh...this is joking,” he mumbles.

Your finger points as threateningly at him as it can manage. Though You must admit, a Mook his size sneaking up behind You is pretty impressive. Maybe he’s got this bodyguard thing covered.

Duhn doh tha...’gain,” You gracefully concede.

You sit down and take a chomp of the donut anyway. You hate getting surprised, but it is delicious. Not like the kind You get at the grocery stores, it’s got a...roughness to it, under the icing. A nice crumby texture. You want to savour it, for a minute...

You catch Yourself, at the same time as Your hand catches the rest of the donut. You don’t want to savour it for so long You wake up somewhere else.

“Tap me on the shoulder next time, huh kid?” You grumble, licking frosting from the corner of Your mouth.

Once again his head bobs up and down in apology, like a duck in a choppy lake. Reminds You of that lake of Your own.

“Come look,” You beckon him over to the table.

You begin linking up the various names and commonalities amongst Your hastily-thrown-together chart, and without saying a word he helps to sort them out across the table. They’re easily grouped: it’s just a matter of determining who worked for which boss, who was connected to which corrupt cop.

“Is like the water flowing into drain,” the Mook muses, stroking his beard. Quicker on the uptake than You expected. “Or like...tornado.”

“And look at the commonality. The thing that keeps coming up, every third name or so, like a breadcrumb trail.”

In the centre of Your web of names, on the largest scrap of scribbled notepaper:

Sedd Glynn

Immediately below:

Pelinore Trading Co.

“Huh. ‘Pelinore’. This is name of...Knight, yes? Or Saint.”

You blink.

“Spot on, kid. Or best as I can remember, anyhow. There’s people I talk to for that kinda info. How’d you know it?”

He shrugs, his jacket crinkling, as he takes another donut from the bag. “Mmhf. Lucky guess. So where do we go next?”

“My next move was going to be putting together more of these names, see if maybe they belong to a...club of some kind. Shit, I don’t know. I’m working in the fuckin’ dark here in more ways than--”

The Mook suddenly begins choking, spluttering, bashing at his chest. You turn and thump him on the back until the offending crumb is loosened and he nods his appreciation. He collapses back down in the nearby chair, which creaks as nervously as ever.

“Uh, please...not so much with the swearing?” he asks in a timid tone of voice.

Damn. First the ciggies (You hate how much You miss the ciggies), now the language? You’re about to tell him where to shove it, but catch his expression. Something...You can’t put Your finger on...in that expression. You don’t want to say no to it.

“Why?” You say, instead.

“Not sure. It make him...er, me, it make me wince. Pain in chest. Like remember...uh. Unpleasant sensation, you understand.”

Ugh. Fine. You concede with a shrug and make Your way back to the filing cabinets. You’ve got a good thesis going but it’ll need sources if You want to defend it.

The Mook settles back down on his chair, then makes a face. He stands back up, gets a third chair, places it by the first, then lowers himself back down, one cheek on each, probably thanking his lucky stars that the Tribune is too cheap to splash out on arm-rests. He settles the donut bag on the dome of his belly and pulls his hat down over his eyes, resembling nothing more than a bear practicing for hibernation.

“This is bodyguarding to you, huh?”

“Your body is inside four walls with no window. If someone come to get you, they must trip over me first.” He nods to the side, not adjusting his hat. It is true; he’s between You and the door. “Besides, he is technically still rest after medical emergency.”

So he says. Funny thing, as he begins to snore in his chair set-up You start to see another pattern, maybe because Your sleuth-brain is in gear. He took a weekend to recover from collapsing in Your office from what was supposedly exhaustion. And for a guy his size, You sure haven’t been noticing much of the usual kind of exhaustion. He ain’t so hot on research, but he clambered all those stairs without breaking a sweat. Wasn’t he meant to be an out-of-work boxer, for years now?

And then there’s all the rest of the mysteries, clambering around those big powerful shoulders of his like mountain goats over the Alps. Where’s his memories gone? Why’s he got a name that doesn’t match him, and why’s he essentially a walking violation of public records?

Also, why his is hair so long? You didn’t understand the fashions in Russia being so unconventional as to let their men wear it down to their shoulders, or tied up in a bun concealed by their hat. You’re no stranger to anti-conformity Yourself, but the mix of his beard and his hair makes You curious. Something about it...

You need to get to the bottom of all of this. What’s he not telling You? It takes You five or so more minutes of listless name-gathering, but eventually You look over Your shoulder as You sort through files.

“So, Dimitri...I gotta ask...”

He jerks back to consciousness, lifts his hat and You meet his eye. There it is again. He’s smiling, innocent, in a way that reminds You of the way Your cousin Noel’s labrador retriever ‘Carol II’ used to whine at the back of his throat when You’d throw him a snowball to catch during winter school break. There’s no way You could hurt that sweet smile, let alone interrogate it. But You have to.

“Yes, Jac--”

“Uh, why donuts? Not exactly the most nutritious lunch.”

Oh, Jackie. That poor heart of Yours. Maybe next time You can ask in a dark room, or invest in some kind of blindfold.

He shrugs. “No good deli in area, and he not want be away so long, because not safe. But bakery is good.”

“Well don’t keep ‘em all for yourself, ya big lunk,” You smirk, crossing the room to jab Your hand in the bag. As luck would have it, jelly-filled. Not like You have a favourite or anything like that, but as donut kinds go, this one ain’t bad. You take a hearty bite.

He clears his throat, turns away and starts to get up. “Maybe not time for sleep anymore. Finish lunch and ehhh, we go for walk, yes?” he mumbles. “Chase leads. We are maybe getting too, uhh, bored in here.”

Cripes, did You moan? As You were biting into the donut, did he hear You...moaning? Nobody bakes that good, Jackie.

So that means You were moaning because...You bite into the donut again, close Your eyes automatically. It’s like that hot dog the other day. You cannot imagine how You lived so long without it. Maybe can’t picture what it’ll be like when it’s gone. Raspberry jelly oozes onto Your tongue and coats it, a pleasant layer of powdered sugar dusts Your lips. This donut gets You somehow. It’s exactly everything You need.

There it is. As much as eating it overwhelmed Your senses, there was a definite moan arising from the back of Your throat, the kind that usually accompanies sinking into a warm bath at the end of the day...or other kinds of sinking.

You swallow the rest of the still delicious donut as quick as You can. Enh, he’s right. Maybe You could use the walk. Work off some of this squirrely feeling.

You go to get Your coat. He’s already up and fetched it for You. Sly sonuva...

“You sly...devil, how’d You get to be so fast?”

“Boxer always moves on his toes, Ma’am.”

“Tt. What’d I tell you? If I gotta clean up my act, you gotta give me less of the ‘Ma’am’, not to mention 'Sir'. Just Jackie or Jacks will do. Maybe ‘Boss’.”

No, that feels wrong.

One of those fascinating eyebrows of his arches.

“Or try ‘Friend’. Can you do that? We’re in this together.”

“If this works for you. Like you say, ‘Put ‘er there, pal.’”

His hand clasps Yours. It’s a little sweaty but cosily warm.

“Glad we got that sorted. And don’t fetch sh...stuff for me neither, I’m a grown adult.”

“She would want me to be gentleman. Kinder.”

“Who would?”

“Uh...” he clouds over again. “I not remember. Someone from boxing ring, maybe? Coach? But no...not woman coach...confused.”

That tickles You, a little. Not ha-ha kinda tickle.

You pat him on the chest and gesture at what You’ve built so far.

“Don’t worry about it. We’re going to get to the bottom of this. Tell you what, get one of the shutterbugs to come up here and take a photo so I don’t lose nothin’ of this. I’ll meetcha down there.”

You wave him off, munching a little on the last cruller he left behind.

The instant the door closes You’re back at the microfiche screen and know exactly where to look.

New arrivals. Last year. A couple months ago. It takes You an almost criminally small amount of time to hone in on it.

Mi Cha “Mae-Linn” Hyun. Landed from Korea last July. And...flipping back to those marriage records...

Bingo. She ain’t Mae-Linn Hyun any more. She’s Mae-Linn...huh.

Huh.

Now what does that mean?

--(Cont’d)--
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
Before You meet up with the Mook again, You take the time to do a little experiment. You have a disused closet in here marked out with Your own private padlock, since no chief yet has been generous enough to spring for lockers. The revolving-door employment policy would make them a waste of cash anyhow.

When You step back out onto the streets, the Mook does a double take...and whistles. You stiffen, raise Your eyebrow, readying an imperious glare.

“No joking this time,” he smiles. “Just impress.”

You exhale, nod Your own appreciation. Lipstick and blush ain’t always easy to apply in the dark of a closet, but Lord knows You’ve had practice. That goes double for shimmying out of Your pants and into a sensible skirt, even if said skirt is pinching a little more than You’re used to.

It pays to play angles, whatever work You’re in. On top of that, it’s a known fact that the common man is less likely to suspect a no-good busybody of sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong when that busybody is a “good-lookin’ gal” in a practical-but-revealing jacket-and-skirt ensemble, rather than looking ratty and genderless in slacks and suspenders. It’s a shame that the world makes good and bad people this way, but if it helps You get Your leads, it’s an angle You’ll always be happy to play.

You toss Your head, letting Your freed, hastily-brushed curls catch the sunlight. Feels good after a day or two with Your bun under Your hat.

You start making up a cover story in the back of Your head in the back of the cab. Put-upon P.A. to some Hollywood Mogul looking for a nice shooting location. Or maybe hired hands for taking apart a set. You can never have too many big strong guys in the movies. It's one of the reasons the movies themselves never appealed to You. Somehow a person can only take so many oiled biceps, chiseled jaws and brooding looks before they start drifting off and wondering what to order for dinner.

“Nothin’ like the bracing sea air,” You sigh as You step out of the car.

"For me, is only smell of fish." The Mook's been quiet for the journey. You had assumed he might be resuming his nap, but on second thought, it can’t have been too comfy in there – too cramped for someone of his generous frame. He’s stretching his neck back and forth, cracking his knuckles. As he arches his back, his belly surges forward under his crinkled shirt. Maybe it’s that salt smell everywhere, but it makes You think of a sail catching the breeze. Pleasant and simple.

There’s a crowd bustling around as morning drips into afternoon. Clouds are on the distant horizon, and rolling fog. Harder to get a good day’s work finished off in the fog, so no doubt the bosses are going to be pushing to finish it off now.

Apart from a near-endless supply of muscly guys and gals in overalls or vests hauling supplies around, there’s also hopeful lobster fishermen strolling slowly out to haul in today’s cages; gangs of kids setting up their marbles and dollar-onna-string wherever opportunity finds them; a couple of ladies of the evening perched on the bollards, nodding at the cars and trucks as they pass by, bathing in a chorus of wolf-whistles and waiting for an obliging soul to buy them a malted and commence an evening’s hard work.

The Mook’s keeping You in line of sight and You’re doing the same for him. Now and again, You catch the eye of some strapping cabin boy or girl with a crate on their shoulder, or some flat-capped palooka lighting a quick smoke (grrr, don’tthinkaboutit don’tthinkaboutit) before he gets back on the road. They all interest You. They all have stories.

“Not your kinda party, then, slugger?”

“No, maybe not. He is not like you. Not so...flexible. Too many people here. Remind him, me, of the boxing ring.”

You pass by a couple cops, each with one hand on a burger and the other resting on the nightsticks in their belts. The picture of innocence, You just can bet. You wish You had some way of signalling those gals on the bollards to make a hasty exit.

“Oh, and how ‘bout me, then? If I’m not so like You, what’s the appeal?”

"You like docks because is no people there," he sighs.

You take a minute to hear him, too focused on eyes to catch and conversational snippets to overhear.

"Dock workers count as people, last I checked. Pretty sure hookers are human, too.”

“To newspaper? Nicht. Newspaper see only helpless pawns or angry attacker. Worker want roof over his head and daily bread, prostitute want to sleep safe, and they are lazy, discontented rabble instead of thrifty working class. Workers see workers, and boss sees sheep with not much wool.”

That makes You look back at him. He’s not bristling, just resigned, as stoic as old Hercules with his shoulder at the wheel. If You were less experienced in interviews You’d challenge that assertion, insist that’s not how You see it; but the instinct is always to work out why they do think that way, not why You don’t. Admittedly, it ain’t exactly an unexpected sentiment from a Russian fella, but there’s something else there under the surface, something You can’t quite put Your finger on. Does he know exactly what he’s saying?

“...How long’ve You been this side of the Pacific, again?”

“A couple years. Since...eh, ‘52, maybe.”

Uh-huh. You file that little mystery away for later. Probably a coincidence. Better not to let it get to You.

The stroll along the dock is the work of an hour and a half. Plenty of potential leads swallow Your story, but only a few of them recognise any of the details You have to offer, much less have anything to give You back. As reassured as You are to have the Mook hanging around, there is a timer on these things - the more questioning You do, the more likely You are to get overheard, or followed.

If someone isn't already following You.

Two hours in, Your flats are killing You and the Mook's huffing and puffing from fatigue when You at last hit jackpot. A dockworker by the name of Sanders glances at the seal of the Throne and nods instantly.

“Yeah, I seen it...that is to say, I saw it,” he says. “Sometimes got one printed just like it on the crates. Only this one’s upside down.”

“That so?” says You.

“Sure. The chair, I mean. Usually ‘s’ got the legs onna floor.”

You swap expressions with the Mook. Some more notes to compare later. Rivals trying to put You on their enemies’ scent? Cops or Feds putting a smuggling ring on a silver platter for the papers? Or just somebody with a screwy wax stamp?

“Who’s in charge of managing shipments? The Meyers-Tanning company might want to have a word with them about...future prospects.”

“Ah, the boss-man? That’d be jolly Misser Woodburne, up at Warehouse 17B. Just off lunch, so he’ll be in a right cheerful mood,” Your new contact winks. “And if’n you manage to get a good deal outta him, I’m sure there’s other...prospects in store...”

His hand is barely hovering near Your thigh before the Mook has it in an iron grip. “No touch,” he rumbles. The dock worker has already turned sour and is shaken off, his under-the-breath swearing drowned out by the knowing laughter of his pals. The Mook nods, and You nod back. Earning his keep, and in such a charmin’ fashion too.

Warehouse 17B is near scraped empty. The last few boxes and barrels are being man-handled into the trucks as fast as the last rummies at closing time, the shelves lay bare, and in one corner sits a makeshift desk constructed hastily out of broken crates. It’s all the way across from the entrance, and covered in stacks of paperwork, so all You can make out of the person behind it is a fine musical rumbling.

“Come to meet the adminnysater?” asks a kid at the door, and You wonder not for the first time that day if a fellow or lass needs to take an entrance exam in slang before they get the job aboard a boat. He must be 19 and a half, tugging at the braces of his overalls and sneaking an unsubtle look at Your chest, oblivious to the man-mountain following You close like some kind of a 300-plus-pound duckling.

“Ain’t got an appointment,” You smile, gesturing upward to Your eyes. “Thought he could answer some questions.”

Your blushing guide bows a little out of bashfulness (the Mook, charmingly, does just the same), and You are led across to the desk. There is seated – or so the hand-written cardboard name-plate on his desk says – Darius Woodburne, former captain and current paperwork-jockey.

He’s a cheerful soul, still dressed in his captain’s jacket over a modestly-priced suit, with a combination of well-oiled beard and characterful eyebrows that give him the countenance of a beloved ship’s cat who’s plied his trade on many an unfortunate rat. He’s humming a tune to himself in a bass that would rival the great singer and stage actor Paul Robeson, and from the good looks of him he could very well be Paul’s cousin.

...give or take a few ounces. He’s clearly enjoying his life not being on the high seas, and like the Mook has taken to perching himself on two crates rather than the one. You try not to look too directly at him once You notice. So as not to upset him, of course. Doesn’t pay to, er, stare.

He’s sorting through paperwork when You approach, but the Mook bowing deferentially at the waist, and inadvertently knocking over a stack of invoices, turns his leaden concentration into a grin of pure gold. A smile cracks over his wide face.

“Why if it isn’t the Gentle Giant! Come to claim that drink I owe ye?”

You blink. Clearly Mr. Woodburne’s spent long enough on the high seas to absorb some of the lingo; between the accent, the stout frame and the pitch of his voice he seems like the mysterious progeny of Captain Ahab and his foghorn.

He remains seated, but gestures to the Mook to come close and bend low, and he gives him a happy hug. The bewildered Mook is pressed against Woodburne’s shoulder and patted warmly, and when they separate the Yard-Master is gripping his arm like a proud father.

“This here unlicked bear is the reason me nieces each got a present of their very own last Christermass, ‘a dainty doll all the way from France”, and all. Made me a tidy packet, ‘e did.”

You didn’t recognise whatever shanty he was just quoting, and the Mook is still bewildered. He gestures his bewilderment at You emphatically.

“My associate Mr. Belyaev is...a little confused, of late,” You gently explain. “We’ve been looking for information about some missing memories of his, as it happens.”

Woodburne’s good mood fades as quickly as it rose, a familiar fire dying into meditative embers. “Mister…hm. Well now, ‘missing memories’, eh...Giant, seems like yer took the ol’ one-two a one too many times!” He roars with laughter, holding his shaking belly with one hand and propping himself on the Mook’s with the other. “Sure, I’ve heard’a prize-fightin’ men going punch-drunk, but never did I meet a man who got punch-hungover!”

His mood is infectious, and while tidying up the spilled papers next to his desk (most of which are fairly innocuous – damn, You were hoping for a glimpse of the seal of the Throne!), You can’t help but crack a smile.

“Mr. Belyaev has made a new pivot in career. He’s my private security, for now.”

“Ah, congratulations, m’boy. Seems we’ve both made a step sideways in the wide world. And if’n yer still forgetting, allow me to reintroduce – ” he sticks his hand up, still seated – “Darius Woodburne, temporarily de-captained commander of the S.S. Phoebus, at yer service.”

“Is pleasure,” the Mook mutters bashfully, “name is Dimitri Belyaev, uhh...bodyguard.”

Woodburne turns back to You, nodding thanks for helping tidy up the Mook’s mess.

“Well if that’s the case, I do wonder ‘oo’s really doin’ the protectin’, eh? Fine lass like yerself could do a landlubber like this a power o’ good, eh?”

“Not, er, lass,” the Mook mumbles, though You shush him. You didn’t discuss defending Your boundaries in the agreement to defend Your body, though You do appreciate it, and You’re happy to keep up the illusion of feminity for now. It’s useful for keeping interviewees relaxed. Clearly You have an ‘in’ with this old sailor, and You’re thankful for that, because...because...something is going on with You, Jackie Cardinal.

This man is at least seven years Your senior, and he has a photo of his little woman and three tall daughters on his desk. He is also roly-poly, with the broad frame of one of them Japanese wrestlers You read about, the kind who go to matches only wearing a loincloth and could give someone a concussion with a simple belly-bump.

There the resemblance ends: his clothing is well-fitted, though it looks as though they're a dinner or so from falling away from him. Beneath his shirt and waistcoat, his belly is the prow of a mighty schooner itself, plowing over the waves of his lap with true mastery. Even the chain of the pocket-watch in his waistcoat completes the look, resembling the anchor soon to be weighed.

He might be the biggest, widest, fattest man You ever saw, face-to-face. So why is he simultaneously one of the most gorgeous, desirable human beings You ever laid eyes on, so much so that You know You can’t look him directly in the eye? Why do You wonder if he’s been weighed lately, never mind his anchor? Why did You get one look at this proud, wide ship of a man and become overwhelmed with the desire to clamber aboard?

Wait...he said nieces too, didn’t he? So that may well be his sister in the picture. Probably is. So he’s free. Probably married to the sea. One of those who has someone in every port. Damn. Damn.

You clear Your throat.

When I hear about this later, I'll smile, Jacks. Seems You spent too much of Your time committing other people to print, and it's gotten considerably difficult to get a read on Yourself.

You explain Your investigation to the stout fellow before You, and show him all the clues You have to go on. He tuts thoughtfully at the hasty assemblage of names You scribbled on Your notepad before leaving the office.

“A name or two I recognises...and now, even if it ain’t me place to betray a client’s confidence, I won’t say I haven’t heard tell of the men from Pelinore.”

“Men?”

“Operators, under-secretaries and the like. You know the type.”

“Seen any of them lately, around these docks?”

“Used to on the regular. But if yer talkin’ lately, I’ve had to change the circles what I move in. Allow me ter demonstrate.”

Pushing back on the laden desk, and causing a few more of those paper towers to wobble precariously, Darius Woodburne makes the room to turn a rough 45 degrees on his wooden seat and show off the recently-refreshed cast wrapped around his left leg up to the knee. His cut-off trouser leg bulges against it, as does the flesh of the leg itself; which tells You that he’s gained all this weight recently.

In point of fact, now that You’re brave enough to look at him directly despite Your blushes, there are a few tell-tale stitches and patches laid across his smart clothing, indicating recent alterations. And even then, You could hear the creak of those dark trousers against the crates as he moved...God, there is so much of him in those, and You have no idea how he must get them on in the morning, never mind take them off…

“I am sorry to see this. You are...comfortable?” the Mook asks, mercifully breaking Your reverie.

“Sure, there’s a tidy bed waitin’ in the shed out yonder if that be your meaning,” says Woodburne, though he’s looking at You. "After all, 'm used to me own company. A pipe o' baccy and a moment or two with the guitar, or settled down with a good book. Ain't no wife to speak of, nor any regular visitors...at the moment."

Are You staring? Does he know You’re staring? Is that at all appropriate?

“And me lads are always obligin’ with their shoulders to get allll o’ this heavin’ to and from every day. Ain’t yer, lads?”

You only take a second or so to imagine how many of his men he must need to lean on to get him up, because he jiggled his belly when he said that.

He jiggled it! It was not even at all subtle! He knows, dammit!

You massage Your temple as though tired, hoping it helps the blood flow somewhere other than Your cheeks. Your hand is soothingly cold as the autumn evening chill begins to settle into the docks. What You need is for a block of ice to descend from the ceiling like in the cartoons and knock You outta this situation. An anvil, even. Something spontaneous.

“Right we are, Cap’n,” the teen who guided You in sighs. “Even when we’ve been tirin’ ourselves out with all kindsa heavin’ and unpacking all day anyway.”

“Ah Davey boy, I’ll learn ye ter keep that smart damn mouth of yers shut by the time I’m on two feet again, see if I don’t,” he smirks back, honey-sweet.

Enough of that honey-sweetness. You've got work to do and answers to find.

"Can we have the room?" You ask.
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
Woodburne accommodates. He waves off his crew, some of whom linger, seemingly unwilling to let him alone with strangers. Touching as it is, You scribble that down in Your notebook. Everything counts.

"They're looking after you," You say, pulling up a crate. The Mook chooses to stay standing. "Loyalty like that ain't so easy to come by."

"That it isn't," he says. "They be loyal lads and er, ladettes, and each of 'em be from either a great big family or no family at all. When yer a Cap'n, ye can either accept that the crew beneath yer is now yer sons, daughters and everythin' in between; or deny it until the day they take out all the resentment they e'er garnered 'gainst Mommy, Daddy, siblings or grandparents or the like. I always been a proud Papa, and me little 'uns do me proud as well, though they'd ne'er admit it. Care for a smoke?"

He offers a pipe around to the Mook, and to You, finding no sale either way. The Mook takes a step backwards, out of the range of the smoke-cloud.

"So they's been loyal, sure enough. Obeyed me orders, kept me from dyin', got me to the sawbones when a stray crate o' lead pipes come a-tumblin' down onto me and fractures me shin in a couple places. Ah, t'weren't nothin," he adds, in reply to the Mook's sharp intake of breath.

"It was an accident," You say. It's not a question but a statement of fact, which he's free to confirm or deny. Old newsie trick, all about the intonation. And not letting them see Your notebook. He sees right through it.

"As far as they all know, 'twas indeed just a sharp turn by Lady Luck. But some'ow I senses yer not convinced by such sailor's talk."

Not in the slightest, chum. But You've still plenty more tricks up Your sleeve. You remind Yourself that a barrel of dynamite, though it might be mighty hot, is still mighty dangerous. You don't know how embedded he is in all this.

"What other explanation might there be?" You say, giving him a smirk which You hope comes off as benignly innocent.

He jiggles his belly again. Dammit. He really is on to You.

You glance back at the Mook. He's merely listening in.

"Well, some'd say sabotage, and since I did just vouch for ever' one o' me good men and not-so-much-men...well, p'raps ye'll be sayin' next that it has somethin' to do with that there envelope ye've been showin' around the docks."

"I --"

"Walls have ears, friends, and the folk of these harbours build walls."

He's leaning in close now, and You and the Mook bend to meet him.

"Weren't no accident," he confirms. "But that's all I might say when there's this many ears as can do the hearin'. Take an old Capn's advice, pal, and p'raps don't go chasin' after those who can chase back, and twice as fast."

Ah, nuts. To hell with that pretence.

"Perhaps we weren't formerly introduced. The name is Jackie Cardinal, Captain, not 'Pal'," You whisper. "And I ain't exactly accustomed to giving up when it comes to the truth. Ask anyone who knows how to read."

He puffs at his pipe and chuckles. It's like coming across a waterfall in a cave, luxuriant and deep. You try to stop yourself shuddering.

"So, it's truth yer after, eh? What kind of truth, then? The truth that 'good work means good wages and a little extra so the missus can rest easy for a while', or p'raps the truth that 'twelve good souls and true might clap a man in irons if'n the coppers says they saw him lookin' funny at a lady 'cross the street, even if 'e were asleep in his bed at the time'? We knows, men like him" (he waves at the Mook), "and I; we knows that the truth is no fancier than mess on yer shoes to the likes of those that really run the show, and even a lil trooper like Jackie Cardinal comes to be at their mercy sooner or later."

(Why the heck does everyone keep callin' You little? 5'9" as You may be, that's still 5'9" and however-many-pounds of sheer damn determination when You need it to be!)

"Cards on the table," You growl, standing to rest Your palms across the desk, leaning all of that determination over this handsome bastard so that Your shadow crosses his face. "What can You tell me about the Order of the Throne?"

He puffs at his pipe again.

"Enough to know there's worse at sea than whales and sarpents, and worse that they's on dry land can do to a man than a broken shin-bone. And I ain't in a hurry to find out how much worse. Thirty year I's been a hard-workin' man, on sea and shore, and never before let man nor devil get the better 'a me. But sarpents, devils, these is stories. Real people, what they can do to yer..."

His hands lift to the top of his head and descend gracefully, taking in his entire, deeply desirable frame.

"You look healthy now," You reassure him. It's not a lie. Even if You can't get over the gorgeous salt-and-pepper traces in his beard or wonder how that baritone voice of his might sound if it were serenading right...right next to Your ear...You have to admit, for a man with a broken leg and that much extra weight he still seems strong and capable. "Wouldn't be surprised if you were back on your feet in a week or two, frankly."

He accepts the compliment with a wink and a grin.

“That's kind enough, and true. Mind, but if ye look at me afore it happened…”

He taps at another framed picture on his desk with the tail-end of his pen. It depicts a rag-tag group of sailors posing arm-in-arm aboard the lifeboat of the Remora, another trading schooner, suspended on its side. Darius clearly stands in the middle-left, a mere shadow of his future self, taut muscles shining in the sun alongside his comrades. He's wearing a smaller captain's cloak and grinning at some joke along with the rest. Unmistakably the same man...give or take a fair few ounces.

The date scribbled in the corner, against a light cloudy sky, is from this summer. You do the mental calculations. Holy Moley. That's three months.

Three months, and he more than tripled in size, on a broken leg. You don’t need to be no scientist to know that doesn’t track.

For a moment, You think back to that lizard in the Perfesser’s paintings, the ol’ Ashy-Lottie or whatever it was. Small and crafty, keeping their heads down and out of danger for however many years, only to find themselves yanked out of the familiar waters they call home and pushed into an adulthood they never wanted. A great and unfamiliar growth...a form they were never meant to take…

Your tummy growls, nervous.

“How’s...how’s your schedule, Mr. Woodburne?” You ask. “Keeping track of everything?”

The Captain's look shifts from curious caution to disappointment. Near sadness.

"So they've got to yer," he sighs. "They're workin' on yer already. You must've pissed them off a treat."

"Then this is them?" You reply. Your heart is pounding. You turn, looking for prying eyes. "They're why I've been losing minutes, hours even?"

The Mook looks surprised. He leans down, puts a paw on Your shoulder. “Jackie...how you know this happen?” he murmurs.

You whisper back at him. “You too? Since we met? Why didn’t You tell me?”

“I...embarrass. Scared. Not thinking…”

“We will discuss this later.”

He taps a meaty finger on his desk, like a judge’s gavel calling to order.

“That – and other things besides – is but a fraction of what they could do to an unwary soul. I know, seein’ as ‘ow they did it to me, and now look.” His hands clap on his rounded torso, not jiggling it, merely showing how impossible it’s become to fully clasp its’ expanse. “So I stopped askin’ questions, and learned, as I’ve done many a time, that there’s only as many times as ye can push, and only a few of them that ain’t gonna push back twice as hard.”

“We are not afraid,” says the Mook. You admire him for it. Whisper or not, this is clearly the voice that Woodburne brings out when he wants orders obeyed, and it’s chilling you as much as it is thrilling You. “They take from me...so much, already. Time, past, life. I want all back. I can fight.”

The Captain gives his ‘Gentle Giant’ another surveying look, shakes his head. Taking memories is a small thing to a man who's lost them already, and risked the ability to walk with it.

And...more than that. You can't tell what. Something that stirs his heart more than salt breeze and rum.

"You's educated, I can tell. You'll 'ave heard o' that clever-clogs some time ago, said e'd move the 'ole Earth if only 'e 'ad the lever long enough...an' a place to stand." Once again those big, powerful hands of his sweep upwards, trailing the smoke of his pipe, and mime the shape of a grand horizon. "They's standin' everywhere. You wanna find out what 'appens when they pulls them levers, Jackie Goddamn Cardinal? You want to find out who sits in the seat ‘o power?"

Cryptic. That's good. You can handle cryptic. Given the right person, it tends to mean "And that's all I'll say"; but with it always comes the extra "for now".

"Take my advice," he says, picking up his pen. "Do as I do and leave well enough alone. They's finished with me fer now because they can see I keeps me nose outta where it ain't wanted. Outta other people's accounts."

Bingo. You have Your next lead.

"Then I guess this interview is over," You say out loud, standing up. "A pleasure meeting You, Cap'n Woodburne. Sorry we couldn't work something out."

"Well, give that boss o' yours me very best," he replies, in just as loud and definitive a tone. Neither of You are fooling nobody, except maybe the Mook, poor boy, who looks as confused as ever. But You'll talk again, maybe when he can walk - waddle - to a place of security. Perhaps in a private cabin of his boat, with a nice glass of rum or two, and...

You let go of his hand, and clear Your throat again.

"Eh, thank you," says the Mook, bowing again. Maybe it's a tradition, where he's from. Woodburne nods, already engrossed once again in his paperwork.

You're ready to leave. But not quite ready. "Go ahead of me, kid. Clear the exits or some such," You tell the Mook.

He lumbers off peaceably. You shouldn't take for granted how trusting he is. Shouldn't take any part of him for granted at all. But I'm not there to tell You that.

You take stock, one more time, of the very desirable Captain Woodburne, who is busy ignoring You.

Time to take a dare, Jackie...

"Captain."

He finishes his tallying.

"Eh?"

"One last thing. Just between the two of us..."

There's that grin again. It's not just duty, You realise all of a sudden. He enjoys being in charge. Taking charge.

“What about Donaldson?” You ask. “What about the white cloak?”

His eyes don’t leave Yours, but his smile makes a hasty exit. And now he knows a fraction of what You know. He doesn’t seem to like that it’s something You know, because clearly knowing it makes You that much more dangerous. To him? To Yourself? Or maybe to everyone?

“What about ‘em?” he asks, and bends back over his papers.

So that’s that. You leave the warehouse with the gears turning unpleasantly in Your head, and find the Mook standing conspicuously in the evening mist what's rolled in over the course of Your conversation. For a second, You don’t notice why he’s so stock-still. Woodburne’s reluctance to answer Your questions disturbed You too much, and You’re not exactly paying attention.

The man waiting outside in the fog disturbs You a whole heck of a lot more, and that’s before he even fires the warning shot.

You can’t see him too well from this distance – he’s so close to the edge of the shore he might fall in, if a stiff breeze took him. You can see he’s wearing a beaten-up grey trenchcoat, and above it a mask, a white horse mask, eerily accurate but for the empty staring eyes. He’s holding something...unspecific that glints in the faint glow of the streetlights.

“Can I help you, pal--” You begin.

A crossbow bolt thunks into the warehouse door next to You, wide enough to be a deliberate miss at this range, and the Mook yelps with surprise.

You answer with laughter, hysterical and disbelieving.

A crossbow bolt? What the heck is this, goddamn Robin Hood?!

Heartbeats fill Your ears, rapid and frightened. You turn on Your heel, look for some kind of shield, but a large hand is shoving You aside.

The Mook has his gun out. It’s a big one, that You didn’t know he had.

“Run,” he says, and it ain’t a suggestion.

You run, amongst the sound of the Mook’s own retaliating warning shot, and hear the sound of panicking, yelling men clustering around. Like so many doomed souls before You there’s no choice but to glance over Your shoulder.

The man in the white horse mask has already laid out that smart-mouthed kid and shot the ankle of the older man who came to save him. He’s bent over that man for a second, curious, before punching his lights out too. He makes a meal out of it. He might be on something, You can’t tell. You’ve never seen that many punches extend from the arms of somebody sober.

The Mook. Where’s the Mook? You hear the sound of the warehouse door slamming shut, and more yelling from inside.

The White Horse turns and sees You running. He makes a noise like a guffaw, and shimmies his shoulders, the mask falling back for a second, swinging absurdly, as though the horse itself is rearing up behind him.

“COME AND SEE,” he screams, reloading his weapon.

Boots clattering on the cobblestones, he starts to stalk toward the warehouse door.

--(Cont’d)--
 
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JimBob

like a thief in the night
***
Joined
Apr 11, 2008
Messages
384
Location
Dinotopia
The fog is getting thicker by the second. If You keep going, the warehouse will disappear out of sight. Not to mention You'll risk plunging into the sea. The Mook said Run, and You realise as You think it over that You started obeying before he even said it, that Your brain caught the word moments after Your legs did.

Are you a coward, Jackie Cardinal? Do you remove Yourself from these situations to live to scribble about it another day? Or do You get close-in and find out everything You can, make it all public?

The story is calling. But safety is tugging in the other direction. You could wash Your hands of all of this now and live a quiet life.

But the Mook is in there.

Goddamit.

Goddamit, You can't leave him behind, he's Your bodyguard!

You head back toward the warehouse. I can’t blame You. It’s what I’d do.

Time hasn't come that You'd arm Yourself with much more than a blackjack and a fresh knuckle sandwich. That'll have to do for now.

Got 'em ready.

You sidle up to the door. The sound of shooting has died down, and left plenty room for inarticulate yelling.

Take a peek.

It's like a waking nightmare of Yours. Mist rolling in among the shelves and stacks, overturned crates like tree stumps on a blasted heath. Stains on the floor that You didn't notice the first time, and don't want to think about now.

Heavy breathing.

Snickering.

You stick behind the shelves, weaving around them, treading only when you hear other footsteps. A scuffle breaks out in the dark - or maybe something got broken - and there's that laughter again, close yet distant, as though You're listening to something scuttling inside a chimney.

"Who is like unto the Beast?" he says, muffled. A little click as he readies another bolt in his ridiculous tinkertoy.

That voice was awful close, Jackie. And that tinkertoy can kill.

Tiptoe, tiptoe...

You spot him crouched next to an overturned shelf. He doesn't spot You. Too focused, You guess. In the distance, papers are fluttering this way 'n' that near a collapsed pile of crates, the sorry remains of Darius Woodburne's makeshift desk. Damn, guess he's going to have to invest in pigeonholes next time. You try not to snicker. Now is not the time for panicking.

On closer inspection, there's something eerie about the White Horse. He's bigger than he looked from a distance, beefy in the arms and legs and filling out that ragged trenchcoat, firm thighs crammed into stained white workman's pants. Under the lifeless eyes of his mask, set into the underside of the neck, are two glass lenses and a canister - the tell-tale signs of a gas mask, the kind they passed out in the war. A filtration system merged with a carnival costume. Huh. That explains why he keeps tossing his head back.

Seems Trigger here is real invested in nobody finding out who he is. Too bad for him You don't give a damn.

You're shuffling around, ready to advance, when You spot the Mook out of the corner of Your eye. Exactly as distant from the White Horse in the other direction, huddled behind the other shelves.

He mouths something that isn't so far removed from "I told you to run!"

You mouth back "Like hell!"

The lights shut off. Whatever the Mook has to say for himself is drownes in blackness.

"There now," comes the voice of Woodburne from out of the sudden evening gloom. "Yer surrounded, boy. I suggest ye skulk away while I'm feelin' generous, and wi'out a bullet in yer gut and all. After all, it's us as can see ye, not t'other way around."

He's not wrong. Though your vision is swimming from the sudden change, the most obvious of the indistinct shapes around you is most definitely the tall white one picked out by the flickers of moonlight. It's an inelegant disguise for a man attacking in the evening, You can't help but notice.

Unless he doesn't care. Unless he wants to be seen.

The thunk of a crossbow bolt slaps into a wall, and gunfire flashes in reply. Somewhere in those hurried explosions was a piteous cry, and You can see the White Horse writhe on the ground.

"FffUCK!". High-pitched and a little nasal, even while it sounds like it comes from the bottom of a well.

You sneak another glance. He's clutching at his arm. Damn, just a graze. From the snort of derision a ways away, it seems the good Captain is just as disappointed.

"And now look, yer gettin' dirty blood all o'er me nice clean wares. Here's another chance: stagger home, son. Tell them that's sent yer that Cap'n Woodburne can't be taken unawares."

"Oh sure, it's alllll about YOU!", the White Horse yells back, clutching at the rip in his jacket. He's not spouting cryptic nonsense any more, you notice. Like a spell has been broken, with the spilling of blood. "Hard as it may be to believe, pal, there's a couple things in this world that are bigger than yourself! Bigger than anyone in here!"

"Izzat so?" You can hear clicking under the quips, and You know this lull in the action won't last long enough to hear who gets the punchline. You're calculating Your stride. Three steps to get to him. Kick in the fork, blackjack on the face. Step on the wrist if he goes for the crossbow. It could work.

It will work.

Go time.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four?!

Shit.

Your stride has been altered, of late. It's off by half a foot or so.

You kick out anyway at the area of the White Horse's groin, connecting with something solid and hard that's sure to leave your big toe bruised, and let the momentum carry You forward, stumbling. Flailing. Your hand reaches out to steady Yourself and from the stickiness and the muffled guttural howl of pain You know You've found his wound. So now he's mad, and panicking. Getting into a crouch, good hand scrabbling for the crossbow, or maybe just a bolt. You can't let that happen, so your blackjack slams toward that wrist - misses - swing upward on the rebound, just touches the side of his neck. He pushes you back with more strength than You expected and You're sprawled in Your constricting skirt. It'll take seconds that You don't have to get back on Your feet and into a defensive position. Seconds that are all his.

Quick footsteps approach. They boom.

Fog spills around the lumbering Mook in the silvery moonlight, falling like a bear out of the woods at night, arms ready to squeeze or claw their way to victory. He's roaring like a bear too, almost like he can't help himself. He's back in the ring and can't wait for the bell.

From your position on the floor, it's magnificent. Your heart is beating right into your throat.

He slams into the White Horse and pincer-grips him by the neck and hip, still roaring; turns to throw his quarry against the shelves to their right; and just like that, it's over. He's standing there panting, and his opponent is sprawled on the floor and groaning into unconsciousness.

You flip onto your knees and crawl toward him, just one thing on Your mind.

"Don't--" says Woodburne somewhere in the gloom, but he's never heard that old advice about gettin' between a wolf and a deer. Reporter's instincts run deep, down to the nervous tissue, and You couldn't help Yourself any more than You could hold in a sneeze.

You paw at the face of the White Horse and peel it back. It's a struggle - clearly straps are involved - but with the Mook's help, the two masks come loose one after the other.

You look on the face of Your attacker, picked out in silver light. One of Woodburne's men has gotten a flashlight going while the others seek out the lightswitch and prop up the boss, and it gives You just enough to pick out individual features.

You look at the Mook. Back at the unconscious White Horse. Back at the Mook.

"...I don't know this guy. You know this guy?"

"Nicht. Also...is not guy, maybe?"

You look twice as the warehouse lights flicker back into life. The Mook is right. That's a lady...or it ain't entirely certain it's a fella. Their hair, golden-brown, is cut in the style of a Teddy Boy, an angry quiff that's a little unbalanced for the rounded head beneath, an uneasy crown...and underneath you see an aquiline nose, luxurious eyelashes, and pert lips twisted into a pained scowl. There's an imperiousness to the face that even shows while they're asleep, and one that doesn't fit their youthful exterior. If You met this nutball on the street You'd swear they were an eager debate Captain at Yale or somethin'. Maybe moonlighting at a drag club in their spare time.

But besides that, between the soft strength of their figure and the curiousness of their gender, You can't help thinking they're kind of familiar. It's been a while since You met anyone like You this side of the river. Almost like You'd forgotten there was anyone else...

No, You remind Yourself. The story is separate from You. The two do not merge. Whatever this person is, they're not the same. You are a cypher, an observer.

Their eyelids are fluttering, like a Princess in some movie. You raise a fist to strike.

"Stop!"

The Mook has his hand on Your wrist. "We need answer. Rope! We need rope!" He calls over his shoulder.

The men are milling about, antsy

"Talking, Revelation, she was," says an elder gentleman.

"Right you are, Peterson," adds Woodburne. "Chapter and verse."

Your blood is suddenly gazpacho, Your teeth locking together.

And he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him; and he went out conquering, and to conquer.

They're getting to You. Worse than you thought.

"We're getting the Cap'n outta here," says 'Davey Boy'. "Whether 'r' not he likes it."

You can hear big burly men getting their hands under and around the biggest man in the place and almost feel a little jealous. It's the adrenalin talking. Probably.

"Commendable quick thinkin'!" You hear the old salt call out, from the other doorway, two men under each arm. "'Til we meet again, crewmates!"

And a good thing You've been moving quickly too, so your face is so red that no-one can see You blush. Ah, You've got a burly fella of Your own to deal with, anyhow.

"OK?" he asks, before You can voice the thought Yourself. This is good. He's doing the work.

"You're a heck of a bodyguard," You smile. "Not a scratch on me. Practically good as new. And you're holding up?"

He nods. "Chest...throat...a little raw. Have not shouted like that since God only knows."

"Take a breather. We'll regroup," You reassure him. "Go over what we know and take the edge off."

You accept his help to Your feet, and as You try in vain to wipe away the dust and grime that's coating your third-best outside coat, You laugh and give your bodyguard a friendly squeeze on the arm. It's warm, even under the coat. He grunts, nods in acknowledgment. You're paying him, but in a different way, You owe him one.

"C'mon, I know a couple places still open," You ask, beckoning him. Here's hoping he's not a whiskey drinker. It'd take maybr a bottle or two to affect him, what with muscle mass and all.

You catch the sound of hobnail boots too late.

Oh, Fuck.

There's a second one.

From the floor, You hear groaning.

Another horse mask, and this one more like off-white than white. Or a sickly yellow. Whatever colour it was, that's been drained long ago, bleached away, leaving behind a sight that seems predominantly...pale.

Oh, Fuck.

And his rider's name was Death.

"Thank fuck for that," says the White Horse. "Took you long enough, asshole."

The Pale Horse nods and raises his weapon.

It ain't no crossbow.

The Mook dives, and rolls You to the floor amid what sounds like two dozen tiny explosions.

"Shotgun," he wheezes, kneeling by Your side. "We should--"

"C'mon c'mon c'mon," You counter-argue, raising him by the wrist as best You can. "I am not leaving you behind again."

Papers are flying like snow around you. The boots stalk forward and You hear that roar gathering in the Mook's throat. Not this time, pal. Can't be a hero twice in one night. Men are already screaming and readying their own weapons.

For a minute you wonder if getting those answers is worth the risk, and then You remember the risk is some part of You getting ripped into bolognaise in a quarter of a second. You can't beat those odds. These guys are tough customers. And besides, they've fought the sea. That'll give 'em an edge.

An edge against death.

Grr. This pissant is not the Grim goddamn Reaper, Jackie, he's just some idiot with a gun trying to look impressive!

You close Your eyes and make a break for it, pulling the Mook along with you, and this time You don't look over Your shoulder.


 --(Cont’d)--
 
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