I started writing a short story for pilot_star based on a prompt she'd given me, and it just keeps growing and growing.
The hansom that splashed a puddle of Bogs Down slush on me was a flash one. Nice drives, or the swanks in ‘em, only go to the Downs for three things--things they can’t be seen getting or doing in the Uppers. A loose purse strings can get you anything in the Downs, invisibility included. Funny how the Uppers always wanna stand out until they get that gnawing need for something they want just enough less than status and power. Then they’ll swear over their mother’s ashes, up and down the rivers, that it wasn’t them you saw at the Brassy Horn or Boar’sHead.
I coughed out that mixture of dirt, stale water, and waste that is the soup of Lower Ismus. The Downs were always the rankest, the waste the freshest there, sloshed up into the streets from the Ismus. The river was a giant slide of it. Made for one hell of a laundry day.
I mumbled a sloshy curse as the hansom safely rounded the corner onto Harraway Street.
That meant the swank in it was hitting the holy trinity of the Downs: moonsheen, sex, and dice.
Harraway Street had Little Bitsy’s Hall. Little Bitsy’s Hall isn’t a hall, per se, and Bitsy sure as hell ain’t little. Well, maybe at one time, when she worked the cobbles, she was. But I doubt the front of her’s ever been anything other than...imposing. All of Bitsy’s imposing, and that’s part of the reason why Little Bitsy’s Hall was making more coin than all the other whorehouses in all the Downs, hell, maybe even all of Lower. Bitsy runs a dirty joint, but no one messes with her or her people, and no snoops or blackmailers are allowed unless they’re buyin’. Thus all the coin in the joint. Well, that and the fact that you can find anything at Bitsy’s. Girls, boys, things inbetween, and sheets that get washed at least once a week.
I Couldn’t help thinking I’d love me some clean sheets as I mopped myself up. Truthful, a bit of mud didn’t make much difference. I’d been working the rivers. As in, a few houses along it. I know it’s not good and I ain’t doin’ right by no one, but I didn’t care. It’d been a few years since I had clean sheets too.
When you don’t sleep much, sheets ain’t very important. Drink is. I’d had a good night’s work, and a good night’s-worth of drink. No one cared how old or how young you were if you could pay. Sal at The Bloody Boar’d been serving me amber for seven years--since I was ten. Still, the thought of clean flesh and perfume was enough to send a guy stagger-drunk down the street. So I staggered toward’s Bitsy’s. At some point I fell, too, ‘cause I never made it to there.
I felt the cobbles pressed cold on my face. I didn’t fall on it, ‘cause my arms hurt, not my nose, and if I’m a smooth mover when I’m sober, you should see me drunk. Like a cat. S’why I chose to wet up before a job. Well, one of the reasons. Anyway, I wasn’t hurtin’ none when the posh boot appeared in front of my face. All I could think was I was fucked over, if it were the constables and I still had the rest of the night’s work in my pockets. I must have had one too many though. If I were sober-drunk instead of drunk-drunk, I’d have known those were too shiny for constable boots. Even constables can’t get the Lowers muck off of them entirely. Could say the same about their souls.
Someone, hauled me by my arms and I was off my face. Now, I’ve had to haul my fair share of person around before, and there ain’t no easy way about it. A drunk is as good as a corpse and corpses are about the hardest thing to carry. Just try it. Whoever this behemoth was though, he picked me up good and quick. Knew I was in for trouble then. I felt the world tip a bit and saw part of a top hat before everything went all black.
When I came to, I was laying in a posh bed. I coulda sworn it was made outta feathers and angel breath. Smelled like it too. I scrambled to sit up, worried about my Downs-filth clothes ruining a bed I couldn’t pay for, but someone had changed me into a nightshirt. My hair still had cobbles dirt in it, but my clothes were lyin’ in a clean pile on a chair next to the bed. The room I was in was crisp--white and blue everything. Real posh, not that sparkly naked baby angels crap and all that. I didn’t have much time to take it in, though, when a maid came shuffling in. To her credit, she didn’t yell none. I musta looked ten feet to death. I had a hangover that felt like it. The maid didn’t say much at all. Can’t really blame her.
“The Master is expecting you downstairs for breakfast. You may wear this ensemble. I will wait outside to take you to the dining room.”
And that was it. I knew I was in deep shit. I was tryin’ to figure out who’d go through this trouble for revenge, and the problem was that I could think of too many people, but not too many people with this kinda money. So I washed my face in a wash basin and tried to fix my hair a bit. I put on my “ensemble”--including jacket and bow tie. Here I ran into some trouble. I didn’t wanna stick my head out and holler at the maid. I stared down the bow tie and finally decided I could eat without something around my neck. And if the swank who’s house I was in didn’t like it, he could deal. I did button the jacket all nice though, like I’d seen on men by Bitsy’s place. I wondered about bringing my old clothes with me and figured, if I were kicked out right after breakfast, I could make do with my new ones.
My head was right pounding when I opened my door and I had a hard time focusing on the maid as she led me down a hall that was too bright for a hangover. I closed my eyes as much as I could without running into something. We went down the hall, down a staircase, and wrapped around, going down another hall, less bright. I saw pictures of swanks all over the walls, all of them dressed in exactly the same clothes. Black top hat, black cape, black vest. Great, I thought, I’ve found myself a rich undertaker.
The maid showed me into a dining room. It was posh, but not all shiny and decorated like some of the places I cased. The dining table was long, but not crazy long wheres you can’t hear no one on the other end. Which I guess is good, ‘cause, like the maid said, the Master was waiting for me. I froze a bit. Not because I knew him, but because I didn’t. I knew the faces of most the regulars that went by Bitsy’s, merely from being around the area. I began to panic. I wondered if we were along the river. The house didn’t look familiar though.
“Please, sit,” said the gentleman in front of me.
I looked at the maid, who motioned towards the table and made her way out. My mind screamed at me to stay standing. Easier to run. Or dodge. But both the man’s hands were on the table, no gun in his lap, and it didn’t look like the house staff was very big. I moved slowly to the chair and sat down on the opposite end of the table from the man.
He was swank. All class and high cheeks. A careful pretty, but something serious and strong about it. The cobble girls woulda tripped over themselves to hang on his sleeve. He had on a dark grey suit and white gloves sat by his plate. His bow tie was tied perfect. Even if he wasn’t the upper of the Uppers, he seemed to think he was. The only problem was his skin. It was a light brown color. Real Class didn’t have that. That meant he was foreign, or new money. I got more and more uncomfortable as the maid brought me a beautiful breakfast. I looked at all the forks by my plate and reached for my water instead. I needed it for that headache anyway.
“Please, make yourself comfortable for now, Mr. Brenin. Or do you prefer Mattox now? You do still go by your original given name, Leif, correct? Leif Mattox, is it? No matter, you’ll need yet another new name soon enough. And, use the outer fork first.”
I nearly spat into my water. How’d he know my name? My real
name? I’d been going by Mattox for nigh on ten years. Figured Mattox sounded a bit more frightful. Easier to dodge people you don’t want to meet if they don’t really know who they’re looking for too.
“Mattox. Er, much obliged...”
“Lira. Raphael Lira.”
I almost smiled and he caught it. Sharp eyes.
“May I ask what’s so amusing, Mr. Mattox?”
I figured I’d try my luck. The swank obviously knew more than I liked anyway. Probably knew even more than that.
“Nothing. Just, your name is even more fake than mine.”
Lira’s lips curled up into a vague smirk. Yeah, the girls woulda been all over him.
“I suppose you’re right. But in this day and age, can you blame me?”
I shrugged, “Everyone in the Lowers needs a fake name, elites included. When they’re doin’ things they ain’t supposed to be.”
This seemed to please the guy immensely, though I didn’t have the foggiest why. I didn’t like the guy already, but I picked up the outer fork. Might as well eat while I could. I could run faster with a bit of food in me to sway the hangover. The food was delicious. Eggs and fresh biscuits and marmalade.
“Is it to your liking?” Lira put down his fork and laced his fingers together, looking forward.
I stopped chewing for a minute. All I could think was that it was poisoned. But Lira looked almost bored watching me, so I figured it safe and swallowed it.
“Good, then I hope you’ll listen to me while you eat,” he signaled for more water and the maid from before poured it.
“Last night, you robbed two estates along the river.”
I chewed my food slowly, staring at him. It hadn’t been a question. So I shrugged. If he was a captain of the patrol or something, he would have had me in cuffs already. That meant I was in something far more serious. Shitter-deep.
“You stole some very valuable things. Things thought very well protected and treasured by their owners, who are, I dare say, livid and besides themselves.”
Yep, sounding better and better. I gnawed on a biscuit. The fact that he’d gone through the trouble of looking everything up on me meant he had a deal for me. People never do research unless it’s for a deal or revenge. Not much I could do, so I waited and played along.
“If you’re wanting me to turn myself in, you can’t prove I did anything.”
The man smiled, both sides of his mouth quirking up. I wondered if he practiced that in the mirror every morning to make it look so charming and goddamn creepy.
“I don’t want you to turn yourself in. I want to take you on. As an apprentice, of sorts.”
At that, my food nearly did kill me. He waited while I choked coughed through it. Real refined-like.
I took a huge swig of water and managed to choke out, “You what?”
I was gettin’ real worried by this point. I wasn’t the finest lookin’ head in the Lowers, but richees like this man were known to make favorites in the Lowers and disappear with them. Dungeons, whips, or just plain servant stuff. I didn’t want none of that, but I also didn’t think Mr. Lira wanted it none either. There weren’t many more guesses for why I was where I was. I wasn’t a merc, so he wasn’t wanting someone snuffed.
“I don’t like repeating myself. If you accept, I will take you with me for jobs and you may have the room you were in last night. On top of that, I will give you ten percent of any sales made from jobs. I only ask that you do not bring anyone to this estate, do not tell anyone in the Lowers where you are living, and keep renting out your old residence. I will pay for it.”
And then it started to add up. I almost laughed right there. I wiped my face with the napkin on the table and started to get up from the chair.
“Please sit,” said the gentleman thief across the table.
“Look,” I says, “I’m....er...honored that you thought of me, Mr. Lira, but partnerships ain’t ever a good thing in the Lowers. No offense, but someone always ends up stabbing and someone always ends up with a knife in their back.”
Lira nodded solemnly, but I his lips were curled up just a little. He said lowly, “But you won’t be in the Lowers, Mr. Mattox. Different rules apply here.”
“Rules is rules for thieves. You can dress ‘em up, but in the end they’re just people who steal. They steal long enough and they stop discriminating. They steal coin and loot just as easy as lives, if it’s needed.”
“Do those rules apply to you, Mr. Mattox,” he unfolded his hands and leaned back elegant in his chair. I could see he had strong shoulder lines and muscled arms that I someway didn’t see before. He was lean but strong. Perfect for a crook.
I was starting to get mad.
“Yes. Rules is rules.”
“Then you have already broken a cardinal rule of thieves and I have no reason but to trust you. You were honest just now.”
“I think you’re wrong in the head.”
He smiled primly at me, obviously enjoying every bit of it all. That was the last time I’d ever get him to smile so easily. Not that I tried much.
“I could be wrong in the head, but you’d be a fool to turn down the offer. Try the apple strudel, it’s quite savory today.”