Posted on February 28, 2005 by Flames
A tale for the a/state setting from Contested Ground Studios
Written by Greg Saunders (16/02/05)
Aiken watched the gun. The muzzle was drifting to and fro, but always covering him, cutting down his options. He was trying hard to sober up. The little man was talking away in his fast, clipped voice, but Aiken was having difficulty concentrating on the words. Before the pair had arrived he had been busy drinking himself unconscious, but now that was a distant memory. The big one had come in first, the muscle, waving his vicious-looking sparklock languidly about, indicating to the clientele of this particular dive that they would be better off not getting involved.
Then the second man had entered, trying hard, but failing miserably, to hide his revulsion. Obviously he was not a regular of Fogwarren. He looked Macrocorp, his features were too clean and his clothes, although designed to fit with his current location, were far too well made. Aiken felt sure that if he had been sober he would have little difficulty in dropping the muscle, and the little man sure wasn’t a problem. But there was bound to be at least one other outside, perhaps more, so he had decided to pretend to listen, at least until the fog in his head cleared.
‘…well paid of course.’ The little man finished, studying Aiken through his wire-framed glasses. He smiled a beneficent smile full of patience, as one would bestow upon a wayward but ultimately well-behaved child. ‘Ah, Mr. Pote, I can see that you have not been listening. Perhaps you don’t consider me serious? I assure you, I would not be visiting this locale,’ his nose wrinkled in disgust as he looked about him, ‘if I were not serious. Let me get straight to the point. You have a reputation Mr. Pote, a reputation of tackling assignments others would consider a little too, how can I put it, a little too cavalier.’ He beamed across the table at Aiken, piggy eyes screwed up in pleasure. ‘Ever since your unfortunate loss you have taken on tasks others frankly would not consider. How old was she Mr. Pote? Quite young I believe, quite young. It was a terrible accident, such a waste. I offer you my belated condolences.’
The atmosphere in the pub froze. Aiken stared at the man incredulously, blood pounding away in his ears and all traces of the stupor he had been attempting to attain before the men arrived washed clean away. The man affected a smug little smile, tinged perhaps with what he considered to be an appropriate level of condolence. Aiken couldn’t believe it. The little shite was talking about Lissa; he was talking about the fucking accident! It took a lot of effort for Aiken not to reach up and throttle him there and then, wrap his hands around the man’s scrawny neck and squeeze his life away. The rest in the pub knew it too; the sudden tension in the hunched shoulders of the others at their tables demonstrated their shock. Like everyone else around here they knew that you did not mention Lissa to Aiken Pote, not if you had any sense. Aiken turned slowly from the little man’s face to look at the gun. It was not moving now; it was pointing straight at him, goading him to respond. The muscle was grinning too, except it wasn’t with pleasure, it was the grin of a man who knew that however this played out, he was on top. Aiken knew why the little man had said what he did, he knew it was a trick, a dirty trick to get his attention and sober him up fast. But he also knew the little man would pay dearly for his cleverness.
‘Ah Mr. Pote, I see I have your attention. Good, for a moment I thought perhaps my visit had been ill considered. I have a proposition for you. To be candid I would wager that it is perhaps even more daring than those you have recently undertaken. I would like you to hunt something for me. You see, my, ah, employers would like very much to obtain a specimen. It doesn’t have to be in, shall we say, perfect condition. Even, at the very worst, a fragment would suffice. As long as the remains are identifiable, then we would consider the assignment complete.’
They sat in silence for a while, the tension slowly draining away from the pub as people realised that the situation was not going to explode into violence, at least not immediately. Some people took the opportunity to leave, and through the swinging door Aiken identified a second thug hunched over in a doorway opposite, wreathed in fog. Aiken looked back at the little man, intently fixing the contours of his cheek and jaw in his mind, ensuring that he would not forget that face, no matter what. The man beamed back, but under Aiken’s hard scrutiny the veneer of confidence began to slip. For all his cocky talk, underneath he was scared. Aiken was familiar with that emotion; he seemed to see it in the faces of all the people he dealt with. For the first time since the men entered Aiken relaxed, he was on top now; he was in charge of the situation. The piggy man seemed to realise that control of the interview was slipping away from his grasp. The smile slid off his piggy face, to be replaced with a nervous grimace that betrayed his fear. Even the muscle was not looking so confident, despite the obvious assurance of the gun he pointed unwaveringly in Aiken’s face. Aiken took a swig of his beer, feeling the sour liquor burning his throat. ‘So what am I hunting?’
The man’s smile was quick to return. He outlined the target in words loud enough to be overheard by all in the quiet pub. At the mention of the quarry most of the remaining customers left, cursing under their breath and directing fearful glances at Aiken’s table. Aiken smiled. ‘So what you paying?’ he asked.
‘Well, given your current activities and obvious intent,’ the man frowned down at the beer still clasped in Aiken’s left hand, ‘more than enough for you to finish the job, in which you are currently engaged, admirably, and in rather more luxurious surroundings. However,’ he reached slowly inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a sleek black weapon. Hitech, something unseen in Fogwarren, something Aiken had not seen in a long time, all sleek crisp lines and understated elegance. The piggy man placed the gun on the table, ‘consider this a down payment.’
Aiken looked at the gun, then up at the man’s grinning face. In a blur of motion the weapon was in his hand, pointing at the little man’s left eye and the trigger squeezed. Nothing. The piggy man cleared his throat. ‘Ah, Mr. Pote, forgive me but I took the precaution of removing the ammunition from the weapon before we met. You will receive it via a courier tomorrow. Please excuse my lack of trust.’ He was smiling at his little joke.
The muscle wasn’t. He hadn’t seen Aiken move.
Aiken held the torch in his left hand, the weak glow of the beam lighting on the dirty walls and the constant powdery flow of falling dust. In his right hand he held the weapon at his side, partially concealing the gun in the folds of his dog-skin greatcoat. The ammunition had arrived as the little man had said, brought wrapped in greaseproof paper by a grubby little urchin of indeterminate sex. The kid had said that the packaged had been handed over by ‘some skirt’. Aiken had no idea who that might be, but really it didn’t matter. Thoughts of his quarry kept popping into his head, bringing with them a twist of fear in the pit of his stomach. But he had decided on the way down here that, perversely, it felt good, the little taste of raw emotion reminding him that despite everything, he could still feel something besides self-loathing. Yet again unbidden images of Lissa rose up in his mind; her face as she sank beneath the waters of the canal, her golden hair slipping down into the scummy black. Once again Aiken violently forced the memories back down within himself, burying them in the pit of his stomach. The pig-man had dared to talk of her. He would pay.
The Warrens were poorly lit at this level and the air was bad. Most people who lived in the hellhole had some sort of job, but down here, at the bottom of the pile, lived those not even able to hold down work in the dangerous and ramshackle factories of Shore Ditch. Below this level were only empty tunnels, Furies and lord knows what else. Still, this was where he had been directed. Aiken scanned the stuttering torch over the far wall of the landing. Several doors broke up the rotting concrete. The one on the left was splintered and partially burnt. The one on the right was covered in scratched graffiti. ‘Milo’s place, fuck off.’ The door in the middle was in relatively good repair and untarnished apart from a shuttered slot at eye level. That was the place. Aiken knocked.
It took several moments before there was a reply. The shutter swung open to reveal a pair of stark white eyes criss-crossed with broken red veins. Even in the dim light of the torch the blue irises were remarkable. ‘What?’ A man’s voice, sullen and thick.
‘I’m here to see Mirabel.’ Aiken replied. His voice sounded unnecessarily loud in the rotting quiet of the landing. The eyes watched him contemplatively. Aiken reached into his pocket and lifted the contents toward the man’s eyes. The pendant swung gently, the torchlight reflecting off the dull metal. A piece of steel crudely carved with some sort of abstract image. The man watched the trinket for some time then ducked out of sight and swung the shutter close. After a few moments the sounds of bolts sliding came from behind the door and it swung inward. Aiken was in, so the pendant’s original owner had not died in vain.
Pale light splashed out through the open door from a smoky, stinking fish oil burner hanging from the ceiling. The man who had watched through the shutters now stood in the doorway. He was tall and thin, with sagging shoulders and a bent, worn posture. Young though, perhaps in his twenties. His hair was lank and greasy and Aiken could tell his skin was bad even though only his hands were visible. A voluminous coat of stitched rags, worn through in places, hid most of his form. In the sunken recesses of his face his pale blue eyes burned bright with either passion or intoxicants. ‘You wanna see Mirabel? Why? Who sent ya?’ Behind the man was a small hallway with two doors. The place looked dirty and shabby, the floor scattered with rubbish.
Aiken had run through his opening gambit in his head many times before he had made his way down to this level. Quickly looking round to asses the situation (he had expected more company, there were no obvious signs of others in the flat), he grabbed the man by the coat and shoved him into the wall, knocking the wind from him in a loud, explosive groan. Despite all his training, violence was often still the best tool in his arsenal.
‘Look scum, take me to Mirabel. Now.’ He hoped the note of finality in his voice would convey the appropriate response. The man struggled for breath, spluttering, ‘hey man, hey, let go! I’ll take you to Mirabel; she’s in there. Let go man!’ The dirty man jabbed a finger at the door as he struggled against Aiken’s grip. Before he could reply, one of the doors from the landing swung open. Aiken instinctively swung the man between him and the newly opened door, but no shots rang out of the dark rectangle. Instead the crude snub of a rusty Sparklock edged slowly into view. An old woman’s voice said from the darkness, ‘You put my boy down mister. I’m Mirabel. What do you want?’
She was old and, it turned out, nearly blind. If she had fired that Sparklock, most likely she would have killed her son rather than Aiken. They were now sitting in the living room, if you could call existing in this squalor living, them on one side, Aiken on the other. It had taken Aiken some time to calm the woman and the boy down, but eventually they had relaxed sufficiently for them to all sit down. It was obvious the boy had a serious habit; he had removed his coat and the telltale scratches on his now exposed arms told Aiken all he needed to know. He doubted the mother knew. Perhaps she knew all to well.
She held the trinket in her hands now, sensitive fingers running over the crude relief that marked the surface. She was old and had that kind of grimy face packed with ground-in dirt that came with years in the squalor of the warrens. Her hair was a mess of beads, pieces of metal and glass, all wound tightly into coiling strands. Her white eyes stared straight ahead. Aiken found them uncomfortable, as if the films covering her irises somehow made her less than human.
‘Where did you get it?’ she asked eventually. The boy was watching him, fear still glistening in the recesses of his eyes. ‘I picked it up’ Aiken replied. She smiled, cold and hard. ‘I’m sure you did mister, I’m sure you did.’
It was a calling card, a mark. Mirabel told him that others who wore the pendant could be found. ‘But you don’t want to go there, mister. There’s no good in a place like that. Some things should be left alone.’ She studied him now, peering close with her white rheumy eyes. ‘You hurtin’. I can tell,’ turning to her boy, ‘Jared, get out.’ Wordlessly the boy left. ‘Now mister, why don’t you tell me about it?’
Aiken left in silence. Lissa rising in his mind once more, the pain profound.
The smell of chemicals filled the air, a rotting, sweet odour that coated the throat and lungs. Aiken resisted the urge to cough, but his breath was ragged and hoarse. The locals had warned him about coming here, but it was to this place that Mirabel had directed him. He still wore his dark dog-skin coat, but now strips of wound cloth covered his hands. There was no way he was going to touch anything in the bleach factory with exposed skin. He knew it might not be enough. The gun was in his right hand, the smooth curves of the grip fitting snugly into his bound hand. It had always been like that, as if he had been made to carry weapons. For a while it had seemed that Lissa could change that, but not anymore. Now the gun was back in his hand. Perhaps that was how it was supposed to be. Shaking such thoughts from his head Aiken pressed on. He knew what he was looking for.
As he made his way forward in the dim half-light of the factory, Aiken heard a noise to his left. A cough? Was someone else in here? That local in the Gaslight had been all too willing to talk about the Old Bleach factory, once Aiken had slipped him a little of the stale, sour beer he drank, but he had been of the opinion that no one came here, not anymore. Aiken knew that wasn’t exactly true. His quarry was here somewhere, amongst the crumbling walls and foetid pools of decay. Aiken turned and moved forward in a half crouch, using the stumps of walls for cover. He held the gun before him, as if to ward off the fear that swelled in the pit of his stomach. There, laying in the half-light by a cracked storage silo, a figure. It coughed weakly, stirring cloth-bound limbs feebly. Aiken scanned the surroundings, but there was no sign of anyone else. Aiken approached the figure, gun at the ready, senses straining for danger.
It was a woman. She had fallen and appeared to have broken a leg, the wound was messy and smelled, bone was visible. Unable to move she had lay here for god knows how long, slowly bleeding to death, before thirst had driven her to drink some of the fouled waters of the factory. Despite the noise it would make, Aiken shot her twice.
Here it was. Aiken crouched by a wall, watching the opening in quiet fascination. He leant back against the wall, forgetful of the chemical dampness seeping into his coat. His hands were bare now; the wound strips of cloth discarded as soon as they began to soak up the multihued liquid of the factory. All he had to do was enter the tunnel. Just an access way, a tunnel cut into the stone. Somewhere within the darkness was his quarry; all he had to do was enter. But there was so much more than that. The darkness was ripe with emotion, the black maw alive with feeling. A solid wall of fear blocked Aiken’s path. He knew it was in his mind, he knew it couldn’t possibly be real, but the terror was so intense it seemed like a tangible force deadening his limbs. The fear he had relished just three days ago was now threatening to overwhelm him. Realising what he must do but almost moaning aloud at the thought, Aiken summoned the image of Lissa into his mind, her pale face and crooked, awkward smile. Gone, forever lost.
All emotion deadened, Aiken rose and strode purposefully into the darkness. A few moments later a gunshot sounded deep in the maw of the tunnel, followed by a second shot. Silence returned.
Some moments later, a shadow emerged from the depths of the factory and approached the tunnel. A small figure wrapped tightly in a cloak with cowl walked forward into a shaft of light that broke through the roof in front of the tunnel. He stood silently, and then raised his arms above his head in supplication. His fast, clipped voice was now thin and reedy with devotion. ‘I offer you, ah, great one, a sacrifice. A gift, yes, a gift. His strength will become your strength, his anger will feed yours.’ The man rolled back his left sleeve, revealing an emaciated arm covered with scars. The red lines criss-crossed and intersected, forming a bewildering number of tight, abstract forms. Drawing a thin scalpel from his right pocket he slowly, languidly cut a fresh mark across the skin. ‘A gift for you. And,’ his voice grew weaker with pleasure, blood oozing from his mutilated arm, ‘what do you have for me?’
The gunshot rang out loudly from just within the tunnel. The cloaked figure grunted and doubled over, the air behind his left hip clouding with blood. Slowly he slipped backward into a puddle of viscous, oily water. His blood mingled freely with the chemicals in the pool, adding a new component to the complex waste.
Aiken emerged from the tunnel, his left arm curled tight against his chest. Blood oozed from a ragged tear in the coat and the flesh beneath. He staggered toward the figure of the man lying in front of the tunnel. ‘My gift to you,’ he muttered through pain-gritted teeth. The man looked up at him with wondering, fear-filled eyes. Aiken prodded the man’s wound with his foot, eliciting a gasp of pain. ‘Didn’t anyone tell you? Never, never mention my Lissa.’
Aiken staggered through the factory, away from the tunnel mouth, out of the dying man’s vision. But then he stopped. What if he were to lay down here, just lie down and sleep? He could join Lissa, he would be free. He stood in indecision, rocking slightly to and fro.
Then, cursing, he staggered onward. He would not die today.
Back in the factory, the man watched the tunnel mouth in terror, whimpering quietly through the mist of pain. Deep in the darkness, something stirred toward the light.
For more information on a/state visit the Contested Ground Studios website: