Hard times a’comin

September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today was a bad day.

So rather than give you new content, I’m going to give you something from one of the projects I’m working on.

Sorry, it ain’t what you might be expecting, but I’ll at least give you something.

Never say I don’t give you things.

Chapter One: “All things have a beginning and an end. Less you’re a cynic, then every beginning’s just an end waiting to happen.”

Mical Carson toyed with the idea of ignoring the doorbell, for once ignored, the doorbell would recognize its own irrelevance. If there was no-one to answer it, then what purpose did it serve? Having realized the futility of seeking vainly for one to answer, the doorbell would cease to be. Mical could then go back to sleep, where nightmares were only in your head and not on your doorstep.

It rang again, mechanickal and jarring in the night. Mical sighed, but reasoned to himself as he put on his clothing. It’s not as though I was sleeping anyways.

Jin stirred, her happy sleep interrupted by Mical’s movement. She mumbled from beneath her blankets.

“Who’s out there, love?”

Mical hesitated as he always did before lying to his wife.

“Um, likely just the Magistrates. It’s probably urgent, or they wouldn’t call in person. Go back to sleep darling. I’ll be back in a few hours.”

She groaned. “Again?”

“Sleep, sleep. This will be quick.” He shushed her and kissed her on the shoulder as gently as he could, but she had already fallen asleep. Mical donned his jacket as he took in her sleeping form. This is for the best, he thought, there’s no need for her to worry herself over my mistakes. He paused, standing in the light of the door and taking in another look at his wife. He wanted to shut the door, climb back into bed with her and be happy again. Just like it used to be, before this all began.

Mical closed the door and hurried through the darkened house. The doorbell rang incessantly, and Mical idly hoped his son wasn’t woken by the sound. Someone must have been leaning on the button, heedless of the people inside. The house at night was black as pitch, the only light coming from a small lantern by the front door. Mical fed the lamp some oil and opened the door. He painted a scowl on his face and tried to seem righteously angry.

Two men stood there, both reaching up to only about the bottom of his neck. They were neatly dressed in matching grey suits, and both were cleanly shaved and pomaded. Mical turned his scowl on the two Agrimmir, but their history neatly deflected his scorn. These were men accustomed to intimidating men even before acknowledging them.

It worked particularly well on Mical.

“Have you no respect for my family?” He asked them. They loomed in response, despite their reduced height, like hills draped in grey silk. Their small eyes noted all Mical’s details with the swift regard of a predator. Muscles bulged from beneath the suits, and tattoos pushed their way past collars and cuffs. They wore grim expressions on their faces like masks of splintery rock, and looked like angry boulders with feet. Mical’s voice cracked halfway through chastising them. He was a wobbly fellow at the best of times, and standing before these two thugs, Breakers, in the parlance of the street, he felt his backbone evaporate.

The slightly taller of the two, Angos, answered in a voice as flinty as his face.

“Cutter wants you.”

“Does he give any reason why he needs me out of my bed at one in the morning?” Mical sniffed.

The other breaker, Jikuno, laughed, a cruel little chuckle from a cruel little man. “Not for you, Judge. But you seem dressed for the occasion, aren’t ya? Judges go to sleep in a three-piece suits now, would you look at that! Whisperer take me, that must get hot, don’t it?” Angos stood perfectly still, emanating threat.

“Very well, if he asks for me. I must say that I do not care for your tone, sir. I would remind you that I am a Judge of the Arcadian Circle.”

Jikuno opened his jacket, revealing a heavy revolver. He slowly ran a finger down the long barrel. Mical’s leg started to tremble as the ghosts of pain pounded through the scars in his chest. It had been a gun very much like that one.

Jikuno chuckled again.

“And I would remind you that I’ve got a popper. Now come on goffer, before I get upset.”

Mical let the two men, whom, he suspected, had the combined intelligence of a brick, lead him to their car. Jikuno fell into step behind him while Mical continued his complaints, emboldened by his compliance.

“I must say, Angos, that Cutter knows this is not part of our agreement. He knows he isn’t to contact me directly. I must protest that we are both put at risk by this overt action.” Mical did not think for a moment that this would win him anything, but the men in front of him respected only strength, and the illusion of defiance was all part of the show.

“Cutter needs to talk to you, now. Something’s come up, you see. Something pretty booming important, so he comes to me and asks me sweet as syrup to bring you to him. Now, I like a skirt as much as the next goffer, but Cutter, he’s got me heart and soul. So when he asks me to do him a favour, like say, bring you to him, then Bone can bet that I’m going to bring you to him. Oh, and I don’t give a crack what you think about risks. Is that ok?” Jikuno said. Angos cracked his knuckles as punctuation. Mical decided the man could fit a book’s worth of expression in a clenched fist and angry look.

Mical didn’t plan to get beaten tonight, so he decided to go with the path of least resistance. Like always. “Very well, so long as Cuter realizes this is a special circumstance.”

The car was parked on the street; a deep green model neither stylish nor ostentatious. Cutter liked getting his money’s worth. Mical climbed in the backseat, and fought the growing urge to lean his head on the window and sleep. He was so tired, so drained that he didn’t care anymore. He had had enough. He only wanted sleep, and maybe a drink, and maybe even in that order.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep sitting up. The gentle rumbling of the car and the smooth leather of the seat, as Cutter had an appreciation for some luxuries, lulled him even deeper into unconsciousness. Keeping them open was getting harder and harder, each moment adding another weight to the pile already trying to pull down his eyelids. He passed the ride in a half-sleep, dozing for a few moments before being startled awake by bumps in the road and sharp pains in his head. The two in the front seat sat in an appropriately stony silence and turned around every so often to check that he was still there.

Abruptly, they came to their destination in the Dock district. Gaslightcarved thin circles of pale light out of the night and the light of the Shattered Moon rippled on the bay. Mosquitoes and other insects flew about, drawn by the light to batter themselves against the glass casings. Angos and Jikuno checked the street for threats, but it was silent except for the buzzing of crickets. Satisfied, they walked through the tenements of Cullough street. The tenements were nightmares of brick and wood that threatened to collapse with every storm, but stayed standing out of a stubbornness bred in them thicker than the brick of their bones. They showed every bit of that struggle on their worn, grey exteriors. Every year they stood was marked by a crack in a brick, every storm by a broken shingle, every life within by a thin, flickering light coming from a window.

Mical pulled his pocket watch from his waistcoat, his thick fingers fumbling in the tight pockets. He cursed softly, his breath coming in gasps as he checked the fine silver watch. It was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, but he loved it all the more because Jin had given it to him. Guilt stabbed through Mical. No. Not now. I’ve already made my decision. Within ten minutes they came to a house marked with a tin plate that sparkled in the gaslight.

Jikuno clapped him on the shoulder. “Here we go. Nice place ain’t it? Get on up there Judge, if you would.”

Mical screwed his bowler atop his thick brown hair and marched forward with a sudden burst of confidence. His steps were firm and strong, which in his office would have demanded sharp attention, but weeds growing from between the cobblestones muffled the sounds and made him sound quiet and furtive. Angos waited outside, as still as a lamppost.

He approached the door, once painted a rich red, now flaking and dulled by the sun. He looked for the bell, but a jagged hole in the wall with naked wires ended his search. Sighing, he beat on the door with a meaty fist, the sound echoing through the empty streets.

Jikuno screeched in the empty silence. “Open the cracking door Gerad! It’s me and the Judge!”

Quite suddenly the door was flung open to reveal another Agrimmir’s surly face. He had arguing with a painted jenny who sat crying on the stairs. Twin tear tracks ran down her face, marring her makeup. Gerad pointedly ignored her and stood before Mical, his cotton shirt stained with sweat. Mical had to arch his neck to look down into the shorter man’s eyes, but the size of the Agrimmir’s forearms put paid to any ideas of weakness. Light flooded from the house and the sound of yelling and singing rose from the basement. The porter turned a sour face of coarse black hair and a thick nose towards Jikuno and growled.

“Yer late, you idiot. Waiting for a cracking invitation were you? Cutter’s gonna be right perky with you.”

Jikuno snarled and balled his hands into fists. “Shut your bellow box Gerad. We’re here, ain’t we?”

Gerad flicked a spent cigarette at the jenny. She flinched back from the stub, but he paid her less mind than the furniture. Mical felt abominably sorry for her but Gerad waved him along. What are you going to do for her anyways? She’ll still be a whore in the morning and you’ll be a Judge. He felt sick to his stomach when he realized giving in came so quickly these days.

“They’ll be waiting fer ya downstairs. Cimmin, sharpish, ‘e don’t want ter be kept waiting no more.”

Mical nodded, and swept his hat from his head as he stepped through the threshold to follow the Agrimmir. Despite his recalcitrance, the vestiges of compassion and duty struggled to rouse themselves within his heart. She must not be older than eighteen, and Gerad does not strike me as one who would pass up a chance to be cruel. He stopped before her and a twinge of decency turned his heart. Reaching a hand into his vest, he gave her his handkerchief.

The porter spun about and barked,

“Would ya hurry your worthless arse op ya ponce? Ferget the whore, she’s been right beastly the whole night! Jikuno, give her a little tap and she’ll learn her menners. Now get down there afore ‘e makes you learn yours!”

Mical’s fingers trembled at the man’s outburst, but his pride, wounded and near dead, still shambled awake. He turned on Gerad and shouted in his best courtroom voice,

“If you disturb a hair on this woman’s head, my situation be damned, I will call the Magistrates down on your head. You mark my words, ruffian, I will do it and be glad in it.”

“And lose yer job? Yer cracking head? You got the rocks to stand in Cutter’s house and talk big to his men?” Gerad shouted back at him.

Jikuno threw a bottle at Gerad. “Just make it dandy will ya? Fine, if it will get you down there, we won’t touch the jenny. Now get the goffer to him eh?”

Gerad snorted, but turned around. Mical shivered as he calmed down, but felt a little better. The threat was mostly hollow, but it felt good to do something decent, especially in a place like this. He followed Gerad down the dim stairs to the basement. The man grabbed a lantern from the wall and lead the way to a black wooden door set in a red brick wall. Fumbling with a ring of keys for a moment, he opened the door and stepped through. Mical had to duck his head to fit through the low door as he followed the porter. Stepping through, he ran into a wall of sound and smell. A score and a half or more tall Hume and stout Agrimmir, of all stations and dress, filled a small room. They surrounded a pit dug in the middle of their floor, their laughing booming in the close quarters, while a small dog tore rats to death in bloody sport. Mical’s stomach flipped as he noted the smell of unwashed bodies, sweat, and blood. Dim light came from several gas lamps and one or two weak electrick bulbs in the walls. The Hume milled about, partaking in gin and cheap whiskey whilst talking loudly and groping the serving girls while the Agrimmir consulted quietly in groups, sipping their strong ale and stiff tea. Many of them were dressed in sooty clothes and wore the thick leather gloves of firemen and cokemen. One or two were finely dressed in red jackets with gold epaulets, but did not speak. Instead, they stroked long beards and nodded sagely. They looked like leaders even though they didn’t speak a word.

Mical followed Gerad around the outside wall. His fine clothes attracted a few stares, only making him feel all the more keenly out of place among the barbaric masses gathered. He felt soiled even by being among them. Several of the Agrimmir looked his way but said nothing. Like most of their race, they stood shorter than the Hume, although mostly broader across the chest and distinctive with their broad noses and small ears, and many of them wore thick beards and long hair. Gerad said nothing, but pointedly avoided looking at the other Agrimmir. Mical scuttled closer behind him and kept his head down. It was hardly appropriate for a man of his station to be seen in a ratting den of all places, and his shame was only compounded by the pressing need for his presence.

Gerad pushed through the last of the crowd and led Mical to a clearing at the far end of the room. The crowd did not gather here. They stood at a respectful distance and looked up at the enthroned man atop the dais. There, atop a beautiful chair of black wood set beneath an actually functioning electrick light sat the most evil Agrimmir Mical knew. Cutter’s dashing presence, in a finely tailored suit of black silk and elegant top hat jauntily perched on his brow, jarred with the filth of the basement. Mical knew that the man ought to be dirty. He ought to be covered in blood so thick it runs off him in streams. But no, not tonight. Instead, he sat with wine in hand with an ivory swagger stick across his lap. Only his face, pale and drawn and hungry, and the handle of a butcher’s knife protruding from his jacket seemed to make him fit in the room.

Gerad dipped his head to Cutter and marched back into the crowd. Cutter stood up, his motions animated in a jerky, staggering fashion that looked by no means healthy. He looked like a marionette pulled by a clacker rather than by his bone and sinew. He swept his arms wide and bowed to Mical, calling out in a voice that sounded like a saw on stone,

“Good evening, Mical! You make me so glad, that you could come. I trust you weren’t inconvenienced by my call at so late an hour? Come, sit by me. I’m certain you’ll enjoy tonight’s entertainment. It will make up for a little sleep, I hope.”

Enormous figures moved through the dim light to place a dilapidated chair alongside Cutter’s beautiful throne. Heeding Cutter’s request, Mical sat, his heart pounding and his nerves again stretched taut. He moved with a sharpness and inefficiency that betrayed his nervousness, almost knocking over the glass of brandy offered in his haste. Cutter looked into the pit as he spoke, not once looking at Mical. From the side, his face looked comically stretched, like an egg. His long nose reached back into bushy black sideburns, and his chin was so sharp he could sharpen his knife on it.

“Have you never been to a rat-baiting before, Mical? It’s quite the event, I can assure you! The thrill, the danger, the presence of blood, why, it’s enough to fire a man’s blood and set him boiling! But, as in all things below the God’s Heavens, there is a, a, insufficiency to it, a measure of sport that is, well, lacking, don’t you agree?”

Mical quickly downed his brandy seeking to calm his nerves and wiped his mouth with his silk sleeve.

“Now, um, Cutter, what would that be? Pray forgive my ignorance, but I have little experience with such, sport.”

“Of course, of course! I always forget that you are an esteemed Judge of the Arcadian Circle! Forgive me, dear Mical, that I would assume men of your standing visit dens of such wickedness and ill-repute. Such things are base and churlish, and much removed from the glory of your esteemed duties. A thousand apologies, Mical, this old one forgot!”

Mical looked over at Cutter nervously, feeling the jibes cut deep into he pride. It’s your fault, Cutter, that I’m here. You’re the one that made me into this…servant of yours. But even as he though that, a small voice betrayed him. Really? And weren’t you so accommodating when working with him suited you so well?

He shook his head to try and clear the treacherous thoughts. Work with Cutter? Never willingly! Mical looked at the man, disgust in his heart. Cutter sat leaning forward, his fingers steepled beneath his chin. His power was completely disproportionate to his appearance. He was a small man, reckoned short even by reduced Agrimmir standards, and was well-wracked by age. Though he sat on a raised seat , his head was level with Mical’s. Cutter clutched his stick with both hands and took in the crowd as a butcher would examine a carcass, looking to cut. Mical shuddered inwardly. He had seen that look before.

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