“Blaster-slash-Breaker-slash-Shaker. Operated out of Washington State. Killed by Leviathan.”
“Clever, but he was in the news too much. South American revolutionary. Stranger-slash-Shaker with sonic powers. Killed the president of… whatever country it was. Nobody ever did find out his full name.”
“Nasty Changer that could make himself or anyone that he targeted with his powers appear to die quite violently. He would have ended up in the Birdcage, but he was handy against S-class threats until Behemoth stood on top of him. His power eventually couldn’t fake kill him fast enough to keep him from actually dying.”
“German Shaker, famously involved in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Assassinated by the Elitnaya in the late 90’s, which almost started a war.”
That made me pause. “You know, I always wondered why nobody used that one.”
John laughed, which made the person under him groan. “Because it’s a fictional character, Jordan. Seriously.”
“Even I know that,” Emi said with a roll of her eyes. “And I’ve never even seen a comic book.” The person who she was holding moved a little, and she shoved his face back into the wall a little harder.
John was still chuckling. “You’re the smartest, most well-educated guy I’ve met, but the holes are amazing. You will read Moby Dick this winter. I swear it.”
I would have put money on the fact that he was wrong. Fiction didn’t interest me. Instead, I put my finger onto the side of my helmet. “Green, how are we doing?”
“Oh!” came the immediate reply in my ear. “That’s smart, thank you! Yes, I’ll have it in a few more seconds now.”
Emi burst out into laughter, so I looked over at John. The mask completely hid his expression, but his voice said it all to me. “Fuckin’ Thinkers.” The irritation would be worth it when she got that weird safe open without blowing us to kingdom come. If their boss had been here, maybe we could have gotten in thanks to her. No matter.
That made my lips quirk, but he couldn’t see that through my helmet any more than I could see anything but his eyes and mouth through his mask. I turned to the gang members that had wisely given up. “Good news! This will all be over soon!”
“P-please,” one man with a broken nose whimpered. “Don’t kill us.”
Poor guy. “It’s Thursday,” I said, trying to make it sound casual. “I try not to kill folks on Thursdays.”
They visibly relaxed, and I could barely hear Kathy’s voice whispering in my radio. “Keep the pressure up.”
“Death’s too easy.” My hand went to my ear again to let them know that I was talking on the radio. “Blue, status?”
“I’ve got all the guns bundled up. Unless we want John to go through the floor, we’ll all have to help haul them.”
The downside to gun runners was that their wares were big, bulky, and heavy. “These guys are pretty stupid. Did you check to make sure all the weapons are unloaded?”
The only reply was silence. She hadn’t. “Blue, take a look at some of the weapons. Is there a magazine in them?”
There was a long pause. “Son of a bitch.”
“Holy shit,” Emi said in amazement to the guy she was holding. “You people aren’t just idiots, you’re goddamn fucktards!”
My eyebrows rose a little as I looked into the crate. “You’re out of iron,” I said in amazement.
“Actually,” the woman said slowly, a wry grin on her lips, “I had to buy some more with my own money.”
“Receipt.” I held out my hand, making a gimmie motion. It was Jim who handed it over to me, a huge grin splitting his face in two. He was proud. As soon as I had it in my hot little hands, my coin purse came out and I started counting coins. “Good initiative, good job. I wasn’t expecting quite this many nails.”
She shrugged in faux-modesty. “What can I say? I must have hit my stride.”
My lips quirked upwards as I handed the coins to her. “A small bonus for taking the lead. I’m surprised that someone of your speed wasn’t doing this for a living already.”
“Dad wanted me to take over some day, but I didn’t want to. It wasn’t until I got pregnant that I regretted it. But by then, the money was good, so…”
I nodded. “Still, you’re amazingly fast. If I had an army of people as fast as you, I swear.”
Her stout face split into a wide grin. “It’s a skill. Dad was always overworked, so I was always helping get the little stuff done. I got good at doing basic shapes and blades as quickly as possible.”
“So I can tell! A week!” I laughed. “Is that why you have a chain around your anvil?”
She blinked at me before laughing. “No! I have that so that I don’t go deaf. The anvil doesn’t ring as loudly with that.”
I lifted my eyebrows. This wasn’t something that I’d ever heard of before. “Show me.” I couldn’t wait to figure out how exactly it dampened the resonance.
“Jesus,” Fenix groaned as soon as we walked through the door. “You five, what the hell?”
I frowned and ducked my head. “I’m sorry, did we do something wrong?”
“No, it’s just… I can’t even build up a decent reserve of funds, and you all come walking in with another load of stuff.” He shook his head, motioning us towards the back. “C’mon.”
John put a hand on my shoulder, flashing me a smile before following Fenix. As soon as all of us were in the room and the door was closed, he focused on Fenix. “How goes our Tinker toys?”
Fenix made a face that I couldn’t identify before shrugging. “Still slow. I’m offloading to Twain as best I can, but if I move too much at once, it’ll draw suspicions. Plus, it’s expensive, so I can lose money if I don’t move enough at once. It’s a tricky balance. The D.T. are willing to buy a little more at once, but I still gotta spread it out a bit. They’re also way pickier. New Brockton… I gotta be crazy careful.”
“Why?” Brenda asked, tilting her head curiously.
“It’s a major trade hub. You’d think that it would be easier to sell product there, but Wilborn keeps a pretty fucking tight thumb over anything illicit that goes on there. If you aren’t paying protection money, then you’re going to suffer, and I’m already going to take a hit on how much I’m going to make if you want it moved in a decent time frame. It’s better than the bribes needed to sell stuff in the Twain market, but I can get bidding wars in Twain over new and original tech, and Habib tells me that there’s plenty of it there in what you brought me.”
Brenda shook her head slowly. “That doesn’t make sense. Why not keep there from being crime at all?”
“Because that’s pretty much impossible,” John said, a surprisingly sad tone in his voice. “If you get ten people to agree on something, there’s always going to be at least one who fudges the rules of the agreement. So, you’ve got two options. The first is that you either try and become a dictator.”
“That would really be problematic with the image she’s tried to cultivate,” Kathy added cheerfully. “Sure, she was a villain before, but it’s very easy to take what she did as being a ‘Greater Good’ thing. She did nasty stuff, but with the end goal being fighting Scion. It’s all a crock, but you know how easy people are to fool.”
“Rubes,” Brenda said with a nod.
“That’s my girl,” John said warmly. I didn’t follow, but I didn’t want to interrupt them. “So, your other option is to insert criminal elements that you can manipulate and control, with the goal of forcing others out. There’s an ecology to crime. You have drifters like us that come and go, but the established elements… Only so many of them can be established at once.”
Kathy held up her hand, stopping him before he went into another one of his long-winded speeches. “Basically, she offers unofficial support through proxies, and meanwhile she gets ears close to the ground. When someone else tries to move in, they snitch on them to her people. Those people then go to either the D.T. or the Wardens in the city, and the new guys disappear.”
“What about the stitches?” Brenda asked innocently.
“There isn’t time for anyone to get stitches. The authorities have all the evidence that they need to arrest the people in question, and they rarely have a chance to get revenge. But, and here’s the thing, if her criminals overstep whatever bounds she sets for them, they end up in jail themselves and she puts someone else in their place. All in all, it keeps crime low for how much money passes through the city.”
“She’s used this before,” I added. Everyone turned to look at me in surprise. “Brockton Bay. The Undersiders managed crime there pretty ruthlessly after Leviathan. If you were a criminal, you followed the rules that the Undersiders laid out for you, or you suffered. One way or another. If you were lucky, the Protectorate got you. If you were unlucky, then one of the Undersiders themselves came to visit you. If you were really unlucky, all of them came.”
John gave me a lopsided grin. “I keep on forgetting that you studied criminology. Kudos to you!”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Less criminology, more Cultists. If I wanted information about Defiant, I had to wade through a bunch of other stuff. Plus, the Matron was kinda-sorta an Undersider herself. She still attends the Undersider meetings, having an equal vote there.”
Fenix nodded. “Some of what you brought me is going to a few individuals in the Orphanage, by the way. A couple of teachers there, a businessman, and I’m slipping one of the non-lethal things to one of the guards. I thought you might approve.”
I did, but I still folded my arms over my chest. “Be careful, and don’t send too much. Sierra Kiley may not live there any more, but she’s still Tattletale’s liaison with the Orphanage, and she’s sharper than you’d think. If she gets word of a bunch of Tinker tech suddenly showing up, she may go to Tattletale about it.”
“No more than usual, I assure you. I’m not upsetting the balance there or anything. I just figured that you might like the guards having some more non-lethal options open to them, and there was word on the black market that a few were looking for them, so I figured why not?”
I smiled warmly. “And that’s appreciated. Thank you. I just have to worry.”
Fenix raised an eyebrow. “Is there something the matter?”
Something tickled in the back of my head, but I wasn’t sure what. No matter. “Nah, it’s all good. I just gotta be careful, you know?”
He nodded once. “That, I understand completely. Now, let’s see what you brought me, huh?”
“Alright,” John said, sitting on the edge of my bed. “So we’ve got two more options that we can hit up this month. The first is that there’s a gang out in Clarksville. Basically acting like old mafia, putting pressure on businesses, trying to establish a stranglehold on the city.”
“Can’t the Dragon’s Teeth handle that?” I asked, before slowly lowering myself back into a push up.
“The new train might stop in Clarksville, but the city doesn’t have a contract with them. No Wardens contract, either. There’s talk of it entering the USA, which is good for the city if it happens, but bad for everyone in it until then. And the toughs know better than to even look at the train funny or else the D.T. will come down on them like, well, a freight train.
“The other option is a group of bandits out in Ferro.”
“That’s in Tet,” Kathy said quickly. “One of the iron towns about three hours outside of the Brockton portal. It’s well established that there’s a group of bandits hitting up everybody they can on the way to Brockton or back, but officially, nobody in Ferro knows anything. We’ve finally ID’d the family in charge of the banditry, and they’re living like kings. The town doesn’t even need bandits, and it’s a major place to rest before heading out to get more iron, so we thought that might be something you’d like.”
She was right. I held more leniency towards people who acted out of necessity than people who did it just to do it. I had to wait until I came back up — isometric push ups were much harder than traditional ones. “Yeah. What’s…” I sucked in a breath. “What’s the plan?”
“Well,” Kathy said slowly. “I’m thinking sneaking in, grabbing, and going. Fenix has a lead on where they’re keeping stuff, and it would be easier to empty them out than to try and force a confrontation.”
I would have preferred to take them down, but I’d take what I could get. “What about fencing? Fenix seems to be spreading himself pretty thin.”
“That’s true,” she confessed. “We’ve never moved so much through him before, and he didn’t offer us quite as much last time as I would have liked.”
Nuts to this. It was easier when they were rambling about stuff that I didn’t care about, but now I needed to participate in the conversation. “Off!”
Emi hopped off my back instantly. I stood up and began to guide her to her chair. “So, what? You only know one fence?”
“Nah,” John said. “I’m well acquainted with several. However, the fly in the ointment is that all of them are quite a distance from here. It makes things more difficult.”
I opened my mouth, but Emi spoke up before I could. “So we’re just going to have to deal with it. Alright. So, how’re we getting to Tet? The main portal is in New Brockton, and I thought you said that Jordan going there was a bad recipe.”
“Oh, well, I had rather assumed that…” John stopped, his face slowly falling. As his expression became pained, Emi’s face split into a wide grin. “I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”
“Just now remembered that we’re using a teleporter?” Brenda asked chipperly.
The lock clicked and we moved inside quickly. Even though we were doing what John called second story work (which made no sense — there wasn’t a second story to the metal building) they’d agreed that they’d be better off wearing their masks just in case we got interrupted. Which suited me just fine — I’d taken to preferring to wear my helmet anyway if we were doing something that could potentially be dangerous.
The warehouse was quiet enough that you could hear our footsteps on the metal floor. I found myself wishing that I’d studied more about the other dimensions, since metal floors didn’t seem like such a good idea when it came to heating and cooling. It was something for me to think about, at least — our initial survey of the building told us that there weren’t any guards on duty.
As I walked, though, I couldn’t help but frown. Nothing but stacks rusty metal, full of holes. Your standard fare for a Tet warehouse. Nothing even remotely interesting here. But according to John, they’d recently scored a hit on a caravan bringing supplies for whole communities down the coast. Was his intel wrong?
I pulled off the portion of my mask that covered my mouth. “Brenda? Care to help us find anything interesting?”
With a frown, she lifted the portion of the mask that covered her eyes. I expected her to respond instantly, but she just stood there. Instead, I silently counted the seconds in my head. If she sprinted, it would probably take her a minute to get from one end of the warehouse to the other, and we were in the middle. So at least ten seconds beyond what her power granted with the three others hanging around. But, if there was something to find, it would take her a few more seconds at the very least.
If she didn’t find anything after a minute, I decided, I’d go ahead and tell her to pull it back down again.
It took her twenty before she began to walk. We all followed silently. It only took me a few steps to stop using my halberd as a walking stick — it made more noise on the metal floor than my boots did.
After almost five minutes of calmly walking, she lead the way to a bank of light switches. Without the slightest hesitation, she hit one of them, and I heard the groan and creak of metal along with the hum of machinery. It only took me a few moments before I identified the source — near the receiving door.
Brenda covered her eyes again. I frowned a little. “How’s your head?”
She shook it a little. “Fine.”
Huh. “How long was it that you could see?”
Now she sounded irritated. “About a minute and a half. Why?”
“Jordan,” John said warningly. “Don’t push it. Let her be.”
I blinked at him as Emi took Brenda’s arm, leading her away. It wasn’t until her hand went to her gut that I understood. Right, cramps were distracting her, making her irritable. I really felt sorry for girls when it came to that, and I never blamed them for it when they got snippy with me. My knee had hurt all the time, so I’d gotten used to it. If it had hurt only on occasion and had been in the core of my body, then yeah, I’d probably snap at people, too. It was only natural, after all. Pain made people grumpy, simple as that.
Still, as I followed them to the ramp, I felt a little uncomfortable, glancing over my shoulder.
For a good twenty, twenty-five feet, the floor in front of the receiving door had dropped down, creating a ramp to what appeared to be the basement. I clicked the helmet’s mouthpiece back in place and took point, halberd at the ready. I moved slowly, carefully making my way down the ramp, scanning the environment for the slightest sign of any trouble. I relaxed just a little once I reached the ground.
Now this was more like it. A good, solid, and more importantly, smooth concrete floor. They’d gone to a lot of trouble to hide their operation. It felt like something out of one of Sarah’s games, to be honest. I tried not to get giddy over that — the last time that I’d encountered something like out of one of her games, I’d ended up needing to be operated on. Still, a hidden criminal operation, accessable by a secret passage? That was pretty cool.
There were three rather large metal wagons, but no horses to pull them. Crates were stacked on tables — some of them were being either loaded or unloaded, I couldn’t tell, but I could see a ton of foodstuffs and other staple goods. And no people. That struck me as odd, maybe even a little worrisome.
“Jackpot,” John said behind me with a pleased tone. For once, I had to agree with him.
“Look for the usual,” Kathy said, striding past me. “Money first, then valuables.”
Emi lead Brenda to a chair, helping her settle down, before hurrying to move to a table. I followed suit.
Unlike the others, though, I wasn’t eager to start looking through boxes. It took me a few minutes of looking, but I found a shipping manifest. Bulk food goods, toiletries, hygiene supplies… We might want to nab some of those for the ladies, depending on their quality. Lamp oil, that could come in handy. I frowned a little as I glanced over the rest.
This felt wrong.
Instead, I moved to Kathy. “Hey.” As she turned, I offered the clipboard. “Will this help?”
She turned a little so that she could see it better from the closest light bulb before smiling at me. “Good thinking.”
I pulled off my helmet’s mouthpiece to smile at her before walking away so that she could read it in peace. I’d let them figure out what we were taking and would just be a pack mule. Or maybe we’d teleport out, give the people here something to think about. Maybe they’d decide to lay off the banditry for a while, thinking that someone had figured them out. That would be nice.
I wandered over to one of the empty boxes laying on its side. Someone was going through the trouble of sanding off the New Brockton logo from the crate. Gauging by the stain to the side, my guess was that they were removing the evidence of where the crate had come from, and then hiding the fact. Maybe they’d weather it after that, to make it less obvious. That would explain the nearby chains nicely.
I sighed, tapping the mouthpiece against my leg as I leaned on the halberd. Something still wasn’t right about all of this. I wanted to do more about it, more with it. I wanted…
“Jordan,” a new voice boomed. A young voice. “You’re wanted for questioning regarding the incident at New Fairfax.”
A smile came to my lips.
“Seriously?!” Emi shouted. “Fuckin’… Seriously?!”
My smile only grew broader as I turned around. Five of them, all in nice, undamaged armor.
“Fuck me,” one of the ones said softly. “He’s smiling.”
Oh, yes indeed. I was.
I slid up to the bar, setting the heavy coin purse on it. “Another set of rounds,” I said gleefully, counting out the coins.
The bartender nodded once. “You got it, Don. I’ll have one of the girls–”
“Wait, no.” I looked up at him, dumping the coins back in the purse. “Y’know what?” I tossed the purse further on the bar before standing up straighter. “A round for everyone, on me! Bring the purse back later. And! And I’ll have…. Uh, I dunno. Something strong. Something good. Alright?”
She moved hesitantly to take the purse, looking at me funny. “You sure? That could get expensive.”
“Don’t care! I wanna celebrate my good mood!” With that, I turned on my heel and almost skipped back to the table.
“No purse?” John asked as I settled down.
“Round on the house from me.” I grabbed my glass of milk, intent on downing it.
“You’ve been on cloud nine since last night,” Kathy said with a grin. She leaned forward, so that she could speak a little more quietly. “I would have figured that you’d be upset. You’re always a little grumpy after fighting Wardens.”
John leaned in, too. “It has something to do with you making them stay, doesn’t it?”
“Exigent circumstances,” I said with a grin. As I downed my milk in two wet gulps, they only looked at me oddly. “It’s legalese.”
“No shit,” Emi said dryly, but now she was smirking.
“Basically, that little scuffle? Those guys’ bandit days are over.”
John’s mouth twisted up into a half grin. “I get it. The moment that those Wardens walked in there, they could report anything that they saw because they were chasing after us. At the time, I was only seeing that they got a look of us smashing the safe and grabbing the valuables before teleporting out. But here you are, pleased that they got to see the operation.”
Brenda perked up as realization dawned. “That’s why you were reading the valuables on the manifest to us so weird. You weren’t just saying where they were headed to just to be a dork, but so that the Wardens would hear it.”
I nodded. “I had a bad feeling when you didn’t have a headache. You had your eyes open for way too long to not have one, but there you were. And that long of a time period? There had to be more paras about. I was worried that there were people in the basement, but it was the Wardens that boosted your time frame.”
That made her smile drop a little. “Um, I’m sorry about that. I–”
“No stress,” I said, waving my hand. “Trust me, I, uh, I figured out that it’s, y’know. So I get it, no worries.”
Not that it looked like she was worrying any less.
Something about the Wardens tickled in the back of my head, but I pushed it aside. Not now. Not while I was in a good mood.
Fortunately, I had a change of topics. “Two good jobs in a week. We gonna take it easy from here on out?”
“No,” Kathy said quickly. “We’ve got that other job. Then I’d like to nab one or two more before the end of the month.”
“We’re heading out for wherever we’re bunkering down for the winter then, right?”
I frowned a little. “We’re hurting for money that bad?”
“Not really, but I’d rather have a good egg built up for the winter. I honestly don’t want to sacrifice the quality of life that I’m enjoying.”
The quality of life. Everybody bought everything for me without any hesitation. They threw money away here every night like it was nothing. Even with the money that I was spending on my Tinker gear, when they let me pay for it, I still had a good twenty grand or so, once you turned it all into New Brockton coin. Six people could live comfortably for a year on that. Had they really each thrown away that much money? Where was it all going?
But if they’d burned through that much, then yeah, I could see why the winter would be harsh. I wasn’t sure if they could afford the winter at that rate. If I’d end up having to give them money, and pay for my employees, then I’d need more. Fortunately, I knew a guy. I focused my mind, reaching out.
I stepped into the office, and Nexus grinned at me, pulling the cigar out of his mouth. Mom didn’t even bother to look up from her rapid-fire typing on her keyboard.
“Jordan, my boy! Good to hear from you again! Sounds like you’re having… Well, a time, at least.”
I smiled a little, hesitantly. “I take it that you heard about last night’s excitement?”
“Heard about it?” He laughed, far deeper and richer than he normally did. It sounded strange on him. “It’s great! Man, if I had more of a say over when they attacked you, I’d be more than happy to arrange little incidents like that. Happy accidents, Jordan. No matter what anyone tells you, they happen. You all make some money, and the world becomes a better place. What more can you ask for?”
I smiled a little. “Yeah, exactly.” I paused to lick my lips. “Actually, that… That uh, that’s what I was hoping to talk to you about.”
Mom paused in her typing, looking up at me with her brilliant blue eyes as she ran one of her dark-skinned hands through her long, dyed green hair. Nexus paused to sober up before taking the cigar out of his mouth. “I figured this wasn’t a social call. What’s up?”
“I was, uh… Hoping, really, that you might have some work for me like last time. Go after someone corrupt, make some money doing it? Just me, not my crew. I… Even with what you gave me extra, I could use some more cash for the winter and all.”
He frowned, tapping his cigar against the ashtray. “Hm. Well… We can use your status, with what you said last time. I mean, if you go after one, they’ll launch an investigation. Can you be stealthy?”
I caught on instantly. “You want me to go in while he’s sleeping, maybe rough him up or something, maybe drop some evidence, then make sure that I’m visible to someone on my way out.”
His mouth quirked a little. “You’re a smart one. Tonight?”
I shook my head. “Tomorrow would be better.” I was working with Emi tonight.
“I can handle that. Ping me whenever you want to stop by. Same place as last time, even though we’re gearing up to move out for a while.”
I smiled broadly. “Thank you very much, Nexus.”
“Hey, thank you. Maybe some time, I’ll sling you after some Students.”
I yawned, my eyes watering, before smiling at everyone. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll do just fine.”