“What the fuck was that?”
I blinked at Kathy as I took another of the bags from John. Brenda had chucked a couple outside before making her appearance known to Sergei, and John had quietly weighed himself down until we teleported. I could handle the weight better than he could, especially with the walk into town ahead of us. We really needed to find a more ideal place to teleport into.
“What the fuck was what?”
She swept her arm wildly behind us. “What the fuck was that shit, Jordan?”
I shrugged my free shoulder as I took another bag from John. Oof, heavy. “There’s a lot of shit. You’re going to have to be more–”
“You let him fuck with your head?!”
“Oh.” I blinked. “Did I forget to mention that?”
“You said something about secondary objectives,” Emi said softly.
Brenda nodded blindly. “That’s why I released the Tinkers that I could.” That she could. Well. That wasn’t depressing in the slightest.
I sighed softly. “How many?”
“Three,” she said slowly. “Two were in too bad of shape for me to help out.”
I smiled and bowed my head. “Thank you.” Wait, she couldn’t see that. Gah, I was so stupid.
“Jordan,” Kathy growled. “You’re avoiding the subject.”
“I’m trying to,” I said with a smile. “But you’re making it hard.”
John sighed, a weird sound with his density slowly decreasing. “Jordan, please.”
I took a slow breath. No, they probably wouldn’t let me get away with letting it drop so easily. And, to be fair, they deserved an explanation. “Sergei and I go way back. Whenever he’d drop by the Orphanage to help people, I’d hit him up. After a while, he started seeking me out, trying to find me to see what we could do together.”
“He’s a monster,” Brenda said quietly. She wasn’t angry, though, which surprised me.
I started walking towards town, the others following me. “At work, yeah. He’s talked to me a bit on occasion about his work, trying to teach me that people can be bad in one situation, and good in another. It’s part of the reason why I’m willing to see past your histories and be your friend. Yeah, criminals who will fleece someone for all they’re worth, but you’re also good people. By having me along, we focus on people who deserve it. Like Sergei’s operation.
“But there’s a lot of people at the Orphanage who owe him. They get a lot of folks, and not just kids, who have brain damage. He helps out with a lot of them. When they weren’t sure what was wrong with me, they turned to him to see if he could help.” He hadn’t been able to, but it had been the start of our relationship.
“It was still a risk,” John said, sounding more normal now that he was down to one bag.
“Not really. You’ve been teaching me about how, once you know about people’s motivation, they’re easy to manipulate. In a way, I’ve been setting him up for decades. He likes the people with heavy brain damage, finding ways to accommodate it, bypass it, make them functional again. But he also likes trying to push himself in new ways. Finding ways to quietly improve people that are new and different.”
“He likes to push himself,” Emi observed thoughtfully.
“Exactly. But with his job, that only lets him hurt people. He can get inventive, but that’s only one side. With most of the people that he works on at the Orphanage, he can only do so much fiddling — he’s got an objective to work towards. But with me? When I’d give him an objective, it was so far outside of the usual that he could really push himself. And if he had an idea, I was always open to it. It builds a relationship. One that I knew that he wouldn’t abandon so easily.”
John chuckled softly. “And here I thought you weren’t learning.”
I grinned at him. “Oh, yeah, well… I’ll surprise you. Learning is one of the better things that I do.”
“Really, now? Care to give me another little example?”
I sighed softly, forcing myself to relax as I fixed my eyes forward. To think about things that I’d been purposefully putting out of my mind. “Well, John, you have serious trust issues. You’ve yet to give me your real name, and everything that you say about your past is at least a slight twist to the truth. Emi, you’re all too eager to take on a Warden, relating back to how you triggered. If I were to come up with another bunch of corrupt Wardens that I wanted to go after, everyone else could disapprove and you would still be encouraging the two of us to slip off on our own and handle it.
“Kathy? You’re constantly paranoid that I’ll find out something about you that will make me dislike you. You acknowledge the Orphanage but are very hesitant to give many details. Even when the others nudge you towards talking about what it was like for you, you’ll never tell any actual stories. I’m willing to bet that you were thrown out for some reason, and it causes you a bit of shame.
“And lastly, Brenda is the most ruthless person here. She sought you three out and attached herself to you, identifying you as someone who would see a need for her and not only keep her safe, but also teach her about the world at large. It would hurt her, but she’d leave us in a heartbeat if it came down to it. However, she also counts us as her only true friends that she’s had in her entire life. So long as we don’t cross some line that forced her to leave, probably involving her past, she’d willingly throw herself into any kind of danger for us. Plus, she’s desperate to have some, uh, company from a boy.”
“Enough,” Brenda barked, sounding embarrassed.
I ducked my head, which was hard to do with the heavy loads that I was carrying, pulling on the cultist’s robes that I was wearing and making certain motions difficult. “Sorry.”
“We ask,” John said, sounding amused. “And I will be damned if you didn’t deliver. To be fair, I did not think that you had it in you, Jordan. Color me impressed.”
“I took classes on interrogation and critical thinking,” I said offhandedly. “Remember, I wanted to be a Warden.”
“You wanted to be the best Warden,” Emi clarified. “I really doubt that anyone else took as many classes as you.”
“Gina,” I said with a nod. “As many classes as I took, Gina took more. She, uh… She kinda took all of them. Sometimes, we’d study together. Sarah used to tease me a little about us dating, which we weren’t. It was just… Gina was pushed to be the best at everything, and I do mean everything. Every single class, she had to be the best at because of her family. So, I helped on occasion. And she was thankful for it.” Simple as that.
“Uh-huh.” Kathy lifted an eyebrow. “I never even knew of her, but she seems a little…”
“Aggressive? Irritated?” I chuckled softly. “A total bitch? Yeah. Her power, while it indirectly helps her learn and do more than anyone else, it also makes every aspect of everyday life impossibly irritating. She once confessed to me that she’d rather have to fight 20 people than take a shower, because that’s how painfully irritating a shower is for her. Once you figure out that her dealing with you is like someone is pulling her fingernails out, and that it’s neither your fault or hers, you can start seeing the effort that she puts into dealing with you. She’s trying as hard as she can, and that means a lot to me. It made me try and see past her hostility when nobody else would. She really appreciated that.”
“Aww,” Brenda said, apparently glad for us not dwelling on her embarrassment. “That’s cute! She probably had a crush on you for that.”
I rolled my eyes. “No. It’s not like that.”
“Oh really?” Kathy said teasingly. “A girl with no real friends, who accidentally drives everyone else away from her, finally has a boy pay attention to her? A handsome boy with sexy scars, who can kick everyone’s ass–”
“She could kick mine,” I quickly clarified.
“Except for her own,” John continued. “Who doesn’t have much spare time, between his education and his siblings, but spares what little he has with her. Yes, I agree, that does sound like the setup to a cheap, torrid romance novel’s plot.”
I groaned, glad that we were approaching the gate and it would interrupt the teasing. Fortunately, everyone was willing to remain quiet until we reached Fenix’s shop. They probably didn’t want to push their luck and have me tell them to handle it themselves.
“Lucy,” John called out in a strange accent as we stepped inside. “I’m home!”
“But Ricky,” Fenix responded immediately in a nasally tone. “I wanna be part of the show!”
“We come bearing gifts!” Emi announced, skipping towards the counter with a grin.
“And quite a few, it appears! My, my! You not only brighten my day with your vision of loveliness, but you bring me nice things! What would I do without a vision of perfection such as yourself in my life?”
“Flattery will get your everywhere,” Emi said sweetly.
I couldn’t help but grin as Fenix called Habib up. I was already setting things down as Habib stepped out, grinning that wide grin of his. “Ah, Don! It’s a pleasure to see you again! I take it that your last business venture was a success?”
There were other customers in Fenix’s store, so we had to play it safe. Fortunately, we already had a cover story in place. “The salvage operation went well. We were able to get almost everything in the sub. Mind taking a look for me?”
The seven of us were lounging in the back room. I hadn’t realized that Habib smoked until now, but had a small spliff in his mouth. I wasn’t sure what the difference between that tiny cigarette and the ones that John rolled were, but whatever. Fenix’s at least had a filter to mark the difference.
“And lastly, four things that I can’t identify,” Habib finished. He glanced up to me. “They were not finished, my friend. But! Though not as valuable as the sum of their parts, I would gladly be paying for you to sell them to me. They are good spare parts that I can be using, yes.”
I smiled back at him. “I think that they could be seen as a fair trade for your identification services.”
“Ah,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “I would not hear of it! Even with that, they’re more valuable than that, and I should not be accepting generosity such from a customer, yes?”
My mind worked fast. “Then perhaps we could reach an agreement for maintenance on the postcog suppressor and teleporter?”
“Aha!” Habib lifted a finger, smiling even wider. “This, I can accept!” He thrust out his hand, and we shook on it.
“I’m glad the two of you could come to an arrangement.” Unlike Habib, Fenix sounded mildly frustrated as he looked over the list.
“Not good?” Brenda asked curiously.
“Oh, no. It’s not that. It’s, uh… I gotta admit, we’ve got the opposite problem.”
“Ah,” John said sagely. “Then we’ve brought too much for you to be able to move easily.”
Fenix nodded quickly. “Yeah. I’ll draw too much attention to myself if I try and move it all through the usual channels all at once. And even if I could… I’m doing blind estimations on this, but I couldn’t pay you your share all at once.”
“Nexus can’t help?” I asked.
“Nexus can help in a lot of things,” Fenix admitted. “But when it comes to fencing, I try to sell to him last. He’s a good businessman. Too good.”
“We are losing money with him,” Habib said sagely.
“Yeah, that. Now, I have a contact in the Dragon’s Teeth that I can sell a few of these to, I think. If they think that they can use it.”
“Van Dorn?” I asked quickly, maybe a little hopefully.
Fenix shook his head. “He’s a little high up to be dealing with someone like me. He has underlings to deal with the black market. I’ve got a lieutenant and a sergeant that I deal with. But, uh… They usually have a limited budget for black marketeers, so it’s hard to say if I can get get them to bite.”
I blinked. “I’m surprised that they’ll willingly work with black marketeers.”
Fenix’s lips quirked. “It isn’t corruption, so don’t even think about that. But they also aren’t stupid, and they’re pretty desperate for affordable resources. The United States got a couple of places to join earlier this year, places that now aren’t selling the Teeth their resources. They’ve just sent a group to Boston to deal with the President to see if they could get some more goods out of them.”
“Miss Militia would probably be all for that,” I said absently.
“And if Miss Militia were the president, then it probably wouldn’t be a problem. She’s only the Wardens’ liaison with the US out of Boston, though.”
Which was kind of funny. After Gold Morning, several factions had risen up to reclaim the title of the United States of America. Over time, many of them had consolidated under Boston’s governance. Reforming the USA was a very difficult and trying process — many didn’t trust the old government, leading many communities to resist it. This was despite the US Militia being the closest thing to real army that existed outside of the Dragon’s Teeth.
Add to that, the current condition of Bet, and things only got more difficult.
Miss Militia had been a huge proponent of the new United States, actively working to try and help them whenever possible. If there was such a thing as a true patriot, I’d definitely consider her one. Most likely, the US wouldn’t be as strong as it was today without her help.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole thing. The city state way that many places operated seemed to work fine to me. And without bringing New Brockton into the fold, getting food and supplies in Bet was always a difficulty, even if they had started out with far more resources to scavenge. But people wanted a larger, more supportive government. I wasn’t sure, though, what it honestly had to offer the average person.
Politics were beyond me. I honestly didn’t care — I had more important things to worry about.
“I actually expected this,” John said before taking one final drag off his cigarette. “We brought you more Tinker tech than we ever have before, so I imagined that you would have difficulty moving it all at once. Or that you might be able to pay us all at once. However, I believe that it’s wise to stagger this out a little bit so that we might all profit, yes?”
“You’re thinking along the same lines as me,” Fenix said, pointing at him with his cigarette. “Listen, I can move a little bit right now, but it’s going to take me months to get all this taken care of. Hell, it’s going to take at least a week to come up with a preliminary value of all of this while still dealing with my other customers. But aren’t you all gearing up for the winter?”
Kathy nodded. “Fall’s pretty much here, and we wanna get to where we’re going before then.”
“Right. I can give you a down of four grand at the moment.”
John frowned, shaking his head. “You’ve given us more for some of our previous jobs.”
“And I’d be able to match that, but you aren’t my only suppliers. I just got hit by someone moving a lot of product, legit product, from out east. Hell, I had to get outside help just to get everything that you need for your other little thing.”
“How’s that going?” I asked, immediately feeling self-conscious for interrupting.
“I’m hoping that you have different clothes for our lovely Asian friend, but otherwise I have everything that you need. I can even deliver it somewhere here in town and make sure that there’s nobody around for a little bit so that you can teleport it out. You won’t be able to make a habit out of it, but just this once, so that you don’t have to rent a wagon or something.”
“Perfect,” Kathy said with a nod. “We’ll do that tomorrow. You said that you got outside help, though?”
He nodded. “Yes. Full disclosure, it was Nexus, and I had to explain to him everything that you told me. However, he’s willing to invest in Jordan, and was eager to help. I’d rather not rely on him for moving your product, though. I don’t want to indebt myself to him.”
“No, I get that.” John stroked his chin. “He’s really going all out, isn’t he?”
Habib chortled. “Oh, he does do that! You should have seen him after his twins rescued me. Half of my lab is thanks to his little gifts! It was almost three months before he even asked if I could repair a few of his trinkets, and he was quite humble about it. Believe me, once he decides that you are valuable, he will bend over backwards.”
“Probably so that you won’t say no,” John mused. “Good call on not relying on him too much for this. I’m still not sure that I trust him.”
Kathy looked to me. “Let’s get back to the inn. If we’re going to do this tomorrow, I wanna prep you for dealing with old boy’s wife. Plus, I wanna continue that conversation from before.”
“What conversation?” I honestly didn’t remember us having one.
She paused for a long moment before giving me a sad smile. “Never mind. Let’s just focus on the prep work, then.”
I didn’t mind the teleportation confusion nearly as much as I minded the ascot. Unless it was armor, I didn’t like things around my neck. And the red vest was a little gaudy in my opinion, with some sort of floral pattern woven into the fabric. Jacquard, Emi called it. They wouldn’t let me button it up, either, which felt… wrong. And the entire ensemble, from the dress shirt to the dress slacks, felt strange with my heavy boots.
At least they’d let me keep a belt with my multitool and boot knife on it.
I didn’t want to do this, I didn’t want to do this, I didn’t want to do this. But Emi and Brenda had already gotten down from their perch of supplies, and Kathy was knocking on the door.
“Don’t worry,” Emi said softly. “There’s literally nothing that you can do wrong at this point. We’ll cover for anything, and any oddities will just seem–”
She cut herself off as Jim opened the door, flashing us a nervous smile. “She’s, uh, in the living room.”
I smiled back at him as the five of us… Well, six of us since he was pulling drag, made our way in. I focused on my breathing as I walked, trying desperately to calm myself down. My stomach was already starting to churn, and I doubted that it would get any better.
As we entered the living room, she rose from her chair, looking professional enough, in a jeans and button down shirt kind of way. I noted the boots she wore — they were working boots, possibly homemade. No rubber soles, at least, and the metal around the toe was visible. The jeans themselves were nice and ironed, but had seen better days. The shirt, on the other hand, was a lightweight blue in a flannel pattern. A good, heavy, working belt was around her waist, but it looked new. Her hair was shorter than the last time that I’d met her, when Jim had shown me his baby. Short, and easy to manage.
I was reminded of the way that Sarah had carefully cultivated our appearance for when we dealt with Mr. Munteanu. She looked like she was ready to work at any time, immediately if necessary, but also like she had put genuine effort into her appearance for the sake of meeting me.
“Don,” she said, extending her hand.
“Hi!” Despite giving it a firm shake, I was cursing myself. What was her name? Jane? No… “Sorry to keep you waiting. I had some matters to attend to that went into overtime.” Such as, them arguing if I should button the vest or not. Why they’d decided no was beyond me.
“It’s alright, I know how it goes.”
I motioned to the chair she’d been in before taking the seat opposite hers. “What has your husband told you about me?”
“Not a lot, to be honest.” She smiled a little. “Just that you bought out his old business, and that you come and go at random. He says that you’ve set this up as a retreat, with the four of them as your assistants?”
I nodded once. “That’s accurate enough. Sometimes, I can get hurt in my line of work. Don’t check your connections, use an acetylene torch for a few moments too long, whatever. While I can handle the worst of it at other locations, I like having a place to recoup and recover. And that means having people on hand to cover any medical needs, keeping the place equipped and in good repair, keeping their ear to the ground for more business prospects, that sort of thing.”
She nodded quickly. “He said at one point you got hurt and had to be taken to a proper hospital.”
“A bit more than proper, sure. I’m already back up to speed and going strong. Still, when I checked back in with him after I was released, I was a little surprised to hear that you were interested in joining our little business venture.” Janet? No. I wasn’t even sure if it was a J name.
She drew in a hesitant breath, glancing briefly to Jim. “Well… I spent six months recovering from giving birth, and while being a housewife… Well, it isn’t bad, but I’m also not the biggest fan. I won’t lie to you, though. Jim’s making… Well, we were making better money, but it’s better than almost everyone else in town. But at the same time, we’ve been talking. I don’t want my daughter to just be like everyone else here. I want her to be something. And we agreed that we’d kinda like to send her to the Orphanage at some point. Either for normal school or higher education.”
“And that’s expensive,” I said slowly.
“Yeah. And… Well, when the money was rolling in, we weren’t saving nearly as much as we should have.”
“Your first big break, living like royalty and not thinking about the future. It happens. To be honest, I know that the past few months may seem like a letdown, but it was for the best.” That much was true, not that it was stopping my stomach from churning. Nexus would have caught on eventually. “The market has already burst in Twain, so it would have been a problem when the cash suddenly stopped flowing in. At least this way, you have a steady income.”
She smiled a little. “Thank you.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that I have justification for a fifth person just to do these things.” She frowned, but I held up a hand. “He said that you have other skills that might be handy, though.”
That got her to perk up a little bit. “Oh, um… My father, he was, ah, is, rather, a blacksmith. Up until I moved out, I used to help him in the forge.”
“I see.” I nodded slowly. “Was he always a blacksmith?”
She shook her head. “No. It was… I was three, I think, when he first got into it. We’d just made the exodus from Bet, and the village we ended up in… Well, at first they didn’t even think about it, but eventually it became pretty clear that they’d need one eventually. So my father, he decided to try, even though he knew next to nothing about it. Nobody did, really, so why not him?”
An all too common tale.
“He started off not doing so well, but eventually he got fairly decent at it.”
I nodded slowly. “Did he ever get one of the guide books?”
“Eventually. I think I was twelve or so when that happened, and by that point, he’d already knew a lot of what was in it. I mean, he still learned some, but still.”
“Good. I appreciate honesty out of my employees. I would have been upset if you’d said he was already an expert.” That made her light up, but I was quick to hold up a finger. “I need to know about your skill level.”
That made her face drop again, and she began to wring her hands nervously. “I can’t, like, make anything too complicated. I know a lot, but I’m not going to say that I can make a bellows from scratch and then build you a car. There’s a lot of stuff that I watched my father do a thousand times, but never did myself. But I can make a blade, and if you give me enough time, I can make anything else that you need, so long as it doesn’t need to be ultra-precise or anything.”
I smiled at her. “Well, I think that I’m going to need a rig to–”
“Don,” Kathy said sternly, looking at me. “We talked about this.”
My smile fell as I looked back to the woman. “If hired, you’d start on nails and hinges.”
She blinked, and I raised an eyebrow. “Do you have a problem with that, miss?”
“No,” she said slowly. “It’s just… a little surprising.”
I nodded a little. “In the old world, nails were considered a trivial thing. You could buy a lot of them fairly easily, and they were produced by the millions every day. But that required a lot of precision machining in order to do. Taking wire, stretching it to the proper thickness, cutting it quickly, applying enough pressure to form the head… There was a lot of machinery involved in surprising ways. However, a lot of small towns that formed during the exodus never considered the humble nail.”
John cut in. “Most villages thought that it was a foresight on their part, but it was pretty much a foresight on everyone’s part. These days, forged nails are somewhat vogue, as you can reuse them far easier than the thin nails of yore. Twain briefly produced the traditional nails, but people found that the reusable ones, while less handy and more expensive initially, also meant less long-term investment. You could tear down your house if your hamlet turned out to be less than appealing and reuse the nails.”
“It’s a good way to start you out,” I said. “Simple, to get you back into the swing of things, and slowly leading up to more major things.”
“As for the hinges,” John continued. “We have an inside track to Twain’s overall business practices. They have limited space for machinery, and are constantly stopping production of one thing so that they might tear down the machinery and reinstall it to make something completely different. We’re hoping to get a lead on making hinges so that we can have at least a temporary edge in the market once they finish producing their own.”
She nodded slowly. “Okay, yeah, that makes sense. I don’t think I’ve ever made a hinge before, but I know how it’s made. It shouldn’t take me too long to get it worked out.”
I smiled broadly. “Excellent. Then I’m pleased to say that I have all the materials to make a proper forge out back. The fire bricks, mortar, a blower, books, some lumber to build a shed or at least lean-to, anvil–”
She was suddenly leaning forward, grinning from ear to ear. “Then you’ll hire me?”
I pointed at her, making my face stern. “Don’t disappoint me. And! There are conditions to your employment.”
She settled back, hands on her knees, bracing herself.
“First, I’m not a man who likes his business talked about. Your husband kept a tight lip for a reason. You may talk with him about what we do, but I must demand that you only tell your family that you’re a blacksmith. Not what you’re smithing, not who you’re working for. Let it be as mundane as possible.”
She nodded. “That’s perfectly fair, sir.”
“Second, don’t call me sir. Boss, bossman, big boss, blah blah blah, those I can accept. But not sir. Third, if I show up and we request that you leave, you leave. Even if your husband stays, you go without question, and don’t harass him about it. Honestly, I wouldn’t trust him as much as I do, but my companions already had a few moments of loose lips.”
She nodded. “Like with the hinges, you could lose a lot of money if people talked about the wrong things.”
I looked over to Jim. “You’ve got a smart one.” That made him beam with pride. Good. I was glad that I was making them happy. At least then the nausea was worth something.
“Lastly,” Kathy added. “We may ask you to make more unusual things in the future. This shouldn’t be too unusual eventually, but even if we don’t give an explanation as to why we need something, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ll need it in a reasonable amount of time without complaint.”
“Or questions,” the woman guessed.
Kathy smiled broadly. “Indeed.”
“So,” I said, leaning forward. “Would you care to roll up your sleeves and show me how you’d like your forge set up?” I would rather get kicked in the groin without my cup than continue this conversation. Rolling up my sleeves and doing some real work? That sounded heavenly.