Chapter One - Free!

‘Come on!’

‘No.’

‘Come on!’

‘No!’

‘You mis’rable bastard! I’ve got money; no good for you is it?’ slurred Borell.

‘Look, you’ve had more drink than you can clearly handle. Folk are leaving ’cause of you,’ said the bartender, keeping a cool head.

‘Kiss mine, there are other —’

Borell came to, lying face down on the icy cold autumn pavement outside the pub. The bartender clearly knew how to deal with problem customers. Slowly getting to his knees, rubbing a sore and bleeding head, he could feel the extent of his forceful ejection from the pub in his lower back.

‘You have been keeping yourself busy, I see,’ said a voice, towering over him. A tall, silhouetted gentleman wearing a bowler and distinguished clothes was taking a drag from a silver-piped cigarette holder that glinted in the warm light from the gas-powered street lights.

‘I can offer you somewhere more comfortable to kneel if you can tear yourself away from the pavement, Borell,’ he said.

Borell let out a painful breath. ‘You have me at a dis’vantage, sir.’

‘We have a mutual acquaintance, which is all I’ll say for now.’ The silhouetted man dropped the cigarette from the holder. ‘We have a job that requires your particular skills. There is a warm bed, pay and all the beer you can drink waiting for you —’ he chuckled ‘— if you complete this task for us.’

The silhouetted man faded in and out of view as Borell's eyes slowly succumbed to his severe intoxication. He managed two words before passing out completely.

‘Why not?’

***

Borell awoke in a firm but comfortable bed, his head sore from the night before. Sitting up, he also sharply remembered the pain in his back.

‘Can still see, then. Isn’t as bad as I thought,’ he said through an achy jaw. He rubbed his head, and found a sore spot that made him wince. He noticed his elbow had been carefully bandaged, so someone had clearly looked after him when he got — wherever he was now. Looking around, he didn’t recognise the room or anything in it. He had a vague recollection of meeting someone, but that was as far as his memory would allow him to probe right now. He decided, rather unwisely as it turned out, to stand up and look out of the window. His knees gave under him and he staggered to the chair opposite, managing to recover from a graceless fall.

‘Okay, maybe it is as bad as I thought,’ he muttered.

Knock, knock, knock.

‘Good morning! Are you awake?’ called the unknown voice from beyond the door.

‘Who’s asking?’ he replied with a hazy stammer. The unlocked door slowly opened and a very beautiful woman entered. Standing comfortably in her six-foot tall, slim, heavily bustiered frame, she smiled at him.

‘Good morning, Borell,’ she said. ‘I’ve been sent to make sure you have recovered from your evening, and bring you up to speed on the task required of you.’

Borell sighed. ‘That’s great, but I’m gonna be needing some breakfast before getting down to anything too strenuous at this point,’ he said, both in an attempt to delay reality creeping into his waking head, and because his hangover craved food.

‘I am well aware of your usual morning requirements,’ the unknown woman replied, and opened the door to the room again. Two men entered sporting a tray of pastries and pies, a flagon of beer and coffee and unfaltering smiles. They set the tray and drinks down on a side table and left as cheerfully as they entered.

Borell was starting to recall the reason for the kindness through the haze that was his morning grey matter. Usually the tasks that followed were not at all pleasant, so his employers had come to learn that starting him off on a sated stomach garnered his full attention.

‘I will return in one hour. We will then discuss our needs,’ the woman said, then left him alone with his breakfast. Borell hobbled over to the chair next to the food and started to eat. He was sure that this job would indeed be horrendous. Normally the food was acceptable and the accommodation tidy, but this was a level above his usual expectations.

***

Borell drank the dark, thick coffee from the large mug whilst gazing from his room’s window. Breakfast satisfied his hangover, and he was just waiting for the woman to return. She was certainly a sight for sore eyes this morning. Well, any morning really. He could see from the city’s clock tower through his window that she should be due any time.

Knock, knock, knock.

‘Come in,’ Borell called. The door opened and the same slim woman entered carrying a small folder of papers.

‘I hope breakfast was to your liking?’ she said.

‘Very much so.’

‘My name is Loren.’ She gestured for Borell to sit. Still hobbling a little, he managed to move to one of the plush armchairs and sit down. Loren took one of the other chairs and sat in front of him.

‘Let’s get to the business at hand,’ she said with little enthusiasm for further pleasantries. ‘We need you to recover an item for us; there is no need to be discreet about it. We have been looking to acquire this item for some time now, and recently it fell into the hands of — well, people who aren’t us.’

‘Who is us?’ Borell interrupted again.

Loren let out a small sigh. ‘Don’t trouble yourself with that. The point is, we want you to recover this item for us, and we don’t care how you do it. The Society has been supporting the man who built the device, and is now readying their operatives to locate it. They are more than slightly concerned that it has disappeared.’

‘So I’ve got competition? Does anyone know where to start looking?’

‘According to our sources, the Society have no leads. We have heard, however, that a man who calls himself The Grey Hand has information of the whereabouts of the item, and will sell for a price. We don’t intend to pay him, but we are happy to leave the details of this transaction in your capable hands. The Society may uncover this information before you get to him, or they may already have — in which case, you will need to source the information another way.’

Borell smirked. ‘Understood. Get the information, kill him, avoid getting killed in the crossfire, kill someone else if necessary.’

‘It goes without saying that anyone else looking for this item is fair game. We don’t want to know, just get the job done.’

Loren stood and handed Borell a small brown pouch with a leather drawstring threaded through the neck, containing his payment, and placed a folder of papers on the table next to his breakfast.

‘One half now, one half when you put the item into my hands. Understood?’

‘Yeah, I get it. I ain’t no rookie.’

‘Very good. You will find a woman named Bethany at the Broken Arrow Inn. She will pass on your message when the job is done. If you are caught, you better hope they kill you.’

Borell’s face changed from a smirk to one of contemplation at the statement, but it soon changed to back into a grin. As Loren opened the door, she turned and said, ‘Don’t enjoy the facilities, we don’t expect you to be here for long,’ and closed the door behind her.


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