I blinked. Teleportation always left me vaguely out of sorts. Trying to adjust to being in one place one moment, and then instantly in another was always tricky, to say the least. The human brain wasn’t designed to handle such instant changes in environments, and it took a little bit for the brain to adjust to the signals that it was getting. Movers, at least, had help from their passengers.
Still, it was nice to be in a familiar locale. The fence was a little higher, the small wind turbine was a newer addition, but I wasn’t complaining. With a smile, I approached the door and found it unlocked.
“Hello,” I called out as I closed it behind me.
Almost instantly, I heard scrambling in the other room. One of my employees ran into the kitchen, his face breaking into a wide grin. “Boss!”
As he hurried up to me, taking my hand and clapping my shoulder, I felt a little guilty. Why wasn’t I able to learn their damn names? “Hey. Sorry to come in unannounced.”
“Shit, I’m just happy that you came in at all.” He studied my head for a moment, a jubilant grin on his face. “You’re looking a lot better, man.”
“I’m feeling a lot better. The damage is almost completely repaired. You can see a little bit when I’m under the right light, but it’s nothing that would slow me down.”
“Dude, you had gunk streaming from your eye sockets and looked like your skin was about to pop, and you still carried that one girl downstairs like it was nothin’. I don’t think anything can slow you down.” He laughed. “Hey, where’d everyone else?”
“Handling the wagon. They want their deposit back, and we agreed that it might be best if I wasn’t around for that.” I carefully leaned my halberd in the corner. “Uh, next time I show up, can we have a place to hang this up? Just leaning it might score the wall a bit.”
“Sure, no prob. Hey, you hungry?”
I flashed him a grin. “A little lesson for you. Never ask me that question, just assume that the answer’s yes.”
“We don’t have much, but I’ll get some pancakes going at least.” He hurried over to a cabinet, getting out a jar of flour. “We were pretty worried about you, Boss. And then yesterday, one of those Warden wingless plane things flew by twice, once in and once out, and we kinda assumed the worst.”
“Yeah,” I said as I leaned against the wall. “They found us.”
He turned to look at me for a moment, frowning a bit. “You fought them?”
“Yeah,” I said with a nod, growing more serious. “John had the bright idea to steal their craft, but I don’t know the first thing about flying one. I’ve, uh, I’ve seen training videos, but that doesn’t mean anything. But he then followed it up with an idea that if they were more cadets, maybe we should talk with them. ‘Cos sending cadets after me is a little odd.”
“Yeah, I’d agree.” He turned back to start working on the pancakes. “I mean, at this point, I’d figure that you’d be worth some of the better teams. You handle them okay?”
“Yeah. Maybe some broken ribs or a minor concussion or something, but nothing major.”
He looked back at me to frown again. “One of the girls get hurt?”
“What? Oh, no.” I moved to lean against the fridge so that he could just glance at me. “I mean on their side. We got maybe a bruise or two.”
“Fair enough. Did you get any details?”
“We didn’t get why out of them, but we did learn a lot. They had no clue what to do — their handler hadn’t given them any direction. Hell, he didn’t even seem all that concerned when we were fighting, watching them more than he was watching us. When I declared that the fight was over, he agreed and pulled them away, easy as could be. It’s confusing.”
The man was silent for a minute as he worked. When he spoke, he did so very cautiously. “Okay, um… Odd question. You didn’t hurt them bad, right?”
“Nah. We aren’t, you know, rip and tear kind of folks.”
He nodded slowly. “Have you ever hurt a response team bad?”
“The first one, yeah. But, uh, they kinda had it coming to them. Shot one in the leg who was threatening my sister, broke another’s jaw, almost suffocated another. But they also pulled their training gloves off when I shot the one, so I kinda had to go all out. Other than that? No. I clotheslined one, and Emi beat down another. Why?”
“Huh, never mind. I just had a thought, but…” He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.
I shrugged, not feeling up to fighting him on this one. “Where’s everyone else?”
“‘Rora chip a tooth, so she’s at the doctor. We don’t have a proper dentist here, and our doctor may not be the best, but he’s all we got. The other two are out shopping. We weren’t sure when you’d be back… if you came back at all.”
I frowned a bit. “You all doing okay?”
“Oh, yeah, we’re fine. We were worried, but… We figured that Redford would be able to patch you up, but we weren’t sure what would happen after that.”
“Good call on her. I’m surprised that she slipped under my radar for so long.”
“It wasn’t my idea. A few New 53s passed through here on their way to her and back right after we set up shop. I figured her for just a Doctor Frankenstein, but Michelle figured that if anyone could at least piece you together a bit, it would be her.” As he got out a pan to put on the stove, he flashed me a bright grin. “I’m glad she was right.”
“You’re not the only one,” I said with a grin. “Still, I’m just surprised is all. I tried to keep tabs on all the bio Tinkers out there.”
“Hey, nobody’s perfect, man. We all miss something. Anyway, other than the Wardens, everything go okay?”
“Not really,” I confessed. “I got captured by a few mercs. We dealt with them easy, but I’m curious about this price on my head now.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Candice de Fer, a European para who got pulled over here back during Gold Morn. She was the main merchant for New Fairfax, since her kinda-husband retired there. She makes, well, made good money, with rumor having it that she dealt in the Tinker black market from what was produced in New Fairfax.”
I knew all of that from dealing with the mercenaries. They’d dropped little tidbits here and there that I’d put together. “Any info on her husband?”
“Uh…” He paused to flip the pancakes. “Verrat de Fer? Weird name, but he’s European, what do you expect?”
No, that was his codename. I remembered him from the book that I’d read on Scandinavian paras. He was a rogue, a mercenary who held no allegiances. He specialized in dealing with other paras in non-lethal manners, though he was very well-equipped.
He was a Brute, with a very controlled metabolic system that allowed him to heal by eating. It also allowed him bursts of strength and speed, and increased stamina and durability. He could go days without sleeping, and would wade through punishment and grueling situations that would make others collapse quickly. He was a living legend in Europe and Scandinavian, a legendary mercenary. Rumor had it that he had people backing him up from afar.
Now I knew who.
“Is she going to be a problem, Boss?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a sigh. “We’ll figure out what to do about her later. She has a high pedigree, so dealing with her will be tricky at best. Even if by proxy of her, uh, kinda-husband, she has more experience dealing with paras than most folks.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured she was a badass in her own right. They say she ran the trade route solo, even before banditry became less common.”
Right around the period of exodus, when folks realized that urban life wouldn’t sustain them and they needed to flee to parts unknown, banditry had become a serious problem. People were desperate, people were needy, and so they were forced to turn to taking from others by force. As folks had settled, it had slowly grown less common. These days, caravans didn’t have to worry too much about anything more than a couple of parahumans.
Well, except for Fyrtorn, but they were more likely to assault a city than a caravan, and were likely to take any paras they defeated with them. Sometimes, they took untriggered people, but it varied. They would have been eliminated long ago, if Krigarguden hadn’t almost killed Valkyrie. He’d more than earned his name that day.
“So, we’re dealing with someone who had a pedigree in badassery, who isn’t coming after me herself.” I frowned. “That’s… interesting.”
“Yeah. I haven’t looked too much into her, to be honest. One of the others might, but…” He shrugged as he put the pancakes on a plate. “I dunno. You want us to look into this?”
“No,” I said quickly. “Too many questions about me might draw attention to you, and I don’t want her sending people after you to get to me. So, yeah, let’s not get ourselves in too deep, alright?”
“Appreciated, Boss.” I moved to let him get into the fridge and pull out the butter. “Sorry, I don’t have anything to put on it. We’re even out of beet sugar.”
“That’s fine,” I said sincerely as we moved into the dining room. “Hopefully, they’ll get back before everyone else shows up. I’ll imagine that they’ll be itching for a good meal, too.”
“The boss is here, he’s fine, but he’d probably like to avoid repeating everything again.”
I smiled as I dug into my third plate of pancakes. They said that good employees were hard to find, but I was starting to doubt that. After all, I stumbled on these four, and they were turning out to be pretty great.
Three of them entered, but it was the woman who spoke first. “Jordan! How are you feeling?”
“Michelle,” my cook groaned. “What the fuck did I just say?”
“I’m fine,” I said warmly. “Better with every bite, though I’m still fairly hungry.”
“Well, then we best get to cooking, hadn’t we?” Michelle smiled as she hefted her canvas bags a little. “We’ve got enough here for a good meal for ya.”
“Better include my companions, once they show up.”
The other man looked to my cook. “Dave, you take these? I wanna…”
Dave nodded, taking the bags and following Michelle into the kitchen. The man settled down into the chair opposite me, smiling a bit. I couldn’t remember his name, but I kind of remembered him a little better than the others. “How’s your daughter?”
That made him smile. “She’s getting bigger every day, I swear. It’s insane. I’m afraid of what she’ll look like in a year.”
“I can imagine,” I said as I took another bite.
“You gave us quite the scare, Jordan.” He frowned a little. “But you made me glad that we’re working for you.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “It’s like… From what I gathered, you were shanghaied into that job by Nexus, but you still did it. From what the Wardens said, the Tinker had the town wired with explosives. You took ’em down without anybody being blowed up.”
I shrugged a shoulder. “It’s better this way, trust me.”
He chuckled weakly. “Yeah, but… What really got me was when you showed up. You were pretty much dead, but you were worried about that Jap chick. Carried her downstairs easy when you could barely keep yourself upright. That, uh… That says a lot, you know?”
I remained silent, focusing on eating. There wasn’t much that I could say at this point.
“Uh… Anyway, I… I kinda, you know, mentioned it to my wife, how amazing it was. She… She doesn’t actually know what it is that we do, or who we work for, but, um… She’s pushing pretty hard to join us. Wanting to know if you’ve got room for one more and all.”
I fought back a sigh, instead looking at him evenly. “Is money tight for you?”
“No, no!” He chuckled weakly. “That’s not it at all. It’s just… When we were cooking, we were making better money than you can pay us. I mean, the four of us bought houses, and we bought this house, you know? You can’t quite match that, and I know it.
“But she got used to living like that, and she was thinkin’, maybe if she joined us, we could make some more money, and…” He paused for a long moment before shrugging, at a loss for words.
“I see.” I leaned back, my fingertips drumming against the table for a moment. How best to approach this? “Look. I might be able to, but right now, I’m not so sure. We’re making our money as we pursue our other objectives, but I can’t promise that we can always earn enough to pay for five people. Plus, come winter, we’re going to suffer a slowdown.
“On top of that, what is she going to do?”
He frowned a little, lowering his head. “Yeah, I get it. We’ve been studying all sorts of stuff to earn our keep, and keeping this place in good repair and stocked for you. What can five do that four can’t?”
“Exactly.” I paused to take a sip of water. “What did she do before she met up with you?”
“Uh, helped her dad, mostly. He, uh, was a blacksmith.”
That made me raise my eyebrows. “That… That might change things a little bit. I may set you all up with a cover story beforehand, but I may have a way to hire her.”
“Let me guess, set up a small forge out back?”
“Maybe a small foundry. I’m not entirely sure yet. Let me talk to my companions a bit first, see what we can set up. Can you poll the others, get any special skills that they might have, then get back to me?”
The man… Jim! That was his name! Jim hopped to his feet, smiling widely. “You got it, Jordan. Thank you, for even considering this.”
He shouldn’t thank me yet. Kathy and John would probably shoot this down in a heartbeat.
“I can’t actually blame her,” John said thoughtfully as we walked through the street. “That sudden loss of funds can be killer. But since they completely own their home, bills should be lower.”
“They probably weren’t saving anything,” Kathy said, more to herself than anything. “Folks who are riding the high life rarely do.”
John nodded slowly. “We might be able to keep the work light, make it look like Don is a venture capitalist and inventor. It’d give them an air of legitimacy, and a way to mask what they were doing better.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Kathy said quickly. “If they’re doing the mundane work for him, building basic components and keeping a med bay stocked in case he messes up or something, then their purchases have a good explanation.”
“Aren’t inventor types normally oddballs?” Emi asked. We all turned to her, and she shrugged. “That’s what I think of when I think of an inventor. Like, that electricity guy–”
“Tesla,” Brenda interrupted.
“Yeah, whatever. The point is, if they play up Don as being a brilliant but odd inventor, they’d have that much more cover.”
“What would we have her do, though?” That was what was playing heavy on my mind.
“We’ll discuss that shortly.” John moved ahead of the rest of us, fixing an angry glare onto his face. Without being told, we all did the same as he opened the door and stepped through.
“Hello,” Fenix said in his friendly tone. “And wel…” His businessman’s smile faded from his face as he saw us. He steeled himself with a deep breath before speaking again. “I take it that you’re pissed.”
“Little bit,” Kathy snarled.
“Okay,” Fenix said, lifting both his hands defensively. “Before you say anything else, I have to say, you should have known. Every time that you asked me if something was stepping on Nexus’ toes, how the fuck did you think that I knew or not?
Emi scoffed. “You kept him up to date on what we were doing, Fifi. Not cool.”
“Please! You come to a broker for info, you should know that he’s going to sell anything that he sees. Nexus was paying top dollar to know what Jordan was up to. How the hell did you think that I wasn’t going to sell that to someone?”
“Who all did you sell it to?” John growled.
“Only Nexus. I swear. I mean… Come on! Habib’s skill at repairing stuff back to original spec, that’s worth its weight in gold. And you know how often folks try and nab Tinkers for their own profit! Did you really think that a fence in a city without any Warden or DT presence could keep him safe? I needed someone to keep the scumbags off my back, and to throw heavy firepower when someone kidnapped him.”
My glare faded into a neutral expression. “How many times?”
Fenix looked at me, obviously not expecting me to speak up. “Excuse me?”
“You’re talking like people have made off with Habib before. How many times has it happened?”
“Three,” he said with a lot less bravado in his voice. “Once by some Students. Nexus barely got him back before they disappeared, and that was only because Habib messed with their teleporter. There hasn’t been an attempt since, thankfully.”
“That’s an awful lot of trouble for a business partner,” John said in an odd tone.
Fenix looked at John with sad eyes. “His sister died saving me and mine. Well, all of us, really. It wasn’t a quick death, either, the kind where when they finally go unconscious, it’s a relief.
“It was funny, you know? The entire time we were riding, she was silent, doing whatever her father told her to do. So quiet and obedient, and then the wildlings attacked, and…” He shook his head. “The guards buy it, their old man buys it, then she just went to town with a knife as it went for my old man.”
He tilted his head down, his eyes unfocusing. “Never said a word, either. Not even with her ribs crushed, each breath gurgling, I never heard her say a word.”
I frowned a bit. Guilt could do that to a person. She probably had tried to speak, but with her lungs filling with fluid, she might not have been able to say anything. And draining a punctured lung was beyond most people’s ability.
Most likely, if the father died, Fenix gained a degree of survivor’s guilt over Habib’s family. That… explained everything nicely. At least, to me.
John looked like he was going to say something, but the door opened. I was amazed by how quickly everybody became all smiles, including Fenix, as a pudgy woman slipped inside.
“Oh,” she said awkwardly. By her body language, I’d guess that she was about ready to slip back out.
“Enter, enter!” Fenix was back into the role of grand shopkeeper. “Please, how may I help you?”
“Uh, these people were here first?” She started fidgeting her hands a little.
“It’s more of a social call than anything,” Kathy said. “Don’t mind us.”
The woman frowned a little before moving past the tables and up to Fenix’s long counter. “Hi, uh. My name… I’m Diane Gruber, and, uh…”
“Ah, yes! Doctor Coleman said that you’d be coming to town. I’m glad that you came. Now, before I get it, I just want to double check. I heard that you were moving in, but have you had a chance to get a refrigerator yet?”
The woman shook her head, and Fenix frowned. “Then, here’s what we’ll do. Until you do, I’ll keep it here, and you can drop by whenever you need to. You’ll buy a month’s supply at a time, and as soon as you get your home set up, you can start taking them home instead of relying on me. Alright?”
She nodded a little. “That… Thank you.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “Not a problem, m’dear. Give me just one moment, and I’ll be right back.”
He slipped into the back, leaving the woman standing there awkwardly. As we pretended to look at what was on display on the tables, she pretended to look at what was on display in the counter. It didn’t take Fenix long to return, thankfully. He set a small box on the counter and opened it.
“Oh.” The woman put a hand to her mouth. “You’re getting it from Mother’s Hospital?”
“Only the finest for my customers. I don’t trust a lot of folks when it comes to good medications these days, and I hear there was an incident with pig insulin a few years back. I know that this comes from one of Nilbog’s creations, but I’d much rather have that than something that I’m not sure where it comes from.”
She frowned a little. “Is it going to be expensive?”
His smile turned a little more sympathetic. “A little bit more than what you’re used to, probably. This will set you back forty local.”
She winced, but he held up a hand to stop her quickly. “However. I know that you just moved, you haven’t received your first paycheck yet, and times are tough. I’ll gladly waive the fee until your first full paycheck.”
“You’ll be losing money, though.” An interesting reaction out of her.
“Ah, but there’s the rub.” Fenix’s smile turned devilish. “What if I were to tell you that I could get you a refrigerator? It’ll be refurbished, and probably not as good as you’re used to–”
“I haven’t had a refrigerator since I left Bet back in ’19.” Huh. I’d guess that she wasn’t middle aged yet, maybe 25 or 26. We were at the 21 year point since Gold Morning, which probably put her at four or five when it happened. If she left in 2019, then she would have been ten or eleven. I was surprised that she could remember from back then.
“Well,” Fenix said, unperturbed. “That just makes everything easier. If you promise to buy from me, and talk to me whenever you need something that you can’t find local, or my compatriot should you need anything repaired, then giving you time to get your feet underneath you will only work towards my favor in the end.”
I couldn’t see her face, but by her body language, she was suddenly rather timid. “Thank you.”
He beamed at her as he pushed the box towards her. “I have a restroom right over there. Take some privacy, please.”
We all stood there in silence as she slipped into the bathroom. I could see John from the corner of my eye, engaging in some sort of silent communication with Fenix. I didn’t bother to pay attention, though; most likely, I wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it.
After a few minutes, the woman came back out to return the box and say a few words of thanks again before leaving. As soon as the door closed, Fenix was moving to the intercom. “Habib, could I con you into manning the counter for me?”
There was a pause before the Tinker replied. “Yes,” he said in a mildly annoyed tone. “I’ll be up in a second.”
With a wave for us to follow him, Fenix lead the way into the back. We followed, me guiding Brenda, but only to the first room, as he moved deeper into the building. After a few minutes, he returned with a large bag and an extra large rifle case.
“Repayment, courtesy of Nexus, plus a bit extra. I’ll leave it to you all to distribute it however you’d like.” Fenix dropped the bag onto one of the tables in the room, and I could hear the jingling of coins. He then set the rifle case down. “He noted that you didn’t have a rifle, and that your pistol was destroyed in the fighting.”
As everyone else went for the bag, I went for the rifle case, opening it. The first thing that I noticed was an AR 15, complete with everything needed to modify it into a marksman’s rifle. I wasn’t fond of assault rifles, preferring to keep to more simple magazine-fed bolt action rifles, but with the kit this did offer me more versatility. And it came with seven magazines. Hopefully, I’d never need all seven.
It was the pistol, though, that tickled something in the back of my head. A Taurus 24/7 .45 OSS, though it looked extensively modified. I carefully looked it over before glancing to Fenix.
“He said that he wasn’t sure what you normally carried, but some checking revealed that you purchased one of those before going to Saint Louis.” Ah, that was where I was remembering it. Hopefully, the included ammo wasn’t reloaded. I wasn’t too keen to save money after what happened last time.
I put both weapons away, making a note to try firing them later. Instead, I turned my attention to the others. “I think that my employees deserve a bonus.”
John nodded. “You’re right. They’re the ones who directed us to the doctor. I’m fully supportive of giving them a bonus whenever they keep us alive, to incentivize them to keep up the good work.”
Good. I was afraid he’d argue with me on that one. Instead, I turned my attention back to Fenix. “Thank you. I’ve got a couple of things, if you have some time.”
Fenix smiled warmly and spread his hands. “I am at your service. Whatcha need?”
“Actually, it’s more about what you need.” I took a hesitant breath. “I might be getting a new employee soon, but I’d like to mitigate her paycheck a little bit. She’s got skill as a blacksmith, or so I’m told. I was wondering if there was anything that you need.”
Fenix raised his eyebrows. “How soon can she get to work?”
“Once I get a forge set up? I’ll get her to work immediately.”
He nodded quickly. After a moment, he nodded again. “Right. Twain is keeping it on the DL so that folks don’t fight it, but they’re going to be tearing down the equipment that they’re using to make hinges in a month or two. All the hinges that they make. So, uh… Yeah, hinges. And there’s always a market for nails. Let me do some checking, I’m sure that I can come up with more. I can get everything that you need for the forge, too.”
“Electric blower,” I said crisply. “How’d you like a partnership on it?”
Fenix raised his eyebrows. “Partnership?”
“You secure the materials for the forge, and once a month I deliver the goods. We split everything made from the sales, 60-40 in your favor.”
“70-30,” he shot back.
God damn it. “Okay, you know what? I don’t negotiate, I say my offer and am done with it. But fine, I’ll give it to you this once, but it had better be enough to be worthwhile.”
He smiled a little. “Then we’ll go 60-40. I don’t wish to earn your ire.”
Small favors. He was probably trying to salvage his relationship with all of us. “Draw up a contract, then.”
Kathy snorted. “Jordan? You’re a wanted man. I don’t think that a contract will help you much.”
“I was a mercenary for how long? Even if the courts won’t enforce it, I’d like a contract.”
“Then a contract the man shall have,” Fenix said with a grin. “That may take some extra time, but I can do it.”
“Cool. Next up, ever hear of a guy named Sergei? Parahuman, deals in the Tinker black market trade.”
“And in Tinkers.” Fenix frowned. “He himself wasn’t involved, but some of his friends are ones that tried getting Habib. I won’t deal with him directly. But… Are you going after him?” I nodded. “Right, we’ll work something out. I feel no ill will towards the man myself, I’ve even been known to do business with him, but hurting him will hurt his friends, and that I like. I’ll give you a bonus for anything that you bring me.”
“You’ve got intel,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Yeah. Russian man, scary as hell. Probably a psychopath. I say probably in the same way that I say that the sun will probably rise tomorrow. Big on torture. Parahuman, occasionally offers his services to the Orphanage, as crazy as that is. Nobody’s ever seen him smile, from what I’m told. He’s been known to… encourage Tinkers into working for his people.
“He’s more of a middle man. Not top dog, but he’s high up in the people who actually move the product. The enforcer that keeps them in line, kind of. At his age, that means that people actually fear him pretty bad, so he’s got to be bad news from that alone. Are you sure that you want to do this?”
“I’m not scared,” I said confidently. “Trust me, I know exactly what I’m doing this time. If I take all of his stock, can you move it?”
Fenix puffed out his cheeks. “Not directly. I’ll have to use my network, but I can move it. Not just Nexus, either. It’ll be tricky, but I can fence it, yeah.”
I grinned. “Then we’re set to make a great deal of money.”