Bounder Ch. 02byStultus©
I needed to do some more thinking, but it wasn't safe to do it here on the street. I believe that I think best when I'm upon my feet but this wasn't the time to prove it. I returned to the Silver Fox and paid the tapster a silver to hire a private room upstairs for the evening and be seen heading up into it. This tavern was one of my usual drinking and gaming places and I knew that I could trust (within reason) the host and owner. A few minutes later he then secretly let me down into the back alley with the quiet aid of a rope ladder. If anyone asked about me, the tapster could report that I was upstairs (behind a rather sound and sturdy door). It was unlikely there would be any actual trouble, but I wanted to see if anyone was keeping tabs on me and asking about my whereabouts. Perhaps the killer was working alone but I thought it likely that he had at least some help and that I should assume that I was now being watched at all times.
With the promise of more silver in his palms tomorrow, I sped off into the night down the dark alleyway and made my way down another set of narrow pathways between the main streets until I was a good half mile away from the Silver Fox, and considerably uphill. The real estate gets more rarified the thinner the air is up the hill, and the closer near the Ormscraig you get, the better the private security of the rich becomes. The local vigiles always work in pairs up here and keep an especially sharp watch at night, usually because they've been paid a few extra coppers to do so.
Can't blame a guy for wanting to make a better living!
Having a noble name does set one's self from the general riff-raff and I stopped the first pair of patrollers I encountered to boldly request that they hail me a cab, which they were eager and extremely prompt to arrange. If you're a nobleman, even an unfavored fourth son exiled under terms of remittance, the lower classes expect you to bark orders at them. If I were to be polite that would be highly unusual and even rather suspicious, so I didn't bother, except to offer the pair of them a couple of coppers each in payment. One coin each would have been the usual bribe, but I wanted to keep the law under particularly friendly terms these days, especially with a calculating killer now after me.
This newly arrived hack and its driver were clearly not the ones I'd encountered earlier. The carriage that the vigiles had summoned was somewhat larger and the outside body panels were of a white color with gold stripes and a gold rearing horse emblem, indicating that it belonged to a well-known private company from 'up the hill' that mostly conducted contract work rather than general street hires. The driver certainly didn't match any of the earlier eyewitness descriptions being tall and lean with long well kept hair that he kept tied down his back with a silver clasp. The obligatory top hat was of quality too, probably of beaver or muskrat fur with a simple black silk band with a brass pin of a horse. No, this wasn't the hack and driver that had tried to run me down earlier, but that didn't make him utterly innocent of being involved in other ways. I'm not prone to suspecting conspiracies behind every shadow but being of a personally rather dishonest bent myself, I do try and be a realist.
It's almost like a parlour game. I try to get the measure of every opponent, putting myself directly into his shoes and calculating in what manner I could screw 'me' over the most, if I were him! Then I can do unto him, before he can get the chance to do unto me! That's also a cardinal rule of most successful battles -- get there first and with the most!
Getting into the cab, I took a moment of concentration to grasp the surface thoughts of the driver and while the connection was tenuous and weak without direct eye contract, I couldn't sense any malevolence. If this was my killer, about to press a pistol to the back of my head, he had covered his emotions and thoughts exceedingly well. My driver tonight was merely hungry and somewhat annoyed that his passenger didn't have a clear destination already in mind. I grudgingly had to admit that this cabbie was extremely unlikely to be any part of the murderous conspiracy and I began to relax my will. I couldn't have done much more tonight anyway, save in but the most extreme urgency. Using my gift at all is extremely tiring and seemingly I had been indulging it for much of the day and evening. Now I had an abominable headache and I still couldn't think more than half-straight. The wine was wearing off now too, making my head pounding even worse... and not any clearer.
"Just drive. I need a few minutes to think in peace and quiet, so spare the conversation tonight and keep the trip gentle and as smooth as possible and there'll be an extra silver in it for you for your time and forbearance."
Really, I had no idea where to go next! I could have gone straight home, but that was back down the hill in a moderately good but busy east-central section of town near the river crossing that tended to cater to the artsy types that kept late partying hours. I own a small house right at a busy street corner with a popular café right across the street and I've made it as secure as possible from armed intrusion without being obviously so, but the neighborhood is so active at all hours that a stranger watching for me wouldn't stand out as obvious. This usually works in my favor, so that I can come and go at all hours of the day or night and not attract much attention, but now that I was the prey it was more dangerous. For now it was better that I stay away from familiar haunts, but I needed information... or at least a place to start from. I also needed to retrieve both of my pistols, but that was another problem.
Reviewing all of my available options only left one alternative that I absolutely didn't immediately distrust... but that particular destination was quite nearby, just further up the hill from the route the cabbie had randomly taken. I wouldn't have come here on a bet before tonight, but it now seemed suddenly like a somewhat decent idea. I'd probably soon regret it though.
"Stop at The Crown if you would, and I'll get out there!"
It was just a short drive from here and the hack pulled right up to the front pillared and brightly lantern lit steps of The Crown. There a pair of liveried doormen opened my carriage door for me and accepted the cabbie's payment from my hand for delivery so that my noble fingers wouldn't have to soil themselves by touching even the gloved hand of a mere hireling. I can put on the snob act when I have a mind too, but this was silly and too 'nose up in the air' for my usual tastes, but I played along. The Crown was the elite private gentleman's club of the nobility and even I didn't have a membership here, but I was dressed adequately enough, especially with the opera cape and the silver cane, and the doormen allowed me immediate access into their sacred halls. A much more senior footman or butler inside wearing a fancy frockcoat didn't recognize me as a member however and he quickly stepped forward to challenge me, but in an excruciatingly polite manner.
"May I be of some assistance to you Sir? I do not believe that you are in fact a member, so to whom may I refer you to?" He stated smoothly and with loads of smugness. I had to admire the chap... I don't think I've seen a nose stuck that high up into the air since I left home. The old family butler could pull off that act and get away with it, but then again he was an ex-Army sergeant and had a steel rod shoved up his ass all the way up to his neck.
"Would Sir Adrian be in this evening for a visitor? I can assure him that the matter is of some delicacy and importance." That's the way to handle a servant with a superiority complex... namedrop a personage of importance as if he's an intimate acquaintance and then hint that they're not important enough to know any details about why. For a moment I could have sworn I saw the man's face twitch but he recovered nicely.
"I will indeed check Sir, if you could wait here for but just a moment." He left and remained gone for a several long moments, really closer to ten minutes in actuality, but at length he returned and escorted me into the club proper, and with surprising deference.
"Sir Adrian would indeed be available for you Sir and has in fact been anxiously expecting your arrival. He's over at the member's bar in the blue game room awaiting you." And he was. That alone was more than disturbing and already I was having more second thoughts about being here. I needed to be able to act... but to do so I first needed information that probably only Sir Adrian could provide. I needed him... and it was only now vaguely occurring to me that Sir Adrian might just need me now as well!
Sir Adrian Grimthorpe looked exactly like his name. The victor of over a dozen battles great and small, he had commanded several imperial armies during his prime and even now in retirement he was a legend, and a very living force to be reckoned with. Nominally, he was a civilian now and by imperial assignment now in command of the local vigiles, the watchmen of the city who mostly patrolled the streets by both day and night. Originally responsible for fire prevention they also handled local mundane law enforcement and investigated most minor crimes. More serious crimes like murder and other felonies were the direct responsibility of the Governor (you can laugh now at that thought!) via his appointed agent for justice (another giggling snort here), the Imperial Lord Coroner.
If motivated, the ILC had the authority and a company sized detachment of personal soldiers to command any official investigations of murder and other high crimes but the elite bully boys of the Blackguards didn't tend to get along well with the street toughened lads of the vigiles, and the two rival groups tended to brawl at the drop of a hat if their paths ever happened to cross.
Gossip on the street was that Sir Adrian tended to support his vigiles through thick and thin and he had already crossed over the Lord Coroner's bad side more than once. In theory, the Lord Coroner was appointed and his powers kept in check by the Governor (with Imperial approval and confirmation) but the relatively new Governor had kept the old one on, as had the previous four Governors as well. This suggested that the Lord Coroner, one Lord Emwyn in title, had held the job for close to two decades and he and his personal soldiers the Blackguards were firmly entrenched in power, probably knowing every dirty secret of the city. It was no secret that the Blackguards took bribes and ran their own private protection rackets... and so did many vigiles too, but I'd heard early upon my arrival that the Blackguards had the local assassination and murder for hire rackets directly under their control as well. That's never good for a city or its citizens when the killers can officially cover their own tracks with an official document and a few palms of silver.
For an old man in his early sixties, the retired general looked damn good. He held his shoulders and chin high and his grip was still strong enough to bend metal and more than a match for my own far weaker handshake. He wasn't any taller than me but his chest was big enough to resemble a barrel and little if any of it was fat. We'd never met before, but we apparently knew quite a bit about each other.
"Bounder! So glad you could come!" He barked with a smile and a twinkle of amusement in his eye. The general was alone at the bar without even a tapster to provide service so it was clear that we could speak candidly here.
Damn I hate that nickname and I'm pretty sure my entire face twitched! Bounder had been my nickname as early as my school days and once my moral limitations became obvious even my father and three older brothers tended to call me by that name. A bounder is of course a gentleman who is not one by behavior. A cad or blaggard even. A dishonest scoundrel not to be trusted or permitted into noble or polite society. Yeah, that's me.
There are lots of noble cads and bounders in the studbooks of the imperial peerage and the highest levels of the aristocracy, and I'm undoubtedly just one of countless troublemaking young scions of the empire, albeit of a much more minor family. I didn't however think that I was that notorious or infamous, even back at the capitol! I've earned more than my share of income from scandalous means and methods but since arriving here I've done my best to be circumspect and restrain my public behavior. To the best of my knowledge, even the clients that I've helped assist with a blackmail problem have never learned that in fact I was the true master blackmailer hiding in the shadows, being now paid to resolve the problem... quietly and secretly. Or handling the return of stolen items that my own men had burgled, or 'recovered' from some thief's market at a most modest price... plus reasonable expenses.
Yes, I am a bounder and a cad... but I don't like my betters reminding me of it! Being true, the words of accusation had stung deeply and quick. Still, I needed to pretend that his intentional little dig hadn't stung and drawn blood, but it had. Unwilling to confront this charge directly, I just tried to pretend that the affront had never occurred. I needed his help!
"Thank you for seeing me this late Sir Adrian, but I need to ask your advice concerning a particular criminal incident that your vigiles investigated earlier this evening, which may directly concern a previous incident that occurred last fall."
"Concerning the street accident of Miss Danelle na'Gwenyr, daughter of Halros the Milner, late of Glitter Alley? Very tragic that was. The local vigiles from that station said that she was much loved by everyone. A happy and popular young lady... much like her late older sister Rochelle. That 'accident' was tragic too, but how is this of any concern of yours?"
The additional emphasis on 'accident', expressed with a huffing snort of a chuckle each time could hardly be ignored. The fact that Sir Adrian knew at once the victims full name and parentage was extremely significant, indicating at once that the matter was of considerable significance and formality. Unmarried women of the lower and middle classes, until their consorting, take the maternal name of their parentage, the men taking the paternal. Danelle and Rochelle did have a younger brother not of age, named accordingly Willem le'Halros, or Willem son of Halros. By identifying both parents, Sir Adrian was making a subtle point that her family was not of insignificant importance. Although from a family of trade, and barely middle class at that, they were apparently of some merit to their community, enough so that the vigiles couldn't entirely ignore her death... even if others in higher positions of authority and power apparently already had.
"So the Lord Coroner has already settled this particular incident?" I enquired, not being quite as blatantly sarcastic.
"Incident is a very suitable way to describe this matter, and I must remember to ensure my staff utilizes that word in any future discussions of this situation. Indeed, our wise Lord Coroner himself quite at once ruled the matter a tragic accident and her body has been already released to her family for burial."
"So then there will be no further investigation of this... incident... from the local vigiles? I had hoped that I could get one of two little points of interest and concern clarified so that no such further 'accidents' would be likely to occur on our already overcrowded and dangerous city streets. I admit to being concerned about the safety of our citizens in the streets... or even while on the sidewalks."
"I wasn't aware young Bounder that you had such a sense of public service! Your talents are being wasted with your trivial frauds and petty insider market dealings when you could have a long and successful career in city administration waiting for you! A man like you could go far managing our street and sewer crews. Just say the word and I'll have the governor find an office for you... unless you'd prefer to continue to frequent the Brenner market and auction in the wee hours of the morning?"
Damn, he knew way more about me than was even remotely safe! By royal charter (and an enormous annual bribe from the local thieves' guild), the so-called public market on Brenner Alley was legally allowed to conduct business during the hours of darkness, when every other market in the city was closed. For shady deals that needed to be conducted in obscurity, no place was better and this was the primary location for most mundane thieves and disloyal servants to fence their stolen swag. Once a month in a nearby warehouse under heavy security, the thieves' guild conducts a very private auction for the redistribution of finer quality loot too sensitive for the sight of outside curious eyes. The rare, the dangerous or just the cream of the region's stolen loot offered 'cash and carry' to the highest bidder, a good many of which were gentlemen art collectors (or their agents). It was the place to buy or sell anything worth having and I never missed an auction... and Sir Adrian knew it. Buying or selling goods of doubtful provenance from Brenner Alley was no crime, but this suggested more knowledge of my business activities than I ever wanted any governmental official to have!
Fuck... he had me already by the short hairs and I didn't even know what he wanted from me! He was acting as if he wished to be helpful, but still he was yanking my chain at every opportunity! What did he want from me? Did the retired general need my help making financial ends meet? Doubtful; he wasn't ever the sort of man that had his hands stuck out for bribes and he discharged from the vigiles anyone caught taking normal routine 'backhanders' as well. No, he didn't want my money... but he did want something from me!
"Do you play Tarocchet?" he suddenly enquired. "I'm rather partial to the game and it's a favorite pastime here at the club and the hour is not yet too late to find a few willing companions. Would you care to indulge in a hand or two? I find it an excellent means of getting the full measure and gauge of a man, and ascertain how his mind thinks. Will you indulge me?"
How could I say no? I needed to find out how much more he knew about my personal business habits and more importantly just how he intended to use that knowledge!
The complete rules of Tarocchet fill a rulebook about the thickness of my clinched fist and every group of players has their own individual house rules and variants, so I won't bore you with the details. In short, Tarocchet is a card game allegedly derived from the tarot card fortune telling deck of the Sylvan gypsies, usually with 80 cards total. There are four suits of Minors called, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, with ten normal cards and four face cards in each suit, and then also 24 specialized but powerful cards often called the Major Trumps or Arcana. Majors tend to be very powerful cards but their real strength is that they can be withheld and kept hidden in your hand and then played at need at any time, while Minors must be placed in-game and also 'revealed' first before being effective.
It's a game of expansion and often direct conquest, starting with four dealt cards kept hidden (unrevealed) but placed on your first (or Home) row, this is your starting place and your 'kingdom' can grow into additional pyramid format expansion rows of next three, then two, then one and ultimately into the center of the game table. The most successful expansion of their kingdom into the center wins, or else the game ends when the last card has been drawn and played, or the central game 'pot' of silver has been exhausted.