Side Streets, Distant Thunder
“Unhand her, you brutes! I’ll have you know, that is no way to treat a lady!”
I knew that accent from my Militia days — a Confederate! This was about to get political — and no place for the likes of me. Carmody was still distracted with his capture; trouble getting the cuffs on, looked like. I’d done my bit for Service and State, and didn’t stick around to watch.
Most people, when escaping the cops, make the same mistakes. And because the cops do this for a living, they know exactly what to watch for: someone running, hiding, or maybe trying to look inconspicuous. Skulking around nervously in the shrubbery is a dead giveaway, and you can be sure any redcap with a high-powered flash is gonna use it on every doorway he can.
So, instead, you look like you belong. Don’t walk away from the activity; walk toward it; maybe rubberneck a little, or ask an annoying question. Be one of those people they tell, “Nothing to see here, mister; move along.”
I couldn’t quite manage that; no knowing who’d seen me with Carmody, or who he’d told. But I could do the next best thing. I walked up to a knot of redcaps posted at the corner, jerked my thumb back toward the alley, and said, “I think the Lieutenant could use a hand back there.”
Their corporal picked two and sent them off, then looked back at me expectantly. I was an honorary officer again. Best make the most of it.
“Tell Carmody that I had an appointment. I’ll call his office tomorrow to check in.”
I didn’t wait for an answer; no real officer would, because it might just be no. Instead, I strode on down the street, Militia boots clicking on the concrete, heavy coat swirling in the rising mist. The next block would be behind the brothel; there’d be a half-squad down there. No sense pushing my luck. I moved on two blocks before turning off.
It was different now; there’d just been a raid at a brothel. Being a Militia officer would draw the wrong sort of attention — after all, it’s soldiers and sailors that are known to visit such places. Fortunately for me, there’s another group of people that wears Militia overcoats and boots. As I rounded the corner I turned up my collar against the chill, stuck my hands deep in my pockets, and hunched down. My stride turned into a quiet shuffle, and just for good measure I began muttering to myself. Combat’s tough on a fellow; there’s a thousand homeless vets on the streets, and just like that I was one of them.
I grimaced at the thought; it was too near the truth for my comfort. How many of us are just one bad day away from homeless? I’d had too many bad ones in a row, and I really needed this fee. I moved as fast as I dared without breaking character.
My destination was a decaying manor house in what had once been the fashionable part of town. Old money still lived in the neighborhood — the kind that maintained their own security force. That’s the origin of the word privilege, by the way — it means “private law”. There were at least half a dozen private lawmen watching the obvious entrances to the grounds, and I was sure my employer wouldn’t want me seen so the front door was out. No problem; I can adapt.
A wrought-iron fence looks forbidding, which is fine; that’s exactly what it’s there for: to look forbidding. Any determined trespasser can get past a fixed obstacle. Guards, cameras, and motion sensors — those are your real threats. But my employer wanted me to make it in, so I figured if I could get past the fence I’d be fine.
I figured right.
There was a light in a ground-floor study, the flicker of a fireplace. Solid construction; the floors didn’t squeak and the door opened silently. My employer didn’t look up from the papers he was studying at an old-fashioned desk; I decided not to bother him. I quietly sat in a comfortable-looking chair, trying to look like I’d been there all along. It was a room designed for comfort, and quiet: the perfect study. I made a mental note to acquire one just like it when I became enormously wealthy.
Every inch of the walls that weren’t fireplace, door, or window was covered in books. The shelves reached from floor to ceiling, and were packed tightly with antique books, all quietly mouldering away — real paper, an anachronism one found only among the rich. Nearest the windows, some of the leather bindings were cracked and faded; others, more fortunate, looked as though they’d never been read. Above the fireplace, they were predictably soot-stained. This was a room that had safeguarded its treasures for generations, but with indifferent success. It made me wonder if anyone would ever take one down to read; somehow, I thought not. Such a sad waste, and yet — who knew what words were written here, and if anyone was the poorer for them being forgotten, forever unseen.
You can tell a lot about a person from the room they choose to work in. The big lesson here was, this room didn’t belong to him. He didn’t fit with its comfort, or the erratic lighting, or the high desk. He merely occupied the space, almost indifferent to his surroundings — which said something else: He wasn’t the sort to be impressed by mere trifles of decor. This was a man of function; he belonged in a grey suit in a grey office. Nothing unusual there; my clients often want to avoid having their identities known. Safer for me too, if you think it through; what I don’t know can’t hurt them, and makes me far less of a threat.
I wouldn’t learn any more by watching; the man was a cipher. He wouldn’t give anything away unless I took it from him. So, after a bit, I gently cleared my throat.
The effect was all I could have hoped for. He fairly leaped in the chair, and his eyes bulged as he stared at me. “H-how–?!” he gasped.
In my line of work, it’s all about making a good first impression.
Who is our mysterious employer, and why does he want a private operative to appear at his house two hours past curfew? Tune in next time to find out!
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